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, September 28, 2014

September 28 -- Rescue at the Sea

Raise your hand if you’ve heard this great story before. 

Raise your hand if you’ve thought of Charlton Heston at all this morning.

That film, I think, has made this an iconic biblical scene in American culture.  And that’s a good start, because this is an image that should be burned into our Christian psyches:  God making a way out of no way.  [stehekin = the way through]

God’s people had an army chasing after them.  (BTW, chariots =  stealth bomber of that day.  The Egyptians were the most powerful nation in the world, then.)  So that’s on one side, on the other side is water, too deep to swim across, too wide to go around.  Wilderness, desert everywhere.  Trouble all around, so much so that the Israelites resort to sarcasm:  “Were there not enough graves in Egypt, Moses?”  And even more: they resort to panic.  God, where are you?  Once again.

We had this question last week, when Joseph was in prison.  So much has happened in our Old Testament saga since then:  I’m rewinding, but remember Joseph was stuck in prison after being sold by his brothers.  Then an earlier and kinder Pharaoh receives word that Joseph is able to interpret dreams, so he pulls Joseph from prison rags and puts him second in command, second in riches in all the land.  And Joseph subsequently brings his whole family to Egypt, reconciles with his brothers after all those years they had to live with the fact that they sold their brother into slavery.  One of the greatest forgiveness epics in the all of literature.  Then the family grows for generations in the land of plenty, in Egypt, and a new much less kind Pharaoh comes to power.  And he says that these immigrants are getting too numerous.  So a) we’ll enslave them (put them to work in the fields and the factories, in construction and washing dishes and dusting, all the jobs we don’t want to do), and b) we’ll kill all the first born boys by drowning them.  

God makes a way out of no way again, and baby Moses escapes the jaws of death by another watery salvation -- a little ark is made, and he’s pushed down the river, winds up in the caring hands of the Pharaoh’s daughter, who makes sure that baby Moses is cared for by employing a Hebrew mother.  Another rags to riches.  Moses grows up practically a prince too.  See how all these stories are so intricately related and interwoven?

How God works things for good, even things that aren’t good! 

And after Moses grows up he returns to his own people and winds up being the means by which liberation will be achieved: he begs, pleas, then sends plagues, 10 plagues to convince Pharaoh “Oh, baby, let my people go!”  No, no, no, no, until God does shahat on the Egyptians.  That is, the punishment fits the crime, which is an Old Testament theme.  God revisits the same atrocities that humans inflict on one another.  The evil ruler who executed the first-born Hebrew children is now brought under the same horrifying shadow of death.  And after his own son dies, Pharaoh finally tells the Hebrews to go.  Which brings us to our text and our scene this morning.

See, I wanted to rehearse all that with you, as a reminder of God’s presence and action through it all -- sometimes overt, sometimes not.  We can forget how far God has brought us, when we’re in a bad place.  But as we rehearse our own stories and the stories of others who have been oppressed, we can find God all along the muddy way, all along the dry desert way, all along the rocky way, in obvious and not-so-obvious ways.

When it seems as though there is no way now, sisters and brothers in Christ, remember all the ways God has gone with you before.  

Panic is natural, and “Crying out where are you God!” is natural.  
But we have to train ourselves to trust God and to calm down.
There is a Lutheran pastor back in the Midwest, whose wife became very sick in the last few years.  She was diagnosed with a rare brain cancer, and after a big operation, her road to recovery was extremely rocky -- near-death on several occasions -- and this loving pastor had to step away from his many responsibilities at the church in order to take care of her.  I learned this summer that this pastor said, while he was on that terribly rocky road, “You know, it’s as if I’ve been preparing for this my entire life of faith.”  All the prayers, all the worship, all the caring for others in these types of situations, serving and working, all the grounding himself in the biblical stories of liberation and redemption, all that training in order to trust God now and calm down.  

This is where I differ with Charlton Heston’s film: In that old movie God’s voice seems booming and obvious.  But when the waves are crashing, the winds are blowing, the clouds are brooding, the chariots are charging, the children are screaming and adults are panicking...God’s not going to try to shout out instructions over all that chaos.  Rather, Christ Jesus comes to us in still, small ways.  A whisper, a listening ear, a ray of light, a compassionate hand on your shoulder, the flutter of a butterfly or the song of bird, a little piece of bread, a little splash of water.  “It’s as if we’ve been preparing for this our entire lives.”

When crisis comes, when sorrow strikes, when storms rage, when enemies charge, when panic takes over the land, when evil seems to have the last say, God speaks.  And what does God say?  “Stretch out your hand.”  If we had more space, I’d say we should pray like this today.  In other words, stretch out the faith God has given you in your baptism.  Faith is a gift.  “Trust in me,” God says, “stretch out your hand.  I will give you freedom, life, and rest eternal.  The promised land is before you.  I’ve brought you this far, haven’t I?  I have brought your people through, haven’t I?  Remember your story, your family’s story, your ancestors’ story, your faith story.  I will bring you through this, too” God speaks softly to us today.  “I will give you life.”  

As people of the cross, venturing together through strange lands, Jesus Christ is our way through, our parting sea, our dry land, our watery salvation, our ark of safety and hope.   You see all these rich Old Testament images and stories are pointing us directly to the cross of Christ.  And in that cross, we have salvation, we are freed -- all all of creation -- from the chokehold of the oppressor, from even our own selfish, self-centered inclinations.  Even when we in our own, far more covert, ways try consciously or unconsciously to dominate and enslave others, in Christ Jesus we are freed from those clutches of evil.  Death is drowned in the sea of our baptism.  And we are made freed on the other said.  To venture into the life that God has promised and molded us for -- a life of serving and sharing, giving and caring, a baptized life.  Those terrifying waters are also life-giving waters.  And now God’s people, as your former pastor Dan Erlander, was fond of saying, now we are “walking wet”.  

When our kids come in the house after swimming, they leave little puddles with every step they take.  We too, having come through the sea of baptism, make puddles of God’s love and God’s presence in the dry world through which we walk.   May it be so.  AMEN.      

Monday, September 22, 2014

September 21 -- Joseph in Prison

Grace to you and peace, from a God who stays with us in our best days and in our worst.  AMEN.

For the last few weeks, and other times as well, when we hear a scripture text, I’m always wanting to encourage us to put ourselves into these ancient stories.  Which character are you? Who are you relating to this time, that you here this story?  How are you connecting?  That’s always good to do, and we do it again today as we hear and reflect on a bit of Joseph’s story and the ongoing saga of God’s holy and not-so-holy people.  

But today, I’m going to suggest we look even more at God’s role in this great narrative, and in your life too.  You see something interesting happens with God’s voice in this story today, that’s different from most stories in Genesis previous to this one (now in Chapter 39), and that is that God’s voice is silent.  Do you remember how God was always talking to Adam and Eve, and Noah, and Abraham and Sarah?  But here God becomes more of the silent backdrop.  Would be a pretty dull story without a backdrop, but God nonetheless does not speak in this this story.  

There’s a new hymn set to an old tune in our hymnal called “Oh God Why are You Silent” (703) in our Lament section of the hymnal. 

There are times in our lives where it seems that God is not speaking too...and we sit with Joseph in prison.  [pause]

There are times when we are just trying to do our best, trying to be upstanding -- not perfect -- but trying to be moral and honorable, and then someone grabs us by the cloak, maybe even makes a completely false accusation about you, and suddenly, you find yourself locked up.  [pause]

Let me give you a little back story on Joseph: he was not always this upstanding character that we hear about today.  Joseph was a brat.  When he was a little boy, he had these dreams that all his brothers and his mom and dad were all bowing down to him.  It’s one thing to have a dream like that, it’s another to go tell everyone about it.  And still his dad was unashamed to call Joseph his favorite son -- gave him a coat of many colors.  So his brothers actually wanted to kill him...except one of them Reuben, who said, “Let’s not kill him, let’s just sell him to these slave traders passing by.  That’s how he got to Egypt from Israel in the first place.

Walter Bruggeman’s commentary on Genesis:
Joseph’s story is summarized by Romans 8.28 -- “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” -- which is not to say that all things that happen to us are good, just like all things that happened to Joseph (and even that Joseph did) were not good.  A cocky, handsome, little brat, suddenly chained up and being forced to trudge across the desert to a completely strange land?  Once free, but now forced to work for a top executive in a place you don’t even care about?  And yet we see God’s covenant to Abraham working out as Joseph’s blessing became a blessing for those he encountered (vs. 5: “the Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake”).     

God has blessed you -- which (as I said last week) doesn’t connote having wealth, like many use it to mean -- God has blessed you by naming you “my beloved child” (Hunter today).  So how are you going to be a blessing for others, even when you get chained down?  Joseph was a blessing and brought blessing to others, even when he was chained down, even when he was working as a slave, even when he was in prison, even when he started out as a snotty little hot shot.  
This is one of the great stories in the bible about redemption, and it really reads like a novella, so we can’t cover the whole thing on a Sunday morning.  And even though God’s not speaking with a megaphone loud and clear to our latest main character [I’m pointing at you], that doesn’t mean God’s not there with you and Joseph.  

In our best days and in our worst, God goes with us.  God, through Jesus Christ, gives us the strength, hope and courage to get up, and shine our light for this world, even if we’re behind bars.  Our blessing from God shines through the bars!  Even the bars of addiction, or self-loathing, or self-absorption, or fear, or depression, or grief, or pride, or even shame.  God has blessed us to be a blessing, even and especially in valley of the shadow of death.   And God is with us everywhere we go.     

I was at certain Irish pub one time, listening to music and enjoying a Guinness or two into the night:   And this 75-year-old woman comes in to dance -- I’ve see her both times I’ve been there.  Almost immediately you wonder if she’s a little nuts.  She wars funny hats, has a big shoulder bag, and mismatched clothes.  It’s both inspiring and distracting.  

During the intermission, I got to chat with the Irish fiddler, who’s got red hair, in her 50‘s and has been playing in this house band for years.  And after thanking her for great playing, and chatting a bit about Ireland, I asked her about this dancing lady.  “Oh, that’s Yoshi,” the Irish fiddler tells me.  She’s Japanese, and she lost her husband to cancer about 5 years ago.  She comes in here to dance and sing five nights a week, from 9pm to 12am (used to come in six night a week).  My perspective kind of changed, and then I say, “That will be sad day when one day she stops showing up.”  

And then this Irish fiddler tells me that she is Yoshi’s emergency contact.  Yoshi has made this Irish fiddler her emergency contact.  And I realize that this is a little family.  

I didn’t mention that this pub is in Las Vegas -- a seedy, shallow, superficial, broken, dirty, lost, forsaken, drunken, empty, sorrowful city.  Right there on the Las Vegas strip.  A little glimpse of blessing, of light, shining through the bars, the prisons that confine.  [pause]

And God never said a word.  But God was there.  AMEN.  

Sunday, September 14, 2014

September 14 -- Call of Abraham

Grace to you and peace from Jesus the Christ, who calls us to leave our homes, who promises us blessing, and who journeys with us in these days.  AMEN.

Can you imagine being called like Abram was called?  (Just in case--btw--you’re wondering why it’s Abram and Sarai and not Abraham and Sarah, God hasn’t changed their names yet...that’s 7 chapters later.  For 7 chapters they’re Abram and Sarai.)  Can you imagine being called and asked to move like they were.

The text says that Abram was a young, 20-something, lad, footloose, d.f.w., and up for taking on the world with his new young bride, right?!  [pause]  No!  Abram, like most of our Old Testament characters was up there in years!  (in gen’l:  OT characters = old, NT = young :)  75 years old: and God calls out to him.  Asked him to leave it all and go to a new place!

Good thing God doesn’t ask that of us, right?  Good thing God leaves us alone once we’re past the age of 30, right?  Just do what you do, God says.  Don’t change.  Just stay there, where you are.

I met a man this week.  His name is Abdullah (which means ‘servant of God’).  Abdullah is an Iraqi Christian who lives here in El Cajon, and he is the grandfather of one of our preschoolers here at ABC Barn.  I’ve been making coffee in the mornings and sitting outside to visit with preschool parents and grandparents for the past few weeks.  Abdullah is from the region of Ur!  And -- don’t tell him I told you this -- but I would guess he’s about 75.  He had to flee his homeland, not necessarily because God told him to, but because of religious persecution.  As many of you know, in certain regions of Iraq, it’s no longer physically safe for Christians to be there. 

But he came from Ur!  And he drops his grand-daughter off every day at the preschool!  So I asked him what the area is like.  Desert, dry, hot, miserable...right?  I assumed.  I figured Abram was a nomad sitting in hot climate and was so quick to leave because there wasn’t much going on where he was from anyway.  NO!  Abdullah, described the land as rich farming land, green and fertile, the ancient rivers in world -- Tigris and Euphrates, and where many believe the Garden of Eden may have been.  Fishing was a huge industry, and plenty of space for cattle and crops to grow together, and make any rancher/farmer/fisherman like Abram very wealthy and comfortable.  

Meeting Abdullah was a gift because it made this rich narrative more 3-dimensional.  Abram left good things behind in response to God’s call.  

Good thing God doesn’t ask that of us, right?  Good thing God pretty much leaves us alone after we’re young.  Good thing this is just an old, old story about some amazing dude and his wife, and it really doesn’t speak to us today.  Good thing God won’t be bothering us like that, challenging us, and asking us move to a new place...and even keep moving (last line: they “journeyed on by stages”).  Don’t change.  Stay put.  Houses not tents.  Put your stake down, and stop listening for God’s call.  [pause]

No, this is about us too, sisters and brothers in Christ.  You see, if we weren’t joined to Christ all of that would be true -- it would just be an old, old story for other families of faith, but not for you and me.  But because of Christ (I had said last week, we read these with Christ lenses on) because of Christ this Covenant-making involves us too.  Jesus opened the covenant up for all -- it’s not about blood-lines and genealogies that prove we’re connected with Abram.  It is through Jesus that we’re connected.  

And so this is our story too!  These are our patriarchs and matriarchs in the faith too.  “I am one of them and so are you!  So let’s all praise the Lord!”  

This is our call, too: to go to a new place.  

Where is God calling you in this time in your life.  Is it to move to another part of the country or the world?  I don’t think we should so immediately resist considering that, especially when we’re old.  Is God calling you to be somewhere else in order to be a blessing for others?  [pause]  Is it to a new position or a new responsibility?  A new job, maybe?  And is it God’s call or your desire?  We always have to lay that distinction out there --  learning what I learned about Abram’s homeland this week, it could not have been his desire to leave.  [pause]  What is God calling you to leave behind, and where is God calling you to move? -- That’s your question for this week.  (Take devotions home; pray, read.)  Because this covenant involves you too.  Can’t get out of it; I’ve become more and more fond of saying: “God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”  So where are you going, in response to that love?  Is it to a new place of understanding or listening -- not always jumping to judgement or retort?  Is God calling you to a place of forgiveness.  After years and years of living in a land of resentment and pent up anger, and passive aggression, is God speaking to you this day?  “I love you, I promise never to leave you, now go, take your things that are important, leave the rest behind, and move to this new land that I will give you.”

It’s definitely scary to leave what we’ve always known.  I remember moving out to California when I was 18 for college.  And then to Chicago, and then to Orange County.   

Those are some literal moves.  I think the even tougher ones were more spiritual moves.  Without going into detail, I’m still trying to forgive those who have hurt me, love those who hate me, and pray for those who wish ill upon me.

But here’s the thing:  As go, God goes with us.  Not just in spirit, but showering us with blessing.  God blesses us to be a blessing for others.  And blessing here doesn’t mean, it should be said, it doesn’t mean rich in material things, it doesn’t mean money.  I think nowadays “blessing” is so often referring to having wealth.  But Abram already had wealth and power, before he was blessed by God.  [pause]

God blesses us with relationship.  Connections to others -- connections to family, children, grandparents, friends, neighbors, pets, all of creation,  a congregation, a community, and God.  Blessing is much better understood as a being-put-in-touch.  “I will bless you to be a blessing.”  I will put you in touch, so that you can put others in touch.  I will connect you so that others might be connected.  I will reach out to you so that you might reach out to others.  I will bless you and your family, so that you might be a blessing.  This is grace, poured out for you this day: God’s blessing.  Christ’s presence.  It is with you this day, and it will never leave you.  Let us go now, to the place our God is calling us today.  AMEN.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

September 7 -- Flood and Promise

Grace to you and peace this day...from a God whose heart is transformed by love for this earth and its people.  AMEN.

Welcome to this new set of Sunday morning readings, sisters and brothers in Christ!  This is an exciting day, the first of many days that we’ll be traveling through the Bible -- these books.  We can’t cover every single story, but we will go through this holy library in order, centering on one great story each Sunday, and I want to encourage you to look for themes that keep emerging.  Maybe bring a little notepad and take notes.  I want to share this resources with you...[Handout: “God’s Story. Your Story.”]  My hopes: 1) you’re able to bring faith even more into your homes during the week, 2) (many of you already do) but here’s a way for us to be journeying even more together -- Bible Study, confirmation, Sunday School, your daily devotions, and our Sunday morning bible readings...

So let’s “get into our story” for today.  I believe I’ve said this before and I’ll keep saying it -- we always have to put ourselves into these ancient stories when we’re reading them.  Otherwise they’re just stories.  So where are you in this story?  This week I think it’s pretty easy to figure where you are in this story -- since you’re not God, I’m not God.  And everything else is being wiped out, but you’re not completely wiped out and I’m not completely wiped out -- we can find ourselves in this story:  We’re in the ark.  [look at the ceiling, churches often structured like an ark]  On account of Christ Jesus, who opens up the covenant to all, you’re chosen and we’re saved too!

We’re the ones God “remembers”.  God remembers Noah and his family.  God remembers you and your family.  We’re the ones being saved.  God saves Noah; and God saves you.  And we’re the ones God calls to be obedient and to care for the animals and the plants.  God calls Noah to be a caretaker, and God calls you to be a caretaker.
But lets back up a little bit...because while this has become a favorite story for children and a popular theme for nursery walls.  Lots of pastels.  The story itself is not light and airy, its dark and heavy -- lots of deep blues and dark greys.  God says, “I am going to bring a flood of waters to the earth, to destroy all flesh, everything that is on the earth.”  This can be very disturbing.  What kind of a God would do this.  We have to wrestle with this.  You have to wrestle with this.

In my own research...i.e. wrestling, I learned that the Hebrew word that described what humans were doing to one another in Chapter 6:11 “shachat” loosely translated “doing corrupt things” -- the same word is what God says God will do to them: “destroy”.  The English changes the words the people were doing corrupt things, so God says I will destroy them.  But in the Hebrew, we see a slight but significant difference, I think, because the word is the same in the Hebrew.  The people where doing shachat, and so God must do shachat.  In other words, the punishment fits the crime.  (This is true throughout the Old Testament.)  The punishment fits the crime -- in other words, humanity brings this destruction upon themselves.  [pause] God created the earth and the animals, including the humans, and calls it good in Genesis 1, but in Genesis 6, humanity has begun shachat-ing -- bringing destruction and evil and corruption upon each other and upon the earth.  And so then God grieves.  Just like a parent or a teacher who has to give a big consequence to a child who has broken a big rule.  

[Micah’s teacher this year...it’s the child’s decision to follow directions or not, so when they don’t, she told us at orientation, that she actually makes her voice sound sad: “Oh, I’m so sorry that you’re not going to be able to go outside with your classmates right away...”]

So it is with God, vs. 6 “...and Yahweh was sorry that she had made humankind on the earth and it grieved her to her heart.”

God is heartsick about what’s happened.  “I am sorry that I made them, and I have to blot them out,” God says.  God is torn up about it.  

But then, God remembers someone -- you.  God remembers Noah, and all the vast array of other animals too.  What does this mean for us, in the context of our ecological crises across the globe?  [pause]  God remembers the diversity of creation.  Shouldn’t we...in our decision making?

God directs Noah to build an ark, to build a way for others to be protected -- housed, feed and nourished.  How is God calling us, to build a way for others to be protected -- housed, fed and nourished -- despite the waves of hardship and destruction all around them...and us?  I’m struck by how God’s instructions keeps Noah from just worrying about himself and his family.  Who are we called to bring into this ark?  Who are we called to help to rescue?  Even polar bears and howler monkeys and salamanders and rare plants and common plants matter to God.  God cares about and finds a way to preserve diversity.  That’s a good lesson even in just the human world.  Diversity is not a goal -- “we need more diversity around here” -- biodiversity, cultural diversity, ethnic diversity is the original state of things.  It is a gift, provided and created by God.

God saves us, and saves the animals, and establishes a covenant with us.  “The God said to Noah...I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you and with every living creature...that never again shall all flesh be cut off...”  And the rainbow in the sky is a sign of that covenant, that promise, that diversity (multi-colored), that love that is for us, and for all the creatures, large and small.

Never again, God says, will I destroy the earth.  God knows that corruption “shachat” is bound to come again.  Humans will most certainly engage in evil, and slander, and behavior again.  Before the flood, God saw that “the thoughts of their hearts were evil continually,” and that true after the flood too.  That’s true today, isn’t it?

One scholar points out that people don’t change, in this story.  God’s the one who changes.  [pause]  God’s heart changes.  Evil and wrongdoing will go on, and we’ll hear more stories as we venture together though the Bible this year.  God has given us freedom to do as we chose.  But God will not blot us out, when we go astray.  God will not return shachat on us for the shachat that we inflict on one another and on the earth.  In our confession and forgiveness: “God who is faithful and just will forgive our sin and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”  There’s a lot of Noah’s Ark in that confession.  God is faithful, God is just, and God cleanses us.  

See, here’s where we look at this ancient story with our Christ lenses on -- see all these books? -- we unabashedly look at them with Christ glasses on (maybe we’ll have to make some Christ glasses -- Vicki’s American flag glasses).  And when we look at this story with Christ glasses on, the waters that destroy also become baptismal waters that save, that cleanse and wash, that forgive.  God gives us a re-do.  God gives you a re-boot, a re-start.  God re-creates and therefore we have re-creation (one of my favorite words...and it’s biblical.)  

God has made a way for you.  The language can be as comforting as it is disturbing.  God has drowned our sin and brokenness and through Jesus Christ we are washed and forgiven, fed and sent out.  Thanks be to God!  AMEN.