Lenten Sermon Series: Lamenting Injustice (RCL OT)

With the arrival of Epiphany Sunday — Theophany, Three Kings Day, Orthodox Christmas — the liturgical season of wondering and wandering begins. We follow stars, we listen for wisdom, we watch for prophets, we get lost about as fast as we lose our New Year’s resolutions, we wonder over God’s call on our lives, we marvel at Jesus’ baptism and (just before Ash Wednesday) we awe at his transfiguration.

For many pastors, the arrival of Epiphany Sunday also marks the wondering and wandering of rushed Lenten planning as we suddenly notice on our calendars that Ash Wednesday is only one month away. For such as these, I offer brainstorms for Lenten sermon series, which also suggest worship themes for the upcoming season. Ash Wednesday and Easter are not included in these sermon series, as their themes are prescribed and can stand alone … yet are also so foundational that they can fit into most any sermon series.

First is a suggested sermon series centered on the Old Testament readings of the Revised Common Lectionary — an intentional & confessional Lenten call to examine the injustices within our world and within our hearts.

First Sunday in Lent (Feb 18): Broken Promises

Consider the decades & centuries of broken promises between colonizing governments and indigenous nations/First Peoples, and/or the broken promises between today’s governments and immigrant & refugee populations. In contrast, consider the promises of God (Genesis 9:8-17), made not only to people but also to creatures and the earth herself. Pray & preach this Sunday for the ways in which we have broken promises to one another and the ways in which our governments broken promises to communities.

Second Sunday in Lent (Feb 25): Sinful Tongues

God gives new names to Abram and Sarai (Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16), but too often we reject or ignore people’s names and thereby their personhood. We call each other names to categorize & dehumanize. We don’t bother to learn people’s names; some of us say Tchaikovsky with ease but believe we don’t need to correctly pronounce actress Uzo Aduba’s name. Some of us feign burden when asked to use a trans person’s new name or to use plural pronouns (they/them) for a genderqueer person. Pray & preach this Sunday about the ways we speak of & to one another, recalling that God knows our names & claims us as beloved.

Third Sunday in Lent (Mar 4): Chasing Capitalism

Pastors often wait until stewardship season to preach about money, but Exodus 20:1-17 invites a frank examination of our idolization of money & labor at the expense of worship & compassion. What influences our desire for personal gain? How do our choices about income & employment reflect the Ten Commandments … or the values of capitalism? How do we recognize when our pursuit of (or anxiety over) money & labor overtakes our passion for the worship of God? Pray & preach this Sunday against our idolization of money & work as measures of worth — not only of ourselves but of people around the world and in our own towns.

Fourth Sunday in Lent (Mar 11): Healthcare Crisis

In Numbers 21:4-9 and throughout the Bible, God is understood as both the cause of illness and the cause of healing. Today with modern medicine, we outline the causes of illness and health differently, and healing is not only a matter of faith but also a matter of access: especially financial and geographic access. Health insurance and health care are expensive. Medical facilities are limited in some regions, highly concentrated in others. Race & gender & class impact our well-being and treatment too. Pray & preach this Sunday about the disparities in our healthcare systems.

Fifth Sunday in Lent (Mar 18): Biased Hearts

“Sin” by Anneke Kaai

Can we say honestly that God’s law is inscribed on our hearts so long as bias has its home there? Bigotry and racism are learned not only at a young age but all throughout our lives, carved into our hearts daily by the words & gestures & people & social systems all around us … and inscribed as our hearts’ laws when we do not challenge them, practice living contrary to them, and welcome accountability for change. Preach & pray this Sunday for the conversion of our individual & collective biased hearts and actions, that God’s law might become foremost within us (Jeremiah 31:31-34).

Sixth Sunday in Lent – Palm/Passion Sunday (Mar 25): Turning Our Cheeks

I used to imagine “turning the cheek” as a choice of non-resistance. Perhaps it can be, but I also know that turning the cheek is an unavoidable movement caused by the impact of a smack or hit. Sometimes we turn our cheeks and our backs not because we are so righteous but because we are so injured & shamed — whether by acts of random violence or domestic violence or hurtful words or moral injury. Pray & teach this Palm/Passion Sunday with an awareness of the violence experienced not only by Jesus but by your congregants & your community, believing that goodness comes not from suffering but from solidarity (Isaiah 50:4-9a).

Blessings to those preparing to preach this Lent — and more sermon series ideas to come!

Monday Muse: Lenten Preaching Beyond Doom-and-Gloom

Still wondering what you’ll preach when Lent begins next week?

039Here are eight sermon series ideas for your inspiration and use, all of which aim to shed the traditionally dreary sackcloth of Lent in order to don a vibrant — and occasionally exuberant — spirit of discipleship. Many of these preaching suggestions reflect my personal & professional perspective that Christianity isn’t too serious for playfulness, that God isn’t too perfect for hard questions, and that our faith journeys are never too complete for reexamination.

While you’re browsing for Lenten resources, check out my Good Friday dramatic reading for two voices (Mary the sister of Martha & Lazarus and Judas the disciple & betrayer of Jesus), and an Ash Wednesday original liturgy.

#1

LET’S PLAY!
Revised Common Lectionary Psalms

To get your feet wet with a sermon series idea that is waaaayy outside of the traditional doom-and-gloom Lenten theme, consider the possibility of this intergenerational sermon series that helps the young and the old alike (re)imagine faith through the lens of common childhood games:

Lent 1, Psalm 25. Hopscotch (25:7 “Skip my sins” and 25:4 “Teach me Your paths”)
Lent 2, Psalm 22. Hide-and-Seek (22:24b “God doesn’t hide from our grossness”)
Lent 3, Psalm 19. Telephone (19:1-4 “The heavens whisper to creation, which whispers to us”)
Lent 4, Psalm 107. Blob Tag (107:3 “God runs around gathering people”)
Lent 5, Psalm 51. Follow the Leader (51:10 “We focus on imitating You”)
Lent 6, Psalm 118. Red Rover (118:19 “Can God get through?”)
Easter, Psalm 118. Keep Away (118:18 “God doesn’t let Death grab us”)

#2

TACKLING RELIGIOUS CLICHÉS
Narrative Lectionary

The parables of the Narrative Lectionary are full of religious clichés: familiar if overused adages that we use as palatable soundbites of faith. I lump clichés like these in the same category as horrible phrases like “God needed another angel,” because — scriptural or not — the phrases frequently substitute for theology and thoughtfulness. For Lent this year, consider unpacking and reexamining these clichés, for example: Do we use “many are called but few are chosen” to justify exclusion? Do we use the phrase “the least of these” without questioning the appropriateness of identifying others as “less than”? Do we experience “the last shall be first”  in actual life, and do we really want to experience it in faith? Give permission for folks to revalue these clichés in fresh ways…or perhaps even to discard them.

Lent 1. Forgive Us Our Debts (Matthew 18:15-35)
Lent 2. The Last Shall Be First (Matthew 20:1-16)
Lent 3. Many Are Called, Few Are Chosen (Matthew 22:1-14)
Lent 4. Keep Awake (Matthew 25:1-13)
Lent 5. The Least of These (Matthew 25:1-46)
Lent 6/Passion. Turn the Tables (Matthew 21:1-13)
Easter. Do Not Be Afraid (Matthew 28:1-10)

#3

BESIDE(S) JESUS
Revised Common Lectionary, Gospels

054Sure, Lent is all about Jesus going to the cross and how we’re supposed to follow Jesus … but let’s be honest: we’re not Jesus, and we usually stop short of going all the way to the cross. Besides Jesus, who else in these Gospel readings can we look to for discipleship lessons during Lent — folks we should imitate, folks we should try not to imitate? Who are the characters beside Jesus in these Gospels stories?

Lent 1. John the Baptist (Mark 1:9-15)
Lent 2. Peter (Mark 8:31-38)
Lent 3. Temple Vendors (John 2:13-22)
Lent 4. Nicodemus (John 3:14-21)
Lent 5. Andrew and Philip (John 12:20-33)
Lent 6/Palms. The Crowds (Mark 11:1-11)
Easter. Mary, Mary and Salome (Mark 16:1-8)

#4

THE HOLY COVENANT IN OBJECT LESSONS
Revised Common Lectionary, Old Testament

What does it look like to be in covenant with God? What does it feel like, what does it taste like, what does it sound like? To longtime Christians, these Old Testament stories may be familiar … but to all of us, the stories and the idea of covenant may linger with us beyond Sunday morning if we have something to hold onto, something to see, something to hear and even taste. Don’t just talk about God’s covenant this Lent; give your congregants physical objects to hold onto that covenant.

Lent 1. Hair Bows for rainbows (Genesis 9:8-17) – that’s right, you know you want to see the pews full of folks in colorful hair bows
Lent 2. Dirt for land promised to Abraham (Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16) – and be prepared to help with the vacuuming after worship
Lent 3. Stones for the tablets (Exodus 20:1-12) – smooth stones from the craft store or loose gravel from a nearby stream
Lent 4. Rubber Snakes for vipers (Numbers 21:4-9) – perhaps forewarn people so that your sermon isn’t punctuated by screaming
Lent 5. Stress Balls for our hearts (Jeremiah 31:31-34) – take extras to church committee meetings, ha!
Lent 6/Passion: Earplugs for hearing God (Isaiah 50:4-9a) – go ahead, give folks permission to wear the earplugs while you preach
Easter: Snacks for the mountain feast (Isaiah 25:6-9) – bring candy from the Easter egg hunt into worship

#5

THE JOYFUL KINDOM
Revised Common Lectionary, Gospels

Does Lent have to be so deadly serious? 🙂 Does Christian discipleship have to look like sackcloth and ashes and spiritual shame? What if Lent could be a season for very deep joy — because what’s better than following Christ! Imagine if we heard wildly good news throughout Lent:

Lent 1, Mark 1:9-15. Repent! Turn around because there are new paths, hooray!
Lent 2, Mark 8:31-38. Follow! Following Jesus means you don’t have to follow the rat race, sweet!
Lent 3, John 2:13-22. Reconstruct! God’s systems will not look like the world’s systems, whoot!
Lent 4, John 3:14-21. Love! You can never wander beyond or be lost from God’s love, yay!
Lent 5, John 12:20-33. Glorify! Our worth is found in God, amazing!
Lent 6/Palms, Mark 11:1-11. Shout! Join the parade without hesitation, hallelujah!
Easter, Mark 16:1-8. Run! Be overcome and energized by new life, astonishing!

#6

SKIP PRAYING, START BEHAVING
Isaiah 58:1-12, from Ash Wednesday texts

Lent, beautiful and important as it is, can lend itself to spiritual navel-gazing at the expense of beyond-church-walls faith-living. The Old Testament reading for Ash Wednesday (on the Revised Common Lectionary) calls for a change of heart and a change of life — not just another round of liturgical rituals. Follow Isaiah 58:1-12 for your sermon series, but don’t just preach: get your congregation into action. Write advocacy letters. Join local community efforts. Raise awareness of local organizations and leaders. Hold weekly drives. Give congregants a weekly assignment for activism on Isaiah 58’s themes:

Lent 1. Loose injustice.
Lent 2. Untie and break yokes.
Lent 3. Free the oppressed and imprisoned.
Lent 4. Share bread.
Lent 5. House the homeless.
Lent 6. Clothe the naked.
Easter. Reconcile your families.

#7

SKIP PRAYING, START BEHAVING
Narrative Lectionary

Let’s take another look at those parables scheduled for the Narrative Lectionary during Lent. Sure, they’re full of lovely religious clichés, but do you notice how not lovely the parables themselves are? Those easy adages come to us in the context of some complicated stories. What if you named the problems in the parables each Sunday for your sermon series? What if you identified the systemic concerns in the readings … and in our world? What if your sermons also observed how each of us personally might examine our participation and complicity in those systems? Perhaps Lent can call us to some behaving!

Lent 1. Slavery and Indebtedness / Consequential Forgiveness (Matthew 18:15-35) – Systemic: Ever notice that Jesus doesn’t question the existence or ethics of slavery? What are the modern conditions that perpetuate slavery and servitude, e.g. modern debtors prison? Personal: Notice that forgiving and being forgiven in the parable require action, not just sentiment.

Lent 2. Fair Wages and Immigration / Unsettling Forgiveness (Matthew 20:1-16)Systemic: What are ways in which immigrants are treated as an “issue” rather than as “people” by our media outlets, our political systems, and ourselves? Personal: When and why do we feel threatened by “fairness” that gives others access to privileges we take for granted, e.g. why is gay marriage perceived as a threat to straight marriage, or why is the protest of police violence against Black and brown persons perceived to be a threat to white folks? Are we willing to be unsettled in order to make room for all people in God’s grace?

Lent 3. Imperialism / Uncentering Humility (Matthew 22:1-14)Systemic: Quite like empires, the king in the parable sees himself as the center of the world, beyond fault and able to control the lives and schedules of everyone within his realm. He is apparently willing to sacrifice his slaves for the sake of his message, is easily angered that people won’t drop everything to appease his need for wedding guests, and is unrestrained in forcing his subjects into obedience. Personal: What if we were to live as though we are not at the center of the world … perhaps even not at the center of God’s world? 

Lent 4. Sexism and Shaming / Neighbor Accountability (Matthew 25:1-13)Systemic: It’s not hard to find examples of sexism in our modern world, but pay close attention these days to the frequency of shaming, especially when someone says “I don’t have enough” or “I’ve been injured.” Too often that person is assumed to be at fault for their own lack or for the injury; the five bridesmaids whose lanterns burn out, for example, are blamed for not having enough … why aren’t the five bridesmaids with more than enough scolded for not sharing? Personal: Do we take responsibility to care for our neighbors who don’t have enough or have been injured, or do we say “We’re prepared — why weren’t you?” What if, when able, we always came prepared to share?

Lent 5. Poverty and Homelessness / Active Hospitality (Matthew 25:1-46)Systemic: Before we get too excited about being sheep, can we ask honestly and compassionately who has been cast out and why? Who has been cast out from homes, who has been kept out from wealth or even a living wage? The sheep and the goats are not just a matter for spiritual metaphors; the experience of hell is a very real and daily experience for many who are dislocated and dismissed. Personal: You know how the sheep say, “What??? We took care of Jesus without knowing it?? No way!” Let’s debunk that myth: these days, we rarely if ever care for others “accidentally.” Perhaps it’s time to stop accidentally caring and clothing and visiting, and instead practice hospitality intentionally.

Lent 6/Passion. Financial Injustice / Socially Conscious Spending (Matthew 21:1-13) Systemic: What are the modern systems that financially squeeze those who are already struggling? Personal: Perhaps the harder question: how and where are we participating in those systems? Are we like the folks in Jesus’ day who came to the temple and bought sacrificial doves without realizing that it was problematic?

Easter. Mass Incarceration / Urgent Advocacy (Matthew 28:1-10) Systemic: Your parishioners may not come to church on Easter Sunday expecting to hear about mass incarceration, but perhaps no other system is so physically contrary to Easter: these institutions that enclose, cut down and cut off people’s lives! Personal: It’s time for us to catch an urgency in our advocacy like the women running from Jesus’ tomb!

#8

BEYOND THE LECTIONARIES

Finally, two simple ideas for sermon series that step outside of the Revised Common and Narrative Lectionaries:

Hymns: Choose one or two favorite hymns of the congregation, and preach Sunday by Sunday on the stanzas & refrain or on the prominent images of those hymns. Bonus: the congregation gets to sing its favoritest hymns every Sunday!
Prayer: Preaching on prayer is a great approach to a Lenten sermon series. You can preach on the Lord’s Prayer line by line, or you can preach/teach on a different type of prayer each Sunday (lectio divina, silence, etc.). I drafted two sermon series ideas on prayer for Lent last year that you can check out.

I hope you’ll drop me a note and let me know how these sermon ideas work for you! Blessings as you prep for the Lenten season. If you’d like to receive a daily prayer “nudge” via email through Lent, as a way of keeping yourself grounded through the busy holy season, send me a message to sign up.

Monday Muse: Ash Wednesday Liturgies on the RCL

CALL TO WORSHIP (Joel 2:1-2, 12-17)
One: Drop everything at the call of the trumpet!
Two: Flee from your security at the cry of the protester!
One: Leave your “to do” list, put down your calendar.
Two: Come right now and seek a new path.
One: It’s time for a pilgrimage back to the heart of God.
Two: It’s time to walk the path of repentance.
One: Bring your whole heart; hold nothing back.
Two: Gather all people; let the reconciliation begin together.
All: Perhaps along this Lenten way, God will leave a blessing. O God we pray: leave a blessing.

RESPONSIVE REFLECTION (Isaiah 58:1-12 with Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21)
One: We worship you, Most Holy God. You are the Eternal and Merciful One; we are the contrite and weary dust.
All: You are the Spinner of Stars and the Mysterious Truth; we are the particles of galaxies and the worshipers of certainty.
One: Have mercy, O God, in your steadfast love.
All: Have mercy, O God, in your steadfast love.
     [a time of silence is observed]
One: Into the silence, we want to shout, “Hear us, LORD! Save us! Love us!”
All: Under the silent stare of God’s eye, we want to plead, “Look at our goodness. Look at our worship and our youth group and our food pantry.”
One: See, we can be humble, God. We can be faithful.
All: We can be humble. We can be faithful.
     [a time of silence is observed]
One: Ah, God. We long to hear you and to be heard by you.
All: We long to see you and to be seen by you.
One: Perhaps you have not only heard our prayers but also our conversations, our thoughts, our slander, our gossip, our votes, and our silence.
All: Perhaps you have not only seen our worship but also our hoarding of bread, our storage of treasures, our collection of admiration, our neglect of the imprisoned, and our averted eyes.
     [a time of silence is observed]
One: Our ashes are such fragile ashes; our dust is such grimy dust.
All: But let also our light be fully light; let our ruins become welcoming homes.
One: Let this dust be bold in response to your mercy.
All: Let your glory be our treasure through all the dust and stars. Amen.

ANOINTING (2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10)
Be reconciled to God:
ashes to ashes, life to life,
like sorrow reconciling to joy,
like sleepless nights resolving to peaceful days,
like nothing remembering at last what is everything.