Worship for March 29, 2020

Link to audio file for this at home worship

The audio file begins with Larry Anderson’s prelude, to help us prepare for worship.

(Once the audio begins to play, you can click back to this page, and read and listen at the same time, if you like.)

Let’s take a moment for quiet prayer. There is so much happening in the world, and we have so many questions, concerns, and anxieties. There is so much happening that still does not feel quiet real, and yet, here we are. And God is with us in the midst of it all.

I am continuing this week to look at the story of Jesus’ time in the wilderness. I think the desert could have felt to him, absolutely real, and at the same time, like a place outside of regular life and time.

Please listen as Sue Timpson-Mannell reads the story for us:

Matthew 4:1-11 from The Message

Next Jesus was taken into the wild by the Spirit for the Test. The Devil was ready to give it. Jesus prepared for the Test by fasting forty days and forty nights. That left him, of course, in a state of extreme hunger, which the Devil took advantage of in the first test: “Since you are God’s Son, speak the word that will turn these stones into loaves of bread.”

Jesus answered by quoting Deuteronomy: “It takes more than bread to stay alive. It takes a steady stream of words from God’s mouth.”

For the second test the Devil took him to the Holy City. He sat him on top of the Temple and said, “Since you are God’s Son, jump.” The Devil goaded him by quoting Psalm 91: “He has placed you in the care of angels. They will catch you so that you won’t so much as stub your toe on a stone.”

Jesus countered with another citation from Deuteronomy: “Don’t you dare test the Lord your God.”

For the third test, the Devil took him to the peak of a huge mountain. He gestured expansively, pointing out all the earth’s kingdoms, how glorious they all were. Then he said, “They’re yours—lock, stock, and barrel. Just go down on your knees and worship me, and they’re yours.”

Jesus’ refusal was curt: “Beat it, Satan!” He backed his rebuke with a third quotation from Deuteronomy: “Worship the Lord your God, and only him. Serve him with absolute single-heartedness.”

 The Test was over. The Devil left. And in his place, angels! Angels came and took care of Jesus’ needs.

Sue is self-quarantined after visiting her friend in Indiana, but was able to record the scripture lessons for us on her phone, and send them in.

On Friday, I met with Larry Anderson and Jeff Csikasz, at a careful social distance, and we recorded some music. Here is Jeff singing and playing one of his favourites.

I asked for that song because of a line in the chorus that says, “In the desert you can remember your name”.

It seems to me that in his time in the desert, Jesus was called upon to remember who he was, and who he was meant to be. The tempter, or the tester offered him some shortcuts, some diversions from the path Jesus was meant to walk, and from the person he was meant to be- but Jesus resisted, and remembered his name, his identity.

The tempter knew their stuff, and the distractions offered to Jesus were pretty attractive. They are the classics, that people have always faced, and which we face today.

Jesus was offered food, a symbol for all material things. If he’d taken the devil up on the suggestion that he turn stones into bread, maybe he could have had at it, and turned the desert into a bakery warehouse. He could have turned rocks and stones, cliffs and boulders into baked goods.

Anything beyond what Jesus actually needed, to satisfy his physical hunger, would have gone to waste. There is a temptation to find comfort in having more than we need- as if we could make a strong castle out of the stuff in our lives, that would be a defense against the things that scare us.

The second distraction from his true life, from his true self, offered up to Jesus, was protection from pain and death. The devil brings him up to a high place, and says, “Since you are God’s Son, jump.”

The Devil also used scripture to suggest that if he did jump, God would send angels to catch him.

This is a tough one. We’d like to believe we are somehow protected from pain, from death. We might hope and pray the same thing for those we love- especially in these strange times. But Jesus resists the tempter on this one too. Jesus is as vulnerable, mortal, and subject to pain and grief as we are.

Jesus is a model for us, of how to live, and remember how we are meant to live, even in the face of hardship, terrible challenges, things that threaten to overwhelm.

The third challenge the tempter put to Jesus might also work on us, because it was about worldly power. What if the devil could have put Jesus in charge of all the countries of the world? The first problem, I think, is that his offer was a lie.  I don’t believe the devil could sign over all that power, because the devil is not in charge. God made all those people, in all those countries, as individuals with freedom to think, to feel, and make their own choices, for bad and for good.

We might, as we watch the news, and hear about the decisions leaders are having to make these days, wish we could have our say, or maybe take over, and do things better. If the devil appeared to me, and said, just worship me, and you can be in charge of the whole world, I might be sucked in. I might think, for a moment, that I could do better. But the reality is, I am not smart enough, creative enough, wise enough. Even if the devil had the power to put me in charge, which I think is a lie, it would be a terrible idea.

One human should not call all the shots. History is full of the stories of the miserable outcomes that occur when one person, one small group thinks they know what is best for everyone else.

All the minds, all the hearts, all the good will, of all people, are needed- not just the ego-driven desire of one person, who falls for the lie that the devil has put them in charge.

We need each other. We need to work together, in small things, and in big things, to make the world better safer, more habitable for our fellow humans, and all the other life with which the earth is teeming.

Jesus rejected the lies of the tester, and pushed back against the powerful distractions of the tempter. In the desert, Jesus remembered his name, and it gave him the strength and courage to carry on, to tell the devil to take off. And according to the story, the devil did leave, and angels came to take care of Jesus.

Jesus was still in the desert. The high places and tall towers, the piles of stones that could have been bread- all those lies, those illusions were gone. But the angels came to help him.

We are kind of in a desert. There are temptations. There are worries, anxieties, and the overwhelming sense at times, that the world is going to hell in a hand-basket, whatever that is.

But we are not alone, and the desert, as strange as it seems, is not all terrible. There is beauty here. There is life. Please click on the audio file for the hymn for today. Larry and Jeff played the instrumental part. The words are below, if you want to sing along.

jeff and larry making music

VU 222 Come, Let Us Sing

1            Come, let us sing to the Lord our song,

we have stood silently too long;

surely the Lord deserves our praise,

so joyfully thank God for our days.

 

2            O thirsty soul, come drink at the well;

God’s living waters will never fail.

Surely the Lord will help you to stand,

strengthened and comforted by God’s hand.

 

3            You dwell among us and cause us to pray,

and walk with each other following your way;

our precious brothers and sisters will grow

in the fulfilling love they know.

 

4            Deserts shall bloom and mountains shall sing

to the desire of all living things.

Come, all you creatures, high and low,

let your praises endlessly flow.

I especially like the line in that hymn that reminds us that deserts shall bloom and mountains shall sing. God is still at work. In that same spirit, Sue Timpson-Mannell has a second reading for us.

Isaiah 35:1-7  from The Message 

Wilderness and desert will sing joyously,
the badlands will celebrate and flower—
Like the crocus in spring, bursting into blossom,
a symphony of song and color.
Mountain glories of Lebanon—a gift.
Awesome Carmel, stunning Sharon—gifts.
God’s resplendent glory, fully on display.
God awesome, God majestic.

Energize the limp hands,
strengthen the rubbery knees.
Tell fearful souls,
“Courage! Take heart!
God is here, right here,
on his way to put things right
And redress all wrongs.
He’s on his way! He’ll save you!”

Blind eyes will be opened,
deaf ears unstopped,
Lame men and women will leap like deer,
the voiceless break into song.
Springs of water will burst out in the wilderness,
streams flow in the desert.
Hot sands will become a cool oasis,
thirsty ground a splashing fountain.
Even lowly jackals will have water to drink,
and barren grasslands flourish richly.

One of my favourite spiritual writers, Howard Thurman was a preacher and teacher, and college professor, who inspired many people, including the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior. Howard Thurman was an African American, born in rural Florida in 1899. His maternal grandmother had been a slave on Florida plantation. He was born into poverty, and his father died when Howard was 7 years old. He was raised by his grandmother, and his mother, who were women of deep faith.

Thurman wrote:

“There must be always remaining in every life, some place for the singing of angels, some place for that which in itself is breathlessly beautiful.”

I have been hearing all week about ways people are being like angels for each other, with words and acts of kindness and generosity. People are baking good things, and dropping them on the porches of neighbours and friends. Others are taking out the garbage, and bringing the cans back in, for those who are housebound, or just need help.

People are phoning, texting, writing letters to each other. Sending love, and showing concern as they can.

People are making extra donations to places like the Downtown Mission, who are on the front line, helping folks who have it much tougher than most of us.

We can each exercise our free will, our creativity, our compassion, to make the world a little more humane, more beautiful, and life that much more possible for others.

When we do what we can, it helps others, and that is good, but I think it also helps us to remember our name, who we are, and who we are meant to be, in these strange times, in this weird desert place where we all now live.

Let’s pray:

God of deserts and blooming flowers, of night skies and bright stars, help us, in these strange times, to remember you, and your presence with us. Help us to slow down, and breathe, and remember again who you have created us to be. May we, with our unspoken prayers, with our acts of compassion and kindness, with our careful, loving words, bring beauty and hope into the lives of others. We pray for those we know who are sick, those who are grieving. We pray for those who feel alone. We pray especially for those who are now behind the locked doors of nursing homes, hospitals, and hospice. We pray for front line workers who are tending to the needs of the sick, and who are leading the fight against COVID-19. We pray for our government leaders and their advisors. We pray for those who continue to work, so that we have what we need to live. We make all our prayers as followers of Jesus, and we ask for your blessing in his name. Amen

Before I finish this recorded worship resource, I want to thank Jeff Csikasz and Larry Anderson for their music, and Sue Timpson Mannell for the scripture readings.

I also want to announce that this coming Friday morning, April 3, from 10 am until noon, Harrow United Church will have a drive-up food and necessities collection for Windsor’s Downtown Mission.

Our goal is to fill the back of a pick-up truck with items that can help folks who face the same challenges as we do, but who may have it much worse than most of us in the county.

Imagine facing the need to self-isolate, and keep clean, and eat healthy, if you were homeless!

If you are currently sick, or under self-quarantine, don’t worry about donating to this food drive. Take care of yourselves.

We will likely do this again, if it is needed, to re-stock the Harrow Food Bank, which our church normally collects for every week.

If your household is running out of food, and you can’t get out to get to a store, please let us know, and we will do our best to help you.

This worship resource comes to you from Harrow United Church. Our building may be closed for now, but our ministry in this community continues. God bless you all.

 

Colour your Prayers March 26, 2020

 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit intercedes for us through wordless groans. 27 And the One who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God. (Romans 8:26-27 NIV adapted)

I don’t know how it is for you, but there are times when I have the need, the urge to pray, and really don’t have words. I don’t know how to say what I am feeling, and the thoughts have not coalesced, solidified enough that I can attach actual words to them.

These days, there is so much. I am carrying in my heart voices of people I talk with on the phone, pictures of folks in the church directory that I look at, while I ponder who to call next. There are the memories of things I have been told.  I think about people I am used to seeing almost every day. I think about people I have not seen for years.

I wonder about our world, and what will happen this afternoon, next week, and on and on….

That’s how I am today. Full of… prayers, questions, worries, dark thoughts, hopeful glimmers, deep love, compassion. So much. Maybe you have times like this too.

Back when I was studying and teaching contemplative practices, and offering the ministry of spiritual direction (I did that for about a decade before I came to Harrow), I developed a way to pray, when I don’t have all, or any of the words.

It starts with my art box, and a blank page.

I write down names, places, concerns. I paint over them with a colour that feels like God’s love, God’s attention. I used watercolour today, but I’ve done coloured pencils, even crayons in the past. More words, names, places come to mind, so I add them. God’s love is not limited by the size of my heart, so I add more colour. It’s a bit of bright mess- and that’s about right, for today.

 

Look for Beauty, for Grace, for Love

look for beautyIf you look closely at this photo I just took of the garden plot outside our kitchen window, you will see that I have work to do! You may also see the rhubarb poking up, and the chives. Bordering the unkempt plot is green grass, and there is a lovely shaft of sunlight warming the rich black soil. There is beauty there, and the grace of new life. There are living signs of God’s presence, of God’s great big love.

I have been phoning people I have never actually met, as part of the Harrow United Church “Angels” calling effort. Since I have only served this congregation for about 18 months, there are still a lot of folks I have yet to meet.

(If you have not been called yet, we are still working our way through the list. If you would like to help with calls, reach out to me. You can use the same contact form if you just feel like you would like me to call you.  I am happy to call the folks connected with Harrow United Church.

Everyone I have called has been happy to talk. One woman I spoke with yesterday described looking out her window, watching for bursts of spring growth, and new birds. She has the right idea, I think. Look for beauty, for grace, for love.

This wise woman also mentioned that she limits her diet of “news”. As she put it, every time she turns on the tv or radio, all they talk about are scary things.

The scary things are real. We need to take them seriously, and follow the best advice about self-isolation, keeping social distance, being careful.

We also need to look for signs that life is good, love is real, and there is beauty in the world.

This poem by Mary Oliver is a good reminder.

Did you too see it, drifting, all night, on the black river?
Did you see it in the morning, rising into the silvery air –
An armful of white blossoms,
A perfect commotion of silk and linen as it leaned
into the bondage of its wings; a snowbank, a bank of lilies,
Biting the air with its black beak?
Did you hear it, fluting and whistling
A shrill dark music – like the rain pelting the trees – like a waterfall
Knifing down the black ledges?
And did you see it, finally, just under the clouds –
A white cross
Streaming across the sky, its feet
Like black leaves, its wings Like the stretching light of the river?
And did you feel it, in your heart, how it pertained to everything?
And have you too finally figured out what beauty is for?
And have you changed your life?

–Mary Oliver

white swan

Worship for Sunday, March 22, 2020

julian of norwich

new link for audio file

This week’s learning time is the last in a series of 3 based on the story of Jesus’ Temptation in the Wilderness. This story from early in Matthew’s Gospel is traditionally read in church on the first Sunday of Lent. It  is so rich in content that we could easily spend a few months on it.

The link above (the red or pink words) will open an audio file that begins with the Gospel text, continues with the Learning Time, and ends with a following prayer, written by Carol Penner, a professor at Conrad Grebel College in Waterloo, Ontario.

If you would rather read than listen, the text is printed below. (In the second half of the learning time I talk about Julian of Norwich,  whose image is seen in the picture of the stained glass window.) Following the text of the learning time and prayer there is a link to a hymn suggestion.

Take a moment to get comfortable, to breathe, to unclench your hands and heart, and place yourself in God’s hands. Know that you are held by God, loved by God.

My plan for the Sundays in Lent was to look closely each week at the story of Jesus alone, out in the wilderness. It seems now like a totally appropriate text to sit with in Lent, and in this strange season, as we grapple with isolation, social distancing, and things over which we have no power, and about which we know so little. These days we may be even more aware of what has always been true: Our lives have always been in God’s hands.

Matthew 4:1-11 from the New International Version

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted[a] by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’[b]

Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:

“‘He will command his angels concerning you,
    and they will lift you up in their hands,
    so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’[c]

Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’[d]

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”

10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’[e]

11 Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.

Jesus was not alone in the wilderness, when he took that 40 day and night retreat, before he began his public ministry. God was with him.

Last week I spent some time exploring what we mean when we talk about evil, and about the personifications of evil that are well known in our culture- Satan, or the Devil. In the gospel story, this character is also called the Tester, or the Tempter, depending on the translation. I mentioned that we actually get most of our ideas and information about the devil from places other than the Bible.

This is also true when it comes to angels, the holy messengers that are mentioned in this story. Our mental images of what angels look like, and what they do come as much from cartoons and movies as they do the Bible.

Angels are mentioned twice in the story of Jesus in the wilderness, but they are never described.

The first happened when the Devil challenged Jesus to jump from a high tower, with the assurance that, because God would not allow him to be harmed, the angels would catch him before he hit the ground. Jesus rejected that challenge.

The other mention of angels comes at the end of the wilderness story, after Jesus faced the last of the Devil’s three tests, and had successfully told the Devil to leave him alone, the Gospel account says that Jesus was attended to by angels.

It’s a nice ending to a scary story- which is something we may appreciate even more these days, when we are hearing one pretty big scary story every time the news is on, and most times we look at our phone, or computer. There is a big scary thing happening in our world. Where is God in all of this? Where are the angels?

When I read that part of the story in which the devil challenged Jesus, to jump off the tower and just trust that God would save him- the most scared parts of me kind of wish we could call upon God to simply save us, rescue us, or send an angel squad to catch us before we fall too far. But Jesus says no to that, and our experience in life also says no to that.

God does not seem to work that way, for the most part. Our faith, our loyalty, our good works in God’s name, do not seem to earn us protection from pain, or sickness, or tragedy, or even pandemics.

Is there some consolation in knowing that according to this story, Jesus was subject to the same trials and issues as we are?

There was pain, and illness, and tragedy in his world. He was human, like us, and suffered. People he knew and loved, suffered. He healed some, and helped many, and offered words of hope, and taught people to find meaning in their lives- but he did not sell them holy umbrellas under which they could hunker down, safe from all that comes with being human, with being finite, mortal beings.

So if we cannot expect God to send angels down to wave magic angel wands and eliminate the things that currently place us in peril, what can we expect?

Most of the time, when angels appear in scripture, they bring a singular message- be not afraid. God is here.

I have been thinking a lot this week about a woman named Julian of Norwich. She was a woman of prayer, who experienced spiritual visions of God. Her most famous quote is:

“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

She was often ill in her own life, and even when she was physically well, experienced a life of isolation, and great privation. She lived from around 1342 to 1416. Five times in her lifetime, Europe was ravaged by the Bubonic plague. They called it the Great Pestilence, or the Black Death. Historians think that about a third of the people in England succumbed to the plague, and that in Julian’s area, Norwich, the death toll may have been closer to half the population.

How could she live through such terrible times, and still say, and believe that,

“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

Julian was a mystic. The gift of such people is the reminder they offer the rest of us, that our true peace, our true solace, our true sense that all can be well, is found, not in what we can do, or even in what is happening in the world around us, but with God.

Mystics invite us to quiet ourselves, to find the slow, unhurried part within us, that connects with the eternal, unchanging presence of God. With love. With our true hope.

It’s a bit like a line from the United Church creed, that says:

In life, in death, in life beyond death,

God is with us.

We are not alone.

Thanks be to God.

These words from our creed remind me:

There is more to us than our fear.

There is more to God than solving the problems of the moment.

There is more to our existence than the present.

God is with us in life, in death, and in life beyond death, or as Julian said,

“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

Julian’s confidence is one that I can trust, because she came to it in prayer, while she lived through immense pain and suffering, but she saw through, and beyond those things to gaze on the compassionate face of God. And she knew that God gazed back, and that the trials of her present time were not the end of the story. Amen

Pandemic Prayer, by Carol Penner of Conrad Grebel College

Great God,
you are an ever-present help in times of trouble,
and that’s why we’re praying now.
We are troubled and we’re worried things
are going to get more troubling.
This virus is spreading around the world:
so many are seriously ill
or will be seriously ill,
so many health care systems are stretched
or will be stretched.
Be with front line medical workers,
give them courage to do their work
and keep them safe.
Be with public health officials
as they make decisions for the common good,
and politicians as they roll those decisions out.
Help us to be kind to one another,
because anxiety can make us snappy.
Help our communities to be resilient
and expansive as we reach out to help
all who are isolated and afraid.
In these times of shutdowns and slowdowns,
when travel is restricted or banned,
as routines are disrupted and we spend
less time together or more time together,
help us zero in on what is essential.
Thank you that love is also contagious
and stronger than any virus.
You will be with us,
and we will be with each other
in sickness and in health.
Amen.

Link to Prof. Penner’s page

A good hymn for today might be “Come and find the quiet centre” which is Voices United 374. Here are the lyrics:

If you click on  this link it will take you to a youtube video that plays the accompaniment, and also shows you the lyrics, so you can sing along. Come and find the quiet centre

Come and find the quiet centre
in the crowded life we lead,
find the room for hope to enter,
find the frame where we are freed:
clear the chaos and the clutter,
clear our eyes, that we can see
all the things that really matter,
be at peace, and simply be.

Silence is a friend who claims us,
cools the heat and slows the pace,
God it is who speaks and names us,
knows our being, face to face,
making space within our thinking,
lifting shades to show the sun,
raising courage when we’re shrinking,
finding scope for faith begun.

In the Spirit let us travel,
open to each other’s pain,
let our loves and fears unravel,
celebrate the space we gain:
there’s a place for deepest dreaming,
there’s a time for heart to care,
in the Spirit’s lively scheming
there is always room to spare!