Vipers, Adders, and the Promise of Peace

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When I was working on my doctorate, for a class project I created a map of wars for the preceding century. I don’t remember the specifics of the project, but I spent hours placing small dot stickers every place in the world that had been active in war. I had nightmares for weeks after discovering that the planet has not ever been free of war in recorded human history. Always, there has been war somewhere, often many somewheres.

As I sit here contemplating Advent peace, I hear my mother telling my high school self how privileged and spoiled my generation is because we did not know the impact of war. I didn’t know what she meant and she didn’t know that some of my earliest memories are of watching footage of body bags returning from Vietnam. In her certainty that my generation would have been more patriotic and more like hers if we had grown up with the damage war does, she was ignoring the fact that we were already shaped by the warring generations who had come before us. And she couldn’t have known how dramatically my experience of war would change, or how soon. A few months later was the Beirut bombing where the largest number of U.S. military personal was killed since Vietnam. It was stunning and horrifying. I knew young people who were Marines at the time. Friends of friends died in the bombing. I wondered how such a thing could happen…

Less than a decade later I watched the bombing of Baghdad on the news from a seminary dorm room. I sat in mute silence, wondering how we could possibly be at war. My mother was wrong. My generation knows more than its fair share of war, as has every generation of human beings. We are fortunate here in the U.S., though. It’s not very often war touches us closely and personally on a daily basis. Many of us are comfortable in forgetting that we are a nation that has been at war for fifteen years. We can entangle patriotism, nationalism, Christianity, and white supremacy without really questioning it because our cities and homes aren’t being blown up. And if we keep everything the way it’s been (whatever that means), then we’re safe from all that goes on with “those people,” you know, the ones who live “over there.” This distance, the forgetting, this tangling religion and nationalism makes it easier for many folks to blame refugees and bolster xenophobia. What happened to compassion? What happened to freedom of religion? What happened to caring for widows, the poor, the aliens among us?

Into these thoughts comes John the Baptist’s cry, “Prepare the way of the Lord!” The yearning I feel for the day the lion and lamb lie down together is strong enough to bring tears to my eyes. Yet, I suspect humanity is still more akin to a brood of vipers than inhabitants of God’s holy mountain. The more I read about increased suicides and hate crimes the more I think the adder and the asp are still in biting moods. The truth of it all seems to be that humanity is not willing to take the risk of peace. We are too fond of our illusion of control that war and weapons bring, to risk doing something different.

Yet, the Baptist’s cry echoes through this wilderness we have created. God’s ancient promise of peace lends strength and credence to the echoes. This call to prepare for the way of God really should not continue to be ignored. We must be the ones who prepare the way. We can’t wait for someone else to do it. We cannot reach out for peace with one hand while holding weapons of fear in the other. What will it take for us to slow down, hear the cries of the Christ-child in the far-off manger?  More importantly, what are we going to do to ensure that the Child comes into the world with such power that humanity can take a collective step toward peace?

Singing carols, exchanging gifts, and attending parties are all fine activities. They are a way to sooth our weary souls for a few minutes or a few hours at a time. Consider doing something else, too, though. What is God up to where you are? Go and do that. Who needs radical hospitality and unconditional love in your neighborhood? If we can do these things in our Advent waiting, then we might just find our way to Bethlehem to greet the Child. We might just find enough hope to believe that Peace is really possible.

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

RCL – Year A – Second Sunday in Advent – December 4, 2016
Isaiah 11:1-10
Psalm 72:1-7,18-19
Romans 15:4-13
Matthew 3:1-12

Photo: CC-BY-NC image by Erika Sanborne

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Remembering Advent Hope

 

hopeHolidays bring on nostalgia for better or for worse. As I am preparing for Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow, I think of years past. Growing up, my family shared holidays with the family next door and anyone else who needed a place to go. One year budgets were tight so we ordered turkey subs and sat together on the dining room floor because we didn’t have a table big enough. Another year, one of the Persian kittens had crawled inside the turkey carcass as it sat thawing in the sink. Memories roll through my mind with each item I cook.

When I turn my attention toward Advent, the same thing happens. Good memories and less pleasant recollections. There was the arrival of the Sears Roebuck Wish Book and all the pretty things a child could desire. There was baking and candy making that started the day after Thanksgiving and continued every day until Christmas. Some years there would be an Advent Calendar to help keep track of the days. It all sounds good, but it was hard. My mother wasn’t a fan of the holidays even though she opened her house to anyone on Christmas day and baked more breads, cookies, and candies than she could give away, her unhappiness blanketed everything. The older I got, the more open she was about her holiday hatred. I was a few years into ordained ministry before it struck me how much I love the holiday season with a particular fondness for Advent.

Advent is really a time to look back as much as it is a time to look ahead with hope. The words of the prophet Isaiah speak to the bleakness of a time in Israel’s history and their need for the light of God. The ways of God were lost, or at least hidden, under swords, spears, and the learning of war. Isaiah issues a divine invitation to “walk in the light of the Lord.” No matter what is happening personally, or communally, or nationally, people of faith are invited to relearn the ways of God and walk on holy paths. Such hope-filled words!

For years now, I’ve thought of Advent as a time to refocus. It’s easy to get lost in the swords and spears and wars. We can be consumed by the anger, fear, and hatred that seem to be everywhere. We can easily give in and let bleak despair fill us. Advent is a time to raise our heads and look for God’s steadfast presence and take up the work of peacemaking and justice-seeking. The invitation issued by the prophet was not a passive one. It was an invitation to action, to movement, to learning. Herein lies the hope of the season.

The Romans and Matthew texts strengthen the invitation. Wake up and stay awake! The Second Coming remains a mystery to me, but I hear the message in these verses anyway. Today I’m inclined to think that Jesus shows up when we are busy, busy turning swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning-hooks. You know, speaking love in the face of fear. Joining forces with those advocating for equal rights and recognition. Essentially, Jesus shows up when we seek God in every other human face.

The urgency of these texts speaks to the belief that Jesus was due back at any moment. Today, the urgency is just as valid, even if for a slightly different reason. Many people claim to have accepted the invitation to journey to God’s holy mountain, yet they are unable to accept all who endeavor to do the same. This busywork we have invented for ourselves and plastered God’s name on is more about forging swords and sharpening spears than it is about creating ploughshares and pruning hooks. How is it possible to claim the name “Christian” and hate or look down on People of Color, LGBTQ+ folks, immigrants (documented and undocumented), refugees,  Muslims, Jews, women, people with mental illness, people with physical disbilities, and on down the list of people who are “other”? These are sharp, deadly weapons; make no mistake about it. Look around at where we have been and where we are. Does it really add up to a holy path where peace prevails?

I truly love Advent and I am moved by the hope in these texts. God has been our witness through times of despair and times of joy. God has watched us wander far and return to a holy path over and over again, throughout human history. The invitation issued by the prophet still stands. It is time to walk in the light of the Lord. However, we need to wake up and stay woke. We will never get to God’s holy mountain as long as we participate in fear and hatred. And we will surely miss Jesus’ arrival if we are not focused on the ways of love and justice for the whole of creation.

May the God of hope be with us all this Advent season.

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

RCL – Year A – November 27, 2016
Isaiah 2:1-5
Psalm 122
Romans 13:11-14
Matthew 24:36-44

Photo: CC-BY-NC image by Erika Sanborne

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Fear is Not the Answer

cemetery-1655378_1920.jpgAs is common, I received my first Bible in third grade at the end of my first year of attending Sunday School. It was the Revised Standard Version with a faux black leather cover. I carried that Bible with me for years. I used it college religion classes and even through my first semester in seminary. Now it sits on a shelf and is stuffed with fond memories. The caterpillar bookmark naming each part of the Bible and other Sunday School remnants, a copy of “A Child’s Creed yellow around the edges,” notes from mostly forgotten retreat weekends, and scores of underlined and highlighted passages.

Also tucked in the pages are a few colorful tracts with different psalms printed on them. Memories flood my being any time I pick up this Bible. Today I am envisioning one of those tracts, the one printed with Psalm 46. I remember exactly where it came from. I was 15 and hospitalized after I had overdosed. The Rev. John Williams handed it to me. The care and concern for me were evident in his presence and his voice. Equally clear is that he did not know what to say. So he handed me a few of these tracts and indicated that they might be helpful in some way. He said that he often gave them to “people in pain.” One of them was Psalm 46.

At the time, I didn’t pay much attention because I was as uncomfortable as John was, though for different reasons. It was late in the night when I read the words, “God is my refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore, we will not fear…” I remember sobbing and whispering, “God help me, please.” I was surrounded by fear, being consumed by fear, and I so desperately wanted to believe that God could help me.

Thirty-four years later I am confident that God heard my plea, heard it before I had the courage to whisper it into the darkness of the night. Many people have walked with me and embodied the love of Christ along the way. Yet, my life was governed by fear in those days. I was afraid of everything. At core, though, I was afraid I was not lovable or worthy of love. It was a long journey to get to the day when my life was no longer ruled by fear. I did, however, believe that God could help me overcome my fears because I trusted that God really did have the power to make war cease and lead people to peace.

Now I find myself living in a different sort of fearful space, a space filled with concerns and anxiety for the days ahead. Fortunately, I’ve had decades of experience acknowledging fear and choosing not to live by it. And I trust that God is still our refuge and our strength, still a very present help in trouble, not just personally but communally as well. When communities and nations give in to fear, chaos rules and it is a sure sign that we have forgotten to seek God and God’s ways.

It isn’t surprising that human beings give in to fear with almost predictable frequency. The real surprise is that God waits for us to turn from our human ways to God’s holy ways. God waits for ridiculous stretches of time and has throughout history. Eventually, we collectively remember that seeking God leads to more acts of kindness, more humility, more peace-making, and justice-seeking. When we open our lives to these things, fear diminishes. Fear always diminishes when confronted with love.

This is true when in the company of terrified, suicidal adolescents and it is true for frightened, hopeless communities. We who bear the name of Christ must endeavor to be a refuge and strength for those on the margins and at greater risk of violence and being told they are unlovable and not worthy of love. Yes, fear is real. Yes, it is powerful. However, when we turn to God’s ways we become capable of choosing actions that make room for hope, for love, and the possibility of new life.

RCL – Year C – Reign of Christ – Thanksgiving Sunday – November 20, 2016
Jeremiah 23:1-6 with Luke 1:68-79 or
Jeremiah 23:1-6 with Psalm 46
Colossians 1:11-20
Luke 23:33-43

Photo: CC0 image by Karina Cubillo

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Neither End Times nor the New Jerusalem: A Bidding Prayer

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Come, let us pray for the people of God scattered throughout the earth.
(people may silently or quietly voice their prayers)
God of Love and Grace, we offer our prayers and praises to you for faithful people everywhere. We trust that you hear the prayers of your people of all times, places, and religious traditions. Open all of us to your vision of a new heaven and a new earth, a vision of peace for the whole of creation. Grant us the courage to set aside all the division we have constructed between and among those who call your name. May your patience continue as we endeavor to turn from our human ways.
God in your mercy,
Hear our prayers.

Come, let us pray for those gathered here and elsewhere.
(people may silently or quietly voice their prayers)
Visionary God, you spoke your Word of love right out loud. Over and over again you have painted a picture of peace and justice and have asked us to help make it real. Somehow it has always been easier for us to shelter ourselves from our neighbors and hide behind walls of fear than it has to courageously embody Christ in the world. Renew your vision within us. Strengthen us with your grace and mercy for the time has come for us to be the Body of Christ in new and surprising ways that we have yet to imagine. Let us remember that we are yours and you ask us to love one another.
God in your mercy,
Hear our prayers.

Come, let us pray for all people and nations.
(people may silently or quietly voice their prayers)
God of justice and compassion, you created human beings in your image and filled us with the breath of your Spirit. We have yet to figure out that our enemies are your Beloved and that the gifts of creation all belong to you. We can turn our eyes from the horrors in Allepo or the injustice in Standing Rock or the violence in our streets. We can claim one nation over another but we cannot change the fact that your creation has no boundaries or borders. Teach us to view the world with your eyes. Fill us with passion and compassion so that we may be peacemakers and justice-seekers until your New Jerusalem is made manifest. May we be Christ to one another and to all our neighbors.
God in your mercy,
Hear our prayers.

Come, let us pray for this country and all those who live here.
(people may silently or quietly voice their prayers)
Loving God, you see us for what we are. You know the depths of our division and the fragility of our hope. As with all nations, you envision a future of unity and peace where we live side by side and recognize you in one another. We lift up to you all those who lead this nation and those who have been elected to lead in the days to come. May your vision become their vision that we may heal all the broken places. May we claim your vision as our own and have the courage to become a nation that proudly celebrates diversity and welcomes those who seek sanctuary and home.
God in your mercy,
Hear our prayers.

Come, let us pray for all those who suffer in body, mind, or spirit.
(people may silently or quietly voice their prayers)
God of healing and transformation, your loving kindness never wavers. You are the hope amid our despair and the peace in the chaos. We so easily lose ourselves in the storms of physical sickness, mental illness, or spiritual despair, yet you remain constant. You see those we do not wish to see and desire for us to care for those who are in need. Until the day when we can love with your love, we pray especially for those who lose themselves in pain, those who struggle with addictions, those who suffer symptoms of mental illness, those who are suicidal, and those whose bodies have betrayed them. May we agents of your compassion and healing so no one suffers alone.

God in your mercy,
Hear our prayers.

Come, let us pray for all those who are mourning.
(people may silently or quietly voice their prayers)
Ever-present God, you claim us as your beloved children. You gift us with blessings and strength beyond measure. And you know the very moment our hearts break and grief floods in. We grieve for lost dreams, lost hope, lost loves, things that have ended, things that will never be, and things we have lost. There is no limit to the ways in which our hearts can break or the depth of pain that floods in. Yet, it is often in the very depths of our lives that we encounter you and the possibility of new life takes hold. As you are patient with us, so may we be with each other offering gentleness and mercy to those who weep.
God in your mercy,
Hear our prayers.

Come, let us give God our thanks and praise.
(people may silently or quietly voice their prayers)
God of generosity and blessing, you yearn for us to see all that you have given to us so that we might rejoice in your presence. You give us all that we need and have shown us the way of love. As we seek to follow you and help bring about your vision of a new earth, may our fears be overcome with gratitude and our anxiety transformed to generosity. When we quiet ourselves enough, we know that you are the way to life and we are filled with gratitude. May we discover anew our capacity for love and justice as we offer praise to you.
God in your mercy,
Hear our prayers.

RCL – Year C – Twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost – November 13, 2016
Isaiah 65:17-25 with Isaiah 12 or
Malachi 4:1-2a with Psalm 98
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
Luke 21:5-19

Photo: CC0 image by Bess Hamiti

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I’m Supposed to Treat Others How?

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Many congregations will observe All Saints Day this Sunday. We will lift up the names of those who have died and those who have been baptized in the last year. Candles will be lit and songs will be sung. Tears will flow from the eyes of those who mourn. We remember. We honor. We pray and lift up the saints of tomorrow. This is the perfect activity for the last Sunday before the presidential election here in the US.

Any number of us have been traumatized during this election cycle. We have listened to hate-speech, threats of violence, and more false or exaggerated accusations than ever before. Whole groups of people have been dismissed and devalued – Muslims, women, Mexicans and other Latinx folks, People of Color, people with disabilities, and LGBTQ+ folks. Religious beliefs have been tangled and distorted and abused as they were tangled up in political rhetoric. It’s distressing and the future looks uncertain.

But we will remember the saints who touched our lives, shaped our faith, and entrusted the future to us. And we will lift up infants who have been baptized whose lives we will touch, whose faith we will shape, and whose future is in our hands. All Saints Day isn’t just a nostalgic time of remembrance. It’s a time of stepping into the shoes of those who’ve gone before and walking in a direction of leadership and love for those who will soon follow us.

That day, long ago, when Jesus addressed his disciples while a crowd pressed in, speaks to the spirit of the day. Luke’s version starts off with Jesus assuring those who are poor, hungry and weeping that they will be blessed. So, too, those who are hated and mistreated because of their faith. This sounds good. We all agree that those who suffer deserve blessings at some point. But then Jesus goes to the woes. Woe to the rich, the satisfied, and the ones who are laughing. Woe also to the ones who please everyone all the time. This makes us a bit uncomfortable.

We like to have money in the bank, and food in our cabinets, and lots of laughter. And, well, is really that bad if everyone likes you? Yes, yes it is. Having everyone like you all the time means that you aren’t really standing up for anything very important all that often. What kind of is this the kind of saint you want to be? As for wealth, food, and laughter? Well, at whose expense have we gained these things?

This isn’t the end of discomfort in Jesus’ words. It gets worse if we are among those listening. Jesus commands that we love our enemies, be nice to those who aren’t nice to us, and offer blessings and prayers for those who abuse and oppress us. More than that, we are told to “turn the other cheek” if we are hit. If that’s not enough to challenge all of us, then if someone takes our coats, we’re supposed to offer our shirts, too. And give to those who beg. And let people keep what they have stolen from us. And the infamous bottom line: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

This is the crux of it all. Those we lift up as saints, those with days named after them and those who are remembered by so few, are remembered because they did their best to love others, to be generous, kind, and compassionate. Those little ones we’ve baptized this year will look to us to be the saints in their lives, living out God’s love, forgiveness, and grace.

These are the kind of thoughts we ought to be entertaining as we head to the poles. Blessings or woes? Which candidate is more likely to allow us to leave a legacy of compassion? Which candidate is more likely to lead in a direction of unity and encourage all to live according to the Golden Rule? We honor the saints who have gone before us. How will we honor those who come after us?

RCL – Year C – All Saints Day Observance – November 6, 2016
Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18
Psalm 149
Ephesians 1:11-23
Luke 6:20-31

Photo: CC0 image by Gustav Melin

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Salvation Comes

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I cannot get this week’s texts out of my head. Habakkuk and Isaiah are hauntingly convicting and Zacchaeus’ story makes it real for me. This poem sums up where I am at the moment.

Salvation Comes

another murder
a few hours ago
a few miles away
I cry, “O Lord, how much longer will we suffer such violence?”
I want God to fix it
now

God watches and waits
knowing the vision of Love
written large enough for all to see
if any care to look

another Black man shot by a police officer
will not receive justice
because racism is easier than change
I cry, “O Lord, why do you make me see such wrongdoing?
I want God to save me, save us
now

God watches and waits
points at the blood on my hands, your hands
and the empty words tumbling from our mouths
I have not done as God has asked
have you?

another homeless person goes unsheltered without notice
heroin claims another life and the addict is blamed for her own suffering
children go to sleep hungry while leftovers mold in many refrigerators
women huddle battered and bruised victims of more than violence
racism and misogyny spew from public mouths with excuses made
and so much more

I run to climb higher
seeking freedom
seeking Jesus
seeking anything that will cleanse
my hands
my thoughts
my heart
I cry

and there Jesus is calling me down to the ground
showing me salvation
in the face of those who suffer
and look to me for hope

the trees I climb are safe no more
they do not hide me from the truth

I can cry out to God
who waits for me
to turn
and see
Love

until I can, until we can
be Love
seek justice
free the oppressed
defend the orphan
plead for the widow

our offerings are meaningless
and our sins remain scarlet

this is God’s vision
now

it has to be yours
and mine


If you are looking for sermon help, you may want to check this out.

RCL – Year C – Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4 with Psalm 119:137-144 or
Isaiah 1:10-18 with Psalm 32:1-7
2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12
Luke 19:1-10

Photo: CC0 image by Petra

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God, Have Mercy (trigger warning)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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