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...

Monday, March 28, 2011

March 27 -- 3rd Sunday of Lent

Grace to you and peace from Christ, who knows everything about us and loves and calls us anyway. AMEN.
Our Lenten Gospel readings are long, aren’t they? I tend to want to apologize to you for this – sorry to take so much of your precious time up with Gospel reading – but I know that the compilers of these lectionary texts make no apologies. In fact, they’d probably say something more like, “You’re welcome.” And maybe we should be thankful, for time taken up with Gospel reading. For what is Lent if not a time to stand face-to-face, almost nakedly/honestly before Scripture? It reminds me of how a wise colleague once described his seminary experience. “For me,” he said, “seminary was a time to take everything I knew and to shave it all away, drop it, leave it behind, take it off until I was standing there naked, face-to-face with God. Nothing else but you and God.” Imagine that. Doesn’t get more honest than that. Might I suggest that one need not go off to seminary to stand honestly before God? We are blessed by these 40 days of Lent (sign out front: may the gifts of lent be yours), a time to move into new territory in our faith journey. Let’s see where God takes us…
Jesus himself moves into new territory today, from last week. Last week he was in Jerusalem, talking to Nicodemus by night. Today he’s traveled up to Samaria, where he’s talking to an unnamed woman at the well. What wonderful contrasts we have on our Lenten journey:
Last week: Jesus is not seen, whispering to famous Nicodemus a leader; this week: Jesus couldn’t be more seen, for the well at noon is the place where everyone goes and everyone sees.
Our Lenten experience has taken a turn: from the peaceful and safe darkness of night, from inside ourselves (which God so loves) and our own little worlds (which God so loves)—good things to focus on, but not the only things, Jesus reminds us over and over. Our Lenten experience has taken a turn from inside ourselves and our circles—to beyond our own worlds and into the Samarias of our day.
Jesus goes to Samaria and finds this woman. Samaria doesn’t come looking for Jesus. Samaria never would, for Samaria wasn’t fond of Jesus’ kind. Just as most people from Jerusalem would never go to Samaria.
You know why Samaritans and Judeans hated each other?
· Northern Jews, aka Samaritans, weren’t taken into captivity. They didn’t suffer as much for their faith. Generations of bitterness had divided them
Like Christians who claim other Christians aren’t really Christians.
Today’s text, as the Lenten path guides us beyond ourselves and our own circles, is a lesson about fundamentalism and what Jesus has to say about it. Fundamentalism is to claim that there is one right way and everyone else is wrong. This was the story of the Judeans and the Samaritans. All to common a story in world history. Still goes on today.
Fundamentalist have to believe that the nature of religion is to divide. They love to point to those passages about Jesus separating the weeds and the wheat, the sheep and the goats (and I’ll just go on record and say that they mis-interpret them). To divide.
And when you divide there is a tendency for suspicion and when there’s a tendency to suspicion it leads to a tendency to demonize and once you demonize, it makes all the sense in the world to destroy the one from whom you’re divided. Divide-suspicion-demonize-destroy.
For the Southern Jews of Jerusalem, who were just good fundamentalists (knew their Scriptures, knew their rules, knew their history and family roots…and they knew they were right)…for those Jews, association with Samaritan Jews was simply…a sin.
But for Jesus—and here comes our radical God, like a staff to a rock—separation from Samaritans was the sin. For Jews association was the sin, for Jesus separation was the sin. Jesus was anything but a fundamentalist. He broke the laws of his own people for the sake of a far greater ethic, for the sake of a cosmic compassion.
For Jesus, the whole nature of religion is not to divide (which leads to suspicion-demonization-destruction); for Jesus the whole nature of religion is to REACH OUT. I don’t know how fundamentalists overlook these texts. Today’s text is but one example, one look at who Jesus publically reaches out to: not only a Samaritan, but a Samaritan woman, not only a Samaritan woman but a Samaritan woman who had 5 husbands. Elizabeth Taylor—may she rest in peace. And this woman—her namelessness and status was a sign of the times—but it is so significant—it couldn’t be more offensive to fundamentalists….this woman not only receives what Jesus offers, she dialogues with Jesus, even does a little theological wrestling. Don’t you love that? And this is the first person to whom Jesus makes known that he is the Messiah: to a Samaritan woman!
This might not sound so shocking for 21st century ears, but this is earth shattering!
So what does this mean for us? It means that we too are called to venture out beyond ourselves. Make this text come alive for you and go home today, and the next time you look in the mirror, admiring or despising yourself in the mirror, try saying out loud to yourself, “_____, it’s not just about you and your closest circles.” Say that with me. Do you know what I mean by your closest circles?
We are called to love ourselves and our circles as God loves us and our circles, and then we are called beyond them. The Lenten journey just got 3-dimensional.
We know that God loves us, but does the world know that God loves them? Go and tell them. We have to get to know those who are different from us—it’s the whole nature of religion, according to Jesus. Reach out. Maybe the most Christian thing we can do is to study the Qaran, for example, so that we can dialogue with our Muslim brothers and sisters. [pause] That would be so “John-Chapter-4”. Go to Samaria, sisters and brothers in Christ! Go to the places that are foreign and unfamiliar. For liberals that means have dinner with conservatives. For Republicans that means have dinner with Democrats. For the rich that means have dinner with the poor. For the straight that means have dinner with the gay. For the Christian that means have dinner with the Muslim and the Muslim have dinner with the Christian. (One preacher suggested that the modern day Samaritan is a Muslim. But that may not be so for everyone.) Maybe it just means sitting down with someone of the opposite sex or another race and asking them about what it’s like to be them. One time for a project I interviewed female pastors in the Lutheran church. I thought I already had a pretty good idea of their challenges, but I had no idea I quickly learned. Go to Samaria, get beyond yourself and your circles. Read, watch movies, pray, and or just sit down over a meal or coffee. That’s where we really come to know each other—over meals and coffee.
I tend to want to apologize to you for such a challenging and bold message, but I think Jesus would say, “Your welcome.” For we can certainly be like those rocks in the desert—dry, isolated, hopeless, seemingly worthless. “Oh not me, I could never reach out like that.” But Jesus, the new Moses, whacks us with the Gospel today: “Go to Samaria. You’re welcome.” And we break open with that holy whack, gushing forth with the water of life, with love, compassion, concern, interest, a desire to walk in another’s shoes so that we might better serve them. Sound good? It’s more than good, it’s the way of Christ. And in this way is God’s salvation, that is, God’s healing. Martin Luther said that the greatest idol is our desire for security—it doesn’t really lead us down any paths. It just means we curl up. And God is there too. But curling up is not the way of Christ. The way of Christ is to Samaria, and finally to Calvary, the roads less traveled. Sisters and brothers in Christ, on those rugged roads is God, God’s peace ironically, God’s love for you, God’s boundless mercy for this whole world. Amen. Amen.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

March 20 -- 2nd Sunday of Lent

What are the thoughts that keep you up at night? I think those thoughts give us real insight into what is important to us, what really concerns us, or what must be confronted in the day/s ahead. What are the insights that come to you in the wee hours of the morning, the ideas – like a skittish deer that creeps up to the creek at dawn? One sound, one distraction and they’re gone again. Do you write those ideas down?
I always used to get really frustrated about waking up in the wee hours of the morning, trying to force myself back to sleep. (I still do sometimes, thinking about all the things for which I need my rest when the sun comes up.) But I once had a colleague, a friend when I was on my internship in St. Louis, say to me—when I was complaining to her about being awake the night before against my will—say, “Oh, don’t you just love those nights? Holy time. I thank God every time I am awakened in the night for no external reason. That silence, that peace, that time alone with God. I write, I sit in the darkness, sometimes I just walk around the house. It is such a gift.” I always try to think of her perspective when I wake up during the night, mind churning.
Nicodemus, in our Gospel text, must have had one of those rough nights. I wonder if he couldn’t sleep. Something was keeping him up too. This episode follows the dramatic scene in the Gospel of John where Jesus overturns the money tables in the temple. In John, already in Chapter 2, Jesus is driving out the money changers. And Nicodemus, one of the Pharisees, one of the good teachers and keepers of Jewish law had seen it all. And something about what he saw or what Jesus said, was keeping him awake. [pause]
Nicodemus was a lot like a good Lutheran, by all cultural standards. He had been in the church for years, he had family that had been in the church for years. He had roots. He could tell stories about his father and mother and their faithful involvements with the church… the Jewish equivalents to altar guild, choir, confirmation. He knew all the traditional songs, he had been on councils and committees, he understood the flow of the religious calendar, and he had long eaten the traditional dishes – the ancient Jewish versions of carrot jello, cheesy pasta casserole, lemon bars. He really knew everything there was to know about religious life. And the more he thought about it, in those wee morning hours, the more he felt like he really should be the one instructing and inspiring and impressing Jesus. His words and actions ought to be keeping Jesus awake at night, not the other way around. Do you know anyone like Nicodemus? Are you like Nicodemus? Nicodemus was like a good, salt-of-the-earth Lutheran. And if I was preaching to Presbyterians, I’d say he was like a good Presbyterian J. He was one of the charters, on all the boards, the keeper of memories and customs and the great “how we’ve always done it.” There was a formula for being religious and Nicodemus knew it.
But something has rocked his safe and familiar world. There’s something that shook him a little the day before, and he needs to iron it out, clear it up, smooth it over, so he can get back to sleep. He probably just misunderstood Jesus in that big public display the day before. “Jesus couldn’t have really meant what it seemed like he was saying, could he?” Nicodemus just needed to clear it up, a little one-to-one time oughtta do the trick...
Do you think we uber-faithful types could ever have our boats rocked by Jesus like that? Could we, who have heard before the message of salvation 1000 times, we who have sung the hymns of the faith, and sampled the potlucks and congregational meetings through the years, like Nicodemus, really have anything more to learn…from one of the most popular passages in the entire Bible – John 3:16 and surrounding verses?
You know, on a few occasions I’ve had people say to me, regulars, salt-of-the-earth Lutherans say, “You know, I wish [so-and-so] could have been here to hear this message today. They would have really benefited.” [pause] I think I understand that sentiment…usually comes from a place of concern and love for a close relative or friend, but sometimes it’s almost as if John 3:16, for example, isn’t really for the good church people anymore. “Yeah, yeah, we’ve already heard this; wish all those others could hear it.” But “God so loved the world...” is for all of us! There is more room for all of us to grow in faith, thanks be to God. Kierkegaard said that the hardest people to reach with the Gospel are Christians. Either we think we already know it all, maybe like Nicodemus, or we just can seem to trust that it is for us too – the gifts of God. And the gifts of God are life in the Spirit, unconditional love and grace in the face of our faults. Rebirth – a gift from God…this is what Jesus discusses with Nicodemus. [pause]
Rebirth is really all about baptism. [pause] In fact, “being born again” was always a reference to being made new in Christ by water and the Spirit (baptism), until the 20th century when some made it into a formula. Some Christians, mostly in the United States, felt that Christianity was being seriously threatened and started talking (and making threats of their own) about being born again as a formula to avoid the fires of hell. But we aren’t born again by decision or formula. Rebirth in Christ’s love is what God decides to do for us. God so loves the world. And when we trust that – “whosoever trusts that God so dearly loves this world, that God was made flesh and embedded into this earth”…God so dearly loves this world, and when we trust that, then life in the Spirit will be ours. Trust that God so loves this world, and you will have joy – not “surface joy”, deep joy. Not just after you die…you will live joyfully and eternally starting now. But belief/trust takes work, it takes the community of faithful people around you, and it takes openness, willingness to quiet ourselves and receive a gift (like welcoming a sleepless night). Sometimes, those of us church folks have the hardest time receiving gifts. We’re used to giving gifts, not receiving them. We’re used to offering of ourselves our time and our treasures. But this gift is for us too.
You know one of the great themes this Lent – at least in my head – has been the theme of honesty before God. Last week we had the opportunity to reflect on what lures, or tempts, us away from God and to offer that once more up to God in all its ugliness and say “take me, take me as I am, summon out what I shall be.” This week, I think there’s added depth to this theme of honesty before God. And I give thanks for this Gospel story of Nicodemus struggling with Jesus under the cover of darkness. Because darkness gives us some space to be honest. In other words, thank God for the night. Sometimes there are things that are difficult to say by day…even to my spouse Heather. But if we can lay in the dark at night and say what we need to say, I give thanks for that space, that darkness, to be honest. Night time and darkness is not just for wickedness and deceit, as it’s often imagined. The shadows give us some space to be honest before God. Pillow talk with the Almighty. Once again, we may say in the safety and silence of darkness, “God here I am, a sinner, you know my thoughts and my wrongdoings. And you love me anyway. I am struggling to be honest about who I am. Put me back together, God, in this safe space, in the cover of night. Put me back together to be the son, the daughter, that you made me to be. Give me courage. Give me wisdom. Give me the willingness to trust in you.” And God responds to us once again, “I so love you; I so love this world. Trust and know that I am your God. I will not forsake you, though the mountains be moved, though tidal waves come crashing. I will never forsake you. My peace I give you. I am with you always.” AMEN.
HOD – 807 – can we read it together first?

Monday, March 14, 2011

March 13 -- 1st Sunday of Lent

Well someone told Micah this week at preschool (probably on the playground) about the devil, that the devil is real. To be honest, we don’t really talk about devil in our house. We talk about evil and doing bad things, but we don’t talk about the devil. So this was something new. “What did you learn about the devil?” I asked him, probing a little further. Micah goes on to tell me that the devil was real, that the devil is a big red, scary monster living under the ground, who was going to get us.
This became a time for us to have a little talk about the devil. “Oh, I don’t know about that, Micah,” I said.
“You don’t believe in the devil, Daddy?” I had to think about it.
“Oh, the devil is real,” I responded, “but I don’t believe in the monster underground.” We went on to talk about how the devil is less like a person or a creature and more like a temptation or a mean thought in our heads, or an angry word in our mouth…and that’s why we need Jesus to help us.
Somehow I think this came as a relief to Micah, that there’s not a big monster underground that’s going to get him, and we started talking about something else.
But isn’t it amazing first of all that he just happened to bring the devil up this week, the week we ponder again the story of Jesus being tempted by the devil?
This is a classic text for the first Sunday of Lent. How could we begin our Lenten journey, without being honest about evil and the devil?
Reflecting back on my conversation with Micah, I realize that he actually had a bunch of things right: The devil is real. The devil is a monster. And the devil tries to get us. In fact the only thing he had wrong, I believe, is that the devil was underground.
The scary truth is that the devil is far closer than under the ground. I’m bothered whenever the devil is portrayed (in films or art) as something external, a person or a creature out there. For that is to deny a part of ourselves…and we are called to be honest during Lent.
I know that the devil is real, and if you question me, like Micah did in the car, I realize that I am able to talk about the devil with a very high degree of certainty…because all I have to do is consider, even just for a second, that I am capable of such terrible things – terrible actions, terrible words, terrible thoughts.
Oh, the devil is real…(wish I had a James Earl Jones voice) for we are capable of such evil, as a species. And at the heart of it all is hubris, which is what our Bible texts today are all about—wanting to be like God, wanting all power. Oh, the devil is real...and so much closer than a monster underground. The devil climbs into our mouths as we hurt others with our words…for the sake of saving face, for the sake of puffing ourselves up, turning ourselves into something greater than we are (first temptation: “Turn these rocks into bread”). Oh, the devil is real, for how we are tempted to turn ourselves into something we’re not, striving to keep our pride.
Oh, the devil is real. The devil climbs into our minds as we make foolish decisions (another temptation: “Throw yourself off this building”).
I’ve heard both the famous golfer Tiger Woods and the former president Bill Clinton both admit in late interviews that they did what they did, engaged in the infidelities that they did, because they thought they could get away with it. I’ve heard them both speak in so many words about how power drunk they were. They did it because they could.
All their behavior and dishonesty makes me sick, like it made so many sick. But a wise colleague of mine once pointed out that it’s so easy to turn on them, to judge big public sinners, because it’s way easier to personify evil out there. When we pin evil on big public sinners, we can feel better about ourselves, we can even lie to ourselves for a little longer.
But that’s not the most honest approach. Because the devil is real.
So what a gift to come face to face with the devil again this Lent. To admit that the devil is real and has great power. Unlike the rest of culture may we reject images of the devil-out-there, and come to terms with the devil-in-here.
Because when we do, we become that much more dependent on Christ. The story doesn’t end with you standing all alone against the devil. When we are honest about the evil that resides within us, then Christ’s power becomes absolutely necessary. Jesus is essential. I might not be a Christian if it weren't for the devil because the devil helps me know my weakness and more than anything else, my need for God.
Christ Jesus faces off with the devil within us and finally comes out victorious! Thanks be to God? Being honest about the devil makes Christ’s power that much more dramatic. If we deny the devil, the evil within us, then we don’t really need Christ, like the old confession and forgiveness. “If we say we have no sin, we deiceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”
But – hear the Good News, sisters and brothers in Christ – “when we confess our sin (our state of sin, not just this sin and that), when we confess our sin, God who is faithful and just will forgive our sin and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Christ Jesus takes the devil, the evil within us, and crushes it! This is at the center of our faith. Christ’s wisdom and power becomes our hope. Christ guides our Lenten journey through the deserts of temptation. Thanks be to God. AMEN.
art: Temptation of Christ, J. Janknegt

Monday, March 7, 2011

March 6 -- Transfiguration Sunday

Grace to you and peace…
Transfiguration Sunday. Jesus picks a few disciples and takes a hike up a mountain. Wasn’t he just on a mountain for, like, six weeks? Ever since those early Epiphany texts, Jesus has been on the mount preaching his sermon, teaching his listeners about the beatitudes, loving our enemies, speaking on divorce and not worrying, trusting God above all else. Now he’s up on a different mountain.
In Scotland (and other mountainous regions) there’s this activity known as “peak bagging”. My brother talks about this in the Pacific Northwest and Colorado and Alaska as well. It’s a subculture of serious hikers who take great joy and pride in “bagging” as many mountain peaks as they can, ticking off the summits they’ve conquered like a checklist. Is Jesus a peak bagger? From one mountain to the next this season?
Some of our worship resources hint that we, the faithful, are peak baggers too these days, although I’m using that term. As we journey through our church year, we (at least figuratively) stand today on this Transfiguration peak between Advent-Christmas-Epiphany [on this side] and Lent-HolyWeek-Easter [on that. Welcome again to another mountain top, sisters and brothers in Christ!
I couldn’t help but remember so very fondly, the literal mountain top experience, the peak bagging a few of us did—thanks to you—last summer on our HS backpacking trip out of Rainbow Trail Lutheran Camp. Chelsea Hale, Austin & Teri Potts, Julia and Olivia Taylor, Christy Sorenson, and myself backpacking in Sangre de Cristo Mountians in southern Colorado. The literal summitting experience is like no other, so I understand the impulse of the peak baggers. It is such a rush to get that high and look over the top to the beauty of next valley and the 360degree panorama. Olivia was the first to peak, and I remember finding her, when I made it myself a few minutes later, just screaming with joy and pride and wonder at the beauty. “Yes! Yes! Woohoo!!” Arms held high to the clouds. What a gift those few minutes were. (We got off the peak and shared prayer and Holy Communion shortly after…)
Jesus ascends the mountain peak today. And the disciples experience something of a peak bagging rush.
But only a few of them.
Not everyone makes it to the peak.
And it strikes me that even those of us who have climbed literal mountains might feel a little left in the valley when it comes to experiencing the revelation and the joy, the fear and promise, the full drama of the Transfiguration story. Some among us have “mountain top experiences” in our lives to speak of – moments when it’s like Jesus literally puts his hand on our shoulders and our fears subside, or we hear the voice of God booming like thunder and we have clarity. If you have had “mountain top” experiences like this, and can call those up immediately, thank God for them. May they continue to breathe Gospel joy and hope into your lives, as even just the memories of those moments can be so powerful!
But every year this story comes up, I can’t help but get a little suspicious, maybe even a little jealous, and think, “Hey, what about the rest of us down here who struggle to see and know and experience that kind of majesty, that kind of Jesus shining bright?”
I like singing “Shine Jesus Shine”, and I know it’s a favorite for many of you too, but sometimes I really struggle to trust that Jesus is truly out there, or up there, somewhere shining.
What does the Transfiguration story really mean those of us who Jesus certainly loves, but, for whatever reason, never made it to that mountain peak, never got that clear invitation, or if we got it—for whatever reason—we didn’t take Jesus up on it and go? [pause]
The best part of this story is that Jesus descends the peak. He doesn’t stay up there, thanks be to God. The disciples who were with him wanted to stay up there. But Jesus commands them to come back down too. He doesn’t leave them up there. Jesus comes back down, with them, and re-enters the valleys.
There’s really something here in this text for everyone, I think. In the moments we feel like the clarity of Christ and his love and his resurrection message are all ours, Christ bids us return. In so many ways, he puts his hands on our shoulders, his body and blood in our hands, and says, “Settle down, don’t be afraid, let’s go back down now together.” The rare mountain top experience can be so overwhelming, making so exposed to the elements, the sun, Jesus, shines so brightly, the wind, the Spirit, nearly knocks you over. Too much joy and fear to even handle. And that’s when Jesus says, “Settle down, don’t be afraid, let’s go back down now together.” [pause]
And in moments when we can’t even see the mountain peak, much less climb up it, when we never heard Jesus’ invitation to go with him up the trail. In seasons when we feel stuck in our valleys and swamps, when it seems that only a few others are getting to the top with Christ, and while we might be happy for them, it sure can be depressing down here. Well, the Transfiguration story is for the valley dwellers too. The peak baggers aren’t the only ones who experience Christ’s healing hand, for Jesus always returns. Amen? He’s not interested in bagging peaks, he’s interested in feeding you, and in feeding the poor, clothing the naked, visiting the sick. Jesus comes back down the mountain and brings his disciples along with him, clumsy and confused as they (we) might be, their intentions are good too.
Sometimes we’re following him down from the top, and other times we’re waiting at the bottom. Where do you experience Jesus today? Either way, there is peace in his presence and the promise of his endurance and love. Either way, there is a voice that says “Be not afraid.” Either way there is new life…for Jesus always comes back down. Jesus’ movement is always down, either to take you with him back down or to come to your side in darkness. Jesus’ arm is around our shoulders, Jesus’ hand lifts us up. He always moves back down to inspire us (that is, to breathe life into us) to inspire us…with a passion and a compassion for others in this world who are also so deep in the valleys of pain and despair. If you haven’t felt it yet, you will, in this bread and cup, in this water. Jesus is transfigured here and now too. His “figure is changed”, his “shape moves across” and through this world. Jesus’ life is offered to us this day and forever, for Jesus always comes back down. Thanks be to God. AMEN.