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, March 30, 2014

March 30 -- Fourth Sunday in Lent

Listen to this sermon HERE.

I hate shaving.  The tediousness, the razor, the rashes.  I use a razor and shaving cream.  And the other morning, I rolled out of bed to shave, and I did it without my glasses.  Up to the mirror, by the time I was finished, I thought I had done a pretty great job...

Then I put my glasses on and turned an extra light on to check:  ...patches, uneven, and even some nicks.  

I thought I could see, but I couldn’t.  I thought I was just fine, but I wasn’t.  And thank God for the light and for the vision correction.

Today Jesus heals the man-born-blind and hopefully the Pharisees too, who thought they could see, but couldn’t, who thought that they were just fine, but weren’t.  Thank God for the light and the for the vision corrected.  [pause]

Today’s text is where we get that toast, “Here’s mud in your eye.”  Ever heard that?  My Grandpa used to say that all the time when we’d raise our glasses.  I never knew what it meant, but it comes from this passage, where Jesus takes dirt, spits, in it, makes mud, and rubs it on the man-born-blind’s eyes.  “Here’s mud in your eye” is a way of saying here’s to your health and healing, here’s to clearness of vision and direction.  Try it the next time you make a toast. 

But “mud it your eye” does not sound like pleasant experience.  And that must have certainly been true for those Pharisees who were called out by Jesus.  “Surely we are not blind, are we?” And Jesus says to them, “If you were blind you would not have sin.  But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”  Like me thinking I had done such a great shave with no glasses.  I’m fine.  I’m even great.  
This is a text and lesson about humility, and about relying on Jesus who is the only one who gives true light, who fully shaves away and wipes down our sin.  

We can’t do it on our own: Lent continues.  We can’t see clearly on our own.  We need Christ’s light and our vision corrected.  This isn’t about literal blindness at all.  Lent continues: let us turn-turn-turn back to God, like I turned back to get my glasses the other morning, only to discover quite a mess.  Christ, who slaps mud in our eyes, is our light and our healing.

But the healing doesn’t happen interestingly in Jesus’ presence.  This is the second time in John’s Gospel where healing happens -- not in Christ’s presence -- but after Jesus says, “Now go.”  In chapter 4, a royal official has a son who is sick to to the point of death and Jesus says to the father, “Now go,” and only at that point does he discover his son’s fever dropped.  Just like our text today, Jesus wipes the mud in his eye, but the man doesn’t see until he goes and washes it off.  Jesus tells the man-born-blind to wash in the Pool of Siloam, which means Sent.  Jesus wasn’t just standing there when the man receives his sight, when the fever of the official’s son goes away.  The healing happens -- not in Christ’s presence -- but in the Sent.  

What’s the point of that?  There is a component to faith, where we don’t get the results we want immediately, or in the way we envision them.  First we are told to go.  Can anyone name the 4 movements of our worship service each Sunday?  (in bulletin every week, in seminary, I used Bath-Story-Table-Sent)  The Sending movement of our worship service might seem like the shortest, but it’s actually the longest because it’s happening until we gather next week.  Our life becomes worship, as Christ says to us, “Now go, wash in the Pool of Sent.”

Two years ago now, I had that wonderful experience of flying to Colorado Springs to interview my 90-year-old Grandpa Roschke on video.  What a wonderful conversation we had about his life and his 60+ years of ministry as an ordained pastor in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.  His longest call was in Kansas City, Missouri -- which is where I remember visiting them the most when we were growing up.  He was there for 25 years.  And as Grandpa was talking about those years he shared how that congregation planted 6 churches in the greater KC area.  6 churches.  And how hard that was, because his thriving congregation would grow and then it was always a struggle figuring out which members would venture forth to the new church plant.  No one wanted to be the one to be sent from the cozy mother church.  [pause]

And it occurred to me that I’ve never even thought along those lines.  I’ve never even had that kind of a vision for our churches today.  [pause]  But how do you suppose we got here?  (We were a plant of St. Luke’s.)  And how do we suppose others will hear the Gospel that God loves them, how will others come to know the Christ who abides with them in the light and in the darkness, in the good times and in the bad, in the Word and in the Meal, and in the community...if we don’t go and wash in the Pool of Sent?  Jesus sends us out.  That’s the whole reason for being church!

I was reminded recently that the early church, 1st century, had two purposes: to worship weekly together and to help the poor and those on the edges.  So, they always took an offering when they worshiped underground, and gave it away.  Then the church morphed when it got power in the world’s eyes, when emperors and kings and presidents made it their own.

Luther tried to restore those two original focal points and he added one more: education.  So that during the time of the Reformation, the church was called anew to worship, serving the poor and educating.  I’d like to think my grandpa was trying to restore that as well, and offer this vision once again to the church of the 20th century.

Sisters and brothers in Christ, where is God calling us today? In  this Lenten season?  For we have a vision before us, now that we are in Christ, now that we have been given sight.  We can see now that we have been near-sighted, that our work can indeed be patchy and uneven.  But thanks be to God, who has turned on the light and given us corrective vision.  Here’s mud in our eye!

Now.  We.  Go.  AMEN.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

March 23 -- Third Sunday in Lent

Listen to this sermon HERE.

“Come and meet the One who knows everything about me...and loves me anyway.”  

Last week, we heard from John’s Gospel of the conversation with a man under the cover of deep darkness, and of the grace that those moments can offer.  Today, we hear of a conversation
"Woman at the Well" by Daphna Russell
with Jesus at the polar opposite time of day: at noon.  The sun is the highest and the hottest.  The light is the greatest.  

Last week, Jesus met a man at the center of power, at the center of temple life in the ancient Jewish world, a Pharisee, a man with a name: Nicodemus...by night.  Today, Jesus meets a woman on the edge, on the fringe, a Samaritan, who doesn’t even worship at the temple in Jerusalem.  And her name is not even mentioned.

It’s a wonderful and stark contrast from last week’s Gospel to this week’s, where we find Jesus in these one-to-ones.  

Honesty and making change and turn-turn-turning back to God have been some of our themes this Lenten season 2014, and Jesus’ conversation today with the Samaritan woman draws us right back into those themes.

The woman at the well has, for many years, been assumed to be a prostitute or a harlot, even as we have no concrete evidence that this is the case.  Some have assumed that since she has had 5 husbands, that it must be because she gets around.  But in recent years, some scholars and theologians have wondered differently.  Maybe she’s lost 5 husbands, to disease or war.  Or, in that day in age, a man could permissibly divorce and literally throw his wife out for just about any reason...sometimes for not bearing children.  And being cast out, made a woman ritually unclean to the whole community.  Maybe this why she is at the well by herself, at the least favorable time of day.  If we had to draw water from wells, we’d probably all want to go in the morning or the evening when it was cooler.  She’s been relegated.

This woman was hurting.  No question.  She could have been grieving, she could have been physically battered and bruised.  And even promiscuity was part of her story, she no doubt had a painful story.  And she was “at the edge” in many ways.  A woman, a Samaritan, and divorced -- the imagery of “other” couldn’t be more blunt for the first hearers of John’s Gospel.  It always helps, when we’re talking about Samaritans, to think of who your Samaritan is today -- Muslims, atheists, evangelicals, liberals, conservatives, Russians, homosexuals, rich people, poor people, certain family members you can’t stand...it’s always helpful when we talk about Samaritans to draw our own lines, honestly, and remember that Jesus is always there on the other side of the divisions that we make among ourselves...talking with the 5x-divorced, Samaritan woman.  

And the site of this extra-ordinary meeting is this ancient well, Jacob’s well, a place still supplying water, just as it did centuries ago for Jacob and his flocks!  Since the fourth century this has been one of the KEY baptismal texts for Christians.  Many baptismal fonts in Europe and the Middle East, Northern Africa (and in some of our churches too) are designed to resemble a well.  There is still water coming from the well, in the place where Jesus meets us!  

Jesus reaches out to this woman--and to all who are outcast and hurting, all whose histories are messy and painful--Jesus offers healing, peace, truth and love.

And just as there is grace in the darkness--as we were reminded last week--there is incredible grace in bringing things to light...in bringing our stuff out into the open before Christ.  The work of repentance might start down deep in the darkness, down deep in the soil, as the Spirit nudges us and stirs us for change.  But that means certain things are going to come to light, as growth happens [my tiny aloe vera plant in the front yard: peeking out].  Out of the deep, peaceful darkness, certain things come to light (the woman at the well). 

We remember this--not just in Lent--but every week (maybe even daily) as we offer our confession and ask for God’s forgiveness.  During this Lenten season we’re saying these words at the beginning of every service, we’re coming out into the light and saying, “We confess that we have turned away from you and from our neighbors and in toward ourselves.  We have sought security in possessions and the place of power in relationships.  We have trusted ourselves most of all.”  There it is, bringing it out, into the light.  (Take this home with you and say it every day -- Luther.)  Maybe another way of saying this, “We’ve had 5 husbands,” which is another way of saying, “Lord, we are grieving and hurting; lead us back to you.  Forgive us for what we’ve done wrong -- for the things for which we must take responsibility.  Comfort us in our pain and sorrow -- in the things over which we have no control.  And, God, guide us back to you, guide us back outward (not inward) to be your people to the strange and the strangers of this world.”

The woman at the well...at the end of the day, you’ve just gotta love the scene of Jesus talking with a person who is so vastly different.  I had a friend once who would just talk to any body, who would have just about anyone feeling like a friend by the end of the time you spent with him.  Some of you are like that.  And I imagine must of us know people like that.  (My grandpa’s like that too -- he loves just chatting with strangers.)  

But in those simple exchanges, the most profound occurs: strangers become friends, the enemy is indeed destroyed--dissolved with kindness and respect.  And in those simple exchanges we re-enact in a tiny way God’s very healing, God’s very reconciling work, and God’s very incarnation, God’s very coming to meet us here and now in the person of Jesus, who knows everything about us...and loves us anyway.

There is still water coming from the well, gushing even from the rocks.  Forgiveness, new life, hope for a broken world.  Living water gushes and cleanses us now and nourishes us for faithfulness into eternity.  Jesus meets us and sees us plainly again this day, all our faults and blemishes clear in the light of day...and loves us anyway.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.   

Sunday, March 16, 2014

March 16 -- Second Sunday in Lent

Listen to this sermon HERE.

What are the thoughts that keep you up at night?  I think those thoughts give us great insight into what is important to us, what really concerns us, or what must be confronted in the day/s ahead.  Talk about honest moments.  What are the insights that come to you in the wee hours of the morning, the ideas – like a skittish deer that creeps up to the creek at dawn?  One sound, one distraction and they’re gone again.  Do you write those ideas down?
I always used to get really frustrated about waking up in the wee hours of the morning, trying to force myself back to sleep.  (I still do sometimes, thinking about all the things for which I need my rest when the sun comes up.)  But I once had a colleague, a friend when I was on my internship in St. Louis, say to me—when I was complaining to her about being awake the night before against my will—say, “Oh, don’t you just love those nights?  Holy time.  I thank God every time I am awakened in the night for no external reason.  That silence, that peace, that time alone with God.  I write, I sit in the darkness, sometimes I just walk around the house.  It is such a gift.”  I always try to think of her perspective when I wake up during the night, mind churning.
Nicodemus, in our Gospel text, must have had one of those nights.   I wonder if he couldn’t sleep, if he was pacing around his home.  Something was keeping him up.  This episode follows the dramatic scene in the Gospel of John where Jesus overturns the money tables in the temple.  In John, already in Chapter 2, Jesus is driving out the money changers, then he says, “Destroy this temple and in 3 days I’ll build it up.”  And Nicodemus, one of the Pharisees, one of the good teachers and keepers of Jewish law had witnessed and heard it all.  And something about what he saw, or what Jesus said, was keeping him awake.  [pause]
Nicodemus was a lot like a good, life-long Lutheran.  He had been in the church for years, he had family that had been in the church for years.  He had roots.  He could tell stories about his father and mother and their faithful involvements with the church… the Jewish equivalents to altar guild, choir, confirmation.  He knew all the traditional songs, he had been on councils and committees, he understood the flow of the liturgical year, and he had long eaten the traditional dishes – the ancient Jewish versions of our favorite dishes.  He really knew everything there was to know about religious life.  And the more he thought about it, in those wee morning hours, the more he felt like he really should be the one instructing and inspiring and impressing Jesus.  His words and actions ought to be keeping young Jesus awake at night, not the other way around.  Do you know anyone like Nicodemus?  Are you like Nicodemus?  Nicodemus was like a good, salt-of-the-earth Lutheran.  He was one of the charter members, on all the boards, the keeper of memories and customs and the great “how we’ve always done it.”  There was a formula for being religious and Nicodemus knew it.  
But something had rocked his safe and familiar world.  There was something that shook him the day before, and he needed to iron it out, smooth it over -- he needed to get back to sleep.  He probably just misunderstood Jesus in that big public display the day before.  “Jesus couldn’t have really meant what it seemed like he was saying, could he?” Nicodemus just needed to clear it up, a little one-to-one time oughtta do the trick...
Are we long-time Lutheran types ever kept up at night by Jesus like that?  Could we, who have heard before the message of salvation 1000 times, we who have sung the hymns of the faith, and sampled the potlucks and congregational meetings through the years, like Nicodemus, really have anything more to learn…from one of the most popular passages in the entire Bible – John 3:16?
You know, on a few occasions I’ve had people say to me, regulars, salt-of-the-earth Lutherans say, “You know, I wish [so-and-so] could have been here to hear this message today.  They would have really benefitted.”  Translation:...    [pause]
I think I understand that sentiment…it usually comes from a place of concern and love for a dear one who is lost or struggling, but sometimes it’s almost as if John 3:16, for example, isn’t really for the good, long-time church people anymore.  “Yeah, yeah, we’ve already heard this; wish all those others could hear it.”  But “God so loved the world...” is for all of us!  There is more room for all of us to grow in faith, that is, to hear with new ears of God’s love.  Kierkegaard said that the hardest people to reach with the Gospel are Christians.  Either we think we already know it all, maybe like Nicodemus, or we just can seem to trust that it is for us too – the gifts of God.  And the gifts of God are life in the Spirit, unconditional love and grace in the face of our faults.  Rebirth – a gift from God…this is what Jesus discusses with Nicodemus.  [pause]
Rebirth is really all about baptism.  [pause] In fact, “being born again” was always a reference to being made new in Christ by water and the Spirit (baptism).  I was only in the 20th century in the United States when some Christians made it into a formula.  They felt that Christianity was being seriously threatened by scientific inquiry and the wake the Enlightenment, and so they started talking (and making threats of their own) about being born again as a formula to avoid the fires of hell.  But we aren’t born again by decision or formula.  Rebirth in Christ’s love is what God decides to do for us.  God so loves the world.  And when we trust that – “whosoever trusts that God so dearly loves this world, that God was made flesh and embedded into this earth”…God so dearly loves this whole world (Greek: the cosmos), and when we trust that, then life in the Spirit will be ours, salvation, which starts here and now, will be ours.  Trust that God so loves this world, and you will have joy – not “surface joy”, deep joy.  Not just after you die…you will live joyfully and peacefully and eternally starting now.  Let this Lent be a time of quieting ourselves -- which can be very difficult (like welcoming a sleepless night) -- and then receiving anew this gift  of God’s love and forgiveness .  
Sometimes, those of us church folks have the hardest time receiving gifts.  We’re used to giving gifts, not receiving them.  We’re used to offering of ourselves, our time and our treasures.  But this gift is for us to receive.
One of the great themes of Lent has been this theme of honesty before God, as we discipline ourselves for change and turn-turn-turning back to God, as we discipline ourselves for honesty.  And honesty often starts in the darkness.  And the darkness is a gift.

When I was a little boy, it was about that time apparently for Mom to have a talk with me about the birds and the bees: the sex talk.  And I remember she came back into my room just  after she had said good night.  And I had two twin beds in my room and she laid down on the other twin bed and talked to me about sex as a wonderful gift of God, perhaps the most wonderful thing about being human, and therefore as something that should be revered and not cheapened or degraded.  Still, as a prepubescent boy, I remember feeling awkward about the conversation with my mother, even if I suspected she was probably right.  And I remember being thankful for the cover of darkness -- that I didn’t have to have a face-to-face conversation about this.  This Gospel story of Nicodemus struggling with Jesus under the cover of darkness is in part about that space to be honest.  Sometimes there are things that are difficult to admit or talk about by day.  But if we can be in the dark at night, I give thanks for that space to be honest.  Night time and darkness is not just for wickedness and deceit, as it’s often imaged.  The shadows give us some space to be honest before God.  Pillow talk with the Almighty.  In the safety and silence of night we can say, “God here I am, a sinner, you know my thoughts and my wrongdoings.   And you love me anyway. Mold me again God, in this safe space, in the cover of night.  Reshape me again to be the daughter/son, that you made me to be.  Give me courage.  Give me wisdom.  Give me the willingness to trust in you.”  And God responds to us once again, “I so love you; I so love this world.  Trust and know that I am your God.  I will not forsake you, though the mountains be moved, though tidal waves come crashing.  I will never forsake you or fall asleep.  My peace I give you.  And I will love you and the world in which you live...always and through it all.  Turn back to me.”  AMEN. 

Sunday, March 9, 2014

March 9 -- First Sunday in Lent

Listen to this sermon HERE.

Grace to you and peace from Jesus Christ in this season of Lent.  AMEN.

The First Sunday in Lent every year begins with the retelling of the story of Jesus being tempted by Satan in the wilderness.  And it gives us reason to pause again and consider the devil.  

Does anyone even believe in the devil anymore?  In many ways, the devil’s been reduced to a Halloween costume.  I marvel each year in October when suddenly we see images, adults and even little children dressed up like the devil: Red pitchforks, and pointy tails and horns.  It’s as if Halloween is the only time the devil comes out, and it’s all just pretend and trying to be funny (or sexy) at that.  Either this, or we’ve assigned all evil in the world to certain people like the Adolf Hitlers or Osama bin Ladens (or Obama or Bush) or whoever will come next on our list of hideous figures in history or in the news.  It’s as if we’re trying to compartmentalize the devil and control Satan by assigning the label “evil” to a small group of individuals.  

But the devil really comes out during Lent, if we head like Jesus “into the wilds.”

This season is a time for weeding.  And when you weed, as any gardener knows, you can’t just pick off the prickly leaves and vines that you see on the surface and call it good.  You can’t just point to a person who’s committed war crimes or violated humanitarian laws and destroy that person...and then go back to sleep.  We’ve got to dig deep into the soil of our hearts, where the roots of evil have a strong hold.  We’ve got a lot of work to do in the garden, we’ve got a lot of work to do in the wilderness.  Be assured that the devil is real.  Temptation is all around.  But we’ve got a strong Word to contend against the devil.

How interesting that these temptation stories today are not temptations to murder, or any other big obvious sins.  Neither Jesus, nor Eve and Adam were handed a sword or a get-away-car.  (Do you know what I’m sayin’?)  If that were the case, we’d probably be much more able to resist temptation.  But the tempter is far more subtle...

Let me break these three temptations in Matthew’s Gospel down for us: Jesus was tempted by wealth, security, and power.  And we are tempted by wealth, security, and power.  

The first temptation is wealth -- bread.  See there’s nothing wrong with bread, there’s nothing wrong with wealth if we’re careful.  But how easily wealth/money can become the center of our worlds.  Our treasure.  Which is where Jesus said, “There will your heart be also.”  Too much bread is the sin.  Too much wealth is the sin.  Turn these stones into bread, the devil said.  But Jesus: “One does not live by wealth alone, but by every Word that comes from the mouth of God.”  Let us too cling fast to the strong Word of God this Lenten season.  Let’s keep going for more insight into that strong Word.

The second temptation is security.  Nothing wrong with security.  Who doesn’t want to have a roof over their head, clothes to keep them warm, shelter for their family and their communities.  But when we become so obsessed with security...we loose sight of what is important.  Like a weed those roots run deep and can take over, and always at first, subtly.  [Bethel Lutheran adopting “Risk Taking” as a biblically-based congregational value.]  There’s nothing in scripture that lifts up the virtues of being secure.  Abraham, Moses, Ruth, Mary, Jesus, Paul...where?  And yet it’s our first priority so much of the time.

[slowly] How we are tempted to dump ourselves and our resources down to the angels of security below.  “Do not test God,” Jesus says.  “Do not let your lust for perfect, peaceful security and comfort come between you and God who is out there among the poor and the neglected.  

“Use your head,” Jesus says.  God doesn’t minister to us.  We serve God and minister our gifts in compassionate ways, by sharing our bread, reaching out to the poor.  Lent is the season to pull up the weeds that grip our hearts, that hold us from the inside.

Finally the third temptation is power.  So subtle.  So tricky.  Nothing wrong with being in control, right?  Having people serve you?  Having people do what you say.  We’ve got a number of managers and bosses in this congregation.  Someone’s gotta call the shots, right?  But again this can be abused.  Power for power’s sake.  Some of you know that I’m watching House of Cards (Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright) -- a whole show about power for power’s sake.  Kevin Spacey turns hauntingly to the camera all the time and whispers, truly devilishly, that it’s not about money for him -- it’s all about power.  And that speaks to deep desire for us as humans.  And it’s not just overt shows of power.  How we can try to manipulate things behind the scenes, especially if access is power is not granted or assumed by the culture.

When we make ourselves God, when we put ourselves at the center, we turn away from God.  This is what the tree in the Garden of Eden was all about:  Shall we trust God.  Or shall we trust ourselves?  That was the temptation.  It’s still the temptation.  

Will you pray with me?

"God give us the power to resist the allures, the subtleties of Satan, in this wilderness journey of Lent.  Give us the courage to trust in you.  Weed out our sinfulness, cleanse our hearts, and walk with us now.  Keep us always steadfast in your Word.  And continue to love us...as you always have.  AMEN."    

Thursday, March 6, 2014

March 5 -- Ash Wednesday

Listen to this sermon HERE.

The rituals of Ash Wednesday bring us face-to-face with and remind us again of two stark realities:  1) We are mortal.  2) And we are sinful.

The imposition of the ashes on our foreheads, which we’ll receive in a few minutes couldn’t spell that out any more plainly: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”  

And yet, there is God there.  And while the truth of this day might be blunt, there is a certain grace that comes in being honest.  

Have you ever gotten a secret off your chest.  Shared it with a trusted friend or even brought it completely out in the public?  

We have some dear friends back in the Midwest who are right in the middle of the terrible process of loosing their home.  They do have some housing options for what-next, thanks be to God, but they are definitely losing the beautiful house they’ve been in for over a decade, and a battle they’ve been fighting for at least 5 years.  They were the victims of predatory lending -- the kind of stuff you see on Dateline or 20/20.  It has been a terrifying experience.  They hated to use that word victim or share with others what was going on because they were embarrassed, ashamed, vulnerable.  But they’ve recently brought it all out into the open.  

Maybe you too have hidden or are hiding a secret, and you don’t want to share it because you’re ashamed, or you feel victimized and you’re too proud to say that, or you’re filled with anger and are just trying to keep it buried.  Or maybe it’s a terrible fear we have about being honest, even honest before God.  
I think of the friends I’ve had who are gay or lesbian, but kept their secret in the closet for many, many years -- for lots of good reasons certainly:  it’s still not a safe world for someone who is openly gay. Like people with dark skin, there are still places in our country where your physical safety is threatened if you’re gay or lesbian, bisexual or transgendered.  Not to mention, they could lose jobs or friends or respect.  But what a great and lonely weight to carry -- that secret.  Those are just a few examples as we reflect on secrecy and this theme of honesty before God on Ash Wednesday.   

These two examples -- friends who are victimized by predatory lending and friends who are in the closet -- these are not examples of sinfulness, rather they’re examples of carrying a tremendous weight alone.  And they’re examples of our mortality, and the terror that comes with our livelihood and our identity, our very existence being threatened.  

But there are plenty of examples of sinful secrets too:  ill-intentions we have toward others, the insatiable thirsts for revenge or retaliation, lurking envies, lustful thoughts and actions, addictions that hurt others and hurt ourselves, apathies, willful ignorance to the needs of others, disregard for the planet and future generations.  I was talking to someone the other day about environmental issues, climate change, and he was saying to me that protecting the soil, the skies, our water supplies, forests and animals for the sake of future generations was not his problem or his concern because, “I’ll be dead in a few years,” he said.  He was saying that out in the open, but I wonder if we harbor secrets and thoughts like that in our hearts too.  Willful disregard for the well-being of others.  “Who cares!”  Elie Weisel, Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize recipient, says the opposite of love is not hate, it’s apathy.  Not caring.  [pause]
Ash Wednesday.  1) We are mortal.  2) We are sinful.

But when we are honest before God, a burden is lifted.  Ash Wednesday calls us to the fact that we don’t have to pretend before God.  We don’t have to fake it, or say the right thing always, or protect our deepest secrets...before God.  Ash Wednesday is where we start to lay all our mortality and all our sins at feet of Christ.  

And this is a process.  We don’t just gush out all our foibles and faults after a smudging of ashes on the forehead.  It’s a process.  For starters, Lent is 40 days.  The brown, dead-looking branch doesn’t turn green overnight.  But today begins a season of turning, a season of changing.

The Greek word for repent is metanoia, and it means “to turn,” literally, to do a 180 degree turn.  Repent.  Today we begin anew that turn.  From our selfish words to self-giving actions, from being for our rights (and the rights of all our “besties”) to being for the rights of others, from deceitful and apathetic thoughts to loving hearts, from our unhealthy habits to life-giving practices.  The three traditional disciplines of Lent are praying, fasting and alms-giving.  Take those literally...or try breaking them open this season.  See what God has in store for you as you willfully make yourself uncomfortable.  Go to the “desert.”  Get in the dirt.  Make the turn this Lent.  
And God will be with you.  As we confess, not only is the burden lifted, but space is cleared, space for the Holy Spirit to enter and work in us.  (Mother Teresa: “God cannot fill what is already full.”)  As we empty ourselves, our hearts, of impurities, God fills us.  We become open for Christ’s teachings and Christ’s healings, open for Christ’s forgiveness, open for change, and open for turning in this 2014 Lenten season.  This is the gift of Lent.

Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. “[Those words] make clear the meaning of the ritual: because we know that we are creatures who face death, we turn to God, from whom comes life.”  (Keeping Time, 87)

We turn to God, from whom comes life.  Amen.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

March 2 -- Transfiguration Sunday

Listen to this sermon HERE.

A few weeks ago we had the opportunity to travel to St. Louis to be with my Grandpa to celebrate his 90th birthday.  My grandparents were so generous and they made it possible for all 4 of us to fly to St. Louis for a cold and snowy and wonderful weekend.  And it was the first time in Katie’s memory that she got to fly in an airplane.  And like many of us perhaps, when we fly for the first time, there’s a certain mystique to the clouds.  We get a new view of the clouds.  “What’s going to happen when we get up there to clouds?” Katie wondered before takeoff.  When we got up above the clouds she looked down at them and asked me if we could walk on the clouds.  “...But the Care Bears can.”  And then in the descent, we learned, as many of us who have flown have learned, that sometimes it can get bumpy.  

I want take us into the clouds a bit on this Transfiguration Sunday, when we get to hear again of Jesus’ journey into the clouds with Peter, James and John.  In the story, Matthew says, from the cloud comes a great voice, and we hear the same words we heard at Jesus’ baptism, just a few weeks ago: “This is my Son, the Beloved.  Listen to him.”

But before the voice and the cloud, something else happens:  They’re hiking up this mountain -- we don’t know which one, but we can guess it’s one of the multiple mounts up from the western shores of the Sea of Galilee, and again we’re blessed with incredibly similar landscape here in San Diego, so think Mount Helix.  Jesus goes with 3 of his disciples up a Galilean version of Mount Helix and when they get to the top all out of breath and sweaty, I imagine, Jesus transfigures before them.  And suddenly there with him they see Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus.  This is the ultimate mountain top experience.  Remember that these guys were Jews, and Moses and Elijah were probably their childhood heroes, certainly great heroes of the Jewish faith -- one representing the law, the other the prophets.  Amazing that they knew exactly who they were.

Peter -- let’s give him some credit -- knows he’s in the presence of greatness and says, “Lord it is good for us to be here.  Let’s build!” [pause]  (It’s amazing that this text comes on the same day we have major congregational meeting about building!  Not planned, by the way.  Rescheduled.)       

Peter gets ragged on a lot --  but let’s give him some credit, he knew a good thing when he saw it, and wanted to celebrate it, and keep it close.  But almost as soon as he says this.  The clouds envelop them.  

We’ve been in clouds this week, thanks be to God.  We’ve finally gotten some rain.  Clouds aren’t all bad it’s important for us Southern Californians to remember that -- we can get a little cranky about clouds.  But I know the farmers among us and in our communities are not -- the last couple weeks we’ve gone to pick up our produce (we’re part of a C.S.A.) and the farmer’s just had has his shoulders shrugged in fear...

How cool that the clouds have enveloped us too this week.  For Christians, it’s baptismal.   We get too look out and see a cloud on top of Mount San Miguel (great view of it as you come down Avocado).  The clouds enveloped those disciples up there on a Galilean version of San Miguel, and they hear a voice.  “This is my Son, the beloved.  Out of these three, the Law, the Prophets, and Jesus: listen ultimately to Jesus.”  And the disciples are terrified, Matthew tells us.  I think they’re scared not just because of the surreal-ness of this whole experience but because they’ve always listened to the Law and the Prophets.  Everything is changing.  
And they’ve fallen on their faces in both fear and in worship.  
You know how clouds can disperse bright light everywhere.  As we went through the clouds on the airplane, Katie quickly noticed how bright it is, and she kept wanting to shut the window shade.  And I kept lifting it back up: “Wait, it gets better.”  

And sure enough, just as quickly as all the glory and majesty and mystique came on, it was gone.  And Jesus is reaching out his hand and touching them.  One of my colleagues this week, noticed that in the text:  “I’ve never caught that before,” she said, “Jesus touches them.”  A healing touch, and comforting touch, a compassionate touch.  Ever had that?  [sadly these days, we have to be careful: touch has become something that’s either romantic or inappropriate/abusive]  But there’s a different kind of touch too.  One time, I was going through a tough time, and after I confided in a pastor, who I greatly admired, took my face in her hand, and it felt neither romantic nor inappropriate, and all she said was, “I am so sorry.”

See, it gets better?  Jesus reaches out and touches the disciples, the Gospel of Matthew tells us.  And then he says, get up, don’t be afraid.  And then they go back down the mountain.  Such a mixture of emotion in this story.  No wonder it’s in a cloud.  Exhaustion, joy, anticipation, both clarity and confusion, knee-crumbling fear, compassion, and trusting.  At the end, Jesus takes them back down off the mountain.  The clouds make things a little bumpy.  But they still follow.  

This Sunday marks a turning point for us.  We turn from the twinkling glow of the Christmas and Epiphany stars to the wilderness of Lent.  This week comes Ash Wednesday, where we get our bearings, check our compasses/GPS and realize:  “Oh, wait a minute.  We’re off track.  We need to turn around.”  Turning is the major theme for us in Lent.   
It’s tough admitting that you’re lost, that you need to turn around, that you’re broken, that you’re confused or scared.  But let’s not forget this Transfiguration moment, where Christ takes our head in his hand, compassionately, and tells us, “Keep going, don’t be afraid, I’m not leaving you.  Follow me.”  

We descend the mountain, having glimpsed a vision.  We know now that we are to listen to Jesus.  And that plays out truly in our daily lives.  

“What does Christ want for this congregation as we propose a building design today?”  That’s the question we ultimately have to go home and wrestle with.  “This is my son the beloved.  Listen to him.”  Well, what is he saying to us?  

What is Christ saying to you in these days?  How are you being called down into the beautiful and challenging valleys of Monday to Friday?  Sometimes the descent can be bumpy, but wait, it gets better...  

And let us give thanks, here in worship, that we don’t go it alone -- we have one another, and we have our great shepherd of the sheep.  Jesus doesn’t push us down the mountain, and keep hanging with Moses and Elijah.  “Best of luck to you!”  No, he leads us down.  He goes before us, shepherding us into the valleys.  Christ’s body and blood are food for the journey, the waters that gush from the clouds, remind us of our baptismal promises.    

And so we can go, led in love, and pointed to do the same.  AMEN.

* grateful for the ideas and inspiration for this sermon from Bp. Michael Rinehart and the Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor.