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

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

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

So, what's been hooking you?

So, what's been hooking you?

Here you can...

Sunday, January 29, 2017

January 29 -- Jesus Heals on the Sabbath

Well, I did something this week, that I haven’t done for a long, long time:  I pulled out my old, dusty New Testament notes from seminary!  I sneezed as I opened the old, black binder that sits under my desk, and opened up to the section on the Gospel of Luke -- just to see what what was there…

My professor, David Rhoads -- maybe I’ve shared this before -- was the reason I went to Chicago for seminary.  His groundbreaking work on “narrative criticism” as a mode of studying the bible, his emphasis on and mastery of memorizing entire books of scripture, and his central theology that was rooted in a cosmic, deeply ecological understanding of God’s grace and presence, was so enlightening and formative for me.  One day he brought his African American adopted grand-daughter with him to class and that’s where I got the idea of blessing our children -- and having them bless us -- at bed time with the sign of the cross.  His New Testament class was one of the best classes I took in those fantastic 4 years of training...and that’s saying a lot!  

So I wanted to share with you this evening/morning what he taught me was the main theme for the Gospel of Luke, which I believe helps us get into this text for today.  When we understand the wider theme at work, it sheds great light on the specific story.  So put your bible study hats on with me for a moment.  (Also fun to take you with me back to seminary…)

Dr. Rhoads subtitles the Gospel of Luke: Society with Mercy.  Mercy is at the heart and center of Luke’s gospel.  He lays out a stark comparison motif that runs throughtout Luke of a society without mercy vs. a society with mercy.

So just to run through his list, and I think you’ll get the drift…

St. Luke, depicted with the ox, when I visited
Cathedral in Antwerp, Belgium in 2015
In a society without mercy, there is oppression (in Luke’s Gospel). In a society with mercy, there is compassion.

In a society without mercy, there are inequities in wealth/power/status (in Luke’s Gospel). In a society with mercy, everyone is equal.  (Zaccheus: Salvation/healing is actually defined as the ‘giving up of wealth’!)

In a society without mercy, “sinners” are excluded (in Luke’s Gospel). In a society with mercy, the “lost” are found and forgiven and included. (Prodigal, shepherds)

In a society without mercy, people love and hoard wealth (in Luke’s Gospel). In a society with mercy, people give to the poor. (Rich man who built another barn.)

In a society without mercy, the poor and the ill are neglected (in Luke’s Gospel). In a society with mercy, the poor and the ill are cared for.  (*our lesson here in Chapter 6*).

In a society without mercy, one puts human things before God. In a society with mercy, one puts God first.  (shepherds: “Let the angels watch them!” Leaving their nets.)

In a society without mercy, you exalt yourself (in Luke’s Gospel). In a society with mercy, you humble yourself.  (Impenitent Pharisee: “I thank God I’m not like the others.”)

In a society without mercy, there is hardness of heart (in Luke’s Gospel). In a society with mercy, one repents and is forgiven. (Zaccheus comes to mind again!  “Anyone I’ve defrauded, I’ll pay back 4x as much”.)

In a society without mercy, one justifies their own ways (often the Pharisees in Luke’s Gospel).  In a society with mercy, one only justifies God’s compassionate ways.  

Finally, in a society without mercy, one only seeks his/her own interests (in Luke’s Gospel). In a society with mercy, one is empowered by the Spirit for others.  (Zechariah) 

So you see the pattern?  Story after story in Luke can be seen through this lens of starting with a society without mercy, and then Jesus is the primary agent for ushering in a society with mercy.  Mary’s song, the Magnificat, sets the tone...Jesus unrolling the scrolls, repeats that.  And so on...

Dr. Rhoads said that reading Luke, you’ll become “either Pentecostal or political”.  Either way the Spirit’s moving!

So let’s come back to this text today/this evening:  With this awareness of “society without mercy --> society with mercy”.

Jesus feeds the hungry on one Sabbath, heals the sick on another.  Fits right in, right?  Mercy, compassion, justice, peace, love over-rides legalism.  Society with mercy is where Jesus always takes us in Luke...according to the brilliant Dr. Rhoads.
Friends in Christ -- Could Jesus be calling us to “stretch out our hands” too?  I love that scene.  “‘Stretch out your hand’.  He did so and his hand was restored.”  And the Sabbath is redefined as a day of healing and grace rather than just militant rule-following.

Stretch out your hands, and be healed.  Jesus says this to us too.  And there are all kinds of ways that we stretch out our hands in healing:  One way is to literally stretch.  Stretch out.  Take a rest, even a nap.  Stop working.  Yes!  It feels so prophetic and radical, saying that in our culture!  But that’s because for some reason, in our culture, we’ve made the Sabbath commandment ok to break all we want.  But Jesus is lord of the Sabbath, and we’ve got to make time to  stop.  Recreate.  Relax.  E. Peterson: “Praying and playing.”  Stretch out your hand.

But six days shall you labor in God’s fields, too.  Six days shall we stretch out our hands in healing in other ways.  

Open up your hands:  I want to say a prayer of blessing over our hands --

God, make our hands agents of your mercy and compassion, for our hands belong to you.  Heal our hands from selfish endeavors.  Cast away all the evil deeds of our hands, forgive us for all the ways we’ve used our hands to harm other people, other animals, and even the planet itself, for all the ways our hands have helped foster merciless societies.  Forgive our withered hands.  // Take our hands, now, gracious God and cleanse them.  Heal our hands, as you did long ago.  Where there is oppression, use our hands to bring compassion.  Where there is inequity in power and status, use our hands for sharing and working for equality for all.  Where outsiders are excluded, use our hands to welcome them.  Where money is hoarded and worshiped, use our hands for sharing and giving to the poor.  Where human things come first and seem most important, help our hands to let go.  When we exalt ourselves, use our hands for acts of humility.  And when we seek our own interests first and foremost, bless our hands, empower our hands, fill our hands through the Holy Spirit to be about the work of putting others first, reaching out, holding and nurturing the stranger, the alien, the lost, the forsaken, the hungry, the tired, the little ones, the sinners...even the enemy.  
[I invite you to join hands and let’s conclude as you repeat after me...]  
Loving God / God of grace / Make our hands / agents of your mercy / from this day on.  AMEN.  

Pentecostal or political.  Either way the Spirit’s moving!  AMEN.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

January 22 -- Great Catch of Fish

Sisters and brothers in Christ, 

Look at what God can do when we are tired!

What strikes me about this fantastic lesson of Jesus calling his disciples is that he does it in the morning after a sleepless, fruitless, hopeless night!  

Peter was ready to pack up and go home -- no energy, no fish, no hope -- and that’s precisely when Christ shows up, sends him back out, and calls him into new mission fields.

Look at what God can do when we are tired!

At the end of our rope, without direction or energy -- hopeless, fruitless, even sleepless.  That’s precisely when Christ shows up, sends us back out and into new mission fields.

This is our God.

So what task is God calling you into now?  [pause] No matter your age.  No matter your status, no matter how long you’ve been “at this” already.  Now is when Christ appears in your midst and says, “Well, try this: go deeper” and “Follow me”.

Jesus meets us in our grayness, when the clouds are heavy, and the days and the years have been long, just as we’re about throw in the towel, give up, sell out, and isolate ourselves from others.  Just as we’re about to close the door and blow out the candle, Jesus says, “Hey, go back out there, go deeper.”
This has been seen as a text about vocation.  Luther taught that we all have a vocation.  Theologian Frederick Buechner said that vocation is a term for that intersection... 
“where our deep gladness meets the world's deep need.” x2  Go deeper, Jesus says.
But sometimes our great passions are squelched:  The saddest stories, I think, are the stories of loved ones in my life, who never followed their deep gladness (perhaps their vocations) because someone told them it was stupid, or a waste of time, or too daunting a task for them to ever realize such a goal or a calling.  Had a friend in college who wanted to study marine biology, but her parents wanted her to be practical and study business.  Or another family member who always wanted to be a nurse and take care of sick children, but was even mocked by her husband, saying that her “dream” was too expensive, and she’d never be able to pass the classes.  Passions, deep gladness, even callings: squelched.
Friends, Christ finds us, just as he found Peter, in that moment of “squelch”.  I bet Peter was feeling pretty squelched/empty, when Christ showed up and filled his nets.  Christ is our hope.  Jesus sends us and calls us to try again...and even to try something new.

“Try going deeper,” Jesus says.  When we go deeper, we discover even more...and find ourselves on a path that we never dreamed. 

Look at what God can do when we are tired!    

See, it’s not just about “following our dreams” -- those might be well and good, or they might be misguided: vocation is about God’s voice.  The word literally means “calling” (from voco, vocare = “to call” in Latin).  There’s got to be a caller,  directing us, nudging us, beckoning us.  
So who’s doing the calling?  Our own hearts?  Our parents?  Our legislators and recruiters?  Our friends?  No Christ Jesus is the one who calls us.  And he’s not just saying, “Hey, whatever you want…what ever you need...just follow your passion...” 

Rather, just like in our passage for today, Jesus is asking us to look at something new, to wake up -- from our drowsiness, fatigue and even despair -- to tasks we never even imagined.

It’s not about “following our dreams”; it’s about following God’s dream.  Going deeper.  Discovering and living into God’s dream.  We are called into that profound, challenging, joy-filled -- and at the same time life-threatening -- call to follow Jesus.  

Catching fish was a little dangerous, catching people?  That is, preaching the Gospel?  Proclaiming release to those who are locked up in all kinds of ways?  Recovery of sight to those who can’t see clearly?  Forgiveness to those who deem themselves unforgivable?...all those things that Jesus laid out in his “Inaugural Address” last Sunday?   Catching fish is a little dangerous, catching people?:  you might wind up like John the Baptist…or Jesus himself.  Going deeper is not without risk.  (Peter executed in Rome.  South gate-Appian Way-Quo Vadis.)

And yet, this may be where Christ calls you, even this day! -- into a deeper life, a fuller love, a complete vocation, God’s dream...not just yours.  And in that is the greatest joy!  (Can you imagine if Peter never left his nets?  What he would have missed?)

This is a good day, it is a good week, it is a hopeful moment, for Christ himself stands on the shore of our lives and bids us come and follow, let go, and go even deeper.  

Today is a good day for Christ Jesus stays with us, fills our nets...and loves us into a new and even more expansive vocation.  Jesus loves us into God’s dream!  AMEN.  

Sunday, January 15, 2017

January 15 -- Sermon at Nazareth

Many of you know Becca Ajer.  Becca is one of the many daughters of this congregation.  She grew up here.  It was before my time here.  She was the acolyte, communion assistant, eventually even as a high schooler, I understand, worked as the prestigious assistant minister.  Then Becca went off to college, and it was an exciting day, when we received word 4 years later that Becca had felt the strange call to go to seminary, and become a pastor.  As many of you know, our council met and “supporting” Becca Ajer through seminary was on the agenda.  “Raising up leaders for the church” and “encouraging persons to prepare for the ministry of the Gospel”, after all, are part of our congregation’s constitution and vocation.  So we were only doing our job in that council meeting as we discussed what that “support” would look like now.  Would it be supporting Becca through prayer and letters, or sending care packages, through finances...or all of the above?  As many of you may remember, we emerged from that meeting with a proposal to fund Becca with a full scholarship, all the way through seminary!  I was astounded at the generosity of this congregation, when she received that wonderful gift.  “Wow, all those years of raising up young Becca, and now they’re putting their money where their mouth is!” I thought.  I was again so proud to be a part of this loving, generous, and supportive family.  (BTW, I got a lot of credit for that, especially from the family -- I saw Margi again this week -- but all I had done was ask the question…) 

Maybe this isn’t such a good introductory illustration for this sermon because I don’t remember anyone really wanting to hog Becca all for ourselves when she returned from seminary.  Maybe there was.  But there was that sense that “she was ours.”  In a good way.  And anywhere she goes from here, she’ll be ours.  We were proud of her, and she’s good!  (If you hadn’t heard: after her first call up in Lake Elsinore, she has now taken a call in Pennsylvania and is engaged to be married later this year, I understand!)  “That’s our Becca,” whether you knew her or not.  “That’s our girl!”
You can almost hear a similar sentiment in the first part of our reading today about Jesus, when he came back to Nazareth, unrolled the scroll and started reading -- started reading about God’s justice, freedom from oppression, recovery, hope, joy and forgiveness.  Christ’s inauguration speech.  “Today,” he concludes, “the scripture is being fulfilled in your hearing.”  And you can almost hear the proud applause:  “Yea, Jesus! That’s our boy!”  

Except, they weren’t understanding (like I think this congregation did) that Jesus wasn’t just for them.  His proclamation was for everyone.

And so there is this very abrupt shift from excitement and parental pride...to anger.  It’s a foreshadowing, btw, of Palm Sunday and Holy Week.  When the crowds, in a very short period of time, flip their tone completely from “Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”...to “Crucify him!”

Jesus is for everyone -- particularly the outsider.  And that makes people mad.
Where are you with getting on board with Jesus‘ mission?  Jesus’ mission’s like a train…
I’ve always dreamed about a high-speed bullet train in California and across the country.  I’ve said before, if I was ever running for public office, my platform would be the “train platform”.  Part of it, I think, is just my childhood (but abiding) fascination with trains.  But also, what I see as environmental benefits, as well as ease and job creation, and cool bullet trains zipping across the state, and bla, bla, bla.  Tax me whatever, I’m in!  And I know it’s controversial, especially since there is, in fact, a multi-billion dollar project underway in California.  But that’s my point:  it’s underway already.  It’s controversial because now it’s started.  So there are farmers in the Central Valley who are furious (and understandably so) about a track cutting through their farms.  There are taxpayers who never did and never would cast their vote in favor of this.  But the plan already passed through them -- despite their anger -- and high speed rail in California is already underway, whether we’re on board with it or not, whether we like it or not.

Like Jesus’ mission to and love for the outsider.  It’s controversial because it’s started.  In some ways, people of God, we’re a bunch of insiders, especially you long-time Shepherd of the Valley insiders.  We know these stories.  We’ve sung these songs.  We know the rituals and the dynamics, and the rhythms of the saints.  And all that’s good and fine.  It’s more than that, it’s life-giving, community-building, supportive and hopeful patterns in which we engage week after week, year after year.  Jesus is not condemning our insider ways...unless those ways loose track of the outsider.  Jesus had them all on board...until he brought up the fact that “there are others”.  Then they literally tried to throw him of a cliff.  “Jesus is for everyone, particularly the outsider.  And that makes people mad.”

But here’s the Good News, truly -- and we can rest in this. God’s mission, Jesus’ high speed rail to the outsider, to the poor, to the outcast, to the stranger, to the prisoner, to the oppressed, is underway already.  It’s controversial because its already begun, it’s already passed through us -- and it will keep moving forward, whether we like and jump on board or not.  God’s embrace will keep moving, and moving outward.   

What would it look like to get on board?  Unlike the angry crowd whose track had hit a dead end.  (Reminds me of when I used to build track as a kid -- and even as an adult :) -- and we’d run turn track into just a dead end.)  That crowd had run themselves into a dead end... 

At our council retreat last week, I was excited to share some notes from this book Autopsy of a Deceased Congregation as our opening devotion -- mostly because we don’t seem to exhibit those signs at all...but still good to hear and name.  In the book, the author ... 
14 dead churches: the past is hero. Death by nostalgia. The church refused to look like the community. Church becomes a fortress. The budget moved inwardly. The Great Commission becomes the Great Omission.  The preference-driven Church (for example: “traditional” vs. “contemporary”).  The church obsessed over facilities. 

Jesus’ track -- on the other hand -- goes on, and on, and on…not because it’s a circle.  

[slowly]  But it is a spiral.  Jesus’ track, Christ’s mission does loop back to pick us up again and again.  God sure does some odd engineering.  This day, once again, Christ is inviting us to jump on board.  And this is a mission, a task, an ongoing call to let go.  All this language about release to the prisoner, recovery of sight to the blind letting the oppressed go free -- all this loops back to pick us up too: it’s about letting go.  Christ invites us to let go of our anger, our fear, our bitterness.  Forgiveness is so deeply imbedded in all this.  The year of jubilee -- a concept from the Old Testament book of Leviticus -- is about forgiving your neighbor every seven years.  We can hold grudges, but what if we let our grudges and our resentments go, every seven years?  Been holding a grudge for seven years?  Today the scripture is being fulfilled in your hearing.  God is love.  All aboard!  (Oh yeah, and our ticket is free!)  Amen.

Monday, January 9, 2017

January 8 -- Jesus' Baptism

John the Baptist was a truth-teller.

Known any truth-tellers in your life?  I think they tend to be kind of weirdos.  Truth-tellers.  “Awkward” is a truth-teller’s middle name.  Their words sear, but we try to ignore it, or laugh it aside.  Truth-tellers:  Nothin’ to lose, no one to impress.  They often seem a little unhinged.

Now, I don’t mean someone who is cruel with their words...and their cruel words somehow settle into your mind as truth.  I think of all the bullies that say mean stuff that their victims start to believe is true -- that’s not a truth-teller.  That’s a liar, in fact.  

I mean a real truth-teller.  Someone who truly says it like it is.  Sometimes very eloquently.  But often not from a position you’d expect.  Those are always the great movie characters, right?  The trash-man in the movie, who always speaks the true and wise word.  The seemingly crazy, old bag lady.  The blind beggar. The bartender. The child...truth-teller characters.

And it’s often tempting to want to prop up that truth-teller and have them (not you) just give a piece of their mind (i.e. your mind) to the big, mean opponent, or at least one who holds power over you.  Propping them up, puffing them up...

Puffing up a crazy, mouthy, articulate classmate to go after a professor. Tell him! Tell him!  (I’ve done it & had it done to me)

Puffing up a brother or sister to go after a parent.  Tell him!  Tell him!

Provoking a council member, puffing them up to go after the pastor.  Tell him!  Tell him!  Give ‘em a piece of our mind! 
Puffing a legislator up to go after a president.  Tell him!  

Then if the results go bad, if the response is negative, even hostile, well, it’s not your hide.  No one even needs to know you put ‘em up to it…

I guess what I’m saying is that we can take advantage of crazy truth-tellers.  They’re “out there” anyway, so the temptation is: “Well, may as well get them to work for us...or at least entertain us.”

You kind of get the sense that the people in Luke’s gospel, surrounded by the big, mean Pharisees, the Herodians and the Roman empire -- bullies -- opponents, higher-ups, to be sure, more powerful than they, were puffing John up to go after them.  Tell ‘em, John!  Go tell ‘em!
But all John does is tell the truth.  He doesn’t incite violence, he tells the truth:  “What should we do?”  Share.  Give a jacket away if you have two.  Give food to anyone who is hungry.  Nothin’ to lose, no one to impress.  And John calls us to share.  He doesn’t fall for the puffing up games people play.  

That’s it, John!!?  You’re not going to rip them a new one!!?  You’re not going to verbally lambast them?  You’re not going to declare war on them?    

“No,” says John, “just share; be kind to one another.  Everyone could use a little more of that.  Be gentle.  Do the right thing.  Be honest and upright in your business dealings.  Don’t extort money from people.  Don’t rip them off.  Don’t cheat...and be happy with what you have…

“And one more thing:  This one Jesus, is it.  I’m going to engrave that into your consciousness by baptizing him.  [slowly] This one Jesus is the embodiment of truth -- of what I’m challenging you to do: This one Jesus is the embodiment of sharing, of not cheating the poor, of welcoming the outcast and feeding the hungry.  This one Jesus, who I baptize is the embodiment of truth.”  John is truth-teller and a truth-baptizer.  He baptized the truth.  The truth is not cruel; the truth is love.

And you know you’re on the right track to truth, when the powers try to shut you up, when you are saying things that sear in their simplicity.  Truth-telling, truth-baptizing got John thrown into prison.  He told the truth about Jesus, and he told the truth about Herod’s adulterous wrong-doing with his brother’s wife.  Everyone else turned a blind eye.  

Ever been in situation where everyone is turning a blind eye, and it takes the innocence of a child or an outsider or a newcomer to say, hey, this is wrong!   (Clergy group: “There’s a lot of ego and competitiveness in this circle.”)

John the Baptist -- John the pointer (if I ever had a pointer dog, I’d want to call him either John or Luther) -- John the baptist simply points to Christ.  The true WWJD prophet.  Don’t extort, cheat, lie, hog the best for yourself.  Truth-teller.  Not mean, not cruel.  Just honest and clear-headed, even if a little “out there”.  Although interestingly, did you notice: doesn’t say anything here in Luke’s gospel about John eating locusts and wild honey, wearing camel’s hair.  Maybe John was a little more main-stream, according to Luke.  

And friends in Christ, John was certainly in the main stream, the river’s main flow, to be sure, when it came time to baptize.  John preached repentance and new life, through baptism.  A changing of ways, the forgiveness of sins.  Through this water!  

You know ancient teaching has us using cold water for baptism.  Luther missed this.  He warmed the water up for babies.  But baptismal water -- especially practiced among our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters -- is supposed to be cold.  Stinging.  Because this Christian life is not an easy one.

“My life was great...before I met Jesus (gave everything away, loved my enemies, prayed for bullies…)!”

The truth hurts.  It stings.  These cold waters of baptism make jump a bit, cringe a bit.  John the Baptist’s long, pointy finger pokes at us and guides us to follow after this one Jesus.  The truth is eerie.  Thought John was strange: this one Jesus -- the embodiment of all truth -- is already out there sharing.  Already out there -- on January 8, 2017 -- Christ is already out there sharing warmth with all who are cold, nourishment with all who are hungry.  This one Jesus -- to which John points and baptizes -- this one Jesus -- upon which a voice from heaven comes booming down: “this is my Son the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” -- this one  Jesus is the embodiment of John’s truth-telling.

In an age where truth seems to be up for grabs (in a post-truth era), sisters and brothers in Christ, John calls us back, and sends us after Christ.  And in an age where truth seems to be a distant dream, our God -- incarnate in Jesus the Christ, who is “already out there” always in and with the world, moving down the path -- stops, turns to us and beacons us to come and follow, to come and join this way of truth.  This love, this forgiveness, this walk of mercy and grace, this path of love is ours.  2017 is a new year, and today is a new day.  That’s the truth.  Thanks be to God!  AMEN.