Just When You Thought You Had God Figured Out

Today’s scripture readings:
1 Kings 19:4-8
Psalm 34:1-8
Ephesians 4:25-5:2
John 6:35, 41-51
Sermon audio unavailable

In her book Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint, Lutheran Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber tells a story about a time when the wrong kind of people started showing up at her church.

Nadia is the pastor of House for All Sinners and Saints, an alternative kind of Lutheran congregation in Denver, Colorado. She has tattoos up and down her arms and all over her body, has a really foul mouth, and is in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction. That gives you a sense of what kind of community Nadia serves and what her ministry is all about. Incidentally, Nadia Bolz-Weber will be here at Gloria Dei on September 15 as part of the tour for her next book, Accidental Saints. There’s more information about that on a special insert in your bulletin.

A few years ago Nadia was invited to preach at the ecumenical Easter sunrise service at Red Rocks. Maybe some of you have been there before. It’s a massive, natural outdoor amphitheater nestled in the Rocky Mountain foothills just outside of Denver. It’s often used as a concert venue, but on Easter morning it becomes the site of a huge worship service, attended by over 10,000 people.

House for All Sinners and Saints had been struggling to grow. Their worship attendance had plateaued around 45 people on a typical Sunday. But the week after Nadia’s Easter sermon at Red Rocks, worship attendance doubled—which was exciting, except the new people who showed up were the wrong type of people. “Some churches might freak out if the drag queens showed up,” she said. “But these were bankers wearing Dockers. I freaked out. They could show up to any mainline Protestant church in the city and see a room full of people that looked just like them. And I thought, ‘You’re ruining our thing. You’re messing it up.’”

Nadia called one of her friends—a pastor here in St. Paul, actually—who leads a similar kind of church. She asked him, “Have you ever had, like, normal people show up in your church?” And she told him the whole story about how these bankers in Dockers were ruining her congregation. “Yeah,” he said, “you’re really good at welcoming the stranger when it’s a young transgender kid, but sometimes the stranger looks like your mom and dad.” Nadia was furious with her so-called friend.

So she made a plan. She scheduled a meeting of the congregation to discuss the sudden growth and demographic change in the community. She wanted the newcomers—the bankers in Dockers—to understand what kind of church this is and realize they don’t belong. As you could probably guess, her plan backfired spectacularly. She knew she’d gotten it all wrong when one of the younger members of the congregation stood up and spoke. “Look,” he said, “as the transgender kid who was welcomed into this community, I just want to go on the record as saying I’m glad there are people here who look like my mom and dad, because they love me in a way my mom and dad can’t.”

“I was sure I was right,” Nadia said. “I was going to fight the fight, I was going to do what needed to be done. And every time, my heart gets cold and stony the longer I go on that path.”

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When have we been so certain we know what God is up to, and what God is all about, that we can’t see what God is actually doing right before our eyes?

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The crowds of people in today’s gospel lesson who had come to see Jesus were so certain they knew what was going on and what God’s work is supposed to look like that they couldn’t see what God was actually up to.

Jesus had told them that he is the living bread from heaven, and that those who eat of this bread will have eternal life. But the crowds just can’t accept that. “Isn’t this Jesus, Joseph and Mary’s kid? The one we watched grow up, riding his bike around the neighborhood, playing in the park, making mischief with his friends? How can he say he came down from heaven?” Jesus was the local boy and everyone knew him. And they knew for sure that he hadn’t come down from heaven.

And let’s talk about how God feeds people. The Bible has lots of stories about God providing miraculous food—stories that would have been well known to Jesus’ audience. Last week we heard the story about God sending down manna for the Israelites to eat as they wandered in the wilderness. In today’s first reading we heard the story of Elijah being fed by an angel with bread to sustain him through his exhaustion and desperation. The crowds of people gathered around Jesus knew these stories and they knew what miraculous feeding was supposed to look like. And now Jesus is saying he is the bread sent from God that will sustain people forever. What in the world? That’s not how God feeds people. That’s not how this is supposed to go.

Jesus responds by telling the people that no one comes to him without being drawn to him by God. The point is, we can’t understand who Jesus is on our own. If we rely on our own human reason to figure it out, we’ll get stuck thinking he’s just Mary and Joseph’s kid. If our imaginations are confined to the biblical stories of miraculous feeding, we’ll never be able to make sense of Jesus’ claims that he is the bread of life. It reminds me of that line from Martin Luther’s Small Catechism—many of you probably have it memorized: “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel.” When we are so certain we know how God works, we miss what God’s actually trying to do. We need God to break us out of the boxes we find ourselves in. We need God to draw us to Jesus and help us make sense of it all.

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What are the human ways of knowing that we need to set aside so we can see what God is actually trying to do among us?

Maybe it’s setting aside our expectation that God will answer our prayers exactly the way we expect God to answer them. When we pray for healing, for example, are we expecting God to provide a cure? Or are we attuned to the ways God might be offering healing in other ways, even as we continue to hope that a cure may be found? Might God be answering our prayers for healing by surrounding us with loved ones to journey with us through our illness or to comfort us in our grief? Or could God be answering our prayers by giving us grace to come to terms with our mortality and experience in more profound ways what it means to be alive, or grace to trust that death won’t have the final word?

Or maybe God is calling us to resist the mindset of scarcity that pervades our culture—the mindset that tells us that what we have will never be enough, that we need to keep acquiring more for ourselves. What opportunities to make a difference in the world have we missed because our fear of scarcity has prevented us from being generous with our time or our money?

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Back at House for All Sinners and Saints, Nadia Bolz-Weber describes the scene today: “Out of one corner of your eye there’s a homeless guy serving communion to a corporate lawyer and out of the other corner is a teenage girl with pink hair holding the baby of a suburban soccer mom. And there I was a year ago fearing that the weirdness of our church was going to be diluted.” It took her awhile to see it, but that’s what God was up to at Nadia’s church. What is God up to here?


Resources consulted:

Ginger Barfield, “Commentary on John 6:35, 41-51,” WorkingPreacher.org, 2012, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1406.

Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint (New York: Jericho, 2013).

Martin Luther, “The Small Catechism,” in The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, eds. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000).

Wayne A. Meeks, “John 6:35, 41-51: Exegetical Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Vol. 3, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009).

Brian Peterson, “Commentary on John 6:35, 41-51,” WorkingPreacher.org, 2009, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=368.

Craig A. Satterlee, “Commentary on John 6:35, 41-51,” WorkingPreacher.org, 2015,http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2551.

“Transcript for Nadia Bolz-Weber — Seeing the Underside and Seeing God: Tattoos, Tradition, and Grace,” On Being with Krista Tippett, September 5, 2013, http://www.onbeing.org/program/transcript/nadia-bolz-weber-seeing-the-underside-and-seeing-god-tattoos-tradition-and-grace.

William H. Willimon, “John 6:35, 41-51: Homiletical Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Vol. 3, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009).


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