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...

Thursday, May 31, 2012

May 27 -- Pentecost Sunday

Come Holy Spirit, Come.  Fill our hearts with your fire.  Stir in us this day.  Rattle our weary bones.  Piece us together as your people, bit by bit, bone by bone, until flesh and blood, alive in you, we may share your Breath of hope and resurrection life through our words and actions.  AMEN.

Ez.37 Verse1: The hand of the LORD came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones.

The valley is full of dry bones, isn’t it?  Out of money.  Dried up.  Schools can’t even afford teachers.  And the ones we do have are barely hanging on.  Just one example.  The job market is dry too—hot and dry and scary.  Bones.  For some, even the bodies’ own bones aren’t doing so great.  Joints ache.  Diseases prevail.  Physical and mental.  Spiritual.  “Yeah, it’s Pentecost, but that’s just a church thing.  Doesn’t really speak to my real life—that’s pretty dry.”  God has plopped you down right in the valley of dry bones, just like Ezekiel.

Verse2: He led me all around the bones; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. 3He said to me, "Mortal, can these bones live?" I answered, "O Lord GOD, you know."

You know, God.  We’re all out of answers.  Why are you testing me God, can the bones live?  What…are you asking can hope come back into our communities?  Can our economy recover?  Is there any hope for education, for our teachers, for our poor, for our children, for our warring world, for our earth?  What, God, are you asking me if there’s hope for our tired bodies, our knees and ankles, our arms and necks?  Only you know, God.  Only you know.  I don’t know.  I’m worried…about my cousin on the brink, my friend on the drugs, my country on the edge of hopelessness, my neighbor on food stamps, my grandparents on Medicare.  Can these bones live?  I don’t know God.  Only you know.

Verse4: Then he said to me, "Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. 5Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the LORD."

Notice: God doesn’t lead us out of the valley, God joins us.  The Shepherd of the Valley is just that, and gives us power to “prophesy”!  Prophesy to the bones, speak to the death all around and say, “God….is….breathing….here!”  Prophesy to the sad cousin, to the addicted friend, to the aging & depressed relative, to the broken community, to the hopeless poor, to the apathetic rich, prophesy Judy!  Prophesy Rich!  Prophesy Greg!  Prophesy Ellen!  Don’t escape the valley of death, speak to it, prophesy to the pain all around, “Know that God is God!  Know that God is here!”  Prophesy like Paul, that “whether we live, or whether we die, we belong to the Lord!”  Prophesy that God is breathing here!  That Christ is risen and is with us now!”  Prophesy to the bones!  And then sit back and trust in God.

 7So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them.

I didn’t really think anything would come of it, but I tried, I tried to prophesy…I thought God was crazy asking me to prophesy, but I tried…just a little.  And guess what:  In this hurting valley, in this Spring Valley, in this sunken community, in this depressed and obese nation…there was a little noise!   Just a little something…a rattling.  Something started shaking.  At first I thought it was me, but then I just sat back and watched: and I looked and suddenly there was a rattling.  A movement of people.  A drumbeat, a march, a song.  At first it didn’t really go together.  But in time people were getting together, like bones coming together.  They were taking an interest in one another.  Connecting.  Just a little at first, but then more.  I even saw a little laughter.  And the singing continued.  People checking in on each other…just being neighborly, “no big deal”…just a little rattling on each others doors.  Just a little rattling of silverware as people sat down and shared meals together.  I looked and before you know it, there was more than just a little.  Whole communities were watching out for each other.  Even people who were different from each other.  All kinds of different skin…like a patchwork quilt covering old dead bones.  Maybe they weren’t dead after all.  But still there was no breath in them.  It was just on the surface.

…skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. 9Then God said to me, "Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live." 10I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.

Hope is breath.  And God gives breath. To those bones. To your bones.  And we become the ones who prophesy.  Who refuse to stop at just a little getting together, just a little caring for each other, just a little justice, just a little peace.  No, we cry out to God for more.  And God responds always.  “Prophesy!” God says.  Take it to the next level.  Don’t give up.  And so we don’t, we keep hoping, we keep praying, we keep processing, and we keep working for peace, moving for justice, writing and speaking to care for one another, we keep gathering in community.  And that too, affects our schools, affects our jobs, affects our neighborhoods, affects our poor, affects our earth.  God’s breath, God’s breath is here.  Let’s go tell it in the valley!  Let’s go prophesy, friends in Christ!  There’s nothing new about being cynical in this world, about being isolated, and cut-off from the community, about just protecting your own.  That’s as normal and lifeless as a pack of hyenas.  But we worship a God who breathes us together, who breathes this world together; we trust a God who teaches us about lying down with wolves.  Separation and isolation and fear and despair don’t rule the day for the Spirit-filled followers of Jesus.  No, we’ve got a message to share: Death, you do not have the final word!   God does.  And God…breathes…life.

11Then God said to me, "Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, 'Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.' 12Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken and will act, says the LORD.

Sisters and brothers in Christ, God’s got us.  God always has and God always will.  God will pick you up and place you on your own soil, place you where you need to be, probably the valley.  And you will know, you will know, you will know that God is God.  God is God.  Our hope, our salvation, our God is not technology! Our hope, our salvation, our God is not science!  God is God.  Our hope, our salvation, our God is not the military, the government or the private sector.  Our God is not money or fame or a good family name!  God is God.

And that God is the one who opens the graves, and brings the dead back to life.  That’s the One we worship, that’s the one we trust.  In God, not money, we trust.  In God, not security, we trust.  In the breath of life that blows across us and through us this Pentecost morning.  We don’t know how, we can only wait and pray and hope and watch, like Ez., like those in the upper room.  And God will come.  As quiet as a whisper, as violent as a storm, God arrives and gives us life.  Life in Christ’s name…So that we can face the valleys, weather the dust storms, and only with God’s help…so that we can prophesy and witness to this raising of the dead.  [opening prayer again]

Monday, May 21, 2012

May 20 -- Seventh Sunday of Easter

Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you and peace from our risen savior Jesus the Christ, who comes to us this day in the Word and the Water, in the Wine and the Wheat.  AMEN.

Have you ever in your lifetime seen or experienced the impossible become possible for the better?  When I was in high school, I was on the swim team.  I played water polo, and that was really my first love, in terms of High School sports.  I actually went to my high school to play basketball, I had some skills, but the school was very competitive, some of my classmates even went on to play for top-10 schools, and two even made it to the NBA.  Which is to say, it wasn’t much fun for someone like me with a few skills.  So, I dropped out of basketball after my freshmen year, and started swimming in order to get stronger for water polo.  But in the process of being on the swim team, I started to set some goals in that area beyond just getting in better shape for water polo.  My event became the 100yd butterfly (4 pool-lengths).  And to make a long story short, I was not good enough to compete against the top swimmers, really.  My goal was a race against the clock.  My goal was to break the 1 minute mark in the 100 fly, and I think Coach had a lot to do with that.  He was my greatest cheerleader: “You’ve gotta break a minute, Dan.”  To give you some perspective, I just read recently that the national record in this event was just reset this year at 46.6sec.  And when I started this event I was coming in at about a minute and 12 seconds.  That’s like a whole pool length.

But for 2 years I worked toward this goal, and in the winter of my junior year, I went with my team to the Eastern U.S. Championships in Philadelphia, “shaved and tapered” (explain).  And there I did it:  I broke a minute, and I actually came in at a time of 56.4!  So for me, the impossible had become possible.  And I’ll never forget how excited Coach was to see my time up on the board.  He was genuinely proud and excited that I had done it.  And it was such a wonderful feeling, I remember, because, my time didn’t matter to the team’s, I thought.  I wasn’t the star putting up any points for the competition, I was just racing the clock.  But to Coach it mattered.   

I wanted to reflect on the “impossible becoming possible for the better” today, because our Gospel text talks about everyday people becoming—a word maybe Lutherans aren’t so comfortable with—SANCTIFIED.  Filled with holiness, filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, filled with the fire of love to share.

Also in our first lesson from Acts, an everyday Christian, named Matthias becomes the 12th apostle.  For him and his family—could you imagine?—the impossible is becoming possible right before their eyes.

Sisters and brothers in Christ, you, like Matthias was, are everyday Christians.  I know that most of you are very humble and quiet, down to earth people, loving and gentle, broken and tragic at times, confused and angry at times, just regular human beings who love the church and love the Lord.  Nothing special.  Nothing fancy.  Just the little things.  “No big deal,” we like to say.  There’s kind of a lukewarm feeling to our righteousness.  And the word SANCTIFIED might make us feel a little like a penguin in the desert.  “I’m not sanctified, I’m just Joe.” 

But sisters and brother in the Risen Christ, it is my joy simply to be the one to remind you this day, that in Christ, because of Christ, through Christ and with Christ, you are most certainly SANCTIFIED.  You are God’s most prized child!  “How do you feel about that?!”  And you, like Matthias, are sanctified and sent.  That might seem kind of random, kind of a careless, maybe flippant thing for me to say, like I’m just making a generic statement for the sake of a sermon: “You’re just saying that, Pastor.  But not me.  You don’t know me.”  But let’s not forget how random Matthias’ selection was.  They cast lots, they rolled dice to see who the 12th apostle was!  There is a randomness to God selecting you, too.  God’s wisdom gets worked out in the strangest of ways to us sometimes.  What does Paul say in Corinthians?...God’s wisdom can seem like foolishness to the world.  Perhaps it’s even more random (than Matthias being chosen) that you’re sitting here, being named a sanctified Child of God, being sent out to share God’s love with a world in pain—maybe that’s even more random than Matthias being chosen.  What are the odds, that God chooses you?  But God does.  And you too are an apostle. 

I know that there are only 12 apostles in Scripture, but the word itself means “sent out” from the Greek (apo—from, stelleon—send).  You are sent out this day. 

It’s very interesting that in Scripture we never hear of Matthias except in this passage.  He’s not spoken of in any of the Gospel stories before this point, and after these verses in the book of Acts, we don’t hear anything more of him.  He’s just an every day Christian.  Sanctified and sent. 

Sisters and brothers in Christ, the impossible has become possible, for the better…for we too (all of us, even you) are sanctified and sent. 

And like my good ol’ coach back in high school, Christ is there, jumping and shouting, cheerleading us from the side of the baptismal pool, genuinely excited and proud, not because you’re putting up the huge points for the team, but because this is the good and worthy and healthy and righteous and holy way to live out your days—sanctified and sent…you are, and always will be!  Thanks be to God.  AMEN.   

Sunday, May 13, 2012

May 13 -- Sixth Sunday of Easter (Mother's Day)

It all comes down to love today.  Mother’s Day, the 15th Chapter of John, this 6th Sunday of Easter:  It all comes down to love.  “Abide in my love,” Jesus says.  What a motherly thing to say.  Abide in my love.  I want to invite you to turn to your neighbor and take turns telling each other what the word “abide” means to you...

It’s actually hard for me to contemplate that word “abide” and not think of mothers.  It’s a wonderful word for this day, not that these texts are chosen to match up with Mother’s Day themes, but it works this year.  ABIDE.  It is a post-Easter theme:  “Christ is risen! Let us abide.” 

We abide in the promise of God’s grace, sisters and brothers.  We abide in the promise of Jesus’ friendship.  There’s another word that I associate with abide:  friendship.  I think of a loving mother and a loyal friend when I think of the word abide.  “Abide in my love,” Jesus says.  Stay close.  Make friends with this truth.  Abide.  [Micah’s Baptismal Birthday today – one of our friends on a quilt that everyone made a square, wrote on her square for Micah, a variation of the great Swedish hymn, she wrote: “Child of the Heavenly Mother.”]  Close and warm.

But there is a fierceness to that love too, one that gets dirt under your fingernails, despite abide’s overtones of gentleness, there is a fierceness and a longing to abide.  There is a passion for peace imbedded in the warmth of “abide”, a fiery commitment to holding us close.  Think about a mother bear and her cubs…Don’t get between them. 

I was reading again this year about the history of Mother’s Day.  And as you may or may not know – there are two women whose names are associated with its founding: 
Julia Ward Howe, who started a medical clinic for both Union and Confederate soldiers during the civil war.  She had a fiery commitment to holding everyone close – friend and foe alike!  And her work for peace was a fight.  She was anything but passive; she was a peacemaker.  And her words ring out in her not-so-famous Mother’s Day Proclamation, which I’m afraid is not shared enough on this day.  But here it is, the Mother’s Day Proclamation, by Julia Ward Howe:

Arise, then, women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts,
Whether our baptism be of water or of tears!
Say firmly:  "We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.
We, the women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs."
From the bosom of the devastated Earth a voice goes up with our own.
It says: "Disarm! Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice."
Blood does not wipe out dishonor, nor violence indicate possession.
As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil at the summons of war,
Let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel.
Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.
Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means
Whereby the great human family can live in peace,
Each bearing after their own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar,
But of God.

And then the other woman who is credited with the founding of the day is Anna Jarvis.  She lived a few years later, early 1900’s. Anna Jarvis’ own mother set up a group of women called the Mother’s Day Work Club, a group of women that focused their efforts on clean sanitation systems and health care access for everyone in their communities.  Talk about motherly love that gets dirt, and who knows what else, under your fingernails.  Then Anna Jarvis herself, inspired by her mother’s life of service, petitioned Congress for years to make Mother’s Day a national day.  But almost as soon it was recognized, it became commercialized – flowers and greeting cards – and Anna Jarvis spent her final years campaigning against what the holiday had become.  She was even arrested at one point for “disturbing the peace.”

I mention all that today as I think about my own mother, who in her own way did a bit of disturbing the peace…in the name of peace.  When I was in elementary school in Texas, I was invited to go visit one of my school friends’ family ranch, with a group of other boys.  My mom apparently didn’t ask enough questions about what we were going to do, because I came home with stories about shooting a rifle for the first time.  My mother, who let’s just say is not a member of the NRA, was furious.  She called up my friend’s mother to “discuss” the situation.  And as she tells the story, they had a difference of opinion:  The other mother, reportedly, said that she believed young boys ought to know how to handle a weapon so that they can one day defend themselves and their families.  See, a mother’s love is always complicated.  My mother simply responded to her, “Well, Lorraine, Daniel will not be attending any more trips to the ranch.  We are raising peacemakers in our home.”  And then she hung up the phone.  A little dirt under the fingernails?  Motherly love is not clean and simple.

I think about my mother, as I read about Anna Jarvis and Julia Ward Howe.  And I believe that this motherly fierceness reflects that of God.  God’s love disturbs the peace for the sake of a much deeper peace, the peace that passes all understanding. 
God’s love for you crosses boundaries, makes uncomfortable phone calls, advocates and petitions, proclaims, as Howe’s Mother’s Day Proclamation, “Let the great human family live in peace.  Let each bear the sacred imprint, not of Cesar, but of God.”  The mother knows of the divine imprint that God has made on our children.

Sisters and brothers in Christ, this Mother’s Day, no matter how you experience Mother’s Day (because for some it can be a very painful time for various reasons), sisters and brothers in Christ, God’s love for you is fierce, like a mother bear, with dirt in her claws.  And should anything come between God and you, should peril or sword, or temptations or disease, anxiety, depression or disbelief…should anything come between God and you, then God, like a mother bear, becomes fierce, fierce about keeping you close, fierce about keeping you warm, fierce about you abiding in that motherly care.  God topples the cruel oppressors rod and draws you in like a mother bear draws in her cubs, like Julia Ward Howe, or Anna Jarvis, or my mother.  Let the cry go up from our mothers and all: “We are raising peacemakers in our home!”  God draws us close, forgives us beyond our own ability to forgive, protects us, and teaches us with the fierceness of a mother.  Christ is raising up peacemakers…calling us this day to abide in his love, to keep his commandments, and to hold one another in fierceness and in love.  To hold one another as friends. 

Thanks be to our mothering God, for we abide in Her everlasting arms, this day, and we always will.  AMEN. 

Monday, May 7, 2012

May 6 -- Fifth Sunday of Easter

"I am the vine; you are the branches." 

Sisters and brothers in Christ, today is a chance for us to ponder just that: that we are sisters and brothers in Christ.  What does it mean that we are so deeply connected to Christ? Jesus says in our Gospel lesson, we are “abiding” in him?  And that he is abiding in us.  What does that mean?

You are a branch, dear friends, growing out of the true vine, which is Christ.  This image shatters our notions that God is something or somewhere separate from us.  Rather, God is so close to us, God is so intimately connected to you that your life force—that which nourishes and sustains you, that which feeds you and allows you to bear works/fruits of righteousness for this world, comes directly from this Christ vine.  We are so intimately connected to God, like a branch’s life force, which nourished and sustained by the vine.  Christ is the vine and we are the branches.  It is such a rich metaphor for how God connects to you.

I wonder how connected to God you’re feeling on an average day?  Do you see yourself as a branch off the vine that is Christ? 

I was listening to one of these evangelical television preachers the other day, and I didn’t feel like a branch on Christ’s vine.  I heard that God loved me, but I wasn’t hearing, in that particular sermon, that I was so deeply connected to God we were sharing the same water, the same nutrients, the same earth.  I didn’t hear that I abide in Christ and Christ abides in me.  I didn’t’ hear that intimacy and love and connection.  I heard that there was a decision that I needed to make, and then, and only then, would God accept me, would I become connected.  I heard “Connect yourself to the vine.” 

I wondered what Jesus in the Gospel of John would say about that sermon I heard…

Today, repaint this vine-and-branch image in your mind: that you are a branch on God’s vine.  You are so loved by God, from the very beginning, sisters and brothers in Christ, from the time you were just a little bud off the vine.  You are so loved by God that you are fed and connected directly by God, not through some intermediary branch, some holy, holy human, but directly to God are you joined. 

And sisters and brothers in Christ, fellow branches, that vine is so great and so nutrient rich that there is always room for more branches to abide!

I love the use of the word abide in the Gospel of John.  It’s all over the place:  “Abide in me as I abide in you.”  It’s that image of being so deeply connected.

And there’s always room for more to abide, even the unlikeliest – we are just as intimately and immediately connected, us unlikely ones.  Our first lesson from Acts, gives us a foretaste of the breakout of Pentecost, which we will celebrate later this month, of the Holy Spirit breaking out beyond our boundaries.  Philip baptizes even an Ethiopian eunuch…immediately!  He is immediately connected to the branch…or perhaps [slowly] he was connected all along and Philip just ritualized what God had already done long ago:  named, claimed and celebrated that one who was strange and rejected by the world.  God calls the eunuch “my own”, “I am the vine, the Ethiopian eunuch is (and has always been) one of my many branches.”

And so are you.
You too are a branch.  (In case you’re not hearing it from me, turn to your neighbor and tell them, “You are a branch.” Now tell them, “And Christ is the vine.”  Now say, “So let’s abide.”) We are not all the same (we celebrate our differences today too with this little card in your worship folder), but we all share the same vine, we all grow from Christ.  So let’s abide.  We are watered in the baptismal pool.  We grow in the light of God, rooted in Christ who supplies our every need.  Sisters and brothers, we abide in Christ, who abides in us.

And so: we can’t help but bear fruit! 

That’s what’s so rich about this image: Our works, our good deeds in this world, our loving of one another, of our families and friends, our passion for justice – that all may be fed and clothed and housed – and our work to that end, our advocacy on behalf of the poor the outcast, the stranger, the forgotten, the voiceless, the earth and all its inhabitants, the rejected, the sad, the fearful among us…

Our acts of justice and kindness and faithfulness are just natural results of our natural and immediate connection to God.  Just like a branch whose fruit is a natural result of its connection to the vine.  Try to tell a grapevine that is well watered and well nourished not to bear fruit.  You can’t; bearing fruit is a natural outgrowth of our abiding in Christ.  Now our fruits, our good works, don’t happen overnight; but over a season…  And then the next season, there’s more, and the more. 

And it’s not the other way around.  Some churches, I’m afraid make is sound like our works—and sometimes we can even make “believing the right way a work”—sometimes I’m afraid our good works become almost like a ticket that we offer in order to be granted access to the vine. 

But that doesn’t make sense.  We don’t offer our produce, the fruit, in order to be granted access to the vine.  And if our works are good enough than God accepts us and grafts us on.  NO.  We are naturally, inherently connected to God, as unique as we may be, as strange or far off as we may feel, sisters and brothers, we are in Christ, connected to God…

…and so out we grow…into the world.  

This is the life of the Easter people—branches resurrected from the vine!   Because of Christ’s death and resurrection, because of Christ’s open hands to us, like a vine spreading out to sprout new branches, because of Christ’s love and forgiveness and openness, OUT WE GROW.