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, April 28, 2013

April 28 — Fifth Sunday of Easter

Listen to this sermon HERE.

Grace to you and peace, from our risen savior Jesus Christ. AMEN.

I’m going to be looking at the first lesson from the book of Acts.  Peter has a clear understanding of what the right thing to do is.  He’s known his whole life.  Peter was raised by good observant Jewish parents, Peter himself has observed the Jewish laws.  He has for the most part eaten and lived and made distinctions appropriately throughout his life.  And then he meets a Jewish rabbi named Jesus, and continues to practice the Jewish customs and rituals. Even after the resurrection occurred.  Peter was Jewish, even as he followed and preached and healed in the name of Jesus.  The name Christian had not really emerged; Peter was still Jewish...just as Jesus was always Jewish.  And that meant practicing certain rules and customs that set Jews apart from the rest of the culture.  What rules and customs do we/you practice that set us/you apart from the rest of the culture?  (Praying at meals, going to church on Sunday, tithing, Ash Wednesday, non-violence?)

For Peter, eating certain foods was forbidden.  It was unclean.  It was against the law.  For it represented a wiping away of distinctions, and blending, an unclean blending and mixing with the culture of the day.  (I love how what the Jews-of-Peter’s-day paid such close attention to what they put into their bodies, not just (or maybe not at all) as a matter of health, but as a matter of religious practice. 

But, it was all about making distinctions between Jews and Gentiles, between us and them.  And Peter was observant, he was keeping the law...always had.  Imagine, doing something, believing something, one way, the same way, your whole life.  That’s how Peter had practiced/observed...his whole life, the same way.  How old do you think he was?  35, 55, 85?  

That’s a little background.  And our text in Acts today picks up when the “apostles and believers” — the other insiders — call Peter out:  “We’ve heard that you’ve been going to, talking to, mingling with, DINING with Gentiles!  What’s going on?”  So Peter shares what had happened to him.  That he had had a vision from God…

How many of you have ever had a vision from God, that totally changed the way you thought about something?

Last summer, as you may remember, I was at Confirmation Camp with our kids — Jake Zeigler, Wes Papike, Sofia Taylor, and Marcus Collins.  And Confirmation Camp, as you probably know, is a great chance to minister alongside other professional church workers — great youth directors, great pastors.  We teach side by side in the mornings with the camp counselors, and then in the afternoon, when the kids are doing the fun camp stuff, we have some time to visit with each other about life and ministry.  I love it, especially as a chance to get to know some older, seasoned pastors from around our church.  Rare experience, to get away, to relax a little bit, and share and enjoy God’s creation, etc…

Last summer I got to know a pastor who I had met once or twice before, but who I really didn’t know that well, other than that he was one of my best friend Brain’s pastors when he was growing up in Salinas, CA.  I had heard things second hand through him, how wonderful and kind he was.  How much he loved the church, loved music, and cared for the youth of the church all those years.  His name is Wendell Brown.  

I understand that now he’s retired, but last year he was serving at Hope Lutheran Church in Atascadero.  He and I got paired together as a teaching team with two counselors, and so we would talk a little about the lessons, and then work and play with the kids.  And one afternoon we’re playing ping-pong together and we get to talking.  

As we’re talking about our congregations, and our experiences, at some point, I simply ask him why he had moved from Salinas to Atascadero.   Just a basic chit-chat question, right?  Pastor Wendell Brown responds by saying, “Well, God gave me a vision.”  This old time Lutheran pastor, solid head on his shoulders, solid credentials, a life of solid ministry — I’m sure this and any congregation would love Pastor Brown...up until this point.  But he wasn’t ashamed, or forceful about it, but I was asking and he tells me plainly: He had had a vision, and it was from God, and it changed everything.  This dear man’s credibility is getting a little crumbly for me, at this point, but my interest is solid rock.  I gotta hear this, right?  (And BTW he has gave me permission to share this story.)      

Apparently Pastor Brown was not beloved by everyone in the Northern California synod over the past 30 years.  I had no idea, but Wendell Brown was a name at Synod Assemblies that  everyone knew meant staunchly anti-gay.  When conversation on the Assembly floor (we’re about to have our synod assembly this week, and debates have cooled and calmed a great deal in most recent years, but as many of you know, there have been some contentious Synod Assembly around our country over issues of gay and lesbian pastors being in monogamous relationships.)  And Wendell Brown was the name at the fore in the Sierra Pacific Synod.  He was the one at the microphone, with tears in his eyes an a bible in his hand, saying, if we accept gay and lesbian pastors into our churches we are breaking with the Bible and breaking with God.

He had had the passion and the certitude of Peter and Paul combined.  He had the Bible study clear in his mind, the certain verses set in stone in his heart, he had the majority of the people on his side, he was a champion and a warrior, and he wasn’t about to sit back and let his church go down this “liberal” road.  

(I actually know a gay pastor from that area, and I’ve since asked him about Wendell Brown, and he shutters just at the thought of the man and what he stood for at assemblies.)

But a couple years ago, Wendell Brown went away on a retreat, just he and his wife.  And he started reading, and he started reading scripture.  This man knows the Bible backwards and forwards, but he started reading Acts, and he read this passage for today, and something started shake him from the very core, and he had a vision, and he was sure it was from God, and I WISH I could tell you what that vision was.  I’ve been trying to contact him this week to get the details.  What I remember is, his reaction to vision.  Weeping and weeping.  This is a good stoic German Lutheran older man.  But he’s melting down before God.  He’s looking back at all the things he’s said and done, and questioning it all.  He’s looking back at scripture and seeing it in a whole new way.  He’s feeling called to go back to his dear congregation, and tell them what’s happened to him.  That he’s been wrong about his stance on gay and lesbian pastors and gay and lesbian people.  He had had a vision from God, and now he has to go back and tell his congregation, no matter what it costs him.

Needless to say, Pastor Wendell Brown loses all kinds of support back at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Salinas.  People had joined that church because of his previous stance. And now he’s saying something totally different.   

You can just imagine the un-doing, the fall out.  But he had no doubt in his mind, that this was what he had to do.  He ended up being edged out of that congregation, which he had served for almost 20 years.  

I understand there was a beautiful exchange that took place at the ordination reception of my friend Brian, where both Pastor Wendell Brown and Brian’s uncle—who was the gay pastor who had once gone head-to-head with Pastor Brown at synod assemblies—were present!  “Do you remember me?”  Yes.  “I had a vision.  And I am so sorry.  And I am with you now.”         

I’ve never heard a story quite like that.  And I leave it to you to determine whether this vision came from God, or from somewhere else.  Personally, I find this to be a modern-day parallel to Peter’s vision, only on a much smaller scale.  Because our contemporary controversies around human sexuality, pale in comparison with the Jew-Gentile issues with which the apostles were dealing!

Still, sisters and brothers in Christ, know that the Holy Spirit is still working in our lives.  Pay attention to your dreams and visions.  Know that God is still speaking in our lives.  This is our God:  A God who’s Gospel shakes down the Law.  A God, whose cup of grace never runs dry, A God who makes us new day after day, regardless of our age, or our convictions.  A God who carries us through our darkest days, who forgives us our past iniquities, and lifts us up to be the people that we are called, blessed, baptized and sent to be for this world, in this world.  That God invites us to the table and goes with us now and always.  AMEN.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

April 21 — Fourth Sunday of Easter

Listen to this sermon HERE.

“Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.”

What kind of a good and gracious shepherd would do that?

You would think that the Good Shepherd would prepare a table before me that’s nowhere near my enemies!

But...“thou preparest a table before me in the presence of the Boston marathon.” [pause]

“Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of cancer, of shingles, of depression, addiction, and overwhelming grief.”

“Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of marital strife and broken families.”

“Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of unclean air and water and contaminated food.”

“Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of violence...abroad and violence at home and violence in my heart.”

“Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my own fears and anxieties.”

Jesus lifts us up out of the thicket,
but we’re still in the valley.
The Good Shepherd doesn’t promise a life free of danger and pain.  The Good Shepherd, in fact, leads us right through the valley of the shadow of death and prepares a table before us in the presence of our enemies, in the presence of death itself.  

Not many with whom I have ministered, in those difficult days following the death of a loved one have chosen to have Holy Communion at the funeral or memorial service of their dearly departed.  Usually families opt out, usually for logistical reasons, or feeling like some might feel excluded.  And that’s OK.  But I hope you have it at my funeral…and that the pastor invites everyone to the table with open arms...

...because I can envision no better image of verse 5 of Psalm 23 than having Holy Communion at a funeral!  God’s table prepared, right in the face of death.  Right in the face of all that would defy God, Christ offers us a banquet of grace, hope, forgiveness, freedom, Christ’s own presence and love!  Right in the presence of what was once our greatest enemy—death. Christ has risen!  And so death is no longer our enemy.  “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies."

Still, even post-resurrection, Christ doesn’t promise us a life free of pain and suffering, in fact Good Shepherd leads us right through the valley of the shadow of death.  But, we still come out alive, maybe not in this life, but we still come out alive!   Jesus lifts us up at the last.

This is a different kind of leader, this shepherd leader, who picks us up, raises us up, but not without some scratches and bruises from life’s thicket.  We all have scratches and bruises from life’s thicket.    

But friends in Christ, the Good Shepherd calls us again today, calls out to you...
“My sheep hear my voice,” Jesus says.  I wonder if that means that despite all the other voices, we Christ-followers can still hear our shepherd leader’s voice.  Despite the voices that call us to venture after other things, things of this world, [pause]
despite the voices that call us to seek revenge (“to blow that ugly kid’s head off, because that’s what he did to us”), despite the voices that call us to seek protection (“Just get safe.”)—a scratch and bruise-free life, despite the voices that call us to look out for ourselves and our favorite friends and family first and only—despite all the other voices, Jesus’ flock can still hear the Shepherd’s voice.  The other voices aren’t going anywhere.  Jesus doesn’t silence the clamor.  No, Jesus prepares a meal before us right in the middle of the clamor, of the evil, of the distractions, of the pain!  

I think it’s good to commune with the sounds of the world right on the other side of this wall.  We’re not sealed up in here; we’re not safe.  It’s a good reminder, to eat Christ’s body and drink Christ’s blood as motorcycles rev, and sirens blare just right out there…’cause we’re in the world.  We can’t help but hear the voices of the world.  We hear them, and sometimes we follow after them.  Sometimes the world’s voices hook us.  We’re part of the world.  Let’s not kid ourselves.  

But here’s the thing:  Christ comes to find us today.  To pick us up, despite our scratches and bruises, despite our angers and fears, Christ comes to pick us up and feed us right in the presence of the danger all around, and to lead us anew, right through the valley of the shadow of death, we are comforted, fed, anointed with oil, forgiven.  That’s a God worth celebrating—might not be a God that everyone in this world wants to follow—but that’s a God worth celebrating, a God who enters our pain, and gives us peace.

Jesus comes and finds us today! Jesus lifts us up out of the thicket, but we’re still in the valley.  And yet we feast, for we know, that death does not have the final say, that Tabitha gets up, that communion of saints exists right here and right now, even right smack in the midst our grief and our suffering.  Christ holds us.  We dwell in God’s house, which is far bigger than this building, we dwell in God’s house just by breathing.  God is with us even now, in our dark valleys, for Christ has conquered the power of death and raised us up to new life.   AMEN.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

April 14 — Third Sunday of Easter

Listen to this sermon HERE. 

Grace to you and peace this day from our risen Lord Jesus…

Isn’t is amazing that it was Paul, the persecutor of the Christians who later used that greeting...grace to you and peace?!  Today we have two exciting post-resurrection accounts about two foundational characters in the Christian church.  New Testament reading: Paul.  Gospel reading:  Peter.  

One denied Jesus three times, even though he said that he loved Jesus and would never abandon him.  The other never claimed Jesus, in fact he was a Jewish terrorist, who was—with the authority of the state—hunting down and killing Christians systematically!  That’s how our beloved Apostle Paul got started!  This day in age, there are lots of ho-hum Christians, there are seekers, there are people who believe in God, but don’t really “dive into it” (to use an image from the Gospel reading), much more passive ways of denying Christ.  But Paul: he downright didn’t buy it.  He was sure, and he was angry.  This reading from Acts is an important reminder that God can work with anyone.  God can take anyone and turn their life around…

But, personally, I always had a hard time relating to this fantastic episode.  I could sit in the stands and applaud the drama of Saul falling off the horse, the blinding light, the voice of Jesus and the miraculous healing, baptism, and hospitality of the terrified Ananias.  What an epic: Saul transforms into Paul.  But it was hard to put myself into that story: I’ve always just been Dan.  I never had that kind of dramatic experience with Jesus, falling off a horse.  

Maybe you have?  Praise God.  I’ve notice that lots of Christian motivational speakers have amazing Saul-to-Paul stories... about once being addicted to something awful, but then God swoops in and knocks them off their high horse.  

And there was a time in my life, after hearing one of those amazing, sexy faith stories, that I kind thought I needed some kind of fantastic conversion story, but I didn’t have one, so maybe there wasn’t a place for me.  My experience was much more subtle, less flashy, maybe boring to some, when it’s time to share conversion stories:  “Well, I was 12 days old and my parents took me to church and this bit of water was splashed on my head…”  And then just gradual ups and downs in my journey with God...who has always been there, despite my denials and my doubts and my struggles and attempts at escaping God’s presence and love.

For me, faith has been much less flashy and much more like...having breakfast.  

I wish I could tell you my Saul to Paul, falling off the horse experience, but I don’t have one.  So I’m glad that this Gospel text talks about Jesus cooking breakfast for his disciples. “Come have something to eat,” Jesus says, after a night of long fishing.  The Gospel of John is a play ground because all the images are laden with symbolism and meaning.  So get ready: I’m going to play a little here...  

[I’ve always wanted to write a book based on this Gospel text, about worship — the 4 parts of our worship service — and imagine them, parallel them to activities in the evening first (GATHERING & WORD) and then the morning (MEAL & SENDING).  We gather, we come home, after a long day, or a long week.  Bath time, Story time.  But then the night can be peaceful or it can be scary (this is the sermon event--the wrestling with the texts).  Ps. 30— “Weeping spends the night, but joy comes in the…” The MEAL was in the evening before the resurrection, but now, it’s at breakfast, everything has become new, and then we are SENT out.  That’s my book idea, and his text at the end of the Gospel of John would be foundational — where the disciples gather but then struggle through the night, only to be met by Jesus bbqing in the morning, and then saying essentially Go in Peace:  “Feed my lambs”, “Follow me” at the end.]      

“Have something to eat,” Jesus says.  And the disciples come in, and Peter gives us this wonderful baptismal image, when he puts his clothes on (creed) and dives into the water to come in.  We too swim to the meal of Christ.  Through the waters of our baptisms, to the table of the resurrected Lord.  Bath and Table.  Baptism and Communion.  Rich, loaded, beautiful text — Jesus making breakfast. 

I want to show you something:  I did my internship in St. Louis with Lutheran Campus Ministry.  (Much like Agape House, who we support today.) And a handful of times I did something that hadn’t really been done before:  I dragged the little bbq grill out onto the front porch and grilled meat and vegetables for passing college students, set up tables in the front yard.  And just grilled out there...which I love to do.  (I was just trying to attract more people to our program by giving away free food.)  But my internship supervisor—the Campus Pastor, John Lottes, a wonderful man and great scholar and theologian—he was always wanting to find great biblical connections with everything that we did, such a deep well of Scriptural references.  And he struggled with how to connect this grilling out front for a bit, but I’ll never forget when he came up with it, he was so excited!  And it was this text that he recalled:  “I got it!” he exclaimed, “John 21:19!  Jesus grilling.  Barbecuing is biblically sanctioned!” At the end of my internship year, he gave me this apron that I always think about when this text comes up…

Jesus was there, grilling over a charcoal fire, John tells us.  Do some grilling this week, grill some fish if you can.  And remember that not all our faith stories have to be sexy, have to be like the amazing Paul’s.  Sometimes amazing things do happen, yes, but most of the time, faith and being with God is more like having breakfast — something that gives us nourishment to face the tasks before us.  And then Jesus invites us into the game.  

I’ve talked a lot about myself this morning: but I’ve got to share just one more story:  Micah’s playing baseball now

...and I love sitting in the stands watching and applauding (kind of like watching the Saul-to-Paul episode)
...but yesterday Coach called me into the game to help at first base…

Very different being on the field, than being in the stands.  Maybe it’s a little cliche, but it’s a great one, and I experienced it yesterday first-hand.  God calls us onto the field today!

Jesus calls Peter, Jesus calls you, into the game, from the small boat, from the stands.  Jesus calls us, feeds us first, and then asks us to go and feed others, feed the world with love, with grace, with food, with forgiveness.  Jesus feeds us first with these good things.  “Follow me,” Jesus says.  And now we go, blessed, drenched, fed, forgiven and loved.  Thanks be to God.  AMEN.

HOD:  #817  “You Have Come Down to the Lakeshore”

Sunday, April 7, 2013

April 7 — Second Sunday of Easter

Listen to this sermon HERE.

“The peace of Christ be with you always.”

[Share a sign of peace with just 2 or 3 people who are immediately around you...]

This is how Jesus greets the disciples in this post-resurrection account.  And this is why to this day we share the peace ritually in church...when Jesus meets the disciples in fear and in doubt, and says lovingly, “Peace be with you.”

“As a conclusion to the prayers of intercession, the peace enacts both a prayer and a proclamation…[functioning as a kind of seal on our prayers, a sign that we are serious about our praying.  It is as if we were saying, with our gesture, ‘O God, help the world with the very peace and mutual forgiveness we are trying to show here.

“And yet, God has helped and is helping the world with a heart far bigger than our own.  The peace is also a proclamation of the presence of a down payment on the very things for which we pray: ‘The peace of the risen Christ is the answer to our prayer, God’s gift to us all’” (The Sunday Assembly, Augsburg Fortress 2008, 172).

How many of you like this practice of the sharing of the peace on Sunday mornings?  How many don’t? 

I’ve heard all kinds of things:  Some love it because they feel it’s a time to really connect with the people around them, to introduce themselves to someone they don’t know; some like it as a chance to visit with people and catch up briefly — a little “at ease” after sitting still and quiet for so long.  Some, I’ve heard, find it very distracting to the flow of worship, they’ve said should just be between you and God; I’ve heard it described as feeling more like the 7th inning stretch or an intermission, than a part of worship, so some think it ought to be left out of our liturgy.  

It’s worth thinking a little about this today...

...because this is the first thing we’ve heard from the resurrected Jesus this year at SVLC: “Peace be with you.”  Remember, last week’s Easter Gospel from Luke, Jesus had no lines.  But here this 2nd week of Easter, we jump over to John and hear Jesus’ first words in this church since, Good Friday, where he said, “It is finished. [te-TELos-tai].” (Julian sang, and then we all paused.)  And now this is the first words we’ve heard from Jesus:  “Peace be with you.”

Jesus says this so much (and so do we on Sunday mornings) that it’s easy to go in one ear and out the other.  But first words are very important in ancient writing, particularly Bible writing, and Jesus says this first: “Peace be with you.”  

The sharing of the peace in our worship service acts as both a prayer and a proclamation.  It is a prayer in that we’re saying “God, help the world with the very peace and mutual forgiveness we are trying to show here.”  [expand/repeat] And we are proclaiming what is already true, as we share the peace with one another: no matter what, no matter where we are in our lives, no matter what we’ve done, or what others have done to us, the risen Christ’s peace is with us!  Sharing the peace is both our prayer (“God, make it so.”) and our proclamation (“God’s made it so!”).  

Sharing the peace with one another is at the center of the Easter gospel.  

Bishop Bob Rimbo of the Metro New York Synod says in his book Why Worship Matters: “[The passing of the peace] is not merely sharing a nice hello with a friend, not only words of welcome to a stranger, not checking in on how Aunt Tillie is doing.  It is the end of war.  It is the reconciling of enemies.  It is the rescue of the slaves.  It is the resurrection of the dead.  It is the demolition of barriers between us and God.  It is the recreation of human life by the presence of the risen Christ.”

Personally, that was pretty much new to me when I read it.  I’ve always thought the sharing of the peace—which, like many of you, I’ve been doing in church for my entire life—was an opportunity to connect with the people I’m worshipping around.  I always liked to shake as many hands as I could, get up, move around.  Yeah, stretch.

But I had a professor in seminary encourage us, in less than timid ways, to only shake a few hands with those immediately  around you, lest the sharing of the peace turns into coffee hour without the coffee, which is great but can lose this rich symbol of being both a prayer and a proclamation of Christ’s very peace in our midst, the end of war, the resurrection of the dead, etc.  He said, it’s not unfriendly to greet just a few people—sometimes it’s actually more welcoming.  Visitors can often be left feeling awkward during the sharing of the peace, if they don’t have anyone to talk to.  If you’re the social type, he would say, catch  everyone after worship, and thanks be to God that you do.  But now, he would say, is this beautiful time of both prayer and proclamation.  

These are just things to think about.  I had never thought about them before...for at least 20-something years.  And sometimes rituals can have more meaning when we understand where they come from and why we do them.  

In the end, share the peace how you will, but this Sunday, friends in Christ, remember that we share the peace of Christ with one another, because Christ breathes peace on us first — offering us forgiveness for the the things we’ve done wrong.  So we offer one another forgiveness, for the things we’ve done wrong to each other.  Ever shared the peace with someone in church who you were really upset with?  We offer forgiveness to one another, because Christ forgave us…  

We love one another, because Christ loved us.  We are the church of Jesus Christ, and we are rooted and grounded in peace — despite our fears and our doubts.