Oh Holy One , I am feeling like pharaoh must have felt during the plagues. Fire, floods, Covid, monkeypox, and the stupidity of gun violence and war bombard me constantly from my newsfeed.
As the anniversary of 9/11 approaches once more I remember those pesky words from Jesus that we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. That was hard then and still is, oh so very hard.
Never did I imagine back then that I would see the day when political foes in our own country would be the enemies that I struggle to love or even forgive!
I know it’s wrong but I find myself longing for the God of Exodus who drowned the Egyptian‘s in the Red Sea. Or even for the God of Mary who promised us that the rich and powerful will be sent empty away. When, oh Holy One? When will justice roll down like waters? When will we beat our swords into garden tools and never learn war anymore? When, Lord, when?
In the words of one who survived one of the darkest hours of human history, Corrie Ten Boom, “Lord if you want these people forgiven you are going to have to do it because I can’t.“
And yet I give you thanks, Lord, for modern day prophets like Diana Butler Bass, Brian McLaren, Nadia Bolz-Weber, and the dear departed Rachel Held Evans. They give me hope even in the depths of despair about the future of humanity.
And it’s not so much for myself that I pray, Holiest One. It is for those I love the most, my children and grandchildren, that I weep. They will inherit the mess my generation has made.
Please send your miracle-working spirit to renew a right spirit within us, to help us repent of the greed that is destroying our planet and the fabric of our society.
Oh how I hope that it is not too late. And I give thanks that in your eternal, cosmic power it is never too late. Amen
O God why must you work in such mysterious ways? Couldn’t you just give me a message straight without so much work? Your spirit came through again today as always, but couldn’t you have done that two or three days ago! Why do I have to worry and wrestle with your Word like Jacob to find a 10 minute sermon? Yes, the process is good for me, but I’m already limping from way too many years of sweating Saturday sermon preparation. I do believe, Lord, honest I do. I’ve literally experienced this miraculous process hundreds of times, but I’m old and tired and it’s harder work than it used to be. Is that because I am afraid that I don’t have many more times to get this right? Preaching is an awesome and awful privilege. How can I dare to get up and presume to speak for you? Yes, I know John Wesley said, “Preach faith till you have it.” That’s why I’m still at it. And this time, really “Let the words of my mouth be truly acceptable in your sight,” for I couldn’t do this if you were not my rock and redeemer. Amen
O gracious God, we come today in this season of Lent, and during what many in our nation call March Madness. Most years the madness is just about college basketball tournaments for men and women, but this year it is also is a good way to describe the state of our world. We are heart broken by the pictures of the devastation in Ukraine and the millions of innocent refugees streaming out of their homeland.
Madness is a mild term to describe the cruelty and lack of human compassion on display by Putin and the Russian soldiers. We followers of Jesus are called to be peacemakers, to love our enemies, but those are hard words to live in a world gone mad. We pray for the people of Ukraine and for the Russians caught up in this senseless pursuit of power. Please, dear God, guide President Biden and other world leaders as they meet this week to search for ways to end the violence without lighting the fuse of a world war that no one can win.
You have taught us that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are blessed. We are so hungry and thirsty, Lord. We yearn for human contact that COVID has denied us. We need assurance that this chaotic life we have been living for two years is really returning to normal. Please let your Holy Spirit be the wind beneath our wings that helps us create a new normal where love is the roadmap we follow. Teach us again that abundant lives are measured in priceless moments and not in bit coins or dollars.
We also need to have our hope restored, hope that the human race can learn to live together and fight a common enemy like climate change instead of each other. Remind us again of our history as your people. How many times do the Scriptures describe the holy city of Jerusalem in ruins like the pictures we see from Ukraine? How often has the sacred temple in Jerusalem been leveled by conquering armies? More than we can count, and yet each and every time you, gracious and loving God have redeemed your people and renewed your covenant with us. Even when we crucified your son you raised him up to show us love is more powerful than death and hate.
In this season of Lent we practice the spiritual disciplines of introspection and repentance. It is so easy to react to all the trouble in the world by looking for others to blame. Whatever the problem, we would rather fix blame on someone else and look for the specks in their eyes rather than at the log in our own. Confession is oh so hard and yet it is the only road that leads to spiritual well being and salvation.
The wide easy road is so much more appealing than the narrow wilderness path. Doing what we have always done seems so much simpler than trying something new and unfamiliar.
Staying in an uncomfortable rut where we don’t have to take risks looks better than the unknown future. But following the crowd often takes us to places we don’t really want to go. Help us loving spirit to take time this Lent to examine our values, our goals, our vision of how to grow more closely into the people you want us to be.
As we navigate whatever March Madness looks like for us this Lent, help us remember the example of Christ who has gone through the wilderness before us, who set his face toward Jerusalem rather than running from trouble, and who went to the cross rather than betray his God and his true values.
We offer our lives and our prayers to you our heavenly parent in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior. Amen
O My God, the long anticipated and feared war in Ukraine seems to have finally begun. What a sad thing it is that humankind cannot give up it’s addiction to violence. Why do we keep doing the very things we know we ought not do? Why do we insist on labeling some of our sisters and brothers our enemies? My heart is broken that again we have turned our backs not only on lessons we should have learned from centuries of history but also again on your will for peace and justice for all of your children.
And my heart is laden down with regrets and feelings of futility. What can this old tired and retired preacher say or do that I have not done for decades? Did we not learn anything from the other two bloody wars in Europe in just over 100 years ago? How can partisan blinders keep so many American leaders from seeing that Putin is reprising Hitler’s playbook? How can support for Putin from an American former president not be treason? How can I love these enemies foreign and domestic when I want to damn them all?
I’m wrestling with a desire to speak out but fear the political backlash I may get from family and friends who want to keep me in the straight jacket of an apolitical and irrelevant pastoral stereotype? Is not your heart also breaking, loving one? Has it not been broken too many times to count since Cain killed Abel? Massacres, crusades and genocides often waged in your holy name have filled whole chapters of human history. We build monuments and deify military and violent heroes, but we crucify and assassinate messengers of peace. How in your name, O God, can we keep our faith when the forces of evil and darkness seem to be gaining thousands of blind followers each and ever day?
The Christian season of repentance is coming in just a week. Please may we celebrate a solemn and holy Lent this year and call upon the power of your Holy Spirit, the one force stronger than violence and human evil, to save us from our own sinful ways. Christ have mercy! Amen
Here we are, nine days into a new year. We’ve changed the numbers on the calendar, but things look the same as year one and two of what one young child calls the Pandamnic. We’re still wearing masks, the Omicron numbers are scary high. New Year’s used to be more a time of out with the old and in with the new, but 2022 feels a lot like the movie Groundhog Day, like we’re stuck in a very deep rut.
You may have seen the cartoon of a baby talking on a cell phone about her baptism. She says, “I tell you this guy in a dress tried to drown me, and my family didn’t do anything but stand around and take pictures!” I saw another one where Jesus is complaining to John the Baptist that he was trying to drown him. John replies, “Sorry, if you wanted to be sprinkled you should have gone to John the Methodist.”
How many of you were baptized as infants or as a small child? For that many of us at least we have no conscious memory of that important event that was a major force in shaping our faith journey. That’s one reason this Sunday after Epiphany is called the Baptism of the Lord; so we can all reflect on the promises that we made or were made for us at our baptism.
One of the best things about studying the Scriptures to prepare to preach or doing Bible study is noticing things we’ve not seen before in familiar stories. All of us are somewhat guilty of making what a friend of mine calls Gospel Stew. We take the different accounts of Jesus’ life and mix them all up together into one almost Bible narrative. But each of the Gospels is a unique testimony by its author, and it’s important to take time to focus on each one to see what treasures we can find when we do just that.
For example the account of Jesus’ baptism in the Gospel of Luke we read today has one big difference from the other three Gospels. Did you notice it? Listen again to these words from verses 19-21: “…because of all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison. [pause] Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized…”
In the three other accounts in the Gospels John plays a much more central role in baptizing Jesus. John’s role is implied here, but Luke seems to make a point of getting John out of the spotlight in prison before Jesus hears the heavenly voice proclaiming his belovedness.
Luke gives John a lot of time on stage prior to this, but now it’s time for a new beginning for putting away the old wine skins that can’t contain the Gospel of Grace that God has come in Jesus came to proclaim. Now, it’s a new year and time to clean out the old to make room in our hearts for the incarnation of God’s spirit. The Holy Spirit comes not just in Jesus, but in all of us who have been claimed as God’s beloved.
When I was teaching a preaching class at the Methodist Theological School in Delaware one of my students, Mike Doak, dug into this text and did a really creative look at this story from the perspective of John the Baptist who is cooling his heels in jail when Jesus emerges as the Messiah John has been proclaiming.
My student imagined what it might look like if John the Baptist wrote us a Letter from the Jerusalem Jail:
“Stunned… I tell you I was stunned as these events unfolded. You could have heard a single drop of rain fall at that moment, in the midst of that gathering. As for me, one touch of a feather would have keeled me over. Where was the winnower, fork in hand, striding onto the threshing floor? What of the fire, the unquenchable fire, into which the chaff was to be cast? Was there no axe to be laid to the root? We expected a Messiah, a ruler grown from the tree of David would Lord it over Israel with a strong hand and a mighty arm. Why were there no trumpets to announce the coming king; why did thunder not clap as heavens rent open? What manner of king is coroneted with a dove in place of a crown? If I may appropriate a few of your own symbols, I preached Rambo but behold Gandhi. I expected God’s unparalleled judgment yet beheld God’s unparalleled grace. I preached unquenchable fire, but witnessed unquenchable hope. Self-doubt overtook me as days passed into weeks in the solitude of my prison cell. Though I had thrived in the wilderness all my grown life, I was then never so alone. How was it that one called “forerunner” could become “forlorn.”
John has been the star of the show. Huge crowds have come to hear him preach. Some people even think he might be the Messiah himself. That’s pretty heady stuff. But Luke makes it clear John is the forerunner, the warm up act, not the featured attraction. It’s time for a changing of the guard.
Have you ever resented someone who made the team while you got cut? Or some whippersnapper got the promotion you thought you deserved? Or becoming a big sister or brother and all of sudden not getting attention from Mom and Dad or your grandparents who only have eyes for this new little stranger who has invaded your home? If so we can understand how John might have felt.
John says he is preparing the way for Jesus, but Jesus doesn’t turn out to be the Messiah John and most of the Jews were expecting. John was a hell fire and brimstone preacher, a little on the wild and crazy side. He preached a Gospel of repentance based on fear of God’s wrath. He expected the bad dudes to get their comeuppance and the chaff of society to be burned and the sooner the better. We all have our own list of who those bad dudes and dudesses are don’t we!
But John didn’t find in Jesus what he hoped for and expected. This most unlikely carpenter’s son is named God’s beloved son, the one with whom God is well pleased. Baptism is all about new beginnings, but John’s new beginning is a stark reminder that God is the boss and we aren’t. No matter how much we want to pass judgment on people we think are sinners, that’s not our job. Our job is to be messengers of repentance and hope, the good news of new beginnings, and leave the judgment to God.
Baptism is still a sacrament of new beginnings, even in yet another Covid year. But it’s important to see baptism as a beginning and not the end of a journey. Baptized children are preparatory members and it’s the job of all of us– parents, teachers, grandparents, fellow church members – to be their village and help prepare them for full membership and claiming their belovedness for themselves. Now don’t go guilt tripping yourselves about your shortcomings or failures as parents because your kids or grandkids haven’t turned out as you hoped they would. Imagine how Elizabeth and Zechariah felt about this miracle child of theirs living in the wilderness eating locusts and wild honey! Our job as role models for the younger generation is to show them they are beloved even if they are covered in tattoos and have green hair. The rest is up to them and God.
I want to pause here to acknowledge everyone involved in the amazing children’s ministry here at Northwest. I’ve been part of 8 different congregations in my life and the amazing job Doris Ing and all her servant leaders do with our kids here is by far and away the best I’ve ever seen. Our children get a balanced spiritual diet of hearing the stories of the Bible, and then they practice those values by living them out working in the children’s garden alongside adults and a whole host of other service projects that teach them to treat all of God’s children as the beloved people they are.
Those kids grow up before our eyes oh so fast. Diana and I have been part of the Northwest family for almost 8 years now, and I am amazed when I see children who were toddlers back in 2014 who are now singing in the children’s choir, and teaching us elders what love in action looks like. They grow in wisdom and stature like Jesus to help deliver brown bag lunches and go on youth mission trips. One of my favorite projects in recent months came out of the concern from youth in our confirmation class about climate change. They’ve helped us implement new recycling opportunities and designed these wonderful reusable cups so we can stop adding to the problems Styrofoam cups cause for mother earth. And best of all they put on these cups words that remind us whenever we drink from it that “Love Has No Zip Code.”
I already knew in my head how unjust our society is based on which zip code you happen to be born into. But I really learned about that in a heartfelt way when I was working at Ohio State several years back. I was helping facilitate a partnership between OSU and Columbus City Schools. Many of us at OSU volunteered to be tutors and my school was Medary, one of the elementaries in the University District. At the same time my grandkids were in elementary school in the Olentangy School District. I loved working with the kids at Medary, but it hurt my heart when I would go from there to visit the Olentangy schools on grandparent’s day or other occasions. The differences between the new school buildings and the resources available to my grandchildren were like visiting another planet.
I am grateful for the amazing experiences my grandkids have had at Olentangy, but very troubled that the urban kids are not getting the same benefits.
I’m using Olentangy as an example, but we know the same stark differences apply to Dublin and Hilliard and other suburban schools. The way we fund education via property tax, i.e. by zip code, is inherently unjust. That system has resulted in the resegregation of our schools and perpetuated and widened the gap between the privileged and the marginalized. And those disparities have only been multiplied by Covid.
Climate change and education are just two of many injustices we are called to address. None of us can make a big difference in any or all of them, but we can start by asking God how we can make a difference wherever we are. Luke describes the baptism of Jesus in 2 verses and then devotes 12 verses to the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness that immediately follows. This warns us that we are all tempted forever as Jesus was to cave in to the seduction of worldly comfort and power, but because we are followers of Christ we can say no to Satan’s clever sales pitches.
I don’t know about you, but when we baptize cute babies up here I don’t pay much attention to the words of the baptism ritual. I’m just oohing and aahing over a precious beloved child of God. Babies are such a miracle that they melt our hearts. But there are important words in the ritual that we all need to hear. As a congregation we promise to help raise those children in the faith; so we shouldn’t just sign on for that important job like we click agree without reading all the fine print on a new app.
Listen to what one of those vows asks us to agree to: “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?” That’s a heavy promise, and it comes before the next promise where we are asked: “Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior and put your whole trust in his grace…?” We can’t renounce and resist the forces of evil on our own. We can only do that through the power of the Holy Spirit descending on us and declaring we are God’s beloved children.
The last line of the baptismal vow says we “promise to serve him as our Lord, in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races?” Brothers and sisters, all means all. Just as we can’t choose our relatives, even the crazy uncles and the weird cousins, we can’t exclude anyone from the body of Christ. I know how hard that is. The partisan paralysis in our government that has made this pandemic last so much longer than it needed to and taken so many beloved family members and friends from us makes me furious. But the Gospel message is that even those I vehemently disagree with about vaccines and masks, yes, even those people are God’s beloved children.
Baptism means we all belong to a great and mysterious God who created this vast universe long before any humans ever set foot on this tiny planet. God created us, male and female, and declared us good and blessed from day one. And no matter how badly we or anyone else screw things up, our blessedness doesn’t expire.
In one of those special God incidents, I got a wonderful idea for how we can all practice our baptismal vows and celebrate our blessedness every day. It came just yesterday in a daily devotion I get from Father Richard Rohr, and it suggests this simple practice.
The exercise goes like this; looking, really looking lovingly, not staring or seeing any flaws, look at yourself in a mirror or at another person, and as you breathe in and out pray silently these words:
Breathe in: I see you with love
Breathe out: gifted, cherished.
Breathe in: Grateful
Breathe out: for who you are. [Repeat this with congregation, looking at another or imagining someone]
And here’s the best part–Father Rohr goes on to say,
“We can also bring this practice out into the world. How often do we really see another person beneath their role, under our expectations? What if we paused at the grocery store and for a moment brought eyes of love to the stock clerk or the cashier. They don’t have to know what you’re doing. You don’t have to stare, just take in their image, then close your eyes for a moment, breathe, and bathe them with love. Pause and see the other person as beloved and beautiful as they indeed truly are.”
My beloved sisters and brothers, this is a day of new beginnings because God’s “Belovedness Knows No Zip Code.” Amen
Preached at Northwest UMC, Columbus, OH, January 9, 2022
O Holy One, as one great saint, Meister Eckhart, said, “If the only prayer you say in your life is ‘thank you,’ that will be sufficient;” so today we gather in this sacred space to give thanks to you:
Thanks for this holy ground and for those who had the vision to create this memory garden.
Thanks for the memories of those who have finished the course of their mortal lives and joined the great cloud of witnesses in your presence.
Thanks that the earth here contains all of them that it can, and that we know their eternal souls have been set free of the pain and struggle and limits of human existence.
Thanks for the assurance to us who remain that nothing in all creation can separate us from your love in Christ Jesus. As another saint, Julian of Norwich said, “My own sin will not hinder God’s working goodness.”
Because of Christ’s triumph over death we dare to live as your humble saints and servants because we know we have been created in your image from the dust of the earth. That dust from those whose ashes have been tenderly laid to rest here continues to nourish your good earth as you nourish our souls, surrounding us with the power of the Holy Spirit in this life and the next.
Thank you creator God for all the saints laid to rest in this sacred space. In holy silence we now give thanks for all the memories of their lives on earth.
Renew your blessing, we pray, on this place, on those we honor today, and on us all as we strive to be your saints on earth. By the power of the Holy Spirit we will share the precious gift of hope and trust in you to others by the example of our lives until we too are set free to fully live in your heart with those who have gone before us.
We offer our prayers of thanksgiving in the name of the one who conquered death and is the way, the truth and eternal life. Amen
[Prayer for a service in the memory garden, Northwest UMC, Columbus, OH]
Oh My God, I am bone-tired weary. I am already physically and emotionally exhausted from personal challenges and the chaos in the world is more than I can even bear to hear about. 8000 plus new COVID cases in Ohio today, 240 COVID deaths Statewide just this week alone — all so unnecessary and down right stupid. Throw in a tsunami of gun violence and deaths, probably in part caused by the stresses of the pandemic that refuses to end. Are we stronger and smarter than this ever-changing corona virus? According to the overflowing ICU numbers and the number of foolish, misinformed people still refusing to get vaccinate it would seem the virus is definitely winning.
On a more cosmic scale I hear that the hole in ozone layer over the South Pole is now larger than the entire continent of Antarctica. Floods, fires, and hurricanes of epic proportions still cannot convince most of us to admit our addiction to fossil fuel that, like most addictions, is killing us in bigger numbers every year. Yes, I know you showed Elijah that you were not in the earthquake, wind, or fire* but in the still small voice. You tell us to be still and know you are God, but Lord, it is so hard to be still in the midst of chaos. Yes, I know Jesus slept through the storm in the boat, but I am like the disciples who were afraid and chastised Jesus for napping while they were in mortal danger.
There is no off switch on my worrisome brain. Yes, I can sometimes shut off all my devices and not listen to the 24/7 news, but it is so much harder to still my mind and soul. Speak to me, Lord of the universe. Reassure me you are walking through this difficult time with me, carrying me or (dragging me if necessary) when my legs are too weary to keep going. Speak to the storm and calm the turbulent sea within my heart. I believe O God, help my unbelief. Amen
PS: I’m grateful to report that as it often does when I “take it to the Lord in prayer” I feel much better. I can’t explain how that works. I just know it does.
*Bible references: I Kings 19:12, Psalms 46:10, Matthew 8:24, Mark 9:24
I walked our church’s new labyrinth this morning after church. I think it is the most beautiful one I’ve ever seen and am so grateful to those who worked to build it. I know it’s true of all labyrinths, but I was struck again today by how close one gets to the cross in the center on numerous occasions only to turn away and double back in the other direction. Isn’t that true of our faith journey? We feel especially close to God one minute, and the very next life hits us with a body blow we didn’t see coming; and all of a sudden God seems so distant that we feel lost and confused. That’s when spiritual discipline is needed to stay the course and trust that road less travelled will eventually lead us back to the cross.
There are no short cuts in our faith journey, only perseverance and trusting the Holy Spirit to lead us home. If you notice in the picture the entry path very quickly takes you within a few feet of the cross before it takes a sharp left turn that leads to the far side of the labyrinth. It would be so easy to step right over that blue line and in two steps be right at the foot of the cross. No one else was there to see if I cheated when I took my walk, but I knew that those who promise a short easy way to salvation are false prophets. To take a short cut would have robbed me of precious time for communion with God and defeated the whole purpose of being there.
Oh God of unconditional love and grace, we your children are hurting and afraid. We are still living through a never-ending pandemic. We thought 2021 would be better than 2020, but these first two weeks have just been more of the same with the threat of civil war thrown in for good measure.
We are so divided, God, and we know you are calling us to be Christ followers, to be peacemakers among our families and neighbors. But we don’t have a clue what that might look like. None of us have ever lived through anything like this. How can we possibly know how to be your witnesses, your disciples?
Reassure us again, Holy One, that we can trust your call. The Scriptures tell us story after story of the unlikely people you have called to do great things. Moses and Esther, David, a bunch of uneducated fishermen, and Saul the Christian persecutor. May we draw strength and confidence for the living of these days from the saints who have gone before us, Mother Theresa and Dr. King and thousands of unknown servants who bravely respond to your call, not knowing what that means, with no guarantee of success of safety.
This day we especially pray for a peaceful transfer of power on Wednesday and for a binding up of our nation’s wounds.
We give thanks that we are not alone in this scary time. Even though we cannot yet be physically in one place where we can be in fellowship and share hugs with one another, we are still connected through the wonders of technology. We are never alone and together we can be faithful and brave through any crisis. And so we dare to pray in the name of one who said “Lo I am with you always, even to the end of the age,” the one who became flesh and walked among us to show us how to live and how to love. And so now we pray as one the prayer he taught us to pray.
O Creator God, mysterious and magnificent, whose name was considered unpronounceable by our Hebrew ancestors, forgive us when our feeble attempts to describe you and name you turn you into pious platitudes. Unlike Moses we dare not put ourselves in your imminent presence. Your power is too much for us to confront directly, but when we hide ourselves from your majesty and keep you at arms length we rob ourselves of that peace that is beyond our comprehension.
It is a delicate balance between revering you and embracing you. Our fallible brains cannot grasp your simultaneous imminence and transcendence, and so we bounce back and forth like ping pong ball from one extreme to the other. And yet in these dark days of 2020 we desperately need both your motherly, tender love and your booming power to transform and heal our broken world.
We’re feeling like Pharaoh, God. Our plagues today are fires, hurricanes, flooding, racism, homophobia, earthquakes, pandemic, and the angry vitriol of deep, seemingly unbridgeable tribal cultural wars. At a time when we need each other and the milk of human compassion more than ever we don’t even know how to talk to one another. Nerves are so frayed that even something as simple as wearing a mask can become a trigger point for insults, shunning and worse.
Where are you in the midst of our human catastrophes, O God? You told Elijah that you were not in the wind, fire, or earthquake, but in a still small voice. We are deaf to that voice just now O great one. Weeping and wailing, screaming and cursing, hopeless self-pity and sheer exhaustion are ringing in our ears so loudly that we cannot hear you. When we need to feel the embrace of a good shepherd so much we feel like the lost sheep, afraid to even hope that you can or would come looking for us and leave the other 99. Our tiny minds can’t comprehend that you can seek us out and still be present with all the others who also need you. Your transcendent ability to be everywhere in the world and universe boggles are minds.
So for just a moment, a fraction of a second help us to be still just long enough to hear your voice whisper in our ears, “Fear not my children, for I have overcome the world. Come to me when you are weary and burdened. Trust me, and I will restore your soul even in this year of tumult and pain.”