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

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

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

So, what's been hooking you?

So, what's been hooking you?

Here you can...

Monday, April 24, 2017

April 23 -- Emmaus Road

We had another good preschool chapel service in here this week: Your chairs were filled with little children.  Many of them, most of them -- this is probably the only church experience they have.  I don’t take that lightly, and I want them to know about God and God’s love for them, for all.

We always have a little acolyte come forward and receive a little cross around their neck and light the candles.  We pray, and we sing, and I offer a little thought around a theme and this week, it was of course the theme of Easter!  “Easter’s not just one big day of dressing up and hunting for candy, it’s 50 days of celebrating!” I told the kids.  “Why?  Because God loves us so much, that Jesus lives!”  That’s the basic message, but I kept going and did a little exercise with them where we made faces.  We often get sad, angry and scared.  [made the faces] But because Christ is risen, we don’t have to be sad, angry or scared, because of Easter, now we can be the opposite of sad, angry and scared: We can be joyful, loving and bold.  Sang “Peace Like a River”: I don’t have to be scared anymore. I’ve got joy like a fountain: I don’t have to be sad anymore.  I’ve got love like an ocean:  I don’t have to be angry anymore.  Took pictures…[I think I’ll send them out to you.]

Then, always at the end of preschool chapel another little acolyte comes forward, receives a special cross necklace to keep, and extinguishes the candles, and here’s what I really wanted to tell you about:  Every chapel service when we get to this point, I always ask the kids some questions, “Now, just because the candle goes out, does that mean God goes away?”  NO!  “Does that mean God stops loving us?”  NO!  And then we sing “This little light of mine” remembering that the light stays ways us, that the light of Christ, “this little light of mine” that burns in our hearts and in our minds and in our souls can’t ever go out...because of that’s the Risen Christ alive and deeply a part of us.  

Then the children joyfully go bouncing out to play. 

I hear our preschool children’s (they are your children too, you know) -- I hear their little joyful shouts of “NO!” when when I read the Emmaus story, when the Jesus vanishes from their sight at the end.  

Did you catch that?  Right when Christ breaks the bread, they realize who he is -- maybe I should say Christ is re-membered in the breaking of of the bread.  And right at that moment he vanishes!

This one Jesus, who was with them all along, who walked with them and listened to them all day, who stayed with them into the night, suddenly disappears when the bread is broken, at the very moment it all comes together! 

Now, you might think they’d be sad all over again, they just figured it out -- they just realized that this is their risen Lord right in front of their eyes -- and then he’s gone all over again!  But they’re not sad at all here.  Jesus disappears and they are filled with joy.  “Were not our hearts burning within us?”

Chapel time is over, the lights up here are extinguished, and they are filled with joy.

At the very moment Christ disappears from our sight, we are filled with joy and peace, because the Risen Christ is alive and deeply a part of us.  And out we go “to play” on the playground of God’s world (not such a terrible place with our Risen Christ lenses on).
Because of Easter, we don’t have to be scared, angry or sad any more.  Because of Easter ;) because of all the candy we’ve eaten and the outfits we’ve worn -- NO!!! -- because of Christ’s resurrection -- remember?  “Oh yeah!” -- we don’t have to scared, angry or sad any more.  

Because of Christ’s resurrection we can finally be joyful, loving, and bold to go out into this world, and share the good news… 
at the very moment Jesus vanishes before our eyes.  

“Just because the candle goes out, does that mean God goes away?”  NO!  “Does that mean God stops loving us?”  NO!  Just because Christ vanishes before our eyes, does that mean we need to get sad, scared or angry?  NO!  It’s precisely at that moment of vanishing (Greek: aphantos egeneto = became invisible/phantom), that we know everything is OK. [pause]  Children at the end of chapel: that’s us with the Easter story.  
The candles lit up here: that’s just bearing witness to the deeper reality.  The candle can go out.  The deeper reality is what never goes out.  Christ walking along with them, being with them in a visible way: that’s just bearing witness to the deeper reality that can never disappear.

Here’s a moment for us: when we take that bread in a few minutes.  That bread which we believe and name over and over again, “the body of Christ,” corpus Christi, sangre de Christo, the blood of Christ, now we see it, God’s real presence...and then it disappears, vanishes before our eyes as we take it in.  Bearing witness to the deep reality: Christ is alive and with us.  Yeah, we can’t see it anymore, but it goes inside of us, God’s body becoming deeply a part of our bodies!  

So we don’t have to be sad or angry or scared anymore, sisters and brothers in Christ!  
Easter frees us from sin and death, and utter sadness, and debilitating fear, and crushing bitterness.   We left all that at the cross, remember?  Otherwise Easter is just about chocolate bunnies and pastel colors and eggs and more candy.

No, Easter frees us to be truly peaceful, truly loving, deeply joyful (just like the song…“like a river, ocean, fountain”) and courageous:  to move outward into God’s world with our arms flung wide open, with our doors unlocked, with our banners unfurled, our flags of unconditional welcome flying high, our hearts burning with unquenchable joy, mercy, forgiveness and peace!  (Nothing new and courageous about violence.)  Easter frees us to be bold -- that is peaceful.

Can we see Jesus?  No.  We can’t.  He’s vanished from our eyes.  [pause]  But we’re not sad about that either.  

The candle light in the church goes out.  But that’s ok.  Jesus is alive.  What did the angel in the tomb say?  “He is not here.”  We have “this little light,” you see...  

So now we get to bounce and skip and sing out of here too…to show and tell others what’s happened to us on the road, “how Christ [has] been made known to us [too] in the breaking of the bread”!  

Thanks and Easter praise be to God!  Amen.  


Hey, let’s sing. #377 “Alleluia! Jesus is Risen!”  Pay special attention to verse 2: “Walking the way, Christ in the center [cover], telling the story to open our eyes; breaking the bread, giving us glory: Jesus our blessing, our constant surprise.”

Sunday, April 16, 2017

April 16 -- Easter Sunday

Growing up in Houston TX, we always used to have our Spring Break during Holy Week and this next week after, i.e. the first week of the Easter Season.  (I’m reminded of that because this year, that’s how it fell for our kids.)  

Back then, for me, this schedule always made the first week of Spring Break really about church, at least later in the week and at night.  We’d go to all the services.  I would often go home scared after Maundy Thursday, even crying myself to sleep because they did such a good job at recreating the story for us, slamming the book, running out into the darkness, I remember pondering, even as a little boy, the ways that we all betray Jesus.  Made me cry.  And Good Friday was always somber, even at home, we were pretty quiet all day.  Mom would always relay the events to us like they were unfolding in real time.  About 9 o’clock, “This is when Jesus was taken before Pilate.”  At about 10 o’clock, “This is when Jesus was whipped, given the crown of thorns, and brought in front of the crowd.”  At about 11, “Ah, this is when they shouted ‘crucify him, crucify him!’...And now he’s started walking up the path.”  She rehearsed the events like a biblical scholar, even though later in life, I never found those times matching up...didn’t matter.  She was remembering the story.  She was putting that Passion story together for us.  

Saturday was a quiet day too.  Although, Saturday was when we started packing our suitcases...  

I always had trouble sleeping on Holy Saturday night.  I’d go to bed actually thinking about Jesus being raised from the dead -- kind of confusing, creepy, as well as anticipatory and exciting.  We’d always be really exited about all the festivities of Easter morning.  Even more, to be honest, we’d go to bed excited and thinking about Easter Sunday afternoon, when we would be packing our little station wagon and driving out across East Texas, into Louisiana.  We aimed to get all the way to Biloxi, Mississippi on Easter Sunday night.  You see, we were going the Disney World for the rest of spring break -- not every year, but those few years headed for Disney World were the best!  

What I’m thinking about this Easter morning is remembering.  When I would finally fall asleep on Holy Saturday, somehow in the haze and dreams of sleep I would forget what the next day had in store, even when I first work up on Easter Sunday!  All this good stuff -- honestly, between Easter at church and family and vacation, it couldn’t get any better -- and still I’d forget, for a moment, even when I’d wake up!  

Do you know that moment?  When you wake up, but you haven’t yet come to?  When you haven’t yet remembered what’s in store for you today?  That moment can last a few seconds, like it did for me as a kid...and that moment can last for years:  [pause] 

How we can forget.  We can forget the stories that have brought us to this point.  We can forget the blessings that are right in front of us.  We can forget the relationships that mean the most to us, like we’re in some kind of haze.  We can forget the forgiveness, the grace, the peace, and the invitation that God plainly and lovingly has for us.  

If the opposite of forgetting is re-membering, then maybe we should call forgetting “dis-membering”.  Everything falls apart.  Isn’t that what seemed to happen in our Passion narrative of Holy Week?  Everything falls apart, everything is dis-membered.  [pause]  But then there’s that light that sparks when we come to:  [just remembering]  “Oh, yeah!!”
The disciples in our Easter story today were awake -- they were out and about, the women disciples namely were even up bright and early...but they hadn’t yet come to.  The women at the tomb had forgotten/dis-membered, the other 11 disciples had forgotten/dismembered, Peter himself had forgotten/dis-membered.  But Easter...is the day and the season (50 days, actually) of re-membering.  [You/we should do an activity of remembering during these 50 days of Easter -- scrapbooking, or record some family stories, or review your bible stories (narthex art), remembering is Easter business, even more than eggs and baskets and bunnies!]  

And it’s the angels call us back to memory, and once again give us a new song.  Angels in Luke’s Gospel are always giving us a new song -- Remember them at Christmas (“Glory to God in the highest…”)?

And today: “Why do you seek the living among the dead?  He is not here, but has risen.  Remember how he told you?…”

Remember?  “Oh, yeah!!”  I love when our kids remember something right in front of us, because their little eyes light up, and a smile grows across their face when they come to.   [And getting so jazzed.]  “Oh, yeah!!” I’m sure that’s what happened to me too, when I woke up on those vacation, Easter mornings as a child.  “Oh, yeah!!”

This is what happens to us, when we respond, “Christ is risen indeed!  Alleluia.”  Our eyes light up, the smile creeps across our face.  “Oh, yeah!!”

Can’t you just see that happening to Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James and the other women who were with them?  “Oh, yeah!!!”  Excited!!  They ran out to tell the others.  Now, it didn’t take right away for the men [no comment].  They said it was an “idle tale”, a dream.  But eventually, I’m sure, it happened to them too.  “Oh, yeah!!” 

And can’t you just see it happen to Peter.  The smile didn’t go creeping on his face just yet:  He ran back to the tomb and found the linen grave clothes thrown all over the floor.  And then…”Oh, yeah!!!!”

Sisters and brothers in Christ, Easter is about remembering.  Easter is about being put back together by God.  The lightbulb goes on, and we are re-membered, as we remember.  (We are remembered, even as we forget.)  This is our God!  Conquering death so that we might be put back together.  Forgiving our sin, so that we may now turn and love one another, forgive each other in response.  This is our God!  Putting us back together.  Easter is about remembering.  So that we may go and tell our sisters and brothers who have forgotten, who have been forgotten; so that we may go to those places where dis-remembering has taken place.  [pause]  Where things have fallen apart, where lives are lost, and stories are lost, and joy is lost.  Christ rises from the grave so that stories can be told anew, lives can be restored, hearts can be put back together, and joy can be found.  

This grace and mercy, this new life is ours because of Christ Jesus.  The risen Christ is the spark that lights the fire of faith, the Easter fire that burns in our hearts and kindles our imaginations and our courage to go and be the disciples of Jesus for this new day.  The flame of love and welcome and grace rises from this altar, this font, this book, this community.

Christ is risen.  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!  “Oh, yeah!!”

Now don’t forget it.  AMEN.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

April 9 -- Palm Sunday

"As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.”   This is the Gospel of the Lord?"

What is Jesus talking about here?

It’s as if the change is already happening.  The shift from the joy, the praise and the fun of Palm Sunday -- from “Jesus, our King!” to “Jesus, what are you talking about?  Jesus, I’m not really sure, but I don’t think I like it.  Jesus, you better watch yourself.  Jesus, I liked you, but you’re starting to make me a little nervous with this crazy talk, even a little mad.  Jesus, be careful.”  It’s as if the shift is already happening.
So here’s the backdrop:  This is the week of the Passover, and people are flooding into the city.  Political tensions are high.  Extra Roman security forces are shipped in, including Pontius Pilate himself (he didn’t live in Jerusalem, he lived in Caesarea), but this is a big week and Pax Romana needs to be enforced, because tensions are high.  The air is electric.  Anything can happen.  Ever been in a situation like that?

Interesting too, Luke’s Gospel was written, we think in about 80AD (about 50 years after this “Cloak Sunday” -- that’s 10 years after Jerusalem was in fact destroyed, desecrated, annihilated by the Roman Empire.

So, these heightened scenes before us today -- cheering crowds, nervous Pharisees, “Jesus, be quiet”, and then Jesus’ prophetic statements and even actions -- driving out the people selling stuff in the temple -- are all very political, and religious.  Tensions are high.  This is an edgy Sunday.

Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem, with the cloaks spread on the road is exciting, but so quickly, almost immediately the ones who are shouting, “Blessed is the king” will turn on him and, in only 5 days go over the edge and condemn him to death, shouting, “Crucify him!”  This is an edgy Sunday.

And yet in the center of it all is this Christ Jesus.  The one who’s been healing the sick, welcoming the outsider, and the outcast.  Preaching peace, teaching love.  Mercy and grace, remember, always having the final word.  Even amid all the tension, on this edgy Sunday, Christ is present, steady, strong and calm.
Did you catch the reference back to the beginning of Luke’s Gospel?  Seems like a long time ago, but I know you remember the angel’s song in the shepherd’s field on Christmas Eve: “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to God’s people on earth.”  Did you catch the song the people sang today?  “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!  Peace in heaven, and glory to God in the highest!”
The crowd has learned the Christmas angels’ song!  For as broken as this all is -- we see the turning of the crowd -- but for the moment, let’s notice that the people have become the angels: announcing peace and the reign of God.  (I know examples exist in your life too, where everyday people sing the angels’ song -- announcing peace and the arrival of God’s reign, even with immediate evidence to the contrary.)

They’re announcing peace, for the moment, the Pharisees are trying to keep the peace.  That’s different.  But both are well intended!

(Notice the role of the Pharisees here.  They’re actually looking out for Jesus, for the moment -- it was the “chief priest and scribes”, it says in vs47 who were looking for a way to kill him.  The Pharisees weren’t mentioned there. Pharisees always remind me of us Lutherans.  Shhh, don’t rock the boat, just keep the rules.  “Tell the crowd to quiet down,” Jesus.  This is getting too tense.)  The Pharisees are trying to keep the peace, to quiet this raucous down, even to look out for Jesus.

Today, things are on edge.  And at the same time, God’s people -- crowds, Pharisees -- are all trying to do what’s best.  Some are trying to protect, some are trying to praise and sing.  And Jesus is at the center of all of it.  Calm, loving, strong, prophetic.  Even as everything’s about to all go over the edge, tumbling down into Holy Week.

The location of Palm Sunday is at the edge of a cliff.  Things look beautiful for a moment, there are indeed some good things...but they keep moving, and tumbling into this week, everything starts to fall apart: the crowd changes their angelic song.  Their lyrics of peace fall apart.  They lose the song.  The Pharisees do in fact turn on Jesus, along with everyone else.  Peace and mercy will appear to be lost, as the passion narrative continues to the grave.

This is our story too:  Things may look beautiful for a moment, there are indeed some good things in our lives, in our church, in our world...but things keep moving, and tumbling into this week, everything starts to fall apart:  the crowd changes their angelic song of peace.  Fear and force takes over.
The Pharisees will turn on him as well -- even us good church people, who don’t like to rock the boat, just want to keep the peace and the rules...we Pharisees will turn on him as well, lose track of the fact that God has indeed arrived, and is deeply present in our joy and in our sorrow.

True peace -- the kind angels sing about -- peace and mercy will appear to be lost, as the passion narrative continues to the grave.
But we know how the story ends.

And it’s got nothing to do with us.

It’s got everything to do with God.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

April 2 -- Zacchaeus

You know Donald Trump is Zacchaeus, right?  

After last week’s scripture lesson, I was tempted again to start thinking, “Yep, Jesus definitely favors the poor over the rich.  Lazarus goes to heaven.  Rich man goes to hell…” No question.  

Yep, I got it.  I don’t like it, when I consider that I’m probably a little more like the rich man than the poor -- eating sumptuously...pretty often.  Walking past those in need.  Falling into the tip-top percentages of the world’s wealthiest people with my income and privilege.  Yep, Jesus loves the poor not the rich…Got it.  Lazarus goes to heaven.  Rich man goes to hell...no question.  [But it was our kids who had the question…Micah...]

Jesus surprises us again with mercy beyond compare...and calls the rich, wildly unpopular tax collector down.

You know that’s Donald Trump, right?  Rich, wildly unpopular tax collector?  I don’t have to convince anyone that he’s rich.  Now he’s a tax collector, as our latest Chief of State, you might say that he too is our chief tax collector.  And now, record-low approval ratings this week:  36% as of Tuesday. (Average for presidents since the 1950’s in their first quarter is 63%.) Gallop

Can you imagine what that must be like?  People hate him!  I pretty much hate him.  I know Republicans who hate him!  His own party!  Can you imagine what that must be like?  Up in a tree all by yourself.  He acts like it doesn’t bother him a bit, and I have little hope that he’ll ever show an ounce of vulnerability or sensitivity -- it’s one of the reasons he’s so despised... 

And yet, we have a God who enters our town and “passes through it,” as the text says.  We have a God, Jesus the Christ who looks up at him, and says, “Donald, hurry and come down.  For I’m must stay at your house today.”

This is not meant to be offensive to those of you who may be Trump supporters or at least Trump defenders; this is offensive to all the Trump haters, all the Trump dis-approvers, which seems to be the majority, even if Zacchaeus might be calling those reports fake news. 

Donald Trump is Zacchaeus!  And Jesus loves Donald Trump, Jesus loves rich, unpopular, tax collectors, too!  [What, no grumbling, like in the text?  No “Ah man, he has a gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner!”?]  

This is our God!  Mercy.  Grace.  Forgiveness. Welcome.  Offered to everyone.  Just when you think, you understand Jesus, he goes and does something like this.  And there’s more where that came from, remember?  The criminal he pardons on the cross? [pause] As they’re hanging together in excruciating pain?  “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”

Jesus in our story -- it’s very important to note -- makes the first move here:  First he comes through town, then he finds Zacchaeus up in that tree.  Zacchaeus doesn’t call out to him, Donald Trump doesn’t approach Jesus and invite him to dinner.  Jesus makes the first move toward him, just as Jesus always makes the first move toward us.  

(That’s the idea behind infant baptism, btw.  We don’t get a say in it!  It’s already done!  Salvation has already come to this house!)   Very important to note.  Our merciful and loving Christ has already invited himself to Trump’s house, made the first move, offered salvation, forgiveness, hope, love, mercy and healing:  “Hurry and come down from there!” 

“Come down, Zacchaeus, from this high place where you have been defrauding, oppressing, leaving behind, climbing on top of those who have little, climbing on trees!  Stop it!”  God says this to us too: we’re all pretty rich in this country.  (What did I say last week?  $40,000/year = wealthiest 0.57% globally)

“Come down from there, brother, sister.  If you really want to see me, climbing up high into the tree won’t help.  If you really want your sight restored, then come down and open up your home.  Don’t hide up there.  Share in community down here.”

The first part of our text today is about a blind man.  But once again -- ah, Luke is so good! -- we see that that there are actually two blind men in our reading today.  (Remember the parable of the two lost sons?) Two blind men here, and one of them is named Zacchaeus.  

And Jesus heals both of them!

Jesus makes the first move.  We just get to respond, sisters and brothers in Christ.  Because Jesus passes through our town too.  Calls us down from being up high above (or at least separate from) the rest.  Jesus re-members us too.  Jesus re-connects us to one another.  Challenges us by inviting himself over, and in so doing salvation arrives.  We just get to respond.

Zacchaeus, in the story, responds...immediately: “Lord, half of my possessions, I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone,” Donald Trump says, in the Gospel of Luke, “I will pay back four times as much!”  Can you imagine!  When the poor have good news brought to them, or simply food.  When the downtrodden have justice returned to them, equality, a place at the table, a level field, a restoration of stolen funds, then walls are torn down, trust is rebuilt, enemies become friends and the world starts looking again like God first created and intended it to be: a garden.

“Leave that tree in the garden alone, Zacchaeus.  Let it be, Donald, don’t climb all over it, and use it to get ahead or above others.  Let’s go eat together instead.”  

He too is a “son of Abraham.”  In Luke chapter 13 Jesus called a woman a daughter of Abraham -- that woman who had an unclean spirit that had crippled for 18 long years, and she was bent over.  She was bent down, below the crowd.  Zacchaeus had climbed up, above the crowd.  And both of them are granted salvation from Jesus.  This is our God!  

Just when you think you understand, Jesus forgives and grants salvation to “that one” too!  That’s amazing grace...when people start sharing, start connecting, forgiving…when the wealthy let go, and poor receive justice...when we truly see each other.  

God is in our midst, as this good work begins anew today.  God in our White House, in our Senate and House, God is in our Supreme Court, and in the halls of our state capitols.  In fact, Christ passes through all of our town and stops.  God invites us down too, enters our homes and our lives anew.  And now we can’t help but respond!  

Thanks be to God...for salvation has already come to your house!  AMEN.