Questioning Faithfulness

I grew up in a racist household. My mother said she never saw a person of color until she was in her early twenties and moved to Massachusetts from Upstate New York. She believed a lot of nonsense about people of color. She used a lot of racist slang when she talked about people who were not white. She believed the foolishness about immigrants of color taking jobs from white people and receiving government assistance that white people did not qualify for. She was angry and hateful to the point that we were not allowed to eat at any restaurants she associated with people of color. Early on, I knew she was wrong with her thinking, her language, and her behavior. What I didn’t know is how common her perspective was and is.

My mother wasn’t a religious person. She had quite a bit negative to say about the church in all its varied forms. She didn’t see the point in God or trying to follow Jesus teachings. She believed it was every person for themselves and that money could in fact buy happiness. While she grew up in an upper middle class, Irish Catholic family, her adult years were spent a few inches away from the poverty line. As a single mother of two children, there was never quite enough money to pay all the bills. But we had a house and all the necessary things. Yes, the food we usually ate was cheap and the house was always a bit chilly in winter. She resented that she made slightly more than was allowed to receive food stamps or fuel assistance. We did qualify for reduced lunch at school, but that wasn’t enough to curb her racist views. In her mind, her life would have been better if there were no people of color around. It was the way she thought. Religion or God had nothing to do with it.

In fact, she blamed my unwillingness to share her views on my affinity for religion and the bit of French blood that I inherited from my father (which makes no more sense than some of her other beliefs). Honestly, I’m not sure where I learned that my mother was wrong in her racist understanding of the world. I can say that my current understanding of Jesus’ teachings underscores how very wrong my mother was.

Race is a human construct that the Bible is silent on because it was written long before the modern concept of race existed. God’s love for humanity is not limited by human perspective. Just because it is currently fashionable in the U.S. to believe that being a white, nationalist is somehow the definition of “Christian,” does not mean God agrees. Just because white people can justify the systemic racism that permeates U.S. culture, doesn’t mean that we live in a “Christian” country. Every time we fail to recognize that racism fuels poverty, lack of education, poor physical and mental healthcare, housing insecurity, food deserts, and so much more, we fail to recognize the foolishness of our ways. God has not divided humanity by race or economics or wellness or ability or gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, country of origin, or religious traditions. The divisions that lead to hopelessness and violence are entirely human made.

We, my friends, have not been faithful in much. We have let the voices of Empire lull us into complacency, ambivalence, and inaction. While we as individuals may not ascribe to the white supremacy, white nationalism, and rightwing Christianity that serves the Empire, we as congregations, as Christians, have remained (for the most part) frighteningly silent. We want to blame the current Administration for all that ails this country. Make no mistake though, the growing sense of division and hopelessness predates the current situation. The tendency to blame those we perceive as “other” is woven into the very foundations of this country. Nothing will change unless we change it. Nothing will change until we stop accepting the worship of mammon by those who serve the Empire and refocus our worship on the God whose love endures forever. We can choose to remain in service to those whose greedy pursuit of wealth casts all “others” as villians. Or we can choose to server the One who calls us to love our neighbors as ourselves with all that we have and all that we are.

The erroneous belief that wealth and worldly success will cure what ails us needs to come to an end. Our eyes must be open to the racism that fuels division, fear, hatred, and violence throughout all of society. More importantly, if we are to be faithful with what has been entrusted to us, we must care for the most vulnerable among us now. We cannot wait any longer. People are being murdered. People are dying by suicide. People are losing their lives to opiates. People are in desperate need of hope, healing, and being re-membered, reconnected, to the people of God.

If you believe this parable that tells us we need to be faithful in little so that more will be entrusted to us, faithfulness starts with our love of God, neighbor, self, and Creation. The lies of the Empire do not lead to life. The greedy pursuit of wealth creates far more problems than it solves and separates us from the Love that can save lives.

Most of what I learned from my mother about the way the world works has proven to be incorrect. I continue to do all that I can to live in Love and dismantle the ways of hatred and fear. Think of the change we could bring if we all sought to bring the Love of Christ into the world in tangible, lifesaving ways…

RCL – Year C – Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 22, 2019
Jeremiah 8:18-9:1 with Psalm 79:1-9 or
Amos 8:4-7 with Psalm 113
1 Timothy 2:1-7
Luke 16:1-13

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Finding What We Lost

When Jesus told the parables about the lost sheep and the missing coin, he was trying to get his listeners to understand the magnitude of God’s love. No matter how many sheep are in the flock, the lost one is worth looking for. No matter how many precious coins in hand, the missing one is worth searching for. God does not give up on God’s people no matter what we do. If we go astray, God will search us out. This was good news to the original audience and it is good news for today’s audience. In the midst of National Suicide Prevention Week, these parables take on an even greater significance.

The core meaning of these parables does not change. However, they also contain a mandate that the church has generally overlooked. We like to think of ourselves as part of the 99 who remain, secure in our righteousness. While we remain safe within our rules about membership and what a “true” Christian believes, we assume that God will save the lost ones of today. We don’t want to take responsibility for what we have broken. We can be secure in our paddocks constructed by our “thoughts and prayers” while God searches out those who are lost. This way, we can keep our hands clean and pass judgement on those who struggle from the high vantage point of (self)righteousness.

That first audience might not have understood what Jesus was talking about. He was saying new things and talking about being the people of God in radical ways. However, Christians today have had generations of practice and we still aren’t living the way Jesus taught. We are to be the Body of Christ alive in the world today. This means we are to be living out the ways of love that Jesus taught. We are to be seeking the lost with more than just our prayers. People live on the margins and edges of society because we who live in the center have essentially let them go, if not actively pushed them out. We seldom recognize the value of what we have lost.

Life expectancy in the U.S. is declining for the first time since World War I. Climbing suicide rates and opioid-related deaths contribute to this decline in significant ways. I would venture to guess that the rising suicide rates and opioid deaths correlate to the decline in faith community membership. (Remember: Correlation does not imply causation.) The decline in membership suggests that organized religion does not meet the needs of people the way it once did, and religious institutions have not done a great job changing in order to meet those needs. The problem is that the spiritual needs for community, purpose, and identity are not being adequately addressed in the absence of church (or other faith community) membership and participation.

We, as human beings, need to be in community where we are known, valued, and have a sense of purpose. Without these spiritual needs being met, we tend to drift toward complacency, ambivalence, apathy, or, more often than not, a sense of hopelessness. This pervasive sense of hopelessness is at the core of declining life expectancy. In a world filled with violence and destruction, where do we find hope and strength outside of faith? In a country where it is no longer possible for each generation to be more “successful” than the previous one, where do we find purpose and value outside of faith?

Our faith communities are declining because we have failed to learn the lessons Jesus’ taught. We have failed to recognize the innate value, the Christ, in every person. The parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin tell us of God’s active and abiding love for us, a love that will seek us out no matter how lost we are. In our desire to be “perfect” disciples, we have become too attached to our rules and traditions. We have failed to see those we have excluded as worthy of seeking after, other than to, perhaps, save their souls. I think Jesus had something else in mind.

God doesn’t need our help saving souls; God needs our help saving lives. People are literally living on the edge of life, falling over into death every day. Church can no longer afford to remain silent about mental illness, addiction, or suicidality. None of these things are a punishment for sin, lack of willpower, or signs of God’s disapproval; they are all as biological as diabetes or cardiac issues. People with mental health challenges, addictions, or suicidality often remain silent in church, if they attend at all. People with these struggles are lost to us because our theology is out of date. Jesus embodied a Love that had no limits. When will we?

As church it is our job to seek after the lost because we are not whole without those who are not present. Our wholeness as the Body of Christ depends on us including everyone in the love of God. People are dying because they have no hope, because they do not know their value, because they do not know they are beloved. If church does not share God’s unconditional, actively searching love with the most vulnerable among us, then we are not church; we are not the Body of Christ.

Embedded in these ancient parables is a call to love, a call to action. As the Body of Christ we have the power to save lives. Let’s commit ourselves to sharing a message of unconditional love, radical welcome, and steadfast hope. Isn’t it time we do something to prevent further decline in life expectancy and share a God’s vision of a future filled with hope and good things?

RCL – Year C – Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 8, 2019
Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28 with Psalm 14 or
Exodus 32:7-14 with Psalm 51:1-10 and
1 Timothy 1:12-17 and
Luke 15:1-10

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On the Brink

Grief is an unwelcome visitor. She often comes without invitation and settles in heavily, as if she plans on remaining forever. Grief has, once more, come to roost in my life, in my body. It’s a struggle to hold her at a distance just so I can breathe. As I morn the loss of the last of the generation of women who raised me, I am overwhelmed with a sense of responsibility. It isn’t that these women were outstanding or even particularly good role models. They were the ones who mothered me to the best of their abilities. They were the ones I called or thought of when I had something to celebrate or grieve, some big change in my life, or needed the ingredients to a family recipe. Now there is no woman ahead of me in my family. I’m the eldest woman. It’s weird and, as I said, a bit overwhelming.

In the midst of grief for the woman who was my “second mother,” I feel a deep need to do better. I feel compelled to be sure I make better choices. I’ve seen what alcohol, cigarettes, and other addictions can do to a body and relationships. I’ve been the addict and I’ve been the one harmed by being in relationship with an addict. So, too, with the women who went before me. What I want now is to live fully. I want to honor these women who did their best, by taking what I have learned from them and making better choices.

On the brink of the Promised Land, Moses speaks hard truth to God’s people. On the edge of a new thing, God tells that people that the ways of life and death are in front of them. They can choose to follow the commandments of God and have life. Or they can bow down to other gods and lose their lives. God clearly wants them to choose life so that they may be blessed, even in the midst of suffering. Yet, God knows the hearts of people. God knows that it is highly unlikely that the people will choose life generation after generation. There is something within human hearts, human culture, human action that strays from God’s ways, especially when life is pretty good. Somehow, God still holds out hope that one day humanity will choose life from one generation to the next.

God is still hoping that we will choose life in this generation and the next. That’s why these ancient words from Deuteronomy have so much power. If choosing life and passing it on to future generations were easy, the scriptures wouldn’t have mentioned it. What we say matters. What we do matters. How we treat our neighbors matters. How we treat ourselves matters. How we treat our planet matters. We have a responsibility to choose, and to choose life over the gods of our own making. We have a responsibility to choose life first, before the little gods lure us away with flimsy gratifications that will not facilitate life.

This choosing life stuff is hard work. All around us are the false promises of glitz and glamour of the socially acceptable altars built to worship fashionable gods. What might happen if we all start making the challenging choice that supports life, not just for us but for all of humanity? We won’t accept the voices in our government that tell us guns lead to peace, fossil fuels lead to wealth, pricing medications beyond the reach of the economically struggling brings healing, and on down the line. If we commit to choosing life the ridiculousness of keeping kids in cages at a border and incarcerating those who struggle with addictions and mental illness won’t remain hidden. If we commit ourselves fully to following God’s ways – you know the ways that mandate caring for the vulnerable among us and loving our neighbors as ourselves – the generations coming after us might inherit something more substantial than the remnants of the “American Dream.”

Grief is the great equalizer. Grief sharpens our awareness of the fragile beauty of life and links us, at least for a while, with all those who mourn. From this place of deep sadness I experience a call or a yearning to move forward, to honor those who have gone before me with the choices I make. Today, I am recommitting myself to making intentional choices to follow God’s commandments to love fully and freely and work to dismantle injustice in all its insidious forms. My desire is to choose life. What is yours?

RCL – Year C – Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 8, 2019
Jeremiah 18:1-11 with Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18 or
Deuteronomy 30:15-20 with Psalm 1
Philemon 1:1-21
Luke 14:25-33

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No More Worthless Things

Someone left a message on one of my blog posts this week asking me to contact him to “discuss the role of women in church.” Not likely. You want to take the Bible literally when it’s convenient. You want to say that women can’t be clergy, that marriage is “between a man and a woman,” that God uses storms to punish sinners, that prosperity is a sign of God’s blessing, and a few other things. However, you let the call for repentance from the prophets and from Jesus go unheeded. You ignore Jesus’ call to care for the vulnerable. You would rather spend time arguing about what the bible does or does not say than actually trying to embody Christ in service to your neighbor. No, I’m not going to discuss the role of women in church with you.

Of course, our more conservative siblings don’t have the corner of the market on biblical literalism. It’s the default setting here in the U.S. Yet, we are also only literal when it is convenient for us or when we want to reject the God described by biblical writers. It’s easier to engage in discussion about what is or isn’t in the Bible than it is to discern what God may be asking of us. It is easier to say we are “not that kind of a Christian” than it is to proclaim what kind of a Christian we are. It’s easier to cling to our traditions while complaining about the many who no longer seek a faith community than it is to transform church into something that meets the needs of people around us. What might it take for us to leave behind the tedious and petty things that divide us and focus on building the realm of God?

Jeremiah lamented the foolish ways of God’s people. He pointed out how far from God the people had strayed, not for the first time. It seems we human beings have a startling capacity to choose “worthless things” and become rather worthless ourselves. We have a tendency to blame God for the hard times, the times of scarcity and suffering, and credit ourselves with times of abundance, the times of success and happiness. How long will we worship the false gods of our own making rather than seek the God whose steadfast love outlasts our foolishness?

While we keep digging our cracked cisterns, God keeps whispering of Living Waters that quench thirst and nourish parched souls. Today’s gods have more names than Baal and they are not always made of gold, but they are just as false. These gods will lead us to pursue our own personal pleasures or our individual successes. They will keep us divided from our neighbors and enamored with our own sense of power. They will not lead us to wholeness. They will not lead to justice. They will not set anyone free. Yet, they are demanding and will consume us if we don’t leave them behind.

In Luke’s Gospel Jesus tells the parable about the wedding banquet. He saw how people entered a banquet room and took their seats as honored guests. He cautioned them about assuming how important they were compared to other guests. Jesus also had something to say about who should be invited to such a feast. The guest list shouldn’t be confined to those for whom feasting was normative. No. Those we wouldn’t dream of inviting should be called in to sit at the table and eat their fill. (Where’s biblical literalism when it might do some good?)

Isn’t it time we stopped hiding behind our fears and started to live as the people of God in more than just name? If we call ourselves Christians how can we be silent when children are in cages? When the government seeks to take away women’s rights and LGBTQ+ rights? When ICE is given the freedom to pursue everyone whose skin is not white or whose religion is not Christian? When the poor are blamed for being poor? When racism is held up as the national standard? When people in the U.S. (and elsewhere in the world) are dying because they do not have access to food, healthcare, or shelter?

If we are Christians, where is the proof that we are members of the Body of Christ? Where is the repentance? Where is the service? Where is the love of neighbor and self? What will it take for us to love one another as God loves us? If you and I don’t do something to change what is, then who will? We never know when angels might be hanging around.

God is still waiting for us to give up these worthless things that we so value and drink deeply of the Living Water. It’s not too late…

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

RCL – Year C – Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost – September 1, 2019
Jeremiah 2:4-13 with Psalm 81:1, 10-16 or
Sirach 10:12-18 with Psalm 112 and
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16 and 
Luke 14:1, 7-14

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Litany of Confession, Isaiah 58

One: God of all people and places, you have shown us how to live peacefully with all our neighbors.

All: We are to serve you rather than ourselves. The only finger of blame we are to point is at ourselves. We should not speak evil to or about those around us. We are to share our food with those who hunger and take care of the vulnerable among us.

One: You tell us that if we do these things, gracious God, gloom will give way to noonday light and you will guide us in all things.

All: If we share our resources and ensure justice for all our neighbors, then our needs will be satisfied. Our thirst will be quenched and we will be strengthened for the days to come. We will flourish like a well-tended garden. We will know abundance.

One: God of hope and healing, we can lament and cry out to you over all that is lost or broken or covered in despair. Or we can let go of our selfish, fearful ways and seek to build your kingdom here and now.

All: As long as we believe the lies of those in power, we will remain divided and we will live in ruins. Yet, if we live in Love, we will give way to generations of peace. If we dismantle fear, ignorance, and hatred, we will be repairers of the breach. We can restore our streets for all who travel on them.

One: You remind us, steadfast God, that we need to rest and be renewed in body, mind, and spirit. If we neglect our own rest, we neglect you.

All: It is to easy for us to deny our need for sabbath. We focus too much on our calendars and forget that spending time with you makes so much more possible. If we come to you in delight rather than out of duty, you nourish us and prepare us for what is to come.

One: Forgive us, Patient God.

All: Forgive us for believing the deceit of today’s Empire. Forgive us for believing division and isolation and independence satisfy our needs.

One: Remind us once again, Holy One, of your promises and open our lives to your way once more.

All: When we take time to be still, to come into your presence, God of all, we recognize the yearning of our hearts. We yearn to be repairers of the breach, to live in your Love. Give us the courage to set aside our fears and foolishness, to accept your forgiveness, and trust in your ways. Hear our gratitude for your eternal call to live as your holy people. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

RCL – Year C – Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost – August 25, 2019
Jeremiah 1:4-10 with Psalm 71:1-6 or
Isaiah 58:9b-14 with Psalm 103:1-8 and
Hebrews 12:18-29 and 
Luke 13:10-17

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Psalm 82 for Today

RCL – Year C – Tenth Sunday after Pentecost – August 18, 2019
Isaiah 5:1-7 with Psalm 80:1-2, 8-19
Jeremiah 23:23-29 with Psalm 82
Hebrews 11:29-12:2
Luke 12:49-56

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Delightfully Gifted

“Fear not,” God said to Abram just before drowning him in Grace. “Fear not,” said Jesus to the disciples right before walloping them with a truth beyond their capacity to receive it. When these words appear in scripture, it’s often too late to prevent fear from grabbing hold, like when angels show up and fear steals the breath from the unsuspecting human. Yet, when God says these words to Abram or Jesus says them to the disciples, it isn’t because the hearers are so afraid they cannot breath. It’s just the opposite. It’s a warning to take a breath because some sacred gift is going to temporarily paralyze your lungs and you might not know why.

In Abram’s case, God was preparing him to receive a promise so enormous Abram couldn’t really comprehend it. Of course, Abram believed that God would give him children so that the promise would be fulfilled, but how could he begin to fathom the enormity of the promise. At any rate, it was that belief, that faith, that made Abram righteous. I wonder at what point he resumed breathing at a normal rate. I mean, seriously, how daunting would it be to know that God had plans to make your descendants more numerous than the stars?

Generations and generations later, Jesus does something similar to his disciples. “Fear not,” he says. I hope they took a deep breath in that moment because what comes next is startling to say the very least. Jesus tells them that they shouldn’t be afraid because God delighted in giving them the Kingdom*. Yes, it had already happened and it continues to happen. God has already bestowed the Kingdom on God’s people and continues to delight in doing so. The action is past, or so the use of the aorist active indicative tense (eudokesen) implies in the Greek. It also means there is significance in the action. I take this to mean that the Kingdom has been given, continues to be given, and God’s delight has no end. I don’t think the disciples heard this when Jesus said it any better than we hear it now. When it hits you, the truth is enough to stop your heart and your lungs from functioning, at least for a moment or two.

God created a covenant with Abram and wrapped it in grace. Abram trusted God and Abram was righteous. Then Jesus tells the disciples that they have been given the Kingdom and God delighted in the giving. This truth is blanketed with so many layers of grace that you and I are included. It has to be, because unlike Abram, the disciples missed the message. They didn’t hear it or trust it; they didn’t reach Abram’s level of righteousness. Sadly, neither do we.

This delightful gift of the Kingdom to the people of God is one that we human beings have tried to put so many limits and conditions on who gets in. How have we missed the fact that the Realm is God’s to give as God sees fit. And, at least according to Luke, it’s a done deal. It’s been given. Maybe the delighted giving was part of the covenant God made with Abram. Maybe it was just expanded in Jesus. When will we figure out that God delights in us, especially when we try to live in Love (which is what the Kingdom of God is all about).

Now the problem is, of course, that if all faithful people are supposed to have been gifted with the Kingdom, why isn’t the world in better shape? Bottom line? We don’t believe it. We don’t trust it. It’s like it was too easy. God just handed over the Kingdom without strings attached? Nope, that can’t be it, can it? Surely we have to be good and perfect and follow all the rules? Only a few people are good enough to inherit the Realm, right?

If only we were all more like Abram. God keeps trying to make of us a holy people and we resist. God keeps telling us to love one another with the same love God has for us, and we don’t trust that. That’s why Jesus went on to tell the disciples to be careful what they valued and to keep serving those in need around them. It’s too easy to mistake material things and creature comforts as a sign of God’s blessing. The real blessing is that we were made to love and be loved. The real blessing comes when our gratitude informs our daily living. When we serve those whose needs are greater than our own, we catch glimpses of a Realm created and sustained by Love.

Many people have asked why the world seems so filled with violence and hatred these days. The answer is multi-layered. However, a significant piece of the answer is that people do not know that the Kingdom of God has already been gifted to us. People have a hard time finding a place where they belong, where they feel valued and known, where they have a sense of purpose. When we are so stingy with God’s Love as we often are, other things flood in to fill the gaps. Hopelessness, fear, anger, hatred, desperation… to name a few. Communities, identities built around these things have no trouble with injustice and oppression.

What will it take for you and me to trust God’s Love, to trust that we have already been given the Realm and God delighted in the giving and will continue to do so in every generation? What will it take for us to live rightly with God, as Abram did? What will it take for us to love as we are loved by God? The sooner we figure this out, the more possibilities we have in truly building the Kingdom here on earth…

*Fun fact for those interested in such: “Kingdom” in Greek is Basileia which is feminine in form.

RCL – Year C – Ninth Sunday after Pentecost – August 11, 2019
Isaiah 1:1, 10-20 with Psalm 50:1-8, 22-23 or
Genesis 15:1-6 with Psalm 33:12-22 and
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
Luke 12:32-40

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