Pandemic Prayers for Proper 17B

They noticed that some of the disciples were eating with defiled hands.

Just reading that line sends a chill down my spine after these many months of worrying about how much I wash my hands. We have just returned from Paris with our two little children where we were did such things as ride the metro and wander around inside museums. All the while I was squirting huge blobs of hand sanitizer into my children’s defiled hands.

My two year old has just reached the moment where she loudly announces “I do it myself” when any task is to be accomplished. She is furious when I attempt to help. This is most frustrating to me when it comes to hand washing. Toddlers are terrible at washing their hands. They eat with those things. They run around the place and smear whatever was on their defiled hands onto everything else. It is disgusting.

That’s not what this text is about. And you know that, dear pastor. You’re thick into your text study and you know that there is more to this good news. And there is good news. There is hope even when this pandemic is crushing us again with fear and worry. It is easy to point to what defiles. It is harder to point to hope.

It’s why I offer this gathering prayer again with adaptations for this week because I think it matters that we choose to gather online and masked in-person in sanctuaries and outside spaces. We choose to find hope together. This is good news.

Call to Worship

Inspired by Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

We come together
especially when it is hard.

We come together
when nothing makes sense
and every thing pushes on
our last nerve.

We come, O God.

We come together 
because all we see is evil.

We have seen the worst
that humanity can be. 
Our lips have curled 
in disgust one too many times 
so that we need to be
reminded of your heart.

We come, O God.

We come together
because we are repulsed
and exhausted. We are 
not even really sure what
we believe anymore.

It is not what we
hope. It is not what 
we want. It is why
we come together.

We come, O God,
to find your spirit
and your heart
leading us to find new
wonders and rhythms.

O God, we come 
to worship.

There is plenty of fodder here for a good, long Prayer of Confession that focuses on all the people that bug you. But also from within you. Me, too. (I love this line from Matt Skinner’s commentary.) I thought about writing one but it feels that traditional words would work really well. Or maybe just some silence because it seems like most people are really angry. They are aware of their anger and rage but what might it mean to sit together with that feeling especially on Zoom where you are likely peeking at the gallery view of all of those lovely faces in your community. Does all defile? Really?

Maybe. Or maybe not.

Prayer for Anger

Inspired by James 1:17-27

We do not feel generous or giving. 
We don't feel kind or even loving
because our rage burns so bright.

We didn't have to be here.
It didn't have to be like this
and it is maddening. We are
angry at all that we cannot control
and all that we have thought
we could control. O God, we are 
so angry that we cannot listen. 
We do not hear. 

Still, we turn to you. We cannot
rid ourselves of all that defiles. 
We need your grace, O God.
We need your heart. O God,
give us your heart so full of love.
Let your love change us again.
Amen.

There are other things that cause our rage right now other than halting vaccination rates and refusal to wear masks in schools and anywhere else. There is more including the devastation in Haiti. Here is a lovely prayer for that heart. Anger might not feel like the right reaction but there is an element of the climate crisis that is within our control when so much feels out of control.

And, of course, there is watching the Afghan people flood the tarmac in Kabul trying to flee horrors yet unknown. Mine is a military family and though my husband never deployed to that region there is a lot of sadness about what we did in that place over the past twenty years. These are conflicted and complicated feelings and I don’t even think we should have ever been there in the first place. But we were and there is heartbreak and frustration in the military community right now. I hope you’ll offer a space for all of those complicated emotions. I know you will, dear pastor. I know you are doing so much to love your people and just want to help in my small way to provide words when yours fail. Here is a prayer for Afghanistan by the lovely Maren Tirabassi.

That’s all I’ve got for this week. I’m praying for you, dear pastor. I’m praying for you so much.

Good News for Today

It has been a long time since I was in the pulpit. 

My friend Elizabeth Hagan reminded me of this fact in her recent inquiry into why preachers should be political. It’s something I’ve wondered often. If I were to preach right now, what would I say? 

What would I want to say? What needs to be said? I’ve scrapped several thousand drafts in an essay format, but it feels different to type out the words and never preach them. My style might not be all that different. It might look the same but it’s different to proclaim the words. There is something that happens between the preacher and the congregation when those words are voiced.

Still, I’m not sure what I would say. It’s been months since I stepped into a pulpit, any pulpit. The last time I did, it was a place to which I’d never been and it’s far away that I’m unlikely to return. The next time I preach is likely to be rather similar. I don’t get to preach every Sunday. I’m not serving a church and so I don’t get to build that trust between Sundays that allows me to speak prophetically in the light of God’s love. 

And yet, as Elizabeth wisely says, “One of the great tasks of any preacher is to bring good news. And good news is not good news without a context.” This got me thinking about whether or not the good news changes. The context has changed. It has changed drastically but is the good news any different than it was three years ago?

This is what brought me to delve into my files to find my sermon on the very text that preachers will attempt to glean some good news from on Sunday. Three years ago, preaching on Matthew 5:21-37, I proclaimed:

Jesus wants us to be “people of integrity” so much so that when we say yes we really mean yes, and when we say no we really mean no. There’s a lot of hurt and pain. And it can cause a whole lot of anger — but we can try our very best to say what we mean and mean what we say. 

This is no easy task when you live in a world like we do — in a world of “seemingly unlimited choice” so that we crave “novelty, variety and multiplicity.” We think that this is the way that it should be – and so we are always looking for more. We think that by obtaining more, by doing more, by working harder, we will be able to prove our worth even though we have just heard Jesus’ assurance that we are the salt of the earth. That we are the light of the world. So, why is it so hard to say yes to this promise? 

It should be easy. It should be so simple. And, then, we could just pick up and go on with our lives. But, there are so many choices available to us that we hesitate because we really want to be sure. We want to make sure there isn’t a better deal. So that when we say yes we really mean yes. But, there’s a give and take here too, isn’t there? 
You have to give a little before we can take. You have to make the promise. You have to choose the relationship before you get to feel its blessings, but making that promise won’t change how God sees you. You may put yourself through fiery hell trying to get our yes to mean yes, but Jesus has already told you: you are the light of the world. That won’t change. No matter how many times you test it. Barbara Brown Taylor says it like this:

“Test the premise that you are worth more than what you can produce – that even if you spent the whole day being good for nothing you would still be precious in God’s sight …. Your worth has already been established, even when you’re are not working.”

Let your yes mean yes, and your no mean no. Maybe that still means that you’ll need to count to 10 or take a little break or scream into a pillow. Maybe the hurt and pain will still be there. Maybe it will never go away. There is great injustice in the world and there is so much that needs to change. It can make us so very angry that terrible things happen. But, all of that anger and frustration does not change the fact that God has promised to love you. No matter what you do, no matter how hard you work, no matter how many times you break your promises, God is going to love you. 

Believe it. Say yes to that love. Count to 10 first, if you need to. Listen to a favorite piece of music if you want. Take all the time you need. But, let your yes to God’s love mean yes. Give into it. Take it. Because this love – God’s love – is so very good. 

It still feels relevant.