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, November 19, 2017

November 19 -- Isaiah: A Child is Born

The problem with preaching a text like this — like so many in the Bible — is that there’s so much evidence to the contrary.  

...starting with the claim that Isaiah isn’t even writing about Jesus.  He’s probably writing this, most scholars believe, about the newborn king, Hezekiah, who will champion the South (I mean Judah, not Alabama.)  See, now in our journey through the OT, the Assyrians are pressing in from the north, and God’s people in Judah believe this is because their evil King Ahaz has led them into idolatrous ways.  They have all turned their backs on the poor and the outsider, they have gone after the gods of fortune and glory and self-serving comforts, and now the chickens are coming home to roost in Jerusalem of Judah.  Discord, deceit and danger is immanent.  There are no external signs of peace or hope anywhere, throughout the nation...except for Isaiah’s prophetic musings.  

So Isaiah must look like a madman, don’t you think?  Head-in-the-clouds dreamer, talkin’bout all the combat boots being thrown into the fire (vs. 5) to make warmth and draw communities closer together.  “Get real, Isaiah!  Open your eyes, old man!  That’s never going to happen!”  All evidence is to the contrary.

That’s the problem with prophets:  they stand up and describe things that no one can see, things that just aren’t there...like "endless peace".  And most people dismiss them as street performers, crazy entertainment…irrelevant to the real situation at hand: then, it was the Assyrians threatening from the north (what it it for us today?)  What’s the real situation here?  [pause]

What is clouding our vision, muddying our ears, diminishing our imaginations from an openness to the prophets among us?  How have we too followed after the idolatrous King Ahaz’s of our day?...those who worship (that is “put their trust in”) military power, weaponry, glory, wealth and brute force? “C’mon, Isaiah.  We even have violence and weapons in our churches now.  No place is sacred anymore!”  

See how hard it is to hear the prophet’s voice.  I’d love to image Isaiah with a booming Martin Luther King voice, speakers broadcasting out from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, televised across the world.  But lately Isaiah’s vision of peace and hope seems more like a child singing by herself in the corner of this sanctuary during the week.

(I’ve seen that before, maybe you have too:  A single child off by herself singing quietly to the side, as they color or play with blocks.)  That’s Isaiah, these days.

It’s cute, but how does such an image like that, a word of peace, a song hope have any power?  When are we ever going to trust God enough to burn up our combat boots — or as Isaiah says elsewhere, “hammer our swords into plowshares, our spears in to pruning hooks,” our AK47’s into gardening tools?  Isaiah just doesn’t get how things really are, does he?

Isaiah’s vision seems as inconsequential as a child singing alone.  Now, many of us know this vision by heart because of Handel’s Messiah.  It’s hard not to hear the music when we read these words, right?  But that’s almost domesticated the vision: boxed it up into beautiful concert halls and church sanctuaries for the holidays. Not much different than the child singing.  

“The people who walk in darkness have seen a great light?”  Huh.  What light?!  There’s nothing but death and terror and immanent threat and anger and fear around here!
It is important that we be honest before we bring the good news, people of God.  To ignore the world in front of us, the injustice and hatred, the racism, sexism, homophobia, bullying, the violence and abuse that takes place right under our noses, is to miss Isaiah’s vision too.  We can’t just positive-think our way through this.  We must be honest before God and with ourselves.  Martin Luther said, “The theologian of the cross, calls the thing what it is.”  

We’ve lost track of God’s call for us — as individuals, as a nation, as a species, even as Christian congregations.  We’ve turned inward, been consumed by fear and hatred...what did our spoken confession at the beginning say?  “We descend into our own despair, unable to see past our immediate concerns.  We drag others down with us and live to complain and commiserate. We ignore the miracle in front of our face.”  In other words, we ignore the child singing in the corner of sanctuary.  

Friends in Christ, the little prophet’s song is to be ingested, enfleshed and shared.  Despite all evidence to the contrary, all despair that looms about, you are the extension of Isaiah’s vision, living and breathing still!

Sisters and brothers who follow Jesus, you have been filled with the Holy Spirit, marked by the cross of Christ — what do we say at baptism? — forever.  You have been sent out, to magnify Isaiah’s words: “The people who walk in darkness have seen a great light!”  Shout it from the rooftops!  Better yet, live it.

Even and especially when the world is falling apart, when things are coming undone at the seams…even when life, headlines, families, churches, communities, halls of power are flying out of control...even when the world is falling apart, God’s people remain faithful.  We call the thing what it is and then we remain faithful to God anyway.  Martin Luther is also credited with saying, “Even if I knew the world would end tomorrow, I’d still plant an apple tree today.”  

Scholars argue about whether or not he really said that, but they do agree that this summarizes his theology:  God’s people remain faithful.  We, theologians of the cross, are not blind to what’s in front of us, and yet we choose to love one another, love this world — and in-so-doing love God — anyway.          

[Slow] All is not lost. The child still sings. The bread still breaks. The family of God still gathers. And we still go back out there guided by a prophet’s vision of peace and justice for all.  

This Christian journey is not a smooth road; it’s an adventure.  But we are assured once again today that we are not on this road alone.  And that even if we die, Romans says, we have the promise of peace eternal, we have a God who conquers death and sin for all eternity.  It is in that promise, that vision of peace, that true and sure hope, that we continue to live and move and have our being here on this earth.  

The prophet’s vision is not lost.  A tiny light pierces the darkness!  And so there is a way through.  Hope is born:

We are guided by that light of Christ into the darkening, winter days that are before us.  We are held in the arms of grace into the darkening days that are before us.  We are forgiven of our sin, joined together in that great fellowship of the saints in light, and now we are sent out anew, filled with courage, strength, and peace to be the people Christ has called us to be.  Thanks be to Isaiah and all the prophets, who keep it real...and sing anyway.  And thanks be to God, who was and who is and who is to come.  AMEN.  

Sunday, November 12, 2017

November 12 -- Amos: Justice Rolls Down

“The message of Amos is a challenge to people and nations caught up in the pursuit of material wealth and comfort.  Societies driven by consumerism can lose sight of faithful stewardship of wealth and the just distribution of goods.  Amos reminded the people that true faithfulness is trusting in God alone and treating the neighbor with justice.” These are not my words — this is from the Lutheran Study Bible’s intro on the Book of Amos.

I heard about a Jewish doctoral professor, this week, who used to say, “If you like the prophet Amos, you don’t understand him.”

Let me clarify a bit: Amos was from Tekoa, a little village about 10 miles south of Jerusalem...which means that Amos was from the Southern Kingdom.  

We’ve fast-forwarded again in our autumn Tour d’Old Testament, and now the kingdom has split since David and Solomon.  Now we’ve got Israel in the north, and Judah (which includes Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and little Tekoa) in the south.  Amos was from the south, but did his prophetic ministry up in the north, in Bethel.  

In other words, Amos wasn’t a local!  [pause] I don’t know anyone who likes an outsider coming in and casting judgement on a community, a region, a congregation — where she or he isn’t from at all...

This would be like a prophet coming to the U.S. from Mexico — from a poor family of farmers (that was Amos) — and preaching to an affluent congregation in North County.  (Actually I’ve got a friend, we’ve got a pastor in our synod — Pastor RZ — who is in fact from Mexico, serving a traditionally white, suburban congregation, First in Vista.  Would be interesting to talk to him about this text.)  

Amos was from the south, but was called to be a prophet in the north.  God called him from from a simpler life: “I am no prophet,” Amos says in Chapter 7, “nor a prophet’s son; but I’m a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees.  But the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel [northern kingdom].’”  Sometimes God calls us where we don’t want to go...to speak truth to power.  We’ve seen this theme over and over through this Old Testament season.  All we can do is trust in God.

Amos is a prophet for justice.  He critiques pretty much everyone: both the authorities and the everyday people of Israel, and he calls them to the justice and righteousness of God...misphah and zedekah.  

Now maybe you have an idea already of what justice and righteousness looks like today.  Let’s start with what it looked like for Amos (Chapter 2): 

-People were being forced into slavery if they couldn’t pay their debts...even very small debts. Business sans ethics.
-“They would trample the head of the poor and push the afflicted out of the way.” (vs.7)
-And Amos talks about sexual exploitation, especially of girls and young women.

Sadly, we can relate to these horrific injustices even today.  [pause] But we can add more to the list.  These are not the ways of mishpah and zedekah (j&r).  These are an abomination, “a profaning of the holy name” as Amos would say.  When we, as human beings, get caught up in these kinds of injustices, we are taking God’s name in vain!

Contrast that again with Luther’s explanation of “Give us this day our daily bread.”  What is daily bread?  Luther:  “It’s everything included in the necessities and nourishment for our bodies, such as food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, farm, fields, livestock, money, property, an upright spouse, upright children, upright members of the household, upright and faithful rulers, good government, good weather, peace, health, decency, honor, good friends, faithful neighbors, and the like.”

When we pray this petition of the Lord’s Prayer, we are prophesying like Amos that everyone everywhere might have daily bread, recognize their daily bread, and openly receive it with thanksgiving.  Everyone everywhere.

Just imagine with me for a minute — a country where everyone had enough.  Where we didn’t have to worry about crime and violence, because people weren’t having to scrap and steal for crumbs.  What if we made ending hunger and poverty a centerpiece of our democracy.  (That’s different from making “obtaining wealth” a centerpiece.)  

Can you imagine a world where everyone is fed?  Where everyone can have good medical care?  Where everyone is loved?  And everyone is housed and can pay for it, and everyone gets to go to a good school.  Where everyone gets plenty of time off for Sabbath, for family, for travel...

Bishop Dr. Guy Erwin — I think I talked about him last week too — at our Conference in the desert a few weeks ago, talked about Germany as he offered some reflections on the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation.   And Bishop Erwin said, “You know, it’s amazing how Luther’s Small Catechism has seeped into the halls of government in Germany.  I don’t think that’s an accident.”  

Bishop Erwin’s heard some Americans tourists critique Germans — or at least are shocked — that ‘none of them go to church anymore’.  But their Lutheranism shows in their policies, he exclaims.  It’s no coincidence, that’s the 4th petition of the Lord’s Prayer is dripping out from the halls of power, now at the Reichstag in Berlin:  Luther’s words in their policies! “Everything included in the necessities and nourishment for our bodies, such as food, drink, clothing, shoes, house...money, property...upright and faithful rulers, good government...peace, health, decency, honor...faithful neighbors, and the like.”  It’s like they all listened in Confirmation, memorized Luther’s Small Catechism, and it actually stuck, we joked!

If it feels like I’ve lost track of Amos in the OT, I don’t think I have: Amos is a prophet for justice, for everyone having enough.  And if you too didn’t like him before, you’ll really dislike him with this reading for today, where he turns to religious, ritualistic types like us, and says:
“I despise your festivals, I take no delight in your solemn assemblies...take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.  But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

Friends in Christ, when our actions in church are not grounded in justice and righteousness, then our worship and assemblies — both solemn and joyous — are worthless.  This is Amos.  [pause]

And it’s actually good news, even while it’s no fun to have a prophet from somewhere else come and judge us.  It’s actually good news:  it’s certainly good news to those who have been trampled on, pushed aside.  To the poor and the starving, those who have been longing for justice to come.  Maybe that’s you.  [pause]  But even if Amos has got you (like me) squirming uncomfortably in your upper-middle class cushioned seat, it’s still good news: Amos gets our eye back on the ball!  If we’re honest, we can so easily loose track of what it is we are to be about as God’s church here in La Mesa.  [pause]

When our actions are not grounded in justice and righteousness, then our worship and assemblies — both solemn and joyous, both small crowds and packed houses out into the narthex — it’s all worthless.  When our music is fantastic and our budgets are bloated, but we are doing nothing to move aside and “share the pond with others who need to fish too”, it brings God no delight: “Take away the noise of your songs!  I will not listen to the melody of your harps!  But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”  This is gospel truth, brothers and sisters in Christ!

In this season of budget forums and congregational meetings, what if we looked at our budget for 2018, and ask, “What would Amos say?  What would Martin Luther say?  What would Jesus say?”  The budget is the real mission statement here, right — who we are?

And let’s give thanks for prophets among us who step out of their comfort zones, who answer their call to go into foreign (perhaps hostile) territory, to speak a word from the Lord.  Amos left his quiet life to enter the fray, to cross the border, to preach good news to the poor, let the enchained go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.  That’s Amos; but...sound familiar?

Sisters and brothers, we follow after the one who fulfilled this prophesy, who died and rose in order that ALL might have life and have it abundantly.  We follow after that One Jesus who calls us from our comfortable places and into the frays of this world, across borders, into new lands, to speak truth to power, to shine like the “Little Christs” that we are.  (Luther called all the baptized Little Christs.)  Heeding Amos’s strong words is living deeply into our baptism.

Sisters and brothers in Christ, God’s still got us!  Let’s go in peace, and share the good news of God’s justice and righteousness.  AMEN.    

Sunday, November 5, 2017

November 5 -- God Speaks to Elijah

It’s been really a tough year.  

Since last All Saints Sunday — just think about all that has happened.  It has been a really tough year.

Hurricanes all over the gulf: destroying the coasts of Texas, Florida, whole islands in the Caribbean, namely Puerto Rico.  Even Ireland got hit.  Earthquakes in Mexico City and around the Pacific rim.  Some of the worst wild fires we’ve seen in California and Oregon.  It has been a really tough year.

Fatal and senseless violence...in Charlottesville, Virginia.  Las Vegas, Nevada.  And New York City this week.  And that’s just since August.  Wars and rumors of wars.  We are a nation divided and dividing.  We can’t even agree on what “facts” are anymore.  

It has been a really tough year.  On a global, and a national scale, but even out of the limelight: right here at Shepherd of the Valley, it’s been a really tough year.  We’ve lost loved ones — Dorothy Campbell, Nancy Spillane, Barbara Baker, John Levorson, Vernon Schwandt.  And those are just members of our congregation.  I know there have been others, other tragedies among us: other difficult life-changing losses, cancer diagnoses, injuries, problematic operations, long recoveries.  Death of pets.  Higher expenses, less resources, loneliness and depression.  It’s been an unbelievably tough year…

And perhaps we, like Elijah, get to this point of wanting to hole up.  Go sleep in a cave.  Wallow in pity — self-pity, pity on behalf of others we love, for the whole world.  When we get so overwhelmed with tragedy, it’s easy to want to go curl up in a cave, like Elijah.  “I am left alone, and they are seeking my life to take it away.”

That’s when the word of the Lord, according to our text, arrives and says, “What are you doing in here?  Go and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”

Doesn’t God get it?!  Now is not the time, to go stand on a mountain, and listen for God!  How could God be asking this of us?  We need to hole up in the cave, here, licking our wounds.  Doesn’t God get it?

But Elijah goes out anyway and waits for God.  He waits thinking this epiphany will happen in the windstorm, but it doesn’t happen in the hurricane.  God is not in the hurricane.  [pause]

Then maybe the earthquake.  But God is not in the earthquake either.  Maybe the fire.  Nope.  God is not in the fires.

Some people have said that earthquakes, hurricanes, fires  might be God’s way of speaking, even punishing people.  But here we see the God is not in disasters.

God comes in the sheer silence.  When we are holed up, at our worst, hunkering down, scared to death.  God is there.  After a tough year, in the midst of depression, is precisely when God is made known...that’s when God speaks and says, “Get up, I have not abandoned you, I am still here, I always have been.  Here’s some bread for your journey.  Get up. Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus.”

Wilderness?!  You want us to go back out there, God?!

Yes.  God is still with us.  God meets us in our chaos and our caves, feeds us with grace, and calls us to go back out there, back into the wilderness of this world.  

Sisters and brothers in Christ, this All Saints Day, we’re reminded again that God is not done with us.  We’re all the saints who are still here.  And God still needs us saints to be about the work of Gospel ministry out there in the wilderness, still.  God’s not done with us, in fact, in the midst of the fury, the sorrow, the pain, the loss, the violence — that’s precisely when God arrives.  And often when we’re down and at our worst is precisely when we may be the best vessel of God’s purposes.  [pause] When we’re empty, down and out, then there’s room for God to come and fill us with grace, hope, peace, joy and a love for this world that is beyond our own human capability. [pause] We become vessels of God’s healing, anointing this earth with Divine grace.

God is good.  And goodness is stronger than evil.  It’s been a tough year, but look around.  We’re still here.  God reminds Elijah he’s not alone too — 7000 in Israel!  All knees have not bowed to Baal!  God’s still got us.  Even if there were only 10 of us here.  All knees have not bowed to the powers, the lures, and the false gods of this world! 

And God still needs us to go back out there, and live, and teach, and serve, and pray for this world that is so deeply hurting.  Here’s some bread.  Like the angel said, “Eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”  God’s still got us, through Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns.  God arrives, not in explosive ways, not in disastrous ways, but in the sheer silence.  And God stays.


Let’s take 5 minutes of silence…

Put bulletins, phones, hymnals aside.
Deep breaths. 
Listen for God.  Pick a single word...joy, justice.
Let the thoughts and distractions come and go.  
Together, let us silently rest in God’s presence.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

October 29 -- 500th Reformation Sunday

Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, October 31st 1517.  I first saw that door on October 5th 2012.  I came up to it at night, and it does have that shrine feeling to it.  A silence came over me, a tear welled up: this was place, you might say, where it all began!  [pause]

Actually it had begun long before, but this is a monumental scene and today we mark and commemorate this pivotal moment in our church’s history.  The action of nailing up the 95 theses was only at the beginning of Martin Luther’s brave and theologically grounded public, political protests.  He was only 34 years old!  Standing up to the immense and dangerous powers of his day.  (Ooh, I wonder what Luther would say to the powers of our day…I’m sure he’d be railing against all those who oppressed the poor and the marginalized…some even doing it from behind the thin veneer of religious piety, religious — discussion for later ;)

And Luther stood up — why? — for personal fame and fortune?  To be a big hero in history? For his own glory?  No, Luther stood up, spoke, and acted because his conscience was bound, He was compelled by the word of God, by these words that we read again today from Romans and John — “for we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law”…“So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”

Luther was freed by grace.  And so are we. 

500 years later (exactly 500 these days!), we Lutherans — even we Lutherans — can operate like we’re still bound by the letter of the law.  But friends in Christ, we are freed by grace.  

We go and share and stand up, and speak out and protest publicly, and serve our neighbors and the poor, and love our enemies, and take care of our own bodies and our own planet, not because we have to or because we’re supposed to, not because we’re bound by some law to do those things...but because we can’t help ourselves.  This is what grace frees us to do!  AMEN?! 
This week I had the pleasure of hearing again from one of our premier Luther scholars in the ELCA, the Rev. Dr. Bishop Guy Erwin, who talked about the Continuing Reformation.  One of the pillars of the Protestant Reformation is that it’s ongoing.  Semper Reformanda.  Always Reforming.  And as he reflected on this ongoing reformation and what the church looks like as we move now into the next 500 years, Bp. Erwin suggested that we be a church that’s bound-at-the-center, not bound-at-the-edges.

I loved it!  It reminded me of our own dearly departed Lois Hellberg who talked about church as a herd of good cattle, congregating around good water.  We are bound by what we come to the center to receive, not by strict boundaries at the margins.  The edges are fluid and permeable.  God’s people are held together — not by a high wall or a rigid fence that defines and divides us from/apart from/even above the rest of the sorry world.  No, our gates are open.  God’s people are held together instead by what’s at the center: the cross, the font, the Holy Book, the healing oil, this welcome table of grace…

Bishop Erwin was suggesting that much of the past 500 years (not all, but much), has been about binding/defining ourselves as church at the edges — who’s in and who’s out.  What if our re-formation continues by God binding us at the center, God leading us, freeing us, God gathering us around good water.

How does the farmer get the livestock to stay together?  By building bigger walls, stricter fences, or by offering better water?  Grace frees us to tear down the walls that divide us from the world.  The truth makes us — locked up and set apart? — no, the truth makes us free indeed.  Luther was freed by grace.  And so are we.

So how do we open up our walls, our borders, our fences and gates even more?  Here in this place?  How do we interact with neighbors and strangers, with the world...arms wide open?
Sunday School art from today --
"Luther's Seal" (by Micah)
I was struck by the setting where Bishop Erwin said all these things.  It was in a big hotel conference room.  We were at the professional leaders‘ conference Theoasis in Palm Desert.  Maybe you’ve been in big hotel ballrooms:  there are doors all around the edges, and they were open!  He didn’t say it, but I thought it was the exact visual of what he was talking about:  People were coming in and out of the room as he was speaking.  You could hear the murmur of conversations out in the hall.  You could be distracted by it, if you wanted, but what Bishop Erwin was saying was the real draw, it was so good, what he was saying that I wasn’t concerned with who was coming in and going out, with who was sitting down and who was getting up to leave.  The edges were permeable, see?  How might we make our walls more permeable?  Make room for others to come in, and go out, and not be so worried about that.  

People are free to sit down, and — get this — by grace we are free to get up and leave!  There’s nothing keeping you here.  It breaks my heart when I get a sense that people are serving and participating in congregations because of some holy obligation.  Lutherans would never admit to “holy obligation” in those words...but sometimes, I know our actions prove otherwise, and we can still bind ourselves by the law.  

Hear these words again, friends in Christ: 
We are justified by faith, apart from our works, free from holy obligations, prescribed by the law.  This is most certainly true.

The Mighty Fortress doesn’t mean a high wall of rules and regulations about who’s in and who’s out.  The Mighty Fortress is our God, and our God is everywhere (!) — both in here and out there!  Our God is saving grace, boundless love, peace, joy and forgiveness — not just for you and me, but — for this whole world!  It’s easy to mis-imagine the mighty fortress, as our church fences, our ecclesiastical borders.  But this new day, this new 500 years that are now before us, this new day calls us to open our borders and re-focus on the center:  the Meal, the oil of healing and forgiveness, the waters of baptism, and the cross (i.e. God suffering with us in our suffering).

The Reformation continues.  I’ve always thought that when the church suffers, we suffer from a lack of imagination and we suffer from our slavery to fear.  But God is with us in that and Romans and John, call us back to the liberated imaginations that God has given and intended for us.  Romans and John call us back from fear to freedom — freedom from worrying about what might happen if we fling wide open our doors and windows, freedom to let the Spirit move in our midst without our permission, freedom to let change unfold all around us as we stay centered and held together at this well of welcome. 

Sisters and brothers in Christ, we are freed by grace, and so we go, into the next 500 years, as God’s church, to love and serve the world, to love our enemies, to welcome the outcast, feed the sick, clothe the naked, accompany the poor, and care for our own bodies and the broken body of our earth.  We are freed by grace, we can’t help ourselves, thanks be to God through Jesus Christ.  AMEN.

Monday, October 23, 2017

October 22 -- God Calls David

Friends in Christ, sometimes we struggle to make connections with the ancient texts we share here on Sunday, sometimes these words just seem too many worlds away to see the parallels at first glance.  But here today the connections couldn’t be more obvious: 

Anyone who’s ever been picked (or not picked) for a sports team, a job, a promotion, a homecoming court — the list can go on — can relate to this.  One commentator wrote about this text, as a person who had lost 150 pounds.  She was reflecting on how she was never noticed before, and how after she lost all that weight, she suddenly was getting all kinds of extra attention, doors held for her, random strangers striking up conversations, now people are looking at her, she’s getting noticed.

This is a text about being picked, being set apart from and above all the rest, the classic underdog, cinderella story, rise-to-the-top.  The 8th son — I thought 7 was the holy number? — but here the 8th son sweating and dusty out in the field gets brought in, lifted above his big tough, older brothers, and anointed the next king of Israel.  If we haven’t already experienced something like this, if we haven’t been picked above others, I think it’s safe to say we all wish were or could be.  This is a story we all can relate to, universally.
...but that doesn’t mean it’s not layered and complex.  
Most of our “being picked (or not picked)” stories are connected to something more external — outward appearances, and also outward achievements.  The impressive resum├ęs, advanced degrees, and expansive portfolios are simply more forms of outward appearances.  These, like big muscles or beautiful flowing hair, are things we can point to that make us valuable.  
The complexity of this text is that God is looking beyond, through, past all these things...to a much deeper level: God is looking at the heart (the inner being, the soul, the center).

The things we can point to — whether innate or achieved — are not dis-qualifiers, but God looks through and past them.  

Wasn’t it interesting that despite all this stuff about appearance doesn’t matter, the author had to tell us that David was handsome with beautiful eyes?  Some scholars even suggest maybe he was effeminate, a little girly.  Others argue, no, he had the makings of a great warrior.  Seems a little of both to me.  Does it matter to you?  Would you care if your king was a bit effeminate, for example?

I don’t think we can truly ever be blind to appearance.  It is too difficult for us only to see deeply (I like that a D’s description is there).  Most of the time we’d rather just look...too difficult to see deeply.  [pause]  There’s a difference I’m making here:  When we’re not at our best, just look.  God sees deeply...and calls us to do likewise.  Samuel the prophet, when Jesse’s seven strapping sons were all lined up, was just looking at first.  But God led Samuel, called Samuel, to see deeply.  
Great interplay between God and Samuel!  Last week that dialogue between God and Samuel started: when Samuel was just a boy, remember, God called him in the night.  And that began a relationship of cloudy communication for Samuel, static on the line:  “What did you say, God?  Can you hear me now?  Was that you talking, or am I hearing something else?”  
I love Samuel’s almost-humorous ongoing discussion with God in this text too.  (Reminds me of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof:  “Sometimes I think, when things are too quiet up there, what kind of mischief can I play on my friend Tevye.”)  
Sisters and brothers in Christ, it’s easy to get into this text — lots of connecting points — but it’s tough to respond to the the heart question. 

What does God see deeply in your heart?  

All this external stuff really doesn’t matter.  What’s way down there, at the core?  Some people can have it all put together, on the surface — upstanding citizens, moral and admired by all, some even mask up in clerical collars and fancy church robes, others far out of the spotlight just being humble, doing all kinds of good deeds quietly, others are heroes and role models — and yet, our hearts can be cold, callous, clogged...even angry.  What does God see deeply in your heart?   

God chooses David — not because he was perfect, but — because his heart was good.  That is, there was room in there for God, for God’s peace and presence to flow.  A clean heart — rather than a cold, callous or clogged heart — is a heart that beats to God’s rhythm.  

The external stuff is fine.  It’s neither here nor there.  Good looking or not, admired or not, rich or not — whatever.  These aren’t deal breakers (warning: they can get in the way).  But God goes deeper, cuts right through all that, and sees the real you down there…

And you know what?  [pause]  You are good.  

Why?  Because God made you, and called you good.  

Through Christ, God then forgave you all your shortcomings, all your wrong doings — what did we say in our confession and  forgiveness?  “We look for you in beauty, grandeur, and bluster, but miss the humble, quiet ways you choose to make yourself known. We strive for status and success, and fail to see how you might use us in our failure and weakness. We wish to be popular, forgetting that you have called us to love the unlovable and make our home as you have—with the forgotten, the despised, the voiceless. Forgive us and restore us again to your grace.”  And then we heard, “The Lord is quick to forgive and eager to grant second chances. Take comfort that God is merciful, and never failing in compassion. You are forgiven. Proclaim it, rejoice in it, and live it.”  Then we sang, “We are Called”.

God makes us good, 
Jesus frees us from our bad, from our “just looking”, 
and the Holy Spirit goes with us now — thanks be to God — as we live into this this new day, as we lean into a closer walk, a deeper vision, a cleaner heart.  

You too are seen, anointed, blessed, in communication with God.  You too are forgiven, called in, and sent out!  AMEN.         

Sunday, October 15, 2017

October 15 -- God Calls Samuel (& Eli)

May the words of my mouth and the meditations…

This week, Samuel is the one who gets called.  We’ve had call stories all through this season so far.  Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, God’s people in the wilderness.  And our resounding theme has been trusting in God through it all.  

This week, looks like Samuel is the one who gets called.  (Samuel is the one who will grow up and anoint David the shepherd boy king.)  God calls Samuel at first glance, and yet I’d like to reflect on Eli’s call, and on God walking with us as we share leadership — as longtime, sometimes broken leaders step aside and new leaders are invited to come forward.

You have to have noticed our opening verses here today:  “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread….[and] Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down...”

See, the institution was languishing.  The sermons had become rather drab and monotonous.  The prophet’s visionary leadership had begun to fade.  Not to mention the corruption and controversy in his family.  His sons were stealing the offering and sleeping around, they were bringing absolute disgrace, not just on Eli, but on the whole people of Israel.  Eli didn’t like it, but he was ineffective at stopping it.  And something had to be done.  God is always doing a new thing.  

New leaders are always coming to the fore.  It’s exciting really, and it can be difficult sometimes to step aside, relinquish power, voice and control, and let others occupy our seats in the “room where it happens”.  Maybe you’ve had experiences like this...  

I was at Cal Lutheran, on Thursday and Friday.  I’m a Convocator for the university, along with about 60 others across the West.  Convocators are advocates and links between the church and the university.  Every year we gather in the fall, and it’s always so much fun to see and hear all the new things that are happening.  When I was there, now 20 years ago, I think I was a student leader, a voice for change.  But now...all I can do is cheer and give thanks.  

Now, stepping aside is rather forced when it comes to college, right? -- that graduation robe pretty much bumps you right out of the institution, and yet I definitely get the sense, and sometimes my classmates and I marvel at how, this school has changed so much since we were there.  I love that institution, and had nothing to do with it’s amazing progression in recent years.  It seems like a new building is being dedicated every year.  On Friday it was the new School for Arts — state of the art!  But I feel a little more like Eli — when it comes to Cal Lutheran — out of touch, dim visions, lying down.  All I really know is the way it used to be.  All I can do is cheer from the sidelines, and give thanks.  

See, there are two calls in our text today.  Samuel is called in the night.  And Eli is called too.

Samuel’s call and conversation with God actually leads him to challenge the institution, to Eli stepping down.  His mentor! Samuel has to speak a difficult, prophetic word to the prophet.  

And yet look at how Eli responds: “It is the Lord.  Let him do what seems good to him.”  Eli accepts God’s call to step down, enabling others rise in his place and take his chair.  

This is a compelling message for us:  Please understand, I’m not saying our leaders here at church need to step down (by any means)!  But it is a wonderful reminder of how church and world work well:  Leaders lead, and then when their time has come, they move aside and into the backdrop, into supportive, cheerleader roles from the sideline...and that’s so important too (R.Rierson): “Ok. Let God do what God will do next.”

God certainly walks with us as leaders in the church, in the university, in the wider community, in the nation, in the world come and go.  Some leaders and prophets are good for us, some are less than effective.  All get to a point where their vision is blurred, and all they can do is go lie down like Eli, broken and tired, crippled by controversy.  And yet, friends in Christ, God stays with us through all the foibles and flaws and changes.  AMEN?  

We are called in this day too.  Perhaps called to step up, perhaps called to step aside, maybe both.  But I know God is calling us to faithfulness always — faithfulness to each other, in love and cheerleading and support...and faithfulness to God.

Our theme through the fall has been trust in God.  In my September newsletter I summed up each lesson in an article I titled “In God we (try to) trust...again”...     
We started with the creation story: “Trust in God, who called you and all creation into being.”  Then that difficult text about Abraham and the binding of Isaac: “Trust in God, and remember it all belongs to God.” Then Jacob’s dream: “Trust in God, even and especially when you’ve messed up.”  Then Moses being called from the burning bush: “Trust in God, and go where God sends you, even when it’s dangerous”  Last week it was manna in the wilderness: Trust in God, you have enough.” 
I drag you through all that, yes, to review where we’ve been, but also to rehearse the sacred remembering again when we’re backed into a corner.  In one of my favorite Eucharistic Prayers before communion, we say, “God of weary years, God of our silent tears, you have brought us this far along the way.  in times of bitterness you did not abandon us but guided us into the path of love and light.”  God’s never abandoned us through this leader — this bishop, this pastor, this president, this pope, this council member, this chancellor, this governor, this mayor — through this leader to that.  God’s walked with us as we discern the call to step up and step aside, the call to acts primary visionary or support the vision of those who come after us, God’s always held us.  In times of bitterness, God did not abandon us, but guided us into the path of love and light.

“Ok.  Let God do what God will do next.”  In God we trust, or more honestly, in God we’re trying to trust...again.  In the meantime, all we can really do is give thanks, as one of my newly-favorite-bible-characters Eli did.  

God’s got us, still.  AMEN.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

October 8 -- God Provides Manna

We need to laugh a bit, in these tragic days:  

It was the new, big Mel Brooks comedy in the late ‘80s, the slap-stick spoof on both Star Wars and Star Trek.  Know what movie I’m talking about?  Spaceballs.  I was in Jr. High and loved it!  We laughed so hard, and repeat some of those goofy Mel Brooks lines with my brothers...even today.

The scene that comes to mind this morning, is when Lonestar (a play on Han Solo) and his sidekick Barf (a half-man, half-dog play on Chewbacca) along with Princess Vespa (an obvious play on Princess Leia) have just crashed into a desert planet and have to hike miles through the sand to escape.  Lonestar turns to the group just before they set out and clearly states, “Now, take only what you need to survive.”  Cut to hours later and they’ve been hiking, dragging this giant case of princess luggage.  Lonestar finally stops and throws down the giant trunk he’s been carrying through the blazing heat: “What’s in this thing anyway?”  He opens it up and finds a giant beauty accessory.  “What’s this?” he says in disgust, “I said take only what you need to survive!”  Remember the line?  “It’s my industrial strength hair dryer, and I can’t live without it!”
“Take only what you need to survive,” is the same thing God says to the Israelites on their wilderness journey through the Sinai desert.

They have just escaped the wrath of Pharaoh in a violent scene, void of comedy.  They are now crossing the desert.  And starting to complain.  

Let’s not forget the incredibly long journey to their freedom.  Enslaved for years, calling out to God for liberation.  God send Moses and Aaron, remember?  
They go to the Pharaoh: nine horrible plagues, and each time Pharaoh, first says “go,” only to change his mind once the plague stops, and keep the Hebrew people enslaved.  

Finally the Passover event, and the Israelites are ordered to leave Egypt...but not without the monumental crossing of the Red Sea.  

Now here in our text, only a month and a half in (“15th day of the 2nd month”), and already they’re complaining.  God freed them after centuries, and only a couple days later, they start complaining all over again.  “If only, if only…” [pause] 

Ring a bell?   Every longed for something — a car, a job, a raise, a family, a house, an industrial strength hairdryer — complained about needing something so badly (“I can’t live without it”), and then once you finally get it, you’re complaining about something else?

Complaining is part of our nature, that’s why Luther’s Sm. Cat. explanation of “Give us this day our daily bread” says “we ask in this prayer that God cause us to recognize what our daily bread is and to receive it with thanksgiving.”  And of course he defines daily bread not just as food and drink, but also “clothing, shoes, house, farm, fields, livestock, money, property, an upright spouse, upright children, upright members of the household, upright and faithful rulers, good government, good weather, peace, health, decency, honor, good friends, faithful neighbors, and the like.”

The Israelites cried out in complaint again, and God provided for them.  God says, “I am going to rain down bread from heaven, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day.” x2  I want to unpack this verse a bit: 
“Rain down bread from above.”  All week, I’ve heard and read that phrase:  The horrific raining down of bullets from above on the dear crowd in Las Vegas.  

A shooter rains down bullets of death and terror.  God rains down bread of life and hope.   What an absolute contrast.

The people rain down complaints of fear and hunger and anger and scarcity.  God rains down blessings of enough.

“I am going to rain down bread from heaven, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day.”

Our sin, as we look at this text today, is not “gathering just enough for today”.  Our sin is gathering more than we need.  That’s where we’re all broken, and have something to learn (especially in such a wealthy nation).  

The very interesting thing about manna, is that it spoils if you take more than you need.  This is a lesson — even with all that’s happening around us — in trusting God by taking only what you need.  

Pay attention to that urge to take more.  It’s everywhere.  The whole commercial industry is based on convincing us that we don’t have enough.  

But God rains down us enough.  Bread from heaven falls on our earth.  And we have enough too...as a people.  

“Why then are so many hungry?” we might ask.  Why then do so many not have adequate “clothing, shoes, house, produce, money, family, upright and faithful rulers, good government, good weather, peace, health, decency, honor, good friends, faithful neighbors, and the like?”  We might ask.

I don’t believe that’s on God.  God has rained down enough.  God has rained down on this whole earth bread from heaven.  We’ve just been taking more than our share, and it’s spoiling.  

It’s a powerful image for us this week: manna that spoils.  I believe the shooter took “more than his share” in countless ways, leading up to last Sunday, and it spoiled in the most horrific form of violence.  There was a deep chasm in Stephen Paddock’s soul that he was stuffing with more than he needed.  I keep this quote by Richard Rohr on my desk top:  "When positive masculine energy is not modeled from father to son, it creates a vacuum in the souls of men, and into that vacuum, demons pour."  I don’t know about the positive masculine energy that was modeled to this man.  But I do know there was a void, and demons surely poured into it, and God’s manna, which was showered on him and on everyone, rotted and festered and spoiled and consumed Stephen Paddock.

God rains down bread from heaven, and each day we are called to go out and gather enough for that day.

God blesses us, and our blessing now, is to enjoy God’s bread from heaven.  And save some for others.  Take only what you need to survive.  It’s worth doing an inventory this week, living into this text.  What do I need to survive, and what can I let go of — not as a grand gesture of martyrdom for all the world to see — but rather as a quiet, spiritual practice.  Downsize as a spiritual practice.  Lighten your load and your grip.  God’s given you enough.  It’s not glamorous, but it’s enough.  And that is such a gift.  That is grace enough for today. 

Dorothy Campbell, who died on Thursday, always showed such love in our midst, didn’t she?  I was always struck when she would come out of church, and I might be flustered or embarrassed or upset or distracted by something that happened in the service or was going on in the world — see me wanting to take more than my share? — and Dorothy would always come through the line, offering always a smile and always little kiss on the cheek, and simply say, “I love you, what a blessing this day is, I thank God, I thank God.”  



Prayer for Las Vegas

Let us pray. 
O God, where hearts are fearful and constricted, 
grant courage and hope. 
Where anxiety is infectious and widening, 
grant peace and reassurance. 
Where impossibilities close every door and window, 
grant imagination and resistance. 
Where distrust twists our thinking, 
grant healing and illumination. 
Where spirits are daunted and weakened, 
grant soaring wings and strengthened dreams. 

God our deliver, whose approaching birth still shakes the foundations of our world, may we so wait for your coming with eagerness and hope that we embrace without terror the labor pangs of the new age. 

Christ our victim, whose beauty disfigured and whose body torn upon the cross; open wide your arms to embrace our tortured world, especially the victims who were injured and for the families mourn the deaths of the many who were killed in Las Vegas, Nevada, that we may not turn away our eyes, but abandon ourselves to your mercy. 

God whose Holy name defies our definition, but whose will is known in freeing the oppressed, make us to be one with all who cry for justice; that we who speak your praise may struggle for your truth. 

O God our disturber, whose speech is pregnant with power and whose word will be fulfilled; may we know ourselves unsatisfied with all that distorts your truth, and make our hearts attentive to your liberating voice. 

O God who brought us to birth, and in whose arms we die, we give thanks for those saints who moved, and breathed, and had their being among us and now find rest in you. 

O God you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen. 

(prayer adapted from ELCA.org)