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Musings Sermon Starter

Lessons from Mary

Image a depiction of ancient Bethlehem with crowds of people at the birth of Jesus.

Being God’s favored one is no easy task. For Mary it meant risking everything – her family, her relationship, her life. When she agreed to Gabriel’s proposal to bring the child of the Most High into the world, she made a choice that meant her life would be changed forever. She would never be just a girl from Nazareth again. She would not lead a quiet, ordinary life. The moment God turned God’s attention to Mary, her life ceased to be her own. Personally, I don’t think she could have known what the implications were when she agreed. No teenager could have known that she was giving up her life as she imagined it to do as God asked.

Before I continue, let me clarify a thing or two about my understanding of the “virgin birth.” I do not believe these accounts of the birth of Jesus are literal facts. I believe they are true stories, stories packed with Truth about what it means to be human in relationship to the Holy. There are no history lessons here. However, there are lessons about who we are as human beings and what living in relationship with God might mean for us. And, honestly, I don’t think it matters whether we say these stories of factual or truthful as long as we look for their deeper meaning. For example, Mary’s story isn’t just about her; it’s about all of us who call ourselves followers of Jesus, Christians.

Mary agreeing to bring Jesus into the world is a model for us. The truth is God’s favor is with all of us. It’s just that so few people embrace it fully. When we accept God’s favor, then we agree to bring Divine Love into the world. And doing this is often as risky for us as it was for Mary. No, most of us are not likely to be threatened with death, though that happens in many places in the world even now. On the other hand, seeking to bring God into the world could end a few relationships, including those with family members.

You see, following Mary’s example means giving up our own dreams for our lives and embracing God’s dreams for us. Once we say, “Let it be with me…” then our lives are no longer our own (if they ever were). Quiet, anonymity is no longer guaranteed. If we accept Gabriel’s proposal to bring Christ into the world, then we can no longer sit on the proverbial sidelines. There’s work to be done and it is likely to be highly uncomfortable.

Think of it. Mary traveled to Bethlehem when she was nine months pregnant. She walked or she rode a donkey for many, many miles. And she camped out. Now, I’ve never been pregnant, but I really can’t imagine that this would be a super comfortable adventure. Then when Mary arrived in Bethlehem, there was no inn for her. She gave birth in a stable, and that was not pretty. Mary’s circumstances indicate that bringing God into the world is not for the faint of heart. It takes strength, courage, perseverance, and commitment that can only come from trusting God.

The work of bringing Divine Love into the world is messy today, too. It could mean long days of protesting injustice. It could mean repeatedly speaking out against the Death Penalty so much that it feels like no one listens. It could mean advocating for the most vulnerable among us and making ourselves vulnerable at the same time. Whatever shape it takes in our individual lives, bringing God into the world will make us and, often enough, those around us very uncomfortable. This is guaranteed because we know that God’s ways are not our ways. The ways of Love lead us to change, and there are many who do not want the change that Love requires.

We are nearing the end of our Advent journey this year. It’s a year of struggle for sure. Following that ancient star to Bethlehem has its unique challenges in pandemic and this cannot be understated. However, if we think of Mary and the journey she made, what she risked to bring Christ into the world, maybe we can begin to see hope for us here and now. In the midst of the sorrow and the grief, there are echoes of the ancient, overcrowded city of Bethlehem. As we wait for a vaccine to be distributed, perhaps there are parallels to Mary’s long journey. Somehow, when we learn that the current Administration has the highest rate of capital punishment, the noise and smell of that stable come to mind. If Mary could bring Christ into the world under those conditions, surely we can do the same under pandemic conditions.

There is still hope, peace, joy and love to be had in the world, especially if we embrace God’s favor and strive to embody these things. Bethlehem is always closer than we think. God’s favor is always with us. We are God-bearers, hope-bringers, peace-makers, joy-sharers, and love-embodiers. We are the church and we trust that God is with us in the chaos, the messiness, the wonder, the awe, the pain, the suffering, the love, the healing… God is with us in the midst of life, even life in pandemic.

May you arrive at Bethlehem filled with the hope, peace, joy, and love of God shining in, through, and around you.

RCL: Year B Fourth Sunday of Advent December 20, 2020 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26
Romans 16:25–27
Luke 1:26–38

Photo: CC0image by Gerhard G.

Categories
Musings Sermon Starter

Joy, Always Joy

Image of a gnome (or a Tompte) with a red hat cross country skiing

Here we are at the third Sunday of Advent. Traditionally, this is the Sunday of Joy. On this day we shift from penitential waiting to joyful anticipation. The tone of Advent shifts from somber to joyful. We know that God is drawing near. We celebrate the Christ who was, who is, and who shall be. We may not spend much time contemplating the Second Coming. However, we might envision a world in which people more fully embraced life in Christ. This would be a world filled with joy for sure.

In the meantime, though, in the midst of pandemic, where is joy? How do we rejoice in the Lord always when we are surrounded by sickness, grief, and isolation? Is it possible to be joyful in this particular Advent season? I believe it is. It is possible because joy is deeper, more steady, than happiness. Our happiness is in question, and should be given the state of the world. However, our joy need not be absent.

I think of joy as being rooted in the very center of our beings. It grows from those times and places in which we are aware of the human spirit and the Holy Spirit touching, even in a fleeting way. Joy comes from knowing that God is present, that we are God’s beloved, no matter what is happening on our lives or in the wider world. We would do well to take time to be still and find that place within us and anchor there. The ways to find this place within are as varied as humans are. Find your way. Perhaps it is prayer or meditation… or maybe hiking through the woods, the prairie, the desert… or maybe in the flow of a river, the sounds of the ocean… through music or art… through worship or scripture… find your way to remembering and knowing God’s presence and God’s love for you particularly. And then the work begins. Or, maybe, begin the work and let the joy follow.

Either way, Isaiah gives some clear instructions on how to live out and share the joy of life in the Spirit:

  • bring good news to the oppressed
  • bind up the brokenhearted
  • proclaim liberty to the captives
  • bring release to the prisoners
  • comfort all who mourn

These kinds of activities will allow others to join in God’s love of justice and continue the spread of joy by:           

  • building up the ancient ruins
  • raising up the former devastations
  • repairing the ruined cities

I don’t think the prophet was speaking in metaphors. I believe he was telling us how to live as God’s people, instructing us on how to prepare the way for God and save lives. If we were to update this language perhaps we would say that in order to prepare the way of the Lord or embody Christ in the world today, we can:

  • call out oppression in all its forms and create systems built on equality rather than racism, misogyny, transphobia, ablism, homophobia, xenophobia, etc
  • care for the vulnerable among us by providing food, clothing, shelter, mental health care, healthcare, etc.
  • free people from ICE detention centers and cages at the border
  • eliminate for profit prisons and free POC imprisoned by racists systems
  • support those who are mourning, especially in these pandemic times

If we are able to do this work, joy would truly blossom in the lives of many people. Trusting that loving-kindness is the way God desires us to live, creates hope and makes room for joy even in the midst of pandemic. The ancient ruins we are meant to be building up are, perhaps, the ruins of the way in which God desires us to live in peace with all our neighbors. The former devastations are, perhaps, all that has been destroyed by racism and other fear based or power based systems. What would the world look like if all who claim to follow Christ sought to repair the breach between what is and what God desires for us?

Joy is not the simple pleasure in having something good or doing something good. Joy is deeper. It comes from being in relationship with God and being in community with God’s people. Joy can sustain us when all else seems lost. Joy grows when we follow God’s commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves. We need joy now in this 2020 Advent season. If you have joy, please share it. If you do not have joy, hold on. This candle we light symbolizes the Light that no hardship, no despair, can truly extinguish and we light it for you until you can experience it for yourself.

Rejoice in the Lord always and let us pray without ceasing as we prepare and embody the way of the Lord.

RCL: Year B Third Sunday of Advent December 13, 2020 Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Psalm 126 or Luke 1:46b-55
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28

Photo: CC0image by Susanne Jutzeler, suju-foto

Categories
Bidding Prayer liturgy

Bidding Prayer for the Second Sunday of Advent

Image of a white dove in a glass ball, held in a hand. Background is red with faint stars and an outline of a Christmas tree.
Come, let us pray for the people of God here and everywhere.
 (People silently or out loud offer their prayers.)
Bringer of peace and hope, we turn our hearts and minds to you. We see your people in need all around us, all around the world. You frequently remind us that all people are your people, especially when we would separate one from another. Forgive us when we fail to treat any of our neighbors as your beloved children. Show us the way to comfort your people.
 May our voices join the one in the wilderness
 as we prepare the way of the Lord.
 
Come, let us pray for the United Church of Christ and our sister churches.
 (People silently or out loud offer their prayers.)
God of patience and grace, today we pray for our denomination and all those who lead it. Be with John Dorhauer and all the others who work in the national setting. Guide them with your wisdom and strengthen them with the power of the Holy Spirit. Be with Shari Prestemon and the other Minnesota Conference staff, as well as those who lead other conferences. May your renewing Spirit be with all those who lead the UCC, clergy and laity alike. May we be leaders in the way of unity and healing, offering hope in the midst of pandemic and all the injustices it has highlighted.
 May our voices join the one in the wilderness
 as we prepare the way of the Lord.
  
Come, let us pray for all the nations of the world.
 (People silently or out loud offer their prayers.)
Loving God, we long for a world in which “steadfast love and faithfulness meet; and righteousness and peace will kiss each other.” Yet, we often desire only that which will keep those we know and love safe and healthy, forgetting the needs of our neighbors near and far. We thank you for your patience with us and with the whole of humanity. Forgive our reluctance to repent of our self-protective ways and turn our hearts toward your vision of peace and justice.
 May our voices join the one in the wilderness
 as we prepare the way of the Lord.
  
Come, let us pray for all those in need of healing.
 (People silently or out loud offer their prayers.)
God of the past, present, and future, you have witnessed all that has brought us to this moment. You have seen humanity at its best and you have seen us at our worst, and you continue to name us beloved. We know that we are like the grass that withers, and only you last forever. Yet, we are in need of your healing love. We pray for those who have COVID and those who care for them. We also pray for those whose lives have been disrupted by pandemic – those without homes, those without work, those without access to mental health care, those without access to medicine… Shepherd us to new ways of being that allow us to care for the most vulnerable among us.
 May our voices join the one in the wilderness
 as we prepare the way of the Lord.
  
Come, let us pray for all who are grieving.
 (People silently or out loud offer their prayers.)
God of goodness and life, our hearts are breaking as we see the numbers of lives COVID has claimed. While we anxiously wait for a vaccine, keep us mindful of those who are grieving the loss of loved ones. Help us also to remember those who have few resources, those for whom pandemic has created unbearable suffering. As we pray for those in the midst of grief, we also pray for those who struggle with depression and other mental health conditions that can lead to suicidality. Enable us to raise up the valleys and level the mountains to reveal your way of peace and love, inviting all into communities of grace and radical welcome.
 May our voices join the one in the wilderness
 as we prepare the way of the Lord.
  
Come, let us give thanks for God’s steadfast love and faithfulness.
 (People silently or out loud offer their prayers.)
Amazing God, you have been with your people through plagues and pandemics, through oppression and captivity. Your faithfulness has not wavered, and we are grateful. We thank you for the moments of joy, for the reflections of your majesty, for the touch of loving-kindness… and all the ways you reveal your love for us. May our gratitude make us generous and compassionate with all our neighbors as we wait for and prepare for Love to break into the world once again.
 May our voices join the one in the wilderness
 as we prepare the way of the Lord.
 Amen. 

For sermon help, try here.

RCL: Year B Second Sunday of Advent December 6, 2020 Isaiah 40:1-11
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Mark 1:1-8

Photo: CC0image by Gerd Altmann

Categories
liturgy

Advent Calendar for 2020

An Advent Calendar with suggested activities for each day. The activities emphasize bring hope, peace, joy, or love through caring for self and/or neighbors.
download 2020 Advent Calendar for Care of Self and Neighbor

Download here!

You can download my Advent Calendar for Care of Self and Neighbor from archive.org as a full-page PDF file here.

Licensing

This Advent Calendar, shared in image and pdf formats, is shared under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives License. What does this mean? You are free to share it, print it, put it in your newsletter, link to it, post it on social media, download and then email it to people, re-use it as you wish, at no cost to you, for non-commercial use, with attribution, and without changing anything.

Categories
Musings Sermon Starter

The Angel Said, “Fear Not”

Most Bible stories of angel appearances have the angel’s first words be, “Fear not” or a similar proclamation. Ever wonder why? Aside from the obvious that being visited by a divine messenger would be up there on terrifying scale, why are these words consistently flowing from the mouths of angels? I jokingly (sort of) say that if an angel shows up in my life and says, “Fear not,” my response is TOO FREAKING LATE! I’ve already hyperventilated and passed out cold. This would be an appropriate response to angels. They tell the person not to be afraid and then deliver news of divine proportions.

This is particularly true of the angels in the Christmas story as we know it. There’s the infamous encounter between Gabriel and Mary. Gabriel shows up out of the proverbial nowhere and tells Mary not to be afraid. Why should she not continue quaking in her sandals? Well, she has found favor with God. If that isn’t scary news, what is? I mean we all want God to pay attention to us, but do we really want God’s full attention? Mary ended up bringing God into the world in a whole new, reality-shifting kind of way. I’m betting she was afraid from the moment Gabriel showed up in her life until maybe sometime after the Resurrection. Or maybe she was just afraid on some level all the time.

Then, of course, there is Joseph. He was likely an innocent in this. His family had probably arranged for his marriage to Mary many years before, maybe even as early as Mary’s birth. He was willing to go along. Well, at least until he heard that she was pregnant and he wasn’t the one responsible. Even then, he didn’t want Mary to be stoned to death or left destitute, so he was willing to quietly, privately divorce her. Enter the nameless angel of the Lord. (My money’s on Gabriel, but we don’t know which angel it was.) This angel appears in a dream and starts off with, “Fear not…” Even in dreams angels showing up cause heart palpitations. While Joseph’s dream self is staring at the divine visitor in awestruck disbelief, the angel continues. “Do not be afraid to take Mary for your wife.” Joseph continues to stare. Wait for it. “The child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” Joseph shakes his head in disbelief and his fear is likely unabated.

These are just two examples of angels showing up and saying, “Fear not.” Yes, they are likely scary beings in their own right. Add in that they bring divine news, and the fear factor ticks up a few notches. Oh, and that divine news is going to shift your reality (and possibly the reality of the world) so, for the love of God, keep breathing. Aside from this, I wonder if these stories address fear first because we finite, little humans live in constant fear.

Think about it. We all live with various fears and varying degrees of fearfulness. We are afraid of not having enough or being enough. We are afraid of being too much like everyone else and of being too different from everyone else. We are afraid our country is falling apart and we are afraid to reach from something different. We are afraid that there is no God and we are afraid that there is. We are afraid that the planet is dying and we afraid to make the changes necessary to save it. We are afraid of the things that hurt us in the past and we afraid of what the future will bring. We are afraid of dying, and afraid of being fully alive. If we pay too much attention to these fears, we will be overwhelmed in short order without an angel showing up with (good) news. It’s really not a surprise that a messenger from God would start a conversation with any human saying, “Fear not.”

It’s important to note that the conversation doesn’t end there, though. Fear not because God is going to do a new thing, starting with you. Fear not because God is the opposite of fear. God is forever cracking open, breaking into, human fear. Jesus didn’t show up in some terrifyingly awesome divine spectacle. Jesus showed up in an infant (okay, so babies are terrifyingly awesome divine spectacles, but you know what I mean), a helpless, fragile human totally dependent on other human beings to care for him. Think about that. God comes into the world through angels, babies, and a myriad of other ways to soothe our self-protective fears, or at least to remind us that God is not in our fears.

“Fear not,” said the angel to Mary, to Joseph, to countless others, and to you and me. Do not be afraid to bring Love into the world because that’s the only way to save the world. Do not be afraid of new and life-changing things because God is in those very things. Imagine how your life would change if you heard those angelic words addressed to you. Imagine how the world would change right now if everyone heard those divine words addressed to them. Imagine how everything were different if everyone was unafraid to Love.

RCL – Year A – Fourth Sunday of Advent – December 22, 2019
Isaiah 7:10-16
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
Romans 1:1-7
Matthew 1:18-25

Photo: CC0image by Gerd Altmann

Categories
Musings Sermon Starter

Faith and Politics: A Matter of Vocabulary

My first awareness of politics was in the late 1970s when Ford was President of the U.S. I didn’t understand anything about Watergate but for some unidentifiable reason I recognized that Ford had not been president for a full four-year term. I, as a child of nine or ten, noticed. I did a bit more than notice a few years later when Reagan ran for and won the office. That election cycle was one that I paid more attention to because it was one that made my mother register to vote for the first time in her life. And because the whole election was woven into my eighth grade social studies class.

In the spring of 1981 our class held mock primary elections. I was Reagan. I spent days collecting data from the newspapers to put together a campaign speech. Afternoons spent clipping articles and writing down quotes led to me winning that election. Not much else sticks in my memory except that I was criticized for using words that my classmates didn’t know. I was hurt by the teacher’s observation because I suspected I won that election because they thought I sounded “smart.” When I told my mother how unfair I thought it was that I lost points because my classmates didn’t know all the words I used, my mother informed me that “politics, like life, are seldom fair.” She went on to tell me that I was lucky I won because the best candidates aren’t always elected.

Looking back I realize that my mother and I ended up on opposite sides of the political arena and would never agree on the “best candidate,” yet, her statement isn’t entirely incorrect. It’s often hard to tell which candidate is the best one, the one that would be best to lead the country at this particular time in history. The problem is that people aren’t necessarily thinking about what is best for this country and how we interact with other countries. The decision about which candidate to support seems to be informed more by fear than anything else. However, as Christians, as people of faith, we should be looking at candidates through a different lens (and it isn’t impressive vocabulary.)

Long ago, to ancient people held captive and oppressed, God promised liberation. The vision of this liberation communicated through the Prophet Isaiah was one of healing and welcome, joy and gladness for all God’s people. And if we take Jesus’ proclamation that even the least in the kingdom of God is greater than John the Baptist (who was pretty great), then we have a responsibility to find that promised holy way. We have a responsibility to recognize that no one is excluded from this promise of liberation.

This is message of liberation and affirmation of value is contrary to much of the rhetoric thrown around in this election cycle. With the rise in antisemitism, Islamophobia, racism, and other types of hatred and division, we must hold our leaders to a higher standard. Our faith requires that we make room for all. To honor the promises God made long ago, to live the teachings of Christ, means that we view all people as God’s people. We cannot continue to mistakenly interpret scripture to endorse any sort of white, Christian, nationalist supremacy. As a brown skinned Jewish man, Jesus would not condone such government sanctioned hatred, division, and oppression. Just ask the Romans and those who were in Roman employ…

We are in the Advent season. It’s a season preparing for the coming of God into the world anew, and anticipating the day when God’s promises will be fulfilled throughout the whole world. It’s an excellent time to check ourselves for where and how we are traveling through our lives. Are our feet anywhere near that holy way of peace where enemies journey side-by-side? Are we on a path that is wide enough to accommodate all of our neighbors? Do our prayers lead us to acts that liberate those who are oppressed? Do our words break the patterns of fear, division, and violence that are endorsed by too many politicians? Is there any evidence that we are followers of Christ in our daily activities?

Maybe politics and the way faith informs them really does have to do with vocabulary. Not in the way of words with many syllables, but in how we put them together. Do the words we use raise up those society devalues and dismisses? Do our words match our actions? When we speak of God’s love do we also seek to embody that same love for all those who inhabit the planet? After all, if Jesus walked the world today he would be in the cages at our border, or in line in a refugee camp waiting for food, or one of those who live on the streets, or one of those too many of us choose not to see or hear. After all, he was a brown skinned Jewish man who spoke truth to power, power that was corrupt and ignored the needs of many. Advent, as we anticipate the return of Light, is an excellent time to recommit to living what Jesus taught. What say you?

RCL – Year A – Third Sunday of Advent – December 15, 2019
Isaiah 35:1-10
Psalm 146:5-10
Luke 1:46b-55
James 5:7-10
Matthew 11:2-11

Photo: CC0image by Myriam Zilles

Categories
Musings Sermon Starter

Good News for Reluctant Hearts

I gave up trying to be happy and joyful just because it’s the holiday season a long time ago. Growing up, I thought I was the only one who didn’t have the perfect Norman Rockwell (or, these days, Hallmark) family. Nearly every year I would end up in tears on Christmas day because it was a disappointment in one way or another. Christmas left me with an empty, lonely feeling more often than not. While it has been years since I’ve felt that aching loneliness during the holidays, I am finding it more than a bit challenging to enter into all the “feels” of the season this year. Heaven knows, I’ve been trying. But I am caught in a colossal disconnect between what is and what God has promised.

Full disclosure – I had pacemaker surgery a few days ago. I’m recovering just fine after some complications during the procedure itself. Mostly, I am grateful for access to the healthcare and technology that has sped up my reluctant heart. Honestly, though, I’m a bit angry that I need a pacemaker at the age of 52. You know, the unfairness of the cosmos and all that. I don’t think it is God’s will that I have dysautonomia or that it is a punishment for my sins or anything like that. I understand that stuff happens that God does not intend or want for anyone. Asking “why me?” accomplishes nothing. Why not me? I am fortunate enough to be able to get the medical care I need. Still, in a perfect world, my heart would beat as it should without electronic encouragement.

My illness is one small thing that points to the gap between what is and what God has promised. In the grand scheme of the universe, its not a big deal. However, these days in particular, it is almost a metaphor for all that is broken in the world. Our collective heart, if you will, doesn’t beat as it was intended. With every act of hatred, violence, dehumanization, and failing to care what happens to any of our neighbors, the heartbeat of humanity slows a bit more.

Into this we hear the Baptist’s cry to “Prepare the way of the Lord.” How do we make a way for God in a world that seems bent on destruction? How do we make visible the power of Love in a world where politicians cut benefits without considering the people who receive them? How do we make space for God in a world that blames people for their circumstances instead of genuinely seeking ways to alleviate suffering while maintaining or, better yet, elevating human dignity? Wolves and lambs, calves and lions, and cows and bears are not going to be lying down together any time soon. And if they did, who would notice?

The despair and hopelessness that consumes innocent lives on a daily basis threatens to engulf us all. Unless, by grace, we are willing to pay heed to what God has promised to the whole of creation. When we focus on what human beings have done, and continue to do to destroy each other and the planet, our attention is taken from things that could save us. To only see the brokenness is to fail to see what God is doing right this minute to reveal the beauty and awe and wonder that is still afoot in the world.

I’m not suggesting that we live in denial. That won’t change anything or help in anyway. Just like I could not ignore my ridiculously slow heart rate, we cannot ignore the suffering all around us. On the other hand, we cannot focus on it either. If we are really going to prepare the way for God to break into the world once more, we have to look for the sacred amidst the suffering. We have to choose hope when the world hands us despair. We need to seek peace when we encounter chaos. We need to foster a sense of joy when anger shouts at us from every direction. And we need to embody love while the world embraces hatred. It’s about the choices we make. We can choose to seek out God’s holy ways and those places where it is possible for enemies to unite and the hungry to be fed in spite of the ugliness all around us.

If each one of us chooses to seek the Holy in spite of the helplessness and hopelessness all around us, some valleys might rise up and some mountains might sink down. None of us is likely to be cured of disease or illness just by changing attitude and perspective. Yet, I can’t help but think that intentionally seeking out God amidst the anger, the despair, the chaos, the suffering, the ignorance, and all that the world’s heart labors under, we might discover the spiritual pacemaker that will allow us to experience the promises of Christmas in new ways. We might even discover some of the hope, peace, joy, and love that the season promises, or realize that it has been there all along.

Where we choose to put our attention and our energy matters. God is still at work in the world. God’s promises of love, wholeness, forgiveness, and healing haven’t been revoked. They are out there waiting for us to live into them, and thereby, embody them for all our neighbors. Advent is an opportunity for a strange and wonderful journey from what is to what God promises. May our reluctant hearts find the spiritual encouragement they need in the days ahead.

RCL – Year A – Second Sunday of Advent – December 8, 2019
Isaiah 11:1-10
Psalm 72:1-7,18-19
Romans 15:4-13
Matthew 3:1-12

Photo: CC0image by prawny>

Categories
Musings Sermon Starter

Between the Prophets and the Apocolypse

Somewhere between a prophetic vision and an apocalypse, there is Advent. The beauty and wonder of the season often gets lost in the shopping and parties and full schedules. I remember my first few years as a pastor, Advent was full to bursting with additional responsibilities with little time for rest and appreciation of what the season meant. In fact, I was not a fan of Advent. I felt as if I just had more things to accomplish, more tasks on my to-do list, than I had time for. I missed the power of the season. It’s likely that the congregations I pastored in those days may have also missed it, so busy were with extra services and activities. Visions of what could be and apocalyptic warnings seemed far from the hectic rush that filled the weeks before Christmas.

Now I hear Isaiah’s words and long to discover God’s holy mountain where all learn holy ways. I imagine what it might be like to embark on highways where all are welcome, and all live in the light of God. Humanity has spent its entire history learning the ways of war, that the thought of turning our weapons of death into instruments of life seems little more than a fantasy. Yet, this was God’s promise to the people of Israel so long ago. This promise of peace was never revoked. The invitation to journey to God’s holy mountain, travel on holy highways, and carry the light of God still stands for any who want to seek it.

Of course, this journey to God’s mountain would require that we stop complaining about the way things are and endeavor to change some of what is broken. It would mean that we can’t just sit and lament the romanticized past; we would have to set about creating a present that is more hopeful, more life-affirming than what is. We couldn’t just point fingers at those we disagree with and claim that we are different. We would have to actually be different. What do I need to set down to make it possible to find me feet traveling God’s holy ways? What do you need to let go of in order to carry God’s light into the world?

These are the questions I find myself pondering on the brink of this Advent season. No one can argue that world needs hope. What can we, who call ourselves Christians, do to embody hope for the people we encounter? What kind of light can we bring to alleviate the despair that settles in all around us, sometimes in us as well? Maybe we can focus on giving what is needed to someone who expects nothing, not just during this season but also into the new year. Maybe we continue to advocate for justice, even when it seems nothing changes or that our small voices go unheard. Maybe we stop responding to hate and fear with anger and rejection. What would it look like to respond to the vitriol of politicians with love? I suspect we would be closer to God’s mountain and further from the ways of war.

The apocalyptic warnings throughout scripture are not news. Humanity has always been on the edge of destruction. Every time we develop a new weapon or make the lethality of war more distant, we run the risk of forgetting that our enemies are human beings who also bear the image of God. We also forget that the resources of the earth have limits and there are things we ought not to be doing if we want the earth to survive for future generations. Greedy impulses don’t need to dictate the fuels we use or keep us believing that everything is disposable/replaceable. If we repent of our limited sight and foolish willingness to believe those in power, the end of the world need not come. There is a better way.

The prophets told of holy ways long, long ago. Jesus embodied those ways and invited us to do the same. God promised peace and new life to all those who journeyed to God’s holy mountain. The promise remains. This is the Hope of the Advent season. God invites us once again to embark on a sacred journey. At the end of the journey we may kneel before a Child in a manger, and we will have learned something about being the Body of Christ along the way.

Let’s set down all that no longer serves as we seek God’s holy ways. In setting down those things we will make room to be Hope in the world, traveling in the light of God.

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RCL – Year A – First Sunday of Advent – December 1, 2019
Isaiah 2:1-5
Psalm 122
Romans 13:11-14
Matthew 24:36-44

Photo: CC0image by Andreas N

Categories
Bidding Prayer liturgy Prayer

Bidding Prayer for Advent Love

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With hopes that we, like Mary, may find favor with God, let us join together in praying for all who share the sacred journey to Bethlehem.
People may quietly or silently voice their prayers
God who leads through example, be with all who seek the Christ-child who waits for us. Remind us that road is long and wide enough for all who endeavor to see you. As we prepare to offer our gifts to the newborn king, open our hearts. Open our hearts to make room for the extravagance of your love for us and for the whole of creation. May the love we celebrate this day, flow through us into the world.
Restore us, O God;
Let your face shine that we might be saved.

As we move through these last Advent days, let us pray for those who are in need of shelter, sanctuary, or safety.
People may quietly or silently voice their prayers
Holy One whose light proclaims the way of love for the whole of Creation, guide us to the day when hatred, fear, and oppression have no place in our lives. Mary and Joseph found safe harbor in a stable and Christ was born into these humble surroundings. You tell us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. May our love for our neighbors be demonstrated in our actions – building homes, welcoming refugees, and protecting children who dream of a life of safety and possibilities.
Restore us, O God;
Let your face shine that we might be saved.

As we remember the joyful meeting between Mary and Elizabeth, let us pray for all who gather in worship this day, near and far.
People may quietly or silently voice their prayers
God who broke into the world to draw us closer to you, unite us in our love for you. While we rush from one holiday activity to another, pass judgement on the celebrations of others, and forget the beauty and wonder of your love, remind us. Remind us that you are more Mystery than we can possibly know. All our traditions may lead us to you, but they separate us from one another. Let us see the gifts others bring and may our hearts leap with joy in recognizing you in everyone we meet.
Restore us, O God;
Let your face shine that we might be saved.

Remembering the promises of old, promises of the One who would bring peace. Let us pray for all who work to bring peace into the world
People may quietly or silently voice their prayers
God of steadfast love, you love us even when we forget to love you, our neighbors, ourselves, or creation. We have heard your call to love and we find it so much harder than it ought to be. We justify our wars, our violent ways, our fear of change, our racism, and all the ways we perpetuate systems built on oppression. You wait for us to remember your holy ways of love and justice. As we enter Bethelem this year, shine your love into our broken fearful places, those in ourselves and our churches, and those in our country and our world. Call us once again into wholeness, peace and love. And may we have the courage to respond.
Restore us, O God;
Let your face shine that we might be saved.

Anticipating, once again, the gift of the Christ-child, let us give thanks for all the blessings we have been given.
People may quietly or silently voice their prayers
God who loves without limits or conditions, we praise you for true gift of your love for us. A Child born so long ago leads us in your holy ways. In our gratitude, may we have the courage to embody your love with joy and faithfulness so that Child may never be forgotten. Hear our prayers of gratitude and praise for all the ways in which you fill our lives with hope, peace, joy, and love.
Restore us, O God;
Let your face shine that we might be saved. Amen.

RCL Year C – Fourth Sunday of Advent – December 23, 2018
Micah 5:2-5a
Luke 1:46b-55 or Psalm 80:1-7
Hebrews 10:5-10
Luke 1:39-45 [46-55]word

Photo: CC0 image by Gerd Altmann

Categories
Musings Sermon Starter

Seemingly Impossible Joy

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Rejoice in the Lord always. Always and everywhere. Was Paul kidding? The world is too challenging a place to be full of joy always, isn’t it? I mean look at what is happening around the world – war, hunger, sickness, climate change – and in this country – murder, incarceration, tear gas, hatred, fear – and in my neighborhood – isolation, anxiety, desperation. Who can find joy in all of this? Funny thing, Paul’s world wasn’t all the different. He was imprisoned, not for the first time when he wrote to the Philippians. He was no stranger to oppression, war, violence, hatred, fear, and other such soul-destroying things. Yet, he found joy in the Lord.

And we are supposed to do the same no matter what is going on around us or in our own lives. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. However, joy is not the same thing as happiness. Joy is a more mature, deeper, transforming emotion than happiness. Happiness is dependent on one’s circumstances. Lots of things can make us happy. Joy is built on the connection between the human spirit and the Holy Spirit. Joy does not end when the moment has passed. This is how Paul could rejoice even when circumstances were not in his favor.

Where is the joy for today’s Christian? To be perfectly honest, I spent a good portion of my younger years feeling anything but joy. It was so hard to see through the pain of the past and the precarious balance of the present to any kind of lasting joy. It’s also hard to feel joy if one does not experience love. Only when I began to see myself as someone worthy of love, someone whom God loved deeply, did I notice joy blossoming in the depths of my being.

Zephaniah’s and Isaiah’s call to sing God’s praises even while still captive and filled with shame, make much more sense when considered in the context of God’s steadfast love. I don’t know why or how, but God continues to love humanity no matter what we do. When we engage in war and violence, God’s love remains. When we are filled with fear and hatred for our neighbors, God’s love holds fast. When we are lost to anxiety and despair, God’s love abides. Nothing we can do to ourselves, each other, or creation can change the fact that we were created in Love for love. For reasons beyond my capacity to fathom, God still loves all of humanity and waits for us to grasp hold of this truth.

When we understand ourselves to be God’s beloved, then joy becomes possible. The shame gives way to hope and the fear gives way to peace. Suddenly the world holds more beauty than violence and all our neighbors are God’s beloved. No, I don’t think it’s possible that any of us live in this truth 100% of the time. We are still subject to the emotions coursing through our bodies and the pressures of living in this chaotic world. The difference comes into play when we sit still long enough to sink into the very center of ourselves. When we allow ourselves to become conscious of the truth that resides in the depths of our being – we belong to God and nothing can change that. When we embrace this truth, then joy grows and becomes something that nothing can remove. Yes, joy can grow dim in the face of hardship. It can be masked by depression, anxiety, and other forms of mental illness. It can fade in the face of grief. Yet, it remains, always. A light in depths that cannot be extinguished.

Of course, this joy might require we do some odd things. We might have to write letters of hope and promise to churches from a prison cell. We might have to proclaim the power and presence of God to a people lost in shame and fear. We might need to preach release, salvation, to captives. We might have to sing while those around us weep, sing of God’s promise of hope, peace, joy, and love.

So, yes, let us rejoice always, trusting that peace that truly passes all understanding to keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. It might just get a little easier to stand with John the Baptist in the wilderness and prepare the way…

RCL – Year C – Third Sunday of Advent – December 16, 2018
Zephaniah 3:14-20
Isaiah 12:2-6
Philippians 4:4-7
Luke 3:7-18

Photo: CC0 image by Gerd Altmann