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, November 29, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 22, 2015

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

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

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

But it yielded wild grapes...

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

No more pruning, no more rain. 

It yielded wild grapes.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A shoot will come out from the stump of Jesse.  

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

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

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

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

A shoot will come out from the stump of Jesse.  

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

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

Because of the one true vine that grows on.  

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

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

Sunday, November 15, 2015

November 15 -- Hosea

Grace, mercy and peace to you this day -- from God who holds us in our fear, in our anger, in our grief, and in our joyful times as well.  AMEN.

I’ve been spending some time this week going through old pictures...going all the way back to 2013.  Now, before you tell me, “Oh, that’s not old...”  I agree, but keep in mind, when I go through pictures, you have to remember that I’m part of that Gen X/Millennial age group so we have thousands of pictures and videos of our kids, and for anyone who has small children, you know: a lot has happened in the last 2-3 years. 

This is a good time for that too: flipping back (or scrolling in my case) through photo albums.  Getting a little nostalgic and wanting to hang on to the past a little tighter.  There’s something about the weather getting cooler and rainier, the seasons changing -- I really have acclimated, I think, to resetting my clock, not with daylight savings, but resetting my clock to a new year on the First Sunday of Advent, rather than New Years Day (next Sunday is Christ the King!), so I’m also really feeling another year coming to a close here.  It’s good to get nostalgic at times, I think, to celebrate the beauty of the past, as we hope, and look forward.  

It’s also something we do...when times get tough.  I remember when Heather and I got our professionally-done wedding album in the mail, at last.  We were so excited to see all our best pictures, and then someone (I don’t remember who) said, “Oh yeah, hang on to that: you’ll need.”  You’ll need it when it gets tough.  It’s a running joke with my friends, when our marriage waters get choppy, “I pulled out the album last week.”  When the marriage is tried...or when the kids grow up and start getting into trouble, we pull out the albums, and quietly and nostalgically, longingly, flip through the pages, trying to transport ourselves to better times.   (You been there?)

This text today from Hosea gives us first a God who’s flipping through the pages of the past:  “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.”  How many of us can picture a parent -- maybe you did this yourself -- calling and encouraging a newly walking child:  “C’mon!  You can do it!”  We don’t generally imagine Israel’s journey through the wilderness as child toddling into first steps, but that’s what’s happening here in Hosea.  We need to savor those memories; God savors those memories.

Hosea, by the way, is a prophet in the Northern Kingdom, and times are tough.  The Northern Kingdom (unlike the Southern) has a king every couple years.  Stability is eroding: outside pressures are crowding in, foreign enemies are attacking, terrorism is a daily reality for the Israelites in the north.  We’ve come a long way [bookshelf]: from Egypt, into Canaan, building up this powerful monarchy, and now it’s all starting to crumble again.  Hosea is speaking to these northerners who are getting scared, angry and sad.  And needless to say, he’s speaking to us too.  In this time of violence and terror, with the horrifying bombings in Paris, with all manner of terror and violence on our own soil too, with common decency and human compassion eroding away, outside pressures creeping in constantly...here’s God, through Hosea’s pen, getting nostalgic:    

“It was I who first taught Ephraim [largest tribe in the North] to walk, I took them up in my arms, but they did not know that I healed them.”  How many times has a parent helped a child, taken a child to the ER, stayed up hours nursing or rocking them to sleep...and the child doesn’t even know it or remember it.    How many hours do parents worry and fret and love and hold their babies, and the babies can’t rationally remember it, don’t even know it...except for somewhere way down there, they do.

God is, in this text, being imaged as a loving mother.  You have no idea what I’ve gone through for you, Israel.  You don’t even know.   [Emma describes God as “a loving and welcoming mother bringing us in with a warm embrace...looking back at us with loving eyes.”]  

And yet -- Israel.  Keeps.  Turning.  Away.

If we have the Prodigal Father in the New Testament, we have the Prodigal Mother in the Old.  I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks.  We need to linger in this imagery this week; at the end of this year...savor God as our loving mother caring for us when we didn’t even know it.

Or, if this is helpful -- if you just can’t imagine God as a mother yourself -- think of this as the part of the Prodigal Son parable that isn’t told.  Think of this as what the father is doing while the son is out burning the family inheritance.  The loving parent is flipping through the pages, moving through all those feelings of grief, anger, fear...but finally arrives at love.

“How can I hand you over, how can I give you up...My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.  I will not execute my fierce anger.” 

God is not unmoved.  God like a parent gives consequences.  God gets angry, sad and scared for us.  For you.  But finally God arrives at love.  “My compassion grows warm.”  [Hebrew word...from one Hebrew scholar: This word is a fascinating one in Hebrew because it means something along the lines of "take a deep breath in a way that changes one's emotional mind."  Like a worked up parent, God is taking a deep breath before executing punishment on the child.  The word is often seen as problematic because the idea of God changing one's mind is theologically difficult for many.  Used as a noun in this verse, it simply means compassion and mercy.  Definitely not problematic.  However, verse 8 does point toward the malleability of God's will, always moving toward mercy over justice."]

Sisters and brothers in Christ, God continues to go with us.  God has not let us go -- despite all the turning away we’ve done --God longs for us to change certain of our ways, and come home.  Come back.  Turn around.  God longs for the days when we weren’t so stubborn, and know-it-all.  “Remember,” God says, “when I could tell you something and you trusted it to be true.” [pause]    

We grow up and our Heavenly Parent’s voice can sometimes be all but forgotten, certainly not always trusted.  But God is still calling to us this day, calling you back.  Offering you peace and safety that world cannot give.  Offering you hope and grace.  Offering you forgiveness and joy.

When our children have safe homes where they are brought up, then they live lives out there in the dangerous world, yes, but they live with confidence, wisdom and compassion...  

God has given us a safe home.  God started us from a safe, loving, and nurturing place -- even if that’s not true in your own upbringing.  God our nurturing parent -- through the bathtub of the baptismal font, at the breakfast table of the altar, with the bed time stories of the faith -- God has raised us in safety and peace, and so we can walk into the dangerous world with confidence that we are loved, with wisdom to discern right from wrong, and with compassion.  God’s compassion for us overflows, and we in turn share compassion in a world that so desperately needs to receive it.  

God’s still with us, in Christ Jesus.  AMEN.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Sunday, November 1, 2015

November 1 -- Kingdom Divided (All Saints Sunday)

Grace to you and peace, amid a violent world, amid a violent text, grace to you and peace from God who creates, redeems and sanctifies this world, despite our own decisions and actions.  AMEN.

I want to just bring you up a little more on this story.  It’s not one of the popular ones.  Probably because most of us didn’t cover this in Sunday School, so I’m guessing it’s not imbedded in our biblical psyches...  

Israel’s come a long way from slavery in Egypt, through the wilderness, into the conquest years, where they regained the Promised Land, survived through the period of judges, their attempt at a more democratic form of government, local judges -- they complained and cried out for a king.  And then the Hebrew monarchy is born, when the prophet Samuel first anoints Saul king.  That didn’t work out so well, and making long stories short, God selects David.  Last week we spent time on that joyful scene of David entering Jerusalem dancing as the Ark of the Covenant is brought to the center -- the center of the kingdom.  The Word, the Covenant of God, the 10 Commandments of long ago are now placed at the center, and the kingdom thrives and flourishes...for a bit.  

Before too long, David’s power goes to his head.  He begins to think that he can have whatever he wants, after all God is on his side, right?  And he takes Bathsheba, a married woman, married actually to David’s top general, Uriah.  This is the beginning of the end...in a way.  But in time even out of that horrible episode, Bathsheba gives birth to Solomon.  And God brings a good thing out of all that bad.  

Solomon is like David 2.0.  Upgraded on all accounts.  He’s wiser, he’s more powerful, more wealthy, more glorious, may have even been better looking.  Solomon builds the temple in Jerusalem (the long-time dream of many-a-Jew) (480 years after slavery in Egypt) -- the place where God can live!  Solomon grows the monarchy, conquering and expanding, conquering and expanding.  Division, corruption, seduction are always coming along for that ride...

(Shechem is right near Bethel)
And that’s where our story for today picks up:  Solomon’s son Rehoboam is now coming into power after his father Solomon has died.  The monarchy has already fallen into division and corruption with Israel in the north and Judah in the south.  So here, Rehoboam is coming up to the north, to Shechem, to be made king over the divided kingdom.  (Interestingly, this is about the time they loose the Ark of the covenant.)

And the first bit of business is that the people ask for mercy.  Will you lighten the load your father Solomon put on our people?

Rehoboam hears the request and asks for some time to think it over...

First he hears from the elders.  The wise ones.  With their council, “the pleas of the people rang heavy in his ears”.

Then he listens to the younger men:  “If you exercise your authority and punish them with whips and even scorpions,” if you dominate and terrorize them, then they’ll be yours. 

Rehoboam is seduced by that same power that seduced his father Solomon, his grandfather David.  And I think all humanity can relate to this too.  Maybe not physically--but to be ahead, to be on top, to be in control, to win in the world’s eyes, to have power: it corrupts, absolute power corrupts...

So where in the world is the Good News of God in all this?! We come to church, not to hear about how we’re bad, but about how God is good.  (pause)
This is the line that leads to Jesus!  Out of all this evil and division and pain and suffering comes Jesus.  It must be said that God doesn’t will all these bad things to happen...just like in our lives.  But out of the bad things, God can do something amazing, something loving, something forgiving, something divine.  

Jesus is from the house and lineage of David, remember?  We read that every year at Christmas, but I hope when you hear it this year, it makes your ears pop up, and maybe even the hair on the back of your neck, because this wasn’t a holier-than-thou lineage: there was all kinds of sin!  And we’re just talking back to David!  Not to mention all that trickery and deceit with Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers...

God is the faithful one, sisters and brothers in Christ!  God is the merciful one, even when we humans opt out of being merciful and loving.  Even when we are seduced by power, by money, by fear and by envy, God is good.

God works good and is faithful even through pain.  That’s a good theme for All Saints Sunday:  even as we grieve, God is faithful, bringing all the saints through.  God creates a way out of no way!

Maybe we’ve got a loved one, who is now deceased, who wasn’t all that holy.  Maybe that’s putting it lightly.  God creates a way out of no way, and we celebrate even the most despicable of our dearly departed as a saint today, not because of what they did, but because of what God has done!  Maybe we’ve got a love one, who’s gone before us, who’s not all that forgivable, maybe he/she did things in this life that were on the caliber of King David’s sins...or Solomon or Rehoboam.  God creates a way out of now way, and there is mercy and forgiveness in the grace of God!  It’s not about us.

Forgiveness really is freely given.  We need to embrace and proclaim this in a world that just isn’t very good at forgiveness.  

Archbishop of Cape Town Desmond Tutu
Desmond Tutu, the first black Archbishop of Cape Town in South Africa.  Lived through apartheid.  Just imagine what that was like.  Living as a black man in a country where white people were clearly labeled as superior...everywhere you went.  If you were black, how would you be doing with that?  And yet Desmond Tutu is famous for saying, “Forgiveness is an absolute necessity for human existence.”  He goes on...

“God’s family has no outsiders.  Everyone is an insider.  When Jesus said, ‘I, when I am lifted up, will draw...‘ Did he say, “I will draw some, and tough luck for all the others’?  He said ‘I, when I am lifted up, will draw all [to myself].”  All, all, all! -- Black, white, [brown]; rich, poor; clever, not so clever; beautiful, not so beautiful.  All!  All!  It is radical.  Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, [George] Bush, [Barack Obama] - All, All!...Gay, lesbian, so-called ‘straight’. All, all are to be held in the incredible embrace of the love that won’t let us go.”  (sermon at All Saints in Pasadena, 4 Nov 2005)   

God creates a way out of no way.  Where we say, “No, that’s not possible that [this person or that] is forgivable,” God calls them saints.  God calls you a saint too.  All Saints Sunday is a celebration of you too.  Not because of anything you’ve done, but because of what Christ has done, when he was lifted up on the cross, he drew all creation to himself.  King David, Solomon, Rehoboam, you and me -- our sin, has got nothing on God’s love and forgiveness.  All we can do is accept it and respond.  All we can do now is live, and die, and live eternally in what Desmond Tutu calls “the incredible embrace of the love that won’t let us go.”  This is a good day.  AMEN.