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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

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Musings Sermon Starter

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

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Musings Sermon Starter

No More Worthless Things

Someone left a message on one of my blog posts this week asking me to contact him to “discuss the role of women in church.” Not likely. You want to take the Bible literally when it’s convenient. You want to say that women can’t be clergy, that marriage is “between a man and a woman,” that God uses storms to punish sinners, that prosperity is a sign of God’s blessing, and a few other things. However, you let the call for repentance from the prophets and from Jesus go unheeded. You ignore Jesus’ call to care for the vulnerable. You would rather spend time arguing about what the bible does or does not say than actually trying to embody Christ in service to your neighbor. No, I’m not going to discuss the role of women in church with you.

Of course, our more conservative siblings don’t have the corner of the market on biblical literalism. It’s the default setting here in the U.S. Yet, we are also only literal when it is convenient for us or when we want to reject the God described by biblical writers. It’s easier to engage in discussion about what is or isn’t in the Bible than it is to discern what God may be asking of us. It is easier to say we are “not that kind of a Christian” than it is to proclaim what kind of a Christian we are. It’s easier to cling to our traditions while complaining about the many who no longer seek a faith community than it is to transform church into something that meets the needs of people around us. What might it take for us to leave behind the tedious and petty things that divide us and focus on building the realm of God?

Jeremiah lamented the foolish ways of God’s people. He pointed out how far from God the people had strayed, not for the first time. It seems we human beings have a startling capacity to choose “worthless things” and become rather worthless ourselves. We have a tendency to blame God for the hard times, the times of scarcity and suffering, and credit ourselves with times of abundance, the times of success and happiness. How long will we worship the false gods of our own making rather than seek the God whose steadfast love outlasts our foolishness?

While we keep digging our cracked cisterns, God keeps whispering of Living Waters that quench thirst and nourish parched souls. Today’s gods have more names than Baal and they are not always made of gold, but they are just as false. These gods will lead us to pursue our own personal pleasures or our individual successes. They will keep us divided from our neighbors and enamored with our own sense of power. They will not lead us to wholeness. They will not lead to justice. They will not set anyone free. Yet, they are demanding and will consume us if we don’t leave them behind.

In Luke’s Gospel Jesus tells the parable about the wedding banquet. He saw how people entered a banquet room and took their seats as honored guests. He cautioned them about assuming how important they were compared to other guests. Jesus also had something to say about who should be invited to such a feast. The guest list shouldn’t be confined to those for whom feasting was normative. No. Those we wouldn’t dream of inviting should be called in to sit at the table and eat their fill. (Where’s biblical literalism when it might do some good?)

Isn’t it time we stopped hiding behind our fears and started to live as the people of God in more than just name? If we call ourselves Christians how can we be silent when children are in cages? When the government seeks to take away women’s rights and LGBTQ+ rights? When ICE is given the freedom to pursue everyone whose skin is not white or whose religion is not Christian? When the poor are blamed for being poor? When racism is held up as the national standard? When people in the U.S. (and elsewhere in the world) are dying because they do not have access to food, healthcare, or shelter?

If we are Christians, where is the proof that we are members of the Body of Christ? Where is the repentance? Where is the service? Where is the love of neighbor and self? What will it take for us to love one another as God loves us? If you and I don’t do something to change what is, then who will? We never know when angels might be hanging around.

God is still waiting for us to give up these worthless things that we so value and drink deeply of the Living Water. It’s not too late…

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

RCL – Year C – Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost – September 1, 2019
Jeremiah 2:4-13 with Psalm 81:1, 10-16 or
Sirach 10:12-18 with Psalm 112 and
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16 and 
Luke 14:1, 7-14

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Musings Sermon Starter

A Famine in the Land

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In the fall of 1989 I was a first year student at Princeton Theological Seminary. More than once during that first semester (and each subsequent semester), I wondered if I had made the right choice. I felt ill-prepared and out of place. The first time I felt as if I might make it through the three years, in spite of my doubts, was in the first day of the Old Testament class. The professor stood at the podium and recited a list of the things we might learn in his class. One of those was that Moses did not write the first five books of the Bible. That surprised me. Who thought that Moses wrote anything? Apparently, this was (and is) a popular belief. One of my classmates took offense. They stood up and emphatically declared that if this was the kind of nonsense taught at Princeton, it was not the school it proclaimed to be. And my classmate walked out of the lecture hall with me and many others staring in surprise.

I’d be less surprised now, though. After nearly 30 years in ministry, I think the Bible should come with a warning label: Enter at your own risk. Contents are not what they appear to be. Even folks who identify on the more progress end of the Christian spectrum can’t seem to shake the influence of Bible literalism. No sooner do I finish reminding people that all the books of the Bible were written when people could only explain events, both global and personal, by attributing them to God. If good things happened, then God was pleased and showering blessings. If bad things happened someone’s (or lots of someones) sins were to be blamed; God was displeased and pouring out punishment. The other option was that if a person or community was experiencing tribulation, God had decided to test the strength of their faith. This was the reality all throughout biblical history.

We live in a different world now, though, don’t we? We know that God doesn’t send floods, famines, hurricanes, mudslides, earthquakes, and the like to punish peoples for their sins or to test the faith of individuals or communities. In fact, God doesn’t send natural disasters at all. If there is blame to be placed for such occurrences, human beings are likely responsible for messing with the planet in ways that have made all these kinds of events much worse. Sometimes human behavior actually causes disasters to occur (e.g. think of the relationship between fracking and earthquakes). My point is that science can explain how these things happen; we don’t need to blame God.

If God doesn’t make bad things happen to test us or punish us, does God make good things happen to reward the faithful? No. This is absurd. This kind of thinking would mean that God loves wealthy people more than God loves poor people. Or that God loves healthy people more than God loves sick people. Most of the time wealthy people get wealthy because they have come up with something society values more than it values the health and well-being of human beings.

God does not punish the bad, test the doubtful, or reward the faithful. Can we please move on from literalism? There is Truth in scripture and, yet, not a lot of facts. Amos described how events would unfold with amazing accuracy partly because he was inspired by God and partly because human behavior patterns are predictable. When human beings choose serving the wealthy and powerful over caring for the poor and vulnerable, we move away from holy ways toward human ways. The more we forget that holy ways lead toward strong communities, care for the vulnerable, and resistance of Empire, the more we experience division, hopelessness, and oppression of the many by the very few. This “few,” by the way, makes us believe that human ways are better than holy ways while saying that their wealth and power are literally God-given.

Amos was right. There is a famine in the land. It is not a famine of bread or meat. It is, however, a famine of hearing the words of God. God’s ways always tell us to love our neighbors as ourselves. God’s ways never value one people over another and would not sanction concentration camps in any era, let alone now. God’s ways do not sanction the oppression of anyone or hold up white nationalism as a form of Christianity. God has demonstrated God’s love for Creation again and again. The prophets (old and new) tell us that loving God means loving others with the same degree of compassion, grace, forgiveness, and love that God has for us.

When Jesus dined with Mary and Martha, he didn’t tell Martha she shouldn’t do her many tasks. He merely pointed out that if you want to offer true hospitality it is essential to take time to sit with your guests and determine their needs, not just do the things because they need doing. Martha’s method forgets that there are human needs in the mix. Mary’s way reminds us that at core we are to love and serve one another in deep, meaningful ways. We cannot serve God or our neighbors if we don’t take the time to be still and listen.

God is still calling us to live holy ways, to bring the Realm of God into the here and now. When we seek holy ways, goodness and hope will follow. If goodness and hope do not follow, the way we travel is probably not all that holy. If we want to stop buying the poor with silver and selling out the needy for a pair of sandals, it’s time to trust God’s love for the whole of Creation and each human being in particular.

Moses didn’t write the Pentateuch. The Bible is not factual. God has better things to do than dole out rewards and punishments. Let’s get on with the business of ending the famine and discovering anew what it means to live in God’s holy ways (before the other kinds of things Amos spoke about come to pass once again).

RCL – Year C – Sixth Sunday after Pentecost – July 21, 2019
Amos 8:1-12 with Psalm 52 or
Genesis 18:1-10a with Psalm 15
Colossians 1:15-28
Luke 10:38-42

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liturgy Prayer Uncategorized

A Plumb Line Prayer

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Amazing and merciful God, how easy it is for us to forget that we are your delight. You we rejoice when we follow your holy ways and envision a future of goodness and grace for all your people. We blame you for divisions and strife. We justify our wars by saying that you are on our side. We rationalize the abuse of our enemies by telling ourselves that they are not your people, that their sinfulness exceeds your tolerance. In truth, you have told us that we are to love our neighbors indiscriminately. Moreover, we are to love those with the greatest need more fiercely and more immediately. Shower us with your mercy, O God, until we live by the plumb line you have repeatedly dropped in our midst.

Patient and steadfast God, you continuously call us to live in peace, leaving none behind. We hear your call. We know that your love endures forever. What you ask of us is not beyond our reach; it is not higher than the heavens or on the outer edges of the sea. For all of Creation to live in justice is not an impossibility you hold up to tease us with what we cannot have. If we trust you, it is possible for us to turn aside from our human ways. It is possible for us to love with your love. Enter our lives anew, Holy One, silence our fears and smother our distrust that we may live in harmony with all.

God of wonder and mystery, you love us still. You love us when we are filled with fear. You love us when we are filled with hate. You love us when we are filled with judgment. You love us when we think we are better than our neighbors. You love us when we think are neighbors are better than us. You love us when we blame others for creating the chaos that flows through the world. You love us when we abdicate responsibility for engaging in justice work. You love us through all our foolishness. However, you delight in us when we act with love and seek to bring your realm into the here and now. Flood every corner of our being with the strength of your Spirit that we may have the courage to love with your love, always.

God of near and far places, how foolish we are when we think you are limited to one people, one language, one religion, one way of life. All people are stamped with your image. Every language has many names for you and words of praise for all that you are. At core, each religious tradition seeks to teach your holy ways and encourage us to follow them. You are the giver of all life. If we claim to follow in Christ’s way there is no room for hatred of peoples from other countries, those who speak other languages, those who call you by different names, and those whose culture is not our own. If we belong to Christ, then racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and all the other labels that thrive on our fear have no place in us. Heal our brokenness. May we live as one body with many parts.

Living, loving God, we are grateful for your patient love. Over and over again you call us by name, claim us as your beloved, and fill us with your Spirit. Hear our gratitude for your presence among us, your arms that hold us, your vision that sees our wholeness. May we trust in your love, your grace, your forgiveness as we seek to embody Christ more fully. May the praises we sing and the words of gratitude we whisper transform our fear into hope, our hatred into joy, our judgment into grace, and our ambivalence and apathy into action. We are your people. Your Spirit lives and moves in us. Let us trust in you enough to recognize you in ourselves and in all whom we meet.

Amen.

RCL – Year C – Fifth Sunday after Pentecost – July 14, 2019
Amos 7:7-17 with Psalm 82 or
Deuteronomy 30:9-14 with Psalm 25:1-10
Colossians 1:1-14
Luke 10:25-37

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Musings Sermon Starter

God or Empire? You Choose

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There are for-profit concentration camps in the United States right now. Adults and children are kept separately without adequate food and water, and without hygiene products including feminine hygiene supplies and diapers. People are making money from treating refugees, immigrants, and asylum seekers as though they were not human. How is this possible in 2019 in a country that many would claim is a “Christian nation.” There is nothing less Christian than dehumanizing people when they are in need of hospitality and sanctuary.

Of course, I dispute the idea that this country was ever meant to be a Christian and only Christian nation. From what I recall of my history lessons, religious freedom was one of the cornerstones of this country. Yes, I know they were mostly Christians of various sects with a few deists to temper the waters, but let’s go with the intent. The U.S. has always been a pluralistic country. The separation of church and state was meant to keep the government from telling citizens what religion they must practice. This means we are free to choose any or no religious practice without reprisal from the government. In other words, we can have whatever religious affiliation we want and it shouldn’t matter to those who hold higher office. Nor should it matter to anyone – our neighbors or our government.

Now that we are clear about that, let’s look at this from a Christian perspective since many claim that they are Christian and support the current Administration. The first thing to remind ourselves is that Jesus looked a lot more like the folks being held in detention centers at the southern border than the usual blue-eyed blond, emaciated Caucasian that is the common depiction of him. Jesus was brown skinned. Additionally, if you read the Gospels, then his family was homeless at the time of his birth and then became refugees in Egypt for a period of time. Common belief says that Jesus came from a poor family. He was just a carpenter’s son and nobody of any political power. He also got himself into a fair amount of trouble by speaking out against agents of the Roman Empire, those employed by the Temple and those serving Rome in more clear capacities. How many times do the Gospels tell us that there were plots to kill him?

Christians today have conveniently forgotten a few key lessons. On the conservative side of the theological divide, we’ve pushed away the knowledge that Jesus always ministered on the margins. He encountered the outcasts and the unclean and offered them healing, wholeness, and community. He didn’t treat women differently than men or Greeks differently from Jews. He didn’t distinguish between the very poor or the very wealthy, those with no power and those with significant power. Would Jesus sanction putting children in cages away from their parents just because their families were desperate for a better life and they spoke Spanish rather than English?

Lest you think I’m picking on the conservative folks, progressive people have forgotten a few things, too. We have told ourselves for decades that politics don’t belong in the church. We have kept our faith separate from our public lives and really just want the comfort of the familiar when we find time to worship. Jesus didn’t care very much for the complacency of maintaining tradition for tradition’s sake. He didn’t have much use for the apathy he encountered in the Scribes and Pharisees who seemed only interested in maintaining their own positions of power and comfort. Jesus was a revolutionary who adhered to God’s ways even though that path led to his death. Would Jesus choose to remain silent when people are being dehumanized just so that people could remain comfortably ambivalent about what would be the right thing to do?

Truthfully, in the early days of this Administration when a few people were drawing comparisons between the President and Hitler, I thought they were exaggerating. The world would not let such atrocity happen again, would it?Yes. Yes, it would. This President has manipulated the news outlets while creating and propagating his version of reality. He has targeted Muslims and fanned the horrid flames of Islamophobia. This President has supported decreasing the rights of LGBTQ+ people increasing discrimination, bullying, and violence. He has also targeted women, African American people, people with disabilities, and poor people. He has supported the privatization of prisons and increased the sanctioned the increase in ICE activities. Make no mistake, white supremacy is on the rise. If you are not on this list of unacceptable people now, you might be soon. What will it take for us to unite against the systematic removal of those who live on the margins, literally and figuratively?

There is nothing faithful here. I think about how Jesus sent the 70 out into the world. They did not go alone and they would find everything they needed to do the work God had set before them. They were to bring peace to every household they entered. If the peace was received the Realm of God was near. If the peace was rejected, they were to shake the dust off themselves and move on, carrying the Realm of God with them. This passage tells us all we need to know about what following the way of Christ should look like, and it doesn’t include for-profit concentration camps.

We are to rely on each other and all our neighbors. We are to bring peace with us, wherever we go. If we are living in holy ways, then we will have everything we need. Realm of God is nearest when we bring peace to every household we enter. It’s that simple. We have what we need in this country to welcome everyone who needs sanctuary. We have the resources if we focus on loving our neighbors more than protecting ourselves. The Empire thrives on fear and division. The Body of Christ thrives on compassion and unity. The question remains: which one are we actually serving?

RCL – Year C – Fourth Sunday after Pentecost – July 7, 2019
2 Kings 5:1-14 with Psalm 30 or
Isaiah 66:10-14 with Psalm 66:1-9
Galatians 6:(1-6), 7-16
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

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Musings

No Turning Back

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Following Jesus, true discipleship, is not for the feint of heart. Jesus is not of a fan of the familiar, routine, or status quo. Jesus likes to challenge assumptions, rouse the rabble, and provoke the powerful with truth. Once you put your hand on this particular plough, there is no turning back. It just isn’t possible because Jesus is unconcerned with what the past holds and far more interested in liberating people from oppression right now.

In the last four weeks I’ve been in four different cities and three different states. I’ve spoken at two different suicide prevention conferences, participated in a workshop at the United Church of Christ General Synod, and attended the Minnesota Conference UCC Annual Meeting. I’ve been in four states (MN, NH, MA, and WI) and met up with friends I haven’t seen in decades, and friends I haven’t seen for a few weeks or months. Waves of nostalgia wash over me as I drive through the mountains and walk on the beach. I’m overwhelmed with a longing for what used to be when I encounter friends I haven’t seen since seminary (more than 25 years). This last month has given me plenty of prompts to think about the course of my life and the unexpected twists and turns of my ministry.

June began with a trip to Western Massachusetts where I spoke at a conference. I met up with a high school friend and talking with her took me right back to the days when we were inseparable. We talked about the weirdness of aging where the body feels the years, but the mind and spirit have no concept that time passes; we could easily have been out on a night when we would have to go to school in the morning (except for the multitude of years between then and now).

This experience was followed by the MN UCC Annual Meeting. While I have made friends in MN, I was momentarily consumed by a longing for folks I’ve known a whole lot longer in other states. In those moments, I would have turned back the clock to years gone by without hesitation. At least I would have until I realized what I would not have in my life if I turned back the years. No time machine for me.

Then I went to General Synod and stood at the intersection between now and yesterday. I was there on behalf of the UCC Mental Health Network doing good work. Then I encountered people from across my years in ministry. The longing for what was threatened to overwhelm me once more. Those close friendships from seminary that nothing else quite replicates… those conversations in the dining hall… the hopes and dreams for serving the church… Oh, to begin again! No, not really.

Today, I stood at the ocean’s edge after speaking at another suicide prevention conference in New Hampshire. Nothing renews my spirit quite like the song of the sea and the feel of the sand on my bare feet. As I watched the tide (and the fog) roll in, I reflected on my ministry and where following Jesus had taken me. Never in the proverbial million years would I have ever guessed where Jesus would lead me. Once I figured out that I was called to ministry in the church and not in academia, I thought I had some idea of what that would be. Nope! Not even close.

The church I had prepared to serve no longer exists, and probably didn’t really exist even as I entered ministry. I had visions of youth group mission trips and adult spiritual formation retreats, with some preaching and Bible study in between. The intersection of mental health and faith, let alone suicide prevention, wasn’t in my wildest imaginings. The fact that I speak openly about my early struggles with mental health, being bi-sexual, wrestling with an archaic theology, and telling my story of suicidality and suicidal behavior, is not what I had envisioned. Yet, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

65116850_10157392583029375_1975425480005779456_oIn those moments when I think I would, when I think about going back when I kept all these things secret, it’s like watching the fog roll in on the beach. While the illusion of solitude is good, the temperature drop is a little chilling. Sure, I can tell myself that life was somewhat easier “back in the day,” it’s a lie that takes my attention away from the challenges of today. If I am distracted by the church of yesterday, I can miss the joys of today. If I think the past holds the answers, liberation of any kind may prove impossible.

Following Jesus has taken me all over the U.S. My journey of discipleship has made me go places I wouldn’t have the courage to go on my own. While the beach sings to my soul like no place else, I’ve also been restored by songs of the mountains, the woods, the lakes, and the desert, and the prairies. Without my hand on the plough I would never have come out as bisexual and wouldn’t have given a thought to LGBTQ+ inclusion in the church. I wouldn’t have marched with Black Lives Matter or protested with Latinx folx, or carried signs protesting the current administrations policies on refugees, or shared the journey with those struggling with symptoms of mental illness, or a thousand other things. Once I put my hand on the plough, I committed to leaving behind the shy, fearful days of my youth to become one who shows up and bears witness and tries to lend my voice to those who often go unheard.

It’s been a weird and wonderful journey. But looking back with yearning for what was takes me off-track. Jesus wants us to carry the lessons of where we have been not so we can recreate the past, but so that we can build the Realm of God here and now with the wisdom and compassion we’ve gathered on the way. And lest we forget, the plough creates the best furrows when many hands are on it. We do not and cannot follow Jesus, be healthy disciples, if we fool ourselves into thinking that we are alone. There’s Paul’s great cloud of witnesses and there is also the folx who are with us, hands next to ours making sure we plough a continuous row.

May we all stop looking back with yearning and celebrate all those whose hands guide the plough with courage and strength, wisdom and compassion.

RCL – Year C – Third Sunday after Pentecost – June 30, 2019
2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14 with Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20 or
1 Kings 19:15-16,19-21 with Psalm 16
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Luke 9:51-62

Photos: CC-BY-NC image by Rachael Keefe

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Sophia is Calling

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As I’ve been thinking about Wisdom in this time between the anniversaries of the Pulse massacre and Stonewall, I am haunted by a conversation I had many years ago. It wasn’t the first or the last such conversation, but it has been on my mind because it was one of the first times I was asked to justify my identity face-to-face. It was a hard conversation, as they all have been, and one the left me angry and worried about the future of the church, or at least my future as part of the church.

Anyway, several years ago, a woman came into my office to talk with me because she had “concerns” about me being a pastor and being married to another woman. Her stated goal was to understand what I thought being a Christian meant. She was convinced that I had to be under the influence of Satan in order to be ordained, married to a woman, and not have children. I don’t know if she placed these “sins” in an order of severity, but she wanted to talk because she had been a life-long member of the church I was serving. The conversation was lengthy and difficult. I don’t remember all of it, but a few bits stand out in my memory.

She started in by questioning my claim to be an ordained minister. I told her that women had been ordained in our denomination (United Church of Christ) since 1853. Surely God would have made any objections known in the intervening years. She didn’t like it but took a breath and went on to her next question. It was kind of a trick question because she had hoped for a different answer.

“Why don’t you have children?” She really wanted me to say that it was because I was married to a woman. She was unprepared for the truth which was a painful struggle with infertility. I was in my mid-thirties and could not seem to get pregnant. (I later learned that I would never be able to sustain a pregnancy.) She was silent for a moment or two, fishing around for something to say to alleviate the awkwardness of the situation or prove her theory about me, which was more likely the case.

Her face lit up as she hit on what I knew was coming. She told me that my “barrenness” was God’s punishment for my sinful “lifestyle.” I told her that I really didn’t believe God worked that way at all. I carefully explained that I thought God was more about loving us and encouraging us to love ourselves and each other more than about seeing that all our sins were punished accordingly. She paused for a moment before suggesting that maybe God was just testing my faith and when I showed God true faith I’d be rewarded with a child.

I again told her that God didn’t work that way. God knows my heart and doesn’t need to test me through cruel adversity. She didn’t know what to say to that so just plowed ahead.
“Do you believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?” I assured her that I did without bothering to explain that I might have a different understanding of what those words meant.
“Do you believe in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?” Again, I assured her that I did and kept my understanding to myself. Her face said that she did not believe me. She scanned my office as if looking for clear evidence of my heretical status.

She practically jumped out of her seat when she came up with her next question. “Do you believe that the Bible is the word of God?” I surprised her by saying that I did. So she fumbled around until she basically asked if I believed that the Bible is the inerrant word of God and no other revelation from God exists (I don’t remember her exact words). And I finally gave her what she was looking for when I said no. She declared that she knew I was a “tool of Satan” and that people like me would destroy her church.

I didn’t respond well to her pronouncement, unfortunately. I suggested that one of us might indeed be under Satan’s influence, clearly indicating that I didn’t think it was me. She left my office telling me that she would pray for my salvation and I assured her that I would pray for hers as well. She slammed the door on her way out. She did, however, show up in worship the next Sunday. Our relationship continued to be contentious during my tenure at that congregation.

Honestly, I think this interaction is on my mind because I keep hoping that the church will change. I keep praying that we will leave behind the need for certainty of our own righteousness of doctrine and practice and, instead, embrace the mystery and majesty that is God. Yes, we need language to share our beliefs and strengthen our faith communities. At the same time, we need to understand that the language is limited and God is far more than we can speak (or write).

Proverbs tells us that Sophia, Holy Wisdom, cries out everywhere we go, yearning for us to share God’s delight in the whole of Creation. Where God creates beauty and oneness, we seem to respond with fear and division. God invites us into community, into sacred relationship, and we react by building walls and isolating ourselves from those who are different from us.

I’m tired of having the kinds of conversations where I am condemned for being a woman who is ordained and married to a woman, and for believing in a God of Love above all else. There’s enough anger, violence, and hatred in the world without the Body of Christ perpetuating or participating in these things. God’s ways are about unity and sanctuary. Human ways are about division and (false) security. It’s time we respond differently when Sophia calls.

RCL – Year C – Trinity Sunday – June 16, 2019
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
Psalm 8
Romans 5:1-5
John 16:12-15

Photo: CC0 image by Stefan Keller

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Listening to Lydia

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Lydia isn’t a biblical superstar. She is mentioned in Acts, almost in passing. Strangely enough, she’s often passed over. She was from Thyatira and she dealt in purple cloth. If she hadn’t encountered Paul, we might not know anything about her at all. However, her meeting with Paul was significant. Yes, it’s important that she and her household became a followers of Christ based on hearing Paul. Yet, given the current debates over abortion and women’s reproductive rights and the rape culture we live in, it may be far more important for us to notice that Lydia was a business owner in the first century. A woman owned a business in the decades after Jesus’ death. Why does this not get the attention it deserves? How have we let the later notions of the church patriarchy dismiss this information? Seriously, what if women in business was more commonplace than we have been led to believe? What if Paul and other early apostles treated women as respected equals and not as property to be used as they wished? What if we have spent the last 2000 years systematically smothering the value of women in our society?

I don’t know about you, but I feel the need for more purple cloth right now. Alabama criminalized abortion which puts women’s lives at risk. That’s bad. In lesser news, last week I spent a couple of days in Washington D.C. at a meeting to discuss mental health with other faith leaders. While the variety of mental health ministries across faith traditions inspires me and fills me with hope, the way many of the men treated me and the other women in the room was extremely disheartening. I was interrupted, talked over, ignored, and dismissed. The validity of my call to ministry and the decades I’ve spent serving the church were questioned and the implications for my soul were assumed to be dire. It’s been a long time since I have felt so personally dismissed and invalidated by a group of supposed colleagues. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t hate men at all. It’s the social and religious elevation of them and the devaluation and dismissal of women that I would like to end.

With these thoughts I read the account of Lydia’s conversion in Acts. Not only did she become a follower of Christ, she also offered Paul and his companions a place to stay. She was a person of significant means. She may have been one of the earliest gentile converts and, clearly, a financial support for the growing Christian movement. Yet, how often have we lifted her up in the church? How often have we held her up as an example of a strong, Christian woman? You know, the one who housed Paul and his fellow travelers and also gave them a place to stay after they had been to prison. Somehow her story remains untold. It makes me wonder if early manuscripts might have told more about her and whether they were intentionally left out by the men who decided the canon.

What might happen in the world today if we highlighted Lydia as much as some denominations lift up Mary? Lydia wasn’t someone to be trifled with. She had money and power and access to the very wealthy (no one else would have been purchasing purple cloth). She wouldn’t be easily silenced or dismissed. How different the church might be if we recognized the value of a woman who sold purple cloth. Might we not realize that women are valuable, that women are created in God’s image just as men are? Might this realization lead to the recognition that all people are valuable because we are all created in the image of God? All people.

As I think about Lydia and her purple cloth and how different church culture could have been and still could be, I realize once again how tired I am of having to defend myself or justify myself or protect myself just because I am female. I’m also tired of rapists, child-abusers, perpetrators of violence against women being excused, justified, and practically rewarded because they are men, generally white men at that. Surely, we can change this. After all, there is no indication that Jesus treated women differently than he treated me. Paul, apparently, didn’t either. Why do we? Isn’t it time we recognized the value of all human beings, including women who sell purple cloth and house former prisoners? Think of all the energy and resources we could put toward feeding the hungry, housing the poor, caring for the sick, welcoming the immigrant and refugee if we recognize the equality of all people, regardless of gender identity.

Maybe we should make purple the color of equity and wrap ourselves in purple cloth until the church and society stops believing in the superiority of men, especially white men…

RCL – Year C – Sixth Sunday of Easter – May 26, 2019
Acts 16:9-15
Psalm 67
Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5
John 14:23-29 or John 5:1-9

Photo: Is a derivative work based on CC0 image by Beate

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Not Your Average Easter Message

 

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New Life. Who doesn’t want it? Love triumphing over destruction and death. Who wouldn’t welcome that? Seriously, is there anyone who wouldn’t leap at the chance to peer into the tomb of fear, hatred, and death to discover its startling emptiness? We should be running after those women and begging them to tell us what they saw. Or following Peter to the tomb to have a look for ourselves. We say we want to. We say we want New Life. We say we believe Love always wins. We say that the tomb was empty and that the women were telling the truth. Where is the evidence in our lives?

Flint still doesn’t have clean water. Three churches were burned to the ground in Louisiana last week. There was a fire in the Al Aqsa mosque at the same time Notre Dame was burning. The sacred sites of Native Peoples are destroyed without most of us noticing. The number of children and teens with suicidal thoughts and behaviors has doubled in recent years. There is still gender disparity in wages. People of Color are incarcerated at a higher rate than white people. Immigrants are imprisoned and deported daily. White supremacy informs everything in this country from politics to news to religion. Are we in danger of being swallowed by the betrayal, destruction, and death that preceded the Resurrection?

Yes. Yes, we are in danger of getting caught up in a cycle that moves between betrayal and burial. We have forgotten that Jesus spoke out against religious authorities who served the empire first and neglected to care for the vulnerable among them. Jesus sought to empower those who lived under the oppression of Rome by teaching them how to love as God loves. Somehow, though, in our rush through Holy Week to the Good News of Easter, we have heard only that God might love us. Or that salvation is only available for those who are like us. It’s possible that today’s church isn’t all that different from the religious authorities Jesus openly challenged.

What we say we believe doesn’t matter if there is no evidence of that belief in our lives. If we say we believe in the Resurrection and there is no trace of it in our lives, what does it matter? If we say we have New Life yet continuously participate in systems of destruction and discrimination, are we the disciples we claim to be? If we say we love as God loves and do nothing to save the lives around us, are we really the Body of Christ? If we claim to be Easter people and remain trapped in Good Friday, where is the power of the empty tomb?

Jesus called people to repentance first, and then to the task of bringing the Realm of God into the here and now. In other words, Jesus challenged all who would be disciples to move from death to life. This is a full transformation. Yes, it can take years, a lifetime really, but it isn’t a half-way kind of thing. We’re either trusting in God to work in and through us or we are trusting in ourselves far too much. Whenever we think we are better than others, more deserving than our neighbors, we are not embodying Christ. Whenever we participate in the white supremacy that allows us to weep for Notre Dame and dismiss the intentional burning of Black churches, or not even hear about a fire in a significant mosque, or think about the destroyed sacred sites of Native Peoples, we have to ask whom we are serving. When we believe the lies that justify the status quo and ignore how they influence religious practice, we are caught somewhere between betrayal and burial; we have not found the empty tomb yet.

This year, I want Resurrection to mean more than chocolate bunnies and jelly beans. The power that took Jesus from death to life, can do the same for us. If we believe that Love is stronger than fear or hatred or the distorted perception of empire, then we must repent and leave the ways of death behind to embrace New Life. Jesus was pretty clear that those who want to be his disciples must love with God’s love which means that no one gets left out. Isn’t it time that we freely share this lifesaving Love? Let’s get busy bringing the Realm of God into the here and now for everyone, without exception. Seriously, who couldn’t use a healthy dose of Resurrection if all it really means is to live a life with Love that leaves no one in the hands of a destructive empire? After all, God shows no partiality. Why should we?

RCL – Year C – Easter – April 21, 2019
Acts 10:34-43 or Isaiah 65:17-25
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
1 Corinthians 15:19-26 or Acts 10:34-43
John 20:1-18 or Luke 24:1-12

Photo: CC0 image by Photo Mix