Discovering Joy

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Joy is a slow-growing, steadfast thing. It’s also not as fleeting as I once thought. I believed until quite recently that joy was an infrequent and reluctant visitor in my life. It would occasionally land for a few days and then flit away and I’d be left with comforting memories. I’ve discovered that it isn’t really like that; joy is a constant though it might sometimes be obscured. Strangely enough, the Book of Revelation helped me to come to this new understanding of joy.

Revelation is a book that is either loved or hated. No one feels ambivalent about it. Most mainline, progressive Protestant-types eschew the book entirely, dismissing it as an early form of science fiction or fantasy. Those who love it tend to see it more legalistically and take it as an actual prophecy of the end times. I am drawn to it for its poetic beauty. I can see that loveliness of the crystal city, feel the coolness of the river of life, and taste the fruit of the tree that will be the healing of the nations. Such promise in this vision of a new heaven and a new earth!

This last year has been a challenging one for me. I moved to a new city far away from all the places I had lived before. My mother died and opened old wounds I had thought were healed. These things combined in strange ways and resulted in me having to sort through my self-understanding from entirely new place. I wrestled with sadness, exhaustion, doubts, and a whole lot of pain. Yes, there were moments of joy and I knew that I was not alone. However, I felt I was missing something vital.woman-570883_1920

In the last few weeks I’ve had a very strong sense that something wonderful is about to
happen. I’m not prone to unbridled optimism. These last few weeks have not been easy ones so this pull toward expectant trust is also unwarranted. Yet, when I sit still and set aside my grief over my mother’s death, my concerns for the future well-being of the congregation I serve, anxiety over some medical tests, the stress that relocation has put on my family, and a few other things, I discover a sense of joy and wonder. I recognize, beyond doubt, that all really will be well, even when it doesn’t feel like it is.

Where does this come from? Well, you know that image in the Revelation text of a holy city? We, you and I and the rest of the Body of Christ, are that holy city. Or could be. All that Light is within us, within our reach if we can get out of the way. The Body of Christ is rooted in the Waters of Life. We are also the tree whose leaves will bring healing to the nations. At our best, the church is the new life described in Revelation and leads the way to peace. At our worst, we participate in the divisions and destructions, the sins, of the world. What might we be if the entirety of the Church committed itself to only speaking and embodying words of love? Healing of the nations, indeed!

I know these images appeal to my poet’s heart and they seem impossible. I really don’t think they are. There is a seed planted deep within each of us. Many of us don’t nurture it well or water it with gratitude often enough. We don’t take much time to notice how it grows or how deep the roots can go, so deep that they connect us to the very heart of the Creator. Sometimes we see its fruits and know that it’s there, at least in the moment. But it’s not a passing moment. Joy is a constant and it is within all of us just waiting for us to notice. It won’t take away the pain and heartache that comes with life, but it is a healing balm in these times of suffering.

Waiting for God to bring about this new holy city isn’t going to make it happen. If we live as though we are the Holy City, then we will become it. Toni Morrison wrote in Beloved, “If you can’t imagine it, then you can’t have it.” Can you imagine yourself as part of John’s holy city where living water flows freely and the nations are healed? There is joy there, joy enough for all.

(If you are looking for more sermon help, you might want to go here.)

RCL – Year C – Sixth Sunday of Easter – May 1, 2016
Acts 16:9-15
Psalm 67
Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5
John 14:23-29 or John 5:1-9

Top  CC-BY-NC image by Rachael Keefe.

Bottom  CC0 image by Jill Wellington

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No Distinctions

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Welcome. Inclusion. Hospitality. These are all church words, words we try to embody to the best of our ability. Yet, not everyone feels welcomed. Not everyone experiences inclusion. Not everyone receives hospitality. There are limits to our being church, aren’t there? We aren’t perfect and we sometimes get it wrong. True. However, what about that Spirit who tells Peter “not to make a distinction between them and us”? I’m not sure how well we do this. Quite recently someone asked me why nonmembers have the same status as members and shouldn’t members be given some sort of preference.

In late October 2008 I moved from Massachusetts to NH to work as a clinical chaplain at the state hospital. On the first Sunday in November, I went to worship at a church where I didn’t know anyone. I was newly divorced, just moved away from my friends, starting a new job, and in the first semester of a DMin program. Worship was the place I needed to be for healing, for renewal, for building new relationships.

bread-399286_1920.jpgI found a church that had an 8:00am worship service so I could worship before going to work to lead services of my own. People were friendly and welcoming. The worship service was great until communion. I think it was World Communion Sunday so the pastors had planned this beautiful procession with all kinds of bread being brought to the table. There were several loaves of bread in different colors and shapes. And the message was a very clear “all are welcome” to the table, no exceptions.

However, I was the exception. I was not able to share in that simple, beautiful feast because I have Celiac disease and multiple food allergies. The church I had been serving prior to moving was a small, new church start where I made the communion bread so that all could share one loaf. I knew that I couldn’t receive communion in most churches, but for a variety of reasons the exclusion from that particular table hit quite hard. It was unexpectedly painful and I sat crying in this place where I knew no one and no one knew me.

As unintended as my exclusion from the communion table was, that morning in worship I felt the pain of having been rejected by church again and again. The early questions of whether or not I as a young woman should go to seminary… the later questions of the propriety of a divorced pastor continuing to serve a church… then the clear rejection after coming out… So many times I had been excluded if not completely rejected. On that November morning in a new place, feeling so alone, I sought the welcome, hospitality, and inclusion of church. Instead of experiencing these things, I felt the old pangs of unworthiness vibrating deep within.

Peter wrestled with some of these issues in his dream. What food could be shared and with whom were valid questions of the very early church. There was an “us” – those who had been Jews – and a “them” – those who were Gentiles. Peter was very clearly informed that his way of thinking about us and them was not going to work. He was to meet the people who came to him and accompany them along the way without distinction. No doubt this was a hard thing for Peter to learn, but it was necessary for this movement that would grow into the church.

It’s a lesson we would do well to pay particular attention to in this era of radical changes within the church. Remember that Jesus didn’t seem to pay particular attention to traditions and rules when people came to him with particular needs. He nearly always met the person where they were at and gave them what was needed. His words to his disciples after their last meal together summarizes this, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

When it comes to the body of Christ, there should be no “us and them.” This is how we love as Christ loved. If one has need, all have need. If one cannot, all cannot. That church in New Hampshire quickly moved to offering communion bread that accommodated my needs and the needs of others with food allergies. For me it was a huge step toward welcoming me and including me as “one of them.”hands-684499_1280.jpg

I cannot help but wonder who is feeling unwelcome and excluded from church now. Who could benefit from the hospitality we are capable of offering? There were no limits or qualifiers on Jesus’ love. When will the welcome, inclusion, and hospitality of the Christ we embody stop making distinctions between “us” and “them”?

RCL – Year C – Fifth Sunday of Easter – April 24, 2016
Acts 11:1-18
Psalm 148
Revelation 21:1-6
John 13:31-35

Top Photo CC0 image by Petra
Middle Photo CC0 image by Sabine Schulte
Bottom Photo CC0 image by Axelle Spencer

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Resurrection is Now

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Words, actions, and promise chase each other through this week’s readings. Peter speaks and Tabitha returns to life in Acts. The Shepherd’s promise of life and presence is clear in Psalm 23. Revelation is all about the promise of life yet to come. In John, the crowds have seen Jesus’ actions and they want clear, decisive words instead; Jesus gives them their words and a promise as well.

Circumstances in my life have converged in such a way that I feel an incredible sense of urgency. It isn’t so much personal as it is professional. I’m anxious to be a part of making changes. The political scene here in the US has stirred up hatred, fear, and ignorance. States are passing laws that target Trans people in ridiculous ways. There’s an increase in Islamophobia and the destructive words and actions that go along with a belief that all Muslims are a threat. Racial tensions seem higher than ever with amazing reluctance of white folks to acknowledge the depth of injustice. It would be so easy to give in to the fear, the ignorance, the hatred, and follow the loud voices who lull crowds into thinking that some mythic clock can be turned back and we can shove all the demands for justice and equality back into the oppressive, dank basement they have lived in for so long.

We cannot, nor should we try, to turn back the clock on the press forward or repress the yearning for a better way of life for so many people. Personally, I’m looking for those words that will call people to life. If Peter, glorious, imperfect, impulsive Peter, can be a conduit for life, then there is hope for all of us. Not one of us should be reluctant to speak into the void any words that will bring life. If God can work through Peter to bring about miracles, then it is just as possible that God can work through you and me.

This is the urgency I feel. We must add our voices in opposition to all those who are engendering fear and building walls of hatred. If was take seriously the words of scripture, we ought not be afraid to lend our voices to those who are not being heard. The familiar words of Psalm 23 are filled with promise. We do not walk through the valley of death or oppression or hatred or destruction or violence alone; God walks with us always and everywhere. If we pause long enough, we will recognize that we are being pursued by goodness and mercy. Maybe it’s time we let them catch us so we can go forward with intent to bring only good and be only merciful.

If this is not enough to inspire you to act or to at least understand my sense of urgency, read Revelation. It’s a beautiful passage, so full of hope and promise. The day will come when hunger and thirst are no more. God will wipe away every tear. If we are waiting for God to bring about such a day, we’ll wait a long time. God is waiting for us to embody Christ in ways that will bring about such a time when oppression is replaced by justice not for any chosen few but for the whole of creation. I think God has been more than patient in waiting…

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I feel somewhat justified in my impatience for the world to change. Jesus was impatient, too. He spent his life showing any who were watching what a life of loving kindness looked like. But even some who watched him didn’t get it. They wanted Jesus to tell them plainly whether or not he was the Messiah. His actions were not enough for some. His words were not enough for others. He talked about those who knew him, trusted his voice, and followed him. These he would hold on to forever. He didn’t say that there wasn’t room for more or that these were the only ones. Just that those who followed him were the ones he would hold into eternity. Jesus knew who and whose he was and invited others to have the same power and presence in their own lives.

In this Easter season it’s important to remember that the Resurrection is now. Life is now. We, the Church, are the embodiment of Christ now. The work that is to be done to bring about justice, liberation, hope, and peace for all God’s people is our work to do. Peter spoke words of life. We are promised God’s goodness and mercy always. Jesus invited us to live in that promise. I think now’s a good time. Do you?

RCL – Year C – Fourth Sunday of Easter – April 17, 2016
Acts 9:36-43
Psalm 23
Revelation 7:9-17
John 10:22-30

Top Photo CC0 image by Klaus Dieter vom Wangenheim
Bottom Photo CC0 image by skeeze

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Never Beyond Redemption

During my years as a clinical chaplain in a psychiatric facility, I met several people who had committed horrific crimes while in a psychotic state. Generally, these were individuals who were kind and gentle when they were well. They also struggled to believe that they could be forgiven for what they had done. I had many conversations about God’s capacity for forgiveness and how God’s love is not limited by anything, not even drug abuse, violent crimes, and psychosis.

These kinds of conversations usually left me and the individual wishing for more. I wanted to be more convincing so as to bring a degree of peace and healing. They wanted to believe me but could not. Fortunately, there was worship which is often where unexplainable things happen.

Every Sunday afternoon we’d gather for worship in the hospital’s small chapel. The chapel seated about 30 and there was frequently an overflow crowd in the hallway. We had 45 minutes for worship and it was a challenge to make it meaningful each week. Looking back, I should never have worried too much about that. When the Holy Spirit shows up, it’s meaningful.

Each weekly worship offered communion to all who gathered. I know my understanding and perception of people changed as I offered them bread and wine saying, “This is the body of Christ broken for you. This is the cup of salvation poured out for you.” In those moments a person who seemed lost or difficult or unreachable became one of God’s Beloved. Before we got to this point in the service, though, I would speak words of absolution after the prayer of confession. Every Sunday I would say something like, “You are beloved children of God. In Christ you are forgiven and set free to live in God’s love.” During my last few weeks at the hospital, more than one patient told me that they never believed they could be forgiven. Yet when I said those words each week, they began to think that maybe even they could be forgiven. And then maybe they could forgive themselves.

paul-1158086I find myself thinking of these folks as I read the scriptures this week. God’s love and forgiveness really is without limit. Think of Paul. We know the story of his conversion, but do we hear the message? It isn’t so much about the dynamism and power of his being knocked off his horse and blinded as much as it is about God’s startling capacity for forgiveness and redemption. Saul was a brutal man. He sought out, persecuted, and sentenced to death many Christians. He believed he was right and good doing this on God’s behalf. Until God told him otherwise. If God can forgive murdering Saul and transform him into proselytizing Paul, how much more can God do for my former patients, for me, for you? Why do we hold on to sins far less damaging than hatred and murder when God is ready to grant us new life and freedom right now?

Still not convinced? Then let’s look at the Gospel text. The disciples are fishing in the days after the Resurrection. What else can they do? Jesus has left them and they are grieving, but they need to eat and provide for their families. They aren’t having much luck until Jesus shows up and shows them something about abundance.

This is followed very shortly by a conversation with Peter. Jesus askes Peter, “Do you love me unconditionally?” Peter responds, “I love you like a brother.” Jesus says, “Tend my sheep.” And then this is repeated. “Do you love me unconditionally?” “I love you like a brother.” “Feed my sheep.” And once more with a slight change, “Do you love me like a brother?” “I love you like a brother.” “Tend my sheep.”

Jesus is asking something of Peter that he isn’t quite able to give. There’s an honesty here. Peter can’t say that he loves Jesus without condition when the memories of denial are still so fresh. But Peter does love Jesus, truly. Jesus, ever gracious, meets Peter where he’s at. It doesn’t matter whether Peter can love Jesus the way Jesus is asking. Jesus’ response to Peter is still the same. Take care of my children, especially the vulnerable ones.

We place a lot of conditions on our love for God. Sometimes it’s guilt and shame as was Peter’s problem. Sometimes it’s memories of painful experiences. Sometimes it’s reluctance to accept that God is God and we are not. It doesn’t mattrosary-1212863er, though. If we love God in any way, no matter the limits or conditions, the required response is to care for the children of God, especially the vulnerable ones.

These two passages present the Gospel for all reluctant followers of Christ. First, nothing you have done or said prevents God from loving you and forgiving you. Second, no matter the limits you place on your love for God, the call to care is evident. It’s time to get out of our heads and change the world for the sake of the most vulnerable among us–children, immigrants, refugees, those without homes, those who live with mental illness, the elderly, those who are food insecure, trans people, women, and the many more who are feeling lost, alone, and forgotten. You never know when your words or actions will awaken someone to the hope, the promise, the redemption found only in the abundance of God’s love for the whole of creation.

RCL – Year C – Third Sunday of Eater – April 10, 2016
Acts 9:1-6, (7-20)
Psalm 30
Revelation 5:11-14
John 21:1-19

Top Photo CC0 image by falco
Bottom Photo CC0 image by Myriam M.

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Today I am Thomas

2015-11-24 15.28.48Today, I am Thomas. Absolute disbelief floods through my body as I hear that there will be no indictment for either officer involved in the shooting of Jamar Clark. This is in direct contrast to, if not complete opposition of, the Alleluias and Christ-is-risens echoing through the liturgy I’ve just finished writing for the second Sunday of Eastertide. How can the Resurrection be true when there is no justice for Jamar, for People of Color, and for this nation governed by systems imbued with racism?

I’ve followed this case from its beginning last fall. I’ve participated in marches and signed petitions. I’ve listened and I’ve prayed. Jamar was not a model citizen and no one is saying that he was. He did not, however, deserve to die. (Domestic violence, horrid as that may be, is not a capital crime nor is disrespecting police.) And, maybe, the officer didn’t start off intending to shoot him. But that’s what happened. When it was decided that there would be no Grand Jury, a breath of hope filled the community. But it was false hope. A white lawyer reviewed the case and found no evidence to support indictment and lots to support the police officers’ account.

Strange, that. And now the comments I’ve seen on social media and heard on the radio. As People of Color on the Northside of Minneapolis react with outrage, grief, and despair, white people condemn them for it. Not all white folks, of course, but too many and too many filled with vitriol.

No doubt this is the kind of response that the first disciples got from those in power in the early days after Jesus’ death. There was probably a lot of “He got what he deserved and you all better watch out because you could be next” kind of stuff going around. Thomas was brave enough to go out of that locked room and go about his business in spite of being afraid of what could happen to him. He was living his life when the Risen Christ showed up and breathed peace. Can you blame Thomas for not believing the story? This was a community grieving. They were capable of believing anything, right?

Many of us claim to have seen Jesus, too. We talk about the Resurrection and the new life it brings and the amazing gifts of God freely given to any who ask. So where is that same commitment when we see racism crucifying People of Color over and over again? If we are the body of Christ why are we not trying to join with People of Color and breathe peace into broken, fractured communities? Not peace that the world gives with its faulty justice and laws that benefit the privileged, but peace that comes with justice, grace, healing, hope and new life? We sit back and nod with the lawyer who says that the evidence doesn’t support indictment. Really? How is that possible? Systemic racism is the answer which has nothing to do with Jamar Clark’s character.

Now I look around because I couldn’t see the Risen Christ when I heard the news. I look around and I see Christ everywhere. The wounds are still fresh. The hands raised as fists in the air, the hands clasped in prayer, the hands reaching out to comfort, the hands seeking to hold back outrage… all these hands are wounded hands. The tears and the angry words are justified in the face of a system that speaks only of death and oppression.

The Risen Christ identified himself by his wounds. That says a lot. That says that Resurrection, Easter, doesn’t fix anything. However, it does change everything.

When Jesus came back to the disciples a second time, Thomas was with them. Jesus simply invited him to touch his wounds so he would know for himself and believe. Thomas didn’t haven’t to touch those wounds. Seeing was enough for him. Today, though, I think we need to touch the wounds. It isn’t enough for us to see or hear.

Jesus didn’t change the world with Resurrection. Yes, it was a profound act of Divine Love to show us that death and violence do not have to have the final word. However, if no one were paying attention, it wouldn’t have mattered. So Jesus didn’t change the world, his disciples did. They went out in the name of that same Love and tried to breathe peace and new life wherever they went.

I want the world to change. I want the lives of People of Color to matter. I want police to stop killing them. I want justice to be done. I am a person of privilege in this society and I have a responsibility to use my privilege to advocate for change. I am no longer willing to accept the status quo or to agree that blaming victims excuses the crime. I am, however, willing to add my own hands to those reaching for justice. I, like Thomas, have seen the wounds. And it is enough. New life is possible if you and I get out there with Holy Spirit, bear witness to the undeniable suffering, and breathe peace.

Acts 5:27-32
Psalm 118:14-29 or Psalm 150
Revelation 1:4-8
John 20:19-31

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A Demonstration of Love

smallerforyourblogGood Friday. The world darkens a bit today as many remember Jesus’ crucifixion. Many remember it as a horrible event that happened a couple thousand years ago so that they could be saved. For more than a few believers, Good Friday is problematic. We are an Easter people so why do we need to come to the cross and contemplate sin and death? Part of the answer is that Easter doesn’t happen, can’t happen, if there is no Good Friday. It’s what happened long ago and what continues to happen now. We can’t be Easter people singing alleluias if we deny the suffering in the world.

We’re uncomfortable contemplating the cross today because Jesus is still being crucified today and we don’t want to think about it. We can say we pray for places like Brussels and Paris. We can say that terrorism is awful and needs to end. Then we go on with our lives failing to recognize Christ in our neighbors. As long as there is violence, sexism, racism, bigotry, homophobia, and the mistreatment of those who are poor, who are mentally ill, and all those who are somehow different from us, Jesus will continue to hang on a cross right before our eyes.

It’s easy for us to condemn the disciples for scattering from the cross, for denying Jesus, for barely being able to watch from a distance. Yet, when we do this, when we fool ourselves into thinking that we would not abandon Jesus, we deceive ourselves. Every time we fail to stand with those who suffer, every time we fail to speak words of love, every time we fail to reach out in compassion, we turn away from the cross and deny Jesus.

The very same fear, anger, and aggression that allowed Jesus to be crucified exists in us. We all have the capacity to shout “Crucify him!” right along with that crowd. We do it all the time. It happens when we think or say that someone “got what they deserved” or when we blame the victim of violence or racism or tragedy for their circumstances. It’s ugly when we continue to crucify Christ and then turn away.

Fortunately, even crucifixion does not destroy God’s love for humanity. If we can tolerate sitting at the cross before running to the tomb, we have opportunity to examine the face of forgiveness. A God who is willing to die a gruesome and painful human death, is a God who loves beyond our capacity to imagine. If we can hold the tension between the horror of crucifixion and the amazing love of Christ, it might become possible for us to face ourselves.

Sitting at the foot of the cross is a good position in which to evaluate life. It’s not hard to feel the pain and horror of crucifixion; it’s on the news daily. The challenge is to sit with it long enough to recognize where we participate in it and longer still for the goodness to come through. In the moments of deepest pain, the veil between God and humanity is torn in two. Something new can happen. Human beings do not have to continue the ancient story of violence, fear, anger, and more violence. Love can step in and bear witness to the suffering, hold vigil, until new life emerges.

The crucifixion was not a means of salvation. It was a demonstration of Love. If we want to know how to deal with the sin that is in us and around us, the answer is right in front of us. Love. Love enough to risk pain, suffering, and death. Love enough to speak peace to power. Love enough to embody Christ. This is the Good in this Friday.

Photo CC-BY-NC image by Erika Sanborne

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Easter Then and Now

Here’s a little meditation that came to me while preparing worship for this week. If you’re preaching and looking or sermon help, you might want to try here.

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But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared.
On the first day of the week, as the sun rises,may we come seeking You, bringing all that we have prepared.

They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body.
May we experience the blessing of the stone rolled away, that we may enter in, and discover it empty.

While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them.
When we do not encounter what we expect, may we recognize your messengers among us and be dazzled.

The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?
So often we look for the living among the dead and fail to notice holiness. May fear and trembling bring us to holy ground reminding us who You are.

He is not here, but has risen.
You are not in the emptiness; You live!

Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.”
May we remember all that You have told us. Human sin, death, and violence are not the end. Divine Love rises again and again and again.

Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest.
Let us hear these sacred promises once more and leave behind emptiness as we share love with all the rest.

Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles.
Our lives are to be testimonies to You. We are to embody Love enough to call others to life – in Brussels, in Aleppo, in Abidjan, in Ankora, in Gaza, in Chicago…

But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.
But these words seem an idle tale to so many and the world is unlikely to change.

But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.
Except for the ones who get up and run to see the emptiness for themselves. These will see and believe and be amazed. These will embody Love that shows no partiality.

Christ is risen!
Alleluia!
Amen.

RCL – Easter – March 27, 2016
Acts 10:34-43 or Isaiah 65:17-25
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
1 Corinthians 15:19-26 or Acts 10:34-43
John 20:1-18 or Luke 24:1-12

Photo CC-BY-NC image by Rachael Keefe

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