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, October 25, 2015

October 25 -- David Anointed King (Reformation/Confirmation Sunday)

“Confirmation has been a great experience with great people.  To me, Confirmation means to learn, build, and understand your connection with God.” -Sam

“Confirmation is a community project.  Not only do you have to work hard.  You have to work hard with others...‘Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.‘  If Jesus forgives us for our sins, then why can’t we forgive others?” -Joey

“I think it is very good...to have trust in God all of your life, even as an adult.”  -Sarah

“I believe that the Word is the idea of Jesus, a human God that, rather than simply watching over us from a great kingdom, will come down to be with us and to be us, a God that will share in our joy and our sorrow and everything in our lives because he loves us and created us in his image and because we are the same, we are one, united in God.”  -Malcolm

You teach us, too!  It’s not just the other way around.  We have so much to learn from young people today.  They’ve been teaching me these past years.  Praise God!  

Today’s lesson is about praising God.  And giving praise to God means being who God made you to be. 

In King David’s case, that means being a leader, a peacemaker, a uniter.

In our confirmation students’ case, that means a gymnast, a horseback-rider, a dancer, an actor, a scientist, a musician, a student, a son or a daughter, a friend, a sibling.  This is who God’s made you/them to be!  

Who has God already made you to be, who is God continuing to call you to be?  Everyone is called.  (Martin Luther’s doctrine of vocation:  “God is milking the cows through the vocation of the milkmaid,” said Luther. According to Luther, vocation is a "mask of God." God is hidden in vocation.  We see the milkmaid, or the scientist, or the teacher or the artist.  But, looming behind this human mask, God is genuinely present and active in what they do for us.)  This is most certainly true for us as well!  For our confirmation students as well!  In what they do even now, and certainly in what they will grow to do...

And by the way, I don’t think God is sitting there hoping for you/we to go one direction and not another -- Is young Malcolm going to become an astrophysicist or a school teacher or a pastor? -- I don’t believe God is rooting for one and not the other.  I believe that God is saying, “Surprise me!  I’ll love you no matter what!”  That’s true for all of us:  “Surprise me.  I’ll love you no matter what!  I’ll be rooting for you no matter what!  And even if you make those dangerous turn -- even when you hurt others, hurt yourselves, hurt the world I gave you -- I’ll be loving you, waiting for you to come back home, back to my forgiveness and grace.”

Today’s scripture passage is about giving praise to God:  That takes some work.  We’re not used to doing that.

Heard a story this week:  Group of middle schoolers from an all-white Lutheran congregation in the Midwest visited an all-black, Baptist church as part of their confirmation program -- praising singing for 1 hour.  And THEN, the pastor stands up: “Let us begin worship now.”  Asked after, what was that?  “Well it takes one hour of praising God to ‘get out of the way’; it takes one hour to forget this false notion that we’re in charge; to remember that we’re not god, only God is God, to trust and give our selves fully to praising God.  
“Only then are we ready to worship.”  They had so sing their way into worship and trust.

When we do that, however we get there -- whether through literal singing...or praying or resting or walking -- when we sing our way into worship and trust, we don’t just place ourselves totally into God’s hands, but we enter into our truest selves too!  

When we stop lying to ourselves and others that we’re in charge here, that we’ve got all the power, and simply dance into our week like David danced into Jerusalem, free of inhibitions and notions of power -- dancing like that was a symbol of letting go, and complete bodily praising of God -- when we let go...then we’re arriving at our truest selves. 

Entrusting ourselves to God, worshiping God, singing and dancing before God, we are arriving at our truest selves.  We are created to worship God, and in that we become who God has truly made us: instruments of peace, instruments of joy, instruments of creativity, instruments of life, instruments of Good News.  God made made us to proclaim Good News.

Little children, and birds, and trees have so much to teach us in this way -- they simply are who they are.  Praising God as they play, chirp, grow toward the sun.  That’s how they praise God, that’s how they give glory to God, and entrust themselves to the God who made them!  Martin Luther talked about the whole creation praising God in his commentary on Psalm 150, and Luther loved music: “As long as we live there is never enough singing.”    

Sarah praises God, Sarah sings through her gymnastics, Sam sings to God through his horseback-riding, Joey through his dancing and creative work on computers, Malcolm through science and literature and art and drama!  

“Did you know you’re praising God, when you do what you do?”  You’re being who God made you to be!

You/they teach us!  Isn’t that a happy surprise?  We often assume it’s only the other way around: adults teach the children.  But God’s always surprising us.  We have an “improvisational God,” as our former presiding bishop likes to say.  Sam, Malcolm, Sarah and Joey:  You being who God made you to be is a lesson for all of us...and it is a hymn of praise to God!  

Worship God, this week friends.  Here/this is a great place to start, but we’re only at it for a little more than an hour.  Find ways to stop, remember who you are and whose you are, give thanks.  

Our blessings abound, and sometimes we can take them for granted, or be too blinded by anger, fear or bitterness to notice this...but everything we have, everything we are comes from God and belongs to God.  Any of it could be taken at any moment.  Stop and give thanks this week, not out fear that it all might go away, but out of sheer praise and thanks to the God who creates us, redeems us and sanctifies us this day.  

Let’s pray: 

Thank you God, for the grace that you’ve showered down on us in so many ways.  For the lessons of youth.  For the lessons from our youth.  For Sam and Sarah and Malcolm and Joey, and all that they already do to serve and praise you.  For their families and this community who have loved and nurtured them to this point.  For each of us here, and the multitude of blessings that we have experienced, for the sun and moon, for plants and animals, for the joys of both work and rest, we join King David in thanksgiving and praise.  AMEN. 

Sunday, October 11, 2015

October 11 -- Hear, O Israel

There is a sense in which God is saying to us today, “Are you finished talking now?  Can I say something?”  [pause]

Are we finished doing the God-playing?  Are we finished doling out advice like we know everything there is to know?  Are we finished pontificating?  Are we finished with our opinion columns and news spins and ego-driven debates?  Are we finished with our need to have the last word? 

“Are you done now?”  God asks.  After all this chaos in the world: after shooting after shooting?  After hunger and drought and disease and war?  After division and isolation.  After pride and ignorance.  After years and years of wandering through the wilderness.  Is it OK if God says something now?

“Hear O Israel” is the title for this Sunday.  Not the 10 Commandments.  “Hear O Israel” sandwiches the Ten Commandments in our text.  It comes at the beginning and it comes at the end, like how many of us cross+ ourselves at the beginning and at the end of our worship service.  (That means it’s very important.)  When it’s at the beginning and at the end, you know God’s got something to say.  

Are you finished breaking down community, damaging relationships with each other, with your own bodies, with the planet itself and with me?  OK, then listen to this...

“I am the Lord your God.  Don’t have any other gods.

“Don’t live and hoard and speak as if I don’t exist.”

I was at a worship service a few weeks ago, where the words of the Confession and Forgiveness at the beginning of the services just hit me.  (Ever happen to you?  We say this stuff all the time...but.)  Forgive us for planning for the future as if you didn’t exist.  We hoard and invest and save and store up treasures as if God wasn’t even real!

We say God’s real, we go to church, but how quickly we forget or loose trust in God’s providence.  

“Can I say something now?” God asks.  “I am the Lord your God.  I’ve got you.  Don’t put other things in front of me.”  

Now we clarify commandment by commandment:

Don’t waste my name on frivolity, excess and vanity.  “Dear God, find me a parking space.  Dear God, let the Chargers win today.  Dear God, I didn’t study for my exam help me pass it.  Dear God, I don’t really want to do anything myself about children shooting guns and killing other children in schools, and churches and movie theaters and college campuses.  You do do something about it; I’ll just pray to you about it.  I’ll just hope it doesn’t happen again; but I’ll be sure to pray to you when it does.”  I’m supposed to take God so seriously right?  That’s what the first commandment says...so I’ll just let God take care of all the problems in the world, I’ll just let God take care of all the things God actually created me to do...like take care of homeless veterans and uninsured mothers and survivors of torture...you can do that, God; like conserve water, and oil, and protect endangered species...you can do that, God.  Not me.  This is misusing God’s name.  “Can I say something now?” God asks, “Hear O Israel:  Don’t do that.”

Honor the Sabbath.  Stop each week to remember that I am God, to have fun in this world that I made -- healthy, re-creative, life-giving fun.  For the love of God, stop working.
For the love of God, turn off your phones and your televisions, for the love of God, have dinner with your neighbors and friends and family.  For the love of God, get in bed with your life partner and have fun.  That’s why God made you: to frolic.  We don’t frolic anymore.  What happened?  We don’t sabbath anymore.  We don’t go to church to worship God anymore...as a culture.  We do go to church -- to stadiums, to the marketplace, to the computer screen, to our investment bank accounts...to worship.  We definitely put our trust in things.  And there it is again: Forgive us for planning for the future and living in the present as if you didn’t exist, God.  Sabbath is for remembering and resting.  Remembering God’s promises -- I’ll always be with you and I forgive you -- and resting now in that promise.  It’s for praying and playing, as Eugene Peterson puts it.  Stop, for the love of God.  Give thanks and kick back.    

Take care of your aging parents.  I’ll remind you that that’s what “honor your father and mother” meant.  It wasn’t a finger wag at children, as much as I’d like to use it like that.  Honor your father and mother so that your days may be long and that it may go well with you in the land that God has given you.  Let’s reach out to all our seniors so that their days may be long, and go well, so that their quality of life and our life may be healthy and good.  

Now we’re shifting into our commandments about creating wholesome communities.  We honor God when we serve our neighbors -- our young neighbors, our children, and our elderly neighbors.  To that end, don’t murder.  And don’t make murder such an easy and accessible option.  I could just kill myself.  I could just kill another person.  That wouldn’t be very difficult at all these days.  Weapons are easily accessible, pills are easily accessible.  

It is so troubling that the commandment I used to skip over the quickest, because it so clearly didn’t apply to me and my life, is now way too central for our world.  “Can I say something now?” God says.  

Don’t steal, don’t commit adultery.  These guiding lines are again freeing us to play and worship God safely and securely.  The Ten Commandments are a fence in the back yard that allow us play within bounds.  We’re protected, and we’re freer and we’re better, when we don’t go outside the bounds.  These commandments are a gift.  

God didn’t free the Israelites from slavery in Egypt in order to chain them up all over again...this time to a set of rules and restrictions.  Rather the commandments are a warm home  (Suzanne), where we can calm down and live out our truest calling.  

You know, it’s taken me a while to get this -- that the commandments are a huge piece of Good News.  But the more I study and reflect on these -- Martin Luther’s explanations helped me with this -- the more I hear God calling us and freeing us.  “Hear O Israel, let me say something.  You can be even better, even safer, even more trusting of me.  Come play, come frolic in this huge yard I’ve given you.  Come care for one another, come care for yourselves even better, come worship me, come trust and open your lives to my grace and my promises, come and remember all that I’ve done for you and for your ancestors in the faith up to this point, and come remember that I will lead you home, a warm home that I’ve prepared for you.

“Are finished now?” God asks, “Can I say something?  I love you and you are mine.”  AMEN.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

October 4 -- Moses and God's Name

Ancient Celtic spirituality has given us a term that I want to share with you today: “a thin place”.

A thin place has been described as those rare locales in our lives “where the distance between heaven and earth collapses” (Eric Weiner in his spirituality travelogue).  The Grand Canyon, the wind-bashed cliffs of western Ireland, St. Peter’s basilica, your favorite Monet or Michelangelo could be examples.  

But a thin place isn’t just an exotic destination.  In fact, sometimes the weight of the frenzy can suck the holiness right out of the room and only thicken the space.  (My favorite example of that was this picture I took of the Mona Lisa last April from the back of the room, packed with people and cameras and selfie sticks and plexiglass.)  A thin place actually has nothing to do with tourism and all to do with your current state of mind.  If our minds are crowded with cameras and plexiglass, we’ll never arrive at the thin place, even if we’re standing at the Taj Mahal or the Cistine chapel.  On the other hand, you can be in a thin place any time: a walk in a park, a hymn in the church, a long dinner with old friends.  It takes openness from within and some combination of mystery and beauty from without to discover the thin place.  The distance between heaven and earth collapse.   

It’s not just a place of ecstasy either.  Thin places are discomforting.  A change is happening within you.  I’ve heard about thin place as that place where the “mask comes off,” the shiny veneer melts away, and a certain nakedness just washes over you.  Some have talked about an airport as a thin place.  People coming and going, the strange limbo that we feel there, neither in one place nor the other.  The unfolding of life, transitions, anxieties, reflections.  

Airports are getting more and more crowded with selfie sticks and plexiglass now too -- thick places -- as we stuff our heads with sounds and images from a screen, as we “mask up”.  But, when the battery on your gadget runs out, I think the airport experience is still a thin place.  A change is happening, a shedding, even a calling.  The “mask comes off” as you’re seated next to and find yourself in a conversation with a total stranger.   The shiny veneer comes down and a certain nakedness just washes over you as you gaze down at the tiny cities from a cruising altitude... [pause]

Moses was at a cruising altitude at Mount Horeb, where our text for today takes place.  Where the burning bush was revealed and not consumed.  Heaven an earth crashing into one another.  God’s voice amid the peacefulness of the grazing herds.  The mask comes off:  the bleating of the sheep echo the cries of the Israelites back in Egypt.  God’s voice disquiets.  A change is happening.  A certain beauty and mystery from without...and Moses‘ openness from within.  

He could have just ignored that burning bush, and gone back to his quiet life of shepherding.  But God’s fire for justice and peace for the oppressed was too hot, burning and living at the same time, and Moses was strangely warmed, drawn in, even in the midst of his fear and uncertainty.

Watch out for thin places, sisters and brothers in Christ.  They usually surprise you.  They’re never something that you are expecting or that you set out to find.  It does require a certain openness to God’s voice and God’s fire for justice and peace.  And it’s just as easy to go back to your flocks, your affairs.  It’s just as easy to charge your battery up again and put the headphones back on.  

But we are invited this day, sisters and brothers in Christ, to go the pain.  Go to where God is calling you.  Go to where God needs you.  Go to hopeless, go to the grieving, go to the lost, go to the oppressed, go to the poor, go to the immigrant, the strangers in a strange land, go to the outcast, go to the hungry, go to the lonely.  God hears their cry -- God hears our cry -- and points us back there.  “Let my people go.”  Ours is a God of freedom and liberation...freedom from that which chains us!

Maybe that’s even a call to tend to our selves.  

So often we can hide in the crowd...from our truest selves, sometimes even by helping so many others.  For some of us, God is pointing us right back at us.  God is calling to you and offering you freedom today, freedom from the chains of guilt or hopelessness, the bondage of sin.  For others, God is calling us out of ourselves, out of our self-centeredness, and into the world back where we came from.  Into the violence and the chaos, right into the courts of our modern-day Pharaohs -- the forces and the trends that rule and oppress.  Pharaoh is not a person; Pharaoh is a state, a system, a principality, an ethos.  Let my people go, God says.  

Go back to the pain -- whether that’s within or without.  

“Enter the fray,” God says, “because I’ll be there with you -- the cry of the poor is my ultimate concern -- I’ll give you the words, I’ll find you the support, and I’ll love you all along.”

The thin place can be terrifying, but it is holy ground, this transformation, this resurrection.  It is God-with-us, it is heaven and earth colliding.  And it’s happening right now.  Here we are.  Here Christ is.  Thanks be to God.  AMEN.