God's always "hooking us," pulling us back: back to the Word, back to the Meal, back to the Font...back to the community.

This blog is for the purpose of sharing around each Sunday's Bible readings & sermon at Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church.

Get Sunday's readings here. We follow the Narrative Lectionary.
(In the summer, we return to the Revised Common Lectionary' epistle or Second Reading here.)

So, what's been hooking you?

So, what's been hooking you?

Here you can...

Sunday, December 30, 2012

December 30 -- First Sunday of Christmas

Listen to this sermon.
I’m going to be honest with you: I don’t really want to be here today.  Let’s keep that between us.  I know it’s historically a small crowd the first Sunday of Christmas, but it’s true.  I’d rather not be here.

Don’t take that the wrong way.  It’s certainly not you, or this job, or this congregation, or this beautiful city.  It’s me at this moment in the year.  I’d just rather be somewhere else for this first (and only) Sunday of the 12-day Christmas season.

I’d rather be worshiping far from here with my family, huddled in a row singing Christmas carols perhaps in Houston, listening to Dad do the preaching, sharing a hymnal with Heather or Micah; or maybe overseas with my brother and sister-in-law, who are in Ireland with her family right now; or maybe tucked away in some little Lutheran church in some snowy mountain basin up in Rocky Mountains, huddled with the faithful few, sitting and singing carols and praying next to my kids, before we hit the slopes this afternoon…

Don’t take this the wrong way – I can’t wait to be here next Sunday – but I’d just rather be somewhere else today.  Ever feel that way?

Just being honest…and not to make you feel sorry for me, or complain, even if it might sound that way:  I’m thinking about the Gospel text from Luke, that’s before us.  Jesus traveling with his family every year at Passover time, up to Jerusalem, from their hometown of Nazareth, a 32-hour walk.  And our text picking up after the celebration is over. 

Timely isn’t it?  We get this story in the lectionary, about the same time many folks are packing up their donkeys and headed back home after the holidays, with a trail of ribbons, and droopy eyelids?  (By donkeys, I’m referring to all the dads lugging new presents, and suitcases through our airports, or stuffing them into the trunks of cars.  Have you seen them?  They’re almost like Eeyores: “Thanks for noticing me.” – I mean, where’s Joseph in the story?  Boy, I’m just full of whining today, huh?)

And here in the midst of the journey home, here in the midst of any leftover whining and complaining – anyone let down this Christmas?  Not just because of that certain present you were hoping for but didn’t get, but also because, Christmas this year wasn’t like it used to be? (someone didn’t show up, or someone said something inappropriate, or it was all just too overwhelming this time around and you couldn’t enjoy it) 

Yet right here in the midst of the journey home, the journey back to our regular day-to-day, right in the midst of our wishings, our complaints or our feeling sorry for ourselves, something happens to snap us out of it.  “Boy Jesus” has gone missing!

Ever been in a situation where you’re feeling sorry for yourself or just trudging along, but then something suddenly is far more important…like your child is suddenly lost?

Play this scene through in your head: Mary and Joseph going from cluster to cluster of their friends and relatives “assuming” he must be with them.  (Isn’t that a wonderful image of community, even if they did accidentally loose Jesus?  For a whole day, the text says, they didn’t even worry about where he was?  That’s actually how it is here with our kids, and I hope for other young parents too – it’s the only place, in fact that I have no idea where my kids are, but I’m not worried.)  That’s how the community was too, even more: the whole community not only travelled together, they raised their children together.  Everyone looking after the kids.

But Jesus slips through the cracks of that community-parenting model, and stays back at the temple. 

And here’s the real main course of our Gospel feast for today:  The image of Jesus asking questions and listening, back at the temple.  Jesus lingers after all the celebration is done.  He sticks around, helps clean up, keeps the conversation going (despite it being pretty less-than-thoughtful to his parents).  But Jesus lingers near the Holy Scriptures, near the rabbis, near the sights and the sounds and the smells of the house of prayer, and near the other lovers of the Scriptures.  Jesus is showing some “church mouse” tendencies, as a child!  A rare species today, but certainly not an extinct one – those blessed members of our church families who linger, and ask questions and come around during the week, and search and hunt and ponder and marvel…and just plain love being in the presence of the Word of God, in the church.  They bathe in it.  They both wrestle with it, and find comfort in it. 

“Church mice” – have you heard that term? – often I think of it synonymous with church LOLs (little old ladies).  But I’ve also seen some wonderful church mouse tendencies in our young people – and this text reminds us again today: they must not be overlooked – young children and young adults.  They ask the questions that make us stop and think…like “Why do we always say the Lord’s Prayer in church?”  Or our bishop tells a story about a child that came to a pastor and said, “Pastor, when we pause at the beginning for the confession and forgiveness, why do you always start talking again so quickly?  I hardly have time to confess all my sins.”  Theological church mice…young people.  Perhaps these were the types of questions Jesus was asking as he lingered in the temple after Passover.  “But why?  But why?”  I hope he drove those rabbis crazy.

Today, Jesus snaps us out of our post-celebration funk, out of our whininess, and tendencies to mope along after the holidays – and this is how he does it:  He gets lost in Jerusalem.

And in so doing, he leads us back to Jerusalem too, back to the temple, back to the Holy Scriptures.  Don’t go just yet, after Christmas.  There are 12 days of Christmas and then Epiphany and then the whole year of 2013 to linger around God’s Holy Wisdom, Holy Word!  Let’s get lost in it together here at SVLC.  Talk about a New Year’s resolution.  Let’s bathe in the Word of God.  Let’s bathe in that 2nd lesson from Colossians.  [read it] Let’s ask questions together.  And let’s just hang around God’s grace and favor this 2013.  Let’s sing another Christmas carol, praise God, and celebrate Emmanuel, God-with-us a little longer: the Word made flesh, come to dwell in our midst for all eternity!  Let’s linger in God’s love and presence, both here in the church and out in the world…let’s stay with Christ and grow in wisdom.  For Christ is staying with us, whether we’re overwhelmed with thanksgiving or feeling sorry for ourselves, Christ is here to stay with you, today and forever.  Amen.      

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas Eve 2012

Listen to this sermon HERE.
I took drivers ed in Houston, TX when I was 15.  My instructor was less-than-stellar.  Or maybe it was me, who was less-than-stellar as a student.  My friend Greg and I were taking the course together, and we were more interested in the girls in our class than we were about the text book and rules of the road.  Whatever it was that prompted our instructor to speak of ultimate things, I’ll never forget when did:  Frustrated with me, I’ll never forget when he said: “Man, if you don’t learn nothin’ else in my class, learn this: watch out for big trucks.  They’re bigger than you, and they’re going to do whatever the hell they wanna do.” 

"Watch out for big trucks" -- best driving lesson I ever had.  Sometimes it’s good to have a simple but good word, even if it’s prompted by some less-than-stellar behavior.  Nothing fancy; short and to the point.  Something you’ll never forget.

Kelly Fryer tells a similar story in her book Reclaiming the “L” Word: Renewing the Church from its Lutheran Core.  She recalls her days in seminary, when she had to attend a large class where the professor was anything but short and to the point.  One particular day he was droning on and on about “some dead theologian”, as she says.   Fryer was tired and uninterested, and she notes that she wasn’t the only one.  In fact, almost every other classmate was drifting off or doodling in their margins or drooling on their desks.  Ever had a class like that?  Brutal. 

The professor, while boring, wasn’t blind.  Suddenly, as she tells it, he slams shut his notebook.  “He wasn’t going to waste another breath on [them].”  He marched over to the chalk board and draws a giant arrow on the board.  Angrily he pointed to the arrow:  “If you understand that, you understand everything you need to know about what it means to be a Christian!”  Then he walked out of the classroom and slams the door. 

The class just sat there, stunned.  Even scared.  Naturally our narrator assumed the professor was telling them that they were all going to hell, for not being better and more faithful students. 

But as she learned, she couldn’t be farther from the truth.  For when the professor came back to class the next Monday—and you can bet everyone was ready to pay better attention, coffee in hand—he drew the down arrow on the board again, only this time he explained what it meant: “God always comes down, he said, God always, always, always comes down.  There is never anything we can do to turn that arrow around and go UP to God.  God always comes down.  God came down in Jesus.  And still comes down in Jesus, through the bread and the cup and the fellowship of believers. God ALWAYS comes down.”

I can almost hear my old drivers ed teacher’s voice: “Man, if you don’t learn nothin’ in my class, learn this: God always comes down.”

Sometimes it’s good to have a simple but good word, even if it’s prompted by some less-than-stellar behavior.

Perhaps we, if we're hones, have been at times "less-than-stellar" this year, a little more naughty than nice.  Doesn’t change the fact that God comes down to us.  That’s the bottom line this Christmas Eve.  God comes to dwell with you this holy night…and always.

You matter to God that much.  Even you.  God loves you that much.  And there’s nothing you can do about that.

Christ was born in Bethlehem, yes.  And Christ is born today in our midst – wasn’t just while Quirinius was Governor of Syria.  It’s also when Jerry Brown was Governor California. 

Christ is born today in our midst – wasn’t just when shepherds of old were watching their flocks, and perhaps even some dear sheep are lost in the process.  It’s also when teachers and parents are doing their best to watch after their children – and some dear ones are lost.  Even with all the violence and horror of our times, and even with our shortcomings and sinfulness, God still comes down.

Christ is born today in our midst – wasn’t just the angels of old who sang a song that countered the violence and corrupt power of Rome, “Peace on earth, good will to all.”  It’s also we, the angels of new, forgiven, blessed and sent, who sing a similar song tonight, even with evidence to the contrary, God still comes down, and you are part of the angelic chorus, sweetly singing o’er the plain: “Silent night, holy night, Christ the Savior is born.”

We proclaim together to this frightened world that God always comes down.  Draw this down arrow with your lives, you heavenly angels!   Let us live like Christ has moved into our neighborhood.

God comes down…to dwell in the midst of our darkness.  To suffer with us in our pain, grief, loneliness and fear.  (Some said that God wasn't present with those children in Connecticut that terrible day.  That's wrong.  God was with them.  And God weeps now with their families.  God's power is not made in our image of power.  God chooses to be born in a manger, among the poor.)  Jesus didn’t arrive in an armored motorcade.  He arrived as vulnerable as a homeless man in downtown San Diego.  Born to a mother as insignificant as a hungry teenager in Tijuana.

Jesus Christ slips into our world, by the cover of night, and transforms it with love and forgiveness, from the inside out.  Christ comes down and is born in you and me, as we are being daily forgiven and renewed in the waters of baptism, weekly fed in bread of wine of his holy supper.  God comes down to save us, from sin and from fear, so that we can offer ourselves as little lights of hope for this dark world. 

“Man, if you don’t learn nothin’ else in this sermon, learn this: God comes down, and so we are lifted up.  All of us.”  Amen. 


Rarely do we sing a less-familiar hymn on Christmas Eve, but we’re going to right now.  Hymn 298, “The Bells of Christmas”, is actually not new, it’s older than anyone here.  It was written by Danish composer Nikolai Gruntvig, and he wrote at a time when rationalism was pushing the church toward irrelevance.  Its title might make it sound simplistic but as we sing, pay attention to the rest of the words for they are a profound proclamation of God’s incarnation, God’s coming down, in Jesus Christ… 

December 23 -- Fourth Sunday of Advent

Grace to you and peace, over and against all that is not peaceful in our world and our lives, grace to you and peace from God who slips into our world in peace.

As I was preparing for today, I came across this picture…

“I want to be mommy, no I want to be mommy.  OK, two mommies.”

The tale of 2 mommies, the meeting, Elizabeth and Mary – to share the good news: BABIES!  To share excitement.  Perhaps to share their concerns and their fears.  And to offer their praises to God. 

I’ll think of Katie and Lizzy, when I think of this story.  I also often think of two dear friends of ours from seminary: Annie and Sara.  I want to tell you a little about them…

My experience and observation of women relating to one another had been largely and very broadly about comparing and competing.  Competing for looks, competing for status, competing for men, competing for the things that make a woman successful.  And rather than building one another up, I had observed women often tearing one another down…usually subtly, or covertly, little comments under their breath to me or to others.  Men certainly do this too, of course, but I want to tell you about Sara and Annie, on this day as we reflect on Mary and Elizabeth of old.  Sara and Annie, two women, who I observed for 4 years, to be dear, dear friends.  And when they were apart for a time it was so joyous for me to see them reunite, that’s the closest picture I have to Mary and Elizabeth.  Maybe you have some friends like this too.  I sensed an unspoken understanding between Sara and Annie—like two sisters who genuinely get along and get each other.  They helped each other through some challenging times.  I always admired their relationship, and still do—it’s just a joy to watch.  They didn’t go around proclaiming their dear friendship to everyone.  They didn’t give each other matching jewelry, that I know of.  I probably wouldn’t even say they were best friends.  There was a kind of gracious space between them.  They both have families, they have lives apart from each other.  Now they’re both pastors and have to travel great distances to see each other.  And now they both have children.  But when they were together, you couldn’t help but notice a genuine sweetness between them, a joy just to watch.  Something I wish we all had—a deep joy they had, just in being in one another’s presence.  I think of them today.

We’ve got these beautiful angels this year at SVLC.  Angels that you’ve brought, on the tree, angels that our children and resident artists have made, hanging in the narthex. 

It’s good to reflect on the angels this time of year.  Tomorrow night, we’ll hear the story of the “angels of the sky” who meet the shepherds.  But this morning (amid the stress/stink) lets remember that perhaps the most bodily, the most earthy, and regular experience of angels we can have, is in the meeting of two friends, in the sharing of hopes, fears and joys.  Watch for angels these days, “angels of the ground”, not just “angels of the sky”

I don’t think we give the dear friends of this world enough credit sometimes.  Maybe we do, maybe we give ‘em gifts, and tell them how much we love them, but today let’s go all the way…and give our dear friends “angel cred”!  Let’s put them on the level and status of angels, for surely the love that they share gives them halo and wings.  Let’s celebrate the angels too, this season.  Annie and Sara, Lizzy and Katie, Mary and Elizabeth: all angels.

And here’s the thing about angels:  They’re not just a joy to watch from a distance.  Angels speak out, they sing out.  That is, angels don’t waver.  There’s our w-word for today: we waver. They know where they stand; their love is genuine and bold, gracious and strong.  And Mary demonstrates that with her angelic song – genuine, bold and unwavering.

In this world, we can waver, we can find ourselves on the fence, caught between the pulls of “consumption and power and money and fame and status and competition and cutting one another down and violence and fear and dog-eat-dog and buy, buy, buy” on one side—and the alternate, counter-cultural vision offered in the birth of Christ into humble, smelly conditions...the farthest thing from the worlds images of success and glory—oh how we can waver, how we can get lost, how we can get caught in it or sucked up by it. 

But the angels don’t waver.  Mary boldly proclaims the latter vision in her song.  “My soul proclaims your greatness O God, not the world’s greatness.  You lift up the lowly and cast down the mighty.  You feed the hungry.  Clothe the oppressed.” 

The beautiful, angelic, non-wavering song of Mary must not be sentimentalized – sometimes I get upset that we sing it and turn it into a gentle melody…because it is so political.  It turns the world on its head!..because it advocates for the poor.  Oh, may we have the non-wavering of Angel Mary!  Mary’s song is about how God longs for us to live together.  The poor shall be lifted up, the rich shall be brought down and “all flesh shall see it together” from a level plain.  Just trying to imagine that, all I see at first is violence, argument, vitriol – what do you mean the hard-working rich shall be brought down, and the poor slackers lifted up?  The corrupt rich and the oppressed poor...

But Mary’s beautiful song, isn’t political in that way.  It’s political in the way that two dear friends reunite.  Ever imagined two friends coming back together as political?  (The word political, from polis, Latin for city,  connoting “how shall we live together”)  It’s “how shall we live together” in the way that two dear friends come together.  The rich and the poor coming together like Annie and Sara!  Black and the white ending all strife and dealing compassionately with one another.  That’s Mary’s vision.  Male and female, or female and female, reuniting like Annie and Sara.  The slave and the free, the Democrat and the Republican, the easterner and the westerner, the Muslim and the Christian, the animal and the human.  Mary’s political song is a song of reunification under God, a peaceful and joyous coming together, as tender and sweet as Annie and Sara, Mary and Elizabeth.  And the world is turned on its head in love.  That’s what the angels mean – “peace on earth, goodwill to all!”  This is God come down to be with us!  This is Christmas.  Peace, joy, angels, friends, forgiveness.  Thanks be to God.  AMEN.  

Sunday, December 16, 2012

December 16 -- Third Sunday of Advent

The crowds asked him, “What then should we do?”

Sisters and brothers in Christ, in light of the violence and tragedy on Friday in Connecticut, we may find ourselves asking a similar question. 

“What then should we do?”  I don’t know about you, but I’ve been feeling pretty numb and a little paralyzed, since I started reading those headlines and watching the stories.  My stomach was kind of upset all day yesterday.  I don’t know about you but I can relate to these crowds in our gospel today wandering out to John in the wilderness, searching for answers, just kind of standing there – numb, paralyzed – with no idea what to do.

We are looking for a word, too:  a word of hope, a word of truth, a word of comfort and a word of peace.

What can the prophets of old say to us this late day?

Two weeks ago, we introduced this simple Advent theme here at SVLC: “breathe”.  And by that we mean be mindful of your breathing.  In the midst of all the hectic-ness this season, breathe.  And we’ve countered this invitation to breathe more intentionally with a different W-word each Sunday.  First week-WANT.  Last week-WEARY.  And this week-WORRY.  We worry.  Boy, ain’t that the truth, after Friday? 

We had the preschool staff Christmas party at our house last night, and one of the staff members was telling me that she got a call here at the school from a parent, who didn’t really even know why she was calling.  She was just worried, thinking about her baby.  And that’s what she said.  I imagine there were calls like that happening all over the country.  I can certainly relate.  All we want to do is reach out and connect, in the midst of unspeakable horrors.

As we hold one another, in shock and fear, as we do our best to breathe, through all this chaos and violence and running around, we also long to hear a good word, a gospel word.

We hear a lot of words, but what does the prophet say, what does the church say, what does God say?

“Trust in God.  Live faithfully.  Our salvation draws near.”

Even when the world comes crashing down around us (did you feel the earth quake this week?), even when the earth shakes and the mountains crumble, even when our schools…and shopping malls and movie theatres and homes are no longer safe, even when we can worry ourselves to the point of paralyzation and numbness, “Get up, trust in God, and live faithfully.  Our salvation draws near,” cries the prophet in the wilderness.

 “What then are we to do?” the crowd says.  Breathe – inhale, “trust in God,” exhale “live faithfully”, when the world comes crashing down around us.  And today, John the Baptist helps us unpack what “live faithfully” means. 

It means share.  If you have two coats, give one to someone who doesn’t.  That’s the grand answer!

If you have enough food, give some to someone who doesn’t.  That’s the prophet’s answer, as we wait for our salvation to draw near, as we watch our world come crashing down.  Share.  If you have access to clean water or good education or medical care or mental health professionals, share that with someone who doesn’t, John the Baptist says.  In other words, don’t be paralyzed by your fear or your sorrow, or your own stuff.  Get up, get out there, breathe and keep on sharing with those around you who are hurting too. 

Sometimes we can get so wrapped up, bogged down, in our own suffering that we can so easily forget that those around us might be suffering too, sometimes even worse!  We are being radically reminded of that right now, as we watch and pray and send our condolences to these poor families who mourn the loss of their 6 and 7 year olds this week.  But may our sorrow and our compassion and our prayers move us to act. 

May God help us live more faithfully, that is, may God help us to share and act in ways that make for peace.  May God help us reach out.  Notice the quiet ones, notice the sick ones, notice the lonely ones.  What action can we take as a community of faith?  What can we do for our children?

And God calls us individually this day.  Everyone is coming out to see John the Baptizer.  Even tax collectors and soldiers.  And to all of them, John says essentially, do what you do, but do it well.  Do it for the good of the community, of the whole, do it for the good of the planet, for the good of the children.  Don’t rip people off, even if you can get away with it.  Don’t cheat them, or intimidate them with your power, don’t speak ill of others.  The prophet really brings it today… 

And in this instructive finger-wagging from John, which meets us right where we are today, we also hear a promise.  That the one who is to come, Jesus the Christ, the humble shepherd king, will baptize us with the Holy Spirit and fire. 

Sisters and brothers in Christ, that’s what’s already happened to us.  We have been baptized with the fire of Christ, with the love of the Holy Spirit, and so all these challenges—to share, to love others, to care for friends and enemies alike, to breathe—all these challenges that John puts before us, are possible, on account of Christ.  We are able to act of peace, because of Christ who comes to grant us that peace.  Peace is our salvation, and it’s offered to us freely.  We can take it or leave it, but this baby in a manger, that we celebrate this season, offers us peace, that the world cannot give.  This baby in a manger, give us the power, the strength and the trust, to reach out to others.  In this manger that we approach in the next two weeks, lies the hope of the world.  A different kind of hope, a different kind of power, a love and a grace that surpasses our understanding, but a love and a grace in which we can rest eternally.  And that eternal peace starts today anew as we gather around the altar, as we hold hands and sing, as we continue to work and live and act and share in our daily lives. 

May the peace of Christ, dwell in you richly, as you are being rooted and grounded in the love of the one who comes to be among us this day and forever more.  AMEN. 

Prayer of Intercession

For communities and schools affected by violence, especially Sandy Hook Elementary School. As they remember and as they grieve, hear their cries and wipe away their tears. Assure them of your promised peace in the midst of suffering. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.