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, May 31, 2015

May 31 -- Holy Trinity Sunday

“We did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but we have received a spirit of adoption.”  What does that mean on this Holy Trinity Sunday?  What does that mean on this day that we baptize little Gibson?  What does that mean on this day that we thank and praise our Sunday School teachers for their educating of our children in the stories of the faith and the faith itself?  What does that mean on this day that we continue to move into the summer months, as we continue to go about our daily routines, as we continue to live and breathe and do our best to be God’s faithful people?  “We did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but we have received a spirit of adoption.”

[I’d like to read to you hymn 412, and if you’d like to follow along.]

Hildegard of Bingen, early Christian mystic, described the Trinity as “sound and life”.  [pause]  That sound and life, this Holy Trinity, made space within it’s movement/dance for the emergence of the cosmos!

What I’m trying to illustrate here, and what this hymn illustrates much more poetically than I, is the beauty, the mystery, and the motion of the Trinity.  Often in seminary and in liturgical writing (which I love, but), often the Trinity is described as a formula...which makes me think of math...which makes me think of proofs and diagrams and concrete, numeric explanations.  But the truth is that the Trinity is beyond formula (even today in our technologically-advanced age).  The trinity chuckles lovingly, at our attempts to prove or disprove the Divine, like when a child says something cute at the dinner table.  No, the Trinity is a wonder and a mystery, “sound and life”, and here’s what it has to do with us:

We are reminded, and we celebrate today that the Trinity was there before us, and will be there long after us.  Remember that, whenever we invoke the Trinity at the beginning and the end of worship.  Father-Son+-Holy Spirit.  Creator-Christ+- Redeemer. Holy Parent-Holy Child+-Holy Spirit.  Mother-Brother+-Lover.  And that’s just English!  Whatever specific language you use, it comes up short, and we gather in the name of -- truth be told -- what-cannot-be-named; we go out into the world under the cover of that mysterious holy, holy, holy Three-in-one, One-in-three.

Isn’t that wonderful?  We are under the cover of an omnipresent God who is beyond time and space, and mysteriously in and through it too.  Bask in that on this Holy Trinity Sunday, bask in that on this day that we celebrate a baptism, where we celebrate that God has marked little Gibson forever.  God puts that mark on all us!  We’re all covered.

We spend, I spend, a lot of time talking about how close God is to you.  How the Holy Spirit is “as close to you as your next breath”.  Or my favorite quote comes from Micah, my 9-year-old a few years back at a children’s talk, when I asked the kids where God lives and he said, “God lives in our bones.”  Yes, we spend a lot of time talking about an immanent God.  A deeply enfleshed, deeply incarnated, deeply present Supreme Being.  Yes, how wonderful!  

But isn’t it wonderful, too, to celebrate and remembers God’s transcendence as well?  That is God’s reigning over all and through all.  Covering not just us, but the whole universe, all time, all space, from the very beginning, to the very, very end and beyond?  

Isn’t it wonderful that we can’t capture the Trinity fully, we can’t name the Trinity perfectly, like we can prove or diagram a math problem.  We can only stand in awe and praise  (Actually, we’re Lutherans, so we stand up and sit down and sing, too, in awe and praise.)

We did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear:  Living in God’s amazing grace means that we no longer are chained to our past.  We don’t deny our past and pretend nothing happened, but we don’t have to be bound to it.  We have received a spirit of adoption.  

I’ve had several friends go through an adoption process, after a long period of discernment -- perhaps not able to have biological children, or perhaps able to but feeling God’s very presence and call to journey together down the path adoption.  What a process!  I know some of you have had very close experiences with adoptions, too.  That is a long road these parents take together, and stay together: it takes years often to discern that adoption is the way to go, and then they stick with the process for years.  On more than one occasion, I’ve been so amazed with the tenacity, the patience, and the love that these parents exhibit, as they wait and work sometimes for years for that adoption to be finalized.  And sometimes I wonder if my friends’ adopted children will every know how much their parents went through to bring them home.  If they’ll ever know that patience, that tenacity, that togetherness, and that love.  (Probably not. But that’s ok.)  

“You have not received a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.”  The Holy Trinity -- our God, three-in-one, one-in-three--bestows on us not a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but a spirit of adoption.  God in this trinitarian dance, is that waiting and working and togetherness of adoptive parents.  God in this holy, holy, holy movement bestows on us love and peace, waiting and working with tenacity, patience and love over the whole cosmos and over us.  Will we every know what God went through to bring us home?  (We won’t.  But that’s ok.)
Today, and everyday, we can simply stand in awe and thanks:
“Thank you God for covering us.  Thank you God for adopting us.  Thank you God for all you went through to bring us home.  Thank you God for staying together, and bringing us together.”  

We don’t need to be afraid, chained like slaves to our desires and our anxieties and our pasts and our fears.  We didn’t receive that spirit.  God didn’t give us that spirit.  We received a different spirit: the spirit of adoption.  This God of grace, who is also named LOVE, who moves in our midst, as close to us as our cells, and yet reaching through the galaxies...this God of grace, this “sound and life”, is here.  And for all, and above all, and through all.  This God wraps around you, and brings you home.  You are home.  And you are unchained because of God’s grace and peace, this spirit of adoption.  So come: join the dance of Trinity!  AMEN.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

May 24 -- Pentecost Sunday

[sing “Bom-bo-le-la (Never Give Up)”]

There is a way in which we carry one another.

I love to tell the story behind this song:  It comes from South Africa during the time of Apartheid -- where European white people treated African black people as inferior...and separated and discriminated, and committed acts of violence and hatred against them with an oppressive governmental regime.  Liberty and justice was not for all.  And under those and many other circumstances the native people had to figure out how to survive.  They had to figure out how to feed their children, how to travel from place to place for work.  And many of them used the train.  But not a nice comfortable train -- they would often hang onto the back of freight trains -- for dear life, for work, for feeding their families and surviving.  And it was hard to hang on.  But the people would sing to each other as they hung onto the trains.  They would sing this song “Never give up,” and they would support one another, root for one another, intercede for one another...

There is a way in which we carry one another. 

This is Pentecost and our annual text from the book of Acts about the Holy Spirit rushing in and landing on the heads of those gathered is coupled with this reading from Romans 8, where the Holy Spirit comforts and carries the faithful.  Like a song at the back of the train.

The Holy Spirit is always wrapped up in community.  [slowly]  In people gathering together to hold one another, to carry one another, to love one another.  [pause]

We were at Margaret Blake’s funeral a few weeks ago.  Margaret was our preschool director Mr. Ron’s mother.  And it was an emotional service for him and for those closest to him, as anyone would imagine.  

But I was doing OK.  I didn’t know her like others did.  We wanted to be there for Mr. Ron.  And for the community there at Gethsemane Lutheran.  And we brought our kids too. 

You can judge me if you like, but Heather and I feel like children at a funeral is very appropriate and even good.  We think it’s good for them, as they observe and even experience a part of life that is both real and beautiful, albeit very sorrowful.  We also think it’s good for children to be present as a source of comfort and even hope -- certainly peace and joy -- amid those who are grieving.  But it was 1pm on a Sunday, our kids are a little restless (lunch was to be served after, so tummies were rumbling a bit).  And I was sitting next to Micah, who’s bouncing and distracted, trying to sit still, but struggling.  And I looked at him and said -- not brusquely but directly -- I said, “Micah, I want you to sing.”  (We were singing songs that he know, “Beautiful Savior”, “How Great thou Art”) “Why?” he asked me, not disrespectfully, but sincerely and curiously.  “Because sometimes, in times like, the people who really want to sing, can’t sing because they’re too sad and they can’t get the words out...but we can, and they need us right now to hold them with our singing.  Does that make sense?”  And then I hear his little high-pitched voice.  “O Lord My God, when I in awesome wonder, consider all the works thy hands hath made...”  There is a way in which we carry one another.  

Sisters and brothers in Christ, the Holy Spirit is multifaceted.  God’s is a Spirit of both restlessness and gentleness, as we sang together earlier.  It is a spirit of both peace and a spirit of agitation.  It is a spirit of challenge, and a spirit of comfort.  When we are doing well, comfortable, posh, peaceful, relaxed and even bordering on lazy -- the Holy Spirit breaks in and disrupts our quiet little worlds.  The rush of a violent wind.  “Get out there!  Be my disciples!  Take a risk, for God’s sake.  Stop worrying only about yourselves, and get to work, in my name!”  The Holy Spirit urges us gathered in this room, not just those gather in the room long ago.  

And...infused this year with the words of Paul’s letter to the Romans, we are reminded too that the Holy Spirit -- when we are down, when we are grieving, when we are struggling to survive, when we are not at peace, when we are barely hanging on -- the Holy Spirit moves among us, and comforts us, carries us.

Paul says, “the Spirit helps us in our weakness” and “intercedes with sighs too deep for words”.  Intercedes is such a powerful word: it means literally “go between”.  [slowly] The Spirit “goes between, among, before, through” us with sighs too deep for words.  The Spirit is in the space between us.

Have you ever been there, at either end of this Spirit work/ Spirit movement?  Sometimes we don’t know what words to say to someone in tragedy or in grief?  Any words we could come up with just seem empty or futile, even while we mean well.  But something tells us just to give them a hug or place a hand on their shoulder, so that they know that we’re present.  

Other times we’re the recipient of that...[pause]  

All those moments -- the receiving of a hand on the shoulder or a hug or a card or a call -- all those moments: illustrations, glimpses of the truth of our Gospel message this day and every day...that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, not death, not life, not angels, not rulers, not things present, not things to come, not powers, not height, not depth, not anything else in all creation.  This love of God -- this agape -- carries us, and is offered to us freely this day, and everyday. 

We’ve got lots to remember this Memorial Day weekend.  Let’s remember this truth above all:  the love of God in Christ Jesus is upon us, and among us, and will never leave us...for the Holy Spirit has been unleashed.  Thanks be to God.  AMEN.  

Memorial Day prayers
Eternal God, we give thanks for all those who have shown the greatest love by laying down their lives for others. We especially thank you for those in our military throughout history who have sacrificed their lives for their fellow citizens and for us who came after. As we remember their service, keep us mindful of all those for whom this day is a burden, and send your spirit of comfort to them. Be present with all the women and men who are serving in the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, and Coast Guard today, as they perform the duties of their calling. Give them not only true love of country but also love of you and an understanding of your love for all people; so that, relying upon your guidance, they may courageously defend our nation from every foe, promote justice, honor, and unity among our people, and be a means of fostering mutual respect and understanding among all peoples of the world. LIYM. HoP.

Lord of all the worlds, guide this nation by your Spirit, on this Pentecost Sunday, to go forward in justice and freedom. Give to all our people the blessings of well-being and harmony, but above all things give us faith in you, that our nation may bring glory to your name and blessings to all peoples. LIYM. HoP.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

May 17 -- Seventh Sunday of Easter

My brother Tim -- or as my kids refer to him (at his request) “Uncle Awesome” -- got married in Ireland in 2009.  And it was a truly joyous occasion as all of us travelled over “the pond”, first time to Ireland, to witness and celebrate this beautiful event, tucked away in the northernmost tip of the Republic.  It was a whole week of festivities.  And Tim and Caitriona have friends from all over the world, so it was like the United Nations...with Guiness.  And speaking of beer, I’m not sure if it’s the Irish tradition or just a tradition with Tim and his friends, but when they go out, they make it a big event, and people are having lots of fun.  What I noticed is that no one ever just went up to the bar for themselves, they always checked with everyone in the group, sometimes as many as 20 people, if anyone needed a refill.  Which meant -- and I swear I’ll tie this into our text -- it meant, the Guinness was flowing all night.  It got a little wild, it was friends and family reuniting, it was so much fun.  And now that I’ve set the scene, and told you a little about the etiquette and the atmosphere, I want to tell you about one of Tim’s friends: Gareth.   

Gareth is a passionate, little Irishman from the south, with a spouse and 2 young children, I believe.  They were friends from Trinity in Dublin, where Tim got into this whole mess in the first place.  And here’s all I wanted to tell you about Gareth:  He participated in this buying massive rounds business, just like the rest of us (you can tell I was a little begrudging or at least shocked by this extravagant and expensive custom), but I’ll never forget when Gareth received a pint from someone’s trip to the bar:  It was set graciously before him by the server, [demonstrate/describe].  He was so happy, and grateful.  

I thought of a few images of people in my life being so excited and grateful:  I thought of Katie, when she came home from preschool that afternoon 2 years ago, to meet our new dog Chloe for the first time -- squealing and jumping up and down with glee.  On the other end of the age spectrum, my Grandpa Roschke, my dad’s dad, was a happy, goofy, elated man, and when he received his doctorate, the afternoon after he presented his dissertation and defense and was approved, the family tells a funny story about how he went whistling all the way down Michigan Avenue in Chicago.  But these are great one-time experiences, momentous occasions, that beg a delightful response.

Lots of great stories like that -- maybe you have some too --  but I kept coming back to Gareth -- in this typical Irish pub, with pints of Guinness practically rolling out on a conveyer belt for all the friends and family -- because there was nothing one-time about this experience.  [pause]

There is a certain passion that comes with the Apostle Paul, when he talks about God and God’s grace:

“What then are we to say?  Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?  By no means!  (Hell no!)  How can we who died to sin go on living in it?  Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that just as as Christ was raised from the dead, so we too might walk in newness of life.”  [Gareth’s gesture] Yes!

Another round: “We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.  The death he died, he died to sin, once for all...so you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” [Gareth’s gesture] Yes!

Another round!  “Therefore present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life...for sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under the law but under grace.”  [Gareth’s gesture] Yes!

We Lutherans, we baptized followers of Jesus, can be a little like French people in their restaurants in Paris...

Heather and I didn’t actually go into any restaurants in Paris -- too pricey for us -- but I did peek into a couple, long enough to notice -- not only the menu but also -- the people inside.  And like nice restaurants anywhere, they’re just sitting there amid all the elegance, quietly eating and talking.  Heather and I, for a few of our dinners, went to a local gourmet food shop, where they sell this amazing French cuisine that you point to what you want, and they put it in plastic to-go containers.  Doesn’t sound all that exotic, but we’d take this stuff back to our apartment, heat it up just a little...and was so glad that I wasn’t in a restaurant eating it...because I actually had to scream, it was so good.  I think I actually fell out of my chair onto the kitchen floor.  And these people eat this stuff all the time!  [Gareth’s gesture]

Sometimes we church-folk can be a little nonchalant about this Good News.  [droning] “So you must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God...Just as Jesus was raised from the dead, so we too might walk in newness of life.” = “Oh, thanks for pint.  Guess I gotta buy the next round, huh.” 

I’m not saying we have to come out of our skin here.  We are more like French people in a fancy, French restaurant, politely talking, quietly worshiping, reserved and cool, friendly with each other.  We’re not Pentecostals like Gareth (and me screaming on the kitchen floor in Paris).

But let’s not let our external civility reflect our internal response and joy at hearing, drinking in and tasting this Good News of God.

I was at a big preaching conference this week in Denver.  You would have loved it: Sermon, lecture, sermon, lecture, sermon, lecture, sermon, lecture.  Lunch...  And one of our presenters talked about the great call-and-response we say over and over during this Easter season -- “Christ is risen, he is risen indeed.  Alleluia.”  And he was just wondering if we’ve domesticated the resurrection of Jesus a bit with that...like that’s the extent that we celebrate Easter.  We say that.  But do we believe it, and even more, do we believe what it means for us?  It means that because he was raised from the dead, we are too...and not just after we die, but even now.

Because Christ was raised, we are raised.  Because Christ lives anew, we live anew, starting now, this day.  Because Christ comes through suffering, we come through our suffering.  Because Christ forgives us, we forgive one another.  Because Christ loves this whole world, we love this whole world.  Because Christ greets us with “Peace be with you”, we greet each other with “Peace be with you”.  

We’ve got everything we need right here!  It’s really quite profound, the most profound, and we might take that in like the French quietly enjoy an exquisite meal, but it’s real, friends in Christ; it’s delicious.

[pause]  I was  with our kids up at Luther Glen yesterday for their Work Day, getting the camp ready for summer, and I was talking to a lay member from San Marcos Lutheran, and he was asking about what I was preaching on today, and I told him about this text.  He knew it right away.  “Oh,” he said, “Romans 6 is what I hope they read at my funeral.”  It was the equivalent to Gareth’s exuberance. 

[Matisse painting, Le Danse]

Let this good word of God’s love today move you, shake you from lethargy, hold you in your pain, comfort you in your despair, connect you with one another, this community of faith, and finally propel you into the world.  Shall we just go on living in sin?  Hell no.  That’s ridiculous.  When we come in contact with God’s grace, when we get splashed with the baptismal waters, we are thrown back into the world, joyfully, to serve and love.  We can’t help ourselves.  

It’s like Gareth, when his turn came to buy the round, there wasn’t an ounce of bitterness or begrudging or shock.  There was only joy and gratitude.  May it be so.  In Jesus’ name.  AMEN.  

Sunday, May 10, 2015

May 10 -- Sixth Sunday of Easter (Mothers' Day)

I want tell you about the greatest mother I met on our recent trip to Belgium:  

We travelled using Air B&B, and at the risk of sounding like a commercial for them, we loved it.  Air B&B is an online company that lets anyone become a host, if they have a spare room, a spare bed, a spare couch, even.  Everything is up front, you read reviews of hosts, and it makes traveling, especially in Europe, affordable -- $40, $50/night.  We had never used Air B&B but had hear good things, so I booked all our lodging before we left, which was fun to do.  Most of the people we stayed with were younger couples.  But when I was looking at where to stay in Bruges, Belgium, I saw this picture of a woman who looked like Margaret Sunde.  She was happily holding a baby, undoubtedly a grand-baby, in her profile picture, and the accommodations looked just right too: simple bed, a sink.   Her name was Jacqueline, and she had literally hundreds of reviews.  I got tired of scrolling through them and reading all the great things about this woman, so I just booked it, paid for 3 nights up front, and my lodging work for Bruges was finished.  

Fast forward to our arrival.  We got to Bruges (and everywhere, for that matter) by train.  We had been staying in Ghent the night before, and we almost missed our bus to the train, because we were having so much fun in Ghent.  But we made it, and like all our stays, we planned to walk from the train station to our lodging.  Bruges and its cobblestone streets were no exception to earlier experiences:  I had a little backpack, and Heather had a medium rolling suitcase.  We laughed, taking turns pulling her suitcase on cobblestone.  [clank, clank, clank]  (Bruges, unlike some other cities we had visited, seemed used to that.)  Our directions were just pictures of maps that I had taken on my phone. 

We’re making our way, and finally we arrive at wonderful Jacqueline’s house.  Immediately we realize, this is much more like a real B&B, not just someone’s house.  We had been texting with her to coordinate on our arrival time, and so Jacqueline was there to welcome us at the door.  

She still looked a little like Margaret to me, but people never look quite like their profile pics.  She was older and more frail, in body, than I had imagined.  Still, she was very kind and energetic.    

I’ll never forget when she invited us to follow her upstairs where our room was, on the third floor: she grabbed Heather’s suitcase to carry it for her.  She was too fast for me to insist, “I got that, Jacqueline.”  I said that anyway, and she said, “No, no, I have to do this, it keeps me healthy.”  She shows us our quarters.  Just like the picture: bed, sink, little hanging closet, shower and toilet downstairs, and the dining room.  It was just right for us.  “Now, do you take coffee or tea?” was one of her first and only questions.  I take coffee, Heather takes tea.  Then we notice on the wall a map of the world, with pins, different colors and from all over the world.  These were all her guests from over the 20+ years.  We chit-chat just for a second, and find out she’s born and raised in Bruges, a teacher as well as a grandma.  And she speaks about 5 different languages.  But she’s not one to slow us down.  “There’s still daylight,” she says, and points us to a tourist map for our convenience.  She makes sure there’s nothing else we need, and disappears.  Very kind, very efficient and energetic, very open obviously to all kinds of guests.  Once again: a glimpse of God.  

“Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”  What does our passage from Romans have to do with my travel stories and this wonderfully hospitable Belgian mama, on Mother’s Day?  Nothing -- I just wanted to tell you a story :)
No, I think Jacqueline gives us a glimpse of God, who pours out love and care, in simple but efficient ways:  hospitality and energy, a readiness to serve, but also to send you out.  Jacqueline was eager for us to see her city.  One more thing: wi-fi password.  Doh, I forgot to ask her, and she had just left!  So I text her, no big deal.  About 6 minutes later we hear the door open downstairs and the quick footsteps echoing all the way up to our room.  Our door was still open, and she sticks her head in, smiles, pulls our door shut, just enough to reveal a huge sign with our wi-fi name and password.  No words, no shaming, just a smile, and she runs out again.  

Jacqueline made it evident that if there was anything we needed, she’d be right there to attend to it.  I wasn’t really thinking about God, at the moment, we were experiencing all this.  I remember we just kept saying, “Man, she’s got hosting down to a science.”  But now, just a month later, we get that great part of the trip to reflect back.  To theologize.

Where have you experienced a glimpse of God, through a person who was there for you?  Who has poured out grace for you?  Great question to ask on Mother’s Day.  (And we should simply name and remember, that it may not be a mother.  For many, Mother’s Day is a hard day -- for any number of reasons.)  But who is it then, for you, who offers you a glimpse of God’s love?  In other words, where have you experienced true motherly love, if not from your own mother?  Our God has just as many motherly attributes as fatherly.  

And Paul gives us descriptions of that in this passage to the Romans: a God who pours love into our hearts.  A God who makes sacrifices for us.  [pause] Katie, God bless her, in her Mother’s Day card from school, talked about all the things her mommy does that she loves and is thankful for -- and they all had to do with sacrifices, really.  Our God takes care of those everyday needs -- snacks and naps and wi-fi pass codes.

“I’m here if you need anything,” God says to us, too.  And this God is willing to lug our baggage, before we can even pick it up ourselves.  “Nope, nope, I have to do this.”  

Suddenly, it’s hard to tell if I’m quoting Jacqueline or God...
“And you are welcome here.  But there’s a great city to see too.  I’ll get out of your way.  Please.  Come and go, as you like.  Explore, venture into new places, here’s a map.  I’ll have coffee for you in the morning.  Let me know if there’s anything you need.”  Suddenly, it’s hard to tell if I’m quoting Jacqueline or God...

And all this activity, all this “hosting” that God offers us...ultimately grants us peace.  To know that God’s got it.  To know that if there’s anything we need...  To know that many others have come and gone from this place, and God’s been able to speak their language too.  To know that we have a world to explore, and to care for, and to connect with...

Paul’s passage talks about suffering.  When we go out on the streets, we’re not guaranteed a life free of pain.  Following Jesus does not make all our sorrows go away in this life.  But suffering produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.  If you travel, as many of you have, you know some things can go wrong (those are stories for another sermon :), but in the end, we have hope.  And ultimately, ultimately we have peace.  

Here’s one difference:  With Jacqueline we paid a little bit; with God, it’s free. 

We walk, not alone: God goes with us, sisters and brothers in Christ.  God is with us on our journeys.  Always there, even and especially in our suffering.  And that same God forgives us, reconciles us, and frees us to keep on going, until at last we come back home.   Thanks be to God.  AMEN.  

Sunday, May 3, 2015

May 3 -- Fifth Sunday of Easter

To all God’s beloved in La Mesa-Spring Valley-Mt. Helix-El Cajon, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul’s letter to Romans might just as well be a letter to us too.  What a great template he gives us for addressing and encouraging one another in and through the faith.  

He starts with the grace and peace greeting, and then he always addresses his communities with, “I thank God for you.”  In some letters (Ephesians and Philippians), he says, “I thank God every time I think of you.”  And then, he basically says, “I miss you.”  Even those he’s never met.  Remember, Paul is writing this from the busy metropolis of Corinth, most likely, which is in Greece, a long way, especially in those days, from Rome.  He’s not yet been to Rome, but he misses the faithful there anyway.  

...Because, when and if they can be together, they will be stronger in the gospel, Paul is certain.  He says, “I am longing to see you so that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you” -- and then he corrects himself -- “or rather so that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.”  Faith is greater when we do it together.  What a powerful template Paul gives us!  

Pastor and author Lillian Daniel writes in her book When “Spiritual but Not Religious” Isn’t Enough that “Being privately spiritual but not religious doesn’t interest me.  There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself.  What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or, heaven forbid, disagree with you.  Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition you did not invent all for yourself.”  
Faith is greater when we do it together.  Paul is longing to share in the faith, and so, whether he meant to or not, he’s teaching us (by example) to long for it too.  In other words, doing church.  That’s what we Jesus-followers get to do when we get together.  We get to do church.  One of my great, dearly departed mentors, Fred Danker, was fond of saying: “God did the work; now we get to do church.” [pause]

There’s nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself -- we like Paul have to correct ourselves -- rather let’s have deep thoughts together, for the purpose of encouraging and strengthening each other in and through Christ...for the sake of the world.  

So often in our world, in our culture, during our week, we put forward our knowledge in order to out-do each other, to “one-up” each other.  Have you ever shared a story or some knowledge only to have someone go after you and say, “That’s nothing.  Listen to this...”?  Have you known any one-uppers?  Are you a one-upper sometimes?   I think we can all do it, and not always with bad intentions.  But, this usually doesn’t build-up one another up, it tears others down, so that the individual looks better -- and that’s nothing new.  It’s been going on for thousands of years.  It’s verbal natural selection, where the strong survive.  

But Paul is inviting these early Christian communities and us into something different -- into doing church, frankly.  Where we encourage one another in and through the faith. 

So, I want to talk about in and through the faith, when we talk about encouraging one another in the faith, I think it’s easy to assume we’re talking about human faith -- your faith, my faith, when we talk about encouraging in the faith, we point to the great people of faith, the saints, maybe your great Grandma, who never missed a day of church in her life...

And these are all good things, but...Paul does something very important here at the beginning of his letter to the Romans:  He says that in the gospel, “the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith.”  That is, it is through God’s faith, God’s faithfulness that we are here in this place.  So when we encourage one another in the faith, through the faith, its not just trying to be as faithful and holy as Grandma, but even more to live and work and serve and rest assured in the faithfulness of God.  God does the faith (ultimately); we just get to do church. 

When Paul talks about encouraging and lifting one another up in the faith, he’s talking about remembering that God is the faithful one.  We all loose faith at one time or another, but God is faithful to God’s promises, and that faithfulness becomes enfleshed in Jesus Christ.  (That’s the 1 time one-upping actually builds us all up!)

What does this mean for us?  We are saved by God’s grace, God’s action.  Old Fred was right, God does the work, we just get to do church.  And that means we get to be together.  You can’t do church alone (many have tried...and are trying right now).  You can’t sit around and have deep thoughts all by yourself...and meet that need.  There is something that happens when God’s people come together.  

And everyone should find a community of faith.  Doesn’t have to be this one.  But this one is where most of us choose to do church, right?  And when you’re away from it, you miss it.  At least, I do, mostly in ways that I can’t describe.  Heather and I were gone for 2 weeks traveling, and when I came back home, last Sunday, to my worshiping community, I realized that I missed this place...mostly in ways I can’t describe.  It’s because this is our worshipping community, this is where we do church.

I believe humans are actually wired to do church, to worship-God-in-community.  But so many haven’t figured that out, or they feel the church has wronged them, and they’ve never looked back, or church has never been offered to them.  But it’s amazing how hungry people are for the gospel, and for that sense of belonging and that word of forgiveness and grace.  Everyone’s a drifter these days, non-committal, always waiting for a better option, and quick to jump ship as soon as it comes.     

But Paul says, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel [I’m not jumping ship]; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith.”  There is this sense in which our drifting, our bouncing from one thing to the next -- it’s like we have faith A.D.D. (faith attention deficit disorder) -- we humans there days will go to whatever looks newer and flashier.  It’s as if we’re ashamed of the Gospel that we have right here before us.  We are called to remain faithful, to not be ashamed of the gospel.  Pick a worshipping community and stay there.  I’ll save you the suspense: it won’t be a perfect place; but you’ll make it better.  Be the church where you are;  and let us continue to be the church here, on the corner of Avocado and Fury!

Paul calls us back, as he calls himself back, as he calls the Christians-in-Rome-who-he’s-never-met back.  We are called to be saints.  Don’t be ashamed of what we have here: a Gospel that will save your life, a God who is faithful (always has been, always will be)...and a community where we have the opportunity to nurture and care for each other, to challenge and hold one another accountable, and ultimately where we come together to give humble praise to the One who does the real work -- God in Christ Jesus.  We have a lot to celebrate.  We continue that now, encouraging one another, building one anther up, and always always giving praise and glory to God.  That same God in Christ is with us now.  And goes with us into the days that are before us...AMEN.