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, February 26, 2017

February 26 -- Transfiguration Sunday

Grace to you and peace, from God…

Transfiguration Sunday: the day that Jesus’ face and clothes change right before his disciples’ sleepy eyes.  

I think the “sleepy disciples” image resonates particularly this time of year.  Did you catch that in the story?  Unique to Luke.  Matthew and Mark both include an account of the Transfiguration, but it doesn’t say that the disciples were weighed down with sleep. (Message: “hunched over with sleep” -- Paul Gaske, sleeping in church)

Please don’t hear me wrong, sleep is good, a gift from God in other parts of the scripture—but in the Gospel of Luke, for Jesus, sleepiness is an opportunity to fall into temptation.  

I wonder if you can think of another time the disciples fall asleep while their with Jesus at a critical time?  [Gethsemane]  And Jesus command in that moment was “Pray—don’t fall asleep—pray, so that you may not be led into temptation.”

Sleepiness in this context is a fuzzy-mindedness.  Foggy brain.

When I’m slumped over with sleep, I’m grumpy if I get woken.  Part of me is glad that wasn’t me on the mountain with Jesus, because I would have really embarrassed myself and snapped, when the bright lights and the 2 Old Testament heroes showed up.  I probably would have barked at them: “Get out of here!”

My fuzzy-mindedness, my being hunched over with sleepiness, and the temptation that can accompany my sleepiness, leads me to anger and grumpiness.

The disciples, on the other hand, weren’t grumpy, thanks be to God.  They didn’t bark at Jesus or Moses or Elijah, like perhaps I would have.  They were much more like happy-drunks in their sleepiness.  They came to, and “not knowing what they were saying,” the Scripture tells us, blurted out, “Let’s build something and stay here forever!”

And can you blame them?  They are hanging with Jesus, Moses and Elijah.  Moses and Elijah?!  That’s like hanging with your heroes -- like Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, or 2016 MVP and World Champion on the Chicago Cubs Kris Bryant.  I mean these were the All Stars of the past and present!  And they woke into it — can you blame? — with elation and frenzied processing?  They were star-struck and jolted awake at the same time.  The few experiences I’ve had being star-struck, I said something stupid.  

Peter, James and John were star-struck, sleepy happy-drunk...and away from the world.  That’s the other thing!

Can you blame them for wanting to build and stay up there forever?  They were far away from the hurting, real world, and they only wanted to capture that moment, and keep cozy forever.  It’s like being nice and warm in your bed—all snug and cozy—and even thinking about getting up is daunting.  “Lord, it is good for us to be here.  Let’s build, let’s add-on to this glory, and let’s stay here forever.”

But precisely as Peter is rambling, a cloud comes over them all, a thick fog moves in [just when they thought everything was so clear and beautiful] and they hear a voice: “This is my Son, the Chosen.  Listen to him.”  In other words, God says to the disciples of old and to us today — listen to him, to Jesus, not to your own voices of vanity, celebrating accomplishments, craving safety and protection from the world, not to your own fuzzy-mindedness.  Listen to him.    

And suddenly the cloud lifts and it’s just Jesus...and what’s he doing?  He’s headed back down the mountain, back to the pain and the brokenness, the division, the cruelty, the evil of the world.  No better example of that than the last part of this reading today:  Jesus casts out a demon IMMEDIATELY after this great glorious event.  Listen to him — the one who confronts evil and oppression with love.  [pause]

Here’s the gift of Transfiguration: we a get just a glimpse of God’s glory, and then we get back to work.  Just a little flare, to remind us, that this work in the trenches is a worthy cause— more than that: it is a divine cause, it’s God’s cause -- God’s work, our hands.  Because sometimes it seems like there’s no difference being made, no hope, no change, no matter.  But our work, your work, people of God, in your everyday lives is not in vain — caring for the poor and the sick, caring for the hungry, the outsider, the immigrant and refugee, reaching out to support a friend in need, being a loving parent, doing the right thing (even if it’s more costly to your reputation or your wallet), staying alert so that you don’t fall into temptation (we don’t live on the mountain top, we live in the valley) — living and working in a valley is not in vain...even if sometimes it feels like it.

One of the themes in the Gospel of Luke is that he says it...and then he does it: “Proclaim liberty and release to the captive, stand with the oppressed...here, let me show you…

“And if it doesn’t go well, then shake the dust from your sandals and just keep moving.”  

Jesus talked about this when he sent out his disciples, and then he gets chased out of his own hometown.  Just keep moving.  [Dory from Finding Nemo: “Just keep swimming.”] 
Today we get a peek at God’s glory, and this week we descend the mountain top into the journey of Lent — 40 days of valley living, coming face to face with our sin and the sin of our world.  And yet we “just keep swimming” in the waters and the promise of our baptism.

Today we get a peek at God’s glory, at this peaceful Christ, who is the true hope and safety of our lives and of the life of this world.  Let us bask this morning in the wonder of his presence, shining among us even today, even in 2017, let us be in silent awe of Christ’s glory [not babbling or happy-drunk with suggestions on how to package and domesticate the moment].  Let’s just be in praise.  The German mystic Rilke: “Praise my dear ones.  Let us disappear into praising.  Nothing belongs to us.”  

And when the glimpse is past.  When the cloud of praise lifts, then, O God, give us the courage to follow your Son, the Chosen One, down the rocky path to face the world’s pain and sorrow, but to do so knowing that the glimpse of God that we have today, both in the scripture and the sacraments, the glimpse of God is only a foretaste of the feast to come, when we shall dwell with all the saints in endless glory.  

Thanks be to God, who goes with us now, who leads us now, into the valley of our lives, who casts out demons, and welcomes the stranger, who loves everyone -- even you -- this day and always. AMEN.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

February 19 -- Forgiven at Jesus' Feet

I’ve been thinking about young, sexually attractive women this week.  (How’s that for an attention-grabbing opening line?)  Let me try to elaborate: starting with this text from Luke 7, I’ve been thinking about young, sexually attractive women...and the church.  See, at Bible study on Monday, I asked, “If you had to draw the woman in this story, how would you picture her -- young, old?”  Most of us responded “young”, and I was even so bold as to say, “I think she was pretty, too.”...because I believe that Jesus includes, loves, forgives and calls everyone.  
Back in seminary, in a course entitled “Transition to the Parish”, I chose women in the ministry the topic for my final paper.  I had never really asked.  (There’s a sign of my privilege, right?  I get to deal with sexism, when I decide to do a paper on it.)  I basically just interviewed female pastors around the church and two of my friends who were soon-to-be female pastors in the church -- a few of them, to be honest, were very attractive.  

In that project I listened to these women share stories of how challenging it is to be a pastor.  (They weren’t complaining; I was asking for their candidness.)  One told me about when she got to the door of the house of the woman she was visiting, she was announced by the husband, “Honey, the little pastor girl is here to see you.”  

It was clear to me that the female pastors (at least the ones I talked to) when it came to the church were either objectified or patronized and not taken seriously by many men.  And then by older women in the church, often judged, glared at, or ignored.  Often comments on their clothes, their hair, their make-up.  Questions like “Sweetie, do you understand what that outfit is communicating?”  (reminds me of the Pharisee’s words of judgment, “...if he had know what kind of a woman this is...” -- by the way, says nothing about ‘prostitute’, but...)  

Anyway, I’d never had experiences like these female colleages of mine, so could only sit agape and listen.

Not all bad things either, and certainly there were some wonderful stories too.  But the sense of being an outsider in what has traditionally been a male profession -- at least, for the past couple hundred years -- was so great and sometimes overwhelming for these women that nearly all of them had considered at one time or another leaving the ministry completely...even my seminary friends who were just starting!

I’m thinking of young, attractive women, as I approach this text because they teach us something; and Christ -- of course -- teaches and offers us something too.  

The woman in this text teaches us about repentance.  She approaches Jesus with tears in her eyes, tears of regret, tears of pain, tears of grief, tears of hopelessness.  See Jesus was seated in a circle and this woman could only approach Jesus from behind, from outside the inner circle, and she offers him the kind of hospitality and welcome that even his host didn’t.  This whole episode ends with Jesus commending her faithfulness: “Your faith has saved you.”  This young, attractive woman (in my imagination, maybe yours too) is teaching us that faith = being repentant, deeply thankful, and offering signs of hospitality.  That’s what faith looks like!

Making confession is a sign of our faithfulness.  Have you ever wept and poured out your sins to anyone?  Individual confession is so cathartic and good.  We Lutherans have traditionally and even jokingly shied away from individual confession, because we don’t want to be perceived as Catholic, and I think there’s all kinds of baggage around the guilt/shame of “not going to confession”.  But have you ever told a trusted confidant your sins and heard God through them share promise of forgiveness, the “Go your way, your faith has saved you”?!  It’s life-giving, renewing, talk about a deep healing breath!  Martin Luther elevated private confession and some scholars even suggest it was a sacrament for him:

“Confession embraces two parts,” Luther said, “One is that we confess our sins; the other, that we receive absolution, or forgiveness, from the pastor as from God Himself, and in no ways doubt, but firmly believe, that by it our sins are forgiven before God in heaven.”

This woman in the story teaches us about this true, deep, honest confession.  Because as she approaches Jesus, she already knows God’s forgiveness.  And her tears and these gestures of hospitality and welcome -- the oil and foot-bathing -- are only signs of gratitude.  She’s not begging Jesus to forgive her, she knows that he already has.  So now she can’t help but offer a sign of her deep gratitude and joy.  

Having been forgiven by God, through Jesus Christ, we can’t help but fall on our knees, weeping and giving thanks through signs of gracious hospitality.

Oil on the head, washing of the feet, providing a good meal for a guest (which the Pharisee’s part out here) -- all of these were signs of gracious hospitality and welcome back then.  It’s worth asking and pondering and praying over this together as a congregation, who is building new spaces:  What are the signs today of deep welcome and hospitality in response to the mercy and forgiveness that God has poured out endlessly for each one of us?  
And then I said that Jesus teaches us something here too:  

The circle just keeps getting wider.  That’s why I wanted to get more vivid with the appearance and the age of this woman.  
Jesus has welcomed and forgiven, old men with withered hands, battered women slumped over with years of oppression and disease.  He has brought cute little children into the middle, he’s even raised them from the dead!  He has lifted up and shown mercy toward the Roman marine, whose dominant armies have oppressed and squashed Jesus’ own tribe, the Jews.  Christ offers him welcome pardon, even heals his favorite slave, and calls that Roman soldier’s faith greater than any he’s ever witnessed in his own community.  Do you see how the circle just widens and widens?  Surprising us again and again?  Those people too?  Those people too?   

And now a young, sexually attractive woman receives this same embrace.  In Christ, no longer is she an outsider.  In Christ, no longer is she to be patronized and objectified through careless words and actions.  In Christ, she is free from the oppression of judgement, and being reduced to simply an outfit or a certain style.  In Christ, sisters and brothers everyone, everyone, everyone is welcomed at the table of mercy.  We struggle with what that means, in our world, in our church, in our hearts; but God does not.

And at the end of the day, all we can do is fall down on our knees, maybe weep a little bit and give thanks that we too are included in this cosmic embrace of God.  We too are forgiven, blessed, and now sent out.  Go your way, this faith that God has given us -- a gift, by the way, offered freely to us in our baptism (little Isabella’s receiving a gift this day: the gift of faith) -- this faith is what saves us.  And so we can truly go out into this hurting, dangerous, challenging world -- in peace.  Thanks be to God.  AMEN.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

February 12 -- Go Tell John

Have you ever known anyone who refuses to play a certain board game or card game or sports game?  [pause]  Even worse, someone who starts the game, but then if they start losing, they quit?  

Often a question like that hurls us back to childhood -- I bet our kids can all name someone -- maybe we were once like that ourselves ;)  when the game doesn’t meet our expectations -- which is pretty much “to be winning” -- the temptation is to quit, “like children in the marketplace: the flute’s being played but they did not DANCE”.  [  >: (  Humph.]

Ooh!  There’s an even better image: ever known someone who absolutely refuses to dance?  :)  Or worse, starts dancing and then quits in the middle of the song, just walks off?  

Sisters and brothers in Christ, God is inviting us this day to get in the game, to join the dance.  “Get off the sidelines, stop being a wallflower of faith, and jump in here!”  [slowly] But be aware that as the music goes on, we may just find that it’s not a song that we like all that much.  It may not be a game that meets our expectations...

...for God’s dance has got some funky beats, some irregular measures, some strange instruments.  God’s game takes these unexpected twists and turns.  And often it’s tempting to bow out:

“Are you the one, Jesus?!  Really?  Or are we to wait for another?  Is this all there is, Jesus?  [pause]  Because John the Baptist, our big hero, is all locked up in prison now!”  [pause]

(John, here, btw is anyone whose hope is waning, whose despair is creeping in.)

Does it all ever make you want to throw in the towel, to give up and go home?  I don’t know about you, but I want to win!  I want to be the best!  And I want my Jesus to lead me to victory, crushing the competition, knocking out the bad guys, and raising me up on the pedestal to shine like the winning star that I am...or at least that I should be...right?

But this one Jesus, doesn’t do that.  His ways are not our ways.

This one Jesus takes a completely different direction, plays a game we never expected.  What kind of a dance is this?  [pause]  Humility?  Letting go?  Emptying of self and pride? Serving others first?  Loving our enemies?  Welcoming the stranger?  What kind of a crazy dance is this?  Not a game I always want to play!

But God’s not done with us yet...
When I was going to Confirmation Camp as a kid back in Texas -- Camp Lutherhill -- Jr. High -- there was always a dance the last night.  And it was meant to be the grand finale of the week, everyone was so excited building up to the dance.  The cute counselor that all the girls liked and thought was so-o-o-o-o cool was the DJ.  Everyone was so jr.-high-nervous, and put on their best outfits on for the dance.  I was no exception.  Heart pounding in adolescent anxiety.  Eyes sweeping constantly over the one we wanted to like us back.  Hormones churning, sweat glistening, voice cracking.  It was terrible: 

Kids got rejected, or just totally overlooked, hearts got broken, weird kids always got left out, tears always fell.  Some of the worst hours of the week happened that last night at camp.  There were winners and there were losers.  It was good learning for life, I guess, but this was not a fore-taste of the kind of community and inclusion and love that God invites us into, frankly the opposite of all those great themes that highlighted our week up until then.  No, this was torture.  
Walls were being built, cruelly dividing up who’s in/out.  The strong triumphed over the weak...you get the picture.  And others just got plain left out.  I hated it almost every year.

(Basically, it looked like just about every other dance in middle school and beyond ...  But but this was church!)

Well, I am pleased to tell you that camp dances have really evolved for the better...or maybe our camps here in Southern California have always been doing it right...because the first time I took our confirmation kids to camp, I was so pleased to see the way they make the dance a blast for EVERYONE.  

They taught line dances, where everyone could participate, And they’ve come up with these inclusive games now, where someone invites you to dance until everyone has been invited by someone to dance.  (“A-a-a-a-and you look like a real cool cat...”)  

And then they have “the paddle dance” where one person gets to hold a canoe paddle like a queen or a king, and two people beg that one person to pick them.  If you don’t get picked, then you get the paddle next and get to have two people beg you to dance.  Now, there’s still drama and hormones, but I gotta tell you, after my obviously traumatizing memories back at Lutherhill, it almost brought tears to my eyes to see those awkward kids, those nerdy kids, those outsider kids, kids in wheelchairs, kids covered in zits and dandruff and the cool kids, all having a genuine blast together on the dance floor.  

It was like the lessons of the week were literally being embodied in these ... funky beats, irregular melodies, strange instruments: these are the games of God.  
Sisters and brothers in Christ, Jesus invites us into a dance, and  it’s not one we win at.  It’s one where everyone joins in.  

“You go tell, John,” Jesus says, “that everyone is dancing!”  The blind receive their sight.  The lame walk.  The lepers are cleansed.  The deaf hear, the dead are raised...and the goofy, smelly, awkward kid is dancing and being cheered on in the middle of the circle.   There’s no better feeling for a kid than everyone chanting your name to the beat.  “Go Thomas, go Thomas…”

It’s not what we expected.  It’s not what the rest of the world calls cool or successful.  It’s not winning and beating others.  It’s God’s unconditional love, poured out for you and for me and for both the outcast and the cool kid.  It’s not the game we thought we were playing, but you go tell John...

...that with Jesus, no one is left out.  This is a glimpse of God’s party.  Go back, sisters and brothers in Christ, and tell John!  It’s not what you thought, and there’s still plenty of pain in the world, but I tell you: Christ is here.  Now.  And he is the one.  AMEN.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

February 5 -- Raising the Widow's Son

So how do you feel about the fact that you’re the one Jesus raised from the dead?  I don’t just mean after you die, I mean right now, today!  Male or female, gay or straight, black or blue, white or brown, native or immigrant, young or old – you’re the one in the story, you’re the one Luke was talking about, you’re the one lying on the funeral bier!  

How’s that hit you?  Incredulous, relieved, terrorized, unwilling?  If you’re anything like me these days, its hitting you distracted – pulled in at least 5 different directions as I speak, busy, broken, maybe even battered.  But sisters and brothers in Christ, I in all my brokenness and busyness, proclaim to you in all your brokenness and busyness that Christ comes alongside our funeral processions today, whatever those might look like…and declares them finished!  The dirge is over, and now the party of God has begun!
funeral procession
Not that there isn’t any space for lament, for a good funeral procession.  God knows we need to lament, to walk along together remembering and honoring our beloved dead, and not just the people who have died, but also the opportunities that we’ve missed, the great ideas that have come and gone, the money wasted, the programs that have run their course, the people who have left, the separation, division and isolation that has taken place.  Death is truly all around us, in many, many forms.  God knows that we need to prepare good funerals, like the people of Nain and start making our somber way to the grave. 

But Jesus meets us in our dirge, has compassion for us, trudging along, and says to us, to you, plainly and prophetically – get up!  God has looked favorably upon you!  

I think weeping is very good, and I believe Jesus affirmed that when he modeled it at Lazarus’ tomb…but we also need to hear his word for today:  “Stop your crying, and get up.”  Might sound insensitive.  But the opposite is true, and this is being spoken like someone who knows how the story ends.

Then Jesus turns us over to one another.  As if there wasn’t enough grace in just raising us from death, it gets better:

Jesus hands us to our loved ones, to our communities.  We are given to one another here at church 
-- gotta say something here:  We live in a culture of just drifting and doing whatever we want, but Jesus gives us to one another in a anew way this day! Risen from the dead, Jesus gives us to one another.  Let’s recommit ourselves to one another, recommit ourselves to our communities, to our families, to our loved ones, to our congregations, to our nation, to our world, to our species, to our planet.  

Lifted by Jesus we will not “do church” in the culture’s terms, which draws dividing lines and builds walls that isolate and vilify (the walls we build here are only for sheltering, educating, nurturing, and feeding -- yes, unlike the culture, we will commit to one another despite our differences -- that’s what happens when Jesus raises us and hands us over to one another.  

And specifically, he hands us over to our mothers.  That is, Jesus reconnects us to where we came from, to the matriarchs of our lives, the ones who gave us birth.  Where did you come from?  Did you come from creativity but somewhere you hit a wall?  Did you come from hope but somewhere got cut off?  Did you come from joy but lost your way?  Creativity and hope and joy can be the widows in our culture can't they (the ones with no voice)?  [pause]  And yet we are raised and handed over to them this day.  We are reconnected with God and with the earth.  We are reconnected with one another in these simple words: “Stop your crying and get up.”  God has indeed looked favorably on us, this day and always.  AMEN.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

January 29 -- Jesus Heals on the Sabbath

Well, I did something this week, that I haven’t done for a long, long time:  I pulled out my old, dusty New Testament notes from seminary!  I sneezed as I opened the old, black binder that sits under my desk, and opened up to the section on the Gospel of Luke -- just to see what what was there…

My professor, David Rhoads -- maybe I’ve shared this before -- was the reason I went to Chicago for seminary.  His groundbreaking work on “narrative criticism” as a mode of studying the bible, his emphasis on and mastery of memorizing entire books of scripture, and his central theology that was rooted in a cosmic, deeply ecological understanding of God’s grace and presence, was so enlightening and formative for me.  One day he brought his African American adopted grand-daughter with him to class and that’s where I got the idea of blessing our children -- and having them bless us -- at bed time with the sign of the cross.  His New Testament class was one of the best classes I took in those fantastic 4 years of training...and that’s saying a lot!  

So I wanted to share with you this evening/morning what he taught me was the main theme for the Gospel of Luke, which I believe helps us get into this text for today.  When we understand the wider theme at work, it sheds great light on the specific story.  So put your bible study hats on with me for a moment.  (Also fun to take you with me back to seminary…)

Dr. Rhoads subtitles the Gospel of Luke: Society with Mercy.  Mercy is at the heart and center of Luke’s gospel.  He lays out a stark comparison motif that runs throughtout Luke of a society without mercy vs. a society with mercy.

So just to run through his list, and I think you’ll get the drift…

St. Luke, depicted with the ox, when I visited
Cathedral in Antwerp, Belgium in 2015
In a society without mercy, there is oppression (in Luke’s Gospel). In a society with mercy, there is compassion.

In a society without mercy, there are inequities in wealth/power/status (in Luke’s Gospel). In a society with mercy, everyone is equal.  (Zaccheus: Salvation/healing is actually defined as the ‘giving up of wealth’!)

In a society without mercy, “sinners” are excluded (in Luke’s Gospel). In a society with mercy, the “lost” are found and forgiven and included. (Prodigal, shepherds)

In a society without mercy, people love and hoard wealth (in Luke’s Gospel). In a society with mercy, people give to the poor. (Rich man who built another barn.)

In a society without mercy, the poor and the ill are neglected (in Luke’s Gospel). In a society with mercy, the poor and the ill are cared for.  (*our lesson here in Chapter 6*).

In a society without mercy, one puts human things before God. In a society with mercy, one puts God first.  (shepherds: “Let the angels watch them!” Leaving their nets.)

In a society without mercy, you exalt yourself (in Luke’s Gospel). In a society with mercy, you humble yourself.  (Impenitent Pharisee: “I thank God I’m not like the others.”)

In a society without mercy, there is hardness of heart (in Luke’s Gospel). In a society with mercy, one repents and is forgiven. (Zaccheus comes to mind again!  “Anyone I’ve defrauded, I’ll pay back 4x as much”.)

In a society without mercy, one justifies their own ways (often the Pharisees in Luke’s Gospel).  In a society with mercy, one only justifies God’s compassionate ways.  

Finally, in a society without mercy, one only seeks his/her own interests (in Luke’s Gospel). In a society with mercy, one is empowered by the Spirit for others.  (Zechariah) 

So you see the pattern?  Story after story in Luke can be seen through this lens of starting with a society without mercy, and then Jesus is the primary agent for ushering in a society with mercy.  Mary’s song, the Magnificat, sets the tone...Jesus unrolling the scrolls, repeats that.  And so on...

Dr. Rhoads said that reading Luke, you’ll become “either Pentecostal or political”.  Either way the Spirit’s moving!

So let’s come back to this text today/this evening:  With this awareness of “society without mercy --> society with mercy”.

Jesus feeds the hungry on one Sabbath, heals the sick on another.  Fits right in, right?  Mercy, compassion, justice, peace, love over-rides legalism.  Society with mercy is where Jesus always takes us in Luke...according to the brilliant Dr. Rhoads.
Friends in Christ -- Could Jesus be calling us to “stretch out our hands” too?  I love that scene.  “‘Stretch out your hand’.  He did so and his hand was restored.”  And the Sabbath is redefined as a day of healing and grace rather than just militant rule-following.

Stretch out your hands, and be healed.  Jesus says this to us too.  And there are all kinds of ways that we stretch out our hands in healing:  One way is to literally stretch.  Stretch out.  Take a rest, even a nap.  Stop working.  Yes!  It feels so prophetic and radical, saying that in our culture!  But that’s because for some reason, in our culture, we’ve made the Sabbath commandment ok to break all we want.  But Jesus is lord of the Sabbath, and we’ve got to make time to  stop.  Recreate.  Relax.  E. Peterson: “Praying and playing.”  Stretch out your hand.

But six days shall you labor in God’s fields, too.  Six days shall we stretch out our hands in healing in other ways.  

Open up your hands:  I want to say a prayer of blessing over our hands --

God, make our hands agents of your mercy and compassion, for our hands belong to you.  Heal our hands from selfish endeavors.  Cast away all the evil deeds of our hands, forgive us for all the ways we’ve used our hands to harm other people, other animals, and even the planet itself, for all the ways our hands have helped foster merciless societies.  Forgive our withered hands.  // Take our hands, now, gracious God and cleanse them.  Heal our hands, as you did long ago.  Where there is oppression, use our hands to bring compassion.  Where there is inequity in power and status, use our hands for sharing and working for equality for all.  Where outsiders are excluded, use our hands to welcome them.  Where money is hoarded and worshiped, use our hands for sharing and giving to the poor.  Where human things come first and seem most important, help our hands to let go.  When we exalt ourselves, use our hands for acts of humility.  And when we seek our own interests first and foremost, bless our hands, empower our hands, fill our hands through the Holy Spirit to be about the work of putting others first, reaching out, holding and nurturing the stranger, the alien, the lost, the forsaken, the hungry, the tired, the little ones, the sinners...even the enemy.  
[I invite you to join hands and let’s conclude as you repeat after me...]  
Loving God / God of grace / Make our hands / agents of your mercy / from this day on.  AMEN.  

Pentecostal or political.  Either way the Spirit’s moving!  AMEN.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

January 22 -- Great Catch of Fish

Sisters and brothers in Christ, 

Look at what God can do when we are tired!

What strikes me about this fantastic lesson of Jesus calling his disciples is that he does it in the morning after a sleepless, fruitless, hopeless night!  

Peter was ready to pack up and go home -- no energy, no fish, no hope -- and that’s precisely when Christ shows up, sends him back out, and calls him into new mission fields.

Look at what God can do when we are tired!

At the end of our rope, without direction or energy -- hopeless, fruitless, even sleepless.  That’s precisely when Christ shows up, sends us back out and into new mission fields.

This is our God.

So what task is God calling you into now?  [pause] No matter your age.  No matter your status, no matter how long you’ve been “at this” already.  Now is when Christ appears in your midst and says, “Well, try this: go deeper” and “Follow me”.

Jesus meets us in our grayness, when the clouds are heavy, and the days and the years have been long, just as we’re about throw in the towel, give up, sell out, and isolate ourselves from others.  Just as we’re about to close the door and blow out the candle, Jesus says, “Hey, go back out there, go deeper.”
This has been seen as a text about vocation.  Luther taught that we all have a vocation.  Theologian Frederick Buechner said that vocation is a term for that intersection... 
“where our deep gladness meets the world's deep need.” x2  Go deeper, Jesus says.
But sometimes our great passions are squelched:  The saddest stories, I think, are the stories of loved ones in my life, who never followed their deep gladness (perhaps their vocations) because someone told them it was stupid, or a waste of time, or too daunting a task for them to ever realize such a goal or a calling.  Had a friend in college who wanted to study marine biology, but her parents wanted her to be practical and study business.  Or another family member who always wanted to be a nurse and take care of sick children, but was even mocked by her husband, saying that her “dream” was too expensive, and she’d never be able to pass the classes.  Passions, deep gladness, even callings: squelched.
Friends, Christ finds us, just as he found Peter, in that moment of “squelch”.  I bet Peter was feeling pretty squelched/empty, when Christ showed up and filled his nets.  Christ is our hope.  Jesus sends us and calls us to try again...and even to try something new.

“Try going deeper,” Jesus says.  When we go deeper, we discover even more...and find ourselves on a path that we never dreamed. 

Look at what God can do when we are tired!    

See, it’s not just about “following our dreams” -- those might be well and good, or they might be misguided: vocation is about God’s voice.  The word literally means “calling” (from voco, vocare = “to call” in Latin).  There’s got to be a caller,  directing us, nudging us, beckoning us.  
So who’s doing the calling?  Our own hearts?  Our parents?  Our legislators and recruiters?  Our friends?  No Christ Jesus is the one who calls us.  And he’s not just saying, “Hey, whatever you want…what ever you need...just follow your passion...” 

Rather, just like in our passage for today, Jesus is asking us to look at something new, to wake up -- from our drowsiness, fatigue and even despair -- to tasks we never even imagined.

It’s not about “following our dreams”; it’s about following God’s dream.  Going deeper.  Discovering and living into God’s dream.  We are called into that profound, challenging, joy-filled -- and at the same time life-threatening -- call to follow Jesus.  

Catching fish was a little dangerous, catching people?  That is, preaching the Gospel?  Proclaiming release to those who are locked up in all kinds of ways?  Recovery of sight to those who can’t see clearly?  Forgiveness to those who deem themselves unforgivable?...all those things that Jesus laid out in his “Inaugural Address” last Sunday?   Catching fish is a little dangerous, catching people?:  you might wind up like John the Baptist…or Jesus himself.  Going deeper is not without risk.  (Peter executed in Rome.  South gate-Appian Way-Quo Vadis.)

And yet, this may be where Christ calls you, even this day! -- into a deeper life, a fuller love, a complete vocation, God’s dream...not just yours.  And in that is the greatest joy!  (Can you imagine if Peter never left his nets?  What he would have missed?)

This is a good day, it is a good week, it is a hopeful moment, for Christ himself stands on the shore of our lives and bids us come and follow, let go, and go even deeper.  

Today is a good day for Christ Jesus stays with us, fills our nets...and loves us into a new and even more expansive vocation.  Jesus loves us into God’s dream!  AMEN.  

Sunday, January 15, 2017

January 15 -- Sermon at Nazareth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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