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

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

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

So, what's been hooking you?

So, what's been hooking you?

Here you can...

Monday, March 26, 2012

March 25 -- Fifth Sunday of Lent

Grace to you and peace, from God who always makes the first move and reaches out to us, in peace. AMEN.
If one takes Lent seriously, if one takes church seriously, then Lent can be a very active time, a very reflective time. But it’s really up to that individual. I’ve said a few times here this Lenten season, that to the rest of the world, these are just more busy spring weeks. The practice, the discipline of Lent has gone out the window for many in our world and our culture. But to those in the church, it is an opportunity to mark the 40 days before Christ’s passion and death, to set aside disciplines and practices – as benign as wearing purple or trying not to say Alleluia (Micah yesterday); or as profound as connecting with the estranged, getting out of your comfort zone, completely changing your exercise and eating habits, or coming to terms with an hard truth about your life and emerging in a new way albeit painfully. Being reflective, and contemplative during this church season, is actually quite involved activity. It’s tiring. And then we’ve talked and seen resources these 40 days about the Laws of God – some challenging topics: the 10 commandments, money and faith, about serving in the world, about tough issues, like the trafficking of young girls. Maybe some of us have had a meaningful and involved Lent; maybe some of us have not. My point is…you’ve got to make Lent happen for yourself; you’ve got to take Lent seriously; you’ve got to grab it by the horns; it doesn’t just happen to us.
Today is the last Sunday of Lent. Next Sunday, we remember the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem with the palms, and we read aloud together the entire story of Jesus’ passion and death. And so today is, in a sense, a transition Sunday…from Lent to Holy Week. It’s still Lent, there’s still time to take it by the horns, but something is shifting as the days pass.
And the move and the mood from Lent to Holy Week might be characterized as simply “letting go”. That might be a good word whether you’re a Lent practice or not. Letting go. Letting go of the charge we’ve been taking. Rather than making it happen, rather than taking it by the horns, we are shifting now into the high holy days, where all we can do is sit back and let God happen to us. Sit back or stand up, in awe, as a cross comes sharply into view.
Let Christ happen to you, among you as we transition together as a body of faithful followers. (Do you see the difference?)
“Catch a little neutral.” (Jimmy Buffett)
From this [clenched fists/fast at prayer] to this [open hands/receiving].
We have this beautiful image today from Jeremiah, of God, “writing the law on our hearts.” No longer will it be a matter of gaining and teaching and “insert-your-action-verb-here” the knowledge of God’s forgiveness. “No,” God says in Jeremiah, “Now it will simply be written on our hearts.” I was trying to find an image of that for the cover of our bulletins, but I couldn’t. And then I saw this image of the cross being made on our forehead. It’s an Ash Wednesday graphic, so that’s nice and reminiscent of where we’ve been.
But I also realized that to the ancients the heart was understood as the place of our thoughts. “I will write my law on their hearts” then could mean “I will write my law on their minds” today.
Sit back, “catch a little neutral”, not in a lazy, hedonistic way (as fun as that might sound)… but in a worshipful way. We are shifting from a posture of action to a posture of wonderment. We are coming in from the garden, from the world as Holy Week draws closer. We are about to marvel and revel and take in the powerful images and stories of God, being lifted up on that glorious tree…
The cross is being written on our hearts. We no longer take it by the horns, force ourselves to observe it; it simply is. God is. Present and now.
[Micah and the licking his thumb before he puts the cross on my forehead at bedtime.]
Why do you do that, Micah? “Because no one can ever take that away, and you can feel it and remember.”
Ah, "catching a little neutral". God’s got you. The law and the gospel is written on our hearts [crossing my forehead]. Deep within. The seed that gives life, this day and always. Amen.

Monday, March 19, 2012

March 18 -- Fourth Sunday of Lent

Deep into Lent are we, and it’s clear that something is coming, as we gather around the images and stories and lessons for today. Something is being forecasted with our readings for today…particularly this strange OT reading about the Israelites in the wilderness. There is a cross coming into view, albeit perhaps fuzzy right now: From our reflections these past weeks on the covenant and the rainbow of Noah, the promise to Sarah and Abraham, the 10 commandments, now we’re still in the wilderness of our Lenten journey, it might be foggy, rainy, but a cross is starting to come into view. We’re not there yet – today it’s this strange, gruesome image of a serpent on a pole…
This OT is worth recounting because it is a snapshot of the entire Old Testament pattern… in Confirmation: “God blesses, people mess up, God gets angry, people repent…” See that here?
· they’re in the wilderness – free at last (God blesses)
· and complaining and tired, they want to go back
· Moses reminds them of the food and how far God has brought them
· “we hate the food”, we would rather be back there!
· God gets angry, sends serpents to bite them
· People cry out for help
· Moses petitions for the people
· God give them the snake on a pole
· Those who look to it are healed
It is a curious story. And I’m convinced that it’s in our lectionary by virtue of our Gospel reading. Because Jesus in the Gospel of John makes a reference to it. Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Humanity be lifted up. Same effect: Those who look to him are healed. There is a cross coming into view.
But let’s stay with the OT in the wilderness. The snake on a pole. God getting angry. I think this story is amazing. It’s entertaining on one level, in its strangeness. But I laugh at it mostly because I can totally relate to complaining in the wilderness. “We hate the food.” (NRSV: “We detest this miserable food.”) They of course are referring to manna, the holiest of holy bible food next to the body and blood of Christ.
Do you ever feel like the Israelites in the wilderness, wanting to go back to the way things used to be? Sure it wasn’t perfect back then, but at least it was better than this?
You might not believe this from me, with all the newer music that we’ve been do—and that most of the time I very much like to do, here—but I just wrote a letter this week to the planners of our Synod Assembly worship: “Can we please sing some of the old songs this year?” My reasoning was that I think we’re scared and hurting as a synod, and we need some comfort, something familiar. And I know that that feeling exists at least among some of us here at SVLC too. And not just at church, right, if I had a nickel for every time I hear (or think) if only we could go back to the way it used to be. “We hate the new food. Why, when I was growing up...” Seriously, I’d be rich.
I laugh when I read this text mostly, I’m afraid, out of discomfort, because it so aptly hits the nail on the head. “God, why did you bring us to this point?! We hate it.”
“God why did you bring us to this point in our lives? WE hate it. We detest this misery.”
And then all of a sudden…snakes!!! Read recent poll of “Things We’re Afraid Of”, 36% of Americans list snakes as #1.
Any chance those snakes are a gift? Like a sharp tone in your mother or father’s voice – a sharpness you never heard before, and frankly it hurts. There’s a bite to it. Any chance those snakes are a gift? When we’re longing for the past, we’re not fully in the present. But as soon as you’ve got a snake slithering toward you, boy, you’re right in the moment! Your head is pulled right out of the clouds of the past, and all your senses are in tact – adrenaline, reflexes all as sharp as your body is possibly able. You are alive—that’s what adrenaline junkies are all about. “Never felt more alive, man!” [Meekest participant on our retreat in January. Has MS. And loves to skydive.]
Any chance those snakes were a gift? God snaps us out of our natural default position to complain (which we often do from the easy chair), to long for something more (especially when we’re relatively safe and wondering “well, how can we get safer”), our natural default position to get nostalgic about the past, to burrow in to what we know…
God snaps us out of that with a bite, a sting, a harsh tone. A then through our tears, with adrenaline pumping and sticking us right smack in the present moment…
…mercy. Grace. Healing comes. Salvation (salvus).
Sometimes we need that jolt to remind us that God is the one who brought us here, God is the one who has never left us. And God is the one who will bring us to the promised land. Sometimes we need that jolt, because we forget. Ever seem like we say the same thing in church, week after week? Because we forget (people mess up) that God has brought us here, that God is the one who has never left us, that God will bring us to the promised land at last.
But there’s a cross coming into view. For Christians, gotta go past the cross to get to the empty tomb.
Anyone who’s gone through surgery knows the pain comes before the healing. (By the way, serpent on the pole, of course is the medical symbol, Vicki painted it.) Those who look to the serpent will be healed. It’s not an idol. If the people think that the snake itself (or the cross itself, for that matter) is the cause of the cure, then it becomes an idol. But if they look to it as a reminder of the mercy and providence and presence of God, then it becomes a holy symbol. If they look through the bronze serpent, just as we look through the cross of Christ, then it is healing. In even and especially the most gruesome and strange symbols—a snake on a pole, a bloody cross—God’s love is poured out, and not just for us, but for all, as John 3 tells us: “God so loved the cosmos.”
The cross is coming into view! It gets harder before it gets easier. In that truth there is grace, there is relief, there is healing. There is salvation.
And even here in the wilderness, Jesus is our rock. AMEN.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

March 11 -- Third Sunday of Lent

Today, as we’ve been doing throughout this season of Lent, we focus on the Old Testament reading, the Ten Commandments. How many of you once memorized the 10 Commandments in Sunday School or Confirmation? (p.1160 ELW)
Why spend so much time today thinking about the 10 Commandments? Aren’t they a little outdated? Popular imagination has them etched on tablets of stone. I mean isn’t that a little archaic? I think that Exodus according to Charlton Heston is a little archaic, so the real thing is way older than that old movie is. Why did we even have to learn about them back in Confirmation? I thought Jesus gives the real commandments.
These are some good questions.
I’d like to reflect on the 10 Commandments this morning, as essential Christian material for our 40-day Lenten wilderness journey. Israelites were in the wilderness for 40 years, and got the commandments, right in the middle of that time. And here we are in the middle of Lent, being offered that same list of rules.
I don’t have to tell a congregation, many of whom are members or related to members of the armed forces, about the importance and goodness of rules and structure. And yet the 10 commandments are perhaps some rules, some structure for our lives that have been forgotten…reduced only to a faint reference to a few popular movies, like Charlton Heston’s or Mel Brooks’.
These rules, these 10 commandments, if they haven’t been abandoned all together or laughed into irrelevance, if they have been maintained in framed needlepoints by our front doors in our homes or thumbtacked up as Sunday School classroom poster art, I’m afraid they have really just been individualized in our culture. Something to be swallowed during childhood or adolescence…that hopefully it sticks. Like a tetanus shot. But they’re really just rules between me and God. Just privatized Christian citizen rules.
The 10 Commandments for the ancient Israelites, for Martin Luther in his Small Catechism, and for us today – the 10 C’s are about community life. (“privatized Christian”, btw, is an oxymoron)
Archaeologists have shown us that throughout ancient Near Eastern societies, commandments resembling these existed. Most cultures had morality codes etched in stone and written on papyrus, rules by which communities lived. The difference with the biblical version –the 10 C’s here—is that they connected community life to God. In other words, a violation of one’s community obligations—coveting, stealing, dishonoring the elderly, breaking Sabbath—these offenses to one’s community are offenses to God.
(That’s worth reflecting back on these archaic tablets…)
Offense to your community is an offense to God. You dishonor the poor, the immigrant, the stranger—for they are part of our community—you dishonor me, God says. And Jesus crystalized that one, but it was already in the OT! (“gotta be reading with blindfold” Woe to you who do not show hospitality to the alien and the stranger. Still part of Middle Eastern culture…) Offense to your community is an offense to God. So keep the rules, God says, Jesus says.
So where’s the gift in being told the rules?
[Community Garden rules – we’ve been laughing this week…]
Where’s the gift in stern and harsh commands?
Great illustration: yesterday, drumming that makes community workshop...
The space, the pause, the rest, gives shape. Rules give us a structure. They make room. There’s certainly a value to children, blending fingerpaints together together into a sludge of bluhh, but there’s no value of space, no definition. No boundaries or lines. Compare that to a Picasso, or a Gauguin, or an O’Keefe. What great artists do, is that define the space. Our Lutheran tradition talks about the law of God as a “curb” – the 10 C’s, summed up by the Greatest Commandment – love God – these are a “curb”. You can drive off the road in the desert, but thanks be to God for the curb that gives us direction. It gives us a road. And the road leads us back to the community, back to the villages and the cities, back to the poor, back to God, back to caring for our own bodies in healthier ways and back to caring for the earth, back to caring for one another. That’s what it looks like to love God: rooted.
And this is what’s got Jesus so upset today in our Gospel lesson. Why’s he gotta disturb the peace like that? Why’s he have to get all political? Just be quiet Jesus! This is what we do in church: we loose focus on community-directly-linked-to-God. That’s what we do. We start to think about how best we can profit ourselves—whether it’s making money or looking the holiest. That’s what we do, Jesus. So how dare you come in here and upend the tables of my successes.
[pause] If Jesus walked into your life what tables would he upend?
Well the question’s not “if”…this Lenten season. You have chosen to take on the discipline of Lent. Jesus DOES walk into our lives and upend the tables of our sin! The question’s not “if”.
God’s love is so good that it upends the tables of our selfishness, our brokenness, our distractedness, our laziness. Jesus comes in and crashes that party! And thanks be to God for that! That news is so good that we can’t help but say Halleluiah during Lent…did anybody catch that? We broke a great rule. God’s grace is so good that we bounced off of the Lenten road for a second. But that’s OK…we’ll just bump back on. If Jesus has an outburst, why can’t we, right?
The rules – not the halleluia rule, but the rules of the 10 C’s – the rules are an essential part of God’s love. They give definition to God’s grace.
Like any good parent. We make rules and enforce them out of deep, deep love, not vengeance. Rules give shape (like in drumming, or Lent, or gardening, or painting) to our families and our communities. Study those rules this week, honor those rules, endeavor to keep those rules. For in them, Christ offers us this incredible gift of definition to God’s grace.
Thanks be to God for the rules. Thanks be to Christ, who abides with us as we work to honor and keep them. AMEN.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

March 4 -- Second Sunday of Lent

Grace to you and peace from God who makes and never breaks the covenant with us. AMEN.
Abraham and Sarah are given new names in the covenant that God makes with them. (from “the father is exalted” to “the father of the multitude”, interesting…as if somehow he looses his glory, but ultimately gains it; similar with Sarah)
And we too are given new names in the covenant that God makes with us in holy baptism. (today: Christopher Russell) And this Sunday, we’re looking back and sharing those special names we were given, no titles, no last names – just our naked and blessed first and middle original names.
God makes a covenant with us. And there are always two sides to a covenant. What is God’s side of the covenant?
God’s side of the covenant: to do the impossible --
1) give Abraham and Sarah a child. (Can you believe it?)
2) make this insignificant Iraqi couple the father and mother of today’s 3 major world religions. Muslims, Christians and Jews all share the same ancestors: Abraham and Sarah! (Can you believe it?)
3) forgive you all your sins and grant you newness of life. At the beginning of our service each Sunday: the confession and forgiveness of sins. (Can you believe it?)
By water and the Holy Spirit, God gives us a new birth, and through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, + God forgives us all our sins.
God’s side of the covenant: to do the impossible.
God always makes the first move, but what about our side of the covenant? – p. 236
“take up our cross and follow Jesus.”
- live among God’s faithful people
- hear the Word, celebrate the Meal
- proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed
- serve all people following Jesus’ example
- strive for Justice and peace in all the earth
The key to both sides of the covenant: faith/trusting in God.
With Luther, and for us as Lutherans, faith is a gift…so the key is really accepting faith/trust in God, which God gives us in baptism.
I can’t think of a better image of trusting in God than the image of offering our money…back to God. Please, please don’t hear this as a fundraising drive. I could care less about money raising right now. This is a deeply spiritual practice to take our income and lift a percentage of it up to God. The offering was the original point of worship for the ancient Hebrews. Abraham will learn this as the story in Genesis continues. Worship is taking the best of what you have, what God has given you, and offering it up. In his day, it was his best sheep. In our day, it’s our money. The offering is a symbol of trust, at the heart of our worship service, right in the middle, between the Word and the Meal. Because our money is so important to us.
Our pastors met again this Wednesday, but this week we sat around and simply shared our own giving stories. Basically, how do we practice offering our money. Where did we get our ideas about that.
And I was inspired and a little shocked, to be honest –
…shocked because the stories I heard about faithful giving did not come off as pious or pompous they came off as inspiring – continuing to give 10% of his income through a very difficult financial time – it was all about trust in God.
You too are examples of a people who have accepted the gift of faith! God gives us faith in our baptism. It’s not something we have to earn or grow or manage. It’ just offered to us. And we turn and offer back to God, in our tithes and our offerings. And Lent is a time to reflect again on our tithes and offerings. It’s one of the pillars of Lent: giving praying fasting.
You are examples of a people who have accepted the gift of faith! Every time you open your hands and receive the bread and wine, you are opening yourselves to God’s guidance in your lives. And that is inspiring and shocking too. It is a symbol of that covenant made new in Christ Jesus who promises us forgiveness and ever-presence.
And here’s the thing: God never breaks that covenant. We might fall short, but God never breaks the covenant. We might change, but God never breaks the covenant. God always keeps promises.
God always keeps promises. And here’s the promise God makes to us on our Lenten journeys: “I will be with you. As you seek ways to live more faithfully, I will be with you. As you continue to struggle to be honest about some wrong directions and decisions you’ve made in your life, I will be with you. As you struggle to offer back to me,” God says, “what I have first given you, I will be with you. As you struggle to receive this gift of faith, as you struggle to trust, I will be with you. As you live out, struggle to live out, the covenant I made with you in your baptism, I will be with you.”
These Lenten days can be very difficult, if we take them seriously, if we take up our crosses and follow. To the rest of the world these days are just more busy days, routine days, nothing-special days in our lives (not the life that God has given), shaped by the news headlines and the retail sales. But to us who struggle to follow Christ, to us who gather to be together and to recognize that all life is a gift of God, to us who have opened our hands and received the gift of faith, we have a promise. “Never will I leave you. Never will that change.” Jesus assures, “Come, pick up your cross, lose your life today…and find it in me forever.” AMEN.