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...

Monday, August 22, 2016

August 21 -- Fourteenth After Pentecost

Grace to you and peace...kind of...did you year that reading?

In C.S. Lewis’ most famous Narnia chronicle, Peter, Susan, Lucy and Edmund discover the wonderland of Narnia through a magical wardrobe.  [Any of you, teachers, ever read that to your class?  I remember mine did...]  And here’s the scene when they learn exactly what kind of animal the Great Aslan, who is able to help them, is: 

"Is - is he a man?" asked Lucy
"Aslan a man!" said Mr. Beaver sternly. "Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea. Don't you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion, the Lion, the great Lion."
"Ooh," said Susan, "I thought he was a man. Is he - quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion."
"That you will, dearie, and make no mistake," said Mrs. Beaver; "if there's anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they're either braver than most or else just silly."
"Then he isn't safe?" said Lucy.
"Safe?" said Mr. Beaver; "don't you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the king I tell you."

Great illustration for today’s text!  “Safe?  Who said anything about safe?  ‘Course God isn’t safe.  But God is good.”

You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them. … But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. 

Another great author Annie Dillard puts it like this…
“Does anyone have the foggiest idea of the power we so blithely invoke?...It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets.  Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.” 

“‘Course he’s not safe.”  
Have we domesticated God?  Have we sterilized Jesus, turning him into just a sweet little baby for a small part of the year...and just a nice buddy for the rest?

We’re talking about “something that cannot be touched” -- a blazing fire, the blast of a trumpet, a roaring lion, a hurricane.

Think about being in a big rain storm -- thunder crashing, lightning flashing...

My kids have never really experienced those big ones like we had back in Texas.  They used to terrify me, rattle the windows, but over time, Mom taught me to go out onto the porch, and be awestruck at the power.  “Course it’s not safe out there,” she would say to me in a matter of words, “but if you think about all the plants that are getting water, all the reservoirs that are filling up, all the washing, all the animals receiving what they need -- course‘ it’s not safe, but it’s good.  

Today’s Teacher Appreciation Day -- think for a minute about who your best teachers were.  Elementary school, middle school, high school, college, graduate school -- I’ve been reflecting on this for a few days, and I’m wondering (even betting) that they probably weren’t “safe” but they were good.  They probably helped you break out of the box, or challenged you...my best teachers -- my grade was definitely not safe...

Friends, we have a God, who’s definitely not safe.  Church people seem surprised when they find themselves in dangerous situations.  Shane Claiborne -- I was just laughing and remembering the other day -- talks about, “My life was great until I met Jesus...  

“I used to have a ‘real’ job, I had money, drove fancy cars, wore nice clothes, lived in comfortable houses, never was hungry.  Now I give my money to the poor, serve in rough neighborhoods, love my enemies, and fast from food and excess...”    

“‘Course he’s not safe, but he’s good.”  This Christ is good, this “mediator of a new covenant,” as our text says, “the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.”  You know what that’s referring to?  (Cain killed Abel out of jealousy and anger.) 

The blood of Christ, speaks a better word than the blood of revenge, the blood of short-sightedness, war, greed, jealousy and anger.

Cain was being safe -- killing his brother.  We are being safe -- hunting down and killing our enemies.  But Jesus talks about loving them and forgiving one another.  “Course he’s not safe, but he’s good.”  

How are you wrestling with this God these days?  As we as a nation are always about hunting down and killing the bad guys?  Jesus would be a bad soldier, in the literal sense.   “‘Course he’s not safe.”  A good soldier is safe, and keeps others safe.  What do we do with that?

“You have come to something that cannot be touched,” Hebrews says, “a blazing fire, darkness and gloom, the sound of a trumpet.”  ‘Course he’s not safe.  But he’s good.”

I don’t know that we do wrestle with this God.  Why would you wrestle a lion?  

The last part of our passage talks about worship.  

All we can do is stand in awe, like watching a thunderstorm.  That’s a thing about worship -- I wonder sometimes if we’ve lost:  we’re so worried about controlling it all.  (I’m preaching to myself here!)  Is this right, is this done perfectly, is this hymn going to work, is this sermon going to hit home, is this image going to connect -- sometimes we need to just shut up and sit in awe.  God’s got this!  God’s the primary actor, the one doing the action.  We’re all acted upon.  Just quiet down and bear witness to the roar!  [pause]

And then...after the worship, after the standing in awe.  We are changed forever.  We can’t go back to how it was before.  I’ll never look at a foreboding cloud the same way again.  I’ll never play with fire without being very careful.  If we really stand in awe, then we can’t help but we changed. 

Safety is not God’s concern.  There’s nowhere in the Bible where safety is all that important.  Think of how many dangerous situation God calls the people into.  Think of the crazy things Jesus tells us to do.  

‘Course he’s not safe.  But he’s good.  

And this book is full of the goodness of our God. 

It’s around those stories, that grace, that mercy, that radical love -- and ultimately that peace -- that we gather.  God is good.  AMEN.


Blessing of Teachers
God of wisdom, your Son came among us as a teacher.
Send your blessing on all who are engaged in the work of education:
give them clearness of vision and freshness of thought,
and enable them so to train the hearts and minds of their students
that they may grow in wisdom
and be prepared to face the challenges of life;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.


Sunday, August 14, 2016

August 14 -- Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

"Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”

What word there really jumps out at you?  

Worth memorizing this passage (on the cover of our bulletin)…

I’m saying -- we are singing and confessing -- all the time here that we are “free in Christ”.  That sound familiar?  Remember all that stuff in Galatians we had in July about being free in Christ?  Now in the book of Hebrews, we are reminded that this freedom in Christ comes through the community of the faithful, the cloud of witnesses -- those who bear witness to the love, joy and freedom that God has given us.  

So today, August 14, 2016, as we move into a new week, an exciting season, a new school year, a building project, perhaps a new job or a new home...who’s in your cloud?  Who’s in the cloud of witnesses cheering you on, running along side you?  

Are most of the people that come to mind for you alive, or have they died?  I the answer’s both.  Both make up your cloud.  Any children in your cloud of witnesses?  I’ve been reflecting on this question all week, and my kids are definitely in mine -- with their keen insights and observations, and their faithfulness and clarity, with their ease of proximity to God.   They’re not just cute and entertaining all the time, they bear witness to the God who’s name is Love!  They are prophetic and profound.

I hope you take some time to recognize who’s “in your cloud” this week.  Both living and resting in the eternal company of the saints in light.  We don’t give as much CENTRAL emphasis on the ancestors.  Asian culture and religion, Native American spirituality -- these could teach us a thing or two about honoring and recognizing the influence and the pervasiveness of the ancestors in the faith.  They’re all around us.  And they’ve gone before us.

That’s what the book of Hebrews does: “By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land...By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days..By faith Rahab...did not perish with those who were disobedient...And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets—who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness...Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented...They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.”
Do you consider David and Samuel, Ruth and Naomi, Paul and Lydia all part of your cloud?  You should.  They are there cheering you on.  That’s what we’re reminded of today.

There’s this picture I came across this week of a man in a marathon -- “running the race”.  Except he was in a wheel chair.  He was surrounded by others running, but he’s wheeling.  And he had this shirt on that said, “Keep Calm and Keep Running.”  I’ve been so struck by this image...  

Maybe sometimes you don’t feel like you’re fully “running”, like a man wheeling his way through 26 miles.  But he’s a full participant in that race.  And so are you.  And like him, you’re not alone.  Christ is with you, yes.  But so is this cloud of witness.  Some cheering you on -- like those who have gone before you.  And some running right along side you.  Your situation might be unique -- like the marathon man in the wheel chair.  Your obstacles might be different than others -- like the marathon man in the wheel chair.  But you are not alone.  Christ is with you, heaven’s booster club is reigning down chants and cheers for you, AND your sisters and brothers are right along side you.  Keep calm and keep running the race set before you.  

Thanks be to God for giving us one another, for giving us such a rich ancestry of faithful witnesses, and for giving us that One Jesus Christ, who lives and runs and fills us to the brim with grace and peace...this day and into eternity!  AMEN.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

August 7 -- Twelfth After Pentecost

Will you pray with me: “God help us to trust in you even more.  AMEN.”

When was the last time you really stepped out in faith?

Maybe it was when you made a huge purchase, like a house or a car, and you said a quick prayer as you scribbled on the dotted line.  

Maybe it was taking a new position, maybe a position that got you here, that allowed our paths to cross.

Maybe it was inviting a family member, an aging parent perhaps, to move in with you, changing your whole dynamic.  All of these, not knowing how it would end. 

For me, my most recent outstep in faith was putting Micah on an airplane by himself last Monday.  Going to visit Grandpa and Grandma in Houston.  First time.  I kissed him, and watched him walk down that plank all by his little self.  I looked at that pilot drinking his coffee while they waited for their turn amid the morning air traffic…closed my eyes and gave it to God...

I’ve been saying a prayer often as we embark on our big building project here at Shepherd of the Valley.  I’m not exactly sure where it came from.  I know it’s been called the Lutheran Prayer of Courage.  I put it on our front sign…

Lord you call your servants to ventures of which we cannot see  the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown.  Grant us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us, through Jesus Christ.  AMEN.
This prayer is based on our reading today from Hebrews.  We enter a new book of the New Testament today, here in the dog days of summer.  The heat, it almost seems, can have an impact on our spirituality, on our religious fervor.  A certain lethargy can set in here in August.  So books like Hebrews can serve as nice pep talk.  But we do well to remember that the author/s of Hebrews was way more invested than that:  their lives were on the line for the trust they put in God, through JC.  

Calling to mind the faithfulness of Abraham and Sarah -- who truly set out, not knowing where they go, but only that God’s hand is leading them and God’s love supporting them -- Hebrews drives home our call to faithfulness in God.  (This is always rooted, btw, in God’s faithfulness in loving us.)

“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” our passage says.  We are called to step out again in faith.  In a world where real hope is often a rare sight, in a world where fear and death, violence and terror, rampant consumption and self-centered, self-promotion seem to rule us, real hope can certainly fall into the category of “things not seen”.  And yet we lean into hope through faith -- faith not ultimately in technology or weapons or any human-made schematic or innovation.  Some of these things can certainly be good, but we are called to lean into a hope in the One who prepares a city for us, a place we can’t even see.  

Now, Hebrews’ references of hope reaching beyond even the boundaries of this life, reaching beyond even death itself, the cosmic dimensions of the hope we’re dealing with here, does not catapult us out of our present situation.  This heavenly hope actually injects us even more deeply into our present moment...  
We Christians don’t live with hope wistfully longing to be swept away (that’s why that Left Behind stuff was so wrong).  

Because of this faith, this hope, we live even deeper into our present reality, attending to the needs of the world, especially those who are hurting in our world.  We don’t need immediate assurances that “everything is going to be ok”, because we know in the end -- the big end, the final end, the glorious end -- everything truly will be ok.  So we live in hope, love, joy and peace now -- even as the world is flying out of control.  Christians have faith.

Friends in Christ, God’s hand is leading us.  God’s love is supporting us.  Can you see it?  Maybe not, but together we have faith that God’s hand is there, God’s support is there.  

What gets me about the saints -- Old Testament heroes, historical models of faith like Clare of Assisi (who we commemorate this week) or Martin Luther...or Martin Luther King Jr. -- is that so many of the saints died without having reached “the promised land”.   [pause]  They were children of Mt. Nebo.  Do you remember Mt. Nebo in the Bible?  Mt. Nebo is where Moses goes in the very last verses of his life in Exodus.  It’s where God takes him up, to look out and see the promised land.  He dies before he gets there.  But he gets to see it.

a view from the top of Mt. Nebo
Sisters and brothers in Christ, in so many ways, we to are children of Mt. Nebo.  Like the saints, those who have -- what do we say? -- “died in the faith”, we too will die before we get there.  As Bp. Oscar Romero said, “We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.” 

He once wrote (I invite my confirmation kids to memorize this...): 
“It helps now and then to step back and take a long view.
The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God's work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession
brings perfection, no pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the Church's mission.
No set of goals and objectives include everything.

This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one
day will grow. We water the seeds already planted
knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of
liberation in realizing this.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning,
a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord's
grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the
difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders, ministers, not
messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.”

We move on and outward in faith.  We continue to pray: “God help us to trust you more.”  And we give thanks for God’s faithfulness in loving us, even when we fail.  AMEN.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

July 31 -- Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

In these highly politically charged days -- after two weeks of conventions: Republicans in Cleveland, Democrats in Philadelphia ... with all the speeches, all the spins, all the commentaries, all the debates, all the analysis, all the platforms and party lines -- I don’t know if you’ve heard this, or been accused of it yourself, but in these politically charged days, there’s this phrase we can use:

“You’re starting to sound like [and then fill in the blank]” ...  

You’re starting to sound like Donald Trump.  You’re starting to sound like Hillary Clinton.  You’re starting to sound like an NRA lobbyist.  You’re starting to sound like a Black Lives Matter activist.  You’re starting to sound like you watch too much FOX News, you’re starting to sound like you’re “feelin’ the Bern”…

And there is this way in which we are all getting absorbed in this season, folded into one affiliation or another, even the non-affiliation.  “You’re starting to sound like my mother, who’s choosing not to vote, to sit this one out, because she doesn’t like either choice.”  Reflect silently for a moment...on which groups are absorbing you in this season, which positions are you being folded into?  Which sides are you being “hidden with” these days?  Good thing, bad thing?  [pause] 

Our reading from Colossians today:

“So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above...set your minds not on things that are on earth. [one translation: “Don’t shuffle along, eyes to the ground, absorbed with the things right in front of you. Look up, and be alert to what is going on around Christ - that’s where the action is. See things from his perspective]...for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”

What does it look like to be absorbed into Christ?  “Your life is hidden in Christ with God.”  What does it look like to live, folded into God, folded into Christ?  Absorbed.  Hidden in Christ.  

Now I think both conventions these last two weeks did their best to fold God into their side.  And I think we’re all guilty of that.  We can all argue pretty passionately that God is on our side, we can all fold God in with us.  But rather than doing the folding, the hiding, the stuffing of God into our stuff...what does it look like instead to let ourselves be folded in?  “...for you have died, and your life is hidden in Christ with God.”
How much reflection have you given to the fact that in baptism, YOU’VE ALREADY DIED!  What’s it like to have already died?  We don’t emphasize that language so much in our sweet, little baby baptisms, but it couldn’t be more scriptural.  (Ancient fonts were often caskets.)  In baptism, you’ve already died!  So you don’t have to worry about all that stuff anymore...ultimately.  Your life is hidden in God, joined to Christ.  His glory is our glory, his death is our death, his resurrection is our resurrection!  This is what Colossians tells us.  So…

What’s that mean?  It means putting away obsession with only the stuff that you see -- lures of the world.  Put those desires and attractions in us to death, we’re told.  A lot of that sounds like pretty sexual stuff in this reading.  That can be very instructive for us today.  (When we did the sexuality study here a few years ago, people came I think because they thought it was just on homosexuality, but the course was about human sexuality, and we had to face those tough issues when money and power and sex overlap…)
If these are words you need to hear today, to put to death the unhealthy, exploitative, destructive sexual lures of the world, to hear a strong word that following after those is not what it means to be hidden with God in Christ, if that’s poignant and timely for you, then that’s good...and right.  But I think this passage is about much more than that.  

“Being hidden with Christ in God” is also about putting to death greed (which is idolatry, Paul says).  Greed is idolatry.  Wanting something so bad is to make a god out of it.  This is not just about sex.  (In fact sex is a gift from God, when we steward it well.)  This is about consumption and obsession.  It’s about protecting ourselves (falsely) with things: with excess, with safety nets and pensions, with fancy buildings and armored vehicles -- and obsessing after all those things.  That’s the larger challenge in this text, I think, for all of us here.

The times were different, of course, when Colossians was written.  But the obsessions, the fears, the desires, the lures are pretty much the same.  

We are being called back to the core.  Back to the center.  Back to the fact that ultimately, ultimately, we are absorbed, hidden in Christ.  We can let the other stuff go.  [pause]
I was with my brother Jon for a few days this week, up in Portland, Oregon.  I flew home yesterday.  And on Friday, together with his girlfriend Quinn and her family, we floated down the Clackamas River.  Have you ever floated down a river before?  Couple inner tubes, a swim suit, sunscreen, sunglasses, some cool refreshment and snacks: for 6 hours we just gave ourselves to the current.  (I even left my cell phone behind!  I had to...so it wouldn’t get wet!  What a gift.)  
We were absorbed by the river -- on a bunch of levels -- as we gently drifted down.  Laughter, the beauty of nature (Mt. Hood).  That was good day…  

The river wasn’t particularly deep and the current was definitely not fast.  You could walk upstream if you wanted to.  You could take control.  But we didn’t.  We just gave ourselves to the river.  Enjoyed the ride.  I guess you could say we were hidden with the river.  At one point Jon even said to me, as we were laughing and bouncing a little on our inner tubes through some white water.  “You see Dan, it’s like life!  You have to put this in a sermon!  You can try to control it, or you can just let yourself be taken!”  (I thought it was a pretty cheesy image, and would never work.)  (But that’s probably because I was just so absorbed in the moment, the thought of any words came up empty.)

Friends in Christ, baptized and set free, people of God, hidden, absorbed in this love, this motion of forgiveness, this flow of grace -- this adventure of faith is actually fun! To be called out on our obsessions, and unhealthy passions and desires, might just make it seem like we’re getting our hand slapped, and we have to get back on the right path.  But Jesus’ invitation is much richer than that:  We’re going to the river!  It’s not about the right path (which is stagnant), it’s about the gracious current!

The waters of baptism: that’s our launching point.  That’s the cool pool where you enter in.  And now we float...together.  Folded into God’s grace.  Hidden in Christ’s mercy and forgiveness.  Hidden in Christ’s joy.  Absorbed and lost in God’s love...for us, for this whole world.  Thanks be to God.  AMEN.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

July 24 -- Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

In ministry, you get to meet so many different kinds of people.  So many interesting stories:  Because of a connection I had to another Lutheran church, and given that pastor’s recent move to the East Coast (he had called and asked me if I’d consider this), I was invited to do a funeral for a man who had never set foot in a church, except for maybe in his broken childhood.  

I said I’d be willing to meet with a family member -- but he didn’t have any family...only a very close-knit community from his local watering-hole in Mission Valley.  “His only community, his only family is his local bar?”

I laughed, rolled my eyes (because I was on the phone).  But set up a meeting with his friend anyway.

Turns out that the man who had died was an incredibly interesting person -- an accomplished theatre and television producer, winner of half a dozen Tony Awards!  Loving, charitable.  His dearest friends wanted the service to be on the beach...and they wanted it to be a sort of Viking Funeral.  Do you know what a Viking funeral is?  

The idea is that you take a person’s belongings -- in the old days that meant everything, now it means those things that symbolized and meant the most to the dearly departed -- put them on a small Viking ship, push the ship out into the water...and set it on fire!

I was a little fuzzy on how this was going to work in the San Diego Bay.  But totally intrigued.  

They wanted a Viking funeral because apparently Richard -- who obviously had a flare for the dramatic -- had done his own Viking funeral at an earlier time in his life... 

Yeah, the reason he didn’t have any family, except his local pub community, was because in the middle ages of his life, he had had a funeral for them and a bunch of other sad parts of his youngest years.  I think when he was about 40.  He had an event, his friends told me, where he brought symbols of all of that, set them on fire and pushed them out to sea.

In ministry, you get to meet so many different kids of people.
I don’t know if you find this funny or sad or none of the above or all of the above.  But the image of bringing the old parts of ourselves, dramatically setting them aflame and out to sea, strikes me this morning as we get back into Colossians!

“...when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God...and when you were dead in trespasses...God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us...nailing it to the cross.”  I hear that now and think: Viking funeral!  Baptism as Viking funeral.  That’s what I want you to walk away with this morning. 

When we are baptized into Christ, it’s like all our sad, sinful stuff is dragged out, set aflame, and pushed out to sea.  And all that’s left is blessing and joy.

You might laugh or be sad at the fact that Richard’s only friends -- his only family -- were his drinking buddies.  But I could tell very clearly in that afternoon with them on the beach, that all that was left for him was blessing and joy.  It was a wonderful, deeply spiritual, loving group of people, non-Christians doing what I wish more Christians would do: 
there was only love and pure life present in the stories and the laughter and tears and food and fellowship.  

In baptism, we believe, our old self is drowned, as Paul proclaims.  
And baptism happens for us Lutherans and Catholics usually at a very early age.  That means our whole life is lived with nothing but blessing and joy.  Our old stuff is dragged out and drowned.

We are rooted in Christ through baptism!  We are so deeply buried in God’s love!  This is the fundamental truth for us.  Sin and sadness gets in there, to be sure, but baptism and the daily renewal and remembrance and celebration of our baptism gives a daily Viking funeral for all the sin and sadness.

What is it for you that needs to be lit on fire and pushed out to sea?  The good, the bad, and the ugly?  What is it that we need to let go of, so that there’s only blessing and joy, peace and grace?  
Just a caution and a nuance here:  I don’t mean we need to bury to some difficult realities that need to be dealt with.  The image of the Viking funeral is powerful, I think, because it means bringing certain things out, into the light:  naming an abusive from a parent (perhaps), bringing out into the light a debilitating and burdening secret that’s kept you locked up for years.  I’m not talking about burying the ugly stuff and just pretending that everything’s good and beautiful.  I’m talking about being honest before God, and then letting it go...letting God take it out to sea and off our hands rather than you having to keep bearing that heavy load by yourself.

I said that the friends wanted Richard’s memorial service to be “sort of” a Viking funeral.  That’s because we didn’t actually send it out to sea.  What they did was they simply built a bonfire on the beach, and before starting the fire, they set a beautiful model Viking ship in the center of the wood.  Inside the ship were Richard’s ashes.  And then, they set out 4 or 5 long tables of his belongings, and invited people to take any items of clothing they wanted -- I grabbed some wonderful pairs of socks (he was known for his vibrant, colorful socks) -- 
and then whatever else was left on the tables, we were invited to take that, and put it on the fire, once the fire was ablaze.  

It was really powerful, as the ship burned, and flames rose, and friends raised glasses and wept and hugged and laughed.  I had never seen anything like it.  It was beautiful.  The community had dragged the stuff out into the light, carried some of it home with them, lightened the load, carried the load together.  And in the end, there was only blessing and joy.  (Doing grief, sadness -- it turns out -- is a form of blessing.)  In the end there was only love.  

“Therefore,” Colossians says, “do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals...These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.  Do not let anyone disqualify you...puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking, and not holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.” 

Sisters and brothers in Christ, we are rooted, we grow together (thinking of the children headed to camp), we are built up, in love.  And that love is from God, who is made know to us in Christ Jesus, who weeps with us in our sorrow, who rejoices with us in our celebrations.  We are built up, in love.  And that love is from God, who challenges us when we get too comfortable, and who comforts us when we are overwhelmingly challenged.  We are built up in love, as we gather around the foaming waters of the font (if you can’t see the foaming waters there, then we need to get a bigger font -- but I trust that you can), as we gather around those waters that lap up on the shores of our lives, know that we are built up in Christ, built up in love, built up in peace, built up in grace.  We let the sin go.  We entrust ourselves to the one who sets the fire.  And in the end, there is only blessing and joy.  Thanks be to God.  AMEN. 

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

July 17 -- Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

Have you ever gotten the sense that things are coming “unglued”?

Watching the news this week, one certainly gets that feeling --   with more violence and hatred at home and abroad: the attack in Nice, France, the military coup in Turkey.  Ongoing violence, brutality and general distrust in our nation, between police and people of color.  Protests and rallies and parades and more hatred.  Campaigns and attack ads, and conventions and reactions…

Do you ever get the sense that things are coming unglued?  

I know in my own life, there have been moments, when I thought I had a plan of action for dealing with a challenging situation, I thought I had a strategy, a simple-enough step-by-step process ready to go...like seams on a baseball, nicely tightened and stitched together was my blueprint...but then reality, then unexpected events, then unforeseen and even destructive conversations, then life happens...

Do you ever get the sense that things are coming unglued?  

:) What about when you show up for worship -- you just came to hear a word from God, to share in the Meal of the faithful -- but you’re suddenly making a hike through the heat to a “foreign land”!

I think especially in times of grief and loss, we can all get the sense that things are coming unglued.  [pause]  “What am I supposed to do now that she’s gone?”  “How am I going to go on without him?”

Do you ever get the sense that things are coming unglued?  

Friends in Christ, we have a text today that describes Jesus himself as the glue -- the one who holds all things together.  

And this is a different kind of text.  This writing doesn’t look like Paul’s writing.  This is like a mystical version of Paul.  Colossians gives us a cosmic view of Christ.  In Colossians we see Jesus there at the very beginning of creation (1), gluing all things together, constructing the world.  [Katie art] ) In Colossians we also see (2) Jesus in his redemptive role, fixing what’s been broken.  (We are familiar with that image of Christ).  [nativity]  Offering peace and reconciliation, as in other places in Scripture.  And (3) we see Christ in you [Chicago painting], Christ holding us up, like superglue holds up a painting -- we see Christ holding us up for the world to see!  Filling us with life and breath and togetherness...and hope.

There’s this great image in our passage today: “that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven.”  

What a prayer for us in these times, where we can feel as though things are coming unglued:  “that [we would] continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel…”

When the ugliness of death and loss and disorientation and discrimination and violence and pain and backstabbing...and the list goes on…

When the ugliness of sin pulls and rips at our world, know that even when it seems as though things are coming apart, even when we get the clear and present sense that things are coming unglued, sisters and brothers in Christ, know that God still holds us and this whole cosmos together in love.  We have not been severed, we have not been destroyed, we need not give up, and shift away from hope! 

God’s got us.  God’s got the whole world.  And this God -- of which and to whom we sing -- is Christ Jesus, himself!  It is this Christ who holds us together and gives us our being.  It is Christ who is through and through -- reverberating in every atom of our bodies and beyond the limits of every galaxy in the universe!  All is not lost; in fact, all is found.  And all is redeemed.  And all is “filled to the utmost with God” (as Martin Luther would say).  This Cosmic Christ is the glue!

It is in this Christ that we are held us all together.   Eugene Peterson translates the last verse here, which talks about “warning people” -- he puts it like this: “We preach Christ, warning people not to add to the Message.  We teach in a spirit of profound common sense so that we can bring each person to maturity. To be mature is to be basic. Christ!  No more, no less.”  [pause]

Sisters and brothers in Christ [that’s a profoundly common sense way to address and understand our selves us, btw], let’s get back to the basics: Christ, no more, no less.  Christ, the one in whom we live and move and have our being.  Christ, the one in whom we receive forgiveness of all our sin, comfort in all our sorrow, and challenge in all our complacency.  Christ: the glue, the ground, the grace...that wraps the cosmos!  

In this new space, in whatever space we find ourselves in, we don’t have to be afraid.  We don’t have to be angry or guilty.  We don’t have to be lost or lonely.  We have everything that we need here…

[the Table] [the Bath] [the Book] [the Assembly]

This is enough.  This is “the basics”.  And Christ is glue.  Thanks be to God!  AMEN.

Monday, July 11, 2016

July 10 -- Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Grace to you and peace from God…

Early Christian catacombs at the eastern edge of Rome
When I was in Rome in January, one of the recurring themes for me as we explored the Early Christian sites was how Christianity was literally on the margins of the Roman empire.  The catacombs we explored were all literally way out on the edge of the city, often outside the city walls.  (And then of course underground.)  The immigrant neighborhoods we ambled through on the west side of the great city, Testaccio and Trastevere, were actually across the river, where the poor and the foreigners were pushed to the side.  Even the area where we stayed, which felt to me and was now the center of Rome, was actually the far edge of the old city.  This was the site of the first public church which was hardly the grand cathedral of San Giovanni that stands there now.  The Emperor Constantine put it there to save his own neck.  He didn’t centralize Christianity until the end of his life...  

My point -- and just some images I’m sharing with you from my recent travels:  Christianity started out on the edge.  

Then after Constantine, 325 AD, it became the seat and source of power.  The Holy Roman Empire, Christendom.  It’s really stayed there in the center, like that, until recently.  Many of you remember congregations packed the brim, going to your local Christian church wasn’t just faithful it was patriotic, pictures of Presidents kneeling before a cross in prayer, it was much more mainstream.  

But Christendom’s is in its final stages, and Christianity in its purest form, I believe, is moving back out to the edges, back to where it started, back underground, and to the margins of our society.  Most Americans -- while most profess belief in God -- are not in church, “practicing their religion”, this morning.

There are to many other things to do -- right now [watch], Micah’s baseball practice is starting, and he gets singled out for being a little “church boy”.  He’s definitely in the minority.  Charity runs, and errands, and Sunday morning coffee and paper, and sleep are all taking priority...right?  And so, we’re seeing the tectonic plates shift once again, and we Christians are moving back (or being moved back) to where we started.  

I think this is actually good, by the way, getting back to the margins.  I think that’s a good place to be.  Because that’s where we’re needed, and that’s where Jesus calls us to be.  The core of the Christian message gets lost when Christians sits at the center, all cuddled up in the halls of power.  We start to make Jesus look like an emperor or a top ranking general, and we miss his radical vulnerability and pursuit and care for the least, the lost and the lonely. 

We’re moving back to the edge, where we started:  Underground, across the river, across the tracks, across the border.  Out to the margins.  Thanks be to God. 

And that sets the context a little more for this encouraging letter to the Colossians, which we begin to today.  

They are receiving a letter from Paul, it says.  Some scholars think this was Paul himself writing.  Other’s argue that it was a disciple of Paul’s, which -- we have to understand -- was not plagiarism back then but a way of showing honor and respect for your teacher...  

(By the way, interesting to think about: if you were to write an encouraging, maybe instructive, letter to a Christian community in trouble, which mentor or great teacher of yours might you pen under?)

Anyway, the Colossians (central Turkey) -- once again out on the edge of the Roman Empire -- the Colossians have received this letter with Paul’s name on it, and it is filled with words of thanksgiving for their faithfulness, words of encouragement in the struggles and challenges that they face, and finally a word of Gospel.   

This is a letter for us today, sisters and brothers in Christ!  It’s not just for them.  This is timeless praise and encouragement, and we can receive it too!  

First the author says thank you.  And I hope you can accept a word of thanksgiving for all you do: 

Thank you for hanging in there, friends.  After some years of decline in our church body, and in our religion in general, you’ve stuck it out.  You’ve remained part of the church universal your faithfulness does not go unnoticed.  It’s good to hear a word of thanks, isn’t it?  And this thanks is for us too.  Thank you for your hope, your joy, your generosity, your participation in the saving works of God, and especially your giving witness to Christ’s love in the world.  These are the fruits that we bear, as a result of “being in Christ.”   

We employ the language of being “clothed with Christ” in our baptism.  But its even more than that.  We ingest Christ, we eat Jesus in the Holy Supper.  Christ isn’t just resting gently on our skin like a nice garment, Christ is in our bones, deeply enfleshed.  

“Being in Christ” is a recurring theme in Colossians.  And I hope you hear it too.  You’re not just some dirty rotten sinner, that God comes to rescue.  [slowly] You are the very body of Christ.   (That’s why we reverence you at the beginning of the service.)
You might be the only Jesus someone out there ever sees.

This is all being acknowledged in this intro to the Colossians.  And it feels good to just state what’s often rarely stated, but most certainly true:  that I see the face of Christ in you.

Then the encouragement: You’re constantly in our prayers.  May the strength of God be upon you to endure whatever comes your way -- with patience and joyful thanksgiving. 

Man, that’s timely as we face some exciting and perhaps challenging times here at SVLC.  How might we move through these upcoming months of construction and temporary relocation on Sunday mornings with “patience and joyful thanksgiving”?  [pause] This is a letter for us today.

And finally the Gospel 1-2 punch:  “God has rescued us from the power of darkness” -- gotta be very careful here.  Darkness is a metaphor.  In yet another season of racism and crimes and arguments about police brutality and white privilege, in a season where there has to be protest signs and movements calling our attention to the fact that “Black Lives Matter”, in all this destructive dualism -- this side or that, the police side or the “Black Lives Matter” side, the liberal side or the conservative side (isn’t this awful?) -- we have to be careful with language about “God rescuing us from the power of darkness.”  Darkness can also be a metaphor for beauty, for rest, for empowerment, and  for new life, right?  Think of those dark catacombs, the dark tomb of Jesus resurrection.

But here it’s not: “God has rescued us from the power of darkness -- [I’d say ‘from the place where God is not’] -- and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption and forgiveness of sins.  Ah, there it is.  The Gospel, in Christ, having been transferred in to -- not an earthly empire, not an earthly monarchy or even an earthly  democracy -- having been rescued and transferred through baptism into the mystery of Christ’s realm, we have redemption, salvation, and the forgiveness of sins.  

Sisters and brothers in Christ, you are forgiven.  I hope you can receive that along with the thanks that is offered to you.  We are invited to open our hands this morning, and receive God’s forgiveness, Christ’s pardon -- for all the horrible (and even the not-so-horrible) things we’ve done.  God has transferred you, God has brought you over, to live in the joy of your Savior, who is out on the edge, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and welcoming the stranger.  This is the place we belong -- rescued and commissioned outward.  Thanks be to God.  AMEN.