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, December 29, 2013

December 29 -- First Sunday of Christmas

Listen to this sermon HERE.

A couple of years ago, around when that terrible tsunami hit Japan, I had a nightmare that night...of Micah slipping out of my arms...

Just the vividness of that dream--so real--was enough to haunt me even today.  But I can only imagine, I can only dream for a few hours, what it must have been like for the people of Japan who lost children (228,000 lives, including children), or for anyone who has lost a child. 

One year ago, at this time of the year: the horrific shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.  28 mothers or fathers lost their babies.  Christmas letter from a dear family friend.  She lives in Connecticut, one town over from Newtown, and she wrote about going Christmas caroling to one of the mothers, who lost a child on that terrible day.

In our “black and white” Gospel text this morning, the First Sunday of Christmas, get this -- violence, horror, tragedy.  This text is referred to as the slaughter of the innocents, perhaps the most horrifying Gospel text in our 3-year rotation!  Herod orders children under the age of 2 to be killed, just to make sure.  Joseph is warned in a dream...the Holy Family becomes emmigrants, refugees on the run.  (Just ask Eva Schneider in Hungary or any number of emmigrants how terrifying it is to leave your homeland.)  What is going on here?

For those who might not know: our children have been coloring our bulletin covers for Advent and Christmas; but today, the pictures on the cover are black and white -- no color.  The poinsettias, even this beautiful tree are dying, just on the 4th day of Christmas.  Can you smell it?  Hopefully tragedy has not struck you or your family as extremely as the Gospel of Matthew and I are describing here, but maybe some glitter and tinsel has been swept away for you too?  

Perhaps some branches are slumping (in your life), some flower petals withering a bit?

Yet, we hear anew this morning that with and in tragedy, God is still present, not barely present, but deeply present -- with those who are suffering, with those who have lost a child, with whose who must cross borders and live apart from their home country, with those who are plagued by night terrors... 

We hear anew this morning that with tragedy, comes opportunity:  an opportunity for the Gospel to be proclaimed, 
  • violence of Newtown -- my friend in Connecticut talked about her pastor’s last year -- life-long pastor: “hardest year of my ministry” -- he was proclaiming the Gospel, along with that faithful congregation, singing to that grieving mother, “No ear may hear his coming, but in the world of sin, where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in.”  
  • The gospel is proclaimed in the midst of tragedy.
    • to all who have no safe place, no place of peace, no restful nights.

When tragedy strikes, this also an opportunity, for God’s people to pay attention (even during the night)...
*  Joseph paid attention, even during the night
  • Even during the darkness, even during the winters of our lives, don’t miss the whisper of God’s angels, even in your dreams, and don’t miss the knock of the refugee at your door.  We don’t know how the Holy Family was welcomed as immigrants in Egypt.  
    • But we must pay attention to how we treat those from other countries, who have come knocking, how we welcome them, in our day, [pause] for there is Christ.   

When tragedy strikes, there is opportunity to proclaim the Gospel, to pay attention (even during the night), and finally...
When tragedy strikes, this is an opportunity for God-with-us, Emmanuel, Jesus Christ, to work for good in spite of evil all around.  Christ goes right to the pain, remember?  

God is born in the filth of a stable, made known to the underbelly establishments, those sketchy, thug shepherds  -- the type of people that smash windows for fun.  God chooses to become just as as poor as the poorest, just as dirty as the dirtiest.  And in our Gospel narrative this morning we’re reminded again if we want to see God-in-Christ, look to the immigrant, the alien stranger...traveling through unfamiliar land, maybe your land.  The face of Christ is truly in the least of these.  God gets close, remember?

Even when unspeakable violence occurs.  Horrific natural disasters.  Diseases, addictions, even in every-day struggles.  God-with-us, Emmanuel, has not abandoned us, but rather, Christ is right by our side.

We’ll sing together at the offering “Cold December Flies Away”: “In the hopeless time of sin, shadows deep had fallen.  All the world lay under death.  Eyes were closed in sleeping.  But when all seemed lost in night, came the sun whose golden light brings unending joy, brings unending joy, brings the hope, highest hope, of our hope’s bright dawning, Son belov’d of heaven.”

You well know, that Christmas doesn’t magically take away all our pain and sorrow.  Sometimes our greatest challenges are yet to come.  But God’s people know that through the gift of Jesus‘ birth, God has come near.  And in that holy presence, this mystery of the ages, this love divine, excelling all other loves, comes peace -- peace that passes all understanding.  Deep abiding peace, that starts from within.  Peace that carries one through tragedy and loss, peace that carries one through their own mistakes and shortcomings: forgiveness.  Peace that breaks down walls, and unlocks front doors, peace makes enemies into family -- that’s the peace that passes all human understanding.  Peace that makes immigrants into dear friends.  

In this Christ-child comes, not magical happiness not a perfect world right before our eyes, but the deep abiding faith and trust that God’s got us, that the salvation of the world ultimately has already been taken care of, that our souls have permission to calm down and as the hymn goes “David’s harpstrings [the other broken-and-yet-redeemed shepherd of the Bethlehem], hushed so long, shall swell our jubilee of song.”  For God is here.  To Christ be the glory.  Amen.

December 24 -- Christmas Eve

Listen to this sermon HERE.
"Even as this Christmas story may be both wonderfully sentimental and familiar, don’t let the scandal, the offensiveness, be lulled out of it this peaceful night -- it is precisely what makes this night holy: that God chose to be born into this filth."  

Monday, December 16, 2013

December 15 -- Third Sunday of Advent

Listen to this sermon HERE.

"Before we just take and swallow whole the Christmas baby, that glorious nativity...before we belt out our Christmas carols, and bow our heads over our Christmas feasts, and open our Christmas gifts, bask in all that Christmas glory, we’ve got to--at least--ponder John the Baptist’s question:  Is this Jesus the one who is to come, or should we wait for another?  

"Sisters and brothers in Christ, yes he is: Jesus is the one...and so we wait."    

Monday, December 9, 2013

Sunday, November 24, 2013

November 24 -- Christ the King Sunday

This week we journeyed through the past year, the Year of Luke, with readings, hymns and these notes...


  • Out of something so tiny and dead (stump)...Bethlehem, stable

  • Colors blue for hope; symbols: wreath, blue, simplicity, less, “Big Dipper”

  • Preparation, yes, but even more a celebration of the peace, hope, and life that comes with Christ’s arrival.  Our preparation is clearing a path...John the Baptist

  • New Year’s Day -- church’s gift: puts us just a little out of sync
    • I may be the only one (?), but this really feels like a New Year’s Eve to me, next Sunday Advent New Year’s Season.  Gift.  


  • Christmas = light come into the world.  Light shining in the darkness & darkness has not overcome it.  

  • Quiet time, contrary to culture, silent night

  • Colors white for light, symbols: stars (panel), creche

  • Preparation, yes, but even more a celebration of the peace that comes with Christ’s arrival

  • New Year’s Day -- church’s gift: puts us just a little out of sync

Epiphany (a day, not a season)

  • This tiny quiet entrance of God (Christmas), is made known on a global scale!

  • Greek:  epi - on, to  +  phanein - showing  = manifestation

  • Colors white -- traditionally a celebratory, go-to color, light

  • Symbol: Magi, stars, 3 gifts

  • Marks the 12th day of Christmas, January 6th 


  • In our brokenness we get lost, Lent is an honest journey through the wilderness, back to Christ, back to the waters of our baptism

  • Color purple for repentant, reflective and paradoxically royalty -- forgiveness

  • At the end of 40 days of Lent comes Holy Week, and we have this reading that K is about to share, but first a few comments:

    • This is actually the assigned reading for today, Christ the King Sunday...if we weren’t doing something different

    • Reading about Jesus on the cross: tortured and yet still forgiving sins: today, you will be with me in paradise

    • Jesus says this to you too, friends.  Despite all that we’ve done, God still gives us a place at the “welcome table”!  (What if we sang that on Good Friday? It would be appropriate.)

    • Welcoming sets the tone for all the lesson’s from this year of Luke that are to come...

  • Panel...Lent journey.  Holy Week.  What do you see?

  • This is quintessentially Luther-an -- cross at center.


  • Climactic conclusion of the Great Three Days.  At the heart of the Christian story.   

  • Colors white, symbols:  butterflies (panel), eggs & rabbits (? - careful, appropriation fertility), empty tomb, empty cross

  • Unlike Epiphany or Pentecost, Easter is a whole season, not just one day -- Seven Sundays

  • Unique features of Luke’s resurrection story: women, Emmaeus, breaking of bread -- there’s that welcome table again!


  • Spirit is given as gift to the disciples -- to you and me

  • Color red; Symbol fire, languages, Ezekiel’s bones, birthday cake :)

  • panel --  new insight: “Christ the vine, not consumed, for we carry on”?

  • That same spirit, wind, breath that Jesus had, now fills the church

  • birthday of the church -- Acts 2: shared what they had, were together in prayer and worship, and went out to care for the poor -- early church.  Luther, btw, tried to return the church to this -- for him: Sacraments, Education, Care for the poor

Green Time

What themes to you hear?

* Compassion, mercy, justice pouring out extravagant

* With Jesus, everything changes.

PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE -- For what are we thankful?  For what shall we ask God?

Sunday, November 17, 2013

November 17 -- Twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Listen to this sermon HERE.

Sisters and brothers in Christ, 
Today’s Gospel, today’s good news is for the tired believers.  It’s for those of us who are a little bit, and especially for those of us who are very tired, and frightened about what the future holds.  (If that’s not you, say a prayer of thanksgiving, and come stand with those who are tired.)  This is a text for those who look around and see a world that has abandoned the teachings of Jesus and the prophets.  The text I just read, said “you will be hated by all because of my name.”  Maybe that’s true for Christians today in some circles, but mostly in our culture, I think the contemporary version of this is not that we will be hatred but really just treated with apathy or ignor-ance or misinterpretation, which in some ways is even worse.  If you’re hated, then at least your argument has got traction, it’s getting under someone’s skin.  But if you’re ignored, well then you don’t even have a place.  Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Elie Wiesel once said, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s apathy.” [pause] 
Do you ever feel totally insignificant or ignored?  Without a place, a voice?  Not even given the affirmation of a counter-argument.  Just brushed off – perhaps by the culture, perhaps by our leaders and law makers, always by the weather, perhaps by the church, perhaps by your family or friends? “You will be irrelevant because of my name,” Jesus might say to us today.  (If that’s not you...) 
Today’s Gospel message is for those of us tired followers of Jesus…feeling unimportant and hopeless…like our work and our words are in vain, and the ship is going down.  “Why bother?  What’s the point?  Who cares?”  
This Gospel is for those of us who can feel ourselves being sucked into all that apathy, ignorance and misinterpretation flying all around us, like a typhoon.  
It’s easy to just give ourselves to the gale-force, typhoon winds of this culture—“take care of yourself, it’s all about you, cover your butt, they are not your problem, protect yourself, security, security, personal security, draw your circle of family tight and neat, don’t worry about anyone else but you and yours…’cause the ship is going down”—watch for those subtexts in all the holiday ads that are already well on their way in our culture…these messages whipping by us like wind.
I grew up on the Gulf Coast, and I’ve been in a few typhoons (although we called them hurricanes).  
I’ve got this image in my head of “Christians in a typhoon”, with this text:  
Christians, like any creature, would seek cover during a typhoon.  But then, as they wait for the storm to pass, they toil away together in a safe place—maybe a basement, maybe a community center or a church.  They would gather together and work away… knitting, quilting, assembling packets, planning their strategy for reaching out very soon, assisting one another with words of comfort, bandages, hugs and long conversations.  Small teams would even venture out into the storm to gather in those who could not find shelter.  They would risk their lives for a stranger.  And when they returned with a cold, wet, lost child or elderly adult, all would be greeted at the door and ushered in with blankets and bowls of tomato soup and plates of grilled cheese.  And a cot with a pillow.  
The typhoon pounds, and the Christian waits and works.  And then a time would come for worship underground.  They would gather in a dark place.  They’d pray and sing.  They’d read scripture by candlelight – they’d hardly have to look for passages about earlier believers riding out storms, lights shining in darkness, life overcoming death, peace in times of chaos...because they’d already know them by heart.  And they’d hang on every word from that Holy Book.  And then they’d eat – the body of life, the blood of forgiveness – and they would be filled…with all physical evidence to the contrary.      
Today’s text is about hunkering down.  Patiently working.  Lovingly watching .  Thoughtfully reaching.  Faithfully hoping.          [pause]
The Gospel of Luke is written by the same author as Acts.  And commentaries reminded us that this text, especially the bits about the hardship that’s coming—the imprisonment, the ridicule, the persecution—is of course a foreshadowing of what happens in Acts.  
One of these events in the book of Acts:  there’s a story of Paul traveling by sea with his comrades and they are terrified because they’re caught in a storm...but Paul speaks to them:
“I urge you now to keep up your courage, for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship…'Do not be afraid…God has granted safety to all those who are sailing with you.'  So keep up your courage.” (Acts 27:22-25)
“The ship is going down, and you’ll be OK,” Jesus says to his disciples.   Jesus is unimpressed by the temple, by the building, by the ship (nave).  Bricks and stones and fancy cargo, will all go down.  [pause] But you’ll be OK.  In one sentence, Jesus says, “you will be betrayed and some even put to death,” and in the very next, “but not a hair on year head will perish.”  Malachi: “The sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.”  Psalmist: “Sorrow spends the night, but...”
This is a text about hunkering down, patiently enduring.  “By your endurance you will gain your [souls],” Jesus says.  psuche—mind, sanity, calmness.  Our Buddhist sisters and brothers teach: “Chop wood, carry water.”  Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians:  “Do not weary in doing what is right.”  Hunker down: chop wood, carry water, wash, bake, stitch, weed.  One of the great quotes attributed to Martin Luther: “If I knew the world would end tomorrow, I’d plant an apple tree today.”  The ELCA’s Malaria Campaign goes on (not to pat ourselves on the back too much, but it’s a great illustration!)...talk about patiently enduring, planting an apple tree in the face of the plague of malaria in sub-Saharan Africa.  Lutherans are saying, “We’re going to try to wipe it out.”  
Hunkering down, sisters and brothers in Christ, patiently doing what is right.  And we do it, not alone, we endure with all tangible evidence to the contrary, we endure in the glorious company of all the saints—who we celebrated a few weeks ago and each time we gather—we endure together and we endure with Christ.  “My peace be with you,” Jesus says, “my peace I leave you—my peace will never leave you.”  AMEN.    

Blessing of travelers: O God, our beginning and our end, you kept Abraham and Sarah in safety throughout the days of their pilgrimage, you led the children of Israel through the midst of the sea, and by a star you led the magi to the infant Jesus. Protect and guide Larry and Stephanie (Kimberly, Eric, Ty, Sydney, Erica, Ian, Kade and Jillian) now as they set out to travel. Make their ways safe and their homecomings joyful, and bring us all at last to our heavenly home, where you dwell in glory with our Lord Jesus Christ and the life-giving Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

November 10 -- Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Listen to this sermon HERE.

Got a voice mail mail message from my friend Edgar on Wednesday.  “Dan, how you doin’ buddy.  Been a long time.  Things are good here.  You know: [chuckle] ‘first world’.  I got first world problems...” He goes on...

But I’ve been chuckling and thinking about his check-in all week.  And I think about it today as we revisit and are reshaped by this beautiful story about Christ’s transformative forgiveness and self-invitation.  I think it helps to start all that from Edgar’s angle: “first world”.  In other words, it helps to start by realizing that we’re up in the tree too, with Zacchaeus.  First world problems: can’t get a nice enough view.  

Some of you know we’ve been doing some painting in our house this week.  I can’t think of a better example of first-world problems.  I mean I’m stressed out about this, maybe you have been before too -- “What if we buy the paint we think we like, but don’t once it’s up on the wall?”  [And I imagine we can argue why the color of our walls is so important.]  First world.

We’re up there with Zacchaeus, friends, looking down on the rest.  Maybe we haven’t intentionally defrauded anyone quite like that dirty, little tax-collector Zaccaeus, but we’re all broken sinners.  And those of us in the first world have certainly squandered more than our fair share of resources over and against our neighbors, sometimes totally unknowingly.  (I remember when I learned what my carbon footprint was, just in eating a hamburger, much less driving a car or flying in an airplane.)  We’ve all defrauded or cut ourselves off from the rest (pretending not to see or just not caring).  Who would have thought that ‘falling short’ (of the glory of God) meant ‘climbing high’?  But we’ve got a perfect visual of that today.    

And not only are we separated and isolated from other parts of the world, we’re separated from each other.  And we know we need each other, know we’re meant to be together, but we still want to climb that tree.  So we’ve tried to get both -- we’ve invented the internet and Facebook so that we can have it all — the glorious tree house up high and the connection too.  But of course that’s not a real connection; that’s not sharing a meal together.

It’s a pretty good view from up here, in the tree.  That is until Jesus comes walking into town, stops at the foot of our tree...[pause] and then the view gets even better...

Sisters and brothers, God didn’t create us to live up above the rest, or apart from one another.  Isolated.  God made us for community-- both in our neighborhoods and across our globe.  Community is at the heart of this passage.  Zacchaeus is being restored to the community, and that restoration of community is at the heart of his salvation:  “Salvation has come to this house today.”  Even with all our defrauding one another and grumbling about each other, we are meant to be together.  God made us for community.  

Sisters and brothers in Christ, Jesus walks up to our trees this day, looks up at us, and calls us down too.  Each of us.  We can all get caught up there -- not just because of our first-world problems, but because of our human problems -- our pride, self-centeredness, and our fear.  We can retreat up the tree and want to live out our days up there, but Jesus walks up to our tree and says, “Come down.  What are you doing up there?  What are you doing locked up there apart from the neighborhood?  What are you doing walking on other peoples’ backs?  Come down from there.”  Jesus gently calls us down.  Not with a lecture about wealth and poverty, or a guilt trip about our first-world problems, but with another surprise: the self-invite.  

Biblically sanctioned intrusion (just for when you feel like you might be barging in on a friend.)  “I’m coming to your house today,” Jesus says.  Didn’t see that one coming.  Like later in John’s Gospel — “Do you have anything to eat?” — our Lord lovingly intrudes and, in so doing, empowers, even the most unlikely of characters -- the tax man, even you, even me.  All of us, called out, called down and called back to the earth.

This story is amazing because, notice the order here: Jesus didn’t offer forgiveness and salvation and then Zacchaeus came down and invited Jesus over to celebrate.  Jesus just invites himself over, tells him to come down.  And then Zacchaeus makes this incredible statement -- “Half my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor.  And anyone I’ve defrauded, I’ll pay back 4x as much”!!!  Jesus didn’t ask for any of that, but Zacchaeus just couldn’t help himself.  He had been flung by God’s grace out of that tree...and just went crashing into a new life of radical generosity.  And that’s when Jesus says, “Salvation has come to this house.”  Zacchaeus has been restored to the community.  He’s come back to the earth.   

Unlike you and me, who generally don’t go around inviting ourselves into each others’ homes, Jesus is so bold, sisters and brothers in Christ.  Jesus invites himself into our homes!  I don’t know about you, but my home’s a mess right now (especially in the middle of our painting).  The last person I’d want to invite over is Jesus.  But we don’t have to invite him, he invites himself.  

This is where I don’t understand the language of some who say, “All you have to do is invite Jesus into your heart.”  He invites himself!!  

And as a result, everything changes!  It’s grace that turns our lives around, not guilt or shame about our first-world lifestyles.  It’s love that changes our ways, not lectures about our self-centeredness and isolationism.  Do you see?  It’s grace, it’s love that brings us down --  back to the community, to share all that we have. 

Salvation comes to your house this day...as the bread and the wine intrude, as the rain waters of our baptisms cause us to slip right out of the trees of our self-congratulatory exploits and carry us back into the muddy village.

It was a bird’s eye view of Jesus.  But now we’re sharing a meal with him.  Now we’re across the table from Christ and from each other.  Now everything changes.   AMEN.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

October 27 — Reformation Sunday

Listen to this sermon HERE.

Freedom in Christ is yours this day, sisters and brothers.  AMEN.

Today is Reformation Sunday, the day the Lutheran church remembers and commemorates Martin Luther nailing the 95 theses to the church door, the spark that ignited Europe and set the church on multiple courses, challenging the assumptions of the Roman Catholic church of Luther’s day:  Salvation was not in the hands of the church, and certainly not the pope, rather Martin Luther and the reformers lifted up this powerful passage from Romans, that we are justified by our faith, a gift given to us in baptism, apart from our good and rightful works.  And all this is on account of Jesus Christ.

But let’s be careful today not only to look backwards into the past just to applaud and admire Martin and Katie Luther and their contemporaries.  One of the pillars of our church is that we are semper reformanda — always reforming.  It didn’t just happen in 1517.  It’s happened again and again, all the way up to today.  We are always reforming, but we are reforming with direction.  We’re not just changing for the sake of change, just blindly following the trends of our culture, trying desperately to stay relevant.  Rather we watch and observe and critique and participate with the culture, but the church is always reforming toward the center: the Word of God, the Word which becomes flesh and dwells among us, the truth which sets us free.  And so the church has kept reforming over and and over toward that Gospel center.  And you can see on the cover of this month’s Lutheran Magazine (in narthex) a great picture of our newly elected, newly installed FIRST female Presiding Bishop of the entire ELCA, Elizabeth Eaton.  In fact, 2013 has been a big year in terms of changes in leadership — Elizabeth Eaton, Guy Erwin, and let’s not forget Pope Francis.  Semper reformanda.  Always reforming.

So those are some noteworthy changes in institutional leadership.  But I want to tell you about another place where we can witness leadership and reformation.

A couple weeks ago, I was in Chicago for a brief 2-day conference on stewardship.  While I was there I met another pastor from outside Kansas City.  Her name is Janice and she’s starting a mission congregation on the edge of town.  At some point she shared a story with our group that just struck me so much to the core, and I’ve saved it to share with you on the day we celebrate the Reformation.  There’s a little girl in that small congregation named Emma.  And Emma is larger than life, about 4 years old.  They only have a small handful of people worshiping and so people can affect and distract one another much more easily.  They were worshiping in a sort of Community Center, kind of a fellowship hall.  Worship was beginning but Emma, stopped it all when she saw someone newer, about her age coming in from the parking lot.  They were a family that was kind of on the fence about whether or not to come, thought they might be too different.  But Emma knew the little boy already, and she, cried out in the assembly, “Wait!” and went running outside, shouting, “Michael, I’m so glad that you’re here!” And she threw her arms around little Michael.  Then she ushered the family in — mom and dad a little embarrassed — but her arm still around Michael.  Then she announces: “Michael’s here, we can start worship now!” (which, we realized, already had started, right?).  little Emma had just led the invocation (the calling in), as she ran out to throw her arms around the straggler, the wayward, the late-comer.  Pastor Janice and I now refer to this little girl as St. Emma. (pic on cover)

How does this tie into Reformation Sunday?  

The church has for most of my life claimed to be a welcoming place.  And I thank God for that.  I’ve been receive into that with my own doubts and questions about religion.  (I’ve shared this story more than once this week: How I approached my campus pastor during a semester that I was taking a challenging philosophy class, and told him that I didn’t think I believed in God anymore.  “OK.  But I still need a lector on Sunday.  Can you still read?”)  I’ve been fortunate enough to have experienced the church as as welcoming place; others just hear or read about the church’s claim as a welcoming place.  But the welcome gets even bolder, even more tangible, even more centered on the Gospel, under the reformation leadership of St. Emma, and so many others like her (some in this congregation too).  

It is a tangible grace, running-out-to-meet-you grace, wrapping-arms-around-you grace, calling-you-by-name grace, shouting, “I’m so glad that you’re here!”  That’s a Re-formation!  That’s nailing 95 theses to a church door and announcing to all the world, “This is what we’re about!”  

(It’s not a demolition and a complete rebuild. There’s good stuff here in this ancient tradition, but like an eroded sculture, the edges need some sharpening, the facial expression need some clarifying and redefining.)  

This gift of grace that’s given freely to each one of us is so good we have to share it.  We have to interrupt worship with worship and go running out of the church doors to invite others into this life of faith, this life of grace, this life in the Spirit, in the Beloved Community of Christ, which is much larger than this wonderful congregation — it stretches out like a blanket across our lands!  The church of Jesus Christ goes on, reforms on, nearly 500 years after the reformation!

This is the truth that sets us free: that God is LOVE in spite of our selves.  It’s not a truth to be waved over our opponents head.  “I know the truth and you don’t!”  The truth is a humble truth that we are broken and sinful.  But because of God, we are made “whole” (the meanEmma).

This love of God is so good, this forgiveness is such an ever-flowing stream, this grace is so real and so powerful, that this truth — not just invites us but — compels us even to start loving our opponents, to love our enemies, as Jesus commanded us.  We can’t help but worship all week long as we work and play, to throw our arms around those who are on the edge, and assure them that they have a place.  “I’m so glad that you’re here!”

Thanks be to God for the reformers, for St. Martin and for St. Emma, and for each of you, who God also calls saints!

We go forth now to share God’s unbounded love, to put on Christ and follow him, bearing the fruits of the Holy Spirit...this day and every day.  AMEN. 

Sunday, October 20, 2013

October 20 — Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost

Listen to this sermon HERE.

“Pray always. Do not lose heart...Will God find faith on earth?”

We’ve just returned from a two-week trip back to my hometown: Houston, TX.  We drove.  

So at first glance, I think I can resonate with the way Jesus describes this widow who kept continually crying out in the parable.  Our kids gave us a few vivid images from the back seat (for the most part they were great).  But on those long days across the West Texas desert, one might have heard in the Roschke car: “Daddy, can have some more.  Why not, why not?  Mommy, Katie’s bothering me.  Micah’s took my dolly.”  And of course the ever popular, “Are we there yet?”  There were moments :)

Jesus tells us about a widow kept coming and asking and pleading and crying, too.  But she was after more than candy and rest stops and punishing her little sister.  She was after justice.  “Grant me justice against my opponent,” was her plea.  And the widow, it helps to remember, in the ancient Mediterranean, was a symbol, everyone knew, of injustice, of the edge of society, of the poor.  For the widows, in those days, had no one to advocate for them, to represent them in court, or in life.  So she has to advocate for herself.  And Jesus tells us this parable to teach us something about our need to pray and not lose heart.

The widow was not just a whiner in the backseat who needed a quick fix.  The widow was caught at the bottom of a system in which it seemed she had no hope at all of changing.  The widow was not a little kid who needed a snack (sometimes our prayers can be like that).  The widow is the woman whose people have had to sit at the back of the bus her whole life. (pause) 
The widow is man who has been denied by the church that he loves his entire life because something about him is different.  (pause)  The widow is the teenager who just can get a break — born with two strikes against him, brought up in a violent home, caught up in a dangerous neighborhood, no choice but to attend grossly underfunded schools, where teachers are trying but are cynical.  Sixteen years is a long time to yearn for a break.

The widow is anyone who has endured hardship for a long time.  And Jesus uses this searing images to teach us a lesson about prayer:  Sometimes prayer doesn’t happen on our knees, with our hands folded.  Sometimes prayer means getting up, uncrossing our hands, and advocating...for ourselves or even for others.

“Lord, grant me (grant us all, grant this whole world) justice.”

Our vacation didn’t end in the desert of West Texas.  We made it, thanks be to God, safely to Houston.  And last Sunday we were at the church where I grew up; the church where I was confirmed; the church that sent me their newsletter the whole time I was in college, even though I usually tossed it in the recycle, this was the church that made sure I knew they were still there and loved me; this was the church that put me and my dear friend through seminary, full gift, because they too, like this community believed in raising up leaders for the church (Linda, my friend, is now the Treasurer for the whole ELCA).  What a gift that church gave...and I get to be your pastor, un-crippled by tuition debt.  Last Sunday we visited that church — where I was ordained, where probably about two dozen clergy (many of whom had watched me grow up) turned out in their robes and their grey hair to put their hands on me as the stole was placed upon my shoulders.  
Last Sunday we went back to that church, and like lots of churches in the middle of fall, with a Houston Texans football game against the Rams looming that afternoon, with everyone busy with life, the sanctuary of that dear church felt a little empty.  Some apologized to us that there weren’t as many people there anymore.  But what got me were the ones who still were.  Alice Chadwell, Ron Seimers, Marylyn Healy, Kurt Nelson, Sam and Barbara Skjonsby, Howard and Judy Bolt, the whole Jansen family, their little kids now in high school and college — all still there, and Mary Teslow.  Older folks, and not so old folks.  Sill. Showing. Up.  

(I’m still talking about praying always and not losing hope.)          

Every Sunday between services, they serve a breakfast at Salem out of their little, run-down old kitchen, that was brand new when I was growing up.  And the people still gather every Sunday between services to study the Bible — two big groups.  One of the church council members was leading the study that I went to, and he started with a simple, beautiful prayer: “Thank you, God, for this day full of grace.”  And together the dozen or so people joined in discussing II Corinthians.  Nothing flashy really about.  

I was nearly moved to tears as they bickered a little bit with one another in the bible study, they seemed to be irritating each other a little with their same old comments.  But they were all still there.  I know many of their stories — lost jobs, lost spouses, lost children.  In many ways, like so many this was yet another congregation of “widows”.  Nothing flashy. But they were still there.  Bambelela—never give up (like they were hanging on the back of a bouncing train).  

The worship service was OK, I guess.  Dad preached.  Nothing flashy really about it.  But the people gathered.  Bambelela. And they prayed, they prayed for themselves, they prayed for others.  When Christ comes, will he find faith on earth?  I think so, in churches like that, and in churches like this.

Sometimes a little distance, or a lot of distance, helps us see what’s right under our noses — people gathering, nothing flashy, week after week, year after year, decade after decade.  Showing up for one another.  Sure, irritating each other at times, but never giving up, supporting one another through good times and through bad.  We can tell those same stories here, or wherever you’re from….because this isn’t about us.  It’s about God.  God is faithful and has not abandoned us.  

Jesus’ story tells us that this cruel, unjust, self-centered judge granted that widow justice.  And his point is that if that selfish judge did it, then how much more will God do it?!  We just have to open our eyes and see it...see through the hardship and the bickering, and the strikes that are against us. 

How much more has God already granted us?  But we just don’t see it.  Praying and not losing heart is about seeing the things that are right under our noses, and sticking for the long haul.  “Thank you God, for this day FULL of grace.”  

It’s yours, it’s ours — this good grace — and it’s meant to be shared.  Bask in it this day, sisters and brothers in Christ, pass it on! God’s mercy and gracious judgement, Christ’s joy and peace is here to stay.  AMEN.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

September 22 — Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Listen to this sermon HERE.

[“I did not see that coming” story]

Jesus throws us a curve ball today.  “I did not see that coming!”  What would you do if you had someone working under you canceling debts, cooking the books, and overspending for personal gain?  You’d fire ‘em, right?  And yet Jesus tells a story where the crooked manager gets commended, where the reckless and selfish son gets a party thrown for him (just before this story).  

Jesus is a flip-flopper.  He sucks us in—we’re rooting for the owner to deal justly with this scoundrel—and then he flips everything on us...in this curious story about wealth and poverty.  How can you be trusted, how can you deal with heavenly things, if you can’t even deal with a little dirty money, with a little street ball?  [whiny] “Ow, foul!”  

Jesus, for some reason favors the poor, the dishonest, and the outcast…(but especially the poor) in the gospel of Luke.  And this is one more instance where mercy wins the day.  Mercy even over fairness.  Mercy...and shrewdness!

I was trying to think up a modern-day parable to match this one.  And we’ve got Quinn here today—[sophomore?] student at State—so I’m thinking about the president of SDSU, Dr. Elliot Hirshman.  He’s not exactly the owner, but let’s just say…  And some clever woman over in the business office, collecting tuition from students, gets caught embezzling funds.

By the way, did you know that SDSU has an increasing number of homeless students?  Darin tells me...~400.  One of the issues they’re dealing with over at Agape House.  I looked up this morning a year at SDSU with room and board: almost $26,000!  

And so this woman in the business, financial aid office gets canned.  But they make the mistake, unlike most businesses, of not making her collect her things and leave immediately.  And before the school can catch up with her, she starts forgiving student tuitions and loans.  She cuts this guy’s tuition in half, that one she drops 20%, another one she cuts 40…

Messed up, right?!

In Jesus‘ story, she is commended.  Why?  Because she acted shrewdly and made friends (with the poor).  Maybe those students will end up being rich doctors and take her in one day.  She didn’t burn bridges at the end of her job with SDSU, she built new ones.  And the President Hirshman, in Jesus’ story, praises her for it.

This story ought to have us scratching our heads and squirming.  What in the world is Jesus up to?!  

Is he saying we should be dishonest in our business practices?  We should steal and lie and cheat?  I think that’s what we want to see.  I think we all have that urge to cut corners, and if a story Jesus tells gives us license, that all the better for us.

I don’t think this is what Jesus is saying at all.  And I don’t believe Luke’s first hearers thought that either.  Jesus was a master of storytelling, and he had the people on the edge of their seats, laughing, catching all the irony and nuance.  If you walk away thinking Jesus is telling us to be dishonest in business (to “keep on keeping on”, “that’s the way the world works”), than, I think, you’re missing the point completely.  

That’s why I wanted to use Eugene Petersen’s translation today, he helps us understand: “Streetwise people are smarter in this regard than law-abiding citizens.  Constantly alert, looking for angles, surviving by their wits.  I want you to be smart in the same way — but for what is right — using every adversity to stimulate you to creative survival, to concentrate your attention on the bare essentials, so you’ll live, really live, not just complacently getting by on good behavior.” 

Jesus is saying be clever and take care of the poor.  Do what you can with whatever you have.  Use what you have...use the contacts or connections that you have...to make the world better.  Don’t just robotically go through the motions on the straight and narrow, under the radar; take risks, build community, forgive debts, call people on their stuff, and make friends with the poor.  Jesus is obsessed with talking about wealth and poverty.  Today he says, “You cannot serve God and wealth.”  Give it away, he says.  The poor are going to have to vouch for you in the great hereafter.  How are we doing at taking care of the poor?  If we’re not squirming now, we’ll be squirming next week when we hear about the rich man and Lazarus.  Jesus does another flip-flop.

So the dishonest manager in the story, forgives massive amounts of debts owed to his former company, right?  He forgives the olive farmer and the wheat farmer.  Do you know how that slashing of debt would affected those farmers‘ communities and families?  Cultural anthropologists and archeologists read this story and tell us that those farmers would have gone back home and thrown a huge party to celebrate that kind of debt reduction...kind of like if your college debt was cut in half — $50,000 you don’t have to pay!

This is our God:  Crazy.  Bad with money.  Bad at business.  But rich in love and mercy and forgiveness.  Many say this is Jesus— this dishonest manager — cutting our debts, forgiving our sins.  Lord’s Prayer in the Gospel of Luke: we’ve sanitized with our translation, but the Lord’s Prayer is about finances…  “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”  

Give forgiveness of debt a try again this week.  Maybe it’s not financial forgiveness that you’re in a position to give.  (Maybe it is.)  But maybe someone owe’s you an apology.  And you’re waiting for it.  It would be appropriate, but they’re not coming forward.  Give forgiveness a try this week.  Just let it go — not by going up to them and telling them, “You owe me an apology, but I’m going to let it slide.”   Just let it go.  Forgive them. 

This is what our God has done for us.  Slashed our debts, forgiven our sins, and commended us.  Our God is bad at business but rich in love, overflowing with faithfulness.  And fun.  “I did not see that coming.”        

Sunday, September 15, 2013

September 15 — Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Listen to this sermon HERE.

Sisters and brothers in Christ — 
God’s love for you is real.  Know that this day.  

Whether your the one who’s lost like a sheep or grumbling like a Pharisee that it’s not fair, God’s love for you is real.  

We have a gospel text this morning that cuts through the static, gets back to the basics, and centers us on the most important thing:  that Christ always comes looking for you, with arms full of mercy and forgiveness for you.  Christ always makes the first move, and comes to find you.  

Imagine a literal, lost sheep just for a moment:  What is so unique about the lost sheep image is that she’s not this rebellious teenager (like the prodigal son).  She didn’t make this conscious effort to reject it all and head off on her own. Rather, she just got lost somewhere, somehow.  Maybe she got distracted by something momentarily and wandered off.  Maybe a sound or a storm prevented her from hearing and following the rest of the herd.  Or maybe she just couldn’t keep up.

And because that little sheep is lost and alone now, she is vulnerable.  Wolves, vultures, rocky terrain, shortage of food.  She is frightened, she is in danger.

Jesus plants this image deeply in the minds of both the tax collectors & sinners AND the pharisees & scribes.  I’m not sure who he’s talking to, actually — we’re all lost sheep.  

Somehow we just get off track.  We lose the faithful, beloved community.  We get distracted.  Or maybe a storm in our lives prevents us from hearing and sticking with the community.  Or maybe we just can’t keep up.  

But Jesus comes to find you this day, whether you identify more with the grumbling Pharisees, the depressed tax collectors and hopeless sinners [pause].  Christ comes to find you, leaving the 99 just to find you —  to lift you up and shoulder you, to bandage up your wounds and reconnect you to the community.

And just to drive the point home a little more —because sometimes we don’t believe or don’t hear that this God loves and seeks us out — Jesus gives another image.  The image of a sweeping woman.  How’s that for an image of God?  (Sweeping Woman Lutheran Church?  We have Good Shepherd.)  Sweating, frantically searching for that one lost coin, even while she has nine others.  

Have you ever lost something and looked frantically for it? Most recent example for me:  Michelle loses her cell phone…

Or when I was newly married, I lost my wedding ring in the sand!…

I’m afraid the franticness is something too many of us have experienced because we’ve lost something so very important.

God searches with that same franticness for you and me, and all who are lost or confused or grumbly.  (I’m not sure if Jesus was talking to the Pharisees or the tax collectors.)  God’s care and concern for you, God’s single-mindedness — you know how when you lose something it’s all you care about until it’s found again? — is that great, God will not stop until you’re found.  And when God finds you, there is forgiveness and mercy, and there’s something else.  

In both stories today — both the lost coin and the lost sheep — and by the way the third of these stories is the parable of the two lost sons (Prodigal Son) — in all three of these vivid and varying stories, there is something in common:  

Once the lost have been found, there is a party thrown in/for the community to celebrate.  The Good Shepherd calls together friends and neighbors and says, “Rejoice with me!”  The Sweeping Woman calls together her friends and neighbors and says, “Rejoice with me!”  [Soong-char-e-te moy] And do you remember what that loving father says to his seething and bitter son, who didn’t understand why he had just slaughtered the fatted calf for his reckless, stupid, selfish younger brother?

“So it is with you,” Jesus says to us.  That’s the kind of party we have when the lost are found.  

And that’s actually what worship is!  [pause] It’s a mini-party for the lost being found.  That’s what we celebrate every single Sunday — lost found, dead come to life...in Christ!  It might not always feel or look like a party (sometimes not even a smile is cracked in a worship).  And that’s OK; we don’t have to force/fake it; we don’t have to force the smile.  Sometimes life’s burdens are too great...or worship is too somber.  

But the reality is, sisters and brothers in Christ, that worship this day and every Sunday is a party, even if the world is falling apart around us.  This is a place that, no matter what, welcomes the lost, and celebrates a God who goes out looking for us, and beckons us to do the same.  “Mine is the church, where everybody’s welcome,” God says to us.  

We enact the story of God’s love come to find the lost, each time we worship, each time we gather around this holy book and this holy table, and this holy bath.  We are the community of friends and neighbors that gathers together and responds to the invitation, “Rejoice with me!”  This is a foretaste of the feast to come, where there is joy in all of heaven!  

Christ’s love for you is real...and here...and now.  Let us rejoice together.  Let us rejoice with God, who throws the party...for You. Are. Found.