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, April 29, 2012

April 29 -- Fourth Sunday of Easter

[Start w/ my trip to Houston, my video project and finally, Dad’s line: "we are always in procession"]

Once we get established and rooted we want to protect what we have.  It’s much harder to be open and generous because we’ve built it, we “own” it, we’ve earned it, we’ve claimed it for ourselves, the land, the space, the people, and we’ve put all this money into it all these years and so the attitude becomes one that is the opposite of what’s embodied by the image of “open hands” and always being on the move, “always being in procession.”

But look at the image on the cover of our bulletin:  Open hands and moving with the flock. 

The Good Shepherd of the valley is a nomad, with no place to lay his head.  And we are called to follow him, for we are his flock.  Let’s just be honest about shepherds.  They were not rooted people.  The 23rd Psalm is a song about journey, walking through valleys and green pastures, sitting along water, the scenery is always changing (every noticed that?).  Shepherds move around and their lives, both out in nature and in society—being the lowest on the socio-economic ladder—were always at risk.  Faithfulness, trusting God, worshiping together is risky.

It’s all striking me today, because – I don’t know about you but – my natural impulse is to want to settle, to have things secure and in place, to tie up the loose ends and to carve out a nice, little niche, to put my money and my time and my hobbies and my family and my friends and my church, to pack it all in there. 
And then I want to protect all those good things and myself with them.  I don’t know about you but often, especially when times are tough, I’m seeking a cave. 

But the shepherd and the sheep are always in procession.  That’s the story of the Bible to isn’t it?  Think of all the processions in the Bible:  Adam and Eve processing out of the Garden of Eden into the frightening world; Abraham and Sarah processing across the desert; Jacob and his brothers and all they’re families processing to Egypt; and of course the 40-year procession with Moses and Miriam and Aaron back to the Promised Land.  But the procession is never finished, just when the people get settled and the things start seeming in place, the palace is built in Jerusalem, the king is powerful and smart, the money is secure, the army is rockin’…

Then comes invasion and strife, and before you know it the people are back out in a procession to Babylon in exile;  many years later they process home again; but then Rome; and then Jesus, procession back and forth from Galilee to Jerusalem, to Calvary, and then back to Galilee; then the great commission and Pentecost, the great sending out, then Paul and Lydia, and the mission is expanded.  The journeys continue through the ages...moving, moving over seas and mountains, across deserts and through forests.  Dad was right, God’s people are always in procession.  And that sounds pretty scary:  to never be finally be rooted and settled in this life.

But this is what “flock life” is.  In baptism we become inducted by God’s grace, actually, into this “flock life”.  We are sheep in in Christ’s fold, and so we are always in procession.  Always moving from one pasture to another.  From one adventure to another (it’s not always terrifying, many times it’s fun), from one transition to another, always moving, always changing. 

And like sheep we don’t always want to get up and move.  “I’m fine right here, Jesus, thank you very much!” 
But today and forevermore Christ gently nudges us with his staff (the symbol of our congregation—the staff) and moves us along.  C’mon Lois, c’mon Dusty…c’mon Dan.  “But I don’t want to!” 

“I know,” Jesus says, “and I love you still, but we need to get going. And you’re part of this flock.”  [pause]

And the shepherd’s staff doesn’t just push us forward in the procession, it also pulls us in from the side when we go astray, as sheep do.  The Good Shepherd of the valley is such a rich image.

I hope everyone here, from some point in their life or another, has a “getting-hooked-back-into-the-fold” story.  Where you strayed from this risky procession of the faithful and decided to settle down and away from the flock, as we all can, but someone hooked you and pulled you back into the procession.  Maybe it was just a gentle invitation back, or maybe it was more dramatic, and you were in big trouble, like a lamb caught in a ravine or trapped on a cliff.  But somehow God found you, through friends or family or strangers, and here you are today, back in the procession. 

My family and I were at the MS walk yesterday, because one of our dear friends, Andrea, 32 years old, has been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis.  And we, along with friends and strangers, gathered and walked with her, and for her and for all those diagnosed with this terrible disease.  And our kids walked too, and in such a large crowd and with a handful of friends our kids would move around and walk with different people and dogs.  Lots of dogs.  And our group, together with Heather and I, would keep hooking them back in to the fold as they would wander or stray or stop or get into trouble.  The community would bring them back in, lovingly and firmly.  And we would keep moving.  It was a wonderful way to live into this text for today.  I could have been rooted at home in my cave.

We are always in procession.  With Christ as our Good Shepherd, sometimes out front, sometimes along side, sometimes nudging from behind.

So where is Christ leading us as a congregation?  Where is Christ leading Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church of La Mesa?  How are we being called to lay down our lives, to risk it all for the sake of the Gospel?  And how is God leading you?

The walk of the faithful is a constant procession, but we do not walk alone, we walk together, for Christ processes with us, this day and always, always.  AMEN.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Fear about "Truth and Action": Aren't We Doing Enough?

We are Easter people, filled with the Good News of hope and salvation to share precisely with a hurting world.  In these 50 days of Easter, I have been reflecting on our congregation’s vision: “Extending God’s welcome to all we meet along the way” (adopted February 2009).    

What were we thinking?!  What kind of welcome do you think God offers?  What about the unforgivable, God?  What about those who have committed crimes?  What about those of a different political persuasion and lifestyle choice than my own?  What about those of another religion, skin color or ethnic group?  Does God welcome all of them, too?  And are we really called to do the same?  Really?  What were we thinking in 2009?!  Give us a break!

Our reading from 1 John on the 4th Sunday of Easter, said this (and it rather terrifies me):  “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us — and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?  Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” 

Truth be told, in February 2009, when we adopted our vision statement, we were thinking exactly like Easter people.

And this May, I am sensing (albeit fearfully) a renewed invitation from God…to reach out and share this radical welcome all the more!  Extending welcome is about more than just inviting people to church (while that is important); it is about how we live in the world, basking — and taking action — in the joy of Christ’s resurrection.  “Alleluia! Christ is risen,” and so we extend God’s welcome!  These two must be linked: Easter & welcoming “the other”.  In Christ, we too burst out of our tombs!  We can never fully extend God’s divine welcome…but we can always be extending our arms even wider, as the Spirit takes over and flings open our hearts beyond our own zones of comfort, safety and stability.  Let us welcome until it hurts!  That’s loving in “truth and action” – laying down our lives for one another.  Losing our lives, to find them in Christ.  Yes, unfortunately God calls us to welcome them all:  the unforgivable, those who have committed crimes, those of a different political persuasion or lifestyle, those of another religion, skin color or ethnicity.  Yes, God’s love involves serious risk.    

I don’t know about you, but I don’t like the sound of that.  The idea of risk fills me with fear and hesitation (I’m sweating just typing it).  I want to say things like, “Aren’t we doing enough already?”  “What if I happen to like my life?”  “Can’t we stop talking about these reckless reach-out-and-welcome sermons from the Bible, especially in these tough economic and political times?”  “We’re doing the best we can, God!  Can’t you see that?”

But Christ’s resurrection is love and welcome beyond boundaries, even our boundaries of death and fear.  And while we might experience at times “welcome fatigue”, Christ just keeps moving on down the road to embrace the stranger, the outcast and the alien.  Sisters and brothers, let’s follow Jesus!  Let’s love also, not in word and speech, but in truth and action…even if it’s scary.

And God – the same God who goes ahead of us – will be right next to us.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

April 6 -- Good Friday

Yesterday, we received a bold command from Jesus to love one another, with Christ-like love. Today we come face to face with the fact that we can’t. That we fall so short, even when we try our best. Today we come face to face with our brokenness, our sinfulness, our betrayal and denial of Christ… (Yesterday, our service ended a little chaotically and confusingly…) “We have failed you God. We have denied you, just as your disciples did long ago. We have hurt those you called us to love. We’ve even hurt our own selves, the earth which you entrusted to us and which is part of us, and our own human bodies that you give us as your temple.” Today we come face to face with the cross…[pause] the cross of [vertical] God’s divine will for us and [horizontal] our wanting to go our own way.
Yesterday we received a bold command from Jesus to love one another; today we come face to face with fact that we all fall short. And so that leaves us totally dependent on grace. Totally lost on this rocky way, without the crucified One going before us. Today is good, because in the cross and death of Jesus we have hope. We have a Christ who hangs…on our brokenness. Who lifts our sin and death onto himself. We have a God who looks down from that holy cross of brokenness and sin…and declares—exactly what no one would ever expect – a triumph: “It is finished.”
Those are not words of defeat; those are the words of a victor! God has “finished” the sin and the brokenness of this world, even death itself.
God has finished, washed away, your shortcomings and denials and wrongful words and hurtful actions. According to the Gospel of John, this is Jesus’ finest hour, the hour of his glorification by God. (Martin Luther was not shy to say that John was his favorite Gospel, particularly because of this climactic account.) Here Jesus soars. “It is finished!”
In this cross is triumph. In this tree, this ugly tree of DEATH, is—exactly what no one would ever expect—LIFE! Life for all the world, life for all the sinners, life for all the nations, life for you, LIFE FOR ALL.
Good Friday is good…because on this day Christ takes the whole sin of the world onto himself, lifting it from us, so that we might stand up straight and live anew…that we might be free of death to live and serve and dance and sing, always, always glorying in the cross. [sing it: “In the cross, in the cross, be my glory ever, ‘til my ransomed soul shall find rest beyond the river.” This Friday is good.
I don’t know about you, but I grew up imagining this day, Good Friday, as a funeral for Jesus, as if he had died all over again. But I’ve learned that that kind of thinking, that kind treatment of Good Friday only developed in the late 20th century. Thanks be to God for some recent discoveries and reclamations of how the earliest Christians saw and honored this day:
It’s not a funeral!
This is a day to adore the cross, albeit a serious and contemplative time. We can only sit in joyful silence and adore the cross, as though the cross is Christ himself. So I invite you: be in the midst of the cross this night, bask, linger, sisters and brothers in Christ! Come to its foot, as you’re able (in a little bit). Kiss the cross, bow down before the cross of Christ, ponder the final 3 words of Christ in the Gospel of John: IT IS FINISHED. Sin is finished, death is finished, all the powers that draw us from God are finished. AMEN?
From the cross on which Christ is lifted up, Jesus draws all things to himself, and in so doing solidifies the new law of love, where there are no boundaries to God’s compassion, no limits to God’s grace, even death itself cannot hold back this love divine. On this day, on this cross, is the hope of this entire world. May we glory in this cross of Christ forever. AMEN. Thanks be to God. AMEN.

Friday, April 6, 2012

April 5 -- Maundy Thursday

A couple weeks ago we heard the story of Jesus upsetting the tables in the temple. But tonight also, perhaps even more so, Jesus upsets tables:
Jesus takes a centuries-old tradition and gives it completely new meaning. The Passover ritual is re-interpreted and Jesus becomes the new lamb. Our Old Testament lesson gave the very detailed instructions for how the Passover meal was to be kept, what each part of the meal was to mean. And for centuries and centuries the Jewish descendants gathered in homes with families and celebrated the Passover. And our Jewish brothers and sisters are still celebrating the festival! (This year it falls this Saturday night.) Still gathering and telling that ancient story over a meal, remembering the mighty acts of God and God’s liberating activity for the people of Israel from slavery and oppression in Egypt.
I was reading up on contemporary Passover celebrations today and two groups of people caught my attention: The old and the young. The elderly apparently get particularly excited in preparation for this great event—because they love to instruct the young on what it all means, what each article of food means, and the songs, the Hebrew words even a dance. And the young, much like young Christian children, you can imagine do a little bit of eye-rolling, as their parents get them all dressed up for the Passover event.
“Ughh, not agai-ain! We do this every year!” you can almost hear little Jewish boys and girls whine a little, as mother buttons up their starched shirts or tightens their belts, or untangles the knots in their hair as they get ready.
But children are an essential part of a Passover celebration. And the whole ritual actually meal begins with a question that comes from the youngest person in the room, who is able to talke: “Why is this night different from all other nights?”
Ancient, ancient rituals and customs. Think about what are the oldest rituals and customs in your own family… [pause] Any from 1200 BC? That’s 1200 years before Christ! So that means that for 1200 years+ already Jesus’ people had been celebrating the Passover meal in these ways.
I wonder if there were some disgruntled Jewish children on this night long ago…in Jerusalem homes the night Jesus broke the bread…“Ugh, not again!” And I wonder if there were some excited elderly family members, getting revved up for maybe their last Passover celebration, their last chance to pass this story along to their beloved children and grandchildren…
And then there’s Jesus and his entourage—not too old, not too young. They had just gotten to town a few days ago: a group of Galileans, like Northern Californians just arriving in San Diego on Sunday. A small group of men and women probably most of them in their 20’s and early 30’s, from all walks of life, the disciples: fishers, artisans, financiers, a few with big plans and a few with no direction at all, some who supported the current governing system and some who did not, some rich, some poor, some of them hopeful and some of them clueless. But they were all Jews, and they had come like everyone else…to celebrate the Passover.
I wonder who was the youngest in the room with Jesus, who asked the kick-off question that night. Little did they know how different this night was about to become. Things probably seemed to going pretty much as usual for a Passover meal – eating and telling the stories the same way they had all those years, all those 20 or 30 or 40 years growing up back in Galilee. Must have been nice and comforting after all they had been through, so far from home…
But then toward the end of the meal, Jesus takes the bread –the unleavened bread that they were used to someone taking and saying some words over—but Jesus goes and takes that flat bread and says something totally new. He says, “Take this bread. It is my body.”
Can you imagine their shock? They knew these words by heart, just like many of our children could recite the Lord’s Prayer. But Jesus just changed all the meaning. Can you imagine their reactions?
Perhaps some there was some fear, some looking over their shoulder hoping one of the Jewish authorities didn’t just hear that. Or perhaps it was a confirmation of what the disciples were already starting to feel as they had watched Jesus the last couple days in the temple: challenging the authorities, murmurings among the chief priests and scribes in the corner; Judas creeping around in the shadows. Perhaps this radical new thing Jesus was doing was confirmation of what the disciples were already afraid of: THAT EVERYTHING IS CHANGING. Now, even the ancient rituals and traditions of the Jews was being changed right before their eyes—the rituals to which they had always clung, even while in their lifetimes they had watched Rome seize their holy land, even while threats from various Jewish break-off groups had created instability for their party and persuasion. Even with all that insecurity, at least they had always the assurance of the Passover rituals to come home to, year after year. But now Jesus was changing even that, calling the unleavened bread his body!
And then he takes a cup of wine. He blesses it and says, “This is my blood. The blood of the new covenant.” The new covenant?! What’s going on here? Jesus goes on, “It is shed for you and for all people…for the forgiveness of sin.” Can you imagine? Jesus was opening up the covenant for more than just Jews!! Jesus was upsetting their table. There was still that promise of God’s liberation from oppression. They didn’t have to doubt that.
But this new covenant of which Jesus was now speaking had a more service-oriented edge to it. That was difference. He wasn’t just talking about escape from oppressive forces; no, this new covenant had a motif of compassion, an theme of self-sacrifice, a universal word of love and grace for everyone. And that was new to the disciples’ ears. Their understanding was being stretched…
Yes God frees us from oppression, and God calls us to keep reaching out to others who are oppressed: the hungry, the dying, the immigrant, the orphan, the widow, and all who are enslaved and alone. Yes was something Jesus had to say about oppression, BUT Jesus was now also showing mercy even to the oppressor, he talked of turning and love the oppressor! This was new! And wildly upsetting! Jesus’ heart was breaking and bleeding out, and his disciples are being asked to drink that blood of compassion and forgiveness.
And just in case their ears might be deceiving them, he preached to their the rest of their bodies too! He did something, unheard of: he got down on the floor! (No one ever got down on the floor, except for the servants.) But there he was, their great rabbi Jesus, down on his knees, and then he begins to wash their feet. (No one ever did that, except servants.)
And then he tells us to wash one another’s feet.
So we’re going to it again tonight. Not as a re-enactment of what happened long ago, not as a play or a performance, but as an actual embodying of what Jesus mandated on this Thursday, Mandate Thursday. “Wash one another’s feet.” For in this footwashing is forgiveness. In this footwashing is life and light despite darkness all around – In the f, f and f is the hope of the nations, the end of the wars, the salvation of the world, the life of all people. In these upsetting rituals – and frankly, uncomfortable rituals – Christ breaks up and breaks in and breaks us out of our brokenness. And we are made clean.
Last words and last actions tell us everything in the Gospel of John: And Jesus’ last words this night that we remember the Last Supper are these: “LOVE and FORGIVE ONE ANOTHER, serve one another…for I have loved and forgiven you, as I kneel at your feet.”