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.