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Celebrating Resurrection

Image of a tan baby bunny sitting in front of a bird’s nest with 3 colored eggs. All in a green field with small, white flowers.

A sense of Resurrection hit me early this year. Yesterday I was able to get a vaccine sooner than I had anticipated. I needed to be in a hospital setting because of my medical conditions and the possibility of an allergic reaction. I have been on all kinds of waiting lists for a few weeks and had to turn down one place because it wasn’t a hospital. Yesterday, though, my wife came home from a morning appointment at the VA (she’s a veteran) and told me that if I went there right then, I could get a vaccine. Good news, indeed. I have had to keep my exposure to the world so minimal over the last 13 months because of my high risk. Now I am imagining what I can do five weeks from now when I am fully vaccinated. It won’t be anything exciting by most people’s standards. Just things like the dentist, the ophthalmologist, a mammogram, and in-person PT for my frozen shoulder. I might be brave enough to go to the Asian market for somethings that aren’t available on Instacart, though I won’t go in if it’s too crowded. I also like to dream about having friends who also vaccinated over this summer – outside, masked, and distanced, of course. It feels like a bit of resurrection is on the horizon.

I can’t help but think of the heavy grief those women carried to Jesus’ tomb along with the anointing spices. They had no idea that they would be greeted by Resurrection. By John’s account, Mary Magdalene mistook the Risen Christ for the gardener. Imagine how much her spirits lifted when she recognized her beloved friend, rabbi, teacher. By Mark’s account the women were terrified by the very idea of Resurrection; they ran away. I get that. If I had been there, I would have dropped my anointing spices and ran for home. No one expects the power of God to change the laws of nature. No one expects Resurrection and when it happens we should be awestruck, if not also filled with fear and trembling.

Even today. Yes, today, when we encounter Resurrection, we must also be open to the awe, or the fear, or the terror. God’s power is so much more than anything we encounter on a day-to-day basis. And, let’s face it, these days we are weighed down by the grief we carry. All of us know at least one person who has died from COVID. Most of us know many. And then there is the loss of “normal,” whatever that meant for us. When we encounter Resurrection this year, will the heaviness of the grief we carry lessen? Will we be able to breathe a little more deeply with the reminder that God is truly with us through everything?

Also, with the Resurrection comes the knowledge that nothing will ever be “normal” again. Encounters with the Risen Christ were not the same as being with Jesus before his death. He was different. He had to identify himself every time he showed up for any of his disciples. New Life means different life. This is good for us to remember as we look at the end of pandemic, whenever it comes. There are things that will never be the same again. Masking in public is likely here to stay. Handshakes are probably a thing of the past. Many of us will never feel comfortable being part of a large crowd again. Some of us will be reluctant to eat in restaurants or even get takeout again. And church will be different, too. We don’t know when or if we’ll be able to sing together again. We won’t pass the offering plate or pass the Peace. We won’t be handing out bulletins or casually hugging each other. Who knows what kinship time will look like. Are potlucks a thing of the past? Church might have to take a cue from the Resurrected Christ and be different in appearance and action.

While most of us resist change and long to “get back to normal,” Resurrection reminds us that this is not how the Body of Christ started out. We, as church, have an amazing opportunity to appear and behave differently, like the Resurrected Christ. Maybe we won’t have to point out our wounds or explain that we are still the church, yet we can embrace transformation. We can emerge from pandemic very unlike we were prior. Yes, it’s scary not to know the future shape we will take. Yes, it’s uncomfortable to take risks. Yes, it seems counterintuitive to intentionally embrace more change when so much has already changed. Some may, in fact, run away in fear. That’s okay. The women ran away at first. Yet, we know they told the story at some point because here we are a couple thousand years later.

With the promise of new life, life after pandemic, on the horizon, may we all embrace the power and truth of Resurrection this Easter. May we move through our fear and welcome the differences that will eventually become normative. May our congregations live into transformation and Resurrection in a way that beckons to those who have yet to find welcome in the church. It’s okay to be anxious or afraid. We have yet to know what resurrection will look like in the wake of pandemic. We are still caught somewhere between Maundy Thursday and Easter morning. We will celebrate Easter in spirit this week. It may be several more months before we get to experience New Life in-person. The key is to be open to whatever comes and give thanks for the promise of Resurrection.

Happy Easter!

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RCL – Year B – Easter – April 4, 2021

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

Photo: CC0image by Rebekka D

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Musings Sermon Starter

All That is Before Us: From Palm Sunday to Easter

Image of a beach at sunrise/sunset with palm branches and trees in the foreground.

Palm Sunday. During pandemic. Again. I’ve heard too many clergy colleagues asking how to preach this Holy Week during pandemic. Sure, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday are comparatively easy. How to preach good news on Palm Sunday and even more so on Easter is the repeated question. What does new life look like when the pandemic has not ended, though an end may be on the horizon? What does new life mean when congregations are failing or haven’t met in person in over a year or many members have died or the doors have permanently closed? Can we celebrate Jesus’ triumphant return to Jerusalem when we are still held captive by COVID? The short answer is yes. Yes, there is new life. Yes, there is a way through grief. Yes, the church is still vital and necessary in the world. Yes, celebrating Jesus’ return to Jerusalem is both possible and important.

We are all stressed by the experiences of this last year. Most of us could not have predicted that we’d be facing our second Holy Week of virtual worship. We thought it would all be over by now. Now it’s not. And we are weary on top of the on-going stressors pandemic brings. All the more reason to take a closer look at the events of Holy Week, and to remind ourselves that the week goes from celebration to suffering to death to New Life. This is the story of the human journey. This is the story of our spiritual lives. We move through these stages. We, too, experience betrayal and loss and death. We grieve. We celebrate. We remember. We live. So, let’s begin.

Jesus returned to Jerusalem without a lot of fanfare. He rode a colt, fulfilling prophecy. He was humble and quiet in contrast to Pilot with a parade and a Century of soldiers on horses and wearing shiny armor. Jesus came in humility while the Empire made promises of power and protection that they couldn’t possibly keep. Jesus rode in quietly with only palm branches waving and few shouts of “hosanna!” He promised life to those who would follow him. He rode into town, checked out the Temple, and went to Bethany for the night.

Not much has changed. The Empire doesn’t necessarily come riding into town with soldiers and horses any more than Jesus comes in riding a donkey. However, the Empire is still making promises of power and protection that it cannot possibly fulfill. It’s goal is to keep us separate and powerless so that the status quo may endure even the pandemic. Jesus’ goal, in complete contrast, is to unite and empower so that the oppressed may be liberated and justice may be embodied throughout society. Jesus would have something to say about the ways this pandemic has been managed (or not) by those with power. He would have something to say about the inequity of those victimized and the way the vaccine has been released according to the same old racial divides. Jesus would have something to say about how we have let white supremacy and classism, ablism, and other divisive fears determine who lives and who dies. We need Jesus to ride into town and remind us that there is a better way to face the Empire.

Palm Sunday can remind us that there is another way to be in the face of fear, anger, and oppression. We can humbly remain firm in our love or our neighbors and ourselves. We can be reluctant to let go of the (false) protections of Empire even as we recognize that the way of Love demands an active response. Jesus didn’t ride that colt into Jerusalem because he wanted to; he rode into the city because he needed people to see the Love provides more safety, healing, and hope than might. The God’s steadfast love is the way through all the pain, deceit, and division caused by participating in the power of the Empire. Where is Jesus challenging us to respond differently in this moment, to leave behind the illusions of the Empire?

If we skip ahead to Thursday, we know that betrayal rules the day. Judas couldn’t help himself. In the moment, the money seemed more powerful than Jesus’ love for him. As a result, Jesus was betrayed into the hands of the authorities. Yet, not before some important things happened. There was footwashing to show us that we are all equal before God; not one human life is more important than another, not one is too good to wash the feet of others. And there was, of course, the Last Supper. Here Jesus told us all what he was doing and why. His body would be broken for us to know healing. His blood would be poured out for us to know forgiveness. He would die for us to know that violence and death are not the end. Resurrection tells us that Love always triumphs. How do we move through this week experiencing it all fully and trust the fullness the New Life that is promised and demonstrated?

We know the story. We know that God does not abandon us at any time. God is with us in our moments of being overwhelmed and weary. Holy Week in its entirety can remind us that we are not alone and that the best way to journey together is through all of it – the hope, the despair, the fear, the betrayal, the grief… everything. By going through it all we get to New Life. No thing lasts forever. However, we are changed by our experiences. Life will never be what it was before COVID. As true as this is, there is still hope because we are a people seeking to live into and embody Divine Love. Love that unites and liberates us and instills hope in us for a life that is yet to come. This is the good news. This is the good news writ large this week. May we all have the grace to stay awake, to keep watch, and to bear witness to all that is to come. Blessings on the journey!

RCL – Year B – Palm Sunday – March 28, 2021 Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29  • Mark 11:1-11 or John 12:12-16

Photo: CC0image by gregovish

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Musings Sermon Starter

Beware the Serpents

Image of silhouettes of children raising their arms in the foreground. The background is the red, orange, yellow and blue of a sunrise with birds also silhouetted.

In the wilderness, life is difficult. The space between what was and what will be is uncomfortable, and often distressing. For the Israelites who were on their way from captivity to liberation, misery met them in the desert. They came to the realization that the journey would be long and hard and there was no turning back. They complained to Moses about the lack of water and food. They blamed God for their plight. They were miserable and unexpectedly longing for those days in Egypt where they knew what to expect and there was enough food and water.

Then the encountered the poisonous serpents. They believed these were sent by God as punishment for their sins. I don’t believe God really works this way. I think they encountered the scorpions that live in the desert. Or maybe the serpents are metaphor for the way in which dwelling on our own misery lets a kind of poison in. Either way, people died. And the survivors repented.

Repentance made them look for a different way. Moses made a bronze serpent that made them look up in order to live. In effect, it made them stop looking at their misery and, instead, look to God for hope and life. And their journey continued; they did not die. Eventually, they made it through the wilderness to the Promised Land. Eventually, they accepted the challenges of the journey and began to imagine a new life for themselves.

We have much to learn from these ancient wilderness wanderers. We have been in pandemic wilderness for a year. It is uncomfortable and distressing. Grief weighs heavily on all of us. Some of us don’t have the resources they need to get through a day, much less the days ahead. It becomes too easy to focus on the hard parts, the miserable parts of pandemic. Some have even blamed God for COVID, for people dying, for all the challenges of the past year.

I don’t find this helpful or healthy. God does not cause suffering. God did not create COVID-19 and all its variants to punish us or teach us anything. We might learn something from this time of pandemic at some point, but that doesn’t mean God sent the virus to us. Perhaps, we need to do as the Israelites did and repent of our focus on our misery. Perhaps it is time that those of us who are able, look up. Look up to find hope, healing, and guidance in God.

This looking upward does not negate all the suffering and grief. It does not deny the reality of pandemic which is not over. The change in focus for the Israelites was life-giving. It can be life-giving for us as well. Focusing on God means not focusing on the limits pandemic has imposed on us. Focusing on God means taking deeper breaths and appreciating the blessings in the midst of the challenges. It means asking ourselves how we can use the resources we have to benefit another. It means recognizing that the people of God have been in similar places in the past; God knows the way through loss, through grief, through injustice… through it all.

The Israelites didn’t suddenly have more food and water on their journey. They didn’t suddenly arrive on the other side of the wilderness. However, they were able to look up, focus away from their misery, and recognize God’s presence in their midst – at least for a little while. They would forget again. They would be overwhelmed by their circumstances again. And they would find God in their midst again. We can follow their lead. Where do you find hope in these wilderness days?

No matter how much we want this journey through pandemic to be over, it is not. Yes, there are many who are acting as if COVID no longer poses a threat. These are the folx who are focused on the poisonous serpents and are unable to look up and see hope and healing. Denial of pain and suffering helps no one. Acknowledging it and searching for hope in the midst of it, will lead toward healing. Remember, the presence of God in the midst of the ancient Israelites did not change their circumstances. Instead, God led them through their hunger, their thirst, and the poisonous serpents.

We can get through this. Whatever the “new normal” will be is on the horizon. It’s still hazy and unclear, though. The only way through the remaining days of pandemic are together. Those of us who are able to look up and find hope and healing have a responsibility to help those who cannot. We don’t need a bronze serpent to remind us that God, the power of Life and Love, is in our midst; we need one another.

RCL – Year B – Fourth Sunday in Lent – March 14, 2021 Exodus 20:1-17  • Psalm 19  • 1 Corinthians 1:18-25  • John 2:13-22

Photo: CC0image by Gerd Altmann

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Musings Sermon Starter

Unfortunate Truths

image of a boy and a girl holding hands on the edge of the ocean at sunset with a map of the earth superimposed over the sky

In the season of Epiphany it is appropriate to be seeking revelations of God’s presence and God’s engagement with the world. Sometimes it is much more clear where God’s work is not being done. I’ve seen a lot of this in recent days. Then I hear the unthinkable – people who engage in terrorist activities claiming to be Christian, or labeled “Christian” by others. In the United States it is time for us to be honest with ourselves and stop pretending hatred and violence are acceptable feelings and actions for those who claim to follow Christ.

In John’s account of the call of Nathanael, Nathanael does not believe anything good can come out of Nazareth in spite of Philip’s pronouncement about finding the Messiah. Philip’s response to Nathanael was a very clear, “Come and see.” Not only could goodness come out of Nazareth, only goodness can come out of the Messiah. If something is not good and loving, it does not come from Christ. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t pain or challenge because change often involves both these things. However, if something is centered in Christ, the outcome is goodness or love. Period. Without question.

This is bad news for those who claim the name “Christian” and then espouse hatred or storm the Capitol. Jesus’ commandment to love was very clear. Living a life based in fear, anger, and hatred is the exact opposite. What might change if we all stop tolerating hatred, especially in those who claim to follow Christ?

Jesus’ entire ministry was about empowering the oppressed, taking religious control out of the hands of those appointed by Rome, healing and re-membering those who were pushed to the margins. Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire in 310 and the downfall began. Then Charlemagne came along a few centuries later and established the Holy Roman Empire and sealed the fate of the church. We have been in service to the Empire ever since. The events of last week and the on-going pandemic show how true this is.

When Christians support a president who has no ethics, openly mocks people with disabilities, denigrates women, supports white supremacy, removes laws protecting LGBTQ+ people, and more, they reveal allegiance not to the God of Love but to the Empire, the oppressors. When people worship power and position over liberation and care for the vulnerable, ugly things happen. There is no goodness or Love here. Christ is not on the side of those with power.

The unfortunate truth is that you cannot be a follower of Christ and be a white supremacist; Jesus was a brown-skinned man. You cannot hate those who have different religious practices; Jesus said love your neighbor. You cannot fear those from other countries – immigrants, refugees, or asylum seekers; Jesus told us to welcome the stranger. You cannot support the mistreatment of anyone who is not white, male, heterosexual, able-bodied, and wealthy; Jesus clearly told his followers to Love as he Loves. How have we gotten to a place where the public face of Christianity is so often one of hatred and violence?

No more. Let us make 2021 the year we follow Christ, the one who taught Love, a Love that when fully embrace, fully embodied, casts out all fear. We do not have to accept racism, white supremacy, hatred, and violence as normative. We do not have to remain in service to the Empire. We have more than enough Love, more than enough resources, more than enough goodness, to ensure that all human beings are treated with dignity and respect. We can love our neighbors as ourselves and not lose anything except our fears.

Can anything good come out of Christians in the United States? Come and see. God is doing a new thing. Perhaps we can all join in and leave the ways of fear and division behind us. Whose in?

RCL: Year B – Second Sunday after Epiphany – January 17, 2021 1 Samuel 3:1-10, (11-20)  • Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18  • 1 Corinthians 6:12-20  • John 1:43-51

Photo: CC0image by Gerd Altmann

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Musings Sermon Starter

Follow the Magi

Image of a stylized silhouette of people and camels on a horizon lit by stars and sunrise

2020 has come to an end, and most of us are grateful. The problem with this is that we expect 2021 to be different right now, at the year’s beginning. We want to blame 2020 for all the challenges, suffering, and sorrow it has left in its wake as if 2020 were an entity in and of itself, a hateful one at that. The problem is, of course, that the date or time in the history of the cosmos is not a causal factor in events. In fact, the pandemic started in 2019, hence COVID-19. The inherent racism and white supremacy that lead to the murder of George Floyd and others predates 2020. The deaths of celebrities such as Sean Connery, Chadwick Boseman, Kelly Preston and Eddie Van Halen (to name a few), didn’t happen because it was the year 2020. Yes, it has been a difficult year on a global scale, one of the hardest in modern history. However, the year ending doesn’t necessarily mean an immediate improvement of circumstances.

The grief we carry will not dissipate when the ball drops at midnight and the year changes to 2021. The vaccines that are being distributed now won’t mean that we can be out and about in the world for several months to come. Racism and white supremacy won’t magically end because we turn to a new page on the calendar. The challenges that began in 2019 and intensified through 2020 will continue in 2021. Our job is to figure out how to hold onto hope, how to heal, how to endure the heaviness of grief and loss, how to help our neighbors who may not be fairing as well as we are in this pandemic… there is no shortage of work to be done.

I think of the magi on their way to Bethlehem and how hard that journey must have been. Some speculate that their travels took more than two years. What kept them going on that long and arduous path that finally got the to the Christ-child? What hopes kept their feet trudging on day after day? And, after encountering Christ, how did they find the strength to return home by yet another road? There are lessons from these magi that might help us embrace the year ahead.

First, the magi packed for the journey and included gifts for the Child they were going to visit. We can do this. We can closely examine our lives for the gifts we can bring on the journey into 2021. Yes, it’s right to name survival as a gift. And then look around for others. Perhaps we have reconnected with family or friends and strengthened relationships. Perhaps we’ve re-evaluated how we spend our time. Maybe we’ve been more intentional about sharing our resources. Maybe we’ve gotten involved in advocating for justice? Whatever gifts you’ve uncovered or rediscovered in 2020, pack them for the journey into 2021; they will be needed.

Next, the magi were committed to the journey, not knowing what they would encounter. This seems like a good idea as we stand on the brink of a New Year. We are hopeful that 2021 will mean an end to pandemic conditions. At the same time, we have no idea if this will happen. Many of us are hopeful that a new Administration in the White House will bring positive changes and address the injustices magnified by the current Administration. We don’t know if this will happen, either. The journey ahead may be just as challenging as the path that brought us here. Or it may be full of blessings and joys and easier days. Either way, we must commit to the journey and to all who travel with us that we are in it no matter what unfolds.

This brings me to another point: the magi did not travel alone, and neither should we. We know that there will be more losses, more stress, more sadness in the days to come. Most of us are at or have exceeded the amount of stress we can handle on our own. We need to share the journey with those who are traveling a similar road, and we need to make sure we are able to help those who stumble along the way. Exhaustion and grief and injustice make the journey especially hard. We will do better if we share our resources and help one another along the way.

We also do not make this journey for no purpose. The magi went to Bethlehem to honor the new born King. We, as Christians, live our lives to honor God in much the same way. In spite of all the awfulness that 2020 leaves in its wake, there have been moments of beauty, wonder, and awe as well. Babies have been born. Discoveries have been made. Generosity has been witnessed. God is present in this world, waiting for us to notice, and respond accordingly. The magi offered their gifts to the Baby. We can offer our gifts to those who travel with us and, similarly, honor God.

No, the year ahead won’t magically be better than the year that is ending. However, if we share the journey, share the burdens and the joys, we will make it through together. Let’s continue to share the tears of grief and loss. Let’s also continue to share the moments of beauty, wonder, and joy just as readily. The only way we will honor God on this journey is to honor ourselves and those trudging through the challenges every day. We’ve got this. Together. Happy New Year.

RCL – Year B – Epiphany (observed), January 3, 2021

Photo: CC0image by Anthony

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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.

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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
Bidding Prayer liturgy

Bidding Prayer for Thanksgiving Eve

Image of a white pumpkin on a plate with dried sunflowers with “Give Thanks” written in the background.

Note: I’m on vacation this week so this post is not based on the RCL. You are welcome to use this bidding prayer if you wish. If you have virtual services and would like to use my four minute recording of a shorter version of this prayer, with candle lighting, you can find the video on youtube. Download links and attribution are in the video description. You can use it.

Direct video download links are in the video description – click through to YouTube if you want to use my video this in your services, to download and copy the attribution.

Let us pray for all who gather to give thanks and worship God.
(silence or a time for people to quietly give voice to their concerns)
Creator God, you long for unity among all your peoples. On this Thanksgiving Eve, fill our hearts with love for all our neighbors and move us to live lives of compassion and generosity. Our fears and anxiety surrounding some of your peoples do not come from you. We are grateful for you love and pray for the courage to live more fully as your body.
God in your mercy,
Hear our prayers.

Let us pray for the church, gathered here and elsewhere. (silence or a time for people to quietly give voice to their concerns)
God who remains steadfast through all time, we celebrate the awesome diversity of your church. In this season of division, help us to be agents of your healing grace. Enable us to let go of all that keeps us from working side-by-side to bring about your realm here on earth. Forgive our tendency to think we are right and all other ways of worshiping you are incorrect. Be with us now; lead us into better days for all your people.
God in your mercy,
Hear our prayers.

Let us pray for all of Creation – this planet and all who live on it
(silence or a time for people to quietly give voice to their concerns)
Eternal and compassionate God, we are a world in trouble. We have not been good stewards of your Creation, nor have we loved our neighbors as ourselves. In the midst of pandemic we have a tendency to protect our own and not be as concerned with others as you would have us be. Strengthen us for the days ahead. Let us bring hope and healing once more – for Earth and for all your children.
God in your mercy,
Hear our prayers.

Let us pray for all those in need of healing.
(silence or a time for people to quietly give voice to their concerns)
Holy and amazing God, we know we need healing – as individuals, as your church, as a community, as a country, and as a global community. We hold out to you all the broken places in our lives and in our world, asking that you would bring healing and wholeness. We also lift up all those who have COVID and those whose work puts them at higher risk. Be with those who seek to find a vaccine. Grant us courage and hope enough to get through this season of sickness and despair.
God in your mercy,
Hear our prayers.

Let us pray for all those whose hearts are heavy with grief and loss.
(silence or a time for people to quietly give voice to their concerns)
God of hope and new life, there is too much sadness, loss, and grief in the world. We often feel helpless and don’t know how to be in the company of those who suffer. Teach us your compassion that we may bring comfort to those who mourn, that we may trust your light of hope to guide us all. We pray for your healing presence to accompany those whose burden of grief is too heavy to bear, especially those who have lost a loved one to suicide, murder, or sudden death of another kind. May we be gentle and kind and patient in response to the grief in our lives and in the lives of those around us.
God in your mercy,
Hear our prayers.

Let us offer up gratitude and praise to God for the goodness and blessings we experience.
(silence or a time for people to quietly give voice to their concerns)
God of abundant life, we thank you that even in the midst of pandemic we can experience the wonders and mysteries of your blessings. We thank you for the people and prophets who challenge us, awaken us, and call us closer to you. We are grateful for what do have and what we are able to do on this Thanksgiving. Even as we yearn for better days, we continue to praise you for all that is good, and for your love for us which never ends.
God in your mercy,
Hear our prayers. Amen.

Photo: CC0image by Jacksonville

Categories
Musings Sermon Starter

Stop the Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth

Image of a night scene with a street light shining on a path in the woods with an open wooden gate

With all that is going on in the world right now, no one needs to hear about “outer darkness” or “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Not only would this be unhelpful, it would likely be unhealthy as well. Yes, the Gospel of Matthew has an intensity, an urgency, that is not present in the other gospels. Yes, the threat of being punished by God is woven throughout the gospel as a means of pushing people to choose their faith in Jesus even if it meant their death. This fear approach to Christianity is one that has been employed for centuries and is still in place today. It is, however, not helpful for today for a few reasons.

Let’s remember that when Matthew was writing his gospel, the only way to understand the way the world worked was that God was in charge of all things. This was the approach throughout biblical times. God was either rewarding God’s people with blessings and prosperity or God was punishing God’s people with sickness and oppression. The world view said that pleasing God would lead to heaven and displeasing God would lead to hell. It was either/or. There was no in between and no other way of explaining global, communal, or individual happenings. If God was pleased then good things were happening. If God was displeased then bad things were happening. There was no other way to understand weather patterns, human behavior, or illness. People acted and God responded. Everything was prescribed; if this…then that. God was in charge.

Of course, there are many people who continue to believe in this prescriptive understanding. However, there is another way of looking at things in the modern context. We know that there is a degree of chaos in the world. We know that human actions have had an impact on the planet in ways that have changed the climate to bring about global warming and in ways that have increased illnesses such as cancer. We know that God does not use weather and sickness and war to communicate with God’s people or to punish them. For example, we know that God did not cause the pandemic we are currently experiencing. I’m sure a scientist could explain just how this pandemic came about and it would not have anything to do with God. This is not to say that God is absent. God is fully present. God is not the causal factor. Pandemic is not a punishment for our sins.

With this understanding, we can look at Matthew’s Gospel and the parables contained from a descriptive point of view rather than prescriptive. Looking at the parable of the talents from this perspective, it would be our actions that land us in place far from God, rather than God putting us there. What follows is my take on the parable from a modern understanding of how God works in the world.

Once there was a business owner who had businesses in three places – in a city, in a suburb, and in a small town. The owner planned a long, international trip to explore establishing businesses in other countries. Before leaving on his trip, the owner called together the three managers. The owner wanted to leave them each funds to expand the business while they were away. To the city manger they gave $1,000,000. To the suburb manger they gave $100,000. To the small town manager they gave $10,000. The owner told the managers that they would be gone for at least a year and expected to find the businesses flourishing when they returned.

When the owner returned, they called together the three managers to find out how the businesses fared. The city manager reported earning an additional $1,000,000 which pleased the owner greatly. The owner promoted the city manager to regional manager. The suburb manager reported earning an additional $100,000 which pleased the owner. The owner promoted the suburb manager to the city manager position. The small town manager gave the owner back the $10,000 saying that they were afraid of making the wrong decisions, losing the money, cutting into the store’s profits, and disappointing the owner. Instead of investing the money, the small town manager just put it in the freezer in the store room so nothing would happen to it. The owner was disappointed and angry. They said, “Your fear made you act foolishly and you are far from what I had hoped for and envisioned. You should have at least put the money in the bank and earned a little interest. I cannot promote you until you are less fearful. You will be an assistant manager until you learn to use what you have been given. The small town manager was sad and angry and felt as though they were treated unfairly.

As you can see, in my version of this parable, the owner is generous and hopeful. The actions of the city manager and the suburb manager lead to their promotions. The actions of the small town manager lead to their demotion. The distance between what the managers do and the owner’s expectations is determined by the actions of the managers, not the owner. This is a descriptive way of looking at how God works in the world, rather than prescriptive. If, like the city manager and the suburb manager, we seek to use our gifts as God desires, we are more likely to experience the benefits found in doing what is pleasing to God. If we choose not to use the gifts we have been given, we are much more likely to feel as if God does not care about us or that God is punishing us.

No parable is perfect; they all break down at some point. There is no guarantee in this life that following God’s ways are going to bring only blessings. There is also no guarantee that those who fail to act in ways pleasing to God will experience only challenges. Using our gifts as God desires for us, to the best of our ability, opens us to God’s presence in the world or draws us nearer to God. Intentionally choosing not to use our gifts as God desires is much more likely to land us in a place like the outer darkness Matthew mentions and the weeping and gnashing of teeth is likely to come from us.

This is the long way of saying that if we choose to follow Jesus and use our gifts in service to God, neighbor, and Creation, then we are more likely to experience God’s presence, even if our endeavors are not successful. Conversely, if we choose not to use our gifts in service to God, neighbor, and Creation, then we are much more likely to experience distance from God, even if our endeavors are successful. Matthew’s parable of the talents is much more helpful read in this descriptive manor than if when it is read in a more prescriptive way.

May we all have the strength and the courage to use our gifts to build up the Body of Christ and draw people in from the “outer darkness.”

RCL: Year A Twenty-fourth Sunday After Pentecost November 15, 2020 Judges 4:1-7 with Psalm 123 or
Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18 with Psalms 90:1-8 (9-11), 12
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Matthew 25:14-30

Photo: CC0image by Merja Partanen