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Musings Sermon Starter

Vipers, Adders, and the Promise of Peace

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When I was working on my doctorate, for a class project I created a map of wars for the preceding century. I don’t remember the specifics of the project, but I spent hours placing small dot stickers every place in the world that had been active in war. I had nightmares for weeks after discovering that the planet has not ever been free of war in recorded human history. Always, there has been war somewhere, often many somewheres.

As I sit here contemplating Advent peace, I hear my mother telling my high school self how privileged and spoiled my generation is because we did not know the impact of war. I didn’t know what she meant and she didn’t know that some of my earliest memories are of watching footage of body bags returning from Vietnam. In her certainty that my generation would have been more patriotic and more like hers if we had grown up with the damage war does, she was ignoring the fact that we were already shaped by the warring generations who had come before us. And she couldn’t have known how dramatically my experience of war would change, or how soon. A few months later was the Beirut bombing where the largest number of U.S. military personal was killed since Vietnam. It was stunning and horrifying. I knew young people who were Marines at the time. Friends of friends died in the bombing. I wondered how such a thing could happen…

Less than a decade later I watched the bombing of Baghdad on the news from a seminary dorm room. I sat in mute silence, wondering how we could possibly be at war. My mother was wrong. My generation knows more than its fair share of war, as has every generation of human beings. We are fortunate here in the U.S., though. It’s not very often war touches us closely and personally on a daily basis. Many of us are comfortable in forgetting that we are a nation that has been at war for fifteen years. We can entangle patriotism, nationalism, Christianity, and white supremacy without really questioning it because our cities and homes aren’t being blown up. And if we keep everything the way it’s been (whatever that means), then we’re safe from all that goes on with “those people,” you know, the ones who live “over there.” This distance, the forgetting, this tangling religion and nationalism makes it easier for many folks to blame refugees and bolster xenophobia. What happened to compassion? What happened to freedom of religion? What happened to caring for widows, the poor, the aliens among us?

Into these thoughts comes John the Baptist’s cry, “Prepare the way of the Lord!” The yearning I feel for the day the lion and lamb lie down together is strong enough to bring tears to my eyes. Yet, I suspect humanity is still more akin to a brood of vipers than inhabitants of God’s holy mountain. The more I read about increased suicides and hate crimes the more I think the adder and the asp are still in biting moods. The truth of it all seems to be that humanity is not willing to take the risk of peace. We are too fond of our illusion of control that war and weapons bring, to risk doing something different.

Yet, the Baptist’s cry echoes through this wilderness we have created. God’s ancient promise of peace lends strength and credence to the echoes. This call to prepare for the way of God really should not continue to be ignored. We must be the ones who prepare the way. We can’t wait for someone else to do it. We cannot reach out for peace with one hand while holding weapons of fear in the other. What will it take for us to slow down, hear the cries of the Christ-child in the far-off manger?  More importantly, what are we going to do to ensure that the Child comes into the world with such power that humanity can take a collective step toward peace?

Singing carols, exchanging gifts, and attending parties are all fine activities. They are a way to sooth our weary souls for a few minutes or a few hours at a time. Consider doing something else, too, though. What is God up to where you are? Go and do that. Who needs radical hospitality and unconditional love in your neighborhood? If we can do these things in our Advent waiting, then we might just find our way to Bethlehem to greet the Child. We might just find enough hope to believe that Peace is really possible.

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

RCL – Year A – Second Sunday in Advent – December 4, 2016
Isaiah 11:1-10
Psalm 72:1-7,18-19
Romans 15:4-13
Matthew 3:1-12

Photo: CC-BY-NC image by Erika Sanborne

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Emerging Church Musings Sermon Starter

Follower or Friend?

I’ve probably said it before and I’m saying it again:  I do not understand hatred and bigotry. Nor do I understand violence in any form but particularly as a means of problem solving. Every time I hear a statement that reveals racism or another form of bigotry I am startled. When I learn about another act of hate-motivated violence I am deeply saddened. This is not what we were created to be and it is not how we are meant to live. I want to ask why we continue to live in a world where fear is often used to ignite hatred and violence, but I know this is a pointless question.

Instead I am thinking of the writings of Dorothee Soelle who wrote about suffering, among other things. While I don’t remember the exact citation, I do remember a line from one of her books that said, “Jesus has many followers but few friends.” That stood out to me. Mostly because I’m not sure how many followers he really has since following Jesus is one of the hardest paths one might choose to walk, but also because I thought about what it would take to be Jesus’ friend in more than a superficial, acquaintance kind of way.

Soelle also wrote about Jesus as “goel.” My understanding is that this is a Hebrew word meaning “redeemer.” Soelle elaborates on this and adds the concept of witnessing suffering. But more than just standing by watching. The witnessing she spoke about was the active kind. Standing with those who suffer, sharing the pain of those who suffer unbearably. When I was reading her writing I thought about what it would mean to be the kind of Christian who would not leave Jesus to carry his own cross. There’s something to be said for the goel image, the witnessing redeemer who does not leave us on our own and who expects that we will not leave our neighbors on their own. So, I’m done with trying to be a follower of Jesus. I am want to be counted among Jesus’ friends.

So I will not shrug my shoulders and turn away when I read that there has been a significant increase in suicide deaths of older men in recent weeks. I will not shy away from the fact that human trafficking of girls and young women (boys and young men, too) happens in unexpected places a lot like where I live. I will not lash out at my Muslim neighbors because of the terrorist acts of a few extremists, no matter how disturbing those actions are. I will not laugh at the man with aluminum foil on his head, yelling at the cars as they go by. I will not accept the ignorant comments about a man wearing a yarmulke and Tallit Katan. What I will do is to name these ugly truths and do everything in my power to stop them from continuing.

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This will only be enough if we all stop following and start being Jesus’ friends. It’s time our witness becomes active. It’s time to heed the advice of the Apostle Paul with more than our words.

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

RCL – Year A – Thirteen Sunday after Pentecost – September 7, 2014

 

Exodus 12:1-14 with Psalm 149 or
Ezekiel 33:7-11 with Psalm 119:33-40
Romans 13:8-14
Matthew 18:15-20

 

Categories
Emerging Church Poetry Prayer Romans

Barefoot on Holy Ground

This week is a vacation week for me, but I’ve been thinking over this week’s scriptures because they are among my favorites. As a result, I offer this prayer based on Romans 9:12-21 with a nod to the Exodus passage.

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Wash us all with your love, Holy One, that our love may be genuine

            Teach us to hate all that mars the beauty of your creation

                        greed, pettiness, violence, entitlement, war, oppression, self-righteousness

                        the list goes on and we know it as well as You do if we stop to pay attention

            Remind us that all our neighbors carry Your image     

                        never should it matter where they come from

                        or by what name they know You

May our love be genuine

 

Stir in us Your Holy Spirit, that our zeal may never lag

            Call us to serve You fully, making all our ground holy

                        hope that comes from You will enable us to endure all things

                        even as we open our doors to strangers, offer sanctuary in Your name

            Guide us to a day when hospitality is the only way we greet one another

                        without worry or fear, judgment or disrespect

                        for in the other we will see the One

May our zeal never lag

 

Create clean hearts in us, O God, that we may be overcome by good

            Show us how to be the Body of Christ that is needed right now

                        letting go of yesterday’s vision, opening to today’s needs

                        seeking wisdom, patience, courage and acceptance

            Save us from our the limits of our selves and free us to find the abundance of You

                        may our actions match our prayers for all to live in peace

                        with food, drink, and safety for all of creation

May we be overcome by good.

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RCL – Year A – Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost – August 31, 2014
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

 

Categories
Emerging Church Musings Romans

A Bit of Hope and Comfort

Because I work in a psychiatric hospital I am frequently asked, “Why did God do this to me?” Similarly, many patients will say, “God hates me!” They ask this question or believe that God hates them because they have mental illness and they often experience rejection in churches and other faith communities. They live under the stigma of major mental illness and struggle to make sense out of their own suffering.

This week’s passage in Romans is one that I often share with a patient who is questioning God’s benevolence. The opening verses give me hope. When I sit with someone who has committed a horrible crime as a result of psychosis or delusions, I try to remember that the words of my prayers do not have to be perfect. Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

The next verse is one that I find very helpful in talking with individuals who believe that trauma or tragedy is something that God has done to them. The idea that all things work together for good for those who love God allows me to gently challenge the idea that God makes bad things happen. I can honestly say to the person who is suffering with PTSD related to childhood trauma that God did not make the abuse happen. Just the opposite. Things happen in this world that God did not and would not choose. Human beings daily make choices that God really wishes we would not. As a result of some of those choices, innocent people get terribly hurt. However, with God something good can come out of even the worst tragedy. So keep fighting for health and recovery and you may be surprised at what good God can bring about.

Similarly, a person overwhelmed with feelings of guilt or shame who believes that God hates them or has condemned them to suffering, needs to hear words of hope. How much more hopeful than to hear that only Christ is in a position to condemn anyone and condemnation is not what happens. Instead, Christ intercedes for us and we are forgiven because nothing separates us from from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Nothing can remove Christ’s love from us. Nothing, not even mental illness. The news doesn’t get better than this for those who suffer in body, mind, or spirit.

In other words, the news doesn’t get better than this for any of us. So when we are overwhelmed with life and the events in the world, our prayers do not have to be perfect; the Holy Spirit will intercede for us with sighs too deep for words. This includes our prayers for Palestine and Israel, Ukraine, immigrant children, our loved ones stricken with illness… anything we cannot articulate well. God knows our hearts and will hear our prayers. So, too, when we are faced with tragedy, trauma, and despair. God does not make these things happen, but with God something good will come from the pain. This doesn’t make everything all right, but it does give hope for the future. And reminds us that when all is said and done, there is nothing than can remove Christ’s love from us.2013-06-19 22.33.00

Now what are we going to do to honor this love that we have been so freely given?

RCL – Year A – Seventh Sunday after Pentecost – July 27, 2014
Genesis 29:15-28 with Psalm 105:1-11, 45b  or
1 Kings 3:5-12 with Psalm 128 or Psalm 119:129-136
Romans 8:26-39
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52     

Categories
Emerging Church Psalms Romans

Bidding Prayer for Hope

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Come, let us pray for the church in all its variations throughout the world.
People are invited to share their prayers silently or quietly
God of all times and places, reveal your presence in and among us. Your people yearn to proclaim your presence with Jacob’s surety. Too much distracts us from your grace and mercy and often we mistake our ways for the way everlasting. We think we can tell wheat from weeds and are quick to condemn those who think differently. Give us hearts of compassion, understanding, and grace that we might learn to celebrate diversity rather than fear it. Let the day come when we all stand together in your presence, shining like the sun.
We trust in God’s mercy and grace;
Our hope is in Christ, who is our salvation.

Come, let us pray for the United Church of Christ, here and elsewhere.
People are invited to share their prayers silently or quietly
From the wings of the morning to the farthest limits of the sea, you are with us, O God. We cannot hide from you or escape your presence. May this be a comfort to us in these times of change and transition. Let us not cling to unnecessary things or become slaves to fear. May we be open to all the possibilities you set before us as the body of Christ. Be with those you have called to lead us, especially Geoffrey Black our minister and president. Make your presence known throughout the United Church of Christ, sowing seeds of courageous faith and radical hope.
We trust in God’s mercy and grace;
Our hope is in Christ, who is our salvation.

Come, let us pray for all people throughout the world.
People are invited to share their prayers silently or quietly
Creator God, we hear the groaning of creation and wonder what can be done. War and violence erupt daily. Storms grow in intensity. People are in need of food, shelter, and care. We would turn away from other people’s troubles if it were not for you. You would have us walk in the way of peace, sowing seeds of hope and promise. In the midst of heartbreak over all that we have done and all that we have left undone, we ask that your hope be made real in us and through us. Remind us that you know the thoughts and hearts of all people as well you know each one of us.
We trust in God’s mercy and grace;
Our hope is in Christ, who is our salvation.

Come, let us pray for this nation and those in leadership.
People are invited to share their prayers silently or quietly
God of wisdom and welcome, you are indeed in this place, but we are a long way from the gateway to heaven. We are a nation divided by ideologies and economics and kept that way by those who trade in fear. Make us mindful of your commandment to love one another as you love. Hear our prayers for Barak Obama and all others in positions of power. Shape us into a nation where fear, violence, and hatred have no place.
We trust in God’s mercy and grace;
Our hope is in Christ, who is our salvation.

Come, let us pray for all who are in need of healing.
People are invited to share their prayers silently or quietly
God of the brightest day and the darkest night, enter into to the dark, painful, lonely, broken places and bring light. Hear our prayers for those who suffer in body, mind, or spirit. Be to them a source of hope and healing. You have called us together to be your body here and now; may we be agents of compassion, offering sanctuary to those in need.
We trust in God’s mercy and grace;
Our hope is in Christ, who is our salvation.

Come, let us pray for all those who grieve.
People are invited to share their prayers silently or quietly
You walk behind us and before us, O God. Your presence comforts and reassures us. We ask that you would lay your hand on all those who are grieving. May those who sit in the deepest darkness of a sudden loss – murder, suicide, accident, or illness – find hope in your light. Show us how to bear the burdens of our sisters and brothers who struggle under the weight of their losses, letting no one suffer alone.
We trust in God’s mercy and grace;
Our hope is in Christ, who is our salvation.

Come, let us give thanks to God for all of our blessings.
People are invited to share their prayers silently or quietly
Steadfast and gracious God, words fail to express our gratitude for grace you have given to us. Your mercy and forgiveness is unbelievable for many of us. Yet, you are our hope now and for all things to come. In our gratitude we share Jacob’s amazement at your presence in this place. Grant us the courage to shine with your righteousness, honoring and serving you in all that we say and do.
We pray in Christ’s name, trusting in God’s mercy and grace;
Our hope is in Christ, who is our salvation. Amen.

RCL – Year A – Sixth Sunday after Pentecost – July 20, 2014
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

Categories
Musings Sermon Starter

A Tough Thought… or Two

By word of warning, this week’s lectionary contains complex theology. Here’s my attempt at distillation…31257464416_ORIG

This week I find myself strangely drawn to Abraham. It’s not his parenting skills I admire for sure. Last week we read how he exhiled one son into the desert because his wife told him to. This week we read how he was prepared to sacrifice his only remaining son, the son for whom he’d waited his entire life. What strikes me about Abraham is his faith. On the one hand his faith seems so simple and uncomplicated, but on the other, Abraham’s faith is deeper and more true than I can really understand. He spent his life responding to God’s call in one way or another.

I’m not a fan of the concept of God setting things up just to test a person’s faith. I just don’t believe God does this to anyone, let alone to people who are clearly faithful. So there has to be another point to this story about Abraham and Isaac. What would make a person willing to sacrifice that which he or she holds most dear?

For Abraham it was trust in God. Whether it was trust that God would provide an alternative sacrifice or trust that God would make sacrificing Isaac worth it, can’t be clearly determined. There is more here than blind trust, though. God and Abraham had a long relationship in which God often asked that Abraham do unusual things while God took care of the impossible. Considering this, it is highly likely that Abraham desired to please God more than he desired anything else. He was not perfect to be sure, but he did seem to strive for righteousness to a degree that modern thinking has a hard time understanding. He would do anything to be “right with God.” For many of us in Mainline Christian traditions, we don’t spend much time thinking about righteousness or just what, exactly, God might be asking of us. The idea of pursuing righteousness or living holy lives does not much trouble the hearts and minds for many Christians. What if we let ourselves be concerned with such things?

Like my response to Abraham this week, I find myself surprised when I read the passage from Romans and nod again and again in agreement. Of course, my understanding of sin may be a bit different than the Apostle Paul’s. Yet, the point he makes about where and how we put ourselves out in the world, how we use our bodies, or allow ourselves to be used, rings true all these centuries later. Should we not endeavor to follow God more deliberately knowing that we are set aside for holy purposes in Christ? I think of all the suffering in the world, all the struggles for power and position, all the hoarding of resources and wonder what would happen in the world if we all took the idea of being enslaved to righteousness with the reward of sanctification a little more seriously.

This concept that we are set aside for a holy purpose resonates with something deep within me. Would I be willing to sacrifice that which I hold most dear if God asked it of me? I want the answer to be, “Yes, of course.” However, I honestly don’t know what I would do. I’m pretty good at telling God that I am willing to serve wherever God may call. Underneath my prayerful words, though, are all the qualifiers and preferences I have about my willingness to serve. I admire Abraham for his trusting pursuit of righteousness. Likewise the Apostle Paul. Realistically, though, I have a ways to go before there is clear evidence of sanctification in my life. Perhaps it’s time to pursue righteousness, a life lived in covenant with God, self, and neighbor, with far more intention and enthusiasm.

We are sanctified. It is time to pursue righteousness.scan0005

RCL – Year A – Third Sunday after Pentecost – June 29, 2014
Genesis 22:1-14 with Psalm 13 or
Jeremiah 28:5-9 with Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18
Romans 6:12-23
Matthew 10:40-42

Categories
Prayer

Bidding Prayer for the First Sunday of Advent – Hope

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Come, let us pray for Church throughout the world.
            People may quietly voice their prayers
God of the wakeful and the exhausted, we lift our prayers to you in the light of hope. As we begin our preparations to honor Christ’s coming anew, make us mindful of others whose names for you may differ from ours. In our desire to worship and celebrate you, we want to do so truthfully, allowing your light to shine through us. As we enter this season of light, we lift up to you the darkness of our world.
O children of God, come,
let us walk in the light of the Lord!

Let us pray for the United Church of Christ gathered here and elsewhere.
People may quietly voice their prayers
God of all churches and peoples, hear our prayers for the United Church of Christ—it’s leaders, pastors, teachers, members, and friends. May all that we do bring the light of hope into the world. You have blessed us with a vision of unity and a call to work for justice in the world. In gratitude for your grace and your guidance, we ask that you continue to shape and reshape us into the church you would have us be.
O children of God, come,
let us walk in the light of the Lord!

Let us pray for all the peoples of the world.
People may quietly voice their prayers
God of startling diversity, teach us to see with sacred eyes, recognizing your image stamped on every human face. We hear the prophet’s words of peace and pray for the day when weapons will turn into tools for planting and nations shall not seek to annihilate one another. Ignite the light of hope in all the leaders of this world—especially in Syria and Iran, and all the other countries where there is war or the threat of war. Remind all your people that you are to be the judge between nations and that we are to seek peace and pursue it so that one day we will learn war no more.
O children of God, come,
let us walk in the light of the Lord!

Let us pray for our nation and those who lead it.
            People may quietly voice their prayers
God of all nations and all places, lead us to a place of acceptance and justice. Our nation is home to a variety of peoples and cultures with hopes and dreams for lives fully lived. Grant wisdom and humility to those who would lead us. Let us set aside the works of darkness that can divide us and put on the armor of light that will honor all. We live in a country rich with resources and abundance in so much. Grant us the wisdom, courage, and compassion necessary to live simply so that all may live fully.
O children of God, come,
let us walk in the light of the Lord!

Let us pray for all those who are in need of healing.
People may quietly voice their prayers
God of the brokenhearted and downtrodden, be with all those who are without hope. Let us be your agents of mercy and healing. We pray for those who lack the resources they need for medical care, for those who are homeless, and those who are broken in body, mind, or spirit. For those of us enjoying health and wholeness, make us mindful of the responsibility we have to our neighbors, near and far, who are in need.
O children of God, come,
let us walk in the light of the Lord!

Let us pray for those who are grieving.
People may quietly voice their prayers
God of life and death, comfort all those who mourn. We know that you have conquered death, and, yet, our hearts are fragile. As we remember those we love who have died, we trust that you hold them close. During this Advent season, we lift up to you those who face their first Christmas without a loved one–especially those who have died suddenly by violence, war, or suicide. We look to you for the hope that will shine in the darkness of loss.
O children of God, come,
let us walk in the light of the Lord!

Let us give thanks for our blessings.
People may quietly voice their prayers
God of peaceful simplicity and joyful abundance, hear our prayers of gratitude. We live in a world of miracles. As we walk in the light of hope, open our hearts to amazement that we might find contentment in the chaos and delight in the quiet. You have called and created us to be the body of Christ here and now and we are grateful.
O children of God, come,
let us walk in the light of the Lord!

RCL – Year A – First Sunday of Advent – December 1, 2013
Isaiah 2:1-5
Psalm 122
Romans 13:11-14
Matthew 24:36-44