Strive for Full Restoration

2 Corinthians 13: 11-13

This week I needed the words from the letter to the Corinthians . Finally, brothers and sisters, rejoice! Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you. I long for peace, but I think we have a lot of hard work to do along the way before we get there. Still, let’s think about how we might begin. The passage says, encourage one another, be of one mind, strive for full restoration. My friends we need to consider what that restoration might look like. A good place to start is a recognition of the humanity, the inherent worth of those who have long been oppressed.

Early this week, Monday or Tuesday, the days seem all to run together now, I found myself anxious, worried about the events across the country last weekend, the protests to the killing of George Floyd, the violent and destructive acts of some protestors and opportunists, and the disproportionate use of force to largely peaceful protests. As I sometimes do when I am struggling with a difficult situation in my life, I sat down to write. I didn’t get very far but I want to share a bit of what I wrote that morning:  

“And so, I rise to face another day. My body aching from another restless night on top of a day which will be remembered as one more day when the president’s actions revealed his casual disregard for the people of this country. Insult added to injury. A nation sick and in mourning is greeted not with compassion, with words comfort and encouragement, but with insensitivity to the understandable grief and outrage at the cumulative weight of racism. I am worried, I am angry, I am bereft, and I know this feeling in my body. Some might say it is a feeling in their bones.”

Yes, I know this feeling. Perhaps you know it too. When I say I know this feeling, it’s because that sense of being on high alert, the feeling that every nerve ending is alive, was one I lived with as I dealt with my experience of childhood trauma. Thankfully it’s not a feeling I experience often now, but it is something I would not wish an anyone. And yet I’m aware some know it all too well. Now no doubt some experience it differently, but the worry that come with a perceived threat to the self, the family, or the community demands attention and diverts energy from the everyday routine of usual commitments. It is exhausting. And recognizing that, I am brought to my knees for those who experience it on a regular basis.

Think about what it is like for our black brothers and sisters. Every time there is a report of a black man or woman in an encounter with police or self-appointed community observer that ends badly, your heart aches once again. You remember the person in your community who had a close call when stopped by the police for a busted taillight that wasn’t out after all, but just an excuse for a stop. Perhaps you remember threats made when you walked into an establishment where the owner preferred not to serve people they called “your kind.” And you remember the many across the country who did not survive such incidents. Once again you feel called to set aside what you were doing, or worry simply gets the best of you as grief takes the place of the productive work you had planned for the day. And then, next week, next month, it happens again… and again…. and again.

I happened by chance upon an article that voiced the same concern. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson is a marine biologist who works with groups seeking solutions to the climate crisis. Like others she is aware of the costs to the poor and people of color of unwise environmental practices of the past. She is aware that black communities are especially vulnerable to the ravages of storms and pollution by virtue of having access only to overcrowded areas that whites have abandoned. Blacks and other people of color are often consigned to places deprived of clean water and good soil for growing food crops and polluted by chemicals. So, Dr. Johnson, policy expert on the environment and NYU professor, wrote about all the things she had planned that didn’t get done last week because she was distracted from her work. Once again, the deadly results of racism invaded her thoughts and her community, and she says she couldn’t concentrate. Now imagine what that takes away from our society when entire communities are affected, making it difficult for them to function. Dr. Johnson puts it this way. “Consider the discoveries not made, the books not written, the ecosystems not protected, the art not created, the gardens not tended.”**

We need our black brothers and sisters. We need each and every one of us working together if we are to create a just and equitable society. We need to encourage one another, be of one mind, strive for full restoration. Only when we learn to nurture and value the contributions of each and every person will we begin to realize the prophets’ visions of a repaired city and nation. Let us all be about that work. Amen.

*2 Corinthians 13: 11-12 (NIV)
** Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, I’m a black climate expert. Racism derails our efforts to save the planet. Washington Post, June 3, 2020 https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2020/06/03/im-black-climate-scientist-racism-derails-our-efforts-save-planet/?fbclid=IwAR15SrmZTFh98NfOe1HN-UE6sPd2lIUvryT-vVW9cR62cM_DK7U8oW1jC5g

The Pentecost Gift – Understanding

1 Corinthians 12:3-13

Acts 2:1-8      

Today is the festival of Pentecost, the day we remember the work of the Spirit in our lives. From the moment Jesus’ followers felt the spirit moving among them, blowing like a mighty wind and setting their hearts ablaze, they were unstoppable. The fear that had filled their hearts was no longer central. They not only stood up to be counted but shared the story of Jesus’ life and ministry with a passion that inspires people now some 2000 years later.

Listen closely to what the writer of the book of Acts says, “They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different languages as the Spirit gave them power to proclaim his message.”*

You see the text doesn’t exactly say which other languages they spoke, but it goes on to say.

Now there were staying in Jerusalem Jews of deep faith from every nation of the world. When they heard this sound a crowd quickly collected and were completely bewildered because each one of them heard these men speaking in his own language. They were absolutely amazed and said in their astonishment, “Listen, surely all these speakers are Galileans? Then how does it happen that every single one of us can hear the particular language he has known from a child?”**

So maybe they each actually heard their native tongue. It may be that suddenly all those young men who had grown up in the region of Galilee speaking Aramaic suddenly became conversant in a variety of very different languages from the Mediterranean, Asia, and Africa.  Or maybe what the bystanders heard was simply the language of the heart.

Remember also Paul’s words to the people of Corinth: All kinds of things are handed out by the Spirit, and to all kinds of people! The variety is wonderful [and as we heard they include speaking in] tongues and the interpretation of tongues. All these gifts have a common origin but are handed out one by one by the one Spirit of God.***

As I think about it, I imagine the people in Jerusalem who heard the Spirit-filled disciples were simply moved by the disciples’ fervor and devotion. I want to tell you, my friends, that we are much in need of the two gifts named in this passage today, the speaking of and interpretation of tongues. We need people who can speak the truth clearly and plainly in a language that others can understand, and we need people who can interpret the language of hearts that are so broken they are often misunderstood.

This week the country has been rocked by more evidence of the pervasiveness of racism. The encounter in Manhattan’s Central Park was prelude to what came later. Two people were out enjoying a day in the park. The man had come to pursue a favorite activity, birdwatching. The woman was walking as her dog wandered freely nearby.

Signs in that area of the park clearly state that dogs must be leashed. So, the man concerned about protected flora and fauna asked the woman to comply with the leash law, and it went downhill from there. She called the cops, and to give teeth to her claim for assistance, she emphasized her observation that the man was African American and said she was being threatened by him. Now I don’t know what was in her heart, but I do know as do we all that too often encounters between the police and black men do not end well. Often black men, boys, and, yes, women have been killed in encounters with police.

As if to emphasize that concern, while the country was still deep in discussion of the incident in the park, George Floyd was killed later in the week in Minneapolis. A $20 bill he gave the clerk was apparently counterfeit and complying with Minnesota law she called the police. When they arrived, the police treated Mr. Floyd roughly. Handcuffed and on the ground he begged for air, for water, for his mother, for life itself and died as police held him down with a knee on his throat for long minutes as bystanders who were recording the incident pled for mercy for the dying man.

Understandably, black people across the country are in agony at yet another senseless death of one in their community. Centuries of abuse, ancestors in chains, mistreatment and second-class citizenship are not just in the past, they continue to be and feel all too real today. There is a reason one of the most basic lessons black mothers and fathers teach their children is how to respond to an encounter with police and other white people who see themselves and privileged, entitled, and empowered. And – still – they – die.

No doubt you’ve heard the reports of protests and vigils by black citizens and their allies in Minneapolis and other cities and towns across the country. The daytime and nightly events that keep us focused on the unjust treatment of black Americans have now resulted in curfews as violence ensued. Some have been quick to quote Martin Luther King, Jr, who said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” But the story of the violence we have seen is complex. Yes, some is at the hands of those who have not been heard when their silent peaceful actions and statements have been made. Anger seeks expression and white America has turned away, averting eyes and silencing those who spoke out. It is troubling to hear of the destruction of businesses and property, of cities in flames. Especially so knowing that many assume that all the damage is being caused by the protestors. But that is not the case. What started out as peaceful protests turned to chaos when white men, yes, white men, opportunists with an agenda, were the first to start breaking glass and setting fires, hoping to incite violence.

Friends, we must not be fooled. We must listen well and carefully to a variety of sources, to trusted witnesses to these events. And we must have the courage to speak out on behalf of those who have been denied access to the best jobs and education, denied entry into neighborhoods, denied basic services, health care and access to healthy food in their communities, denied even the recognition of their humanity.

All this comes in the midst of an already divided country challenged by indecision and conflicting leadership in a time of pandemic.

We pray for peaceful resolution, for wise and courageous leaders of the communities in crisis. And there is more to be done. It is up to each of us to speak out… for silence is complicity. Speak out for justice and restraint by law enforcement and we must also take time to reflect on our part in and our reactions to the problem of racism.

Those of us who are white must be willing to observe how we have benefitted from a system devised to give every advantage to those of European ancestry, especially the wealthy and educated few who established it. We must be willing to listen to how we respond in words. When we hear the chant Black Lives Matter, we must resist the impulse to respond as some have, All Lives Matter. Yes, it’s true, they do. But in this time, it is black lives that are most at risk. So yes, Black Lives Matter. We must also consider how our body language and our deep instincts often betray the way we have been conditioned to think of blacks and other people of color as different and perhaps something to be feared. You see, this Pentecost we do need the gift of tongues and the interpretation of tongues, languages, and culture.

So, the next time you are in the grocery store or in the parking lot or on a street downtown, or in a place of business, when you encounter a person of another race try to notice how your body and thoughts respond. Does it seem natural? Are you surprised and caught off guard? Do you move away? Do you instinctively guard your belongings? Is your smile genuine or strained? By noticing our responses, we begin to see how we might learn the language of the other. Are we responding to the person or to our lack of understanding of their culture?

Friends, as we pray for our country, pray for the Spirit to move in our hearts and across this land. Let us also pray for the wisdom and the courage to be led into a future that considers and values the humanity of each and every one. Let us resolve to listen deeply to those we know well and to those whose culture and experience is very different from our own, for we are all God’s children.  

*Acts 2:4 NIV

**Acts 2:5-8 JB Phillips

***1Corinthians 12:8-11 The Message

C 2020 Judy K Brandon

The Good Shepherd Cares for All His Sheep (and so Should We)

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Psalm 23

John 10:1-10

One of the Sundays during the season of Easter each year is set aside to think of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. Many churches celebrated last week, but we rearranged the schedule a bit to celebrate Earth Day in April. So today, I would like us to think about Jesus as shepherd and I want to remember those he refers to as his sheep.

News from Georgia this week brought to light the February 23 shooting of Ahmaud Arbery and the subsequent mishandling of the case by law enforcement and court officials. This was only one example of the many ways blacks and other people of color are treated differently than white Americans. The evidence is all around us, and in this time of the coronavirus it is especially noticeable as it is often the marginalized who work essential jobs, long hours, with little pay, and often no protection. So it is also that a disproportionate number of the ill and dying are blacks, Hispanics, and immigrants.

A seminary friend of mine deals every day with trials such as these, the trials of being black in America. Louis is one of the kindest most caring souls I have met. He gives of himself in so many ways. If you tuned in to the most recent UCC General Synod you would have found hhe was one of the people leading worship. He serves as resource for LGBT folks and especially the trans community holding a special place in his heart for the trans women of color who are now and always so at risk that their life expectancy is 35. Ten have been murdered this year just for being who they are. Louis is an advocate who is in tune with the feelings and fears that come from walking in black skin and with all the very real attendant discrimination and struggles of those with whom he identifies.

This week Louis issued the following challenge: “Ask yourself how you would move in freedom, faith, joy, creativity when you are afraid of the cops, the robbers, the church, the government, some folks in your own family….sit with it for a few minutes. and then join me in celebrating those of us who get up, come out or connect from a non-disclosed position, stretch to serve and support each other, stand in the trenches while carrying the terrifying reality that every day is a chase to the finish line and every town is a sun-down town.” *

Some of us may not instinctively understand that last reference. But if you think about it with some of the movies you’ve seen in mind. You may remember how many times black folks have heard words cautioning them not to be caught outside after sundown. Think of it and then imagine choosing life, choosing hope in such circumstances. Every day working toward the beloved community, working to make our communities safe for those who are marginalized because of what color skin they inhabit, of who they are and who they love. Every day reading in the news some reason for concern, some reason they might need to be looking over their shoulder worried about their safety and yet choosing to go on. Could you do it? Are you willing to speak out for those who must? Can you think of some way to engage on their behalf?

I know that much of the work of feeding the hungry and the homeless continues to go on in Downtown Allentown, and many of the clients of those programs are blacks and other people of color. Some of our UCC partners there are continuing their longtime projects, modified for safe practices. Some are stepping into the breach supplying essentials like the diapers not covered by food stamps for families who are now are having trouble making ends meet. The need is great in these times and some of you are already involved. I have been wondering what we as a church community might do when our usual mission practices are on hold. How might we explore further how to engage now and in the future the work of mission and justice as this crisis has peeled back the layers meant to conceal systems that privilege some and dismiss others.

When Jesus talked about being the Good Shepherd, he did not refer to just a favored few pets. No, Jesus talked about and cared about all the sheep, the black ones, the mottled ones, the brown ones, the white ones, the ones who are covered with thorns and brambles, the ones who have strayed far from the fold, the ones who have been walking through the mud and grime. He loves them all. He leads them to safety and tends their wounds. And so should we all. May it be so.

*Louis Mitchell

© Judy Brandon 2020

As We Walk this Road…Abide

Luke 24:13-35           

Abide with Me*

Abide with me: fast falls the eventide;
the darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with m
e.

Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away.
Change and decay in all around I see.
O thou who changest not, abide with me.

I need thy presence every passing hour.
What but thy grace can foil the tempter’s power?
Who like thyself my guide and strength can be?
Through cloud and sunshine, O abide with me. 
                                                                             

I had never considered the hymn we just sang to be a part of the Easter story. But this year as we have observed before, the entire story sounds different in light of our current situation, of being confined to quarters. As we spend long hours, days, and weeks indoors for fear of contracting the virus, we begin to hear the story of Jesus followers with renewed attention. The idea of taking great care about our surroundings no longer seems strange.

We think today about a familiar story of Jesus traveling on the road to Emmaus, and encountering two of his followers who did not at first recognize him. Their preoccupation with the events surrounding Jesus death and early stories of resurrection conjure up for us thoughts of recounting our own experiences in a time of upheaval.

Like those who at the end of an unbelievable week of trauma and surprise returned at the end of the Sabbath to their home in Emmaus, we find ourselves revisiting the stories we have experienced and heard in our time. We retell the tragic and heartrending stories, the brave and inspiring stories, the encouraging and affirming stories, the mundane and routine turned upside down stories. We try to make sense of what has been happening in our lives and what is yet to come.

Natalie Sims, who grew up in the Methodist church and lives in Sydney Australia. She has a love for music for the church and began in 2008 to blog** about the choices of hymns she recommended to her small church. From that small beginning she has become a primary resource for pastors and lay leaders of churches around the world, though her efforts are entirely voluntary. Her passion for the many genera of music used in worship has grown to include: traditional hymns, praise music, African American Gospel, medieval and modern chants, and music of other countries and cultures. She says, “Congregationally, I like songs that are beautiful, that are intelligent, and that are inclusive. I believe a song doesn’t have to be new to fit these criteria.” You would be right if you guessed that I refer to her website on a regular basis.

When I looked at her suggestions for this text and saw her idea of considering the old favorite Abide with Me with this story it stopped me in my tracks. I thought, “Really?” and then I thought…”Of course!”

Like the travelers on the road to Emmaus, we want, we need, Jesus to abide with us. We need the comfort Jesus provides on our journey through this time of uncertainty. This is precisely why we Christians tell our stories, why we retell this particular story, and all of those told by the disciples in the days  following the resurrection, and the ones we tell now in the 21st century experience of a worldwide pandemic.

It is said that people who experience trauma need to retell their story forty times in their attempts to make meaning before they can find healing. Perhaps you remember that the number forty shows up repeatedly in the biblical account. That number 40, often used in scripture to symbolize completion, is just as important now as in times long past.

Like the followers on the road to Emmaus we benefit from telling our stories. In telling and retelling them, we will begin to recognize how Jesus shows up now. We will notice how he is present with us in these days of isolation to comfort and sustain. We tell the stories so that we might re-member hearts and bodies broken and in pain. By re-membering, we slowly and with much care, putting them back together. 

So when the pain of loss, or loneliness, or boredom, or of too much togetherness overwhelms you don’t be afraid to tell your story. Now as always we called to be a community where joys are increased and cares are divided. We journey together knowing Jesus walks beside us, even as we appeal to him to stay, to tarry, to linger, to abide with us.

Help of the helpless, O abide with me,

O thou who changest not, abide with me.

Through cloud and sunshine, O abide with me.

*Henry F. Lyte, Abide with Me, Tune: Eventide by William H. Monk,
Public Domain
**Natalie Sims, Singing from the Lectionary blogspot, http://lectionarysong.blogspot.com/

Earth Day in the Era of Coronavirus

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Psalm 19

Isaiah 40:12-14, 28-31

Each Earth Day for fifty years now we have taken a look at what is happening around us with an eye to the long term health of the planet, not just the people but other life forms, plants and animal. We look at the ecosystems in which they live and wonder how things have changed in the past year, and what it suggests might be coming in the future. This year is different.

Had we predicted what a 50th celebration would be like last October, we would have imagined a very different experience that what has unfolded. We would have expected ongoing discussions about all types of pollution, the impact of conservation and recycling, what can be done to reduce our carbon footprints, preserving the quality of soil, water, and air. We would not have expected that large segments of people in countries around the globe would be staying home to avoid the contagion of a deadly virus.

So what has changed? What do we see now? I’d like to suggest that we think about this time not just to observe what is but also to see it as offering us an opportunity…. and opportunity for a change of perspective.

Perhaps you’ve seen the pictures: People in India are getting clear views of the Himalayas for the first time in decades. Dolphins swim up canals in Venice. Deer roam the streets of Nara, Japan. Turkeys gobble while walking the streets of Boston. Coyotes cross the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco. Noise in major cities has been reduced by 30 decibels allowing city residents to hear birdsong they’d forgotten and hear the sound of birds in flight. The reduction of stress improve the ability of wildlife to reproduce and increases their sense of safety.

It would be shortsighted to look at this and see it as a quick fix to the environmental problems that confront us. We know many of us want only to return to what was familiar. We want to return quickly and fully to life as we experienced it before. We know there are concerns that we will do just that and that some will use of this downtime to discontinue the following of best practices in environmental standards and relax monitoring of compliance with protections for wildlife. Compound that with the worry that today’s challenges to the world economy will leave fewer resources to address the climate crisis. Those are very real concerns and will require our diligent attention, but while we wait and wonder I’d like to suggest we take another approach.

What if we look of the reports of improved air and water quality simply as a sign that such progress is possible? What if we take this opportunity to rethink our relationship with the planet, all its elements and life forms? As we consider this relationship let’s think of it in light of what we value and miss the most during this time of confinement. Let’s listen to the sound of earth breathing. How might we change of habits and our consumption if we keep the health and wellbeing of the entire planet in mind?

This week Yes Magazine published an opinion piece by its editor David Korten, “From Emergency to Emergence.” Korten says,

“The combination of the two emergencies [coronavirus and climate change] is helping us awaken to the profound implications of the simple truth that we are living beings born of and nurtured by a living Earth. Our well-being depends on Earth’s well-being. Life is the goal, community is essential, and money is only a tool.”*

I believe that the actions suggested here align with the words we read from the psalmist and Isaiah. The one who set creation in motion,who flung stars and planets into space creating the galaxies and bringing life to the world and its inhabitants calls us to care for those myriad interconnected component parts. Let us take this time to remember the great and wondrous gift and to reset our plans and priorities to reflect our gratitude for all we have received.

*David Korten, “From Emergency to Emergence,” Yes Magazine, April 23, 2020, https://www.yesmagazine.org/opinion/2020/04/23/coronavirus-rebuild-economy/

Thomas and Us: Living with Uncertainty in the Shadow of the Cross

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2020 Easter 2

John 20:19-31

Where was Thomas that Easter day when the others heard the news of Jesus’ resurrection? Where was Thomas when Jesus stood among them alive again?

Perhaps Thomas was foraging for supplies, or for the word on the street. Perhaps he couldn’t bear to be inside. Perhaps he needed to walk… as the one who paces the floor waiting for the doctor to return after a loved one’s surgery. Perhaps he just needed to see that life still existed beyond the walls. Perhaps….perhaps….

Who was Thomas anyway? Though not often mentioned by name in the gospels, we have heard enough to know what distinguished him from all the other disciples. He was the one who understood what was coming. Among the followers of Jesus, those twelve named as apostles very early in Jesus’ ministry, Thomas was outspoken in his belief in Jesus’ mission, not brash or impulsive like Peter, but strong and assured.

In the days before Jesus’ passion, at the healing of Lazarus, Jesus told his followers about his plan to go the Jerusalem and he spoke of the danger of doing so. It was Thomas among the twelve who urged the followers to go, “Even if we must die with him.” He had understood both the plan and the risk, and he was willing to follow.

Thomas knew about death, some might have called him a realist. He had anticipated Jesus’ death, what he didn’t anticipate or know in advance was how to come to terms with that reality when Jesus was gone and he remained. And he asked the question many have asked since, “How do we go on living when death is all around?”

As we hear the story one of the few that is told every year it seems different. It’s hard to know just where we fit into the story this time. Do we identify with the disciples, shut up behind locked doors in fear? Or are we like Thomas feeling guilty, unsettled, and uncertain? Maybe we’re a bit like Thomas and the rest of the disciples.

We look out from our shuttered homes, seeing the ill, and the brave, and the foolhardy. We hear the news of those who taunt fate, who laugh in the face of the risk. We listen well to the warnings, taking them seriously for the sake of the future, of our children and grandchildren, and for ourselves. We see the ones who can’t stay home, those who work at jobs providing the most essential needs of society, and we see those who have no safe home or lack the necessary supplies.

We may like Thomas feel unsettled at what we see and what we imagine to be going on beyond our closed doors. It may be hard for us to wait quietly while the world is in chaos outside.

I remember my training and hear the oft-repeated instructions for chaplains and ministers who are told to provide a non-anxious presence. In this time of isolation and social distancing, we all need someone to calm our fears. How can one be non-anxious in this time of great loss and uncertainty? How can we sit in stillness when there are so many struggling?

And then we hear the words of Thomas’ encounter with Jesus. In awe, we hear Jesus welcome, even anticipate, the questions. “Come and witness my wounds and know that I am with you. In the scars of my suffering and death see that even now I am with you in life.”

It is hard, no it is impossible, my friends, to see the path that is before us. But we know this, that Jesus’ call for us to care for one another continues, and he promises to be with us in the process. Even as we sit in stillness, in prayer, standing vigil as many suffer. Knowing that those who live crowded in cramped living quarters suffer more illness and death and that those who must work are indeed at risk. It is right for us to be keeping watch. As we hold vigil for them and for the world, as we care for one another to limit the scope of the crisis, let us also reflect on how we live now and in the future. I believe even now God is bringing forth new life in us. Let us imagine how we will live into a future that values everyone. Let us remember that Jesus is with us, bearing with us the pain of the world and speaking to us those words for which we hunger, “Peace be with you.“

Meditation For Earth Day

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Introduction to reading and meditation

From the beginning, God called us into relationship with the divine, with our neighbor, and also with the heavens, seas, mountains, and forests, and all that live there. Isaiah invites us to look to creation, to observe in God’s handiwork the possibility for peace that encompasses all creation.

Hear the words of Isaiah 55: 8-13 (NRSV)

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts.

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
    and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
    giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
    it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
    and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

For you shall go out in joy,
    and be led back in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
    shall burst into song,
    and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;
    instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;
and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial,
    for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.

I invite you now into a time of meditation and reflection. Perhaps the past few days have been frenetic. Your to-do list has kept you inside, removed from the beauty of the outdoors. Today with a still heart you feel deep gratitude for this time set aside for personal renewal and consider how we will protect the fragile and wondrous gift that supports the life God created.

Make yourself comfortable. You may want to close your eyes. With your feet on the floor, relax your body from your toes, to your midsection and then to your face. Breathe deeply of the spirit of God that moves in and around you and release all tension as we imagine a walk in God’s garden.

You have come to this favorite space many times before. Checking your small pack, you prepare to set out with a bottle of cool water and a snack…. Ahead of you a trail beckons. The day is warm as sunlight floods the forest. Overhead, the forest has only begun its springtime transformation from its winter skeletal forms to lush summer canopy. Tiny chartreuse leaves begin to fill the once empty space.

Along the wooded path, you note branches felled by some storm several years past. Now they show evidence of change and decay that supports the new growth on the forest floor where bits of moss are turning green and a new seedling has taken root. Even with just two leaves showing, the seedling will compete with older stronger saplings nearby. Here and there trillium and Dutchman’s breeches flower, intent on gathering strength for another season of growth, their hope to propagate and sustain their species for another generation in this fertile biome.

At long last, you come to your favorite spot, one to which you return at different seasons, year after year. Sometimes the small spring-fed stream swells with the runoff of snow-melt or a summer rain. Today its mere trickle of water from the spring bubbles gently along. You rest your pack against the trunk of an old oak and sit listening.

Other notes fall on your ear… the melody of birdsong and a rustling of leaves in the underbrush as a squirrel scampers across an open space and up a maple. It occurs to you to wonder what the future holds for wild places such as this. You reach into your pack and celebrate a quiet communion with the forest flora and fauna grateful for their presence and their gifts to the cycle of life God created.

As you prepare to leave the forest now, you open your eyes, your mind, your heart and consider how your appreciation for these woodland spaces has led you to respond to the call to stewardship of God’s great gift.

Once again you hear the words of Isaiah…. sharing their earnest hope for many seasons of joyful celebration of all creation.

A Different Palm Sunday

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Matthew 21:1-11

Today I invite you to think about Jesus on that day long ago…

He must have known or suspected what was coming. He’d been hearing opposition from the very beginning. He knew about John’s run-in with Roman leaders. He himself had fielded all sorts of questions from leaders of the temple; from those who were afraid, who perhaps felt threatened, just trying to protect the people, paying the bills, putting food on their own tables. They worried, he knew. He timed his entry as a protest. Echoing the scriptures, his preparations were planned to help the people remember the words of the prophets. Remember that there was hope to stand against the mighty and the powerful who abused their power.

Think about the people on that day…

They must have known or suspected what was to come. They knew all too well the might of their Roman occupiers. They could hear the clatter of horses’ hooves and chariot wheels from across the city. They knew the oppressive taxes that funded Herod’s many castles. Lifestyles of the rich and famous did not just originate in our day. It’s been a theme running throughout history.

In spite of knowing, of harboring a fear of what might come, the people joined with Jesus and his disciples making noise, celebrating in the streets of Jerusalem, bringing joy tempered by fear, but choosing hope, however slim, that somehow their day was coming.

Looking back they may have wondered at their brash parade. Just how had they expected the ragtag crowd of followers that they were to succeed in the face of such a mighty obstacle? But in the years to come, the parade would take on new meaning. Their hopes of one who would be present in challenging times would be realized in countless ways great and small.

The anthropologist Margaret Mead said, Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

Today, we face a mighty threat. It is made evident in the face of a global pandemic. But it has shown its face in opportunists who use the suffering of others to their advantage for fame or power or profit.

But there is another way…the voice of the people lifted up in celebrating the heroes among us; the health care workers and support teams, those who provide transportation of people to hospitals, of food to market, those who deliver mail and babies. In places around the world people under stay at home orders gather nightly on balconies to cheer their heroes, medical staff applaud as those who recover are sent home, restaurants whose business is floundering turn instead to sending food to those on the front lines in hospitals or deliver food and beverages to police and ambulance corps.

And in this community of faith, the work of caring for one another goes on. Your Leadership Circle and those who make telephone contact check-in weekly so we can continue to meet the needs of the people in this time and place.

What will people say of us in that far distant time when COVID 19 is but a memory? They will say that the people followed faithfully in the way of Jesus shouting out their hopes, and yes, their fears. They will say the people trusted in God knowing that in this community of faith, whatever comes, God will be present in the work in the hands and feet, hearts and faces of those who gather here in God’s name. May it ever be so.

The Gift of Time in a Season of Mourning

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John: 11:1-45

I imagine today many of us are feeling more than a little bit like Mary and Martha, and the other mourners gathered at the tomb of Lazarus. We may simply be mourning the changes this new event of a pandemic in our time has brought to our lives, or we may be mourning very specific people and relationships that are of concern to us.

When the time of parting comes, what can be hardest for those to whom it comes suddenly is the inability to say the final words we would like to have said. Now when we are stuck in our homes it is difficult to impossible to reach out and touch those with whom we might like to make amends. But we have do time, time to think and reflect, time to consider what we would like to do and say to those for whom we are concerned. It is a real Lenten moment.

I wonder if it crossed Jesus’s mind as he delayed going to the side of the grieving sisters that they and Lazarus too might have needed some time for reflection and working on their relationships. I wonder how they made use of it? Did they tell each other the stories of the best times they had shared? Did they take time to say “Thank you”, “I love you”, “I forgive you”? Did they share what they had learned from one another? These are the words we would all wish to remember as we say our final farewells.

Jesus did arrive, and he stood at the entrance to the tomb and he wept, and he’s weeping now with us and beside all the mourning peoples of the world, in China and Italy, in Spain and Iran, in Washington and New York,… and In the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania.

When Jesus wept the falling tear in mercy flowed beyond all bounds.

When Jesus groaned a trembling fear seized all the weary world around.*

One of the sayings or memes on the internet this week was “This is the Lentiest Lent I’ve ever Lented.” No doubt this is true for the vast majority of us. This Lenten season is calling us, no demanding of us that we put that time to good use. So take time in these days we’ve been given, to reflect on your life and relationships. Share your thoughts with your loved ones, in person when you can, on the phone or in a card or letter. Make this a time of growth and renewal of spirit. Most of us will come through this time, but things will be different. Let’s work to make our lives on the other side of this crisis better, even more loving and dedicated to all the world and its people.

We do not know what tomorrow holds. Truth is, we never do. But, by faith, we do know this: Jesus walks with us into tomorrow, standing beside us in sunshine and shadow, in joy and in sorrow, and he always will.

*William Billings, When Jesus Wept, 1770

Blue Christmas or Longest Night Ritual

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Blue Christmas or Longest Night Ritual of Prayer and Candle Lighting.

A table is set with candles artfully arranged as you choose. Some candles are lit before the service and others will be lit by those in attendance at the designated time. At the chosen place in the liturgy the following is inserted into the order of worship:

NAMING OUR BROKENNESS IN PRAYER AND RITUAL

Tonight we come, people who have been there. We have been the recipients of difficult news, experiencing it in the core of our body, the pit of our stomach, the rending of our heart. It may be recent or long ago, but the decorations and merriment of holidays going on around us recall and accentuate the sadness we feel.

Some are bereft; recalling the faces no longer present around the dinner table, some have been touched by a recent accident or new diagnosis for themselves or a loved one. Some are enduring a slow but sure lessening of abilities, noticing a stumbling or faltering step, failing vision that dims the sunlight and intensifies the darkness.

Some have lost a sense of place or purpose, a pink slip bodes of empty days and bank accounts, others are disoriented with a new address in an unfamiliar neighborhood, school or place of work.

Some come with shattered dreams, loss of plans and possibility in the experience of tragedy. Some come feeling loss with even a welcome and expected change that also brings uncertainty for the future.

And so we come to light candles, candles that tell of our longing for healing in this season of waiting. The candles we light tonight bring to mind the themes of Advent. Hope. Peace. Joy. Love. Those familiar themes are not only for the individual weeks of the season, but for all of Advent and for all the days of our lives. For we are in need of the gifts they bring, a sense of wholeness in the midst of change and uncertainty, healing for our brokenness.

LITANY FOR HEALING

We look for hope in the face of loss. Hearts are touched by sadness of empty times and empty spaces in our midst. Fill our hearts with hope for tomorrow, O God, that we may be healed.

We look for peace in the ashes of communities. Homes and public places, cities, countryside, entire nations lie in ruin, torn apart by the violence and distrust, tribalism and war. Teach us the ways of peace, O God, that we may be healed.

We look for joy in place of sorrow. Days of mourning remembered, tables with meager offerings in lean times, celebrations where loved ones are absent. Renew our sense of purpose, O God, that we may be healed.

We look for love in the emptiness of our lives. Feeling forgotten, that no one cares, that people are apathetic to the concerns of others. Remind us of your care. Reconnect us. Show us that we are part one of another, O God, that we may be healed. Amen.

LIGHTING CANDLES FOR HEALING

Come now, to light a candle for healing for the loss or concern you bear tonight. Those who wish to do so may name their concern aloud as a request for prayer.

As music plays softly, people come forward to light candles. When people return to their pews we will keep silence that will end when a bell is rung after 3 minutes.

The service then continues with prayer, selected readings and song.