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...

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Eve 2010

iIt’s hard to see in the driving rain. Why bother? Giant drops fall from the sky and we can barely even open our eyes in the driving rain. We duck our heads, pull our hoods, and look down at our wet-shoes-getting-wetter in the puddles. And it’s tempting to just go back inside. It’s hard to see in the driving rain.
Hard to drive too. Even when we’re covered and dry in the car, the roads are slick, the visibility is cut way down. The wipers squeak irritatingly across the windshield, and we can’t even hear our own thoughts with the pounding of the driving rain all around. “What if I get stranded, what if I start to slide?” we worry in the driving rain. Then you have to get out when you get to wherever you’re going, and splash through the parking lot or down a sidewalk, risking a slip or a drop. Who wants to drive in the driving rain?
I wonder if it was raining the night Jesus was born? Maybe that’s why there was no room anywhere, everyone crammed in the inns. Everyone in, except out in the stable. I wonder if the stable animals were wet, with that wet smell of animal smell? I wonder if the shepherds had to duck for shelter from the driving rain while they watched their sheep. We know it was a dry climate, but we also know that everything was different that night. Maybe it was driving rain…
The rain has a way of getting us down. Cloudy and cold. A good description of this whole season in many ways. Even in our parties and songs and gifts and attempts at good cheer. The visibility is pretty low. We have no idea how things will turn out in 2011. The roads are slick. And the wipers of the raindrops—you know, all those people who just force the smile and demand positive thinking only—are like an irritating windshield wiper helping for a moment indeed, but almost in vain, as the huge drops come back as soon as the squeaking stops. We duck our heads and look down at our wet-shoes-getting-wetter in the puddles of 2010. And it’s tempting to just “go back in”—into ourselves, into our circles, into our gated and locked and safe little worlds…because it’s hard to see in the driving rain.
But if it was raining the night Mary and Joseph were sent out to the stable, the rain surely didn’t stop the Child from being born. It didn’t stop the angels from singing, even if their wings were soaked, it didn’t stop the shepherds from hearing and going, even if their feet were freezing and their cloaks were heavy.
When it rains, you have to squint, you have to work to see. And when you have to work you become stronger. In the rain, your senses on high alert so you don’t slip or slide. We hang onto our bags extra tight, we get off the phone and pay attention to the road, we think ahead and wear extra layers.
We’ll never know if the first Christmas came in the rain, but we know that Christmas 2010 comes in the rain. Even if it stopped literally raining this week, the rain keeps falling, if we’re honest. Even as we find peace in this place for a moment, the conflicts pour on around us. Many homes are unsafe, many spouses are angry, many children are afraid. Innocent blood washes down the gutters of our world, even this holy night. Some of our own members sit in lonely beds, wondering if they’ll live to see another Christmas on this earth. Many families have wrung out the last of their savings on this “joyous” occasion, and are wondering how they’ll get through then next month. The road is slippery, as the storms rage on, and it’s hard to see in the driving rain.
But the hearers and the sharers of God’s unstoppable Good News are not deterred by their impaired sight in the driving rain. We sing on, even if we can’t see so well, even if our wings are soaked. We strain our ears to hear through all the noise, all the drip-drops of false advertising and merchandising and empty promises of “real happiness.” “No,” we confess, “Those things won’t weather the storm.”
So we trudge, having heard, through the muck and the mire, like the shepherds, from one strange, soppy spot to another: from the cold, dark valley, to the unseemly feeding trough of an ox. Our garments, heavy with storm water and smelly with animal smell. This has not been an easy road to follow. We can barely find the stable, and can hardly believe what we’ve just heard, but we still go. And here we are in Bethlehem, the House of Bread, its meaning in Hebrew. To think that we would find ourselves in this damp stable, leaks in the roof, spots on the floor…
[pause] And still it is beautiful. Still there is joy. Still the flicker of a light shines in the darkness. For wrapped in scratchy bands, held close to his mother’s breast, is a child. A new born child peaks through the pain!
The cry of new birth, the glimpse of hope. For from this child comes—not armed forces or smooth, political persuasions—but the redemption of our fallen world, the healing of our selfish hearts, the peace of God. From this little child, that we inch closer to see in a dripping stable, squinting through the darkness of our lives, comes the light of life. Who calms every storm, who heals every ill, who releases every sin-locked captive, who breaths every peace, and grants every grace. [pause]
And when the storms finally pass and the sun finally stretches out across the valley to warm the earth and dry our tears, we will see – maybe not even in this life, but – we will see a glorious new growth. The light green shoots across the fertile ground, the colorful blossoms, the rivers that flow, the trees that wave in the wind, the jagged edges smoothed, the friend and foe alike, gathered for stew over a common fire, weapons melted, condolences offered, laughter and wine, song and dance. We shall see that the angel chorus is true, “Peace upon the earth, good will to all!”
It’s hard to see in the driving rain, but the storms will pass, Christ has come. AMEN.

Monday, December 20, 2010

December 19 -- 4th Sunday of Advent

“You are Mary: You carry Jesus inside of you. You are Joseph: You are open and ready for what God makes possible.”
Grace to you and peace from God, who comes to us in peace. AMEN.
This past Thursday…[Ms. Lidia’s reading of Micah at the Preschool Family Christmas Chapel service: “There is hope! Live with hope you people of Bethlehem!”]
Ms. Lidia is Mary: She carries Jesus inside of her. She is Joseph: she is open and ready for what God makes possible. In the midst of so much pain and hardship—parents of preschool children know about that, others too: those mourning, the lonely, the sick, the lost, the depressed, the confused, the frightened all know. So to stand up in the face of all that, and proclaim as she did with such passion, joy and life (her inflection burned into my memory) that “there is hope, live with hope you people of Bethlehem” strikes me as an embodiment of this idea: that you too are Mary, you carry the spark of the divine inside of you. You are Joseph, you remain open and ready for what God makes possible.
Joseph was a good man. Our gospel text today says that he was a righteous man. If you can stomach the first 17 verses of Matthew you will see that he is a very Jewish man. And yet he doesn’t do what the Bible tells him to do. He has the courage to part ways with Scripture, to break the law, which says he should take part in stoning his pregnant fiancĂ©. Sounds like an obvious moment for you and for me to take scripture seriously but not literally, but it wasn’t so easy for Joseph. He was terrified, I’m sure. There were pressures all around him. Chaos and confusion. What would you say—particularly those of you who work with teenagers and young adults--what would you say if a young man came into your office, dropped his head in his hands and said, “I’m engaged to be married, but my girlfriend is pregnant, and I know it’s not mine”? You probably wouldn’t say, let’s take her out back and do what the Bible says…but you might very well advise him to proceed with caution, and think through very seriously with him the option of ending this relationship. As a pastor, I would pray with him for clarity. [pause]
You know, it’s funny how Advent starts with a message, “WAKE UP” and ends with the image (even made the cover of the bulletin!) of sleep. Joseph, Jesus’ earthly father, asleep! Both are so important for us as Jesus-followers, as Christians – both waking and sleeping.
One prayer we might say for the young man whose girlfriend is pregnant is that he might…simply…get some good rest in the midst of all the chaos swirling. That’s a good prayer for all of us this busy week. (You are Joseph, remember.) “Get some good rest,” even if that means during the night, when we normally sleep. May your sleep be deep and restore you. [pause]
I never knew it until I was about 10. We were on vacation all sharing the same motel room, somewhere in Alabama off I-10, on our way to Disney World, my 2 brothers and my 2 parents, and when everything finally got quiet at about 10:30, and the lights went out, I heard Mom and Dad softly saying a prayer in unison: We give you thanks heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ your dear Son, that you have graciously protected me today. I ask you to forgive me all my sins, where I have done wrong, and graciously protect me tonight. Into your hands I commend myself, my body, my soul, and all that is mine. Let your holy angel be with me, so that the wicked foe may have no power over me. AMEN. I later learned that this is Luther’s “Prayer at the End of the Day.” And that they say if every night, just as Luther once taught. My parents and my grandparents have said this every night of their marriage, even over the phone when they are apart.
I wonder if Joseph said a prayer something like this before he fell asleep that great night.
For God’s holy angel was in fact over him, Matthew tells us. God’s holy angel spoke to him those words that we all long to hear: “DO NOT BE AFRAID.”
Could our Good News, our Gospel message this week actually be that God calls us to sleep, so that we might get away from all the distractions of our daily lives, and hear the angel’s words that God is longing to share with this whole world? “DO NOT BE AFRAID.”
As we hear those worlds in the daytime they may sound like nothing more than a great but ancient mantra of Bible times (41+ in OT, 22 in NT). But God is offering us, for we are Joseph, the words “do not be afraid” to become part of our being, part of our fabric, part of our DNA. And sometimes it doesn’t get “into our bones” until we get to sleep, calming our bodies so that God can sink in. Some dreams change us forever.
And, when we go to sleep, as Joseph did, as we do, we allow God to be God. When we’re awake, we’re active, in charge, perhaps even unable and unwilling to let God interfere. But sleep is the openness to God’s handiwork in the world in our hearts. We completely surrender our potential and allow God to be God. We are Joseph. “Into your hands I commend myself, my body, my soul and all that is mine.” Luther prays the scripture, Jesus’ final words become ours too.
“We are Joseph: We are open and ready for what God makes possible. [pause] We are Mary: We carry Jesus inside of us.” Advent is not about waiting for Jesus to come, as if he’s not here already. Advent is both a mediation on and a celebration of his arrival – which has happened already (as we remember the sacred stories of his birth), which is happening right now—for we are cleansed with Holy Spirit water, we are stuffed with Jesus in this meal, and we are rolled up in the pages of scripture, and which will happen, when he comes again to judge the world in righteousness. Do not be afraid, this day, this night, this crazy week, this life Josephs, for, Mary’s, even while you wait, you carry Jesus with you, in you, and you will forevermore. AMEN.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

December 12 -- 3rd Sunday of Advent

Grace to you and peace from God whose advent we celebrate this season, from Jesus who makes the blind to see, the lame to walk, and who brings good news to the poor, and from the Holy Spirit who invites us into this patient, “desert-blossom living.” AMEN.
Don’t you just love John the Baptist? The fiery wilderness prophet, who last week we heard ate locusts and wild honey, who shouted “Repent, prepare the way of the Lord—he’s so amazing I’m not even worthy to carry his sandals,” is now locked up in prison and wondering about Jesus, “Are you the one to come or shall we wait for another?” What a change in tone from the bold, assured Baptizer that we heard a week ago.
I love John the Baptist’s varying tones because I can relate: one minute I might be confident and more joyous than ever (about life, about faith, about decisions I’ve made)…and the next, usually in the wake of a disaster, my assurance is dashed, and I find myself, like John, sitting in prison unable to see the good out there…held my own prison of doubt, depression or disappointment. “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we wait for another?”
December can be both a season that we love: the decorations, the music, the get-togethers, the gifts…and on the other hand, this can be a season of real disappointment. [pause] The highs and the lows are at an extreme this time of year (and we kind of “catch that” with our Advent texts, I think). “He shall be called wonderful, counselor, the prince of peace.” “Wait a minute, maybe he’s not the One?” It’s sky high, or it’s rock bottom.
I just think about the afternoon of Christmas Day, when all the excitement is gone and the wrapping paper is shredded all over the living room floor. In some cases, the novelty and euphoria of the new stuff has already worn off, and it’s back to reality. “Are you the one who is to come or are we to wait for another?”
It’s easy to say this about a baby king, too, who, like so many other things in our life, doesn’t turn out the way we wanted. “I thought we were going to get everything we wanted if we confessed and believed hard enough in you, Jesus!” What a disappointment, what a rip-off. [pause] It’s kind of like the Gospel text the Sunday after Christmas Day. Do you know what it is? Herod slaughtering the children. “Disappointment” is horrific understatement for that story. One day after “all is calm, all is bright,” the sounds of innocent young lives being taken in the street, come dripping from the pages of our lectionary. Isn’t that awful?
Or is it honest? It’s like the fights that can ensue in our own families during the “most wonderful time of the year,” the wars—between nations, between peoples—picking up right where they left off. Christmas Eve is really more like a quick rest and patch-up in corner of the boxing ring. That is awful but it’s also honest.
John the Baptist identifies something that we will find too, if we haven’t already: this holy child, about to be unwrapped, does not make things easier—he makes things more real, Jesus makes us more real. And this is the true gift of his presence, his real presence. In the gift of the Christ child, our eyes and ears are opened to hear the cries of children who are hurting and even dying, to hear the longings of widows, to hear the anger of soldiers, the fears of the unemployed, the apathy of the our neighbors. Jesus makes us more real, which means more in-touch, less oblivious. And Jesus’ faithful servants model for us the real doubt and real disappointment that comes with that. Modern day example: Mother Theresa. After this beloved Christ-follower’s death, letters were found, piles of letters that exposed for the world to comment on, her real doubt and disappointment…
One quote from 1979: “Jesus has a very special love for you. As for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear.”
Sounds like John that Baptist in prison a little. That was 1979 – how much good did she do after that, despite that? Maybe you remember when this story broke a few years ago. There was a very shocking tone to this story in the media, but I remember a mentor of mine receiving the news of Theresa’s “crisis of faith” as Time called it, as a welcome relief. “What do ya know,” my friend said, “Mother Theresa’s a human being.” (Come Be My Light, some kickin’ Advent reading, I imagine)
Here’s the real joy of this season: Christ’s divinity, through the incarnation, realizes our humanity.
In other words, because of Christ’s advent—Christ’s coming to earth to dwell among us, and in us (through holy water and holy meal), because of Christ’s in-carnation—we become the most real “humans being,” our humanity is real-ized. Perfectly imperfect humans we become. A welcome relief: thank, God (in this time of Christmas cards and letters that make everyone look and sound so perfect…) Because of Christ’s advent, we are free to be wounded healers, honest witness bear-ers to the resurrection all around us, despite our emptiness-es – the lame walk, the blind see, the deaf hear. What are your resurrection stories, Christ-followers? [pause] The stories of people beginning to see life in a new way after being blinded by fear for so many years – the stories of the lame, those bent over or held under a yolk of oppression for generations, finally standing up for themselves and walking tall and strong – the stories of those who have always been deaf to the saving news of Jesus Christ, but then something clicks and they finally hear it, the deaf finally hear, “God is love, and that love, that grace, never leaves us.” Some spend nearly entire lifetimes in our churches, but remain deaf to that good news…and some finally hear it.
“Go and tell John, what you hear and see, the blind receive their sight, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”
The Christ followers live in and see in this world differently. We see the reality, and we still see the resurrection. We see the deserts, we know the deserts, and we still see the blossoms.
The true joy of this season cannot be captured in the feelings of one high energy morning, or one beautiful melodic night: it is a process, like flowers blooming in the desert. It doesn’t happen overnight. Farmers know about process. We Christ-farmers wait patiently, for the precious yield, even as we celebrate the yield we already have. Returning to scripture, being shaped by that Word over the years, while celebrating the gift of God’s real presence all the while, and finally trusting that the full yield, the fulfillment will come at last. The full rains will come, the blossoms will break forth. The dry places will be drenched. The dark places will be flooded with light…and the God of love and grace and peace will pour out over us and this entire universe!
We continue to wait. But our waiting will not be in vain, for we know how the story ends, and we wait with joy, as we wait with Christ, who still dwells with us now and forevermore. AMEN.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

December 5 Sermon on John the Baptist

Here is a short conversation you would have heard in our home yesterday afternoon:
“Micah, it’s time for your nap. Now I don’t want any fussing, I want you to go to your room and rest for one hour.”
[Calmly] “Daddy, I will always love you, but I don’t like your behavior right now.” [pause]
At Bible study on Monday night, we tried to think of modern-day John the Baptists…
And one suggestion that was made, was that now, there’s nothing new about a being a little crazy living out in the wilderness and shouting strange admonitions. This person suggested that we may do well to look, not to the big sensationalists to point us to Jesus, but rather to the smaller ones. The every-day ones. Perhaps to our children.
I was reminded of this fascinating idea yesterday when Micah said to me, “I love you, but right now I don’t like your behavior.” A little John-the-Baptisty, I think?
The context is different, of course, but Micah’s words—after an initial chuckle—got me thinking about our texts for this Sunday…not just the Gospel text, but all of them.
I believe that, “I love you, I just don’t like your behavior right now” is actually a wonderful summation of Isaiah, Romans, the Psalms and Matthew. And it is an important—and somewhat jolting—thing to hear in this season of Advent. “Excuse me?” kind of like I responded to Micah.
“I just don’t like your behavior right now” sounds particularly like John the Baptist, only he would say/yell, “Repent!”
…because “repent!” doesn’t mean “feel bad” or “live like there’s a cloud over your head”. ([depressed] “you’re right, I’m a sinner.”)
“Repent,” when John the Baptist decrees it in Matthew, means to “bear fruit.” This is a theme throughout the book of Matthew…this is a foretaste of Jesus’ core message. “Bear fruit worthy of repentance,” says the Baptizer. “Let me see how you’ve changed by your words and your actions…i.e. by your behavior.”
I’m learning more about fruit trees and grape vines living in Southern California. Before I would have thought that to go into the back yard or the vineyard with a clipper was just evil. But these things must take place. John says that Jesus will separate the wheat and the chaff with a winnowing fork. This is not evil or threatening, it’s just what needs to happen. And we’ve got both in us – wheat and chaff.
Advent is the season for clearing out—contrary to what we might see advertized all around us: “stalk up!” We can/should try our best to do the clearing, but we fall short. God comes to us this Advent season, “the Kingdom of heaven has come near [not will come near],” to clear away all the extra in our lives – all the overgrowth, chaff, the junk. What’s blocking you up, the cheese? What cataracts are clouding Isaiah’s vision?
Wolf lying down with the lamb – Nancy Pelosi celebrating Christmas dinner with Sarah Palin. The Limbaughs and the Obamas exchanging gifts. Anti-abortion and pro-choice activists singing carols to the elderly. Atheists and Catholics serving soup to the needy. Muslims and Christians consoling one another at the graveside of a shared friend. Visions of peace, friends! God comes to clear our eyes at last to “see it together.” Even with all physical evidence to the contrary. In our baptisms we are given the eyes of Isaiah, not the physical eyes: the spiritual eyes, the Gospel lenses!
Kelson is receiving the gift of sight today. We have that gift as people of God. Isaiah wasn’t writing, the “wolf shall lie down with the lamb” during a time of prosperity and peace. He wasn’t writing what he saw with his physical eyes. The Assyrians where literally burning, pillaging, killing his people and destroying his beloved countryside of Palestine! He probably wrote this text with the sound shrieking in the distance, but not so far away. [pause]
Now we read these texts today with pain, not so far away. With struggles, bitterness, violence, sorrow, both in our worlds and in our hearts. And yet God chooses to enter this world and our hearts anyway. God invites us this Second Sunday of Advent to start clearing away the overgrowth [pause], using John the Baptist, the man who lived on nothing much, to inspire (breathe life into) our clearing. “Repent, clear away, change your behavior, for the God is here to do the rest.”
The rest? One commentator interestingly points out, that John the Baptist’s sermon, that we hear today, is not God’s entire sermon. Maybe at the end of the reading I should have said, “This is half of the Gospel of the Lord.” One of the reasons I was so struck by what my son said yesterday, is that he first said, “I love you.” It all starts with “I love you.” God doesn’t grant us forgiveness and salvation after we’ve changed our behavior, done our chores. It’s not like the conditions we set with our children: “When you’ve finished cleaning your room, then we can read a book together.” God says, “I love you” first. This is why we baptize babies. It’s a visual for us all that God says, “I love you” first, before we have anything to say about it.
God comes to us and says to us, I love you, first. That love casts out sin, clears away our eyes and our hearts. And now we bear fruit worthy of repentance. Thanks be to God. AMEN.