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Musings Sermon Starter

Unbreakable Bonds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: CC0image by Ulrike Leone

Categories
Musings Sermon Starter

White Supremacy, a Trial, and the Possibility of Resurrection

Image of a church steeple emerging from fog at sunrise.

I love the story of Thomas. He wasn’t going to believe what he had not seen with his own eyes or touched with his own hands. History has labeled him “Doubting Thomas.” It’s a bit of a misnomer. Thomas represents all of us who have come after him. We might long to believe Jesus is risen and, maybe, some days we do. However, if we are honest, we have a lot of doubt about the whole story. We struggle to believe what we cannot see, hear, feel, smell, or touch. We can minimize it, dismiss it, ignore it, rationalize it, or turn away from it. We do this with so much in our lives, not just Resurrection.

Here in the Twin Cities we are in the midst of the Derek Chauvin trial. You likely remember the video that went viral of this White police officer kneeling on the neck of a Black man, George Floyd, until Floyd died. This public murder resulted in uprisings here and around the world. Now Chauvin is on trial and the defense is blaming everything on George Floyd and/or the crowd of onlookers. It’s honestly more than I want to watch or listen to. I can only imagine the pain and trauma for Black folx who are following this trial…

What does this have to do with Thomas and Jesus? Well, in my mind they are intimately connected. White folx in this country (and around the world) have willfully ignored White supremacy, racism, and White privilege. We have refused to see them, feel them, hear them, touch them, or smell them even though we are surrounded by them. While they may be the opposite of Resurrection, admitting that they exist and have caused immeasurable harm for centuries would lead to Resurrection for countless people. If we confront the truth of White supremacy, racism, and White privilege, imagine what could be fostered instead. Imagine the changes that would take place. Equality and justice would grow from honest and necessary reparations to all BIPOC folx. Resurrection would take the form of dismantling all systems of oppression, beginning with the entire criminal legal system and moving through to all the others – education, housing, healthcare, mental healthcare, etc.

With this trial, I feel like White folx are Thomas on week two, or should be. Many of us have been able to deny reality and the ways we have benefited from White supremacy, racism, and White privilege, even though countless people have said we have seen them, we have touched them, they have killed us… How can any of us deny the reality of White supremacy that allows a police officer to murder a Black man by kneeling on his neck in public when we are confronted with a trial that wants us to believe the officer was right and justified in his actions?

So what do we do? When we have seen, heard, touched, tasted, and smelled the truth, what comes next? Look at Thomas. He proclaimed his newly experienced truth right out loud. From that moment on his life was radically different. We aren’t told a whole lot about what Thomas

did next, but we do know that neither he nor the other disciples went on the same as before. They all were instrumental in creating the church. In those early days, according to Acts, the church was communal in the best sense of the word; they took care of one another. This is a clue to what comes next for those of us who see the truth, know the truth, of White supremacy and its ugly friends. We begin to take care of one another, leaving out none of our neighbors.

Begin by not turning away from the truth of this trial. Begin by recognizing the traumatizing and retraumatizing of every Black person who is witnessing the trial. Then offer prayerful support, honest prayers for change, for a better understanding of how you’ve been complicit in racist systems… And then look for ways to make reparations in anyway you can. Support BIPOC businesses. Donate to BIPOC causes. (And remember that when you make donations to BIPOC causes it is not charity and you shouldn’t look for tax write offs; it’s reparations and leads toward Resurrection for all peoples.) Advocate for systemic changes. Educate yourself on the realities of all the very real challenges BIPOC folx face on a day to day basis.

We may begin in doubt, like Thomas. However, when confronted with the truth, we must work to make Resurrection a reality for all people. If we ever want to glimpse the Realm of God, we have much work to do. If we want to know the peace that Jesus breathed on his disciples, we must work to ensure that peace is accessible to every person on the planet. It is possible to overthrow and dismantle oppressive systems. If you don’t believe me, then ask Jesus…

RCL – Year B – Second Sunday of Easter – April 11, 2021 Acts 4:32-35  • Psalm 133  • 1 John 1:1-2:2  • John 20:19-31

Photo: CC0image by Michael Schwarzenberger

Categories
Poetry

Grace in the Wilderness: A Poem for Easter 2020

Grace in the Wilderness

an eagle flies
across the sunset skies
wings spread in benediction

a boy peddles lazily
with gas station flowers
balanced in his hoodie pocket

dogs behind fencing
tumble and play
pausing to bark as we pass by

mostly masked faces
hands raised in greeting
keep a healthy distance

small green leaves
unfurling after winter's sleep
reach out in new life

an empty tomb
waited to be noticed
by women bent on grieving

the angel gives a new direction
what you seek here
look elsewhere

a mistaken gardener
calls Mary by name
opens her being

Jesus lives even now
with arms wide open
proclaiming everlasting love

we who come in fear and grief
missing the benediction
and the new life

take a breath
listen for the One
who calls us by name

we keep company with death
heedless of the angel’s words
seeking what is not here

grief and fear accompany us
yet do not know our names
and offer no promises

behind the masks
across the six-foot divides
Christ arises

on this virus-infected Easter
let us come
with our tears and fears

experience the emptiness
the loss and despair
of world-wide grief

may we also see
benediction in the rising and setting sun
new life all around us

Christ is risen
the promise of steadfast love
the hope of eternal life continue

Breathe deeply
God shows no partiality
and always provides

Grace in the wilderness
in the fear-filled places
in the heaviness of grief

may we see Christ
in every face
in every place

may we breathe in
the scent of hope
the promise of new life

from this moment
be forever changed
by Love for Love

Christ is risen
Christ is risen indeed
Alleluia

go in peace
thanks be to God
amen

RCL – Year A – Easter – April 12, 2020
Acts 10:34-43 or Jeremiah 31:1-6
Psalm 118: 1-2, 14-24
Colossians 3:1-4 or Acts 10:34-43
John 20:1-18 or Matthew 28:1-10

Photo: CC0image by RENE RAUSCHENBERGER

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Musings Sermon Starter

How is it with Your Spirit?

On January 17, 1991 between 6:30 and 7:00pm I was in a friend’s dorm room writing a paper on their computer. I had the news on in the background and wasn’t paying too much attention, at least not until the clips of bombs being dropped on Bagdad. In those moments I felt as if everything I had ever depended on was gone. For the next several days I had a hard time focusing on school work or anything else and I was more emotionally vulnerable than usual. It was a very unsettling time for me and I didn’t quite understand why.

When I heard the news that the U.S. had bombed Iran a few days ago, I was brought right back to those days of 1991. The difference is that I now understand why news of war is so unsettling to me. I have a history of PTSD. In 1991 I was just beginning to learn how to manage symptoms and understand triggers. Twenty-nine years later I didn’t have to wonder what was happening. Bombing Iran, devastating fires in Australia, destructive earthquakes in Puerto Rico, and a fire here in Minneapolis that displaced more than 200 people mean that the world is chaotic, violent, and not to be trusted. On top of that, I can do very little to change the outcomes of these events. The threat of violence and the sense of powerlessness is triggering for those of us with PTSD, anxiety, depression, and a myriad of other mental health conditions.

How is it with your spirit? If you find yourself struggling to maintain health and balance in your life, know that you are not alone. Many of us are triggered by catastrophic events because the threat of destruction and feeling powerless are all too familiar. However, as adults in the world, we are not entirely powerless. No, we cannot prevent the leaders of this world from engaging in acts of war. Nor can we extinguish the wild fires that are consuming wildlife and threatening humans in Australia. Nor can we undo the ravages of earthquakes in Puerto Rico. Nor can we find stable, safe, affordable housing for all the victims of the Drake Hotel Fire in Minneapolis. We cannot undo what has been done. However, we do have choices to make.

First, we can decide what to do with our time and resources. What relief efforts can we support? What peace rallies or political protests can we participate in? What can we contribute that will bring a bit of hope into the world, even for just one person?

Epiphany is the perfect season to focus on what we do have and what we are able to do as individuals and as communities of faith. We can remind ourselves of Isaiah’s description of the Messiah as one who would “bring forth justice to the nations.” As Christians, we believe this describes Jesus. As the church, we are the body of Christ and must ask ourselves what we are doing in the world to bring justice to our neighbors near and far. We are not powerless. We can do something to bring peace into the world now. We can recognize that when bombs are dropped, they are dropped on human beings whom God loves. We can acknowledge that fires and earthquakes are not God’s judgment on humanity; they are more likely caused by climate change. We can stop blaming the survivors of tragedy and look for ways to empower them. God, though present in all situations, is not on the side of destruction. God is always on the side of life and resurrection. Moreover, God “shows no partiality” nor should we.

When this work of changing attitudes and positions for the purpose of making room for justice gets overwhelming in its own right, we remember it is God who “gives breath to the people.” When we turn to God for strength, for renewal, for guidance, we remember that we are not alone in our efforts. Perhaps more importantly, we are not engaging in the work of hope, healing, and justice for our own glory as much as for God’s glory. Our spirits can find rest and renewal if we remember that we play a small part in the sacred work of building systems of peace, equity, and justice.

If this isn’t enough to help you be able to breathe more deeply amidst the chaos, then remember the waters of your baptism. When John baptized Jesus, God proclaimed Jesus as God’s own beloved with whom God was well pleased. When anyone is baptized, they come up from the waters dripping with this same proclamation. We are all God’s beloved and God is well pleased with us even when we are paralyzed by fear, anxiety, PTSD, or anything else. Claiming our status as God’s Beloved, may help us all to breathe more deeply and make room for hope and healing in our lives and in the world around us.

It is not too late for the body of Christ to join with faithful people around the world to live in the way of peace. Breathe. Pray. Engage in small acts of kindness. It really is that simple. May the joy of Epiphany guide us all to live in new ways, honoring and glorifying the One who claims us as Beloved.

RCL – Year A – First Sunday after Epiphany – January 12, 2020
Isaiah 42:1-9
Psalm 29
Acts 10:34-43
Matthew 3:13-17

Photo: CC0image by Pablo Elices

Categories
liturgy Prayer

Wind & Flame: A Pastoral Prayer for Pentecost

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God of wind and flame, come among us once more. Set our lives on fire with a passion for justice. Send winds mighty enough to clear away our fear and apathy. We long to be sure of your presence and power. We desire certainty of your grace, forgiveness, and love. Yet, we are slow to turn to you, to remember the stories of our faith, and to rely on your goodness. On this day of Pentecost, come to us anew. Let us remember with more than words that we are one in you. Each of us gifted, each of us hearing in our own way, each of us created in your image – all of us with the purpose of glorifying you by bringing Divine Love into the world. May this be the mission, the purpose, the passion of all your people.

Ever-speaking, always incarnate God, surprise us out of our complacency and ambivalence. As your Spirit moves among us, may we see our neighbors with new understanding and compassion. May we hear in all the angry words around us the underlying fear and anxiety of being left out, forgotten, misunderstood, abused, neglected, or dismissed. When we would respond to hurt with greater hurt, show us the way of Love, a way that brings healing, wholeness, and hope. When we would hide from the needs of the world, lead us to actions that bring unity, justice, and equality. When we would tell ourselves that our voices don’t matter, remind us that you are the Word-become-flesh for the very purpose of reminding us of the power of words, and the actions that follow. May all of us who call upon you, feel the force of your winds and heat of your flames calling us to more life and love than we can ever imagine.

God of the heights and depths, raise us up! We so easily sink into the muck and mire and messiness of everyday life, seldom lifting even our eyes to the beauty of the world. We also forget that you are in the deepest, most lonely places we can go just as much as you are in the joyous moments of community and connection. There is no place we can go where you are not already there. We are never apart from you. No one is far from you. Raise us up that we may recognize you in every face, in every moment, without exception. Place us all on equal ground that the beauty and wonder of Creation may shine in and through us all. May your Love unite what human beings have divided.

Momentous and amazing God, call to us in the midst of the chaos and the clamor. Shout out your claim on us until we respond to you. We act as if we are each on our own, without connection or responsibility to those around us. Yet, you have shown us what Love looks like – in thought, word, and deed. You have shown us again and again the power you have to transform the least among us to the greatest, and to humble those who think themselves great. We are not alone. We are united in you and through you – individuals connected to neighbors, congregations connected to communities, communities to cities and towns, cities and towns to states, states to this nation, this nation to other nations, all to your Creation. Burn away all our claims to independence. May we grasp the power of interdependence forged in Love.

God of us all, on this Pentecost day, be with us. Rekindle the fires that inspire your people throughout the earth. Ignite in us a Love that cannot be extinguished. We say that there is room for all in your house and at your table. May today be the day when we make this a lived reality. May none be excluded, ignored, overlooked, dismissed, devalued or hated by any who call your name. May the cleansing winds and fires of your Spirit create anew the Body of Christ here and elsewhere. May we honor you by embracing your Spirit of fierce Love and radical inclusion as we seek to embody you for all whom we meet.
We pray in gratitude for your patience, your mercy, your forgiveness, and your love for us that never ends. In the name of the One sent to teach us the ways of Love. Amen.

RCL – Year C -Pentecost – June 9, 2019
Acts 2:1-21 or Genesis 11:1-9
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
Romans 8:14-17 or Acts 2:1-21
John 14:8-17 [25-27]

Photo: CC0 image by Michael Schwarzenberger

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Musings Sermon Starter

In Her Grips

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Okay. I’m just going to say it: I like Paul. The older I get, the more I appreciate Paul for his passion, conviction, and unapologetic humanity. What the church has done with what he wrote and what has been (falsely) attributed to him, isn’t his fault. The man had some serious endurance. Prison, floggings, shipwrecks, and rejection in a variety of potentially life-threatening forms. Paul persevered and managed to inspire countless people to become followers of Jesus. All things considered, Paul is person to be admired not admonished. The tepid church goers of today could do with a little passion and, personally, I’m up for a bit of persistence.

Let’s face it, many people around us would much rather go fishing on a Sunday morning than attend worship. Paul didn’t have that problem. It seems he drew crowds almost the way that Jesus did. He had something that was appealing to those who heard him speak. It was more than his charismatic personality, more than his words alone. I suspect it was his integrity and authenticity. For all his eloquence, Paul didn’t say anything he didn’t mean. The Holy Spirit it had him firmly in her grips and she wasn’t letting go. I wonder if anyone would notice that intensity of Spirit today…

The story in Acts about the slave girl is a weird one where Paul’s humanity is on full display. So, too, the presence of the Spirit. How awesome is it that the writer tells us that Paul casts the demon out of the slave girl because he’s irritated? He’s annoyed that she has been following them around, proclaiming that they are slaves to God Most High. This had been going on for days. Paul couldn’t take it and silences the demon without thinking about the consequences. He didn’t think what might happen to the slave girl. He didn’t think what might happen to him and his companions. He’d just had enough of the girl’s proclamations. Consequences be damned.

And there were serious consequences. The writer didn’t mention what happened to the slave girl though I doubt it was anything good. Her owners disguised an economic issue with a racial issue that stirred anxiety and aggression in the crowd as well as the magistrates. Violence followed as it often does when those in service to the Empire feel slighted. So if the girls owners were angry enough to have Paul and the others somewhat falsely arrested, flogged, and jailed, I’m guessing they didn’t go easy on her. Did Paul regret his impulsiveness in the duress that followed? Did he pray for forgiveness? Did he want to make amends? Or did he blame the hard hearts of the slave owners? Who knows? However, the subsequent events point toward forgiveness with a hint of compassion.

In the midst of prayers and hymns an earthquake hits and opens all the doors. You’d think everyone would leave; that would be the sane thing to do. No one did. The prisoners stayed put. Why? I like to think that Paul remembered that all this was because of his own impulsive actions and he didn’t want anyone else to pay the price for his unthinking behavior, including the jailer. Paul, and the others, no doubt, knew that the jailer would likely be executed for allowing all the prisoners to escape – earthquake or no. Though, instead of an execution, we witness another household converting to Christianity. Forgiveness and compassion on full display. Well, that and the power of the Holy Spirit to bring goodness out of human folly.

I’d like to say that we’ve all learned something from Paul’s experience. But I don’t think we have. We still give in to annoyance and act without thinking. Those who have more power than we do, still take advantage by subverting the real issues with divisive ones. We are still easily manipulated by the Empire into accepting, if not participating in, violence. We don’t seem to pray and sing hymns while waiting for the Spirit to show up and do her thing. There isn’t much room in our lives to give and receive either forgiveness or compassion, is there?

As we come to the end of Eastertide and prepare for Pentecost, maybe we should pay more attention to Paul and embrace our humanity and the Holy Spirit. We can be unapologetically the fragile, fallible, frustratable people we are because we are also unapologetically the named, claimed and beloved children of God. In spite of what the Empire continues to tell us about supremacy and division, we are all in need of forgiveness and compassion. The more we share these things, the more we open ourselves to receiving them. Isn’t it time to recognize that Paul was who he was because he accepted and celebrated the fierce, demanding, loving grip the Holy Spirit had on his whole being? We can be the irritable, irrational, impulsive people that we are because the Holy Spirit has the same fierce, steadfast, and redeeming grip on us. This is good news for us, and unwelcome news for those who continue to serve the Empire.

Photo: CC0 image by James LeVos

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Musings Sermon Starter

Listening to Lydia

purplecloth.jpg
Lydia isn’t a biblical superstar. She is mentioned in Acts, almost in passing. Strangely enough, she’s often passed over. She was from Thyatira and she dealt in purple cloth. If she hadn’t encountered Paul, we might not know anything about her at all. However, her meeting with Paul was significant. Yes, it’s important that she and her household became a followers of Christ based on hearing Paul. Yet, given the current debates over abortion and women’s reproductive rights and the rape culture we live in, it may be far more important for us to notice that Lydia was a business owner in the first century. A woman owned a business in the decades after Jesus’ death. Why does this not get the attention it deserves? How have we let the later notions of the church patriarchy dismiss this information? Seriously, what if women in business was more commonplace than we have been led to believe? What if Paul and other early apostles treated women as respected equals and not as property to be used as they wished? What if we have spent the last 2000 years systematically smothering the value of women in our society?

I don’t know about you, but I feel the need for more purple cloth right now. Alabama criminalized abortion which puts women’s lives at risk. That’s bad. In lesser news, last week I spent a couple of days in Washington D.C. at a meeting to discuss mental health with other faith leaders. While the variety of mental health ministries across faith traditions inspires me and fills me with hope, the way many of the men treated me and the other women in the room was extremely disheartening. I was interrupted, talked over, ignored, and dismissed. The validity of my call to ministry and the decades I’ve spent serving the church were questioned and the implications for my soul were assumed to be dire. It’s been a long time since I have felt so personally dismissed and invalidated by a group of supposed colleagues. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t hate men at all. It’s the social and religious elevation of them and the devaluation and dismissal of women that I would like to end.

With these thoughts I read the account of Lydia’s conversion in Acts. Not only did she become a follower of Christ, she also offered Paul and his companions a place to stay. She was a person of significant means. She may have been one of the earliest gentile converts and, clearly, a financial support for the growing Christian movement. Yet, how often have we lifted her up in the church? How often have we held her up as an example of a strong, Christian woman? You know, the one who housed Paul and his fellow travelers and also gave them a place to stay after they had been to prison. Somehow her story remains untold. It makes me wonder if early manuscripts might have told more about her and whether they were intentionally left out by the men who decided the canon.

What might happen in the world today if we highlighted Lydia as much as some denominations lift up Mary? Lydia wasn’t someone to be trifled with. She had money and power and access to the very wealthy (no one else would have been purchasing purple cloth). She wouldn’t be easily silenced or dismissed. How different the church might be if we recognized the value of a woman who sold purple cloth. Might we not realize that women are valuable, that women are created in God’s image just as men are? Might this realization lead to the recognition that all people are valuable because we are all created in the image of God? All people.

As I think about Lydia and her purple cloth and how different church culture could have been and still could be, I realize once again how tired I am of having to defend myself or justify myself or protect myself just because I am female. I’m also tired of rapists, child-abusers, perpetrators of violence against women being excused, justified, and practically rewarded because they are men, generally white men at that. Surely, we can change this. After all, there is no indication that Jesus treated women differently than he treated me. Paul, apparently, didn’t either. Why do we? Isn’t it time we recognized the value of all human beings, including women who sell purple cloth and house former prisoners? Think of all the energy and resources we could put toward feeding the hungry, housing the poor, caring for the sick, welcoming the immigrant and refugee if we recognize the equality of all people, regardless of gender identity.

Maybe we should make purple the color of equity and wrap ourselves in purple cloth until the church and society stops believing in the superiority of men, especially white men…

RCL – Year C – Sixth Sunday of Easter – May 26, 2019
Acts 16:9-15
Psalm 67
Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5
John 14:23-29 or John 5:1-9

Photo: Is a derivative work based on CC0 image by Beate

Categories
Musings Sermon Starter

From Death to Life

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Those little purple faces poking up next to the sidewalk on my way out of church on Sunday were nearly my undoing. Not exactly the color purple in a field, but I noticed. I saw them innocently reaching for the sun, the first of spring flowers I’ve seen this year. And, yes, I thanked God for them even as tears flooded my eyes. My grief, my heartbreak, has me desperately searching for new life, signs that God has not yet given up on humanity.

Thank God for violets. And thank God for good friends who call to check in after seeing the sorrow, sadness, and anger on social media. A young man, so full of promise and love, murdered by another young man with an AK-47 for reasons yet unknown, maybe never to be known. My friend, sister in Spirit, crying out for her beloved son who is no longer here. I’m at a loss for words, grasping for hope, knowing this grief will be hers to carry forever; mine to share just a fragment, maybe not even enough to ease the burden.

Then my friend who called to check in. We’ve been friends for decades, and we’ve been through so much together, bearing one another’s burdens as only long-time friends can. After checking in, offering condolences, he said it. He didn’t know how pastors do what we do in times like these. Louisiana churches set on fire. Notre Dame burning. Churches bombed on Easter. Another Synagogue shooting. Rachel Held Evans dying. Oceans choking on plastic. Hunger and thirst killing people. AK-47s in the hands of the young, angry, and hopeless. Where is God? Where is hope? Humanity is lost and does not want to be found.

Truth.

And, yet… I often say that as long as there is breath there is hope. We can repent and seek God’s holy ways. It is not too late for those of us who live and breathe to turn toward Love. We can stop giving in to the lies of the Empire that feed the fear that divides us and dehumanizes our neighbors. We can continue to live in the deceitful myth that feeds our egos and tells us that we don’t need anything but willpower and determination. We can continue to tell ourselves that any success we have is because of our own hard work and not because others helped us along the way. We can uphold the pretense that our worship is the only right and true worship and that the lip service we spew out pleases God. We can continue as we are and call it life, life that contributes to rising suicide rates, the opioid crisis, and a decline in life-expectancy. There’s no immediate risk in preserving the status quo of fear, anger, hatred, and hopelessness, right?

We are destroying God’s creation because we’d rather let politicians and lobbyists get rich and believe their lies that tell us we can’t change anything because it costs too much. Our children are dying on the streets because white supremacy says black lives don’t matter and we accept it as fact. More and more people are engaging in suicidal behavior because we remain silent and judgmental when it comes to mental illness and keep the source of hope a secret meant only for the righteous. We have created, actively or passively, a world that accepts violence, thrives on fear, and feeds the vulnerable a steady diet of despair.

Enough. Peter walked into a death room and prayed for life. You know what happened? New life filled Tabitha. I wish I had that ability to breathe life into a dead body. I don’t. But we do have the power to breathe life into a dying church. Our thoughts and our actions are our true prayers. Rachel Held Evans was a voice of hope for the more evangelical, conservative church; her untimely death is a tragedy for her family, friends, and the church. I am confident her light will shine on as others continue her work. For the moderate to progressive church who claims to understand inclusion and welcome, who will shake us up? Who will come like Peter into the death room and call us to new life? Who will speak to us powerfully enough that the Spirit fills our lungs? Who will ask us to step away from our traditional sanctuaries and carefully scripted worship? Who will call us away from the safety of our practices and into the unpredictable flow of the Spirit?

We know how to heal Creation, where hope lies, and how to stop the bleeding. We do. We know the truth. Yet, we do not believe it, and it is killing us. The message of God’s love, lived out in Jesus, is the Truth we need. It is still the balm that can heal a sin-sick world. We are called to Love God, our neighbors, ourselves, and the whole of Creation. Jesus showed us the way from death to life, from human ways to holy ways. It’s love – with thought and action. Love that leaves no one behind. Love that speaks truth to fear, to anger, to violence, to hopelessness, to death.

I don’t know about you, but I cannot remain in this death room any longer. Pray with me. Come, Holy Spirit, come. Come now and lead us into life. Life that values everyone, that does not cower in fear, and will not let anyone slide into hopelessness. Let your church be as early spring violets. Undo us with the power of your Love right now.

If not now, then when? If not you and me, then who?

RCL – Year C – Fourth Sunday of Easter – May 12, 2019
Acts 9:36-43
Psalm 23
Revelation 7:9-17
John 10:22-30

Photos CC-BY-NC image by Rachael Keefe

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Musings Sermon Starter

New Hope from an Old Place

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Peter may have had a learning disability and Paul may have had MS. For some people these suppositions might be distressing or unnerving. For me, they are comforting and hopeful. If God could use Paul and Peter, not in spite of their disabilities, but through them, then there is hope for me, for you, for today’s church.

I’ve long had an affinity for Peter, but only recently realized that Peter as portrayed in the Gospels, has some indicators of a learning disability. He’s often impulsive and acting in a manor that suggests he hasn’t quite processed the reality of his situation. Like when Jesus walked on water and Peter was sure he could do it, only to take a couple of steps and panic. Or when he swore that he would never deny Jesus only to do that very thing three times in a matter of hours. Peter’s passion often gets the better of him.

Then there’s the experience of the Resurrected Christ on the beach. Jesus asks Peter if he loves him. Peter says that he does. Jesus repeats the question. Peter repeats his answer. Then the third time Jesus asks, Peter’s not happy about it. What we don’t see in the English translation and Peter didn’t hear is that Jesus was asking Peter if he loved him the way that God loves (agape). Peter was responding yes, but that he loved Jesus with a familial love (philios). On the third go, Jesus asks Peter if he loves him with a familial love, and Peter responds that he does. Peter missed what Jesus was asking. The good news is that Jesus knew Peter and understood him better than Peter understood himself. Jesus rephrased the question, so that Peter’s answer held truth. Jesus always met Peter where he was and used his passion and impulsiveness to build the church. Peter’s learning differences were not changed, healed, cured, or otherwise erased. God used him exactly as he was.

Paul’s story is similar if you are willing to entertain the idea that Paul had MS. His Damascus Road experience fits with MS symptoms fairly well. He was temporarily blinded. He fell off his horse. His body wasn’t working right for a few days, and then he got better. This does not negate the spiritual experience. In fact, it only makes the story more plausible, more powerful. In the midst of a physical crisis, God was able to reach Saul in ways that weren’t possible when Saul was reliant on his personal power and privilege. In Paul’s writings there are other things he describes that could be symptoms of MS. He wrote with “large letters” (Gal. 6:11). Maybe his unreliable physical health was the thorn in his side… Imagine the church’s greatest evangelist living with a physical disability! God used him to bring Christianity to the Gentiles, not in spite of his disability, but with it as part of his identity.

When a colleague suggested that Paul had MS it resonated so deeply with me. It also made me remember my theory that Peter had a learning disability. I was diagnosed with dyslexia when I was 19. At the same time, I developed double vision and some other symptoms that doctors thought were an atypical form of MS. The dyslexia diagnosis made sense to me as it explained some of my struggles with spelling and how slowly I read. But I didn’t share the news with very many people. Similarly, the tentative MS diagnosis isn’t something I shared with people very often, either. I didn’t want the inevitable judgment. Nor did I want to acknowledge my on suspicions of why I had these conditions.

Somehow having disabilities meant that my faith was inadequate. I would never be able to achieve Christian perfection as is commonly understood. Maybe if I prayed enough, I would be healed or cured or transformed in some way. Maybe the doctors were wrong and there was nothing wrong with me. Maybe if I ignored these things, they would go away and I could focus on my call to ministry. But what if these things were punishment for my sins?

More than 30 years later, I still have a learning disability though I am not sure “dyslexia” is the accurate label. I don’t actually have MS, I have a form of dysautonomia, Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS) that has some symptoms similar to those of MS and has only been recognized since the early 1990s. While I don’t announce these conditions all the time, I don’t ignore them anymore. I no longer think that they are punishment for sin, nor do I believe that they keep me from wholeness (my newer understanding of perfection in the Christian context). I accept that a learning disability and dysautonomia are part of who I am, and God called me into ordained ministry knowing me better than I knew myself, and meeting me where I was while calling me into a future full of grace and love.

This is why I find it extraordinarily wonderful that Peter may have had a learning disability and that Paul may have had MS. God didn’t see them as broken. God called them into the fullness of their being, their whole selves, so that God could work through them to transform the world. God does not see our brokenness; God sees our wholeness. May we have the grace to see wholeness in one another and love with God’s love.

RCL – Year C – Third Sunday of Easter – May 5, 2019
Acts 9:1-6, (7-20)
Psalm 30
Revelation 5:11-14
John 21:1-19

Photo: CC0 image by Sarah Richter

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Musings Sermon Starter

Not Your Average Easter Message

 

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New Life. Who doesn’t want it? Love triumphing over destruction and death. Who wouldn’t welcome that? Seriously, is there anyone who wouldn’t leap at the chance to peer into the tomb of fear, hatred, and death to discover its startling emptiness? We should be running after those women and begging them to tell us what they saw. Or following Peter to the tomb to have a look for ourselves. We say we want to. We say we want New Life. We say we believe Love always wins. We say that the tomb was empty and that the women were telling the truth. Where is the evidence in our lives?

Flint still doesn’t have clean water. Three churches were burned to the ground in Louisiana last week. There was a fire in the Al Aqsa mosque at the same time Notre Dame was burning. The sacred sites of Native Peoples are destroyed without most of us noticing. The number of children and teens with suicidal thoughts and behaviors has doubled in recent years. There is still gender disparity in wages. People of Color are incarcerated at a higher rate than white people. Immigrants are imprisoned and deported daily. White supremacy informs everything in this country from politics to news to religion. Are we in danger of being swallowed by the betrayal, destruction, and death that preceded the Resurrection?

Yes. Yes, we are in danger of getting caught up in a cycle that moves between betrayal and burial. We have forgotten that Jesus spoke out against religious authorities who served the empire first and neglected to care for the vulnerable among them. Jesus sought to empower those who lived under the oppression of Rome by teaching them how to love as God loves. Somehow, though, in our rush through Holy Week to the Good News of Easter, we have heard only that God might love us. Or that salvation is only available for those who are like us. It’s possible that today’s church isn’t all that different from the religious authorities Jesus openly challenged.

What we say we believe doesn’t matter if there is no evidence of that belief in our lives. If we say we believe in the Resurrection and there is no trace of it in our lives, what does it matter? If we say we have New Life yet continuously participate in systems of destruction and discrimination, are we the disciples we claim to be? If we say we love as God loves and do nothing to save the lives around us, are we really the Body of Christ? If we claim to be Easter people and remain trapped in Good Friday, where is the power of the empty tomb?

Jesus called people to repentance first, and then to the task of bringing the Realm of God into the here and now. In other words, Jesus challenged all who would be disciples to move from death to life. This is a full transformation. Yes, it can take years, a lifetime really, but it isn’t a half-way kind of thing. We’re either trusting in God to work in and through us or we are trusting in ourselves far too much. Whenever we think we are better than others, more deserving than our neighbors, we are not embodying Christ. Whenever we participate in the white supremacy that allows us to weep for Notre Dame and dismiss the intentional burning of Black churches, or not even hear about a fire in a significant mosque, or think about the destroyed sacred sites of Native Peoples, we have to ask whom we are serving. When we believe the lies that justify the status quo and ignore how they influence religious practice, we are caught somewhere between betrayal and burial; we have not found the empty tomb yet.

This year, I want Resurrection to mean more than chocolate bunnies and jelly beans. The power that took Jesus from death to life, can do the same for us. If we believe that Love is stronger than fear or hatred or the distorted perception of empire, then we must repent and leave the ways of death behind to embrace New Life. Jesus was pretty clear that those who want to be his disciples must love with God’s love which means that no one gets left out. Isn’t it time that we freely share this lifesaving Love? Let’s get busy bringing the Realm of God into the here and now for everyone, without exception. Seriously, who couldn’t use a healthy dose of Resurrection if all it really means is to live a life with Love that leaves no one in the hands of a destructive empire? After all, God shows no partiality. Why should we?

RCL – Year C – Easter – April 21, 2019
Acts 10:34-43 or Isaiah 65:17-25
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
1 Corinthians 15:19-26 or Acts 10:34-43
John 20:1-18 or Luke 24:1-12

Photo: CC0 image by Photo Mix