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, January 30, 2012

January 29 -- Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

[Story of Dad taking a picture of Micah yesterday face-to-face with a snake near the Cabrillo Historic Lighthouse in Point Loma.]
Unwilling (or unable?) to look up, smile, and look beyond his immediate situation.
That simple image strikes me this morning as particularly illustrative for our Gospel reading. Except take away the sweet little boy Micah and a harmless garden snake and replace them with a man possessed by an unclean spirit. Eyes and body locked up, like a snake has actually coiled around him. And is squeezing him, and has him crying out strange things. And like Micah, he is unwilling or unable to look up and see anything else.
There was an older woman at a church I used to serve…who had some wonderful gifts for ministry. She was a teacher and a friend of the youth, she was creative and insightful at times. But every time I went out of town, I would get this email from her, that was like another person. Her words were mean and nasty, like venom. It took me a while to figure out that there was some history and chemical dependency and an imbalance of medication in the mix here…that it wasn’t just me causing this outburst. But it was as if something had been punctured, and this deep-seated anger and brokenness inside of her, which she normally kept neatly concealed, was bubbling out all over the keyboard, poisoning the airwaves. Sometimes she’d even copy her notes to others.
When I’d return, I’d immediately make an appointment, but she’d assure me that everything was fine. It had blown over. Sometimes she’d even deny or forgot the whole thing even happened.
But something was gripping her. Something was coiling around her, keeping her from looking up, from seeing beyond, causing her to cry out strange things. [pause]
There was a nation once, whose military industrial complex was unreal. This country made our harbor full of artillery look like nothing. Everything was secure and sound in that nation. Walls were perfectly erected designed to keep out any invaders and foreign contaminants, even biological. Weapons of mass destruction were hidden with strategy and precision inside every mountain and under waterways. And they were always ready for any kind of attack. Ships and tanks and fighter jets were stationed in every town and a patrol officer at every corner. They spared no expense in training their soldiers. In fact, they start training their children when they’re old enough to carry a weapon, so that by the time they’re teenagers they are like Navy Seals. And their intelligence agency was the sharpest the world had ever seen.
But something was gripping that little country. For behind all the weaponry and the walls was a fear. Deep in the caves of the people’s hearts…was a sadness and a pain. For in no God could they trust….only in their machines. Something was coiling around that whole nation, keeping it from looking up, keeping it from seeing beyond, causing it to cry out strange things. [pause]
There was once a young man, who was afraid to speak. He thought he wanted to be a preacher. But he was so overcome with fear and guilt and a crippling self-consciousness that even after he had taken the class and gotten the accolades from his preaching professor, when he climbed into the pulpit for the first time, his mouth went dry. His heart sank to his feet and he was struck dumb. The sweat pounded down from this forehead and onto his manuscript, and his hands shook uncontrollably.
It was as if something was gripping him. Something was coiling around his voice box, keeping him from looking up and crying out beyond himself a Good Word to a people in pain. [pause]
Today Jesus enters the temple, sees a child of God possessed by an unclean spirit, and he crushes that demon!
You have to understand something about the Gospel of Mark as a whole: This book is not gentle spiritual guidance, graceful suggestions for the Christian life, sweet stories of our Lord. No, Mark tells of a Jesus who crushes that demon. Mark reeks of radical in-your-face good-crushing-sin Gospel! We’re only in the first chapter here. And Jesus is casting out a demon in the temple on the Sabbath! Jesus doesn’t gently brush shoulders with challenges, float past opposition like a holy leaf in the breeze, bestowing peace and security and happiness to all. No, Mark is all about Jesus going head to head with the forces of evil.
Jesus actions and words are as swift and as audible as one of our fighter jets tearing across the San Diego sky: Deafening and striking awe in everyone.
Every story in Mark is a cosmic clash with Satan. With those powers in our world that coil around us and deteriorate our hope. That cripple us with fear, anger, pain and sorrow.
Jesus stomps on the snake’s head. He crushes the oppressors rod. A modern-day Isaiah would say that he bends the AK47 into a gardening tool…
So that at last the man can look up.
Jesus reaches out to that angry old woman with her vitriolic words and snaps the neck of the snake that has coiled around her. And she can look up at last.
Jesus reaches out to that warring nation and rebukes the demons, “Come out!” Jesus says, “Be silent, and come out.” And the scripture says that the unclean spirit of a whole people, after convulsing and crying out with a loud voice, finally leaves. And. There. Is. Peace.
And to the young man who was struck dumb in the pulpit, Christ comes and opens the mouth of the prophets. To preach release to the captive, hope to the oppressed, forgiveness to all, and love. The demon is crushed and love wins the day.
To you…Christ comes. To you he reaches out and takes your demons and your burdens and your sorrows and your guilt and your anger and your pain…
And he crushes them. Look up. And live. For Love is on our side. AMEN.

Monday, January 23, 2012

January 22 -- Third Sunday after Epiphany

I’m afraid that the quick response of Andrew and Peter, James and John is more a style of Mark the Evangelist than what might have actually happened.
Yesterday morning a small group of us from Shepherd of the Valley – together with a small group from the Calvary Lutheran and their Oromo (Ethiopian) congregation – gathered together and after singing a hymn and saying a prayer…read the entire Gospel of Mark, which is actually quite short compared to the others – only 16 chapters, compared to Luke, John and Matthew which get up into the 20’s. As always it was quite moving, and I was reminded again how precise and quick-to-the-point Mark’s writing is. No excessive verbiage in narrating through all the hesitations and thoughts of the disciples in this particularly story. No, Mark’s text says they “immediately” left their nets and followed…and so we get on with the story…
But I’m afraid it was more complicated that that. And archeological evidence is now helping to confirm my worry: Fishing as a business, although I’ve always tended to think of fishing as a lower class job, stinky and for people without much, archeologists and historians are showing us that fishing was actually quite lucrative. Because of the Roman Empire’s presence there were trade channels throughout the Mediterranean and a fisherman was actually quite connected and well paid. So much so that it was not uncommon to become the family business…like the Zebedee and Sons business that we hear about here today.
I think it would be much easier to follow Jesus if we were really at the end of our respective ropes…
If we didn’t have anything, if we hated our jobs, if our families and friendships were unimportant, and if all our stuff didn’t matter to us.
But as it turns out, I have many things. We all do, in this context. Many nets, many fish, many relationships, money, many a healthy day left. I’m a prime candidate for insurers. Many blessings. Maybe I should title the early part of this sermon “When Our Blessings Become Our Excuses”. So many excuses that frankly make me want to believe it was easier for the disciples because they didn’t have all the things I have. If they did they never would have risked it all. “It was easier for them; they were just fishermen.”
But I’m afraid I’m kidding myself. To leave behind their livelihoods and their families to “follow Jesus” in a political and economic climate as harsh as the ancient Mediterranean world was just as frightening – if not more – than it would be today. Darn it!
What are your nets, excuses, blessings that you’re unwilling to yield? What do you need to drop in order to hear Christ’s loving invitation more fully? Doesn’t have to be just physical things...Do you have obsessions that are getting in the way? Relationships that are unhealthy? Anger at something someone did to you? Anger at God? What stuff is holding you back from letting go and following?
I’d like try something…[ushers]
Write down and answer this question.
It’s easy to say you believe in Jesus, but what is it that is keeping you from following Jesus?
That’s a private question, and rather than wading it up immediately, or bringing it up front or burning it symbolically right now, I’d like you to take it home. Live with that which is holding you a little bit longer. You’ve named it; that’s good. Now live with it, hold it, for a bit more. Acknowledge that it is your companion – it’s probably been walking with you for a long while. Even our unhealthy habits – our anger, our overeating, our destructive relationships – can become friends because they’re what we know.
But in time, maybe later today, maybe later this week or in a month, start to let it go. God will give us the strength.
Let it go.
Sisters and brother in Christ:
Jesus calls us. Jesus calls you from the safety of your nets, from the security of your boats. Jesus calls you from your blessings and your pain, and invites you, invites us to plunge into the deeper waters and rockier roads of ministry. And while it may sound difficult and frightening, and it is certainly risky, this is God’s gift to us. This is God’s love and God’s grace at work in many and mysterious ways.
God is offering us a richer life in following Jesus. (I don’t want to define what following Jesus looks like; that’s what we start to hear when we let go of all the baggage.) A deeper connection with our neighbor, with the earth, with our own bodies. God is offering us our integrity and our health. (The word salvation comes from salvus which is deeply connected to wholeness and health.) So many of us live divided lives. Hidden secrets, immense baggage from past experiences. And we tend to pad that pain with stuff, we tend to busy our lives so much that don’t have to hear Christ’s whispering call. But Christ is here...inviting us today to leave our abundance and our pain, our lucrative busy-ness and all the noise in our lives, our determination to be secure and our anger, Christ invites you this day to come and follow him.
The road will be rocky. The seas will be choppy. But when we are held in the arms of Christ, there is true peace. The peace that passes all understanding. That peace is yours this day and forever. Let go. For God’s got you and God’s peace rains down on you. This day and forever. AMEN.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

January 15 -- Second Sunday after Epiphany

“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathaniel asks.
There’s just something about his sarcasm and hopelessness that resonates for me. Do you ever feel like Nathaniel?
Is there anything good that can come out of…[pick your source of pain, your arch rival, or your recurring annoyance]
This person that I can’t stand?
Another death in the family?
This period of joblessness?
Going to church again this Sunday?
Same old music?
Some new songs I’ve never heard?
Another one of Pastor’s droning sermons?
This election year?
Barack Obama?
Mitt Romney?
This economic depression?
The U.S. military?
The Occupy Movement downtown?
Can anything good come from a civil rights movement? (MLK)
Can anything good come from having a dream?
Standing up for housing rights? Schooling rights? Religious rights?
Muslim? Atheist?
Can anything good come from Christians?
“Can anything good come out of Nazareth, because we’ve been down this road before…”
I don’t know if I want to give Nathaniel a hug or a high five…
He’s my tragic brother. He’s that voice on my shoulder that whispers, “It can never work, don’t kid yourself.” [Community Garden, recovery of our declining church body, efforts to strike out hunger, cancer, improving education or health care in our nation] “It can never work,” says Nathaniel. There may be some truth to Nathaniel’s sarcasm and cynicism.
And he’s sitting under a fig tree.
And Jesus sees him. What is that about?
I means Jesus sees through all his layers of sarcasm and cynicism and hopelessness. He sees “an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” Jesus sees honesty. And he sees that honesty, that realism holding Nathaniel captive, like a snake coiled around him. And Jesus sees more than that: he sees beneath those layers of cynicism and hopelessness, a child of God, from a member of the family who everyone else looks at and says, “Can anything good come from Nathaniel’s mouth?”
Fig in our backyard with it’s low-hanging branches that hide; figs are what Adam and Eve used to cover themselves.) It’s also, I understand, a symbol for home in the Old Testament – Micah, Isaiah, and Zechariah. Sees through the hiddenness of the fig, sees through all the baggage of our homes our backgrounds. Jesus sees right through it all, and honors and calls his disciple.
That’s interesting news for those of us who identify with Nathaniel. And here’s the other side of it. The text is so rich, in case you’re not feeling Nathaniel: The other side is Philip.
“Come and see” is what Philip says, when he’s challenged.
Philip lets God be God. He’s still searching too, he doesn’t have all the answers, but all he’s saying is let’s just give this Jesus a try. Let’s go and follow him. Let’s let him be God and not try to take on that job. (Interesting how some religious groups feel that the have to defend God.)
Philip is that other voice on our shoulder, when we start getting cynical and hopeless. Perhaps the best voice. Notice: Philip’s voice is not saying, “Hey, it’s OK, everything is going to be alright.” No, the truth is Martin Luther King, Jr. gets shot. Jesus gets crucified. Is that “everything turning out OK”?! No, Philip models two things: 1) an openness to God’s calling, Christ’s invitation, and 2) a commitment to listening in community, a commitment to tolerance of various points of view and issues. Come with me, he says. Community discernment is so important. It’s like Eli and Samuel’s back-and-forth before little Samuel answers. We need each other to discern God’s call. “Where is God calling us as a congregation?” is the question our church council wrestles with in this new year. And it’s yours too. I’ve got thoughts. You’ve got thoughts. But are my desires in line with what God wants. That takes communal prayer and communal discernment. Do our thoughts line up with God’s invitation?
God is calling. God is moving. God is picking you out from under the fig trees, picking us out from our thickets of hopelessness and fear and saying you are my disciples. I need you and all doubts and questions…because I need your honesty. I need your willingness to just giving it a try, your commitment to your community, Christ says. Come and follow me.

January 8 -- Epiphany Sunday

Uh...the computer ate my sermon.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

January 1, 2012 -- First Sunday of Christmas

We entrust the future to God.
One of my favorite stories, worth telling again… old Harold….
We’ve had the flame of the good news of Christ passed to us. Perhaps it was long ago, perhaps it was just this morning. But it has been passed to you and to me. We carry it, as faithfully as we can, precariously at times out, into the world, and then we too pass it on from our nervous hands to the precarious hands of those who are younger than us. That is entrusting the future to God. That is being a vessel, letting God’s word and love move though us to be shared. It’s a wonderful image, I think, for us to ponder this first day of 2012. “God let me be a sharer of your light.”
You have chosen to mark this day and start this year, in the temple, in the sanctuary, in a holy place – where we like Harold, like Simeon and Anna, perhaps just as exhausted, but hopeful nonetheless, dedicate our lives, our new year to God. And it works both ways: in the offering we make, in the dedication we make here, God blesses us too. Except it’s not a transaction, like in the market place. It’s the joy of doing church together. It just happens as we are blessing God, God is blessing us even more. Our God doesn’t work in terms of if/ then (if you praise me, then I’ll bless you). No, for God it’s both/and.
I’ve had the chance to hold 2 newborns since Christmas Eve – my new little niece Sydney and our friend’s Michelle and Tim’s little baby Kate – both 2 weeks old.
I can’t hold these tiny babies, during this season of Christmas, and not think of how incredible it is that God comes to us so vulnerable, so fragile. (If you get a chance – 5 days of Christmas left…J) What a strange gift! (Did you get any strange gifts this year for Christmas?) What a strange gift that God chooses to become so tiny and vulnerable. Our God: nursing every two hours, pooping and sleeping.
And in that strange way, that babies bless us, so God rests in our arms, in our hands at the holy table, in our hearts and our bones though the week. The Word is made flesh, the salvation of the world…it is this strange God, this infant Christ child to whom we entrust our new year.
It is this strange God who Mary and Joseph took to the temple. Nothing but a newborn baby to everyone else – incredibly cute and incredibly vulnerable, nursing, pooping, sleeping… but to Simeon and Anna this baby was even more.
The very, very young is held by the very, very old. And they get it: they get that they are being held too by this holy child! The salvation of the world, the light of life, the bread of heaven, held right there in their wrinkled hands.
They get it, Simeon and Anna do – how important, how fragile, how special this baby is: it is both sheer joy that they express, but also the prophetic acknowledgement that carrying this baby with us means we will be changed and challenged for the rest of our days, that, as Simeon says, “a sword will pierce your own soul too”, that this baby will bring opposition, he will tear down walls that divide, he will lift up the brokenhearted, the ones who the world pushes aside, this tiny one will bring the them to the center.
This baby will turn the world upside down with unconditional love. And that will be upsetting, Simeon says, even to you.
Holding the salvation of the world, as fragile as crumbly bread, we bless God and partake in the joy of Christ. “My eyes have seen at last the salvation of the world…AND the road ahead won’t always be easy. But we hold and bless this Christ child nonetheless…for the one we bless, blesses us even greater!
Simeon has this amazing line, after he holds this tiny holy baby: He says essentially, “I can die now.” “Lord, now let your servant go in peace.” “I can die now, holding and knowing this Christ is that good!”
As you looking forward to this New Year, what are the things that you’re waiting for, what needs to happen in your life, where you could say, “God, I could die now. Lord, let your servant go in peace”?
I invite you this month to do some intentional thinking about this question. What are the things that matter in your life? People make new year’s resolutions, but I read the other day that 9 out of 10 people have pretty much forgotten them after 2 weeks time.
Consider your past year – highs and lows – prayer of thanksgiving for your highs, places you’ve failed, ask forgiveness and let it go, places of pain and need – name them.
And then write down …what your hopes, dreams and goals for this year.
Hold this day, this year as reverently (as prayerfully), as joyously, and as consciously as Anna and Simeon held the newborn Christ. And then entrust it to God. Pass it over, and live or even die at peace. I don’t want anyone to die, I don’t want to die, but if I do, Romans says, I die in Christ. I die in peace, knowing that salvation has been fulfilled. IN this bread and wine my own eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared in the sight of every people!” I’m struck by the amazing peace that is present in a room both at the moment of new life and at the moment of death. The very very young and the very very old both seem to me to be the very best teachers of trusting…
God is holding us, and always will, through this new year, and into eternity. AMEN.