God's always "hooking us," pulling us back: back to the Word, back to the Meal, back to the Font...back to the community.

This blog is for the purpose of sharing around each Sunday's Bible readings & sermon at Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church.

Get Sunday's readings here. We follow the Narrative Lectionary.
(In the summer, we return to the Revised Common Lectionary' epistle or Second Reading here.)

So, what's been hooking you?

So, what's been hooking you?

Here you can...

Sunday, September 17, 2017

September 17 -- Binding of Isaac

Let’s just come out and say it: at first glance, this is a MESSED UP text!  God tests Abraham by asking him to sacrifice/kill his only son Isaac as a burnt offering?!! 

It’s a little tempting to just skip this text, pretend like it’s not here in the Bible...and many times we do...but this actually has got some very important lessons and challenges for us -- we just need to say a few things first:

It needs to be said that we 21st c. Christians are always looking at Scripture through the lens of our own experience and culture -- we can’t help it.  And most of the time, frankly, that works just fine.  Lots of the stories in the Bible, we can relate to, as if they were happening in our day in age.  Many stories, we could create an almost-identical modern-day version, like a modern-day Prodigal Son story, for example.  

In this case, however, we have to try to get out of our own contextual trappings and contextual shortsightedness and imagine for a moment how very different the time, place, and customs really were.  This is always what we should consider with Bible, but it’s mandatory today.  In the binding of Isaac, we’re really forced to leave our contextual trappings.
“contextual trappings/contextual shortsightedness” -- 
What do you mean, Pastor? 
Well, how about this, for example: “What kind of a God would demand that a father who’s longed for a son, sacrifice that son?”  How many of you, like me, have that question hanging out there, as we read this story?  

Remember how different the times were: this was a time where many religions practiced child sacrifice.  It was common...people did it in order to appease the gods.  If you do this, then the gods will reward you.  We’d never do this today...but -- then again -- people  bargain with God today too: “God, I’ll do this...if you do…” (Then leave the church and maybe faith altogether if it doesn’t pan out.) 

This story starts to look like its headed that way as well, but then a surprising twist to an old story that always has the same ending: No!  Here, God/Yahweh/Elohim stops the child sacrifice tit-for-tat system.  God keeps promises, remember?  God promised to bring a great nation forth from Abraham and Sarah.  

So God -- in this ancient story -- stops the terror and violence.  For our time and place, it’s hard to see that, and this all sounds very troublesome, I know.  But for its time and place: radical.  “Stop!” the angel cries, “Do not hurt the boy.”  This is earth-shattering grace, something new, breaking out of something old!  

Probably not the best way, we’d image that today -- in fact, I’d never in a million years image it like this!  But what would it look like for you?  What would “earth-shattering grace, something new breaking out of something old” look like for you?  Ever experienced God’s faithfulness, when you had no idea how you were going to get out of a bad predicament?

A phone call from a friend that comes just when you’re on the brink?  A little note from a family member that stops you from doing something awful.  Nature, so often, is God’s angel for me.  “Stop!” nature has cried out to me -- a cool breeze, a butterfly, a ray of sun piercing through the clouds: these are among God’s angels for me, too.  “Do no harm,” creation has cried out to me.  “Look, God will provide.”  God will provide.  All is not lost.  This is not over.  Just when we’re on the brink of doing something awful, something new breaks out of something old.  And God will provide. 

But can we really trust that?  Can YOU really trust that?
Feel free to be honest to the struggle.  Here’s the other part of our story that’s so gripping: It’s a story about God, breaking old ways with new life and hope, through providence.  And it’s a story that calls us to reflect again on how much we really trust in God.  How much do you trust in God?  (put your contemporary lenses back on)  Enough to lift up and let go of that which is most important to you?  How much do we really trust in God?  Do our lives reflect that trust?  
I think we should stop calling that line in our budget “Benevolence” and start calling it “How much we trust in God”.  Benevolence is about what we’re donating out of the goodness of our hearts.  But what that $17,160 really is...is how much we trust in God.  What we write on our pledge cards later in October, that’s how much we trust in God...

During stewardship season, I’ve been known to say, “All that have and all that we are comes from God and belongs to God.”  And yet, we can hoard and hang onto things as if there’s no God at all, at the end of the day.  We can spout religious platitudes, practice religious rituals, but when it really comes down to it, there’s no way we’d trust God that much -- “all that we have, all that we are”?  What would Abraham say about that?

Could money be our first-born and only son?  Is money our Isaac?  Would you ever just take all your money as a demonstration of your trust in God...bind it and sacrifice it?  Build an altar, lift it up and let it go?  Give it away and figure, “God’s got me, so I trust that I’ll ultimately be just fine.  [pause]  I don’t understand it.  I don’t want to do it.  But I trust and give thanks that God’s truly got me.  I don’t know how, but I trust God.”  

Most of us really struggle with that.  I do.  This text -- despite it’s obvious modern-day problems -- calls us to think again and anew about how much we trust in God?  

Abraham and Sarah left it all, their crops, their comfort, their good life because God called them into something new.  I imagine they never dreamed they’d make it to Canaan, but they did.  God provided.  Never have a child, but they did.  GP.  Now this: Isaac.  

It was a different time and a different place.  But are we capable of such great sacrifice and trust? 

Bishop Andy -- I’ve share this before -- encourages us when it’s time to pledge each year (and he practices this himself, I should say): he tells you to go home, pray about what’s the absolute most you can give, what percentage of your income will you give back to God in this new year.  “Come up with that number, and then,” he says, “Bump it up one more percent, so that it hurts a little.”  Now we’re tapping into the binding of  Isaac.  Talk about hurting.  Abraham gave ‘til it hurt, he trusted ‘til it hurt...  

Where are you being called to make great sacrifices?  Pray on that this week.  

And remember, the good news here is on the bulletin cover:  God. Will. Provide.  Wouldn’t it be amazing to go around and hear each other’s stories about how God has provided in times we’ve made sacrifices or have been scared...especially financially.  (I know there are other ways to sacrifice, but really think money is the Isaac.)  

Here’s what I’d finally point out here in the text, just to conclude.   Abraham says “Here I am” 3x in this text.  He says it to God twice, and he says it to his son Isaac when he has a question.  In other words, Abraham shows up.  He doesn’t always understand how it’s all going to go, or what (the heck) God is up to...He simply says here I am.  And God he finds that in the end God provides what is needed.  And there’s enough there to remain in relationship -- with the world, with sisters and brothers, sons and daughters, parents and grandparents in our family and beyond.  There’s enough there to remain in relationship with God.  The covenant continues...for God provides.  AMEN.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

August 6 -- 9th Sunday after Pentecost

It’s a conversation I’ve had and heard often: parents who grieve that their adult children are not part of a congregation.

(Invite someone to church this summer: “my children.”)

It’s a very real concern: “Oh, I wish William would come to church.”  “Oh, I just ache that Sharon doesn’t have a church home.”  And of course we can’t make decisions for our kids, once they’ve left the home -- some even while they’re still living at home.  So we have the familiar scene of church-goers bidding farewell to their children (or siblings, or friends) at the door.  They take a polite pass from behind the newspaper on the couch, or still curled up in bed, or from the exercise bike or strapping on running shoes...they take a polite pass on our invitation to Spirit-borne, Christ-centered, cross-and-resurrection communities -- I don’t just mean SVLC, I mean any Gospel-centered Christian family.  Week after week, parents are polite and patient too, but often with heavy hearts (and even some deep sadness somewhere way down there), we accept their rejection and head out to enjoy what they don’t have.  

Do you ever have -- or get to enjoy -- an incredible dinner (maybe out, maybe at someone’s home)...but the someone who could (and frankly should) be there is not?  And even while you have a great time, enjoy a delicious feast, you’re sad too?

Maybe you’ve noticed the sign out front -- “You need what we have here.”  It’s not meant to sound arrogant; it’s meant to sound Pauline, namely Roman.  I am convinced that the world needs what we have here, what Paul talks about in his letters: God’s grace and mercy.  Everyone, everyone, everyone...isn’t just welcome.  Everyone, everyone, everyone needs what we have and what is offered here: God’s grace and mercy.
When a loved one (especially a loved one who’s having a particularly hard time) misses that wonderful family feast, there is this sense of deep sadness: “Ah man, they could have really used that, they really needed that and missed out.”
Paul in Romans 9 is grieving that his own family is missing out.  He just dropped some of the most beautiful verses in the whole Bible in Chapter 8, he poured his heart out for his people -- we read them last Sunday -- “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, no angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  That’s the family feast!  And some weren’t even there.  Or to flip the parent-child metaphor -- it’s like a child pouring their heart out with stories and lessons and questions from their day at school, with this need to connect, and the parent just sitting on the couch distracted, missing it all because they’re on their phone, texting or doing Facebook or email.  “Um-hm, that’s great, sweetie.” 

Much to grieve in these scenes today.  Some just aren’t there.  Others (of us) are.  Others hear it, but are unaffected.  

It’s one thing to point fingers at children or others, at what they are missing out on, but what about us -- who actually do hear and participate, who maybe aren’t distracted, but who go on living as if nothing happens here, as if Christ’s cross and resurrection aren’t real, as if Paul never dropped those verses?

I wonder, if we’re honest -- and if you were here last Sunday --how impacted we are by Paul’s “firetruck-of-a-text” (that’s what I called it last week, but I had to go back and look up what I wrote…and I wrote it!)
Yeah, I called Romans 8 a “fire-truck-of-a-text that actually and actively saves lives...dousing the very flames of death, and rescuing suffocating sinners.”  How did that letter from Paul change, even save, your life this past week?...with all its ladders and hoses and First Aid?  “Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.”  [pause]

So we have grief for those who miss out on the Gospel completely...and, if we’re honest and a little more humble, we can miss it ourselves.  I’m going to be in Atlanta this week with ELCA pastors from all over the country, and I know we’ll be sharing stories of how we “miss the Gospel” all the time, even as we’ve committed our lives to naming it, proclaiming it, celebrating it.  And yet I opt out all the time too, hiding behind the newspaper, or staying active (or distracted) on the bike, or strapping on the latest program on how to run your ministry in tiptop shape, or just curling up and sleeping in.  I look a lot like the one who’s missing out, huh?

I think when we’re getting the most upset about how others are not doing or enjoying church right (or at all)...is when we need to check ourselves the most.  [pause]

And then, in our brokenness, that’s where those words of grace and peace come and fill in the gaps again.  Just when we get all high and mighty about how others aren’t as good or as faithful as we are, that’s when we need to stop.  And let God be present.  God fills the space whether we invite God or not.

But to be intentional about God’s presence, not only in our arrogance and in our grief, but in our brokenness and humility too.  This is the greatest gift.  As we mourn, as we judge, as we make snide comments...and as we crash and come up empty, God is still with us.  Nothing can separate us from that love.
Paul -- even in these 5 short verses today -- gives it all to God at the end.  Paul names God in the Flesh, Jesus the Messiah, as the one “who is over all”.  

And in the end, this is all we can do too.  In our failure, in our brokenness, in our grief, sometimes all we can do is open our hands and commend it all to God.

“Help us, God, to take it all to you in silence, in prayer, in peace. [pause] AMEN.”

Sunday, July 30, 2017

July 30 -- 8th Sunday After Pentecost

Friends in Christ, this is the passage to read when you’re all out of words.  These words of Paul have carried us Christians through the most difficult of times.  Through death itself.  I read this most recently at the bedside right after, LM took his last breath on this earth.  All I had was my little prayer book.  I open.  At the close of the day, at the close of Lee’s life, and we read:  “Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.” This is the thickest, meatiest theology in Scripture.  Right here before us on a nice, summer Sunday morning.

Don’t blow this stuff off -- these words have been present at suicides.  At car accidents.  At shootings and hate crimes and church burnings in the deep South.  Battlefields in Vietnam, coroner’s labs, the falling of twin towers, stillbirths...“The Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray...but that very Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.”  [pause]  Rip this passage out of your bulletin today, fold it up and keep it in your wallet...better yet, memorize it and keep it in your heart.  These words can save you in your darkest moments, these words can raise the dead.

I had a preaching professor, who used to talk about raising the dead in our preaching.  He would practically taunt preachers (I wasn’t a fan of his, but I remember):  “Oh, you preached today?  How lovely.  Did you tell a funny story?  Did you make the people laugh?  Did you share something touching about your personal life?  Oh good.  Did you give some good advice?  Did you impress everyone with your research of and insight into the holy text?  Hmm, that’s nice.”  

I think of my professor with passages like this one today:  “When we preach,” he’d almost shout, “we raise the dead.  We tear down walls that divide us, we defy death itself as we point -- sometimes, with all evidence to the contrary -- to Jesus.”  [Reformation art]  This one Jesus changes everything! Intercedes for us “with sighs too deep for words,” promises never to abandon us, even and especially in the most painful and horrifying of moments and days.  [pause]  

It’s kind of amazing how so many of us can keep this page in our bibles so pristine and untouched.  BUt not everyone:  I remember seeing my Grandma Roschke’s bible (AK and BN, I believe, have Bible’s like this too...BK had one). Those bibles are far from mint condition: they seem like every page is tattered, the whole book swollen beyond the width of the spine, because someone’s been literally clinging onto it over the years, crinkling and folding pages, highlighting and bookmarking favorite verses, madly scribbling notes and prayers into the margins.  And the salty water stains of tears have smeared the ink.  

Often for those with bible’s like that, the page at the end of Romans Chapter 8, is an absolute disaster.  

Paul wasn’t messing around.  He gave us a life boat.

And right here, on a nice, summer Sunday morning, we get to visit it again.  Interesting contrast, really -- at least at the moment, there’s no immediate crisis.  In fact, it’s quite a lovely morning.  We’re not hanging on for dear life.  We get to walk around these verses, like taking a tour of the fire station, calmly admiring that big red vehicle, with all its ladders and hoses and First Aid.  It looks so clean today, more like it belongs in a parade, not at the foot of burning building on the scene of a terrible tragedy.  

But this firetruck-of-a-text actually and actively (it’s not just a relic) saves lives!  Dousing the very flames of death, and rescuing suffocating sinners.  “Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.” 

Paul gives us the most precious gift today: the very core of our theology (Know what that is?) -- “God’s got us.”  The Spirit not only sits with us, She advocates and prays on our behalf.  Jesus extends the ladder, soaks us with grace and mercy, and brings us at last to safety.  

This is enough.  AMEN.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

July 23 -- 7th Sunday After Pentecost


What is it about waiting...that changes us from the inside out?

Waiting for something to happen.  Waiting for change to come.  Long hours in a waiting room or a holding pattern…

When was the last time you had to wait for a long time?  Often  I think of airports.  This past week that airport waiting had nothing to do with my own travel, but with Micah’s: waiting to hear that he had arrived safely home.  Waiting with hopeful expectation there.  

More times than not, I’d venture to say, we hate waiting.  Waiting is not something we do well in our culture, is it?  It’s always interesting to watch how waiting affects people in our country, especially us white, upper-middle class, privileged folks, like myself--how often we get short, aggressive, even hostile when we have to wait.  Just think about our collective disdain for traffic in North County…

Yes, waiting has usually got negative connotations, but here in Paul’s letter to the Romans, waiting is associated with hope, patience, nature and freedom.

“We wait with patience, as we hope for what we do not see.”  That almost sounds downright un-American! Who waits with patience for something we don’t even know (cognitively) for sure is there?!

I’ll hang up on my own brother if he makes me wait more than one minute, so that he can take an incoming call from his wife, who’s got a short grocery list for him!  “Ain’t nobody got time for that!”
What the heck, Paul!?!  Why are you trying to slow us down?  We are trying to get places faster, accomplish more, impress each other more, see more, consume more, make more…

If you’ve never considered Paul a mystic -- that is, a person with a deep mystical awareness of God’s deep presence right here and now, and God’s deep connection to you and all creation -- consider it today.  Maybe you already do, but Paul can often be considered by many scholars as merely a systematic theologian -- a big brain, making very cool, logical, calculated cases and arguments for the reality of God in Christ in a Greco-Roman culture (much like ours: “if you can’t see it, prove it, understand it cognitively, it’s not there.”)  But here, Paul’s tapping into something that can’t grasped like that:  

It’s really hard to wrap our minds around “suffering that’s not worth comparing to the glory about to be revealed to us…”  We’d rather convince each other how bad the suffering we’re experiencing is...how the long hours we’re working makes us way more worthy of respect and admiration, maybe a raise; how the troubles in our past make us way more entitled to the good things we enjoy now; how the hardships we’ve endured make us tougher and justify our behavior.  Comparing suffering is embedded into our egocentric DNA.  In other words, it’s embedded into our “flesh”.  (Remember a couple weeks ago, I shared Fr. Richard Rohr’s suggestion? -- Whenever you read “flesh” in Paul’s writing, think “ego”.)

Pay attention in your conversations this week for “suffering one-uppers”.  Are you a “suffering one-upper”?   It often starts with, “You think that’s bad…”  Why do we feel this need to let others know how bad we’ve got it?  How hard life is for us?  How much greater my pain is than yours?  
One word: ego.  Another word: sin.
Paul, calls us, just as he called the early Christians in Rome to recognize and celebrate an even deeper reality than the reality of our sin and ego.  Yes, those are there, nagging at us.  But there’s something much deeper keeping us connected, this ancient mystic tells us again today.  There is a “glory about to be revealed” that comes alongside our sufferings.  Ready? ... 
We have been adopted.

We’re caught up in all this egotistical comparing and impatience, and yet much deeper, way down there -- last week I shared that quote from Terese of Avila, who talked about the deep well that is God’s love -- much deeper than all our selfish and competitive, suffering-one-upping stuff, is a God, who sits at the desk in the adoption agency and says, I want this one, and “signs on the dotted line” for you, in order to take you home and be -- not just your guardian -- but your “Abba”. That’s the greatest term of endearment for a parent.  (My kids have asked me why they can’t call me “Dan” like everyone else.  And I’ll say, “Everyone calls me, Dan.  But you’re the only 2 people in the whole universe, who get to call me ‘Daddy’.”)  That’s the kind of intimacy that God has with you, friends -- every single one of you, God signs for.  The egotistical, impatient, tit-for-tat stuff we get caught up in has got nothing on the way God still feels about us.  Just like when your kids bicker and argue (mine don’t, but yours probably do) -- it’s annoying, but it doesn’t even come close to the kind of love you’ve got for them.  That well is so deep, they can’t dig themselves deep enough into trouble.  

This is our God, the God Paul is describing here in Romans.  This God walks alongside us, and all creation -- that’s another thing: it’s not even simply an “every single one of us human beings” -- it’s every single creature, the whole creation waits with us, the whole cosmos is in longing for the kind of freedom we need too.  Isn’t that so deeply mystical?
The insights from our kids up at Confirmation Camp this week are too many to share.  But the wisdom and the faith of our young people -- 6th, 7th, 8th graders, and our incredible staff of 20-somethings up at Camp Luther Glen.  I love it, every time.  We ought to pass the keys of our churches over to these young people, and let them lead us -- with all their hope, wisdom, computer-savvy ;) and trust in this God of the universe.  

So much of our problem, as we get into our middle ages and more secure, more able to take care of ourselves, protect ourselves and our futures, ensure our comfort -- is that we no longer need to trust in God.  “Why go to church and be in some broken community, when I can have my own customized spirituality?”  These kids, I watched again this week, model this incredible trust in God as they lived in community -- not even aware always that they’re swimming and splashing in that deep well water of God’s grace and provision!   We tap back into that child-like faith at the end of our earthly lives -- as we rely on others and on God once again.  

But that deep water covers us here and now too, friends in Christ!  We don’t have to just be a young person or close to death to enjoy this God.  Despite our impatience and brokenness, the renewal is now.  And God is already here, holding us.  No waiting need, in this case.  The pardon and the grace, the new life is ours for the enjoying...as we wait, and even as we suffer.  The well water runs deep and never runs out.  So, let’s share that as we go out together!  
To close in prayer, I’d like to you repeat after me:
(song from South Africa we learned at camp)  
“Hum-a-na-ti.  Ko-lu-lu we-tu. Come walk with us.  The journey is long.”