What are You Doing Here?

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What are you doing here? Are you running away? Are you exhausted? Are you without hope? Are you looking for God, hoping God will show up and fix all that is broken? Will you eat the bread that is offered? Will you withstand the truth of where God is? Will you get up and go out to the wilderness to continue working to bring Divine Love into the world?

I feel for Elijah, I really do. He’s worn out by the resistance to God’s ways he continuously encounters. He would gladly go to sleep and not wake up to face another day of threats to his life. He has fled, seeking rest for his weariness. Maybe he’s even hoping that God will tell him he doesn’t have to be a prophet anymore. Instead, he’s offered food and told to move on to a place where he will wait for God to show up.

There’s the wind, but God was not in the wind. There’s an earthquake, but God is not in the earthquake. There’s fire, but God is not in the fire. Then there’s the sound of sheer silence that compels Elijah to come out of the cave and answer the question again: What are you doing here? He recounts his failures – covenant broken, altars torn down, and prophets killed. I can almost hear God saying yet again, “What are you doing here?” Seriously, there’s nothing to be done in a cave, hiding out. Sure, the people have turned their backs on God’s holy ways, but that is no reason to give up. Whatever it is you think you are doing here, go on your way. The wilderness waits for you.

Church, what are we doing here? We are still looking for God in the storms and chaos. We still want to flee when the weariness, fear, and hopelessness prevent us from experiencing those moments of sheer silence. We might even miss the nourishment that God places before us. I’m not sure what we are doing here. Are we hiding? Are we being prophetic? Are we taking in nourishment? Are we soaking up the silence? Probably not as much as we are hiding out, desperately hoping that God will show up and fix all that we have broken.

June is Pride month and I can’t help but think that the church is still hiding out in a cave. We want to blame the current stormy political environment for all that ails us and for obstructing the work of God. We can’t blame our disunity on the current administration, though. When it comes to LGBTQ+ folx, we have long been divided. Not only have we missed God’s presence among us by participating in the storms, we have also failed to hear Paul’s words that remind us of the unity we are find in the body of Christ. You know, in Christ there is no immigrant or resident, no refugee or naturalized citizen, no queer or straight, no Trans* or cis, no POC or white, no disabled or abled, no mentally ill or well, no rich or poor. We are to be one in Christ. We cannot continue to hide from that which divides us.

Jesus himself went out to the wild places and called people to himself. He offered healing and wholeness without exception. Even the Gerasene demoniac was restored to wholeness and told to proclaim all that God had done for him. If any of us have survived the winds of rejection that shatter our sense of self, the earthquakes of division that drive us to the edges of society, or the fires of ridicule that diminish us, and then experienced the sheer silence, the still, small voice of God, we must share this healing. We must do has Elijah did, as the healed demoniac did. We must continue on the journey, proclaiming all that God has done for us. How else will others find their way, find their place, within this wounded body we call church?

What are we doing here? Are we huddled in fear and protecting ourselves or are we cleaning up after the storms, strengthened by the moments of sacred silence? We can continue to yearn for the church of years past or we can expand our understanding of what the body of Christ looks like and be a vital presence in the world today. It’s time we continued the journey and proclaim all that God has done for us. In Christ we are one. In Christ we are whole.

RCL – Year C – Second Sunday after Pentecost
1 Kings 19:1-4,(5-7),8-15a with Psalm 42 and 43 or
Isaiah 65:1-9 with Psalm 22:19-28 and
Galatians 3:23-29
Luke 8:26-39

Photo: CC0 image by Sharon McCutcheaon

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Sophia is Calling

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As I’ve been thinking about Wisdom in this time between the anniversaries of the Pulse massacre and Stonewall, I am haunted by a conversation I had many years ago. It wasn’t the first or the last such conversation, but it has been on my mind because it was one of the first times I was asked to justify my identity face-to-face. It was a hard conversation, as they all have been, and one the left me angry and worried about the future of the church, or at least my future as part of the church.

Anyway, several years ago, a woman came into my office to talk with me because she had “concerns” about me being a pastor and being married to another woman. Her stated goal was to understand what I thought being a Christian meant. She was convinced that I had to be under the influence of Satan in order to be ordained, married to a woman, and not have children. I don’t know if she placed these “sins” in an order of severity, but she wanted to talk because she had been a life-long member of the church I was serving. The conversation was lengthy and difficult. I don’t remember all of it, but a few bits stand out in my memory.

She started in by questioning my claim to be an ordained minister. I told her that women had been ordained in our denomination (United Church of Christ) since 1853. Surely God would have made any objections known in the intervening years. She didn’t like it but took a breath and went on to her next question. It was kind of a trick question because she had hoped for a different answer.

“Why don’t you have children?” She really wanted me to say that it was because I was married to a woman. She was unprepared for the truth which was a painful struggle with infertility. I was in my mid-thirties and could not seem to get pregnant. (I later learned that I would never be able to sustain a pregnancy.) She was silent for a moment or two, fishing around for something to say to alleviate the awkwardness of the situation or prove her theory about me, which was more likely the case.

Her face lit up as she hit on what I knew was coming. She told me that my “barrenness” was God’s punishment for my sinful “lifestyle.” I told her that I really didn’t believe God worked that way at all. I carefully explained that I thought God was more about loving us and encouraging us to love ourselves and each other more than about seeing that all our sins were punished accordingly. She paused for a moment before suggesting that maybe God was just testing my faith and when I showed God true faith I’d be rewarded with a child.

I again told her that God didn’t work that way. God knows my heart and doesn’t need to test me through cruel adversity. She didn’t know what to say to that so just plowed ahead.
“Do you believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?” I assured her that I did without bothering to explain that I might have a different understanding of what those words meant.
“Do you believe in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?” Again, I assured her that I did and kept my understanding to myself. Her face said that she did not believe me. She scanned my office as if looking for clear evidence of my heretical status.

She practically jumped out of her seat when she came up with her next question. “Do you believe that the Bible is the word of God?” I surprised her by saying that I did. So she fumbled around until she basically asked if I believed that the Bible is the inerrant word of God and no other revelation from God exists (I don’t remember her exact words). And I finally gave her what she was looking for when I said no. She declared that she knew I was a “tool of Satan” and that people like me would destroy her church.

I didn’t respond well to her pronouncement, unfortunately. I suggested that one of us might indeed be under Satan’s influence, clearly indicating that I didn’t think it was me. She left my office telling me that she would pray for my salvation and I assured her that I would pray for hers as well. She slammed the door on her way out. She did, however, show up in worship the next Sunday. Our relationship continued to be contentious during my tenure at that congregation.

Honestly, I think this interaction is on my mind because I keep hoping that the church will change. I keep praying that we will leave behind the need for certainty of our own righteousness of doctrine and practice and, instead, embrace the mystery and majesty that is God. Yes, we need language to share our beliefs and strengthen our faith communities. At the same time, we need to understand that the language is limited and God is far more than we can speak (or write).

Proverbs tells us that Sophia, Holy Wisdom, cries out everywhere we go, yearning for us to share God’s delight in the whole of Creation. Where God creates beauty and oneness, we seem to respond with fear and division. God invites us into community, into sacred relationship, and we react by building walls and isolating ourselves from those who are different from us.

I’m tired of having the kinds of conversations where I am condemned for being a woman who is ordained and married to a woman, and for believing in a God of Love above all else. There’s enough anger, violence, and hatred in the world without the Body of Christ perpetuating or participating in these things. God’s ways are about unity and sanctuary. Human ways are about division and (false) security. It’s time we respond differently when Sophia calls.

RCL – Year C – Trinity Sunday – June 16, 2019
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
Psalm 8
Romans 5:1-5
John 16:12-15

Photo: CC0 image by Stefan Keller

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Wind & Flame: A Pastoral Prayer for Pentecost

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God of wind and flame, come among us once more. Set our lives on fire with a passion for justice. Send winds mighty enough to clear away our fear and apathy. We long to be sure of your presence and power. We desire certainty of your grace, forgiveness, and love. Yet, we are slow to turn to you, to remember the stories of our faith, and to rely on your goodness. On this day of Pentecost, come to us anew. Let us remember with more than words that we are one in you. Each of us gifted, each of us hearing in our own way, each of us created in your image – all of us with the purpose of glorifying you by bringing Divine Love into the world. May this be the mission, the purpose, the passion of all your people.

Ever-speaking, always incarnate God, surprise us out of our complacency and ambivalence. As your Spirit moves among us, may we see our neighbors with new understanding and compassion. May we hear in all the angry words around us the underlying fear and anxiety of being left out, forgotten, misunderstood, abused, neglected, or dismissed. When we would respond to hurt with greater hurt, show us the way of Love, a way that brings healing, wholeness, and hope. When we would hide from the needs of the world, lead us to actions that bring unity, justice, and equality. When we would tell ourselves that our voices don’t matter, remind us that you are the Word-become-flesh for the very purpose of reminding us of the power of words, and the actions that follow. May all of us who call upon you, feel the force of your winds and heat of your flames calling us to more life and love than we can ever imagine.

God of the heights and depths, raise us up! We so easily sink into the muck and mire and messiness of everyday life, seldom lifting even our eyes to the beauty of the world. We also forget that you are in the deepest, most lonely places we can go just as much as you are in the joyous moments of community and connection. There is no place we can go where you are not already there. We are never apart from you. No one is far from you. Raise us up that we may recognize you in every face, in every moment, without exception. Place us all on equal ground that the beauty and wonder of Creation may shine in and through us all. May your Love unite what human beings have divided.

Momentous and amazing God, call to us in the midst of the chaos and the clamor. Shout out your claim on us until we respond to you. We act as if we are each on our own, without connection or responsibility to those around us. Yet, you have shown us what Love looks like – in thought, word, and deed. You have shown us again and again the power you have to transform the least among us to the greatest, and to humble those who think themselves great. We are not alone. We are united in you and through you – individuals connected to neighbors, congregations connected to communities, communities to cities and towns, cities and towns to states, states to this nation, this nation to other nations, all to your Creation. Burn away all our claims to independence. May we grasp the power of interdependence forged in Love.

God of us all, on this Pentecost day, be with us. Rekindle the fires that inspire your people throughout the earth. Ignite in us a Love that cannot be extinguished. We say that there is room for all in your house and at your table. May today be the day when we make this a lived reality. May none be excluded, ignored, overlooked, dismissed, devalued or hated by any who call your name. May the cleansing winds and fires of your Spirit create anew the Body of Christ here and elsewhere. May we honor you by embracing your Spirit of fierce Love and radical inclusion as we seek to embody you for all whom we meet.
We pray in gratitude for your patience, your mercy, your forgiveness, and your love for us that never ends. In the name of the One sent to teach us the ways of Love. Amen.

RCL – Year C -Pentecost – June 9, 2019
Acts 2:1-21 or Genesis 11:1-9
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
Romans 8:14-17 or Acts 2:1-21
John 14:8-17 [25-27]

Photo: CC0 image by Michael Schwarzenberger

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In Her Grips

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Okay. I’m just going to say it: I like Paul. The older I get, the more I appreciate Paul for his passion, conviction, and unapologetic humanity. What the church has done with what he wrote and what has been (falsely) attributed to him, isn’t his fault. The man had some serious endurance. Prison, floggings, shipwrecks, and rejection in a variety of potentially life-threatening forms. Paul persevered and managed to inspire countless people to become followers of Jesus. All things considered, Paul is person to be admired not admonished. The tepid church goers of today could do with a little passion and, personally, I’m up for a bit of persistence.

Let’s face it, many people around us would much rather go fishing on a Sunday morning than attend worship. Paul didn’t have that problem. It seems he drew crowds almost the way that Jesus did. He had something that was appealing to those who heard him speak. It was more than his charismatic personality, more than his words alone. I suspect it was his integrity and authenticity. For all his eloquence, Paul didn’t say anything he didn’t mean. The Holy Spirit it had him firmly in her grips and she wasn’t letting go. I wonder if anyone would notice that intensity of Spirit today…

The story in Acts about the slave girl is a weird one where Paul’s humanity is on full display. So, too, the presence of the Spirit. How awesome is it that the writer tells us that Paul casts the demon out of the slave girl because he’s irritated? He’s annoyed that she has been following them around, proclaiming that they are slaves to God Most High. This had been going on for days. Paul couldn’t take it and silences the demon without thinking about the consequences. He didn’t think what might happen to the slave girl. He didn’t think what might happen to him and his companions. He’d just had enough of the girl’s proclamations. Consequences be damned.

And there were serious consequences. The writer didn’t mention what happened to the slave girl though I doubt it was anything good. Her owners disguised an economic issue with a racial issue that stirred anxiety and aggression in the crowd as well as the magistrates. Violence followed as it often does when those in service to the Empire feel slighted. So if the girls owners were angry enough to have Paul and the others somewhat falsely arrested, flogged, and jailed, I’m guessing they didn’t go easy on her. Did Paul regret his impulsiveness in the duress that followed? Did he pray for forgiveness? Did he want to make amends? Or did he blame the hard hearts of the slave owners? Who knows? However, the subsequent events point toward forgiveness with a hint of compassion.

In the midst of prayers and hymns an earthquake hits and opens all the doors. You’d think everyone would leave; that would be the sane thing to do. No one did. The prisoners stayed put. Why? I like to think that Paul remembered that all this was because of his own impulsive actions and he didn’t want anyone else to pay the price for his unthinking behavior, including the jailer. Paul, and the others, no doubt, knew that the jailer would likely be executed for allowing all the prisoners to escape – earthquake or no. Though, instead of an execution, we witness another household converting to Christianity. Forgiveness and compassion on full display. Well, that and the power of the Holy Spirit to bring goodness out of human folly.

I’d like to say that we’ve all learned something from Paul’s experience. But I don’t think we have. We still give in to annoyance and act without thinking. Those who have more power than we do, still take advantage by subverting the real issues with divisive ones. We are still easily manipulated by the Empire into accepting, if not participating in, violence. We don’t seem to pray and sing hymns while waiting for the Spirit to show up and do her thing. There isn’t much room in our lives to give and receive either forgiveness or compassion, is there?

As we come to the end of Eastertide and prepare for Pentecost, maybe we should pay more attention to Paul and embrace our humanity and the Holy Spirit. We can be unapologetically the fragile, fallible, frustratable people we are because we are also unapologetically the named, claimed and beloved children of God. In spite of what the Empire continues to tell us about supremacy and division, we are all in need of forgiveness and compassion. The more we share these things, the more we open ourselves to receiving them. Isn’t it time to recognize that Paul was who he was because he accepted and celebrated the fierce, demanding, loving grip the Holy Spirit had on his whole being? We can be the irritable, irrational, impulsive people that we are because the Holy Spirit has the same fierce, steadfast, and redeeming grip on us. This is good news for us, and unwelcome news for those who continue to serve the Empire.

Photo: CC0 image by James LeVos

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Listening to Lydia

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Lydia isn’t a biblical superstar. She is mentioned in Acts, almost in passing. Strangely enough, she’s often passed over. She was from Thyatira and she dealt in purple cloth. If she hadn’t encountered Paul, we might not know anything about her at all. However, her meeting with Paul was significant. Yes, it’s important that she and her household became a followers of Christ based on hearing Paul. Yet, given the current debates over abortion and women’s reproductive rights and the rape culture we live in, it may be far more important for us to notice that Lydia was a business owner in the first century. A woman owned a business in the decades after Jesus’ death. Why does this not get the attention it deserves? How have we let the later notions of the church patriarchy dismiss this information? Seriously, what if women in business was more commonplace than we have been led to believe? What if Paul and other early apostles treated women as respected equals and not as property to be used as they wished? What if we have spent the last 2000 years systematically smothering the value of women in our society?

I don’t know about you, but I feel the need for more purple cloth right now. Alabama criminalized abortion which puts women’s lives at risk. That’s bad. In lesser news, last week I spent a couple of days in Washington D.C. at a meeting to discuss mental health with other faith leaders. While the variety of mental health ministries across faith traditions inspires me and fills me with hope, the way many of the men treated me and the other women in the room was extremely disheartening. I was interrupted, talked over, ignored, and dismissed. The validity of my call to ministry and the decades I’ve spent serving the church were questioned and the implications for my soul were assumed to be dire. It’s been a long time since I have felt so personally dismissed and invalidated by a group of supposed colleagues. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t hate men at all. It’s the social and religious elevation of them and the devaluation and dismissal of women that I would like to end.

With these thoughts I read the account of Lydia’s conversion in Acts. Not only did she become a follower of Christ, she also offered Paul and his companions a place to stay. She was a person of significant means. She may have been one of the earliest gentile converts and, clearly, a financial support for the growing Christian movement. Yet, how often have we lifted her up in the church? How often have we held her up as an example of a strong, Christian woman? You know, the one who housed Paul and his fellow travelers and also gave them a place to stay after they had been to prison. Somehow her story remains untold. It makes me wonder if early manuscripts might have told more about her and whether they were intentionally left out by the men who decided the canon.

What might happen in the world today if we highlighted Lydia as much as some denominations lift up Mary? Lydia wasn’t someone to be trifled with. She had money and power and access to the very wealthy (no one else would have been purchasing purple cloth). She wouldn’t be easily silenced or dismissed. How different the church might be if we recognized the value of a woman who sold purple cloth. Might we not realize that women are valuable, that women are created in God’s image just as men are? Might this realization lead to the recognition that all people are valuable because we are all created in the image of God? All people.

As I think about Lydia and her purple cloth and how different church culture could have been and still could be, I realize once again how tired I am of having to defend myself or justify myself or protect myself just because I am female. I’m also tired of rapists, child-abusers, perpetrators of violence against women being excused, justified, and practically rewarded because they are men, generally white men at that. Surely, we can change this. After all, there is no indication that Jesus treated women differently than he treated me. Paul, apparently, didn’t either. Why do we? Isn’t it time we recognized the value of all human beings, including women who sell purple cloth and house former prisoners? Think of all the energy and resources we could put toward feeding the hungry, housing the poor, caring for the sick, welcoming the immigrant and refugee if we recognize the equality of all people, regardless of gender identity.

Maybe we should make purple the color of equity and wrap ourselves in purple cloth until the church and society stops believing in the superiority of men, especially white men…

RCL – Year C – Sixth Sunday of Easter – May 26, 2019
Acts 16:9-15
Psalm 67
Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5
John 14:23-29 or John 5:1-9

Photo: Is a derivative work based on CC0 image by Beate

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Known by Our Agape

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I am heading to the East Coast for a combination of work and vacation. As I am preparing to leave, I am haunted by Jesus’ commandment that we agape one another. By this we will be known as Jesus’ disciples. In these times where hatred and fear seem prevalent, it would be something for Christians to be known by unconditional, limitless, steadfast love for all peoples.

I leave you with this poem from my book Barefoot Theology: A Dictionary for Pilgrims, Priests, & Poets:

Agape

God loves without condition
remaining steadfast when people choose
anything and everything else to worship
God waits for each one of us
without ever giving up

Jesus walked this world and spoke of peace
reaching out to the unreachable
healing the untouchable
opening the eyes of those blind
to holy ways

When the world could tolerate
this Love Incarnate no longer
the man was crucified
so that we might live more fully
knowing God’s unconditional love for us
revealing the Christ in humanity
making us all equal when seen
through Sacred eyes

To speak words of love is not enough
our call is to live in the Word of Love
recognize the value bestowed on us
by the One whose breath we breathe
in whose likeness we are made

Let us set aside all our conditions,
rules, and regulations
we think keep us safe
yet only mask our fears and hide us
from ourselves and our neighbors
let us step into the arms patiently
waiting for us
arms wide enough
to embrace the world

God thinks you and I are worthy
of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection

May this truth startle us into living
Love without conditions
well beyond our usual limits

RCL – Year C – Fifth Sunday of Easter – Mays 19, 2019
Acts 11:1-18
Psalm 148
Revelation 21:1-6
John 13:31-35

Photo: CC0 image by free photos

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From Death to Life

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Those little purple faces poking up next to the sidewalk on my way out of church on Sunday were nearly my undoing. Not exactly the color purple in a field, but I noticed. I saw them innocently reaching for the sun, the first of spring flowers I’ve seen this year. And, yes, I thanked God for them even as tears flooded my eyes. My grief, my heartbreak, has me desperately searching for new life, signs that God has not yet given up on humanity.

Thank God for violets. And thank God for good friends who call to check in after seeing the sorrow, sadness, and anger on social media. A young man, so full of promise and love, murdered by another young man with an AK-47 for reasons yet unknown, maybe never to be known. My friend, sister in Spirit, crying out for her beloved son who is no longer here. I’m at a loss for words, grasping for hope, knowing this grief will be hers to carry forever; mine to share just a fragment, maybe not even enough to ease the burden.

Then my friend who called to check in. We’ve been friends for decades, and we’ve been through so much together, bearing one another’s burdens as only long-time friends can. After checking in, offering condolences, he said it. He didn’t know how pastors do what we do in times like these. Louisiana churches set on fire. Notre Dame burning. Churches bombed on Easter. Another Synagogue shooting. Rachel Held Evans dying. Oceans choking on plastic. Hunger and thirst killing people. AK-47s in the hands of the young, angry, and hopeless. Where is God? Where is hope? Humanity is lost and does not want to be found.

Truth.

And, yet… I often say that as long as there is breath there is hope. We can repent and seek God’s holy ways. It is not too late for those of us who live and breathe to turn toward Love. We can stop giving in to the lies of the Empire that feed the fear that divides us and dehumanizes our neighbors. We can continue to live in the deceitful myth that feeds our egos and tells us that we don’t need anything but willpower and determination. We can continue to tell ourselves that any success we have is because of our own hard work and not because others helped us along the way. We can uphold the pretense that our worship is the only right and true worship and that the lip service we spew out pleases God. We can continue as we are and call it life, life that contributes to rising suicide rates, the opioid crisis, and a decline in life-expectancy. There’s no immediate risk in preserving the status quo of fear, anger, hatred, and hopelessness, right?

We are destroying God’s creation because we’d rather let politicians and lobbyists get rich and believe their lies that tell us we can’t change anything because it costs too much. Our children are dying on the streets because white supremacy says black lives don’t matter and we accept it as fact. More and more people are engaging in suicidal behavior because we remain silent and judgmental when it comes to mental illness and keep the source of hope a secret meant only for the righteous. We have created, actively or passively, a world that accepts violence, thrives on fear, and feeds the vulnerable a steady diet of despair.

Enough. Peter walked into a death room and prayed for life. You know what happened? New life filled Tabitha. I wish I had that ability to breathe life into a dead body. I don’t. But we do have the power to breathe life into a dying church. Our thoughts and our actions are our true prayers. Rachel Held Evans was a voice of hope for the more evangelical, conservative church; her untimely death is a tragedy for her family, friends, and the church. I am confident her light will shine on as others continue her work. For the moderate to progressive church who claims to understand inclusion and welcome, who will shake us up? Who will come like Peter into the death room and call us to new life? Who will speak to us powerfully enough that the Spirit fills our lungs? Who will ask us to step away from our traditional sanctuaries and carefully scripted worship? Who will call us away from the safety of our practices and into the unpredictable flow of the Spirit?

We know how to heal Creation, where hope lies, and how to stop the bleeding. We do. We know the truth. Yet, we do not believe it, and it is killing us. The message of God’s love, lived out in Jesus, is the Truth we need. It is still the balm that can heal a sin-sick world. We are called to Love God, our neighbors, ourselves, and the whole of Creation. Jesus showed us the way from death to life, from human ways to holy ways. It’s love – with thought and action. Love that leaves no one behind. Love that speaks truth to fear, to anger, to violence, to hopelessness, to death.

I don’t know about you, but I cannot remain in this death room any longer. Pray with me. Come, Holy Spirit, come. Come now and lead us into life. Life that values everyone, that does not cower in fear, and will not let anyone slide into hopelessness. Let your church be as early spring violets. Undo us with the power of your Love right now.

If not now, then when? If not you and me, then who?

RCL – Year C – Fourth Sunday of Easter – May 12, 2019
Acts 9:36-43
Psalm 23
Revelation 7:9-17
John 10:22-30

Photos CC-BY-NC image by Rachael Keefe

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