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, 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.

Monday, May 1, 2017

April 30 -- Stephen's Witness

Last week I said that because of Easter we don’t have to be sad, angry or scared any more.  Now we can be joyful, loving and bold.  [remembering] “Oh, yeah!”  

And today Stephen gets stoned to death.  He gets pelted with rocks, to death, because he preached a sermon. (No pressure.)

Not the most riveting sermon.  You can read it for yourself in Acts Chapter 6.  All he does is rehearses the salvation history, like we do in the Eucharistic Prayer at Holy Communion, the story of God’s faithfulness to God’s people down through the ages, starting with Abraham and Sarah, down through David and Solomon... It’s a great retelling, but nothing really controversial or incendiary.  Pretty exhaustive and long-winded.  (It’s interesting how revisiting history -- as dramatic! and controversial! history can be, as revolutionary! its characters, as long as it’s not connecting to our modern-day situations and us specifically -- it’s pretty non-threatening, and can even boring.)  Stephen’s just going on and on, like a drab history professor or a droning preacher -- no problems with the crowd...until he concludes by comparing the ancient Israelites’ stubbornness to his own hearers, and suddenly every sentence is packed with a punch...

‘You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.’

When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen.…

So were they justified in reacting like this, wasn’t it their right to make sure their preacher said what they wanted, or was Stephen just trying to preach God’s word?  Was Stephen in the right for calling them out?  Quite a turn in action that these chapters about Stephen take -- from a sleep-inducing family story lullaby to blood-boiling rage.  From remembering (putting back together) to stoning.  

All he did was hold up the mirror.  “You are them,” he’d say.  Stephen was a prophet.  That’s what prophets do. 

And what might we learn from what’s happened here?  

I think there is much to be said here for standing up in the face of opposition.  This story takes place in a book called the ACTS (the actions) of the Apostles, which comes after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, and after the Holy Spirit filled/infused the disciples in all their diversity.  It’s the “Now What?” Book of the Easter season.  “Christ is risen indeed”...so now here’s what happens!  And one of the “actions” of the apostles is the rising up, albeit unpopular and even life threatening, and preaching the hard word.  Calling our friends, our sisters and brothers in Christ, out, when they need to be.  Speaking the truth in love  (I think of MLK & Bonhoeffer...)  [pause]

It’s also very important to note that Stephen was not a pastor or a bishop.  He wasn’t one of the 12 disciples.  He was a deacon, i.e. a server.  A lay person, a muggle not a wizard.  Just a member of the church.  Just an everyday Christian -- someone who, it says, “served at the table” so that the apostles could minister the Word -- and yet he was the first to speak out and tell the truth in love -- “you all aren’t listening and learning from God’s story here, you all are opposing the Holy Spirit, uncircumcised in heart and ears” -- Stephen was the first martyr of the church.  This is God-incarnate and at work, the Holy Spirit poured out on, infused into, God’s people.  And you too have the power to do this -- to speak the truth in love!  Yes? 

How might we speak together better?  Say what we know God needs us to share to the people we love, even if that’s a hard word?  I wouldn’t recommend starting with “You stiff-necked people,” but then again maybe that’s the attention grabber in this era and this region of surface sweetness?  Maybe a harsh intro opens the ears and the hearts -- gets the attention -- for telling the truth to those who need to hear it.  This is an intervention, we do interventions with the people we love.  We sit them down, maybe even call them a jerk -- and then, ultimately, call them back to God who loves them and a life that reflects that.

Let us all be about God’s work of standing up and doing the right thing, even if it’s counter-cultural, unpopular or frightening.  We don’t have to be sad, angry or scared anymore.  Let’s not oppose the Holy Spirit.  [pause]
Finally, I am also struck with how St. Stephen was filled with forgiveness as he’s being stoned to death.  “Lord, do not hold this sin against them,” he cries out before his last breath.  Sounds just like Jesus on the cross, right? “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”  (He also says: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”  Sounds just like, “Into thy hands, I commit my spirit.”)  

On this side of the resurrection we too are filled with the power to say and do things as radical as Jesus -- to shower love and forgiveness on our murderers!  [pause]  That’s how real Easter is!  And we’ve seen Christians do this, and we pray every Sunday that we too would have this kind of joy, love and courage.  (Actually we already have it, because of Christ, we pray that God would embolden us to use our powers of forgiveness and grace and mercy.)

Life on this side of Easter morning means that everyone (not just bishops and pastors and people who work in the church, or have fancy theological degrees), every one of Jesus’ followers is capable of extra-ordinary things: 1) standing up for truth in the face of opposition and pressure, and 2) forgiving our persecutors, resisting violence.  Life on this side of Easter morning means that everyday followers of Jesus are infused with God’s love and the ability to forgive.  Forgiveness is what it’s all about.  It’s the Christian’s version of circumcision, i.e. it’s what sets us apart:  not limited to gender, “hurting” a bit in that it’s a challenge and not natural, yet marking us as different.  The rest of the world’s reaction, and I think the natural reaction, is to get even with someone who throws a rock at you, an eye for an eye, a stone for a stone.  But Jesus told us (and showed us) and even “Everyday Stephen” reminds us and shows us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.  It’s not not just the bishop’s Twitter line for the media:  “Let’s be sure to pray for our enemies.”  Stephen reminds us, that its every Christian’s call to forgive!  Oh, and we can be stiff-necked at times.  Stephen was right.  But filled with the Holy Spirit, as the resurrected Jesus has filled us with the Spirit, we are capable of both courage and forgiveness.

Remember how Jesus says to his disciples, “I am the way, the truth and the life.”  Well, what do you think that looks like?  Stephen shows us: it means we are given courage to stand up and speak, and it means we are given strength to forgive the people who throw rocks at us!  We knew it was coming:  Remember Dylan’s famous song, based (in part) on this text? “They’ll stone us just like they said they would.”  We knew this baptized life wasn’t a cake walk.  

But, sisters and brother in Christ, we have just what we need to withstand, even in the face of death!  This is God’s power.  This is God’s gift.  This is grace.  This is God’s love and faithfulness, poured out for us.  This is the Holy Spirit.  What we have, what you have, St. Stephen teaches us today, is enough to stand up and do the right thing, enough to forgive and love our enemies and those who have wronged us.  We have that ability within us, thanks be to God, we have that strength.  And God will not abandon us this day, in this fiery and frightening season of our lives, or ever.  God gives us enough.  Alleluia!  AMEN.  

Monday, April 24, 2017

April 23 -- Emmaus Road

We had another good preschool chapel service in here this week: Your chairs were filled with little children.  Many of them, most of them -- this is probably the only church experience they have.  I don’t take that lightly, and I want them to know about God and God’s love for them, for all.

We always have a little acolyte come forward and receive a little cross around their neck and light the candles.  We pray, and we sing, and I offer a little thought around a theme and this week, it was of course the theme of Easter!  “Easter’s not just one big day of dressing up and hunting for candy, it’s 50 days of celebrating!” I told the kids.  “Why?  Because God loves us so much, that Jesus lives!”  That’s the basic message, but I kept going and did a little exercise with them where we made faces.  We often get sad, angry and scared.  [made the faces] But because Christ is risen, we don’t have to be sad, angry or scared, because of Easter, now we can be the opposite of sad, angry and scared: We can be joyful, loving and bold.  Sang “Peace Like a River”: I don’t have to be scared anymore. I’ve got joy like a fountain: I don’t have to be sad anymore.  I’ve got love like an ocean:  I don’t have to be angry anymore.  Took pictures…[I think I’ll send them out to you.]

Then, always at the end of preschool chapel another little acolyte comes forward, receives a special cross necklace to keep, and extinguishes the candles, and here’s what I really wanted to tell you about:  Every chapel service when we get to this point, I always ask the kids some questions, “Now, just because the candle goes out, does that mean God goes away?”  NO!  “Does that mean God stops loving us?”  NO!  And then we sing “This little light of mine” remembering that the light stays ways us, that the light of Christ, “this little light of mine” that burns in our hearts and in our minds and in our souls can’t ever go out...because of that’s the Risen Christ alive and deeply a part of us.  

Then the children joyfully go bouncing out to play. 

I hear our preschool children’s (they are your children too, you know) -- I hear their little joyful shouts of “NO!” when when I read the Emmaus story, when the Jesus vanishes from their sight at the end.  

Did you catch that?  Right when Christ breaks the bread, they realize who he is -- maybe I should say Christ is re-membered in the breaking of of the bread.  And right at that moment he vanishes!

This one Jesus, who was with them all along, who walked with them and listened to them all day, who stayed with them into the night, suddenly disappears when the bread is broken, at the very moment it all comes together! 

Now, you might think they’d be sad all over again, they just figured it out -- they just realized that this is their risen Lord right in front of their eyes -- and then he’s gone all over again!  But they’re not sad at all here.  Jesus disappears and they are filled with joy.  “Were not our hearts burning within us?”

Chapel time is over, the lights up here are extinguished, and they are filled with joy.

At the very moment Christ disappears from our sight, we are filled with joy and peace, because the Risen Christ is alive and deeply a part of us.  And out we go “to play” on the playground of God’s world (not such a terrible place with our Risen Christ lenses on).
Because of Easter, we don’t have to be scared, angry or sad any more.  Because of Easter ;) because of all the candy we’ve eaten and the outfits we’ve worn -- NO!!! -- because of Christ’s resurrection -- remember?  “Oh yeah!” -- we don’t have to scared, angry or sad any more.  

Because of Christ’s resurrection we can finally be joyful, loving, and bold to go out into this world, and share the good news… 
at the very moment Jesus vanishes before our eyes.  

“Just because the candle goes out, does that mean God goes away?”  NO!  “Does that mean God stops loving us?”  NO!  Just because Christ vanishes before our eyes, does that mean we need to get sad, scared or angry?  NO!  It’s precisely at that moment of vanishing (Greek: aphantos egeneto = became invisible/phantom), that we know everything is OK. [pause]  Children at the end of chapel: that’s us with the Easter story.  
The candles lit up here: that’s just bearing witness to the deeper reality.  The candle can go out.  The deeper reality is what never goes out.  Christ walking along with them, being with them in a visible way: that’s just bearing witness to the deeper reality that can never disappear.

Here’s a moment for us: when we take that bread in a few minutes.  That bread which we believe and name over and over again, “the body of Christ,” corpus Christi, sangre de Christo, the blood of Christ, now we see it, God’s real presence...and then it disappears, vanishes before our eyes as we take it in.  Bearing witness to the deep reality: Christ is alive and with us.  Yeah, we can’t see it anymore, but it goes inside of us, God’s body becoming deeply a part of our bodies!  

So we don’t have to be sad or angry or scared anymore, sisters and brothers in Christ!  
Easter frees us from sin and death, and utter sadness, and debilitating fear, and crushing bitterness.   We left all that at the cross, remember?  Otherwise Easter is just about chocolate bunnies and pastel colors and eggs and more candy.

No, Easter frees us to be truly peaceful, truly loving, deeply joyful (just like the song…“like a river, ocean, fountain”) and courageous:  to move outward into God’s world with our arms flung wide open, with our doors unlocked, with our banners unfurled, our flags of unconditional welcome flying high, our hearts burning with unquenchable joy, mercy, forgiveness and peace!  (Nothing new and courageous about violence.)  Easter frees us to be bold -- that is peaceful.

Can we see Jesus?  No.  We can’t.  He’s vanished from our eyes.  [pause]  But we’re not sad about that either.  

The candle light in the church goes out.  But that’s ok.  Jesus is alive.  What did the angel in the tomb say?  “He is not here.”  We have “this little light,” you see...  

So now we get to bounce and skip and sing out of here too…to show and tell others what’s happened to us on the road, “how Christ [has] been made known to us [too] in the breaking of the bread”!  

Thanks and Easter praise be to God!  Amen.  


Hey, let’s sing. #377 “Alleluia! Jesus is Risen!”  Pay special attention to verse 2: “Walking the way, Christ in the center [cover], telling the story to open our eyes; breaking the bread, giving us glory: Jesus our blessing, our constant surprise.”

Sunday, April 16, 2017

April 16 -- Easter Sunday

Growing up in Houston TX, we always used to have our Spring Break during Holy Week and this next week after, i.e. the first week of the Easter Season.  (I’m reminded of that because this year, that’s how it fell for our kids.)  

Back then, for me, this schedule always made the first week of Spring Break really about church, at least later in the week and at night.  We’d go to all the services.  I would often go home scared after Maundy Thursday, even crying myself to sleep because they did such a good job at recreating the story for us, slamming the book, running out into the darkness, I remember pondering, even as a little boy, the ways that we all betray Jesus.  Made me cry.  And Good Friday was always somber, even at home, we were pretty quiet all day.  Mom would always relay the events to us like they were unfolding in real time.  About 9 o’clock, “This is when Jesus was taken before Pilate.”  At about 10 o’clock, “This is when Jesus was whipped, given the crown of thorns, and brought in front of the crowd.”  At about 11, “Ah, this is when they shouted ‘crucify him, crucify him!’...And now he’s started walking up the path.”  She rehearsed the events like a biblical scholar, even though later in life, I never found those times matching up...didn’t matter.  She was remembering the story.  She was putting that Passion story together for us.  

Saturday was a quiet day too.  Although, Saturday was when we started packing our suitcases...  

I always had trouble sleeping on Holy Saturday night.  I’d go to bed actually thinking about Jesus being raised from the dead -- kind of confusing, creepy, as well as anticipatory and exciting.  We’d always be really exited about all the festivities of Easter morning.  Even more, to be honest, we’d go to bed excited and thinking about Easter Sunday afternoon, when we would be packing our little station wagon and driving out across East Texas, into Louisiana.  We aimed to get all the way to Biloxi, Mississippi on Easter Sunday night.  You see, we were going the Disney World for the rest of spring break -- not every year, but those few years headed for Disney World were the best!  

What I’m thinking about this Easter morning is remembering.  When I would finally fall asleep on Holy Saturday, somehow in the haze and dreams of sleep I would forget what the next day had in store, even when I first work up on Easter Sunday!  All this good stuff -- honestly, between Easter at church and family and vacation, it couldn’t get any better -- and still I’d forget, for a moment, even when I’d wake up!  

Do you know that moment?  When you wake up, but you haven’t yet come to?  When you haven’t yet remembered what’s in store for you today?  That moment can last a few seconds, like it did for me as a kid...and that moment can last for years:  [pause] 

How we can forget.  We can forget the stories that have brought us to this point.  We can forget the blessings that are right in front of us.  We can forget the relationships that mean the most to us, like we’re in some kind of haze.  We can forget the forgiveness, the grace, the peace, and the invitation that God plainly and lovingly has for us.  

If the opposite of forgetting is re-membering, then maybe we should call forgetting “dis-membering”.  Everything falls apart.  Isn’t that what seemed to happen in our Passion narrative of Holy Week?  Everything falls apart, everything is dis-membered.  [pause]  But then there’s that light that sparks when we come to:  [just remembering]  “Oh, yeah!!”
The disciples in our Easter story today were awake -- they were out and about, the women disciples namely were even up bright and early...but they hadn’t yet come to.  The women at the tomb had forgotten/dis-membered, the other 11 disciples had forgotten/dismembered, Peter himself had forgotten/dis-membered.  But Easter...is the day and the season (50 days, actually) of re-membering.  [You/we should do an activity of remembering during these 50 days of Easter -- scrapbooking, or record some family stories, or review your bible stories (narthex art), remembering is Easter business, even more than eggs and baskets and bunnies!]  

And it’s the angels call us back to memory, and once again give us a new song.  Angels in Luke’s Gospel are always giving us a new song -- Remember them at Christmas (“Glory to God in the highest…”)?

And today: “Why do you seek the living among the dead?  He is not here, but has risen.  Remember how he told you?…”

Remember?  “Oh, yeah!!”  I love when our kids remember something right in front of us, because their little eyes light up, and a smile grows across their face when they come to.   [And getting so jazzed.]  “Oh, yeah!!” I’m sure that’s what happened to me too, when I woke up on those vacation, Easter mornings as a child.  “Oh, yeah!!”

This is what happens to us, when we respond, “Christ is risen indeed!  Alleluia.”  Our eyes light up, the smile creeps across our face.  “Oh, yeah!!”

Can’t you just see that happening to Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James and the other women who were with them?  “Oh, yeah!!!”  Excited!!  They ran out to tell the others.  Now, it didn’t take right away for the men [no comment].  They said it was an “idle tale”, a dream.  But eventually, I’m sure, it happened to them too.  “Oh, yeah!!” 

And can’t you just see it happen to Peter.  The smile didn’t go creeping on his face just yet:  He ran back to the tomb and found the linen grave clothes thrown all over the floor.  And then…”Oh, yeah!!!!”

Sisters and brothers in Christ, Easter is about remembering.  Easter is about being put back together by God.  The lightbulb goes on, and we are re-membered, as we remember.  (We are remembered, even as we forget.)  This is our God!  Conquering death so that we might be put back together.  Forgiving our sin, so that we may now turn and love one another, forgive each other in response.  This is our God!  Putting us back together.  Easter is about remembering.  So that we may go and tell our sisters and brothers who have forgotten, who have been forgotten; so that we may go to those places where dis-remembering has taken place.  [pause]  Where things have fallen apart, where lives are lost, and stories are lost, and joy is lost.  Christ rises from the grave so that stories can be told anew, lives can be restored, hearts can be put back together, and joy can be found.  

This grace and mercy, this new life is ours because of Christ Jesus.  The risen Christ is the spark that lights the fire of faith, the Easter fire that burns in our hearts and kindles our imaginations and our courage to go and be the disciples of Jesus for this new day.  The flame of love and welcome and grace rises from this altar, this font, this book, this community.

Christ is risen.  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!  “Oh, yeah!!”

Now don’t forget it.  AMEN.