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, November 30, 2014

November 30 -- First Sunday of Advent, Habakkuk

I know I shared this story in the summer, but I can’t help but think of it, and share it again with you now as we reflect on our text for today from the book of Habakkuk.

It’s the true story of a pastor, who suffered deeply, in his wife’s recent fight with a brain tumor.  The road was long, still is, she survived the operations, but life is difficult.  And when asked what he makes of all this -- the good pastor says calmly and honestly, “You know, its as if I’ve been preparing for this my entire life.”  In other words all the years of church: all the studying, all the worship, the prayers, the songs, the living among his community -- through their joys and sorrows, the ho-hum days, the the intense days -- all of it.  Preaching year after year that God is a God of compassion and forgiveness, that God chose to come to earth in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, that God gets close to us in our pain and our suffering.  All those good, happy and healthy years of proclaiming that good news -- he realized -- were preparing him for the challenges of the day, for the illness of his beloved spouse, for the doubts and the anger that inevitably creep in.  

I imagine he too had moments -- as we all can -- of wanting to cry out to God, “Oh God, why are you silent?  Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble?  How long shall I cry to you for help, and you will not listen?”  Why, why, why? [pause]

Katie, our 5-year-old has been talking a lot lately about God, in everyday life.  She openly prays to God to get things that she wants.  The other day, she was hoping Mommy would let her and Micah watch one more 20 minute episode of her favorite show, and I heard her say to Micah, “Micah, just pray to God, and God will give us whatever we want.  [looking up to heaven] Please God, let Mommy say ‘yes’, let Mommy say ‘yes’.”  I offer that image as a contrast.

Here is a child (who I love like crazy), but a child who has not yet had a lifetime to prepare, to train, to live by faith.  She’s still working through how God’s presence is real.  And that’s wonderful.  I hope she works through God’s existence and blessings in her life...even and especially when bad things come her way, even when the answer about a TV show and many other things is a resounding no.

Sometimes that’s all it takes, even for us adults, to give up on God.  “I asked God, and God said no.  Look!  See:  no fruit on the vines, the flock is cut off from the fold, the fig tree does not blossom.  See?!”  

As if faith were that simple: a quick and easy answer.  The answer I want.  

The prophet Habakkuk starts with that demand and even anger toward God, but eventually, calls us all back to the truth: that faith is not a simple answer, it’s a whole way of life.  “The righteous live by faith.”  The righteous don’t answer quickly, “Faith.  Just have faith.  Just believe hard enough.  Just pray long enough, and God will make all your dreams come true.”  No, no the righteous live by faith.  They spend their whole lives in training.  And they remain faithful through it all.  They can’t help themselves...just like muscle memory in athletic training.

There are questions that may never be answered in this life.  That was the prophet’s experience.  Habakkuk begins in anger and sorrow and deep disappointment.  

Today is the first day of the new year -- in the church calendar.  And maybe, even as happy Christmas music plays at the mall and in your homes, maybe there is a part of you that begins, like Habakkuk, in anger or sorrow or deep disappointment too.  I wonder if one of the reasons those-of-us-who-do get so excited this time of year is because there is such great distraction to drown out our deep angers, and fears and sorrows.  So much decking the halls, sprinkling the sugar, chiming the bells, lighting the candles, making the plans, wrapping the gifts this is a time to run and deny the deepest anxieties of our souls.  (And the denial, I actually think, is healthy to some extent.  It’s a part of grief and loss.)

But, here at church, here among the faithful, the prophet pops that bubble, and is straightforward and honest before God.  

It’s a stark message, this first, peaceful Sunday of Advent.  But thank God for it.  Because to get to the joy of the Christ child, we have to be honest about where we begin.  [pause]  And so many of us do indeed begin sitting in some kind of darkness.  

But as the prophet proclaims, “The people who sit in darkness have seen a great light.”  

“Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation.  God...is my strength, he makes my feet like the feet of a deer.”

Sisters and brothers in Christ, we are still in training for these challenges that we face.  We live by faith.  We wait for the Lord.  Here’s what Martin Luther wrote about this book of Habukkuk: “The godly people are waiting for the Lord; therefore they live; therefore they are saved, therefore they receive what has been promised.  They receive it by faith, because they give glory to the God of truth, because they hold the hand of the Lord.”  (LW 19:123)

During these days, God takes us by the hand.  God is with us while we question, when we stumble, wherever we get distracted, if we lose heart, as we pant for redemption and a new day.  God does not abandon us, and these are the days that we celebrate the arrival of that good Christ into our midst -- into our pain, into our lives.  We need not fear, for we live by faith.  God calls us righteous, sisters and brothers in Christ.  And so we live by faith.  Faith is that gift, remember, given to us in our baptisms, and now we can spend the rest of our lives living by that faith.  Now we spend the rest of our lives unwrapping that gift of faith.  

God takes our fears, 
God wipes our tears, and 
God holds our hand as we move forward through the years.  TBTG for this gift of faith.  
TBTG for this day of grace.


Monday, November 17, 2014

November 16 -- Swords into Plowshares

Grace to you and peace from the one who comes to us in peace, whose vision is peace, and who calls us into the way of peace -- Jesus Christ.  AMEN.

This is a fascinating story today.  It may seem fragmented, jumping around from chapters 36, 37, 2.  And I’m guessing that you’re not entirely familiar with the characters here -- Kings Hezekiah, Sennacherib...

The seasons have changed and the prophecy of Micah is coming to fruition.  Last week the Southern Kingdom of Judah was living large, neglecting the least and poor and the stranger.  Micah warned them that these were not God’s ways, and called them to practice justice, loving kindness and humility.  Now the Assyrians, led by their victorious King have been destroying and conquering every nation and city in their path and now they’re literally knocking at the doors of the mighty Jerusalem.  And this is that scene that we have in so many movies where there is a brief dialogue before the fighting explodes.

King Sennacherib challenges the God of the Israelites, here.  “What has your God done for you?  Look how much I have conquered, and I’m about to take your city, and make you all my slaves!  Stop believing in your imaginary God, and start believing in me: the one driving the armored tank, the one sitting on barrels of money, the one dressed in the finest suits, the one with the sweetest pension, the securest future, the smartest children, the most beautiful homes, the best entertainment, the most exotic landscapes, the most delicious restaurants.  Surrender to your God and come over to our side.”

King Hezekiah is scared but faithful he goes into the temple to pray.  He falls back on the words of the prophets, and the story of his ancestors.  

We’ve been here before too.  Remember the Israelites at the Red Sea?  God makes a way out of no way.  That doesn’t happen as quickly in this case.  The Israelites do indeed get conquered by the Assyrians, eventually the end up in captivity in Babylon.  That would be like a foreign power taking us all away to another country for generations...

It’s amazing the faith Hezekiah had, the vision that Isaiah had has survived, when you think about it!  Isaiah’s words come at the end of this horrific scene, which changes how we hear them -- “In the days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains...all the nations shall stream to it...God shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”  

All evidence is to the contrary.  And yet, this is God’s vision, sisters and brothers in Christ.  That’s true for us today too.  All evidence is to the contrary, and yet this is God’s vision.  AK47, hammered into gardening tools, tanks turned into swing sets.

There’s a fine line here between total disillusionment, pie-in-the-sky dreaming vs. letting a vision that we may never see in our lifetime shape us, mold us, direct us, even confront us because it is the vision of God: the original state of blessedness.  If we don’t have a vision for peace, we can’t walk a way of peace.  

Richard Louv talks about how kids today, studies show -- with all our talk about the destruction of the environment -- don’t have a vision for a green future.  They just expect the world to be brown and grey, at the rate we’re going.  

When God’s vision for peace is not implanted into the imaginations of people of faith, then its awfully difficult to work for peace.  Isaiah plants that vision.  Swords into plowshares.  Spears into pruning hooks.  There is a transformation that has to take place.  Isaiah calls us to transformation from war to peace.  From fear to hope.

I want to shift gears slightly here, but stay on this theme of transformation, and talk about this capital campaign and building here at Shepherd of the Valley:

...because I’ve experienced a transformation.  As some of you know, I haven’t always been on board with this project.  I’m scared about money and talking about it.  I’m scared about you all not agreeing, and so then we split up.  I’m scared about the future and about our vision and mission of “extending God’s welcome to all” being lost.  I’m scared by stories I hear from other churches that get themselves into debt and slowly start to disintegrate.  Am I starting to sound like I’ve been listening to King Sennacherib at the gate of Jerusalem.  “What’s so great about this God you serve?!  It’s not going to work out!” laughs the King. 

There’s a fine line here too, between total pie-in-the-sky dreaming and letting a vision of grace and peace shape us, mold us, direct us, even confront us.  I think we are being called here -- in this season of the life of Shepherd of the Valley -- to steward our resources.  

I’ve said to a few of you before -- at this point I think this project is simply good stewardship.  We know we’ve got some serious plumbing, electrical, and structural issues that we’re going to need to fix anyway.  Why not make some modest changes to our facility while we’re at it, changes that are not pie-in-the-sky, but rather changes that we need.  One or two more classrooms, a larger kitchen, a small fellowship hall, handicap-accessible bathrooms, a sacristy that altar guild doesn’t have to weave through the crowd to prepare the Holy Table...and a little more storage space.  

I don’t think we’re dreaming out of our heads.  I think we’re visioning faithfully.  And we’ve got the energy, and the seed money, and a year of professional consultation, and many, many conversations, and a 90% vote in favor of moving forward with a capital campaign, and we’ve got the leadership.  For me this is not just an issue of stewarding our money, and our facilities, but we’ve got, you’ve got such incredible leadership in this congregation.  Such incredible dedication and love for one another, for this church, for this community and this preschool.  It’s like God has put all these blessings before us, and now we stand at this exciting place, and are invited to take the next step -- the financial commitment.

By now you probably received the letter I sent, sharing what Heather and I plan to give to this campaign and the general fund.  That was a challenging thing for me to put our financial commitments out there for all to see (both proud and ashamed), and I don’t expect everyone to do the same.  But I did it, as pastor of this congregation, as a way to explore, maybe open, the faith conversation and spiritual growth that comes from committing yourself intentionally to a challenge like this.

I talked to Pr. Phil about this...“I want you to feel good about it.”  Whatever you commit next week, say a prayer of thanksgiving as you fill out that figure.

The gift of this campaign for me is that God -- in many ways, through so many of you -- has transformed (hammered) my distrust, any resentments and fears, my doubts into hope and joy, into excitement about where this congregation is headed.  This is God’s doing.  I trust now, that our vision will not be lost, that we will continue to hear our rally cry of “Extending God’s welcome to all we meet along the way”.  That all will continue to be welcomed through these doors.  And that we will continue go out of these doors to extend that welcome... 

We stand at an exciting crossroads, and God is calling us to stay faithful -- maybe scared but faithful, like King Hezekiah -- but always falling back on the words and stories of the prophets and our ancestors in the faith.  And God is calling us, I believe, to take the next steps in our faith journey, both individuals and families, and as a congregation.  

Sisters and brothers in Christ, God promises never to leave us, and always to bless us with grace and peace.  May that peace that passes all human understanding dwell in your hearts, as you live out your call, as we live out our vision this day and always.  AMEN. 

Monday, November 10, 2014

November 9 -- Micah

Grace to you and peace, from a God who “comforts the afflicted, and afflicts the comfortable” -- it’s all in grace and peace.  AMEN.

Micah -- the prophet from the south.  Speaking out in a time when Jerusalem envisioned itself as invincible.  The nation was divided into north and south during Micah’s day.  The Northern Kingdom was actually named Israel.  The Southern, of which Jerusalem was a part, was named Judah.  Micah was a prophet in Judah.  From a small town in the country.  Here, it’d be like a prophet rising up from Dubuque, Iowa or Fresno, California or Seguin, Texas -- and then going to New York, City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, CA.  To speak out and to stand up to the the powers -- the influencers, the trend setters, the legislators, the religious leaders.  

To stand before the proud and the strong and to speak on behalf of the least, the lost and the lowly.  Micah was a prophet and a voice for the landless farmer, the migrant worker, the widow and the orphan.  The poor.

The book of Micah is traditionally only really read in worship during the season of Advent.  This passage from chapter 5.  “From you O Bethlehem...”  It’s where the song “O Little Town of Bethlehem” comes from.  And so there’s a nice way that we usually hear Micah, when we hear him amid the evergreen branches and beautiful, peaceful candlelights of one of my favorite seasons of the church year.  One scholar says that Micah has become almost “ornamental” -- hung up in December and taken down in January.     

Reading him today is a gift and helps us hear God’s voice in our lives a new way. 

Coloring by Carol Mason
Micah was a prophet for the downtrodden and the oppressed.  And Micah was the first of the prophets to foretell the falling of the Southern Kingdom, and of Jerusalem.  Things were so neat and shiny there, the lords of the land were so plump and secure, they were so comfortable, that Micah must have sounded like a madman.  [people ignoring, ridiculing]

But God called Micah to go them, and agitate their comfortable, oppressive ways.  God always “comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.”  

When we’re doing well, watch out, Micah would say.  The stock market did really well this week.  Watch out, Micah would say.  Do not forget the least, the last and the lowly.  It’s easy to forget God, or at least make God ornamental, when times are good.  

If times are bad for you then Micah has a comforting word, Micah is on your side.  But if you’re one of those who -- when people ask how you’re doing -- and you can honestly say, “I’m truly blessed.”  Then Micah has a more challenging word for you today.  And for me.  

Nothing wrong with having stuff.  But don’t forget who brought you to this place of blessing, in the first place.  That’s me channelling Micah.  [Study this short book of the Bible this week.]  Once again, God, through this prophet, reminds the people, “I’m the one who created you, who blessed you, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt, who gave you this land, who sheltered and protected you all these many years.
“I didn’t do that so that you would hog it all for yourselves.  I did that so that you would go and do likewise.  I didn’t bless you in order that blessing stops with you.  I blessed you so that the whole world would be blessed!”
Once again, God through, this prophet, reminds us today in November 2014, “I’m the one who created you, who brought you up out of all the times of trial you’ve endured -- your own personal Egypt’s -- all the hardships, the brokenness, the pain; I’m the one who brought you here.  I’m the one who entrusted you with the blessings that you have today -- with money, with relationships -- family and friends, work, with transportation and communication, with technology and education, with a church, with a beautiful and powerful nation and a stunningly gorgeous landscape, with blue ocean and blue sky and rolling hills and sunshine and crops.    
“I didn’t do that so that you would hog it all for yourselves.  I blessed you so that you would go and do likewise.  I didn’t bless you in order that blessing stops with you.  I blessed you so that the whole world would be blessed!”

God does justice, loves mercy and walks humbly with us.  Micah calls us, even today, to be mirrors of God’s doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly.

What does that look like in our world, in our church family, in our homes day-to-day?  What does it mean to you to do justice?  I think it’s got something to do with how we treat the least, the lost, and the lowly -- the voiceless and the powerless in our world and in our communities.  What does it mean to you to love kindness?  In a world where there is so much meanness, where kindness sometimes seems rare, as followers -- not of Micah but -- of Christ, I think kindness is a radical act.  We can tell people about the God we serve, simply by being kind, loving and thoughtful to those we know and even those who are strangers to us, and to our communities.  In a world where the stranger is suspected and rejected and even villianized...the Christian’s arms are open.  Love kindness.

And I find the real Gospel in the passage in the last of Micah’s commands.  Walk humbly with God.  Embedded in that is the promise that God walks with us.  God will walk with us if we walk arrogantly and ignorantly too.  God will walk with us if we walk blindly, or even if we stumble and fall.  God will walk with us when no else walks with us.  God will walk with us certainly in bad times and also in good times.   But Micah calls us to think about how we walk with God:  humbly, patiently, wisely, compassionately, care-fully, trusting in this proximity that we have with God.  Gladly receiving God’s decision to be with us through it all.  God walks with you this day, God is still nudging you to open your hands and open your eyes and see the world, and those in need.  God continues to send us prophets like Micah, who challenge us and love us at the same time.  And God has sent us Jesus, who holds us no matter what, who forgives us, also challenges us, and finally walks us home.  Amen.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

November 2 -- All Saints' Sunday and Elisha&Naaman

Do you ever think you know better than the Holy Spirit?  I mean, when the issue of health care or immigration comes up, and Jesus says,  “Let the children come to me, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”  When Jesus puts children at the center, do you ever question all that, and say, “Well, yes Jesus, but you don’t understand the financial implications and the tax burdens that immigrant children and healthcare for everyone can have on our society.”  That’s very a political example.  But when we look at Jesus’ words, and then we look back at our real world, it’s hard to trust in God.  It’s hard to believe that this God that we celebrate and praise in here, is real, or has anything of substance for our present situations.

How about a more personal example?  We can get pretty angry at times.  I know I can.  We don’t show it all the time, but I think anger can build up inside of us, and we can let that out in all kinds of ways, mostly unhealthy ways...because it’s so hard and scary to face the truth of what really eating at us.  And when we hear all those stories and messages that Christ comes among us, his disciples, and says, “Peace be with you.”  I don’t know about you, but sometimes I’m a little snarky and cynical and say, “Yeah, sure, Jesus.  Easy for you to say.  But we’re living in the real world here.”  It’s hard to trust in God.

Naaman had the same problem.  Naaman was a soldier, actually he was a decorated general in the army.  He had a lot of things, he had quite the resume, he had his king’s ear, he held a privileged position and money.  He was the kind of guy who, when he stepped into a restaurant, everyone would turn an look at him, because he was famous and powerful.  
But he also had this skin disease.  And he was in pain.  

And here’s where the saints get to work.  I said this is a story about God’s subtle saints.  Characters in the background, who don’t even have names.  We celebrate the saints today, on this All Saints Sunday.  Think of how the saints in our lives often work and worked subtly.  [pause]

Naaman had this Hebrew servant, who basically whispered to him about God’s healing acts through this Israelite prophet named Elisha.  She didn’t even have a name.   

But an ongoing theme in our journey through the Old Testament is that Israel, God’s people, are from the beginning and always blessed to be a blessing to the world.  Naaman was a Syrian general.  He was not an Israelite.  He was from the North.  And this Hebrew servant passes him a message of salvation, a message of healing.  God can make you whole.

But like we can be, Naaman is resistant, doubtful, realistic.  He doesn’t really believe it, even while he attempts to make contact with the king of Israel, to try to get Elisha’s number.  See how he works right through the top? 

And now things get even murkier as he finds a way to contact Elisha.  Elisha doesn’t even go out to meet him.  He sends another servant -- another saint -- with a message:  “Go wash in the Jordan River seven times, and you’ll be cured.”  

Do you think Naaman received that well?  

Have you ever had a medical issue that was easily solved, but that almost made you angrier?  You went around and around with doctor’s offices, appointments, medical bills, insurance companies, family members’ referrals for months, and then it turns out you just need to stop eating almonds...or something like that?  Often it’s diet.  What?  I can’t believe that.

I think that’s Naaman.  He’s angry coming into it, he’s arrogant, he’s in pain, and he gets told by a servant -- “No one sends a servant out to me” -- to wash in the Jordan.  Then he insults the Jordan River.  “That muddy trickle of a river?!”    

But then his servants -- what I could call his saints -- calm him down, “Peace be with you, father...just try it.  We’ve come all this way.”  And so he does.  And so he’s healed.  

It’s an odd story on one hand, but on the other hand, it’s our story again.  Who are your saints -- some alive, some gone ahead to heavenly glory -- who calm you down, who breathe peace into your hectic world?  We get blinded and arrogant and entitled and angry, and we lose sight of the saints that God has sent us, those quiet servants of the Gospel.  We too can miss those voices in our lives, because we like Naaman think we know better.  We like Naaman struggle to trust God or the puny little whispers-and-hints-and-suggestions-and-encouragements-and-invitations-to-calm-down that the saints God offer us -- in their earthly life, and in their heavenly life.

Funny story Micah and his friend Jackson.  His mother told me... Micah: “You know, Jackson, you’re always talking about all these things you want to build.  But you never build any of them.  Why don’t you just build one, already?”  [pause]

If that question were directed at us, it would be easy to snap back.  “I’ll tell you why I don’t build, or invest in a relationship, or reach out to an organization or friend in need, or sacrifice my time or money, or my emotional energy...because here are all the things that can go wrong!”    

See how worked up we can get?  How worried or paranoid?  How obsessive and averse to any risk whatsoever?  And sometimes the answer is easy:

Just go wash in the river.  Seven times.  Just go talk to him -- the one who upset you so much.  Maybe he’s hurting too.  Just ask her, you’ll never know if you don’t ask...

Just go wash in the river.  Seven times.  It doesn’t happen overnight.  It takes a while and it takes repetition to untangle our distrust in God.  That’s what I love about liturgy.  We’re untangling our distrust in God.  

We can lose heart, sisters and brothers in Christ, we can lose hope and trust, but God does not.  God is faithful and just, remember?  God does not abandon us in our frustration and anger and doubt.  God washes us.  God makes us new.  

The servant girl in the story who first got the message of healing, of one who could save Naaman from his disease (which needless to say was much more than just a skin disease, right?), that servant-saint was described as a YOUNG girl.  

When Naaman is cured, it says that his skin was restored to that of a YOUNG boy.  I think there’s a connection with sainthood and that word YOUNG, regardless of age.  The young girl is the silent saint at the beginning, and now Naaman  with skin like a young boy becomes sainted too.  This is a medal that tops all others.  

And this is a medal that God pins on you too.  We join the glorious company of saints, upon being washed in the waters, even the trickling waters of our little font.  God makes you whole, names you a saint, and hold you in grace today.  Amen.