Communion

Come, sister: sit with me to watch the wonder of God dazzling within us like sparklers against the night sky. Come, brother: tend the fire with me into the wee hours as we spin tales of God’s mystery and chide one another to courage. Come, friend: the wait will not be so long if we sing of the goodness of God that knows no limit or hindrance. Come, family: break open the bread of miracles, pour freely the wine of delight, and we will marvel to find God with us while we wait for the new day.

sisters

on Genesis 18:14 — “Is anything
too wonderful for the LORD?”

A Lectionary Meditation on #BlackLivesMatter

The following readings and liturgies offer a #BlackLivesMatter reflection on the Revised Common Lectionary texts for this coming Sunday, the 11th Sunday after Pentecost (Year B). 

CALL TO WORSHIP (Psalm 34:1-8, adapted)

One: I will bless the LORD at all times; God’s praise will be ever in my mouth.
Many: My soul will find its confidence in the LORD; I will be humble and glad.
One: I will look to God and shine! This is the One who hears and answers my cries.
Many: This is the One whose angels encamp around those in need of refuge.
One: I will seek the LORD in times of trouble;
Many: I will taste and know the LORD’s goodness. I will trust my life to God.

CONTINUING TESTAMENT (2 Samuel 18:5-9,15,31-33, adapted)

This is the story of 2 Samuel 18, as it is told in the ancient scriptures and is still unfolding today: Now King David ordered Joab and Abishai and Ittai, saying to them, “Deal gently for my sake with young Absalom, my son who has ousted me from the throne and named himself king.” All the people heard David as he gave these orders to his commanders concerning the safety of Absalom.

So the army went out into the field against Israel, for all of Jerusalem had been persuaded to follow Absalom as its king. The battle was fought in the forest of Ephraim, and the men of Israel were defeated soundly by the servants of David. The slaughter of the battle was great on that day — twenty thousand men — and as the battle was fought all across the countryside, the forest claimed more victims than the sword.

Absalom, the son of David, happened to cross paths in battle with the servants of David. Absalom was riding on his mule, and the mule went under the thick branches of a great oak. His head caught fast in the oak, and he was left hanging between heaven and earth while the mule that was under him went on without him. Ten young men who were Joab’s armor-bearers saw it happen, and they surrounded Absalom as he hung in the tree and they struck him. Joab himself took three spears and thrust them into the heart of Absalom, while he was still alive in the oak.

And still today, David’s beloved son is mocked and beaten, hung and killed:

In Mississippi, they pulled him from a buggy while he was giving his horse its evening exercise, and when he was on the ground, they choked him. For thirty minutes he lay face down, hands behind his back, unable to breathe.

In Michigan and again in Los Angeles, she was shot to death on the porch of a home where she was seeking help.

Without mercy they put a knee in her back — on a sidewalk in Cleveland and alongside a road in Waller County. She died in a prison in New York and Alabama, in Charleston and in Cleveland Heights.

From trees and from horses, on streets and on playgrounds, they worked together to kill them. And Absalom was left dead in the oak.

After this happened, the Cushite came to King David and said, “Good news for the king! The LORD has vindicated you on this day, delivering you from the power of all who rose up against you.”

But David asked, “What of the young man Absalom? How did he fair in battle?”

The Cushite answered, “May all the enemies of the king, and all who would do you harm, meet a fate like that young man.”

David was deeply grieved and went to the chamber over the gate, and there he wept: “O my son Absalom, my son, my son! O my daughters, my daughters Kindra and Sandra, Ralkina and Renisha! O my sons Jonathan and Tamir, Eric and Freddie! O my son Absalom! Would that I had died instead of you — my son, my daughter, my son!”

CONTINUING TESTAMENT (1 Kings 19:4-8, adapted)

This is the story of 1 Kings 19, as it is told in the ancient scriptures and is still unfolding today: Many years after King David, when King Ahab ruled Israel and worshiped Baal, Elijah was the prophet of the LORD. When Elijah defeated the priests of Baal at Mount Carmel, King Ahab and Queen Jezebel threatened his life. So Elijah fled — first to Beersheba and then an extra day’s journey into the wilderness.

Weary in body and soul, he sat down under a single broom tree and asked God to let him die. “It is enough,” Elijah prayed. “Now, O LORD, please take away my life, for I am no more than the dust of my ancestors.

“I have fought long enough, O God. Give me my rest. I cannot bear the heartache anymore of those who do not love your people. Let me sleep. My tongue is heavy from retelling the story; my feet are sore from marching in protest; my eyes are red from crying; my ears are bleeding with each new name, each new hashtag; even my grief is weary of grieving.

“And still they come: those priests of power who worship fear and who cloak the work of death.

“And still they come: the spectators and allies who want a piece of God’s fire for themselves but who do not work to replenish the land from its long drought.

“And still they come: with threats and violence, with appeals for peace and a wasteland of silence.

“It is enough, O God. Give me my rest. Let me set down this work at last.”

Then Elijah lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” Elijah looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on the hot stones of the wilderness, and there was a jar of clear water. He ate, he drank, he slept again, and again the angel of the LORD came, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you. Rest will be given when the work is done, but until then I will feed you: with bread and water, with Spirit and strength. I will feed you with the courage of youth who have been unbowed by teargas and arrest. I will feed you with the songs of ancestors, with the support of community, and with the indignation of God Herself. Get up and eat.”

Elijah got up. He ate and drank. Then with the strength of that food, he carried on for forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, which is the mountain of God.

SENDING (Ephesians 4:25-5:2, adapted)

One: So then, because we are part of one another and all members of Christ’s body, let us tell the truth about one another and about these times in which we are living.
Many: Do not be angry toward one another, but throw your energy into building up the community that is hurting.
One: And do not grieve the Holy Spirit, as if She is lost or held captive; seek Her out in the grace you extend to one another.
Many: Be kind and generous to one another;
One: And be imitators of God, who knows you and loves you.
Many: Live in love as Christ lived in love: with your feet, with your voice, with your hands together for the sake of God’s realm.

Names of Black persons killed, listed in order of their stories above in 2 Samuel 18: Jonathan Sanders (Mississippi), Renisha McBride (Michigan), Deshawnda Sanchez (Los Angeles), Tanesha Anderson (Cleveland), Sandra Bland (Waller County, TX), Raynetta Turner (New York), Kindra Chapman (Alabama), Joyce Curnell (Charleston), Ralkina Jones (Cleveland Heights, OH), Tamir Rice (Cleveland), Eric Garner (New York), Freddie Gray (Baltimore)

Monday Muse: On Birthdays and Pentecost

First, a confession: I’m not a big fan of my birthday.

Actually that’s not quite accurate. I like my birthday just fine, but as an inherently private person I’m not a big fan of others’ expectations of how I should spend my birthday, so I’m deliberate about keeping the actual date under wraps.

Last year's birthday cake. Guess who's children know her well?

Last year’s birthday cake. Guess whose children know her well?

There’s a whole host of reasons why I resist the norms of birthday celebrations, why “doing something special” doesn’t appeal to me, but ultimately my reasoning is terribly dull and practical: at the end of whatever hoopla people engage in on their birthdays, after twenty-four hours of sucking whatever specialness can be sucked out of the day, what has changed?

Nothing.

You are still you. I am still me. Life is still life.

Perhaps you are a little fuller from eating cake. Perhaps you are a little more tired from partying hard. Perhaps you had a good laugh, maybe a good cry. Likely your wallet’s a little lighter.

But birthdays don’t change anything — or, to use religious language, birthdays aren’t conversion experiences.

Which is why I find myself perplexed this year as I (re)consider the annual “Pentecost is the Church’s birthday” liturgical theme.

Now maybe your church doesn’t celebrate Pentecost as the birth of the Early Church. In fact, Pentecost may not be a significant Sunday in the life of your congregation at all. But I’ve been a part of some churches that sing “Happy Birthday” during worship and even pass out cupcakes during the children’s time on Pentecost Sunday, and this year I’m wondering: “Why?”

Why sing “Happy Birthday” to ourselves as the Church? What impact does it have on our daily & spiritual lives to celebrate the Church’s birthday? Do our modern birthday habits contribute anything to our understanding of Pentecost? And how (if at all) does the Church’s birthday celebration convert us year after year?

The Pentecost story that we celebrate as the birth of the Early Church was a dramatic, wind-rushing, flame-throwing conversion experience:

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. (Acts 2:1-4)

On the birth day of the Church, something changed. Those disciples changed: their fears changed to audacity, their tongues flowed with fluency. The community around them changed: it multiplied and bridged divides as the story of Jesus was heard in many languages.

In our Pentecost birthday celebrations this coming Sunday, what do we expect to change?

Anything?

Despite my personal apathy toward birthdays, I think there’s potential value in using the Pentecost birthday theme in worship as a mechanism to love on ourselves a little bit as the Church (especially as we strive to respond to the statistical decline of American Christianity), in order to change & ease the Church’s anxieties and to nurture our joy so that we might dare more brazenly to be Church.

Notice: in order to. In order to inspire change. If we’re celebrating Pentecost-as-birthday, a pastoral & liturgical purpose beyond chocolate cake is worth identifying.

So perhaps Pentecost-as-birthday emboldens the Church toward change. But regardless of cake and candles: What will be different — in our personal living, in our congregational living — because of this year’s Church birthday? How will Pentecost convert us this Sunday? 

  • Will our bones be turned loose and set dancing? (Ezekiel 37:1-14)
  • Will the beauty and glory of God finally undermine our arrogance until we kneel to care for the earth? (Psalm 104)
  • Will we believe at last that the Spirit is boundless in speaking through the young men and women who are protesting in the streets, who are dreaming new dreams via social media — and, believing that the Spirit is at work, will we finally trust & follow the leadership of these new prophets? (Acts 2:1-21)
  • Will Pentecost bring a conversion of the Church to hope, to possibility, to faith? (Romans 8:22-27)

Birthdays may not be days of guaranteed change in our individual lives, but Pentecost celebrates and continues to call the Church to conversion. How will we celebrate and change this year?

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.

Monday Muse: Thirty Pieces of Silver

Barely into the season of Epiphany, it’s a little difficult to believe that Lent is just around the corner — but just around the corner it is, which puts Lenten preparations squarely on the “to do” list for many ministers these days.

If you’re looking for small group resources for Lent, I encourage you to check out the free small group discussion guide that I’ve written for Writing to God; it’s available for download on the Paraclete Press website (below the image of the book cover). There’s also a helpful tip sheet available if you’re using my new book Sacred Pause with a small group, and I’m currently completing a Lenten Sunday School curriculum for Writing to God: Kids’ Edition.

If you’re eager for ideas and conversation to inspire your plans for a Lenten sermon series, join me on Thursday, February 5th at 1:00pm (Eastern) for a webinar on preaching in Lent, through the Center for Progressive Renewal. I’ll post the link for registration as soon as it’s available!

In the meantime, I’m perusing the Revised Common Lectionary readings for Lent in preparation for the above, and the story of the woman who anoints Jesus with perfumed oil (much to the chagrin of Judas) reminds me of a dramatic script that I wrote for a Lenten worship service last year. I share it here for your Lenten preparation, for your personal reflection, and/or for your worship use for Maundy Thursday or Good Friday.

Two Who Loved Jesus
John 12:1-8 with Matthew 26:14-16

Judas (disciple of Jesus): Jesus, I love you.

Mary (sister of Martha & Lazarus): Jesus, I love you.

I have watched you and followed you over these years.

I have watched you and followed you over these years.

I have called you Teacher. You have called me Friend.

I have called you Teacher. You have called me Friend.

You have revolutionized my worldview, exposed me to the subtle ways of death amidst life, called me to proclaim good news in unexpected ways.

You have revolutionized my worldview, exposed me to the ways of life amidst death, called me to welcome good news walking out from a tomb.

You taught me to name demons and diseases of the soul to heal the body.

You knew my name, recognized me, valued me even amidst a crowd of men.

You multiplied a meal for the thousands and conjured a calm out of a terrifying storm. What power!

You wept when I was in mourning. You unbound Lazarus from the grasp of death. What mercy!

But you eluded me when you spoke with the Samaritan woman and showed consideration to a soldier. You were soft, too easily distracted by people’s needs. Why didn’t you ride into Jerusalem on a stallion instead of a donkey?

You borrowed a donkey from my hometown to ride into Jerusalem. Whenever you visited us, you let me sit quietly at your feet. And then you soothed my soul as I anointed your body with perfume.

You called me into a ministry of finances, granted me authority to use the offerings of our wealthier patrons to clothe and feed the poor (with the occasional new robe as a perk for myself). We lived off the land and the generosity of others. We were building a movement of the least of these — the 99% against the system!

How could I offer you any less than 100%

We were going to be the ones in power someday!

I knew that you would not be with us one day.

But you betrayed me, and you betrayed our cause when you accepted the gift of perfume. I could do better — instead of three hundred denarii, I could earn thirty pieces of silver to start our revolution.

I could do no better than to bless you, with perfume and prayers pouring from my hands.

Suggested interlude: verses 1 & 2 of the hymn
“From the Crush of Wealth and Power”

Judas: Jesus, you are the Christ.

Mary: Jesus, you are the Christ.

The strong Messiah.

The beautiful Covenant.

The most expensive Treasure.

The most life-giving Supply.

But your life is only one life…

Your life is the only life…

…and there are many lives to be concerned about in this world, including mine.

…and all lives for all time will be blessed by you, including mine.

It’s time for you to take on the world.

It’s time for you to leave this world.

Turn the tables and claim your place as God’s Chosen Treasure.

Open your arms and claim your place as God’s Chosen Treasure.

But if you do not…

And as you do…

…may God use me instead…

…may God use me in this stead…

…to bring a new order into being…

…to anoint and bless the fullness of your being…

…at whatever cost. [Judas pours silver coins.]

…at whatever cost. [Mary pours oil.]

Suggested closure: verses 3 & 4 of
“From the Crush of Wealth and Power”