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Unfortunate Truths

image of a boy and a girl holding hands on the edge of the ocean at sunset with a map of the earth superimposed over the sky

In the season of Epiphany it is appropriate to be seeking revelations of God’s presence and God’s engagement with the world. Sometimes it is much more clear where God’s work is not being done. I’ve seen a lot of this in recent days. Then I hear the unthinkable – people who engage in terrorist activities claiming to be Christian, or labeled “Christian” by others. In the United States it is time for us to be honest with ourselves and stop pretending hatred and violence are acceptable feelings and actions for those who claim to follow Christ.

In John’s account of the call of Nathanael, Nathanael does not believe anything good can come out of Nazareth in spite of Philip’s pronouncement about finding the Messiah. Philip’s response to Nathanael was a very clear, “Come and see.” Not only could goodness come out of Nazareth, only goodness can come out of the Messiah. If something is not good and loving, it does not come from Christ. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t pain or challenge because change often involves both these things. However, if something is centered in Christ, the outcome is goodness or love. Period. Without question.

This is bad news for those who claim the name “Christian” and then espouse hatred or storm the Capitol. Jesus’ commandment to love was very clear. Living a life based in fear, anger, and hatred is the exact opposite. What might change if we all stop tolerating hatred, especially in those who claim to follow Christ?

Jesus’ entire ministry was about empowering the oppressed, taking religious control out of the hands of those appointed by Rome, healing and re-membering those who were pushed to the margins. Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire in 310 and the downfall began. Then Charlemagne came along a few centuries later and established the Holy Roman Empire and sealed the fate of the church. We have been in service to the Empire ever since. The events of last week and the on-going pandemic show how true this is.

When Christians support a president who has no ethics, openly mocks people with disabilities, denigrates women, supports white supremacy, removes laws protecting LGBTQ+ people, and more, they reveal allegiance not to the God of Love but to the Empire, the oppressors. When people worship power and position over liberation and care for the vulnerable, ugly things happen. There is no goodness or Love here. Christ is not on the side of those with power.

The unfortunate truth is that you cannot be a follower of Christ and be a white supremacist; Jesus was a brown-skinned man. You cannot hate those who have different religious practices; Jesus said love your neighbor. You cannot fear those from other countries – immigrants, refugees, or asylum seekers; Jesus told us to welcome the stranger. You cannot support the mistreatment of anyone who is not white, male, heterosexual, able-bodied, and wealthy; Jesus clearly told his followers to Love as he Loves. How have we gotten to a place where the public face of Christianity is so often one of hatred and violence?

No more. Let us make 2021 the year we follow Christ, the one who taught Love, a Love that when fully embrace, fully embodied, casts out all fear. We do not have to accept racism, white supremacy, hatred, and violence as normative. We do not have to remain in service to the Empire. We have more than enough Love, more than enough resources, more than enough goodness, to ensure that all human beings are treated with dignity and respect. We can love our neighbors as ourselves and not lose anything except our fears.

Can anything good come out of Christians in the United States? Come and see. God is doing a new thing. Perhaps we can all join in and leave the ways of fear and division behind us. Whose in?

RCL: Year B – Second Sunday after Epiphany – January 17, 2021 1 Samuel 3:1-10, (11-20)  • Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18  • 1 Corinthians 6:12-20  • John 1:43-51

Photo: CC0image by Gerd Altmann

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Musings

Bonus Post: Discernment

This is a break from all things political as well as the RCL for this week. Instead I am offering this video on discernment.

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Follow the Magi

Image of a stylized silhouette of people and camels on a horizon lit by stars and sunrise

2020 has come to an end, and most of us are grateful. The problem with this is that we expect 2021 to be different right now, at the year’s beginning. We want to blame 2020 for all the challenges, suffering, and sorrow it has left in its wake as if 2020 were an entity in and of itself, a hateful one at that. The problem is, of course, that the date or time in the history of the cosmos is not a causal factor in events. In fact, the pandemic started in 2019, hence COVID-19. The inherent racism and white supremacy that lead to the murder of George Floyd and others predates 2020. The deaths of celebrities such as Sean Connery, Chadwick Boseman, Kelly Preston and Eddie Van Halen (to name a few), didn’t happen because it was the year 2020. Yes, it has been a difficult year on a global scale, one of the hardest in modern history. However, the year ending doesn’t necessarily mean an immediate improvement of circumstances.

The grief we carry will not dissipate when the ball drops at midnight and the year changes to 2021. The vaccines that are being distributed now won’t mean that we can be out and about in the world for several months to come. Racism and white supremacy won’t magically end because we turn to a new page on the calendar. The challenges that began in 2019 and intensified through 2020 will continue in 2021. Our job is to figure out how to hold onto hope, how to heal, how to endure the heaviness of grief and loss, how to help our neighbors who may not be fairing as well as we are in this pandemic… there is no shortage of work to be done.

I think of the magi on their way to Bethlehem and how hard that journey must have been. Some speculate that their travels took more than two years. What kept them going on that long and arduous path that finally got the to the Christ-child? What hopes kept their feet trudging on day after day? And, after encountering Christ, how did they find the strength to return home by yet another road? There are lessons from these magi that might help us embrace the year ahead.

First, the magi packed for the journey and included gifts for the Child they were going to visit. We can do this. We can closely examine our lives for the gifts we can bring on the journey into 2021. Yes, it’s right to name survival as a gift. And then look around for others. Perhaps we have reconnected with family or friends and strengthened relationships. Perhaps we’ve re-evaluated how we spend our time. Maybe we’ve been more intentional about sharing our resources. Maybe we’ve gotten involved in advocating for justice? Whatever gifts you’ve uncovered or rediscovered in 2020, pack them for the journey into 2021; they will be needed.

Next, the magi were committed to the journey, not knowing what they would encounter. This seems like a good idea as we stand on the brink of a New Year. We are hopeful that 2021 will mean an end to pandemic conditions. At the same time, we have no idea if this will happen. Many of us are hopeful that a new Administration in the White House will bring positive changes and address the injustices magnified by the current Administration. We don’t know if this will happen, either. The journey ahead may be just as challenging as the path that brought us here. Or it may be full of blessings and joys and easier days. Either way, we must commit to the journey and to all who travel with us that we are in it no matter what unfolds.

This brings me to another point: the magi did not travel alone, and neither should we. We know that there will be more losses, more stress, more sadness in the days to come. Most of us are at or have exceeded the amount of stress we can handle on our own. We need to share the journey with those who are traveling a similar road, and we need to make sure we are able to help those who stumble along the way. Exhaustion and grief and injustice make the journey especially hard. We will do better if we share our resources and help one another along the way.

We also do not make this journey for no purpose. The magi went to Bethlehem to honor the new born King. We, as Christians, live our lives to honor God in much the same way. In spite of all the awfulness that 2020 leaves in its wake, there have been moments of beauty, wonder, and awe as well. Babies have been born. Discoveries have been made. Generosity has been witnessed. God is present in this world, waiting for us to notice, and respond accordingly. The magi offered their gifts to the Baby. We can offer our gifts to those who travel with us and, similarly, honor God.

No, the year ahead won’t magically be better than the year that is ending. However, if we share the journey, share the burdens and the joys, we will make it through together. Let’s continue to share the tears of grief and loss. Let’s also continue to share the moments of beauty, wonder, and joy just as readily. The only way we will honor God on this journey is to honor ourselves and those trudging through the challenges every day. We’ve got this. Together. Happy New Year.

RCL – Year B – Epiphany (observed), January 3, 2021

Photo: CC0image by Anthony

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Lessons from Mary

Image a depiction of ancient Bethlehem with crowds of people at the birth of Jesus.

Being God’s favored one is no easy task. For Mary it meant risking everything – her family, her relationship, her life. When she agreed to Gabriel’s proposal to bring the child of the Most High into the world, she made a choice that meant her life would be changed forever. She would never be just a girl from Nazareth again. She would not lead a quiet, ordinary life. The moment God turned God’s attention to Mary, her life ceased to be her own. Personally, I don’t think she could have known what the implications were when she agreed. No teenager could have known that she was giving up her life as she imagined it to do as God asked.

Before I continue, let me clarify a thing or two about my understanding of the “virgin birth.” I do not believe these accounts of the birth of Jesus are literal facts. I believe they are true stories, stories packed with Truth about what it means to be human in relationship to the Holy. There are no history lessons here. However, there are lessons about who we are as human beings and what living in relationship with God might mean for us. And, honestly, I don’t think it matters whether we say these stories of factual or truthful as long as we look for their deeper meaning. For example, Mary’s story isn’t just about her; it’s about all of us who call ourselves followers of Jesus, Christians.

Mary agreeing to bring Jesus into the world is a model for us. The truth is God’s favor is with all of us. It’s just that so few people embrace it fully. When we accept God’s favor, then we agree to bring Divine Love into the world. And doing this is often as risky for us as it was for Mary. No, most of us are not likely to be threatened with death, though that happens in many places in the world even now. On the other hand, seeking to bring God into the world could end a few relationships, including those with family members.

You see, following Mary’s example means giving up our own dreams for our lives and embracing God’s dreams for us. Once we say, “Let it be with me…” then our lives are no longer our own (if they ever were). Quiet, anonymity is no longer guaranteed. If we accept Gabriel’s proposal to bring Christ into the world, then we can no longer sit on the proverbial sidelines. There’s work to be done and it is likely to be highly uncomfortable.

Think of it. Mary traveled to Bethlehem when she was nine months pregnant. She walked or she rode a donkey for many, many miles. And she camped out. Now, I’ve never been pregnant, but I really can’t imagine that this would be a super comfortable adventure. Then when Mary arrived in Bethlehem, there was no inn for her. She gave birth in a stable, and that was not pretty. Mary’s circumstances indicate that bringing God into the world is not for the faint of heart. It takes strength, courage, perseverance, and commitment that can only come from trusting God.

The work of bringing Divine Love into the world is messy today, too. It could mean long days of protesting injustice. It could mean repeatedly speaking out against the Death Penalty so much that it feels like no one listens. It could mean advocating for the most vulnerable among us and making ourselves vulnerable at the same time. Whatever shape it takes in our individual lives, bringing God into the world will make us and, often enough, those around us very uncomfortable. This is guaranteed because we know that God’s ways are not our ways. The ways of Love lead us to change, and there are many who do not want the change that Love requires.

We are nearing the end of our Advent journey this year. It’s a year of struggle for sure. Following that ancient star to Bethlehem has its unique challenges in pandemic and this cannot be understated. However, if we think of Mary and the journey she made, what she risked to bring Christ into the world, maybe we can begin to see hope for us here and now. In the midst of the sorrow and the grief, there are echoes of the ancient, overcrowded city of Bethlehem. As we wait for a vaccine to be distributed, perhaps there are parallels to Mary’s long journey. Somehow, when we learn that the current Administration has the highest rate of capital punishment, the noise and smell of that stable come to mind. If Mary could bring Christ into the world under those conditions, surely we can do the same under pandemic conditions.

There is still hope, peace, joy and love to be had in the world, especially if we embrace God’s favor and strive to embody these things. Bethlehem is always closer than we think. God’s favor is always with us. We are God-bearers, hope-bringers, peace-makers, joy-sharers, and love-embodiers. We are the church and we trust that God is with us in the chaos, the messiness, the wonder, the awe, the pain, the suffering, the love, the healing… God is with us in the midst of life, even life in pandemic.

May you arrive at Bethlehem filled with the hope, peace, joy, and love of God shining in, through, and around you.

RCL: Year B Fourth Sunday of Advent December 20, 2020 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26
Romans 16:25–27
Luke 1:26–38

Photo: CC0image by Gerhard G.

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Joy, Always Joy

Image of a gnome (or a Tompte) with a red hat cross country skiing

Here we are at the third Sunday of Advent. Traditionally, this is the Sunday of Joy. On this day we shift from penitential waiting to joyful anticipation. The tone of Advent shifts from somber to joyful. We know that God is drawing near. We celebrate the Christ who was, who is, and who shall be. We may not spend much time contemplating the Second Coming. However, we might envision a world in which people more fully embraced life in Christ. This would be a world filled with joy for sure.

In the meantime, though, in the midst of pandemic, where is joy? How do we rejoice in the Lord always when we are surrounded by sickness, grief, and isolation? Is it possible to be joyful in this particular Advent season? I believe it is. It is possible because joy is deeper, more steady, than happiness. Our happiness is in question, and should be given the state of the world. However, our joy need not be absent.

I think of joy as being rooted in the very center of our beings. It grows from those times and places in which we are aware of the human spirit and the Holy Spirit touching, even in a fleeting way. Joy comes from knowing that God is present, that we are God’s beloved, no matter what is happening on our lives or in the wider world. We would do well to take time to be still and find that place within us and anchor there. The ways to find this place within are as varied as humans are. Find your way. Perhaps it is prayer or meditation… or maybe hiking through the woods, the prairie, the desert… or maybe in the flow of a river, the sounds of the ocean… through music or art… through worship or scripture… find your way to remembering and knowing God’s presence and God’s love for you particularly. And then the work begins. Or, maybe, begin the work and let the joy follow.

Either way, Isaiah gives some clear instructions on how to live out and share the joy of life in the Spirit:

  • bring good news to the oppressed
  • bind up the brokenhearted
  • proclaim liberty to the captives
  • bring release to the prisoners
  • comfort all who mourn

These kinds of activities will allow others to join in God’s love of justice and continue the spread of joy by:           

  • building up the ancient ruins
  • raising up the former devastations
  • repairing the ruined cities

I don’t think the prophet was speaking in metaphors. I believe he was telling us how to live as God’s people, instructing us on how to prepare the way for God and save lives. If we were to update this language perhaps we would say that in order to prepare the way of the Lord or embody Christ in the world today, we can:

  • call out oppression in all its forms and create systems built on equality rather than racism, misogyny, transphobia, ablism, homophobia, xenophobia, etc
  • care for the vulnerable among us by providing food, clothing, shelter, mental health care, healthcare, etc.
  • free people from ICE detention centers and cages at the border
  • eliminate for profit prisons and free POC imprisoned by racists systems
  • support those who are mourning, especially in these pandemic times

If we are able to do this work, joy would truly blossom in the lives of many people. Trusting that loving-kindness is the way God desires us to live, creates hope and makes room for joy even in the midst of pandemic. The ancient ruins we are meant to be building up are, perhaps, the ruins of the way in which God desires us to live in peace with all our neighbors. The former devastations are, perhaps, all that has been destroyed by racism and other fear based or power based systems. What would the world look like if all who claim to follow Christ sought to repair the breach between what is and what God desires for us?

Joy is not the simple pleasure in having something good or doing something good. Joy is deeper. It comes from being in relationship with God and being in community with God’s people. Joy can sustain us when all else seems lost. Joy grows when we follow God’s commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves. We need joy now in this 2020 Advent season. If you have joy, please share it. If you do not have joy, hold on. This candle we light symbolizes the Light that no hardship, no despair, can truly extinguish and we light it for you until you can experience it for yourself.

Rejoice in the Lord always and let us pray without ceasing as we prepare and embody the way of the Lord.

RCL: Year B Third Sunday of Advent December 13, 2020 Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Psalm 126 or Luke 1:46b-55
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28

Photo: CC0image by Susanne Jutzeler, suju-foto

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Stop the Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth

Image of a night scene with a street light shining on a path in the woods with an open wooden gate

With all that is going on in the world right now, no one needs to hear about “outer darkness” or “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Not only would this be unhelpful, it would likely be unhealthy as well. Yes, the Gospel of Matthew has an intensity, an urgency, that is not present in the other gospels. Yes, the threat of being punished by God is woven throughout the gospel as a means of pushing people to choose their faith in Jesus even if it meant their death. This fear approach to Christianity is one that has been employed for centuries and is still in place today. It is, however, not helpful for today for a few reasons.

Let’s remember that when Matthew was writing his gospel, the only way to understand the way the world worked was that God was in charge of all things. This was the approach throughout biblical times. God was either rewarding God’s people with blessings and prosperity or God was punishing God’s people with sickness and oppression. The world view said that pleasing God would lead to heaven and displeasing God would lead to hell. It was either/or. There was no in between and no other way of explaining global, communal, or individual happenings. If God was pleased then good things were happening. If God was displeased then bad things were happening. There was no other way to understand weather patterns, human behavior, or illness. People acted and God responded. Everything was prescribed; if this…then that. God was in charge.

Of course, there are many people who continue to believe in this prescriptive understanding. However, there is another way of looking at things in the modern context. We know that there is a degree of chaos in the world. We know that human actions have had an impact on the planet in ways that have changed the climate to bring about global warming and in ways that have increased illnesses such as cancer. We know that God does not use weather and sickness and war to communicate with God’s people or to punish them. For example, we know that God did not cause the pandemic we are currently experiencing. I’m sure a scientist could explain just how this pandemic came about and it would not have anything to do with God. This is not to say that God is absent. God is fully present. God is not the causal factor. Pandemic is not a punishment for our sins.

With this understanding, we can look at Matthew’s Gospel and the parables contained from a descriptive point of view rather than prescriptive. Looking at the parable of the talents from this perspective, it would be our actions that land us in place far from God, rather than God putting us there. What follows is my take on the parable from a modern understanding of how God works in the world.

Once there was a business owner who had businesses in three places – in a city, in a suburb, and in a small town. The owner planned a long, international trip to explore establishing businesses in other countries. Before leaving on his trip, the owner called together the three managers. The owner wanted to leave them each funds to expand the business while they were away. To the city manger they gave $1,000,000. To the suburb manger they gave $100,000. To the small town manager they gave $10,000. The owner told the managers that they would be gone for at least a year and expected to find the businesses flourishing when they returned.

When the owner returned, they called together the three managers to find out how the businesses fared. The city manager reported earning an additional $1,000,000 which pleased the owner greatly. The owner promoted the city manager to regional manager. The suburb manager reported earning an additional $100,000 which pleased the owner. The owner promoted the suburb manager to the city manager position. The small town manager gave the owner back the $10,000 saying that they were afraid of making the wrong decisions, losing the money, cutting into the store’s profits, and disappointing the owner. Instead of investing the money, the small town manager just put it in the freezer in the store room so nothing would happen to it. The owner was disappointed and angry. They said, “Your fear made you act foolishly and you are far from what I had hoped for and envisioned. You should have at least put the money in the bank and earned a little interest. I cannot promote you until you are less fearful. You will be an assistant manager until you learn to use what you have been given. The small town manager was sad and angry and felt as though they were treated unfairly.

As you can see, in my version of this parable, the owner is generous and hopeful. The actions of the city manager and the suburb manager lead to their promotions. The actions of the small town manager lead to their demotion. The distance between what the managers do and the owner’s expectations is determined by the actions of the managers, not the owner. This is a descriptive way of looking at how God works in the world, rather than prescriptive. If, like the city manager and the suburb manager, we seek to use our gifts as God desires, we are more likely to experience the benefits found in doing what is pleasing to God. If we choose not to use the gifts we have been given, we are much more likely to feel as if God does not care about us or that God is punishing us.

No parable is perfect; they all break down at some point. There is no guarantee in this life that following God’s ways are going to bring only blessings. There is also no guarantee that those who fail to act in ways pleasing to God will experience only challenges. Using our gifts as God desires for us, to the best of our ability, opens us to God’s presence in the world or draws us nearer to God. Intentionally choosing not to use our gifts as God desires is much more likely to land us in a place like the outer darkness Matthew mentions and the weeping and gnashing of teeth is likely to come from us.

This is the long way of saying that if we choose to follow Jesus and use our gifts in service to God, neighbor, and Creation, then we are more likely to experience God’s presence, even if our endeavors are not successful. Conversely, if we choose not to use our gifts in service to God, neighbor, and Creation, then we are much more likely to experience distance from God, even if our endeavors are successful. Matthew’s parable of the talents is much more helpful read in this descriptive manor than if when it is read in a more prescriptive way.

May we all have the strength and the courage to use our gifts to build up the Body of Christ and draw people in from the “outer darkness.”

RCL: Year A Twenty-fourth Sunday After Pentecost November 15, 2020 Judges 4:1-7 with Psalm 123 or
Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18 with Psalms 90:1-8 (9-11), 12
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Matthew 25:14-30

Photo: CC0image by Merja Partanen

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Light the Lamps

Image of an clay oil lamp burning with others blurred in the background

I am distressed and disappointed at how this election is going. A landslide for Biden and other Democrats would have made a strong statement against white supremacy, militarized police, children in cages, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny and all the other ills of the current administration. How is it that nearly 50% of this country can believe that Trump is good for the United States? We have the highest COVID numbers and they are continuing to rise with no end in sight. We’ve pulled out of the Pairs Accord and pulled back on environmental protections at a time when super storms are normative and polar ice caps are melting. Why do more people not see this man for what he is? And how is it that the hope of overturning Roe v. Wade is more important than the lives of vulnerable people in this moment? Surely, we can do better than this.

If we want to do better in terms of eradicating white supremacy, ending militarized policing and improving the lives of immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers along with LGBTQ+ folx and everyone else who is vulnerable in this country, then we who call ourselves Christians must change. We have options. We can recommit ourselves to God’s ways just as Joshua called the people of Israel to do as they entered into the promised land. We can remember that we are called to love our neighbors as ourselves, including the most vulnerable among us. Now would be a good time to do this, wouldn’t it?

How? Well, we can start by evaluating what it is we are doing. How are we being church? Are Amos’ words true for us? Is God pleased or displeased with our worship, our offerings, our ministries? Justice isn’t exactly rolling down. Nor is righteousness flowing freely. Doing what we have always done before and simply adapting it to be online doesn’t count as real change. We will know we have changed when justice rather than blood flows freely in our streets. Perhaps it’s time we went in search of Wisdom. She’s not easy to find these days. However, when we find her, she will lead us in holy ways; she will guide us in new ways of being church.

If this is all still too intangible, then let us look at Matthew’s story of the wise and foolish bridesmaids. I’ve never liked this story. It always seemed so harsh and unnecessarily judgmental on the five who didn’t have enough oil. However, this parable feels very different to me during this election in the midst of pandemic. There is an urgency woven through it. Urgency and a fair degree of caution.

The five bridesmaids who brought their lamps and extra oil were ready, no matter how long into the evening the groom showed up. They were smart and prepared. The other five brought their lamps and no additional oil. Why? Apparently, they thought the others would share. Right. That would have made sense if these five were poor or couldn’t get to oil seller to buy more. There’s nothing that says they lacked the resources needed in the parable. They simply expected the others to give them some oil for no good reason except that the foolish ones didn’t have enough.

My friends, I suggest to you that progressive white church has acted as the foolish bridesmaids. We have expected others to make the changes we need to make. We have shown up unprepared in this world that is full of hatred and division. We are supposed to keep Love burning, illuminating the path of hope and healing for all those who come seeking. We’ve done little of this. Think about it.

For example, I live in the Twin Cities in Minnesota. It’s a large metro area with all kinds of people. Yet, I have encountered people who do not know that there are churches that ordain women, that welcome LGBTQ+ folx, that advocate for the vulnerable, and work to minimize global warming and climate change. There are people everywhere who have never heard of Mainline denominations. Why is that? We have shown up in 2020 unprepared. I’m not even sure we were out buying oil for our lamps when modernity made its appearance. I think we were sleeping, content with our comfortable pews and practices. We are on the wrong side of the doors and aren’t as well known as we’d like to think.

It’s not too late, though. The parable was one wedding, one groom, one party. The foolish bridesmaids missed it. They were shut out that night. We do not need to remain shut out. We can purchase more oil, trim our lamps, and be sure we shine with Divine Love, hope, and healing. In this light there is no room for fear of any of our neighbors. There is no room for the hatred that divides this country. There is no room for white supremacy.

We have work to do, my friends. This party is waiting for no one. If we want to heal what is broken in our country and in our world, we need to make ourselves known. It’s time to talk religion and politics and stop worrying about who will be offended. How can people make different choices if they don’t know there are different options. Why is progressive Christianity still a secret or still silent in the national picture? We can’t expect others to do the work for us. Check your oil supply and trim your lamps because the time for foolishness is over. The time for work has already begun.

RCL: Year A Twenty-third Sunday After Pentecost November 8, 2020 Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25 with Psalm 78:1-7 or
Wisdom of Solomon 6:12-16 or Amos 5:18-24
Wisdom of Solomon 6:17-20 or Psalm 70
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Matthew 25:1-13

Photo: CC0image by Bhikku Amitha

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Love in the Time of COVID: It’s not what you think

Image of an infant hand holding onto the finger of an adult hand

I wonder what church would be like if we dropped everything except the two greatest commandments. What would worship be like if it was focused on expressing our love for God with all our hearts, souls, and minds? What would kinship and missions be like if we focused all our activities on loving our neighbors as ourselves? This would be a new reformation that I could get behind. If an activity doesn’t focus on love in one way or another, then it probably isn’t necessary to life of the church. Don’t get me wrong, this focus on love, both divine and human, isn’t easy and much of society doesn’t support love as a foundation for all human action.

Jesus doesn’t speak casually of love the way we do today. We love chocolate. We love TV shows. We love our spouses. We love good food. We love time at the beach. We use the word for all the things we enjoy whether it’s simple enjoyment or deep emotional and spiritual connection, the word is the same – love. Jesus had a few alternatives to choose from and I’m convinced he chose his words carefully. He used the word agape. Yes, this is the kind of unconditional, steadfast love that God has for us. Jesus set his expectation of humanity high. He wants us to live into, strive for, this same kind of love. You know, here on earth as it is in heaven. It’s a goal and an invitation to start the journey. It’s only impossible if we rely only on ourselves. In community, it might just be possible to embody Christ in such a way that agape becomes a reality.

I don’t know what your experience has been during this pandemic. Mine has been one marked by privilege for sure. I have been able to stay home, work from home, and have most things I need delivered. I haven’t lost anyone close to me to the virus. On the other hand, I have struggled with feeling powerless when I’ve had to offer pastoral care virtually rather than in person. I’ve had to stay home and offer support when there were protests I would ordinarily have been a part of. I’ve had bouts of irritability no doubt caused by essentially being confined to my house and not being able to go back East to visit the ocean and friends, many of whom comprise my family of choice. This being said, pandemic has given me profound insight into a part of myself I didn’t know existed.

While I have had health concerns most of my life, I never considered myself to be limited by them. No matter how I was feeling, I did what needed to be done. I pushed through pain or fatigue or other symptoms. I always presented myself as fine. Since I have multiple risk factors for COVID-19, I have had to stay home, stay away from people. No more trips to the grocery store. No more working from the office. No more in person gatherings or meetings for any purpose. I have been forced to face my own ableist views. Masking the symptoms of my illness and pretending I am fine all the time, perpetuates the myth that if you look fine then you are fine. This way of denying my physical health needs reveals a less than loving attitude toward myself and toward my neighbors who may also have an invisible or visible disability. I am working toward being more kind and gentle with myself, and being more honest about my physical health. If I can love others who have disabilities, then I can love myself.

My personal revelation has made me more sensitive to the ways in which church has been ableist centered as well. A year ago we said that we couldn’t manage online services because the technology was too expensive or too complicated. Look at us now. Most congregations have figured out how to have online worship, kinship, and educational activities. Some of us even plan to keep online worship as an option when we are able to meet in person again as a way to include those for whom actually getting to worship is a challenge. Making it easier to be part of a worshiping community is the goal here. It is the loving thing to do – love for God and love for neighbor.

Jesus spoke an invitation, a vision for how life could be for those of us who follow him. My example of ableism and how it permeates our society and the church, is just one way in which we have not been faithful followers, not embodying love for all our neighbors. Imagine a world where we each respond to Jesus’ invitation to love without condition, to love fiercely and constantly. This amazing vision Jesus had for humanity where we love God, ourselves, and all of our neighbors with the kind of steadfast love God has for us is still possible. The invitation is still echoing through the generations. We can claim it and begin the journey of building this world in which all people have value because they are God’s beloved. It’s not too late and it begins with us, as church, embodying the love made known to us in Jesus. The vision is beautiful and it won’t become reality if we all don’t get busy living it. And don’t worry about those times when we fail because there is grace enough to cover us all. After all, we’ve been blanketed in God’s grace for more generations than we can remember.

For all the suffering that 2020 has brought, maybe we can make it the year we began to embody agape for real… Then maybe, in a hundred years or so, historians might look back at this time as another Reformation…

RCL: Year A Twenty-first Sunday After Pentecost October 25, 2020 Deuteronomy 34:1-12 with Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17 or
Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18 with Psalm 1 and
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Matthew 22:34-46

Photo: CC0image by Bonnie Kolarik

Categories
Musings Sermon Starter

A Change of Clothing

Image of a hiker overlooking a mountain trail

I’m taking a class on discernment this fall as part of a graduate certificate program in spiritual direction. Up until now I had always considered discernment as the process of making big life decisions and was startled to discover that discernment is best when it is an intentional part of daily life. I say “intentional” because many of us engage in discernment without conscious thought. However, think of the possibilities if we were to all intentionally seek out what God desires for us in every day. I don’t mean in a ritualistic way that can become rote practice. I mean in a way that takes us deep within ourselves to discover the Holy and allows us to draw that holiness out into our daily lives. We would be better equipped to care for our neighbors, ourselves, and the planet.

In the context of discernment, Paul’s words to the church in Philippi make far more sense. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (4:4-7). If we are reaching for the Holy that lies within us every day, then it is easier to connect with the Holy around us. Rejoicing in the Lord always becomes a very real possibility. Then we can pray with gratitude and open the way for peace to flood our lives. It’s not as easy as it is simple, of course. Yet, this speaks to a yearning of my spirit and maybe to yours as well.

These days it is not easy to find peace, and if we find it, it is fleeting. This is likely because we think peace and passivity are linked. However, it is possible to act out of peacefulness. It is possible to be guided by passion and cling to the peace that Paul wrote about. Even in pandemic, it is possible to seek peace in our lives and offer peace to our neighbors. The key is to avoid getting caught up in the fear and chaos that abounds.

Remember the Israelites in their desert wanderings? As soon as Moses was gone from them for a few days they demanded that Aaron make a god they could see and touch. While I don’t think many of us are creating golden calves, we are often lured away to worship gods of our own making. These are the gods that thrive on fear and chaos and gain power in our distress. The path to worshiping these demanding gods is much easier to follow than the path of the God who desires us to be at peace in ourselves and in the world. Is it possible for any of us to sit still long enough to (re)discover the holiness that is our very core? Is it possible for us to pull away from the chaos and fear that so easily grasps our attention and focus on what is good and kind and beneficial to all?

I think so. Jesus certainly believed it was possible. Why tell the parable of the wedding banquet if Jesus didn’t believe that we are capable of seeking what is good? We have been invited to a feast and we often fail to attend. When we are summoned, when we feel the pull of the Spirit, it is best we follow. There is a seat at the table for all. However, we cannot go clothed with our ego and our own desires. We must go with clothed with the peace of Christ, with humility, with love. It is better we ignore the invitation than go without the proper clothing.

Discernment, looking for the pull of the Spirit, seeking the banquet invitation, is a daily activity the deserves more of our attention. We might find ourselves in strange company if we genuinely ask what God would have us do on a daily basis. We might discover that we have a whole new wardrobe to wear as we offer ourselves in service to our neighbors, to God. Isn’t it time we leave behind the ways of idol worship? We need not wander in the wilderness of fear, anxiety, hatred, or violence any longer. There is truly a better way. I intend to seek it out. Will you join me?

RCL – Year A – Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost – October 11, 2020
Exodus 32:1-14 with Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23 or
Isaiah 25:1-9 with Psalm 23
Philippians 4:1-9
Matthew 22:1-14

Photo: CC0image by Dariusz Staniszewski

Categories
Musings Sermon Starter

On Being a Vineyard Worker

Image: squash plants over growing the garden edge with two nearly ripe squashes visible

It’s no secret that I’m not much of a gardener. Last spring, like many others, I planted more than usual.  Or, at least, I tried. None of the herbs I tried to grow from seed succeeded because I started them too late and transferred them outside before they were strong enough. The tomatoes I grew from seed were also started too late and aren’t going to bear any fruit this season. The jalapeno plant gave me one pepper in the early summer and is now covered in blossoms. The zucchini plants gave one zucchini and promptly died. The cucumber has been trying all summer and only know has a one cucumber that might be ready before the first frost. The tomato, basil, thyme, oregano, and lavender plants purchased in late May have done all right. My garden is a mystery, really. I don’t understand why some things grew and others did not and still others are just growing now.

Let me tell you about the squash, though. Butternut squash to be exact. I saved the seeds from a squash we ate in late March when I realized that I wouldn’t be able to go to the store to buy any seeds and most places were already sold out of seeds. I ended up planting six seeds. Four in large containers and two in my small garden. It turns out that the large containers were not large enough and the squash has done little more than produce small leafy vines with a few blossoms all summer. However, the two I planted in what had been a small herb garden just went wild. I’ve never seen anything grow like this squash. It managed to hold it’s own against the mint that has been slowly taking over my entire yard. Not only have these two plants produced amazing vines, they have also produced actual squash. I’ve picked four already and there are many more that will be ready soon. Who would have guessed that these squash would grow so abundantly with virtually no help from me?

Image of fall squash leaves with two young squash visible

I wish working in God’s vineyard was more like growing squash. I wish it was as easy as saving some seeds, planting them, watching them grow, and then harvesting the results. Working in God’s vineyard is more like my failed container garden where only the basil was truly happy. The basil and the one pepper and the late cucumber. This vineyard work is not for the selfish of the faint of heart. Some days the hours are long with no noticeable difference. Some days the labor is heartbreaking and full of grief. Yet, there are the days of joy when seeds take root and begin to grow.

We are meant to be the caretakers, the gardeners. We are meant to be the ones who make way for the mysteries of new life and growth and fruit-bearing. The vineyard is not ours. The results of our labors are not ours. It can be so hard not to claim ownership when one has worked so long and so hard. This vineyard tending is tough because it isn’t really about us at all and whose ego wants to hear that? As soon as we start thinking it’s about us, we put everything in jeopardy.

Some days I’m afraid that I am no better tending God’s vineyard than I am at gardening. What I think will grow doesn’t. What I think will flourish withers in the sun. And then I’m surprised by what blooms later than expected and what bears fruit when it appeared to have no life left in it. Sometimes I over water and other times I don’t water enough and I still haven’t sorted that out after decades of this work. Some days I’m like the worker who promises to show up and never does. Other days I’m like the one who said they weren’t going to be there and then showed up late in the day. And, you know, I’ll confess that I can’t always tell a weed from what’s supposed to be growing.

I’ll also confess that there are days when I wonder if all the labor, the time, the heartache is worth the harvest that will one day be. It can take me a while to remember that it isn’t about me, this work I’ve been called to do. Then I remember that this vineyard is cultivated for the sake of my neighbors, particularly those who have been ignored, dismissed, or devalued. The vineyard is cultivated with justice and love, grace and forgiveness. It’s meant to be a glimpse of the abundance that is to come. I am just a caretaker. I do not have to understand all the mysteries of growth, of failure, of flourishing, of dying, of new seeds sprouting, and of old ones bearing fruit.

I will keep working in this vineyard, trusting that I am not alone and this work will bring more life than I can know. I pray for the strength, courage, and wisdom to keep tending these strong and fragile vines. I pray everyone at work in this vineyard. We are not the first tenders and we will not be the last. The best news, though, is that we are not alone in this sacred, mysterious, awe-filled work we have been called into.

Image of late season cucumber surrounded by green leaves with hints of brown

RCL – Year A – Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20 with
Psalm 19 or
Isaiah 5:1-7 with Psalm 80:7-15
Philippians 3:4b-14
Matthew 21:33-46

Photo: CC-BY-NC image by Rachael Keefe