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

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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.