Seemingly Impossible Joy

person-110303_1280

Rejoice in the Lord always. Always and everywhere. Was Paul kidding? The world is too challenging a place to be full of joy always, isn’t it? I mean look at what is happening around the world – war, hunger, sickness, climate change – and in this country – murder, incarceration, tear gas, hatred, fear – and in my neighborhood – isolation, anxiety, desperation. Who can find joy in all of this? Funny thing, Paul’s world wasn’t all the different. He was imprisoned, not for the first time when he wrote to the Philippians. He was no stranger to oppression, war, violence, hatred, fear, and other such soul-destroying things. Yet, he found joy in the Lord.

And we are supposed to do the same no matter what is going on around us or in our own lives. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. However, joy is not the same thing as happiness. Joy is a more mature, deeper, transforming emotion than happiness. Happiness is dependent on one’s circumstances. Lots of things can make us happy. Joy is built on the connection between the human spirit and the Holy Spirit. Joy does not end when the moment has passed. This is how Paul could rejoice even when circumstances were not in his favor.

Where is the joy for today’s Christian? To be perfectly honest, I spent a good portion of my younger years feeling anything but joy. It was so hard to see through the pain of the past and the precarious balance of the present to any kind of lasting joy. It’s also hard to feel joy if one does not experience love. Only when I began to see myself as someone worthy of love, someone whom God loved deeply, did I notice joy blossoming in the depths of my being.

Zephaniah’s and Isaiah’s call to sing God’s praises even while still captive and filled with shame, make much more sense when considered in the context of God’s steadfast love. I don’t know why or how, but God continues to love humanity no matter what we do. When we engage in war and violence, God’s love remains. When we are filled with fear and hatred for our neighbors, God’s love holds fast. When we are lost to anxiety and despair, God’s love abides. Nothing we can do to ourselves, each other, or creation can change the fact that we were created in Love for love. For reasons beyond my capacity to fathom, God still loves all of humanity and waits for us to grasp hold of this truth.

When we understand ourselves to be God’s beloved, then joy becomes possible. The shame gives way to hope and the fear gives way to peace. Suddenly the world holds more beauty than violence and all our neighbors are God’s beloved. No, I don’t think it’s possible that any of us live in this truth 100% of the time. We are still subject to the emotions coursing through our bodies and the pressures of living in this chaotic world. The difference comes into play when we sit still long enough to sink into the very center of ourselves. When we allow ourselves to become conscious of the truth that resides in the depths of our being – we belong to God and nothing can change that. When we embrace this truth, then joy grows and becomes something that nothing can remove. Yes, joy can grow dim in the face of hardship. It can be masked by depression, anxiety, and other forms of mental illness. It can fade in the face of grief. Yet, it remains, always. A light in depths that cannot be extinguished.

Of course, this joy might require we do some odd things. We might have to write letters of hope and promise to churches from a prison cell. We might have to proclaim the power and presence of God to a people lost in shame and fear. We might need to preach release, salvation, to captives. We might have to sing while those around us weep, sing of God’s promise of hope, peace, joy, and love.

So, yes, let us rejoice always, trusting that peace that truly passes all understanding to keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. It might just get a little easier to stand with John the Baptist in the wilderness and prepare the way…

RCL – Year C – Third Sunday of Advent – December 16, 2018
Zephaniah 3:14-20
Isaiah 12:2-6
Philippians 4:4-7
Luke 3:7-18

Photo: CC0 image by Gerd Altmann

Advertisements
Posted in Musings, Sermon Starter | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Way of Peace

candles-168011_1280.jpg

I genuinely like this time of year. The Christmas lights and the menorah candles shine out as a reminder that there is more to the world than we usually allow ourselves to see. I laugh out loud at the lawns crammed full of over-sized holy family members side-by-side with inflated snowmen and moving reindeer. I’m filled with awe at strings of simple white lights over a doorway, or single candles in the windows, or the visible menorah with it’s flickering candle light. These brave attempts to keep the despair of the world at bay and remind us that no night lasts forever give me glimpses of hope that maybe someday we will truly prepare the way for the One who is, who was, and who is to come.

We need to celebrate and light up the nights in the coldness of this season. We need to find hope and peace enough to want to get through another day. Last week a Minneapolis police precinct put up a Christmas tree adorned in racism. A rabbi friend received hateful threats against her and the Jewish community in her New Hampshire town. The majority of people (87% according to one poll) don’t hear or don’t care about the overtones of rape and misogyny in a popular holiday song. These are just three examples of hate and apathy that have touched my life in the last week. I don’t doubt that more could be added to this list.

When did we become so willfully oblivious to our neighbor’s pain? There is nothing in “Prepare the way of the Lord” that says to do so by trampling over others. Making paths straight doesn’t mean ignoring racism and just moving along. We are not supposed to be filling the valleys with hatred or lowering the hills with fear. Nor do we make smooth the rough places by ignoring the cries of those who have been victimized. Justifying oppression, hate, and violence and maintaining the status quo do not prepare us in anyway for the coming of Christ.

In fact, it’s just the opposite. What if we prepare the way for Christ by straightening out some of the mess we have created? What if we make it easier for people to have safe, affordable housing, healthy food, reasonable wages, and accessible healthcare? Wouldn’t that straighten out a few paths? How about if we fill the valleys of fear that systemic oppression has created? What if we reach out to our neighbors and see them, hear them, welcome them as God’s beloved and stop feeding our xenophobic fears? How about leveling the mountains and hills made by fear-mongering, self-centered, power-hungry politicians that do not care who they hurt? We could begin by enabling every person who lives in this country to live in safety and be sure that refugees and immigrants have what they need to seek citizenship and be full members of society. While we’re at it, maybe we can straighten out the kinks in theology that legalism and archaic understandings have created? Maybe we could achieve some unity in Christ if we stopped judging who was right or wrong and sought more actively to follow Jesus command to love one another. Let’s start listening to voices not our own so that those rough places  created by the pain of being dismissed, devalued, and discarded can begin to heal.

One candle can’t do much to hold back the night with its cold, despair, and isolating darkness. However, if we bring our candles together, we create warmth and light. Together we can bring peace and truly prepare the way for the coming of the Holy One. Isn’t it time we validate those who cry out in response to racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny and all the other isms and phobias that keep us from seeing the humanity and the sacred in all our neighbors?

May God guide our feet in the way of peace.

RCL – Year C – Second Sunday of Advent – December 9, 2018
Malachi 3:1-4 or Baruch 5:1-9
Luke 1:68-79
Philippians 1:3-11
Luke 3:1-6

Photo: CC0 image by Hans Braxmeier

Posted in Musings, Sermon Starter | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hope is at Hand

christmas-eve-436138_1280

Tear gas used on toddlers at the Mexican border. War and violent conflicts continuing in more than twenty-five countries. A national climate report with dire implications. These things are inconsistent with Advent. How is it possible to focus on the ancient story of love and promise when the world seems bent on hatred and destruction? We are, as were Isaiah’s people, a “people who walk in darkness.” When might we “see a great light”?

Despair blankets much of the earth. Where do we find hope when all things point to destruction? What hope is there for a country whose government sanctions tear gas on children and tries to erase Trans* people? Where is the hope for countries who turn away refugees and asylum seekers and make it illegal to be queer? Where is the hope for cities with significant racial disparities? Where is the hope for the neighborhoods of unknown people and varying traditions? Where is the hope for households divided by politics, religion, fear, or hatred? What can possibly chase away the heavy, clinging despair?

Jeremiah told the ancient Israelites that the days of God’s righteousness and justice are surely coming. This was good news when Jeremiah first proclaimed it. It’s good news now, but I’m not sure people hear it or believe it. It’s hard to get excited about making the spiritual journey to Bethlehem when the world seems so focused on destruction. The nights are endless and cold and there is no sign of dawn on the horizon. And, yet, the seasons change and the liturgical seasons change. We are called to seek light even in the midst of the most oblique depths.

Jesus knew how easily we can lose hope for the world, for our country, for our communities, for our families, and for ourselves. He demonstrated how to keep hope alive by empowering the powerless and challenging those who claimed authority but did nothing to help those in need. Even in his last days, Jesus kept trying to tell the disciples that they could continue the work he had begun.

In Luke’s Gospel Jesus paints a very vivid picture of what will happen before his return. Most of what he describes is happening in the world right now, without question. There are signs of the earth’s distress and there is confusion among the nations as to how to deal with it. People live in fear of what is coming next. On the other hand, not very many of us are looking for clouds bearing the Christ who will bring redemption. Fortunately, Jesus doesn’t stop here. Signs of doom and gloom have always been around and people haven’t really paid them much heed.

Lest we get distracted by the very human ways of death and destruction, Jesus continues. The seasons will continue to change. Summer will gave way to fall. Fall will yield to winter. Winter will melt into spring. Spring will brighten into summer. Plants and trees will bloom, grow, and die. When these things happen, according to Luke, we will know that the Realm of God is near. And we should pay attention.

This is good news of truly biblical proportions. As long as we have life and breath and earth continues its journey around the sun, the Realm of God is near. When the world is shrouded in despair and the light of hope is not visible, followers of Christ are called to do as Christ taught. It is our job to bring the Realm of God into the here and now. We are the bearers of hope for those who live in the gloomy depths. We who embody Christ are the lamplighters and the hope igniters. In this there is redemption and the glory and power of Christ.
As we embark on this Advent journey and light the candle of hope, let us remember that human ways are not God’s ways. We can do better. We can denounce violence in all its forms and challenge those with authority who glory in fear and oppression. We can learn ways to live gently on this earth and heal the damage we have done. We who embody Christ can ensure that no one is erased or outcast or unseen. We can demonstrate the Love Jesus taught. We can do this here and now because the Realm of God is at hand. Let us all repent and make it manifest. This is hope. This is real. This is now.

If you are looking for sermon help, try here.

RCL – Year C – First Sunday in Advent -December 2, 2018
Jeremiah 33:14-16
Psalm 25:1-10
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
Luke 21:25-36

Photo: CC0 image by Gerd Altmann

Posted in Musings, Sermon Starter | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Making It Personal

crown-759296_1280

I was a freshman in high school the first time someone asked me if I was a Christian. I’d gone to a friend’s youth group and the leaders were not shy about expressing their concerns. During the prayer circle I passed, rather than pray out loud. I’d read prayers out loud, but I’d never spontaneously prayed out loud and that raised some eyebrows. At the end of the meeting, the young man who was the youth pastor pulled me aside and asked, “Are you a Christian?” He was not satisfied with my answer that I went to church regularly. He tried clarifying. “Is Jesus your Lord and Savior?” I thought so, but didn’t really know what he meant. He said he would pray for me and that I could come back any time.

I was haunted by that question for years. I thought of Jesus as Lord and I wanted to be saved from my own self-destructive tendencies, but I realized that the youth pastor meant something different. It was only a few years later when I participated in a college Christian group. They emphasized a personal relationship with Jesus. This was also a struggle for me. At the time, I thought Jesus had better things to do than listen to my repetitive prayers for health and wholeness. Yes, my relationship with God was personal, but, again, I thought maybe I’d missed the mark.

Now, decades later, I belong to a denomination that has changed “Christ the King” Sunday to “Reign of Christ” Sunday. I understand why and agree that inclusive language is important, as is non-binary language. However, the impersonal language helps keep Jesus at a distance. Keeping Jesus at a distance also weakens passion, commitment, and identity.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never met a king or a lord. Of course, I’ve read about them and know they exist and have existed for generations. I also tend to think about these as titles only, not descriptions of identity. Unless, I’m talking about Jesus. I think of Jesus as Lord as the One who reigns over all that is. If Jesus is Lord, then the lords of this world have less power no matter what title they hold. If Jesus rules over a kingdom that is not of this world, then the “kings” of this world who wage war look even more foolish. When Jesus is Lord I am challenged to live into the Kingdom that Jesus rules and avoid falling into the foolishness that human rulers deem important. There is a freedom in serving a God who rules above all others.

There’s a freedom and a personal responsibility. If Jesus is Lord and the rulers of this world are not, there is hope for the future for all of us. If Jesus is Savior that means no one on earth is going to save us from ourselves. If both these things are true, I have responsibility bring the Kingdom of God into being one moment, one interaction at a time. Faith becomes a comfort and a call to action; it’s personal.

I’m all for inclusive, non-binary language. Although, every once in a while, it’s good to return to language that reflects relationality. If Christ is King, then we are members of a sacred Kingdom – interconnected and interrelated. Living in this Kingdom reminds us all that God’s ways will save us from our tendency toward self-destruction as love, mercy, and forgiveness rule. It’s important for all of us to be good citizens of God’s realm. What we say and do matters.

It’s no secret that church membership continues to decline. We have made God so impersonal that there is so little to grab hold of. Taking a moment to honor that we are residents in a Holy Kingdom, individually members of One Body, and that we are called individually and communally to embody the Love that brings us together. Maybe in this we can reclaim some passion and purpose and breathe some new life into the church.

RCL – Year B – Christ the King/Reign of Christ – November 25, 2018
2 Samuel 23:1-7
Psalm 132:1-12 [13-18]
Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14
Psalm 93
Revelation 1:4b-8
John 18:33-37

Photo: CC0 image by skeeze

Posted in Musings, Sermon Starter | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Better Than It Looks

hatching-chicks-2448541_1280

My living room windows face west. Some evenings I am home in time to watch the spectacular display of colors that can be sunset. I am often captivated by the way the winter-bear trees appear to be etched in the pink-orange hues of the setting sun. It’s beautiful and intricate and different every evening. Watching the changing sky always gives me a moment of peace, of gratitude. It’s a quick moment that gives me hope even when much of my day has been chaotic or difficult.

Sometimes a poem or scripture passages do the same thing for my tired spirit. This week I had an unexpected encounter with just such a text. A couple of days ago I went to my usual text study group. I had decided to use the texts for Thanksgiving Day rather than the lectionary texts for Sunday. The words of Matthew 6:25ff about not worrying were much more appealing for a sermon text than the opening verses of Mark 13. Seriously, who wants to preach about stones crumbling, war, famine, earthquakes, and other such “birthpangs”? Not me. Well, not until I engaged in conversation with my colleagues.

What if Jesus statement about the impermanence of buildings, even sacred ones, was actually good news? It means that no matter what happens to the structure, the community will continue. After all, the Temple was destroyed by Judaism and Christianity continued. All of our social structures will fall at some point, but the Body of Christ (and other faith-filled communities) will endure. There’s hope for all the small, struggling churches today. We might not be able to afford the upkeep of old buildings, but that doesn’t mean the community does not have vitality. Perhaps we shouldn’t try so hard to hold on to buildings that are just going to crumble anyway. Perhaps, there are better uses of our resources.

If there is good news contained in the destruction of buildings, what about the other “birthpangs” Jesus mentioned? There isn’t anything particularly encouraging in false gods, war, earthquakes, and famines, at least not in a cursory reading. What if these aren’t warning about the apocalypse or the Second Coming? What if, hidden in here, is a way to bring about the Realm of God?

Jesus was not predicting or prescribing what would be. Instead, Jesus was describing what already was and would continue. He knew human beings. He knew our weaknesses. We are too easily swayed by those who claim power and divine anointing; we don’t recognize their falsity until it is almost too late. We also have a strong propensity for violence; there has never been a time in human history without war. We allow fear to divide us and greed to rule us, often to the point of one nation claiming superiority over another. Earthquakes have been an unpredictable part of life on this planet and in modern history human activity has been a causal factor for some earthquakes. Famine continues to plague the earth and we have contributed to the severity of famine as well. Jesus knew what he was talking about.

But what of hope? Yes, all these things are birthpangs. When human beings begin to recognize the value of relationships rather than buildings, the power hidden in the buildings of faith communities will only increase. When we seek the truth of our religious stories more often than we pursue facts, we will be less swayed by the fading glamour of false gods. When we pursue peace with the same fierceness with which we have pursued war, all people and nations will know justice. When we put the health of our planet before wealth and convenience, the aftermath of earthquakes and famine will be less devastating. Essentially, when those who claim to be religious embody Divine Love the birthpangs will cease and the Realm of God will truly be here and now. So, yes, there is good news in these strange verses. People, we have the knowledge and the power to put an end to our destructive human ways. If we are able to do this, then we will see that God has been with us throughout history, waiting for us to live lives grounded in unity rather than division.

Jesus embodied God’s vision of love for the whole of creation with the hope of transforming the world. It’s a slow process and easy to lose track of it. Yet,the church is called to be agents of transformation. We would do well to remember that we are not to be part of the birthpangs. We are the ones who prepare the way for new life and embrace it when it arrives. Surely, we do not need to endure these labor pains for a few more millenia…

RCL – Year B – Twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost – November 18, 2018
1 Samuel 1:4-20
1 Samuel 2:1-10
Daniel 12:1-3
Psalm 16
Hebrews 10:11-14 [15-18] 19-25
Mark 13:1-8

Photo: CC0 image by Myriam

Posted in Musings, Sermon Starter | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Other Ones

rain-2538429_1280.jpg
You could see the woman, the widow, the one without means
she kept to the shadows, head down and quiet, even her steps were silent
as she approached the treasury box to add her two cents
far less than others put in

No one took notice
yet you saw her and spoke of her sacrifice and her value
You did not let her go unseen, one among many,
many so much prettier, shinier, showier
who wanted to be seen giving what they would not miss
in a way that spoke of their own significance
and drew attention away from those whose value
they overlooked with training and intention

A widow whose name has not been spoken in thousands of years
acted out Your teachings and wanted nothing for her effort
and we still fail to see

We see her two copper coins and recognize (sometimes) the beauty of her gift
yet we still make it about the money and think that You are asking more of us
than we can possibly give

More than anything else You would like us to open our eyes as Bartimaeus did
and see the way You see and stop confusing money and possessions and success and power
with value and worth and humanity and belovedness

Who have we failed to notice hiding out on the margins where we cover them
in shadows and shades of undesirability?
Who holds their gifts out to us like two copper coins whose value isn’t measured in
dollars and cents?

You keep telling us to care for the widows, the poor, the orphans, the captives, the vulnerable
and we close our eyes tightly and clothe ourselves with importance and privilege
choosing not to be merciful or grace-filled or loving

It’s easier for us to keep our eyes closed to the pain-filled ones, the hungry ones, the lonely ones
the forgotten ones, the unwanted ones, the broken ones, the rejected one, the bullied ones,
all the other ones
whom You claim as beloved ones
and we choose not to see
because we are afraid
that we will become the unseen ones
and the foolish things we value might determine our own worth

And we tell ourselves that You can’t see through the illusion of perfection
we create to hide from ourselves

It’s time we learn the widow’s truth
no number of coins given or received could reflect her worth
no shadows could hide her from You

Grant us the courage to set aside the cloak of privilege
open our eyes and see
those other ones as Your beloved ones
as our loved ones
and reclaim and rename all those hiding ones
as neighbors, friends, family
members of One Body
One in You
Us

RCL – Year B – Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost – November 11, 2018
Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17
Psalm 127
1 Kings 17:8-16
Psalm 146
Hebrews 9:24-28
Mark 12:38-44

Photo: CC0 image by Michael Gaida

Posted in Poetry, Prayer | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Agape: It’s a Noun and a Verb

heart-81207_1280

“Love your neighbor as yourself.” It’s simple, right? It’s the second greatest commandment that resembles the first – Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. We want these commandments to be easy just because they are simple statements. Neither of these is easy to do. Because they are aren’t as simple as they seem at first glance. The love being asked for here is “agape,” a selfless or godly love. In other words, we are supposed to love God and neighbor and our selves without consideration of risk or cost to our selves. It’s not so simple when considered from this perspective.

I used to think that people more readily loved others than themselves. Now I’m tempted to think that the reverse is true. And I don’t even want to raise the question of loving God. The truth is that we human beings are not very good at selfless love. We want to be, but I’m not sure that we are. Sometimes we get a glimpse of it between parents and children or spouses, but there’s something slippery about agape that makes it really hard for us.

Sometimes people go to great lengths to cover the suspicion that they are unworthy of love or unlovable. These folks will serve others to the point of self-depletion. If one does not love oneself, how is it possible to love the One who created all of us? A sense of being unworthy of love from God or others, often leaves a person trying to earn or prove their value through achieving perfection. This, in turn, can contribute to masking anything that is imperfect from addictions to mental health challenges to other ineffective coping behaviors. With this mindset, loving and accepting love becomes much more difficult.

The other side of this isn’t any better. There are people who live in fear of anyone perceived as “other.” Fear prevents love from taking hold. Fear keeps everyone at a distance and develops rules to keep the “right” people in and the “wrong” people out. How is it possible to agape (love selflessly or without condition) our neighbors if they are “other” with this kind of thinking? How is it possible to agape God if we fear so many who were also created by God and bear the image of God? How is it possible to truly love ourselves if everyone else is suspect? Fear feeds anger and anger feed hatred. Love in any form becomes limited.

This agape stuff is a challenge that most people don’t engage simply because we fool ourselves into thinking that we are doing it. If we love our neighbors more than ourselves, we tell ourselves that this is good enough. If we love ourselves more than our neighbors we justify our rejection of others with something seemingly biblical. I’m not sure too many folks even ask themselves if they agape God. That’s almost too big for most of us who are trying to get through each day.

Yet, agape is desperately needed in the world. We need people who love themselves enough to love their neighbor and their Creator. We need to reset our preset beliefs. God agapes us, all of us without exception and without limit. If we could live in this truth, the rest would be a lot easier. What if we preached this without fail – God loves you with God’s whole being and there is nothing you can do to change that fact? What if we asked those who live in fear to accept the idea that God’s love of “others” is independent of our judgements or approval? We have no impact on who it is that God agapes.

If that’s not enough, perhaps we can imagine a world in which every person knows that they are valuable and lovable simple because they are created in the image of God. This value is a gift given to all of us no matter who we are or how we move through this world or what we can or cannot do or what we do or do not achieve. If we accept Jesus’ message of love as real, then we must accept Jesus’ challenge to agape in return.

Who would not benefit from a dose of agape for themselves, their neighbors, or God? (And just imagine how agape could influence which political candidates we choose…)

Agape is our birthright. It is our neighbors’ birthright. It’s time we spread this Good News and live into the amazing gift we have been given.

RCL – Year B – Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Ruth 1:1-18
Psalm 146
Deuteronomy 6:1-9
Psalm 119:1-8
Hebrews 9:11-14
Mark 12:28-34

Photo: CC0 image by Gerd Altmann

Posted in Musings, Sermon Starter | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment