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, January 21, 2018

January 21 -- Jesus Cleanses the Temple

Grace to you and peace, 

Sisters and brothers in Christ, God is always doing a new thing.  God is always moving us in the direction of change, evolving us  toward greater faithfulness, deeper peace, fuller grace.

That’s true in this exciting story as well.  All the Gospels have a story about Jesus in the temple overturning the tables.  But interestingly, this one comes right at the beginning of his ministry.  Chapter 2!  Matthew, Mark and Luke all have Jesus driving out the money-changers not until the beginning of Holy Week, at the end of his earthly ministry.  It’s part of what fuels the chief priests and scribes’ fire to have him arrested and finally crucified, remember?  But here Jesus does it at the beginning of his 3 year ministry.  What do you think did he do this twice?  Did John forget to mention him doing it again a few days before his passion, death and resurrection?  

Whatever conclusion you come to, what is happening here, is something different in terms of what this means.  John’s Gospel, as you’re probably learning this year is very different!  

For one thing, Jesus doesn’t show much emotion.  He doesn’t call names — he doesn’t call them “robbers”.  I don’t even think he seems all that angry, like in the other Gospels.  In John, it’s not an inditement on money corruption, economic inequalities, social injustice.  Jesus just says, “Don’t make this a marketplace.”  In John, it’s always a deeply spiritual matter...which can arrive us at those other issues.  But what’s happening here first is a radical theological replacement.

See, the people were used to buying cattle, sheep and doves when they arrived in Jerusalem for the Passover.  That’s what you did as part of the ritual sacrifice, that’s how the people celebrated Passover.  First, they sacrificed by traveling all the way to Jerusalem every year...specifically to the temple, the only place where God was believed to dwell.  And then, when they get there, after walking all those miles, they’d buy an animal to sacrifice.  Like Professor Karoline Lewis said, “You’re not gonna schlep a sheep from Galilee.”  

So everyone was used to seeing this mall of animals, like a farmers market, in the inner walls of the temple.  And for the “money changers” — by the way — this very well could have been their livelihood...  I have a friend who used to act out this scene, from the perspective of the money changers:  Jesus knocking over everything: “Man. That’s my dinner tonight, man.  How am I going to feed my family this month.  Who is this guy?”  I think that’s an interesting commentary on this story in Matthew Mark and Luke.  But here in John, Jesus is doing something radically theological (as opposed to political in the other cases):

Jesus is throwing out ritual sacrifice.  He is throwing out the idea that you have to buy something to earn God’s favor.  I’d even say, as a Lutheran, he’s throwing out the idea that you have to do something to earn God’s good graces.  Radical theological replacement, you see.  He’s throwing out the idea too that God only lives in the high temple, in the holiest of holies, there in Jerusalem.  

What’s happening here, already in chapter 2, is that we’re getting to see that God is breaking out, God — i.e. Christ himself — is breaking beyond the walls and the rules of the temple and the tradition.  In fact, Christ himself is the temple now!  There is no one place to go where you can visit God.  God is out there on the road.  
We see that in John as Jesus just. keeps. moving! 
Holiness is everywhere now, not just in temples or churches.

And because it’s everywhere we’re no longer chained to a checklist of sacrifices and journeys we have to make.  Jesus becomes the temple.  And this temple, that is his body, is nothin’ but love.  Nothing but abundant life and peace and forgiveness and grace! Overflowing, all encompassing holiness.

That’s what we’re offered now.  Here.

When holiness shows up everywhere, when we’re covered by Christ, then we do start to act differently, we do start to see differently, we do start to use our money differently, vote differently, speak differently, serve differently.  We don’t change our ways because there’s some kind of reward at the end!  That’s the old ritual sacrifice transaction:  I’ll give you this, God...so that will will give me that.  

We don’t barter with God!  We already have this reward!
We only respond to God...who through Christ, who always acts first in LOVE and generosity.  God always makes the first move, all we can do is respond (great statement of faith!).  

When people are doing cruel things, especially church people, or people that say they’re Christians, it always makes me sad because it’s like they’re reading the Bible but not understanding it.  They’re reading something, and at the same time not seeing/getting/receiving that this God is pouring out love and forgiveness FIRST.  Not after we make some kind of sacrifice or do some kind of ritual or good work to earn this.  
On this Martin Luther King Jr. week, I was listening to an interview of Rep. John Lewis of Georgia.  John Lewis was a Freedom Rider, marched with Dr. King and participated in those famous sit-ins in the Deep South, where he and other African Americans would walk into a diner and just sit quietly, longing to be served. People would spit on them because they were black, they’d pour hot coffee and syrup on them, call them all kinds of horrible names…

And as John Lewis talked about this and other forms of non-violent resistance he said at the heart of it all was love.  “You have to love your enemies and those who persecute you.”

And then he told this story from just a couple years ago, when a former KKK member requested an audience with Lewis because he wanted to apologize.  And with tears in his eyes this now-very-old white man says, “I’m sorry for what I did to you, those many years ago.  My heart was filled with hate.  Not anymore.  Will you accept my apology?”  And John Lewis said, “I accept your apology,” and then reflects calmly in this interview, “See, that’s the power of radical love, the love of Jesus.  It’s the most powerful force in the world, and it has the power to overturn the tables.”

Friends in Christ, Jesus in the temple, this “cleansing” is breaking us out of old, oppressive ways and systems.  And inviting us again — “come and see” — inviting us again down the road of discipleship, down the path of Jesus.  This is a radical theological replacement!  Love not law.  No more burdens or chains.  Freedom is walking the way of compassion and forgiveness.  New life.

This love, grace, mercy and cleansing healing is for you.  It’s right here and now.  Take a deep, Johanine breath: soak it up.  Chew it down, drink it in.  Taste and see that God is good.  Feast on this abundance that Christ offers freely to you today.  The old has been replaced with AGAPE — unconditional love — and so we. have. been. made. new.  Greater faithfulness, deeper peace, fuller grace.  Thanks be to God.  AMEN.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

January 14 -- Wedding at Cana

Our scripture reading today starts by saying “On the third day” — “On the third day there was a wedding in Cana.”  Let’s think about Third Day Events here.  I suppose John’s suggesting that the first two days occurred in Chapter 1 because we’re just starting Chapter 2.  But with John, there’s always more to it:  The Third Day is a connection here at the beginning of this book to the resurrection that takes place at the end of this book.  Life conquers death.  This is what a Third Day Event is.

And we hear that this is the first of Jesus’ signs.  There are 7 signs of Jesus in John’s Gospel.  This is the first.  It’s like those puzzles that reveal a little bit at a time, or a spotlight that shines on just a little part of a greater whole.  Not until all the pieces, all the lights are shined will Jesus be fully revealed.  But this is the first!  And man, this one is exciting!
Unexpected extravagance is almost unacceptable for us.

Have you ever been lavished with goodness and you really have a hard time accepting it?  I know you have!  I’ve talked to many of you about it!  This is a tough text for us Lutherans...who don’t always act like Lutherans!  I mean we call ourselves Lutherans but we are often, if we’re honest, reluctant if not totally rejecting of extravagant grace and abundance.  “No, no, no,” we say humbly (and even self-less-ly, “I don’t deserve that,” we think to ourselves, “make sure someone else gets the extravagance.  Not me.”  If you’re resonating with this kind of struggle, this is the text for you!  

It’s kind of like struggling to let someone else pay for your meal, or a big meal.  Now, not everyone struggles with that.  Some are happy to let others pay for their food and drink and this text is for you too (if that describes you).  
But how about the ones who always cover themselves — and others too — so graciously and extravagantly?  Can you accept another covering you, grace...that comes flowing in such ridiculous amounts of abundance here?  
(150 gallons!  I personally translate wine images into beer: that’s 10 giant kegs!  1 keg at a wedding is always too much! 10??!!!  It’s definitely not needed!) 

Wine overflowing: this is our first glimpse of Jesus’ glory.  One scholar talked about this miracle as thing of “dissonance." *  It’s not only a surprise, it’s actually a little disturbing.  There shouldn’t be that much wine, right?  That’s scandalous (which literally means a stumbling block)!  Exactly.  Paul says Christ is a stumbling block.  Some simply can’t get past certain things about grace to fully accept this God-with-us, this Word that becomes flesh and dwells among us!  It’s hard to hear, it’s dissonant, this much goodness.  NO!  “You’ve got to earn it, earn it,” our little Western, Protestant-work-ethic brains are crying out.  But there’s this part of our hearts, maybe even our whole bodies, that is whispering (maybe shamefully), “Would be fun though…”

See, John’s Gospel again and again challenges the mind, threatens and seeks to annihilate the shameful voices in our heads, the “you’ve gotta earn it”, and instead draws us into extravagance!  That’s what grace really is.  It’s totally undeserved.  We have a hard time with that.
OK, the six 20-30 gallon jars?  Let’s talk about that:  Everything is symbol in John.  Six jars represent the old religion.  The old way of doing things, even the old way of celebrating.  They’re water jars for religious purification! Did you get that?  That’s like taking our holy things here in order to have a party?  

Can you imagine grabbing [this chalice] for a wedding you’re going to on Saturday night?

Jesus is consecrating the new by using the old.  He’s taking the holy and using it for the everyday, and in that way making the everyday holy.  

(Remember I said a few weeks ago that for Jesus in John, everything becomes holy? Everything becomes “a sacrament”?)  Jesus is blowing up religious tradition, and by that I don’t mean destroying it: I mean more literally blowing up [wider and wider, bigger and bigger] — YES, this is holy, but so is this and this and this and this!

Walking your dog and picking up her poop in the evening breeze is sacramental.  Scrubbing the gunk off of the dinner plates as you listen to a podcast is sacramental.   Going to the dentist and talking about about your plans for the MLK holiday   is sacramental.  Having a drink with a friend,  getting a massage, laughing together in a boardroom meeting, reading a bedtime story to a child, flying to San Antonio, shopping for fruits and vegetables...you see?  It just goes on and on!  Everything is holy now!  Grace overflowing, pouring out 150 ridiculous gallons, just more and more!

When you think about when you’ve most felt God’s presence in your life, which we have to ask ourselves often when studying the Gospel of John.  [pause]  Don’t just think about the toughest of times — when you/your loved one was sick or death at hand, but somehow you knew God’s deep, abiding, very real presence.  Don’t just think about the dark times when God was truly there for you.  Those are definitely true moments of God’s presence...But today reminds us that God is with us in the absolute overflowing grace-filled, joy-filled, love-filled, laughter-filled, beer-and-wine-filled, food-filled, family-and-friends-filled, glorious-nature-filled highlights — 
the very best that this life and this world has to offer, too.  Third Day Events.

I think of my brother Tim and Caitriona’s wedding in Ireland in 2009.  That was a Third Day Event for me.  Wouldn’t have missed it, so glad we did it.  Family and friends — new and old —  gathered together in an area that seemed like the edge of the world.  For days (in the rain — didn’t matter) we too celebrated a wedding, toured around, sat by the fire, laughed and laughed, ate and drank, and danced and sang, and told stories and celebrated life and love, and joy and peace.

And when you experience those things, you want to share them with others.  You want others to have Third Day Events too, you long for everyone to be so blessed...you just can’t help yourself from feeling that way...That’s the power of a Third Day Event...
Let me conclude by calling our attention to Jesus’ mother:  We should follow her lead and approach to Jesus pleading, “They have no wine.” In other words, we should come to Jesus tell him what to do too: We pray for other people.  We don’t just hoard all this goodness and grace for ourselves.  We don’t just revel in Jesus’ presence and then go home, forgetting what we’ve experienced.  That’s not a Third Day Event.  No, we accept this absolute wonder and joy, we swim in it -- laugh and eat and sing and drink and dance.  We party with Jesus, and we also, even during the party, like his mom, plead with Jesus, “They have no wine.”  Let’s try that now: let us pray...

“Give to others the grace that we have received so abundantly, loving God.  Blow open the old ways that come up empty.  And fill us and this whole world with newness, with joy and mercy and unity and peace.  In your name we pray.  AMEN”

*New Interpreters Bible, “John”, Gail O’Day

Sunday, January 7, 2018

January 7 -- Jesus Says Come and See

It’s one thing to know where a story ends and what the whole point is.  It’s another to experience it.  

I marvel every time I travel.  I know where our final destination is — I study the maps, look at road conditions and read about the area.  I just did this two weeks ago as our family drove all the way up to beautiful Oregon to an area we had never seen before…I love seeing the map of the area before we go, and now you can even see fancy Google earth images, not just a 2D beige-colored screen.  But nothing can substitute for the real thing — being there.  Smelling the pine.  Seeing your breath in the freezing air.  Talking to locals after getting a bit disoriented by the roundabouts in the neighborhood.  Embracing my parents and brothers and sisters and little after we had all traveled many miles to this place, slipping on the snow a bit as it crunches under your feet on the way to the door of the warm cabin…  Ah, welcome to Bend, Oregon!

You can grasp a place intellectually or on a screen, you can have some idea of where you’re going.  But it’s absolutely no substitute for actually being there.  

Ah, welcome to the Gospel of John, the first Chapter 1.  On December 24, I laid out a bunch of themes and shared that everything we need to know (as one professor put it) about John’s Gospel is in the first few verses.  We should keep referring back to that map.  But now, at the end of Chapter 1 the journey begins.  Let’s move now to that light that John describes, the light of life, the light of the world, the light that shines in the darkness, in the winter of this world.

Our text for today — appropriately at the beginning of a brand new year, 2018 — is Jesus inviting us into the journey: into the rich scent of grace and beauty, into the embrace of family members in the faith, into the cold of the world and whose who opt out of this sacred community and meal, even into the disorientation that happens when we follow Jesus, when we “come and see”.  

You can grasp John intellectually or in 2D, you can have some idea of where it’s all going.  But it’s absolutely no substitute for actually being there yourself.  Jesus today is inviting us to move, to move to a new place, which requires a journey.  We are invited to re-locate, to transfer, to move into God’s very heart.
“What are you looking for?” Jesus asks.  That’s a great question.  Are you open to exploring that?  New year, envisioning a clean slate — lot of us have been out of our regular routine because of the holidays, so maybe it’s a great time to ask this question...  

In this moment we stand at the trailhead and ask ourselves, what Jesus asks: what are you looking for?  What do you want, really?  What’s the whole purpose here?  [pause]  The world tries to tells us what we should be looking for, right?  Money.  Power, safety, material things, fancy clothes, rugged independence, cars, jewelry, success, successful children to be proud of, winning, winning, winning.  But we know all too well that we can’t take all those things with us when we die.  

It’s really the death bed that we have to imagine in order to get at the big question that Jesus is asking here:  “What are you looking for?”  What do you want out of this life?  What’s the point?  [pause]  New year: trailhead.

The great thing for Christians, trust-ers in Jesus — when we play out the deathbed scene — is that we believe/trust we have eternal life coming to us, right?  Because of Christ, not because of my good works or my earning this glorious heaven!  Simply and profoundly, only because of Christ!  “This is most certainly true,” right?!  So in faith, our answer to Jesus’ big question here “what are you looking for” doesn’t have to be about the life hereafter.  The great thing for us trust-ers in Jesus is that we get to answer that question for this life, here and now.  So what are you looking for...here on earth, now that you’re ok, now that you’ve already been saved, now that life eternal has been freely given to you through Jesus?

And I love that the disciples don’t have an answer for him:   Jesus asks them, “What are you looking for?” and what do they say?  They answer with a question:  “Teacher, where are you abiding?”  It’s like they’re lost in a roundabout.  They have know idea how to answer Jesus’ question.  Maybe that’s like us right now too.  “Uhhhh….”

All they know is that they want to be close to Jesus.  “Teacher, Rabbi, where are you staying?”  And that’s when Jesus invites them, like they’re standing at the trailhead, “Come and see,” Jesus says.  Come and see where I’m staying, where I abide.  

Friends in Christ, God’s got great things in store for us this 2018!  Things that might disorient us, or freeze us, make us slip perhaps...Jesus never promised that the journey would be easy.  But at the same time, in this journey and life of faith, in this abiding in Christ’s gracious and loving presence, we enter into the very heart of God!  We come to know and feel God’s love wrapped around us, comforting us, inspiring us, challenging us, moving us always outward into new places and new ideas and new positions and new experiences…

(Another remarkable feature of John’s Gospel is how much Jesus and his disciples move!  I once tried to track their movement on a map as I read through the Gospel, and I gave up — they moved so much, almost like they were being teleported!)  

Journeying into God’s heart changes us, fills us with grace and mercy...and then sends us out to find and share with others, just like Philip finds and shares with Nathaniel, even at the beginning of the journey, we can find others and share with them this same invitation to come and see, to enter into the journey with Christ, to abide with him, to meet God.  

This is a good day, and a good year.  Standing at the trail head.  God’s gonna see us through!  AMEN.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

December 31 -- Guest Preacher Cyndi Jones

John 1:19-34 (NRSV)
19 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” 
21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” 
He said, “I am not.” 
“Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” 
22 Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 
23 He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said.
24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25 They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” 26 John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27 the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” 28 This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
29 The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared,
“Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 
30 This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” 
32 And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33 I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”
Please pray with me.

Dear God, Come and live in us. Set us on fire to proclaim your Kingdom in this world. 
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

In the other Gospels -- Matthew, Mark and Luke -- we learn a lot about John the Baptist, -- that he was pointing to Jesus before he was born when he was still in Elizabeth's womb. We learn what he ate, how he dressed, and how he died.
but not so much in the Gospel of John.

Today we find John the Baptist being interrogated by priests and Levites from Jerusalem -- representatives of the Jewish authorities sent to find out who he is and by what authority is he baptizing?  
Who are you?   Tell us plainly. Let us have an answer for those who sent us.
What do you say about yourself?” 
This is high political drama. The wrong answer could prove deadly.
John answers by saying who he isn't:
“I am not the Messiah.” 
And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” 
He said, “I am not.” 
“Are you the prophet?” 
He answered, “No.” 
Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” You can almost hear the prosecutor demanding answers.
He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’”.

John is very clear about who he is and -- who he isn't. 
I am not the Messiah, or Elijah, or the prophet --
I am here to clear the path -- to make way for the Lord.
To point to the Son of God.
The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and declared,
“Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 
John's purpose is to point to the Lamb of God. 
Hey over here, don't miss this -- Here is the Messiah!
I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.
Look here he is! You're not going to want to miss this. 

John's ministry and witness is an important lesson for us -- knowing who we are -- and who we aren't. 
I am not the Messiah.
I am a follower of the Messiah. 
Maybe like John the Baptist -- we point to the Son of God.
But how often do we limit ourselves?
Do we ever sense that God is nudging us to step out in faith, only to back away from our testimony?
Our testimony may not be to use words to express our faith, but maybe to live into our faith, to point to the One we follow.

A few years ago my Spiritual director suggested that I spend some time at the beach. She thought a bit of nature would be good for me -- as I had been spending most of my time indoors studying. 
I drove out to mission beach and was watching the waves roll in and then recede back into the Ocean. It was very comforting. 
As I watched -- a short distance from shore -- I saw a dolphin do a back flip. Really! At first I couldn't believe it, but the guy a few feet away said, "Did you see that?"  We were both in awe.
This was amazing.  First that it actually happened and secondly that I could actually see that far. 
Now I don't know how frequently this happens,
but I do know that I am rarely at the beach. 
Did I use this as an opening to share how awesome God is? "Wow isn't God's creation amazing? And that we got to see this -- WOW!"
No. I just tucked this experience safely away, knowing I had just been given a gift -- touched by God. 
How often do I let these opportunities just slip away? 

I had a friend Mary Eunice Oliver -- she is now deceased -- who never let an opportunity to point to Jesus pass her by. If she was on a plane, or at the Kinko's Copy counter or the mail man delivering mail or -- really everyone -- she would engage them in matters of faith. She didn't see her role as having them come to the church she attended -- but rather to point them to consider their relationship to God. During her life time, she probably touched over 150 people in a meaningful way.

Do we feel comfortable pointing to the Son of God?
Do we feel comfortable pointing to Jesus, "Hey look over here -- here is the Son of God!"
When do we feel comfortable talking about our faith?
About the Word made flesh, God Incarnate, Jesus, the Christ,
the Light of the world? 

Over the last few years of my training and internship, I have had the opportunity to be at many churches. Most have bible studies, but very few have created the time and space to share the faith that is theirs. 
While I was here at Shepherd of the Valley, I had the privilege of hearing some of your powerful stories of faith.
Your stories are like John the Baptist pointing to the Son of God, pointing to your personal experience of God in your life.
When we share our stories of faith, what I call "God Sightings" with each other -- the whole community is strengthened. 

When we are open and vulnerable and share our experiences of seeing God in our lives -- experiences that we all hold closely, we clear the path for others to speak their faith as well.
Many if not most of us have had tangible ways that God shows up in our lives, but we largely keep these experiences to ourselves -- maybe because we worry what others will think if we share them.
Like maybe you need a psychologist?? 

This is the community of faith. It is here in this place we can safely practice sharing our experiences of God -- our God Sightings. 

And when we actually speak our personal experience of God alive in our lives -- we help others see God alive in their lives as well, and in the world that God loves so much that God sent his only son to live with us. 

But the real value in speaking out loud our personal experiences of God in our lives in a safe environment like Shepherd of the Valley, is that when we get nudged to speak up for God, we have practiced the words, -- we have heard ourselves speak them out loud before others. The words are near to us -- they are in our heart and on our lips.
So when it comes time for us to point to the Son of God, we can say, “Look -- Here is God, you won't want to miss it!" 

When we need to be there for someone, we know what our faith feels like and looks like and sounds like. We can readily share it because we have the words.

Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 

Tonight is New Year's Eve. 
Tomorrow begins a New Year-- a fresh, clean, start. 
But actually thanks to the Grace of God -- every day is a fresh start -- cleansed by Grace we begin each new day afresh.
In these turbulent times, we might be the only ones pointing to the light, to restore hope and to share God's love for his world. 

In Jesus' words: I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!” John 16:33

Thanks be to God. 

Sunday, December 24, 2017

December 24 -- Christmas Eve

Henry Ward Beecher wrote: “Greatness lies, not in being strong, but in the right using of strength; and strength is not used rightly when it serves only to carry [one] above others for [their] own solitary glory. [One] is greatest whose strength carries up the most hearts by the attraction of [their] own.”  

I got that — not from reading Henry Ward Beecher — but from the book and the movie Wonder, which has enthusiastically made the rounds in our household, and Katie and I saw just recently.  And what a Christmas message it is!  (Go see Wonder in these Twelve Days of Christmas, if you haven’t already.  It’s a way to really get into the ‘incarnation celebration’ we have before us.)

“Greatness lies, not in being strong, but in the right using of strength; and strength is not used rightly when it serves only to carry [one] above others for [their] own solitary glory. [One] is greatest whose strength carries up the most hearts by the attraction of [their] own.”

Grace to you and peace from Jesus who comes to us this holy night in peace.  AMEN.

It is perhaps the hardest thing in the world, dealing with a bully.  I’m thinking more about bullies these days, have encountered the story Wonder...but also reflecting on our lives and our world...  

I’ve had a few experiences myself, one in high school that I’ll never forget.  The visceral feelings come back even now, just thinking about it: heart racing, sweat beading down, ready for anything and nothing at the same time — not sure if our stand-off was going to end in fists swinging, and blood dripping, or what.  He was way bigger and stronger than I was, had this threatening smirk, big ol’ biceps, veins sticking out…But he was making fun of a friend of mine in the weight room, and something in me kind of snapped.  And I couldn’t take it anymore and stay quiet.  I mouthed off back at him.    

And probably, fortunately it ended the way it should have, anti-climactically, with a coach breaking up our heated stare-down.  But I didn’t sleep well that night, and I fretted about that bully for a long time after, even while nothing ever happened again.  

Bullies are tough, on one hand:  They can really eat you up, physically for sure, but I think the other wounds they inflict can last even longer:  They can embarrass you, get others laughing at you too.  They can make you cry just with their quick words, or a mean picture that they draw.  They can even make you turn on yourself — start to cut yourself down, make you laugh along with everyone...at yourself.  
If you’ve never been bullied, praise God.  
But the Christmas story is for anyone who’s been bullied.  

I recently asked my kids how they deal with bullies and bad dreams in these tough times...and one of the things Katie (our 8 year old) said was “stay calm and let an angel help you.”  )(Maybe that coach?)  This Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke is for anyone who’s been bullied, anyone who’s been haunted by cruelty. 

Those shepherds in the field were pretty beat up, bullied, haunted by a cruel world — hearts pounding with anxiety about how they’d get their next meal, paycheck, or rent paid.  Ready for anything and nothing at the same time.  Shepherding was not an easy life.  They were on the edges.  They were nobodies.  But an angel came, and they stayed calm, and they let that angel help.  

Micah (our 12 year old) — when I asked him how he deals with bullies — mentioned “laughing and singing helps,” and he also said, “Remember and give thanks for your family.”  

Do you see all these components in our Christmas celebration here at church this evening?  As we gather, and try to stay calm, even as worries creep in all the time, even as bullies can haunt.  As we pause to reflect on the multitude of angels who have come to our aid over the years?  Coaches, friends, family members, mentors, spiritual guides, rainbows, dogs, authors and actors.  As we gather at the manger of the one “whose strength carries up the most hearts by the attraction of his own”?  In this holy place, laughing and singing help, and we give thanks for our family of faith too.  

God’s strength is not made manifest in the big-bully muscles of world leaders or cool-group leaders, not in the mean words or the name-calling, not in threatening smirks or frightening stare-downs, and certainly not in fists flying.  God’s divine power is instead made manifest in a baby.  In peace.

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer points out: “God is in the manger!”  How do you feel about that?  This morning here, we talked about John’s Gospel, where we find and confess this Jesus is God, not just God’s son.  One God, three persons.  God is in the manger.  The word becomes flesh and dwells among us!  This almighty God has humbled, shrunk all the way down to become the child of a poor refugee couple, born in the middle of nowhere in the middle of nowhere!  A stable, a manger.  Revealed first to bullied and scared shepherds.  

This God in the manger is strength that “carries up hearts”.  Christ.  Is.  Born.  To you.  For you.  In you.

Let’s laugh, let’s sing, let’s let angels help us, let’s stay calm, and let’s share this Good News with everyone:  

For God is here today.  AMEN.  

December 24 -- Word Became Flesh, Advent 4

I’m so glad you’re here this morning, on the Fourth Sunday of Advent!  We are finally back into the New Testament...
I’d like to introduce the Gospel of John by sharing 5 ideas for us to watch for in John’s Gospel from now until Easter.  
One Johannine scholar said that everything you need to know about John is in this first chapter.
This is for the die-hards!   
A little different, a little Christmas surprise.  So, made you a handout and even drew you a picture…we’re on a very different plain than we’ll be on in Luke tonight...We’re in John world, Johnland.
John as French poet, mystic...

I don’t believe John wrote the Gospel: he drew it...with vibrant, rich, Parisian colors!  And all of these extravagant eccentrics only lead us to the most glorious message of unrelenting Divine Love, pointing us faithfully to this one incarnate, Christ Jesus our Savior, the Word made flesh.   Welcome to the year of John!
The traditional, medieval image for John is the eagle.  Martin Luther said the Gospel of John soars the highest in its view of Christ (God’s own self, come down to our dark world).  The eagle was believed to be the only animal that could look directly at and actually fly to the sun.  The Gospel of John, more any other book in the Bible, describes God’s deep incarnation and love in such extreme, cosmic terms.  Hard to put into words,  really.  And so the artists, musicians, poets and dancers among us must be convened. 
  1. John is about experiencing God, not simply talking about God.  To actually feel love is to know God’s grace.  It’s one thing to hear the Good News in church, it’s another to be lavished with a hug, a delicious meal, a warm bath, a soft robe, a glass of wine.  (foot washing, oils, wine, water gushing)  Can you taste it, smell it, feel it?  There is this tactile — incarnational — quality to John’s witness!  And the images always point to extravagant grace, beauty and truth.  God abides, dwells, “moves into the neighborhood”...do you sense this fleshy flesh quality?
  2. Because John was written in the late 1st/early 2nd century, Christians were under persecution, so the community that gathered around John was small, tightly-knit, deeply spiritual and therefore had lots of “insider” language.  Indeed, Jesus’ statements in John often seem pretty cryptic.  This doesn’t mean John is trying to be exclusive; it’s just that outsiders can’t understand.  One has to be brought in, from darkness to light, from not knowing to knowing God.  “Come and see,” Jesus will say in John.  True for you?  Stories of being brought into the light of understanding?  Not excluded, just didn’t get it…
  3. I think of the process of becoming a pastor, parent...  “John’s purpose was to strengthen the community with words that bear eternal life and love” (my New Testament Professor David Rhoads).  The very relationship Jesus has with God — which is intimate, loving, deep — is offered freely for you and me too.  And this changes everything: it is salvific!  John’s Gospel guides us into this relationship, dripping with abundant life and grace.  Think Beatles’ song on both Christmas and Good Friday: “Love, love, love.“ Jesus on the cross. No infant, baby Jesus stories.  Just light, grace.  Then we launch into John the Baptist’s pointing (v.19)...
  4. For John everything is sacramental.  Interestingly, there’s no Last Supper, i.e. Passover, in John!  They do share a meal where Jesus “sheds light” and washes their feet the day before the Passover and tells them/us to love one another.  In this way, John opens all creation up to become a cornucopia of images that bear the love and divine mark of God.Drinking water, talking late at night, celebrating at a wedding, all eating, shepherding, gardening…Do you see all things as sacred?  Or just churchy stuff?  Do you see the God-made-manifest-in-Jesus overflowing in the cooing of an infant, the hugs at the airport, a walk with your dog, the incredible smell of fresh strawberries, a hot tub, or a long talk?
  5. Jesus. Is. God.  This truth, one may argue, can be a little more vague in the other Gospels, but John hammers home Christ’s absolute divinity.  And this “God from God, Light from Light” (Nicene Creed) has come to dwell with and love us...even here, even now. 

It’s a different kind of Christmas message, it’s not as scratchy and rustic as Luke’s version.  John’s Gospel is smooth and ethereal and mysterious like incense or a candle flame or a glorious high-flying eagle.  
Whether you like this one or that, it’s all just God’s way of trying to get through to us.  Don’t understand it in John’s cosmic, esoteric terms, then how about Luke’s version of a poor teenage, immigrant mother, a smelly stable, farmers with calloused hands, sheep herders with alcohol on their breath?  No?  How about the more geo-political dynamics of international rulers or astrologists traversing the great deserts, and resisting the bully, immature, filthy rich King Herod (who liked to put his name on everything) in order to pay homage to the true king with gold, frankincense and myrrh...in Matthew’s Gospel?  
See all of these are God trying this way and that to get the message across that we are not in this life by ourselves.  God makes a way and gets this grace and peace, and social justice and righteousness, and forgiveness and love through to us.  See it, hear it, feel it, taste it.  Mercy is ours.  Mercy is here.  Love has come.  All we can do, like the shepherds and the kings is adore the light that shines in the darkness, the Word that is made flesh.  All we can do is celebrate Christmas in spirit and in truth.  Deep in our hearts, with our whole bodies in how we love and treat one another and God’s earth.  All we can do is praise God.  

As the mystic Rilke once wrote, “Praise, my dear ones.  Let us disappear into praising.  Nothing belongs to us.”  

Sunday, December 17, 2017

December 17 -- Word Accomplishes God's Purposes, Advent 3

It’s as if the author of this passage knew about the water cycle that we learned about in elementary science class!  

Did you catch that?  “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater…”

It’s as if the author (which interestingly, many scholars believe was not Isaiah himself but an author paying prophetic tribute to Isaiah — many call this section [chapters 40-55] Second Isaiah), it’s as if the author had taken a science class and learned the water cycle.  Then brilliantly uses the water cycle as a metaphor for how God’s word works: “...so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”

God’s word as water cycle!  Draw me a picture of that!

And God’s word today, in this 3rd Sunday of Advent, as we prepare for the Mass of Christ - Christ-mas, as we clean and clear our homes and our hearts for the Messiah-child, as we wrap up another semester in the Old Testament (today’s our last OT text for a while, as we move into the NT until at least the summer...) As we scurry around all busy and excited — it can be a really great time of the year — God meets us in the word, God waters us with hope and promise, and God RESTORES us anew.

This is a restoration text, it is a restoration story.  (Last week I talked about resurrection, not resuscitation; this week, it’s restoration.)  

God restores Israel.  Isaiah 55 sings of a return from exile.  Christ-mass is coming!  After all those years in Babylonian exile, the Persian King finally frees the Israelites.  They are in the process of returning home, we believe, when this chapter was penned.  And the author is painting a beautiful picture of what restoration looks like, even as they return home to ruins — their holy sites destroyed and grown over by years of both encroaching occupation and desolation.  Imagine if we were taken away, others would move in, right?  And when we finally return home, 50 years later, there would be all kinds of work to do.  Suddenly we’d be the outsiders, the foreigners, as far as the new locals were concerned.  This was Israel’s place, returning to the land of Judah — all of this, 600 years before Jesus was born. The plight, the work before them, the despair..  

And here’s the prophet again singing, “Hey, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters and you that have no money, come, buy and eat…” Come and feast on God’s goodness and grace!  Come to the table of welcome and mercy and hope, the prophet sings.

It’s like water on the blazing fire, it’s cooling the scorching and parched earth, God’s word falls fresh on sorrowful ears and hearts.

Ever had a feast after suffering!  It’s the best, right?  I was helping my friend Brian move yesterday.  He and his wife just got a bunch of land up in Murrieta, and as you may know cross town moves are way tougher physically than cross-country, especially when you’re doing it yourself.  
And my best friend was doing it himself, so I went up there to help him out, and all day we were loading the uHaul from the storage unit and his in-laws garage, driving a few minutes and then unloading again.  Back and forth.  I know you talk about how young I am, and tell me to quit complaining, but Brian and I, who’ve been friends since college now 20 years ago, didn’t feel so young yesterday.  We were laughing — we’re both hurting a bit today.  (It was actually a lot of fun.)  

But then, after a long day, dirty hands, nasty sweat rings on our t-shirts, long after the sun goes down, he treats me to prime rib, horseradish, freshly brewed IPA, roasted asparagus, a pizookie!  Feasting after “suffering” is the best, right?

Come, everyone who is sore and tired, everyone who is famished and depressed, and afraid and alone.  Come you who are grieving and you who are angry and you who are anxious.  Come to the waters of God’s word, and God’s meal and receive restoration for your souls, your hearts, your minds, even your physical bodies.  Come and eat, and drink.  

Come to the manger (comes from the French manger “to eat”. Isn’t that interesting?)  Come and feast with your tired bones, and worn-out spirits.  We’re starting to look more and more like those “shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night,” yeah?  Washed up, empty, returning to our trashed homes, overwhelmed...and bitter.
The text alludes to letting go of the bitterness too:  “...let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that God may have mercy on them, for God will abundantly pardon…”

When we come to this great feast — we don’t eat alone.  No one feasts alone.  That’s just a big meal.  But a feast, a banquet, is with family and friends, new in-laws, even a few we don’t like.  Let it go, God says today.  I will forgive them, and your anger and anxiety and stress is wreaking havoc on your body and soul.  I love you too much to let you suffer in that way too.  This is about total restoration!  

Here is our God!  Waiting for us, welcoming us, feeding us with grace and forgiveness!  This is the Word that comes down from heaven, and it takes root in us, it grows in us.  Like the water cycle, the rain doesn’t fall in vain.  The rain waters the earth,  God’s word waters our troubled existence.  
It refreshes our parched spirits.  

“Ahhh…” Brian and I kept laughing at how wrecked we were...    
God’s word-as-water-cycle gives us hope too that there’s more for tomorrow.  We receive enough grace for today, and then more will cycle back again tomorrow.  So we can calm down and simply trust in God’s benevolent precipitation of mercy.  (That’s what we symbolize and enact with the offering each Sunday.)  It’s the ritualizing of ‘enough‘ — God’s given us enough and so we turn and share our money and welcome others in the same way God has shared with and welcomed us.  

This is Advent activity: getting ready.  Restored and renewed and refreshed even this day.  We continue to wait and work and watch with hopeful and joyful hearts.  And we continue to approach and revel in this great feast of Love Divine.  

For God draws near.  Be not afraid: the Word accomplishes.  

It is made flesh and dwells with us.  Thanks be to God.  AMEN.