Musings Sermon Starter

When Will We Learn

Image of a man in silhouette standing, looking into a night star-filled sky that is tinted with orange, yellow, and pink.

Nicodemus is a familiar character. He was a pharisee who snuck off to talk with Jesus in the middle of the night. I wonder what burning question made him take the risk of being seen with Jesus. All we know is that he went to Jesus and affirmed that Jesus was “from God.” Then the conversation just gets weird. And you know what? The Christian church has never made sense of this strange passage in any useful way.

“Born again” is a phrase that makes my heart beat faster and my blood pressure rise. It’s been used as a litmus test for faith, the “right” faith. Nicodemus didn’t understand what Jesus was talking about and I don’t think many of us understand any better now. The dreaded, “when were you saved?” or it’s alternate form, “when were you born again?” sparks both anger and sadness in me. If I don’t have a dramatic conversion story to share, that means I’m not a true Christian? Why can’t it be a slow growth, a dawning awakening to the power and presence of God in my life? I’m betting that’s how it was for Nicodemus.

Nicodemus recognized something in Jesus that drew him out into the dark of night to have a conversation. Of course, the conversation was quickly out of his hands and beyond his understanding. A person cannot be born more than once. It’s that simple. Or maybe it isn’t. Jesus didn’t think anything about a person’s spiritual life was simple.

I remember Dr. James Loder in a course on human development talking about how the Holy Spirit enters into our lives, breaks through our ego defenses, and shoves our ego off-center. After a while our defenses are a pile of rubble and we can say with Paul, “I, not I, but Christ.” This is what we are after, this union of human spirit and Holy Spirit. It’s slippery and very seldom does the union fully hold after any single experience. Our egos are stubborn and we are wired to think we are at the center of things. When the Holy Spirit pushes our ego enough out of the way, we realize that being at the center of things with Christ is a healthier way to go. Even then, though, we have a hard time holding onto the Holy. We are always human first.

Jesus told the struggling Nicodemus that God so loves the whole of the cosmos that God gave God’s only son so that all who believe might have eternal life. The love is ongoing. Eternal life is communal. We cannot do it alone. In order to bring God’s realm into the here and now, we need one another. We need to be bound together by the Holy Spirit into the Bodymind of Christ, the church re-envisioned for the world in which we live.

Nicodemus made the mistake of thinking that Jesus’ words were literal and meant just for Nicodemus. Many of us have made similar mistakes. We think the words are meant to be taken literally and that they are only for those who share a certain belief. However, God’s love that sent Jesus into the world is a love that encompasses the whole cosmos. It is our belief that allows us to enter into the truth of God’s love. It was never meant to exclude anyone. It was meant to build and strengthen and create beloved community.

As we have observed the anniversary of George Floyd’s murder this week, I wonder when we will set aside our harm-filled interpretations of scripture. I wonder when those who claim the name of Christ will live in love with all neighbors, not just White ones. When will we who claim to have Christ at our center stop living in fearful hatred and demand justice and equality for every human being, without exception?

Jesus said that God loves the entirety of the cosmos. Now is an excellent time to claim this truth and live it into being. No one can truly be a follower of Christ and hate people based on race, religion, country of origin, gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, class, ability, health, mental health, or any other aspect of human identity. God loves the entire cosmos. That love sent Jesus to teach us how to love one another. When will we learn?

RCL – Year B – Trinity Sunday – May 30, 2021 Isaiah 6:1-8 and Psalm 29  • Romans 8:12-17  • John 3:1-17

Photo: CC0image by free-photos

Musings Sermon Starter

With a Little Help from My Friends

Image of man painting the word “change” in large white letters on an old, crumbling brick wall.

The older I get, the more I appreciate Sarah. Early in her relationship with Abraham, God had promised Abraham descendants more numerous than the stars. They waited patiently for quite some time and did what heterosexual couples do when wanting a child. As the years added up and they still had no child, Sarah sent Hagar to Abraham in an effort to fulfill God’s promise. Of course, Hagar gave birth to Ishmael and that was satisfactory for a while. Then, later still, messengers came and told Abraham that Sarah would have a son; God’s promise would be fulfilled. Sarah laughed because she believed she was post menopause. The impossible happened anyway. Sarah gave birth to Isaac and the descendants of Abraham are indeed uncountable just like the stars.

Neither Sarah’s laughter nor Isaac’s birth draw my attention in this moment. Right now the U.S. is on the cusp of change (or not). Pandemic continues to highlight racial disparities in ways that no one should be able to ignore or deny. George Floyd’s murder demonstrated, yet again, that our policing system is broken beyond repair which keeps Black folx and other People of Color at constant risk for death, violence, and/or unnecessary encounters with our criminal legal system (which is also very broken). Whether or not the nation changes is up to us. God has made it abundantly clear what it is we are called to do as people of faith – Christians together with those of other faith traditions. We are to care for the vulnerable among us and love our neighbors as ourselves. This is precisely what we are not doing as a nation right now. (I am not in any way suggesting that the U.S. or should be a Christian nation or a theocracy of any kind.)

Sarah may have laughed when the angel told her that she would have a son in her old age. I don’t blame her. I think many of us are laughing at the seeming impossibility (absurdity?) of abolishing the police system in the U.S. Like Sarah, we can name reasons why it would be impossible. We white folx jump to the question of who will keep us safe or if calling 911 would still work. We cannot imagine the change not having police at our beck and call. We have benefited from the white supremacist narrative that tells us the police system is good and safe and has our best interest in mind. Sometimes this is true for white folx and sometimes it isn’t. It is never true for People of Color. Just because something is good for some doesn’t mean it is good for all. Just because we can’t imagine something new and different and it seems impossible, it doesn’t mean it is “too wonderful” for God.

Here’s the thing. God doesn’t have a magic wand to zap us into creating a loving system of safety for all people. Here’s where we can take our cue from Sarah and Abraham. Let’s try some new ways of ensuring safety in our communities. There are smart folx out there with great, well-thoughtout ideas worth trying. If the first concept doesn’t work, we try others. Eventually, we will find something that works. We can laugh at the seemingly impossible, yes. And we can attempt to bring about radical, systemic change. Why not give God a hand? It’s not like we have better things to do. (Besides, you get to imagine God singing along with John Lennon and Paul McCartney.)

Sure, Sarah’s efforts to help bring about God’s promise didn’t go as she had hoped and neither she nor Abraham always behaved well (just ask Hagar and Ishmael). The important thing to remember is that they tried. They didn’t sit back and wait for miracles to happen unaided. It wasn’t always comfortable or easy. They did get to the place where the impossible and wonderful thing happened, though, didn’t they. We should take our cue from them. God needs us to get busy, laugh a little at the seemingly impossible work before us, and then make change happen.

I can’t help but think of the poem often (mis)attributed to Teresa of Avila:

Christ has no body now but yours. 
No hands, no feet on earth but yours. 
Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. 
Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. 
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. 
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

Are we doing everything we can to be the Body of Christ needed in this time and place? If we aren’t working for real, systemic change, then the answer is no. My friends, there is much work to be done and our hands, feet, eyes, and bodies, as well as our voices, are needed if we are going to create a world in which all people are safe and free. Yes, I know that sounds impossible and it’s okay to laugh. Then remember Sarah and know that nothing is too wonderful or impossible for God, particularly when we seek to do God’s work.

RCL – Year A – Second Sunday after Pentecost – June 14, 2020
Genesis 18:1-15, (21:1-7) with Psalm 116:1-2,12-19 or
Exodus 19:2-8a with Psalm 100
Romans 5:1-8
Matthew 9:35-10:8, (9-23)

Photo: CC0image by Gerd Altmann

Poetry Prayer Story

Imago Dei in the Aftermath

Pandemic. Protests. Uprisings. Fires. Vigils. Agent Provocateurs. Militarized Police. White Supremacy. All of it right here where I live. Part of me has been overwhelmed by it all this week. Part of me is stuck in the horror of watching police officers kill George Floyd. Another part of me is stunned by the numbers of cities joining in the uprisings. I’m lamenting not being able to be out on the streets helping because of the pandemic. And, if I am totally honest, I am proud of the relentless demand for change that has begun here and spread across the country. Still, the words are hard to find. Consequently, I am sharing this poem, “Imago Dei” from my book, Barefoot Theology (Wipf & Stock, 2013). Be safe. Be well.

                             Imago Dei

On midsummer's eve, when the world is wrapped in magic,
all the children of the earth gather in the dreaming place. 
Mysteries call louder on this night than on all other nights. 
Whispers carried on ocean and mountain breezes lead
children to gather in the dreaming place.
They laugh and dance and splash in the magic surrounding them. 
The moon rises higher, children quiet in the whispering winds 
and ask the questions of their hearts.
One small girl stands and says,
My daddy doesn’t look like my mommy and
I don’t look like either of them. 
So who does God look like?
The answers are quick and from all around.
Some of us together.
All of us.
None of us because maybe there is no God. 
The winds themselves laugh and dance wildly though the gathering. 
Then they speak with the voice of One. 
You ask what the Holy One looks like? 
Do you not know? 
All of you bear my likeness.
Children wait, breath held, still.
I am the first light of morning;
I washed some of you in its soft fairness. 
I am the pureness of deep night;
I wrapped some of you in this sacred darkness. 
I am the fire of the setting sun;
 some of you have this burning in your hair. 
I am the richness of the soil—
red, brown, yellow, and black—
as are many of you. 
I am the depth of the ocean;
some of you wear these greens,
blues, and grays in your eyes.
I am the warmth of the summer sun
found in all your smiles and laughter. 
I am the stillness of winter snow
resting within each of you.
What does the Holy One look like? 
I am all the colors of the earth.
I am the softness of early spring
and the wildness of thunder. 
My reflection is in the ocean
and in your eyes. 
I am the first light of day
and the last dark of night. 
I am the power of the wind
and the gentleness of misty rain.
Look for me in yourselves,
each other,
and in all creation.
 Do not miss the holy in the setting sun,
the purple twilight,
the darkest night,
or the brightest noonday.
Wherever you are, I am.
 I am in your laughter and your tears. 
 I am in waking and dreaming. 
 If you want to know what the Holy One looks like,
 you will see me wherever you turn.
The winds quiet and the skies grow lighter. 
The little girl laughs
as the winds play through her hair. 
The children drift away from the dreaming place. 
Each takes a little of the magic of midsummer
and wakes bathed in the first light of day.

RCL – Year A – Trinity Sunday, First Sunday after Pentecost – June 7, 2020
Genesis 1:1-2:4a
Psalm 8
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
Matthew 28:16-20

Photo: CC0image by Pexels

liturgy Prayer

Prayer Litany for George Floyd

Litany of Prayer for George Floyd originally written for an Interfaith Vigil on 5/28/2020

Based on Psalm 130, Quran Chapter 5, Verses 27-32, Matthew 22:36-40

One:    Out of the depths we cry to you, Holy One. Hear the cries from our lips and from our hearts. As we lament the death of George Floyd, and all the other unarmed black men and women who have died at the hands of police.

All:      Strengthen our commitment to ending lethal white supremacy and the racism it needs to thrive.

One:    Lord of the worlds, you have told us that to murder one soul is like murdering the whole of humanity. Likewise to save one is to save all of humanity. If we have been silent when police have killed our unarmed black siblings, we share the weight of their deaths. Show us the way to forgiveness.

All:      Strengthen our commitment to ending lethal white supremacy and the racism it needs to thrive.

One:    Almighty One, we have heard your call to love our neighbors as ourselves. Anything that divides us one from another and allows us to dehumanize and devalue any of your children does not come from you; hate and fear always come from our human hearts. Reveal in us the truth of your love.

All:      Strengthen our commitment to ending lethal white supremacy and the racism it needs to thrive.

One:    We call on you, Giver of Mercy, when peaceful protests are invaded by violence and destruction, when calls for justice are buried under rubble created by those who no longer care for the good of all. Teach us your mercy as hope in you guides us to a new morning.

All:      Strengthen our commitment to ending lethal white supremacy and the racism it needs to thrive.

One:    Healer of the World, may we heed your call to change the evil of white supremacy and racism with our hands, our tongues, and our hearts. Awaken us to act with lovingkindness and mercy even as we seek justice for George Floyd and too many others. Guide us in the way of peace.

All:      Strengthen our commitment to ending lethal white supremacy and the racism it needs to thrive.

One:    Faithful God, you continually call us to care for the vulnerable among us, to live with mercy and love. As our tears flow and our anger rises, remind us that we are to love as you love. Unite us in this grief, draw us nearer to one another, and move us to action. Let us hold these moments of unity close to our hearts that we may dismantle systems of injustice and build new systems based on mercy, justice, and love for all people.

All:      Strengthen our commitment to ending lethal white supremacy and the racism it needs to thrive. Unite us in love for you and for all your people as we commit to creating a world where justice becomes a reality for all.

In all your names, we pray. Amen.

These are not words that go with the the Pentecost texts, and yet they must. If you are looking for sermon help, try here where these thoughts came before George Floyd’s murder and the events continuing to unfold in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

RCL – Year A – Pentecost – May 31, 2020
Acts 2:1-21 or Numbers 11:24-30
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13 or Acts 2:1-21
John 20:19-23 or John 7:34-39

Photo: CC0image by Jackson David