Pandemic Prayers for Easter 4A

After I posted the prayers last week, I felt awkward. I wondered if these prayers could speak to such a broad audience. I wondered if it was even possible to capture the vastness of this pandemic into a few words.

I felt that strange tinge again on Sunday when I gathered again with my sweet Texas church for another Zoom gathering of God’s people. I noticed immediately that the words to welcome us into this time of prayer and praise didn’t emphasize the isolation or even the virus. The prayers were instead like any other Sunday in the Season of Easter. Is that what we need?

I wonder that especially as we center ourselves into the familiar and comforting words of Psalm 23 and John 10:1-10. I don’t know. Quite frankly, I haven’t had much time to think about what my own faith needs. I’ve focused — as I did before quarantine — on what is best for my children and my family. I’ve spent time cultivating experiences for the family and allowed the grace of these experiences to be my prayer. I do not know how working parents are doing this but I’m glad to see that there is a conversation starting here and here. The fact is that I only really know my own experience of this new reality and this gives me even greater pause in wondering what our prayers should say. Or is there something to be said in leaning into what I can only pray is emerging in Acts 2:42-47. These prayers will do a little bit of everything.

Opening Worship

Though I’m uncertain about this style right now, these responsive prayers are what I’ve written to begin worship forever and ever. It’s a hard habit and so here are some prayers to begin your worship.

Let Us Gather Here

Let us devote this time to breaking bread and sharing prayers.

Let awe come over us.

Let wonders and signs
flicker across our screens
in the faces of this beloved community
and the familiar words of faith.

Let us share what we have.

Let us find ourselves with glad
and generous hearts.

Call to the Possible

Words from Rebecca Solnit’s The Impossible Has Already Happened

We have reached a crossroads,
we have emerged from what we assumed was normality,
things have suddenly overturned.

Shepherding God, open your gate to us.
Lead us into whatever comes next.

We know, O God, that for now —
especially for those of us who are not sick,
not frontline workers,
and are not dealing with other economic or housing difficulties –-
it is to our task to understand this moment,
what it might require of us,
and what it might make possible.

Prepare us, Shepherding God,
to think big thoughts around your table.
Assure us that goodness and mercy are already here.

Confessing Our Sins

It can be so hard to write prayers around such familiar texts. I liked this confession that I found after I wrote my own. A friend shared this article on effective crisis leadership and it compelled me to write an alternate confession as it seems that our real task right now is not so much worrying about what will come next but how we love each other in the here and now.

Prayer of Confession (Unison)

O God, we have doubted.
We have doubted you.
We have doubted those you love.
We have questioned what will be left
after this is all over. We’ve wondered
if it will be better than it was
and we must confess we’ve feared it will be worse.
Forgive us. Open the gates of our shuttered hearts
to your abundant grace. Amen.

Alternate Prayer of Confession (Unison)

O God, we have devoted ourselves to so much.
We have wanted. We have resisted your leading.
We have ignored green spaces and still waters
pooling around the dirty dishes piled in the sink.
We haven’t felt goodness and mercy
and what is worse: we haven’t offered it.
We haven’t cared for your people
behind our locked doors. Forgive us.
Forgive us for not holding all that you love
with the same grace you hold us.

Assurance of Grace

Very truly, I tell you, God knows your fears and doubts.
You are forgiven. God opens the gate and calls your name again
to lead you to the goodness and mercy
that will follow you all the days of your life.
God will be with you, now and always. Amen.

Prayers of the People

I have been tickled to watch one of my pastors juggle the prayers in the chat in Zoom, those that were posted on Facebook earlier in the week, those in the church bulletin and it appears a few last minute prayers she just got by text. She has lots of devices and paper around her but every prayer is spoken. Every prayer is heard. It is a powerful thing and it warms my heart each time.

For churches like ours where prayers are usually shared from the floor, I imagine pre-recorded worship feels most distant and strange when it comes to this moment in worship. I confess I don’t know how to overcome that but I was awestruck by the cell phone children’s choir from my little Texas church that sang Halle Halle this past Sunday. There was something about hearing a child’s voice on Zoom that had such power so I wonder about offering a prayer like this from the good people of SALT Project.

Now is a time when I want to hear familiar words like these words from St. Francis. I noticed as well how many people asked for a copy of the gorgeous prayer that my pastor preached on Sunday. So I thought I’d create something pretty. Here is a Pastoral Prayer for Easter 4A adapted from one I wrote years ago. It is my intention for you to share it. Please do so as it helps your precious people.

Until then, dear pastors, liturgists and musicians, I’m praying for you.

Chickens and Shepherds

I don’t often post my sermons but after worship I was asked for the manuscript for the sermon I had just preached. I went way off script today — which I seldom do — so I decided to try to remember what in the world I said in the hope that it might be a word of hope for more than just this one soul. But, first a bit of background: throughout this season of Lent, we have been sharing in a question about who we are and who God is for us. There have been grand theological statements and countless metaphors as we have tried to ask ourselves about who and what Christ is in our lives and in the world. You can read more about that here.  This Sunday, we entered into the wonderful words of Luke 13:31-35 to imagine Christ as a shepherd. Before we read this good news, I asked the kids: how are shepherds and chickens alike? The sermon that follows is my best answer. 

Last week, in the sharing of our joys and concerns, a prayer was lifted in joy for something that was heard on the radio. It was my prayer, actually, and in offering that prayer I said something about how unexpected it is to hear about our faith on the radio. That led to another prayer about something that was heard on television and it was said again that it is a surprise to hear about going to church on television on the radio which made me wonder about what it is that we want for it doesn’t seem that the faith that Jesus imagined was for every body. It doesn’t seem that he imagined that it would change the hearts and lives of everyone that ever heard it but it was a choice. It was a choice that Jesus offered that boiled down to a simple question of what you want for the world and for yourself.

We want many things. We want oh so much. It’s a word that finds our way into our speech often as it does in this few verses. In just four verses, it’s said three times. The Pharisees inform Jesus that Herod wants to kill him. By way of response, Jesus expresses his own wishes and desires. He tells the Pharisees, “Go, tell that fox,” that though Herod might kill the prophets, but it won’t stop Jesus from wanting to gather the people together under his wings. Of course, the people make their own desires known and Jesus knows it. He knows their desires, as he says, “But, you don’t want that.” [1]

They don’t want to be gathered together. They don’t need anyone to shepherd them together. They wished for something else. They imagined another hope. They believed in another possibility. They wanted another kind of God. And what about you. What kind of God do you want?

It’s the question that we keep asking throughout these forty days of Lent before we walk with Jesus into Jerusalem. Before we wave our palms and join the procession, before we stand beside the cross, we have to ask ourselves: what do we want?

“In this season of Lent, as we contemplate the ministry and passion of Jesus,” writes one biblical commentator, “we must also remember that rejection of his ministry comes with consequences of our own choosing.” [2] And so, we must be clear about what we choose.

We have to be clear about what it is we want. The people didn’t want God. They rejected Jesus. They wanted nothing to do with his open arms of healing and redemption. They didn’t need his compassion anymore than Herod. Herod’s best solution was violence. He longed for vengeance. Is that what we want? Are we so frustrated and angry at the state of the world that we long for someone to pay? Is our passion so ignited that sparks might fly at any moment?

We want so many things so that in all our wishes and desires, we end up making our own gods. We refuse the open arms of God. We don’t think it’s enough and instead we give power to the money we earn so much so that we refuse to share. We let our deepest fears transform into monsters that would otherwise terrify us if they didn’t ease our pains. We think we know better. We think we know best but we don’t. Not when we have forgotten where we’ve come from.

Rabbi Harold Kushner, the same man that wrote When Bad Things Happen to Good People, tries to remind us:

The earliest ancestors of the Hebrew people who gave us the Bible were nomads, owning no property, bound to no one location but traveling with their flocks and herds wherever there was pastureland for the animals to graze on. Sometimes this involved a journey of a few miles, sometimes it meant longer trips from drought-plagued areas to well-watered neighboring countries. Generations later, their descendants would become farmers and learn to see life in partnership between the hard work of the farmer and the grace of heaven sending the rain in its season. Later still, some of them would be artisans and merchants. Their understanding of religion would expand to include the ethics of honoring contracts and relating to workers and customers fairly. But they never forgot their origins, telling stories of Abraham, Moses and David tending their sheep. Long after they stopped being shepherds themselves, they retained the mind-set of the shepherd guarding his flock with love for every tender lamb, dedicated to protecting them from the world’s dangers. And in their poetry, they pictured God as a shepherd. [3]

And Jesus tells us that, like God, he will be the “good shepherd.” Like the shepherds of ancient Israel, he didn’t know where his flocks might lead. He didn’t know what to expect but he keeps opening his arms to them. He promises to guard every tender lamb from their fears and their greed by gathering them together “as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings.” He won’t be their monster or their warrior. He won’t fire angry words but will open his arms wide. He will be their chicken. No matter how much you or I might recall about our earliest ancestors, this is indeed a very strange choice. “But a hen is what Jesus chooses,” the preacher Barbara Brown Taylor goes on to say,

which — if you think about it –is pretty typical of him. He is always turning things upside down, so that children and peasants wind up on top while kings and scholars land on the bottom. He is always wrecking our expectations of how things should turn out by giving prizes to losers and paying the last first like in the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. So of course he chooses a chicken, which is about as far from a fox as you can get, who can only use her own body to defend. That way the options become very clear: you can live by licking your chops or you can die protecting your chicks. [4]

chicks-573377_1920Ruth Anne Reese brings these two options into our present, into our practice of Lent, by asking what we want, “Do we long to be like Jesus, to be able to find compassion for our enemies, even those who want to put us to death? In this world of religious and political violence, what does it mean to long for our enemies to experience Jesus’ compassion even as we ourselves have?” [5] What do we want for our world and ourselves?

Are we more comfortable creating our own gods or do we really want to be transformed and changed by the one who opens his arms to us?

It is our choice. It is your choice. You can be anxious. You can be deathly afraid of making the wrong choice. You can mourn all that has gone wrong so that it seems the only logical choice is to become a fox. But, Jesus chose a mother hen as an image of his love. Greed nor fear nor even the need for stability would lead him. Only love. Only the kind of love that opened his arms ever wider to let the world in.

We can fret and worry about what we cannot control. That’s a choice. You can make that choice but is that really what you want for yourself and the world? Do you really want more fear than love? Do you really want your anxieties to rule your days? Or do you want love to open its arms to you? Could that love you want and need be the shepherd of all you days? Could you make that choice today?

 

[1] Reese, Ruth Anne. “Commentary on Luke 13:31-35.” Working Preacherhttps://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2770. Web. 29 February 2016.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Kushner, Harold S. The Lord is My Shepherd: Healing Wisdom of the Twenty-Third Psalm. New York: Knopf, 2003. Print.

[4] Taylor, Barbara Brown. “As a Hen Gathers Her Brood.” The Christian Century. Print. 25 February 1998.

[5] Reese, Ruth Anne. Working Preacher.