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, 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.  

Sunday, September 8, 2013

September 8 — Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Listen to this sermon HERE.

     CHICAGO (ELCA) -- Celebrating 25 years as a church that rolls up its sleeves and gets to work, members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) will participate in “God’s work. Our hands.” Sunday, Sept. 8 -- a dedicated day of service in which this church’s 4 million members can observe the anniversary by playing a critical part in addressing the needs of their neighborhoods and communities….
...At Advent Lutheran Church in Mentor, Ohio, members created service projects for all ages to participate in the day of service. The congregation plans to bake and distribute cookies to police and firefighters, build and repair picnic tables for a local homeless shelter, write letters to military personnel and veterans and perform random acts of kindness around the community.
…In Palatine, Ill., three ELCA congregations will combine efforts to help make a difference in their community. [They] will take part in many activities which include visiting shut-ins, preparing a Habitat for Humanity house for rehab, quilting prayer shawls, assembling and stocking shelves at the local food pantry, and helping with house chores and yard work for seniors in the area.
     “This is a way for our congregation to intentionally show our corner of the world who we are and what we do. But it’s not just here; there’s this great spirit around the country. It’s great to be part of a church that celebrates its anniversary by sharing God’s love with the world by going out into the world,” said the Rev. Seth Moland-Kovash, pastor of All Saints Lutheran Church.
     Additional service projects include:
+ Redeemer Lutheran Church in Penndel, Pa., plans to create 100 care packets for a local hospital to distribute to families who have loved ones in intensive-care or cardiac-care units.
+ Ballard First Lutheran Church in Seattle will kick-off a year of learning and service, helping educate members about the many opportunities to serve in the community.
+ Kihei Lutheran Church in Kihei, Hawaii, has collected more than 1,500 pounds of canned goods for the community food pantry and for low-income school children who may not have weekend meals.
+ Lord of Light Lutheran Church in Ann Arbor, Mich., will collect non-perishable food items for low-income students who may not have regular meals during extended breaks from school.
     “We are working very hard to help our congregation members see the need in our community, as well as (in) the world. Our congregation also pushes us as leaders to find ways to put our faith into action,” said Leslie Fort, council president at Lord of Light Lutheran Church.
  “God’s work. Our hands.” Sunday is designed to emphasize this church’s commitment to participate in the work of restoring and reconciling communities, and pursuing peace and justice.    
     Fort says her congregation embraces this calling within their community and beyond. “We are not afraid to be Christ's hands in our community. We aren't afraid to face the realities of brokenness, loss and poverty in our world. We aren't afraid to sweat or end up covered in dirt or exhaust ourselves with tough work. We aren't afraid to look a hurting person in the eyes, to hold their hand, to see their soul as a reflection of ours, to help them through in Jesus' name.”

Add all of this to our list of 10+ churches here in San Diego, with whom we’re invited to connect with today.  It’s wonderful to think of all the service that is being offered around the nation in celebration of God’s goodness to our church body. 

Jesus talks today, in no unclear terms, about discipleship, about taking up our crosses and following.  About rejecting our own families if they stand in the way of the path of discipleship.  Once again, this is a harsh word.  The church overall is getting smaller — we know this from reports and statistics.  Frankly sometimes I’m surprised when we have lessons like this that it’s as large as it is.  Jesus is looking for serious followers.  Courageous and loyal followers.   Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in his famous book called The Cost of Discipleship about cheap grace:

“We have gathered like eagles around the carcass of cheap grace, and there we have drunk of the poison that has killed the life of following Christ…We poured forth unending streams of grace.  But the call to follow Jesus was hardly ever heard.”

I hope we hear the call to follow Jesus today.   Pastor George Johnson, in his book Beyond Guilt, discusses a movement “from belief to following” (p. 18).

Jesus calls us, that’s the Good News.  Jesus snaps us out of our funks and puts us on a clear path, that’s the Good News.  There’s never the right time to give up everything and follow, so that makes now the right time.  What is Jesus asking of you this week?  [pause]

Jesus tells us to give up our stuff...Do we own our things or do our things own us?  Jesus frees us from all that by calling us, being honest with us — the road will be rocky and hard — and clearing a way for us to serve.

You are God’s most beloved child.  Now God continues to mold you and shape you.  God continues to call you and need you.  It’s never too late.  And we don’t go about this alone.  With each other here at SVLC, with other churches around the country, and with the whole body of Christ, we serve together.  This is grace too.  AMEN.


For the protection of people “affected by the fighting in Syria” and for “all who are working for peace: international leaders, politicians, religious leaders and ordinary citizens” and that “all of us be strengthened by the hope of a future built on love and justice for all.”

Sunday, September 1, 2013

September 1 — Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Listen to this sermon HERE.

Jesus just said that when we host a dinner party…
How many of us have ever invited a homeless person to our dinner?  Homeless are still kind of a social untouchable in our world today too aren’t they? 
How many of us plan to do this because we just heard it when the pastor brought the Bible down and read it on a Sunday morning in church?  
Does this book have the power to transforms our lives and our dinner party plans, or do we plan to go back to whatever we were doing before we came and heard it?
I don’t know about you, but I don’t plan on changing my plans very much because of some Scripture reading I heard.  I’m looking forward to relaxing later with the people I love...and like.  Not with strangers.  And certainly not with strangers who smell and have sad stories.  I’m just being honest.  
How many are with me on that?  Let’s forget about this particular passage in the Bible.  Let’s take care of ourselves.  And let’s plan on going back to our week, after church here, and doing what we do.  If I’ve got a little change left over, maybe I’ll give that to a homeless person.  Or if I’ve got a little food in a to-go box, sometimes I’ve given that away to someone begging on the street outside the restaurant. 
This passage doesn’t register.  I mean, we can understand it intellectually, and sing a song or two about it, but we don’t really need to act on it, do we?
For Luke to record this account for his early church community implied that there were people with wealth in the early church — people who were capable of helping their neighbors in need.  There were people like us.  Jesus’ searing words zero right in on us today, 2000 years later.  So now it’s time to rationalize and explain to God why we don’t share our riches more.  Why we take care of ourselves.
I’m not going to do that out loud up here (too ashamed).  I think we can all explain pretty well why we don’t just “sell our possessions and give the money to the poor” (which Jesus says too over and over)...  
What I am going to tell you, is that even while we stumble in this way (and so many ways), our God does not.  
We have a God who always invites the poor and the lame, the blind and crippled.  In spite of my selfishness and my laziness and my ignorance, I can still stand here tell you in faith and in freedom and in confidence that God always has a homeless person at the dinner party!  And not just one — not just a token homeless person — to make a cool statement.  God has all homeless people to the table.  And not just people with no money, God also invites people with no health care, and people with no health!  People who have no legs, who can’t see.  People with breathing machines.  People coughing and infected with all kinds of disgusting diseases.  God invites them to the banquet!  And not just the sick and the poor, God invites people who you and me would call weird.  [I’ll let you fill in the blanks there.]  Different hair colors, different skin colors, different ways of decorating their bodies, different relationships, different politics, different heroes than you and I have, different hopes and dreams and allegiances.  Are you getting a picture of this?  God invites the whole spectrum to the party!  
God invites people who don’t go to church every Sunday.   God invites people who don’t go to church any Sunday.  God even invites people who don’t even believe!  God invites people who believe a different way!  Did you know that?   They’re there too!
God invites people who have committed crimes.  [pause]
God invites people who have careers and bosses that call on them to do awful things, immoral things, hurtful things to themselves and to others, and to the world.  And God invites their bosses too.
I might not want to invite them.  You might not want to invite them, but God does.  Our love and our welcome might be imperfect, but God’s is perfect.  Are you getting a picture of this banquet hall?  Can you see it?!  Oktoberfest’s got nothing on this party!  
God invites the quiet types on the outskirts.  Those who feel alone and afraid — those who would rather look at their phone than talk to you.  God goes over to the corners...and invites them.  
God even invites the our non-human neighbors.  Dogs and cats, pigs and rats, elephants and bats!  Did you know that?  We don’t like animals at our dinner tables, but God’s arms open wide to welcome them.  Dan Erlander, one of the previous pastors here, draws and writes about a word that is used in the book of Ephesians: ana-kephal-ai-o-sas-thai.   
“Beautiful word which the writer of Ephesians used to celebrate what God is doing in the universe - uniting, gathering up, bringing together everything with Christ as head.  The word (translated “gather up”) comes from ancient mathematics.  The total of many separate numbers was called the anakephalaiosasthai. This number gathered all of the other numbers into itself.  This is the work of Jesus Christ - to gather together every part of the universe to bring everything together in one harmonious household.”
God invites the animals...and the plants...and even the dry earth that won’t grow anything but cactus.  
And what about you?  What about me?  Can you see yourself there too?  Are we welcome at this feast, even though we might struggle to invite pretty much any of these others on this list to our dinner parties?   Is there a chair for us too?  Are welcome too?
You bet we are.  AMEN.