Better Than It Looks

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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

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The Other Ones

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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

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Agape: It’s a Noun and a Verb

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“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

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Bidding Prayer for Vision

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Come, let us pray for the Church throughout the world.
(silence or a time for people to quietly give voice to their concerns)
Patient God, your people have gathered throughout all generations to worship and sing your praises. Even today, your name is spoken around the world. May each community know the power of your presence and recommit to following you. While we are easily distracted and often lose track of your ways, you are always waiting to reclaim, restore, and re-form your church. Once again, reveal your vision to us, encouraging us to let go of all that prevents us from reflecting your love and glory. May we become the body of Christ needed here and now.
We seek you, O God.
Free us from all our fears.

Come, let us pray for the United Church of Christ gathered here and elsewhere.
(silence or a time for people to quietly give voice to their concerns)
Merciful God, may we remember the lessons you taught Job as the chaos of the world brings pain and suffering into our lives. Remind us that we do not always understand the mystery of your ways or recognize you at work in the world. While we strive to embody you love, keep us mindful that you are God of all, and we are not. Bless with wisdom and insight all those you have called into leadership, especially the Rev. Dr. John Dorhauer, our general minister and president and the Rev. Shari Prestemon, our Conference Minister. Open our eyes wide enough to recognize you,your claim on us, and your call of serving all.
We seek you, O God.
Free us from all our fears.

Come, let us pray for God’s people throughout the earth.
(silence or a time for people to quietly give voice to their concerns)
Eternal God, you have long-spoken your desires for us through the prophets of old and the prophets of now. Your love has remained steadfast for all your peoples from generation to generation no matter what we have done or what we have left undone. You ask us to love you, love our neighbors, love our selves, and love creation. We find it so hard to live in the abundance of your love. May we recognize your Spirit moving among us, guiding us, re-forming us in this moment.
We seek you, O God.
Free us from all our fears.

Come, let us pray for this country and all those who live within its borders.
(silence or a time for people to quietly give voice to their concerns)
Merciful God, show us again the difference between following you and following the leaders of this world. You envision unity and oneness where we see only difference and division. You would have us welcome caravans of immigrants and refugees. You would have us embrace our *Trans siblings. You would have us protect those who are vulnerable to hatred and ignorance. You would have us shelter and feed those who live in poverty. You would have us see you in those we have been taught to ignore, reject, or pass by. Jesus, son of David, have mercy on us! May the day quickly arrive when the abundance of this great nation is freely shared with all who have need and that your vision becomes our truth.
We seek you, O God.
Free us from all our fears.

Come, let us pray for all those who suffer in body, mind, or spirit.
(silence or a time for people to quietly give voice to their concerns)
Liberating God, free us from the limits of our vision. You see wholeness where we see brokenness. You see blessings where we see uselessness. You see value where we see worthlessness. You offer healing and hope when we turn away. Show us your mercy that we might bring joy where there is weeping, hope where there is despair, and love where there is fear. Bring compassion and tenderness where we bring judgement and rejection. You are God of all people, not just those we choose to see. Show us how to love with your love and see with your vision of wholeness and joy.
We seek you, O God.
Free us from all our fears.

Come let us pray for those who are grieving.
(silence or a time for people to quietly give voice to their concerns)
Healing God, you are the One who leads us from weeping to joy, from despair to hope. You remember us when others would forget. You claim as your own beloved even as we lose ourselves in the pain of loss. You see us when we cannot find our way. Breathe new life into all those who are grieving. Heal the wounds that bind us to yesterday and open us to the abundant possibilities of life in you.
We seek you, O God.
Free us from all our fears.

Come, let us give thanks to God for all the blessings we have received.
(silence or a time for people to quietly give voice to their concerns)
Generous God, over and over again you have reclaimed, restored, and re-formed your people, and we are thankful. We are thankful that your love for us never wavers and you patiently wait for us to return to you every time we lose our way. May our gratitude lead us to the wisdom gleaned from past experience, the possibilities for growth in the present, and the joy the future holds for us. You are ever blessing all the earth. May we be courageous enough to seek out your ways with gratitude and praise, bringing your vision into life.
We seek you, O God.
Free us from all our fears.
Amen.

If you are looking for sermon help, try here.

RCL – Year B – Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost – October 28, 2018
Job 42:1-6, 10-17
Psalm 34:1-8 [19-22]
Jeremiah 31:7-9
Psalm 126
Hebrews 7:23-28
Mark 10:46-52

Photo: CC0 image by Wokandapix

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Thinking Again…

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Ultimately, God is Love beyond our capacity to understand. The purpose of Love is liberation for all people. It’s funny that we spend so much time creating rules to decide who belongs to God when all God wants is to set us free. God’s desire for us is to be free from all that keeps us from being whole, complete, not missing parts of ourselves and trying to fill the empty places with everything that does not fit. God seeks to liberate us from our own fear of inadequacy and finitude, as well as from a society that thrives on kyriarchy. Fortunately for us, God is far more patient than we can imagine.

How many times has God indicated that while human beings are not God, we have infinite value and always have the potential to incarnate Love? Every story in scripture tells of God’s steadfast love for God’s people and God’s desire to liberate us all from everything that prevents us from being God’s people in more than word.

What if those suffering servant passages in Isaiah aren’t really telling us what the Messiah will be, but describing what each of us can be if we truly serve our neighbors with humility and love? What if this is what we were ransomed for? What if this life of loving service is ultimately what God wants from us? What if this is what atonement really looks like?

Think about it. James and John desired, according to Mark’s Gospel, to sit on either side of Jesus in glory. They wanted Jesus to promise them that they would always be the greatest among the disciples, sitting in places of honor throughout eternity. Jesus wasn’t thrilled with their request. First, he didn’t think they could really follow him from death to life. Second, what they asked wasn’t theirs for the asking or up to him to promise. They missed the lesson that Jesus keeps trying to teach. In God’s eyes, greatness looks a lot like humble service.

Jesus isn’t asking anyone to run to the back of the line and prostrate themselves to all who go on ahead. Jesus is asking that the one who has the most, offer their abundance to one who has less. Then one becomes two, and the two invite the next one to share the abundance. Then two becomes three, and three turn to the next and humbly serve… and so on down the line. When it comes to who is the least, the most vulnerable, then there is a crowd to raise them up. The first doesn’t become the last on their own nor are the most vulnerable strengthened with only one set of hands. In community we are transformed into the Body of Christ.

Here’s another way to look at it. Mark tells us that Jesus gave “his life in ransom for many.” For years the primary way Christians have understood this is substitutionary atonement – Jesus was the sacrifice for our sins. What if Jesus wasn’t atoning for anything? What if Jesus death (and resurrection) was to model for us how we save each other? Because the authorities of the day could not tolerate Jesus’ message of love and liberation, they killed him. Yet, God didn’t want violence and hatred to be the end of Jesus’ message, God raised him to new life. Jesus’ death was the ransom for our liberation, the price of our freedom. (In biblical times, ransom was the price paid to reclaim or redeem a person from slavery or servitude; it was the price of the person’s freedom.)

If we commitment to following Jesus, we commit to journeying from death to life. In order to experience the fullness of life, we must offer ourselves in humble service to our neighbors. In a spiritual sense, our lives become the ransom paid for another’s freedom. Love and liberation can be contagious if enough of us embody them, if enough us are willing to let go of our need to be certain of our own power and place in the world.

This is a challenging thought. We live in a society that thrives on individualism and independence. Jesus showed us the way of community and interdependence. None of us can embody Christ on our own; it takes all of us. It takes all of us willing to take on the responsibility of fostering justice for our neighbors. Jesus thought each of us was worth the ransom, the price to redeem humanity. What will it take for us to live that truth? None of us has to endure literal death, but we would have to let go of much of what the world tells us is important.

Long before Jesus came into the world, God demonstrated humanity’s value. Jesus’ life was the price of our liberation, a liberation we have yet to embrace. What if we stop trying to ensure our position as the best and the brightest, and begin to live the truth of God’s great love loud enough to prove that God has not been waiting for us in vain?

RCL – Year B – Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost – October 21, 2018
Job 38:1-7, (34-41)
Psalm 104:1-9, 24, 35c
Isaiah 53:4-12
Psalm 91:9-16
Hebrews 5:1-10
Mark 10:35-45

Photo: CC0 image by Marianne Sopala

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It’s So Not About Money

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One in four people will be diagnosed with a mental health condition during their lifetime. If it isn’t you, it’s someone you know and love. No one will be unaffected by mental health challenges to one extent or another. Moreover, suicide rates are climbing and we still can’t talk about mental illness or suicidality in church without causing a stir, or worse. There are some among us who hold fast to the archaic belief that mental illness in general and suicidality in particular are caused by demons. If not demons, then mental health challenges are viewed as punishment from God. This is utter nonsense and another example of how biblical literalism is killing us. It’s World Mental Health Day. There’s no better time for the church as a whole to leave behind outdated theology that promotes shame, stigma, and silence.

In Mark’s gospel Jesus tells the story of a rich person who came to him asking what he must do to inherit eternal life. The man was a decent human being who lived by the Commandments. Yet, Jesus saw something in him, the very thing which hindered the man’s ability to follow Jesus. The man had to sell all his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. The man’s response says it all; he went away sad because he owned a lot of stuff.

This passage isn’t about money and possessions. Jesus didn’t have a problem with wealthy people. Jesus had a problem with wealthy people whose wealth hindered their ability to follow God’s holy ways. The man in the story did not find his value in being one of God’s beloved; he found his value in his stuff. In other words he loved his wealth more than he loved God. He couldn’t let go of his possessions and so could not grab hold of Jesus in any meaningful way.

Here’s the thing. There are countless things that hinder us from following Jesus. We mistake our stuff for our value as human beings. We put money, power, success, fame, and other things between us and God. We love the stuff we can hold onto and accumulate more than we love God. We also sometimes love our traditions and beliefs more than we love God. This can take the form of mistakenly worshiping scripture rather than the One to whom it points.

This is at least part of the problem when it comes to mental health. We can’t shake the old way of understanding these things. Even the U.S. healthcare system is built on Puritanical values. Most insurance companies will reimburse for ten sessions with a therapist, and no more without a lot of paperwork. Similarly, only 28 days of in-patient treatment for mental health conditions, including addictions are included. And for someone who is disabled by a mental health condition it can take ridiculous amounts of paperwork and phone calls before they can receive SSDI. It is long past the time that religious folks recognize that mental illnesses are brain diseases. Brain diseases that can be treated with a combination of medications, therapy, and social supports.

Imagine what life could be like for those with mental health challenges if the church became one of those social supports. What would it be like if people living with symptoms of mental illness were embraced by a faith community that affirmed them as beloved children of God who are part of the Body of Christ? For this to happen, we need to let go of outdated beliefs, fear, and judgment. If we are able to let go of these things, we can follow Jesus with significantly less hinderance. We don’t have to go away sad because we value our belief system more than we value Jesus’ call to love one another even as we are loved.

Tradition, literalism, fear, misinformation, media portrayals, and more bind us to a theology that is killing us. The church is in a unique place to offer loving community to people who have historically been marginalized. For those who live with hopelessness and feeling unneeded, unwanted, or unloved, the church can incarnate divine love by being a community where one is known, loved, and valued.

What must we do to inherit eternal life? We must let go of all that is between us and recognizing Christ in another. We must let go of that which binds us to shame, stigma, and silence. People are dying because we have failed to be the Body of Christ. We have failed to save lives. Let’s do better.

RCL – Year B – Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost – October 14, 2018
Job 23:1-9, 16-17 with Psalm 22:1-15
Amos 5:6-7, 10-15 with Psalm 90:12-17
Hebrews 4:12-16
Mark 10:17-31

Photo: CC0 image by Gerd Altmann

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Not What You Think

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When it comes to reading scripture, many Christians are like those who can’t see the proverbial forest because they are so focused on individual trees. Biblical literalism seems to be our default setting even when we don’t claim that scripture is the “inerrant word of God.” We cause unnecessary pain when we don’t step back far enough to hear the Truth in any given passage or recognize the overarching theme of God’s love for God’s people, a theme that echos through the ancient stories and is repeated by today’s prophets. We get caught up looking for facts in a collection of stories that speak Truth far more often than they record events in history. I don’t know about you, but it’s exhausting to explain over and over again how I can be a Christian and not believe that the Bible is accurate.

The passage in Mark where Jesus speaks of divorce is a perfect example of how far astray we can go when taking the Bible literally. First, Jesus raised women to a place equal to men when it came to the ability to divorce and the consequences involved. Women were not mere property to be discarded when one was done with them. Like men, women are created in the image of God and ought to be treated accordingly. As for the consequences of divorce, the point isn’t that divorce and remarriage constitute adultery. The emphasis is on the equality of men and women. Divorce as we understand it today did not exist in Jesus’ day. Jesus sought to empower women, or at least encourage men to see women as equals before God in terms of marriage.

Now if we want to glean something useful and not so literal for today’s audience, we would do well to pay attention to the concern Jesus had for women. Jesus saw that they were discarded by some men and then had no means by which to support themselves. Jesus sought to change that where he could. What does this say about how we treat people who are often discarded or dismissed?

In Jesus’ day there was no understanding of sexual orientation or gender identity as we have now. If there had been, I believe Jesus would seek to remind people that all are created in God’s image and that no one is “better” than another before God. Jesus sought to bring people into relationship and community in ways that promoted healing and wholeness. Within the parameters of modern understanding, Jesus would advise kindness, gentleness, and healing when it comes to marriage and divorce. When adults of equal power and authority are involved, remembering that all are equal before God is of the utmost importance. Less judgment and condemnation and more support and healing is the message that the church can take away from this passage. Then maybe we can move on to more important things like supporting and promoting healing for women, men, Trans* people, and children when they report abuse at the hands of another…

Of course this passage in Mark doesn’t end with the elevation of women to place of equality with men and it’s encouragement to treat human beings as beloved children of God. It goes on to, once more, remind people the value of children. Children weren’t valued in Jesus’ time at all, really. We would like to say that we value children more today, but I’m not sure that we do. Think about it. More often than not we expect children to miniature adults and to conform to social norms without hesitation. When budgets need balancing, funding for education is cut – outside the church as well as inside. We pretend that parents are the only one’s responsible for their children. Jesus indicates something else.

Jesus places a small child in the midst of the crowd and declares that we must all enter the Realm of God as a child does – innocent and open and loving. Children are born loving; they learn hatred from us. If we all join together in teaching a child to love and value themselves and others because God loves all, then conforming to social norms is far less important.

We can remain focused on the evils of divorce or we can work toward creating churches (and a world) in which healing and wholeness, relationship and inclusion, open-mindedness and love are core values. Imagine a church that takes seriously the statement that in Christ there is no East or West or North or South. There is no kyriarchy. All the beauty and diversity of humanity comes together to reflect the awesomeness of our Creator and Divine Love is the rule of the day. We can stop worrying about doing everything the Bible supposedly says and follow Christ in bringing the Realm of God into the here and now. Wouldn’t it be nice if the church could actually embody Christ without condemning anyone to remain unwanted, unseen, unwelcome? There’s a beautiful, awe-filled forest just waiting for us to explore…

If you are looking for more sermon help, try here.

RCL – Year B – Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost – October 7, 2018
Job 1:1; 2:1-10 with Psalm 26
or
Genesis 2:18-24 with Psalm 8
Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12
Mark 10:2-16

Photos CC-BY-NC image by Rachael Keefe

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