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, August 27, 2012

August 26 -- Thirteenth Sunday of the Green Season

I’d like you to try a little exercise with me…just to kind of get our bodies into this Gospel text, to physically orient ourselves to the “words of eternal life”. 

I’d like you to close your eyes and take a deep breath.  [pause] Now I want you to pretend that the world in which we live is all behind you, literally.  It’s behind your back.  You’d have to turn your head to look at it.  All the good and beautiful things about the world in which we live, are back there, behind you.  And all the ugly, broken things are back there too.  I want you to think particularly about the things back there in the world that promise you a better life, a longer life, a more rich life.  (IKEA: “Bring new life to your home.”)  All the things that lure you and perhaps give you temporary joy, but joy that quickly fades…if you’re really honest.  We talked earlier this month about such things – for some it’s food, temporary joy but joy that quickly fades, for some it’s other substances, maybe drink, for some it could be a relationship that’s really not so healthy, temporary joy but quickly fading.  For some of us it’s a compulsive habit, like shopping or collecting or checking FB or email around the clock.  For some of us it’s thrill seeking, for some it’s watching football or baseball – or television shows, or acquiring the latest gadget...Whatever it is for you, it’s “back there”.  Now keeping your eyes closed turn back, literally, as if you’re looking over your right shoulder at it.  With your eyes closed, turn your head as if you’re looking over your right shoulder at those things “back there” that pull at you, entice you, sometimes even successfully seduce you. Do you see it?!  Really stretch your neck, physically turning toward those things behind you.   (If it hurts too much, uncoil and look over your left shoulder, or turn your whole torso…)

Now come back forward and open your eyes…and look at the cross, look at the bible, look at the altar.  Now close your eyes and look back again.  Now open your eyes and look at the cross, the book the altar.  Do that a few times…almost like you’re loosening up before a work out.  [pause] OK…

I don’t know how this made you feel, but maybe it’s a little something like Peter in our Gospel text. “L, to whom shall we go?”  I tried this in my office earlier, looking back and forth, and I don’t know about you, but a few things happened to me:
1) stretched my neck looking back at the world,
2) got dizzy -- (interesting, metaphorically),
3) preferred looking forward with my eyes open

We, like Peter, are always standing at a split in the road.  We could go this way [point at cross], eyes open looking to the cross, or we could go back that way [pointing to door].  And making this choice can be kind of uncomfortable, like a stretch to the neck; it can be dizzying.  But like Peter, we know that ultimately eyes open looking to the cross is the way to go.  As Peter said, “Lord, what other way is there really?  As I look back there, I know everything else comes up short.  Lord, to whom else, to what else shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life…not the IKEA catalogue, not the thrills, or the food, or the entertainment, or the work or the leisure. You have the words of eternal life.”  [pause]

Now, our reading from Ephesians helps us sort all this out a little more:  Because this might sound—this standing with a split in the road (“Do I go this way or that?”)—like I’m getting dangerously close to, what’s called, “decision theology”.  Ever heard of “decision theology”?  This is one of the things that sets Lutherans and some other protestants apart from our other Christian sisters and brothers (this is so important): we don’t make a choice to “accept Jesus Christ”, God always comes to us first…!

[Preach it!]  This place where I’m inviting you to stand with this exercise, this is not deciding to accept Jesus while rejecting the world.  God’s already claimed you…“sorry”.  God knew you in your mother’s womb and loved you way back then and has loved and accepted you ever since, called you by name, held you close.  We might run from it or reject it, but that doesn’t change God’s mind.  There’s no decision you can make about God’s loving, saving and forgiving you.  You have no say in it…AMEN?  Solid Lutheran theology is not “your decision” theology.  Luther: “I cannot by my own understanding or strength (Kraft- force, power, might, agency, fortitude) believe in my Lord Jesus Christ or come to him.  But the Holy Spirit calls me through the gospel, enlightens me with her gifts, sanctifies me in the one true faith…just as she does to the whole Christian church and keeps it with Jesus in the one common, true faith.  Daily in this Christian church the Holy Spirit abundantly forgives all sins, mine and those of all my sisters and brothers!”    

OK?  So we’re not invited to make a choice about accepting Jesus here.  We are invited to go into the world, “armed” to borrow from Ephesians’ imagery, with the truth about what gives eternal life – not all that “stuff” back there.  But rather the words, the life, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus.  That’s what we confess here, this day and every day!

That that stuff back there doesn’t save us.  Jesus does.  So we as people of God, even while we live “in the world” don’t put our trust in the stuff of the world:  IKEA doesn’t bring new life into my home, the stories and songs of God and God’s people do!  Should be a tagline on the bible or on our hymnals: “Bring new life into your home.”  We live in the world, we love the world, but we don’t put our trust in the stuff of the world, in the armor and the weapons of the world, in the empty promises and vain empires of the world.  We who Christ has loved from the beginning are protected are armed only by the truth of the Gospel. 

(interesting picture and great book!)
And fed, by the bread of heaven, which fills us with the true life of God, which nourishes and sustains us for faithful living out there…out there behind you.  We’re not better than anyone:  we’re wearing the shoes of peace and humility.  We’re not violent, we’re carrying the sword of the Word, not the sword of conquest or might.  We’re armed only in that we’re covered by God.  It is a direct counter to the literal armaments of the Roman armies.  It makes no sense to them.  “How could you protected by just God?  You need a real weapon,” the Roman soldiers would scoff.  But we know the truth, we believe, and we trust in God alone.

And so we turn now and go back into the world, full of beauty and pain, and we live our lives.  But always keeping the cross before us – it’s ultimately not the cross or the world.  Christ’s cross is in the world.  And we see it!  We see Christ in the world’s pain.  This is the life of the Christ-ian, the way of the cross, the way of Christ, which is in the world.  There’s nowhere else to go.  “You, Lord, have the words of eternal life.  Cover us with that word, gracious Christ.  Fill us with that bread, loving God.  And help us to proclaim this good word boldly in all our thoughts, words and deeds.”    

Sunday, August 19, 2012

August 19 -- Twelfth Sunday of the Green Season

I think I mentioned this last week, but the 3 of us – your preschool director, your parish administrator and your pastor – sit down in the mornings now for morning prayer.  We use this space right here, we each light a candle, and then we read from the daily devotion: Christ in our Homes.  I know some of you pick up and use that resource (from the narthex) as well.  A few weeks ago, the brief devotional reflection described a man in the choir, who loved to sing.  He was the lead voice on most of the anthems, but he was also a cheerleader, a coach, and friend in the choir group.  He hosted parties for them, gave them gifts and thank you’s, loved the congregation…and then one year, his dear spouse, his life-partner became ill and died of cancer.   The devotion described the funeral service, where the choir sang, but this man was not with them, he was on the front row listening to them.  On this day, he was not able to sing.  He could only mouth the words to “Beautiful Savior” and “Abide with Me”.  And he relied on those, who had for so long relied on him, to do the singing.  And to carry him through. 

That really is a wonderful picture of church, isn’t it?  How we, many times are perfectly able to believe, to smile, to care for each other and to sing.  No problem.  But how dark times come and sometimes we are rendered unable to believe, are unable to smile, and unable to sing.  That’s not surprising – of course we all have good days and bad.  What’s so special about church however, is that, and we might not always realize this – in our good days, when we’re in a pretty good place, and our capacity for singing is full, we might just be carrying someone else through. 
So when we are able to embrace another, whether literally or through song or through prayer, let’s do it.   And at other times we have to let ourselves be embraced, like that dear man on the front row.

Our reading from Ephesians today goes really far and actually ties singing to wisdom, actually to the Wisdom of God.

I find it kind of funny actually that singing is contrasted in our second lesson with drunkenness.   Of all things to contrast drunkenness with: singing?  I’ll be honest, for me, singing and having a few beers is one of my favorite things to do with my brothers.  There’s a young congregation in Denver – maybe you’ve heard of them, called the House for All Sinners and Saints – and they have a bi-annual event called “Beer and Hymns”, which frankly sounds awesome to me.  But here we are challenged to think about what “sober spirited singing” might look like, and I think we need to think about that in more ways than just literally. 

What does it mean to sing spirited songs in full consciousness, in full presence, in full awareness of our neighbors?  Not in some kind of a tipsy haze.  How do we lift one another up, and carry one another through the dark days, the difficult times?   And how do we swallow our own pride and let others carry us, when that time comes?

The gift of church is that it works two ways:  Sometimes you carry the tune and sometimes you’re carried by the tune. 

So be sure to give it all you got, when you can, sisters and brothers in Christ, little Christs.  Be sure to sing out with your life – however that looks.  If you’re a teacher then teach, if you’re a listener then listen, if you’re a coach then coach, if you’re a singer then sing, and if you’re a cook, then we live at 3490 Monique…

God has given us each special abilities and special gifts, and we are called to share those, not just with each other, but with the world, both friend and stranger alike.

And here’s where our Gospel text comes in:  As we are engaged in thing building up of the body of Christ, that is in the mutual giving and receiving of care and song, that is in the sharing of wisdom – Christ is present in our midst, Christ abides with us.  IN the breaking of bread, and the spilling of the cup, Christ’s body and blood tips over into us, and we become Christ’s body for the this hurting world.  This is God ABIDING, for truly it is this one Lord, Jesus Christ who carries us as we carry Christ in our bodies and out into the world.

You are a reflection of God’s love for this world, sisters and brothers.  In all you say and all you do.  In your willingness to reach out, and even in your willingness to be cared for, to be carried, to be sung to, to be hugged, you are a reflection of God’s love.  Feast on that! 

God—thanks be to Jesus Christ—breaks into our lives in the most mysterious of ways.  It’s not just the choir that’s showing Christ to their dear bereaving lead singer.  He shows Christ to them, as he allows them to carry him…
Church works both ways.  Sometimes you carry the tune, and sometimes you’re carried.

Christ is our tune.  Christ is our song.  Christ is our bread and cup.  Christ is our body.  Christ is our earth.  Let us go now, treading lightly, but treading faithfully, from this place, filled to the brim with Christ, on whom we’re about to feast.  Trusting in Christ’s fingerprints and melodies in our everyday lives.  Confident that our present day and our future years rest safely in God’s merciful arms.  For we are the church of Jesus Christ, the bread of life.


Sunday, August 12, 2012

August 12 -- Eleventh Sunday of the Green Season

Our wedding day was a day to remember.  June 25, 2000, Thousand Oaks, California.  From start to finish it’s one of those days on the top of my list.  It was a Sunday, and our families and friends had started gathering in and around our hometown a few days before – Bachelor party was on Friday, Saturday was of course the rehearsal and the rehearsal dinner, and Sunday was the big day. 

Some wise friend of ours – and I can’t even tell you which one – had suggested we stop and take moments throughout the festivities just to take it all in – really intentionally stop and look around or pause and consider all the love and joy that is present.  I had one such opportunity after the Rehearsal Dinner.  The older crowd had all gone home to bed, the younger crowd was out dancing at the restaurant next door to where we had the Rehearsal Dinner, where I had been too, but decided to leave early to get some rest.  I had walked back to the hotel by myself and in the lobby of the hotel were all these Irish folk musicians – this is a random hotel North of L.A., not the north coast of Ireland, but there they were circled up about 30 of them.  The lobby was filled with this beautiful music, so I sat down right in the middle of it to—as our friend said—take it all in, to consider the all the love that was present.  And it was a foretaste of the joy to come.  That was Saturday, the day before I got married.

Then on Sunday, the wedding was scheduled for the afternoon, and so I went to church with my family in the morning.  And we gathered with the faith community around the Word.  Lots of winks and hugs and “see you laters” that morning I remember.  Such a special time and a centering place for me.  I won’t go on and on with the details of the wedding and reception.  But I can tell you, that in the midst of it all there was such great joy and peace that over came us.  The ceremony was beautiful; it was at California Lutheran University’s chapel, where Heather and I had met.  Mark Knutson was our campus pastor and the pastor that married us, so our dads could be dads.  The words and the toasts were all so touching (and appropriately humorous), the pictures turned out amazing, there was dancing and singing – literally: our friends got up and did a rendition of a Jimmy Buffett song in our honor.  We had negotiated to have the hotel ballroom until 1 in the morning, unlike most contracts I understand.   And people stayed late into the night, talking, and laughing and dancing.  We stayed…to the very end.  It was all our closest people at the time gathered in one place.  We couldn’t miss it.

But you know what I didn’t mention in my recollections?  The food.  Traditionally one of the greatest food days in our cultures, and I honestly don’t even remember what I ate for dinner.  I’m sure it tasted great.  And I never even had a taste of our wedding cake.  I know I ate. 

When I look back at it all, I think the real food that sustained me that whole weekend (same’s true for the Rehearsal Dinner) the real food that filled me was the love and the community and the laughter and joy that that had come to gather around Heather and I, as we made our sacred vows to each other.

This is my illustration for our Gospel text today.  And my wedding experience is only a glimpse of the way that God feeds us, sisters and brothers in Christ.  Jesus says, “I am the true bread that comes down from heaven.”  There’s lots to be said of earthly food – and I love it – but when Jesus says he is true bread, we are brought into something much greater than the short-term joy of a good meal or even a wedding feast.    When Jesus offers us himself as the true bread of life, we are offered a place on the dance floor, a seat in the pew at church surrounded by the faithful, a front row to the swirling melodies of traditional reels, with fingers and toes tapping along to the rhythm, our bellies full of laughter, our eyes full of tears, our hearts full of joy, and our minds full of peace.  This is a glimpse of what God’s got in store for us.  And it’s even offered to us now, in this life!  Jesus is here, today, offering himself to us – in bread, in wine, in water, in the community faith and doubt. 

Let us eat of this Bread of Life.  Because it’s so much better than just the bread of lunch or even the fancy breads of dinner.  The Bread of Life gives us the true strength and nourishment and support we need to face our difficult times.

Some of us can actually become addicted to earthly bread, that is, to eating.  It comforts us temporarily, even gives us great joy in the moment, or at least it numbs our pain.  Others of us, if we’re honest, can become dependent on other substances or habits or collections or relationships.  They comfort us temporarily, they even give us great joy in the moment, or at least they numb our pain.  But they all come up short. 

The real bread, the true bread that comes down from heaven, is the Bread that is God’s Love.  God’s love, given for you.

This is the true bread of forgiveness.  And it is held out to you. 

This is the true bread of justice and compassion – the ability to open your heart and care for the alien and the stranger, the immigrant and the orphan, the hungry and the diseased, and anyone who you thought you could never like – This is the true bread of justice and compassion, and it is offered to you this day. 

This is the true bread of joy and peace.  Calming our anxieties and our cravings for more.  Bringing a smile to our faces and air to our lungs.  And it is offered to you this day.

Let us take this bread together.  Let us break it and share it.  Let us eat it in community with the whole earthly community heavy on our hearts in prayer.  For this is the true bread of heaven that raises us all up on the last day, that draws us closer to God and therefore to one another and closer to the good earth.  Take and eat, this is the body of God given for you…and for many.  AMEN.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

August 5 -- Tenth Sunday of the Green Season

Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior, the Bread of Life, Jesus Christ.  Amen. 

Well, I was trying to fall asleep last night…so I watched a documentary.  The problem is, I love documentaries.  This one was done by PBS, whose documentaries are always excellent, and it was called “This Emotional Life”, a three-part serious on the psychology and sociology of human emotions. 

And in it I was reminded once again of that famous study they once conducted on chimps – poor chimps – they took baby chimps away from their biological mothers, and installed two “fake mothers” in their habitats – one made out of metal wire, who had food, and the other made out of fluffy warm fur, who had no food.  Which “fake mother” do you think the baby chimps picked? 

Every time those little babies opted for the comfort and warmth of the fluffy fake mother figure, which the scientists concluded suggests that emotional nourishment might just be a higher priority than even physical nourishment.    

It reminds me also of one of these backstories I’ve heard while watching the Olympics.  (Heather and I have just loved watching the Olympics this year.)  And I’m not sure if you heard the backstory on swimmer Missy Franklin:  Apparently she opted out of moving away to be coached and trained at some highly advanced facility with the greatest coach in the universe (some “wire structure with milk”), and said she’d rather stay close to her friends and family, have a normal high school experience, and be on the high school swim team.  And I heard her say in that interview, “You know, I probably wouldn’t be where I am today if I had left because I just wouldn’t have been happy, and all that affects my performance.”

The people in our Gospel text today are tailing Jesus again.  He just fed them, all 5000 of them, but they’re back.  (Reminds me of my kids, “I just fed you, but you’re back!”)  Of course they’re back: one miraculous meal doesn’t cut it.  They’re looking for daily bread.  “Give us this day our daily bread.”  Jesus, we need to keep eating and one amazing meal, just doesn’t cut it.  We too are looking for daily bread.  Lord, give us this bread always.

And, in the Gospel of John, when the people come clamoring for a sign, when they have rejected the fake, metal structures of this world, things that might provide a little immediate sustenance or pleasure, but no long-term, emotional or spiritual nourishment, when the people come clamoring, Jesus gives them…HIMSELF.

I am the bread of life.  Come and believe in me,” he says…

Jesus is the Bread of Life.  So that even friends and family to provide everything we need, comes up short.  Let’s remember, not everyone has friends and family.  There are orphans in this world of all sorts, solitary types, with no one to write in as their emergency contact.  Not everyone is as lucky as Missy Franklin or you, perhaps, nurtured and nourished by a loving home.  So that illustration falls short.

For this Gospel, this Jesus, this Bread of Life is for everyone, not just those who can relate to a loving home and a big loving and supportive family!  Christ gives the true and greatest nourishment, relieving all hunger and quenching all thirst.

So, I don’t know about you, but I hunger and thirst for peace in this world, for an end to violence, for our children to stop pretending to shoot one another, for our soldiers to come home from war, for our homes to be safe and warm, free of abuse and domestic fighting. 
That’s just one example of what I hunger for…and Jesus says, “I am the Bread of Life.”  In other words Jesus offers himself, when I come clamoring and hungry.  “Look to me,” Jesus says, “follow me, eat me – my body my blood – and peace will come – maybe not in the way you first want, but rather it starts from within—that peace you desire—and it sends you out.  I am the bread of life,” Jesus says.

For what do you hunger this day?  I’m anxious and restless about a lot of things, so am I able to hear Christ’s gentle words?  “I am the bread of life, given for you, even and especially now.”

Today we also get Part 2 of David and Bathsheba…[retell the story] 

“How could someone do such a thing!” David says in self-righteous judgment.  Do you ever catch yourself sounding like David here?  “How could someone do such a thing!” we can say in self-righteous judgment.  I probably sound like David in this great story, every time I watch the news.  “But I’m talking about you,” Nathan responds. “But I’m talking about you,” the prophet responds.  And then he realizes it.  Can we too realize it? – the trash on the ground, the trash in the air and in the water, the violence all around, the recklessness and selfishness and entitlement and fear of our nation and our world and our own psyches?   It’s on us, just like David, it’s on us as a human family – it’s the world, the culture we’ve created, with trash and violence, it’s a reflection of our own broken, sinful and violent natures.  We are the ones, like David.  You are the one, like David.  The prophet just holds up the mirror.

And that’s a hard word to hear.  “I don’t like this prophet!  Telling me that I’m responsible for this mess!”  That’s why we always kill the prophets, or at least dismiss, the prophets as “out-of-touch” or “unrealistic”.  Crazy old man, Nathan!

And here’s where the great and fallen King David is so instructive, such a gift to us on our journeys:  David manages in all his pride and recklessness, from his seat of power and privilege, David manages to open his ears to the prophet’s words, to see the mirror the prophet holds up, and then he melts, and then he repents. 

Not only is David’s sin one of the greatest in the Bible, so is his admission, confession, and his repentance: “I have sinned against the Lord,” he says, bowing his head in humility and shame.  May we too have that kind of honesty before God.

And here’s what happens next (for some reason it’s left out of our assigned reading for today): Nathan’s response to David. “Now the Lord has put away your sin.  You shall not die.”

David was able to receive both the God’s words of conviction and then God’s words of forgiveness. 

There is Christ.  There is daily bread.  Forgiveness.

No other bread will do – not the bread of money, not the bread of success, not the bread of arms and security, not even the bread of family and friends.  They all come up short… 

Eat of this bread of forgiveness that is Christ.  Eat of this bread of truth that is Christ.  Eat of this bread of peace that is Christ.  Eat of this bread of life that is Christ.  AMEN.