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Time to Work with God

Image of a large cast iron pot filled with water and surrounded by flowers

People are weird, impulsive, and messy. Reading the story of Sarah getting Abraham to banish Hagar and Ishmael reminds me just how foolish we all can be. Sarah was, after all, responsible for Hagar getting pregnant by Abraham to begin with. Then when Sarah finally gives birth to Isaac and Isaac and Ishmael get too close, Sarah’s own jealousy takes over. She doesn’t want anything to get in the way of God’s promise to Abraham. If Hagar and Ishmael continue to hang around, maybe God’s promise to make nations from Abraham’s descendants might not remain exclusively Isaac’s. Of course, God ended up giving Hagar the same promise so Sarah’s selfishness accomplished little, except maybe that she didn’t witness God’s promise to Hagar.

Sarah’s behavior is consistent with our own on so many levels. She treated God’s promise to Abraham as though it were pie, as though there was a limited amount and she wanted Isaac to have it all. We do this with many aspects of faith and society. We somehow believe we can control who God loves with all of our rules and doctrines and traditions. We treat justice like it is a precious commodity that must be held by the privileged few. How many have we banished to thirst in the wilderness because of our own shortsightedness? It’s not like God withdraws God’s love from those we deem unworthy. Nor does God share our views of who deserves justice. I don’t know if Sarah ever acknowledged her foolishness. However, I wonder if the current situation in the world will awaken us to our own?

In Romans Paul tells us that we share in Christ’s baptism and, also, Christ’s resurrection. In baptism we acknowledge we belong to God and recognize the grace that washes over us. We need not wait until we die to participate in Christ’s resurrection. New life is possible for us in this moment, right now. Perhaps more importantly, there is enough new life to cover every person on the planet. There is no shortage of redemption and resurrection. Such is the nature of grace. As Luther says, grace abounds.

Consequently, we can stop hoarding it. We can admit that we have been mistaken about who is “saved” and who is not. We can repent from our racist and white supremacist ways and work toward equality for all people right now. We can stop trying to say that the Bible addresses every aspect of modern life and accept that God is still at work in the world revealing the fullness of God in the wonderful diversity of humanity. Cis gender, heterosexual, white, able-bodied, privileged maleness is not perfection nor a model for how to be Christian. Remember God’s love is not pie; there is plenty for everyone even those we think are flawed or sinful. Mental illness is not a punishment for sin. Neither is any kind of disability. Every person is made in God’s image and our understanding of God is incomplete without the amazingly beautiful diversity of humanity.

God is at work in the world in spite of our weirdness, our impulsiveness, and our messiness. It is okay to make mistakes and get things wrong. However, it is not okay to persist in these ways just because they are comfortable for us. When we learn better we are supposed to do better. Moreover, we are called to care for the vulnerable among us, not banish them to the margins of society. Jesus worked hard to wake people up to the need to speak truth to power and to reach out with healing hands to those cast out. We don’t need to keep making more Hagars and Ishamaels for God to rescue with living water. As the church, the body of Christ, we are supposed to be that living water.

Maybe it is time that we start working with God to fulfill God’s vision of unity in the world rather than maintaining our systems and traditions of judgement and division. Even in pandemic, even with uprisings continuing, we have all that we need to end our compliance with white supremacy and heteronormalcy. We have erred on the side of selfish foolishness that has sent too many people out into the desert for far too long. Grace, love, justice, mercy… these are all commodities that though precious exist in abundance, an abundance so great that we can’t possible use them up.

God is still working in the world to bring new life to those we have cast out. It is time we embrace the fullness of Creation and work with God rather than against God. May we step into the grace that flows like baptismal waters and live as people of resurrection and abundance.

RCL – Year A – Third Sunday after Pentecost – June 21, 2020
Genesis 21:8-21 with Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17 or
Jeremiah 20:7-13 with Psalm 69:7-10, (11-15), 16-18
Romans 6:1b-11
Matthew 10:24-39

Photo: CC0image by GGaby Stein

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Musings Sermon Starter

Holy Mountain Climbing

In my younger days I enjoyed mountain climbing. For a few years on every Monday holiday a group of us would get together and climb a mountain in New Hampshire. I was always the last one up the trail, and these were relatively easy trails requiring no special equipment. It didn’t matter how much I was in shape, I lost my breath quickly and tired easily. On the other hand, I always made it to the top. The views were always, always worth the effort. The beauty of Creation in full panoramic view that only God could design. Those mountain climbing days were good days.

Today I often find myself climbing more metaphoric mountains that are no less tiring. The vision God gave to Isaiah of a holy mountain filled with peace and justice rises in my imagination. It rises higher every time someone grasps their own privilege and sees the ways in which white supremacy are woven through society. Wolves get closer to lambs whenever someone begins to understand the need for gender inclusive pronouns, bathrooms, communities, and more. Those moments of awakening and justice-seeking that widen the doors of our churches make it more likely that the lion and the ox will share a feeding trough. Every act of loving kindness heightens God’s holy mountain, and increases the possibility that we might begin to climb it.

Last week I participated in the ordination of women who has physical disabilities and is open about her mental health challenges. This week the congregation where I am a pastor will celebrate gender diversity in worship. If you had told me thirty years ago that this would be happening in the denomination I serve, I would not have believed nor had I the courage to imagine. Not then. Yet now, is another story altogether.

Some days the changes are easy and the possibilities for a vital future seem endless. Other days, all this change leaves me breathless. I sometimes find myself lamenting the church as I experienced it in days gone by. I miss the formality of worship, the familiar, predictable structure of what will happen on Sunday mornings. Somedays I even miss the larger numbers of people who gathered together. But reality often knocks me right out of my nostalgic recollections into gratitude.

I am grateful that the days of universally practiced exclusion are over. Women can be ordained in at least the Mainline traditions, as can LGBTQ+ folx. Conversations and practices are forming around intentional inclusion of people who have physical disabilities and, also, those who have mental health challenges. This church with its gender inclusive restrooms and wheelchair access is worth giving up a few things that cause occasional laments. A church that literally means what its “All are Welcome” sign suggests is a church that is much closer to living on God’s holy mountain.

If we keep climbing this path of inclusion and welcome that God set before us long ago, we will have moments of exhaustion and breathlessness. Some of us will fall behind the group just as some of us will lead. The important thing is that we keep moving; the view from the top of this particular mountain promises to be spectacular beyond our imagining. Let’s keep envisioning church as the place where love, kindness, and peace are found. Let’s keep working for the day when hatred, war, and violence are a thing of the past. Won’t it be great when we all live on God’s holy mountain and all eat together and rest together without fear…

RCL – Year C – Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost – November 17, 2019
Isaiah 65:17-25 with Isaiah 12 or
Malachi 4:1-2a with Psalm 98
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
Luke 21:5-19

Photo: CC0image by Sasin Tipchai

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Musings Sermon Starter

No Distinctions

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Welcome. Inclusion. Hospitality. These are all church words, words we try to embody to the best of our ability. Yet, not everyone feels welcomed. Not everyone experiences inclusion. Not everyone receives hospitality. There are limits to our being church, aren’t there? We aren’t perfect and we sometimes get it wrong. True. However, what about that Spirit who tells Peter “not to make a distinction between them and us”? I’m not sure how well we do this. Quite recently someone asked me why nonmembers have the same status as members and shouldn’t members be given some sort of preference.

In late October 2008 I moved from Massachusetts to NH to work as a clinical chaplain at the state hospital. On the first Sunday in November, I went to worship at a church where I didn’t know anyone. I was newly divorced, just moved away from my friends, starting a new job, and in the first semester of a DMin program. Worship was the place I needed to be for healing, for renewal, for building new relationships.

bread-399286_1920.jpgI found a church that had an 8:00am worship service so I could worship before going to work to lead services of my own. People were friendly and welcoming. The worship service was great until communion. I think it was World Communion Sunday so the pastors had planned this beautiful procession with all kinds of bread being brought to the table. There were several loaves of bread in different colors and shapes. And the message was a very clear “all are welcome” to the table, no exceptions.

However, I was the exception. I was not able to share in that simple, beautiful feast because I have Celiac disease and multiple food allergies. The church I had been serving prior to moving was a small, new church start where I made the communion bread so that all could share one loaf. I knew that I couldn’t receive communion in most churches, but for a variety of reasons the exclusion from that particular table hit quite hard. It was unexpectedly painful and I sat crying in this place where I knew no one and no one knew me.

As unintended as my exclusion from the communion table was, that morning in worship I felt the pain of having been rejected by church again and again. The early questions of whether or not I as a young woman should go to seminary… the later questions of the propriety of a divorced pastor continuing to serve a church… then the clear rejection after coming out… So many times I had been excluded if not completely rejected. On that November morning in a new place, feeling so alone, I sought the welcome, hospitality, and inclusion of church. Instead of experiencing these things, I felt the old pangs of unworthiness vibrating deep within.

Peter wrestled with some of these issues in his dream. What food could be shared and with whom were valid questions of the very early church. There was an “us” – those who had been Jews – and a “them” – those who were Gentiles. Peter was very clearly informed that his way of thinking about us and them was not going to work. He was to meet the people who came to him and accompany them along the way without distinction. No doubt this was a hard thing for Peter to learn, but it was necessary for this movement that would grow into the church.

It’s a lesson we would do well to pay particular attention to in this era of radical changes within the church. Remember that Jesus didn’t seem to pay particular attention to traditions and rules when people came to him with particular needs. He nearly always met the person where they were at and gave them what was needed. His words to his disciples after their last meal together summarizes this, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

When it comes to the body of Christ, there should be no “us and them.” This is how we love as Christ loved. If one has need, all have need. If one cannot, all cannot. That church in New Hampshire quickly moved to offering communion bread that accommodated my needs and the needs of others with food allergies. For me it was a huge step toward welcoming me and including me as “one of them.”hands-684499_1280.jpg

I cannot help but wonder who is feeling unwelcome and excluded from church now. Who could benefit from the hospitality we are capable of offering? There were no limits or qualifiers on Jesus’ love. When will the welcome, inclusion, and hospitality of the Christ we embody stop making distinctions between “us” and “them”?

RCL – Year C – Fifth Sunday of Easter – April 24, 2016
Acts 11:1-18
Psalm 148
Revelation 21:1-6
John 13:31-35

Top Photo CC0 image by Petra
Middle Photo CC0 image by Sabine Schulte
Bottom Photo CC0 image by Axelle Spencer