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, February 27, 2012

February 26 -- First Sunday of Lent

Grace to you and peace, from God who creates and waters the earth, from Jesus who redeems, and the Holy Spirit who comforts and challenges. AMEN.
Today’s Old Testament lesson – on which we are focusing here at the beginning of Lent – picks up at the end of a very frightening story.
It’s amazing that it seems to have become one of the main children’s bible stories. But I wonder if we can look at this story again with more mature eyes.
Let’s be honest. God wanted a redo. The earth God created in love and majesty had come face-to-face with the corruption of humanity. [screech-crash] Earlier vs. 6: “And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” God’s idea smashes up against the cruelty, the selfishness, the pride and the anger of humanity. And it makes God sorry. How do you imagine God here? Angry when he says he’s going to “blot out humanity”, or with tears in his eyes. This is actually a challenging story. I can just hear Micah asking me, when we read this “children’s story”: “Daddy, if God is Love, then why did God kill all those people and animals with a flood?”
What do you make of God’s decision? Forget how you would explain this to a little child, how do you explain it to yourself? I invite you to read this story again and ponder it this week.
One thing we can say for sure is that God’s idea of a good and harmonious creation, came to a screeching halt and crashed into a broken and sinful world.
(We see a very similar thing, by the way in our Gospel lesson: where Jesus – freshly baptized and named beloved, coming up out of the Jordan, good and harmonious – comes face to face with a world of temptation. And Jesus prevails…for our sake)
God is sad, God gets angry (we can only presume), and so the floods come.
But the waters that destroy are also the waters that save.
Let’s get back to baptism this Lent. On Ash Wednesday, I said that I hope you think about your baptism all the time this Lent. (And I’m going to make it hard for you not to, at least when you come to church—but that will only add up to a few minutes.) Remember your baptism all the time these 40 days! And here’s what learn about baptism from our story today:
The waters that destroy are also the waters that save. And God makes a covenant with Noah and with you, a promise, having come through those waters. The good news is that we live on this side of the flood waters. We live in the world of rainbows – God’s sign of the covenant. We live in the covenant.
I don’t think we’ll ever know the answers for the things that happened on the other side of floodwaters and the covenant, but we live here. Cleansed, washed, nourished, saved and sent by the rushing waters.
Remember you baptism. I say it so much around our kids that they remind me. (Dishwasher broke one time, spraying all over the kitchen…Micah: “Remember your baptism.”)
We live on this side of the flood. The bow in the sky is a symbol of God hanging up violence forever. (Last week we had an image of peace coming in the cloud on the mountain of Transfiguration. This week peace comes in the cloud again, but a rainbow is added to the image.)
Most prehistoric cultures had a flood story, a way of pointing to supernatural forces to explain. The difference is, for this Judeo-Christian flood story, it ends with a covenant – our reading today. It ends with a promise of forgiveness. And it describes a God who is deeply in relationship with humanity. Who cares deeply about what happens.
This is the true story: that God cares about what happens. With other gods, ancient or contemporary, there is no feeling towards humanity. Other ancient deities sit on high and could care less about what happens to the world and to humanity.
Even those things that we are tempted to make gods – money, power, leisure, happiness, possessions, prestige – they too, it’s like they sit on high and don’t care about us. They are what they are. But our God is deeply in relationship.
And that’s how the story of Noah and the ark ends! And this is how our Lent begins – with God connected to us, grieving, covenanting…but ultimately loving. God’s mercy is steadfast. And God is waiting.
God still grieves. And waits for us to turn from our reckless, self-centered and destructive ways. We humans are still at it, [pause] but we live on this side of the waters. How is God calling back? How is God calling you…on this side of the waters? How is God calling you off the ark? For you have been saved! AMEN.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Lent that breathes (Lenten practice suggestions by Pastor Dan)

If you give up/take on something for Lent, may you treat it less like a 40-day New Year’s resolution, a goal to be accomplished. Instead may it be seen as a tangible "turning to God" -- that is, to your community (local church, businesses, organizations, neighbors, friends), to yourself (caring for your body, which Scripture calls a "temple of the Holy Spirit"), or to the earth. “Remember that you are earth and to earth you shall return.”

for those feeling stressed out

Pray about and intentionally cut out at least 2 things in your weekly schedule.
Turn radio off in the car and drive in silence.

Park farther away from shops, etc. And walk more in general.
Leave earlier and sit quietly while you wait.
Practice breathing deeply and slowly, especially when you're tensing up or feeling angry.
Eat healthy food.
Say "no" to more invitations, requests, and other time-consumers...as a Lenten discipline.
Get a massage...as a Lenten discipline, and don't feel guilty.
Simplify even your free time (less TV, more reading; less computer, more walks; less chatter, more silence).
Get in the garden.

for those feeling spiritually dry
Get wet -- go swimming or take long baths...as a Lenten discipline. Remember your Baptism all the time--whenever you touch, taste, see, hear water.
Do a Lenten daily devotion (we offer one in the narthex)
Read the Bible regularly (lectionary texts available).
bookoffaith.org or get a copy of The Message for new perspectives.

Spend time with a child.

Go hiking, for an hour or a week.
Eat healthy.
Say a word of thanks to God before AND after each meal.
Go to the desert.
Take Sabbath moments--a minute here and there throughout the day to simply pause and ponder the beauty of creation and the gift of God's mercy, all freely given and shed for you.
Memorize a hymn and sing it to yourself or your children/grandchildren.
Come to Lenten vespers--dinner at 6, service at 7pm.
Let your very breathing be worship: "inhale grace; exhale peace". Think of this as often as possible.
Get into the garden
Pray about and perhaps start tithing (giving 10% of your "first fruits" not as a donation but as an offering) – probably the most poignant symbol that “you are not in control.”
Pick a group that is strange/foreign/maybe even seems hostile to you, and get to know one person from that group.
Practice random acts of kindness.
Volunteer/give to an organization that is committed to caring for the poor, the earth, animals, or the hungry.

for those feeling isolated or lonely
Invite a friend (or a potential friend) to dine with you.
Get in the garden.
Volunteer with TACO, Common Ground, Interfaith Shelter, Agape House.
Hand write a letter or a note to someone you appreciate.
Invite someone to church and lunch after.
Visit someone who is homebound, in the hospital or in prison.
Offer your time talents treasures at your church.
Get local--introduce yourself to a local shop keeper/employee at a business you frequent.
Go to your local library.

Respond to the tragedies in the news with cards and letters to families.

February 22 -- Ash Wednesday

Honesty is always good. Even if it hurts.
When I was growing up. I remember clearly my dad correcting me after catching me in a little lie that would have made things easier: "In our family, Dan, we tell the truth." “But Dad!” I'd start my rationalizing..."In our family, Dan, we tell the truth." It was one of our family mottos.
Today, is a day for truth telling. "Now is the acceptable time." Only today they’re not just little lies like 'I didn't eat the last cookie'. They’re the big ones. What big might lie might you be telling yourself or others around you? That you’re happy? That you’re healthy? That you’re fine? That you’re doing all you can for the poor, the needy? That you’re over it (whatever ‘it’ is)? That you really haven’t hurt that many with your choices? That you are really in control? How we can forget and stray and lie to ourselves that we humans are really in control.
Today, is the day for acknowledging our lies.
And today we receive our corrective, not from any earthly loving parent, but from the almighty, who in sternness and love calls us to repentance: “But, God!” we start to rationalize..."No,” says God, “In our family, we tell the truth."
Honesty is always good, even when it hurts.
And the honesty today, the two truths that we really come face to face with today, are about our sin and our death. We are all sinful, and someday we are all going to die. "Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return."
Today is a day for hard truths. "In our family, sisters and brothers in Christ, we tell the truth."
We start there. This tradition of ashes dates back to Christians in the 11th century. Isn't that incredible?!
The Christians of that time would put ashes on themselves, in a gesture of honesty, and they would weep together. Not in a showy sign of piety (like in our Gospel reading), but because it was part of their faith. Telling the truth, was part of their faith. A tiny outward sign of a humungous inward truth: I'm/we're all going to die; I am/we're all sinful and broken.
We start there; it’s a hard place to be. Like in a 12-step program. We can’t go anywhere if we don’t admit there’s a problem. Christianity begins with an ultimate problem: sin and death. And it ends with Christ. Today we begin again by admitting that we are not in control. We are not always healthy. We do hurt others and the earth itself. We could make better choices. We could share more of what we have. We harbor anger and resentment, greed and pride. We like to show off (mostly in covert ways). We don’t want to share. We are afraid to trust in God.
We are sinful.
And while it’s not easy to tell the truth. It is good. Even if it hurts.
There is a load that is lifted when the truth comes out. “Well, now we know.” There is a load that is lifted. And God is there.
And now we can begin on the journey. A journey that’s not easy either, but a journey to the waters of healing. The waters of baptism.
I hope you think about your baptism all the time this beautiful Lent. Put up signs by your faucet, and your sprinkler system, and your umbrella to remind yourself that God makes you holy in baptism. You are loved and your are destined for loving others…even if its difficult right now. And even despite even our worst mistakes God is here calling us back again and again back to those holy waters, to God’s holy embrace…where we are called good, beloved, child of God.
There is healing that comes with telling the truth. And Christ goes with us on this journey. AMEN.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

February 19 -- Transfiguration Sunday

Some of you know that my last call was a difficult one. There weren’t many places where I could talk about it openly. To spare you the details, suffice to say, that I was trying and for the sake of the ministry up there in Orange County, I felt like I needed to be something that I was not. (Nothing can be more detrimental to your well being.)
And part of the pain was keeping it to myself: I didn’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings; I didn’t want to alienate myself. And I’ve grown up in a culture that tells me that you should just put on a smiley face, “make the best of it”, and tell everybody (and even yourself) that everything is fine.
But I was coming up short, and I was coming apart. As our bishop keenly helped me name, it was “sucking my soul”.
The only time I could be brutally honest was with a few close friends and colleagues, who were geographically far away. And I would get to see them twice a year a retreat called First Call Theological Education. As new pastors in the ELCA, we are required to go to these gatherings twice a year for our first three years of ministry…just a place to fellowship, to learn, and perhaps (more often than not) to commiserate with other new pastors over the unexpected challenges and woes of ministry.
I had not yet finished my 6 required FCTE events when I arrived at Shepherd of the Valley, because I was only in my first call for 2 years.
The whole reason I’m tell you all this: When I came back, one particularly observant colleague, who I didn’t even know that well, said to me:
“Hey Dan, what’s with you? Something’s changed about you…You’re standing up straighter, you look calmer and genuinely happier, it’s like your shape has changed. I almost didn’t recognize you.” True story.
Not every would have caught that. I hadn’t even. But Maegan did: She said my shape had changed for the better.
Have you ever notice that in people? When their shape changes for the better? And I’m not talking about loosing weight here. I mean their whole demeanor shifts. I’ve seen it happen when people get a new haircut, or a wardrobe makeover, or a new job, or a new friend…and suddenly there’s a spark there that they didn’t have before. They just carry themselves differently. It is as if their shape has changed for the better. In other words, it is as if they have been transfigured.
Today we celebrate transfiguration. And here’s the thing: Jesus is transfigured so that we might be transfigured too. [let's repeat together]
Peter goes from being full of hot air – he just blathers out, “Jesus, let’s build three dwellings…” because…he was scared to death, because he didn’t know what t say. Some people clam up when they’re scared. And then others, like Peter, can’t keep their mouth shut.
But on that mountain, it’s not just Jesus who is transfigured. Jesus is transfigured so that we might be transfigured too! So that we too might shut up for a second, all our chatter and banter, blathering. Just shut up for a second, Peter, and bask in the awe and the glory and the grace and the beauty of God.
Have you ever been around people that are so nervous and fidgety that they make you that way too? On the flip side: have you ever been around someone who is so calm, that it starts to rub off on you?
I think we really have to cultivate peace and non-anxiety….because we live in hyper-hyper-anxious times, uber-angst [angst in GE is "fear"]. (I don’t have to sell you on this idea, just look at news, look around...)
As I read this Gospel text from beginning to end, it’s like crossing a spectrum from hyper-anxiety to the peace that only Christ can offer. Peace is imaged here as a cloud. [pause] I love sunshine and blue sky, but what peace there is an overcast sky! What peace there is in being covered by a cloud. It’s like God’s quilt. I love, love verse 8: “And suddenly [then] when they looked around, they saw no one with them, but only Jesus.” They too had been transfigured. We too have been transfigured.
In the encounter with the brightness of Christ, which we find here in Water, Word and Meal. Be not mistaken – every Sunday can be understood as a transfiguration Sunday. We might not always light [this] Paschal candle, but Christ always lights our hearts, in the breaking of the bread, in the passing of the peace, in the sharing of the Word and the splashing of the water. Our shapes are changed for the better. The load is lifted. We stand up straighter. We look calmer, and genuinely happier. They almost don’t even recognize us…God’s grace and glory is so good. And we are at peace – not sedated. No we are at peace in Christ, at peace with ourselves, at peace in the world. And so we can move…right off this mountain! We are active in God’s world, loving and caring and sharing what we have, because we are at peace…that is, we know that what we have is all really God’s anyway. It all belongs to God.
And it is a joy to take care of what God has entrusted to us—money, talents, time—for this short life.
We go now from this mountain, sisters and brothers, with Christ, having been transfigured and transformed for the better. Having been fed and nourished. Having been offered the peace that only Christ can give. We follow Jesus down from the mountain, to serve and love, and live and share. AMEN.

Monday, February 13, 2012

February 12 -- Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

Let me tell something about Jesus: There are some things that just...[nasty face] make him sick.
Have you ever heard someone say that? "It just makes…me…sick."
What makes…you…sick?
-gay people? (back in the headlines with Prop 8 ruled unconstitutional)
-beaches covered with oil? (my memory of Galveston)
-Barack Obama?
-Fred Phelps?
-people who hit their children? -- violence begetting more violence
-anyone who would burn the US flag?
-Muslims, all of them?
-human trafficking on Jamacha Blvd.? 14 yrs old girls and a market that keeps their pimps in business?
-"that person"?
Why am I doing this to you? Why am I trying to conjure up this absolutely disgusted feeling? Are you feeling it? Can you get there? I must talk to at least 3 people every week who are there. Just sssssick. Down to their guts?
The feeling is definitely enough to make you cry, but you’re not there right now…it’s mostly anger and absolute disgust.
Well, that’s splaghitzomai! Spla-what?
It's the Greek word for what happens to Jesus when he sees the leper. It makes him ssssick.
Our translation says it like this: that he’s “moved with compassion”. But that’s a bad translation. Well, it’s not all wrong, it’s just totally inadequate. Some Bibles really get their Greek wrong because they write, Jesus “felt sorry for” the man with leprosy. This isn’t just “Awww. Poor guy. Poor little leper...” like he’s a puppy with a broken leg. NO, this is splaghitzomai!
He certainly is concerned about the man’s condition physically, and wants to do something about that, and he does. But even more, he is enraged by a system that separates people so cruelly. This healing is really a justice issue…the more I study this text and this strange activity that follows the healing. Sending him off to the priest. Ordering him not to tell. He is publically – once again, still in Chapter 1 – he is publically breaking with Levitical law on multiple levels, starting with the fact that he’s touching an unclean man. Lepers were next to dead, in the order of cleanliness, in a society that divided itself on the basis of clean and unclean. Here’s the order of uncleanliness spelled out in Levitical law: women, menstruating women, any with a deformity, any with an illness, the demon possessed, the leper, the dead. Are you catching Jesus’ splaghitzomai at this system? This kind of division, this kind of injustice makes him ssssick.
And while it’s obviously much different now than it was then, in our world in 2012 lurks still such inhumane divisions: divisions among class, ethnicity, religious belief, gender, sexual orientation, immigration status, diet, people with disabilities…just to name a few. And in the bold spirit of Jesus according to the Gospel of Mark, it must be said that the divisions we humans can make are just wrong!
I'm afraid we take some kind of pill…to cope with all the injustices around us…a pill that numbs us. What’s your pill? What are you taking?
(I was at restaurant working on the first part of this sermon. And I had the impulse to scream as I was studying and writing and uncovering what Jesus was up to in this text, [could you imagine?] but instead I just took another bite of my food. Even though my stomach was kind of sick and full.)
What’s your pill? Or maybe our pill doesn’t numb us, maybe it distracts us. The pain all around gets in our head for a minute. But then I turn on the game, I take another bite. Some of us drink. Some of us collect stuff. Some of us sleep. We cozy up and protect our own. But there is suffering out there. There are hungry children; people with no place to sleep; there are so many who are being rejected like lepers; there are oceans being polluted; jobs being cut; little girls being exploited! And we turn on the game, we balance our check books, we hug our little ones…our cute little ones, not those pitiful little ones. Something to blind us, confuse us. Maybe we even find a way to justify the suffering of this world: “Like, maybe they deserve it. Maybe God’s punishing them. We can’t understand, but God must be punishing them. Could you pass the potatoes?” We’re almost on the verge of screaming, but instead I just take another bite.
Somehow we figure out how it’s ok that the leper is treated the way he is. “That’s just the way it is.” We swallow that pill.
But not Jesus!!! Jesus doesn’t take any kind of pill. He feels it. All of it. He has splaghitzomai. He could cry, but right now he’s just disgusted…and he feels all of it. He knows all of it, all the pain. And it makes him sick.
Amazing, isn’t it? It makes him sick, so he reaches out and touches the sick. Doesn’t make any sense.
Today following this time, something a little different.
We’re going to have a brief service of healing as we sing. This is not magical, TV evangelism healing that I’m about to do, or you’re about to do, actually. This is a simple and yet powerful ritual of feeling and hearing and smelling (healing oil) Christ’s words for us today: “Be made clean.”
Be made clean from all that hurts us, and all that might even be causing us to hurt others around us. Be made clean. Be made clean from all that enslaves you, all that pains you, all that grieves you, all that burdens you. Be made clean. Be made clean from all that separates and divides you from the community around you. Be restored. Come back. Come back to life. Come back to me, Jesus says as he heals us. Come back to me…by going out…clean and new and forgiven and freed…
Sisters and brothers in Christ – I stand here as one of you with the gift and the burden of announcing to you that your pain – this day – your sorrow, your numbness, your distraction, your separation from that which is whole and healthy, your illness, physical, mental, emotional, spiritual – your pain, our pain makes Christ sssick. And so he chooses to heal. He chooses to reach out and touch us. He chooses to love. He chooses to be ever presence. He chooses community. He chooses you.
Be made clean, he says, this day and forever more. AMEN.

Monday, February 6, 2012

February 5 -- Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Do you ever feel like Simon’s mother-in-law? IN BED WITH A FEVER?
If you had a son-in-law like Simon, you might. [my best Brooklyn Jewish accent] “Look at him,” the Jewish mama might say, “running around with his buddies. He's meshuggina (crazy)! Oh, now you’re a fisherman?! They're taking advantage of you! What about my daughter? Oh, now you’re off and following this man Jesus? He's no good, I tell you!”
Maybe she got so worked up, worrying and fretting and caring that she reaches the point of life threatening illness, and finds herself in bed with a fever!
It’s kind of funny to pin anxiety on the beloved Jewish mamas of our culture, but the truth is that we all harbor that kind on worry and fret at some level. And often when we start worrying like that, we get very suspicious of others. [Jewish mama] “Your employers are crooked Simon! This Jesus who you’re following is no good!”
How we all, like Simon’s mother-in-law, in a state feverish worry can start cutting others down, can sever trust, heighten suspicion and spread gossip….
I’m not sure how many of you knew this but I’m the dean of our Eastern conference of churches here in San Diego. This means that I co-chair our clergy gatherings with the dean of the west SD conference. And once a year we go away on a short 1-night retreat with the other half-dozen deans. That retreat was on Thursday night and Friday up in Temecula.
And there we meet with Bishop Finck, and always at the end of this retreat, our bishop invites his staff to leave the room, and he opens himself up for honest feedback. “How’s it going, really?” he asked us on Friday. “This is an important time for you to share with me…”
And in that time as we tossed out our feedback – mostly critical, I’m afraid – I realized how suspicious we get of one another especially when we’re in anxious times and when we feel disconnected. How we can be like I’m envisioning Simon’s mother-in-law. As if the Bishop and the folks at our national ELCA offices in Chicago are somehow devious or spiteful or selfish. It’s so easy to go there, to get all worked up, like a Jewish mama: pastors expressing their suspicion of the bishop and his staff, synod staff talking about pastors, pastors talking about their congregations (not me of course J), congregational members talking about their pastors (not you of course J).
And that’s just in the church! In anxious, lean times such as these, how easy it is to break one another down with rumors and attacks both in front and behind one another’s backs.
And it seems exactly the opposite of what we need the Spirit’s help to do in difficult times: Everyone is hurting at some level, and probably acting out of that brokenness. Everyone is grieving a loss at some level – we can’t fully understand the depth of our sister and brother’s pain, but we can try by listening. By seeking to understand. By asking. By holding one another in our feverish concerns. By praying for one another even when we’re geographically separated. By building one another up, rather than cutting one another down. That takes faith in God, which is offered to us again today.
And that’s just in church life! How this “ministry of mutual building-up” could be multiplied and shared and spread in the world! Rather than fevers becoming viral, patience and compassion goes viral! Could you imagine?
Jesus reaches down to us, sisters and brothers in Christ! Down to you in bed with a fever of frenzy, with a fever of anxiety, with a fever of worry, with a fever of busyness, with a fever of pain, with a fever of sorrow, with a fever of fear, with a fever of anger – Jesus reaches down to you, takes you by the hand and pulls you out of that funk.
Last week I said that in Mark, every healing, every casting out of demons, is a cosmic clash of Christ’s love and light conquering evil. It’s true here too. The powers of fear and suspicion of our neighbors, the anxiety and frenzy of this daily life can render us bed-ridden. I heard someone say this week that he thinks a most of our hospitalizations today are really caused by something greater than just nuts-and-bolts biology.
There’s a sickness of the soul that’s got us all feverish.
But Jesus arrives, this day, reaches out, takes us by the hand and pulls us into health. So that our spirits may rise and our bodies may serve.
The scripture says that when Simon’s mother in law is healed, she immediately begins serving them…which makes it sound a little self-serving on Jesus’ part, like “we’re hungry, so maybe if I heal Simon’s Jewish mama, we could get some food around here.” But I’d encourage you to think of it more in terms of the suspicions dissolving after we’re healed and be begin by serving one other….not cutting one another down.
The disciples and even Jesus, who Simon’s mother-in-law cut down before, are now her partners in ministry. This healing is restorative community. This healing casts out our suspicion of one another, even our hatred, so that we might join hands and serve, starting with serving each other.
And then who knows where God will lead us next... AMEN.