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, 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.  

Sunday, November 12, 2017

November 12 -- Amos: Justice Rolls Down

“The message of Amos is a challenge to people and nations caught up in the pursuit of material wealth and comfort.  Societies driven by consumerism can lose sight of faithful stewardship of wealth and the just distribution of goods.  Amos reminded the people that true faithfulness is trusting in God alone and treating the neighbor with justice.” These are not my words — this is from the Lutheran Study Bible’s intro on the Book of Amos.

I heard about a Jewish doctoral professor, this week, who used to say, “If you like the prophet Amos, you don’t understand him.”

Let me clarify a bit: Amos was from Tekoa, a little village about 10 miles south of Jerusalem...which means that Amos was from the Southern Kingdom.  

We’ve fast-forwarded again in our autumn Tour d’Old Testament, and now the kingdom has split since David and Solomon.  Now we’ve got Israel in the north, and Judah (which includes Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and little Tekoa) in the south.  Amos was from the south, but did his prophetic ministry up in the north, in Bethel.  

In other words, Amos wasn’t a local!  [pause] I don’t know anyone who likes an outsider coming in and casting judgement on a community, a region, a congregation — where she or he isn’t from at all...

This would be like a prophet coming to the U.S. from Mexico — from a poor family of farmers (that was Amos) — and preaching to an affluent congregation in North County.  (Actually I’ve got a friend, we’ve got a pastor in our synod — Pastor RZ — who is in fact from Mexico, serving a traditionally white, suburban congregation, First in Vista.  Would be interesting to talk to him about this text.)  

Amos was from the south, but was called to be a prophet in the north.  God called him from from a simpler life: “I am no prophet,” Amos says in Chapter 7, “nor a prophet’s son; but I’m a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees.  But the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel [northern kingdom].’”  Sometimes God calls us where we don’t want to go...to speak truth to power.  We’ve seen this theme over and over through this Old Testament season.  All we can do is trust in God.

Amos is a prophet for justice.  He critiques pretty much everyone: both the authorities and the everyday people of Israel, and he calls them to the justice and righteousness of God...misphah and zedekah.  

Now maybe you have an idea already of what justice and righteousness looks like today.  Let’s start with what it looked like for Amos (Chapter 2): 

-People were being forced into slavery if they couldn’t pay their debts...even very small debts. Business sans ethics.
-“They would trample the head of the poor and push the afflicted out of the way.” (vs.7)
-And Amos talks about sexual exploitation, especially of girls and young women.

Sadly, we can relate to these horrific injustices even today.  [pause] But we can add more to the list.  These are not the ways of mishpah and zedekah (j&r).  These are an abomination, “a profaning of the holy name” as Amos would say.  When we, as human beings, get caught up in these kinds of injustices, we are taking God’s name in vain!

Contrast that again with Luther’s explanation of “Give us this day our daily bread.”  What is daily bread?  Luther:  “It’s everything included in the necessities and nourishment for our bodies, such as food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, farm, fields, livestock, money, property, an upright spouse, upright children, upright members of the household, upright and faithful rulers, good government, good weather, peace, health, decency, honor, good friends, faithful neighbors, and the like.”

When we pray this petition of the Lord’s Prayer, we are prophesying like Amos that everyone everywhere might have daily bread, recognize their daily bread, and openly receive it with thanksgiving.  Everyone everywhere.

Just imagine with me for a minute — a country where everyone had enough.  Where we didn’t have to worry about crime and violence, because people weren’t having to scrap and steal for crumbs.  What if we made ending hunger and poverty a centerpiece of our democracy.  (That’s different from making “obtaining wealth” a centerpiece.)  

Can you imagine a world where everyone is fed?  Where everyone can have good medical care?  Where everyone is loved?  And everyone is housed and can pay for it, and everyone gets to go to a good school.  Where everyone gets plenty of time off for Sabbath, for family, for travel...

Bishop Dr. Guy Erwin — I think I talked about him last week too — at our Conference in the desert a few weeks ago, talked about Germany as he offered some reflections on the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation.   And Bishop Erwin said, “You know, it’s amazing how Luther’s Small Catechism has seeped into the halls of government in Germany.  I don’t think that’s an accident.”  

Bishop Erwin’s heard some Americans tourists critique Germans — or at least are shocked — that ‘none of them go to church anymore’.  But their Lutheranism shows in their policies, he exclaims.  It’s no coincidence, that’s the 4th petition of the Lord’s Prayer is dripping out from the halls of power, now at the Reichstag in Berlin:  Luther’s words in their policies! “Everything included in the necessities and nourishment for our bodies, such as food, drink, clothing, shoes, house...money, property...upright and faithful rulers, good government...peace, health, decency, honor...faithful neighbors, and the like.”  It’s like they all listened in Confirmation, memorized Luther’s Small Catechism, and it actually stuck, we joked!

If it feels like I’ve lost track of Amos in the OT, I don’t think I have: Amos is a prophet for justice, for everyone having enough.  And if you too didn’t like him before, you’ll really dislike him with this reading for today, where he turns to religious, ritualistic types like us, and says:
“I despise your festivals, I take no delight in your solemn assemblies...take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.  But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

Friends in Christ, when our actions in church are not grounded in justice and righteousness, then our worship and assemblies — both solemn and joyous — are worthless.  This is Amos.  [pause]

And it’s actually good news, even while it’s no fun to have a prophet from somewhere else come and judge us.  It’s actually good news:  it’s certainly good news to those who have been trampled on, pushed aside.  To the poor and the starving, those who have been longing for justice to come.  Maybe that’s you.  [pause]  But even if Amos has got you (like me) squirming uncomfortably in your upper-middle class cushioned seat, it’s still good news: Amos gets our eye back on the ball!  If we’re honest, we can so easily loose track of what it is we are to be about as God’s church here in La Mesa.  [pause]

When our actions are not grounded in justice and righteousness, then our worship and assemblies — both solemn and joyous, both small crowds and packed houses out into the narthex — it’s all worthless.  When our music is fantastic and our budgets are bloated, but we are doing nothing to move aside and “share the pond with others who need to fish too”, it brings God no delight: “Take away the noise of your songs!  I will not listen to the melody of your harps!  But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”  This is gospel truth, brothers and sisters in Christ!

In this season of budget forums and congregational meetings, what if we looked at our budget for 2018, and ask, “What would Amos say?  What would Martin Luther say?  What would Jesus say?”  The budget is the real mission statement here, right — who we are?

And let’s give thanks for prophets among us who step out of their comfort zones, who answer their call to go into foreign (perhaps hostile) territory, to speak a word from the Lord.  Amos left his quiet life to enter the fray, to cross the border, to preach good news to the poor, let the enchained go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.  That’s Amos; but...sound familiar?

Sisters and brothers, we follow after the one who fulfilled this prophesy, who died and rose in order that ALL might have life and have it abundantly.  We follow after that One Jesus who calls us from our comfortable places and into the frays of this world, across borders, into new lands, to speak truth to power, to shine like the “Little Christs” that we are.  (Luther called all the baptized Little Christs.)  Heeding Amos’s strong words is living deeply into our baptism.

Sisters and brothers in Christ, God’s still got us!  Let’s go in peace, and share the good news of God’s justice and righteousness.  AMEN.    

Sunday, November 5, 2017

November 5 -- God Speaks to Elijah

It’s been really a tough year.  

Since last All Saints Sunday — just think about all that has happened.  It has been a really tough year.

Hurricanes all over the gulf: destroying the coasts of Texas, Florida, whole islands in the Caribbean, namely Puerto Rico.  Even Ireland got hit.  Earthquakes in Mexico City and around the Pacific rim.  Some of the worst wild fires we’ve seen in California and Oregon.  It has been a really tough year.

Fatal and senseless violence...in Charlottesville, Virginia.  Las Vegas, Nevada.  And New York City this week.  And that’s just since August.  Wars and rumors of wars.  We are a nation divided and dividing.  We can’t even agree on what “facts” are anymore.  

It has been a really tough year.  On a global, and a national scale, but even out of the limelight: right here at Shepherd of the Valley, it’s been a really tough year.  We’ve lost loved ones — Dorothy Campbell, Nancy Spillane, Barbara Baker, John Levorson, Vernon Schwandt.  And those are just members of our congregation.  I know there have been others, other tragedies among us: other difficult life-changing losses, cancer diagnoses, injuries, problematic operations, long recoveries.  Death of pets.  Higher expenses, less resources, loneliness and depression.  It’s been an unbelievably tough year…

And perhaps we, like Elijah, get to this point of wanting to hole up.  Go sleep in a cave.  Wallow in pity — self-pity, pity on behalf of others we love, for the whole world.  When we get so overwhelmed with tragedy, it’s easy to want to go curl up in a cave, like Elijah.  “I am left alone, and they are seeking my life to take it away.”

That’s when the word of the Lord, according to our text, arrives and says, “What are you doing in here?  Go and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”

Doesn’t God get it?!  Now is not the time, to go stand on a mountain, and listen for God!  How could God be asking this of us?  We need to hole up in the cave, here, licking our wounds.  Doesn’t God get it?

But Elijah goes out anyway and waits for God.  He waits thinking this epiphany will happen in the windstorm, but it doesn’t happen in the hurricane.  God is not in the hurricane.  [pause]

Then maybe the earthquake.  But God is not in the earthquake either.  Maybe the fire.  Nope.  God is not in the fires.

Some people have said that earthquakes, hurricanes, fires  might be God’s way of speaking, even punishing people.  But here we see the God is not in disasters.

God comes in the sheer silence.  When we are holed up, at our worst, hunkering down, scared to death.  God is there.  After a tough year, in the midst of depression, is precisely when God is made known...that’s when God speaks and says, “Get up, I have not abandoned you, I am still here, I always have been.  Here’s some bread for your journey.  Get up. Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus.”

Wilderness?!  You want us to go back out there, God?!

Yes.  God is still with us.  God meets us in our chaos and our caves, feeds us with grace, and calls us to go back out there, back into the wilderness of this world.  

Sisters and brothers in Christ, this All Saints Day, we’re reminded again that God is not done with us.  We’re all the saints who are still here.  And God still needs us saints to be about the work of Gospel ministry out there in the wilderness, still.  God’s not done with us, in fact, in the midst of the fury, the sorrow, the pain, the loss, the violence — that’s precisely when God arrives.  And often when we’re down and at our worst is precisely when we may be the best vessel of God’s purposes.  [pause] When we’re empty, down and out, then there’s room for God to come and fill us with grace, hope, peace, joy and a love for this world that is beyond our own human capability. [pause] We become vessels of God’s healing, anointing this earth with Divine grace.

God is good.  And goodness is stronger than evil.  It’s been a tough year, but look around.  We’re still here.  God reminds Elijah he’s not alone too — 7000 in Israel!  All knees have not bowed to Baal!  God’s still got us.  Even if there were only 10 of us here.  All knees have not bowed to the powers, the lures, and the false gods of this world! 

And God still needs us to go back out there, and live, and teach, and serve, and pray for this world that is so deeply hurting.  Here’s some bread.  Like the angel said, “Eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”  God’s still got us, through Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns.  God arrives, not in explosive ways, not in disastrous ways, but in the sheer silence.  And God stays.


Let’s take 5 minutes of silence…

Put bulletins, phones, hymnals aside.
Deep breaths. 
Listen for God.  Pick a single word...joy, justice.
Let the thoughts and distractions come and go.  
Together, let us silently rest in God’s presence.