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...

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

July 24 -- Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

This year of Major League Baseball has been a very difficult one. I don’t know anyone whose team is enjoying a winning season…except maybe my aunt in San Francisco and my friend who loves the Phillies.

But the Padres, the Cubs, the Astros, the Angels, even the Dodger fans – we’re all hurting.

So we try to make the best of it. Some, I know, try to look at this year as a building year (Dad) studying up on the young players with high hopes for next year.

Since we only have about 4 television channels that come in clearly at our house, it’s a little hard for me to watch and keep up with the players to really analyze the futures of my favorite losing teams, so I’ve taken a different coping strategy. I’ve kind of “gone inside my baseball self”, and I’ve been slowly watching my way through the Ken Burns documentary entitled “Baseball”. Anyone seen it? It’s 11 episodes, over 2 hours each episode, about the history of the American pastime. And I love it! I’ve even gotten teared up watching the sections on Jackie Robinson becoming the first African American player to enter the league, Lou Gehrig’s last speech, or interviews of fans and historians recalling their feelings when the Brooklyn Dodgers moved to Los Angeles.

It’s actually been an incredibly rejuvenating and uplifting experience for me in another sad and sorry season of my favorite sport. And in the course of watching these episodes, I continue to come across metaphors, words and images, that are helpful in articulating why baseball means so much to me. Baseball is like community [yeah!]; it’s about sacrificing one for the good of the whole [yeah!]; it’s like refuge from the world; one commentator in the film said that baseball’s “action is in the absence of action”; it’s about losing – even the greatest hitters are successful only small percentage of the time; it’s about staying the same, through the midst of change; it’s about the past, and it is pastoral.” I don’t always have the words, and I’m reminded how we depend on the help of metaphors and images, words.

This week here in worship, Jesus uses words and images to articulate to the people of Matthew’s day—not what baseball is like, but what the kingdom of heaven is like. Jesus uses things of this earth to give us an idea of the very things of heaven.

In Matthew’s time, the image of a pearl found in a field was big deal, a net overflowing with fish made a lot of sense – these were things that never happened, but things that people could easily see in their mind’s eye, and so these images had Christ’s listeners sitting up and celebrating, their imaginations coming alive.

But perhaps those metaphors don’t have quite the same effect for us today?

How would he compare the kingdom of heaven now? It’s like a perfectly executed double play, like a Roberto Clemente clutch home run, or a Sandy Koufax strike-out. Or perhaps the baseball metaphors aren’t so effective for you. What language might Jesus craft to reach your ears? The kingdom of heaven is like a nap in a hammock after a long and trying meeting. Like getting a raise. Like getting the perfect compliment. Like a cool sip of ice tea in the shade, on humid day. A reconnection with a beloved friend, where you realize that time and distance hasn’t separated you at all. The kingdom of heaven is like joining hands with all those you love and saying grace before a great meal.

Today we reflect on the Word. And we are blessed by a Gospel text that fires images at us, words, almost too quickly to catch them all, “like scenes glimpsed through the windows of a fast-moving train” (BBTaylor). Mustard seed, yeast, treasure, pearl, net full of fish. I think Jesus does this on purpose…for the Kingdom of heaven hard to pin down to one image, it’s hard to articulate, like my feelings about baseball. And so we look to words and images of things that are before us – sunsets and smiles and cool drinks and small victories – to point to things that are beyond us. No image nails it perfectly: God’s holy and loving reign, come down on earth to us. But even if our language may come up short and incomplete, we realize that God has put so much right before us. And it’s so good, in fact, that we can even say that the stuff of earth is like stuff of heaven! The kingdom of heaven is like…a baseball game…a getting together with friends…a warm quilt…a slice of fresh bread.

Indeed the Kingdom of God is not to be found in metaphors of lofty places, like golden castles in south of France, but what’s striking about what Jesus is doing here is he’s using images that are right in front of us, things that we can all imagine quite clearly: fields and fish, women and men, bread. Parts of our everyday. Things here and now. Those simple things are what the kingdom of heaven is like!

And God offers us bits of this glorious kingdom, already. At this holy table, but not just there: in this holy world. God’s kingdom is right here for us! It’s not something that we must build or create, or even search for, it’s already here. The simple joys: the breath of fresh air, the cool breeze off the ocean, the song of the bird or the song of the crowd at the game. The warmth of this family. The gift of this day. Thanks be to God, thy kingdom has come.

May God continue to give us the wisdom to see this kingdom come, the creativity of language to help one another name this kingdom come, and the peace to enjoy this kingdom come. AMEN.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

July 17 -- 5th Sunday after Pentecost

I’m going to try my best to be concise here: God gathers us in, the weeds and wheat.

God tells us, and relieves us, with a message: it’s not our job to sort out weeds and wheat. God is the almighty Gardner-Farmer, and God will sort it out.

Weeds and wheat as evil and good people is a world-view prevalent in Matthew’s day. It’s also prevalent today…Star Wars theology.

But other theologies, such as Lutheran theology, have suggested more complicated ways of envisioning weeds and wheat.

Could it be, some have wondered that we possess within ourselves both weeds and wheat? Sinner-saint. And sometimes it’s even difficult to distinguish what are weeds and what are wheat in our own thoughts and actions. Seven Deadly Virtues. Weeds are sneaky.

All the more reason why this Gospel text is such good news: God is the one who comes and does the weeding. We need God to sort it out. Contrary to the self-help phenomenon, ultimately we can’t do our own weeding.

We need Jesus, the great and mighty…Gardner Farmer…to come and gather us in, to sort each one of us, i.e. to free us from our weeds of self-centeredness, anger, hatred, apathy, arrogance and neglect. There is forgiveness at the font, right from the beginning.

But being freed from death and sin, or choking weeds, is just the beginning. There’s a big difference between life abundant and simply not-dying, and Jesus not only frees us from death, he offers us life abundant.

This Gospel parable ends with the Gardner Farmer gathering the wheat into the barn…I think we would benefit to take a cue from Matthew the wonderfully creative Gospel writer, and imagine together what happens to the wheat once it’s gathered into the barn.

The barn could be a wonderful metaphor for the church. And the wheat that we are – after Jesus sifts out our brokenness, our weeds – doesn’t just go into a pile in the barn. It is turned into bread.

We are turned into bread that feeds, that initiates community, that nourishes…think of all the sensations that we experience around freshly baked bread! We are transformed, bread for the world.

I think there is something that sets us, the gathered people of God, apart: It’s not being better or right or superior to others in the world. That gets us back into Star Wars theology.

What sets us the gathered, apart is that we get to see a glimpse of God in our gathering. We get a small taste of what the whole world has to look forward to! We in our assembly, called together by the Holy Spirit, get to see what salvation looks like! All are fed, all are welcomed, all are important, all are splashed with the waters of baptism, all are offered forgiveness, all are offered a sign of peace, all are gifted with the presence of Christ in our midst. That’s what the end times will look like, and that’s what we get a flash glimpse of in our gathering, even if sometimes it’s an imperfect gathering. We are rehearsing God’s realm. We pray it: “on earth as it is in heaven.” I think it would be appropriate to call what we do here “a barn dance”, “a Eucharistic hoe-down”. As my old friend and mentor Fred Danker (NT scholar from St. Louis) once said to me Christ does the gathering and the weeding, we just get to “be church”!

And now we get to go share that dance with the world. Which is a very difficult task – to share God’s realm, God’s vision, God’s welcome with all the world. And so we crawl back to the barn, or rather we allow God to gather us back into the barn, week after week, to be sifted and transformed again and again into bread.

Followers of Jesus: The weeds have been removed, the vision has been offered, the Water has been splashed and has cleansed and refreshed, the Table has been set. “Come,” Jesus says, “join the living. Dance in the barn, nourish the field, shine like the sun.” AMEN.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

June 26 -- Second Sunday after Pentecost

Whoever welcomes you, welcomes Jesus.

I’ve always had this dream of setting up a system of Lutherans around the country, who open their homes to fellow travelling Lutherans. We could call it Lutheran-Couch-Surfers-of-America, or something. The Hostel Lutheran Network?

Wouldn’t that be wonderful if anywhere you travel – I’m thinking about travel a bunch since we’re leaving on our big trip today – you had a great place to stay? Not great because of the free wi-fi or continental breakfast, but great because you would always be housed by friends, even if they were strangers at first.

I’ve actually tried this a few times, and it was amazing! Call me crazy. I started small and just asked if I could stay in other people’s churches. I’d call up a church, explain my travel plans and that I was looking for a place to stay, wondering if I could just put a sleeping bag in their youth room. And in the course of that request, I got to meet the pastor, about 3 other members, see another Lutheran church in Louisville, Kentucky and then in Atlanta, GA. Heather and I did this once in El Paso, TX also, when Micah was 2. And that time the Pastor just invited us over to her house for the night. Single woman in her 50’s, just opened the door for us and even gave us dinner (and breakfast)…and even put out some toys on the living room floor from the church nursery.

(We’re supposed to be in Phoenix tonight, and I’m talking myself into trying this again.)

Jesus says today in the Gospel, “Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me.” So put yourself in a position to be welcomed, right!

We have a text before us that is about hospitality. It’s really all about hospitality, isn’t it?

It turns out that my idea of a safe-homes-network is not new at all: It’s a very tame version of the type of hospitality that is offered throughout the Middle East. I’m talking about just offering hospitality to among Lutherans. But anyone ever experienced Middle Eastern hospitality? It extends way beyond religious, ethnic, national and cultural boundaries!

I have a colleague here in San Diego, who tells his story about travelling in Palestine, and his lodging plans fell through at the last minute. So a friend of a friend gave him a number, and he called up a total stranger two days before he was set to arrive from the United States, and asked if could stay just for a night or two while he figured out what he was going to do. Can you imagine?

And this family, let him a total stranger, probably about 25 years old, big guy with blond hair and a thick upper-Midwestern accent, into their home and demanded that he be their guest for his entire stay in the Holy Land, about 2 months! The town where they lived was a little town called Bethlehem. And he later but very quickly learned that this wasn’t just some crazy family, this kind of welcome toward strangers is cultural. He felt all special and lucky at first—“I really struck gold here”—until he realized that anyone would be treated this way. I’m sure that if we were traveling unarmed and vulnerable, we would all be afforded the same kind of treatment, regardless of our religion or anything else, if we just asked. (There’s a certain vulnerability in just asking though.)

There’s a blog online that I like to look at around Epiphany in January, when we reflect on the Journey of the Three Wise Men. And it’s about these three modern-day-Americans who literally traveled the ancient Fertile Crescent by camelback, from Bagdad to Bethlehem. They started in September and got there at Christmas time. Their pictures are astounding—talk about a good place to offered a cool drink of water—and it’s the same story about hospitality as my friend who studied in Bethlehem.

Here’s a quote from one of the travelers: “It is almost absurd, sitting in these peoples' homes and sharing lunch with them, being offered a bed for the night, and their brotherhood. This is Iraq, and if they are the enemy, who needs friends?”

“Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me. Whoever offers just a cup of cold water…”

[slowly] Sisters and brothers in Christ, we have such wonderful opportunities before us all the time to both give and receive hospitality, even as simple as giving/receiving a cup of cold water. Jesus invites us again today to be on both sides, to expose ourselves to both sides, of hospitality. Discipleship is not one-sided; let us be both welcomed and welcomer.

I realized the other day: if you come into Shepherd of the Valley right now, and are looking around you will see the word “WELCOME” at least six times (in six different places) before you even step into this sanctuary. That’s wonderful! And hopefully on a Sunday morning a visitor will hear that word many more times from us.

But may we also allow ourselves to be welcomed too.

When hospitality happens, Christ is there. That’s what it’s really all about hospitality. Christ is moving in and with and around and between both welcomer and welcomed…Christ is moving in and with and around and between both the church people in Kentucky and me, Christ is alive in and with and around and between both the Palestinians of Bethlehem and my Lutheran colleague, Christ is breathing in and with and around and between both the modern-day-American-wise men and every one of their hosts across the Middle East.

And Christ is there whenever you participate in even the smallest act of hospitality, a cup of cold water, a welcoming handshake, an offer—or an acceptance—of lunch or a spare bed, or a coat, or a hug.

I am convinced that we need to work way more on accepting help than giving it. Which is good news, because accepting the kindness of strangers is actually way less work on our part. We need to work on doing less work. And that’s deeply biblical, friends: just accepting the love and grace of another. Sound familiar? Work on doing less work, and instead just receive the very grace and hospitality, the very welcome of God.

Faith itself is a work-less gift, that cannot be earned or acquired, it can only be received, symbolized in one instance as we put out our hands to receive the body of Christ. All you can do is accept the welcome that God has for you. Nothing you can do to earn it.

When there is welcome, there is God. AMEN.

Holy God, our Living Water and our merciful Guide, together with the rivers and seas, wells and springs, we bless and magnify you. You led your people by the pillar of cloud and fire through the sea, and provided them water from the rock. We thank you for the gift of water.

The Holy Spirit moved over water in the beginning of creation. In water, your Son Jesus received the gift of baptism and was anointed by the Holy Spirit to lead us into the way of everlasting life through his life, death, and resurrection.

Gracious God, we pray for those who struggle every day for their daily supply of water: in the slums of Brazilian cities, in the deserts of Africa, in the townships where clean water does not flow. We pray for those who experience floods and for others in desperate need of water. We pray that those who are fortunate to have an abundance of water do not take your gift for granted, or fail to heed and understand the cries of people who need water for life. Amen