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

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

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

So, what's been hooking you?

So, what's been hooking you?

Here you can...

Sunday, November 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.