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...

Friday, December 25, 2015

December 24 -- Christmas Eve

Mary and Joseph were living under “supposed to”.  They were supposed to get married -- that’s what betrothal means.  They were supposed to have children...but they were supposed to wait until after the wedding.  Now that Mary is pregnant, and Joseph knows this wasn’t his doing, he’s supposed to stone his fiancee along with the rest of his neighborhood.   But he bravely (or foolishly) opts out of that.  And now they’re supposed to go to Joseph’s ancestral home town of Bethlehem (100mi.) to be registered.  That’s the rule, the latest supposed to.  They are living under a whole lot of legalism.  And very little mercy.
You and I live under some pretty big “supposed to’s” also. Not the same -- that’s for sure -- but we can all relate.  I think our “supposed to’s” are cultural as well: what we’re supposed to drive, how we’re supposed to dress, how we’re supposed to communicate, what we’re supposed to eat, how we’re suppose to educate our children, care for our parents, retire well -- the list goes on and on.  I’m not sure what your specific “supposed to” is, but I’m sure you’ve got one.  And even while we boast about living in a free country, we sure can be tied down, can’t we?  The number of time’s I’ve heard “I’m supposed to” during these holidays are too many to count.  So many obligations, so much legalism...and very little mercy, even here in the church.  Pastor, I’m supposed to do this or that.  

I guess there’s a sense in which Quirinius is still governor.  Augustus is still emperor...

But sisters and brother in Christ, God always makes as way out of no way.  God subverts the empire -- doesn’t destroy it (Mary and Joseph peacefully do their civic duty), God subverts the empire, and it turns out: there is a stable open.  It turns out, even amid all the legalism and fear, it turns out, there’s a enough room after all.

God makes a way out of no way, and a child is born, in the middle of nowhere.  That’s enough.  That helpless child born in a barn, wrapped in a rag, visited by shepherds was enough.  That’s all it took.  “How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given.”  And suddenly “supposed to” is covered with mercy.  Like a blanket covering a shivering soul downtown, God covers us through the birth of Jesus.  The real gift is here is mercy.  Space.  Breathing room.  Enough.

Christmas is the story of mercy.  Room opens up when there is mercy: walls come down, doors are opened, strangers are welcomed.  

All the supposed to’s get covered with God’s mercy.  The shivering with cold (those who can’t find a room) get covered with mercy; the shivering with anger (those who can’t let it go)--mercy; the shivering with fear (those who can’t stop worrying about security)--mercy, the shivering with stress (those who can’t stop worrying about what others need from them)--mercy.  All the shivering is quieted.  “Mercy,” says our God through Jesus’ birth.  

That’s not a message we’re used to hearing.  We’re used to hearing all the supposed to’s.  

Think of those shepherds: “Mercy,” says our God.  Think of Mary and Joseph, scared out of their minds: “Mercy,” says our God.  Think of the immigrant from Syria, the orphan child from Iran, the refugee from Sudan: “Mercy, mercy, mercy,” says our God.  Think of the homeless downtown, the jobless around the country, the addicted in our families: “Mercy,” says our God.  The prodigal son, the absent father, the promiscuous daughter, the abusive mother.  “Mercy,” says our God.

Think of all those with obligations this season hanging over their heads like a cold, dripping towel.  Think of the scared Christian, who thinks hell and damnation is looming in their future (and in everyone else’s future) if they don’t keep all the rules: “Mercy,” says our God.  To all those living under “supposed to”, who have been their whole lives.  I talked to a woman recently, who told me she carries so much guilt and fear, that her shoulders and upper back are always tense, there’s just so much pressure to do it right.  “Mercy,” says our God.  

We’ll sing this in a few minutes:  “He comes to make his blessings flow, far as the curse is found.”  We confess this curious line in our creed each Sunday: that Jesus descended to hell, to the dead.  And that’s because there’s nowhere Jesus hasn’t gone, there is nowhere Jesus’ love hasn’t conquered.  That’s as far as the curse is found!  That’s as far away from God as we can get, and yet Jesus covers even the flames of hell with the great blanket mercy! 

This is a gift that none of us deserve.  This mercy is a gift that doesn’t even make sense:  This little baby!  This grace-come-down-to-earth.  But it is enough.  It’s exactly what we need.  Don’t let advertisers tell you any different.  This child is enough.  God has made a way out of now way, and it turns out, there’s a stable open...  

It turns out there’s a group gathered [tightly] in a circle tonight.  That’s enough.  Some of us are confused, some of us are disoriented, some are overjoyed, some scared, some tired, some lonely, some anxious, some hungry, some quiet.  But sisters and brothers in Christ, there is mercy for all of us.  There is mercy for you.  Here in this bread, this wine, this water, this Word.  This is enough! 

It doesn’t make sense.  You’d think we need more.  More than a helpless baby, more than just a nibble of God’s body, a sip of Christ’s blood.  But this is enough.  And even with all the chaos swirling around, even with Quirinius and Augustus still ruling, and all the “suppose to’s” whizzing by, even with the empire still trying to crush us, scare us, sap us, tempt us -- it turns out there’s a stable open.  

And this holy child changes it all.  For mercy is yours this night, this season, and forever and ever.  That’s enough.  AMEN.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

December 20 -- Zechariah's Song, Fourth Sunday of Advent

So much of my life has been enhanced by movies, and movie lines.  I’ve had entire friendships based simply on movies and the lines from those movies.  When my brother calls, Heather will tell you, we usually don’t start talking about anything for about 10 minutes because we’re just doing lines from movies back and forth.  The movie line that comes to mind this week as I reflect on this less-popular text from the first chapter of Luke, is from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.  This was one of my generational-defining cult classics where Bill S. Preston, Esq. and Ted “Theodore” Logan, two high school goof balls, discover, in the nick of time, a time machine (disguised as a telephone booth) that saves them on their history project, and they spend the bulk of the movie traveling back and forth in time with famous historical figures.  On the eve of their discovery of this time machine, Ted makes this famous proclamation, that immediately pops up on Google as you just start to type it in:

“Bill?  Strange things are afoot at the Circle K.”  

When I was growing up, we used this line all the time when situations got strange or awkward or unexpected.

Strange things are happening in our Gospel text today.  "Strange things are afoot."  It’s been 400 years since our text last week from Ezra, 4 centuries!...since the Jews have returned to Palestine, the temple has been rebuilt, and the empires have changed and changed again, and now the Romans are having their turn at being the world’s superpower.  Life for the Hebrew people has gotten somewhat quiet, and uneventful, and perhaps a little (or a lot) hopeless.  The people are just going about their daily lives, and their religion is a big part of that.  
We’re introduced to this small-time priest Zechariah whose turn comes up to offer sacrifice in the temple.  That’s a big deal, btw -- it reminds me a little of worship assistants wanting to have their turn, offering their services -- acolytes, lectors --waiting weeks to have a chance to lead or read in worship.  

And here’s Zechariah’s turn.  He goes into the holy space and he is met by the angel Gabriel.  Strange things are afoot.  

Gabriel makes the announcement, that echoes announcements we’ve heard before: “She will conceive and bear a son.”  

And Zechariah naturally doubts this -- “How can this be?” is all he says -- and so the angel Gabriel strikes him mute until the day the baby is presented in the temple.

And it’s this period of not speaking on which I’d like to reflect a bit this morning:

What’s the longest you’ve gone without speaking?  What’s the longest our culture has gone without talking?  

When we shut down this mouth of ours, as you know, other senses open up.  Our ears, our eyes, our noses.  When we stop talking, as Zechariah was forced to, then we go into a place of worship, as slowly but surely begin to take it all in.  I’d love to have interviewed Zechariah about what it must have been like to be mute for 9+ months.  What would he have observed about people?  About nature, about himself?  

I wonder if the angel’s punishment wasn’t actually a gift.  “OK, Zechariah, if you cannot trust and know the God who loves you, and loves this world, then stop talking, and start noticing. If you don’t know this love, now you will see and hear and smell and taste the goodness and mercy of God.”

It must have been a gift, not a punishment, because look at how Zechariah comes out of his silence.  The first thing he signals is that his son’s name is John.  That is, his son’s name is “God is gracious”.  At that moment, Zechariah’s mouth opened, and he too is a new-born, because now he can only sing God’s praises.  It is a foreshadowing of the resurrection.  [pause] 
Needless to say, but there’s a lot of talking now, especially at this time of the year.  There are a lot of good words these days, but there’s also a lot of bad words coming from people’s mouths:  there’s lots of hateful words, lots of complaining, lots of bitterness and anger, there’s a lot of anger, and there’s a lot of doubt and lots of fear -- which is was Zechariah’s problem.  Doubt and fear.  

How we like Zechariah, can so often say, “Really?  How can this be?  This God of ours comes to be among us?  Really?”  That sentiment alone would have gotten us struck dumb.  But I don’t think it’s all punishment.  For God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.  

Sisters and brothers, we’re going to take some minutes of silence now, we’re going to let God mute us now -- not as punishment, but as gift.  

Let’s take just 4 minutes, one for each candle of the Advent wreath.  And together let us sit in silent thanksgiving and awe for the things God has done for us, for the ways God comes to be with us.  Strange things are afoot in our circle too, for “by the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” ...

Sunday, December 13, 2015

December 13 -- Third Sunday of Advent, Rebuilding the Temple

A couple years ago we tried something here on December 21st, which is quite literally “the longest night”.  On that night, we on this end of the planet are the furtherest from the sun than any other night of the year.  And a couple of years ago, on that longest night, we held a worship service here called a Blue Christmas, which was specifically for those for whom Christmas was an extremely difficult time of year -- those who had lost loved ones during these joyful days, those who were going through Christmas bereaved for the first time, those who were just overwhelmed, perhaps dealing with depression, addiction, joblessness, homelessness.  The idea was to have a separate service for all the sad people in our midst.  

Despite all that, it was a good evening, I think, as about a dozen of us gathered in the darkness.  And I had two small candles for everyone to light, two different colors: a pain candle and a hope candle.  At one point in the service, we lit those candles, and then each shared briefly about the pain and the hope in our lives.  That was good.  And God was with us.  

But I haven’t done a Blue Christmas service ever since, because I can’t get out of my head this idea that we were segregating the sad people on Christmas, even if it was specifically to care for them.  It was almost like having two different water fountains or two different sections of the restaurant.  Blue Christmas people over [here]; light and gay Christmas people, you come on December 24.  

There are lots of great Blue Christmas services in our churches, and honestly, they are becoming somewhat popular, drawing many from the outside in.  All of this is good, and God is with them.  But it occurs to me, as we reflect on this text, that festivals are for both the joy-filled and the pain-filled. 

Our text today from Ezra, speaks of a time in the Old Testament after the exile.   It’s the only post-exilic OT text we get to share together, and the last Old Testament text of the year for us here.  Starting week, we get into the New Testament!  But back here in Ezra, we hear of the return home.  Home for the holidays, in the truest sense!  After being captured and held in a foreign and harsh land, God stirs the heart of the King, of all people, and he rules that the people may return home, and he orders that they be provided with what they need to make their homecoming safely and even abundantly:  “...let all survivors, in whatever place they reside, be assisted by the people of their place with silver and gold, with goods and with animals, besides freewill offerings for the temple of God in Jerusalem.”  Whoa, did you catch that?  In addition to your temple offering, says the King, of all people, give generously to those in need!  After being locked up for years, God’s people are finally free to go, and free to worship.  

And so the festival that they returned home to celebrate, the holi-day (that is the holy day), that they gathered in Jerusalem for, was, as you can imagine a mixed celebration, where all were gathered together in one place -- both the sad old people and the happy young people.  “But many of the priest and levites and heads of families, old people who had seen the first temple...wept with a loud voice, though many shouted aloud for joy.”  It’s this broad diversity of emotion: “The people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people weeping.”

Sisters and brothers in Christ, God’s people need a place.  God’s people need to be together.  And so, God provides for us space for both joyful shouts and weeping, at the very same time.  This is what worship looks like.  
(Those two candles -- joy and pain -- symbolize the whole worship event: hymns of joy and prayers of the people.)  

And at this time of the year, as Christmas is drawing ever closer, this is what Christmas worship looks like -- candles of hope and joy...and candles of pain and sorrow.  

I’ve shared this before, and I’ve heard it again: members of our congregation tell me that they didn’t want to come to church this Sunday or that...because they were too sad, and they just didn’t want to bring anybody down.  [pause]  It makes me want to resign my position as pastor here when I hear that. Something is not working; I’m failing...if God’s people think that they’re only allowed to be happy in church.  A vast majority of the psalms are songs of lament, epithets of anger, the sounds of weeping -- did you know that? -- the Blues, as I’ve described before.  There’s nothing wrong with Christmas and Blue Christmas being one in the same -- all mixed up together.  In fact, it almost always is, if we’re honest!  We just have that tendency in our culture -- so as not to put anyone out (including ourselves) -- to force the smile, stuff our lives with stuff, and act like everything’s just fine.  [pause]  But isn’t every Christmas a Blue Christmas, especially as we look at the state of our world?  

I mean, that’s the whole story of the shepherds: God comes down to be with the lost, the forsaken, the smelly, the sad, the hopeless, the scared, the addicted, the depressed, the far-from-home, the bereaved, the broken, the lonely.

Sisters and brothers in Christ, we’re not going to segregate sadness and joy in our church.  We need each other.  We don’t just need happy people, then we’re not being honest and true...and welcoming.  When we say all are welcome, then even shepherds are invited to the manger of Christ, to the table God.  Sisters and brothers in Christ, we’re not going to segregate sadness and joy in our church.  We’re going to hold each other through it.  And we’re going to hold this whole world through it.  We are not saved from the world by God, we are saved for the world by God.  [pause]

We have one water fountain, and one section in our restaurant.  We have Christmas here, and it’s for all colors.  

And it’s coming.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Monday, December 7, 2015

December 6 -- Second Sunday of Advent (Guest Preacher: Cyndi Jones)

(by SVLC Teaching Parish Student, Cyndi Jones)

Comfort, O comfort my people.

Can't you hear the plea,
like that of a parent, longing for their child, knowing that they're in distress and yet unable to be present with them, -- they call out:
Will someone please watch out for my child?
He has been on the road for some while now, and I don't know where he is. I don't want him to be alone.

The journey to the United States is almost unimaginably dangerous for migrant children. They can be kidnapped for ransom, drown crossing a river, die of dehydration in the desert or get left behind along the way.

This is what it is like to be a parent in El Salvador today:
You feel you are a better parent if you entrust your child to a smuggler than if you keep them with you, where you can see them, where can you stand over them at night and watch as they sleep.
“If I send him, he may die, But if I keep him here, he will die.”  
                                     [From a story in The Globe and Mail, 8/29/15]
If you see someone who might be my son, could you reach out and let him know that you care?

Comfort, O comfort my people.
Will someone please look out for my child?
She was taken from her school in the middle of the night. We haven't seen her in over a year. It's been raining. Where will she sleep tonight?
If you see someone who might be my daughter, could you reach out and let her know that I care? Tell her I love her.

Comfort, O comfort my people.
Will you please look out for my children? Those who are sorrowful and lost.
And if you see someone who needs comforting, could you reach out and tell them that I care?

I don't know about you, but I just can't keep up with the tragedies.
In the beginning of 2000, as part of my work I read the national newspapers: NY Times, Washington Post, Wall street Journal.
A few days after 9/11 in 2001, the NY Times started running a full page of vignettes of those who had died in the tragedy -- maybe 6-7 short stories with a photo if they had one. Since my job required me to read the NY Times, I read these vignettes, and I would think about the families and I'd paused to pray over each one.
Day after day, I read these small tributes to those who had perished.
After diligently reading these for a few months, the NY Times realized it would take too long to complete this series, so it started running 2 full pages a day.
After a few weeks of reading two pages of tributes a day, I just couldn't do it anymore. I just couldn't absorb so much pain and sorrow -- every day. I became numb. And yet God does, every day, forever.
Sandy Hook, Charleston, Colorado Springs, Roseburg, OR, Aurora CO, on and on.

And just this week in San Bernardino more tragedy. Do we even know the names of the people who perished?
Or are they just another 16 people who died in a mass shooting?

Shannon Johnson. His girlfriend, Mandy Pifer, is a psychotherapist and  member of the crisis response team, met Johnson online about three years ago. Sitting in Johnson's kitchen, she struggled to recall details. "My memory is damaged right now," she said. It's a common phenomenon among trauma survivors. "I've studied it," she said. "I've read about it. I've heard about it from clients. Intellectually I understood it. Experiencing it is something different."

Robert Adams grew up in the Inland Empire. He and his wife were high school sweethearts. They had tried to have kids for some time. He adored their 20-month-old daughter, Savannah.

Harry Bowman had two daughters.

Sierra Clayborn, a 2010 graduate of UC Riverside.

Juan Espinoza, was "everyone's favorite... and he reciprocated by making every one of us feel like we were his favorite, too," Juan is survived by his wife, a daughter and a son.

Aurora Godoy met her husband at Carson High School. Aurora gave birth to their son, Alexander, who will turn 2 in January.

Nicholas Thalasinos was a Messianic Jew. Nicholas always wore a
tie clip with the Star of David. He is survived by his wife of 14 years.

Yvette Velasco the 27-year-old was "full of life and loved by all who knew her." Yvette's sudden death has stunned her loved ones.

Around Lake Arrowhead, Mike Wetzel was a frequent sight, running errands with his six children in tow, three from his first marriage and three from his second. 

Larry Daniel Kaufman refused to get a driver's license, saying he didn't want to give up the daily rides to and from work from his boyfriend of nearly three years, Ryan Reyes.

Damian Meins had spent 28 years working for Riverside County and had recently returned to a position with the Environmental Health Dept. after retiring in 2010. "I just want everyone to know that he was a good man," said a woman who identified herself as his daughter.
Isaac Amanios immigrated from Eritrea to California in 2000 to escape violence and repression in his home country.

Bennetta Betbadal fled to America with her family to "escape Islamic extremism and the persecution of Christians that followed Iranian Revolution."

Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, they were married and are survived by a 6 month old daughter.  

Tin Nguyen was just 8 when her mother fled Vietnam with her child and maternal grandparents. The family toiled and saved their paychecks to rebuild after the war in a country they believed was safe.
"Only she can understand me — she understood everything I went through," said Tin's mother Vanessa Nguyen, sobbing.
Mother and daughter had planned for a wedding at their beloved St. Barbara's Catholic Church, a few miles from their house.
"She promised that no matter what, she would return to have her wedding there and now we're having a funeral. What will become of our lives?"
                                    [vignettes from the LA Times, 12/5/2015]

Comfort, O comfort my people.
If you see someone who needs comforting, could you reach out and tell them that you care?

You know, God too has been wandering for a long time, looking for a place to come to stay for awhile.

Along the way God has accompanied many travelers, who just needed a little shelter, a way station along the journey, a place where they could feel at home among people who speak their native language, a place to come in out of the storms of life and rest awhile.

But voices are shouting, "Refugees are not welcome here," 
-- a Palestinian family, fleeing political violence under the cloak of darkness attempt to find refuge -- reads the headline -- an infant -- and yet God incarnate.

In Matthew we hear: an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him. Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt."
Joseph a lowly carpenter, and Mary with a newborn. Who would take them in?
Would we?

But that is what being a Christian has always been about -- we may live in the United States, but this is not our homeland. We are like aliens wandering through the desert carrying extra bread and water for those we meet.

Let us Comfort, O comfort God's people.
This includes ourselves. God comes to us too during these trying times to bring us comfort. And sometimes God looks like the person next to you.
Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.
Comfort, O comfort God's people.
If you see anyone who might need to be comforted,
could you reach out and tell them that you care? You may be the hands of God to them today.

I will weep when you are weeping
When you laugh, I'll laugh with you
I will share your joy and sorrow
Till we've seen this journey through.
                  The Servant Song, Richard Gillard

Sunday, November 29, 2015

November 30 -- First Sunday of Advent, Josiah's Reform

Grace and peace to you from God, who comes to us in peace.  Amen.

This is the season for pulling out boxes and discovering things we might have forgotten.  In our household, Katie and Heather are so excited to pull out our Advent decorations this week.  “Oh, remember this?  Remember this?”  I love it too.  Trinkets and art projects that we’ve acquired over the years, things we haven’t seen for at least a year, maybe longer.  There’s a joy in re-discovering, reconnecting, remembering.

I’ve had a similar experience with old friends -- friends I haven’t seen for a long time and -- just like those Advent and Christmas decorations -- it’s not that they’re not important, but those good, old friendships can get packed away on the shelf, as work and distance and the hectic-ness of life crowds out those treasures.  We had that experience again of recovering, reconnecting and remembering how important some of our friendships are over this Thanksgiving weekend. We spent a day and a night with some old college friends, who live up in Los Angeles.  They have kids the same age as our kids, and we had never even met them!  And it was so good to be together, and such a good reminder how important those friendships are.  Heather and I, as we debrief together in the car after such experiences will often ponder, why don’t we make more intentional effort to keep those friendships out of the attic and more central? 

Our text this morning from 2 Kings talks about King Josiah re-discovering the covenant, the Scripture.  He gathers all the people together -- “all the people of Judah, all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the priests, the prophets, and all the people, both small and great; he read in their hearing all the words of the book of the covenant that had been found in the house of the Lord.  The king stood by the pillar and made a covenant before the Lord, to follow the Lord, keeping his commandments, his decrees, and his statutes, with all his soul, to perform the words of this covenant that were written in this book.  And all the people joined in the covenant.”

One of the things I love when we pull out old stuff, is when we discover again, “Hey, everyone, c’mere!  This is really great stuff!”  Old letters from family, old videos or recordings we made, even just a few years back.  I had that experience again this year with 50th Anniversary video we worked so hard on back in 2011 -- not even that long ago, and already a relic, right?  “Hey, everyone, c’mere!  This is really great stuff!”

That’s King Josiah in this text!  The monarchy has drifted away from the Covenant.  I think that’s an important distinction: they just drifted.  There was never an abrupt decision to cut off our connections with old college friends, or I’m going to put this anniversary video on the shelf and never think about it again.  It’s more of a drifting away.  There’s not usually a moment of saying I’m done with this church, I’m done with this bible, I’m done with this people, I’m done with this God -- it’s more of a drifting away.  [pause]

But here’s a picture of a king leading...by pulling off the shelf, rediscovering, remembering, reconnecting the treasured scripts and scrolls that matter.  He is re-centering himself and inviting all God’s people to re-center and remember this covenant, this story.  

What a great way to start Advent, to start a whole new year:  re-centering on the texts, the scripts and scrolls that matter!

You know, there are a lot of scripts and scrolls out there that don’t matter.  However there are a lot of scripts and scrolls out there that can so easily pull our attention away from this one.  For example, the scripts and scrolls of these high holy days of advertising:  “You’re not happy.”  That’s line 1.

Line 2: “...unless you have [fill in the blank].”  Line 3:  “Then you will be truly happy.”  

That is the whole script of advertising and consumerism, and we keep falling for it again and again!  At least I do.  

But the euphoria wears off pretty quickly, and I’m so ready to hear again that I’m not happy.  I’m so ready to rehearse the script again, the script that doesn’t matter.

King Josiah calls his people and us, sisters and brothers in Christ, to gather around a different script, a different scripture.  One that involves work -- not just taking, not just consuming, but giving and taking.  When we re-connect and remember and recover a friendship, guess what?  That relationship will take work, both giving and taking.  Sharing joys and sharing sorrows.  Being honest and vulnerable.  Real relationship is tough, right?  Community is tough, right?

But this is script that gives life, a God who does not abandon us, who comes to be with us amid all the darkness, and the fear, and the cold of this world.  Who re-covenants with us, despite the fact that we’ve said we’d do this before...  

This scene in 2 Kings must be a bit comical for God.  God’s seen this before -- Joshua (as for me and my house...): couldn’t do it. Judges: couldn’t do it.  David, Solomon: couldn’t do it.  
You and me (uh-oh), all the times we said we’d change our ways: couldn’t do it.    

And yet, God waits for us.  God loves us anyway.  God longs for us to recommit, to give it another go:  “Try it again, sweetheart.”  A parent’s love for their child never really runs out, even while it’s stretched and strained.  Here we go again.  New year.  Advent.  Clean slate.  Standing before God together, and gathering around the covenantal book.

 Touching the Torah cover appropriately is a symbolic way to show respect and
affection for the Torah and the Jewish teachings it contains and represents. (kbia.org)
We have this practice, of centering ourselves on the Book, in our congregation, by bringing the Bible around and inviting God’s covenant people -- YOU -- to touch the Book in a sign of reverence.  And God’s people -- YOU -- have all got some different practices.  It would be interesting to hear sometime why you do or don’t touch the book.  My sense is that it’s all out of reverence. 

We didn’t make this practice up, it’s an ancient Jewish practice.  And many will touch the scroll even with a kiss.  That bodily act of reverence, like many other bodily acts of reverence, I think can direct, our hearts and minds and souls to the right place too.  To a full devotion.  

Today we re-commit.  We re-connect.  We remember all that God has done for us.  We continue to give thanks.  And we entrust ourselves to a God who sticks, especially in the loosest of times; a God who gets close, especially when things are flying apart.  Sisters and brothers in Christ, we have a God who is faithful and just, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.  That is the source of our peace.  God in Christ Jesus is the source of our peace.  This is the script we rediscover, we pull down from the shelf, and we proclaim again this day.  “Hey, everyone, c’mere! This is really great stuff!” AMEN.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

November 22 -- Isaiah's Vineyard Song (Christ the King Sunday)

You have to see this text musically, even if you’re not musically inclined.  

God is singing the blues here, sisters and brothers in Christ:
“I put all this work and time into this vineyard -- 
I dug it, cleared the stones, planted it with choice vines.
  I built a watchtower, and hewed out a wine vat, 

But it yielded wild grapes...

So I’m going to let it go, I’m going to remove the hedge and break down its wall, I’m going to let it be trampled, and make it a waste.

No more pruning, no more rain. 

It yielded wild grapes.  

This vineyard cheated on me!  I expected justice but got blood shed, I expected righteousness got crying.  I’m going to let it go.  It yielded wild grapes.”

Can you imagine God singing the blues?  I’m afraid you’ll have to, because that was atrocious!  But you have to see this text musically, even if you’re not musically inclined.  None of it rhymed or came off particularly sonorous.  You have to use your imagination, and hear it in your head.

And know that much of it did actually rhyme in Hebrew, namely the part at the end: I expected mish-PAHT (justice) but got mish-PACH (blood shed).  Tse-dah-QAH (righteousness) but got tse-’ah-QAH (crying).  

God’s singing the blues.  And when someone sings the blues to you -- the great thing about the blues, is you can relate at some level.  I mean, not all of us have been cheated on, like a blues singer (or like God), but all of us have been let down.  

And when someone sings the blues to you, they let you in...on that all-too shared story.  Spend some time listening to blues music, real blues music from the South or from Memphis or Chicago.  (I found a nice blues kitchen and Southern cuisine, called Proud Mary’s over by Kearny Mesa a few months ago.)  Go there and feel the blues.  

That’s the first step in getting this Vineyard Song of Isaiah’s.

There is deep heartache here.  Great disappointment.  Things didn’t turn out the way they were intended.  Judah was supposed to be the crown of humanity, instead it became the dunce cap.  They were supposed to be the bright, shining stars of God’s creation, instead they became dust on the shelf.  They were supposed to be wine grapes, instead they were wild grapes -- sun dried, bug-ridden, bird-picked, wild grapes.  

God is letting us into the story: we’ve all been let down.

As we look back on just this year together today, there’s been a lot of trampling, a lot of devouring, a lot broken-down, a lot of blood shed and crying, and a whole lot of drought.  

Can’t you feel the blues that God is singing, also?  We’ve got to sit in the pain before we get to the next part.  I hated when my dad would put rubbing alcohol on my little bicycle injuries, before I got my superhero bandaid.  The blues stings! 

But it also soothes, in the end.  God’s song continues and turns into a promise...  

A shoot will come out from the stump of Jesse.  

A shoot -- not a gun shoot, thank God -- a little sprig.  A little vine.  From a sawed-off stump of an old
shepherd’s father (Jesse was David’s father, remember).  And do you remember how great David got?  The king, the monarchy!  Everyone thought that was IT, that was the tree we’ve been waiting for!  But it all came crashing down.  The kingdom was divided and assaulted by jealousy, violence, greed, invasion, and even a total obliteration.  Thought it was all over.  Thought it was too late.  Thought hope was gone, justice was squashed, life was extinguished?  But shoot will come out of the stump of Jesse.  Out of all that brokenness and loss and heartache.  Out of all that pain, and injury, through all those years and all those tears, a shoot comes out from the stump of Jesse.  

As we look back, remember that all is not lost.  We have a shoot from the stump of Jesse.  The tree is not dead, even though it’s been chopped down.  The cross still stands.  There’s still a bit of wine, a taste of bread, a splash of water...and that’s enough. There’s still an invitation to come and follow...

It’s a quiet invitation.  Just a sprig of an invitation.  You can barely hear it.  There’s so much noise all around.  There’s so much distraction and anxiety and fear, you have to turn down all that other music to hear it, but it’s there.  “Come, and follow me,” comes a whisper.  

“A shoot will come out from the stump of Jesse.  A branch shall grow out of his roots.  The spirit of YHWH shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.  He shall not judge by what his eyes see or what his ears hear.  He’ll judge the needy by what is right, render decisions on earth’s poor with justice. His words will bring everyone to awed attention.  A mere breath from his lips will topple the wicked.” (The Message translation) 

A shoot will come out from the stump of Jesse.  

Sisters and brothers in Christ, everything we see does come to an end.  Everything dies.  All these buildings, all these so-called dynasties and multi-billion dollar corporations, even whole nations and governments eventually take their last breath.  Even ours.  And of course, we do too.  Our own bodies will all go back to the earth.  We want that to happen before it happens to our children, but tragically, it doesn’t always come to pass that way, does it?  Everything will come to an end.  The tree will be cut down, the vineyard trampled, the drought, the overgrowth of thorns and briars.  

But we don’t have to be afraid of that...

Because of the one true vine that grows on.  

Everything will come to an end...EXCEPT...God’s love.  Which is for us.  Which grows even now.  In our world today.  That love becomes incarnate through Christ Jesus, who is present with us, despite our finality; who loves us, despite our failings; who calls us again today, despite our turning away so often.  

There’s actually another kind of song being sung here: it’s a song that’s rooted in pain, and yet reaching out in hope and joy. There’s actually another kind of song being sung here: it’s a love-song.