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 15, 2017

January 15 -- Sermon at Nazareth

Many of you know Becca Ajer.  Becca is one of the many daughters of this congregation.  She grew up here.  It was before my time here.  She was the acolyte, communion assistant, eventually even as a high schooler, I understand, worked as the prestigious assistant minister.  Then Becca went off to college, and it was an exciting day, when we received word 4 years later that Becca had felt the strange call to go to seminary, and become a pastor.  As many of you know, our council met and “supporting” Becca Ajer through seminary was on the agenda.  “Raising up leaders for the church” and “encouraging persons to prepare for the ministry of the Gospel”, after all, are part of our congregation’s constitution and vocation.  So we were only doing our job in that council meeting as we discussed what that “support” would look like now.  Would it be supporting Becca through prayer and letters, or sending care packages, through finances...or all of the above?  As many of you may remember, we emerged from that meeting with a proposal to fund Becca with a full scholarship, all the way through seminary!  I was astounded at the generosity of this congregation, when she received that wonderful gift.  “Wow, all those years of raising up young Becca, and now they’re putting their money where their mouth is!” I thought.  I was again so proud to be a part of this loving, generous, and supportive family.  (BTW, I got a lot of credit for that, especially from the family -- I saw Margi again this week -- but all I had done was ask the question…) 

Maybe this isn’t such a good introductory illustration for this sermon because I don’t remember anyone really wanting to hog Becca all for ourselves when she returned from seminary.  Maybe there was.  But there was that sense that “she was ours.”  In a good way.  And anywhere she goes from here, she’ll be ours.  We were proud of her, and she’s good!  (If you hadn’t heard: after her first call up in Lake Elsinore, she has now taken a call in Pennsylvania and is engaged to be married later this year, I understand!)  “That’s our Becca,” whether you knew her or not.  “That’s our girl!”
You can almost hear a similar sentiment in the first part of our reading today about Jesus, when he came back to Nazareth, unrolled the scroll and started reading -- started reading about God’s justice, freedom from oppression, recovery, hope, joy and forgiveness.  Christ’s inauguration speech.  “Today,” he concludes, “the scripture is being fulfilled in your hearing.”  And you can almost hear the proud applause:  “Yea, Jesus! That’s our boy!”  

Except, they weren’t understanding (like I think this congregation did) that Jesus wasn’t just for them.  His proclamation was for everyone.

And so there is this very abrupt shift from excitement and parental pride...to anger.  It’s a foreshadowing, btw, of Palm Sunday and Holy Week.  When the crowds, in a very short period of time, flip their tone completely from “Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”...to “Crucify him!”

Jesus is for everyone -- particularly the outsider.  And that makes people mad.
Where are you with getting on board with Jesus‘ mission?  Jesus’ mission’s like a train…
I’ve always dreamed about a high-speed bullet train in California and across the country.  I’ve said before, if I was ever running for public office, my platform would be the “train platform”.  Part of it, I think, is just my childhood (but abiding) fascination with trains.  But also, what I see as environmental benefits, as well as ease and job creation, and cool bullet trains zipping across the state, and bla, bla, bla.  Tax me whatever, I’m in!  And I know it’s controversial, especially since there is, in fact, a multi-billion dollar project underway in California.  But that’s my point:  it’s underway already.  It’s controversial because now it’s started.  So there are farmers in the Central Valley who are furious (and understandably so) about a track cutting through their farms.  There are taxpayers who never did and never would cast their vote in favor of this.  But the plan already passed through them -- despite their anger -- and high speed rail in California is already underway, whether we’re on board with it or not, whether we like it or not.

Like Jesus’ mission to and love for the outsider.  It’s controversial because it’s started.  In some ways, people of God, we’re a bunch of insiders, especially you long-time Shepherd of the Valley insiders.  We know these stories.  We’ve sung these songs.  We know the rituals and the dynamics, and the rhythms of the saints.  And all that’s good and fine.  It’s more than that, it’s life-giving, community-building, supportive and hopeful patterns in which we engage week after week, year after year.  Jesus is not condemning our insider ways...unless those ways loose track of the outsider.  Jesus had them all on board...until he brought up the fact that “there are others”.  Then they literally tried to throw him of a cliff.  “Jesus is for everyone, particularly the outsider.  And that makes people mad.”

But here’s the Good News, truly -- and we can rest in this. God’s mission, Jesus’ high speed rail to the outsider, to the poor, to the outcast, to the stranger, to the prisoner, to the oppressed, is underway already.  It’s controversial because its already begun, it’s already passed through us -- and it will keep moving forward, whether we like and jump on board or not.  God’s embrace will keep moving, and moving outward.   

What would it look like to get on board?  Unlike the angry crowd whose track had hit a dead end.  (Reminds me of when I used to build track as a kid -- and even as an adult :) -- and we’d run turn track into just a dead end.)  That crowd had run themselves into a dead end... 

At our council retreat last week, I was excited to share some notes from this book Autopsy of a Deceased Congregation as our opening devotion -- mostly because we don’t seem to exhibit those signs at all...but still good to hear and name.  In the book, the author ... 
14 dead churches: the past is hero. Death by nostalgia. The church refused to look like the community. Church becomes a fortress. The budget moved inwardly. The Great Commission becomes the Great Omission.  The preference-driven Church (for example: “traditional” vs. “contemporary”).  The church obsessed over facilities. 

Jesus’ track -- on the other hand -- goes on, and on, and on…not because it’s a circle.  

[slowly]  But it is a spiral.  Jesus’ track, Christ’s mission does loop back to pick us up again and again.  God sure does some odd engineering.  This day, once again, Christ is inviting us to jump on board.  And this is a mission, a task, an ongoing call to let go.  All this language about release to the prisoner, recovery of sight to the blind letting the oppressed go free -- all this loops back to pick us up too: it’s about letting go.  Christ invites us to let go of our anger, our fear, our bitterness.  Forgiveness is so deeply imbedded in all this.  The year of jubilee -- a concept from the Old Testament book of Leviticus -- is about forgiving your neighbor every seven years.  We can hold grudges, but what if we let our grudges and our resentments go, every seven years?  Been holding a grudge for seven years?  Today the scripture is being fulfilled in your hearing.  God is love.  All aboard!  (Oh yeah, and our ticket is free!)  Amen.

Monday, January 9, 2017

January 8 -- Jesus' Baptism

John the Baptist was a truth-teller.

Known any truth-tellers in your life?  I think they tend to be kind of weirdos.  Truth-tellers.  “Awkward” is a truth-teller’s middle name.  Their words sear, but we try to ignore it, or laugh it aside.  Truth-tellers:  Nothin’ to lose, no one to impress.  They often seem a little unhinged.

Now, I don’t mean someone who is cruel with their words...and their cruel words somehow settle into your mind as truth.  I think of all the bullies that say mean stuff that their victims start to believe is true -- that’s not a truth-teller.  That’s a liar, in fact.  

I mean a real truth-teller.  Someone who truly says it like it is.  Sometimes very eloquently.  But often not from a position you’d expect.  Those are always the great movie characters, right?  The trash-man in the movie, who always speaks the true and wise word.  The seemingly crazy, old bag lady.  The blind beggar. The bartender. The child...truth-teller characters.

And it’s often tempting to want to prop up that truth-teller and have them (not you) just give a piece of their mind (i.e. your mind) to the big, mean opponent, or at least one who holds power over you.  Propping them up, puffing them up...

Puffing up a crazy, mouthy, articulate classmate to go after a professor. Tell him! Tell him!  (I’ve done it & had it done to me)

Puffing up a brother or sister to go after a parent.  Tell him!  Tell him!

Provoking a council member, puffing them up to go after the pastor.  Tell him!  Tell him!  Give ‘em a piece of our mind! 
Puffing a legislator up to go after a president.  Tell him!  

Then if the results go bad, if the response is negative, even hostile, well, it’s not your hide.  No one even needs to know you put ‘em up to it…

I guess what I’m saying is that we can take advantage of crazy truth-tellers.  They’re “out there” anyway, so the temptation is: “Well, may as well get them to work for us...or at least entertain us.”

You kind of get the sense that the people in Luke’s gospel, surrounded by the big, mean Pharisees, the Herodians and the Roman empire -- bullies -- opponents, higher-ups, to be sure, more powerful than they, were puffing John up to go after them.  Tell ‘em, John!  Go tell ‘em!
But all John does is tell the truth.  He doesn’t incite violence, he tells the truth:  “What should we do?”  Share.  Give a jacket away if you have two.  Give food to anyone who is hungry.  Nothin’ to lose, no one to impress.  And John calls us to share.  He doesn’t fall for the puffing up games people play.  

That’s it, John!!?  You’re not going to rip them a new one!!?  You’re not going to verbally lambast them?  You’re not going to declare war on them?    

“No,” says John, “just share; be kind to one another.  Everyone could use a little more of that.  Be gentle.  Do the right thing.  Be honest and upright in your business dealings.  Don’t extort money from people.  Don’t rip them off.  Don’t cheat...and be happy with what you have…

“And one more thing:  This one Jesus, is it.  I’m going to engrave that into your consciousness by baptizing him.  [slowly] This one Jesus is the embodiment of truth -- of what I’m challenging you to do: This one Jesus is the embodiment of sharing, of not cheating the poor, of welcoming the outcast and feeding the hungry.  This one Jesus, who I baptize is the embodiment of truth.”  John is truth-teller and a truth-baptizer.  He baptized the truth.  The truth is not cruel; the truth is love.

And you know you’re on the right track to truth, when the powers try to shut you up, when you are saying things that sear in their simplicity.  Truth-telling, truth-baptizing got John thrown into prison.  He told the truth about Jesus, and he told the truth about Herod’s adulterous wrong-doing with his brother’s wife.  Everyone else turned a blind eye.  

Ever been in situation where everyone is turning a blind eye, and it takes the innocence of a child or an outsider or a newcomer to say, hey, this is wrong!   (Clergy group: “There’s a lot of ego and competitiveness in this circle.”)

John the Baptist -- John the pointer (if I ever had a pointer dog, I’d want to call him either John or Luther) -- John the baptist simply points to Christ.  The true WWJD prophet.  Don’t extort, cheat, lie, hog the best for yourself.  Truth-teller.  Not mean, not cruel.  Just honest and clear-headed, even if a little “out there”.  Although interestingly, did you notice: doesn’t say anything here in Luke’s gospel about John eating locusts and wild honey, wearing camel’s hair.  Maybe John was a little more main-stream, according to Luke.  

And friends in Christ, John was certainly in the main stream, the river’s main flow, to be sure, when it came time to baptize.  John preached repentance and new life, through baptism.  A changing of ways, the forgiveness of sins.  Through this water!  

You know ancient teaching has us using cold water for baptism.  Luther missed this.  He warmed the water up for babies.  But baptismal water -- especially practiced among our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters -- is supposed to be cold.  Stinging.  Because this Christian life is not an easy one.

“My life was great...before I met Jesus (gave everything away, loved my enemies, prayed for bullies…)!”

The truth hurts.  It stings.  These cold waters of baptism make jump a bit, cringe a bit.  John the Baptist’s long, pointy finger pokes at us and guides us to follow after this one Jesus.  The truth is eerie.  Thought John was strange: this one Jesus -- the embodiment of all truth -- is already out there sharing.  Already out there -- on January 8, 2017 -- Christ is already out there sharing warmth with all who are cold, nourishment with all who are hungry.  This one Jesus -- to which John points and baptizes -- this one Jesus -- upon which a voice from heaven comes booming down: “this is my Son the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” -- this one  Jesus is the embodiment of John’s truth-telling.

In an age where truth seems to be up for grabs (in a post-truth era), sisters and brothers in Christ, John calls us back, and sends us after Christ.  And in an age where truth seems to be a distant dream, our God -- incarnate in Jesus the Christ, who is “already out there” always in and with the world, moving down the path -- stops, turns to us and beacons us to come and follow, to come and join this way of truth.  This love, this forgiveness, this walk of mercy and grace, this path of love is ours.  2017 is a new year, and today is a new day.  That’s the truth.  Thanks be to God!  AMEN.

Monday, December 19, 2016

December 18 -- Jesus' Birth Announced

A young girl, maybe 14 or 15 years old.  Living in poverty.  Some have speculated, but we really don’t know anything about her family or her background.  Luke was writing this story down some 70 years later.  All we know is that she was young and poor…and her name was Mary.

Matthew’s Gospel doesn’t include this episode that we read today.  Matthew’s Gospel is really all about Joseph and his fears.  Mary is really more seen in Matthew’s Gospel almost as a virus, that could get Joseph infected with shame in his community, for she was with child, and it wasn’t his.  The angel there, talks Joseph down.  Calms him down.

But today we’re back into the Gospel of Luke.  It’s been a while.  A year of Matthew, a year of Mark...and all through the fall we’ve been in the Old Testament, even into this Advent season...but here at last in Luke (where we’ll be until Pentecost)!  And here in Luke, the angel is lifting the woman up.  “Mary, blessed are you, favored are you,” the angel says, lifting up a member of society who is a nobody.  Lifting her up by announcing God’s coming-down.  And this is the real miracle of this season: that God is choosing to dwell in a fleshy, earthy way (not just in a spiritual way), God is choosing to dwell with the poor.  Major theme in Luke (and a foretaste of powerful stories from Luke to come).

Let me put this in different terms, because I think we can either forget or romanticize what Mary’s poverty means at this time of year (where we try to keep it lavish, where there seems to be abundance everywhere, where it appears there is happiness all around in this “most wonderful time of the year”):  God is choosing to dwell with the marginalized -- the sick, the mentally unstable, the drug-addicted, the jobless, the hopeless, the immigrant, the stranger, the refugee, the rejected, the ridiculed, the voiceless…the totally forgotten.  I’m afraid we tend to think of Mary more as a porcelain white immobile doll, a cute, little Precious Moments figurine, rather than a brown-skinned immigrant girl working in a clothing factory, scratching her head constantly with lice, endlessly coughing because of the chemicals and bacteria she’s got in her lungs...and can’t afford to see a doctor.  We can’t and mustn’t romanticize or spiritualize poverty, the poverty of Mary or anyone.  The Gospel of Luke doesn’t.

But who wants “that” in their nativity scene holding the baby Jesus?  God does.

That’s the wonder and the hope and the love of God in this 4th Sunday of Advent lesson.  God’s care for this world is so great, that God chooses a poor, itchy, coughing teenager.  (Sometimes I want to throw out all my nativity scenes, and the nativity scenes that are shaping the imaginations of my children, and replace them with sets of dark-skinned outcasts and immigrants, exiles and rejects—all poor, like Mary.)

And we know what’s about to happen to Mary:  flash forward about 9 months and she’s about to do what all pregnant women love to do in their 3rd trimester:  walk 35 miles only to find there’s no vacancy at any resorts or hotels.  Even the Motel 6 did’t leave the light on for her.  35 miles—that journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem!  That’s like walking from here to the Wild Animal Park in Escondido.  Same kind of terrain too…but no cars and no Starbucks at every corner…for this no-name, no-status, nobody.  She was only a number, to be counted by the Empire, along with all the rest.

She was a nobody to this world; but to God, she was Mary, blessed and favored.
Watch for Christ to come from below, sisters and brothers, watch for Christ in the least of these, not in the greatest.  And when Christ peaks out from amongst the poor and the hurting in our lives and in our world, then together let us bear witness to that tiny Christ.

When we put ourselves into the story -- which we always must do with Scripture -- sometimes we’re the angel, bearing witness, announcing Christ among the least of these.

This final week of Advent and into this upcoming Christmas season, may we joyfully bear witness to Christ for a world that too often has not heard this Good News—that God is incarnate with pain and poverty, with grief and grasping, with desecration and destruction, with loneliness and loss.  Sometimes you are the angel, announcing, pointing, bearing witness to God even in the horrible places -- blessing young women with good news, feeding the poor, lifting up the lowly.  Sometimes you are the angel.

And, friends, if you are hurting in any way -- broken by tragedy, addiction, loneliness, or despair -- then you are Mary.  Sometimes we’re the angel in the story, blessing and lifting up others, and sometimes we’re Mary:  impoverished, overlooked, grief-stricken or even outcast ourselves.

Here’s where this all hits home:  God is not just stooping down from on high, with a pat on our poor, little heads and a kind word: “Ah, you poor little thing.”  No, God is growing inside the “poor little thing.”  Blessed are you, favored are you, God says.

“Our God becomes small,”  Martin Luther boldly proclaimed, amid a church and a state that had made God into a grand, glorious, golden idol.

You are Mary, through Christ’s death and resurrection, through the Holy Spirit’s infusion in your baptism and this Holy Meal.  You are Mary, both women and men – pregnant with the divine to share with a world in need.

(Bishop Andy was Mary for us this week, preaching the Gospel on Wednesday after his friend had suddenly died on Monday -- deep in his own grief and anger and despair, and sharing that honestly with us and preaching about a loving, present, promising, life-giving God at the very same time.)

What’s amazing is that Mary is not just a poor beggar with her hands out to receive, like us at the communion rail.  Mary, through that divine benevolence, becomes the powerful voice for the voiceless, the marginalized, the suffering.  Singing God’s praise in the midst of suffering and pain.  She becomes the witness to God’s mercy and goodness.  “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, who has lifted up the lowly!” she sings.

You are Mary too, sisters and brothers bearing Christ, lifted this day by a God whose name is love.  Named.  Marked.  Overshadowed by the grace of the Creator of the stars of night.  You are Mary, hurting, and yet filled with hope and praises to share.  You are Mary, forgiven and freed.  Opened once again, open and filled with the radical voice of God, who comes to be among us in mysterious ways.  You are Mary, pregnant with God, who is there deep in your pain, and at the same time at the center of your joy.  You are pregnant with God, through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.  You are Mary too.  So hear the angels words: “Do not be afraid.”  AMEN.

Lighting the 4th candle on the Advent wreath

We praise you, O God,
for this wheel of time
that marks our days of preparation for Christ’s advent.
As we light the candles
on this wreath,
open our eyes to see
your presence in the lowly ones of this earth.
Enlighten us with your grace,
that we may sing of your advent among us
in the Word made flesh.
Grant this through
Christ our Lord,
whose coming is certain and whose day draws near.  Amen.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

December 11 -- Third Sunday of Advent

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, to tell you about a woman who was harassed at her job.  TO bring good news to the oppressed...

MARIA is quite beautiful.  Her family had come to the US from Mexico about 30 years ago, just after she was born.  No one really knows that story.  But Maria grew up and went to school here in California.  It was never easy.  Money was always tight.  She recently took a job both bussing and waiting tables at a small diner over in El Cajon.  It was fine at first.  She’s friendly and efficient.  But her manager seems to sense how desperate she is for income and uses that against her.  Recently he’s been making lewd comments and even touching her -- rubbing her shoulders and grabbing her arm in ways that are not at all comfortable.  If she could leave this job, she would in a second.  She’s starting to hate it there, but she’s got a little one at home, cared for during they day by her aging mother.  She has to have income, and is scared to say anything to anyone for fear of her boss hurting any chances at another job.  She grits her teeth, smiles and bears it.  But the burden is starting to feel overwhelming...  

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, to bring good news to the oppressed.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to tell you about an older white man who is really cruel.  He’s in his 70’s and had a father long, long ago, who he never talks about, but who beat him quite often when he was growing up.  (It was OK back then.)  His father was very critical even in Bill’s successes as a young man, and never showed much affection.  The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, to bind up the brokenhearted 

Bill lives in Santee now.  There’s actually a sensitive side to him, but you’d never know it, because -- truth be told -- it was practically beaten out of him.  His dad would often yell at young Bill when he cried out in pain about how he needs to suck it up and be a “real man”.   Bill’s been pretty much living out of that pain ever since…although it’s hardened and comes out now as anger, racism, cynicism and atheism.  Yeah, Bill doesn’t believe in God.  Why would he?  He never had a positive experience of church.  God to him was a lot like his father, so frankly religion -- beneath his rants -- gives him the creeps.  Bill’s not all that kind to his wife, and he drinks.   

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, to bind up the brokenhearted.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, to tell you about Georgina, a 12-year-old on the run with her family from the horrors of the civil war in her home country of Syria.  Stories like hers get lost, because there are so many of them…but she is captive to both her own situation and to the suspicion and fear that others around the world have of her...especially when people look at her father, who has risked everything to protect Georgina and her little sister.  But she is captive.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to proclaim liberty to the captives.  

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to proclaim release to the prisoners TO TELL YOU ABOUT A YOUNG BLACK MAN, named Joe, WHO GREW UP SOUTH OF the 94.  AND WHEN HE GOT TO LINCOLN HS, HE LOST ALL HOPE…Poverty is a no place to grow up.  His mother fought addiction, and wasn’t always dependable.  Joe had to fend for himself, and unfortunately got caught up in the wrong crowd.  
Even though he didn’t actually commit the crime, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, mouthed off to the wrong officer, and found himself behind bars before he knew it.  Only 17 years old.  It started with only one false accusation, but the anger inside Joe boiled and turned him into a tough, even militant, young black man.  Locked up.

THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD IS UPON ME TO proclaim release to the prisoners.

The spirit of the Lord is upon me to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. TO TELL YOU ABOUT A WHITE WOMAN name Jamie.  She’s in her late 30‘s, gotten herself a good job and rents a place over by Grossmont.  Everything looks fine on the surface, but the truth is: Jamie lives paycheck to paycheck.  Jamie’s barely making it, but in denial about how bad the debt has gotten.  From her college loans, to credit card debt, that accumulates exponentially with soaring interest rates, an outstanding medical bill from a short hospitalization, and a little shopping splurge she likes to indulge in a little too often.  Jamie is swamped.  She didn’t have parents who taught her how to manage money, and now she’s feeling deeper and deeper in trouble.  She looks fine on the surface.  But she’s had some recent abdominal pain that her friend thinks has to be related to stress.  

The spirit of the Lord is upon me to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, forgiveness of debt.

THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD IS UPON ME TO comfort all who mourn.  

Finally, I have to tell you about John, a gay college student at SDSU.  John is Korean, and frightened.  His friend was literally kicked to the curb the other night coming out of a bar over by campus.  John’s certainly been harassed himself, but he’s really having a hard time with this now, because it’s the first time a hate crime with physical violence has gotten this close to him.  John’s in a pit of grief right now about the loss of his sense of safety and progress when it comes to equality and LGBT rights.  And he hurts for his friend.

The spirit of the Lord is upon me to comfort all who mourn.

Everyone I just described, sisters and brothers in Christ, is based on someone in our community, even in our congregation.  I’m not making this up.  And they have all known ashes.  They all wear ashes, walk around with a faint spirit.  Maybe you can relate to them...  

But God, through the prophet Isaiah has a word for them and for us.  God promises Maria, Joe, Jamie, Bill, Georgina and John…and you and me...a garland instead of ashes.    A garland!  GREEN BRANCHES, AROMATIC, FRESH, BEAUTIFUL...instead of ashes! 

God, through the prophet Isaiah, has a word for them and for us.  God promises the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.  What must that look like?  A new friend, A PURPOSE AGAIN, AN APPRECIATION FOR BEAUTY, a knowing of deep peace, a repaired heart for Bill, dignity for Maria, a safe place for John and Georgina, freedom for Joe, forgiveness for Jamie, comfort and companionship for all who sorrow.  

This God whose arrival we celebrate this time of year is not just sweet and benign.  This God comes to repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations, RECOVERY FROM TRAUMA, ADDICTION AND VIOLENCE...

Strangers shall stand and feed your flocks, foreigners shall till your land and dress your vines = THERE IS A PLACE HERE FOR EVERYONE, WORK HERE FOR EVERYONE, PURPOSE HERE FOR EVERYONE, help for and help from everyone...in Isaiah’s vision.

And you shall be called priests of the Lord -- all of us -- shall be named ministers of God = ALL ARE PROCLAIMERS OF THIS GOSPEL through our words and even more importantly through our actions.

Something is happening these days, sisters and brothers in Christ!  Can you sense the earth moving under our feet.  We are being summoned by the tender mercies of our God.  We are being moved to action through God’s incarnation and compassion.  We are being stirred by Isaiah’s vision this morning...where all, all, all have a place at the table.  All are gathered and warmed by the love of God.  Wrapped in bands and lying in a manger, this one Jesus comes to set us free, to comfort us in our mourning and pain, and to open our eyes and repair our broken hearts.    

This one Jesus arrives even now.  And we are set free….to go in peace and serve in joy.  AMEN.


Lighting of the Advent Wreath: Week 3

Blessed are you, O Lord our God, ruler of the universe.
Your prophets spoke of a day prisoners were released, the mourners comforted, the debt-ridden forgiven, and the broken-hearted healed.
Bless us as we light the candles on this wreath.
And strengthen our hearts
as we prepare for the coming of the Lord.
May he give freedom to all our captivity,
for he is our light and our salvation.
Blessed be God forever.


Sunday, December 4, 2016

December 4 -- Turn to a Merciful God

Our passage today talks about “rending our hearts and not our garments”.  I want to take notice of our hearts this morning...so let’s be still for a moment and find our own heartbeats...

Arriving God, open our hearts to you.  In this season and every season, help us to notice the beauty all around, the grace and peace that comes in every breath, the love that is ours, through your son Jesus Christ, AMEN.

Joel is another Old Testament prophet.  We’re not sure exactly what year he was writing, but many scholars suppose it was after the Hebrews had resumed worship after their exile.  After years of being far from home, now they were back!  

Many of the OT prophets, namely Amos, Hosea, Jeremiah, Isaiah were very critical of worship.  But Joel seems to think it is central to the life of the faithful community.  Now, I imagine he would have been just as critical as the others if worship was empty and void of meaning in its words and rituals, if it was just a safe place to hide from the world and even from yourself.  But Joel points to a certain wholeness in worship.  Bringing your whole self -- the good, the bad, the honest.  “Rend your hearts.”   

“Where you at?!” like my brother always says on the phone when it seems like I’m drifting or not paying attention.  

God is calling us back -- back to the fold, back to honesty, back to our truest, best selves.  Back home, you could say.  Advent is the time to come home, to return to God.  Open your hearts.  “Return to me with all your heart, says the Lord.”  

When was the last time you noticed your heart beating?  
Everything else feels full -- the pace, the stress, perhaps the anger or the frustration or the resentment, the sorrow, the calendar, the parking lots, the check-out lines and phone lines -- everything else seems so full, and yet our hearts beat, right beneath the surface, full of life, pumping and circulating oxygen.  Every second is a miracle.  But we hardly notice.  

The first step here, in our Advent return, is to slow down and notice the grace that is as close to us as our beating hearts.  

Then we’re called to open our hearts to the invitation and the arrival of God.    

Sometimes, filling ourselves in every other way blocks us from being filled with God’s grace and peace.  But God arrives whether we’re ready or not, sisters and brothers in Christ.  God enters our busyness and our sorrows.  God offers us peace, and often that peace starts by working its way into our world and into our lives, from the inside out.  It starts in our hearts.  Notice your heart this week.  Notice your breathing.  Visualize God’s deep peace and unending grace pulsing through your veins.  This is Advent. 

Then, our text says, with open hearts we receive even more.  The Spirit of the living God.  “I will pour out my spirit on all, flesh,” we hear today.  Our children will be prophets.  (“Sons and daughters will prophesy.”)  We have prophets among us.  Kids are not just cute and serendipitous:  Darin offered a powerful image this week in his sermon to the pastors of his/our 8-year-old Clare leading them to meet their neighbors, get to know their neighbors...because, you know, kids play.  But barriers -- some of the greatest are between our own neighbors -- barriers come down and the child shall lead them.  Children shall be prophets when our hearts are open…
And old men shall dream dreams when our hearts are open.

I had an old man once tell me -- I was preaching about God’s dream and God inviting us into that dream of peace and justice where all are fed, clothed, housed, and included.  And he just shouted at me: “I don’t want to dream!”  Joel offers a different picture here...of old men falling asleep and dreaming of wholeness, a better world, where all receive bread at the table, where all including old men hear words of encouragement (not criticism), affection (not neglect), undeserved grace (not the curse of responsibility).  This Spirit of God pours out on all flesh, and everyone’s included, even the curmudgeon or the cruel...or the enemy.

That’s the thing about this theme of opening our hearts.  When that happens -- and it happens with the Spirit’s aid -- when our hearts are opened, there’s room for everyone!  God turns our enemies into recipients of our compassion.  We don’t have to agree with those who we deem opposite, but we can feel care and concern for them, for their well being too.  When we let go of their cruelty and criticism, even their violence and abuse.  (That’s the challenge, but with God...)

When we let go of that -- rather than letting it sink in -- when we get back to noticing our heartbeat -- rending our heart to God -- then we can even look at those who oppose us, with compassion, grace, perhaps even forgiveness, certainly patience.  [pause]  Let the children lead us there, too.  

Friends in Christ, Advent is a time for new beginnings, for clearing out, and opening up.  [pause]

This week, they poked two big holes in the front of our sanctuary -- the new doors that will go into our sacristy, and because the new space is not enclosed yet, there was this cool breeze that filled our sanctuary.  I’ve never felt the wind blow in our sanctuary like that.  

Advent is the season where God arrives and opens our hearts.  A cool breeze, and exposure, something new is being born in us. And from that, the Spirit fills us, and moves us outward to go in peace, love and serve our neighbor, all neighbors.

Maybe this is a dark time for you, a time of loss and sorrow.  Know that Christ comes next to you in your sorrow.  Sits with you in your pain, holds you in your resentment.  Know that Christ waits for us too, as we work through our stuff.  Christ finds us there.  And accompanies us into the light.  

Friends in Christ, even now...we ARE home.  For here is bread, and all are welcome.  Here is undeserved grace, poured out even for you.  Here is forgiveness and love.  The Spirit’s already among us.  Thanks be to God.  AMEN.


Lighting Advent Wreath:

We praise you, O God, 
for this circle of light
that marks our days of preparation for Christ’s advent.
As we light the candles 
on this wreath, 
turn us again to you.
Kindle within us 
the fire of your Spirit,
that we may be light 
shining in the darkness.
Open our hearts to your grace,
that we may welcome others 
as you have welcomed us.
Grant this through Christ our Lord,
whose coming is certain 
and whose day draws near.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

November 27 -- Daniel's Hope in God

Grace to you and peace…

Daniel is a model of faith and integrity for all who are in positions of privilege.  There was pressure all around Daniel to accommodate and acquiesce to the culture in which he finds himself.  It would have been easy, he was very gifted.    Daniel had been chosen to live in the king’s court, educated and treated to all the finest things.  You might say, Daniel came up amid opulence and fine living -- he was no stranger to country clubs and private schools, maids cleaning his bedroom, and first-class chef’s preparing his meals.  (In fact, the first chapter of the book of Daniel mentions the great “royal rations of food and drink” Daniel and his fellow Hebrew friends were offered in the palace...and Daniel and his friends resist them in favor of vegetables in order to be true to their religion.  (Snuck that into the sermon in case you’re ever trying to resist certain foods this season.)

Also before this episode with the lions, King Nebuchadnezzar promotes Daniel after he interprets his dream, as if his status wasn’t great before, now the King tries to give him incredible gifts, invites him to be the ruler over the whole province of Babylon (!), and wants to make him “chief prefect over all the wise men of Babylon”.  Daniel actually passes on the generous offer, requesting directly to the king that his 3 friends be given those privileges instead.  He’s got privilege to spare!

Daniel choses to remain in the king’s court.  And that’s where we find him today, although it’s two kings later: King Darius...
[slowly] And in and around positions of power, there is such great temptation.  Temptation mainly to go to sleep.  Those of you who have occupied any positions of power know what I’m talking about.  There’s a temptation to just do whatever you want because you can.  You can get away with it.  And there’s a temptation to do nothing, because you can -- you’re not in desperate need of anything, you’re not fighting for your rights and your integrity as a human being on a daily basis.  The plights of others don’t need to be your concern, when you grow up in the king’s court...even though you might be able to influence decisions and laws that affect others’ lives.  Oh well.  It might be nice to help them -- I’m certainly not opposed to it -- but I’ve got a tee time.

I don’t want to go into it, but I think you know that I’m talking about myself here.  And I think some of us can probably relate to Daniel’s privilege, in order to get into this story for today.

What are ways maybe you too have or are occupying a position of power?  [pause] Both theologians and friends alike have helped me realize that simply by virtue of my being white and male and heterosexual in this place and time, the power that I occupy.  Never thought about that much before...because I didn’t have to.  Friends, I was born on third base, but can delude myself into thinking I hit a triple.  Maybe you were born near me.  Maybe not.

Daniel, the prophet did in fact hit a triple, and he’s on third base too when we arrive at this chapter in the book of Daniel.

He’s got it good, and temptation is all around.  For him there’s a temptation just to accommodate and acquiesce.  “Just fall asleep and into the ways of the culture around you,” a sly voice on his shoulder might have said,  “just laugh at their mean jokes, drink their libations, tell a few white lies, wear the designs of the day to fit in.  Fit in.  You can afford it.  It’s not that big of a deal.”
That’s the kind of temptations I think Daniel was dealing with.  Those, and now a clear new one: “Worship a false god.”

We’ve seen this before.  A few weeks ago, we read and reflected on the Golden Calf -- the Israelites tempted in the desert to abandon the true God and go after the shiny, immediate stuff.  “I don’t see you God, so you must not be real -- or worth anything anyway, so we’re going to put our trust in something else: in immediate security, in immediate peace, pride and pleasure.”  The Israelites failed.  Maybe we fail too.  Daniel succeeds.

But not without a cost: the lions.

In Daniel’s case, he was saved from death that particular night.  But not all are from earthly death.  I think Daniel was fully prepared to go to his death...like so many faithful servants of God are.  “Sleep fled from him,” the text said, just like it does from all martyrs and holy activists.

Are we who are in positions of power and privilege prepared to take risks in order to be faithful?  Are we ready, like Daniel, to even break laws in order to keep God’s laws?  Probably not.  I kind of hate this text and hate this question.  But I’m not really sure how not to put it in front of us…with a text like this.

Reflect this week on what laws are worth breaking.  Let me know your thoughts.  Can the state ever be wrong?  Can the national government ever be wrong?  Can the military or law enforcement ever be wrong?  Can the church ever be wrong?  What and when do we as followers of Christ use our power and stand up (or like Daniel, kneel down) for what’s right?   What and who is worth putting your life on the line for?

Extreme and appropriate questions, friends in Christ -- entering into another season of Advent, finding ourselves in this place and time.  Lots of temptations to “go to sleep” all around us.  To stay (or get) as comfortable and cozy as we can.

But I think God is calling us -- as the church -- to something risky.  [pause]  We’re learning about risk with this big construction project, but -- if I can channel a little prophetic visioning from Daniel, my namesake -- I think there’s something even more, nudging at us in these times of pain and loss and sorrow and fear and violence and cruelty and division.  Shepherd of the Valley is in a position of privilege and power, like Daniel was.  How shall we respond to God’s advent, to Christ’s drawing near, to the Spirit’s arrival among us?

Help me discern what that is for Shepherd of the Valley now.  It’s actually quite exciting, and there’s no question in my mind that God goes with us into the lion’s den...even if it means our death!  [pause]  And God goes with you into the fray.

Let us give thanks for this presence and this divine providence.  For we too are truly saved already.  Saved ultimately.  And forevermore.

God delivers us too, from even the jaws of the lion, for Emmanuel comes, this day and always.  AMEN.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

November 13 -- Isaiah's Call & Sending

Let me give some context for this passage:  Isaiah was called by God at the time King Uzziah -- who had ruled for many years -- had just died.  The kingdom was deeply divided -- Israel in the north, Judah in the south.  Now that Uzziah had died, the people were afraid about what was next...that’s understating it.  They were terrified.  It was like their whole world was crumbling all around them them.  And then -- as if suddenly being without their leader wasn’t bad enough -- the rich, cruel Assyrian empire [led by King Sennacharib] is about to come knocking on their door, just to taunt the Israelites (remember that?) -- “So what of this God of yours!?” he’ll mock -- and we all know that they would soon take them all away into a long period of exile. 

The storm is brewing.  Actually, this is more like the eye of a hurricane: there’s been a lot of storm already.  And in the midst of the swirling all around, Isaiah has a vision.  Isaiah has vision of God and God’s majesty, God’s enormity, God’s indescribable, blinding, terrifying and yet glorious...holiness.  Above all things, God is holy.  

We do well to remember in these days that God is great and God is good and God is holy, holy, holy.  That God is above all that is happening in our nation and our world...

We are entering a mean time.  There are a lot of mean, cruel things happening in the wake of this national election.  A Muslim student was robbed in the parking structure on the campus of San Diego State -- told to go back to her country.  This is her country.  An African American woman at Baylor University in Texas was literally pushed off the sidewalk 2 days ago, and told “no more [n-word]’s at this school now that Donald Trump is president!”  That’s just two quick but tragic examples.  We are entering a mean time, sisters and brothers in Christ.  California State Attorney General’s office is reporting quite an “uptick” in hate crimes just in the last few days...  

It is as though hatred and cruelty, meanness -- like the powerful Assyrian military -- is knocking at the door, mocking, “Ha, so what of this God of yours?!”
And it is precisely at that moment, that moment of death, that Isaiah has a vision.  Just as death and terror, hatred and cruelty come knocking -- a vision of God, sitting above it all, lofty, just the hem of God’s robe filling an entire temple.  

“Woe is me!” Isaiah responds to this vision, “I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and live among a people of unclean lips...yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.”

And then this strange thing happens: right in the middle of his little Hymn of Praise [“Praise, praise, praise the Lord…”], Isaiah is singing and one of the angels takes a hot coal, floats down and touches the hot coal to Isaiah’s lips saying, “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.”

Sisters and brothers in Christ, we too have been called by God.  We too have made mistakes, we too have had unclean lips.  All of us.  And yet today -- in the midst of cruelty, in the midst of fear, in the midst of pain and sorrow, in the midst of violence and rage, in the midst of uncertainty about the future and perhaps regret about the past -- the angel touches our lips with a hot coal…

That is, with bread and wine.  Too holy for an angel to touch, but we take and eat it anyway.  Our guilt departs and our sin is blotted out!

And now when we hear God’s voice, like Isaiah: “Whom shall I send?  Who will go for us?”  Who will take up this Gospel work, in a mean time?  After the death of King Uzziah.  Who will be a voice for peace during cruel days, an offer of sanctuary in a season of hatred, a word of kindness and love and forgiveness, a cup of water for the immigrant, an open door for the Muslim student, a promise to a black woman that “your life and your presence matters and is precious in our sight because it is precious in God’s sight”.  Who will be that for this world?!  “Whom shall I send,” God asks, “who will go?”  

And WE will respond, like Isaiah -- we who are crazy enough to follow Jesus, the one who healed those who were attacked, who welcomed those who were shut out, who even loved those who were violent and cruel, we -- sisters and brother in Christ -- will respond to that one Jesus, like Isaiah of old: “Here I am; send me.”  

For God does not abandon us!  God stays with us.  God holds us.  That God -- all great and glorious in the rafters of heaven -- comes all the way down to dwell among us, angel armies of peace bearing coals of forgiveness, even and especially in our darkest hours.  God so loves us and this whole world, that God becomes incarnate in this and every moment.  “The Word becomes flesh and moves into the neighborhood” (E. Peterson).  God forgives us, works in and among us, and today God now calls and sends us anew.  

A prayer for our Veterans and those who continue to serve...

Almighty and ever-living God, we give you thanks for the men and women who have served and defended our country and the values of freedom and justice we hold so dear. Help us be mindful of the sacrifices they made and the hardship endured by their families and friends, so that we never take for granted the privileges they have secured for us.

O God, the heavens declare your glory and tell of your work in creation. From you come the gifts of our bodies and minds, our skills and abilities, and the opportunities to use these gifts in sustaining our lives and in helping our neighbors. We pray for any members of the Armed Forces who feel insecure; for those who bear heavy burdens and face stressful decisions; for those whose work is tedious or dangerous; for those who have experienced failure or loss; and for all who face any difficulty in their service. Surround them with your never-failing love; free them from restlessness and anxiety; keep them, in every perplexity and distress; and renew us all as we face the opportunities and challenges of daily life and work.
In Jesus name we pray, Amen.