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, February 22, 2015

February 22 -- First Sunday in Lent

“Create in me a clean heart O God...”

Oh, is it just me or do we seem to be talking about forgiveness a lot in church.  Couple weeks ago, we had a text on forgiveness -- the text on the Lord’s Prayer -- and I talked about St. Tanisha Brown who forgave her son’s murderer in the courtroom just a month ago in Kearny Mesa.

Today, I see Jesus calling us to make forgiveness not just a one-time activity, something incredible and special like what Tanisha Brown did, but rather a whole life-style, a posture, a state of being in the world.  Forgive not 7 times, but 77.  In other words, strive to make it how you are.  “How does living forgiving lighten your load, keep you from drowning?” I asked on Ash Wednesday.  (This challenge is actually a liberating gift.)

And btw, we have to come at these difficult and yet life-giving Lenten disciplines/challenges/central themes highly conscious of that little bug in us that helps us think about who else this would best apply to.  We do well to focus on our own selves, that’s how Jesus taught us to pray -- the Lord’s Prayer is a prayer about me.  

Lent is is the church’s self-help section.  Except it’s more like, self-work.  (The help comes from God.)  And today we have a complex book that isn’t about fixing someone else, but about you and about me going deeper, getting real.  The truth is, we can’t fix ourselves.  God’s already done that!  What we can do is work on ourselves... 

Are we meaning well?  That’s the bottom line.

The only thing that’s unforgivable, Jesus teaches us today, is living unforgiving. [pause]
Blessed are the merciful.  So the unmerciful are unblessed.

[slowl]  The key to “living forgiving” has got to have something to do with meaning well.  And that, I believe safe-guards us from this terribly difficult question that might be hovering:  
So unless I forgive my abuser, I’m damned?  

I mean, Jesus is “killing us” with this strong message that to not-forgive is inexcusable.  Who can do that?!

There might be some things we never get over.  Some sins that were committed against us that we just can’t find the strength to forgive; this is where we really lean into God’s help.  But are we meaning well?  Are we praying that most profound prayer that Jesus taught us “forgive us, as we forgive those who have sinned against us.”  That’s meaning well.  Praying well.  We’re human we can’t possibly forgive a go-zillion times, like God...

But as soon as we get cocky and too self-assured about that: “Well, I’m good because I’m not perfect.  Only God’s perfect.  So, I’m not worried.”  Jesus has a strong word of warning for us...when we’re sittin’ pretty and pompous.  That’s not meaning well.  We are called to try...and then ask Jesus to walk with us in those spots where we really struggle.

Scholar Matthew Henry puts it like this: “the presumptuous may fear and the sincere may hope.” 


It’s in that spirit -- a spirit of humility, sincerity and meaning well -- that we come at this first part of our reading...where we are called to confront one another (pause) -- not to confront, interestingly, those outside our family of faith, mind you, but a brother or sister within the fold, within the church.  These are passages about us living as community, sharing life together...not how we judge others in our world.  When -- not a stranger but -- a brother or sister falters, we must go to them, and go to them first.  Instead, however, our temptation is to go to others and talk about that person.  (btw, how ya’ doin’ with that bug that helps us so quickly think of who else could use this?)  If we went directly to every person with whom we had an issue, just to “talk it out”, can you imagine?    

[Bonhoeffer’s community rule -- story: great example of trying and letting Jesus walk with us for the rest...] 

Christ calls this a sin -- not talking directly to the person is a sin! Not confronting directly those who are doing wrong is a sin.  We are not meant to turn a blind eye on our brother or sister when we see them doing wrong, doing hurtful things.  

We are meant to call one another out...in love, in sincerity and humility.  Have you ever been called out by someone in love and sincerity and humility: “I love you, brother, but I have to say this to you...”  “I love you and I struggle with this too, but I have be honest and say...”  When our brother or sister is neglecting the least of these, tromping on the backs of the poor, squandering the gifts of God’s creation, hurting others, hurting themselves, straying from that narrow path of discipleship, it’s our duty to call them out, as their brother or sister in Christ.  Too often I’m afraid, the attitude is: “As long as you’re not hurting me, I’ll turn a blind eye.  As soon as I’m affected, well, then we have a problem.”  And so the Christian community has gotten passive and permissive. 

Go to the person.  Call them out.  And entrust reconciliation to God.
This, of course, is such a slippery slope, which is why it’s got to, got to, got to be in that spirit of meaning well.  Prayer helps us with that -- the Holy Spirit leads us to meaning well.  You go to someone with an arrogant spirit?  a presumptive spirit?  a non-humble spirit?  -- And that conflict is only going to worsen.  But Jesus calls us to confront wrong-doing, speak the truth in love.  

[slow down]  This isn’t easy stuff Jesus is holding before us.  Forgiveness is not for the fainthearted; being humble and honest with the person that needs to hear a tough word is not for the fainthearted, it’s for the strong-hearted.  Someone with a strong heart is someone with lots of love in their heart, humility in their heart, hope in their heart...  

...This would be an appropriate time to think about someone else -- someone you’ve know who does possess this strong heart, this well-meaning spirit, this courage to call you out, when you’ve strayed off the path of righteousness.  I think there’s a pretty good chance that the person who’s called you out...who’s spoken the truth in love to you...is a person you hold in high esteem.  Some might this person a dear friend.  “He’s the only one who said something to me.  Nobody else cared.”  “She’s the only one who had the guts to call me out.  I needed that.”

Today and throughout these rich Lenten days, we ask God to “Create in us clean hearts and to renew a right spirit within us.” Will you pray with me; let’s pray for ourselves:

Help us O God to be more well-meaning and less mean-spirited.  Create in us clean hearts.  Help us to forgive, help us to be bold, help us to be honest, help us to be loving.  Create in us clean hearts and renew a right spirit with us.  Cast us not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from us.  Restore to us the joy or your salvation.  Thank you for blessing us with that joy of your salvation, even now, even today.  AMEN.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

February 15 -- Transfiguration Sunday

Have you ever had a “transfigurational” experience?  A mountain top experience:  ecstatic (out of body, in a way).  Heaven and earth come together.  Christ’s face shining.  God’s love all around.  All is good.  And you want to hold on to that moment forever?  

I had one of my life’s “transfigurational” experiences in the presence of some of you...a little over two years ago, now, in Germany.  

We took a congregational trip -- something like 20 of us -- to the lands of Luther.  And we had been traveling together for a handful of days coming up from the south of Germany where we started, winding our way through the sites of Luther’s life, his birthplace of Eiselben, where you can stand in the church where he was baptized, the castle where he was hidden outside of Erfurt, Leipzig famous for Bach, the great Lutheran composer -- and finally we arrived in Wittenberg, where Martin Luther and his wife K├Ąthe spent their life together, where Luther did most of his teaching and preaching -- and where, of course, he nailed the 95 theses to the church door.

It was at that church where we got to worship on a Sunday morning in October!  We were in Wittenberg on a Sunday morning!  And in many ways, aside from the extravagant architecture and opulent interiors, it was much like worshiping here on Sunday morning: The prayers and the readings were the same, the preacher stood up in the pulpit to preach, the music was familiar, the offering plate got passed just like we do, and then comes time for communion as the congregation sings together.

And that’s where I lost it.  The way they did it was that you come forward in large groups and circle in the front chancel area, as the pastor goes from person to person administering the body of Christ and the blood of Christ.  It’s while I was standing there.  Light streaming into the sanctuary, God’s people gathered and these statues of Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon elevated on either side of the front space.  Instead of Elijah and Moses, it was Melanchthon and Luther, not replacing the presence and the glory of Christ, but enhancing it, joining me in giving praise to God.  Art and stories in Germany abound of Luther always “pointing to” the crucified Christ, never standing in the center but always to the side.  

I’m not a big statue guy, especially statues in churches.  But those those guys are are buried in that sanctuary, Luther under the pulpit.  So it was like they were present in an additional way.  And it hasn’t occurred to me until this week, that it was a “transfigurational” experience.  When you’re in the moment, you’re not intellectualizing -- [scholarly voice] “I am now having a transfigurational experience” -- no, you’re just letting it wash over you.  The ornate sanctuary, the harvest display of fruits and vegetables at the foot of the alter (a sign of the living church, not just a historic site), yet so rich with history: I could see the inside of the door where Luther nailed the 95 theses, I could see his tombstone under the pulpit and there was a ray of light shining in on his stature in that beautiful chancel that was commingled with rich shadows and glorious sunlight, which was a gift on an overcast October Northern-hemisphere day.  I felt the tears stream down my cheeks, I tried to sing but gave up and just listened, I looked at some of you across from me, Heather right next to me--an even better sign of God’s living church--some of you were getting a little choked up too, I noticed.  I went back to my pew literally weak in the knees from trying to stand there up in front, through it all.   

It was truly transfigurational for me -- heaven and earth come together, a sense of clarity, and peace, and beauty, and hope and joy.  

And here’s what I’m noticing about Transfiguration this year -- It’s about our past as well as our present and our future.

When the disciples looked at Jesus on the mountain top, they saw Jesus...with Moses and Elijah.  When we look at Christ, in “transfigurational” moments we see our past as well as our present and our future all wrapped up at once.  
For me, that’s the Lutheran line.  Luther and Melanchthon, you who are older than me, you who are younger than me -- we’re all wrapped up into one at the foot of Christ’s cross. 

Our history has so much to do with our present.  Where we’ve come from.  Both as individuals and families...and as the church.  How many shoulders are we standing on here?  

Who is it that’s shaped you for better or worse?  [pause]

Dreamed about having events this year, to talk about controversial issues like immigration or gun control -- but talk about that not as why I’m right and your wrong, but rather to reflect on the shoulders I stand on in forming my position on [pick your] issue.

Our history matters deeply.  So often fathers aren’t the most loving, care-givers.  Do you know why?  Perhaps they never learned.  “If you parents didn’t love you the way you think they should have, it’s because they never learned.”  

We stand on the shoulders of our past, of our parents and grandparents, most immediately, but that legacy goes even further back, especially in the church.  

Why do we say “The Lord be with you.  And also with you.”  Why do hold out our hands to receive communion.  Why do we start at the baptismal font, or reach out and touch the Holy Book before the Gospel reading?

It’s because that’s what’s been passed down to us.  

When the disciples on the mount of transfiguration looked at Jesus that day, they saw their past before them too, along with their present and even their future...just for a moment.  I think that’s what happened to me in Wittenburg...just for a moment.   

We don’t always remember or recognize the shoulders upon which that we stand.  From time to time we make a point to honor our forebearers.  Our nation helps us with this -- stopping for a whole day to honor our presidents, or great national heroes, explorers, soldiers, veterans and great patriots.  

But how about in the church and in our homes?  How often do we stop and consider those shoulders that we stand on?  And not just the obvious one -- like Luther, Melanchthon, Moses, Elijah, your mom and dad.  But also the legions of no-name or rarely-named saints who make up our existence and give us some grounding in the family of God.

The past is critical in the story of the Transfiguration -- Elijah and Moses were standing there.  Two great patriarchs of the Jewish faith to remind those disciples of all the great patriarchs and matriarchs of the faith.  

As we give glory to God this day, as we bear witness to Christ’s shine, let us do so in the company of the saints -- saints who are still with us (think of your teachers and our children’s teachers) and saints who have gone before us.  Give thanks for the saints whose witness has paved the way for us to be a living church today, not just a relic of the past.  

And together we give thanks to Christ who calls us now down from the mountaintop, who bids we take up the cross and follow him.  Those who we honor are those who have suffered for their faith.  We will suffer too, for that’s what it looks like to shine with Christ, he teaches us.  Let us go boldly and in the sure confidence that even as we suffer down this bumpy road of discipleship, even as we descend the mountain, come back to our pew or com home from Wittenberg, we don’t go alone:  Christ Jesus goes with us, and holds us together.  Thanks be to God.  AMEN

Sunday, February 8, 2015

February 8 -- Feeding 5000+

Sisters and brother in Christ there are 3 points I’d like to make today, in light of this Gospel text:
And keep in mind what has happened here and what will happen.  So much violence and chaos in the story so far and to come -- Herod’s evil rule, Roman empire has asserted its dominance.  And we know that the empire will catch up to Jesus in the end of the book, but here we’re getting glimpses God’s realm -- God’s will and rule on earth as in heaven.  These stories are glimpses of the narrow pathway of Jesus, to which we are invited to enter and follow. 
     1. Disciples wanted to disseminate the crowds, break them up, dismiss them.  But Jesus held them together.  
Disciples wanted to keep it simple and neat, but how “keeping it simple and neat” can breakdown community and attempt to edge out God’s compassion.  
This is a text about God’s compassion, God’s justice…where ALL are fed.  All are clothed, all are housed, all are safe.  
What does that mean for us and our world?  What would San Diego look like if everyone had “daily bread”?  And Luther describes daily bread in his small catechism as “Everything included in the necessities and nourishment for our bodies, such as food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, farm, fields, livestock, money, property, an upright spouse, upright children, upright members of the household, upright and faithful rulers, good government, good weather, peace, health, decency, honor, good friends, faithful neighbors, and the like.”
Jesus filled everyone’s bellies and prevented the disciples’ solution of breaking this problem of hunger down by simply dismissing the crowds.  Out of sight, out of mind.  Jesus says to us too: “You give them something to eat.”  
How might we as church work together toward ensuring everyone gets enough nourishment for their bodies, clothing, shoes, money, property, healthy families, good government, peace, decency, good friends, faithful neighbors and the like?    
The world is not ours to save.  That’s true.  But it’s ours to serve.  “You give them something to eat,” Jesus says to us.  Jesus holds us together.
     2. The disciples didn’t think there was enough.  But Jesus turned that which was offered into more than enough.
Five loaves and two fish, was hardly anything at first.  
Sisters and brothers in Christ, Jesus takes our “hardly anything” and works it for good.  We offer everything we have, and we offer it with thanks to God and let God take it from there.
This is not just a text about sharing.  I mean, there’s a great lesson here, if everyone shares what they have, it’s amazing how much food is left over.  We have that experience every time we have a potluck here at church.   There’s always a concern that we won’t have enough.  And there’s always leftovers when everyone brings a little something.  (Come to our Lenten suppers to see this again.)
Wonderful image, but this story is more than just an instruction to share, it’s God taking what we might deem as worthless, or too small or insignificant, and working wonders with it.  How has God used you, what you bring?  And by the way, the little boy was offering up everything he had -- even if it didn’t seem like much.  I don’t think he was packing more loaves and fishes in his cloak (do you?) and just sharing his leftovers.  He offered his all.  “Here’s all I’ve got, God. Use me.”  
Loaves and fishes stories are happening all around us, all the time!  We might not always acknowledge them as such, but they’re there!  I’m thinking about all the connections that we make.  Introductions, of people, that turn into great friendships or partnerships.  That’s how Agape house got started, T.A.C.O., Common Ground, Survivors of Torture International -- each of these organizations (think of the piles of “daily bread” they’ve provided over the years) -- began with some introductions.  “Well here, I know this person, let me introduce you to that person.”  God taking our “hardly anything” and turning it into a feast of good things for the good of so many.
     3. With the abundance, Jesus feeds us too! 
ALL ARE FED means you and me – we don’t just empty our pockets, empty our lives, and go home hungry and bitter.  In this amazing story, messy-spirit-filled-children-screaming-old-people-dancing-everyone-singing-everyone fed -- community-in-Christ is the result!  Amen?   ALL ARE FED, you and me included!
The disciples want to send them away, but Jesus even feeds the disciples.  Jesus forms us all into one body, through shared food and shared space.  The disciples don’t think there’s enough, but Jesus makes sure everyone is feed, including them, including us!
We are fed this day—tired, depressed, lost, confused, lonely, wrapped up in conflict, stressed about money, grieving our losses, losing our hope—Jesus doesn’t send us away empty.  
He sends us away fed and with leftovers!  

Filled to the brim with grace and forgiveness.  Hope and joy that we can’t help but share.  Filled to brim with a new vision for living this life together, and a counter-vision for acting and speaking in an isolated and violent, violent world -- violence that has already come, violence that will come again.  Jesus’ followers: we stand for peace nevertheless.  We embrace the suffering, the hungry ones, the sick ones, the ones with out shoes, and the ones with troubled families, the ones who suffer from bad government, and poor leading, the ones whose neighbors are unfaithful -- those in our own communities and around the world, we feed them, because of the feast that Christ has laid before us.  We are filled to the brim with God’s compassion this day.  God’s life in Jesus Christ -- moving among us through the Holy Spirit -- in this bread and wine.  God is with us, renewing us, filling us.  Sustaining us, rescuing us from drowning.  God is with you.  And this strong Word will carry us through, for this day, it is enough for this day and forevermore...for we feast on the Bread of Life.  AMEN.  

Monday, February 2, 2015

February 1 -- Treasure in Heaven

Grace to you and peace from God...

It was a couple of weeks ago now that the front page of the Union Tribune featured a story about Tamika Brown, whose 19-year-old son Richi was stabbed in a park in the Kearny Mesa area and died a few days later in the hospital.  The suspect was apprehended and tried.  Ian Ellis, also 19, was sentenced to 21 years in prison.  Sadly, proceedings like this are nothing new -- nothing new to us as consumers of U.S. news, and certainly nothing new to our justice system.  Judges hear cases like this every day across our land.  Violence, greed, gangs, bullying, retaliation, guns, knives, anger, ignorance -- nothing new.  Same ol‘, same ol’.  It’s the way of our world.  These are our children and our communities.  And we’ve seen it before.

But here’s why this story made the front page:  The victim’s mother, Tamika Brown, in her statement after Ellis had received his sentence, Tamika Brown stood up and forgave her son’s murderer right there in the courtroom.  Now that’s new!  She stood up, with her prepared statement in hand, a statement much like you’d hear at any number of these types of tragic trials.  But then suddenly, the article said, something came over her, and she felt compelled to share a different statement, she looked right into the eyes of the teenager who had killed her son and told him that he is a child of God too, and that she had forgiven him.  “Only God knows why I’m not angry or why I don’t hate you,” she said.  “Would it shock you to hear that I love you?”  “Don’t lock him up,” she thought.  “Sentence him to my home.  Let him be my son...”  And then she sang a Gospel song to him: “He Cares”.

The judge reportedly got choked up, tears in his eyes, saying he’s never seen anything like this in all his time in the court system -- a mother singing to her son’s killer.
Tamika Brown is a Christian, regularly attending a church here in San Diego.  Her pastor said he was not surprised, having walked with her on that prayerful journey from anger to love.  

I bet she said the prayer Jesus taught us to say a time or two...  “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.  And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”  

When I think about ‘evil’ in this story, I think about Tamika’s son’s killer and the evil crime he committed...but I also think about the evil that comes from holding onto the anger.  Who knows what she might have done?  Family members visited Tamika, friends and cousins too, and so many of them, she tells, had just one thing on their mind: revenge.  “Who did this?  We’re gonna get him back!”  “That’s not what I want,” she told them.

What was it that came over her in that courtroom?  Maybe I should have waited until Pentecost to talk about this story, because this is a Holy Spirit story.  And the Holy Spirit, sisters and brothers in Christ, on account of Christ, in and through Christ, because of Christ, the Holy Spirit gives us all strength to do and say forgiveness-things that we didn’t think we ever could.

That’s what’s at the heart of this prayer that Jesus teaches his disciples, this prayer that we say every Sunday, the prayer that your church council has been concluding their meetings with since the beginnings of this congregation.  The prayer that has been passed down from generation to generation.  

When Jesus’ disciples ask him how to pray, he teaches them to pray -- not for everyone else -- but for themselves.  Pray for yourselves.  Pray for your hearts to be well.  Pray for the strength to forgive.  And God will help you from there.  

We start by just saying the prayer.  Even if you don’t believe in the prayer or in the power of the Holy Spirit.  Lots of people nowadays don’t participate with church because they don’t believe in this kind of stuff.  We’ve got brains, we’ve got compassion, we’ve got common sense -- who needs this archaic religion stuff, these rituals of holding hands and saying ancient prayers?  That’s a very real sentiment.  

But there is great power in gathering together to say this prayer.  As one of my worship professors used to say: “Private communion is an oxymoron.”  Do you notice its all in the plural: “Our father.  Forgive us our sins.  As we forgive.  Give us this day our daily bread.”  Martin Luther himself said -- when his dear, little daughter Magdalena died in his arms at age 13 -- Luther actually said that couldn’t believe in God, and that he needed the community’s faith around him to sustain him, to carry him through that terrible time.  He needed to join hands with others and say the Lord’s Prayer.  Your father is your father whether you reject him or not.  Your mother is your mother whether you believe in her or not, right?  God is never going to stop loving you, and calling you beloved.

But we are invited today, to glimpse God’s kingdom through the gift of forgiveness.  Not just God’s forgiveness, poured out for us...in this holy word and supper and font.  We are invited to taste heavenly treasure by forgiving others.  

Jesus talks about treasure in heaven today.  Someone was asking me what heaven is like the other day.  I don’t know, yet :) but I believe that heaven is place where our hearts are finally light and filled with joy and peace, where our souls are no longer divided -- sliced up by bitterness, resentment and anger.  Heaven where we’re whole and healed on the inside.

Forgiveness is such a hard thing -- and btw, forgiveness is much more than just saying, “Oh, that’s OK,” to someone who has really slapped you -- you know, someone who has really wronged you.  Turning the other cheek actually means standing up for yourself, not letting yourself be rolled over, beaten down, pushed around, or walked past.  Forgiveness is not a passive activity for the weak-hearted; it’s a bold and courageous -- and apparently original -- activity for the Spirit-filled.  

Tamika Brown, who stunned that courtroom -- in no way -- was telling Ian Ellis, “That’s OK that you killed my beloved.”  Her forgiveness was act of strength and, even more, of faith!  She gives us a glimpse of heavenly treasure, right here on earth.  Treasure in heaven, Jesus tells us, has got nothing to do with stuff; it’s got everything to do with heart, and community and faith.  She is boldly trusting in the support her community of faith and the Holy Spirit.  Those two are so deeply intertwined.

That’s what’s before us today, sisters and brothers in the faith.  We are called to forgive...and to work on that together.  Not just for the perpetrators sake (although what a gift to offer your forgiveness), but for our own sake.  For our anger will kill us...Even as live and breathe, and walk around through our lives.  The anger and bitterness and resentment will take us down.  

Jesus teaches us to pray for the courage of Tamika Brown.  As we once more say the same prayer we always say, eat the same meal that we always eat, share the same peace that we always share, sing the same songs as we always sing...it might seem that there’s nothing new -- perhaps to some.  

But we know that in this “same ol’, same ol’”, everything becomes new.  AMEN.