Sermon: Choices

Sunday, June 30, 2019
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Third Sunday after Pentecost

I was flying home one time to visit family, back when I lived in the Dominican Republic.  My flight had a six hour layover in Miami, and the Miami airport isn’t exactly the most fun place to spend six whole hours (not that any airport is!).  So I decided I’d call an old Peace Corps friend of mine who lived in Miami to come pick me up.

I had been living in the Dominican Republic for about three years at this point, and I found that being back in American culture was a little overwhelming.  Between the heat and the sensory overload, I stepped out of the Miami airport with a massive headache.  So my friend and I headed to the nearest Walgreens to pick up some aspirin.

Now, in the DR, I had gotten used to just going down the street to the little corner store whenever I needed something for a headache.  I could usually count on having one or maybe two options for painkillers.  But the painkiller aisle in that Miami Walgreens seemed to stretch all the way to the horizon, painkillers as far as the eye could see.  They had aspirin and ibuprofen and acetaminophen and naproxen; they had tablets and capsules, bottles and packets and boxes of every size and quantity imaginable.  It was ridiculous.  I just wanted to feel better – but by the time I finally picked something out, I felt like my head was literally going to explode.

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Sermon: Images of Love

Sunday, June 16, 2019
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Trinity Sunday
cover image

Today we celebrate Trinity Sunday – one last white Sunday before a long season of green.  We celebrate the nature of God as three-in-one and one-in-three – the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Now, here’s your pop quiz for the day: does anyone know how many times the word “trinity” actually appears in the bible?

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Sermon: Potlucks of Epic Proportions

Sunday, June 9, 2019
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Day of Pentecost

Before I went to seminary, I lived in Lincoln for a few years.  I had just gotten back from the Peace Corps, and I was trying to readjust to life back in the US.  Because of my experience teaching English as a foreign language, I quickly got a job with an organization called Lincoln Literacy.  At Lincoln Lit, we worked with refugees and asylum-seekers and other immigrants – with and without documents – we taught them English and helped them find jobs and adjust to their new life in the US.  I loved working there.  Almost everyone I worked with – students and staff alike – seemed to feel in some way like fish out of water, just like I did.

We had students from all over the world: from Mexico and Guatemala and Venezuela, from Iraq and Afghanistan, from Bosnia, Sudan, Congo, China, Japan, Indonesia, Vietnam, all over.  In our classes, you would see people of every color, people dressed in hijabs and blue jeans and saris and intricately woven fabric. During one particularly hot summer, one of my colleagues even showed up to work a few times wearing his wife’s skirts to keep cool – and no one so much as batted an eye.  Everyone belonged, just as they were.

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Sermon: Lights, Camera, Ascension!

Sunday, June 2, 2019
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Ascension Sunday

You may have noticed something kind of unusual about our readings this morning – and that is that we actually read the same story twice. Both our first reading from Acts and our gospel reading from Luke tell the story of Jesus’ ascension. Acts was actually written by the very same author as the book of Luke – which means that Luke is the only gospel that comes with its very own sequel!

And, like any good sequel, the story of Acts picks up “where we last left our heroes.”  We read about Jesus’ ascension in the last chapter of Luke, and then we pick up the story again right away in the very first chapter of Acts. The ascension is sort of the hinge between the two books that connects one to the other.  But there are some differences in the stories.

At the end of Luke, the ascension is presented as this mystical, mysterious event; Jesus is taken up just as he is blessing his disciples, and they are filled with joy and start worshiping God, and the credits roll, and they all live happily ever after. But in Acts, this story doesn’t feel like as much of a happy ending.  We have anxious disciples and mysterious strangers and an even more mysterious Jesus. And we get the sense that the ascension isn’t really the end of the story at all – in fact, it’s only the beginning.

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Sermon: Beyond the Pericope

Sunday, May 26, 2019
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Sixth Sunday of Easter

When you go to seminary, you get to learn a whole world of new vocabulary words; words like:  kerygma… hermeneutics… homiletics… epiclesis… eschatology!  As I was reading our gospel for this morning, I kept thinking of one of these five dollar words that I learned in seminary: “pericope.”  Anyone heard the word pericope before?  It’s a good one.  Pericope is a word that’s sometimes used to talk about a passage taken from the bible – it’s basically like how we use the term “reading” or “lesson.”  But “pericope” comes from the Greek for “a cutting-out” and I find that image of cutting out helpful for talking about a pericope like this one that we read this morning.

The group of people who put together the three year series of readings that we follow – the lectionary – are responsible for cutting out the texts that we read together each Sunday.  Most of the time, it’s pretty obvious why they chose to cut texts where they did – perhaps there’s a story or a parable with a clear beginning and ending or a section all on the same theme.  But sometimes, like today, the place they chose to cut something doesn’t make much sense to me at all.

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Sermon: Us and Us

Sunday, May 19, 2019
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Fifth Sunday of Easter

During my first few months in the Dominican Republic, I lived with a host family.  They were very nice people and I got along great with them for the most part.  But my host mom, Doña Nicia, never thought I ate enough – she was always trying to get me to eat more.  The trouble was that, after a while, I had gotten really tired of eating rice and beans all the time.  It was always the same thing every day: rice and beans, stewed meat, mashed plantains, and a big mug of fresh milk in the morning and in the evening – the milk part sounds really nice until you find yourself actually having to peel your milk twice a day (I never thought I’d appreciate the word “homogenized” so much).

One day, Doña Nicia’s daughter-in-law, Moraima, made a great big pot of a rice dish called chofán and brought a bowl over for me.  It was basically fried rice with a mix of vegetables and some chicken – and I completely devoured it.  Seeing this, my host mom was like, “Aha!  She likes chofán!”  So the very next day at lunch, Doña Nicia proudly set before me a big, heaping bowl of “chofán”; except, instead of rice and a mix of different vegetables, this was rice with a mix of different meats: chicken, pork, goat, and – I swear to you this is true – hot dogs, all chopped up into little pieces.  I knew she was so excited to make it for me, so I ate as much of it as I could stomach.  But to be honest, I felt a lot like I imagine Peter did in our reading from Acts.  In Peter’s case, he has a vision of some kind of bizarre picnic descending down out of the clouds – and a voice tells him, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat!” and Peter takes one look at that picnic and is just like, “Uhhh… pass.”

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Sermon: Good Shepherd, Bad Shepherd

Sunday, May 12, 2019
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Fourth Sunday of Easter

In case our readings for this morning didn’t already give it away, today is the Sunday in the church calendar when we celebrate “Good Shepherd” Sunday.  We celebrate that God in Christ is our good shepherd.

And even though most of us have little or no experience with actual, real-life sheep or sheep-herding, we have at least some idea of what a shepherd does.  We know that shepherds are responsible for the wellbeing of their sheep, which is a 24/7 job.  Shepherds guide their sheep to food and water, they protect them from predators, and they find shelter for them when things start to get stormy.  They help the sheep to survive and flourish.  It’s a position of trust; like Jesus says in our gospel reading, the sheep learn to recognize the voice of their shepherd and they follow it.

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Sermon: Not Done Yet

Sunday, May 5, 2019
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Third Sunday of Easter

Our gospel reading for this morning picks up right on the heels of the gospel reading we read last week, which is actually kind of odd.  Last week, we read the story of “doubting” Thomas from John 20, a story that ends with Jesus saying, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  John then goes on to write,

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

Now, that really sounds like it’s the end of the story, doesn’t it?  It sounds like it should be the end of the book of John.  All it’s missing is “and they lived happily ever after, the end.”  So it’s kind of surprising then to turn the page and realize that John actually goes on for a whole other chapter.

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Sermon: When in Doubt

Sunday, April 28, 2019
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Second Sunday of Easter
image source

Thomas is in the wrong place at the wrong time in our gospel reading for this morning.  Or, at least, he’s not in the right place at the right time. The rest of the disciples had gathered in fear following Jesus’ crucifixion, probably to talk about the rumors they had heard that Jesus had somehow risen from the dead – when Jesus himself suddenly appears among them!  Only Thomas isn’t there to join in the rejoicing or to hear Jesus speak peace to them.

We have no idea what Thomas was off doing, but we do know that when he came back, he definitely did not expect to hear that everyone else had gotten to see Jesus while he was out.  Thomas reacts to this news with disbelief – and he flat out refuses to believe the testimony of the other disciples. Instead, he insists that he will only believe if he sees Jesus with his own eyes and touches his wounds with his own hands.

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Sermon: As You Wish

Sunday, April 14, 2019
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Palm / Passion Sunday

This is a story we have heard so many times before.  Many of us grew up hearing it.  Year after year, we follow Jesus on a Lenten journey to Jerusalem.  And every year it leads us here, to the threshold of Holy Week.  We read the story of his triumphant entry into the city, and we read again how the crowd’s shouts of “hosanna in the highest!” quickly turn into chants of “crucify, crucify him!”  We follow Jesus all the way from a stable in Bethlehem to the cross and to the empty tomb.

This story is so well known and so familiar to the church that it’s hard to add much to it.  Some friends of mine even asked me a couple of weeks ago: how do you preach on stories that people have heard so many times?  How do you find something new to say?  And I told them honestly: the Spirit works!  But also, I can’t help but think of how many thousands of years we have been telling ourselves and our children these stories.  Humanity has a long term relationship with the story of salvation in Jesus Christ.  And so, as old as this story is, it somehow keeps being new.  Each year that we tell it again, it seems to speak to us in a new and different way.

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Sermon: No Going Back

Sunday, April 7, 2019
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Fifth Sunday in Lent

As most of you – or probably all of you – know, I used to be a Peace Corps Volunteer once upon a time.  I served for four years in the Dominican Republic.  And as you might expect, there is a lot of training and preparation that goes into becoming a Volunteer.  In training, you learn the skills that you will need to do your project work; and you also study the language and the culture of your assigned country to try to prepare yourself to live and work for two years – sometimes more – in a different country.

But one aspect of Peace Corps that doesn’t get talked about very often is the fact that they also actually train us for how to come back.  We actually spend time in Close of Service (or CoS) training before coming back to the US.  They help us update our resumes and teach us how to condense our years of service into concise stories – literally, we had to practice that.  But even more than these practical bits of training, they tried to prepare us for the strange reality of reverse culture shock.

Most people know what regular culture shock is – you move to a new place and find yourself constantly bumping up against a different culture with different values and different ways of doing things than what you’re used to.  Reverse culture shock, on the other hand, is when you come back again and the culture is the same one you’re used to, but you are a different you.

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Sermon: Rebels Without a Clue

Sunday, March 17, 2019
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Second Sunday in Lent

In our gospel reading for this morning, we catch a glimpse of Jesus in a very sassy mood.  The pharisees come to him with death threats from Herod, but Jesus basically just brushes them off.  He calls Herod a “fox” and tells them to say, “Look Herod, I don’t have time for you right now.  I’ve got work to do.  But hey, I’ve got an opening in three days, so if you still want to kill me, you can come on down to Jerusalem and do it then – because we all know that no prophet can be killed outside of Jerusalem, amirite?”

But his snarky comments are immediately followed by a tender, heartbroken lament: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem… How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”  Despite his sarcastic remarks, we see in Jesus the image of God as a mother: a mother whose heart is breaking over the way her children have rejected her and turned away from her.  God the mother has had it up to here with her wayward children, but she still loves them so much it hurts.

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Sermon: Rehab

Wednesday, March 6, 2019
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Ash Wednesday

This past Saturday, I was sitting in a coffee shop working on my sermon for Sunday.  I’m kind of a chatty person, as you’ve probably noticed, and easily distracted, and I ended up striking up a conversation with a woman sitting at a table near me.  We’ll call her Danielle.  It pretty quickly became clear to both Danielle and me that this was one of those conversations that God himself seemed to have arranged.  Danielle had been looking for a new church home and was grateful to unexpectedly find herself in conversation with a pastor.  And she shared with me some of the struggles that she has been facing recently.

She shared that her 23-year-old son – we’ll call him Tyson – is addicted to meth and that she and her husband had just taken him to a treatment center earlier that week.  She talked about the pain she felt at seeing her son being slowly isolated from everyone else because of his addiction.  She said that the other members of their family had already given up on Tyson – even his own father.  He was angry at her for taking him to the treatment center, but she was worried that he was going to end up dead if he didn’t go.  She talked about how hard it can be to love someone who is addicted, and how challenging it is to walk the line between loving someone and enabling them.

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Sermon: Ups and Downs

Sunday, March 3, 2019
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Transfiguration Sunday
featured image

Our gospel reading for today is, objectively, kind of a weird story.  The transfiguration is one of those moments in Jesus’ life that always seems mysterious to me and a bit beyond my comprehension.  As best as I can understand it, Jesus walks up a mountain with some of his disciples, glows for a bit, has a brief conversation with a couple of ancient Old Testament prophets (as one does), and then they all walk back down the mountain together.  It’s weird.

But, as strange as this story is, it’s got one of my favorite Peter moments in all of scripture.  Peter has a very human reaction to Jesus’ transfiguration.  When Jesus is revealed in all his heavenly glory and Moses and Elijah show up, Peter’s first reaction is, “Uhh, uhh…. tents! Yes, that’s it, we must build tents! One for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah…”  And I love how Luke is like, “he did not know what he was saying.”  And even God Almighty is like, “What are you talking about?  Tents??  This is my son, my chosen.  Shut up and listen to him!”

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A Painfully Candid Lenten Reflection

CN – anxiety, depression

Christians around the world began their observation of Lent yesterday on Ash Wednesday.  Lent is a season of repentance and return to God. It’s a season in which we confess that we have not lived up to being the people God created, redeemed, and called us to be.  We have not loved our neighbor as ourselves.  We have been neglectful in our care of creation.  We have been selfish and have hardened our hearts to the suffering of the vulnerable around the world.

We read the words of the prophet Joel, who implored his people, “Return to the Lord your God, for God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” We are called to turn back to God with our whole heart, to experience God’s grace and love anew – not unlike the prodigal son returning home to his father’s joyous welcome.

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Sermon: All Hands (and eyes and ears and pancreases and pinkie toes) on Deck

Sunday, January 27, 2019
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Third Sunday after Epiphany

Many of you know that I was a music major in college at Nebraska Wesleyan – and as part of that, I got the chance to sing and play in a whole bunch of different music ensembles, including the university symphonic band.  I played flute in the band for four and a half years. Now, there were a LOT of flute players in the band.  We easily outnumbered many of the other sections, especially the percussion section. And every once in a while, we would play a piece that needed a lot more percussion players than it did flute players, so our director would make some of us switch.

I was second or third chair flute for most of my time in the band, so I usually didn’t get tapped to play percussion – but one time, we played this really unusual and just bizarre-sounding kind of modern piece of music, and I got sent to the back to the percussion section.  The part I was given for this piece was to bow the vibraphone. Yes.  I had to bow the vibraphone – I was just as confused about it as you look now, haha.  Literally, I had a bow like you would use to play a violin or a cello, and while I pedaled the vibraphone, I had to run the bow along the edge of the right keys at just the right angle and it gave off this kind of weird, spooky, resonant sound.

You probably already guessed this, but I was really, really bad at it.  I could not bow the vibraphone to save my life.  And adding to my trouble, I never had any idea when I was supposed to play.  I’d have rests for like 50 measures and then I’d have to play like two notes on the vibraphone.  I mean, I can barely count to begin with, so to keep track of where we were over 50 measures of really weird-sounding music was basically impossible.  So I just kind of went rogue and played it whenever I felt like it – whenever it seemed to me like, “Oh, this part could maybe use some vibraphone.”  Half the time I couldn’t even actually get a sound out of it.  It was pretty terrible.  After we played that piece, I asked the director, “Please don’t ever make me do that again” – and I played flute in the band for the rest of my time there!

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Sermon: Surprising Revelations

Sunday, January 6, 2019
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Epiphany

Today we celebrate the feast day of Epiphany.  What comes to your mind when you think about what an epiphany is?

The word epiphany comes from ancient Greek and means something along the lines of a sudden appearing or revelation.  An epiphany is often a sudden moment of insight, an “aha!” moment.  In a moment of epiphany, things suddenly become clear, especially when before there has been darkness and doubt.

The Christian festival of Epiphany celebrates God’s revelation in the midst of darkness and doubt.  Even though Epiphany marks the end of the Christmas season, it carries forward a lot of the same themes of Christmas.  We continue to celebrate the incarnation of Christ – who is, in himself, the revealing of God in human flesh. On Christmas Eve, we read in Isaiah that “the people who walked in great darkness have seen a great light”; and today we read, “Arise; shine, for your light has come!” Epiphany is the revelation to all people that God faithfully keeps God’s promises.

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Sermon: Feast of Love

Sunday, November 25, 2018
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Reign of Christ Sunday
Wedding of Joshua Kenge and Esperance Sudi
First reading     Psalm     Second reading     Gospel

Today the church celebrates the festival day of the Reign of Christ – or Christ the King Sunday, as it’s also known.  Hopefully by now you’ve noticed that we’re also celebrating a wedding today! These are actually themes that go together very well.  Today we celebrate that Christ is our one true ruler.  We remember that our true citizenship is as citizens of his kingdom – we are all citizens of the kingdom here.

The kingdom of God is spoken of throughout scripture as a place where there is no more mourning or crying or pain, where there is no more death, where the poor and the lowly are lifted up, and where all creation lives in perfect harmony and love.  And one of the most common images used in scripture to talk about the kingdom is the marriage feast.

Today, we celebrate the marriage feast of Joshua and Esperance.  Today they make their vows of love and faithfulness to one another in the presence of this assembly.  And the celebration of their marriage actually has a lot to teach all of us about God’s kingdom of love.

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Sermon: Anchored in Hope

Sunday, November 18, 2018
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Our texts for today are full of chaos and trouble.  There are times of anguish, conflicts with cosmic enemies, destruction, war, earthquakes, famine, and pain.  These are texts that point us ahead toward the future unraveling of creation – the end of all things.

These seem like kind of jarring themes for us to be focusing on now.  Right now, the rest of the world is gearing up for the bright season of Christmas – with candy canes and silver lanes already aglow! In contrast, the end of the Christian liturgical year – which actually ends next Sunday – is a bit darker and a lot more apocalyptic.  As the days get shorter, we are preparing ourselves to begin a new year with the season of Advent.  We are still waiting in the darkness for a light to shine.

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Sermon: Beyond Charity

Sunday, November 11, 2018
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

What I didn’t expect about this experience was how much I would receive in return.  Over the four years that I spent in the Dominican Republic, I got to meet lots of amazing people.  And I found that, more often than not, the person receiving the generosity and help of others was me!  I almost had to laugh one time when my community received a bunch of canned food from a ministry group that had come down to the island.  I’m sure I probably thought, “Oh how nice that other people are also sending help to this poor community.” Imagine my surprise when members of the community showed up on my doorstep to give me food.  They wanted to care for me because I lived alone and didn’t have any family in the community.

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Sermon: A Circle Unbroken

Sunday, November 4, 2018
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
All Saints Sunday

When I was in seminary in Chicago, I took an intensive class with a small group of people from all different faith backgrounds.  One of my classmates was finishing his studies to become a Catholic priest and a monk. He used to describe the monastery he was going to live in to us.  It sounded beautiful, but the one thing that most stuck with me was his description of the communion rail around the table.  They had a polished wooden railing – like a lot of sanctuaries do – that ran all the way around the chancel in a big semi-circle.  All the brothers could fit around it together as they gathered for communion.  Outside the sanctuary, on the other side of the chancel wall, the circle was continued in stone, and it came together to make one big ring around the table.  On this side of the circle was the monastery’s cemetery.  Every time they gathered for communion, this circle reminded the living brothers of the monastery that they were also gathered with the dead brothers of the monastery.  And they remembered that no matter which side of the wall they were on, they were all part of the one, same community.

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Sermon: Open Heart Surgery

Sunday, October 14, 2018
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Twenty-First Sunday After Pentecost

“Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”

I think that this verse from Hebrews is a pretty accurate summary of all of our readings for today. From Amos’ dire prophetic warnings to Jesus’ disturbing conversation with the rich man, these are all very challenging texts.  And like a sword, our gospel text for today cuts us open to our very core.  Mark has been pulling no punches – we’ve been working our way through some very difficult passages together over the past few weeks, on hell and death and divorce, and the hits just keep on coming. Let me just say again for the record – I did not pick these texts!

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Sermon: Fields of Our Hearts

Sunday, September 2, 2018
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Our gospel lesson for today starts off with kind of an odd-sounding argument between Jesus and some Pharisees. The Pharisees notice some of Jesus’ disciples eating without having washed their hands first – and so they go to Jesus to make a big stink about it.  Now, as someone reading this in the 21stcentury, it can be kind of hard to see what the big deal is.  I mean, yeah, that’s kind of gross I guess, but there’s no need to like make a federal case out of it.

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Sermon: To Whom Can We Go?

Sunday, August 26, 2018
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Today is the last Sunday of a whole month full of bread.  We’ve finally reached the end of the sixth chapter of John, yay!  I mean, it’s good stuff, all of this teaching from Jesus about the bread of life, but these are kind of tricky texts to preach on.  I have to admit that I resonate a little bit with the people in our gospel reading for today – the ones who whine to Jesus that his teaching is too difficult.  This passage starts in the same place we left off last week: Jesus is once again telling people that they need to eat his flesh and drink his blood. Even if you can get past all the cannibalistic images that this brings up, it’s still painfully clear that truly being a Jesus follower is something demanding and all-consuming – no pun intended.

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