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Worshipful Words from Lent

In this past Lent, I intentionally took time to write some special Call to Worship words that invited us to start our worship time in the same space - with a sense of how welcome we are and how much God loves us. Our theme for Lent was "come to the table", so I hope these invitations capture a bit of that divine hospitality. Feel free to use them in your church setting if you would like.

-- Rev. Nathan Hill

Come to the Table | Call to Worship Series

Week One:

One: Is it true that there is a table big enough,
grand enough
for those who have lost everything
for those who weep in despair
for those who seek answers
for those who long for healing?
Many: Yes, at the table of God, all find rest!
One:  Is it true that there is a table that opens doors,
that offers a way to reconciliation
that tears down walls
that refuses hatred and shame a final word?
Many: Yes, at the table of God, all find a second chance.
One: Then who is invited to this table?
Many: You are invited. We are invited.
Jesus invites us.
Come to the table of the Lord!

Week Two:

One: People of God,
give thanks and celebrate -
our path leads us to the table.
Many: Come to the table of the Lord!
One: You who are hurting and alone,
rejoice - God is with you -
our path leads us to the table.
Many: Come to the table of the Lord!
One: You who aren’t sure if you have the strength
to get through the day or stay on track -
Christ’s strength leads us to the table.
Many: Come to the table of the Lord!
One: You who face injustice and rejection,
told you do not belong -
The Spirit leads us to the table.
Many: Come to the table of the Lord!

Week Three:

One: Friends, our lives may be dry.
Our lives may not feel complete.
Our successes may seem few.
Many: Take heart - we worship a God who enables us to bear fruit.
One: Our hearts may be heavy.
Our grieving may last longer than we hoped.
Our prayers seem too numerous for the Holy One’s ears.
Many: Take heart - we worship a God who calls us by name to the table feast.
One: Our choices may have hurt others.
Our sins may have become a stumbling block.
Our souls hesitate to cry out for mercy.
Many: Take heart - we worship a God who offers us a second chance.
ALL: Let us worship this wonderful God together!

Week Four:

One: Though some may label you an outcast,
worthy of rejection and ignorance-
Many: God gathers us in!
One: Though some may think you
are too much of a mess for divine grace-
Many: God gathers us in!
One: Though some may believe
that you don’t belong at this table-
Many: God gathers us in!
One: Though some may think your past
or pain turn you into a burden-
Many: God gathers us in!
One: Hear the good news -
Many: God draws us to the table feast -
let’s celebrate and share God’s grace together!

Week Five:

One: Mighty God,
we worship You because even when things have been awful,
You have made something in our life awesome.
Many: Lord, You have done great things for us!
One: Merciful Savior,
we worship You because you invite us to the table
and nourish us with generosity and love.
Many: Lord, You have done great things for us!
One: Moving Spirit,
we listen for You because You send us out
to help others know Your love.
Many: Lord, You have done great things for us!

Palm Sunday:

Youth: Listen up! Make way!
One: Jesus is arriving, ready to bless those who hunger and thirst for hope!
Adults: Hosanna! Hosanna in the highest!
Youth: Get ready! It’s almost time!
One: Jesus is showing up, setting the banquet table ready for an extravagant dinner!
Many: Hosanna! Hosanna in the highest!
Youth: Join the parade! Wave and shout!
One: Jesus is making his entrance, bringing the change we have been waiting for!
Many: Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord!

Easter Sunday:

One: Beloved of God,
hear the good news this morning -
just when it seems love and mercy are no more -
Many: Jesus lives!
One: Just when it seems like injustice and death have won -
Many: Jesus lives!
One: Just when it seems like Creation is beyond repair -
Many: Jesus lives!
One: Just when it seems like there is no reason to gather at God’s table -
Many: Jesus lives!
One: The Lord has risen!
Many: The Lord has risen indeed!

(posted April 16, 2019)

You are God's fruit.

Scripture: Luke 13:1-9

Spring is upon us, and aren’t we ready?

I recognize spring’s arrival not just through the sight of the world changing around us - but especially the smells.

- The smell of the woods around us after a spring shower
- The sweet fragrance of flowers and trees beginning to bloom
- And most definitely that oh so wonderful fragrance of manure and compost all around

Yum!

Now, I am being a bit sarcastic here, but it’s true - you don’t really get those bright and bold colors of spring and all this new life emerging like a gift from Creation without the rejuvenating, nutritious power of manure and compost at work in our gardens and our landscape. In the cycle of plants and of this earth, things often must die to feed those things that are yet to come. There is a constant churning going on beneath our feet when we take a long walk along Lake Artemesia or among a neighborhood flowing with wildflowers - there are worms and other creepy crawly things, bacteria and sights we can’t see by the naked eye, at work to break down, digest, and turn last year’s life into something new and whole.

To be blunt, we don’t often to get to enjoy some fruit until we’ve handled some crap too.

I want to be real for a moment - this past week, there has been a lot of crap in our world and in our lives.

- A terror attack in New Zealand on worshipping people
- Natural disasters and storms that wipe out entire communities
- The loss of a precious newborn baby far too soon
- Persecution of Christian faithful in parts of our world
- And even after worship today, we are going to welcome neighbors from across our county to learn about our state’s history of racism and lynchings.

Some of you are dealing with your families, with messed up work situations, with decisions that are overwhelming, with health crises, and with anxiety and agony that you may not feel courage to share with someone else. For so many of us, life stinks.

We may not right now see the flowers around us - because we are overwhelmed by the stench of death and hurt and loss.

And yet - there is something here for us to think about - that Jesus and his disciples knew this same stench that we knew - they knew tragedies and terror. In our scripture today, Jesus is asked about some of the these things. There was a tower that toppled over and killed some people. Pontius Pilate, the Roman ruler of this region, executed some faithful Jews and had their bloods mingled with temple sacrifices. These were acts that smelled of sorrow and injustice.

Rather than focus on that stench, Jesus shifts the conversation. He rebukes any theology that suggests victims of injustice or violence deserve what they got - God doesn’t ordain bad things to happen to bad people. But - and here is the twist — which makes this passage so challenging - if you don’t repent, something like this might happen to you!

Ouch! This is not the cuddly, fluffy Easter Jesus that we may want to hear today. Is that a little whiff of manure I smell?

Theologian Ron Allen explains that this teaching is less about the nature of evil and suffering than it really is about that word “repentance”.

On Friday night at our youth group, I used a simple object lesson to help our kids understand this word a little better. I took a mug and showed them what happens when you try to fill it up when the mug is turned upside down. (Maybe ask for a volunteer.) The water goes everywhere. But when you flip the mug over, you can fill it to the brim. Repentance is more than just seeking forgiveness - it is about turning our lives in 180 degrees to be more open to God’s way.

Dr. Allen writes - “Indeed, repentance refers to individuals and communities turning away from things that violate God’s purposes (such as idolatry, injustice, and exploitation) and turning towards faithful living centered in worship of the most-high God and in the practice of justice, mutual commitment, and other values of living in covenant.”

Jesus shifts the focus to what we are doing with our lives now - an invitation with urgency.

In the midst of suffering, in the midst of turmoil, in the midst of change, in the midst of Special Counsel reports - how will we live right now? Will we turn our lives to God or another way?

Jesus tells us parable, like all of his parables that challenge us to go deeper and consider our place in the story.

A vineyard owner, after having gone through the trouble of planting a fig tree to enjoy its fruits, comes strolling through his land one day to find the fig tree empty. He grabs hold of his gardener and complains - it’s been three years. I’ve waited long enough. Get rid of it. What good is a fig tree that can’t produce figs?

But the gardener pushes back. Hold on - let’s give this fig tree one more chance. I’ll take some of that smelly manure and do some digging - let’s see what happens next year. But if not, then (throat motion) let’s get rid of it.

I identify with this story in a lot of ways. I am not much of a gardener - working with plants can often seem so mysterious to me. Sometimes, the plants shoot up out of the ground with just a little water and sun. Sometimes, they require constant, daily care to nurture their potential. Sometimes, you get tired of waiting for the tomatoes, blackberries, or apples to come forth after all the time and money you spend and just go to the produce section which is a heck of a lot easier.

But the gardener has patience, patience for this fig tree that hasn’t yet shown its value. This gardener, with great care, goes beyond compassion and dips down, freshening the soil, laying out fertilizer, tending to those fig tree that it might bear fruit.

As much as I can identify with the vineyard owner or admire the character of the gardener, it is the fig tree that I am drawn to and that sight of manure and digging.

This may be an unusual image for the spiritual life - for the journey of repentance - but turning our lives around can feel a lot like what that gardener planned to do to that fig tree. There is uncomfortable digging, unsettling prodding and poking into our moral lives, where we have done well and where we have made poor, harmful choices. And sometimes, it stinks. It smells awful. Having to untwist and turn our lives, reshape ourselves, re-align our patterns to God’s way - it is indeed smelly work.

And yet it is God’s way, the gardener’s way, to help us bear fruit and become who we need to be.

Today, I invite you to wonder if you are a fig tree in God’s garden.

You are the fruit of God’s work.

You are one of God’s glorious projects, that Jesus comes to tend, help grow into fullness, and use for the transformation of our world.

There is urgency in God’s work - God seeks right now for you to join in reshaping and bringing wholeness to Creation, sometimes by digging into the stench and decay of this world so that the beauty and new life might emerge.

How many times are we told we aren’t fully formed? Or we don’t have capacity? Or we need an expert to tell us what to do or how to be? Sometimes, we do need gardeners in our lives - our society needs gardeners. I can think of so many people in my life, who even when I was not at my best fruit bearing capacity, gave me a second change.

Patricia St. Onge - indigenous activist - in her work with American Indian communities - “We remember that we are born with inherent capacity.”

We have capacity! We are capable! God has already grown something us! Why waste that gift?

What is it in your life that is simply not bearing fruit? What is it - a relationship, a work situation, a financial commitment, a place where you are spending too much time, a behavior that is wearing down your body and soul?

What is it in our church life that is simply not bearing fruit? What is the thing we keep doing it, going round in circles, hoping for a different result? What would it mean to turn 180 from that behavior and move deeper into God’s care for the poor, for the oppressed, and for the wounded?

What is it in our society that we as a nation need to bear more fruit? Is it our relationships with neighboring countries, our lack off hospitality to refugees, our divisiveness, our anger, our white supremacist foundations? What is it that is preventing us from becoming a light to the nations? What might we repent of?

What will we do with this knowledge? Will we reject God’s care in our lives? Will we say now and stubbornly cling to our ineffectiveness or incapacity to bear God’s love? Or will we embrace this care and let God prune and shape us into more and more of God’s likeness?

The world needs more bearers of fruit.

Over the past few months, our church hosts an after school program run by the Nelkins - Sara and Keith. While I am sitting in my office, planning worship or responding to emails or preparing for worship, these groups of kids are brought up to use the restrooms, and while they do so, they talk. They chatter. They look around and ask questions. And not too long after our memorial tree was moved from out in our memorial garden to the end of the hallway, the kids began to ask lots and lots of questions about it. What is this? Why are their names on the tree? Who are they?

And one day, I got tired of hearing them ask - so I stepped out and started answering their questions. These are saints of our church. These are wonderful people of God who were members here, loved this church, loved what we would do for our neighbors, gave money and time, believed in what God was doing here, and so as a church, when they died, we honored them and their memory by placing their name on the leaf. And if there is a cross there, it means their ashes are scattered somewhere in our memorial garden. And the kids soaked it all in, like this was the best sermon I ever gave.

And then the funny thing happened - a few days later, a different group of kids come upstairs, and one of them starts asking about the tree - what is this? Who are these people? And the kids jump in without me having to leave my office - and they start telling the story just like I told them. Of these saints, of these people who loved the church and loved God. Of those with the crosses on their leaf who are scattered in the garden.

If I could have told those kids one more thing, it would have been that those people on that tree weren’t any more special than them - their lives stunk often. They wondered of the big questions of their lives. They had doubt and moments when they were angry and said and did things that hurt others. And yet God used them for the kingdom. God made fruit out of their lives, fruit that produced this community of faith, ministries that serve the homeless, compassion outstretched to Nicaragua and Singapore and beyond, lives and stories that are still being told by children and adults.

Take heart - your life may stink right now as you turn to God - but God is prepared to grow something amazing in and through you.

(posted March 27, 2019)

Right Where We Need to Be (Sermon)

Scripture: Luke 4:1-13

Sitting in our kitchen earlier this week, our family was enjoying our breakfast when somehow my sermon began to write itself. We were talking about the week ahead, including Ash Wednesday and the 40 day season we call Lent. I mentioned how we practice this 40 days of prayer and fasting to get ready for Easter Sunday just like Jesus spent 40 days in the desert getting ready for his ministry.

One of my kids asked, “Why do so many people in the Bible like go to the desert?”

I laughed, and then I said something like, “No one really wants to go to the desert. God does not always lead us where we want to go but where we need to be.”

And then I sort of realized that I said something a lot more profound than I intended at 8 AM in the morning.

God does not always lead us where we want to go but where we need to be.

Did Jesus want to begin his ministry in the desert?

I imagine Jesus didn’t want to start his ministry after his baptism by going 40 days into the desert.

I imagine Cancun would have been a better place. I imagine a place where there was lots of water and bread. I imagine couches and waiters. I imagine Netflix and Amazon Prime accounts and a big screen TV. A lavish retreat center. Where everything came easily, and there was plenty to go round.

Throughout the Bible, God uses deserts precisely because they are wild places - full of danger and challenge but also full of possibility. The wilderness is a slice of Creation that is untamed, yet to take shape, what we might poetically call a liminal space, in between. There are animals and uncertainty in the wilderness. There is beauty, and there is ugliness.

Jesus begins his ministry there because God always begins in the “in between”.

In this “in between” place, Jesus becomes ready to live who he is.

Whenever we are “in between” places, whether we are a church or at a turning point in our life, we face tests. Jesus does so too. Those tests that Jesus faced from the tempting spirit we call the devil challenge who he is. “If you are the son of God…” The tempter says to him time and time again, as if Jesus might feel uncertain about who he is or his call or the cross that he will face. Did he have what it takes? Was he really God’s son? Was he really capable of overcoming the evil he would face? Was he ready to go down this road and to the cross?

There in the desert, there were only two voices - the temptation which came from the outside and the voice of God within. Which voice would he choose to listen to?

The devil’s questions and temptations test which voice he will respond to:

- When Jesus is asked about turning stone into bread, Jesus is given a chance to use his divine gifts to take a shortcut from suffering and need.
- When Jesus is asked to throw himself from the temple top and have the angels catch him, Jesus is given a chance to discard his humility and become a modern day reality show celebrity.
- When Jesus is asked to bow down to evil incarnate and in return receive the world, he is given a chance to get power over human institutions and governments.

In each case, Jesus is not simply being asked to twist rules or disobey God. Jesus is confirming if he is really God’s son or just another child of the world.

I think this moment in the desert shapes the rest of Jesus’ journey. Our scripture says that the devil left him and waited for an opportune time to continue the testing. Jesus is able in this wild place to face down some of his fears, some of the great temptations the world, some of the opportunities to take shortcuts in his work, and he says no. No to evil. No to Satan. No to any other way but God’s way.

The Gospel of Luke is resoundingly telling us who Jesus is - that Jesus, unlike us, is strong enough and wise enough to face down evil and follow God’s path. He can stay tuned to that God’s voice within him. He can stay grounded in who he is and who he is called to be.

If Jesus is able to do this, then it means Jesus is worthy to be trusted and worthy to be followed.

And if Jesus leads us into the wilderness of our own, where we face testing and are confronted by voices that try to get us off track, we can trust that Jesus will not leave us. Jesus will meet us there. And God maybe has placed us right where we need to be, so we can live fully into our identity as a beloved child of God.

Parker Palmer, a wonderful author in his book Let Your Life Speak, reminds us that too often we listen to outside voices, “voices out there calling us to be something we are not.” Those voices tell us that we are not beautiful enough or good enough or smart enough or perfect enough to be loved or to have worth. And if we believe those voices, we will give in and live and act in a way that devalues and hurts our bodies, our relationships, and our communities.

But God’s voice comes from within us. Palmer writes, “The voice ‘in here’ calls each of us to be the person we were born to be, to fulfill the original identity given to use by God at our birth.”

This Lent, the invitation to each of us is to listen to that still small voice within - God’s voice. Who are you? Who is God calling you to be and how is God calling you to live? With all of the voices in our lives - the expectations of family and co-workers and bosses, the pressures of our society, the urge to ignore injustices and evil, to live in a way that misuses power to our own benefits - it is hard to shut them out. Lent is a season in the wilderness where we shut off some of those voices - and listen again in the quiet wilderness for God’s voice.

I know one thing that we do as church is to help one another hear that still small voice within, reminding us that we are named and we are loved. And challenging one another to act and live in that way, to be the best that we might possibly be in. Lent Study Groups is one such way.

Friends, I recognize how dangerous deserts can be. While I was down in Tuscon, AZ for the Borderlinks experience as part of my class, volunteers and guides showed us how dangerous the desert is. Snakes. Lack of water. Brutal heat and sheer cold. Disorientation. Wild animals. Jagged rocks. And yet, as we came upon a water drop, we saw that there was life there too. There was love. On some of those jugs, beautiful phrases were written, reminding those making their way through those deserts, that God knew them by name. God heard their prayers. God was with them.

Even as a church, knowing that it has felt like we have been in the wilderness through transition and challenge, we must be confident that God is ready to meet us there. God is speaking to us and calling us by name, to stay grounded in who we are and who we are called to be. Maybe this wilderness is right where we need to be, right where God is ready to do something amazing through us and with us at this intersection.

Think of all the people in our neighborhoods right now who are wandering in the wilderness, hearing voices that are misshaping them and destroying them. Think of all the people who feel denigrated and devalued. Think of all the voices in this world that tempt people into living counter to life-giving, loving ways. What if Lent became our season to invite people into the wilderness and meet a God who can help us be and live in the ways of generosity and love?

Maybe God is leading us not where we want to be but where we need to be.

(posted March 14, 2019)

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