Isaiah 40: 28-31–Call to Worship

Have you not known?
Our God is the everlasting God, Creator of the ends of the earth.
Have you not heard?
God does not faint or grow weary.
Have you not known?
God’s understanding is unsearchable.
Have you not heard?
God gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless.
Have you not known?
Those who wait for God will renew their strength
they shall mount up with wings like eagles.
We come to hear.
We come to know.
Thanks be to God.

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Reflections on 1 Samuel 3

[This post is excerpted from this full sermon.]

The very first sentence of this story tells us that “the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli.” And this sentence tells us right away how things are supposed to work. Samuel is a boy and Eli is a grown-up. Samuel is serving under Eli.

Which means that it is God who is not following protocol here. God has no business coming directly to Samuel. God’s supposed to go through Eli. Eli is a priest at the temple. His entire purpose in life is to mediate the word of God. Eli exists in the world so that God can speak to the people through him. God is supposed to speak to all of the people through Eli; and God is especially supposed to speak through Eli if God wants the attention of a boy serving under Eli.

But that is not how it happens. The Lord calls directly to Samuel, and this is so out of order, so unexpected, that it takes Eli awhile to figure out what is going on. According to our story, it is not until the third time Samuel comes running in to Eli’s room that Eli “perceived that the Lord was calling the boy.” Because the Lord is not supposed to be calling the boy. The Lord is supposed to be calling the old, blind priest who has served in the temple for decades.

But finally, Eli figures out what is happening. And this is where I think he is at least a little heroic. He tells Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if the voice calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’”

Perhaps by calling Eli “heroic” I am simply defining “hero” as someone who takes a better, more mature course of action than I imagine I would take in a similar situation. Because here is how I imagine it might have gone down if I were in Eli’s position. (You know, in my alternate universe where women served as priests in the temple.)

The fifth or sixth time Sammy came running in saying, “Here I am. You called me”–when I figured out it was actually God calling Samuel—I would have said, “Oh dear. That’s God calling you. God must be terribly confused. Here, let me just put on my robe and I’ll go back to your room with you so I can talk to God and see what’s up.”

Even though Eli, by all rights, is the one God should be talking to, Eli accepts the fact that God is speaking not to him, but to Samuel. And rather than get angry or jealous or bitter, Eli helps Samuel understand that it is the Lord speaking and instructs Samuel about how to best receive the word of God.

Not everyone can do that, you know. Some people are so sure about who God should be talking to and what God should be saying that they can miss the word of God altogether.

There’s a prayer I love by Hebrew Scripture scholar Walter Brueggemann that begins: “We are your people and mostly we don’t mind, except that you do not fit any of our categories. We keep pushing . . . trying to make you fit the God we would rather have.”

I love that prayer because, if we are honest, we have to admit that for all of us there is a God we would rather have. We all hold onto the way things should be. The way God should be. Who is and is not worthy to carry the divine message in this world.

It is hard to hear God when the divine voice operates outside the reasonable parameters we have set for it.

We serve a God who does not fit our categories or behave in ways we think a respectable God should behave. And listening for that God, instead of the God we would rather have, is hard. It is maddening. And it is necessary.

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Calls to Worship For Epiphany 3B

Based on Psalm 62

Our souls wait in silence;
our hope rests in God
our rock
our salvation
our refuge.
We will not be shaken.
In this time of worship,
we pour out our hearts
because we trust in God’s steadfast love.

Based on Mark 1:14-20

Jesus comes along side us and calls us by name:
“[your name], follow me.”
A simple call. A hard call.
Because following requires leaving.
And we look around to see who else Jesus could be talking to.
And we look around to see the trappings of the life we know.
It’s hard to leave our nets and walk away from the lake.
But we have come this far,
to this place where we can listen
and be transformed.

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Some thoughts on Jonah (Have I mentioned I love Jonah?)

[This post is excerpted and edited from a sermon I preached a few years ago.]

Jonah is a book of biting satire. You have a prophet who does exactly the opposite of what prophets are supposed to do. He runs away from Yahweh and keeps his mouth closed. The fish’s mouth, of course, is wide open and Jonah just goes right on in. There are not many scenes in the Bible as bizarre as Jonah sitting in the belly of the fish, whining at God. And even when God finally gets Jonah to Nineveh, covered in fish vomit, Jonah only walks part way into the city and says about five words.

Somehow, despite the prophet’s worse than pathetic efforts, the people of Nineveh repent. And they don’t just repent. They really repent. Sackcloth, ashes—even for the cows. Now, just for a minute, picture cows in sackcloth and then tell me this is not a funny story.

One would think Jonah would be happy that his words had been taken to heart. But no. He’s pissed off. “See God. I knew you would pull this. These pathetic people deserve fire and brimstone, but no—la la la—slow to anger—la la la gracious, merciful, forgiving. If I can’t watch these people die a slow painful death, then just kill me now.”

Over the top? Of course. And perhaps Jonah is a little beyond us. But still, most of us have a pretty clear sense of what other people deserve –and what they don’t deserve. Some of our fiercest political debates revolve around such issues.

Does a person who cruelly murders another person deserve to die at the hands of the state?

Do people who have entered this country illegally deserve to be uprooted from their lives here and sent home to dire, possibly dangerous situations?

Do disgraced CEOs deserve multi-million dollar severance packages?

The answers to these questions matter because people should get what they deserve. And people should not get what they don’t deserve.

If you were a fly on my kitchen wall, you might hear the phrase “I have a hard time feeling sorry for . . .” It’s an admission that maybe some sympathy is in order but, really, people got what they deserved. Dishonest bank executives are on my list of people I have a hard time feeling sorry for. And drunk drivers. And—back when I taught college English—students who skip class and plagiarize papers. And my own children when they refuse to wear a hat and gloves and then get cold.

I better stop this list now, before I offend too many people. And before you all decide that you’re never going to share any of your problems with me again. I know it is not very pastoral to have this list. But I think it is human. I know someone who has decided not to have children. I’ve gotten the sense in talking with him that any stress I experience in raising my children is just my own stupid fault for having kids in the first place. I mean, we all have our lists.

The Ninevites are on Jonah’s list. And what Jonah is horrified to discover is that they are not, apparently, on God’s list. In fact, in light of this particular story, we have to wonder if God even has a list. I’m betting not, because if there were a list, even if the Ninevites weren’t on it, Jonah surely would be.

If we continue reading the Bible into the Gospels, any suspicions we have about God’s list will be erased. There is no one for whom God does not have compassion. There is no one God will not forgive. God does care about justice. But God’s not too worried that everybody always get what they deserve.

The final scene of Jonah is painfully ironic, because Jonah somehow takes God’s mercy toward him for granted. At the same time, he reprimands God. In his snottiest, nastiest, most accusatory voice, Jonah cries out: “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”

It can be spoken with sarcasm, with irritation, with rage or . . .

You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who forgives.”

How can we proclaim this good news about our God with anything but joy?

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Reflections on Mark 1:14-20

[This reflection is an edited excerpt from this sermon on Matthew 4:18-22.]

Think, for a minute, about a time in the past few days that you were at work–your job work or working on some project or responsibility. You are grading papers or standing in front of a class full of kids. You are making lunch for your own kids or cleaning your house. You are making phone calls or painting a wall or weeding the garden or cataloging books. Whatever work you did this past week, imagine yourself doing it. . . .

Now imagine an interruption. The phone rings. A child needs a form signed. Your boss wants to talk to you for a minute. What does your interruption look like? . . . How does it make you feel? . . .

I’ll tell you how interruptions make me feel–grumpy! In fact, I’m trying to discipline myself to not do certain types of work in the evenings because I get so grumpy when I’m interrupted. And, of course, with three kids in the house, I can count on interruptions. If I am typing up a particularly profound blog entry or crafting a spiritually enlightened sermon point, I might snap at the needy child to “wait just a minute, can’t you see I’m trying to share the Good News of Jesus here?”. If my child is bleeding, I might stop typing–but you better believe I hit “save” before I get the bandaid.

One thing I rarely do is willingly abandon my work. Not when I’m right in the middle of something. Not just because someone else wants my attention.

Yet Peter and Andrew, James and John all quit their work to follow Jesus–just because he asks. They don’t dismiss Jesus with an irritated excuse–the way I’m likely to talk to the Jehovah’s Witnesses: “Well, I’d love to chat about exactly how many people will get into heaven, but I’m just about to haul in this big load of fish, so I can’t really talk right now. You can leave your pamphlet right there on that rock. I’ll take a look later.”

These guys don’t take a brief time-out to talk to Jesus, all the while glancing back towards the net, the boat, the booth. “O.K. Man. I’ve got like three minutes. What do you need? What’s so important?”

They don’t even say, “Look, Jesus, just let me give my two weeks’ notice and I’ll catch up with you down the road.”

“Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him.”

“Immediately they left their nets and followed him.”

Here’s one of my questions: Why did they have to leave their nets? They had to eat on the road, right? Jesus was always hanging out in fishing villages, so they could have taken their nets along, used their skills to catch fish and feed all the disciples. They could even have used the net to haul the lame people to Jesus or to help build a shelter on rainy nights or . . . I don’t know. It just seems like a net could be useful.

Isn’t it enough that Peter and Andrew follow Jesus in the first place? Why do they have to leave their nets?

The most troubling aspect of these stories, though, is that James and John don’t just leave their nets –they leave their dad. They leave him sitting there in the boat with the half-mended nets. As you might imagine, a half-mended net is no better than no net at all when it comes to catching fish. The boys leave their dad in the lurch; put the family business in jeopardy. For what? To follow some itinerant rabbi they just met. How’s that for family values?

I mean, I see how all of these guys could think that following Jesus would be a fun adventure–an interesting side trip. Definitely something different. Good stories for the grandkids someday. I get the appeal of taking on something new.

It’s the giving up–the walking away–that strikes me as hard. Really almost unfair.

It’s always hard to know how we would act in certain, hypothetical, situations. So I can’t say for sure. But I think that if Jesus had called me–once I got over my initial irritation at being interrupted; once I finished up the paragraph I was typing and saved the document; once I checked a couple of references to make sure the guy wasn’t a total nut job–I think I would have been willing to follow him. But the nets, the cash, the dad–they would be coming with me.

It’s not just that I would want to take along my stuff. I’m actually a pretty light packer. I wouldn’t need my curling iron or my waffle maker or even, I suppose, my art supplies. But my Facebook account and my saved documents; my cell phone and a paper pad and pencil. My Bible and my family and the church directory.

Peter and Andrew, James and John don’t just leave behind stuff, they leave behind their most comfortable identities–the work and family relationships that give them value in the eyes of society and, probably, in their own eyes as well. They go from fishermen to “fishers of people,”–followers of Jesus–whatever that is!

I tend to skip over the word “immediately” in Mark because it is used so often. Everything happens “immediately” in this Gospel. But perhaps it is worth paying attention in this case: “Immediately they left their nets.” So hard. Really almost unfair.

“Immediately they left their nets.”

Maybe “immediately” is the only way any of us can ever do it.

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Call to Worship: 1 Kings 19

Why are you here?
We are passionate for God.
Why are you here?
We cannot bear the sorrow and violence of the world.
Why are you here?
We are hungry; we are tired; we are scared.
God says: I am glad you are here. Watch. Listen.
We hear the howling wind. We feel the earth shake. We shrink back from the blazing fire.
Watch. Listen.
We hear a sound. Thin. Silent.
This ground is holy. Take off your shoes. Cover your face.
Watch and listen for the Holy One.
This is why we are here.

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Worship Piece: 1 Samuel 3

I wrote this Call to Worship to go along with this week’s scripture reading; it also draws on the song “I will come to you in the silence” by David Haas.

God calls us by name in our dreaming
and our waking;
in the Divine voice
and human voices.
God comes to us in the silence
and the noise;
in the calm
and the chaos.
Always, God calls to us.
Always, God comes to us.
Let us now call God’s name.
Let us now come to God.
Let us worship together.

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Epiphany Sermon Snippet

Somehow I managed to preach on the magi story twice last year, so this year I went with Isaiah 60 for Epiphany. This is an excerpt. You can also hear the audio and read the full manuscript.

– – – – – – – – –

I imagine the captured Israelites expected their return home to be an epiphany—an immediate burst of light to drive out all the darkness of captivity and exile. They must have dreamed for years about a glorious and triumphant return to their home country. The jubilant parades and the “welcome home” banners stretched across gleaming cobblestone streets. Their old houses ready and waiting; their old jobs available for the re-taking; their old friends sitting around twiddling their thumbs, waiting for them to come back. Once they returned to their homeland, everything would be wonderful and perfect–just like that. A spectacular event. An epiphany!

That’s the kind of epiphany we all want, I think. The immediate, all-illuminating light. We seem particularly prone to these fantasies at the beginning of the new year, when we imagine the radical changes we will make to drastically improve our lives. We’ll get healthy and wealthy and spiritual and organized—just like that.

We want the shining star, the voice from heaven, the glory of the Lord. We want immediate light and definitive revelation. We want our loved ones (or ourselves) to be healed, our bodies to be toned, our jobs to be fulfilling, our bank accounts to be large, our children to behave, our relationships to be whole—just like that. . . .

But instead the light usually comes as a glimmer rather than a bright explosion. Because people—individually and as a society—we rarely change quickly; circumstances rarely alter immediately for the better. Deep darknesses of inequality and injustice and violence won’t disappear in a sudden burst of light. It didn’t happen for the ancient Israelites, and it won’t happen for us.

True, Epiphany is more than an interlude, but it is also more than an event. The shining star, the voice from heaven, the glory of the Lord—these are events, yes; but they are events that mark the beginning—that suggest the possibility—of a season of Epiphany; a journey toward revelation; a gradual brightening of the light.

One of the blessed, beautiful things about light is that it doesn’t take much of it to make a big difference. (I’m probably not the only one who has been irritated by the glow of a cell phone screen in an otherwise darkened auditorium.)

Despite the dilapidated buildings, the social unrest, the temple in ruins, a prophet declared to the people of Israel: “Arise, shine; for your light has come.”

Turns out that our light does not come from us or depend on us. Our light is the light of God; the Divine light that shines for all people. It is a light that draws people—and camels, apparently–to it—maybe sometimes because it is so bright; but I think, most often, people are drawn to the light no matter how dim it is; simply because it is there, promising to dispel the thick darkness, promising to reveal, slowly, in hazy glimpses, a better way.

So may we truly live into this season of Epiphany. May we arise and shine knowing that our light has come; that our light is here; that our light—which is God’s light–will always be shining no matter how thick the darkness. Amen.

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Worship Pieces for Epiphany 2

This week at Peace Mennonite, three people will be sharing about personal epiphanies. The call to worship is based on Psalm 19:

The heavens declare
and we declare
the glory of God.
Our voices join the speech of creation
to tell of our known and unknowable God.
Now may these words of our mouths
and these meditations of our hearts
be pleasing in God’s sight
and life-giving in our world.

And a prayer of confession:

God of shadows and light,
God of hiddenness and revelation,
Forgive us when we miss you–
when we overlook the love,
when we turn our backs on the hope,
when we gaze too intently at ourselves
ignoring the blessed others that surround us.
Forgive us, God, and in your infinite grace
shine your holy light
or perhaps sit with us in the dark.

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Christmas Morning Family Worship

I’ve posted this before, and I offer it again. At our house we worship together before the present-opening begins. (You will note that it is a short service.) May you know the deep peace of Christ during this holy season.

– – – – –

Scripture: from Isaiah 9

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.

For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Lighting of Advent Candles–after lighting each candle, offer a brief prayer of petition and thanksgiving:

Hope: God, we pray for those who feel hopeless today. May your light begin to shine more brightly in their lives. Thank you for the hope we have in Jesus.

Peace: God, we pray for all who suffer from violence, for all who live in fear of violence. May your peace surround and protect them. Thank you for the peace you offer through Jesus.

Joy: God, we pray for those who are grieving and sad on this day of celebration. May they know the light of your joy, even if they cannot feel happy right now. Thank you that we can know joy through Jesus.

Love: God, we pray for all people who feel unloved today. May they know your deep love for them. Thank you for showing us how much you love us by sending Jesus.

Christ Candle: God, please help us to share the light of your hope, peace, joy, and love with our world. Thank you for the gift of Jesus and thank you for this day of celebration! Amen

Christmas Hymn: O Come, All Ye Faithful

Scripture: Luke 2: 1-20

(or watch the Veggie Tales version or read the Brick Testament version)

Christmas Hymn: Joy to the World

Closing Prayer:

God, thank you for this place, this time; thank you for each person here. As we give and receive gifts, help us honor your great, amazing gift of Jesus. Let us know your presence with us as we celebrate today. Amen.

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