Sunday, August 26, 2012

bread and friendship

What do Ruth 1 and John 6 have in common? Turns out, quite a bit! Bread, friendship, God's never-ending promises... read on!

I will go where you go
Ruth 1, John 6
August 25, 2012
My family is in worship this morning and because they're here, I have to tell you that one of my favorite things is how our family, if we see a rainbow, pulls over and stops the car to get a better look. I mean, when something like that happens, when there's an opportunity to wonder at God's promises, how can we not pause and take it in
The story of Ruth and Naomi is also one of my favorites. It's a story that in Jewish ears had to sound especially predictable. After all, God is all about turning things that are upside-down, right-side up… so Bethlehem (the place of bread) is suddenly without bread. There's a drought. The breadbasket is empty. So they leave home for Moab and stay in that foreign land for quite a while. They stay long enough for Naomi's sons, whose names mean "sickly" and "weak" to grow up, marry and die, as you'd expect with names like those . But what seems totally unexpected is the way that Ruth won't leave Naomi; she is not "one- of-us," she's a daughter-in-law, a foreigner … but she won't leave. She won't leave Naomi even when this woman decides to change her name from "sweet" to "bitter." She won't leave when Naomi tells her it'd really be better for both of them if she'd just go. Even when Naomi gives her the silent treatment in response to her promise of fidelity, Ruth persists in following after Naomi with love, faithfulness and devotion.
In fact, Ruth goes even a step further than love. Ruth actually puts a curse on herself if she doesn't honor her own promise to stick with Naomi through whatever comes next. In a way, you could say Naomi didn't have a choice so she headed back home to Bethlehem, with Ruth's clinging presence, just in time for the harvest. That's where our reading ends today… but I encourage you to go home and read the whole story. It's just four chapters long and full of great bits--romance, intrigue.
Here's a spoiler alert! As the story of Ruth goes on, in four short chapters, we get to see how this relationship, forged in grief and uncertainty, brings a blessing not only for both women but for generations after. Ruth finds food, meets Boaz, takes Naomi's advice, and makes risky advances toward Boaz. Luckily, Boaz is more than happy to marry Ruth. They have a son, Obed, who continues Naomi's line, securing her future. All the women in the community say, "Wow! This Ruth is worth more than seven sons." And that is quite a commendation.
So, promising Naomi means two women go from starving wanderers back to the breadbasket--Bethlehem--and there, they find all their needs fulfilled abundantly. Ruth, the strange promise-making daughter-in-law from Moab, becomes in the Biblical story not only a named ancestor of King David but one of those few women named in the New Testament as an ancestor of Jesus. Ruth is someone, the Biblical story tries to show us, who makes more clear who God is--God is One who clings to us, who makes the promise not to leave us, who will through her presence provide all we need to live, who gives a future worth living for even after death.
Those are quite the promises. That is a new level of deep friendship. And Ruth's story gives a promise-making lens to interpret the deep friendship that Jesus shares with disciples--as he tries to help them understand how he is the bread they need for life.
For weeks, we've heard Jesus saying "I'm the bread of life," but this week, it gets kind of gory. Jesus starts talking about how people need to chomp on his flesh and drink his blood--and frankly, that's pretty disgusting. People leave Jesus in droves at this point. And do we exactly get it either? We're not cannibals after all. This communion we share--body and blood, bread and wine--is really Christ but not exactly that way, right? So, why does Jesus go this far to try to make it real? Why does Jesus have to make it gross to help us get it? After all, what Jesus is about is much more than eating bread, right?
Yes. And no. It seems like Jesus wants to be sure that we don't lift him up on such a pedestal that we start to think he was just a figment of our imagination. I think Jesus wanted to keep it real so that we remember Jesus was and is accessible. It's not, "I am caviar, given for you." Jesus isn't just for the elite. Jesus offers himself as something accessible, ordinary, something we can all reach out and touch. A promise we can chew on.
It seems like Jesus wants to make sure that we get that he was really earthy--flesh and blood. Why? Well, because we are. Jesus says in another place in scripture something like this, "You think I'm amazing? Well, you will do greater things than these!" Don't believe it? Well, it's a promise. We are not off the hook because we think we are so much more insignificant than Christ. We don't have to be the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or Mother Theresa in order to be "little Christs," in order to be bread, to care for the poor and vulnerable, to make a difference in the world God loves and wants to heal. God wants to do that through us, mere human beings, real flesh and blood people with all our gifts and challenges.
 It seems like Jesus wants us to hear the promise that when we share bread and wine in Holy Communion, Jesus is really here, like Ruth: clinging to us, never leaving us, providing all we need to live, giving a future worth living for, even in the face of death. Jesus gives his body so that we might become the body of Christ more fully for those who we'll go out to meet all through this week.
This past week, the community that I served for five years in Chicago lost a 27-year old man who drowned. In the face of that devastating loss, Jesus promises his family and friends lost in grief, who don't know where to turn, "I will not leave you." I am the bread that will sustain you hour-by-hour, day-by-day… as you work to put back together lives broken by sorrow.
 Jesus is bread not only in days of abundant harvest, but in days of drought. Jesus is bread not only in times of prosperity but in harsh economic times. Jesus is bread not only in joyful times but in times of unspeakable pain and loss. Like our kids, in times when both storm clouds and rays of sun seem to be charging up against one another at an astounding rate, we have the opportunity to look up in the sky at the multi-colored bow and gasp, "There's the sign of God's promises” … and know those promises are not fiction.
Jesus promises, "I will never leave you." In all of life's circumstances, Jesus clings to us, saying “I will go where you go.” Following in the faithful footsteps of his ancestor Ruth, Jesus promises, "I will never leave you."  

Friday, August 24, 2012

rethinking stewardship

Rethinking Stewardship
At the end of July, I had the opportunity to attend a conference at Luther Seminary called “Rethinking Stewardship: Connecting Faith and Finances.” Here are some of my notes and thoughts from that conference, hopefully bread to chew on as we move into a new season, a time when people in congregations often reflect together on money.
“When Jesus talked about money, he wasn’t asking for any… but asking about your relationship with it. Whether you have a lot or only a little, what you do with money will impact your faith. It can lead your heart to or away from Jesus.”
We live in a culture where daily we live through a barrage of messages that who we are and what we have are not quite enough. In an information-saturated society, there are huge narratives out there—capitalism, consumerism, materialism—this is not new information but maybe the increase in volume is significant. The average person in the U.S. is impacted by 5000 ads a day! People of faith might feel like we’re different, like we’re a little less influenced by all this messaging to buy, want, need, pursue, desire, control, make it. But, we’re in the thick of it too.
Just think, if we worship together just once a week, how small and insignificant that seems in comparison to 5000 advertising impressions a day. But, on the other hand, we dare to believe that as God gathers us together around God’s story, it’s a step toward a community that can help us live differently—in God’s counter-narrative.
So, here’s a few images of what that might look like:
·       Worship as the place where we prepare for all the rest of the week. What stories, songs and prayers can we carry with us as we go to keep us afloat in a powerful sea?
·       Times in our gatherings (worship, meetings, social events) where we want to hear people’s responses to this question, “Where have you seen God at work in your lives?”
·       A day of rest each week from buying, spending, coveting (wishing for something we don’t have).
·       Conversations with our kids and teens about money. Did you know that: U.S. teens earn $5.6 billion per year. They spend $100 billion per year. How do we talk with each other openly about how the choices we make with our money can change the world?
·       How do we decide and prioritize what we share, save and spend? Who do we tell about those priorities? (For more on this, see or
·       How do we vote with our money? St. Paul-Ref has had continuing conversations about supporting businesses on University Avenue through the construction. What are other places where through the practice of using and giving our money, God might lead us in a new way?
This time of Rethinking Stewardship, an article about kids and money in the most recent issue of Thrivent magazine, and the same theme in the September issue of Gather (ELCA Women’s magazine) all have me wondering, how can we have more opportunities as we gather to talk about money openly with one another—as those who have little, as those who have much, in community?
One idea that parents of teens have shared with me is to inaugurate a “youth forum” during the education hour, an arena for real conversation on a variety of topics. What ideas do you have to energize our real conversation with each other about how we share, save and spend money and how that makes a difference in our faith?
Blessings this September,
Pastor Joy

Sunday, August 12, 2012

share bread

Come share bread 
St. Paul-Reformation
August 12, 2012

This past week has been marked for me by restless sleep.
After our FUN celebration last week, where I felt like I saw more clearly some things about you as a group—people of St. Paul-Ref—your spark, the gift of talking back, your pitching in to help each other, everyone lending a hand, really a day of joy...
After that, it has been a rough week. First, it was the news of violent shooting, again. This time, members of the Sikh community were shot and killed, who knows why. Hours later the search teams found women and children still hiding in fear for their lives.
Then, it was a meeting where leaders of the congregation discussed challenges in which there is no clear way forward, every step is uncertain and really puts us to the test as we try to listen not just for what we want but for what God would have us do.
And finally, it was hearing the devastating news that someone I have just been getting to know, someone who inspires me, who is a gifted leader, someone who loves the church has a serious diagnosis. She will have to give all her energy in the coming days to fight for her life. Maybe some of you have had this kind of week as well... And if you didn't have it this week, I'm sure that you can think back to a time when you did... When it seemed like the floor was caving in beneath you and what in the world could give you strength?

That's where we find Elijah, just into the wilderness...already starving, fainting from thirst, collapsed in fear, regret, uncertainty, maybe anger at God. And frankly, when life turns this way... When we're walking through the valley, on the brink, haven't we all had the thought, like Elijah, that maybe it'd be better or at least easier to die?

But what is God's response to despair? God sends a messenger, a baker. That gifted one makes a hearty cake, bakes it on stones and says to Elijah, eat it. Then, realizing one is not going to do it, this baker from God makes another. Kind of like a grandma, “Come on, eat it.” You need it to build your strength for what's ahead.

That story of bread--two little cakes that give strength for 40 days in the wilderness--impacts how we hear when Jesus calls himself bread. Just a little is going to take you a long way.

This week, the people at Bible Matters remembered the hearty German bread and how it sticks with you all day. Others named places where bread isn't the main, daily sustaining food... Such as parts of the world where rice is that common sustaining food. Just about everyone though had some kind of bread story. Bread, rice, croissants... All the ingredients that go into a loaf... How dependent and fragile we all are.

In calling himself bread, Jesus is also naming this reality of life, that it's so temporary, it's perishable. Like manna, we can't hold on to bread forever. It has this "use it or lose it" dynamic. Life is short and in these texts, there is an urgency. We need sustenance for this journey... Whether today the journey looks long or whether today our time feels far too short.

And so the writer to the Ephesians says in a whole variety of ways, let's give it our best. Like those Olympic athletes, let's go for it. You need to be angry? Well, be angry but also take the steps you need to take to work through that and move on. In fact the letter writer says, set things right today

This week, I needed to take have a conversation that I was dreading. I felt afraid because in conflict, we never feel like we've done it totally right... We open ourselves up to missing the boat. It's possible that the other will have plenty to say back or won't receive it. So we tend to avoid the person we need to talk to, saying our deepest truths elsewhere.

It initially feels easier to go around them. But you know what happened?
I said, "I didn't understand why you did that." And that person said, "I'm sorry."
And suddenly, a huge weight lifted off my shoulders. We had both made mistakes, and we worked through it, just letting some of it go. But I left thinking, huh. I feel so much better. This is what can happen when we acknowledge that it's ok in our fragile human communities, where every one of us has our unique set of gifts and challenges, to go to someone directly and be angry. Although it might seem harder at first to go and do that work, it opens up the possibility of experiencing in a new way the full humanity of the other and being able to see each other not as problems or adversaries but as bread—
broken yet blessed. Brought together to restore and sustain and encourage one another because God-with-us is right here, in the flesh, among us, within us. Jesus says, "I'm the bread of life--"I'm infused into you all so much you can't even go out of here without me (kind of sneaky, eh?)" Like a yeasty kitchen full of the smell of bread that you walk through and carry the scent of it on your person...

This bread we're going to share is like that, fragrant, nourishing, a little bit is going to take you through the week until we meet here again for Jesus' life-sustaining gift. It's bread and it's more than bread because it reminds us that we are what we eat. We receive it and we become it--the body, the face or voice or hands of God that someone desperately needs to see, hear, receive. We become what we eat. Come, share bread.