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, 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.