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Musings Sermon Starter

Suicide Prevention: Embodying Love, Forgiveness, and Mercy

Image: square of sunlight shining through a dark tunnel

As I write, I am aware that September is National Suicide Prevention Month and September 10th is World Suicide Prevention Day. It’s the prefect time to talk about God’s love, forgiveness, and mercy and how they save lives, or could if congregations could grasp hold of them in meaningful, transformative ways.

Let’s start with the story of the Israelites escaping Egypt. This is a familiar story. We know that God heard the people’s cry and sent Moses and Aaron to free them from Pharaoh’s oppressive rule, a Pharaoh who did not know Joseph. After a series of plagues, the Israelites follow Moses and cross the Red Sea. Pharaoh’s army is washed out. It’s a powerful story of God’s liberating love, without question. If we look closer, there are also some indications of how God continues to work in our lives.

The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them.It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. And so the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night; one did not come near the other all night.

Exodus 14:19-20

Notice that the angel, the cloud, moves from the position of leading out of oppression to the position of protector from the persuers. It’s the next verse that I find particularly compelling. The cloud was there with the darkness. In the midst of the fleeing, the fear, the chaos, the literal dark of night, the cloud was there and it provided light, safety, guidance, protection, and hope. It kept the dark from being all there was. What a powerful metaphor for the Body of Christ today. If we could be the presence that is there with the darkness, the despair, the hopelessness, the depression, the chaos, then we, as church, could be the beacon that keeps the gaping maw of total despair at bay. If we could be the embodiment of the liberating God who offers love, forgiveness, and mercy without judgement or condition, we could save lives. Imagine the church as the cloud, the messenger of God, that can lead out of oppression and protect from the oppressive forces. There would be hope for all, especially those who struggle with suicidality.

If this story is not sufficient for how the church could be a powerful witness while in the midst of all that is life-destroying in this world, there are others. Think of the story of Joseph. He was thrown into a pit by his brothers and sold into slavery. When he could have become embittered and held onto anger, he offered forgiveness to his brothers. He recognized that while his brothers had intended harm, God transformed Joseph situation into something good and lifesaving. We can learn much from this story.

We can see that we should not look down on those caught in the “pits” of today’s world. It’s not like they fell into the depths on their own. While their literal siblings might not have been the ones to discard them, they were definitely discarded. Also, we never know whom God will pick to do great things, even those who have been sold out by others who ought to know better.

And then there is the forgiveness piece. Joseph modeled how God forgives us – without condition. It was enough for Joseph that his brothers came with humility seeking his help. God requires even less than that. Of course, we cannot find God’s forgiveness and live it out if we do not go seeking it with humility. So, too, for our congregations. We need to approach God like Joseph’s brothers, acknowledging that we are responsible for the pits of society; if we didn’t help dig them, we’ve not done all that we could to fill them in. While we are seeking God’s forgiveness, we also need to be offering it much more freely. If God forgives without condition, the church should be like Joseph was with his brothers and be profligate with forgiveness.

Just imagine how a forgiving community could change the life of someone who lives with tremendous guilt and shame over things that they have done or things that have been done to them. A word of forgiveness, an act of merciful acceptance, can save lives when offered with sincerity. For the person who lives with symptoms of mental illness, especially suicidality, a reminder of God’s forgiveness embodied by a community has more power than most of us recognize.

Jesus was clear on the power and importance of giving and receiving forgiveness. You know, “forgive seventy-seven times” meaning as many times as necessary. If we believe that we are loved without condition, then we must work toward accepting God’s unconditional forgiveness. It’s imperative that we do this. There are people in this world who are desperate for hope, desperate for the presence of God to be with them, illuminating a way through the hopelessness, promising liberation and protection. People who experience suicidality are unlikely to encounter God’s presence because depression lies and blocks out everything except one’s own utter lack of worth. If we want to save lives, then we must embody Divine Love, demonstrating unconditional forgiveness, and offering continuous mercy.

No one is exempt from suicidal thoughts, especially now in this time of pandemic. While we work toward living into God’s vision of love, forgiveness, and mercy, let’s take time to equip ourselves to save lives. Learn the risks for suicide, the warning signs, and the resources in your community and denomination. Hopelessness, depression, anxiety, and suicide are all on the rise. When we embody God’s love without conditions, we save lives. When we talk about mental illness and suicidality in our churches, we save lives. This is the work that God has set before us in 2020 – to do all that we can to save lives. We have work to do. Yet, we do not go alone. There is a Light that shines with us all and nothing can extinguish it. It is our guide and our protector. May we all live lives of love, forgiveness, and mercy so that our churches may be lifesaving.

Image: Text HOME to 741741 for crisis support in the U.S.
Image: Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255

For more about being a Lifesaving Church.

RCL – Year A – Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 13, 2020
Exodus 14:19-31 with Psalm 114
or Exodus 15:1b-11, 20-21
Genesis 50:15-21 with Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13
Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 18:21-35

Top Photo: CC0image by Rúben Gál

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Musings Sermon Starter

Finding What We Lost

When Jesus told the parables about the lost sheep and the missing coin, he was trying to get his listeners to understand the magnitude of God’s love. No matter how many sheep are in the flock, the lost one is worth looking for. No matter how many precious coins in hand, the missing one is worth searching for. God does not give up on God’s people no matter what we do. If we go astray, God will search us out. This was good news to the original audience and it is good news for today’s audience. In the midst of National Suicide Prevention Week, these parables take on an even greater significance.

The core meaning of these parables does not change. However, they also contain a mandate that the church has generally overlooked. We like to think of ourselves as part of the 99 who remain, secure in our righteousness. While we remain safe within our rules about membership and what a “true” Christian believes, we assume that God will save the lost ones of today. We don’t want to take responsibility for what we have broken. We can be secure in our paddocks constructed by our “thoughts and prayers” while God searches out those who are lost. This way, we can keep our hands clean and pass judgement on those who struggle from the high vantage point of (self)righteousness.

That first audience might not have understood what Jesus was talking about. He was saying new things and talking about being the people of God in radical ways. However, Christians today have had generations of practice and we still aren’t living the way Jesus taught. We are to be the Body of Christ alive in the world today. This means we are to be living out the ways of love that Jesus taught. We are to be seeking the lost with more than just our prayers. People live on the margins and edges of society because we who live in the center have essentially let them go, if not actively pushed them out. We seldom recognize the value of what we have lost.

Life expectancy in the U.S. is declining for the first time since World War I. Climbing suicide rates and opioid-related deaths contribute to this decline in significant ways. I would venture to guess that the rising suicide rates and opioid deaths correlate to the decline in faith community membership. (Remember: Correlation does not imply causation.) The decline in membership suggests that organized religion does not meet the needs of people the way it once did, and religious institutions have not done a great job changing in order to meet those needs. The problem is that the spiritual needs for community, purpose, and identity are not being adequately addressed in the absence of church (or other faith community) membership and participation.

We, as human beings, need to be in community where we are known, valued, and have a sense of purpose. Without these spiritual needs being met, we tend to drift toward complacency, ambivalence, apathy, or, more often than not, a sense of hopelessness. This pervasive sense of hopelessness is at the core of declining life expectancy. In a world filled with violence and destruction, where do we find hope and strength outside of faith? In a country where it is no longer possible for each generation to be more “successful” than the previous one, where do we find purpose and value outside of faith?

Our faith communities are declining because we have failed to learn the lessons Jesus’ taught. We have failed to recognize the innate value, the Christ, in every person. The parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin tell us of God’s active and abiding love for us, a love that will seek us out no matter how lost we are. In our desire to be “perfect” disciples, we have become too attached to our rules and traditions. We have failed to see those we have excluded as worthy of seeking after, other than to, perhaps, save their souls. I think Jesus had something else in mind.

God doesn’t need our help saving souls; God needs our help saving lives. People are literally living on the edge of life, falling over into death every day. Church can no longer afford to remain silent about mental illness, addiction, or suicidality. None of these things are a punishment for sin, lack of willpower, or signs of God’s disapproval; they are all as biological as diabetes or cardiac issues. People with mental health challenges, addictions, or suicidality often remain silent in church, if they attend at all. People with these struggles are lost to us because our theology is out of date. Jesus embodied a Love that had no limits. When will we?

As church it is our job to seek after the lost because we are not whole without those who are not present. Our wholeness as the Body of Christ depends on us including everyone in the love of God. People are dying because they have no hope, because they do not know their value, because they do not know they are beloved. If church does not share God’s unconditional, actively searching love with the most vulnerable among us, then we are not church; we are not the Body of Christ.

Embedded in these ancient parables is a call to love, a call to action. As the Body of Christ we have the power to save lives. Let’s commit ourselves to sharing a message of unconditional love, radical welcome, and steadfast hope. Isn’t it time we do something to prevent further decline in life expectancy and share a God’s vision of a future filled with hope and good things?

RCL – Year C – Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 8, 2019
Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28 with Psalm 14 or
Exodus 32:7-14 with Psalm 51:1-10 and
1 Timothy 1:12-17 and
Luke 15:1-10

Photo: CC0 image by Anja

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Musings Sermon Starter

From Death to Life

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Those little purple faces poking up next to the sidewalk on my way out of church on Sunday were nearly my undoing. Not exactly the color purple in a field, but I noticed. I saw them innocently reaching for the sun, the first of spring flowers I’ve seen this year. And, yes, I thanked God for them even as tears flooded my eyes. My grief, my heartbreak, has me desperately searching for new life, signs that God has not yet given up on humanity.

Thank God for violets. And thank God for good friends who call to check in after seeing the sorrow, sadness, and anger on social media. A young man, so full of promise and love, murdered by another young man with an AK-47 for reasons yet unknown, maybe never to be known. My friend, sister in Spirit, crying out for her beloved son who is no longer here. I’m at a loss for words, grasping for hope, knowing this grief will be hers to carry forever; mine to share just a fragment, maybe not even enough to ease the burden.

Then my friend who called to check in. We’ve been friends for decades, and we’ve been through so much together, bearing one another’s burdens as only long-time friends can. After checking in, offering condolences, he said it. He didn’t know how pastors do what we do in times like these. Louisiana churches set on fire. Notre Dame burning. Churches bombed on Easter. Another Synagogue shooting. Rachel Held Evans dying. Oceans choking on plastic. Hunger and thirst killing people. AK-47s in the hands of the young, angry, and hopeless. Where is God? Where is hope? Humanity is lost and does not want to be found.

Truth.

And, yet… I often say that as long as there is breath there is hope. We can repent and seek God’s holy ways. It is not too late for those of us who live and breathe to turn toward Love. We can stop giving in to the lies of the Empire that feed the fear that divides us and dehumanizes our neighbors. We can continue to live in the deceitful myth that feeds our egos and tells us that we don’t need anything but willpower and determination. We can continue to tell ourselves that any success we have is because of our own hard work and not because others helped us along the way. We can uphold the pretense that our worship is the only right and true worship and that the lip service we spew out pleases God. We can continue as we are and call it life, life that contributes to rising suicide rates, the opioid crisis, and a decline in life-expectancy. There’s no immediate risk in preserving the status quo of fear, anger, hatred, and hopelessness, right?

We are destroying God’s creation because we’d rather let politicians and lobbyists get rich and believe their lies that tell us we can’t change anything because it costs too much. Our children are dying on the streets because white supremacy says black lives don’t matter and we accept it as fact. More and more people are engaging in suicidal behavior because we remain silent and judgmental when it comes to mental illness and keep the source of hope a secret meant only for the righteous. We have created, actively or passively, a world that accepts violence, thrives on fear, and feeds the vulnerable a steady diet of despair.

Enough. Peter walked into a death room and prayed for life. You know what happened? New life filled Tabitha. I wish I had that ability to breathe life into a dead body. I don’t. But we do have the power to breathe life into a dying church. Our thoughts and our actions are our true prayers. Rachel Held Evans was a voice of hope for the more evangelical, conservative church; her untimely death is a tragedy for her family, friends, and the church. I am confident her light will shine on as others continue her work. For the moderate to progressive church who claims to understand inclusion and welcome, who will shake us up? Who will come like Peter into the death room and call us to new life? Who will speak to us powerfully enough that the Spirit fills our lungs? Who will ask us to step away from our traditional sanctuaries and carefully scripted worship? Who will call us away from the safety of our practices and into the unpredictable flow of the Spirit?

We know how to heal Creation, where hope lies, and how to stop the bleeding. We do. We know the truth. Yet, we do not believe it, and it is killing us. The message of God’s love, lived out in Jesus, is the Truth we need. It is still the balm that can heal a sin-sick world. We are called to Love God, our neighbors, ourselves, and the whole of Creation. Jesus showed us the way from death to life, from human ways to holy ways. It’s love – with thought and action. Love that leaves no one behind. Love that speaks truth to fear, to anger, to violence, to hopelessness, to death.

I don’t know about you, but I cannot remain in this death room any longer. Pray with me. Come, Holy Spirit, come. Come now and lead us into life. Life that values everyone, that does not cower in fear, and will not let anyone slide into hopelessness. Let your church be as early spring violets. Undo us with the power of your Love right now.

If not now, then when? If not you and me, then who?

RCL – Year C – Fourth Sunday of Easter – May 12, 2019
Acts 9:36-43
Psalm 23
Revelation 7:9-17
John 10:22-30

Photos CC-BY-NC image by Rachael Keefe

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Musings Sermon Starter

Make a Choice

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Most years when Palm Sunday arrives, I’m ready for the parades and the hosannas and the choice the day implies. There’s no need for the stones to cry out; I’m there. This year? Not so much. Sunday’s parades seem like they are far off and maybe Pilate’s war horses and shiny armor will overpower Jesus’ colt and cloaks. Who’s really paying attention this year? Who has palm branches at the ready and hosannas to spare?

When I talk about suicide prevention and the steady rise in suicide rates, people always ask why are so many dying by suicide? The answer to that is complex, of course. But there is no denying that there is a pervasive sense of hopelessness. Many people feel trapped in lives that seem not to have much of a future with poverty and racism and injustice all around. Others feel isolated and alone without a place where they are known and have a sense of belonging. Every day there are more reports of immigrants, refugees, and other vulnerable people being mistreated with fear and ignorance fanning the flames of dehumanization.

It’s no coincidence that a rise in hopelessness, a continuing increase in suicidality and suicide, is happening at the same time faith and involvement in faith communities is declining. Jesus didn’t ride a donkey through the back streets of Jerusalem to preserve the status quo. Jesus rode to demonstrate that true power comes with humility and a willingness to serve others. He also rode to invite people to change, to recognize that God calls us to new things, new understandings, new practices – then and now.

Jesus dared to oppose the powers of his day with his words, his actions, his life. He did not sit back and allow the ways of the Roman Empire to separate, isolate, and disempower people. He did not remain silent when the Temple Authorities sought to maintain peace by serving Rome and silencing the people, particularly those without resources. Jesus spoke truth to power. He challenged the emptiness of religious practices by those who cared more about accumulating Roman money than serving God. He actively reached out and re-membered people who lived on the margins. He restored life to those who had been cast out. He spoke hard words of hope to a people accustomed to oppression.

Miraculously, some heard Jesus’ words. Some recognized him. Some dedicated their lives to following him, learning from him, trying to live as he lived. I wish I knew how many people witnessed his humble parade on that first Palm Sunday. I’ll bet more chose to pay homage to Rome, enamored by the display of power and the promise of safety implied by war horses, armor, and spears. I’ll bet even more stayed home to avoid the chaos all together. It is easier to stay home, not make an active choice, and pretend that it is someone else’s problem than it is to decisively attend one parade or another.

Some would choose Rome simply because they were afraid, and the Roman armies had power. Others chose Jesus because he spoke of love and freedom and made them feel hopeful under the weight of Roman oppression. The rest who stayed home, these are the ones that capture my attention today. The large numbers of people who didn’t believe their lives, their actions, counted for anything. The ones whose hope had long been extinguished by the oppressive weight of empire have me wondering if they ever made a different decision. Their decision not to choose was a decision in support of Rome, whether they knew it or not. Inaction preserves the status quo and sustains the oppressors.

That’s where we are today. There is so much ambivalence and apathy that comes from hopeless and isolation. The empire of any age will seek to divide, dehumanize, and disempower. The more we give in to our fears and remain inactive, the more despair and hopelessness thrives. People are literally dying for want of human connection, human care, a place to belong.

Church, we have a choice to make. We can continue as we are and support the oppressive empire that seeks to divide, dehumanize, and disempower by valuing our traditions more than the people outside our doors. Or we can choose the way of humility and acknowledge that in order to live the Good News, we need to re-member, re-connect, and serve the vulnerable among us, those who have been cast out.

God is still inviting us to a new thing. No matter how tired we are or how ill-prepared we feel, the day of choosing is close. May we all make a choice for new life, renewed hope, and re-membered community as we journey through Holy Week. Let’s not give the stones a reason to cry out.

RCL – Year C – Palm Sunday – April 14, 2019
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
Luke 19:28-40

Photo: CC0 image by Slovenčina

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Musings

A Way in the Wilderness

Once more I find myself sitting in an airport waiting to board the plane that will take me to another state where I will keynote at a conference. This surprises me almost every time. I marvel that I am now paid to break the silence and shatter the stigma around suicidality. For decades I was told never to share the details of my past, the details of my struggle with suicidality, depression, and an eating disorder. Now I am invited to come and speak these things out loud and challenge people of faith (all faith traditions, not just Christian) to examine their beliefs about suicide and see what needs to change in order to save lives. It’s more amazing than you might guess.

While I contemplate the transformation my life has undergone in the last decade or so, I think about the woman who anointed Jesus with oil of nard. While I do not believe that John’s gospel has the details correct, there is power in the story nonetheless. I doubt that Mary of Bethany was the woman who poured the expensive perfume over Jesus. Mary was a friend and the risk of her anointing Jesus in the company of other friends, was minimal. To think of this woman as an outcast, perhaps a prostitute, who entered the home of a leper (Matthew, Mark) or a pharisee (Luke) assumed a greater personal risk. This personal risk of rejection or condemnation adds a depth to the story that is missing in John’s more homey account.

That being said, it’s the anointing itself that matters most. Be it Mary or an unknown woman, she anointed Jesus with immeasurable extravagance. A jar, perhaps an alabaster jar, of rare, expensive oil could have been used for other purposes. The disciples wondered why it wasn’t sold and the money given to the poor. If a more reasonable person wanted to support Jesus’ ministry, even in the last days, the oil could have been sold and the money used to purchase food, clothing, or shelter for Jesus and his disciples. Or, looking at the days ahead, the money could have been spent on a really good lawyer. Why simply dump it on Jesus’ head for no perceivable reason?

Well, Jesus answers this question, sort of… Jesus tells them that the poor will always be around or that they should always be with the poor. In contrast, he wasn’t going to be with them much longer, at least not physically. The anointing, the extravagance, was good and necessary. I can just see the disciples shaking their heads in puzzlement. How was this waste the right thing?

Many of us ask this question today. We have choices to make with our resources. How often do we choose to pour out our very best on Jesus? Are we willing to give to Jesus that which is most valuable? What extravagant love have we offered Jesus just because Jesus is Jesus?

When it comes to transformation, it might just require this extravagant outpouring from us. I think about my own experience. I held so tightly to my own pain. I thought it defined me. I thought it was the most valuable thing about me. Over time, I was able to let it go and ask God to put something new in its place. The letting go was scary, not unlike walking into the house of a pharisee or leper as an unwanted outcast. Trusting God to heal the deeply broken parts of me was a kind of outpouring, offering God everything I had in exchange, nothing withheld. Can you smell the nard, the extravagance, filling the room?

Church, it’s time we seek to anoint Jesus with that which we hold most dear. We need to break those jars and let the smell of extravagant love flood the room while the tears of grief fall. Trust in God is a gift we can offer anytime. If we break our precious jars over Jesus’ head, there are those among us who will not understand and grumble about the cost. God is always doing a new thing and clearing a way in the wilderness. It’s time for us to stop doing the same old thing and try out extravagant love and see what transformation comes in its wake. It is worth the risk. Lives will be saved as a result for this is God’s promise to us – life, and life abundant at that.

RCL – Year C – Fifth Sunday in Lent – April 7, 2019
Isaiah 43:16-21
Psalm 126
Philippians 3:4b-14
John 12:1-8

Photo: CC0 image by andreas N

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Musings Sermon Starter

Time to be Prodigal (with Love)

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…let all who are faithful offer prayer to you; at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters shall not reach them. You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with glad cries of deliverance.

Don’t tell. Don’t share this with anyone. Keep that to yourself. Nobody needs to know. Secrets tangled with silence to create shame. For years I believed that I had done horrible things, that I was a bad person, a disappointment to all. I had more secrets than I could keep, and they were consuming me. Even after the crisis of my adolescent years had passed, the advice I received was to keep quiet and demonstrate that I was well and looking forward to the fullness of life.

Some people who told me to keep quiet only wanted to protect themselves. Others wanted to protect me. I couldn’t tell the difference. I thought I was an embarrassment to everyone who knew me because I had these things festering inside of me. I thought no one would want me around if they really knew who I was, what had been done to me, and what I had done. And, of course, there was no way I would have been ordained if I had been honest about the struggles that followed me into young adulthood.

Every time I read the “Prodigal Son” parable I am reminded of the longing I felt in those years when I was held hostage by shame. I had empathy for both sons in the story. I identified with the younger son who went off and wasted his gifts on things that left him alone, hungry, and longing for home. I also had an affinity for the older son who always did the right and expected thing and resented everyone around him for not doing their part. Of course, the bulk of his resentment fell on his younger brother and father upon the wayward one’s return. Why was he not celebrated with such lavish attention when he never did anything but serve his father?

5c93f3e6ba24b.pngThese two warred within me. I continued to hold against myself all the self-destructive things I had done. Even though the ongoing suicidality and eating disorder were not readily apparent to anyone else, I hated myself for not wanting to live and for wanting to starve myself. I hated myself for all that I could not speak out loud. I, like the younger son, had squandered my gifts and remained unsatisfied and hungry and alone. Yet, I kept this hidden under the façade like the older son. I, too, sought to do all that was right and expected while secretly building resentment. Who was going to fill my life with extravagant welcome?

Now, many years later, I see how I missed the heart of this parable. It wasn’t the sibling rivalry. It wasn’t about wasted gifts and self-destruction anymore than it was about harboring resentments while doing the right things. I’d always overlooked the father in the story. He was far more prodigal with his love than the youngest son was in wasting his inheritance. It was the father who waited patiently for his sons to figure themselves out. It was the father who remained, ready to open his arms with love and forgiveness no matter how long it took.

In those years that I spent ashamed and feeling unworthy and unlovable, I missed the message of prodigal love. God already knew the worst of what had happened to me and the worst of what I had done. No silence was big enough or heavy enough to keep God out of my life. Shame was not a barrier, either. All the years I spent harboring pain and hiding the truth, God waited patiently for me to accept the gifts of grace, forgiveness, and healing God offers all of us. There was a party being held in my honor and I was the last one to show up and see it for what it was.suicidetext

Only when I realized that I was more than the secrets I kept was I able to let go of the shame and break the silence I had acquired in childhood. With suicide making headlines again, it’s a good time to remember that God is a prodigal God, endlessly, lavishly pouring out love and grace, forgiveness and healing. Who do you know that needs to be invited to the party held in their honor? Who do you know who carries shame and guilt who needs a word of hope and promise? Who do you know who hides in a silence that love could shatter?

Isn’t it time that we all practices prodigal love of God, of ourselves, of our neighbors, of creation? Imagine liberating the Body of Christ from these days of scarcity, fear, and shame to a future of abundance, peace, and love for all…

For sermon help, try here.

RCL – Year C – Fourth Sunday in Lent – March 31, 2019
Joshua 5:9-12
Psalm 32
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Photo: CC0 image by czu-czu

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Musings Sermon Starter

The Truth about Greatness

***Trigger Warning:  The following references sexual violence. It does not describe any events in detail, but names things that could be difficult for some readers.***

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Jesus valued what society dismissed. He didn’t care which of his disciples could most accurately quote scriptures or put the most in the offering bucket or walked the longest distance. He didn’t care if Peter could say with this lips that Jesus was the Messiah and he didn’t care that they had all left something behind to follow him. What mattered to Jesus was how they served each other and those around them. Did they see the least among them? Did they gain power by taking it from someone else? Did they disregard the outcasts of their day or did they seek to bring hope and healing?

I don’t remember the first time a man demeaned me with inappropriate comments or actions. At seven I was told that girls don’t play baseball and at nine the wolf whistles began. I was bullied because I cried easily, among other things. At twelve a photographer told me I would be beautiful if I lost a few pounds. It got worse from there.

I’ve been sexually assaulted and raped. I’ve been propositioned by teachers, professors, family friends, and strangers. I’ve been dismissed by potential employers because I’m a woman. I’ve been paid less than my male colleagues by most of my previous employers. I’ve lost friends because I was ordained and, according to them, women shouldn’t be ordained. I lost more friends when I divorced because, even though the relationship was very unhealthy, divorce was not Christian. More friends walked away when I came out because what’s worse than being a divorced, ordained woman? Being those things and not being heterosexual, apparently.

Men have stalked me, propositioned me, hurt me, abused me, dismissed and devalued me for most of my life. I don’t talk about these experiences often because I am more likely than not blamed for what happened to me. Surely, I wore the wrong clothes, said the wrong thing, led the man on, didn’t have the proper qualifications for employment, or whatever else gave men permission to treat me badly. The funny thing is that none of it was my fault.

As it turns out, girls really can play baseball and it wasn’t my fault that puberty struck when I was nine. Being a sensitive child shouldn’t be a defect; where else do poets and artists come from? And no, I didn’t need to lose weight when I was twelve; I was beautiful as I was. And nothing I did or didn’t do gave anyone the right to physically or verbally assault me or rape me. As far as the other stuff goes, woman are quite capable of doing whatever it is they feel called to do. It’s ridiculous, outdated, misogynistic, social conditioning that says otherwise. Worse still is that the church has supported these dangerously foolish notions either by endorsing gender biases with an erroneous reading of scripture or by remaining silent on the issue of sexuality in general and the abuse of women and children in particular.

Too many children and women remain unseen in our society. Being unseen and unheard and invalidated with startling frequency contributed to the development of an eating disorder and a long struggle with suicidality. This happens all too often. Children who are brave enough to report abuse are seldom heard and validated. Women who report sexual assault or rape are dismissed and blamed. It’s also very likely that the perpetrator of such crimes won’t be convicted or will be imprisoned for a comparatively short time.

It’s long past the time to change this. Instead of watching women who are brave enough to report sexual assault be harassed, demeaned, and destroyed, we would do better to listen. Instead of assuming that such stories are made up or excusing the behavior of the perpetrator, we would be doing women a great service by celebrating their strength and supporting their endeavors to end victim-blaming and hold abusive people accountable. In addition, wouldn’t it be a healthier option to teach our children that all have equal value and no one’s body is a plaything for those who are more powerful? And that male or female or Trans* makes no difference in one’s value as a human being?

Jesus overturned the disciples’ understanding of greatness. He placed a child among them and told them that to be great was to be in service to all, especially those who were viewed as the least. To follow Jesus and be truly great is to be servant of all and to uphold the value of every human being, especially those who are vulnerable because they are unseen and unheard by those with power. Jesus saw the value in children and women centuries ago. He saw them and offered them wholeness and abundant life. When will we?

RCL – Year B – Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 23, 2018
Proverbs 31:10-31
Psalm 1 or
Wisdom of Solomon 1:16-2:1, 12-22 or Jeremiah 11:18-20
Psalm 54
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
Mark 9:30-37

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Musings Sermon Starter

Changing the Answer

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It is human nature to reject that which we fear or do not understand. We want to protect ourselves and those we love from pain, illness, suffering, and, really, all forms of distress. We desire life to be clear and easy, preferably with assurances of getting to heaven. While these desires are understandable, they can be dangerous. Our need to be on a safe and right path can lead us to reshape God in our image. Who we say Jesus is matters today as much as it did when Jesus walked the earth.

When Jesus asked his disciples who people thought he was, it wasn’t a simple question. They were in the heavily Roman-occupied Caesarea-Philippi and the answers given could be treasonous. What did the disciples know? How much were they willing to risk? They answered in predictable ways, repeating the talk they had heard. Jesus was seemingly unimpressed. Okay, so most people had no idea. Did the disciples? Surprisingly, they did, or Peter did. Peter said that Jesus was the Messiah. Maybe Jesus was surprised by this and maybe not. I’ll bet Peter was expecting a different sort of Messiah, the kind that would literally liberate the Jewish people from Roman oppression. This proclamation was definitely treasonous even if Peter didn’t quite understand the liberation Jesus would bring about.

After this, Jesus has a few challenging words for the crowd. Being a follower of Jesus is no easy path and ought not to be undertaken lightly. And it isn’t about individual salvation. If we live too much for ourselves, we lose our way, lose the very essence of life. We can’t follow Jesus if we are too worried about our own personal safety and our own seat on the bus to heaven.

September is National Suicide Prevention Month and National Suicide Prevention Week will end on September 15. As we contemplate our answer to Jesus question, “Who do you say that I am?” we would do well to remember our surroundings. Our answers might not put our lives at risk and they might not be treasonous, but they might not be welcome, either. Before we utter our response, think for a moment about the church, the body of Christ.

There are branches of the church who will say that suicidality is a result of demon possession or it is a punishment from God. These branches of church will also blame the individual who struggles with thoughts of suicide for not having enough faith or not praying enough or not pleasing God enough. They will want to put distance between the body of Christ and those who suffer with suicidality. At the same time, they will affirm that Jesus said, “love your neighbor as yourself.”

Suicidality and other symptoms of mental illness know no boundaries. Faith does not keep one safe from depression, PTSD, bullying, grief, or other mental health challenges. Depression is not likely to dissipate from prayer alone. Having thoughts of suicide is not indicative of lack of faith, or demon possession, or displeasing God. Suicidality has many contributing factors (untreated or ineffectively treated mental illness is a significant one), though insufficient faith isn’t one of them. In fact, faith can help heal those who suffer from suicidality and other symptoms of mental illness.

Who is Jesus? My Lord and Savior or the one who came to teach us how to Love, to show us how to be one Body, and to lead us in creating God’s Realm here on earth? The first response is the traditional response. However, it might too narrowly define who Jesus is and have the result of leaving a few people out, not overly different from Peter’s response. If the answer is something like the second, then Jesus demonstrated the path to salvation for all of us. A path that insists on Love and errs on the side of mercy. A path that requires we journey together, supporting those who are vulnerable, helping to bear the suffering of those who struggle in body, mind, or spirit, and making room for all.

Suicidality is a symptom of a mental health challenge and there is hope for those who suffer. Hope lies in medical, psychological, and spiritual treatment. Being the church, the body of Christ, means embodying Christ’s love in a way that leads to life. It means offering radical hospitality and unconditional inclusion to all.

Who is Jesus? For practical purposes, Jesus is you and me and everyone who claims to be Christian. Let’s be the body of Christ that brings hope, healing, and life to those who suffer.

For more information on responding to suicide or suicidality with faith, my NSPL_Logolatest book The Lifesaving Church:  Faith Communities and Suicide Prevention, Chalice Press (2018) is available at Chalice Press and Amazon.

RCL – Year B – Seventeetn Sunday after Pentecost – September 16, 2018
Proverbs 1:20-33
Psalm 19 or Wisdom 7:26-8:1
or
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 116:1-9
James 3:1-12
Mark 8:27-38

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Responding to Suicide with Faith

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Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Creator, is this:
to care for the vulnerable among us in their distress,
and to keep oneself apart from the fears of the world.
(James 1:27, paraphrased)

Suicide is headline news once again. This fact alone increases suicidality and the risk of suicide for many people. How we respond to suicide can contribute to the spread of contagion or our response can be lifesaving. This week as a church in California grieves the suicide death of their pastor and a family in Denver morns for their nine-year-old child who died by suicide, what the church has to say matters. With suicide rates climbing across the country, faith communities cannot afford to remain silent, nor can they afford to speak words that could end in more death. We must speak words of life and embody hope in our communities.

The child who died by suicide at the end of last week was nine. He was gay. He was bullied. His death is tragic and unnecessary. What messaging are we putting out in the world that makes it right for children to bully a child so much that they end up dead? There are many branches of the church (and other faith traditions) that contribute to this behavior with the view of LGBTQ+ individuals are sinners, people who “choose” to live outside of what they understand to be God’s prescribed norms. A  recent study has shown that such theological views can contribute to suicidality and suicide in young adults. Church has no business endorsing theology that contributes to death. Jesus was prettying clear on this. He wanted people to have life and have it abundantly (Jn 10:10).

Our default setting of biblical literalism is detrimental to the life of the church in general and to the life of many vulnerable people. The time has come to bring reason and scholarship to our reading of scripture. It is irresponsible and potentially deadly to take passages written thousands of years ago in a particular time and place and apply them to today without questioning why and how they were written, not to mention the complications of translating ancient languages into modern English. Nuances are often missed. And some big things, too. For example, we no longer believe the world is flat and that God resides in the sky above. We also know that not every skin disease is leprosy and that physical ailments and mental illness are not divine punishment for sin or the result of demon possession. Just because the people who wrote the Bible believed that all things happened because God was either pleased or displeased, doesn’t me we have to hold to the same belief. The lens through which we read scripture should not be the same as those who accompanied Moses out of the wilderness or even those who journeyed with Jesus or Paul.

Like the biblical literalism that leads to condemnation, questioning how a nine-year-old can know they are gay is irrelevant and just deflects the real issue. We cannot afford to remain silent while children are dying by suicide. The church has no place in teaching a theology that leads to death or has nothing to say when a child is bullied to the point of suicide. Are we not taught to love one another and to care for the most vulnerable among us? Where is the Gospel for LGBTQ+ children and youth, and adults?

While we are contemplating where the Word of Life might be for LGBTQ+ folks, we can also ask where it is for those who suffer with depression and other forms of mental illness. If we remain stuck in biblical literalism, more people will die. The pastor who died by suicide in California is not the only person who cannot reconcile his faith with his lived reality of symptoms of mental illness. Clinical depression and other forms of mental illness are biological diseases, diseases of the brain, and need to be treated as such. For the best possible outcomes, symptoms of mental illness need to be treated with a combination of medicine, therapy, spiritual practices, and social supports. Demons do not cause mental illness. Mental illness is biological with biological causes. Faith and prayer will not protect us from mental illness nor will faith alone heal anyone. However, faith can be beneficial to those who live with symptoms of mental illness in general and suicidality in particular.

We also need to be careful with how we share messages of love and hope. Jumping immediately to the proclamation that one who has died by suicide is at peace, with Jesus, or in heaven increases the likelihood that others will engage in suicidal behavior or die by suicide. Nor should we endorse the old idea that the person who died by suicide is condemned. This is not safe messaging for those who struggle with thoughts of suicide. The truth is that we do not know how God responds to suicide. What we do know is that what God wants for anyone is a future filled with hope and good things, not suffering (Jer 29:11). What Word of hope can we offer those who live in despair and experience the bleakness of feeling unlovable and unwanted? Yes, we can pray for God to be merciful and loving with the one who died by suicide. We can also pray that God will shape us into the Body of Christ that shares Love and grace with all we meet in such a way that saves lives. This might mean that we are challenged to let go of some long-held beliefs in order to travel on the holy way, a way that embodies Love and has room for all, without exception.

Church, we can do better. An ever-increasing number of children, youth, adults, and elders are dying by suicide. We must ask ourselves how we can safely offer a message of love, value, and belonging to those we have historically left outside our doors, particularly LGBTQ+ individuals and those who live with symptoms of mental illness. If one person among us suffers, then the Body of Christ suffers. We are all members of one another (1 Cor 12:12ff). If one among us has a mental illness, then the Body of Christ has a mental illness. If one among us is queer, then the Body of Christ is queer. If one among us is suicidal, then the Body of Christ is suicidal. It’s time we accept this reality and love without condition. We are the embodiment of Christ and Christ was all about saving lives with the power of Divine Love. May we have the grace to do the same so that shame and stigma are no longer welcome in the Body of Christ.

NSPL_LogoIn the meantime, know the indicators that someone might be at greater risk for suicide. If you suspect someone you love is suicidal, talk to them and get help – 1-800-273-8255 or check here for more options. If you are suicidal, please tell someone or call the hotline; you are loved more than you know. If you are being bullied, please tell someone who can help or try here for support; your life is worth living. If you are not experiencing a mental health crisis and would like to share your thoughts or experiences, you are welcome to email me rachael@beachtheology.com.

Beloved, let us love one another.

For more information on responding to suicide or suicidality with faith, my latest book The Lifesaving Church:  Faith Communities and Suicide Prevention, Chalice Press (2018) is available at Chalice Press and Amazon.

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

RCL – Year B – Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 2, 2018
Song of Solomon 2:8-13 with Psalm 45:1-2, 6-9 or
Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9 with Psalm 15
James 1:17-27
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

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Parsing “Crazy”

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“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” This old playground chant is as false as the Tooth Fairy, and far more damaging. It’s possible that many people told me I was smart and pretty and capable when I was a child. That’s not what I remember, though. I remember the cruel words of classmates, and harsh comments made by family members. These were the things that reached deep into my being and grabbed hold with a surprising strength. It’s taken many years to heal the wounds these words left, while the physical injuries healed in a matter of days.

There is a reason that Jesus is the Word-Become-Flesh. It’s hard to ignore the Word of God when flesh and blood are involved. The Incarnation can remind us that words take on a life of their own as soon as we speak them (or write them). Our words should echo the Word, filled with abundant life and love. However, that is often not the case. We become complacent or ambivalent or even apathetic, and let the words flow without regard to who might be listening.

Some reporting around the most recent celebrity death by suicide shows how apathy (or ignorance?) can create language that is risky. A few news outlets reported the method of suicide. Those of us not at risk for suicide may think nothing of this other than that it is a tragedy. Others who live with suicidality or are at increased risk at this time may have different thoughts entirely, thoughts that can lead to suicidal behavior or another suicide death. Reporting that someone dies by suicide is fine. Naming or describing the means spreads contagion: increasing the likelihood that others may engage in the same behavior. Naming the means of suicide helps no one and, potentially, harms many. Naming suicide as the cause of death breaks the silence and the stigma surround suicide, and may enable someone to reach out and seek help. Our language matters.

Language has always mattered. When we look at the text in Mark where Jesus is accused of “being out of his mind” and being possessed by Beelzebub, we have to wonder how to phrase these things today. We might be tempted to say that people thought Jesus was “crazy.” There was a time when this would have been a fine description. Yet the word “crazy” is not what it once was. It’s a derogatory word for many who carry a mental health diagnosis, even if we choose to use it to describe ourselves or our own family systems. However, when the label is pasted onto us by others, it doesn’t feel good. In essence, “crazy” is a word I can use to describe my own mental health, but not a word that you can use to describe me (unless you, too, carry a mental health diagnosis and we have an agreement that “crazy” is okay to use between us).

When Jesus’ family sought to “get hold of him” because there were people saying that he was not in his right mind, it’s possible that some in the crowd meant the description to be derogatory. It’s also possible that they were trying to protect him because he was putting himself in danger with what he was saying and what he was doing. They could have been saying, “he’s unwell” like we might say of a friend who was engaging in risky behavior because they were experiencing symptoms of mental illness.

On the other hand, when the Temple Authorities accuse him of being possessed by Beelzebub, there’s no question of what they meant. They were saying he’s evil, unpredictable, and dangerous. They were trying to discredit his teaching and his healing in much the same way some people might try to discredit the work of someone who lives with a mental health challenge. The Temple Authorities were afraid of Jesus and what his teachings could mean for the many who lived under Roman oppression. The easiest way to diminish Jesus’ power was to call his sanity into question. In this case, it meant calling his goodness, his godliness, into question.

Jesus, of course, was having none of it. In response, he claimed his own power and authority and challenged those who sought to discredit him. He redefined family and claimed his position as God’s Beloved. This is the Word-in-the-Flesh. This is the Word that heals and brings abundant life.

Those of us who claim to be followers of this Word, need to be ever mindful of our words. Now is not the time to be careless with our language. We are called to care for the vulnerable among us. We are called to confront the bullies who seek to soothe their own fear and insecurity by demeaning others. Let’s pay attention to the needs of those around us and speak words of healing and hope and abundant life.

We know now that words matter. They can wound deeper than any physical injury. Yet, words can also extend hope to the hopeless. It’s our responsibility as the Body of Christ to choose our words carefully so that harm comes to no one. Let’s remember that all of us, maybe especially those who have mental health challenges, are vulnerable to the power of words. May we emulate the Word and speak Truth to power and speak Love to the most vulnerable among us.

RCL – Year B – Third Sunday after Pentecost
1 Samuel 8:4-11, (12-15), 16-20 with Psalm 138
Genesis 3:8-15 with Psalm 130
2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1
Mark 3:20-35

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