Called to Love

apples-494765_1920It’s only been a week since my mother’s death. My world is off-balance and out of focus in ways I did not expect. Combine this with the events in the world this week, and I’m overwhelmed. I grieve for my mother who lived with a lot of fear and judgement. I pray for the courage to live more fully than she did. With these thoughts, I read the texts for this week…

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. These words from 1 John will be read in thousands of churches this week, but I wonder how often they will be heard. The racism that permeates our society and triggers the kind of pent-up rage that leads to riots seems to know nothing of love. Let me make it clear that I am not blaming anyone who participated in the riots in Baltimore. The responsibility for what happened lies with all of us who participate in a system that allows black people to be murdered by white police officers and then denies justice to the victims. The responsibility lies with all of us who do not speak out against the injustice of our criminal justice system. The responsibility lies with all of us who do not embody transformative love in the overwhelming din of racism and hatred.

It is clear to me that this call to love in the face of all that is not love is closely linked to Jesus’ vine and branches imagery. However, I’m struggling to find the words that adequately describe the connection I see. I’ve always thought this passage was about some kind of litmus test for Christian faith. If you failed, you were cut off. The image that comes to mind is being voted off the island Survivor style. When I read these words this week, I realized that I was completely wrong in my understanding of this passage.

It isn’t about judgement or about being good enough. It’s a simple statement of fact. If we abide in Christ and Christ abides in us, then amazing things happen. All those things within us that do not bear fruit are cut away. And the fruit we bear becomes all that much more flavorful. Jesus wasn’t describing an external process or suggesting community faith policing. Rather he was describing the spiritual process of pruning and growing that happens as a natural response to living in the Spirit. Whenever we pour our energy into words and actions that are not loving, we are not being fruitful and are in danger of withering away.

Even though it is rather cliché to say it, I will; life is short and all life is a precious gift fromautumn-616270_1920 God. We can choose to bring more love into the world or we can choose hatred or ambivalence. However, if we are followers of Christ, we are called to love one another as Christ loves us. Jesus is the vine. If we are truly the branches, then it is time for us to be bearing fruit that silences racism, hatred, poverty, hunger, violence and all the other ills that thrive in our society. As the Apostle Paul reminds us, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. What fruit will you be known by?

Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from Jesus is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

RCL – Year B – Fifth Sunday of Easter – May 3, 2015
Acts 8:26-40
Psalm 22:25-31
1 John 4:7-21
John 15:1-8

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Litany for Marriage Equity

Since the Supreme Court is about to take up Marriage Equity, many churches are raising the issue for prayer during worship. I’ve written this litany, a kind of conversation with Psalm 23, for use in worship this Sunday. Feel free to use it or adapt it to fit your congregation.

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Voice One:  God is my shepherd,
I shall not want.

Voice Two:  God who guides all people,
provide your wisdom in the Supreme Court this week.
No one should want for justice

All:  God of all people, hear our prayers.

Voice One:  God makes me lie down in green pastures;
and leads me beside still waters;

Voice Two:  All pastures are not equal and not all waters are clean.
The ability to marry is a right belonging to all people.
Let now be the time when this becomes law.

All:  God of all people, hear our prayers.

Voice One:  God restores my soul
and leads me in right paths
for the sake of God’s name.

Voice Two:  Too long, your people have been divided.
May the fears that separate LGBTQ people from others
give way to loving inclusion in the name of the One who is Love Incarnate.

All:  God of all people, hear our prayers.

Voice One:  Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff — they comfort me.

Voice 2:  Even in your presence, many fear that change will not come
and injustice will remain the law.
Grant courage to those with power to transform fearful hatred
into beautiful liberty for all those who call on you.
Comfort the fearful ones among us
that they, too, will find welcome in your green pastures.

All:  God of all people, hear our prayers.

Voice One:  You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.

Voice Two:  You have prepared the way for Marriage Equity
even though there are many who refuse to come to the table.
May the Supreme Court open the table to all,
that marriage may be available to all
and the cup of liberty may overflow.

All:  God of all people, hear our prayers.

Voice One:  Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of God
my whole life long.

sheep-506253_1920Voice Two: It is time for goodness and mercy to be the way for all.
May this be the time when all who call your name
are welcomed in your house and equal standing
in the eyes of the law.

You are the Good Shepherd, guide us to the day
when the reign of hateful discrimination
comes to an end, and your people speak of love and equity
for all your children.

All:  God of all people, hear our prayers. Amen.

RCL – Year B – Fourth Sunday of Easter – April 26, 2015
Acts 4:5-12
Psalm 23
1 John 3:16-24
John 10:11-18

Photos from Pixabay. Used with permission.

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Wholly Holy

2015-04-11 15.25.27I spend a lot of time thinking. Sometimes too much time thinking. I like to analyze and understand as much about the world and the people in it as I possibly can. Most of the time this is an asset. Being able to reason things through can often get me to a place that is more compassionate than judgmental or more patient than impulsive. Sometimes, though, I can think myself right out of something amazing.

This week I read the Luke text and started pondering what Jesus meant when he said, “Peace be with you.” Peace is one of those elusive qualities that slide away the more we try to contain or define it. Whatever we might think about what peace is or is not, it’s clear that it meant something to Jesus and those who heard it. It’s what he said when his disciples were terrified at seeing what they thought was a ghost. And what they heard and saw calmed them enough that they were able to listened to him.

In pondering this, I did what I often do. I looked things up and did some reading. It turns out that the word for peace in Greek can mean “wholeness” in addition to calm or a kind of farewell blessing. This blessing of wholeness appeals to me quite a bit.

In all the turmoil we face in the world, especially during this week of anniversaries – the one year anniversary of kidnapping of the girls by Boko Haram, the second of the Boston Marathon Bombing, the twentieth of the Oklahoma City Bombing, the sixty-second Holocaust Day of Remembrance, and the one hundred fiftieth anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination – a little sense of wholeness would go a long way. These anniversaries mark tragedies of the past and point toward the violence that flows rather freely through the world today. Where in the midst of this do we find peace? Who speaks words that calm and center us and remind us of our wholeness in the midst of fear or chaos?

And this is where I step out of my head and into the mystery. When I notice that spring is erupting all around me and the sun rises and sets every day, when I witness unexpected kindness, when I take time to simply breathe… I remember that the One who spoke those words of stillness to disciples on the beach is still speaking loud enough to be heard even amidst the din of daily living.

Peace, wholeness, is deeper than words, but it is not impossible. I’d like to think that if we all paid more attention to the words and spoke them more authentically, lived them more actively, some of the suffering and destruction would have less power.

Peace be with you. Go, and be whole.2015-04-11 15.30.08

RCL – Year B – Third Sunday of Easter – April 19, 2015
Acts 3: 12-19
Psalm 4
1 John 3:1-7
Luke 24: 36b-48

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Post Resurrection Thoughts

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Easter is all about resurrection and new life. On the surface it’s easy to preach. But dig a little deeper into what resurrection means and it isn’t all that easy. To make it worse, I find myself distracted by thoughts of the Second Coming. I mean, really, who thinks about the Second Coming while everyone is still celebrating the resurrection?

I read the texts for Sunday and my thoughts about Jesus’ return intensify. In Acts, we hear about an early Christian community who shared their resources to the extent that all needs were met. Then 1 John pushes that community to examine  its own sin so that they do not deceive themselves. Add to this John’s description of Thomas’ encounter with the risen Christ and I can only further wonder about the Second Coming that those early churches thought was imminent.

What if the Second Coming depends on us? I mean what if it depends on the Church Universal actually becoming the body of Christ? What if Jesus isn’t going to return and God is waiting for all of us who claim to be Christians to actually embody Christ in this world right now?

Think about it. We keep waiting for some great rescue from God even though we keep screwing up. We’ve already been given the way to eternal life. God transformed crucifixion into resurrection. We’ve already been given adequate guidance in how to live. Yet, we keep waiting for some far off, unknown divine intervention to fix all that we have broken. God intervened in a radical way once. I don’t think it’s going to happen again.

What would happen if we created communities that really cared for one another? What would happen if we acknowledged how far we fall short of being the body of Christ? I don’t mean in a superficial kind of way. Rather, we do this in a self-examining communal way, a way that invites change?

What if self-deception gets in the way of bringing Christ into the world? We are experts at deceiving ourselves both individually and communally. If we can let go of our sins in the way that Jesus does, forgiveness would have the power to transform the church. There would be no more hiding and worrying about who’s in or who’s not. We’d all be free to get on with embodying love.

What if that peace that Jesus offered Thomas and the others, is really the key to Christ coming into the world now? The peace that Jesus spoke of is the kind of peace that lasts through all things. It’s the peace that comes from trusting that we are forgiven, we are loved, we are God’s own. Nothing can change that. Why do we keep acting like it’s a temporary or conditional thing?

I know there are more questions here than answers. But this idea that we, the Church Universal, can be, may be, the Second Coming of Christ is one that I can’t let go of. If this is true, and we all commit to embodying love over all other things, the church can truly become Christ embodied in the world today. No one gets left out. There are worse theological ideas out there.

RCL – Year B – Second Sunday of Easter – April 12, 2015
Acts 4:32-35
Psalm 133
1 John 1:1-2:2
John 20:19-31

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Seven Last Words Bidding Prayer

2015-04-03 11.47.09

Come, let us pray for the people of God gathered and scattered throughout the world.

People may silently or quietly offer prayers

On this holy day when we remember the crucifixion of Christ, we desire to be united with all who gather for worship today. Through your act of nearly unbearable love you called us to be your body – your hands, your feet, your voice – wherever and however we gather. May we live in love today and all days.

Christ, in your mercy,
Hear our prayers.
As Jesus said, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do,” let us pray for those we need to forgive and those who need to forgive us.

People may silently or quietly offer prayers

Merciful Christ, even as you were nailed to the cross, you spoke of forgiveness. Everything you did in life and death pointed to boundless love and unconditional forgiveness. We have much to learn all these years later. Let the fact that we are forgiven for that we do to hurt ourselves, our neighbors, and all of creation sink into our hearts today. When we leave the shadows of the cross, may we be ready to fully embrace lives of grace and mercy.

Christ, in your mercy,
Hear our prayers.
As Jesus promised, “Today you will be with me in paradise” to one crucified with him, let us pray for all those trapped in hopelessness and despair.

People may silently or quietly offer prayers

Eternal Christ, even though you were unjustly condemned to death, you condemned no one. Your words hold hope and promise for all those who are condemned by the powerful ones of our day. Teach us to see beyond actions, failed systems of justice, and brokenness that we may see you in the face of those we would condemn. May we reach out to friends and strangers with confidence in your promise of an eternal life of joy.

Christ, in your mercy,
Hear our prayers.
As Jesus offered hope to his mother and his friend, “Woman, behold your son” and “Here is your mother,” let us pray for all families – born and chosen.

People may silently or quietly offer prayers

Courageous Christ, as you faced death you spoke words of comfort to your mother and your beloved disciple. Let us remember that there are many ways to create family. No one should be left alone in grief or suffering when your followers are asked to love as you first loved us. Remove our tendency to judge those who define family differently than we do. May we trust you enough to believe that love wears many faces.

Christ, in your mercy,
Hear our prayers.
As Jesus called out in his agony, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” let us pray for those who are suffering and forsaken.

People may silently or quietly offer prayers

Suffering Christ, you cried out in anguish after your disciples scattered in fear, leaving you to suffer alone. In that moment your humanity and vulnerability could not be denied. May we see the fullness of humanity and the fullness of you in all those who suffer in body, mind, and spirit. As long as you have followers and friends, may no one ever truly be forsaken.

Christ, in your mercy,
Hear our prayers.
As Jesus spoke his need, “I thirst,” let us pray for all those in need of water, food, shelter, healthcare, or safety.

People may silently or quietly offer prayers

Steadfast Christ, you may have spoken to fulfill prophecy, yet these words speak of need. Too many people have their basic needs unmet. There is no sin in needing help, but there is a great deal of sin when we do not respond to the needs of those around us. May we be reminded that when any of the least are thirsty, hungry, homeless, neglected, or afraid so are you. Let us truly love our neighbors as ourselves.

Christ, in your mercy,
Hear our prayers.

As Jesus recognized the end of his ministry and his life saying, “It is finished,” let us pray for all those who struggle to find meaning in Jesus’ life or their own.

People may silently or quietly offer prayers

Gracious Christ, in the hour of your death, you recognized that you had done all you could and the rest was up to those who would follow you. Your life and death were an act of unfathomable love. Even those of us who call ourselves your followers, often struggle to believe and accept your love for the whole of creation. Let us continue to be agents of your love in this world, especially for those who believe themselves to be unworthy of love.

Christ, in your mercy,
Hear our prayers.
As Jesus gave himself to God with his last words, “Into your hands I commit my spirit,” let us pray for those who are facing death.

People may silently or quietly offer prayers

Faithful Christ, even after all you had been through, you stayed true to yourself and your grace-filled purpose. For many of us, dying and death are viewed as the enemy. For those who suffer with illness and pain or for those who have lived a long life, dying is not failure. You showed us love that abides in this world and the next. Let us not be fearful for our loved ones whose time for dying it clearly is. And, let us, with grace and compassion, trust that you will welcome each of us into paradise when our time comes.

Christ, in your mercy,
Hear our prayers.

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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.

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Palm Sunday Bidding Prayer

church-window-579059_1280Come, let us pray for all those who wave palm branches and shout “Hosannas” today.
(people may quietly voice their prayers)

God who welcomes our praise and comforts our sorrow, unite us with all who celebrate Jesus’ return to Jerusalem today. May all your people be joined together in shouts of praise that cross barriers of language, culture, and doctrine.

O give thanks to God;
God’s steadfast love endures forever.

Come, let us pray for the United Church of Christ gathered here and elsewhere.
(people may quietly voice their prayers)

Incarnate God, today we remember the great love you have for the whole of creation. Jesus lived among us, experiencing joy and enduring suffering. As “Hosannas” tumble from our lips today, we are mindful that we can easily be swayed to join the crowds who will shout “Crucify!” in a few days. We see divisions in our churches that you did not create. You would have us be one in bringing about your reign of justice for all creation. Be with those who lead us, especially our clergy, Shari Prestemon our Conference Ministry, and Geoffrey Black our General Minister and President. Remove from us all the barriers we build that prevent us from living as you taught.

O give thanks to God;
God’s steadfast love endures forever.

Come, let us pray for all the peoples of the world.
(people may quietly voice their prayers)

God of mercy and love, as we enter into this Holy Week, open our eyes and our hearts. All around us there are strangers who would become neighbors and foreigners who would become friends. We divide ourselves by race, creed, and culture. Yet, it does not matter to you if a life lost is Christian, Muslim, Jew, Wiccan, Buddhist, Hindu or followers of any other religion. You have breathed life into us all and claim us as your children. Fill us with the peace that passes all human understanding that we may share the joys and pains of all your people without prejudice or preference.

O give thanks to God;
God’s steadfast love endures forever.

Come, let us pray for this nation.palm-leaf-233282_1280
(people may quietly voice their prayers)

Patient God, you have set before us the ways of life and death, inviting us to choose the way of love or the way of power. The mistaken belief that there is only one right way to be religious has distracted many from building a system of justice for all those who live within our borders. Be with all those elected to public office, especially Barak Obama, granting them the wisdom to see human need in the midst of all conflict. May the palm branches we wave today pave the way to systems of justice for all.

O give thanks to God;
God’s steadfast love endures forever.

Come, let us pray for all those in need of healing.
(people may quietly voice their prayers)

God who knows how fragile life is, enter into all the hidden and dark places of the world. Even in times of celebration, keep us mindful of those who struggle for health in body, mind, or spirit. This week we will be challenged to walk with you through betrayal, abandonment, and death. Keep us mindful of those around us who are having these experiences now. Give us the strength and compassion needed to follow you and accompany others who suffer. You are the Great Healer and we put our trust in you.

O give thanks to God;
God’s steadfast love endures forever.

Come, let us pray for all those who are grieving.
(people may quietly voice their prayers)

Eternal God, you have experience life and death, hope and loss. You know the pain of grief – the grief we feel when we lose people, jobs, homes, pets anything that helps us to know who we are and where we belong. None of us escapes the pain of loss. As we begin this week of holy remembrance, we remember those who are overwhelmed by loss, especially parents who have lost children to suicide, murder, war, mental illness, or addictions. Shine your light in the painful, empty places in our lives and grant us the grace to hold hope for those who can’t hold it for themselves.

O give thanks to God;
God’s steadfast love endures forever.

palm-618002_1280Come, let us give thanks for all of our blessings.
(people may quietly voice their prayers)

God of abundant life, you have claimed us as your own beloved children. You invite us to follow you to new life every day and call us to share your abundance. Hear our thanksgiving and praise for all the ways your love touches our lives. May the gratitude we feel in this moment, guide us through this week of betrayal, sin, and death into the promise of new life and deeper relationship with you.

O give thanks to God;
God’s steadfast love endures forever. Amen.

RCL – Year B – Palm Sunday – March 29, 2015
Mark 11:1-11
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29

All photos from Pixabay.com. Used by permission.

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