Musings Sermon Starter

Beware the Serpents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: CC0image by Gerd Altmann

Musings Sermon Starter

Celebrating Transfiguration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shine on, my friends, shine on.

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

Photo: CC0image by Alan

Musings Sermon Starter

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

Photo: CC0image by

Musings Sermon Starter

A Glimpse of Glory

Have you ever caught a glimpse of God’s glory? Maybe it didn’t cover a whole mountain top or brighten up anyone’s appearance. Maybe that brief look at something holy just made your eyes shine with awe-filled tears or made the light of hope visible amidst the struggle. Maybe God’s glory is present all the time and we just don’t recognize it or don’t notice it until the circumstances are just right.

Moses went up a mountain to spend time alone with God. The Israelites saw fire on that mountain top from their place in the valley. A fire that left Moses’ face all aglow. But think of how it is that Moses came to be on that mountain top alone with God. He had led the people out of Egypt into the desert where resources were scarce. No doubt the people were growing restless as God was working out God’s covenant with the people and Moses was the go-between. How many times did Moses go up the mountain to talk with God? There were a few and we know at least once he came back down to a people who had already turned to another god. Moses needed every sparkle, glow, ray of light that God’s glory left with him. And the people maybe should have remembered that “devouring fire” a bit longer than they did.

Yet, in spite of what would remain on Moses’ face, the people couldn’t hold onto God’s glory very long. They couldn’t keep in their minds the fact that God liberated them from Egypt and wouldn’t abandon them in the desert. They wanted God with them all the time in some visible way, but not the way that dazzled their eyes. God’s glory, when viewed directly, affects the beholder’s vision. For a brief moment, Glory is all that can be taken in. Everything else literally pales by comparison. Yet, somehow, Glory fades from memory more quickly than most things.

By the time Jesus shows up, the events on Mount Sinai were long past. Perhaps the power contained in the stories had faded a bit. So one day Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up a mountain. They needed a little time away from the growing opposition to Jesus, or maybe from the crowds that gathered wherever they went. Things had been happening and Peter, James, and John could barely recognize their lives since they started following Jesus. And the debate about whether or not Jesus was the Messiah had to be exhausting, not to mention the fact that there were groups of people who wanted Jesus dead. Sure, a trip up a mountain for some alone time was a welcomed idea.

They had no way of preparing themselves for what they saw up there. Jesus transfigured (metamorphosized in the Greek) along with Moses and Elijah – glowing, garments and all, with a brightness that human hands could not produce. Peter at least recognized the sacredness of the moment and wanted to build tabernacles to mark the occasion, the holy presence. Before he could finish describing his plans, the voice from heaven had something to say. Then fear took over and they fell to the ground. I wonder if their own faces had a bit of glow about them in those moments.

When it was all over, Jesus got them to their feet and led them down the mountain. Were they silent about what they had just experienced? I doubt it. I think they were all babbling, talking over each other, trying to capture the experience with words. Then Jesus told them to stop. They could talk about it all later when it might make more sense to them. They had just had a close encounter with the glory of God and they would realize the power of it at some point.

Here’s the thing. I think we have managed to close off ourselves to the experiences of God’s glory. When we are exhausted and troubled by life’s events, we don’t necessarily take ourselves away to a mountain top or some other quiet place. We don’t necessarily think about removing some of the clutter between us and God. So when God’s glory shines, it’s filtered through a whole lot of stuff, and we might miss it. Or, more likely, call it by another name.

I’m not suggesting that we will see mountain tops devoured by holy fire or long-dead prophets hanging out with Jesus if the circumstances were right. What I am suggesting is that we will see the light of Divine Love shining in ordinary places, everyday faces, if we pay more attention. We don’t need to be able to explain everything or understand all that is. It’s okay to live in the Mystery and know that God still claims us as Beloved. Even in the midst of science and technology and so much information, the Holy is still a Mystery and sometimes that Mystery shines brilliantly on our tired, scared, confused little lives to give us hope and remind us of the promise of Love.

RCL – Year A – Transfiguration – February 23, 2020
Exodus 24:12-18
Psalm 2 or Psalm 99
2 Peter 1:16-21
Matthew 17:1-9

Photo: CC0image by Johannes Plenio

Musings Sermon Starter

Life Choices

Choosing life is not simple, easy, or natural for most of us. Well, there is the drive to stay alive. However, that is not the same as choosing life. Moses was pretty clear that choosing life often means choosing the hard road, the way that is not self-focused. On the brink of entering into the Promised Land, Moses implores the people of God to choose life so that they and their children may continue to live in abundance.

These people who stood looking across the Jordan River into the land they had been promised are the wilderness wanderers, the calf worshipers, the complainers, and the whiners. The journey from captivity to freedom was longer and more difficult than they bargained for. They weren’t happy with Moses. They were tired of manna and quail. They had expected a shorter journey, one that was less taxing on their bodies and on their spirits. If Moses wasn’t around, they were pretty certain that God wasn’t around either. They survived the desert, surely life wasn’t a choice they had to make. They were alive and staring at the Promised Land. Life had already been granted them, hadn’t it?

That’s the funny thing with life. It’s easy to take it for granted. We are alive. We are breathing and moving through the world. What choice is there? Moses could have elaborated more than he did. Choose life that will enable your neighbor to live as you live. Choose life that will be gentle on the planet. Choose life that facilitates justice for all people. Choose life that always moves from captivity to liberation. Choose life that honors the Creator. Choose life in a way that blesses those around you. Choose life, not just as individuals, but also as sacred community.

There it is. Choosing life in response to God’s call isn’t about us as individual human beings. It is about us as sacred community, the Body of Christ, the church. Nearly every church I have ever been a part of has been primarily concerned with its own life. Are the pews full? Is the budget balanced? Are the programs attended? Is the Sunday School full? How about the youth program, are we ensuring the church of the future? These concerns that have absorbed so much of our churches’ attention, are not questions that support choosing life.

God has set before us the ways of life and death. The church is on the edges of something new, something exciting, something transformative. We are close enough to see that something different is coming, but not close enough to know precisely what it is. However, we can look around at our declining numbers and the building closures and know that life isn’t exactly what we have chosen. Perhaps it is time to make different choices.

Choose life so that we and those who will come after us might live in God’s love, honoring God’s commandments. Choose life so that we will stop being lured away by the false gods of individualism and independence. Choose life so that we will realize that our neighbors are our responsibility, that the way of Christ is the way from captivity to liberation.

First choose life for yourself in response to God’s unconditional love for you as an individual. Then choose life for the Body of Christ in response to God’s abundant love for the whole of Creation. No, it is not easy. Yes, we will continue to be tempted by lesser gods. No, it is not too late for us to change and embrace God’s call to the fullness of life. Yes, there are many who will think our efforts on behalf of life, love, and liberation are futile and foolish. Isn’t it time we stopped wandering in the wilderness and complaining about all that is not as we want it or expected it to be? By choosing life, we are choosing the Promised Land, a land where all are welcomed, wanted, seen, heard, and valued. Is there a better way to be the Body of Christ?

Choose life when considering the plight of refugees. Choose life when confronted with those who are homeless. Choose life when the government cuts funding for food subsidies, access to health care, or acts to promote only the white, cis, wealthy, able-bodied, educated, and male people. Choose life, interdependence and sacred community, in every moment and in every decision or the Promised Land, the Kingdom of God, will never come any closer. Generations yet to come deserve better than captivity and oppression, don’t they?

RCL – Year A – Sixth Sunday after Epiphany – February 16, 2020
Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Psalm 119:1-8
1 Corinthians 3:1-9
Matthew 5:21-37

Photo: CC0image by Pexels

Moses Sermon Starter

Thomas May Not be What You Think


What are you afraid of? On that first Easter evening the disciples were afraid of everything. Jesus was dead and gone; the body had even been removed from the tomb. They were afraid for their lives. They were at a loss. They were so afraid that they had locked themselves in a room. Was it the same upper room that Jesus had made sacred a few days before? It doesn’t matter. They were locked in and the world was locked out. They had to figure out what to do next. Where to go. Whom to trust. And then everything got weird.

Thomas was brave enough to venture out into the world. Was he fearless or did some need conquer his fear? Or was he so lost in his grief that he did not care what happened to him? We don’t know why he was out, but he was. The Risen Christ happened to walk in on a fear-filled room to breathe peace to them. What a gift! Well, for everyone except Thomas.

When Thomas returned to the locked room, the others told him that Jesus had been there and breathed peace into their fear. Thomas may have had his doubts, but so did the rest of them. Thomas hadn’t been there to see Jesus, to hear his words, or feel the power of the wounds, or inhale the breath of peace. He had a good excuse to be in that room a week later. But what about the ones who had been there the first time Jesus walked into that locked room? Why were they still huddled there a week later? Did they all hold their breath so they didn’t breathe deeply of the peace that Jesus tried to breathe onto them, into them? What held them in that locked room a full week later?

I suppose we shouldn’t be too hard on them. Grief is paralyzing sometimes. So is fear. They were at risk of being crucified for treason and blasphemy just as Jesus had been. I’m not sure how far out of that room I would have ventured, either. I know what if feels like to be held captive by fear, though. Fear shrinks all possibilities into one bottomless pit that threatens to swallow anyone who dares to move. Fear is contagious enough to hold ten people captive in a small locked room for a lot longer than a week. Fear can certainly hinder the breath of peace from doing its work. The Risen Christ had some work to do on everyone there, except maybe Thomas. After all, Thomas didn’t actually need to touch anything to believe what he saw when Jesus returned. He was convinced just on sight and sound. Was that because he was not bound to that room by the fear of all that could happen, all that might happen if the doors were unlocked?

What are you afraid of? Me? I’m afraid that I won’t be able to communicate this urgency for the church to change that I am feeling so deeply. Even though I ask God not to pester me with visions and calls and messages during Holy Week because I am busy enough, God seldom listens. Part way through Holy Week the vision I had been avoiding and the call I was trying not to hear, became unavoidable. I couldn’t lock the doors or pull the shades any longer. God had something to say to me, reluctant prophet though I may be.

Church, we have been hunkered down in locked rooms for far too long. So long, in fact, that we are dying for want of a few Thomases who are willing to go outside and experience what’s happening out there. We are dying because we are held captive by fear, fear that distorts our understanding and prevents us from breathing in the peace Jesus intends for us. Nothing we are doing right now is worth dying for. Seriously, the Body of Christ can’t really want to breathe its last over some stained glass or a pew or the grasp we have on yesterday. Fear is choking the life out of us.
What do we need to let go of so we can breathe deeply once again? Our buildings? Our denominational ties? Our sense of (self)righteousness? Our worship of the Bible? Our certainty that we are right? What would happen to us if we took a slow, tentative breath of peace? Would fear loosen its grip on us? Would we be able to envision an ecumenical community where grace abounds and fear is a thing of the past? Would we be able to move out of our crumbling buildings into a community space that is used 24/7? Would we be able to adjust our worship practices to include language, music, theology that speaks to those who are seeking meaning today?

It’s time to unlock the doors, take a risk with Thomas, breathe deeply of the Holy Spirit, and live into this new shape of Resurrection. Let’s do this before we entirely forget how to embody Christ in a way that brings liberation to all (no exceptions). Bound by fear is no way for anyone to live, particularly the Body of Christ. Let’s take a deep breath and see what is possible…

For other sermon thoughts try here.

RCL – Year C – Second of Easter – April 28, 2019
Acts 5:27-32
Psalm 118:14-29 or Psalm 150
Revelation 1:4-8
John 20:19-31

Photo: CC0 image by Orlando

Musings Sermon Starter

Ontogeny Recapitulates Phylogeny


Biology was not my favorite subject in high school. The workings of a microscope frustrated me because I couldn’t close one eye and keep the other open. Dissecting worms and frogs wasn’t particularly enjoyable, either. I don’t honestly remember much, but the phrase, “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” has stuck with me. It was first used by Ernst Hackel, though I don’t remember that being clarified in class. However, it simply means that embryonic development reflects the development of the species. I’ve recently realized the same general idea can be applied to faith development in the people of God.

Think about it. Back in the days of the early Israelites, they believed that God was the cause of all things. If life was good, it was because they were pleasing God and God was rewarding them. If life was difficult, they were displeasing God and God was punishing them. We see this kind of theology in the passage from Numbers which recounts the encounter with the deadly serpents. The Israelites were complaining against God because of the challenges they faced in the wilderness. They were not happy to be hungry and thirsty and they longed for the fleshpots of Egypt. They believed God was affronted by their distress and doubt, and God punished their sins with venomous vipers that killed with one bite. Moses played intermediary as he often did, and God gave the people a way to survive the serpents.

Children often display a similar kind of faith. A very simple faith that says if I am good, God will give me what I want. If God isn’t pleased with me, then God will give me things I don’t want. Many of us get stuck in this way of thinking about God for a very long time. But we don’t have to. Jesus expanded this view of God quite dramatically.

God so loves the whole of the cosmos that God sent God’s own Beloved so that all who believe might have eternal life. God’s love was and is for the whole of creation. Jesus was meant as a display of God’s love, a path to bringing the Realm of God into the here and now. Jesus’ life, ministry, and resurrection were a radical departure from the tribal God whose wrath flowed freely in response to human behavior. Jesus invites us all to live in a world where Love has ultimate authority, not sin or death.

If we are able to move beyond the perceptions of the ancient Israelites, and even those who lived in First Century Palestine, our understanding of God shifts. We can literally leave behind a rather punitive, reactionary God and move toward a God who is Agape, unconditional, unlimited love. The hints of this are recorded throughout scripture. “God’s steadfast love endures forever” is repeated in numerous verses. There is no place we can go where God’s love is not – depths or heights (Psalm 139). Nothing can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:35-39). Even the Creation stories of Genesis point toward a God who lovingly creates; God deems Creation “good.” If we can move beyond a literal reading of the scriptures, we might be able to see, hear, feel, and experience a glimpse of God’s unimaginably vast love for Creation in general, and humanity in particular.

We have a better understanding of how the world works in 2018 than folks did in Moses’ day or even in Jesus’ day. We know that when times are good, we think of what God wants less than when times are challenging. It would be easy to conclude that prosperity is from God and when hard times come, God is punishing us for failing to remember God’s ways. However, there are natural consequences for abandoning God’s ways in favor of human ways. When we humans start thinking that all we have accomplished and all we can do is a result of our own efforts, we tend to become rather self-absorbed. We tend to stop paying attention to the “greater good” and the needs of our neighbors. Then someone with more power comes along and reminds us that we are not God. Then we remember to seek out the Holy and care for our neighbors as ourselves. We can see evidence of this throughout history. Nations don’t fall because God punishes them for their arrogance. Nations fall because they begin to think of themselves as infallible which creates weakness that stronger nations take advantage of. Israel wasn’t conquered again and again because God was punishing them. They fell to their enemies because they forgot to care for the whole nation, not just the wealthy and powerful.

Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. Let’s take another look at the Numbers passage from the understanding of God as Agape. The Israelites escaped from Egypt and were in the wilderness. They were hungry, thirsty, and frightened. There were things that happened in the wilderness that caused destruction and death. When the people remembered their liberating God, they were able to find a path through the painful desert. They were not alone – every person for themselves. No. They were a holy nation and could help one another through the pain and grief of seeking new life. God, Agape, was with them, leading them, shaping them into a new people.

This Lent, as we wander through our own wildernesses and deserts, let us remember that we do not go alone. Let us also remember that our God is not hiding around the next bend, waiting for us to screw up so God can punish us accordingly. Let us remember that God is Agape, Love beyond our capacity to imagine. This God whose ways liberate us from oppressive sins and lead us to new life, this is the God who accompanies us on the journey. Not only is God journeying with us, but God is waiting for us to leave old, constricting ways behind and embrace ways of being that lift the whole of Creation to new life.

We, as people of God, are no longer infants. Isn’t it time we embody the fullness of Christ’s love for our neighbors and ourselves?

RCL – Year B – Fourth Sunday in Lent – March 11, 2018
Numbers 21:4-9
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
Ephesians 2:1-10
John 3:14-21

Photo: CC0 image by Jonny Lindner

Musings Sermon Starter

Call Me Jonah


God has a way of getting what God wants. Ask Moses. Better yet, ask Jonah. Jonah did everything he could think of to avoid doing as God asked him to do. What did he get for his efforts? He became whale puke. He then had to go and do what God asked him to do anyway, whale slime and all. I have a lot of affinity for both Moses and Jonah. For Moses because he argued with God, saying “no” five times before becoming the reluctant leader of God’s people. For Jonah because he just didn’t want to do what God was asking of him and went through all kinds of stuff before doing exactly what God asked of him to begin with. I have a tendency to respond to God in this fashion.

If I’m honest, I first felt called to ministry at age 10. I felt it again at 14, and again 19, and accepted it at 24. That call has been challenged many times in the intervening decades. I’ve argued with God. I’ve said “no” to God. Others have denied my ability to be in ministry for a variety of reasons. Yet, God always finds a way to make it happen. God’s ways are often surprising and unexpected. We also have a remarkable way of disrupting God’s plans, thinking ours are better. None of these things place us outside of God’s reach. Just ask Jonah. In the depths of the sea, in the belly of a whale, God still called Jonah. There is nowhere so deep, so filled with denial, that God cannot reach in and pull us out again. I suspect God would rather not have to work so hard. There are easier ways to serve God than becoming whale puke in the process.

Peter, James, and John were smart. They followed Jesus pretty quickly. Maybe they thought becoming Jesus’ disciples would be easier than working Zebedee’s fishing nets. They would smell better for sure. I like to think that they were young and impulsive and had no idea the enormity of what they were agreeing to when they left their nets that day. They went along, though. And they got really good at being disciples. We know they gained skills and insight because we’re here now. We also know that they weren’t perfect human beings; they were ordinary people like you and me. God saw potential in them and called them to a life that would use their gifts, gifts none of them knew they had when Jesus first walked into their lives.

We are all filled with potential. I was lucky in that teachers and professors saw all kinds of potential in me. I was luckier still that God called me and I heard it, however reluctantly. We all have gifts that we are called to use. It’s just a question of how graciously we will follow. You already know that I tend to fall into the school of Moses and Jonah – the reluctant disciple/prophet types. I’ve always wanted to be more like Peter, James, and John and drop everything to go where Jesus calls. It’s just not in my nature. I’ve never been very impulsive or trusting that what I hear God calling me to really is what God is calling me to. I’ve trudged through the wilderness and I’ve seen the inside of some whales. I’ve responded to God’s call and sometimes made a mess. I’ve run from God’s call and tried to hide. But God always has a way of getting what God wants, leading us to where God would like us to be, awakening the gifts dormant inside of us.

There’s nothing to be afraid of when it comes right down to it. God wants a future filled with hope and good things for all of us. Yes, it’s not always easy getting there. Sometimes our efforts to use our gifts leave us wandering in the wilderness for a long while or huddling in the belly of a whale wondering what could possibly come next. On the other hand, God calls us each by name and invites us to follow. No matter what happens after that, God does not leave us alone. Whether we are like Moses and Jonah or Peter, James, and John, God is delighted when we claim the gifts that we’ve been given and use them to bring a bit more hope, love, and healing, into the world. If you are a skeptical, reluctant disciple or an impulsive, enthusiastic one, it’s time to get moving. Turn on your GPS if you’re wandering in the wilderness. Take a shower if you’re covered in whale puke. God needs all of us to get busy because the realm of God is at hand. If you and I don’t share this good news with all that we say and do, then who will?

RCL – Year B – Third Sunday after Epiphany – January 21, 2018
Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Psalm 62:5-12
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
Mark 1:14-20

Photo: CC0 image by Dimitris Vetsikas

Musings Sermon Starter

Covenant Without End


I’m guilty of romanticizing fall. When Labor Day rolls around I’m flooded with nostalgia and a sense of excitement. I have an urge to go out and buy new clothes and new shoes. My Facebook feed is flooded with first-day-of-school photos. And my mind creates false images of joy and happiness from my youth. While it’s true that I liked school, I hated shopping and having to try on clothes and shoes and never getting quite what I wanted. School was also a mixed bag. I liked the routine and the structure, my friends, and classes. On the other hand, I was often teased and bullied and felt left out and different from my peers.

Yet, here it is after Labor Day once again and I have the same sense of excited anticipation that I’ve had since Kindergarten. These days my feelings center on church rather than school, but they are much the same. What will this new program year bring? What will the joys and challenges be? However, my familiar sense of anticipation is tempered by recent and on-going events. The superstorms of last week have given way to bigger superstorms this week. Wildfires continue to burn throughout Montana. The President has called for an end to DACA. The wider world is filled with chaos, some predictable and some not at all. I’m also coming to grips with a health diagnosis that is as much a relief as it is a concern.

Enter Moses. I wonder if Moses had any sense of excited anticipation as he prepared to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. In the midst of plagues and Pharaoh’s anger, God informs Moses that it’s going to get messy. Yet, through the messiness and misery the people of Israel will learn a new song and experience new life. God will keep God’s covenant (yes, there was a covenant before Sinai) with the people. Will the people keep their covenant with God?

Through the blood of lambs, the people will be marked and spared. God will save Israel again and the nation will be restored, eventually. Yet, God alone won’t save the people; they will have a ton of work to do. Not the work of Pharaoh’s slaves, but the long, slow, intense work of transformation. First, they will have to slaughter a lamb (goat or sheep doesn’t matter) and they may have to share with smaller households. Then they will mark their doorways. And they will eat, eat quickly and be ready to move. After that, the hard journey will begin, should they be willing to leave behind everything they have known and follow Moses into the wilderness.

It’s no wonder that the Last Supper took the shape it did with this story of Passover fresh in Jesus’ mind. Eat this bread that is broken for you, a body given for your wholeness (remember those lambs shared between households). Drink this cup poured out for you, blood shed for your forgiveness (remember that God has saved you). Do this to remember my love for you and my commandment that you love one another. Moses led the people of God out of slavery in Egypt into a journey that would take a couple of generations to complete. Jesus led the people of God out of Roman captivity into a journey that has yet to be finished.

The story of Passover is one that is hard for us to understand with our Twenty-first Century ears. We want to shy away from the blood or the possibility that God would murder all Egyptian firstborns. When we get trapped by our desire to read the story literally, we fail to hear its deeper meaning. Living in covenant with God is messy and scary and cannot be done alone. Households may have to come together and share resources to make sure all have enough. God is also very likely to ask us to leave behind the predictable routines of living in captivity and live for a time with discomfort. We might even be asked to ignore the raging of Pharaoh and the plagues of our day and step into an unexpected, perhaps unwanted, position of leading people where they are reluctant to go.

For many of us September is an exciting time of new programs, new initiatives, and renewed hope. This year such excitement might be tempered by the climate – both literally and politically. Is this not how the ancient story goes? This is not the first time the people of God have lived with storms and oppression. This is not the first time that chaos threatens to pull apart the comfortable lives we live. As in the days of old, God hears our cries. God knows our hearts. God feels our yearning for liberation. God has shown us the way of covenant.

Will we share with households that may have less? Will we love our neighbors as ourselves? Will we remember with more than nostalgic warm-fuzzies the fullness of our communion story? God, as always, honors God’s covenant with God’s people. How do we live into our covenant with God?

Perhaps this is the question for us as seasons change and our programming and ministries gear up once more. Perhaps we should let ourselves be filled with excited anticipation because we know that God always keeps God’s covenant. Perhaps God is, once more, teaching God’s people a new song so that we might hold up our end with a little less complaining and a lot more love…

RCL – Year A – Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 10, 2017
Exodus 12:1-14 with Psalm 149 or
Ezekiel 33:7-11 with Psalm 119:33-40
Romans 13:8-14
Matthew 18:15-20

Photo: CC0 image by Лариса Мозговая

liturgy Prayer

A Pastoral Prayer for the Church of Today

2015-07-04 20.27.42

Holy and merciful God, we would raise our voices with the Psalmist to sing your praises. We long to rejoice in you and tell of all the wonderful works you have done. We want to trust in you like Moses and Miriam, Peter and Mary, Paul and Lydia, yet we are distracted by the troubles of this world. How can we sing your praises when rising waters claim thousands of lives in Nepal,  Mumbai, and Texas? How can we proclaim your deeds when hatred walks our streets cloaked in your name? How can we sing your praises when so many of your people are not free? We lift our voices in anguish, wondering where you might be in the chaos swarming all around us.

God of all times and places, your memory is much greater than ours. You remember setting a bush on fire to call attention to your servant, Moses. He responded in fear and trembling, yet did as you told him. Open our eyes to the power of your presence that we, too, might burn with the light and heat of hope, liberation, and healing, and not be consumed. Let us see that we, too, walk on holy ground. May we have the courage to stand barefoot in your presence and see as you see. See that the climate changes destroying so many lives are, at least in part, our doing. We have taken for granted the resources of the Earth without paying heed to the consequences. You have shown us a better way. May we follow.

Steadfast and loving God, you have so clearly demonstrated your love for the whole of Creation. We are to love genuinely, to love our enemies, to offer radical hospitality, and bless those who would persecute us. Just as you called to Moses, you call to each one of us. You know us by name and claim us as your own beloved. You place no conditions on us, only asking that we love as you love. Fill us anew with your strength that we might hold fast in the face of hatred. We lift up to you those who believe that the ideology of white supremacy, Nazis, and KKK are consistent with your teachings. Heal their hearts and lift their spirits so they, too, may walk in the way of Love. It is so hard to hold onto you when there are so many who speak hateful words in your name. We especially pray for the writers of the “Nashville Statement” and others who hide their hate in scriptures. Bathe them in your love.

God of all peoples, while we pray for our enemies, asking you to bless them with a deeper understanding of your love, we pray for those who are persecuted. We ask your blessings on your beloved children who are mistreated, dismissed, or murdered because of the color of their skin or their sexual orientation or their gender identity or expression. Once you rebuked Peter for tempting you to be something other than you were. May we hear that same rebuke each time we fail to recognize you in the face of another.

Patient and gracious God, in the midst of rising waters of floods and hatred, we cry out to you. Call us by name. Remind us that we are yours. Your Spirit flows through us and will not consume us. The ground we walk on is holy ground. You would have us be better stewards of Creation. You would have us care for the vulnerable among us and live peaceably with all. You yearn for us all to live fully as the amazing human beings you created us to be. You wait so patiently for us to walk in your ways, live in Love, and trust in you.

God of all that is, forgive us. Forgive us for our failure to trust in you and to love one another. Forgive us for remaining silent when hateful voices claim to speak on your behalf. Forgive us for failing to take seriously our responsibility to care for this planet. Forgive us for all the times we have given in to fear and turned toward human ways to keep us safe. Have mercy on us once again, and show us anew the wonders you desire for us. Remind us that it is never too late to repent and embrace the grace you offer. Let us see the vision you have for us, a vision filled with hope and good things. You are more than we can ever imagine. Grant us the courage to give up the smallness of our lives for the magnitude of your transforming love. With you anything is possible.

Holy God, we know that you continue to hear the cries of your people. You know of those who suffer and those who live in misery. Bind us together into the Church the world needs for the living of these days. May we join together with all who call on you to turn back the flood waters, the hatred, and the fear. Grant us the courage to remove our shoes, live on holy ground, and follow your sacred ways. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Permission granted for use in worship services with attribution: Prayer written by Rev. Dr. Rachael Keefe.

RCL – Year A – Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 3, 2017
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

Photo CC-BY-NC image by Rachael Keefe