Proper 12B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Jesus bid the people to recline in the tall grass on the shallow hills beside the Sea of Galilee. He gave thanks and divided the poverty rations of a small boy to produce a feast sufficient to feed 5,000 men (and their families). It was a feast that defied all expectation and explanation. It exceeded what they needed and satisfied all that they wanted. God’s math doesn’t add up, it multiplies.

Sit down dinners are less frequent at our house now with three boys on their own and two rising juniors in high school. Mostly, when I make something, if I prepare anything, I just leave it on the stove and let it just sort of magically disappear overnight. It’s a special occasion when the plates and cups are set. The smell of freshly cooked food fills the house. Finally, when all is ready we shout, ‘Come and eat!’ Or, usually now, we send a text message, ‘come and eat!’ One by one hungry people emerge from wherever they’ve been hiding to gather around the table.

There’s a reason Jesus did so much teaching while seated at the table. Sharing a meal together is a sacrament (small “s”). It is a reliable occasion for grace to abound. I know that’s how I felt whenever John Damer and family put on a sit-down dinner for us here at Immanuel. John prepared special meals for us at Advent, and at Easter, and for fundraisers that remind me of that movie, Babbette’s Feast (1987 Danish film). We’re going to miss you.

Breaking bread together builds belonging. But now, what would you say if I told you some members of my family were not invited to the table? What if most of our guests at one of those incredible congregational meals got a smaller serving? They didn’t get an entrée? They missed out on dessert and some didn’t get anything at all? You would be outraged! You might stand up and walk out. You might call child protective services, and you would be right to.

Crowds of people came searching for Jesus. They were looking for a miracle, longing for an answer, hungry for bread, thirsty for God, wondering if and where they belonged. Jesus fed them all. He bid them join the feast without regard to creed, or nation, or gender, or color, or orientation, or ability, or faith even though some in the crowd were undoubtedly enemies and spies.

This story of Jesus feeding the multitudes is told six times in our four gospels. Today is the first of five Sundays we read from John chapter 6, the first four of which focus on Jesus as the bread of life. (Thankfully, over these five Sundays you’ll have three preachers. Thank you to pastors George Schelter and Emily Hietzman who will provide us with their view.)

Sharing the Eucharist makes us part of the life of God and part of each other. Yet like the crowd clamoring after Jesus in our gospel today, how often are we completely out of touch with this great good news? Jesus’ meal isn’t merely food. It is a message. It is not only a gift. It is also a call. The meal is a message that our union with God in Christ points toward a whole new way of life.

God welcomes all. Strangers and friends. Each of us has a place at the Lord’s Table. Yet are we not outraged that not all God’s children have an equal share? Some have plates piled to overflowing while others have stomachs that go empty. Some live in comfort and security while others live in constant fear of violence. Some work two jobs and stand in line at the food pantry while others buy super yachts and build their own spaceships. “For too long the white American church has chosen the promise of power over prophetic voice. We have allied ourselves with the empire, and rather than singing the songs of hopeful defiance with the exiles, created more of them. We have, consciously and unconsciously, done the bidding of the Beast—not in every case, of course, but in far too many.” (Rachel Held Evens, Inspired, p. 128)

Is there an interloper at our meal, an unwanted guest? The devil goes by many names in scripture, Lucifer, the beast, the accuser, the destroyer, the dragon, the evil one, the liar. In these modern times I suggest to you the anti-Christ is cloaked in a new and different guise that I will call a belief in ‘whiteness.’

Whiteness is not a thing, of course, but we have let it be made into one. Isabel Wilkerson, the author of The Warmth of Other Suns, and Caste, was once told by a Nigerian-born playwright that ‘there are no Black people in Africa.’ They are all just people. Yet, at least since the days of Christopher Columbus and the Protestant Reformation, wealth and technology has been a justification to dominate others for profit. Expansion into other lands and domination of other peoples was called “progress,” and “manifest destiny,” evidence that we among all peoples are favored by God. Our American ancestors drank their own cool-aid. So deluded were they by the devilish fever dream of white superiority they set themselves at the head of the table and excluded almost everyone else. How long have we eaten this bread and drank from this wine?
But today it is morning again in America. Awakened to these terrors and all the damage done, and still being done to people of color, are we ready to join again in resistance? People of God, I ask you to profess your faith in Christ Jesus, reject sin, and confess the faith of the church as we do in the rite of Holy Baptism and the Affirmation of faith. Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God? (I renounce them.) Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God? (I renounce them.) Do you renounce the ways of sin that draw you from God? (I renounce them.) (ELW, rite of holy baptism, p. 229)

When we partake in Jesus’ life at the Lords Table, we become a part of one another. Almost seven hundred years ago, Lady Julian of Norwich (1342-1416) had a vision of this union which she described as “oneing.” She wrote, “The love of God creates in us such a oneing that when it is truly seen, no person can separate themselves from another person” (Chapter 65), and “In the sight of God all humans are oned, and one person is all people and all people are in one person” (Chapter 51). For it is in this oneing that the life of all people exists” (Chapter 9).

In Holy Communion, we are made one with each other and God. Fed by God, let us share our bread. Welcomed by God let us show hospitality to strangers. Shown mercy by God, let us find room in our hearts to forgive those who sin against us. Graced by God, let us find the strength to confront systems and powers that perpetuate injustice and degrade life. Come to the Lord’s Table. Come and eat. Come, eat, and live.

Baptism of our Lord B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

For now, we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know fully, as I am fully known.
—1 Corinthians 13:12

We navigate by the uncertain light of epiphany. Without all the details, we make decisions. Unsure where it will lead, we choose a path. Despite not knowing fully even ourselves, we commit to truths and values to live by.

“We walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7). Epiphanies are a part of everyday life yet, for most of us, they do not occur every day. That is why you must remember what you saw, what you experienced, or what you heard about the character of God from the Sacraments; or beside the font; or at the Table; or in the Living Word of holy scripture; or in the prayers, or in the church engaged in mission; or in the testimony of prophets, poets, and artists; or the testimony of activists and organizers; or the testimony of other religions; or from the voices of the oppressed; or in the face of a neighbor—remember what you learned from moments of Epiphany that shine out in your memory when you realized just a little bit more about your life.

It is rare that the feast day commemorating Epiphany corresponds with an actual epiphany, let alone a national one. Yet, last Wednesday, on January 6th, it happened. What did you see? Remember what you saw. Ponder it as Mary pondered the words of the Angel Gabriel. Talk among yourselves for greater clarity. It is never entirely clear what an epiphany means. It can take a lifetime to unpack. Yet, with grace, we see just enough to steer by.

We had ourselves an Epiphany this week –really—we’ve had so many this past year. Sometimes, when the lights come on, we are unhappy about what we see. We see there is a lot of dirty work that needs doing the morning after a party. There may be a personal reckoning that must be faced in the aftermath of our mistakes. Epiphanies can be like that.

On Wednesday, I saw how whiteness—the belief that white people are superior—is a big lie and that it’s killing us. The commitment to white supremacy is ripping the people of this nation apart and separating us all from the democratic values we hold dear. I saw that democracy is fragile not inevitable. Democracy must be nourished. It requires our participation, civil debate, and trust.

It’s not an overstatement to say this year has taught many of us systemic racism is real and diminishes us all. Misogyny is real and diminishes us all. Xenophobia is real and diminishes us all. Climate change is real and diminishes us all. Despite this, a record number, more than 73 million people, showed by their vote a willingness to ignore, if not condone, racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and climate change. 40% of these people are evangelical Christians. Covid-19 showed us how interdependent we really are including people and nations around the world. Social media has shown us that too. Social distancing may be right for the pandemic, but it is not the solution for these other problems we see that plague us today.

So, what to do? We turn for guidance to another epiphany the church calls baptism. Jesus said, ‘Go make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’ (Matthew 28:19). Very simply, we baptize because Jesus commanded us to. This gift has been given to you not as a loyalty test, not as a prerequisite that must be accomplished before receiving God’s love, not as fire insurance to get into heaven, but as a sacrament of graceful intimate presence with you to have and to hold from this day forward, in joy and in sorrow, in plenty and in want, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish all the days of your life, from now and until forever.

You recognize those words? The gift of God’s love in baptism makes possible the preposterous vow we make in marriage to love one person the way God loves all people and all creatures of creation. This gift makes also makes possible the covenant we share to be citizens of this nation, and more simply, to be neighbor. By grace, the Samaritan climbed down from his horse to assist the man in the ditch. By grace the Father kept constant vigil for the return of the prodigal son.

Belovedness is a central theme in the baptism of Jesus. In Mark, the heavenly voice speaks directly to Jesus for his own sake: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

It is part of the majesty and glory of God that God is not only the creator. God is a creator of co-creators. God is a lover of artists. God delights to see what new and beautiful things we can make from what God has given. Artists creatively bring into existence from what did not exist, that which gracefully transforms and renews. God made baptism as a sign for us of the new life we share in Christ as artists of grace—as co-creators with God of a more hopeful future.

Baptism is an epiphany. Helping other people in need matters. Speaking up when other people have been wronged matters. Contributing to the greater good of the world makes a difference. As Jesus was coming up out of the waters of baptism, “he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him” (Mark 1:10).

The baptism of Jesus tore through the boundary between heaven and earth. Now presumably, what is opened can be closed again. But what has been torn apart must remain open for all time. Through Christ Jesus, Mark says, the realms of heaven and the realms of earth have become mixed together.

The Spirit of God is mixed and folded within you. It’s a theme Mark will repeat at the moment of Jesus’ death on a cross. Just as Jesus breathed his last, the curtain in the Temple that separated the profane world from the Holy of Holies was torn in two, from top to bottom (Mark 15:38).

God cannot be contained by our holy spaces. God will not be confined to the heavenly realm. God is loose in the land. God’s presence fills the world. We meet God through encounter with our neighbor regardless of their party affiliation, gender, race, ethnicity, ability, or sexual orientation. All are endowed with dignity reflecting the likeness and image of God. Dearly beloved, the grace of God is revealed in the shadow of human hearts when we walk together by the lantern light of epiphany trusting in what God has shown and taught us to create order and blessing from the chaos of our lives.