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 30, 2015

August 30 -- Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

I’d like to begin by giving you a little bit of background on James, a book on which I don’t think I’ve ever preached in this congregation.  So bear with me...

While we don’t know exactly, most mainstream scholars imagine James to be written in the 2nd century, most likely under the psueudonym “James” -- perhaps paying tribute to James the apostle (brother of John, son of Zebedee), or James the brother of Jesus, or James son of Alpheus -- we don’t know.  The letter was addressed to the “12 tribes of the dispersion” -- that’s a reference to after Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD and Christians were scattered all over the ancient world.  

The book was almost always under critique because of its content...as to whether or not it should be included in the Bible!  Luther definitely didn’t like it -- I’ll get to that in a second -- but it was under question long before Luther (Eusebius).  It wasn’t added to the cannon (i.e. this shelf of books in the bible) until the 4th century, which is fascinating!

We might understand James best if we understand that James assumes the Christians living in the diaspora already knew/have the story of Jesus (mentioned only 2x).  We can only imagine that James assumes those early Christians spread out all over the Mediterranean world already have the Gospels -- M, M, L, J, the epistles of Paul -- and therefore James is giving  them -- not the basics, not a 101 class, but rather -- a more specific course in Christian living, a 300-level class.  

There’s great stuff in James!  We’ll only be here for 2 Sundays, but you should read it.  James may be, however, seemingly problematic for Lutherans...which makes it even more interesting and drives home a unique feature to Luther-an theology:  

Luther did not see all of scripture as equal.  Some parts of the bible are more important than others! ...  

We stand up, for example, only for the reading of the Gospels -- M, M, L or J.  Luther elevated those higher than any other books in the whole bible (displayed differently on our shelf).  And the Gospel of John, he lifted the highest because Jesus is most clearly described there as God...in the Gospel of John. Luther called the Gospel of John “the eagle”, because its view of Christ soars above the rest.  Similarly, at the heart of Luther’s theology was Paul’s letter to the Romans.  He lifted that higher than any other letter in the bible.  

As to the letter of James, Luther called it the “epistle of straw”.  It could be thrown out, as far as he was concerned.  Straw was a reference to the manger scene.  What did Mother Mary lay Jesus in?  Straw is just the stuff you lay the baby Jesus down on; it wasn’t the baby Jesus.  Epistle of straw.  Get it?  Epistle of bath water, not epistle of baby.  

But, why?  What is the book James missing, according to Luther?  For Luther: the Old Testament was the law, and the New Testament was the freeing the world from the law with the Gospel, with the baby, born in a stable, killed on a cross and risen from a tomb.  For Luther, the New Testament was freedom in Jesus Christ.

But James hardly mentions Jesus.  James shakes a finger at us and tells us how to live.  From our text today:  “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.  Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”  All that does -- a Luther-an way to look at this -- is bury me and you in the law, in a command to take care of widows and orphans, and keep ourselves unstained by the world.  That’s important stuff (about which we may talk about at a 300-level class), but it’s not core, it’s not Christ.  It doesn’t tell me about what we learn in the 101 class: Christ frees me from my brokenness and my sin.

What do you think of all this?  I’m so glad for James and for Luther because they both force us to wrestle with these ideas.  

Maybe these are discussion or journaling questions for you this week.  Maybe have some friends over and talk about this.  Talk about this Luther-an faith:  Do you believe and claim, like Brother Martin, that there is a hierarchy in scripture, that some books are more important than others?  That some authors even contradict others?  (You’ll see this with James vs. Paul -- Paul says we’re saved by grace through faith apart from our works, but James says, “Faith without works is dead.”)  What do you think, people of God?  Are you willing to be as bold as Luther?  Did you know this about Luther?  Great stuff to sit around and discuss over a beer.

Let’s get into this specific text a little more.  “Be doers of the word,” James says, “and not merely hearers.”  James shakes a finger at us.  James calls us out.

You know, it’s not like Jesus didn’t do that too.  I’m glad this book made the cut, although we do have to wrestle with it, and ring out some Gospel.  But Jesus calls us out too.  We saw this all this past year in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is always wanting us to mean well.  Are our hearts in the right place?  Don’t just talk the talk, walk the walk.  Be doers of the word.  This is a great challenge for us, but what a great gift too: to line up our actions to our understandings of scriptures.  What do we see in the bible about how we treat the poor, the immigrant, the stranger...AND THEN how do we actually treat the poor, the immigrant, the stranger, the widow and the orphan?  Do those line up?  If they do, great!  Here’s what I see in Scripture, and here’s how I live my life, here’s how I vote, here’s how I spend my money, here’s what I teach my children...  

If they don’t, James says, it’s like we see something, and then we walk away and forget it.   [pause]

I’ve gotta tell a Lois Hellberg story that’s always stuck with me as very James-ian:  
Lois once told me a parable that she had heard, but as far as I’m concerned it’s her parable.  She told me once:  

“Imagine a little child who suddenly gets caught in the undertow and starts drowning out past the breakers.  And there are two men who see this as they’re walking along on the beach.  The first man (who is very capable of swimming) instead falls on his knees in the sand and starts praying, ‘Please God, don’t let that child drown!’ The second man yells and starts running into the water, ‘Goddamn it, that child is drowning!!’  Pounding through the waves to try to make a rescue...

“Now,” Lois asks me, “which of these two men took the Lord’s name in vain?”  Or in terms of this text: which of these two is unstained by the world? 
We are called to put the Word into action, to care for those in need.  We might be a little (or a lot) uncouth, impolite and certainly imperfect doing this (cussing and running out into the waves), but is our heart in the right place?  We don’t even know if the man successfully saved the child.  We’re just called to try.  James was inviting those early Christians, spread out all over the ancient world, pulled and tempted and lured by all kinds of forces and voices and vices, to try, to line up their words and actions.

This might be a hard word for us; it means risk and sacrifice, like a man pounding up against the powerful waves.  I mean, who wants to go running out into the waves to save someone we don’t even know?  

But sisters and brothers in Christ, don’t forget how this passage starts:  Every generous act is from above, from God who gave birth to us, who has made us the first fruits of the whole creation.  Even though we’re challenged here, we’re God’s beloved, children of God, cherished and held.  And so our good works come -- not as a ploy to gain God’s favor -- but only as a response to God working in and through us.  God works through you.  And grace still abounds.  AMEN.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

August 23 -- Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

We put on the whole armor of God in the midst of incomprehensible evil in this world.

This is a difficult text because we talk again about evil—evil that is all around us, and evil that is inside us as well.  There was a trend in some theologies during the 20th century to downplay evil.  “To say that humans are evil is just too negative,” some said in the 20’s & 30’s.  Then we learn of Nazi Germany.  Millions of Jews were tortured and killed during WWII.  And theologians started rethinking the human potential for evil, not only because of the horrible evils inflicted by the Nazis, but also when they considered how many stood by…while the Jews were being murdered.  

And evil is real in our lives today, too.  One of my professors in seminary drove this point home for me when he said, “If you don’t believe in sin, just open your window and breathe the air.”  Air pollution is a constant reminder of our recklessness, apathy and ultimately, I think, our sin.  This is not a fun text, here in Ephesians, to deal with…especially now—at the end of the summer, we’re getting geared up for the fall, our building project is stretching its wings, revitalization all around, and here we are talking about evil.  It might be easier to discuss, if I could just point to some group of people and pin blame and sinfulness and evil on them.  Or, if I could just point to an individual engaged in some sort of sexual impropriety that would make us all gasp, that I know we would never be a part of, but Ephesians nips this one in the bud and says, “We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against cosmic powers of this world, against spiritual forces of evil in high places.”  Evil is much greater than one person or a group of persons -- that’s even true with Nazi Germany; “the wiles of the devil” are much more elusive and very hard to pin down.  

How do we address world hunger, for example?  [uh???] 
I preached a sermon once on my internship in St. Louis, and I was talking about a service trip that we took to Nicaragua, and I said something like, “poverty isn’t just an issue, it’s a face” and went on to describe sweet little Olivia who I at one point even carried on my shoulders there.  A woman came up to me afterwards and told me that she liked my sermon, but hated that I had put a sweet face on poverty.  “Poverty is not Olivia,” she said to me with tears in her eyes, “Olivia is a victim of poverty.  Poverty is a horrendous monster.”  Hunger, poverty—these are elusive, gargantuan evils, too great to pin on any face.     

How do we battle—to borrow the imagery that worked well for the people of Ephesus—the cosmic forces of evil?  How do we acknowledge and confront sin?  

You ask me these questions directly, and I’m afraid I’ll tell you that I cope with these things usually by ignoring them—barricading myself from them with my own preoccupations.  I’m on the mailing lists for orgs like BFW that send out alerts, and I can’t even tell you how many of those emails I’ve deleted.  Sometimes I do pay attention to such great evils, but just to assuage my conscience I write a check or even take a trip.  I go down to Mexico to build a house.  Then I come back across the border and get back into MY life.

These elusive and tremendous evils—hunger, war, famine, poverty, environmental degradation—are not easy or fun things to talk about.  Very quickly we can talk ourselves silly and just give up.  It’s not REALISTIC to care that much.  It’s not PRACTICAL or LOGICAL.    

But then, neither is our God.  [pause]  

If God was realistic or practical, I’d never be standing here preaching.  Who am I to speak?  I’m too young, too inexperienced, too imperfect, too shy and self-conscious.  But God says, “I have chosen you Dan for special things.”  If God was realistic or practical, we couldn’t call ourselves God’s children.  There are far too many terrible things that we have done each other, to our neighbors, our families, our friends and even to our own bodies…way too many things to really call ourselves “little Christs.”  But God is unrealistic and says, “I have chosen you, Frances, Bruce, Shaunda, Eric, Judy, John for great things.”  I have chosen you to be my messengers.  I have chosen you to go out into the world and share the Good News of my love, offer hope…despite all the dangers, all the hopelessness, despite hunger, war, famine…not because you’re gonna fix it all (only God can do that), but because this is what God chooses us to do.  

Not to belabor this, but If God was realistic or practical, why would God become human?  Why would God come down to earth in the form of a peasant to take on all the sin of the world?  God became human!  That defies all logic and reason.  It is completely unrealistic!  Why would God do such a thing?  Christianity, by its very definition, defies all logic and reason.  God forgives us all our sin.  That’s crazy!!  God lifts the burden and frees us all!!

So here in Ephesians, we hear of what we are offered for defense amid this chaotic and evil world:  standard issue.  Freely forgiven of our sin, in the midst of the swirling powers of evil, God covers us with something completely new.  Not just armor…that’s something old.  It’s a metaphor.  The Pauline author takes imagery that was very effective for the people of that time, who were used to seeing Roman centurions, pushing everyone around, forcing them back into place if they got out of line.  But Ephesians speaks of a different kind of armor:  
THE ARMOR OF GOD.  The NEW image breaks into the OLD.  I’d like to go through a few of these articles of God’s armor.  

The belt…of truth.  Putting on the belt of truth, all that we say and do becomes honest and sincere.  Gone are the days of double talk, trickery, gossip, deceit.  God, through this letter to the Ephesians, invites us into a new relationship and lifestyle—one that is genuine and clear, speaking the truth in love.  Maybe that seems unrealistic, but so is our God.

The breast plate of righteousness.  We don’t show respect for our neighbors because we have to, or because we are guilted into it, or because it’s politically correct.  We respect our neighbors because it’s simply the right thing to do.  Righteousness is about right living; I think the Greek word is even better translated as “justice-orientation.”  When we put on the breast-plate of righteousness, we orient our lives in a way that resembles God’s justice and love.  When we put on the breast-plate of righteousness, issues of hunger, poverty, harassment, racism—these become important to us because they are about God’s justice.  When people are treated unjustly or as objects, subjected to another’s abuse, we move into that fray, chest first, heart first, to care and speak as people of God, even if an end to injustice seems unrealistic.

“As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.”  Shoes take us to new places.  This passage calls to mind another scripture passage from Luke 1: “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us…[and] guide our feet into the way of peace.”  To talk about peace, or even to have a moment of silence to “visualize world peace,” is not enough.  In the midst of violence and apathy, God invites us and leads us into moving our feet in the way of peace.
The Shield of Faith.  Faith is what we live by.  It is [get ready, definition :) ] “the ability to trust the promise”.  Thinking about faith as a shield helps us think about faith as actually protecting us, as opposed to so many other things we want to use to protect us from harm.  I’ll never forget, when I was in college, I had this position on our student congregation council called Global Peace and Justice Coordinator.  And we’d put on events that were designed to be thought provoking.  Many times we’d bring in two people on different sides of an issue, and let them go at it.  The most intense event was when we had this guy from the National Rifle Association come and literally face off with a guy from some organization called the Coalition for Peace in the Inner City.  And they fit their stereotypes to the T.  Also present in the audience at the event was this old and pretty famous Lutheran scholar named Eric Gritsch.  The NRA guy really seemed to be dominating in the “discussion,” but I’ll never forget when Professor Gritsch entered the conversation using his faith as a counter-response to arming oneself against danger.  He was challenging the NRA representative, sitting cool and collected.  He eventually made the NRA guy so upset that he was literally standing over Gritsch barking all the reasons why he should carry a gun.  And Gritsch just kept saying essentially that God was his protection.  It makes me think of the shield of faith.  I can’t remember Gritsch’s eloquent words, but I certainly remember his body language.  I’ve never been more amazed with that visual image of this angry, seemingly paranoid, “protected” man standing over a calm, cool, even humorous, faithful man. Now was Gritsch being stupid or unrealistic?  I mean there are some dangerous places in this world.  Maybe he was, but maybe he was simply choosing to carry a different type of shield. 

Helmet of salvation.  Our minds sure can mess with us, can’t they?  I don’t know how, but one constant source of distress is thinking that we have to earn God’s favor.  Whether it’s by doing good works, or stating out loud our beliefs and commitments, somehow we hope that God is hearing and seeing it all and will reward us.  But OURS IS A GOD OF GRACE!!  The helmet of salvation is what covers our heads with the promise of salvation.  Maybe we might think of the helmet of salvation as BAPTISMAL water.  It is that ever-present protection that allows us to stop trying to win over God.  God has already won over us!  Jesus died so that we could live, and so we LIVE in that joy.  

Joy is the final concept here, in thinking about God’s whole armor.  Joy spreads through every aspect of these pieces of equipment.  We could be terrified at what lies ahead on the journey that God has set before us.  Many soldiers are traumatized by battle, and understandably so.  But God is doing a new thing here with us, instead of marching ultimately in fear, and in aggression, and in trauma, and in joylessness --  we march, completely covered with God’s joy.  We are “marching in the light of God.”  

So we continue on, despite the cosmic forces of evil, we continue on, marching in the light of God, covered and protected with joy, peace, love, and the hope that only God can provide…this day and forever.  AMEN             


Blessing of Prayer Chain Members

Loving and gracious God, 

Your Holy Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words, and yet you instruct us to “pray always and not lose heart”.  We give you thanks for the prayers of the faithful in this and every congregation.  Bless these our prayer warriors here at Shepherd of the Valley.  Continue to equip them with the belt of truth, the shield of faith, the breastplate of righteousness, the helmet of salvation, and shoes that ready them to proclaim your gospel of peace.  Continue to give them open ears and willing hands to offer for this world and for this congregation prayers of comfort, healing, and peace for all who are lonely, sick, mourning, frightened and in pain.  As we move into this new academic year, bless Frances, Grace, Judy, Carol, Margaret, Carol, Helen, Vicki, JoAnn, Barbara, Jean, Eva, Pat, Barbara, Annie, Dolores, Stephanie, Betty, Ruth and Camelia with words that are strong, and a willingness to come to you boldly, interceding for those in need.  And thank you for giving them to this congregation as ministers of your grace and ever-present love.  AMEN.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

August 16 -- Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

Today the Christian community continues to worship and sing.  That’s something to give us pause and ponder. 

After everything that’s happened...just since many of us last saw each other -- 

Most pressing on this congregation's mind is the death of dear Lois Hellberg.  Her memorial service was yesterday, we continue to give thanks for her life, mourn her death, and try to joyfully release her to God’s everlasting arms, even as we grieve.  That’s a big thing that’s happened.  Our family went on vacation for a week, many of you have been traveling.  Great adventures to share with one another later.  (Story of quilt today.)  Our news headlines all filled up with coverage on the 2016 campaigns and election.  The Republican debates are well underway, the Democrats are firing their fair share of attacks as well.  It’s heating up in lots of ways, isn’t it?  Fires.  The Chargers beat the Cowboys, Matt Kemp hit for the cycle.  A lot has happened, since we last saw each other.  

And yet we continue, the Christian community today continues to gather, to worship and sing.  

Ephesians instructs us to be wise and not foolish, making the most of our time, for the days are evil.  And then Ephesians says don’t get drunk, and I want to stop there.  

This is obviously good literal advice -- for all sorts of reasons.  But this is more than a finger wag for temperance.  

I’d like to invite you to look at getting drunk as a metaphor this morning.  What happens when a person gets drunk?  ...
They stumble, say things they don’t want to say, slur their words.  A person who is drunk misses the details.  

They miss the expressions and emotions of others (which aren’t too hard see otherwise) because they’re too caught up with saying or doing what they want to say or do.  A drunk person is reckless, God forbid, driving off the road, causing accidents and terrible consequences.  Blacking out.  And waking up later not even knowing what all they’ve done.

Consider of all these disturbing images as metaphors.

A person may never even touch alcohol, but live his/her life in a way that is reckless, self-centered and loud.  Stumbling along, only interested in themselves, not realizing what they’ve done, and causing all kinds of accidents in the process.  

But Ephesians warns us against that, calls it “debauchery” in this translation. Other words that are derived from that Greek word are “wasteful”, “reckless abandon”.  When we get drunk, metaphorically, we’re not just wasted, we’re wasteful.

So, all those images help instruct us and call us into images for how we are to be in the world.  Basically the opposite -- but Ephesians envisions that as singing, being filled with the Holy Spirit.  Fascinating!  It’s not the image to which one might oppose drunkenness.  One might think drunkenness would be opposed with solemn sobriety, right?  Imagine that in metaphorical terms.  Sitting proper, stoic, serious, studious. 

That’s really the interesting part of this text, the opposite of drunkenness is actually singing together -- hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs...a whole variety of songs that’s very intentionally listed here.  Sing all kinds of things, but sing together.  

One of the many reasons I love going to baseball games is because we sing together -- it’s one of the only public places where that happens anymore.  I love it -- singing the National Anthem, singing God Bless America, and of course Take Me Out to the Ballgame.  (Singing in Ireland)

Something happens when people sing together -- not one person with an awesome voice on the microphone, but no mics, everyone singing together.  We do this all the time, and it’s what you’re supposed to do in church.  And it can be very powerful then...when it happens out of the normal context it’s incredibly powerful (subway in DC).  We are filled with something when we lift our voices in song.  We transcend barriers and boundaries, and you really have to just experience it to understand it.  We become aware of being part of something larger, and part of something hopeful.    

Lois Hellberg loved singing, that was reinforced even more after all the stories of Lois yesterday.  She knew the power of singing.  And the song that she loved and we sang and heard sung was “How Can I Keep from Singing.”

Sisters and brothers in Christ, even after all that’s happened, we continue to come together to sing.  To worship God with a grateful heart.  Even after all that’s happened in our lives and in our world, we continue to sing God’s praises, with old songs and new songs.  

At the Pentecost event when God’s people were singing they were accused of being drunk.  But they weren’t drunk, they were filled with the Holy Spirit.  And they were deeply aware of what was going on around them.  They were deeply aware of the pain and the suffering that needed their attention and care.  They were deeply aware of each other, and interested and concerned about the other -- the stranger, the widow, the orphan.  They were not stumbling around, slurring their words,  blacking out.  They were walking and singing together in unison, deeply aware.  Lifting one another up, holding one another in their pain.  God made us to be like that too -- not drunk but singing! 

After everything that has happened, the Christian community continues to sing.  Thanks you God, for giving us the stamina, the faith, the voices and the hope to keep singing today.  AMEN.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Lois Hellberg Memorial Service sermon - August 15

Scripture readings
Amos 5:21-24  I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.  Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals. I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. 
But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
Micah 6:8  He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? 
Matthew 25: 34-40  Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

These were the readings Lois wanted read at her funeral.  

That’s because Lois gave us a glimpse of God.  

Lois spent her life giving us a foretaste of the feast to come.  At least, that’s true for me these last 8 years that I’ve known her.  I know she wasn’t perfect, but she gave me a glimpse of God.

I remember the first time I met Lois Hellberg: it was in that hallway, and she wanted to lecture me about the merits of serving fair-trade, organic coffee here at church.  I had spent some time doing my own share of pushing fair-trade coffee onto congregations, so I knew we were going to be friends.  But Lois had a fire within her for justice.  

She never wanted to have fancy church services, pomp and circumstance, if they didn’t point to the justice and radical, welcoming love of God.  Lois and Lars, who she’s now laughing together with again, were both committed to sharing that radical hospitality of God, and that, I believe, led them, a long time ago to make the bold move of purchasing a little house on the SDSU campus, now named the Agape House -- where Lutheran Campus Ministry continues, where students of all stripes are welcomed, and fed, and invited into dialogue about life and faith and into service in their communities and in the world...not fancy and inaccessible; it’s simply an open door.  Agape house -- do you know what that word means?  It means “the unconditional love of God.”  Lois gave us a glimpse of that.  

She was always concerned for the outsider.  She was always welcoming of the stranger, the immigrant, the imprisoned, the sick.  When we had our bell stolen here, Lois called me and asked me if anyone would be going to visit the young man who stole our bell.  She was very concerned about him, and she wasn’t content with us to getting off that march toward mercy by simply saying, “We’ll certainly pray for him, Lois.”  She’s the one that told me, “We best take action as though our prayers mean nothing, AND we best pray as though our actions mean nothing.”  She lifted up Matthew 25 then too:  “Just as you did it the least of these -- the criminals, the outcast, the strangers -- you did it to me.”  

No one ever did go visit that man in prison, including me.  But Lois loved us/me anyway.  See?  Lois gave us a glimpse of God.

Lois was committed to justice...which is not to be confused with guilt-assuaging charity.  It wasn’t about just giving someone a fish, or even teaching them how to fish.  Lois was committed to moving over and sharing the pond.  She sought to critique and confront whole systems that oppress the poor.  Did you know that?  I wonder if everyone knew that radical agape side of Lois, because at the same time, the stories that I keep hearing this past week here, were about how kind and loving she was...too everyone, regardless of their affiliations, or their shortcomings (in my case), or their fears, or their difference of opinions.  She struck that balance of being both comforting and challenging, prophetic and pastoral.  Simply put, she was an advocate.

Lois spoke the truth in love, always in love.  And she sung out the hymns of the faithful, the marches for justice, the protest songs for peace. This is Amos.  

“I hate, I despise your festivals,
   and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. 
Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings,
   I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
   I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs;
   I will not listen to the melody of your harps. 
But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
How many times has this world failed this plea of Amos, and I’d say of Lois too -- and yet she loved this world anyway.  She loved this whole creation.  See?  Lois gave us a glimpse of God. 

She wasn’t perfect, but Lois sought to do justice and love mercy -- she was always working on forgiveness.  And Lois walked humbly with her God.  Despite her strength and her assertiveness -- sometimes her brusqueness, she was incredibly humble, and always reflecting back on what she might have done/said differently.  Sometimes/often times she’d call me here at church, angry about this thing or that, usually concerned because she thought we were leaving this person or that person out.  And then she’d call back a day or two later, “Forgive me,” she’d say.  Not self-hating or taking back her concerns, but rather and lovingly self-aware, and not ever wanting differences or tone or harsh words to break down the community in Christ we all share.  

In 2011, we celebrated our 50th anniversary as a congregation and made a film in which Lois was interviewed.  And she described being part of the church as being part of a herd of cattle...(got a big laugh at our banquet), but she didn’t mean it to be funny and certainly not insulting:  a herd of cattle gathered around the same watering hole.  When I asked why she keeps coming back after all these years -- I mean, bad things have happened in your life -- why keep coming back:  “I still need to drink fresh water.”  Lois walked humbly with her God.

To know her was to be loved by her.  And even those who didn’t know her were loved by her.  See?  ...glimpse of God.

I gave up trying to list all the ways that Lois touched my life, my intellect, and my soul.  There are too many to name.  
And there it is again and at last...“too many ways to name”:  glimpse of God.

So now -- we commend Lois back to the God with whom she’s always walked.  The God who loved her first, sealed and marked her in a Nebraska baptism in the 1930’s, the God who loves us, and is made known to us through people like Lois -- and through people like us -- as we too are called to befriend this world, as she did, to love one another, to always be working on forgiveness, to work for justice, and to walk humbly.

Today we lift Lois up, and say, “Thank you, God, thank you for giving her to us to know and to love, as a friend and a partner here on our earthly pilgrimage.  Thank you for all that she taught us, for giving her to us to give us a glimpse of you and your radical hospitality, love, forgiveness, gentleness, peace.”  

Ya know...I know the traditional model is that a pastor is a teacher, but it’s hard for me to think of anyone who taught me more about what it means to be a Christian.  Perhaps that’s true for you too.  That’s something to be thankful for today -- what a gift Lois was for us.  

So today we say thank you, and now we ask God, “Receive our sister, Lois, into your arms.  Her walk here with us has ended, now receive her into the blessed walk of everlasting life, now receive her into the glorious company of all your saints in light.  And now be with us, as we comfort one another in our grief.” AMEN.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

August 2 -- Tenth Sunday After Pentecost

We have this coffee maker in the kitchen here at church.  And when one arrives in the morning and desperately needs a hot cup of coffee...and a lot of it...if one pour too quickly and excessively, it leaks and drips all over the counter.  

If you pour it nice and slowly, no problem: nice hot cup of coffee, no spills; but if you try to take too much, it mysteriously spills all over the place...and makes a big mess.

Simple image.  But a good one for our text today, again from Ephesians...now the 4th chapter:

At a frantic, excessive pace, we can often make a mess of things.  But slowing down, being careful -- nice, easy pour -- the very body of Christ is built up.   [pause]

Yet another image, if its helpful -- circa me in 4th grade, I still remember the excitement and the franticness of P.E. class:  the only time we had to play soccer, we wanted every minute to count!  And then there was our soccer/P.E. coach -- a dark tanned Romanian, named Dragos, with thinning, slicked-back hair, little curls in the back.  He had played futbol at the top levels in his home country long ago (a political refugee, he fled to the U.S.).  We, as little boys, could only envision his as a legend once.  But now, in his later years, Dragos moved slower, and had the wrinkles and eyes of life’s challenges.  He was a great combination of patience, passion, and annoyance at the high-pitched exuberance and anxiety of elementary boys everywhere.  At the beginning of the P.E. period, Coach Dragos would hand us (a class of all-boys) the key to the equipment shack on the other side of the soccer field, so that we could race out there and get the soccer ball NOW.  And we would dart, wildly across the field -- 10+ boys, one key -- and franticly try to open the closet: 
“No like this!  I’ll do it!  Get out of the way, moron!  C’mon!  No, you don’t know what you’re doing, you idiot.  Here, like this...Ugh!  It’s not working.”  

A minute later, we’d see Coach sauntering plainly across the soccer field with a cup of coffee in his right hand, a cigarette hanging from his lip, and we’d go running out to him, as if a time bomb was about to detonate -- “The key doesn’t work, the key doesn’t work!” And he’d just smile a half smile, take a sip of his coffee (probably never spilled it either) and eyes half mast, he’d say: 

“Here.  Let me show you.  [whispering, almost seductively] It’s like life: nice and easy.”  The irony was palpable, as he bore the marks of a hard life.  But ever so gently, ever so delicately, ever so slowly, he’d put the key in and turn it, and the door would open!  And like a gracious butler...

This passage from Ephesians is a call back...to care and attention...to being the church, Christ’s very body, for this world, in this world during our week:  “I beg you,” Ephesians says, “lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

We have to slow down to do that...or we’ll make a mess...or get stuck and start insulting each other.  

“We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming...  
(You can fill in the blanks there.)

“...but speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.”

Word of God, word of life.

We’re not getting anywhere by tearing each other down.  By packing so much in that we’re as anxious as school boys on the soccer field.  By consuming, and guzzling, and eating on the run, and having important conversations by text, by multi-multi-tasking.  We’re not getting anywhere by tearing each other down.  We’re actually making a mess of things, dribbling all over the counters of this world, as we over-pour, and turn on each other.  [pause]

We are called to cultivate a life of prayer and contemplation and ongoing discernment.

What is the call to which you have been called, at this point in your life?  To be a teacher, a pastor, a parent, a care-giver, an advocate, an activist, a communicator, a planner, a researcher,  a builder, a coach?   What is the calling to which you have been called?  That takes some quiet to figure out.  Jesus was escaping the crowds all the time to get some quiet and prayer time.  

(We’re taking a little time away this week in the forests of Northern California, and along the river banks of southern Oregon.) 

How do you cultivate this life of prayer and discernment so that you can indeed lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called?  

And how might we speak the truth in love?  

It’s getting harder and harder because there’s so much noise, there’s so much high-pitched exuberance and anxiety all around.  It’s hard to be calm, like Coach long ago -- it’s hard to saunter across the soccer field with a cup of cleanly poured coffee in your right hand and a calm smile on your face. 

It’s hard to live above the frenzy, and speak the truth to one another in love.  But this is what Christ calls us to do.  Breathe.  It takes 4 deep, slow breathes to physically calm our bodies down, we tell our kids.

And when we do...when we’re able to center and quiet down, we uncover not only our own life’s calling, but that much deeper truth, which we can skim over far to often: that Christ is indeed the head of the body, that God is above all and through all and in all.    

When we are at peace, we rest in God, who holds and loves us no matter what.  Nice and easy.  AMEN.