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Musings Sermon Starter

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 Sermon Starter

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

Categories
Musings Sermon Starter

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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Bidding Prayer liturgy

Bidding Prayer for the Second Sunday of Advent

Image of a white dove in a glass ball, held in a hand. Background is red with faint stars and an outline of a Christmas tree.
Come, let us pray for the people of God here and everywhere.
 (People silently or out loud offer their prayers.)
Bringer of peace and hope, we turn our hearts and minds to you. We see your people in need all around us, all around the world. You frequently remind us that all people are your people, especially when we would separate one from another. Forgive us when we fail to treat any of our neighbors as your beloved children. Show us the way to comfort your people.
 May our voices join the one in the wilderness
 as we prepare the way of the Lord.
 
Come, let us pray for the United Church of Christ and our sister churches.
 (People silently or out loud offer their prayers.)
God of patience and grace, today we pray for our denomination and all those who lead it. Be with John Dorhauer and all the others who work in the national setting. Guide them with your wisdom and strengthen them with the power of the Holy Spirit. Be with Shari Prestemon and the other Minnesota Conference staff, as well as those who lead other conferences. May your renewing Spirit be with all those who lead the UCC, clergy and laity alike. May we be leaders in the way of unity and healing, offering hope in the midst of pandemic and all the injustices it has highlighted.
 May our voices join the one in the wilderness
 as we prepare the way of the Lord.
  
Come, let us pray for all the nations of the world.
 (People silently or out loud offer their prayers.)
Loving God, we long for a world in which “steadfast love and faithfulness meet; and righteousness and peace will kiss each other.” Yet, we often desire only that which will keep those we know and love safe and healthy, forgetting the needs of our neighbors near and far. We thank you for your patience with us and with the whole of humanity. Forgive our reluctance to repent of our self-protective ways and turn our hearts toward your vision of peace and justice.
 May our voices join the one in the wilderness
 as we prepare the way of the Lord.
  
Come, let us pray for all those in need of healing.
 (People silently or out loud offer their prayers.)
God of the past, present, and future, you have witnessed all that has brought us to this moment. You have seen humanity at its best and you have seen us at our worst, and you continue to name us beloved. We know that we are like the grass that withers, and only you last forever. Yet, we are in need of your healing love. We pray for those who have COVID and those who care for them. We also pray for those whose lives have been disrupted by pandemic – those without homes, those without work, those without access to mental health care, those without access to medicine… Shepherd us to new ways of being that allow us to care for the most vulnerable among us.
 May our voices join the one in the wilderness
 as we prepare the way of the Lord.
  
Come, let us pray for all who are grieving.
 (People silently or out loud offer their prayers.)
God of goodness and life, our hearts are breaking as we see the numbers of lives COVID has claimed. While we anxiously wait for a vaccine, keep us mindful of those who are grieving the loss of loved ones. Help us also to remember those who have few resources, those for whom pandemic has created unbearable suffering. As we pray for those in the midst of grief, we also pray for those who struggle with depression and other mental health conditions that can lead to suicidality. Enable us to raise up the valleys and level the mountains to reveal your way of peace and love, inviting all into communities of grace and radical welcome.
 May our voices join the one in the wilderness
 as we prepare the way of the Lord.
  
Come, let us give thanks for God’s steadfast love and faithfulness.
 (People silently or out loud offer their prayers.)
Amazing God, you have been with your people through plagues and pandemics, through oppression and captivity. Your faithfulness has not wavered, and we are grateful. We thank you for the moments of joy, for the reflections of your majesty, for the touch of loving-kindness… and all the ways you reveal your love for us. May our gratitude make us generous and compassionate with all our neighbors as we wait for and prepare for Love to break into the world once again.
 May our voices join the one in the wilderness
 as we prepare the way of the Lord.
 Amen. 

For sermon help, try here.

RCL: Year B Second Sunday of Advent December 6, 2020 Isaiah 40:1-11
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Mark 1:1-8

Photo: CC0image by Gerd Altmann

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liturgy

Advent Calendar for 2020

An Advent Calendar with suggested activities for each day. The activities emphasize bring hope, peace, joy, or love through caring for self and/or neighbors.
download 2020 Advent Calendar for Care of Self and Neighbor

Download here!

You can download my Advent Calendar for Care of Self and Neighbor from archive.org as a full-page PDF file here.

Licensing

This Advent Calendar, shared in image and pdf formats, is shared under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives License. What does this mean? You are free to share it, print it, put it in your newsletter, link to it, post it on social media, download and then email it to people, re-use it as you wish, at no cost to you, for non-commercial use, with attribution, and without changing anything.

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Bidding Prayer liturgy

Bidding Prayer for Thanksgiving Eve

Image of a white pumpkin on a plate with dried sunflowers with “Give Thanks” written in the background.

Note: I’m on vacation this week so this post is not based on the RCL. You are welcome to use this bidding prayer if you wish. If you have virtual services and would like to use my four minute recording of a shorter version of this prayer, with candle lighting, you can find the video on youtube. Download links and attribution are in the video description. You can use it.

Direct video download links are in the video description – click through to YouTube if you want to use my video this in your services, to download and copy the attribution.

Let us pray for all who gather to give thanks and worship God.
(silence or a time for people to quietly give voice to their concerns)
Creator God, you long for unity among all your peoples. On this Thanksgiving Eve, fill our hearts with love for all our neighbors and move us to live lives of compassion and generosity. Our fears and anxiety surrounding some of your peoples do not come from you. We are grateful for you love and pray for the courage to live more fully as your body.
God in your mercy,
Hear our prayers.

Let us pray for the church, gathered here and elsewhere. (silence or a time for people to quietly give voice to their concerns)
God who remains steadfast through all time, we celebrate the awesome diversity of your church. In this season of division, help us to be agents of your healing grace. Enable us to let go of all that keeps us from working side-by-side to bring about your realm here on earth. Forgive our tendency to think we are right and all other ways of worshiping you are incorrect. Be with us now; lead us into better days for all your people.
God in your mercy,
Hear our prayers.

Let us pray for all of Creation – this planet and all who live on it
(silence or a time for people to quietly give voice to their concerns)
Eternal and compassionate God, we are a world in trouble. We have not been good stewards of your Creation, nor have we loved our neighbors as ourselves. In the midst of pandemic we have a tendency to protect our own and not be as concerned with others as you would have us be. Strengthen us for the days ahead. Let us bring hope and healing once more – for Earth and for all your children.
God in your mercy,
Hear our prayers.

Let us pray for all those in need of healing.
(silence or a time for people to quietly give voice to their concerns)
Holy and amazing God, we know we need healing – as individuals, as your church, as a community, as a country, and as a global community. We hold out to you all the broken places in our lives and in our world, asking that you would bring healing and wholeness. We also lift up all those who have COVID and those whose work puts them at higher risk. Be with those who seek to find a vaccine. Grant us courage and hope enough to get through this season of sickness and despair.
God in your mercy,
Hear our prayers.

Let us pray for all those whose hearts are heavy with grief and loss.
(silence or a time for people to quietly give voice to their concerns)
God of hope and new life, there is too much sadness, loss, and grief in the world. We often feel helpless and don’t know how to be in the company of those who suffer. Teach us your compassion that we may bring comfort to those who mourn, that we may trust your light of hope to guide us all. We pray for your healing presence to accompany those whose burden of grief is too heavy to bear, especially those who have lost a loved one to suicide, murder, or sudden death of another kind. May we be gentle and kind and patient in response to the grief in our lives and in the lives of those around us.
God in your mercy,
Hear our prayers.

Let us offer up gratitude and praise to God for the goodness and blessings we experience.
(silence or a time for people to quietly give voice to their concerns)
God of abundant life, we thank you that even in the midst of pandemic we can experience the wonders and mysteries of your blessings. We thank you for the people and prophets who challenge us, awaken us, and call us closer to you. We are grateful for what do have and what we are able to do on this Thanksgiving. Even as we yearn for better days, we continue to praise you for all that is good, and for your love for us which never ends.
God in your mercy,
Hear our prayers. Amen.

Photo: CC0image by Jacksonville

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Musings Sermon Starter

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

Categories
Musings Sermon Starter

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

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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

Learning and Growing in the Wilderness

Image of earth viewed from space with grid points of light connected across the globe

In recent days I’ve witnessed people romanticizing their past in ways I don’t quite understand. There was the person who continues to grieve over parents, stating that they were “the best” parents and how much they are missed. I know for a fact that these people were not good parents and caused a lot of harm in the world. Another person was lamenting the end of their marriage and saying how much they missed the relationship and all the “good” it brought. In fact, it was not a good relationship at all and caused a good deal of pain. And then there are the many people longing for the days “before pandemic” as if they were perfect days where love, peace, and justice reigned over the world. I don’t think I will ever understand what it is that causes people to forget the hard parts of their history and glorify the better parts. However, it’s a long-standing human behavior.

Remember the Israelites right after they crossed the Red Sea and found themselves in the wilderness? They were angry. They wished they had died in Egypt where they had fire, fleshpots, and bread. They were unhappy with the emptiness in their bellies and focused on that rather than on their new-found freedom. They quickly came to believe that the God who led them out of slavery had abandoned them to the challenges of the wilderness. Instead of asking for what they needed, instead of looking for God’s presence among them, they complained to Moses and regretted their choice to follow him away from the comforts of Egypt where they had been slaves into the discomforts and unknowns of liberation. Fortunately for them, God heard their complaints and provided manna and pheasants (they would later complain about these).

Here we are in the midst of pandemic, a wilderness of unknowns and discomforts for sure. The challenge for us as church is not to romanticize the past and long for when we can get back to “normal.” This wandering we are doing now will lead us to a new place. We must remember that before pandemic life was not perfect for the church. Our numbers were on the decline, our budgets were tighter every year, our technology was barely adequate, our buildings were needing repairs and updates… the list goes on. The complaints about Zoom worship, Facebook live, YouTube Live, and all the other ways we try to meet the needs of our communities, are a distraction and no real difference from the days when the sound system didn’t work or the projector overheated. Our longing for what was (in our own romanticized recollections) may prevent us from seeing what God is doing right here, right now.

Online worship, education, and kinship activities in whatever form provides access to folx who might not be able to join us in person for a variety of reasons. For those of us who are offering online communion, the complaints that it doesn’t “feel like communion” could distract from the ways in which God is drawing us together across miles. And what does communion feel like? Yes, we are all missing the in-person gatherings. It’s true. That missing of being with people does not need to negate the beauty and wonder of our online gatherings. We can grieve for what was and embrace what is.

The more we look back with the proverbial rose-colored glasses the more we will miss in the present. What are the manna and quail of our wandering in the wilderness of pandemic? Are they the wonders of technology that allows us to gather online? Are they the beauty of being able to expand our welcome? Are they the renewed appreciation for community? Are they the generosity of folx who provide tech access to those who didn’t have it before? Let’s not mistake grieving for what was for a longing that recreates the past to meet our own needs in this moment. God is in our midst and still doing the liberating, the leading, the transforming that God has always done.

Friends, there will be no going back. Just as those ancient Israelites could not return to Egypt in spite of their longing for fires and food, the church cannot go back to what was. This life in the wilderness of pandemic, no matter how long it goes on or how soon it ends, will forever change us. Perhaps we should spend our time searching out where God is active now and seek that vision for our future that God has for us. May we lean into the liberation from the limits of our buildings, the leading into a new shape for the Body of Christ, and the transformation of our communities that God is doing. Let us not grumble about what was and embrace what is. After all, our histories have shown us that there is far worse than manna and quail by whatever name.

RCL – Year A – Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 20, 2020
Exodus 16:2-15 with Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45 or
Jonah 3:10-4:11 with Psalm 145:1-8
Philippians 1:21-30
Matthew 20:1-16

Photo: CC0image by Inactive account – ID 9301