Monday, March 28, 2011

Living Hope

Morning Worship
Third Sunday of Lent – March 27, 2011
“Living Hope”
Lectionary for Fourth Sunday of Lent:
1 Samuel 16:1-13; Psalm 23; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41

Invocation (in unison):
Holy and awesome God, we come this morning for hope that will sustain us in times of fear and confusion and doubt. Wash us today with the living waters of your presence so that we may accept your mercy and your grace for ourselves and, in so doing, be able to offer them to others. Open us to the possibilities of encountering you in unexpected ways and of sharing your love and generosity in unexpected ways with those whom we encounter. Amen.

Prayer for Guidance: Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945)
O God, early in the morning I cry to you.
Help me to pray
And to concentrate my thoughts on you;
I cannot do this alone.
In me there is darkness,
But with you there is light;
I am lonely, but you do not leave me;
I am feeble in heart, but with you there is help;
I am restless, but with you there is peace.
In me there is bitterness, but with you there is patience;
I do not understand your ways,
But you know the way for me….
Restore me to liberty,
And enable me to live now
That I may answer before you and before men.
Lord, whatever this day may bring,
Your name be praised. Amen.

Prayer of Confession (in unison):
Patient and ever-faithful God, we confess that we can be an unsatisfied people. When things do not go as we wish, we murmur and complain and doubt. We lose hope in the people around us, and we lose hope in you. We put you to the test rather than trusting your loving kindness. Forgive us, we pray. Let us quench our thirst through you. Amen.

The Lord be with you/ and also with you
Lord, whatever this day may bring,
May your name be praised!
Come, let us worship!

Sermon for 3.27.11, Third Sunday in Lent: “Living Hope”
Exodus 17.1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5.1-11; John 4.5-42

Please pray with me: May my words help turn our hearts to you, Dear Lord, and may the Holy Spirit add its blessing. Amen.

From today’s Gospel: “Jesus replied, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’”

Such an unexpected thing happened to me on Tuesday night. I was on my way back to Connecticut at about 9:45 and thought I’d stop on 9W to get gas and a hard roll. But when I walked into the station, not one roll was left. “Not one roll anywhere?” I moaned because I know the people who work there. “Not one,” they said. Then behind me, I heard a lovely male voice, “Rolls? You want rolls? I have rolls.” None of us knew him, but he was apparently making his delivery rounds for the next day—not to the station where I was, however. When I followed him outside, he opened the back of his truck, handed me a bag and said, “You may have two.” Inside, the women were waiting with butter. “Dinner on the world tonight, pastor!” We were all laughing, and I certainly had what I’d longed for.

The Children in the Wilderness had a far greater need than mine, but an unexpected blessing was waiting for them too. They’re stranded miles—even years—from nowhere and there is no water, for them, their children, or their livestock. Moses was to hear this story over and over again. Whenever anything went wrong, they would grumble and complain, “You couldn’t just have left us to die in Egypt!” God, who’s heard it all before too, of course, provides them with real and good water in the most improbable way—by having Moses strike a rock. This was not the first time God, through Moses, had given them living hope. They might have remembered the parting of the Red Sea. Still, God’s people are easily frustrated and frightened. Who can blame them? The story can really come alive because of the many places today, including Japan and refugee camps, where people don’t have good drinking water. The point is that God still loves those wandering in desert places and does not allow that love “to be soured [or] frustrated” by short memories.1

The woman at the well in the Gospel of John, on the other hand, certainly didn’t know what it was that she needed. In the middle of everyday chores, a thirsty Jewish man suddenly asks her for water. She’s perfectly aware that Jews and Samaritans have had religious differences for centuries and that they regard one another as outsiders. But this one is thirsty and she has the water bucket. Because of her five husbands, the usual interpretation is that she is a loose woman and, when she begins to ask Jesus questions, bolder than she should be. But John is clever; he’ll tell you one thing—and it will be true, but only partially, for it will also have another meaning.

So we need to look at something else here, and that’s why I wanted Ed and Lisa to read together this morning. I wasn’t type-casting them as Jesus and the Samaritan Women. For one thing, they’re married; they’ve made a covenant with one another. Well, where did boy meet girl in ancient Israel? In case we’ve forgotten, Jacob is mentioned three times at the start of this very passage! And Jacob fell in love with Rachel at the well! There were usually onlookers, so one had to behave, but the conversation could begin. When Lisa and Ed read, they were playing their parts, but the truth of who they really are underlies that, and we here know it. In this case, who they really are adds to our understanding of the passage.

So too with Jesus and the Samaritan woman. Jesus is the thirsty traveler and the Woman has the bucket. And then the roles reverse and a love story of sorts begins. Unlike Nicodemus, just one chapter earlier, the woman does not back off. She begins to engage Jesus in real conversation. She asserts herself as a Samaritan and defends the authority of her ancestor, Jacob. But she is a good listener and only a few verses later, she asks for the water that Jesus is offering to her. Notice that Jesus doesn’t chide her for being literal, or make fun of her, as he did Nicodemus. He could have considered her an outsider, a woman, and therefore invisible. Instead, he talks to her and offers her eternal life. As she begins to understand and accept this hope, as she starts her new spiritual life, he keeps the conversation going. He is not condescending, but amazingly reveals himself as God, as the “I am.”

The woman is as overwhelmed by his respect and his kindness as by his revelation. Leaving her water jar behind, she rushes into the city to proclaim her Good News. She cannot keep her experience to herself. “He told me everything I have ever done,” she keeps repeating, and with no suggestion of having been found out or disgraced. “Come and see,” she says, echoing the words used by the first disciples as they recruited others. She essentially becomes a disciple herself and “many Samaritans …believed in him because of the woman’s testimony.” They proclaim him “the Savior of the world.” They are ready to accept his new covenant.

We don’t hear more of the woman’s story, but we know that Jesus has started her on a serious journey and that a covenant of faith has been established between them.2 Faithfulness between God and God’s people is often described as a marriage. It is certainly a mutual relationship, for if Jesus has offered her a living hope and shown her the face of the Messiah, she has accepted his words, become his apostle, and already begun living the hope he has given her. She has begun to embody that hope for everyone she meets.

We too are people who hunger and thirst. Like the Children in the Wilderness, we may lose hope because we think God does not love us sufficiently. It may be easier to hold onto our Massahs (places of testing) or our Meribahs (places of quarreling) than to do the hard work of turning ourselves around. Or we may try to tough things out ourselves without developing that closer relationship to God that the Woman begins to realize she longs for. We may also forget that Jesus offered living water to the Woman through patient and kind conversation, through a caring relationship. We can live that way with others as well.

We meet the Woman as she begins her discipleship. We see the Children of Israel in the thick of crisis. The walk to Golgotha that we are invited to take with Jesus during this season of Lent is not easy, but if we persist, we will not only develop endurance and character, as Paul tell us, but we will begin living that hope with which Christ longs to fill all hearts. He carries the burden of our utter helplessness and he carries it with immense love for each one of us. His immense love and the peace that it brings are as inexhaustible and sometimes as surprising as a spring of fresh water that suddenly gushes up from the earth.

Let us pray: Dearest Lord, give us the courage or the humility—whatever is required—to know that you are waiting for us wherever we are in our lives. Let us not reject your love or take it for granted, but let us long for it and cherish it. Let us take time, each day, to be with you. And if you surprise us with your presence, let us, like the Samaritan Woman, respond by seeking to know you further. Finally, dear Lord, let us live our hope in you. Let others feel your grace pouring through us. Amen.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Just How Hungry Are We?

Morning Worship for the First Sunday of Lent
March 13, 2011
“Just How Hungry Are We?”
Lectionary for the Second Sunday of Lent: Genesis 12:1-4a;
Psalm 121; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17
Organ Prelude
Greeting by Pastor
Invocation (in unison):
Great and holy God, awe and reverence, fear and trembling do not come easily to us, but we come before you this morning, the first Sunday in Lent, knowing that your eyes are upon us and that your love surrounds us. It is you, Lord, who teach us and guide us. Help us to hunger after you. Help us to want what we need. Help us to rejoice in the gift of your unfailing love. Amen.
The Entrance
*Introit #269 “Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days” (vs. 1 & 2)
*Call to Worship: Cesar Chavez (1927-1993)
Show me the suffering of the most miserable;
So I will know my people’s plight.
Free me to pray for others;
For you are present in every person.
Help me to take responsibility for my own life;
So that I can be free at last.
Give me honesty and patience;
So that I can work with other workers.
Bring forth song and celebration;
So that the Spirit will be alive among us.
Let the Spirit flourish and grow;
So that we will never tire of the struggle.
Let us remember those who have died for justice;
For they have given us life.
Help us love even those who hate us;
So we can change the world. Amen.
*Opening Hymn #402 “Lord, I Want to Be a Christian”
*Greeting One Another with the Peace of Christ
Anthem by Our Choir
A Time for Children of All Ages
(Children 3 and older may proceed to Children’s Church.)
Proclamation of the Word
Old Testament Lesson: Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 (New Living Translation)
Musical Interlude
New Testament Lesson: Romans 5:12-19 (The Message)
Musical Interlude
The Gospel: Matthew 4:1-11 (The Message)
Sermon: “Just How Hungry Are We?” Pastor Dora J. Odarenko
Response to the Word
*Sermon Hymn #397 “I Need Thee Every Hour”
Prayer of Confession (in unison):
Dearest Lord, we are afraid to face the reality of our mortality and of our sins. Turning to you seems like too great a burden or we are ashamed to begin to admit our misdeeds. Instead we busy our minds with all manner of self-important distractions and worries. Forgive us for hiding from you or simply thinking we can turn our backs. Forgive us for tiptoeing into your presence with little expectation. Forgive us for finding it so hard to turn fully to you. In your steadfast love, cleanse us. In your Holy Spirit, restore us. In the name of our Savior, we pray. Amen.
(A period of silence for reflection and prayer will follow.)
Words of Assurance and Hope
Sharing of Joys and Concerns
Silent Prayer followed by Pastoral Prayer
The Lord’s Prayer
The Offering of Our Gifts
*Prayer of Thanksgiving
Sending Forth
*Sending Hymn #398 “Jesus Calls Us” (vs. 1, 3-5)
*Dismissal with Blessing
Organ Postlude

Sermon for 3.13.11, first Sunday in Lent
Genesis 2:15-17, 3.1-7; Psalm 32; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11

Please pray with me: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts, be acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

From today’s Gospel: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”

I have to start this morning with my goats. In this season of self-examination and repentance, it’s not bad to see ourselves through an outrageous comparison. Goats are so determined: determined to find a way to push down the fence, to get into the garden, to whip around me and get into the grain bin. It’s not only about eating. It’s about independence and being what they please, over and over again. It’s about their understanding of freedom, which they love.

Our love of these same traits may help us look at our first story from Scripture: Adam and Eve in the Garden. We’ve heard it described so often as a tale about sin and sex. We all know the terrible rap that Eve and women have had to take because of this way of reading it. But the words “sin” and “punishment” do not appear. Maybe we should think about this account as a way to talk about God’s purposes for us.

Into this garden of original blessings, God placed the first humans, giving them clear instructions. The Hebrew tells us they were “to serve and to preserve or protect” this garden, not simply till and keep it. God is giving the man and the woman a vocation.1 This vocation is not to lord it over the garden or see what they can get out of it. It is to be responsible for what had been placed in it, and watch over it. In other early creation stories, the gods often created people as a by-product or a mistake. It was the most earnest belief of these first writers of Scripture that our God created us for a holy purpose, to care for what God had made and loved.

In doing so, God gave us a great deal of freedom, but the freedom was not total. God asked for trust and intimacy. And so this vocation and its freedom had limits, constraints considered appropriate by God, and consequences if these constraints were ignored. These limits are made real for us by that famous tree with its apple.

When the serpent asks the woman whether God really gave them such a command, he’s trying to redirect the way Eve thinks of her vocation. He also wants to erode her trust in God. “Think about what you can gain for yourself. You’ll have a whole new kind of seeing,” he argues, “You’ll know so much more.” Trying out his suggestion, Eve looks at the tree again: it certainly seems to have good fruit; it’s beautiful—and therefore can’t be all that bad for her; and she will have a whole new and broad range of experiences. So she decides to go her own way and eat.

The result of her hunger and that of her husband is to estrange them from God and, as we hear them quarreling, from one another. God didn’t simply want them to behave,2 to fall into line. God wanted fullness of life for them in that fertile garden, through a balanced relationship with God and all that God had placed there with them. But their desire to put their own personal knowledge ahead of God’s guidance means that they tried to become like God. They were no longer simply and wonderfully in God; they acted against God.3 Actions against God’s creation must follow.

Such willful breaking of their relationship with God is what we must call sin. It is a pattern for a whole list of sins—many of them horrible. Cain’s murder of Abel will follow. But we may take more from this story if we think about how subtlely the problem starts and repeats itself: with lack of trust in God, lack of relationship with God, with turning away from what God is calling us to do, with forgetting God’s gracious limits on our own self-centeredness. This is the human condition without grace.

God wants so much more for us and with us than that. And so we are given a second story from Scripture this morning, the story of Jesus in the wilderness. Just as we know that Eve will say yes, we know that Jesus will say no. But Matthew wanted us to hear Jesus say no, wanted us to hear the way he refused to act against God. Matthew also wanted us to realize that even for the beloved son there was testing. Just as the serpent wanted Eve to question God’s loving instructions, so that voice in Jesus’ ear wanted to mislead Jesus about sonship with God.

Each of the temptations is a variation on the desire for power or control. Each would separate Jesus from God and lead to self-destruction. These temptations continue to haunt us. Can stones become bread? Should we demand miracles? Should the laws of nature be pushed aside? As we increasingly learn to do so, should we abandon or mistreat the natural world that we have been given? What about spectacle, outward show, and risk taking? Should we long for such abilities in our leaders, our entertainers, and in our culture? How high have we turned the volume of our own lives? Who and what suffers because of such priorities? What about the sheer drive for power, political or otherwise? What models shape our decision-making, our conversations and our meetings: in our churches, school boards, and assemblies? How hungry are we for authority and esteem? How far do we allow jealousy and the desire for privilege to drive us? Who and what do we overlook and abandon?

As Jesus rejects each temptation, he prepares himself for the cross. He prepares us, as we begin this season of Lent, to understand the cost of the cross that we are approaching with him. Jesus last temptation will come as he hangs “despised and rejected” and is mocked by those who pass by, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross” (Matthew 27:40).

But Jesus is not yet there. In the wilderness, he drives Satan away with his final great assertion: “Serve the Lord your God with absolute single-heartedness.” Then angels come and bring him the food and drink his body must have longed for. I love the tenderness of the older translations here: “Angels came and waited on him,” angels “ministered unto him.”

In his systematic rebuke of Satan, Jesus shows, despite fatigue and hunger, that we do have incredible freedom, the freedom to be obedient and to trust the relationship and the vocation for which God created us. This is the freedom to which Lent invites us. This is the hunger that Lent helps us discover and promises to fill. Most of us are recovering sinners,4 needing over and over again to speak our misdeeds to God. But God’s grace and God’s vocation call us by name. Every day and every Lent.

Let us pray: Dearest Lord, Give us the grace to trust you even when it is hard for us to believe that you are near enough to help. Even when it is hard for us to realize how deeply you love us. In this time of Lent, help us to turn our sins over to you. Help us to stop thinking so much about ourselves and to come closer to you and the creation in which you have placed us. Through our care of what you have given us and through mindfulness of your Word, let us return your love. We pray in your dear name. Amen.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday, 9 March 2011, 7:30 pm
Joint service for Town of Esopus UMC and the Reformed Church of Port Ewen

Please pray with me: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

From tonight’s Gospel: “Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret….”

This is an evening to pray about our own mortality and to pray for greater love, and so I’d like to start with a story about three of my young nephews.

These boys had shared their home for most of their lives with Grandma Rose. After she was widowed, she really had no place to go. No one wanted to see her in a home, and so in love and compassion, the boys’ mother, my niece Li, invited her to live with them, even though it complicated an already exhausting life of motherhood, running a growing accounting firm, and serious involvement in church. But Li also wanted her boys to see such love and compassion in action, in the daily life of the household.

When you take an older person with some frailties into your home, there can be a risk. And so on Valentine’s Day, Grandma Rose was not in the kitchen when the family got home after school. When they went upstairs, they found she had died—apparently very quickly—of a massive stroke. You can imagine the shock, distress, and grief.

But there was something else they understood and that will continue to strengthen them despite and through their sorrow. Grandma Rose died at home, in her own pretty room, with all her familiar memories and expectations around her. The ones who found her and made the first decisions about her were not strangers, but those she deeply loved. In this, she was blessed. Her family too was blessed in its faithfulness and will continue to be blessed by their experience of love.

When I visited this past weekend, the boys were showing me samples of their dad’s cabinet work, but when we entered Rose’s room, the youngest went right to a dish of candy and brought it over to me. “Would you like some?” he asked. “Grandma always had it for us.” Just so, there could be sweetness in Rose’s passing because it was so tied to the sweetness that had been offered and shared.

And so I hope it may be with us. Who knows really why we come to an Ash Wednesday service. We know we are supposed to. We are present on this night because our faithfulness has led us here. Somewhere in our hearts, we may be telling God that we’re already as faithful as we know how to be. Are we really being asked to do even more? But once we are here, the ashes remind us of what we really know, but often try to forget: that our mortal lives—good, bad, mixed—will not last forever. The ashes will remind us that whatever our excuses or reasons, there are moments in our lives—perhaps more than moments—that might have been lived in a far better way. Because our misdeeds surely involve our relationship with others, we are also here to pray for those whom we have slighted or treated ill in all those ways spelled out in the opening prayer, given us by Isaiah.

There is another reason. We are here because this night is the beginning of a time given to us by Our Lord to be with him, to watch with him, as he begins his last walk to Jerusalem, and then beyond Jerusalem to Golgotha and the cross. Lent is an invitation to cease to know ourselves, for a little while, and to know Christ, to keep our eyes on him alone, to allow nothing to come between Christ and ourselves, if only in a few deeply prayerful minutes each day.

Surely this is one way to understand Jesus’ instruction to go into our most private room, our inner sanctum, and lock the door before we pray. We must enter deeply into the innermost layers of our being and invite Christ to be there with us, to guide us—no one else, nothing else. I literally have to set a timer during my serious prayer time so that I have no excuse to glance at my watch. It’s hard to put Christ first and make Christ all-important. Yet only in this way, can God begin making us part of the heavenly Kingdom for which we pray.

And so maybe most of all, in the middle of lives that are busy and often stressed, we are making time to be here because we love Our Lord, we love Jesus. But here’s the catch: we’re not only being invited to “do Lent.” It’s not a quick fix that will be over before we know it. We’re being asked to live Lent, to use Lent to shape a new life. This time set aside begins to get us into shape for Christ. The discipline of Lent can push other hungers to the side so that we hunger for Christ alone: His name, His Kingdom, His will.

Not long ago, I heard a wonderful organ piece that was inspired by Bach’s chorale prelude “Dearest Jesus, we are here.” This is how it begins: “Blessed Jesus, at thy word/ We are gathered all to hear thee./ Let our hearts and souls be stirred/ now to seek and fear and love thee.” Before we go home tonight, we will share together, and with Our Lord, a meal of sacrifice and praise and thanksgiving. We will hear the words that he spoke to his first disciples and to us. Communion is a meal that Christ gives us in an immense act of love. Gathering to receive it in this way, our hearts and souls can be stirred not only to seek and fear Christ, but to offer that love back to Christ, and to one another, and even to ourselves.

“Blessed Jesus, we are here:” The words are wonderfully direct, and so I had another more immediate thought as I heard this piece for the first time. “We are here:” I realized that this statement is an answer to the hymn we all know and sing, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” On this night, we are all there—and here—together: Now is the acceptable time! We are here to admit our own mortality and the vulnerability that Christ is willing to share with us. We are here in sorrow. We are here in repentance for all we have done to waste God’s gifts and all we have done to cause Christ pain. And we are here in ever deepening love.

Let us pray: Dearest God, may we keep a holy Lent. Give us grace to treasure this time with you and prepare for our Lord’s passion and resurrection by self-examination and repentance and renewed faith. Grant us humility to understand that our chief end is to know and be known by you. Let us discover, more fully than ever before, how much we hunger and thirst for you. May our hearts be sustained by love of you alone. Amen.