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

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

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

So, what's been hooking you?

So, what's been hooking you?

Here you can...

Sunday, September 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.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

September 18 -- Abraham's Descendants

Repeat after me: Gracious and loving God / help us / to trust even more / in your faithfulness  / and your grace.  Amen.

[There was a summer when I was working up in Washington state and Heather and I were in love.  Funny story: Goodbye to Heather in Seattle, lost ATM card, snuck into campground, sprinklers, mountains welcoming me back.]

This is a fascinating reading to me because it utilizes nature in a positive role: the role of the sky-full of stars as an illustration of all the blessing, that is before Sarah and Abraham...right smack in the midst of their pain, sorrow and fear.  

I’ve found that in Scripture (as in life), “nature” -- animals, plants, whole biomes and ecosystems -- can fluctuate back and forth: It is so often a source and certainly a place for evil or fear or temptation (as we saw last week in the Garden of Eden) and just plain danger… Jesus is tempted out in nature, in the desert...snakes and storms and lions and the valley of the shadow of death -- nature can often mean trouble in the Bible.  

Same in life.  We teach our kids all the time about nature: “Watch out!  Be careful!”  From the creepy crawlies to bears to falling out of trees.  Even the sun is a danger, as we lather ourselves up to go outside, as we tiptoe into the great ocean, afraid of what could happen.  It’s a big bad world out there in “the wilds”, out there in nature.

But other times -- more often, I hope, but I’m not sure these days -- nature can heal.  Nature can comfort.  Nature can refresh or reinvigorate (shared a story about that for me) 
...and nature can teach...  

Richard Louv, local San Diegan, writes and speaks often about the healing effects of nature...and how we’ve lost track of that.  He coined the phrase “Nature Deficiency Disorder” and talks about how staring at a screen shuts down almost all of our awareness.  “Nature time,” he writes, “can literally bring us to our senses.”

Now when I talk about “our senses” -- I am talking about our five senses -- sound, touch, taste, smell, sight (as Richard Louv was).  But I’m also talking about that sense of the divine, that sense of the ineffable, that sense of eternity, that sense of overwhelming blessing.  So often we are so blind to that, to those billions of stars in the sky.

Abram and Sarai too were blinded by sadness, fear, and -- in a way -- reality, so that they couldn’t see God’s greater blessing, until it was imaged by nature, by a night full of stars.

Have you ever seen stars like that?  You can’t really describe the experience.  I mean we can all imagine a sky full of stars, but until you’ve been completely entranced on a crisp night under a billion stars, sitting in an old lawn chair or laying in a warm sleeping bag, you really can’t get it.  

This such a great scene!  Abraham and Sarah are overwhelmed with grief, with despair, with fear:  far from their home, no children...or even friends for that matter.  Have you ever felt like they do: overwhelmed with sadness, with pain, with fear?  

And they’re in a tent.

Such a great scene!  In a tent you’re supposedly protected.  In a tent you can get things in perspective, got your meal, got your bed, maybe you’ve got a small family next to you.  Your world is all right there, immediate, visible.
But something’s coming up short.  There’s this aching in their hearts, as we too have experienced aching in our hearts in many and various ways.  Maybe your aching is exactly the same as Abraham and Sarah: unable to have children, sad and far from home.  Or maybe it’s something else.  [pause]

On one hand maybe you’ve got everything you supposedly need: food, shelter, work, friends, beautiful San Diego skies.  And yet there’s this nagging emptiness.  Or fear.  Or anxiety.  Or sadness.  Or despair.  Something keeping you up at night.

This is such a great scene...because exactly the opposite of what we would think safety looks like, of what we think the good life looks like, happens:  GOD CALLS ABRAHAM OUT OF THE TENT.  And suddenly he is completely exposed.  (Great word: ex-posed. “out of position”, 15c. “to leave without shelter or defense”)    

How is God calling you “out of the tent” these days?  How are you exposed, “out of position”?    

We don’t know what’s going to happen.  But there are stars out there that we can’t always see.  There are blessings before us, and all around us that we so often miss because of the thin and flimsy fabric of our tents.  

God’s calling us to step out, to step outside.  Nature is not all bad -- in fact it can even comfort and heal us.  God’s calling us out of position, out of our comfort...to be comforted even more.  We don’t know what’s going to happen, how it’s going to happen, but we have a God who does, and who loves, and who laughs, and who blesses.  

These “Fireside Chats” have really been fun…

And a recurring theme to so many of our stories has been God’s surprise.  How many of our stories are about us in the tent, thinking we were lining everything up as it should be, planning and strategizing and thinking we’re controlling the direction of our lives.  And yet, God surprises us time and again with blessing, even in the face of immense tragedy and heartbreak and pain and loss.  Complicated childhoods, complicated marriages and break-ups, complicated health histories or job-tracks, or children with complications.  All of it, very real, and yet there’s God all along -- still blessing, still loving us, still journeying with us.  It’s funny how often we’ve been reflecting at these Fireside Chats, in retrospect: “Oh, there was God.”

Friends in Christ, the majestic mountains of God’s grace are welcoming us back.  The stars are coving us like a blanket of peace.  All this is to say: God’s never left us, God’s still with us, and God’s got so much blessing still in store for us.  All this is to say, God’s got us.  

We just struggle to trust that truth.  

But hear that truth once again this day, friends… [pause] see that truth once again this day, [pointing to the Table] taste, touch and smell that eternal, ineffable, divine truth once again this day, in Jesus name.  AMEN.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

September 11 -- Creation & Fall

One of the best times of my day is in the evening.  Often I’m part of the bedtime “process” -- pj’s, teeth brushed, reading a chapter, singing a hymn, saying a blessing.  Sometimes not, if I have a meeting or am traveling, but after bedtime, at about 8pm, Chloe our energetic dog starts getting super excited because she knows after the kids are in bed (and if both of us are home), it’s time for an evening walk.  She starts jumping up and down, if we’re sitting on the couch she nuzzles her way under my leg/arm, nudging me up, kind of getting crazy with excitement.  And why not?  Dogs love going for walks!  We usually walk about a mile, mile and a half.  For a dog, in the evening breeze, we see rabbits, skunks, squirrels, coyotes, opossum, there’s this funny cat that comes out to say ‘hi’...it’s heaven...all those smells, the exercise...  Like I said, taking that walk with Chloe is one of the best times of my day; but for her, it’s definitely the best part of her day.  She must dream about our walk, while she naps all day, while she lays around in the dark house.  She’ll come running wildly in from the farthest corner of the back yard at the faintest sound of a jingling leash.  Yeah, she lives for taking that evening walk, it seems.

But truth be told:  I don’t take her for that walk every day.  Sometimes I’m out too late.  Sometimes I’m traveling.  Sometimes there are guests that we’re entertaining, or conversations that Heather and I are having.  Sometimes there’s a game or a program on that I absolutely can’t miss.  Sometimes -- and this of course makes no sense to a dog and is totally unfair -- but maybe at some level I’m rationalizing that I’m punishing her for an accident she had or some food that she stole off the counter...  And sometimes, I’m just plain lazy.  

I guess you could say that at times, I just get distracted -- too distracted to take Chloe for a walk.  

And isn’t taking a dog for a walk the whole point, “the primary mission”?  I mean, there’s a reason she lives for it.  That’s the whole point of having a dog, it’s what the labrador rescue place wanted to know.  “Will you walk this dog?”  It’s like your vows.”  It’s the best way to love a dog: take it for a walk.    That’s all the Dog Whisperer does, isn’t it?  Behavioral issues?  Just take her for a walk, right?  It’s the primary mission.
We have a rich text today!  So many angles, so many things we can do with this.  This text has been used to justify the mistreatment and subjugation of women.  I’m not going to preach a sermon specifically about misogyny and Genesis (but toward that: I will however plug some new study materials that our ELCA church body has just released…)   

Today I want to reflect on getting distracted from the primary mission and God’s response to that.  The primary mission is to take care of the garden.  In this second creation story, God needs someone to till the soil and keep it.  Our translation says to “till it and keep it” but the Hebrew words are even better translated “serve and protect”.  As one of my profs notes in his book, The Yahwist’s Landscape, Genesis 2 has the human’s role not as ruler but as groundskeeper or tenant farmer.  The primary mission is to take care of the garden, to tend the earth.  That’s hard work, it takes patience and consistency, it takes partners.  (Adam couldn’t do it alone.  He needed a partner, a helper -- which doesn’t mean a sous-chef, an under-study -- the same Hebrew word for helper here is used for God in Psalms: “God is our refuge and our strength, a very present helper.”  The helper is not a lesser being.)  

The mission is to care for the garden together.    

But, omg, how we get distracted…just like me, making excuses not to walk Chloe, which I know is the whole point.  But I’ve got all kinds of reasons why I don’t do it.
One commentator points out how we are Adam and Eve: we’re supposed to be tilling the soil, serving the earth and protecting it, but there’s this really enticing fruit that catches our eye, and we get sucked in.  We strike up conversations with fascinating animals and waste the day away.  How have you been distracted lately from the original mission of caring for God’s garden?  

Maybe you “stay out too late”.  Maybe you’re too busy.  Maybe you’re too “caught up with a certain program or a game”.  Maybe you even justify (in your mind) punishing the garden or just plain ignoring it -- which makes no sense, when we really think about it.  Maybe we’ve convinced ourselves that there are other more important things.  And maybe we’re just plain lazy.  

But God has called us -- not just that: God has actually created us -- for the purpose of serve.  God. Needs. Our. Help.

And here’s our Gospel image for the week, here’s the good news, amid all this September 11th bad/sad/painful/shameful news:  God comes to walk with us.  

There’s a whole lot of mischievousness and deceit and laziness and ultimately sadness in this passage for today.  But here’s the gem: God comes looking for us at the time of the evening ruach (the same thing, by the way, that moved over the waters and rushed in at Pentecost).  God comes looking for us.

“Adam, Eve, [other names], where are you?”  And we’re ashamed.  We hide.  We cover up and crouch down.  We duck our heads and close our eyes.

But God walks among us, and calls us out of our shame and hiding.  Reinhold Niebuhr once wrote that “the greatest human sin is pride”...  

But some female scholars countered his strong argument some years later, and posited that for many, the great sin is the sin of hiding -- the sin of tucking away in the face of domestic violence, the sin of hating ourselves so much that we don’t even defend our own skin, the sin of buying into the narrative that “I am inferior because of gender identity or skin color or sexual orientation or immigration status…”  The sin of hiding.

Sisters and brothers in Christ, God is calling us out for a walk in the cool evening breeze.  What an image of peace and grace.  God desires our partnership, our accompaniment, our helping one another, our serving and protecting the garden that is God’s creation: the primary mission.  (That’s what so tragic about both planes flying into buildings and forests being chopped down: God’s garden is being desecrated.)

But here’s the thing (and I don’t care if it’s cliche): the past is prologue.  Do you think Chloe’s will be holding a grudge that I didn’t walk last night at 8pm tonight?  So it is with God, who this morning is ready to offer new life, peace, forgiveness, hope, and reissue this invitation to service.  “Weeping spends the night, but joy comes in the morning” (Ps. 30:5).  AMEN?  Reconciliation is real, friends.  Today’s a new day.  Our attempts at hiding are pretty futile, our fig leaves.  But God sews us new clothes.  God covers us with new garments -- garments of grace, clothes of the cross, outfits of outreach, fabrics of forgiveness, strands of salvation.  We are wrapped in God’s love and joy.

We live for this walk.  Christ lives for taking this walk with us.  The hiding is finished; the healing is now [altar].  Come and receive.  Alleluia!  Thanks be to God!  AMEN.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

September 4 -- Sixteenth After Pentecost

“Gracious God, you appeal on the basis of love.  Restore us again to you this day.  AMEN.”

There was a time when I felt like I was on top of the world: high school.  I was king.  Not of the world, not of my high school, but of my neighborhood, and of my little brothers, and all those who looked up to me.  

We grew up in Houston with a great neighborhood pool right down the street.  And as far back as I can remember, we’d put our swim suits in late May, and we wouldn’t take them off until the end of August…right about now...when swim season was over and school was starting.  My very first job ever was at Maplewood Pool, as the membership card taker at the gate.  I’d take your card and file it in the little box, for $4.50/hr.   Every morning we had swim practice in May, June and July, and as I got older (7th-8th grade), I had this dream of one day being the coach of our 350-kid swim team from ages 6 and under...all the way up to 16.  Someday.  I took the classes and became a lifeguard there too, but I still had that dream.  And I was in 10th grade when that day actually came, and I was approached by the 2 coaches and asked if I’d be the jr. assistant coach.  The next summer I became the full assistant coach.  And then, when I was a senior in high school, I became the head coach of Maplewood Swim team!  I was on top of the world, one of my best friends growing up was my assistant and we had a great relationship and friendship.  We were royalty in this world, that we had been members of, given all those many summers, paid our dues, served in the ranks.  And now it was ours: we called the shots, we set the line-ups, we made the work-outs, we handed out the trophies...we were at the top of our game.  Good to be king.

We had a key to the facility too.  And one night we decided to let ourselves into the pool after hours, with a few of our friends (and my little brother Tim) and some girls we liked, and have a little party...I mean why not?  It was pretty much all ours, anyways.

We were having a great time (beer and cigars, music and swimming), until a certain car pulled up.  It was some other kids, members of the real pool manager’s church, who he had asked to help him keep an eye on things at night.  They were young too and in great shape, and actually chased us down.  Caught one of my brother’s little friends, and so a few of us came back from the darkness we had run into to get away.  And to make a long story short, we were busted.

The next Tuesday (pool’s closed on Monday) we were to have meeting with Coach -- the real coach, Coach Johnson.  Coach was the manager, the real boss, of the pool; he was also a high school football coach during the school year.  Great, big, cantankerous old Texan who was intimidating when he was in a good mood.  He’d seen some things in his time, and no high school hot shots were anything new to him.  

Those light plastic pool chairs never seemed so heavy as Coach led me and my accomplices over to the far corner of the property that hot afternoon.  We sat down in in a small circle...and we pretty much thought that was it for us.  Breaking into the complex, partying, running off into the darkness, drinking.  He’s gonna fire us -- destroy our college application process, get us grounded by our parents, and cut us off forever from this land and status that we so greatly loved and enjoyed -- all of it!  Here it comes.  

After some silence, to let us stew in our fear, Coach simply says: “Thing is, boys, I love you like you were my own sons.  And if anything ever happened to you, ‘cause  you’re doing something stupid, I don’t know what I’d do.”  And if that wasn’t enough to never forget, he had a tear in his eye.  Talk about about appealing on the basis of love.  

This is my grace story.  (All of us should have at least one grace story.)

All was forgiven, with our promise to never pull a stunt like that again.  He didn’t even tell our parents, and mine don’t listen to my sermon podcast all that that often, so I think I’m still good...

“Thing is, boys, I love you like you were my own sons.”

Friends in Christ, this is a text -- a whole book of the bible -- about status restoration.  There are three human characters in this story:  The Apostle Paul is writing to Philemon, a wealthy Christian landlord and slave owner; and he’s writing in regard to Onesimus, Philemon’s run-away slave.  Paul’s met him in prison and is appealing to Philemon “on the basis of love” to restore him, and not just to take him back as a slave again, but to actually elevate him and receive him back as a brother.  Pretty radical request.

My story is really about my status being humbled -- from a cocky kid to a beloved son.  This is a text about being lifted up -- from a slave to a beloved brother.  But either way, these are restorations (and elevations) of status...“on the basis of love”.  Today, we are invited to reflect on the restoration and elevation (or deepening) of status “on the basis of love” -- that we have with and for one another, and that God has for us... 
Maybe someone has wronged you, taken advantage of you, like I wronged and took advantage of the trust Coach had put in me...We’re invited to consider a restoration and elevation of status.  I wasn’t just slapped back into place or thrown out -- my status was restored and even elevated.  Are there places in your life, where those around you might be blessed by your forgiveness and love?

And, even more: the restoration and elevation of status that we’ve all received from God.  It all starts and ends with that.  We are called beloved by God, after everything we’ve done.  God says to us, like Coach said to me, “Thing is, I love you, like you’re my own kid.”  A tear on God’s cheek.  God appeals to us on the basis of love.  

Paul’s letter to Philemon is simply an outgrowth of that love, and restorative peace and hope of God.  Coach Johnson’s words to me and Josh were -- to me, still today -- simply an outgrowth of that love and the restorative peace and hope of God.

Friends in Christ -- I hope you know this...hear it again! -- we have a God who forgives, who brings us back -- whether from a slave status or an arrogant, entitled status -- we have a God who restores us...by naming us a beloved member of the family:  “I love you.  You are mine.”

So go now.  And do likewise.  Go now, in peace, and love one another.  AMEN.

Prayers for Labor Day

Commerce and labor

Almighty God, your Son Jesus Christ dignified our labor by sharing our toil. Guide us with your justice in the workplace, so that we may never value things above people, or surrender honor to love of gain or lust for power. Prosper all efforts to put an end to work that brings no joy, and teach us how to govern the ways of business to the harm of none and for the sake of the common good...

The unemployed

God of justice, we remember before you those who suffer want and anxiety from lack of work. Guide the people of this land so to use our wealth and resources that all people may find suitable and fulfilling employment and receive just payment for their labor...

The human family

O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son. Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred that infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and, through our struggle and confusion, work to accomplish your purposes on earth; so that, in your good time, every people and nation may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.  Amen.