As Epiphany Ends

Before the light of Epiphany fades,
before we don the ashes of Lent,
O Jesus we pray:
light a light for us.
Light a light for us that is brighter
than our vanities and fabricated pleasures.
Light a light that is stronger than our fears and our faith.
Light a light for us, O Jesus, for we are flailing in the dark,
injuring one another as we grope for some
certainty and assurance along our way.
Light a light that blazes in brilliance and proves
the shadows in our lives to be fleeting and insidious.
Light such a light, we pray with longing.
Light a light for us
that leads us to peace.

Monday Muse: Transfiguration Blues

How many ways can a pastor preach the transfiguration story year after year? Up the mountain, down the mountain, shiny God, silly disciples. Ho hum.

Can anything good come from Transfiguration Sunday?

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Yes! (I’m a liturgiophile, of course my answer is yes.)

At the bare minimum, the “good” of Transfiguration Sunday is the essential foundation it lays for Lent. The premise of Lent is the humility of our humanity before the brilliance of God’s divinity. Ash Wednesday — the start of Lent — provides that tangible reminder of our humanity in a smear of ashes; Transfiguration Sunday provides the ecstatic, surreal reminder of God’s divinity, the sheer glory of which prompts our Lenten humility.

The glory of God (Transfiguration Sunday) is a necessary affirmation preceding the confessions of the chastened human spirit (Lent).

So give people glory in worship this Transfiguration Sunday! You’re about to hit ’em with six weeks of dreary Lenten “Jesus is getting ready to die” hymns alongside “try harder/live better/sin less” sermons. Do not begin the labor of Lent without giving people the foundation for it: give people a taste of the greatness of God, of the blazing splendor of the presence of God, of the holy triumph before which we gladly confess, “You alone are God.”

What does that glory look like, feel like, taste like in worship? You know your faith community best to answer those questions, but here are some suggestions:

  1. Sing people’s favorite hymns. Not the quiet ones or the somber ones, but the belt-out-loud ones (such as “Great Is Thy Faithfulness”).
  2. Laugh with the children. For once, set aside the serious theological lesson for kindergarteners (a.k.a. Children’s Time), and get silly with the kids in worship. Their laughter is God’s delight!
  3. Share chocolates. Giving up chocolate for Lent seems to be the standard American example of a Lenten discipline … thus Transfiguration Sunday, as the theological premise for Lent, should be a “Taste and see that the LORD is good” Sunday!
  4. Pass the peace. Peter, James and John trekked up a mountain to see Jesus shining like the sun. In the church, we can shine with Christ just by crossing the sanctuary to share a gesture of welcome and fellowship.
  5. Preach wonder. Perhaps you feel that the sermonic moment requires a moral, a lesson. The awe of God, however, does not always need a “therefore”; it simply is and it is good! Preach the Inhabiting Fire, the Mighty Laughter, the Beloved Presence, the Dazzling Goodness!

You may be tired of preaching the mountaintop, but people need that mountaintop. Give people a transformative and uplifting worship service this Sunday, a strong foundation of God’s glory upon which to build their Lenten journeys.

Monday Muse: Naming Racism from the Pulpit

Dear Preachers,

Perhaps when the jury’s verdict on Jordan Davis’ killer was announced this past Saturday evening, you were prepared. Despite the weekend timing of the verdict, the trial itself wasn’t new news, nor were the circumstances of racism. Perhaps you had already exegeted your congregation’s angst and anger, so this past Sunday morning, mere hours after the verdict, you brought word to the church of the fierce love of God that remains undeterred despite the injustices of the world.

Perhaps when the jury’s verdict was announced on Saturday evening, you were caught off guard. Your sermon was already written on a theme that could not easily be amended to lift up the name of Jordan Davis or to reflect on our nation’s character of racism. Likely the bulletin was already printed and folded. You may have concluded that it was too late to broaden the tone of worship to include the raw edge of lament or the burning call for justice.

If you are among the latter preachers, you now have the opportunity to craft the sermon for next Sunday that you didn’t feel you could pull off yesterday. You now have the luxury of a week’s time to seek the courage of spirit and the veracity of words for a homiletic moment that brings the evil of racism into the light of God’s justice. Friends, do not let this moment pass by; do not let your pulpit be silent on racism.

The Revised Common Lectionary readings for Sunday, February 23, provide the foundation of God’s law and God’s wisdom for a sermon on racism and injustice:

  • “You have heard it said, ‘You may claim the life of a young Black man who does not cower and acquiesce to your whiteness,’ but I say to you, ‘Love Black children as your own sons and daughters, nieces and nephews’ and ‘Welcome the wisdom of those who call out your privilege.'” (Matthew 5:38-48)
  • “Do not hinder or harm the life of any of my people: neither directly or indirectly, not by intention or by accident. I am the LORD. You shall not steal out of your brother’s hand openly, nor shall you manipulate his wages for the sake of your own wealth. You shall not resent your sister’s well-being or pride, nor shall you support those who do. I am the LORD. You shall be just, because I am just.” (Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18)
  • “Turn my eyes from the vanity of race, O LORD, so that I may see as you see: that all are one. Turn my heart away from insularity; let me delight in diverse community. Give me understanding of your ways, so that with my whole life — in all thought and action — I might not disgrace you.” (Psalm 119:33-40)
  • “Do not deceive yourselves. The wisdom of this world is foolishness! Guns and drones, voter ID and ‘Stand Your Ground’ laws, food deserts and de facto segregation: these are the ridiculous results of your wisdom! But reconciliation and hospitality are the embodiments of the wisdom of God. Look: the temple of God rides in a music-blasting car, waits behind the bars of an unjust justice system, knocks on a stranger’s door for help in middle of the night, and most of all — each one of these temples of God belongs to Me.” (1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23)

The Narrative Lectionary reading for February 23 (John 7:37-52) provokes us to recognize our own cynicism in the doubtful questions of the festival crowd, who cannot accept a truth that does not meet their expectations or experience. “Who is this?” they ask. “What is the significance of this moment? What shall we believe?” Questions and doubts have surrounded Jesus for the duration of John 7, and he offers this response: “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water” (7:38). The Narrative Lectionary sermon for this Sunday is an opportunity to confront our disbelief and cynicism:

Doubting racism. White preachers in predominantly white congregations, let’s call this out: Do we believe that there is racism? When our privilege is criticized, do we cry “No one ever taught me these things,” or defend ourselves with “I didn’t mean to cause harm”? Have we opened our eyes to the racism of the for-profit prison system, of our nation’s wars and its international neglects, do we resent affirmative action and refuse to learn the histories of non-white cultures? Let us believe the inculturation of racism in the white psyche, so that our hearts might break open to flow with living repentence.

Doubting justice. For preachers and parishioners across the whole Body of Christ: Do we believe that there can be racial justice? Do we suspect that Florida is beyond hope (and in dismissing Florida, do we pretend that our own neighborhoods have no need for justice)? Has our racialized history made such a judgment upon our future sins that we cannot impact restitution and reconciliation? Do we limit God’s justice by setting in stone our own visions of it? Let us believe in the river of justice — wade into it — until our lives join its flow.

May God be a balm and a burden in our pulpits this Sunday.

Monday Muse: Lenten Sermon Series 5

Preacher friends, I have one final nudge for your homiletic muse as you look ahead to the Lenten season, one more idea for centering your sermon series this Lent: hymns.

(Already I’ve shared ideas for a sermon series centered around a painting series, the Revised Common Lectionary’s OT readings, the Narrative Lectionary’s Gospel readings, and two routes for a sermon series centered on prayer.)

The reasons for developing a sermon series on hymns are multiple (for me):

  1. Music, with or without text, can say what the soul has not yet found words to express; no matter the style of music, I’m convinced that we don’t spend enough time really listening to music in worship.
  2. That said, Lenten hymns are some dreary stuff. Dreary! Additionally, mainline white Protestants aren’t known for singing cross & blood songs with great enthusiasm, and that whole “bury the Alleluias ’til Easter” schtick — no matter how liturgically appropriate — jars my soul.
  3. The beauty and the tedium, the discomfort and the familiarity of hymns are precisely the reasons to dig a little deeper, look a little more intentionally, search a little harder through hymns for spiritual guidance and encouragement in Lent.

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Any number of Lenten hymns work well for a sermon series. You can choose to preach on one hymn per week (be sure to include the hymn in worship for the congregation to sing too!) or study a single hymn across the whole of Lent. By way of an example, I’ll outline a Lenten sermon series on a single hymn:

Lift high the cross, the love of Christ proclaim;
Let all adore and praise that sacred name.
G. W. Kitchin & M. R. Newbolt
(Hope Publishing Co. 1974)
The New Century Hymnal, Pilgrim Press (Cleveland 1995)

Lent 1/Verse 1: “Come, Christians, follow where our Savior trod…” The cross is lifted high like a lighthouse’s beam, like a tour guide’s flag or bull horn, leading the way through an unfamiliar place so that we can see the One we are following.

Lent 2/Verse 2: “Each newborn servant…bears the seal of Christ who died.” We lift high the cross to remember in humility that all life is marked by death; we contemplate Christ’s to make peace with our own.

Lent 3/Verse 3: “…your death has brought us life eternally.” Remember I said that hymns can challenge us to wrestle with theological discomfort rather than avoid it? Does one man’s death alter our chances of heaven or hell? Does God’s ability to die change how we live?

Lent 4/Verse 4: “Set up your throne that earth’s despair may cease…” Our hope is also our lament: the reign of God is but still it is not yet; in that intermediate space in which we live, too many crosses are being shouldered — imposed — especially upon the poor.

Lent 5/Verse 5: “…praise to the Crucified for victory.” In the penitential season of Lent, this verse restrains our habit of building victory for ourselves or claiming victory against one another, and instead calls for our praise to be founded upon Christ alone.

Lent 6/Chorus: “Lift high the cross…” Palms and passion meet in these words; the people parade together and mob together, lifting Jesus high first in exultation and then with ill will as adoration turns to fear, rejection and paranoia.

Easter/Chorus: “The love of Christ proclaim…” Regardless of your theology of the cross, this — the love of Christ — is the beginning and end of our faith. The love of Christ calls us to discipleship, to humanity, to lament, to justice, to humility, to repentance, to proclamation.

Blessings as you prepare for Lent, friends! Continue to follow my Monday Muse each week for new worship ideas in all seasons!