Into the same garden ~ an Easter prayer for pastors

Easter 2004 at Stevens Avenue Congregational Church UCC

Easter 2004 at Stevens Avenue Congregational Church UCC

How do we walk into the garden?

Some peer tremulously around the corner,
not sure what to expect.
Will the crowds come?
Has spring break taken all the children to grandma’s house?
Will the little church be full?

Some tread wearily,
weighed down by the right now grief
of death and illness in the faith community,
of bad news delivered in the liminal space
of a Holy Saturday.

Some go grudgingly,
wondering if all has been completed,
tired of administrivia
or complaints unwarranted
or wondering if maybe they are,
after all.

Some walk confidently,
trusting the musicians,
the elders and deacons,
the flower committee
and the a/v department,
and the security of many years in one place.

All wonder how to speak the Good News fresh,
to tell the story so familiar,
to find the twist in this word or that one,
to add the illustration that makes it clear
what all this means.

But here’s the wonder.
We don’t understand it. Not a single one of us.
No matter the size of our church,
or the age of the people in the pews,
or the geographic location,
or the social context,
or our years in ministry,
on Easter Sunday we all
walk into the same garden.

We find the stone rolled away,
and with awe we proclaim
what we want to believe
but can hardly imagine:

He is risen!
Alleluia! Amen.

Keeping vigil (Holy Saturday)

It’s a blank spot in the gospel, the night and day and night the women spent between seeing Jesus’ body carried off to the tomb and the morning when they went to grieve him or anoint him or just try to make themselves believe this terrible thing had actually happened. No matter which gospel you read, it’s some part of the Passover Festival, with all the requirements of a holiday, and Sabbath with its own special needs and requirements.

You’ve been there, haven’t you, going through the motions of a special day when grief or the unknown threaten to take your feet out from under you? The world has changed forever, but life continues with its rhythm of calendar and school year and family demands and church, and we keep showing up, trying to be present even in the middle of inner and outer disaster. We show up.

And what’s a vigil but showing up when you don’t quite feel like it? What’s a vigil but staying because you can’t figure out how to muster the emotional energy to leave?

The women didn’t head home to Bethany or Galilee or Magdala or anywhere else they might have found comfort or safety. They stuck there in Jerusalem, identifiable witnesses who stood at the cross. They stayed. I think of Susan and Lucy at the Stone Table, keeping vigil through the night with Aslan’s body, absolutely stricken and hopeless.

It’s hard to call that up about Jesus now, for the preacher or the church-goer, even for the faithful attender of every service in Holy Week. We know what’s coming. We know that the Altar Guild or the Flower Committee is over at church today pulling stamens out of the lilies for the sake of the allergic preacher, or arranging the daffodils and hydrangeas, making the sanctuary ready for tomorrow’s inevitable celebrations. Trumpeters practice the big Easter hymns – maybe looking at them for the first time since last year, a little casual about what is to come.

In the church garden

In the church garden

But the women. The women. They did not know, they had no idea, even if they had heard him say the things he hinted to the disciples about three days and rising. We grow complacent. We know those bulbs are coming up again, that we can buy baby chicks at the farm store, or a bunny at the pet store. We know what is coming tomorrow at church. We know.

What we don’t always know is when the darkness of our own lives will lift, when the grief will become remotely manageable, when we will find a new way where the old one is entirely blocked or irretrievably broken. What we don’t always know is when or whether the stone closing our tomb will be rolled away.

Who sits vigil with us?

The one who laid in that tomb, the one who knows the darkness of rejection, of apparent failure, of abandonment – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He cried these words on the edge of death; he even knows death.

He’ll sit there with us, Jesus will, as long as it takes. He’ll sit there as long as it takes. I promise you this. He’s keeping vigil right now with people who have no expectation that the sun will come up again and shine on a world full of flowers and Easter eggs and new hats and suits and dresses and magnificent hymns and inspiring sermons.

He’s keeping vigil with us.

Maundy (a poem)

Sometimes it’s hard
to love one another,
To love into the foibles
instead of around them.

Mine are uncountable;
Unaccountable, too.

I leave the lights burning,
Turn up the thermostat,
Slip off my shoes anywhere at all.
I turn on televisions then walk away,
Forgetting, the sounds white noise
Underscoring my life.

It must be hard.

...a small portion...

…a small portion…

I have more yarn than
I could ever knit,
Projects begun, put down,
Why I loved the color
Or the texture

To love each other transcends forgetting.
We know and care, but know the truth.
He told us to love so others can know us–
Know him–
It’s a mandate, a commandment,
A rule for living,
Loving orders.

~ Martha K. Spong (originally blogged April 1, 2010)

Maundy Thursday Liturgy for Narrative Lectionary Year 4

Call to Worship             (based on Psalm 26:3-12)

God’s steadfast love is before our eyes.

We walk in God’s faithfulness.

We wash our hands in innocence.

We go around your altar, Lord.

We sing a song of thanksgiving

And tell about your wonderful deeds.

O Lord, we love the house in which you dwell.

We love the place where your glory abides.

In the great congregation, let us bless the Lord.

God’s steadfast love is before our eyes.


Hymn                  Jesus, Thou Joy of Loving Hearts (or Communion hymn focused on body/blood)


First Lesson                    John 6:1-14

Reader 1: After Jesus healed a paralyzed man near the Temple and argued with the Jewish authorities, he went across the Sea of Galilee. A large crowd followed him, because they had seen the miraculous signs he had done among the sick. Jesus went up a mountain and sat there with his disciples. It was nearly time for Passover, the Jewish festival.

Reader 2: Jesus looked up and saw the large crowd coming toward him. He asked Philip, “Where will we buy food to feed these people?” Jesus said this to test him, for he already knew what he was going to do.

Reader 3: Philip replied, “More than a half year’s salary worth of food wouldn’t be enough for each person to have even a little bit.”

(Communion elements are brought forward by an adult and a child.)

Reader 1: One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said, “A youth here has five barley loaves and two fish. But what good is that for a crowd like this?”

Reader 2: Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” There was plenty of grass there. They sat down, about five thousand of them. Then Jesus took the bread. When he had given thanks, he distributed it to those who were sitting there. He did the same with the fish, each getting as much as they wanted. When they had plenty to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather up the leftover pieces, so that nothing will be wasted.”

Reader 3: So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves that had been left over by those who had eaten. When the people saw that he had done a miraculous sign, they said, “This is truly the prophet who is coming into the world.”

Prayer of Confession

Holy One, forgive us. We believe only the things we can see. We want to be faithful to you, but we get caught up in the numbers. A year’s salary will only go so far. Our time gets spent just as fast as our paychecks. We look around and see “not enough” instead of rejoicing that you have given us more than enough. We hold onto what is ours for fear it will all disappear.

Bend back the fingers we have clenched tight shut around the last piece of bread or the last bit of fish. There is more left over than we can calculate. Help us to see it.

(Silent confession)

Assurance of Pardon

Our God is not a cruel parent. Our God seeks to be in relationship with us. Our God loves us enough to take on our form and live among us.

God will not turn us away when we have come confessing with open hearts.

God offers forgiveness and welcomes us to the table of grace and plenty where all the faithful gather. This is the Good News that brings new life.

We thank God for it.

Communion Invitation           

The same people who ate the loaves and fishes followed Jesus the next day, all the way to the other side of the lake. Did they follow him hoping for more signs that he was God? No. Jesus said to them, “I assure you that you are looking for me not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate all the food you wanted. Don’t work for the food that doesn’t last but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”

Friends, we gather at this table not to fill our stomachs but to be fed by spiritual food. Jesus told the people, “The bread of God is the one who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said, “Sir, give us this bread all the time!”

Jesus replied, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” Believing in him, we come to this table to share a holy meal.

Communion Prayer  

Let us pray. Lord, we come to you looking to be fed. We remember the stories of miraculous feeding, of manna in the wilderness, and the abundance of loaves and fishes, and the miracle of the wine at the wedding in Cana. We ask your blessing on these ordinary elements, the bread and the juice. We believe you feed us in ways that go far beyond our literal understanding. Through the awesome wonders of creation to the joy of human love and the power found in a group of people working on your behalf, you have blessed us. You became present to us in Jesus and blessed us further with your grace and mercy. You remain present to us in the working of the Holy Spirit. We give thanks for all the ways you show your love for us as pray together using the words Jesus taught us:

Our Father, etc. Amen.

Words of Institution

Jesus said to them, “I assure you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.  Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in them. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me lives because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. It isn’t like the bread your ancestors ate, and then they died. Whoever eats this bread will live forever.”

Sharing of the Bread and Cup

This is the bread. This is the cup. These are the things of God for the people of God. Come, for all things are ready.

Prayer of Thanksgiving

Holy and gracious God, for the meal we have shared, for the nourishment of the spirit and for the life of this community, we give you thanks. Help us to see miraculous signs wherever we see you. Help us to work always for the food that endures, in Christ’s name. Amen.

Anthem/Hymn                             Ah, Holy Jesus (or similar hymn)

Second Lesson                              John 19:23-24                (Reader Three)

When the soldiers crucified Jesus, they took his clothes and his sandals, and divided them into four shares, one for each soldier. His shirt was seamless, woven as one piece from the top to the bottom. They said to each other, “Let’s not tear it. Let’s cast lots to see who will get it.” This was to fulfill the scripture, They divided my clothes among themselves, and they cast lots for my clothing. That’s what the soldiers did.

Lord Jesus, we divide you. We claim you belong to us. Others claim you belong to them. Help us to see you in your wholeness, pouring out your love for all people.

(Reader Three leaves during hymn, to be followed by choir members, Deacons/Elders w/ chancel items.)

Hymn                                  When I Survey the Wondrous Cross (or similar hymn)

Third Lesson                                  John 19: 25-27               (Reader Two)

Jesus’ mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene stood near the cross. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that time on, this disciple took her into his home.

Lord Jesus, some of your followers stayed with you to the end. We want to have that kind of faith. Give us the strength to see things through, even in the midst of darkness, danger and despair.

(Reader 2 leaves as hymn begins, to be followed by remaining choir members, Deacons, etc.)

Hymn                                  Beneath the Cross of Jesus (or similar hymn)

Fourth Lesson               John 19:28-30                                (Reader One/Pastor)

After this, knowing that everything was already completed, in order to fulfill the scripture, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.” A jar full of sour wine was nearby, so the soldiers soaked a sponge in it, placed it on a hyssop branch, and held it up to his lips.

Lord Jesus, you showed us God’s abundant hospitality and turned water into wine. We showed you human hospitality and let things go sour. We showed no mercy, and yet we ask for your mercy, Lord.

When he had received the sour wine, Jesus said, “It is completed.” Bowing his head, he gave up his life.

(Reader One closes Bible, carries it out of sanctuary.)


Although this liturgy gives general stage directions for stripping the chancel, simply reading the text and responses and singing the hymns should also have an effect of depth and seriousness. Bold lines indicate unison.

I’ve used the Common English Bible throughout the service for any scripture quotations, with a few minor adjustments for narrative clarity. The actual Narrative Lectionary texts for the day are John 19:23-30 and Psalm 26:3. You are very welcome to use or adapt this liturgy. If you do, please let me know in the comments here, and tell me where you are using it.


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