Politics and Religion for the Win

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Religion and politics don’t mix. I’ve heard this all of my life and have only recently begun to question where this idea came from. I understand separation of church and state; I don’t want politicians/government to determine anyone’s religion. But to say that religion and politics are separate doesn’t make sense if we care to examine the origins of Christianity. Jesus walked between politics and religion with more grace than an Olympic gymnast on a balance beam.

For generations we have allowed ourselves to be distracted by misinterpretations and misdirections by those who would sublimate the church’s real power. Jesus had nothing against Jews; he was a Jew. The writers of the Gospels couldn’t have imagined the anti-Semitism that their words were later used to endorse. Jesus, and the writers of the Gospels had issues with the Temple authorities, the Jews who had been appointed by Rome to manage the people under the guise of Temple laws. No doubt there were good men among them who believed they were doing right. However, Jesus took issue with the oppression of the people, the peasants, by the ruling class – Romans, yes, but also Jews in Rome’s employ. They conflated religion and politics in a way that was potentially harmful to anyone who did not hold power. Sound familiar?

The Pharisees and Herodians who came to Jesus to ask about paying taxes were looking to entrap him. They wanted him to say something blasphemous or treasonous. Instead, he pointed out their hypocrisy. Why would a Jew have a Roman coin in their pocket? Because they were paid by Rome. Jesus didn’t comment on that. He simply pointed out that if Caesar’s image was on the coin, then the coin belonged to Caesar. A political statement to be sure. The kicker comes in the second half of the statement.

You, Pharisee or Herodian, whose image do you bear? Oh. Right. There’s that. Keeper of the Law or follower of Herod, both made in the image of God. And, yes, even those peasants milling about in the outer courts of the Temple, they, too, are made in the image of God. So, if a coin bearing Caesar’s likeness belongs to Caesar, what of a life bearing the image of God? Have you given that to God or are you too worried about following Caesar’s rules of oppression?

Jesus has just landed an awe-inspiring back-handspring in the midst of this unsuspecting crowd. They don’t know if they should applaud or run away in fear. Funny thing, neither do we. We get so focused on keeping religion out of politics that we fall for the illusions cast by those in power. We see only shiny coins flipping in the air, flickering with fear and divisiveness before being caught by the hand of one claiming ultimate authority. When’s the last time we went looking for the image of God in ourselves or our neighbors? Maybe it’s time to pay more attention to the both the politics Jesus rejected and, more importantly, to those he endorsed.

If today’s Caesars had their way, we would only listen to the voices that promote oppression. We would ban Muslims from entering this country. We would ignore all the “me too” statements on social media. We would sanction the dehumanizing of LGBTQ+ individuals. We would blame victims of violence. We would hold people with serious mental illness responsible for their “weakness.” We would dismiss those who live in poverty as lazy. We would maintain systems that thrive on racism. We would only provide healthcare for those who have financial means. This, and worse, is what the world looks like when we maintain the separation of politics and religion. This is the kind of oppressive system that Jesus whole-heartedly rejected. This is the system that called for the death of Love Incarnate. This is the society so fearful of the ways of Love that they crucified it. This is what happens when religion is self-serving and politics are driven by greed.

It isn’t too late for us to start letting our faith inform our politics. Jesus embodied Love; he served others. He brought healing and wholeness to those who were broken in body, mind, and spirit. He literally re-membered people by restoring them to community. He saw the likeness of God in all he met, even those who could not see it in themselves. If we follow what Jesus taught, then we should be doing as he did. We should be embodying Love and liberating the oppressed. Why? Because we belong to God first and foremost. Caesar’s claims on us are significantly less than God’s. And if we’re paying attention, we see Caesar for what he is – a master manipulator who uses fear to feed his greed and keep the people divided.

Imagine a world in which our religion demands our politics create paths of liberation for all God’s people. Let’s stop pretending that what we have now is informed by any faith that recognizes the image of God in all human beings. Isn’t it time our religion vaults into public life and crashes through the fear that enables Caesar to rule? After all, isn’t that what Jesus did?

RCL – Year A – Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost – October 22, 2017
Exodus 33:12-23 with Psalm 99 or
Isaiah 45:1-7 with Psalm 96:1-9, (10-13)
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Matthew 22:15-22

Photo: CC0 image by U. Leone

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Who Will Intercede for Us

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Who will intercede for us as we worship gods of our own making? Who will plead with God on our behalf while we become supplicants of gods who cannot satisfy us? I find myself wondering this as I read through the story of the Israelites and the golden calf in the context of our self-serving society that places more value on pretty, shiny things than it does on human beings.

Unlike the ancient Israelites, God did not lead us into this wilderness where compassion is rare and condemnation flies freely in all directions. The Israelites became frightened and distrusting when they thought Moses and God had abandoned them. They wanted a God they could see and touch and be sure was present with them as they continued the journey toward transformation and liberation. I can sympathize with them. That was a grueling journey and to feel alone and abandoned would make any people yearn for something tangible, a pretty, shiny god. But, as I said, God didn’t lead us out into this wilderness. We got here on our own chasing the shadows of glitzy and glamourous gods made to please us (or fool us).

We are responsible for a society that values wealth over humanity, quick, violent solutions over slower peace processes, silence over justice, oppression over hospitality, and the status quo over transformative change. We fill ourselves with nostalgia for a past that never existed and yearn for a yesterday that is more fiction than fact. America was never great. However, if we stop focusing on ourselves and our golden calves, America could be better than it is.

The Exodus story tells us that God was angry when the people worshiped the golden calf they had made. God intended to wipe them out for their rather significant transgression. However, Moses interceded and reminded God of the covenant made with the ancestors. God relented and sent Moses back to the Israelites with the Ten Commandments to bring them back into right relationship with God and to build a healthier community.

I’m not sure that God was so very ready to smite the Israelites, but I can understand how those who first told this story might think so. I don’t think it was God who needed to be reminded of the covenant God had made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jocob; I think it was the Israelites who needed the reminder. Either way, Moses interceded and the community got another chance.

Now I do think that today God might be angry with those of us who call on God’s name and then go worship lesser gods. At the very least, God has to be disappointed that we still have not figured out how to love one another. We still have not figured out how to trust God to lead us through the wilderness even when we end up there by our own volition. God has reasons to be disappointed, angry, and frustrated with us all.

However, God’s steadfast love endures forever. God will wait patiently for us to turn away from the gods we have made. God will wait for us to recognize the image of God in all human beings. God will wait for us to recognize the beauty and wonder of Creation and take better care of the planet. I’m just not sure how long we want to keep God waiting.

We know better today than those ancient Israelites did. We know that the journey from oppression to liberation is a grueling one and that transformation is often a slow and painful process. We also know that God never abandons the people of God. We turn away often enough, but God does not. God patiently awaits our repentance so that we can live in right relationship with God, with our neighbors, with ourselves, and with creation.

Isn’t it time we stop making false gods? Isn’t it time we put away our attraction to quick fixes and instant gratification? Isn’t it time we roll up our sleeves and commit to working for justice, for peace, for liberation of all God’s children? Does it really matter so much what country someone was born it? Does it really matter what name a person calls God? Does it really matter how poor or wealthy a person is? Does it really matter which labels of division we place on one another?

The Apostle Paul tells us to turn our attention to things that are true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise. Maybe we should try that before we find ourselves in an outer darkness littered with the tarnished, dented gods our hands have made.

RCL – Year A – Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost – October 15, 2017
Exodus 32:1-14 with Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23 or
Isaiah 25:1-9 with Psalm 23
Philippians 4:1-9
Matthew 22:1-14

Photo: CC0 image by Steve Bidmeand

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Liturgy in the Aftermath

A Call to Worship and Benediction for Indigenous Peoples Day (Written for use in Worship at Living Table United Church of Christ)
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One: The sun rises in the East, awakening the world with light.
All: May God’s wisdom and understanding guide us through this day.
One: Warm winds blow from the South, bringing warmth and growth.
All: May the Spirit of Life strengthen us to meet the challenges of this day.
One: Out of the West rains come and rivers flow.
All: May the Living Water quench our thirst and lead us to new life.
One: Cold winds of change and challenge come from the North.
All: May God grant us the courage to face into the storms and hold fast until peace returns.

Benediction
One: As we prepare to leave this sacred space, let us be mindful of the guiding winds. As each day beings
All: May we embody wisdom and understanding, awakening to the needs around us.
One: When we encounter suffering and oppression
All: May we hold fast to justice and love, widening our circle of welcome.
One: As we hear the anguished voices of those seeking liberation
All: May we respond with radical hospitality to all who thirst, offering Living Water.
One: As we make our way through this world
All: May we hold fast to all that is good, seeking the way of Peace.

A Prayer of Confession and Bidding Prayer in the Aftermath of Las Vegas (Written for the Minnesota Conference United Church of Christ)
sunset-188519_640Call to Confession:
One: In times of pain and anguish it is easy to turn to God in anger or frustration. We want to beg God to act, to change the circumstances in which we feel powerless. It is possible that God is waiting for us to make the changes required to bring about peace. In an attitude of repentance, let us open our weary hearts to God as we pray together:

Prayer of Confession
All:  Steadfast God, we turn to you, once again, in shock and horror. The impossible number of lives lost to bullets makes us want to blame someone, anyone, rather than look at the grief-stricken faces all around us. Long ago, the Psalmist told us to “seek peace and pursue it” and we have not yet begun to live in peace. Isaiah told us to turn our swords into plowshares and all we’ve done is build deadlier swords. Jesus told us to love one another just as he loves us and we can’t imagine a world where such Love exists.

Soften our hearts and “prosper the work of our hands” that we may have the courage to turn away from guns, violence, and war. Lead us away from our complacency, apathy, ambivalence, and shock into your “green pastures.” We yearn to be your body hear and now, yet we are distracted by fear, by politics, by our own sense of powerlessness. We claim that we are waiting for you to do something. Yet, you wait for us to repent and seek your holy ways of peace and love. Forgive us, O God, for we truly do not know the harm we have caused by our silence. Have mercy on us as we grieve. Move us through our excuses and into actions that awaken transformation in us, in our communities, in our towns, in our country, and yes, in the world. In Jesus’ name we ask that you hear our prayers. Amen.

Words of Assurance
One: Hear the Good News: It is never too late to seek the ways of Love and Grace. In Christ we are forgiven and made new. By God’s grace we can leave behind these days of violence and bring about God’s dream of peace for the whole of Creation.
All: By the power of the Holy Spirit we will live in Love and seek to be the peace the world needs. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Bidding Prayer in the Aftermathhands-1926414_640
Come, let us pray for peace for the people of God who live in the aftermath of gunshots and violence.
(people may silently or quietly voice their prayers)
God of peace and hope, be with us in this place. Once more bullets have broken through our sense of safety and our hopes for a better future. We have reached a point where we grow numb when lives are stolen at the hands of a shooter. Compassion runs from us as we desire to place blame and demand that somebody do something to fix what is broken. Stir your Spirit within us and around us that we may help bear the burden of violence in our society, that we may find the courage to raise our voices with those of the grieving and wounded demanding change. Change our hearts, O God, that we may be seekers of peace and agents of hope.
Restore us, O God of hosts;
All:  Let your face shine.

Come, let us pray for people of faith, people who yearn for God’s ways of justice and peace to be made manifest here on earth.
(people may silently or quietly voice their prayers)
Patient and Steadfast God, hear the cries of your people. We unite our voices with those of our neighbors who call you by other names, hoping that you will lead us in paths of peace. May we unite in service to you as we seek to respond to yet another nightmare, yet another time when your beloved children die senseless, violent deaths. May we overcome our fears and distrust of one another to work together to bring about your reign of peace. Unsettle us enough for us to reach beyond our pews to create conversations and actions that lead to lasting change. We cry out to you to do something. May the unrest of the Spirit fill us until we do something.
Restore us, O God of hosts;
All:  Let your face shine.Let your face shine.

Come, let us pray for our country and those who lead it.
(people may silently or quietly voice their prayers)
Merciful and loving God, we recognize the deep wounds in this country where too often lives are destroyed for the sake of politics. Change our priorities. Empower us to make the changes that are desperately needed to disrupt this culture of violence with your ways of mercy and love. Strengthen us to embody you before one more life is stolen. Open the eyes and hearts of our leaders and politicians that they may all recognize that human lives have more value than policies and the wants of the NRA and other lobbies. May we dare to live in peace with all our neighbors. May the fire of Spirit fill us with courage and passion enough to demand changes to gun laws so that lives may be saved.
Restore us, O God of hosts;
All:  Let your face shine.

Come, let us pray for all those suffering in the aftermath of violence.
(people may silently or quietly voice their prayers)
Incarnate and present God, words fail us when we think of the ways in which violence floods our streets. Las Vegas is one more atrocious tragedy in a stream of far too many in this country and around the world. When will we learn a better way? When will we realize that more powerful weapons do not yield anything more than an increase in deaths? You spoke words of Love. You command us to love one another. Remove from us this sense of powerlessness that keeps us from seeking justice. Remove from us the fear that binds us to this culture of violence that holds us captive. Remove from us all the excuses we make so that we don’t have to figure out what we can do to bring about real change. May the Spirit of Truth transform our hearts to keep us moving in the way of peace rather than falling back into complacency.
Restore us, O God of hosts;
All:  Let your face shine.

Come, let us pray for those who are grieving in Las Vegas and around the world.
(people may silently or quietly voice their prayers)
Living and healing God, hear the pain and suffering of your people. How many lives must guns steal from us before we demand systemic change? Tears of sorrow flow like rivers year after year. We ask you to comfort those who grieve even while you work in us to turn us in the way of peace. We share this burden of sinful violence and desire to be free from it. Your forgiveness and mercy call to us. Awaken true repentance in each of us that we may turn to your holy ways, ways that bring healing to the hurting and hope to the grieving. May the Spirit take hold of us and not let us go until we bring Love into the world.
Restore us, O God of hosts;
All

Come, let us give thanks to God for the gifts of mercy, grace, forgiveness, healing, and love.
(people may silently or quietly voice their prayers)
God of power and promise, you hold us fast and do not let us go. Your steadfast love and patience with us, your hope for us, is an amazing gift. When we turn to violence, you offer peace. When we turn to despair, you offer hope. When we feel powerless, you offer transformation. When we feel lost, you offer love. Hear our gratitude for these gifts and so many more that reveal to us your dream for all your people. May gratitude move us to new places and inspire us to work for peace and justice today and in all days to come. In humility we ask that that words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God, our rock and our redeemer. In the name of Jesus the Christ, the One whom you sent to teach the way of Love, we pray…
Restore us, O God of hosts;
All:  Let your face shine.
Amen.

See also Something a Little Different for a poem on Hope. Later published in Barefoot Theology: A Dictionary for Pilgrims, Priests and Poets.

RCL – Year A – Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost – October 8, 2017
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20 with
Psalm 19 or
Isaiah 5:1-7 with Psalm 80:7-15
Philippians 3:4b-14
Matthew 21:33-46

Top Photo: CC0 image by Free-Photos

Center Photo: CC0 image by soonkeuk kwon

Bottom Photo: CC0 image by Myriam

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Something Ezekiel Said

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October is upon us and with it comes the unrecognized, not-so-sacred season of stewardship campaigns. Every year the Stewardship Team endeavors to come up with a new and different way to ask people to increase their giving. In progressive circles we often shy away from the ugly truth that if everyone tithed (as in days gone by), most budget crises would be avoided. Instead we look at our budgets, figure out what we can afford to cut – everything from Christian education to liturgical arts and outreach makes its way to the chopping block. And sometimes even the ruthless cutting of funding that leaves some programs hanging by less than the proverbial thread is not enough to balance the budget. Then what?

Then we begin the conversation once more. Do we go on faith and trust that God will fill in the deficit? Do we plan to “borrow” money from ever-dwindling reserves if necessary? Do we take a more radical step and move to a less-than-fulltime pastor? The arguments on all sides have all been made before. It’s just a question of which side will prevail this year. What if we skip over this endless cycle of focusing on what’s lacking, (you know, the scarcity model of stewardship) and turn our attention instead to what we have and who we are – the kind of stewardship that focuses on abundance? What if we stop thinking about stewardship as a once-a-year pledge drive and reclaim it as a function of Christian living? Is it possible in this increasingly selfish, gratification-focused society to take a step back and remember whose we are?

I’ve been pursued all week by a phrase from Ezekiel: “Know that all lives are mine” says God through the prophet. Black lives plagued by the injustice of racism and then belittled by politicians and others. Puerto Rican lives at risk after hurricanes have decimated the island and politics have interfered with aid rightfully due. Muslim lives banned from the U.S. because xenophobia rules the day. Trans lives deemed unworthy to serve in the military to appease those who cloak bigotry with religion. Flint, MI lives poisoned by lead and still thirsty but forgotten because they are yesterday’s news. So many lives out on the edge, forced there by our sin.

Ezekiel warned the Israelites so long ago that human ways lead to sin and death. Was not this at the heart of Jesus’ message also? God’s way is a way of love that brings life, abundant life. Yet, we still have such a hard time hearing and believing God’s claim on us, on all people. We do not yet know that all lives are God’s. This is the crux of our stewardship problems. We forget that who we are and all that we have are on loan from God. We think our lives are our own. So, too, with our stuff; we earned it and it belongs to us to do with as we choose. The people of God have a remarkable tendency to hoard our gifts as if they weren’t freely poured out for the good of all people. We fool ourselves into believing that our gifts are for us alone and that we do not need to share them with others, especially those who are different from us.

We comfort ourselves by telling ourselves that we are working in God’s vineyard, we are doing God’s work in the world. We make this claim because we are Christians who go to church a couple times a month and throw a few dollars in the collection plate. We’re good people doing good things. Yet, are we really? Are we doing the work that God would have us do? How often do we remember those lives out on the edges? How often do we reach outside our comfortable pews and offer a life-saving hand in the name of Love? However often, it isn’t enough. The Body of Christ is rather stingy in the grand scheme of things. We might be hanging out in the vineyard, but I’m not sure how much work we are doing.

The good news is that it is not too late. “All lives are mine” is what God said thousands of years ago. Human ways of focusing on material gains and superficial differences give way to the sins of greed, hatred, and fear that will only result in death, and likely violent death at that. Holy ways of love, hospitality, generosity, and kindness will lead to life, and abundant life at that.

Perhaps if we all examine our lives as individuals, as congregations, and as the Body of Christ from the perspective Ezekiel proclaimed, we will be able to recognize that we are caretakers, stewards, not owners of anything. God claims all lives as God’s very own and continuously invites us into God’s abundance where there is more than enough Love and justice for everyone. When will we recognize God’s claim on us (and all that is) and respond accordingly?

Maybe this year’s stewardship campaigns can be an invitation to live our lives as faithful stewards of God’s Creation. Wouldn’t it be nice to stop worrying about budgets and focus on the work of building communities of love and grace that reach well beyond the limits of our human ways. Imagine! What beauty this life of abundance would hold! God dreams of a future when God’s claim on every life is recognized by all of us. What can we do to make this dream real?

For further sermon help, try here.

RCL – Year A – Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost – October 1, 2017
Exodus 17:1-7 with Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16 or
Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32 with Psalm 25:1-9
Philippians 2:1-13
Matthew 21:23-32

Photo: CC0 image by Janja Košuta Špegel

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Abundance in our Wildeness Wanderings

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The first time I went to the Arizona desert was a little over ten years ago. My mother had moved from Cape Cod to Arizona when she retired a year or so before my first visit. I went out there because I had just left my marriage and felt like I had lost everything. My mother hoped I would decide to move out there after visiting. I hoped that I’d find some peace of mind in the drastic change of scenery. What I found in the desert was not enticing.

I remember looking around and being able to see for miles in all directions, all the way to the mountains that encircled the desert. The flatness, the heat, the barren land. And in this foreign landscape lived all the creatures I was afraid of – rattlesnakes, tarantulas, and scorpions. If sharks lived in the desert, too, I don’t think I could have stepped off the plane in Phoenix. As it was, I was afraid to sit outside or walk down the road, and the lizards that ran over my toes when I stepped out on the porch didn’t help. In my mind, deadly creatures were everywhere. Given the state of my being in those days, it’s a wonder any of the beauty and wonder the desert held penetrated my thoughts.

A year later, I went back for a second visit. Life was a little better for me, but I was still struggling to find fulltime employment and recover from the loss of my marriage. The desert was a distant place that I returned to, hoping for some insight. I spent a lot of time staring at the horizon during this trip, hoping that the secrets of thriving in the barren wilderness would be revealed to me. All that happened was a looking back over my life with lots of questions about the decisions I had made, wishing things were different, and yearning for a future time when I would feel settled and whole.

My third trip to the desert was three years ago, six years after my previous visit. I went out to Arizona in a completely different mindset. My life was good. I had married again and was happy. I had fulltime, meaningful work and felt balanced and whole for maybe the first time in my life. But I returned to the desert because my mother was dying. I went out there to help her get her paperwork in order and to enter hospice care, and to say goodbye. While I was reluctant to acknowledge it at the time, I knew the nine days I spent there would be the last time I saw my mother. I did a lot of looking back and wishing things had been different. And I spent a lot of time grieving for a future that would not happen. These emotions contributed to both a fondness for and a dislike of the desert. On my last trip, I appreciated the austere beauty of the desert and the tenacity of all that lived there. And I hated its heat that harbored deadly creatures and constantly whispered of human finitude.

I think this was the problem the Israelites faced after they left Egypt behind. No matter how unhappy they were under Pharaoh’s rule, they had food and shelter enough. They knew the routine of their days. Life wasn’t great but it was familiar and, to an extent, predictable. Then they followed Moses across the Red Sea into the harsh, unfamiliar wilderness of the desert. They found themselves unable to gather enough food to feed themselves. They started to question their decision to leave behind the old, oppressive life with its bread and meat. They wondered if they would ever experience a sense of security in routine ever again. No wonder they cried out to God. Their lives were on the line, their fragility underscored in scorched sand and lung-searing breath.

God heard their cries and saw their distress. God gave them what they needed. Quail and manna enough for each day. Of course, they didn’t really trust these gifts so much and they would soon grow tired of eating the same thing day after day. Yet, their disgruntled response to God’s generosity did not change the power of the gifts. Those early Israelites were saved by God’s presence with them no matter how they felt about it.

So, too, with the parable of the vineyard owner. The strength of God’s generosity is not diminished by our failure to notice it. Just like the workers in the vineyard, we can complain when we do not receive what we perceive to be fair or deserved or someone else gets “more,” but the blessings we’ve received don’t go away because we aren’t grateful. Our own inability to perceive God’s abundance in our lives doesn’t mean it’s not there.

My inability to see the beauty and strength in the Arizona desert doesn’t mean it wasn’t there. The Israelites failure to recognize God’s presence with them in their wilderness journey doesn’t mean God wasn’t there. The vineyard workers who failed to recognize the astounding generosity of the vineyard owner didn’t negate the truth of it. Often our own pain and fragility prevents us from recognizing the abundance God offers to us. Our desire to be more, or do more, or have more makes us confuse fairness and justice.

God remains present with us whether we wander hungry and thirsty in the wilderness or remain in the safe familiarity of our daily routines. God yearns for us to recognize the grace offered and to stop worrying about who’s got what so that we can truly be free to love our neighbors as ourselves. The truth is that we all wander in the desert from time to time in need of sustenance. We all experience jealousy and resentment when we think someone receives something they shouldn’t have. God invites us into a life overflowing with goodness and mercy, all the sustenance we need, all the strength we need to leave oppressive ways behind. God invites us into this life of abundance in spite of our fragility and fear of finitude and waits for the day when we will share equally in the work of bringing about the kingdom of God. May that day be soon…

RCL – Year A – Sixteen Sunday after Pentecost – September 24, 2017
Exodus 16:2-15 with Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45 or
Jonah 3:10-4:11 with Psalm 145:1-8
Philippians 1:21-30
Matthew 20:1-16

Photo: CC0 image by Julia Phillips

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God is a Loving God Who is Not a Fan of Suicide: A Post for Suicide Prevention Awareness Week

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It’s National Suicide Prevention Awareness Week. I’ve seen lots of posts on social media drawing attention to suicide prevention and I’m grateful. It is time that we bring suicidality out of the shadows of shame and into the light of hope and healing. Now if we can get the church in all its varied forms to join in this movement to provide safety and welcome to those who struggle with suicidality, I’d be so much more optimistic about shattering the stigma and shame that surrounds suicide. I’d also be much more hopeful about saving lives.

This essay is intended primarily for clergy, but if you are a person of faith, please keep reading. Colleagues in ministry, the time has come for us to do better in suicide prevention, intervention, and postvention. I’m going to begin with a rather bold statement that wherever you are on the continuum from very conservative to extremely progressive, when facing the crisis of suicide, your theological convictions are not relevant. When an individual tells you that they are thinking about suicide, your beliefs about whether or not suicide is a sin should not enter into the conversation. When you are preparing and conducting a memorial service for one who has suicided, your convictions about heaven or hell should never be spoken aloud. When you are offering pastoral care to a survivor of suicide loss, your theological understanding of suicide is not relevant. Let me explain why.

In my years as a clinical chaplain at a state psychiatric hospital, the most frequently asked questions were “How does God feel about suicide?” and “Will I really go to hell if I die by suicide?” As you might imagine, the individuals who asked this question were experiencing an acute mental health crisis and were in a great deal of emotional pain. They were often feeling ostracized by their community, unwelcome in church, and disconnected from family and friends. They didn’t have a lot of reasons to live or protective factors. The risk for suicidal behavior and suicide was very high. Each person who asked this question believed that they would go to hell or be cast away from God if they died by suicide.

Let’s think for a moment how responding to this question from a theological perspective could determine whether a person lives or dies. If one leans toward more traditional theology, then one would affirm that hell is, indeed, the consequence of suicide. Someone who is experiencing deep psychological pain is not thinking clearly about the value of their life. If traditional Christian theology is upheld, the person may not engage in suicidal behavior because they do not want to go to hell. This is the desired outcome. On the other hand, the person could also conclude that God already hates them (why else would they be experiencing the horrific pain of mental illness?) so they have nothing to lose if they suicide. This is not what any of us wants to happen.

If one leans more toward progressive theology, one would speak about the amazing love God has for all God’s people and affirm that suicide does not lead to hell. It’s possible that the suicidal individual may hear an affirmation of God’s love for them even in the midst of their pain. However, it is far more likely that the individual will hear tacit permission to die by suicide as you have just removed their last protective factor – the belief that they will go to hell if they suicide. Surely, your intentsion as a clergy person is not to remove protective factors, especially when removing them is likely to lead to death. Do not let your desire to correct what you perceive as bad theology determine what you say here. Your job is, first and foremost, to save a life not to correct theology.

Now let’s imagine that you are having a conversation with a survivor of suicide loss. They tell you that they believe their loved one is in hell, eternally cast away from God’s presence because they died by suicide. If you express your agreement, however sorrowfully, that this is theological correct, you have just increased this person’s risk for suicide. Who wants to think about a loved one alone in hell forever? If this person also dies by suicide, they will be able to be in hell with their loved one and that is better than contemplating their loved one suffering alone for all eternity.

On the other hand, if you say that suicide is not a sin and God forgives the one who dies by suicide, you may provide comfort to the survivor of suicide loss. However, you might just as easily put others at risk. Grief is incredibly painful under the best of circumstances, but suicide creates a complexity of grief, shame, and guilt. Again, if we remove the protective factor that the belief in hell can be, the risk of suicide increases.

If our own personal theology or the theological perspective of our denominations doesn’t have a place in the conversation, then what do we do? How do we answer the question of how God feels about suicide? What words do we use at a memorial service for one who died by suicide? What do we say to survivors of suicide loss? As clergy we have a moral and ethical responsibility to respond in a way that increases hope and saves lives over and above a theological duty to save souls.

My answer to “How does God feel about suicide?” is simple:  God is not a fan of suicide. I can say this with absolute certainty. Everything we know about God says that God loves and values the whole of creation and human beings in particular. God does not want anyone to suffer nor does God cause suffering. Based on this way of thinking which is grounded in scripture (“God so loved the world…” John 3:16), it is fair to conclude that God is not pleased with suicide. There are seven suicides in the Bible and not one of them says anything about God’s response. No matter what traditions tell us, we honestly do not know God’s response to one who dies by suicide.

We can, however, affirm God’s love and mercy. We can say that God is present in our deepest pain and in the fullness of joy, and all places in between. God wants only goodness and wholeness for each one of us. God wants us to recognize our status as God’s beloved children and to live into the fullness of the gifts we have been given. While we may, at times, feel distant from God, God is always present with us. We need to affirm the life we have been given.

As clergy, we are obligated to save lives. Ethically, proper theology cannot be more important than the life of the person in front of us. Please think about these things. Please be mindful of what you say to those struggling with suicidality and those living with suicide loss. Our words matter and can quite literally be the difference between life and death for someone. Think about offering hope and possibility rather than definite answers that we truly do not have. All of our theology around suicide is speculation and tradition. The only thing we can safely surmise based on scripture and experience is that God is a loving God who is not a fan of suicide.

In addition to this moral and ethical consideration, be aware that the language around suicide matters. We no longer say that someone “completed suicide” or the death was a “successful suicide.” We say that someone suicided or died by suicide. Similarly, we no longer say that someone “attempted suicide.” The more accurate and safer description is that someone engaged in self-harming or suicidal behavior. No one engages in suicidal behavior for “attention.” Anyone who engages in suicidal behavior is experiencing emotional and/or spiritual pain and needs compassionate care.

Please educate yourself on the signs and symptoms that someone is at an increased risk of suicide. Know the limits of your expertise and what you personally can offer someone struggling with suicidality. Know the resources in your community. If you, yourself, have thoughts of suicide, please reach out for help – call the National Suicide Hotline:  1-800-273-8255, call your local crisis line, talk to a friend, or look here or other resources that might be helpful for you.

We are God’s beloved children. When we come together in love we can save lives. If you would like to read more about my approach to suicide intervention, prevention, and postvention, my next book, The Life-Saving Church, will be published by Chalice Press in 2018. If you would like to be added to the email list that will receive a one-time email notice when the book is released, please email me at Rachael@beachtheology.com with subject line “Let me know.”

Photo: CC0 image by Alexandra

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Leaving Pharaoh’s Army

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I went for a walk today. I was stunned to witness summer and autumn meeting in the streets. The sun was hot and the air hazy and humid. Yet, the ever-present Minnesota wind promised cooler days ahead. The leaves of the cottonwoods and maples were still mostly green, but the splashes of red and yellow were vibrant and unmissable. The sidewalks were littered with newly browned leaves that crackled underfoot and more tumbled lazily to the ground as I walked. To move through this intersection of seasons was a gift. To notice how summer is slowly giving way to autumn and how gracefully nature accepts this change was a blessing.

I didn’t walk today for my usual reason of raising my sluggish heartrate for at least thirty minutes. Instead my walk was an effort to find refuge from the storm of hatred that seems to have settled in and taken over everything. I had started to write my reflections on the Exodus story of the parting of the Red Sea when I noticed the pounding in my head, directly above my right eye. The pain kept the beat as echoes of the hateful comments on my most resent video episode played through my head. If people responded with vitriolic and violent words to my statement that God does not control the weather or use it to get our attention or to punish us, then what would be the response to saying that the parting of the Red Sea most likely didn’t happen the way it has been written? Could I write something that could incite more vitriol? There’s enough hate spewing forth from the fingers of anonymous cyberspace dwellers. I don’t want to draw more of it out.

Then I went for a walk. I saw the stunning beauty in the late summer flowers and the early autumn leaves. I smelled the fallen leaves as they turned to dust under my feet. The pain throbbing in my head lessened. The hate-filled voices quieted. Just because people do not accept change as easily as the natural world, doesn’t mean that the slow transformation from fear-filled to love-based faith won’t continue. It is possible that one day all will recognize that God loves us and does not orchestrate the happenings of the natural world to cause us pain or punish is. It is possible that one day all will accept LGBTQ+ people as beloved children of God. It is possible that someday we will rejoice in wonder and beauty of the whole human race and celebrate how God is reflected in each face. It is possible that one day we will be free from this bizarre desire to read and interpret scripture as if it were a book of facts rather than a collection of spiritual truths human beings have encountered in their search for God.

Now I’m going to say it. I don’t believe that God slaughtered the whole of Pharoah’s army any more than I believe God is sending massive storms, floods, fires, or famine to wipe out parts of countries around the globe. Would it have appeared this way to the Israelites? Of course. Only an act of God could free people from oppression in Egypt. The important thing is that the Israelites experienced liberation and were thankful for a God who loved them enough to stay with them through captivity, into liberation, and beyond. It’s a great story. And those of us of a certain age will always think of Charlton Heston when this story comes up. But a story told from the perspective of the Israelites isn’t the only way to tell the story. They told it in a way that affirmed the power and presence of their God over and above all other Gods. It’s not wrong; it’s just not likely factual. I’d bet the Egyptians would have a very different version of events…

That’s not what’s important, though. From a mythic, spiritual truth position the story speaks of a God who desires liberation for God’s people. God’s steadfast love held onto God’s people through the oppression, into liberation, and held them firmly through transformation and its aftermath.

This makes sense in today’s context where a God who murders entire armies doesn’t. God seeks liberation for the oppressed. God’s steadfast love holds us through all time, places, and circumstances. God does not ever seek to cause harm to any of creation, including human beings. God does not value violence and hatred and does not bring about circumstances that result in either one. If it is not an act full of love, forgiveness, and mercy, it is not from God. It’s that simple. There is no longer need to attribute anything else to God, especially when we realize how much hatred and violence is a direct consequence of human activity.

Pharaoh’s army is alive and thriving on our fear, distrust, and hatred of each other. Isn’t it time we all join together and assist in the liberation of all God’s people?

RCL – Year A – Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 17, 2017
Exodus 14:19-31 with Psalm 114
or Exodus 15:1b-11, 20-21
Genesis 50:15-21 with Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13
Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 18:21-35

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