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, October 9, 2016

October 9 -- Golden Calf

“Jesus calls us from the worship of the vain world’s golden store, from each idol that would keep us, saying ‘Christian love me more.’”

“The vain world’s golden store.”  In our text today: the people of Israel have now been wandering in the wilderness.  Their joyous liberation from the Egyptians seems like a distant dream.

Ever had something good happen -- known someone for whom something good has happened -- and almost immediately, they were complaining all over again?  That’s pretty human, really.  (Let me tell you, from expert experience too: it’s easier to see ungratefulness and distrust in others than to see in myself.)

The Hebrews had once done that celebratory dance on the other side of the Red Sea, their enemies covered, Egypt far across those chariot-and-spear-infested waters.  All their troubles were behind them then, it seemed.  Gone forever.  But now…

Now, Moses their primary leader has gone away: he’s gone up to meet with God on Mt. Sinai -- the guy who led them into this mess (not freedom) has just abandoned them, apparently.  And so Aaron their second in command is taking the reins...and he’s cratered.  They’re pressuring him, whining to him, afraid, angry, desperate.  (Can you see it, in the absence of primary leadership?)  Plus, strange people and strange rituals are all around them -- and frankly it all looks pretty good...and fun...and immediately satisfying.  The dominate cultures around them are elevating banners and flags, they’re worshiping gold, they’re having great parties, they’ve got powerful militaries, all the fanciest toys, they don’t seem to need at all this God-whose-name-is-Yahweh, any more than a rock-star needs another glistening sports car in the driveway.  

The people all around the Hebrews were saturated with the material.  And that seemed to be enough and quite fantastic.  So the Hebrews, Aaron included, all cratered, while moses was gone … and tried to make God tangible.  [pause]

We can sure be guilty of this too, friends in Christ.  We sure can look around and be lured -- acquiescence, fear -- idol worship of the things we can see and that seem to give us some assurance and some immediate satisfaction... We sure can be lured to distrust the God we cannot see at the moment, up there on that holy mountain.   

What are the idols of our day?  How do you worship gold?  Put your trust in things other than God?  Make sacrifices at the altar of the bank window to “ensure” your security?  (worth-ship: worthy)  

I’ve been reading articles this week by Christians (across the political/theological) spectrum critiquing Americans‘ idolatry to our flag.  American flags elevated above a flag with a cross on it, or even flying from a steeple or draped over an altar.  There’s even language out there that calls us to worship the flag.  We certainly condemn anyone who doesn’t pay proper homage to the flag and the anthem...that’s all come to the surface recently with quarterback Colin Kaepernick not standing during the National Anthem.  The names that he’s been called...and even threats he’s received!  

We don’t like to be called out on the idols we worship.  I think we’d rather point a finger at the idols that others worship, and how ridiculous that seems to us, resting secure in our own righteousness before God.  But this challenging text holds a mirror right up to each one of us -- whether your idol is a flag or a pension account or a car or a weapon in your safe or a diploma on your office wall or a connection you have or simply a prized possession… Don’t you dare tell me what my graven image is ;)  

Idol worship happens when we start to distrust the God we cannot see -- and start looking to other things (that we can see) to save us.  
I mean, we raise these things even to the level of “salvific”! (Hebrews!) We want tangible things, results we can see, money in our hands, fences around our yards, guards standing watch -- visible signs of safety and even salvation and freedom and liberty as if God’s promise isn’t enough for us.  (This is what’s so profound about offering and pledging our money...in its purest state:  it’s about trust in the God we cannot see.)   
Idol worship, on the other hand, happens when we can’t take it any longer -- waiting on this God of ours -- and so, like the Hebrews of old, we reduce God down into a golden calf, an earthly thing -- and credit our very salvation to that thing.   [pause] 
Remember last week, when the Israelites were instructed at the Passover meal to burn their leftovers?  One commentator wrote that was because, God’s people are called to entrust themselves fully to God, not rely on a cushion of support, leftovers, safety nets.  That’s “Pharaoh theology”, stores and stores of back-up, just-in-case, contingency material things that will save us.  “Wilderness theology”, on the other hand, is about entrusting ourselves totally to God’s providence.  No left-overs to fall back on.  Only God’s gracious providing...(which we see later with the manna in the wilderness).

The gold that the Israelites had, all those earrings, were from the Egyptians.  They had taken it from Egypt, and carried it all the way into the desert, and now they were melting it into a graven images, and praising that gold for giving them freedom.  In other words, they had fallen again for “Pharaoh theology” all the way out there in the wilderness.

Well, God sees all this.  And God’s anger burns hot, and God says to Moses: “Go down at once!  Your people, whom I brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them.  I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are.”  But Moses implored God -- and here’s the good news in all this -- Moses implores God: “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people?...Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people.  Remember Abraham, Isaac and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven...’”

“And the Lord changed his mind about disaster that he planned to bring on his people.”  God changed her mind.  [pause]
All this trouble: Israelites being afraid and starting to worship false gods, God being angry, Moses pleading before God, and God changing God’s mind.  

Friends in Christ, we have a God who flip-flops!  Thanks be to God!  We have a God who says one thing but does another.   Thanks be to God.  How’s that for a surprising God?!!  

No, God is not pleased with our idol worship, when we’re guilty of that; yes, it makes God angry even.  “Why can’t you let go of those material things?!” God must be yelling at us.  

But ours is a God of love and mercy...ultimately.  Ours is a God who hears the pleas of the prophets:  “Remember your promise to your people!”  God is not a machine, who executes the justice we deserve.  Ours is a God who gets close, who relates...and at the same time, who we can’t always see.   Ours is a God -- ultimately --whose name is Love.  Ours is a God who decides in the end to forgive...even more than that: to enter this world in the person of Jesus...even more than that: to walk among us, to identify with our pain, to come along side...even more than that: to take our brokenness and pain onto himself, onto the cross...even more than that: to conquer death and sin in the resurrection...even more than that: to join us to him in baptism, new life starting now!  

Ours is a God of re-conciliation, re-surrection and re-starts.  Today is our re-start, sisters and brothers in Christ!  Today is your re-start!  Turn from your idol worship; turn from your fear and your anger about not always being able to see God; and turn from your shame about messing up and falling for the many golden calves that you fall for in this world.  Today is our re-start...even while we’re still in the wilderness of this life.  Today is a new day out in the desert.  

“Jesus calls us from the worship of the vain world’s golden store, from each idol that would keep us, saying Christian, love me more.”  

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

October 2 -- Passover & Deliverance

Heather, my spouse, is a doula.  A doula offers non-medical support and care to laboring moms.  She started as a volunteer doula, but a few years ago was offered and has been the role of Assistant Director for the whole program at UCSD Medical in Hillcrest.  In addition to attending many births still, she now schedules and manages the 100+ volunteers and trains new volunteer doulas.

The word doula comes from the Greek; it means servant or slave.  The work of the doula is to be that nurturing caring presence during labor and birth.  In seminary, long before Heather was a doula, we all used to joke about how nice it would be to have a “life doula” -- just someone to follow you around everywhere and through every decision you make with positive, supportive, nurturing words:  “You’re doing everything right.  You’re amazing.”  Wouldn’t that be great? 

Well, there’s obviously more to being a doula than that:   They’ve got a ton of wisdom and experience around labor and giving birth.  And one of my favorite stories and concepts that Heather tells me, part of every new doula’s training, is the importance of “holding the space”.  The doula, she teaches, holds the space.

There’s a story about one a doula who attended a birth.  Mom was on the bed early in labor, doula was by her side, until suddenly the laboring mom politely asked her doula if she could please move slightly to the side, toward the back of the bed...center of room...over by the door...out the door into the hallway.  Doula thought that was a little strange, maybe she felt a little useless and silly (especially in our productive-doing culture).  Nursing staff kept coming by the room, asking if they could help this woman in purple scrubs standing outside the door.  “Nope.  I’m just the doula.”  Couple hours later… “Nope.  I’m just the doula.”  x2.   Still she stayed there, every once in a while checking in with mom.  Head in the door, making eye contact:  “Need anything?  Ok.  I’m right here.”  For 12 hours, Mom labors and doula stays out in that hallway.  The nursing shift changed over.  Heather says someone eventually got the doula a chair, but not for a long time.  

Birth happened.  Baby’s great.  Mom’s great.  Doula goes home after doing her paper work.  Meets with the mom some days later in the routine follow-up.  [pause]  Mom can’t stop the tears:  “I could never have done it without you.  You made this birth possible.  I knew I could do it, because you were out there.”   Holding the space.  The doula held the space, and that meant everything.  There’s a more popular image in the doula world, I understand, of the knitting doula.  Rocking chair…

Holding the space, the future is possible and even hopeful if the doula’s sitting there knitting -- or keeping vigil out in the hall.  The birth can happen.  The new life can begin.  Because the space is being held.

These ancient rituals [pointing to bible]...hold the space as well.  These strange practices -- Passover, Holy Communion, the liturgy in general (i.e. our order of worship Gathering-Word-Meal-Sending) -- friends in Christ, for us and for all those who heed the Word of God -- these practices hold the space, make it possible in times of terror, times of violence, times of bitter strife, times of joy, times of birth, times of death too, these ancient and profound rituals hold the space. 

For some they might seem silly:  A lamb?  Bitter herbs?  Unleavened bread?  Why?  For some they might seem empty:  Church on Sunday, white robes, altar paraments, processions, tiny baptismal fonts?  Why?  But for us who hear and do our best to follow after God’s Word, we find liberation and hope in the rituals.  These rituals are our servants, our doulas that hold the space, and support the birth of something new.  

This was certainly the case for the ancient Hebrews.  I mean, why not just run for it?  Why this elaborate ritual?  And why is it still practiced today?  

Walter Brueggemann, Old Testament scholar, says that we, like the Egyptians, are a “culture devoted to amnesia”.  We so easily forget our past...and we are obsessed with securing our future.  We -- as a culture -- are pretty lousy at being in the now...at “holding the space”.  Brueggemann writes:  “Those who neither remember nor hope are profoundly vulnerable to consumerism...filling the void left by the eradication of that extra dimension of historical awareness that belongs to healthy humanness.”  He goes on, “Thus when the community says, ‘Do this in remembrance,’ it is not engaged in a mere history lesson or a simple act of piety.  It is rather, engaged in an act of resistance against any ideology that will destroy any Passover-driven humanness” (NIB, Vol. 1, 787).  [pause]  The Egyptians were the world’s most brutal super-power; they sought to erase any memory of the past, and aimed to strike fear about the future.  But the Passover, “holds the space”: such ritual is an act of resistance against 1) amnesia and 2) despair -- against forgetting about the past, and against a debilitating fear for the future. 

This is how worship functions for us as well.  This is what worship offers us, friends in Christ:  It is the antidote for amnesia.  We practice the traditions of the past, we remember those who have gone before us -- this week, October 4 we commemorate St. Francis of Assisi, who did his great share of “holding space” -- we remember the people of God down through the ages.  When our backs are against the wall, when we’re pushed up against the Red Sea, when amnesia threatens, and despair creeps in:  We remember.  “On the night in which Jesus was back up against the wall, he took bread and gave thanks…”  
We remember the Israelites of old, for whom God enables a new birth, a new freedom -- the ritual holds the space -- and there’s a new freedom from the chains and the cruelty that had held them back for so many generations.  

God brings to birth a liberation.  And that doesn’t just make everything easy now.  The wilderness?  Parenting?  A beautiful new birth brings with it a whole set of new complications.  But this is how worship ought to function for us as well.  This is what worship and ritual offers us, friends in Christ: it’s also the antidote for fear about the future.  Simply put, in this meal, there is hope.  Christ is present with us as we look forward, and move forward in faith.  The ritual holds the space for a new birth to happen, a liberation.  

Another professor notes that the Passover is the antidote for cruelty.  Remembering the cruelty inflicted on our people, we will never inflict such cruelty against another group of human beings, we will never despise a race, based on their country of origin or the color of their skin, we will never oppress a people under the chain and the whip of slavery and humiliation, we will never tolerate the cruelty that our ancestors witnessed...we will remember our story.  [slowly] And live in grace and peace, bringing to birth mercy (rather than P’s heard-heartedness), forgiveness (rather than P’s impatience), reconciliation (rather than P’s isolation) and peace (rather than P’s dominance).  Worship “holds the space” for us, for that new birth to take place.  And God blesses us and our worship.  AMEN.  

Sunday, September 25, 2016

September 25 -- Joseph's Dream

Friends, this story is problematic at every turn.  It starts with the first verse:  “Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children…”  What kind of a parent makes sure all the kids know which of them is his or her favorite?!...and gives that child stuff to boot -- the coat of many colors, in this case (context: took hours to make, incredibly special).  

Great set-up though, right?  Then Joseph has the guts (or perhaps the lack of brains) to tell his brothers that he had this dream where they were all bowing down to him!  

Little do we know that that’s a foreshadowing of reconciliation [pause] -- that through a strange series of events, and many years, Joseph would in fact be a ruler in a foreign country, that they would come in need, and a great re-cognition, re-conciliation, and re-union would take place.  

God was there all along, working even and especially the tragedies and evil things we chose to inflict on one another...for good.  Have you every experienced -- in the long run -- any good that comes out of bad?  Was there any good that came out of September 11?  Was there any good that came out of your sister’s cancer?  Did any good come out your “wild years”?  Any good come out of the death of a loved one?      In the long run.  Have you, like Joseph and his brothers ever looked back, and said: “Man, I really messed up back then -- I was really in danger back then -- I was so depressed back then -- and I never realized it back then, but God was right there through all of that.  And look what came out of it.”  

Friends, this story (perhaps like your story) is problematic at every turn.  And yet, God is there -- not stopping the bullets, not zapping the cancer, not speaking in booming baritones, not bringing our dearly departed back.  But God.  Is.  There...making a way out of no way -- a steady theme through the Old Testament.

When we did our HS backpacking trip to Colorado, back in 2014...the day we set off on the trail there were these two dogs at the trail head who started following us.  When we told them to go back they just looked at us all cute (Welsh Corgis) and kept following us.  By dinner on the first day, we had named them: Jeffrey and Oreo.  As we shared our “God moments” at the end of each day (where’d you see God today), Jeffrey and Oreo always seemed to make the list.  Everyone in the group started to fall in love with these two dogs...except me (until Wednesday).  I tried to hold out and refused to pet them -- I was a non-believer, I was suspect...until Wednesday, when I cratered.  Oreo knew I was a hold-out too: we had made these little dry spots for them in the porch of our tent, and Oreo would sleep right next to me, just on the outside of the tent -- I could feel his little warm and calm body, just on the other side of the tent wall.  We even started rationing our food -- which had been carefully packed just for the number in our group -- “but the dogs needed to eat too,” we were convinced.  There were moments on the trail when Jeffrey and Oreo would disappear, they’d either run way ahead or fall way back, or go running out into the woods.  And we’d call for them, and even get concerned, but in a short time, they’d just reappear, and it’d turn out they were actually there all along. 

You see where I’m going with this.  And everyone in the group got the metaphor:  It was like God -- unwilling to leave us.  Grateful for our sacrifices.  Happy for the shelter we offered and happy to have us break and share our bread.  Always there.  Those two dogs went all the way up into the mountains with us, and came all the way back down, and when we brought them back to the main camp, thinking we had really discovered something amazing, and had a case to make to the director for some new camp dogs, the director, when we got back, just rolled his eyes and said, “Oh yeah, those dogs belong to the guy who lives in a cabin right by the trail head.  They do this all the time.”

What?!  They hike with all kinds of backpackers?   The metaphor continues:  God’s love and presence isn’t just for us.  It’s for everyone.  And it goes with you too, sisters and brothers in Christ. 

We don’t always see it.  It’s not always how we want it to be.  And we definitely can’t take it home and keep it all to ourselves.  But God is working in and through our lives, our bad (and sometimes even evil) decisions, our tragedies, our imprisonments, and working it for good.    

I suppose this brings me to stewardship -- a theme for us at this time of the year.  I’m excited, we’re going to have a stewardship talk from 3 of our stewardship gurus in a bit, but let me just say this:  God stays with us as we make sacrifices (financially), as we endure tough times (financially), as we break our bread and share it in joyful thanksgiving.  That image of us high up in the Sangre de Cristo mountains of Colorado sharing with these two strange dogs is a poignant one: we really couldn’t see ourselves not sharing with them.  It’s simply what we did.  It wasn’t a huge discussion; it just flowed, naturally.  And it was fun!  

This is life in God’s arms!  “Living is giving,” as my dad likes to say.  We couldn’t see it any other way.  I had lunch with Pastor Eric two weeks ago, and so much fun to partner here for all kinds of reasons…

talking about stewardship this season, and he said, “You know, I’ve just gotten to the point in my ministry of saying to folks, ‘If I’m not asking you to give, I’m depriving you of the very best stuff of faith and spirituality.’”

Just like God is there as we make mistakes, commit sad acts of violence and betrayal, like Joseph’s brothers...or brag and gloat in our success like young Joseph….just like God is there through all of that.  So is God present with us as we make sacrifices, and perhaps take new risks, bumping our giving up a percentage or two, switching to making our offering to the work of the church the first check we write for the month, rather than the last -- that is, biblical “first fruits” giving.  The top of the basket, the best fruit, rather than the bruised up leftovers.

And it’s even fun, joy-filled.  Like being with Oreo and Jeffery, and feeding them and sheltering them, it’s even fun.  Talking to generous givers I’ve known, tithers, in fact, it’s always amazing: they’re never angry or bitter or begrudging in making their pledge, it’s a no brainer for them.  “Just move the decimal, sing a hymn, and say a prayer of thanks,” my mentor once told me.  It’s natural, the free-flow of grace -- into our lives and then through us to bless the lives of others.  

Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ, for beginning and continuing this free-flow of grace and reconciliation in our lives and in our world, this day and into eternity.  AMEN.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

September 18 -- Abraham's Descendants

Repeat after me: Gracious and loving God / help us / to trust even more / in your faithfulness  / and your grace.  Amen.

[There was a summer when I was working up in Washington state and Heather and I were in love.  Funny story: Goodbye to Heather in Seattle, lost ATM card, snuck into campground, sprinklers, mountains welcoming me back.]

This is a fascinating reading to me because it utilizes nature in a positive role: the role of the sky-full of stars as an illustration of all the blessing, that is before Sarah and Abraham...right smack in the midst of their pain, sorrow and fear.  

I’ve found that in Scripture (as in life), “nature” -- animals, plants, whole biomes and ecosystems -- can fluctuate back and forth: It is so often a source and certainly a place for evil or fear or temptation (as we saw last week in the Garden of Eden) and just plain danger… Jesus is tempted out in nature, in the desert...snakes and storms and lions and the valley of the shadow of death -- nature can often mean trouble in the Bible.  

Same in life.  We teach our kids all the time about nature: “Watch out!  Be careful!”  From the creepy crawlies to bears to falling out of trees.  Even the sun is a danger, as we lather ourselves up to go outside, as we tiptoe into the great ocean, afraid of what could happen.  It’s a big bad world out there in “the wilds”, out there in nature.

But other times -- more often, I hope, but I’m not sure these days -- nature can heal.  Nature can comfort.  Nature can refresh or reinvigorate (shared a story about that for me) 
...and nature can teach...  

Richard Louv, local San Diegan, writes and speaks often about the healing effects of nature...and how we’ve lost track of that.  He coined the phrase “Nature Deficiency Disorder” and talks about how staring at a screen shuts down almost all of our awareness.  “Nature time,” he writes, “can literally bring us to our senses.”

Now when I talk about “our senses” -- I am talking about our five senses -- sound, touch, taste, smell, sight (as Richard Louv was).  But I’m also talking about that sense of the divine, that sense of the ineffable, that sense of eternity, that sense of overwhelming blessing.  So often we are so blind to that, to those billions of stars in the sky.

Abram and Sarai too were blinded by sadness, fear, and -- in a way -- reality, so that they couldn’t see God’s greater blessing, until it was imaged by nature, by a night full of stars.

Have you ever seen stars like that?  You can’t really describe the experience.  I mean we can all imagine a sky full of stars, but until you’ve been completely entranced on a crisp night under a billion stars, sitting in an old lawn chair or laying in a warm sleeping bag, you really can’t get it.  

This such a great scene!  Abraham and Sarah are overwhelmed with grief, with despair, with fear:  far from their home, no children...or even friends for that matter.  Have you ever felt like they do: overwhelmed with sadness, with pain, with fear?  

And they’re in a tent.

Such a great scene!  In a tent you’re supposedly protected.  In a tent you can get things in perspective, got your meal, got your bed, maybe you’ve got a small family next to you.  Your world is all right there, immediate, visible.
But something’s coming up short.  There’s this aching in their hearts, as we too have experienced aching in our hearts in many and various ways.  Maybe your aching is exactly the same as Abraham and Sarah: unable to have children, sad and far from home.  Or maybe it’s something else.  [pause]

On one hand maybe you’ve got everything you supposedly need: food, shelter, work, friends, beautiful San Diego skies.  And yet there’s this nagging emptiness.  Or fear.  Or anxiety.  Or sadness.  Or despair.  Something keeping you up at night.

This is such a great scene...because exactly the opposite of what we would think safety looks like, of what we think the good life looks like, happens:  GOD CALLS ABRAHAM OUT OF THE TENT.  And suddenly he is completely exposed.  (Great word: ex-posed. “out of position”, 15c. “to leave without shelter or defense”)    

How is God calling you “out of the tent” these days?  How are you exposed, “out of position”?    

We don’t know what’s going to happen.  But there are stars out there that we can’t always see.  There are blessings before us, and all around us that we so often miss because of the thin and flimsy fabric of our tents.  

God’s calling us to step out, to step outside.  Nature is not all bad -- in fact it can even comfort and heal us.  God’s calling us out of position, out of our comfort...to be comforted even more.  We don’t know what’s going to happen, how it’s going to happen, but we have a God who does, and who loves, and who laughs, and who blesses.  

These “Fireside Chats” have really been fun…

And a recurring theme to so many of our stories has been God’s surprise.  How many of our stories are about us in the tent, thinking we were lining everything up as it should be, planning and strategizing and thinking we’re controlling the direction of our lives.  And yet, God surprises us time and again with blessing, even in the face of immense tragedy and heartbreak and pain and loss.  Complicated childhoods, complicated marriages and break-ups, complicated health histories or job-tracks, or children with complications.  All of it, very real, and yet there’s God all along -- still blessing, still loving us, still journeying with us.  It’s funny how often we’ve been reflecting at these Fireside Chats, in retrospect: “Oh, there was God.”

Friends in Christ, the majestic mountains of God’s grace are welcoming us back.  The stars are coving us like a blanket of peace.  All this is to say: God’s never left us, God’s still with us, and God’s got so much blessing still in store for us.  All this is to say, God’s got us.  

We just struggle to trust that truth.  

But hear that truth once again this day, friends… [pause] see that truth once again this day, [pointing to the Table] taste, touch and smell that eternal, ineffable, divine truth once again this day, in Jesus name.  AMEN.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

September 11 -- Creation & Fall

One of the best times of my day is in the evening.  Often I’m part of the bedtime “process” -- pj’s, teeth brushed, reading a chapter, singing a hymn, saying a blessing.  Sometimes not, if I have a meeting or am traveling, but after bedtime, at about 8pm, Chloe our energetic dog starts getting super excited because she knows after the kids are in bed (and if both of us are home), it’s time for an evening walk.  She starts jumping up and down, if we’re sitting on the couch she nuzzles her way under my leg/arm, nudging me up, kind of getting crazy with excitement.  And why not?  Dogs love going for walks!  We usually walk about a mile, mile and a half.  For a dog, in the evening breeze, we see rabbits, skunks, squirrels, coyotes, opossum, there’s this funny cat that comes out to say ‘hi’...it’s heaven...all those smells, the exercise...  Like I said, taking that walk with Chloe is one of the best times of my day; but for her, it’s definitely the best part of her day.  She must dream about our walk, while she naps all day, while she lays around in the dark house.  She’ll come running wildly in from the farthest corner of the back yard at the faintest sound of a jingling leash.  Yeah, she lives for taking that evening walk, it seems.

But truth be told:  I don’t take her for that walk every day.  Sometimes I’m out too late.  Sometimes I’m traveling.  Sometimes there are guests that we’re entertaining, or conversations that Heather and I are having.  Sometimes there’s a game or a program on that I absolutely can’t miss.  Sometimes -- and this of course makes no sense to a dog and is totally unfair -- but maybe at some level I’m rationalizing that I’m punishing her for an accident she had or some food that she stole off the counter...  And sometimes, I’m just plain lazy.  

I guess you could say that at times, I just get distracted -- too distracted to take Chloe for a walk.  

And isn’t taking a dog for a walk the whole point, “the primary mission”?  I mean, there’s a reason she lives for it.  That’s the whole point of having a dog, it’s what the labrador rescue place wanted to know.  “Will you walk this dog?”  It’s like your vows.”  It’s the best way to love a dog: take it for a walk.    That’s all the Dog Whisperer does, isn’t it?  Behavioral issues?  Just take her for a walk, right?  It’s the primary mission.
We have a rich text today!  So many angles, so many things we can do with this.  This text has been used to justify the mistreatment and subjugation of women.  I’m not going to preach a sermon specifically about misogyny and Genesis (but toward that: I will however plug some new study materials that our ELCA church body has just released…)   

Today I want to reflect on getting distracted from the primary mission and God’s response to that.  The primary mission is to take care of the garden.  In this second creation story, God needs someone to till the soil and keep it.  Our translation says to “till it and keep it” but the Hebrew words are even better translated “serve and protect”.  As one of my profs notes in his book, The Yahwist’s Landscape, Genesis 2 has the human’s role not as ruler but as groundskeeper or tenant farmer.  The primary mission is to take care of the garden, to tend the earth.  That’s hard work, it takes patience and consistency, it takes partners.  (Adam couldn’t do it alone.  He needed a partner, a helper -- which doesn’t mean a sous-chef, an under-study -- the same Hebrew word for helper here is used for God in Psalms: “God is our refuge and our strength, a very present helper.”  The helper is not a lesser being.)  

The mission is to care for the garden together.    

But, omg, how we get distracted…just like me, making excuses not to walk Chloe, which I know is the whole point.  But I’ve got all kinds of reasons why I don’t do it.
One commentator points out how we are Adam and Eve: we’re supposed to be tilling the soil, serving the earth and protecting it, but there’s this really enticing fruit that catches our eye, and we get sucked in.  We strike up conversations with fascinating animals and waste the day away.  How have you been distracted lately from the original mission of caring for God’s garden?  

Maybe you “stay out too late”.  Maybe you’re too busy.  Maybe you’re too “caught up with a certain program or a game”.  Maybe you even justify (in your mind) punishing the garden or just plain ignoring it -- which makes no sense, when we really think about it.  Maybe we’ve convinced ourselves that there are other more important things.  And maybe we’re just plain lazy.  

But God has called us -- not just that: God has actually created us -- for the purpose of serve.  God. Needs. Our. Help.

And here’s our Gospel image for the week, here’s the good news, amid all this September 11th bad/sad/painful/shameful news:  God comes to walk with us.  

There’s a whole lot of mischievousness and deceit and laziness and ultimately sadness in this passage for today.  But here’s the gem: God comes looking for us at the time of the evening ruach (the same thing, by the way, that moved over the waters and rushed in at Pentecost).  God comes looking for us.

“Adam, Eve, [other names], where are you?”  And we’re ashamed.  We hide.  We cover up and crouch down.  We duck our heads and close our eyes.

But God walks among us, and calls us out of our shame and hiding.  Reinhold Niebuhr once wrote that “the greatest human sin is pride”...  

But some female scholars countered his strong argument some years later, and posited that for many, the great sin is the sin of hiding -- the sin of tucking away in the face of domestic violence, the sin of hating ourselves so much that we don’t even defend our own skin, the sin of buying into the narrative that “I am inferior because of gender identity or skin color or sexual orientation or immigration status…”  The sin of hiding.

Sisters and brothers in Christ, God is calling us out for a walk in the cool evening breeze.  What an image of peace and grace.  God desires our partnership, our accompaniment, our helping one another, our serving and protecting the garden that is God’s creation: the primary mission.  (That’s what so tragic about both planes flying into buildings and forests being chopped down: God’s garden is being desecrated.)

But here’s the thing (and I don’t care if it’s cliche): the past is prologue.  Do you think Chloe’s will be holding a grudge that I didn’t walk last night at 8pm tonight?  So it is with God, who this morning is ready to offer new life, peace, forgiveness, hope, and reissue this invitation to service.  “Weeping spends the night, but joy comes in the morning” (Ps. 30:5).  AMEN?  Reconciliation is real, friends.  Today’s a new day.  Our attempts at hiding are pretty futile, our fig leaves.  But God sews us new clothes.  God covers us with new garments -- garments of grace, clothes of the cross, outfits of outreach, fabrics of forgiveness, strands of salvation.  We are wrapped in God’s love and joy.

We live for this walk.  Christ lives for taking this walk with us.  The hiding is finished; the healing is now [altar].  Come and receive.  Alleluia!  Thanks be to God!  AMEN.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

September 4 -- Sixteenth After Pentecost

“Gracious God, you appeal on the basis of love.  Restore us again to you this day.  AMEN.”

There was a time when I felt like I was on top of the world: high school.  I was king.  Not of the world, not of my high school, but of my neighborhood, and of my little brothers, and all those who looked up to me.  

We grew up in Houston with a great neighborhood pool right down the street.  And as far back as I can remember, we’d put our swim suits in late May, and we wouldn’t take them off until the end of August…right about now...when swim season was over and school was starting.  My very first job ever was at Maplewood Pool, as the membership card taker at the gate.  I’d take your card and file it in the little box, for $4.50/hr.   Every morning we had swim practice in May, June and July, and as I got older (7th-8th grade), I had this dream of one day being the coach of our 350-kid swim team from ages 6 and under...all the way up to 16.  Someday.  I took the classes and became a lifeguard there too, but I still had that dream.  And I was in 10th grade when that day actually came, and I was approached by the 2 coaches and asked if I’d be the jr. assistant coach.  The next summer I became the full assistant coach.  And then, when I was a senior in high school, I became the head coach of Maplewood Swim team!  I was on top of the world, one of my best friends growing up was my assistant and we had a great relationship and friendship.  We were royalty in this world, that we had been members of, given all those many summers, paid our dues, served in the ranks.  And now it was ours: we called the shots, we set the line-ups, we made the work-outs, we handed out the trophies...we were at the top of our game.  Good to be king.

We had a key to the facility too.  And one night we decided to let ourselves into the pool after hours, with a few of our friends (and my little brother Tim) and some girls we liked, and have a little party...I mean why not?  It was pretty much all ours, anyways.

We were having a great time (beer and cigars, music and swimming), until a certain car pulled up.  It was some other kids, members of the real pool manager’s church, who he had asked to help him keep an eye on things at night.  They were young too and in great shape, and actually chased us down.  Caught one of my brother’s little friends, and so a few of us came back from the darkness we had run into to get away.  And to make a long story short, we were busted.

The next Tuesday (pool’s closed on Monday) we were to have meeting with Coach -- the real coach, Coach Johnson.  Coach was the manager, the real boss, of the pool; he was also a high school football coach during the school year.  Great, big, cantankerous old Texan who was intimidating when he was in a good mood.  He’d seen some things in his time, and no high school hot shots were anything new to him.  

Those light plastic pool chairs never seemed so heavy as Coach led me and my accomplices over to the far corner of the property that hot afternoon.  We sat down in in a small circle...and we pretty much thought that was it for us.  Breaking into the complex, partying, running off into the darkness, drinking.  He’s gonna fire us -- destroy our college application process, get us grounded by our parents, and cut us off forever from this land and status that we so greatly loved and enjoyed -- all of it!  Here it comes.  

After some silence, to let us stew in our fear, Coach simply says: “Thing is, boys, I love you like you were my own sons.  And if anything ever happened to you, ‘cause  you’re doing something stupid, I don’t know what I’d do.”  And if that wasn’t enough to never forget, he had a tear in his eye.  Talk about about appealing on the basis of love.  

This is my grace story.  (All of us should have at least one grace story.)

All was forgiven, with our promise to never pull a stunt like that again.  He didn’t even tell our parents, and mine don’t listen to my sermon podcast all that that often, so I think I’m still good...

“Thing is, boys, I love you like you were my own sons.”

Friends in Christ, this is a text -- a whole book of the bible -- about status restoration.  There are three human characters in this story:  The Apostle Paul is writing to Philemon, a wealthy Christian landlord and slave owner; and he’s writing in regard to Onesimus, Philemon’s run-away slave.  Paul’s met him in prison and is appealing to Philemon “on the basis of love” to restore him, and not just to take him back as a slave again, but to actually elevate him and receive him back as a brother.  Pretty radical request.

My story is really about my status being humbled -- from a cocky kid to a beloved son.  This is a text about being lifted up -- from a slave to a beloved brother.  But either way, these are restorations (and elevations) of status...“on the basis of love”.  Today, we are invited to reflect on the restoration and elevation (or deepening) of status “on the basis of love” -- that we have with and for one another, and that God has for us... 
Maybe someone has wronged you, taken advantage of you, like I wronged and took advantage of the trust Coach had put in me...We’re invited to consider a restoration and elevation of status.  I wasn’t just slapped back into place or thrown out -- my status was restored and even elevated.  Are there places in your life, where those around you might be blessed by your forgiveness and love?

And, even more: the restoration and elevation of status that we’ve all received from God.  It all starts and ends with that.  We are called beloved by God, after everything we’ve done.  God says to us, like Coach said to me, “Thing is, I love you, like you’re my own kid.”  A tear on God’s cheek.  God appeals to us on the basis of love.  

Paul’s letter to Philemon is simply an outgrowth of that love, and restorative peace and hope of God.  Coach Johnson’s words to me and Josh were -- to me, still today -- simply an outgrowth of that love and the restorative peace and hope of God.

Friends in Christ -- I hope you know this...hear it again! -- we have a God who forgives, who brings us back -- whether from a slave status or an arrogant, entitled status -- we have a God who restores us...by naming us a beloved member of the family:  “I love you.  You are mine.”

So go now.  And do likewise.  Go now, in peace, and love one another.  AMEN.

Prayers for Labor Day

Commerce and labor

Almighty God, your Son Jesus Christ dignified our labor by sharing our toil. Guide us with your justice in the workplace, so that we may never value things above people, or surrender honor to love of gain or lust for power. Prosper all efforts to put an end to work that brings no joy, and teach us how to govern the ways of business to the harm of none and for the sake of the common good...

The unemployed

God of justice, we remember before you those who suffer want and anxiety from lack of work. Guide the people of this land so to use our wealth and resources that all people may find suitable and fulfilling employment and receive just payment for their labor...

The human family

O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son. Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred that infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and, through our struggle and confusion, work to accomplish your purposes on earth; so that, in your good time, every people and nation may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.  Amen.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

August 28 -- Fifteenth After Pentecost

This last and final section from the book of Hebrews -- which is is sometimes called a sermon -- is a series of instructions for how we conduct ourselves as Christian people.  And I’d simply like to reflect on this list of instructions with you...here at the end of the summer and the beginning of a new academic year, in the midst of another highly divided political race in our country, election in November, in the midst of global strife, natural disaster, personal and professional troubles perhaps…

There are moments when we might want to throw up our arms in despair or disgust, and cry out, “What am I supposed to do?”  Well, the Hebrews sermon has got some suggestions:

Here’s what we’re supposed to do:

1.  Show hospitality to strangers. 
How many of you have a story about entertaining an angel without knowing it?  Remember my favorite movie Field of Dreams, when Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) and Terrance Mann (James Earl Jones), who are at the end of their rope, pick up a young man hitch-hiking, who ends up saving Ray’s little daughter from choking to death?  That’s an illustration from the movies, but a great image of people, who really don’t know what to do next...so they do something good.  We’re called to open our doors to the least likely, to the vagabond and the wanderer.  When we don’t know what to do next, God calls us to do something good for someone else.  AMEN?   

2. Remember those who are in prison and those who are being tortured...as if we ourselves are in prison or being tortured.  
This one speaks for itself.  But boy, words are easier than actions.  Who was the last person you visited in prison?  If any?  Who was the last person you prayed for who was in prison?  How about torture?  Know any survivors of torture?  
There, I think, thanks to my predecessor Pastor George Falk, this congregation has some access to working with and reaching out to those who have been tortured.  This organization Survivors of Torture International, that he and Kathi Andersen founded is a great start for remembering.  

But torture and prison, here in Hebrews, in its context, is also a reference to those who are being persecuted for practicing Jesus-following.  Notice: I’m being careful not just saying “those who are persecuted for their faith”.  They were persecuted for their faith, but that’s because it was a faith-in-action.  If the early Christians were “just talk” -- just benign, secret (or not-so-secret) groupings around the ancient world that didn’t really do anything, there’d be no threat.  But the early Christians were radically counter-cultural in their justice-seeking activism -- advocating on behalf of the poor and the outcast.  Remembering those who are in prison and tortured, is remembering those then (and recently) who put their faith in this One-whose-name-is-Love, and therefore took risks, took action for civil rights, stood up against facist regimes, welcomed the foreigner, fed the outcast, loved their enemies…
Risk-taking -- not safety-ensuring -- is the Christian virtue, and it has consequences...like prison and torture.   AMEN?

3. Let marriage be held in honor.
Sadly this is instructive for us too.  And it extends far beyond just not having affairs.  We break trust in our marriages, let one another down, sneak around with bad habits and even addictions all the time…if we’re honest.  You don’t have to be committing adultery to receive a warning -- and in that way, a blessing -- in this passage.  In what ways is your marriage defiled?  When we don’t know what else to do, put the phone down, turn the tv off (or whatever it is that’s distracting you), and spend time with the one you love.  AMEN?

4. Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content...for God has says, “I’ll never leave you.”
This is at the heart of our passage -- right in the middle!  Our money says exactly what we have such a hard time doing: “In God we trust.”  Be content with what you have. I’m betting none of us would admit to “being in love money”, [pause] but all of us could be accused of it...given the decisions that we’ve made at one time or another, right?  But God says, “Let it go.”  I posted on Facebook this weekend a picture of Katie and Heather at our kitchen table after dinner with a piggy bank:  I wrote, “Today's a big day: This is the day Heather taught Katie what tithing means.  H: ‘Now, out of 10 dimes, what does God ask us to share with the church?’ K: ‘Only 1 dime?! That's a deal!’
I was corrected: she actually said, “Can we give God more than just that?” And I reflected, “Maybe she’s the one teaching us.”

“I’ll never leave you,” God says.  Maybe this should be the theme for our stewardship campaigns...

5.  Remember your leaders and imitate their faith.
We Lutherans can get a little touchy, and even “judgey”, about “worshiping the saints”.  But we’re sitting on a goldmine of forebearers in the faith, and even those who are still alive.  Remember your leaders and imitate their faith.  My leaders are the Margaret Johnsons and Lois Hellbergs, the Bob Koskinens and Helen Roberts.  The faithful witnesses through the years -- our years -- who just keep “showing up”...for God and for us.  And we’ve got volumes of saints who have gone before us.  I’ve started listing them in the back of our bulletins.  This week we commemorate Augustine, Moses the Black, Nikolai Grundtvig.  Learn about them, imitate them, be strengthened by them.  They’re looking down on us with love, rooting for us. 

If our body’s a temple, a sanctuary, I like that image of the saints as those who are  sitting in the balcony of our sanctuary cheering us on -- encouraging, instructing, and smiling peacefully and lovingly upon us.    

And finally our passage today concludes:
6.  Do not neglect to do good and share what you have.
We’ve heard this.  Hebrews is driving it home.  Do good and share.  I’ve said before:  Jesus’ entire message for how we should live our lives can be summed up one word: “Share.” 


A lot to swallow today -- maybe we need that.  “Thank you, God, for this dose.”  These instructions are actually a blessing.  For one thing, these instructions, admonitions even, can be a real gift:  Our lives will be better when we do these things.  Guarantee.   The poet George Herbert once observed, “There is no greater sign of holiness than the procuring and rejoicing in another’s good.”  That’s what Hebrews is inviting us into: “...the procuring and rejoicing in another’s good”.

But friends, in the end, and at the heart, is God’s promise: “I’ll never leave you.”  What if we do mess these up royally?  What if we bomb at showing hospitality to strangers, never visit anyone in prison, jack up our marriages, worship money, forget the saints, and hoard things to ourselves like selfish toddlers (or any number of adults, frankly, that we can all think of).  What if we fail at every single one of these six instructions?  Is God going to walk out on us, like we’ve walked out on others?

This is the Gospel: Jesus is gonna love us/you anyway!  What!?  And because of that, when we know that, when we ingest it, when it seeps deep into our bones, then we’re actually flung into this new lifestyle of sharing and caring, and working for justice, and living in peace.  We don’t just throw our arms up in despair and disgust, anymore; we throw our arms up now -- having met this one Jesus on the road -- now we throw our arms up in joy and praise and thanksgiving for a God who never leaves us.  AMEN.