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...

Monday, December 19, 2016

December 18 -- Jesus' Birth Announced

A young girl, maybe 14 or 15 years old.  Living in poverty.  Some have speculated, but we really don’t know anything about her family or her background.  Luke was writing this story down some 70 years later.  All we know is that she was young and poor…and her name was Mary.

Matthew’s Gospel doesn’t include this episode that we read today.  Matthew’s Gospel is really all about Joseph and his fears.  Mary is really more seen in Matthew’s Gospel almost as a virus, that could get Joseph infected with shame in his community, for she was with child, and it wasn’t his.  The angel there, talks Joseph down.  Calms him down.

But today we’re back into the Gospel of Luke.  It’s been a while.  A year of Matthew, a year of Mark...and all through the fall we’ve been in the Old Testament, even into this Advent season...but here at last in Luke (where we’ll be until Pentecost)!  And here in Luke, the angel is lifting the woman up.  “Mary, blessed are you, favored are you,” the angel says, lifting up a member of society who is a nobody.  Lifting her up by announcing God’s coming-down.  And this is the real miracle of this season: that God is choosing to dwell in a fleshy, earthy way (not just in a spiritual way), God is choosing to dwell with the poor.  Major theme in Luke (and a foretaste of powerful stories from Luke to come).

Let me put this in different terms, because I think we can either forget or romanticize what Mary’s poverty means at this time of year (where we try to keep it lavish, where there seems to be abundance everywhere, where it appears there is happiness all around in this “most wonderful time of the year”):  God is choosing to dwell with the marginalized -- the sick, the mentally unstable, the drug-addicted, the jobless, the hopeless, the immigrant, the stranger, the refugee, the rejected, the ridiculed, the voiceless…the totally forgotten.  I’m afraid we tend to think of Mary more as a porcelain white immobile doll, a cute, little Precious Moments figurine, rather than a brown-skinned immigrant girl working in a clothing factory, scratching her head constantly with lice, endlessly coughing because of the chemicals and bacteria she’s got in her lungs...and can’t afford to see a doctor.  We can’t and mustn’t romanticize or spiritualize poverty, the poverty of Mary or anyone.  The Gospel of Luke doesn’t.

But who wants “that” in their nativity scene holding the baby Jesus?  God does.

That’s the wonder and the hope and the love of God in this 4th Sunday of Advent lesson.  God’s care for this world is so great, that God chooses a poor, itchy, coughing teenager.  (Sometimes I want to throw out all my nativity scenes, and the nativity scenes that are shaping the imaginations of my children, and replace them with sets of dark-skinned outcasts and immigrants, exiles and rejects—all poor, like Mary.)

And we know what’s about to happen to Mary:  flash forward about 9 months and she’s about to do what all pregnant women love to do in their 3rd trimester:  walk 35 miles only to find there’s no vacancy at any resorts or hotels.  Even the Motel 6 did’t leave the light on for her.  35 miles—that journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem!  That’s like walking from here to the Wild Animal Park in Escondido.  Same kind of terrain too…but no cars and no Starbucks at every corner…for this no-name, no-status, nobody.  She was only a number, to be counted by the Empire, along with all the rest.

She was a nobody to this world; but to God, she was Mary, blessed and favored.
Watch for Christ to come from below, sisters and brothers, watch for Christ in the least of these, not in the greatest.  And when Christ peaks out from amongst the poor and the hurting in our lives and in our world, then together let us bear witness to that tiny Christ.

When we put ourselves into the story -- which we always must do with Scripture -- sometimes we’re the angel, bearing witness, announcing Christ among the least of these.

This final week of Advent and into this upcoming Christmas season, may we joyfully bear witness to Christ for a world that too often has not heard this Good News—that God is incarnate with pain and poverty, with grief and grasping, with desecration and destruction, with loneliness and loss.  Sometimes you are the angel, announcing, pointing, bearing witness to God even in the horrible places -- blessing young women with good news, feeding the poor, lifting up the lowly.  Sometimes you are the angel.

And, friends, if you are hurting in any way -- broken by tragedy, addiction, loneliness, or despair -- then you are Mary.  Sometimes we’re the angel in the story, blessing and lifting up others, and sometimes we’re Mary:  impoverished, overlooked, grief-stricken or even outcast ourselves.

Here’s where this all hits home:  God is not just stooping down from on high, with a pat on our poor, little heads and a kind word: “Ah, you poor little thing.”  No, God is growing inside the “poor little thing.”  Blessed are you, favored are you, God says.

“Our God becomes small,”  Martin Luther boldly proclaimed, amid a church and a state that had made God into a grand, glorious, golden idol.

You are Mary, through Christ’s death and resurrection, through the Holy Spirit’s infusion in your baptism and this Holy Meal.  You are Mary, both women and men – pregnant with the divine to share with a world in need.

(Bishop Andy was Mary for us this week, preaching the Gospel on Wednesday after his friend had suddenly died on Monday -- deep in his own grief and anger and despair, and sharing that honestly with us and preaching about a loving, present, promising, life-giving God at the very same time.)

What’s amazing is that Mary is not just a poor beggar with her hands out to receive, like us at the communion rail.  Mary, through that divine benevolence, becomes the powerful voice for the voiceless, the marginalized, the suffering.  Singing God’s praise in the midst of suffering and pain.  She becomes the witness to God’s mercy and goodness.  “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, who has lifted up the lowly!” she sings.

You are Mary too, sisters and brothers bearing Christ, lifted this day by a God whose name is love.  Named.  Marked.  Overshadowed by the grace of the Creator of the stars of night.  You are Mary, hurting, and yet filled with hope and praises to share.  You are Mary, forgiven and freed.  Opened once again, open and filled with the radical voice of God, who comes to be among us in mysterious ways.  You are Mary, pregnant with God, who is there deep in your pain, and at the same time at the center of your joy.  You are pregnant with God, through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.  You are Mary too.  So hear the angels words: “Do not be afraid.”  AMEN.

Lighting the 4th candle on the Advent wreath

We praise you, O God,
for this wheel of time
that marks our days of preparation for Christ’s advent.
As we light the candles
on this wreath,
open our eyes to see
your presence in the lowly ones of this earth.
Enlighten us with your grace,
that we may sing of your advent among us
in the Word made flesh.
Grant this through
Christ our Lord,
whose coming is certain and whose day draws near.  Amen.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

December 11 -- Third Sunday of Advent

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, to tell you about a woman who was harassed at her job.  TO bring good news to the oppressed...

MARIA is quite beautiful.  Her family had come to the US from Mexico about 30 years ago, just after she was born.  No one really knows that story.  But Maria grew up and went to school here in California.  It was never easy.  Money was always tight.  She recently took a job both bussing and waiting tables at a small diner over in El Cajon.  It was fine at first.  She’s friendly and efficient.  But her manager seems to sense how desperate she is for income and uses that against her.  Recently he’s been making lewd comments and even touching her -- rubbing her shoulders and grabbing her arm in ways that are not at all comfortable.  If she could leave this job, she would in a second.  She’s starting to hate it there, but she’s got a little one at home, cared for during they day by her aging mother.  She has to have income, and is scared to say anything to anyone for fear of her boss hurting any chances at another job.  She grits her teeth, smiles and bears it.  But the burden is starting to feel overwhelming...  

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, to bring good news to the oppressed.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to tell you about an older white man who is really cruel.  He’s in his 70’s and had a father long, long ago, who he never talks about, but who beat him quite often when he was growing up.  (It was OK back then.)  His father was very critical even in Bill’s successes as a young man, and never showed much affection.  The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, to bind up the brokenhearted 

Bill lives in Santee now.  There’s actually a sensitive side to him, but you’d never know it, because -- truth be told -- it was practically beaten out of him.  His dad would often yell at young Bill when he cried out in pain about how he needs to suck it up and be a “real man”.   Bill’s been pretty much living out of that pain ever since…although it’s hardened and comes out now as anger, racism, cynicism and atheism.  Yeah, Bill doesn’t believe in God.  Why would he?  He never had a positive experience of church.  God to him was a lot like his father, so frankly religion -- beneath his rants -- gives him the creeps.  Bill’s not all that kind to his wife, and he drinks.   

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, to bind up the brokenhearted.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, to tell you about Georgina, a 12-year-old on the run with her family from the horrors of the civil war in her home country of Syria.  Stories like hers get lost, because there are so many of them…but she is captive to both her own situation and to the suspicion and fear that others around the world have of her...especially when people look at her father, who has risked everything to protect Georgina and her little sister.  But she is captive.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to proclaim liberty to the captives.  

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to proclaim release to the prisoners TO TELL YOU ABOUT A YOUNG BLACK MAN, named Joe, WHO GREW UP SOUTH OF the 94.  AND WHEN HE GOT TO LINCOLN HS, HE LOST ALL HOPE…Poverty is a no place to grow up.  His mother fought addiction, and wasn’t always dependable.  Joe had to fend for himself, and unfortunately got caught up in the wrong crowd.  
Even though he didn’t actually commit the crime, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, mouthed off to the wrong officer, and found himself behind bars before he knew it.  Only 17 years old.  It started with only one false accusation, but the anger inside Joe boiled and turned him into a tough, even militant, young black man.  Locked up.

THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD IS UPON ME TO proclaim release to the prisoners.

The spirit of the Lord is upon me to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. TO TELL YOU ABOUT A WHITE WOMAN name Jamie.  She’s in her late 30‘s, gotten herself a good job and rents a place over by Grossmont.  Everything looks fine on the surface, but the truth is: Jamie lives paycheck to paycheck.  Jamie’s barely making it, but in denial about how bad the debt has gotten.  From her college loans, to credit card debt, that accumulates exponentially with soaring interest rates, an outstanding medical bill from a short hospitalization, and a little shopping splurge she likes to indulge in a little too often.  Jamie is swamped.  She didn’t have parents who taught her how to manage money, and now she’s feeling deeper and deeper in trouble.  She looks fine on the surface.  But she’s had some recent abdominal pain that her friend thinks has to be related to stress.  

The spirit of the Lord is upon me to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, forgiveness of debt.

THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD IS UPON ME TO comfort all who mourn.  

Finally, I have to tell you about John, a gay college student at SDSU.  John is Korean, and frightened.  His friend was literally kicked to the curb the other night coming out of a bar over by campus.  John’s certainly been harassed himself, but he’s really having a hard time with this now, because it’s the first time a hate crime with physical violence has gotten this close to him.  John’s in a pit of grief right now about the loss of his sense of safety and progress when it comes to equality and LGBT rights.  And he hurts for his friend.

The spirit of the Lord is upon me to comfort all who mourn.

Everyone I just described, sisters and brothers in Christ, is based on someone in our community, even in our congregation.  I’m not making this up.  And they have all known ashes.  They all wear ashes, walk around with a faint spirit.  Maybe you can relate to them...  

But God, through the prophet Isaiah has a word for them and for us.  God promises Maria, Joe, Jamie, Bill, Georgina and John…and you and me...a garland instead of ashes.    A garland!  GREEN BRANCHES, AROMATIC, FRESH, BEAUTIFUL...instead of ashes! 

God, through the prophet Isaiah, has a word for them and for us.  God promises the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.  What must that look like?  A new friend, A PURPOSE AGAIN, AN APPRECIATION FOR BEAUTY, a knowing of deep peace, a repaired heart for Bill, dignity for Maria, a safe place for John and Georgina, freedom for Joe, forgiveness for Jamie, comfort and companionship for all who sorrow.  

This God whose arrival we celebrate this time of year is not just sweet and benign.  This God comes to repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations, RECOVERY FROM TRAUMA, ADDICTION AND VIOLENCE...

Strangers shall stand and feed your flocks, foreigners shall till your land and dress your vines = THERE IS A PLACE HERE FOR EVERYONE, WORK HERE FOR EVERYONE, PURPOSE HERE FOR EVERYONE, help for and help from everyone...in Isaiah’s vision.

And you shall be called priests of the Lord -- all of us -- shall be named ministers of God = ALL ARE PROCLAIMERS OF THIS GOSPEL through our words and even more importantly through our actions.

Something is happening these days, sisters and brothers in Christ!  Can you sense the earth moving under our feet.  We are being summoned by the tender mercies of our God.  We are being moved to action through God’s incarnation and compassion.  We are being stirred by Isaiah’s vision this morning...where all, all, all have a place at the table.  All are gathered and warmed by the love of God.  Wrapped in bands and lying in a manger, this one Jesus comes to set us free, to comfort us in our mourning and pain, and to open our eyes and repair our broken hearts.    

This one Jesus arrives even now.  And we are set free….to go in peace and serve in joy.  AMEN.


Lighting of the Advent Wreath: Week 3

Blessed are you, O Lord our God, ruler of the universe.
Your prophets spoke of a day prisoners were released, the mourners comforted, the debt-ridden forgiven, and the broken-hearted healed.
Bless us as we light the candles on this wreath.
And strengthen our hearts
as we prepare for the coming of the Lord.
May he give freedom to all our captivity,
for he is our light and our salvation.
Blessed be God forever.


Sunday, December 4, 2016

December 4 -- Turn to a Merciful God

Our passage today talks about “rending our hearts and not our garments”.  I want to take notice of our hearts this morning...so let’s be still for a moment and find our own heartbeats...

Arriving God, open our hearts to you.  In this season and every season, help us to notice the beauty all around, the grace and peace that comes in every breath, the love that is ours, through your son Jesus Christ, AMEN.

Joel is another Old Testament prophet.  We’re not sure exactly what year he was writing, but many scholars suppose it was after the Hebrews had resumed worship after their exile.  After years of being far from home, now they were back!  

Many of the OT prophets, namely Amos, Hosea, Jeremiah, Isaiah were very critical of worship.  But Joel seems to think it is central to the life of the faithful community.  Now, I imagine he would have been just as critical as the others if worship was empty and void of meaning in its words and rituals, if it was just a safe place to hide from the world and even from yourself.  But Joel points to a certain wholeness in worship.  Bringing your whole self -- the good, the bad, the honest.  “Rend your hearts.”   

“Where you at?!” like my brother always says on the phone when it seems like I’m drifting or not paying attention.  

God is calling us back -- back to the fold, back to honesty, back to our truest, best selves.  Back home, you could say.  Advent is the time to come home, to return to God.  Open your hearts.  “Return to me with all your heart, says the Lord.”  

When was the last time you noticed your heart beating?  
Everything else feels full -- the pace, the stress, perhaps the anger or the frustration or the resentment, the sorrow, the calendar, the parking lots, the check-out lines and phone lines -- everything else seems so full, and yet our hearts beat, right beneath the surface, full of life, pumping and circulating oxygen.  Every second is a miracle.  But we hardly notice.  

The first step here, in our Advent return, is to slow down and notice the grace that is as close to us as our beating hearts.  

Then we’re called to open our hearts to the invitation and the arrival of God.    

Sometimes, filling ourselves in every other way blocks us from being filled with God’s grace and peace.  But God arrives whether we’re ready or not, sisters and brothers in Christ.  God enters our busyness and our sorrows.  God offers us peace, and often that peace starts by working its way into our world and into our lives, from the inside out.  It starts in our hearts.  Notice your heart this week.  Notice your breathing.  Visualize God’s deep peace and unending grace pulsing through your veins.  This is Advent. 

Then, our text says, with open hearts we receive even more.  The Spirit of the living God.  “I will pour out my spirit on all, flesh,” we hear today.  Our children will be prophets.  (“Sons and daughters will prophesy.”)  We have prophets among us.  Kids are not just cute and serendipitous:  Darin offered a powerful image this week in his sermon to the pastors of his/our 8-year-old Clare leading them to meet their neighbors, get to know their neighbors...because, you know, kids play.  But barriers -- some of the greatest are between our own neighbors -- barriers come down and the child shall lead them.  Children shall be prophets when our hearts are open…
And old men shall dream dreams when our hearts are open.

I had an old man once tell me -- I was preaching about God’s dream and God inviting us into that dream of peace and justice where all are fed, clothed, housed, and included.  And he just shouted at me: “I don’t want to dream!”  Joel offers a different picture here...of old men falling asleep and dreaming of wholeness, a better world, where all receive bread at the table, where all including old men hear words of encouragement (not criticism), affection (not neglect), undeserved grace (not the curse of responsibility).  This Spirit of God pours out on all flesh, and everyone’s included, even the curmudgeon or the cruel...or the enemy.

That’s the thing about this theme of opening our hearts.  When that happens -- and it happens with the Spirit’s aid -- when our hearts are opened, there’s room for everyone!  God turns our enemies into recipients of our compassion.  We don’t have to agree with those who we deem opposite, but we can feel care and concern for them, for their well being too.  When we let go of their cruelty and criticism, even their violence and abuse.  (That’s the challenge, but with God...)

When we let go of that -- rather than letting it sink in -- when we get back to noticing our heartbeat -- rending our heart to God -- then we can even look at those who oppose us, with compassion, grace, perhaps even forgiveness, certainly patience.  [pause]  Let the children lead us there, too.  

Friends in Christ, Advent is a time for new beginnings, for clearing out, and opening up.  [pause]

This week, they poked two big holes in the front of our sanctuary -- the new doors that will go into our sacristy, and because the new space is not enclosed yet, there was this cool breeze that filled our sanctuary.  I’ve never felt the wind blow in our sanctuary like that.  

Advent is the season where God arrives and opens our hearts.  A cool breeze, and exposure, something new is being born in us. And from that, the Spirit fills us, and moves us outward to go in peace, love and serve our neighbor, all neighbors.

Maybe this is a dark time for you, a time of loss and sorrow.  Know that Christ comes next to you in your sorrow.  Sits with you in your pain, holds you in your resentment.  Know that Christ waits for us too, as we work through our stuff.  Christ finds us there.  And accompanies us into the light.  

Friends in Christ, even now...we ARE home.  For here is bread, and all are welcome.  Here is undeserved grace, poured out even for you.  Here is forgiveness and love.  The Spirit’s already among us.  Thanks be to God.  AMEN.


Lighting Advent Wreath:

We praise you, O God, 
for this circle of light
that marks our days of preparation for Christ’s advent.
As we light the candles 
on this wreath, 
turn us again to you.
Kindle within us 
the fire of your Spirit,
that we may be light 
shining in the darkness.
Open our hearts to your grace,
that we may welcome others 
as you have welcomed us.
Grant this through Christ our Lord,
whose coming is certain 
and whose day draws near.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

November 27 -- Daniel's Hope in God

Grace to you and peace…

Daniel is a model of faith and integrity for all who are in positions of privilege.  There was pressure all around Daniel to accommodate and acquiesce to the culture in which he finds himself.  It would have been easy, he was very gifted.    Daniel had been chosen to live in the king’s court, educated and treated to all the finest things.  You might say, Daniel came up amid opulence and fine living -- he was no stranger to country clubs and private schools, maids cleaning his bedroom, and first-class chef’s preparing his meals.  (In fact, the first chapter of the book of Daniel mentions the great “royal rations of food and drink” Daniel and his fellow Hebrew friends were offered in the palace...and Daniel and his friends resist them in favor of vegetables in order to be true to their religion.  (Snuck that into the sermon in case you’re ever trying to resist certain foods this season.)

Also before this episode with the lions, King Nebuchadnezzar promotes Daniel after he interprets his dream, as if his status wasn’t great before, now the King tries to give him incredible gifts, invites him to be the ruler over the whole province of Babylon (!), and wants to make him “chief prefect over all the wise men of Babylon”.  Daniel actually passes on the generous offer, requesting directly to the king that his 3 friends be given those privileges instead.  He’s got privilege to spare!

Daniel choses to remain in the king’s court.  And that’s where we find him today, although it’s two kings later: King Darius...
[slowly] And in and around positions of power, there is such great temptation.  Temptation mainly to go to sleep.  Those of you who have occupied any positions of power know what I’m talking about.  There’s a temptation to just do whatever you want because you can.  You can get away with it.  And there’s a temptation to do nothing, because you can -- you’re not in desperate need of anything, you’re not fighting for your rights and your integrity as a human being on a daily basis.  The plights of others don’t need to be your concern, when you grow up in the king’s court...even though you might be able to influence decisions and laws that affect others’ lives.  Oh well.  It might be nice to help them -- I’m certainly not opposed to it -- but I’ve got a tee time.

I don’t want to go into it, but I think you know that I’m talking about myself here.  And I think some of us can probably relate to Daniel’s privilege, in order to get into this story for today.

What are ways maybe you too have or are occupying a position of power?  [pause] Both theologians and friends alike have helped me realize that simply by virtue of my being white and male and heterosexual in this place and time, the power that I occupy.  Never thought about that much before...because I didn’t have to.  Friends, I was born on third base, but can delude myself into thinking I hit a triple.  Maybe you were born near me.  Maybe not.

Daniel, the prophet did in fact hit a triple, and he’s on third base too when we arrive at this chapter in the book of Daniel.

He’s got it good, and temptation is all around.  For him there’s a temptation just to accommodate and acquiesce.  “Just fall asleep and into the ways of the culture around you,” a sly voice on his shoulder might have said,  “just laugh at their mean jokes, drink their libations, tell a few white lies, wear the designs of the day to fit in.  Fit in.  You can afford it.  It’s not that big of a deal.”
That’s the kind of temptations I think Daniel was dealing with.  Those, and now a clear new one: “Worship a false god.”

We’ve seen this before.  A few weeks ago, we read and reflected on the Golden Calf -- the Israelites tempted in the desert to abandon the true God and go after the shiny, immediate stuff.  “I don’t see you God, so you must not be real -- or worth anything anyway, so we’re going to put our trust in something else: in immediate security, in immediate peace, pride and pleasure.”  The Israelites failed.  Maybe we fail too.  Daniel succeeds.

But not without a cost: the lions.

In Daniel’s case, he was saved from death that particular night.  But not all are from earthly death.  I think Daniel was fully prepared to go to his death...like so many faithful servants of God are.  “Sleep fled from him,” the text said, just like it does from all martyrs and holy activists.

Are we who are in positions of power and privilege prepared to take risks in order to be faithful?  Are we ready, like Daniel, to even break laws in order to keep God’s laws?  Probably not.  I kind of hate this text and hate this question.  But I’m not really sure how not to put it in front of us…with a text like this.

Reflect this week on what laws are worth breaking.  Let me know your thoughts.  Can the state ever be wrong?  Can the national government ever be wrong?  Can the military or law enforcement ever be wrong?  Can the church ever be wrong?  What and when do we as followers of Christ use our power and stand up (or like Daniel, kneel down) for what’s right?   What and who is worth putting your life on the line for?

Extreme and appropriate questions, friends in Christ -- entering into another season of Advent, finding ourselves in this place and time.  Lots of temptations to “go to sleep” all around us.  To stay (or get) as comfortable and cozy as we can.

But I think God is calling us -- as the church -- to something risky.  [pause]  We’re learning about risk with this big construction project, but -- if I can channel a little prophetic visioning from Daniel, my namesake -- I think there’s something even more, nudging at us in these times of pain and loss and sorrow and fear and violence and cruelty and division.  Shepherd of the Valley is in a position of privilege and power, like Daniel was.  How shall we respond to God’s advent, to Christ’s drawing near, to the Spirit’s arrival among us?

Help me discern what that is for Shepherd of the Valley now.  It’s actually quite exciting, and there’s no question in my mind that God goes with us into the lion’s den...even if it means our death!  [pause]  And God goes with you into the fray.

Let us give thanks for this presence and this divine providence.  For we too are truly saved already.  Saved ultimately.  And forevermore.

God delivers us too, from even the jaws of the lion, for Emmanuel comes, this day and always.  AMEN.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

November 13 -- Isaiah's Call & Sending

Let me give some context for this passage:  Isaiah was called by God at the time King Uzziah -- who had ruled for many years -- had just died.  The kingdom was deeply divided -- Israel in the north, Judah in the south.  Now that Uzziah had died, the people were afraid about what was next...that’s understating it.  They were terrified.  It was like their whole world was crumbling all around them them.  And then -- as if suddenly being without their leader wasn’t bad enough -- the rich, cruel Assyrian empire [led by King Sennacharib] is about to come knocking on their door, just to taunt the Israelites (remember that?) -- “So what of this God of yours!?” he’ll mock -- and we all know that they would soon take them all away into a long period of exile. 

The storm is brewing.  Actually, this is more like the eye of a hurricane: there’s been a lot of storm already.  And in the midst of the swirling all around, Isaiah has a vision.  Isaiah has vision of God and God’s majesty, God’s enormity, God’s indescribable, blinding, terrifying and yet glorious...holiness.  Above all things, God is holy.  

We do well to remember in these days that God is great and God is good and God is holy, holy, holy.  That God is above all that is happening in our nation and our world...

We are entering a mean time.  There are a lot of mean, cruel things happening in the wake of this national election.  A Muslim student was robbed in the parking structure on the campus of San Diego State -- told to go back to her country.  This is her country.  An African American woman at Baylor University in Texas was literally pushed off the sidewalk 2 days ago, and told “no more [n-word]’s at this school now that Donald Trump is president!”  That’s just two quick but tragic examples.  We are entering a mean time, sisters and brothers in Christ.  California State Attorney General’s office is reporting quite an “uptick” in hate crimes just in the last few days...  

It is as though hatred and cruelty, meanness -- like the powerful Assyrian military -- is knocking at the door, mocking, “Ha, so what of this God of yours?!”
And it is precisely at that moment, that moment of death, that Isaiah has a vision.  Just as death and terror, hatred and cruelty come knocking -- a vision of God, sitting above it all, lofty, just the hem of God’s robe filling an entire temple.  

“Woe is me!” Isaiah responds to this vision, “I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and live among a people of unclean lips...yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.”

And then this strange thing happens: right in the middle of his little Hymn of Praise [“Praise, praise, praise the Lord…”], Isaiah is singing and one of the angels takes a hot coal, floats down and touches the hot coal to Isaiah’s lips saying, “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.”

Sisters and brothers in Christ, we too have been called by God.  We too have made mistakes, we too have had unclean lips.  All of us.  And yet today -- in the midst of cruelty, in the midst of fear, in the midst of pain and sorrow, in the midst of violence and rage, in the midst of uncertainty about the future and perhaps regret about the past -- the angel touches our lips with a hot coal…

That is, with bread and wine.  Too holy for an angel to touch, but we take and eat it anyway.  Our guilt departs and our sin is blotted out!

And now when we hear God’s voice, like Isaiah: “Whom shall I send?  Who will go for us?”  Who will take up this Gospel work, in a mean time?  After the death of King Uzziah.  Who will be a voice for peace during cruel days, an offer of sanctuary in a season of hatred, a word of kindness and love and forgiveness, a cup of water for the immigrant, an open door for the Muslim student, a promise to a black woman that “your life and your presence matters and is precious in our sight because it is precious in God’s sight”.  Who will be that for this world?!  “Whom shall I send,” God asks, “who will go?”  

And WE will respond, like Isaiah -- we who are crazy enough to follow Jesus, the one who healed those who were attacked, who welcomed those who were shut out, who even loved those who were violent and cruel, we -- sisters and brother in Christ -- will respond to that one Jesus, like Isaiah of old: “Here I am; send me.”  

For God does not abandon us!  God stays with us.  God holds us.  That God -- all great and glorious in the rafters of heaven -- comes all the way down to dwell among us, angel armies of peace bearing coals of forgiveness, even and especially in our darkest hours.  God so loves us and this whole world, that God becomes incarnate in this and every moment.  “The Word becomes flesh and moves into the neighborhood” (E. Peterson).  God forgives us, works in and among us, and today God now calls and sends us anew.  

A prayer for our Veterans and those who continue to serve...

Almighty and ever-living God, we give you thanks for the men and women who have served and defended our country and the values of freedom and justice we hold so dear. Help us be mindful of the sacrifices they made and the hardship endured by their families and friends, so that we never take for granted the privileges they have secured for us.

O God, the heavens declare your glory and tell of your work in creation. From you come the gifts of our bodies and minds, our skills and abilities, and the opportunities to use these gifts in sustaining our lives and in helping our neighbors. We pray for any members of the Armed Forces who feel insecure; for those who bear heavy burdens and face stressful decisions; for those whose work is tedious or dangerous; for those who have experienced failure or loss; and for all who face any difficulty in their service. Surround them with your never-failing love; free them from restlessness and anxiety; keep them, in every perplexity and distress; and renew us all as we face the opportunities and challenges of daily life and work.
In Jesus name we pray, Amen.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

November 6 -- Jonah & God's Mercy

How interesting to reflect on the story of Jonah on All Saints Sunday!  Ever think of Jonah as a saint?  Not a lot of St. Jonah Lutheran Churches -- actually none (that I could find).  

As one author puts it: “Poor Jonah. God pardons them all.”  

Some ancient Byzantine calendars do commemorate St. Jonah: He’s the saint for “anyone (and that’s most of us) who despairs that the mercy of God will cover even those (and that’s most of them) undeserving of such grace. We can only imagine Jonah...sending out Christmas cards with this, or a similar, sentiment, ‘May all my enemies go to hell.  Noel, Noel, Noel...’”  

And the Ninevites -- let’s just be clear -- were definitely enemies.  They weren’t just like an annoying neighbor.  The people of the giant metropolis of Nineveh were fond of hunting down and executing Judeans like Jonah!  No wonder he wanted to go the other direction completely.  “Poor Jonah.  God pardons them all.”

But let’s back up in this fantastic story…which is really about you and me...and ultimately about God.  Jonah is asked to go.  And what does he do?  He goes the opposite direction.  [Once heard a dramatic reading with full pointing: God said this way and Jonah went that way!]  And do you know where Tarshish is?  It’s in Spain!  2500 miles from Joppa!  Nineveh is in modern day Iraq (550 miles).  Not just an equal distance in the opposite direction; that’s like 5x farther away!   

Can you relate to that?  God calling you into something, God needs you for something, and you not just saying no, or even heck no, but saying 5x-farther-away-NO!?  [pause]  St. Jonah.  

He buys a ticket -- which means he had money.  Jonah had to have been a person of means, and chose to use his means to run from God, take a Mediterranean cruise, kick back, relax, and head for beautiful Spain.  While he’s relaxing, while he’s napping aboard the ship, a great storm comes up...and Jonah realizes what he’s done.

What kind of a God is this, by the way?  Q: What kind of a God comes after us so aggressively?  A: The kind of God that needs us badly.  That’s how bad things have gotten: so bad that God’s going to swirl up a hurricane just to get you back.  Can you relate?  [pause]  Have you ever run so far in the opposite direction -- and made a pretty good rationalization for it too -- but God comes after you...through a natural disaster, or through a traveling companion who shakes you and wakes you up...or [pause] by being plunged into the water?...Raise your hand if you’ve been baptized?  Oh, then you have been pursued by God...and I’m sure many times since, whether you knew it or not.  

I love how, with Jonah anyway (maybe not always with us), he’s deeply aware of God’s presence and power in all this.  If this was happening to me, when this has happened to me, it takes me a little longer sometimes to realize, “Oh, this is God pursuing me.  This is God working on me.  This is God actually redeeming me, even though I’m thinking I’m about to die...or check out, at least.”

Friends in Christ, God is always pursuing us -- whether we’re running 2500 miles away from God, or just turning a blind eye to the suffering, the violence, the cruelty, the hatred, the ignorance or the destruction God’s creatures and creation.

While I was gone these past 3 weeks -- for a few days I was at Theoasis out in Palm Desert.  Both synods: ours Pacifica and SW California.  And after the first day our newly installed Bishop Andy announces that the other bishop just flew out at the last minute:  “He’s decided to go to Standing Rock (along with our national Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton and about 500 other clergy across religions) to be with the native peoples there, who are protesting and resisting the Dakota pipeline project which threatens sacred land.”  Bishop Erwin has Native American blood himself, but this was an issue faith and justice, and he was going to stand with them, and bring attention to it.  “Me, on the other hand,” Bishop Andy goes on, “I’m going going golfing this afternoon [and then proceeds to give a logistical announcement about tee times].  He’s going to Standing Rock and I’m going golfing.”  I thought that was pretty cool and honest that Bishop Andy said that, and drew such a sharp contrast...[pointing this way and that].  (I went golfing too.)

God is always pursuing us though -- whether we’re running 2500 miles away from God, or just turning a blind eye to do something more immediately satisfying for ourselves.

Then we have this episode of being thrown overboard, and swallowed by a beast-of-a-sea-creature.  Who cares if it was a whale or a fish -- I remember I always used to obsess and argue about that. But that part doesn’t really matter...what matters is that God works a bad thing for good once again!  Remember that with Joseph and his brothers?  With the Israelites in the wilderness?   With David and Bathsheba, and with Elijah and the widow last week...on Reformation Sunday?  Talk about Reformation: God through Christ reforms our evil, self-centered, lazy, scared, broken and reckless deeds -- God reforms them for good!  [What if God brings a good thing out of whatever happens on Election Day?]

Jonah is in the belly of that creature, and there’s a conversion.  The giant fish-whale does a u-turn, like a prehistoric Uber, and drops him off back on the shore he started from.  Now at last, he’s ready to go to Nineveh.  Only to find success in his preaching...which is to say, it wasn’t his preaching at all, but God’s mysterious and gracious hand that did the re-forming, the re-conciling, the re-configuring of priorities for those once-lost-but-now-found Ninevites.  It was God, all along, who cracked the door to that glorious re-pentence work.  

Those of us who have had our own conversions, isn’t God so deeply present in that?  How God was there all along!

The people on Nineveh repented.  Jonah’s enemies repented and we stopped reading there, but he’s pretty bitter about that.  How would you feel if God forgave your enemies?  

“Poor Jonah.  God pardons them all.”     

You know, it’s interesting: when Jonah is in the belly of the whale, he sings a song that we also skipped, but it’s a psalm reveling in the grace and mercy of God, sparing his life.  He goes on and on about how great this God is: gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.  Yet, when that same grace and mercy, the retardation of anger and the open tap, unending flow of love and forgiveness is released on others, he can’t handle it…

Well, that’s God for you:  Upsetting, surprising and always present and loving.  Pursuing us...and this whole world.  Ready to forgive, transform and go with us now as we begin anew this day (we’ve just been spit up on the shore), and now we too journey down that path and into the challenging tasks, where God needs us.  Here we go.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

October 9 -- Golden Calf

“Jesus calls us from the worship of the vain world’s golden store, from each idol that would keep us, saying ‘Christian love me more.’”

“The vain world’s golden store.”  In our text today: the people of Israel have now been wandering in the wilderness.  Their joyous liberation from the Egyptians seems like a distant dream.

Ever had something good happen -- known someone for whom something good has happened -- and almost immediately, they were complaining all over again?  That’s pretty human, really.  (Let me tell you, from expert experience too: it’s easier to see ungratefulness and distrust in others than to see in myself.)

The Hebrews had once done that celebratory dance on the other side of the Red Sea, their enemies covered, Egypt far across those chariot-and-spear-infested waters.  All their troubles were behind them then, it seemed.  Gone forever.  But now…

Now, Moses their primary leader has gone away: he’s gone up to meet with God on Mt. Sinai -- the guy who led them into this mess (not freedom) has just abandoned them, apparently.  And so Aaron their second in command is taking the reins...and he’s cratered.  They’re pressuring him, whining to him, afraid, angry, desperate.  (Can you see it, in the absence of primary leadership?)  Plus, strange people and strange rituals are all around them -- and frankly it all looks pretty good...and fun...and immediately satisfying.  The dominate cultures around them are elevating banners and flags, they’re worshiping gold, they’re having great parties, they’ve got powerful militaries, all the fanciest toys, they don’t seem to need at all this God-whose-name-is-Yahweh, any more than a rock-star needs another glistening sports car in the driveway.  

The people all around the Hebrews were saturated with the material.  And that seemed to be enough and quite fantastic.  So the Hebrews, Aaron included, all cratered, while moses was gone … and tried to make God tangible.  [pause]

We can sure be guilty of this too, friends in Christ.  We sure can look around and be lured -- acquiescence, fear -- idol worship of the things we can see and that seem to give us some assurance and some immediate satisfaction... We sure can be lured to distrust the God we cannot see at the moment, up there on that holy mountain.   

What are the idols of our day?  How do you worship gold?  Put your trust in things other than God?  Make sacrifices at the altar of the bank window to “ensure” your security?  (worth-ship: worthy)  

I’ve been reading articles this week by Christians (across the political/theological) spectrum critiquing Americans‘ idolatry to our flag.  American flags elevated above a flag with a cross on it, or even flying from a steeple or draped over an altar.  There’s even language out there that calls us to worship the flag.  We certainly condemn anyone who doesn’t pay proper homage to the flag and the anthem...that’s all come to the surface recently with quarterback Colin Kaepernick not standing during the National Anthem.  The names that he’s been called...and even threats he’s received!  

We don’t like to be called out on the idols we worship.  I think we’d rather point a finger at the idols that others worship, and how ridiculous that seems to us, resting secure in our own righteousness before God.  But this challenging text holds a mirror right up to each one of us -- whether your idol is a flag or a pension account or a car or a weapon in your safe or a diploma on your office wall or a connection you have or simply a prized possession… Don’t you dare tell me what my graven image is ;)  

Idol worship happens when we start to distrust the God we cannot see -- and start looking to other things (that we can see) to save us.  
I mean, we raise these things even to the level of “salvific”! (Hebrews!) We want tangible things, results we can see, money in our hands, fences around our yards, guards standing watch -- visible signs of safety and even salvation and freedom and liberty as if God’s promise isn’t enough for us.  (This is what’s so profound about offering and pledging our money...in its purest state:  it’s about trust in the God we cannot see.)   
Idol worship, on the other hand, happens when we can’t take it any longer -- waiting on this God of ours -- and so, like the Hebrews of old, we reduce God down into a golden calf, an earthly thing -- and credit our very salvation to that thing.   [pause] 
Remember last week, when the Israelites were instructed at the Passover meal to burn their leftovers?  One commentator wrote that was because, God’s people are called to entrust themselves fully to God, not rely on a cushion of support, leftovers, safety nets.  That’s “Pharaoh theology”, stores and stores of back-up, just-in-case, contingency material things that will save us.  “Wilderness theology”, on the other hand, is about entrusting ourselves totally to God’s providence.  No left-overs to fall back on.  Only God’s gracious providing...(which we see later with the manna in the wilderness).

The gold that the Israelites had, all those earrings, were from the Egyptians.  They had taken it from Egypt, and carried it all the way into the desert, and now they were melting it into a graven images, and praising that gold for giving them freedom.  In other words, they had fallen again for “Pharaoh theology” all the way out there in the wilderness.

Well, God sees all this.  And God’s anger burns hot, and God says to Moses: “Go down at once!  Your people, whom I brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them.  I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are.”  But Moses implored God -- and here’s the good news in all this -- Moses implores God: “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people?...Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people.  Remember Abraham, Isaac and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven...’”

“And the Lord changed his mind about disaster that he planned to bring on his people.”  God changed her mind.  [pause]
All this trouble: Israelites being afraid and starting to worship false gods, God being angry, Moses pleading before God, and God changing God’s mind.  

Friends in Christ, we have a God who flip-flops!  Thanks be to God!  We have a God who says one thing but does another.   Thanks be to God.  How’s that for a surprising God?!!  

No, God is not pleased with our idol worship, when we’re guilty of that; yes, it makes God angry even.  “Why can’t you let go of those material things?!” God must be yelling at us.  

But ours is a God of love and mercy...ultimately.  Ours is a God who hears the pleas of the prophets:  “Remember your promise to your people!”  God is not a machine, who executes the justice we deserve.  Ours is a God who gets close, who relates...and at the same time, who we can’t always see.   Ours is a God -- ultimately --whose name is Love.  Ours is a God who decides in the end to forgive...even more than that: to enter this world in the person of Jesus...even more than that: to walk among us, to identify with our pain, to come along side...even more than that: to take our brokenness and pain onto himself, onto the cross...even more than that: to conquer death and sin in the resurrection...even more than that: to join us to him in baptism, new life starting now!  

Ours is a God of re-conciliation, re-surrection and re-starts.  Today is our re-start, sisters and brothers in Christ!  Today is your re-start!  Turn from your idol worship; turn from your fear and your anger about not always being able to see God; and turn from your shame about messing up and falling for the many golden calves that you fall for in this world.  Today is our re-start...even while we’re still in the wilderness of this life.  Today is a new day out in the desert.  

“Jesus calls us from the worship of the vain world’s golden store, from each idol that would keep us, saying Christian, love me more.”  

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

October 2 -- Passover & Deliverance

Heather, my spouse, is a doula.  A doula offers non-medical support and care to laboring moms.  She started as a volunteer doula, but a few years ago was offered and has been the role of Assistant Director for the whole program at UCSD Medical in Hillcrest.  In addition to attending many births still, she now schedules and manages the 100+ volunteers and trains new volunteer doulas.

The word doula comes from the Greek; it means servant or slave.  The work of the doula is to be that nurturing caring presence during labor and birth.  In seminary, long before Heather was a doula, we all used to joke about how nice it would be to have a “life doula” -- just someone to follow you around everywhere and through every decision you make with positive, supportive, nurturing words:  “You’re doing everything right.  You’re amazing.”  Wouldn’t that be great? 

Well, there’s obviously more to being a doula than that:   They’ve got a ton of wisdom and experience around labor and giving birth.  And one of my favorite stories and concepts that Heather tells me, part of every new doula’s training, is the importance of “holding the space”.  The doula, she teaches, holds the space.

There’s a story about one a doula who attended a birth.  Mom was on the bed early in labor, doula was by her side, until suddenly the laboring mom politely asked her doula if she could please move slightly to the side, toward the back of the bed...center of room...over by the door...out the door into the hallway.  Doula thought that was a little strange, maybe she felt a little useless and silly (especially in our productive-doing culture).  Nursing staff kept coming by the room, asking if they could help this woman in purple scrubs standing outside the door.  “Nope.  I’m just the doula.”  Couple hours later… “Nope.  I’m just the doula.”  x2.   Still she stayed there, every once in a while checking in with mom.  Head in the door, making eye contact:  “Need anything?  Ok.  I’m right here.”  For 12 hours, Mom labors and doula stays out in that hallway.  The nursing shift changed over.  Heather says someone eventually got the doula a chair, but not for a long time.  

Birth happened.  Baby’s great.  Mom’s great.  Doula goes home after doing her paper work.  Meets with the mom some days later in the routine follow-up.  [pause]  Mom can’t stop the tears:  “I could never have done it without you.  You made this birth possible.  I knew I could do it, because you were out there.”   Holding the space.  The doula held the space, and that meant everything.  There’s a more popular image in the doula world, I understand, of the knitting doula.  Rocking chair…

Holding the space, the future is possible and even hopeful if the doula’s sitting there knitting -- or keeping vigil out in the hall.  The birth can happen.  The new life can begin.  Because the space is being held.

These ancient rituals [pointing to bible]...hold the space as well.  These strange practices -- Passover, Holy Communion, the liturgy in general (i.e. our order of worship Gathering-Word-Meal-Sending) -- friends in Christ, for us and for all those who heed the Word of God -- these practices hold the space, make it possible in times of terror, times of violence, times of bitter strife, times of joy, times of birth, times of death too, these ancient and profound rituals hold the space. 

For some they might seem silly:  A lamb?  Bitter herbs?  Unleavened bread?  Why?  For some they might seem empty:  Church on Sunday, white robes, altar paraments, processions, tiny baptismal fonts?  Why?  But for us who hear and do our best to follow after God’s Word, we find liberation and hope in the rituals.  These rituals are our servants, our doulas that hold the space, and support the birth of something new.  

This was certainly the case for the ancient Hebrews.  I mean, why not just run for it?  Why this elaborate ritual?  And why is it still practiced today?  

Walter Brueggemann, Old Testament scholar, says that we, like the Egyptians, are a “culture devoted to amnesia”.  We so easily forget our past...and we are obsessed with securing our future.  We -- as a culture -- are pretty lousy at being in the now...at “holding the space”.  Brueggemann writes:  “Those who neither remember nor hope are profoundly vulnerable to consumerism...filling the void left by the eradication of that extra dimension of historical awareness that belongs to healthy humanness.”  He goes on, “Thus when the community says, ‘Do this in remembrance,’ it is not engaged in a mere history lesson or a simple act of piety.  It is rather, engaged in an act of resistance against any ideology that will destroy any Passover-driven humanness” (NIB, Vol. 1, 787).  [pause]  The Egyptians were the world’s most brutal super-power; they sought to erase any memory of the past, and aimed to strike fear about the future.  But the Passover, “holds the space”: such ritual is an act of resistance against 1) amnesia and 2) despair -- against forgetting about the past, and against a debilitating fear for the future. 

This is how worship functions for us as well.  This is what worship offers us, friends in Christ:  It is the antidote for amnesia.  We practice the traditions of the past, we remember those who have gone before us -- this week, October 4 we commemorate St. Francis of Assisi, who did his great share of “holding space” -- we remember the people of God down through the ages.  When our backs are against the wall, when we’re pushed up against the Red Sea, when amnesia threatens, and despair creeps in:  We remember.  “On the night in which Jesus was back up against the wall, he took bread and gave thanks…”  
We remember the Israelites of old, for whom God enables a new birth, a new freedom -- the ritual holds the space -- and there’s a new freedom from the chains and the cruelty that had held them back for so many generations.  

God brings to birth a liberation.  And that doesn’t just make everything easy now.  The wilderness?  Parenting?  A beautiful new birth brings with it a whole set of new complications.  But this is how worship ought to function for us as well.  This is what worship and ritual offers us, friends in Christ: it’s also the antidote for fear about the future.  Simply put, in this meal, there is hope.  Christ is present with us as we look forward, and move forward in faith.  The ritual holds the space for a new birth to happen, a liberation.  

Another professor notes that the Passover is the antidote for cruelty.  Remembering the cruelty inflicted on our people, we will never inflict such cruelty against another group of human beings, we will never despise a race, based on their country of origin or the color of their skin, we will never oppress a people under the chain and the whip of slavery and humiliation, we will never tolerate the cruelty that our ancestors witnessed...we will remember our story.  [slowly] And live in grace and peace, bringing to birth mercy (rather than P’s heard-heartedness), forgiveness (rather than P’s impatience), reconciliation (rather than P’s isolation) and peace (rather than P’s dominance).  Worship “holds the space” for us, for that new birth to take place.  And God blesses us and our worship.  AMEN.  

Sunday, September 25, 2016

September 25 -- Joseph's Dream

Friends, this story is problematic at every turn.  It starts with the first verse:  “Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children…”  What kind of a parent makes sure all the kids know which of them is his or her favorite?!...and gives that child stuff to boot -- the coat of many colors, in this case (context: took hours to make, incredibly special).  

Great set-up though, right?  Then Joseph has the guts (or perhaps the lack of brains) to tell his brothers that he had this dream where they were all bowing down to him!  

Little do we know that that’s a foreshadowing of reconciliation [pause] -- that through a strange series of events, and many years, Joseph would in fact be a ruler in a foreign country, that they would come in need, and a great re-cognition, re-conciliation, and re-union would take place.  

God was there all along, working even and especially the tragedies and evil things we chose to inflict on one another...for good.  Have you every experienced -- in the long run -- any good that comes out of bad?  Was there any good that came out of September 11?  Was there any good that came out of your sister’s cancer?  Did any good come out your “wild years”?  Any good come out of the death of a loved one?      In the long run.  Have you, like Joseph and his brothers ever looked back, and said: “Man, I really messed up back then -- I was really in danger back then -- I was so depressed back then -- and I never realized it back then, but God was right there through all of that.  And look what came out of it.”  

Friends, this story (perhaps like your story) is problematic at every turn.  And yet, God is there -- not stopping the bullets, not zapping the cancer, not speaking in booming baritones, not bringing our dearly departed back.  But God.  Is.  There...making a way out of no way -- a steady theme through the Old Testament.

When we did our HS backpacking trip to Colorado, back in 2014...the day we set off on the trail there were these two dogs at the trail head who started following us.  When we told them to go back they just looked at us all cute (Welsh Corgis) and kept following us.  By dinner on the first day, we had named them: Jeffrey and Oreo.  As we shared our “God moments” at the end of each day (where’d you see God today), Jeffrey and Oreo always seemed to make the list.  Everyone in the group started to fall in love with these two dogs...except me (until Wednesday).  I tried to hold out and refused to pet them -- I was a non-believer, I was suspect...until Wednesday, when I cratered.  Oreo knew I was a hold-out too: we had made these little dry spots for them in the porch of our tent, and Oreo would sleep right next to me, just on the outside of the tent -- I could feel his little warm and calm body, just on the other side of the tent wall.  We even started rationing our food -- which had been carefully packed just for the number in our group -- “but the dogs needed to eat too,” we were convinced.  There were moments on the trail when Jeffrey and Oreo would disappear, they’d either run way ahead or fall way back, or go running out into the woods.  And we’d call for them, and even get concerned, but in a short time, they’d just reappear, and it’d turn out they were actually there all along. 

You see where I’m going with this.  And everyone in the group got the metaphor:  It was like God -- unwilling to leave us.  Grateful for our sacrifices.  Happy for the shelter we offered and happy to have us break and share our bread.  Always there.  Those two dogs went all the way up into the mountains with us, and came all the way back down, and when we brought them back to the main camp, thinking we had really discovered something amazing, and had a case to make to the director for some new camp dogs, the director, when we got back, just rolled his eyes and said, “Oh yeah, those dogs belong to the guy who lives in a cabin right by the trail head.  They do this all the time.”

What?!  They hike with all kinds of backpackers?   The metaphor continues:  God’s love and presence isn’t just for us.  It’s for everyone.  And it goes with you too, sisters and brothers in Christ. 

We don’t always see it.  It’s not always how we want it to be.  And we definitely can’t take it home and keep it all to ourselves.  But God is working in and through our lives, our bad (and sometimes even evil) decisions, our tragedies, our imprisonments, and working it for good.    

I suppose this brings me to stewardship -- a theme for us at this time of the year.  I’m excited, we’re going to have a stewardship talk from 3 of our stewardship gurus in a bit, but let me just say this:  God stays with us as we make sacrifices (financially), as we endure tough times (financially), as we break our bread and share it in joyful thanksgiving.  That image of us high up in the Sangre de Cristo mountains of Colorado sharing with these two strange dogs is a poignant one: we really couldn’t see ourselves not sharing with them.  It’s simply what we did.  It wasn’t a huge discussion; it just flowed, naturally.  And it was fun!  

This is life in God’s arms!  “Living is giving,” as my dad likes to say.  We couldn’t see it any other way.  I had lunch with Pastor Eric two weeks ago, and so much fun to partner here for all kinds of reasons…

talking about stewardship this season, and he said, “You know, I’ve just gotten to the point in my ministry of saying to folks, ‘If I’m not asking you to give, I’m depriving you of the very best stuff of faith and spirituality.’”

Just like God is there as we make mistakes, commit sad acts of violence and betrayal, like Joseph’s brothers...or brag and gloat in our success like young Joseph….just like God is there through all of that.  So is God present with us as we make sacrifices, and perhaps take new risks, bumping our giving up a percentage or two, switching to making our offering to the work of the church the first check we write for the month, rather than the last -- that is, biblical “first fruits” giving.  The top of the basket, the best fruit, rather than the bruised up leftovers.

And it’s even fun, joy-filled.  Like being with Oreo and Jeffery, and feeding them and sheltering them, it’s even fun.  Talking to generous givers I’ve known, tithers, in fact, it’s always amazing: they’re never angry or bitter or begrudging in making their pledge, it’s a no brainer for them.  “Just move the decimal, sing a hymn, and say a prayer of thanks,” my mentor once told me.  It’s natural, the free-flow of grace -- into our lives and then through us to bless the lives of others.  

Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ, for beginning and continuing this free-flow of grace and reconciliation in our lives and in our world, this day and into eternity.  AMEN.