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Musings Sermon Starter

When Will We Learn

Image of a man in silhouette standing, looking into a night star-filled sky that is tinted with orange, yellow, and pink.

Nicodemus is a familiar character. He was a pharisee who snuck off to talk with Jesus in the middle of the night. I wonder what burning question made him take the risk of being seen with Jesus. All we know is that he went to Jesus and affirmed that Jesus was “from God.” Then the conversation just gets weird. And you know what? The Christian church has never made sense of this strange passage in any useful way.

“Born again” is a phrase that makes my heart beat faster and my blood pressure rise. It’s been used as a litmus test for faith, the “right” faith. Nicodemus didn’t understand what Jesus was talking about and I don’t think many of us understand any better now. The dreaded, “when were you saved?” or it’s alternate form, “when were you born again?” sparks both anger and sadness in me. If I don’t have a dramatic conversion story to share, that means I’m not a true Christian? Why can’t it be a slow growth, a dawning awakening to the power and presence of God in my life? I’m betting that’s how it was for Nicodemus.

Nicodemus recognized something in Jesus that drew him out into the dark of night to have a conversation. Of course, the conversation was quickly out of his hands and beyond his understanding. A person cannot be born more than once. It’s that simple. Or maybe it isn’t. Jesus didn’t think anything about a person’s spiritual life was simple.

I remember Dr. James Loder in a course on human development talking about how the Holy Spirit enters into our lives, breaks through our ego defenses, and shoves our ego off-center. After a while our defenses are a pile of rubble and we can say with Paul, “I, not I, but Christ.” This is what we are after, this union of human spirit and Holy Spirit. It’s slippery and very seldom does the union fully hold after any single experience. Our egos are stubborn and we are wired to think we are at the center of things. When the Holy Spirit pushes our ego enough out of the way, we realize that being at the center of things with Christ is a healthier way to go. Even then, though, we have a hard time holding onto the Holy. We are always human first.

Jesus told the struggling Nicodemus that God so loves the whole of the cosmos that God gave God’s only son so that all who believe might have eternal life. The love is ongoing. Eternal life is communal. We cannot do it alone. In order to bring God’s realm into the here and now, we need one another. We need to be bound together by the Holy Spirit into the Bodymind of Christ, the church re-envisioned for the world in which we live.

Nicodemus made the mistake of thinking that Jesus’ words were literal and meant just for Nicodemus. Many of us have made similar mistakes. We think the words are meant to be taken literally and that they are only for those who share a certain belief. However, God’s love that sent Jesus into the world is a love that encompasses the whole cosmos. It is our belief that allows us to enter into the truth of God’s love. It was never meant to exclude anyone. It was meant to build and strengthen and create beloved community.

As we have observed the anniversary of George Floyd’s murder this week, I wonder when we will set aside our harm-filled interpretations of scripture. I wonder when those who claim the name of Christ will live in love with all neighbors, not just White ones. When will we who claim to have Christ at our center stop living in fearful hatred and demand justice and equality for every human being, without exception?

Jesus said that God loves the entirety of the cosmos. Now is an excellent time to claim this truth and live it into being. No one can truly be a follower of Christ and hate people based on race, religion, country of origin, gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, class, ability, health, mental health, or any other aspect of human identity. God loves the entire cosmos. That love sent Jesus to teach us how to love one another. When will we learn?

RCL – Year B – Trinity Sunday – May 30, 2021 Isaiah 6:1-8 and Psalm 29  • Romans 8:12-17  • John 3:1-17

Photo: CC0image by free-photos

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Bidding Prayer liturgy

Bidding Prayer for the Wilderness Journey

Come, let us pray for all those who worship the One who created all that is and loves the whole of the Cosmos.
(silence or time for people to quietly give voice to their concerns
Ever-present, Creator God, hear our prayers for all your people, those who gather in the name of Christ and those who worship by another name. Unite us in our desire to love and serve you by loving and serving all our neighbors. Make us mindful that we are your people and our siblings are numerous. In these days of change, conflict, and war, you call us to leave behind what we have known, and journey to strange places whose customs we have yet to learn or create. Grant us the trust of Abram and the courage of Sarai that we may all follow you into new and life-sustaining ways.
I lift my eyes to the hills from where will my help come?
My help comes from God, who made heaven and earth.

Come, let us pray for the United Church of Christ and our sister denominations throughout the world.
(silence or a time for people to quietly give voice to their concerns)
God of all times and places, hear our prayers for the United Church of Christ and those who lead it. May we hear your call as clearly as Abram did and be willing to leave behind that which no longer serves. May our commitment to following you outweigh our love affair with the past. Grant us the temerity of Nicodemus to come to you, as with the yearning of our hearts. Open us to your call to life and love in new ways, paving the way for change, for growth, for the deepening of our covenant with you and with one another.
I lift my eyes to the hills from where will my help come?
My help comes from God, who made heaven and earth.

Come, let us pray for all the peoples of this world.
(silence or a time for people to quietly give voice to their concerns)
Patient and merciful God, hear our prayers for all the peoples of the world. We lift up to those near and far who do not know they are loved and valued. We acknowledge the ways we have participated in systems of oppression that have caused pain to our neighbors. Teach us your ways of mercy and grace that we may join with protesters rather than complain about the disruption to our days. As we journey through the Lenten wilderness, increase our awareness of the needs of others, especially those who remain willfully unseen. Remind us once more that your love is for the whole of the Cosmos and we are to leave no one out.
I lift my eyes to the hills from where will my help come?
My help comes from God, who made heaven and earth.

Come, let us pray for this nation and those who lead it.
(silence or a time for people to quietly give voice to their concerns)

God of our ancestors and God of all our days, hear our prayers for this country and all who live within its borders. In this season of political choosing, be present with us, enveloping us with your mercy and your love. As we participate in primary elections, guide us with your wisdom. Your Spirit blows where it wills, and so it should be with our lives. Let us not resist the power of your Spirit. Rather, let us resist those who would lead us away from justice, compassion, and equity for all those who call this country home. May we seek leaders who will care for the vulnerable among us more than they care for wealth or power.
I lift my eyes to the hills from where will my help come?
My help comes from God, who made heaven and earth.

Come, let us pray for all those in need of healing.
(silence or a time for people to quietly give voice to their concerns)
Healing and compassionate God, hear us as we pray for those who need healing in body, mind, or spirit. We especially lift up those who are wrongfully imprisoned or unjustly sentenced, especially those who are on death row. As we pray for those who struggle with the broken places in their lives, fill us with your compassion that our prayerful words may lead to acts of welcome and inclusion for those the world has pushed to the edges. May your Wisdom guide us to be the Body of Christ needed in the world today.
I lift my eyes to the hills from where will my help come?
strong>My help comes from God, who made heaven and earth.

Come, let us pray for all those who grieve and suffer the pain of loss.
(silence or a time for people to quietly give voice to their concerns)
God of love and joy, hear us as we pray for those who are grieving. We pray for refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants who, like Abram and Sarai, have left all that they have known to seek a life of safety and peace. We pray for those like Nicodemus who are lost under the cover of night and desperately want new life. As we examine the barren places in our own lives, we come to you, trusting that you are a God of hope and wholeness. Be at work in us and among us that we may be your healing body where grief, sadness, and loss can be held until new life becomes possible.
I lift my eyes to the hills from where will my help come?
My help comes from God, who made heaven and earth.

Come, let us give thanks to God for all that we have and all that we are.
(silence or a time for people to quietly give voice to their concerns)
Generous and forgiving God, hear us as we give thanks for our lives. We often fail to express our gratitude for all that you have given us, focusing overly much on what we do not have or cannot do. As we travel this road to Jerusalem with you, shift our focus to your abundance, your love and grace, that is all around us. Jesus went into the desert with your words of “Beloved” echoing in his spirit; he did not go alone. Open us anew to your presence and our belovedness. We are agents of Love and Grace here and now, and we are grateful for your Love, mercy, and forgiveness which leads us through the wild places into the fullness of life with you.
I lift my eyes to the hills from where will my help come?
My help comes from God, who made heaven and earth. Amen.

RCL – Year A – Second Sunday in Lent – March 8, 2020
Genesis 12:1-4a
Psalm 121
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
John 3:1-17 or Matthew 17:1-9

Photo: CC0image by Anja

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Musings Sermon Starter

Under the Cover of Night

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When I was a child, I firmly believed in monsters under the bed that came alive in the dark. I dreaded dark places where spiders and snakes and monsters lived. I always made sure I curled up away from the edges of the bed so my hands and feet would not stray into monster territory. This fear of things that came alive at night persisted well beyond the age when I knew better. Night was a time when nothing good happened and I wasn’t a fan of the dark for many, many years.

Night, however, was a good time for Nicodemus to approach Jesus. He’d be away from the prying eyes of his colleagues who would maybe not understand his desire to talk with Jesus. No one would be there to see that he was risking his power and position to talk with the rabbi who could stir things up so well. Maybe Nicodemus could also keep some of his own denial in place if there were no witnesses. Night provided safety and a blanket of protection for a Pharisee who was drawn to the problematic Jesus.

I love this idea that night – solitude and darkness –  was good for Nicodemus. Usually, we think of the darkness of night as something to be avoided. The childish fear often persists and seldom do we think of nighttime darkness as being good. Maybe it was a good time for Jesus, too. He could say some important things without crowds around him. He changed Nicodemus in ways that would take some time to unfold, but the changes took root that night, nonetheless. After all, it was Nicodemus who advocated for Jesus with the Sanhedrin (John 7:50-51) and who helped prepare Jesus for burial (John 19:39-43). His encounter with Jesus under the cover of night must have meant something because the risks to Nicodemus’ power and position were just as great when he later stepped into the light of day.

However, on the night in question, Nicodemus sought Jesus out. Perhaps he had a question. Perhaps he just wanted to get closer to Jesus and see for himself what all the fuss was about. Perhaps he was drawn by a yearning he could not contain. Who knows? Yet, there he was talking to Jesus. I would like to believe that the cover of night allowed Jesus to say things he might not have said in another time and place when distractions were more numerous.

Of course, Nicodemus had no idea what Jesus was talking about. Be born again, from above, anew? How? What could that possibly mean? And that stuff about the Spirit blowing where it wills? Poor Nicodemus. He was probably grateful for the darkness to hide his confusion and his shame of not fully understanding. Jesus let his frustration be known, too. How could Nicodemus not understand?

All these words spoken quietly in the dark… Nicodemus didn’t grasp them. We don’t grasp them either. Not really. We want to make these words about salvation and surety. We want to know that we are included in the ones who will have eternal life and not have to worry. Maybe these words were spoken in the dark because the edges of their truth are softer than bright noonday sun could tolerate.

God’s love for the whole of Creation is so strong, so persistent, that this Love became Incarnate to lead people to abundant life. God’s purpose was not to condemn the world but to save it from all that humans do to bring destruction, devastation, and death. Who could hear these words with all the distractions of daytime life? But in the night, in the quiet, in the solitude, these words could crawl into our fearful souls and plant seeds of hope and courage and faith.

If these words were powerful enough to lead Nicodemus away from the power and privilege of being a Pharisee and into the risks of advocating and caring for Jesus, what can they do for us? When we sit wrapped in the blanket of night, and hear words of God’s love for the whole of Creation, words that whisper of life and not death, of belonging and not being lost, think of what might become possible. We might be willing to risk letting go of our places of power and privilege to advocate and care for the vulnerable in our midst.

Good things can happen in the night even if we think we are hiding from monsters, from ourselves, or from God. God will meet us there and speak quiet words of a greater truth, and transformation will continue.

RCL – Year A – Second Sunday of Lent – March 12, 2017
Genesis 12:1-4a
Psalm 121
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
John 3:1-17 or Matthew 17:1-9

Photo: CC0 image by LN

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Musings Sermon Starter

An Invitation to Dance

human-750910_1920If Pentecost is a celebration of the Holy Spirit, then Trinity Sunday is an invitation to dance. Yes, I mean exactly what I said. And here’s why…

The Trinity is not something we can logically understand. Theologians have tried for centuries and it literally does not add up. We can get trapped in the language we choose and distracted by the concept of three equaling one. Or we can be still and contemplate the mysteries of the God we worship.

I know it’s not as easy as it sounds. More than 25 years ago I gave my very first children’s sermon. As only a 22 year-old seminarian would do, I chose to do it on the Trinity. The little church had many children under that age of six and they all gathered around and I showed them the new thing I had learned in the cafeteria a few days earlier. I took out a banana, peeled it, and poked my finger down the center of it. The banana nicely separated into three equal parts. The kids all dutifully agreed that I had one banana and three parts. I went on to say that that was how God is – one God with three parts. They all smiled and nodded.

Everything was fine until I asked the final question:  When you have bananas on your cornflakes in the morning, what are you going to think about? One cherubic, blue-eyed, blond, dimpled boy smiles at me and says with a great deal of pride, “God’s bananas.” Amidst much laughter, I said, “That may be true, but that’s not what I was thinking!” And then the moment came to an abrupt end because, well, I am severely allergic to bananas…

I can’t help but think of that children’s sermon fiasco every time Trinity Sunday comes up. None of the lectionary texts really explain it, either. There is Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit. Or we can use the traditional Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But the why and how is not really explained very well and our understanding probably is no deeper than Nicodemus’ was when Jesus told him that he had to be born anew.

Taking the Trinity apart is easier. We can grasp God as Creator, God as Redeemer, and God as Sustainer. What is trouble is how they are different and yet the same. This is where dancing comes in.

In addition to never asking open-ended questions in children’s sermons and not playing with things that make me unable to breathe, I learned some other useful things in seminary. One of those things is the word, “perichoresis.” It literally means “inner dance.” I can still see and hear Dr. Loder describing this wonderful inner dance of the Godhead. He was a man in love with this mystery, moved to tears as he spoke to yet another group of seminarians. He described the “perichoretic union” of the Godhead and the mystery of the inter-relatedness of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And something stirred deep within me.

Imagine a sacred dance of mystery and love that has gone on and will go on for all eternity. Now imagine that you are invited to participate in this dance exactly as you are. There is joy in this. There is no need to know the steps or have any sense of rhythm. All that is required is to accept the invitation. To say, “Yes!” to the God who created you, redeems you, and sustains you. This is a dance that goes on even when we cannot hear the music. It’s a dance that answers that void that sometimes opens in the middle of our lives. It’s a dance of love, grace, forgiveness that sets us free in ways that nothing else can. I believe the yearning for this dance is what led Nicodemus to sneak out in the night to talk with Jesus. I believe it is the yearning for this dance that will transform the Church as we open ourselves to responding. Our response does not have to match that of generations past, but we must learn our own steps that will invite more people into the dance.

I’m thinking I want to change Trinity Sunday to Perechoresis Sunday and send everyone an invitation to join in the sacred mystery, the inner dance of God. What do you think? Is it a good day to dance?dance-108915_1920

RCL – Year B – Trinity Sunday – May 31, 2015
Isaiah 6:1-8
Psalm 29
Romans 8:12-17
John 3:1-17

Images from Pixabay.com. Used with permission.

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Musings Sermon Starter

What Abram and Nicodemus Have to Say

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

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

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

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

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

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

RCL – Second Sunday in Lent – March 16, 2014

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

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Musings

A Lesson From Nicodemus

RCL – June 3, 2012 – Trinity Sunday, First Sunday after Pentecost

Isaiah 6:1-8
Psalm 29
Romans 8:12-17
John 3:1-17

This week’s gospel reading contains one of the most frequently cited scripture verses. It seems that at every sporting event there are signs with “John 3:16” written on them. To be honest, I’m never quite sure what the point of these signs are. Has anyone ever converted to Christianity because of one of these signs at a football game? Probably not. Moreover, I can think of several other passages that might be much more intriguing to the reader. I mean, why not hold up a sign that says, “Would you marry a prostitute? Come to church on Sunday to find out.” Or “Your neighbor really loves you. Discover your neighbor in worship.” I bet these kinds of signs would at least raise an eyebrow or two; “John 3:16” probably doesn’t do much. Personally, I find this a bit ironic. Nicodemus sought Jesus out in the night because of “signs.” Who is going seek Jesus because of these modern day signs?

Much has been made of Nicodemus through the centuries. I’m not sure why, really. I mean it seems Nicodemus’ reasons for seeking Jesus out “by night” aren’t all that mysterious. He was a man in power who had a desire to know something more about this Jesus of Nazareth who was shaking things up. He wanted Jesus to answer his questions, but he wasn’t willing to risk his colleagues finding out for all sorts of reasons. If every Christian were brutally honest, we’d probably all admit that there have been times when we’ve gone to Jesus in the dark, asking questions that we hope no one will ever hear about. And if we stay in the moment of honesty, we will also admit that sometimes the answers are just as confusing as Jesus’ answer to Nicodemus was, at least when Nicodemus heard it.

I’m not all that thrilled with Jesus’ answer, either. Or, rather, what has been done with it. I don’t think for a minute that Nicodemus was “born anew” in that moment with Jesus. Who would be? The words were so fresh and new and just plain weird. But Nicodemus showed up for Jesus later so they must have sunken in and changed him quite a bit. Nicodemus would likely have given up a lot of his power and social standing to publicly stand up for Jesus. But that night when he left Jesus, Nicodemus was just as much in the dark as when he arrived.

And this is where the hope is for me. I would like everyone in the world to have opportunity to be born “anew,” to have an opportunity to see things from a place of the Spirit. It isn’t that I think everyone has to be Christian, or even should be. I would just like to see people live in a saving place, rather than a condemning place. I truly believe that anyone who has encountered Jesus – in the middle of the night or broad daylight – seeks to save, not to condemn.

For clarity’s sake, let me say that when I say “save,” I don’t necessarily mean it the way many Christians do. Here, I mean it as a way of living that seeks justice, practices love, and works toward peace. Condemnation is not what Jesus offered. Why do so many Christians offer condemnation in Jesus’ name?

On the surface, it doesn’t look like Nicodemus has much to do with current events. But I think this his story could be very helpful in the way we view the world. It is easy to shake our heads and turn away from the problems in the world. It is easy to pass judgment and distance ourselves from conflicts in our communities. It is easy to distract ourselves with busyness and wait for the difficulties to pass. I mean, really, who wants to listen to more news about the increase in violence in Syria? Or shootings in a cafe in Seattle? Or more questions about Obama’s birth certificate? Or concerns about a Mormon being president? Or the fragility of the Eurozone? Or global warming? Or healthcare cuts? Or the poor job market? The list goes on and on and varies very little from week to week.

Do any of these things keep us awake at night? What questions do we whisper to Jesus when no one else can hear? Do the answers require that we be born anew? Are we reluctant to let the Spirit blow where it wills? It isn’t easy. I don’t know about you, but I want to live salvation and share it in a way that yields more justice than apathy, more possibility than destruction. Surely, this is possible. If Jesus didn’t condemn anyone, why should any of us who seek to follow him?

Come, Holy Spirit, Come.

May God give strength to God’s people!
  May God bless God’s people with peace!