We Gather to Eat and Remember

Maundy Thursday, March 24th, 2016

Exodus 12:1-14, Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Meals are important.  And I don’t just mean in the literal “if you don’t eat you’ll starve to death” sense.  Meals are important on a psychological level, too, and on a social level.  Meals bring us together.  There’s a reason that pretty much every holiday is accompanied by a special, traditional meal.  Christmas?  It’s a religious holiday, but there are a lot of people (even a lot of Christians!) for whom Christmas dinner is more important than going to worship.  Easter?  Yup.  Thanksgiving?  That one is all about the meal.  Fourth of July?  It’s just not the same without a barbecue.  Birthdays?  Even if you don’t have a special birthday dinner, you gotta have cake and ice cream.  And it’s not just about the food itself.  While a wonderful holiday dinner with friends and family can be a joy and a heart-warming event you’ll remember for years to come, eating the same food by yourself can be just depressing.  We eat when we come together, but it’s not just about the food: it’s about the community, the family, the relationships that are built around that meal.

Those relationships are built partly through the act of eating together, and partly through memories.  The memories that get shared again and again—I’m sure there are some stories your family tells repeatedly at holiday dinners.  The time your brother fell asleep at his own birthday party.  The time your uncles got into a fight and everyone went home mad.  The great aunt who always brings that dish everyone hates.  The time your mom and dad got each other the same present.  There are some holiday stories that happened before I was born, that I know because they got told so often.  And those stories shape us!  They tell us “this is who we are, as a family; this is how we get along (or don’t get along); this is where we came from; these are the things that make us a family and not just a collection of people who happen to share genetics.”  The food brings us together, the food helps us remember our stories by giving us a tangible reminder of times past—smells, tastes, sights—all working together to help make the memories real and relevant to our current experiences.

Tonight we have heard two stories about meals in our readings.  Meals that were remembered.  Meals that were celebrated.  Meals that brought people together and built up relationships.  The first was the story of the first Passover meal, eaten on the last night the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt.  This is the night that changed things.  This is the night where God finally convinced Pharaoh to let his people go.  This is the night when they truly became his people, the night that was the foundation for all the rest of their experiences.  This is the night when they passed from slavery to freedom, from death to life.  This is the night when they learned that their God was a God who saves people, a God who frees people from bondage, a God who brings new life and new possibilities.  This meal, this Passover, which God told them to share every year together, is to reinforce those memories. It’s a night to remember who they are and where they come from.  A night to remember who God is, and what God has done.  A night to imagine, a night to contemplate what that means for their lives.  It’s not just about the past.  It’s about what that means for the future.

In the three thousand years since that first Passover, the Jews have faithfully gathered for a Passover meal and to remember God’s saving actions every year.  Two thousand years ago, a thousand years after the first Passover, Jesus and his disciples gathered to celebrate Passover and share a meal.  They told the story.  They remembered how God saved them from slavery and death.  They remembered what kind of a God they worshipped.  And then Jesus did something different—something that would, as time passed, become a new treasured memory for those Jews and Gentiles who followed him.  A memory that they—we—would tell and retell, that we would re-enact and think about, that would tell us what it means to follow Jesus.

He put on a towel and went to wash his disciples’ feet.  Now, that was a bold statement.  It’s not something a lord would do, or an ordinary citizen—it’s something that a slave would do.  Washing someone means serving them, and it’s an intimate form of service.  If you’re not doing it because it’s your job, you do it out of love, like a parent giving their child a bath or a friend coming over to take care of you when you’re weak and sick from chemo.  This is what it means to be a follower of God, Jesus says.  This is what should guide your life: love.  I love you, and I’ve put that love into action, so you, too, should love others, and put that love into action.

Then he returned to the meal.  And as they shared the Passover wine and bread, he added a new layer of meaning: this bread, the bread of affliction and freedom, is Jesus’ body.  Jesus’ body, that will be broken for us so that we might be freed from slavery and death.  This wine, the wine of God’s promise, is Jesus’ blood.  Jesus’ blood, which will be poured out for us and for all people to fulfill God’s promise of salvation.

The first Passover celebrated God’s saving work.  It taught them that their God was a God of salvation, a God who brought people from slavery into freedom, from death into life, from pain into joy.  It taught them what kind of a God they worshipped, and who they were as God’s people.  And that was a lesson they learned every time they shared that meal and told those storied.  When Jesus celebrated it with his disciples on the night before he was betrayed, before he was handed over to sin and death, it was a potent reminder to them: the God who saved their ancestors, who brought them out of slavery and death, was still saving people.  God was saving people from slavery to sin and death of body and soul.  And it wasn’t something that happened to other people, a long time ago, far away.  It was something that was happening right there and then.  Because saving people is God’s nature.  It’s what God does.  When God sees people in bondage, whether physical or mental, God acts to free them.  Sometimes it’s big showy acts, sometimes it’s little things, and often it’s through other people.  God saves people.

And God does it out of love.  That’s what Jesus washing their feet symbolized.  God loves people—even smelly, dirty, weak, sinful humans.  And that’s not just an abstract feeling; God acts that love out in many and various ways.  God loves people, and so God helps them, and saves them.  That’s who God is.  That’s what God does.  And that means that if we’re going to be God’s people, we can’t ever forget that.  We need to remember who God is, and what God calls us to do.  We need to look for the love and salvation and freedom that God gives us every day, and we need to let that love shape us and form us as God’s people.

That’s why we remember this night, every time we celebrate Communion and especially once a year on Maundy Thursday.  We remember who God is and what God has done.  And we know that God is present with us, here, now, giving us his love and salvation and strengthening us to be God’s people, to do God’s work in the world.  Because when Jesus said the bread and wine was his body and blood, he wasn’t being metaphorical.  Whenever we eat this bread and drink this wine, we proclaim his death until he comes again.  We know that he died for us, but that death was not the end of the story.  We know that he is here, with us, that in this bread and wine we can touch and taste and see and smell him, that in this bread and wine he is strengthening us and forming us as his people.  We remember, but we know there is more to this meal than memory.  It’s about who God is—the one who saves, the one who loves—and who we are as God’s people: the ones who are called to put that love into word and deed and action.  Even when it’s difficult.  Even when it’s smelly or unpleasant, like washing feet.  Even in the midst of betrayal like Judas’ betrayal, and anger like the Elders’ anger, and even when it’s in the middle of pain and sorrow and suffering.  Even when love seems like the hardest thing in the world.  We worship a God of salvation and freedom and love.  And so we love, as God first loved us.

May these memories, shared around this meal, form us as God’s people and help us to truly know God’s love and salvation, and follow his command to share that love with all the world.


On This Night

It’s a few days late, but here is my Maundy Thursday sermon.

Maundy Thursday, Year C, March 28th, 2013

Exodus 12:1-4, 11-14, Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19, John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND


May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Over three thousand years ago, the Hebrew people gathered together.  They were slaves in Egypt, and God had heard their cries for freedom.  Despite the stubbornness of the Egyptian Pharaoh, God freed them.  On their last night in slavery, in between packing everything they owned to flee the land of their captivity, they ate one last meal.  A meal of lamb, and wine, and unleavened bread, and bitter herbs.  They called it Pesach—the Passover.  God commanded them to remember and celebrate that meal every year, to gather and eat the bread and wine and lamb and bitter herbs.  So every year to this day, faithful Jews celebrate the festival of Passover.  And Jesus and his disciples, being faithful Jews, celebrated the festival as well.  In fact, Jesus’ Last Supper, which we celebrate tonight, was during Passover.

Many things have changed over the three thousand years since the first Passover meal, but some things about the meal remain the same.  It isn’t a memorial, a remembrance of God’s actions.  When Jews celebrate the Passover, they are participating in God’s saving act.  They are participating in the same Passover meal shared by their ancestors.  To symbolize this, they ask a question: How is this night different from all other nights?  On this night, God led us out of slavery into freedom.  Not our ancestors; us.  On this night, all Jews, past, present, and future, gather around the table.  It’s not just a history lesson; for Jews, Passover is a present reality.

We are gathered here as Christians.  Our Lord was Jewish, but we are not.  So why do we remember Passover tonight?  Why was our first lesson the story of the first Passover meal?  Because tonight is not just a history lesson.  Tonight is not just a ritual meal.  Our Lord’s Supper is a present reality for us, just as Passover is a present reality for Jews.  How is this night different from all other nights?  On this night, our Lord Jesus took bread, broke it, and gave it for all.  On this night, our Lord Jesus took the cup, blessed it, and gave it for all to drink, saying “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, shed for you and for all people.”  On this night, and every time we celebrate communion, all Christians past, present, and future gather around our Lord’s Table.

Think about that, for a second.  When we celebrate Communion, when we gather here at the altar rail, there are more people present than we can see.  The Disciples are here—Peter, James, John, and all the rest.  Our ancestors in the faith are here with us, too, from the very earliest church fathers and mothers to the ones who taught us to pray and read the Bible.  We gather here at the altar rail with all Christians throughout the world, who become our brothers and sisters in Christ, and members with us in Christ’s body.  And all those people out there who aren’t yet Christians but will become Christians, they’re here too, along with all those who have yet to be born.  Our great-great-grandparents and our great-great-grandchildren receive Jesus’ body and blood together with us.  We may not see them, but they are here with us tonight and every time we gather around the table to worship and receive the gift of Christ’s body and blood.

Even more than that, Jesus Christ is present every time we eat the bread and drink from the cup in his name.  This bread becomes Christ’s body, and this wine becomes Christ’s blood, just as Jesus said.  It might not physically change form in any way science can measure, but Jesus Christ is truly present in it, and Jesus Christ becomes truly present in us.  Jesus is here, now, Immanuel, God With Us, in every bite that we eat and drink tonight and every time we receive the Lord’s Supper.  We eat and drink the body and blood of our Lord.  Jesus is the meal we are gathered here to share.

Jesus is the meal, but Jesus is also our host for this meal, too.  The altar we gather around is not our table, but God’s table.  Jesus is the host who invites us to the heavenly banquet.  Jesus is the one who brings us in, welcomes us, and makes us his own.  Jesus is the one who includes us, even when we are not worthy.  In the time of Jesus, it was customary for a host to offer his guests the chance to wash the dust of the road off their feet.  It was a sign that you were welcome to stay, take off your shoes and put up your feet, be comfortable and at home.  In a poor household, the host would offer his guests a bowl of water for them to wash their own feet.  In a rich household, a servant would do it.  You see, washing someone else’s feet was considered a demeaning task, fit only for a servant or a slave.  It’s not hard to understand why—feet are dirty, smelly things, particularly when you’ve been walking in the hot, dusty sun.  Clean feet may be a relief, but washing someone else’s feet is gross.  So a host would offer hospitality, but not at the expense of his own dignity and pride.  Not at the expense of his own comfort and repuation.  Yet Jesus himself takes the bowl and the towel and washed his disciples’ feet.    He washes their feet to show them the greatest hospitality possible: that he put their comfort and well-being above his dignity and pride.  He does it to show that his love for them—his love for us—is more important than his status.

And then he commands us to do the same for others.  Jesus tells his disciples to welcome others in with extravagant hospitality, to care for their needs and show them God’s love in word and deed.  A teacher’s students should follow his or her lead.  So if the teacher serves others, so to should the students.  And we, too, are Jesus’ disciples; we are students and followers of Jesus.  If Jesus, who was God in human flesh, would stoop so low as to wash our feet, we, too, should be willing to show hospitality and love to others even when it pulls us out of our comfort zone, even when it isn’t nice, or pleasant, or easy.  Even when it means putting our own reputation on the line.

How is this night different from all other nights?  On this night, we begin to see just how great and transforming God’s love for us is.  On this night, the God who brought our ancestors from slavery in Egypt into the freedom of the Promised Land begins to lead us from the slavery of sin to the freedom of forgiveness.  On this night, we begin to see how far Jesus is willing to go to save us, to make us clean and whole, to show us that he loves us.  On this night, Jesus invites us in, makes us welcome no matter how dirty we are, and feeds us with his own body and blood.  And on this night, after the meal, Jesus will go to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray, where he will be arrested.  Tomorrow, he will be tried and executed, and on Sunday he will rise from the grave.  And all of that—Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection—will be for our sake.  Jesus does all of this because he loves us, because he would rather die than see us broken by sin and death.

On this night, Jesus gives us as an example for how we are to live our lives.  On this night, Jesus gives us one last command: to love as we have been loved.  Jesus shows us what love truly means, in his life, in his last actions, and in his death.  Love does not depend on being found worthy, for surely nothing we could ever do would make us worthy of what God has done for us.  Love is a gift we have been given by God, a gift freely given, with no strings.  And as we have been given that gift, so we should give to others what we have received.  Because we live in the light of God’s love, we should love others.  Because we have been fed with this heavenly food, we should feed those who are hungry in body or soul.  Because we have been welcomed and forgiven in Jesus’ name, we should love and forgive others.

As we gather around the table tonight, with all Christians past, present, and yet to come, may we experience the love that God gives us so abundantly, and may we be inspired to go and do the same.  Amen.

Being Called

Third Sunday of Easter (Year A), Sunday, May 8th, 2011

Acts 2:14a, 36-41

Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19

1 Peter 1:17-23
Luke 24:13-35

Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Saint Luke Lutheran Church, Bloomsburg, PA

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

“You will receive the Holy Spirit.  For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.”

Today is Confirmation Day here at Saint Luke’s.  In just a few minutes we’re going to call forward the youth being confirmed, and pray that the Holy Spirit strengthen them as it did those early Christians in our first lesson.  Confirmation is sometimes called “Affirmation of Baptism.”  It’s a longer term, but it’s pretty descriptive of what Confirmation actually is.  You see, “affirmation” means “to say yes.”  The Confirmation students are here today to say Yes to their baptisms, to say Yes to God’s call.  When the confirmands come up before the congregation, they repeat the promises their parents and godparents made at their baptism.  Confirmation is when a young person says that yes, I am a Christian, and this is what I believe.  From this point on, these young people choose to be Christians.  They’re not just here because their parents say so.  When they come forward, we will be repeating parts of the liturgy of baptism, except this time they will be making the responses, not their parents.  It’s an important milestone, and I hope and pray that they will have the courage and faithfulness to follow through with it all the days of their life, even in a culture that is increasingly secular-oriented.

Yet, in a larger sense, what we are celebrating today is not our ability to follow Jesus, but our Lord’s ability to call us to him.  You see, whenever we reach out to God what we always find is that God was reaching out to us, first—and is already helping us to reach out to him.  God created us, and even when we were dead in sin, God loved us and promised us that he would always be with us.  God came to us as Jesus Christ, our Messiah, who died and rose again that we might have abundant life.  God loves us still, even when we go astray.  God loves us when we convince ourselves we already know what God wants, even without bothering to listen to him.  God is with us still, calling us and all people to him, helping us hear his word and respond to it.

That’s what happened in today’s first lesson, when Peter was preaching to the crowds after Easter, telling them about Jesus and what his death and resurrection meant.  The crowd heard the message, and the Holy Spirit was working—they felt it in their hearts.  Peter was there because the Holy Spirit led him to be there, and he could preach such a stirring sermon because the Holy Spirit filled him.  After all, Peter spent pretty much the entirety of Jesus’ time on Earth getting things wrong and messing up.  But with the gift of the Holy Spirit, Peter found the voice and the wisdom he needed to preach God’s word.  The crowd received his preaching and were moved by it because God was working within them, too, because the Holy Spirit was calling them.  God was working there.  God had already reached out to them and called them through the promise of Jesus, and they responded to that call and were baptized.  Their sins were forgiven, and they received the gift of the Holy Spirit.  They learned what it meant that Jesus, crucified and risen, was Lord and Messiah.  They learned to hear God’s call and respond to it through lives of faith.

Whenever we reach out to God we always find that God was reaching out to us, first—and is already helping us to reach out to him.  That’s what happened in today’s Gospel reading, too.  On Easter Sunday morning, two disciples were travelling to a village called Emmaus.  We don’t know why.  In fact, we don’t even know where Emmaus is—there are several different villages near Jerusalem that might be it.  What we do know is what happened on the way.  Jesus came to those two disciples, and they didn’t recognize him.  They were too caught up in what they thought they knew about what had happened to see what had actually happened.

Has that ever happened to you?  Have you ever been too sure of something to see the truth, even when it’s staring you in the face?  As Cleopas and his friend found out, it can be easy to get trapped by what you think you know.  We are told that they were already disciples—they had walked with Jesus, they had heard him preach, they had heard him tell them about what was coming, and then when it actually happened, they still didn’t understand.  Jesus Christ is Lord of All, the Messiah, God’s Son sent to forgive our sins, reconcile us to God, and teach us how to follow God’s Word.  They saw it, but they didn’t understand it.  On their own, even as first-hand witnesses they couldn’t figure out what it meant for them or anyone that Jesus had died and rose again.  But God had called them, and God had promised them, and God was helping them learn how to see him even through their confusion and doubt.

On the road to Emmaus, Jesus walked with them, kept them company, taught them, and ate with them.  When at last they were ready, when they had heard him and he’d explained to them everything that had happened so that they finally knew the truth, that’s when they realized it was Jesus.  That’s when they realized that he had been with him all along, that their hearts had been burning within them.  They were trying to understand what God had done and was doing, and when they finally saw God, they realized that God had been with them the whole time and they just hadn’t realized it.  They had been reaching out to God, and found that God was the one helping them do it because God was already with them.

Do you know what else is really cool about the story of the walk to Emmaus?  It’s a story about Communion!  Jesus takes the bread, and blesses it, and breaks it, and gives it to his disciples to eat.  And it’s through that meal that those disciples see Jesus.  In the same way we gather around a table today for communion, and find that Jesus is present through bread and wine, which he makes into his body and blood.  In this story, the pattern of Christian worship is established that we still follow today: the disciples come together, they hear God’s word, they share a meal in which Jesus is present, and they go out to spread the Good News.  Our worship service works in the same way.  God gathers us in, teaches us his word, shares a meal with us, and then sends us out into the world to live as faithful Christians and to share the Good News of God’s love in word and deed.  And when we come seeking God, we find that God has already sought us out, helping us to hear his word and live as his people.

It’s that process of learning to see God reaching out to us that brings us here, today, for confirmation.  God reaches out to us in the same way through our baptisms.  That’s why we baptize babies as well as adults: in baptism, God is reaching out to claim us as his own, so it’s not dependent on our ability to choose.  We have already been chosen, each one of us.  We have already been called.  The question is, will we respond to that call?  Will we live lives conformed to Christ, in the covenant God made with us in Holy Baptism?  Will we live among God’s faithful people, listen to God’s Word, share his supper?  Will we proclaim the Gospel through word and deed, and follow Jesus’ example of service, justice, peace, and love?  Will we respond to all the many ways God reaches out to us and calls us to follow?

The young people who come forward for Confirmation today are here to say yes, they will.  They’re here to promise God and this congregation that they will listen to God’s call, that they will follow in the way of Jesus.  In return, we need to help them—and each other, and everyone we meet—along that path.  God is calling us, all of us, to follow him, and God gives us his Holy Spirit to give us strength, and wisdom, and understanding, and most of all, to give us joy in God’s presence, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Let us pray that all people will hear that call and respond.



Maundy Thursday

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Exodus 12:1-14

Psalm 116

1 Corinthians 11:23-26

John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Saint Luke Lutheran Church, Bloomsburg, PA

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ

Have you ever wondered what the word “Maundy” means?  I know I did before I came to seminary, and someone asked me that question just a few weeks ago.  “Maundy” comes from the old Latin word “mandatum,” which has also provided another word in English—mandate.  Mandatum means command.  During the Last Supper, Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, and said: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”  Remembering Jesus, remembering the Lord’s Supper, means remembering this commandment, as well.  Remembering means loving one another.  It means acting out that love—God’s love for us—in everything we say and do.

“Do this in remembrance of me.”  “This day shall be a day of remembrance for you.”

In both our first and second readings, remembrance is a strong theme.  We are commanded to remember what God has done, both in the Exodus that freed the people of Israel from slavery and in the crucifixion and resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  But what does it mean to remember?  Does remembering just mean to take ten minutes during Communion every Sunday morning to think about Jesus, before going back to our everyday lives?  Does it mean putting a few lines in our prayers and songs about God setting people free?  I don’t think so.  I think it means more than that.

For the Jews—and remember, Jesus and his disciples, everyone present at the Last Supper, were Jewish—remembering isn’t just a matter of thought.  Remembering is something you do, it’s how you act.  Remembering is how you respond to things that have happened.  Remembering means responding to God’s love and to all the things God has done for us.  Remembering means proclaiming the truth of what has happened for all the world to see and hear.  Remembering is how the past becomes a present reality.  Remembering is a way of life.

When God tells the Hebrew people to remember the Passover, the Exodus hasn’t happened yet—they were still in bondage, waiting for God’s saving actions.  And on the night of the first Passover, God bought their freedom in blood and pain and set in motion the actions that brought them out of slavery and into the freedom of the Promised Land.  So every year they celebrate the Passover and remember that God freed them, that God promised them new life and God kept that promise, that the God they worship is the God who brought them out of freedom and is still keeping promises to them.  The Exodus isn’t just something that happened three thousand years ago to their ancestors.  The Exodus is something that happens now, to them.

As Christians, we should understand that, because the Supper of Our Lord isn’t just something that happened two thousand years ago to twelve guys in Jerusalem, it’s something that is happening, now, to us.  In the night in which our Lord Jesus was betrayed, the crucifixion hadn’t happened yet, the resurrection hadn’t happened yet.  The whole world was still in bondage to sin, waiting for God’s saving actions.  And on the night of the Last Supper, Jesus celebrated the Passover meal with his disciples and told them to remember him.  He was betrayed, he was crucified, and in his sacrifice God bought our freedom from sin with Jesus blood and pain.  Through Christ’s death and resurrection we are brought from slavery into freedom, from death into life, from brokenness into wholeness, from isolation into relationship with God and with one another.

So on Maundy Thursday, and every Sunday throughout the year, and at other occasions, we celebrate Communion and remember that God has freed us, that God has promised us new life and God has keep that promise.  We remember that the God who brought the Israelites out of slavery, the God who sets people free, is the God who has set us free, as well.  We remember that the God who promised freedom to the people of Israel, the God who promised us his love before we even knew him, is still keeping those promises today.  The Last Supper isn’t just something that happened two thousand years ago.  The Last Supper is something that is happening here, to us and to all of God’s people, tonight and every time we come together to celebrate Communion.  Christ is truly present with us now, in bread and wine, just as he said he would.  When we eat this bread and drink from this cup, we know that Christ is in them, just as he said he was.  Christ comes to us in bread and wine, something we can feel, taste, smell.  When we come together around the Lord’s Table, we know that we gather together with all Christians of every time and every place, those who have gone before us and those who will come after us.

Remembering Jesus isn’t just thinking about him every now and then.  Remembering affects everything we do and say.  Remembering is taking Christ’s presence here in this meal and in our lives seriously.  Remembering means taking Jesus’ last commandment seriously, too.  Love one another as Jesus has loved us.

Jesus showed us what that meant when he washed his disciples’ feet.  Think about that, for a minute.  You know how much sweat and dirt builds up on your feet over the course of a summer day when you’re wearing sandals?  Think about how much worse it must be, how much more filthy, when the only paved roads are just cobblestone—and even those are few and far between.  When even many indoor floors are made of packed dirt.  When your only mode of transportation is your own two feet.  When you’re in a desert area so there’s very little rainfall to wet everything down and everything is dry and dusty.  Think about just how gross those feet must have been.  Think about how nice it must feel to have had them cleaned.

Washing those feet couldn’t have been pleasant.  It’s not something anybody would want to do, normally.  But Jesus didn’t do it because he had to, he did it because he loved them, and because he wanted to show them what love is.  Love isn’t just thinking nice thoughts about someone.  Love is helping someone even when it’s not nice, or pleasant, or fun.  Love is being willing to serve not because you have to, or because you’re not worth anything better, but because you want to.

That’s how Jesus wants us to love one another.  That’s how Jesus wants us to remember him, and that’s how he wants us to show the world that we are his.  Jesus wants us to remember him by putting our money where our mouth is, so to speak—by loving one another as God has loved us, and putting that love into action.  Jesus wants us to remember him by knowing that when we share this meal, and when we put his love into action, he is there with us.  When we gather together for worship and communion, we proclaim our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, who died that we might have life and have it abundantly.  When we are sent out into the world to share God’s love through serving one another and all of God’s creation, we proclaim our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, who gave his life for us because he loves us, and wants us to truly love one another.


Let us Break Bread Together

14th Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 22C)

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Proverbs 25:6-7

Psalm 112
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Luke 14:1, 7-14

Preached by Vicar Anna C. Haugen

St. Luke Lutheran Church, Bloomsburg, PA

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Have you ever noticed how much time the New Testament spends talking about eating?  From Mark through Revelation, topics of food and meal etiquette abound.  Today’s Gospel is only one of many places where meals played a large part in Jesus’ preaching or teaching, either as the place of instruction, the subject of instruction, or both.  Paul, also, spends large chunks of his letters discussing the eating habits of his congregations.  Some of these New Testament references to eating are tied to the celebration of communion.  Some are tied to behavior in the Kingdom of God.  Some are tied to every day behavior, and the way we as children of God are supposed to treat people.  Yet even as we separate these table talks into different categories, we find that they all connect with one another.

It seems weird, to me, this focus on food.  Think about it: have you ever heard a sermon preached on the proper way to hold a potluck?  How about a Bible study on the types of food acceptable for a youth fundraising dinner?  I haven’t, and I’d bet you haven’t either.  If people today were going to make a top ten list of things Jesus should talk about, or things Christians should be worried about, world hunger would probably make the list … but meal etiquette wouldn’t.  So why do Jesus, Paul, and the writers of the New Testament make such a big deal about it?

In Jesus’ day, sharing a meal was important.  Who you ate with—and how you ate with them—said a lot about who you were, who your friends were, and what was important to you.  It was a public way of showing who was in, and who was out.  Who was invited, and who was rejected.  Who was up, and who was down.  Not only that, but many meals had special ritual significance, either religious or social.  Eating is one of the basic needs all humans share, and in this case Jesus uses it to show what another basic human need—community—should look like.

When you think about it, meals today have the same kinds of meaning that they did in Jesus’ day.  We’re just not as aware of it as people in Jesus’ day were.  Anyone who’s ever been in a high school cafeteria can tell you just how much hierarchy there can be in a meal, but it’s present more subtly in other places, too.  Jesus and Paul talked about food and meals because they’re places where our attitudes and connections are the easiest to read, particularly the unspoken ones that drive the way we treat one another.  When you have a party, who do you invite into your home to eat?  How about after church on Sunday?  Christmas and Easter?  Weddings?  Funerals?  Superbowl Sunday?

What about here in church?  We gather every Sunday around a meal, the meal of our Lord, which we call Communion.  Although these days we only serve bread and wine, in Paul’s day it was a full, sit-down dinner.  And spiritually, it is a descendent of the very kind of Sabbath meal that Jesus was at in today’s Gospel lesson.  After all, the Last Supper in which Jesus instituted communion was itself a Sabbath meal.  And all baptized are welcome at the Lord’s Table, here.  But what about other church meals?

Like most Lutheran churches, St. Luke’s likes to feed people.  I’ve only been here a few weeks, and already we’ve had a Peach Festival and a pig roast in addition to the Welcome the Vicar dinner.  And when hungry people come looking for help, we provide it through our Do Unto Others fund.  Helping them with groceries is right and good.  But do we invite them to eat with us?  We help them, but do we make them feel welcome in the community of the faithful that is the body of Christ?  Do we affirm that they are beloved children of God just as we are?  It’s very easy to welcome people who look like us, think like us, and live the same kinds of lives we do.  It’s a lot harder to welcome people who aren’t like us, especially those who’ve lived hard lives, who are on the outside of society looking in.

And yet, Jesus spent most of his ministry tending to the outsiders.  Jesus tended to the lost, the broken, the sinner, the outcast, the ill, the disabled, the ones that polite society in every age tends to pass by and overlook.  The ones that are most likely to be abused and exploited, even by people who believe they’re doing the right thing.  Today’s Gospel isn’t just about food: it’s about breaking down the idea that some people are worth more than others.  This story is a reminder that climbing the social and economic ladder is not what the Kingdom of God is all about.

One of the first things they told us in seminary, about both reading the Bible and preaching, is to consider the audience.  Who’s being spoken to?  Who’s doing the speaking?  In today’s Gospel, Jesus is talking to the pillars of the community, the important people, the powerful.  He’s warning them about the consequences of pride, of playing the political game.  For most people, the importance of humility a hard message to hear, but it’s even worse for community leaders.  Important, affluent people don’t get that way by hanging back.  Society tends to reward self-promotion, pride, a touch of arrogance, even, as long as it’s directed at the right places.  Climb that ladder, letting everyone know how good you are at it, looking for every angle you can play.  Network with those who can help you reach your goals—if you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.  Now, that kind of dedication can be good.  It can help us accomplish great things.  But sometimes, people take it too far.  It’s easy to get swept up in to that mindset and make getting ahead the center of your life.  And if getting ahead is all you look for, then you can’t see what is happening to the people around you.  If some people get squashed in the system, if they fail out, well, they probably did something wrong.  It’s nothing personal.  It’s just the way the system works.  It’s a dog-eat-dog world, out there, particularly in today’s economy.

But Jesus says that’s not the way Christians should live.  In this simple explanation of how you should behave at meals, Jesus turns society’s expectations upside down.  It’s hard to hear, because it threatens the way we look at the world.  For Jesus, the community—the whole community—should be welcomed and celebrated, not because of what they can do for us, or to impress people with our generosity, but because we are all children of God, even the last, and the lost, and the least.  What matters most isn’t getting the good seat at the head of the table, or climbing the ladder to success.  What matters are our relationships: our relationship with God, of course, but also our relationships with one another.  What matters is the community—the whole community, all of God’s children, not just the ones we like or who can do things for us.

Unfortunately, this attitude so different from the way the world around us operates that it can be a difficult lesson to hear.  And when people find lessons difficult, they tend to turn them around and target them on other people.  Teachings about humility are all too easy to twist.  It should be obvious, but Jesus isn’t talking to the outcasts, the powerless ones.  They don’t need to learn humility; all too often, they’ve had it ground into them all their lives.  And yet, how often do powerful people lecture those around them about humility, while justifying their own pride?  How often do people try to shut up those below them on the social ladder by accusing them of being pushy or proud?

A few years ago, I spent a summer as a volunteer student chaplain at a hospital.  One of my fellow students was a middle-aged woman, and we became friends.  She was a quiet woman, but part of the learning method was regular examination of our interactions with patients, to try and find any of our own personal issues that were getting in the way.  In the process, we learned about ourselves and one another.  What I learned from and about her wasn’t anything I had ever expected.

She came from a Christian home, but her parents were more interested in themselves and their own fun than in caring for their daughter.  They were neglectful, and sometimes emotionally abusive, and their most important criteria for their daughter’s behavior was that she not bother them.  So they taught her humility as a way of keeping her quiet.  They taught her that she wasn’t worth listening to, that it was proud and arrogant to stand up for herself or defend herself.  And the people at her church reinforced that lesson without even knowing it, by preaching the evils of pride and the importance of humility.  It was a good lesson, but aimed at exactly the wrong person.

So my friend grew up believing she was worth less than other people, and got married young to a man who treated her as she believed she deserved to be treated.  As her children grew, they didn’t respect her because they couldn’t understand why she wouldn’t stand up for herself, why she let her husband treat her as he did.  It wasn’t until middle age that she began to break through this early conditioning, and see herself as someone worthy of love and respect.  It was a long, painful process.  She began to realize that there is a difference between humility and humiliation.  She began to realize that God didn’t want her to suffer.  She began to realize that she, too, had a place at the table.

I wish I could say that her experience was a rare one, but it happens more often than we’d like to think.  People take Jesus’ words and use them to tear others down, rather than build up the body of Christ.  They use the Bible as a weapon to beat people over the head with, to exclude people they don’t like or don’t agree with.  Messages, like today’s, meant to break down barriers and bring people together for the most basic of human needs are used to further the separation between people.  God wants us to live lives in a community where the outcast, the stranger, the lowly are accepted and welcomed.  And yet, sometimes without even realizing it, we use Jesus’ word against the very ones he came to minister to.

In Jesus’ day, the physically infirm, those who collected the Roman taxes, and those who broke religious laws were the ones excluded from the community table.  It’s easy to look back at them and see why this was wrong, but it’s a lot harder to look at our own society with the same clarity.  Who do we consider outside the bounds of fellowship?  Who do we consider “beneath” us and how do we treat them?  Do we share with them the same love and grace we have been given, helping them toward lives of wholeness within the community of faith?

Jesus calls us to fellowship with one another.  Our reading from Hebrews tells us more about what a Christian community should look like, and how we should treat one another: with abundant mutual love.  We should practice compassion and hospitality, especially for those in greatest need, the ones who can’t pay us back.  Truth, honor, and right relationships should be the basis of our dealings with all people.  These come through Christ Jesus our Lord, who is with us today in this meal we share just as he shared that meal two thousand years ago in Palestine.

At the table of God, there are no outsiders and no insiders.  There are no important people and unimportant people, for all are members of the body of Christ.


Treasure in clay jars: Baptism and Communion

I talked last week about the fellowship of believers and the body of Christ. Important as it is, however, this fellowship is not the only reason for attending worship services.

God is present in many things every day, great and small. Some we may find easy to attribute to God—the beauty of forest, the grandeur of a mountain, the love of those around us. Some escape our notice—the little grace notes that lighten our day. A stranger’s smile, a break in the clouds, a chance remark that sparks an idea. All are examples of God present in our lives, in both good times and bad. It’s important to notice these things, but so often we get caught up in our busy lives and forget to pay attention, or credit them instead to our own skill and luck. God’s presence can be so intangible, so easily ignored, that we need something concrete and physical to demonstrate it, something we can see, hear, touch, smell, taste, and know God is present in it.

In the Lutheran understanding, a “sacrament” is the combination of the Word of God with a visible sign (something we can see and touch), as ordered by Christ. We recognize two sacraments, Baptism and Communion. Jesus commanded us to do both of the sacraments as signs of his presence with us. God takes every-day, ordinary things (water, oil, wine, bread) and makes them into extraordinary signs of God’s love and grace.

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20.)

In our baptisms we are initiated into the Christian life as disciples and members of the fellowship of believers. We are “sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” This is not fire insurance for Christians; it is not a “get out of Hell free card.” Baptism is God reaching out to us and promising us that God will always be there for us, claiming and reclaiming God’s identity as Emmanuel. There’s a reason baptism is traditionally done during the worship service, and there’s a reason that the congregation makes promises of support and solidarity with the person being baptized. God’s presence sometimes manifests itself through the companionship of our fellow members of the body of Christ, so it’s important that our fellow members are there when God promises to be with us. But beyond that, the baptism of each new member, child or adult, is a reminder that God has claimed us as God’s own through our own baptisms. It’s a reminder that baptism is not a once-in-a-lifetime event, but the beginning of an ongoing life of dying to sin and rising to new life in Christ Jesus our Lord. It’s also a reminder that Christ is present with us, not in theory but in fact. God’s presence is as real and tangible as the water and the oil.

“While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26:26-28).

There’s been a lot of debate over these words over the centuries. Some say they’re meant to be symbolic, some have argued for arcane philosophical justifications for the turning of bread into flesh and wine into blood, some have other ideas. But the important thing is that Christ is promising to be truly present in the bread and the wine. Whatever you think it is, Christ is present in it. In this bread and wine, God’s covenant—God’s promised relationship with us—is made into a form we can feel and taste. God’s promise to forgive our sins, renew us, and make us whole is real even when we’re so overwhelmed with life that we can’t see it any other way.

This is why going to church is important. God is present in many ways every day, whether we go to church or not. But it’s only in worship with our fellow believers that we receive these two sacraments, these two physical assurances of God’s grace.

If you have any questions about this or any questions you would like interested in next week’s entry, please comment.