Categories
Musings Sermon Starter

Mental Health Sunday: Toward a New Understanding

Image of black silhouettes of a people’s upper bodies with arms waving against a maroon background filled with pink hearts of different sizes.

In the United Church of Christ, this Sunday is Mental Health Sunday. Many congregations won’t choose to observe it at all, while a few will have Mental Health Sunday at a different point in the year. However, it isn’t something that should be overlooked or avoided. Church can be helpful or harmful, and our history indicates that we have harmed more than we’ve helped when it comes to mental health. Too many people, even in progressive congregations, still believe that mental illness is a punishment for sin, a character flaw, or evidence of insufficient faith. Isn’t it time we tell it like it is? Isn’t it time we end the silence and shatter the stigma surrounding mental illness in our churches?

Jesus said, “All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one” (John 17:11-12). He was speaking about his disciples then and now. He didn’t make any distinction among them. And, I’d bet that some of them had diagnosable mental health conditions. Think about Peter and is impulsiveness…

Anyway, Jesus claimed all who followed him as his people, given to him by God. In this prayer during the Farewell Discourses in John’s gospel, Jesus asks God to protect them and create wholeness among them – make them one. I wish this had happened then or was happening now. It isn’t a failure on God’s part to answer Jesus’ prayer. It is a failure on the part of the church to live as we have been called. We make judgments and live in fear, separated one from another when we don’t have to.

In biblical times demon possession and punishment for sin were the only way to understand mental illness. However, we know better now, or we should. Mental illness takes place in the brain. The brains of people with mental illness function differently and some differences are observable in brain imaging. We generally don’t say that cancer or heart disease are a punishment from God, though many might feel this way. We also don’t tend to blame people who are diagnosed with physical illness for their condition. Yet, we do when it comes to mental illness. Why is that?

The simple answer is that we are afraid. We are afraid that it could happen to us. Or we believe the misinformation that is out there that people who have severe and persistent mental illness are violent. Or we are fearful of saying or doing the wrong thing. As a result of our fear and, maybe, some ignorance, too, we remain silent and separated from our siblings who live with symptoms of mental illness. This is where stigma comes from. This is in direct opposition to how Jesus told us we are supposed to live – as one, one whole Body of Christ.

I can’t help but wonder if more people would find welcome in our congregations if we stopped being fearful and started to foster a sense of unity with all of our neighbors. If we endeavored to learn more about mental health conditions and stopped ignoring that 1 in 5 U.S. adults is diagnosed with a mental health condition, how might this change church? Wouldn’t the Body of Christ be healthier if we were to fully embrace all of our members, friends, and neighbors who live with mental illness?

Recently, I’ve learned about the term “bodymind” and I think Jesus would be a fan. Bodymind eliminates the dualism that Western traditions have created. Bodymind is all about the mind and body as a single unit and eliminates the distinction between physical health and mental health. Imagine the Body of Christ becoming the Bodymind of Christ… We would not longer have the option of pretending that mental illness isn’t part of the church. The silence would be broken and the stigma completely shattered, not to mention the sense of wholeness that this understanding could foster…

Isn’t it time that we work together to embrace the unity that Jesus prayed for among his followers? That they may be one… The Bodymind of Christ…

RCL – Year B – Seventh Sunday of Easter – May 16, 2021 Acts 1:15-17, 21-26  • Psalm 1  • 1 John 5:9-13  • John 17:6-19

Photo: CC0image by Pete Linforth

Categories
Sermon Starter

A Little More about Love

Image of two yellow ducklings facing each other, black beaks touching.

I wish love was simple and uncomplicated. Jesus talked about it so much because love challenges us, often to go beyond our perceived limits. I didn’t grow up with the best role models when it comes to love. I have no doubt that my parents did their best. Yet, what they communicated to me was that love was conditional, based on following the rules and being “good.” In many ways, the church communicated the same thing to me. Starting Sunday School at eight meant that I missed the basics of preschool and early elementary school. I didn’t learn “Jesus Loves Me,” the song, until I was in college, and by then it was almost too late.

In John’s gospel Jesus says, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” I wonder if that was hard for those first disciples to grasp. In my mind they were very young men, perhaps between the ages of 15 and 20 by the time Jesus would have spoken these words. They lived in a society very different from ours. What lessons had they learned about love before they met Jesus? Jesus spoke about agape, unconditional love, and it’s possible that no one else really did. Maybe they knew something of storge, affection, or philia, brotherly love or friendship, or eros, romantic love. But outside of the synagogue and the need to be involved in charity, where would they have encountered agape?

I don’t know. Certainly, anyone of them could have had an encounter with God that unfolded the meaning of agape for them. Or maybe being with Jesus for three years was enough for them to begin to grasp the meaning of Jesus’ commandment to “love one another as I have loved you.” I’d like to think those early disciples got it, understood it, and went on to live in relationship with each other guided by agape. However, what I remember about early church history indicates that they probably didn’t.

So this leads me to the question of how, when, and where do we experience agape today? If we’re lucky, we learn about unconditional love from our parents. And for those of us who weren’t lucky enough to have healthy, loving, emotive parents, then it would be great if the church would step in and fill that gap?

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Maybe we can dedicate the month to communicating the love we have for one another and for all our neighbors. What if everyone who joined our worship services or Bible studies or Sunday Schools heard and believed the message that they are God’s beloved, that they are loved and valued for who they are in this moment? What if we stopped caring about all those things we’ve labeled as sin, and just focused on loving whomever shows up?

How many lives could be saved if we communicated clearly that Queer folx are loved by God? That people with addictions are loved by God? That people with disabilities are loved by God? That people with mental illness are loved by God? That people experiencing homelessness are loved by God? That people who are divorced are loved by God? That women who’ve had abortions are loved by God? That people living in non monogamous relationships are loved by God? No change needed. Right now, whoever you are, whatever you are doing, whatever you are experiencing, you are loved by God. For real. Seriously, how many lives could be saved with this simple message?

In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, I invite every preacher, every church leader, to make agape the mission and the message. Let’s set aside everything we think makes proper theology and proper church practice and figure out how to embody agape for those who most need to know the saving power of God’s love for the whole of creation.

RCL – Year B – Sixth Sunday of Easter – May 9, 2021 Acts 10:44-48  • Psalm 98  • 1 John 5:1-6  • John 15:9-17

Photo: CC0image by pexels

Categories
Musings Sermon Starter

Silence is Compliance

Image of a shepherd with his dog and herd of sheep on a sunny, green hillside.

It’s been quite a week here in the Twin Cities, and in my life. The verdict of guilty on all three charges in the Chauvin trial shifted the mood considerably. There is now hope where there was none. However, this hope is mitigated by the killing of Daunte Wright, Adam Toledo, and Ma’Khia Bryant. So much work is before us still.

On a more personal note, I received my second vaccine with minor, though annoying, symptoms, completed a three-day training on the IDI (Intercultural Development Inventory), and observed the sixth anniversary of my mother’s death. As I said, it’s been a week.

Through all of this I’ve been thinking about the “Good Shepherd” passages. Psalm 23 is a popular favorite and Jesus’ claim to be the Good Shepherd in John’s gospel makes us generally feel good. It’s easy to picture God or Jesus as a good shepherd. We feel watched-over and protected. However, if Jesus is the Good Shepherd and we who are church members are the embodiment of Christ, then we are to be the Good Shepherd in the world. And this is where the challenge is. We are to follow and to embody all at the same time. We aren’t doing very well at either, most days anyway.

Jesus said he was the Good Shepherd who would lay down his life for his own. And, of course, he did. Jesus died at the hands of those who could not tolerate Love Incarnate, those who were enamored with the power, position, prestige, and promises granted by the Empire. Jesus challenged the authorities (both Jewish and Roman) of his day at every opportunity. He sought to literally re-member (connect or reconnect) the outcasts with community. He sought to empower the people to live into their relationship with God.

Jesus was a threat to those with power and a friend to the oppressed. We are called to embody those qualities – challenge the Empire and befriend the oppressed. This is the Good Shepherd we say we follow. Are we willing to lay down our lives for the benefit of those who are oppressed, cast out, dismissed, devalued, or dehumanized? If not, how closely do we follow this Shepherd? How do we embody the Love the Good Shepherd demonstrated for the whole of the cosmos?

I’m not saying we all have to go out and risk our lives in a literal way. I’m suggesting that we have to more actively put our lives on the line. You know, take risks to ensure that these modern day lynchings of Black and Brown adults and children come to an end. The conviction of Chauvin is a good start. It is not enough, though. We need more. We need to keep advocating for murder charges to be brought against police officers who shoot and/or kill Black and Brown people with no good reason. We who identify as White progressive Christians need to learn how to amplify the voices of those calling for the abolishment of police and the dismantling of the criminal legal system, and all the other systems that thrive on White supremacy and racism. Can we say we follow the Good Shepherd if we continue to remain on the sidelines in silence? Can we say we embody Christ if we are seeking justice for all people?

In case it isn’t clear, I’m really wondering what it means to be Christian in the U.S. in this moment in history. I know that my own views have radically changed over the last decade or more, particularly in the last 6.5 years I’ve lived in Minnesota. My shift in perspective is due in part to Black Lives Matter and participating in marches, rallies, and protests and really listening to POC in my community. If Jesus is Divine Love Incarnate and the church is the embodiment of that Love, then we have a lot of crap to clean up before we can claim that it is true. Silence is compliance, and White progressive Christians have been silent for far too long. We have also created the illusion that we “welcome all.” Most congregations don’t welcome all. My friends, if one member of the Body of Christ is a White Supremacist, then the Body of Christ is a White Supremacist. If one member of the Body of Christ has benefited or continues to benefit from White supremacy, then the Body of Christ benefits from White supremacy. If one member of the Body of Christ is racist, then the Body of Christ is racist. This is not what Jesus would want for his followers. This is not what it means to be the embodiment of the Good Shepherd.

If we want to be led to those green pastures and still waters, then we must do our part to remove everything that has prevented the grass from growing and everything that has polluted the waters. Isn’t it time we do better? Isn’t it time we actively participate in mending and healing what we have broken?

The Shepherd waits.

RCL – Year B – Fourth Sunday of Easter – April 25, 2021 Acts 8:26-40  • Psalm 22:25-31  • 1 John 4:7-21  • John 15:1-8

Photo: CC0image by free-photos

Categories
Musings Sermon Starter

White Supremacy, a Trial, and the Possibility of Resurrection

Image of a church steeple emerging from fog at sunrise.

I love the story of Thomas. He wasn’t going to believe what he had not seen with his own eyes or touched with his own hands. History has labeled him “Doubting Thomas.” It’s a bit of a misnomer. Thomas represents all of us who have come after him. We might long to believe Jesus is risen and, maybe, some days we do. However, if we are honest, we have a lot of doubt about the whole story. We struggle to believe what we cannot see, hear, feel, smell, or touch. We can minimize it, dismiss it, ignore it, rationalize it, or turn away from it. We do this with so much in our lives, not just Resurrection.

Here in the Twin Cities we are in the midst of the Derek Chauvin trial. You likely remember the video that went viral of this White police officer kneeling on the neck of a Black man, George Floyd, until Floyd died. This public murder resulted in uprisings here and around the world. Now Chauvin is on trial and the defense is blaming everything on George Floyd and/or the crowd of onlookers. It’s honestly more than I want to watch or listen to. I can only imagine the pain and trauma for Black folx who are following this trial…

What does this have to do with Thomas and Jesus? Well, in my mind they are intimately connected. White folx in this country (and around the world) have willfully ignored White supremacy, racism, and White privilege. We have refused to see them, feel them, hear them, touch them, or smell them even though we are surrounded by them. While they may be the opposite of Resurrection, admitting that they exist and have caused immeasurable harm for centuries would lead to Resurrection for countless people. If we confront the truth of White supremacy, racism, and White privilege, imagine what could be fostered instead. Imagine the changes that would take place. Equality and justice would grow from honest and necessary reparations to all BIPOC folx. Resurrection would take the form of dismantling all systems of oppression, beginning with the entire criminal legal system and moving through to all the others – education, housing, healthcare, mental healthcare, etc.

With this trial, I feel like White folx are Thomas on week two, or should be. Many of us have been able to deny reality and the ways we have benefited from White supremacy, racism, and White privilege, even though countless people have said we have seen them, we have touched them, they have killed us… How can any of us deny the reality of White supremacy that allows a police officer to murder a Black man by kneeling on his neck in public when we are confronted with a trial that wants us to believe the officer was right and justified in his actions?

So what do we do? When we have seen, heard, touched, tasted, and smelled the truth, what comes next? Look at Thomas. He proclaimed his newly experienced truth right out loud. From that moment on his life was radically different. We aren’t told a whole lot about what Thomas

did next, but we do know that neither he nor the other disciples went on the same as before. They all were instrumental in creating the church. In those early days, according to Acts, the church was communal in the best sense of the word; they took care of one another. This is a clue to what comes next for those of us who see the truth, know the truth, of White supremacy and its ugly friends. We begin to take care of one another, leaving out none of our neighbors.

Begin by not turning away from the truth of this trial. Begin by recognizing the traumatizing and retraumatizing of every Black person who is witnessing the trial. Then offer prayerful support, honest prayers for change, for a better understanding of how you’ve been complicit in racist systems… And then look for ways to make reparations in anyway you can. Support BIPOC businesses. Donate to BIPOC causes. (And remember that when you make donations to BIPOC causes it is not charity and you shouldn’t look for tax write offs; it’s reparations and leads toward Resurrection for all peoples.) Advocate for systemic changes. Educate yourself on the realities of all the very real challenges BIPOC folx face on a day to day basis.

We may begin in doubt, like Thomas. However, when confronted with the truth, we must work to make Resurrection a reality for all people. If we ever want to glimpse the Realm of God, we have much work to do. If we want to know the peace that Jesus breathed on his disciples, we must work to ensure that peace is accessible to every person on the planet. It is possible to overthrow and dismantle oppressive systems. If you don’t believe me, then ask Jesus…

RCL – Year B – Second Sunday of Easter – April 11, 2021 Acts 4:32-35  • Psalm 133  • 1 John 1:1-2:2  • John 20:19-31

Photo: CC0image by Michael Schwarzenberger

Categories
Musings Sermon Starter

Celebrating Resurrection

Image of a tan baby bunny sitting in front of a bird’s nest with 3 colored eggs. All in a green field with small, white flowers.

A sense of Resurrection hit me early this year. Yesterday I was able to get a vaccine sooner than I had anticipated. I needed to be in a hospital setting because of my medical conditions and the possibility of an allergic reaction. I have been on all kinds of waiting lists for a few weeks and had to turn down one place because it wasn’t a hospital. Yesterday, though, my wife came home from a morning appointment at the VA (she’s a veteran) and told me that if I went there right then, I could get a vaccine. Good news, indeed. I have had to keep my exposure to the world so minimal over the last 13 months because of my high risk. Now I am imagining what I can do five weeks from now when I am fully vaccinated. It won’t be anything exciting by most people’s standards. Just things like the dentist, the ophthalmologist, a mammogram, and in-person PT for my frozen shoulder. I might be brave enough to go to the Asian market for somethings that aren’t available on Instacart, though I won’t go in if it’s too crowded. I also like to dream about having friends who also vaccinated over this summer – outside, masked, and distanced, of course. It feels like a bit of resurrection is on the horizon.

I can’t help but think of the heavy grief those women carried to Jesus’ tomb along with the anointing spices. They had no idea that they would be greeted by Resurrection. By John’s account, Mary Magdalene mistook the Risen Christ for the gardener. Imagine how much her spirits lifted when she recognized her beloved friend, rabbi, teacher. By Mark’s account the women were terrified by the very idea of Resurrection; they ran away. I get that. If I had been there, I would have dropped my anointing spices and ran for home. No one expects the power of God to change the laws of nature. No one expects Resurrection and when it happens we should be awestruck, if not also filled with fear and trembling.

Even today. Yes, today, when we encounter Resurrection, we must also be open to the awe, or the fear, or the terror. God’s power is so much more than anything we encounter on a day-to-day basis. And, let’s face it, these days we are weighed down by the grief we carry. All of us know at least one person who has died from COVID. Most of us know many. And then there is the loss of “normal,” whatever that meant for us. When we encounter Resurrection this year, will the heaviness of the grief we carry lessen? Will we be able to breathe a little more deeply with the reminder that God is truly with us through everything?

Also, with the Resurrection comes the knowledge that nothing will ever be “normal” again. Encounters with the Risen Christ were not the same as being with Jesus before his death. He was different. He had to identify himself every time he showed up for any of his disciples. New Life means different life. This is good for us to remember as we look at the end of pandemic, whenever it comes. There are things that will never be the same again. Masking in public is likely here to stay. Handshakes are probably a thing of the past. Many of us will never feel comfortable being part of a large crowd again. Some of us will be reluctant to eat in restaurants or even get takeout again. And church will be different, too. We don’t know when or if we’ll be able to sing together again. We won’t pass the offering plate or pass the Peace. We won’t be handing out bulletins or casually hugging each other. Who knows what kinship time will look like. Are potlucks a thing of the past? Church might have to take a cue from the Resurrected Christ and be different in appearance and action.

While most of us resist change and long to “get back to normal,” Resurrection reminds us that this is not how the Body of Christ started out. We, as church, have an amazing opportunity to appear and behave differently, like the Resurrected Christ. Maybe we won’t have to point out our wounds or explain that we are still the church, yet we can embrace transformation. We can emerge from pandemic very unlike we were prior. Yes, it’s scary not to know the future shape we will take. Yes, it’s uncomfortable to take risks. Yes, it seems counterintuitive to intentionally embrace more change when so much has already changed. Some may, in fact, run away in fear. That’s okay. The women ran away at first. Yet, we know they told the story at some point because here we are a couple thousand years later.

With the promise of new life, life after pandemic, on the horizon, may we all embrace the power and truth of Resurrection this Easter. May we move through our fear and welcome the differences that will eventually become normative. May our congregations live into transformation and Resurrection in a way that beckons to those who have yet to find welcome in the church. It’s okay to be anxious or afraid. We have yet to know what resurrection will look like in the wake of pandemic. We are still caught somewhere between Maundy Thursday and Easter morning. We will celebrate Easter in spirit this week. It may be several more months before we get to experience New Life in-person. The key is to be open to whatever comes and give thanks for the promise of Resurrection.

Happy Easter!

Looking for sermon help? Try here.

RCL – Year B – Easter – April 4, 2021

Acts 10:34-43 or Isaiah 25:6-9  • Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24  • 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 or Acts 10:34-43  • John 20:1-18 or Mark 16:1-8

Photo: CC0image by Rebekka D

Categories
Musings Sermon Starter

All That is Before Us: From Palm Sunday to Easter

Image of a beach at sunrise/sunset with palm branches and trees in the foreground.

Palm Sunday. During pandemic. Again. I’ve heard too many clergy colleagues asking how to preach this Holy Week during pandemic. Sure, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday are comparatively easy. How to preach good news on Palm Sunday and even more so on Easter is the repeated question. What does new life look like when the pandemic has not ended, though an end may be on the horizon? What does new life mean when congregations are failing or haven’t met in person in over a year or many members have died or the doors have permanently closed? Can we celebrate Jesus’ triumphant return to Jerusalem when we are still held captive by COVID? The short answer is yes. Yes, there is new life. Yes, there is a way through grief. Yes, the church is still vital and necessary in the world. Yes, celebrating Jesus’ return to Jerusalem is both possible and important.

We are all stressed by the experiences of this last year. Most of us could not have predicted that we’d be facing our second Holy Week of virtual worship. We thought it would all be over by now. Now it’s not. And we are weary on top of the on-going stressors pandemic brings. All the more reason to take a closer look at the events of Holy Week, and to remind ourselves that the week goes from celebration to suffering to death to New Life. This is the story of the human journey. This is the story of our spiritual lives. We move through these stages. We, too, experience betrayal and loss and death. We grieve. We celebrate. We remember. We live. So, let’s begin.

Jesus returned to Jerusalem without a lot of fanfare. He rode a colt, fulfilling prophecy. He was humble and quiet in contrast to Pilot with a parade and a Century of soldiers on horses and wearing shiny armor. Jesus came in humility while the Empire made promises of power and protection that they couldn’t possibly keep. Jesus rode in quietly with only palm branches waving and few shouts of “hosanna!” He promised life to those who would follow him. He rode into town, checked out the Temple, and went to Bethany for the night.

Not much has changed. The Empire doesn’t necessarily come riding into town with soldiers and horses any more than Jesus comes in riding a donkey. However, the Empire is still making promises of power and protection that it cannot possibly fulfill. It’s goal is to keep us separate and powerless so that the status quo may endure even the pandemic. Jesus’ goal, in complete contrast, is to unite and empower so that the oppressed may be liberated and justice may be embodied throughout society. Jesus would have something to say about the ways this pandemic has been managed (or not) by those with power. He would have something to say about the inequity of those victimized and the way the vaccine has been released according to the same old racial divides. Jesus would have something to say about how we have let white supremacy and classism, ablism, and other divisive fears determine who lives and who dies. We need Jesus to ride into town and remind us that there is a better way to face the Empire.

Palm Sunday can remind us that there is another way to be in the face of fear, anger, and oppression. We can humbly remain firm in our love or our neighbors and ourselves. We can be reluctant to let go of the (false) protections of Empire even as we recognize that the way of Love demands an active response. Jesus didn’t ride that colt into Jerusalem because he wanted to; he rode into the city because he needed people to see the Love provides more safety, healing, and hope than might. The God’s steadfast love is the way through all the pain, deceit, and division caused by participating in the power of the Empire. Where is Jesus challenging us to respond differently in this moment, to leave behind the illusions of the Empire?

If we skip ahead to Thursday, we know that betrayal rules the day. Judas couldn’t help himself. In the moment, the money seemed more powerful than Jesus’ love for him. As a result, Jesus was betrayed into the hands of the authorities. Yet, not before some important things happened. There was footwashing to show us that we are all equal before God; not one human life is more important than another, not one is too good to wash the feet of others. And there was, of course, the Last Supper. Here Jesus told us all what he was doing and why. His body would be broken for us to know healing. His blood would be poured out for us to know forgiveness. He would die for us to know that violence and death are not the end. Resurrection tells us that Love always triumphs. How do we move through this week experiencing it all fully and trust the fullness the New Life that is promised and demonstrated?

We know the story. We know that God does not abandon us at any time. God is with us in our moments of being overwhelmed and weary. Holy Week in its entirety can remind us that we are not alone and that the best way to journey together is through all of it – the hope, the despair, the fear, the betrayal, the grief… everything. By going through it all we get to New Life. No thing lasts forever. However, we are changed by our experiences. Life will never be what it was before COVID. As true as this is, there is still hope because we are a people seeking to live into and embody Divine Love. Love that unites and liberates us and instills hope in us for a life that is yet to come. This is the good news. This is the good news writ large this week. May we all have the grace to stay awake, to keep watch, and to bear witness to all that is to come. Blessings on the journey!

RCL – Year B – Palm Sunday – March 28, 2021 Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29  • Mark 11:1-11 or John 12:12-16

Photo: CC0image by gregovish

Categories
Musings Sermon Starter

The Unbreakable Covenant

I’ve been on vacation for the last few days. These days this means time at home to relax, to watch TV, to read, to be creative, and to think. I haven’t even been able to really enjoy the approach of spring because I am still healing from a stress fracture in my shin. So you might imagine that I’ve spent a lot more time than usual thinking. And what have I been thinking about? The words of the Prophet Jeremiah, among other things. My thoughts keep going to the unbreakable covenant that is promised. A covenant that will be written on the hearts of the people of God, on our hearts.

What, then, is written on our hearts today? I think Love is written on all of our hearts, I really do. However, it gets buried under pain, fear, anger, regret, grief, anxiety, and suffering. Love gets buried under spiritual scar tissue and is sometimes really hard to find. If it wasn’t there, the covenant Jeremiah promised would be broken, and we know that God doesn’t break promises, let alone covenants.

You see, I believe that Jesus is the fulfilment of the covenant that Jeremiah spoke of. If we take seriously the words of John 3:16, “God so loves the entirety of the Cosmos…” then we must ask ourselves what being a member of the Body of Christ has revealed in our hearts. Jesus was all about Love. His actions were about healing and literally re-membering (reconnecting) people to community. His words challenged the Empire and those in service to it. He was all about community, wholeness, and liberation. None of these things were to benefit the individual; everything Jesus said or did was to teach us how to Love – our neighbors as ourselves, as God Loves.

The depth of what is written on our hearts can only become clear, can only rise to the surface in relationship, in community. We need one another to heal, to removed the scar tissue, to allow Love to come to the fore. Church ought to be the place, the community, that fosters healing and wholeness. Never should the Body of Christ add to the scarring that obscures the Love that is in our spiritual DNA.

The pronouncement coming out of the Vatican this week is inconsistent with what is written on our hearts. Excluding LGBTQ+ folx from the fullness of community is hurtful. Saying that queer folx are welcome but saying that our sexual expression and our marriages are sin fractures rather than heals. It is not loving to accept only the surface level of a person’s identity. It’s like saying that brown-eyed people are welcome only if they wear dark glasses because their brown eyes are a sin. Besides, when it comes to the Body of Christ, if one of us is queer, the Body of Christ is queer and all the rules, judgment, and exclusion becomes self-loathing. Isn’t this the very opposite of the covenant made manifest in Christ?

When will we start holding up our end of the unbreakable covenant? It’s only unbreakable because God doesn’t let go of God’s end of it. God’s steadfast Love really does endure forever, no matter how deeply we bury it. Though why we bury it is another question.

There is enough in the world to add scar tissue, to obscure Love. Why do we add to it, especially as the Body of Christ? It’s time we ask ourselves what is written on our hearts, not on the surface but deep down where only God has a clear view. Living at the surface where all the scarring is only adds to more scarring.

We can do better than this. Healing. Liberation. Wholeness. Community. These things allow the Love that is written on our hearts to come to the surface. If we are not welcoming, forgiving, serving, loving then we are likely adding more scars.

Isn’t it time we live out our truth as the Body of Christ, make manifest the Love that it written deep within?

RCL – Year B – Fifth Sunday in Lent – March 21, 2021 Jeremiah 31:31-34  • Psalm 51:1-12 or Psalm 119:9-16  • Hebrews 5:5-10  • John 12:20-33

Photo: CC0image by edmondalfoto

Categories
Musings Sermon Starter

Celebrating Transfiguration

Image of a small child in a tunnel covered in graffiti. At the far opening of the tunnel is a bright field with a tree in the distance and a flock of birds in the sky.

Transfiguration Sunday is one of the most unappreciated holy days of the Christian year. In fact, some clergy avoid preaching on this passage because it is a mystery, and a confusing one at that. Yet, the message in the metaphor is one we desperately need on so many levels. This year, especially. Some say that we never left Lent in 2020 and now we are rapidly approaching it again. How are we going to manage this? Who needs a reminder of the finitude and frailty this year? Not many folx, for sure. Yet, how many of us need a reminder that we are indeed a temple of the Holy Spirit, the glory of God? This is what the transfiguration story can do. It can serve as a much-needed reminder that God’s glory is within us and can shine through anyone, anywhere, anytime. Let’s climb this mountainous mystery and figure this out.

I’m not going to speculate all that much on why Peter, James, and John were chosen to go up the mountain with Jesus. Maybe the others were busy. Maybe these three needed the mystical experience more than the others. Maybe they were the only ones with the right footgear to climb a mountain. Who knows? This isn’t necessarily the important part. They chose to follow Jesus up the mountain. Would you? Have you? They took the risk of following without knowing where they were going and what might happen when they got there.

This is where it gets weird and not worth lingering on the literal. Yes, it could have happened exactly the way the story is written. And maybe it’s a story of literally mythic proportions. Either way, there’s a message for us in the mysterious weirdness. In an unexpected moment of openness, the three disciples saw the glory of God shining through Jesus, unhidden and totally terrifying. They saw the truth of who Jesus was and it elevated him in the company of two other holy men – Moses and Elijah. The response of the disciples was to fall down in overwhelming fear and Jesus did not tell them not to be afraid. What does this tell us about the pure, unfiltered, presence of the Holy? It’s fine to recognize the Sacred in the setting sun, the flight of an eagle, the kindness of a stranger, etc. On the other hand, imagine what it would feel like to be in the presence of God unmitigated by Creation. Wouldn’t you be terrified, too?

We can talk about “mountain top” experiences and by doing so, we might diminish the power and value of this story. We talk about those moments when the Holy Spirit touches our human spirit and we are enlivened in some way. In college, we referred to this as a “spiritual high.” I’ve never heard anyone talk about these experiences with fear and trembling, though. Yes, sometimes the implications afterward were anxiety provoking in that they meant a life-change of some sort. The encounter itself, however, often left a sense of peace or hope or excitement in its wake. I’d venture to guess that few of us have encountered God in such a way that leaves us quaking in our hiking boots.

In contrast, we can totally relate to the three when they wanted to stay and build tabernacles. Maybe they wanted to honor God with altars. Maybe they wanted to hang out in that holy place and see if Glory would shine again. Who knows what their motivations were for wanting to stay. Whatever they were, we can relate. If you’ve had an encounter with the Holy, you might want to linger where it happened. You might be tempted to try to make it happen again. You might spend some energy longing for the experience to be repeated, perhaps just to confirm that it happened in the first place. It’s very human to want to stay in a place where the Holy Spirit has clearly shown up.

Of course, lingering wasn’t possible. There was work yet to be done down in the valley where folx live with all kinds of pain. We have no idea how long they were on the mountain with Jesus and we don’t know how long Jesus let them be in their awe before he told them that it was time to move on. And that caution not to talk about their experience until later was wise counsel indeed. They needed some time to think and to pray and sort out what meaning it all had for them, for their lives, and for all the lives they would touch. We would do well to pay heed.

Overall, though, this story tells us that the glory of God lies within. Maybe it will never shine through us with the pure unfiltered intensity that it shone through Jesus, yet anything is possible. We catch glimpses of God’s glory in other folx all the time. We see a holy sheen on those who engage their passion. Sometimes we feel it when we worship together. You know, that intense worship experience that is some-unnamable-how different from the usual worship service. My theory is that it takes more than one of us for true transfiguration to happen these days. Maybe that’s why there were three disciples with Jesus to bear witness to the three who shone with holy light. Maybe Glory is best experienced and witnessed in community. Maybe the deepest, truest connections with God come through others who’ve joined together to be vessels of Divine Love…

However it works, whenever it appears, God’s glory is a powerful thing. We would do well to remember that at least a spark or two of that Glory is within each of us. Yes, we will soon be reminded that we are made from dust and we will return to dust. And, yet, God chooses to shine through the dust, sometimes transfiguring what might be otherwise ordinary humans into spectacular visions of holiness.

On the brink of Lent, we are not alone in the wilderness, no matter how bleak or barren it appears. The glory of God shines in us and around us. When we gather together as the Body of Christ, we shine all that much brighter.

Shine on, my friends, shine on.

RCL: Year B – Transfiguration Sunday – February 14, 2021 2 Kings 2:1-12  • Psalm 50:1-6  • 2 Corinthians 4:3-6  • Mark 9:2-9

Photo: CC0image by Alan

Categories
Musings Sermon Starter

Unfortunate Truths

image of a boy and a girl holding hands on the edge of the ocean at sunset with a map of the earth superimposed over the sky

In the season of Epiphany it is appropriate to be seeking revelations of God’s presence and God’s engagement with the world. Sometimes it is much more clear where God’s work is not being done. I’ve seen a lot of this in recent days. Then I hear the unthinkable – people who engage in terrorist activities claiming to be Christian, or labeled “Christian” by others. In the United States it is time for us to be honest with ourselves and stop pretending hatred and violence are acceptable feelings and actions for those who claim to follow Christ.

In John’s account of the call of Nathanael, Nathanael does not believe anything good can come out of Nazareth in spite of Philip’s pronouncement about finding the Messiah. Philip’s response to Nathanael was a very clear, “Come and see.” Not only could goodness come out of Nazareth, only goodness can come out of the Messiah. If something is not good and loving, it does not come from Christ. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t pain or challenge because change often involves both these things. However, if something is centered in Christ, the outcome is goodness or love. Period. Without question.

This is bad news for those who claim the name “Christian” and then espouse hatred or storm the Capitol. Jesus’ commandment to love was very clear. Living a life based in fear, anger, and hatred is the exact opposite. What might change if we all stop tolerating hatred, especially in those who claim to follow Christ?

Jesus’ entire ministry was about empowering the oppressed, taking religious control out of the hands of those appointed by Rome, healing and re-membering those who were pushed to the margins. Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire in 310 and the downfall began. Then Charlemagne came along a few centuries later and established the Holy Roman Empire and sealed the fate of the church. We have been in service to the Empire ever since. The events of last week and the on-going pandemic show how true this is.

When Christians support a president who has no ethics, openly mocks people with disabilities, denigrates women, supports white supremacy, removes laws protecting LGBTQ+ people, and more, they reveal allegiance not to the God of Love but to the Empire, the oppressors. When people worship power and position over liberation and care for the vulnerable, ugly things happen. There is no goodness or Love here. Christ is not on the side of those with power.

The unfortunate truth is that you cannot be a follower of Christ and be a white supremacist; Jesus was a brown-skinned man. You cannot hate those who have different religious practices; Jesus said love your neighbor. You cannot fear those from other countries – immigrants, refugees, or asylum seekers; Jesus told us to welcome the stranger. You cannot support the mistreatment of anyone who is not white, male, heterosexual, able-bodied, and wealthy; Jesus clearly told his followers to Love as he Loves. How have we gotten to a place where the public face of Christianity is so often one of hatred and violence?

No more. Let us make 2021 the year we follow Christ, the one who taught Love, a Love that when fully embrace, fully embodied, casts out all fear. We do not have to accept racism, white supremacy, hatred, and violence as normative. We do not have to remain in service to the Empire. We have more than enough Love, more than enough resources, more than enough goodness, to ensure that all human beings are treated with dignity and respect. We can love our neighbors as ourselves and not lose anything except our fears.

Can anything good come out of Christians in the United States? Come and see. God is doing a new thing. Perhaps we can all join in and leave the ways of fear and division behind us. Whose in?

RCL: Year B – Second Sunday after Epiphany – January 17, 2021 1 Samuel 3:1-10, (11-20)  • Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18  • 1 Corinthians 6:12-20  • John 1:43-51

Photo: CC0image by Gerd Altmann

Categories
Musings Sermon Starter

Joy, Always Joy

Image of a gnome (or a Tompte) with a red hat cross country skiing

Here we are at the third Sunday of Advent. Traditionally, this is the Sunday of Joy. On this day we shift from penitential waiting to joyful anticipation. The tone of Advent shifts from somber to joyful. We know that God is drawing near. We celebrate the Christ who was, who is, and who shall be. We may not spend much time contemplating the Second Coming. However, we might envision a world in which people more fully embraced life in Christ. This would be a world filled with joy for sure.

In the meantime, though, in the midst of pandemic, where is joy? How do we rejoice in the Lord always when we are surrounded by sickness, grief, and isolation? Is it possible to be joyful in this particular Advent season? I believe it is. It is possible because joy is deeper, more steady, than happiness. Our happiness is in question, and should be given the state of the world. However, our joy need not be absent.

I think of joy as being rooted in the very center of our beings. It grows from those times and places in which we are aware of the human spirit and the Holy Spirit touching, even in a fleeting way. Joy comes from knowing that God is present, that we are God’s beloved, no matter what is happening on our lives or in the wider world. We would do well to take time to be still and find that place within us and anchor there. The ways to find this place within are as varied as humans are. Find your way. Perhaps it is prayer or meditation… or maybe hiking through the woods, the prairie, the desert… or maybe in the flow of a river, the sounds of the ocean… through music or art… through worship or scripture… find your way to remembering and knowing God’s presence and God’s love for you particularly. And then the work begins. Or, maybe, begin the work and let the joy follow.

Either way, Isaiah gives some clear instructions on how to live out and share the joy of life in the Spirit:

  • bring good news to the oppressed
  • bind up the brokenhearted
  • proclaim liberty to the captives
  • bring release to the prisoners
  • comfort all who mourn

These kinds of activities will allow others to join in God’s love of justice and continue the spread of joy by:           

  • building up the ancient ruins
  • raising up the former devastations
  • repairing the ruined cities

I don’t think the prophet was speaking in metaphors. I believe he was telling us how to live as God’s people, instructing us on how to prepare the way for God and save lives. If we were to update this language perhaps we would say that in order to prepare the way of the Lord or embody Christ in the world today, we can:

  • call out oppression in all its forms and create systems built on equality rather than racism, misogyny, transphobia, ablism, homophobia, xenophobia, etc
  • care for the vulnerable among us by providing food, clothing, shelter, mental health care, healthcare, etc.
  • free people from ICE detention centers and cages at the border
  • eliminate for profit prisons and free POC imprisoned by racists systems
  • support those who are mourning, especially in these pandemic times

If we are able to do this work, joy would truly blossom in the lives of many people. Trusting that loving-kindness is the way God desires us to live, creates hope and makes room for joy even in the midst of pandemic. The ancient ruins we are meant to be building up are, perhaps, the ruins of the way in which God desires us to live in peace with all our neighbors. The former devastations are, perhaps, all that has been destroyed by racism and other fear based or power based systems. What would the world look like if all who claim to follow Christ sought to repair the breach between what is and what God desires for us?

Joy is not the simple pleasure in having something good or doing something good. Joy is deeper. It comes from being in relationship with God and being in community with God’s people. Joy can sustain us when all else seems lost. Joy grows when we follow God’s commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves. We need joy now in this 2020 Advent season. If you have joy, please share it. If you do not have joy, hold on. This candle we light symbolizes the Light that no hardship, no despair, can truly extinguish and we light it for you until you can experience it for yourself.

Rejoice in the Lord always and let us pray without ceasing as we prepare and embody the way of the Lord.

RCL: Year B Third Sunday of Advent December 13, 2020 Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Psalm 126 or Luke 1:46b-55
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28

Photo: CC0image by Susanne Jutzeler, suju-foto