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Musings Sermon Starter

Unbreakable Bonds

Image of three complete spider webs in the spaces of a metal fence. The background is blurred forest.

Pentecost is a fabulous story. It has all the marks of a story well-told, complete with special effects. In fact, it is not hard to picture the disciples gathered together in a room, possibly the same upper room of the Last Supper. They gather, huddled together, trying to sort out what’s next. When, all of a sudden, the entire house is filled with the sound of rushing wind. Then tongues of fire appear above their heads. The next thing you know they are preaching about Jesus and every person hears in their own language. It’s remarkable, exciting, and mysterious. So much so that I think we sometimes miss the point.

Wind, flames, and many languages were evidence of the Spirit’s presence that day, a day that shifted the direction of the newly emerging church. As much as I would love to see what would happen if the Spirit showed up in the same way to any of our congregations this week, if we are really listening to the story, it isn’t necessary for the Spirit to repeat herself. The greatest gift of the Spirit is not in the flames of passion or fierceness of conviction. Nor is it the ability to speak and be heard in any language. The greatest gift of the Spirit is how she connects us one to another, and, thereby, to God and Creation.

Burning with a passion to serve God is pointless without a deep appreciation for our kinship with one another, especially with those whom we call “other.” Being moved by the power of conviction is only as good as our ability to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. The gift of tongues diminishes without compassion for those with whom we share this planet, let alone for the planet itself. On that first Pentecost, the Spirit wove us together with unbreakable bonds, with sighs deeper than our understanding, with a love beyond our imagining. Without the Spirit blowing through that house so long ago, I’m not sure we’d experience much more than the groaning of the world around us.

Think about it. The Spirit blew through that house with some serious force. I know the text only mentions the sound of winds. However, I like to imagine the doors and windows being blown wide open. Sometimes I even picture the roof being blown off. It is a symbolic removing of barriers between us. Then the flames appear, identifying the ones who followed Jesus most closely, the ones with something powerful to share. Those tongues of fire are an apt metaphor for those moments when we are aware of our place in something much larger than ourselves, those moments of deep insight that we are compelled to share. Then comes the language thing. At first it was a cacophony of sound. And then people realized they could understand; each person heard in their own language. This was a moment of connection made with words, harkening back to the Word who’d become flesh and lived among us. At the end of that first Pentecost, the church took shape because the Spirit bound people together who would never have come together otherwise. Bound in deed and word.

Do you see how we don’t need the audio and visual effects? We don’t need them because the lessons taught, the gifts given that day have come down through the centuries to us in the here and now. How can we read or hear this story without recognizing how intimately bound we are to one another? We aren’t bound just to those we know and love. We are bound to everyone who has ever felt the power of the wind, the heat of the flames, the pull of the words. We are bound to the impressive ones who preach in public places with their whole lives. We are bound to the hidden ones who seldom speak and, yet, always show up. We are bound to the broken ones who yearn for us to see their wholeness. We are bound to the doubt-filled ones who can’t quite feel the heat of the flames. We are bound to the messy ones and the angry ones and shy ones and all the “other” ones, even the ones who call God by other names.

Do you see it now? Do you see how impossible it is now to dismiss or devalue or deny or exclude any human being from the church? We are connected by the Spirit to the spirit in every human being, like it or not. And you know, these cords cannot be broken. And it’s a good thing, too. Because if they could be broken, there would be no church, no embodiment of Christ in the world today. And that would be a loss beyond imagining…

RCL – Year B – Pentecost – May 23, 2021 Acts 2:1-21 or Ezekiel 37:1-14  • Psalm 104:24-34, 35b  • Romans 8:22-27 or Acts 2:1-21  • John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

Photo: CC0image by Ulrike Leone

Categories
Poetry

The Backside of God: somewhere between prayer and poetry

Image of frost on glass with a blue-gray background with orange light nearer the top
The Backside of God

This season rests heavily upon the earth
pressed down on us with waves of sickness
made unforgettable by loss of life, of livelihood, of loved ones, of safe harbor
driven home by super storms swirling with ever-increasing force
and wild fires devouring acre after acre
letting scorched and scarred earth speak for itself
 
In the daylight I watch sets of leaves fall in synchronous circles
joining the growing, glowing throng of their siblings
when night falls as it does I am startled by
scuttling sounds of leaves chased down the empty street by autumn winds
under the weight of the season I am comforted by the scurrying scuttle
the ordinariness of the sounds
 
Then snow falls out of season, portents of winter yet to come
erasing the memories of rainbows stretching over a muddy river
heightening the distant dogs barking their warnings and welcomings
magnifying the angry neighbors shouting over the opinion of others
lifting up politicians making promises demonizing their opponents, losing sight of democracy
pandemic strengthening its hold, targeting the vulnerable and devalued ones
 
Between autumn and winter, winds blow, storms rage with unfamiliar intensity
God’s absence floods the spaces
between hope and despair,
life and death,
lies and promises,
guilt and liberation,
sickness and healing
 
In the chaos desperation thrives, feeding on anger and hatred, hopelessness and isolation
leaves crunching underfoot give voice to yearning for rest, renewal, a fallow time,
a dormancy that will yield new life in due time
 
In this time between what is and what will be God is present
in the harsh winds and caressing breezes
in the sun, the rain, and the intricacy of each snowflake in season and out
in the frenzy of nut collecting squirrels and the determined dogs seeking to deter themi
in the cat purring on my lap and the geese calling out their journey south
in the rainbows and the rivers
in the space between neighbors where love abides
in the hands that mark ballot ovals
in the healers and hope-bearers
in the prophets and the poets
in the moments of stillness
in the cacophony of nature
in the recognition of Mars shining pink in the night sky
in death and in life
 
Yet, we often fail to notice
mistake stillness for absence
or patient waiting for our attention for a lack of care
 
How often we miss God passing by in every moment!
If we pay attention, we might be lucky enough to catch a hindsight glimpse
of Love
of Glory
of Grace
of Healing
of Hope
of New Life
of Forgiveness
of New beginnings
of kindness
of Justice
of Transformation
 
of an opportunity for us all to live better trusting God’s presence in every moment
honoring God’s desire for us to live in service to all our neighbors
and embody Divine Love when we feel it
and when we don’t
 
If we want to see more than the backside of God
we can take time to read the book of Creation
and look one another in the eyes
 
a moment of Grace is all it takes to discover Christ within us
a moment of stillness is all it takes to discover God around us
a moment of compassion is all it takes to discover the Spirit among us
 
Hindsight is fine
seeking God in the depths, the heights, and the extraordinary in-between
might be better

RCL: Year A Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost October 18, 2020 Exodus 33:12-23 with Psalm 99 or
Isaiah 45:1-7 with Psalm 96:1-9, (10-13)
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Matthew 22:15-22

Photo: CC0image by Bonnie Kolarik

Categories
Musings Sermon Starter

In Her Grips

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Okay. I’m just going to say it: I like Paul. The older I get, the more I appreciate Paul for his passion, conviction, and unapologetic humanity. What the church has done with what he wrote and what has been (falsely) attributed to him, isn’t his fault. The man had some serious endurance. Prison, floggings, shipwrecks, and rejection in a variety of potentially life-threatening forms. Paul persevered and managed to inspire countless people to become followers of Jesus. All things considered, Paul is person to be admired not admonished. The tepid church goers of today could do with a little passion and, personally, I’m up for a bit of persistence.

Let’s face it, many people around us would much rather go fishing on a Sunday morning than attend worship. Paul didn’t have that problem. It seems he drew crowds almost the way that Jesus did. He had something that was appealing to those who heard him speak. It was more than his charismatic personality, more than his words alone. I suspect it was his integrity and authenticity. For all his eloquence, Paul didn’t say anything he didn’t mean. The Holy Spirit it had him firmly in her grips and she wasn’t letting go. I wonder if anyone would notice that intensity of Spirit today…

The story in Acts about the slave girl is a weird one where Paul’s humanity is on full display. So, too, the presence of the Spirit. How awesome is it that the writer tells us that Paul casts the demon out of the slave girl because he’s irritated? He’s annoyed that she has been following them around, proclaiming that they are slaves to God Most High. This had been going on for days. Paul couldn’t take it and silences the demon without thinking about the consequences. He didn’t think what might happen to the slave girl. He didn’t think what might happen to him and his companions. He’d just had enough of the girl’s proclamations. Consequences be damned.

And there were serious consequences. The writer didn’t mention what happened to the slave girl though I doubt it was anything good. Her owners disguised an economic issue with a racial issue that stirred anxiety and aggression in the crowd as well as the magistrates. Violence followed as it often does when those in service to the Empire feel slighted. So if the girls owners were angry enough to have Paul and the others somewhat falsely arrested, flogged, and jailed, I’m guessing they didn’t go easy on her. Did Paul regret his impulsiveness in the duress that followed? Did he pray for forgiveness? Did he want to make amends? Or did he blame the hard hearts of the slave owners? Who knows? However, the subsequent events point toward forgiveness with a hint of compassion.

In the midst of prayers and hymns an earthquake hits and opens all the doors. You’d think everyone would leave; that would be the sane thing to do. No one did. The prisoners stayed put. Why? I like to think that Paul remembered that all this was because of his own impulsive actions and he didn’t want anyone else to pay the price for his unthinking behavior, including the jailer. Paul, and the others, no doubt, knew that the jailer would likely be executed for allowing all the prisoners to escape – earthquake or no. Though, instead of an execution, we witness another household converting to Christianity. Forgiveness and compassion on full display. Well, that and the power of the Holy Spirit to bring goodness out of human folly.

I’d like to say that we’ve all learned something from Paul’s experience. But I don’t think we have. We still give in to annoyance and act without thinking. Those who have more power than we do, still take advantage by subverting the real issues with divisive ones. We are still easily manipulated by the Empire into accepting, if not participating in, violence. We don’t seem to pray and sing hymns while waiting for the Spirit to show up and do her thing. There isn’t much room in our lives to give and receive either forgiveness or compassion, is there?

As we come to the end of Eastertide and prepare for Pentecost, maybe we should pay more attention to Paul and embrace our humanity and the Holy Spirit. We can be unapologetically the fragile, fallible, frustratable people we are because we are also unapologetically the named, claimed and beloved children of God. In spite of what the Empire continues to tell us about supremacy and division, we are all in need of forgiveness and compassion. The more we share these things, the more we open ourselves to receiving them. Isn’t it time to recognize that Paul was who he was because he accepted and celebrated the fierce, demanding, loving grip the Holy Spirit had on his whole being? We can be the irritable, irrational, impulsive people that we are because the Holy Spirit has the same fierce, steadfast, and redeeming grip on us. This is good news for us, and unwelcome news for those who continue to serve the Empire.

Photo: CC0 image by James LeVos

Categories
Musings Sermon Starter

Out of Control

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The Realm of God is like a weed sown in a garden. The weeds grow where planted and then take over the rest of the garden. They grow and entwine themselves in and through all other plants until the weeds and the crops cannot be distinguished. This is more what Jesus meant when he said that the Realm of God is like a mustard seed. He didn’t mean that there is much potential to grow and blossom hidden away in a tiny seed. Jesus is being funny in a way that might be lost on contemporary ears.

The mustard plant was an unwanted weed in Jesus’ day. No one in their right mind would actually plant it in their garden. It took over and grew into rangy, twiggy shrubs that choked out other, more desirable plants. When Jesus said that the Realm of God is like a mustard seed planted in a garden, his first hearers might have laughed out loud; no one would do such a thing. Jesus was an expert storyteller and he didn’t craft his parables without reason.

First Jesus says that the Realm of God is like seeds planted in orderly rows that grow up and produce grain and are harvested in the usual fashion. And, by the way, how exactly that happens is a mystery. At this, everyone listening probably nodded. This is a nice, orderly, predictable image of God’s Realm. It’s appealing and, from a human perspective, we think we might just have a bit of control over when and how God’s Realm shows up. We like to disregard the mystery part.

Jesus doesn’t leave his listeners nodding in approval, though. He goes on to make his mustard seed analogy. First his listeners laugh, and then they shake their heads and mutter about Jesus’ oddities. Why would the Realm of God be compared to such a pesty, invasive plant as a mustard seed? Ah, yes. To remind us all that the Realm of God is mysterious and beyond our control. It will spring up in both expected and unexpected places. It will grow in well-manicured gardens and it will grow in the wild places. Moreover, it will mysteriously spread so that it can’t be distinguished from what grows nearby. What kind of insidious mess is this Realm of God, anyway?

Most of us like to maintain an illusion of control in our lives. We like to think that we can keep chaos at bay and tame the Holy Spirit. We fool ourselves into believing that God only shows up and offers a stamp of approval when all is well. This little parable reminds us that God has an affinity for chaos. God shows up in the entanglements, weeds, and wilderness of our lives and plants some seeds. These seeds take root and grow in the shape of the God’s Realm more often than we notice. There may be no perceivable change in our experience of the wild places, the deep places, but we live through them. Later, we might realize how changed we are.

We would do well to pay heed to this mustard seed parable. We cannot control the Holy Spirit and we cannot determine where God’s Realm will take root. You’ve heard the stories of how someone’s life was transformed from deep pain and suffering into joy and strength in miraculous ways. Some of us have lived it.

I was born into a family that was unruly, to say the least. No one would have predicted that I would grow up to be an author, a pastor, an advocate for mental health. No one would have predicted that the shy, neglected child I was would grow into a preacher and conference presenter. Yet, along the way, seeds were planted. Seeds that were hope, value, and witness took root and grew into the Realm of God, choking out the seeds of pain, worthlessness, and invalidation. In the middle of the deep, despairing chaos, God’s Realm blossomed and transformed my life. No one could have known such a thing would happen, no one other than God.

This mustard seed parable of the tenacity and unpredictability of God’s Realm should guide us in our interactions with our neighbors. Yes, we need to plant seeds with care and nurture the crops of loving kindness. But in other situations where it seems we have no control and there is no hope for new life, we must look for the signs of God’s Realm unfurling it’s tiny, fragile leaves. The seed of God’s Realm could take root with any act of kindness, any effort to reach beyond what is comfortable and known, any tentative welcome of the stranger, or any tender mercy extended to the most vulnerable among us.

All hope is not lost, even in this violent, self-destructive world. The Realm of God is alive and well, just waiting for us to see it growing right in the middle of our lives, perhaps especially in the wild, chaotic, desperate places. Let’s not underestimate the value of those tiny seeds. They can grow into the largest of shrubs where more than birds will make their homes. Let’s be generous with our compassion, our kindness, our mercy, our patience, and our love. Let’s scatter the seeds everywhere – in cultured rows and in the chaos. There’s no knowing exactly where and when the Realm of God will grow strong and blossom with justice, healing, and grace for all of Creation.

RCL – Year B – Fourth Sunday after Pentecost – June 17, 2018
1 Samuel 15:34-16:13 with Psalm 20 or
Ezekiel 17:22-24 with Psalm 92:1-4, 12-15
2 Corinthians 5:6-10, (11-13), 14-17 or 2 Corinthians 5:6-17
Mark 4:26-34

Photo: CC0 image by Soorelis

Categories
Musings Sermon Starter

Gardening Tip: Plant What Will Grow

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It’s my mother’s birthday and that always brings roses to mind. They are not my favorite flower. Given a choice, I prefer wild flowers over cultivated roses any day. Unlike me, my mother loved roses. At one point she had planted many varieties all over her front yard. In later years, there were not traces of most of the hybrid, delicate plants. Yet there was one rose bush that flourished. It had started out as a cutting from a friends’ white dawn rose bush. Over the years it had grown up the six-foot chain link fence, over a makeshift trellis, and down the old stockade fence. The last time I saw it, it was wildly overgrown, enormous, and absolutely beautiful in it’s early spring bloom of pale pink roses.

After my mother sold her house and moved away, I was disappointed when I discovered that the new owners had removed the bush completely. Moreover, I was sad that I had not thought to take a clipping of it to plant in my own yard. In my mind, I would have planted the clipping in my yard and repeated this each time I have moved since. If I had done this, I would now have a rose bush growing in my yard that was connected to the glorious one that had grown in my mother’s yard.

Funny thing, I now know it wouldn’t have worked. Eve if I could have gotten the rose to grow in each place I’ve lived since my mother moved – six places and three states in twelve years – it wouldn’t survive in Minnesota. Climbing roses like the white dawn don’t do well with harsh winters. Not only that, but I’m such an amateur gardener that the original cutting probably wouldn’t have survived its first planting, let alone the five subsequent ones. However, in my mind, that same wild, glorious bush that took over the corner of my mother’s yard after several decades of growth, is thriving in the back corner of my yard. Looking into purchasing a white dawn rose bush has proven to me that it’s time to let this dream go. That bush that was such a beauty simply will not grow where I live. I will choose another variety that is more suitable to Minnesota’s climate. It will still make me think of my mother just as surely as the white dawn would have.

As Pentecost approaches, I find myself having similar thoughts about the church. I grew up in a church that was just coming out of it’s heyday. In the 1970s the large, rambling building was still in full use with a busy Sunday School, active committees, choirs, and two services on Sunday. I went on to work as a youth leader and seminary student at churches of 2000 members and more. The first church I was called to as a pastor was over 800 members. These kinds of crowds inform my understand of what church was supposed to be for a long time. And, if I’m honest, I sometimes have to remind myself that this kind of church is a thing of the past. It was beautiful and glorious when it was in full bloom.2018-05-16 16.27.47

I used to spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to cultivate church so it would re-grow into it’s former glory. In affect, I kept trying to solve the problems of membership and budget with tools no longer useful. Everything I had learned about church from childhood, college, and seminary were for a different era, a different climate. It was a time when attending church was the expected norm. People went to church because they were supposed to. It was the place to socialize, to network, to see and be seen. It was how you demonstrated that you were a “good” person. Parents brought their children to church because their parents had brought them. Yes, there were spiritual and religious reasons for church membership, too. Yet, it seems to me that a lot of church attendance had to do with existing social norms. Then, the cultural climate began to shift.

Somewhere along the way, the church stopped meeting the needs for community, for religion, for spirituality, for faith formation. A few generations have been clearly communicating their dissatisfaction with church. Yet, we keep trying to re-grow the old without paying attention to climate. What we cultivate or transplant, might be okay for a while, but a close look might reveal new growth too fragile to withstand the rigors of the seasons. Maybe it’s time to stop pretending that the old growth was always pruned well and remains as healthy and vital as ever.

I don’t suggest ripping these old churches out by the roots, though. They have a place, especially for those with long memories. But nearby, we ought to consider planting and cultivating another variety of church, a kind more suitable to the climate. It won’t look like the enormous, cultivated beauty of yesterday. The new variety is likely to be smaller, durable, and a bit wild. It’s time we admit that we have practically cultivated the Spirit right out of the church. But let’s not worry. As we plant a new variety of church, if we are patient, we will notice blossoms in a familiar shape as she grows her own way.

We would do well to remember that the Spirit, whose movement set heads on fire and blew doors open and bubbled up in a myriad of languages, cannot be tamed. If we cultivate and nurture a church suitable for this climate, the Spirit will surprise us with her tenacious, wild, beauty.

RCL – Year B – Pentecost – May 20, 2018
Acts 2:1-21 or Ezekiel 37:1-14
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
Romans 8:22-27 or Acts 2:1-21
John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

Photos CC-BY-NC image by Rachael Keefe

Categories
Musings Sermon Starter

It Was Good

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I don’t know about you, but I am tired. There is so much that needs attention. How do I find my way among the calls for action against racism, Islamophobia, misogyny, homophobia and transphobia? How do I manage to work toward clean energy, reducing the stigma around mental illness, and food security for all? And there is so much more! How do I find the time, the passion, and the awareness of all that needs response without losing myself and my sense of what God is calling me to? Truth be told, I am exhausted by all the ways in which we human beings fail to recognize the value of all that God created. We act as if the Earth were not gifted to us to be good stewards and gentle caretakers of it. We act as if we can do as we please to ourselves, to our neighbors, and to Creation. It makes me wonder when the last time God was able to look and see that all was “very good.”

Maybe if we all went back and read the first chapter of Genesis again, it would help. Well, if we read it for truth rather than fact, the ancient words might help ground us and remind us of whose we are. If we can all agree that God made the whole of Creation and God made it very good, perhaps we can set aside the distraction of the creation vs. evolution debate. Evolution is a fact born out by science and creation is the truth of who and whose we are. Science can show us how creation happened but our faith stories tell us the purpose.

Now we can move on to humankind. We know that humankind is created in the image of God. This creation story is very clear that God created humanity in God’s own image. As individuals we contain some holy reflection of our Creator. However, it is only the fullness of humanity bound together in community that more accurately reflects the heart of God. One is not greater than another. Each has a place in the whole. It doesn’t matter what social norms have developed. In the beginning God created humankind in God’s own image. The divisions among us are purely our doing. The rejection, hatred, dismissal, devaluing of any human life is not ever what God intends. Hatred has no place in the heart of God nor in the hearts of those created in love and for love.

If Creation was made good and human beings bear the image of God, then how have we arrived at this place in time of super storms ravaging coastal communities, famine covering the Horn of Africa, war waging for decades murdering and displacing millions of people, people experiencing homelessness in every city and town, those with mental illness going untreated, elders living in poverty, racism and white supremacy leaving blood on our streets, and so much more destruction of the planet, of humanity, of the whole of Creation? How have we gotten to this place?

Of course, there are many ways to answer this question and all of them offer pieces of the proverbial puzzle. However, I suggest that humanity has arrived at this point due to pure, unadulterated hubris. For generations we’ve acted as if there are no consequences for our actions. We’ve taken resources from the earth without much thought about what will happen when they are gone. We resist changing our ways when we learn better, more gentle ways of living on this planet. We’ve set up systems of kyriarchy that keep hatred, greed, privilege alive and well without considering where these systems came from. Then when we learn better, we fail to do better because we don’t want to lose our place in the kyriarchy as individuals, as faith communities, as a country. Our hubris is killing us and we continue to claim that this is how God created us to be – I have my stuff and you have yours and, by the way, my stuff is better than yours because God loves me more.

No! This is not it. The first chapter of Genesis tells us differently. This creation story first told to remind the Hebrews living in Babylonian exile that God was still their God. God made creation. God made them. God made the Babylonians, too. God did not make the world to be a place of pain and suffering. God did not make humankind to be agents of destruction. God made Creation good! God made humankind to be agents of love. This is what humanity has forgotten.

The Babylonian captivity may be long over and little remembered, but we live as captives in a culture that values prosperity over people, power over justice, kyriarchy over equity. In this season of Pentecost, we can honor the Spirit by inviting her to blow fear out of our lives. We can ask that holy fires burn through all our self-justifications for maintaining the blinders of our privilege. We can ask God for the courage to truly walk in the way of Love, the way of Christ. After all, though we are a people held captive by culture, we are God’s people and God has not forgotten us. Perhaps it is time we remember the God who created us in God’s own image and proclaimed us and the whole of Creation as very good. May we have the courage to be good and to be agents of Love.

RCL- Year A – Trinity Sunday – First Sunday after Pentecost – June 11, 2017
Genesis 1:1-2:4a
Psalm 8
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
Matthew 28:16-20

Photo: CC0 image by Arek Socha

Categories
Poetry

A Poem for Pentecost

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She Speaks a Language Not Our Own

Come, Holy Spirit, Come
we pray over and over again
expecting an answer
suitable for our sanctuaries
and comfortable for our souls
forgetting that she’s the one
who set holy heads afire
and blew away notions of
what ought to be

Come, Holy Spirit, Come
we pray once again
asking for blessings and affirmations
of our way of being and doing and believing
as we maintain our illusion of control
over the flow of God’s grace into the world
trusting our ways are holy ways
and the only right ways at that
all the while forgetting she’s the one
who blows where she wills

Come, Holy Spirit, Come
we pray yet again
expecting comfort and consolation
in our complicit pews
never minding the discomfort of our neighbors
or the cries arising in the night
forgetful of the days when
she hovered over creations waters
and called the world into being
more than what we know

Come, Holy Spirit, Come
we speak the words
seldom hearing their power
scarcely ever being still
long enough to see her
hear her feel her
remember her
as one who speaks a language
not our own

Come, Holy Spirit, Come
set our holy heads on fire
free us from foolish expectations
of rightness and rules
shatter our shallow beliefs
unfetter sacred visions of community
tied together in love and service
break open our fearful hearts
open our hands to receive the heartbroken
and the devastated ones in need of sanctuary
shake our sleeping souls
awaken us to your power
your presence
your holy ways

Come, Holy Spirit, Come
with wind
with fire
with whatever it takes
to teach us that new song
in a language not our own

RCL – Year A – Pentecost – June 4, 2017
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: CC0 image by Holger Schue

Categories
Musings Sermon Starter

Now is a Good Time to Move

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“You can’t stay here!” said the angels to the disciples as they stared up into the sky. “You can’t stay here and wait for Jesus. You have work to do after you receive the Spirit.” The disciples did not want to hear this as they stared in awe, amazement, wonder, and fear at the place in the sky where they had last seen the Risen Christ. I do not doubt for a second that Peter was ready to build an altar, pitch a tent, and wait for Jesus to come back. He had a pretty good track record of wanting to do such things. Who could blame him for such desires?

Imagine being in Peter’s place. Filled with a sense of the Holy, knowing something sacred just happened, why not hunker down and worship until the Holy shows up again? After the Transfiguration, Jesus was very clear that staying on the mountain top wasn’t a good idea because there was so much to be done in other places with other people. So, too, after Mary discovers the empty tomb, she is told that Jesus was not there and she should look for him among the living. She quite likely wanted to sit down and wait until Jesus showed up again or until someone could explain what happened. Why would Ascension be any different?

The angels didn’t have to wait to hear the disciples’ thoughts. They knew. They knew the very human desire to hunker down, hold on, and wait for God to show up again. That just isn’t the way it works. Why haven’t we figured this out?

We can say that the Gospels tell us how to be disciples. They tell the stories of Jesus’ teachings and interactions with the world and make clear that we, as followers, are to love one another. We are to love with a love so fierce that it leads to a kind of holy oneness. As a consequence, there’s no stopping and staying in the holy moments, the holy places. We are to fuel up for the journey ahead because there is work to be done with other people in other places. This is how it is with faith.

Now if we can take the leap and say that The Book of Acts is a continuation of the story that is more about being church than being individual disciples, we would do well to pay heed to the message. There is no hunkering down. There is no staying in one place. There is no staring up into the sky while waiting for Jesus to show up. Best get going because once the Spirit shows up there’s going to be a ton of work to be done.

Church, we haven’t done a very good job of paying attention to the angels who have told us, “You can’t stay here.” We’ve done a really good job of hunkering down. We’ve created rituals, traditions, polity, and buildings all in the name of worshiping God. This isn’t bad in and of itself. However, we’ve forgotten about the journey that will lead to other people in other places that need us to be church, to be Christ in the broken, wounded, suffering places. We have become far too comfortable sitting in our pews, saying our prayers, and waiting for God to change the world.

After Jesus ascended into heaven, the disciples heard what the angels had to stay. They heard the “you can’t stay here” and returned to their upper room. They didn’t return there to continue to wait for Jesus to show up and fix everything. They joined with the wider community and they prayed and listened and prepared (as much as anyone can) for the Holy Spirit to blow through their lives and set their heads on fire. Then they were on the move.

When will we as church move? When will we let go of all that does not bring the realm of God into being? When will we hear the angels saying, “You can’t stay here?” Shouldn’t we be spending time in prayer, in listening, and in preparation for the Holy Spirit to show up? I hope she shows up soon. There’s a lot of outdated, useless debris that needs to be blown out of church as we know it. And there’s more than a few heads that need some holy flames to clear away the long-accumulated clutter.

It’s clear that we can’t stay here. We can’t sit comfortably in our pews with our familiar rituals and traditions while the world around us continues to break open and bleed all over our streets. We cannot remain comfortably silent while racism runs rampant and too many people actively cling to the ignorant dangers of white supremacy. We cannot whisper our prayers and wait for God to show up while hatred, bigotry, homophobia, ableism, sexism and transphobia are written into law. We cannot continue doing what we’ve “always done” while the government gives permission to keep those who are poor, hungry, homeless, or sick invisible to the wealthy and powerful. We cannot stare up into the sky at what used to be while gunshots echo through our streets and war ravishes the homelands of our neighbors. Church, we cannot stay here.

In these last days of Eastertide, let us spend time in prayer, in listening, and in preparing for the Holy Spirit. It is time for us to move. It is time for us to leave behind the holy moments and places of yesterday. We cannot keep silent and wait for God to fix what we’ve had a part in breaking. It is time for us to come down off the mountaintop we’ve been camped out on and be church, be Christ for one another, for our neighbors, for all whom we meet. If ever there were a time when the world needed to experience a Love so fierce as to create holy oneness, that time is now. Let’s get ready to move because we really cannot stay here.

For other thoughts on this week’s readings and sermon help try here.

RCL Year A – Seventh Sunday of Easter – May 28, 2017
Acts 1:6-14
Ps 68:1-10, 32-35
1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11
John 17:1-11

Photo: CC0 image by Hermann Traub

Categories
Musings Sermon Starter

A God Still Unknown

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The summer before I entered ninth grade I went to a youth group meeting at a friend’s church. During that meeting, they all seemed to be very concerned about whether or not I knew Jesus. I thought I did. I thought I was a Christian, at least I did until they started talking about their experiences. The leaders and some of the older members shared their conversion stories and wanted to know if I believed that Jesus is “Lord and Savior” and if I had a “personal relationship” with him. This was all new to me. I didn’t know what to think or say. No one at the church I attended seemed concerned with my salvation. I was baffled by these strangers who were very worried about my soul. They told me I was not a Christian and that they would pray for my salvation.

Even though I never went back to that youth group, I thought about all the things they talked about and wondered about their concerns for years. I didn’t have any profound conversion experience. My journey was more of a slow awakening to the mysteries of the Spirit at work in my life and in the world. I wasn’t sure if Jesus was my Lord and Savior but I liked the idea. And I had no concept of what a personal relationship with Jesus would look like. I mean, I prayed often enough, but it’s not like Jesus and I sat down and had a conversation. That youth group meeting left me with a lot of questions. It took me years to sort out the answers.

While my theology and understanding of who God is turned out to be very different from the church whose youth group I attended long ago, I am grateful for the questions raised that day. I started to pay more attention to the stories of Jesus, what he did and who he was. I listened more carefully to what it was Christians were supposed to do and be in the world. I didn’t want to be just religious, just going to church and youth group, I wanted more. I’m not sure how long it would have taken me to search for the “more” if I hadn’t attended that youth group meeting.

I wonder how long the Athenians would have gone on being religious without knowing God if Paul hadn’t spoken in the Areopagus that day. I wonder how long any of us will go on not knowing this God we worship. How long will we continue to be like those ancient citizens of Athens, religious in so many ways, yet somehow not knowing the God who gives us life, breath, and being?

Every time I read this passage, something in me yawns, stretches, and awakens. It’s a yearning for something more than religion, ritual and practice, something more than what I already know and believe. It’s the same thing that awoke in me during that youth group meeting the summer I was 14. It’s the same thing that pushes me to be more than I am now, to reach for all that is holy and draw it closer. I imagine the Athenians who listened to Paul that day felt something stir within them, also. What if we all let this awakening yearning for God guide us in new ways that reveal something about this God whom we think we know? What if we followed this restless desire into whole new ways of living, moving, and having our being?

Paul was undoubtedly a brilliant preacher. The echoes of his words have the power awaken sleeping souls generations later. Who does not want to know this God who claims us as offspring and desires only that we love in return? With all the chaos, violence, and hatred in the world, the truth of Paul’s words is just sharp and convicting as they were in Athens. Whenever we remain silent in the face of all the isms and phobias that drive hatred and violence in our society, we show how empty our religious ways are. We seem to think that God is something that is shaped by the “art and imagination of mortals” more often than we realize that God is so much more than we can possibly imagine.

I’m still not one to talk about my faith in terms a personal relationship with Christ or to claim that Jesus is my Lord and Savior. However, I do feel the Spirit moving, calling us and urging us to live into the abundance God offers. I also know that if there is hope for the world, repentance is needed. Once we repent of all the ways we’ve made God in our image and participated in the ugliness of the world, then, together, we reach for the Truth and embody the Love and Justice that will save and transform the world. After all, are we not the Body of Christ? If we are not Christ with and for one another, who will be? Our religious ways should in no way promote fear, ignorance, and hatred. If our religious practices and beliefs are divinely inspired, then they will bring life and love into the world. Otherwise, it’s time to leave them behind and embrace that in which “we live and move and have our being.”

RCL – Year A – Sixth Sunday after Easter – May 21, 2017
Acts 17:22-31
Psalm 66:8-20
1 Peter 3:13-22
John 14:15-21

Photo: CC0 image by skeeze

Categories
Musings Sermon Starter

Come, Holy Spirit, Come

2016-05-11 11.34.18Many years ago I was the interim pastor at a small church and was free to celebrate Pentecost without regard to that congregation’s tradition. We decided that it would be confirmation day for the small group of youth who had been going to classes and they wanted red balloons among other things. This was long before I knew anything about latex allergies so red balloons it was. They were tied in bunches all over the sanctuary and there were red streamers galore. It was a day of joy to be sure. Until a balloon escaped and wrapped itself around a ceiling fan.

For all I know that balloon is still there. While the Trustees were not amused because accessing those high ceiling fans was problematic, I found it very funny. These balloons were symbols of the Spirit, the Spirit we think we have tamed. The one rogue balloon reminded me that we have not tamed the Holy Spirit and we still cannot predict where she will go and she is very likely to present us with quite a bit of challenge.

As I contemplate Pentecost this year, I am surrounded by the beauty of Holy Wisdom Monastery in Wisconsin. I’ve come here to work on my next book, Embodying Christ: Being a Lifesaving Church. It is about my experience with suicide – part memoir, part theological reflection, and part clinical response. Beginning to write this book has provided me opportunity to look back at my life differently than I ever have before. I can see where the Spirit was moving even when I thought I was completely alone.

This is true for my personal story as well as my professional one. As I was walking through the rain-soaked woods this morning, listening to all the bird calls, sliding on the mud and wet grass, it occurred to me that the Church has no idea what power it holds. We have built beautiful buildings that are now crippling many congregations. We have created dogma and doctrine and rules of membership that keep people away. We have forgotten that we are stewards of Creation, agents of Grace, bearers of Hope. We think the Spirit is with us when we feel good. We choose not to remember the unsettling capacity of the Spirit to discomfort the comfortable and lead us to places we would not go on our own. The Spirit still calls as surely as those early morning birds I heard this morning. I’m not sure we are listening to her very well.

We worry about how to get Millennials into our congregations. We think if we have someone who can bring in young people and their families, all will be well. In the meantime, we’ve forgotten the power of the God we worship. We have long-neglected the flames of passion for fear of not being politically correct. We are reluctant to claim Christ as our path to God, a path that requires unbridled, unconditional love for ourselves, our neighbors, Creation and Creator. Why would young people want to join a church where the flight of the Spirit is disrupted by ceiling fans and traditions more often than she’s allowed to move where she wills?

2016-05-09 18.28.40.jpgWhile walking earlier today through wet woods and prairie on my way to a small lake, I noticed dear, rabbit, and fox tracks. I heard the call of a wide variety of birds and the sound of yesterday’s rain dripping off the newly leafed branches. Violets, purple and white are scattered everywhere. Other early wildflowers bring patches of yellow, white, and purple to the grassy path I walked. The sense of aliveness in this place awakens something in me. It’s been a long time since I’ve awoken to the sound of the woods in the morning. I yearn to breathe in this life, to be a part of the wildness that lies just below the surface.

This is what worship should do, this is what church should be. When we gather to worship God, there should be evidence of a barely contained wildness. A wildness that beckons to all, inviting all to stop a while and breathe deeply this breath of life that will change, challenge, and empower us.

As we celebrate Pentecost this year, may we experience the wildness of the Spirit that set those early heads on fire. May her winds blow through our lives and our churches to clear a path for passion. May her touch set our hearts aflame and connect us with the wildness that lies just below the surface. As a birthday gift to the Church, wouldn’t it be great to set her free?

RCL – Year C – Pentecost – May 15, 2016
Acts 2:1-21 or Genesis 11:1-9
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
Romans 8:14-17 or Acts 2:1-21
John 14:8-17 [25-27]

Photos: CC-BY-NC image by Rachael Keefe