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...

Monday, April 27, 2015

April 26 -- Fourth Sunday of Easter

Grace to you and peace from God...

As some of you may know, I went to a Jesuit high school.  Jesuits, for any who do not know, are an order within the Catholic church, founded (and still deeply inspired) by Ignatius of Loyola. The Jesuits today work particularly in the areas of education (with schools, universities, medical centers, and seminaries all over the world); they also give retreats, minister in hospitals and prisons, and promote social justice and ecumenical dialogue.  (They’re a lot like Lutherans :)

Pope Francis is a Jesuit.  And as he continues to do and say things that reportedly are rocking the Catholic world, I keep thinking to myself, “Well, he’s a Jesuit.  What do you expect?”

And emphasis on critical thinking was/is so central to my experience of and training by Jesuits over the years.

Jesuits have accomplished and influenced many things, and many more to come in our world, but critical to everything they do is an open and intentional and ongoing acknowledgement that, everything they are and do comes from God. 

In fact, when I was in high school -- and I understand this is still the practice today, and always will be -- when we wrote our name and date on our work (homework, quizzes, tests, final essays), we also were trained to put the letters A.M.D.G. under the date.  Name, date, A.M.D.G.  Some even required it in the center, just above the title.

Ad maiorem Dei gloriam: to the greater glory of God.  This is the Jesuit motto, and it pervades their lives and those who are influenced by them, as I gratefully was in my education.

Everything we do, everything we are, everything we have is dedicated to the greater glory of God, from a promotion at work, to a perfect little newborn grand-daughter, to Thursday’s math homework.  

I can’t help but think of the Jesuits, when I hear this story today of Paul and Barnabas, as they accomplish great things -- first as they are elected by this international council to be the evangelists, and then as they are literally makin’ miracles happen.  Pretty easy to let one’s ego get the better of them, with such wild successes.  But Paul and Barnabas, like the Jesuits, proclaim A.M.D.G. with their lives, remind their communities, this is not our doing, but God’s.  

What an important message for those among us who have accomplished many things!  You know, lots of times our messages in worship, our scripture lessons, and sermons themes are directed at those who are down and out, those who are experiencing failure or loss at some level.  A word of hope and comfort for us when we find ourselves in those difficult places.  But here, I find a message for the successful, the accomplished.  We too work miracles in one way or another.  Passing exams that most people could never pass, hurdling barriers in our lives and careers, overcoming obstacles at home, recovering from illness or traumas in our past.  We’re not perfect, but upon a bit of reflection, we have done some amazing things in and with our lives.  

But we are called back to the truth today, in this lesson, and in the Jesuit motto, that all we have and all we have accomplished is to God’s greater glory.  

I knew a preacher once, who was a great preacher.  He was the campus pastor for Episcopal campus ministry in St. Louis, and every time I heard him preach, I felt like he knocked it out of the park, and every time I complimented his sermon, he’d just say, “Praise God. It wasn’t me.”  And his tone, I thought, was truly humble, not pretentiously humble.

Let’s go back to the text, Paul and Barnabas are among international leaders of the church, all gathered together in Antioch.  How do we know this?  Simeon from Niger, deep in the center of Africa, Lucius from Cyrene, which is much further North near Egypt, Manaen was from Herod’s court.  Herod, an international figure had apparently sent his emissary...  

(While Heather and I were in Brussels, we visited the E.U. Headquarters, where leaders from all over Europe and all over the world come to meet, and we sensed that we were at the center of “where big decisions are made”, like how you feel when you stand inside our great halls of Congress.)  Antioch was the Brussels of the ancient church.

And the Spirit of God was alive and with them (just as She is with us today), and says, “Send Paul and Barnabas.”  And the council prays on this, then lays their hands on them, and affirms the Holy Spirit’s call.  How do you think Paul and Barnabas might have felt?  Pretty awesome, right?  If we all got together and you were chosen, then we prayed, laid hands on and elected you, how would you feel?  Pretty awesome right?  Scared maybe, but also very special.  This is where the ego, gets in there.    

And this can obviously translate far beyond the walls of the church.  When you succeed, get chosen out of a large pool of applicants, pass a test, set a new record or standard...who gets the glory?  You do, right?  You should, right?  You did it; you deserve it.  But Paul and Barnabas, and our best leaders in the church and in the world, accept good things -- accomplishments -- with humility and prayer.  

(AMDG.  Those Jesuits know that the discipline of writing it just as much as you write your name, is important because the ego is a monster.)

So they’re selected and sent, and then they work a miracle that’s got the people of Lystra calling them Zeus and Hermes!  “The gods have come down to us in human form!” they proclaimed and start worshipping them, that is, they start offering sacrifices to them.  (Remember, offering is always at the center of worship.)  

If you could make a person who couldn’t walk, walk again, as many doctors do; if you could defend and free someone from the burdens of their prosecutors, as many attorneys do; if you could teach someone to read, or to communicate in another language, or to take care of themselves, as so many educators and parents and grandparents do -- these are all miracles done by human hands.  But to God be the glory.  

We are called to humble service once again this day, and reminded that it is though God’s grace that we do all that we do.  Look around you this week and see the whole creation bearing witness to God’s grace.  Just like Paul and Barnabas point out: even the rain, and the food in your bellies, are witnesses to God’s goodness and greater glory in our lives.

God is good.  And watches over us.  Uses us as instruments of Christ’s peace, which is made known to us again in this Easter season, in the breaking of the bread.  We share that peace with one another.  We share the good things that we have done and can do with one another and with the world.  Because they were never ours to begin with.  Look at all our God has done -- sometimes through us, many times beyond us.  So turn from these worthless things, Paul and Barnabas say: “Turn from these worthless things [pause], to the living God.”  Counter that ego, with a prayer.  “Praise God.  It wasn’t my doing...ultimately.”  To God be the glory.  AMEN.    

Sunday, April 5, 2015

April 5 -- Resurrection of Our Lord, Easter Sunday

This morning on my way to church, just as I had exited 94 onto Avocado -- it was about 5am, so it was dark -- this morning on my way to church in the dark, I saw this group of women running.  I imagined they were up early exercising, maybe even training together for a marathon.  But they looked like they were having fun.  They had smiles on their faces, as if someone in the group had said something good.  

To anyone else, they might have just looked like a group of women running early in the morning.  On any other day, I would have probably thought nothing of it (except, “I should probably start running again”).  But, sisters and brothers in Christ, today is the day!

And we see the world through the eyes of faith.  Christians, people who gather at the table, at the cross, around the holy book, we see the world through a different lens. 

When we see a picture of the universe we remember the story of God, swirling the cosmos into being at the beginning.  When we see a rainbow, we think of Noah’s ark, and God’s promise to him, his family and all those animals.  When read about slavery and emancipation in America, we remember the Israelites slavery in and freedom from Egypt.  When we see a whale we think of Jonah; a lion, we think of Daniel; or a queen, we think of Esther.  When we see or experience the choppy seas, we remember Jesus calming those waves.  “Peace, be still.”  When we see a telephone pole in the shape of a cross silhouetted by the setting sun we are reminded of Christ’s terrible crucifixion.  And when we see a group of women running in the dark on Easter morning...we are plunged into the story of our resurrected Lord.  “Christ is risen...and women are running!”

Easter morning at SVLC, 5:15am
Morning has broken into our lives.  Today is the day of everything being made new.  We see the world through new eyes.  Easter vigil: facing West and renouncing, and then facing East.   

Jesus appears to the women and then sends them to go and tell.  What’s up with that?!  Say what the church has said down through the ages about the ordination of women -- but Jesus makes the women (in Matthew’s Gospel) the apostles to the apostles.  They become the first to be commissioned, the first to be sent out to share the good news.  One scholar suggests that maybe we missed the mark when men once sat around debating women’s ordination, maybe it should have been women debating men’s ordination...  

The men in the story were like dead, the disciples had cut and run, but the women were up early, running.  

But this is more than an interesting commentary on women’s ordination, can be understood a reversal of the sin of Eve, way back in Genesis.  (Many have faulted Eve for the Fall.)  It’s a reversal of Adam’s sin too -- they both did it.  This is a reversal of sin, sisters and brothers in Christ.  And for Jesus to choose women, at that time and place in history, was a signal that everything new was breaking in.  The world as it was -- where women were on the margins and last in line -- is being turned on its head.  Another way of saying this is that “there was a great earthquake,” and Christ appears to the women first, who were at the bottom rung of society.  

“The last shall be first and the first shall be last.”  Jesus said it already!  “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Jesus said it already!
The whole Gospel of Matthew -- 28 chapters up to this point, it’s been there the whole time.  The resurrection, is imbedded throughout!  We can read about the resurrection throughout the Gospel of Matthew!  In the birth of the Messiah, the visit of the Magi, the Sermon on the Mount, the healing of the sick, the Transfiguration, the calming of the sea, the entry into Jerusalem, the supper with his friends, the trial and the cross.  The resurrection of Christ was there all along, but this is the culmination.  Today is the day.  

And it’s not just good news for the women who run early -- this for all of us, sisters and brothers, to receive and go and share like they did.  Jesus is risen!  Our eyes are made new.  We see the world in a different way now:  We see hope, even in suffering, joy even in pain, light even in darkness, and life even in death.  Now we see the world through the eyes of faith, through the lens of Christ’s resurrection and conquering of death.  

Today is the day.  Because of today we give thanks to God and rest in the assurance of eternal life even at a funeral, even in the face of death.  Because of today we stand up for peace in world of violence, even in the face of war, abuse, and terror.  Jesus has conquered not only the devil and all his empty promises, but the warring empires of Rome and our world today too.  Jesus counters and conquers violence with a simple greeting: “Do not be afraid.”  

Because of today, we don’t have to be afraid ever again.  We can stand up for peace -- deep, lasting, and abiding peace that can can calm not just territories of the world, but also the territories of our own hearts and minds.  Fear bottlenecks peace.  Peace gets jammed when we get afraid.  But because of today, we can calm down too.  We can rest even now in the assurance of eternal life, God’s unending love.  Death is now the one that gets bottlenecked and jammed up, as if that heavy stone that goes a-rolling today is rolling over death.

Death has been crushed, and we see that with the eyes of faith.  Christ is alive.  So let’s all run...and live, and laugh, and revel, and build community, and make for peace.  Christ is alive, and greets us today.  And so we can sing.  Let’s sing with our lives!

April 3 -- Good Friday

Yesterday, we received a bold command from Jesus to love one another, with Christ-like love.  Today we come face to face with the fact that we can’t.  That we fall so short, even when we try our best.  Today we come face to face with our brokenness, our sinfulness.  “We have failed you God.  We have denied you, we have run away, just as your disciples did long ago.  We have hurt those you called us to love.  We’ve even hurt our own selves, our bodies that you gave us as your temple, we have hurt your planet upon which you have invited us to live.”  Today we come face to face with the cross.  The cross can remind us of a crossing, an intersection of God’s divine will for us and our wanting to go our own way.

Yesterday we received a bold command from Jesus to love one another; today we come face to face with fact that we can’t.  And so that leaves us totally dependent on grace, love that flows from the cross.  Totally lost without the crucified Christ before us.  Today is good, because in the cross and death of Jesus, we have hope.  We have a Christ who hangs…on our brokenness.  Who lifts our sin and death onto himself.  We have a God who looks down from that holy cross of brokenness and sin…and declares—exactly what no one would ever expect – a triumph:  “It is finished.”  Those are the words of a victor that we have to proclaim today.  God has “finished” the sin and the brokenness of this world, even death itself.  God has finished, washed away, your shortcomings and denials and wrongful words and hurtful actions.  God has finished your running away.  According to the Gospel of John, this is Jesus’ finest hour, the hour of his glorification, the hour of his being lifted.  “It is finished!” In this cross is triumph.  In this tree, this ugly tree of death, is—exactly what no one would ever expect—LIFE!  

Tree of Life by Kristen Gilje
I don’t know about you, but I grew up imagining this day, Good Friday, as a funeral for Jesus, as if he had died all over again.      I often heard and repeated the saying, “We are Easter people in a Good Friday world.”  But I’ve learned that that kind of treatment of Good Friday only developed in the mid-late 20th century.  Thanks be to God for some recent discoveries of how the earliest Christians saw and honored this day:  It’s not a funeral!  This is a day to adore the cross, albeit a serious and contemplative time.  We can only sit in somber joy, and pray, and adore the cross, as though the cross is Christ himself.  

Be with the cross here this evening.  [pause]  Bask, linger, ponder, glory in the cross sisters and brothers in Christ!   Come to its foot.  Kiss the cross, bow down before the cross of Christ, ponder the final 3 words of Christ in the Gospel of John: IT IS FINISHED.  Sin is finished, death is finished, all the powers that draw us from God are finished.  AMEN? 

We are Easter people, yes.  But that means we’re Good Friday people too.  I wouldn’t say we’re Easter people in a Good Friday world anymore.  I would say, “We are Good Friday people in a Bad Friday world.”  [pause]  (Which mean’s ultimately then that we’re Easter people!)  Good Friday is good…because on this day Christ takes the whole sin of the world onto himself, lifting it from us, so that we might stand up straight and live anew.  Christ speaks to his mother and the beloved disciple, establishing a new relationship of love that crosses familial boundaries.  Even from the cross, Christ establishes a new law of love, where there are no boundaries to that love, no limits, even death itself cannot hold back this love divine.

On this day, on this cross, is the hope of this world, the salvation of our lives, and a love that has no end.  May we glory in the cross of Christ forever.  Thanks be to God.  AMEN.