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Sycamore Lessons

Have you ever climbed up, out on the proverbial limb, in the name of seeing Jesus more clearly? I’ve done it more times than I would like to admit. The trick is to climb down when Jesus calls you out of your foolishness. How else will we be able to dine with Jesus? Unfortunately, too many of us mistake our awkward position in our figurative trees for keeping company with Jesus. We can learn a lot from Zacchaeus if we care to pay attention.

Luke tells us that Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector and wealthy. He was also “short in stature.” One might wonder why Zacchaeus became a tax collector. No Jewish man would have thought this was an excellent profession. The Romans would have treated a tax collector poorly and the Jewish folks would have avoided one who so boldly sinned. Of course, Zacchaeus had gotten rich as a tax collector so maybe he didn’t care so much about what others thought. My guess is that he wasn’t wealthy when he started working for Rome. Perhaps he became a tax collector because he was already an outcast. Perhaps Zacchaeus was a little person and thereby excluded from society. Whatever it was, Zacchaeus couldn’t have been overly comfortable with his position in the world. After all, something drove him up that sycamore, and just catching a glimpse of Jesus couldn’t have been the only reason to make a fool of himself.

Zacchaeus probably wanted to know why the whole town was talking about Jesus. Maybe he craved the inclusion that folks were attributing to Jesus. News of all those that Jesus healed had probably reached Zacchaeus’ ears. To be seen and named and healed by Jesus would be something for a twice over outcast. Seeing Jesus in action, trying to verify if any of what had been said was true, might have been motivation enough to send a wealthy man up a tree.

As the story goes, though, his climb out a limb was useless. While Zacchaeus was ridiculously clinging to the sycamore, swaying in the breeze over the heads of the crowds, Jesus stood at the foot of the tree. Imagine how shocking that must have been for Zacchaeus, and even more surprising for those who assumed they were righteous. Why would Jesus choose to spend time with a sinner like Zacchaeus, much less break bread with him? Why not choose one of them, those who followed the law, had no visible disabilities, and were active community members? Why this silly, sinning, tax collector who had to climb a tree just to see what was going on?

The jealousy and the need to be righteous has many of us up a tree looking, perhaps more foolish than Zacchaeus. Every time we cling to biblical literalism, unexamined (possibly archaic) theology, or self-righteousness we climb a little higher. When we fail to see our neighbors as the Christ who calls us to come and eat and be ourselves in relationship, in community, we become far worse than Zacchaeus. He, at least, climbed down and took Jesus home to dinner. Then he did his best to correct the wrongs he had done. Zacchaeus found new life in Jesus’ company. When we refuse to hear Jesus calling us out of our familiar branches, we become more foolish and possibly more sinful than Zacchaeus ever was.

As I write this, I am sitting in an airport on my way to the United Church of Christ Mental Health Network’s WISE Conference. This is an educational event to help congregations become Welcoming, Inclusive, Supportive, and Engaging of persons with mental health challenges. I can’t help but hear a challenge in this passage to churches of all kinds to climb down from our lofty limbs and dine with Jesus. The church has done enough harm to persons with mental illness and their loved ones over the years. It is time we change. Even the more progressive congregations who don’t necessarily believe that mental illness is punishment for sin, lack of willpower, character defect, or lack of faith, need to be active in proclaiming welcome and changing the narrative of sinfulness and rejection.

None of us will ever get a closer look at Jesus by clinging to the past and the nostalgic comfort it may bring. The firmer our grip on the past, the more precarious our position. If Zacchaeus didn’t catch a glimpse of Jesus from his sycamore perch, why do we persist with such foolishness? Jesus called Zacchaeus down from the branches and elevated him in the eyes of God, and perhaps his neighbors. Imagine how high we could rise if we actually started to treat the vulnerable among us with Christ’s love and compassion.

It’s not too late for any of us. We can admit our foolishness and our mistaken attempts at righteousness. We can stop blaming people for their mental illness or other disabilities. We can educate ourselves and let go of outdated theology. If we do so, we might discover that our feet are firmly planted on the ground and Jesus is in our midst.

RCL – Year C – Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost – November 3, 2019
Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4 with Psalm 119:137-144 or
Isaiah 1:10-18 with Psalm 32:1-7
2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12
Luke 19:1-10

Photo: CC0image by brisch27

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Musings Sermon Starter

Sodom and Gomorrah Revisited

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The time has come to look at Sodom and Gomorrah from a different perspective. Changes are pretty good that whatever you learned in Sunday School or picked up along the way is not useful. A literal or legalistic reading of this story gets us nowhere good and has done more than enough damage to queer folx. If we can agree that the people who told this story and those who wrote it down had a very different worldview than most of us now have, then we need to apply what we know to this text.

Most of us know that God isn’t sitting somewhere in heaven waiting to shower do-gooders with blessings or reign down punishment on sinners. This way of thinking is a holdover from days when all things were explained by divine actions. If we understand that much of the suffering in this world can be explained through science and/or recognized as a result of human behaviors, then what was perceived as divine punishment can be understood as the consequences of a certain set of parameters. For example, the increasing intensity of storms can be explained scientifically and is, at least in part, due to the ways in which human beings have damaged the planet. This is a more reasonable explanation for these storms than to say that the inhabitants of a particular place are being punished by God for their sins. Similarly, most illness and diseases can be explained through genetics, germs, or toxic environments. Again, this is a far more reasonable explanation than to say that a person with an illness or disease is being punished for their or their parents’ sins.

Now we can conclude that it is far more likely that the biblical punishments, afflictions, and smitings attributed to God were natural consequences resulting from whatever circumstances preceded them. In other words, not God’s doing. In a similar way, people like Moses and Abraham probably didn’t literally hear God talking to them anymore than faithful people do today. Maybe they had fewer obstructions in their prayer life and received responses with a bit more clarity, but they probably didn’t sit down and have an actual chat with God.

With this in mind, let us revisit Sodom and Gomorrah. We learn about these cities from the angels/men who informed Abraham and Sarah that Sarah would soon be pregnant in spite of her advanced years. The visitors had enjoyed Abraham’s generous hospitality and were heading on their way. They debated telling Abraham about their next stop before deciding to share the impending destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. They don’t tell Abraham anything other than that here has been significant outcry against these cities. They stress that they are telling Abraham because his offspring will grown into a great nation and that they will be responsible for keeping “the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice” (Gen 18:20).

After hearing this, Abraham takes his concerns to God, whom he knows to be just and good. He prays. He asks God to spare the cities for the sake of the righteous who live there. God assures Abraham that the cities will be safe if there 50, 45, 40, 35, 20, and as few as 10 people living righteously. Abraham trusts God’s justice. He also receives a message that even a few people faithfully living out God’s holy ways can save many from destruction. This is the power of faith, power often overlooked in the reading of this story.

From Abraham’s conversation with God, we move back to the angels who had just left Abraham. They find hospitality in Lot’s house and, therefore, advise Lot to get his family out of the cities. Lot’s family think he’s joking about the impending destruction and choose to remain in the cities. Of course, some of Lot’s actions don’t make much sense to modern readers and cause us to wonder at Lot’s righteousness. However, Lot cannot be faulted for the hospitality he offered to the visitors, even if we are appalled by his parenting choices and how little he seemed to value his daughters. Of course, they make questionable choices of their own a bit later. And that business of Lot’s wife turning to a pillar of salt is a bit odd and seemingly unfair. Let’s just say that she turned into a very precious commodity and discuss the women in this story at a later date.

I also don’t want to skip over the part that historically been used as proof that God disapproves of queer people. The men of Sodom wanted Lot’s guests for sexual purposes. The problem here isn’t sexual activity. The problem is how little they valued people who were foreign, alien to their cities. They saw them as less than human, to be treated in any way the residents of the city felt like treating them. In this case, they wanted to use them for sex. On another day, maybe they would have chosen to enslave them or hold them captive for another purpose. All these things were against the ways of God. The sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was their startling lack of hospitality toward the stranger among them.

This lack of hospitality is in direct contrast to Abrahams’s generosity and Lot’s welcome. There was nothing righteous or just in the doings of the people who lived in Sodom or Gomorrah. We know that when one group of people stops recognizing the humanity of another group, the results are often violent, ugly, and fatal. Sodom and Gomorrah annihilated themselves with their own selfish greed. It’s just a more cautionary tale if God smites them. And making queer folx the scapegoat is a convenient way to avoid looking closely at the real issues.

Isn’t it possible that we who follow Christ need to pay more attention to our own offers of hospitality? What groups of people have we dehumanized? Where have we failed to in doing righteousness and justice? These are the more useful questions that come from Sodom and Gomorrah. Perhaps we can avoid future destruction if we pay more attention to keeping God’s ways and offering generous hospitality to the stranger, foreigner, and aliens in our cities. After all, doom can be avoided if as few as ten seek to live in holy ways.

For more sermon help, try here.

RCL – Year C – Seventh Sunday after Pentecost – July 28, 2019
Hosea 1:2-10 with Psalm 85 or
Genesis 18:20-32 with Psalm 138
Colossians 2:6-15, (16-19)
Luke 11:1-13

Photo: CC0 image by Ryan McGuire

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Musings Sermon Starter

Defined by Love

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Between the Samaritan woman’s five husbands and the unnamed man’s blindness, sin and shame bounce around, defining these people. The woman was pushed to the margins of her community either by her neighbors or by her own inclination to avoid explanations. The man also was marginalized because his blindness was thought to be a punishment for sin, his or his parents’. They were set apart from the rest of their communities, not for holiness, but as the result of perceived sin and the shame associated with it.

I have a vivid memory of myself at 16 sitting on a hospital bed in Boston Children’s Hospital’s adolescent psych unit. Something had happened and I was upset to the point of tears which was unusual for me at that time. The mental health worker talking with me tried to tell me that things would work out. I would have none of it. I said, “No! You don’t understand! This is going to be all anyone knows about me forever!” The funny part is, I have no idea what that was about. I simply don’t remember. But in that moment, whatever thing had happened, I was sure it was going to be a part of my identity for the rest of my life.

Of course, this is not atypical thinking for an adolescent. But it is deeper than that, too. Shame often has a powerful voice in our lives. There have been many times when I’ve felt compelled to keep things in my life a secret, partly from shame and partly to avoid judgement. At 16 I thought I’d be defined by having an eating disorder or something related. At 19 when I was diagnosed with a learning disability, I felt the same way; it would define me forever. Then again when I was raped by someone I knew, I didn’t want to tell anyone (and didn’t for several years) because I didn’t want to be known as the “girl who’d been raped.” When I got divorced, I was sure that people would only think about me being the pastor who was divorced. Later, when I came out, I felt like that was all anyone would ever think about me when they found out. And the list goes on. But never on this list of “defining attributes” was there a single positive thing.

Why is that? The Samaritan woman could have been a fabulous cook or a healer or a mother or someone’s best friend or a singer. Instead she was known as the woman who had had five husbands and one more who wasn’t her husband; she was a sinner through and through. The man who had been born blind could have been a musician or a poet or a father or a brother or a mentor. Instead he was known as the blind man who sat begging in a particular place every day; he was marked by sin. I wonder how they thought of themselves. Did they hold the judgments of society against themselves? Were they burdened by shame?

As for myself, I have been the recipient of social judgments. I’ve heard the whispers and the not so quiet voices naming me as undesirable because I’ve been divorced twice. Because I’m a woman who is an ordained minister. Because I am bisexual. Because I have a history that includes treatment for an eating disorder and depression. I’ve been ignored and dismissed because of who I am and where I’ve come from. It’s painful and it’s ugly. As a result, I so identify with the marginalized folks of scripture – the Samaritan woman and the man born blind, especially.

I can easily get lost in the powerful grip of shame that has dominated my sense of self in the past. However, there’s more to these stories. We can’t forget that sin wasn’t the point. We can’t forget that Jesus met these people in the midst of their sin and shame. Not only did he meet them right where they were, he redefined them. The Samaritan woman went from outcast to evangelist as Living Water restored her. The man born blind went from blind beggar to sighted worshiper as he washed away the mud Jesus used to open his eyes. Both moved from the margins of society into the center of community. No shame can hide from the light of Christ and sin doesn’t stand a chance when Living Water is drawn up out of the well.

When I think of my own brokenness in the context of these stories I can’t help but see the transformation Christ has worked in my life. These things that I felt shame over, that I feared defined me in my own eyes or in the eyes of others, haven’t had power in my life for a long time. I’ve gone from a shy, fearful child into an outspoken, fearless adult. While I still struggle from time to time with the wounds from my childhood, they do not define me. On good days, I believe the Love that qualities-795865_1920transformed the Samaritan woman and the man born blind, flows through me. On hard days, I ask God to meet me where I am and let Love be evident in my life. I know I am not the only one who has encountered Christ and been changed.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we stop defining ourselves and each other by sin and shame and the judgement of others and started defining ourselves and everyone else by Love? Maybe then we would see with the eyes of Christ…

RCL – Year A – Fourth Sunday of Lent – March 26, 2017
1 Samuel 16:1-13
Psalm 23
Ephesians 5:8-14
John 9:1-41

Top Photo: CC0 image by John Hain
Bottom Photo: CC0 image by John Hain

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Musings Sermon Starter

Time to Jump In

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I am haunted by a recurring dream I had as a teen. The dream started out innocuous enough. I stood with a group of friends talking about nothing in particular, maybe planning what we do for the weekend. Then a thick black line would appear on the ground between me and them. Of course, as dreams go, I was the only one who noticed. As the conversation continued, the line would widen and deepen and divide my friends from me. When they would finally notice, they would tell me to jump over it and join them. At this point, they saw it as a gap a few inches wide while from where I stood it was several feet wide and growing. They were angry that I seemed to be choosing to stay away from them. I was frightened that I was alone. And then a voice would rise up out of the chasm, “The only way across is in.” This voice was deep and strong and terrifying.

Sometimes the dream ended here. Other times I would try to get across by building a bridge, throwing a rope, or finding a dead tree that would reach across. Whatever method I tried, wouldn’t work. If I tried building a simple bridge it would crack in half and fall into the chasm. If I tried throwing a rope to the other side, no one would be able to catch it. And, of course, the tree would always fall in, long before it reached the other side. My efforts to cross would always make my friends laugh and the voice would be louder and angrier with the same message, “The only way across is in!” I’d wake up scared and confused every time.

While I had this dream many times, I haven’t had it in decades. But I’ve been thinking about it this week in terms of the Isaiah text. The Prophet is pretty clear about where God is in the chaos of human actions. God is tired of meaningless fasts and empty rituals. The people have not noticed the chasm widening at their feet. They have not noticed the depth of injustice, oppression, hunger, homelessness, poverty, and shame right in their midst. Perhaps they even went to so far as to laugh at those who were trying to do something about these problems.

As an adolescent, I thought the dream was about my struggles with an eating disorder and depression. It very well may have been. But when I think about it now, it seems to be a comment on so much more than my own small life. The only way across the breach between me and God or me and my neighbor is in. Any attempts to avoid repentance and repair will be woefully inadequate and might even look funny to those standing by and passing judgement. I wonder how my dream would have ended if I had had the courage to jump into that great chasm, to sink into the depths and find a new way.

Every time I go to a march, a rally, or a protest, I am overcome with waves of emotion. Just this week I participated in a protest of the travel ban on Muslims. When I arrived there were a couple hundred people. By the time I left two hours later, there were more than 5000 people and they were still going strong on a Tuesday evening! The variety of voices and faces and ages chanting together, standing together, marching together for justice fill me with hope. Perhaps this is a glimpse of what jumping into the breach looks like…

The Prophet’s call is clear. The breach must be repaired. God wants nothing more from us than to create systems of justice, free the oppressed, feed the hungry, house the homeless, clothe the poor, and let go of shame. None of this can be done from the edges of the breach. It can’t be done by shouting instructions to those who are trying to make repairs. It cannot be done by laughing at faulty efforts. The breach that is disturbingly deep in our world, our country, our cities, our neighborhoods, our churches, and our homes needs all of us to jump into it. We need to experience the fear and discomfort of letting go of familiar, safe ways, and to allow God to guide us to something new. Then we shall be called “repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.”

May we all find the courage to offer God the fast God chooses.

RCL – Year A – Fifth Sunday after Epiphany – February 5, 2017
Isaiah 58:1-9a, (9b-12)
Psalm 112:1-9 (10)
1 Corinthians 2:1-12, (13-16)
Matthew 5:13-20

Photo: CC-BY-NC image by Rachael Keefe

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Musings Sermon Starter

The Allure of a Dragon’s Life

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I’m sure Jesus didn’t mean for his words to be linked with dragons, but I can’t help myself. Every time I read scripture passages about treasure, I picture a dragon. You know, the big, scary, fire-breathing kind that hoards gold and trinkets and protects its treasure with all it’s might. Of course, this is exactly what Jesus is warning us against. He really wanted us to know that we are the treasure and not our stuff. Apparently, it was just as difficult to believe in first century Palestine as it is today in the United States (and elsewhere).

When my mother decided to move from Massachusetts to Arizona in her retirement, she had to sell the house I grew up in. Each time I would visit her during the months she was preparing the house, she would always ask, “Is there anything here you want?” There were cabinets of her mother’s and her grandmother’s china and crystal and silver. Next to those were boxes of things my mother had accumulated. She was disappointed that I didn’t want the Syracuse or the Haviland china. I could not think how any of it could be useful.

It turns out that she packed it all up and moved it to Arizona with her. When I went to visit her a few months before she died, she asked me again what I wanted. There really wasn’t anything. I took a couple of photo albums and a couple of the quilts she had made. She again marveled that I didn’t want the “valuable” things.

Truthfully, I didn’t see those things as valuable. I’m not someone who collects a lot of things. I have more than I need and I’m content enough. Sure, I drool over sports cars and envy people who have pretty shoes and sparkly jewelry. But I don’t need these things and they would serve no practical purpose. It’s not like these things could tell their stories or the stories of people who owned them. It’s not like they could give me the relationship with my mother I wanted and needed.

I read through the scriptures for this week and find myself questioning my faith and just where my heart might be. Hebrews tells us, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” And Luke adds cautions about what we treasure and a reminder that God comes at an “unexpected hour.” These days, my faith is tested every time I turn on the news or browse through Facebook. I keep hoping one of the people running for office will say something about decreasing poverty and hunger, ensuring equal access to education and healthcare, dismantling the racist judicial systems, strengthening and upholding hate-crime laws, funding mental health care, and so many other things. This is not what I hear and its distressing. Power is the seeming treasure here and it doesn’t look like God is anywhere near. I know politics is not where God is often found, but why not? Shouldn’t government be about taking care of the people who inhabit the country? You know, treating people with dignity and respect?

Right. That would be the church. We have misplaced our treasures, too. I have often joked about what it would be like if God took us up on our invitation of, “Come Holy Spirit, come” that is frequently a part of our liturgy. None of us would be ready. Our lamps aren’t lit. We aren’t watching very closely. We’d be as confused and conflicted and disbelieving as any of Jesus’ disciples when he revealed his divinity and asked them to embrace their own. Most of us speak words of faith but seldom act in a way that challenges the status quo. We are comfortable where we are.

We forget that balanced budgets, perfect buildings, high-tech worship, and vision plans are not what church is. That’s all the stuff that distracts us and makes us feel better, not unlike my mother’s china and crystal. None of these things can do the work of the church which is saving lives and including people in a loving community of faith  where they are seen, heard, and valued in the name of Christ. After all, we are human beings, not dragons; trinkets and treasures don’t give our lives meaning or purpose.

It is God’s good pleasure to give us the Kingdom of God, the Realm of Heaven. We are foolish enough to mistake our stuff for God’s pleasure. It’s time to light our lamps and be as Christ to one another. How do we know that this is not the hour for us all to show up and re-member Christ?victorian-2745_640

RCL – Year C – Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost – August 7, 2016
Isaiah 1:1, 10-20 with Psalm 50:1-8, 22-23 or
Genesis 15:1-6 with Psalm 33:12-22 and
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
Luke 12:32-40

Top Photo: CC0 image by Josch13
Bottom Photo: image by 15299PublicDomainPictures

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Emerging Church Musings Sermon Starter

Stumbling Toward a Worthy Life

How many of these names do you recognize?jail-395304_1280

Sandra Bland
Rexdale Henry
Kindra Chapman
Samuel Dubose
Joyce Curnell
Ralkina Jones
Raynette Turner
Sarah Lee Circle Bear

If you live in the United States you should know these names as well as you know that the lion killed in Zimbabwe by a Minnesotan dentist was named Cecil. I’m betting that most of us only know one or two names on this list. I admit that I didn’t know all of them until I did a little research. Seven of them died in holding cells and the eighth was shot by a university police officer. Five of them are Black, one is Choctaw, and one is Lakota. They all died between July 13th and July 28th. These are the names I found with a cursory internet search. I’m betting there are more.

Why is it that when one fool kills a lion for fun, people are vocally outraged and petitions and Kick-starters pop up all over the place? But when People of Color are dying in police custody or are shot by a police officer, the names slip by with little fanfare?

I used to tell myself that it was easier to feel compassion for animals who were killed, abused, or neglected because they are dependent on human beings for so much, especially domesticated animals. However, I’ve come to see the flaw in that thinking. This kind of thinking is born out of a “blame the victim” mentality that I really cannot stand. So I’ve stopped doing it and hope that others will, too. While I do believe that life is sacred, all of it, I cannot grieve more for a lion than I do for the people I have named. These were people who had friends and family who loved them and they did not deserve to die. They all would likely have gone on living if they had not come into contact with the police. Is this not more horrifying than the idea that Cecil would have gone on living if he had not come into contact with a hunter?

In this week’s Gospel reading Jesus clearly states, “I am the bread of life.” This is a message that many have failed to hear or take to heart. We have a tendency to hoard this bread for those who look, sound, and live like us. We have yet to learn how to live it and give it away. I know several clergy who are grumbling about the lectionary spending so much time on “bread.” Clearly, given the state of the world, we need these several weeks of readings and, probably, a few more as well because we have not been living out the truth of these passages.

Jesus fed the crowds and the disciples. He did this not just because they were hungry but also to show them how to feed themselves and others. Jesus knew that his followers would be the ones who would continue his work. I’m not sure how well we’ve done that.  People are starving to death – literally and figuratively – while we do everything in our power to make it someone else’s problem, particularly blaming those who are so very hungry for justice.

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians implores us to “live a life worthy of the calling to which [we] have been called.” Paul wrote these words while imprisoned for living out his faith. Even then, he implored people to live a life of love, a life in which all gifts were used and no one person was more valued than another. In other words, we are called to live lives that build one another up and value each person as a wonderful gift from God. We are not called to sit back and watch violence and hatred destroy and injustice destroy our neighbors.

Whether we agree with all of Paul’s views or not, it is clear that he followed Jesus and in so doing risked everything to proclaim a transformative way of love. What are we willing to risk? At what point do we take an active stand against the racism that makes the murder of People of Color acceptable? At what point do we stop ignoring the deplorable living conditions on the reservations of First Nation Peoples? When do we stop accepting that education and medical care are based on economics and skin color? How many have to die before we decide that Black lives really do matter? Are you and I willing to risk everything (or anything) to live out a life of transforming love?

Jesus is the bread of life. We are the body of Christ. Therefore, we are the bread of life and that means we have tremendous responsibility. As much as we are part of the hungry, needy crowd, we are also those who must respond to the need. If we do not offer the bread of life, a way of peace, in the face of hatred, then who will?

Have mercy on me, O God,breads-387544_1920
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.

Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.

RCL – Year B – Tenth Sunday after Pentecost – August 2, 2015
2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a with Psalm 51:1-12 or
Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15 with Psalm 78:23-29
Ephesians 4:1-16
John 6:24-35

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Emerging Church Prayer

for the living of these days: a litany of confession

churchfireOne:  With churches burning and hate mail flying,
All:     we shy away thinking that has nothing to do with me.

One:  With bombs dropping on faraway cities,
All:     we turn off the news and put up our feet up in comfort.

One:  With ebola still claiming lives in Africa,
All:     we pretend not to know and as we swallow our vitamins.

One:  With drought leaving many poor and hungry,
All:     we ignore the risk, let the water run, and go to the grocery store.

One:  With our prisons housing more people with mental illness,
All:     we tell ourselves it’s okay and cloak ourselves with false righteousness.

One:  With floods, tornados, super storms, and melting arctic ice,autos-415793_1280
All:     we refuse to change our ways thinking global warming is a future problem.

One:  With boat loads of starving refugees off another country’s coast,
All:     we assure ourselves it’s someone else’s problem and eat another snack.

One:  With neighbors living in fear of hatred because they don’t fit the “norm,”
All:     we say that we don’t feel that way and close and lock our doors.

One:  With Jesus calling us to love one another as he loves us,
All:     we clearly still wonder who that carpenter, that son of Mary and Joseph, really is.

One:  Holy One, you lived among us. You showed us a way of love and justice, hospitality and mercy.
All:  Forgive us for failing to recognize you. Forgive us for all the ways in which we have not lived in love, worked for justice, offered hospitality, or embodied mercy.

worship-435108_1920One:  Have mercy on us.
All:     Fill us with the courage to change. May we be your voice that calls for an end to apathy, ignorance, and ambivalence. May we be your hands that bring hope and healing to the victims of racism, war, and hatred and to the planet that we have too long abused and neglected. May our feet walk in your way of peace.

One:  Grant us your grace.
All: May we live fully into the forgiveness you offer that one day there may be healing and equality among all your peoples.

Amen.

RCL – Year B – Sixth Sunday after Pentecost – July 5, 2015
2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10 with Psalm 48 or
Ezekiel 2:1-5 with Psalm 123
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Mark 6:1-13

All photos from Pixabay.com. Used with permission.

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Emerging Church Musings

Holy Week Provokes Deep Thoughts

forest-549664_1280Fear and faith aren’t something we like to put in the same sentence these days. We don’t like to think of God’s presence or actions as something to be afraid of.  We don’t like to focus on  things like “The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom…”. Nor do we dwell on the fact that every time an angel shows up in the scriptures the first words are, “Fear not.” So, too, when Jesus walked on water, he called out to the disciples, “Fear not.” The women left the tomb early that first Easter morning because they were terrified and we tend to ignore or minimize their fear to focus on the rest of the story.

Of course, if we go with tradition and say that God sent Jesus to die for the sins of humanity, then that is a God that inspires terror for sure. What kind of a God would make God’s only child pay for the sins of everyone else? I suppose that would be the same God that punishes human choices with disease and earthquakes. This is a God that would be someone to be feared.

However, this is not who God is. It cannot be. If we start with the premise that God loved the world so much that God became Divine Love Incarnate, then how can we end with a God whose only plan to save humanity was the incredibly violent and ugly act of crucifixion? Divine Violence doesn’t match the picture of Jesus that scriptures paint.

We can’t deny that Jesus suffered. Holy Week reminds us just how much Jesus suffered. Betrayal and abandonment, denial and mockery, death and desertion. These things happened. They happened this way because human beings made human choices. There were people who were afraid that the followers of Jesus would start a rebellion against Rome for sure, and maybe even against Jewish authorities. Jesus knew his life was at risk. He’d gotten the death threats. He had to know there were those out there who would have happily seen him stoned.

When Jesus returned to Jerusalem, he was not oblivious to the political climate. He threatened people with his talk of love and freedom. He was gaining followers who were questioning those in power. So Jesus was arrested, convicted, and crucified in short order. But this does not mean that this was God’s plan all along.

In those days and many days since then, whatever could not be explained was attributed to God. We know that earthquakes are caused by shifting tectonic plates and not the hand of God. We know that diseases are caused by genetics, germs, mutated cells, poor nutrition and the like; they are not a punishment for sin. People die from accidents and illnesses and their own actions; to say it was “God’s will” somehow diminishes all involved, especially God. Things happen all the time that are not what God would choose. Jeremiah reminds the people of Israel that God only plans a prosperous and hopeful future for them. So when things go wrong, it stands to reason that the causes are more likely to be human than they are divine. People choose other than what God would want all the time and innocent people get hurt. The world we live in really is fallen in that it is not a world in which people are forced to choose Love.

Now if we are willing to stop blaming God for all these other things, why is it impossible to consider that the only way God could imagine saving the world was through the crucifixion? A God who is Love who became Love Incarnate surely had a more loving option. However, God let people be people and make the fearful, self-centered decisions people have been making since the beginning. As a result, Jesus was crucified. Yes, God let the spectacularly awful thing happen. But God didn’t leave it there. God then made the unthinkably amazing happen; Jesus rose from the dead.dove-183267_1280

Is God Love? Yes. Was it God’s plan for Jesus to be crucified? No. Did God allow that to happen because God allows humans to choose their own path? Yes. Did God stop loving us because of what we did to Love Incarnate? No. God loved us even more if that is possible. And loves us still. No matter what we do.

And that brings us back to fear. I think that being in the presence of God is absolutely terrifying. Love so huge, so strong, so unavoidable, so steadfast is overwhelming and frightening and an awe-filled kind of way. A God who continues to wrap the whole of creation in love in spite of everything human beings have done, a God who offers God’s own self to show that love, and a God who defies death is something to be truly awed by (in a heart-pounding, knee-knocking kind of way).

If all who profess faith lived fully in the love that God offers us, how different the world would be. How different you would be. How different I would be… It really is a scary thought. So, let us be like those women and run away from the empty tomb that is so deeply unnerving. And later, when the fear wears off a bit, we will tell the story, our story, because that is what people do.

RCL – Year B – Easter – April 5, 2015
Acts 10:34-43 or Isaiah 25:6-9
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
1 Corinthians 15:1-11 or Acts 10:34-43
John 20:1-18 or Mark 16:1-8

Images from pixabay.com. Used with permission.

Categories
Emerging Church Prayer

Litany of Confession

solar-system-566537_1920Have we not known? Have we not heard? Has it not been told to us from the beginning?

Even though we know, we have heard, and we have been told, it is so hard to remember that God is the creator of all that is.

We cling so desperately to our thoughts, our ways, our beliefs, thinking that we are in charge and have authority over all that is.

Yet in the presence of the One Who Made Us, we are little more than grasses blowing in the wind for a short while. God calls us by name and we continue to treat the earth and one another as if we have not been appointed as stewards over the whole of creation.

When it is convenient for us, we believe that God does not know, does not see, does not care about the harm we have done to our planet, to our neighbors, and to ourselves.

Our ways are not hidden from God now or ever. God knows what we have done, sees what we are doing, and, even still, calls us out of ourselves into a way of love.

It is not too late to change our ways. It is not too late to face what we have done and what we have left undone.

Knowing that God’s understanding is unsearchable and God’s love for us never grows faint, we can turn from all that is harmful and embrace the forgiveness and grace offered to us in Christ.

Just as Jesus went to Simon’s mother-in-law and healed her, Christ comes to us, offering
healing and wholeness that we, too, might begin again in a life of service.lindau-232169_1920

We can let go of our demons of selfishness, fear, anxiety, addiction, judgment, ignorance, racism and all the other beliefs and behaviors that cause us to bring harm into this world.

We remember that God gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless.

Through Christ, we will, indeed, run and not grow weary and walk and not grow faint.

Amen.

Photos Pixabay.com. Used with Permission.

RCL – Year B – Fifth Sunday after Epiphany – February 8, 2015
Isaiah 40:21-31
Psalm 147:1-11, 20c
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
Mark 1:29-39

Categories
Musings Sermon Starter

Not Exactly Original, But Sin Nonetheless

Scriptures about power, greed, sin, and forgiveness aren’t always welcome today. Somewhere along the line, talking about sin has gone out of fashion almost to the extreme. I was once the short-term interim at a church that wouldn’t allow a prayer of confession even on communion Sundays because the idea of sin made them uncomfortable. Sin, especially our own, should make us uncomfortable. Sin by definition is that which separates us from, or breaks relationship with, God, ourselves, or others. Forgiveness should alleviate the discomfort sin creates. If we don’t acknowledge our sins, how on earth can we accept anyone’s forgiveness, including God’s?

The readings from 1 Kings, 2 Samuel, and Luke all address people in power who succumb to greed in one way or another, commit some serious sins, and face forgiveness or not. These texts can easily inform many contemporary contexts. The obvious invitation is to examine our own lives and see where power, sin, and forgiveness interact. On another level, asking similar questions of a congregation could be fruitful. And I can’t help but think about our national identity and the sins we commit as a powerful nation (not that I believe or think or want this to be a Christian country).

When I read about Jezebel getting Naboth killed so Ahab can have his vineyard, I’m amazed at the brazen abuse of power. Neither Jezebel nor Ahab saw anything wrong in doing whatever was necessary to get what they wanted. It didn’t matter to them that an innocent man was killed. Even when Elijah pointed out the wrong doing, Ahab was unphased. The questions that come to my mind are these:  When have I used the power I have to get what I wanted without regard for another’s needs? Did I defend these actions or did I ask for forgiveness? Has the church (the congregation I attend or the denomination I am part of) acted without regard to its neighbor’s needs at any point? Does the church acknowledge this sin and seek forgiveness? When has this nation taken from others without regard to consequences for others? Do we stand unphased or do we seek forgiveness?

Like Jezebel, King David used his power to get Bathsheba for himself. He acted on impulse and desire. As a result Uriah the Hittite was murdered. When Nathan pointed out David’s sin, David recognized that he had indeed “sinned against the Lord.” God offered forgiveness, but the consequences for David’s sins were not wiped out. Here my questions are: When I have acted on impulse and caused harm to another, have I been able to acknowledge my sin and accept forgiveness? Do I view painful consequences as punishment for sin or am I able to face the situation knowing that God has forgiven me? When has the church acted on impulse and caused harm to others? Has the community explored forgiveness even as painful consequences may be felt for years? As a nation, when have we taken what belongs to another and made it our own? Have we acknowledged this sin? What role does forgiveness play as we deal with the long-term consequences?

After these two stories of power and sin, there is the third. Luke’s version of the woman who anointed Jesus comes at this theme from the opposite direction. The woman is clearly a SINNER and she offers Jesus what others did not. Simon the Pharisee offered Jesus nothing in the way of typical hospitality even though Simon would have believed himself to be a much better person than the woman. She recognized that Jesus deserved all she had to offer. She brought her whole self – pricy jar and costly tears – and she showed Jesus hospitality like no other. And no one understood. For this passage my questions are: When have I believed myself to be better than another and, thereby, missed offering Jesus radical hospitality? As a church, whom have we failed to welcome? How have we withheld hospitality from others and from Jesus? As a nation, whom do we judge unworthy? Is there a place for forgiveness and hospitality in our national identity?

All these texts are rich and relevant. But I will end my reflections here since this is not a sermon and is only meant to stimulate thoughts and further reflection on the relevance of lectionary texts for the modern reader. So may it be.

For you are not a God
     who delights in wickedness;
evil will not sojourn with you.

The boastful will not stand before your eyes;
     you hate all evildoers.

You destroy those who speak lies;
     God abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful.

But I, through the abundance of your steadfast love,
     will enter your house,
I will bow down towards your holy temple
     in awe of you.

Lead me, O God, in your righteousness
     because of my enemies;
make your way straight before me.

pennyRCL – Fourth Sunday After Pentecost – June 16, 2013

1 Kings 21:1-10, (11-14), 15-21a with Psalm 5:1-8 or
2 Samuel 11:26-12:10,13-15 with Psalm 32
Galatians 2:15-21
Luke 7:36-8:3

photo from pdphoto.org