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, January 31, 2016

January 31 -- Death of John the Baptist

Grace to you and peace...despite a violent text and a violent world...grace to you and peace in Jesus name.  AMEN.

This horrifying text we have before us today of the beheading of John the Baptist at Herod’s birthday party has recently been described by biblical scholars (namely Pastor and Professors Barbara Lundblad and Gordon Lathrop as well as Bishop Mike Rinehart -- all members of our church body) as Herod’s banquet of death.  And then contrasted with the episode that immediately follows this one, where Jesus feeds the 5000.

I’d like to start by reflecting on this sharp contrast that was no doubt intentional in Mark’s composition...and heard, loud and clear, by Mark’s original audiences:  “Herod’s Banquet of Death” vs. “Jesus’ Banquet of Life”.

At Herod’s banquet of death, we’re not out in a deserted field, like the feeding of the 5000, we’re in a palace, a lavish banquet hall.  This is where the rich and powerful dine with the king.  A true power lunch, that’s not for the multitude, but a select few.  And there is more than enough for this few.  This is a feast of excess -- excess food, excess drink, excess entertainment, excess space, excess violence.  The select few gorge and imbibe and get entertained as the multitudes starve outside the palace gates, and in the hills and countrysides...

At Herod’s banquet, women are made to dance and entertain the men.  Women are objects of amusement and pleasure, only to be thrown out with the trash, like greasy paper plates when the pizza party’s over.  Herod’s daughter, it says, pleased him greatly with her dancing...so much so, that in a drunken and reckless state of ecstasy and excess, Herod promises her whatever she wants.  At which point, her evil mother whispers in her ear, “The head of John the Baptist.”
And it is immediately retrieved and brought in on a platter, like a pig, like a final course, like a grand finale.  I imagine everyone cheering when the cover of the platter is lifted and John’s head is revealed for the guests to see.  Can’t you just smell the excess -- the sweat, the meat, the death?  This is empire.

It’s where the moral compass has been lost to power, and an elite crowd cheers at retaliatory violence and terror...while so many others are made to suffer, simply because they are overlooked or not really a concern.  The multitudes of poor and hungry are not Herod’s concern.

Pastor Barbara Lundblad asks:  “Is it possible to maintain an empire and feed people who are hungry? The leftovers of empire have almost always been destruction and death – even in the name of peace and security. There is always enough money for weapons, but never enough to feed those who are hungry. Into such a world, Jesus comes with an alternative vision.”

Only verses later Mark tells us of Jesus’ banquet of life.  This happens, not in palace grandeur, but in the open air -- in an open field.  Not lavish but simple.

We’ve already seen something of Jesus‘ treatment of women, as contrasted with Herod’s.  Remember last week?  He doesn’t just heal and raise the ritually unclean, hemorrhaging woman and the dead, little girl: he touches them, he brings them to the center, he restores them to the community.  He not only heals their disease, but he heals society’s disease.  Everyone is restored as a result.

In Jesus’ Banquet of Life, everyone is fed; everyone has enough.
Some say, “Oh be careful, that sounds like communism.”  I don’t think it’s communism.  I like this term I’ve heard: “It’s enoughism.”  Jesus models, and calls on us too, to make sure everyone has enough.  Do you have enough?  Does your neighbor have enough.  What is enough?  What is too much?  Do you have too much?  Is there bread you can share, like the little boy who shared his little bit of bread and fish?  These are the questions we’re invited to wrestle with this week.

“In a wealthy society,” Bishop Rinehart says, “we want to sanitize Jesus, spiritualizing him to have nothing to say about the material.  Any honest reading of the gospels will dispel this myth, but we’re pretty committed to it. ‘You give them something to eat,’ is Jesus’ strong call to the disciples...”

So what’ll it be sisters and brothers?  Herod’s Banquet of Death or Jesus’ Banquet of Life?  That’s a very Markan question to pose.  Jesus is very clear-cut in Mark.  It’s always this way vs. that.  No fuzzy grey areas: “Well, it’s complicated.”  No!  For Jesus in Mark, it’s either good or evil.  It’s God or the devil.  It’s Jesus’ way or the empire’s way.  It’s bread or weapons.  It’s life or death.  What’ll it be for us?

We can chose who we will follow, who we put our trust in.  And, let’s be honest: we’re tempted all the time to go to Herod’s party, at least I am.  Whether we can get invited or not, it’s a lure.  To get behind those golden doors and lounge around with the world’s great and mighty, despite their lack of concern for the poor, the outcast, the alien.  “Is it possible to maintain an empire and feed people who are hungry?”  Herod’s party, I bet, was a lot of fun (except for the servers and maybe the entertainers, but perhaps maybe even they enjoyed it some extent, of the the empiracal system, at least they were on the inside).
Let’s not discount the lure and desire to be on the inside of the empire, to have a place at the table at the power lunch.

We can chose who we will follow and where we put our trust, but, sisters and brothers in Christ, here’s what I do know, and what I proclaim to you this morning:  Whether you’re drawn to Herod’s feast of excess or not, know that Jesus has set a place for you at his table of mercy.  You’ll always have a seat at the table there!  You’ll always have enough there.  You may or may not get into Herod’s party, but Jesus’ party, you’ll always get into.  There’s no limit to Jesus’ guest list.  At Jesus banquet, you will be fed.  There’s always enough.

Sisters and brothers in Christ, maybe we’ve been to Herod’s events in our lives.  Maybe we’ve enjoyed opulence and excess inside palaces that can’t see the poor and sick.  We can still get up from those parties, and walk out.  It’s not too late.  We can still come over to Jesus‘ party on the hillside.  His invitation is always good, his arms are always open, his grace is always free.

It might cost us to leave Herod’s banquet, Christians have faced rejection leaving Herod’s banquet for centuries.  But Jesus calls us to shake the dust from our feet, and come over to a meal and a life of mercy and forgiveness, grace and peace.

Let’s go all together!  AMEN.    


Blessing and Sending of Cyndi Jones

Gracious Shepherd, we thank you for the ministry of your servant Cyndi, and for all that she has learned and accomplished these past months.  We also thank you for what we have learned and experienced together. Your Word has been fruitful, your mercy abundant, and so we offer you our thanks and our praise.

Continue to strengthen Cyndi, by your Holy Spirit, for faithful living and future ministry.  As she goes from this place, casting out unclean spirits, proclaiming your good news, when she is refused, help her -- like all your disciples -- to shake the dust from her feet, and move on in faith and good courage.  May what she has learned and experienced here make her confident and eager for service in your Church. Bless her and give her joy in what is past and hope for what is yet to be, in internship and further study.  All this we pray through our Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

January 24 -- Daughters Healed

Grace to you and peace from the one who heals us and sends us forth in peace.  AMEN.

Jesus does heal us, you know.  I love these miracle stories at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel.

This is the 3rd or 4th healing miracle of Jesus that we’ve read in the last 3 weeks!  

In seminary, for a paper, I actually charted Jesus’ power potential as one moves through the book of Mark.  And here in Chapter 5, Jesus is at his peak!  Although this “power went out of him” when the woman touches his garment I think is significant.  It speaks to the kenosis of Jesus.  That is, the emptying of self, the total emptying of himself to be lifted up on the cross.  My graph, as I was trying to show, indicated that in Mark’s Gospel Jesus was completely empty by the end of the book, handing all power over.  These early miracles are foretastes of that:  Jesus giving everything up and over -- to God, yes.  But also to us, to those he loved, to the outcast and the unclean.  To the woman and girl in this story, you and me.  

Jesus does heal us, you know.  But let’s start with the story and then get on to you and me.  This is a fascinating healing sandwich we’ve got here.  Our story starts with one episode but then gets interrupted by a second demand for healing, as he makes his way to the first.  

Lots to reflect on there in terms of interruptions.  Jesus multi-tasking.  That might seem normal for us.  But for the 1st century Christians, this communicated loud and clear a very chaotic environment, one of confusion, fear and insecurity.  

And Jesus, in the midst of all that stops, when he senses this woman’s desperation.  He turns around, and rather than chastising and shaming her, which would have been a legal right of his, he instead calls her Daughter, praises her faithfulness, and invites her to go in peace.  That was radical.  But it took Jesus‘ stopping.  Turning.  “Who touched my robe?”     He heals more than just the bleeding in his stopping and turning to speak to her.

There’s a healing lesson and image for us here too: following the example of Jesus, we too, in the midst of the frenzy and fury, can stop.  Breathe.  Recognize the pain in our world and right under our noses.  Offer the gift of relationship, family status even!  Calling a stranger “Daughter, Son, Brother, Sister.”  And then offering a benediction of peace:  “Go your way.  Be at peace.”

Might our own healing come, as we offer healing and peace to others?  [pause]

Jesus does heal us, you know.  But let’s get back to the story.

After the woman who’s been hemorrhaging for 12 long years is suddenly healed and blessed by Jesus, he’s approached by the members of Jairus’ household sadly saying, “Cancel the order.  The 12-year-old is dead.  It’s too late.  Nevermind.”  [Pause]

Can you relate to them?  Ever been there?  Ever given up?  Or been too overwhelmed with bad news.  Had your hope shattered -- thought help was on the way, but now it’s too late?   Ever been like the members of Jairus’ household?  “Don’t trouble the teacher, it’s too late.”

Oh, but this is where God really gets in there and works, sisters and brothers in Christ!  Our God gets deep into our despair, our hopelessness, our pain of loss, our darkness, even death itself, and stirs.  [pause]

Quick image to interject from Rome, earlier this month:  our group of 12 went into the catacombs of Callixta one morning, my first experience of a catacomb.  And when we went down there, it was rainy, dark and cold outside.  Pretty miserable.  Got our tour, then communion.  And when we came back out, sunshine, warm.  I got this picture of the sun beaming into our exit tunnel.

God gets down into our death, our despair, our darkness, and when we emerge, there is light and warmth -- healing. 

“Little girl, get up!” “Little boy, get up!” 
Those are Christ words for you today, too.

Jesus does heal us, you know.  It might not always be the healing that we are praying for, God’s power might not always be (often isn’t always) manifested in the way we want it to be.  We all know that, all too well.  We pray for a cure, a miracle, a speedy recovery, a clean diagnosis, and we don’t always get what we asked God for, like they do in these stories.

But, Jesus does heal us, you know.  God stoops down into our muck, our darkness and despair, our shattered hope and lost joy...our catacombs.  And God works on us there.  The Holy Spirit stirs there.  Christ doesn’t leave us there, but only gets closer to us there.  Like having communion -- the Lord’s holiest meal of bread and wine, body and blood, community, hope and joy -- in a place of so much death and burial.
Jesus does heal you this day, sisters and brothers in Christ.  Jesus comes along side you, Jesus lets you touch the edge of his cloak too, praises you for your faith, lifts you up (even in your death!), and sends you on your way in peace.  

That doesn’t just happen when after we take our last breath on this earth, sisters and brothers in Christ.  That happens today!  

Know that God is with you.  Know that Christ has emptied himself for you, offered even you power and healing.  And now peace amid all the chaos, now that you have been lifted, even as you continue to cough or itch or ache or lay up in bed.  

Jesus does heal us this day.  Because we don’t have to be afraid anymore: we have one another in the bond we share in baptism, and we have a God who never leaves us, who is in touch with us, and who only moves closer when we’re in pain.  

Jesus does heal us this day.  Because we don’t have to be afraid any more.  Thanks be to God.  AMEN.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

January 17 -- Parables in Mark

Grace to you and peace...

“Again Jesus began to teach beside the sea”...at the water’s edge.  That’s how our lesson starts.  These parables that Jesus shares are offered with the sounds of moving water nearby.  The sea of Galilee, specifically, which is actually a giant lake, but I’m sure the sound of water lapping up on the shore, maybe even some small waves, could have been heard.  And in this chapter, Jesus actually gets into a boat -- Mark says -- and teaches the crowds from the boat.  The people listening from the land.  Can you imagine!  These parables about seeds -- good seed and fertile soil -- are rich...but so is the location, the geography of where these parables are told: at the water’s edge.

I’ve been spending some time along the water’s edge, these last 2 weeks.  Not in Galilee, but as most of you know, in Roma.  Along the edge of the Mediterranean Sea.  In Rome, along the edge of the Tiber river.  Along the edge of the great aqueducts of the Empire, along the edge of underground springs and pools.  And like you who’ve been here this whole time San Diego, we had a lot of rain in Rome, too.  So there were always new puddles, and streams of water washing down the hills and the streets.  A lot of moving water in and around Rome too!

And I think that where water is moving, interesting things are always happening.  Life is happening at the moving water’s edge.  Where water is still and stagnant:  death, contamination, mosquitoes, odors, malaria.  But where water is moving, life and energy.  

Jesus is teaching on and at the edge of moving waters in our text today.  Dynamic things are being said, there’s an energy in the air and in the water.  I imagine him bobbing up and down in the boat as he talked about good seeds and good soil, and the people straining to hear his powerful images for the kingdom of God over the lapping of water on the shore.  [pause]

Tiber Island, Early Church Seminar Trip, January 2016
Back to Rome -- Right in the middle of the moving Tiber River in Rome is an island.  To the east of the river and this small island is the Forum, the palaces of the emperors, the Colosseum, the Pantheon -- all the glorious buildings the Roman Empire.  To the west of the River is a rough neighborhood.  Now it’s become a pretty cool neighborhood, but in the first centuries, and even until recently, it was the “other side of the tracks”.  That neighborhood to the west called Trastevere.  And that’s where many of the early Christians lived, and worked.  Because they were immigrants, they were working class, underclass even.  We visited the ruins of some of their underground sanctuaries, and house churches on the other side of the river.  (Grain stores...) When Peter and Paul went to Rome, you can bet they crossed the Tiber River, they went into the rough area, to worship and serve alongside, and teach and eat with and encourage those earliest, brave, struggling Christians...

OK, got it?  Glorious Rome to the east of the Tiber, run-down Trastevere (and Early Church inhabitants) to the west and this island right in the middle: Isola Tiberina.  In ancient times, this is where the Pagan Romans they took their sick...and left them.  This is where they condemned criminals too.  It was terrifying place, and so sad to learn how many sick and outcast citizens of Rome were often just dumped into the river off the island, sometimes even while they were still alive.  No good? Unhealthy?  “Cast them aside!  Throw them into the moving water.  And let them wash away.”  Can you imagine?
But guess who snuck over there to the island to help these poor sick, criminal, lost, forsaken, cast-aside people?  

The early Christians.  For me, this trip solidified, that the Early Church was about 3 things:  Worshipping together, eating together, and taking care of the outcast, the hungry, the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, the children -- all those people who the Roman government deemed worth-less.  

Christian compassion right in the middle of the moving water.

It’s like that island was a boat bobbing up and down in the Tiber, reflecting Christ then and now, proclaiming a parable for us today.  Calling us back to true faith-in-action.  That island...was Jesus himself teaching from a boat in the middle of the water!  Can you see it?  Following Jesus message of grace and mercy, the Early Christians didn’t just listen and go back to lives of consumption and exploitation and self-centeredness and indulgence...the Early Christians listened and followed, the seed of the Gospel took root and grew, and they became the very face of Christ for a God-forsaken, God-unknown world.  In a mighty empire, the strongest nation in that world, where ruthlessness and dominance were the law of the land, where the poor were cast aside, these Early Christians gave their lives, and in so doing became the very face of Christ for their world.  Christian compassion right in the middle of the moving water.

Sisters and brothers in Christ, this is still happening today.  Christians today give of themselves, risking even their lives for the sake of the Gospel.  [pause]  Eating together, worshiping together, serving together.  That’s it!  That’s being the church.  

...and it all happens along the moving water’s edge.  
Along the edge of the grand Pacific Ocean in our case, yes, but the real moving water, the real water’s edge, is the water that flows from our baptismal font.  

Now, anyone else, who looks at [that] font only sees a bowl of stagnant water...

[Slowly] But sisters and brothers in Christ, we know that those waters are not stagnant.  We know that life in Christ flows from those waters, drenching us with hope and joy, watering our hearts to grow in faith and love toward God and incompassionate service to God’s planet.  Anyone else who looks at our font only sees weakness, smallness...but along that water’s edge, we eat together and serve together and worship together.  And we know, that in that water is not weakness and smallness (that Empire sees), but the strength of God’s forgiveness, the power of God’s love, the life-altering victory of Christ’s resurrection!  Along that water’s edge, dynamic things are being said and read -- there’s an energy in the air and in the water.  There’s renewal and peace in Jesus’ words, not peace that the world gives, not the Pax Romana, no!  The “pax Christi” (the peace of Christ) is what we live under.  And that peace will carry us through; it will carry us over; it will carry us across to the other side; it will carry us on!  Praise be to God!  AMEN.