Tag Archive: Welcome


“Get Up and Eat!”

Sunday’s Sermon from Community Lutheran Church, Sterling, VA.

With all these readings about bread, I’ve been thinking about Holy Communion an awful lot.  In 2004, during my year abroad in Germany, I attended a tiny Lutheran church.  That first day I was there, they had Communion, but I didn’t go forward because I didn’t know the rules.  After the service, I asked the pastor in my slow German, struggling to pull together the right church words in another language, if I could receive communion.  “I wasn’t baptized Lutheran,” I’d told him.  I just remember the smile on his face as he said, “as long as you believe Christ is present there, you may receive.”  I felt so relieved to be welcomed at that table, able to be fed with the others gathered for worship.

When I returned home in 2005, I didn’t go to church since I was nervous because I’d had a difficult experience at a church when I was in high school.  But by 2007, I found myself really missing the community of faith.  I was hungry and thirsty for God, and I knew the only way I could grow in my faith was to try going to church again.  I needed Holy Communion – I needed to hear those words, “the body of Christ, given for you” and “the blood of Christ, shed for you.”  So I found a church, was welcomed again at the table, and I continued to heal from my past experiences with the church.

In 2012, during seminary, I studied for three months in Munich, Germany, living in a wonderful ecumenical community.  One night we gathered for worship in the small chapel, coming together from all different countries and denominations, singing, praying, listening to God’s word and sharing Holy Communion.  When the time came to distribute the bread and wine, the pastor gave to one person, and then that person distributed it to the next person, saying, in German: “Nimm und iss. Christi Leib, für dich gegeben” (“Take and eat.  Body of Christ, given for you.”).  I think the non-native German speakers were a little worried because no one wants to mess up speaking God’s promises to another person.  I know sometimes people get nervous speaking these words in English because they’re such important words of grace.

But then I saw the kingdom break in in a wondrous way.  When the bread reached a man from Brazil, he closed his eyes and spoke in Portuguese to his neighbor.  He spoke these words in the language that was close to his heart and said them the best way he knew how – authentically in his mother tongue.  As we went around the circle, others spoke in their native language.  But even with the variations in the words, you could tell that the words people used were the words that meant something to them.  It was wonderful to hear these powerful words in different languages and voices.  The variety brought such a richness to the experience and made me think about the feast to come – that colorful heavenly banquet, where people will be gathered from every corner of the world, from all different backgrounds and times, all speaking one language – the language of praise.

Running throughout my life, like a beautiful and life-giving thread, throughout various faith communities and around the world, Holy Communion has been there.  It has been a meal of welcome, of healing and forgiveness, a sign of the kingdom, a foretaste of the feast to come, and a challenge.  I would not have been able to make my journey without it and I hear that echoed in Elijah’s episode in the wilderness.  Elijah has just had an epic duel with the prophets of the Canaanite god Baal to see whose god is truly God.  Elijah and the Lord of Israel win the contest, and in a difficult bit of Scripture, Elijah has the prophets of Baal killed by the sword.  Queen Jezebel is outraged and threatens to kill Elijah, so he flees into the wilderness.

There, under a lone tree, he’s scared, exhausted, overwhelmed, perhaps feeling like a failure, and wondering what the future is going to hold for him.  Struggling with his situation and wishing for his own death, he lays down, tired of fighting, to get some rest.  It’s then that an angel of the Lord wakes him up, saying, “Get up and eat.”  He does, and then promptly lays back down for a nap after his holy snack.  But the angel of the Lord returns and tells him, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”

Now, if I were Elijah, and I was exhausted and hungry, that angel would have to be awfully careful approaching me and telling me that I had a journey to get ready for! But he eats, and he’s sustained for 40 days and nights until he reaches Mt. Horeb where he will encounter God in silence and be called to go back into the fray.  He’s fed to go back out to do God’s work in the world.  He’s challenged not just to sit and be fed, but to use that sustenance and strength to be a part of God’s changing work.

Sometimes we find ourselves feeling wiped out, tired of all the rigmarole, and we don’t know how we’re going to make it.  We face illnesses, aging parents, difficulties with raising children, stress at work, struggles with our finances, problems at school… Sometimes all we want to do is curl up in a ball and stay under the covers.  And those first followers of Jesus felt the same way.  Those who followed, experienced his healings, listened to his teachings, and were fed by him, were a people who were tired of oppression under foreign rulers, tired of struggling to eke out a living, and wondering when their circumstances would change.  They knew all too well about poverty, discouragement, and hardship.

And when Jesus, a man whose family they know, says that he’s the bread of life – the one who will give life, not only now but eternally – well, that’s just too much for them! When he says – “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.” – that must have sounded downright crazy to his listeners! They must have been thinking, “teachings are helpful.  Healings, feedings, and miracles, we love! But this is going too far. How on earth can we accept this?”

I think as much as we may try to avoid talking about it, we, too, have these feelings.  We hunger for God.  We long to believe in God’s promises.  We ache to know that things are changing and the kingdom is coming.  But sometimes we feel like Elijah and those first followers: tired, weak and broken down by all of the pain of our lives and the world.  And the thought of heading back out there is wearisome.  We come to this place and we desire to be fed.  We come to Communion and we wonder if a wafer and a sip of wine can change our lives.  We ask, “Can such a simple meal change me? Will Jesus really meet me there in such simple food?”

Yes. Yes, he will.  And this simple meal does change our lives.  You see, the God we worship doesn’t work the way we think or expect God to work.  God works through plain old water and every day, ordinary bread and wine.  God’s voice is heard through normal people reading from a book, through fellow bumbling disciples called to preach, and through every one of us ministering to others.  God’s presence and power are felt in praying for others, in unglamorously serving together in the community, in small acts of kindness and hospitality.  The glory of God worked through frail human flesh, vulnerable and weak, to redeem the entire cosmos.  Yes, Christ will meet us in bread and wine.  It’s just the sort of surprising, outrageous and laughable thing that God would do.

It’s easy to get caught up in life.  To be overwhelmed, even during summer vacation season.  To find ourselves running every which way and dealing with all sorts of things we never anticipated.  To find we have far too much on our plates, but realize we’re, ironically, not really being fed spiritually.  So how do we slow down, stop, and eat? How do we make time to receive and participate in that which is life-giving and life-sustaining?  How do we remember that when we open our hands, we’re not just going through the motions, but saying, “Jesus, I need you.  I can’t do it on my own.  Thank you for welcoming me.  Forgive me for the things I’ve done or failed to do.  Help me to follow you and strengthen me so I can serve you in the world.”

We are called to get up and eat – to receive the God who comes to us, the God who is continually drawing us to himself.  We may, like those following Jesus so long ago, have a hard time swallowing that Jesus can and will sustain us throughout the bumpy journey of life with all it’s twists and turns, peaks and valleys.  But the One who dwelt with us and experienced the hardships of life as we do, has conquered this world once and for all through the cross and resurrection.  We have nothing to fear.  He has promised to be with us and to meet us in broken bread and wine outpoured.  While it may seem that a morsel of bread and a sip of wine cannot possibly keep us going, time and time again, they give us forgiveness, hope and strength.  And as this food with God’s promise sustains us, slowly, but surely, Christ transforms us one little bit at a time.

God knows that it seems impossible.  That it seems too good to be true.  So we’re invited again and again to see, hear, touch, smell, and taste that the Lord is good.  To keep meeting God at this holy table to that we can remember that Jesus is the Bread of Life – the one who nourishes us so we can go out and live.  Because God knows we need this grace, we are invited over and over again to join the feast – young and old, rich and poor, no matter where we’ve come from.  God draws us and calls us to come and be refreshed – to get up and eat so that our life’s journey will not be too much for us.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

© 2015. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

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The sermon I preached at Community Lutheran Church on June 14.

“With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?” It’s kind of like scattering seed and not knowing how it grows.  It’s kind of like a mustard seed.  It’s kind of like… Jesus speaks about the kingdom of God at least 17 times in Mark’s Gospel.  And with all of these parables and metaphors, it can get a little confusing trying to figure out what exactly this kingdom looks like.

What’s even more confusing is that Mark’s Gospel tells us “With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.”  Jesus spoke and taught people as they were able to hear – and he only gave detailed explanations to his disciples.  Why not just come out and explain it, Jesus?!

There seems to be something mysterious and hard to pin down about the kingdom of God.  Hmmm… it seems God’s kingdom is just as wily as the Triune God is mysterious and difficult to understand.  I think I’m seeing a trend here! But there’s also a tremendous gift in teaching through parables – they are never straightforward and so they cause us to think and to wrestle with what they mean for our lives.  They’re even flexible enough that we can hear them and understand them on different levels depending on what we’re going through.  But what is Jesus getting at when he’s speaking of seeds, shrubs and birds?

In the Ezekiel reading we hear about the majestic cedar tree, a symbol of power and empire.  God’s cedar grows from a tiny sprig that God has transplanted on a lofty mountain.  It flourishes and becomes the resting and nesting place for a multitude of winged creatures.   God’s anointed, symbolized by the cedar, will rule and point the way to God so that all the nations or birds know who God is.

Jesus takes these ideas and plays on them, saying that the kingdom of God is not like the world-renown mighty cedar, but rather like the mustard plant.  God’s kingdom starts humbly and grows, through the action of God, becoming not an impressive tree but a shrub.  Mustard is invasive and can be a nuisance – while it can be used for oil, as a condiment, or as an herb, it can take over things you might not want it to take over.   Again, Jesus points out that the birds of the air will make their home, not in a huge tree, but in this scruffy plant.

The kingdom of God doesn’t look like the powerful rulers and empires we see in the world.  Instead, it starts tiny and crops up in places where we’d least expect it, being able to thrive and multiply.  I think of the English ivy that Jeff and I have in the backyard.  Last year, when we bought the house, it was all over, covering at least a quarter of the yard, climbing fences and trees, and intertwined with poison ivy.  We had a crew come in to clear it out, and they did.  But guess what? This year, the ivy is beginning to come back, creeping in from a neighbor’s yard and popping up from the root network that the landscaping crew had a hard time getting up.

The kingdom of God is surprising and persistent.  We pray for God’s kingdom to come because we long for God’s rule to be in place rather than the unjust and often abusive rulers of this world.  That being said, God’s kingdom, like God, will surprise us, invade our lives and force us to re-examine what we thought we knew time and time again.  And that makes us really uncomfortable.  As Pr. Joe said last week, so often we want God, but on our terms.  And the kingdom of God is no different.

Both the reading from Ezekiel and from Mark say that the birds of the air will nest in the tree or the shrub God has made grow.  In the Old Testament, there are many different types of birds mentioned, at least 20 of which are listed as ritually unclean in Deuteronomy and Leviticus.  In the Gospels, birds are used as illustrations of God’s care and examples of items of very little value.  We hear, “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.  Are you not of more value than they?”  God cares for the birds, weak and insignificant, and God cares for us as well.

So when a variety of birds nest in the mustard shrub, Jesus isn’t just speaking about birds having a home.  He’s pointing to the idea that the kingdom of God has residents from all different backgrounds, nations and stations in life, whether clean or unclean.  Birds of all feathers nest in this tree and Jesus is using a shrubby bush to describe the Tree of Life.  It may not look like much and it may fly in the face of everything we expect, but it is a tree that brings forth life to all who come to it.  In essence, it is the cross.  In the cross and Christ’s death and resurrection, dead wood becomes the Tree of Life.  It is in the cross that we, and all people, can find shade, shelter, and a space to live.

But as I said before, the kingdom sounds nice until it confronts our comfort, the boundaries we have drawn, and whom we think should be in or out of the kingdom.  It sounds great when we hear at Communion, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, shed for you and for all people for the forgiveness of sins.”  But then we think, “for all people?”  Wait a second! That guy is way worse than I am.  She’s done terrible things.  That person’s lifestyle is completely wrong.  I can never forgive him for what he’s done.  You mean to tell me that these are the birds invited to nest alongside of me under the Tree of Life?! Yes, the birds are not only the “righteous,” but the undesirables, the outsiders, the oppressed, the marginalized, and the least of these.

So who are the outsiders we might be called to welcome? Or, who do we need to realize as already welcomed by Christ into the kingdom? Maybe it’s the homeless person we see on the street.  Or the person who has just immigrated.  Maybe it’s the addict or the person recently released from prison.  Maybe it’s someone of a different race or ethnicity or culture.  Lately, there’s been a lot in the news about Caitlyn Jenner, formerly Bruce Jenner.  Just saying that raises eyebrows.  And I realize it’s so easy to become polarized about what we see or hear and to stop there.  But how does Jesus’ parable challenge us to look at welcoming people in the name of Christ for the sake of the kingdom?

Listening to Jesus’ parable and admitting that the kingdom, as wonderful as it is, will probably make us uncomfortable, we can let go of trying to control it’s coming.  “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.”  We might not know how or what exactly God is up to, but we can trust that God is at work in surprising and life-changing ways.  Like a tiny mustard seed that invades and transforms the landscape into a sea of yellow, God’s kingdom starts slowly and changes the landscape of our lives and our world for the better.  And we can rejoice that God invites us to be a part of that transformation by following and inviting others to find rest and new life in the Tree of Life.

There are so many things that divide us.  So many ways in which we like to keep God safely in our corner rather than free to do incredible work in the world.  But God’s kingdom is persistent and invasive, growing even now in places unsuspected and surprising.  And guess what? There’s room in that scruffy mustard shrub for all the birds of the world – for each of us and for birds of all different feathers.  Thanks be to God! Amen.

© 2015. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

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