Friday, August 28, 2015

It’s All About the Shoes - sermon 8/23/2015 on the armor of God and Jesus' difficult teaching

Listen to the sermon:

Listen to the whole worship service:

“It’s All About the Shoes”
Sermon, Year B, Proper 16, August 23, 2015
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
©2015 Rev. David J. Huber
Focus Scripture: Ephesians 6:10-20, John 6:56-69

Let’s go with the lesson from Ephesians today. There is some fashion advice here, found in the New Testament about what to wear.

Put on the whole armor of God: the belt of truth around your waist, the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace - I don’t know if Prada makes those kind of shoes, but maybe. The shield of faith. The helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

Interesting here that the writer, who might have been Paul, attributed to him but scholars think it was someone later writing in Paul’s name, but we aren’t sure - but what is interesting is that the writer links items to specific kinds of armor: belt of truth, breastplate of righteousness, shield, sword, helmet.

Except for the shoes. He doesn’t link anything to the shoes. He does not say to put on the shoes of peace, or the shoes of proclamation, he just says to put on the shoes that will allow you to proclaim the gospel of peace.

It always comes down to the shoes, doesn’t it? No ensemble works unless the shoes work. The shoes make the man, as they say. Or the woman. The shoes have to fit the rest of the clothing. And shoes are so important, because they are what we stand on and walk on. The shoes are there to support us.

Even the writer is using all these war terms, such as breastplate and shield and helmet, the shoes are to be whatever makes you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. So I imagine them as being comfy. Wear comfortable shoes. Shoes that offer good support. Put on shoes that don’t make you cranky. If one’s shoes are tight, uncomfortable, putting blisters on your flesh, it’s difficult to be peaceful. If you are suffering because of your shoes.

A couple years ago before one of my trips to Japan, I thought I’d take a new pair of shoes. A pair of deck shoes. I thought they’d be nice because there is a lot of taking off of shoes in Japan, entering homes, temples, spas, castles, even some stores and other public areas… so I thought the deck shoes would be nice because they are easy to slip in and out of. But I didn’t think, in fact I didn’t know, that deck shoes are a kind of shoes that need to be broken in first. What do I know of shoes? Well, I learned that lesson very painfully. After about half a day walking around Tokyo, the first place we went to, I was very unpeaceful by the afternoon. By the time we got to the hotel late that night, I was like “Hulk smash!” ready for war. So many blisters on my feet. It was so painful. I had no idea I had to break them in first.

I probably also should have worn socks with them as well, too, but the fashionistas say “Och, you don’t wear socks with deck shoes! You wear socks, people will look at you funny.”

Never trust a fashionista. And don’t care so much about what other people think.

Be comfortable.

While I was suffering that day from the shoes, we had thought, Yuki suggested that maybe we could go buy a new pair of shoes. I wasn’t sure if that would be helpful, since I already had the blisters. But also, finding shoes in my size in Japan is not easy. Finding anything in my size is not easy. When I bought my more formal Yukata - which is a casual robe similar to, but not as fussy as, a kimono [ed. note: see here some beautiful Kyoto-style kimonos worn by Geiko and Maiko], the one that I’ve worn here for World Communion Sunday - we went to a really nice store in Kyoto, with Kyoto being the place in Japan for fabrics and traditional clothing,  for it that would have a good selection and likely have something in my size. The saleswoman was very, very helpful. This is Japan, salespeople are always very, very helpful, whether it’s a 7-11 or a clothing store. The woman that helped us out probably imagined when we came in that Yuki was the one looking for something. But we said that I was looking for something. She wasn’t so sure at first when we said we were looking for me and sized me up. She got the Japanese face that shows concern, that I can’t really do, that look that is thinking inside “I’m going to be put in a position of having to say ‘no’” which is not an easy thing in Japan. Don’t like to say no. But they had some that fit me, she was relieved, I was excited to have this new outfit. We found an obi, the belt, that was long enough to wrap around me a sufficient amount of times, and beautiful. After we get me all fitted up, I thought, “You know, if I’m going to go with this traditional outfit, let’s go all the way. I should also get the geta, the wooden shoes (sandals, really) that are traditional to wear with the yukata.” And I don’t know if the salesperson had grown more comfortable with us because we’d been there for a while, but when I asked her if she had geta for these (pointing at my feet) she just laughed. "No, we don’t. Not even worth looking in the back." [ed. note: more on Kyoto, one of my favorite cities in the world]

So finding shoes, even non-geta shoes, not so easy and I didn’t want to waste the time while we were in Tokyo, so I toughed it out with the deck shoes. It was a couple of painful days, but you know, in a day or two the shoes were fine. It was about a week before my feet healed and felt fine, but the shoes were okay to wear.

There is something with certain kinds of shoes, like dress shoes, work boots, hiking boots, and as I recently learned, deck shoes, they need some time for our feet to get familiar with them and for them to get familiar with our feet. You don’t buy a pair of hiking boots the day before you hit the Appalachian trail. You wear them for a number of days, and work into them. You also don’t want to buy cheap shoes. I’ve also found that it’s worth spending good coin to get a good pair of shoes. A quality pair, well made. They are not only better for the back, knees, skeleton and the foot itself. Bad pairs of shoes can lead to body complications later in life if you are not supported properly. It’s cheaper, actually, in the long run to spend money on good shoes than to buy a series of cheap ones. I have dress shoes - like these - that are almost 15 years old. All my dress shoes are almost 15 years old. I’d have older ones, but I lost all those in the WTC attacks. I kept my dress shoes at work. A good pair will last for a long time with occasional repairs and loving care. I like to say that I spend good money on my shoes because I’m so cheap: I’d rather just buy a couple I like and never have to buy any again.

With those shoes was that difficult time of fitting into the new shoes.

I’ve found that learning new things can be like getting new shoes. Learning new habits, learning new ways of doing things, can be like getting a new pair of shoes. Very uncomfortable at first. Can feel like it’s not worth it. Can feel like the goal for which the shoe was designed - dress up, hiking, working - will never be achieved. It’s so painful at first. It can be so painful at first, to make you feel like giving up or throw the shoe away. I was so angry at those deck shoes for what they did to my feet.

But, I stuck with it. And those shoes started to fit. If I’d taken the time to break in the deck shoes, I wouldn’t have such unpeaceful feelings about them. I wouldn’t have had those days of foot pain.

But give it a little time, and then suddenly, wow!, now they are broken in, now they are comfortable, and there you are with a new pair of deliciously comfortable and usable shoes.

Comfortable enough that one is at peace within, so that one may be at peace without, and preach the Gospel of peace to the world.

Churches, too, occasionally need to break in new pair shoes. Times change, cultures change, contexts of the church changes. We need to learn new ways of doing things. The message doesn’t change. It’s still the message of God’s love. God’s unstoppable infinite love. That message never changes. The message of grace, and the beauty of being in fellowship with other people, united to the cause of peace and justice, to be relieving the pain of suffering, preaching release to prisoners. That message doesn’t change. But the way we deliver the message changes. Learning to share the message in new ways can be difficult. But that process can be uncomfortable. It is uncomfortable.

The benefits of the shoe don’t change, but the styles do. Breaking in a new style, that takes some time. When it comes to the church, that can take a lot of time, counted not in hours but in years.

We have been in a time of learning for the church. Not just for Plymouth, but the Church all over, and especially in the United States. It’s a new time for the church as the culture has changed around us, and we’ve not been so good to adjust to that culture. I think of it as the benefits of wearing the shoe does not change, but the style of the shoe changes.

Breaking in a new style takes some times. When it comes to the church, it’s not measured in hours or days, but months or years, even decades. We’ve been breaking in some new shoes here at Plymouth. Learning new ways of being the Church. New ways to organize ourselves to be more efficient, more quick at making decisions and take advantage of opportunities. Also learning new ways of being present in the city of Eau Claire. Being present in our neighborhood and community that we live in. And especially learning the shoes of invitation, reaching out and inviting people to come in. That is a very new learning. Probably for most of us, it is the shoes of invitation that are the most difficult and daunting, and maybe the most frustrating. We have many wonderful shoes in the collection of the Church, but the shoes of invitation are shoes that the church has scarcely worn, if at all, for a couple generations. Particularly for the UCC, the Methodists, the Presbyterians, and others for whom attendance and membership has gone down over the generations. It’s like we’ve forgotten how to be invitational.

I’ve mentioned a few times about where I was a year ago, when I first started working with my church growth coach and learning this new skill set of how to be out in the community, how to be invitational, how to meet people and build relationships. It was always so, well, terrifying to me before then because I didn’t want to be “that evangelical guy” who screams at people and throws the Bible in peoples’ face. I know a lot of us are afraid of looking like that, so we don’t say anything. That’s not a helpful solution.

But, I started learning that a year ago. It was really difficult. It was a time of challenge for me. It was a whole new skill set. There were a number of times that I was ready to throw the shoes in the garbage. It was painful, like those deck shoes in Tokyo, and it seemed like it never got easier. It was months of process of trying to learn how to do this and become comfortable with it. I couldn’t seem to get past the blistering stage. I had soul blisters. And they weren’t healing. It was difficult for me. It was all so new. I was taking in so much information, learning new ways to be the Church, learning new ways to be a pastor, adjusting and taking all the things I was learning and hearing and trying to make them fit the context of Plymouth. To make it work for this congregation, in this city, in this culture and community. There is more learning on my part to be done, and more learning on the church’s part. I’ve been talking about it a lot, and some of you are part of the process.

But I can sense some of that fear, the same fear and dread here at Plymouth, about that new shoe of being invitational. It is daunting. It does feel weird. Especially I feel it when I issue a challenge to you to go connect with someone, invite someone, do an elbow activity, bring a friend with you, and so on. I know it’s difficult and scary. It was for me when I first started doing this. I was so afraid of someone yelling at me, or saying a loud shouty “no” to me, or a “how dare you ask me to your church”. But you know what? I have encountered none of that. I’ve had people say, “No, not interested.” But always in a kind way. Never had anyone explode at me, or do anything nasty. Facing that fear, facing the fear of rejection or the fear of doing something new, is just part of the process I was there a year ago. But as I have said many times, I will not ask you to do something that I am not willing to do, or that I have not already done. Because I went through that process of learning how to be comfortable with inviting, and then I started offering the challenge to you and talking about it in sermons. Especially about connecting with others. That is so important. And it’s not difficult. The first couple times felt difficult, but quite honestly, the fear was only in here (pointing to my head) and in here (pointing to my heart), and not in reality.

I connected with people this week, as I strive to do every week, to connect with some new people every week. Some of them have come here. Some are in process. Some will never come. But that’s how you grow a church. That’s how you grow a church. Those invitations, connecting with people and asking them to come in. But I understand the difficulty. You even see that even with Jesus’ disciples when he is giving this new teaching. They say to him, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”

Any new teaching can be difficult. It feels that way, doesn’t it? “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”

But it does get easier. It can be done. Taking that first step can be a real struggle. But take that first step, because then the next step is a little easier, and the one after that is easier, and eventually it becomes a comfortable clothing. Like a good pair of shoes. It is a skill that is worth having. I don’t even want to call it a skill. It’s not just a skill, it is part of being a follower of Jesus. It is part of our discipleship. It’s a faith practice to be invitational and to bring people in to share the good news and spread the word of peace, to invite people in to share in that good news, to invite people in to share in the fellowship of the church, and to know that you have the Spirit with you. You have God with you.

It’s not just a wacky new thing to do, it’s how the church has existed for 2000 years. It’s how the Church grew from that ragtag group of people who were hanging around Jesus. It’s how that ragtag group of people around Jesus became a movement that has spread around the world.

All that struggle I had with those deck shoes, by the end of the trip they fit just fine. They felt just fine. They caused no problems, and they were a comfortable and enjoyable pair of shoes to wear that lasted beyond the vacation.


Thursday, August 20, 2015

Make the Most of the Time - 8/16/15 sermon

“Make the Most of the Time”
Sermon, Year B, Proper 15, August 16, 2015
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
©2015 Rev. David J. Huber
Focus Scripture: Ephesians 5:15-20, John 6:51-58

Listen to the sermon:

Listen to the entire worship service:

Last Sunday we had the beginning of this passage, with Jesus saying “I am the Bread of Life” and my sermon explored what the Bread of Life might mean. I won’t say a lot more just on that, so I offer if you weren’t here, the sermons are on our church website, facebook page, on my blog (and here is a link to that sermon), on my soundcloud, and they are also printed out and available on the table in the entryway. If you weren’t here, or if you want to revisit it, I suggest that you do so. Partly because in the middle of the sermon I asked from you who were here for some of your images of bread. Things that you think of when you hear the word “bread”. So feel free to revisit that sermon.

But I do want to talk a bit more about Jesus as the Bread of Life. Partly because today’s Gospel reading is, well, there is something creepy and uncomfortable about “eat my body” and “eat me” and “drink my blood”. Eat my flesh. It’s a very uncomfortable passage to hear. At least it is for me. I don’t know if you reacted that way, but I get a kind of icky feeling reading it.

But as I mentioned last week, Jesus isn’t saying that he is literally a loaf of bread. Nor is Jesus asking us to cannibalize his body. This is all metaphor. It’s all symbolic. Kind of bloody metaphors, maybe not the ones we would use today, but he is using bread as something that everyone would understand and know. Bread as the source of life. And so Jesus is saying he is the course of life, and that the Bread of Life here is also The Way of Jesus. The Bread of Life is a way of life. To eat the bread of life is to participate in Jesus’ Way. To say that I am eating the body of Jesus, or eating the Bread of Jesus, is to say that I am following in his ways, and doing what Jesus would like us to do. It is to follow his path, which is living in love and compassion. It is the way that says that the hungry deserve to be fed, so let us feed them. It is the Way that says the sick deserve to be visited and to have access to healthcare. So let’s make sure that no one goes without access to healthcare. It is a Way that says workers deserve a living wage. That we all need forgiveness. That we all need to forgive. It is the Way that says all people deserve dignity, and deserve to have their dignity recognized. It is the Way that hangs out with the wrong people and goes to the wrong places, because that’s where God’s people are. It is to go wherever God’s people are, to connect with God’s people and thus to God. To connect with all of God’s realm, and not just the part of the world that is comfortable or familiar to us.

Following Jesus is to partake of the Bread of Life. And to partake in the Bread of Life is to follow Jesus, which is the Way to eternal life. But note that eternal life is not something that God dangles in front of us like a carrot in front of a mule, with promise of some reward at the very end. That’s an abusive kind of god. Eternal life is the journey itself. It is the following itself. To follow Jesus is the eternal life. The fullness of life. To live fully as Jesus would have us live. To be aligned with Jesus, to be aligned with God, is to live in the eternal now, already. It is to accept the eternal life that we already have.

There is the bread that we eat in Communion, that is an actual loaf of bread that we eat and consume symbolically reminding us that we are the Body of Christ, reminding us of our connection to God, reminding us that it is God who feeds us and who provides. I’ve mentioned before, that in all our technological cleverness, humanity cannot make anything grow. We can help the conditions, but we can’t make anything grow.

THere is also the symbolic Bread of Life that is Jesus’ Way. It is the sum total of Jesus’ teachings, his examples of living, his commands -- and there are only two of them: to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves. The Bread of Life is the sum total of all of Jesus’ teachings, his path of love and mercy, his Way of connecting with people, especially the outcast and the marginalized.

We are talking this summer about connection, as part of our discipleship plan that we’re talking about over the next year of Connect → Grow → Love. We are in the period of talking about connection. The BRead of Life is the path of relation with other people. To connect with other of God’s people. Not just to invite them to church, though that is a good thing to do, but really inviting people to understand and know their own right to dignity. To invite them into forgiveness. To invite them into grace. To invite them into the eternal life they already have, but which they maybe don’t know they have. That’s the connection we’re trying to make with people. The message we are trying to spread in our neighborhood, and in Eau Claire, and which the church spreads around the whole world, is to invite them into the eternal life they already have but maybe don’t know that they have. Maybe have not heard about yet, or just aren’t sure. We could also say, taking the words from Ephesians, to make the most of their time.

I like that first sentence in Ephesians that we read: “Be careful how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil.” Making the most of the time.

I think Jesus would say that the way to make the most of the time is to follow the Way he showed us. That is the way of eternal life. Making the most of the time. Another way that this letter could have been phrased is to say, “Because there is so much evil, only do good.” Let your good be the prophetic message against the evil in the world. Because evil does a good enough job on its own. It doesn’t need our help. It seems to do just fine. Imagine doing good. Don’t be tempted by evil’s agenda of immediate gains, or power, or wealth, or whatever sparkly thing that evil is putting in front of you that we all find so tempting, but make the most of the time by eating only from the Bread of Life.

Maybe another way to say that is to ask the question, “What kind of legacy do you want to leave behind?” What kind of effect do you want to have in the world? How do you want to be remembered?

The other side of the coin of eternal life is how you live on in others’ memories. We always live on with God, but how do we live on in other people’s memories? What kind of relationships did you have? How did you connect with other people? Did you make a positive difference in the world? Go out and make the world a more loving world. Let that be the use of your time: to make the world a more loving world. Connect with people. Build relationships. Live the Way of the Bread of Life making the most of the time.

Last week at the end of the sermon I challenged you all to connect with someone new, and I hope that you all did. I suggested to go meet a neighbor you haven’t met yet. Or go find out someone new that is around you. Make some kind of connection with someone during the week. And I hope that you did.

I offered that challenge, and I’ve offered a few others this year, not because I enjoy giving commands or because I like hearing my own voice telling people what to do. I offer them because these are practices and exercises to build your faith. These are exercises and practices that will make you a better disciple. That will make us all better disciples, better followers of Jesus, to do some of these things. So I hope that you connected with someone this last week that you have not met before. I did.

I’ve told you many times before that I will not ask you to do something that I am not willing to do. So I connected with some new people. Doing that is important. So I challenge you to connect with someone new this week. I challenge you to do it again. As I mentioned earlier in today’s service, we’ll be going out to hang door hanger invitations after worship to the homes in our neighborhood. That’s one way to connect, because you might meet or encounter someone outside. But it is also a way to extend an invitation. Invite someone to the songs and s’mores on Wednesday night. That’s a good way for all of us to connect with new people: if everyone who is planning to come that also brings someone new with you, there will be a bunch of people around the circle that we don’t know. That will give you all a chance to connect with someone new, to hear their story, to talk with them, to build some relationships.

It is a good thing to connect with others. It is the vocation of the church, to spread the Good News, and inviting people in to God’s fellowship. To invite them in to feed and be nourished on the Bread of Life.

Make the most of the time connecting with the people around you.

Let us pray: Life-giving God, Bread of Life, as we are in process of connecting with others, of expanding our community, of being the Bread of Life for others and making the most of the time, give us your Spirit of hope and love to keep moving forward, to keep growing in faith, and growing in our discipleship. Give us your Spirit of courage to be invitational. To connect with the stranger. Give us your Spirit of care to what to enlarge this fellowship of friendship and love that is Plymouth UCC, so that more and more people will know your love and know your grace. Amen.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

More hinky balderdash from WI capitol regarding education

For those who thought nothing could be worse than defunding public schools to send our tax money to for-profit, private, and religious schools... or than cutting the UW system by hundreds of millions of dollars over the past five years... or the demonization of teachers and professors that we have had the last five years (though apparently every teacher in those voucher schools is of an entirely different class, one of virtue and excellent pedagogy and selfless devotion to the education of our children, and holds none of the characteristics of the public school teacher/demon class)...

now the Republicans in the state legislature have formed a committee in secret, that at this time plans to meet in secret, to discuss the merger of the Wisconsin Technical Colleges System and the UW two-year college system. And it is being done not only without inviting any Democrats to the discussion, but not even informing or inviting the Democrats who are on the Assembly Committee on Colleges and Universities. Defund, Destabalize, Demoralize, Demonize, and Destroy, a five-pronged attack on education that is being entirely too effective, from K-12 through our universities and colleges.

Rep. Dana Wachs (D-91st District) is the ranking Democrat on the Assembly Committee on Colleges and Universities, and has sent this letter and press release showing his dismay that he and his colleagues were neither informed nor invited, and his dismay that this group wants to meet behind closed doors to discuss something so monumental as a potential merger.

His press release.

His letter to Rep. Terry Katsma.

For more of a sense of what is happening within the two-year colleges (and this applies as well to the entire system), here is a good read from Kelly Wilz, a professor at UW-Marshfield, about the struggles of being a professor in the current climate and the damage being done.

It is insane. Seriously, contact your legislators, and ask them to stop this nonsense.

Friday, August 14, 2015

"Jesus is the Bread of Life, In Many Varieties" sermon for 8/9/2015

“Jesus is the Bread of Life, In Many Varieties”
Sermon, Year B, Proper 14, August 9, 2015
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
©2015 Rev. David J. Huber
Focus Scripture: John 6:35, 41-51

“I am the bread of life.”

Well, that’s not confusing, right?

I mean, we’re hip. We know what’s going on. We understand all things that Jesus says. So we can just let that pass and move on to something a little more digestible, like, worrying about What is the minimum skirt length that Jesus approves of? or, What kind of people does Jesus want us to make wedding cakes for? or ask the question asked here, How can he say that he came down from heaven?

But, no, Jesus is rarely specific.

He likes to toss out these teaser phrases like, “I am the bread of life.”

I can imagine the crowd around Jesus, and I’m sure this included his disciples as well, sitting there listening to him, that when he says “I am the bread of life” they are probably greeting him with vacant non-comprehending stares and maybe motioning like, “we’re gonna need a little more than that, Jesus.”

“That doesn’t really help us, sir. Say a little bit more.”

And so he says a little bit more. “Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.”

And if the people were me, I’d still be sitting there, going, “Okay, um... go on….little bit more…”

“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

Well, that clears it up. Yeah.

Not specific, not very clear. He’s working in metaphors here. He is not saying that he is literally a loaf of bread. But there is a beauty in Jesus’ teaching in that so much is open-ended. He uses these metaphors. Phrases and symbols that people would recognize and would understand. Everyone is eating bread. We all have experience with eating bread.

And I think he knows that people would prefer specifics: a list of rules, a list of dos and don’ts, or a flowchart, something to spell out exactly what he wants from us and what he means. But because Jesus knows that’s what we want, he intentionally refuses to give it to us. Because it would make it too easy. He is not offering an easier path of faith, but looking for an incarnational embodied life of faith. A lived faith from people.

So he doesn’t go into a lot of detail about how to do things. He offers a lot of “in general” kinds of things: “What I want from you is to live with justice,” but he doesn’t say specifically what that has to be. He leaves it up to us. “What I want from you is for you to love your neighbor; what I want from you is to take care of one another, especially the poor and powerless, and those who are hurting and suffering. But how you do that, well, that’s going to be up to you. I can’t tell you how to do that,” -- and here I can envision saying this -- “I don’t want to tell you exactly how to do these things because then you’ll just do the minimum and say that’s enough. You’ll have a checklist, you’ll mark your things off, and then think you’re good to go.” But Jesus wants us to be always more compassionate, more loving, more merciful. What he is saying is, “What I want is for you to follow me. Do what I’m doing. I want you to follow me, and I can’t tell you how to do that. I can show you how to do that, model it for you.”

He says, “The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

He is the Bread of Life, and now he is talking about flesh. Getting a little creepy, but he’s on a symbolic move about his body. His body. The body that he later allowed others to betray, and then crucify, and then to the shock and surprise of many, the body then which he will raise from the dead and lift up. That’s the act of a loving God, to say, “Here is my body.”

“I am the bread of life. The Bread of Life is incarnate in my body.”

Now, earlier in John’s Gospel, two chapters before this one, Jesus meets a woman at a well in Samaria and tells her that he is the living water.

He says elsewhere in John’s Gospel, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” He says, “I am the Light of the World. I am the true vine. I am the Good Shepherd.”

Logically, of course, he cannot be bread, water, a vine, and light, all at the same time. So be not too literal about this. He’s talking symbolically.

“I am the Bread of Life. I am the source of life. I am that which is more necessary for life. I am the one who gives life. I am the Bread of Life.”

Before we went into our Centering Song, I asked you to think of whatever images come to you when you think of bread. I give you a chance to participate. You don’t have to participate if you don’t want to, but if you’d like to, just say it out loud, What comes to you when you think of bread?

[Some of the things that came out: Communion. Sandwiches. Special meals. Bread found in most cultures around the world, and some very different forms of bread, like pita and flatbreads, big fluffy breads, dense breads… Sharing at home when company came and one didn’t have much to share, one usually had bread and butter to give them. Comfort food. Is there any better smell than a loaf of bread coming out of the oven?]

I thought of a few: food. nourishment. something to share with others. something essential for life. sandwiches. A way to take things that grow out of the earth and put them in a new form that we can digest and eat to give us energy or life. Family suppers. Toast. Sopping up gravy. Trenchers. Hard work. My Aunt Doris, who is an amazing bread baker, and I think of her with her gnarled and arthritic fingers, kneading that bread dough over and over, even in the pain, to make bread for the family. My mom’s cinnamon rolls, that she made from some bread recipe that was only in her head. No one can make cinnamon rolls like she did out of that bread recipe. So bread is all of that.

See how loaded that image is? That’s the Bread of Life! It contains all those images and more about being fed, about feeding others. The varieties of bread. Maybe we all even picture Jesus differently, just as we have different kinds of breads that are part of our families or our culture.

I think Jesus is not saying he’s a loaf of bread, but saying that just as food is necessary to keep our bodies alive, Jesus is the source of life necessary to keep our spirits and souls going. Jesus provides for that part of our life that connects us with God.

Lynn hinted at this when she responded with her words about having bread on hand for company, I’ve been thinking about hospitality. I think especially in the midwest, and when I lived in Hawaii I saw this (though not so much when I lived in New York), what is one of the first things you ask when people come into your home? You ask, “Did you eat?” Or “djeet?” or “djeetyet?” Did you eat yet? In some Asian countries, the question is, “Have you had rice today?” It’s that hospitality that bread is so important. “Can I get you something to eat?” Whether it is just a piece of bread and butter, or sandwich, pie, cake, or even a meal. I think of my Aunt Tootie, and other relatives, if I’d show up unexpectedly there was also the apology of, “Oh, I don’t have a whole lot in my fridge” and then half an hour later you have a banquet that could feed six or seven people, and I’m like, “It’s just me, Aunt Tootie, you didn’t need to cook all that.” But that’s the bread of life.

The Bread of Life is that which nourishes us, connects us, that brings us together. So Jesus is saying, “I am the Bread of Life. I am what matters. I am the source of all being, the source of all life. I contain all life.”

That’s a pretty big statement to say all that. He is also saying, then, “So don’t seek the food that is not from God. I am the food that is good for you. Don’t seek the food that is not good for you, even if it looks a lot more attractive or sparkles more. It’s not from God.”

He doesn’t say, “I am come to be the arbiter of rules, but I am come to be the source of life. The container of life.”

He is the one who holds our life in his hands.

I think also of something I posted about on Facebook last Saturday (*see below for the post I made). Floyd died Saturday morning, and I’d been with him Friday afternoon and night. Then Saturday morning got the call from Pat and talked to her about it. Then I left to go see a play in the Twin Cities called “Stage Kiss.” Very funny. Go see it. But it is also a beautiful meditation on love. Looking at the real love between two people versus the artificial love that is created just because you work with someone, that infatuation kind of love that is not a solid. A beautiful meditation on love and life. When I got home that night, since it was the first day of the month, I was looking ahead to the rest of August and thinking of what I am doing this month, and I realized that this month I will experience all of the life cycles that we celebrate or commemorate in our life. FLoyd had died, so there was going to be a funeral. That’s the end of life. At the end of August, Michael Green and his wife will be here to have their new baby baptized. I had a wedding yesterday, so I was looking forward to that milestone of life, the joining of two people who are in love. And there was an encounter with someone whose marriage is falling apart. So that’s the other side of that coin: two coming together, and two that are growing apart. And I was thinking of those in our homeless congregation who have their own struggles, their own joys.

With all of this, I was thinking about how Jesus is present and involved in all of this. Jesus is present in all of life. Not just the good times. Jesus is present in all of life. Jesus is the holder of all of life. God coming to us in flesh to say, “I know that your life is hard. I know that it’s messy. Even as it has times of happiness and joy, I know and I understand that life is hard and difficult and painful.”

And God says, “So I am here with you. I come here to be with you because I know that life is hard and messy, and I’m sharing this experience with you.”

That’s a God that loves us. To come to us, to be present with us, to say, “I’m sharing this experience with you, and I am sustaining you with the Bread of Life, which is my body given for you, so that when you are in need it is there, and also so that when your neighbors are in need you can be my presence for them. You can be the Bread of Life for them.”

That is part of our church growth strategy as well. To invite people in to experience this Bread of Life. To experience this fellowship of love. In a harsh and sometimes unforgiving world, it’s the invitation -- the Christian invitation -- into the Body of Christ and into the Bread of Life that can be so healing. It can be the antidote to all the blehhhh that is out there. All that stuff we hear on the news and see on TV. The invitation into the Bread of Life is the antidote to that.

We are talking about Connection as part of the series Connect → Grow → Love that we’re doing over the next year. To connect with folks. To be the Bread of Life for other people. To invite them in. I’ve been out connecting with people, sharing the Bread of Life, being the church to them and building relationships. That’s what it’s all about. That’s what it’s really all about, is to build relationships with people. To connect with God’s people.

So I challenge you this week to connect with someone new. Connect with someone new. Connect with someone you don’t know. Maybe a neighbor has moved in, or a neighbor that you’ve lived by for years but never met. Go out and connect with someone. Meet someone new and build community. You don’t even have to invite them to church, but you can. It’s always nice. Especially to invite them to something safe like singing around the campfire on August 19 at 6:30 pm. Connect with someone new.

I’ve been meeting a bunch of new people over the last couple weeks, and have extended invitations to 5 or 6 of them. Invited them into various things, whether church or a coffee to talk some more. I’ve been building relationships. The couple that I married yesterday and their family, as well, I connected with them. Built that relationship and I’ve invited them to join us. And next Sunday after worship, as I mentioned earlier, we’ll be distributing the door hangers that we made for the Songs and S’mores night. That’s another way to extend an invitation. So I invite you all to meet someone new this week, and if you can help do door hangers after worship, join us to spread the Bread of Life by sharing these invitations to our neighborhood to say “Please come and be with us.” Be the Bread of Life by being invitational.

I hope that isn’t too much of a challenge for one week, but I think connecting with one person ought not to be too difficult. Meet someone new, and let them know who you are, find out who they are. Share stories with them. And the more that we get to know each other, the more our community comes together as well. We can come together around the Bread of Life who is Jesus.

Let us pray: Holy Jesus, you are the Bread of Life for all the world. We pray that you continue to be the Bread for us, to sustain and nourish us, so we may be bread for our neighbors, connecting them to us and through us connecting them to you, the source of all life. Amen.

* here is the post to Facebook I mentioned. Unfortunately, facebook appears to have no way to link to a specific post, which lack of ability I find annoying, but circumvent by copying the thing here:

I posted earlier today when I was at the Guthrie theater about "a chance to enrich the soul with some good theater." I'm feeling very enriched. The play ("Stage Kiss") was really funny. The first act was basically a farce, and the second act was a surprising twist of the farce that turned into a beautiful message about the power of love. And as I sit here late at night, after a long week of the ups and downs of life, I'm looking to the rest of August and feeling the immensity of God's love and presence. I received a spirit-lifting meditation on love in the play today, and I look toward a month with a funeral, a wedding, and a baptism, and then the next month I get to be reunited with the love of my life. This month will see three of the major events of life, in all of which God is present - in death, the love that heals and comforts, from God and from a wife's dedication to her sick and dying spouse, and the reminder that not even death can separate us from God's love; the love of a couple to turn that love into the covenant of marriage; and the baptismal ritual that remembers and affirms God's love for all his/her/its sons and daughters. I also had the privilege tonight of being at the rehearsal of two incredibly talented young adults who are doing a recital tomorrow - God present in artistic expression. I'll spend time with some of our homeless and hurting brothers and sisters, and have opportunity to join the struggle of those who simply want a living wage and a path to the dignity of the exodus out of financial anxiety. Being a minister is a unique privilege of being allowed to be present and to be a witness to the fullness of human experience: the joys and sorrow, the hopes and the dashed hopes, the pains and the celebrations. For whatever it's worth, that is where my heart is tonight, and it feels good.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Choices, Part 2 - 8/2/2015 a play in place of the sermon

A play on the story of David, Bathsheba, and Nathan that we began on July 26.

No text on this one, though eventually I will publish the play elsewhere.

Written by Carole Spenser and Rev. David Huber (that's me!) and performed by Carole, Brenda Lochter, and me.

Choices - sermon 7/26/2015 David and Bathsheba

Sermon, Year B, Proper 12, July 26, 2015
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
©2015 Rev. David J. Huber
Focus Scripture: 2 Samuel 11:1-15 and John 6:1-21

So we go from a soap opera story, David and Bathsheba and Uriah…. a story very much like a soap opera to the story of Jesus, that is, like, totally the opposite. Two very different kind of story.

David is selfish, thinking only of himself, and like pulling on a loose thread on a sweater, David begins a process of unravelling that leaves a wake of personal destruction behind him. People’s lives twisted and deformed, so much spent yarn left in a useless pile on the floor.

Everything was fine, David! And here I’m talking about King David, though I have said that line to myself on occasion… everything was fine, David, but you had to go and think only of yourself and your wants, and as the king, you have the authority to really overstretch your boundaries before suffering any consequences. Your power, King David, protects you from the harm that you cause.

What a jerk. And that isn’t even a strong enough word. He caused the death of someone, which goes way beyond being a jerk. It’s not like he stole a Twinkie. This is a deplorable act.

And yet David is also considered the greatest of all the Israelite kings. Regarded as such through history, and within the scriptural texts. More pages of the Old Testament are devoted to telling his story than anyone else’s, other than perhaps Moses. David is considered so great of a king, that all the later prophecies and hopes of a coming messiah demanded that the messiah be born from David’s lineage. The messiah must be a descendant of David.

But his life was so messed up. He made a lot of bad decisions in his life. He also made some good ones, which is why he’s celebrated as a good king. But he just couldn’t get it together. The Bible is not shy about pointing out David’s many failures, either. A very unusual kind of history that is written in the Bible. Often we like to gloss over the foibles, but in the Bible it is the mistakes and foibles that get talked about. The Bible is not shy about pointing out what he did wrong. As a king, for the most part, he did ok. But as a person, he didn’t do so well.

And maybe that’s why I like being named David, because I resonate with this guy. I don’t have it together, not by a long shot. I screw things up. I mess things up. I’m not perfect, not by any means. Now, I will say, in case you are wondering,. I’ve never used my power to commit adultery with a woman and get her pregnant and then have her husband killed in battle… that I’ve never done. But, that’s just a matter of semantics. Sin is sin, and there are worse ways to hurt people than to kill them. Worse ways to hurt people than to have them killed. I’ve never ordered the death of anyone, and as far as I know I was not the cause even accidentally of anyone’s death, but I’ve certainly hurt people in my lifetime. I try not to, but it happens. I fail people. I’ve hurt people. Failed to show up, failed to treat them with dignity, been dismissive, failed to see them as a fellow human being, failed their expectations, broken promises. I’ll leave you a moment to think of your own moments that you made decisions you are not proud of.

I never chosen to hurt anyone, except in a few instances when someone hurt me first and I thought I would hurt them back. Or when in anger I’ve chosen to lash out at people... but even if we don’t choose to hurt, the hurt can still come because of choices we make, even when we don’t mean to.

David is selfish. That seems to be a failure of many of us. I think a lot of Jesus’ ministry was teaching us how to be generous, and how to get out of the mode of wanting to be selfish thinking only of ourselves, our family, or our tribe, but to think about the entire community. Selfishness is a failure of many. I think it’s a failure of all of us. David’s selfishness is boosted by the power of being king. His selfishness can lead to worse effects. But, we ALL have some power! But as king, he has a bit more.

Notice that Jesus, in the Gospel text, they wanted to make him king but he refused it. Kings abuse their power.

In fact, you may remember if you have read the books of Samuel, that the Jewish people, after the Exodus, spent a few hundred years without a king. They had men and women called “Judges”, which weren’t judges in the legal sense, but wise people and authorities who would lead and settle disputes and help the people along, maybe lead them in battle. But they weren’t a nation, they didn’t have a king. After about 200 years, though, the people started demanding that they have a king so that they could be like the other nations around them. The prophet Samuel, after whom the book are written, warns them repeatedly with a long litany of why having a king is a poor idea. God is your king, Samuel said. You already have a king, he said, and it’s God. Lot of truth in that one. The early Christians picked up on that, and they refused to recognize Caesar, the Roman Emperor, as Lord. Only God is Lord, they said. Samuel warned them that a king will take your land, take the produce of your land, take your money, send your children into war, steal your women, let you live in poverty so that he can build chariots and fancy homes… good words for today, yes?

Basically, Samuel is warning them and warning us, that people tend to be selfish and make choices based on what is best for them, not what is best for the community. And the more power we have, the more selfish we can become, or if not more selfish, the damage we can do more damage with our selfish inclinations.

That’s why it is a good thing to keep people in power in check. But it isn’t just about people in power, because we all have power. We are all people with some power. The power to hurt or the power to heal. That’s the choice that we’re often faced with. Even if it is just as subtle as us being the customer against the store clerk or the waiter, or our encounters with strangers, our relationship with those we work with. We all have some level of power.

We are not kings, but our choices can still do damage or can be used to heal.

Jesus chose that path of healing, to do the things that offer healing.

David’s story reads like a soap opera, because it’s full of bad decisions. That’s the genius of the soap opera genre. It’s a bunch of people who are very selfish and they just make bad decisions. And that makes for good TV or movies or story telling. Much of the great literature of the ages is people making bad decisions that lead to conflict that needs to be overcome. If you want drama in your life, then be selfish and worry about meeting only your own wants.

But if you want a healthy life free of such anxiety, be outward looking. Jesus’ story reads as the opposite of a soap opera because he looks outward. He’d worried about the needs of others first. Thinking beyond himself.

How do we make decisions? How do we make choices in life?

Next Sunday, we continue to look at David’s story and will dramatically explore this question about how we make decisions.

But we can do some exploring now, as well.

David looked out from the rooftop of his palace, he is on his high place looking down at all around him and thinking, “How can I use these things and these people? What benefit can I derive from them, and what is the minimum that they need? How can they serve me?”

Jesus is in the midst of the people, he also is on a high place. He’s on a mountain. He’s looking around at them, and thinking, “What do they need? How can I help? How can I serve them?”

David looks out, surveys his kingdom, says “I want that woman, bring her to me.” Even after being told she’s married. She gets pregnant, he tries to cover it up by sending for her husband to come home. “Go to your home and wash your feet”, David says, using one of many biblical euphemisms that have nothing to do with feet or washing. But Uriah doesn’t. Uriah chooses to be loyal to the people he is serving with. “Shall I go to my home and sleep in a bed while my men are still out on the battlefield? No. I won’t do that.” Good for Uriah, very inconvenient for David. Uriah’s presence is now too inconvenient, and the truth simply won’t do. David is in too deep. At any point he could have stopped it by telling the truth and repenting, but instead he keeps trying to cover up his failure with more failure, and it just doesn’t work. So David has him killed. Get rid of the inconvenient person.

Instead of David understanding that he, David, is making his own life inconvenient and a mess, easier to just blame it on Uriah and have him eliminated.

Inconvenient people. There are a lot of them, it seems. Personally, I don’t believe that anyone is an inconvenient person. We are all God’
s sons and daughters. But a lot of people get treated as convenient. The homeless, whose presence shows us our own failures and our poor choices as a society. The sick and suffering. Immigrants. Our LGBT brothers and sisters. The poor. The underpaid workers who are asking for a living wage. People whose religion we don’t like or trust, or who speak other languages, or have different customs. The mentally ill. The obese. The veterans who return home with injuries of body, or especially with spiritual and psychic injuries.

The children and young adults who simply want an education, but can’t afford it or graduate with incredible debt loads at very high interest rates.

And in our own personal lives, there are inconvenient people. The rude guy at the restaurant or the store or on the road. The waiter who needs tips to survive. The prisoners asking for justice and dignity. The food stamp receivers. The elderly who are making monthly decisions between food or medicine. The people who aren’t dressed “right”, or don’t look the way you think they should look, or act the way you think they should act. All these inconvenient people who … I don’t know, who are the inconvenient people in your life?

Now Jesus, like David, is on a high place where he can look down and see the people. He is looking downwards, but he isn’t looking down on them. He sees a people with a need. They’re getting hungry. The disciples are like, “Let them fend for themselves. It’s not our problem.” But Jesus sees the world, Jesus sees people, differently. They are our problem. They need to be fed.

A young boy is there and he sees the world similarly as well. He doesn’t actually speak in the text, but I imagine he says something like, “I have food.” And by having food, he has some power. “It’s not much. But I choose to use my power on the behalf of these people, so please, have my food to share with them.” He could have said and would have been justified to say, “Hey, I worked for this food! I have a right to it.” He could have said, “Why should I care if they’re hungry? They should have thought to bring a lunch of that before they came. It’s their fault.” He could have said, “Why should I be inconvenienced because they didn’t plan ahead?”

But he doesn’t. He goes for generosity. And through his generosity, a miracle is worked.

If you want drama, be selfish. If you want a life of goodness for yourself and the people around you and your community, be generous.

This is the vocation of the church, and of us who follow Jesus.

Generosity, love, compassion.

There is a phrase that’s been around for a long time that offers help when faced with a decision, to ask yourself, “What would Jesus do?” I think that’s a perfectly fine question. What would be do? Follow in his example. Although I have an issue with that because Jesus does have a lot more power than we do. He can do things that we can’t do. So maybe the answer to “What would Jesus do?” would be “Jesus would walk on water.” Well, I can’t walk on water. But I can still try to follow Jesus.

So maybe a better question is to ask not “What would Jesus do?” because that’s a really high bar, but ask, “What is the loving thing to do?”

Or maybe, if you want to put this question in terms of an example of a person, ask “How can I be like the boy who had the loaves and the fish?”

I leave you with that. Amen.

[the next Sunday was the rest of the David and Bathsheba story, and a drama set in modern times using some of the subject matter of this story - listen here:

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Feeling God's love, and feeling the privilege of being a minister tonight.

I posted earlier today when I was at the Guthrie theater about "a chance to enrich the soul with some good theater." I'm feeling very enriched. The play ("Stage Kiss") was really funny. The first act was basically a farce, and the second act was a surprising twist of the farce that turned into a beautiful message about the power of love. And as I sit here late at night, after a long week of the ups and downs of life, I'm looking to the rest of August and feeling the immensity of God's love and presence. I received a spirit-lifting meditation on love in the play today, and I look toward a month with a funeral, a wedding, and a baptism, and then the next month I get to be reunited with the love of my life. This month will see three of the major events of life, in all of which God is present - in death, the love that heals and comforts, from God and from a wife's dedication to her sick and dying spouse, and the reminder that not even death can separate us from God's love; the love of a couple to turn that love into the covenant of marriage; and the baptismal ritual that remembers and affirms God's love for all his/her/its sons and daughters. I also had the privilege tonight of being at the rehearsal of two incredibly talented young adults who are doing a recital tomorrow - God present in artistic expression. I'll spend time with some of our homeless and hurting brothers and sisters, and have opportunity to join the struggle of those who simply want a living wage and a path to the dignity of the exodus out of financial anxiety. Being a minister is a unique privilege of being allowed to be present and to be a witness to the fullness of human experience: the joys and sorrow, the hopes and the dashed hopes, the pains and the celebrations. For whatever it's worth, that is where my heart is tonight, and it feels good.