Begin Again

On October 8, 2017, in Sunshine Cathedral, by Rev.Dr. Robert

Begin Again Preached by Rev. Anne R. Atwell October 8, 2017 Please join me in the spirit of prayer. May we know and affirm that we are God’s hands, God’s feet, and God’s voice in this world. May we work towards justice for all and may we always embrace peace. Amen. When I was in […]

Begin Again
Preached by Rev. Anne R. Atwell
October 8, 2017

Please join me in the spirit of prayer. May we know and affirm that we are God’s hands, God’s feet, and God’s voice in this world. May we work towards justice for all and may we always embrace peace. Amen.

When I was in Junior High School, I was required to take Algebra. Now this is probably not a news flash as I would suspect many of you had to do the same thing. What might be more surprising is that I really was really, really not good at it. My father tried to help me to no avail. I just couldn’t figure out the formulas and why it was so important to determine what is “x” or “y” – and how I was ever going to use this information in the future. It didn’t help matters when my algebra teacher told me that he wasn’t surprised that I was doing so poorly in his class because, you know, girls just really struggle with math. Our brains are just not wired to do complicated mathematics. And so I spent my entire high school career believing that I was just horrible at anything that had to do with math. Which is retrospect was kind of surprising because I was a pretty good student otherwise.

When I began college many years ago, I went into it with the idea that I would probably be just fine – except for that math requirement. So I made the decision to challenge myself by starting with the basics in order to work my way up into the more difficult mathematics. I learned how to add and subtract and to do fractions all over again. And I did quite well. Then I moved into Basic Algebra – and again, I did well. And then with some trepidation, I started College Algebra and Statistics and the other higher level mathematics – and I got A’s in every one of them.

While doing this I discovered a few things. Number one – I had a lousy teacher in Junior High Algebra who did everything he could to discourage me. Number two – I should have never listened to what he told me. Because I am female does not mean I am inevitably going to be challenged by mathematics. And number three – I had the opportunity to begin again – to start from scratch and to find a way to make it work for me…and I did. I chose not to let my past difficulties define me.

In the passage we just heard from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the new assembly in Philippi, he lays out his personal background for this community. Paul tells them was raised fully in the Jewish tradition. He was educated and is a self-declared righteous person. And, he owns it, he was a persecutor of the very early church. What Paul goes on to share is that he has found a new way of living, a way that works better for him. Not that the former life was bad – but this new way is just better for him. He has suggested, for himself, that it is important to forget what lies behind and to move forward into what lies ahead. And for Paul, what lies ahead is the connection he has made with the life and ministry of Jesus.

Paul is encouraging the new church assembly in Philippi to also follow the message which Jesus shared – to build community with each other, to reach out into the margins of society and help those who are most vulnerable – to help women and children and those who just need a helping hand. Paul encourages this new faith community to welcome the stranger and to share whatever they have. Now, these notions were radical! These ideas would go against everything the Roman rulers wanted which was to control everything and to create division. (Sound familiar??) But Paul recognized the goodness that comes from setting aside what doesn’t work, what hurts others, and creating new communities of welcome and care.

When Paul wrote this letter, he was in prison. He didn’t know what life would have in store for him and so many scholars believe that Paul may have been creating this letter as his farewell address. Towards the very end of the epistle to the Philippian community, Paul encourages the assembly to “…keep on doing the things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.” That’s powerful stuff, isn’t it? Paul was encouraging those in this new community to find peace by doing what was right and what was truly meaningful. Paul had come to see his previous life as a loss, though others may have seen it quite differently. It really didn’t matter to Paul what others thought, he found joy and meaning in living the continuing message of Jesus. To Paul, it was a way of living faithfully and authentically and he wanted the same thing for his new community.

So I want to ask you, what it mean to live your life fully and authentically, setting aside what doesn’t work and embracing that which does. That’s kind of a difficult question because it really is different for everyone. Though I would suspect that for most of us, we want to live lives of deep meaning, lives where we are open to beauty and joy, lives where we give generously of our abundance, lives where we offer compassion and help to those who are suffering for whatever reason. These are wonderful, significant elements and I would speculate that each of us really want these ways of being as part of our lives. And that is one of the many reasons I appreciate Sunshine Cathedral. We gather every Sunday to worship and to share communal joy and celebration. We not only offer meaningful ministry here on this campus but we go out into our community, meeting people where they are and offer compassion and support. That, to me, is a large part of what church really is about.

But, let’s face it….our culture really is focused more on what we have, what we own, what kind of car we drive, what kind of cell phone we use – if indeed we own such things. People who have wealth are often thought to be of greater importance than those with very little. With these cultural ideals, it can be most difficult to live a life of simplicity in a world that tells us we need more and more and more.

I think, though, that is what Paul is emphasizing to this community. The stuff that was important in the past – leave it there. It doesn’t define you. The material holdings that society tells you that you must have – let go of their significance. It’s not bad to have nice things as long as they don’t define you. What others have said — you must be this or that, let it go. Don’t let anyone or anything define who you are.

That can be a challenging thing – to forgo what others think of us and hold on to what we know to be true. And this scripture passage can serve as a heads up to those who believe that conformity is related to holiness. It isn’t what we are born into that makes us acceptable to the Divine One. It isn’t what we own or all the wonderful things we have. It is who become, how we live in love, and how we continually work towards the goal of living a life of compassion and of faith. That, to my mind, is what makes a meaningful life, a way to begin again, and I would suspect that maybe, just maybe, the Apostle Paul might agree with that.

This coming Wednesday, October 11, is National Coming Out Day, a day in which we celebrate and honor those who are coming out or have come out as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (LGBTQ) or as an ally. This year marks the 29th anniversary of National Coming Out Day which is held on the anniversary of the second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights – which was 30 years ago! But what an empowering process to come out as part of the LGBTQ or allied community! What an opportunity for one to begin living their life fully and authentically! What an opportunity to begin again!

In my own personal coming out as a lesbian, I just felt freer, more alive, more comfortable with myself. I learned what it meant to be part of the Queer community, to be welcomed for all of who I am. Of course, not everyone accepted my news with joy and open arms. But at that point, it really didn’t matter what they thought. I knew that in order to be true to myself and truly live a life that would make me happy, I had to come out. I realize that not everyone has that same experience. Coming out as part of the LGBTQ and allied community can be exceptionally complicated. You can lose family and friends, even those people you thought would stand by you….AND by living your life openly and authentically, you have the potential to find new love, new friends, a family of choice – you have the opportunity to begin again.

And while preparing this message, I reflected on the passages in which Jesus also had opportunities to begin again. There is a story from both Matthew’s and Mark’s gospel in which Jesus is confronted by a woman who is not part of the Jewish community….she is seeking healing for her daughter. Jesus responds that those who are healed first are the Israelites – the others outside of that community should receive nothing. Jesus even goes so far as to state that it is unfair to take the children’s food (meaning healing for those who are Jewish) and give it to the dogs. So Jesus has just diminished the woman and her humanity by referring to her and her daughter as dogs. The woman persists and tells Jesus that even dogs would get the scraps. Jesus gets schooled in this story – he takes the opportunity to step away from his prejudicial beliefs and to see the woman and her daughter as people who simply need compassion and healing. Jesus begins again to move beyond what society says and to make his own decisions by offering the sought for restoration to the woman’s daughter.

If your life, your story, is not exactly what you had in mind, there is always the opportunity for change. Even if you’re comfortable with where you’re at, and yet, you know there is more to be had, more goodness, more love. Begin again and aim for where you really want to be!

Writer and sociologist Brene Brown reminds us that we must shift our paradigm – instead of asking “What must I do?” ask “What do I want to do? What brings meaning to my life?” She says, “Nothing has transformed my life more than realizing that it’s a waste of time to evaluate my worthiness by weighing the reaction of the people in the stands.”

The choices we make define our lives. If you’re not content with where you are, make a change. Begin again…and keep at it until you find what works for you! And know that fullness of the omnipresent God will be with you every step of the way.
And this is the good news,

I am open to change.
I am open to new opportunities.
I am strong enough to begin again.
And so it is!


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