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.

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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

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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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Choosing Life: Shouldn’t this be Easier?

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“Choose life,” the prophet says. Choose life over the deadly ways of lesser gods. Choose life over all that shines, sparkles, and glitters. Choose life over what you possess and over what possesses you. It sounds so easy and desirable. Sure, until Jesus comes along and names the cost right out loud. If we truly choose life, we have to let go of everything.

Years ago I had a therapist who told me that the choice to live or die was mine. She told me that I could choose to continue the self-destructive behavior patterns of my eating disorder and die, or I could choose to change my thoughts and behaviors and live. She made it sound so simple and so enticing. I wanted to choose to live. What she didn’t tell me is that it would be hard and it would the background music of my life. She didn’t tell me how many things in the world would conspire against my choices, especially when I chose life.

During my second semester of college, I did start making healthier choices. However, there was a cost. Instead of focusing all my energy on food and the powerful cycle of starving, binging, and purging, I had to face the depression and trauma that led me down the eating disorder path. And it was ugly and painful and I didn’t want to deal with it. It was so much easier to “feel fat” than it was to feel pain, fear, and sadness. It was easier to run ten miles than it was to face the feeling of worthlessness that pursued me. It was easier to romance death than to embrace life. Embracing life meant accepting that the past could not be changed and that I had value as a human being, as a child of God. It also meant letting go of pain, anger, and fear. I had to let go of the very thing I thought defined me. Would people see me, recognize my suffering, if I weighed more than 100 pounds?

Choosing life was risky. I had to learn that I was more than a painful bundle of eating disordered thoughts and behaviors. I had to stop paying attention to the hyper-critical voices of self-hatred that had protected me from the intense pain of my childhood. Choosing life meant stepping out of the safety I had constructed and set out, instead, on a path that would lead me to discover just who it is that God created me to be.

Those early days of recovery were hard and painful beyond the words I have to describe them. In many ways they seem so distant from the person I am now. In other ways, they are closer than yesterday. Strangely, enough, I’m still not great at choosing life consistently. There are times when the eating disordered voices that still hum along in the back of my head get quite loud. It can take a lot of energy to ignore them sometimes. Though, choosing life is bigger than that these days.

Choosing life means letting go of the protections of privilege. Choosing life means taking a risk to try to alleviate someone else’s suffering and maybe getting it wrong. Choosing life means showing up to advocate for justice even when most would prefer to keep the systems of oppression in place. Choosing life means finding my own personal value without considering the numbers on the scale. Choosing life means letting go, every day, of the things I reach for to fill the empty places and define me to make room for the Spirit to move in my life in new ways. Choosing life means sitting still long enough to hear God’s voice and having the courage to respond. Choosing life means putting in the effort to live a life of love when it would be so much easier to give into the pervasive culture of anger and fear.

The problem is that these things are so hard. Jesus was pretty clear about that. Of course, he was pretty clear that while there’s a cost to choosing life, the reward is greater. I wish I was better at choosing life. I wish I didn’t get distracted by pretty things. I wish I wasn’t so quick to anger and could wake up joyful each day. I wish I never had to quiet the voices that tell me I’m not good enough and I’m too fat. However, I’ve never regretted choosing life. I’ve only regretted the times when I have chosen lesser gods.

From days long forgotten, God has been reminding us to choose life and warning us against the flimsy promises of false gods. God has also been quite clear about the costs of choosing life. We will have to let go of everything we think makes us who we are to make room for the Holy Spirit to shape us into who we were created to be. There’s nothing quite like choosing life to lead us into the presence of God. It’s too bad that there is something within us that is so reluctant to run full-speed down that path. In the meantime, there is grace.

O God, you have searched me and known me. 
You know when I sit down and when I rise up; 

you discern my thoughts from far away. 

You search out my path and my lying down, 

and are acquainted with all my ways.

RCL – Year C – Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost – September 4, 2016
Jeremiah 18:1-11 with Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18 or
Deuteronomy 30:15-20 with Psalm 1
Philemon 1:1-21
Luke 14:25-33

Photo: CC0 image by Jill Wellington

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: CC0 image by Jonny Linder

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Heads Up

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

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

Heads Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: CC0 image by Jill Wellington

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