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, 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.