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...

Thursday, September 20, 2012

October Newsletter's Cover Article -- for discussion

A few months ago, I came across this article.  I often have people tell me that they are spiritual, but not religious.  What do you think of Lillian Daniel's perspective? -Pastor Dan

“Spiritual but Not Religious?  Please Stop Boring Me.”
Reflection by Lillian Daniel

On airplanes, I dread the conversation with the person who finds out I ama minister and wants to use the flight time to explain to me that he is "spiritual but not religious." Such a person will always share this as if it is some kind of daring insight, unique to him, bold in its rebellion against the religious status quo. 

Next thing you know, he's telling me that he finds God in the sunsets. These people always find God in the sunsets. And in walks on the beach.Sometimes I think these people never leave the beach or the mountains, what with all the communing with God they do on hilltops, hiking trails and . . . did I mention the beach at sunset yet? 

Like people who go to church don't see God in the sunset! Like we are these monastic little hermits who never leave the church building. How lucky we are to have these geniuses inform us that God is in nature. As if we don’t hear that in the psalms, the creation stories and throughout our deep tradition. 

Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn't interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself. 

Thank you for sharing, spiritual but not religious sunset person. You are now comfortably in the norm for self-centered American culture, right smack in the bland majority of people who find ancient religions dull but find themselves uniquely fascinating. Can I switch seats now and sit next to someone who has been shaped by a mighty cloud of witnesses instead? Can I spend my time talking to someone brave enough to encounter God in a real human community?  Because when this flight gets choppy, that's who I want by my side, holding my hand, saying a prayer and simply putting up with me, just like we try to do in church.
Prayer: Dear God, thank you for creating us in your image and not the other way around. Amen.

About the Author: 
Lillian Daniel is the senior minister of the First Congregational Church, Glen Ellyn, Illinois. She is the author, with Martin Copenhaver, of This Odd and Wondrous Calling: the Public and Private Lives of Two Ministers.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

September 16 -- Sixteenth Sunday of the Green Season

Our Vision Statement here at Shepherd of the Valley, raise your hand if you know it….
“Extending God’s welcome to all we meet along the way.”          (Feb. 2009)

Our gospel lesson is a conversation that happened “along the way.”  Jesus and the disciples have been all over the place.  Among Jews, among Gentiles, among women, among children, among Samaritans, among the sick, the possessed, among the Pharisees.  AMONG.  Along the way.  In the thick of it, Jesus stops and asks a critical question, that gets them re-centered. 

We’re well “along the way” too.  In the thick of it, among all sorts of ministry.  I know that’s true for your personal lives.  From the moment we’re born to the moment we breathe our last breath, we’re on a journey.  But we’re also well on our way as a congregation.  We’ve been doing ministry in and around this church for a long time. 

Some have served on church council, some have been faithfully visiting the sick and homebound for years, some have labored on the grounds in the buildings of this place for many more years than I’ve been a pastor. 

Even here in September, the season of the new school year, a message about starting out, blasting off as if nothing’s happened yet, embarking on a new journey, wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense because most of us have already been on the journey for a long time.  Many of us have been on road with Jesus for so long.  We’re already following, trying our best to be faithful.

We’re deep into the thick of it…like the disciples were, deep in the midst and the life of all this good ministry—Worship, Education, Inreach, Outreach, Confirmation, Sunday School, financing—and Jesus stops us, “along the way,” breaks in mid-ministry, and says hey!  Who do you say that I am?  And sometimes we too can loose focus, loose the center, sometimes we can get fearful and fall back on triumphalism.  That’s what Peter did.  “You are Greatest, you’re the Messiah, your ‘the man’!” he wants to shout from the rooftops, “and we get to be your disciples, unlike all those other slackers out there.”  Is he wrong?  But Jesus tells him first to be quiet about that, and then he even rebukes him.  

This is why:  Jesus is all about emptying himself in courageous service and compassion for others.  Say with me. --^  And as a strong and decisive leader, that’s where he’s calling his disciples to be too:  all about emptying ourselves in courageous service and compassion for others.  But Peter’s tone is that of bragging.  “Ha, ha, na, na—we get it Jesus, even if others don’t, we win, you’re the Messiah, you’re on our side.”  Might sound childish, but it’s easy to get like Peter.  We Lutherans love our theology – grace apart from works.  I’m proud of this.  Honestly it’s not something you find readily in other religions and frankly even in other parts of Christianity.  Or maybe some of us have the tendency to get a little triumphant about not just Lutheranism, but Christianity all together.  “We’re the best, the chosen of God, na, na, we know that we’re really God’s favorites.”  Triumphalism.  “You are the Messiah.  Na, na!”  These are traps that we can fall into with Peter.

But thank God, Jesus calls us on our pride!  Thank God, Jesus pulls us too out of our self-centeredness and arrogance!  Thank God Jesus breaks in while we’re “in the thick of it,” while we’re mid-ministry, along the way and brings us back to emptying ourselves in courageous self-giving love and service to the others.  JESUS brings us there, to self-giving love and service.  WE can’t get there on our own.  Thank God, Jesus brings us there!  All we can do is trust, open ourselves, open our hands and our hearts and Christ takes it from there!  Jesus will take us to new places, sisters and brothers of the cross!  This week, Jesus is that abrupt, even harsh voice that interrupts us mid-ministry, and clarifies the vision—the vision is that we empty ourselves, even in the face of death!  I’m not sure why all the disciples didn’t just abandon Jesus right there.  He’s yelling at us today friends, and then he’s telling us to give up everything and follow.

And I say, thank you God!  This is what it means to lose our lives.  This is a bold message from Jesus today, and thank God for it.  Jesus asks us to take up our cross and follow. 

(Google Translator: Wanted to learn how to say in German “I am a Lutheran Pastor”, but I got “I am a loser and a pastor.”  In baptism, we all become "losers"[losing our lives] and "pastors" [caring for one another and the world God made.)

I want to say something, again (I know I’ve said this before), about the cross we bear:  Some have been told that the “cross we bear,” the cross that Jesus tells us to pick up are all those struggles in our lives.  For example, some have even been told by ministers and priests that enduring the blows of their violent husbands is simply one of many crosses for women to bear.  This is bad theology.  This is wrong!  Whether it’s abuse at home, chronic illness in the family, a bad turn of events—these are not crosses to bear.  Sometimes terrible things happen, for no reason at all, sometimes terrible things happen on account of human sinfulness and brokenness, on account of destructive and violent behaviors that have been passed down for generations—and God grieves right along with us when they do.  God cries.  Jesus wept, remember?

The cross that we bear…is the cross that was imprinted on our foreheads when we were baptized…when we were “sealed and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”  Remember that?  And in that covenant of baptism we are joined to Christ and therefore are merged onto the road, grafted along the watery way of the baptismal people –

Living among God’s faithful people
Hearing the Word and sharing the Holy Meal
Proclaiming the good news of Christ through word and deed
Serving all people following the example of Jesus
Striving for justice and peace in all the earth

Bearing that cross is both an absolute gift and a burdensome responsibility.  Bearing this cross, we step out in peace and in faith  and in compassion and justice (Cornell West, ethics at Princeton: “Justice is what love looks like in public” i.e. all are clothed, housed, fed, cared for.  You could say, it’s what love looks like “along the way”).  The resurrection is real, and it’s happening all around us, even when we lose sight of it, get distracted, lured by power and possibility of triumph or dominance.  Even in the thick of our ministry here at SVLC – Christ is our compass, guiding us to make bold decisions, sacrificial, joy-filled, bold decisions with our money, with our time, with our whole lives.  Christ centers us on emptying ourselves today.  And in the emptying paradoxically, unexpectedly, wonderfully…in the loosing of our lives, we FIND, we GAIN, we are REDEEMED, and we are FREE!  


Monday, September 10, 2012

September 9 -- Fifteenth Sunday of the Green Season

Sisters and Brothers in Christ – Don’t you dare let Jesus off the hook!  I don’t care if you’ve been part of a Christian community for a long, long time, or this is your first time today!  Don’t you dare let Jesus off the hook.

This Syrophoenecian woman didn’t let him off the hook…and it was her first encounter (so it’s never to early to say, “Hey, Jesus can’t get away with that!”)  Ask for what you want from God – make sure it’s the right thing to ask – and don’t let Jesus off the hook, casting you off like a dog.  Don’t imagine yourself unworthy of Christ’s eyes, ears and hands.

Did you hear that in the Gospel?  Jesus called that woman asking for help a dog!  That’s bad now—sounds kind of like “bum”—but in that period in time, you have to understand, it was a racial slur.  Syrophoenecia was the area up north over by the Mediterranean sea, modern day Lebanon, only the difference of about 100-150 miles.  So just stretch it, and think of L.A.  Some stinky woman from L.A., who never went to church and cheers for the Dodgers.  Can you believe she’s got the nerve to ask our dear Jesus for a hand out?  And Jesus calls her a dog.

How do you deal with this? …Jesus making cruel, racial slurs.  Does that mean it’s ok for us to make cruel, racial slurs?  Biblical scholars have tried to soften this through the years (they used to say he was testing her, or he was just kidding) – but bible scholars now are realizing now that they can’t get around this terrible fact – that Jesus calls a woman something that would have made his mamma slap his mouth and say, “I did not raise my boy to talk that way!” 

And she knew it – the Syrophoenecian woman, she was a mama herself – she knew that it was not an appropriate thing to say, and so she spoke up; she talked back to Jesus and said:  “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs from the master’s table.” 

She didn’t let him off the hook.  And it was as if something snapped in Christ and he turned to her – and instead of chastising her (imagine if you were in a position of power over someone and they talked back to you)  -- instead of punishing her for her lack of respect – Jesus says, “For saying that, you may go.  The demon has left your daughter.” 

What a story.  What do we learn from it?  What do we learn of God from it? 

Don’t let Jesus off the hook.  Ask for what you want—make sure it’s the right thing.  And then keep coming back.  He can take it.  He can take your anger and your backtalk and your assertiveness, and he might even admire it. 

It’s not always pretty, but in the end, Christ always responds, sisters and brothers in Christ.  It’s not always pretty, but in the end God gathers us in, heals our hurts and our pains and our sins, and then—having been forgiven and transformed—we are sent back out…to go and do likewise.  To go and heal the hurts and pains of our neighbor, to forgive and love, and forgive and love, and forgive and love…and serve. 

The pesky book of James today holds our feet to the fire and says, “When someone comes into your assembly who’s obviously down and out, poor, maybe smelly.  And you say sit way over there, you dog.  Versus when someone who drives a fancy car, wears nice jewelry and designer brands, cool hair, and nice pocketbook, you say, ‘C’mon in.  Please sit here in this nice cushioned seat.  Could I get you some coffee.” 

James – last week I envisioned him as that pesky Lorax, one of Dr. Seuss’ great characters – James full on questions that person’s BELIEF IN GOD!  When our words and our actions, our faith and our works, don’t line up, James might just dismiss us—like many young people know who critique the church – and say, “Well, they must not really believe in God.  Look at how they treat the poor: They don’t treat the poor.”  Ugh, that pesky Lorax James – would have certainly held Jesus’ feet to the fire, upon hearing how Jesus himself first treated that annoying woman from South Central L.A.

Sisters and brothers in Christ – these are challenging texts today.  Here’s the Good News: First, that we get to hold Jesus feet to the fire.  Put the pressure on him.  Ask him for what you want for yourself, for this country, for this planet.  Demand justice.  Cry out for peace.  “Smart off” to him for fair treatment of everyone regardless of gender or nation of origin or religious persuasion or our other hot-button modern day dividers – sexual orientation and class.  Make sure it’s the right thing. 

Shouldn’t everyone get the same…mercy, love, forgiveness, healing care, grace, treatment from God?  The Syrophoenecian woman sure thought so.  And she demanded it from Christ.  And Christ came through in the end. 

Christ comes though with you today, sisters and brothers.   The road might have been rocky up to this point, but God is here.  Reaching out to you, promising you the same things that the Syrophoencian Los Angelian woman demanded.  God reaches out to you with a hand of healing.  Forgives you this day, and asks that we now go and forgive and serve others…with the kind of passion and commitment that we have seen in the Scriptures. 

You know the other thing we see in the scriptures?  Imperfect people, mouthy people, racist people, selfish people.  We see broken people in the Bible, and this is good news because it means that God can take even us and turn us into forgiven and blessed healers and tellers of God’s enduring love. 

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God and anyone who loves is born of God.  You are born of God – a child of God: forgiven, healed, joyful – and now free to go and tell the Good News to everyone you meet. 

May it be so, this day and all days.  AMEN.


Monday, September 3, 2012

September 2 -- Fourteenth Sunday of the Green Season

Sisters and Brothers in Christ, welcome back to the Gospel of Mark.  For 6 weeks we’ve been hearing from John, about Jesus as the Bread of Life, and now we shift gears, as we begin a new school year, as we stop for a moment to celebrate Labor Day, as we brace ourselves for another particularly divisive election season, as we continue to go about our work as people of God, welcome back to the Gospel of Mark, where Jesus is short tempered and quick, particularly with any who think they’re better than anyone else.  With those who “lord it over” others. 

You know, I’ve been known to do that.  I’ve been known to lord it over others – maybe not out loud, but in my head, certainly.  Thinking I’m better. Thinking I deserve what I have, thinking my churchy life marks me, as not just different, but better, than all those slackers and non-believers out there.  “Shoot, Jesus is talking to me.”  And thanks be to God for that.  Welcome back to the Gospel of Mark. 

This is obviously about much more than dirty hands: Not what goes in – churchy stuff, churchy friends, churchy house with crosses and bibles and bumper stickers on display, churchy life.  It’s what comes out – love, compassion, namely care for the widow and the orphan…It’s Christ-follower ACTIONS that make a person clean….not just honoring Christ with our lips.

I always think it’s a helpful exercise to think back on all the words that you said this past week.  What was on your lips?  (Maybe even go home and write down what you can remember.)  What came out of your mouth this week?  What kinds of words were on your lips?  Were they words of love, or words of hate?  Words of slander behind someone’s back, words of bitterness, words of impatience, or gossip?  What was on your lips this week—as you dealt with your family or your co-workers?  As you “chatted” with your friends?  Were they good words, or were they words of evil?  Were they words of humility or words of “lording it over others”?

I’m going to sin boldly, and “lord it over” someone right now, but I still think it’s an interesting story: 

I’ll never forget how when I went backpacking in high school with our Lutheran camp in Colorado, we had to keep track of what came out of our mouths, what words were on our lips.  We had to keep track of our cutdowns, and any time we cut someone down in any way, we had to say 3 positive things to build them up.

And the one who was stuck constantly in this consequence of having to build the rest of us up, was the one in our group who never said a bad word, who always went to church, who dressed very properly, who had the best grades – but she was full of contemptuous glares…and little comments that chipped away at other people’s self-esteems.  (see how I’m “lording it over” her now?)  And it was a struggle for her to think of positive things to say.  But wasn’t that interesting: it’s not what goes into a person that defiles, Jesus says, but what comes out.  Keep track of what you say this week…

(maybe say a prayer for your lips and your tongue when you wake up in the morning).

James, the book of James – we’ll be here for about 5 weeks and I encourage you to read the whole thing during the week – the book James, like Jesus in Mark, isn’t concerned about putting on a show.  It’s about pureness of heart.  Religion that is pure and undefiled is this:  it’s having the greatest music, having the most people in the sanctuary, having acolytes who wear shiny leather shoes, and every hair combed right where it should be.  NO.  Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, according to James (and the long line of prophets that came before him, including Christ himself) is that one that cares for the widow and the orphan.

That makes me think of the LORAX… [explain story] 

Pure and undefiled of religion: caring for voiceless (explain meaning of “widows and orphans” through 1st century glasses)

Take beliefs and churchiness out of it: who are the people who are actively caring for the voiceless in our society, for the 21st century equivalent of the widows and orphans?  Who are the people actively reaching out to the poor, the planet (who’s going to speak for the trees, besides the fictitious Lorax?), the immigrant, the disabled, the uninsured, the silenced, the oppressed, the powerless, those who are out there alone…

Take religious beliefs and rituals out of it: who’s doing the Word?  Who shows up in times of distress and conflict?  Who stays?  Who gives generously?...You can tell a lot about a person by looking at their credit card statements – that’s why I’d never share mine with you.  Who shows you Jesus, not just tells you about Jesus?  Maybe they’re from inside the church, but maybe they’re an atheist or a Jew or a Muslim…

Ever had that happen to you, a non-Christian, non-believer actually teaches you something about Jesus?  The “happy reversal”?  I’ve been blessed by a few instances…pure and undefiled persons, not in my Christian church, not even Christians, showing me about care for the voiceless and the powerless!  Who would have thought?  Those kinds of things happen all the time, but we have to pay attention to notice them.  (maybe say a prayer for your eyes too)

Now I plan to stay in the church for as long as I live.  This not church bashing.  (I plan to publish an article I found soon called “So You’re Spiritual but not Religious, Don’t Bore Me”)  The imperfect and yet faithful community, the Word, the Meal, the Font—these are just too important in my life to go without them.  But those things alone don’t make me pure and undefiled…

Christ makes me clean.  And I need the church to keep hearing that. Christ is the one alive in but also beyond the pages of Scripture – Christ is the one alive in my sisters and brothers outside of the church too!  I need the church to keep reminding me of that. 

Surround yourself with people who care for the “voiceless in their distress”.  Who’s your Lorax?  Your scratchy old voice that, while annoying, might just be right?  Who are those who don’t just say the Word of God, they do it…as Francis of Assisi put it: they, “preach the gospel at all times, and only when necessary do they use words.”  Maybe they’re children, or people in their 20’s – crying out, annoying, but maybe they’re right?

These people are God’s gift to you, part of God’s on-going work in shaping you and molding you, like these pieces of art you see before you.  We resist them, “the Loraxes” but they keep coming and nudging at us.

Will you pray with me…  “God, we’re doing our best here.  But we fall short.  Take us the rest of the way.  Continue to mold us and fashion us, Abba, into the image of Jesus your Son.  God, you have washed us in the waters of baptism, you have cleaned our hearts.  And we give thanks that you continue to wash us in your forgiveness, grace and love.  Continue to shape us, like the pottery we see before us.  Send us your love, send us your power, send us your grace.  And thank you for sending us prophets, speakers for the voiceless, to shape us and call us back to what matters.  AMEN.”