Eating, Embracing, Embodying

August 19, 2018
Matt Johnson & Amanda Weber

Proverbs 9:1-6; John 6:51-58

Matt Johnson: It is a joy to share the pulpit with Dr. Amanda Weber, our Interim Director for Choral Ministries. Amanda, thank you for sharing your voice with us in a new way this morning! This collaboration came into being when we met over lunch – broke bread together – to do some worship planning for today. It quickly became clear that the work she’s been up to over the last several years illuminates the text we get to feast on today and that the Spirit was at work, drawing us together to share a message. I don’t usually share a sermon’s structure, but it also happens to be our title – Eating, Embracing, Embodying; this is our road map for the morning.

We begin with the notion of eating, something that’s been happening a lot in John’s text. The chapter opens with John’s account of the feeding of the 5,000 – one of the texts David explored with us three weeks ago. If you weren’t able to be here that day, you likely know the story. A large crowd gathers, they get hungry, and Jesus shows us what abundance looks – and tastes – like as the whole crowd is fed from just five loaves of bread and two fish. It’s a sign of God’s abundance that gives us a great deal to feast on as we live into a deeper relationship with God and one another. Much of the rest of the chapter is dedicated to a dialogue and discourse that explores and interprets the meaning of this sign of God’s abundance.

Throughout the discourse, Jesus is working to get his audience to shift from marveling at the way a huge crowd was fed with just a little bread and fish to feasting on what continues to satisfy, never leaving a person hungry. As he speaks to the crowd, he calls himself the “bread of life,” then “the living bread that came down from heaven.” He intimates that the living bread he’s talking about is his own flesh, and claims, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” Finally, he says, “whoever eats me will live because of me.” This is a lot to chew on… And, that’s exactly what Jesus and John have in mind. As we spend time abiding with this text, we begin to ingest the living bread Jesus is talking about.

Sprinkled throughout the discourse are some concepts and words that John uses to point to a different way of understanding what it means to eat this heavenly food. Chief among these for me is the word translated “abide.” It’s a form of the Greek word, meno, which implies an intimate relationship in John’s gospel. It’s the word that’s used to describe Jesus’ relationship with God the Parent. God sends Jesus into the world; Jesus lives because of the parent. Whoever eats Jesus will live because of Jesus, because of the Parent, and because of the close relationship that they share. In short, when we feast on Jesus, we feast on God.

John’s notion of eating is intimate stuff – consuming and being consumed by another. That’s what Jesus and John are talking about here – being drawn into such a close relationship with Jesus that you ingest and digest all that he is, ultimately, beginning to embody Jesus, to look and behave like him.

When we feast on Jesus, the banquet is often set in some surprising places, and we are drawn into relationship with unexpected people.

Amanda Weber: Imagine a banquet set in… a prison!  Every Sunday, after church, I head to the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Shakopee, where I direct a choir called the Voices of Hope.  It’s there where I have most closely encountered Jesus.  I had previously done some research on prison choirs and even had the opportunity to visit a couple, but nothing could have prepared me for the immense heartbreak and simultaneous joy of truly being present with these women.  Their stories of hardship and trauma are unspeakable.  Of the 613 women at the prison in Shakopee, an estimated 90% have been abused, 80% have a diagnosed mental illness, around 60% need treatment for addiction from drugs and alcohol, though only 30% are able to receive it due to lack of space and resources.  75% of these women are mothers to minor children, and in almost all of these cases, the mother is the primary caregiver.  Taking her out of the picture has shown to result in significant emotional and psychological damage for her children… and the cycle of incarceration continues.

It is in this space that we are learning to sing.  Our bodies are our instruments, but they have been damaged and destroyed.  Jesus meets us here, in this brokenness.  His body is broken for us, and we are invited to feast on that which brings us back to life.  Our weekly Voices of Hope rehearsals are filled with joy, laughter, and community.  We tell stories and we cry together and we lift each other up.  We are rediscovering our instruments… dusting them off, polishing them up, and remembering what it feels like to be heard.  To be loved.

Voices of Hope and Westminster actually crossed paths this past June – a plan that was in place before I ever knew God would call me here.  We did a collaboration with Lumina, a Twin-Cities based group of four female singers.  The leader of the bunch is Linda Kachelmeier, a local composer who proposed the project of writing a series of short songs for Voices of Hope and Lumina to perform together, first at the prison, and then here in Westminster Hall.  Over the course of several months, Linda interacted with the Voices of Hope.  She led a series of lyric-writing workshops with anyone who was interested, inviting the women to write texts for these new compositions.  In the end, she compiled as many of the submissions as possible, resulting in four short pieces.

One of these pieces includes the entirety of a text written by just one woman – Valarie.  I’ll never forget what it was like to rehearse Valarie’s piece.  You could tell that so many of the women in the room resonated with her words.  Every time we’d sing it, Valarie would start crying.  She thanked the group so many times for bringing this piece to life; in an environment where no touching of any kind is allowed, singing Valarie’s text was a deep embrace, allowing her to feel supported and heard.

Valarie was released from prison in the middle of the project.  She missed the premier of her piece.  It was bittersweet, thinking of her as we gathered in Westminster Hall, ready to repeat the repertoire, but wondering how we could ever replicate the indescribable energy of the concert at the prison.  Suddenly, at the back of the hall, someone waving at me.  Valarie, is that you?? Yes, she exclaimed, and we ran to each other and embraced…our first physical connection in nine months of knowing one another. I had gotten used to seeing her in gray sweats with no makeup and ratty hair.  But she stood before me all dolled up, saying that the other women in her re-entry program wanted to dress her up for the occasion.  “I don’t know if I like my hair this way,” she kept worrying, clearly nervous for what would be a momentous evening.

The concert began and Lumina sang beautifully, as they always do.  I spoke about the challenges of female incarceration and the benefits of choral singing.  And then we introduced Valarie as an unexpected guest from Voices of Hope.  With great care, Lumina sang Valarie’s text and the audience burst into applause.  Valarie stood to be recognized, and all who were gathered jumped to their feet in a long standing ovation, tears streaming down Valarie’s face.

In that small moment, Valarie, who could have been introduced as a powerless, formerly incarcerated woman, was recognized instead as a powerful Voice of Hope.

Matt: Your experience with Valarie beautifully reveals the sort of embrace into which Jesus calls us. We hear early in John’s gospel that Jesus “is close to the Father’s heart.” When he enters into human flesh, Jesus remains close to God the Parent’s heart, and the Parent remains in and with him. That’s the sense of abiding, of remaining, that I mentioned earlier. Abiding is one of the great gifts that Jesus brings to us in the incarnation; it’s the embrace that he invites us into. When we enter into this warm embrace and feast on Jesus, we are feasting on the very source of the abundance of creation, and that living bread abides within us.

The other night, I walked through the door into our home and was instantly embraced by the inviting smell of fresh-baked focaccia. The smell of bread, olive oil, and rosemary immediately opened me up and brought a smile to my face as my mouth began to water. That smell reminded me of the love that Regina and I share. And, of course, the bread was delicious and life-giving. For all of its goodness, though, that bread is not itself a living thing. It began with some living yeast and many other ingredients that were once teeming with life. Once baked, however, the life is gone. It helps to sustain life for Regina and me, but eventually, it is consumed and gone, and we are hungry again.

Not so with Jesus! Here we are nearly 2,000 years after his death and resurrection, still feasting on his body and blood, his words, his actions, his love, the entirety of his being. As theologian Karoline Lewis puts it, “abundance cannot be separated from its source.” Here he is, Jesus, in the flesh, the one who was there in the beginning, as the Word; he’s come to be with us, to embrace us, to abide with us, to invite us into the relationship he shares with God the Parent. He draws us to close to God’s bosom, so that we, too, can be close to God’s heart in a life-giving, eternal embrace.

I can’t help but think of the many times I was held as a child, close to my mom or dad’s heart, with my head against their chest, where I could hear and feel their hearts beating. That’s the relationship to his own parent that Jesus shares with you and with me. As we feast on Jesus, accepting the invitation to this life-giving embrace, we are called out of ourselves, to abide in Jesus, just as he abides in us. As we live into that call, we begin to embody the very bread of life on which we are feasting. God turns us outward from ourselves toward God and toward neighbor, breaking the bread of our own bodies for the good of the world which God loves so much as to enter it, fully embodied, like us.

Amanda: Living into an embodied call means opening our ears, our minds, our hearts, and even our gut to fully embrace one another with the love of Jesus.  Valarie’s text, a psalm of lament, calls us to action.  She cries:

Lift me up
I’m drowning in the pain and the shame of my past
Darkness is my reality

I can’t count how many times I prayed that there will be a day when I open my eyes and the imprisonment in my own mind would disappear and hope would shine down on my face and I would feel no more fear.

So lift me up
I want to smile again
I want to feel again
I’m lost
I don’t know what to do

So lift me up
All I know, what was working for me
Isn’t working anymore
I’m lost
I don’t know what to do

So lift me up

This cry – lift me up – is not just to God but to you and me.  And we have a lot of work to do.  Between 1980 and 2016, the number of women in prison increased by more than 700% (this percentage is even higher when you look at Minnesota specifically; the increase is closer to 900%).  This rapid rate of growth has outpaced men by more than 50%.  That’s right: women are the fastest growing population in prison.  Still, they represent only a fraction of the 2.2 million Americans who are incarcerated, not to mention another six million on probation or parole.  The numbers are staggering, disproportionately affecting those who are poor, black, and male, above all others.

I’ve had the opportunity to share this information on several occasions, and most people respond by saying, “I want to come to the prison with you!  I want to help.”  The sentiment is good, and while I do believe that everyone should visit a prison at some point in their lives, you don’t have to travel so far to get involved. Do you remember the “tough on crime” era in the 80s and 90s?  Well, all those people we locked up… they’re coming out.  Over 500,000 people per year are being released from prison – more than ever before, and this is a trend that is expected to continue in the foreseeable future.  Are we ready to deal with the consequences of the War on Drugs and the War on Poverty which we were so eager to fight?  How will we welcome home these men and women?

Matt: Yes, how will we welcome these siblings home to abide in us and us in them? I can’t tell you we’ve worked out an easy program to make everything right with our justice system or with any part of our complicated world. What I can tell you is that Jesus promises to be with you, to abide with you, each step that you take, always feeding you with his living bread, always drawing you into a life-giving relationship with God and with one another. He’s here, offering his abundance as you strive to embody living bread for the world.

I encourage you to continue your feast by taking the time to read “Calling for Systemic Change,” an advocacy statement focussed on “Reducing Mass Incarceration in Responsible Ways.” This statement was thoughtfully researched and written by Westminster members who are interested in finding ways for the Westminster community to act on their findings. A few copies are available on the information table just outside the sanctuary; or, you can save some paper and download it from our website. If you need help locating it, feel free to reach out to Alanna or to me. Please, don’t just ingest it; let it become part of your relationship with God and one another. Let it shape the way you embody living bread for others.

As you continue to feast on the living bread, remember that the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us, the one who gave his entire life for you to feast on, the one we call Jesus, is a fully embodied, brown-skinned laborer, who was wrongly accused, brutally attacked by law enforcement, and publicly humiliated and lynched. How will you eat, embrace, and embody the living bread this Jesus so lovingly offers you?

Thanks be to God!

Pastoral Prayer ~10:30 am Worship

Sarah Brouwer

God of love, we gather this day to be in your presence, which is nourishing and life-giving. You are the one who sustains us, and we feel the sweeping movement of your Spirit in joyful times and in bad ones, too. You enfold us with your love, each day, each person, somehow you are big enough and small enough for us all.

O God, we don’t realize until we get here how much our weeks have been about ourselves- our needs and wants, our likes and dislikes, our safety and security. What a relief to come here and praise you, in community, to look around and see that we all have needs, to witness each and every Sunday that indeed we belong to each other.

In that spirit, Lord, we turn to you in prayer. You listen to us. And most often your answer is: pay attention. You urge us to look around, to seek justice and peace, and to do small acts of mercy and kindness, for these, too, will sustain the world.

Help us, God, to turn our shame and self-doubt inside out. Make us courageous and bold in the day to day interactions and choices we make, for they all point to your kingdom come. Help us to be civil, less cynical and distrustful, and more hopeful and compromising. Help us not just to accept others, but to look for the wisdom in those who are different than us.

Stir in our hearts, Lord, a yearning for truth- to know about the world, its pain and its wonder. We pray this day for the abuse so many have suffered, but particularly for our Catholic friends, whose trust has been betrayed, and lives irreparably damaged. We thank you that painful truths are revealed, and those long-silenced can tell their stories. We pray for the homeless in our city, and for the spaces they inhabit, particularly now on the east side of our downtown. May their newfound community be safe, and may this visibility among them be a witness to the need for more affordable housing, mental health and drug abuse care in our health system. And, we certainly lift up, this day, O God, the anniversaries of so many difficult days this summer, for Mother Emmanuel, for Philando Castile, for Michael Brown, and so many others who have been the tragic result of centuries of division and oppression in our country. Heal us, Lord, with your mercy and grace, show us a new way forward, one where there are reparations, truth-telling, forgiveness, and trust.

O God, we pray that you are with us through these trials, which happen on a national scale and in our community. We commend the spirit of loved ones to you, those who died long ago and those we have said goodbye to this week. Hold those who grieve in your strength and comfort, Holy One.

We praise you for the gift of life, O God, which is a wondrous thing, filled with such depth of feeling, pain and joy. Give us bread and enough for this day. New life enough for this day. Courage and grace enough for this day. And now hear us, O God, as we rest into the familiar words your son taught us to pray, saying… Our Father…

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