Bend back our fingers (a prayer for pastors)

Holy One, 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 what we think is 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.

Help us to see it all:

Flat Jesus at RevGals REVive

Flat Jesus at RevGals REVive

Joy
Grace
Mercy
Peace
Love
Abundance
Healing
Understanding
Assurance
Nurture
Resurrection
Breakfast
Companionship
Comfort
Welcome
Faithfulness
Bread
Fish
Wine
Light
Heaven
Home
Sustenance
Justice
Water
Baptism
Pardon
Forgiveness
Illumination
Inspiration
Spirit
Salvation
Word
Song
Breath
Bodies
Touch
Presence

For all these blessings, we give you thanks and praise. Amen.

The Table at REVive closing worship

The Table at REVive closing worship, where we prayed the list of words, each one written on a paper fish to remind us of the 153 in John 21.

When we need a break (a prayer for pastors )

Dear God,
We need a break.
We need a break from
Losses that shake us,
Committees that say no
To our vision
Or to our selves,
Struggles with no solutions
(Churches, bodies, church bodies),
Wedding couples seeing
Churches as Venues
And clergy as Vendors,
Sixty hour weeks,
Though we accept the blame for that last one -
Most of the time.

Even so,
We need a break.
How long, O Lord?
How long?

But you are faithful
In your love for us,
So we count on
Something, anything,
Good happening
Even as we count down
The hours until vacation,
Or a congregational vote,
Or the birth of that longed-for baby.

We look for the break you offer
In the kind words of an elder,
And the warm hug of the home-for-summer student,
And the not-quite-right joke a proud 5-year-old tells at coffee,
And the just right story from the just-returned mission tripper.

We give thanks for the break anticipated,
The gathering of colleagues for recreation and REViving,
The relaxed air of a Summer Sunday service,
The faces of churchgoers who never miss a Sunday,
And the car, trunk packed and gas tank filled, ready to take us away.

003Whether we travel to
Ocean or lake or mountains,
Or old home places,
Or a day trip to ride the roller coasters,
May we find the break we need,
The rest you offer.
Whether we wait for
Phone call or email,
Results of tests or exams,
May the end of the tension come soon.

And may we keep it together,
Until the key
Is in the ignition,
For Christ’s sake. Amen.

Death Comes to the Hydrangea

As it was when planted.

As it was before planting.

When I married at age 41, one of the gifts I received was a hydrangea, the kind that grows someday into a beautiful umbrella of pink blossoms. I delighted in it. Despite our young dog’s scrabbling at its roots, and rude winters freezing it in a bent over position, it blossomed abundantly. We staked it and pruned it and relied on it, until after a not-so-bad winter, the wedding present hydrangea, aged 7-and-a-half, simply did not put forth leaves or buds. I stood beside it downhearted, wondering what I could have done differently. How could I have saved it?

In the fall, when it became clear that my marriage would not outlast the hydrangea, friends came from all over the country to stand beside me, and in the way that people have when they want to help us, but the real problem can’t be solved, they fell to doing tasks around my house. They painted and raked and mowed the lawn and tried to fix the icemaker and filled the freezer with lasagna portioned into little containers. In the midst of a flurry of yard work, a dear one offered to clear out the dead tree. I agreed, turned away to consider a lilac that needed pruning, and a moment later turned back to see it was already out of the ground, like an oversized twig in her hand.

Whatever happened to my hydrangea had happened at the root.

Truly I tell you, it is not wise to spend our time assigning roles in the parable of the hydrangea. It is enough to say its death reinforced my sense that something was over.

I find it to be the same with Jesus and his metaphors. What if we just let the images wash over us instead of being in a hurry to assign parts to ourselves and to others as if they were absolutely unchangeable? Suppose we meditate for a moment on the idea that the Good News of God’s love is forever being sown in the world…scattered widely without regard for likely climates or soils, strewn wildly even in the places it is least likely to be received.

A sower went out to sow, and on any given day that least likely place might be any of our hearts.

But now and then, thankfully, we are the soil where God’s seed takes root. Now and then, thankfully, we are the seed that makes contact and grows where someone is hungry for God’s grace. Even occasionally, we are the ones to put a hand into the bag slung over our shoulders, the ones who fling the seed of Life and Love into places where it assuredly takes root.

**********

(It’s a little strange to offer this one up, since I wrote it before I came out, which would almost certainly have an impact on the way I might tell the story now. The general point remains, however, valid. For more depth, here’s a sermon from 2011, Seed Changes, and a poem of the same vintage, Hydrangea.)

I’m proud to be among a great group of writers who contributed to Abingdon’s Creative Preaching Annual for 2014 (also the recently published 2015 edition as well as the forthcoming version for 2016). This is one of a series of essays of mine for the book; I’ll be posting them as they come up in the Revised Common Lectionary. You can get a paperback copy at the link above or buy the book for your Kindle here.

Faithful in All His Words

(A sermon for St. James Presbyterian Church – July 6, 2014 – Psalm 145:8-14 and Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30)

"The Washington Monument"

“The Washington Monument”

Wednesday night my family made the journey to Washington, DC, to see our favorite baseball team, the Nationals, play the Colorado Rockies. It was my first chance to see the Nats in person, but when I was a little girl, I went to see the Senators play, memories that are still pretty lively for me. When we entered the park, I was surprised to find a statue of my childhood hero, Frank Howard. An amazing hitter in his years with the Senators, Howard was 6’8” tall – one of his nicknames was “The Washington Monument.”

Today the team has a first baseman who looks almost like a statue himself. He is rock steady, posed and poised for the ball. Adam LaRoche at 1st base practically vogues.

But I’m told that’s the whole point of a first baseman. He’s supposed to simply be there to catch whatever you throw to him. LaRoche looked just like that on Wednesday night, at least from the right field seats we had, but on Friday, when the Nats were on TV playing an early game for the 4th, he didn’t look so good. Instead of steady he looked stiff.

The truth is, no matter how steady we try to be, human beings are breakable and injury-prone. No matter how hard we train, physically or spiritually, our stamina has human limitations. And yet we have to remind ourselves not to put our faith in human heroes and heroines. They are shiny, and on our TV screens, and we rise and fall with their successes and failures. We feel the hurt when they fall from grace.

Bryce Harper, the Cat

Bryce Harper, the Cat

We have a three-year-old cat named after the Nats’ 21-year-old Left Fielder Bryce Harper, a cat who actually appears in the room when an announcer says the declared phenom is up to bat. Every time he seems too big for his baseball britches, I worry about our choice and offer a hope that he will not end up in a scandal someday. If he stops running into walls, he could be playing for Bryce Harper-the-Cat’s entire lifetime!

We’re invested in him, yet painfully aware that he is human, and any hope that he might be steadfast – to the Nats, to baseball, or to much of anything – is fleeting.

We can rely on God, who is rock steady. We can rely on God’s love, which is steadfast. We can rely on God.

But we are more inclined to argument than reliance, in these times when our nation and our denominations suffer some pretty serious division of beliefs and opinions. One of the things about the Bible that reassures me is hearing that difficult times are pretty much the human condition. Thank God, God is merciful. We may think we live in the most messed-up era the world has seen, and we may think it regardless of where we fall on the political or theological spectrum.

But listen to Jesus, who compares the generation he met in the flesh to children whining and begging in the marketplace. The people around him had true holiness among them in both John the Baptist and Jesus, but could not see it either in John’s asceticism or Jesus’ openness. The missing verses from the lectionary are a screed against the towns that rejected him, predicting terrible fates. He is really angry!

What were they waiting for?  Why are people so stubborn, so thick-headed so unable to get it? Why couldn’t they see? Why can’t we see?

Have you ever lived with a 9-year-old? We have one at our house, my fourth child to live through that year, the one who named the cat after a baseball player and left me with a long term worry about said baseball player’s potential for bad behavior. He was 8 and innocent when he named the rescue cat, but all that has changed. Living with a 9-year-old is a great way to find out how little you actually know about the world and how things work. They are experts on everything.

I have a vague memory of being just such an expert myself, and I suspect God has spent eternity getting the same treatment from humanity that parents receive from rising 4th-graders. We spend more time interpreting God’s word to suit ourselves than letting Jesus really speak to us. The amazing thing is, he’s still speaking to us, even though we might make him angry. That’s merciful. That’s merciful.

We hear it in the arc of the gospel lesson – words from which are on the screen along with words from the Psalm. Jesus tells the truth, the discouraging truth, about humanity. We don’t get it. We have the proof right in front of us, but we stubbornly look for a savior in a different shape. I’ll be careful here, because my savior may shape differently than yours, when it comes to stories in the news. I believe it’s fair to invoke the writer Anne LaMott as a caution to all of us, “You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” (Bird by Bird, 1994, p. 22)

Jesus knows this about us. He knew it then, and he knows it now. He knows that we want a temperate savior right up until we see a prophet who lives on locusts and honey, and we want a more liberal savior right up until we meet a teacher who sits down to dinner with sinners.

But God – all three in one, including Christ Jesus – God is not only steadfast and merciful. God is also gracious. Jesus steadfastly tempers his anger with a mercy we don’t deserve. He doesn’t storm off or vanish into the third heaven after realizing people have trouble understanding his message. He doesn’t send them to their rooms to think about what they’ve done. And let’s be clear, they are us. Christ does not create a greater distance. Instead he keeps beckoning us closer.

Jesus extends a gracious invitation. “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

Faithful Words

Faithful Words

There are times I wish God would be a little tougher on my enemies, or at least on the people I think are running their corners of the world the wrong way (according to me). I wish God would be tougher until I remember the things I’ve done that I wish I hadn’t done, or the things I have done that I might shouldn’t have. It’s hard enough to stay honest with God about the burdens we carry on our own backs: our worries, our needs, our desires (which are often *not* needs), our pain, our grief, and our responsibilities to and for others. That’s an incomplete list, but you get the picture.

Jesus knows us as we are, but still he carries us and the weight of all our burdens in an act of ultimate graciousness.

People did have a chance to see Jesus, to see God, to reach out and touch him, to sit and eat meals with him. But many of those people – most of them – never understood who he was. We have no means to review the plays where he stood right where we needed him to be and caught whatever we threw. We have no home movie of the Divine Mom or Dad who saw us through the phases of development we might just as soon forget about, who kept loving us when no one else thought we would ever get anywhere. But we have the stories carefully saved and written down to remind us of his life, to remind us that God was among us in Jesus Christ.

We have the words.

Steadfast beyond the powers of a first-baseman, merciful beyond even the love of a parent, gracious and willing to save us by taking on the burdens we carry:  God is Faithful in all His Words. Amen.

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