God's always "hooking us," pulling us back: back to the Word, back to the Meal, back to the Font...back to the community.

This blog is for the purpose of sharing around each Sunday's Bible readings & sermon at Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church.

Get Sunday's readings here. We follow the Narrative Lectionary.
(In the summer, we return to the Revised Common Lectionary' epistle or Second Reading here.)

So, what's been hooking you?

So, what's been hooking you?

Here you can...

Sunday, September 27, 2015

September 27 -- Jacob Wrestles God

If we took all the sleepless hours you’ve had in your life, the late-night hours of tossing and turning, not being able to sleep, even the best sleepers among us, we would be able to rack up some high numbers.  Even our children, who are starting to have restless nights of their own, thinking and worrying and even praying, talking to God...

But the kind of praying and talking to God in the middle of the night is usually not thankful praying -- we don’t wake up in the middle of the night to offer our thanks -- actually that might be the best way to get back to sleep (“count your blessings”).  No, usually in the wee hours of the morning, our talking to God looks more like wrestling.  And in this way, we can all put ourselves into this story of Jacob wrestling.  

Jacob wrestles with God...all through the long night.  I don’t know about you, but the nights are always longer when I’m awake wrestling through them.  Keep looking at the clock...

At some point or another, I imagine, we’ve all wrestled with God through the night.  Maybe we didn’t know it was God, but I imagine, we’ve all been there at least a time or two.

But to fully understand Jacob’s wrestling -- and in that way ours too -- I’d like to take you back in the story, and connect the dots to last week’s story:

We left off at Sarah laughing about being told she’d have a baby boy, Isaac, at nearly 100 years old.  Makes sense that she laughed, right?  But God gave her Isaac, who grew up to become Jacob’s father.  Jacob wasn’t the only son of Isaac and his wife Rebecca, remember.  Jacob had an older twin brother: Esau.  

And when Esau was born out first, something, someone was hanging onto his heel and came out second.

The name Jacob actually means, “Heel”!  And his whole life, Jacob played second fiddle, he was smaller, he was weaker, he was mommy’s favorite, but not daddy Isaac’s.  Isaac loved his oldest son, like any good Hebrew father would, because you see the oldest would receive the birthright blessing.   Jacob on the other hand was his mother’s favorite.  And to make a long, great story short, she and Jacob tricked old, daddy Isaac into giving Jacob the birthright, the two of them disguised Jacob and stole what was rightfully his older brother’s!  

Jacob has to run away after that, because his brother literally wants to kill him, even gather an army to hunt him down.  Jacob is a fugitive and a scoundrel for most of his young adult life.  Lots of mistakes, lots of deals and bad deals, lots of trickery and deceit.   There are not many people around even today who can top Jacob’s list of shady deeds and backroom deals.  Jacob was the least likely candidate for sainthood.  I’m not sure any of us would have really liked the guy, except as a duplicitous character on one of our favorite TV shows.  Jacob what a dirty man on the run.

He was on the run when one night he runs into this strange river being, at the Jabbok river, who wrestles with him through the night.  Can you imagine how tired you’d be?  “Through the night”!  But in the morning the being asks Jacob his name, and then gives him a new name.  Jacob is given a new name, after all those years of being Jacob.  After all the dirty deeds, all the running and hiding, all the trickery.  Jacob is given a new name.  Once he was named “heel”, but now he limps away blessed, and with a new name.

How do you feel about going away changed, too -- blessed, wounded and given a new name?  This is what happens to us every Sunday: we go away changed, having encountered the living God through the word, the meal, the waters at the font, and the community of the faithful.  We go away changed every time!  “But I’m a heel.” -- “No,” says God, “I give you a new name.”  [pause]

Now, the struggle is we might not always feel all that changed when we go away from church.  Sometimes the reading is vague, the sermon is boring, the bread is stale, the font is nearly empty, and the “community of the faithful” did something to hurt me this week.  Maybe that’s a little more true to our experience, right?    

But I’m here to tell you that despite these surface experiences, despite the monotonies and imperfections of church worship and church life, despite the falling short of God’s people...God changes you today, God changes each of us!  How do you feel about that?!  Beyond the earthly stuff that we can see and experience, the regular old, muddy, dirty dealings that that we know all too well, God breaks in!  

God takes us with our imperfect pasts, our unethical dealings, our doubts, our fears, our selfish inclinations -- and God doesn’t abandon us out there, running: God wrestles with us through the night.  God struggles and strives with us.  God even knocks us out of joint, and gives us a new name in the morning.  Joy comes in the morning.  Morning has broken.

This week, I want you to reflect on how God is knocking you out of joint.  What are ways in your life where God has thrown you for a loop, even in painful ways.  Sometimes we need that jolt to focus us on what’s most important.
And then God gives you a new name.  We might not always feel it, but sisters and brothers in Christ, we have seen God face-to-face.  

[pause, slowly]  I think often (and ironically) it takes a long, tough night, to open our eyes.  Because after a long, tough night, that’s when we’re finally vulnerable.  Our defenses are exhausted, and that’s where God shows up in real ways.  

This God is with you today.  This God is right before you.  This God is not condoning the sins of our past -- that might be the hip-out-of-socket -- but God is forgiving us, blessing us, giving us a new name, and sending us on our way.  Jacob goes on his way with the new name “Israel”, which means “struggled with God”.  Israel goes on his way and raises up a nation, twelve sons, who become twelve tribes.  Blessed to be a blessing.  

Where is God sending you now?  How might you/we be a blessing to those you encounter?  Because this is real.  Christ is present.  You have been pinned, and you have been blessed.  So go.  And make this world better.  AMEN.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

September 20 -- Isaac Born to Sarah

For the blessings of music and community you’ve showered down upon us, we give you thanks.  For this time and this space to reflect on your many blessings in our lives, for this another day of grace, we give you thanks.  Open our ears and our hearts now, may the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight for your are our strength/rock and our redeemer.  AMEN.

One of the funniest commercials, maybe about 10 years old now, but I still remember it...[without this certain bank account Bob wasn’t the most honest of fellows...lemonade stand.  But then...board meeting...and poker game (Steel Magnolias).]  The best comedy is when you didn’s see it coming.

It’s the laughter I’m getting at here.  Rather than talking about laughter, let’s experience it a little.  (I once interviewed someone for the campus ministry position at SDSU, and he went on and on talking about laughter, but he never said anything funny.)

And speaking of Steel Magnolias (seen it?)...there’s a great line there from Dolly Parton’s character, Southern beautician Truvy Jones, that leads us into our text for today from Genesis: “Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion.”

Laughter through tears.  Sarah and Abraham wanted a child, knew it was no longer possible.  Imagine the tears all those years, many don’t have to imagine.  The tears all those years.  But then one day -- Abraham and Sarah are visited by three strangers and asked, “Is anything too wonderful for God?”

Sarah will have a baby, they told Abraham.  Sarah hears this in the back room and laughs her head off.  Laughter through tears.  

After all the pain, after all the pressure, all the guilt, all the trying and coming up empty...it can’t be possible, can it?  Years of tears.  What might that be for us/you?  

Perhaps this story comes very close to home.  So many couples have dealt with this, and we must be sensitive to those tears.  Perhaps the years of tears are for another reason -- a broken childhood, an addiction or an eating disorder, a loss or an emptiness in your life that’s never been filled.  In some ways, I wouldn’t blame you if you got mad at this question, “Is anything to wonderful for God?”  You know sometimes, I don’t know.  I mean, why does God seem to sit there and just allow all this tragedy in our lives?  All kinds of people have left the church because they feel that God has let them down, just sat there while they suffered.  All those years, all those tears...

And yet here we are.  Gathered again.  (That right there is laughter through tears.)  There has been pain in every one of our lives, at some level.  And yet here we are, listening to these ancient stories of the faith, singing hymns new and old, gathered around wheat and wine, water and this Word.  We keep coming back.  We keep offering hospitality to strangers, like Abraham did.

And we learn that Sarah conceives and bears a son, Isaac (name means laughter).  As one scholar pointed out, this is true “comedy” in the classical sense.  You know how all of Shakespeare is either tragedy or comedy?  

“Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion,” Truvy says.  That might just sum up the whole Christian life. [pause]  

Laughter through tears.  Weeping spends the night, but joy comes in the morning, says the psalmist.  Christ’s triumph over death.  The resurrection is the greatest comedy, in the classical sense.  (Norwegians laughing on Easter Saturday.)    

This isn’t a story about wanting something badly enough, and finding that if we just pray hard enough, do enough good deeds, make enough sacrifices, then God will see all that and reward us with our hearts great desire.  Rather it’s a story about God just showing up and surprising us.  That’s the best comedy, by the way, when we didn’t see it coming.  

Abraham and Sarah had pretty much given up on having children.  They were just going about their call, showing hospitality to strangers, tilling the soil, shepherding the creatures, taking care of each other in their old age.  Chopping wood, carrying water.  And then one day, out of nowhere, this surprise.  The best comedy: didn’t see it coming.    

Abraham and Sarah were going about their call, doing what was right.  And that’s our invitation too.  Remember that mirror in Harry Potter?  The Mirror of Erised?  Harry discovers this mirror that shows you your hearts greatest desire, and he just gets caught staring at it, dreaming.  And Dumbledoor warns Harry, “Many have wasted away in front of this mirror.”  

We keep moving, sisters and brothers in Christ, going about our work of God calling us to do what is right -- showing hospitality to total strangers, welcoming the wandeirng, feeding the hungry, giving refreshment to the thirsty.  And God surprises us, when we least expect it.  
Sometimes our blessings are obvious, and other times life can seem pretty empty.  

But we are called to press on, following in the footsteps of the faithful who have gone before us.  Open to God’s surprises, open even to laughter through our tears.  For God is with us, God’s love is poured out for us.  God goes before us and beside us all the way.  We might not always see it or even believe it, but this is the truth.  This is the Good News: God in Christ Jesus gets right down next to us, and accompanies us through both the tears and the laughter of our lives, through both the tragedies and the comedies.

You are not alone, God goes with you all the way.  And as if that wasn’t enough God also give us each other, tangible, visible, audible signs of that presence of God with us.  

As if God giving us laughter through tears wasn’t enough, we have each other to share both laughter and tears.  In good times and bad, we walk together, we embody Christ very body, broken and blessed, that’s us, embodying Christ’s body.  We are the body of Christ, broken and blessed, given away for the life of the world.  And in that, there is such deep joy and laughter.

This joy, this laughter, this comedy is ours this day.  Thanks be to God.  AMEN.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

September 13 -- Garden of Eden

Grace to you and peace...

This chapter of the Bible is the reason I’m here.  

Had it not been for scholars I’ve met, and for a new way of looking at this second chapter of the entire Bible, there’s no way I’d every be your pastor and no way we ever would have met each other!

I grew up a Lutheran, went to church every Sunday, learned the my small catechism, attended the youth group, acolyted and assisted until I left for college.  I kept going to church in college, even while I took biology as my major.  

You see, I didn’t think Christianity had much to do with taking care of the environment.  I mean, I knew we were supposed to recycle and not throw trash on the ground, but for me that was more just being a good citizen, and only in that way did it also fall into being a good Christian.  I didn’t see any deep ecological instruction or ethic in the Bible for many years.   

That was confirmed for me my junior year, when I went home for Christmas and was talking to my dear, sweet Grandma Roschke, who modeled for me what it means to be a Christian in so many ways.  Grandma was asking me about what classes I was taking in the next semester, and I told her about Environmental Ethics, and this professor (The Rev. Dr. Byron Swanson), who had such a reverence for all life, such an awe for this beautiful planet that God made that he wouldn’t walk on grass if he didn’t have to, just to let God’s living creatures below live -- it was just part of his practice and ethic, and he was to be one of my new professors.  

Grandma says (and this was pivotal for me) -- “That’s ridiculous, that’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard!  God put that grass there for us to walk on.  It says it in the Bible.”

I didn’t argue with Grandma.  For me it was furthering my suspicions that when it came to taking care of the planet, Christians were not exactly the first in line.  I found other statements  and speeches that Christian politicians and preachers were making against environmentalists, and I wrote a paper later that semester entitled, “Turning the Other Cheek:  Christianity and the Environment”.  It was about how Christians tended to look the other way, turn the other cheek, in the face of deforestation, loss of biodiversity, global warming, air and water pollution, etc.  “There’s not a problem,” or, “that’s not our problem: God put that there for us to walk on.” [pause]

Fast forward a couple years, and I’m in seminary, amazingly.  And there I met another professor (Dr. Ted Hiebert) who had been digging into this 2nd chapter of Genesis.  He had written a whole book on it called The Yawhist’s Landscape.

God needed someone to till the adamah (soil).
There was a garden. And God needed someone to till the soil, so things would grow there.  That’s what it says!  (2:5)  I had never caught that before.  I was always thinking about Genesis 1 where the humans are the last ones created, like the cherry on top.  But here in chapter two, the order of creation is land, rain, then a man, made from that wet ground (adamah).  And then a garden.  Then animals, and then a woman.

Scholars have been talking since the 1950-60’s about there being 2 creation accounts in Genesis: chapter 1 and then chapter 2.  Why had I never heard of this?!!  Have you?  Genesis chapter 1 is thought to be written during the Babylonian exile, when all chaos was breaking lose on God’s people.  What a comforting and life giving account of creation that must have been!  God bringing order to chaos.  When lives are flying out of control, one day at a time, God calls us and this whole creation “good.”  Chapter 1 reads like a hymn.

And this chapter 2 that we share in part today, mainstream biblical scholars understand this account to be even older than chapter 1, written during the period of the Davidic monarchy.  During King David’s reign, before the exile!  Fascinating!! When life was much more in order, infrastructure was more in place, during relative peace and security -- emerges the account of God as potter and gardener; God, who takes the time to plant the trees and hand-craft the humans, breathing into their nostrils, the breath of life.

In chapter 2 God needed someone to till the soil and name the other animals.  God needed someone to take care of the earth.  Not exploit it.  This chapter saved my connection to the church, because I was loosing it, frankly.  I loved Christians, but I didn’t need to be part of a family that didn’t need to care for the planet, whose biblically mandated business was to walk on the earth, and turn the other cheek, look the other way, when God’s creatures (both non-human and human), and God’s forests, and God’s water, and God’s air were being desecrated.    If that’s what Christians did, if that’s how Christians read the Bible, then I didn’t want to be part of it.

But now I see that I was wrong.  I was not fully understanding the scriptures.  And once I discovered Genesis 2, I started seeing all kinds of calls in Scripture to care for the earth, to treat the creatures -- both human and non-human -- with respect and dignity.  There’s now a green bible that you can buy which highlights all the passages like this.  (I bought it for my brother when he tried to tell me that Christians don’t care about the environment.)  (Social Statement.)

This is probably way more about my own journey than you wanted to hear this morning.  There’s nakedness in this story; I suppose there’s a certain nakedness to my exposing so much about my own journey.  

I guess I share it because our journeys are important.  God works on us through our journeys, God continues to mold us and fashion us.  God helps us to read the Bible again, and with new eyes.  God opens our minds up to the work that others have done, to insights and learnings of scholars and theologians.  God restores our faith, renews our hope, re-sparks our creativity.  If that’s not resurrection, I don’t know what is!  

And God calls us back again today.  Back to tend the garden.  You know what else was found in a garden...the empty tomb.  New life happens in the garden!

God calls us to take care of the garden: “Here are partners,” God says, “helpmates, men and women, who will accompany you in this task.”  So do not despair.  Do not lose hope.  Do not be ashamed.

In the end there’s blessing.  Because God’s own hands molded you right out the middle of the muddy ground, and then God planted a garden around you, gave you companions, gave you partners to help.  We are surrounded by blessing.  And we carry that original blessing now, into the world to share and care for all God’s creatures.  AMEN. 

Sunday, September 6, 2015

September 6 -- Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Grace to you and peace...

In my last congregation we read this text -- or a text similar to it (see, there are lots of texts that call us to take care of the poor) -- and someone had the idea to invite back a bunch of the high schoolers and ask them to mess up their hair, and wear smelly old clothes, and basically pretend to be homeless people for the morning.  One of them was sleeping out in the bushes when people arrived.  One of them was walking around muttering to himself.  One of them was actually in the kitchen, eating a breakfast that he had brought.  And one of them was curled up and covered up by a blanket on the back pew of the church.   

Right after this lesson (or one of many others like it) was read, each of these “homeless” actors were invited forward to be interviewed about how they were treated.  All of them were treated with disdain.  Two were asked to leave.  One was spoken to harshly and even called a few names.  And the one sleeping on the pew was just totally ignored.  And I remember he talked about what he heard, and there was lots of laughing and people just catching up, talking about their week, as if he wasn’t even there.  Just walked past him.

I always thought that was kind of a “gotcha-in-your-face” sort of exercise, pretty much shaming people into the bible lesson.  If/when a downtrodden person shows up here at church, I’ll tell you now that it’s not a stunt I’m pulling.  They won’t be a prop.  But it certainly made the point, and I don’t think that church is uniquely ignorant of and even cruel to the poor.  

James is concerned about churches, and how they treat the poor...and James is only reiterating a deep concern of Jesus’.

James lived in a time when the gap between rich and poor wasn’t even close to as great as it is today. We are in a very wealthy nation.

And yet, what percentage of our national budget is for taking care of the poor?  2%, I heard...but I
need to research.  Whatever number I find would be controversial I’m sure.  And those programs are very much under attack and question -- “entitlement programs”.  The poor are given names like freeloaders, moochers, bums, lazy.  It’s always amazing how the weak are made into villains.  And while it would be naive to claim that everyone who’s poor is just a little saint wrapped up in dingy threads, there is no question as to how Jesus and James today -- how the Bible -- tells us to treat the poor.

In this election season, especially when it comes to domestic policy issues, I want to encourage you as Christians to keep that question -- “What would Jesus do?” -- at the fore.  As the candidates on all sides talk about immigration, entitlement programs, education, health care, etc.  And as we think about these issues, keep asking yourself, “I wonder how Jesus would answer that question/respond to that issue?”   

We are called, sisters and brothers in Christ, to take care of the poor.  And there was a time when the church actually measured itself on how well they did this.  [pause]  I’m supposed to turn in our figures and facts about our numbers each year.  How many new members, how many were baptized, confirmed, deceased, has our giving increased or decreased, etc.  Not once, however, am I asked to record how many homeless or working poor did Shepherd of the Valley come alongside this year.      

And I’m actually glad for that -- not because we don’t help the poor here -- but because there’s a way in which that would start to look/feel like we were recording our good works.  And here’s where we take a turn...

We don’t do these things to get credit for them.  We don’t clothe the naked, visit the sick, feed the hungry, protect the vulnerable, house the homeless because any front office or even God is watching and keeping score on a scorecard.  Right?  We do it... [slow] because we can’t help ourselves; it is simply a response to God’s grace and mercy and love and giving to us.  
Everything we have is from God.  Everything we have is from God.  And because we are truly thankful for what we have, we can’t help but let God’s grace and generosity flow through us.  

God’s grace and generosity is the antidote for the church’s pitfall of just looking out for themselves and especially for ignoring the poor among us.  We don’t do it because we have to or because we’ll get punished if we don’t, we don’t live under the thumb of the law -- we go in peace and serve the Lord because we can’t help ourselves!

I think the first line of our reading today can slip past us:  
“Brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?”  The example is vivid -- poor person comes in vs. rich person (Nate raising $$ for LRCC).  We get that.  What slips past us is that first line.  

To show favoritism/partiality and to disdain the poor, is actually to put our belief into question.  When we don’t share, it’s because we don’t trust that God’s going to take care of us.  If I give my sandwich to the man on the corner, there is one of two postures that could be running through my head:  1) posture of fear -- well, I’m going to hungry now.  Or 2) posture of trust/belief and thanksgiving -- I’ve been fed enough up to this point, somehow God will provide a way for me to get another sandwich...after all look at all the ways God had taken care of (even) me up until now.  I’ll be ok.  Here you go.  

Faith without works is dead.  

Last week I talked about Martin Luther’s opinion of James.  He called it the “epistle of straw”, in other words, non-essential to the bible.  It could be thrown out...and it wasn’t because James comes down so hard on us, and Luther thought we didn’t need to pay attention to the poor so much.  

It was because he didn’t want his people to get the idea that doing good works, taking care of the poor, was something that we keep lists of, that we make sure God and everyone else sees us doing.  Luther saw our good works flowing from God’s love and mercy.  

I really think its two sides of the same coin -- faith (music) and good works (dance) -- and I think Luther agreed with James actually.  When we encounter the radical, gracious, boundary-less love of God in Jesus Christ, when we come in contact with God’s generosity and beauty, when we experience even just a moment of grace [pause], then we can’t help but turn outward and care for someone else.  

If we’re not turning outward and caring for others, then we haven’t experienced God’s grace -- Luther and James would agree on that.  Faith and good works happening together is the litmus test.  

Good works -- care for the poor, the immigrant, the outcast, the homeless, the stranger, the vulnerable, even the earth itself -- good works flow from God’s grace.  Not from the law.

And God’s grace showers down on you today, in so many ways, in so many colors, through so many people, with all of our senses -- taste and smell and sight and feel and sound.  God’s grace comes rolling down like a mighty stream, washing us, renewing us, filling us (faith).  And so we can’t help but be swept up by God’s good grace, swept up and carried out into the world to love and care, to share our good works with others. 

This is the God’s work, and it is amazing in our eyes.  AMEN.