Categories
Musings Sermon Starter

A Change of Clothing

Image of a hiker overlooking a mountain trail

I’m taking a class on discernment this fall as part of a graduate certificate program in spiritual direction. Up until now I had always considered discernment as the process of making big life decisions and was startled to discover that discernment is best when it is an intentional part of daily life. I say “intentional” because many of us engage in discernment without conscious thought. However, think of the possibilities if we were to all intentionally seek out what God desires for us in every day. I don’t mean in a ritualistic way that can become rote practice. I mean in a way that takes us deep within ourselves to discover the Holy and allows us to draw that holiness out into our daily lives. We would be better equipped to care for our neighbors, ourselves, and the planet.

In the context of discernment, Paul’s words to the church in Philippi make far more sense. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (4:4-7). If we are reaching for the Holy that lies within us every day, then it is easier to connect with the Holy around us. Rejoicing in the Lord always becomes a very real possibility. Then we can pray with gratitude and open the way for peace to flood our lives. It’s not as easy as it is simple, of course. Yet, this speaks to a yearning of my spirit and maybe to yours as well.

These days it is not easy to find peace, and if we find it, it is fleeting. This is likely because we think peace and passivity are linked. However, it is possible to act out of peacefulness. It is possible to be guided by passion and cling to the peace that Paul wrote about. Even in pandemic, it is possible to seek peace in our lives and offer peace to our neighbors. The key is to avoid getting caught up in the fear and chaos that abounds.

Remember the Israelites in their desert wanderings? As soon as Moses was gone from them for a few days they demanded that Aaron make a god they could see and touch. While I don’t think many of us are creating golden calves, we are often lured away to worship gods of our own making. These are the gods that thrive on fear and chaos and gain power in our distress. The path to worshiping these demanding gods is much easier to follow than the path of the God who desires us to be at peace in ourselves and in the world. Is it possible for any of us to sit still long enough to (re)discover the holiness that is our very core? Is it possible for us to pull away from the chaos and fear that so easily grasps our attention and focus on what is good and kind and beneficial to all?

I think so. Jesus certainly believed it was possible. Why tell the parable of the wedding banquet if Jesus didn’t believe that we are capable of seeking what is good? We have been invited to a feast and we often fail to attend. When we are summoned, when we feel the pull of the Spirit, it is best we follow. There is a seat at the table for all. However, we cannot go clothed with our ego and our own desires. We must go with clothed with the peace of Christ, with humility, with love. It is better we ignore the invitation than go without the proper clothing.

Discernment, looking for the pull of the Spirit, seeking the banquet invitation, is a daily activity the deserves more of our attention. We might find ourselves in strange company if we genuinely ask what God would have us do on a daily basis. We might discover that we have a whole new wardrobe to wear as we offer ourselves in service to our neighbors, to God. Isn’t it time we leave behind the ways of idol worship? We need not wander in the wilderness of fear, anxiety, hatred, or violence any longer. There is truly a better way. I intend to seek it out. Will you join me?

RCL – Year A – Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost – October 11, 2020
Exodus 32:1-14 with Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23 or
Isaiah 25:1-9 with Psalm 23
Philippians 4:1-9
Matthew 22:1-14

Photo: CC0image by Dariusz Staniszewski

Categories
Musings Sermon Starter

The Fallacy of a Christian Nation

At this moment the U.S. leads the world in the number of new COVID-19 cases. We can add this to the list that includes the highest rate of mass shootings and mass incarceration. None of these things are brag-worthy. In fact, they are shameful, as is every act of the current Administration that removes protections and rights from any group of peoples. Police violence and shootings are probably high on the list of what this country has more than other countries, too. I’m appalled any time someone insists on the U.S. being a “Christian nation.” If this were, in fact, a Christian nation we’d be in better shape. More people would be wearing masks and physical distancing out of love for neighbor if not self. We would have limited access to guns for the same reason. POC would not be incarcerated at a higher rate (and we wouldn’t have for profit prisons) because all people would be treated equally as God’s beloved children. If the U.S. were truly a Christian nation, then every Administration would be actively seeking justice and equality for every human being, not just those elevated in a society built on white supremacy.

It’s easy for some people to demand a return to our “Christian roots.” My question is when was this country actually Christian? When we were killing First Nations Peoples and stealing their lands? When we stole African peoples from their lands and enslaved them? When we indentured poor people as servants for life? When our forebears cried out for religious freedom but meant only their kind of religion? On this Fourth of July weekend look more closely at our colonial history and you will find nearly every kind of activity except the kind that is based on love of neighbor as yourself.

As people protest the wearing of masks because they have a right to do as they please, reveals the ugly underbelly of U.S. history. The narcissistic insistence of individual “rights” over the well-being of many is pervasive and far from new. The same people who refuse to wear a mask and continue to denounce science will also cling to Jesus words – “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”  These words can be used to enhance the perceived difficulty encountered when advocating for individual rights. They are comforting for those who think they are afflicted. However, if you read further, these words are not so easy and ought not to be used to affirm one’s weariness so readily.

The very next line is, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” This is where it gets real. To take the yoke of Christ upon one’s self is not as simple as it might sound. To be yoked to Christ is to be yoked to Divine Love. To be yoked to Christ is to serve the greater good rather than one’s own ego. To be yoked to Christ means to learn to live as Jesus did—speaking truth to power, healing the broken, and welcoming the outcast. To be yoked to Christ is to embody Jesus’ gentleness and humility. Only then will we find rest for our souls. Before the rest comes, there is work to do.

For those of us on the progressive side of things, this caution is for us as well. We may not be advocating for a “Christian nation,” though I wonder if we are really wanting to uproot white supremacy from all of our social structures. We can easily name the wrongs committed by those on the other side of the theological divide. However, are we able to admit to the wrongs we have committed? Are we able to say that we are afraid to live in a country without a police force that grew out of slave catching? Are we able to say that we are reluctant to let go of the fears and prejudices that have kept us benefiting from racism? Are we able to say that we afraid of what we will lose if all our neighbors have the same privileges we now enjoy? Can we confess our sins of complicity and reluctance to change everything for the sake of all our neighbors?

Before we give in to the sentimentality that glosses over Jesus’ invitation to live as he did, to love as he did, and rest in that, we have work to do. To be yoked to Christ is to bear the burden of the work that remains before us, to do our equal share. Are we truly yoked to Christ? Or do we just want to rest and avoid the deep weariness that comes from working toward a future that can actually say that there is justice and liberty for all?

RCL – Year A – Fifth Sunday after Pentecost – July 5, 2020
Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67
Psalm 45:10-17 or Song of Solomon 2:8-13 or
Zechariah 9:9-12 with Psalm 145:8-14
Romans 7:15-25a
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Photo: CC0image by free-photos

Categories
Musings Sermon Starter

Faithful in the Time of COVID-19

On a Thursday afternoon in March I am sitting in my recliner with the dog on my lap. It is not vacation. It is not my day off. It’s weird and unsettling. I’m home like many others because we are in the middle of a pandemic. In the U.S. we are watching as some other countries are beginning to recover and others are watching as the death count rises. We are watching and waiting and some are still disbelieving. We should be following the example of countries like Spain who are on full lockdown. Yes, the toll on the economy will be significant, but how much worse are we making it by not physically distancing ourselves from one another?

There’s the denial. Then there is something far worse. There are faith leaders who still gathered for worship in high risk areas with people at significant risk for carrying and/or contracting COVID-19. The message from these (usually very conservative Christian) preachers was that God would save them from the virus. While they were in the house of God, and if they had faith enough, they would be fine. Everyone else who is fearful and taking precautions and wanting to flatten the curve… well, we are faithless fools. Of course, this messaging is false and dangerous. More to the point, it isn’t exactly Biblical, either.

Let’s take the story of the man who was born blind, for example. Here was a man, blind from birth. The question the disciples posed to Jesus about the cause of the man’s blindness are still relevant today. Who sinned – the man or his parents? It’s very much like whose sin caused COVID-19 and this pandemic – people in China, people in Europe, people in North America, people in general, or scientists, or politicians? Jesus’ answer to his disciples was likely helpful to them; neither the man’s nor his parents’ sins caused his blindness. Jesus goes on to say that the man was born blind so that God’s glory could be shown in him. Okay. Here’s were it gets a bit challenging for modern scripture readers.

I say that this statement is descriptive rather prescriptive. In the ancient world, the primary way of understanding the events of the world – personal and communal – was to say that God was responsible for all the things. If a person was born blind, then God had a reason for it. Of course, the most common understanding of any kind of disability was that it was punishment for sin, the person’s or their parents’. From this perspective, when Jesus told the disciples that the man was born blind so God could reveal God’s glory in the man, it sounds prescriptive, foreordained, if you will. However, from a modern point of view in which we have explanations for things happening beyond God making them happen, this story is descriptive. It describes what actually happened (in the story or in reality matters very little). In other words, because the man was born blind, Jesus’ power to heal could be revealed through him. No punishment of any kind in this understanding.

Now we come to COVID-19. It’s a virus, a scary, highly contagious, lethal for many virus. Viruses, as we know, are part of human existence. I am not a scientist so I cannot explain how or why the exist, but we know that they do. The common cold has been around as long as human beings have. Influenza is a virus that mutates constantly. The coronavirus has been around a long time. This particular version of it is new. No virus comes from God. No human sin caused it to become as lethal as it is. However, this isn’t to say that God’s power/presence/glory/healing/love won’t be revealed in the midst of this. It is a question of who will bear witness to what God is doing even now.

We can be like the Temple Authorities and refuse to believe that God is at work in the world in new and unexpected ways and, thereby, remain “blind” to the goodness and beauty that remains in the world. Or we can seek to make way for Divine Love in the midst of this pandemic. Practicing “social” distancing (6 feet from people not sharing your living space) is a way to care for our neighbors and ourselves. Leaving needed supplies on the shelves of stores rather than hoarding them for ourselves is another way. Checking in on those more vulnerable than ourselves with phone calls, texts, video chats, is another way to make room for God to do what God does best – re-member people, join them in community.

To that end, I pray that all will be well.

In the meantime here are some suggestions for being faithful to God and loving our neighbors as ourselves. These are also good practices to maintain mental health.

  1. Stay at home if you are able. If you have to go out of your house to work, act as if you are an a-symptomatic carrier and use reasonable precautions.
  2. If you need to go out, maintain 6 feet of space between you and others – in grocery stores, pharmacies, etc. If you purchase anything, disinfect the packaging when you bring it home.
  3. Establish a daily routine if you are working from home. This includes a normative sleep cycle with consistent bed and wake up times, regular hygiene practices, changing out of pajamas (even if just into clean pajamas) daily, consistent meal and exercise times.
  4. Also schedule times to reach out to family and friends with whatever video chat platform is available to you.
  5. Check in on those you know who are at higher risk for the virus.
  6. Participate in whatever your church is doing online
  7. Get outside regularly if you are able to do so safely
  8. Engage in pleasurable activities whatever they are for you – hobbies, movie watching, daydreaming…
  9. Do something creative each day – write, bake, draw, paint… anything that allows you to make something new
  10. Limit your viewing of media. For every negative piece of information you encounter, seek something positive.

Even though I walk through a world filled with the coronavirus, I fear no absence of Love; for God is with me; God’s faithfulness and steadfast love, they comfort me.

RCL – Year A – Fourth Sunday in Lent – March 22, 2020
1 Samuel 16:1-13
Psalm 23
Ephesians 5:8-14
John 9:1-41

Categories
Musings Sermon Starter

Faith and Politics: A Matter of Vocabulary

My first awareness of politics was in the late 1970s when Ford was President of the U.S. I didn’t understand anything about Watergate but for some unidentifiable reason I recognized that Ford had not been president for a full four-year term. I, as a child of nine or ten, noticed. I did a bit more than notice a few years later when Reagan ran for and won the office. That election cycle was one that I paid more attention to because it was one that made my mother register to vote for the first time in her life. And because the whole election was woven into my eighth grade social studies class.

In the spring of 1981 our class held mock primary elections. I was Reagan. I spent days collecting data from the newspapers to put together a campaign speech. Afternoons spent clipping articles and writing down quotes led to me winning that election. Not much else sticks in my memory except that I was criticized for using words that my classmates didn’t know. I was hurt by the teacher’s observation because I suspected I won that election because they thought I sounded “smart.” When I told my mother how unfair I thought it was that I lost points because my classmates didn’t know all the words I used, my mother informed me that “politics, like life, are seldom fair.” She went on to tell me that I was lucky I won because the best candidates aren’t always elected.

Looking back I realize that my mother and I ended up on opposite sides of the political arena and would never agree on the “best candidate,” yet, her statement isn’t entirely incorrect. It’s often hard to tell which candidate is the best one, the one that would be best to lead the country at this particular time in history. The problem is that people aren’t necessarily thinking about what is best for this country and how we interact with other countries. The decision about which candidate to support seems to be informed more by fear than anything else. However, as Christians, as people of faith, we should be looking at candidates through a different lens (and it isn’t impressive vocabulary.)

Long ago, to ancient people held captive and oppressed, God promised liberation. The vision of this liberation communicated through the Prophet Isaiah was one of healing and welcome, joy and gladness for all God’s people. And if we take Jesus’ proclamation that even the least in the kingdom of God is greater than John the Baptist (who was pretty great), then we have a responsibility to find that promised holy way. We have a responsibility to recognize that no one is excluded from this promise of liberation.

This is message of liberation and affirmation of value is contrary to much of the rhetoric thrown around in this election cycle. With the rise in antisemitism, Islamophobia, racism, and other types of hatred and division, we must hold our leaders to a higher standard. Our faith requires that we make room for all. To honor the promises God made long ago, to live the teachings of Christ, means that we view all people as God’s people. We cannot continue to mistakenly interpret scripture to endorse any sort of white, Christian, nationalist supremacy. As a brown skinned Jewish man, Jesus would not condone such government sanctioned hatred, division, and oppression. Just ask the Romans and those who were in Roman employ…

We are in the Advent season. It’s a season preparing for the coming of God into the world anew, and anticipating the day when God’s promises will be fulfilled throughout the whole world. It’s an excellent time to check ourselves for where and how we are traveling through our lives. Are our feet anywhere near that holy way of peace where enemies journey side-by-side? Are we on a path that is wide enough to accommodate all of our neighbors? Do our prayers lead us to acts that liberate those who are oppressed? Do our words break the patterns of fear, division, and violence that are endorsed by too many politicians? Is there any evidence that we are followers of Christ in our daily activities?

Maybe politics and the way faith informs them really does have to do with vocabulary. Not in the way of words with many syllables, but in how we put them together. Do the words we use raise up those society devalues and dismisses? Do our words match our actions? When we speak of God’s love do we also seek to embody that same love for all those who inhabit the planet? After all, if Jesus walked the world today he would be in the cages at our border, or in line in a refugee camp waiting for food, or one of those who live on the streets, or one of those too many of us choose not to see or hear. After all, he was a brown skinned Jewish man who spoke truth to power, power that was corrupt and ignored the needs of many. Advent, as we anticipate the return of Light, is an excellent time to recommit to living what Jesus taught. What say you?

RCL – Year A – Third Sunday of Advent – December 15, 2019
Isaiah 35:1-10
Psalm 146:5-10
Luke 1:46b-55
James 5:7-10
Matthew 11:2-11

Photo: CC0image by Myriam Zilles

Categories
Poetry

A Poem for the Year’s End

Jesus Replied 
(Luke 23:43)

Year
ends. God
reigns whether
we notice or
not. Promises made
long ago remain true -
all are loved, all are valued,
no one excluded. Advent draws
near, calling us to pause and listen,
watch, prepare, and begin again. The days
are surely coming when all feet everywhere
will travel in the way of peace. Fear-filled living
belongs to the days of old. Hope, love, mercy, grace,
and forgiveness belong to God’s people, now
and through all time. While speaking words of faith
we forget God always remembers
the ancient covenant of love
without end. When words become
deeds, wars will cease. God is
our refuge and strength.
May our lives show
God’s glory
and our
thanks.

RCL – Year C – Reign of Christ Sunday – November 24, 2019

Jeremiah 23:1-6 with Luke 1:68-79 or
Jeremiah 23:1-6 with Psalm 46
Colossians 1:11-20
Luke 23:33-43

Photo: CC0image by ID 11165576

Categories
Musings Sermon Starter

A Famine in the Land

gallery-2932005_1280.jpg

In the fall of 1989 I was a first year student at Princeton Theological Seminary. More than once during that first semester (and each subsequent semester), I wondered if I had made the right choice. I felt ill-prepared and out of place. The first time I felt as if I might make it through the three years, in spite of my doubts, was in the first day of the Old Testament class. The professor stood at the podium and recited a list of the things we might learn in his class. One of those was that Moses did not write the first five books of the Bible. That surprised me. Who thought that Moses wrote anything? Apparently, this was (and is) a popular belief. One of my classmates took offense. They stood up and emphatically declared that if this was the kind of nonsense taught at Princeton, it was not the school it proclaimed to be. And my classmate walked out of the lecture hall with me and many others staring in surprise.

I’d be less surprised now, though. After nearly 30 years in ministry, I think the Bible should come with a warning label: Enter at your own risk. Contents are not what they appear to be. Even folks who identify on the more progress end of the Christian spectrum can’t seem to shake the influence of Bible literalism. No sooner do I finish reminding people that all the books of the Bible were written when people could only explain events, both global and personal, by attributing them to God. If good things happened, then God was pleased and showering blessings. If bad things happened someone’s (or lots of someones) sins were to be blamed; God was displeased and pouring out punishment. The other option was that if a person or community was experiencing tribulation, God had decided to test the strength of their faith. This was the reality all throughout biblical history.

We live in a different world now, though, don’t we? We know that God doesn’t send floods, famines, hurricanes, mudslides, earthquakes, and the like to punish peoples for their sins or to test the faith of individuals or communities. In fact, God doesn’t send natural disasters at all. If there is blame to be placed for such occurrences, human beings are likely responsible for messing with the planet in ways that have made all these kinds of events much worse. Sometimes human behavior actually causes disasters to occur (e.g. think of the relationship between fracking and earthquakes). My point is that science can explain how these things happen; we don’t need to blame God.

If God doesn’t make bad things happen to test us or punish us, does God make good things happen to reward the faithful? No. This is absurd. This kind of thinking would mean that God loves wealthy people more than God loves poor people. Or that God loves healthy people more than God loves sick people. Most of the time wealthy people get wealthy because they have come up with something society values more than it values the health and well-being of human beings.

God does not punish the bad, test the doubtful, or reward the faithful. Can we please move on from literalism? There is Truth in scripture and, yet, not a lot of facts. Amos described how events would unfold with amazing accuracy partly because he was inspired by God and partly because human behavior patterns are predictable. When human beings choose serving the wealthy and powerful over caring for the poor and vulnerable, we move away from holy ways toward human ways. The more we forget that holy ways lead toward strong communities, care for the vulnerable, and resistance of Empire, the more we experience division, hopelessness, and oppression of the many by the very few. This “few,” by the way, makes us believe that human ways are better than holy ways while saying that their wealth and power are literally God-given.

Amos was right. There is a famine in the land. It is not a famine of bread or meat. It is, however, a famine of hearing the words of God. God’s ways always tell us to love our neighbors as ourselves. God’s ways never value one people over another and would not sanction concentration camps in any era, let alone now. God’s ways do not sanction the oppression of anyone or hold up white nationalism as a form of Christianity. God has demonstrated God’s love for Creation again and again. The prophets (old and new) tell us that loving God means loving others with the same degree of compassion, grace, forgiveness, and love that God has for us.

When Jesus dined with Mary and Martha, he didn’t tell Martha she shouldn’t do her many tasks. He merely pointed out that if you want to offer true hospitality it is essential to take time to sit with your guests and determine their needs, not just do the things because they need doing. Martha’s method forgets that there are human needs in the mix. Mary’s way reminds us that at core we are to love and serve one another in deep, meaningful ways. We cannot serve God or our neighbors if we don’t take the time to be still and listen.

God is still calling us to live holy ways, to bring the Realm of God into the here and now. When we seek holy ways, goodness and hope will follow. If goodness and hope do not follow, the way we travel is probably not all that holy. If we want to stop buying the poor with silver and selling out the needy for a pair of sandals, it’s time to trust God’s love for the whole of Creation and each human being in particular.

Moses didn’t write the Pentateuch. The Bible is not factual. God has better things to do than dole out rewards and punishments. Let’s get on with the business of ending the famine and discovering anew what it means to live in God’s holy ways (before the other kinds of things Amos spoke about come to pass once again).

RCL – Year C – Sixth Sunday after Pentecost – July 21, 2019
Amos 8:1-12 with Psalm 52 or
Genesis 18:1-10a with Psalm 15
Colossians 1:15-28
Luke 10:38-42

Photo: CC0 image by alexas_fotos

Categories
liturgy Prayer Uncategorized

A Plumb Line Prayer

lighthouse-1872998_1280.jpg
Amazing and merciful God, how easy it is for us to forget that we are your delight. You we rejoice when we follow your holy ways and envision a future of goodness and grace for all your people. We blame you for divisions and strife. We justify our wars by saying that you are on our side. We rationalize the abuse of our enemies by telling ourselves that they are not your people, that their sinfulness exceeds your tolerance. In truth, you have told us that we are to love our neighbors indiscriminately. Moreover, we are to love those with the greatest need more fiercely and more immediately. Shower us with your mercy, O God, until we live by the plumb line you have repeatedly dropped in our midst.

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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

Photo: CC0 image by lumix

Categories
Musings Sermon Starter

God or Empire? You Choose

children-2857263_1280.jpg

There are for-profit concentration camps in the United States right now. Adults and children are kept separately without adequate food and water, and without hygiene products including feminine hygiene supplies and diapers. People are making money from treating refugees, immigrants, and asylum seekers as though they were not human. How is this possible in 2019 in a country that many would claim is a “Christian nation.” There is nothing less Christian than dehumanizing people when they are in need of hospitality and sanctuary.

Of course, I dispute the idea that this country was ever meant to be a Christian and only Christian nation. From what I recall of my history lessons, religious freedom was one of the cornerstones of this country. Yes, I know they were mostly Christians of various sects with a few deists to temper the waters, but let’s go with the intent. The U.S. has always been a pluralistic country. The separation of church and state was meant to keep the government from telling citizens what religion they must practice. This means we are free to choose any or no religious practice without reprisal from the government. In other words, we can have whatever religious affiliation we want and it shouldn’t matter to those who hold higher office. Nor should it matter to anyone – our neighbors or our government.

Now that we are clear about that, let’s look at this from a Christian perspective since many claim that they are Christian and support the current Administration. The first thing to remind ourselves is that Jesus looked a lot more like the folks being held in detention centers at the southern border than the usual blue-eyed blond, emaciated Caucasian that is the common depiction of him. Jesus was brown skinned. Additionally, if you read the Gospels, then his family was homeless at the time of his birth and then became refugees in Egypt for a period of time. Common belief says that Jesus came from a poor family. He was just a carpenter’s son and nobody of any political power. He also got himself into a fair amount of trouble by speaking out against agents of the Roman Empire, those employed by the Temple and those serving Rome in more clear capacities. How many times do the Gospels tell us that there were plots to kill him?

Christians today have conveniently forgotten a few key lessons. On the conservative side of the theological divide, we’ve pushed away the knowledge that Jesus always ministered on the margins. He encountered the outcasts and the unclean and offered them healing, wholeness, and community. He didn’t treat women differently than men or Greeks differently from Jews. He didn’t distinguish between the very poor or the very wealthy, those with no power and those with significant power. Would Jesus sanction putting children in cages away from their parents just because their families were desperate for a better life and they spoke Spanish rather than English?

Lest you think I’m picking on the conservative folks, progressive people have forgotten a few things, too. We have told ourselves for decades that politics don’t belong in the church. We have kept our faith separate from our public lives and really just want the comfort of the familiar when we find time to worship. Jesus didn’t care very much for the complacency of maintaining tradition for tradition’s sake. He didn’t have much use for the apathy he encountered in the Scribes and Pharisees who seemed only interested in maintaining their own positions of power and comfort. Jesus was a revolutionary who adhered to God’s ways even though that path led to his death. Would Jesus choose to remain silent when people are being dehumanized just so that people could remain comfortably ambivalent about what would be the right thing to do?

Truthfully, in the early days of this Administration when a few people were drawing comparisons between the President and Hitler, I thought they were exaggerating. The world would not let such atrocity happen again, would it?Yes. Yes, it would. This President has manipulated the news outlets while creating and propagating his version of reality. He has targeted Muslims and fanned the horrid flames of Islamophobia. This President has supported decreasing the rights of LGBTQ+ people increasing discrimination, bullying, and violence. He has also targeted women, African American people, people with disabilities, and poor people. He has supported the privatization of prisons and increased the sanctioned the increase in ICE activities. Make no mistake, white supremacy is on the rise. If you are not on this list of unacceptable people now, you might be soon. What will it take for us to unite against the systematic removal of those who live on the margins, literally and figuratively?

There is nothing faithful here. I think about how Jesus sent the 70 out into the world. They did not go alone and they would find everything they needed to do the work God had set before them. They were to bring peace to every household they entered. If the peace was received the Realm of God was near. If the peace was rejected, they were to shake the dust off themselves and move on, carrying the Realm of God with them. This passage tells us all we need to know about what following the way of Christ should look like, and it doesn’t include for-profit concentration camps.

We are to rely on each other and all our neighbors. We are to bring peace with us, wherever we go. If we are living in holy ways, then we will have everything we need. Realm of God is nearest when we bring peace to every household we enter. It’s that simple. We have what we need in this country to welcome everyone who needs sanctuary. We have the resources if we focus on loving our neighbors more than protecting ourselves. The Empire thrives on fear and division. The Body of Christ thrives on compassion and unity. The question remains: which one are we actually serving?

RCL – Year C – Fourth Sunday after Pentecost – July 7, 2019
2 Kings 5:1-14 with Psalm 30 or
Isaiah 66:10-14 with Psalm 66:1-9
Galatians 6:(1-6), 7-16
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

Photo: CC0 image by Gerd Altmann

Categories
Musings

No Turning Back

65217084_10157392599369375_1408634335468191744_o

Following Jesus, true discipleship, is not for the feint of heart. Jesus is not of a fan of the familiar, routine, or status quo. Jesus likes to challenge assumptions, rouse the rabble, and provoke the powerful with truth. Once you put your hand on this particular plough, there is no turning back. It just isn’t possible because Jesus is unconcerned with what the past holds and far more interested in liberating people from oppression right now.

In the last four weeks I’ve been in four different cities and three different states. I’ve spoken at two different suicide prevention conferences, participated in a workshop at the United Church of Christ General Synod, and attended the Minnesota Conference UCC Annual Meeting. I’ve been in four states (MN, NH, MA, and WI) and met up with friends I haven’t seen in decades, and friends I haven’t seen for a few weeks or months. Waves of nostalgia wash over me as I drive through the mountains and walk on the beach. I’m overwhelmed with a longing for what used to be when I encounter friends I haven’t seen since seminary (more than 25 years). This last month has given me plenty of prompts to think about the course of my life and the unexpected twists and turns of my ministry.

June began with a trip to Western Massachusetts where I spoke at a conference. I met up with a high school friend and talking with her took me right back to the days when we were inseparable. We talked about the weirdness of aging where the body feels the years, but the mind and spirit have no concept that time passes; we could easily have been out on a night when we would have to go to school in the morning (except for the multitude of years between then and now).

This experience was followed by the MN UCC Annual Meeting. While I have made friends in MN, I was momentarily consumed by a longing for folks I’ve known a whole lot longer in other states. In those moments, I would have turned back the clock to years gone by without hesitation. At least I would have until I realized what I would not have in my life if I turned back the years. No time machine for me.

Then I went to General Synod and stood at the intersection between now and yesterday. I was there on behalf of the UCC Mental Health Network doing good work. Then I encountered people from across my years in ministry. The longing for what was threatened to overwhelm me once more. Those close friendships from seminary that nothing else quite replicates… those conversations in the dining hall… the hopes and dreams for serving the church… Oh, to begin again! No, not really.

Today, I stood at the ocean’s edge after speaking at another suicide prevention conference in New Hampshire. Nothing renews my spirit quite like the song of the sea and the feel of the sand on my bare feet. As I watched the tide (and the fog) roll in, I reflected on my ministry and where following Jesus had taken me. Never in the proverbial million years would I have ever guessed where Jesus would lead me. Once I figured out that I was called to ministry in the church and not in academia, I thought I had some idea of what that would be. Nope! Not even close.

The church I had prepared to serve no longer exists, and probably didn’t really exist even as I entered ministry. I had visions of youth group mission trips and adult spiritual formation retreats, with some preaching and Bible study in between. The intersection of mental health and faith, let alone suicide prevention, wasn’t in my wildest imaginings. The fact that I speak openly about my early struggles with mental health, being bi-sexual, wrestling with an archaic theology, and telling my story of suicidality and suicidal behavior, is not what I had envisioned. Yet, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

65116850_10157392583029375_1975425480005779456_oIn those moments when I think I would, when I think about going back when I kept all these things secret, it’s like watching the fog roll in on the beach. While the illusion of solitude is good, the temperature drop is a little chilling. Sure, I can tell myself that life was somewhat easier “back in the day,” it’s a lie that takes my attention away from the challenges of today. If I am distracted by the church of yesterday, I can miss the joys of today. If I think the past holds the answers, liberation of any kind may prove impossible.

Following Jesus has taken me all over the U.S. My journey of discipleship has made me go places I wouldn’t have the courage to go on my own. While the beach sings to my soul like no place else, I’ve also been restored by songs of the mountains, the woods, the lakes, and the desert, and the prairies. Without my hand on the plough I would never have come out as bisexual and wouldn’t have given a thought to LGBTQ+ inclusion in the church. I wouldn’t have marched with Black Lives Matter or protested with Latinx folx, or carried signs protesting the current administrations policies on refugees, or shared the journey with those struggling with symptoms of mental illness, or a thousand other things. Once I put my hand on the plough, I committed to leaving behind the shy, fearful days of my youth to become one who shows up and bears witness and tries to lend my voice to those who often go unheard.

It’s been a weird and wonderful journey. But looking back with yearning for what was takes me off-track. Jesus wants us to carry the lessons of where we have been not so we can recreate the past, but so that we can build the Realm of God here and now with the wisdom and compassion we’ve gathered on the way. And lest we forget, the plough creates the best furrows when many hands are on it. We do not and cannot follow Jesus, be healthy disciples, if we fool ourselves into thinking that we are alone. There’s Paul’s great cloud of witnesses and there is also the folx who are with us, hands next to ours making sure we plough a continuous row.

May we all stop looking back with yearning and celebrate all those whose hands guide the plough with courage and strength, wisdom and compassion.

RCL – Year C – Third Sunday after Pentecost – June 30, 2019
2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14 with Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20 or
1 Kings 19:15-16,19-21 with Psalm 16
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Luke 9:51-62

Photos: CC-BY-NC image by Rachael Keefe

Categories
Musings Sermon Starter

Sophia is Calling

fantasy-2824768_1280.jpg

As I’ve been thinking about Wisdom in this time between the anniversaries of the Pulse massacre and Stonewall, I am haunted by a conversation I had many years ago. It wasn’t the first or the last such conversation, but it has been on my mind because it was one of the first times I was asked to justify my identity face-to-face. It was a hard conversation, as they all have been, and one the left me angry and worried about the future of the church, or at least my future as part of the church.

Anyway, several years ago, a woman came into my office to talk with me because she had “concerns” about me being a pastor and being married to another woman. Her stated goal was to understand what I thought being a Christian meant. She was convinced that I had to be under the influence of Satan in order to be ordained, married to a woman, and not have children. I don’t know if she placed these “sins” in an order of severity, but she wanted to talk because she had been a life-long member of the church I was serving. The conversation was lengthy and difficult. I don’t remember all of it, but a few bits stand out in my memory.

She started in by questioning my claim to be an ordained minister. I told her that women had been ordained in our denomination (United Church of Christ) since 1853. Surely God would have made any objections known in the intervening years. She didn’t like it but took a breath and went on to her next question. It was kind of a trick question because she had hoped for a different answer.

“Why don’t you have children?” She really wanted me to say that it was because I was married to a woman. She was unprepared for the truth which was a painful struggle with infertility. I was in my mid-thirties and could not seem to get pregnant. (I later learned that I would never be able to sustain a pregnancy.) She was silent for a moment or two, fishing around for something to say to alleviate the awkwardness of the situation or prove her theory about me, which was more likely the case.

Her face lit up as she hit on what I knew was coming. She told me that my “barrenness” was God’s punishment for my sinful “lifestyle.” I told her that I really didn’t believe God worked that way at all. I carefully explained that I thought God was more about loving us and encouraging us to love ourselves and each other more than about seeing that all our sins were punished accordingly. She paused for a moment before suggesting that maybe God was just testing my faith and when I showed God true faith I’d be rewarded with a child.

I again told her that God didn’t work that way. God knows my heart and doesn’t need to test me through cruel adversity. She didn’t know what to say to that so just plowed ahead.
“Do you believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?” I assured her that I did without bothering to explain that I might have a different understanding of what those words meant.
“Do you believe in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?” Again, I assured her that I did and kept my understanding to myself. Her face said that she did not believe me. She scanned my office as if looking for clear evidence of my heretical status.

She practically jumped out of her seat when she came up with her next question. “Do you believe that the Bible is the word of God?” I surprised her by saying that I did. So she fumbled around until she basically asked if I believed that the Bible is the inerrant word of God and no other revelation from God exists (I don’t remember her exact words). And I finally gave her what she was looking for when I said no. She declared that she knew I was a “tool of Satan” and that people like me would destroy her church.

I didn’t respond well to her pronouncement, unfortunately. I suggested that one of us might indeed be under Satan’s influence, clearly indicating that I didn’t think it was me. She left my office telling me that she would pray for my salvation and I assured her that I would pray for hers as well. She slammed the door on her way out. She did, however, show up in worship the next Sunday. Our relationship continued to be contentious during my tenure at that congregation.

Honestly, I think this interaction is on my mind because I keep hoping that the church will change. I keep praying that we will leave behind the need for certainty of our own righteousness of doctrine and practice and, instead, embrace the mystery and majesty that is God. Yes, we need language to share our beliefs and strengthen our faith communities. At the same time, we need to understand that the language is limited and God is far more than we can speak (or write).

Proverbs tells us that Sophia, Holy Wisdom, cries out everywhere we go, yearning for us to share God’s delight in the whole of Creation. Where God creates beauty and oneness, we seem to respond with fear and division. God invites us into community, into sacred relationship, and we react by building walls and isolating ourselves from those who are different from us.

I’m tired of having the kinds of conversations where I am condemned for being a woman who is ordained and married to a woman, and for believing in a God of Love above all else. There’s enough anger, violence, and hatred in the world without the Body of Christ perpetuating or participating in these things. God’s ways are about unity and sanctuary. Human ways are about division and (false) security. It’s time we respond differently when Sophia calls.

RCL – Year C – Trinity Sunday – June 16, 2019
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
Psalm 8
Romans 5:1-5
John 16:12-15

Photo: CC0 image by Stefan Keller