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, June 28, 2015

June 28 -- Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

I was up at Confirmation Camp this week with two of our confirmads -- Sam Grube and Malcolm Collins.  

And let me tell you: there is so much life up there!  In the midst of the violence and anger in our news, in our world, in the midst of fear and chaos, there was a group of almost 100 children, youth, young adult counselors, pastors, youth directors who gathered together in God’s creation to connect, to hear each day the Good News of God’s love for them, to sing and play.  And then the last Bible Study concludes with a chance to write affirmations, and each child goes home with a page of 20 compliments to carry them back into the world.  Memories were made, new friends are now connected across our synod (and even up into the Sierra Pacific synod).  Kids were getting an idea of our church beyond just this church.

And we have got some wonderful kids.  And I’m not just talking about our kids -- Sam and Malcolm -- who are awesome.  All those kids up there at camp this week are our kids.  Their intelligence and love for this world is extraordinary.  They’re not just the future of the church -- someone said that saying that (and not recognizing their worth right now) is a sign of a dying church.  No, these kids are the church right now.  

I was part of the Bible Studies each day, and a number of times, the kids talked about how glad they were that we are a welcoming church.  Lots of them have friends who are gay or lesbian.  And one camper talked about how her gay friends are shocked when she invites them to church and to youth group.  

“But I’m gay,” the shocked teenager responds.  “I’m like, not allowed in church, I thought.”
“No, you’re welcome at my church!” our kids say excitedly, “Everyone’s welcome at our church.  God loves us just the way we are, and God invites us all to be a part of this family.”  [high-fiving each other]  Our kids in our churches are teaching us, now.  Our kids in our churches are offering prayers of thanks and praise, now.  Our kids in our churches are sharing the gospel, offering their creativity and life, now...not just in the future.  Our kids are offering us and modeling forgiveness, now.  If the kids in are churches are nothing more than a stock pile in the corner for when we run out of people later, then I think we’re in danger of “squandering God’s grace” to use a concept from last week’s reading from 2 Corinthians.  We are so blessed, and I know you don’t always see tons of kids here at SVLC, but I want you to know that there are youth in church, that we are connected to a much wider family.  That a few of our kids experienced that in a deep way this week.  And there’s plenty of room for more.  

Remember when we sang that song every Sunday last summer?  “Mine is the church, where everybody’s welcome.  I know it’s true, cause I got through the door.  We are a dazzling bouquet of every kind of flower.  Jump in the vase, cause we’ve got space for more.”   Remember that?  Our kids embody that.  They celebrated differences this week and they celebrated the unity that we have amid our diversity.  The unity we have in Christ Jesus.

That’s what the Apostle Paul’s always after -- celebrating our unity amid our diversity.  And this week’s section of his second letter to the Corinthians, is calling them to step up and support that.  Step up and support even the wider church you can’t always see.  “Now as you excel in everything -- in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you -- so we want you to excel in this generous undertaking.”

Paul gets a little gutsy this week and asks people to put their money where their hearts already are.  

Bishop Mike Rinehart, of one our synods in Texas says, “I find it funny that whenever God touches our hearts, he always touches our wallets.”  There is a connection with grace and generosity.  Paul’s pointing that out, and inviting people to take this reconciliation that God offers through Christ to the next level -- not just to supporting things and people that they can see, but the wider church, the church back in Jerusalem.  This text is about giving money to the wider congregation, those struggling in other parts of the world.  And Paul doesn’t shy away from asking even those who don’t have much money.  Everyone can give something.  And many times the poor are the most generous, which is inspiring.  It’s not because they’re stupid or careless with their money, it’s because God has touched their hearts in such a profound way, they understand their final dependance on God, and they can’t help themselves and share. 

We’re talking about money here, Paul’s talking about money.  I don’t like to shy away from that, and say, “Oh, if you can’t or don’t want to give money, then you can give something else -- time or talents.  No, money’s important -- it’s your treasure.  We’re invited to reach into our pockets, like Paul invites the Corinthians -- put your treasure where your heart already is.  I know that this congregation has a heart for children.  Let’s support youth in our church, around our church!  (Congregations with no kids supporting other youth programs, like First and Oromo.)

Paul is not afraid to be bold about talking money.  Let’s not apologize for it either.  God asks us to share what we have.  That’s what it’s about.  Share what we have so that everybody has enough.  Some people say, “Oh, that’s socialism.”  No, it’s enough-ism.  Why do some have more than enough, and others don’t have enough?  That’s simply not how God intended us to be.  Paul calls on the congregations to share.  It’s what it means to be the church.  Some people complain, the church is always talking about giving money.  “Yes, that’s what it means to be church.  It’s taking the welcoming church that we are...to the next level: being a generous church.”  And, at the risk of patting ourselves on the back too much, we do that here in so many ways:  We give to T.A.C.O. $12,000/year, we give to Common Ground, we give to Agape House -- campus ministry (won the Golden Ladle, in fact, with our generosity), we give to our synod (Bishop about Jenny -- first check of every month), and we give to LRCC, our camps.  We are a generous church, you are generous members of the body of Christ.  And I believe God celebrates our generosity, and continues to invite us to participate.  If everyone gives what they can, that’s what it means to be church.   “Jump in the vase, cause we’ve got space for more.”  Children and youth want to be a part of this too.  

A welcoming church is also a generous church.  And where there is generosity, the Spirit is alive and moving.  Contrast that with a congregation that’s afraid, and therefore not welcoming, because of who might get in.  Generosity would be very calculated and limited there, very restricted and designated.  It’s not the picture that our youth were painting and experiencing this week at camp.  

God calls us into freedom and joy, this week again.  God invites us and everyone into lives of generosity and welcome.  Paul affirms our generosity and encourages our continued participation.  “You who began with your commitment last year, keep it up!”  That’s what Paul says in this reading, which seems appropriate as so many of us made our pledges to the capital campaign last year!   

Sisters and brothers in Christ, we continue -- led by the youth -- to walk in this way, to throw our doors and our arms wide open, to revel in the grace that is ours, and to live lives of generosity in all that we say and do from Sunday-Saturday.  And we live all this in the name of Christ, whose faithfulness is great, who models this amazing generosity, who emptied himself so that we might be rich in grace and love, who walks with us, who comforts and forgives us, and who gives us strength for this day and always.  AMEN.     

Sunday, June 21, 2015

June 21 -- Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Did you follow that letter from Paul?  Those words can sometimes go in one ear and out the other, so I’m going to share Eugene Peterson’s translation, which is slightly more contemporary language, as he tries to get at the heart of what the biblical text is really saying... 

Staying at Our Post
6:1 Companions as we are in this work with you, we beg you, please don’t squander one bit of this marvelous life God has given us. 6:2 God reminds us, I heard your call in the nick of time; The day you needed me, I was there to help. 6:3 Don’t put it off; don’t frustrate God’s work by showing up late, throwing a question mark over everything we’re doing. 6:4 Our work as God’s servants gets validated-or not-in the details. People are watching us as we stay at our post, alertly, unswervingly . . . in hard times, tough times, bad times; 6:5 when we’re beaten up, jailed, and mobbed; working hard, working late, working without eating; 6:6 with pure heart, clear head, steady hand; in gentleness, holiness, and honest love; 6:7 when we’re telling the truth, and when God’s showing his power; when we’re doing our best setting things right; 6:8 when we’re praised, and when we’re blamed; slandered, and honored; true to our word, though distrusted; 6:9 ignored by the world, but recognized by God; terrifically alive, though rumored to be dead; beaten within an inch of our lives, but refusing to die; 6:10 immersed in tears, yet always filled with deep joy; living on handouts, yet enriching many; having nothing, having it all.
6:11 Dear, dear Corinthians, I can’t tell you how much I long for you to enter this wide-open, spacious life. 6:12 We didn’t fence you in. The smallness you feel comes from within you. Your lives aren’t small, but you’re living them in a small way. 6:13 I’m speaking as plainly as I can and with great affection. Open up your lives. Live openly and expansively!

Perhaps there’s no better time to hear that from Paul than this week, after the violence in South Carolina.  (And of course that’s not the only place where violence and terror occurs.)  

Can we remain in scripture when tragedy strikes, when controversy and politics overwhelms our news waves?  Can we stay faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, even and especially when it seems that the world is spiraling into hopelessness?  I mean, the shooter was a member of an ELCA congregation!  He was praying in the church before he committed this act of terrifying violence!  When Lutherans are killing other Christians (as they have in other parts of history too), is it tempting to want to throw in the towel on this whole church-God-hope-resurrection thing?  Or can we still heed Paul’s powerful words: “Open up your lives, open up your hearts.  Live expansively and openly.”  Everything in me this week is crying out shut down, not open up.  I’ve been literally sick to my stomach.  Headache pounding.  Watching the news, hearing about all the racism in our nation that’s gone once again -- as our presiding bishop imaged it -- from “simmering” just beneath the surface to “boiling over into violence.”

AP PHOTO: Worshippers embrace following a group prayer across the street from
the scene of a shooting at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, June 17, 2015.
Don’t squander God’s grace, Paul reminds us.  You know that grace is offered to us freely even when racism is boiling over into violence, right?!  That’s not pie-in-the-sky, that’s deeply enfleshed, incarnated love even and especially here and now.  Grace is still here...but it’s not a possession.  (“gift”? of grace) It’s something that we steward.  Don’t squander it, Paul says.  Just as we steward money, time -- How shall we steward God’s grace, especially in the midst of what’s happening all around us?     Spend some time this week thinking and praying about how you might steward God’s grace.  Stewarding -- whether we’re talking about money, time, talents or grace -- always  seems to have something to do with sharing.

We’ve got to figure out how to talk about racism -- our own racism, our own prejudices and fears.  I think we all have them, if we’re honest.  I think we have to come to terms with the anger and the hatred that can reside in our own hearts, even if we’re not pulling triggers at people who are different.  The demonic isn’t a single person, upon whom we can heap evil.  The demonic can take up residence in any one of our hearts, and cause us to shut down, to turn inward (as Luther said).  

“Open your heart” is a counter to that.  Maybe we call it “gracism” -- this open heart, open lives business.  Gracism confronts and overcomes racism, and the many other sins of our world, not through our own doing, but only with God.  Hope confronts and overcomes despair.  Courage confronts and overcomes fear and hatred.  Paul invites us, Jesus invites us to have courage.  “Do not fear, peace be still, know that God is God.”

But you know what gets in the way of trusting all that...hope overcoming despair, life overcoming death?  Our hardships.  The pain in our own lives, the losses, the tragedies, the sicknesses, the fears.  They stand in the way of trusting God’s goodness.

Paul lists his hardships too, to let us know that we’re not alone.  Scholars refer to these long lists that Paul gives (imprisonments, beatings, shipwrecks, general anxiety) as his “hardship catalogue”.  What’s in my/your hardship catalogue?  Troubles at home, troubles at work, troubles in your extended family, or with your children, or with your health?  If you had to catalogue your hardships, how long would your list be?  

And it gets in the way of trusting God’s goodness.  Our hardships can certainly help us squander God’s grace.

“Why do bad things happen to good people?” is still a question we ask.  It’s kind of the question, isn’t it?  We’re asking it this week.  We ask it when our loved one gets a terrible diagnosis.  Why God?  Why do bad things happen to good people?  

But it was pointed out to me recently, while studying this text, that “WDBTHTGP” is our question.  It was never Paul’s.  

For Paul, challenges, tragedies, terrors, all the hardships we face and try to endure are occasions to trust in the “one who gives me strength” (Phil. 4:13).  Pain and sorrow in our lives and in our world are times for us to rehearse what we say and sing and confess Sunday after Sunday.  That’s why, I think we have to keep “practicing, rehearsing” Sunday after Sunday.  Can we cling to God’s amazing grace even in the most horrific of circumstances, and even with our hardship catalogues?

Because God’s amazing grace clings to us, sisters and brothers in Christ.  It’s still here.  Offered freely.  Even as we grieve.  Even as we don’t quite know how to pray in the face of these tragedies.  The Lord of all hopefulness isn’t going anywhere.  

Author/pastor/spiritual mentor Henri Nowen talks about a near death experience he had -- a car accident, where the doctor told him that he was quickly dying due to internal bleeding.  He didn’t think it was that bad, but suddenly he had to come to terms with what we all will one day face:  And he writes this: [p. 108, Spiritual Formation]

Let us pray:  In the face of death and sin all around us, even within us, give us open hearts, open lives.  Give us hope. AMEN.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

June 14 -- Third Sunday after Pentecost

It’s hard to believe, because I still feel like I just got out of seminary, but it’s been almost 10 years that I’ve been a pastor.  I’ll celebrate my 9th year of ordained ministry this July, and 7 of those years have been here at SVLC!  

And already, I’ve been with more people than I can count, at the bedside during the season of death, people from the church and from outside of the church.  During those final days, as they speak their final words and draw their last few breaths of air on this earth.

Despite the painfulness and sorrow of those situations, it’s always such a privilege to be present in those moments.  There can certainly be a peacefulness at the time of death, although, not always.  Sometimes death comes way too soon.  

(Some good church research tells us that one of the greatest stressors on an entire congregation -- burying a child.  Not just family and pastor and those closest -- but for the whole congregation feels that pain so deeply.  Because that’s where death comes way too soon, and everyone feels completely powerless to stop it.)

Death isn’t always peaceful and idyllic.  And some really fight death -- perhaps the one dying, perhaps those who love the one dying.  Many are terrified of it, even to talk about it.  

I’m thinking today about death because Paul talks about death a lot in his writing.  And Paul had many close calls with death; he certainly knew suffering.  Paul wasn’t the guy to try to outdo with your stories of suffering.  Paul knew pain and loss in his life -- just one example, Chapter 11: “Five times I have received from the Jews forty lashings minus one.  Three times I was beaten with rods.  Once I received a stoning.  Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked.  And besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches.”  He doesn’t even talk about loss in his life.  

But it adds a little meat to the bone when Paul writes these passages about death, when he writes, “For the love of Christ urges us on.”  And, “Because Christ died for all, we don’t have to live for ourselves anymore.” And, “Whether we live or whether we die, we belong to the Lord.”  

And, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see everything has become new.”  

As we think about death today -- and I want you to, if you don’t already -- not to be morbid, but as a way of getting at thinking about the things in life that are most important.  If you were to die tomorrow, what’s most important?  Paul “went there” all the time.  As we think about death today, remember Paul’s words -- that in Christ we are a new creation, even now.  “A new creation” is probably the last thing we look like as we’re dying.  Maybe it’s the last thing we look like even right now: “Nothing new here!”  Right?  

But, sisters and brother in Christ, we walk by faith, not by sight.  “We have confidence,” Paul says.  Confidence in the renewal that God has for us.  And that starts even now, even today.  
In our confession and forgiveness at the beginning, we gathered around those words, it’s not just something for the end of our earthly life:  “If anyone is in Christ there is a new creation:  everything old has passed away; everything has become new!  In Christ, + you are a new creation: your sins are taken away and you are made new.”  We have confidence -- faith -- that this is true.  

You are a new creation.  Not just after you die.  But right now.  So start living life as if it’s not your life in the first place.  We belong to the Lord!  We are in Christ.  

So if it’s living more healthy, exercising more, eating better -- remember it’s not your life/body in the first place, we belong to Christ -- it’s Christ’s body that you’re slowly destroying with your bad habits, so don’t do it for yourself!  We walk by faith and not by sight -- do it in response to a God who loved you and created you for love.  A God who still needs you here to share that love with so many who haven’t experienced it.  

Everything old has passed away.  Behold, today, everything has become new.  

If it’s forgiving someone that you can’t seem to forgive -- it’s not your life in the first place, we belong to the Lord -- so forgive not because you’re capable of it, not because it’s not your forgiveness: it’s God’s poured out through you.  That’s a different kind of forgiveness.  That’s not saying, “It’s OK that you hurt me.”  It’s saying, “Even though you hurt me, I trust that God forgives you, and therefore (because I belong to Christ), I can release my anger, and my resentment, and my bitterness , and my sorrow about what you did to me.  For in Christ, I am a new creation.” 
Everything old has passed away, see?  Today, everything has become new.

And if it’s literal death that’s looming, either for you or for a love one, [slowly] remember that it’s not your life in the first place: we belong to Christ.  Yours is the body of Christ, and even if your earthly body is slowly or quickly or suddenly dying, that’s not the end of the story!  [slowly] For we have died with Christ, and therefore we shall be raised with Christ.

[Let’s cling to that together, let’s sing the songs...]

Once in a while, I’m with someone in that season of death, who is not frightened at all to die.  Sometimes we even pray for death to come.  Because they know this truth: that they are a new creation in Christ.  It is powerful thing.  All their life’s accomplishments -- all their diplomas and promotions, their house, their cars, their things, all those things that define us and worry us so many of our days -- in those final moments don’t matter at all.  (I brought communion to someone who was dying once, and they took it so eagerly, and said to me afterwards, “Oh, that’s better than any medicine.”)  

Don’t be afraid to think about death these summer days, and what’s most important.  Paul takes us there.  And guides us into life in the meantime: most of us are not actually dying right this second, so in the meantime, here’s what we can do, now that everything old has passed away, even now.  Now that everything has become new, even now.  Now what?  Paul guides us -- having encountered this resurrection power of being joined to Christ in death and therefore new life...

[Ready?  Here’s where Paul guides us.  This changes the world...]

Be kind to one another, in the meantime.  Be tenderhearted to one another, in the meantime, forgiving one another.  We have new life, now.  New hope, new peace, new joy, even now, because of Christ.  Paul proclaims it.  Let’s proclaim it with him, though our lives, through our deaths, for all the world.  AMEN.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

June 7 -- Second Sunday after Pentecost

Grace to you and peace...

Sisters and brothers in Christ, we’re going to be in II Corinthians until July 12, when we’ll get into Ephesians.

So I just want to share with you a little background on Corinth and the climate of Paul’s second letter to the people there.

This is not to bore you, but help you see some similarities then has to now.

Corinth was a wild, bustling city.  It’s part of Greece, but jets out into the Mediterranean.  For a while it was second in size only to Rome.  There were choppy waters in that region and so if you look at a map you’d see that if there had been a way to dig a canal across the isthmus where Corinth is, that would have been a very convenient short-cut for seafarers and traders of the ancient world between the Athens and Rome.  But they couldn’t do that then.  Still, it was a better option -- if you had enough money -- to have slaves drag your ship across this kilometer+ of land than go all the way around this rocky peninsula.  Look at a map and you’ll see what I mean.

I find this geography fascinating, but the point is that this set-up renders Corinth bustling.  Crazy, actually.  Lots of sailors.  Lots of traders.  Lots of languages and cultures both passing through and some settling.  Romans, Greeks, Africans, Jews, Turks, Arabs...  

And with all those people came lots of bars and clubs, let’s just say.  And let’s just say that the word Corinth, was turned into a verb “to Corinth” which meant to fornicate.  Does that give you a picture of this city.  It was like Vegas in a convenient location on the sea.  
Exciting, right?  Gives a little color and drama to this book of the Bible from which we’ve been reading for years...  

This is Paul’s second letter to this obviously struggling Christian community.  (Interesting to note to, that while scholars are almost unanimous on the fact that Paul did indeed write this, there’s all kinds of theories about this letter of II Corinthians actually being multiple letters -- as many as 4.  That’s because of the very abrupt shifts that you find as you read through the letter.  But ultimately that doesn’t matter as much.)  What’s happening here is Paul is writing and encouraging a people who are both struggling and squabbling (putting it lightly).

The Christians in Corinth are trying to live differently.  They’re trying to be community in a place that elevates individual success and mobility above the common good.  Corinth was a place where people literally moved through, where people didn’t stay, and didn’t care, and didn’t look out for each other.  Where people were even reckless and destructive with their own bodies not just the bodies of others.  Where people consumed and threw away, and moved on...even violently.
But the Christians in Corinth were trying to live differently.  And Paul was their spiritual father, and encourager, and mentor...sometimes their antagonist, as Paul can be very direct and honest at times.  Paul is not just a peaceful guru with the Christians in Corinth.  He is often at odds with them.  

See, the Christians in Corinth were struggling with moral issues -- whether or not to eat meat, whether or not to get circumcised, whether or not to follow Jewish rituals and customs, whether or not to remain celibate or get married.  And Paul -- particularly in his first letter -- lifts up love above all those conflicts.  Faith hope and love and the greatest of these..  Love...despite your being at odds on moral issues. 

What if we could follow Paul’s advice today:  loving one another, despite being at odds on our modern day moral issues?  

We struggle so hard to do this.  If you don’t agree with me on these important moral issues -- today, I think that’s sexuality, immigration, war, peace, poverty, the environment (to name a few) -- then we’re done with each other, we draw our lines and withdraw into our corners with others who think the same way we do.  [pause]  Paul’s got something to say about that.  Paul talks about reconciliation.  And basically says, “Live together lovingly.  If you married, stay married, if you’re single stay single, if you eat meat, eat meat, if don’t, don’t.  Stay where you are, but stay together.  Live peaceably with one another.  For here’s where we all do connect -- in Christ Jesus.”  “We are joined to Christ,” Paul encourages...

And that brings us into our text today: “That Christ is the one who raises us up, who gives us our life.  So. Do. Not. Lose. Heart.  Even though our outer natures are wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.”  That doesn’t need much explanation, does it?  Our outer natures wasting away?  Someone said to me recently, “The older I get the more I understand that.”  Bible translator Eugene Peterson expands that even more: “Even though on the outside it often looks like things are falling apart on us, on the inside, where God is making new life, not a day goes by without his unfolding grace.”  Even if the world is falling apart around us, God is making new life, and not a day goes by without God’s unfolding grace.  [pause]

Despite our conflicts, despite the world rolling on (like a warship over the land, pulled by slaves) -- often so carelessly and cruelly, just crushingly -- despite our own health issues, and dysfunction in our bodies and in our families and in our communities, despite all evidence to the contrary sometimes, despite even death itself (some are even facing that, even more seriously these days) -- despite all of it -- God is doing a new thing inside, even if we can’t always see it or name it.  God is doing something.  Our inner natures are being renewed day by day.  Not a day goes by without God’s unfolding grace.

Reconciliation is possible even now; forgiveness is possible; wholeness is possible with God.  Peace is possible.  Even in a world wracked with violence and Corinthian behavior, God is doing a new thing.  And your inner nature is nucleus for God’s unfolding grace.

So don’t lose heart.  Don’t tear each other down.  Build each other up.  Respect the other’s corner.  All that is just temporary anyway.  All that is just a “tent”, Paul says.  (Lifting our tent on Saturday morning to get the dirt out.  Katie:  “I can’t believe that’s where we slept.”)  There’s a much greater home ahead of us, a much greater surprise for us anyway -- a house built by God.  That’s what we have to look forward to!  

And it starts now.  We get a glimpse of it even now!

So don’t lose heart.  

God’s at work here, in you, through Christ and the Holy Spirit.  AMEN.