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No Justice. No Peace.

Image of large crowd of protesters holding sings that say, “Stop Racism Now,” “Black Lives Matter,” and “No Justice. No Peace.”

There is no peace here. Jesus may have breathed peace on his disciples. However, many have turned away from the peace he both breathed and embodied. Jesus exhaled peace on his disciples so that they might become the Body of Christ, the Spirit of God embodied in a world with much need. The primary purpose of the disciple was to continue the work that Jesus began when Jesus no longer lived in the flesh. And this has been the challenge since the very early days of the church, has it not?

From the beginning, Jesus’ disciples could not agree on what it meant to be the Body of Christ. They argued about whether or not one had to be Jewish in order to be a follower of Christ. They argued about traditions and teachers and what they could and could not do as members of Christ’s Body. And here we are, 2000 years later still arguing, still divided, still focused on everything other than embodying the peace Jesus passed on to his first disciples.

I live in and work in the Twin Cities. As you know, a police officer shot and killed yet another unarmed Black man last Sunday afternoon. Daunte Wright’s murder comes in the middle of the trial of the officer who killed George Floyd less than a year ago. My friends who are Black have expressed fear and anxiety for themselves, for their spouses, and especially for their sons. My friends who are White have expressed concern for the officer who shot Daunte and questioned whether or not Chauvin (the officer who killed Floyd) will have a fair trial. White folx have a hard time attributing these murders to the White supremacy that our entire criminal legal system is built on. Black folx have been shouting “Stop killing us” at rallies, marches, and protests for years. They also cry out, “No justice. No peace.”

No justice. No peace. This is Truth beyond the capacity of most White Christians to admit. As long as we continue to buy into the narrative that excuses police killing POC, we are perpetuating White supremacy and sustaining its lethality. How can any of us call ourselves Christian and believe that a police officer has the right to kill unarmed POC? Daunte Wright was pulled over because he was a young Black man driving a car. The police can say it was because his tags were expired, and that is just an excuse. My wife’s tags were expired for six months in 2020 before either of noticed. And she was never pulled over. In fact there are currently over 600,000 expired tags in Minnesota at this moment. Are they all going to be stopped by police and then shot? I doubt it.

Yes, I know they also discovered that Daunte had a warrant out for his arrest. Why? He had misdemeanor charges and failed to appear in court because the summons was sent to his previous address. He did nothing that justifies his death. And now another child will grow up without a father because those with power cannot imagine giving up the power White supremacy gives them.

My friends, as Christians we are the embodiment of the Risen Christ. Jesus did not care about saving souls. He did not care about literally interpreting scripture. He did not judge the actions of those with whom he disagreed. Jesus was all about saving lives, fostering wholeness, re-membering people into community. He was about empowering those whom the Empire had oppressed. He wanted everyone to know the Love of God through the ways in which he loved.

If you are among those who have been silent about White supremacy in our criminal legal system and in every institution in our society, now would be a good time to ask yourself why you have been silent. Really, what would Jesus have us do? Surely, silence or, worse, continuing to believe the White supremacist narratives of the empire, is not what Jesus would have us do. If we are the embodiment of the Risen Christ, then we are to be about breathing peace into the world. And we know beyond any doubt that if there is no justice, there will be no peace.

Will you commit to ending the oppression of the empire and eradicating White supremacy where you encounter it? We have a sacred duty to repair what we human beings have broken. Jesus said, “Peace be with you.” And he breathed the Spirit on a group of Brown-skinned people. We White-skinned people have wrongfully and selfishly hoarded that peace for far too long.

What are we going to do to embody the Risen Christ in a way that literally saves lives and ends our silent complicity in the on-going violence against POC?

RCL – Year B – Third Sunday of Easter – April 18, 2021
Acts 3:12-19  • Psalm 4  • 1 John 3:1-7  • Luke 24:36b-48

Photo: CC-BY-NC image by Rachael Keefe

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Musings

In Preparation for Mental Health Awareness Month

Image of wooden game tiles spelling out “Mental Health.”

Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you. For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well. Psalm 139:7-14

This selection of verses from Psalm 139 underscores the need for congregations to engage in conversation around mental health and mental illness. The psalmist clearly states that there is no place we can go where God is not already there – externally and internally. God is present when we are filled with hope and when we are mired in despair. God accompanies us in the heights of mania and depths of depression. God bears witness to our wholeness and to the fractures in our psyche. There is no human condition outside of God’s reach. Every human being is “fearfully and wonderfully made.” There is no exception, and it is time that the church stop acting like there is.

Mental illness has long been a taboo conversation in Christian churches of every variety. This is mostly due to unexamined, archaic theology. The traditional church view on mental illness ranges from demon possession to punishment for sin to character flaws and lack of faith. None of this is true any more than cancer, heart disease, or diabetes is caused by these things. Mental illness is brain disease that can be caused by genetics, trauma, or brain injury among other things. It is biological and has nothing to do with demons, sin, or faith. God is not the cause of mental illness. In fact, mental illness knows no bounds. Everyone is vulnerable and no one is protected by race, gender, economics, education, ability, or faith. Our bodies and our brains are fragile and finite. In fact one in five adults in the U.S. experience a mental illness each year.

This is why it is essential that congregations engage in conversation on mental illness and mental health, especially in this time of pandemic. Church can be a place of healing or a place of hurt. The more we continue to avoid the conversation on mental illness, the more we contribute to suffering and, possibly, death of those who live with mental health conditions. Jesus was all about saving lives and re-membering (literally reconnecting) people to community. Community of support and acceptance promotes wellness and recovery. Church can become this for those who have often been unwelcomed and unseen. Breaking the silence and ending the stigma surrounding mental illness allows for people to be re-membered and find a place in a community that names them beloved.

May is mental health awareness month. Now is an excellent time to plan for your congregation to join the conversation and save lives. It isn’t as difficult as you might think. There are resources to help get you started. The United Church of Christ Mental Health Network is an excellent source of information for congregations of any denomination. You don’t need to be UCC to begin the WISE process, the process to become W elcoming, I nclusive, E ngaged, and S upportive for persons living with mental health challenges. Use the resources to start a conversation in your congregation so that your church may become a safe, lifesaving, and healing place.

There are many ways to begin. The easiest is to include mental health conditions in the prayers of the church. Offering educational opportunities and, eventually, inviting people to share their stories are great ways to engage in the conversation around mental illness. We are all touched by mental health conditions – either we ourselves or someone we love. The church can no longer afford to remain silent. Please begin this conversation so that the Body of Christ continues to embody the Love, Hope, and Healing Jesus lived and taught.

Photo: CC0image by wokandapix

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Musings Sermon Starter

White Supremacy, a Trial, and the Possibility of Resurrection

Image of a church steeple emerging from fog at sunrise.

I love the story of Thomas. He wasn’t going to believe what he had not seen with his own eyes or touched with his own hands. History has labeled him “Doubting Thomas.” It’s a bit of a misnomer. Thomas represents all of us who have come after him. We might long to believe Jesus is risen and, maybe, some days we do. However, if we are honest, we have a lot of doubt about the whole story. We struggle to believe what we cannot see, hear, feel, smell, or touch. We can minimize it, dismiss it, ignore it, rationalize it, or turn away from it. We do this with so much in our lives, not just Resurrection.

Here in the Twin Cities we are in the midst of the Derek Chauvin trial. You likely remember the video that went viral of this White police officer kneeling on the neck of a Black man, George Floyd, until Floyd died. This public murder resulted in uprisings here and around the world. Now Chauvin is on trial and the defense is blaming everything on George Floyd and/or the crowd of onlookers. It’s honestly more than I want to watch or listen to. I can only imagine the pain and trauma for Black folx who are following this trial…

What does this have to do with Thomas and Jesus? Well, in my mind they are intimately connected. White folx in this country (and around the world) have willfully ignored White supremacy, racism, and White privilege. We have refused to see them, feel them, hear them, touch them, or smell them even though we are surrounded by them. While they may be the opposite of Resurrection, admitting that they exist and have caused immeasurable harm for centuries would lead to Resurrection for countless people. If we confront the truth of White supremacy, racism, and White privilege, imagine what could be fostered instead. Imagine the changes that would take place. Equality and justice would grow from honest and necessary reparations to all BIPOC folx. Resurrection would take the form of dismantling all systems of oppression, beginning with the entire criminal legal system and moving through to all the others – education, housing, healthcare, mental healthcare, etc.

With this trial, I feel like White folx are Thomas on week two, or should be. Many of us have been able to deny reality and the ways we have benefited from White supremacy, racism, and White privilege, even though countless people have said we have seen them, we have touched them, they have killed us… How can any of us deny the reality of White supremacy that allows a police officer to murder a Black man by kneeling on his neck in public when we are confronted with a trial that wants us to believe the officer was right and justified in his actions?

So what do we do? When we have seen, heard, touched, tasted, and smelled the truth, what comes next? Look at Thomas. He proclaimed his newly experienced truth right out loud. From that moment on his life was radically different. We aren’t told a whole lot about what Thomas

did next, but we do know that neither he nor the other disciples went on the same as before. They all were instrumental in creating the church. In those early days, according to Acts, the church was communal in the best sense of the word; they took care of one another. This is a clue to what comes next for those of us who see the truth, know the truth, of White supremacy and its ugly friends. We begin to take care of one another, leaving out none of our neighbors.

Begin by not turning away from the truth of this trial. Begin by recognizing the traumatizing and retraumatizing of every Black person who is witnessing the trial. Then offer prayerful support, honest prayers for change, for a better understanding of how you’ve been complicit in racist systems… And then look for ways to make reparations in anyway you can. Support BIPOC businesses. Donate to BIPOC causes. (And remember that when you make donations to BIPOC causes it is not charity and you shouldn’t look for tax write offs; it’s reparations and leads toward Resurrection for all peoples.) Advocate for systemic changes. Educate yourself on the realities of all the very real challenges BIPOC folx face on a day to day basis.

We may begin in doubt, like Thomas. However, when confronted with the truth, we must work to make Resurrection a reality for all people. If we ever want to glimpse the Realm of God, we have much work to do. If we want to know the peace that Jesus breathed on his disciples, we must work to ensure that peace is accessible to every person on the planet. It is possible to overthrow and dismantle oppressive systems. If you don’t believe me, then ask Jesus…

RCL – Year B – Second Sunday of Easter – April 11, 2021 Acts 4:32-35  • Psalm 133  • 1 John 1:1-2:2  • John 20:19-31

Photo: CC0image by Michael Schwarzenberger

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Celebrating Resurrection

Image of a tan baby bunny sitting in front of a bird’s nest with 3 colored eggs. All in a green field with small, white flowers.

A sense of Resurrection hit me early this year. Yesterday I was able to get a vaccine sooner than I had anticipated. I needed to be in a hospital setting because of my medical conditions and the possibility of an allergic reaction. I have been on all kinds of waiting lists for a few weeks and had to turn down one place because it wasn’t a hospital. Yesterday, though, my wife came home from a morning appointment at the VA (she’s a veteran) and told me that if I went there right then, I could get a vaccine. Good news, indeed. I have had to keep my exposure to the world so minimal over the last 13 months because of my high risk. Now I am imagining what I can do five weeks from now when I am fully vaccinated. It won’t be anything exciting by most people’s standards. Just things like the dentist, the ophthalmologist, a mammogram, and in-person PT for my frozen shoulder. I might be brave enough to go to the Asian market for somethings that aren’t available on Instacart, though I won’t go in if it’s too crowded. I also like to dream about having friends who also vaccinated over this summer – outside, masked, and distanced, of course. It feels like a bit of resurrection is on the horizon.

I can’t help but think of the heavy grief those women carried to Jesus’ tomb along with the anointing spices. They had no idea that they would be greeted by Resurrection. By John’s account, Mary Magdalene mistook the Risen Christ for the gardener. Imagine how much her spirits lifted when she recognized her beloved friend, rabbi, teacher. By Mark’s account the women were terrified by the very idea of Resurrection; they ran away. I get that. If I had been there, I would have dropped my anointing spices and ran for home. No one expects the power of God to change the laws of nature. No one expects Resurrection and when it happens we should be awestruck, if not also filled with fear and trembling.

Even today. Yes, today, when we encounter Resurrection, we must also be open to the awe, or the fear, or the terror. God’s power is so much more than anything we encounter on a day-to-day basis. And, let’s face it, these days we are weighed down by the grief we carry. All of us know at least one person who has died from COVID. Most of us know many. And then there is the loss of “normal,” whatever that meant for us. When we encounter Resurrection this year, will the heaviness of the grief we carry lessen? Will we be able to breathe a little more deeply with the reminder that God is truly with us through everything?

Also, with the Resurrection comes the knowledge that nothing will ever be “normal” again. Encounters with the Risen Christ were not the same as being with Jesus before his death. He was different. He had to identify himself every time he showed up for any of his disciples. New Life means different life. This is good for us to remember as we look at the end of pandemic, whenever it comes. There are things that will never be the same again. Masking in public is likely here to stay. Handshakes are probably a thing of the past. Many of us will never feel comfortable being part of a large crowd again. Some of us will be reluctant to eat in restaurants or even get takeout again. And church will be different, too. We don’t know when or if we’ll be able to sing together again. We won’t pass the offering plate or pass the Peace. We won’t be handing out bulletins or casually hugging each other. Who knows what kinship time will look like. Are potlucks a thing of the past? Church might have to take a cue from the Resurrected Christ and be different in appearance and action.

While most of us resist change and long to “get back to normal,” Resurrection reminds us that this is not how the Body of Christ started out. We, as church, have an amazing opportunity to appear and behave differently, like the Resurrected Christ. Maybe we won’t have to point out our wounds or explain that we are still the church, yet we can embrace transformation. We can emerge from pandemic very unlike we were prior. Yes, it’s scary not to know the future shape we will take. Yes, it’s uncomfortable to take risks. Yes, it seems counterintuitive to intentionally embrace more change when so much has already changed. Some may, in fact, run away in fear. That’s okay. The women ran away at first. Yet, we know they told the story at some point because here we are a couple thousand years later.

With the promise of new life, life after pandemic, on the horizon, may we all embrace the power and truth of Resurrection this Easter. May we move through our fear and welcome the differences that will eventually become normative. May our congregations live into transformation and Resurrection in a way that beckons to those who have yet to find welcome in the church. It’s okay to be anxious or afraid. We have yet to know what resurrection will look like in the wake of pandemic. We are still caught somewhere between Maundy Thursday and Easter morning. We will celebrate Easter in spirit this week. It may be several more months before we get to experience New Life in-person. The key is to be open to whatever comes and give thanks for the promise of Resurrection.

Happy Easter!

Looking for sermon help? Try here.

RCL – Year B – Easter – April 4, 2021

Acts 10:34-43 or Isaiah 25:6-9  • Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24  • 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 or Acts 10:34-43  • John 20:1-18 or Mark 16:1-8

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All That is Before Us: From Palm Sunday to Easter

Image of a beach at sunrise/sunset with palm branches and trees in the foreground.

Palm Sunday. During pandemic. Again. I’ve heard too many clergy colleagues asking how to preach this Holy Week during pandemic. Sure, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday are comparatively easy. How to preach good news on Palm Sunday and even more so on Easter is the repeated question. What does new life look like when the pandemic has not ended, though an end may be on the horizon? What does new life mean when congregations are failing or haven’t met in person in over a year or many members have died or the doors have permanently closed? Can we celebrate Jesus’ triumphant return to Jerusalem when we are still held captive by COVID? The short answer is yes. Yes, there is new life. Yes, there is a way through grief. Yes, the church is still vital and necessary in the world. Yes, celebrating Jesus’ return to Jerusalem is both possible and important.

We are all stressed by the experiences of this last year. Most of us could not have predicted that we’d be facing our second Holy Week of virtual worship. We thought it would all be over by now. Now it’s not. And we are weary on top of the on-going stressors pandemic brings. All the more reason to take a closer look at the events of Holy Week, and to remind ourselves that the week goes from celebration to suffering to death to New Life. This is the story of the human journey. This is the story of our spiritual lives. We move through these stages. We, too, experience betrayal and loss and death. We grieve. We celebrate. We remember. We live. So, let’s begin.

Jesus returned to Jerusalem without a lot of fanfare. He rode a colt, fulfilling prophecy. He was humble and quiet in contrast to Pilot with a parade and a Century of soldiers on horses and wearing shiny armor. Jesus came in humility while the Empire made promises of power and protection that they couldn’t possibly keep. Jesus rode in quietly with only palm branches waving and few shouts of “hosanna!” He promised life to those who would follow him. He rode into town, checked out the Temple, and went to Bethany for the night.

Not much has changed. The Empire doesn’t necessarily come riding into town with soldiers and horses any more than Jesus comes in riding a donkey. However, the Empire is still making promises of power and protection that it cannot possibly fulfill. It’s goal is to keep us separate and powerless so that the status quo may endure even the pandemic. Jesus’ goal, in complete contrast, is to unite and empower so that the oppressed may be liberated and justice may be embodied throughout society. Jesus would have something to say about the ways this pandemic has been managed (or not) by those with power. He would have something to say about the inequity of those victimized and the way the vaccine has been released according to the same old racial divides. Jesus would have something to say about how we have let white supremacy and classism, ablism, and other divisive fears determine who lives and who dies. We need Jesus to ride into town and remind us that there is a better way to face the Empire.

Palm Sunday can remind us that there is another way to be in the face of fear, anger, and oppression. We can humbly remain firm in our love or our neighbors and ourselves. We can be reluctant to let go of the (false) protections of Empire even as we recognize that the way of Love demands an active response. Jesus didn’t ride that colt into Jerusalem because he wanted to; he rode into the city because he needed people to see the Love provides more safety, healing, and hope than might. The God’s steadfast love is the way through all the pain, deceit, and division caused by participating in the power of the Empire. Where is Jesus challenging us to respond differently in this moment, to leave behind the illusions of the Empire?

If we skip ahead to Thursday, we know that betrayal rules the day. Judas couldn’t help himself. In the moment, the money seemed more powerful than Jesus’ love for him. As a result, Jesus was betrayed into the hands of the authorities. Yet, not before some important things happened. There was footwashing to show us that we are all equal before God; not one human life is more important than another, not one is too good to wash the feet of others. And there was, of course, the Last Supper. Here Jesus told us all what he was doing and why. His body would be broken for us to know healing. His blood would be poured out for us to know forgiveness. He would die for us to know that violence and death are not the end. Resurrection tells us that Love always triumphs. How do we move through this week experiencing it all fully and trust the fullness the New Life that is promised and demonstrated?

We know the story. We know that God does not abandon us at any time. God is with us in our moments of being overwhelmed and weary. Holy Week in its entirety can remind us that we are not alone and that the best way to journey together is through all of it – the hope, the despair, the fear, the betrayal, the grief… everything. By going through it all we get to New Life. No thing lasts forever. However, we are changed by our experiences. Life will never be what it was before COVID. As true as this is, there is still hope because we are a people seeking to live into and embody Divine Love. Love that unites and liberates us and instills hope in us for a life that is yet to come. This is the good news. This is the good news writ large this week. May we all have the grace to stay awake, to keep watch, and to bear witness to all that is to come. Blessings on the journey!

RCL – Year B – Palm Sunday – March 28, 2021 Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29  • Mark 11:1-11 or John 12:12-16

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The Unbreakable Covenant

I’ve been on vacation for the last few days. These days this means time at home to relax, to watch TV, to read, to be creative, and to think. I haven’t even been able to really enjoy the approach of spring because I am still healing from a stress fracture in my shin. So you might imagine that I’ve spent a lot more time than usual thinking. And what have I been thinking about? The words of the Prophet Jeremiah, among other things. My thoughts keep going to the unbreakable covenant that is promised. A covenant that will be written on the hearts of the people of God, on our hearts.

What, then, is written on our hearts today? I think Love is written on all of our hearts, I really do. However, it gets buried under pain, fear, anger, regret, grief, anxiety, and suffering. Love gets buried under spiritual scar tissue and is sometimes really hard to find. If it wasn’t there, the covenant Jeremiah promised would be broken, and we know that God doesn’t break promises, let alone covenants.

You see, I believe that Jesus is the fulfilment of the covenant that Jeremiah spoke of. If we take seriously the words of John 3:16, “God so loves the entirety of the Cosmos…” then we must ask ourselves what being a member of the Body of Christ has revealed in our hearts. Jesus was all about Love. His actions were about healing and literally re-membering (reconnecting) people to community. His words challenged the Empire and those in service to it. He was all about community, wholeness, and liberation. None of these things were to benefit the individual; everything Jesus said or did was to teach us how to Love – our neighbors as ourselves, as God Loves.

The depth of what is written on our hearts can only become clear, can only rise to the surface in relationship, in community. We need one another to heal, to removed the scar tissue, to allow Love to come to the fore. Church ought to be the place, the community, that fosters healing and wholeness. Never should the Body of Christ add to the scarring that obscures the Love that is in our spiritual DNA.

The pronouncement coming out of the Vatican this week is inconsistent with what is written on our hearts. Excluding LGBTQ+ folx from the fullness of community is hurtful. Saying that queer folx are welcome but saying that our sexual expression and our marriages are sin fractures rather than heals. It is not loving to accept only the surface level of a person’s identity. It’s like saying that brown-eyed people are welcome only if they wear dark glasses because their brown eyes are a sin. Besides, when it comes to the Body of Christ, if one of us is queer, the Body of Christ is queer and all the rules, judgment, and exclusion becomes self-loathing. Isn’t this the very opposite of the covenant made manifest in Christ?

When will we start holding up our end of the unbreakable covenant? It’s only unbreakable because God doesn’t let go of God’s end of it. God’s steadfast Love really does endure forever, no matter how deeply we bury it. Though why we bury it is another question.

There is enough in the world to add scar tissue, to obscure Love. Why do we add to it, especially as the Body of Christ? It’s time we ask ourselves what is written on our hearts, not on the surface but deep down where only God has a clear view. Living at the surface where all the scarring is only adds to more scarring.

We can do better than this. Healing. Liberation. Wholeness. Community. These things allow the Love that is written on our hearts to come to the surface. If we are not welcoming, forgiving, serving, loving then we are likely adding more scars.

Isn’t it time we live out our truth as the Body of Christ, make manifest the Love that it written deep within?

RCL – Year B – Fifth Sunday in Lent – March 21, 2021 Jeremiah 31:31-34  • Psalm 51:1-12 or Psalm 119:9-16  • Hebrews 5:5-10  • John 12:20-33

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Beware the Serpents

Image of silhouettes of children raising their arms in the foreground. The background is the red, orange, yellow and blue of a sunrise with birds also silhouetted.

In the wilderness, life is difficult. The space between what was and what will be is uncomfortable, and often distressing. For the Israelites who were on their way from captivity to liberation, misery met them in the desert. They came to the realization that the journey would be long and hard and there was no turning back. They complained to Moses about the lack of water and food. They blamed God for their plight. They were miserable and unexpectedly longing for those days in Egypt where they knew what to expect and there was enough food and water.

Then the encountered the poisonous serpents. They believed these were sent by God as punishment for their sins. I don’t believe God really works this way. I think they encountered the scorpions that live in the desert. Or maybe the serpents are metaphor for the way in which dwelling on our own misery lets a kind of poison in. Either way, people died. And the survivors repented.

Repentance made them look for a different way. Moses made a bronze serpent that made them look up in order to live. In effect, it made them stop looking at their misery and, instead, look to God for hope and life. And their journey continued; they did not die. Eventually, they made it through the wilderness to the Promised Land. Eventually, they accepted the challenges of the journey and began to imagine a new life for themselves.

We have much to learn from these ancient wilderness wanderers. We have been in pandemic wilderness for a year. It is uncomfortable and distressing. Grief weighs heavily on all of us. Some of us don’t have the resources they need to get through a day, much less the days ahead. It becomes too easy to focus on the hard parts, the miserable parts of pandemic. Some have even blamed God for COVID, for people dying, for all the challenges of the past year.

I don’t find this helpful or healthy. God does not cause suffering. God did not create COVID-19 and all its variants to punish us or teach us anything. We might learn something from this time of pandemic at some point, but that doesn’t mean God sent the virus to us. Perhaps, we need to do as the Israelites did and repent of our focus on our misery. Perhaps it is time that those of us who are able, look up. Look up to find hope, healing, and guidance in God.

This looking upward does not negate all the suffering and grief. It does not deny the reality of pandemic which is not over. The change in focus for the Israelites was life-giving. It can be life-giving for us as well. Focusing on God means not focusing on the limits pandemic has imposed on us. Focusing on God means taking deeper breaths and appreciating the blessings in the midst of the challenges. It means asking ourselves how we can use the resources we have to benefit another. It means recognizing that the people of God have been in similar places in the past; God knows the way through loss, through grief, through injustice… through it all.

The Israelites didn’t suddenly have more food and water on their journey. They didn’t suddenly arrive on the other side of the wilderness. However, they were able to look up, focus away from their misery, and recognize God’s presence in their midst – at least for a little while. They would forget again. They would be overwhelmed by their circumstances again. And they would find God in their midst again. We can follow their lead. Where do you find hope in these wilderness days?

No matter how much we want this journey through pandemic to be over, it is not. Yes, there are many who are acting as if COVID no longer poses a threat. These are the folx who are focused on the poisonous serpents and are unable to look up and see hope and healing. Denial of pain and suffering helps no one. Acknowledging it and searching for hope in the midst of it, will lead toward healing. Remember, the presence of God in the midst of the ancient Israelites did not change their circumstances. Instead, God led them through their hunger, their thirst, and the poisonous serpents.

We can get through this. Whatever the “new normal” will be is on the horizon. It’s still hazy and unclear, though. The only way through the remaining days of pandemic are together. Those of us who are able to look up and find hope and healing have a responsibility to help those who cannot. We don’t need a bronze serpent to remind us that God, the power of Life and Love, is in our midst; we need one another.

RCL – Year B – Fourth Sunday in Lent – March 14, 2021 Exodus 20:1-17  • Psalm 19  • 1 Corinthians 1:18-25  • John 2:13-22

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Course Correction (maybe)

Image of flat desert with mountains, blue sky, and clouds in the background. In the foreground to the left is a road sign with an arrow curving to the left.

What if we’ve been going about being Christian all wrong, or at least partially incorrect? What if it isn’t about personal salvation at all? What if it’s really about acts of healing (hesed in Hebrew) and acts of mercy (eleos in Greek)? The more I think about this, the more I am convinced that salvation for the “whole of the cosmos” (as John 3:16 says) comes out of our ability to care for ourselves and all our neighbors. This would be embodying Christ in healing and saving ways. Perhaps it’s time we reclaim our communal roots and the goal of tikkun olam, repairing what is broken in the world. This could revitalize the church and make it relevant and vital in the world. If evangelism and soul-saving takes a backseat to acts of loving-kindness, mercy, and reparations, imagine how strong and healthy church could become.

Think about it. Christianity has taken the commandments, the ten given to Moses and the two named by Jesus, to be a kind of moral or pious code of conduct for individuals. To an extent, this is true. And, in a way, this is inadequate. Morality and/or piety do very little for an individual. However, on a communal level, these commandments give guidance for a healthy, safe community. Worship God and not the lesser God’s of our own making. Do not mistreat your neighbors or yourself. Don’t be jealous of your neighbors. Honor your elders. You know, it all comes down to love God, love neighbors, love yourself, and be good stewards of the planet. All this is not meant to elevate the individual. Rather, it is meant to strengthen the community and foster interdependence. Our actions ought not to be guided by a legalistic view of “right” and “wrong” so much as what benefits the larger community.

Several years ago I left a relationship with nothing more than what I could fit in my car. I lived in a friend’s guestroom for 18 months. During that time I was significantly under employed and wasn’t able to find another job. People were generous and caring. My friend let me stay at her house without cost. Other people I barely knew would sometimes hand me money saying things like, “You need this more than I do right now.” And, you know, they didn’t ask me how I spent it; they didn’t care if I paid bills, bought groceries, or went to Starbucks. I was also able to continue in a painting class because the instructor waived the fee asking absolutely nothing in return. What if everyone who fell on hard times was supported by those around them as I was? What if our primary question, as individuals and as communities of faith, became, “How can I/we help my neighbors?” or “How can I share my/our resources?”

I know this sounds idealistic, and I suppose it is. However, shifting the focus of religious practice from the individual to the community could make a real difference in how we are church. Worship would become a celebration of God’s abundance, and a renewal of strength so that the work of the church could continue. Faith formation would be about fostering a sense of being God’s beloved and finding a place in community to best use one’s gifts. How much easier it would be to be a follower of Christ if the church was focused on hesed and eleos to the benefit of all.

Here in the Twin Cities, there are preparations for the trial of Derek Chauvin, the police officer who is responsible for George Floyd’s murder in 2020. Authorities are concerned about the potential for more uprisings. Authorities are trying to prevent protests, marches, rallies from happening in a way that could lead to destruction. Imagine how this would shift if those with power were focused on justice rather than controlling those who have been oppressed for centuries. Surely we can do better than this by setting aside fear, hatred, white supremacy, and our need to otherize. Christians with a communally based identity could potentially shift this power dynamic…

Loving-kindness. Mercy. Repairing what is broken. These are actions the Body of Christ would do well to pay more attention to – communally and as individual members. As I’ve said before, God does not need our help saving souls; God has that covered. God needs our help saving lives by caring for the vulnerable among us and tending to Creation’s wounds.

RCL – Year B – Third Sunday in Lent – March 7, 2021 Exodus 20:1-17  • Psalm 19  • 1 Corinthians 1:18-25  • John 2:13-22

Photo: CC0image by jplenio

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Musings Sermon Starter

Into the Wilderness

Image of small camper trailer parked at a wooded campsite. Camper is white on top and turquoise on the bottom.

Have you ever spent an inordinate amount of time on something only to have it prove fruitless? This has been my week. Between my risk for COVID and a stress fracture, it has been weeks since I’ve been able to go anywhere. Also, my primary coping mechanism for stress has been fitness walking (think 4 mph for 4-5 miles) and that is also off the table for the foreseeable future. So what ate up all my time this week? The search for a small camper, and by small I mean under 2000 lbs that our Jeep Renegade can pull. It seems I am not the only one with this great idea. In fact, I am very late to this game; there is nothing available in used models that fit in our budget. Yet, I kept searching and will probably keep searching because you never know.

It occurred to me that if I were as diligent in my pursuit of spiritual things as I have been in pursuit of a camper, maybe my time would be better spent. Yet, it is very difficult to sustain energy for something that cannot be seen and only sometimes can be felt. Usually, we don’t recognize an encounter with the Holy until we are looking back. It makes me wonder when Abraham and Sarah knew that they had made a covenant with God. Did they know it in the moment or did they realize later what compelled Abraham to pack up and move? I’m guessing that awareness of just who was guiding them and why came slowly, though there is no way to tell in the story.

I also think of Peter. It’s likely that Peter’s awareness of Jesus’ divinity flickered in and out. He saw Jesus do amazing things. He even tried to do some of them himself (walking on water). It’s clear that Peter loved Jesus and sometimes recognized him as the Messiah. Other times, though, not so much. Peter didn’t like when Jesus talked about how he was going to die and rise again. Did he invite Jesus to run away and never return to Jerusalem to avoid death? Who knows? We do know that Jesus called him “Satan” for focusing on human things.

It’s the human things that get in our way most often. If we focus on these kinds of things – our self-focused wants and desires – we don’t have to focus on divine things. These divine things are much harder – loving our neighbors, taking our cross, following Jesus. I mean, Jesus is talking about losing life for his sake, for the sake of the gospel. That doesn’t sound very appealing, does it? And, yet, isn’t there something very powerful in this mystery?

Are we able to deny ourselves? What is that cross that Jesus said we had to take up in order to follow him? Sometimes, I am able to deny my self-focused wants and desires for the sake of others. Not always, though. I think of the hours I spent looking for a camper this week to no avail, knowing I will keep looking. I don’t think anyone or anything suffered because I was focused on my own desires, this time. At other times in my life, though, others have suffered because I was consumed by my own wants.

As for the taking up of my own cross, this is often harder. While I am not entirely sure what Jesus meant by this, I hear it as carrying that which gets in the way of our relationship with God, that which diminishes or devalues us. We each have a weakness (or many) that hinder our relationship with God and, if left unchecked, become full-on sinfulness. The good news is that whatever the cross we carry, we have help. In the best of circumstances the community, the church, can help us carry it. We can say that Jesus helps us carry our crosses, though sometimes we need more tangible help than that.

How are we, as the people of God, the body of Christ, the church, focusing on divine things rather than human things? How are we making cross-carrying easier for our neighbors? Have we done enough to recognize and celebrate and honor God at work in the world – in, through, among, and around us? Are we more focused on ourselves as a church than we are on ourselves as the body of Christ called to love our neighbors as ourselves, bring healing to what we have broken in the world?

I have more questions than answers this week. Maybe this is why it is easier to focus on searching for a camper than it is on seeking God’s holy ways. Following Jesus, seeking God, bringing loving-kindness into the world, is not for the faint of heart. May we awaken more fully to the covenant of Love that binds us one to another and enables us to find life in the wilderness, the barren places, amidst the chaos.

RCL – Year B – Second Sunday in Lent – February 28, 2021 Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16  • Psalm 22:23-31  • Romans 4:13-25  • Mark 8:31-38 or Mark 9:2-9

Photo: CC0image by inactive user

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Celebrating Abundance: A Calendar for Lent 2021

Lent is different this year. I created a calendar that highlights abundance during this barren, wilderness season for Living Table United Church of Christ. Each day the cost highlights something many people take for granted. May you find life in the deserted places and encounter God in the depths between brokenness and healing.

Image of a daily calendar that highlights Lent and abundance. It begins with Ash Wednesday.
Image of a calendar page for March, highlighting abundance. It ends with Easter Sunday.