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, June 19, 2011

June 19 -- Holy Trinity Sunday

On this Holy Trinity Sunday & Father’s Day, I have to share this quote with you from St. Augustine of Hippo. Hippo was a modern-day province of Algeria in northern Africa, and in the Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers, Vol. III, he said this about God, in the 4th century:

“Only material bodies fill or occupy material space. The Godhead is beyond all space; let no one seek the Godhead as though it were in space. Everywhere the Godhead is invisible and indivisibly present. Who can comprehend this? What then are we to say of God? For if you have grasped what you wish to say, it is not God. If you had been able to comprehend it, you would have comprehended something else in the place of God. If you had been almost able to comprehend it, your mind has deceived you. It is not God, if you have understood it. But if it is God, you have not understood it.”

(Isn’t that great? Honestly I get so tired of people trying to explain the Trinity, like it’s as simple as ice/water/vapor or one person who is a mother/sister/daughter at the same time. I can wrap my mind around those things. But the Trinity? Sometimes we just have to quiet ourselves and be in awe at the mystery. “Be still and know.”)

Holy Trinity Sunday, sisters and brothers in Christ. We gather this day, on yet another mountain top, where Jesus gives us the Great Commission (my dad’s confirmation verse: [his first bible, my first bible]).

We gather this Trinity day, on yet another mountain top, where Jesus gives us the Great Commission. I’ve mentioned this before, but have you noticed all the mountain tops we visit as we move through the church year, especially this year of Matthew?

Jesus was born in the Bethlehem plain, but he very soon ascends the mount in Matthew to give the sermon. Then back down into the valley where he does his ministry…until the Mount of Olives where he is transfigured, Transfiguration Sunday (March). Then back down into the valley of Lent which finally ends with a cross on a Mt. Calvary. But then, from that blessed cave in the valley, the Messiah emerges, only to climb, in the Gospel of Matthew right back onto the same mountain (we think) where he delivered the sermon at the beginning. And here is where he now says, “Lo, I am with you always.” And that’s the end, no ascension in Matthew’s world. In fact the opposite: the promise never to leave us.

Another mountain top moment for us sisters and brothers in Christ! Only this time, it’s Holy Trinity Sunday on the mount, and we’re gazing down into the beautiful valley of “Green Sundays” lasting through Summer and Fall – season of stories and images and teachings of Jesus for the people of God who come to partake in that lush, green valley. But I think that the Spirit is encouraging us today to just stand in awe at the mystery of the Triune God, before we plunge back down into that valley.

Let us be in a state of praise and thanksgiving at the beauty and mystery of the Trinity. (Stretch and Pray.) May we, this Holy Trinity Sunday, be in praise on this little “mountain top” of Shepherd of the “Valley” Lutheran Church (I love the irony).

Let us just stand in awe of God. Because, when it comes down to it, like Augustine of old, we have to admit, that there’s not a lot we can say about God. We just have to get out of the way and let God be God.

Holy Trinity Sunday is gives us an opportunity to reflect on the Apostle’s Creed, one of the oldest doctrinal statements of our church. The Apostle’s Creed, as you may know, is not written in the Bible. (Neither is the word trinity.)

The creed didn’t come into existence for several hundred years after Jesus walked on the earth! I think that speaks to the mystery of the Trinity – it took several hundred years just to come up with a central statement, which marks us as Christians. It gives more depth to the Triune name under which we are baptized. It binds us together with one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. And the creed reminds me, anyway, that some things are much bigger than I am.

On my good days, I love being a part of this larger creedal family called the church, which has stood the test of time, which has spread to all corners of the globe as Jesus commanded, gathering, nurturing, and sending Christ’s people out with this same grace and love of God that we celebrate today.

And on my more difficult days, I really struggle to understand and to believe parts of the creed, sometimes even to say them.

But, like Augustine points out, all words finally fall short.

So we really have to rely on the artists and poets and musicians and dancers to help us honor the mystery of the Trinity. In a few minutes we’ll sing “Come Join the Dance of Trinity”, envisioning the sacred three as a dance into which we are invited.

I like that. I think it gets at what Augustine is getting at.

Others said it too: Richard Fuller--"God is a verb." Paul Tillich--“God must be understood as being itself.” Martin Luther--"God writes the gospel not in the Bible alone but on trees, and flowers and clouds and stars." (Reminds me of our participatory 1st lesson today from Genesis.) Wonderful to hold those quotes in balance as we celebrate and reflect on that beautiful creation story!

I’m gonna take my own artistic hack at envisioning this Holy Trinity Sunday on the mountain top and invite you this day and always into this idea: “You are already being danced around by God.”

Have you ever been “danced around”? It’s hard not to crack a smile, even when you’re upset, when a few others start dancing around you. To just sit there while a couple friends or family members crank up some music and boogie on down all around you…

Ever experienced this? My brothers can get me laughing every time. Heather can too.

“You are already being danced around by God,” sisters and brothers of the faith! God has cranked up the music of creation. Listen to it, study it, celebrate it, protect it, and then just try not to crack a smile as the Trinity is rockin’ out all around you! Sliding from side to side, bouncing all around, taking you by the hand, and beckoning you to join…even and especially when we’re upset, when we’re broken, when we’re lost.

Many times it’s just when we’re talking. We’re talking and talking, and describing and describing, and teaching and teaching…

Sisters and brothers of the faith, when it comes to the Triune God, at some point, we just have to shut up, and enjoy the dance.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

June 12 -- Pentecost Sunday

This Gospel reading has been called “John’s Pentecost,” where Jesus himself is there to give them the Holy Spirit. “Receive the Holy Spirit,” he says and breathes on those gathered. I suppose I favor the traditional Pentecost story in the book of Acts (just because of the drama of the whole event)...which may be why I never really noticed the last line of Book of John’s Pentecost…

Immediately after Jesus breathes on us—which he does today and every time we gather—he says this stuff about forgiveness: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any they are retained.”

What’s forgiveness got to do with Pentecost?

You know, the church is such an unnatural thing. And today we celebrate the birthday of something that could never have been born without the help of the Holy Spirit. Humans could never have created this crazy institution called Church.

There is no other group like Church! Think about clubs and organizations, like Rotary or Elks or the National Organization for Women, the ASCLU or National Rifle Association, the Coronado Country Club or the Sierra Club. They all gather because they share a common perspective, a common base, a common opinion, a common membership…which they have human power over. Or think of political parties or even nationalities (I don’t have to name those). They gather under an identity that is created by human boundaries and human sets of ideas…which they we human power over. Are you in or are you out of our group. Or think about different culturally specific groups. African American groups, Latino groups, Asian groups. What’s that Norwegian group that meets?

All of the ways we group and organize ourselves…using our human power to control.

This is natural.

And then there’s the Church...

And then there’s Pentecost. Where fire and wind, the Holy Spirit, un-natural and un-human, comes down from above onto a group of people from all walks of life and binds them together for mission. That’s unnatural! We’re going to need a little outside help in order to be bound together.

What’s forgiveness got to do with Pentecost?

One of the most poignant moments in my ministry here at SVLC was when I received a note from someone who disagreed strongly with how I and the council had dealt with the transition that we went through over year ago regarding the position of our former music director David Yantis. There was a time where it may have been difficult for her to talk to me, maybe even look at me. The whole thing just made her sick.

A few months later, however, I received a note from her. The cover of the card said, “Just because I don’t agree with you, doesn’t mean I don’t love you.” And inside it read, “Looking forward to continuing in ministry together.”

What’s forgiveness got to do with Pentecost?

As our larger church bodies continue to disagree over issues of sexuality, political activism, war and peace, the Holy Spirit continues to move in midst, calling us together, whispering in our ears (ever so softly sometimes): “Looking forward to continuing in ministry together.”

The church is an unnatural place. That’s probably the reason for its decline over the years, especially as we drift out of the years of shaming and guilting and frightening our people into membership.

I was talking to a life-long Presbyterian this week and he was reminiscing about the days that his church “had no conflicts.” It was a time I learned, when the ushers and the officers of the church were all men, who sometimes even wore white gloves. When the only color in the sanctuary was in the stained glass windows, which blocked the view to the streets outside. When no one talked about sex or sexuality, and the organ was the only instrument that was ever heard inside those white washed walls of the sanctuary, and the same beautiful hymns were played at the same time of every year. Everything was very controlled, very predictable, very nice.

It’s interesting to compare that picture with the picture of the 1st Pentecost.

I was reminded recently at a conference where Diversity was the theme. Diversity seems like something some of us want in our churches, so we have conferences to talk about how to get there. How to be more welcoming of all people. But I was reminded at one of these events that diversity is not a goal, as in an end result. Rather diversity is the original picture of the church. “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs …”

I heard story once about a woman who came into a church for the first time. She was dressed in pretty shabby garments, and even smelled a little bit. Her hair looked like she hadn’t washed it for days. And when the older, pretty, well-put-together woman who was the “greeter” that Sunday saw her coming in from the parking lot, she got a little bit nervous. And when the unpleasant visitor got to the door, the greeter said calmly, “Hello.” And then she whispered, “Um, you may be more comfortable at the church down the road. I can go get you the address.”

How do you think the stranger responded?

The story goes, I’m assured that it’s true, that she responded harshly to the well-dressed, long-time member. [I have to sensor my language here, because here words are pretty violent, so I’ll just use the first letters of the words] “F you, B! I’m coming in!” And then marched right into the sanctuary and participated just like anyone else in the service of Word and Sacrament. What I find interesting is that the “greeter” didn’t try to throw her out after that. Something, I understand, snapped her into a new place. Maybe it was a little Pentecost.

“And suddenly…came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.” (How we’d prefer to sit.)

But it’s a little tricky to stay seated when the Holy Spirit arrives, in through the doors, down from above, “I’m comin’ in!” the Spirit says, whether you’re open and welcoming and ready…or not. That exact same Spirit of Christ, he now gives it to us.

Pentecost is a breaking in, a disturbance in the human order of things, now we’re talking God’s power, not human power.

Imagine people from the Elks Club, the National Organization for Women, the ASCLU and National Rifle Association, the Coronado Country Club and the Sierra Club, the Republican Party and the Democrat party, people from every race and culture—Latinos, Anglos, African Americans and Africans, Asians, Pacific Islanders, and Europeans—all gathered in one room…

But not ready for what is about to come in the door: A violent wind, and suddenly flames on each one’s head, that is a spark of the Spirit, a breath from Jesus. And finally a word: Forgiveness. It all begins with forgiveness.

We can’t do ministry without dealing with forgiveness. Jesus was right—first Holy Spirit, then a word of forgiveness. Christ forgives us. We forgive ourselves. You forgive yourself. Retaining sins holds us down, it’s a weignt on our shoulders. We forgive one another. We forgive the strangers.

And then it begins. We begin speaking in the tongue of forgiveness. The language of grace and love and hospitality, the very language of God. The windows and the doors are flung open wide and out we go, into the world. We begin the Spirit life – un-natural, un-common, un-popular – loving others in a world where some only see hated and violence. Welcoming others in a world where you have to meet certain criteria to get in. Caring for the stranger and the friend alike. Honoring the visions of old and prophesies of the young. God’s spirit is poured out on all flesh. Even on us, who were formerly slaves to sin, all of us both men and women.

“Looking forward to continuing ministry together!” AMEN.

Monday, June 6, 2011

June 5 -- 7th Sunday of Easter -- Ascension

He is risen! … Alleluias abound. We are Easter people with signs of the resurrection all around us and around this world. Christ is deeply present in our pain and in our joy. In our hope and in our sorrow. Christ breathes us, he’s so close.

So what’s Jesus doing ascending into heaven, as we read today? Why’s he leaving us? Why’s that closeness shrinking and shrinking as he lifts up into the clouds? I thought he’s always promised to stay with us.

Oh well, let’s just wait. I’m sure he’ll be back. [stand, looking up]

Will you wait with me? It’s very Christian to wait, together…

This may have been how those disciples long ago felt to: Can you imagine the joy that they had just experienced on reuniting with their friend? Forget for a moment all the theological implications of Jesus’ resurrection—these men and women had their friend, their son, their brother, their favorite teacher back!

But just as soon as he’s back in the flesh—walking with them down their roads, fishing in their waters, sitting around their tables—he’s gone again…this time up into heaven.

So they’ll wait.

The text says, “While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them.”

Jesus hadn’t even been gone for but a few moments—and they could probably still see him way up there, like when a little one accidently lets go of a red helium balloon and we all watch it drifting up and up—and angelic strangers are sidling up next to them!

Jesus was never even gone completely and angels are already sidling up!

How we too may be caught staring at the heavens. How nice it is to “gaze up,” to enjoy the serenity—and the challenge—of tracking a drifting hot air balloon…or Christ himself, somewhere up there.

Maybe not literally, do we gaze at the sky. We’re busy, productive types here. But what is your drifting balloon that you gaze up at wistfully?

Paying off the house? Retiring in fine style? Keeping the kids perfectly safe and sound? Finishing the backyard? Just getting to heaven?

All nice things, to be sure; “pretty normal, really”.

But Jesus doesn’t operate in the realm of “pretty normal really”! Jesus doesn’t just leave us gazing up. And he doesn’t drop us a ladder from on high either, affirming our longings and blissful dreams, so that we can leave all this behind.

Instead Jesus sends angels, sidling up, to snap us out of our gazes [“suddenly”], and to re-position our eyes for ministry in this world. These angels locate us.

When we stare at the sky, we see no one else. I wouldn’t even know if you were here or if you left, if just kept staring at the sky. I probably wouldn’t care.

But when I’m snapped out of my gazing up, I see you, I see us, I see this world out the windows and doors.

And this is just Luke’s version. (The author of Acts is the author of Luke.) In Matthew’s version there is no ascension story, Jesus in fact never does leave. Jesus says, “Lo, I am with you always.”

Whether its angels or Jesus himself, we have our focal point re-adjusted again today. From gazing at the sky to seeing the sister or brother right before us.

And then starts an interesting progression. One of the great things I love about this story is this progression that Jesus offers: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria [cross that border], and to the ends of the earth.”

I’m trying to weed our back yard. Heather and I have a wise friend Michelle who said, when it comes to house projects, just take one thing, one room, one yard at a time. “Don’t try to stay on top of it all, or you’ll drive yourself crazy.” So I’ve been focusing on the front and now there’s a forest of weeds in the back. But when I take her advice and think, “Jerusalem, Samaria and the ends of the earth.” I calm down and start working my way in…I locate myself and do everything I can in that time and place.

We are called to be witnesses, sisters and brothers in Christ, witnesses 1) to Jerusalem – those who are hurting in Spring Valley, El Cajon, La Mesa, downtown San Diego. 2) to Judea and Samaria – that is both in our country and across our borders – those who are hurting in Arizona and Mexico, in Florida and Cuba, in the flood plains of Mississippi and Colombia. And then, to the ends of the earth. WE are called to be witnesses, given the Spirit of Truth, the Word of Life, Bread of Heaven, the Cup of Salvation.

And finally, we’re not alone. You’re not alone. Christ goes with us as we witness, for Christ gives us that same Spirit which both enlivens us, gives us the courage and strength we need to go forth, and it binds us together. We are never offering our hands to Christ’s work alone. Even if the whole Christian church around the world dwindles, dwindles, dwindles there will always be two or three gathering, reading Scripture, sharing the meal, and being sent in Christ’s name! [slowly] You are not alone. We are bound together, bound together, nourished and then sent out.

I love that at the end of this text, after this amazing experience of ascension and angels, from gazing to seeing, from dreaming to scheming—after it all, the disciples returned to Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s walk from where they experienced all this. They don’t go out from the hillside of the Ascension: first they gather. And they start this whole mission into the world in prayer. “They devoted themselves in prayer.”

That’s a picture of a Sunday morning! A Sabbath day’s walk. Devoting ourselves in prayer. Pausing for a moment to give thanks that God is both up there and right here, at the very same time. Lifting our hands in a gesture of thanksgiving, that this world is not ours to rescue, but only ours to serve. Opening our arms in a gesture of openness of heart and mind, for God to take us once again this day, and mold us into a people with eyes set not on the cluster of clouds and a one-track dream, but on the cluster of sisters and brothers across the tables and across the borders and a one-track Gospel message of LOVE.

We are gathered, we are baptized, we are fed, and now we are sent. Thanks be to God.