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, October 24, 2011

October 23 -- 19th Sunday after Pentecost

I had some funny dreams last night. You know that falling dream – have you ever had that falling sensation as you’re falling asleep?

So take that, and then I had two experiences yesterday: We had the chance yesterday morning to do something we had never done before – to go to Torrey Pines State Park, where we hiked from the visitor center at the top all the way down to the beach, a steady decline. Also, there was this moment yesterday afternoon where I got to see Micah run. He was running full speed around our cul-de-sac over to his friend’s house – concrete sidewalk where the driveways make the surface go up and down, full stride Micah, with big growing feet. I was so scared he was going to “eat it” again and rip open his knees and bust open his chin. But everything was fine. Until last night when I had that dream.

I had the falling dream, except instead of me falling, it was Micah falling down this declining trail down which, of course, he was running…

Running downhill is an image I’d like you to carry into our reflecting on today’s Gospel text…where Jesus gives those, who were trying to trap him again, “the Bible’s greatest sound bite.” Like last week’s text the Pharisees were looking to trick, not looking to learn; and still Jesus gives them (and us) a great summation of all the law and the prophets with this answer: “Love your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”

I am particularly interested with what it means to “love your neighbor as yourself”. Loving God with all your heart, soul and mind actually—in Matthew’s world—the equivalent as loving your neighbor as yourself. So it really is all about loving your neighbor as yourself. What else could “Loving God” ultimately mean? Love of God is intrinsically tied to love of neighbor.

And so if we are to love our neighbor as ourselves, then how are we doing at taking care of ourselves? How are you doing at caring about yourself? This might be a difficult thing to think about…for generally well-meaning, self-sacrificing hard-working types, such as yourselves. How are you doing at caring about yourself? But I think it’s good and honest to consider. To use a common—but I think helpful—airline analogy: how are you doing at putting the oxygen mask on yourself first before you help someone else?

Jesus offers us that freedom today, friends. Do something for yourself this week. Treat yourself, guilt free.

Now when I say “treat yourself”, how many of us think of food? Thank you, popular culture, commercials... I couldn’t even write those words without seeing this huge ice cream cone on my computer screen. Satisfying a particular craving—which only meets a short-term urge—is not really what I mean, by “do something for yourself this week.” I’m wondering more about giving some time to yourself this week…to reflect, to pray, to breathe. Even if that means waking up in the middle of the night to journal. Taking a hike in Torrey Pines. Having a cup of coffee of a glass of wine (or a little ice cream) with no one but your thoughts. Jesus offers us that freedom today. Because if we can’t take care of ourselves, then we can never fully love our neighbor. If we can’t breathe…then we can’t serve. Get some breathing space, friends in Christ, for heaven’s sake…and for this world’s sake.

Back to this image of running downhill: this idea of caring for ourselves can certainly get out of control, like the little boy flying recklessly down the trail in my dream last night. He had fun for a moment, but soon went crashing. How self-time, “me time” can get out of control too…I think it has as we watch our world before us: so much about ME…whether it’s political discourse (MY rights), or sports (MY time), or even churches can make it all about ourselves…completely missing others in need (and in that, even our own greatest needs). Having fun for a moment, but soon and ultimately crashing…

But God’s people are called to walk. Downhill. Together.

God’s grace might be imagined as taking our paths in life…and tilting them downward to make them easier. That’s what grace is. Works-righteousness – this idea that we have to earn our salvation, our place in heaven with God, which many of our Christian brothers and sisters still affirm – that’s like a steep hike uphill. If you do A, B, and C, then God will reward you. For non-believers or just non-involved church people, on the other hand, the hike is just kind of flat – no steep inclines, no real commitments, no great joy or sorrow or anger at the One who Christians name as Jesus – just kind of a flat, level, this life is – with no final hope.

But for us who stake it all on God’s grace. That’s like God taking the path, and tilting it downward, so that we can walk easily…but are tempted to run. Tempted to think that it’s just for us. (There were people running downhill yesterday at Torrey Pines. Not only did they almost crash into me and my family and everyone else on the trail. I just thought: that must do a number on your knees over time.) God’s people weren’t meant to run down hills. God’s earth-bending grace and love isn’t meant to be hoarded or gorged upon or spent wildly. Me. Me. Me. Me. God’s grace and love isn’t meant to be consumed like that.

It’s meant to be savored and shared, like a gentle walk down to the beach…like a long talk with a dear friend…like a 5 course meal with everyone singing after dessert.

Loving God with everything, and loving your neighbor as yourself is an invitation to slow down on the trail of grace. To savor and share it. And I’m struck that this dream, this image, is of a way that goes down. Down is where God’s people go, together. Down to savor grace, down to share God’s unconditional welcome. Down to the poor, the lonely, the lost, the confused, the outcast. We “con-descend,” let’s reclaim that word. I was reading about it: and it wasn’t used negatively until the 18th century – condescend. Literally means “to go down together”. One etymological meaning of the word is to “willingly sink to equal terms with inferiors”. Let’s just be honest about how we see others – the poor, the immigrant, the stranger, the outcast, the non-believer, the confused – they’re all inferior to us and our faith. But not if God bends the earth and leads us down together to be with them. Then we’re all together, helping, encouraging, sharing, worshipping – and in that whole steady process, we ourselves are being cared for too!

Not to drag out this word con-descend much more, but I was intrigued to find that con-descend was first used around the 17th c. to refer to what God does: “to willingly sink to equal terms with inferiors”.

Sisters and brothers in Christ, walking downhill calmly and together, seeing and serving the world around us as we move – this is deeply rooted Christian activity! This is Jesus-following activity…isn’t it? This is what it means to love both neighbor as self and to love God – who is present and moving as we walk, pointing us to those in need (and to the beauty of the earth), comforting us when we are in pain, shepherding us down into the valleys of this troubled world; down to the shorelines of good and evil to offer ourselves to both friend and stranger alike; and promising never to leave us…in fact to meet ever more at the bottom, at the end of the day, in our darkest, most broken moments, even in our death. Our God promises to meet us ever more at the bottom…and finally, finally to raise us up in joy and peace. We depend solely on God…to raise us up in joy and peace at the last.

This is God’s grace in which and by which we dwell, now and always! AMEN.

Monday, October 17, 2011

October 16 -- 18th Sunday after Pentecost

“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

This text has been used in all sorts of ways.

It’s been used by some to argue that we shouldn’t have to pay any taxes. Can you see why? Pay no allegiance to Caesar is what Jesus is saying.

It’s been used by others to argue that we should certainly pay taxes, that this offers us a model of civility in living harmoniously in both the worldly realm and the religious realm. That’s kind of how Luther used this passage in his time, where people wanted to rebel violently against the powers that were...

Unfortunately Jesus doesn’t answer the Pharisees’ question about money directly…I believe mostly because the Pharisees weren’t asking it as a stewardship question on their Stewardship Sunday. They had different intentions: they wanted to trap Jesus. And they knew they could trap him with either answer he gave.

So I’m not sure how directly helpful this text is for Stewardship Sunday. Jesus isn’t giving us any clear cut answers. Other places in the Bible he does; it’s a good thing we don’t have to read that passage where he says very plainly – “sell all that you have and give it to the poor.” Or the passage in Acts where those who don’t give a percentage of their income are accused of stealing from God…which is a continuation of an over-arching theme throughout the OT. But this text today is not so blunt. Rather it leads us to understanding and insights about offering up money in more indirect…and graceful ways.

There’s not a straight answer for us on how much to give in this text. Rather we are offered (2 things) an idea about intentions, and led once again to a beautiful conclusion – that all “our” money and stuff is actually God’s.

First of all, I think the Gospel story today raises for us the question of intentions when we talk about money. The Pharisees had intentions when they asked Jesus about money. As you consider what to write or what not to write on your pledge cards, what are the intentions behind the questions you might have: “Why am I being asked to make a financial pledge to this church, again?” What might the intentions be behind that kind of question? In other words, what gives birth to your questions about financial stewardship in the church? Sometimes just our tone of voice can be a give-away for our intentions. Are our questions born out of mistrust, anger, fear, or a way to trap…like the Pharisees?

Or are our questions around money and what to offer born of something else? Joy, peace, trust in the abundance of God’s love and grace. “How might God use me? How can I make a pledge that is an expression of my thankfulness to God, for all God has given me?”

This question of what to pledge is really a chance to reflect on yourself. To look in the mirror at yourself, to look at your own life, and to consider God’s blessings, God’s presence in many and various ways. Maybe that sounds obvious, but pledging once again this year is not about looking at the church and determining whether a larger or smaller sum is appropriate for this year. It’s about looking at yourself and considering God’s grace and abundance in your life.

Go home with your pledge card, set some time aside, say a prayer of thanksgiving, and then write down your pledge. (if you need some more specific direction in that – I like to just stick with the biblical model of tithing, 10% of your income, or at least working up to that each year. But I know some pastors that say go home, pray, figure out the absolute most you can give, and then bump it up one more percentage point – just to emphasize the sacrificial component of stewardship. It should hurt a little.)

Pledging at your central place of worship (whether that’s here or elsewhere), during stewardship season, is ultimately a gift for you, not your gift to the church. It is an opportunity for each of us to make a statement about how much we trust in God.

Are your intentions and your questions around money and giving born out of distrust and fear, anger or the need to trap or control? Or are they born out of joy, peace, trust, thanksgiving? Or maybe you’re somewhere in the middle…wanting to have your questions born out of joy and peace, but feeling stuck in fear and distrust – distrust of institutions or people, maybe even distrust of God – and angry about it all. Sisters and brothers in Christ, God is with us in our bitterness and resentment, in our mistrust and anger. God is with us, nudging us, holding us, comforting and challenging us…as the Holy Spirit guides us into new realms of joy and thanksgiving. (HOD “Lord of All Hopefulness” along these lines)

You know, I used to say that I hated Stewardship Sunday, as a pastor, having to talk about money and giving, how hard that is, and then I’d even drag other pastors in with me and make a blanket statement…but…I think you here at SVLC have witnessed a sort of evolution in my rhetoric…

It’s a joy to be able to proclaim and bear witness to the fact that your being invited to offer up one of this earthly life’s greatest treasures, your money, is a gift.

This day and this text is a gift, Stewardship Sunday, Jesus talking about “give to Caesar what is Caesars and to God what is God’s”, for it all brings us back to the blessed conclusion …

Read together the stewardship insert.

Monday, October 10, 2011

October 9 -- 17th Sunday after Pentecost

You are invited to God’s banquet here on earth…and even beyond this earth! You are invited. Come in! I don’t care, says God, if you’re new to the banquet family or if you’ve been here the whole time. I don’t care if you’ve committed all kinds of terrible deeds in your life, or had all kinds of terrible thoughts. You are invited to the banquet!

“You are invited to the banquet of my grace,” God tells us today! “It is yours to enjoy. Yours to savor. Yours. Take some and pass it around the table, like it was your favorite dish. Feast at this holy banquet,” God says. “This is your party, and by you I mean all who live and breathe upon this planet, which means you. Come to the banquet, the feast of the universe!”

“This is how much I love you, how much I forgive you, how much you mean to me. Look, I made your favorite thing! Can I get you some more to drink?” God’s banquet is here and now spread out before us. God’s grace and God’s love fills us. It connects us to one another and gives us peace. Thanks be to God for this banquet that you are invited to.

The question is, are you going to accept the invitation? Or like the characters in the story Jesus tells us today, are you going to make light of it? One is too busy and too shortsighted to recognize the big picture of God’s all-encompassing grace, and he goes back to his field to farm for himself. Another goes back to his business. How we can be consumed by our business, so much that we can’t even stop to enjoy the party that God has thrown for us.

I don’t want to compare the big banquet that we here at Shepherd of the Valley threw a few weeks ago, to the banquet of God’s grace, because even that beautiful event doesn’t even compare. But I can’t help reflect on it, as I ponder this text and this banquet image. And one of the things that was so wonderful for me, was the opportunity to take the long view. As those of you who were there may recall, I likened the evening to a mountain top experience, particularly because it’s a rare thing to take such a long view – 50 years into this congregation’s past, dreaming and gazing into God’s future for this church. Most of my time in this congregation is spent, not taking the long view, but just being in the day-to-day. Business around the office, farming in the fields as I go out meet with some of you, and some who are not yet a part of this family of faith. It’s hard to get the big picture, when you’re not on the mountain top. But the banquet is a symbol for the big picture. A huge table, plenty of food. And all are welcome to it.

And all you have to do is accept the invitation to this long view, this big picture. And what an absolute, undeserved gift it is—this grace—spread out like a picnic blanket over God’s green universe!

And it is for you to accept, to open your hands and heart and enjoy.

But if you do accept and come to God’s banquet, are you going to wear the garments provided for you? This is where our text gets particularly Matthean. This story, when it’s repeated in the Gospel of Luke, doesn’t include this next part…(Luke’s community was more interested in unpacking the radical welcome of all people.)

Matthew’s community is more interested in the purity of heart of the invited. And if the invited are not participating in response to the invitation, then they never really got it, and OUT THEY GO!

The part about the one caught without his proper wedding garment: this is really something! It doesn’t mean, that we have to go buy the right thing to wear for God’s party.

That outfit is given to us for free, in our baptism, in the Word of God that we hear Sunday after Sunday, in the Communion that we share, all of that is putting on Christ Jesus. That’s the garment that we are given when we accept the invitation and walk in the door. But we have to let that garment go on us and stay on us, as we live our lives as though we are truly at God’s banquet!

Have you ever had the nightmare that you show up to an event wearing the wrong thing…or worse yet…nothing?

This welcome that God has is to be stewarded – which means we have to trust that God will provide the best outfit, the best garments. Let’s not show up wearing the wrong thing. When God invites us to a banquet and gives us even the clothes to wear, we don’t show up in flip flops and a tee shirt!

The question that keeps recurring for me about God’s banquet is “Are you coming to the party, or are you COMING TO THE PARTY.”

I don’t know if you’ve ever had this experience, but when you throw a party there are some people who come to the party, and then there are others who really COME TO THE PARTY.

Some just kind of show up, but they don’t take interest in anyone, I was at a dinner party the other day, and one of my friends was off in the corner texting almost as soon as he arrived. They were somewhere else.

Maybe that’s a helpful image: are you off in the corner just communicating with your little circle of friends, completely unattached to the stranger, to the new face at the party, unconnected to the bigger, wider picture of God’s welcome…just kind of at the party.

So much has happened this last week, amidst it all, we in the church honor the life of Henry Muhlenberg on October 7. First Lutheran pastor in America, 1787. “Satan will allow a lot of external things like going to church as long as there is no true turning from darkness to light, from the power of Satan to complete freedom in and through the Son of God.”

Are you at the party…just going through the motions…or are you AT THE PARTY. Turning from darkness to light, from the power of Satan to complete freedom in and through the Son of God! Connecting, connecting, laughing, helping, paying attention to who is in and who’s left out. Have you ever seen someone like this at a party? I’m not talking about people who have to be the center of attention…I’m talking about the ones who are really present and participating. I know many of us are pretty introverted; I’m not saying we all need to force ourselves to be extroverted. But wearing God’s garment does mean that we are permanently changed to be reaching outward, reaching outward, which is the literal translation of extro-vert: “to be turned outward”.

Even the most introverted personality becomes extroverted to sharing God’s love and God’s grace with the world, after being clothed with Christ’s garment at the banquet.

Accidents – tragic and otherwise

New Members joining

Stewarding our welcome

Busy, misprints, barely getting by, etc.

50th debriefing

Monday, October 3, 2011

October 2 -- 16th Sunday after Pentecost -- Blessing of the Animals

What in the world does this text have to do with the blessing of the animals? [re-tell?]

It’s our assigned Gospel reading for the day…AND I THINK IT’S PERFECT…as we reflect not just on how cute our little critters are, but as we consider again the ways that God has “leased” them and all creation to us human beings.

God is the land owner; we are the part-time tenants of this planet. And when the produce comes – how we tend to want to hog it all for ourselves! How we can be fooled into believing it’s all rightfully ours…and not God’s, the land owners…

So God sends servants to ask us to share – Martin Luther King, Jr., Oscar Romero, Francis of Assisi, Mother Theresa – and we call one a communist, another a lunatic and off his rocker, we assassinate another, and we let the last do her crazy work in some far off land, where we “admire” her from a distance, claiming that we could never do that…

So God sends more servants – children, animals – and how we can treat them in similar ways…Using them for our own purposes…

“Serve me, pet! Make me laugh. Comfort me, children, make me feel loved. Provide something for me.”

That’s my tendency…rather than letting children and animals teach me about God. About trusting God with everything. Children and pets can teach us that. They can teach me about knowing that all is in God’s hands. They’re not clueless and dumb. In the trusting of the trees and the children and the animals, lies the wisdom of God.

A day of Blessing of the Animals, really goes both ways. We can pronounce God’s blessing on these animals, but they don’t really need that from us. Like we said in the Psalm, they live their lives in a way that truly expresses God’s love and blessing for them. What’s really happening on this exciting day is that we are remembering that the animals are blessing us, with their wisdom, their ability to trust God.

And God, the land owner, who seems out of his mind – I mean, why does the land owner keep sending messengers to get killed? – but God, the land owner, keeps trying to get through to us: SHARE!

Share what you have. It’s not yours to begin with. Share with one another, and there will be enough to go around. I think that’s at the heart of Jesus’ instruction here. Take a longer view…and share.

Those wicked tenants, we wicked tenants, I’m afraid want it all and we want it now. The real sin of those tenants is that they have no vision and no ability to trust that they are in God’s hands, and so they try to take matters into their own hands, as if it’s their land.

As we reflect on God’s planet, how might we let the animals bless us, and teach us to have a greater vision, to see far in front of us? Native Americans talk/think regularly about 7 generations past themselves. How will their actions affect 7 generations beyond themselves? That kind of thinking might radically change our decisions.

Here’s the gift. God keeps sending messengers and as we look around this morning, we can see evidence of that – both human messengers and non-human! God is still trying to get through to us, God even sends his only Son to us. And even if he too was executed, not even death could stop him…and Christ is still coming into the vineyards we’re renting. Asking us to share, and loving us regardless. Calling us to be faithful, and accepting us even when we’re not. God is so generous – these animals are a sign of that. God is so faithful. And again asking us simply to trust.

Today’s a hard day for my family, because we miss Oscar, who was here this time last year...

Leave you with an image—Oscar trusting. On his back, loved to have his belly rubbed. Contrast that with Luther's definition of sin: self curve inward, unable to trust anyone, see much farther than yourself. But Oscar taught us about trusting completely.

May we too be so trusting. Because no matter what, God holds us, and comforts us…and always will. Amen.