Categories
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

Categories
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
Story

The Considerations of Chloe the Camel

Image of Rachael Keefe with two small camels in the foreground, a Christmas tree in the background, and a star in the upper right.

Chapter 1

Sometimes, being the youngest and smallest camel in the herd stinks! I want to run and run and run all the time! The grownup camels tell me that camels aren’t made for running; we are made for hard work and long journeys. Sometimes we carry things and sometimes we carry people. And we seldom run. If there was a fire in the stable, we might run. Otherwise, we lope along at a steady pace. Sure, we can drink like 50 gallons of water in about three minutes, and we can go for days and days without drinking again. This doesn’t make up for having to lope instead of run, though.

Hi, my name is Chloe and I want to make a case for why camels should run more. First, we can be really fast, like 40 miles per hour for shorter distances and about 25 miles an hour for longer ones. And, you know, it’s fun to run and run and run. The best part is that when you run you get to places quicker than if you don’t. And when you get to places more quickly, you don’t miss important stuff.

You see, there’s a group of people getting ready to go on a long journey. They want to follow a giant star that appeared in the sky just a few nights ago. They say that there is an important king that is going to be born under that star. I’m going to get to go with them because my parents help transport the important people. They can carry hundreds of pounds of stuff and, of course, the people themselves. I can’t carry that much, yet. I will someday, I’m sure. For now, I will probably travel with the workers, who will make sure there is food on the journey and help with the laundry and setting up camp while the group travels. It’ll be an adventure and that part will be fun. My parents have told me that there will be no running on the journey – absolutely none. I don’t think this is fair. If it’s such a long way and there’s going to be a baby born, shouldn’t we run to get there and not miss it?

The rest of the story is available here.

Licensing Information: “The Considerations of Chloe the Camel” is a story written by Rachael Keefe ©2020. It is licensed for non-commercial re-use without modification and with attribution. This means that you can use this text in its entirety in your own services, as long as you do not alter it and do provide a clear in-text citation denoting authorship of the story. You can read about the terms of this license here. Suggested format for in-text citation: 
“The Considerations of Chloe the Camel” by Rachael Keefe https://beachtheology.com ©2020. Used with permission. Full-text available at https://rachaelkeefe.wordpress.com/Optionally: Please comment to tell us where you are using the story – i.e. what church service. It’s not required, but we’d love to know how far the story goes this year. 

Here’s the video version for you to enjoy and share. Information about how to download for use in your services is in the video description

Merry Christmas!

Categories
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

Categories
Musings Sermon Starter

Salt… Salt… and more Salt…

Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth.” He wasn’t kidding or exaggerating or trying to make his disciples feel better. Salt that has been ruined and can’t be used any longer is only good for trampling under foot. I’m wondering if this isn’t exactly what has happened to the moderate to progressive branches of the church. Over the years, we have lost our saltiness. As we have rejected the doctrine and dogma of our more conservative siblings, we have failed to claim our saltiness. We have, in effect, allowed ourselves to be trampled nearly to death.

When I was fourteen, I stopped adding salt to foods. For decades I did not add salt to anything (except French fries). I didn’t cook with it or bake with it. The same blue canister of iodized salt sat on my pantry shelf for years. My reasons for not adding salt began with an eating disorder and an irrational fear that eating salt would make me gain weight. The behavior continued because I didn’t think about it; avoiding adding salt had become a habit. However, I had to change that habit a couple of years ago.

After a lifetime of health challenges I was diagnosed with POTS/Dysautonomia. I had to make several changes in my daily routine to help mitigate symptoms. One of the adjustments was a high sodium diet. All of a sudden I was adding salt to everything which unexpectedly made me crave more. Where once I had a lonely canister of unused salt in my cabinet, I now have several kinds of salt – flavors, textures, mixes – just so I can keep a higher level of sodium in my body. I never knew just how important salt could be.

Jesus knew the importance of salt. He knew it was needed for flavoring, for preserving, for healing. He knew how connected salt was to the Covenant God made with people of God. Salt was precious, necessary, and good. Everyone knew that. However, I’m betting the disciples were a bit surprised when Jesus told them they were salt. They weren’t to become salt. They didn’t have to cultivate or harvest anything to be the salt the world needed; they were salt. In that moment, they were salt. Wherever they went, they would be salt. Whatever they did, they would be salt. They were precious, necessary, and good. And they had work to do – enhancing the flavor of life with hope and grace, preserving relationships with forgiveness and mercy, and healing the broken and wounded places. Salt is vital for survival.

Now would be an excellent time to reclaim our saltiness. If ever there was a time when the world could use something life-giving and life-sustaining, it’s now. The Mainline church isn’t ordinary table salt and it shouldn’t be road salt either. Even though these things have their usefulness, if we’re going to be the salt of the earth in this present age, we need to pack in all the nutrients we can manage.

Let’s be pink Himalayan salt that surprises people with the minerals of advocacy and justice. Not all Christians are out there demanding an end to legal abortions. Not all Christians are out there crying for end LGBTQ+ rights. Not all Christians are out there upholding the racist criminal justice system.

Maybe you’d rather be applewood smoked sea salt. It has a punch that shows up unexpectedly, deepening the flavor of a dish. What if we showed up in those unexpected places asking for gun reform or healthcare reform or increasing minimum wage or fair housing? Would the conversation change with a compassionate Christian presence?

My personal favorite is salt infused with habanero peppers. It’s all about the saltiness and then comes the flavor-changing heat. This is a salt that can’t be ignored or overlooked. I’d like to be this kind of salt in the world. What if the church could bring this kind of power to it’s justice work? What if we could be all about life-changing presence? You know, feeding those who are hungry, liberating those who are oppressed, healing those who are sick… the kind of things that Jesus did. This would be some serious saltiness that would mitigate the flavor of hopelessness and despair that permeates the world.

It’s time we stop being afraid of the gifts we have been given. We have remained on the pantry shelf (or trampled underfoot) for far too long. What will happen if more of us publicly display the fact that we are the salt of the earth, we are the Body of Christ, we are the hope and healing of the world? What will happen if we trust what we have been given and follow Jesus? Maybe the world will start to crave more… Salt is precious, necessary, and good. Salt is vital for life. We are salt. The church is salt. Maybe we can live as if we believe this is true…

RCL – Year A – Fifth Sunday after Epiphany – February 9, 2020
Isaiah 58:1-9a, (9b-12)
Psalm 112:1-9 (10)
1 Corinthians 2:1-12, (13-16)
Matthew 5:13-20

Photo: CC0image by Susanne Jutzeler

Categories
Sermon Starter

Simple (and nearly impossible) Requirements

This post originally appeared on RevGalBogPals as the Revised Common Lectionary Post on January 28, 2020.

I have been thinking a lot about discipleship these days. It’s not a word that progressive, predominantly white churches are all that comfortable with. Yet, with the lectionary moving from the Magi showing up to pay homage to Jesus to Jesus’ baptism, and to the calling of the first disciples… Discipleship seems a reasonable thing to contemplate. What does it really mean to be a disciple of Christ in the year 2020? This week’s text go a long way toward answering this question.

We start of with what is probably one of the most well-known texts: “God, has told you what is good, O mortal; do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.” Nothing else is required. The finest sacrifices don’t matter. The largest donations don’t matter. We cannot purchase God’s heart; it isn’t for sale. Instead of focusing so much on our own lives, why not focus outside of ourselves. Where are we advocating for justice as individuals and as congregations? Where are we responding to our neighbors with loving-kindness? When and how do we walk humbly with God? I wish more people would hear the truth behind this popular verse. We are loved. We are saved. We are valued. Now let’s live in a way that demonstrates, that embodies, this truth for all people, for the whole of Creation. For Micah, discipleship would be what we do with our whole lives, not just with the pieces we offer up to God.

The psalmist emphasizes this point well in answering the question of who lives in God’s house. Who abides with God? The ones who do “what is right,” speak truth, and treat their neighbors with compassion and respect. The psalmist says nothing about those who attend worship regularly, make perfect sacrifices, or sing praises to God (loudly) in public spaces. It’s not about religious rituals performed on schedule; it’s about faithful living all the time, especially when it’s hard.

Paul’s writing in 1 Corinthians continues along these lines. When we get caught up in what the world expects and start living that way – seeking wealth and power while ignoring the impact on our neighbors – we end up living very foolishly in God’s eyes. How often do we mistake wisdom for folly? How often to we forget what God requires of us and make it more complex than it needs to be. Imagine a world in which we could live in the wisdom of God’s ways without having to comply with someone’s understanding of “Christian perfection”? What if we left out judgement about who’s in and who’s out and started encouraging each other to be wise in the ways of justice, kindness, and humility?

If we were able to do this, maybe the blessings in the Beatitudes would have more meaning, more depth. It’s hard to know, of course. But what if we started seeing all those folx on the margins, the folx the church has historically kept at a distance, as those who are blessed in the ways Jesus enumerated?

Blessed are those who live with severe and persistent mental illness (and cannot access the care they need), for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who have lost loved ones to suicide, gun violence, war, or natural disasters, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the refugees, asylum seekers,and immigrants who survive on the hopes of a better life, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger for justice and stop traffic on our streets with protests, for they will be filled.
Blessed are those who respond to their neighbors with loving-kindness, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are those who actively believe humanity can do better, for they will see God.
Blessed are the ones who risk their safety and well-being to create peace, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed those who are ridiculed and condemned for advocating for those on the margins, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people disrespect, dismiss, and lie about you because of the holy work of reparations, advocacy, and justice-making that you do.

What words do we most need to hear to awaken us to the beauty and simplicity of what God requires of us? We are blessed and we are to be blessings in the broken and forgotten places of the world. How do we let go of the non-essentials of being church and embrace the freedom God lays before us in asking that we do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God?

Photo: CC0 image by qcf-avocat

Categories
Musings Sermon Starter

Call Me Grateful (Mostly)

When I was very young, I wanted to be a marine biologist. I loved the beach in all seasons and collecting shells and rocks and discovering the names of them was one of the great joys of my early life. Then someone told me that in order to be a marine biologist I would have to go into the water… with the sharks. That was a heartbreaker and deal breaker. There was no way I was going into the ocean where sharks were waiting with all their sharp teeth. It took a few years before I discovered another possible career path.

A couple of years after my marine biology dreams were shattered, I read a book that made me want to be a missionary. I’d barely begun to attend Sunday School and had very spotty knowledge of Christianity, but the book I had read stirred something in me. I envisioned a life of travel and service in which I’d go to places in Africa, South America, or India and help dig wells or build schools or hospitals. My young self was deeply moved by the idea that making the world a better, safer, healthier place was a good way to serve God.

In my areligious family, the news of me wanting to be a missionary didn’t go over very well. So I kept it mostly to myself. In the next few years I would become more involved in church and I was intrigued by the idea of ministry in a church setting. I might have been 14 or 15 the first time I said it out loud. Somewhere in these formative years, my call to ministry solidified. And, yet, I was wholy unprepared for what responding to this call would mean.

It meant enduring prejudices and dismissals because I was a woman… distancing myself from the already strained relationships with my family of origin… coming to terms with my own limits and woundedness… confronting my own internal biases and racism and risking lending my voice to those so often unheard… advocating for justice when most people remain silent…  moving half-way across the country… challenging political systems of oppression… Essentially, following God’s call has proved to be the greatest challenge and the greatest joy in my life. I’ve learned a lot about grace and forgiveness from the times when I got it entirely wrong. These lessons have helped me cope with the pain and frustration that the institutional church’s reluctance to change has caused me, and with the rejection I’ve experienced at the hands of the church. At times I wanted to, and even tried to, walk away from ministry, from the church, and from God. Yet, God would not let me go… and I am grateful (mostly).

Reading Matthew’s account of the call of James and John, the sons of Zebedee today gives me a sense of affirmation. James and John, along with Andrew and Peter, followed Jesus without hesitation. For James and John, they left their father behind. For Andrew and Peter, they left their livelihood behind. Jesus was worth giving up the lives they might have planned. Jesus was worth leaving home and family, and all that was expected. Following Jesus gave them passion and purpose, and lives that changed the world.

I don’t think for a minute that my life has or will change the world, but following Jesus has filled my life with passion and purpose, enough to maybe save a few lives. Jesus called people to repent because the Kingdom of God is near. If we change our ways, that Kingdom will come closer. If we stop pretending that we have seen Isaiah’s “great light” and actually look for it, embrace it, and live it, that Kingdom will be so much closer. In fact, it might just become reality.

My life is not what my five-year-old self dreamed of. In fact, isn’t even what my thirty or forty-year old self dreamed of. Following Christ means giving up some self-focused dreams and making room for dreams bigger than we could imagine, dreams of bringing the Kingdom of God into the hear and now in a way that matters. Sometimes I dream of a church where grace and love thrive, where all human beings are truly welcome. Imagine how different things might be if we all had the courage of those first disciples, if we let go of what we thought our lives would be and followed Jesus into a future of endless possibilities…

RCL – Year A – Third Sunday after Epiphany – January 26, 2020
Isaiah 9:1-4
Psalm 27:1, 4-9
I Corinthians 1:10-18
Matthew 4:12-23

Photo: CC0image by Lukáš Skucius

Categories
Musings Sermon Starter Uncategorized

From the Edge of the Unimagined

What’s the point? Why bother? How is Christianity relevant today? You seem like a smart person, why spend your life working in a dying or irrelevant institution? These are just a few versions of the questions I routinely get from friends, strangers, and those seated next to me on airplanes. I usually respond by saying that this is what God has called me to do and be, and I find meaning, identity, and purpose in it. And then the inquirer changes the subject. In the few weeks since Christmas, I’ve been asking myself versions of these questions, too. I’ve been thinking about them, not because I agree with the presuppositions of the questioners, but because I care about the answer.

I’ve recently come to realize that I am part of a dying breed. I am a single career, seminary educated pastor. While I have traveled an unusual path in ministry and in life, the fact remains that I’ve been employed by church or by an institution in a religious role since I was nineteen years old. I have accumulated a lot of skills and more education than might be useful, but the fact remains that I have no other options without returning to school. Recognizing the shifting and changing (hopefully transformations) going on in Mainline denominations, I might not be working fulltime as a pastor until I retire. Many churches are small enough that they cannot sustain fulltime pastors and the larger congregations are still a bit reluctant to call women to their pulpits, let alone women who are not straight. Even so, I am committed to ministry, to church. And here’s why…

Human beings are better, more complete, when we reach beyond our own little lives and experiences. Left to my own devices, I am more inclined to go hide in the woods and ignore the rest of the world than I am to try to engage with it and heal the broken places. Yes, I am an introvert, but without God insisting that human beings are good and worthy of love, I would believe otherwise. God calls us to a greater awareness of ourselves, our neighbors, and Creation. We are good. Our neighbors are good. Creation is good. Now, trusting in this goodness, treat yourself, your neighbors, and the world with the love, forgiveness, kindness, mercy, grace that highlight that innate “goodness.” Maybe you are better person than I am, but I cannot do this on my own. I need God’s reminder that I am good and that the world is good in order to keep seeking beauty, to keep trying to bring more kindness than hurt into the world.

I think of John the Baptist who risked everything to point the way to Christ, Divine Love Incarnate. He lived on the fringes of society, where civilization and wilderness met. He ate weird food and wore inadequate clothing. He was wild and passionate. Out there on the wild side of the Jordan, he called for repentance. He baptized people to remind them that sin could be washed away and that a new way was possible. His passion was seemingly contagious since many came to be baptized. And then when Jesus showed up, the skies opened up and beloved became possible where it hadn’t been much imagined before.

John somehow understood that focusing on human beings and human actions and human sin was inadequate; there was more to life. God wanted to shift our focus and John the Baptist caught a piece of that. He didn’t care what people thought of him. He risked everything to point toward One greater than himself, One who would change everything. Of course, John was a little extreme and I’m not suggesting we all live as he did. However, I am suggesting that John had the right end of things. He believed passionately that there was a better way just ahead and he spent his life pointing toward that way. What do we all spend our lives passionately pointing toward?

I don’t particularly want to spend my time in the places where wilderness and civilization meet. On the other hand, I try to live where wild imagination and unexamined tradition might intersect. The worst thing to ever happen to the church was Bible literalism and the failure to recognize a God who loves first and foremost. From this perception of a legalistic, punishing God arose the need for personal salvation. The Christian focus on saving souls has left the church in tatters. Jesus’ call to love has been largely overlooked. At no point did Jesus say to make sure that a neighbor’s soul was saved from hell before ensuring that said neighbor had food, clothing, shelter, and community. Imagine a world in which we are all as free with our resources as Jesus was with his.

So what’s the point? Why church? For me it is a question of reaching beyond my own little life, beyond my own perceived limits and shortcomings to benefit of the greater good without negating myself. If I share my passion for saving lives and bringing healing into the world, maybe something new and good and transformative will happen, and others will join with me. Then we will have community in which we share the joys and struggles of seeking to bring Divine Love into the world. We will share in God’s love and the knowledge that we are not alone. Essentially, Micah had it right. If we want to be church, if we want to be the body of Christ in the world today, we must focus on justice, kindness, and moving humbly through the world trusting God’s presence.

The point is to leave the world a better place. I need religion to help me do that. For me, it’s Christianity. For you, it might be something else. However, if your religion is not helping you to find healing, hope, love, and joy for yourself and those around you, you might need a different path. For the time being, I’m going to try to follow John the Baptist’s example. I’m going to live on the edge of where society wants me to be, call for repentance, and proclaim that God is still wanting to that new thing so that we may live in peace on a thriving planet.

RCL – Year A – Second Sunday after Epiphany – January 19, 2020
Isaiah 49:1-7
Psalm 40:1-11
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
John 1:29-42

Photo: CC0image by SarahRichterArt

Categories
Musings Sermon Starter

How is it with Your Spirit?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: CC0image by Pablo Elices

Categories
Musings Sermon Starter

Learning from the Magi

In these last days of Christmas (even before the U.S. bombed Iran) I find myself wondering how many of us actually made the spiritual journey to Bethlehem. We spend the weeks before Christmas preparing for God coming into the world anew. We talk about it. We have special Advent studies and discussion groups. We gear our worship around preparing the way for God. We have pageants and caroling and gifts for those in need. Then Christmas happens and we forget that there are twelve days in the season. Twelve days to linger in Bethlehem asking ourselves what gifts we bring and what gifts we receive during this sacred season. On the brink of Epiphany, I wonder what new knowledge, new insight, new understandings have we gained? Are we literally seeing what might be right in front of us?

I don’t think we are. Some of us think the Bible has nothing to say to us today and others are still  insisting the Bible gives us the facts of how Jesus came into the world. You know, Jesus was born to a virgin named Mary. Moreover, he was born in a stable, lain in a manger, and the animals kept them all company because there was no room at the inn. There were angel appearances and prophetic dreams. We combine Matthew and Luke just so we can tell the story in a way fit for children to enact. When we insist the Bible is factual, we forget to ask why the stories are there. What spiritual truth do they point toward? What lesson might I learn from them? Yes, with God all things are possible so all the things could have happened exactly as they are written. However, life is seldom so neat and tidy as Bible stories might indicate. And so much is left out.

Think about the Magi who will soon arrive. Why would this story have been included in Matthew’s Gospel? Tradition tells us that there were three based on the three gifts named – gold, frankincense, and myrrh – and they came from outside of Israel. Maybe a group of scholars did actually travel from the East seeking an explanation for an astronomical event. Maybe the Magi signify something about Jesus’ importance near and far, within Israel and around the world. Maybe they also tell us something about what it means to make the journey to Bethlehem, something worth attending to.

These Magi traveled some distance and over many months, if not years. They brought gifts worthy of a king, possibly with more significance than that. They recognized something holy in the child. They experienced joy. They were also the recipients of one of those prophetic dreams; they were not to go back to Herod. They returned to their home country by a route that led them away from Herod. They were changed – by their travels, by encountering Herod, by being in Jesus’ presence, by prophetic dreams. What really made them go home by a different road?

This “home by another road” has always stood out to me. Maybe more so this year than in previous years because there is something to this. The Magi encountered fear and hatred in Herod and then Divine Love in Jesus. In response, they made a choice not to engage with fear and hatred again. This is the power of this story, at least it is in this moment.

I stumbled through Advent this year, lagging behind emotionally, spiritually, and physically. On the second day of Advent I got a pacemaker. Someone literally touched my heart and my heart did not respond well. I had repeated atrial fibrillation every time the doctor tried to attach the lead to my heart. Apparently this went on for nearly thirty minutes. Eventually, with repeated chemical cardioversion, my heart stabilized and the lead was attached. However, I am unsettled by it. Partly because it happened at all (I was not aware at the time, of course), though mostly because it is rather symbolic of how I have lived my life. I guard my heart and don’t react in any typical fashion when someone figuratively touches it. This all made my Advent journey rather complicated. Now it occurs to me that many of us guard our hearts, even from God.

We might navigate through Advent and make it to Bethlehem in time for the birth. We might even travel far like the Magi. However, when we get to the familiar manger seen, do we let it touch us in new ways? Are we at all open to God breaking into our lives, into the world once more? I suspect that I am not alone in reacting poorly to my heart being touched. Maybe this is why we have not learned the lesson of the Magi, we have not learned to return home by another road that does not engage with fear and hatred.

Since I received my pacemaker, my heart has beat steadily and my emotions have been all over the place. I’ve been cranky and impatient (mostly with myself because there are physical limitations) and I’ve been much more easily moved to tears. I find displays of generosity and concern bring tears to my eyes before I even register what I am witnessing or experiencing. A steady beat seems to indicate that my heart is less guarded.

My prayer for this New Year and, especially, this Epiphany Season, is for all of us to allow ourselves to be changed by Love that is always with us and for all of our hearts to be less guarded. The time has come for all of us to choose a road that does not engage with fear and hatred.

RCL – Year A – Epiphany – January 5, 2020
Isaiah 60:1-6
Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
Ephesians 3:1-12
Matthew 2:1-12

Photo: CC0image by Andrew Martin