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 27, 2018

May 27 -- Holy Trinity Sunday (PD's final post here)

Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace (1), peace (2) and love (3) to you on this Holy Trinity Sunday.  AMEN.

As you might have noticed over my years here, I’ve not always been a fan or a practitioner of the 3-point sermon — which is one of methods of preaching: “Make 3 points and say AMEN.” To me it was always too formulaic, and as you’ve probably experienced, I like to wander a little bit more in my sermons.

But today — this being my last day to preach officially as your pastor — with words and tears for me all mixed together, with a certain feeling of finality here this good morning, I am taking comfort in falling back into a formula.  Often, when we don’t have the words we fall back into the formulas — the prayers, the doctrines, the readings, the liturgy, the FAITH — often when we don’t have the words, we fall back into the Words of the church, back into the “Word[s] of God, word[s] of life”.  And this Holy Trinity morning, I invite you to fall with me...back into grace (1), peace (2) and love (3).

GRACE (1) — Friends, it was grace that brought us together.  10 years ago, you were looking for a pastor, and I was seeking a place to serve coming out of my first call up in Orange County.  [Rich Durham: “We just need a pastor.” — So much grace in that.]

Katie wasn’t even born yet, I carried Micah around in my left arm and shook your hands with my right at the wonderful meet-and-greet, right here in the sanctuary.  It was grace that moved among us as we got to know each other.  Suspicion was there too, right?  It always is:  “Who is this whipper snapper?  What’s he going to change and take away from us?  He’s too young!”  And suffice to say, I had my own suspicions…

But it was grace that carried us, and molded us together, for God’s ministry in this little corner of the neighborhood and this little corner of the world, for this little decade.  Grace opened our eyes and our ears to one another, to understand each other better and learn one another’s stories, to forgive each other’s mistakes and receive each other’s little idiosyncrasies (even our age differences ;) ... 

And isn’t this true in all circumstances?  It’s grace that brings us into relationship!  It’s grace that moved over the waters at beginning of creation, breathing us with this whole cosmos into being!  It’s grace that allows us to find and — even more — be found by our families and our friends.  How many stories you/we all have of being in the “right place at the right time”...maybe drop that phrase and just call it grace.  Those are stories of simply being in God’s amazing grace.

Paul knew what he was talking about, making “Grace” the very first word in his letters, when he greets God’s church again and again.  “Grace to you,” he says, to the Corinthians and the Philippians, the Galatians and the Romans.  Grace comes first.  It’s why we baptize babies: God takes hold of us before we have anything to say about it!  Grace wraps around us.  Soaks us.  Draws us into being and into ministry together.  Grace.

And then the next word: PEACE (2) — We have peace through the cross of Jesus Christ.  It was this Trinitarian peace that enabled us to remain and serve together here at SVLC for the last decade.  It was this peace of God that filled us with joy in being together.  How much have we laughed together over the years?    Meister Eckhardt (German mystic, Bp. Mike: my 2nd favorite German heretic) describes the Trinity like this:
“When the Father laughs at the Son...and the Son laughs back at the Father, that laughter gives pleasure, that pleasures gives joy, that joy gives love, and the love is the Holy Spirit.”
Laughter = peace.  Does it not?

So much of our ministry together has been fun.  Traveling to Germany, serving at TACO, worshipping in parks and at other churches, even church council meetings have always been fun.  I couldn’t even count on 1 hand the number of council meetings I’ve dreaded.  They’re always good and fun.  Peace! Not to mention, the countless and constant get-togethers and parties and meals we’ve shared over the years!  
Sharing food = peace. Does it not?  
And this his holy time.  It’s trinitarian!  Arguably the most famous icon of the Trinity is an image of 3 androgynous beings sitting at a table together. 

First God draws us in and together.  That’s grace.  Then God holds us in Divine community.  That’s peace.  And it’s not to say that conflict has never arises.  It always does!  Which makes this peace of God all the more rich.  Despite our petty concerns and dramas and frustrations and even outright disdain for those across the holy table from us, Christ takes all that brokenness and sin onto himself and swaps it for holy peace, the peace that passes all understanding.  Peace amid fear.  Peace amid pain.  Jesus breathes on his disciples when they are angry and afraid.  “My peace I give you,” he says over and over again.  “Do not be afraid.”  Grace as our creation and embrace.  Peace as our life together.  Grace is at the beginning; peace is at the center.  Christ is at the center.  The cross is at the center.  And as long as we keep coming back to that center, worshipping at the foot of that cross, we remain in that Divine peace.  That is, we continue to enjoy and revel and laugh and eat in peace, in community...no matter what changes or distances come our way.  Peace be with you: we even offer Christ’s divine and unfathomable peace to one another now that the resurrection has already happened!  

Grace (1), peace (2) and the greatest of these is LOVE (3).  Sisters and brothers in Christ — created in grace, centered in peace, love one another, just as you have loved me...and my family.  It’s love that holds us together, and it’s love that sends us outward.  
It’s love that allows us to let go, to open our hands and our hearts to what God has in store for us all next.  It’s love that carries us into new chapters and new places.  It’s love that fills us and finds us and never forgets us.  It’s love — and I mean LOVE DIVINE — that lets us go, frees us to serve in this broken and hurting and unjust and cruel world.  It’s love divine that forgives and opens doors and unlocks gates and unclenches fists.  Love is the only way forward.  Love is God’s future.  Love is for us — for you and for me.  And LOVE DIVINE never leaves us:  God so loved the world, and that includes YOU.  And so you are not alone.  LOVE stays.  Love abides.  We can’t predict where it comes from or where it will lead us next.  We can only be taken by it, this TRIUNE DIVINE LOVE.  It is a mystery...that we can taste in bread and wine, that we can feel in water and hear in Word, and just about any ol’ way Divine Love chooses to be revealed to us!  Love shows up.  And Love Divine stays.  

Love through all the journey. And Love will call us home at last.         

Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace, peace and love to you all.  It has been an honor, for 10 years, to be free-falling together with you in this divine Grace, Peace and Love.  And even as our most obvious paths separate now, we continue to fall together...because we’re wrapped together in the cords of the Trinity, the Divine Community.  We are caught in the dance of grace, peace, and love...as the journey continues.  

To God be the glory, this day and always.  AMEN. 

Sunday, May 20, 2018

May 20 -- Pentecost Sunday

What is the language in which you hear grace?

Sisters and brothers in Christ that’s the question at the heart of Pentecost.

What is the language in which you hear grace?

Now for most of us — not all of us — English is our language.  I’m not talking about that.  And frankly, many of us have not heard grace in English.  Our words have often been used and heard to promote anything-but-grace in our cut-throat, angry, depressed, pain-filled, confused...even down-right cruel and evil world.  All happening in English...and other languages too.   
In 2015 Gary Chapman’s book about the 5 love languages came out, and we all thought about what’s best for me — is it words of affirmation, quality time, receiving gifts, acts of service, physical touch.  Which love language is mine?

I’m asking a similar question today on Pentecost, except the language of grace doesn’t just benefit you as an individual... 

What is the language in which you hear God’s radical grace, inclusion, welcome, embrace, forgiveness, peace and joy...for all.  How do you hear that.  How can you hear that?  

At Bible Study this week, we shared the languages in which we hear grace.  I started with my perennial go-to example: baseball.  You poor people, that’s always my example.   Images, messages, symbols — for me — of grace and gospel abound in baseball!  But what is it for you?
A clue is who perks up when I bring up different illustrations.  And mostly I bring up baseball.  So then we can see who speaks baseball? [perking/waking up]
Others speak travel — that’s where they can hear grace.
Others speak quilting or another craft language. 
Others speak political action and justice advocacy, marching in unison, singing protest songs.
Others speak “movies”, or soccer, or nature.  What is the language that speaks to you, that you hear grace and gospel?  
In Bible study, lots of stories about relationships.  We hear grace through our relationships with one another.  When forgiveness is shared, when laughter is shared, when surprise is shared: these are tangible Pentecosts.  These are languages in which we hear grace and gospel.
Today the Spirit rushes in again!  Whether we’re ready for her or not, whether we’re receptive to her or not.  Holy Spirit descends on us...and stays with us.  The question is how do we hear it, how can we know it, how can we trust it and allow her to move us outward?

Pentecost is a story about grace blowing in (“Grace blows!”...because grace changes everything, and we don’t generally like change).  

Pentecost is the story of grace blowing in, and then grace resting on the heads of all who are gathered.  Grace blows...and grace stays.  Thanks be to God.  She both changes everything, and she never leaves us.  Holy Spirit, heavenly dove, stays, like a tongue of fire over our heads, infuses into our bones as we breathe her into our hearts and our lungs.  She shows up, God’s gracious Holy Spirit!  And stays.

And so even when tragedy strikes — as it has stricken us again this week: horrific shootings at Santa Fe High School in Texas [pause] — even has death comes — as it has again here at SVLC this week: 
dear George Barber and Verlyn Scott both took their last breaths on this earth just yesterday — even as pain and confusion and fear about the future, anger about the past, sorrow and sickness...even in all the places where the cross is real, friends, where suffering is real...even and especially with all that, the powerful Holy Spirit stays with us, rests over our bodies, fills our hearts and our bones...and stays.  

And then — here’s where it’s more than just the Love Language book — this grace language is more — grace allows us then, not just to enjoy the Holy Spirit for ourselves, but also to go out, and share with others this different language, this new language, this language of grace that so many have never heard.
I had this moment at our Synod Assembly: (We had our annual Synod Assembly this year in Palm Desert.  And for the first time ever, it was not at a hotel!  It was at a church.  Hope Lutheran Church in the desert.)  And we gathered on Friday evening for worship.  You know, I’ll be honest — for me — worship that night was less-than-perfect, to say the least.  Frankly, it didn’t grab me and consume me, like some worship services in my worshipping life have.  But I won’t tell you that it didn’t FILL me.  There were lots of mistakes, lots of people didn’t know what they were doing; Bishop’s sermon was good but not great, for me, in my opinion (I said it), he seemed a little distracted and I know he was tired; music was good but not great, the band was a little off; readers were good but not great, they didn’t seem to know exactly what they were doing and weren’t entirely familiar with the words they were reading.  

It wasn’t the best worship service of my life, and yet, I won’t tell you that it didn’t FILL me.  
In the midst of it all (and I was sitting up in the balcony, kind with this great view of it all) I got this wonderful sense that Holy Spirit is showing up here anyway!  Like I saw tongues of fire resting on all these good, well-meaning, hard working, faithful, loving, broken people...including myself.  It was grace!

(Synodical worship is often like this for me: former Bishop Murray Finck chanting the words of institution…tears rolling down my face.)

Grace ekes through the windows and the doors of our churches, and our human frailty, and our anxiety, and our under-performances, and our tension and frustration toward one another, and our anger about the past, and our fear about the future — all of that in that in the Hope Lutheran sanctuary on Friday night — all of it!  And yet grace blows in anyway!  Holy Spirit rested on all of us anyway!  
Just like she does this morning.  

And we are all filled with the Holy Spirit this day — whether we like that idea or not, whether we’re receptive to it or not, she is here.  And she is staying.  And she is sending us out.  Out into the world to go and speak a new language, a language that others in our community can hear.  A language of love, a language of forgiveness, a language of mercy and justice…

a language of peace.  

In Jesus’ name, AMEN.

Monday, May 14, 2018

May 13 -- Christ Hymn (Easter 7, Mother's Day)

For our whole season of Easter (7 weeks), in our words of Confession and Forgiveness, there has been a curious description for God, and I was wondering if someone might be troubled by it:  

2 …“Jesus is risen indeed, and we have received the most precious blessing: life eternal in his kingdom.  Neither sin nor evil has the power to separate us from the One who loves us, and the One who forgives us.  In the name of the Triune God:  All-vulnerable Creator...

Does it bother you at all that our God, the master and creator and conductor and composer of you and me and this entire cosmos, the Ruler of space and time, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end and everything in between, is being described as all-vulnerable?!  

I mean if you’re all-vulnerable, that’s no place to be.  That means everything hurts you.  It’s like everything makes you cry.  When we say a person’s [whisper] “pretty vulnerable now”, that’s code for “go easy on ‘em, they’re really sensitive.”  If someone was describing you as “vulnerable,” how would you take that?  Most of us, I’m guessing — unless we’re really in touch and secure with our egos and emotions — would prefer not to be described as vulnerable, and certainly not all-vulerable.  And yet this is how we’ve been describing God our Creator for at least 7 weeks!

And it’s all been a lead-up to our text for today!  The great and probably the earliest, “Christ Hymn” — what it’s been called — a powerful and even offensive theological statement about who Jesus is, who this God is, in whom we try to trust.  

Paul writes — still from prison, still from far away, still in a spirt of joy and thanksgiving for the Christians in Philippi — Paul writes and gives this encouragement, and a statement of faith about this God around whom and through whom we all gather, even today:  This God is all-vulnerable.  

Jesus empties himself, Paul says, taking on the form of a “doulos” a slave, being born in human likeness and found in human form… (St. Athanasius said that Jesus, though he was in the form of God, descends through all of nature, all the way down, to the lowliest and merest of beings: the human being.  A mere human being!) ...Paul writes that Christ emptied himself, humbled himself, even to the point of death, became all-vulnerable.  

...and calls us to do likewise.  To go and follow.  To empty ourselves.  That’s really hard to do!  

Micah’s had a lot of great baseball coaches, but the best is still Coach Chris, who would always encourage and applaud a good instinct...and then give a tip to grow on.  And it wasn’t like an endlessly dissatisfied parent that you could never please, it was great coaching, teaching, learning the game of baseball.  “Great catch, Micah!  Now, next time check the runner.”  This is how we learn.  

Paul is doing the same thing here with the Philippians:  I am so thankful for you, sisters and brothers in Christ, I thank God every time I think of you, for your good ministry and sharing in the Gospel — “Great catch!” — now, here’s one to grow on: 

“This God of our descends all the way down to our level, this God of ours is Jesus, who emptied himself, poured himself out, humbled himself even unto death.  Follow him!”  (Coach Paul)
“Trust him, even when the world says we need to trust power and might.  I’m telling you, trust this all-vulnerable, self-emptying doulos, who gets down on his knees and washes the feet of his students, even his betrayers!”  

This is something new...and different.  This is unlike any earthly ruler or any other deity!  There are tons of gods that are described as all-powerful, almighty, all-knowing, all-present, but show me a God who is also described as all-emptying, all-suffering, all-vulnerable, all-obedient even unto death.  This is our God.
It was several years ago here at SVLC, that we were looking at the budget as we always do during September and October.  And things were looking tight.  We were possibly on the brink of starting a capital campaign and a construction project, and so we were as a council considering cutting our $12,000 annual benevolence to TACO (Third Avenue Charitable Organization) in half.  We were trying to be sensible and prudent, it seemed we were of one mind, and no one wanted to do this, but it seemed like we were going to have to…

And I don’t remember who, but in the course of all those discussions, someone put forward a beautiful image: “It’s like a fruit tree,” they said, “Our benevolence to TACO and other places are the fruits of our solidity and strength.  When our trunk and our roots are strong, then we can produce good fruits, and right now it just seems that we need to pull/prune back a little and strengthen our roots…”  Beautiful.  Made lots of sense. 

But it was Lois Hellberg, who was on council that year, who didn’t agree.  Someone needs to write this down on the timeline, this is part of SVLC’s history:  Lois Hellberg, for those of you who didn’t know her, was one of our long-time members, here almost at the beginning.  She was welcoming, loving and strong.  She started Agape House!  She taught Sunday School and read, and served on the committees.  We were blessed to get her just for a few years on council for just a couple more years, but it was probably her 3rd or 4th go-around.  And Lois was also a mother, a strong mother, who wasn’t afraid to speak up when something was bothering her.  And something about that image of the tree with the “fruits as our benevolence,” our “proceeds” was mixed up for her.   
And she spoke up:  “NO!” Mother Lois said, “that’s backwards.  Our benevolence, our generosity, our love for others beyond ourselves is not just a fruit at the end of the branch, which might show up some years and might not other years.  Our generosity and benevolence, our love for the other beyond ourselves [slowly] is our trunk and our roots!  That is the center.”  

Giving ourselves away is at the core of who we are as Christians, Lois reminded us prophetically.  Benevolence and justice is at Shepherd of the Valley’s center.  Put that on the timeline!  Supporting organizations like TACO, is our trunk.  And to cut our benevolence is not just a little pruning, that is cutting our heart in half.  Sharing everything that we have with our neighbor and even our enemies is what Jesus does and calls us to do too.  

It’s all here in Paul’s letter to the Philippians!  And the encouragement—despite the challenge and the fear that’s involved with trusting—is that we do this work in joy.  How true that is! Since there is encouragement in Christ, and consolation from love, sharing in the Spirit, compassion sympathy, make my joy complete*,” Paul says, “Be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord...Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.  Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. *Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…[who gave himself away].

Jesus is our trunk.  Christ is our center, and Christ empties himself and calls and commissions us to follow after that example.  Not as impersonators, but as imitators.  It’s different.  None of us is Christ, but we are coached to be like Christ: humble, vulnerable, generous, forgiving, emptying.

And we are already joined to Christ, who is our trunk who is our center.  We are joined in the waters of baptisms to the one who empties himself for others, in all-vulnerability.  So this is a good day: a day of benevolence, a day of grace!  AMEN.

Monday, May 7, 2018

May 6 -- Partnership in the Gospel (Easter 6)

Friends, grace to you and peace in Jesus name.  AMEN.

Today we’re reading someone else’s mail — Paul writes a letter to his friends back in Philippi.  And Paul, as he said in the letter, is in prison!  Imagine being thrown into prison back then:  Probably the end for you, right?  All hope is lost?  The journey is done?  

But with Paul here, it’s almost easy to miss that he’s in prison...because he’s writing like he’s sitting on a beach in San Diego!  This letter is so gushing with joy and thanksgiving!  

Philippians has been called Paul’s “most attractive letter,” 
 it’s so ripe with affectionate language for the church in Philippi.  And I’ll remind you that Paul isn’t always so gushing: he calls the Galatians idiots, and the Corinthians frustrate him to no end, with all their cliques and bitter rivalries and corruption!  But the Philippians: he is clearly fond of and misses them from a great distance.  

A little background: Philippi is like the San Diego of the ancient world.  It’s the place where members of the armed forces of Rome go to retire.  Famous for a medical school.  Philippi was this exciting, coastal city.  Right in the center of the Via Egnatia, a major highway connecting Europe to Asia Minor, like the busiest border crossing in the world, but also amid the beautiful landscapes along the northern coast of the Aegean Sea.  Idilic. Relatively peaceful.  I imagine an ancient version of the Hotel Del Coronado along the beach there too.  People enjoying life.  Great weather, great fishing, a little on the dry side.  A quick google search of modern-day pictures of Philippi — if it wasn’t for the ruins, you’d think it was Cowell’s Mountain out there in the background!

This is where the congregation that Paul loves resides...
How he misses them, how he remembers them fondly, and how he sees the work that they are doing still — even though he’s gone — as 
FIRST, always shared even as his adventures continue
and SECOND, a holy calling from God.

I didn’t preselect this text  ; )
But it won’t be long now couple more weeks, that I’ll be gone from here.  May 27.  After 10 years at SVLC!  And yet, like Paul reminds us here, we will always share in the Gospel.  

I really related to Paul here, as he talked about knowing that he is held by this wonderful congregation in Philippi.  I was just saying to a friend the other day, we move from this place knowing that we are held in love and in prayer and in partnership in the Gospel.  

It’s not just affection for one another, like friends who always want to be together.  It’s the partnership we share in the Gospel, in serving this hurting world — wherever we are — with the love and affection and welcome of Jesus Christ.  That’s what brought us all together in the first place, and that’s what we all carry on knowing and being called to do.  Christ began something here long before any of us were here, we walked together for a time in this Gospel-centered ministry, and now even as our physical paths diverge, our spiritual, our vocational, our missional paths do not.  

Like Paul, who was far away from the Philippians whom he loved, we and all Christians for whom we share affection, continue on in our partnership even as distance separates us.

Maybe I’ll write you from prison in DC someday, if I ever get locked up for protesting the next un-Christlike thing our President or our government does!  (The religious community in DC’s pretty active...)  You’d think that would be the end...

And yet, Paul in prison — whose entire ministry was a protest and a resistance to the Roman Empire’s cruel, merciless, self-centered, anti-Jesus rule — Paul in prison was a joyful man.  He was filled with thanksgiving and deep joy and fondness for all those with whom he shared in the Gospel.  And most fully, it appears, those in Philippi.  He wasn’t alone!

Ponder that irony this week:  Sitting in prison...in a state of gushing joy and thanksgiving, and continued ministry!  I mean, the ministry continued there in jail, the surroundings just changed.  It didn’t stop him from preaching God’s love.

This is the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ!  It is so good that prison bars and an iron spear can’t hold it back!  That hunger and famine and drought, can’t hold it back!  That pain and separation and grief and good-byes and distance can’t hold it back!  That weather and sickness and human imperfections and egos and stubbornness can’t hold it back! This is that power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  It is so good that not even death itself can hold it back.  

(Kind of makes jail look like child’s play, when you put it like that.)
Sisters and brothers in Christ, this is a holy calling from God that we all have.  AMEN?  You are here, we are here, not just because we like each other.  In fact, some of us can’t stand each other   ; )
We are in this place...because God needs us to share this Gospel with the world.  

You know, people start coming to a church, often not always, because it feels nice and good to themThey like it.  They get a lot out of it.  There’s some kind of take-away for them.  It feeds themThey like the pastor for themselves, the friends they make are good for them.  (See what’s at the center here?)  But as time passes, if they stick it out, church ends up being a place of pain too.  A place of sorrow and controversy.  People get sick, they even die.  Others move away, others get angry and start bad mouthing others.  They discover that the church that made them feel good for a while, is also full of human beings.  And they stay anyway.   I’m encouraged, and how we are blessed, when Christ’s church carries on...in spite of ourselves!  The the Gospel ekes out from behind bars, and locked doors, and big, stuffy egos and petty squabbles, when the Holy Spirit can’t be stopped. 

Because ultimately, it’s not about us, after all!  We might come into it thinking it’s about us, like any other market, we might come into it thinking what will this give me?...what can I take away from this place?  But God works on us, through the Holy Spirit and through prophets like Paul, to snap us out of our self-centeredness and self-righteousness!  Jesus had to say it three times to Peter: “Feed yourself.” ; )  No, “Feed my sheep, feed my lambs, feed my sheep!”  It’s not about you!  It’s about sharing in the ministry of the Gospel.  “It’s about partnering, and I need you!” God says, “I need your help in this!”  None of us can do it alone.  That’s why Wesley said, “Christianity is essentially a social religion; and that to turn it into a solitary religion is indeed to destroy it.”

Sisters and brothers in Christ, partnership in the Gospel is how this works, and no distance, not even prison can sever those bonds because they are ultimately, in Christ.  Who fills us with joy and thanksgiving even now...and forever more. AMEN.

Monday, April 30, 2018

April 29 -- Paul in Athens (Easter 5)

Friends in Christ, if Paul was to wander through your life — your daily routines, where you spent your time and your money, where you made sacrifices: the things that bring your great joy, the things that get you really upset, and the ways you speak — if Paul was to wander down “your street”, stand at the center of your personal “town square” (the Areopagus) — WHAT WOULD HE NOTICE?  

The question is not: “Are you/is anyone religious?”  The question is: “In what ways are you extremely religious?”  Everyone worships something.  The word worship, broken down, “worth-ship”.  What’s worthy of your sacrifices?  That’s what we worship.  Lots of people go to church but don’t worship God.  Because God’s not worthy of their sacrifices, the church is not worthy of their sacrifices: traveling the world is what’s truly worthy of their sacrifices.  Clothing or hobbies or housing or sports or fancy alcohol or knives or guns or shoes or concerts or cars or crafts are what’s truly worthy of their sacrifices.  We all have our thing, I think.  What’s your thing?

The best way for Paul to wander down any one of our “streets” is for him to take a look at our credit card statements, right?  Or however, if you even can, track how and where you spend your money.  (I was shocked at how much this past tax season my family spend on food — organic, locally sourced, healthy food.  It’s more expensive.  We’ve admitted that’s a place we’re willing to make sacrifices.  I guess you could say it’s one of our idols.)  What’s on your credit card statement?  That’s the real “giving record,” right?

That’s where we can see where we really make sacrifices.  I know the whole, “but it’s not just about money when it comes to church” idea.  And that’s true, but so often, I think, we can hide behind that.   So much is about money...  x2 That’s why Jesus talked about money all the time!
“Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Mt. 6.21; Lk. 12.34).  What is it that you treasure?  What is it that you protect?  What is it that you make sacrifices for?
This was true in the ancient world as well, as Paul walked through the streets of Athens, “Athenians,” he says, “I see how extremely religious you are in every way.”

But there’s something else:  Paul notices that there is an altar to an unknown God.  You see, the people of Athens — like us today — worshipped all kinds of gods.  I think it was more overt then: maybe less shame about it.  They made sacrifices openly to the gods of sports, food, parties, travel, transportation, music, crafts and weather.  (We worship weather here in San Diego, don’t we?  Willing to make sacrifices for beautiful weather?)  Same back then!  But there was this one altar that was unmarked.  It was like the fill-in-the-gap altar...

...and Paul seizes on that image to introduce them to a different kind of God.  Now that altar was in fact, a fill-in-the-gap altar:  Like today, the people lived in great fear.  If you didn’t sacrifice to every god, if you didn’t appease every god, then trouble would inevitably befall you.  So just in case, there was this little “fill-in-the-gap” altar.  Just in case you missed or forgot about a god or two.  You could sacrifice at the altar of the unknown god.
       Paul seizes on that to draw them into a new understanding...
See, it’s like, there was “something else.”  The people even knew it.  This way of living and worshiping at all these altars, this way of being extremely religious was coming up short.  

Don’t we see that too?  Do you ever feel that?  All these things we worship, and yet, somehow, it’s never enough?  

We’re always pouring more and more out at all these different altars?  Everyone and everything is happy to take our sacrifices, our money, our time, our devotion, our energy, our whole lives.  But it’s like they’re never appeased.  The gods are never appeased, and they’ll just keep taking…  (Just talking with dear friends about the tolls that stress takes on our bodies...  
..the frantic pace at which we run, from altar to altar to altar. “I see how extremely religious you are in every way!” Paul exclaims.)
But then there’s this one other little altar.  This little tiny chapel, this insignificant table.  This ugly, old cross.  Laughable really, in the shadow of all the other towering altars.     

But Paul seizes on that little altar, and takes that fearful theology (study of God) about that altar — how that can be like Christianity now too: fearful theology — and fills it with incarnational theology.  God is with us.  This little, tiny, insignificant altar you see here, Paul says, “I proclaim to you that the God who made the world and everything in it, [the God] who is [composer and conductor] of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands…[this God] allotted the times of [our] existence and the boundaries of the places where [we] live, so that [we may] search for God and perhaps grope for [God]...though indeed [God] is not far from each one of us.  For ‘In [God] we live and move and have our being….’”  

We don’t grope for God, as if God is some object of our attaining.  We are IN God already.  My whole life changed with I started to accept that.  [say it again]

This little, un-named altar is an entry point into experiencing a God that is above all other gods!  A God who’s got the whole world — the whole universe — in a loving embrace.  A God in whom we “live and move and have our being.”  A God whose name is love, in Jesus Christ.  

This is where Paul takes us...along with his ancient hearers.  Paul preaches of a God who is beyond time and space, who is above all our petty obsessions and weaknesses, who holds us even as we try to appease other gods!

This little Altar, this Book, this Water doesn’t contain God (God doesn’t live, cooped up in here)!  But they do, we confess, carry God.  This little altar, this old book, these drops of water, point us to a God who is loosed in, with, above, below, all around and throughout this entire universe!  

We cannot encapsulate or domesticate this God of whom Paul speaks!  All we can do is give ourselves up to it — this holy movement — sacrifice ourselves to what we’re already in: 
God’s hands. 

...Think of when children are angry and restless in their mother’s arms: there’s no use in trying to overpower her, “Just rest. Just breath. It’s OK.”  Can’t we be like restless children running from altar to altar to altar?  (Paul was once a restless Saul!)

Friends in Christ, we are truly IN Christ.  Not every day do we get to reflect on the all-inclusive, all-loving, all-surrounding embrace of a God in whom “we live and move and have our being.”  Being in Christ is where we find ourselves.  So now all we we can do is enjoy it, take a breath...and go make disciples.  Go invite others into this understanding, into this joyful awareness.  Tell them that we don’t have to make all these other sacrifices at all these other altars!  Go, make disciples by pointing them to the water and the word of life, and this community of love, this bread of heaven and the wine of salvation.  For simply in this following, there is peace.  

Peace that is fuller and deeper than any other peace that any idols can offer.  Jesus calls us away from those, to come and follow, make your sacrifices here, and make disciples.  You are Christ’s witnesses to these thing:  you have a job to do!  It’s a blessed burden, a labor of love.  Thanks be to God, who holds us and this whole cosmos now...and forever more.  Go spread that Good News.  Breathe.  It’s gonna be ok.  Because God’s got us.  AMEN.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

April 22 -- Paul, Silas & Earth Day (Easter 4)

A common theme in this text is people getting annoyed.  You ever get annoyed?  Paul gets “annoyed” the actual word in Greek with the servant girl.  And our little skit here comically assumes that the jailer and jailed may have been annoyed, in turn, by Paul and Silas’ singing.  You ever get annoyed?

Today is Earth Day.  And in my experience.  Taking care of the planet can get annoying.  The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) is almost synonymous with annoying.  The other day I saw the classic movie Ghostbusters again.  And I had forgotten that the EPA were the annoying bad guys.  But it’s not just a governmental agency that gets annoying.  It’s the practice of caring for the environment: recycling, reducing our carbon footprints, consuming less, trying to keep in mind the other creatures of this planet, and generations that will come after us.  What a pain in the you-know-what!  So annoying, right?

I even fancy myself as an environmentalist.  And trying to be mindful about using less, consuming less, protecting more, teaching our children.  So annoying!  We’ve turned our kids into little energy extremists: Micah with the lights, he’s always turning them off, and when he was a little younger, he’d even start crying when we’d leave lights on: “You’re destroying God’s earth!”  True story.

But today on this Earth Day, on this Paul and Silas day, perhaps on this annoying day...I want to invite you to start simply by paying attention to what’s annoying you.  God is working in that to bring about joy, peace, forgiveness and liberation.    

There is joy, peace, forgiveness and liberation that comes from that young girl’s constant crying out...which is what Paul was so annoyed about.  Do kids ever annoy you?  Katie annoys me when she asks constantly while we’re driving, about why we we don’t bring all those homeless people we see downtown or at the stop lights asking for help — “Why don’t we bring them home and give them some money, Daddy?”  

Do you know what scholars believe that slave girl really was?  She wasn’t just a little fortune-teller, she was exploited, as young girls always were, sexually! And that was the system, much like the child sex trafficking big business that’s happening right in our front yards here in East County.  That was just the way it was, and she was annoying the system with her recognition of Paul and Silas‘ identity:  “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation!”  That’s all she kept crying out.  And out of her annoyance, came liberation from the demons.  A disruption to the system...the death of death!  

Think we’re seeing that now?  With American children across this nation, staging walk-outs of their schools and “annoying” us with marches and protests, waving banners and crying out constantly for freedom...from gun violence and the right to learn and live peacefully?  Disrupting the system...pleading for the death of death.  Like the little girl in the story: it’s not like kids have that much power to change anything...or do they?  She persisted, and annoyed Paul enough to get that demon cast out!  The death of death.

And then Paul and Silas: from annoyed to annoyer!  (Maybe that’s a stretch.  I love that they sang in jail!  We all should think about singing in jail!  But let’s just stick to the annoying theme...)  I’m convinced that their singing is what broke them out of there.  Their hope in the midst of despair, their being free while chained up.  And their staying...even when the doors finally opened and the shackles fell off.

I’ve told it before but I love this story about hope in the darkness: about when one of the Metro lines in Washington DC went down back in 2012, and a whole train was trapped in a dark tunnel.  

The newspaper article about this quoted the maintenance crew that had gone running into the dark tunnel with their flashlights and equipment to figure out what the problem was...and as they approached the train, sitting dead in the dark, they heard singing.  Someone on the train had started singing “Lean on Me”.  And the whole place was rocking by the time they got the problem fixed.  Probably wanted to stay and finish the song before they disembarked the train and walked out of that dark tunnel!

Think a few on that train might have been annoyed when the singing started?  Rolling their eyes or even telling the singers to shut up?

Pay attention to what’s annoying you...because God works in that to bring about joy, peace, forgiveness and liberation.    

And that goes for taking care of God’s good creation too.  Lutheran professor, mentor and pastor Joseph Sittler had this great quote:  “Nature is the theatre of God’s grace.” x2  Even if caring for the environment and those who advocate the most for it might be a little annoying, think about that: this earth is the theatre, the stage, upon which God’s grace gets played out!  

And here’s how I’m going to tie Paul and Silas in with Earth Day:  At the end of this text, the jailer, one might perceive him as their former enemy, actually invites them to his home, his house, his family system...that is, his oikos (in the Greek) or eco’s.  Every time you see “house/home” in this text, try reading instead “ecosystem”.  The jailer invites them into his eco-system, where he is baptized, along with his whole household, along with his whole ecological-family.  And there in that house, in that ecosystem, upon this planet earth, they are invited to live into their baptismal vocations!  

You know, when we baptize and confirm in the Lutheran church we ask among other things, “Will you strive for justice and peace in all the earth?”  Hopefully that has a new ring on this Earth Day...maybe an annoying one.

Pay attention to what’s annoying you. God works in that to bring about joy, peace, forgiveness and liberation.  

Like Paul from annoyed to annoyer.  From agitated to agitator.  We are called to work for the healing of creation, for the healing of earth, the forests, the waterways, the species, the ecosystems.  Write letters, protest, speak up, run for office, pray, sing out, cry out...If you get involved in the advocacy and protection any of our earthly home, you become an annoyer.  
And that’s where this text and this context, I believe, is pointing us, calling us today!  To “let streams of living justice flow down upon the earth, give freedom’s light to captives, let all the poor have worth…”  (HoD we’re about to sing.) 

Friends in Christ, God stays with us, even while we’re locked down!  The Holy Spirit moves in our midst and puts a song in our hearts!  Nothing can lock us in, not even death itself..for Jesus has conquered death and the powers of sin, and busted us out, liberated us to live and serve this earth and all its inhabitants!  Let the healing and “liberation-living” begin, in Christ’s name!  AMEN.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

April 15 -- Paul's Conversion (Easter 3)

Grace to you and peace from Jesus Christ, the one who knocks us off our horses (always a sign of war back then) and calls us back to him.  AMEN.

Can you imagine a mass murderer traveling around Syria?  
Can you imagine a man hunting down and killing his own people traveling on a road to the city of Damascus?  It hasn’t been hard to imagine this week, with Syria dominating the headlines.  Assad now and Saul way back then, both killing their own people.  Brutal, fearsome, monstrous.

Interesting to hear in this text about God’s response to a murderer.  We have this in-credible conversion story today of Saul, who was “still breathing threats and murder” — don’t you think an ancient version of an airstrike would have worked better on Saul?  Do you believe this conversion really happened?  Could a murderous monster become the greatest apostle the church has ever seen?  Saul, Acts tells us, was the guy who stood and watched St. Stephen, the first martyr, die at his feet!  A cold blooded killer.  He was literally hunting down Christians, dragging them out, and executing them.  How do you think someone like that ought to be handled?  
So Saul has this incredible experience on the road to Damascus.  He hears a voice, he’s blinded by the light…
But the real miracle, I believe, is what happens when he arrives in Damascus.  
* Reflect this week on your own conversion experiences.  On the ways you relate to Saul, the once-evil things you’ve done or said, but God helped you to see the light...

* But the real miracle, I think, is with the Christians in Damascus, starting — but not ending — with Ananias!

Ananias lays hands on this murderer...not because he wants to, but...because God has asked him to. 

That’s powerful.  How many of us would lay hands on our people’s murderer...because “God told us to”?  Such a person in our day in age would probably get ostracized, be called a traitor or a weakling...or who knows what bully names.  That person would be seen as a crazy person, hearing voices.  But Ananias had a vision.  He had his questions.  But God says I need this man.  So Ananias is faithful: “Here I am, Lord.” 

But there’s more.  It isn’t just about Ananias, here.  It’s about the Christians in Damascus.  It says that after Ananias’ prayer, Saul-who-is-renamed-Paul gets food, vision of his own, and strength.  The next verse (we don’t have it in our reading), says “he stayed in Damascus for a time.”  

Saul, i.e. Paul, is nurtured by the Christians there.  I’ve often envisioned this story as a snap — a holy flip of a switch — and suddenly the evil Saul becomes the Apostle Paul.  But it’s not!  It’s a process.  It’s a process that requires Christian community.  

The task of the church is, and always has been...to get more money.  To get more people in the pews so that we can brag at our synod assemblies to other Lutherans about how great our church is.  To huddle up and take care of just the ones we like the most.  

No, the task/call of the church is, and always has been...to love our enemies and nurture disciples on their journeys of faith.  Caring is a central part of this, but it doesn’t stop at just those we like.  We are called to care for our enemies too.  And not just because of this passage:  Jesus said it!  “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.”

And we, Christian communities, are called to walk along one another in our rehabilitation processes.  Nurturing each other in the faith.

This brings me to our dear Vern.  And Annie, too:

Now, Vern was never an evil, cruel character like Saul.  That’s become obvious to me.  Vern wasn’t perfect, but I believe he always had a good heart, even while it may not have been a healthy heart.  Vern always had a good heart.  

But he wandered/wondered for many years.  He was lost.  He hurt.  He struggled.  Like we all do at times.  And yet Annie was always praying for him, laying her hands on him.  “Annie-nias”, right?  Praying for him.  Loving him.  Taking care of him.  And Annie always hoped he’d come to church, and find the good things that are here: Christ at this table, Christ in this community, Christ in the baptismal waters.  And on September 23, 2012, I guess you could say Vern fell off the horse, heard a voice.  We welcomed him officially into this congregation.  

But that was only the beginning.  For 6 years, Vern has been with us here, not only faithfully worshiping, but also lovingly serving.  Vern rang the bell: calling people to worship, and telling this whole neighborhood that somewhere people are giving praise to God!  He was on Church Council for a time.  And whenever he spoke we listened...because he spoke from the heart.  Vern’s wisdom came from his heart.  (It’s ironic and so confusing that it was probably the same organ that failed him.)

Here’s what I’m trying to say:  Vern was nurtured by this Christian community.  And it takes that Holy Community.
“Annie-nias” couldn’t do it by herself with a fervent prayer and a laying on of hands, right?  She needed her brothers and sisters in the faith to gather around and walk along through the times, as Vern too got up, remembered his baptism, took some food (as the text says) and regained his strength.  
Like Saul with the Christians in Damascus, Vern stayed with us for a time.  And we were made better through him, and through our leader Annie’s faithfulness.   

And today we give thanks.  Today we remember that God’s got Vern, and all sinner-saints in the eternal embrace.  No need to worry about Vern now.  His heart is just fine.  Today we not only remember Vern, but we cling to the faith/words/prayers of the ages as we comfort one another in our grief.  We lean into God’s grace, in Jesus’ defeat of death through the Easter resurrection.  Because he lives, Vern’s gonna be just fine.  And so will we.

What we can receive from all of this joy and sorrow today are some blessed reminders…

*to be kind, good-hearted to one another, like Vern was to us.  
*to look for more conversions on our own roads.  God’s not done with us yet!
*to continue to be about the Christian work of nurturing disciples.  Whatever the future looks like, *whatever the church looks like, may our mission always be to nurture disciples.  
* and finally, to trust in God’s incarnational, resurrection presence with us.  We are not left here alone:  

God’s Holy Spirit is not just swirling around among us, 
Christ is in us, 
forgiving us, 
and calling us back, 
to stop it our ‘old’ ways, 
to take some food [altar], get up, and follow in Jesus’ way of peace and resurrection hope.