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, September 17, 2017

September 17 -- Binding of Isaac

Let’s just come out and say it: at first glance, this is a MESSED UP text!  God tests Abraham by asking him to sacrifice/kill his only son Isaac as a burnt offering?!! 

It’s a little tempting to just skip this text, pretend like it’s not here in the Bible...and many times we do...but this actually has got some very important lessons and challenges for us -- we just need to say a few things first:

It needs to be said that we 21st c. Christians are always looking at Scripture through the lens of our own experience and culture -- we can’t help it.  And most of the time, frankly, that works just fine.  Lots of the stories in the Bible, we can relate to, as if they were happening in our day in age.  Many stories, we could create an almost-identical modern-day version, like a modern-day Prodigal Son story, for example.  

In this case, however, we have to try to get out of our own contextual trappings and contextual shortsightedness and imagine for a moment how very different the time, place, and customs really were.  This is always what we should consider with Bible, but it’s mandatory today.  In the binding of Isaac, we’re really forced to leave our contextual trappings.
“contextual trappings/contextual shortsightedness” -- 
What do you mean, Pastor? 
Well, how about this, for example: “What kind of a God would demand that a father who’s longed for a son, sacrifice that son?”  How many of you, like me, have that question hanging out there, as we read this story?  

Remember how different the times were: this was a time where many religions practiced child sacrifice.  It was common...people did it in order to appease the gods.  If you do this, then the gods will reward you.  We’d never do this today...but -- then again -- people  bargain with God today too: “God, I’ll do this...if you do…” (Then leave the church and maybe faith altogether if it doesn’t pan out.) 

This story starts to look like its headed that way as well, but then a surprising twist to an old story that always has the same ending: No!  Here, God/Yahweh/Elohim stops the child sacrifice tit-for-tat system.  God keeps promises, remember?  God promised to bring a great nation forth from Abraham and Sarah.  

So God -- in this ancient story -- stops the terror and violence.  For our time and place, it’s hard to see that, and this all sounds very troublesome, I know.  But for its time and place: radical.  “Stop!” the angel cries, “Do not hurt the boy.”  This is earth-shattering grace, something new, breaking out of something old!  

Probably not the best way, we’d image that today -- in fact, I’d never in a million years image it like this!  But what would it look like for you?  What would “earth-shattering grace, something new breaking out of something old” look like for you?  Ever experienced God’s faithfulness, when you had no idea how you were going to get out of a bad predicament?

A phone call from a friend that comes just when you’re on the brink?  A little note from a family member that stops you from doing something awful.  Nature, so often, is God’s angel for me.  “Stop!” nature has cried out to me -- a cool breeze, a butterfly, a ray of sun piercing through the clouds: these are among God’s angels for me, too.  “Do no harm,” creation has cried out to me.  “Look, God will provide.”  God will provide.  All is not lost.  This is not over.  Just when we’re on the brink of doing something awful, something new breaks out of something old.  And God will provide. 

But can we really trust that?  Can YOU really trust that?
Feel free to be honest to the struggle.  Here’s the other part of our story that’s so gripping: It’s a story about God, breaking old ways with new life and hope, through providence.  And it’s a story that calls us to reflect again on how much we really trust in God.  How much do you trust in God?  (put your contemporary lenses back on)  Enough to lift up and let go of that which is most important to you?  How much do we really trust in God?  Do our lives reflect that trust?  
I think we should stop calling that line in our budget “Benevolence” and start calling it “How much we trust in God”.  Benevolence is about what we’re donating out of the goodness of our hearts.  But what that $17,160 really is...is how much we trust in God.  What we write on our pledge cards later in October, that’s how much we trust in God...

During stewardship season, I’ve been known to say, “All that have and all that we are comes from God and belongs to God.”  And yet, we can hoard and hang onto things as if there’s no God at all, at the end of the day.  We can spout religious platitudes, practice religious rituals, but when it really comes down to it, there’s no way we’d trust God that much -- “all that we have, all that we are”?  What would Abraham say about that?

Could money be our first-born and only son?  Is money our Isaac?  Would you ever just take all your money as a demonstration of your trust in God...bind it and sacrifice it?  Build an altar, lift it up and let it go?  Give it away and figure, “God’s got me, so I trust that I’ll ultimately be just fine.  [pause]  I don’t understand it.  I don’t want to do it.  But I trust and give thanks that God’s truly got me.  I don’t know how, but I trust God.”  

Most of us really struggle with that.  I do.  This text -- despite it’s obvious modern-day problems -- calls us to think again and anew about how much we trust in God?  

Abraham and Sarah left it all, their crops, their comfort, their good life because God called them into something new.  I imagine they never dreamed they’d make it to Canaan, but they did.  God provided.  Never have a child, but they did.  GP.  Now this: Isaac.  

It was a different time and a different place.  But are we capable of such great sacrifice and trust? 

Bishop Andy -- I’ve share this before -- encourages us when it’s time to pledge each year (and he practices this himself, I should say): he tells you to go home, pray about what’s the absolute most you can give, what percentage of your income will you give back to God in this new year.  “Come up with that number, and then,” he says, “Bump it up one more percent, so that it hurts a little.”  Now we’re tapping into the binding of  Isaac.  Talk about hurting.  Abraham gave ‘til it hurt, he trusted ‘til it hurt...  

Where are you being called to make great sacrifices?  Pray on that this week.  

And remember, the good news here is on the bulletin cover:  God. Will. Provide.  Wouldn’t it be amazing to go around and hear each other’s stories about how God has provided in times we’ve made sacrifices or have been scared...especially financially.  (I know there are other ways to sacrifice, but really think money is the Isaac.)  

Here’s what I’d finally point out here in the text, just to conclude.   Abraham says “Here I am” 3x in this text.  He says it to God twice, and he says it to his son Isaac when he has a question.  In other words, Abraham shows up.  He doesn’t always understand how it’s all going to go, or what (the heck) God is up to...He simply says here I am.  And God he finds that in the end God provides what is needed.  And there’s enough there to remain in relationship -- with the world, with sisters and brothers, sons and daughters, parents and grandparents in our family and beyond.  There’s enough there to remain in relationship with God.  The covenant continues...for God provides.  AMEN.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

August 6 -- 9th Sunday after Pentecost

It’s a conversation I’ve had and heard often: parents who grieve that their adult children are not part of a congregation.

(Invite someone to church this summer: “my children.”)

It’s a very real concern: “Oh, I wish William would come to church.”  “Oh, I just ache that Sharon doesn’t have a church home.”  And of course we can’t make decisions for our kids, once they’ve left the home -- some even while they’re still living at home.  So we have the familiar scene of church-goers bidding farewell to their children (or siblings, or friends) at the door.  They take a polite pass from behind the newspaper on the couch, or still curled up in bed, or from the exercise bike or strapping on running shoes...they take a polite pass on our invitation to Spirit-borne, Christ-centered, cross-and-resurrection communities -- I don’t just mean SVLC, I mean any Gospel-centered Christian family.  Week after week, parents are polite and patient too, but often with heavy hearts (and even some deep sadness somewhere way down there), we accept their rejection and head out to enjoy what they don’t have.  

Do you ever have -- or get to enjoy -- an incredible dinner (maybe out, maybe at someone’s home)...but the someone who could (and frankly should) be there is not?  And even while you have a great time, enjoy a delicious feast, you’re sad too?

Maybe you’ve noticed the sign out front -- “You need what we have here.”  It’s not meant to sound arrogant; it’s meant to sound Pauline, namely Roman.  I am convinced that the world needs what we have here, what Paul talks about in his letters: God’s grace and mercy.  Everyone, everyone, everyone...isn’t just welcome.  Everyone, everyone, everyone needs what we have and what is offered here: God’s grace and mercy.
When a loved one (especially a loved one who’s having a particularly hard time) misses that wonderful family feast, there is this sense of deep sadness: “Ah man, they could have really used that, they really needed that and missed out.”
Paul in Romans 9 is grieving that his own family is missing out.  He just dropped some of the most beautiful verses in the whole Bible in Chapter 8, he poured his heart out for his people -- we read them last Sunday -- “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, no angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  That’s the family feast!  And some weren’t even there.  Or to flip the parent-child metaphor -- it’s like a child pouring their heart out with stories and lessons and questions from their day at school, with this need to connect, and the parent just sitting on the couch distracted, missing it all because they’re on their phone, texting or doing Facebook or email.  “Um-hm, that’s great, sweetie.” 

Much to grieve in these scenes today.  Some just aren’t there.  Others (of us) are.  Others hear it, but are unaffected.  

It’s one thing to point fingers at children or others, at what they are missing out on, but what about us -- who actually do hear and participate, who maybe aren’t distracted, but who go on living as if nothing happens here, as if Christ’s cross and resurrection aren’t real, as if Paul never dropped those verses?

I wonder, if we’re honest -- and if you were here last Sunday --how impacted we are by Paul’s “firetruck-of-a-text” (that’s what I called it last week, but I had to go back and look up what I wrote…and I wrote it!)
Yeah, I called Romans 8 a “fire-truck-of-a-text that actually and actively saves lives...dousing the very flames of death, and rescuing suffocating sinners.”  How did that letter from Paul change, even save, your life this past week?...with all its ladders and hoses and First Aid?  “Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.”  [pause]

So we have grief for those who miss out on the Gospel completely...and, if we’re honest and a little more humble, we can miss it ourselves.  I’m going to be in Atlanta this week with ELCA pastors from all over the country, and I know we’ll be sharing stories of how we “miss the Gospel” all the time, even as we’ve committed our lives to naming it, proclaiming it, celebrating it.  And yet I opt out all the time too, hiding behind the newspaper, or staying active (or distracted) on the bike, or strapping on the latest program on how to run your ministry in tiptop shape, or just curling up and sleeping in.  I look a lot like the one who’s missing out, huh?

I think when we’re getting the most upset about how others are not doing or enjoying church right (or at all)...is when we need to check ourselves the most.  [pause]

And then, in our brokenness, that’s where those words of grace and peace come and fill in the gaps again.  Just when we get all high and mighty about how others aren’t as good or as faithful as we are, that’s when we need to stop.  And let God be present.  God fills the space whether we invite God or not.

But to be intentional about God’s presence, not only in our arrogance and in our grief, but in our brokenness and humility too.  This is the greatest gift.  As we mourn, as we judge, as we make snide comments...and as we crash and come up empty, God is still with us.  Nothing can separate us from that love.
Paul -- even in these 5 short verses today -- gives it all to God at the end.  Paul names God in the Flesh, Jesus the Messiah, as the one “who is over all”.  

And in the end, this is all we can do too.  In our failure, in our brokenness, in our grief, sometimes all we can do is open our hands and commend it all to God.

“Help us, God, to take it all to you in silence, in prayer, in peace. [pause] AMEN.”

Sunday, July 30, 2017

July 30 -- 8th Sunday After Pentecost

Friends in Christ, this is the passage to read when you’re all out of words.  These words of Paul have carried us Christians through the most difficult of times.  Through death itself.  I read this most recently at the bedside right after, LM took his last breath on this earth.  All I had was my little prayer book.  I open.  At the close of the day, at the close of Lee’s life, and we read:  “Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.” This is the thickest, meatiest theology in Scripture.  Right here before us on a nice, summer Sunday morning.

Don’t blow this stuff off -- these words have been present at suicides.  At car accidents.  At shootings and hate crimes and church burnings in the deep South.  Battlefields in Vietnam, coroner’s labs, the falling of twin towers, stillbirths...“The Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray...but that very Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.”  [pause]  Rip this passage out of your bulletin today, fold it up and keep it in your wallet...better yet, memorize it and keep it in your heart.  These words can save you in your darkest moments, these words can raise the dead.

I had a preaching professor, who used to talk about raising the dead in our preaching.  He would practically taunt preachers (I wasn’t a fan of his, but I remember):  “Oh, you preached today?  How lovely.  Did you tell a funny story?  Did you make the people laugh?  Did you share something touching about your personal life?  Oh good.  Did you give some good advice?  Did you impress everyone with your research of and insight into the holy text?  Hmm, that’s nice.”  

I think of my professor with passages like this one today:  “When we preach,” he’d almost shout, “we raise the dead.  We tear down walls that divide us, we defy death itself as we point -- sometimes, with all evidence to the contrary -- to Jesus.”  [Reformation art]  This one Jesus changes everything! Intercedes for us “with sighs too deep for words,” promises never to abandon us, even and especially in the most painful and horrifying of moments and days.  [pause]  

It’s kind of amazing how so many of us can keep this page in our bibles so pristine and untouched.  BUt not everyone:  I remember seeing my Grandma Roschke’s bible (AK and BN, I believe, have Bible’s like this too...BK had one). Those bibles are far from mint condition: they seem like every page is tattered, the whole book swollen beyond the width of the spine, because someone’s been literally clinging onto it over the years, crinkling and folding pages, highlighting and bookmarking favorite verses, madly scribbling notes and prayers into the margins.  And the salty water stains of tears have smeared the ink.  

Often for those with bible’s like that, the page at the end of Romans Chapter 8, is an absolute disaster.  

Paul wasn’t messing around.  He gave us a life boat.

And right here, on a nice, summer Sunday morning, we get to visit it again.  Interesting contrast, really -- at least at the moment, there’s no immediate crisis.  In fact, it’s quite a lovely morning.  We’re not hanging on for dear life.  We get to walk around these verses, like taking a tour of the fire station, calmly admiring that big red vehicle, with all its ladders and hoses and First Aid.  It looks so clean today, more like it belongs in a parade, not at the foot of burning building on the scene of a terrible tragedy.  

But this firetruck-of-a-text actually and actively (it’s not just a relic) saves lives!  Dousing the very flames of death, and rescuing suffocating sinners.  “Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.” 

Paul gives us the most precious gift today: the very core of our theology (Know what that is?) -- “God’s got us.”  The Spirit not only sits with us, She advocates and prays on our behalf.  Jesus extends the ladder, soaks us with grace and mercy, and brings us at last to safety.  

This is enough.  AMEN.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

July 23 -- 7th Sunday After Pentecost


What is it about waiting...that changes us from the inside out?

Waiting for something to happen.  Waiting for change to come.  Long hours in a waiting room or a holding pattern…

When was the last time you had to wait for a long time?  Often  I think of airports.  This past week that airport waiting had nothing to do with my own travel, but with Micah’s: waiting to hear that he had arrived safely home.  Waiting with hopeful expectation there.  

More times than not, I’d venture to say, we hate waiting.  Waiting is not something we do well in our culture, is it?  It’s always interesting to watch how waiting affects people in our country, especially us white, upper-middle class, privileged folks, like myself--how often we get short, aggressive, even hostile when we have to wait.  Just think about our collective disdain for traffic in North County…

Yes, waiting has usually got negative connotations, but here in Paul’s letter to the Romans, waiting is associated with hope, patience, nature and freedom.

“We wait with patience, as we hope for what we do not see.”  That almost sounds downright un-American! Who waits with patience for something we don’t even know (cognitively) for sure is there?!

I’ll hang up on my own brother if he makes me wait more than one minute, so that he can take an incoming call from his wife, who’s got a short grocery list for him!  “Ain’t nobody got time for that!”
What the heck, Paul!?!  Why are you trying to slow us down?  We are trying to get places faster, accomplish more, impress each other more, see more, consume more, make more…

If you’ve never considered Paul a mystic -- that is, a person with a deep mystical awareness of God’s deep presence right here and now, and God’s deep connection to you and all creation -- consider it today.  Maybe you already do, but Paul can often be considered by many scholars as merely a systematic theologian -- a big brain, making very cool, logical, calculated cases and arguments for the reality of God in Christ in a Greco-Roman culture (much like ours: “if you can’t see it, prove it, understand it cognitively, it’s not there.”)  But here, Paul’s tapping into something that can’t grasped like that:  

It’s really hard to wrap our minds around “suffering that’s not worth comparing to the glory about to be revealed to us…”  We’d rather convince each other how bad the suffering we’re experiencing is...how the long hours we’re working makes us way more worthy of respect and admiration, maybe a raise; how the troubles in our past make us way more entitled to the good things we enjoy now; how the hardships we’ve endured make us tougher and justify our behavior.  Comparing suffering is embedded into our egocentric DNA.  In other words, it’s embedded into our “flesh”.  (Remember a couple weeks ago, I shared Fr. Richard Rohr’s suggestion? -- Whenever you read “flesh” in Paul’s writing, think “ego”.)

Pay attention in your conversations this week for “suffering one-uppers”.  Are you a “suffering one-upper”?   It often starts with, “You think that’s bad…”  Why do we feel this need to let others know how bad we’ve got it?  How hard life is for us?  How much greater my pain is than yours?  
One word: ego.  Another word: sin.
Paul, calls us, just as he called the early Christians in Rome to recognize and celebrate an even deeper reality than the reality of our sin and ego.  Yes, those are there, nagging at us.  But there’s something much deeper keeping us connected, this ancient mystic tells us again today.  There is a “glory about to be revealed” that comes alongside our sufferings.  Ready? ... 
We have been adopted.

We’re caught up in all this egotistical comparing and impatience, and yet much deeper, way down there -- last week I shared that quote from Terese of Avila, who talked about the deep well that is God’s love -- much deeper than all our selfish and competitive, suffering-one-upping stuff, is a God, who sits at the desk in the adoption agency and says, I want this one, and “signs on the dotted line” for you, in order to take you home and be -- not just your guardian -- but your “Abba”. That’s the greatest term of endearment for a parent.  (My kids have asked me why they can’t call me “Dan” like everyone else.  And I’ll say, “Everyone calls me, Dan.  But you’re the only 2 people in the whole universe, who get to call me ‘Daddy’.”)  That’s the kind of intimacy that God has with you, friends -- every single one of you, God signs for.  The egotistical, impatient, tit-for-tat stuff we get caught up in has got nothing on the way God still feels about us.  Just like when your kids bicker and argue (mine don’t, but yours probably do) -- it’s annoying, but it doesn’t even come close to the kind of love you’ve got for them.  That well is so deep, they can’t dig themselves deep enough into trouble.  

This is our God, the God Paul is describing here in Romans.  This God walks alongside us, and all creation -- that’s another thing: it’s not even simply an “every single one of us human beings” -- it’s every single creature, the whole creation waits with us, the whole cosmos is in longing for the kind of freedom we need too.  Isn’t that so deeply mystical?
The insights from our kids up at Confirmation Camp this week are too many to share.  But the wisdom and the faith of our young people -- 6th, 7th, 8th graders, and our incredible staff of 20-somethings up at Camp Luther Glen.  I love it, every time.  We ought to pass the keys of our churches over to these young people, and let them lead us -- with all their hope, wisdom, computer-savvy ;) and trust in this God of the universe.  

So much of our problem, as we get into our middle ages and more secure, more able to take care of ourselves, protect ourselves and our futures, ensure our comfort -- is that we no longer need to trust in God.  “Why go to church and be in some broken community, when I can have my own customized spirituality?”  These kids, I watched again this week, model this incredible trust in God as they lived in community -- not even aware always that they’re swimming and splashing in that deep well water of God’s grace and provision!   We tap back into that child-like faith at the end of our earthly lives -- as we rely on others and on God once again.  

But that deep water covers us here and now too, friends in Christ!  We don’t have to just be a young person or close to death to enjoy this God.  Despite our impatience and brokenness, the renewal is now.  And God is already here, holding us.  No waiting need, in this case.  The pardon and the grace, the new life is ours for the enjoying...as we wait, and even as we suffer.  The well water runs deep and never runs out.  So, let’s share that as we go out together!  
To close in prayer, I’d like to you repeat after me:
(song from South Africa we learned at camp)  
“Hum-a-na-ti.  Ko-lu-lu we-tu. Come walk with us.  The journey is long.”

Sunday, June 18, 2017

June 18 -- 2nd Sunday after Pentecost

This morning, on Facebook, I posted some pictures of my dad and me in Rome.  I’ve gotta tell you about how we found each other in Rome to start that amazing trip together:  

It was January 4, 2016 -- 2 days before Epiphany -- the 10th day of Christmas.  I had been up in Assisi, in the Umbrian region of Italy; Dad had just arrived in Rome that afternoon.  There was some last-minute concern and chaos that maybe he wouldn’t be able to make the trip because of my Grandpa’s failing condition, but things for him stabilized, and Dad got on that plane after all!  But now we had to find each other, and the city was dark and foreign.  Rome’s a huge place.  (What is it about meeting up in a foreign country that is so thrilling?!)  

I disembark the subway at the San Giovanni exit, and text Dad. I start walking around with the battery on my cell phone slowly dying, only a couple bars for reception. There’s this big building in front of me, rectangular -- can’t tell if it’s a church or a government building -- it’s lit up, statues across the top.  I wander around that for quite a while.  Everyone else seems to know where they’re going.  I’m faking it.  Walked all the way down one street...and back, thinking I might know where our lodging is, but can’t find anything.  (What is it about maps in a foreign country that don’t always seem to work out?)  

Finally I get a call, “Dan! It’s Dad! [really?] Meet me at the obelisk at the San Giovanni piazza.  Do you see it?” I had wondered by there a couple times, yes.  So I make my way back. “I’m just coming up the hill,” Dad huffs and puffs.  Now this obelisk, as I recall, was in the middle of a busy roundabout.  Maybe you’ve been to or seen one like it in Paris at the Arc de Triumph...cars are screaming around, and he wants to meet there?  OK.  I venture across Italian traffic and wait for about 5 more minutes. I had been wondering about for almost an hour since getting off that training, but finally there he was, in his signature blue Eddie Bauer jacket!  My dad.  Waving excitedly, darting out through traffic toward me...we had been dreaming, and then planning, this trip for years!  And finally we were together in Rome!  

And that big, rectangular building?  Yeah, that was San Giovanni, the very first (official public) Christian church...EVER!  Dedicated to the glory of God, 5 years after the Edict of Milan, in 318 AD.  Predating the Vatican, it actually still houses the “seat of the pope”.  And it was once at the very edge of town.  You could still see the old Roman wall that once guarded the city.  We were, in a way, at the birthplace of the public church -- the church that’s out of the closet, in front of the world.  I had been wandering around some of the most historic and sacred territory of the Early Church.  I had walked right by (not knowing) the famous Holy Steps that Martin Luther had once climbed on his knees, crumpled up an indulgence at the top and went home to Germany to start the Protestant reformation!  I had this thought that the Reformation actually started -- not at the Wittenberg church door -- but right there in the San Giovanni piazza!   [pause]

Once thinking I was lost, and then realizing I was right in the center of it all...and found.  You have stories like this too?  I love to tell them, and on Father’s Day!  

“Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand…”

We, sisters and brothers in Christ, have just wandered into God’s good grace.  (We practice infant baptism.)  How did I get here?  Not really sure.  Just kind of wandering around, even a little nervous, to be honest…
But be assured: you are right in the center of it all!  

No, it’s not safe!  No one said Rome was a safe place!  But safety is not the point.  It never has been -- when have characters in the Bible, when have God’s people, every been called to stay safe at all costs?!  Abraham and Sarah?  Moses and Miriam?  Ruth and Naomi?  Jonah?  Deborah?  Hanna?  Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah?  The 12 apostles?  Paul and Barabus?  MLK? Bonhoeffer? Mother Theresa?  Bishop Elizabeth Eaton?  Bishop Andy Taylor?  You?  No one said Rome would be safe.  No one said this life in the faith was going to be safe.  This life-in-faith is like an Italian round-about.  But finding ourselves, realizing ourselves -- despite all that -- in the midst God’s grace at the center: that’s the point.  We’ve been there all along.  I was there all along, right where I needed to be.  Just hadn’t realized it, “this grace in which we stand.”  That’s the point. 

One translation: “We find ourselves standing where we always hoped we might stand -- out in the wide open spaces of God’s grace and glory, standing tall and shouting our praise.”  That’s the word for “boast”.  That was me by the obelisk.  

And then it gets even better: We even “boast” that is “shout our praises” in our sufferings.  No one said it would be safe.  But suffering produces “endurance” -- that translation is a little empty: one scholar suggests “passionate patience”.  

“We continue to shout our praise even when we’re hemmed in with troubles, because we know how troubles can develop passionate patience in us [endurance], and how that patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue [character], keeping us alert for whatever God will do next [hope].  In alert expectancy such as this, we’re never left feeling shortchanged [disappointed].  Quite the contrary--we can’t round up enough containers to hold everything God so generously pours into our lives through the Holy Spirit!”  

That’s Eugene Peterson’s brilliant work, bringing the text alive in new ways for us!  Sucking the marrow out of the Greek.  [read it again!..comparing to “suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, character produces hope, and hope doesn’t disappoint”]

And this is just the beginning of the trip!  Dad and I proceed to share 10 days then of exploring Early Church and Roman imperial sights together.  It was like a pendulum swinging back and forth from all the places of power -- the military dominance of Rome and the emperors one day or half-day, and then the swing back to the humble, underground, subversive sites of the Christians -- always at odds with the proud and self-centered powers of the day.  God’s grace hurls us into dangerous places, exciting places, community-centered places, poor places, high traffic places.  And that’s just the beginning...

[calmly]  And we are going to be just fine.  You would think we might feel shortchanged, disappointed.  “Quite the contrary,” Paul says, “we can’t round up enough containers to hold everything God so generously pours into our lives through the Holy Spirit.”  [pause]

I was so excited when Dad found me, for all kinds of reasons:  It was the culmination...and the beginning...at the very same time.  It’s crazy how one of the most memorable moments of an unforgettable trip was the very beginning. [pause] That’s a baptismal metaphor.  I was going to be just fine.

Standing in the center of God’s grace, now the fun begins!  Now our exciting travels continue, but with an under-current of deep and abiding peace with God, “for this [grace] is the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes” (Mt.21:42)!  AMEN.

Blessing of Fathers, and those serving in fatherly roles:

God of all creation,
pour out your blessing on all fathers
and those who provide fatherly care.
You have made them in your image
and given them children to love and care for in your name.
Bless them with a heart like your heart:
discerning and thoughtful, bold and decisive,
compassionate and loving.
As they model for their children
the life that is lived by faith and not by sight,
grant them courage under pressure
and confidence in your power.
When troubles threaten to overwhelm them,
grant them your coping calm.
When doubts give rise to anxiety,
shore up their trust in your promises.
When joy fills their days,
grant them a keen gratitude 
for your abundant supply of grace.
Season them with a lively sense of humor, Lord,
for it will make life richer for us all.
In all circumstances preserve them as your own.
We ask this in Jesus’ name.


Sunday, May 21, 2017

May 21 -- Sixth Sunday of Easter

Grace to you and peace from God who creates us, calls us together and sends us back out to love and serve a broken and hurting world.  AMEN.

Paul’s letter to the Galatians: we’ve got to remember Paul is writing to a specific community, in a specific place and time.  And still there is universal truth there to be found there.
The themes and the issues that were important in Paul’s day are not the same as ours, obviously. And yet there is still universal truth in his message.

Paul has come to the conclusion -- even at the beginning of his letter -- that it all depends on God’s grace.  But, it took him a long time to get there.  In his earlier days, he was so deeply convinced that he had all the answers, that he had the correct teachings and the correct traditions -- that he could earn his place of righteousness with God, through his own doing.

Paul walked that path for many years and even became so zealous in his convictions that he started hunting down and killing any who would oppose him.  Paul was convinced.

Have you ever been convinced?  Absolutely dead set in one way of seeing things, one way of knowing the world or just a single person or a situation?  “I am so right about how I see [this], I defy you to challenge me! Trust me, you won’t win.”

Have you known people like this?  Do you ever get like this?

Welcome to the land of the ego.  EgoLand (not LegoLand...there’s no L in ego :) In EgoLand, the ego is a brutal dictator, and there is no room for conversation or mystery or questioning, or even playfulness.  Ego Land is where Paul lived the first half of his life.  He was so hell-bent on taking everyone else down, on being right, successful and holy...that it actually completely blinded him to God’s reality.

Pay attention, friends in Christ, to the ego this week.  How often will you go to EgoLand these next few days?  The ego is clever, and the ego is brutal.  Your ego doesn’t leave much room for community, doesn’t make much space for discernment and conversation.  The ego doesn’t need all that nonsense, mumbo jumbo, fluffy stuff.  The ego already knows the right answer...

And the ego doesn’t appreciate prayer.

Because when we pray, that’s when we open up our hearts and our minds, that’s when we open up our hands -- and let the ego fly away.  And then, in our emptiness, Christ enters and offers us new life, true life, life abundant, life where we are one in Christ.

Paul has come to the conclusion, through an arduous journey through EgoLand, that the ego has to be released, so that God’s voice and God’s grace may be heard.  All the great things that we do -- that give us pride and a sense of accomplishment and even victory -- all that has to be released so that Christ may enter, and God’s voice may be heard, and grace received.
Being a community in Christ is being a community in prayer. [pause]  That might sound obvious, but I don’t mean just reciting prayers together, or making sure the pastor says grace before a meal when we eat together.  I mean sitting together in silence, letting go of that dictatorial ego self and inviting the Holy Spirit to come and fill our hearts and our imaginations with a new way of being...

One of our keynote address at Assembly last week talked about her community in Omaha, NE.  ELCA Pastor Chris Alexander is the Christian Partner in what’s called the Tri-Faith Initiative -- Muslims, Jews and Christians all sharing a single campus!
They coordinate and cooperate on sharing the space -- the kitchen, the classrooms, the sanctuary -- for worship, fellowship and community service.  Most things they do separately, but they have to coordinate and cooperate.  And they also program some events like service projects all together.  Why not?  Feeding the hungry, clothing the cold, fighting for education and healthcare and a place at the table -- this is everyone’s Godly business, they’ve determined.

I was excited to hear Chris talk about all the programs they were doing together, but she surprised me by spending most of her time teaching us about prayer.  Because -- How did they come up with this creative and dynamic idea and model for ministry?” Through prayer, she said.  Could it be that we might find our call to ministry by just sitting in silence together, by doing -- what looks to our world and even to our egos as -- nothing?  Just sitting in silence.

When we quiet our minds, and our hearts, and release our egos, it’s amazing what God will do.  I’m convinced Paul was a mystic.  He’s often seen as this razor-sharp systematic theologian, all scholarly and priestly, but I believe that he was in communion with the divine self-giving Trinity, which is beyond winning solutions and holier-than-you answers.  Paul, through quiet retreat and letting go (modeled to us by Jesus himself, btw), opened himself to God’s revelation, and then returned to the people of Galatia and throughout the ancient Mediterranean with the Gospel message of grace and unconditional welcome and love.

In a world where everyone’s sizing each other up and keeping score -- highest number of points gets to be closest to God (I’m talking about then, not today ;), in a competitive, cut-throat religious and secular world, Paul writes us too and offers a greeting of Christ’s peace...grace and peace.

We will not, we can not get there on our own.  We rely solely on Christ, whose everlasting arms pick us up where we let go, whose loving Spirit fills our hearts in times of despair, whose gracious peace calms our “monkey minds” in times of stress and chaos.

And together, sisters and brothers in Christ, trusting in this all-vulnerable, all-present, all-benevolent God, we arrive at the Promised Land, even today, even in this very moment.  God is here to dwell.

Paul bore witness to this One Lord Jesus Christ.  Even with his very specific letter to the specific church of the Galatians, he bears witness to the Gospel for all of us.  Prayer opens us to this reality: that we are bound to Christ, and so it is indeed no longer we who even live, but Christ who lives in us and through us.  This is our faith.  It is in God’s reality that we trust.  This is the truth, in Paul’s day, in our day and into eternity.

Thanks be to God.  AMEN.


Let’s sit together in silence for 5 minutes.  (Gina, set your watch, everyone else, take off your watch, silence phones.)  As distractions come -- and they will -- let them drift past like a raft on a river...God has something to say to you.  Inhale grace, exhale peace.

(Reflect this week on how Christ is living totally and completely  in and through you.  Through us as SVLC?)

Sunday, May 14, 2017

May 14 -- Council at Jerusalem

I’ve realized that I’m sitting on a proverbial “goldmine” several times in my life and ministry.  How about you?

A Shepherd of the Valley and Mother’s Day example that comes up for me today is Gina Seashore, our outstanding Minister of Music...and also a wonderful and wise mother.  Gina was already here when I arrived at SVLC, but her job description was much smaller, she was simply listed in the bulletin as “Accompanist”, playing piano at the early service, playing what she was asked to play, not part of the planning or crafting of a music program.  But through a long series of events -- as some of you can recall -- when Gina was considered for our Minister of Music here for Shepherd of the Valley, and I saw her impressive resume, I quickly realized “We’re sitting on a goldmine!” A goldmine of creativity, professionalism, insight, musical prowess (of course), but also her passion and community strengthening presence beyond even the realm of music for this congregation: Gina’s a former travel agent, and widely traveled, she organized our Germany trip back in 2012, she’s raised an awesome daughter, who has also become part of our SVLC community and another creative force in our leadership and administration, and Gina brings this great hora of deep and radical peace and joy that, I believe, is perfect for this community, and it’s fitting to talk about that on Mother’s Day.  I was “sitting on a goldmine” with Gina, far beyond what I -- at least -- was first aware of.  Gina’s been here now... what 12 years?...and we are so blessed by your gifts and your presence in music and beyond.  

Are there times in your life when you realize that you’re sitting on a goldmine, whether a person or an idea...that’s been there all along…you just didn’t realize it or enjoy it?

The Jerusalem Council in our text for today, the early Christians, were sitting on a goldmine.  

They had a message of grace and radical welcome to share with the world, but they didn’t realize it, because they were bogged down by “the way it’s always been done”.  There’s nothing wrong with tradition and keeping the important rituals and practices, on one hand.  But, when it becomes prohibitive -- who can receive the Good News of God through Jesus Christ (that’s the gold mine, you see) -- then it’s time to flex and stretch and let go and open up.  That requires prayer.

I think it was hard for the Pharisees to let go.  I always want to acknowledge and imagine the Pharisees, not as bad in Luke Acts (same author); they’re just typical church people.  They’re not all bad in Luke and Acts; they just want to maintain the rules.  And you got these young whipper snappers -- Peter and Paul, Barnabas and James (new disciples of this 33 year-old whipper snapper Jesus)  -- getting in there and trying to change everything.  There better be some pushback when that happens.  You can’t just come in and change everything, right?  Open up the doors to Gentiles?!  “Simmer down Paul, back off Peter, quiet down James, think for a minute Barnabas!” they must have exclaimed.  “We’ve been part of this congregation for years, carried on the traditions of our ancestors -- you can’t just come in here and say everyone’s welcome.  There are rules here.  If those weird alternative Gentiles (bunch of sinners, if you ask me) who have no sense of our tradition, no connection to our past, just come in here, contaminate our sacred fellowship, then who knows what will happen?!...”

There’s nothing wrong with tradition and keeping the important rituals and practices, on one hand. 
But, when it becomes prohibitive -- who gets access to the goldmine, the Gospel of God through Christ -- then it’s time to flex and stretch and let go and open up.  And that requires prayer.  And I’d add, that requires our mothers’ leadership and strength and passion and activism.

Mother’s Day, I’m sure you’ll recall, has really been domesticated into a day of flowers and eating out, for those who can afford it, right?  But it started in the US in 1908 by Anna Jarvis who held a rally at her Methodist church in WV, to honor her own mother, a peace activist who cared for wounded soldiers on both sides of the American Civil War.  She also created service clubs to address public health issues...  
Talk about sitting on a goldmine!  
Mother’s Day is a goldmine in and for the Christian church!  

I remember our dearly departed sister Lois Hellberg on Mother’s Day in here a few years ago, standing up and reading what’s become known as the Mother’s Day proclamation of Julia Ward Howe, from 1870: “Arise, then, Christian women of this day! Arise, all women who have hearts, Whether your baptism be that of water or of tears! Say firmly : We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies. Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We, women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country, to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs. From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says: Disarm, disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice. Blood does not wipe out dishonor, nor violence vindicate possession. As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil at the summons of war, let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of council.
Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead. Let them then solemnly take council with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, man as the brother of man, each bearing after his own kind the sacred impress, not of Caesar, but of God.”

Sitting on a goldmine. Mothers Day. The Jerusalem Council. Calling people together. Acting for peace. Sustained in prayer. Grounded in faith, faith in that one lord Jesus Christ, who opens the door for everyone, insiders and outsiders.  Who goes out and calls in the people.  Who gathers us for worship and musical praise, for hard conversations, for a baptism of grace, a holy meal of reconciliation and forgiveness.  

Sisters and brothers in Chirst, we’ve got good stuff here!  I almost want to go put this on our marquis, but it won’t make sense, I’m afraid.  What we’ve got here, everyone in the world needs: THE Word...of forgiveness and grace, a community of welcome and safety and love, a promise of hope, and a call to serve and take risks for global (and local) peace and justice.  Even as we disagree or struggle to let go of long-held practices or ideas, comforts and conveniences, even as we move into a new day of ministry, God stays with us.  God does not abandon us through our conflicts or as we turn the page and enter into a new day here in our ministry, as we open up new facilities, new classrooms, a new kitchen to our community.  We built all that so that we could be even more welcoming, so that we could feed even more hungry people, so that we could nurture and teach even more young children, so that we could look out for one another in even more healthy and wholesome ways.  

We are sitting on a goldmine: this new facility; and even more, this ever new and eternal Word of God’s love and Christ’s grace and peace.  That is for you, may it fall fresh again on your ears and hearts, on your taste buds, and seep down into your hearts and bones this day.  For you are a child of our Heavenly Mother.  You are loved, and forgiven and drawn together and sent out to share and advocate.  You are the church, held together by the life-giving Holy Spirit.
You are sitting on a goldmine.  Thanks be to God.  AMEN.


Blessing of Mothers

Gracious God,
in love you have given us the gift of mothers.
Grant to each of them your power and grace.
Strengthen them in their mothering
with tenderness and understanding,
with compassion and joy.
Endow them with wisdom and knowledge
so that they might teach their children
how to live and how to love;
how to seek and pursue that 
which is right and true;
how to turn away from 
all that is violent, oppressive,
cruel and wrong.
Deepen their own faith
so that they might instill 
in their children a love for you
that will sustain and keep them 
their whole life long.
We ask this in Jesus’ name.