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Musings Sermon Starter

Life Choices

Choosing life is not simple, easy, or natural for most of us. Well, there is the drive to stay alive. However, that is not the same as choosing life. Moses was pretty clear that choosing life often means choosing the hard road, the way that is not self-focused. On the brink of entering into the Promised Land, Moses implores the people of God to choose life so that they and their children may continue to live in abundance.

These people who stood looking across the Jordan River into the land they had been promised are the wilderness wanderers, the calf worshipers, the complainers, and the whiners. The journey from captivity to freedom was longer and more difficult than they bargained for. They weren’t happy with Moses. They were tired of manna and quail. They had expected a shorter journey, one that was less taxing on their bodies and on their spirits. If Moses wasn’t around, they were pretty certain that God wasn’t around either. They survived the desert, surely life wasn’t a choice they had to make. They were alive and staring at the Promised Land. Life had already been granted them, hadn’t it?

That’s the funny thing with life. It’s easy to take it for granted. We are alive. We are breathing and moving through the world. What choice is there? Moses could have elaborated more than he did. Choose life that will enable your neighbor to live as you live. Choose life that will be gentle on the planet. Choose life that facilitates justice for all people. Choose life that always moves from captivity to liberation. Choose life that honors the Creator. Choose life in a way that blesses those around you. Choose life, not just as individuals, but also as sacred community.

There it is. Choosing life in response to God’s call isn’t about us as individual human beings. It is about us as sacred community, the Body of Christ, the church. Nearly every church I have ever been a part of has been primarily concerned with its own life. Are the pews full? Is the budget balanced? Are the programs attended? Is the Sunday School full? How about the youth program, are we ensuring the church of the future? These concerns that have absorbed so much of our churches’ attention, are not questions that support choosing life.

God has set before us the ways of life and death. The church is on the edges of something new, something exciting, something transformative. We are close enough to see that something different is coming, but not close enough to know precisely what it is. However, we can look around at our declining numbers and the building closures and know that life isn’t exactly what we have chosen. Perhaps it is time to make different choices.

Choose life so that we and those who will come after us might live in God’s love, honoring God’s commandments. Choose life so that we will stop being lured away by the false gods of individualism and independence. Choose life so that we will realize that our neighbors are our responsibility, that the way of Christ is the way from captivity to liberation.

First choose life for yourself in response to God’s unconditional love for you as an individual. Then choose life for the Body of Christ in response to God’s abundant love for the whole of Creation. No, it is not easy. Yes, we will continue to be tempted by lesser gods. No, it is not too late for us to change and embrace God’s call to the fullness of life. Yes, there are many who will think our efforts on behalf of life, love, and liberation are futile and foolish. Isn’t it time we stopped wandering in the wilderness and complaining about all that is not as we want it or expected it to be? By choosing life, we are choosing the Promised Land, a land where all are welcomed, wanted, seen, heard, and valued. Is there a better way to be the Body of Christ?

Choose life when considering the plight of refugees. Choose life when confronted with those who are homeless. Choose life when the government cuts funding for food subsidies, access to health care, or acts to promote only the white, cis, wealthy, able-bodied, educated, and male people. Choose life, interdependence and sacred community, in every moment and in every decision or the Promised Land, the Kingdom of God, will never come any closer. Generations yet to come deserve better than captivity and oppression, don’t they?

RCL – Year A – Sixth Sunday after Epiphany – February 16, 2020
Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Psalm 119:1-8
1 Corinthians 3:1-9
Matthew 5:21-37

Photo: CC0image by Pexels

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Musings

On the Brink

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: CC0 image by Richard Mcall

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liturgy Prayer Uncategorized

A Plumb Line Prayer

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Amazing and merciful God, how easy it is for us to forget that we are your delight. You we rejoice when we follow your holy ways and envision a future of goodness and grace for all your people. We blame you for divisions and strife. We justify our wars by saying that you are on our side. We rationalize the abuse of our enemies by telling ourselves that they are not your people, that their sinfulness exceeds your tolerance. In truth, you have told us that we are to love our neighbors indiscriminately. Moreover, we are to love those with the greatest need more fiercely and more immediately. Shower us with your mercy, O God, until we live by the plumb line you have repeatedly dropped in our midst.

Patient and steadfast God, you continuously call us to live in peace, leaving none behind. We hear your call. We know that your love endures forever. What you ask of us is not beyond our reach; it is not higher than the heavens or on the outer edges of the sea. For all of Creation to live in justice is not an impossibility you hold up to tease us with what we cannot have. If we trust you, it is possible for us to turn aside from our human ways. It is possible for us to love with your love. Enter our lives anew, Holy One, silence our fears and smother our distrust that we may live in harmony with all.

God of wonder and mystery, you love us still. You love us when we are filled with fear. You love us when we are filled with hate. You love us when we are filled with judgment. You love us when we think we are better than our neighbors. You love us when we think are neighbors are better than us. You love us when we blame others for creating the chaos that flows through the world. You love us when we abdicate responsibility for engaging in justice work. You love us through all our foolishness. However, you delight in us when we act with love and seek to bring your realm into the here and now. Flood every corner of our being with the strength of your Spirit that we may have the courage to love with your love, always.

God of near and far places, how foolish we are when we think you are limited to one people, one language, one religion, one way of life. All people are stamped with your image. Every language has many names for you and words of praise for all that you are. At core, each religious tradition seeks to teach your holy ways and encourage us to follow them. You are the giver of all life. If we claim to follow in Christ’s way there is no room for hatred of peoples from other countries, those who speak other languages, those who call you by different names, and those whose culture is not our own. If we belong to Christ, then racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and all the other labels that thrive on our fear have no place in us. Heal our brokenness. May we live as one body with many parts.

Living, loving God, we are grateful for your patient love. Over and over again you call us by name, claim us as your beloved, and fill us with your Spirit. Hear our gratitude for your presence among us, your arms that hold us, your vision that sees our wholeness. May we trust in your love, your grace, your forgiveness as we seek to embody Christ more fully. May the praises we sing and the words of gratitude we whisper transform our fear into hope, our hatred into joy, our judgment into grace, and our ambivalence and apathy into action. We are your people. Your Spirit lives and moves in us. Let us trust in you enough to recognize you in ourselves and in all whom we meet.

Amen.

RCL – Year C – Fifth Sunday after Pentecost – July 14, 2019
Amos 7:7-17 with Psalm 82 or
Deuteronomy 30:9-14 with Psalm 25:1-10
Colossians 1:1-14
Luke 10:25-37

Photo: CC0 image by lumix

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Musings Sermon Starter

Agape: It’s a Noun and a Verb

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“Love your neighbor as yourself.” It’s simple, right? It’s the second greatest commandment that resembles the first – Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. We want these commandments to be easy just because they are simple statements. Neither of these is easy to do. Because they are aren’t as simple as they seem at first glance. The love being asked for here is “agape,” a selfless or godly love. In other words, we are supposed to love God and neighbor and our selves without consideration of risk or cost to our selves. It’s not so simple when considered from this perspective.

I used to think that people more readily loved others than themselves. Now I’m tempted to think that the reverse is true. And I don’t even want to raise the question of loving God. The truth is that we human beings are not very good at selfless love. We want to be, but I’m not sure that we are. Sometimes we get a glimpse of it between parents and children or spouses, but there’s something slippery about agape that makes it really hard for us.

Sometimes people go to great lengths to cover the suspicion that they are unworthy of love or unlovable. These folks will serve others to the point of self-depletion. If one does not love oneself, how is it possible to love the One who created all of us? A sense of being unworthy of love from God or others, often leaves a person trying to earn or prove their value through achieving perfection. This, in turn, can contribute to masking anything that is imperfect from addictions to mental health challenges to other ineffective coping behaviors. With this mindset, loving and accepting love becomes much more difficult.

The other side of this isn’t any better. There are people who live in fear of anyone perceived as “other.” Fear prevents love from taking hold. Fear keeps everyone at a distance and develops rules to keep the “right” people in and the “wrong” people out. How is it possible to agape (love selflessly or without condition) our neighbors if they are “other” with this kind of thinking? How is it possible to agape God if we fear so many who were also created by God and bear the image of God? How is it possible to truly love ourselves if everyone else is suspect? Fear feeds anger and anger feed hatred. Love in any form becomes limited.

This agape stuff is a challenge that most people don’t engage simply because we fool ourselves into thinking that we are doing it. If we love our neighbors more than ourselves, we tell ourselves that this is good enough. If we love ourselves more than our neighbors we justify our rejection of others with something seemingly biblical. I’m not sure too many folks even ask themselves if they agape God. That’s almost too big for most of us who are trying to get through each day.

Yet, agape is desperately needed in the world. We need people who love themselves enough to love their neighbor and their Creator. We need to reset our preset beliefs. God agapes us, all of us without exception and without limit. If we could live in this truth, the rest would be a lot easier. What if we preached this without fail – God loves you with God’s whole being and there is nothing you can do to change that fact? What if we asked those who live in fear to accept the idea that God’s love of “others” is independent of our judgements or approval? We have no impact on who it is that God agapes.

If that’s not enough, perhaps we can imagine a world in which every person knows that they are valuable and lovable simple because they are created in the image of God. This value is a gift given to all of us no matter who we are or how we move through this world or what we can or cannot do or what we do or do not achieve. If we accept Jesus’ message of love as real, then we must accept Jesus’ challenge to agape in return.

Who would not benefit from a dose of agape for themselves, their neighbors, or God? (And just imagine how agape could influence which political candidates we choose…)

Agape is our birthright. It is our neighbors’ birthright. It’s time we spread this Good News and live into the amazing gift we have been given.

RCL – Year B – Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Ruth 1:1-18
Psalm 146
Deuteronomy 6:1-9
Psalm 119:1-8
Hebrews 9:11-14
Mark 12:28-34

Photo: CC0 image by Gerd Altmann

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Musings

Jeans, a Bridge, and a Choice

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When I was in ninth grade, designer jeans were newly popular. Everyone I knew had at least one pair, or at least that’s what I thought. Those jeans were also quite pricey at $80.00 or more a pair. In the early 1980s that was a lot of money and more than I could afford. I remember asking for a pair of Calvin Klein jeans for Christmas. I knew the jeans were too expensive for anything other than a Christmas gift. I also knew my parents both had a tendency to get gifts similar to what I asked for, but not quite the thing I wanted. I remember the conversation I had with my mother when I told her I was going to ask my father to buy the jeans for me for Christmas.

“I’m going to ask Dad to get me Calvin Klein’s for Christmas.” I announced.

My mother looked at me and said, “Why do you want them? The jeans you have a perfectly fine.” Of course, she was right. The jeans I had were perfectly fine.

“Everyone has them. And I want a pair of Calvin Klein’s because Brooke Shields is their model.” Remember, I was 14 and always felt outside of things. Also, as a young teen I looked very much like Brooke Shields and was once mistaken for her during summer tourist season.

My mother told me I was “better than Brooke Shields” and didn’t need any fancy jeans. Then she continued with her version of some infamous parental words, “If all your friends were jumping off the Bourne Bridge (this is a 135 foot high bridge over the Cape Cod Canal), would you want to do it, too?”

Oddly enough, I did get those jeans for Christmas that year and they did not change my life in the way I had hoped. It turned out to be one of those life lessons I didn’t really pay attention to for a few more years. I thought wearing those specific jeans would somehow make me different. I would have more confidence, more friends, and my life would be like everyone else’s (whatever that might mean). None of that happened. Nothing I could wear or own was going to change the difficulties I would face in the months and years still ahead of me.

God puts before us the ways of life and death as is made clear in Deuteronomy as well as other places in the Bible. According to Sirach, if we choose, we can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of our own choice. The choice to go along with the crowd or go along with Christ is entirely ours. In the current U.S. political climate we would do well to remember that we can choose how we will act, what we will do, and what we will say. It would be easy enough to fall into a pattern of judgement and condemnation that serves no one. However, we are called to something else.

From years of working as a therapist and as a chaplain in a psychiatric hospital, I modified my mother’s question about jumping off the Bourne Bridge. When people tell me that they got into difficulty because “everyone was doing it” or that the other person “started it,” my response was that we should not allow other people’s behavior to determine our own. It’s easier said than done, of course. However, if we are seeking to follow the ways of life rather than the ways of death, not allowing ourselves to be pulled into the angry, fearful, controlling ways of the crowd around us is a good idea.

Remembering that the people of God have a long history of straying from God’s desires for us, of choosing pretty much everything other than the ways of life, can shift our perspective on what is happening now. God never abandoned God’s people in the past, no matter what choices they made or how dire the consequences. Instead, there was always a call to repentance and repentance would lead to rebuilding and restoration. It’s hard to repent when we are busy matching anger for anger or fear for fear. It’s much easier to repent and begin again when we remember that God’s love is ever before us. We have the choice to live in that love and embody hope or to remain a part of the crowd as it pushes and pulls along destructive paths.

Doing what everyone else seems to be doing will not get us to the place where we can make necessary changes. Now is not the time to blend in and go along, hoping life will get better. Now is the time to act faithfully, risk standing out, and embrace those ways of life God continuously sets before us.

RCL – Year A – Sixth Sunday after Epiphany – February 12, 2016
Deuteronomy 30:15-20 or
Sirach 15:15-20
Psalm 119:1-8
1 Corinthians 3:1-9
Matthew 5:21-37

Photo: CC0 image by Pexels

 

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Musings Sermon Starter Uncategorized

Choosing Life: Shouldn’t this be Easier?

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“Choose life,” the prophet says. Choose life over the deadly ways of lesser gods. Choose life over all that shines, sparkles, and glitters. Choose life over what you possess and over what possesses you. It sounds so easy and desirable. Sure, until Jesus comes along and names the cost right out loud. If we truly choose life, we have to let go of everything.

Years ago I had a therapist who told me that the choice to live or die was mine. She told me that I could choose to continue the self-destructive behavior patterns of my eating disorder and die, or I could choose to change my thoughts and behaviors and live. She made it sound so simple and so enticing. I wanted to choose to live. What she didn’t tell me is that it would be hard and it would be the background music of my life. She didn’t tell me how many things in the world would conspire against my choices, especially when I chose life.

During my second semester of college, I did start making healthier choices. However, there was a cost. Instead of focusing all my energy on food and the powerful cycle of starving, binging, and purging, I had to face the depression and trauma that led me down the eating disorder path. And it was ugly and painful and I didn’t want to deal with it. It was so much easier to “feel fat” than it was to feel pain, fear, and sadness. It was easier to run ten miles than it was to face the feeling of worthlessness that pursued me. It was easier to romance death than to embrace life. Embracing life meant accepting that the past could not be changed and that I had value as a human being, as a child of God. It also meant letting go of pain, anger, and fear. I had to let go of the very thing I thought defined me. Would people see me, recognize my suffering, if I weighed more than 100 pounds?

Choosing life was risky. I had to learn that I was more than a painful bundle of eating disordered thoughts and behaviors. I had to stop paying attention to the hyper-critical voices of self-hatred that had protected me from the intense pain of my childhood. Choosing life meant stepping out of the safety I had constructed and set out, instead, on a path that would lead me to discover just who it is that God created me to be.

Those early days of recovery were hard and painful beyond the words I have to describe them. In many ways they seem so distant from the person I am now. In other ways, they are closer than yesterday. Strangely, enough, I’m still not great at choosing life consistently. There are times when the eating disordered voices that still hum along in the back of my head get quite loud. It can take a lot of energy to ignore them sometimes. Though, choosing life is bigger than that these days.

Choosing life means letting go of the protections of privilege. Choosing life means taking a risk to try to alleviate someone else’s suffering and maybe getting it wrong. Choosing life means showing up to advocate for justice even when most would prefer to keep the systems of oppression in place. Choosing life means finding my own personal value without considering the numbers on the scale. Choosing life means letting go, every day, of the things I reach for to fill the empty places and define me to make room for the Spirit to move in my life in new ways. Choosing life means sitting still long enough to hear God’s voice and having the courage to respond. Choosing life means putting in the effort to live a life of love when it would be so much easier to give into the pervasive culture of anger and fear.

The problem is that these things are so hard. Jesus was pretty clear about that. Of course, he was pretty clear that while there’s a cost to choosing life, the reward is greater. I wish I was better at choosing life. I wish I didn’t get distracted by pretty things. I wish I wasn’t so quick to anger and could wake up joyful each day. I wish I never had to quiet the voices that tell me I’m not good enough and I’m too fat. However, I’ve never regretted choosing life. I’ve only regretted the times when I have chosen lesser gods.

From days long forgotten, God has been reminding us to choose life and warning us against the flimsy promises of false gods. God has also been quite clear about the costs of choosing life. We will have to let go of everything we think makes us who we are to make room for the Holy Spirit to shape us into who we were created to be. There’s nothing quite like choosing life to lead us into the presence of God. It’s too bad that there is something within us that is so reluctant to run full-speed down that path. In the meantime, there is grace.

O God, you have searched me and known me. 
You know when I sit down and when I rise up; 

you discern my thoughts from far away. 

You search out my path and my lying down, 

and are acquainted with all my ways.

RCL – Year C – Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost – September 4, 2016
Jeremiah 18:1-11 with Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18 or
Deuteronomy 30:15-20 with Psalm 1
Philemon 1:1-21
Luke 14:25-33

Photo: CC0 image by Jill Wellington

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Sermon Starter

Armageddon or Just Election Season?

At least once a week I participate in a conversation about the end of the world. For anyone who does not know, I am a chaplain at a state psychiatric hospital, and the conversation is common. Usually, my part is simply to listen as a patient tells me the clear signs that God is bringing about the end as predicted in the Bible. With floods, droughts, earthquakes, war, and a variety of pestilents, I can see why some would say the world is ending. This week, with the monstrous Sandy having blown down or flooded much of the eastern seaboard, more wild theories of Armageddon came my way than usual.

I do my best during these conversations to offer reassurance that the world is not ending. I agree that the weather has gotten frighteningly bizarre and war does seem endless, but these things do not mean that we are living in the End Times. Patients who are experiencing an increase in their religiosity due to illness aren’t easily persuaded that I am correct. I try to say that it might be the end of the world as we know it (complete with the R.E.M. song playing in my head), but my patients don’t really believe this either. My last option is usually to say, “If the world really is ending, what can you do?” The conversation then usually moves to focus on salvation (which I will save for another post).

Again, I will state that I do not believe that God is bringing about the end of the world. However, I do think the planet and its freaky weather are communicating that the end of something is potentially at hand. My “what can you do” question is relevant here, for sure. We cannot undo events of the past on any level, but we can do something that will impact our future. And we have some control over the direction of change.

In light of this week’s storm, I can’t help but hear this week’s scriptures as a challenge to live differently as individuals, communities, and countries, as human beings on this planet. Ruth’s proclamation to Naomi is passionate and powerful. What would happen if we put our whole selves into our significant relationships the way Ruth committed herself to her mother-in-law?

Now add to these the words of the Shema, The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” What would happen if we put our whole selves into our relationship with God?

If this is not enough to get us thinking about how we are living in this world, add in Jesus’ addition to loving the Lord that, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” What would happen if we cared for our neighbors exactly as we care for ourselves?

These are just a few thoughts to ponder in the aftermath of Sandy as we move closer to the elections. Whatever you do between now and next week, please vote and think about which candidate will more likely live out the answers to these questions in a world-changing way.

ImageRCL – Year B – The Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost – November 4, 2012

Series 1:
Ruth 1:1-18
Psalm 146
Series 2:
Deuteronomy 6:1-9
Psalm 119:1-8
Hebrews 9:11-14
Mark 12:28-34

(photo credit: http://looneytunes09.wordpress.com/)