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, February 26, 2017

February 26 -- Transfiguration Sunday

Grace to you and peace, from God…

Transfiguration Sunday: the day that Jesus’ face and clothes change right before his disciples’ sleepy eyes.  

I think the “sleepy disciples” image resonates particularly this time of year.  Did you catch that in the story?  Unique to Luke.  Matthew and Mark both include an account of the Transfiguration, but it doesn’t say that the disciples were weighed down with sleep. (Message: “hunched over with sleep” -- Paul Gaske, sleeping in church)

Please don’t hear me wrong, sleep is good, a gift from God in other parts of the scripture—but in the Gospel of Luke, for Jesus, sleepiness is an opportunity to fall into temptation.  

I wonder if you can think of another time the disciples fall asleep while their with Jesus at a critical time?  [Gethsemane]  And Jesus command in that moment was “Pray—don’t fall asleep—pray, so that you may not be led into temptation.”

Sleepiness in this context is a fuzzy-mindedness.  Foggy brain.

When I’m slumped over with sleep, I’m grumpy if I get woken.  Part of me is glad that wasn’t me on the mountain with Jesus, because I would have really embarrassed myself and snapped, when the bright lights and the 2 Old Testament heroes showed up.  I probably would have barked at them: “Get out of here!”

My fuzzy-mindedness, my being hunched over with sleepiness, and the temptation that can accompany my sleepiness, leads me to anger and grumpiness.

The disciples, on the other hand, weren’t grumpy, thanks be to God.  They didn’t bark at Jesus or Moses or Elijah, like perhaps I would have.  They were much more like happy-drunks in their sleepiness.  They came to, and “not knowing what they were saying,” the Scripture tells us, blurted out, “Let’s build something and stay here forever!”

And can you blame them?  They are hanging with Jesus, Moses and Elijah.  Moses and Elijah?!  That’s like hanging with your heroes -- like Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, or 2016 MVP and World Champion on the Chicago Cubs Kris Bryant.  I mean these were the All Stars of the past and present!  And they woke into it — can you blame? — with elation and frenzied processing?  They were star-struck and jolted awake at the same time.  The few experiences I’ve had being star-struck, I said something stupid.  

Peter, James and John were star-struck, sleepy happy-drunk...and away from the world.  That’s the other thing!

Can you blame them for wanting to build and stay up there forever?  They were far away from the hurting, real world, and they only wanted to capture that moment, and keep cozy forever.  It’s like being nice and warm in your bed—all snug and cozy—and even thinking about getting up is daunting.  “Lord, it is good for us to be here.  Let’s build, let’s add-on to this glory, and let’s stay here forever.”

But precisely as Peter is rambling, a cloud comes over them all, a thick fog moves in [just when they thought everything was so clear and beautiful] and they hear a voice: “This is my Son, the Chosen.  Listen to him.”  In other words, God says to the disciples of old and to us today — listen to him, to Jesus, not to your own voices of vanity, celebrating accomplishments, craving safety and protection from the world, not to your own fuzzy-mindedness.  Listen to him.    

And suddenly the cloud lifts and it’s just Jesus...and what’s he doing?  He’s headed back down the mountain, back to the pain and the brokenness, the division, the cruelty, the evil of the world.  No better example of that than the last part of this reading today:  Jesus casts out a demon IMMEDIATELY after this great glorious event.  Listen to him — the one who confronts evil and oppression with love.  [pause]

Here’s the gift of Transfiguration: we a get just a glimpse of God’s glory, and then we get back to work.  Just a little flare, to remind us, that this work in the trenches is a worthy cause— more than that: it is a divine cause, it’s God’s cause -- God’s work, our hands.  Because sometimes it seems like there’s no difference being made, no hope, no change, no matter.  But our work, your work, people of God, in your everyday lives is not in vain — caring for the poor and the sick, caring for the hungry, the outsider, the immigrant and refugee, reaching out to support a friend in need, being a loving parent, doing the right thing (even if it’s more costly to your reputation or your wallet), staying alert so that you don’t fall into temptation (we don’t live on the mountain top, we live in the valley) — living and working in a valley is not in vain...even if sometimes it feels like it.

One of the themes in the Gospel of Luke is that he says it...and then he does it: “Proclaim liberty and release to the captive, stand with the oppressed...here, let me show you…

“And if it doesn’t go well, then shake the dust from your sandals and just keep moving.”  

Jesus talked about this when he sent out his disciples, and then he gets chased out of his own hometown.  Just keep moving.  [Dory from Finding Nemo: “Just keep swimming.”] 
Today we get a peek at God’s glory, and this week we descend the mountain top into the journey of Lent — 40 days of valley living, coming face to face with our sin and the sin of our world.  And yet we “just keep swimming” in the waters and the promise of our baptism.

Today we get a peek at God’s glory, at this peaceful Christ, who is the true hope and safety of our lives and of the life of this world.  Let us bask this morning in the wonder of his presence, shining among us even today, even in 2017, let us be in silent awe of Christ’s glory [not babbling or happy-drunk with suggestions on how to package and domesticate the moment].  Let’s just be in praise.  The German mystic Rilke: “Praise my dear ones.  Let us disappear into praising.  Nothing belongs to us.”  

And when the glimpse is past.  When the cloud of praise lifts, then, O God, give us the courage to follow your Son, the Chosen One, down the rocky path to face the world’s pain and sorrow, but to do so knowing that the glimpse of God that we have today, both in the scripture and the sacraments, the glimpse of God is only a foretaste of the feast to come, when we shall dwell with all the saints in endless glory.  

Thanks be to God, who goes with us now, who leads us now, into the valley of our lives, who casts out demons, and welcomes the stranger, who loves everyone -- even you -- this day and always. AMEN.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

February 19 -- Forgiven at Jesus' Feet

I’ve been thinking about young, sexually attractive women this week.  (How’s that for an attention-grabbing opening line?)  Let me try to elaborate: starting with this text from Luke 7, I’ve been thinking about young, sexually attractive women...and the church.  See, at Bible study on Monday, I asked, “If you had to draw the woman in this story, how would you picture her -- young, old?”  Most of us responded “young”, and I was even so bold as to say, “I think she was pretty, too.”...because I believe that Jesus includes, loves, forgives and calls everyone.  
Back in seminary, in a course entitled “Transition to the Parish”, I chose women in the ministry the topic for my final paper.  I had never really asked.  (There’s a sign of my privilege, right?  I get to deal with sexism, when I decide to do a paper on it.)  I basically just interviewed female pastors around the church and two of my friends who were soon-to-be female pastors in the church -- a few of them, to be honest, were very attractive.  

In that project I listened to these women share stories of how challenging it is to be a pastor.  (They weren’t complaining; I was asking for their candidness.)  One told me about when she got to the door of the house of the woman she was visiting, she was announced by the husband, “Honey, the little pastor girl is here to see you.”  

It was clear to me that the female pastors (at least the ones I talked to) when it came to the church were either objectified or patronized and not taken seriously by many men.  And then by older women in the church, often judged, glared at, or ignored.  Often comments on their clothes, their hair, their make-up.  Questions like “Sweetie, do you understand what that outfit is communicating?”  (reminds me of the Pharisee’s words of judgment, “...if he had know what kind of a woman this is...” -- by the way, says nothing about ‘prostitute’, but...)  

Anyway, I’d never had experiences like these female colleages of mine, so could only sit agape and listen.

Not all bad things either, and certainly there were some wonderful stories too.  But the sense of being an outsider in what has traditionally been a male profession -- at least, for the past couple hundred years -- was so great and sometimes overwhelming for these women that nearly all of them had considered at one time or another leaving the ministry completely...even my seminary friends who were just starting!

I’m thinking of young, attractive women, as I approach this text because they teach us something; and Christ -- of course -- teaches and offers us something too.  

The woman in this text teaches us about repentance.  She approaches Jesus with tears in her eyes, tears of regret, tears of pain, tears of grief, tears of hopelessness.  See Jesus was seated in a circle and this woman could only approach Jesus from behind, from outside the inner circle, and she offers him the kind of hospitality and welcome that even his host didn’t.  This whole episode ends with Jesus commending her faithfulness: “Your faith has saved you.”  This young, attractive woman (in my imagination, maybe yours too) is teaching us that faith = being repentant, deeply thankful, and offering signs of hospitality.  That’s what faith looks like!

Making confession is a sign of our faithfulness.  Have you ever wept and poured out your sins to anyone?  Individual confession is so cathartic and good.  We Lutherans have traditionally and even jokingly shied away from individual confession, because we don’t want to be perceived as Catholic, and I think there’s all kinds of baggage around the guilt/shame of “not going to confession”.  But have you ever told a trusted confidant your sins and heard God through them share promise of forgiveness, the “Go your way, your faith has saved you”?!  It’s life-giving, renewing, talk about a deep healing breath!  Martin Luther elevated private confession and some scholars even suggest it was a sacrament for him:

“Confession embraces two parts,” Luther said, “One is that we confess our sins; the other, that we receive absolution, or forgiveness, from the pastor as from God Himself, and in no ways doubt, but firmly believe, that by it our sins are forgiven before God in heaven.”

This woman in the story teaches us about this true, deep, honest confession.  Because as she approaches Jesus, she already knows God’s forgiveness.  And her tears and these gestures of hospitality and welcome -- the oil and foot-bathing -- are only signs of gratitude.  She’s not begging Jesus to forgive her, she knows that he already has.  So now she can’t help but offer a sign of her deep gratitude and joy.  

Having been forgiven by God, through Jesus Christ, we can’t help but fall on our knees, weeping and giving thanks through signs of gracious hospitality.

Oil on the head, washing of the feet, providing a good meal for a guest (which the Pharisee’s part out here) -- all of these were signs of gracious hospitality and welcome back then.  It’s worth asking and pondering and praying over this together as a congregation, who is building new spaces:  What are the signs today of deep welcome and hospitality in response to the mercy and forgiveness that God has poured out endlessly for each one of us?  
And then I said that Jesus teaches us something here too:  

The circle just keeps getting wider.  That’s why I wanted to get more vivid with the appearance and the age of this woman.  
Jesus has welcomed and forgiven, old men with withered hands, battered women slumped over with years of oppression and disease.  He has brought cute little children into the middle, he’s even raised them from the dead!  He has lifted up and shown mercy toward the Roman marine, whose dominant armies have oppressed and squashed Jesus’ own tribe, the Jews.  Christ offers him welcome pardon, even heals his favorite slave, and calls that Roman soldier’s faith greater than any he’s ever witnessed in his own community.  Do you see how the circle just widens and widens?  Surprising us again and again?  Those people too?  Those people too?   

And now a young, sexually attractive woman receives this same embrace.  In Christ, no longer is she an outsider.  In Christ, no longer is she to be patronized and objectified through careless words and actions.  In Christ, she is free from the oppression of judgement, and being reduced to simply an outfit or a certain style.  In Christ, sisters and brothers everyone, everyone, everyone is welcomed at the table of mercy.  We struggle with what that means, in our world, in our church, in our hearts; but God does not.

And at the end of the day, all we can do is fall down on our knees, maybe weep a little bit and give thanks that we too are included in this cosmic embrace of God.  We too are forgiven, blessed, and now sent out.  Go your way, this faith that God has given us -- a gift, by the way, offered freely to us in our baptism (little Isabella’s receiving a gift this day: the gift of faith) -- this faith is what saves us.  And so we can truly go out into this hurting, dangerous, challenging world -- in peace.  Thanks be to God.  AMEN.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

February 12 -- Go Tell John

Have you ever known anyone who refuses to play a certain board game or card game or sports game?  [pause]  Even worse, someone who starts the game, but then if they start losing, they quit?  

Often a question like that hurls us back to childhood -- I bet our kids can all name someone -- maybe we were once like that ourselves ;)  when the game doesn’t meet our expectations -- which is pretty much “to be winning” -- the temptation is to quit, “like children in the marketplace: the flute’s being played but they did not DANCE”.  [  >: (  Humph.]

Ooh!  There’s an even better image: ever known someone who absolutely refuses to dance?  :)  Or worse, starts dancing and then quits in the middle of the song, just walks off?  

Sisters and brothers in Christ, God is inviting us this day to get in the game, to join the dance.  “Get off the sidelines, stop being a wallflower of faith, and jump in here!”  [slowly] But be aware that as the music goes on, we may just find that it’s not a song that we like all that much.  It may not be a game that meets our expectations...

...for God’s dance has got some funky beats, some irregular measures, some strange instruments.  God’s game takes these unexpected twists and turns.  And often it’s tempting to bow out:

“Are you the one, Jesus?!  Really?  Or are we to wait for another?  Is this all there is, Jesus?  [pause]  Because John the Baptist, our big hero, is all locked up in prison now!”  [pause]

(John, here, btw is anyone whose hope is waning, whose despair is creeping in.)

Does it all ever make you want to throw in the towel, to give up and go home?  I don’t know about you, but I want to win!  I want to be the best!  And I want my Jesus to lead me to victory, crushing the competition, knocking out the bad guys, and raising me up on the pedestal to shine like the winning star that I am...or at least that I should be...right?

But this one Jesus, doesn’t do that.  His ways are not our ways.

This one Jesus takes a completely different direction, plays a game we never expected.  What kind of a dance is this?  [pause]  Humility?  Letting go?  Emptying of self and pride? Serving others first?  Loving our enemies?  Welcoming the stranger?  What kind of a crazy dance is this?  Not a game I always want to play!

But God’s not done with us yet...
When I was going to Confirmation Camp as a kid back in Texas -- Camp Lutherhill -- Jr. High -- there was always a dance the last night.  And it was meant to be the grand finale of the week, everyone was so excited building up to the dance.  The cute counselor that all the girls liked and thought was so-o-o-o-o cool was the DJ.  Everyone was so jr.-high-nervous, and put on their best outfits on for the dance.  I was no exception.  Heart pounding in adolescent anxiety.  Eyes sweeping constantly over the one we wanted to like us back.  Hormones churning, sweat glistening, voice cracking.  It was terrible: 

Kids got rejected, or just totally overlooked, hearts got broken, weird kids always got left out, tears always fell.  Some of the worst hours of the week happened that last night at camp.  There were winners and there were losers.  It was good learning for life, I guess, but this was not a fore-taste of the kind of community and inclusion and love that God invites us into, frankly the opposite of all those great themes that highlighted our week up until then.  No, this was torture.  
Walls were being built, cruelly dividing up who’s in/out.  The strong triumphed over the weak...you get the picture.  And others just got plain left out.  I hated it almost every year.

(Basically, it looked like just about every other dance in middle school and beyond ...  But but this was church!)

Well, I am pleased to tell you that camp dances have really evolved for the better...or maybe our camps here in Southern California have always been doing it right...because the first time I took our confirmation kids to camp, I was so pleased to see the way they make the dance a blast for EVERYONE.  

They taught line dances, where everyone could participate, And they’ve come up with these inclusive games now, where someone invites you to dance until everyone has been invited by someone to dance.  (“A-a-a-a-and you look like a real cool cat...”)  

And then they have “the paddle dance” where one person gets to hold a canoe paddle like a queen or a king, and two people beg that one person to pick them.  If you don’t get picked, then you get the paddle next and get to have two people beg you to dance.  Now, there’s still drama and hormones, but I gotta tell you, after my obviously traumatizing memories back at Lutherhill, it almost brought tears to my eyes to see those awkward kids, those nerdy kids, those outsider kids, kids in wheelchairs, kids covered in zits and dandruff and the cool kids, all having a genuine blast together on the dance floor.  

It was like the lessons of the week were literally being embodied in these ... funky beats, irregular melodies, strange instruments: these are the games of God.  
Sisters and brothers in Christ, Jesus invites us into a dance, and  it’s not one we win at.  It’s one where everyone joins in.  

“You go tell, John,” Jesus says, “that everyone is dancing!”  The blind receive their sight.  The lame walk.  The lepers are cleansed.  The deaf hear, the dead are raised...and the goofy, smelly, awkward kid is dancing and being cheered on in the middle of the circle.   There’s no better feeling for a kid than everyone chanting your name to the beat.  “Go Thomas, go Thomas…”

It’s not what we expected.  It’s not what the rest of the world calls cool or successful.  It’s not winning and beating others.  It’s God’s unconditional love, poured out for you and for me and for both the outcast and the cool kid.  It’s not the game we thought we were playing, but you go tell John...

...that with Jesus, no one is left out.  This is a glimpse of God’s party.  Go back, sisters and brothers in Christ, and tell John!  It’s not what you thought, and there’s still plenty of pain in the world, but I tell you: Christ is here.  Now.  And he is the one.  AMEN.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

February 5 -- Raising the Widow's Son

So how do you feel about the fact that you’re the one Jesus raised from the dead?  I don’t just mean after you die, I mean right now, today!  Male or female, gay or straight, black or blue, white or brown, native or immigrant, young or old – you’re the one in the story, you’re the one Luke was talking about, you’re the one lying on the funeral bier!  

How’s that hit you?  Incredulous, relieved, terrorized, unwilling?  If you’re anything like me these days, its hitting you distracted – pulled in at least 5 different directions as I speak, busy, broken, maybe even battered.  But sisters and brothers in Christ, I in all my brokenness and busyness, proclaim to you in all your brokenness and busyness that Christ comes alongside our funeral processions today, whatever those might look like…and declares them finished!  The dirge is over, and now the party of God has begun!
funeral procession
Not that there isn’t any space for lament, for a good funeral procession.  God knows we need to lament, to walk along together remembering and honoring our beloved dead, and not just the people who have died, but also the opportunities that we’ve missed, the great ideas that have come and gone, the money wasted, the programs that have run their course, the people who have left, the separation, division and isolation that has taken place.  Death is truly all around us, in many, many forms.  God knows that we need to prepare good funerals, like the people of Nain and start making our somber way to the grave. 

But Jesus meets us in our dirge, has compassion for us, trudging along, and says to us, to you, plainly and prophetically – get up!  God has looked favorably upon you!  

I think weeping is very good, and I believe Jesus affirmed that when he modeled it at Lazarus’ tomb…but we also need to hear his word for today:  “Stop your crying, and get up.”  Might sound insensitive.  But the opposite is true, and this is being spoken like someone who knows how the story ends.

Then Jesus turns us over to one another.  As if there wasn’t enough grace in just raising us from death, it gets better:

Jesus hands us to our loved ones, to our communities.  We are given to one another here at church 
-- gotta say something here:  We live in a culture of just drifting and doing whatever we want, but Jesus gives us to one another in a anew way this day! Risen from the dead, Jesus gives us to one another.  Let’s recommit ourselves to one another, recommit ourselves to our communities, to our families, to our loved ones, to our congregations, to our nation, to our world, to our species, to our planet.  

Lifted by Jesus we will not “do church” in the culture’s terms, which draws dividing lines and builds walls that isolate and vilify (the walls we build here are only for sheltering, educating, nurturing, and feeding -- yes, unlike the culture, we will commit to one another despite our differences -- that’s what happens when Jesus raises us and hands us over to one another.  

And specifically, he hands us over to our mothers.  That is, Jesus reconnects us to where we came from, to the matriarchs of our lives, the ones who gave us birth.  Where did you come from?  Did you come from creativity but somewhere you hit a wall?  Did you come from hope but somewhere got cut off?  Did you come from joy but lost your way?  Creativity and hope and joy can be the widows in our culture can't they (the ones with no voice)?  [pause]  And yet we are raised and handed over to them this day.  We are reconnected with God and with the earth.  We are reconnected with one another in these simple words: “Stop your crying and get up.”  God has indeed looked favorably on us, this day and always.  AMEN.