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 31, 2014

August 31 -- Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost

Last week Jesus calls Peter “the Rock”.  He lifts him up, promises him the “keys to the kingdom”, says, “upon this rock I’ll build my church.”  Jesus has Peter feeling pretty good, I imagine. This week (only 8 verses later) he calls him Satan.  What happened?

Peter wanted to take his titles and honor and blessings from Christ and just enjoy them (just for a second...just 8 verses, Jesus?); Peter wants to  “take the money and run,” so to speak.  But then Jesus instructs Peter -- and all of us -- in the ways of discipleship.  This is a calling -- once we acknowledge Christ as the Messiah, once we make our bold statement of faith, like Peter, this is a call -- to take up our cross, this is a call to come and die.  Peter wanted to hinder that.  He wanted to block it.  “Say it isn’t so, Lord.”

I considered putting “Come Die With Us” on our front marquee this morning. [pause]  See how fast this church grows.  

This Gospel passage from Matthew, that is before us today, is terrible marketing.  It does not make people feel good.  It’s frightening, and confusing and, frankly, not the way most people are going to choose.  “I don’t want to come die with you, Lord.  I want to enjoy the Rock, the church.  I want to enjoy the comfort of being in your presence.  I want to enjoy knowing that my soul is safe with you.  I don’t want to suffer.”

"If any want to become my followers,” Jesus said, “let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

Christ calls us to give ourselves away for this world.

How are you, how are we, giving ourselves away for this world?  In a world and a culture that says, “No, protect yourself and your dear ones!  Don’t give yourself away!  That’s stupid.”   But Christ bids we come.  We give ourselves up.  And as D.Bonhoeffer wrote, “When Christ bids we come, he bids we come and die.”

[How am I doing?  As I wrote this I found myself wanting to add lots of jokes and humor to this passage.  A little sugar coating.]

How is Christ calling you to lose your life, to give yourself away for the world, to take up your cross and follow him?

It always needs to be said, when we reach this passage each year, about bearing your cross, it needs to be said that your “cross to bear” is never being the recipient of some sort of abuse.  I’ve heard and met people who say that their pastor or priest told them that they ought to be silent and bear the physical/emotional/spiritual abuse of their spouse or parent because that’s simply their “cross to bear”.  Being the recipient of abuse is never someone’s cross to bear -- for that is not giving yourself away for the world, being the truest you for the world that God created you to be.  God didn’t mold us for abuse and violence -- not recipients of abuse & violence and not perpetrators of abuse & violence.  Let’s work to stop that.

Our “cross to bear” is that cross that was traced on our foreheads in our baptisms.  It was traced with oil as a symbol of a sealant.  And it gets traced again with ashes each springtime, at the beginning of Lent.  It is the cross under which we live, and under which we die.  [Do you remember that cross?  Is it still there?  Trace it again, just to make sure you know it’s there.]  

It is that cross that says we belong to Christ -- it’s a branding -- Christ who we boldly confess as Messiah, along with Peter.  

And having had that cross sealed on our foreheads, having made that bold confession, we now go, into the dark valleys of this life, into the fear, and the storms that rage.  This is, back into our labor -- the courtrooms, the newsrooms, the classrooms, operating rooms, the living rooms and dining rooms and bedrooms of our daily lives.  We seek out the places where there is pain, and we go there, to give ourselves away.  A colleague pointed out this week: “You know when God asks us to come and die, you can’t really die just a little bit.  When you die, you die.  It’s all or nothing.”  So when Jesus calls us to come and give our selves away, he’s asking for every part of you!  He doesn’t say, I’ll take your 1:30 minutes each week.  I’ll take whatever you have leftover in your wallet.  I’ll take--if it’s not putting you out too much--your volunteer time for my cause.  Jesus doesn’t say that!  Christ bids we give our whole selves away, that we die to the things of this world.

And maybe that means you need to rethink everything...I don’t want to shy away from that possibility.  Maybe God is calling you, or us, to rethink everything! -- to re-shape our whole lives in response to Christ’s call.  That’s really frightening for those of us, who are settled, and on track.  [Dad’s experience in Norway -- parishioners all ex-pats: freedom of not having roots down, no stakes in the ground.]  Maybe God is calling you to rethink and reshape everything in your life.  Maybe it’s time for a brand NEW start, a life that is in line with God’s call to give yourself away.

But I would suspect--and I know--that many of us are not thinking we’re completely off track with God’s purposes for our lives.  I would suspect that many of us have been trying to follow Christ in our daily lives...many for a long time.  

Then I would encourage you to welcome this message as a wake-up call.  Sometimes we sleep through our calls from God.  Let this be a wake-up, “Hey, where is God calling you to give yourself away in what you do, in where you are, in who you are?”  

The church has failed somehow, I think, in talking about vocation, in talking about “having a calling” as only something pastors or professional church workers get.  (Were you taught that somehow?  I hope you weren’t.)  What’s your calling/vocation?

Martin Luther said that every single person has a calling from God...from the maid scrubbing the floor, to the shoemaker.  (Those were Luther’s examples.)  God calls us all to do what we do and do it, as well as can, for the sake of the world, to the glory of God.  [pause]  Let your dishwashing be a prayer; let your lesson-planning be a psalm; let your tile work, or your lab research or your carpentry or investment baking or your parenting or your caring for a aging parent be a hymn to God’s glory, for the sake of the world.

Our work can be very hard -- we give ourselves away in it, and today we’re given a booster shot to give ourselves away even more.  Wash dishes for someone else, give away some of your labor or your research, or you craftsmanship.  Help care for and nurture someone else’s child or aging parent, in addition to your own.  Giving ourselves away for this world, in response to Christ giving himself away for you: this is your cross to bear.

A great task for us all, on this Labor Day Weekend.  God calls us into this labor.  And Jesus promises us, that in losing our lives -- in giving our lives away for the sake of the other -- we actually find our selves and find our lives...

Let’s go find ourselves...for we have been found by Christ, buried with Christ.  We’ve been imbedded in God’s healing and forgiving love all along!  That cross is a tree, you see; that cross of death...is a cross of life.  Thanks be to God.  AMEN.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

August 24 -- Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost

At the beginning of a new school year, it’s time to go back to the basics.  Can’t start a new year without reviewing where you came from – your multiplication flashcards, the alphabet, the MLA handbook, the periodic table, Gray’s Anatomy, in seminary it was the dictionary of theological terms and D. Bonhoeffer’s Life Together.  Pick your level and your discipline, but you can’t start a new year without remembering where you came from.  And this week our lectionary texts are practically synched up with the same idea:  We can’t start anew without remembering where we came from.  It’s time to go back to the basics…back to the building rocks.

Who we are and whose we are.  Where we have come from…and then who is this Jesus?

Our first lesson from Isaiah calls us, especially in times of trial, to “look to the rock from which you were hewn, the quarry from which you were dug.  Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you.”

Sisters and brothers in Christ, we are called back to the basics this late date in August: we are called to remember that we all come from the same rock.  What an image:  God shaped us and molded us from a common rock, dug us up and breathed into each of us.  We trace our ancestry of faith back to Abraham and Sarah, back to Adam and Eve, back to the very hands of God.  “Look to the rock from which you were hewn.”  The mighty fortress, who is our God.

How…we…can…forget…that we came from God.  How we can run and hide, and deny and evade.  How our memories can be short-term, tracing our ancestry of faith back only one or two generations (back to Minnesota or Germany or Mexico or Sierra Leone)…but not hundreds and thousands of generations.  

But let’s get back to the basics today: It is the Living God who chiseled away at our being, and who continues to chisel away at us, who dug us out of the dirt and gave us this holy life, this sacred earth, and who continues to dig us out of the quarry: out of our despair, our guilt, our brokenness and our sorrow.  It is the living God who refashions, remolds us, puts us back together (i.e. remembers), breathes into us new life again, and now set us free.  It is the living God who set the heavens in their places and filled the seas with creatures.  [We can start sounding like psalmists when we go back and start reflecting on the basics!]

May we be psalmists this week as we begin anew, even if you’re not getting back into the classroom, like our children will be (or already have), may we be like little psalmists singing God’s praises with our actions.  We have been resuscitated by the living God, brought to life again and now again!
And now, having been brought back, this God asks us a question.  “Who do people say that I am?” Jesus probes his followers.

Kind of a timeless question.  People are still talking about Jesus today, saying/writing who he is, or who he is not, or at least who he was.  [Albert Schweitzer] Pick your context and your camp, and off you can go with things to say about Jesus.  I think many, many people in our post-Christendom, post-modern American culture today believe that Jesus was just a prophet, like the disciples said, just a radical activist—who was executed for advocating love of the poor and the outcast, violating Jewish laws and undermining Roman authorities.  Compelling stories, but he lived long ago, and is pretty much irrelevant today, other than being yet another inspirational role model who we could never fully imitate.  [Temple of Self Realization in Malibu]  
Others think he was just a super-nice pastor who wants to be your best friend in spirit.  Not so sure about how radical his activism was, the point of Jesus, some say, is just to have a personal relationship with you.  “I just want you.”  I had some friends that used to call that “Jesus is my boyfriend” theology.  
If you can replace the world “boyfriend” for “Jesus” in your songs or your prayers, and it starts to sound like a love song, you might be in danger of “Jesus is my boyfriend” theology.  “I just want you to be with me, Jesus.  I just want you all to myself, Jesus.  Don’t leave me, Jesus.”  

(If Jesus asked me today, “Who do people say that I am,” I might tell him that he’s got a lot of roses to send out because…“some think that you’re their boyfriend.”)

Meanwhile I had a preaching professor who really disliked the song, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” because he thought it had misled generations of Christians to shortchange their confession about who Jesus is.  (Peter didn’t confess Jesus as his friend.)  Of course Jesus is a friend, and I don’t mean to undermine or make light of that relationship.  But as disciples of the One who came to earth to take on our flesh—who ventured through the pain-filled valleys of our existence, offering both life-giving healing and life-changing challenges, who suffered death, not just for his friends but for this whole world, and then rose from the dead to have the last word—we must stand and confess a whole lot more than “he’s just my special friend” or just an inspirational figure in history!  Amen?

Sisters and brothers in Christ, we join with Peter (“Rocky”), and confess Jesus as the Messiah, the anointed one—THE ONE, sent from God, AND YET VERY GOD, God from God, Light from Light, True God from true God (as our Nicene Creed helps give us words for what is beyond words).  Sisters and brothers in Christ, we join with Peter, and confess Jesus, the rock of our salvation, yes friend, yes radical activist for the poor and the outcast, yes Son of the Living God, yes God in the flesh before our eyes in this Word, in this Meal, in these holy waters of Baptism!  Yes Jesus lived long ago, yes Jesus lives now.  

Our confession is great, like Peter’s.  And in making this bold confession that we do, do you know what we become?  
A chip off the old block is what we are, people of God!  A chip off the old ROCK.  A chip off the old rock that is God.  We are a chip off of God.  Broken and shared for the sake of the world, that’s what we are: fractured and forgiven, but sent out for many.  [Imperfections on the rock you’re holding? Fractured and forgiven.]

Sisters and brothers in Christ, lest we forget who we are and from whence we come:  WE ARE THE CHURCH OF JESUS CHRIST, and we’re about to chip off into this world!  That’s not a bad thing!

Peter’s confession becomes our confession, and so Jesus is beyond just relevant or inspirational:  Jesus is necessary!  For without him we have no life…not now, not into eternity.  
This is all given to us for free!  
And so now what?  God’s done the work, now we just get to be the church.  And Paul’s letter to the Romans speaks to this and gives us further instruction:  “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.  Don’t be [chiseled, molded into the ways of] this world, but [continue to be chiseled by God], be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God.”

Is it God’s will that children go hungry (or is God chiseling away at us) that refugees be rejected, that species go extinct and water is wasted, that wars drag on?  Is it God’s will that you continue to live in fear, burdened by anger, guilt, sorrow, or resentment?  Or God chiseling away at us?  

Sisters and brothers in Christ, BACK TO THE BASICS: we are the church, and God is still chiseling.  Still working, still calling us, molding us, still tapping away at this world… 

Sculpting away for peace…the peace that passes all human understanding.  Praise be to Jesus, the Messiah.  AMEN.          

Sunday, August 17, 2014

August 17 -- Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Previously I’ve always been angry at Jesus for the way he spoke to this woman [expound/retell story]

It’s tempting to avoid this all together, and preaching instead on the first part of this Gospel text, about making sure that what comes from us comes from the heart and is pure and true, compassionate and undefiled.  It’s almost ironic that he says that and does this.  That he talks about loving words lining up with loving deeds.  “Don’t say one thing and do another,” and then he himself says one thing and does another.  “It’s not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

It’s always upset me, but this year, I’m wondering if Jesus knew exactly what he was saying and doing: he was repeating a popular line and using a popular Jewish racial slur from his day, a cliche, a line that “gets us off the hook”.    A line like: 
“God helps those who help themselves.” [gets me off the hook of helping and sharing]
“I’m spiritual but not religious.”  [gets me off the hook of suffering with others in a community of faith]
“Make love, not war.” [gets me off the hook of having to deal with confrontation and perhaps even real evil]
“It’s America, speak English.”  [gets me off the hook of learning , or at least being patient and loving, with those in this land who speak other languages]
“Charity starts at home.”  [gets me off the hook of giving anything to anyone beyond my closest concentric circle of family and friends...even in the church community] 

“It’s not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” [gets me off the hook of a) using words that are true and pure, thoughtful and loving b) being compassionate toward anyone who’s not of my clan...in Jesus’ case: the Jewish clan.  She was a Canaanite woman.] 

This year, this time around with this text, I’m wondering if Jesus knew exactly what he was saying.  His tongue was in his cheek as he repeated something that others would have applauded and said themselves.  Perhaps he was testing her; but I’m wondering if Jesus knew and saw in her eyes already her strength and her wisdom and her determination and her love for her sick child, and wanted to make her a model of great faith for that crowd and for his disciples gathered ‘round...who all agreed that Jesus was only for the house of Israel, who all agreed that he had drawn his boundaries correctly.  Interesting, though, that this whole episode takes place beyond the boundaries of Israel.  (This is the furthest north and west as Jesus gets in his whole earthly ministry.)  Something is about to happen here out on the margins.  Things have been going on as they always have.  Nations fighting nations, people fighting people, races fighting races, lines in the sand are constantly drawn.  It’s the way it’s always been, but now Jesus is up to something...

Jesus is giving her some pushback; he’s creating a little drama;  he’s saying what people say, drawing the lines that people draw, using the derogatory terms that people use.  I grew up in the South, and I don’t have to tell you the derogatory terms people use, and the lines people still draw.  Jesus starts here by drawing those same lines that have always been drawn: “It’s not fair...” But then something happens.  She stands up...even as she knelt down before him.   She stands up to him and says, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.”  She pushes back, she talks back, and cries out for mercy and welcome -- just CRUMBS that fall from the master’s table.

Reminds me of Martin Luther’s last words: “Wir sind Bettler.  Das ist wahr. (We are beggars. This is true.)”  In the end all we can do is open our hands and receive the master’s crumbs.    

Stand up to Jesus, sisters and brothers in Christ.  Demand his mercy, demand his forgiveness and healing.  Put your hands out and receive this bread of life, and know that it is enough.  

Don’t be fooled and sucked down into the things people say, the things that get us off the hook from being faithful and good.

Our intro for today: “As Jesus commends her bold faith, how might our church extend its mission to those on the margins of society?”  Great question to keep before us as we vote on whether or not to move at this time into a capital campaign and building improvements...

I’m growing to appreciate this passage more, because Jesus is mixing it up here and getting his fingernails dirty...once again.  “Got a break a few eggs to make an omelette” (to use another cliche).

Here’s what we can learn today from our Gospel: Christ goes beyond the boundaries.  Christ is well aware of our prejudices, our slurs, our fears, our lines that get us off the hook...and even uses them to teach us.  Christ pushes at us a little, too, tongue in cheek.  But in the end, God grants mercy!   

So stand up, rise up, be bold, because God is faithful and, in the end, leaves no one out -- even you!  Mercy and love pours down on us all like rain.  So it gets muddy, but Christ is right there in the thick of it, teaching us, forgiving us, loving us and even healing us.  So many women hid in the shadows of society in Jesus’ day -- sometimes they had to -- but here, this Canaanite woman rises up and sticks her neck out there for the sake of a child.  May we be so bold, as to go to the margins, stand up for the child, in a world that’s cruel.  May we be so bold...with a God who’d love us anyway.  AMEN.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

August 10 -- Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

Grace to you and peace from Jesus the Christ who never stops coming to find us.  AMEN.

Let me set the scene.  We’re in Colorado.  Way up in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, about 13,000 ft.. Two days up from our trailhead, and about 15 or 20 miles from Rainbow Trail Lutheran Camp, our base out of which this whole adventure is organized and led.  Heather and I, our three SVLC high schoolers -- Wes, Jake, Sophia -- our 2 guides Cody and Savannah (who everyone called Savage), and 2 random Welsh Corgis that had been following us on the trail, and toward whom we had quickly given much affection.  (Jake named one Jeffrey and the other Oreo.)  

All nine of us packed under a small tarp, stretched out and hung from 4 trees, and eating dinner.  It’s raining.  Strike that: it’s pouring.  And we’re actually getting along ok in our rain gear sitting on trash bags, shoveling in pasta from our little metal sierra cups, which act as both bowl and mug.  We kept lowering the tarp to protect ourselves, as the wind was blowing the rain under our cover, I remember the tarp got so low that it pressed against my head and I could feel the raindrops tapping on my head.  Yet we’re still having a pretty good time!  Until it starts coming down even more, and suddenly, we see and feel the water rolling down the slight hill we’re on...and starting to wash us out, from under us!  Not just pounding down on the tarp above us, but now also under us.  And it’s all rushing to what we guys claimed and thought would be the most scenic place to put our tent, overlooking this beautiful mountain lake.  All this water is rolling toward our tent, which was our only hope of anything staying protected and dry.  And it’s getting dark, as if every drop of rain is like a tiny light switch in the sky turning off.  Uhhhh......

(*Why can’t I get any volunteers? *People keep asking me how my vacation was...  a) high schoolers [who were awesome, but still] and b) rain.)

All of this, of course, is a metaphor for life, right?  Trying to do everything we can to protect ourselves (tarp, rain gear), maybe making some hasty, greedy decisions to secure the best for ourselves (tent site), only to wind up learning that we probably should have been a little more thoughtful and careful, and that there are some things over which we absolutely have no power.

So when I read our texts for my first Sunday back on dry CA land, I couldn’t help but laugh -- first reading about Elijah: “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord...now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting the mountains and breaking rocks in pieces.”  And then this Gospel text:  Jesus goes off by himself to pray, but it says, “the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them.”  Where are you in those stories?  Ever feel tossed and rocked in the boat?  Terrified.  Waterlogged.  Windblown.  Shaken and soaked from above and below?  [pause]

I’m not going to move on to the punchline just yet (which is Jesus).  Let’s just sit with this; let’s just sit in the downpour, in the storm.

You know one of the gifts of this backpacking trip, was having to sit in the downpour.  We worshiped at two different Lutheran churches in Colorado, one before the backpacking, when we first arrived and one at the end of our adventure, and we prayed for the poor and those who have no place to lay their heads both times.  But after sitting in the rain a night or two, we heard that prayer very differently the second time.  Experiences like this make us feel small, mortal, helpless, and more compassionate.

Many of us are well aware of our mortality, but we sure can try to avoid reflecting on it in our culture, in our younger years, in our older years.  We Christians find ourselves a death-denying culture.  So to be battered by the waves, to sit in the downpour, to endure the storms -- this is where we can only place ourselves in God’s arms.  It’s important to note:  Elijah didn’t find God in the storm itself, neither did the disciples.  (Nature, as you know, is indifferent.)  Rather in the tiny places during the storm, the “sheer silence”.  Disciples thought they saw a ghost -- that’s one translation “phantasma”, a blurry vision.  God does not always appear clear and booming and powerful like thunder.  Rather as a blurry vision amid the storm, a friend who reaches out, a sliver of light through the clouds, a warm drink from a stranger, a blanket or sleeping bag that miraculously stayed dry...

You know, I think, that crazy, stormy night, was the most memorable and the most fun, of our whole trip?  I didn’t finish telling you what happened: We were being so pelted (oh yeah, it was hailing too) that finally our guides after trying to direct us to clean up and protect as much as we could finally just surrendered, and shouted “Run for your tents!  Let’s call it a night!”  And we raced for our tents and jumped inside.  Would you believe that it was actually dry in there?  There was water literally rushing all around us, but those tents were so waterproof that I had my best night sleep of the whole trip!  I mean, that’s as miraculous as walking on water!  But we didn’t go to sleep right away.  It was only 6:30 when we ran for our tents.  That night we played card games, we worshiped, and we laughed and laughed -- guys in our tent, and we could hear the girls in theirs, laughing and laughing.  We were fine -- thanks be to God -- when you’re that close up against the elements, there’s no one else to thank for keeping us safe.  

Sisters and brothers in Christ, Jesus never wearies of coming out to look for us.  He even crosses the turbulent seas.  He even crosses death and the powers of hell to come find us, to reach out to us and to say, “Do not be afraid.  Have courage.  I am here.”  

Today, you are pulled up, you are rescued, you are saved from drowning.  Even in the storms, God has got us.

So let’s not be afraid anymore.  Let’s have the courage to get out of the boat, to get out of the “nave”, the ship, to get out of the nice, dry, safe church and into the choppy seas of this world!  Let’s take a risk like Peter, and be Christ’s voice for the voiceless, sheltering children who have no place to call home, feeding the hungry who have no table around which to gather, nursing the sick who no one else wants to touch, speaking out in the face of violence begetting more violence in the Middle East...and in our own backyards.  Our children just pretend to shoot each other like it’s no big deal.  Where is the Church’s voice in all this?  We’re huddled in the nave, in the ship, terrified.  What does Jesus say as he’s reading our newspapers?  And what would Jesus do?  These are our downpours.  We are huddled under a tarp.  And Christ comes out to meet us in the midst of raging storm, to rescue us, to feed us, to send us out, and to make us whole.

Today, we are being pulled up, we are being rescued from our fears and saved from our sins.  Even in the heaviest of storms, God has got us, and God has got this whole world -- it’s not ours to save, only ours to serve.  

Christ stops at nothing to wade into our humanity, into our downpours, into our sorrow, with a powerful word of peace and hope, and strong arm to lift us out.  Thanks be to God.  AMEN.