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 29, 2011

August 28 -- 11th Sunday after Pentecost

Being a Cubs fan – (I’ve got to squeeze every last baseball illustration into my sermons here before another sad season’s over) – being a Cubs fan, and a Padres fan, is a way of suffering.

I first fell in love with the Cubs, in the summer of 2003. I was finishing up my first year in seminary and I had been starved for a baseball team to fall in love with. I was like the person who throws their entire soul into a relationship, no matter how right that relationship is, because they’re just desperate to love. I had been desperate for a baseball team to love, because I had moved away from Houston, and the Astros had built a new stadium, I been stranded in Dodger country throughout college, plus the player strikes had resurfaced, disenchanting me from baseball for a few long years. So I was ready, and the Cubs filled that empty place in my baseball heart. And so off we went, hand in hand, the happy couple into the 2003. So romantic. They were having an amazing run at the pennant, as you may recall. And to make a long, sad story short. They were just 5 outs from winning the NL championship against the Florida Marlins, and a fan, Steve Bartman, interfered with a foul ball, infuriating the Cubs, the lost their composure and lost that game and every game after…to lose it all.

The morning after was awful for me. I remember dragging myself to class with a blank stare, everyone was just incredulous. As far as I was concerned it was a national tragedy. The president should have proclaimed a Day of Mourning. The Florida Marlins? They were almost as new to MLB as I was new to being a Cubs fan!

But the long time Cubs fans that had become my sponsors—baptismal sponsors in my being dyed in Cubby blue—just shook their heads and looked forward. “Welcome to being a Cubs fan,” they shrugged, “there’s always next year.” I am sure they felt way more pain than I did, and yet they held their heads, greeted the passerby on the street, they smiled. I couldn’t believe it.

They had been through this before. It’s just part of the life of cheering for the Cubs. How could they be surprised that they lost?

You know where I’m going with this?

Jesus. Christianity. The way of the cross. The theology of the cross.

Sisters and brothers in Christ, Jesus-followers, this way of the cross—that Jesus describes today—is a way of suffering. It’s like cheering for the losing team, but never giving up. That’s not something we hear a lot in American Christianity. It’s not. Because that doesn’t sell, it doesn’t compute, it’s foolishness (to use the Apostle Paul’s word). Can you imagine if we said this at baptisms? “Welcome to being a Christian, it’s like cheering for the Cubs. Are you ready to lose it all?” (I actually offered this idea once at the church in Orange County where I served, and someone came up to me very upset afterwards and said, “No, Christianity is only about winning, that’s why I joined.”) Like Peter, thinking about cheering for a losing Jesus makes me too want to shout like vs. 22, “God forbid it, Lord. This must never happen to you.” I wanted to agree with this woman and just dream Christianity as the winning team…but like dreaming the Cubs to win the pennant every season. Jesus’ message doesn’t really register with our predominant dog-eat-dog, competitive, race-to-the-top Western psyches.

(Pr. Dan Erlander’s newest book: "Tales of the Pointless People".)

The challenge for us, Jesus-followers, sisters and brothers in Christ, is weathering the loss and still clinging to Christ, as he always clings to us, like a long-time Cubs fan just keeps on cheering for their team. Calmly shaking their heads, shrugging, feeling the pain of the world deeper than anyone, and yet still greeting the passerby, smiling. Living life in a way that reflects the love and grace of their God.

There are saints like this in our midst. Many of you, living life in a way that reflects the love and grace and forgiveness and peace of your God, smiling still, not numb to the pain, in fact the opposite. And yet looking forward, “Welcome to being a Christian,” you say, “there’s always tomorrow.”

It’s an incredible image—the faithful fans of Christ. With their joy despite suffering. It’s not apathy or cynicism or ignorance, quite the opposite. It’s a patient and non-anxious compassion for this world, especially when there’s suffering. Not avoiding pain, but being right in the middle of it with Christ. This life of faith, is a willingness to accept the pain that will ensue, a willingness to follow Jesus on the way to the cross. How could we be surprised when trouble comes down that road?

Contemporary scholar and theologian Douglas John Hall writes about the changes in the church:

How could we have been listening to the Scriptures all these centuries and still be surprised and chagrined by the humiliation of Christendom? How could we have honored texts like the Beatitudes and yet formed in our collective mind the assumption that Christian faith would be credible only if it were popular, numerically superior, and respected universally?

How could we have been contemplating the “despised and rejected” figure at the center of this faith for two millennia and come away with the belief that his body, far from being despised and rejected, ought to be universally approved and embraced?

In today’s Gospel, at the end or our summer, the beginning of a new school year, Jesus makes it clear to his disciples again that his way is the way of the cross…a way that involves self-offering and even suffering. We might imagine that Jesus calls us to be committed to him, to follow him, like a faithful fan of a team who’s willing to bear the burden of pain and yet smile through the tears.

Into the Fall, namely in September, this “way of the cross”, this way of which Jesus speaks—“losing our lives only to find them in Christ”—this way of the cross starts to unfold. The way of the cross is about being tortured on a cross; this way of the cross starts to unfold in our own lives…

Next week (Sept. 4), this way of the cross starts to unfold as we consider a text about confronting in Christian love those who have done wrong – healthy ways that we might hold one another accountable.

Then on Sept. 11 – can you believe that our assigned reading is the text about forgiving our enemies? That text was set for this Sunday back in 1978. Talk about “losing ourselves only to find our way with Christ.” Forgiveness, letting go of anger, not repaying evil for evil. If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they’re thirsty give them something to drink.” That’s the kind of suffering we’re talking about. It’s almost worse than being crucified, because crucifixion only lasts a couple hours. But we’re talking about the painstaking process of letting go of anger, hatred, fear, jealousy – not just with our enemies, but with those who have hurt who are the closest to us. That’s the way of the cross.

Finally on September 18, we hear a story where Jesus grants the same pay to the guys who show up at the end of the day. This doesn’t fit our idea of fairness. But Jesus calls it grace. If we live and preach this kind of a message, it will be no wonder the church is in decline. And yet this is what Jesus teaches us – radical grace, radical hospitality, radical forgiveness, radical love.

And it’s offered first to you, my sister, my brother in Christ, right now, this self-giving, risk-it-all, radical love. Despite your foulest deed, despite your most hurtful word. You are forgiven and sent. For this is where the way of the cross of Christ leads: to your being freed. Thanks be to God! AMEN.

Monday, August 22, 2011

August 21 -- 10th Sunday after Pentecost

At the beginning of a new school year, it’s time to go back to the basics. Can’t start a new year without reviewing where you came from – your multiplication flashcards, the alphabet, the MLA handbook, the periodic table, in seminary it was the dictionary of theological terms like paradox and eschaton. Pick your level and your discipline, but you can’t start a new year without remembering where you came from. And this week our lectionary texts are practically synched up with the same idea: We can’t start anew without remembering where we came from. It’s time to go back to the basics…back to the building rocks.

Who we are and whose we are. Where we have come from…and then who is this Jesus?

Our first lesson from Isaiah calls us—as well as the people of his day in times of trial to “look to the rock from which you were hewn, the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you.”

Sisters and brothers in Christ, we are called back to the basics this late date in August: we are called to remember that we all come from the same rock. What an image: God shaped us and molded us from a common rock, dug us up and breathed into each of us. We trace our ancestry of faith back to Abraham and Sarah, back to Adam and Eve, back to the very hands of God. “Look to the rock from which you were hewn.”

How…we…can…forget…that we came from God. How we can run and hide, and deny and evade. How our memories can be short-term, tracing our ancestry of faith back only one or two generations (back to Minnesota or Germany or East County)…not hundreds and thousands of generations.

But let’s get back to the basics today: It is the Living God who chiseled away at our being, and who continues to chisel away at us, who dug us out of the dirt and gave us this holy life, this sacred earth, and who continues to dig us out of the dirt: out of our despair, our guilt, our brokenness. It is the living God who refashions, remolds us, puts us back together, breathes into us new life again, and now set us free. It is the living God who set the heavens in their places and filled the seas with creatures. [We can start sounding like psalmists when we go back and start reflecting on the basics!]

May we be psalmists this week as we begin anew, even if you’re not getting back into the classroom, like our children will be (or already have), may we be like little psalmists singing God’s praises with our actions. We have been resuscitated by the living God, brought to life again and now again!


And now, having been brought back, this God asks us a question. “Who do people say that I am?” Jesus probes his followers.

Kind of a timeless question. People are still talking about Jesus today, saying who he is, or who he is not, or at least who he was. Pick your context and your camp, and off you can go with things to say about Jesus. A few say he never existed and they’ve got all kinds of intriguing reasons why. I think many, many people in our post-Christendom, post-modern American culture today believe that Jesus was just a prophet, like the disciples said, just a radical activist—who was executed for advocating love of the poor and the outcast, violating Jewish laws and undermining Roman authorities. Compelling stories, but he lived long ago, and is pretty much irrelevant today, other than being yet another inspirational role model who we could never fully imitate. [Temple of Self Realization in Malibu]

Others think he was just a super nice pastor who wants to be your best friend in spirit. Not so sure about how radical his activism was, the point of Jesus, some say, is just to have a personal relationship with you. “I just want you.” I had some friends that used to call that “Jesus is my boyfriend” theology.

If you can replace the world “boyfriend” for “Jesus” in your songs or your prayers, and it starts to sound like a love song, you might be in danger of “Jesus is my boyfriend” theology. “I just want you to be with me, Jesus. I just want you all to myself, Jesus. Don’t leave me, Jesus.”

(If Jesus asked me today, “Who do people say that I am,” I might tell him that he’s got a lot of roses to send out because…“some think that you’re their boyfriend.”)

Meanwhile I had a preaching professor who really disliked the song, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” because he thought it had misled generations of Christians to shortchange their confession about who Jesus is. (Peter didn’t confess Jesus as his friend.) Of course Jesus is a friend, and I don’t mean to undermine or make light of that relationship. But as disciples of the One who came to earth to take on our flesh—who ventured through the pain-filled valleys of our existence, offering both life-giving healing and life-changing challenges, who suffered death, not just for his friends but for this whole world, and then rose from the dead just to have the last word—we must stand and confess a whole lot more than “he’s just my special friend” or just an inspirational figure in history! Amen?

Sisters and brothers in Christ, we join with Peter, and confess Jesus as the Messiah, the anointed one—THE ONE, sent from God, AND YET VERY GOD, God from God, Light from Light, True God from true God (as our Nicene Creed helps give us words for what is beyond words). Sisters and brothers in Christ, we join with Peter, and confess Jesus, the rock of our salvation, yes friend, yes radical activist for the poor and the outcast, yes Son of the Living God, yes God in the flesh before our eyes in this Word, in this Meal, in these holy waters of Baptism! Yes Jesus lived long ago, yes Jesus lives now.

Our confession is great, like Peter’s. And in making this bold confession that we do, do you know what we become?

A chip off the old block is what we are, people of God! A chip off the old rock, the old block, that Jesus names Peter: the church. A chip off the old rock that is God. We are a chip off of God. Broken and shared, that’s what we are, fractured and forgiven. Sent out for many.

Sisters and brothers in Christ, lest we forget who we are and from whence we come: WE ARE THE CHURCH OF JESUS CHRIST, and we’re about to chip off into this world!

Peter’s confession becomes our confession, and so Jesus is beyond relevant: Jesus is necessary! For without him we have no life…not now, not into eternity.

This is all given to us for free! And so now what?

God’s done the work, now we just get to be the church. And Paul’s letter to the Romans speaks to this and gives us further instruction:

“Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God. Don’t be [chiseled, molded into the ways of] this world, but [continue to be chiseled by God], be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God.”

Is it God’s will that children go hungry (or is God chiseling away at us) that refugees be rejected, that species go extinct, that wars drag on? Is it God’s will that you continue to live in fear, burdened by anger, guilt, sorrow, or resentment? Or God chiseling away at us?

Sisters and brothers in Christ, BACK TO THE BASICS: we are the church, and God is still chiseling. Still working, still calling us, molding us, still tapping away at this world…

Sculpting away for peace…the peace that passes all human understanding. Praise be to Jesus. AMEN.

Monday, August 15, 2011

August 14 -- 9th Sunday after Pentecost

There are some words in our house that we don’t say. Well…at least we teach our children that they’re words we don’t say. We don’t say hate. “But Daddy other people say hate all the time. And my teacher said it’s not a bad word.” That may be true, Micah, but we don’t use that word. We don’t say stupid. And we don’t say idiot. And we don’t say fat, either. (Fortunately, we’re not quite dealing with all those other words…yet.)

But somehow, Heather and I in all our parental omniscience from up here have come to the conclusion that canceling these words out of our household vocabulary is good thing down there.

The problem is, when we slip. When the Cubs are playing the Braves, and Micah overhears me, groan, “Oh, I hate Chipper Jones!” When Heather is getting dressed for a dinner out and comes to ask the dreaded question for every spouse, “Does this outfit make me look…[well, I still won’t say that word.]” When I’m reading the news on my laptop while the kids are playing in the living room, and suddenly I completely lose all awareness of where I am, and shout “I can’t believe it! This guy’s an idiot!”

And in each of these circumstances we then have to engaged in the tricky parental activity of explaining ourselves, maybe apologizing, maybe making amends or exceptions, but always-always including an affimation that “they’re right.” Great is your faithfulness to what we said, son. But there we are: sloshing about.

It’s one thing to preach it. It’s something much different to live it. Good teaching can trickle down from up here. But great faith sloshes around down there.

Our Gospel passage today starts out with some great teaching from up here. Jesus again is crumbling up the Pharisees neatly sliced worlds…this time with a lesson on purity. It’s not what goes into the mouth that unclean. It’s what comes out of it. Words.

But Jesus isn’t just teaching us not to swear.

Let’s not get too caught up with just bad words like stupid or idiot or fat, and whole bunch of others that unfortunately we all know. I’ve known people who “swear like sailors”. Some are sailors actually, and their words might be foul but their hearts burn with purity. Their intentions are compassionate. Maybe you’ve known some too. While others, proud of their purity and squeaky clean mouths, shoot daggers and explode gossip with their curse-less words. Sure we should watch our language, but Jesus isn’t teaching us here not to swear.

He’s teaching about heart surgery. The heart, you see, in that culture, was understood to be the source our thoughts and our decisions about how to live in the world. Jesus is teaching us about slicing away all the harms us and our neighbors and our world. That’s a good teaching from up there.

But it’s one thing to preach it. It’s something much different to live it. The story goes on, in our text today, and it says that Jesus left his pulpit. He left that place and went away to a different region. He left the pureness-of-heart-lecture notes on the stand, came down to another region, and this is where it gets sloppy:

A woman approaches, who is not from his tribe. A strange woman, a Syro-phoenician. Jesus grew up a neighborhood where such women were despised. They were hated, fat, idiots who were always encroaching on his people – the real chosen Jews, not these half-bred aliens.

And so, Jesus – JESUS, the prince of peace, the one who just got done preaching about purity of heart– calls her a dog: “It’s not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to dogs.” A dog! Do you know how dirty dogs were then? Not adorable housebroken little pooches like Dolores’ little babies; dogs back then were mangy, flee-bitten mutts. And calling a person a dog, that as offensive as a white person calling a black person a word that we won’t even print in the newspaper.* A dog, he calls her.

It’s one thing to preach it. It’s something much different to live it.

What do we do with this text where our precious friend Jesus himself is falling for the same old racial slurs, the same old arrogance, the same old self-righteousness, the same old divisions, the same old hatred that has plagued generations and cultures throughout history, and still plagues us today?! Words escalate to threats; and threats to violence; and violence to wars. There’s nothing new there.

This is a side of Jesus, that many are tempted either to ignore, or rationalize away, or defend…as if the Savior of the world needed saving. I can’t explain Jesus out of this offense, out of his calling this woman a dog.

But I can share with you what I see happening, ultimately: [sloppiness, thanks be to God, even if we don’t want sloppiness—and none of us do, we want neat and tidy, clear cut, like the Pharisees, where life is a set of rules to keep and roles to fill. But the gift is sloppiness.] I see Jesus, fully Divine and fully human, coming down from on high…to be in the mix of it all. Good teaching can trickle down from up here. But great faith sloshes around down there. It’s one thing to preach it, it’s another thing to live it.

And in this case, God surprises us again, as a Syrophoenician woman, calls Jesus out. Watch how she responds; not by hitting back; not by going away: “Yes Lord,” she says, “but even the dogs eat the bread from the master’s table.” I might be a dog, but I’m still hungry. I’m broken alright, which is why I need the bread that only you can give. She doesn’t fight back with hateful words, and she doesn’t back away either. She stands up strong and demonstrates faith. She makes a statement of faith: Only you, Jesus, offer the bread that I need, the healing that I need, the salvation which you have prepared.*

And something must have snapped in Jesus, for immediately his tone changes he affirms her. (Forget the tricky explaining, like when Micah catches us using a word that’s off limits—I can’t explain that.) We’ll just have to jump to the affirmation. “Woman, great is your faith.” Cover: not sure who’s helping/forgiving/blessing who. What is clear, is that Jesus is with her. Not up here. He’s in the mix, as sloppy as it all is.

And that’s the heart of the Gospel.

Sisters and brothers in Christ, it’s not always neat and clean unfortunately, but we have a Christ who gets close, who plunges into the mix.

We have a Christ who kneels down, who takes our hand and we take his. We have a God who doesn’t stay up here, but who always enters into the sloshiness of life down there.

Good teaching can trickle down from up here. But great faith sloshes around down there.

It’s one thing to preach it. And I pray daily that we can preach a good thing up here. (But we/I don’t always—sometimes the preacher’s words from up here are windy, or fake, or confusing or sometimes just wrong.) Good teaching and preaching can trickle down from up here. But the real action is down there. Great faith is down there, sloshing around. And, boy, it sloshes. It’s sloppy, and messy and soggy. It ain’t easy...this practice of purity of heart, this discipline of choosing words of compassion not violence. It ain’t easy...staying in touch with each other, in relationship with one another and with the stranger and with the world. It ain’t easy...remaining faithful, coming back, giving ourselves to the rhythms of the church and nudgings of the Spirit. And as soon as I’m finished preaching up here, I’m right back down there, sloshing around…and thank God we slosh around together.

And thank God we slosh around with Jesus, who’s enters the sloppiness of this life and stays, maybe even more than we wanted. Who banters back and forth with us, albeit sometimes a struggle. Who names and commends our great faith: “Women, great is your faith. Men, great is your faith. Remember that I’m down here with you too, and I’ll never leave.” AMEN.

*Anna Carter Florence, Festival of Homeletics, Nashville TN, 2010