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Musings Sermon Starter

The Mustard Seed, Loving-kindness, and Creation Care

Image of a green stylized meadow with a full moon and stars in the background. The foreground has yellow flowers and a bee on the left and red flowers, a blue butterfly and a ladybug on the right. There is also a tree in the distance in front of the full moon.

If the realm of God is like the scattering of seeds that sprout mysteriously, I wonder if we are actually doing any of the seed scattering. Or, for that matter, receiving any of the seeds scattered by others. I don’t think we are very comfortable with mystery, let alone Mystery. Contemplating the realm of God seems a bit heady or lofty given the struggles of everyday living, right? However, if we shift our perspective just a little bit, then the realm of God and all its Mystery becomes part of everyday life, perhaps even alleviating some of the suffering.

In Mark’s gospel, the Good News is that the realm of God is at hand. It wasn’t about salvation or a “personal relationship with God.” The Good News was about the closeness of God’s realm and the invitation to join in  the work of brining God’s realm into our world. This wasn’t the task of any individual; it was the task of the community of believers. Jesus wanted his followers to repent of our lack of labor on behalf of the realm of God, repent of our self-focused ways of living in this world. God and the realm of God are near; the seeds of heaven are growing everywhere if we have the capacity and the desire to recognize what’s happening.

For the last several days in Minnesota, the temperatures have been between 90 and 100 degrees. This is exceedingly hot for early June. These high temperatures are an indication of climate shift, global warming that has resulted from human beings misusing the planet in large and small ways. We are destroying our oceans by over-fishing and dragging miles of seabed. We are destroying our forests by strip mining and excessive logging. Our water supplies dwindle because we’d rather over-supply things like almond milk than pay attention to what the earth can sustain. Our consumerism is literally destroying our planet. And as long as those with privilege have air conditioning, clean water, carbon fuels, and excessive food supplies, the harm done to the earth will continue. This is not the way of God’s realm.

Repenting from consumerism without regard to the needs of our neighbors is a good start to bringing the realm of God a little bit closer. In fact, anytime we consider the needs of those around us before making decisions about how we will live, we bring the realm of God that much closer. Seeds of loving-kindness germinate and become thriving relationships. This is how we change what is into what pleases God.

It isn’t simple. The ways of White supremacy tell White folx that we deserve the best of everything and have every right to pursue material and financial success without regard to those around us. White supremacist culture tells us that we can take what we want and not have to worry about whether or not others have what they need. Think about how Flint, MI still doesn’t have clean water. Think about Enbridge’s plans to put a pipeline through tribal lands violating treaties. Think about the ways in which highways were built to destroy Black neighborhoods. The list goes on. We have the power to change all of this.

If we think about the realm of God growing from the tiniest seed (kindness or compassion or a thought about the greater good) into an enormous shrub where life is sustained, how can we not try harder? How can we not try harder to live with the larger community in mind? How can we continue to justify the way things are? How can we continue to contribute to the suffering of our neighbors and the suffering of the earth if we’ve heard Jesus’ call to repentance?

Jesus called for repentance again and again. He also invited his disciples to participate in brining the realm of God into the here and now. Today is an excellent day to scatter seeds and seek out the ones that are already germinating. The realm of God thrives on loving-kindness, and we all have the capacity to participate in its growth.

RCL – Year B – Third Sunday after Pentecost – June 13, 2021 1 Samuel 15:34 – 16:13 and Psalm 20  • Ezekiel 17:22-24 and Psalm 92:1-4, 12-15  • 2 Corinthians 5:6-10, (11-13), 14-17  • Mark 4:26-34

Photo: CC0image by beate bachmann

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Poetry

Observations from Ancient Words

Image of green sand flowing through an hourglass on a black background.
The failure to recognize the obvious
always catches me by surprise.
Long, long ago Samuel told the people of God
that no good could come from the rule of kings.
They insisted on being like all other nations.
And along came the kings
who took their children for soldiers and servants,
their goods and grains for self-serving purposes.
Still, they did not learn.

What is our excuse?

We still fall under the rule of kings and presidents,
queens and congress,
to what avail?
Our children are still taken as soldiers and servants,
dying to preserve our sense of safety and superiority.

All is an illusion.

Jesus sat with a crowd of misfits and miracle-seekers
and called them his own – siblings in body and spirit.
Yet, we side with those in power,
ignoring the needs of our neighbors,
sanctioning state violence against those we fear,
huddling just this side of status quo,
ignoring the distance between this existence
and the realm of God.

When will we learn?

Samuel’s wisdom still holds truth:
there is no need to be like other nations.
We can turn our attention to the greater good,
the needs of our neighbors.
Soldiers and servants need not be the future
for anyone’s children
if we consider what God requires.

Where is that holy highway
for all to travel in peace
accompanied by mercy and justice?

Jesus showed us the way.
All that is required is to recognize siblings
where the world labels “other.”
Can we serve God with more than our lips?
Can we shatter the illusions of difference and division
created to keep us under the control of death and violence?
Can we let go of fear to make room for justice
and love our neighbors as ourselves?

For the love of God and all things holy,
may it not be too late
to save us from conformity, fear, and destruction.

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RCL – Year B – Second Sunday after Pentecost – June 6, 2021 1 Samuel 8:4-11, (12-15), 16-20, (11:14-15) and Psalm 138  • Genesis 3:8-15 and Psalm 130  • 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1  • Mark 3:20-35

Photo: CC0image by günter

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Musings Sermon Starter

When Will We Learn

Image of a man in silhouette standing, looking into a night star-filled sky that is tinted with orange, yellow, and pink.

Nicodemus is a familiar character. He was a pharisee who snuck off to talk with Jesus in the middle of the night. I wonder what burning question made him take the risk of being seen with Jesus. All we know is that he went to Jesus and affirmed that Jesus was “from God.” Then the conversation just gets weird. And you know what? The Christian church has never made sense of this strange passage in any useful way.

“Born again” is a phrase that makes my heart beat faster and my blood pressure rise. It’s been used as a litmus test for faith, the “right” faith. Nicodemus didn’t understand what Jesus was talking about and I don’t think many of us understand any better now. The dreaded, “when were you saved?” or it’s alternate form, “when were you born again?” sparks both anger and sadness in me. If I don’t have a dramatic conversion story to share, that means I’m not a true Christian? Why can’t it be a slow growth, a dawning awakening to the power and presence of God in my life? I’m betting that’s how it was for Nicodemus.

Nicodemus recognized something in Jesus that drew him out into the dark of night to have a conversation. Of course, the conversation was quickly out of his hands and beyond his understanding. A person cannot be born more than once. It’s that simple. Or maybe it isn’t. Jesus didn’t think anything about a person’s spiritual life was simple.

I remember Dr. James Loder in a course on human development talking about how the Holy Spirit enters into our lives, breaks through our ego defenses, and shoves our ego off-center. After a while our defenses are a pile of rubble and we can say with Paul, “I, not I, but Christ.” This is what we are after, this union of human spirit and Holy Spirit. It’s slippery and very seldom does the union fully hold after any single experience. Our egos are stubborn and we are wired to think we are at the center of things. When the Holy Spirit pushes our ego enough out of the way, we realize that being at the center of things with Christ is a healthier way to go. Even then, though, we have a hard time holding onto the Holy. We are always human first.

Jesus told the struggling Nicodemus that God so loves the whole of the cosmos that God gave God’s only son so that all who believe might have eternal life. The love is ongoing. Eternal life is communal. We cannot do it alone. In order to bring God’s realm into the here and now, we need one another. We need to be bound together by the Holy Spirit into the Bodymind of Christ, the church re-envisioned for the world in which we live.

Nicodemus made the mistake of thinking that Jesus’ words were literal and meant just for Nicodemus. Many of us have made similar mistakes. We think the words are meant to be taken literally and that they are only for those who share a certain belief. However, God’s love that sent Jesus into the world is a love that encompasses the whole cosmos. It is our belief that allows us to enter into the truth of God’s love. It was never meant to exclude anyone. It was meant to build and strengthen and create beloved community.

As we have observed the anniversary of George Floyd’s murder this week, I wonder when we will set aside our harm-filled interpretations of scripture. I wonder when those who claim the name of Christ will live in love with all neighbors, not just White ones. When will we who claim to have Christ at our center stop living in fearful hatred and demand justice and equality for every human being, without exception?

Jesus said that God loves the entirety of the cosmos. Now is an excellent time to claim this truth and live it into being. No one can truly be a follower of Christ and hate people based on race, religion, country of origin, gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, class, ability, health, mental health, or any other aspect of human identity. God loves the entire cosmos. That love sent Jesus to teach us how to love one another. When will we learn?

RCL – Year B – Trinity Sunday – May 30, 2021 Isaiah 6:1-8 and Psalm 29  • Romans 8:12-17  • John 3:1-17

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Musings Sermon Starter

Unbreakable Bonds

Image of three complete spider webs in the spaces of a metal fence. The background is blurred forest.

Pentecost is a fabulous story. It has all the marks of a story well-told, complete with special effects. In fact, it is not hard to picture the disciples gathered together in a room, possibly the same upper room of the Last Supper. They gather, huddled together, trying to sort out what’s next. When, all of a sudden, the entire house is filled with the sound of rushing wind. Then tongues of fire appear above their heads. The next thing you know they are preaching about Jesus and every person hears in their own language. It’s remarkable, exciting, and mysterious. So much so that I think we sometimes miss the point.

Wind, flames, and many languages were evidence of the Spirit’s presence that day, a day that shifted the direction of the newly emerging church. As much as I would love to see what would happen if the Spirit showed up in the same way to any of our congregations this week, if we are really listening to the story, it isn’t necessary for the Spirit to repeat herself. The greatest gift of the Spirit is not in the flames of passion or fierceness of conviction. Nor is it the ability to speak and be heard in any language. The greatest gift of the Spirit is how she connects us one to another, and, thereby, to God and Creation.

Burning with a passion to serve God is pointless without a deep appreciation for our kinship with one another, especially with those whom we call “other.” Being moved by the power of conviction is only as good as our ability to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. The gift of tongues diminishes without compassion for those with whom we share this planet, let alone for the planet itself. On that first Pentecost, the Spirit wove us together with unbreakable bonds, with sighs deeper than our understanding, with a love beyond our imagining. Without the Spirit blowing through that house so long ago, I’m not sure we’d experience much more than the groaning of the world around us.

Think about it. The Spirit blew through that house with some serious force. I know the text only mentions the sound of winds. However, I like to imagine the doors and windows being blown wide open. Sometimes I even picture the roof being blown off. It is a symbolic removing of barriers between us. Then the flames appear, identifying the ones who followed Jesus most closely, the ones with something powerful to share. Those tongues of fire are an apt metaphor for those moments when we are aware of our place in something much larger than ourselves, those moments of deep insight that we are compelled to share. Then comes the language thing. At first it was a cacophony of sound. And then people realized they could understand; each person heard in their own language. This was a moment of connection made with words, harkening back to the Word who’d become flesh and lived among us. At the end of that first Pentecost, the church took shape because the Spirit bound people together who would never have come together otherwise. Bound in deed and word.

Do you see how we don’t need the audio and visual effects? We don’t need them because the lessons taught, the gifts given that day have come down through the centuries to us in the here and now. How can we read or hear this story without recognizing how intimately bound we are to one another? We aren’t bound just to those we know and love. We are bound to everyone who has ever felt the power of the wind, the heat of the flames, the pull of the words. We are bound to the impressive ones who preach in public places with their whole lives. We are bound to the hidden ones who seldom speak and, yet, always show up. We are bound to the broken ones who yearn for us to see their wholeness. We are bound to the doubt-filled ones who can’t quite feel the heat of the flames. We are bound to the messy ones and the angry ones and shy ones and all the “other” ones, even the ones who call God by other names.

Do you see it now? Do you see how impossible it is now to dismiss or devalue or deny or exclude any human being from the church? We are connected by the Spirit to the spirit in every human being, like it or not. And you know, these cords cannot be broken. And it’s a good thing, too. Because if they could be broken, there would be no church, no embodiment of Christ in the world today. And that would be a loss beyond imagining…

RCL – Year B – Pentecost – May 23, 2021 Acts 2:1-21 or Ezekiel 37:1-14  • Psalm 104:24-34, 35b  • Romans 8:22-27 or Acts 2:1-21  • John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

Photo: CC0image by Ulrike Leone

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Musings Sermon Starter

Mental Health Sunday: Toward a New Understanding

Image of black silhouettes of a people’s upper bodies with arms waving against a maroon background filled with pink hearts of different sizes.

In the United Church of Christ, this Sunday is Mental Health Sunday. Many congregations won’t choose to observe it at all, while a few will have Mental Health Sunday at a different point in the year. However, it isn’t something that should be overlooked or avoided. Church can be helpful or harmful, and our history indicates that we have harmed more than we’ve helped when it comes to mental health. Too many people, even in progressive congregations, still believe that mental illness is a punishment for sin, a character flaw, or evidence of insufficient faith. Isn’t it time we tell it like it is? Isn’t it time we end the silence and shatter the stigma surrounding mental illness in our churches?

Jesus said, “All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one” (John 17:11-12). He was speaking about his disciples then and now. He didn’t make any distinction among them. And, I’d bet that some of them had diagnosable mental health conditions. Think about Peter and is impulsiveness…

Anyway, Jesus claimed all who followed him as his people, given to him by God. In this prayer during the Farewell Discourses in John’s gospel, Jesus asks God to protect them and create wholeness among them – make them one. I wish this had happened then or was happening now. It isn’t a failure on God’s part to answer Jesus’ prayer. It is a failure on the part of the church to live as we have been called. We make judgments and live in fear, separated one from another when we don’t have to.

In biblical times demon possession and punishment for sin were the only way to understand mental illness. However, we know better now, or we should. Mental illness takes place in the brain. The brains of people with mental illness function differently and some differences are observable in brain imaging. We generally don’t say that cancer or heart disease are a punishment from God, though many might feel this way. We also don’t tend to blame people who are diagnosed with physical illness for their condition. Yet, we do when it comes to mental illness. Why is that?

The simple answer is that we are afraid. We are afraid that it could happen to us. Or we believe the misinformation that is out there that people who have severe and persistent mental illness are violent. Or we are fearful of saying or doing the wrong thing. As a result of our fear and, maybe, some ignorance, too, we remain silent and separated from our siblings who live with symptoms of mental illness. This is where stigma comes from. This is in direct opposition to how Jesus told us we are supposed to live – as one, one whole Body of Christ.

I can’t help but wonder if more people would find welcome in our congregations if we stopped being fearful and started to foster a sense of unity with all of our neighbors. If we endeavored to learn more about mental health conditions and stopped ignoring that 1 in 5 U.S. adults is diagnosed with a mental health condition, how might this change church? Wouldn’t the Body of Christ be healthier if we were to fully embrace all of our members, friends, and neighbors who live with mental illness?

Recently, I’ve learned about the term “bodymind” and I think Jesus would be a fan. Bodymind eliminates the dualism that Western traditions have created. Bodymind is all about the mind and body as a single unit and eliminates the distinction between physical health and mental health. Imagine the Body of Christ becoming the Bodymind of Christ… We would not longer have the option of pretending that mental illness isn’t part of the church. The silence would be broken and the stigma completely shattered, not to mention the sense of wholeness that this understanding could foster…

Isn’t it time that we work together to embrace the unity that Jesus prayed for among his followers? That they may be one… The Bodymind of Christ…

RCL – Year B – Seventh Sunday of Easter – May 16, 2021 Acts 1:15-17, 21-26  • Psalm 1  • 1 John 5:9-13  • John 17:6-19

Photo: CC0image by Pete Linforth

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Sermon Starter

A Little More about Love

Image of two yellow ducklings facing each other, black beaks touching.

I wish love was simple and uncomplicated. Jesus talked about it so much because love challenges us, often to go beyond our perceived limits. I didn’t grow up with the best role models when it comes to love. I have no doubt that my parents did their best. Yet, what they communicated to me was that love was conditional, based on following the rules and being “good.” In many ways, the church communicated the same thing to me. Starting Sunday School at eight meant that I missed the basics of preschool and early elementary school. I didn’t learn “Jesus Loves Me,” the song, until I was in college, and by then it was almost too late.

In John’s gospel Jesus says, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” I wonder if that was hard for those first disciples to grasp. In my mind they were very young men, perhaps between the ages of 15 and 20 by the time Jesus would have spoken these words. They lived in a society very different from ours. What lessons had they learned about love before they met Jesus? Jesus spoke about agape, unconditional love, and it’s possible that no one else really did. Maybe they knew something of storge, affection, or philia, brotherly love or friendship, or eros, romantic love. But outside of the synagogue and the need to be involved in charity, where would they have encountered agape?

I don’t know. Certainly, anyone of them could have had an encounter with God that unfolded the meaning of agape for them. Or maybe being with Jesus for three years was enough for them to begin to grasp the meaning of Jesus’ commandment to “love one another as I have loved you.” I’d like to think those early disciples got it, understood it, and went on to live in relationship with each other guided by agape. However, what I remember about early church history indicates that they probably didn’t.

So this leads me to the question of how, when, and where do we experience agape today? If we’re lucky, we learn about unconditional love from our parents. And for those of us who weren’t lucky enough to have healthy, loving, emotive parents, then it would be great if the church would step in and fill that gap?

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Maybe we can dedicate the month to communicating the love we have for one another and for all our neighbors. What if everyone who joined our worship services or Bible studies or Sunday Schools heard and believed the message that they are God’s beloved, that they are loved and valued for who they are in this moment? What if we stopped caring about all those things we’ve labeled as sin, and just focused on loving whomever shows up?

How many lives could be saved if we communicated clearly that Queer folx are loved by God? That people with addictions are loved by God? That people with disabilities are loved by God? That people with mental illness are loved by God? That people experiencing homelessness are loved by God? That people who are divorced are loved by God? That women who’ve had abortions are loved by God? That people living in non monogamous relationships are loved by God? No change needed. Right now, whoever you are, whatever you are doing, whatever you are experiencing, you are loved by God. For real. Seriously, how many lives could be saved with this simple message?

In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, I invite every preacher, every church leader, to make agape the mission and the message. Let’s set aside everything we think makes proper theology and proper church practice and figure out how to embody agape for those who most need to know the saving power of God’s love for the whole of creation.

RCL – Year B – Sixth Sunday of Easter – May 9, 2021 Acts 10:44-48  • Psalm 98  • 1 John 5:1-6  • John 15:9-17

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Musings Sermon Starter

Beloved, Let us Love

Image of a yellow lab looking into the eyes of a little girl whose back is to the camera. The background is grass and trees.

Sometimes I feel like I keep saying the same things and the echoes go on and on with no one listening. It’s how I’m feeling now as I contemplate the familiar words of 1 John 4:7-8: 4:7 Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. How have we failed to take in these words and let them shape our actions, our relationships, our communities? These words are not consistent with the ways in which we have divided ourselves one from another, even within Christianity, never mind outside of the church.

Hearing these words in conjunction with the story of Peter baptizing the eunuch in Acts and Jesus’ explanation of the vine and branches in John, I wonder how it is we have gotten to a place where church is declining. Peter had his misgivings about the eunuch and then could not refuse to baptize him when the opportunity came. Shouldn’t this story be an invitation for us to baptize all those who come seeking with passion and commitment? Moreover, shouldn’t this story invite us to journey with those we perceive to be different from us? I mean, we never really know through whom God is working, do we? Peter certainly didn’t think a eunuch would be called by God, and yet…

While I strongly suspect the words in John 15 about the vine and branches are more the Fourth Evangelist and less Jesus, there is truth in them, though maybe not the truth that is usually extracted from them. Jesus is the vine. God is the vinegrower. We are the branches. We are connected to one another and to the Sacred and function best when we live into that connectedness, that interdependence. Let’s not worry about who isn’t abiding in sacred community; that isn’t our job. Our job is to grow, to thrive, and to bear fruit, fruit that will last. Fruit that is nourishing and inviting for all those who feel disconnected and lost and, yet, are still seeking – maybe like that eunuch. Who can be part of the vine is not ours to determine; it is up to the vinegrower and the vine itself. We are simply meant to invite and enfold those around us with radical inclusion and hospitality. There’s nothing that says that every branch is identical or every fruit the same.

In a time when we long for pandemic to be over and we know that it is not, practicing love for one another must be our first priority. Now is not time to stop wearing masks, keeping physical distance, and staying apart. Those who say they are Christian and refuse to wear a mask and insist on acting as if pandemic were not real, are not loving their neighbors as themselves. 1 John isn’t talking about easy love, like loving chocolate cake or loving kittens, puppies, and babies. The writer is inviting us to live in the challenging kind of love, agape, the love that God has for the whole of Creation, the Love that Jesus embodied, the Love that the world could not tolerate, the Love that brings new life from dreadful tombs of death. This is hard and it takes our attention and intention. I’m not sure it comes naturally to human beings.

Think of all the ways in which human beings display their lack of love for neighbor and/or self. There are wars. There is gun violence. There is domestic violence. There is racism. There is White supremacy. There is fear of those who seem to be other. There is judgement. There is division created by human beings where God intended unity. What will it take for us to abide in Love, to attach ourselves to the vine in ways that bring new life to ourselves, our communities, our neighbors?

I honestly believe we can do better at embodying Divine Love. With intention, we can dismantle the systems of hatred and create systems of justice. Trusting that we are all Beloved and that God’s ways are all about Love, we can stop our fear-based responses and become better stewards of Creation, including church in all its varied forms.

May we all abide in Love, especially in the uncomfortable places, and allow that Love to calm our fears, educate our ignorance, and heal all that is broken – one person at a time if need be. Beloved, let us love one another…

RCL – Year B – Fifth Sunday of Easter – May 2, 2021 Acts 8:26-40  • Psalm 22:25-31  • 1 John 4:7-21  • John 15:1-8

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Musings Sermon Starter

Silence is Compliance

Image of a shepherd with his dog and herd of sheep on a sunny, green hillside.

It’s been quite a week here in the Twin Cities, and in my life. The verdict of guilty on all three charges in the Chauvin trial shifted the mood considerably. There is now hope where there was none. However, this hope is mitigated by the killing of Daunte Wright, Adam Toledo, and Ma’Khia Bryant. So much work is before us still.

On a more personal note, I received my second vaccine with minor, though annoying, symptoms, completed a three-day training on the IDI (Intercultural Development Inventory), and observed the sixth anniversary of my mother’s death. As I said, it’s been a week.

Through all of this I’ve been thinking about the “Good Shepherd” passages. Psalm 23 is a popular favorite and Jesus’ claim to be the Good Shepherd in John’s gospel makes us generally feel good. It’s easy to picture God or Jesus as a good shepherd. We feel watched-over and protected. However, if Jesus is the Good Shepherd and we who are church members are the embodiment of Christ, then we are to be the Good Shepherd in the world. And this is where the challenge is. We are to follow and to embody all at the same time. We aren’t doing very well at either, most days anyway.

Jesus said he was the Good Shepherd who would lay down his life for his own. And, of course, he did. Jesus died at the hands of those who could not tolerate Love Incarnate, those who were enamored with the power, position, prestige, and promises granted by the Empire. Jesus challenged the authorities (both Jewish and Roman) of his day at every opportunity. He sought to literally re-member (connect or reconnect) the outcasts with community. He sought to empower the people to live into their relationship with God.

Jesus was a threat to those with power and a friend to the oppressed. We are called to embody those qualities – challenge the Empire and befriend the oppressed. This is the Good Shepherd we say we follow. Are we willing to lay down our lives for the benefit of those who are oppressed, cast out, dismissed, devalued, or dehumanized? If not, how closely do we follow this Shepherd? How do we embody the Love the Good Shepherd demonstrated for the whole of the cosmos?

I’m not saying we all have to go out and risk our lives in a literal way. I’m suggesting that we have to more actively put our lives on the line. You know, take risks to ensure that these modern day lynchings of Black and Brown adults and children come to an end. The conviction of Chauvin is a good start. It is not enough, though. We need more. We need to keep advocating for murder charges to be brought against police officers who shoot and/or kill Black and Brown people with no good reason. We who identify as White progressive Christians need to learn how to amplify the voices of those calling for the abolishment of police and the dismantling of the criminal legal system, and all the other systems that thrive on White supremacy and racism. Can we say we follow the Good Shepherd if we continue to remain on the sidelines in silence? Can we say we embody Christ if we are seeking justice for all people?

In case it isn’t clear, I’m really wondering what it means to be Christian in the U.S. in this moment in history. I know that my own views have radically changed over the last decade or more, particularly in the last 6.5 years I’ve lived in Minnesota. My shift in perspective is due in part to Black Lives Matter and participating in marches, rallies, and protests and really listening to POC in my community. If Jesus is Divine Love Incarnate and the church is the embodiment of that Love, then we have a lot of crap to clean up before we can claim that it is true. Silence is compliance, and White progressive Christians have been silent for far too long. We have also created the illusion that we “welcome all.” Most congregations don’t welcome all. My friends, if one member of the Body of Christ is a White Supremacist, then the Body of Christ is a White Supremacist. If one member of the Body of Christ has benefited or continues to benefit from White supremacy, then the Body of Christ benefits from White supremacy. If one member of the Body of Christ is racist, then the Body of Christ is racist. This is not what Jesus would want for his followers. This is not what it means to be the embodiment of the Good Shepherd.

If we want to be led to those green pastures and still waters, then we must do our part to remove everything that has prevented the grass from growing and everything that has polluted the waters. Isn’t it time we do better? Isn’t it time we actively participate in mending and healing what we have broken?

The Shepherd waits.

RCL – Year B – Fourth Sunday of Easter – April 25, 2021 Acts 8:26-40  • Psalm 22:25-31  • 1 John 4:7-21  • John 15:1-8

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Musings Sermon Starter

No Justice. No Peace.

Image of large crowd of protesters holding sings that say, “Stop Racism Now,” “Black Lives Matter,” and “No Justice. No Peace.”

There is no peace here. Jesus may have breathed peace on his disciples. However, many have turned away from the peace he both breathed and embodied. Jesus exhaled peace on his disciples so that they might become the Body of Christ, the Spirit of God embodied in a world with much need. The primary purpose of the disciple was to continue the work that Jesus began when Jesus no longer lived in the flesh. And this has been the challenge since the very early days of the church, has it not?

From the beginning, Jesus’ disciples could not agree on what it meant to be the Body of Christ. They argued about whether or not one had to be Jewish in order to be a follower of Christ. They argued about traditions and teachers and what they could and could not do as members of Christ’s Body. And here we are, 2000 years later still arguing, still divided, still focused on everything other than embodying the peace Jesus passed on to his first disciples.

I live in and work in the Twin Cities. As you know, a police officer shot and killed yet another unarmed Black man last Sunday afternoon. Daunte Wright’s murder comes in the middle of the trial of the officer who killed George Floyd less than a year ago. My friends who are Black have expressed fear and anxiety for themselves, for their spouses, and especially for their sons. My friends who are White have expressed concern for the officer who shot Daunte and questioned whether or not Chauvin (the officer who killed Floyd) will have a fair trial. White folx have a hard time attributing these murders to the White supremacy that our entire criminal legal system is built on. Black folx have been shouting “Stop killing us” at rallies, marches, and protests for years. They also cry out, “No justice. No peace.”

No justice. No peace. This is Truth beyond the capacity of most White Christians to admit. As long as we continue to buy into the narrative that excuses police killing POC, we are perpetuating White supremacy and sustaining its lethality. How can any of us call ourselves Christian and believe that a police officer has the right to kill unarmed POC? Daunte Wright was pulled over because he was a young Black man driving a car. The police can say it was because his tags were expired, and that is just an excuse. My wife’s tags were expired for six months in 2020 before either of noticed. And she was never pulled over. In fact there are currently over 600,000 expired tags in Minnesota at this moment. Are they all going to be stopped by police and then shot? I doubt it.

Yes, I know they also discovered that Daunte had a warrant out for his arrest. Why? He had misdemeanor charges and failed to appear in court because the summons was sent to his previous address. He did nothing that justifies his death. And now another child will grow up without a father because those with power cannot imagine giving up the power White supremacy gives them.

My friends, as Christians we are the embodiment of the Risen Christ. Jesus did not care about saving souls. He did not care about literally interpreting scripture. He did not judge the actions of those with whom he disagreed. Jesus was all about saving lives, fostering wholeness, re-membering people into community. He was about empowering those whom the Empire had oppressed. He wanted everyone to know the Love of God through the ways in which he loved.

If you are among those who have been silent about White supremacy in our criminal legal system and in every institution in our society, now would be a good time to ask yourself why you have been silent. Really, what would Jesus have us do? Surely, silence or, worse, continuing to believe the White supremacist narratives of the empire, is not what Jesus would have us do. If we are the embodiment of the Risen Christ, then we are to be about breathing peace into the world. And we know beyond any doubt that if there is no justice, there will be no peace.

Will you commit to ending the oppression of the empire and eradicating White supremacy where you encounter it? We have a sacred duty to repair what we human beings have broken. Jesus said, “Peace be with you.” And he breathed the Spirit on a group of Brown-skinned people. We White-skinned people have wrongfully and selfishly hoarded that peace for far too long.

What are we going to do to embody the Risen Christ in a way that literally saves lives and ends our silent complicity in the on-going violence against POC?

RCL – Year B – Third Sunday of Easter – April 18, 2021
Acts 3:12-19  • Psalm 4  • 1 John 3:1-7  • Luke 24:36b-48

Photo: CC-BY-NC image by Rachael Keefe

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Musings

In Preparation for Mental Health Awareness Month

Image of wooden game tiles spelling out “Mental Health.”

Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you. For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well. Psalm 139:7-14

This selection of verses from Psalm 139 underscores the need for congregations to engage in conversation around mental health and mental illness. The psalmist clearly states that there is no place we can go where God is not already there – externally and internally. God is present when we are filled with hope and when we are mired in despair. God accompanies us in the heights of mania and depths of depression. God bears witness to our wholeness and to the fractures in our psyche. There is no human condition outside of God’s reach. Every human being is “fearfully and wonderfully made.” There is no exception, and it is time that the church stop acting like there is.

Mental illness has long been a taboo conversation in Christian churches of every variety. This is mostly due to unexamined, archaic theology. The traditional church view on mental illness ranges from demon possession to punishment for sin to character flaws and lack of faith. None of this is true any more than cancer, heart disease, or diabetes is caused by these things. Mental illness is brain disease that can be caused by genetics, trauma, or brain injury among other things. It is biological and has nothing to do with demons, sin, or faith. God is not the cause of mental illness. In fact, mental illness knows no bounds. Everyone is vulnerable and no one is protected by race, gender, economics, education, ability, or faith. Our bodies and our brains are fragile and finite. In fact one in five adults in the U.S. experience a mental illness each year.

This is why it is essential that congregations engage in conversation on mental illness and mental health, especially in this time of pandemic. Church can be a place of healing or a place of hurt. The more we continue to avoid the conversation on mental illness, the more we contribute to suffering and, possibly, death of those who live with mental health conditions. Jesus was all about saving lives and re-membering (literally reconnecting) people to community. Community of support and acceptance promotes wellness and recovery. Church can become this for those who have often been unwelcomed and unseen. Breaking the silence and ending the stigma surrounding mental illness allows for people to be re-membered and find a place in a community that names them beloved.

May is mental health awareness month. Now is an excellent time to plan for your congregation to join the conversation and save lives. It isn’t as difficult as you might think. There are resources to help get you started. The United Church of Christ Mental Health Network is an excellent source of information for congregations of any denomination. You don’t need to be UCC to begin the WISE process, the process to become W elcoming, I nclusive, E ngaged, and S upportive for persons living with mental health challenges. Use the resources to start a conversation in your congregation so that your church may become a safe, lifesaving, and healing place.

There are many ways to begin. The easiest is to include mental health conditions in the prayers of the church. Offering educational opportunities and, eventually, inviting people to share their stories are great ways to engage in the conversation around mental illness. We are all touched by mental health conditions – either we ourselves or someone we love. The church can no longer afford to remain silent. Please begin this conversation so that the Body of Christ continues to embody the Love, Hope, and Healing Jesus lived and taught.

Photo: CC0image by wokandapix