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, May 29, 2011

May 29 -- 6th Sunday of Easter

This week my brothers Tim and Jon came for a visit. Tim all the way from Washington D.C. and Jon from Portland, Oregon. I always thought my two brothers were some pretty cool guys, but they shot to epic status in the eyes of our son this past week. You see Jon and Tim, or Uncle Jon and Uncle Awesome, as they like to be called by our kids, created treasure hunts for our pirate-obsessed little boy. They wrote out clues that rhyme, hid them all over the house, and together they spent literally hours with our son finding the clues and eventually the buried treasure. The only breaks they would take were for the occasional sword-fight, which just gave Micah indescribable joy, as we don’t usually do much sword fighting (or treasure hunting) around the house…

It’s a simple picture, I offer you, of two uncles leaving the concerns of their stressful lives and having a little fun with their nephew…however it is but one more opportunity for finding God, the joy, the peace, the elation, the creativity, the re-creativity of God, alive and well in the everyday—in the laughter and excitement of children and men alike.

Paul stands in front of the Areopagus, the City Hall of Athens, and says, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.” Imagine St. Paul standing on West Broadway, in front of our courthouse looking at the great buildings of our city and saying, “San Diegans, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.”

Paul makes such a fascinating move here in the book of Acts, he honors the religious impulses of the people (the religious nature that is imbedded into our genes – might not always be toward the church, but all of us have objects of worship) and then seeks to give a new name and give voice to what they are experiencing. He seeks to take their passion, to honor their enthusiasm, but to check it and actually name it as holy, to refocus it.

And to proclaim that it is God in whom we live and move and have our being, our God, who does not live in shrines made by human hands.

That is, God is so deeply imbedded into our everyday – this is the glory of Easter. Easter is a season for celebrating God’s breaking out onto the world. Easter precedes Pentecost, the birth of the church.

First is Easter (God out there), then Pentecost (the people giving voice and name to God out there). In other words, church is not where God is created and where God lives, where God is domesticated and kept safe. Rather church is where God’s people give voice to God’s redemptive work in the world.

God is alive and well in ways and things we might not have expected – like treasure hunts/swordfights with your uncles.

Like greeting a stranger on the trolley, reveling in the latest novel or TV show, following the Padres through another season, playing in the swimming pool, working in the garden, getting stranded in the airport, passing the cornbread – the list is as diverse as it is endless. And not just in cheerful or routine moments – God is deeply present in the painful times too.

The Roschke family lost our dog this week. We had to put Oscar down. And I don’t quite know how to articulate it, but I know, I felt, I believe that God was so deeply imbedded in our painful experience of saying good-bye to Oscar, holding him as he took his final breaths and his final treat, as they gave him the shot. God was so deeply present as I wept uncontrollably over his perfectly still body. God was so deeply imbedded in the care that we’ve continued to receive from friends and family, and from the good people at the Humane Society. There was immense holiness in that sorrow. (And in the freedom from shame to feel this deeply about a dog.)

God is present in everyday things in ways that we can’t expect or control …and the Apostles and Evangelists of the Bible help us give voice to that.

Jesus says in John that the world has trouble seeing this ever-present Spirit. Maybe too many in this world have been taught not to see God in the everyday things, I mean really everyday things. Maybe the church is responsible for this mishap – attempting to give God limited access through golden chalices and glorious architecture, long flowing robes, and manicured sermons. Or maybe the world, and we too, just “can’t see or believe” in the Spirit’s omnipresence in this day or this time in our lives.

But whatever the reason we may struggle to recognize God in the everyday, Jesus’ words rise to the surface again this morning and hover over us all:

“I promise not to leave you orphaned,” Jesus says. I promise not to leave you stuck in worshipping something that has no meaning, no substance. I promise not to abandon you to the emptiness of this world, to the shrines made by human hands. But rather I promise to fill your life and your world (every aspect of it) with my love and my presence, for I am the one in whom you live and move and have your being.

God has given us the eyes of faith to see this love and presence. We just have to be reminded and invited again to open our eyes of faith, to see what the world can’t see, that God is so deeply present in love.

There is a character in the Harry Potter books called the Dementor. And the Dementor is this ghost-like creature that can reach into a person and suck out their life-spirit, their joy, their creativity and their hope. To see the impact of the Dementor in the Harry Potter films is just eerie. The victim is left with a blank expression and stare, not dead but devoid of any “spark”.

When tragedy or fear or pain strikes, we realize that the Dementor is not just a figment of a great novelist’s imagination. The Dementor can suck the life-spirit out of us too, sometimes even just through the everyday routines of our lives. We can so easily be “Demented” into believing that God is not present in this world, that all we have in this life is what we can see: shines made by human hands, the art and imagination of mere mortals.

When you feel the Dementor lurking in your life, sisters and brother in Christ, contemplate the wonder of a tree, which is but one example of the art and imagination of the Divine…AND hear again the words of Jesus from the Gospel of John:

“I will give you an advocate [to stand up for you to the Dementors of this world], an advocate to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of Truth, whom the world cannot receive, because the world neither sees nor knows her [actually a feminine word]. You know her because she abides with you, and she will be in you. I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming with you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me, because I live, you also will live.”

Monday, May 23, 2011

May 22 -- 5th Sunday of Easter

While I was in seminary and working one summer as a chaplain with a small group of seminarians (Lutherans, Catholics, Presbyterians) at Loyola Medical Center and hospital in Chicago—there was a writing-and-reflection exercise that we had to do as part of our curriculum called “Story Theology”.

We had to write down a one-page, front side only, story about something in our lives, preferably not referring to our professional or vocational lives (like interactions with patients or reflections on our training) in the hospital, or in the church. But rather a story from our personal lives, currently or deep in our memory banks. Didn’t have to be anything profound or intense, necessarily, just a story from our lives. Not our thoughts/feelings about the story, our interpretations; just what happened.

Then, we would bring that story to the group (of 7), and together we’d reflect on it “theologically”. Hence the name for this exercise: “Story Theology.” The word “theology” is simply a fancy word for “talk about God”. This was “talk about God” through a story, usually a very simple story.

So, for example, a colleague of mine wrote about being carried by her uncle when she was little and on a trip to the Philippines. I wrote about an adventure I had with my brothers. Not the feelings or the thoughts, just what happened. One colleague, I remember simply wrote about a bicycle that he had seen a few days earlier, just an old rusty bike, locked to a street sign in a Chicago neighborhood.

Then as a group, we’d take a whole afternoon on one such story and think about “where was God” in the story? “What aspects of the Divine are revealed?” What are the implications from these reflections for pastoral care, ministry, theology or rituals – there was a whole list of questions that helped us dissect our simple stories, but not to take away from the beauty of the simple story, rather to find meaning, insights—even God—in our stories, in ways we probably hadn’t ever considered on our own.

It was a unique experience – taking a whole afternoon to reflect on a short story about looking in the mirror and seeing first gray hairs or tripping and falling at the grocery store or playing catch with your dad in the back yard.

Iit was important training, for me, in learning how to see God and talk about God being deeply imbedded into everyday life. (I’d encourage you to try this…)

Maybe this doesn’t sound like anything new or profound to you, maybe it’s easy for you to find God deeply imbedded in everyday life, but put yourself in the shoes of intense and anxious pastors-in-training. Our heads were so filled with books and papers and lectures and the experiences of others, it was really easy to stop trusting and paying attention to the wisdom of our own experience…and I for one realized that I was missing God all over the place.

Sisters and brothers in Christ, God is all over the place. In our Gospel today, Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” Last week, we could pin God down in the image of a Shepherd. But today we realize that he’s also…all over the place. We also hear today that God goes ahead of us to prepare a place, and that God the is our rock and our shelter even now, and long before us. God is all over the place.

And I think it’s easy to forget that. Just like I was once so inundated with books and lectures in seminary that I missed God in the simpleness of life…

so can we all miss Christ—the way, the truth, the life right here, right now—in our being inundated with (maybe not books and lectures, maybe so but..) the pressures, the stresses, the headlines, the bills to pay, the appointments to make on time, the projects to finish, the kids to feed, the sleep to catch up on. It’s easy to miss it – the presence of God, the talk about God. But regardless of whether we notice it or not, God is all over the place…[pause] like junk mail, God just keeps arriving and arriving. And we can be tempted to want to just put God in the recycle bin, in the church.

I really don’t like calling the church “God’s house”…because that’s not enough, God’s house is much bigger. The world is God’s house! The forest is God’s house, the oceans are God’s house, the city streets are God’s house, the volcano is God’s house, immigrant and the stranger is God’s house, hospital bed is God’s house, the preschool and the boardroom is God’s house. The spider monkey and the octopus is God’s house. The lawyer and the homemaker is God’s house. We are God’s house. You are God’s house. What did Jesus say, in my Father’s house there are many, many rooms? God isn’t just up there waiting…because that’s not enough. God is right here acting and moving and watching and loving this world – the way, the truth, the life here and now.

As you might know or have heard, I was a preaching conference in Minneapolis this week before attending our Synod Assembly in Irvine. (And at this point you’re probably saying to yourself…hmmm…maybe you should have stayed a little longer J)

But as it always does these seasons of our lives, the issue of the church being in “decline” came up – not enough money, less and less people – it’s across the board, not just Lutherans, it’s a post-church age. One of the preachers made reference to this in his sermon, but then he did a little “story theology” about the changes in the Christian church. He inserted “God talk” into the story of the “church these days”, which might sound funny. Why would there not be God talk around/about the church today? But so often, we can forget about God’s action and presence, even when we use God’s name throughout our worship services, and maybe even in our everyday lingo, like when someone sneezes. We can use God’s name and still forget about God’s action…

This preacher, whose name is Tom Long, did a little story theology on the story of the “church these days”…and said that [pause] whatever is happening to the church these days – and everyone’s got their theories about why – whatever is happening to the church these days, “we have to remember that God is doing it.” God is up to something, God is all over the place, even in the church. God is clearing away, God is going to seed, just beneath the surface that might look like nothing. God keeps arriving and arriving. God keeps breaking out in unexpected ways, rising from the tombs, rising from the pain, rising from the doubt, rising from the tears, rising from the poor, rising from the stranger, rising from the martyr Steven who cries out words of forgiveness and mercy toward the very people who are killing him with stones. Whatever is happening, God is doing it. And our God is not a God of death—like all we’re hearing these days about a God who picks a few for eternal salvation and leaves the rest of the world, billions of people, not to mention the creatures of the planet to suffer and burn in hell—NO. Our God is a God of life, who doesn’t even just come down from above, but who rises up from below, from the ashes and the graves and the sorrow and the pain and the confusion and the despair. God keeps rising. Rising from this world, and rising from you.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

May 15 -- 4th Sunday of Easter

Grace to you and peace from our risen Savior Jesus Christ. AMEN.

Sisters and brother in Christ…Jesus likes to mix his metaphors.

Today is the Sunday sometimes known as Good Shepherd Sunday. A chance for us to reflect upon Christ as our shepherd, our shepherd of the valley. But here in this Gospel text Jesus very clearly states that he’s the gate.

I’d love to have had a camera on the disciples as Jesus is spouting his poetry and his beautiful metaphorical imagery about himself...

Shot of Jesus (waxing poetic)…now cut to disciples (“uhhhh….”). Not making this up: verse 6.

“Are you the Shepherd, Jesus, or are you the gate, I’m confused?” And Jesus would reply, “Yes, I am the way.” (next week: way, truth, life)

All of the images of Jesus are important; I certainly do not mean to ridicule. (although I do mean to play with scripture – one of my two favorite images/metaphors for the Bible itself is a playground – “Think of the Bible as a playground” -- when we approach a playground, there are a lot of feelings that come up – for some sadly fear or bad associations, but thankfully for many of us too – there is joy, a spirit of playfulness, humor, imagination, freedom…we get out of breath, but we breathe. I do mean to instill in us a sense of playfulness with our texts – loosen up, laugh, question, ponder)

So what of Jesus saying that he is the Gate? (I’d like to spend more time here…since this image often subsumed in shadow of Good Shepherd) What of Jesus saying that he is the Gate?

This really gives us…and gave the people of John’s day…an opportunity to reflect on “church” – church being here, those who reside both inside and move outside of this fence, the sheep, us – we are in here within the fence, we’ll go out there for the rest of the week, and then we’ll come back in here.

John the Gospel writer’s community had tons of different “church groups” popping up in his day. It must have been terribly confusing—all claiming to be the right way. This image of Jesus as the Gate of the church can be a very helpful one for us today. This image gives us an opportunity again to stop and check ourselves at the door, at the gate – do we as a church live as though Christ is our gate? Is Christ the means by which we come and go?

Or is it something else? Is it the friends, or the escape from the world? Or maybe it’s the pastor – This is a really good question for pastors too. We have to be careful that pastors aren’t the means by which we come and go. I always get so uncomfortable when people say to me, “It’s your church, Pastor.” Or “It’s your show.” Partly because I like that idea. [pause] What if someone said that to you? What if it was “your church”— what if people looked to you to “make the call”. Maybe you’d be enticed by that too. All to many story of pastors getting drunk on their own egos – I’m sorry, but the pastor’s picture up in front of a church, down by the street, I think, really sends a strange message…Who is the gate?

Even the Bible, I believe, can become an alternative gate! Do we point to Christ or do we point to the Bible? Luther and his companions were very clear—and I think very helpful—on this: they said that the Bible was only meant to point to Christ. “Cradle of Christ”. I quote Luther here, because I hope you know how serious of a biblical scholar he was, even if you think I’m too playful.

Is Christ the means by which we come and go? (the first reading from Acts gives us a concise idea of a place where Christ as the entry and exit point, even though it doesn’t say that…see if you see it: They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

do we as a church live as though Christ is our gate? Is Christ at our going out and our coming in?)

I think, at SVLC, our answer to that is wonderful blend of yes and no. We do some things really well—I do, as I read through this passage in Acts, I think of my experience here – just this week: Wednesday, we honored our past as we gave thanks for a life well lived, then on Friday we celebrated the future <-- just a few examples – worship, prayers, eating, sharing, selling our possessions, and doing it all with glad and generous hearts. The text talked about “life abundant”?... I see that here, in so many ways! I am proud to be part—not a leader of it—but a part of it. SVLC has pastors that come and go, people that come and go (I mean we did all this just this week…and we didn’t even have Judy :). There’s not one person you can’t point to (except Margaret Johnson :) but there is a spirit here that endures. Because I think in so many ways we do strive to live in ways that reflect the reality – that Christ is truly the means by which we come and go!

And of course as a church, we wouldn’t be a church or human beings for that matter, if we didn’t still have some work to do…

How might we even more share what we have with those in need, how might we even more give ourselves to the teachings of the Apostles, the Word of God, how might we even more hear the voice of the Good Shepherd, beckoning us out into the world and back into “the fold”/the church, beckoning us to go deeper into ourselves, where is Christ the Good Shepherd calling you, calling us this week?

What do you see as being the thing most needed? What do you think Christ sees as being the thing most needing attention?

May Christ continue to be our Gate – the means by which we come and go. And thanks be to God our Good Shepherd – who continues to guide us, to lead us, to protect us, and to always, always call us safely home and enfold us with love – this day and forever. AMEN.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

May 8 -- 3rd Sunday of Easter/Mother's Day

Grace to you and peace this day from our risen Christ – risen in the midst of celebration, risen in the midst of devastation, risen in the midst of violence, risen in the midst of sorrow – grace to you and peace this day from our risen Christ. AMEN.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, I am feeling a bit like a juggler this morning, with three flaming torches in the air, all very important in my mind: 1) Today is Mother’s Day, and while it is not a liturgical celebration, I think it needs to be celebrated, remembered historically, and honored in our churches: Torch #1. Torch #2: Today comes at the end of an historical week, and if we are people “not of the world, but in the world”, then we must throw into the mix a torch of recent events, namely the killing of Osama bin Laden and the subsequent, developing stories. Reinhold Neibuhr, talked about Christians always approaching the world with a newspaper in one hand and a bible in the other. Nowadays you can cram that all on your smartphone, but the image is still poignant. We have to reflect theologically on events in our world in our church. Torch #2. And finally, speaking of Bible-in-one-hand we must, as a people who gather around word and Sacrament each week reflect upon this beautiful Gospel story, the Road to Emmaus. This is how Luke ends his Gospel. The last time I read that in this space was when we read the entire Gospel of Luke together and I was reading this final chapter, from the center isle, struggling to get through it without my voice getting shaky. This beautiful story at the end of a long journey, Christ is revealed. How we need to hear that again. Perhaps instead of this text being a third torch, to juggle perhaps we might imagine this text rather as grounding, as a stage upon which to stand this unique Mother’s Day.
Call your attention to the pre-written but helpful introduction for the day – on p. 3.
Today's gospel begins with two disciples walking to Emmaus, overcome with sadness, loss, and disappointment. They had hoped Jesus, who was crucified, would be the one to redeem Israel! Yet the risen Christ walks with them, and then opens their eyes in the breaking of the bread. Each Sunday our hearts burn within us as the scriptures are proclaimed and Christ appears to us as bread is broken and wine is poured. The story of Emmaus becomes the pattern of our worship each Lord's day.
I find this to be quite fitting for our day, even though there’s no mention of Mother’s Day or news headlines. How we can be like those 2 disciples walking away. How we can “hope” for Jesus to make all our dreams come true, all our prayers answered, the one to redeem Israel – that is righting all the wrongs in our world.
I wonder if we’re experiencing a sort of anti-climactic moment now that we’re a couple days past the killing of Osama bin Laden. “We had hoped.” If we could just get Osama, if we could just isolate evil, single it out, and then kill it, the world would be a better and safer place. There were celebrations in the streets across our country a week ago tonight. But now, just days later, perhaps we’re not feeling all that much safer…or less safe. Kind of feels the same. Kind of makes you wonder--maybe we didn’t get all the evil in the world killed, and it’s tempting to want to look for more. This is a somber time for we are being reminded again that evil can’t be encapsulated in one person and then exterminated. We’re being reminded again that we have evil within ourselves too.
We had hoped, that Jesus would be the one to “redeem Israel,” but instead he’s just on the road with us, just walking alongside, revealing himself to us in ordinary ways, not it in fire-works displays or marching bands or helicopter strikes or street parties, but in a little bread and wine on a quiet corner of Avocado Blvd. and Fury Lane.
As I’ve been juggling in preparation this week, I’ve been drawn back to this question in our text, “Were not our hearts burning within us as he opened the Scriptures to us?” Has your heart ever burned within you as the Holy Spirit moves in your midst? I don’t mean “heartburn” or acid reflux, I mean has God ever put something in your heart or in your mind that burns? [pause]
I’ve been reflecting on this experience of our hearts burning within us – as not always a joyous experience but always a passionate one. [pause] Romantic passion can certainly be one example of that: heart burning with excitement or anticipation – that’s certainly a joyful heart burning within. But our hearts burn with passion in other ways too: when we see something that’s just so wrong – we could get political here, but I think a universal experience (political stances) is seeing a child starving or suffering in some way. Our hearts pound a little bit harder.
And this is where I have to bring up Mother’s Day. This is a day that began in the U.S. by two mothers whose hearts burned for peace – “for peace in the world, for peace in our hearts, for peace in our homes” as we sang. I think Anna Jarvis and Julia Ward Howe, two of the American founders of Mother’s Day, would like singing our Kyrie…for they were passionate about peace and wanted to set a day aside to say “blessed are the peacemakers” – mothers and all women of peace.
Anna Javis, who petitioned for years President Wilson to recognize Mother’s Day as a holiday…later opposed the day because it had become so much more about commercializing and much less about thanksgiving for and reflection upon peace-making.
I’d like to share Julia Ward Howe’s 1870 Mother’s Day Proclamation, which is often outshined/understated:
"Arise, then, women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts,
Whether our baptism be of water or of tears!
Say firmly: "We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.
We, the women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs."
From the bosom of the devastated Earth a voice goes up with our own.
It says: "Disarm! Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice."
Blood does not wipe out dishonor, nor violence indicate possession.
As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil at the summons of war,
Let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel.
Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.
Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means
Whereby the great human family can live in peace,
Each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar,
But of God."
This week I visited with our sister in the faith Madeline Botz at her lovely home down the hill. I was struggling with the text, what to make of current events, Mother’s Day, and I asked her about what she thought of things she was seeing in the news. And this mother of 5, grandmother of 11, great grandmother of (__? ), says to me, “Well, I just think about all those empty chairs at the dinner tables – the empty chairs in the homes of our declared enemies, who are away fighting or have been killed, the empty chairs in the homes of our troops, who are away fighting or have been killed. So many empty chairs.”
From the bosom of our devastated earth a voice goes up…
Christ is with us, as we walk along, or even walk away. Christ is stays with us as we practice hospitality. The disciples invited Jesus even when they didn’t know who he was. Christ is with us as we practice hospitality, perhaps entertaining angels unaware. And Christ is with us during these days of empty chairs – in our dining spaces at home, in this dining space at church, Christ is with us, not as conqueror, but as bread: as the bread of peace, as the word of life. AMEN.