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...

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Christmas Day 2011

Well last night, we heard the familiar Christmas story from Luke, and it kind of goes down like Christmas butter. Familiar and tasty. Perfect for what we need on our cozy evening.
Now this Christmas Day we get some meat from the Gospel of John. We kind of have to put on our thinking caps to conceptualize what John is talking about – the Word became Flesh and dwelt among us. Seems pretty esoteric, man! The Word is Christ, and Christ is the light of the world, who was in the beginning. This passage that we read here on Christmas Day, is where all the meat, about who Jesus is and what Christians believe about him, comes from!
Jesus is God. Jesus was in the beginning. John has us start envisioning Jesus present at the creation story! Not just God, the Father, but God the Son, God the Holy Spirit – all present creating the world, bringing the world into being, and giving light to the world.
Christmas is a festival of lights. Pagan religions celebrate a festival of lights too at the winter solstice, which is roughly December 18-23, because in the Northern Hemisphere, the world is darker at this time, especially way up north. And on those deep, dark days of winter, there are some moments there where Northern farmers, for centuries, who depend on the light for their daily income, longingly wondering if the sun will ever come back to shine on their crops. And the ancient pagan religions began to hold celebrations, that started in the darkness. And then of course, when the light returned, as it always did, it was time to party!
And they would bring out greenery, pine trees, holiday (holly day) trees, with red holly berries, and they would light candles as symbolic and as celebration of the light of the Sun, s-u-n, which had finally returned after the Longest Night of the year.
When Heather and I were in Ireland last February visiting my brother Tim and his wife Caitriona, we toured an ancient Passage Tomb at a place called Newgrange, attributed to such pagan religious groups that probably held such festivals. This particular site dated back to 3200 B.C.! I mean, that’s as old, some say older than the pyramids in Egypt!
It was quite amazing the entrance was this narrow door that faced the rising sun. You had to duck your head to get in, then walk about 100 feet through this tunnel, until you got to this chamber room that was about a quarter of the size of our sanctuary here. Archeologists can only speculate about what exactly that room was used for. But it had to be somehow religious. And the amazing thing was that every year, on the winter solstice, where the sun is lined up with the earth just so, light shines down that narrow passage way and lights up the entire chamber. It only lasts for 17 minutes. And only so many people can fit in that chamber. Today, the people of Ireland enter their names into a lottery in order to be chosen to experience this lighting of the chamber at Newgrange. It’s apparently quite spectacular.
Today I think we take images of light and dark for granted, because of our knowledge of science and our readily available electricity.
But even this past year here in San Diego…remember that one night when our power went out? I’m thankful for that night for our purposes here today because…
We get just a little taste of the fear and anxiety the ancients must have experienced in the dark. No flashlights, or iPod apps, and in damp places even a challenge to get a fire light going…
And these types of celebrations didn’t just happen in Ireland or Northern Europe. They differed obviously from region to region throughout the Northern hemisphere, but the sun, s-u-n, like water is/was the most powerful universal life-force, that was celebrated and reverenced everywhere.
Christians in the 4th century started to morph and appropriate those pagan winter festivals of light and dark as a fitting celebration time for Christ’s birth. They had the story, so when to share that story... Fascinating! These are the roots of our traditions – they come out of these seemingly simple, yet quite profound celebrations about darkness and light. Christians too then, would bring out evergreen trees, and light candles, but they added new layers of meaning to these symbols. Evergreens symbolized the year-round love and presence of God. And candles…and fire…for Christians, they now symbolized the S-o-n of God, not the s-u-n, who was the light of the world. It was Jesus Christ, who warms the earth, who comes among us as flesh and blood, and who lights our way. So what might seem to us as esoteric, dreamy ideas in John’s first verses had powerful flesh and blood resonances with all those early people who heard John’s Gospel.
Think how many heard it and converted to Christianity on the spot because the images were so rich and compelling…and made so much sense.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, we celebrate this DAY Jesus as the light of the world. Just as we can often take for granted the sunlight, so we can also forget at times the light of Christ which brings so much joy to our lives. John says, so much “grace and truth”. Today we pause, and celebrate Jesus – as both tiny baby, born among the poor and the meek (which was more of the emphasis last night), and today, our celebration expands to cosmic proportions as we name and celebrate and give thanks for Jesus, the very light of the universe!
This far-reaching, unconditionally loving God, this Jesus the Christ, who lights and warms the world with love, also reaches out to you this day, offering you, with all the world the ultimate Christmas gift, which is grace and truth, love and forgiveness, the promise of eternal life. This is why the angels sing, “peace on earth”: because God Jesus, the light of the world, the light of life, fills the earth and you and me with that peace, which passes all understanding. That peace is yours this Christmas Day and always. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas Eve 2011

the t

We’ve all got something...something about our life that makes it difficult:
Way over weight. Always too late.
Just lost a spouse. Foreclosed on a house.
Children estranged; in-laws deranged.
No real respect. Childhood neglect.
Can’t find a job; crazy Uncle Bob.
Bad heart and bad back; no good in the sack.
Kids are in trouble. Bills just went double.
Secrets so silent. A dad who was violent.
Never got married. A little too “hairy’d”.
So busy you’re head could almost expload.
Car trouble and stranded in rain on the road.
Can’t beat the recession.
Can’t drug the depression.
Some of us have lots of things. But we’ve all got something. Something in our life that cripples us a little or a lot – a painful memory, a tragic family member, an addiction, or just plain bad luck.
I don’t mean to make light of our problems with a little rhyming, except to point out that we’ve all got them. Even those who might get your jealousy boilers rumbling, those who seem to have it all together, carefree and (the great American word) happy, I am sure they’ve got their issue or issues too. We’ve all got something.
And yet here we sit together, this Christmas Eve 2011. To pause for a moment, to peek through the thicket of our “stuff”, to swim through the kelp of our various unfortunate predicaments, to see if we can see, to hear if we can hear, from this Holy Nativity. Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus. We keep telling the story, even though we’ve perhaps heard it a million times we keep gathering around this story. Why? New insight, just plain old family tradition? Longing for hope and peace in a troubled world, in our troubled lives? Why do we gather around this story?
We strain our eyes and cock our ears on Christmas Eve longing for something. We’re like whales coming up to the surface this time each year, from our deep and crazy lives…coming to the surface for a breath. For something new. The airways open, at least for a few moments, for something new, or at least to reclaim something ancient and good and cosmic as air.
What do you take in, what do you inhale, this year from the little Christ-child, from mother Mary, father Joseph, the shepherds, the innkeeper? Is there anything in this ancient text that can possibly speak to our set of issues, our cast of family characters, our global crises, our own deep senses of loss or fear or despair? Give us something, Jesus, because sometimes we feel like we’re drowning in here…
Well, take a breath, Christmas whales. And remember, first, we’ve all got something. Something causing pain in our lives. Something us that makes me feel different from the rest of you. We can all relate to being out in the cold in some way or another. Which means we’re all feeling out in the cold, out in the sheep field or the stinky stable. There’s a strange comfort to knowing that fact. Suffering—like a blanket tossed over all of us, no matter where we are.
And from under that blanket, that thicket, that ocean of pain—we try to hear and see and breathe this story anew.
What strikes me this year, as I come to the surface as I peer through my own “stuff” to see and hear this holy nativity, is that those characters all had “stuff” too. They all had issues and problems, perhaps even greater than ours:
In the cold, with the sheep.
Poverty runs deep.
Mary afraid and Joseph dismayed.
No room in the inn.
Lives soaked with oppression and sin.
The shepherds were lost,
And alone and forgotten.
The innkeeper so busy,
He missed God’s begotten.
Who was born not over our issues or fears.
Who was born right here with us, our problems are near…
To Christ’s very heart. Like a babe in a blanket.
Jesus wrapped in the cloth of our pain.
Sisters and brothers, some of you Christians, some of you dragged along tonight with your faithful relatives. The heart of the Christmas message here, the heart of the story is that those characters in and around that holy stable of the ancient Mediterranean world, were in just as much need and pain as we characters in and around this modern, 21st century, newly painted, holy stable. And just as Christ came then, Christ comes to us now…JUST AS CHRIST CAME THEN. To share our pain and in fact be swaddled in it, swaddled by our suffering, bands of tear-stained cloth.
Our problems aren’t solved after a magical evening of Christmas worship, our issues run deep. But what we hear tonight—and see, and in a few moments taste—is that our problems and issues, our pains and our fears are shared in Christ, through Christ. And in this deep sharing is the incarnation of God, the imbedding of God’s divinity right smack in the middle of our broken humanity. And Christ doesn’t come for a brief moment, like a whale’s quick visit to the surface. Christ is down in depths of our everyday lives. Showing himself in many and various and sometimes very subtle ways.
For God so dearly loves us and this world, that God chose to become weak and plunge among us, into our oceans of beauty and pain, as vulnerable and as tiny as krill (pause) our God choses to become, in order to BE in our suffering. And to fill us Christmas whales with nourishment. The image is as peacefully as a drifting, feeding whale. Christ feeds us with his own body and blood. It is a strange event. But an offering of peace. For here love is born. And we are made new. AMEN.

Monday, December 19, 2011

December 18 -- Fourth Sunday of Advent

A young girl, maybe 14 or 15 years old. Living in poverty. Some have speculated, but we really don’t know anything about her family or her background. Luke was writing this story down some 70 years later. All we know is that she was young and poor…and her name was Mary.
Matthew’s Gospel doesn’t include this episode that we read today. Matthew’s Gospel is really all about Joseph and his fears. Mary is really more seen in Matthew’s Gospel as a virus, that could get Joseph infected with shame in his community, for she was with child, and it wasn’t his. The angel there, talks Joseph down. Calms him down.
But a different thing is happening here in Luke. Here the angel is lifting Mary up. “Blessed are you, favored are you,” the angel says, lifting up a member of society who is a nobody. Lifting her up by announcing God’s coming-down. And this is the real miracle of this season: that God is choosing to dwell with the poor.
Let me put that in different terms, because I think we can either forget or romanticize what being Mary’s being poor means at this time of year: God is choosing to dwell with the sick, the mentally unstable, the drug-addicted, the jobless, the hopeless, immigrant, the stranger, the rejected, the ridiculed, the voiceless…the totally forgotten. I’m afraid we tend to think of Mary more as a porcelain white immobile doll, a cute, little Precious Moments figurine, rather than a dark-skinned immigrant girl working in a clothing factory, and scratching her head constantly because of the lice she’s got in her hair. Endlessly coughing because of the chemicals and bacteria she’s got in her lungs...and can’t afford to see a doctor. Who wants “that” in their nativity scene holding the baby Jesus?
God does.
That’s the wonder and the hope and love of God in this 4th Sunday of Advent Gospel reading. God’s care for this world is so great, that God chooses a poor, itchy, coughing teenager. (Sometimes I want to throw out all my nativity scenes, and the nativity scenes that are shaping the imaginations of my children, and replace them with a set of outcasts and immigrants, exiles and rejects—all poor, like Mary.)
And we know what’s about to happen to Mary: flash forward about 9 months and she’s about to do what all pregnant women love to do in their 3rd trimester: walk 35 miles only to find there’s no vacancy at any resort or hotel or even the Motel 6. “[They didn’t] keep the light on for [her].” 35 miles—that journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem! That’s like walking from here to the Wild Animal Park in Escondido. Same kind of terrain too…but no cars and no Starbucks at every corner…and no name to the rest of this world at that time. She was only a number, to be counted by the Roman government, with all the rest.
She was a nobody to this world, but to God, she was Mary.
Watch for Christ to come from below, watch for Christ in the least of these, sisters and brothers in Christ, not the greatest. And when Christ peaks out from amongst the poor and hurting in our lives and in our world, then together let us bear witness to that tiny Christ. Sometimes we’re Mary, in this story, and sometimes we’re the angel, bearing witness, announcing, a Christ among the least of these.
This final week of Advent and this Christmas season, may we joyfully bear witness to Christ for a world that too often has not heard this good news—that God is incarnate with pain and poverty.
Are you hurting in any way? Broken by tragedy, addiction, frustration, or hopelessness? Sometimes we’re the angel in this story, bearing witness for others, and sometimes we’re Mary—broken or outcast ourselves.
Here’s where it hits home: God is not just stooping down from on high, with a pat on our heads and a kind word: “Ah, you poor little thing.” No, God is growing inside the “poor little thing.” Blessed are you, favored one, God says. (“Our God becomes small.” Martin Luther’s courageous statement, amid a church and a state that had made God into a golden image.)
You are Mary, through Christ’s death and resurrection, through the Holy Spirit’s infusion in your baptism and this Holy Meal. You are Mary, both women and men – pregnant with the divine to share with a world in need. You are Mary, sisters and brothers bearing Christ, lifted this day by a God whose name is love. Named. Marked. Overshadowed by the grace of the Creator of the stars of night. You are Mary, hurting and yet filled with hope. You are Mary, forgiven and freed. Open once again, with all evidence to the contrary, open to the radical voice of God, which comes in many and mysterious ways. You are Mary, pregnant with God, who is at the center of your pain, and the center of your joy. You are pregnant with God who is at your center. You are Mary. AMEN.

Monday, December 12, 2011

December 11 -- Third Sunday of Advent

I am afraid that any words I have for you today may be inconsequential. That’s my fear.
This time of the year, I feel like – and I wonder if the church in general feels like – a little tiny mouse crawling up into this pulpit, with a word from Scripture, a word from God.
There are just so many voices around us right now. I imagine we’ve got all voices in our heads right now – maybe the Christmas jingle song you heard in the car on your way here, maybe it’s perturbing question your mother or your friend asked you about the party next week, maybe it’s the last minute deal you heard about and keep mulling over, if you should go buy it or not “before time runs out”, maybe it’s the forecast of the games that are on later today (Chargers-Bills, Raiders-Packers), maybe its your own voice running through all the things that need to get done before the guests start arriving. Maybe somebody here said something to you when you came in, and it’s just sticking with you. Maybe there’s a baby or a small child crying – those distractions that must be attended to. What is distracting you from hearing and trusting a word from God this morning? (I can identify with most of those examples.)
The strong voices of the Advent prophets – Isaiah and John the Baptist – are more like tiny squeaks these days than booming cries of hope and joy. I read an article this week in the Lutheran magazine with a quote that’s seemed hauntingly true to me:
Today it's easier to imagine Christmas without religion than Christmas without shopping. Consumerism elbows out religion to be first in line at the manger scene.”
This time of year for many is the one of the most depressing, precisely because when joy and hope are forced on them through the tinsel, the presents and song, they/we are made into something in-genuine, something fake…and once again Christ is edged out. And nothing is more depressing than denying where we really are, how we are really feeling. It’s hard to be honest at this time of the year. Some have even told me that they tend to stay away from church, because they think that “that’s where all the happy people go, and I don’t want to be a downer, when I’m supposed to be happy.”
But hear the squeak of the prophet Isaiah, sisters and brothers in Christ…
The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; 2to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor; to comfort all who mourn; 3to provide for those who mourn in Zion — to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, to display his glory.
The messages of Advent, and in a few more weeks Christmas, are precisely for those who are depressed and distracted. And they shall become, squeaks Isaiah strong oaks of righteousness. Jesus doesn’t enter this world, Jesus doesn’t enter our daily lives to say, “Hey, cheer up, sing a little carol with me. C’mon have a cookie.” No, Jesus enters this world to come along side precisely those who are in pain. To comfort precisely those who are mourning, not to leave them out if they opt out, but precisely to come along side them! And that’s not all. Jesus enters this world to bind up the broken hearted. But that’s not all. Jesus enters this world to free precisely all who are in prison – both literally and figuratively. To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor – that means, by the way to forgive us our debts as we forgive those who are indebted to us. (The Year of the Lord’s Favor, the year of Jubilee is described in Leviticus – and it’s where the entire nation, every seven years, forgives the debts owed to it! Can you imagine? There was a campaign for this in the U.S. that I was a part of when we approached the year 2000 to forgive the $52 billion owed to us by foreign countries, particularly poorer nations. But the campaign failed, and our letters and phone calls were rejected by Congress. Now we’re lobbying for others to forgive our debts.) See, it’s like a mouse squeak. But I say, taking my cue from the prophet and the Baptist in the wilderness: “squeak out!” The spirit of the Lord is upon us to keep proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor!
While some of us are cozied up to the warmth fire and family and friends, and are able to give thanks (and we should give thanks where we’re able), Jesus is out in the cold with precisely those who are shivering. Jesus comes precisely to those, for those who are hurting, those who sit in darkness, those who are oppressed in any way, those who are in prison, those who are alone. Jesus is precisely for them.
And we as followers of Jesus are invited precisely during these final Advent days (and beyond) to follow him out into the cold, to join with him precisely for the sake of the other, to reach out, even beyond our own pain…precisely for the other.
That’s the kind of God we have, a God who’s already out there in the cold. I’m hearing news about Christians being “persecuted” at this time of year for not being allowed to say Merry Christmas...and that frankly makes me embarrassed to be Christian, if all we can be known for in the media is a people who are concerned about their own rights. I long for the day when the media identifies Christians as a people who stand up precisely for the rights of others, because that’s the God we follow….the one out in the cold, along side the other. And it’s already happening, even if it’s not widely reported. I saw a picture recently of a group of Christians that had joined hands and made a circle around a group of Muslims who were being beaten for practicing their daily prayer…
This is our God, the one out in the cold, the one in the stable, the one with the animals, the one with the persecuted, the one with the lonely and the lost and the forsaken. The one who is with you, precisely when you are at your lowest. This is our God. Squeak it out, sisters and brothers in Christ, and keep squeaking this Good News right through these joyous and chaotic and tragic days. Keep squeaking and pointing: this is our God. The one who comes in glory comes quiet and ever-present as a mouse, precisely in our darkness and our pain. AMEN.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

December 4 -- 2nd Sunday of Advent

This season of Advent, our texts have never hit me quite like this year. And they way they’ve hit me is that they’ve pointed me more than ever towards peace. Usually this time of the year, I’ve thought mostly about action, during this season of preparation and heightened awareness. I’ve never really contemplated peace during Advent. And with the cultural pressures all around us, about getting the perfect gift for everyone, travel and family dynamics, budget constraints, economy and a general state of crisis in the news and all around us it seems – most of us are probably running a muck thinking anything and everything but peace. But these readings today direct us very clearly, I believe, to see being at peace as preparation…even John the Baptist.
I’ve always just imagined John the Baptist or John the Pointer (the Big Dipper) to just be too emblazoned, too fired up about justice and righteousness to direct me toward peace. He’s always seemed more about changing your life, repenting, turning around by means of action. It’s all previously been about what you’re doing or not doing for that camel-hair-wearing, locust-eating, prophetic voice crying out in the wilderness. Too crazy to teach me about peace! [pause] But I’m hearing him differently this year, especially when we read this text from Mark with the others…
Isaiah – “Comfort, O comfort my people,” says your God -- speaking tenderly, feeding his flock like a shepherd, gathering the lambs in his arms, carrying them, gently leading them. Doesn’t get much more peaceful than a pastoral scene of shepherd and sheep. Lots of time out there in the field, watching the clouds drift. Time to write poetry, sing, pray for the world. What a contrasting image to what most of us are probably experiencing now.
Handel’s Messiah and Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech both draw their inspiration from this passage from Isaiah. “Every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places [pause] plain. Then the glory of Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of YHWH has spoken.” We are invited today to turn around in a new way and listen these texts in the key of PEACE.
And the second lesson from 2nd Peter directs us toward peace, perhaps the most clearly and realistically. Acknowledging the pain and suffering that is so prevalent in our world, 2nd Peter makes it clear that we are in a state of WAITING. [in Chicago on Friday—waiting in the cold for the shuttle and the train]
Even as we wait in the cold, so often it seems, for a new heaven and a new earth, let us together, “beloved, strive to be found by him at peace.” That is the most direct and helpful instruction of our readings: While we long for a better world, a world where God’s justice reigns down—where all are truly welcome, and fed, and loved, where mercury no longer contaminates our water, carbons clog our airways—while we long for a world where all know that they are forgiven and loved by God, who enters into our daily experience and pain—while we wait for a new heaven and a new earth, let us together (because we need each other’s help at this), let us together...as 2nd Peter says...be found by God at peace.
Jesus arrives, no matter what. But if Jesus came back in human form tomorrow, as one single person, tomorrow—if Jesus walked into your home or into your workplace tomorrow—would he find you expecting him peacefully?
The repentance, the metanoia, the 180 that John the Baptist is crying out for is very dynamic. It is a reorientation of how we live our lives. Most of us I imagine, and some of us I know, don’t live lives of peace. We live lives of busyness and chaos, and even violence, flying across the surface.
But what do you sink down into? What is the womb in which you find peace and nourishment and salvation?
I think in terms of pictures:
And during this crazy season, I imagine a precarious ice skater. Not a graceful figure skater, I mean a precarious beginning ice skater, flying by recklessly over the surface of Christmas, wobbly knees, missing so much in the frenzy of busyness. Just skimming the surface. If you blink you miss it. Falling, and getting up and sliding all over. Centered only on self and getting banged up just the same. Unmoored. Slipping. Even dangerous with blades that cut. Blasting over the surface of this season in a mad slide is fun, but only in the way that ice skating is “fun” when you’re a beginner on rented skates. These days of frenzy and fatigue are kind of fun, but at the end we can be a little (or a lot) bruised up, with blisters on our feet from wearing some stiff rented ice skates…and bruises and scratches on our body…from crashing. These days of frenzy and fatigue.
But now I see something different. Now I’m doing a 180. I see that same person, shedding the skates, and instead sinking down into calm waters, not ice water (not melted ice), cool, calm waters, summer pool water. Sinking down under the surface of Christmas, into the deep blues of Advent. Holding your breath. Waiting.
Deep breath, hold it, and drop down under the water. Suspended under water. Have you ever gone under and just let bobbed down there peacefully for a time?
The Baptist points us under the surface, into the deep blues, to do our preparing. The Baptist points us to peace…even now. And there, under the surface, will we be found. And brought back up.
Advent is submergence—sinking down under the waters for a bit. Advent is blue. Advent is peace. AMEN.

Monday, November 28, 2011

November 27 -- 1st Sunday of Advent & Year B!

In a world that is full of sweet familiarity, Advent, the Christian season of Advent, stands guard over the good news of the surprise and disorientation of God’s arrival. (I’d like to invite you to imagine Advent as the season of the Surprise of God.)
How many of us really like surprises? How many of us prefer to know what’s coming? Heather doesn’t like surprises. I learned that early in our marriage. She likes to know what’s coming, so she can make a plan. My brother (very different personality from my spouse), he needs to have a plan too, despite his non-traditional Portland lifestyle. Just needs to know what’s coming. I suppose for nearly all of us, that’s true – for one reason or another. For some, it’s because we just like to be in the know, for others, it’s because there is so much chaos and unknowable, if we can have some sense at least, of what’s coming up, it gives us some comfort and peace.
But the Sundays of Advent—and particularly these readings today—stand in stark contrast to the comfort, the peace, the security of sweet familiarity that we all crave.
Advent, the season that celebrates the Surprise of God!
A season of reflecting on the many and various ways that God comes to us. It’s hard to be surprised anymore about God coming to this earth as a babe in Bethlehem. We’ve heard the story so many times that what was once a huge surprise is now an image in our front yards, on the cover of our Christmas cards, at the center of our worship – a baby, a mother, a shepherd, some angels and some animals. We’ve seen it. Not too much is surprising about it.
Christ invites us to re-focus and re-open our eyes and our lives this Advent season, to brace ourselves for his disorienting and surprising arrival in many and various ways. To watch out. Keep alert. Stay awake. You know never know.
Some of you may have heard this story, but the most surprising encounter I ever had with Jesus was when I traveled to Skid Row in Los Angeles…
“urban walk-about” when I was at California Lutheran University…
Another time was worshiping on a Sunday in a shanty village house somewhere in the middle of Nicaragua. Open windows and doors, dogs and chickens wondering through our “sanctuary”, passing a common cup around at Communion with white upper middle-class college students from St. Louis University and poor survivors of the Sandinista revolution…
Another time, most recently, encountering God unexpectedly was holding my dog as the Humane Society chaplain-nurse put him to sleep. And I wept uncontrollably, and Christ was there.
Doesn’t have to be exotic service opportunities, don’t have to travel across the world, just be awake as you move though your week. God in the everyday arrives. Disorienting us into lives of love and service toward our neighbor.
Christ always arrives, but not always in the way we would expect. Watch out.
And in the meantime, let us wait for God together! Let us take our cues from the prophet Isaiah, who cries out, “O God, that you would tear open the heavens and come.”
Can you identify with Isaiah? O that God would enter clearly and powerfully into our existence! God helped all those people in the past, why can’t God help me? Why can’t God break into our world, our Congress, our hunger and thirst for justice and righteousness? Why can’t God conquer enemies, demolish hatred, end persecution, granting liberty to all of us enslaved by illness, anger, apathy, depression, and pain? O God, that you would tear open the heavens and come! Advent is a season for crying out. Crying out to God. Our anxiety, our fears, our concerns about the future. Get them out there, like Isaiah.
And God will arrive, albeit surprising.
And then, watch out. It’s happening already. May not be how you expected. Look for it, in the poor, in the hungry, in the lost and in your neighbor. Jesus arrives and arrives and arrives, especially when we are at our lowest, our darkest, and are least expecting of God to show up.
And, thanks be to God, not only in unexpected ways does Christ come. But Christ arrives in this place, we can be sure and secure—even if we don’t have bulletins, even if the music or the people or the space is a little different. God arrives.
God arrives in this meal and in this Holy Word. And in each one of us upon which God’s Spirit is poured out...and that might be the greatest surprise of all.

Monday, November 21, 2011

November 20 -- Christ the (Servant) King Sunday


Color: Blue (hope)

Symbols/actions: Wreath, simplicity, oiko-logy (care/study of home), stories of Mary, Joseph, J the B

From Keeping Time:

“According to the Christian worldview, humans need God to bring us life and salvation, and Christmas celebrates this coming of God in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Christians affirm that Christ comes not only in a past event but also in our present life and in the world’s unfolding future. So it is that Adent is not about Mary’s pregnancy but about the church’s continual prayer that God will come (the root meaning of “advent”) to us, bring life to a dying world. Advent in the Northern Hemisphere is a time to meditate on the darkness in the universe, the social order, the lives of many people, and our own hearts, and to pray for God’s salvation and wholeness for all. The holy communion celebrated each Sunday of Advent brings to us the Christ who is ever present for us with mercy and joy.”


Color: White (light)

Symbols: crèche, candle light

From KT:

“The church’s celebration of the birth of Christ is now one of its primary festivals and ways of proclaiming the mystery of the incarnation. The most significant way that Christianity differs from it’s parent Judaism is in our belief that God became incarnate as a human being. Like Hinduism, Christianity believes that the transcendent deity took on flesh, entering into our experience as a human being, through whom the divine One effects the salvation of the world. Unlike Hinduism, Christianity believes that there is only one such incarnation, who meets us weekly in word and sacrament and daily in our neighbors.”


Color: White

Symbols/actions: magi, gifts, star, home blessings, burning of the greens

Epiphany is a day, not a season. Epiphany marks the end of the Christmas season. Christmas is a season that some churches have celebrated as lasting for 40 days, concluding on February 2nd! But Southern European churches, the Carribean, and most U.S. celebrate Christmas for 12 days, putting Epiphany on January 6th.

Since that is usually a weekday, at SVLC, we move it to the adjacent Sunday. Epiphany has and still is a high celebration in Eastern orthodox churches. (Early Christian practices point us toward having baptisms all at one time, remembering that we’re baptized into a community of the faithful.) And Epiphany has and still is a time for baptism, along with the Easter Vigil.

When we read about the kings at Epiphany, we are reminded that Matthew is setting up a stark contrast to what we might expected: King Jesus is praised as one who attends to the needs of the poor, unlike many earthly kings…Herod at that time. Prayers at Epiphany are offered for those on the fringes. We also get to meet the kings from the east, who give us a model of humility and sacrifice, bowing down before an economically impoverished baby, and offering up their most prized possessions. Could be a great stewardship lesson…

The Sundays that follow the day of Epiphany until Transfiguration Sunday are green Sundays.


Color: Purple

Symbols/actions: fasting, prayer, giving of alms to the poor (classics); service work, confession, preparation for baptism

From KT:

“Traditionally it was taught that Lent originated as an extension of several days of fasting in preparation for the Three Days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter. Scholars always assumed that a short fast grew into a period of more or less 40 days. But recent scholarship suggests that Lent was actually an extension in the other direction, following Epiphany and the celebration of the baptism of Jesus. Early church documents indicate considerable variation in the development of the season. After the Council of Nicaea, a 40-day fast became nearly universal. 4th century sermons and pastoral lessons describe Lent as a time to prepare for Easter baptism. Since it is through baptism that believers enter into the death and resurrection of Christ, the church saw the annual festival of the resurrection as the preeminent occasion for baptisms.”


Color: White

Symbols/actions: Empty tomb, grave cloths

The final part of the Three Days, and the highest, most holy celebration of the Christian story. Here is where Christ’s incarnation culminates into not just presence with us (which is what Christmas is about), but ultimately that this never ending presence and love results in new and everlasting life – both here and even now…and into eternity!

So many things to say about this, but today I’d like to connect Easter with the sharing of the peace.

Through the season of Easter, we hear time and again Jesus’ greeting “Peace be with you” (at the tomb, in the upper room). That’s an Easter greeting that we share with each other every Sunday! Let’s share that greeting now, remembering that these are such holy words – peace to you in times of sorrow and fear and loneliness and anger. This peace unites us, it calms us, it gives us new life and hope in a God who is both deeply present (Christmas), and even more, who conquers death and the grave!

“The resurrection peace of Christ be with you all!”


Color: Red

Symbols/actions: fire, wind, church

From KT: “The celebration is set on the 50th day, in observance of Luke’s Gospel. The Jewish festival of Pentecost is the observance of the giving of the law on Mount Sinai. By fixing the descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, Luke layers the assembly of the believers on to the people of Israel, the tongues of fire on their heads onto the fire of Mount Sinai, the Holy Spirit onto God’s giving the law. For Jews encountering this narrative, the Christian message would be clear: God is doing a new thing with the pattern of the old sacred story.”

Sweet, sweet spirit is so good. It revives and renews. It fills us and gives us hope and joy. In other words, that Easter peace of Christ that we just offered to one another, starts to take shape in the Pentecost experience – adding new layers to how we relate to one another and to this world. We live spirited lives of joy and hope and service and love…not because we’re awesome, but because God’s spirit dwells with us. And when we’ve been touched by God’s spirit, we can’t help but be moved by it, be connected by it, and be sent out by it. We mustn’t ever hoard the gifts of the spirit, the gifts of God’s love and mercy, and if we do, then we should question if that’s really God’s Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is made known through the Church of Jesus Christ. Pentecost is considered the birthday of the Church! And it’s been said: “The Church is God’s gift to the world” – it’s the means by which God’s love, God’s gifts of forgiveness and healing are spread into the world. Let’s sing!

Life in the Spirit: The Green Sundays

Color: Green

Symbols: trees, rivers, fishing nets, teaching & listening, bread, wine, roads, valleys…

How shall we live in the Spirit? How is God calling us to be in this world? In the valleys of this earth?

These are the “just-regular” Sundays where we go back to the stories, the parables of Jesus, his lessons – love one another, love your enemies, forgive, give, let go, hang on. Depending on the different years, we have different texts that we go back to, but we continue to gather around the ancient stories, trusting in God’s Spirit to breathe new life and new vision into our worshiping community.

The one word that continues to re-emerge is Love. In this next song, “They will know we are Christians by our Love,” I’ve never known if the composer meant that it’s God’s love for this world by which “they” will know us, or if it’s our love for each other and this world…But I believe it’s both. God so loves us, that we are impassioned to reach out to each other and into this world. Life in the spirit is inhaling God’s grace and forgiveness and then exhaling God’s peace.

Christ the King Sunday

Some churches have actually started calling this day Christ the Servant Sunday, just so that they don’t get carried away in arrogance or triumphalism about Jesus…that is my God is better than any other god. (As I said, not until 1924 did the pope in Rome begin this tradition at the end of the Church Year...and it was to remind the people that Jesus is King, not Italy or Mussolini or any other worldly leader or nation.) I think what’s important is that we give thanks this day, at the end of this good church year, that the reign of Christ in our lives is a reign of love, of compassion, of service, of deep and abiding presence with the marginalized and the poor, with you and with me. That love has always been there, reigning supreme, if you will – through the years, through the seasons, through our hymnals, and it goes with us now….

May God, creator bless us and keep us…

Monday, November 14, 2011

November 13 -- 22nd Sunday after Pentecost

What a thick lesson! Will you pray with me:

God give us the wisdom to invest the love which you have for us. AMEN.

The bottom line warning in our lesson for today, as you can probably discern is “don’t bury your talents” – which means don’t bury that which God has given you to use to serve God, be it money, abilities, time.

[Retell a bit…]

And how easily we can do this. The third slave didn’t seem to me so terrible. He was just being safe and respectful of his master. But his fear and his tendency to be safe led the master to call him “wicked.” Did you catch that? Wicked is the one who buries their talents, even themselves in the dirt.

A colleague of mine in our text study this week reminded me that C.S. Lewis defined evil as not being anything by itself. Evil only exists as a perversion or a skewing of the good. It’s a parasite that rides on Good. Without Good there would be no evil.

The one who buries his/her talent in the dirt is only evil or wicked because they are not good. Well that’s humbling. Because that makes us all wicked. (here’s the other side of All Saints Day from last week, where I drove home this point that God names us all saints in our baptism). We are wicked saints. How often we can shy away from risk taking, just to be safe. And it’s pretty easy to convince ourselves it’s more sensible too. But here God calls us to the “wisdom” of risk-taking…not for the sake of a thrill, but for the sake of the Glory of God. How might we use our gifts, our talents, our money, our wisdom, our lives to make God’s love and God’s welcome more known and spread throughout this world?

That’s the challenge for us today. We have a Gospel, a message of good news that is really for everybody – it’s as simple as “God loves you. God forgives you. God stays with you, no matter what.” That’s the message we’re “entrusted” with…to use wisely, to invest. How are we investing God’s love and God’s welcome. How are we investing this Good Book from which we gather all these rich stories? Are we investing these so that they multiply and grow? Or are we burying God’s word, God’s love, God’s welcome and God’s book?

We have been entrusted with a story of a God whose love is wildly welcoming – I’m going to go ahead and say that’s a liberal message. God’s love is liberal, it’s reckless, and expansive. It’s not calculated and careful (which is what I’d prefer). God’s wisdom is hidden in what the world sees as foolishness: crazy liberal love. God’s forgiveness as we hear week after week is ever-flowing – that makes no sense. That seems crazy. God’s arms are open so wide, that there’s always room for the stranger, the outcast, the immigrant, the persecuted, the lost, the gay, the straight, the people sitting right here, and the people standing hungry down on the corner of 3rd and Ash, and the people in the halls of power in Washington D.C., the coaches and the victims at Penn State, victims of abuse all over the world! God’s arms are open wide! And that’s crazy! God’s love is so cosmic through Jesus! What do we do with that liberal message of our church? How do we invest it? Or do we bury it?

When I say God’s love is liberal…my tendency is to want to keep that quiet. I know it, but I want to bury it in the sand. Keep it for ourselves. But what are the ways we can be more like the first two servants…multiplying what God has given us? That’s a question that I’d like to ponder together as we move together into a new year…How can we better invest God’s welcome? How would God want us to answer that question?


I want to shift gears a bit here. First God moves toward us and then we respond to God in lives of service and also in prayer. This is really what worship is. And I wanted to take some time today to reflect on the Psalms, and the diversity of the Psalms. This is something else that God offers us to invest and share wisely: a diversity of Psalms. I love to think of Psalms in terms of music. What music would you set to the various psalms?

As we consider risking and investing a message of a God whose love is so liberal, let us also remember that that God welcomes also all kinds of our emotions and prayers – our anger, our fear, our pain and our joy and praise. Thanks be to God for all the generosity – toward each of us, toward this world, and toward our response. And thanks be to God who goes with us now and always. Amen.


Monday, November 7, 2011

November 6 -- All Saints Sunday

I invite you to turn to your neighbor and make the sign of the cross on their forehead and say, “You are a saint of God, and God’s light shines through you.”

At the core of our Lutheran faith is the idea that we are all made saints in our baptisms. Have you heard this before? That we are all saints? We don’t have to die…or labor in Calcutta to be a saint. Do you believe that? Do you believe that you are a saint of God and that God’s light really shines through you?

This week I had lunch with the clergy group that gets together here in East County. The Methodist, the United Church of Christ, another Lutheran, (we used to have an Episcopalian, but she moved to St. Louis), and the 2 Roman Catholics – a priest and a nun.

We were just catching up and talking about our week, and the our Catholic priest in the group mentioned that “today” is All Soul’s Day. The other Lutheran in the room and I both cocked our heads and furled our brows, and said…almost in sync: “No that was yesterday, wasn’t it?” At which point he tells us that we were getting All Saints and All Souls day “mixed up.” The good Father reminded us that All Saints is the day that we honor…the Saints. And All Souls – or in the Mexican tradition Dia de los Muertos, we honor…everybody else who’s died. They’re two different days, separated by a long night.

But we, sisters and brothers of a Protestant tradition, we do get the days mixed up…and even more because we even honor the living on all saints day: “You are a saint of God!” This is a theme that carries over from Reformation Sunday last week. This idea sets us our doctrines apart from Roman Catholicism.

Can you believe that God names you “Saint” in your baptism? And so, that sermon on the mount, that we share today, is talking about you today – in baptism, you are made whole, despite all appearances and even experiences to the contrary: you are offered the kingdom of heaven in this life, you are comforted, you inherit the earth, you are filled, you receive mercy, you can see God, and you are called a child of God! You are blessed even as people utter all kinds of evil against you; you are blessed even as people revile you and persecute you. You are the blessed saints…

…not because of anything you’ve done, actually, but because of what God has done. In God’s dying, in the way of Christ on the cross, death has been destroyed, and in Christ’s rising from the dead, we too rise. We are joined to Christ in the waters of baptism, and so we live—in this life—anew! (Amen?)

Because of this, yes, we get all “mixed up” with both the Saints that the church has honored traditionally and with all those who have gone before us. Lutherans are messy…because not only are we mixed up with all the traditional Saints of the Church, we’re also mixed up in sin. (We don’t need to go into that so much today. I think we’re pretty good at burying ourselves in our sin. But we are sinner-saints.)

In a little while we’ll name those in our congregation who have died in recent years. We honor them today as saints: But we remember them not for themselves and in themselves (even while that’s very important and meaningful to us in our grief), today we remember them not for themselves and in themselves, we name them and celebrate them today because of what God has done through them.

Think of all the things that God has done through Lars Hellberg, Susan Goyette, David Reith, Janet Stevens, Jeannie Smith. We’ll name them all later, just a few examples.

God’s light shone through them, didn’t it? Even in their darkest moments. And we read it again at Jeannie’s memorial service this week, gathered around this font: “When we were baptized in Christ Jesus, we were baptized into his death. We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead, we too might live a new life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him a resurrection like his.” That’s holy scripture, friends.

We trust and believe that we are all given the name saint in our baptism, and sometimes I feel like a broken record saying that, but we sure need to be reminded of it weekly, even daily (as Luther said), because it is so easy to forget. It is so easy to relegate sainthood, simply to the holier-than-thou. It’s easier to keep it separated – All Saints Day and then the Rest of Us Day.

But this is God’s grace coming at us in these waters, God’s grace coming at us, relentlessly, rushing at us, before many of us can even say a word. God’s grace crashes down on us and claims us. Calls us saints. Promises us eternal life in the hereafter, yes, but God’s grace is so good we are even granted the kingdom of heaven in this life, that means a flood of comfort when you mourn (that’s not material comfort, in means that when you’ve lost what is most dear to you, only then can you be embraced the One who holds you closest). God’s grace is so good that we are even granted the inheritance of the earth , contentment, peace, mercy, a glimpse of God. God’s grace is so good that you are now called a child of God!

I’ve got a book that I try to read daily. It’s a proposed calendar for commemorating all those “saints”, for lack of a better word. I really don’t want to get into Catholic-bashing – (that’s what my grandparents did, how we’re better and they’re just mindlessly praying to saints). The Catholics actually have offered so much to God’s church, as they so reverently remember those who have died in the faith. I think we can only stand to benefit as we peer back into the pages of Christian history.

Today we praise the saints – I’m just saying that for us Lutherans, it gets a little more complicated, because the truth is that we’re all mixed up in that category of saint. For we too are sinner-saints.

Here’s a quote from that book: ‘When the church praises the saints, it praises God himself, who has triumphed through them. Those who are still in the church on earth are supported and encouraged by the fellowship of a throng of witnesses, who fought their way with effort and pain, and who now in the company of the redeemed are watching and supporting the church on earth in its present struggle’”.

Today we rejoice, for all the blessed saints: Those who have gone before us, those saints still among us, and those many saints of God…still to come! “You are a saint of God, and God’s light shines though you.” Blessed are you. AMEN.

Monday, October 24, 2011

October 23 -- 19th Sunday after Pentecost

I had some funny dreams last night. You know that falling dream – have you ever had that falling sensation as you’re falling asleep?

So take that, and then I had two experiences yesterday: We had the chance yesterday morning to do something we had never done before – to go to Torrey Pines State Park, where we hiked from the visitor center at the top all the way down to the beach, a steady decline. Also, there was this moment yesterday afternoon where I got to see Micah run. He was running full speed around our cul-de-sac over to his friend’s house – concrete sidewalk where the driveways make the surface go up and down, full stride Micah, with big growing feet. I was so scared he was going to “eat it” again and rip open his knees and bust open his chin. But everything was fine. Until last night when I had that dream.

I had the falling dream, except instead of me falling, it was Micah falling down this declining trail down which, of course, he was running…

Running downhill is an image I’d like you to carry into our reflecting on today’s Gospel text…where Jesus gives those, who were trying to trap him again, “the Bible’s greatest sound bite.” Like last week’s text the Pharisees were looking to trick, not looking to learn; and still Jesus gives them (and us) a great summation of all the law and the prophets with this answer: “Love your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”

I am particularly interested with what it means to “love your neighbor as yourself”. Loving God with all your heart, soul and mind actually—in Matthew’s world—the equivalent as loving your neighbor as yourself. So it really is all about loving your neighbor as yourself. What else could “Loving God” ultimately mean? Love of God is intrinsically tied to love of neighbor.

And so if we are to love our neighbor as ourselves, then how are we doing at taking care of ourselves? How are you doing at caring about yourself? This might be a difficult thing to think about…for generally well-meaning, self-sacrificing hard-working types, such as yourselves. How are you doing at caring about yourself? But I think it’s good and honest to consider. To use a common—but I think helpful—airline analogy: how are you doing at putting the oxygen mask on yourself first before you help someone else?

Jesus offers us that freedom today, friends. Do something for yourself this week. Treat yourself, guilt free.

Now when I say “treat yourself”, how many of us think of food? Thank you, popular culture, commercials... I couldn’t even write those words without seeing this huge ice cream cone on my computer screen. Satisfying a particular craving—which only meets a short-term urge—is not really what I mean, by “do something for yourself this week.” I’m wondering more about giving some time to yourself this week…to reflect, to pray, to breathe. Even if that means waking up in the middle of the night to journal. Taking a hike in Torrey Pines. Having a cup of coffee of a glass of wine (or a little ice cream) with no one but your thoughts. Jesus offers us that freedom today. Because if we can’t take care of ourselves, then we can never fully love our neighbor. If we can’t breathe…then we can’t serve. Get some breathing space, friends in Christ, for heaven’s sake…and for this world’s sake.

Back to this image of running downhill: this idea of caring for ourselves can certainly get out of control, like the little boy flying recklessly down the trail in my dream last night. He had fun for a moment, but soon went crashing. How self-time, “me time” can get out of control too…I think it has as we watch our world before us: so much about ME…whether it’s political discourse (MY rights), or sports (MY time), or even churches can make it all about ourselves…completely missing others in need (and in that, even our own greatest needs). Having fun for a moment, but soon and ultimately crashing…

But God’s people are called to walk. Downhill. Together.

God’s grace might be imagined as taking our paths in life…and tilting them downward to make them easier. That’s what grace is. Works-righteousness – this idea that we have to earn our salvation, our place in heaven with God, which many of our Christian brothers and sisters still affirm – that’s like a steep hike uphill. If you do A, B, and C, then God will reward you. For non-believers or just non-involved church people, on the other hand, the hike is just kind of flat – no steep inclines, no real commitments, no great joy or sorrow or anger at the One who Christians name as Jesus – just kind of a flat, level, this life is – with no final hope.

But for us who stake it all on God’s grace. That’s like God taking the path, and tilting it downward, so that we can walk easily…but are tempted to run. Tempted to think that it’s just for us. (There were people running downhill yesterday at Torrey Pines. Not only did they almost crash into me and my family and everyone else on the trail. I just thought: that must do a number on your knees over time.) God’s people weren’t meant to run down hills. God’s earth-bending grace and love isn’t meant to be hoarded or gorged upon or spent wildly. Me. Me. Me. Me. God’s grace and love isn’t meant to be consumed like that.

It’s meant to be savored and shared, like a gentle walk down to the beach…like a long talk with a dear friend…like a 5 course meal with everyone singing after dessert.

Loving God with everything, and loving your neighbor as yourself is an invitation to slow down on the trail of grace. To savor and share it. And I’m struck that this dream, this image, is of a way that goes down. Down is where God’s people go, together. Down to savor grace, down to share God’s unconditional welcome. Down to the poor, the lonely, the lost, the confused, the outcast. We “con-descend,” let’s reclaim that word. I was reading about it: and it wasn’t used negatively until the 18th century – condescend. Literally means “to go down together”. One etymological meaning of the word is to “willingly sink to equal terms with inferiors”. Let’s just be honest about how we see others – the poor, the immigrant, the stranger, the outcast, the non-believer, the confused – they’re all inferior to us and our faith. But not if God bends the earth and leads us down together to be with them. Then we’re all together, helping, encouraging, sharing, worshipping – and in that whole steady process, we ourselves are being cared for too!

Not to drag out this word con-descend much more, but I was intrigued to find that con-descend was first used around the 17th c. to refer to what God does: “to willingly sink to equal terms with inferiors”.

Sisters and brothers in Christ, walking downhill calmly and together, seeing and serving the world around us as we move – this is deeply rooted Christian activity! This is Jesus-following activity…isn’t it? This is what it means to love both neighbor as self and to love God – who is present and moving as we walk, pointing us to those in need (and to the beauty of the earth), comforting us when we are in pain, shepherding us down into the valleys of this troubled world; down to the shorelines of good and evil to offer ourselves to both friend and stranger alike; and promising never to leave us…in fact to meet ever more at the bottom, at the end of the day, in our darkest, most broken moments, even in our death. Our God promises to meet us ever more at the bottom…and finally, finally to raise us up in joy and peace. We depend solely on God…to raise us up in joy and peace at the last.

This is God’s grace in which and by which we dwell, now and always! AMEN.