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Mental Health Sunday: Toward a New Understanding

Image of black silhouettes of a people’s upper bodies with arms waving against a maroon background filled with pink hearts of different sizes.

In the United Church of Christ, this Sunday is Mental Health Sunday. Many congregations won’t choose to observe it at all, while a few will have Mental Health Sunday at a different point in the year. However, it isn’t something that should be overlooked or avoided. Church can be helpful or harmful, and our history indicates that we have harmed more than we’ve helped when it comes to mental health. Too many people, even in progressive congregations, still believe that mental illness is a punishment for sin, a character flaw, or evidence of insufficient faith. Isn’t it time we tell it like it is? Isn’t it time we end the silence and shatter the stigma surrounding mental illness in our churches?

Jesus said, “All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one” (John 17:11-12). He was speaking about his disciples then and now. He didn’t make any distinction among them. And, I’d bet that some of them had diagnosable mental health conditions. Think about Peter and is impulsiveness…

Anyway, Jesus claimed all who followed him as his people, given to him by God. In this prayer during the Farewell Discourses in John’s gospel, Jesus asks God to protect them and create wholeness among them – make them one. I wish this had happened then or was happening now. It isn’t a failure on God’s part to answer Jesus’ prayer. It is a failure on the part of the church to live as we have been called. We make judgments and live in fear, separated one from another when we don’t have to.

In biblical times demon possession and punishment for sin were the only way to understand mental illness. However, we know better now, or we should. Mental illness takes place in the brain. The brains of people with mental illness function differently and some differences are observable in brain imaging. We generally don’t say that cancer or heart disease are a punishment from God, though many might feel this way. We also don’t tend to blame people who are diagnosed with physical illness for their condition. Yet, we do when it comes to mental illness. Why is that?

The simple answer is that we are afraid. We are afraid that it could happen to us. Or we believe the misinformation that is out there that people who have severe and persistent mental illness are violent. Or we are fearful of saying or doing the wrong thing. As a result of our fear and, maybe, some ignorance, too, we remain silent and separated from our siblings who live with symptoms of mental illness. This is where stigma comes from. This is in direct opposition to how Jesus told us we are supposed to live – as one, one whole Body of Christ.

I can’t help but wonder if more people would find welcome in our congregations if we stopped being fearful and started to foster a sense of unity with all of our neighbors. If we endeavored to learn more about mental health conditions and stopped ignoring that 1 in 5 U.S. adults is diagnosed with a mental health condition, how might this change church? Wouldn’t the Body of Christ be healthier if we were to fully embrace all of our members, friends, and neighbors who live with mental illness?

Recently, I’ve learned about the term “bodymind” and I think Jesus would be a fan. Bodymind eliminates the dualism that Western traditions have created. Bodymind is all about the mind and body as a single unit and eliminates the distinction between physical health and mental health. Imagine the Body of Christ becoming the Bodymind of Christ… We would not longer have the option of pretending that mental illness isn’t part of the church. The silence would be broken and the stigma completely shattered, not to mention the sense of wholeness that this understanding could foster…

Isn’t it time that we work together to embrace the unity that Jesus prayed for among his followers? That they may be one… The Bodymind of Christ…

RCL – Year B – Seventh Sunday of Easter – May 16, 2021 Acts 1:15-17, 21-26  • Psalm 1  • 1 John 5:9-13  • John 17:6-19

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A Little More about Love

Image of two yellow ducklings facing each other, black beaks touching.

I wish love was simple and uncomplicated. Jesus talked about it so much because love challenges us, often to go beyond our perceived limits. I didn’t grow up with the best role models when it comes to love. I have no doubt that my parents did their best. Yet, what they communicated to me was that love was conditional, based on following the rules and being “good.” In many ways, the church communicated the same thing to me. Starting Sunday School at eight meant that I missed the basics of preschool and early elementary school. I didn’t learn “Jesus Loves Me,” the song, until I was in college, and by then it was almost too late.

In John’s gospel Jesus says, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” I wonder if that was hard for those first disciples to grasp. In my mind they were very young men, perhaps between the ages of 15 and 20 by the time Jesus would have spoken these words. They lived in a society very different from ours. What lessons had they learned about love before they met Jesus? Jesus spoke about agape, unconditional love, and it’s possible that no one else really did. Maybe they knew something of storge, affection, or philia, brotherly love or friendship, or eros, romantic love. But outside of the synagogue and the need to be involved in charity, where would they have encountered agape?

I don’t know. Certainly, anyone of them could have had an encounter with God that unfolded the meaning of agape for them. Or maybe being with Jesus for three years was enough for them to begin to grasp the meaning of Jesus’ commandment to “love one another as I have loved you.” I’d like to think those early disciples got it, understood it, and went on to live in relationship with each other guided by agape. However, what I remember about early church history indicates that they probably didn’t.

So this leads me to the question of how, when, and where do we experience agape today? If we’re lucky, we learn about unconditional love from our parents. And for those of us who weren’t lucky enough to have healthy, loving, emotive parents, then it would be great if the church would step in and fill that gap?

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Maybe we can dedicate the month to communicating the love we have for one another and for all our neighbors. What if everyone who joined our worship services or Bible studies or Sunday Schools heard and believed the message that they are God’s beloved, that they are loved and valued for who they are in this moment? What if we stopped caring about all those things we’ve labeled as sin, and just focused on loving whomever shows up?

How many lives could be saved if we communicated clearly that Queer folx are loved by God? That people with addictions are loved by God? That people with disabilities are loved by God? That people with mental illness are loved by God? That people experiencing homelessness are loved by God? That people who are divorced are loved by God? That women who’ve had abortions are loved by God? That people living in non monogamous relationships are loved by God? No change needed. Right now, whoever you are, whatever you are doing, whatever you are experiencing, you are loved by God. For real. Seriously, how many lives could be saved with this simple message?

In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, I invite every preacher, every church leader, to make agape the mission and the message. Let’s set aside everything we think makes proper theology and proper church practice and figure out how to embody agape for those who most need to know the saving power of God’s love for the whole of creation.

RCL – Year B – Sixth Sunday of Easter – May 9, 2021 Acts 10:44-48  • Psalm 98  • 1 John 5:1-6  • John 15:9-17

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Beloved, Let us Love

Image of a yellow lab looking into the eyes of a little girl whose back is to the camera. The background is grass and trees.

Sometimes I feel like I keep saying the same things and the echoes go on and on with no one listening. It’s how I’m feeling now as I contemplate the familiar words of 1 John 4:7-8: 4:7 Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. How have we failed to take in these words and let them shape our actions, our relationships, our communities? These words are not consistent with the ways in which we have divided ourselves one from another, even within Christianity, never mind outside of the church.

Hearing these words in conjunction with the story of Peter baptizing the eunuch in Acts and Jesus’ explanation of the vine and branches in John, I wonder how it is we have gotten to a place where church is declining. Peter had his misgivings about the eunuch and then could not refuse to baptize him when the opportunity came. Shouldn’t this story be an invitation for us to baptize all those who come seeking with passion and commitment? Moreover, shouldn’t this story invite us to journey with those we perceive to be different from us? I mean, we never really know through whom God is working, do we? Peter certainly didn’t think a eunuch would be called by God, and yet…

While I strongly suspect the words in John 15 about the vine and branches are more the Fourth Evangelist and less Jesus, there is truth in them, though maybe not the truth that is usually extracted from them. Jesus is the vine. God is the vinegrower. We are the branches. We are connected to one another and to the Sacred and function best when we live into that connectedness, that interdependence. Let’s not worry about who isn’t abiding in sacred community; that isn’t our job. Our job is to grow, to thrive, and to bear fruit, fruit that will last. Fruit that is nourishing and inviting for all those who feel disconnected and lost and, yet, are still seeking – maybe like that eunuch. Who can be part of the vine is not ours to determine; it is up to the vinegrower and the vine itself. We are simply meant to invite and enfold those around us with radical inclusion and hospitality. There’s nothing that says that every branch is identical or every fruit the same.

In a time when we long for pandemic to be over and we know that it is not, practicing love for one another must be our first priority. Now is not time to stop wearing masks, keeping physical distance, and staying apart. Those who say they are Christian and refuse to wear a mask and insist on acting as if pandemic were not real, are not loving their neighbors as themselves. 1 John isn’t talking about easy love, like loving chocolate cake or loving kittens, puppies, and babies. The writer is inviting us to live in the challenging kind of love, agape, the love that God has for the whole of Creation, the Love that Jesus embodied, the Love that the world could not tolerate, the Love that brings new life from dreadful tombs of death. This is hard and it takes our attention and intention. I’m not sure it comes naturally to human beings.

Think of all the ways in which human beings display their lack of love for neighbor and/or self. There are wars. There is gun violence. There is domestic violence. There is racism. There is White supremacy. There is fear of those who seem to be other. There is judgement. There is division created by human beings where God intended unity. What will it take for us to abide in Love, to attach ourselves to the vine in ways that bring new life to ourselves, our communities, our neighbors?

I honestly believe we can do better at embodying Divine Love. With intention, we can dismantle the systems of hatred and create systems of justice. Trusting that we are all Beloved and that God’s ways are all about Love, we can stop our fear-based responses and become better stewards of Creation, including church in all its varied forms.

May we all abide in Love, especially in the uncomfortable places, and allow that Love to calm our fears, educate our ignorance, and heal all that is broken – one person at a time if need be. Beloved, let us love one another…

RCL – Year B – Fifth Sunday of Easter – May 2, 2021 Acts 8:26-40  • Psalm 22:25-31  • 1 John 4:7-21  • John 15:1-8

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Silence is Compliance

Image of a shepherd with his dog and herd of sheep on a sunny, green hillside.

It’s been quite a week here in the Twin Cities, and in my life. The verdict of guilty on all three charges in the Chauvin trial shifted the mood considerably. There is now hope where there was none. However, this hope is mitigated by the killing of Daunte Wright, Adam Toledo, and Ma’Khia Bryant. So much work is before us still.

On a more personal note, I received my second vaccine with minor, though annoying, symptoms, completed a three-day training on the IDI (Intercultural Development Inventory), and observed the sixth anniversary of my mother’s death. As I said, it’s been a week.

Through all of this I’ve been thinking about the “Good Shepherd” passages. Psalm 23 is a popular favorite and Jesus’ claim to be the Good Shepherd in John’s gospel makes us generally feel good. It’s easy to picture God or Jesus as a good shepherd. We feel watched-over and protected. However, if Jesus is the Good Shepherd and we who are church members are the embodiment of Christ, then we are to be the Good Shepherd in the world. And this is where the challenge is. We are to follow and to embody all at the same time. We aren’t doing very well at either, most days anyway.

Jesus said he was the Good Shepherd who would lay down his life for his own. And, of course, he did. Jesus died at the hands of those who could not tolerate Love Incarnate, those who were enamored with the power, position, prestige, and promises granted by the Empire. Jesus challenged the authorities (both Jewish and Roman) of his day at every opportunity. He sought to literally re-member (connect or reconnect) the outcasts with community. He sought to empower the people to live into their relationship with God.

Jesus was a threat to those with power and a friend to the oppressed. We are called to embody those qualities – challenge the Empire and befriend the oppressed. This is the Good Shepherd we say we follow. Are we willing to lay down our lives for the benefit of those who are oppressed, cast out, dismissed, devalued, or dehumanized? If not, how closely do we follow this Shepherd? How do we embody the Love the Good Shepherd demonstrated for the whole of the cosmos?

I’m not saying we all have to go out and risk our lives in a literal way. I’m suggesting that we have to more actively put our lives on the line. You know, take risks to ensure that these modern day lynchings of Black and Brown adults and children come to an end. The conviction of Chauvin is a good start. It is not enough, though. We need more. We need to keep advocating for murder charges to be brought against police officers who shoot and/or kill Black and Brown people with no good reason. We who identify as White progressive Christians need to learn how to amplify the voices of those calling for the abolishment of police and the dismantling of the criminal legal system, and all the other systems that thrive on White supremacy and racism. Can we say we follow the Good Shepherd if we continue to remain on the sidelines in silence? Can we say we embody Christ if we are seeking justice for all people?

In case it isn’t clear, I’m really wondering what it means to be Christian in the U.S. in this moment in history. I know that my own views have radically changed over the last decade or more, particularly in the last 6.5 years I’ve lived in Minnesota. My shift in perspective is due in part to Black Lives Matter and participating in marches, rallies, and protests and really listening to POC in my community. If Jesus is Divine Love Incarnate and the church is the embodiment of that Love, then we have a lot of crap to clean up before we can claim that it is true. Silence is compliance, and White progressive Christians have been silent for far too long. We have also created the illusion that we “welcome all.” Most congregations don’t welcome all. My friends, if one member of the Body of Christ is a White Supremacist, then the Body of Christ is a White Supremacist. If one member of the Body of Christ has benefited or continues to benefit from White supremacy, then the Body of Christ benefits from White supremacy. If one member of the Body of Christ is racist, then the Body of Christ is racist. This is not what Jesus would want for his followers. This is not what it means to be the embodiment of the Good Shepherd.

If we want to be led to those green pastures and still waters, then we must do our part to remove everything that has prevented the grass from growing and everything that has polluted the waters. Isn’t it time we do better? Isn’t it time we actively participate in mending and healing what we have broken?

The Shepherd waits.

RCL – Year B – Fourth Sunday of Easter – April 25, 2021 Acts 8:26-40  • Psalm 22:25-31  • 1 John 4:7-21  • John 15:1-8

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No Justice. No Peace.

Image of large crowd of protesters holding sings that say, “Stop Racism Now,” “Black Lives Matter,” and “No Justice. No Peace.”

There is no peace here. Jesus may have breathed peace on his disciples. However, many have turned away from the peace he both breathed and embodied. Jesus exhaled peace on his disciples so that they might become the Body of Christ, the Spirit of God embodied in a world with much need. The primary purpose of the disciple was to continue the work that Jesus began when Jesus no longer lived in the flesh. And this has been the challenge since the very early days of the church, has it not?

From the beginning, Jesus’ disciples could not agree on what it meant to be the Body of Christ. They argued about whether or not one had to be Jewish in order to be a follower of Christ. They argued about traditions and teachers and what they could and could not do as members of Christ’s Body. And here we are, 2000 years later still arguing, still divided, still focused on everything other than embodying the peace Jesus passed on to his first disciples.

I live in and work in the Twin Cities. As you know, a police officer shot and killed yet another unarmed Black man last Sunday afternoon. Daunte Wright’s murder comes in the middle of the trial of the officer who killed George Floyd less than a year ago. My friends who are Black have expressed fear and anxiety for themselves, for their spouses, and especially for their sons. My friends who are White have expressed concern for the officer who shot Daunte and questioned whether or not Chauvin (the officer who killed Floyd) will have a fair trial. White folx have a hard time attributing these murders to the White supremacy that our entire criminal legal system is built on. Black folx have been shouting “Stop killing us” at rallies, marches, and protests for years. They also cry out, “No justice. No peace.”

No justice. No peace. This is Truth beyond the capacity of most White Christians to admit. As long as we continue to buy into the narrative that excuses police killing POC, we are perpetuating White supremacy and sustaining its lethality. How can any of us call ourselves Christian and believe that a police officer has the right to kill unarmed POC? Daunte Wright was pulled over because he was a young Black man driving a car. The police can say it was because his tags were expired, and that is just an excuse. My wife’s tags were expired for six months in 2020 before either of noticed. And she was never pulled over. In fact there are currently over 600,000 expired tags in Minnesota at this moment. Are they all going to be stopped by police and then shot? I doubt it.

Yes, I know they also discovered that Daunte had a warrant out for his arrest. Why? He had misdemeanor charges and failed to appear in court because the summons was sent to his previous address. He did nothing that justifies his death. And now another child will grow up without a father because those with power cannot imagine giving up the power White supremacy gives them.

My friends, as Christians we are the embodiment of the Risen Christ. Jesus did not care about saving souls. He did not care about literally interpreting scripture. He did not judge the actions of those with whom he disagreed. Jesus was all about saving lives, fostering wholeness, re-membering people into community. He was about empowering those whom the Empire had oppressed. He wanted everyone to know the Love of God through the ways in which he loved.

If you are among those who have been silent about White supremacy in our criminal legal system and in every institution in our society, now would be a good time to ask yourself why you have been silent. Really, what would Jesus have us do? Surely, silence or, worse, continuing to believe the White supremacist narratives of the empire, is not what Jesus would have us do. If we are the embodiment of the Risen Christ, then we are to be about breathing peace into the world. And we know beyond any doubt that if there is no justice, there will be no peace.

Will you commit to ending the oppression of the empire and eradicating White supremacy where you encounter it? We have a sacred duty to repair what we human beings have broken. Jesus said, “Peace be with you.” And he breathed the Spirit on a group of Brown-skinned people. We White-skinned people have wrongfully and selfishly hoarded that peace for far too long.

What are we going to do to embody the Risen Christ in a way that literally saves lives and ends our silent complicity in the on-going violence against POC?

RCL – Year B – Third Sunday of Easter – April 18, 2021
Acts 3:12-19  • Psalm 4  • 1 John 3:1-7  • Luke 24:36b-48

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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

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Celebrating Resurrection

Image of a tan baby bunny sitting in front of a bird’s nest with 3 colored eggs. All in a green field with small, white flowers.

A sense of Resurrection hit me early this year. Yesterday I was able to get a vaccine sooner than I had anticipated. I needed to be in a hospital setting because of my medical conditions and the possibility of an allergic reaction. I have been on all kinds of waiting lists for a few weeks and had to turn down one place because it wasn’t a hospital. Yesterday, though, my wife came home from a morning appointment at the VA (she’s a veteran) and told me that if I went there right then, I could get a vaccine. Good news, indeed. I have had to keep my exposure to the world so minimal over the last 13 months because of my high risk. Now I am imagining what I can do five weeks from now when I am fully vaccinated. It won’t be anything exciting by most people’s standards. Just things like the dentist, the ophthalmologist, a mammogram, and in-person PT for my frozen shoulder. I might be brave enough to go to the Asian market for somethings that aren’t available on Instacart, though I won’t go in if it’s too crowded. I also like to dream about having friends who also vaccinated over this summer – outside, masked, and distanced, of course. It feels like a bit of resurrection is on the horizon.

I can’t help but think of the heavy grief those women carried to Jesus’ tomb along with the anointing spices. They had no idea that they would be greeted by Resurrection. By John’s account, Mary Magdalene mistook the Risen Christ for the gardener. Imagine how much her spirits lifted when she recognized her beloved friend, rabbi, teacher. By Mark’s account the women were terrified by the very idea of Resurrection; they ran away. I get that. If I had been there, I would have dropped my anointing spices and ran for home. No one expects the power of God to change the laws of nature. No one expects Resurrection and when it happens we should be awestruck, if not also filled with fear and trembling.

Even today. Yes, today, when we encounter Resurrection, we must also be open to the awe, or the fear, or the terror. God’s power is so much more than anything we encounter on a day-to-day basis. And, let’s face it, these days we are weighed down by the grief we carry. All of us know at least one person who has died from COVID. Most of us know many. And then there is the loss of “normal,” whatever that meant for us. When we encounter Resurrection this year, will the heaviness of the grief we carry lessen? Will we be able to breathe a little more deeply with the reminder that God is truly with us through everything?

Also, with the Resurrection comes the knowledge that nothing will ever be “normal” again. Encounters with the Risen Christ were not the same as being with Jesus before his death. He was different. He had to identify himself every time he showed up for any of his disciples. New Life means different life. This is good for us to remember as we look at the end of pandemic, whenever it comes. There are things that will never be the same again. Masking in public is likely here to stay. Handshakes are probably a thing of the past. Many of us will never feel comfortable being part of a large crowd again. Some of us will be reluctant to eat in restaurants or even get takeout again. And church will be different, too. We don’t know when or if we’ll be able to sing together again. We won’t pass the offering plate or pass the Peace. We won’t be handing out bulletins or casually hugging each other. Who knows what kinship time will look like. Are potlucks a thing of the past? Church might have to take a cue from the Resurrected Christ and be different in appearance and action.

While most of us resist change and long to “get back to normal,” Resurrection reminds us that this is not how the Body of Christ started out. We, as church, have an amazing opportunity to appear and behave differently, like the Resurrected Christ. Maybe we won’t have to point out our wounds or explain that we are still the church, yet we can embrace transformation. We can emerge from pandemic very unlike we were prior. Yes, it’s scary not to know the future shape we will take. Yes, it’s uncomfortable to take risks. Yes, it seems counterintuitive to intentionally embrace more change when so much has already changed. Some may, in fact, run away in fear. That’s okay. The women ran away at first. Yet, we know they told the story at some point because here we are a couple thousand years later.

With the promise of new life, life after pandemic, on the horizon, may we all embrace the power and truth of Resurrection this Easter. May we move through our fear and welcome the differences that will eventually become normative. May our congregations live into transformation and Resurrection in a way that beckons to those who have yet to find welcome in the church. It’s okay to be anxious or afraid. We have yet to know what resurrection will look like in the wake of pandemic. We are still caught somewhere between Maundy Thursday and Easter morning. We will celebrate Easter in spirit this week. It may be several more months before we get to experience New Life in-person. The key is to be open to whatever comes and give thanks for the promise of Resurrection.

Happy Easter!

Looking for sermon help? Try here.

RCL – Year B – Easter – April 4, 2021

Acts 10:34-43 or Isaiah 25:6-9  • Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24  • 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 or Acts 10:34-43  • John 20:1-18 or Mark 16:1-8

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Theological Math: We All Add Up to One (at least that’s what Jesus said… um… prayed)

We are connected, you and I, to every other person on the planet, and to the planet itself. If a global pandemic does not awaken us to this truth, nothing will. By the time this pandemic is over, everyone will be touched by it. Most will have lost a loved one to the virus. Many will have lived through having had it. All of our lives will be different from this time forward. Grief is now a universal and simultaneous experience. We are all grieving something. Perhaps the loss of freedom to come and go as we choose. Maybe the loss of employment. Maybe the loss of in-person socializing. Maybe the loss of a loved one. Maybe the heaviness of universal grief weighs on you. These are hard days for all of us. No one is exempt.

If it takes a pandemic to recognize the unity of humanity and creation, what will it take for us to sustain this awareness when we return to healthier days? We are united in sickness and grief. Can we ever be united in health and wholeness? Can we extend the small acts of kindness we offer to one another to those we do not know? If the pandemic has woken us up to the depth of injustice, will a return to health enable us to heal what is broken in systems of justice, education, healthcare, housing, and even religious institutions? I don’t know. I would like to think that the answer is yes, particularly when talking about churches.

Jesus’ prayer for his followers then is his prayer for his followers now – oneness. We are to be one with each other just as Jesus is one with God. That’s intense, isn’t it? However, our society loves kyriarchy. We are conditioned from an early age to believe certain things whether they are true or not. We are taught that some people are better than others even though there is no biblical evidence of this. We are taught that some jobs are more valuable than others simply because they pay more. We are conditioned to “lord it over” someone from the time we are very little. Men are better than women. Binary is better than diversity. White is better than Black. Gay is better than straight. Able is better than disabled. Healthy is better than sick. Perceived wholeness is better than visible brokenness. Skinny is better than fat. And on down the list. None of these things are true and, yet, we turn ourselves inside out and upside down trying to comply with these social norms. To what end?

COVID-19 has highlighted some shortfalls, some sins, some awful systemic flaws in our society that are built on kyriarchy. Even the church in some, if not all of its forms, will tell us that the wealthy are more blessed than the poor. So when those who live in poverty and those who experience homelessness are dying at a higher rate than others during this pandemic, we are inclined to blame the victims. We want to say that People of Color, particularly Black people, are dying from this virus because of the choices they have made. This, my friends, is kyriarchy in general and racism specifically. We have participated in a culture that preferences white over black (and all other POC), conservative Christian over all other religious identities, cis males over all other gender identities and expressions, perceived mental and physical wellness over visible illness or disability in body, mind, or spirit, and more culturally determined preferences as well. Where is the oneness Jesus desires for those who follow him? Where is the oneness with ourselves, our neighbors, and Creation, let alone with God?

If we learn anything from this pandemic, may it be that we are all connected. When we do not embrace this connectedness, people die and the planet is damaged. We have kept God waiting long enough, don’t you think? Now would be an excellent time to seek to strengthen our relationships, to built the unity God desires for us. Yes, it is possible to read scripture in a way that says, “unless you are like me, then you are outside of God’s saving love.” This reading is inconsistent with Jesus’ desire for oneness among his followers, oneness built on and consisting of Divine Love. Maybe the pandemic can remind us that anything that is not Love is not from God. And when we remember this, we are better equipped to reach out to those we have perceived to be lower than us on the ladder of privilege (and socially constructed preference) and endeavor to raise them up until there is no more “us and them.”

Now is a good time to put on your mask, even if you don’t think you need it, to show how much you value your neighbors. Then stay six feet from anyone you are not living with (unless your job requires something different) and greet all your neighbors with a friendly wave and “hello.” And while we are at it, keep worshiping online. It is more inclusive, more loving than any way we can worship right now. There’s no limit to the number who can come together, no prohibition on singing or communion or passing the Peace or collecting the offering, and no need for masks, gloves, or cleaning everything when service is over. Let’s take a moment to breathe deeply and contemplate how we as the Body of Christ can best foster oneness and build unity among all people. Perhaps we can bring God’s long wait for us to recognize the humanity and divinity in all our neighbors to and end.

RCL – Year A – Seventh Sunday of Easter – May 24, 2020
Acts 1:6-14
Ps 68:1-10, 32-35
1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11
John 17:1-11

Photo: CC0image by Pete Linforth

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Musings Sermon Starter

Chaos, Church, and Butterfly Wings

My favorite seminary professor, Dr. James Loder, often referenced physics when discussing theology. Every time I went to his office I was fascinated by the equations and notes that covered the white boards on his walls. Very little of it made sense to me. However, when Dr. Loder spoke, and shared his views on how string theory and chaos theory made profound theological sense, I could almost feel new understanding opening up in my brain. I’d never had a physics class and yet, it was clear to me in those long conversations how closely related science and theology really were. There were remarkable things that physics explained that could be metaphors for some theological concepts and, sometimes the reverse was also true.

I am reminded of this as I read Jesus’ words in John’s Gospel, “…you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” At first these words are nearly impossible to comprehend in any way. Then I thought of the “butterfly effect” in chaos theory. The popularization of of this is the idea that a butterfly flaps its wings in Japan which sets off a series of meteorological events that results in an earthquake in California. My take away is that everything in the universe is more deeply connected than we can even begin to understand. Jesus’ words say this on a more personal level. We are more deeply connected to God and to one another than we can even begin to understand.

With over 300,000 COVID-19 deaths around the world and nearly 90,000 in the US, we are connected by grief, whether we want to acknowledge it or not. What we do impacts our neighbors near and far, whether we admit it or not. Those of us who are rushing back out into the world because we are desperate to “get back to normal,” may be risking their lives or the lives of their neighbors. What we do in the world effects others. We can’t get away from this truth. The more we refuse to look at the truth of this pandemic, the more lives we put at risk. The more we put our individual needs ahead of the greater good, the more lives we put at risk. Who knows how many lives can be changed by one unmasked cough or sneeze or the runner or cyclist who refuses to mask and doesn’t maintain physical distance as they hurry on by.

When Jesus spoke of the indwelling nature of God, he was trying to assure his disciples that they would not be abandoned or forgotten after his death. In fact, the more love they shared, the more deeply they would be connected to each other, to him, and to the One who sent him. That was supposed to be good news. Perhaps it was for those first disciples. Perhaps it’s just us later disciples who have forgotten that we are not alone and that God dwells within us and is made known in our relationships – our words and our actions.

It’s not that I don’t want to resume the activities I enjoyed before the pandemic. I do just as much as anyone else does. I want to be able to gather with friends and family, and resume traveling for vacation and conferences. I want to be able to go to a grocery story or whatever. And, yes, I want to gather for worship with my congregation again. Yet, I will not do these things and I ask you not to do them, either, if you do not have to. No one is immune to COVID-19. Any of us could be asymptomatic carriers. I will not knowingly risk my life or anyone else’s. We know that the activities that are at the core of our worship services would be risky. Singing, passing the peace, communion, all have serious risks.

Remember Jesus’s words about how intimately connected we are? Who among us wants to be the butterfly that causes the earthquake, the vector that spreads disease? In the U.S. we can’t even seem to own our collective grief, let alone acknowledge our responsibility one to another. If we think of the indwelling nature of God and how Love unifies us, could this prompt the church to lead the world in maintaining safety for the vulnerable among us? Could it be that the most Loving thing we can do right now is to continue to worship online, continue to stay at home as much as humanly possible, continue to love our neighbors by keeping our germs to ourselves?

If I understand Jesus words at all, it is Divine Love which dwells within us and connects us with our neighbors because Divine Love dwells in them as well. When one of us disregards this Love, then we put all of us at risk. When one of us forgets this Love, all of us are in jeopardy. If one of us is vulnerable, all of us are vulnerable. My friends, the Body of Christ has COVID-19. It is up to us to see that life-sustaining resources are shared until healing comes for all. Let’s not be so hasty to resume old habits. Let’s be patient and see what new life is emerging in the midst of sickness, death, and grief.

We are not orphaned. We are loved by an indwelling God. May Love guide us to new ways of living and being so that our actions may lead to healing, health, and wholeness rather than sickness, death, and grief. When we as the Body of Christ flap our metaphoric wings, may the resulting winds open up new possibilities for life and Love.

RCL – Year A – Sixth Sunday of Easter – May 17, 2020
Acts 17:22-31
Psalm 66:8-20
1 Peter 3:13-22
John 14:15-21

Photo: CC-BY-NC image by Rachael Keefe

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Musings Sermon Starter

The Way. The Truth. The Life.

The way. The truth. The life. These words may not mean what you think. They are not a claim on the superiority of Christianity. They are not meant to raise Jesus followers to an elite status. Jesus spoke them (at least according to the writer of the Fourth Gospel) to his disciples in order to prepare them for his impending death. In John’s Gospel Jesus makes a valiant effort to remind his disciples of everything he taught them in the few days before his crucifixion. He knew they would literally be afraid for their lives and worried about what would happen in those first weeks after his death. It would be a while before they realized that he had been preparing them to continue his work for the entire time they had followed him. The disciples tended to be slow learners.

This means there is hope for us. We who are followers today are also slow to remember all that Jesus taught. Even though who know the whole story of ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection and we have had a couple thousand years to embody Jesus’ teachings, we still don’t quite manage to do it. Here we are in days that are strikingly similar to the days that Jesus tried to prepare his disciples for while they struggled with what he told them. We, too, are afraid to be out in the world because we could catch a deadly virus (and yes, there are those among us who are afraid to go out in the world because those with power could kill them). We, too, are heavily burdened by grief – the loss of loved ones, the loss of connections, the loss of some freedom of movement, the loss of jobs, and more. With all of this and more, it is hard to remember, let alone emobdy, what Jesus taught.

While we cannot imagine that there is a way through these days of COVID-19, Jesus reminds us that there is. God’s way will get us through. More specifically, the Way that Jesus embodied – the way of Love. If we remember that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves and care for the most vulnerable among us, we increase the odds that we will survive this pandemic. The most loving things we can do right now are to maintain physical distancing, stay home as much as possible, and wear a mask when we do need to go out. Then we can think about what we need and what our neighbors need. We don’t need to hoard toilet paper or cleaning products. We don’t need to fill our freezers with meat. We can take only what we need so that there will be enough for all. We can live with an abundance mentality in spite of the government’s emphasis on scarcity. We can care for our neighbors when the current Administration would rather keep us divided. Yes, the Way of Love will get us through much of what troubles us these days.

When we need guidance on this Way, then we can reflect on what Jesus lived and taught as Truth. Truth is often difficult to uncover these days. However, I’m not talking about facts, necessarily. I’m talking about the Truth of our need for one another. The Truth that we are not in this alone and we will only make it through by recognizing how interdependent we are. No one is outside of God’s reach. No one is beyond the need to be seen and re-membered, re-connected (or connected for the first time) to a loving community. If we say we are Christians, followers of Christ, then the Truth we must embody is that God’s Love is for all people and we are to be agents of that Love. This means dismantling white supremacy that is ingrained into all U.S. systems and institutions. This means believing that no one deserves COVID-19 just as no one deserves to live in poverty without access to adequate healthcare and doing something about it. No one deserves the pain and grief of this pandemic. The Truth is that this virus is not from God and it is the Way of Love that will enable us to navigate to the other side. We need each other to ensure that no one goes unseen and that the foolishness coming out of Washington does not go unchallenged.

Life is what happens most abundantly when we are united by Love. Jesus made this clear over and over again. If we want to have life, then we must love. Love as Jesus loved. Love our neighbors as ourselves. We need to be known for our Love. Simple enough, right? Nope. It wasn’t simple for the first disciples and it’s not simple for us. This is why Jesus told them not to let their hearts be troubled or afraid. He knew just how easy it was for human beings to be consumed by worry and fear, how easily we are led away from the hard Way of Love. It doesn’t make us bad people, this tendency to wander from the Way. It means we are human and that we need to be reminded of all that Jesus taught again and again. Maybe even more now in the midst of this global crisis. We can have life. We know how to attain it. More importantly, we know how to share its abundance. We can do it…when we remember.

Let’s all take a deep breath and relax a little bit. We have what we need in this moment. We do know the Way, the Truth, and the Life. We know the house of God has room enough for all. We can be agents of this Good News. When we are exhausted from too much Zoom, trying to be teachers and parents to our children while working full time from home, figuring out how to stretch our diminished paychecks, sorting through the news, looking for hope, carrying grief, and all the tiring things that come from staying at home and missing the life we had, it is possible to take a breath. It is possible to reach through our exhausting to connect with someone who feels alone and hopeless.

Jesus knew what he was doing when he spoke to his disciples in those days before his death. May his words speak to us now and remind us of all that we know. May we be the embodiment of the Way, the Truth, and the Life in this time of crisis, fear, and isolation.

RCL – Year A – Fifth Sunday of Easter – May 10, 2020
Acts 7:55-60
Psalm 31:1-5,15-16
1 Peter 2:2-10
John 14:1-14

Photo: CC0image by JamesDemers