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, September 25, 2011

Words at our 50th Anniversary Banquet, Sept. 24

What of the future? The future belongs to God –

There’s a story of a small congregation – not ours but in some ways similar – in which at the end of the service, no matter what the hymn, Harold, the oldest member of the church, slowly gets up and takes the acolyte candle snuffer from the back of the church and feebly walks three quarters of the way up the isle, step by step, at a speed befitting of his age…and then Harold hands the acolyte taper shakily to his 10-year-old down-syndrome great grandson Bobby. Bobby then in turn precariously goes to the altar with the candle snuffer, gets the light of Christ, snuffs out the candles, and then carries the light of Gospel out into the world. [pause]

I first heard this story from the Rev. Dr. Thomas Long, who then goes on to point out that watching this ritual Sunday after Sunday at his home congregation is like watching the whole story of the church through the years being played out right before his eyes. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is passed down from the feeble hands of one generation to the precarious hands of another. And it reminds me of the stories we’ve seen and heard this evening as we celebrate our congregation through the years. A similar scene takes place even in Scripture (we hear this story shortly after Christmas) when old Simeon finally gets to hold the baby Jesus in his ancient arms, blessing God in that moment – “my eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord, a light to all people” – and then with shaky hands and wobbly knees Simeon leans forward and passes over the baby of Hope and Salvation for the entire world. He passes Jesus over to a precarious teenage girl, mother Mary.

I’m afraid that I can’t and I won’t dictate a detailed picture of the future for Shepherd of the Valley as your current pastor. I can’t and I won’t prescribe the future; but what I can do—as we briefly reflect on the future—is to ascribe that future to God. That’s my only vision—that the future of Shepherd of the Valley be God’s. My prayer is that as we move off this mountain top back down into the valley, that may we together lean and let go into God’s future, like the passing of the light of Christ in our worship service, entrusting it all–entrusting the life-saving Word and Meal—the Living Water that quenches our thirst and saturates us for faithfulness—the stories that we love to tell of Jesus and his love, handing it all over, perhaps with feeble and tired hands, passing it all over—the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the hands of our children and our grandchildren to be carried like a “light” into this dark world.

And as I look out this evening—a personal point of privilege—I want to thank you, all those who have leaned forward and passed the light of Christ over to me, entrusting me with this Gospel of Truth to be shared.

I’ve often heard that as Christians in this age, we’ve gotta do a better job of standing up/firm for our faith; there are so many pressures all around. To stand up for our faith we’ve gotta believe we’re right. But to lean instead into our faith and let go, then we have to believe there’s a God.* [pause] May we move into the future leaning, like Harold, and entrusting our whole selves and our congregation…to God. AMEN.

*Thomas Long, Sermon at the Festival of Homiletics 2010, Nashville, TN

Monday, September 19, 2011

September 18 -- 14th Sunday after Pentecost

There is a certain establishment I know, where mostly adult males, over the age of 21, and most of them closer to the age of 71, like to go during happy hour in San Diego. And in a world of TGIFriday’s and Chili’s Bar and Grills, this little non-descript watering hole stands as a beacon for all the old mom and pop spots that can barely stay afloat. Just a one-room bar, where the clientele and the staff all know each other. It’s better than any TV show, because it’s reality, and you get the sense that there’s actually a lot of genuine fellowship, I’d venture to say even “ministry”, that takes place there.

I never would have known about O’Brien’s had I not been introduced to it by a few of my more gregarious Lutheran pastor friends, some of whom frequent the spot monthly, sometimes from as far as Riverside County. I remember it almost felt like this rite of passage into the San Diego conference of pastors, when 2 of my new colleagues ushered me into the dim room, the air thick with frivolity, and treated me to my first locally-brewed O’Brien’s specialty, proudly introducing me to the owner and announcing to all that this was my first time.

On that visit I also learned of an elite group in that circle of middle-aged, middle-class fellows. A group of just a few dozen, who have their very own mug at O’Brien’s, which hangs in a row over the back counter, reflected and lit in the long saloon-style mirror for all to admire. When a mug owner comes in, the bartender grabs their special glass, and it’s almost like a celebrity has entered the room, as conversations stop and everyone turns to see the sacred goblet come down off the hook and get filled. The last time I was there, an old “Mugger” came and sat at a table next to mine. He might have been just a regular old guy to the rest of the world, but at O’Brien’s, he was a prince.

There’s a long, time-honored waiting list (over 100 names) that one must get on, in order to get a mug in this little community. And when one does achieve the seemingly impossible feat, after years of loyal patronage, the whole place celebrates, as a dusty old abandoned wall hanging transforms once again into a well-earned golden crown. Now I’ve only been there 2 or 3 times so I’ve not witnessed the coronation ceremony, but I imagine it must be glorious.

Can you believe that our very own Mr. Ron Blake, our preschool director, once had a mug at O’Brien’s? He was actually one of the first when the place opened many years ago. And, I must tell you (maybe for the sake of his job as caretaker of our children), that he didn’t exactly earn it like all the others. Mr. Ron received special status because his long-time friend was the owner of the bar. You have to fill your “holy grail” at O’brien’s twice a month in order to maintain it, and even while he was proud and honored to have his mug displayed, Mr. Ron wasn’t keeping up.

And so he made the painstaking decision [slowly…] to give up…the mug!

And he decided—in true Mr. Ron style—to invite his owner friend to pick someone who was brand new on the list.

I have no idea how that transaction occurred, but I would have loved to see the newcomer randomly granted the surprise of grace, an absolute undeserved gift, right there for all to see. There must have been such a cocktail mix of celebration and mostly bitterness as the mug was taken off the hook and given to a newbie—probably didn’t even know what a big deal it was. “But that’s not fair,” I’m sure was the cry that went up, nearly splitting the happy tavern family, as a public display of abundant grace was bestowed…on the late-comer.

If I had to title my sermon today, I’d call it “In Your Face Grace”.

Because what strikes me about both our Old Testament reading of Jonah and Jesus’ parable of the workers that all got paid the same, is that God doesn’t hide the fact that it won’t be fair. And...grace flows abundantly.

Right in Jonah’s face, God changes God’s mind and forgives the people deserving of the greatest punishment. In your face!

Right in the early bird’s faces, those hard workers who got up at dawn and hustled out there for the jobs and the wages, right in their face, the landowner pays the latecomer. Why couldn’t he at least have paid the early birds first, let them go away satisfied, and then give the unfair wage to the slackers?

Maybe the mug deal at O’Brien's wasn’t such a public display, and rather O’brien himself just slipped Ron’s former mug under the bar to the latecomer on the waiting list…

But I hope it wasn’t! I hope it was a huge production of what “the kingdom of heaven looks like”! Where the last shall be first.

God’s grace is in your face, for you, and for everyone, sisters and brothers in Christ! If I was in control of bestowing grace to the least-deserving, I’d probably "slip it to them under the table", so that everyone wouldn’t get mad at me. I wouldn’t make a big deal about, just sneaking you a little grace. But God’s grace comes like a wedding announcement, like a status update in all caps! God’s grace comes pouring in, loud and clear. Free for all, the same for all. Deal with that, Jonahs!

Jonah was so mad: “C’mon God, I thought you were going to punish them!” Ever feel like that? “I thought they were going to get what they deserve, the dirty rotten Ninevite sinner scumbags. C’mon God, I thought we were on the same team. God, how can you be so reckless with your grace? How can you give so freely? How can you love so abundantly?!

"C'mon God...that’s like giving away a mug at O’brien’s to a first-time visitor! C’mon God, that’s not fair.”

But no one said that the kingdom of God would be fair. And just to burst our illusions that it is, God puts grace in our face, and then asks like in our reading from Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry?” God almost taunts us with love and grace. God makes a bush to shade Jonah for a little bit, only to “appoint a worm” (I love that translation!) that eats up the shade and makes Jonah even more miserable – now he's both angry and sunburned at God’s grace.

And there’s a lesson in it all. (I love Jonah!) God points out, “Hey, the shade bush was never a product of your doing in the first place, it’s all gift." Think about your shade bushes, the things that secure you, cover you from harm, keep you from getting burned: maybe it's family member/s, or the social status that you were born into, or being a citizen of this country that you were born into...maybe in your professional life, it's being in the right place at the right time: out of the sun. What are your shade bushes? — things or relationships or situations that you never really even worked for, things you never really pruned or watered, they just were there…to protect you. And yet you think it’s all rightfully yours to get all upset about when it’s gone. God says to Jonah, “You take it all this shade for granted, like it was ever yours in the first place!”

No one said that the kingdom of God would be fair.

Because if it was—here it comes—none of us would ever get in!

Truth is, we’ve all been given a mug that we didn’t earn!

We’ve all been bumped to the front of the list, paid more than we deserve, forgiven for our slacking off and being unfaithful. God’s forgiveness just flows and flows. It is abundant. It is amazing.

Jesus turns the world’s ideas of fairness and justice on their head and instead replaces them with God’s justice. God’s justice and the world’s fairness are radically opposed...

...because God’s justice means that we get a mug, we get a place, we get a welcome…

And so do our sisters and brothers who have wronged us. Doggonit! Amen.

Monday, September 12, 2011

September 11 -- 13th Sunday after Pentecost

"Stories of Remembrance, Prayers of Mourning, Meal of Hope"

I’d like begin by inviting you to turn to the person next to you and share where you were on the morning of 9/11/01…

· (I was in Thousand Oaks, watched all day with my new friend who was a Russian immigrant fleeing political persecution, and seeking US citizenship)

· How many were here in CA?

· In a different state?

· Out of the US?

· Any in NY, DC or PA?

· Any lose a family member or friend on that tragic day?

It’s so painful and sad to go back to these memories, but on this day of mourning and hope I wanted to go back to the day-of for a moment, because the experience of the day of and few days after 9/11 was much different than the mood—even just weeks—later, when our deep sorrow morphed to a thirst for vengeance and blood.

Lutheran pastor on the East coast reflects: “I remember the first Sunday after 9/11, a deeply painful day when churches everywhere were filled to capacity with brokenhearted people grieving and praying and hoping for a faithful word from brokenhearted preachers. But that season of crisis and public mourning was brief, and strong cultural forces were soon at work coaxing the national mood out of its rhythm of lament.”

Today is a day of lament, but we live in a culture that doesn’t really do lament, a culture that’d rather “power though” our grief in—what Barbara Erinriech calls—the “relentless pursuit of happiness”. We just want to be happy again. But the day itself of September 11 was so sad.

It was a time of brokenhearted people grieving and praying and hoping for a word from God. And that word today is “Fogiveness 7x70”. How shall we 10 years later put the brakes on our tendencies to race through our sorrow and get on with life?

I think one thing that could help us slow down and lament is to rely on Christian community—we have to learn and relearn how to grieve, this is a role of the church to be a Community of Lament, this is what our prayers of intercession every Sunday are all about—because the pressure is pretty great to just get happy again—and consider at least for a moment what Jesus has to say…

As we think about 9/11, there so much to be angry about…and everything in my human heart says we should be seeking revenge, that we are justified in our seeking revenge.

But everything in my Christian heart, that is my human heart that has been infused with the divine, as week after week in ingest the Body and Blood of Jesus the Divine One…everything in my Christian heart tells me that we should be about the work of forgiveness…together (we can’t do this be a community of forgiveness alone, just like we need one another’s help to lament). It’s what we should be about because we’re rooted in Jesus and forgiveness always begins with Christ.

And it’s a matter of survival. OT text – Joseph and brothers

o Joseph – beaten tortured thrown into a pit – sold into slavery – years and years to fume and

o He gets this opportunity to get revenge – execute them immediately, and yet he chooses to forgive

o I believe he had already forgiven them long ago because otherwise his anger would have eaten him alive

o forgiveness is a matter of survival

We must be able to forgive one another in our church–actually it starts before that…in response to forgiveness of God – self, friends, family, church, church catholic, in our nation, beyond our nation’s borders, members of this human family…if our species is to survive.

Our unwillingness to forgive will eat us alive.

John Chrysostom in 407: The evil of remembering past offenses is twofold: it is inexcusable before God, and it serves to recall past sins already forgiven and places them against us. Nothing whatsoever does God so hate, and turn away from, as cherishing remembrance of past offenses and fostering our anger against aother. If we must remember offenses, let us remember only our own. If we remember our own sins, we shall never store up the sins of others. I shall make bold to say that this sin is more grievous than any other sin. Let us be zealous in nothing so much as in keeping ourselves free from anger and from not seeking to be reconciled with those who are opposed to us. Neither is this my word only, but the word of that God who shall come to judge us.

I’m believing more and more, in my ministry and as a baptized child of God, that forgiving one another is our greatest cross to bear. In part because…it is so countercultural:

It is a uniquely religious behavior. In a world that is becoming less and less religious, communally religious, I’m afraid forgiveness is becoming less and less. “Forgiveness” is not a word that I I’ve seen or heard much building up to today, and I wonder if you’re going to hear much today beyond these doors. It is uniquely religious, that we would even dare to read these texts aloud.

And mercy/forgiveness is not for the faint hearted; I think it’s important to be reminded of this. Because often, I think forgiveness, showing mercy is a sign of weakness. I remember I used to play the game “mercy”, bending back someone’s knuckles until they couldn’t take it…

But in this life, in fact, the opposite is true—those who forgive are the strongest. It is a vigorous activity…that takes practice, we have to start at least considering forgiveness because our time will come.

I’ve been accused of being “out of touch with reality” when I talk about forgiveness, loving each other, loving our enemies. And maybe that’s true. Hunkering down in my sanctuary of church life. You don’t know what it’s really like out there pastor. You’re too young. You’ll see. I do feel like my time is coming to be tested, because I do like to seek revenge, everything in my human heart says that’s a sensible thing to do. It’s realistic. So I have to start at this young age, talking about forgiveness, preparing for the test that comes over and over.

Everything in my Christian heart tells me that we must learn and learn again how to forgive. This is our cross to bear.

The first step in forgiveness is admitting how hard it is. To say, “I think this is impossible.” And then just try.

And I believe we’ve got it in us at least to try to forgive ourselves and any who have wronged us...because Christ first forgives us. AND because I know that the Spirit is present in this place. And the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. God’s Holy Spirit comforts us as we seek to be a Community of Lament and nudges us as we seek to be Community of Forgiveness. Being confronted by such a challenging text on this anniversary of 9/11 is the nudging and work of the Holy Spirit.

And in our forgiveness, there is redemption, there is healing, there is maturity, there is new life.

In our forgiveness, no longer are we slaves to our anger, to our fear, we are free.

In our forgiveness there is Jesus Christ—broken, terrorized, tortured, buried in the dark, and finally resurrected.

It’s a 3-day affair. This forgiveness doesn’t happen overnight. It is a process…forgiving is a long process…of being broken in half. Suffering. It’s a process of sitting in the darkness. And finally emerging. Alive. We die to our sin and rise with Christ. And in that is true joy. For now we are free! AMEN.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

September 4 -- 12th Sunday After Pentecost

In our Gospel text last week, Jesus instructed his followers, us, that if any wanted to be his disciples we must take up our crosses and follow him down that Calvary way.

This week, I believe that way starts to get some definition, as we are offered practical advice from Jesus on how to work all the way through conflict until there is reconciliation, until, as Jesus says, “you have regained that one”.

This is a very difficult task for anyone: dealing with conflict or anxiety or a wrong-doing in the community, holding someone accountable. And frankly, in most places in our culture, when there is a conflict, something you don’t agree with, the most tempting “solution” is either just to ignore it or to walk out.

Certainly this is true for us consumers: When service is subpar, we can ignore it—we can fight it, but not for the purpose of reconciliation. And certainly, we can make sure we never come back, that is, we can walk out.

Even in our friendships, there’s nothing ultimately binding us to a person. If a “friend” wrongs us, we can walk out on the relationship. Find new friends. Unfortunately in our culture, we’re often reminded just how fickle friendships can be when shaken by even a little bit of conflict, and how much easier it is to be distant.

I’m afraid, it’s happened to marriages, family situations, and churches as well. It gets difficult, and someone walks out.

So many fathers in our culture, walk out, shut out the family—don’t know how to deal. I can relate. And it just needs to be said. Numbers of people I’ve talked to that never had a father who was present.

And now as a father myself, I certainly understand the impulse…to be honest. There’s always the door. (I can’t see myself ever walking out on my family, but I certainly understand the impulse. That’s a side of myself that I’m not proud of…)

Now sometimes there are situations in marriages, families and churches, where walking away is the healthiest option, but not without some serious attempts at reconciliation, which is what Jesus is talking about today.

I want to lift up two aspects of Jesus’ instruction from our text today: 1) that we go directly to the person & 2) if the person refuses to hear us, then we treat them as a tax collector and a Gentile.

First, Jesus calls us today to meet one-on-one with the person who wronged you, with the person who should be held accountable, with the person with whom you’ve got a problem.

How often does this happen: You’ve got an issue with someone?...you go talk directly to them about it. Usually what I’ve experienced is we go immediately and talk to others about the person. Maybe you go talk to your pastor about the person. It is very hard, talk about bearing your cross, it is very hard to sit down one-on-one with the person with whom you’ve got the problem. And sometimes I justify talking to all my allies because “I’m just working out my thoughts…venting my frustrations,” but so easily and unintentionally that becomes gossip.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, great 20th c. theologian, actually founded a seminary in Germany, which he centered on living in community. He wrote a book at that time called Life Together, which is a beautiful volume.

Eberhard Bethge, one of Bonheoffer’s students at that time, tells us that one of the rules that Bonhoeffer made for this community was that no person was to speak about the another person…

…even if they were speaking good things, or in the form of “prayer concerns” (which can be a very Kosher way to gossip, btw)—no person was to speak about another person if that person was not present to hear the comments.

Can you imagine? Not talking about anyone—not even good things—unless they were within an earshot?

And Bethge goes on to say that no one in the community was able to keep that rule perfectly, [pause] but even their attempt at keeping the rule changed the fabric of their community. It made their words about each other direct and more thoughtful and far more loving. It cut back on petty gossip. It did away with a heightened anxiety about who thinks what about whomever else. It transformed their community.

Going directly to the person with whom you have the problem—it is a gift to be reminded this time, by Jesus, to do this regularly. These aren’t my words. I prefer to talk it out with all my trusted friends, if I have a problem with you. But Jesus says I shouldn’t talk to anyone about you, if I have a problem; I should simply come directly to you. And if and when we hear each other we have regained one another. There is reconciliation—one of the most beautiful and powerful experiences in the human experience. Reconciliation. [would love to hear your stories sometime of reconciliation…]

And the second aspect of Jesus’ life-giving instruction today, that I wanted to lift up, is what he says when agreement is not reached…when reconciliation is not possible, when conflict doesn’t result in a solution or a re-gaining, but to only greater anxiety and pain.

When that happens, Jesus says, “Let that one be to you as a tax collector or a Gentile.” In other words, LET IT GO.

Perhaps the greatest gift that Jesus could give us these days: 3 little words “Let it go.”

Because in addition to so many other social and psychological side-affects—anger, resentment, bitterness toward a person or at a community has been shown to have physical effects on our bodies—digestive problems, back aches, head aches, sexual dysfunction, ulcers.

Or God forbid, our hanging-on-to-it’s, our not-letting-it-go’s mean that our children or other innocent ones get the brunt of our pent-up anger or bitterness. Let it go, Jesus invites us, let it go. Not a storming, “*blank* you, I’m outta here!”, angry “I’m done with it” response, which is more of a cultural norm. This is a different kind of letting it go, that takes prayer and Christian community and practice, practice. Just words today, but one exercise is [breathing (grace-peace)]. It’s the ultimate question: How’s forgiveness going? As we move into a new school year, hfg? As we move toward the anniversary of 9/11, hfg? As we journey back into our past here at SVLC –50 years of life—we can’t pretend that they were all perfect years, hfg? As we chat on the phone with family members and of distant friends this afternoon, hfg?

“Let that one be to you as a tax collector or a Gentile.” Let it go…because we know how Jesus treats the tax collector and the Gentile. Let it go, and leave it to Jesus, who forgives even and especially the tax collector and the Gentile. Let it go, and leave it to Jesus. See this is different from a more popular form of walking out…because even as we walk away from an un-reconciled conflict, there is still compassion for the other party, because Christ is at the center of our letting go. And despite our distances, we can still love the enemy, pray for those who persecute us, when Christ is at the center. This is the power of God! …loving and letting go at the same time…and God give us that power today!

In truth, if we’re honest we’re all Gentiles, and so Jesus welcoming and forgiving the Gentile becomes all the more poignant.

This can be perhaps the most liberating and practical message we’ll hear in a long time: First do the hard work of going directly and lovingly to the person or the issue…and trying in Christian love to reconcile. If there is reconciliation, “Praise God! There is nothing greater. That’s amazing grace, in flesh and bone. The lion lies down with the lamb.” And if not, let it go and harness the power of God to continue to love despite wrong-doing.

This is where Jesus calls us: down that rocky road, carrying the cross of direct and healthy and loving communication. Not avoiding or distancing but meeting our sister or brother in love and longing for reconciliation. But ultimately Jesus knows that we cannot finally go to the cross, that finally we must lay our crosses down. Let it go, he says to us. I’ve got it from here. You’ve done your best. Let me take it now, your anger, your hurt, your resentment, your bitterness. Let me take it now, and unbind you, from all that is holding you down. Let me take it…

So that now you are free, now you are free to love and serve and live. Now you are unbound in order to be bound. In order to be bound to this Christian community and to this world in love!