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Sermon Starter

Not What You Think

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When it comes to reading scripture, many Christians are like those who can’t see the proverbial forest because they are so focused on individual trees. Biblical literalism seems to be our default setting even when we don’t claim that scripture is the “inerrant word of God.” We cause unnecessary pain when we don’t step back far enough to hear the Truth in any given passage or recognize the overarching theme of God’s love for God’s people, a theme that echos through the ancient stories and is repeated by today’s prophets. We get caught up looking for facts in a collection of stories that speak Truth far more often than they record events in history. I don’t know about you, but it’s exhausting to explain over and over again how I can be a Christian and not believe that the Bible is accurate.

The passage in Mark where Jesus speaks of divorce is a perfect example of how far astray we can go when taking the Bible literally. First, Jesus raised women to a place equal to men when it came to the ability to divorce and the consequences involved. Women were not mere property to be discarded when one was done with them. Like men, women are created in the image of God and ought to be treated accordingly. As for the consequences of divorce, the point isn’t that divorce and remarriage constitute adultery. The emphasis is on the equality of men and women. Divorce as we understand it today did not exist in Jesus’ day. Jesus sought to empower women, or at least encourage men to see women as equals before God in terms of marriage.

Now if we want to glean something useful and not so literal for today’s audience, we would do well to pay attention to the concern Jesus had for women. Jesus saw that they were discarded by some men and then had no means by which to support themselves. Jesus sought to change that where he could. What does this say about how we treat people who are often discarded or dismissed?

In Jesus’ day there was no understanding of sexual orientation or gender identity as we have now. If there had been, I believe Jesus would seek to remind people that all are created in God’s image and that no one is “better” than another before God. Jesus sought to bring people into relationship and community in ways that promoted healing and wholeness. Within the parameters of modern understanding, Jesus would advise kindness, gentleness, and healing when it comes to marriage and divorce. When adults of equal power and authority are involved, remembering that all are equal before God is of the utmost importance. Less judgment and condemnation and more support and healing is the message that the church can take away from this passage. Then maybe we can move on to more important things like supporting and promoting healing for women, men, Trans* people, and children when they report abuse at the hands of another…

Of course this passage in Mark doesn’t end with the elevation of women to place of equality with men and it’s encouragement to treat human beings as beloved children of God. It goes on to, once more, remind people the value of children. Children weren’t valued in Jesus’ time at all, really. We would like to say that we value children more today, but I’m not sure that we do. Think about it. More often than not we expect children to miniature adults and to conform to social norms without hesitation. When budgets need balancing, funding for education is cut – outside the church as well as inside. We pretend that parents are the only one’s responsible for their children. Jesus indicates something else.

Jesus places a small child in the midst of the crowd and declares that we must all enter the Realm of God as a child does – innocent and open and loving. Children are born loving; they learn hatred from us. If we all join together in teaching a child to love and value themselves and others because God loves all, then conforming to social norms is far less important.

We can remain focused on the evils of divorce or we can work toward creating churches (and a world) in which healing and wholeness, relationship and inclusion, open-mindedness and love are core values. Imagine a church that takes seriously the statement that in Christ there is no East or West or North or South. There is no kyriarchy. All the beauty and diversity of humanity comes together to reflect the awesomeness of our Creator and Divine Love is the rule of the day. We can stop worrying about doing everything the Bible supposedly says and follow Christ in bringing the Realm of God into the here and now. Wouldn’t it be nice if the church could actually embody Christ without condemning anyone to remain unwanted, unseen, unwelcome? There’s a beautiful, awe-filled forest just waiting for us to explore…

If you are looking for more sermon help, try here.

RCL – Year B – Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost – October 7, 2018
Job 1:1; 2:1-10 with Psalm 26
or
Genesis 2:18-24 with Psalm 8
Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12
Mark 10:2-16

Photos CC-BY-NC image by Rachael Keefe

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liturgy Prayer

A Prayer of Confession as Lent Begins

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One:  Holy One, we gather at the edge of the wilderness, reluctant to go forward. We do not want to give up favorite foods, time on social media, set aside our phones, or make any other sacrifices that would lead us closer to you. We are comfortable in our routine and our ambivalence. Seeking you might mean we have to change.
All:  We confess our reluctance to change our lives, even for your sake.

Left:  God of all nations, we stumble when we encounter someone who is “other.” We forget that all people are created in your image and your covenant of love is for the whole of Creation. We want to believe that your love is for us, and those just like us. We want to stay where we are and not move to where your love in our hands could do the most good. Going where you call might mean we have to change.
All:  We confess our reluctance to change our lives, even for your sake.

Right: Peaceful and loving God, we sit back in silence while gunshots echo through our schools, our streets, our houses of worship. We tell ourselves that violence won’t touch our lives and that there is nothing we can do to prevent innocent deaths. We offer our thoughts and prayers to the victims of violence and wait for you to fix what we have broken. Responding with Christian love might mean we have to change.
All:  We confess our reluctance to change our lives, even for your sake.

Left: God of Creation and Covenant, we do not trust in your steadfast love. We do not trust that all your paths are steadfast love and faithfulness. We insist on having our own way. Satin does not have to chase us out into the wilderness, our own fear and foolishness will have us worshiping at the Tempter’s feet more often than we want to admit. Listening to you, believing we are Beloved, might mean we have to change.

All:  We confess our reluctance to change our lives, even for your sake.

Right: Merciful and patient God, we have failed to listen to you. We have let fear take hold of our lives more often than not. We have listened to those who would tell us that your love and your covenant with all Creation has limits. We have dismissed the needs of immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. We have denied the power of white supremacy and racism. We have turned away those who are hungry or homeless. We have devalued LGBTQ+ people. We have mistreated people with disabilities. We have ignored people with mental health challenges. We have not served our neighbors nor loved them as we love ourselves. Opening our lives to you might mean we have to change.
All:  We confess our reluctance to change our lives, even for your sake.

One: God of the mountain tops and ocean depths, we need you as we make this journey to Jerusalem. We are powerless over the gods of our making. We are easily fooled into believing that human ways are better than holy ways. We do not want to give in to all that tempts us. We yearn to trust you and believe that your love for us has no limits of quantity, quality or duration. We as that you would meet us once again as we endeavor to confront the Tempter and try again to live into your great love for us. We know we need you. Give us the courage to seek you in wilderness places in our lives. Teach us to know your ways even as…
All:  We confess our reluctance to change our lives, even for your sake. Amen.

RCL – Year B – First Sunday in Lent – February 18, 2018
Genesis 9:8-17
Psalm 25:1-10
1 Peter 3:18-22
Mark 1:9-15

Photo: CC0 image by Hans Braxmeier

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Musings Sermon Starter

Mind Your Own Talents

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I remember very vividly the first conversation I had with someone about gender identity. I had just come out as a lesbian (I later came out as bi) and had lost my job as a consequence. The day I was packing up my office, I met a person in the outer doorway as I carried my boxes to my car. This person unexpectedly admitted to me that they were not comfortable in their body and wanted desperately to know what it felt like to have a female body. They described, at length, the desire to know what physically, outwardly being a woman felt like. I think what I managed to say was something like, “I’m sorry you’re having this struggle. I’m not sure what to say.” I was not at my pastoral best in that moment, nor did I have any understanding of what it might mean to be trans*. No one had ever shared such thoughts with me before this. To be honest, I’ve thought about this person often over the years and wish I’d been in a better position to respond with compassion and understanding.

Years after this first rather awkward conversation, I worked in a psychiatric hospital and listened to the medical and clinical staff argue about the treatment of trans* patients. Many of them were stuck in the old days when being trans* was considered pathological. My job as chaplain was to advocate for patient’s rights. I did this to the best of my ability. Over my six years at the hospital, attitudes changed and a person’s gender identity was beginning to be considered in terms of a patient’s comfort rather than as a symptom of their illness.

Now I pastor a church that welcomes trans* people into the full life of the community. And I have to admit, that it was a steep learning curve for me. I had to face my own discomfort with asking about pronouns, and with the use of gender-neutral pronouns. I listened as individuals described in significant detail their gender confirmation surgery and all that that entailed. I’ve listened to the stories of those who are marginalized by society and, often,  the larger queer community. And I’ve allowed those stories to touch my own.

While I cannot pretend to know what it feels like to be trans*, I do know what it feels like to be on the outside of community that is always lumped together. We talk about LGBTQ+ community like it is a unified whole, but there are divisions. As a bisexual person I have seldom found acceptance within the queer community. My sexual orientation has been called into question by more than one person. It’s hurtful and frustrating. If this is the case for me as someone who is bisexual and cisgender, how much more painful and frustrating is it for trans* people who have their sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression called into question?

I’ve also watched the struggles my wife has gone through. She is cisgender but has masculine characteristics. She has been questioned on her choice of public restrooms and, on one notable occasion, assaulted by a woman who felt the need to verify my wife’s gender. There are no circumstances in which this kind of fearful, judgmental behavior is acceptable.

In addition to these things, on some level I know what it is like to feel animosity toward one’s own body. While the struggles of someone with an eating disorder are not those of someone who is trans*, that sense of hating one’s physical appearance, of feeling betrayed by one’s body, of the internal identity not matching the outward appearance, translates to a certain extent. I have, on a very deep level, developed empathy for the trans* people I have come to know and love. It is this empathy that allows me to listen, to hear the pain and the joy, and to celebrate the beauty and wonder that God creates in each human being.

I share all of this to raise the question of judgment. In the parable of the talents, judgment only came from one place. Those who were given talents didn’t bicker with each other, or criticize each other on what they did with what they were given. Their only responsibility was to use the talents to the best of their ability and in a way that was pleasing to the one who had given the talents. What the others did with what they were given, wasn’t any of their concern. The one who had given the talents was the only one who was in a place to express approval or disapproval. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all keep this in mind.

When it comes to gender identity and gender expression, this is between the individual and the One who created them. The rest of us should only offer support and love, without judgment. It is not our business to judge another person for how they embody the person God created them to be. It is, however, our business to embody Christ for one another. Oh, and it’s our business to make sure we are fully embodying the person God created each of us to be as well.

As Transgender Day of Remembrance nears and the knowledge that 25 trans people were murdered in the U.S. alone in 2017, this parable reminds us to pay less attention to the way other people embody themselves. Moreover, we ought to be asking ourselves if the way we inhabit our bodies is pleasing to the one who gifted them to us. Perhaps if we shifted our focus in this direction, then we would be in better shape to love our neighbors as ourselves.

When it comes to the church, I often say, “as with one, so with all.” This means that if one person struggles with something, The Body of Christ struggles. So when it comes to our trans* siblings in Christ, I will say this: The Body of Christ is trans*. Isn’t it time we responded with love, with respect, and in celebration of the giftedness of the church as it truly is?

RCL – Year A – Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost – November 19, 2017
Judges 4:1-7 with Psalm 123 or
Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18 with Psalms 90:1-8 (9-11), 12
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Matthew 25:14-30

Photo: CC0 image by aydiny

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Musings Sermon Starter

Should We Continue?

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I was a sophomore in high school the first time I paid attention to the story of Hagar and Ishmael. After reading Melville’s famous line, “Call me Ishmael,” I looked up Ishmael’s story in the Bible. That simple sentence from Moby Dick was so purposeful, I wanted to know why. Reading the biblical story didn’t exactly answer that question, but it did make me feel something for Hagar, and Ishmael as well.

At 15 I had a lot of empathy for the unwanted and unloved Hagar who was cast out because of Sarah’s jealousy for her own son. I took the story to mean that maybe God cared for those cast out nearly as much as God cared for those who belonged to the in-group. As one who often felt left out or unwanted, it gave me some comfort to believe that God could care for people who were like Hagar and Ishmael.

Years later I read this passage for a seminary class and it struck me that Hagar had been given a promise much like Abraham’s – God would make of her son “a great nation.” She was the only woman in scripture singled out for such a promise. Of course, this interpretation gave me hope as a young woman going into ministry when still so many churches didn’t think women should be pastors. If God could promise Hagar, the same one Sarah had discarded, that descendants would become a great nation, then God could surely call one such as myself into ordained ministry.

Now, decades later, I am hearing something else in this passage. Yes, there is a promise of God’s love for the outcast, even the unwanted woman. These meanings don’t go away just because I’m seeing something new here. It’s possible that my reading of the story is heavily influenced by a week of vacation Bible school with the theme of “Blessed to Be” and emphasizing God’s love for all people. It’s possible that I’m reading this passage with some desperation to find a way through all the hatred and fear that is swirling around in the midst of a Pride weekend. It’s possible that what I’m thinking about this passage is a gift from the Holy Spirit. Whatever it is, what I’m hearing now is a declaration of kinship. God claimed Ishmael as surely as God claimed Isaac. Perhaps God listens (the meaning of Ishmael) as much as God welcomes laughter (the meaning of Isaac). And God expects the same from us.

It’s the kinship idea that has grabbed hold of me this week, though. Ishmael and Isaac were brothers and received similar promises from God. Why do we not see this kinship in each other? We follow Sarah’s example rather than God’s. Sarah in her fear and jealousy and need to ensure that only her son would inherit what his father had to offer, urged Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael out into the desert never to be seen or heard from again. Abraham did so after God assured him that God would take care of them. And God does. God claims Hagar and Ishmael as God’s own. Why have we not learned this lesson?

Today the world is divided between those who belong and those who do not. Those who are Christians and those who are not. Those who are heterosexual and those who are not. Those who are white and those who are not. Those who are gender-conforming and those who are not. Those who are “Americans” and those who are not. Those who are wealthy and those who are not. Those who are healthy and those who are not. Those who are able-bodied and those who are not. The list goes one. We find any number of ways to cast people out, to define an us versus them.

Of course, if you’re reading the text from Matthew you may feel that you are justified in doing this. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus makes some outrageous statements about bringing a sword rather than peace and how family members will rise up one against another. This passage was meant to reassure those who were losing everything for their faith in Christ. It was not meant to give permission to hate and dismiss and destroy those who are “different.” Jesus, who taught loving God, loving self, and loving neighbor in the way that he, Jesus, loved, would be horrified at the hatred spewing out of the mouths of those who claim his name.

In Romans Paul asks if we should continue in sin so that God’s grace may flow. He answered his own question with a resounding, “No!” As we told the children at VBS this last week, we are blessed to be blessings to others. We are loved by God so we are to love one another. It really is that simple. Sarah may have hated Hagar and Ishmael, but God showed them great mercy and love and claimed them as God’s own. When will we welcome the outcast, the refugee, the immigrant, and all others we label as “different” or “unwanted” with the same kind of love and mercy and claim the kinship God intended? Like Paul, we must ask ourselves if we should continue in sin. By the grace of God, may we all answer with the same resounding, “No!”

RCL – Year A – Third Sunday after Pentecost – June 25, 2017
Genesis 21:8-21 with Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17 or
Jeremiah 20:7-13 with Psalm 69:7-10, (11-15), 16-18
Romans 6:1b-11
Matthew 10:24-39

Photo: CC0 image by Gordon Johnson

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Musings Sermon Starter

It Was Good

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: CC0 image by Arek Socha

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Musings Sermon Starter

Hate is Not a Human Value

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With the news of Jordan Edwards’ death echoing the deaths of so many others, I find myself asking where all the fear and hatred has come from. It is not hard to answer this question from a sociological perspective or a historical one. I could even make a stab at a psychological explanation. What I want to know is how hatred has infiltrated the human spirit in general and, more specifically, those who claim a religious practice.

Thirteen faiths and religious philosophies espouse a version of the Golden Rule:  Do unto others as you wish done unto you. Add to this the fact that approximately 84% of people on the planet ascribe to a faith tradition, how is it that hatred and violence continue to play a significant, if not dominant, role in our society? We can explore the surface of planets lightyears from our own, but we cannot solve our differences without violence? We can cure diseases that once were a death sentence, but we justify racism that results in the death of innocents? We can have conversations with anyone, virtually anywhere on the planet (and sometimes with those in space), but we cannot come together in civility to discuss our grievances with one another?

As Christians we worship a God of justice and love. Jesus walked the earth to teach us how to love one another, to save us from ourselves, and we have yet to learn the lessons. I am baffled by how we can advance our technology, we can use science to improve the quality of life for many people, but we cannot use our faith traditions to learn a better way to live. Did Jesus not say, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly”? Hatred never leads to any kind of abundance, unless it is the abundance of violence.

A core message of Christianity is that love leads to abundance, the abundance of life. It’s easy to conclude, then that fear, hatred, violence and all their offspring, result in scarcity and death. Now I know that some of us think that if we don’t commit hateful acts or say hateful things, then we are not participating in the culture of scarcity. We tell ourselves that in avoiding expressions of violence, we are doing our part. If this passivity was ever enough, it is not now. If we do not actively live in love and mercy, then we are contributing to the violence.

The current administration, by its actions and policies, has given passive permission for hatred, racism, and xenophobia to run freely through our streets. You may think that you are safe from whatever “ism” or “phobia” directs the violence now, but can you be assured that you won’t be next, especially if you ignore what’s happening to your neighbor? If you are not a person of color, you may think you won’t be shot in the streets. If you are not a refugee, immigrant, or undocumented resident, you can believe you are safe from the xenophobia that vandalizes Mosques and threatens Jews and views you as a criminal. If you are not LGBTQ+, you may believe that you won’t be touched by hands that ridicule, maim, and kill. If you are not diagnosed with a mental illness, developmental disability, or physical disability, you may tell yourself that your needs won’t be ignored and your voice remain unheard. If you are not low-income, you can continue to tell yourself that minimum wage increases are not your concern. If you are not a woman, you can allow yourself to believe that you won’t be devalued, objectified, and harassed. If you are human, you can continue to believe that hatred and violence are someone else’s problem. Or can you?

We can do better than this. We have to do better than this. This is the season of resurrection and new life and the body count is what’s rising. Psalm 23 assures us that God is present even as we walk through the “valley of death.” What have we to fear?  Acts tells us that when the church comes together, amazing things happen and needs are met. How disappointed would Jesus be that we have yet to hear the message that fear, hatred, and violence are not meant to be the whole of human narrative? None of these are Christian values. None of these are spiritual practices found in any faith tradition. All of these are harmful to the human spirit.

What will we do this Eastertide to become the embodiment of Christ the world desperately needs?

RCL – Year A – Fourth Sunday of Easter – May 7, 2017
Acts 2:42-47
Psalm 23
1 Peter 2:19-25
John 10:1-10

Photo: CC0 image by Jackie Samuels

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Musings Sermon Starter

Defined by Love

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Between the Samaritan woman’s five husbands and the unnamed man’s blindness, sin and shame bounce around, defining these people. The woman was pushed to the margins of her community either by her neighbors or by her own inclination to avoid explanations. The man also was marginalized because his blindness was thought to be a punishment for sin, his or his parents’. They were set apart from the rest of their communities, not for holiness, but as the result of perceived sin and the shame associated with it.

I have a vivid memory of myself at 16 sitting on a hospital bed in Boston Children’s Hospital’s adolescent psych unit. Something had happened and I was upset to the point of tears which was unusual for me at that time. The mental health worker talking with me tried to tell me that things would work out. I would have none of it. I said, “No! You don’t understand! This is going to be all anyone knows about me forever!” The funny part is, I have no idea what that was about. I simply don’t remember. But in that moment, whatever thing had happened, I was sure it was going to be a part of my identity for the rest of my life.

Of course, this is not atypical thinking for an adolescent. But it is deeper than that, too. Shame often has a powerful voice in our lives. There have been many times when I’ve felt compelled to keep things in my life a secret, partly from shame and partly to avoid judgement. At 16 I thought I’d be defined by having an eating disorder or something related. At 19 when I was diagnosed with a learning disability, I felt the same way; it would define me forever. Then again when I was raped by someone I knew, I didn’t want to tell anyone (and didn’t for several years) because I didn’t want to be known as the “girl who’d been raped.” When I got divorced, I was sure that people would only think about me being the pastor who was divorced. Later, when I came out, I felt like that was all anyone would ever think about me when they found out. And the list goes on. But never on this list of “defining attributes” was there a single positive thing.

Why is that? The Samaritan woman could have been a fabulous cook or a healer or a mother or someone’s best friend or a singer. Instead she was known as the woman who had had five husbands and one more who wasn’t her husband; she was a sinner through and through. The man who had been born blind could have been a musician or a poet or a father or a brother or a mentor. Instead he was known as the blind man who sat begging in a particular place every day; he was marked by sin. I wonder how they thought of themselves. Did they hold the judgments of society against themselves? Were they burdened by shame?

As for myself, I have been the recipient of social judgments. I’ve heard the whispers and the not so quiet voices naming me as undesirable because I’ve been divorced twice. Because I’m a woman who is an ordained minister. Because I am bisexual. Because I have a history that includes treatment for an eating disorder and depression. I’ve been ignored and dismissed because of who I am and where I’ve come from. It’s painful and it’s ugly. As a result, I so identify with the marginalized folks of scripture – the Samaritan woman and the man born blind, especially.

I can easily get lost in the powerful grip of shame that has dominated my sense of self in the past. However, there’s more to these stories. We can’t forget that sin wasn’t the point. We can’t forget that Jesus met these people in the midst of their sin and shame. Not only did he meet them right where they were, he redefined them. The Samaritan woman went from outcast to evangelist as Living Water restored her. The man born blind went from blind beggar to sighted worshiper as he washed away the mud Jesus used to open his eyes. Both moved from the margins of society into the center of community. No shame can hide from the light of Christ and sin doesn’t stand a chance when Living Water is drawn up out of the well.

When I think of my own brokenness in the context of these stories I can’t help but see the transformation Christ has worked in my life. These things that I felt shame over, that I feared defined me in my own eyes or in the eyes of others, haven’t had power in my life for a long time. I’ve gone from a shy, fearful child into an outspoken, fearless adult. While I still struggle from time to time with the wounds from my childhood, they do not define me. On good days, I believe the Love that qualities-795865_1920transformed the Samaritan woman and the man born blind, flows through me. On hard days, I ask God to meet me where I am and let Love be evident in my life. I know I am not the only one who has encountered Christ and been changed.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we stop defining ourselves and each other by sin and shame and the judgement of others and started defining ourselves and everyone else by Love? Maybe then we would see with the eyes of Christ…

RCL – Year A – Fourth Sunday of Lent – March 26, 2017
1 Samuel 16:1-13
Psalm 23
Ephesians 5:8-14
John 9:1-41

Top Photo: CC0 image by John Hain
Bottom Photo: CC0 image by John Hain

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Musings Sermon Starter

Christmas Brings Risks

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We aren’t particularly good at Christmas in the church. We have dressed it up with pageants, carols, and candlelight. We preach peace and possibilities and encourage people to linger for a moment at the manger and renew their acquaintance with the new born Christ. That’s all well and good, but we seldom hear a word about how dangerous a place that manger can be.

It should be clear enough from the moment Gabriel uttered, “Fear not.” In spite of these words everyone was afraid. Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds all responded appropriately to the frightful messengers who came bearing glad tidings. Even Herod was afraid of what was to come and he didn’t need a holy messenger. We leave out the fearful parts when we tell the story. And we do ourselves a great injustice.

The Christian story isn’t meant to be comfortable and fill us with sweet,  nostalgic feelings, not even the birth story or what follows after it. God’s love for humanity is powerful, messy, and life-altering. Yes, God came in human form to be one of us, to take on the fullness of humanity, and to show us that the worst in us is not outside the reaches of holy redemption. However, if we make it to Bethlehem to greet the sacred mystery that was born in the night, we risk being touched by that very same mystery. And when that happens, our eyes are opened to what we might have been able to shut out before meeting the Christ-child.

Matthew speaks of Rachel weeping for her children with the echoes filling the streets as Herod ordered the slaughter of all the children under age two. These sounds, joined with an angel’s warning, drive Joseph and his new family to safety in Egypt. One innocent life was spared, but Rachel’s weeping filled the streets and continues on to this day. Have you heard her crying for the unarmed Black men shot by police with no justice to be seen? Have you heard her crying for the millions of Syrians displaced and seeking refuge? How about for the Water Protectors whose pleas for the land go unheard? How about for the transwomen assaulted and murdered just because they are who they are? For the undocumented people who live with the threat of deportation? For the Muslim people who live in fear because they call God by another name? For the young women lured into sex trafficking? For veterans who wander the streets without home or hope? For the countless who are hungry, homeless, dismissed, victimized, and forgotten?

If you’ve knelt at the manger and been touched by the mystery there, then you can’t help but hear Rachel weeping and see innocents being slaughtered everywhere. Someone offered Jesus and his family sanctuary long ago. Who will offer sanctuary for today’s innocents? Who will step up and respond to those who weep along with Rachel for their lost children? Who will carry the good news of Bethlehem to those who so desperately need it?

Do you see the risk now? It’s not enough to just talk about making room in our lives once more for the Christ-child. It’s not enough to just sing carols and exchange gifts with our loved ones. Christmas is about changing the world. It’s about protecting the innocent among us. It’s about traveling a different road once you’ve encountered the mystery. It’s about living loud enough to bring love and justice into the world.

If we take the claim to be the body of Christ seriously, then we must embrace the entirety of our faith history. The church, the body of Christ, knows what it is to be a refugee and dependent on others for sanctuary. The church knows what it is to be innocent and under threat of death. The church knows what it is to be beaten and killed just for being who you are. We know these things and so much more because Jesus lived them. We also know what it means to bring healing and hope because Jesus did.

We can talk about the horrors of 2016 in terms of personal losses, terrorist bombings, natural disasters, celebrity deaths, and Aleppo burning. However, if we want 2017 to be different, it is up to us to embody that difference. If we are truly the body of Christ as we claim to be, then if one person is a refugee, then all are refugees. If one person is victimized, all are victimized. If one is homeless, all are homeless. If one is lost, all are lost. On the other hand, we can also embody hope, healing, peace, love, and justice.

The power and mystery that changed the world so long ago lies within the body of Christ today. Let’s make 2017 the year we embrace the risks of Christmas and truly be the church the world so desperately needs.

For more sermon help, try here.

RCL – Year A – First Sunday after Christmas – January 1, 2017
Isaiah 63:7-9
Psalm 148
Hebrews 2:10-18
Matthew 2:13-23

Photo: CC0 image by Gerd Altmann

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Musings Sermon Starter

Remembering Advent Hope

 

hopeHolidays bring on nostalgia for better or for worse. As I am preparing for Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow, I think of years past. Growing up, my family shared holidays with the family next door and anyone else who needed a place to go. One year budgets were tight so we ordered turkey subs and sat together on the dining room floor because we didn’t have a table big enough. Another year, one of the Persian kittens had crawled inside the turkey carcass as it sat thawing in the sink. Memories roll through my mind with each item I cook.

When I turn my attention toward Advent, the same thing happens. Good memories and less pleasant recollections. There was the arrival of the Sears Roebuck Wish Book and all the pretty things a child could desire. There was baking and candy making that started the day after Thanksgiving and continued every day until Christmas. Some years there would be an Advent Calendar to help keep track of the days. It all sounds good, but it was hard. My mother wasn’t a fan of the holidays even though she opened her house to anyone on Christmas day and baked more breads, cookies, and candies than she could give away, her unhappiness blanketed everything. The older I got, the more open she was about her holiday hatred. I was a few years into ordained ministry before it struck me how much I love the holiday season with a particular fondness for Advent.

Advent is really a time to look back as much as it is a time to look ahead with hope. The words of the prophet Isaiah speak to the bleakness of a time in Israel’s history and their need for the light of God. The ways of God were lost, or at least hidden, under swords, spears, and the learning of war. Isaiah issues a divine invitation to “walk in the light of the Lord.” No matter what is happening personally, or communally, or nationally, people of faith are invited to relearn the ways of God and walk on holy paths. Such hope-filled words!

For years now, I’ve thought of Advent as a time to refocus. It’s easy to get lost in the swords and spears and wars. We can be consumed by the anger, fear, and hatred that seem to be everywhere. We can easily give in and let bleak despair fill us. Advent is a time to raise our heads and look for God’s steadfast presence and take up the work of peacemaking and justice-seeking. The invitation issued by the prophet was not a passive one. It was an invitation to action, to movement, to learning. Herein lies the hope of the season.

The Romans and Matthew texts strengthen the invitation. Wake up and stay awake! The Second Coming remains a mystery to me, but I hear the message in these verses anyway. Today I’m inclined to think that Jesus shows up when we are busy, busy turning swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning-hooks. You know, speaking love in the face of fear. Joining forces with those advocating for equal rights and recognition. Essentially, Jesus shows up when we seek God in every other human face.

The urgency of these texts speaks to the belief that Jesus was due back at any moment. Today, the urgency is just as valid, even if for a slightly different reason. Many people claim to have accepted the invitation to journey to God’s holy mountain, yet they are unable to accept all who endeavor to do the same. This busywork we have invented for ourselves and plastered God’s name on is more about forging swords and sharpening spears than it is about creating ploughshares and pruning hooks. How is it possible to claim the name “Christian” and hate or look down on People of Color, LGBTQ+ folks, immigrants (documented and undocumented), refugees,  Muslims, Jews, women, people with mental illness, people with physical disbilities, and on down the list of people who are “other”? These are sharp, deadly weapons; make no mistake about it. Look around at where we have been and where we are. Does it really add up to a holy path where peace prevails?

I truly love Advent and I am moved by the hope in these texts. God has been our witness through times of despair and times of joy. God has watched us wander far and return to a holy path over and over again, throughout human history. The invitation issued by the prophet still stands. It is time to walk in the light of the Lord. However, we need to wake up and stay woke. We will never get to God’s holy mountain as long as we participate in fear and hatred. And we will surely miss Jesus’ arrival if we are not focused on the ways of love and justice for the whole of creation.

May the God of hope be with us all this Advent season.

(If you are looking for more sermon help, try here.)

RCL – Year A – November 27, 2016
Isaiah 2:1-5
Psalm 122
Romans 13:11-14
Matthew 24:36-44

Photo: CC-BY-NC image by Erika Sanborne

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Musings Sermon Starter

I’m Supposed to Treat Others How?

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Many congregations will observe All Saints Day this Sunday. We will lift up the names of those who have died and those who have been baptized in the last year. Candles will be lit and songs will be sung. Tears will flow from the eyes of those who mourn. We remember. We honor. We pray and lift up the saints of tomorrow. This is the perfect activity for the last Sunday before the presidential election here in the US.

Any number of us have been traumatized during this election cycle. We have listened to hate-speech, threats of violence, and more false or exaggerated accusations than ever before. Whole groups of people have been dismissed and devalued – Muslims, women, Mexicans and other Latinx folks, People of Color, people with disabilities, and LGBTQ+ folks. Religious beliefs have been tangled and distorted and abused as they were tangled up in political rhetoric. It’s distressing and the future looks uncertain.

But we will remember the saints who touched our lives, shaped our faith, and entrusted the future to us. And we will lift up infants who have been baptized whose lives we will touch, whose faith we will shape, and whose future is in our hands. All Saints Day isn’t just a nostalgic time of remembrance. It’s a time of stepping into the shoes of those who’ve gone before and walking in a direction of leadership and love for those who will soon follow us.

That day, long ago, when Jesus addressed his disciples while a crowd pressed in, speaks to the spirit of the day. Luke’s version starts off with Jesus assuring those who are poor, hungry and weeping that they will be blessed. So, too, those who are hated and mistreated because of their faith. This sounds good. We all agree that those who suffer deserve blessings at some point. But then Jesus goes to the woes. Woe to the rich, the satisfied, and the ones who are laughing. Woe also to the ones who please everyone all the time. This makes us a bit uncomfortable.

We like to have money in the bank, and food in our cabinets, and lots of laughter. And, well, is really that bad if everyone likes you? Yes, yes it is. Having everyone like you all the time means that you aren’t really standing up for anything very important all that often. What kind of is this the kind of saint you want to be? As for wealth, food, and laughter? Well, at whose expense have we gained these things?

This isn’t the end of discomfort in Jesus’ words. It gets worse if we are among those listening. Jesus commands that we love our enemies, be nice to those who aren’t nice to us, and offer blessings and prayers for those who abuse and oppress us. More than that, we are told to “turn the other cheek” if we are hit. If that’s not enough to challenge all of us, then if someone takes our coats, we’re supposed to offer our shirts, too. And give to those who beg. And let people keep what they have stolen from us. And the infamous bottom line: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

This is the crux of it all. Those we lift up as saints, those with days named after them and those who are remembered by so few, are remembered because they did their best to love others, to be generous, kind, and compassionate. Those little ones we’ve baptized this year will look to us to be the saints in their lives, living out God’s love, forgiveness, and grace.

These are the kind of thoughts we ought to be entertaining as we head to the poles. Blessings or woes? Which candidate is more likely to allow us to leave a legacy of compassion? Which candidate is more likely to lead in a direction of unity and encourage all to live according to the Golden Rule? We honor the saints who have gone before us. How will we honor those who come after us?

RCL – Year C – All Saints Day Observance – November 6, 2016
Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18
Psalm 149
Ephesians 1:11-23
Luke 6:20-31

Photo: CC0 image by Gustav Melin