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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

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Sermon Starter

Simple (and nearly impossible) Requirements

This post originally appeared on RevGalBogPals as the Revised Common Lectionary Post on January 28, 2020.

I have been thinking a lot about discipleship these days. It’s not a word that progressive, predominantly white churches are all that comfortable with. Yet, with the lectionary moving from the Magi showing up to pay homage to Jesus to Jesus’ baptism, and to the calling of the first disciples… Discipleship seems a reasonable thing to contemplate. What does it really mean to be a disciple of Christ in the year 2020? This week’s text go a long way toward answering this question.

We start of with what is probably one of the most well-known texts: “God, has told you what is good, O mortal; do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.” Nothing else is required. The finest sacrifices don’t matter. The largest donations don’t matter. We cannot purchase God’s heart; it isn’t for sale. Instead of focusing so much on our own lives, why not focus outside of ourselves. Where are we advocating for justice as individuals and as congregations? Where are we responding to our neighbors with loving-kindness? When and how do we walk humbly with God? I wish more people would hear the truth behind this popular verse. We are loved. We are saved. We are valued. Now let’s live in a way that demonstrates, that embodies, this truth for all people, for the whole of Creation. For Micah, discipleship would be what we do with our whole lives, not just with the pieces we offer up to God.

The psalmist emphasizes this point well in answering the question of who lives in God’s house. Who abides with God? The ones who do “what is right,” speak truth, and treat their neighbors with compassion and respect. The psalmist says nothing about those who attend worship regularly, make perfect sacrifices, or sing praises to God (loudly) in public spaces. It’s not about religious rituals performed on schedule; it’s about faithful living all the time, especially when it’s hard.

Paul’s writing in 1 Corinthians continues along these lines. When we get caught up in what the world expects and start living that way – seeking wealth and power while ignoring the impact on our neighbors – we end up living very foolishly in God’s eyes. How often do we mistake wisdom for folly? How often to we forget what God requires of us and make it more complex than it needs to be. Imagine a world in which we could live in the wisdom of God’s ways without having to comply with someone’s understanding of “Christian perfection”? What if we left out judgement about who’s in and who’s out and started encouraging each other to be wise in the ways of justice, kindness, and humility?

If we were able to do this, maybe the blessings in the Beatitudes would have more meaning, more depth. It’s hard to know, of course. But what if we started seeing all those folx on the margins, the folx the church has historically kept at a distance, as those who are blessed in the ways Jesus enumerated?

Blessed are those who live with severe and persistent mental illness (and cannot access the care they need), for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who have lost loved ones to suicide, gun violence, war, or natural disasters, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the refugees, asylum seekers,and immigrants who survive on the hopes of a better life, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger for justice and stop traffic on our streets with protests, for they will be filled.
Blessed are those who respond to their neighbors with loving-kindness, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are those who actively believe humanity can do better, for they will see God.
Blessed are the ones who risk their safety and well-being to create peace, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed those who are ridiculed and condemned for advocating for those on the margins, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people disrespect, dismiss, and lie about you because of the holy work of reparations, advocacy, and justice-making that you do.

What words do we most need to hear to awaken us to the beauty and simplicity of what God requires of us? We are blessed and we are to be blessings in the broken and forgotten places of the world. How do we let go of the non-essentials of being church and embrace the freedom God lays before us in asking that we do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God?

Photo: CC0 image by qcf-avocat

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Musings Sermon Starter

In Her Grips

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Okay. I’m just going to say it: I like Paul. The older I get, the more I appreciate Paul for his passion, conviction, and unapologetic humanity. What the church has done with what he wrote and what has been (falsely) attributed to him, isn’t his fault. The man had some serious endurance. Prison, floggings, shipwrecks, and rejection in a variety of potentially life-threatening forms. Paul persevered and managed to inspire countless people to become followers of Jesus. All things considered, Paul is person to be admired not admonished. The tepid church goers of today could do with a little passion and, personally, I’m up for a bit of persistence.

Let’s face it, many people around us would much rather go fishing on a Sunday morning than attend worship. Paul didn’t have that problem. It seems he drew crowds almost the way that Jesus did. He had something that was appealing to those who heard him speak. It was more than his charismatic personality, more than his words alone. I suspect it was his integrity and authenticity. For all his eloquence, Paul didn’t say anything he didn’t mean. The Holy Spirit it had him firmly in her grips and she wasn’t letting go. I wonder if anyone would notice that intensity of Spirit today…

The story in Acts about the slave girl is a weird one where Paul’s humanity is on full display. So, too, the presence of the Spirit. How awesome is it that the writer tells us that Paul casts the demon out of the slave girl because he’s irritated? He’s annoyed that she has been following them around, proclaiming that they are slaves to God Most High. This had been going on for days. Paul couldn’t take it and silences the demon without thinking about the consequences. He didn’t think what might happen to the slave girl. He didn’t think what might happen to him and his companions. He’d just had enough of the girl’s proclamations. Consequences be damned.

And there were serious consequences. The writer didn’t mention what happened to the slave girl though I doubt it was anything good. Her owners disguised an economic issue with a racial issue that stirred anxiety and aggression in the crowd as well as the magistrates. Violence followed as it often does when those in service to the Empire feel slighted. So if the girls owners were angry enough to have Paul and the others somewhat falsely arrested, flogged, and jailed, I’m guessing they didn’t go easy on her. Did Paul regret his impulsiveness in the duress that followed? Did he pray for forgiveness? Did he want to make amends? Or did he blame the hard hearts of the slave owners? Who knows? However, the subsequent events point toward forgiveness with a hint of compassion.

In the midst of prayers and hymns an earthquake hits and opens all the doors. You’d think everyone would leave; that would be the sane thing to do. No one did. The prisoners stayed put. Why? I like to think that Paul remembered that all this was because of his own impulsive actions and he didn’t want anyone else to pay the price for his unthinking behavior, including the jailer. Paul, and the others, no doubt, knew that the jailer would likely be executed for allowing all the prisoners to escape – earthquake or no. Though, instead of an execution, we witness another household converting to Christianity. Forgiveness and compassion on full display. Well, that and the power of the Holy Spirit to bring goodness out of human folly.

I’d like to say that we’ve all learned something from Paul’s experience. But I don’t think we have. We still give in to annoyance and act without thinking. Those who have more power than we do, still take advantage by subverting the real issues with divisive ones. We are still easily manipulated by the Empire into accepting, if not participating in, violence. We don’t seem to pray and sing hymns while waiting for the Spirit to show up and do her thing. There isn’t much room in our lives to give and receive either forgiveness or compassion, is there?

As we come to the end of Eastertide and prepare for Pentecost, maybe we should pay more attention to Paul and embrace our humanity and the Holy Spirit. We can be unapologetically the fragile, fallible, frustratable people we are because we are also unapologetically the named, claimed and beloved children of God. In spite of what the Empire continues to tell us about supremacy and division, we are all in need of forgiveness and compassion. The more we share these things, the more we open ourselves to receiving them. Isn’t it time to recognize that Paul was who he was because he accepted and celebrated the fierce, demanding, loving grip the Holy Spirit had on his whole being? We can be the irritable, irrational, impulsive people that we are because the Holy Spirit has the same fierce, steadfast, and redeeming grip on us. This is good news for us, and unwelcome news for those who continue to serve the Empire.

Photo: CC0 image by James LeVos

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Musings Sermon Starter

New Hope from an Old Place

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Peter may have had a learning disability and Paul may have had MS. For some people these suppositions might be distressing or unnerving. For me, they are comforting and hopeful. If God could use Paul and Peter, not in spite of their disabilities, but through them, then there is hope for me, for you, for today’s church.

I’ve long had an affinity for Peter, but only recently realized that Peter as portrayed in the Gospels, has some indicators of a learning disability. He’s often impulsive and acting in a manor that suggests he hasn’t quite processed the reality of his situation. Like when Jesus walked on water and Peter was sure he could do it, only to take a couple of steps and panic. Or when he swore that he would never deny Jesus only to do that very thing three times in a matter of hours. Peter’s passion often gets the better of him.

Then there’s the experience of the Resurrected Christ on the beach. Jesus asks Peter if he loves him. Peter says that he does. Jesus repeats the question. Peter repeats his answer. Then the third time Jesus asks, Peter’s not happy about it. What we don’t see in the English translation and Peter didn’t hear is that Jesus was asking Peter if he loved him the way that God loves (agape). Peter was responding yes, but that he loved Jesus with a familial love (philios). On the third go, Jesus asks Peter if he loves him with a familial love, and Peter responds that he does. Peter missed what Jesus was asking. The good news is that Jesus knew Peter and understood him better than Peter understood himself. Jesus rephrased the question, so that Peter’s answer held truth. Jesus always met Peter where he was and used his passion and impulsiveness to build the church. Peter’s learning differences were not changed, healed, cured, or otherwise erased. God used him exactly as he was.

Paul’s story is similar if you are willing to entertain the idea that Paul had MS. His Damascus Road experience fits with MS symptoms fairly well. He was temporarily blinded. He fell off his horse. His body wasn’t working right for a few days, and then he got better. This does not negate the spiritual experience. In fact, it only makes the story more plausible, more powerful. In the midst of a physical crisis, God was able to reach Saul in ways that weren’t possible when Saul was reliant on his personal power and privilege. In Paul’s writings there are other things he describes that could be symptoms of MS. He wrote with “large letters” (Gal. 6:11). Maybe his unreliable physical health was the thorn in his side… Imagine the church’s greatest evangelist living with a physical disability! God used him to bring Christianity to the Gentiles, not in spite of his disability, but with it as part of his identity.

When a colleague suggested that Paul had MS it resonated so deeply with me. It also made me remember my theory that Peter had a learning disability. I was diagnosed with dyslexia when I was 19. At the same time, I developed double vision and some other symptoms that doctors thought were an atypical form of MS. The dyslexia diagnosis made sense to me as it explained some of my struggles with spelling and how slowly I read. But I didn’t share the news with very many people. Similarly, the tentative MS diagnosis isn’t something I shared with people very often, either. I didn’t want the inevitable judgment. Nor did I want to acknowledge my on suspicions of why I had these conditions.

Somehow having disabilities meant that my faith was inadequate. I would never be able to achieve Christian perfection as is commonly understood. Maybe if I prayed enough, I would be healed or cured or transformed in some way. Maybe the doctors were wrong and there was nothing wrong with me. Maybe if I ignored these things, they would go away and I could focus on my call to ministry. But what if these things were punishment for my sins?

More than 30 years later, I still have a learning disability though I am not sure “dyslexia” is the accurate label. I don’t actually have MS, I have a form of dysautonomia, Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS) that has some symptoms similar to those of MS and has only been recognized since the early 1990s. While I don’t announce these conditions all the time, I don’t ignore them anymore. I no longer think that they are punishment for sin, nor do I believe that they keep me from wholeness (my newer understanding of perfection in the Christian context). I accept that a learning disability and dysautonomia are part of who I am, and God called me into ordained ministry knowing me better than I knew myself, and meeting me where I was while calling me into a future full of grace and love.

This is why I find it extraordinarily wonderful that Peter may have had a learning disability and that Paul may have had MS. God didn’t see them as broken. God called them into the fullness of their being, their whole selves, so that God could work through them to transform the world. God does not see our brokenness; God sees our wholeness. May we have the grace to see wholeness in one another and love with God’s love.

RCL – Year C – Third Sunday of Easter – May 5, 2019
Acts 9:1-6, (7-20)
Psalm 30
Revelation 5:11-14
John 21:1-19

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liturgy Prayer

A Pastoral Prayer for the Church of Today

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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

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Musings Sermon Starter

Dreaming Desert Dreams

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I’m sitting in my office just six miles from where Justine Damond was shot and killed by police late Saturday night. Turmoil’s slick fingers have grabbed hold of the city. Some see clearly the issues of fear-based policing and inadequate training for officers. Others feel conflicted because the officer is a Somali Muslim and the victim a white Australian. Few want to admit that the system is corrupt and built on issues of power and control aimed at keeping white supremacy alive and well. It’s a mess. The angry, pain-filled cries for justice are met with angry, fear-filled assertions of terrorism or still more angry endorsement of  fear-based policing. There’s no easy, simple solution. I am desperately searching the texts for a word of hope.

If I had my way, Jacob’s ladder would encompass the whole of creation and everyone would see angels ascending and descending, going about holy business. We would also hear God’s promise that our descendants would inhabit this world for a long time to come and God will continue to be present everywhere we go. While I wholeheartedly believe these are messages God would like for us to hear and live by, the whole of creation isn’t likely to have this dream. This doesn’t negate the validity of the message, though. We are to be caretakers, stewards of the land (all of it) and trust that God is present everywhere we go. God is present even in the turmoil, the grief, and the fear. There are no depths deep enough to blot out the light of God.

In the meantime, there’s a whole lot of groaning going on. Paul speaks of creation’s groaning while waiting for redemption. Those of us who claim Christ, ought not to be groaning quite so much. Are we not the redeemed? Are we not the ones who have entered into a life in the Spirit so that we might live in loving relationship with God, self, neighbors, and creation? Then why is it so hard for us to acknowledge that we are not living into God’s dream for creation? Why are we unable to acknowledge how the United States is full of racist systems built by our white supremacist ancestors and maintained by the silence of so many citizens who fear change? People are dying and Christians silently or vocally continue to support murderous systems. Surely this is not the way of Christ any more than it is the redemption for which Paul hoped.

While I’m on the subject of redemption, let’s be careful with our interpretations of Jesus’ parable about the wheat and the weeds. We are often so sure who the weeds are, that we forget that it is not necessarily our job to judge. It is true that actual weeds in a field remain weeds throughout their growth cycle; they don’t miraculously change into grain. However, we need to remember that when it comes to human beings, God can transform the most stubborn, invasive weeds into bountiful harvest. Our job is to tend ourselves, to ensure that we are not weeds. In addition we are to care for the whole field – nurture it, water it, love and tend all that grows in it. Weed plucking is not our job because in the end it will be God who determines which are the causes of sin and which are doing evil. Justice means tending the field, the whole field, weeds and all.

I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of cries for justice going unheard. I’m tired of the excuses that come when a police officer shoots an unarmed person. I’m tired of POC victims being criminalized while white victims are canonized. Jesus was not a white blue-eyed, blond-haired, U.S. citizen and would be horrified by the conflation of nationalism and religion that allows white supremacy to thrive in this country. The truth is that Jesus was brown-skinned, brown-eyed, dark-haired Palestinian Jew who confronted the power-hungry, oppression-supporting people of his day. Jesus sought to empower people through the love of God, self, and neighbor. Isn’t it time we actually follow as Jesus taught and love as Jesus loved?

Jacob had a beautiful dream out there in the desert. God has the same dream for us and racism, fear, hatred, and violence have no place in it. We are those whom God has redeemed and we are the ones who are supposed to be engaging in the holy business of justice for the whole of creation. Let’s stop worrying about weeds vs. grain and start worrying about why the crops are failing and what we can do to change this. Creation is indeed groaning under the weight of our sins. Isn’t it time we put an end to these needless deaths? Too much blood flows in our streets and too many heads turn away. Paul had hope for things unseen. May we join together to be that hope.

RCL – Year A – Seventh Sunday after Pentecost – July 23, 2017
Genesis 28:10-19a with Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24 or
Wisdom of Solomon 12:13, 16-19 or
Isaiah 44:6-8 with Psalm 86:11-17
Romans 8:12-25
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Photo: CC0 image by Michael Gaida

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Musings Sermon Starter

A God Still Unknown

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The summer before I entered ninth grade I went to a youth group meeting at a friend’s church. During that meeting, they all seemed to be very concerned about whether or not I knew Jesus. I thought I did. I thought I was a Christian, at least I did until they started talking about their experiences. The leaders and some of the older members shared their conversion stories and wanted to know if I believed that Jesus is “Lord and Savior” and if I had a “personal relationship” with him. This was all new to me. I didn’t know what to think or say. No one at the church I attended seemed concerned with my salvation. I was baffled by these strangers who were very worried about my soul. They told me I was not a Christian and that they would pray for my salvation.

Even though I never went back to that youth group, I thought about all the things they talked about and wondered about their concerns for years. I didn’t have any profound conversion experience. My journey was more of a slow awakening to the mysteries of the Spirit at work in my life and in the world. I wasn’t sure if Jesus was my Lord and Savior but I liked the idea. And I had no concept of what a personal relationship with Jesus would look like. I mean, I prayed often enough, but it’s not like Jesus and I sat down and had a conversation. That youth group meeting left me with a lot of questions. It took me years to sort out the answers.

While my theology and understanding of who God is turned out to be very different from the church whose youth group I attended long ago, I am grateful for the questions raised that day. I started to pay more attention to the stories of Jesus, what he did and who he was. I listened more carefully to what it was Christians were supposed to do and be in the world. I didn’t want to be just religious, just going to church and youth group, I wanted more. I’m not sure how long it would have taken me to search for the “more” if I hadn’t attended that youth group meeting.

I wonder how long the Athenians would have gone on being religious without knowing God if Paul hadn’t spoken in the Areopagus that day. I wonder how long any of us will go on not knowing this God we worship. How long will we continue to be like those ancient citizens of Athens, religious in so many ways, yet somehow not knowing the God who gives us life, breath, and being?

Every time I read this passage, something in me yawns, stretches, and awakens. It’s a yearning for something more than religion, ritual and practice, something more than what I already know and believe. It’s the same thing that awoke in me during that youth group meeting the summer I was 14. It’s the same thing that pushes me to be more than I am now, to reach for all that is holy and draw it closer. I imagine the Athenians who listened to Paul that day felt something stir within them, also. What if we all let this awakening yearning for God guide us in new ways that reveal something about this God whom we think we know? What if we followed this restless desire into whole new ways of living, moving, and having our being?

Paul was undoubtedly a brilliant preacher. The echoes of his words have the power awaken sleeping souls generations later. Who does not want to know this God who claims us as offspring and desires only that we love in return? With all the chaos, violence, and hatred in the world, the truth of Paul’s words is just sharp and convicting as they were in Athens. Whenever we remain silent in the face of all the isms and phobias that drive hatred and violence in our society, we show how empty our religious ways are. We seem to think that God is something that is shaped by the “art and imagination of mortals” more often than we realize that God is so much more than we can possibly imagine.

I’m still not one to talk about my faith in terms a personal relationship with Christ or to claim that Jesus is my Lord and Savior. However, I do feel the Spirit moving, calling us and urging us to live into the abundance God offers. I also know that if there is hope for the world, repentance is needed. Once we repent of all the ways we’ve made God in our image and participated in the ugliness of the world, then, together, we reach for the Truth and embody the Love and Justice that will save and transform the world. After all, are we not the Body of Christ? If we are not Christ with and for one another, who will be? Our religious ways should in no way promote fear, ignorance, and hatred. If our religious practices and beliefs are divinely inspired, then they will bring life and love into the world. Otherwise, it’s time to leave them behind and embrace that in which “we live and move and have our being.”

RCL – Year A – Sixth Sunday after Easter – May 21, 2017
Acts 17:22-31
Psalm 66:8-20
1 Peter 3:13-22
John 14:15-21

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Never Beyond Redemption

During my years as a clinical chaplain in a psychiatric facility, I met several people who had committed horrific crimes while in a psychotic state. Generally, these were individuals who were kind and gentle when they were well. They also struggled to believe that they could be forgiven for what they had done. I had many conversations about God’s capacity for forgiveness and how God’s love is not limited by anything, not even drug abuse, violent crimes, and psychosis.

These kinds of conversations usually left me and the individual wishing for more. I wanted to be more convincing so as to bring a degree of peace and healing. They wanted to believe me but could not. Fortunately, there was worship which is often where unexplainable things happen.

Every Sunday afternoon we’d gather for worship in the hospital’s small chapel. The chapel seated about 30 and there was frequently an overflow crowd in the hallway. We had 45 minutes for worship and it was a challenge to make it meaningful each week. Looking back, I should never have worried too much about that. When the Holy Spirit shows up, it’s meaningful.

Each weekly worship offered communion to all who gathered. I know my understanding and perception of people changed as I offered them bread and wine saying, “This is the body of Christ broken for you. This is the cup of salvation poured out for you.” In those moments a person who seemed lost or difficult or unreachable became one of God’s Beloved. Before we got to this point in the service, though, I would speak words of absolution after the prayer of confession. Every Sunday I would say something like, “You are beloved children of God. In Christ you are forgiven and set free to live in God’s love.” During my last few weeks at the hospital, more than one patient told me that they never believed they could be forgiven. Yet when I said those words each week, they began to think that maybe even they could be forgiven. And then maybe they could forgive themselves.

paul-1158086I find myself thinking of these folks as I read the scriptures this week. God’s love and forgiveness really is without limit. Think of Paul. We know the story of his conversion, but do we hear the message? It isn’t so much about the dynamism and power of his being knocked off his horse and blinded as much as it is about God’s startling capacity for forgiveness and redemption. Saul was a brutal man. He sought out, persecuted, and sentenced to death many Christians. He believed he was right and good doing this on God’s behalf. Until God told him otherwise. If God can forgive murdering Saul and transform him into proselytizing Paul, how much more can God do for my former patients, for me, for you? Why do we hold on to sins far less damaging than hatred and murder when God is ready to grant us new life and freedom right now?

Still not convinced? Then let’s look at the Gospel text. The disciples are fishing in the days after the Resurrection. What else can they do? Jesus has left them and they are grieving, but they need to eat and provide for their families. They aren’t having much luck until Jesus shows up and shows them something about abundance.

This is followed very shortly by a conversation with Peter. Jesus askes Peter, “Do you love me unconditionally?” Peter responds, “I love you like a brother.” Jesus says, “Tend my sheep.” And then this is repeated. “Do you love me unconditionally?” “I love you like a brother.” “Feed my sheep.” And once more with a slight change, “Do you love me like a brother?” “I love you like a brother.” “Tend my sheep.”

Jesus is asking something of Peter that he isn’t quite able to give. There’s an honesty here. Peter can’t say that he loves Jesus without condition when the memories of denial are still so fresh. But Peter does love Jesus, truly. Jesus, ever gracious, meets Peter where he’s at. It doesn’t matter whether Peter can love Jesus the way Jesus is asking. Jesus’ response to Peter is still the same. Take care of my children, especially the vulnerable ones.

We place a lot of conditions on our love for God. Sometimes it’s guilt and shame as was Peter’s problem. Sometimes it’s memories of painful experiences. Sometimes it’s reluctance to accept that God is God and we are not. It doesn’t mattrosary-1212863er, though. If we love God in any way, no matter the limits or conditions, the required response is to care for the children of God, especially the vulnerable ones.

These two passages present the Gospel for all reluctant followers of Christ. First, nothing you have done or said prevents God from loving you and forgiving you. Second, no matter the limits you place on your love for God, the call to care is evident. It’s time to get out of our heads and change the world for the sake of the most vulnerable among us–children, immigrants, refugees, those without homes, those who live with mental illness, the elderly, those who are food insecure, trans people, women, and the many more who are feeling lost, alone, and forgotten. You never know when your words or actions will awaken someone to the hope, the promise, the redemption found only in the abundance of God’s love for the whole of creation.

RCL – Year C – Third Sunday of Eater – April 10, 2016
Acts 9:1-6, (7-20)
Psalm 30
Revelation 5:11-14
John 21:1-19

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Bottom Photo CC0 image by Myriam M.