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Stop the Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth

Image of a night scene with a street light shining on a path in the woods with an open wooden gate

With all that is going on in the world right now, no one needs to hear about “outer darkness” or “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Not only would this be unhelpful, it would likely be unhealthy as well. Yes, the Gospel of Matthew has an intensity, an urgency, that is not present in the other gospels. Yes, the threat of being punished by God is woven throughout the gospel as a means of pushing people to choose their faith in Jesus even if it meant their death. This fear approach to Christianity is one that has been employed for centuries and is still in place today. It is, however, not helpful for today for a few reasons.

Let’s remember that when Matthew was writing his gospel, the only way to understand the way the world worked was that God was in charge of all things. This was the approach throughout biblical times. God was either rewarding God’s people with blessings and prosperity or God was punishing God’s people with sickness and oppression. The world view said that pleasing God would lead to heaven and displeasing God would lead to hell. It was either/or. There was no in between and no other way of explaining global, communal, or individual happenings. If God was pleased then good things were happening. If God was displeased then bad things were happening. There was no other way to understand weather patterns, human behavior, or illness. People acted and God responded. Everything was prescribed; if this…then that. God was in charge.

Of course, there are many people who continue to believe in this prescriptive understanding. However, there is another way of looking at things in the modern context. We know that there is a degree of chaos in the world. We know that human actions have had an impact on the planet in ways that have changed the climate to bring about global warming and in ways that have increased illnesses such as cancer. We know that God does not use weather and sickness and war to communicate with God’s people or to punish them. For example, we know that God did not cause the pandemic we are currently experiencing. I’m sure a scientist could explain just how this pandemic came about and it would not have anything to do with God. This is not to say that God is absent. God is fully present. God is not the causal factor. Pandemic is not a punishment for our sins.

With this understanding, we can look at Matthew’s Gospel and the parables contained from a descriptive point of view rather than prescriptive. Looking at the parable of the talents from this perspective, it would be our actions that land us in place far from God, rather than God putting us there. What follows is my take on the parable from a modern understanding of how God works in the world.

Once there was a business owner who had businesses in three places – in a city, in a suburb, and in a small town. The owner planned a long, international trip to explore establishing businesses in other countries. Before leaving on his trip, the owner called together the three managers. The owner wanted to leave them each funds to expand the business while they were away. To the city manger they gave $1,000,000. To the suburb manger they gave $100,000. To the small town manager they gave $10,000. The owner told the managers that they would be gone for at least a year and expected to find the businesses flourishing when they returned.

When the owner returned, they called together the three managers to find out how the businesses fared. The city manager reported earning an additional $1,000,000 which pleased the owner greatly. The owner promoted the city manager to regional manager. The suburb manager reported earning an additional $100,000 which pleased the owner. The owner promoted the suburb manager to the city manager position. The small town manager gave the owner back the $10,000 saying that they were afraid of making the wrong decisions, losing the money, cutting into the store’s profits, and disappointing the owner. Instead of investing the money, the small town manager just put it in the freezer in the store room so nothing would happen to it. The owner was disappointed and angry. They said, “Your fear made you act foolishly and you are far from what I had hoped for and envisioned. You should have at least put the money in the bank and earned a little interest. I cannot promote you until you are less fearful. You will be an assistant manager until you learn to use what you have been given. The small town manager was sad and angry and felt as though they were treated unfairly.

As you can see, in my version of this parable, the owner is generous and hopeful. The actions of the city manager and the suburb manager lead to their promotions. The actions of the small town manager lead to their demotion. The distance between what the managers do and the owner’s expectations is determined by the actions of the managers, not the owner. This is a descriptive way of looking at how God works in the world, rather than prescriptive. If, like the city manager and the suburb manager, we seek to use our gifts as God desires, we are more likely to experience the benefits found in doing what is pleasing to God. If we choose not to use the gifts we have been given, we are much more likely to feel as if God does not care about us or that God is punishing us.

No parable is perfect; they all break down at some point. There is no guarantee in this life that following God’s ways are going to bring only blessings. There is also no guarantee that those who fail to act in ways pleasing to God will experience only challenges. Using our gifts as God desires for us, to the best of our ability, opens us to God’s presence in the world or draws us nearer to God. Intentionally choosing not to use our gifts as God desires is much more likely to land us in a place like the outer darkness Matthew mentions and the weeping and gnashing of teeth is likely to come from us.

This is the long way of saying that if we choose to follow Jesus and use our gifts in service to God, neighbor, and Creation, then we are more likely to experience God’s presence, even if our endeavors are not successful. Conversely, if we choose not to use our gifts in service to God, neighbor, and Creation, then we are much more likely to experience distance from God, even if our endeavors are successful. Matthew’s parable of the talents is much more helpful read in this descriptive manor than if when it is read in a more prescriptive way.

May we all have the strength and the courage to use our gifts to build up the Body of Christ and draw people in from the “outer darkness.”

RCL: Year A Twenty-fourth Sunday After Pentecost November 15, 2020 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: CC0image by Merja Partanen

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Musings Sermon Starter

Light the Lamps

Image of an clay oil lamp burning with others blurred in the background

I am distressed and disappointed at how this election is going. A landslide for Biden and other Democrats would have made a strong statement against white supremacy, militarized police, children in cages, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny and all the other ills of the current administration. How is it that nearly 50% of this country can believe that Trump is good for the United States? We have the highest COVID numbers and they are continuing to rise with no end in sight. We’ve pulled out of the Pairs Accord and pulled back on environmental protections at a time when super storms are normative and polar ice caps are melting. Why do more people not see this man for what he is? And how is it that the hope of overturning Roe v. Wade is more important than the lives of vulnerable people in this moment? Surely, we can do better than this.

If we want to do better in terms of eradicating white supremacy, ending militarized policing and improving the lives of immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers along with LGBTQ+ folx and everyone else who is vulnerable in this country, then we who call ourselves Christians must change. We have options. We can recommit ourselves to God’s ways just as Joshua called the people of Israel to do as they entered into the promised land. We can remember that we are called to love our neighbors as ourselves, including the most vulnerable among us. Now would be a good time to do this, wouldn’t it?

How? Well, we can start by evaluating what it is we are doing. How are we being church? Are Amos’ words true for us? Is God pleased or displeased with our worship, our offerings, our ministries? Justice isn’t exactly rolling down. Nor is righteousness flowing freely. Doing what we have always done before and simply adapting it to be online doesn’t count as real change. We will know we have changed when justice rather than blood flows freely in our streets. Perhaps it’s time we went in search of Wisdom. She’s not easy to find these days. However, when we find her, she will lead us in holy ways; she will guide us in new ways of being church.

If this is all still too intangible, then let us look at Matthew’s story of the wise and foolish bridesmaids. I’ve never liked this story. It always seemed so harsh and unnecessarily judgmental on the five who didn’t have enough oil. However, this parable feels very different to me during this election in the midst of pandemic. There is an urgency woven through it. Urgency and a fair degree of caution.

The five bridesmaids who brought their lamps and extra oil were ready, no matter how long into the evening the groom showed up. They were smart and prepared. The other five brought their lamps and no additional oil. Why? Apparently, they thought the others would share. Right. That would have made sense if these five were poor or couldn’t get to oil seller to buy more. There’s nothing that says they lacked the resources needed in the parable. They simply expected the others to give them some oil for no good reason except that the foolish ones didn’t have enough.

My friends, I suggest to you that progressive white church has acted as the foolish bridesmaids. We have expected others to make the changes we need to make. We have shown up unprepared in this world that is full of hatred and division. We are supposed to keep Love burning, illuminating the path of hope and healing for all those who come seeking. We’ve done little of this. Think about it.

For example, I live in the Twin Cities in Minnesota. It’s a large metro area with all kinds of people. Yet, I have encountered people who do not know that there are churches that ordain women, that welcome LGBTQ+ folx, that advocate for the vulnerable, and work to minimize global warming and climate change. There are people everywhere who have never heard of Mainline denominations. Why is that? We have shown up in 2020 unprepared. I’m not even sure we were out buying oil for our lamps when modernity made its appearance. I think we were sleeping, content with our comfortable pews and practices. We are on the wrong side of the doors and aren’t as well known as we’d like to think.

It’s not too late, though. The parable was one wedding, one groom, one party. The foolish bridesmaids missed it. They were shut out that night. We do not need to remain shut out. We can purchase more oil, trim our lamps, and be sure we shine with Divine Love, hope, and healing. In this light there is no room for fear of any of our neighbors. There is no room for the hatred that divides this country. There is no room for white supremacy.

We have work to do, my friends. This party is waiting for no one. If we want to heal what is broken in our country and in our world, we need to make ourselves known. It’s time to talk religion and politics and stop worrying about who will be offended. How can people make different choices if they don’t know there are different options. Why is progressive Christianity still a secret or still silent in the national picture? We can’t expect others to do the work for us. Check your oil supply and trim your lamps because the time for foolishness is over. The time for work has already begun.

RCL: Year A Twenty-third Sunday After Pentecost November 8, 2020 Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25 with Psalm 78:1-7 or
Wisdom of Solomon 6:12-16 or Amos 5:18-24
Wisdom of Solomon 6:17-20 or Psalm 70
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Matthew 25:1-13

Photo: CC0image by Bhikku Amitha

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Love in the Time of COVID: It’s not what you think

Image of an infant hand holding onto the finger of an adult hand

I wonder what church would be like if we dropped everything except the two greatest commandments. What would worship be like if it was focused on expressing our love for God with all our hearts, souls, and minds? What would kinship and missions be like if we focused all our activities on loving our neighbors as ourselves? This would be a new reformation that I could get behind. If an activity doesn’t focus on love in one way or another, then it probably isn’t necessary to life of the church. Don’t get me wrong, this focus on love, both divine and human, isn’t easy and much of society doesn’t support love as a foundation for all human action.

Jesus doesn’t speak casually of love the way we do today. We love chocolate. We love TV shows. We love our spouses. We love good food. We love time at the beach. We use the word for all the things we enjoy whether it’s simple enjoyment or deep emotional and spiritual connection, the word is the same – love. Jesus had a few alternatives to choose from and I’m convinced he chose his words carefully. He used the word agape. Yes, this is the kind of unconditional, steadfast love that God has for us. Jesus set his expectation of humanity high. He wants us to live into, strive for, this same kind of love. You know, here on earth as it is in heaven. It’s a goal and an invitation to start the journey. It’s only impossible if we rely only on ourselves. In community, it might just be possible to embody Christ in such a way that agape becomes a reality.

I don’t know what your experience has been during this pandemic. Mine has been one marked by privilege for sure. I have been able to stay home, work from home, and have most things I need delivered. I haven’t lost anyone close to me to the virus. On the other hand, I have struggled with feeling powerless when I’ve had to offer pastoral care virtually rather than in person. I’ve had to stay home and offer support when there were protests I would ordinarily have been a part of. I’ve had bouts of irritability no doubt caused by essentially being confined to my house and not being able to go back East to visit the ocean and friends, many of whom comprise my family of choice. This being said, pandemic has given me profound insight into a part of myself I didn’t know existed.

While I have had health concerns most of my life, I never considered myself to be limited by them. No matter how I was feeling, I did what needed to be done. I pushed through pain or fatigue or other symptoms. I always presented myself as fine. Since I have multiple risk factors for COVID-19, I have had to stay home, stay away from people. No more trips to the grocery store. No more working from the office. No more in person gatherings or meetings for any purpose. I have been forced to face my own ableist views. Masking the symptoms of my illness and pretending I am fine all the time, perpetuates the myth that if you look fine then you are fine. This way of denying my physical health needs reveals a less than loving attitude toward myself and toward my neighbors who may also have an invisible or visible disability. I am working toward being more kind and gentle with myself, and being more honest about my physical health. If I can love others who have disabilities, then I can love myself.

My personal revelation has made me more sensitive to the ways in which church has been ableist centered as well. A year ago we said that we couldn’t manage online services because the technology was too expensive or too complicated. Look at us now. Most congregations have figured out how to have online worship, kinship, and educational activities. Some of us even plan to keep online worship as an option when we are able to meet in person again as a way to include those for whom actually getting to worship is a challenge. Making it easier to be part of a worshiping community is the goal here. It is the loving thing to do – love for God and love for neighbor.

Jesus spoke an invitation, a vision for how life could be for those of us who follow him. My example of ableism and how it permeates our society and the church, is just one way in which we have not been faithful followers, not embodying love for all our neighbors. Imagine a world where we each respond to Jesus’ invitation to love without condition, to love fiercely and constantly. This amazing vision Jesus had for humanity where we love God, ourselves, and all of our neighbors with the kind of steadfast love God has for us is still possible. The invitation is still echoing through the generations. We can claim it and begin the journey of building this world in which all people have value because they are God’s beloved. It’s not too late and it begins with us, as church, embodying the love made known to us in Jesus. The vision is beautiful and it won’t become reality if we all don’t get busy living it. And don’t worry about those times when we fail because there is grace enough to cover us all. After all, we’ve been blanketed in God’s grace for more generations than we can remember.

For all the suffering that 2020 has brought, maybe we can make it the year we began to embody agape for real… Then maybe, in a hundred years or so, historians might look back at this time as another Reformation…

RCL: Year A Twenty-first Sunday After Pentecost October 25, 2020 Deuteronomy 34:1-12 with Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17 or
Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18 with Psalm 1 and
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Matthew 22:34-46

Photo: CC0image by Bonnie Kolarik

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A Change of Clothing

Image of a hiker overlooking a mountain trail

I’m taking a class on discernment this fall as part of a graduate certificate program in spiritual direction. Up until now I had always considered discernment as the process of making big life decisions and was startled to discover that discernment is best when it is an intentional part of daily life. I say “intentional” because many of us engage in discernment without conscious thought. However, think of the possibilities if we were to all intentionally seek out what God desires for us in every day. I don’t mean in a ritualistic way that can become rote practice. I mean in a way that takes us deep within ourselves to discover the Holy and allows us to draw that holiness out into our daily lives. We would be better equipped to care for our neighbors, ourselves, and the planet.

In the context of discernment, Paul’s words to the church in Philippi make far more sense. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (4:4-7). If we are reaching for the Holy that lies within us every day, then it is easier to connect with the Holy around us. Rejoicing in the Lord always becomes a very real possibility. Then we can pray with gratitude and open the way for peace to flood our lives. It’s not as easy as it is simple, of course. Yet, this speaks to a yearning of my spirit and maybe to yours as well.

These days it is not easy to find peace, and if we find it, it is fleeting. This is likely because we think peace and passivity are linked. However, it is possible to act out of peacefulness. It is possible to be guided by passion and cling to the peace that Paul wrote about. Even in pandemic, it is possible to seek peace in our lives and offer peace to our neighbors. The key is to avoid getting caught up in the fear and chaos that abounds.

Remember the Israelites in their desert wanderings? As soon as Moses was gone from them for a few days they demanded that Aaron make a god they could see and touch. While I don’t think many of us are creating golden calves, we are often lured away to worship gods of our own making. These are the gods that thrive on fear and chaos and gain power in our distress. The path to worshiping these demanding gods is much easier to follow than the path of the God who desires us to be at peace in ourselves and in the world. Is it possible for any of us to sit still long enough to (re)discover the holiness that is our very core? Is it possible for us to pull away from the chaos and fear that so easily grasps our attention and focus on what is good and kind and beneficial to all?

I think so. Jesus certainly believed it was possible. Why tell the parable of the wedding banquet if Jesus didn’t believe that we are capable of seeking what is good? We have been invited to a feast and we often fail to attend. When we are summoned, when we feel the pull of the Spirit, it is best we follow. There is a seat at the table for all. However, we cannot go clothed with our ego and our own desires. We must go with clothed with the peace of Christ, with humility, with love. It is better we ignore the invitation than go without the proper clothing.

Discernment, looking for the pull of the Spirit, seeking the banquet invitation, is a daily activity the deserves more of our attention. We might find ourselves in strange company if we genuinely ask what God would have us do on a daily basis. We might discover that we have a whole new wardrobe to wear as we offer ourselves in service to our neighbors, to God. Isn’t it time we leave behind the ways of idol worship? We need not wander in the wilderness of fear, anxiety, hatred, or violence any longer. There is truly a better way. I intend to seek it out. Will you join me?

RCL – Year A – Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost – October 11, 2020
Exodus 32:1-14 with Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23 or
Isaiah 25:1-9 with Psalm 23
Philippians 4:1-9
Matthew 22:1-14

Photo: CC0image by Dariusz Staniszewski

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On Being a Vineyard Worker

Image: squash plants over growing the garden edge with two nearly ripe squashes visible

It’s no secret that I’m not much of a gardener. Last spring, like many others, I planted more than usual.  Or, at least, I tried. None of the herbs I tried to grow from seed succeeded because I started them too late and transferred them outside before they were strong enough. The tomatoes I grew from seed were also started too late and aren’t going to bear any fruit this season. The jalapeno plant gave me one pepper in the early summer and is now covered in blossoms. The zucchini plants gave one zucchini and promptly died. The cucumber has been trying all summer and only know has a one cucumber that might be ready before the first frost. The tomato, basil, thyme, oregano, and lavender plants purchased in late May have done all right. My garden is a mystery, really. I don’t understand why some things grew and others did not and still others are just growing now.

Let me tell you about the squash, though. Butternut squash to be exact. I saved the seeds from a squash we ate in late March when I realized that I wouldn’t be able to go to the store to buy any seeds and most places were already sold out of seeds. I ended up planting six seeds. Four in large containers and two in my small garden. It turns out that the large containers were not large enough and the squash has done little more than produce small leafy vines with a few blossoms all summer. However, the two I planted in what had been a small herb garden just went wild. I’ve never seen anything grow like this squash. It managed to hold it’s own against the mint that has been slowly taking over my entire yard. Not only have these two plants produced amazing vines, they have also produced actual squash. I’ve picked four already and there are many more that will be ready soon. Who would have guessed that these squash would grow so abundantly with virtually no help from me?

Image of fall squash leaves with two young squash visible

I wish working in God’s vineyard was more like growing squash. I wish it was as easy as saving some seeds, planting them, watching them grow, and then harvesting the results. Working in God’s vineyard is more like my failed container garden where only the basil was truly happy. The basil and the one pepper and the late cucumber. This vineyard work is not for the selfish of the faint of heart. Some days the hours are long with no noticeable difference. Some days the labor is heartbreaking and full of grief. Yet, there are the days of joy when seeds take root and begin to grow.

We are meant to be the caretakers, the gardeners. We are meant to be the ones who make way for the mysteries of new life and growth and fruit-bearing. The vineyard is not ours. The results of our labors are not ours. It can be so hard not to claim ownership when one has worked so long and so hard. This vineyard tending is tough because it isn’t really about us at all and whose ego wants to hear that? As soon as we start thinking it’s about us, we put everything in jeopardy.

Some days I’m afraid that I am no better tending God’s vineyard than I am at gardening. What I think will grow doesn’t. What I think will flourish withers in the sun. And then I’m surprised by what blooms later than expected and what bears fruit when it appeared to have no life left in it. Sometimes I over water and other times I don’t water enough and I still haven’t sorted that out after decades of this work. Some days I’m like the worker who promises to show up and never does. Other days I’m like the one who said they weren’t going to be there and then showed up late in the day. And, you know, I’ll confess that I can’t always tell a weed from what’s supposed to be growing.

I’ll also confess that there are days when I wonder if all the labor, the time, the heartache is worth the harvest that will one day be. It can take me a while to remember that it isn’t about me, this work I’ve been called to do. Then I remember that this vineyard is cultivated for the sake of my neighbors, particularly those who have been ignored, dismissed, or devalued. The vineyard is cultivated with justice and love, grace and forgiveness. It’s meant to be a glimpse of the abundance that is to come. I am just a caretaker. I do not have to understand all the mysteries of growth, of failure, of flourishing, of dying, of new seeds sprouting, and of old ones bearing fruit.

I will keep working in this vineyard, trusting that I am not alone and this work will bring more life than I can know. I pray for the strength, courage, and wisdom to keep tending these strong and fragile vines. I pray everyone at work in this vineyard. We are not the first tenders and we will not be the last. The best news, though, is that we are not alone in this sacred, mysterious, awe-filled work we have been called into.

Image of late season cucumber surrounded by green leaves with hints of brown

RCL – Year A – Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20 with
Psalm 19 or
Isaiah 5:1-7 with Psalm 80:7-15
Philippians 3:4b-14
Matthew 21:33-46

Photo: CC-BY-NC image by Rachael Keefe

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Suicide Prevention: Embodying Love, Forgiveness, and Mercy

Image: square of sunlight shining through a dark tunnel

As I write, I am aware that September is National Suicide Prevention Month and September 10th is World Suicide Prevention Day. It’s the prefect time to talk about God’s love, forgiveness, and mercy and how they save lives, or could if congregations could grasp hold of them in meaningful, transformative ways.

Let’s start with the story of the Israelites escaping Egypt. This is a familiar story. We know that God heard the people’s cry and sent Moses and Aaron to free them from Pharaoh’s oppressive rule, a Pharaoh who did not know Joseph. After a series of plagues, the Israelites follow Moses and cross the Red Sea. Pharaoh’s army is washed out. It’s a powerful story of God’s liberating love, without question. If we look closer, there are also some indications of how God continues to work in our lives.

The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them.It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. And so the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night; one did not come near the other all night.

Exodus 14:19-20

Notice that the angel, the cloud, moves from the position of leading out of oppression to the position of protector from the persuers. It’s the next verse that I find particularly compelling. The cloud was there with the darkness. In the midst of the fleeing, the fear, the chaos, the literal dark of night, the cloud was there and it provided light, safety, guidance, protection, and hope. It kept the dark from being all there was. What a powerful metaphor for the Body of Christ today. If we could be the presence that is there with the darkness, the despair, the hopelessness, the depression, the chaos, then we, as church, could be the beacon that keeps the gaping maw of total despair at bay. If we could be the embodiment of the liberating God who offers love, forgiveness, and mercy without judgement or condition, we could save lives. Imagine the church as the cloud, the messenger of God, that can lead out of oppression and protect from the oppressive forces. There would be hope for all, especially those who struggle with suicidality.

If this story is not sufficient for how the church could be a powerful witness while in the midst of all that is life-destroying in this world, there are others. Think of the story of Joseph. He was thrown into a pit by his brothers and sold into slavery. When he could have become embittered and held onto anger, he offered forgiveness to his brothers. He recognized that while his brothers had intended harm, God transformed Joseph situation into something good and lifesaving. We can learn much from this story.

We can see that we should not look down on those caught in the “pits” of today’s world. It’s not like they fell into the depths on their own. While their literal siblings might not have been the ones to discard them, they were definitely discarded. Also, we never know whom God will pick to do great things, even those who have been sold out by others who ought to know better.

And then there is the forgiveness piece. Joseph modeled how God forgives us – without condition. It was enough for Joseph that his brothers came with humility seeking his help. God requires even less than that. Of course, we cannot find God’s forgiveness and live it out if we do not go seeking it with humility. So, too, for our congregations. We need to approach God like Joseph’s brothers, acknowledging that we are responsible for the pits of society; if we didn’t help dig them, we’ve not done all that we could to fill them in. While we are seeking God’s forgiveness, we also need to be offering it much more freely. If God forgives without condition, the church should be like Joseph was with his brothers and be profligate with forgiveness.

Just imagine how a forgiving community could change the life of someone who lives with tremendous guilt and shame over things that they have done or things that have been done to them. A word of forgiveness, an act of merciful acceptance, can save lives when offered with sincerity. For the person who lives with symptoms of mental illness, especially suicidality, a reminder of God’s forgiveness embodied by a community has more power than most of us recognize.

Jesus was clear on the power and importance of giving and receiving forgiveness. You know, “forgive seventy-seven times” meaning as many times as necessary. If we believe that we are loved without condition, then we must work toward accepting God’s unconditional forgiveness. It’s imperative that we do this. There are people in this world who are desperate for hope, desperate for the presence of God to be with them, illuminating a way through the hopelessness, promising liberation and protection. People who experience suicidality are unlikely to encounter God’s presence because depression lies and blocks out everything except one’s own utter lack of worth. If we want to save lives, then we must embody Divine Love, demonstrating unconditional forgiveness, and offering continuous mercy.

No one is exempt from suicidal thoughts, especially now in this time of pandemic. While we work toward living into God’s vision of love, forgiveness, and mercy, let’s take time to equip ourselves to save lives. Learn the risks for suicide, the warning signs, and the resources in your community and denomination. Hopelessness, depression, anxiety, and suicide are all on the rise. When we embody God’s love without conditions, we save lives. When we talk about mental illness and suicidality in our churches, we save lives. This is the work that God has set before us in 2020 – to do all that we can to save lives. We have work to do. Yet, we do not go alone. There is a Light that shines with us all and nothing can extinguish it. It is our guide and our protector. May we all live lives of love, forgiveness, and mercy so that our churches may be lifesaving.

Image: Text HOME to 741741 for crisis support in the U.S.
Image: Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255

For more about being a Lifesaving Church.

RCL – Year A – Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 13, 2020
Exodus 14:19-31 with Psalm 114
or Exodus 15:1b-11, 20-21
Genesis 50:15-21 with Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13
Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 18:21-35

Top Photo: CC0image by Rúben Gál

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Be Barefoot with Moses, Paul, and Jesus

Image: crowd of protestors carrying signs for Black Lives Matter and anti-racism

Anyone remember the story of Moses and the burning bush? It isn’t really the cute children’s story we might have learned in Sunday School. And it isn’t one of those stories that had meaning then and is unclear for today. With the shooting of Jacob Blake last week and the Uprisings in Minneapolis last night, we need to revisit that story that has become too familiar to us. There’s a message in there that we need right now.

As you may remember, Moses was minding Jethro’s sheep one day when a voice called to him out of a bush that was burning but not being consumed by the fire. Moses was not looking to disrupt his complacent, ordinary life. For all we know, he liked tending his father-in-law’s sheep. God had other plans for him, though. He had to take his shoes off because the ground under his feet was holy (and it’s harder to run away when you are barefoot). God proceeded to tell Moses that it was time for him to go to Pharaoh and tell him to set the people of God free.

Note Moses’ response here. He basically said, “Why me? I’m nobody. Shouldn’t somebody else go?” Like most of us in the world today, if we happen to hear God’s voice calling us, nudging us, to go confront the Pharaoh or his agents, Moses begged off. We know that the story ends with Moses going to confront Pharaoh and eventually freeing the Israelites. What if it hadn’t? What if Moses walked on by? What if he just said, “Nope, not me”? and lived his life as a shepherd of sheep rather than a leader of people? Would God have called someone else? Did God try others before Moses agreed?

Back to today. What if every moment of discomfort we white folx experience when we read or hear the news of police shooting another black man or police responding to protestors with violence or police pepper spraying media is actually God reminding us that the ground under our feet is holy? What if, instead of turning away while wishing this unrest would all go away, we actually took off our shoes and stayed a while, listening to what God might be calling us to do? You know, starting with the judgement about “those people” who are Uprising? If you’re like me, meaning white, then you really don’t know what it is like to live under systemic oppression (white supremacy) for four hundred years. We really have no idea what it feels like to be treated as “less than” from one generation to the next. If we did, we might be tempted to unleash some rage as well when police act out of their racism and harm or kill people who have the same color skin we do.

Then once we’ve stopped judging and started to empathize, at least a little, then we can also stop defending the police. There is no excuse for shooting black people… in their cars… on the sidewalks… in front of their families… No excuse for kneeling on their necks…. doing nothing while they cannot breathe… God is asking us to free God’s people from Pharaoh’s ways. God is asking you and me to go to Pharaoh now. No excuses. We are needed because the police officers aren’t going to be taking their shoes off any time soon. Pharaoh has them trained too well.

Still not convinced this is a reasonable interpretation of the burning bush story? Okay. How do you feel about Paul and what he had to say in Romans? Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; Love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Paul is pretty clear in how we should act and how we should treat one another. Loving all our neighbors is Christian mandate. Hating evil means hating white supremacy and all the racist systems it sustains. Hating evil does not mean hating people who are not white. Wouldn’t it be more in keeping with God’s laws if we tried to outdo one another in showing honor? These days, showing honor looks an awful lot like the abolition of police and voting for change come November. There are too many people dying because Pharaoh and those in his service fear change – change that means equity and justice for all of humanity.

If you still aren’t convinced that God does not endorse systemic racism and is heartbroken by the white nationalist conflation of white supremacy and Christianity, how about that time Jesus called Peter Satan? Peter just wanted Jesus to turn away from Jerusalem where his fight with Empire would surely end in his death. Peter wanted Jesus to follow an easier path. Jesus was tempted. Why else would he call Peter “Satan” while telling him to get away? Yes, if we commit to fighting the Empire and it’s oppression, then we will be tempted by easier paths. It’s best if we take our shoes off so we cannot run away.

With our feet bare and our hearts open, may we burn with the passion for justice, burn but not be consumed so that we may actively seek to set ALL God’s people free.

If you are looking for sermon help, try here.

RCL – Year A – Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost – August 30, 2020
Exodus 3:1-15 with Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c or
Jeremiah 15:15-21 with Psalm 26:1-8
Romans 12:9-21
Matthew 16:21-28

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Categories
Poetry

A Conversation with Jesus

Image of face overlaid with shadows of trees on a background of red, rippling water
in a Roman stronghold, You asked your first disciples
     a seemingly simple question
yet You asked them to put their lives on the line for You
their answers could be, should be
      treasonous to the ears of the Empire

Who do you say that I am?

a worthy question, even now, especially now
we live in another Empire with a Pharoah who does not know Joseph
and would enslave us all, try us for treason if he could
Your question hangs in the air, awaiting our answers

Who do you say that I am?

You are the Messiah, of course
the One who sets us free
and saves our souls
Messiah

what does this mean for children in cages, families torn apart?
what does this mean for immigrants, refugees, assylum seekers,
all who come with hopes and dreams for a life of freedom
and are met with white supremacy, racism, and rejection?

Who do you say that I am?

You are the Prince of Peace
the One who guides our feet
in the ways of justice
Prince of Peace

our lips may speak these words
our actions say otherwise
there is no peace without justice
ask George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmoud Arbery
     and counteless others

Who do you say that I am?

You are the Great Physician, Healer of the Nations
the One who makes us whole
and unites us in love
Great Physician

there is no evidence of this truth
in a nation that values perfection over wholeness and wealth
     over people
where is unity for those on the edges, devalued and dismissed
     by Empire?

Who do you say that I am?

You are the Living Water
the One who quenches thirst
and brings new life
Living Water

then why are so many so very thirsty
in Flint, at the border, on our streets?
why withhold water for the poorest
when we have more than enough

Who do you say that I am?

Lord and Savior
the One who saves us from ourselves
and frees us to love without condition
Lord and Savior

again, where is the proof?
we act as if Love were a precious commodity
and hoard it for ourselves because Empire tells us
there is not enough for those who are undeserving

Who do you say that I am?

Light of life
the One who shines with hope
chasing away our despair
Light of Life

then why not wear a mask to show our love for our neighbors?
why not welcome all with grace and mercy?
suicide rates are climbing and we refuse to share our hope
perhaps our trust, our faith, is not up for the task at hand

Who do you say that I am?

Wonderful Counselor
the One who guides life
offering wisdom, healing, grace
Wonderful Counselor

is it not Empire that guides our choices?
is it not Empire that teaches us to hate?
is it not Empire that divides us from our neighbors?
when will we listen and actually care for the vulnerable among us?

Who do you say that I am?

Mighty God
the One who loves without condition
waiting patiently for us to believe
Mighty God

Love knows no limits
hatred, destruction, division, violence, war are purely human
perhaps now is the time for transformation
paying heed to the prophets among us

Who do you say that I am?

be careful how you answer
do your words match your deeds?
do you love your neighbor as yourself?
do you follow the ways of Empire
rather than care for the vulnerable among you?
will you put your life on the line
for the sake of love?

Who do you say that I am?

RCL – Year A – Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost – August 23, 2020
Exodus 1:8-2:10 with Psalm 124 or
Isaiah 51:1-6 with Psalm 138
Romans 12:1-8
Matthew 16:13-20

Photo: CC0image by Gerd Altmann

Categories
Musings Sermon Starter

A Bigger Table

Okay. I’m just going to say it. Jesus was wrong to make the Canaanite woman plead with him. Fortunately, he came to a new understanding after listening to her and was able to correct his mistake before it was too late. When the woman was crying out to him, Jesus ignored her until his disciples asked him to send her away because she was annoying and undeserving. Then Jesus basically told her that she wasn’t deserving of his attention because she was not an Israelite. She begged for his help. He declined. She pointed out that even dogs got the crumbs that fell from the table. Then Jesus healed her daughter and praised her faith. Jesus reacted to the woman as he had been taught. She persisted and was able to get him to see her as a human being, not just as a Canaanite woman. We could benefit from paying more close attention to this story.

Sometimes I feel like all I say is, “Come on, Church, we can do better than this.” And, yet, I feel compelled to keep saying it. We can do better because Jesus did better. People shouldn’t have to come begging us for help or healing. No one should have to persuade the church that they are worthy of God’s love. No one should have to convince us that they are worth saving. I cannot help but wonder how many lives have been lost because we as the church were not listening and failed to recognize the human being in need of help.

Maybe you’ve been lucky enough to always be welcomed in a church community. Maybe you’ve never been told that you are an abomination, an unrepentant sinner, unwelcome, unworthy, or undeserving. Maybe you’ve never been excluded from the life of the church because of your age, your gender, your sexual orientation, your marital status, mental illness, physical disability, or some other aspect of who you are. If that’s the case, then you know how Jesus and his disciples felt when the outsider wanted just a taste of what they had. What you don’t know is the desperation that drove the Canaanite woman to literally beg at Jesus’ feet.

Imagine what she must have been feeling. Her child was dying. She had heard about Jesus the healer. She knew she, as a Canaanite woman, had no business approaching a Jewish rabbi. She did it, though. And she persisted until Jesus saw her, heard her, and helped her. I wonder who is kneeling at our feet, begging for healing, hope, and wholeness that we are choosing not to see, hear, or help because of what we have been taught. And those teachings that say that anyone is undeserving of God’s love are not from Jesus. He learned something in his encounter with the Canaanite woman, and so should we.

My friends, the church has the antidote for much of what ails society today. While we cannot manufacture a vaccine for COVID-19, we can demonstrate what love looks like during a pandemic. We cannot meet in person without following all the appropriate guidelines. We can support the idea that these days, love wears a mask. More than that, though, as society becomes increasingly apathetic or hopeless, we can freely share the love we have in our communities. We can share resources ensure people are seen, heard, welcomed, and find a place of belonging.

We have been taught how to love our neighbors as ourselves. While it may not be easy when our society maintains the idea that its everyone for themselves, we know that every human being is worthy of God’s love. No one should have to beg for it. What would radical inclusion look like in our congregations? It’s more than the “All are Welcome” on so many of our signs. We would have to mean that all are welcome, even those who are treated like the Canaanites of Jesus’ day.

Perhaps we should take some time during pandemic to expand our welcome in ways that will last. Who have we excluded that we could work on including? Who has been begging for us to help them? Instead of focusing on what we cannot do during pandemic, let’s focus on what we can do. Let’s figure out how to be congregations that lead with love and grace, welcome and inclusion. We don’t have to keep making the same mistakes. Jesus didn’t. Let’s, you know, follow him. Crumbs that fall to the floor are fine for dogs. As far as people go, we to build a bigger table.

RCL – Year A – Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost – August 16, 2020
Genesis 45:1-15 with Psalm 133 or
Isaiah 56:1, 6-8 with Psalm 67
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
Matthew 15:(10-20), 21-28

Photo: CC0image by StockSnap

Categories
Musings Sermon Starter

Learning from Jacob

After Jacob’s night of wrestling, after his hip was disjointed, did he try to hide his limp or did he embrace it as a sign of his strength and endurance? I would like to think that he did the latter, though I suspect it might have taken him a while. Jacob was known for his cunning, his trickery, his willingness to do what he had to do to get what he wanted. Yes, Laban tricked him into marrying Leah before Rachel. I’m guessing that didn’t alter his personality all that much. Maybe just growing up, claiming his identity, allowed him to accept his faults, flaws, and weaknesses, limp included.

As much as I hate to admit it, I think I have a lot in common with Jacob, or at least the Jacob I imagine. It isn’t that I will do whatever I need to do to get what I want in a way that hurts or uses others; I try to avoid that. However, for most of my life I have tried to hide my weaknesses, my limitations, my disabilities. Yes, I could name them, and yet I never really embraced them. Acceptance of my limitations is hard for me, even now.

When I was in college I was diagnosed with a learning disability that fit under the umbrella of dyslexia. While this diagnosis brought some relief and understanding to me, I told very few people. In my subsequent years of education, I think I told one professor because she asked the class to write down anything that might affect our class work, including learning disabilities. I remember writing that I was dyslexic and that it would not present a problem in class. I did not want to be viewed as “impaired” or “different.”

My journey with my physical health has been similar. It took decades to get an accurate diagnosis of POTS/Dysautonomia. In the intervening years, when my diagnosis went back and forth between Lupus and MS, I would acknowledge that I didn’t feel well and then proceed to do whatever needed doing. I didn’t want whatever was going on in my body to cause people to see me as anything other than fully capable of doing my job or living my life. These were my judgements about myself. I never viewed anyone else with any kind of disability as “less than.” Somehow, though, if I accepted my physical limitations then I would be diminished.

Now, with pandemic, I have no choice but to name my struggles. Dysautonomia and multiple autoimmune disorders put me at high risk for COVID-19. And the pacemaker given me in December doesn’t diminish that risk. I have to stay home, away from people. Sure, I’ve managed to find ways to get out, like kayaking in sparsely populated lakes. I walk my dog every day that is below 80 degrees and humidity below 45% and we cross the street a lot to avoid other people who are out without masks. I am vulnerable and I don’t like it.

Yet, it is this very vulnerability that has me thinking about Jacob in a new way. I’m guessing he didn’t fully become Israel until he embraced his brokenness; he didn’t become whole until he accepted his vulnerability. It’s an odd thing to contemplate. What makes us whole? What makes us able to accept God’s call to live in abundance and share that abundance with those who hunger and thirst (literally and figuratively)?

Jesus told the disciples that they had to feed the hungry and thirsty crowd gathered around them in the wilderness. The disciples thought Jesus may have lost touch with reality. How could they feed 20,000 people (5000 men plus women and children) with nothing? They didn’t actually have nothing. They had five loaves of bread and two fish. That turned out to be more than enough. There’s something to be said for using what we have and trusting God to make it what we need. Not for us on our own. For us and all who gather in community.

Only when we accept our whole selves, limps and limitations included, can we recognize the gifts we truly possess. Only then can we move fully into God’s abundance and serve the hungry, thirsty and vulnerable people in our communities. Whether we use our limitations as an excuse for inaction or we pretend we have no limits and in so doing cannot fully use our gifts, we are serving no one but ourselves.

Now is the perfect time for us as individuals and for us as the church, to embrace our broken places and accept the whole of who we are. Only then will we be the Body of Christ needed right now. Jacob became Israel after his hip was put out of joint and he could not deny his brokenness, his vulnerabilities as a human being. Imagine how the church would change if every congregation would spend a night or more wrestling with God to come limping into a new day. We could name and claim our vulnerabilities, our brokenness, and even our sins, and move just that much closer into living in God’s abundance. The world can be transformed if we stopped pretending to be perfect and embraced our wholeness instead.

Who would have thought that Jacob would be a model for living in God’s abundance…

RCL – Year A – Ninth Sunday after Pentecost – August 2, 2020
Genesis 32:22-31 with Psalm 17:1-7, 15 or
Isaiah 55:1-5 with Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21
Romans 9:1-5
Matthew 14:13-21

Photo: CC0image by jplenio