Good News for Reluctant Hearts

I gave up trying to be happy and joyful just because it’s the holiday season a long time ago. Growing up, I thought I was the only one who didn’t have the perfect Norman Rockwell (or, these days, Hallmark) family. Nearly every year I would end up in tears on Christmas day because it was a disappointment in one way or another. Christmas left me with an empty, lonely feeling more often than not. While it has been years since I’ve felt that aching loneliness during the holidays, I am finding it more than a bit challenging to enter into all the “feels” of the season this year. Heaven knows, I’ve been trying. But I am caught in a colossal disconnect between what is and what God has promised.

Full disclosure – I had pacemaker surgery a few days ago. I’m recovering just fine after some complications during the procedure itself. Mostly, I am grateful for access to the healthcare and technology that has sped up my reluctant heart. Honestly, though, I’m a bit angry that I need a pacemaker at the age of 52. You know, the unfairness of the cosmos and all that. I don’t think it is God’s will that I have dysautonomia or that it is a punishment for my sins or anything like that. I understand that stuff happens that God does not intend or want for anyone. Asking “why me?” accomplishes nothing. Why not me? I am fortunate enough to be able to get the medical care I need. Still, in a perfect world, my heart would beat as it should without electronic encouragement.

My illness is one small thing that points to the gap between what is and what God has promised. In the grand scheme of the universe, its not a big deal. However, these days in particular, it is almost a metaphor for all that is broken in the world. Our collective heart, if you will, doesn’t beat as it was intended. With every act of hatred, violence, dehumanization, and failing to care what happens to any of our neighbors, the heartbeat of humanity slows a bit more.

Into this we hear the Baptist’s cry to “Prepare the way of the Lord.” How do we make a way for God in a world that seems bent on destruction? How do we make visible the power of Love in a world where politicians cut benefits without considering the people who receive them? How do we make space for God in a world that blames people for their circumstances instead of genuinely seeking ways to alleviate suffering while maintaining or, better yet, elevating human dignity? Wolves and lambs, calves and lions, and cows and bears are not going to be lying down together any time soon. And if they did, who would notice?

The despair and hopelessness that consumes innocent lives on a daily basis threatens to engulf us all. Unless, by grace, we are willing to pay heed to what God has promised to the whole of creation. When we focus on what human beings have done, and continue to do to destroy each other and the planet, our attention is taken from things that could save us. To only see the brokenness is to fail to see what God is doing right this minute to reveal the beauty and awe and wonder that is still afoot in the world.

I’m not suggesting that we live in denial. That won’t change anything or help in anyway. Just like I could not ignore my ridiculously slow heart rate, we cannot ignore the suffering all around us. On the other hand, we cannot focus on it either. If we are really going to prepare the way for God to break into the world once more, we have to look for the sacred amidst the suffering. We have to choose hope when the world hands us despair. We need to seek peace when we encounter chaos. We need to foster a sense of joy when anger shouts at us from every direction. And we need to embody love while the world embraces hatred. It’s about the choices we make. We can choose to seek out God’s holy ways and those places where it is possible for enemies to unite and the hungry to be fed in spite of the ugliness all around us.

If each one of us chooses to seek the Holy in spite of the helplessness and hopelessness all around us, some valleys might rise up and some mountains might sink down. None of us is likely to be cured of disease or illness just by changing attitude and perspective. Yet, I can’t help but think that intentionally seeking out God amidst the anger, the despair, the chaos, the suffering, the ignorance, and all that the world’s heart labors under, we might discover the spiritual pacemaker that will allow us to experience the promises of Christmas in new ways. We might even discover some of the hope, peace, joy, and love that the season promises, or realize that it has been there all along.

Where we choose to put our attention and our energy matters. God is still at work in the world. God’s promises of love, wholeness, forgiveness, and healing haven’t been revoked. They are out there waiting for us to live into them, and thereby, embody them for all our neighbors. Advent is an opportunity for a strange and wonderful journey from what is to what God promises. May our reluctant hearts find the spiritual encouragement they need in the days ahead.

RCL – Year A – Second Sunday of Advent – December 8, 2019
Isaiah 11:1-10
Psalm 72:1-7,18-19
Romans 15:4-13
Matthew 3:1-12

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Between the Prophets and the Apocolypse

Somewhere between a prophetic vision and an apocalypse, there is Advent. The beauty and wonder of the season often gets lost in the shopping and parties and full schedules. I remember my first few years as a pastor, Advent was full to bursting with additional responsibilities with little time for rest and appreciation of what the season meant. In fact, I was not a fan of Advent. I felt as if I just had more things to accomplish, more tasks on my to-do list, than I had time for. I missed the power of the season. It’s likely that the congregations I pastored in those days may have also missed it, so busy were with extra services and activities. Visions of what could be and apocalyptic warnings seemed far from the hectic rush that filled the weeks before Christmas.

Now I hear Isaiah’s words and long to discover God’s holy mountain where all learn holy ways. I imagine what it might be like to embark on highways where all are welcome, and all live in the light of God. Humanity has spent its entire history learning the ways of war, that the thought of turning our weapons of death into instruments of life seems little more than a fantasy. Yet, this was God’s promise to the people of Israel so long ago. This promise of peace was never revoked. The invitation to journey to God’s holy mountain, travel on holy highways, and carry the light of God still stands for any who want to seek it.

Of course, this journey to God’s mountain would require that we stop complaining about the way things are and endeavor to change some of what is broken. It would mean that we can’t just sit and lament the romanticized past; we would have to set about creating a present that is more hopeful, more life-affirming than what is. We couldn’t just point fingers at those we disagree with and claim that we are different. We would have to actually be different. What do I need to set down to make it possible to find me feet traveling God’s holy ways? What do you need to let go of in order to carry God’s light into the world?

These are the questions I find myself pondering on the brink of this Advent season. No one can argue that world needs hope. What can we, who call ourselves Christians, do to embody hope for the people we encounter? What kind of light can we bring to alleviate the despair that settles in all around us, sometimes in us as well? Maybe we can focus on giving what is needed to someone who expects nothing, not just during this season but also into the new year. Maybe we continue to advocate for justice, even when it seems nothing changes or that our small voices go unheard. Maybe we stop responding to hate and fear with anger and rejection. What would it look like to respond to the vitriol of politicians with love? I suspect we would be closer to God’s mountain and further from the ways of war.

The apocalyptic warnings throughout scripture are not news. Humanity has always been on the edge of destruction. Every time we develop a new weapon or make the lethality of war more distant, we run the risk of forgetting that our enemies are human beings who also bear the image of God. We also forget that the resources of the earth have limits and there are things we ought not to be doing if we want the earth to survive for future generations. Greedy impulses don’t need to dictate the fuels we use or keep us believing that everything is disposable/replaceable. If we repent of our limited sight and foolish willingness to believe those in power, the end of the world need not come. There is a better way.

The prophets told of holy ways long, long ago. Jesus embodied those ways and invited us to do the same. God promised peace and new life to all those who journeyed to God’s holy mountain. The promise remains. This is the Hope of the Advent season. God invites us once again to embark on a sacred journey. At the end of the journey we may kneel before a Child in a manger, and we will have learned something about being the Body of Christ along the way.

Let’s set down all that no longer serves as we seek God’s holy ways. In setting down those things we will make room to be Hope in the world, traveling in the light of God.

Looking for more sermon help? Try here.

RCL – Year A – First Sunday of Advent – December 1, 2019
Isaiah 2:1-5
Psalm 122
Romans 13:11-14
Matthew 24:36-44

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A Poem for the Year’s End

Jesus Replied 
(Luke 23:43)

Year
ends. God
reigns whether
we notice or
not. Promises made
long ago remain true -
all are loved, all are valued,
no one excluded. Advent draws
near, calling us to pause and listen,
watch, prepare, and begin again. The days
are surely coming when all feet everywhere
will travel in the way of peace. Fear-filled living
belongs to the days of old. Hope, love, mercy, grace,
and forgiveness belong to God’s people, now
and through all time. While speaking words of faith
we forget God always remembers
the ancient covenant of love
without end. When words become
deeds, wars will cease. God is
our refuge and strength.
May our lives show
God’s glory
and our
thanks.

RCL – Year C – Reign of Christ Sunday – November 24, 2019

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

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Holy Mountain Climbing

In my younger days I enjoyed mountain climbing. For a few years on every Monday holiday a group of us would get together and climb a mountain in New Hampshire. I was always the last one up the trail, and these were relatively easy trails requiring no special equipment. It didn’t matter how much I was in shape, I lost my breath quickly and tired easily. On the other hand, I always made it to the top. The views were always, always worth the effort. The beauty of Creation in full panoramic view that only God could design. Those mountain climbing days were good days.

Today I often find myself climbing more metaphoric mountains that are no less tiring. The vision God gave to Isaiah of a holy mountain filled with peace and justice rises in my imagination. It rises higher every time someone grasps their own privilege and sees the ways in which white supremacy are woven through society. Wolves get closer to lambs whenever someone begins to understand the need for gender inclusive pronouns, bathrooms, communities, and more. Those moments of awakening and justice-seeking that widen the doors of our churches make it more likely that the lion and the ox will share a feeding trough. Every act of loving kindness heightens God’s holy mountain, and increases the possibility that we might begin to climb it.

Last week I participated in the ordination of women who has physical disabilities and is open about her mental health challenges. This week the congregation where I am a pastor will celebrate gender diversity in worship. If you had told me thirty years ago that this would be happening in the denomination I serve, I would not have believed nor had I the courage to imagine. Not then. Yet now, is another story altogether.

Some days the changes are easy and the possibilities for a vital future seem endless. Other days, all this change leaves me breathless. I sometimes find myself lamenting the church as I experienced it in days gone by. I miss the formality of worship, the familiar, predictable structure of what will happen on Sunday mornings. Somedays I even miss the larger numbers of people who gathered together. But reality often knocks me right out of my nostalgic recollections into gratitude.

I am grateful that the days of universally practiced exclusion are over. Women can be ordained in at least the Mainline traditions, as can LGBTQ+ folx. Conversations and practices are forming around intentional inclusion of people who have physical disabilities and, also, those who have mental health challenges. This church with its gender inclusive restrooms and wheelchair access is worth giving up a few things that cause occasional laments. A church that literally means what its “All are Welcome” sign suggests is a church that is much closer to living on God’s holy mountain.

If we keep climbing this path of inclusion and welcome that God set before us long ago, we will have moments of exhaustion and breathlessness. Some of us will fall behind the group just as some of us will lead. The important thing is that we keep moving; the view from the top of this particular mountain promises to be spectacular beyond our imagining. Let’s keep envisioning church as the place where love, kindness, and peace are found. Let’s keep working for the day when hatred, war, and violence are a thing of the past. Won’t it be great when we all live on God’s holy mountain and all eat together and rest together without fear…

RCL – Year C – Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost – November 17, 2019
Isaiah 65:17-25 with Isaiah 12 or
Malachi 4:1-2a with Psalm 98
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
Luke 21:5-19

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Desert Remembrances

I’m an ocean girl. It’s not a secret. Time at the beach renews my spirt like nothing else. Imagine my surprise when I heard the song of the desert and an answering melody sprung up within my spirit. It took me totally by surprise. I’ve been to the Sonoran Desert before and been struck by its beauty. This time, though, I was startled to discover that the stark desert beauty offered renewal.

On Monday afternoon I walked through some of the easy trails at Saguaro National Park. I walked slowly because it was hot and I didn’t have good hiking boots with me, and because I was not wanting to surprise any rattle snakes enjoying the warm sun. I encountered a few people on the trails, but I was mostly alone. I marveled at the petroglyphs etched into stone that weather had not yet erased. I listened to the birdsong and watched small rodents going about their business. The desert that I had always assumed was mostly dormant, if not dead, was full of life. It has a story to tell, a song to sing.

Those couple of hours in the hot Arizona sun gave me an opportunity to breathe a little more deeply and to be still enough to listen. The variety of plant and animal life, the nearly alien landscape, the hum of insects all conspired to point toward a holy presence. In those hours it didn’t matter that I was tired. It didn’t matter that the church, on average, is reluctant to engage in conversations about mental health. It didn’t matter that the on-going world politics are disheartening and overwhelming. For a little while, I was sure that God’s abiding presence is more than enough to carry us through into a more hope-filled future.

Now as I have re-entered the cold of Minnesota, the demands of daily life, and the heaviness of the news, it’s a challenge to hold on to the glimpse of hope and peace I experienced in the desert. It’s too easy to forget that Spirit of God abides with us when night comes early, calendars are full, and the news is filled with violence and death. Yet, I heard a promise in the desert, the echoes of ancient words. The words God always offers to God’s people, no matter how far we have strayed:  Fear not. I am with you always. You are mine. I abide with you and you with me. I do not leave my people alone, ever. Someday, all will know they are loved and valued. Keep working. Hold onto hope. Take courage.

I would not have guessed that the desert could sing to me the way the ocean does. I should have, though. I’ve heard whispers of this song in the woods and mountains, in the rivers and lakes, and in the prairies and fields. Why not the desert, too. Now I wonder how to share these words of hope and promise. What would it take to wake up more people? We cannot give up. No matter how hopeless a situation seems, God is in our midst. If God is present, then there is a way through. What do we need in order to trust that the Spirit of God lives in us and through us and around us?

Amidst a forest of saguaro cacti I was reminded of God’s immediate presence. Some of those saguaro have stood for centuries, bearing witness to the wonders and secrets of creation. Many of them will remain long after my life ends. My life might be the blink of a holy eye, but it matters how I live it. Courage. Hope. Love. Does my life, does your life, reflect these things? If we fail to notice the beauty of Creation, then we fail to notice the wonders of the Creator. If we fail to nurture and care for the Earth, we fail to nurture and care for God. If we fail to live in loving relationship with ourselves and our neighbors, we fail to live in loving relationship with God.

Amidst a forest of saguaro cacti I was reminded of God’s immediate presence. Some of those saguaro have stood for centuries, bearing witness to the wonders and secrets of creation. Many of them will remain long after my life ends. My life might be the blink of a holy eye, but it matters how I live it. Courage. Hope. Love. Does my life, does your life, reflect these things? If we fail to notice the beauty of Creation, then we fail to notice the wonders of the Creator. If we fail to nurture and care for the Earth, we fail to nurture and care for God. If we fail to live in loving relationship with ourselves and our neighbors, we fail to live in loving relationship with God.

None of us can ignore the call to engage in acts of loving kindness. All the violence that breeds hopelessness in the world like a deadly plague, none of it comes from God. God’s call to each of us is one that is filled with hope, love, and courage. Are we willing to do the hard work necessary to remember that Spirit of God lives in and among us, to literally re-member (re-connect) with the vulnerable among us?

RCL – Year C – Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost – November 10, 2019
Haggai 1:15b-2:9 with Psalm 145:1-5, 17-21 or Psalm 98 or
Job 19:23-27a with Psalm 17:1-9
2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
Luke 20:27-38

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Sycamore Lessons

Have you ever climbed up, out on the proverbial limb, in the name of seeing Jesus more clearly? I’ve done it more times than I would like to admit. The trick is to climb down when Jesus calls you out of your foolishness. How else will we be able to dine with Jesus? Unfortunately, too many of us mistake our awkward position in our figurative trees for keeping company with Jesus. We can learn a lot from Zacchaeus if we care to pay attention.

Luke tells us that Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector and wealthy. He was also “short in stature.” One might wonder why Zacchaeus became a tax collector. No Jewish man would have thought this was an excellent profession. The Romans would have treated a tax collector poorly and the Jewish folks would have avoided one who so boldly sinned. Of course, Zacchaeus had gotten rich as a tax collector so maybe he didn’t care so much about what others thought. My guess is that he wasn’t wealthy when he started working for Rome. Perhaps he became a tax collector because he was already an outcast. Perhaps Zacchaeus was a little person and thereby excluded from society. Whatever it was, Zacchaeus couldn’t have been overly comfortable with his position in the world. After all, something drove him up that sycamore, and just catching a glimpse of Jesus couldn’t have been the only reason to make a fool of himself.

Zacchaeus probably wanted to know why the whole town was talking about Jesus. Maybe he craved the inclusion that folks were attributing to Jesus. News of all those that Jesus healed had probably reached Zacchaeus’ ears. To be seen and named and healed by Jesus would be something for a twice over outcast. Seeing Jesus in action, trying to verify if any of what had been said was true, might have been motivation enough to send a wealthy man up a tree.

As the story goes, though, his climb out a limb was useless. While Zacchaeus was ridiculously clinging to the sycamore, swaying in the breeze over the heads of the crowds, Jesus stood at the foot of the tree. Imagine how shocking that must have been for Zacchaeus, and even more surprising for those who assumed they were righteous. Why would Jesus choose to spend time with a sinner like Zacchaeus, much less break bread with him? Why not choose one of them, those who followed the law, had no visible disabilities, and were active community members? Why this silly, sinning, tax collector who had to climb a tree just to see what was going on?

The jealousy and the need to be righteous has many of us up a tree looking, perhaps more foolish than Zacchaeus. Every time we cling to biblical literalism, unexamined (possibly archaic) theology, or self-righteousness we climb a little higher. When we fail to see our neighbors as the Christ who calls us to come and eat and be ourselves in relationship, in community, we become far worse than Zacchaeus. He, at least, climbed down and took Jesus home to dinner. Then he did his best to correct the wrongs he had done. Zacchaeus found new life in Jesus’ company. When we refuse to hear Jesus calling us out of our familiar branches, we become more foolish and possibly more sinful than Zacchaeus ever was.

As I write this, I am sitting in an airport on my way to the United Church of Christ Mental Health Network’s WISE Conference. This is an educational event to help congregations become Welcoming, Inclusive, Supportive, and Engaging of persons with mental health challenges. I can’t help but hear a challenge in this passage to churches of all kinds to climb down from our lofty limbs and dine with Jesus. The church has done enough harm to persons with mental illness and their loved ones over the years. It is time we change. Even the more progressive congregations who don’t necessarily believe that mental illness is punishment for sin, lack of willpower, character defect, or lack of faith, need to be active in proclaiming welcome and changing the narrative of sinfulness and rejection.

None of us will ever get a closer look at Jesus by clinging to the past and the nostalgic comfort it may bring. The firmer our grip on the past, the more precarious our position. If Zacchaeus didn’t catch a glimpse of Jesus from his sycamore perch, why do we persist with such foolishness? Jesus called Zacchaeus down from the branches and elevated him in the eyes of God, and perhaps his neighbors. Imagine how high we could rise if we actually started to treat the vulnerable among us with Christ’s love and compassion.

It’s not too late for any of us. We can admit our foolishness and our mistaken attempts at righteousness. We can stop blaming people for their mental illness or other disabilities. We can educate ourselves and let go of outdated theology. If we do so, we might discover that our feet are firmly planted on the ground and Jesus is in our midst.

RCL – Year C – Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost – November 3, 2019
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

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Something about Bees, Glass, and Humility

Once again I find myself thinking about Peggy Way’s “fact of glass.” She uses this line, borrowed from a poem, to describe human reluctance to accept fragility and finitude. The poem, “Up Against It” by Eamon Grennon, describes the difficulties bees have sorting out this fact of glass. We humans have the same struggle with our mortality. These days, I find myself keeping company with grief, fragility, and glimpses of finitude. It hurts when I bump against this fact of glass, those none too gentle reminders that my days are no more endless than anyone else’s. This knowledge sits right next to grief, waiting for me to notice and respond.

Yet, I notice other things, too. Last night as I was driving home, there was a rainbow tinted so pink with the sunset that I almost missed it. On my drive in this morning, an eagle hunted for fish over the Mississippi. On a lunchtime walk with my dog, I could almost hear the spinning of the autumn leaves as they fell to the ground. Miraculous beauty surrounds me. How often have I not seen the beauty of creation because I’ve been distracted with my own fragility, or that of another? How often have I thought my own concerns were more urgent than the need to see God’s creative hand still at work in the world? How often have I run headlong into the glass only to look up and see God’s grace? It would have been easier, if I’d looked up first.

Perhaps this was part of the trouble with the Pharisee Jesus spoke of in Luke’s Gospel. Maybe he wasn’t so smugly righteous as it would seem. Maybe his attention was on the wrong things. He wanted to be sure he was doing all the right things to please God and, in his perfectionism, maybe just forgot to look up. He could look around and see there were others around him engaging in unseemly behavior and he could feel more secure in his law-abiding life. Yet, he could do nothing to slow the years weighing on his body, or to make peace with an uncertain future. Perhaps he thought that doing all the right things could keep him safe. Perhaps this was his way of engaging with the fact of glass. If he had had a little more humility, he might have recognized the same struggle in the tax collector hiding in the corner.

Maybe that Pharisee hadn’t come up against the fact of glass often enough to see the need for humility. The tax collector probably had. After all, the tax collector was seen as a sinner by the religious elite, and wasn’t particularly welcomed by anyone else. A Jew would probably not have entered into the employ of Rome if he had another viable option for making money. Whatever the hardships, the challenges, the tax collector faced, he recognized his place in the world and his need for mercy. Did he also recognize that he was as worthy of that mercy as the Pharisee was?

Humility helps us keep things in balance. It does not let our fears or our victories fool us into thinking we are unworthy of God or more worthy than others. Humility allows us to bump against the glass and reach out a hand to others, to steady ourselves and our neighbors. Humility allows us to look up and to look around, see God at work in the world and in the lives of those around us. Humility reminds us that we are truly “fearfully and wonderfully made” and in acute need of grace, always. Humility says that no matter what we achieve or what we fail, from God’s perspective our lives have the same value as the person sitting next to us on the bus, on the train, in the theater, in church, and anywhere else we might go.

As I sit with grief, contemplate my need for a pacemaker, accompany those who suffer in body, mind, and spirit, and marvel at the beauty of creation, a renewed sense of humility allows me to breathe. There is no point in asking “why me?” for any of it. The reason why is less important than the meaning I make of it all. I am not alone. None of us are. For the moment, I am thankful that as I’ve come up against the fact of glass once again it knocked some sense into me. I have looked up. I have looked around. Beauty and awe and majesty are on full display. And I’m lucky enough to have a part in it. Yes, we are all fragile and finite. It is also true that this fact of glass isn’t all there is to living. May we all be humble enough to recognize, if even for a moment, our places in the wonder of Creation…

For sermon help, or at least other thoughts on the text, try here.

RCL – Year C – Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost – October 27, 2019
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

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