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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

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Musings Sermon Starter

Beware the Serpents

Image of silhouettes of children raising their arms in the foreground. The background is the red, orange, yellow and blue of a sunrise with birds also silhouetted.

In the wilderness, life is difficult. The space between what was and what will be is uncomfortable, and often distressing. For the Israelites who were on their way from captivity to liberation, misery met them in the desert. They came to the realization that the journey would be long and hard and there was no turning back. They complained to Moses about the lack of water and food. They blamed God for their plight. They were miserable and unexpectedly longing for those days in Egypt where they knew what to expect and there was enough food and water.

Then the encountered the poisonous serpents. They believed these were sent by God as punishment for their sins. I don’t believe God really works this way. I think they encountered the scorpions that live in the desert. Or maybe the serpents are metaphor for the way in which dwelling on our own misery lets a kind of poison in. Either way, people died. And the survivors repented.

Repentance made them look for a different way. Moses made a bronze serpent that made them look up in order to live. In effect, it made them stop looking at their misery and, instead, look to God for hope and life. And their journey continued; they did not die. Eventually, they made it through the wilderness to the Promised Land. Eventually, they accepted the challenges of the journey and began to imagine a new life for themselves.

We have much to learn from these ancient wilderness wanderers. We have been in pandemic wilderness for a year. It is uncomfortable and distressing. Grief weighs heavily on all of us. Some of us don’t have the resources they need to get through a day, much less the days ahead. It becomes too easy to focus on the hard parts, the miserable parts of pandemic. Some have even blamed God for COVID, for people dying, for all the challenges of the past year.

I don’t find this helpful or healthy. God does not cause suffering. God did not create COVID-19 and all its variants to punish us or teach us anything. We might learn something from this time of pandemic at some point, but that doesn’t mean God sent the virus to us. Perhaps, we need to do as the Israelites did and repent of our focus on our misery. Perhaps it is time that those of us who are able, look up. Look up to find hope, healing, and guidance in God.

This looking upward does not negate all the suffering and grief. It does not deny the reality of pandemic which is not over. The change in focus for the Israelites was life-giving. It can be life-giving for us as well. Focusing on God means not focusing on the limits pandemic has imposed on us. Focusing on God means taking deeper breaths and appreciating the blessings in the midst of the challenges. It means asking ourselves how we can use the resources we have to benefit another. It means recognizing that the people of God have been in similar places in the past; God knows the way through loss, through grief, through injustice… through it all.

The Israelites didn’t suddenly have more food and water on their journey. They didn’t suddenly arrive on the other side of the wilderness. However, they were able to look up, focus away from their misery, and recognize God’s presence in their midst – at least for a little while. They would forget again. They would be overwhelmed by their circumstances again. And they would find God in their midst again. We can follow their lead. Where do you find hope in these wilderness days?

No matter how much we want this journey through pandemic to be over, it is not. Yes, there are many who are acting as if COVID no longer poses a threat. These are the folx who are focused on the poisonous serpents and are unable to look up and see hope and healing. Denial of pain and suffering helps no one. Acknowledging it and searching for hope in the midst of it, will lead toward healing. Remember, the presence of God in the midst of the ancient Israelites did not change their circumstances. Instead, God led them through their hunger, their thirst, and the poisonous serpents.

We can get through this. Whatever the “new normal” will be is on the horizon. It’s still hazy and unclear, though. The only way through the remaining days of pandemic are together. Those of us who are able to look up and find hope and healing have a responsibility to help those who cannot. We don’t need a bronze serpent to remind us that God, the power of Life and Love, is in our midst; we need one another.

RCL – Year B – Fourth Sunday in Lent – March 14, 2021 Exodus 20:1-17  • Psalm 19  • 1 Corinthians 1:18-25  • John 2:13-22

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Musings Sermon Starter

Course Correction (maybe)

Image of flat desert with mountains, blue sky, and clouds in the background. In the foreground to the left is a road sign with an arrow curving to the left.

What if we’ve been going about being Christian all wrong, or at least partially incorrect? What if it isn’t about personal salvation at all? What if it’s really about acts of healing (hesed in Hebrew) and acts of mercy (eleos in Greek)? The more I think about this, the more I am convinced that salvation for the “whole of the cosmos” (as John 3:16 says) comes out of our ability to care for ourselves and all our neighbors. This would be embodying Christ in healing and saving ways. Perhaps it’s time we reclaim our communal roots and the goal of tikkun olam, repairing what is broken in the world. This could revitalize the church and make it relevant and vital in the world. If evangelism and soul-saving takes a backseat to acts of loving-kindness, mercy, and reparations, imagine how strong and healthy church could become.

Think about it. Christianity has taken the commandments, the ten given to Moses and the two named by Jesus, to be a kind of moral or pious code of conduct for individuals. To an extent, this is true. And, in a way, this is inadequate. Morality and/or piety do very little for an individual. However, on a communal level, these commandments give guidance for a healthy, safe community. Worship God and not the lesser God’s of our own making. Do not mistreat your neighbors or yourself. Don’t be jealous of your neighbors. Honor your elders. You know, it all comes down to love God, love neighbors, love yourself, and be good stewards of the planet. All this is not meant to elevate the individual. Rather, it is meant to strengthen the community and foster interdependence. Our actions ought not to be guided by a legalistic view of “right” and “wrong” so much as what benefits the larger community.

Several years ago I left a relationship with nothing more than what I could fit in my car. I lived in a friend’s guestroom for 18 months. During that time I was significantly under employed and wasn’t able to find another job. People were generous and caring. My friend let me stay at her house without cost. Other people I barely knew would sometimes hand me money saying things like, “You need this more than I do right now.” And, you know, they didn’t ask me how I spent it; they didn’t care if I paid bills, bought groceries, or went to Starbucks. I was also able to continue in a painting class because the instructor waived the fee asking absolutely nothing in return. What if everyone who fell on hard times was supported by those around them as I was? What if our primary question, as individuals and as communities of faith, became, “How can I/we help my neighbors?” or “How can I share my/our resources?”

I know this sounds idealistic, and I suppose it is. However, shifting the focus of religious practice from the individual to the community could make a real difference in how we are church. Worship would become a celebration of God’s abundance, and a renewal of strength so that the work of the church could continue. Faith formation would be about fostering a sense of being God’s beloved and finding a place in community to best use one’s gifts. How much easier it would be to be a follower of Christ if the church was focused on hesed and eleos to the benefit of all.

Here in the Twin Cities, there are preparations for the trial of Derek Chauvin, the police officer who is responsible for George Floyd’s murder in 2020. Authorities are concerned about the potential for more uprisings. Authorities are trying to prevent protests, marches, rallies from happening in a way that could lead to destruction. Imagine how this would shift if those with power were focused on justice rather than controlling those who have been oppressed for centuries. Surely we can do better than this by setting aside fear, hatred, white supremacy, and our need to otherize. Christians with a communally based identity could potentially shift this power dynamic…

Loving-kindness. Mercy. Repairing what is broken. These are actions the Body of Christ would do well to pay more attention to – communally and as individual members. As I’ve said before, God does not need our help saving souls; God has that covered. God needs our help saving lives by caring for the vulnerable among us and tending to Creation’s wounds.

RCL – Year B – Third Sunday in Lent – March 7, 2021 Exodus 20:1-17  • Psalm 19  • 1 Corinthians 1:18-25  • John 2:13-22

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Musings Sermon Starter

Into the Wilderness

Image of small camper trailer parked at a wooded campsite. Camper is white on top and turquoise on the bottom.

Have you ever spent an inordinate amount of time on something only to have it prove fruitless? This has been my week. Between my risk for COVID and a stress fracture, it has been weeks since I’ve been able to go anywhere. Also, my primary coping mechanism for stress has been fitness walking (think 4 mph for 4-5 miles) and that is also off the table for the foreseeable future. So what ate up all my time this week? The search for a small camper, and by small I mean under 2000 lbs that our Jeep Renegade can pull. It seems I am not the only one with this great idea. In fact, I am very late to this game; there is nothing available in used models that fit in our budget. Yet, I kept searching and will probably keep searching because you never know.

It occurred to me that if I were as diligent in my pursuit of spiritual things as I have been in pursuit of a camper, maybe my time would be better spent. Yet, it is very difficult to sustain energy for something that cannot be seen and only sometimes can be felt. Usually, we don’t recognize an encounter with the Holy until we are looking back. It makes me wonder when Abraham and Sarah knew that they had made a covenant with God. Did they know it in the moment or did they realize later what compelled Abraham to pack up and move? I’m guessing that awareness of just who was guiding them and why came slowly, though there is no way to tell in the story.

I also think of Peter. It’s likely that Peter’s awareness of Jesus’ divinity flickered in and out. He saw Jesus do amazing things. He even tried to do some of them himself (walking on water). It’s clear that Peter loved Jesus and sometimes recognized him as the Messiah. Other times, though, not so much. Peter didn’t like when Jesus talked about how he was going to die and rise again. Did he invite Jesus to run away and never return to Jerusalem to avoid death? Who knows? We do know that Jesus called him “Satan” for focusing on human things.

It’s the human things that get in our way most often. If we focus on these kinds of things – our self-focused wants and desires – we don’t have to focus on divine things. These divine things are much harder – loving our neighbors, taking our cross, following Jesus. I mean, Jesus is talking about losing life for his sake, for the sake of the gospel. That doesn’t sound very appealing, does it? And, yet, isn’t there something very powerful in this mystery?

Are we able to deny ourselves? What is that cross that Jesus said we had to take up in order to follow him? Sometimes, I am able to deny my self-focused wants and desires for the sake of others. Not always, though. I think of the hours I spent looking for a camper this week to no avail, knowing I will keep looking. I don’t think anyone or anything suffered because I was focused on my own desires, this time. At other times in my life, though, others have suffered because I was consumed by my own wants.

As for the taking up of my own cross, this is often harder. While I am not entirely sure what Jesus meant by this, I hear it as carrying that which gets in the way of our relationship with God, that which diminishes or devalues us. We each have a weakness (or many) that hinder our relationship with God and, if left unchecked, become full-on sinfulness. The good news is that whatever the cross we carry, we have help. In the best of circumstances the community, the church, can help us carry it. We can say that Jesus helps us carry our crosses, though sometimes we need more tangible help than that.

How are we, as the people of God, the body of Christ, the church, focusing on divine things rather than human things? How are we making cross-carrying easier for our neighbors? Have we done enough to recognize and celebrate and honor God at work in the world – in, through, among, and around us? Are we more focused on ourselves as a church than we are on ourselves as the body of Christ called to love our neighbors as ourselves, bring healing to what we have broken in the world?

I have more questions than answers this week. Maybe this is why it is easier to focus on searching for a camper than it is on seeking God’s holy ways. Following Jesus, seeking God, bringing loving-kindness into the world, is not for the faint of heart. May we awaken more fully to the covenant of Love that binds us one to another and enables us to find life in the wilderness, the barren places, amidst the chaos.

RCL – Year B – Second Sunday in Lent – February 28, 2021 Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16  • Psalm 22:23-31  • Romans 4:13-25  • Mark 8:31-38 or Mark 9:2-9

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Celebrating Abundance: A Calendar for Lent 2021

Lent is different this year. I created a calendar that highlights abundance during this barren, wilderness season for Living Table United Church of Christ. Each day the cost highlights something many people take for granted. May you find life in the deserted places and encounter God in the depths between brokenness and healing.

Image of a daily calendar that highlights Lent and abundance. It begins with Ash Wednesday.
Image of a calendar page for March, highlighting abundance. It ends with Easter Sunday.
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Musings Sermon Starter

Dreams, Visions, Hope, and New Life

During my years as a psychiatric chaplain, I frequently had very vivid dreams that would entangle my every day with my love for urban fantasy novels (and tv shows) and with my theological pursuits. In these dreams I would have to solve some unsolvable puzzle or complete some heroic act which would result in the world being rid of all evil. Were these dreams influenced by providing spiritual care to people in the midst of psychiatric crisis and my frequent feelings of helplessness? Yes. On the other hand, I found hope in them as well. No matter what monsters or demons I fought in my dreams, failure was never a possibility nor was giving up. In my dreams I found the courage, strength, and ingenuity I needed. My dreaming self was always tenacious and often triumphant, though it was not unusual for me to wake up before evil was contained.

Why talk about these dreams now? For the last several nights, I’ve had similar kinds of vivid dreams. One I had to coach an army of Sisyphean-like people on how to keep moving the stones even when they rolled back or the mountain peak seemed no closer. In another my task was to stand at the mouth of a cave and call all faith-filled people to come out, that their time to hide in the Platonic cave had come to end. Last night I had to find a way to unite a million people who had never met without them ever meeting. If I accomplished this task, a million more people would not die and the earth would enter a new age.

Once again these dreams are an odd blend of life, urban fantasy, and theology. The response to COVID-19 ranges from willful ignorance to preparing for the apocalypse. While some are able to ignore all signs of crisis, most of us are dreading the likelihood of illness and more death than we have seen in recent history. Apocalyptic language makes a degree of sense. However, I am a dreamer of dreams and receiver of visions. I see hope when most people speak of despair and desperation. I think of Ezekiel and his visionary valley and of Lazarus walking out of a tomb and the promise of God’s steadfast love allows me to take a deep breath. Preparation is helpful; panic is not. New life is the birthright of the people of God. This is not to say that faithful people have not or will not be included in the millions who will die from COVID-19. Faith is no protection against any virus. The promise of new life is lived out in community.

It’s rare that we witness a true turning point in society or in church and are aware that it is indeed a turning point. Nearly every aspect of life will be different after COVID-19. Church life will be different after this crisis. No matter how we resist the changes necessary to remain in community while “sheltering in place” or in a “lockdown,” church needs to adapt to what is faster than church has ever adapted to anything. I believe the church universal has been in serious danger of being the dry bones in Ezekiel’s vision. Our reluctance to change enough to meet the needs of the world around us meant that we were dying, slowly, but dying nonetheless. And, yet, the breath of God is still capable of creating new sinews and flesh on our bones.

I have had an inescapable vision haunting my waking hours and influencing my dreams. In the midst of this crisis, I hear Jesus calling the church out of the tomb we have inhabited. I hear Jesus calling us to let go of so much that has unnecessarily defined us and enter into new life. God’s steadfast love for the whole of Creation cannot be undone by a virus. Even though many of us may die, the church will yet live. However, we must not be tied to worshiping in buildings or in familiar sanctuaries. We must not think that the story of Holy Week and Easter only has power in sanctuaries crowded with visitors and lilies. The story of God’s amazing love, love that can overcome any destruction and devastation humanity can dish out or experience, can be told online by virtual connection. In the middle of world-changing crisis it is possible for the church to be transformed and brought to new life.

In these days and weeks where we are physically distancing from one another, we have an excellent opportunity to bridge the communal and spiritual gap. We can respond to Jesus call and come out of the valley with new sinew and new flesh on our old, dry bones. We can move out of the tomb of traditions and experience transformation and resurrection into a Body of Christ as yet unknown and unrecognized.

In these fear-filled and uncertain days may we all be dreamers of dreams and receivers of visions powerful enough to bring life in response to death. May we find hope in the steadfast love of God. Wherever you are be safe, be well, be church.

More sermon help here.

RCL – Year A – Fifth Sunday in Lent – March 29, 2020
Ezekiel 37:1-14
Psalm 130
Romans 8:6-11
John 11:1-45

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Faithful in the Time of COVID-19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Musings Sermon Starter

Jesus, a Woman, a Well, and COVID-19

It’s been about a hundred years since the last pandemic – the Spanish Influenza of 1918. In the U.S., at least, we have grown accustomed to being relatively safe from widespread outbreaks of viruses. The AIDS epidemic is most recent in our memories, and as awful as that was it was not a pandemic. The coronavirus – COVID-19 – has been declared a pandemic which is causing panic everywhere. Panic isn’t helpful, though. Preparation is more useful and less exhausting.

The word “pandemic” means “all people.” While considered in the context of a potentially deadly virus, this is scary. However, as people of faith we ought to be used to thinking in terms of all people. All people will be involved as this virus spreads also means all people can be involved in preparations and preventative measures. We don’t have to continue to wait for the federal government’s inadequate and unhelpful response. As the Body of Christ, our concern is for all people. There are things we can do. We might be in a wilderness season, but we are not alone.

First, let us look at the story about Jesus meeting the woman at the well in Samaria. We know this story. The woman was an outcast even among outcasts. She had had five husbands and was living with another man who was not her husband. She was at the well in the bright heat of the noonday in order to avoid contact with others in the village. She wasn’t expecting anyone to be there, especially not a rabbi on his own. The interaction between Jesus and this unknown woman changed her. She drank deeply of the living water Jesus offered. As a result a whole village full of people became followers of Jesus on her say so.

What can this passage tell us in these early days of this pandemic? One is that Living Water will not be changed by a virus. God will still be present and moving through the world as God has always done. Another is that social distancing, as is encouraged by the CDC and other experts, does not mean we have to be alone or that God abandons us. We do not need to emotionally and spiritually distance ourselves from one another. The Samaritan woman that Jesus met that day was believed to be ritually unclean and so others kept away from her. Keeping the recommended three feet away from people gathered in public places ought not to make us fearful of others in a way that furthers any sense of isolation. We can make eye contact and talk with people. We can remain unafraid to help our neighbors when they have need.

While the Samaritan woman didn’t have access to social media to curb her feelings of being unwanted and unwelcomed, we do. We can continue to be Church through creative uses of our resources. We can have worship online. We can create small groups of care partners who can remain in contact through video chat or phone or even in person if everyone is well. Perhaps we can use this opportunity to learn new ways of embodying Christ. Fear does not have to be our constant companion. We can drink more deeply of the Living Water and remember that God’s love knows no boundaries. I’ll say it clearly because others are suggesting the opposite: this virus is not a punishment for sin nor God’s comment on poverty. A God who is Love would not and does not unleash viruses on God’s people. God will remain present and loving through all that is to come.

In the meantime, let’s try not to be like the Israelites in the desert with Moses. Let’s try to avoid crying out to God and asking why we are thirsty, or hungry, or lost. Let’s try to be intentional in our preparations so that no one feels forgotten, isolated, or alone in the days to come. Let’s be mindful of the vulnerable among us who might need extra care and consideration as fear and anxiety increase. Let’s stay informed with facts over fears. Perhaps we can even learn to sing to the Lord in new ways. The only way we are going to get through this is together. We need one another even if there has to be three feet between each of us.

So you can see that I practice what I preach, here is a copy of the brief letter I wrote to my congregation:

As of Wednesday, COVID-19 has been declared a pandemic. This means that it involves all people everywhere. While this increases anxiety, we are not entirely powerless. We will continue to be the Body of Christ and love our neighbors as ourselves.

 As of now, we plan to have Sunday School and worship as usual on Sunday. We will use food safety precautions for preparing the bread for communion and any food for kinship. Communion will be served using tongs so no hands touch the bread. We will not share the cup but will be invited to write down ways in which we will share Divine Love in the world and place the paper in a symbolic cup.

Please stay at home if you have any symptoms of illness. Also remember that the CDC recommends that people over 60 and those with compromised immune systems should stay at home. 

It is very likely that by March 22nd we will have services, meetings, Bible studies, and Sunday school entirely online. More information on this will be available early next week. We have created small groups to help people stay connected. 

Here is a two minute video on the basics: https://youtu.be/TjcoN9Aek24

These are two good links to check for updates on the coronavirus: https://www.health.state.mn.us/diseases/coronavirus/index.html

https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html

Also, if you are prone to worrying or anxiety, you may want to limit your exposure to broadcast news and social media. 

Remember that by taking care of ourselves, we are taking care of our neighbors. By limiting our exposure to group gatherings we are caring for the vulnerable among us. We remain the Body of Christ whether we are gathered or scattered. God’s love for us does not change. This pandemic will continue to change our daily lives, and God will continue to be present with us through all that is to come.

UPDATE: Council voted on Thursday evening, after monitoring news outlets, to suspend all in-person gatherings until further notice.

RCL – Year A – Third Sunday in Lent – March 15, 2020
Exodus 17:1-7
Psalm 95
Romans 5:1-11
John 4:5-42

Photo: CC0image by Mystic Art Design

Categories
Bidding Prayer liturgy

Bidding Prayer for the Wilderness Journey

Come, let us pray for all those who worship the One who created all that is and loves the whole of the Cosmos.
(silence or time for people to quietly give voice to their concerns
Ever-present, Creator God, hear our prayers for all your people, those who gather in the name of Christ and those who worship by another name. Unite us in our desire to love and serve you by loving and serving all our neighbors. Make us mindful that we are your people and our siblings are numerous. In these days of change, conflict, and war, you call us to leave behind what we have known, and journey to strange places whose customs we have yet to learn or create. Grant us the trust of Abram and the courage of Sarai that we may all follow you into new and life-sustaining ways.
I lift my eyes to the hills from where will my help come?
My help comes from God, who made heaven and earth.

Come, let us pray for the United Church of Christ and our sister denominations throughout the world.
(silence or a time for people to quietly give voice to their concerns)
God of all times and places, hear our prayers for the United Church of Christ and those who lead it. May we hear your call as clearly as Abram did and be willing to leave behind that which no longer serves. May our commitment to following you outweigh our love affair with the past. Grant us the temerity of Nicodemus to come to you, as with the yearning of our hearts. Open us to your call to life and love in new ways, paving the way for change, for growth, for the deepening of our covenant with you and with one another.
I lift my eyes to the hills from where will my help come?
My help comes from God, who made heaven and earth.

Come, let us pray for all the peoples of this world.
(silence or a time for people to quietly give voice to their concerns)
Patient and merciful God, hear our prayers for all the peoples of the world. We lift up to those near and far who do not know they are loved and valued. We acknowledge the ways we have participated in systems of oppression that have caused pain to our neighbors. Teach us your ways of mercy and grace that we may join with protesters rather than complain about the disruption to our days. As we journey through the Lenten wilderness, increase our awareness of the needs of others, especially those who remain willfully unseen. Remind us once more that your love is for the whole of the Cosmos and we are to leave no one out.
I lift my eyes to the hills from where will my help come?
My help comes from God, who made heaven and earth.

Come, let us pray for this nation and those who lead it.
(silence or a time for people to quietly give voice to their concerns)

God of our ancestors and God of all our days, hear our prayers for this country and all who live within its borders. In this season of political choosing, be present with us, enveloping us with your mercy and your love. As we participate in primary elections, guide us with your wisdom. Your Spirit blows where it wills, and so it should be with our lives. Let us not resist the power of your Spirit. Rather, let us resist those who would lead us away from justice, compassion, and equity for all those who call this country home. May we seek leaders who will care for the vulnerable among us more than they care for wealth or power.
I lift my eyes to the hills from where will my help come?
My help comes from God, who made heaven and earth.

Come, let us pray for all those in need of healing.
(silence or a time for people to quietly give voice to their concerns)
Healing and compassionate God, hear us as we pray for those who need healing in body, mind, or spirit. We especially lift up those who are wrongfully imprisoned or unjustly sentenced, especially those who are on death row. As we pray for those who struggle with the broken places in their lives, fill us with your compassion that our prayerful words may lead to acts of welcome and inclusion for those the world has pushed to the edges. May your Wisdom guide us to be the Body of Christ needed in the world today.
I lift my eyes to the hills from where will my help come?
strong>My help comes from God, who made heaven and earth.

Come, let us pray for all those who grieve and suffer the pain of loss.
(silence or a time for people to quietly give voice to their concerns)
God of love and joy, hear us as we pray for those who are grieving. We pray for refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants who, like Abram and Sarai, have left all that they have known to seek a life of safety and peace. We pray for those like Nicodemus who are lost under the cover of night and desperately want new life. As we examine the barren places in our own lives, we come to you, trusting that you are a God of hope and wholeness. Be at work in us and among us that we may be your healing body where grief, sadness, and loss can be held until new life becomes possible.
I lift my eyes to the hills from where will my help come?
My help comes from God, who made heaven and earth.

Come, let us give thanks to God for all that we have and all that we are.
(silence or a time for people to quietly give voice to their concerns)
Generous and forgiving God, hear us as we give thanks for our lives. We often fail to express our gratitude for all that you have given us, focusing overly much on what we do not have or cannot do. As we travel this road to Jerusalem with you, shift our focus to your abundance, your love and grace, that is all around us. Jesus went into the desert with your words of “Beloved” echoing in his spirit; he did not go alone. Open us anew to your presence and our belovedness. We are agents of Love and Grace here and now, and we are grateful for your Love, mercy, and forgiveness which leads us through the wild places into the fullness of life with you.
I lift my eyes to the hills from where will my help come?
My help comes from God, who made heaven and earth. Amen.

RCL – Year A – Second Sunday in Lent – March 8, 2020
Genesis 12:1-4a
Psalm 121
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
John 3:1-17 or Matthew 17:1-9

Photo: CC0image by Anja

Categories
Musings Sermon Starter

Temptation with a Capital T

Given the current political climate in the U.S., I’ve been thinking a lot about temptation and how Christians tend to trivialize it. Jesus wasn’t tempted by small things when he was in the wilderness. It wasn’t a question of eating an extra cookie or skipping his time at the gym or engaging in dubious sexual activity. Jesus was tempted by bigger things, not because he was the Christ, but because he was human. The more we focus on the small temptations we face, the more we diminish the power of Jesus encounter with Satan in the wilderness.

Yes, I am inclined to treat this story as metaphor and myth rather than history and fact. It is, nonetheless, a true story. I don’t doubt that Jesus went into a time of fasting and prayer after his baptism. He very likely went out into the wilderness to do so. What better place to encounter God than in a land untouched by human hands? The longer he was there, the more he wrestled with his personal demons. We would do well to follow his example.

The first temptation Jesus faces is his hunger. He could have turned the rocks to bread, but would that have satisfied him? If our hunger is spiritual and not physical, no amount of bread will fill the void. If one is fasting in order to facilitate a deeper spiritual encounter, then bread will not meet that need. Jesus knew something that Eve had not learned when she bit into the serpent’s temptation; knowledge and wisdom are two different things. Jesus knew that feeding his stomach would not prepare him for what lay ahead.

In the modern context, we mistake fasting with dieting. We mistake the physical for the spiritual, especially when it comes to hunger. Those of us with full cabinets and freezers fall back on our Puritanical preset of believing that people who cannot afford to feed themselves are somehow to blame and their poverty is God’s punishment. Even when we say we do not believe this archaic theology, we tend to act as if we do and by so doing, we make physical hunger a spiritual problem. On the flip side, those of us with access to enough food often eat more than we need and just as often use food to soothe ourselves. In other words, we attempt to satisfy our spiritual hunger with physical food. This is no more affective than the reverse. Perhaps it is time we sort this out. No doubt Satan and his minions would rather we continue as we are. Otherwise, feeding those who are physically hungry and nurturing those who are spiritually hungry sounds a lot like Jesus’ response about not living by bread alone.

Having failed in his first efforts, Satan moves on. Jesus’ second temptation is to prove his own value by throwing himself off the pinnacle of the temple. Jesus seems to have understood his own worth better than most of us today. He was not concerned with proving how far God would go to protect him. Was he secure in God’s love for him or did he simply understand that the worth others bestow on us means nothing until we bestow it upon ourselves?

We are awful judges of human value today. We foolishly believe that financial and material wealth are signs of God’s favor without giving a thought to racism and other social factors that hold many generations in poverty. While we might be tempted to say that God loves all human beings we are, at core, highly skeptical about our own standing with God, not to mention our neighbors’. Once again our Puritanical preset reveals our lack of wisdom. We can know that God does not favor the wealthy over the poor, the able over the disabled, the healthy over the sick, etc, but our behavior shows something different. Look at the state of this country and it is impossible to deny that we have let outdated-unexamined theology wreak havoc. Perhaps we could follow Jesus’ example and believe that God loves us and all our neighbors and stop trying to prove that we are valued and loved and important.

If we don’t, we will never manage to escape the third temptation. Satan invited Jesus into ownership of and power over everyone. It was simple enough – worship Satan and not God. Jesus saw through this with seeming ease (though I suspect it was more a struggle than the Bible lets on). Jesus chose God over Satan and his time of temptation ended. The power was in the choice.

The unfortunate truth is that we aren’t very good at worshiping God. It is often more enticing to seek after ownership and power. And in a society that frequently mistakes these things for signs of blessings, the temptation is even stronger. Worshiping God is often the harder choice when siren song of society is, “bigger, better, more…” Who wants to be a humble servant to Love and show that by serving human beings and Creation with intentional compassion when the accumulation of wealth leads to power and success? Now might be an excellent time to disentangle ourselves from the pursuit of power and dedicate our lives to serving the most vulnerable among us as Jesus commanded.

If you are among the many who have given up chocolate, coffee, beer, wine, or even social media for Lent, how will you spend that time you would have spent in those pursuits? Will you watch to see if the numbers on the scale go down? Will you browse the internet to fill the void created by the absence of social media? Or will you enter into the wilderness place and chance meeting your demons who will put your true temptations on display? Whatever your Lenten practice may be, may we face our own demons and the demons of our society with grace and assurance of God’s love. In this way, may we wrestle as Jesus did and make the choice that will end our time with Satan with the arrival of angels.

If you are looking for sermon help, try here.

RCL – Year A – First Sunday in Lent – March 1, 2020
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Psalm 32
Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4:1-11

Photo: CC0image by Anja