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, March 26, 2017

March 26 -- Rich Man & Lazarus

Grace to us and peace from Jesus Christ.  AMEN.

How would you tell this story to children?  [pause]  Maybe somebody asked Charles Dickens that question once.  Friends, we need to be careful not to explain away this story...not to round out the edges.  Let this sting, sisters and brothers in Christ.  Let it bite.  Say ouch, grimace: Jesus is speaking in no unclear terms, right?

Jesus tells this story after a series of parables, and that’s important to remember here.  The lost coins sheep and sons, the dishonest manager, and now this.  And remember, Jesus is talking to the Pharisees...who are convinced that they can coast into the bosom of Abraham, with very little humility, with very little mercy, and very little generosity.  That’s the capital for Jesus: humility, mercy, generosity.  Not money.  

So just to drive the point home, he tells them this vivid parable about a rich man and Lazarus.  And isn’t Jesus a master of storytelling, setting up these graphic contrasts?  

Purple linens could only be afforded by the extremely wealthy.  And he feasted sumptuously every day.  Again, only a small percentage could eat like that.

And the Pharisees would have been right with him, like, “Good for him.  I know that guy.  He takes me out to lunch once every week.  Good guy.”

By the way, there’s a website called globalrichlist.com, where you can see how rich you are compared to the rest of the world.  Did you know that a person who brings home $40,000/year is in the top .57% of the richest people in the world?  If you make $40,000/you would be the 33,982,065th richest person on this earth, only about 34 million who are richer than you are! Might seem like a lot until you realize 7.5 billion on the planet.  In one hour, you make ~$20, as compared to someone in Ghana who makes $.08 for the same hour of work.  Would take 53 years for the average laborer in Indonesia to earn the same amount.  Your monthly income could pay the monthly salaries of 179 doctors in Pakistan.  (taxes?  Zacchaeus coming next week:  25% --> $30G = top 1.23%, globally)

So, Jesus introduces this rich man, feasting sumptuously.  Just enjoying life.  Living well, making $40,000/year...let’s just say.

And then he contrasts the man clothed in nice stuff with a man clothed in sores.  Hungry.  At his gate.  Day in, day out, more like a fly than a human being.  An eyesore for the rich man and all his friends.  “Sorry about him,” the rich man might have said when the Pharisee would come over for lunch.  “Get outta here you old beggar!  Shew, fly!”

Jesus goes on, but before he does, he gives the poor man a name:  Lazarus.  Scholars note, that in all of Jesus’ stories and parables, he never gives his characters names (fathers, sons, widows, shepherds, managers, servants..).  The Jesus names the poor man, Lazarus (which we know from the Greek means “God helps”).  Lazarus would have gladly, the text says, eaten the nasty scraps left over (ever take home left overs and look at them the next day…?)  But he gets nothing handed to him in his earthly life.  Maybe he annoyed the rich man once or twice, at least then he’s getting some attention.  For the most part, Lazarus was just invisible.

Know any body like that...Lazarus, I mean?  Probably not, because the Lazarus’ of this world are those we don’t even see...those we can’t even call to mind, much less name, when it’s time to pray.    

But God knows every name.  (try learning a name this week?)
God calls the Lazarus’ of this world by name, and draws them close.  They will rest at last in the bosom of Abraham, and woe to ones who do not care for them.  These are Jesus‘ words, not mine.  
This stings.

It’s interesting too: It seems to me to be pretty wonderful news that the poor will be drawn in to God’s loving, safe, protective arms at the end of the day.  That seems something to celebrate, and just stop there.  God names the poor and draws them in to the bosom of Abraham.  Thanks be to God.  But given those statistics about who’s rich and who’s poor, I don’t know about you, but I find myself hearing this text and still not giving thanks for the salvation of the poor.  I hear these statistics and rather than being grateful for their salvation, I’m getting more concerned about what this means for me!  What about that poor rich man?  What about me?  What about all those people I know and love who have lots of money?!  Isn’t it interesting that the world’s poor, billions of people literally are going to be gathered into God’s arms, and I still can’t be grateful for God’s glory, love, power and mercy?

This is a tough one today, deep into our Lenten journey.  Lazarus is carried up...and the rich man is buried down.  And from the flames of Hades, he cries out.  By the way, we get a lot (all) of our imagery of hell from a literary masterpiece, Dante’s Inferno (14th c. Florence, Italy).  Interesting study: this is not the word “hell”, in today’s text, it’s Hades.  Hell is the translated word in the bible for gehenna.  That was the heap of trash outside the Jerusalem walls and that was always burning, because it was constantly fueled with trash.  But Hades was the third and bottom tier, that the people of Jesus‘ time believed in.  There was earth, there was heaven, and there was Hades.  Common understanding that came from the Hellenistic influences and ancient Jewish influences…

Lazarus is in Abraham’s bosom, and the rich man is being endlessly tormented in Hades.  

Where is the hope in this passage, if one has some money?

This is a lesson for the Pharisees, who just weren’t understanding mercy and compassion of God for the last, the least, and the lost, and so Jesus is driving it home.  
The hope is that we get to listen in, eavesdrop on Jesus driving home the point, and we get to learn.  How is the Holy Spirit working in us as we don’t skip over this story?  As we let this story sting us a little (or a lot)...before passing the peace, before putting our pledges, tithes and offerings in the plate, before going home and having a sumptuous lunch.

I’ve said before, beware of the Gospel of Luke, it could change your life.  How is God working on us?  On you?  ...to be the people, the community of faithful followers in this day, in this part of the world?  The Spirit is stirring, unsettling, untying our hands, unlocking our treasure chests.  Someone has been raised from the dead, and so now everything is different.  

We are blessed and we are sent and we can now see those in need at our gates.  And it’s not just about tossing a coin now, or even a couple bucks, it’s about our whole attitude towards those who are different.  One scholar calls it our “fundamental neighborliness”.  She says our “fundamental neighborliness is the barometer of the soul.” 

God is with us now -- let me be clear: we have a loving God.  There’s more time to grow.  God is a loving parent, sitting and watching as we learn a new lesson (I think of parents lovingly observing their children putting a new concept together in their classroom).  Holy Spirit is here, moving in this place, reaching into our hearts and our souls and rejuvenating, re-booting our “fundamental neighborliness” for Christian living and speaking to one another, and caring for the least, the lost and the Lazarus.  

God’s grace abounds, friends of Jesus, and we are the vessels of that grace and compassion.  

Let us give thanks, as we eat the Body and Blood of Christ...as we learn, as we re-envision, as we share the wealth.  Let us give thanks, Amen.      

Sunday, March 19, 2017

March 19 -- Lost Sheep, Coins & Sons

Sisters and brothers in Christ, I’m going to liken every single one of us here today...to the older brother in our Gospel text.  

Usually, I want you to put yourself into these stories.  Who do you identify with?  But today I’m going to tell you: You’re the older brother.  Why?  Because you’re here at church.

Now maybe there have certainly been times in your life when you’ve identified more with the reckless younger brother.  I’m sure many of us can relate to the father as well.  (Although, I’ve been reminded by theologians and preachers that none of us can be the merciful parent in this story.  Ultimately -- and the point of the story is -- only God can be that…even if you’ve rejoiced at a child’s homecoming or struggled through the pain of a loved ones reckless behavior.)

No, today, you’re the older brother.  Because you’re here.  And because we can all relate to bitterness.  Hard-heartedness.  Hard, diligent work through the years.  Doing the right thing.  And wanting everything to be fair.  Because there’s a word we all need to hear from our God again this day: mercy.
Quick recap of the famous story.  Little brother, “brattily,” demands his share of the family inheritance.  Goes out -- goes far from home -- and blows it.  Until he arrives at this scene with the pigs.  Couldn’t be any lower than that, especially, remember, for a Jewish audience: Swine are unclean, defiled creatures.  He’s hit rock bottom.

But there in the pig pen, he comes up with a plan.  “I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worth to be called you son; treat me like one of you hired hands.‘  So he sets off…”  
Note: there is no sign of or word for “repentance” here!  The Greek word for repentance metanoia that we’ve seen before in Luke’s gospel -- nope.  The closest we get is that it says, “When he came to himself…” Lots of great discussion on what that means.  (from “sobered up” to “discovered who he was”)

I’m convinced, especially given the two parables that precede this one -- the lost sheep (stupid) and the lost coin (dead, inanimate) that that son is pretty much in that categories...plus he’s un-repentant and maybe even preparing to manipulate his father all over again.  “Here’s what I’ll do:  I’ll say this to my father…”  He rehearses his lines, like an addict, says what he needs to say to get his next hit.  He’s a reckless, self-centered, stupid, lost, worthless son.  That’s the image Jesus is so vividly painting in this story.  (Love that painting in my office, but John August Swanson’s depiction of the prodigal son is way to beautiful.)  This kid is lazy, dangerous trash.

And that’s intentional build-up for the rest of us who are far from lazy, dangerous trash.  We haven’t gotten to us yet.  Maybe you have been in the pig pen, but you’re here now.  You’re the oldest son today. 

So I don’t even have to tell you to “imagine” the father lavishing mercy on this deadbeat, mooching, manipulative, robbing younger brother.  Yeah -- you know, one commentator reminded me that the fatted calf, the ring, the robe all the stuff the father gave that youngest son was actually the inherited property of the older son’s, right?  The whole story starts with “Father, give me my share of the inheritance…”  So, everything else belonged to the older brother.    

I mean, there is so much here for that older brother to feel bitter about.  
Think of all the bitterness that you carry, sisters and brothers in Christ.  That’s the whole project this Lent here at the cross -- to acknowledge the bitterness, the hard-heartedness, we bear, and to bring it forward and leave it at the cross.  

Ever been jealous when an act of compassion was directed at someone you didn’t think deserved it...AT ALL.  “Why should they get that -- they haven’t done anything to deserve it!”  

“Why should my deadbeat sister, my lazy brother, my mean neighbor, my late-coming co-worker, my corner-cutting employees, those other Lutherans, that other side of our community -- why should any of those robbing, cheating, lazy, ungrateful, spoiled other people (Samaritans) get the fatted calf slaughtered for them, get a party thrown in their honor…[slowly] when I haven’t even gotten so much as a small goat?!”

Lord, it is hard to be gracious.  Like God is gracious. 

I’m starting to think this is really a story about the lost older son.  We know know where this is going with the youngest, by the time we get to the third story.  First it’s the lost, dumb sheep.  Then it’s the lost, dead, inanimate coin.  So we know what’s going to happen to the prodigal son.  He’s going to be found!  They all get parties thrown for them!  The real gift and twist of this story is the way the father treats the oldest.

And this what God says to us, People in Church:
“You are always with me.  And all that is mine is yours.”
Let that soak in this week:  God is always with us.  God has always got us-always had us-always will.  [Baptism of Emma!]  Since you were in your mother’s womb, God has held you in love, grace, mercy and peace!  And all that I have is yours.  

God has entrusted this earth to us to do with it as we please, to manage it as we like, to care for it.  The planet is our family farm.  God’s trusted it to us.  (This is stewardship, btw.)

“But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of ours was dead and has come to life, he was lost and has been found.”

[My friend Kevin Womack’s prayer]  “Give us eyes to see what you want us to see today.  Give us hearts that are soft and ready to receive what you reveal.  And give us courage to apply what what we see and understand to the way that we live for you every day.  I pray all of this in Jesus’ name.  Amen.”

Sisters and brothers in Christ, God invites us out of our hard-heartedness, Christ calls us to let go of our bitterness -- pay attention to when you’re feeling bitter this week -- and instead God calls us to celebrate and rejoice.  Come join the party.  

This grace is amazing which means it’s for everyone:  it is for the healing of the nations, the breaking down of barriers that divide, the joining hands and joining hearts of sisters and brothers who are different.  This grace is amazing which means it’s for everyone: it is for you and for me -- the lost and the lonely, the broken and the bitter, the angry and the afraid.  

This grace is for all.  Thanks be to God.  AMEN.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

March 12 -- Second Sunday in Lent

Educator, principal and professional counselor, Dr. Kristin Meyer of Waverly, Iowa does an interesting exercise with her graduate students:  She asks them three questions.  The first: “What would you do if you were given $1,000,000?”  The second: “What would you do if you were given 10 years to live?” And the third: “What would you do if you were given 3 hours to live.”  She reflects that the answers to the first question were usually about “things”, the answers to the second about “experiences”, and the answers to the third were about “people” (relationships). *

It’s interesting to think about what comes to the surface when given an ultimatum.

Jesus gives an ultimatum in verse 5 of this Lenten Gospel lesson for today: repent or parish.  It might be hard to find Good News there, at first glance, but let’s unpack this a little bit, looking at what happens before and the parable that follows. 

The people are trying to figure out why some bad things have happened to their people.  In one example, some people had been to Pilate’s cruel and unusual, empirical punishments, meant to strike fear and submission into the hearts of the Jews.  In the other a tower falls and kills 18.  Whether that was because terrible wind or heavy rain...or just bad engineering, those weren’t the people’s concern.  In both cases, people are wondering if the victims here were worse sinners than everyone else.  If God was punishing them.

Perhaps we can relate to that...even with the advances we’ve made in engineering and predicting weather patterns.

If something bad happens to someone, especially when it’s to someone we don’t know or like very much, it may be tempting to say, “Hmmm, I wonder what they did to deserve that.”

My own, dearly departed grandfather -- it grieves my heart to share this with you -- Grandpa, pastor and mentor for me (pectoral cross, pulpit quote) -- I’ll always remember, we were all together in Nebraska in 2004 when those terrible tsunamis hit the coasts of Indonesia and Malaysia.  And I still remember him shaking his head and asking, “I wonder why God is punishing them.  They must have done something.”  I think he was trying to find a way to explain it...  

(Isn’t it complicated when our beloved heroes aren’t perfect?)

Jesus seizes the moment to say NO to the people, to Grandpa.  [slowly]  No, they don’t deserve punishment any more than the rest of us.  Sometimes things just happen.  Your mom’s cancer diagnosis, the tragic death of a family pet, the loss of a job, the cross-country transfer away of a beloved family member, floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, getting caught in the crossfires.  Sometimes things just happen, and to get trapped and bogged down with the “why is God doing this”, Jesus teaches here, is to miss the point. 

The point is what we do with what we have left.  The point is the ultimatum.  What comes to the surface when we think about the time and the resources we have left?  Is it about things?  Is it about experiences?  Or is it about relationships?

Repentance is what Jesus calls us to in the season of Lent.  
And repentance is about healing (salvus in Latin)...healing relationships.  If you only had a short time left to live on this earth, what repentance and reconciling needs to happen for you to die with a clear heart and a clean conscience, for you to die with a soul that is free and a mind and body that is full of love and deep peace?

It’s interesting to think about what comes to the surface when given an ultimatum.

Don’t get caught up with the “why” questions, Jesus says to us today.  Live as if you don’t have much time left.  

But we keep falling again and again, for the lures of the world, back into the why, just as the people of old did.  “What did they do/I do/we do to deserve this?”  And that always leads us to act out of fear: 

Our next episode starts with the Pharisees telling Jesus to run!   
(Like it’s nothing but predator and prey.)

But Jesus responds -- not with some kind of animal-instinct reaction, but -- with courage, calm, and love to face the fray.

He grieves that the Pharisees and us as well at times [slowly] just. don’t. get it.  And he expresses this longing to be a mother hen to us.  What a surprising and contrasting image!

Jesus calls Herod a fox, and then Jesus imagines himself as a mother chicken -- not a hunter that shoots the fox, a bear or a big dog that chases the fox back, even a protective wall that keeps the fox out.  No, Jesus here imagines himself as a mother hen, gathering her chicks under her wing.  

Courage, calm, and love.  That is what we find this morning.  Jesus doesn’t run from the violence and the pain and the chaos.  Jesus stays with us in it.  And longs to cover us and to love us, like a chicken wing over her babies.  

That may not mean a perfect protection:  foxes kill chickens.  [pause]

But death doesn’t have the final say, with Christ.  This is not how the story ends, ultimately.  

So how will we live, given this ultimatum?...Repentant.  

A life lived is a life lived in repentance.  It’s an ongoing task.  To breath is to be in a state of repentance.  To inhale grace and exhale peace.  

Attentive to relationships and healing.  Peaceful and present, even amid the fray.  How will we, sisters and brothers in Christ, live?  Sheltered...in the gracious and loving arms of God.  Repentant and courageous.  Covered by Jesus’ wings of mercy.  AMEN.

* Love Beyond Measure: ELCA Schools and Learning Centers 2016-2017 Devotional Guide, 43.