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, January 25, 2015

January 25 -- The Beatitudes

Blessed are they who have lost something or someone.  

You know, if we’ve heard this passage many, many times -- as many of us have -- the gift of it is that we can hear different emphases each time, depending on where we are in our lives.  

I think, that in this, Jesus’ Inaugural Address (he’s only said about 5 one liners up to this point, but now he’s about to go on for 2 chapters).  A few short verses before this, and we see that he has indeed begun his ministry -- he’s called his disciples and he’s begun healing multitudes of people and casting out demons.  But now he stops that, climbs up a mountain side so that everyone can see and hear him, and he begins preaching.  And in this, Jesus’ State of the Union Address, he is drawing the whole community of disciples together through a common experience of loss, it seems to me.  Everyone has experienced grief and loss at some level.

Blessed are those who have lost something, those who mourn: he flat out says it too.

But those who are poor in spirit, they’ve lost something too.  They’ve lost hope, they’ve lost that spark, they’ve lost the twinkle in their eye and the pep in their step.  I saw ‘Selma’ this week on MLK Day in fact, and I was reminded again of the hundreds of thousands of African Americans who had been beaten down by racism for so long that that spirit -- if it’s not lost altogether -- is certainly
threatened and tested.  It would probably be easiest just to give up, don’t you think?  But through leaders like the great and famous Martin Luther King, Jr. and so many others, they clung to these words -- blessed are you.  And I know that King drew so much of his preaching and inspiration from this Sermon on the Mount.

(It’s amazing to pause for a moment and consider this sermon of Jesus inspired so many through the Civil Rights era, and many other critical moments in history, right up to today...)

Do you ever feel poor in spirit?   Are you ever feeling washed up and out of hope?  Jesus calls you blest, even in your state of loss and grief.  Blessed are those who have lost their spirit, their joy, their imagination and their dream.  Christ has a word for you!

Those who are meek, have lost something too.  They’ve lost power.  They’ve lost their place in line.  They’ve lost their seat and their say at the table.  Perhaps they never had it.  But they are blessed, according to Jesus.  Those who are at the margins have Christ at their side.  Those who are on the edge of poverty, living paycheck to paycheck, no time to even get their voice into the mix because they’re just trying to pay the rent, feed their kids, help them with homework, and then collapse to bed in order to do it all over again the next day.  Something has definitely been lost, and yet Christ calls them blessed.

And those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, those who are longing for the world and for themselves too to synch up words and actions.  That’s what righteousness is.  When you say one thing and do another your heart is divided.  But when you are righteous, when your words and actions line up and your heart is pure, God smiles and calls you blessed.  But those who hunger and long for this state of things are called “blessed” as well!  There is blessing simply in the “longing for”!  
If you simply desire and pray for the world and for yourself to be pure heart, righteous, peaceful, you are called “blessed” by Jesus!  
Let’s spend our time longing for peace, righteousness, mercy in our world and in our hearts! [pause]

The sermon goes on -- there are more who have experienced great loss -- those who are persecuted, those who are made fun of for their beliefs and their practices, those who go to church (like us), and those who don’t go to church -- those who are reviled.  The losses here are immense.  If you’ve ever been made fun of, you know the sense of loss that comes with it.  Youth are terrified of this and driven almost completely by it.  Rejection is an incredible loss.  We all want so badly to be accepted at some level, into some kind of community.  And there is deep, abiding pain, when we experience rejection, ridicule, peer pressure, bullying.

Well Jesus has a word -- and a community -- for those who get made fun of in the cafeteria line, in the locker room, on the bus, and into adulthood -- Jesus calls them blessed, even in the loss they’ve experienced.

This in itself is profound -- that God would name us blessed in those moments that the world only sees a loser.  [slowly] This in itself is enough to carry us through our darkest days.  This in itself is enough -- this strong word of God -- carried those marchers from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery.  Over the bridges of hatred and discrimination and violent abuse.  This strong word of God -- “You are mine; and you are blessed” -- is in itself enough to bring us through our troubled times.  

But I want to connect this word “blessed” back to the Old Testament:  You remember God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah?  “I will bless you to be a blessing.” Do you remember that?  
And we saw a few months ago, when we read this text, that blessing is not associated with the world’s view of success -- Abraham and Sarah, we learned were doing pretty well in the world’s eyes -- they had lands and cattle and employees and businesses.  But God didn’t name them as blessed until after they gave up their faith in all that, and went to a new land.  
Blessing doesn’t have to do with wealth and prestige, it has to do with being in a relationship -- a right relationship with God and a right relationship with the world.

So when Jesus calls us blessed, when we’re down and out, when we’ve lost, Jesus is inviting us to connect, to build community with those around us, who are hurting as well.  (I think this theme of community is so deeply imbedded in Matthew’s gospel.  What it means to be church.)

I heard a funny story again recently about this wacky “rabbi” living in Jerusalem who likes to have people over to his home and teach them, and who believes -- flat out  -- that he has all the answers to life’s problems.  One of his answers is this though -- “If you’re feeling sad and hopeless about your life, look around and find someone else who’s in a tough spot.  Help them out.  And I promise you, I promise you, I promise you, you’ll feel better.”  [pause and repeat (?)]

Blessed...to be a blessing.  Blessed are the poor in spirit...to be a blessing for others who are poor in spirit.  Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness...to be a blessing for others who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  [pause] We are lost looking at others who are lost.  Broken to be with others who are broken.  Hopeless but sitting right next to others who feel hopeless.  

In our wounded-ness we find healing, in our sorrow--when we look around and open our eyes and our ears--we find joy...through Jesus Christ, who invites all the downtrodden into lives of discipleship and service -- which is always wrapped up in community.  Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted.  Blessed are you when something that matters in your life is lost.  God is with you through it all, and not everything is lost...for in your darkest, saddest, most depressing moments, Christ is handing you the kingdom!  Christ is offering you the hope of the ages, the life of the universe, the joy of Lord.  You are blessed too.  AMEN.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

January 18 -- Tempted in the Wilderness

I’ve been working on projects this new year.  Been doing some painting, some repairs around the house, some art projects too -- a side of me that’s been neglected for a while.  And I’ve been organizing pictures -- almost 14 years of pictures -- about a 1000 pictures a year.  And so I’ve been reflecting back...

And one of my favorite series of pictures in our collection is our move to Chicago.  Heather and I had a comfortable life in Thousand Oaks.  We got our first apartment together right after we got married, we had comfortable life -- friends and family all very close by.  And then I decide God is calling me to go study theology, maybe even be a pastor.  And we spent 1 of those 2 comfortable years visiting schools and job options for Heather, and we finally decide on Chicago.  Which means we have to pack up all our things, and move to the Midwest.  I love our pictures of last suppers with different groups of friends.  Some of the church members where I had been working as a youth director showed up and helped us get everything into the truck (not quite sure what to make of all that now ;)  And then after all that time and preparation we drive the Uhaul truck, towing our only car literally across the country.  It was so exhilarating and frightening all at once.  Great pictures documented our journey.  And our first hurdle was to cross the desert in July.  I’d never driven a giant Uhaul truck at that point, never towed anything, and was so worried we’d get stranded in record heat.  But we made it.

Here’s what I want to say:  If you want to go to the fertile green, rolling hills of America’s bread basket, corn country -- Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska -- you have to go through the desert.

Jesus had to go through the desert too.  This text comes to us this year, not at the beginning of Lent, like it normally does -- but this year we hear it in the order of the Gospel of Matthew.  We’ve just been working our way through, and right after Jesus’ baptism (last Sunday) it says, Jesus is led into the desert.  

Last week I talked about how Jesus gets down in the deep waters, the deep pain and sorrows, the deep humanity of our reality.  And this week that continues as he gets down into the deep temptations, tested...in the wilderness.  Last week Jesus is named the Son of God.  And this week, the devil -- Diabolos in the Greek, which literally means the Thrower of Obstacles or, I’d say, the Tripper -- the devil doesn’t miss a beat and says, OK, if you’re truly the “Son of God” then...

Last week was wet.  This week is dry.  Jesus goes through it all.

And Matthew, the Gospel writer, is centering his audience on this great theme of double-mindedness.  It’s pretty easy to fool everyone that you’re righteous -- that’s true for all of us.  For one thing, just get baptized right?  Do good things.  Be humble and kind with your words (and your Facebook posts).  Lead an upstanding life, be faithful to your spouse and your children.  Vote.  Go to church.  Pray at meals.  Support public television.  Adopt a family at Christmas.  And if any recognition or praise is ever passed your way, duck it, say something humble, and flip the praise onto someone else.  Classy.  We’re pretty good at fronting, showing the world how righteous we are.  (I think I do a pretty good job of it.)

But if we take the world’s eyes and commentary out of it.  If we strip away all those voices of praise and pressure, and just stand alone, then we’re forced to come face to face with the truth.  Then we come face to face with God.  You have to go through the desert.  There is a certain journey that followers of Jesus must take -- a certain winter wilderness that we must face.  Jesus took that journey to the wilderness.  He came out of those baptismal waters pretty glossy and clean.  Compare the artistic renditions of Jesus in his baptism vs. Jesus in the wilderness.  In his baptism he looks glossy and clean, as you’d expect.  And in the wilderness he’s tattered and famished.  

So it is with us -- if we choose to follow Jesus.  God’s going to love this broken world with or without our help.  God names us beloved too with or without our permission.  But now we are called to follow Jesus.  And Jesus is headed for the desert.  

We can look pretty glossy and clean on the outside -- and we should.  I’m not saying we need to wear it all on our sleeve.  But how’s it going on the inside?  Tattered and famished?  That’s how we come out of the desert.  Our clothes were sweaty and smell after our cross-country move.  If we strip the world away for a brief time and come face to face with God, we’d have to face some things about ourselves that maybe we’re not proud of -- some things that we can keep secret from our family and our friends, our communities and our church.  

We come face-to-face with God in the wilderness, and we also come face-to-face with the devil.  It’s always subtle.  Jesus wasn’t tempted with obviously evil and illicit things -- murder, adultery, stealing.  Jesus was tempted with 3 things that -- in themselves -- are not at all evil:  wealth, security and power.   

Wealth?  “Turn these stones into bread.”  You know how many stones are in the desert?  (This text had more meaning for me the first time I drove to Phoenix from here and saw all those stones as you descend into the wilderness towards El Centro.)  Jesus is being tempted to take way more for himself than he needs.  And we’re tempted by that all the time.  
Security.  Nothing wrong with that in itself.  But if it becomes a stumbling block to God’s mission which always involves risk-taking, then we get tripped.  “Protect yourself,” the tempter says.  “Nothing wrong with that.  C’mon, you’re not going to save the world.  You’ll always have the poor with you.  Live well, be merry.  Don’t expose yourself to all that pain...all that insecurity.  You’ve got angels -- you’ve got security nets.  Use them.”  This is one of the toughest for us, in our culture.  Where do you put your trust -- does your bank statement reflect that?  

And power.  Jesus‘ integrity is challenged.  “Sell your soul to me,” the devil says, “and you can have it all -- no one even has to know.”  

Even with all our technology, people alway feeling like they’re being watched -- which is another issue altogether.  But even with that, even if you feel like Big Brother is always peering down at you, there are still things that we can get away with...because no one but you can see what’s really inside.  

No one but you and God.  And God loves you no matter what.  

So I want to challenge you to go to some kind of wilderness this year.  Get some kind of silence, some kind of distance, where you can be alone with God.  And be prepared to be tested, tripped up.  Because God sees through all our fronts.  

And God loves us anyway.  And after enduring that hot tense desert experience we come out ready to love and serve.  The verdant pastures of ministry to our neighbors, the valleys and meandering streams -- I’m thinking of when our moving van coasted down into the lush corn fields of the Midwest -- this is the place to which our God has called us.  AMEN.

Monday, January 12, 2015

January 11 -- Jesus' Baptism

When I was in college there was this band from Los Angeles that I loved and saw a handful of times in concert.  They were called Ozomatli (named for the Aztec astrological symbol which is the god of dance, fire, the new harvest and music).  They are a 7-piece band, and the first time I saw them, I was amazed by their diversity: 2 African Americans, 3 Latinos, an Asian guy and a white guy.  Not a whole lot of bands like that.  (A picture of Los Angeles up on a stage.)  And their music reflects that diversity -- with a wide range of salsa, merengue, jazz, funk, rock, rap and hip-hop usually in various combinations within the same song.  They even have a track or two where a sitar can be heard!  And they’re fun!

(I used to imagine that God probably smiles down on this band, with all their cross-pollinating of sounds and rhythms...like when two people you always hoped would meet each other finally meet.  You sit back and say, “Ah, I’ve been waiting for you to get together! I knew you’d get along famously!”)

I actually saw Ozomatli for the first time on my 21st birthday.  And like you do, we had arrived to see the opening band.  Then there’s an intermission while everyone excitedly waits for the main act.  Suddenly the doors to the lobby, behind us, open up and I hear a faint chant and a bass drum beat.  Then I see these guys in a procession line, drums, maracas, no microphones, just making their way through the crowd as they chant a recognizable cheer that’s easy to join in with.  I’ve been to a lot of concerts, but I’d never seen a band come in through the same doors as we did, weaving their through the people, and then finally up onto the stage.  The concert had begun among us.  It built this momentum and excitement and energy, we felt part of the show.  They were high-fiving audience members, everyone’s joining into their signature chant...and I later learned that this is how they would start every concert -- down with the people.

While I don’t imagine Jesus’ entrance in our Gospel story and our lives as quite as raucous a scene, sisters and brothers in Christ, the concert has begun among us.  Jesus too gets down with the people; is baptized into our waters by John; enters our world the same way we do; but then blazes the trail of righteousness, leading us into the very realm of God -- inviting us to join in with him.  Join in with something exciting and new, something diverse and barrier-shattering, join the path of the righteous.  The inauguration of Jesus‘ earthly ministry begins here in Matthew’s Gospel, with his baptism in the Jordan river.  

Theologian and scholar Dale Bruner puts it like this:  “The first thing Jesus does for the human race is go down with it into the deep waters of repentance and baptism.”    

Jesus is the reason that our simple baptismal waters become holy and life-altering.  Jesus sanctifies our earthly waters.  Jesus is the reason that I can fill our font with faucet water, and yet proclaim from that place the entire forgiveness of all our sins.  And Jesus is the reason that when you get a few drops of baptismal water on you, you are reminded of God’s very claim on you and God’s new name for you too: Beloved.  “Delight of God’s life” -- is how our reading today translates that word “beloved”.  You are the “delight of God’s life”! 

I wanted to tell you the story of Ozomatli entering through the crowd, getting down with the people this morning, but I did think about doing a one-line sermon today.  I thought about what would be the impact if I got up here and just repeated for about 10 minutes.  Over and over the same line: “You are God’s beloved child.  You are God’s beloved child.”  Just to let that sink in.  Can you imagine?  Maybe you’d get annoyed with me if I did that?  Maybe you’d wonder why I hadn’t spent more time on my sermon...but it’s not about me.  Jesus‘ baptism is about you, and God’s claim on you through Jesus Christ.  And because of that you belong to God.  

And in these waters there is repentance and forgiveness.  John called for repentance...

This is the time of year for starting over -- the gyms are filled up, new healthier foods on our shelves at home.  And usually people are pretty cynical about their efforts.  “It won’t last,” they say.  But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with trying.  That’s what our confession and forgiveness is all about week after week.  God I’ve fallen short.  Help me to live better, help me to live to your glory, we say from the font each Sunday. 

Come with a repentant heart, John says.  Jesus invites.  Come confessing.  If we don’t confess our brokenness, the error of our ways -- and sometimes pride can lead us down that.  “I haven’t done anything wrong, or at least I’m not as bad as that other guy,” the Pharisees say.  “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us, but if we we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins” and put us on the track of righteousness.  God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and join us to the band, to march, to the rhythm and the chant of the holy One, Jesus Christ -- who enters through the lobby (the same way we did).  Who moves among us, who sings with us and encourages us and invites us to join in.  Who forgives our sin, calls us a “delight”, and invites us to walk anew this day...this new year of life.  

The concert has begun among us.  AMEN.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

January 4 -- Second Sunday of Christmas

Sometimes there simply are no words.  

“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled.”

One terrible question here:  Why was one child saved and so many others had to die?  What kind of a God is this, that in only chapter 2 of this Gospel so much violence breaks out?  I mean we still have the Christmas tree up, for God’s sake!!

We’re going to sing a hymn in a little bit, which was written in 1970, by a contemporary of ours, which tries to give some theological meaning to what’s happening in this story.  I’m struggling with this text though, and a quick, sung response may not be adequate, even while there might be wisdom there.

I’m really going in a different direction here, because I’m thinking:  Sometimes there simply are no words.  Sometimes the tearful cry of Rachel is too loud to sing.  

I heard a story this week actually, of a family who lost a child all too soon to a sudden and tragic death.  And they talked about how after this had happened, after the funeral, and the loving parade of meals and shower of sympathy cards and hugs, when they went anywhere in their small, Midwestern town people would literally turn and walk the other direction.  

I imagine some of you have been on one or both sides of that experience.  What can possibly be said?  “It’ll be OK”?  Pointing out the silver lining -- these always come up short, and can even be hurtful, even while there not intended that way...

The father in this story, goes on to talk about one experience in particular, however, where they came around a corner, and one of their neighbors saw them and turned away as usual.  [pause] But then he describes how suddenly that neighbor stopped, dropped his shoulders and his head, and slowly turned back to them.  

“Uh, you probably saw me turning to walk away,” he said.  “Yes, we did,” said nodded the bereaved.  “I, I know.  I’m sorry.  It’s just that I...I don’t...I don’t know what to say.”  A long embrace and some more tears follows this dialogue. 

Sometimes there simply are no words.  

Just last week, I stood here and read Jesus’ final words in the Gospel of Matthew, “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the world.”  And here just verses later we see Jesus fleeing to Egypt, and Herod, hunting him down, decides he better play it safe and just murder every child in Bethlehem and the surrounding areas who were two years old or under.

It may be perhaps the most horrifying story in the Bible.  

Sometimes there simply are no words.

And yet this is a story with which we are all too familiar -- with tragedies of this caliber in our lives and in our world.  Children lost and even murdered, cries of mothers and fathers going up in the streets.  Herodian-style violence still today -- terrorism, school-mall-movie-theatre shootings...  

What happened to the Christmas carols and cozy, fireside gift exchanges?

I heard again this Christmas, somewhere--don’t even know where--that we need Christmas.  That there’s so much pain in our lives that we as Americans, we as humans, need the joy and the peace of Christmas -- the songs and the stories and the gifts and the family celebrations.  Almost like a drug that numbs the pain.  

But a drug wears off.  A Christmas buzz leaves us with a hangover.  I agree: we do need Christmas.  But it’s far more than a quick break.

That wonderful and famous story about the soldiers in Europe during World War II who stopped their fighting on Christmas Eve to sing Silent Night together in the trenches:  The thing is...they still went back to fighting.

The thing is...the Herods of this world -- the violence and the anger and the pride in this world -- still pounds on our doors and seems to prevail.

Sometimes there are no words.

But sisters and brothers, Jesus escapes the violence, the anger and the pride of this world.  And then, carried by his earthly mother and father, he returns.  That’s what Christmas is all about -- and this return doesn’t wear off.  Jesus returns to take on those forces of evil, and our suffering we see Christ’s suffering.  He returns to destroy those forces of evil -- both those forces of evil that we can see so plainly in our world and in the news headlines, and also those forces of evil that lay low, brooding in our own hearts and minds.  

Jesus escapes the violence, the anger and the pride of this world in a reverse-Exodus.  In the Old Testament the people, escape out of Egypt.  Here, Jesus escapes out of the the Promised Land.  This reversal is a signal to us that God is up to something unprecedented.  Holy reversals are taking place as Christ ushers in a new realm -- an immigrant family sneaking back across the border into Egypt and then back Israel [pic].  That’s the way this king comes.  These are the holy reversals.  Jesus names these reversals in a few chapters: “Blessed are -- not the rich -- but the poor.  Blessed are -- not the laughing and happy ones -- but those who mourn.  Blessed are -- not the powerful and the proud -- but the meek.  Blessed are -- not the fat and filled -- but those who hunger and thirst.”

Holy reversals are taking place in the midst of our silence.  Just as that sweet man who didn’t know what to say to the grieving family, turns around.  God turns around...and faces this world. And a long embrace (and maybe some more tears) follows.  

We receive that embrace, even today.  Even now...and for evermore.  All praise and glory to God, who in the end, never does leave us.  Jesus returns, thanks be to God.  AMEN.