Author Archives: Joanna

About Joanna

Mennonite pastor, mom, writer

Worship Pieces for Isaiah 61 (Advent 3B)

Call to Worship

In our poverty, we await the son of Mary,
Who brings good news.
In our brokenheartedness, we await the Incarnate One,
Who heals our hearts.
In our captivity, we await the Redeemer,
Who proclaims freedom.
In our mourning, we await the Wonderful Counselor,
Who offers comfort.
In the midst of this world’s injustice, we await the Christ Child,
Who brings down the powerful and lifts up the lowly.

Who welcomes all to this holy worship, this holy table.


Prayer of Confession

Holy God,
Open our eyes to the presence of your Spirit
upon us, within us, among us.
For our apathy in the presence of oppression,
Forgive us.
If we have contributed to the brokenheartedness of anyone,
Forgive us.
For our participation in systems that enslave,
Forgive us.
When we are deaf to your good news,
Have mercy and open our ears.
When our mouths remain too tightly closed,
Loosen our lips with songs of praise.
Hear our prayer, O God, and forgive our sins.
Hold us in your mercy, now and forever. Amen.


Categories: Advent/Christmas, Call to Worship, Prayer of Confession | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Advent and Apocalypse

IMG_2278Have you ever had this experience: You decide to watch a movie, and you’re in the mood for something light, something happy. So you choose your DVD at the library or video store or redbox, you make a big bowl of popcorn, and you settle in. You are ready for something fun, something comforting, something that will not require too much mental effort.

But as you settle in for this light-hearted romp, a preview comes on for an “edge of your seat” horror movie. Then comes a preview for a “heart-breaking historical saga.” Then there is a preview for a movie about the atrocities of war. And you begin to worry that this movie you have selected might not be the mindless, happy escape you were hoping for.

That’s about how I feel on the first Sunday of Advent every year. We finish up Thanksgiving, turn on the Christmas music, go see some lights. I start looking forward to Christmas–fun time with family, a few days off, happy music, and that nice little story about a baby in a manger.

With these visions of sugar plums dancing in my head, I enter into Advent and . . . whack!

“After that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” (Mark 13:24-25)

If we’re paying attention, this Lectionary reading for the first Sunday of Advent should be a clue that the main feature may not be quite what we are expecting. Is it possible that Mark’s apocalyptic vision serves as a more accurate precursor to the birth of Jesus than twinkling lights and Christmas music?

Christ’s first coming, like his second, proclaims divine judgment against structures of oppression and injustice in our society. The Incarnation–the enfleshing of God–is an utter inversion of power: invincible turned vulnerable.

This is the hope from which Mark’s apocalyptic vision emerges–a hope that the world will be made right; a hope that the Kingdom values of peace and justice are, in fact, the ultimate reality and are a reality we will somehow be able to experience.

The birth of Jesus is the beginning of the fulfillment of this hope. The second coming of Christ–in whatever form and at whatever time that it occurs–will be the consummation.

As we live in the in-between time, we should not be satisfied with a few warm fuzzy moments and some presents under the tree. God did not become flesh so that we could throw the Divine a big birthday party every year. God entered the world as Jesus to assure us that the powers of this world–the powers of corporate greed and economic inequality and individual selfishness and mass apathy–are not the strongest powers at work.

The story of the baby lying in a manger is not in the scriptures in order to give kids an excuse to dress up in church once a year and look cute. The story is there to assure us that the reality of injustice and oppression and environmental disaster and gross consumerism is not the ultimate reality.

So as we enjoy the warm fuzzies, the singing, the parties, even the gifts, let us not be so taken in by the happy news of the season that we neglect the Good News: in Christ Jesus the love and justice of God has prevailed and is prevailing and will prevail. Amen.

[This post is excerpted and adapted from a sermon I preached in 2011.]

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Advent 1: Call to Worship

Here is a call to worship for this upcoming first week of Advent, based on Psalm 80, Isaiah 64, and my own desperate need for Advent this year. (Even if the pastor part of me is not ready for Advent yet.)

- – – -

We are broken by racism and militarism.
Restore us, O God.
We live under a dark cloud of fear.
Let your face shine.
We feel helpless against–even as we participate in–the forces that dehumanize humans who are poor, mentally ill, physically impaired, female, queer, not-white.
Tear open the heavens and come down.
This morning, O God, we claim your promise in Scripture.
May our worship ignite a powerful and holy hope. Amen.

Categories: Advent/Christmas, Call to Worship | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Looking Toward Advent

IMG_2256Believe it or not, Advent begins in less than a month. I’ve been thinking about how I want to live into the holy season this year. I looked around for online retreats; while I found some that look lovely, none of them seemed quite right. So I thought, “I’ll write my own on-line devotions and retreat.” But that seemed like too much work.

And then I came up with the perfect solution: YOU can write my Advent retreat. Because I would love to spend this holy season with you. And I really need some motivation and accountability to focus on scripture and prayer in the weeks ahead.

I do hope you will join me in the journey–whether you want to help write it or just hang out and read it. All of the details are below:

Advent 2014: Healing and Hope

Yes, I took that line from the MC USA mission statement. While this project is open to writers and readers of any denomination, it is especially intended as a space for those associated with Mennonite Church USA to mourn, celebrate, and hope together. As we await the birth of the Christ Child, we pray and work for the birth of a new spirit of inclusion and justice in our denomination.

There will be two parts to the Advent materials: a public blog and a private Facebook group:

The Blog

Each week day during Advent there will be a written and/or visual or musical scripture reflection posted on the blog. I have chosen the scriptures primarily from the assigned Sunday Lectionary readings. Each Saturday I will post a prayer or suggested prayer activity. And Sundays you should go to church and stay off of the internet.

Each day (except Sundays) I will also share the name of an MC USA board or staff member for us to all hold in prayer.

The blog will be public and you are welcome to use it as a daily devotional or to simply dip in as you have time and interest. If you would like to contribute one or more posts for the Advent blog, please sign up here. (Sign up now, before all of the good scriptures are taken!:-)

The Facebook Group

I will create a secret Facebook group for those who desire an on-line retreat experience. In the group we will share prayer requests, discuss blog posts, and otherwise encourage each other toward healing and hope throughout the Advent season. Please let me know if you would like to be part of this group. (Facebook wants me to have members to add before it will let me set up the group.)

I’m excited about Advent already and I look forward to the reflections you will share!

Categories: Advent/Christmas, Retreats | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

All Saints Day

Call to Worship (Isaiah 25:6-9)

Hurricanes and floods and environmental havoc;
drones and IEDs and handguns;
cancer and heart disease and ebola;
poverty and injustice and oppression.
The ways of death in this world are many.
The words of death surround us.
The fear of death envelopes us.
But we come now to hear a different Word,
a true Word
a life-giving Word.
We are here on Isaiah’s mountain
where tears are wiped away,
where a banquet table has been set,
where death has been swallowed up forever.
We do not fully understand it.
We may not fully believe it.
And yet here it is:
the power of Christ’s life within us and among us.
So let us be glad and rejoice in our salvation!

- – – – – -

grace cheetahReflection on All Saints Day

My youngest daughter and I dressed up as cheetahs last Saturday for “Boo at the Zoo.” I suppose if you saw a real cheetah in the wild it could be frightening. But our cheetah costumes were certainly not scary. I’m not into gory, scary costumes.

But some people are. I’ve seen fierce werewolves and bloody vampires and creepy ghosts wandering the streets. Plenty of costumes that reminded me that Halloween is not really about candy, it’s about death–it is particularly about our fear of death. In many ways, watching horror movies and dressing up as frightening things is a way that we confront our fears; by placing ourselves in the story–even in these imaginary ways–we hope to gain some control over these forces of death that are really uncontrollable.

Scary costumes or not, a lot of people observe Halloween. Not as broadly celebrated in our culture is All Saints Day on November 1, and All Souls Day, on November 2. In the Roman Catholic tradition, All Saints Day is a time to recognize all of the official Church saints–especially ones that may not get a lot of attention otherwise:

St. Columba, patron saint of bookbinders, poets, and Ireland.

St. Lydwina, patron saint of iceskaters

St. Edward the Confessor, patron saint of difficult marriages

St. Blaise, patron saint of throat ailments, veterinarians, and wild animals

And then All Souls day developed within the Church as a time to remember and pray for “normal” people of faith who had recently died. My faith tradition does not recognize formal saints or pray to or for those who have died. But we do remember how the lives of those who have gone before us can strengthen and sustain us in our faith. We do remind ourselves that our loved ones who have died remain alive with God through Christ.

For Christians, Halloween can be a fun celebration–who doesn’t love dressing up and getting free candy? But we do not try to fight death with death. We do not meet violence with violence. We do not try to overcome our fear of the uncontrollable forces of death by participating in the broad story of death.

As Christians, we face our fear of death by participating in the Jesus story. In the story of a God who loves us deeply–so deeply that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” In the story of how Jesus overcame the forces of death and violence through the power of the resurrection.

As Christians, we participate in a counter-story. A life-giving story. We seek to live our lives within the power of Christ’s life. And we seek to understand death in the context of the broader story, the bigger story, of eternal life in Christ.

Categories: Call to Worship, Worship Pieces | Leave a comment

Yes, We Are Nice People

Me, Ruth Harder, Stephanie Krehbiel, and Sarah Klaassen

Me, Ruth Harder, Stephanie Krehbiel, and Sarah Klaassen

As some of you know, this fabulous foursome gathered in Kansas City a few weeks ago to talk to the Mennonite Church USA board. (Well, Stephanie was really just there to glare at people.) I appreciate the opportunity we were given to share about the movement of the Spirit in our communities and the hopes that we share for our denomination.

For those of you wondering how it went–it was fine. Ruth Harder and Sarah Klaassen are two of the most brave and articulate people I know. The board members listened respectfully. They were polite. They smiled at us. And nobody threw anything–not even a fit.

I did not come away from this session with any news about MC USA or any new insights into the inner workings of our denomination. But I did come away with one very clear message–something many people on the board wanted me to share with other inclusive-minded people. So . . .

Dear Pro-Inclusion Polarity Exacerbaters: The MC USA board members–at least the ones who spoke to me–are nice people. Every single person I talked with at the meeting was nice. I like them. And I think most of them like me. (I am pretty likable, after all.) You should like them, too. Because they are nice people. Who love Jesus.

I would also like to say:

Dear MC USA Board Members: I do like you. And so do a lot of my friends. Lots and lots of pro-inclusion, gay-loving Mennonites think you are nice people.

I like you.

I do not like the statement you put out about Theda Good’s credentials. Or the denominational policies against pastors officiating same-sex weddings. Or the way that statements coming from MC USA leadership present those working for inclusion as the problem children who are tearing the church art.

I am allowed to not like these things and still like you. I am allowed to disagree–even publicly–with your theology and/or your polity and/or your Biblical interpretation and/or your word choices and/or your fashion sense–my disagreement does not mean that I do not like you and respect you and understand that you are deeply loving and lovely human beings.

Dear Everyone: I think it would be helpful on all sides for us to keep a few key points in mind.

  • Liking someone and agreeing with him are two different things.
  • Respecting someone and agreeing with her are two different things.
  • Loving an institution (say, as a random example, a denomination) and supporting every decision made by institutional leadership are two different things.

Here is what many Mennonites–from a variety of theological positions–seem to believe: If we can just get everyone to sit down together and talk and realize that we are all nice people who like each other then this whole controversy will go away.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, friends, but this is not a workable strategy.

I could give you a list of several Mennonites who have listened to me, who respect me and love me and I think even like me–who are still not willing to be church with me if I am willing to officiate same-sex weddings. Which I am. Even though I like them and respect them and think they are nice.

Now don’t get me wrong. I am glad that most Mennonites are nice people. And I am glad that most of us like each other.

But being nice is only a tool we can use to deal with our conflicts. Forming personal relationships with others–liking each other–is simply a tool that can make working through conflicts more bearable.

Being nice people who like each other–this is not our end game, folks.

Our end game is to be ever-more faithful followers of Jesus Christ. Which means that we need to be nice and like each other while we talk honestly and work to create a denomination where all people are welcomed and valued.

Because the truth is that Mennonites have been nice about oppressing queer people they like for a long long time. And I, for one, do not like that.

Categories: GLBT Concerns, Mennonites | Tags: , , , | 6 Comments

Dear Peter

[This is an excerpt from a sermon I preached on 1 Peter. My husband, who does not usually provide sermon commentary, said, “It was gimmicky, but you pulled it off.” Clearly he was deeply moved in the Spirit by my words.]

 

Dear Peter,

I just wanted to write to you as one church leader to another–to share my appreciation for your words, and also to bring up a few concerns I have.

The extrapolation of your “authority principle” to slaves is particularly concerning to me:

*Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh. For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly.

Let me guess–you were never a slave? You lived in a culture where most slaves were household servants, doing respectable domestic work. Where slavery was primarily an economic, not a racial or ethnic, institution. Where slavery was most likely a period of a person’s life, not their entire existence.

But I wish that you could have looked into the future and seen what slavery would look like in the early days of my country. The horror and brutality. The dehumanization of dark-skinned people. And the horrible legacy of racial injustice that the system of slavery has left in its wake. And I wish you could have seen what slavery would look like in my day. So much of it involving children who are used sexually.

If you had been able to look ahead to the realities of slavery that enter my mind when I read your words, I think–I hope–you would have written different words. I don’t understand how it is a credit for anyone to endure pain while suffering unjustly. I do not understand how:

*If you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.

Yes, Christ suffered. But was that a good thing? Wouldn’t it have been better if the world had been able to embrace the embodied love of God without enacting violence against it?

And then Peter. Dear Peter. We get to the part about women.

*Wives, in the same way, accept the authority of your husbands, so that, even if some of them do not obey the word, they may be won over without a word by their wives’ conduct, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives.

Believe it or not, a lot of people now don’t think that husbands have authority over wives. Many consider marriage to be an equal partnership of mutual respect and decision-making. I guess that’s hard for you to understand from your context, but think about how things were developing in the early church–with Jesus valuing the partnership and testimony of women; Paul welcoming Priscilla into leadership in the church; and maybe you had a chance to read some of Paul’s letters: “in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.”

You are, I presume, primarily talking to women who have come to believe in Jesus while their husbands do not. The idea is that the wives should not be rude or condemning about their new faith, should not, as we say these days, beat anyone over the head with the Bible. So, while I don’t really like this as marriage advice, it’s not bad guidance for evangelism: “that they may be won over without a word . . . when they see the purity and reverence of our lives.”

And I am glad that you put a little responsibility on the husbands here as well:

*Husbands, in the same way, show consideration for your wives in your life together, paying honor to the woman as the weaker sex, since they too are also heirs of the gracious gift of life—so that nothing may hinder your prayers.

What I want to focus on here is that phrase “the weaker sex.” Maybe I shouldn’t admit this since I am a pacifist pastor, but when I read that I kind of want to punch you in the face. But then I take a deep breath and think about the first century. I know that that “weaker sex” line was just a statement of what everybody understood to be true. That was the given, not the controversy.

The controversy, the part that probably made people in your day want to punch you in the face, was the statement that women “are also heirs of the gracious gift of life.” For the people you thought you were writing this letter to, “heir” and “son” were basically synonyms. How can women–especially married women–be heirs? It was against human law for wives to receive an inheritance from their fathers, but you say that God the Father considers women equal heirs with men of the divine inheritance of life.

I bet that irritated some folks back then. Just like your “weaker sex” line irritates some of us today. Poor Peter, you just can’t make everyone happy.

Sincerely,

Joanna

Categories: Preaching | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Prayer of Confession: Being Church is Hard

This week’s prayer of confession comes out of our current series on the shorter epistles, thinking about World Communion Sunday, speaking with the MCUSA Executive Board, and . . . you know . . . life in the church.


Prayer of Confession

God of each of us,
God of all of us,
Being church is hard.
We do not all agree
about who you are
or how to follow Jesus
or what faith means
or how to spend our money.
We do not always listen well.
We do not always speak kindly.
Sometimes we forget the truth of church:
We are all members of one body.
Every part is needed.
Every part is honored.
And it is a blessing to have these companions on our journey.
Forgive our failings
and strengthen our love.

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The Mountain of Fear and the Mountain of Joy

[This reflection is excerpted from a sermon I preached on Hebrews 12:18-29. You can find the full text here and the audio here.]

 

 

Generally, I find the section headings in Bibles less than helpful. But the section heading for this week’s scripture stopped me in my tracks: “The Mountain of Fear and the Mountain of Joy.” “Wow,” I thought, “are we ever living on a mountain of fear.”

Michael Brown has been in the news lately. And we’ve also read about John Crawford, Ezell Ford, Eric Garner–all unarmed; all black; all killed by police.

And, of course, problems with gun violence aren’t limited to police misconduct. The gun culture in this country is out-of-control. People insist on their “right” to have any and every kind of firearm–and to take those arms, loaded, into any and every public place.

We hear stories of rape and domestic abuse on the news and from our friends.

The mountain of fear. Perhaps it feels like we are there now–skirting around the base or even headed towards tree line where the air is getting thin.

“The Mountain of Fear and the Mountain of Joy.” I would love to spend less time on the Mountain of Fear and more on the Mountain of Joy.

The actual mountains being compared here are Sinai and Zion. Where Sinai has fire and darkness and gloom and storm, Zion has thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly. Where Sinai represents the old covenant that God made with the Hebrew people, Zion represents the new covenant God has made with all people through Jesus.

Sinai and Zion. The Mountain of Fear and the Mountain of Joy.

We should note that the writer of Hebrews does not tell us to choose Zion over Sinai. The writer does not offer a path for us to get from Sinai to Zion. This is not an admonition or a how-to manual. This is a statement of reality: “You have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God.” The heavenly Jerusalem with the thousands upon thousands of angels–we’re already there. On the Mountain of Joy. That’s what Hebrews says.

We’re already there. But what does that mean? Does that mean we are always happy? Does it mean our ultimate goal in faith and life is personal fulfillment? I read a great line this week that was critiquing a recent prosperity sermon: “If our message cannot be preached with credibility in Mosul, it should not be preached in Houston.” It is a partial and weak faith that ignores suffering in the world. This selfish version of faith leads us to be, in Vincent Harding’s words, “missionaries of law and order, defenders of a status quo, and seekers for peace without a cross.”

The Mountain of Joy presented here in Hebrews is not a place to pursue our own happiness while we ignore the pain and suffering in the world. On the Mountain of Joy, the cross is central. When we come–as we have come–to the Mountain of Joy, we come, in the words of the writer of Hebrews, “to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.”

We have come the Mountain of Joy. And even here there is blood. And even here there is pain and suffering. Here there is peace with the cross. Here we hear the better word. The word of forgiveness instead of vengeance. The word of faith instead of fear. The word of justice instead of oppression. The word of light instead of darkness.

We have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God. And when it feels like we are on that other mountain; when the darkness and gloom and storm–when the fear–threaten to overwhelm us, we must listen for the better word. For the good word, the Good News, spoken through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

- – – – – -

And here is the call to worship that accompanied this scripture:

Let us give thanks
for the faithful who have come before us;
for the One who is always faithful.
Let us offer to God
all of our confidence, faith, and hope
along with our questions, doubts, and despair.
Because we do not approach a god of darkness, gloom, and storm;
We come to the living, loving God
through the new covenant offered by Jesus Christ.
So let us worship God acceptably
with reverence
and awe.

Categories: Bible Study, Preaching | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

On Being Church

Photo Credit: Doug Koch

Photo Credit: Doug Koch

*This reflection is excerpted from a sermon based on Matthew 18:15-20 that  I preached about three years ago. (Funny how the lectionary works like that!)

- – – – -

The Greek word that gets translated as “church”–ekklesia–shows up on only two occasions in the Gospels. Both in Matthew. The first is: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church . . . and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.” The second and final use of ekklesia is in this morning’s Gospel reading. Again, Jesus is speaking. This time, rather than focusing on the strength and power of the church, Jesus anticipates church conflict.

“If a brother or sister sins against you . . .” “If.”

If somebody in the church says something that offends you; if he does something that you believe harms you in body or spirit; if she presents a barrier between you and God in some way. These things happen within the church; Jesus knew they would.

The gates of hell shall not prevail against the church; but conflicting theologies, combative personalities, different aesthetic sensibilities–these things can do a lot of damage to Christian communities.

Jesus knew there would be conflict within the church, likely because he was living with the conflicts among his followers every day. We can imagine some of the squabbles that broke out as they walked along the road together.

“Peter took my walking stick.”

“It’s my turn to walk next to Jesus.”

“But we had bread and fish for lunch yesterday.”

“Forgive us our sins.” “Debts.” “Sins.” “Debts.”

“Cessarea is this way.” “No, it’s this way.” “Well, if somebody would have just stopped to ask directions . . . “

Anticipating conflicts to come, Jesus gives his followers some pretty clear instructions: You speak to the offending person one-on-one. You speak to the person with a few witnesses. If the offending party still does not listen, only then do you take the conflict before the church body. The church community hears both sides of the conflict in light of Christ’s teachings; the church presents its collective wisdom in an attempt to reconcile all people to the body.

Only after these faithful attempts at reconciliation does the church let someone go. “Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” There is a point at which fellowship is broken.

This point of separation, however, is not a point we come to quickly or easily. And it seems to me there is some irony here: “Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” On the surface, for a first-century Jewish audience, this would mean to treat them as outsiders. Yet in the context of Jesus’ ministry, and considering that the writer of the Gospel of Matthew may well have been a tax collector himself, we have to wonder what Jesus really has in mind here.

There may be times when a person chooses to leave the church community. There may even be times–in extreme situations of abuse–when a church community needs to ask someone to leave. Yet even to the tax collectors and the Gentiles, the door is never shut. The grace of God can extend.

So that’s Jesus little Conflict Management 101 lecture for the disciples. And we know that the followers of Christ in every century will need this lesson. The church will face conflict after conflict after conflict. Sometimes, you have to wonder if the church is worth all of that effort. This church that is stronger than Hell yet somehow so vulnerable to the egos of those of us who make it up.

It is the church community–all of us together trying to follow Jesus–that makes the journey frustrating and painful and hard. And it is the community that makes the journey worthwhile and joyful and possible.

We, together, are the church. We are prone to sin, mistakes, messiness. Conflict is inevitable.

We, together, are the church. Because where two or three are gathered in the name of Jesus, he is here among us. And nothing, nothing, shall prevail against us.

Thanks be to God.

Categories: Bible Study, Preaching | Tags: , , , | 3 Comments

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