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, September 24, 2017

September 24 -- Jacob's Dream

Jacob went to sleep in one place, and he woke up in a very different spot.  

He went to sleep not knowing — not having any idea — what was next for him.  He went to sleep afraid, alone and anxious.  He was running from his angry brother.  He had colluded with his clever mother, and tricked his blind father Isaac into giving him the birthright.  Jacob had stolen, lied, cheated and now is fleeing.  (We skipped over those verses.)   Jacob was living into his name — heel.  He was grabbing his twin brother’s heel at birth, and it sounds like he’s been tripping up Esau and others ever since... 

Now he’s a man on the run, but has to stop for the night.  He can’t go on any more.  He’s out of gas.   No idea what was next...but, man, did he have a rocky past!  Must have felt like he has no family at this point.  He hasn’t even wrestled with God yet (that great story comes in a few more chapters)!  It seems as though he’s far from everything and everyone.  “Now [he lays himself] down to sleep”...on a rock pillow! 

And that’s when he has this dream.  He goes to sleep in one place, and he wakes up in a very different spot.  When he goes to sleep on the rock, all is lost.  But when he wakes up he is suddenly aware that he is totally and completely in God’s presence!  

God is right there with him!  Has been all along!

What was it about that dream, that stairway to heaven, Jacob’s ladder?  It was like a vision of hope and peace and freedom for him. 

Not freedom to leave this earth and go up to heaven now, but rather the awareness of God’s greater presence, God’s messenger angels, moving both up and down: an free flow, a open connection, with heaven!  The freedom is in the knowing that the Divine is within our reach and easily accessible!  That’s what Jacob suddenly sees here!   

And the freedom of knowing that God’s right here, right next to us — did you catch that?  God wasn’t way up at the top of the ladder; God was standing right beside him here on the ground, planted in the earth!  

That’s when God speaks directly to Jacob for the first time in the biblical text.  It wasn’t a booming voice in the sky.  It was close whisper.  Words of promise, words of presence: “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go...I will not leave you...”
Jacob goes to sleep on a hard rock and wakes up in a cushion of grace.
When we rest, sisters and brothers in Christ, God is working on us.  When we lay down.  When we stop running, and finally crash; when we get to that place of settling for just about anywhere to lay our head; when we’re at our wits end; when we hit rock bottom...as individuals, as congregations, as communities, as a nation, or even as a planet...when we hit rock bottom [pause] — that’s precisely when we may be most susceptible to God’s words AND GOD’S VERY PRESENCE comforting and assuring us.  Re-aligning us with God’s vision.  Jacob’s dream aligned him — realigned him — with the help of that rock pillow, Jacob’s dream aligned him with God’s vision.

Sisters and brothers in Christ, God is right next to you too, ready to realign you with a divine vision — hope, peace, freedom, even joy.  

The 3rd verse of our HoD that we’re about to sing: 

May our dreams prove rich with promise; 
each endeavor well begun; 
Great Creator, give us guidance
till our goals and yours are one.

Our dreams and visions are aligned with God’s dreams and visions.  Think about what God’s dream is for you.  What is God’s dream for this congregation, this community, this nation, this world?  And how is God working through you — both in your hours at work and in your hours at rest — to align our dreams to God’s dream?  Are they the same.

Whether you know it, whether you believe it, whether you’re in touch with it — or not, we can echo Jacob’s wake-up song today: “Surely the Lord is in this place—I just had no idea!”

When we lie down, we lie down in Christ, and when we wake up, we wake up in Christ…in God’s presence and promise.  And this day, as in every day God is moving, the Holy Spirit is stirring in us, in our community, in our hearts — even in the midst of turmoil all around.  

You’d think this is the last place God would want to dwell, with all the destruction and cruelty we human beings, can inflict on one another, even those of us who fancy ourselves pretty good people.  Why would God want to stand beside us?!  Make promises to us?  Love us?  Forgive us? 
And yet, God does.  AMEN.  

Sunday, September 17, 2017

September 17 -- Binding of Isaac

Let’s just come out and say it: at first glance, this is a MESSED UP text!  God tests Abraham by asking him to sacrifice/kill his only son Isaac as a burnt offering?!! 

It’s a little tempting to just skip this text, pretend like it’s not here in the Bible...and many times we do...but this actually has got some very important lessons and challenges for us -- we just need to say a few things first:

It needs to be said that we 21st c. Christians are always looking at Scripture through the lens of our own experience and culture -- we can’t help it.  And most of the time, frankly, that works just fine.  Lots of the stories in the Bible, we can relate to, as if they were happening in our day in age.  Many stories, we could create an almost-identical modern-day version, like a modern-day Prodigal Son story, for example.  

In this case, however, we have to try to get out of our own contextual trappings and contextual shortsightedness and imagine for a moment how very different the time, place, and customs really were.  This is always what we should consider with Bible, but it’s mandatory today.  In the binding of Isaac, we’re really forced to leave our contextual trappings.
“contextual trappings/contextual shortsightedness” -- 
What do you mean, Pastor? 
Well, how about this, for example: “What kind of a God would demand that a father who’s longed for a son, sacrifice that son?”  How many of you, like me, have that question hanging out there, as we read this story?  

Remember how different the times were: this was a time where many religions practiced child sacrifice.  It was common...people did it in order to appease the gods.  If you do this, then the gods will reward you.  We’d never do this today...but -- then again -- people  bargain with God today too: “God, I’ll do this...if you do…” (Then leave the church and maybe faith altogether if it doesn’t pan out.) 

This story starts to look like its headed that way as well, but then a surprising twist to an old story that always has the same ending: No!  Here, God/Yahweh/Elohim stops the child sacrifice tit-for-tat system.  God keeps promises, remember?  God promised to bring a great nation forth from Abraham and Sarah.  

So God -- in this ancient story -- stops the terror and violence.  For our time and place, it’s hard to see that, and this all sounds very troublesome, I know.  But for its time and place: radical.  “Stop!” the angel cries, “Do not hurt the boy.”  This is earth-shattering grace, something new, breaking out of something old!  

Probably not the best way, we’d image that today -- in fact, I’d never in a million years image it like this!  But what would it look like for you?  What would “earth-shattering grace, something new breaking out of something old” look like for you?  Ever experienced God’s faithfulness, when you had no idea how you were going to get out of a bad predicament?

A phone call from a friend that comes just when you’re on the brink?  A little note from a family member that stops you from doing something awful.  Nature, so often, is God’s angel for me.  “Stop!” nature has cried out to me -- a cool breeze, a butterfly, a ray of sun piercing through the clouds: these are among God’s angels for me, too.  “Do no harm,” creation has cried out to me.  “Look, God will provide.”  God will provide.  All is not lost.  This is not over.  Just when we’re on the brink of doing something awful, something new breaks out of something old.  And God will provide. 

But can we really trust that?  Can YOU really trust that?
Feel free to be honest to the struggle.  Here’s the other part of our story that’s so gripping: It’s a story about God, breaking old ways with new life and hope, through providence.  And it’s a story that calls us to reflect again on how much we really trust in God.  How much do you trust in God?  (put your contemporary lenses back on)  Enough to lift up and let go of that which is most important to you?  How much do we really trust in God?  Do our lives reflect that trust?  
I think we should stop calling that line in our budget “Benevolence” and start calling it “How much we trust in God”.  Benevolence is about what we’re donating out of the goodness of our hearts.  But what that $17,160 really is...is how much we trust in God.  What we write on our pledge cards later in October, that’s how much we trust in God...

During stewardship season, I’ve been known to say, “All that have and all that we are comes from God and belongs to God.”  And yet, we can hoard and hang onto things as if there’s no God at all, at the end of the day.  We can spout religious platitudes, practice religious rituals, but when it really comes down to it, there’s no way we’d trust God that much -- “all that we have, all that we are”?  What would Abraham say about that?

Could money be our first-born and only son?  Is money our Isaac?  Would you ever just take all your money as a demonstration of your trust in God...bind it and sacrifice it?  Build an altar, lift it up and let it go?  Give it away and figure, “God’s got me, so I trust that I’ll ultimately be just fine.  [pause]  I don’t understand it.  I don’t want to do it.  But I trust and give thanks that God’s truly got me.  I don’t know how, but I trust God.”  

Most of us really struggle with that.  I do.  This text -- despite it’s obvious modern-day problems -- calls us to think again and anew about how much we trust in God?  

Abraham and Sarah left it all, their crops, their comfort, their good life because God called them into something new.  I imagine they never dreamed they’d make it to Canaan, but they did.  God provided.  Never have a child, but they did.  GP.  Now this: Isaac.  

It was a different time and a different place.  But are we capable of such great sacrifice and trust? 

Bishop Andy -- I’ve share this before -- encourages us when it’s time to pledge each year (and he practices this himself, I should say): he tells you to go home, pray about what’s the absolute most you can give, what percentage of your income will you give back to God in this new year.  “Come up with that number, and then,” he says, “Bump it up one more percent, so that it hurts a little.”  Now we’re tapping into the binding of  Isaac.  Talk about hurting.  Abraham gave ‘til it hurt, he trusted ‘til it hurt...  

Where are you being called to make great sacrifices?  Pray on that this week.  

And remember, the good news here is on the bulletin cover:  God. Will. Provide.  Wouldn’t it be amazing to go around and hear each other’s stories about how God has provided in times we’ve made sacrifices or have been scared...especially financially.  (I know there are other ways to sacrifice, but really think money is the Isaac.)  

Here’s what I’d finally point out here in the text, just to conclude.   Abraham says “Here I am” 3x in this text.  He says it to God twice, and he says it to his son Isaac when he has a question.  In other words, Abraham shows up.  He doesn’t always understand how it’s all going to go, or what (the heck) God is up to...He simply says here I am.  And God he finds that in the end God provides what is needed.  And there’s enough there to remain in relationship -- with the world, with sisters and brothers, sons and daughters, parents and grandparents in our family and beyond.  There’s enough there to remain in relationship with God.  The covenant continues...for God provides.  AMEN.