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, December 24, 2017

December 24 -- Christmas Eve

Henry Ward Beecher wrote: “Greatness lies, not in being strong, but in the right using of strength; and strength is not used rightly when it serves only to carry [one] above others for [their] own solitary glory. [One] is greatest whose strength carries up the most hearts by the attraction of [their] own.”  

I got that — not from reading Henry Ward Beecher — but from the book and the movie Wonder, which has enthusiastically made the rounds in our household, and Katie and I saw just recently.  And what a Christmas message it is!  (Go see Wonder in these Twelve Days of Christmas, if you haven’t already.  It’s a way to really get into the ‘incarnation celebration’ we have before us.)

“Greatness lies, not in being strong, but in the right using of strength; and strength is not used rightly when it serves only to carry [one] above others for [their] own solitary glory. [One] is greatest whose strength carries up the most hearts by the attraction of [their] own.”

Grace to you and peace from Jesus who comes to us this holy night in peace.  AMEN.

It is perhaps the hardest thing in the world, dealing with a bully.  I’m thinking more about bullies these days, have encountered the story Wonder...but also reflecting on our lives and our world...  

I’ve had a few experiences myself, one in high school that I’ll never forget.  The visceral feelings come back even now, just thinking about it: heart racing, sweat beading down, ready for anything and nothing at the same time — not sure if our stand-off was going to end in fists swinging, and blood dripping, or what.  He was way bigger and stronger than I was, had this threatening smirk, big ol’ biceps, veins sticking out…But he was making fun of a friend of mine in the weight room, and something in me kind of snapped.  And I couldn’t take it anymore and stay quiet.  I mouthed off back at him.    

And probably, fortunately it ended the way it should have, anti-climactically, with a coach breaking up our heated stare-down.  But I didn’t sleep well that night, and I fretted about that bully for a long time after, even while nothing ever happened again.  

Bullies are tough, on one hand:  They can really eat you up, physically for sure, but I think the other wounds they inflict can last even longer:  They can embarrass you, get others laughing at you too.  They can make you cry just with their quick words, or a mean picture that they draw.  They can even make you turn on yourself — start to cut yourself down, make you laugh along with everyone...at yourself.  
If you’ve never been bullied, praise God.  
But the Christmas story is for anyone who’s been bullied.  

I recently asked my kids how they deal with bullies and bad dreams in these tough times...and one of the things Katie (our 8 year old) said was “stay calm and let an angel help you.”  )(Maybe that coach?)  This Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke is for anyone who’s been bullied, anyone who’s been haunted by cruelty. 

Those shepherds in the field were pretty beat up, bullied, haunted by a cruel world — hearts pounding with anxiety about how they’d get their next meal, paycheck, or rent paid.  Ready for anything and nothing at the same time.  Shepherding was not an easy life.  They were on the edges.  They were nobodies.  But an angel came, and they stayed calm, and they let that angel help.  

Micah (our 12 year old) — when I asked him how he deals with bullies — mentioned “laughing and singing helps,” and he also said, “Remember and give thanks for your family.”  

Do you see all these components in our Christmas celebration here at church this evening?  As we gather, and try to stay calm, even as worries creep in all the time, even as bullies can haunt.  As we pause to reflect on the multitude of angels who have come to our aid over the years?  Coaches, friends, family members, mentors, spiritual guides, rainbows, dogs, authors and actors.  As we gather at the manger of the one “whose strength carries up the most hearts by the attraction of his own”?  In this holy place, laughing and singing help, and we give thanks for our family of faith too.  

God’s strength is not made manifest in the big-bully muscles of world leaders or cool-group leaders, not in the mean words or the name-calling, not in threatening smirks or frightening stare-downs, and certainly not in fists flying.  God’s divine power is instead made manifest in a baby.  In peace.

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer points out: “God is in the manger!”  How do you feel about that?  This morning here, we talked about John’s Gospel, where we find and confess this Jesus is God, not just God’s son.  One God, three persons.  God is in the manger.  The word becomes flesh and dwells among us!  This almighty God has humbled, shrunk all the way down to become the child of a poor refugee couple, born in the middle of nowhere in the middle of nowhere!  A stable, a manger.  Revealed first to bullied and scared shepherds.  

This God in the manger is strength that “carries up hearts”.  Christ.  Is.  Born.  To you.  For you.  In you.

Let’s laugh, let’s sing, let’s let angels help us, let’s stay calm, and let’s share this Good News with everyone:  

For God is here today.  AMEN.  

December 24 -- Word Became Flesh, Advent 4

I’m so glad you’re here this morning, on the Fourth Sunday of Advent!  We are finally back into the New Testament...
I’d like to introduce the Gospel of John by sharing 5 ideas for us to watch for in John’s Gospel from now until Easter.  
One Johannine scholar said that everything you need to know about John is in this first chapter.
This is for the die-hards!   
A little different, a little Christmas surprise.  So, made you a handout and even drew you a picture…we’re on a very different plain than we’ll be on in Luke tonight...We’re in John world, Johnland.
John as French poet, mystic...

I don’t believe John wrote the Gospel: he drew it...with vibrant, rich, Parisian colors!  And all of these extravagant eccentrics only lead us to the most glorious message of unrelenting Divine Love, pointing us faithfully to this one incarnate, Christ Jesus our Savior, the Word made flesh.   Welcome to the year of John!
The traditional, medieval image for John is the eagle.  Martin Luther said the Gospel of John soars the highest in its view of Christ (God’s own self, come down to our dark world).  The eagle was believed to be the only animal that could look directly at and actually fly to the sun.  The Gospel of John, more any other book in the Bible, describes God’s deep incarnation and love in such extreme, cosmic terms.  Hard to put into words,  really.  And so the artists, musicians, poets and dancers among us must be convened. 
  1. John is about experiencing God, not simply talking about God.  To actually feel love is to know God’s grace.  It’s one thing to hear the Good News in church, it’s another to be lavished with a hug, a delicious meal, a warm bath, a soft robe, a glass of wine.  (foot washing, oils, wine, water gushing)  Can you taste it, smell it, feel it?  There is this tactile — incarnational — quality to John’s witness!  And the images always point to extravagant grace, beauty and truth.  God abides, dwells, “moves into the neighborhood”...do you sense this fleshy flesh quality?
  2. Because John was written in the late 1st/early 2nd century, Christians were under persecution, so the community that gathered around John was small, tightly-knit, deeply spiritual and therefore had lots of “insider” language.  Indeed, Jesus’ statements in John often seem pretty cryptic.  This doesn’t mean John is trying to be exclusive; it’s just that outsiders can’t understand.  One has to be brought in, from darkness to light, from not knowing to knowing God.  “Come and see,” Jesus will say in John.  True for you?  Stories of being brought into the light of understanding?  Not excluded, just didn’t get it…
  3. I think of the process of becoming a pastor, parent...  “John’s purpose was to strengthen the community with words that bear eternal life and love” (my New Testament Professor David Rhoads).  The very relationship Jesus has with God — which is intimate, loving, deep — is offered freely for you and me too.  And this changes everything: it is salvific!  John’s Gospel guides us into this relationship, dripping with abundant life and grace.  Think Beatles’ song on both Christmas and Good Friday: “Love, love, love.“ Jesus on the cross. No infant, baby Jesus stories.  Just light, grace.  Then we launch into John the Baptist’s pointing (v.19)...
  4. For John everything is sacramental.  Interestingly, there’s no Last Supper, i.e. Passover, in John!  They do share a meal where Jesus “sheds light” and washes their feet the day before the Passover and tells them/us to love one another.  In this way, John opens all creation up to become a cornucopia of images that bear the love and divine mark of God.Drinking water, talking late at night, celebrating at a wedding, all eating, shepherding, gardening…Do you see all things as sacred?  Or just churchy stuff?  Do you see the God-made-manifest-in-Jesus overflowing in the cooing of an infant, the hugs at the airport, a walk with your dog, the incredible smell of fresh strawberries, a hot tub, or a long talk?
  5. Jesus. Is. God.  This truth, one may argue, can be a little more vague in the other Gospels, but John hammers home Christ’s absolute divinity.  And this “God from God, Light from Light” (Nicene Creed) has come to dwell with and love us...even here, even now. 

It’s a different kind of Christmas message, it’s not as scratchy and rustic as Luke’s version.  John’s Gospel is smooth and ethereal and mysterious like incense or a candle flame or a glorious high-flying eagle.  
Whether you like this one or that, it’s all just God’s way of trying to get through to us.  Don’t understand it in John’s cosmic, esoteric terms, then how about Luke’s version of a poor teenage, immigrant mother, a smelly stable, farmers with calloused hands, sheep herders with alcohol on their breath?  No?  How about the more geo-political dynamics of international rulers or astrologists traversing the great deserts, and resisting the bully, immature, filthy rich King Herod (who liked to put his name on everything) in order to pay homage to the true king with gold, frankincense and myrrh...in Matthew’s Gospel?  
See all of these are God trying this way and that to get the message across that we are not in this life by ourselves.  God makes a way and gets this grace and peace, and social justice and righteousness, and forgiveness and love through to us.  See it, hear it, feel it, taste it.  Mercy is ours.  Mercy is here.  Love has come.  All we can do, like the shepherds and the kings is adore the light that shines in the darkness, the Word that is made flesh.  All we can do is celebrate Christmas in spirit and in truth.  Deep in our hearts, with our whole bodies in how we love and treat one another and God’s earth.  All we can do is praise God.  

As the mystic Rilke once wrote, “Praise, my dear ones.  Let us disappear into praising.  Nothing belongs to us.”  

Sunday, December 17, 2017

December 17 -- Word Accomplishes God's Purposes, Advent 3

It’s as if the author of this passage knew about the water cycle that we learned about in elementary science class!  

Did you catch that?  “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater…”

It’s as if the author (which interestingly, many scholars believe was not Isaiah himself but an author paying prophetic tribute to Isaiah — many call this section [chapters 40-55] Second Isaiah), it’s as if the author had taken a science class and learned the water cycle.  Then brilliantly uses the water cycle as a metaphor for how God’s word works: “...so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”

God’s word as water cycle!  Draw me a picture of that!

And God’s word today, in this 3rd Sunday of Advent, as we prepare for the Mass of Christ - Christ-mas, as we clean and clear our homes and our hearts for the Messiah-child, as we wrap up another semester in the Old Testament (today’s our last OT text for a while, as we move into the NT until at least the summer...) As we scurry around all busy and excited — it can be a really great time of the year — God meets us in the word, God waters us with hope and promise, and God RESTORES us anew.

This is a restoration text, it is a restoration story.  (Last week I talked about resurrection, not resuscitation; this week, it’s restoration.)  

God restores Israel.  Isaiah 55 sings of a return from exile.  Christ-mass is coming!  After all those years in Babylonian exile, the Persian King finally frees the Israelites.  They are in the process of returning home, we believe, when this chapter was penned.  And the author is painting a beautiful picture of what restoration looks like, even as they return home to ruins — their holy sites destroyed and grown over by years of both encroaching occupation and desolation.  Imagine if we were taken away, others would move in, right?  And when we finally return home, 50 years later, there would be all kinds of work to do.  Suddenly we’d be the outsiders, the foreigners, as far as the new locals were concerned.  This was Israel’s place, returning to the land of Judah — all of this, 600 years before Jesus was born. The plight, the work before them, the despair..  

And here’s the prophet again singing, “Hey, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters and you that have no money, come, buy and eat…” Come and feast on God’s goodness and grace!  Come to the table of welcome and mercy and hope, the prophet sings.

It’s like water on the blazing fire, it’s cooling the scorching and parched earth, God’s word falls fresh on sorrowful ears and hearts.

Ever had a feast after suffering!  It’s the best, right?  I was helping my friend Brian move yesterday.  He and his wife just got a bunch of land up in Murrieta, and as you may know cross town moves are way tougher physically than cross-country, especially when you’re doing it yourself.  
And my best friend was doing it himself, so I went up there to help him out, and all day we were loading the uHaul from the storage unit and his in-laws garage, driving a few minutes and then unloading again.  Back and forth.  I know you talk about how young I am, and tell me to quit complaining, but Brian and I, who’ve been friends since college now 20 years ago, didn’t feel so young yesterday.  We were laughing — we’re both hurting a bit today.  (It was actually a lot of fun.)  

But then, after a long day, dirty hands, nasty sweat rings on our t-shirts, long after the sun goes down, he treats me to prime rib, horseradish, freshly brewed IPA, roasted asparagus, a pizookie!  Feasting after “suffering” is the best, right?

Come, everyone who is sore and tired, everyone who is famished and depressed, and afraid and alone.  Come you who are grieving and you who are angry and you who are anxious.  Come to the waters of God’s word, and God’s meal and receive restoration for your souls, your hearts, your minds, even your physical bodies.  Come and eat, and drink.  

Come to the manger (comes from the French manger “to eat”. Isn’t that interesting?)  Come and feast with your tired bones, and worn-out spirits.  We’re starting to look more and more like those “shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night,” yeah?  Washed up, empty, returning to our trashed homes, overwhelmed...and bitter.
The text alludes to letting go of the bitterness too:  “...let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that God may have mercy on them, for God will abundantly pardon…”

When we come to this great feast — we don’t eat alone.  No one feasts alone.  That’s just a big meal.  But a feast, a banquet, is with family and friends, new in-laws, even a few we don’t like.  Let it go, God says today.  I will forgive them, and your anger and anxiety and stress is wreaking havoc on your body and soul.  I love you too much to let you suffer in that way too.  This is about total restoration!  

Here is our God!  Waiting for us, welcoming us, feeding us with grace and forgiveness!  This is the Word that comes down from heaven, and it takes root in us, it grows in us.  Like the water cycle, the rain doesn’t fall in vain.  The rain waters the earth,  God’s word waters our troubled existence.  
It refreshes our parched spirits.  

“Ahhh…” Brian and I kept laughing at how wrecked we were...    
God’s word-as-water-cycle gives us hope too that there’s more for tomorrow.  We receive enough grace for today, and then more will cycle back again tomorrow.  So we can calm down and simply trust in God’s benevolent precipitation of mercy.  (That’s what we symbolize and enact with the offering each Sunday.)  It’s the ritualizing of ‘enough‘ — God’s given us enough and so we turn and share our money and welcome others in the same way God has shared with and welcomed us.  

This is Advent activity: getting ready.  Restored and renewed and refreshed even this day.  We continue to wait and work and watch with hopeful and joyful hearts.  And we continue to approach and revel in this great feast of Love Divine.  

For God draws near.  Be not afraid: the Word accomplishes.  

It is made flesh and dwells with us.  Thanks be to God.  AMEN.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

December 10 -- Ezekiel & Dry Bones, Advent 2

Grace, mercy and peace to you in Jesus name, Amen.

There is a place where I love to go.  It came to be part of the Lutheran church in SoCal in the mid-1950’s when some congregations discerned: “We need a camp for our young people to experience God’s creation, connect even more with one another, learn about the bible, and serve in Christian love.”  And with that, they were able to acquire a remote ~ dozen acres of land in the San Bernardino Mountains, and they named of the place, at that time, YoLiJWa, which was meant to sound Native American name, but also cleverly stood for Youth Living Jesus’ Way.  Fundraisers in churches took place all over Southern California.  And more than just financial resource poured in: work parties assembled, as members of churches, many of them youth groups and men’s work parties, outside groups and other charities, and the synod and national church all rallied together to build cabins, a dining hall, outdoor chapels with logs for pews...eventually a pool and some other recreation spaces were developed, and before long Camp Yolijwa of the Lutheran Church in Southern California was an active, thriving, booming ministry of the ELCA.  

Some of you, in this congregation were involved, even as kids.  Judy Ellingson was a counselor there!  Some of you sent your kids there.  Heather grew up going to Camp Yolijwa every summer and in the fall for Apple Days...great memories! 

But the glory years of the 60‘s, 70’s and 80’s, the energy and excitement around the camp—as other newer and flashier camps became better options for church families—the hype and the involvement and support faded as the years passed.  
The 90’s were really tough for Yolijwa.  A rivalry even with the other Lutheran Camp started to form.  Camp staff, congregations, even pastors, would talk trash about which camp was better. “Yolijwa’s a waste of time & $,” I even heard.   

By the early 2000’s, when I became a pastor, Yolijwa was hanging on by a thin string.  (A camp that was a made-up “Indian” word, didn’t rub well.)  A few loyal supporters were coming out for work days, but the writing was on the wall: death was inevitable.  Everyone who had once been excited about the place had died, or turned their attention and financial resources somewhere more interesting or promising.  In short, Camp Yolijwa was a valley of dry bones.

I remember talks about the place needing to close, selling the land for new ministries in the church.  But there were also some ideas about reimagining, redeveloping, reviving the place.  But that would have to mean lots of faith in God and lots of newness.  This wasn’t just going to be a resuscitation.  It would need to be a resurrection.  There’s a difference...[pause]

Anybody ever watch The Walking Dead?  [pause]  The AMC action-drama TV show about zombies?  The idea of zombies is that after they die, they come back to “life”, but they’re still dead.  They limp around and groan horrifically, and basically just eat flesh and cause more death.  

The leaders of this project were not about to just resuscitate the camp, to limp around for a few more years (great lesson for redeveloping congregations too)..Yeah, it’s alive in that it moves, but God is about resurrection, not just resuscitation...

For camp, that meant 1st a name change, and a daring, new concept...which at the 2013 Synod Assembly in San Diego got boo’ed actually.  I’ll never forget the executive director, Pastor Egertson getting up to the microphone to announce this exciting new, bold, daring endeavor of our churches, together with God’s guidance and the Spirit’s breath, resurrecting a dying camp, announcing that the new name would henceforth be “Luther Glen”...and he got boo’ed!  “Now, now,” I remember him calmly responding, “let’s not let nostalgia be the death of us...
It’s time to step out boldly in faith, to trust the Spirit’s movement, to give thanks to God for what was, and to lean now into what is to come, this new project, which includes the camp, retreat center...and now a farm!”  Luther Glen was developing a new concept of hiring a farmer and raising animals, crops, having chickens.  Maybe even a brewery one day!  The retreat center could become a venue for weddings, solo retreats, and outside groups.  Children could learn those bible stories about sheep and goats, and pigs...while actually petting real sheep and goats and pigs!  It was risky, no one in Southern California knew anything about farming, but the Spirit was stirring — a shoot from the stump was growing.  The valley of dry bones was rattling.  Resurrection-not-just-resuscitation, doesn’t always get cheers.  

Well, it took off from there anyway, even with some resistance.  Energy, new life, new leadership, new connections, and new baby animals all the time!!... You can see pictures and read about the blossoming LG farm on their blog.  Some of the animals are coming here actually on Thursday, for our first ever live nativity!  Staff members like Nate — who btw is the head camp director of Luther Glen now! — are all over Southern California and Arizona and beyond, building relationships, dreaming up new programs, including trips to Mexico to serve in orphanages, day camps in our churches, retreats all over, surf camp, farming and gardening instruction for our young people to learn about the abundance of God’s creation and where our food comes from...even a Brew Boldly beer-brewing weekend in the fall!  I’m just scratching the surface here…

(And it’s not always pretty either. Farming is tough…)

But what occurs to me, thinking back on this long, resurrection story of Luther Glen, that needs to be told (our kids only know as a rockin’ place, looking forward every summer to going up to camp, our quilters go up there every year)... 

What occurs to me, is that death needed to happen in order for new life to emerge.  There had to have dry bones to make dancing bodies.  Resurrection comes, Christ comes when we’re  the most dried out, empty, even dead.

When things are falling apart, even dying, sisters and brothers in Christ — that’s precisely where the Holy Spirit is stirring the most.  Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones coming together, is a vision of hope amidst despair, life coming out of death.  He prophesied this when his people were in exile, far away in Babylon. (How’s our Advent song go? “O Come, O come…”)  “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live,” God says to the bones.  

When the Holy Spirit gets involved, when God’s very spirit breathes into our bodies, mourning, loneliness, even death cannot stop us.  And that doesn’t mean we just get a pulse back.  That means something new comes forth!  God connects our bones together in a new way!  God covers and sews us together with new muscle and new flesh.  And we are not the same as we were.  (Just like the camp.)  We’re even given new names, names that might just elicit a “boo” because they’re not names that we’ve known, and we don’t like the unknown sometimes.  But God give us the right name for a new day: “Child of God. Beloved. Baptized.  Sent-to-welcome-the-outsider-and-love-my-enemies.”  That’s your new name that is right for this new day.  Boo!!!!  “Let’s not let nostalgia be the death of us.”  It’s time...to step out boldly in Advent faith, to give thanks to God for what was, and to lean now into what is to come.  

A baby arrives, born on a farm, amid goats and sheep and pigs.  New hope, new life, resurrection.  God comes down to be with us...in Jesus Christ.  Thanks be to God, AMEN!

Sunday, December 3, 2017

December 3 -- The Fiery Furnace, Advent 1

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego “took a knee” by refusing to take a knee.  They were ordered to bow down to the golden idol, the symbol of the most powerful nation in the world at that time.  And they decided to sit that one out, to “take a knee,” they decided to break the law peacefully, but say no to the king, and they were ready to face whatever the consequences were for their protest-ant deeds.

Now, I can’t help but think of Colin Kaepernick here — the former SF 49ers QB who decided to take a knee during the national anthem last year, not at a command to bow down to the state, like in this bible story, but rather, as he states, as a protest against racial injustice across the nation.  And whether you support him or not, I’m guessing we can all agree that he knew well that there could be serious consequences for his actions.  Protesting is always inconvenient, disruptive-even-infuriating and calculated...and it often has dire consequences for the protester.  This is definitely not a perfect parallel with our bible story here, but there are some things that are the same between #7 and these OT 3: mainly, that they all knew that their protest would have dire consequences.  In Kaepernick’s case, it could mean his football career — although his numbers were really slipping too.  But as of this year, he’s not been picked up.  In S, M, and A’s case: it meant their lives too — but this time, it was literally their lives.  It meant the fiery furnace.  Both are cases of “taking a knee” for what they believed in, and facing the consequences.

And can you believe that King Nebuchadnezzar was so juvenile, so insecure, that he not only felt he needed to kill 3 little protesters, the story says, he was so insulted/threatened by them and wanted to flex his power that he turned the flames up 7x?  Can you imagine a leader so insecure?  He’s the most powerful man in the world, why give these powerless foreigners — these little Jews in the midst of the Babylonian world super-power — any attention at all?  Who cares about what they think, what they do, and who they worship? 
(Well, it was not a free country back then.)
Friends in Christ: this is a powerful, inconveniently political, incarnation and resurrection story — deep in the Old Testament and right smack at the beginning of Advent!  
Are you ready?  They committed an act of civil disobedience.

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were foreigners.  They were Jews, in captivity to Babylon (names forced upon them) now being asked to bow down to — what was for them — a false god, a statue of the state.  And they refused.  

How are you being asked to pay homage at least, if not commanded to bow down and worship false gods in our nation and world and community these days?  Are there any parallels to this powerful story of protesting and faith in your life?
Even in the face of immense power and intimidation, there is still humor in this text.  You can almost hear the prophet Daniel smirking as he narrates the pomp and circumstance of Babylon, can’t you?  [silly voice]  “[I] the king have made a decree, that everyone who hears the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble, shall fall down and worship the golden statue…” 

Comedy is resistance too: As soon as the king is mocked, as soon as the glorious Empire becomes the butt of jokes, as soon as writers and the artists in the land start smirking, even with incredible power, “the powers” lose real power. 
And what do S, M, A respond calmly?  “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to present a defense to you in this matter.” 

It’s like a prelude to Jesus standing before Pilate:  “Don’t you know I have the power to kill you!”  [calmly] “You have no power over me,” Jesus responds in protest and in peace.

Nebuchadnezzar goes through the roof!  He fires up the oven 7x hotter (to match his anger?) and throws his biggest, toughest guards at them.  And they’re not shaken in the least.
God gives us the courage to do what’s right.  What if that even means an act of civil disobedience?  Martin Luther King, Jr. references this text in his famous “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.” And Martin Luther of Germany, who we’ve really been studying these past months in our Bible Study (really LSC study), talked in our chapter just last Monday about taking a peaceful stand even against the state if it is in conflict with the Gospel… (from our book, p. 192)

“In the relatively rare cases where Christians need to defy the law in order to follow God, the Lutheran reformers pointed to Acts 5:29: ‘We must obey God rather than human authority.’ This scriptural conscience clause supports people standing up for what is right and faithful...

“This obedience to the gospel was the basis for Luther’s resistance…As a theologian and pastor, he believed that he and all Christians need to be accountable to the Bible and the wider church … he did not advocate violent actions against priests or church leaders... Although he disobeyed Emperor Charles by continuing to teach, Luther repeatedly emphasized his desire for peace. In the decades that followed, Luther and his coworkers often appealed to Emperor Charles for the legal right to reform their churches in peaceful, gospel-centered ways.  

“Citizenship remains a rich way to live out Christian faith.  When we pay taxes, encourage good government and public service, work to curb injustice, and support fair living conditions for all, 
we are promoting public peace, helping people get their daily bread, and caring unconditionally for the neighbors around us.” (By Heart: Conversations with Luther's Small Catechism, Augsburg Fortress, 2017, p. 192.)

God always calls us to stand up in the face of injustice.  


Finally, the great power in this story is that God with them through the fire.  God doesn’t get them out of the fiery furnace.  But God is with them through it.  This is the incarnation, this is the celebration of Advent.  God draws near to us, sisters and brothers in Christ, in these dark days, in these winter months, God promises — not to get us out of the fiery furnaces of our “knee-taking for the Gospel” but — to be with us through the consequences.  

What are you being called to stand up for?  To take a knee for?  How is God calling you to trust ever more in this Advent season?  For God draws near to us.  God does not abandon us in our trials and challenges.  Hope is still alive.  A tiny shoot grows out of the stump of Jesse, remember? 

God is with us through the flames, sisters and brothers in Christ!  God blesses and keeps us, and at the last we too will live.  Even if we die!  We too will stand with one another in the morning, in the bliss of God’s everlasting arms.  On that bright shore, we know that God raises us too.  Lifts us to life and abundant life, even now, even today!  Just knowing how our story ends, we too can live and work and act and pray with joy and peace, even amid the evil threats and powers of this day.  God is with us — watch, prepare, rejoice, behold.

Will you pray with me:  God give us the courage to stand up or kneel down for what is right.  And thank you, for never leaving us as we do.  AMEN.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

November 26 -- Jeremiah's Letter to the Exiles

Jeremiah was at odds with other prophets, the text tells us.  And in the chapter before this reading today, we learn that one of those other prophets was Hananiah.  Hananiah predicted that the Babylonian exile would end in just two years.  Sounds good, but is it false hope?

Jeremiah, in our lesson today, warns against false prophets and “the dreams they dream”.  He was talking about Hananiah.  Meanwhile, Jeremiah isn’t going to sugar coat the suffering that his people are enduring in exile in Babylon.  (Taken captive by Assyrians, now Babylonians have become the world’s superpower...)  He isn’t going to sugarcoat this, and yet he speaks both a comforting word to them about God’s ongoing presence and plans, as well as a very interesting and challenging call: not only to live among their captors but even to marry them and pray for their wellbeing.  (When Jesus told us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, I wonder if he was recalling the prophet Jeremiah’s prophesy…)

This is a really interesting text, here on Christ the King Sunday — the last day of the 2017 Church Year.  So here we are at the end of the church year, and we have a text that snaps us out of moping, as one commentator puts it, and paraphrases God’s words to Jeremiah like this: “Your old life is dead.  Your new life is to be found in Babylon.  Deal with it.  Settle down.  Adjust!”

How’s that for a year-end message from God!?  Jeremiah was shooting down Hananiah’s false optimism.  Like the other good OT prophets, Jeremiah’s keepin’ it real.  And keeping God right in the center, despite and especially with the long haul that is before the exiled people — that’s us too.  God is with us through it.  “Make the best of the situation.” 
Our family has been obsessed with the famous broadway musical Hamilton for the past few years.  It’s amazing how well our kids know those rapid-fire hip-hop words of the brilliant composer Lin Manuel-Miranda.  It’s even seeped into their everyday vernacular.  (This past week, we were on Katie about chores, etc.  Pick this up, brush your teeth, get dressed, eat breakfast...and she drops a line from George Washington: “I cannot be everywhere at once, people!  I’m in dire need of assistance.”)  Hamilton is the story of a man who was born into some incredibly unfortunate circumstances, and yet, as if he heard Jeremiah’s challenge: “Your old life is dead.  Your new life is to be found in [a new place (America)].  Deal with it.  Settle down. Adjust!”  (This is archetypal immigrant story.)  

How are you settling in to your less-than-ideal circumstances? How are dealing with your long-term challenges, your exile?  Because Jeremiah’s not going to sugar coat it: this could last for a while. 

But ere’s the interesting Bible twist (breaking a bit from Hamilton and many great pull-yourself-up gritty storylines):  Unlike most of those plot lines, it’s not about taking down your adversaries at all costs, whatever and whoever those might be!  [pause]  God calls us, through Jeremiah, to pray actually for our captors!  To settle in.  To make a home with them.  Even to marry our children to them!  To work on behalf of their welfare and the  common good.  To live in hope and joy.  (Weddings were a symbol of a future with hope and joyful prosperity...of new life and expanding community!)

Who is your captor?  Who is your enemy?  This doesn’t just mean foreign and domestic enemies that our Armed Forces are called to protect us against (although it could be).  But usually our captors, to get more personal — those who keep us in exile in some form — are much more everyday enemies.  Maybe someone at work or a family member you’re deeply at odds with.  [pause]  Whoa.  That just got real.  How might you “marry” them — that is, open yourself to a future with them that is hopeful and even joyous?  How might you live in the land with your captors, and even pray for their wellbeing?  

This does not — by any means — mean roll over and accept suffering and persecution as your lot!  In fact, the opposite.  But it does mean doing some serious soul-searching work, digging deep into those cold and dark places in your heart.  [pause]  What a great thing to do here at the end of the year!  And it probably means that the hard place in which we find ourselves might just be our home for some time.  

Sisters and brothers in Christ, that’s all part of this journey that God has loved us into!  This is all part of our transformation back into being the people that God as created us to be.  We don’t move and live in strange, tough, exilic places dry:  Friends, we are sopping wet in God’s baptismal grace that flows from the font of forgiveness!  In these waters (that little Irving is about to be “plunged into”), in these waters come this promise from God that we see today even amid Jeremiah’s challenging words: “Surely I know the plans I have for you, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope...I will let you find me, says the Lord, I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.” 

And finally, God’s gonna bring us home!  Amen?  Someday — it might not be for a long time, so let’s live well in this place that we are now — but someday, God’s gonna restore us, gather us in, fill us with eternal hope.  God longs for our peace, for the peace of this whole world, even amid our chaos.   

And that peace is made manifest in Jesus Christ.  In his birth, in his death, and in his resurrection — our troubled, exile home becomes his home too.  [pause]  Incarnation, God-with-us, the word made flesh: Jesus Christ.  With Christ, we can live in our deserts, our foreign, harsh places, struggle with our captors... and even find peace and joy today.  

These are good days that we’re in, new days, and Christ is deeply present with us here even now — through bread and wine, the waters of baptism — and through you.  (That’s why we reverence both ways.)  We are Christ, deeply present with one another.  Jesus’ love flows through us and outward into this exilic wilderness, where we are sent to live.  

God’s got us:  God’s the one who sent us out there, and God will lead us home...it just might be while.  This is the true prophet’s vision — “the God of peace be with us always” means always.  Even and especially in exile. 

Thanks be to God.  And Christ’s peace be upon us.  AMEN. 

Sunday, November 19, 2017

November 19 -- Isaiah: A Child is Born

The problem with preaching a text like this — like so many in the Bible — is that there’s so much evidence to the contrary.  

...starting with the claim that Isaiah isn’t even writing about Jesus.  He’s probably writing this, most scholars believe, about the newborn king, Hezekiah, who will champion the South (I mean Judah, not Alabama.)  See, now in our journey through the OT, the Assyrians are pressing in from the north, and God’s people in Judah believe this is because their evil King Ahaz has led them into idolatrous ways.  They have all turned their backs on the poor and the outsider, they have gone after the gods of fortune and glory and self-serving comforts, and now the chickens are coming home to roost in Jerusalem of Judah.  Discord, deceit and danger is immanent.  There are no external signs of peace or hope anywhere, throughout the nation...except for Isaiah’s prophetic musings.  

So Isaiah must look like a madman, don’t you think?  Head-in-the-clouds dreamer, talkin’bout all the combat boots being thrown into the fire (vs. 5) to make warmth and draw communities closer together.  “Get real, Isaiah!  Open your eyes, old man!  That’s never going to happen!”  All evidence is to the contrary.

That’s the problem with prophets:  they stand up and describe things that no one can see, things that just aren’t there...like "endless peace".  And most people dismiss them as street performers, crazy entertainment…irrelevant to the real situation at hand: then, it was the Assyrians threatening from the north (what it it for us today?)  What’s the real situation here?  [pause]

What is clouding our vision, muddying our ears, diminishing our imaginations from an openness to the prophets among us?  How have we too followed after the idolatrous King Ahaz’s of our day?...those who worship (that is “put their trust in”) military power, weaponry, glory, wealth and brute force? “C’mon, Isaiah.  We even have violence and weapons in our churches now.  No place is sacred anymore!”  

See how hard it is to hear the prophet’s voice.  I’d love to image Isaiah with a booming Martin Luther King voice, speakers broadcasting out from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, televised across the world.  But lately Isaiah’s vision of peace and hope seems more like a child singing by herself in the corner of this sanctuary during the week.

(I’ve seen that before, maybe you have too:  A single child off by herself singing quietly to the side, as they color or play with blocks.)  That’s Isaiah, these days.

It’s cute, but how does such an image like that, a word of peace, a song hope have any power?  When are we ever going to trust God enough to burn up our combat boots — or as Isaiah says elsewhere, “hammer our swords into plowshares, our spears in to pruning hooks,” our AK47’s into gardening tools?  Isaiah just doesn’t get how things really are, does he?

Isaiah’s vision seems as inconsequential as a child singing alone.  Now, many of us know this vision by heart because of Handel’s Messiah.  It’s hard not to hear the music when we read these words, right?  But that’s almost domesticated the vision: boxed it up into beautiful concert halls and church sanctuaries for the holidays. Not much different than the child singing.  

“The people who walk in darkness have seen a great light?”  Huh.  What light?!  There’s nothing but death and terror and immanent threat and anger and fear around here!
It is important that we be honest before we bring the good news, people of God.  To ignore the world in front of us, the injustice and hatred, the racism, sexism, homophobia, bullying, the violence and abuse that takes place right under our noses, is to miss Isaiah’s vision too.  We can’t just positive-think our way through this.  We must be honest before God and with ourselves.  Martin Luther said, “The theologian of the cross, calls the thing what it is.”  

We’ve lost track of God’s call for us — as individuals, as a nation, as a species, even as Christian congregations.  We’ve turned inward, been consumed by fear and hatred...what did our spoken confession at the beginning say?  “We descend into our own despair, unable to see past our immediate concerns.  We drag others down with us and live to complain and commiserate. We ignore the miracle in front of our face.”  In other words, we ignore the child singing in the corner of sanctuary.  

Friends in Christ, the little prophet’s song is to be ingested, enfleshed and shared.  Despite all evidence to the contrary, all despair that looms about, you are the extension of Isaiah’s vision, living and breathing still!

Sisters and brothers who follow Jesus, you have been filled with the Holy Spirit, marked by the cross of Christ — what do we say at baptism? — forever.  You have been sent out, to magnify Isaiah’s words: “The people who walk in darkness have seen a great light!”  Shout it from the rooftops!  Better yet, live it.

Even and especially when the world is falling apart, when things are coming undone at the seams…even when life, headlines, families, churches, communities, halls of power are flying out of control...even when the world is falling apart, God’s people remain faithful.  We call the thing what it is and then we remain faithful to God anyway.  Martin Luther is also credited with saying, “Even if I knew the world would end tomorrow, I’d still plant an apple tree today.”  

Scholars argue about whether or not he really said that, but they do agree that this summarizes his theology:  God’s people remain faithful.  We, theologians of the cross, are not blind to what’s in front of us, and yet we choose to love one another, love this world — and in-so-doing love God — anyway.          

[Slow] All is not lost. The child still sings. The bread still breaks. The family of God still gathers. And we still go back out there guided by a prophet’s vision of peace and justice for all.  

This Christian journey is not a smooth road; it’s an adventure.  But we are assured once again today that we are not on this road alone.  And that even if we die, Romans says, we have the promise of peace eternal, we have a God who conquers death and sin for all eternity.  It is in that promise, that vision of peace, that true and sure hope, that we continue to live and move and have our being here on this earth.  

The prophet’s vision is not lost.  A tiny light pierces the darkness!  And so there is a way through.  Hope is born:

We are guided by that light of Christ into the darkening, winter days that are before us.  We are held in the arms of grace into the darkening days that are before us.  We are forgiven of our sin, joined together in that great fellowship of the saints in light, and now we are sent out anew, filled with courage, strength, and peace to be the people Christ has called us to be.  Thanks be to Isaiah and all the prophets, who keep it real...and sing anyway.  And thanks be to God, who was and who is and who is to come.  AMEN.