A Little Worthlessness and a Lot of Love: A Pastoral Prayer

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Holy and steadfast God, you have loved your wandering and distracted people for more generations than we can remember. You have forgiven us when we turned to other gods and regathered us when we scattered ourselves. Jeremiah speaks of a time when your people “went after worthless things,” and became “worthless themselves.” These words, written in ancient times, hold truth for us now. We have pursued so many things that leave us feeling worthless and empty. Remind us that you are the One who is living water and that our lesser gods hold no life for us. Forgive us for repeating this sins of our ancestors, and reclaim us once more.

Ever-patient God, you wait for us to sing aloud of your strength, to shout in joy to you. So few remember your saving acts and many stumble in the pursuit of human ways. You long for us to come to you, to seek your counsel, and listen to your wisdom. You have saved your people from themselves over and over again. Yet, here we are. We have wandered far enough from you that we have forgotten the sweetness of life in you. Pry open our narrow views and let us taste the goodness you have planned for us. Inspire us, once more, to set aside our selfish ways. May we build communities of forgiveness, grace, and love where condemnation, fear, and hatred now abide.

Loving and forgiving God, you provide constant reminders of your love for us. You call us to “mutual love” and remind us to show hospitality to strangers for they might be your messengers. You have so clearly laid out for us the way to live as your people. We are to look down on no one, not even prisoners. We are to be careful not to be consumed by the desire for money and wealth because they so easily become the focus of our worship. You want us to remember those who have gone before us in faith, trusted you, and stood unafraid in the face of conflict, ridicule, and rejection. We tend to live in fear, protecting what we have. You would have us live boldly, doing what is good, and sharing all that we have with those around us. Infuse us with your love once more so that we cannot forget that you are with us and we have no cause to be afraid.

Persistent and passionate God, you call us into our best selves. You remind us that we are no more or less valuable than our neighbors. There is no shortage of your love for us. We do not need to neglect or condemn or neighbors in order to feel better about ourselves. Your table is open to all, without exception. We may arbitrarily decide that whole is better than broken, or healthy is better than sick, or straight is better than queer, or white is better than black, or I am better than the person next to me, but you would say otherwise. You claim us all as your own and expect that we will embody your love to one another with the same generosity and abundance. Moreover, you want us to do this with joy and humility. Heal the deep insecurity of our hearts and shower us with your forgiveness. May we one day be your church without division.

Ever-present God, the truth we so often fail to remember is that you are always with us. You wait patiently when we fill our days with worthless pursuits. You watch as we separate from each other in anger, fear, ignorance, and hatred. You hold out hope for us even when we embrace empty gods of our own making. You have written your love for us in the pages of sacred story, in the beauty of creation, and the deep silences of our hearts. Continue to be merciful, Holy One, until we learn gratitude, hospitality, humility, and peace, until we trade human ways for holy ways. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

If you are looking for sermon help, you might want to read here.

RCL – Year C – Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost – August 28, 2016
Jeremiah 2:4-13 with Psalm 81:1, 10-16 or
Sirach 10:12-18 with Psalm 112
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Luke 14:1, 7-14

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Heads Up

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I am in the midst of vacation and just don’t quite have it in me to say all the things I’d like to say about this week’s lectionary readings. My recommendation is to listen to those who call all Christians, particularly white Christians, to be repairers of the breach. Pay attention to the promise of God’s presence with us and the transformation that is possible when we remove all that binds us to gloom and separates us from one another. Let us also ask ourselves what weighs us down and if we are willing to allow God to remove it with a simple word or touch.

Here is a poem based on the Luke text from Negotiating the Shadows:

Heads Up

Winter holds tightly to spring –
few signs of warmth, of promise,
break through frozen ground.
Hope eludes me while cold
gray fog weaves around my feet
like a stray cat driven by hunger.
I want to lift my eyes,
search for signs of new life,
but I am too tired, overburdened.
This long season of darkness weighs heavily,
a yoke I am unable to bear
alone.

I complain after a season of heaviness –
How hard it must have been for her!
Eighteen years of staring at the ground,
so weighted down by the burden of living
she could not hold her head up.
A spirit crippled her, bent her right over,
left her unable to stand on her own.

You saw her in the crowd, on a Sabbath.
She couldn’t have looked you in the eye,
but You must have seen her hidden under that spirit.
She was strong enough to walk,
to come when You called her.
A simple Word,
a light touch,
and she stood straight and tall,
with praise on her lips.

You broke Tradition
to make her whole.
Liberation – a just cause, worthy of risk.
Why are Your people so afraid to follow Your lead?

So many spirits to cripple us,
keep our heads down.
We bend.
We break.
We barely hear Your call.
We honor Tradition more than ourselves,
more than we praise You.
How many of us go through life
seeing even less than the ground under our feet?

Call me out from under this spirit.
I will trade my yoke for Yours.
I will speak Your Word.
Lift the eyes of those who bend.
Free us all to stand tall
and sing Your praise.

Rachael Keefe, Negotiating the Shadows: Daily Meditations for Lent (Eugene: Wifp & Stock, 2010), 9-10.

RCL – Year C – Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost – August 21, 2016
Jeremiah 1:4-10 with Psalm 71:1-6 or
Isaiah 58:9b-14 with Psalm 103:1-8 and
Hebrews 12:18-29 and
Luke 13:10-17

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What Do You See: Interpreting the Present Times

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In the fall of 1989 I did something that I had been thinking about for the better part of six years. I tried to avoid it in college and postponed it for a year after college graduation. Then I did it; I went to seminary. I was 22 years old, eager, scared, and fairly certain God had called me to ministry. Granted, my understanding of that call changed and deepened as I went through the MDiv program, but I trusted it. The problem was that others did not.

I lost a lot of friends because I chose to pursue my call to ministry. In college I had been part of Christian fellowship groups that did not believe in or support women in ministry. Though my participation in these groups had waned by senior year, I maintained friendships with several of the students who were firmly committed members. However, by the end of my first semester in seminary, I no longer heard from the majority of my college friends. This was sad and painful and somewhat confusing for me. I did not understand how differences in belief could end relationships.

Of course, this was the first of many experiences where my understanding of faith cost me friendships with those who held different views. When I divorced while serving my first church, many of my seminary friends distanced themselves from me; pastors simply did not divorce in their worlds. A few years later when I came out, more Christian friends walked away because they believed the Bible does not support anyone who is not straight. I felt judged and condemned by people I had thought were friends. My agnostic or atheist friends were more caring and supportive through these very difficult times. Many of my Christian friends simply turned away when I really needed them. How could this be the way of Christ?

In Luke’s Gospel we hear unexpected words from Jesus. He speaks harshly to those listening about the division he brings. He will separate loved ones – those who will follow and those who won’t. Peace isn’t exactly what Jesus brings, at least not in the short term. It’s impossible not to hear the echo of Isaiah: “God expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!” Jesus expects us to follow in the way of love but far too often we respond with bloodshed and cries of war.

People of Color demand justice through movements like Black Lives Matter and folks who claim Christianity are all too eager to discredit and dismiss the need. They respond with “All Lives Matter” and point out that the leaders of the movements don’t all agree. They justify police shooting unarmed POC by blaming the victims for not having pristine, perfect lives. They say that POC should deal with “Black on Black” crime first and other such misdirecting statements. All this so they do not have to see that systemic racism and white supremacy is normative in our country. They want to maintain their privilege and justify it by vilifying or dismissing POC who disrupt the status quo with their demands for justice. Where does Jesus fit into this?

If this isn’t enough, consider politicians who, based on their Christian faith, want to repeal marriage equality and endorse “bathroom laws” to dismiss and dehumanize LGBTQ+ people. How can these fear-fueled actions be the way of Christ? Jesus went out of his way to bring marginalized people back into community. Should his followers not be doing the same? When did fearful hatred become a Christian value?

We can apply the same question to refugees and immigrants. Surely, building a wall and registering Muslims are the very things Jesus warned against. We can also point to the misogyny that has plagued Senator Clinton’s presidential campaign. What’s righteous here? Or the ways in which we conflate gun control issues with the insufficiency of mental health care… Or fail to acknowledge that minimum wage is woefully inadequate but instead blame people for being lazy… The bottom line is that people who give into hate and fear rather than trust God’s abundance are those who have trouble interpreting the present time.

My early experiences were indeed painful. In a strange way, I am grateful for them. It makes it a little easier now when friends walk away because I support Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ+ rights, refugee and immigration rights, women’s rights, adequate mental health care, increased minimum wage, and so many other places where justice is needed. I’m not saying I’m always right or that I even have a clear notion of the righteousness God is looking for. I do wonder, though, how anyone can claim to be following Christ when their ways do not embody love. And what I am saying is that I am willing to risk much to make way for love and justice for all God’s people. Are you?amazing-736881_1280

RCL – Year C – Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost – August 14, 2016
Isaiah 5:1-7 with Psalm 80:1-2, 8-19
Jeremiah 23:23-29 with Psalm 82
Hebrews 11:29-12:2
Luke 12:49-56

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Bottom Photo: CC0 image by Bessi Hamiti

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The Allure of a Dragon’s Life

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I’m sure Jesus didn’t mean for his words to be linked with dragons, but I can’t help myself. Every time I read scripture passages about treasure, I picture a dragon. You know, the big, scary, fire-breathing kind that hoards gold and trinkets and protects its treasure with all it’s might. Of course, this is exactly what Jesus is warning us against. He really wanted us to know that we are the treasure and not our stuff. Apparently, it was just as difficult to believe in first century Palestine as it is today in the United States (and elsewhere).

When my mother decided to move from Massachusetts to Arizona in her retirement, she had to sell the house I grew up in. Each time I would visit her during the months she was preparing the house, she would always ask, “Is there anything here you want?” There were cabinets of her mother’s and her grandmother’s china and crystal and silver. Next to those were boxes of things my mother had accumulated. She was disappointed that I didn’t want the Syracuse or the Haviland china. I could not think how any of it could be useful.

It turns out that she packed it all up and moved it to Arizona with her. When I went to visit her a few months before she died, she asked me again what I wanted. There really wasn’t anything. I took a couple of photo albums and a couple of the quilts she had made. She again marveled that I didn’t want the “valuable” things.

Truthfully, I didn’t see those things as valuable. I’m not someone who collects a lot of things. I have more than I need and I’m content enough. Sure, I drool over sports cars and envy people who have pretty shoes and sparkly jewelry. But I don’t need these things and they would serve no practical purpose. It’s not like these things could tell their stories or the stories of people who owned them. It’s not like they could give me the relationship with my mother I wanted and needed.

I read through the scriptures for this week and find myself questioning my faith and just where my heart might be. Hebrews tells us, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” And Luke adds cautions about what we treasure and a reminder that God comes at an “unexpected hour.” These days, my faith is tested every time I turn on the news or browse through Facebook. I keep hoping one of the people running for office will say something about decreasing poverty and hunger, ensuring equal access to education and healthcare, dismantling the racist judicial systems, strengthening and upholding hate-crime laws, funding mental health care, and so many other things. This is not what I hear and its distressing. Power is the seeming treasure here and it doesn’t look like God is anywhere near. I know politics is not where God is often found, but why not? Shouldn’t government be about taking care of the people who inhabit the country? You know, treating people with dignity and respect?

Right. That would be the church. We have misplaced our treasures, too. I have often joked about what it would be like if God took us up on our invitation of, “Come Holy Spirit, come” that is frequently a part of our liturgy. None of us would be ready. Our lamps aren’t lit. We aren’t watching very closely. We’d be as confused and conflicted and disbelieving as any of Jesus’ disciples when he revealed his divinity and asked them to embrace their own. Most of us speak words of faith but seldom act in a way that challenges the status quo. We are comfortable where we are.

We forget that balanced budgets, perfect buildings, high-tech worship, and vision plans are not what church is. That’s all the stuff that distracts us and makes us feel better, not unlike my mother’s china and crystal. None of these things can do the work of the church which is saving lives and including people in a loving community of faith  where they are seen, heard, and valued in the name of Christ. After all, we are human beings, not dragons; trinkets and treasures don’t give our lives meaning or purpose.

It is God’s good pleasure to give us the Kingdom of God, the Realm of Heaven. We are foolish enough to mistake our stuff for God’s pleasure. It’s time to light our lamps and be as Christ to one another. How do we know that this is not the hour for us all to show up and re-member Christ?victorian-2745_640

RCL – Year C – Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost – August 7, 2016
Isaiah 1:1, 10-20 with Psalm 50:1-8, 22-23 or
Genesis 15:1-6 with Psalm 33:12-22 and
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
Luke 12:32-40

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Be the Church: Youth Already Are #NYE2016

In case you don’t know it or have forgotten it, young people are amazing! To be in the company of 3000 youth from all over the country is a gift I did not anticipate. Here in Orlando at the National Youth Event (NYE) of the United Church of Christ and the Disciples of Christ, I am with people who already know how to be the church. These kids are filled with passion and pain, hope and despair, faith and doubt. They are here in the Florida heat and they fill me with hope.

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I have served the church in one way or another for more than 30 years. I do this because I know the life-giving power of the body of Christ. NYE has reminded me of this power and this responsibility.

It has been my privilege to co-lead a workshop on the issues of suicidality and self-harm from a theological perspective. Telling groups of youth that they are each a temple of the Holy Spirit, and watching them reflect on that possibility, brings tears to my eyes. This is church at its best. This is a reminder that wherever the church is heading it is in excellent hands.

Too much of church time is spent trying to figure out how to balance the budget, attract more people to the pews, and raise money for capital repairs. These things are the equivalent of building bigger barns to fill with grain that we’ll never be able to use. People – young and not-so-young – need to experience God’s message of hope in a community of love. If we spend more time delivering the Gospel, embodying Christ, we’d have less worry about buildings and budgets.

The passage from Hosea is beautiful and filled with images of nurture and promise. If we look at Ephraim learning to walk under God’s watchful presence as a metaphor for church, then we can see where our steps falter. We learned to walk the way of love by following Jesus. In the past, the church was strong and sure. Over time, we have walked far from God with rules and traditions and exclusionary practices. Like Ephraim we have been scattered and held captive by a stronger, dominant culture.

However, the people are being regathered, as promised. When 3000 youth gather for worship and sing songs of faith and claim their place in the body of Christ, the present is transformed and the future fills with hope. May those of us clinging to an outdated understanding of church have the grace to make way for the church that is here and the one that is coming.

Youth need the love of God in Christ now as much as ever before. The only way they can experience Christ’s love and claim their place at the table is if you and I love them without condition. Let’s stop building barns to hold yesterday’s grain and start building relationships to save lives.

If you are seeking more sermon starter or lectionary commentary for this week, see also my RevGalBlogPals contributor’s post here.

RCL – Year C – Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost – July 31, 2016
Hosea 11: 1-11
Psalm 107: 1-9, 43
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23
Psalm 49: 1-12
Colossians 3:1-11
Luke 12: 13-21

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Hosea’s Children are Alive and Well

Centuries have passed since Hosea was preaching to the people of Israel. However, the words could be applied to the people of God today. We who are so lost that we hardly hear the words of love God speaks to us daily could easily be the children of Hosea. The children whose names were an indictment of Israel’s sin, their rejection of God’s ways could be children of today.

black-and-white-1283234.jpgWith greed, corruption, violence, and hatred filling the airwaves, Hosea’s first-born son, Jezreel, belongs to us. His name is an indication that God has noticed Israel’s behavior and there will be consequences. Surely, God has noticed how we have turned against each other and forgotten the ways of justice, kindness, and humility taught by Moses, Mohammed, and Jesus. Although I would not say that “God sows” them so much as they are a result of our behavior, death and violence are surely the consequences.

Hosea’s daughter, Lo-ruhamah, symbolizes God’s dissatisfaction (disappointment? disgust?) with the people’s ways. So God will have “no pity” or “no compassion” for the people of God. They have turned away and embraced the god’s of their own making rather than trusting in the God of their salvation. Lo-ruhamah lives today and is reborn every time one child of God shoots another out of fear or vengeance and claims, instead, to be administering justice or keeping peace.

The prophet’s youngest son, Lo-ammi, is a clear statement that Israel is not behaving as the people of God ought. God no longer wants to claim God’s own people. If that is not true today, I don’t know what would be. Surely, God does not want to claim us with all the hatred, the separation, the racism, the homophobia, the transphobia, the sexism, the zenophobia, and all the other fears that divide us. Just as surely, God does not want to let us go; God is waiting for us to return to God’s ways, the ways of salvation, of life, of justice, of kindness, of humility, and love.

And, yes, many of us want this, too. We keeping asking how we get there and what we can do. In recent weeks the Gospel texts have given us some indication. There was the command to show mercy to our neighbor’s in the “Good Samaritan” passage. Last week was an invitation to sit at the feet of Jesus in this moment and listen until we are able to set aside distractions and serve with purpose. This week is a continuation of these lessons in a call to prayer that inspires action.

The text begins with the Prayer of Jesus. These words are so familiar to many of us that we have long-since stopped paying attention to what they might mean for us. I don’t think Jesus intended this to be the signature prayer of Christianity so much as he wanted his disciples to pray for what they really needed in a way that honors both God and the one praying. This prayer reminds us that we need God in our daily lives to ensure that we are working to bring about God’s reign, not taking more than we need, forgiving others as fully as we have been forgiven, and paying attention so as not to stumble into evil. If we can do these things through the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, we make the world a better place.

When this kind of prayer becomes a part of us, we are more likely to receive our neighbors with kindness and offer mercy and hospitality. We are more likely to share the gifts we have been given rather than hoarding them for a day that might never come. True prayer changes us. It removes the barriers we create to protect ourselves and reminds us that we are loved even when we act in unlovely ways.work-101556_1280

Several times on FB this week, I saw the meme, “Faith may move mountains, but don’t be
surprised if God puts a shovel in your hands.” Prayer, like the one Jesus taught his disciples, puts the shovel in our hands. If we are truly praying for God’s guidance, we will have to shovel out the fear and hatred that so often fills our ears, our hearts, and our pews.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want Hosea’s children to feel at home in my house or my church. I don’t want to have to worry about the consequences our behaviors have sown, feel the lack of compassion, or be living outside the reach of God’s love. I am tired of seeing black bodies oozing red blood on our streets. I am tired of police officers abusing their power or letting their own fears control their impulses. I am tired of police officers being shot while trying to do their jobs. I am tired of churches closing their doors to LGBTQ+ people. I am tired of women being chastised and degraded when they seek positions of leadership. I am tired of one faith tradition claiming superiority over another. I am tired of ignorance fueling fear of immigrants and refugees. I am tired of violence and hatred. Justice, kindness, and love have to be easier than this constant fear, hatred, and violence. My shovel is not nearly big enough. Perhaps you will dig with me until Hosea’s children no longer find a home among us.

RCL – Year C – Tenth Sunday after Pentecost – July 24, 2016
Hosea 1:2-10 with Psalm 85 or
Genesis 18:20-32 with Psalm 138
Colossians 2:6-15, (16-19)
Luke 11:1-13

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Respond to Racism: Embody Christ

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I’m not good when it comes to secrets. I’m not good at keeping silent when there is a proverbial dead elephant in the room. Here in Minnesota people attribute my “directness” to having spent most of my life in New England. That’s a part of it. The other part is that I grew up in a household with far too many secrets. We had a whole herd of those elephants lying around while everyone pretended they didn’t exist.

My personal way of coping was to seek after perfection. I made every effort to be the perfect child. I was an over-achiever who started babysitting at nine years old, volunteered full-time at a special needs day camp the summer I was thirteen, graduated from high school days after turning seventeen, and was ordained  to ministry at twenty-five. The problem is that I nearly died trying to be perfect, distracting myself from all the things that were too painful to face head on.

Now, reading the story of Martha, I see my younger self bent on getting everything right and pleasing those around me. There’s a time and a place for Martha, of course. Now, though, is not the time. Not only do I see myself in Martha’s worry-worn face, but I see so many well-intentioned church folks, particularly white church folks. We have hunkered down and kept working. We’ve worked to maintain our buildings. We’ve worked to balance our budgets. We’ve worked to keep our doors open. Some of us have even worked for justice for immigrants, for LGBTQ+ people, for prisoners, for those in need of food and shelter, and a myriad of other people and causes. How many of us have taken time to sit still and really listen well enough to be able to make real changes?

Why are there so many surprised faces when Black Lives Matter shuts down major highways in order to be seen and heard? Why are there so many surprised faces when gunmen open fire at protests, in churches, in mosques, in theaters, or in schools because no one noticed they were not well enough to own firearms? Why so many surprised faces when Donald Trump gathers so many supporters with his hate-speech and fear-mongering? Why so many surprised faces when we recognize that we live in a society that endorses solving problems with violence? Why so many surprised faces when too many youth express feeling hopeless about their futures?

The list could go on, but I will stop here. The church has also been distracted by these things and the more internal preoccupation with who is saved, the historical Jesus, the authority of scripture, and a few other divisive topics. We’ve lost track of our call to embody Christ in the world. We’ve succumbed to human concerns and have forgotten the truly sacred ones. How is it that a people called to love have allowed ourselves to be filled with so much hatred and fear? We have been distracted by things far more egregious than Martha’s household tasks.

Now is the time to sit and listen. Listen to the cries of our neighbors. Listen to the demands for justice. Listen for the words that will move us beyond our fears. Listen for the words that will convince us to act with more mercy than judgement. Mary knew where to turn in the tumult of her day. Surely, we can do the same.

It’s time to clear out the dead and decaying elephants from our church communities. The Civil Rights Movement changed things on the surface but not much deeper. Since that movement ended, there have been many opportunities for people of faith to be merciful and demand justice for all our neighbors. Mostly, we have remained silent. We cannot be silent anymore and remain faithful to a God who commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves.

So listen for a while. In that silent stillness, do you hear God’s call to speak truth to the powerful and privileged? Do you hear God calling you away from the distractions of everyday tasks and foolish excuses into acts of mercy, love, and justice? It’s all well and good to eat at Christ’s table but if we aren’t embodying that same bread and cup to those who hunger and thirst for justice, we might as well have gone through the local drive-thru.

RCL – Year C – Ninth Sunday after Pentecost – July 17, 2016
Amos 8:1-12 with Psalm 52 or
Genesis 18:1-10a with Psalm 15
Colossians 1:15-28
Luke 10:38-42

Photo: CC-BY-NC image by Rachael Keefe

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