There’s More to the Story

I used to think that Easter was the easiest Sunday to preach. The story tells itself and there’s so much else going on in the service that a brief sermon highlighting resurrection couldn’t go wrong. However, as the years have gone on and my ministry has changed, I find Easter a particular challenge.

Cape Trip May 2010 103

This year in the Easter worship service there will be no musician, just me and my IPOD. Moreover, I feel the need to communicate the Gospel in a way that people wrestling with various mental health crises and symptoms might actually hear. I can’t spend too much time with the specifics of the Easter story because someone will ask out loud why Jesus doesn’t appear to us the way he did to Mary. Some others might volunteer that they, too, have seen angels. Someone else will ask where the tomb is and if it’s still empty. I’ve come to understand that these tangents are likely on the minds of anyone paying attention to the story. Yet, none of this is helpful, really. The issue at hand is not what happened on that first Easter morning, but on what is happening now.

I want people who come to chapel service to hear a word of hope, to know that the resurrection is for them, and to experience forgiveness and acceptance at a really deep level. Yes, I know this is a lot to put into one sermon. This message of Jesus’ radical love is essential. Too many people tell me that they do not feel “good enough” for God to love them. They tend to believe the basics of the Gospel message except that they somehow exclude themselves. They conclude that Jesus couldn’t possibly love them even though he seems to love everyone else.

Somehow in the midst of the unbelievable story of the empty tomb, I have to make it believable on a personal level. Beyond believable, I have to make it real and livable today. A group of people will gather in a chapel without all the fanfare of a traditional church Easter celebration and they will look to me to say something that eases the suffering in their own lives.

The question that keeps echoing through my thoughts is this:  Who are you that you alone would be excluded from the love God has for the whole of creation?

With the scent of anointing oil and spices lingering in the air, women weeping, and angels in white, I think we forget that the tomb was empty. It wasn’t empty for no reason. It wasn’t empty for Jesus’ sake. It was empty for us, all of us. You know—God so loved the world. It really doesn’t matter who you are, what you’ve done or not done, what diagnosis you carry, what job you do, how much money is in your bank account, the size of your house, the car you drive, your gender identity, your sexual orientation, your relationship status… none of this matters because God loves us whether we believe it or not.

The appropriate response to “Christ the Lord is risen today!” perhaps ought to be “Thanks be to God!” Now let us go and live our lives in gratitude and as a testimony to the power and grace that conquers death with the promise of new life.

RCL- Year A – Easter – April 20, 2014
Acts 10:34-43 or Jeremiah 31:1-6
Psalm 118: 1-2, 14-24
Colossians 3:1-4 or Acts 10:34-43
John 20:1-18 or Matthew 28:1-10

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A Pastor’s Palm Sunday Prayer

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How long, O Lord, will your steadfast love endure for a people still in in turmoil. Amidst the shouts of “Hosanna!” there are many who are still asking, “Who is this?” We wave our palm branches and fail to understand just what all this really means—no different than that first crowd. You returned to Jerusalem long ago, and some hailed you as a king, thinking that you would set them free. You would not rule in such a worldly way. Many still long for the simple clarity of one who rules with a sword.

Even with a palm branch in hand, I can barely whisper Hosanna, let alone shout it out. I hesitate, not because of what you have done so much as what happens in this world. My heart breaks for a world that has yet to live in your love. Just down the street refugees from war-torn countries try to scrape out a new life for themselves. Instead of unabashed welcome, they are often greeted with hatred, fear, and rejection and I seldom speak a word to make a difference. A walk downtown will have me plotting a route to avoid those who are homeless and desperate and asking for what I don’t know how to give. The news spits out stories of stabbings and shootings and senseless death, and the need to blame someone to make the world seem safe again. This is the world you came to save, O Lord; how long before we know that your steadfast love endures forever?

In this holiest of weeks, I want to walk with you. I want to understand more deeply what happened. You did not endure the fickle crowd shouting “hosanna!” one day and “crucify!” the next, betrayal and denial by your closest friends, and the pain and abandonment of the cross for yourself. No, you did these things for all of us who would follow after you. That, we, too might discover the magnitude of grace given with an empty tomb. Grant me the courage to walk with you, watch with you, wait with you… Your great love for the world endured all this and more for me, for my neighbors, for those refugees, for those who are homeless, for the victims and perpetrators of violence, for those who have mental illness, for the hopeless, for the whole world…

Open my heart to the triumph of this day that it may remain open in the days to come. Remind us all that you need us to bear witness to your presence as we experience anew all that is to happen in this next week. Mudslides, tsunamis, earthquakes, floods, and droughts may make us question you when we ought to question ourselves. Even in those moments of misplaced blame, your love endures. Let those of us who follow you now, shout our “Hosannas!” with joy, a statement of gratitude for the way in which you offered yourself for us.

2012-10-05 15.51.05Grant me the grace to follow you this week, even when I am reluctant. Accept no excuses from me this week. Let me see only your great love for the world that endures to this day. Let the wonders of your love flow through me into the world full of people seeking to be set free.

Hosanna! Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord! Amen.

RCL – Palm Sunday – April 13, 2014
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
Matthew 21:1-11

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Contemporary Stations of the Cross

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Bidding Prayer for New Life

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Image from pdphoto.org

Come, let us unite in prayer for the church throughout the world.
(silence or a time for people to quietly give voice to their concerns)
God of all, you would have us all be called into new life. Remove from us the temptation to mistake our words for yours and grant us the courage to step away from death and darkness into the joys of life in your light.
We wait for God, our souls wait,
and in God’s word we hope.

Let us pray for the United Church of Christ, here and elsewhere.
(silence or a time for people to quietly give voice to their concerns)
Enduring and persisting God, remind us of the power of your breath. You have led your people through deserts and wilderness lands filled with despair and confusion; you lead us still. In these years of transition and change, make us mindful that you are a God of life, a God who reanimates dry dusty bones and calls the dead to live again. You are doing this for the church even now. Let us not be afraid of the power of your breath and the wonders that come to us on the winds of change. We thank you for all those called to lead the United Church of Christ, especially for Geoffrey Black our minister and president, Gary Schulte our conference minister, and all those gathered here. Breathe again on the New Hampshire Conference of the United Church of Christ so that all that is dry and dusty may come to life anew.
We wait for God, our souls wait,
and in God’s word we hope.

Let us pray for all the peoples of the world.
(silence or a time for people to quietly give voice to their concerns)
God whose image every person bears, show us how to share the burdens of all your people that we may also particpate in their joys. Too many people and nations know only war and the devastation left in its wake. Show us how to achieve the impossible – a world of peace and justice for all your children. Only with our hands will there be enough food, water, medicine, and safety for those whose lives are at risk. In you we know that the only power we ought to share with one another is the love and compassion that will save innocent lives. Call us out of complacency into a world of light and possibility.
We wait for God, our souls wait,
and in God’s word we hope.

Let us pray for our nation and those who lead it.
(silence or a time for people to quietly give voice to their concerns)
Patient and loving God, we know that your love is for the whole of creation and that our nation is just one of many. We are blessed with an abundance that we take for granted and don’t always understand. Because we have been gifted with much, much is asked of us in the world. Lead us to a place of balance where needs are met and strangers are welcomed without fear or resentment. Be with all those who lead this country, especially Barak Obama. Guide them and each of us in all decisions that one day all our dry valleys will rise up with new life.
We wait for God, our souls wait,
and in God’s word we hope.

Let us pray for all those who are in need of healing.
(silence or a time for people to quietly give voice to their concerns)
God who calls into life, we lift up to you all who are struggling for health of body, mind, or spirit. How often we turn away from those in need, forgetting that when we do, we turn away from you. Just as you led Ezekiel to prophesy to a valley of dry bones, so lead us to be agents of grace, healing, and new life to all who are in need.
We wait for God, our souls wait,
and in God’s word we hope.

Let us pray for all those who grieve.
(silence or a time for people to quietly give voice to their concerns)
Living, amazing God, as much as we may long for you to call our loved ones back from death as you did for Lazarus, we trust that they rest in you even while our own hearts are heavy with grief. We lift up to you all those who mourn, especially those whose loved ones were murdered or died by suicide or other sudden, unexpected deaths. Heal the brokenhearted and remind us that not even death can separate us from your love.
We wait for God, our souls wait,
and in God’s word we hope.

Let us give thanks to God for all the blessings we have received.
(silence or a time for people to quietly give voice to their concerns)
God who calls each of us to new life, we worship you and sing your praises. Remove from us all that prevents us from experiencing the fullness of life in you that we may overflow with joy and gratitude. We are the body of Christ in this place and we offer ourselves to you that your breath might fill us, and we will have the courage to leave all darkness behind. We pray in Christ’s name.
We wait for God, our souls wait,
and in God’s word we hope. Amen.

RCL – Year A – Fifth Sunday in Lent
Ezekiel 37:1-14
Psalm 130
Romans 8:6-11
John 11:1-45

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Seeing Light in the Darkness

Blindness scares me. When I was 19 an eye doctor told me that if my eyes continue to change at the rate they were changing, I’d be blind by the time I was 30. I remember buying a new sketch book and colored pencils so I could draw everything. I felt like I had to show everyone what I saw and not waste any time.

It’s nearly two decades  past that deadline and I’m still not blind. My eyesight isn’t great and I may be blind someday, but for now I have sight. I have sight thanks to the $1000.00 eyeglasses that take two months to get from the one lab that can make them with a new prescription almost every year. This threat of  blindness may explain my affinity for bright colors and my sense of urgency about what I ought to be doing next. I’m always afraid I’m going to miss seeing something important. And I often do, because I think I know what I’m looking at until God shows me something entirely different…

This week I had the privilege of leading a retreat for a small group of clergy colleagues. I was struck by a few things:  their passion for their work, their love of Jesus, and their exhaustion. We came together to relax and recharge. The time away was brief but amazing. We struggled with what it means to be on this Lenten journey, leading the people of God. There was a deep yearning to walk in the light of Christ in such a way that nothing hinders it.retreat_alter

I think about this group of colleagues, this week’s lectionary readings, and my own desire to keep seeing. It occurs to me that maybe the church is in this place of challenge, this place where darkness threatens and blindness happens just so that Christ may be glorified in a new way. If we keep searching, praying, seeking our eyes may be opened to the Light shining in new and unexpected ways.

My hope for this Lenten journey is that we all see the beauty of this amazing journey God has invited us on.

RCL – Year A – Fourth Sunday in Lent
1 Samuel 16:1-13
Psalm 23
Ephesians 5:8-14
John 9:1-41

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It’s Not About the Jar

I like pretty, shiny things. I also like bright, jewel colors and textures that beg to be touched. I thrive on chaos and function best when there is a problem to be solved. On the flip side, though, I am reluctant to let things go, even when their usefulness may have passed.

Recently, I’ve had to let go of an ideal, a direction that I thought was what God wanted for me–because I really wanted it. It was painful for me to let go of the idea. I didn’t want to set it down and embrace what God is really offering.

28155580566_ORIGWhen I read the story of the Samaritan woman this week, I realized that I have a problem. I get very attached to my jars. They are often pretty and shiny and important. Sometimes, these jars are gifts from God and I want to keep them even when I know they have become empty. Then I have an encounter with the Spirit and I am filled to overflowing. It’s good. Great, even. But I still cling to the jar. I want God to fill me the way I want to be filled. 

The Samaritan woman left her jar behind. She took what Jesus had to offer and ran off to tell everyone who lived in her village where she lived as an outcast.  She had so embraced what Jesus had to give that her neighbors listened to her and sought out Jesus for themselves. I wonder how much I have missed because I’m still holding onto an empty jar that I should have set down a while back.

2013-02-09 22.02.09It’s Lent. It’s a season of penitence. It’s a good time to leave jars behind that cannot hold what is truly needed.

Let us come into God’s presence
with thanksgiving;
let us make a joyful noise
to God with songs of praise!

RCL – Year A – March 23, 2014
Exodus 17:1-7
Psalm 95
Romans 5:1-11
John 4:5-42

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What Abram and Nicodemus Have to Say

2014-03-13 11.12.32Looking at the bookshelf in my office I see the clutter accumulated over my career. Between my Oxford Bible Companion and my Book of Worship sits the DSM V with a canister of pick up sticks and a candle to keep them company. Books of poetry, theology, and psychology along with hymnals and worship resources line the shelves cluttered with rolls of duct tape, shells, dog biscuits and an odd assortment of other things. Some of these things I’ve had since childhood – the Romeo and Juliet dolls my mother made and a picture of Jesus surrounded by children. Other things are more recent additions – remnants of group therapy activities and other items that migrated from my desk at one time or another. Someone recently pointed out that a person could learn a lot about me based on what is on these shelves.

These items wouldn’t tell the whole story, though. You wouldn’t see the part of me that marvels at Abram’s courage to follow God into a new life by leaving everything familiar behind. You get no hint at the tears that come to my eyes every time I read the passage about Nicodemus going to Jesus in the night, desperate to find answers and understand and accept. Nothing shouts out the gratitude I have for the life I am living nor does anything whisper the secret yearnings of my heart.

Anyone could walk into my office and gain knowledge about me. But not the same knowledge as that gained from meeting me. This sort of knowledge has been the theme of my week. Several people have said some version of “I know all about God. I read the Bible so I’m good. What more do I need to know about God?” The Bible says a fair amount about God, but it doesn’t begin to tell the whole of the story.

God invited Abram into a new life. It was a life that involved a trusting relationship with God, not just knowing about God. Nicodemus knew all about God. When he encountered Jesus on that long-ago night, Jesus spoke of a different kind of relationship. A God-so-loved-the-world kind of relationship that was full of life and more truth than factual knowing could ever reveal.

As I contemplate the semi-contained chaos of my bookshelf and those who came to me insisting that the Bible tells them all they need to know about God, I’ve realized the path that might lead me through Lent this year. It’s time for me to clear out some clutter and some false notions about who God is in my life and maybe satisfy some of those secret yearnings.

I lift up my eyes to the hills from where will my help come? My help comes from God, who made heaven and earth. God will not let your foot be moved; God who keeps you will not slumber.

RCL – Second Sunday in Lent – March 16, 2014

Genesis 12:1-4a
Psalm 121
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
John 3:1-17 or Matthew 17:1-9

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