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 28, 2016

August 28 -- Fifteenth After Pentecost

This last and final section from the book of Hebrews -- which is is sometimes called a sermon -- is a series of instructions for how we conduct ourselves as Christian people.  And I’d simply like to reflect on this list of instructions with you...here at the end of the summer and the beginning of a new academic year, in the midst of another highly divided political race in our country, election in November, in the midst of global strife, natural disaster, personal and professional troubles perhaps…

There are moments when we might want to throw up our arms in despair or disgust, and cry out, “What am I supposed to do?”  Well, the Hebrews sermon has got some suggestions:

Here’s what we’re supposed to do:

1.  Show hospitality to strangers. 
How many of you have a story about entertaining an angel without knowing it?  Remember my favorite movie Field of Dreams, when Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) and Terrance Mann (James Earl Jones), who are at the end of their rope, pick up a young man hitch-hiking, who ends up saving Ray’s little daughter from choking to death?  That’s an illustration from the movies, but a great image of people, who really don’t know what to do next...so they do something good.  We’re called to open our doors to the least likely, to the vagabond and the wanderer.  When we don’t know what to do next, God calls us to do something good for someone else.  AMEN?   

2. Remember those who are in prison and those who are being tortured...as if we ourselves are in prison or being tortured.  
This one speaks for itself.  But boy, words are easier than actions.  Who was the last person you visited in prison?  If any?  Who was the last person you prayed for who was in prison?  How about torture?  Know any survivors of torture?  
There, I think, thanks to my predecessor Pastor George Falk, this congregation has some access to working with and reaching out to those who have been tortured.  This organization Survivors of Torture International, that he and Kathi Andersen founded is a great start for remembering.  

But torture and prison, here in Hebrews, in its context, is also a reference to those who are being persecuted for practicing Jesus-following.  Notice: I’m being careful not just saying “those who are persecuted for their faith”.  They were persecuted for their faith, but that’s because it was a faith-in-action.  If the early Christians were “just talk” -- just benign, secret (or not-so-secret) groupings around the ancient world that didn’t really do anything, there’d be no threat.  But the early Christians were radically counter-cultural in their justice-seeking activism -- advocating on behalf of the poor and the outcast.  Remembering those who are in prison and tortured, is remembering those then (and recently) who put their faith in this One-whose-name-is-Love, and therefore took risks, took action for civil rights, stood up against facist regimes, welcomed the foreigner, fed the outcast, loved their enemies…
Risk-taking -- not safety-ensuring -- is the Christian virtue, and it has consequences...like prison and torture.   AMEN?

3. Let marriage be held in honor.
Sadly this is instructive for us too.  And it extends far beyond just not having affairs.  We break trust in our marriages, let one another down, sneak around with bad habits and even addictions all the time…if we’re honest.  You don’t have to be committing adultery to receive a warning -- and in that way, a blessing -- in this passage.  In what ways is your marriage defiled?  When we don’t know what else to do, put the phone down, turn the tv off (or whatever it is that’s distracting you), and spend time with the one you love.  AMEN?

4. Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content...for God has says, “I’ll never leave you.”
This is at the heart of our passage -- right in the middle!  Our money says exactly what we have such a hard time doing: “In God we trust.”  Be content with what you have. I’m betting none of us would admit to “being in love money”, [pause] but all of us could be accused of it...given the decisions that we’ve made at one time or another, right?  But God says, “Let it go.”  I posted on Facebook this weekend a picture of Katie and Heather at our kitchen table after dinner with a piggy bank:  I wrote, “Today's a big day: This is the day Heather taught Katie what tithing means.  H: ‘Now, out of 10 dimes, what does God ask us to share with the church?’ K: ‘Only 1 dime?! That's a deal!’
I was corrected: she actually said, “Can we give God more than just that?” And I reflected, “Maybe she’s the one teaching us.”

“I’ll never leave you,” God says.  Maybe this should be the theme for our stewardship campaigns...

5.  Remember your leaders and imitate their faith.
We Lutherans can get a little touchy, and even “judgey”, about “worshiping the saints”.  But we’re sitting on a goldmine of forebearers in the faith, and even those who are still alive.  Remember your leaders and imitate their faith.  My leaders are the Margaret Johnsons and Lois Hellbergs, the Bob Koskinens and Helen Roberts.  The faithful witnesses through the years -- our years -- who just keep “showing up”...for God and for us.  And we’ve got volumes of saints who have gone before us.  I’ve started listing them in the back of our bulletins.  This week we commemorate Augustine, Moses the Black, Nikolai Grundtvig.  Learn about them, imitate them, be strengthened by them.  They’re looking down on us with love, rooting for us. 

If our body’s a temple, a sanctuary, I like that image of the saints as those who are  sitting in the balcony of our sanctuary cheering us on -- encouraging, instructing, and smiling peacefully and lovingly upon us.    

And finally our passage today concludes:
6.  Do not neglect to do good and share what you have.
We’ve heard this.  Hebrews is driving it home.  Do good and share.  I’ve said before:  Jesus’ entire message for how we should live our lives can be summed up one word: “Share.” 


A lot to swallow today -- maybe we need that.  “Thank you, God, for this dose.”  These instructions are actually a blessing.  For one thing, these instructions, admonitions even, can be a real gift:  Our lives will be better when we do these things.  Guarantee.   The poet George Herbert once observed, “There is no greater sign of holiness than the procuring and rejoicing in another’s good.”  That’s what Hebrews is inviting us into: “...the procuring and rejoicing in another’s good”.

But friends, in the end, and at the heart, is God’s promise: “I’ll never leave you.”  What if we do mess these up royally?  What if we bomb at showing hospitality to strangers, never visit anyone in prison, jack up our marriages, worship money, forget the saints, and hoard things to ourselves like selfish toddlers (or any number of adults, frankly, that we can all think of).  What if we fail at every single one of these six instructions?  Is God going to walk out on us, like we’ve walked out on others?

This is the Gospel: Jesus is gonna love us/you anyway!  What!?  And because of that, when we know that, when we ingest it, when it seeps deep into our bones, then we’re actually flung into this new lifestyle of sharing and caring, and working for justice, and living in peace.  We don’t just throw our arms up in despair and disgust, anymore; we throw our arms up now -- having met this one Jesus on the road -- now we throw our arms up in joy and praise and thanksgiving for a God who never leaves us.  AMEN.

Monday, August 22, 2016

August 21 -- Fourteenth After Pentecost

Grace to you and peace...kind of...did you year that reading?

In C.S. Lewis’ most famous Narnia chronicle, Peter, Susan, Lucy and Edmund discover the wonderland of Narnia through a magical wardrobe.  [Any of you, teachers, ever read that to your class?  I remember mine did...]  And here’s the scene when they learn exactly what kind of animal the Great Aslan, who is able to help them, is: 

"Is - is he a man?" asked Lucy
"Aslan a man!" said Mr. Beaver sternly. "Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea. Don't you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion, the Lion, the great Lion."
"Ooh," said Susan, "I thought he was a man. Is he - quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion."
"That you will, dearie, and make no mistake," said Mrs. Beaver; "if there's anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they're either braver than most or else just silly."
"Then he isn't safe?" said Lucy.
"Safe?" said Mr. Beaver; "don't you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the king I tell you."

Great illustration for today’s text!  “Safe?  Who said anything about safe?  ‘Course God isn’t safe.  But God is good.”

You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them. … But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. 

Another great author Annie Dillard puts it like this…
“Does anyone have the foggiest idea of the power we so blithely invoke?...It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets.  Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.” 

“‘Course he’s not safe.”  
Have we domesticated God?  Have we sterilized Jesus, turning him into just a sweet little baby for a small part of the year...and just a nice buddy for the rest?

We’re talking about “something that cannot be touched” -- a blazing fire, the blast of a trumpet, a roaring lion, a hurricane.

Think about being in a big rain storm -- thunder crashing, lightning flashing...

My kids have never really experienced those big ones like we had back in Texas.  They used to terrify me, rattle the windows, but over time, Mom taught me to go out onto the porch, and be awestruck at the power.  “Course it’s not safe out there,” she would say to me in a matter of words, “but if you think about all the plants that are getting water, all the reservoirs that are filling up, all the washing, all the animals receiving what they need -- course‘ it’s not safe, but it’s good.  

Today’s Teacher Appreciation Day -- think for a minute about who your best teachers were.  Elementary school, middle school, high school, college, graduate school -- I’ve been reflecting on this for a few days, and I’m wondering (even betting) that they probably weren’t “safe” but they were good.  They probably helped you break out of the box, or challenged you...my best teachers -- my grade was definitely not safe...

Friends, we have a God, who’s definitely not safe.  Church people seem surprised when they find themselves in dangerous situations.  Shane Claiborne -- I was just laughing and remembering the other day -- talks about, “My life was great until I met Jesus...  

“I used to have a ‘real’ job, I had money, drove fancy cars, wore nice clothes, lived in comfortable houses, never was hungry.  Now I give my money to the poor, serve in rough neighborhoods, love my enemies, and fast from food and excess...”    

“‘Course he’s not safe, but he’s good.”  This Christ is good, this “mediator of a new covenant,” as our text says, “the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.”  You know what that’s referring to?  (Cain killed Abel out of jealousy and anger.) 

The blood of Christ, speaks a better word than the blood of revenge, the blood of short-sightedness, war, greed, jealousy and anger.

Cain was being safe -- killing his brother.  We are being safe -- hunting down and killing our enemies.  But Jesus talks about loving them and forgiving one another.  “Course he’s not safe, but he’s good.”  

How are you wrestling with this God these days?  As we as a nation are always about hunting down and killing the bad guys?  Jesus would be a bad soldier, in the literal sense.   “‘Course he’s not safe.”  A good soldier is safe, and keeps others safe.  What do we do with that?

“You have come to something that cannot be touched,” Hebrews says, “a blazing fire, darkness and gloom, the sound of a trumpet.”  ‘Course he’s not safe.  But he’s good.”

I don’t know that we do wrestle with this God.  Why would you wrestle a lion?  

The last part of our passage talks about worship.  

All we can do is stand in awe, like watching a thunderstorm.  That’s a thing about worship -- I wonder sometimes if we’ve lost:  we’re so worried about controlling it all.  (I’m preaching to myself here!)  Is this right, is this done perfectly, is this hymn going to work, is this sermon going to hit home, is this image going to connect -- sometimes we need to just shut up and sit in awe.  God’s got this!  God’s the primary actor, the one doing the action.  We’re all acted upon.  Just quiet down and bear witness to the roar!  [pause]

And then...after the worship, after the standing in awe.  We are changed forever.  We can’t go back to how it was before.  I’ll never look at a foreboding cloud the same way again.  I’ll never play with fire without being very careful.  If we really stand in awe, then we can’t help but we changed. 

Safety is not God’s concern.  There’s nowhere in the Bible where safety is all that important.  Think of how many dangerous situation God calls the people into.  Think of the crazy things Jesus tells us to do.  

‘Course he’s not safe.  But he’s good.  

And this book is full of the goodness of our God. 

It’s around those stories, that grace, that mercy, that radical love -- and ultimately that peace -- that we gather.  God is good.  AMEN.


Blessing of Teachers
God of wisdom, your Son came among us as a teacher.
Send your blessing on all who are engaged in the work of education:
give them clearness of vision and freshness of thought,
and enable them so to train the hearts and minds of their students
that they may grow in wisdom
and be prepared to face the challenges of life;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.


Sunday, August 14, 2016

August 14 -- Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

"Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”

What word there really jumps out at you?  

Worth memorizing this passage (on the cover of our bulletin)…

I’m saying -- we are singing and confessing -- all the time here that we are “free in Christ”.  That sound familiar?  Remember all that stuff in Galatians we had in July about being free in Christ?  Now in the book of Hebrews, we are reminded that this freedom in Christ comes through the community of the faithful, the cloud of witnesses -- those who bear witness to the love, joy and freedom that God has given us.  

So today, August 14, 2016, as we move into a new week, an exciting season, a new school year, a building project, perhaps a new job or a new home...who’s in your cloud?  Who’s in the cloud of witnesses cheering you on, running along side you?  

Are most of the people that come to mind for you alive, or have they died?  I the answer’s both.  Both make up your cloud.  Any children in your cloud of witnesses?  I’ve been reflecting on this question all week, and my kids are definitely in mine -- with their keen insights and observations, and their faithfulness and clarity, with their ease of proximity to God.   They’re not just cute and entertaining all the time, they bear witness to the God who’s name is Love!  They are prophetic and profound.

I hope you take some time to recognize who’s “in your cloud” this week.  Both living and resting in the eternal company of the saints in light.  We don’t give as much CENTRAL emphasis on the ancestors.  Asian culture and religion, Native American spirituality -- these could teach us a thing or two about honoring and recognizing the influence and the pervasiveness of the ancestors in the faith.  They’re all around us.  And they’ve gone before us.

That’s what the book of Hebrews does: “By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land...By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days..By faith Rahab...did not perish with those who were disobedient...And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets—who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness...Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented...They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.”
Do you consider David and Samuel, Ruth and Naomi, Paul and Lydia all part of your cloud?  You should.  They are there cheering you on.  That’s what we’re reminded of today.

There’s this picture I came across this week of a man in a marathon -- “running the race”.  Except he was in a wheel chair.  He was surrounded by others running, but he’s wheeling.  And he had this shirt on that said, “Keep Calm and Keep Running.”  I’ve been so struck by this image...  

Maybe sometimes you don’t feel like you’re fully “running”, like a man wheeling his way through 26 miles.  But he’s a full participant in that race.  And so are you.  And like him, you’re not alone.  Christ is with you, yes.  But so is this cloud of witness.  Some cheering you on -- like those who have gone before you.  And some running right along side you.  Your situation might be unique -- like the marathon man in the wheel chair.  Your obstacles might be different than others -- like the marathon man in the wheel chair.  But you are not alone.  Christ is with you, heaven’s booster club is reigning down chants and cheers for you, AND your sisters and brothers are right along side you.  Keep calm and keep running the race set before you.  

Thanks be to God for giving us one another, for giving us such a rich ancestry of faithful witnesses, and for giving us that One Jesus Christ, who lives and runs and fills us to the brim with grace and peace...this day and into eternity!  AMEN.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

August 7 -- Twelfth After Pentecost

Will you pray with me: “God help us to trust in you even more.  AMEN.”

When was the last time you really stepped out in faith?

Maybe it was when you made a huge purchase, like a house or a car, and you said a quick prayer as you scribbled on the dotted line.  

Maybe it was taking a new position, maybe a position that got you here, that allowed our paths to cross.

Maybe it was inviting a family member, an aging parent perhaps, to move in with you, changing your whole dynamic.  All of these, not knowing how it would end. 

For me, my most recent outstep in faith was putting Micah on an airplane by himself last Monday.  Going to visit Grandpa and Grandma in Houston.  First time.  I kissed him, and watched him walk down that plank all by his little self.  I looked at that pilot drinking his coffee while they waited for their turn amid the morning air traffic…closed my eyes and gave it to God...

I’ve been saying a prayer often as we embark on our big building project here at Shepherd of the Valley.  I’m not exactly sure where it came from.  I know it’s been called the Lutheran Prayer of Courage.  I put it on our front sign…

Lord you call your servants to ventures of which we cannot see  the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown.  Grant us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us, through Jesus Christ.  AMEN.
This prayer is based on our reading today from Hebrews.  We enter a new book of the New Testament today, here in the dog days of summer.  The heat, it almost seems, can have an impact on our spirituality, on our religious fervor.  A certain lethargy can set in here in August.  So books like Hebrews can serve as nice pep talk.  But we do well to remember that the author/s of Hebrews was way more invested than that:  their lives were on the line for the trust they put in God, through JC.  

Calling to mind the faithfulness of Abraham and Sarah -- who truly set out, not knowing where they go, but only that God’s hand is leading them and God’s love supporting them -- Hebrews drives home our call to faithfulness in God.  (This is always rooted, btw, in God’s faithfulness in loving us.)

“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” our passage says.  We are called to step out again in faith.  In a world where real hope is often a rare sight, in a world where fear and death, violence and terror, rampant consumption and self-centered, self-promotion seem to rule us, real hope can certainly fall into the category of “things not seen”.  And yet we lean into hope through faith -- faith not ultimately in technology or weapons or any human-made schematic or innovation.  Some of these things can certainly be good, but we are called to lean into a hope in the One who prepares a city for us, a place we can’t even see.  

Now, Hebrews’ references of hope reaching beyond even the boundaries of this life, reaching beyond even death itself, the cosmic dimensions of the hope we’re dealing with here, does not catapult us out of our present situation.  This heavenly hope actually injects us even more deeply into our present moment...  
We Christians don’t live with hope wistfully longing to be swept away (that’s why that Left Behind stuff was so wrong).  

Because of this faith, this hope, we live even deeper into our present reality, attending to the needs of the world, especially those who are hurting in our world.  We don’t need immediate assurances that “everything is going to be ok”, because we know in the end -- the big end, the final end, the glorious end -- everything truly will be ok.  So we live in hope, love, joy and peace now -- even as the world is flying out of control.  Christians have faith.

Friends in Christ, God’s hand is leading us.  God’s love is supporting us.  Can you see it?  Maybe not, but together we have faith that God’s hand is there, God’s support is there.  

What gets me about the saints -- Old Testament heroes, historical models of faith like Clare of Assisi (who we commemorate this week) or Martin Luther...or Martin Luther King Jr. -- is that so many of the saints died without having reached “the promised land”.   [pause]  They were children of Mt. Nebo.  Do you remember Mt. Nebo in the Bible?  Mt. Nebo is where Moses goes in the very last verses of his life in Exodus.  It’s where God takes him up, to look out and see the promised land.  He dies before he gets there.  But he gets to see it.

a view from the top of Mt. Nebo
Sisters and brothers in Christ, in so many ways, we to are children of Mt. Nebo.  Like the saints, those who have -- what do we say? -- “died in the faith”, we too will die before we get there.  As Bp. Oscar Romero said, “We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.” 

He once wrote (I invite my confirmation kids to memorize this...): 
“It helps now and then to step back and take a long view.
The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God's work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession
brings perfection, no pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the Church's mission.
No set of goals and objectives include everything.

This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one
day will grow. We water the seeds already planted
knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of
liberation in realizing this.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning,
a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord's
grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the
difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders, ministers, not
messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.”

We move on and outward in faith.  We continue to pray: “God help us to trust you more.”  And we give thanks for God’s faithfulness in loving us, even when we fail.  AMEN.