Worship Where You Are

The Worship Where You Are blog contains what we think of as "first drafts" of the sermon for each week.  They are prepared mid-week for people who might not be able to be present on Sunday morning but wish to still participate in the worship experience.  They contain scripture, the sermon text, a few questions to ponder and a closing prayer.  May they help you in your faith journey.

All Bible verses come from the Common English Bible

Seasons: Journeying through the Year

Ecclesiastes 3:1-18

A season for everything

3 There’s a season for everything
    and a time for every matter under the heavens:
2     a time for giving birth and a time for dying,
    a time for planting and a time for uprooting what was planted,
3     a time for killing and a time for healing,
    a time for tearing down and a time for building up,
4     a time for crying and a time for laughing,
    a time for mourning and a time for dancing,
5     a time for throwing stones and a time for gathering stones,
    a time for embracing and a time for avoiding embraces,
6     a time for searching and a time for losing,
    a time for keeping and a time for throwing away,
7     a time for tearing and a time for repairing,
    a time for keeping silent and a time for speaking,
8     a time for loving and a time for hating,
    a time for war and a time for peace.

Hard work

9 What do workers gain from all their hard work? 10 I have observed the task that God has given human beings. 11 God has made everything fitting in its time, but has also placed eternity in their hearts, without enabling them to discover what God has done from beginning to end.

12 I know that there’s nothing better for them but to enjoy themselves and do what’s good while they live. 13 Moreover, this is the gift of God: that all people should eat, drink, and enjoy the results of their hard work. 14 I know that whatever God does will last forever; it’s impossible to add to it or take away from it. God has done this so that people are reverent before him. 15 Whatever happens has already happened, and whatever will happen has already happened before. And God looks after what is driven away.

Enjoy what you do now

16 I saw something else under the sun: in the place of justice, there was wickedness; and in the place of what was right, there was wickedness again! 17 I thought to myself, God will judge both righteous and wicked people, because there’s a time for every matter and every deed. 18 I also thought, Where human beings are concerned, God tests them to show them that they are but animals.

 

Thoughts on the passage:

When we laid our plan for our sermon series on finding God’s blessings, I could not have imagined how fitting the last two weeks would end up being. Last week we were meant to be talking about finding God in the everyday moments of life and in the midst of creation. After eight inches of snow fell, it became apparent that we would not be having church. Rather than everyone travelling to a sanctuary to experience God, our congregation was freed to live into the sermon and look for God in the everyday moments of a snow day. This week, we are talking about experiencing the blessings of God in the changing of the seasons, another topic that seems extremely fitting as we wait expectantly for a spring that seems like it might have arrived … or maybe not.

The late winter, or really cold spring, has given me a chance to reflect on how ingrained in each of us the ebb and flow of seasons really are. During one of the recent April snow falls, I remember thinking how odd it felt. It was probably six or seven in the evening, snow was falling and it was still light out. In my head, snow and darkness go together, after all snow usually comes during the darkest time of the year and the light today is the same as it is in August, not a time we associate with snow. The light levels of April with the snow of winter left my body not sure what season we were really in.

For me, this is not totally surprising. When I was looking at colleges I remember getting a mailing from Emory University in Atlanta, GA. My mother told me I should look at it since it was a school with a United Methodist connection and had a large endowment thanks to its connection to Coke. While I remember glancing at the materials, I could not imagine attending a school where it would be warm in December. How can you get ready for Christmas when it is hot out? For me, the seasons have a powerful connection to the weather and to what is happening around me.

I know I am not alone in this. Most of us have things we associate with different times of the year. When we hear the rustle of leaves we start thinking about apple cider or pumpkin pie. Summer might bring with it thoughts of baseball games, barbeques, or mowing the lawn. Every season has its place in our minds. Each in its own way is a reminder of God in different ways.

Our passage from Ecclesiastes is another reminder of the need for different seasons and different times. Like the yin and yang of Eastern philosophy, the Ecclesiastes serves to remind us that everything has a place. Our happiness can be balanced by our sorrow. Even life must give way to death, though our faith reminds us that death also gives way once more to life.

Sometimes seeing the need for balance is hard. Marianne loves warm weather and sees little value for snow and the cold. I suspect that she is not alone in those feelings. Still, we know that the warmth and the cold is a part of the natural cycle of our world and the dormant times of winter help to provide for the new life in the spring. The cold of winter keeps our planet from getting too hot so that it does not support life. The passage that I always grapple with here is the one about a time for war and a time for peace. Personally, I wish the writer had not put that in. As a firm believer in love, peace, and nonviolence, I struggle to understand how there could ever be a time for war. Still, I look back on terrible atrocities like the Holocaust and wonder if the peace and security that was obtained at the end of World War II would have been possible if it was not for the war. We do not have to like the balance to recognize the need for the balance.

We are all likely very familiar with the first eight verses of our text to today. Not only because it is often used during funerals, but it also inspired the song “Turn, Turn, Turn” by Pete Seeger. On the other hand, the next ten verses are less known and perhaps not as easy to understand. In fact, they almost take on a dark tone as it ponders why our work seems to amount in nothing and why we are tested in our lives. Even its answer, is less than satisfying, saying that we are tested so we know that we are but animals.

What do we do with this part of the text? How does it fit to the wisdom offered in the first part? I think it helps us to understand better the human condition. We have the power to know the ebb and flow of the seasons but also the desire to struggle against them because unlike God, we do not know “the beginning and the end.” The first eight verses remind us of the harmony of the world, the next ten verses speak to why we have trouble accepting them.

How do we struggle against the world? We build cities in the middle of flood plains and spend millions of dollars building levies to keep our buildings safe. We also build cities in deserts and spend millions of dollars piping in water to quench our thirst, water our yards, and even fill our swimming pools. We know the natural order of the world and yet so much of our energy is spent trying to turn the night into day with lights. We do this because, unlike God, we cannot see the begin picture and so we struggle.

I don’t think we just struggle at a macro level, I think we often struggle at a personal level. I know for myself that I often am not good at listening to the rhythms of the seasons or even the rhythms of my own body. Rather than listening to the natural way that God has ordered things, I am often trying to force things to go my way. I do this because I think I know better, or I think I need to do it.

Ultimately, we have to learn to trust more in God. There is a method to the universe that was there in creation, God started with chaos and out of it created order. Sometimes that order can be confusing. It can seem like the good and the bad, the guilty and the innocent are all treated the same, but at its heart there is God, who orders all things and draws all things back to the divine. When we look at the seasons and the flow of the world we get a chance to experience the reminder and the blessing that God is present and that God is in charge. Hopeful that can comfort us when it snows in April, or it seems like the world around us is spinning into chaos and darkness. Thanks be to God.

Questions to Ponder:

What is your favorite season and why?

When is a time that you have struggled against the natural flow of things?

What can we learn from watching the natural cycle of nature?

Prayer:

God of all creation, we give you thanks for the ways that all of the earth is a testament to your glorious presence. Help us to be aware of how you are with us each and every day. Open our eyes, ears, and noses to the sights, sounds, and smells or new life that surround us in the season of spring. Help us to see your blessings in the everyday experiences of our lives. Amen

Holy Moments: Celebrating the Gift of Life

Psalm 148

148 Praise the Lord!

Praise the Lord from heaven!
    Praise God on the heights!
2 Praise God, all of you who are his messengers!
    Praise God, all of you who comprise his heavenly forces!
3 Sun and moon, praise God!
    All of you bright stars, praise God!
4 You highest heaven, praise God!
    Do the same, you waters that are above the sky!
5 Let all of these praise the Lord’s name
    because God gave the command and they were created!
6 God set them in place always and forever.
    God made a law that will not be broken.

7 Praise the Lord from the earth,
    you sea monsters and all you ocean depths!
8 Do the same, fire and hail, snow and smoke,
    stormy wind that does what God says!
9 Do the same, you mountains, every single hill,
    fruit trees, and every single cedar!
10 Do the same, you animals—wild or tame—
    you creatures that creep along and you birds that fly!
11 Do the same, you kings of the earth and every single person,
    you princes and every single ruler on earth!
12 Do the same, you young men—young women too!—
    you who are old together with you who are young!

13 Let all of these praise the Lord’s name
    because only God’s name is high over all.
    Only God’s majesty is over earth and heaven.
14 God raised the strength of his people,
    the praise of all his faithful ones—
        that’s the Israelites,
        the people who are close to him.

Praise the Lord!

 

 

Thoughts on the passage:

When I think about my most profound experiences of God, it is easy to divide them into two categories. There are the sought-after moments when I have experienced God’s presence. Examples of this would be moments like confirmation and ordination where I experienced God in worship, or times when I prayed to God and felt a response. The other category would be the times when God’s presence broke into my life in an unexpected way. These would be the moments where unheralded and unexpected, God showed up in my life. When I think about these experiences, a common theme is the presence of nature.

Perhaps this is not surprising. My first experience of God came at Decision Hills camp. It did not occur during a worship service or a Bible study, those moments I was seeking God. It came as I was looking out over the lake and had a profound experience of God’s presence in the midst of creation. I can remember another such moment in my life as I stood alone in a field at night, surrounded by the wind and stars. Both moments were times that God unexpectedly showed up.

I am not alone in finding God in creation. For centuries poets, songwriters and everyday people like you and I have experienced God’s presence in the miracles of creation that surround us. Maybe we find it in the quiet and stillness of nature, or maybe we hear God’s voice in raging wind and the rolling thunder. Maybe we find God in the intricate beauty of a spider-web or the astonishing detail of a single snowflake. (Okay, so I am not sure anyone is finding God in the snow right now, but in theory we could)

Our psalm today reminds us how all creation gives praise to God. The beauty and the detail of creation is a testament to the love and care that God has for all of us. We can see that love in the beauty that God gives to plants and animals. We can see that love in the interplay of the seasons and the ebb and flow of life. All around us are ways that we can be reminded of God’s grace and God’s presence in our lives. We do not have to go to worship in a church or read the scriptures to experience God, God is with us in these everyday experiences of creation.

So, I am not a pet person. For whatever reason, I have never really enjoyed pets. My theory is that my problem with pets is that they do not respect my space. My experiences with pets as a kid were not the best. My neighbor had a dog that would jump up on you, which can be intimidating when you are a small child. My best friend had a dog that would eat your sandwich off the table if you were not careful. Even as I grew older, I continued to have bad luck. My roommate in seminary had a cat who would sit on my chest when I was reading and block my ability to see the book or walk over my keyboard when I was typing a paper. This same cat went into heat for the first time while my roommate was in Nepal and I was trying to study for finals. These are all reasons that I am just not a big fan of pets.

Even with these negative experiences that I personally have of pets, I believe that in our relationships to pets, we can also experience those sacred moments with God. Maybe it is not when the dog steals your lunch, but rather when it looks at you with love and extends its head to be petted. In the gentle purr of a cat as it rubs against our leg we can feel God’s love. Our pets are chances to experience the holy and the sacred in the midst of the everyday.

All around us are chances to see God. They do not have to be in exceptional moments like the sunrise over Lake Superior. Rather, they can come in the everyday moments we all have. God is all around us. It is up to us to find those Holy Moments in our week when we see God. It is up to us to open our eyes to our God who is present with us each and every day.

Two weeks ago, we celebrated Easter. For me the worship service was a powerful experience. The church was packed with people. The music was uplifting. It was a wonderful service. It was one of those sought-after moments where we did everything we could to prepare for God to show up (and God did). My message for the day focused in part on the need to make Easter more than a one-day event. One of the ways we do this is by expecting to find God every day. This is the season of Easter. This is the time when we practice finding moments of resurrection all around us.

Nature, and the season of spring in particular is a great opportunity to find signs of new life. Creation abounds with examples of life coming from death. We can see it in the compost we prepare for our gardens. We can see it in the grass as it turns from the dead brown of winter to vibrant green of new life. We can see it in the buds and new growth on trees. All around us, creation reminds us of the Easter message: that life triumphs over death; that despair gives way to hope; that God is still with us. May we open our senses up to experience the blessings of God in the gift of life that surrounds us.

Questions to Ponder:

When is a time you have experienced God in the midst of creation?

What signs of new life do you see around you?

How can you be better at looking for God’s presence in creation?

Prayer:

God of all creation, we give you thanks for the ways that all of the earth is a testament to your glorious presence. Help us to be aware of how you are with us each and every day. Open our eyes, ears, and noses to the sights, sounds, and smells or new life that surround us in the season of spring. Help us to see your blessings in the everyday experiences of our lives. Amen

Resurrection: It is No April Fool's Joke

Mark 16:1-15

Empty tomb

16 When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they could go and anoint Jesus’ dead body. 2 Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they came to the tomb.3 They were saying to each other, “Who’s going to roll the stone away from the entrance for us?” 4 When they looked up, they saw that the stone had been rolled away. (And it was a very large stone!) 5 Going into the tomb, they saw a young man in a white robe seated on the right side; and they were startled. 6 But he said to them, “Don’t be alarmed! You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised. He isn’t here. Look, here’s the place where they laid him. 7 Go, tell his disciples, especially Peter, that he is going ahead of you into Galilee. You will see him there, just as he told you.” 8 Overcome with terror and dread, they fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

 [[9 After Jesus rose up early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons. 10 She went and reported to the ones who had been with him, who were mourning and weeping.11 But even after they heard the news, they didn’t believe that Jesus was alive and that Mary had seen him.

12 After that he appeared in a different form to two of them who were walking along in the countryside. 13 When they returned, they reported it to the others, but they didn’t believe them. 14 Finally he appeared to the eleven while they were eating. Jesus criticized their unbelief and stubbornness because they didn’t believe those who saw him after he was raised up. 15 He said to them, “Go into the whole world and proclaim the good news to every creature. 

 

Thoughts on the passage:

Easter falls on April Fool’s Day about once every twenty-five years. With the rarity of this odd juxtaposition of holidays, it seemed fitting to maybe start my sermon today with a joke about the resurrection. A search of the Internet however yielded no jokes about empty tombs or the risen Christ, it was all about bunnies and eggs. Perhaps this is for the best, my preaching professor once warned me never to start a sermon with a joke as it implied that everything you had to say after would be equally trivial. The reality is that the resurrection is no laughing matter and it is no April Fool’s joke.

Or isn’t it? If there is a joke to be found in all of this, it is one that God has been trying to clue people in on from the beginning. After all, Jesus told his disciples he would die and be raised again. He also was clear with Pilate that he was in fact the son of God. How could Pilate honestly expect to kill a god. And so even as they crucified him and took his body and laid it in the tomb and rolled a stone in front of it, the ultimate joke was really on them. Guards, stones, tombs, and even death cannot stop Christ.

Maybe it is fitting that Easter falls on April Fool’s Day. The origin of April Fool’s Day is connected to a tradition called the Feast of Fools. It was a day that was originally celebrated to highlight some of the more “foolish” passages in scripture, such as when Paul writes in Corinthians about being a fool for Christ. It also accented the teachings of Jesus about the first being last and the last being first. Sub-deacons and other low ranking clergy would take on the roles of their superiors in a seeming reversely of the natural order.

Is that sort of social rebellion at the heart of the Easter story? After all, Jesus suffers humiliation and is crucified like a common criminal. On Good Friday, it seems to be a story about how the powerful will squash those who are weak and crush those who oppose them with their strength. On Easter morning however, the tomb is found to be empty and death has been undone. The strength of the authorities is found to be lacking. The criminal is found to be the risen Savior and sinners become saints. Once again, the joke is on us.

I say that the joke is on us, because we are really no different than anyone else in this story. Given the choice, we all would bet against Christ. Pilate did it, believing that if he killed Christ he would not have anything to fear. Caiaphas and the other priests did it, believing that if they had Jesus arrested they would put an end to his challenging teachings. Even the disciples did it, scattering in fear and denying their allegiance to him. Even the women did it, for they went to the tomb not to worship a risen Savior, but to care for his remains. Even when confronted with evidence of a risen Jesus, the women are afraid. Even when told by others that Christ is alive, the disciples are not ready to believe. Are we any different?

Do we live our lives like the resurrection is real or a joke? Do we believe in a God who can overcome death? If we believe in an empty tomb and a risen Christ, how do we live our lives like it is true? What does it look like for us to embrace the risen Christ, not to flee in fear or turn away in doubt?

All of these are good and challenging questions to ask ourselves at Easter. After all, believing in the resurrection is an act of faith. Unlike the woman or the disciples, we cannot see, hear, or touch the risen Christ. Instead, we have to believe in the stories that have been faithfully recorded and passed down through the years. We also have to believe our hearts, when they tell us about the power of resurrection. I suspect that many of us here have experienced resurrection in our own lives. We were blind, or lost, or sinners or drunks, and then we met Christ. Then we experience his love, a love that overcomes humiliation, pain and death, to offer us new life. We have felt that resurrection in our lives to. We have met the risen Christ.

April Fool’s Day is a once a year event, where we behave a little outside the norm. We push the envelope a little and maybe challenge the status quo of our society. Easter is not meant to be a one day a year event. Every Sunday is meant to be a mini-Easter. Praise song writers Avery and March once penned the words “every morning is Easter morning from now on.” We are not meant to celebrate Easter as a one-time event. It is an everyday event, an ongoing event. Our lives are different because we believe in God’s resurrecting power. Our lives are different because we follow a risen Christ. We have been changed because the tomb is empty, we need to live like, and we need to tell others about it.

 

Questions to Ponder:

What does it mean to you to believe in the resurrection?

Why do you think the women were afraid and what caused them to overcome that fear?

What does it mean to be an “Easter people”?

What are the ways that you are challenged in your life by your faith?

Prayer:

God, as we gather to celebrate the joy of your resurrected Son, help us to embrace the hope that is offered. Give us the courage to overcome our fears when we encounter an empty tomb where we expected to find his remains. Give us the courage to tell others what we have seen that they might also know of your love. Grant us your grace, that even when we fall short, your love will remain steadfast. Amen

Bowing to God

Mark 11:1-11

Jesus enters Jerusalem

11 When Jesus and his followers approached Jerusalem, they came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives. Jesus gave two disciples a task, 2 saying to them, “Go into the village over there. As soon as you enter it, you will find tied up there a colt that no one has ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 3  If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘Its master needs it, and he will send it back right away.’”

4 They went and found a colt tied to a gate outside on the street, and they untied it. 5 Some people standing around said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” 6 They told them just what Jesus said, and they left them alone. 7 They brought the colt to Jesus and threw their clothes upon it, and he sat on it. 8 Many people spread out their clothes on the road while others spread branches cut from the fields. 9 Those in front of him and those following were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord! 10 Blessings on the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest!” 11 Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple. After he looked around at everything, because it was already late in the evening, he returned to Bethany with the Twelve.

 

Philippians 2:5-11

5 Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus:

6 Though he was in the form of God,
        he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.
7 But he emptied himself
        by taking the form of a slave
        and by becoming like human beings.
When he found himself in the form of a human,
8         he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death,
        even death on a cross.
9 Therefore, God highly honored him
        and gave him a name above all names,
10     so that at the name of Jesus everyone
        in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow
11         and every tongue confess that
            Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

 

Thoughts on the passage:

One of the phrases that gets used in novels is a “stiff bow.” When I see it, I can think of that almost awkward bow where a person is attempting go through the motions of bowing without actually bending in any meaningful way. In fact, a stiff bow to me almost assuredly is an attempt to bow without bending the knee at all. By contrast the word “genuflect” contains in its definition the idea that one’s knee is bent. Google’s dictionary defines genuflect as “to lower one's body briefly by bending one knee to the ground, typically in worship or as a sign of respect.”

In most churches in the United States, we do not do a lot of genuflecting anymore. Outside of the Episcopal and Catholic traditions I am not familiar with a denomination that makes a big deal out of kneeling as a part of worship. There are some reasons for this, one is that many of our traditions were a reaction to the high liturgy and structure of the Catholic church and so our acts of worship natural deviated from what they did. Another reason is probably that here in the United States we make a big deal about not kneeling for others. We believe in respecting our leaders, whether it is policeman or clergy or judges or politicians, but no one genuflects for someone. Finally, more recently, the increasing age of our membership makes it less and less likely that kneeling is something that people are comfortable doing.

There are lots of reasons for why we do not regularly kneel in worship (though many do for Communion). What is more important to me is thinking about the effect of that. When I think about my life of faith, many of the most profound moments have come when I was literally on my knees. Sometimes it has happened in prayer, but also I remember feeling the presence of the Holy Spirit when I kneeled for confirmation and when I kneeled for ordination. When we fall on our knees we can humble ourselves before God. Without bending our knees, can we really bow before God and confess Christ as our lord?

We have descriptions of Palm Sunday from each of the Gospels. From these descriptions we can often form a picture of what is happening. There are two acts going on: people are laying things on the road, and people are shouting. From these descriptions it seems likely that while some might be bowing before Christ, most are likely standing and waving, because it is physically hard to shout while bowing. From these descriptions I would infer that Palm Sunday is not one of those moments that the author of Philippians is referring to when the passage talks about everyone on earth bowing.

Why does this matter? The crucifixion, which Christ is riding towards as he enters Jerusalem, is not a triumphant act, but a humbling act. This is the ultimate moment, of Christ’s humility. Not only does he come to earth and live as one of us, he is willing to die like us. Not only is he willing to die like us, but to be executed, using none of his power to save himself, he suffers humiliation and death so that we might have life. What is our response to this act? Do we stand and shout and wave and cheer Christ on, glad for what he is doing for us? Or, do we bow our heads, bend our knees, and drop to the ground, in awe and reverence for this ultimate act of love?

I want to think that I would be one to drop to my knees when Christ entered Jerusalem, to throw my cloak on the ground and bow before him as he passed. Yet, I worry, if I look deep into my heart, that I would be one of those to be shouting from the sidelines, glad for what he is doing but equally glad that it was not me that had to do the hard work. I would be excited for the liberation that Christ was offering, and looking forward to that new life that is promised, but not willing to humble myself and take on the burden with him. Jesus calls us to humble ourselves, to fall to our knees, but it is hard, and it is uncomfortable.

How do we do it? We look at those words from Philippians for guidance. Jesus emptied himself. What does that mean for us? One of the first things we need to empty from ourselves is our pride. We struggle with the concept of kneeling for another person, and yet Christ was willing to do that and more for us. The same pride that refuses us to bow before a king on earth can make it hard for us to bow before the King of Heaven and Earth. Until we empty ourselves of that pride we will always struggle to bow before Christ, because we will care more about ourselves and what others think of us, than we do about God.

In the coming week, we must grapple with our struggles to bow before God and the ways that we struggle to empty ourselves like Christ does. The culmination of Lent is Good Friday and the cross, a reminder that no matter how hard we try, we fall short, like the disciples before us, we want to be beside Christ, and yet when the moment happens we turn in fear. Christ invites us to gather at the table with him for the Last Supper and yet goes to the cross alone. We must all admit our role in Christ’s death if we want to share in his new life. Easter comes next Sunday, but to get there we must fall on our knees and weep at the cross and the grave.

 

Questions to Ponder:

When is a time that you have knelt for something outside of worship?

What does it mean to you to humble yourself or empty yourself before God?

Where would you have been in the story of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem?

Who comes to mind when you think of someone who is humble?

Prayer:

God, when we confront your awesome power and presence we want to stand and shout “Hosanna in the highest.” Like the crowds before us, we want to cheer and wave as you pass by. Help us to empty ourselves like Christ did that we might become his humble followers. Help us to bend our knees in prayer to you and in worship of your amazing love. Grant us the courage not to stand up, but to bow down, to accept weakness as a strength and to forever follow you. Amen