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 26, 2016

June 26 -- Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Grace, peace, and the freedom of Christ be with you.  Amen.

How cool is it that the central theme in the Letter of Paul to the Galatians is freedom, and we’re gearing up to celebrate our nation’s independence on July 4th.  

Today I’d like to reflect on freedom with you, which is timely, coming into our 4th of July celebrations.  Galatians talks about freedom from the law -- but not just so that we can do whatever we want to do.  Galatians talks about freedom from the law because once we’ve been touched by the grace, peace, forgiveness and life of Christ (and thereby turn and share that grace-peace-forgiveness-and-life with everyone we meet), we don’t even need law anymore!  We are free!  As I imaged last week, we don’t need that “babysitter” anymore.

But what is freedom, really?  I think it’s way more than just political freedom.   We can be free as a nation and still locked up all kinds of ways.  We can be free from oppression, but a slave to addiction.  We can be free from hunger, but a slave to anger.  What’s got you locked up these days?  What’s preventing your true freedom?  The shackles of a grudge.  The hand cuffs of resentment.  The jail bars of bitterness.

Here we are at church proclaiming again, “You are free!”  Here we are as a nation celebrating again that “We are free!”  But what does this mean?  And what are you going to do with the freedom that you have been given?  Paul’s got some thoughts on that.
I had a rigid training when it came to English and grammar growing up.  I had a rigid training when it came to writing in elementary all the way through high school.  I’ve always been thankful for that, but man, it was strict.  We had to diagram sentences, use correct punctuation, all that, and in writing we were taught a very rigid formulaic method for composition.

When I got to college Dr. Sig Schwarz, in Freshmen English (later became one of my favorite professors), pinned me down after my first essay and said to me, “Dan, you write like you’re in a cage.  Your structure and form is good -- don’t get me wrong -- but you don’t need to be bound to all those methods and formulas any more.  You are free to write!”  

The writing rules have done a good job babysitting you all these years, but now you’re free!  [pause]

Uhhhh…I didn’t know what to do.  I was like a bird with the cage door open but I was afraid to fly out, like a dog on the beach with a broken leash but afraid to leave my owner’s side.   I was a slave to my master: the rules.  I struggled with this -- I still do -- shuddering every time I compose a dangling participle, or end a sentence with a preposition, or put a period on an incomplete sentence. (Micah’s new coach and swinging out of the strike zone.)     [pause]

What do we do with the freedom that we have in Christ?  It’s like my experience of the writing cage opening up and me pretending I don’t know how to fly.  (or Micah swinging out of the zone.)

Christ has freed us from our sin, from our brokenness, from our hatred, from our anger, from our addictions, from our pain -- even from death itself.  So now that you’re free, what are you going to do?  Also reminds me of the stories I hear about newly retired brothers and sisters or our service people who return to civilian life, that don’t know what to do with themselves.  No more rigid schedule to keep, no more up at dawn structure, hour to hour structure.  The cage door is flung open, and we pretend that we don’t know how to fly.  

It’s those voices in our heads, I think.  Many of us have suffered a trauma or abuse of one kind or another, and we still hear and are haunted by the angry grammar teacher slapping our papers and scratching red x’s across our incomplete sentences.  Even as older adults, we can still hear the furious father, the manipulative mother, the pious pastor shaming us into submission and fear.  

But sisters and brothers in Christ, I proclaim to you this day the good news that the cage door is flung open.  The stone is rolled away and...We.  Are.  Free.  In Christ.  

But there’s a paradox to this freedom as the Apostle Paul and Martin Luther point out.  Luther said: “A Christian is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; AND a Christian is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to everyone.”  These may appear contradictory, but this are exactly what Paul says too:  “For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all.” (1 Cor. 9:19)

The freedom that we have enables us to reach out.  When the cage door is open, there’s nowhere to go but out.  The freedom that we have propels us into the world.  The freedom we have activates all those virtues that Paul lists for us today: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  Those are a product of the true and lasting freedom that is ours this day.

Being free in Christ, is being free to serve.  Free to love everyone.  Free from anger to be forgiving as Christ forgives.  Free from fear to be present and attentive to pain and suffering around you.  Free from vanity to interested and even excited about how others are doing.  Free from deceit to be honest.  Free from addiction to be healthy and whole.   The list goes on and on, depending on what’s been locking you up.  But ultimately free from death...to be alive in Christ.    

Sisters and brothers in Christ, freedom is yours!  So it’s time to party!  It’s time to celebrate and that means it’s time to serve, time to receive service from your sister or brother in Christ, time to open your mouths and eat.  The cage door has been flung open and the Holy Spirit dove is waiting out there to feed us with grace and passion for justice and new life.  It’s time to feast on the goodness of God -- caring for the widow and the orphan, the immigrant and the stranger, the least, the lost, the lonely and the forsaken and forgotten.  We can’t help ourselves: We are freed in Christ.  Thanks be to God!  AMEN.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

June 19 -- Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

If I may, one of the things that gets under my skin from time to time -- this is Father’s Day so I can say this -- is when people hear that I’ve got the kids for a day or a weekend or even an evening, and they refer to it as “babysitting”.  That ever happened to you, dads?  Or maybe you’ve said this to a dad: “Oh, that’s great, you’re babysitting the kids tonight?”  Why is that?  When a father is taking care of his own children, he’s “babysitting”?  I try to gently respond, “I’ll be parenting tonight, yes.”  Now, I know that it’s not ill-intended, and it probably just points to the fact that one parent is with the kids more than the other.  I guess I should should just keep my mouth shut and enjoy the ‘props’ I get -- maybe I should ask Heather for an hourly wage ;) -- NO -- but I’m just thinking about that concept of babysitting this week as I look at this text from Paul.  (So central - Luther...)

In his letter to Galatians -- now in Chapter 3 -- Paul talks about the law as a sort of babysitter.  It’ll take care of things until Christ gets home.  All those years in the desert/exile, the law was the babysitter.  A good babysitter enforces the rules that were prescribed.  A good babysitter is a good disciplinarian.  That’s why as kids we loved the babysitters, who had no idea what the rules were.  But even a good babysitter -- any child will tell you -- and we all know -- is far from the real thing.

The law of God is far from the real thing.  The law -- the Ten Commandments -- all the do’s and don’ts about being God’s people.  It’s like babysitter.  It  keeps us in line until Christ gets home.  

And how we often can mix that up with the real thing -- with the Gospel of God: the good news of love and forgiveness and grace.

I imagine there are some places, some churches even, where ministry just seems like babysitting, maybe that’s been true here at SVLC too, at times, if we’re honest...where ministry is not ministry at all but everything is just reduced to nothing more than a bunch of do’s and don’ts:

“Worship like this, organize yourselves like that.  Come to church like this, sing like that.  Dress like this, don’t dress like that.  Think like this, don’t think about that.  Live like this, don’t live like that…”    

This is what Paul was addressing then too.  The Galatian Christians had carried over so many of their old rituals, and so they were having trouble accepting new people into the Christian fold, people who didn’t share their old traditions: Gentiles.  Paul is taking their rejection of difference head on:  “Your old traditions -- as great as they might be -- are a babysitter...for the real thing...that is Christ’s love!”  And then he goes on: “When you were baptized…you were clothed in Christ’s love.  (No one gets a bath from their babysitter!  You get a bathed by your mom or your dad!)  When you were bathed, people of God, you were bathed in Christ’s love.  We’re not throwing out the law.  We’re not throwing out the good babysitter (abolishing the law).  The babysitter will always be important to us.  (Our kids, btw, have an amazing babysitter, who lives across the street -- but she’s now gone off to college over-seas.  Man, we miss her!)  The babysitter will always be important to us, but it’s nothing like the real thing!  It’s nothing like Christ himself, and that Gospel of peace.  
That’s what makes this tragedy -- yet another, this time in Orlando -- so difficult.  If Christ has come, if the babysitter can go home, then why is there all this violence? 

Our Presiding Bishop, Elizabeth Eaton wrote in her statement to the ELCA this week:

“We are killing ourselves. We believe that all people are created in God’s image.  All of humanity bears a family resemblance. Those murdered in Orlando were not abstract ‘others,’ they are us. But somehow, in the mind of a deeply disturbed gunman, the LGBTQ community was severed from our common humanity. This separation led to the death of 49 and the wounding of 54 of us.”

Where is Christ in the midst of that?!  

You know, some have even silently (and some not so silently) applauded this shooting, pointing to this as, “Well, that’s what they get for being gay”?  Where is Christ in the midst of that?!

This week, being at a loss, I called the pastor at Reformation Lutheran Church, down the street from the Pulse night club.  Pastor Rob, and we talked just for a few minutes.  But in that time, he shared with me, how much “noise” there is...from all sides.  Reformation is on the main thoroughfare to the nightclub.  All the traffic they’re getting right now, from the national media, to protestors, to mourners, to onlookers...everybody’s got something to say.  But Pastor Rob, said that he’s trying to help his own congregation -- which was deeply affected -- and that whole community, in the midst of all the noise, to keep silent.  He practices intentional silence at the moment of death in his hospice work, and he’s trying to do that now, but trying to keep that now, he said, is like trying to hold back a title wave.  I asked if we could send them a quilt…
Sisters and brothers in Christ, when tragedies like this happen, and continue to happen -- we’ll keep seeing this level of violence -- when tragedies like this happen, and continue to happen, it is so hard to believe that Christ hasn’t gone on a little trip or something and just left us with the babysitter.  

Is the law all we have here, in the wake of such tragedy?  Has Christ gone missing?  Where is God in the face of unspeakable hatred, bigotry, violence, terror and death?!  Is the babysitter, the law, the rules, all we’ve got?


God is here.  And God is present in Orlando.  God is grieving too.  God is holding all those in the Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Trans-Queer-Intersex-Asexual community who are terrified right now.  All those who are overcome with anger, all those who are making so much noise (on all sides of the issue), and all those who are speechless.  This is especially where our God comes out, and other gods can fall away: because our God not only goes to and gets close to death and terror, our God journeyed through it, experiencing death itself and the terrorism of the cross.  Orlando is not void of the Divine; Orlando -- and all places of pain and death -- is exactly where God is right now. 

In baptism we have been clothed with Christ.  We have been covered with God’s love, grace, acceptance, pardon and peace.  And so we too move to the pain, sisters and brothers in Christ.   Not because we have to -- it’s not the law that moves us to the pain -- but because we can’t help ourselves:  we’re baptized.  God’s grace propels us.  We’re washed in that same cross!  (pause)

I’d like you to turn to the HoD #705 now, and let’s read these words together before we sing it…vs. 3 &4.

(Harry E. Fosdick, Baptist ministry in New York at the end of his life wrote these words as our nation was headed to war again.)

Sisters and brothers in Christ, God has come home.  We are, in fact, no longer in the care of a babysitter.  God, our heavenly parent, is here -- not as a babysitter, but as a parent.  To walk with us in our trials, comfort us in our fears, forgive us in our shortcomings, and to give us courage “for the living of these days”.  God has come home.  AMEN.


Blessing of Fathers

Gracious God,
pour out your Spirit on all fathers.
Grant to them keen insight 
into their children’s needs.
Help them to be faithful examples of truth and love.
Soften their hearts
so that they might hear their children’s cries.
Strengthen their resolve
to be men of commitment and faith.
In times of sorrow and disappointment
let them know that you are by their side.
In times of doubt and confusion
show them the way.
In times of happiness and joy
let them see your face in all 
that is good and right and true.
In all times sustain them with the knowledge
that they are your beloved children.
We ask this in Jesus’ name.


Sunday, June 5, 2016

June 5 -- Third Sunday after Pentecost

Grace to you and peace from God and from our Lord JC.

The Apostle Paul was really a sort of Johnny Appleseed to the early church.  Johnny Appleseed in American folklore, of course, went around planting seeds.  It’s a nice start here, but it’s not an entirely good metaphor for Paul, though...because the problem with Johnny Appleseed -- at least, in the very limited way I understand the legends -- is that he was never around much to nurture the growth of his trees, to tend the saplings, to prune the branches.  Planting a church is wonderful...but nurturing it’s growth, tending its young and new converts, and pruning back fallacies and perversions of its core message, the Gospel -- this is where we find Paul in our lesson today.  Here in Galatians Paul’s returning to a tree in Galatia that he planted, but a tree that needs some help…

Here’s the main issue in Galatians: there were these Jews that had converted to Christianity.  Great, right?  They had migrated up from the Holy Land, with the message of Jesus, away from the temple in Jerusalem, to modern-day Turkey.  And as you might imagine, they had brought their “Judaism” with them...in some ways consciously and in some ways unconsciously...all their traditions and rituals and -- I imagine in a beautiful way -- incorporated all that into their understanding and practice of this new-faith Christianity.

This happens all the time.  Think of how any number of cultures appropriates Christianity, wrapping it up with their own people’s history and traditions.  Latin American Christianity is almost synonymous with Latin American culture.  In Mexico, for example, Dia de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead), a Christianity-based tradition (other parts of the church celebrate All Saints Day) is celebrated by everyone -- it’s what the whole culture does.  Examples abound from other parts of the world -- Christianity in Africa, or in Southeast Asia, or in Northern Europe.  When we humans migrate, we bring with us our cultures, our histories, our practices, our convictions...and often that’s all so wrapped up in our religion, that you can’t tell them apart.  

I love Garrison Keillor.  I’ll probably listen to him on my way home today, and laugh my head off.  But I think he’s done a disservice to the Lutheran church, in that he’s crystalized a limited picture of what being Lutheran is.  I think many people -- within the church and without -- tend to think that’s what being Lutheran is.  That’s it!  Upper-Midwesterners with Scandinavian (or even German) roots, who are entertainingly self-effacing, dry-humored, hard-working, meat and potatoes, quiet, and loving people...plodding along from field to kitchen table, to sanctuary, to village meetings, and back home again, week after week , their whole life through.  I can relate to those roots, many of you can relate to those roots.  He’s done a masterful job of telling many white, Northern European Americans’ cultural stories.  But this is not what it means to be Lutheran at its core.  And it can be radically unwelcoming!  

What if you can’t relate at all to old Garrison Keillor Lutheranism?  Then you have no place in this church?  [pause]

It’s almost be like we have an apple tree that needs some pruning.  Some checking, some tending, some love.

Paul is pruning the Galatian Christians with Jewish roots, rather than Keillor-ish roots.  He’s not cutting them; he’s definitely not cutting them off or down: but he is cutting off their assumptions and hopefully some of their practices, which excluded and overlooked others.  Because excluding and overlooking others puts the Gospel at stake.  

Paul testifies to his own days of excluding, overlooking and -- in his case -- chopping down of others.  That was another life for him, but it’s worth bringing up to these young Jewish Christians.  Check your zealousness.  What have you been zealous about lately?  What have you been overly sure about lately?  Have you ever been so right about something you’ve been wrong?  So passionate that you’re like a stem that’s growing green and leafy all by itself, while the rest of the tree is withering?  Maybe we need to be pruned a little too...

Our confession this morning certainly indicated that:  
“Just and gracious God, we come to you for healing and life. Our sins hurt others and diminish us; we confess them to you...Bind up our wounds, forgive us our sins, and free us to love, for the sake of Jesus Christ, our Savior. Amen.” 

Pruning is a way of loving, right?  It’s coming back and tending, not just planting seeds and hoping for the best.  No gardner spends time on a tree that’s having problems because she hates that tree, right?  It’s because God loves us that we get pruned, checked, and tended.  

This week let’s think about practices in our own lives and in our congregational community’s life that either consciously or (more often) unconsciously exclude and overlook others.  

So circumcision was the issue then, which might seem a little weird to us Christians now, but this was a purely and richly religious marking (or branding) and setting-apart for Jewish males.  And these Jewish Christians were absolutely convinced that others weren’t as Christian -- now -- as they were, because of this special practice and marking.  

What markings, what brands, do we have or put on ourselves, that make us feel better or more superior than others, and thereby exclude and overlook others?

Who is not as great as we are?  As you are?  What parts of you, of your psyche need to be trimmed a little?  

Friends in Christ, God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, comes back to give us a trim, to prune us, to check us, and ultimately to love us.  And this happens whether we like it or not -- God’s love, that is.  We can be resistant to the pruning -- like are kids are resistant to getting a hair cut or a cleaning.  We can resist it, but that love is there regardless.  That grace and mercy is for you.  

(I’ve been continually coming back to this idea: “Losing your/my faith” means “no longer able to trust in God’s grace”.)

Paul’s words to the Galatians are words to us as well.  And they are God’s words.  Words of God, words of life.  They renew our faith, they humble us, they check us, they challenge us, and they enable us to grow in even more healthy and loving ways FOR our procession outward to this huring world that God so dearly loves.  God’s words (not Paul’s words, as he makes clear here) -- these are God’s words, and they fill us with joy, they calm our anxious souls...and they fling wide open the doors of the church and the doors of our hearts.  Thanks be to God for that!  

Hey, Johnny Appleseed gave us a great song, let’s make that our closing prayer here:  “Oh the Lord is good to me, and so I thank the Lord for giving me the things I need, the sun and the rain and the apple seed.” AMEN.