God, Have Mercy (trigger warning)

girl-757452_1920This morning I woke up exhausted. It’s one of those days that I can’t shake the heaviness of sleep. As always, there are reasons for this, not the least of which is a physical need for more sleep. But emotionally and spiritually I’m a bit wrung out. Usually, I have really good boundaries and can keep my issues separate from other people’s issues even if they are similar to my own. Not so this week.

Ever since that video tape of “locker room talk” was released, I’ve been inundated with stories told by cis women and trans women, white women and women of color, who have been assaulted. Everywhere I go, someone else is telling me in written or spoken word how, when, and by whom she was assaulted. I truly welcome these stories because I know the power in naming personal truth and speaking it out loud. My problem is that I am also flooded with images from my own story.

The truth is that I don’t remember when it started. I know from an early age I was taught that my body wasn’t mine to control. I could easily be pushed aside, shoved out of the way, forced to comply by those who were bigger and stronger than I was. From the time I entered puberty at age nine, there were the comments and the cat calls. Always. Everywhere. The teachers and college professors with lewd suggestions or inappropriate comments about my body. There was the man my father’s age who propositioned me when I was 17 saying, “I’m sure you’ve been loved before.” Date rape at 19. The senior pastor who responded to my statement that I felt called to seminary with, “So you want to be a DCE (Director of Christian Education)?” The college chaplain I met while in seminary who said, “Why would someone who looks like you go into the ministry?” Followed by countless church-going men who would hug too close, “accidentally” touch me in intimate places, and the few who’ve stalked me assuming I would want them to be in my life. I’ve never walked alone at night without being hyper-vigilant about my surroundings.

After that infamous video, people are talking about misogyny as if they’ve never realized it existed everywhere all the time. Of course, many of us have known through experience that women are objectified and degraded more often than not. Some are still endorsing this kind of behavior with a dismissive, “boys will be boys.” It’s been a long time  since I have felt unsafe just because I am female. But with all the hateful fervor stirred up and made acceptable, I’m a bit more anxious; I’m not as young or strong as I once was and I’m not sure how effective all that self-defense training will be in this middle-aged body.

Then last week a Black man was accosted by a white police officer for doing nothing more than walking down the street in a wealthy Minnesota suburb. The officer truly manhandled the young Black man. The video went viral and suddenly people are noticing that maybe there is something to the claims of systemic racism. Of course, there are still deniers. And there are still those who remain silent.baby-1317627_1920

Last night I spent three hours at the city council meeting where the mayor invited folks to come and enter into conversation. There was powerful testimony as people bore witness to how racism shaped their lives. White mothers expressing fear for the lives of their Black sons. Black mothers in anguish over the lessons of submission they must teach their sons. Black men speaking the truth of their anger, their pain, their having been shamed. White men naming their anger and their shame in the face of systemic racism and white supremacy. The many who bore witness to a demand for truth, for justice, for change. But too many shared the stories of their bodies, their rights, their lives being violated by police officers and “concerned citizens” just because they were driving, walking, talking, living while Black. It’s possible that an apology is coming from the mayor, from the city council. It’s long overdue and it is not enough. But maybe, just maybe, an apology from a white man in power to an innocent Black man victimized by racist police officers will be enough to change the direction of the conversation.

Confession is an essential part of human existence. I think it was Luther who said that confession is good for one’s soul. If we confess our sins, we accept responsibility for them and we can repent and receive forgiveness. Then maybe we really can repair the breach that has existed since the time before memory. We cannot keep acting as if there is a difference between personal and communal sins.

For now, though, there are too many of us who sit in the seat of the Pharisee. We express arrogant thanks for not being the misogynist, the racist, the arrogant, the ignorant, the politician, or that kind of Christian. We follow all the rules set by our church, neighborhood, city, or country. We put our heads down and keep moving along as if community sins were not our sins. It’s far easier for us to point our fingers at the tax collectors among us, than it is to look in the mirror. Isn’t it time that we stop this and beg for mercy instead?

Join me in confession. I confess that for most of my life I believed misogyny was normative and I remained silent when I was a victim of it and when others around me were victimized. I did not confront the men engaging in demeaning, lewd, or abusive talk or actions. In addition, I took out my anger and frustration on some men who did not deserve how I treated them. I confess that I was raised by a racist to be a racist. For much of my life I remained silent when those around me were victimized and I did not confront racist actions or racist speech. I have benefited greatly from white supremacy and systemic racism. God have mercy on me, a sinner.

RCL Year C – Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost – October 23, 2016
Joel 2:23-32 with Psalm 65 or
Sirach 35:12-17 or Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22 with Psalm 84:1-7 and
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
Luke 18:9-14

Top Photo: CC0 image by Lisa Runnels
Bottom Photo: CC0 image by btchurch

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More than a Dream


Some of you know that I have this deal with God about angels and visions and such things. Most of the time God keeps God’s end of the deal. I agree to firmly believe that angels and visions are real and God agrees to communicate with me when I dream so that I can say, “It was just a dream.” As I said, God usually keeps the bargain and last night was one of those times when I dreamed of being in God’s presence.

As is typical for me, I found myself on a deserted stretch of beach early in the morning. Only a hint of sunrise tinted the dark horizon red. Out of the darkness, a voice said, “I really wish you wouldn’t resist so much.” In the dream, I knew exactly what the person was talking about.

“Well,” I said after brief reflection, “I really wish you wouldn’t make it so hard.”

Laughter mingled with the cries of the gulls. “I’m rather used to all night wrestling matches and I don’t get to engage in them as often as I once did.”

“So why are you complaining about my resistance? I don’t particularly enjoy wrestling with you. It’s exhausting and you have a way of getting what you want, anyway.”

More laughter. “If you know I get what I want, then why struggle so much?”

I’m a bit exasperated at this point. “Because I don’t always recognize it’s you I’m wrestling with and then I don’t always know what you want. If you could be a little more clear…”

There’s silence as the deep crimson line of sunrise expands. Then the voice whose presence I can feel but cannot see says, “I’m as clear as I can be. We both know that my ways are not your ways.”

“Your mistake,” I say. “You could have made it easier on yourself if you had made it so that human ways were holy ways.”

“True. But how hideously boring for all of us!” I heard the smile.

“So, why did you keep me up all night this time?”

Silence mingles with the fading night as orange tints spill into the red and gulls call out their morning greetings.

“I have something I want to write on your heart.”

“Seriously? No wonder I was wrestling with you. Can’t you just tell me since we’re talking now? Instead of, you know, scribbling something on my heart.”

Laughter swells with the waves rolling onto the shore. “You couldn’t hear me if I said it ten thousand times. It needs to be written on your heart so you can find it in the silence after the storms or when despair has a grip on you or when you feel completely lost. I have to write the word I have for you on your heart so you will always know where to find it.”

“Crap.” I take a breath of salt air into my lungs and hold it for a moment. As I let it out, I recognize the truth in what I’ve been told. The word really does need to be written on my heart. I take another long, slow breath before I consent. “Okay, then. Will it hurt?”

“Probably, it’ll hurt often and for as long as you have breath.”

“Wait!” I say with force. “Are you telling me that this is like what you did to Jacob? He limped for the rest of his life and I’m guessing everyone knew why.”

Quiet laughter, like a gentle breeze, floated around me. “Well, I suppose it’ll kind of be like that. You won’t limp, exactly. You might not notice any difference since the word I’m going to write on your heart has been in it since before you were born. Others will see it, too, and they’ll know that you have spent time with me.”

“You know I’m not a fan of this mystery-type stuff.”

“I know. You’re a bigger fan than you allow yourself to acknowledge.”

“Maybe, but I’m okay with that.” I turned away from the beauty of the sunrise to face the direction I thought the voice was coming from. “So are you going to do this thing? Write a word on my heart?”

From a distance that could have been inside or outside of me, I heard more laughter which was strangely soothing. It was as if the owner of the voice took great delight in spending time with me. Mixed in with the laughter came the assurance, “I already have.”

The sun was up over the horizon now and the bright, fiery hues of sunrise were giving way to blue sky. I stood on the waters’ edge, feeling the coolness on my toes, and looked down into my heart. And, sure enough, there was a word there. Yet, as the light changed, the world appeared to be different. I watched this for a while. Compassion became love became kindness became grace became forgiveness became hope became joy… an unending turning of goodness was written on my heart. All I had to do was be still and I would notice. And then when I am active, others will notice.

I woke up still smelling the salt air and sure that God’s word is engraved on my heart.

RCL – Year C – Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost – October 16, 2016
Jeremiah 31:27-34 with Psalm 119:97-104 or
Genesis 32:22-31 with Psalm 121 and
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5 and
Luke 18:1-8

Photo: CC-BY-NC image by Rachael Keefe

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The Power of Gratitude


When I worked as a clinical chaplain in a state psychiatric hospital, I frequently led groups on gratitude. I would begin the group by asking people what they were grateful for. Predictably, they weren’t particularly grateful for anything. After all, they were patients in a psychiatric hospital and did not want to be. They were all experiencing a mental health crisis so acute that they were admitted to the state hospital against their will. What’s to be grateful for?

We’d start off slowly, though. Anyone have breakfast this morning? Yes. Can you be thankful for the food even if it wasn’t what you would have liked? Yes. Anyone have coffee this morning? Yes. Can you be thankful for that even though there was no caffeine in it? Yes. And then someone would be thankful for a safe place to sleep. Then for clean clothing. Then for a family member or friend who was feeding their cat. And the list would grow from there. After a few minutes we would have a list with hundreds of things they were grateful for. Sometimes, someone would be well enough to be thankful for the care and treatment they received, and for the possibility of doing better with new medicine.

From the list we generated together, we would go on to talk about how they were feeling since we started to look for things to be grateful for. Mostly, they felt a little better, a little more hopeful. Maybe things weren’t so very bad. Maybe things could get better. Someone would invariably state that being grateful made them feel better and we’d talk about that. It turns out that when you’re looking around for things to be thankful for, it’s really hard to focus on all the negative stuff. So then we would talk about how to make gratitude part of every day. Maybe some of the patients did manage to begin practices of gratitude, and maybe they didn’t. However, I did.

I spent many years not feeling very grateful. Sometimes it was because I didn’t believe I deserved what I had so I was more waiting for it to disappear than expressing gratitude. In other ways, I failed to notice the gifts God had given me. Leading groups on gratitude with people with severe mental illness shifted my whole self-understanding. I stopped being like the nine lepers Jesus spoke about. You know, those nine that were healed and didn’t come back to give God thanks. Instead, I began to see my life as an amazing gift, and I started to give God thanks.

And I started in the hard places. I thanked God for my early experiences of suffering because over the years they had been transformed into strengths. I wasn’t exactly grateful for the trauma or depression. I was grateful for the healing that made the broken places stronger. I don’t believe for a second that God made bad things happen to me so that I would learn what I needed to learn. However, I do believe that without having been through the difficulties of my childhood and young adulthood, I wouldn’t be who I am today. Healing was slow and painful. So slow, in fact, that I missed it for years.

Then I found myself in a ministry setting that redeemed all the despairing places in my life. All the suffering I had spent years locking away somewhere had purpose and meaning. It wasn’t that my experiences were the same as the patients I met. Sometimes there were similarities, of course. But the value was in that I had a depth of understanding in which empathy was deeply rooted. Because of where I had been, it was easier for me to walk with people who were in such indescribable emotional and spiritual pain. If I had come to believe that God had been with me through all my struggles (and I had), then I could confidently say that God was present in the psych hospital, too. And for that, we could all be grateful.

Since those days, I’ve been much quicker to move to gratitude. Last month when I fell and broke two fingers, I really was grateful that my injuries were not more serious. Just two days ago I had surgery to correct double vision that has worsened over the last 30 years. The results are not what I expected. Yesterday, the surgeon asked me how mad I was at him. He wasn’t entirely kidding. My distance vision may take some time before it is not double, but it could very well come around to single vision. I couldn’t be more grateful for the changes I have already experienced. He was surprised that I was not angry, frustrated or anything other than grateful and willing to do whatever I needed to do for the best possible outcome. Why focus on the headache, when there is so much to see?

I am convinced it is easier to see God working and give thanks when we are on the margins or in the between places. The Samaritan Leper, the double outcast, was the only one out of ten to run back and give thanks to Jesus for his healing. Gratitude flooded my life while I worked in a psychiatric hospital, a place truly on the margins where people are somewhere between illness and health. Now as my body heals, I experience the miracles of broken places mending and new vision as I am between being broken and being made whole. I am right there with that Samaritan leper singing God’s praise.

There’s nothing better than gratitude to change how we see the world. Perhaps we should all just take a few minutes and give thanks for the blessings we have lest we become a part of the nine who just went away without knowing true healing.

RCL – Year C – Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost – October 9, 2016
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7 with Psalm 66:1-12 or
2 Kings 5:1-3,7-15c with Psalm 111 and
2 Timothy 2:8-15 and
Luke 17:11-19

Photo: CC0 image by lohannaps

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Seeds and Shovels

2016-09-30 11.13.45.jpgOn the morning of my third Christmas, my brother woke me before the sun was up to tell me that Santa had come. We went downstairs in the dark and it was true. In my family Santa didn’t wrap the presents he left. Gifts for my brother were on the left side under the tree and mine were on the right. I remember seeing a Barbie airplane and a few other things that were quite exciting. Then I saw her.

She was a dark-haired doll about a head shorter than I was. She was dressed in a red velvet dress with white lace. Her eyes opened and closed and her small mouth showed teeth. Upon closer inspection, I discovered that she was a walking doll. While my parents slept, I walked with that doll in a constant loop from the living room, to the dining room, down the short hallway, and back to the living room.

Long after my mother told me that the doll had been hers and wasn’t really meant to be played with, I saw the necklace she was wearing. It was a tiny globe hanging from a gold bow on a gold chain. Inside the globe was a little round thing that moved around when I shook it. My mother explained that the necklace had also been hers and it contained a mustard seed. Strangely, I don’t remember any further explanation. My young self was apparently satisfied with knowing it was a seed in there.

Many years later, I learned the significance of the mustard seed and wondered why my mother had given it to me. She wasn’t a woman of faith; on a good day she was agnostic. On all days she wasn’t fond of organized religion in general and Christianity in particular. It must have been hard for her when I fell in love with church and sought after God with the innocence and determination only found in young children.2016-09-30-11-14-10

I still have the doll and though her clothes are different, the mustard seed necklace is still there. I’ve wrestled with the mustard seed image over the years. Moving mountains or mulberry bushes seem an impossible task. Yet, I think about all that has happened in my life and what I was able to endure because of faith. Childhood trauma, depression, eating disorder, rape, divorce, coming out, homophobia in the church… so many things that if I did not believe in God and God’s love for me, I would not have gotten through them. These are mountainous things in an individual life.

I remember Dr. James Loder telling the class that faith is a yes or no question. One either says, “Yes, I believe. Help my unbelief.” Or “No, I don’t believe.” It isn’t a quantitative question. How does one measure faith, really? Maybe when we deem the mountains insurmountable and there are no trees growing in the sea, then we know that faith is absent. So when we see someone climbing out from under the weight of tragedy and pain or thriving in an impossible situation, then we know that faith is there.

It’s easy to see this in an individual life. But what of the wider Christian community? Where is faith when we are lulled into complacency or fail to act because we are overwhelmed? Mountains are moved one shovel-full at a time with many faithful hands pitching in. There is so much hatred and fear, violence and destruction, in the world. We can move this kind of mountain if we work together. I really do believe this is possible.

Lament is an appropriate response when we come up against a mountain that buries us. We can lament racism and every other ism and phobia out there, but if we do not endeavor to rid society of them, then we fail to recognize the power of faith to transform and create new life.

A tiny mustard seed grows into a sizable bush, such power and potential lies dormant within it. God has repeatedly demonstrated the power and potential of God’s steadfast love. As difficult as it can be, especially in an election season, to trust that God is present, mountains are movable, and mulberry bushes could grow in the sea, it’s far better dying slowly because the mountains of hate lie so heavily on us that there is no room for the breath of life.

Church, we can move mountains when we work together and trust God to lead us from lament to new life. There is no better message for a week when we will intentionally remember that people all around the world will gather at Christ’s table. We will be united in our desire for renewal and nurture and in the promise to live in the covenant of love that was broken and poured out for us. Maybe we should all come to the table with a mustard seed in one hand and a shovel in the other just so we don’t forget the power that lies within us and what we are called to do with it.

If you are looking for sermon help, here’s my other reflection on the texts this week.

RCL – Year C – Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost – World Communion Sunday – October 2, 2016
Lamentations 1:1-6 with Lamentations 3:19-26 or Psalm 137 or
Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4 with Psalm 37:1-9 and
2 Timothy 1:1-14 and
Luke 17:5-10

Photos: CC-BY-NC image by Rachael Keefe

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A Letter from a Tired Pastor

inthestreetDear white Christian folks and other interested parties;

I begin with this:  God loves you. Because we are joined together in Christ, I love you. I will also say that no one is more white than I am; I have the genetic tests to prove it. Up to 68% Irish and the rest is all equally pale. I have as much privilege as a white bisexual woman can have, and that’s quite a lot. That being said, it’s time to get real about what is happening in the United States right now. Black Lives Matter is a movement and a statement that ought not be countered with “All lives matter.” All lives have never mattered equally in America. Look at what white folks have done and continue to do to First Nations people. Those in power believe it is perfectly okay to run an oil pipeline through tribal lands and risk contaminating the water. There are so many things wrong with this, not the least of which is that we should not be building more oil pipelines; we should be decreasing our dependence on fossil fuels. But the real problem is that we have no right whatsoever to risk water and land pollution on tribal lands. I do believe there are treaties to prevent such. I’m not an expert and I could be wrong, but didn’t the government give those lands that we don’t particularly want anyway to the First Nations peoples? By running that pipeline we are telling them, yet again, that their lives don’t matter nearly as much as white lives do.

Still not convinced? Friends, we wear our white privilege as casually as the rich man in the parable wore his regal purple robes. We have let ourselves be fooled into believing that we deserve a certain kind of treatment because our skin is white. Every day we walk away from Lazarus as he huddles wounded, bleeding, dying of hunger, thirst, and gunshot wounds. The poverty profiteering that goes on every day in every city across the country with our passive consent, keeps poor folks poor and only directly benefits bankers and politicians. Ask yourself why the CEO of the latest bank to have been caught in a scam still has his job when any other person who steals money goes to prison, particularly if they are a Person of Color. Also, every time we decide that an unarmed black man deserved to be shot by police because he looked like a “bad dude” or “had a wide nose” or the officer “felt threatened” or any other such nonsense, we are clearly stating that Black lives do not matter as much as white lives do.

The story Jesus told about the rich man and Lazarus is about making good choices, choosing to serve others, and not living in our own isolated bubbles of comfort. I realize that white privilege was not a concept Jesus or his first disciples would have understood. However, it is quite clear in this parable that Jesus was not on the side of the privileged. He did not support Abraham in his assumption that he was better than Lazarus just because he had money and pretty robes.

In the wake of yet more shootings of unarmed Black men by police officers, this time in Tulsa and Charlotte, I am begging you to open your eyes to what is happening all around us. The Body of Christ is bleeding and dying and we are carrying on as if we don’t need serious medical attention. Racism and white supremacy is killing us. If you and I are not willing to side with People of Color in demanding an end to racial disparity in our police departments, schools, judicial system, work places, housing, health care, banking and everywhere else, then we deserve the same fate the rich man received in the parable.

Friends, our sisters, brothers, cousins, aunts, uncles, husbands, wives, nephews, nieces, parents, and children are crying out in hunger, thirst, and pain. When someone says, “All lives matter,” it’s taunting hungry, thirsty people with food and drink that is just out of reach. And if you believe POC are fully human, fully God’s beloved and deserve purple robes as much as white folks do, and you remain silent, then you are just as guilty as the ones spewing hatred and supporting murder.

In the parable, the rich man begged to go back and warn his “five brothers” so they would meet a different end. We white Christians are the rich man’s siblings. We’ve been warned. Break the silence. Do something. Let’s bind up the wounds and stop lining our streets with Black bodies.

The Body of Christ is bleeding out. Will you stop to help or will you walk right by, pretending that everything is fine and there are no Black bodies in our streets and the blood is not flowing? This is white privilege in that you as a white person can choose to walk by, to close the web browser, to step over the dead and dying bodies, to close your eyes and continue on your way. The choice is yours.

May the peace of Christ transform and guide us all.

RCL – Year C – Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 25, 2016
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15 with Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16
Amos 6:1a, 4-7 with Psalm 146
1 Timothy 6:6-19
Luke 16:19-31

Photo: CC-BY-NC image by Erika Sanborne

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All. The. Things. Seriously, the last two weeks have been the busiest 14 days of the year and there is no letting up in sight. Two weeks ago, on the eve of Labor Day weekend, I fell and broke two fingers on my right hand. When I met with my spiritual director a few days later, he asked me if there was any kind of spiritual metaphor in my fall. At the time, I laughed and said something like, “Sure. If I go too fast without paying enough attention, I fall. I fall because my depth perception is non-existent (eye-surgery scheduled in two weeks) and I need to be more careful when moving more quickly.” The conversation moved on from there.

I hadn’t really given much thought to the question because I don’t think God communicates with us through such physical experiences. God didn’t make me trip so I would slow down and be more attentive. Then I read the texts for this week and was thrown back to a very vivid memory of my eight-year-old self in church on a Sunday morning. And then my spiritual director’s question hit a little closer to home.

I was in third grade when I started attending church. Of course, in those days kids stayed for the first 10 or 15 minutes of service and then went to Sunday School. It was during one of those children-exiting-worship moments when the congregation began to sing what I heard as, “There is a bomb in Gilead to heal the seasick soul.” I had been seasick and knew how awful that felt, and I really wondered what kind of a bomb could blow seasickness right out of a person. And was Gilead any place near enough to go and get it?

Of course, I eventually saw the lyrics and understood my mistake. But all the activities of the last two weeks and my packed calendar create a kind of motion sickness. Team meetings. Sunday School lessons. Bible Study lessons. Worship preparations. Pastoral care. Doctor’s appointments. Congregational leadership retreat preparations. Conference leadership retreat  preparations. Rallies, protests, trainings, and actions in the community. The list goes on without end. I’m not complaining and I am truly grateful for the vital and energetic congregation I serve. It’s just that right now I’m having trouble finding balance.

However, there is a balm in Gilead for sure. Jesus is pretty clear about how to find it, too. We cannot serve two masters. It’s not possible. We cannot serve God and mammon. Mammon, though an outdated word, better describes what Jesus is getting at here than simply saying, “wealth.” It’s more than just money. It’s the kind of richness or riches that inhibits a person’s relationship with God. These days, it could be nearly anything that is valued for its own sake rather than those things which draw us closer to God in gratitude or service.

In these last few weeks, I’ve felt the pull of these powerful, little gods often. I’ve wanted to just keep going and make sure everything is done perfectly. I haven’t wanted to ask for help or even acknowledge that two broken fingers have slowed me down in any way. I’ve wanted to get things done more for the sake of achievement and checking them off my to-do list than in service to God. Several times I’ve had to take a deep breath and remind myself that these things I have on my to-do list are holy things. They are to be done in service to God and the people of God and not for any other reason.

calendar-547619_1920The “motion sickness” I have experienced frequently over the last few weeks occurs when I forget to breathe deeply in the Holy Spirit and just focus on tasks to be done. When I stop to remember that my busyness is useless if I am not deeply connected to the God I serve, balance and mindfulness are much easier to maintain. I was correct in my early hearing of that hymn, though. There is a bomb in Gilead to heal the seasick soul. The motion sickness we get from trying to do all the things, can only be blown out of us by the power of the Holy Spirit. You know, that balm that can truly heal the sin-sick soul. My spiritual director was also correct about the metaphor. I fall when I go too fast to pay enough attention and allow my flawed depth perception to guide my feet.

In this season of busyness as the church program year comes into full swing, it’s easy to forget what we are about. It is easy to get distracted by the glittering little gods of our day. We need to choose repeatedly, day by day or moment by moment, which god we will serve. Will it be the pretty ones who will keep us off balance and stressed? Or will it be the One who calls us to the way of peace?

To quote another old hymn, “Guide my feet while I run this race. Yes, my Lord. Guide my feet…”

RCL – Year C – Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 18, 2016
Jeremiah 8:18-9:1 with Psalm 79:1-9 or
Amos 8:4-7 with Psalm 113
1 Timothy 2:1-7
Luke 16:1-13

Top Photo: CC0 image by Ian Holstein

Bottom Photo: CC0 image by Anna

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What the World Needs Now is Mercy


Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.

These few words from Psalm 51 could be a daily prayer for most of us, even multiple times a day. Truth and honesty abide here. I read these and these words follow:  Have mercy on me, O God, that I may extend mercy to others. When will we learn the ways of mercy?

The fifteen anniversary of 9/11 has many saying, “Never forget!” I’m not a fan of this sentiment. It implies holding onto a fearful anger that prevents healing and certainly gets in the way of mercy. As I look around at the rise in Islamophobia and race-related violence, I can’t help but wonder how we did not learn from the horrific events of 9/11. How did we not learn that fear, ignorance, and hatred lead only to destruction and death? We are not safer when we wrap ourselves in xenophobia and fail to distinguish a refugee from a terrorist. We are not more secure when we endorse systemic racism and fill our prisons with people of color. We are not better protected when peaceful protesters are arrested and charged with terrorism. There is no wall that will keep our economy stable and “make America great again.” Running an oil pipeline through tribal lands will not decrease the impact of global warming just because it’s in someone else’s backyard.

I have no trouble remembering 9/11. I don’t need anyone to remind me of what “they” did to “us.” Islamophobia is alive and well in the US. It does not need to be fueled. On the other hand, how hard are we trying to remember those who worked tirelessly on rescue efforts? The communities that came together to worship, to mourn, to find hope, to care for one another? During those few months after the Twin Towers fell, people were kinder to their neighbors at least where I was living. Then life went back to usual and people forgot how much they needed to gather in community and care for each other.

The parable of the lost sheep is so familiar to most of us that I think we fail to hear the message of mercy. We are too busy identifying with the lost one, the other 99, or even shepherd to hear the set up. The Pharisees and scribes went to Jesus complaining about his radical, rule-breaking behavior. He would eat with sinners and tax-collectors. He would embrace the unclean. When I think about what we as a country have not learned from 9/11 and read this parable, I am convinced that the privileged white church is not so much the lost sheep, the 99 huddled together waiting for the shepherd to return, or the shepherd who is desperate to find the lost one. We are the ones passing judgement and finding fault. We are the ones upholding the status quo even if only by our silence. We are seldom the merciful shepherd who returns the lost one to community with a joyful, grateful heart. We are too busy preserving our own traditions and ensuring a predictable future for ourselves.

God has repeatedly shown God’s people mercy. We have wandered far from the ways of Christ over and over again. We forget that our ways are not God’s ways. Yet, God showers mercy on us and has since the beginning of time. God does not desire for us to preserve our traditions so much as God wants us to embody Christ to one another. Showing mercy is a good way to start.

If we are going to remember 9/11 we must also be honest with ourselves. We have benefited from the mercy of God and we have not shared that mercy freely. We must step out of our comfortable pews and take a stand against hatred, fear, and ignorance. We will honor those who died that day when we create communities of love and mercy that truly seek out the lost ones, the forgotten ones, the hated ones, the feared ones, and invite them to the table where all are welcome and all are satisfied. Isn’t it time we put into practice the lessons of mercy God has been teaching for generations?

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Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.

RCL – Year C – Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28 with Psalm 14 or
Exodus 32:7-14 with Psalm 51:1-10 and
1 Timothy 1:12-17 and
Luke 15:1-10


Photos: CC-BY-NC image by Rachael Keefe

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