Bit By Bit

It is the First Sunday of Lent and I’m missing church.

I miss good preaching. Today I could not push myself out the door to find some place to relish in the mystery of these holy forty days because I didn’t want to hear another bad sermon. I don’t believe that my colleagues are bad preachers. I don’t even believe that the preachers in the town I reside are all that bad but they’re preaching to a community that doesn’t include me. I’m not part of their flock. I don’t have the same wants and needs so that I can’t sit through a sermon without feeling more removed from myself and my God than when I first sat in the pew. So, I didn’t go to church this morning. I just couldn’t do it.

Instead, I texted my friend Teri to ask for her sermon. I knew she’d be preaching and I know she’s a damn good preacher even if I’ve only read her manuscripts. She is one of those organized types that puts them all up on her blog. I wanted to go to church. I wanted to start Lent but I did it alone on my couch with a candle lit and Teri’s manuscript loaded on my phone.

I had forgotten, however, that Teri preaches from the Narrative Lectionary. I’ve never really had much experience with this arch of storytelling. I always opted for the Revised Common Lectionary in my own preaching. I’ve preferred the chopped up bits of scripture that appear every year in exactly the same place. And so, of course, I was ready to hear about the wilderness. I was ready to question my own temptations only to discover that Teri was preaching on something else. Instead of that forty days in the  wilderness that I expected to hear, I got two sections that I’ve never heard together: the Good Samaritan and the whiny bit where Mary does nothing to help her poor sister Martha. Of course, they follow each other in Luke’s Gospel so it’s possible that I could have read them together before, but it all seemed new to hear them as one.

Rather than breaking them up, bit by bit, I was struck how “who is my neighbor?” seems to get answered in Jesus’ reminder that “there is need of only one thing.” Teri told me in her text message — while the choir was singing — that she was just about to scrap her manuscript and preach something different but I was glad to have her words. I was glad to have these words to chew on:

The lawyer wants Jesus to justify the limits of neighborliness, to define the limits of love. What’s reasonable and unreasonable? What is enough love, and what is beyond the requirement? Who exactly counts as someone I have to love, and who can be left out because they are beyond the scope of my influence, or my responsibility? Because surely, there must be limits.

I especially love that last sentence because I can hear Teri say it. It reminded me in those six words that there’s an intimacy to preaching. There’s a trust inherent in it. It’s one that I’ve felt in the pulpit and one that has made me feel incredibly vulnerable as people in the pews have made all kinds of declarations about me. And it’s something I’ve missed as I’ve moved from place to place in the last two years.

I needed to hear every bit of Teri’s sermon. It may not have been the one that she preached to her congregation today (and it wasn’t). But, it was the sermon that I needed to hear.

I told my spiritual director last week that I’m inclined to take on the challenge of being a comforter. I’d read this article and found it compelling. It fit with my desire for justice and my hope to be a voice of compassion even if I haven’t a clue how to live any of that out right now. It’s work that I’m trying to do in the projects I’m taking on from consulting to spiritual direction, but it’s not something I know how to practice in the every day. For one, I don’t see many people on a given day. I don’t have all that many interactions. The season in which I find myself is more isolated so that I have to wonder if I’ve created so many boundaries and limits that I’m not allowing myself to challenge what is reasonable or unreasonable. I’m not putting myself out there perhaps because everything and everyone feels beyond the scope of my influence.

That’s not totally true though. I do believe that I have something to offer. There is some comfort than I can offer but Jesus’ question is the right one for this season: who is my neighbor? Is it the people I serve? Or is it the people that challenge me beyond my limits and boundaries?

When I told my spiritual director about this chosen practice, I told her that I wasn’t sure because I wasn’t sure how to do it. I wanted to know how to do this thing. I didn’t want to just have the intent. I wanted some form of practice, a ritual even. I wanted to know how to do the thing and I didn’t have a clue. I still don’t know how to be a comforter. I’m not even sure how to comfort myself which brings me right into the concluding words of Teri’s sermon.

Perhaps it means to really look, and listen — to see and hear and know people beyond our own mental image or stereotype. To allow ourselves to be moved with compassion… To lay aside our excuses and expectation and limits and distractions. All these reasons we have… (seriously, it’s like she’s speaking right to me) … all of those are distractions that, and they leave us in the same place they left Martha: missing the point that God is in our midst.

I tend to analyze all of the bits. I’d prefer chunks of scripture where I can examine every detail than to try to step into a whole narrative where multiple things are happening, but that is how it is with life. There is always more than one story being told. There are always different ideas about what might be happening, but even if you or I miss it completely that doesn’t change the fact that God is in our midst. God is showing us how to comfort and be comforted. God is mixing up our stories so that our neighbor is just one person or one kind of person. There are no limits to God’s compassion and bit by bit we are invited to practice that God’s compassion as our own.

I can’t thank my dear friend Teri enough for this reminder.

There’s No Place Like Home

Since I moved to Kansas, I find myself clicking my heels more and more.  I have no ruby red slippers but the mantra is the same, “There’s no place like home. There no place like home.”

The problem is that I have no idea where home is.

This was made clear to me again when I flew back east for a dear friend’s wedding. She and I have been friends since the first grade and so i found myself surrounded by people who have met me or at least heard about me. Some of these good people even knew that I’d already moved several times in my adult life, but most of them had lost track of me after I moved cross the country from Maine to Washington. They hadn’t heard that I’d moved again and seemed to find it a bit shocking. Every time the topic came up, with each new person, it seemed incomprehensible that I’d moved twice since the last time they last knew my whereabouts. Thus, the same confused exclamation came I shared our new location. Every single time, their pitch raised, “Kansas?!? What brings you to Kansas?”

My response was equally repetitive. “My husband is in the military and it is in Kansas that he is required to be right now.”

I am embarrassingly ignorant of military things. This isn’t a new problem, but one that continues to fester in our relationship. So much so that if my husband has heard this response, which he did several time last night, or another like it, he grimaces and elaborates that he is in the midst of his schooling in the Command and General Staff College. After he finishes that, he continues to explain, we will move again. That is when I grimace.

Before I met my husband, I had looked forward to multiple moves across the country. I liked the idea of learning about how people do church in different parts of the globe. I really liked that idea and subscribed to the concept of a shorter pastorate. I couldn’t imagine being a pastor of a congregation for fifteen, twenty or thirty years. It made sense to me if there were kids in the equation, but at that point I wasn’t considering motherhood. I had no interest in being a single parent and was far more interested in what I might do for God. I didn’t want to be bored for God, but wanted to create beautiful things in amazing places with people just as hope-filled.

That hope had already taken me to two places. I’d gone to Maine where I’d stayed longer than I ever thought I would and we did some good things together, but I got bored. I got really bored and so I looked for what was next and found the good people in Washington. When I moved there, I told the search committee I was looking for two things: love and a place to call home. I found one, but not the other.

On our wedding day, my friend Melanie talked about the five mile stretch of road that leads to the farm that was once and is now her home. Just before she led us in saying our vows, she talked about this stretch of road that makes it heart beat faster and always brings a smile to her face before she advised us to

“be home for one another. Be that place, of unconditional acceptance and love for each other.  Be that place that makes your heart beats quicken.  Be that place where you always see something new and beautiful. No matter what season.  Be that place that in the midst of difficulties you can be at rest. Home.  Be each other’s homes.”

I don’t know if other people think as much about the homily offered on their wedding day as I do, but I think about these words all of the time. I think about them every time I step into the crappy housing the military gave us. I click my heels and remind myself that this shelter is not my home, but the place I find in my husband’s arms is home.

We are each other’s homes, I guess. I like that idea. I like it a lot but I have a few questions for I cannot imagine this without a picture in my head. I am a visual learner, after all. So I need to see it but the only image that I can craft is like bad clip art from a church newsletter in the early 90s. I can see the open arms but I do not want to run toward them. I want to run away for the image is so repulsive. Repulsive is a strong word. I apparently have strong feelings about clip art, and so it must be something else.

Is this the same problem that the wandering Israelites felt in all of those many years of exile? They were told their was a new home for them. It was to be a Promised Land, but they could not imagine it. They did not know what to expect or who to expect. It was just too overwhelming to comprehend. Is that what home is supposed to be? Is the sheer idea of it meant to overwhelm and confound?

In her recent book Roots and Sky, Christie Purifoy wonders “if home is the place from which we come or the place we are headed.” She admits that we wander. It’s what  humans do but she doesn’t find much confusion in that fact. Simply put, to her, “home is the ground we measure with our own two feet. And home is the place that measures us. Home is the place that names us and the place we, in turn, name. It feeds us, body and soul, and if we are living well, we feed it too. Home is the place we cultivate with our love.”

Christie seems like someone who can confidently say, along with Dorothy, “There’s no place like home. There no place like home.” Both Christie and my friend Melanie have ended up on farms. They’ve both awoken from the nightmare of aimless wandering from place to place only to find that their place was always supposed to be on this patch of land they get to cultivate with love. I, on other hand, am still clicking my heels and wondering about home. One thing I know for sure: there is no place like it.

If you follow me on Facebook, you may know that I accepted a challenge to write an essay each week this year. You just read it. I had some internet issues so it’s late but I did finish it before the second week began. I really am trying to set by Vanessa Martir’s in her challenge #52essays2017. These essays are supposed to dig deep and so you might not find my weekly essays here but you will find them on Medium. It’s a double experiment for me.

Running Naked

It was only a few weeks ago that I found this beautiful passage from a colleague’s sermon on her blog Spacious Faith. That little passage from her sermon archives inspired what I preached that Sunday. I tend to be in the camp that thinks I have to write something new each time I preach on a particular passage. I’m setting myself up for that challenge this week — but that didn’t stop me from rereading a sermon from my archives.

I distinctly remember reading this story in Runner’s World when a friend posted it on Facebook a few years ago which I translated directly into the story of Bartimaeus in this week’s lectionary gospel reading from Mark 10:46-52. Here is a excerpt from that sermon.

Like the blind beggar, I want to throw off my cloak and run. Naked, even. Adam Cohen was just that brave when he toed up to the starting line for the Trail of Tears 5K in Oklahoma. He was tempted to wear a long t-shirt, but decided that if he was going to truly participate in this “clothing optional” race, he better just do it. You might say that he threw off his cloak and ran, but as his wife so keenly observed before the race began, “There’s more to being naked than exposing your private parts.”

That’s what strikes me about this strange little detail where a beggar throws off his cloak. It’s more than being vulnerable or exposed or even finding the right words to express exactly what you believe. That cloak is probably the only thing he owns. It’s his only possession in the whole world. He’s probably not naked underneath that cloak. It’s probably just an outer garment, something that has been keeping him warm beside of the road. But, throwing off that cloak, he exposes something private. He reveals something about himself. After all, there’s more to being naked than exposing your private parts.

It’s about admitting what you really need. It’s about that desire to see more clearly than you ever have before. It’s about throwing off that word that isn’t working for you anymore. No matter how much warmth and security it has given you in the past, it doesn’t fit who you’ve become. Maybe the word has changed. Maybe you have changed. Something has changed — so that now, you just want to run naked unadorned of the words that may have once defined you.

Preaching Without a Community Text

For the first time in months, I’ve spent Monday morning studying. I haven’t been in the pulpit for nearly three months but on Sunday I will preach. I will preach at a church I’ve visited just once. It’s a church that I know very little about other than what I saw on that one Sunday morning. I’ll care for this congregation during worship while the pastor is away — but it’s the first time that I have ever really preached without a community text.

This is a problem.

There are many that quote Karl Barth saying that we must “do theology with the Bible in one hand, and the newspaper in the other.” That’s all well and good. But, that’s not the refrain that repeats in my head over and over again. Instead, I hear my preaching professor in seminary asking: What is the community text? Because the answer to this question is where the Scripture text meets the reality of the experience of this group of people. It’s how the good news becomes activated. As she explained to Ministry Matters:

the sermon is a meeting place between the Scripture text and the community text. Each text has a unique voice. Both the Scripture text and the community text must be exegeted with attentiveness and care, not in order to be “relevant” but in order to hear God’s living word in its depth and particularity.

I’ve done my exegesis of the Scripture. I’ve immersed myself in the amazing good news in 1 John 4:7-21. It’s one of my very favorite passages. I could say so many things about this good news. That’s what scares me. That’s why my cursor is blinking. That’s why no words are coming.

say-anything-1-435x580I could say anything — anything I wanted.

I could say anything.

This wasn’t a bad thing for Lloyd Dobler. With his boom box and even with his pen, he wasn’t afraid to use his words. Or the words of Peter Gabriel to prove a point. But, he didn’t say anything. He knew what he needed to say and he said it. He loved Diane Court. There was nothing that was ever going to stop him from loving Diane Court. So he made it known. That’s why it’s such an amazing romantic gesture that every girl my age secretly wishes would happen to her. (That was not a hint.) Because he knew what he needed to say. And he said it.

1 John 4:7-21 isn’t about romantic love and my sermon will probably not reference Lloyd Dobler. Probably. But, it’s about love. If there is a one word definition of what being a Christian is all about, it’s love. Love is from God. Let’s love each other. It should be an easy sermon to preach but I have so many questions about the community text. I want to know how this particular body of Christ experiences love. Are they one of those churches that relishes in their time together? Or is this a stumbling block because they haven’t yet created that sense of community? I want to know what they love and how do they love. Because I really don’t want to say anything. I want to know what needs to be said and say that. Then again, that will probably come from God. Not from me.

Liturgical Lights for Sunday April 5, 2015

J A S M I N EAfter that last supper, after the disciples have deserted and one of them has betrayed all that he once believed to be true, after the one they had been following died the most horrible death one might have imagined then, it will be Sunday.

It will be Easter.

It’s what happens after — but it can’t come without those things happening. It doesn’t come without the hope and expectation of the procession into Jerusalem or the number of ways that the followers of this would-be Christ will screw up over the past week. All of that stuff happens first.

And then, there is resurrection.

Something changes — but perhaps not everything. There will still be the memory of the death and worry over what has come to pass in the past few weeks. Will it change everything? Will it change nothing Will we go on living as we always have? These seem to be the central questions of Easter. As much as we want the joy — as much as we want to sing and dance and shout “alleluia” — we have to also ask ourselves if we’re ready to be changed. Did we change? Have we changed? How will this cause us to live differently now that Easter has come?

The Narrative Lectionary on April 5, 2015 is Matthew’s version of the Resurrection. In Matthew 28:1-10, we follow Mary to the tomb to find that this message is for us. This message is for us — and so we try not to be afraid as find the courage to tell the story in our own words. What better than to find that courage than through the music of my colleague and friend Rob Leveridge. Rob recently came out with a wonderful album of progressive music for worship called Dancing on the Mountain.

For Easter, I’m particularly inspired by the ninth track Let it Live which I imagine being played just after the Call to Worship to set the tone for worship. No lyrics yet. Just the tune on guitar, piano or whatever you’ve got going on instrumentally this Sunday. This would then build up to when the congregation gets to sing along during dance party that happens somewhere after the sermon. (What?! You don’t have a dance party on Easter? You should.) For me, Easter is a dance party even when these three days haven’t healed everything that has come to pass. That stuff is still there — the sense of betrayal, loss and desertion is all still there. It’s not the only thing that’s there — but it hasn’t totally gone away as we try to allow ourselves in the resurrection.

It’s the first line of Rob’s song that says this so well:

I’m starting to see…

It is this line that inspires the only prayer I’ll offer this week.

Invocation

Let us pray:

Come into our fear.
Come into our questions.
Come into all of that we are still holding onto right now.
Because it is Easter, Lord.
It is Easter. And we need to be resurrected.
Come, Lord.

Come and help us remember that he was raised from the dead.
Come and help us see him ahead of us.
Come and help us see him before us.
Because you hoped that this would be a message for us.
So, come Lord. Come into our fear and our questions.
Come and separate us from the death we cling to.
Bring us out of the tombs we cling to.
Push us up from the grave.
Help us to begin to see.
Help us begin to see all that you see.
Come, Lord. Come on this Easter morning.
Come and resurrect us all. Come.

If you use the prayers I’ve written in your worship, and I hope you will, please do offer me credit with as follows:

The prayers in our worship this morning were written by/adapted from Liturgical Lights for Sunday April 5, 2015 by the Rev. Elsa Anders Peters. Elsa is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ who blogs at https://elsaacook.wordpress.com.

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Liturgical Lights for Sunday March 29, 2015

J A S M I N EThis Sunday brings the palms.

Call it a parade.
Call it a procession.
Call it a protest.

Our church people expect to wave palms happily in the air before the resurrection is proclaimed next week. Pastors struggle with this. This is the week that they are busy cranking out bulletins for Holy Week. They are trying to figure out an interesting way to tell this story — the whole story — so that we can rise with Christ the following week. Pastors (like myself) tend to want more of the Passion than the Palms. They want to be sure that the whole story is told before Easter morning. Today, I got tapped by a colleague in my denomination to provide some tweaking to a liturgy that I wrote for the United Church of Christ’s Worship Ways three years ago. (Click on March 29-Palm-Passion Sunday and the file will automatically download.)

So, after starting these Liturgical Lights a few weeks ago, I’m going to continue to play with that worship service that features a series of adapted Scripture Readings through the Gospel of Mark’s version of the Palm and Passion. Each reading is followed by an extended silence or a congregational hymn. It is not a joyful service. It is a worship experience that searches the heart and mind of God. It begs for answers and never really gets them. The Narrative Lectionary on March 29, 2015 is Matthew’s version of the Palm Parade. In Matthew 21:1-17, we move from Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem into the Temple where Jesus has a little fit before going to Bethany to rest. There are so many unanswered questions in this text that only intensify our concern for the world. So, I offer these adapted prayers searching for answers.

Call to Worship (Responsive)

Come. Come seeking words.
Come to let your tongue give praise.
Come. Come to find your voice.
Come to hear the response.
Come. Come to open your ears.
Come to listen.
Come. Come to be healed by the silence.
Come to stand together.
Come. Come to approach what words cannot describe.
Come to find God.

Invocation (Responsive)

Let us pray:

Come. Come O Holy One.
Come through the streets.
Come into the house.
Come to find a space beside us at the table.
Come to challenge our answers about

Why tragedy comes
Why poverty increases
Why we are afraid.

Come O Holy One.
Speak to us in the silence

With wisdom greater than ours
With love deeper than ours
With change wider than ours.

Shared Silence

Come O Holy One.
Fill in these stories
with your wisdom
with your love
with your change
so that we might rely on your answers.
Here and now. Amen.

Prayer of Confession (Responsive)

O Holy One, your house shall be called a house of prayer.
Your house shall be a place for healing.
Your house is where we praise Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee,
but our lips have no praise. We have made your house a den of robbers
so we can’t see you in the parade. We are too busy talking.
We think we know why bad things happen,
about why the rich get richer, about why the world feels so broken.
But, this is your house where the blind can see and the lame can walk.
This is your house where we come to pray.

O Holy One, speak to us.
Fill our silences.
Comfort us with your love
so that we may find your understanding.
Trust us to find your answers
when we finally tire from our own.
Save us, O Holy One, with your steadfast love. Amen.

Assurance of God’s Grace

God opens your ears.
God speaks when you are silent.
God approaches you
in the parade and at table
in your denial and your praise
to be your help.
Now and always. Amen.

Telling the Story

As I shared with my colleague in ministry on Facebook today, what I have found to be most powerful about this worship experience both times I’ve led it is the silences. In the original liturgy, the congregation hears a huge chunk of Scripture from the Gospel of Mark. In the Narrative Lectionary, it is only 17 verses. Still, I would break up this reading and intersperse the readings with silence and congregational singing. If I were so lucky to lead this service, here’s how I would break up and tweak the readings.

Entering Into Jerusalem

They were looking for answers. So, they went to Jerusalem. They gathered in the streets to make a way for peace. On the other side of the city, there was another procession. Pontius Pilate, governor of Judea, rode into Jerusalem with an army of horses, armored soldiers and waving banners.

On the other side of the city, when they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.”

They wanted to understand why this must happen in this way. But, it was only said: this took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,

“Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

Come. Join in the parade, you who need answers, you who came looking for peace.

Hymn: Mantos y Ramos

The Palm Parade

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,

“Hosanna to the Son of David!
    Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
 Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Come. Lose your voice in the shouting crowd, you who are weary, you who don’t have any answers.

Shared Silence

Who Is This?

When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil. No one understood what was happening. No one knew what would happen next. They had thought they knew how the world worked. They had thought they knew. But, they didn’t understand. So they could only ask: “Who is this?”

The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Come. Listen to what God might be saying. Listen to what God might be doing that doesn’t fit with everything that you have been taught about this world. Listen for God to speak. 

Shared Silence

The Cleansing of the Temple

Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. He said to them, “It is written,

‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’;
    but you are making it a den of robbers.”

Come. Join those who wander through temples, churches, ashrams and mosques. Join the crowds who have come looking for answers, looking for peace. 

Hymn: Inspired by Love and Anger or Lord, Hear My Praying, Listen to Me

What Is He Saying?

The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and Jesus cured them. But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became angry. The chief priests, the elders and the scribes knew their answer. They thought they knew the ways of God. They thought they knew all that God could do. There was nothing that could convince them otherwise. So, they said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?”

Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read,

‘Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies
    you have prepared praise for yourself’?”

They had come looking for answers. They had come looking for peace, but they didn’t understand his way. So, he left them, went out of the city to Bethany, and spent the night there.

Come. Follow outside the bounds of your understanding, you who need answers, you who came looking for peace.

Hymn: I Want Jesus To Walk With Me

Benediction (Responsive)

Go into the world to find your voice.
Listening to what God will do.
Go into the world to find each other.
Reaching out when we need support.
Go into the world be amazed.
Knowing that God is always with us.

If you use the prayers I’ve written in your worship, and I hope you will, please do offer me credit with as follows:

The prayers in our worship this morning were written by/adapted from Liturgical Lights for Sunday March 29, 2015 by the Rev. Elsa Anders Peters. Elsa is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ who blogs at https://elsaacook.wordpress.com.

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Liturgical Lights for Sunday March 22, 2015

J A S M I N EThis new thing began last week. Because writing is good. I like writing. I need to write. I especially need to write liturgy.

So here we are again.

Here are some Liturgical Lights. The following prayers focus on Matthew 25:31-46 which is the focus passage from the Narrative Lectionary on March 22, 2015. So often, when we hear these words, we focus on the actions for which we might be judged: the feeding, the visiting, the quenching of the thirst, the caring for the sick. We focus on the least of these as if they are someone other than ourselves. But, at some time and some place, we can all be defined as the least of these. We all find ourselves at the feet of Christ trying with all that is in us to redefine the powers that be.

It is not a power that is held over us. There’s enough of that kind of power in the world. Call it Caesar, Empire or whatever else. There are too many powers that hurt and divide. There are too many powers that separate the sheep from the goats. But, there upon that throne, we will see the power of resistance [over and against] ‘all rule and authority and power and dominion.’ The usual powers of this world will not be strongest, but the power of the least of these will be Lord and Savior of us all — in every nation, in every time and place. It’s not something we have to do for the hungry, the thirsty or the imprisoned. This is not a salvation that we must achieve — but one that we find at the feet of Christ.

That’s where we want our feet to be guided in Lent and every day.

Call to Worship (Responsive)

On the left and on the right,
We have been divided. 
Divided as Republican and Democrat,
as liberal and conservative,
as male and female,
as old and young,
We are separated. 
On the left and on the right,
We come.
We come to blur the lines.
We come to be gathered together.
We come to find blessing.
We come.

Ask your musician to play a few bars of this favorite spiritual after these words before the worship leader or the pastor invites the congregation to pray with these words of invocation. (I wouldn’t print these words in the bulletin but only note that the invocation goes here.)

Invocation

Let us pray:

O Lord, gather us in.
Gather us not as people separated one from another,
but as one flock looking for answers.
Be our shepherd in this time and in this place.
Lead us away from our easy answers
to find your mysterious strength at the feet of Christ.
Guide our feet under the throne.
Guide our hearts under the throne.
Guide us, all together,
some on the left and some on the right,
to find your power at the feet of Christ.

Without voicing an amen, let the musician guide the congregation into singing Guide My Feet after the last words of the Invocation are spoken. I would then try to weave this spiritual throughout worship. Use it after the Shared Silence and before the Assurance of God’s Grace. Use it in place of the Doxology as the congregation gives its tithes and offerings. Use it to lead the people out after the Benediction. As fits your congregation, use this song to encourage movement toward that grace we all need. Maybe you sing the four verses at different times throughout worship. Or maybe you sing the whole spiritual in the beginning of worship and only sing the first verse as a reprise as worship continues.

Prayer of Confession 

Guide us, O Lord,
to find the strength within ourselves
to admit that we think we know better than you.
Guide us in this silence to name the many ways
that we have claimed our own personal power
rather than your saving grace.

Shared Silence

Assurance of God’s Grace (Responsive)

There is saving grace.
It is far above every ruler and authority.
It is far above any power that might be named
not only now but in the future.
God put that power under Christ’s feet.
It is all we need.
This is where we find God’s saving grace.
And it will be our all in all.

Tell the Story

This Gospel Lesson requires incarnation. To understand more fully the division between the sheep and the goats, try embodying the Gospel in a brief drama. Instead of merely reading this text, ask someone to take the role of the Son of Man. Sit him or her on a throne and be sure there are plenty of angels around. No need for costumes. Tinsel garlands on each head would be enough. Ditch the bathrobe for the Son of Man. Dress her instead in power heels and a dress. Dress him as a teenager.

Invite this Son of Man to engage with the congregation in the pews by separating the left side of the space from the right. Ask this Son of Man to emphasize that the sheep are on the right and the goats are on the left. Use a curtain or a huge bolt of cloth to divide the congregation to really amp up this division. (This actually works best if you only prepare the Son of Man in this dramatic telling. The goats will get upset right away and if your congregation is used to talking in worship, the questions in the text will be asked right away. If not, prompt it. Then, ask them how they feel having heard the Son of Man’s answer.) Be sure that the Son of Man offers the wisdom offered in the Gospel including the last verse.

Use the sermon to explore the measures of power in this world — and what it means to discover the power of the least of these under the feet of Christ.

Benediction 

Let us go into the world undivided.
Let nothing separate us.
On our left and on our right,
may we only find blessing.
May we know that that saving grace is with us,
now and always.

If you use the prayers I’ve written in your worship, and I hope you will, please do offer me credit with as follows:

The prayers in our worship this morning were written by/adapted from Liturgical Lights for Sunday March 22, 2015 by the Rev. Elsa Anders Peters. Elsa is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ who blogs at https://elsaacook.wordpress.com.

Liturgical Lights for Sunday March 15, 2015

J A S M I N EToward the end of my last call, I stopped writing liturgy. There were so many other things to do. So very many things. I just didn’t have time. Or I didn’t make time. Because writing liturgy takes time. Lots of time to get the words right. It is holy work.

It is holy work that I miss. I realized this a few days ago as I was writing my morning pages. Writing is good. I like writing. I need to write. But, I really want to write some liturgy. I want to be connected to this practice even if I am not writing these prayers for a particular congregation. I also know that there are pastors — as I was one of them — that don’t have the time or energy to commit to writing liturgy so they go scouring the internet for some worthy prayers to lead God’s people on Sunday morning. Voila!

Here are some Liturgical Lights especially for you, dear pastor. The following prayers focus on Matthew 25:1-13 which is the focus passage from the Narrative Lectionary on March 15, 2015.

On this Sunday, we find ourselves in the middle of Lent. There are only a few more Sundays before we tell the story of the good news of resurrection, but we’re not there yet. There are still things that need to be done. There are practices that need to be revived. (Because I, for one, have gotten really bad about my Lenten discipline lately.) On this Sunday, and perhaps on every Sunday, we need to remember that God is in the middle of all of our stories working toward resurrection.

162e8b8f2bf4408f9d14a407f3e40e48_400x400To capture this hope, begin worship by singing Butterfly Fish’s All in All. Let these words — and this music — be what gathers God’s people. Spend the $3.00 and download the printed music because there is something completely and totally different about singing these words together. Teach the choir (whether older or younger) these words and invite the congregation to join in on the refrain. Let the choir sing it a few times before inviting the congregation to join. (Or you could simply play the song as recorded by Butterfly Fish as the people gather. Because it takes a long time to learn music and your choir is probably busy preparing for Easter. It’s the 13th track on Great and Small.) From this music, allow a bit of transition time with an extended silence before beginning the Call to Worship.

Call to Worship (Responsive)

We do not feel wise.
We feel foolish and silly.
So we come. We come asking God to take our hand.
We come asking God to catch us when we fall.
Because we have fallen so many times this week.
We have bee told over and over again how wrong we are.
And we feel so unprepared for what we hope will come.

Invocation (Unison)

Open the door to us.
Open the door of your hope.
Open the door of your love.
Keep us awake enough to see what doors might be opening.
Keep us hopeful enough that we might always feel unprepared.

Come, Lord, open to us.
Open to us this hour.

Prayer of Confession (Unison)

Every time that a door has slammed in our faces,
we try to find hope with those that feel foolish and wise.
We try to keep awake with those who are prepared
and those who just can’t quite get their act together.
But the truth is: we can’t quite get our act together.
Because we’ve started to lose hope.
No matter how many times we’ve been told to keep awake,
it seems that there are only doors slamming in our face.
Nothing changes. Nothing gets better. Forgive us, Lord.
Forgive us for not allowing ourselves to be wedded to your hope.

Assurance of God’s Grace (Responsive)

Even if you can’t quite believe it,
Even if it feels like every door has slammed in your face,
God will never stop taking your hand.
God will always be there to pick you up when you fall.
There is no way to prepare for God’s grace.
God already is our All in All.

Benediction 

No one knows the day or the hour.
No one knows how it will happen or when it will come.
But, keep awake for the kingdom of heaven is here.
Open yourself to receive this grace.
For the grace of God, our All in All,
is with you now and always.

For other musical ideas for worship, I always explore Singing from the Lectionary first. It is a wealth of music information especially if you are preaching from the Revised Common Lectionary (which is not as helpful when you’re using the Narrative Lectionary) but it also includes a Scripture Index. Hymns and songs for Matthew 25:1-13 can be found here. Butterfly Fish writes their music especially or children so you’ll also want to offer special opportunities for worship and connection for little ones. The best resource out there is Carolyn Brown’s Worshiping with Children. Once again, you’ll need to ignore everything about the Revised Common Lectionary, but here are some ideas for this particular passage to connect with children. If you use the prayers I’ve written in your worship, and I hope you will, please do offer me credit with as follows:

The prayers in our worship this morning were written by/adapted from Liturgical Lights for Sunday March 15, 2015 by the Rev. Elsa Anders Peters. Elsa is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ who blogs at https://elsaacook.wordpress.com.

In the Middle of the Story

The question always comes up in Bible Study when we find ourselves talking about Jesus. Somewhere in the middle of the Gospel, no matter which Gospel we’re reading, we find ourselves studying a particular passage after he’s born and before the real trial has begun. There’s just been a healing or some other sign. And someone will imagine how Jesus feels at that very moment.

I ask them to stay within the story. I ask them not to jump ahead. Or read outside of the selected verses because it’s so very hard to stay in that moment. We know the whole story. We know how the story will end. We know what will happen to Jesus. We know what we’ve been taught about him so that it’s so very hard to stay in the moment. It’s hard not to hear the hymns we’ve sung for years and the creeds we thought we’d long forgotten reverberate against the words in that particular passage. Because it’s all there. No matter how hard we try to push it away and just be in that moment in Christ’s life. It’s all there.

But, that’s not how it is in our lives. We are in the middle of the story. We don’t know how it’s going to end up. We don’t know what’s going to happen next. There are things that we desperately wish would happen. There are things that we are trying with every ounce of our being to make happen. We’ll fight like hell for those things, but in the middle of the story, what we notice most is the resistance. Not God’s wonderful works. Not what God has done. Or even what God might do.

We notice what we can’t make happen. And yet, the psalm invites us to sing.

Sing of God’s praises. Sing of God’s wonderful works. And remember.

Remember the wonderful works God has done,
    the miracles, and the judgments God has uttered,
O offspring of God’s servant Abraham,
    children of Jacob, the chosen ones.
Psalm 105:5-6, NRSV

Remember how it was for Abraham and maybe — just maybe — you’ll see that same wonder working in your own life. Seek God’s presence and strength. Because you and I are in the middle of the story. We don’t know how it will end. We don’t know what will happen next. We know what we want but perhaps instead of seeking that next thing, it’d be worth spending some of that energy on seeking God’s presence and strength. Because we’re in the middle of the story and we don’t know what will happen next. But, no matter what, we will need that presence and a whole lot of strength.

Hope Within Me

hopeFrom far too many pulpits, there isn’t a word said about how long and how hard grief can be. I don’t know why this is. I don’t know if it’s a hallmark of our society or the stubbornness of a particular kind of Christianity that denies the depth of agony that begins on cross and continues in the darkness of the tomb. Perhaps it’s neither of these things. Perhaps it’s both. I don’t really care. Because it doesn’t really matter.

What does matter is the tears that glisten on the faces of those special and rare people. What does matter is that they heard the good news that didn’t insist on the challenges of Easter Sunday. They heard it from their own story. They heard that their pain, their grief and their inexpressible groaning isn’t something to just get over already — but a way for them to see the promise of resurrection.

There is resurrection in those “sighs too deep for words.” Resurrection comes in the story of our faith after betrayal and doubt. It comes after piercing and suffocating death before it waits in the tomb. Resurrection, as someone famous once said, doesn’t come without Good Friday. It is not resurrection unless there has been some pretty horrible inexpressible groaning first. Because that always comes first. There wouldn’t be a story without the death. There wouldn’t be anything remarkable or heroic. It wouldn’t have caused anyone to wonder if Jesus hadn’t been dead and buried. Sounds like a downer, I guess. Maybe it is for those who have never felt that sting. But, my mom died when I was seven years old. This still stings. I am not over it. I may never be over it even though it seems that there is always someone who believes I should be.

Grief is what I know best so that when I sat down to write my morning pages this morning and read 1 Peter 3:8-18a, this verse leaped off of the page of my Bible:

Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.

Because I believe I do have such an account. There is hope that is in me. There is hope in each of these rare and special people — even if doesn’t sound like triumphant joy. There is hope. I won’t get over my grief. It won’t vanish with the resurrections I might experience. It will always be part of the story. It will always be what happened first. It will always be the hope that is in me. It will always be what allows me to believe that there is resurrection. I’ll defend this hope. It is the hope that is within me.