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, August 25, 2013

August 25 — Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Listen to this sermon HERE.

[Chloe, ashamed]

It’s a powerful image this week as we gather around the story of the woman who was bent down, pushed down for 18 years.  

The text says it was a physical ailment, but the people of that time and the many people today too, believe that our physical ailments are so often only manifestations of much deeper spiritual ailments — stress, pent-up anger, bitterness, shame…

And the way those religious leaders were used doing business, there’s no question in my mind that they spoke to the people in tones similar to how I speak to Chloe when she’s misbehaved:  “N-n-n-no.”  And that woman cowered physically for 18 long years (half a lifetime for most in those days).  Can you imagine?  

We religious ones had better be careful how we speak to those who are not in and of the religious establishment...because that imposition of shame, I’m afraid, is not outdated.  (Pew study about a year ago: top words associated with Christians — judgmental, hypocritical, anti-gay). I’ve got relatives myself, who aren’t afraid in the least to shame you if you haven’t been to church in a long time.   (Now, I happen to think everyone should go to church every Sunday too, but not because they’ll go to hell or something if they don’t.  I just think the church always needs you, and you always need the church.  We are the church; it’s really not an us in here and them out there...the church is the people.)  

But as soon as we get up on our high horses about church or spirituality or religion or non-religion, and push others down — the one we follow and call Jesus has no time for that.  
There’s an amazing reversal in this Gospel text for today — very characteristic for the Gospel of Luke.  Holy flipping.  Jesus takes the poor and the lowly, sick and the sorrowing, the outcast and the stranger, the weak and the bent down...and Jesus raises them up.  Think of poor, young Mary; the 10 lepers; the Samaritan.  Jesus takes them and raises them up.

And Jesus takes the proud and the strong, the rich and the showy, the arrogant and the judgmental…and he brings them down.  The text today says, “he puts them to shame.”  The one who’s ashamed is lifted up, and the one who is used to shaming others is brought down.

In other words, Jesus has no time for compassion to go by the wayside.  Whenever mercy is not being shown, Jesus steps in.  Our God is a God of mercy and compassion — showering down on us and on this world like an ever-flowing stream.  And woe be to the one who’s getting caught up in judging and shaming others, especially the weak and the lowly, the sick and the forgotten.  It’s like Jesus has this radar for judgmental and powerful types.  And he hones right in on them, and he eats with them, and he teaches them.  He stays with them.  

I think we all have our moments in both camps, don’t we?  Sometimes we are pressed down with shame and pain, and even our own self obsession, unable to stand up straight and look around to see our neighbors in need.  (Luther’s definition of sin: self curved inward.)  Can’t see anyone else...

And other times, oh, we can see others just fine.  We can see them mis-behaving, we can see them being lazy or irresponsible, or not going to church, or not being Christian enough — basically not being as good of people as we are.  
Yeah, we’re not curved inward, we’re out and up in everyone else’s business.  And failing to take a deeper look at our own lives and souls.  I think we all have moments in both camps.
And that’s where Jesus moves in.  He levels us when we’re full of ourselves, pious, hard-working, little “holier than thou’s”.  He says, “Hey, cool it, let it go, come down here with us.”  Maybe there’s someone in your life for whom your good judgment seems perfectly appropriate, but your anger and frustration with them is so overwhelming, you’re so high up on your horse, you’re so right...That’s when Jesus steps in and says: “Hey, cool it; let it go, come down here with us.”  Jesus brings the temple leaders down, he shames them, and in so doing perhaps there’s even a hidden gift there.  “You guys are getting so obsessed with the law that you’re starting to use it as a weapon.”  Remember: they were only defending the Sabbath.  Nothing wrong with that.  But they had started to skew it.  When the keeping the Sabbath is a weapon not a gift, Christ steps in.  When the Bible is used as a weapon, not a gift, Christ steps in, and says, “Where is mercy, where is compassion?”  I wonder if there’s any way Jesus was actually giving a gift to those high-and-mighty religious leaders, even if they failed to see it right away.  And Jesus brings us down too — has no patience for our lack of compassion and mercy showing toward our neighbor.  Jesus steps in to crush our pride and to lift up those we have hurt.

Thank God.  There is forgiveness for the sinner, for the proud and the arrogant, and the rich, and the nosey; there is forgiveness for the judgmental and the cruel.  

And there is hope for us when we’re down.  When we’re bent so low by life.  Burdened by sorrow and pain, spiritually crippled, physically hunched over, hurting and longing for a better day.  Jesus steps in and gives us peace.  Jesus steps in and calls us what we are:  “Daughter of Abraham, child of God, stand up straight.  Look around.  You are set free of what ails you.”  

Jesus comes to you this day sisters and brothers in Christ, Jesus arrives in this place in wheat and wine, water and Word, and offers us new life, a new day.  The resurrection is real.  You have been raised with Christ, buried with him and therefore raised with him — not just after you die, but right now.  God has turned the world on its head, through Christ Jesus!  We are given new life this day, and even you are free of your ailments — free to live in hope, free to live in trust that God is with us, that God forgives us, and that nothing can separate us from the love that God has for us.  We no longer have to shame others or cower (like Chloe) in fear, for we are children of God, released to live as the people that God has molded us to be in this world, for this world.  Alleluia!  AMEN.  

Sunday, August 11, 2013

August 11 — Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

Grace to you and peace…

I’m a fan of Rick Steves.           Haven’t always been —   
too cheerful.                 But he’s grown on me

Gotten a little more political, he’s very thorough and thoughtful, he’s open to lots of different kinds of people, and he’s a Lutheran from the West Coast… (I actually invited him here once!)

Now I watch his shows, podcast his radio program, I’ve bought a few of his books.  And apparently, we have the same taste in castles:  I saw it first in a coffee table book.  Burg Elz, and then found out it’s Steves’ favorite in all of Europe…

But one of my favorite things of his is his whole philosophy on light packing — whether 3 days or 3 weeks he packs the exact same thing in just a simple backpack.  I’ve watched that little how-I-pack segment about ½ dozen times...because it’s just not how I’ve packed before, especially for overseas travel.  It means, doing your research on weather and climate, wearing the same stuff over, and washing, but the goods outnumber the bads, in my experience! 

And as Rick Steves points out, no one ever comes home from a trip saying, “That was a great trip, but you know, I wish I had lugged around more.”

Packing light.  Shedding the excess.  Being nimble.  Ready to go...at a moment’s notice.  These are themes in our Gospel text today.

It’s almost like a mini-Advent theme this week:  Be on your guard.  Sell you possessions, Jesus says.  Give them away, following up on last week.  Let go of stuff, because it can drag you down.  Do you think that’s true?  Shed the excess, so that you can travel light. 

And I’m intrigued—and have been pondering this week—the connection between this idea of “traveling light” and how we treat people.   It looks like there is a correlation between traveling light and caring for and receiving care from neighbor with kindness and grace:  this “Rick Steves” cheerfulness connects to going light…

(In other words, I don’t think Rick Steves would be as cheerful a person if he travelled with tons and tons of stuff.  I actually think that Jesus is giving us a gift, rather than a daunting task, by saying, “Sell your possessions, give up your stuff.”  At first glance it sounds like this terribly unrealistic command, right?  But I believe it’s a gift that Christ gives us today.  I think of all the couples that downsize in their later years.  They always seem happier, they don’t miss all the piles and the clutter and the extra garage space.  They have everything they need (in their 1 Bedroom, 2B condo/apt.).

How do we stay light on our feet for the Gospel?  Agile in our lives and our ministries, among our families, friends and in the world?  How are we ballet dancers of the Gospel?

I love that ballet move where they run and jump with their legs split almost parallel to the earth.  And then just as quickly and gently, smiling all the while, they come back down, and it looks so soft and easy to do.  [pause]  Or a running back in football — who so gracefully hurdles the defensive line at the goal line and does that beautiful landing roll into the end zone….(they’ve gotta be smiling under that helmet).  (Or Mohammed Ali: “Fly like a….”

God creates us acrobatic too, sisters and brother in Christ! Literally that word: “up on our toes, climbing high”.  Perhaps not physically (like a ballerina or a running back) but as human beings, as baptized-blessed-and-sent children of God, we are created  to connect and relate and serve one another...acrobatically.  We are blessed to go light and cheerfully...like how Rick Steves travels.  [pause/marinate]

[Roll-with-the-punches story.  Interaction this week.  Quick to forgive.  Beat me to the punch.]

Following Jesus, remaining with the Christian community (the church), continuing along the way with Christ is acrobatics. 
It is jumping and landing, falling and rolling.  It is laughing and partnering.  It is trusting one another.  And all of that reflects our trusting in God.  How do we “ballet the Gospel”, the good news of God’s love and grace and abundance in our lives?  

Because it is easy to see work, life in general, our many and various ministries in the church and beyond the church as solo drudgery —   
Heavy footed or slumped over in the doorway (Jesus’ images from the Gospel text about the master returning), or perhaps forgetting the master’s return all together.  [pause]

But we “light-footed dancers of the Gospel”, on the other hand, live and work and care for one another and wait with energetic anticipation.

Christ moves among us, sisters and brothers, preparing for us a better country (2nd reading from Hebrews), a feast to come, blessings that outnumber the stars; and serving us all the while, beckoning us to shed our possessions, and to join ever more the dance of ministry, the dance of Trinity, the dance of loving and serving our neighbor with joy.   Christ moves among us like a butterfly, announcing grace and peace, hope and joy.  Christ encircles us, leaps above us, dives below us and powers through us, in spite of us.  

This One-in-Three upon whom we cannot place our finger, but only put our trust, will sustain us, will forgive us, and will draw us back into the fold, back upon the road and free of our load.  Have no fear.  We are marching in the light of God (know that hymn? sing it?), and we are marching light, we are dancing light, we are singing light.  

And now, we are feasting light.  Filled to the brim and ready to move.  AMEN.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

August 4 — Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

Listen to this sermon HERE.

Two brothers fighting it out.  [whining] “Tell my brother to give me that.”  But these are not little boys fighting and whining.  They’re grown men.  And they’re not fighting over a toy; they’re fighting over the family inheritance.”  Trying to draw Jesus into it.  (Remember triangulation with the two sisters?)

There are many things that are instructive about this Gospel text today, but what occurs to me is that the one who’s getting treated unfairly, the one who actually has a case, I think, the one who’s getting none of the family inheritance, is the one who prompts Jesus‘ parable.  The corrective story is for the brother who’s getting the raw end of the deal!  I think you and I could figure out some ways we are that brother, the one getting cheated.  

Think about it for a moment:  How many ways are you getting the short end of the stick in this life?  How have you been sucker punched in this economic boxing ring?  

I don’t know about you, by my prayer to God can sometimes sound a lot like this brother who’s getting stiffed.  “God, tell the government to give me my fair share of my paycheck.  God, tell the housing market to give me my fair share of the equity.  Jesus, tell the credit card companies, the banks to give me my fair share of interest — which would be way more than what I’m getting now.  Teacher, tell that shop keeper and that grocer and that barber to stop jacking up their prices and give me what I want for a fair price!”

Can we be as whiny in our prayer life as this brother who simply wants his fair share...and who goes to the source to ask for it?  I mean, we can write some pretty articulate and eloquent prayers, but can their content be just as whiny?

But Jesus doesn’t get roped into arbitration.  He seizes upon the bigger picture.  When this man and (if we’re honest) you and me are caught up in this act, in this lifestyle of pining and whining for what we don’t have, for what’s owed to us, for how we got wronged and how others deserve a scolding and more, then we are getting caught in what Ecclesiastes calls the “unhappy business” of life...then we are no longer “on guard,” as Jesus would warn, “against all kin‘a greed.”  

Your life does not consist in the abundance of possessions, Jesus reminds us.  Your life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.  Beware of storing up treasures.

The Rich Fool  •  30"X40"   •  oil/canvas   •  by James B. Janknegt
And here’s the good news:  God through Jesus has freed us in the life hereafter and even in this life, even today — God through Christ has freed us from the “unhappy business” of pining and whining...because we have been promised something much greater in our baptism:  richness toward God — faith.

Faith is a gift given to us in baptism.  It’s nothing you have to buy, it’s nothing you have to earn.  It’s just given freely to you and to me.  And this is a antibody against the virus of greed: FAITH.  This will protect us from pining and whining, sisters and brothers in Christ!  

This “word of God, word of life” today is like finding a most wonderful letter in the attic, or the closet, or top shelf of the garage hidden among all the junk.  Colossians: You have been buried and raised with Christ, so you don’t have to keep living in a state of fear and scarcity and sadness and bitterness and clenching on to tightly to what you have, even if you have very little.  Because you have been buried (first) and then raised with Christ, this long-lost letter says, because you have been given this greatest treasure that is faith, then you are renewed this day, free to live in the image of God who created you!  

How do we cultivate a field of gratitude, when there are fields and fields of “pining and whining” all around us?  How, sisters and brothers in Christ, can we be even better farmers of thanksgiving?  (I say even better because there is so much generosity in this place.  I have learned so much about giving from you.  We had our young adult camping trip this weekend, and we spent some time around the campfire talking and laughing about this place.  And it was about the people here —Anita and Dusty and Rodney and Stephanie.  And it was to me a celebration of how generous you people are at Shepherd of the Valley, from the eyes of young adults in their 20s and 30s.  We’re watching.)  It’s not that we’re not already farmers of thanksgiving, cultivating fields and lives of generosity and seeing the abundance even when times are lean.  This text is calling us back, and challenging us even more in our generosity, that is, in our “joyful releasing”.  How can we even better share our gifts, our treasures, our inheritances, our possessions...rather than locking so much up in our barns...like that man with lots of money in the parable?   And what are ways that we can remain generous, gracious and thankful even when that same generosity and fairness doesn’t seem to be extended to us by the world? 

Jesus frees us to let go...of our possessions.  They were never ours in the first place.  And if you died tomorrow, which could happen to any of us here, if you died tomorrow, would you have shared your things in this life in a way that reflects the God who loves and creates you anew?  Jesus frees us from greed.  And fear.  Jesus‘ gift of faith, given freely in baptism, is the antidote to our anger and our bitterness. 

Pastor Tod Bolsinger offers a few suggestions on his blog for cultivating generosity:  “Hang out with generous people.  It will rub off on you.”  I suppose that implies the opposite then too:  keep an emotional distance from those who are not farmers of thanksgiving.  I’ve noticed that bitter people can rub off on me also.  Hang out with generous people.  (Looks like you’re in the right place.)    

He also suggests practicing generosity (fake it ‘til you make it, I suppose.  Studies: this works with self-confidence...how about generosity?):  “Leave a big tip when you go out to dinner.  Buy [fair trade coffee] and give it to your neighbors.  Buy a struggling young man a new suit or offer to pay the rent for someone who needs a helping hand.  And then thank them. Tell them that you are doing it for yourself, and that they are doing you a favor. Then find something that you are hanging on to a little too tight and just give it to someone.  Give away your [porcelain doll collection, or your baseball cards, or favorite shirt], or whatever.  Empty your wallet in the offering plate just for the experience of doing so.  Write the biggest check you can ever imagine to some work of God in the world, and watch how there is still food on your table.  And don’t ask for any recognition for it, because this is helping you.  Reorganize your finances so that the first tenth of every bit of income that comes in your door goes to the work of God.  I mean really tithe.  Look at it as a whole lot better deal than the rich [landlord] got.”   

How is this sitting with you?  I don’t really like it these suggestions.  Because I’m kind of stingy.  But I’m trying to trust in the gift that’s been given to me — faith, “richness toward God”.  Let’s stick together, sisters and brothers in Christ, let’s encourage one another and keep practicing generosity together, knowing that God stays with us through it all!  AMEN.