Songs of Faith: God’s Faithfulness

Prayer: God of song and story, attune our ears to hear what you would have us hear this day. Inspire our hearts and minds to join in your song and your story. In Christ’s name, amen.

            This morning we will continue our summer sermon series, “Songs of the Faith.” We know that when we are unable to express our faith in our own words, words found in verses of familiar hymns can help fill in the blanks with words and prayers behind our jumbled thoughts. Both of today’s hymns expand on God’s faithfulness and both each reference one of today’s two scripture passages. As you hear today’s scripture readings, I invite you to think of ways you have known God as faithful in your own life. Hear these words:  

1 Samuel 7:3-13: Then Samuel said to the whole house of Israel, “If you are turning to the Lord with all your heart, then get rid of all the foreign gods and the Astartes you have. Set your heart on the Lord! Worship him only! Then he will deliver you from the Philistines’ power.” So the Israelites got rid of the Baals and the Astartes and worshipped the Lord only.

Next Samuel said, “Assemble all Israel at Mizpah. I will pray to the Lord for you.”

So they assembled at Mizpah, and they drew water and poured it out in the Lord’s presence. They fasted that same day and confessed, “We have sinned against the Lord.” Samuel served as judge of the Israelites at Mizpah.

When the Philistines heard that the Israelites had assembled at Mizpah, the Philistine rulers went up to attack Israel. When the Israelites learned of this, they were afraid of the Philistines. The Israelites said to Samuel, “Please don’t stop praying to the Lord our God for us, so God will save us from the Philistines’ power!” So Samuel took a suckling lamb and offered it as an entirely burned offering to the Lord. Samuel cried out in prayer to the Lord for Israel, and the Lord answered him.

10 While Samuel was offering the entirely burned offering, the Philistines advanced to attack Israel. But the Lord thundered against the Philistines with a great blast on that very day, throwing the Philistines into such a panic that they were defeated by Israel. 11 The Israelite soldiers came out of Mizpah and pursued the Philistines. They struck them down until they reached a place just below Beth-car. 12 Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Jeshanah.[a] He named it Ebenezer,[b] explaining, “The Lord helped us to this very point.”

13 So the Philistines were defeated, and they stopped coming into Israelite territory. The Lord’s hand was against the Philistines throughout Samuel’s life.

Lamentations 3: 19-24: The memory of my suffering and homelessness is bitterness and poison.20 Ican’t help but remember and am depressed. 21 I call all this to mind—therefore, I will wait. 22 Certainly the faithful love of the Lord hasn’t ended;[b] certainly God’s compassion isn’t through! 23 They are renewed every morning. Great is your faithfulness. 24 I think:[c] The Lord is my portion! Therefore, I’ll wait for the Lord.

            “Come thou fount of every blessings, tune my heart to sing thy grace, streams of mercy, never ceasing call for songs of loudest praise!” A song about the baptismal waters of grace and how Jesus seeks after us, rescuing us from danger. Perhaps all hymns are to some extent autobiographical in that they reveal something of the author’s spiritual experience.

            In some hymns, the autobiographical thread is stronger and more obvious. Such is the case with British Baptist hymn writer Robert Robinson (1735-1790).  Robert Robinson was born to parents of little means in Swaffham, Norfolk, England on September 27, 1735. His father died when he was eight and at age of fourteen he was sent by his mother to London to learn as a barber’s apprentice. It was in London where Robinson was “prone to wander,” and associated with notorious gangs stirring up trouble wherever he went. Then at the age of 17, Robinson and some friends stumbled upon a meeting where George Whitefield was preaching with the purpose of “scoffing at the poor deluded Methodists.” But God’s sense of humor intervened and Robinson was converted to Christ. He eventually moved to Cambridge and became a Baptist pastor- writing several hymns.

            At the age of 23, he wrote the beloved hymn, “Come Thou Fount.”  He references our scripture from Samuel, where the Ebenezer is a symbol of God’s faithfulness. The lyric, “here I raise my Ebenezer,” a stone memorial symbolizing God’s help. As Samuel raised the stone and called it Ebenezer, meaning, the Lord has helped us to reach this point, so too is Robinson raising his own Ebenezer to remember how God sought him even when he wandered and was a stranger. Robert Robinson was headed down a dangerous path in his life, until God plucked him out of it. This hymn is Robinson’s Ebenezer. It is a reminder to not only him, but to Christians today that God has plucked us out of a life of wandering and sin, and we can enjoy the grace and faithfulness of the Lord.

            “Prone to wander- Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love,” seems to have also been prophetic of Robinson’s later years, as once again his life was characterized by unstableness, sin, and involvement in Unitarianism. But perhaps this makes his hymn relatable, as we all may wander from time to time. Even still grace is abundant through baptism as we are claimed children of God.

            There is a story told that one day Robinson was riding in a stagecoach when he noticed a woman he didn’t know engrossed in a hymnbook. Somehow the two entered into a conversation in which the woman asked what he thought of the hymn she was humming.  Robinson burst into tears and replied, “Madam, I am the poor unhappy man who wrote that hymn many years ago, and I would give a thousand worlds, if I had them, to enjoy the feelings I had then.” It is said that she responded by telling him “Sir, the ‘streams of mercy’ are still flowing.” (Source: 101 Hymn Stories) Mercies which are new with each passing day as we worship a God who seek after us even when we are wandering and leaving the God we love. God indeed remains faithful.

            Of the many hymns written on the theme of God’s goodness and faithfulness, our next hymn in particular stands out like a beacon light pointing day after day to all the ways God is a faithful presence in our lives. “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” provides comfort in times of sorrow or change. While many of our favorite powerful hymns are born out of a particular dramatic faith shaking or defining experience followed by a come to Jesus moment for the hymn’s author, today’s second hymn was simply a result of the author’s “morning by morning” realization of God’s personal faithfulness.

            A native of the small Kentucky town of Franklin, Thomas Obadiah Chisholm (1866-1960) was born in a log cabin. Despite his lack of formal education, he became a teacher at age sixteen and the associate editor of his hometown weekly newspaper, the Franklin Advocate, at age twenty-one. In 1893 Chisholm became a Christian through the ministry of Henry Clay Morrison, who was the founder of Asbury College and Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. Morrison persuaded Chisholm to move to Louisville where he then became editor of the Pentecostal Herald. Though Chisholm was ordained a Methodist minister in 1903, he served only a single, brief appointment at Scottsville, Kentucky, due to ill health. Chisholm relocated his family to Winona Lake, Indiana, to recover, and then to Vineland, New Jersey, in 1916 where he sold insurance. By the time of his retirement, he had written more than 1200 poems, 800 of which were published. They often appeared in religious periodicals such as the Sunday School TimesMoody Monthly, and Alliance Weekly. Many of these were set to music. (UMC website.)

            In a letter dated 1941, Thomas Chisholm wrote, “My income has not been large at any time due to impaired health in the earlier yeas which has followed me on until now. Although I must not fail to record here the unfailing faithfulness of a covenant-keeping God and that God has given me many wonderful displays of providing care, for which I am filled with astounding gratefulness.” He continued to profess God’s faithfulness the remainder of his life. (101 Hymn Stories by Kenneth Osbeck)

            According to the author of our text from Lamentations, Certainly the faithful love of the Lord hasn’t ended;[b] certainly God’s compassion isn’t through! 23 God’s faithfulness and compassion are renewed every morning. God’s faithfulness is unrelenting. I invite you to listen to the following poem by 18th century poet Nicolaus Zinzendorf, which may have inspired Chisholm:

“The Lord leads us on by paths we did not know;

Upward the Lord leads us, though our steps be slow,

Though often we faint or falter on the way,

Though storms and darkness can obscure the day;

Yet when the clouds are gone, we know the Lord leads us on.

The Lord leads us on through all the unquiet years;

Past all our dreamland hopes, and doubts, and fears,

The Lord guides our steps, through all the tangled maze

Of losses, sorrows, and overclouded days;

We know the Lord’s will is done; and still the Lord is faithful, and still the Lord leads us on.”

            What is God’s faithfulness like? What does it look like? It looks like a peace which holds true, a peace that lasts, stands the test of time, and endures all things. It looks like strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow. It looks like comfort in knowing as God has been, God forever will be. It looks like unfailing compassion from God. It looks like God providing enough food for the birds of the air and clothing the flowers of the field to bloom in splendor. God’s faithfulness looks like all we truly need being provided for each and every new day. As surely has waves hit the shoreline, or as the sun rises over the seas, God is faithful.

            On August 21st we will conclude our Songs of the Faith series by taking a closer look at the stories behind hymns which praise the expansive and all-encompassing welcome and love of God. But until then, let’s try with each new sunrise to seek out and appreciate the many examples of God’s faithfulness all around us. But friends, let’s not just stop there.  Let’s also seek to response by working to be more faithful to God who never leaves us and always calls back to our hearts even though they are prone to wander. Let us be strive to be faithful as God calls us to be and along God to use us as compassionate Christ followers. Amen.

Songs of Faith: God’s Vision

Prayer: God of song and story, attune our ears to hear what you would have us hear
this day. Inspire our hearts and minds to join in your song and your story. In Christ’s
name, amen.
Today is week three of our five-week sermon series, “Songs of Faith”, a series in
which we explore the origin stories behind some of the beloved songs used to profess
our faith. Both of today’s hymns relate to how God cares for us, how we are challenged
to follow God and God’s vision for our lives. But before we go to today’s hymns, let us
first turn to scripture that hymn writers possibly held close to heart while penning today’s
hymns. Hear the Psalmist words in Psalm 73:21-28. May we all listen for how the Spirit
challenges us in words.
21  When my heart was bitter,
    when I was all cut up inside,
22  I was stupid and ignorant.
    I acted like nothing but an animal toward you.
23  But I was still always with you!
    You held my strong hand!
24  You have guided me with your advice;
    later you will receive me with glory.
25  Do I have anyone else in heaven?
    There’s nothing on earth I desire except you.
26  My body and my heart fail,
    but God is my heart’s rock and my share forever.
27  Look! Those far from you die;
    you annihilate all those who are unfaithful to you.
28  But me? It’s good for me to be near God.
    I have taken my refuge in you, my LORD God,
        so I can talk all about your works!
“It is good for me to be near God,” our psalmist writes, for when we take time to
dwell in God’s presence, we get glimpses of God’s vision for not only our lives, but for
the world. Our first hymn today, goes into detail about how Christ leads us like a
shepherd lovingly leads their flock and how we can align ourselves with God’s vision of
love for humankind.
The lyrics for hymn, “Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us,” are often attributed to
Englishwoman Dorothy A. Thrupp who lived from 1779-1847. According to the
hymnology website, www.hymnary.org, “Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us” appears in
1005 hymnal and is one of the classic hymns that church members can recognize
across denominational lines.
Despite the hymn’s popularity, we know very little about how it was written or
who the true author was. The mystery of the authorship goes back to the 1830s, when
the hymn made its first appearances in Thrupp’s Hymns for the Young and the Fourth
Edition in 1836, but without attribution. Rev. William Carus Wilson publisher of
magazine titled The Children’s Friend in June 1838 and ascribed the poem to “Lyte,”

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possibly Henry Francis Lyte. British hymnologist J. R. Watson notes, “The authorship
remains in doubt; all that can be added is that a stylistic analysis of the vocabulary,
rhythm and content would suggest that Thrupp, rather than Henry Lyte, was the author”
(Canterbury Dictionary). However, it is clear whoever penned these words had a deeply
theological message to share.
The words were directly applied to children, and the anonymous writer, believed
to be Thrupp, meant to use this four-stanza hymn for teaching. It was more than twenty
years later that the tune we presently know was composed by the American musician
William Bradbury (1816-1868). His tune, named after himself, has most often been
associated with this text. When Bradbury composed this tune he modified the original
words meant for children and broadened the meaning to include all the congregation.
Then, with some modernizing of the language, the text was standardized as it appears
today. Since about 1830, the hymn has remained largely untouched.
One has to wonder why this hymn has been so successful for nearly two hundred
years. The answer perhaps is the strong but simple theology of the hymn. Since the
focus of the original composition was for young children, Thrupp would have wanted to
encapsulate the essence and message of a caring Christ who loves all his children. In
the first stanza, we see Christ portrayed as a shepherd offering care and guidance to
his flock as well as preparing them for service and Christian life. Thrupp alludes to
Psalm 23 – “pleasant pastures” – and draws upon the image of Christ as the Good
Shepherd.
The second stanza picks up with the idea of that all creation belongs to Christ
and continues picture of Christ as the Good Shepherd. The author now shows that we
are also in fellowship with Christ. Christ is our defender and guide. The one who will
hear us when we pray to him and follow in his footsteps. The author also alludes to the
lost sheep (Matthew 18:12-14; Luke 15:3-7), especially in the phrase, “seek us when we
go astray.”
The fourth stanza reminds us that the original focus of the hymn was on
children–with references to seeking Christ early in life. Thrupp advocated for an early
and honest following of Christ. There is a plea for the love of God to be shown through
all of us as the body of Christ and that God’s love will always be present, as God has
always loved us.
The picture we get from this hymn, and the reason it has been such a defining
song of the church, lies in the fact that it presents the fuller theology of Christian life in
one song. This picture of the saving love and grace of God, the salvation message of
God, God’s fellowship with us, and our continuing service to God gives us the broader
perspective of what the Christian life should be. Although this song may have had some
vague beginnings, it has a certain future in the church because of its message of hope,
love, salvation, and Christian living. (Source: UMC website) Today’s next hymn is one
of my personal favorites. Perhaps because it ties me back to my Irish roots. Perhaps, it
is because the lyrics have been a go to prayer when I don’t have words for as long as I
can remember. Perhaps it is because in some cases hymn singing invites us to connect
with the saints who have gone before and family members of mine have passed down
their love for this song. The famous Irish hymn, “Be Thou My Vision,” comes from an

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original poem, found in two Irish manuscripts in the library of the Royal Irish Academy
which may date to as early as the 8th century with possible ties to St. Patrick.
According to mythology, when St. Patrick was a missionary in Ireland in the 5th
century, King Logaire of Tara decreed that no one was allowed to light any fires until a
pagan festival was begun by the lighting of a fire on Slane Hill. In a move of defiance
against this pagan ritual, St. Patrick did light a fire. Yet rather than execute him, the king
was so impressed by his devotion that he let Patrick continue his missionary work.
Three centuries later, a monk named Dallan Forgaill wrote the Irish poem, “Rop
tú mo Baile” which translates into “Be Thou my Vision”, to remember and honor the faith
of St. Patrick. It’s a powerful and profound hymn, on account of both its tune and its text.
The tune, called “Slane,” is a traditional Irish ballad melody, first transcribed in the early
20th century but likely much older. The name of the tune alludes back to the hill where
St. Patrick stood up for his faith. The text is a translation of a medieval text attributed to
St Dallan, a 6th century Celtic monk, and poet. The text and the tune were combined in
the Irish Church Hymnal in 1919, and it has spread round the world since.
We don’t know too much about Dallan Forgaill but it is believed he went blind in
the middle of his life. The opening verse of the hymn poignantly draws upon his
experience. Though Dallan must have suffered much from his loss of sight, the effect of
this forced darkness drove him back to God, his “best thought,” and, whether “by day or
night,” his only remaining “light.” Some suggest that when the hymn is sung, singers
should close their eyes; and perhaps by sharing just a taste of Dallan’s experience we
will experience more deeply his reliance upon God.
Irish liturgy and ritual scholar Helen Phelan, a lecturer at the University of
Limerick, points out how the language of this hymn is drawn from traditional Irish
culture: “One of the essential characteristics of the text is the use of ‘heroic’ imagery to
describe God. This was very typical of medieval Irish poetry, which cast God as the
‘chieftain’ or ‘High King’ who provided protection to the people or clan. The lorica is one
of the most popular forms of this kind of protection prayer and is very prevalent in texts
of this period.”
Forgaill was eventually martyred by pirates, but his poetry lived on as a part of
the Irish monastic tradition for centuries until, in the early 20th century, Mary Elizabeth
Byrne translated the poem into English. In 1912, Eleanor Hull versified the text into
what is now a well-loved hymn and prayer. The prayer that at every moment of our
lives, God would be our vision above all else. Following the original publication in
Ireland, the hymn was included in a number of British hymnals. After World War II, the
hymn came to the attention of hymnal editors in the U.S. and it has become a standard
hymn in most hymnals today. (Source: hymnary.org)
This hymn also gives words to my faith and trust in God when I am unable to put
words to why I believe what I believe. During the summer of 2020, when I sometimes
didn’t know what to pray, a pastor friend and I decided to read through hymnal and use
hymns as our prayers. As you may imagine some hymns worked better than others for
this, but all hymns are also prayers. The lyrics of hymn hit nerve my own prayers could
no longer find. I would pray: “Heart of my own heart whatever befall, still be my vision,
oh ruler of all,” over and over again.

Friends, it is my prayer that we all find a hymn which prays the deepest prayers
of our hearts that sometimes need music in order to come out. Amen.

Songs of Faith: God’s Creation

Prayer: God of song and story, attune our ears to hear what you would have us hear this day. Inspire our hearts and minds to join in your song and your story. In Christ’s name, amen.

            Today we continue our summer sermon series, “Songs of Faith.” Each week we will take a closer look at the stories behind some of the beloved songs used to profess our faith. Both of today’s hymns lift up the beauty of God’s natural world. Phillip James Bailey says, “art is man’s nature: nature is God’s art.” And Florence Coates once said, “When we are at home with nature, we are one with God.” Our hymns today both praise God for the beauty of God’s creation.

            But before we delve deeper into these stories, let’s turn to our text for today. The book Psalms has inspired many hymn writers which isn’t too surprising since psalms are wonderful collection of prayers and songs that contain wide ranges of emotion. Hear these words from Psalm 145, a psalm which may have echoed in the ears of these hymns’ authors.
            I will lift you up high, my God, the true king.  I will bless your name forever and always.I will bless you every day.  I will praise your name forever and always.
The Lord is great and so worthy of praise! God’s greatness can’t be grasped.
One generation will praise your works to the next one, proclaiming your mighty acts.
They will talk all about[b] the glorious splendor of your majesty; I will contemplate your wondrous works. They will speak of the power of your awesome deeds; I will declare your great accomplishments. They will rave in celebration of your abundant goodness;
they will shout joyfully about your righteousness: “The Lord is merciful and compassionate, very patient, and full of faithful love. The Lord is good to everyone and everything: God’s compassion extends to all his handiwork!” All that you have made gives thanks to you, Lord; all your faithful ones bless you!
11 They speak of the glory of your kingdom; they talk all about your power, to inform all human beings about God’s power and the majestic glory of God’s kingdom. Your kingdom is a kingship that lasts forever; your rule endures for all generations.
The Lord is trustworthy in all that he says, faithful in all that he does.[c]
The Lord supports all who fall down, straightens up all who are bent low.
15 All eyes look to you, hoping, and you give them their food right on time, opening your hand and satisfying the desire of every living thing.
17 The Lord is righteous in all his ways, faithful in all his deeds.
18 The Lord is close to everyone who calls out to him, to all who call out to him sincerely. 19 God shows favor to those who honor him, listening to their cries for help and saving them.20 The Lord protects all who love him, but he destroys every wicked person. 21 My mouth will proclaim the Lord’s praise, and every living thing will bless God’s holy name forever and always.

            Where do you feel most close to God? Where do you go for your soul to sing? Perhaps in a beautiful valley, by a river, near mountains or oceans. Often times, especially lately, I feel most close to God when I am outside, among the beauty of God’s creation. I tend to do a lot of prayer walking these days as much as the weather allows.  As I walk, psalms like Psalm 145, and familiar hymns echo through my spirit like prayers.  It isn’t hard to look around at the beauty of creation and see how hymn writers were inspired by nature. The hymns we will explore today were written in response to being in God’s natural world and among God’s beautiful creation.

            Today’s first hymn, All Creatures of Our God and King, is an expression of praise which was originally written in 1225 by one of the more interesting figures in church history, Giovanni Bernardone, who is better known as Francis of Assisi. St. Francis was a mystic, medieval monk who spent a lifetime as an itinerant evangelist –preaching the gospel at all times and when necessary using words.

            St. Francis was born in Assisi, Italy in 1182 to a family with considerable means. After an early indulgent life as a solider, at the age of twenty five his life took a complete turn, and he reformed his ways dramatically.  He denounced his inherited wealth and began determined to serve God by imitating the selfless life of Christ.  It was once said about him that: “Saint Francis came to preach- with smiles he met the friendless, fed the poor, freed a trapped bird, and led home a child: Although he spoke no word- his text, God’s love, the town did not forget.”

            St. Francis was known as a nature lover. He saw the hand of God in all creation. The hymn we know today as “All Creatures of our God and King” is from St. Francis’ write entitled, “Canticles of the Sun.” It has been said to have been written a year before St. Francis’ death, on a hot summer day in 1225, while Francis was ill and suffering the loss of his eyesight. It was written as a love letter to God and God’s creation.      Throughout his life, he made much use of singing and believed strongly in the importance of church music and wrote more than sixty hymns for use in the monastery where he lived. This beautiful expression of praise is one that has survived the passing of several hundred years.

            The English translation of hymn was done by William Draper, a village rector in England who prepared this paraphrased version for a children’s choir festival sometime between 1899 and 1919. (Source: 101 Hymn Stories by Kenneth W. Osbeck)

            Our second hymn which lifts up experiencing God in nature is, Oh Lord My God better than as How Great Thou Art. The original text was a Swedish poem composed by a Swedish pastor, Rev. Carl Boberg in 1886.  Rev. Boberg was a leading evangelist of his day and the editor of an influential Evangelical Lutheran Church of Sweden periodical Sanningsvittnet (“Witness of the Truth”). Boberg served in the Swe­dish par­lia­ment and published sev­er­al vol­umes of po­e­try, including hymns. He al­so helped com­pile the first two hymn­als for the Swe­dish Co­ve­nant Church.

            Boberg’s inspiration for the hymn’s well known and well-loved words came from a visit to a beautiful countryside estate in on the southeastern coast of Sweden. Boberg was enjoying creation when suddenly he was caught in a midday thunderstorm with awe-inspiring moments of brilliant thunder and flashing voices of lightening.  Legend has it the storm passed as quickly as it had come and was followed by the clear brilliantly bright sun. In the quietness after the storm, Boberg heard the calm, sweet song of birds in trees. Such an experience prompted the pastor to fall to his knees in humble adoration of the mightiness of God.  Soon he penned the nine stanzas of the original version in Swedish beginning.  Several years later, when attending a meeting, Boberg was surprised to hear his poem sung by a congregation to an old Swedish folk melody.

            The subsequent history of the poem is somewhat unclear, but interesting. An earlier literal English translation of four of the stanzas by E. Gustav Johnson in 1925 began “O mighty God, when I behold the wonder.” This version never caught on, however, though it may be found in some hymnals.

            English missionary Stuart K. Hine (1899-1989) and his wife heard the Russian version sung as a vocal duet in the Ukraine. As the Hine couple crossed into Sub-Carpathian Russia, the mountain scenery brought back the memory of this song. The first three stanzas were composed while in the Carpathian Mountains. When war broke out, Hine and his wife were forced to return to England in 1939. They used the first three stanzas in evangelistic endeavors during the “Blitz years.” The fourth stanza was added after the war.

            In his hymn companion book speaking about the hymn’s history, Baptist hymnologist William Reynolds cites comments by George Beverly Shea (1909-2013) on the hymn’s introduction in the United States through the Billy Graham Crusades: “We first sang [it] in the Toronto, Canada, on Crusade of 1955. Cliff Barrows and his large volunteer choir assisted in the majestic refrains. Soon after, we used it in the ‘Hour of Decision’ [radio broadcasts] and in American crusades. In the New York meetings of 1957 the choir joined me in singing it ninety-three times!” (Reynolds, 1976, 162).

            Many popular singers ranging from George Beverly Shea to Alan Jackson to Carrie Underwood have recorded their own renditions of the beloved hymn. Perhaps the most beloved and memorable rendition of hymn was sung by Elvis Presley on his farewell tour in 1977 just a few weeks before his death.

            One of the most recent times I heard this song was at recent NEXT church conference in beautiful Montreat, NC.  In his sermon, the preacher encouraged each of us to rest and to spend time in the beauty of God’s creation. To sit among the trees and to hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees. To feel God’s unwavering and loving presence outside. In such a beautiful mountain setting the verse, “When through the woods and forest glades I wander, and hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees. When I look down from lofty mountain grandeur and hear the brook and feel the gentle breeze,” really compelled all of us to be among creation…to ponder all the awesome wonderfulness of God. To have our souls sing. That’s prayer for all of us here today…to allow our souls to sing.

Oh Lord, my God
When I, in awesome wonder
Consider all the worlds Thy hands have made
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder
Thy power throughout the universe displayed

Then sings my soul, my Savior God to Thee
How great Thou art, how great Thou art
Then sings my soul, my Savior God to Thee
How great Thou art, how great Thou art!

            Friends, take time this day and every day, to sit in the beauty of God’s creation and to allow your soul to sing. Amen.

Songs of Faith: Jesus Loves Me

Prayer: God of song and story, attune our ears to hear what you would have us hear this day. Inspire our hearts and minds to join in your song and your story. In Christ’s name, amen.

            Someone wise once said, “When words fail, music speaks.” I believe this to be true not only with secular music but perhaps more potently with music sung or heard during worship.  D. L Moody writes, “Singing does at least as much as preaching to impress the Word of God upon people’s minds. Ever since God first called me, the importance of praise expressed in song has grown upon me.” Another anonymous author once said, “Christian song is the overflow of the Christian heart. If our hearts are full, our singing will be full.” Some of us may have very well learned to sing our faith long before we could articulate our faith. Music also triggers memories which can be powerful in the context of our faith.

            With this spirit in mind, throughout the summer we will take a closer look at some of the beloved hymns and the stories behind the words and music. Some weeks we will talk about multiple hymns but today, we are starting with a beloved hymn which I learned long before reading any story in the Bible…and I’m guessing some of you had the same experience.  But before we go to today’s hymn, I invite you to hear words of scripture which may have echoed in hymn writer’s ears as she wrote the text.

Scripture: 1 Timothy 4:11-16 (The Message)

11-14 Get the word out. Teach all these things. And don’t let anyone put you down because you’re young. Teach believers with your life: by word, by demeanor, by love, by faith, by integrity. Stay at your post reading Scripture, giving counsel, teaching. And that special gift of ministry you were given when the leaders of the church laid hands on you and prayed—keep that dusted off and in use.

15-16 Cultivate these things. Immerse yourself in them. The people will all see you mature right before their eyes! Keep a firm grasp on both your character and your teaching. Don’t be diverted. Just keep at it. Both you and those who hear you will experience salvation.

Matthew 19:13-14 (CEB)

13 Some people brought children to Jesus so that he would place his hands on them and pray. But the disciples scolded them. 14 “Allow the children to come to me,” Jesus said. “Don’t forbid them, because the kingdom of heaven belongs to people like these children.”

            Our text from Matthew reminds us of how Christ approached and cared for children.  Our first hymn of summer we will take a closer look at is the one just sung, “Jesus Loves Me.” 

            Without a doubt the hymn that has influenced children for Christ more than any other is this simply stated one, written in 1860, by Anna Bartlett Warner. Anna Bartlett Warner was born in 1827 to a wealthy New York lawyer and his wife.  Unfortunately Anna’s mother died from complications during her birth leaving Anna and her sister Susan to be raised by their father. The family did well until they suffered severe financial losses in the Panic of 1837.  Such difficulties left the family desperate and faced with eviction from their home.   As teenagers both Anna and her sister Susan began writing to earn a little money to help out with the family debts and expenses. By the late 1850’s the two sisters were writing novels that were very popular in the last half of the 19th century. In 1860 Susan published a novel entitled Say and Seal which became, like many of their books, a best seller.

            Today not many remember the plot of the novel, which stirred the hearts of many readers. But a simple poem, written by Anna spoken by one of the characters, Mr. Linden, remains a favorite hymn of Christians today.

            In the novel, a motherless boy, Johnny Fax, is ill, and is comforted by his Sunday school teacher as he is dying. The teacher, John Linden, sings this hymn, entitled ‘The Love of Jesus’.  Listen to Anna and Susan’s words from the pivotal scene: “The quiet rest of the little sleeper was passing off—-changing into an unquiet waking, not with the fear of yesterday but with a restlessness of discomfort that was not easily soothed—-words seemed to have lost their quieting power for the time—–but after a while one of these words (spoken by Johnny) was ‘sing.’ Mr. Linden (‘s) tune was almost as low as his footsteps but Faith heard every word: Jesus Loves me this I know/ For the Bible tells me so/ little ones to him belong/ They are weak, but He is strong.” Mr. Linden having remembered Jesus welcoming children and letting the children sit on his knee in turn taught the love of Christ to those in his class, including Johnny. The book went on to be a best seller of its day and the poem lives on.

            Anna and Susan Warner were highly educated and deeply devoted Christian women who lived all their lives along the Hudson River in New York, in a lovely but secluded area apart from the busy world. Their home was near the US Military Academy at West Point and for a number of years the sisters conducted Sunday school classes for the young cadets. After the sisters passed away, their home was willed to the Academy and made a national shrine. When the sisters passed away both of them were buried with military honors in recognition of their spiritual contributions to the lives of the young military officers. Anna not only shared the love of Christ with those she met, in writing Jesus Loves Me, she’s shared Christ’s love with countless people across world and generations. (Source: Kenneth W. Osbeck’s book, “101 Hymn Stories: The Inspiring True Stories behind 101 Favorite Hymns,”)   

            Over the course of the song’s life, writers have added or substituted stanzas that they felt were more suitable for their context. The hymn has been adapted and translated probably more than any other hymn in the English language.

            As you can imagine a hymn so widely translated and loved has touched the lives of countless people around the world.  Of the many stories about this hymn, one of the most memorable came from the Swiss-German theologian Karl Barth.  Numerous sources attest that they heard Barth cite the first stanza of the hymn in response to a question posed to him at the close of a series of lectures in Rockefeller Chapel in 1962 towards the end of his life at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

            A weary Barth agreed to respond to questions at the conclusion of the lectures. Some recall the seminary president posing the question, “Of all the theological insights you have ever had, which do you consider to be the greatest of them all?” Others recall that the question was, “How would you summarize your theology in a single sentence?” Still others say a student asked Barth if he could summarize his whole life’s work in theology in a sentence. Barth allegedly said something like “Yes, I can. In the words of a song I learned at my mother’s knee: ‘Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Regardless of the possible legendary nature of the facts, the hymn was cited and the truth of the hymn remains. (Roger E. Olson, “Did Karl Barth Really Say, ‘Jesus Loves Me, This I Know?’” Patheos (January 24, 2013)

            Karl Barth was not the only person from history to be influenced by the hymn. In 1944, John Hersey wrote an article for The New Yorker entitled “Survival.”  This was the story, told to him by John F. Kennedy, of the rescue of Kennedy and his crew after their PT-109 boat was destroyed in the Solomon Islands.  After being stranded several days on an island, Kennedy and his men were discovered by two natives.  Through the efforts of these natives who led a rescue boat to the island, the men were saved.  Hersey concludes his dramatic account with this anecdote:  “Johnston (one of the rescued men) retired topside and sat with his arms around a couple of roly poly, mission-trained natives.  And in the fresh breeze on the way home they sang together a hymn all three happened to know:  Jesus Loves Me” (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1944/06/17/survival)

            To Hersey’s readers, in the midst of World War II, these well-known words with their simple expression of faith had a special meaning.  This familiar hymn, carried all over the world by nineteenth century missionaries, has long been a part of the Christian education of many children.  The simple words and tune are easily learned and thus make it a great favorite in Sunday school classes for young children. Therefore, it is not so surprising that it should pop up as a common bond between the American sailors and the Solomon Island natives.

            Perhaps you have your own favorite memories of “Jesus love me.” Perhaps it was at a baptism or Early Sunday School class or beloved camp. I can remember several times when I needed to make my faith a little simpler as Karl Barth mentioned and just needed to remember the powerful reminder of Jesus’ love, the reminder of even in a culture that might not also love us, Jesus’ love for us in unending and unwavering.

            Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Friends, know Jesus loves each and every one of you in this space and beyond. Know this truth, give thanks for such everlasting love, and seek to share this news with others.

 Amen.

Embody the Mission of Christ

Prayer: Holy God, come among us this day. Attune our ears to hear, attune our hearts to be open and responsive, and through the power of your Holy Spirit, guide our steps towards action. We are here- we are listening- we are ready. Amen.

            Today we will take a closer look at Paul’s letter to the early Christ followers living in Philippi. As Dan mentioned last week, scholars believe Paul was the most prolific writer of New Testament, writing a total of thirteen books. Paul writes mostly in letter format to specific communities where he had developed relationships through his travels of sharing gospel. He writes to continue teaching early Christ followers, but also to encourage them in faith. With that in mind, listen to words from Philippians 2:1-13.

Therefore, if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort in love, any sharing in the Spirit, any sympathy, complete my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, being united, and agreeing with each other. Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others. Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus:

Though he was in the form of God,
        he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.
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,
        he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death,
        even death on a cross.
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.

12 Therefore, my loved ones, just as you always obey me, not just when I am present but now even more while I am away, carry out your own salvation with fear and trembling. 13 God is the one who enables you both to want and to actually live out his good purposes.

This is the story of God for the people of God- thanks be to God.

            First of all a disclaimer, our call to embody the mission of Christ, to be humble and not selfish, to think of other’s needs before our own, is awfully hard and countercultural. It is hard work that Christians do not always get right, because community is messy.

            Desmond Tutu writes, “One of the sayings in our country is Ubuntu- the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality, you are known for your generosity. We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole World. When you do well, it spreads out: it is for the whole of humanity.”

            Paul gets the importance of interconnectedness, of emulating Christ, of not being selfish. He wants Christ followers in Philippi to understand this importance.

So what does it look like to adopt an attitude of Christ? Thankfully, as Paul points out in today’s text, we are not left alone to figure out what unity and humbleness looks like. In Christ we see many examples of humbleness. We see throughout the gospels how Christ lived out and embodied his mission, by washing dirty feet, welcoming sinners, and humbling himself to the point of death on cross.

So yes, I think Christ weeps when we throw up walls of hateful divisions. When we exclude someone just because we see them as “other.” When we are unable to hear someone else’s side of the story.

I think Christ longs for the “us” versus the “them” to transform into the “we” community of faith. The fellowship of all believers.

I think Christ dreams of a day when the collective “we” is bigger than the individual “me.”

I think Christ deeply desires a version of South African Ubuntu and God’s children’ recognizing the “I am because we are” spirit.

This does not mean we neglect our own needs.  Remember Jesus took breaks to rest and to eat. Nelson Mandela continues to describe concept of Ubuntu by saying, “Ubuntu does not mean that people should not enrich themselves. The question therefore is: Are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you to be able to improve?”  Do you acknowledge the self as an inseparable, integrated part of the “we”?

Friends, as we move our faith into action and think about humbling ourselves as Christ did some questions we may want to ask ourselves are:  are we willing and ready to embody this unified mission of Christ? Are we ready to with Christ’s help, tune our souls to the needs, hopes, and concerns of others? What are some tangible ways we can think of other’s needs before our own?

Sometimes thinking of other’s needs before our own needs looks like showing up for each other, even and especially when it is hard. It looks like coming alongside the hurting, the sick, the grieving.

Sometimes it looks like serving others as Christ served others.  Sometimes it looks like seeing Christ in the eyes of someone who is not like you….or seeing someone you may not like with God’s eyes. It can look like humbling yourself in hard conversations.  It can look like fessing up when you are in the wrong.

Other times, thinking of other’s needs before your own looks like taking on a posture of vulnerability and going where Jesus’ heart is breaking.

Sometimes thinking of others’ needs before our own looks like raising our voices in cries for the voiceless.  It looks like advocating for our children’s safety and right to an education, and hope to grow up. It looks like writing letters to our governing officials both locally and nationally. Because friends, if there is one thing I pray we all collectively can come together in unity on, no matter our backgrounds, it is the idea that we need to protect children. 

            I’d like to close with a thoughtful current events poem, written as response to today’s texts and to recent events by a friend, the Rev. Courtney Mils Jones Willis, pastor of First Baptist Church in Greensboro, NC. She writes:

“Look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others….

It’s a lovely sentiment

But it feels hard.

And so we freeze

Because we like things the way they are.

But it turns out those things sometimes get in the way of other’s interests,

You know- like going to the grocery store, or to places of worship, or school.

And we like to place blame.

And we like to point fingers.

And we do that until we are weary.

Until the energy is depleted and the ashes are scattered, and we hold our collective breath

until the next time.

And we lament that nothing can be done.

We cry out to God about how long it will be.

We beg our Lord Jesus to come- to come along our pain.

Forgetting that we have the ability,

No- the authority,

No-the calling to be co-creators of an earth that is as it is in heaven.

But we continue to claim that it can’t be fixed. That the goal is out of reach.

And we become complicit through apathy, independence, and languid moments.

Because it certainly won’t happen in my house, my neighborhood, my town, my life, my school.

Yet distantly we hear a call: Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”(Slightly adapted)

            Friends, “look not solely to your own interests, but watch out for what is better for others….adopt an attitude that is in Christ Jesus.” Lord, in your mercy—may it be so. Amen.

Not At Our Best

All right ya’ll, there’s a lot going on in our scripture today and lots to unpack—but before we jump in, I invite ya’ll to think with me of a specific time when you’ve not been the best version of yourself; for whatever reason, you were tired, sick, stuck in traffic, whatever the reason, think about that moment and ask yourself, could God still use you during that moment?

Prayer: God, challenge us this morning as we listen to the scriptures and be compelled to act. Challenge us to see things we may not want to see and to hear things we may not want to hear. Open our eyes to the ways you show up and call us to carry our faith into the world, amen.

 One day, when we were on the way to the place for prayer, we met a slave woman. She had a spirit that enabled her to predict the future. She made a lot of money for her owners through fortune-telling. 17 She began following Paul and us, shouting, “These people are servants of the Most High God! They are proclaiming a way of salvation to you!” 18 She did this for many days.

This annoyed Paul so much that he finally turned and said to the spirit, “In the name of Jesus Christ, I command you to leave her!” It left her at that very moment.

19 Her owners realized that their hope for making money was gone. They grabbed Paul and Silas and dragged them before the officials in the city center. 20 When her owners approached the legal authorities, they said, “These people are causing an uproar in our city. They are Jews 21 who promote customs that we Romans can’t accept or practice.” 22 The crowd joined in the attacks against Paul and Silas, so the authorities ordered that they be stripped of their clothes and beaten with a rod. 23 When Paul and Silas had been severely beaten, the authorities threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to secure them with great care. 24 When he received these instructions, he threw them into the innermost cell and secured their feet in stocks.

25 Around midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. 26 All at once there was such a violent earthquake that it shook the prison’s foundations. The doors flew open and everyone’s chains came loose. 27 When the jailer awoke and saw the open doors of the prison, he thought the prisoners had escaped, so he drew his sword and was about to kill himself. 28 But Paul shouted loudly, “Don’t harm yourself! We’re all here!”

29 The jailer called for some lights, rushed in, and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 He led them outside and asked, “Honorable masters, what must I do to be rescued?”

31 They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your entire household.” 32 They spoke the Lord’s word to him and everyone else in his house. 33 Right then, in the middle of the night, the jailer welcomed them and washed their wounds. He and everyone in his household were immediately baptized. 34 He brought them into his home and gave them a meal. He was overjoyed because he and everyone in his household had come to believe in God.

            When we read scripture, we don’t always have the motive for why people act the way they do. But today we do know a bit about Paul’s motive at least in the first part of our text. Paul’s motive is not to redeem the girl; it is not to challenge the oppressive economic system that allows certain people to be owned by other people. In this instance, Paul is motivated by his emotional state–specifically, he demands that the spirit come out because he is annoyed. He does not care about the girl. He doesn’t even look at her; she follows him around–she is always behind him. He doesn’t speak to her; he speaks only to the spirit that inhabits her. And once the spirit is gone, this nameless slave girl, now without her means of making money for her owners, simply drops from Paul’s consciousness. Paul does not free the girl out of kindness. He commands the spirit to leave the girl because she is getting on his nerves.

            Here’s the thing, though. The spirit obeys Paul’s command. Paul calls out in spirit in the name of Christ and at that moment the spirit leaves her.

            Now, Paul would probably tell us he’s human and makes mistakes. He has no power in and of himself; all power comes from Christ who lives in him and works through him. It is not Paul who makes the spirit leave the girl; it is the Holy Spirit.

            So, despite Paul’s flawed motives, he is an agent of God. Despite the fact that he is not concerned about the girl, he brings the healing power of God into her life. I am bothered by the fact that Paul never really sees this girl, but I trust that she is seen by God. I am bothered by the fact that Paul never speaks to her, but I trust that, in her new life, the gentle voice of the Holy Spirit comforts her and guides her. I am bothered by the fact that we don’t know this girl’s name; but I trust that God knows her name. I’m bothered that she is abandoned. But even though Paul abandons her—even though her owners, who only used her visions for their own gain and I’m guessing were not the best of people, even though they possibly abandon her….And yes even when the narrative of Acts abandons her, seeming to use her story as a segue into another, I trust that God does not abandon her. I trust that this slave girl continues to be part of the story of the early church and a part of the narrative of God’s activity in the world.

            Despite Paul’s failure to recognize this girl as a child of God, the Holy Spirit works through him for her healing. It is good to know that God is God. While we are called to serve God—-the availability of God’s saving, healing power is not dependent upon our pure motives, our patience, or our selfless attention to those around us.

            Friends, sometimes, God works through us despite our deep failures. God can work through us when we aren’t the best versions of ourselves. God works through us in ways far beyond our efforts, far beyond our imaginings, and in spite of us.

____________________________________________________________

            A pastor and author named Mike Yaconelli tells a story about a disgruntled deacon in his church who did not live up to the title. Deacons, much like our visitation team, are leaders within the church who are sent to visit with members and engage in the ministry of compassion.  But the deacon in this story did not pray for folks in the church or send them cards or call them or visit the sick or do any of those things that he should have done as a deacon.

            One day Mike Yaconelli said to him, “I have a group of young people that go to an assistant care home and put on a worship service once a month. Would you drive them to the care home and at least do that?” The deacon agreed, perhaps reluctantly. 

            The first Sunday the deacon was with the kids at care home, he was in the back with his arms folded, perhaps really wanting to be somewhere else, as the kids were leading worship up front. All of a sudden, someone was tugging at his arm. He looked down and there was this old man in a wheelchair. He took hold of the old man’s hand and the old man held his hand all during the service. The next month that was repeated. The man in the wheelchair came and held the hand of the deacon. The next month, the next month, and the next month- a familiar routine of simply holding hands carried on with each visit.

            Then the old man wasn’t there. The deacon inquired and he was told, “Oh, he’s down the hall, right hand side, third door. He’s dying. He’s unconscious, but if you want to go down and pray over his body that’s alright.”

            The deacon went in and found the man asleep. The deacon took the man’s hand and prayed that God would receive the man, that God would bring this man from this life into the next and give him eternal blessings. As soon as he finished the prayer, the old man squeezed the deacon’s hand and the deacon knew that he had been heard. He was so moved by this that tears began to run down his cheeks. He stumbled out of the room and as he did so he bumped into a woman. She said, “He’s been waiting for you. He said that he didn’t want to die until he had the chance to hold the hand of Jesus one more time.”

            The deacon was amazed at this. He said, “What do you mean?”

            She said, “Well, my father would say that once a month Jesus came to this place. ‘He would take my hand and he would hold my hand for a whole hour. I don’t want to die until I have the chance to hold the hand of Jesus one more time.’” (Retold from Mike Yaconelli’s account of events.)

—————————————————————————————————————–

            Friends, have you ever been there? Have you ever shown up not exactly at your best, hoping God might work anyway, or perhaps if we are honest, maybe not even paying attention to fact that God can work with us when we aren’t at our best?  It is a comfort to me that God can use us even when we are not at our best.  That we can be the presence of Christ to others even when we are reluctant, uncomfortable, and unsure of what we are doing—Christ can use us even when are motives are off or we aren’t bringing our best selves into the room.  It is a comfort to me that God can use us for good in each other’s lives despite ourselves.

            So as I mentioned, there’s two stories in today’s text. The second is Paul and Silas in jail. There’s a narrative connection between the first and second story–Paul’s exorcism of the girl is what lands him in jail. But Paul seems almost like a different person in the second story.

            Whereas, in the first story, Paul is self-absorbed and irritable, in the second story he displays amazing patience. He and Silas are praying and singing in their cell, unconcerned about their physical discomforts. When a miracle happens, the earth shakes, the cell doors open, the chains fall off. Here’s the point in the story where I would know God was at work. And I would also know that when God works to open a jail cell door and break chains, God probably wants me to walk out the door and get back to work, proclaiming the Gospel.

            Yet somehow Paul discerns God’s broader purpose in this miraculous event. And while God works through Paul earlier despite Paul’s impulsive, selfish actions, here we see God’s work accomplished because Paul exercises incredible self-restraint, because Paul cares more about the life of the jailer than about his own life.

            We know that on this particular occasion, all turns out well for Paul. But Paul did not know how this story would end. The jailer could have killed him. He could have locked him up again–and there may or may not have been another earthquake. Because of Paul’s restraint, his accurate discernment of God’s will, his courage, the jailer’s life is saved. The jailer and his entire household are saved. They receive the Good News of Jesus.

            This is a joyful event for Paul. To share the Gospel. To baptize the household. To share a meal with them and join them in rejoicing in God’s grace and love. It strikes me that Paul missed out on all of this with the slave girl. He never told her, personally, about the love of Christ. He never baptized her or ate a meal with her. He missed the joy.

            It is a comfort to know that God does not need us to be faithful, attentive, and perfect. That God can work through us despite our selfishness. That we can be agents of God’s healing power even if we do not intend to be. God can use us whether we cooperate or not. But the abundant life Jesus came to bring is realized most fully when we pay attention to this. It’s a blessing to be part of the joy. Friends, think with me about how much richer our lives are when we are conscious agents for the work of God, following the Great Commandment to love God with all of our hearts and to love others as we love ourselves. How much better to have our eyes open to the miracles God is performing within us and around us- even when we are not our best selves.

Amen.

Weren’t our hearts on fire?

Prayer: Risen and Everlasting Lord, you meet us regardless of where we are on our roads of life. We pray you meet us yet again today. Allow our eyes to see what you’d have us see. Come among us. Transform our lives. We are here- we are listening. Amen.

            We are now in the season known as Eastertide. Eastertide is a special season within the church that celebrates and reminds us of all the ways our Risen Lord shows up in our world. One of my seminary professors reminded us that Eastertide is a wonderful time to be reminded that as Christians each Sunday is seen as a “little Easter.” The season challenges us to be on lookout for the Risen Christ who is still active among us today.  

            So today, we take a closer look at Luke’s second resurrection story. The stone has been rolled away. The tomb is empty. The first proclaimers of good news, the women, had been to the tomb and with excited confusion ran to spread the news with the others. I love this particular resurrection appearance because after all the excitement of Holy Week, death, and resurrection, Jesus goes for a walk. Listen now to words of Luke 24:13-35.

13 On that same day, two disciples were traveling to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. 14 They were talking to each other about everything that had happened. 15 While they were discussing these things, Jesus himself arrived and joined them on their journey. 16 They were prevented from recognizing him.

17 He said to them, “What are you talking about as you walk along?” They stopped, their faces downcast.

18 The one named Cleopas replied, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who is unaware of the things that have taken place there over the last few days?”

19 He said to them, “What things?”

They said to him, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth. Because of his powerful deeds and words, he was recognized by God and all the people as a prophet. 20 But our chief priests and our leaders handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him. 21 We had hoped he was the one who would redeem Israel. All these things happened three days ago. 22 But there’s more: Some women from our group have left us stunned. They went to the tomb early this morning 23 and didn’t find his body. They came to us saying that they had even seen a vision of angels who told them he is alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found things just as the women said. They didn’t see him.”

25 Then Jesus said to them, “You foolish people! Your dull minds keep you from believing all that the prophets talked about. 26 Wasn’t it necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” 27 Then he interpreted for them the things written about himself in all the scriptures, starting with Moses and going through all the Prophets.

28 When they came to Emmaus, he acted as if he was going on ahead. 29 But they urged him, saying, “Stay with us. It’s nearly evening, and the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 After he took his seat at the table with them, he took the bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he disappeared from their sight. 32 They said to each other, “Weren’t our hearts on fire when he spoke to us along the road and when he explained the scriptures for us?”

33 They got up right then and returned to Jerusalem. They found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34 They were saying to each other, “The Lord really has risen! He appeared to Simon!” 35 Then the two disciples described what had happened along the road and how Jesus was made known to them as he broke the bread.

            “Weren’t our hearts on fire as we walked with him down the road?” While it may be tempting to quietly roll our eyes and judge the two disciples who didn’t recognize Christ on the seven mile trek from Jerusalem to Emmaus- my guess is if we are honest, we’ve all at one time or another walked on our own versions of the Emmaus road. There probably have been times in our lives when we’ve been too distracted or not fully present in a moment and have missed things along the way. Perhaps it was because of intense grief like the disciples in text had while they walked. Perhaps it was a time when for whatever reason we lost the sense of the bigger picture. Perhaps it was when perfectionism blinded us from seeing the true expansive grace of Christ. Perhaps it was a time when we were exhausted or disillusioned by life. Maybe we lost the ability to place ourselves in the expansive, all-encompassing story of God’s love for humanity. Perhaps we were discouraged because we expected one thing from God and received something quite different.

            I’ve been there, have you? Sometimes seeing and recognizing our Risen Lord at work is hard. In a way it can be like looking for something valuable you’ve lost that is actually right in front of you. I do this with my car keys a lot. I am so busy looking for them in all the wrong places that I don’t see they are on the key hanger, exactly where they are supposed to be. In the moment, I’m too distracted and worried that they will never be found. Sometimes recognizing Christ is our midst is hard.

            These followers of Christ walked alongside the risen Lord for a while over tough terrain and all the while Christ took them through scriptures about himself. He points out words of the prophets that foreshadow him.  He teaches them along the way and even when they don’t get it—he stays with them. He joins them for a simple meal.

Artist Diego Velazquez imagines how the scene from scripture unfolded once they arrived for meal. In his painting, “Kitchen Maid with the Supper at Emmaus,” pays homage to the women- noting it was the men who didn’t believe the resurrection report of the women, and who were blind to the Christ who was right in front of them all day. In the imagination of Velázquez (Vuh-la-skez), it was a kitchen maid who first recognized the resurrected Lord.

            In the painting she is the main figure and visual center point and is in the foreground. Jesus and the men are relegated to a back room in the background and we can see them only through a window-like opening. The woman seems distracted. In her left hand she holds a ceramic jug of wine. But her heart is elsewhere, she’s glancing over her right shoulder, listening carefully to the back room conversation. She bends over to support herself. The stunned expression on her face indicates that her eavesdropping has confirmed her suspicion. She’s in a state of shock at having recognized the man she’s serving. She’s seen him before- he is no ordinary man.

            Whereas the men had been blind to the identity of Jesus even when he was with them for a seven-mile walk, the maid recognized the risen Christ while working in the mundane context of a kitchen. Reminds me of saying that “God is found in the pots,” said Teresa of Avila.

            Denise Levertov’s (lever-tovf) poem The Servant-Girl at Emmaus (A Painting by Velázquez(Vuh-la-skez),) reimagines this moment. We know from a note of hers that she had seen the painting in Ireland. She pens what’s called an ek-phra-sis — that is a literary description that illuminates a visual work of art. The poem is an extended meditation on Velázquez’s (Vuh-la-skez), painting. I invite you to listen to it now.

“She listens, listens, holding
her breath. Surely that voice
is his – the one who had looked at her, once, across the crowd,
as no one ever had looked?
Had seen her? Had spoken as if to her?

Surely those hands were his,
taking the platter of bread from hers just now?
Hands he’d laid on the dying and made them well?

Surely that face—?

The man they’d crucified for sedition and blasphemy.
The man whose body disappeared from its tomb.
The man it was rumored now some women had seen this morning, alive?

Those who had brought this stranger home to their table
don’t recognize yet with whom they sit.
But she in the kitchen, absently touching the wine jug she’s to take in,
a young Black servant intently listening,

swings round and sees
the light around him
and is sure.”

            Once Jesus and his companions are seated around the table, Jesus takes bread.  He takes, blesses, breaks, and gives. So small a thing. So small a thing that changes everything.  Through the familiar ritual Christ is recognized by his companions. Food memory is a powerful thing but it can be difficult to trust in the transformative power of small things. A bit of bread. A sip of wine. A common table. A shared meal.  

            But the Emmaus story speaks to this power — the power of the small and the commonplace to reveal the divine.  God shows up during a quiet evening walk on a backwater road. God is made known around our dinner tables. God reveals God’s self when we take, bless, break, and give.  God is present in the rhythms and rituals of our seemingly ordinary days.

            What does this mean right now?  It means God is in the text, phone call, or card you send to the lonely neighbor.  Jesus is the stranger you see across the street when you walk your dog. The sacred is in the conversation you have with your stir-crazy child. If the Emmaus story tells us anything, it tells us that the risen Christ is not confined in any way by the seeming smallness of our lives. Wherever and whenever we make room, Jesus comes.

            So friends, as we continue to celebrate little Easters every week, may we be on the lookout for ways our Risen Lord is moving among us. My prayer for all of us this season is a bit of a rife from a Mary Oliver quote which I use in my email signature to remind me to be on the lookout for Christ.

            Pay attention: meaning don’t become so busy or distracted along your own Emmaus roads that you miss glimpses of the Divine along the way. When our hearts on are fire, let’s try to remember and pay attention.

            Be astounded: When we encounter Christ in the ordinary days, be awestruck. The followers of Christ in today’s passage hearts were on fire when the Risen Christ was talking to them on the road. When your heart is on fire because of Christ, be filled with awe and wonderment.

            Tell about it: like the women on the first resurrection morning and the ones who recognized Christ in the breaking of bread. Once you see Christ, don’t keep it to yourself. Tell others about your experience.

            So friends: Pay attention. Be astounded. Tell about it.

            Amen.

Even the stone will cry out

Prayer: Holy God, sometimes life feels like a parade rushing by us as we stand on the sidelines and try not to miss it. There are hundreds of things that catch our eye, but the thing we missing the most is you. So slow down the speed on this parade. Paint the colors of this world a little brighter. And dance through the words in our scripture passage until it is almost impossible for us to miss you there. God, we are here. We are trying to pay attention. Gratefully we pray, amen.

            Friends, as we begin Holy Week and re-explore familiar texts, I invite you to close your eyes as I read our scripture this morning. As I read, ask yourself: what do you see? What do you hear? How is Luke’s account of this familiar event different from other gospels? Here’s these words from Luke 19: 28-40.

28 After Jesus said this, he continued on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.

29 As Jesus came to Bethphage and Bethany on the Mount of Olives, he gave two disciples a task. 30 He said, “Go into the village over there. When you enter it, you will find tied up there a colt that no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31 If anyone asks, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say, ‘Its master needs it.’” 32 Those who had been sent found it exactly as he had said.

33 As they were untying the colt, its owners said to them, “Why are you untying the colt?”

34 They replied, “Its master needs it.” 35 They brought it to Jesus, threw their clothes on the colt, and lifted Jesus onto it. 36 As Jesus rode along, they spread their clothes on the road.

37 As Jesus approached the road leading down from the Mount of Olives, the whole throng of his disciples began rejoicing. They praised God with a loud voice because of all the mighty things they had seen. 38 They said,

“Blessings on the king who comes in the name of the Lord.
    Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heavens.”

39 Some of the Pharisees from the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, scold your disciples! Tell them to stop!”

40 He answered, “I tell you, if they were silent, the stones would shout.”

            I love to walk and pray.  On a particularly hard day last year I remember a bright yellow stone catching me eye as I wandered through my walk. I stopped to pick it up and saw not only bright colors but a message—keep on, keeping on. How many of you have seen painted stones throughout town over last few years? These creative works of art provide ways people express themselves through painting ordinary stones beautiful colors and writing inspiring messages on their rocks. The rock artist then hides the stone for someone else to find in hopes of sharing a smile and connection with the person who finds the stone. These painted stones carry messages of hope meant to be passed on. Even stones have stories to tell and messages to share. When reading today’s text throughout the week the image that jumped out most to me were stones.

            It may be Palm Sunday, but there’s no sign of palms branches being cut from trees in Luke’s account of that day. We may sing beautiful and heartfelt choruses of “Hosanna” but in Luke’s telling of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, not a single “Hosanna” is yelled by the excited crowds who gathered as Christ rode into town. We’ll have to look in Matthew, Mark and John to find our traditional images of Palm Sunday. Luke’s account is the alternative version — and, in some ways, the most intriguing version. Without palms or “Hosannas,” Luke’s narrative provides us with something unique— stones. In fact, from Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness of turning stones to bread—to the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, from the stones mentioned Mount of Olives to the empty tomb, Luke places stones at key points of Jesus’ journey.

            Luke’s stones are not first stones in scriptures that tell gospel stories: The stones the crowd didn’t throw at the woman caught in sin; yell mercy! The five smooth stones shepherd boy David placed in sling; chanted trust! The stones from the well where Jesus met a women and asked her for a drink; sing songs of the deep, abundant, living waters found in Christ. Stepping stones and stumbling blocks begin to murmur; grace. The tablets of stone Moses brought down mountain loving sing; attend. The twelve stones Joshua gathered from the Jordan quietly whisper; remember. The stones used to build up wealth at other’s expense, shout from their spots on the wall; injustice! The pillar of stone Jacob assembled knowingly explain; God is here! The stone that was rolled away says nothing but joyfully rolls away from every grave.

            The Pharisees tried to silence the joy and noise of Christ’s entry—but the joy and the good news being shouted in the streets was too important and would come out regardless of whether or not it made people like the Pharisees uncomfortable. In reply to the Pharisees’ request, Jesus says, “I tell you, if these were silent, even the stones would shout out” (Luke 19:40). The importance of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem cannot be denied. If his disciples don’t announce it, then the stones along the road will take up the chorus. Jesus is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. We won’t acknowledge him, praise him, acclaim him, then the stones will bear witness. The very stone the builders rejected will ultimately become the cornerstone. The message cannot be ignored or silenced. If for any reason followers of Christ succumbed to cowardice and compliance, God would raise up the voices and cries of rocks and stones. The message and promise of Holy Week would escape into the ears of people regardless of who gave the message. The Lordship of Jesus must be proclaimed. The stones know it so.

            Let’s begin to ask ourselves this week: what voices cannot be silenced? What things can we no longer stay quiet about? Pastor Ashley Birt observes, “Expressing our joys, telling our truths, asking questions we need to ask, repenting and making amends, being our honest and authentic selves—these things are too important to be silent. We shouldn’t have to restrain ourselves because some may experience discomfort.” We should be free as rocks, to yell, to sing, to cry out and praise Christ.  

            I invite you to listen to the poem, Even the Stones Will Cry Out, from Rev. Sarah Are Speed:

“The Pharisees found Jesus;

they said,

“Order your disciples to stop.”

It’s not the first time

justice was almost

silenced. People stood on the

sidelines shouting hosanna

which means, “Save us,”

“Save me.”

It’s not the first time we’ve

heard that cry from the street.

The Pharisees said

stop. They wanted the people

quiet, but some things can’t be

silenced.

Justice will bubble up,

hope will raise its head,

love will rise to the surface.

Hate and fear will try to

drown them out,

but you cannot silence

what was here first,

which was love,

and it was good.

It was so good.

So even the stones will cry out.

Remember that

at your parade.

Justice will bubble up,

hope will raise its head,

love will rise to the surface.

Amen.”

            Today, we begin a journey that holds within it the fullness of the human story — the highs, the lows, the hopes, the fears.  Pastor Debie Thomas observes, “In the span of seven days, we do it all: we praise, process, break bread, wash feet, make promises, break promises, deny, betray, condemn, abandon, grieve, despair, disbelieve, and celebrate.  This week, we see the light at the end of the tunnel, lose our vision of it entirely in the grimness of death, and then find it again, drenched in glory and put back together again through the cross.”

            Palm Sunday is a complicated Sunday in which perhaps more than any other, this festive, ominous, and complicated day of palm and hosanna banners warns us that paradoxes we might not like or want are woven right into the fabric of Christianity.  God on a donkey. Stones crying out. Dying to live. A suffering king. Good Friday.

            However, it is these very paradoxes that give Jesus’s story its shape, weight, and texture, calling us at every moment to hold together truths that seem bizarre and counterintuitive. *These very paradoxes demand our attention as we travel the road with Christ between Palm Sunday and Easter morning. So friends, may it be our prayer as we enter into Holy Week, for the courage to listen for the cries of those long silenced. May we still have the faith and attentiveness to listen to the stones lining the road Jesus traversed, for these stones know what Palm Sunday is all about. May we NOT skip from Palm Sunday to Easter morning and take time to sit with stones and reflect on the wondrous and unwavering love of God…and when the time comes, our praises be louder than the stones.

            All God’s children say- Amen.

Under God’s Wings

Prayer of Illumination: Loving God, draw us in close to you so that we may be attuned to our words for us this day. Open our ears to hear you, open our eyes to see you, open our hearts to share your love—In Christ’s name, amen.

Luke 13:31-35

31 At that time, some Pharisees approached Jesus and said, “Go! Get away from here, because Herod wants to kill you.”

32 Jesus said to them, “Go, tell that fox, ‘Look, I’m throwing out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will complete my work. 33 However, it’s necessary for me to travel today, tomorrow, and the next day because it’s impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’

34 “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those who were sent to you! How often I have wanted to gather your people just as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. But you didn’t want that. 35 Look, your house is abandoned. I tell you, you won’t see me until the time comes when you say, Blessings on the one who comes in the Lord’s name.”[a]

            The gospels are at heart, a love story. Within the pages we learn the love of God is so deep, so wide, so unending, and so expansive that there are not enough words or images in any language that can fully explain God’s love. However, today’s gospel reading tells of perhaps the most painful type of love- a heartfelt love that is presented openly and given feely that is only met with rejection. Loving someone who might never come around to being open to receive our love is painful.

            Perhaps you can think of times you’ve loved freely only to have unrequited love….at least at first or to be met with rejection. As a 22 year old youth director I can recall a couple incidents when teens were suspicious of my open arms/ mother-henning at first…if you’ve been a parent, perhaps you can relate.

            For as long as I can remember, my family has been involved in animal rescues. About fifteen years ago, I laid on my bedroom floor trying to coax a very feral cat out from under the bed. I loved him from the moment I saw him, but he didn’t immediately come around no matter how hard I tried and no matter how much I loved him. I gained many a bite mark and scars from this stubborn tabby who would recoil from my hand with a hiss and a scratch. Even as this cat pushed my limits of love, my love for him remains.

            In our text, Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem is powerful to say the least. You can hear a righteous indignation and a deep anguish in his words. He not only is foreshadowing his triumphal entry and his own execution, but his pain is for the waywardness of his people is evident. Yet he is not willing to back down to the political powers at be in order to protect his people. He is courageous and fierce, not scared of Herod at all. And despite how he was treated in Jerusalem- he stood willing to gather folks in- wiling to die. He is the kind of man who stood with the poor and oppressed against the corrupting fox’s power and empire.

            On the western slope of the Mount of Olives sits a small chapel called Dominus Flevit, which translated from Latin means: The Lord wept.  The name comes from today’s text where Jesus grieves for Jerusalem. According to tradition, it was here that Jesus wept over the city that had refused his love. In front of the church’s altar there is a haunting mosaic. The mosaic portrays a white hen with a golden halo around her head. Her red comb resembles a crown, and her wings are spread wide to shelter the pale yellow chicks that crowd around her feet for safety. There are seven little chicks with black dots for eyes and orange dots for beaks. They look happy to be there. The hen looks ready to spit fire if anyone comes near her babies.

            Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest and writer who lives on a farm in north Georgia and, I believe, has chickens there, has some insight on this image Jesus gives us.  She says:

            “If the city were filled with hardy souls, this would not be a dangerous situation. Unfortunately, it is filled with pale yellow chicks and at least one fox. In the absence of a mother hen, some of the chicks have taken to following the fox around. Others are huddled out in the open where anything with claws can get to them. Across the valley, a white hen with a gold halo around her head is clucking for all she is worth. Most of the chicks cannot hear her, and the ones that do make no response. They no longer recognize her voice. They have forgotten who they are.

            If you have ever loved someone you could not protect, then you understand the depth of Jesus’ lament. All you can do is open your arms. You cannot make anyone walk into them. Meanwhile, this is the most vulnerable posture in the world –wings spread, breast exposed — but if you mean what you say, then this is how you stand. The mother hen has no fangs, no claws, no rippling muscles. All she has is her willingness to shield her babies with her own body. If the fox wants them, he will have to kill her first.” 

            The animal images Jesus uses are curious – the description of Herod as a fox and himself as a mother hen. A fox, then as now, was a dangerous insult in a way that other predatory animals were not. A fox is a predator but a sly one, one who uses cunning rather than outright power. And how does Jesus describe himself in comparison? As something able to match a cunning evil fox like Herod? No – Jesus compares himself to mother hen. Not that mother hens are anything to be trifled with. Have you ever seen a hen protect her chicks? She is willing to stand her ground, stay the course, and face horns of animals if necessary.  A mother hen is fiercely protective, caring, and prepared to sacrifice herself for the sake of the chicks. While a mother hen is effective at intimidating farm animals; she is not a very powerful match for any predator and particularly not a fox whose favorite meal are young chicks.

            Taylor goes on to say, “But a hen is what Jesus chooses, which — if you think about it –is pretty typical of him. He is always turning things upside down, so that children and peasants wind up on top while kings and scholars land on the bottom. He is always wrecking our expectations of how things should turn out by giving prizes to losers and paying the last first. So of course he chooses a chicken, which is about as far from a fox as you can get. That way the options become very clear: you can live by licking your chops or you can die protecting the chicks.” This model of God’s expansive love stings a bit, especially when we are the ones who turn away from mother’s protecting wings.

            I invite you to hear words from Rev. Sarah Are Speed, a poem entitled, “Come Rain or Shine”

“I will keep on.”

That’s what I heard him say.

I will keep on

driving out demons

and healing people,

speaking the truth

and loving endlessly,

searching for the lost sheep

and crying for the brokenhearted,

feeding the hungry

and welcoming the outcast.

“I will keep on.”

That’s what he said,

Right after he said my name,

Right after he called me beloved,

Right after he welcomed me home

and saved me a seat.

And I knew,

there was no stopping him.

I was under his wing.

Come rain or come shine,

today and tomorrow,

this love keeps on”

            In all the horribleness of the world, God just desires us to draw near. The fierce love of Christ always “keeps on.” Jesus comparing himself to a mother hen is a favorite image of God’s everlasting and protective love- a love fuller than we can possibly imagine. A love which keeps on, even with eyes fixed towards Jerusalem and the cross.

            Friends, as we continue on our Lenten journeys, may we remember Lent provides an opportunity for us to reflect on God’s love as well as an opportunity to rest in God’s expansive love. We can let go of things in our lives that distract us from the love of God. We can take on disciplines and practices which help draw us deeper into the embrace of God’s wings. We can know that even if we stray from the safety and comfort of Christ’s wings—-even if we do not always love Christ fully, Christ is still present—still opening wings and welcoming those who have strayed—still wanting to protect us like a mother hen.

            Maybe this Lenten season, we all can strive to do a little better loving as God loves—which though impossible for us—is still a worthy goal. Maybe we can work on making room under God’s wings for others. Maybe sometimes people will be like my once feral cat who had a turnaround, and now loves me unconditionally—maybe as we share God’s love they will want to give all the love they can in return even after being reluctant to come around. We are still called to bear witness to Christ’s love which is not only reserved only for people like us. Sharing God’s love can be as simple but as impactful as Polish people leaving strollers for Ukrainian mothers who flee violence. For friends, there is indeed a full wide world that needs that love.

            In the name of Christ, who loves us as fiercely as a mother hen loves her chicks—-amen.

Ash Wednesday: With All You Are

“Stardust” Image by Sanctified Art

Friends, as I read tonight’s text, I invite you to hear these words as a prayer.
Often when preparing for sermons, I find words that jump off the page and into my
heart- I invite you to do the same tonight.


Psalm 51:1-17
Have mercy on me, God, according to your faithful love!
    Wipe away my wrongdoings according to your great compassion!
2  Wash me completely clean of my guilt;
    purify me from my sin!
3  Because I know my wrongdoings,
    my sin is always right in front of me.
4  I’ve sinned against you—you alone.
    I’ve committed evil in your sight.
That’s why you are justified when you render your verdict,
    completely correct when you issue your judgment.
5  Yes, I was born in guilt, in sin,
    from the moment my mother conceived me.
6  And yes, you want truth in the most hidden places;
    you teach me wisdom in the most secret space. [a]
7  Purify me with hyssop and I will be clean;
    wash me and I will be whiter than snow.
8  Let me hear joy and celebration again;
    let the bones you crushed rejoice once more.
9  Hide your face from my sins;
    wipe away all my guilty deeds!
10  Create a clean heart for me, God;
    put a new, faithful spirit deep inside me!
11  Please don’t throw me out of your presence;
    please don’t take your holy spirit away from me.
12  Return the joy of your salvation to me
    and sustain me with a willing spirit.
13  Then I will teach wrongdoers your ways,
    and sinners will come back to you.
14  Deliver me from violence, God, God of my salvation,
    so that my tongue can sing of your righteousness.

15  Lord, open my lips,
    and my mouth will proclaim your praise.
16  You don’t want sacrifices.
    If I gave an entirely burned offering,
    you wouldn’t be pleased.
17  A broken spirit is my sacrifice, God. [b]
    You won’t despise a heart, God, that is broken and crushed.
Joel 2:12-17
12  Yet even now, says the Lord,
    return to me with all your hearts,
        with fasting, with weeping, and with sorrow;
13  tear your hearts
        and not your clothing.
    Return to the Lord your God,
        for he is merciful and compassionate,
        very patient, full of faithful love,
            and ready to forgive.
14  Who knows whether he will have a change of heart
    and leave a blessing behind him,
    a grain offering and a drink offering
            for the Lord your God?
15  Blow the horn in Zion;
        demand a fast;
        request a special assembly.
16  Gather the people;
        prepare a holy meeting;
        assemble the elders;
        gather the children,
            even nursing infants.
Let the groom leave his room
        and the bride her chamber.
17  Between the porch and the altar
        let the priests, the Lord’s ministers, weep.
    Let them say, “Have mercy, Lord, on your people,
        and don’t make your inheritance a disgrace,
        an example of failure among the nations.
    Why should they say among the peoples,
        ‘Where is their God?’”


I have a confession this evening. I am not ready for Ash Wednesday and Lent
this year. Maybe it is because examining our own mortality and the mortality of our
loved ones and looking death square in the face breaks my heart. Maybe it is because a
reminder of sin and how broken I am as a person and how broken the world is just
stings right now. After another year of collective COVID trauma piled onto the horror
and violence happening in Ukraine, it is no wonder why Ash Wednesday feels extra
heavy this year. People I love and people you love are hurting. We feel broken. Perhaps this is why the words that leapt off the page from tonight’s scripture are: A broken spirit
is my sacrifice, God. [b] You won’t despise a heart, God, that is broken and
crushed. And:   Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your hearts, with
fasting, with weeping, and with sorrow. We are encouraged by these lines to come
to God with all that we are.


Perhaps this is why I appreciate our Lenten theme: Full to the brim which
reminds us that we can come to God fully as we are- flaws and all. We are able to bring
our stuff and lay at God’s feet whether we are ready for Lent or not. To take our whole
selves, our beat up, broken, exhausted souls to God who meets us in the ashes with
expansive grace and love. Perhaps this lent is good time to remind us to believe that we
are truly worthy of love, belonging, and grace. As we remember that may we hold close
that not only us, but all outside walls and everyone on planet are worthy of God’s love,
grace and belonging as well.


If you need Lent to be about absorbing the love of God, then let it be about
absorbing the love of God. Recognizing you are ashes doesn’t necessarily mean you
have to sit in ashes. Maybe that is why perhaps this year, more than ever, Jan
Richardson’s, “Blessing the Dust” tugs at my heart strings. I invite you to hear her words
now:
BLESSING THE DUST
All those days
you felt like dust,
like dirt,
as if all you had to do
was turn your face
toward the wind
and be scattered
to the four corners
or swept away
by the smallest breath
as insubstantial—
did you not know
what the Holy One
can do with dust?
This is the day
we freely say

we are scorched.
This is the hour
we are marked
by what has made it
through the burning.
This is the moment
we ask for the blessing
that lives within
the ancient ashes,
that makes its home
inside the soil of
this sacred earth.
So let us be marked
not for sorrow.
And let us be marked
not for shame.
Let us be marked
not for false humility
or for thinking
we are less
than we are
but for claiming
what God can do
within the dust,
within the dirt,
within the stuff
of which the world
is made
and the stars that blaze
in our bones

and the galaxies that spiral
inside the smudge
we bear.


Friends, what is so wonderful about Ash Wednesday and Lent is that through
being marked with a cross of dust we reminded of our own mortality but we are also
always free. Death does not get the final say— in life and death we belong to God.


May each of you be reminded that the God of your salvation, the same God who
created you from the very earth to which you will return – the very God of Moses and
Sarah and Abraham is also God for you. This God delights in the truth that you are
God’s very own redeemed sinner beloved in all your broken beauty. For your
brokenness won’t define you because love can always find you. God’s love for you is as
expansive as galaxies and God’s grace bubbles up and overflows.


As you receive these ashes and hear the promise that you are dust and to dust
you shall return, know that it is the truth and that the truth will set you free in a way that
nothing else ever can. Because dear friends, do we not know what the Holy One can do
with dust? Amen.