God says in Isaiah 58:6-7

Isn’t this the fast I choose:
releasing wicked restraints,
untying the ropes of a yoke,
setting free the mistreated,
& breaking every yoke?
Isn’t it sharing your bread with the hungry
& bringing the homeless poor into your house,
covering the naked when you see them,
and not hiding from your own family?

The purpose of Lent is to be a season of fasting, self-denial, Christian growth, penitence, conversion, and simplicity. Lent, which comes from the Teutonic (Germanic) word for springtime, can be viewed as a spiritual spring cleaning: a time for taking spiritual inventory and then cleaning out those things which hinder our corporate and personal relationships with Jesus Christ and our service to him. (John Birch)

May these 40 days before Easter be a time of spiritual spring cleaning, of removing what hinders and renewing what facilitates our relationships with God, the world, and one another.

The Worship of God for Second Sunday in Lent

Passing the Peace 
Say to one another, “May the peace of Christ be with you.”
And reply, “And, also with you.”

Invitation to Worship
based on Psalm 19

Listen to the Invitation to Worship and/or read below.

The heavens are telling the glory of God
May our worship reflect God’s glory.
The firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.
May we see each other as the handiwork of God.
Let our prayer and praise, our singing and proclamation project the love of God.
We commune with Christians around the world,
with Christians throughout time.
With Christians across geography and across time,
Let us worship!

Song of Praise
We Will Walk With God
Words: Eswatini Traditional (trans. J.L. Bell)
Tune: SIZOHAMBA (Eswatini Traditional)

Come and walk with me, my brothers.
We will walk with God.
Come and walk with me, my sisters.
We will walk with God.

We will go rejoicing,
til the kingdom has come. (Repeat)

See-zoh-hahm-bah nah-yay,
woh woh woh,
see-zoh-hahm-bah nah-yay. (Repeat)

Goom-shlah wen-jah-boo-lah,
see-zoh-hahm-bah nah-yay. (Repeat)

Come and walk with me, my brothers.
We will walk with God.
Come and walk with me, my sisters.
We will walk with God.

We will go rejoicing,
til the kingdom has come. (Repeat)

Opening Prayer
Let us pray:

Listen to the prayer being offered and/or pray below.

We acknowledge you, O God, as creator and as liberator. You are the One who brought the captives out of Egypt and delivered them from the oppression of slavery. You gave laws which shaped how people were to relate to you, to each other and to the whole environment. You implored people to worship only you, knowing that whatever was put in your place would become the object of idolatry – would become the priority of people’s lives. In this time of worship, help us to focus on you, O God, as the priority of our lives. Remind us of your steadfast love revealed so clearly in the new commandment of love which Jesus disclosed with his life and, as we especially remember in this period of Lent, with his death. Speak to us anew as we offer this prayer and our worship in Jesus’ name and for his sake. Amen

Psalm 19
Common English Bible

Listen to the Psalm being read and/or read below.

Heaven is declaring God’s glory;
     the sky is proclaiming his handiwork.
2One day gushes the news to the next,
     and one night informs another what needs to be known.
3Of course, there’s no speech, no words—
     their voices can’t be heard—
4but their sound extends throughout the world;
     their words reach the ends of the earth.

God has made a tent in heaven for the sun.
5The sun is like a groom
coming out of his honeymoon suite;
          like a warrior, it thrills at running its course.
6It rises in one end of the sky;
     its circuit is complete at the other.
     Nothing escapes its heat.

7The Lord’s Instruction is perfect,
     reviving one’s very being.
The Lord’s laws are faithful,
     making naïve people wise.
8The Lord’s regulations are right,
          gladdening the heart.
The Lord’s commands are pure,
     giving light to the eyes.
9Honoring the Lord is correct,
     lasting forever.
The Lord’s judgments are true.
      All of these are righteous!
10They are more desirable than gold—
     than tons of pure gold!
They are sweeter than honey—
     even dripping off the honeycomb!

11No doubt about it: your servant is enlightened by them;
     there is great reward in keeping them.
12But can anyone know what they’ve accidentally done wrong?
     Clear me of any unknown sin
13and save your servant from willful sins.
     Don’t let them rule me.
Then I’ll be completely blameless;
     I’ll be innocent of great wrongdoing.

14Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart
          be pleasing to you,
          Lord, my rock and my redeemer.

Song of Praise
Let All Creation Dance
Words: Brian Wren
Tune: DARWALL’S 148th

1 Let all creation dance in energies sublime,
as order turns with chance, unfolding space and time
for nature’s art in glory grows,
and newly shows God’s mind and heart.

2 God’s breath each force unfurls, igniting from a spark
expanding starry swirls, with whirlpools dense and dark.
Though moon and sun seem mindless things,
each orbit sings: “Your will be done.”

3 Our own amazing earth, with sunlight, cloud and storms
and life’s abundant growth in lovely shapes and forms,
is made for praise, a fragile whole,
and from its soul heav’n’s music plays.

4 Lift heart and soul and voice: in Christ all praises meet
and nature shall rejoice as all is made complete.
In hope be strong. All life befriend
and kindly tend creation’s song.

1 Corinthians 1:18-25
New Revised Standard Version

Listen to 1 Corinthians and/or read below.

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written,

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
    and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23 but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

Lenten Prayer
Let us pray,

Hear the Prayer and Words of Assurance and/or read along below.

Liberating God,
in love You have set us free:
free from slavery to sin and self,
free to know and love You,
free to follow and serve You.

We praise You for Your faithful love toward us,
and for the many ways You have demonstrated that love to us.
We see Your love in the natural world around us—
in the sky and trees and rivers.
We see Your love in the gift of Your commandments—
the rules for living that guide us into right relationship with You,
and with the people around us.
And we see Your love in Jesus Christ,
who lived and died to bring us life.

Because we have experienced Your love,
we come before You with confidence,
bringing our needs and the needs of the world.
God, in your unfailing love, hear our prayer.

We pray for those who live surrounded by violence—
whether from war or political unrest, crime or domestic violence.
We pray for those who have been victims of violent crime,
and for those whose loved ones have been injured or murdered.
God, in your unfailing love, hear our prayer.

We pray for those who find themselves involved in crime,
whether by choice or through coercion;
those caught up into gangs or prostitution,
those who have turned to crime to pay for their addictions,
those who are imprisoned.
God, in your unfailing love, hear our prayer.

We pray for our homes and families:
for parents juggling the responsibilities of work and family,
for children chafing under parental authority or expectations,
for men and women caught up in adultery or adulterous thoughts,
and for partners whose marriages are breaking down,
God, in your unfailing love, hear our prayer.

We pray for the many people in our world who do not yet know You,
who have not yet experienced the new life that comes from knowing You through Christ Jesus;
who continue to search for purpose and meaning.
God, in your unfailing love, hear our prayer.

Merciful God,
give us strength and courage to keep Your commandments,
to live in faithful obedience to Your will.
Guard our lives and minds from all that might distract us
from living out our commitment to You.
Help us to find our true worth in knowing You more fully,
and serving You more faithfully.

In the name of Jesus Christ, our Cornerstone. Amen.

Words of Assurance and Hope
God loves us. (Romans 5:8)
We do not need to be afraid. (Matthew 10:31)
Jesus says, “I am the light of the world.” (John 8:21)
Jesus says to us, “You are my friends.” (John 15:14)
And Jesus promises, “I am with you always.” (Matthew 28:20)

Anthem
O Thou, My Soul, Forget No More
Text by Krishnu Pal (1764-1822), translated by J. Marshman (1801)
Composed by Ronald Turner based on the tune DISTRESS

O thou, my soul, forget no more
The friend who all thy sorrows bore;
Let ev’ry idol be forgot,
O thou, my soul, forget him not.

We taste thee, O thou living Bread,
and long to feast upon Thee still;
we drink of Thee, the fountainhead,
and thirst our souls from Thee to fill.

O Jesus, joy of loving hearts,
Thou fount of life, thou light of all,
from the best thought that earth imparts
we turn unfilled to heed thy call.
Forget not us, we pray.

Reflection on Exodus 20:1-17
Rev. Jeffrey Vickery

Let me invite you to enter your imagination. Imagine that you are an Israelite born in Egypt during the time of the slavery described at the beginning of the book of Exodus. Years later, after nearly a lifetime of harsh treatment and hard work, you and your family along with thousands of your Israelite kin are freed from slavery by a surprising series of miracles. How is it that you pray for a miracle all these years without any clear sign from God? Then all at once miracles in the form of plagues seem to happen every day … for weeks? Before too long your greatest hope is realized! You are told to gather your family and some food and walk to freedom. On that day, you leave Egypt and your slavery behind. You marvel at the dry sea bed beneath your sandals. You gasp as the army pursuing you is defeated by yet another miracle. God is surely watching over all of you. But the weeks moving south through the desert are hard, nearly as harsh as slavery. You don’t even know what the destination is or when you will arrive. After exactly three months, you and the whole company are standing at the foot of Mount Sinai and word spreads that this is the place. You are given three days to prepare to hear from God. The rumor is that you will actually hear God speak. Wonder swirls – what will God say? During those three days, you are told to wash your clothes and remain holy. The leaders build a fence at the foot of the mountain which no one is to touch or go through on pain of death, except for Moses, and eventually Aaron. On the third day, as you and your family gather with the whole company of the Israelites, a rainless storm seems to be sitting on the mountain. Thunder and lightning are accompanied by the sounding of a ram’s horn that is blown like a pleading trumpet. Smoke envelopes the mountain as though from a hot furnace. The loud blast of the horn means Moses is speaking to God. God answers him in thunder as the mountain itself shakes. Honestly, it’s all a bit scary. Finally, the time has come. God addresses you and all the people directly.  

[What follows next are the words recorded in Exodus 20:1-17] 

20:1Then God spoke all these words: 2 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3you shall have no other gods before me. 

4 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, 6but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. 

7 You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. 

8 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9For six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it. 

12 Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. 

13 You shall not murder. 

14 You shall not commit adultery. 

15 You shall not steal. 

16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. 

17 You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor. 

Shew! That must have been a powerful moment in history! It remains the only time in the entire biblical story when God speaks out loud to all the people. No wonder that we remember this part of the Exodus story so often. No wonder that posting these words on a flimsy yard sign as an act of pride or protest seems an underwhelming gesture. Posting the ten commandments is not an act of faith. Living them is. 

Despite the way we think of these as “commandments” for all of us, I want you today to take them personally. God said these words to you. You hear them from God. We have come to call them commandments, but I like to think of them as God’s first ten teachings. Hundreds more come after these ten although the rest are mediated by someone else who hears God that we trust to relay the message truthfully. Someone like Moses, or Elijah, or Deborah. Nothing is wrong with calling them “commandments.” I grew up with people who had adopted the description of Exodus 20 as God’s “commandments, not suggestions.” Even as a child, I knew that the people who said this intended to mean that they wanted other people to be commanded to follow them like laws. But the words of God, especially these ten, are always to be freely chosen and never imposed by force of law or threat of penalty. Without a doubt, we definitely need a secular legal law against murder and stealing and lying in court. The other seven, on the other hand, should never be legislated even if I think they should always be followed. Commandment #4 should never become “You must require other people to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.” Instead, the “you” in each of God’s teachings is singular. “You, Jeffrey, shall not use God’s name for your own purposes.” “You, Jeffrey, shall honor your parents.” “You, Jeffrey, shall not want what other people have.” It does not say, “You shall not let other people make idols, or steal, or lie.” They are God’s words for me to follow, not for me to impose. 

Anyone who claims to follow God as a Christian must take these words personally. They are for me to choose freely, to practice daily, to set as a standard for myself. None of us are holy by association. We are not part of God’s covenant because of our family. Another person cannot maintain my relationship with God. No one else can speak my prayer for me. Others can assist my spiritual journey and guide my understanding and teach me God’s Way, but I am the only one who can choose to live in God’s Way. Yes, we find a sustainable community of goodness and justice when all of us let these words orient our Way of living, but that equity is violated when they are forced on any one of us. Yes, our work for justice and fairness and the ending of oppression sometimes requires us to advocate for the forced change in law or behavior so that others can live free and healthy and whole. But the act of loving and following God is not determined by imposition of community or social requirements. The practice of faith in God is personal. One of the historic Baptist distinctions that I will hold the tightest and longest is religious liberty in its fullest sense. Not only am I able to freely choose to follow Jesus myself, I will advocate for others to have the freedom to choose the same, or another religious faith, or no faith at all with the same freedom and an equal amount of respect and kindness. 

Since we are in the Christian season of Lent, these teachings of God take us back to the basics. Exodus 20 gives us God’s message as both an imperative and in the present. Do this. Don’t do that. On this day and with the opportunities before me and among the people with whom I live, do this, don’t do that. A simple and direct message from God such as Exodus 20 gives us a fertile field from which other seeds of faith grow. This kind of simplicity is part of our Lenten discipline. Just like a baseball team reporting to Spring Training starts with the basics of throwing and hitting, during Lent we are called back to the common and simple acts of faith. Put God first. Yes, we work, and we have children or grandchildren, and we volunteer to help, and we need to exercise and have a hobby that helps de-stress us, and there are books to read and television shows to binge, and viruses to avoid. Lent calls us back to the building blocks that started us on this faith journey – put God first. Before my schedule. Before my stress-relief. Before my political advocacy. Put God first. Many things in our world compete to take the place of God in our life. We think that we worship only one God, but are we more committed to something on our schedule than we are too God? Are we more passionate about our political insightfulness than our religious understanding? Are we more committed to grandchildren or children more than we are committed to God? Do we watch more football on television than time we spend in prayer, worship, and scripture? Do our choices in lifestyle, or how we spend our money, or what we want other people to think of us have more of an influence on our decisions than what is pleasing to God? The answer to these questions are personal. Only you know the truth. During these weeks of Lent, these questions stand before us and require an honest appraisal.  

Barbara Brown Taylor notes that in the Book of Common Prayer, the ten commandments are used in public worship during Lent in a specific way. The people in the church kneel while these verses from Exodus 20 are read. After each commandment, the people respond by saying, “Lord, have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law.” [from notes written by Barbara Brown Taylor in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2.] It presents worshippers with a tangible whole-body way to note that failure to follow these teachings is part of our reality, but it serves as a call to forgiveness and restoration rather than scorn and pity. “Lord, have mercy upon us.” Yet worshippers are also given the opportunity to voice a renewed call to obedience — “And incline our hearts to keep this law.” Our past may require mercy, but our present offers us opportunity to practice our faith anew. Lent will not let us forget our failures, but will equip us for obedience today.   

While everyone seems to know the ten commandments, the question of whether I choose to follow them or not is not a given. With these teachings, God is saying “trust me and my commandments. There are other teachings you can follow, but they are not good for you, they don’t honor me, and they likely keep others from living justly in the human community. If you do trust me and my commandments, live them today.” It is that simple, and also that difficult, but it is worth the commitment. 

Prayer of Thanksgiving 
Thank you, God for constant love.
Please help our church family grow
deeper and deeper in your love. Amen.

Song of Faith
Gifts of Love Our Lord has Given
Words: Carolyn Winfrey Gillette
Tune: I WANT TO BE A CHRISTIAN

1 Gifts of love our Lord has given, Words of life: “I’m your God!
I have brought you out of Egypt; now I call.
Listen here, listen well:
When you live in gratitude you’ll keep my law.”

2 “Have no other gods before me, says the Lord God Most High.
Don’t choose idols that you worship in God’s place.
Know God’s name, use it well.
Keep the Sabbath for it is God’s gift of grace.”

3 “Honor father, honor mother, and rejoice! God will bless you.
Take no life, for God loves every child on earth.
Celebrate gifts of love;
Take to heart what marriage promises are worth.”

4 “Do not steal from one another, nor speak lies, hurting others;
Do not wish for what your neighbor has in greed.”
Ten great Words, gifts from God,
Help us live in thanks for all we have received.

Sending Out

Listen to the Sending Out and/or read below.

Know that the ever-present mystery we name God
is in your past forgiving you,
in your present loving you,
and in your future meeting you.

And may the blessing of the Source of life, love and hope,
the Word of life, compassion and wisdom
and Breath of life, grace and truth
surround, sustain and surprise you,
this day and all your days. Amen

Blest Be the Tie 
by John Fawcett 

Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love. 
The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above.

When we are called to part, it gives us inward pain; 
but we shall still be joined in heart, and hope to meet again. 

This glorious hope revives our courage by the way; 
while each in expectation lives and waits to see the day.  

Acknowledgements:

  • The words by John Birch are posted on “Prayers for the season of Lent (faithandworship.com).” Accessed February 18, 2021. https://www.faithandworship.com/prayers_Lent.htm.
  • The image was retrieved from https://i2.wp.com/www.catholicteacher.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/Lent-prayer-service.png?fit=1000%2C667&ssl=1.
  • The Invitation to Worship is offered by Michelle and comes from Jesus Sets the Table, resources by the United Church of Christ, posted on their Worship Ways website.
  • We Will Walk with God is sung by Mindy, accompanied by Kendall on the djembe.
  • The Opening Prayer is offered by Onifer and was written by Moira Laidlaw.
  • Psalm 19 is read by Kendall.
  • Let All Creation Dance and Gifts of Love Our Lord has Given are sung by Mindy, accompanied by Tonya on the piano.
  • 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 is read by Mike.
  • The Lenten prayer is offered by Tonya and was posted on the website re:Worship under Lent 3B.
  • The Words of Assurance are offered by Carmen.
  • Oh, Thou My Soul, Forget No More is sung by Ally, Elizabeth, Laura, Tonya, and Mindy, accompanied by Tonya on the piano.
  • The blessing is offered by Tonya and comes from “Words of Dismissal and Benediction | The Billabong.” Accessed February 18, 2021. http://thebillabong.info/lectionary/additional-resources/words-of-dismissal-and-benediction.

    Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-724755. All rights reserved.  All writings have been used by permission from the posting sites or authors.

God says in Isaiah 58:6-7

Isn’t this the fast I choose:
releasing wicked restraints,
untying the ropes of a yoke,
setting free the mistreated,
& breaking every yoke?
Isn’t it sharing your bread with the hungry
& bringing the homeless poor into your house,
covering the naked when you see them,
and not hiding from your own family?

The purpose of Lent is to be a season of fasting, self-denial, Christian growth, penitence, conversion, and simplicity. Lent, which comes from the Teutonic (Germanic) word for springtime, can be viewed as a spiritual spring cleaning: a time for taking spiritual inventory and then cleaning out those things which hinder our corporate and personal relationships with Jesus Christ and our service to him. (John Birch)

May these 40 days before Easter be a time of spiritual spring cleaning, of removing what hinders and renewing what facilitates our relationships with God, the world, and one another.

The Worship of God for Second Sunday in Lent

Passing the Peace 
Say to one another, “May the peace of Christ be with you.”
And reply, “And, also with you.”

Invitation to Worship
based on Psalm 22

Listen to the invitation and/or read below.

Let us glorify God who created all things,
yet who hears and responds to the cries of the weak and the needy.

We declare the glory of God – ruler over all nations,
whose greatness is revealed in gracious and loving acts.
Let us worship and witness so faithfully
that future generations will believe
and glorify God in their hearts and with their lives.

Let us worship and praise God with thanksgiving in our hearts.

Song of Praise
We Will Walk With God
Words: Eswatini Traditional (trans. J.L. Bell)
Tune: SIZOHAMBA (Eswatini Traditional)

Come and walk with me, my brothers.
We will walk with God.
Come and walk with me, my sisters.
We will walk with God.

We will go rejoicing,
til the kingdom has come. (Repeat)

See-zoh-hahm-bah nah-yay,
woh woh woh,
see-zoh-hahm-bah nah-yay. (Repeat)

Goom-shlah wen-jah-boo-lah,
see-zoh-hahm-bah nah-yay. (Repeat)

Come and walk with me, my brothers.
We will walk with God.
Come and walk with me, my sisters.
We will walk with God.

We will go rejoicing,
til the kingdom has come. (Repeat)

Opening Prayer
Let us pray:

Listen and/or read below and pray along.

We pray, O God, that today will be the time when we hear you and that our hearts will not be hard or cold. We pray rather, that our hearts will be warmed, and our lives energized by your Spirit so that we can worship you with our whole being. Amaze us anew with the faithfulness of Sarah and Abraham and their belief in your staggering promises of a fruitful future. Confront us afresh with wonder at your desire to relate to humanity through a covenant established by you. We worship you, O God, with awe, knowing that you care so much for us – knowledge deepened and confirmed through the bringing into being of a new covenant through the suffering and death of Jesus. Accept, we pray, this worship which comes from thankful hearts, for we offer it in Jesus’ name. Amen

Psalm 22:23-31
Common English Bible

Listen to and/or read the Psalm.

All of you who revere the Lord—praise him!
All of you who are Jacob’s descendants—honor him!
All of you who are all Israel’s offspring—
stand in awe of him!
24 Because he didn’t despise or detest
the suffering of the one who suffered—
he didn’t hide his face from me.
No, he listened when I cried out to him for help.

25 I offer praise in the great congregation
because of you;
I will fulfill my promises
in the presence of those who honor God.
26 Let all those who are suffering eat and be full!
Let all who seek the Lord praise him!
I pray your hearts live forever!
27 Every part of the earth
will remember and come back to the Lord;
every family among all the nations will worship you.
28 Because the right to rule belongs to the Lord,
he rules all nations.
29 Indeed, all the earth’s powerful
will worship him;
all who are descending to the dust
will kneel before him;
my being also lives for him.
30 Future descendants will serve him;
generations to come will be told about my Lord.
31 They will proclaim God’s righteousness
to those not yet born,
telling them what God has done.

Song of Praise
The Living God Be Praised!
Author: Daniel ben Judah
Tune: LEONI

The living God be praised!
Give honor to God’s name,
who was, and is, and is to be,
for-e’re the same;
the one eternal God
before all now appears,
the first, the last, beyond all thought
God’s timeless years!

2 God’s Spirit still flows free,
high surging where it will;
in prophet’s word God spoke of old
and God speaks still.
Established is God’s law
and changeless it shall stand,
inscribed upon the human heart
on sea and land.

3 Eternal life has God
implanted in the soul;
God’s love will be our strength and stay
while ages roll.
The living One be praised!
Give honor to God’s name,
who was, and is, and is to be,
for’e’er the same.

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
New Revised Standard Version

Listen to the scripture being read and/or read below.

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. 2And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” 3Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, 4“As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 5No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 6I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. 7I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.”

15God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. 16I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”

Lenten Prayer
Let us pray,

Listen and/or read the prayer as we pray.

Gracious God, you reached into Abraham and Sarah’s lives
and asked them to dream the impossible dream –
that you would transform what appears to have been
a barren and lifeless situation into one overflowing with promise and hope –
and, through faith in you, they believed your promises.

Forgive us, O God, if we never get beyond thinking of your call on our lives
as an impossible dream or even as an unwelcome interruption.

Forgive us, O God, when we find it hard even to hear your promises
above commercial assurances of transformation—
tempting us to trust the newest and trendiest product to realize our dreams.

Forgive us, O God, when we allow the power of evil to flourish
because we are afraid of what the cost might be to truly follow and walk with you.

Silent reflection on these words

Gracious and loving God, forgive our lack of trust in you;
Have mercy on us and forgive us.
Help us when we hesitate, and strengthen us when we are weak
Breathe your Spirit afresh into our hearts and minds – our lives -so that we have the courage to follow Jesus wherever he takes us. Amen

Words of Assurance and Hope
God loves us; we do not need to be afraid.
Jesus said, “I am the light of the world.”
“Stand up and do not be afraid.”
“You are my friends. I am always with you.”
Amen.

Anthem
Be Still, and Know that I am God
Composer: Carol McClure

Be still, and know that I am God;
Be still, and know that I am God.

Long before you were formed,
Long before you were born,
I knew your face and called you by name;
My love for you is always the same.

Be still, and know that I am God;
Be still, and know that I am God.

You are made in the image of God;
You are redeemed by my love.
You are made in the image of God;
You are redeemed by my love.

Be still, and know that I am God;
Be still, and know that I am God.

Reflection on the Old Testament
Rev. Tonya Vickery

Listen to the reflection and/or read below.

“Faith includes faithfulness, strength of waiting, the acceptance of [God’s] concealment, defiance of history.”

We all have felt the frustrating paradox of on the one hand knowing God’s constant presence and on the other hand, experiencing God’s silence, or rather our inability to hear, see, or feel God.  Sometimes life feels like we are attending a celebration or victory dinner. Like the Israelites, we have been freed from our “Egyptians” and we join Moses in song.
“The LORD is my strength and my might;    
the LORD has become my salvation.
This is my God
  whom I will praise and exalt!” (Exodus 15:2).
But then there are those days when heavy hearts, confused and lost, feeling defeated we sit down with Job and say,
“Look, God passes right by me,
    but I do not see God;
God moves on,
    but I do not perceive.” (Job 9:11)

God is not indifferent to our struggle of knowing God.  As we look for God around us, as we hope to hear God’s voice, as we long to feel God’s holy presence, God is mindful of our quest to find God in our days and in our world. Without a doubt, we need God. But surprisingly God, the Almighty God, needs us too. The story of Abraham and Sarah following on the heels of the story of Noah highlights God’s need for us.

God created this amazing world and God is good. So therefore everything is good because God created it. But the world has fallen short of the glory of God out of which it was created. It’s like paths of darkness have made their way through the world and across our lives. Paths of misery, callousness, and defiance.

These pockets of shadows and darkness where the light of God does not shine, these are not places where God is at home. The Iranian regime made the news Friday. Our nation striking back at them for killing an American contractor who was working for the US government. But take a deeper look into what life is like for Iranians living under this dishonest, fear mongering leaders. It doesn’t take long to run across pictures or stories of Iranian children rummaging through the garbage. They sell the garbage for less than a dollar a day just so their family can buy a loaf of bread for the day. What a miserable life for a child. Misery is not the kind of home which God has created for us.

God isn’t at home with callous attitudes either. We have read about callousness in the hearts of Americans who before the Civil War forcefully separated children from their mothers to sell them as slaves.  What a horrible scene, callous to the cries of the children and their mothers. Such brutal behavior is not the kind of life for which God created us.  But unfortunately we Americans still commit such ironhearted acts. Callous hearts of Americans who forcefully separated children from mothers who were seeking asylum. Who could possibly do such a thing? and receive wages for such soulless actions?  Callous, hard hearts towards others speaks nothing of the way of God. This is not the type of life for which God created us.

And then there’s defiance, defiance by 10% of the world’s population. Ten percent of us make over $38,000 a year and we are the ones heating up the planet. Our refusal or reluctance to make changes or adjustments to our daily living as to cool things down shows how stubborn and self-serving we truly are. Our current lifestyle is set to increase the temperature of the planet at least 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit). It doesn’t sound like a lot. You change the temperature in your house by 5 or 6 degrees, and it’s really no big deal. But when you change the temperature of the planet by 5 degrees Fahrenheit, we won’t be living like we did a couple of years ago.  If you think a pandemic is an interruption to life, what do you think will happen when the earth heats up 5 degrees? Those before us were not aware of the impact of burning fossil fuels like coal and oil, but we are aware. Do you recall the first thing God told humanity to do?  Take care of the earth. We have more understanding and knowledge of how to do that, and how we have harmed the earth. But we are still being pigheaded about making uncomfortable money costing changes. A defiant life is not the way of God.

Last week we read in Genesis that the earth had become a place God didn’t like. Corruption and violence filled the earth. It was not how God envisioned life to be, not for God, not for the earth, and not for people. However, God sees his friend Noah living honorably and righteously among this misery, callousness, and defiance. Genesis says Noah is blameless. So God says to Noah, “Come, walk with me.” And while they are walking together (actually riding safe inside a very large enclosed boat), God brings a flood that destroys everything but Noah and Noah’s family and those animals safe inside the boat.  It was like a tactical rescue mission. Get the good people out and destroy the rest.

That’s how we want to see it done sometimes. God would you just wipe out all corrupt leaders from the world, especially in Iran where children are having to dig through the garbage? Where their lives are hopeless and robbed of the joys of being a child. And while you are at it, just take care of people with callous hearts and defiant self-serving minds however you see fit. Did you notice that we don’t tend to pray that God would wipe out those of us with callous hearts toward caring for others and defiant attitudes towards care for the earth? What do you think God would say to such prayers? Can’t do that Peach. I made a promise a long time ago to never do that again. And it is an everlasting covenant. We remember the promise of God by the bending of light–a rainbow.

But God, the earth, and humanity needed more than just a promise from God that erasure or destruction would not be used against the darkness. God offers more. God invites a family to go out from their country into a new land, to set up house there, and fully live the way of God. It sounds like an escape plan. You know those times when life gets rough and you are like, “I just need to get out of here and move to Norway.”  But this new idea was definitely not an escape. Look at Genesis 17:1. God says to Abram, “I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless.”  Ah, we have already heard that word blameless. Noah was blameless. He lived an honorable and righteous life. We have also already heard that word walk. The change between the two invitations is in the word that come before walk  –  a preposition in the case of Noah becomes an adverb in the life of Abram. The invitation from God to Noah was “Walk with me.” The invitation from God to Abram is “Walk before me.” There is a shift here. There is a purpose to Abram’s walk that goes beyond himself and his family being rescued, saved from the darkness. At first it sounds like God is asking Abram to lead the way for God, as if God didn’t know which way to go. But that’s not what’s intended here. Remove the ideas of competition and ranking. This isn’t about pecking orders or the first one in the line is the best.  Abram coming before God means Abram is to be like a shining light. Abram’s life is to illuminate the presence of God to the world, making more room for God and less room for those dark paths of misery, callousness, and defiance.

The dark paths running across the globe today are not much different from those in the days of Noah. And we know without a shadow of a doubt, that God does not  like such things. Misery, callousness, and defiance are not the ways of God. However, God will not provide an escape route, nor will God wipe out everything that is wrong.  Instead, God asks us to bring the presence of God into the world and into our lives and into the lives of others. The misery, the callousness, and the defiance fade away over time when God is brought into these places. Like Abraham, we are illuminate God’s presence along these paths so the world can know the goodness and love and grace of God.

But, here we are again. Sometimes we see God clearly and we sing at the top of our lungs with Moses. Yes, we can illuminate the presence of God in the world. But there are times when we cannot see God, and we sit alongside Job, wondering. How can we illuminate a presence which we cannot perceive. But even when we cannot see, hear, or feel God, we can still illuminate the presence of God to the world, but it will require us to be faithful to our faith in God. When God seems gone, we must remember that there is nothing closer to us than God. There is nothing closer to you than Almighty God. One bridge to get us over the emptiness is being in awe of God, living every day in awe of God.

We all adore something or someone. I have the pleasure of seeing Millie each Tuesday night on Zoom for Bible study with the young adults. I adore little Millie.  We are all awe struck by something. We watched a documentary on the Grand Canyon Friday night. I can only imagine that if I stood in that deep canyon, I would be awe of such massive colorful walls of rock. So who or what in your life are you in awe of? But turn this question and refine it. What are you in awe of that is worthy of your supreme worship? Now, you can stand outside on a clear night and gaze at the stars above and stand in awe. Nature is full of awestriking things. But we don’t worship nature. We can see those chubby Millie cheeks and we star struck, but we don’t worship Millie. Instead infants, nature, and the vastness of the universe create an awe within  us which illuminates for us the works of the Creator God and our hearts are pointed to God.  These things nurture within us the awe of God Almighty!

If you want to increase your awe of God, start by asking yourself this question: what is God’s relationship with humanity?  The biblical stories of Noah and Abraham and Sarah reveal this relationship more and more. What is God’s relationship with you?  Your presence in this world is not a mistake or a chance happening. Always remember that God is unwilling to be alone, and God has chosen, not just Noah, not just Sarah and Abraham, but God has chosen to share life with us, with you. Faith in God is our response to God choosing us.  Faith in God may begin with a decision or a desire. But when we nurture our faith in the living God with awe, that faith grows.

As we work to diminish and eradicate misery, callousness, and defiance in the world, deepen your sense of the mystery of God. Realize that faith is not just a belief, but faith is an act. Faith in the living God is the core of who you are, what you do, how you think about things, what you love. Faith is not an achievement, but it is a way of life. And it is something that has to be worked at, nurtured, tended to. Faith requires faithfulness, what Abraham Heschel called “strength of waiting.” Our active living faith in the living active God reveals God’s presence to the world. So like Abraham, walk before God don’t promise escape routes or destruction of evil or easy answers, but walk before God, illuminating God by your life to everyone that God is here with us always.

Prayer of Thanksgiving 
Thank you, God for constant love.
Please help our church family grow
deeper and deeper in your love. Amen.

Song of Faith
Put All Your Trust in God
Author: Paul Gerhardt; trans. John Wesley; ad. by Tonya Vickery
Tune: ST THOMAS (Williams)

1 Put all your trust in God,
in duty’s path go on;
walk in God’s strength with faith and hope,
so will your work be done.

2 Commit your ways to God,
your works into God’s hands,
and rest on God’s unchanging word,
who heaven and earth commands.

3 Though years on years roll on,
God’s covenant endures;
though clouds and darkness hide God’s path,
the promised grace is sure.

4 Give to the wind your fears;
hope, and be undismayed:
God sees your heart and feels your pain;
and hears the words you’ve prayed.

5 Through waves and clouds and storms
our God will clear the way:
expect to see the darkest night
become the brightest day.

Sending Out

Listen to and/or read the sending out.

Know that the ever-present mystery we name God
is in your past forgiving you,
in your present loving you,
and in your future meeting you.

And may the blessing of the Source of life, love and hope,
the Word of life, compassion and wisdom
and Breath of life, grace and truth
surround, sustain and surprise you,
this day and all your days. Amen

Blest Be the Tie 
by John Fawcett 

Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love. 
The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above.

When we are called to part, it gives us inward pain; 
but we shall still be joined in heart, and hope to meet again. 

This glorious hope revives our courage by the way; 
while each in expectation lives and waits to see the day.  

Acknowledgements:

God says in Isaiah 58:6-7

Isn’t this the fast I choose:
releasing wicked restraints,
untying the ropes of a yoke,
setting free the mistreated,
& breaking every yoke?
Isn’t it sharing your bread with the hungry
& bringing the homeless poor into your house,
covering the naked when you see them,
and not hiding from your own family?

The purpose of Lent is to be a season of fasting, self-denial, Christian growth, penitence, conversion, and simplicity. Lent, which comes from the Teutonic (Germanic) word for springtime, can be viewed as a spiritual spring cleaning: a time for taking spiritual inventory and then cleaning out those things which hinder our corporate and personal relationships with Jesus Christ and our service to him. (John Birch)

May these 40 days before Easter be a time of spiritual spring cleaning, of removing what hinders and renewing what facilitates our relationships with God, the world, and one another.

The Worship of God for First Sunday in Lent

Passing the Peace 
Say to one another, “May the peace of Christ be with you.”
And reply, “And, also with you.”

Invitation to Worship
Listen to the invitation and/or read below.

God does not remember us
according to our sins and wrongdoing.
God remembers us
according to God’s own compassion and faithful love!
God teaches us God’s paths
and leads us in God’s truth.
God saves us.
We put our hope in God all day long!

Opening Prayer
Listen to the prayer and pray along, or offer your own prayer to God.

Creator God
the sun, moon, and stars
shower us with light
yet clouds form and vanish
the earth turns
and the light changes

Redeeming God, you are the true light
constant, never dimming
stable, never wavering
anchored, never shifting
eternal, never ceasing

Sustaining God
shower us with your light
shatter the darkness
clear the clouds
sharpen our vision
so we might see and live
so as to love you better
and live for your glory.
Amen.

Song of Praise
We Will Walk With God
Words: Eswatini Traditional (trans. J.L. Bell)
Tune: SIZOHAMBA (Eswatini Traditional)

Here are the lyrics in Swazi:
Sizohamba naye
wo wo wo,
Sizohamba naye. (Repeat)

Ngomhla wenjabula
sizohamba naye. (Repeat)

“Sizohamba naye” means “We will go with him.”
and “Ngomhla wenjabulameans “On a happy day.”


Now, here is how to pronounce the Swazi words:
See-zoh-hahm-bah nah-yay,
woh woh woh,
see-zoh-hahm-bah nah-yay,
see-zoh-hahm-bah nah-yay.

Ngahm-hlah wen-jah-boo-lah,
see-zoh-hahm-bah nah-yay
see-zoh-hahm-bah nah-yay


Listen, sing along, and smile!

Sizohamba naye
wo wo wo,
Sizohamba naye. (Repeat)

Ngomhla wenjabula
sizohamba naye. (Repeat)

We will walk with God, my brothers,
we will walk with God.
We will walk with God, my sisters,
we will walk with God.

We will go rejoicing,
till the kingdom has come. (Repeat)

Psalm 25:1-10
Common English Bible
Listen to the Psalm and/or read below.

I offer my life to you, Lord.
2 My God, I trust you.
Please don’t let me be put to shame!
Don’t let my enemies rejoice over me!
3 For that matter,
don’t let anyone who hopes in you
be put to shame;
instead, let those who are treacherous without excuse be put to shame.

4 Make your ways known to me, Lord;
teach me your paths.
5 Lead me in your truth—teach it to me—
because you are the God who saves me.
I put my hope in you all day long.
6 Lord, remember your compassion and faithful love—
they are forever!
7 But don’t remember the sins of my youth or my wrongdoing.
Remember me only according to your faithful love
for the sake of your goodness, Lord.

8 The Lord is good and does the right thing;
he teaches sinners which way they should go.
9 God guides the weak to justice,
teaching them his way.
10 All the Lord’s paths are loving and faithful
for those who keep his covenant and laws.

Song of Praise
My Soul in Stillness Waits
Author: Marty Haugen
Tune: O LORD OF LIGHT, OUR ONLY HOPE OF GLORY

For you, O Lord, my soul in stillness waits,
Truly my hope is in you.

O Lord of Light, our only hope of glory,
Your radiance shines in all who look to you,
Come, light the hearts of all in dark and shadow. (Refrain)

O Spring of Joy, rain down upon our spirits,
Our thirsty hearts are yearning for your Word,
Come, make us whole, be comfort to our hearts. (Refrain)

O Root of Life, implant your seed within us,
And in your advent draw us all to you,
Our hope reborn in dying and in rising. (Refrain)

O Key of Knowledge, guide us in our pilgrimage,
We ever seek, yet unfulfilled remain,
Open to us the pathway of your peace. (Refrain)

Come, let us bow before the God who made us,
let every heart be opened to the Lord,
for we are all the people of God’s hand. (Refrain)

Here we shall meet the maker of the heavens,
Creator of the mountains and the seas,
Lord of the stars, and present to us no. (Refrain)

Lenten Prayer
Listen to the prayer and pray along, or offer your own prayer to God.

Let us pray,

God, we have fallen short of the life you created for us.
We may confess to you what we have or have not done,
but we don’t take responsibility.
Instead we believe it isn’t our fault
or we couldn’t have done anything different.
On the other hand,
sometime we only apologize when everyone else does the same.

But you are God.
You know us better than we know ourselves.
So instead of saying to you,
“I’m sorry” or “I apologize” or “I regret.”
we humble ourselves and ask,

Reveal to us, God
the extent of what we have done.

Provoke us, God
until we understand the hurt.

Inspire us, God
to see how it’s possible
to live by your principles.

Transform us, God
holding us tight until we believe
in fresh starts
and the value of trying again.

silent prayer and meditation

Words of Assurance and Hope
God loves us.
We do not need to be afraid.
Jesus said,
“I am the light of the world.”
“Stand up and do not be afraid.”
“You are my friends. I am always with you.”
Amen.

Anthem
Steal Away
Arranger: Malcolm Archer
Tune: Traditional

Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus.
Steal away, steal away home, I ain’t got long to stay here.

My Lord, he calls me, he calls me by the thunder;
The trumpet sounds within-a my soul;
I ain’t got long to stay here.

Green trees a-bending, poor sinner stands a-trembling;
The trumpet sounds within-a my soul;
I ain’t got long to stay here.

Genesis 9:8-17
Common English Bible
Listen to the scripture and/or read below.

God said to Noah and to his sons with him, 9 “I am now setting up my covenant with you, with your descendants, 10 and with every living being with you—with the birds, with the large animals, and with all the animals of the earth, leaving the ark with you. 11 I will set up my covenant with you so that never again will all life be cut off by floodwaters. There will never again be a flood to destroy the earth.”

12 God said, “This is the symbol of the covenant that I am drawing up between me and you and every living thing with you, on behalf of every future generation. 13 I have placed my bow in the clouds; it will be the symbol of the covenant between me and the earth. 14 When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow appears in the clouds, 15 I will remember the covenant between me and you and every living being among all the creatures. Floodwaters will never again destroy all creatures. 16 The bow will be in the clouds, and upon seeing it I will remember the enduring covenant between God and every living being of all the earth’s creatures.” 17 God said to Noah, “This is the symbol of the covenant that I have set up between me and all creatures on earth.”

Reflection
Rev. Jeffrey Vickery
Listen to the reflection and/or read below

The season of Lent began a few days ago on Ash Wednesday. I have come to think of these seven weeks leading up to Easter as unique. The Christian observance of Lent is unlike the hopeful anticipation and joy of Christmas, or the glory and praise of Easter. Lent asks us to focus on the limits of our humanity, but not in a way that is hurtful, shameful, or false. During this season, our faith draws us into a healthy and honest appraisal of ourselves, without tearing us down or beating us up.  Every year as the winter landscape turns grey and brown and cold, Lent hands us a mirror into which we see ourselves honestly. Far too often someone else has told us what we see in that mirror, and they use their words that they have presumed are God’s words to describe what they see – harmful words that paint much too dire a picture of God’s children made in God’s image. Pastors and preachers and parents and partners have all pronounced us – totally depraved, sinful from birth, incapable of love, bound to original sin and thus incapable of goodness. In short, they have told us we are hell-bound and are deserving of its punishment. These are not the intentions of the season of Lent. Now is not the time to be scared into heaven, or reprimanded for our human limitations, or led to believe bad theology based upon old patriarchal idealism that demeans being human.  

The season of Lent is, instead, a reminder that we are God’s children, created in God’s image, yet not God ourselves. We don’t live forever. We can’t do anything we want. We do have the ability to practice self-discipline, or seek to follow God in humility, or show the grace of gentleness, or celebrate the gift of knowing we are limited.  

Lent calls us to a re-discovery of the basic truth of our humanity: we are not God, and we are not evil.  As God’s good creation we hold a balance between these two poles. We are not God and we are not evil. And yet we often find ourselves pulled toward one or the other of these two extremes. When we manipulate and threaten and control others to our benefit we are presuming that we are the human extension of God’s authority and we have the right to command others. When we live as though we are the ultimate reality of life, as though all others revolve around us, as though we are deserving of all that is right and good beyond what others should have or receive, we are claiming ourselves nearly divine. Likewise, when we pity ourselves, underestimate our goodness, sweep aside the necessity of our life as part of God’s will in the world, we push away from the inspired goodness of the life God has given us.  Lent is a season to bring our humanity into its center, balanced between the temptation to act as though we are God and the fall into a misappropriated view of human sin. We are not God and we should stop acting like it. We are not evil, and we should let our goodness lead us into a right relationship with God and others. For the next seven weeks, we are called to return to this human center.  

Our story this morning comes from the end of the story of Noah. Although we sanitize this biblical masterpiece with cute pairs of our favorite animals and cheery rainbows that decorate our minds, in many ways the story of Noah is problematic. God looks at people and feels regret. That’s not the kind of assessment I want God to pronounce over me. Yet in Noah’s day the intent of people had turned to something other than goodness, or holiness, or righteousness. When the Noah story begins in Genesis 6, we are not given a description of what the people are doing wrong, only a clear declaration from God that their thoughts and intentions were only on sin. As Genesis 6:4 says, “… humanity had become thoroughly evil on the earth and … every idea their minds thought up was always completely evil.” And so one answer … destroy all creation. Maybe I should end that sentence with a question mark. Destroy all creation? I told you it was problematic. It’s also no surprise that some people read this story as an example of what God is secretly planning for us: create them, regret having created them, and then kill them all. But don’t be misled. That’s not the point of the Noah story.  

Like other stories in Genesis, these stories are intended to communicate a certain meaning rather than facts. I’m certain that a major destructive flood did in fact effect a widespread area of the ancient Middle East. The Egyptians, Sumerians, and Akkadians (just to name a few) all had a story of an epic flood that involved their god. Some remarkable flood did in fact rain upon that part of the Earth at some point in history. At the same time, the parts of the story that are exaggerated are in fact used to make a point rather than to be taken literally. No, not “every kind of animal” was on the ark. No, the waters did not cover all the mountains on all the earth with 23 feet of water. No, not every single living creature on Earth was killed by this one flood. These exaggerations are used to highlight the meaning of the story, not the details. If we use this story as a prop for the kind of fundamentalism that must have a literal interpretation of every word of the Bible, then we will miss the meaning of it. More directly, when the Noah story becomes a bit player in the argument for creationism against evolution, it runs the risk of completely misunderstanding the biblical intent and ends up using it to argue for something that the Bible never intended. We must consider both what the story says and what it means, and do so in a way consistent with its original message and God’s divine nature. 

I don’t claim to have all the insight into the Noah story, but on this Sunday in Lent, I find these three meanings in Genesis that I think are worth our prayerful consideration. 

First, the most important meaning is found in the overall movement of the story. Through Noah, his family, the animals, and the flood, God un-creates Eden, preserves a faithful remnant of that original creation, and re-establishes the world with a new covenant. More succinctly, God’s purposes are always to create, re-create, and restore relationships with humanity. While the flood story follows this pattern, so does an individual human life. We are born, but not in Eden. We are pronounced as “very good” (see Genesis 1:31) when we are created by God and born.  Yet we all lose our sinless created state. We all choose disobedience at some point. The end of the story could simply be destruction. God could become angry and just kill us when we sin. But the biblical story of God’s relationship with humanity is not “be perfect or be killed.” Story after story in the Bible shows that God’s intent is to create, forgive, and restore – to create, forgive, and restore – and then to do it again – create, forgive, and restore.  Noah’s story uses water as a central character in the story to illustrate this idea. What begins as a means of destruction (the flood waters) becomes transformed from a vehicle for death into an image of birth (as in the issuing of water from a mother’s womb before a baby is born). We humans are re-born by God through the water. God gives birth to us again. This mothering of God that brings us into life and also re-creates our life is consistently present in the biblical stories. There’s no “three strikes and you’re out” with God. When Jesus said to “forgive seventy times seven” times, he was asking us to treat each other with the kind of patient forgiveness that God extends. The real surprise in the Noah story may not be enormity of the flood, but that God does not give up on us. In fact, when humans were at their worst in all of human history, God continues to give life.   

Second, Another crucial meaning I find in the Noah story is that all creation is affected by human sin. Not just the people who were continually evil, but the animals and the Earth is affected by the flood in Genesis. In a more positive perspective, not just eight humans were saved on the ark, so was creation – bird and animal, domestic and wild. It is not difficult, then, to come to the conclusion that this story tells us that all creation is loved by God, and the consequences of human sin take a toll on the non-human created world as well. If human thoughts are always evil, then we will exercise that same evil in our relationships with the environment, with animals, with creation as a whole. It seems to me that when Christians take the Noah story seriously alongside our insistent confession that God is Creator of all, then Christianity will be at the forefront of helping the Earth heal from a century of human sinful action against it. It is without a doubt that we are at a tipping point in the human destruction of creation. By one estimate, we are down to nine years’ time in which we must re-program our human sin against of creation before its doom (our doom) is assured. It’s not a stretch, then, to say that our relationship with God’s creation has been sinful, and it must become a central understanding of our faith that the restoration of creation is a matter of faith in God and love for God’s gift of life. Honestly, I think we’re passed the time in which theological “problems” like original sin, or speaking in tongues, or biblical inerrancy take priority. If Christians ignore the detrimental effects we continue to have on God’s creation, then we risk violating God’s law in ways that we willfully ignore. If we don’t repent of our ravaging of the environment during Lent, in this year, on this day, then we risk continuing the evil that seeks to undo God’s goodness in creation.  

Third, and finally, the Noah story reminds us that God is in power, but we are responsible. God determines life and death and life again, and those things are beyond us. Yet the Noah story insists that we are responsible for how we live our life, we are called to a goodness that is within our capacity to achieve, we are responsible for the welfare of both the human community and the created world around us. Upon leaving the ark, God makes a new covenant with Noah. God willingly doubles-down on the commitment to sustain human life. Never again will this kind of destruction and flood come our way. Again, like the other portions of the Noah story, it is rich with meaning even if not literal. It means that we can read this new covenant as God’s unwillingness to give up on human goodness despite any past human evil. In popular lingo, it’s time to pull ourselves up by our own boot straps and rise to the moment. God continues to have confidence in our ability to respond and re-enliven our world. God’s not going to magically heal creation for us. God’s not going to unilaterally bring about a healthy human community on our behalf. God’s not going to impose God’s will on our social or political or economic systems and resolve the injustices of our society. We must do these things, and we must do them as part of God’s calling to live in God’s Way. And, we can have the confidence that God thinks we are capable of peaceful, holy, righteous, equitable living. Go and populate the Earth, God says to Noah at the end of the flood. What does God say to us? The same thing. Go and populate the Earth, with justice and mercy.  

Just maybe we come to the end of the Noah story, and we can still ooh and aah when we see a rainbow, but also begin to see the colors in the sky as a calling to take responsibility for a just and merciful Earth in a way that brings life to all. And we can do so, as God’s good creation who have been created, re-created, and restored to what God intends for us all. 

Prayer of Thanksgiving 
Thank you, God for constant love.
Please help our church family grow
deeper and deeper in your love. Amen.

Song of Faith
Shades of purple, shades of blue
Text: Carolyn Winfrey Gillette
Tune: DIX (Konker)

Shades of purple, shades of blue, green and yellow, orange, red —
Noah and his family, too, saw the rainbow overhead.
God, Creator, high above you displayed your sign of love.

Soon new life was springing forth, filling land and sea and air.
God, you chose to bless the earth with the promise of your care —
And your promised love extends far beyond our human friends.

In the rainbow, you were clear: every living thing has worth.
You love every creature here on this planet we call Earth.
God, forgive when we destroy gifts from you that bring you joy.

May your church begin to see in that rainbow high above:
We are daily called to be stewards of this world you love.
Since the earth is dear to you, may we treat it kindly, too.

Blessing
Listen to the blessing and/or read below.

Know that the ever-present mystery we name God
is in your past forgiving you,
in your present loving you,
and in your future meeting you.

And may the blessing of the Source of life, love and hope,
the Word of life, compassion and wisdom
and Breath of life, grace and truth
surround, sustain and surprise you,
this day and all your days. Amen

Blest Be the Tie 
by John Fawcett 

Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love. 
The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above.

When we are called to part, it gives us inward pain; 
but we shall still be joined in heart, and hope to meet again. 

This glorious hope revives our courage by the way; 
while each in expectation lives and waits to see the day.  

Acknowledgements:

  • The words by John Birch are posted on “Prayers for the season of Lent (faithandworship.com).” Accessed February 18, 2021. https://www.faithandworship.com/prayers_Lent.htm.
  • The image was retrieved from https://i2.wp.com/www.catholicteacher.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/Lent-prayer-service.png?fit=1000%2C667&ssl=1.
  • The call to worship and opening prayer were written by Tonya based on Psalm 25 and James 1:17 respectively. The call to worship is read by Tyler and the opening prayer is offered by Kendall.
  • The first song of praise is sung by Mindy, accompanied by Kendall on the djembe.
  • Psalm 25 is read by Laura.
  • The second song of praise is sung by Mindy; accompanied by Tonya on the piano, Michelle on the guitar, and Emily on the oboe.
  • The Lenten prayer was written and is read by Tonya who adapted it from a prayer written by Katherine Fox, “It’s easy to say sorry,” Ruth Burgess, ed., Spring: Liturgical Resources for February, March, and April, Wild Goose Publications, a division of the Iona Community, copyright 2019.
  • Steal Away is sung by Ally, Elizabeth, Laura, Michelle, Mindy, and Tonya.
  • Shades of purple, shades of blue is played by Tracy on the organ and sung by Mindy.
  • The blessing is offered by Jeffrey and comes from “Words of Dismissal and Benediction | The Billabong.” Accessed February 18, 2021. http://thebillabong.info/lectionary/additional-resources/words-of-dismissal-and-benediction.

    Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-724755. All rights reserved.  All writings have been used by permission from the posting sites or authors.

We come to this moment in time instead of a “place” expecting to hear the divine voice of God. We hope for new and deeper understandings of God and the ministries to which God calls us. We hope to experience a broader understanding of what it means to live the Way of Jesus. May our eyes be opened to new understandings. May our hearts have courage to listen to the voice of God.

The Worship of God

Passing the Peace 
Say to one another, “May the peace of Christ be with you.”
And reply, “And, also with you.”

Reading from the Psalms
Psalm 50:1-6

From the rising of the sun to where it sets,
God, the Lord God, speaks,
calling out to the earth.
From Zion, perfect in beauty,
God shines brightly.

Our God is coming;
he won’t keep quiet.
A devouring fire is before him;
a storm rages all around him.
God calls out to the skies above
and to the earth in order to judge his people:
“Bring my faithful to me,
those who made a covenant with me by sacrifice.”
The skies proclaim his righteousness
because God himself is the judge.

Song of Praise
We Have Come at Christ’s Own Bidding
Author: Carl P. Daw
Tune: PLEADING SAVIOR (Joshua Leavitt)

We have come at Christ’s own bidding
to this high and holy place,
where we wait with hope and longing
for some token of God’s grace.
Here we pray for new assurance
that our faith is not in vain,
searching like those first disciples
for a sign both clear and plain.

Light breaks in upon our darkness,
splendor bathes the flesh-joined Word,
Moses and Elijah marvel
as the heavenly voice is heard.
Eyes and hearts behold with wonder
how the Law and Prophets meet:
Christ, with garments drenched in brightness,
stands transfigured and complete.

Strengthened by this glimpse of glory,
fearful lest our faith decline,
we like Peter find it tempting
to remain and build a shrine.
But true worship gives us courage
to proclaim what we profess,
that our daily lives may prove us
people of the God we bless.

Call to Worship


Creativity and light
belong to God
LET ALL THE EARTH REJOICE

Justice and glory
belong to God
LET ALL THE EARTH REJOICE

Wisdom and wonder
belong to God
LET ALL THE EARTH REJOICE

When we get it amazingly wrong
GOD LOVES US

When we get it superbly right
GOD LOVES US

When we have no idea at all what is happening
GOD LOVES US

When we walk with God
WE DO NOT NEED TO BE AFRAID

JESUS SAID: I AM THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD.
Listen to him and walk in his way.

JESUS SAID: STAND UP AND DON’T BE AFRAID.
Listen to him and walk in his way.

JESUS SAID: YOU ARE MY FRIENDS.
Listen to him and walk in his way.

JESUS SAID: I AM ALWAYS WITH YOU.
Listen to him and walk in his way.
AMEN

Prayer
Let us pray:


God, we come to the mountaintop to be covered in your presence.
We are comforted by your holiness and your glow;
we are comforted by the hope of the mountain top,
where you are so close,
so accessible,
where there is no doubt of your glory
The mountain top reminds us why we worship you.
We witness your bright power,
and your plan for the nations of the earth.
As we prepare for worship,
God bring us to the mountain top;
bring us to the mountain top
so that we may be inspired to do your work
in the valley below.
Amen

Song of Praise
Ka mana’o ‘I ‘O (Faithful is our God)
Author and Composer Joe Camacho

“Kamana’o ‘I ‘O
O ko kakou Akua.
Faithful, faithful is our God.

In love there is no one more faithful than our God,
Who brings the light into our darkness.
The God who shares the breath of life with you and me,
All living things upon the earth.

In quiet moments God whispers tenderly
The mystery of unending love.
For God is good, and holds us as we sleep,
To wake us to the morning light.

The mercy of our God we seek to share each day,
To help each other on our way,
To be God’s hands and heart with tenderness and care.
God’s faithfulness is always there.

When we share love, we share respect and care,
The gifts and bonds of human kindness.
And in our journey, may love lead the way.
To be God’s living, sing this day.”

2 Corinthians 4:3-6
Common English Bible

And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are on the road to destruction. The god of this age has blinded the minds of those who don’t have faith so they couldn’t see the light of the gospel that reveals Christ’s glory. Christ is the image of God. We don’t preach about ourselves. Instead, we preach about Jesus Christ as Lord, and we describe ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. God said that light should shine out of the darkness. He is the same one who shone in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ.

Prayer for Others
Let us pray,

God of light and glory,
we look at the world you created and we rejoice.
We rejoice in the sunshine and winter birds,
the taste of coffee, hot chocolate, and warm winter stews,
the scent of woodfire stoves and evergreen trees,
the feel of the cold wind on our faces and the wet snow in our shoes.
In the face of the busyness that crowds our lives,
keep us attentive to the beauty around us,
fashioned and illuminated by your love.

God of light and glory,
we look at the way we live in the world and we weep.
We weep for the life threatening political instability in Myanmar and Haiti,
for workers in illegal underground factories in India
for the fighting in Yemen
for the loss of life and loss of trust,
for a fallen, broken humanity
and our persistence in pursuing our own interests
at the expense of others’ needs.
Through the darkness and tears of those who are
wounded, bereaved, and afraid,
shine your healing, restoring light.

God of light and glory,
we remember before you those we know who are in need.
We think of those who are in nursing homes, hospital, and hospices
and those who care for them.
We think of the emergency services,
who come to our aid when our pastimes falter and turn to pain.
Strengthen and comfort them with your loving presence.

God of light and glory,
we thank you above all that in Jesus you have revealed yourself to us,
and that through the Holy Spirit you are with us still,
a lamp shining in a dark place,
until the day dawns
and the morning star rises in our hearts.
Amen.

Anthem
Gather Us In
Words and Music by Marty Haugen

Here in this place new light is streaming
Now is the darkness vanished away
See in this space our fears and our dreamings
Brought here to you in the light of this day

Gather us in, the lost and forsaken
Gather us in, the blind and the lame
Call to us now and we shall awaken
We shall arise at the sound of our name

We are the young, our lives are a mystery
We are the old who yearn for your face
We have been sung throughout all of history
Called to be light to the whole human race

Gather us in, the rich and the haughty
Gather us in, the proud and the strong
Give us a heart so meek and so lowly
Give us the courage to enter the song

Here we will take the wine and the water
Here we will take the bread of new birth
Here you shall call your sons and your daughters
Call us anew to be salt for the earth

Give us to drink the wine of compassion
Give us to eat the bread that is you
Nourish us well and teach us to fashion
Lives that are holy and hearts that are true

Not in the dark of buildings confining
Not in some heaven light years away
But here in this place the new light is shining
Now is the kingdom, now is the day

Gather us in and hold us forever
Gather us in and make us your own
Gather us in, all peoples together
Fire of love in our flesh and our bones
Fire of love in our flesh and our bones

Mark 9:2-9
Common English Bible

Six days later Jesus took Peter, James, and John, and brought them to the top of a very high mountain where they were alone. He was transformed in front of them, and his clothes were amazingly bright, brighter than if they had been bleached white. Elijah and Moses appeared and were talking with Jesus. Peter reacted to all of this by saying to Jesus, “Rabbi, it’s good that we’re here. Let’s make three shrines—one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He said this because he didn’t know how to respond, for the three of them were terrified.

Then a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice spoke from the cloud, “This is my Son, whom I dearly love. Listen to him!” Suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus.

As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them not to tell anyone what they had seen until after the Human One had risen from the dead.

Reflection on the Gospel
Rev. Tonya Vickery

You know that if we were not in the middle of a pandemic, we would be taking a hike today after church. Jeffrey and I would take you up on the Parkway to Black Balsam.  We would walk that well worn path through the groves, then along the rocky path up into open meadows, all the way to the top of the Knob. And there we would sit wind blowing in our face and look out over these beautiful mountains. For that’s what Jesus did with three of his disciples.

Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up to the top of a high mountain. Mark’s gospel implies Jesus just wants to just get away from everything and everyone.  We have no idea which mountain this might have been. Mark only says that it was “high.”  But you know from experience, when you stand at the top of any high mountain, you can look out and see the world without anything blocking your view.  And this is exactly what happens in the gospel story, both literally, figuratively, and spiritually. The disciples are not only able to see the vastness of the world, but they are about to see clearly the vastness of their Teacher, Jesus. 

After climbing up to the top of a high mountain, there in that moment, Peter, James, and John see Jesus transformed. The first thing that catches their eyes are his clothes. Now Jesus clothes were not white. He wore ordinary clothes, a knee length tunic along with a wrap on top that was called a “mantle.” Both were made from undyed wool. The cloth would have been cleansed of dirt and excessive oil, but no amount of washing could have created the glistening intense white Jesus’ clothes became in that moment. The transformation of Jesus changed his clothes too. Imagine light shining through a translucent, colorless diamond. That’s how I imagine Jesus in that moment. Jesus becomes such an amazing bright light, that his clothes appear a pure and clean.

Jesus has not only  brought Peter, James, and John up to an unhindered view of the world, but Jesus has also brought them up to an unhindered view of God. In their midst shines the radiant light of God.  The boundary between the Human One and the Divine One is pulled aside. Peter, James, and John catch a short glimpse of God’s new work in the world. This “person” whom they chose to follow not so long ago is not merely another great prophet or teacher or a really dynamic speaker or a smart cookie or just a worker of miracles. In this rare moment, God pulls back the curtain, uncovers what has been hidden from human understanding and perspective and allows them to see the Divine God in human form.

That would have been enough, but there is more. The three and Jesus are joined in the moment by two well known Old Testament peeps:  Elijah and Moses. Most religious folk believed that when the time came for God to set the world aright again, Moses and Elijah would reappear. Moses represents the laws of God. Elijah represents the prophets. Two expressions of God’s love and care and order of this world. And now both are here with Jesus. Jesus doesn’t just represent the Law. Jesus doesn’t just represent the prophets. No, Jesus is God; Jesus is  the fulfilment of the Law and the hope of the prophets. The company Moses and Elijah bring to Jesus is unique, for they understand what Jesus’ disciples cannot comprehend. They meet Jesus in that moment offering comfort and encouragement.

Peter doesn’t know what to do. Neither do James nor John. But Peter feels that something must be done. Minds blown, terrified to the bone, Peter cannot sit still nor keep silence.  He starts babbling,  “Teacher, let’s build three shrines: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Peter wants to do something to acknowledge their presence, to mark this moment, to set the place apart.  Peter is scared out of his wits, but he thinks the magnificence display will last forever. Here, finally,  is the sign of the reign of God coming to earth. Jesus is radiant. Moses is here along with Elijah!  The time has come for God to rule the world! So let’s build some shrines for this awesome work of God! 

However, it doesn’t last. The radiance, the power, the pureness, the amazing joy, the terrifying moment is dulled by a cloud. All of us who have hiked these Blue Ridge Mountains know what this is like. You have relatives come in from out of town, pre-COVID, of course. They’re from Florida or Texas and haven’t seen mountain top vistas in real life, only on screensavers. You pack the car with the people and a picnic lunch and you head up to the Parkway. But the higher you go, the “foggier” it gets. However, it’s not fog, it’s the clouds. And the beautiful view of the mountains and the rolling valleys is nothing more than a tv screen from the 70’s looked like when it lost its signal. The clear unobstructed view of the world, of Jesus and Moses and Elijah is overshadowed by a cloud.

No longer able to see the Divine with their eyes, their ears now hear the voice of God speaking directly to them. “This is my beloved Son,” God says, “to whom you need to listen.”  The voice of God doesn’t say anything else. Then suddenly, all at once, without any warning, everything changes back to how it had been. Moses and Elijah gone. The radiant light of Jesus gone. His clothes become ordinary again. They can still see the world below them. And that’s where Jesus leads them, back down the mountain to join the others.  For there is more to God’s goodness and love and grace than just this burst of radiant glorious light. Now as they make their way back down the high mountain Jesus orders them not to tell anyone what they just saw. They will need to wait until Jesus has risen from the dead. This was an experience for their future good and ultimately for the good of the world.

The story of the  transfiguration lies central to the gospel of Mark. It is placed halfway between Jesus’ baptism and Jesus’ resurrection. Right before the three disciples climb the mountain with Jesus, Jesus plainly told the disciples what the future looked like. He was going to have to suffer many things. He would be rejected by the religious authorities and leaders. He would be killed and then after three days, he would rise from the dead. Peter didn’t like what Jesus was saying. In fact, he took ahold of Jesus by the shoulders, looked him in the eye and scolded him. He was correcting Jesus giving him the pep talk. “You’re not going to die. We are here with you and we won’t let that happen. The authorities can’t lay a hand on you.” You can imagine what you would be saying to the one to whom you have pledged your life and all your ears hear is that they are going to be defeated. For that’s all that Peter could hear. He was focused on himself and this worldly life. Jesus told Peter and tells us, “You are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts.”  You see, there is more to God’s goodness and love and grace than just the portion of our lives we live here on earth. Jesus tells all of them that this earthly life portion is just a portion. It is not by any means the full picture of life we have in God. The end of this portion of Jesus’ life on this earth won’t be pretty. He is going to be judged a criminal; he will be crucified, nailed to a cross, he will die hanging there. Jesus didn’t deserve such an ending. To our eyes and to our ears it appears that Jesus lost, that Jesus was defeated, or even that Jesus gave up. But this earthly portion of our lives coming to an end is not a punishment, nor a defeat, nor a resignation. It is just a part of the fullness of life that we have from God through Jesus Christ. Death of this earthly life is not the end, and the transfiguration of Jesus Christ so powerfully reminds us of of this very gift.

Jesus’ devotion to the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven eventually and inevitably provoked the powers of evil.  Fear, hatred, greed, and despair reared their ugly heads as Jesus lived out God’s righteousness and God’s love. When fear, hatred, greed, and despair invade our mind and our hearts, our thoughts and ideas become distorted, far removed from the thoughts of God. Fear, hatred, greed, and despair, they tempt us to create falsehoods and lies to cover up things. Fear, hatred, greed, and despair, they lead us to commit violence. Fear, hatred, greed, and despair, they push us to oppress others.  Fear, hatred, greed, and despair, they lead us to murderous responses to others, both literally and figuratively. Now if Jesus’ devotion to  God’s reign here on earth led to the uprooting of these powers, don’t you believe as we live here to bring God’s reign here on earth we too will be uprooting these powers.

Six verses before our reading for the morning, Jesus calls a crowd to gather. Here’s what he says to them in Mark 8:34.  “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.” Jesus does not call us to live passive lives of love. Jesus does not call us to live good lives, make good choices, and to avoid evil. Living the Way of Jesus is not a private bearing of your personal woes for the sake of Jesus. Living the Way of the Jesus is an active pursuit of God’s reign now. Living the Way of the Jesus means pursuing God’s love for the world. Living the Way of Jesus means living out God’s love in the here and now.  Living the Way of Jesus means refusing the power games of domination, exploitation, and deception.

Throughout the gospel story, Jesus teaches us how to live in and under the reign of God wherever we are. And this powerful good news causes us to change what we think and how we live no matter who we are.  The voice of God says, “This is my beloved Son to whom you should listen.”  If we listen, we will hear about that blessed abundant full life God offers us always. For God’s goodness and love and grace is more than just a burst of glorious light. 

Prayer of Thanksgiving 
Thank you, God for constant love.
Please help our church family grow
deeper and deeper in your love. Amen.

Song of Faith
O Wondrous Sight, O Vision Fair
Author: Sarum Breviary, 1495. Trans. John Mason Neale
Tune: OLD HUNDREDTH LM (Louis Bourgeois)

1 O wondrous sight, O vision fair
of glory that the church shall share,
which Christ upon the mountain shows,
where brighter than the sun he glows!

2 From age to age the tale declare,
how with the three disciples there,
where Moses and Elijah meet,
the Lord holds converse high and sweet.

3 The law and prophets there have place,
two chosen witnesses of grace;
the Father’s voice from out the cloud
proclaims his only Son aloud.

4 With shining face and bright array
Christ deigns to manifest today
what glory shall be theirs above
who joy in God with perfect love.

5 And faithful hearts are raised on high
by this great vision’s mystery,
for which in joyful strains we raise
the voice of prayer, the hymn of praise.

Sending Out
May the path that Christ walks
to bring justice upon the earth,
to bring light to those who sit in darkness,
to bring out those who live in bondage,
to bring new things to all creation:
may this path
run through our life.
May we be
the road Christ takes.

Blest Be the Tie 
by John Fawcett 

Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love. 
The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above.

When we are called to part, it gives us inward pain; 
but we shall still be joined in heart, and hope to meet again. 

This glorious hope revives our courage by the way; 
while each in expectation lives and waits to see the day.  

Acknowledgements:

  • The image comes from JESUS MAFA. Transfiguration, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48307 [retrieved February 8, 2021]. Original source: http://www.librairie-emmanuel.fr (contact page: https://www.librairie-emmanuel.fr/contact).
  • The psalm was read by Stone from the Common English Bible.
  • We Have Come at Christ’s Own Bidding was played by Tracy on the organ and sung by Mindy.
  • The Call to Worship was posted on the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women website of the United Methodist Church.  It was read by Tonya, Alizabeth, Carmen, and Wren with the video compiled by Tonya.
  • Ka mana’o ‘I ‘O was sung by Mindy who accompanied herself on the ukulele and recorder.
  • The prayer for others was adapted by Tonya from a prayer written by Cally Booker printed in The Feast of the Transfiguration, Wild Goose Publications, Iona Community, © 1988. It was read by Tracy.
  • The anthem was sung by Ally, Mindy, Elizabeth, Laura, Michelle and Tonya, accompanied by Tonya on the piano and Michelle on the guitar. Laura sang the opening solo and Ally sang the third verse solo.
  • O Wondrous Sight, O Vision Fair was played by Tracy on the organ and sung by Mindy.
  • The Sending Out was written by Jan L. Richardson, and posted on The Painted Prayerbook website.

    Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-724755. All rights reserved.  All writings have been used by permission from the posting sites or authors.

Coming through….
The limitlessness of God’s love and work is revealed through Jesus. This Sunday’s scriptures remind us to reach out to God through prayer and reflection as we work to stay focused on being God’s children which means we serve the world.

Faith in Christ sustains and restores us.

The Worship of God

Passing the Peace 
Say to one another, “May the peace of Christ be with you.”
And reply, “And, also with you.”

Call to Worship

When we are stretched thin, challenged and doubting,
We walk with God.
When we are in the midst of the life-giving, the exciting and the nourishing,
We walk with God.
When we question every decision and when we are truly certain,
We walk with God.
When we walk with hesitancy or dance with enthusiasm,
We walk with God.
In the simple act of stilling minds and hearts for worship,
We walk with God.

Prayer of Adoration
Let us pray:

God of light and love,
warming February’s chill,
tempering the winds,
peppering hard ground
with early shoots of green
and hints of blossom,
we lift to you
the cold bones of winter
and hearts aflame with hope.

We praise you
for the Light
that has arrived with Jesus,
shining in the darkness,
unquenchable and true.

We praise you
for the hope of his presence,
guiding our feet,
lighting our pathway,
casting warming rays
and the glow of fulfilment.

We praise you
for the discomfort
of his searchlight beams,
concealing nothing,
truth-telling,
life-changing.

Examine us and know us, O God.
Drive out the darkness,
turn our hearts to you
and fill our souls
with the song of salvation,
with the message of your love.

Holy God, we worship you!
We sing your praise
now and forever.
Amen

Song of Praise
Praise the One who breaks the darkness
Author: Rusty Edwards
Tune: NETTLETON (anonymous)

1 Praise the One who breaks the darkness
With a liberating light.
Praise the One who frees the pris’ners,
Turning blindness into sight.
Praise the One who preached the gospel,
Healing ev’ry dread disease,
Calming storms and feeding thousands
With the very bread of peace.

2 Praise the One who blessed the children
With a strong yet gentle word.
Praise the One who drove out demons
With a piercing, two-edged sword.
Praise the one who brings cool water
To the desert’s burning sand.
From this well comes living water,
Quenching thirst in ev’ry land.

3 Praise the One true love incarnate:
Christ, who suffered in our place.
Jesus died and rose for many
That we may know God by grace.
Let us sing for joy and gladness,
Seeing what our God has done.
Praise the one redeeming glory;
Praise the One who makes us one.

Psalm 147:1-11, 20c
Common English Bible

Praise the Lord!
Because it is good to sing praise to our God!
Because it is a pleasure to make beautiful praise!

The Lord rebuilds Jerusalem, gathering up Israel’s exiles.
God heals the brokenhearted
and bandages their wounds.
God counts the stars by number,
giving each one a name.
Our Lord is great and so strong!
God’s knowledge can’t be grasped!
The Lord helps the poor,
but throws the wicked down on the dirt!

Sing to the Lord with thanks;
sing praises to our God with a lyre!
God covers the skies with clouds;
God makes rain for the earth;
God makes the mountains sprout green grass.
God gives food to the animals—
even to the baby ravens when they cry out.
God doesn’t prize the strength of a horse;
God doesn’t treasure the legs of a runner.
No. The Lord treasures the people
who honor him,
the people who wait for his faithful love.

God hasn’t done that with any other nation;
those nations have no knowledge of God’s rules.

Praise the Lord!

Prayer for Others
Pause after each paragraph to give voice to prayers as prompted.  Let us pray,

Merciful God, who shelters us and guides us,  
we give you thanks for…. 

God who comforts,  
receive those who are fearful and lonely…. 

God whose love is steadfast,  
be refuge for the ill, the dying, and those who care about them.… 

God of righteousness,  
we ask for your wisdom and ways of justice to prevail  
in our community, this nation, your world…. 

God who seeks our trust, grow us and guide us in your ways
that are life-giving in your world.  Amen.

Anthem
This Little Light of Mine
Arranged by George Mabry

This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.
Every day, I’m gonna let my little light shine.

On Monday, he gave me the gift of love,
On Tuesday peace come from above.
On Wednesday, told me to have more faith;
On Thursday, gave me a bit more grace.
On Friday, told me to watch and pray;
On Saturday, told me what to say.
On Sunday, gave me power divine,
Just to let my little light shine.

Mark 1:29-39
Common English Bible

After leaving the synagogue, Jesus, James, and John went home with Simon and Andrew. Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed, sick with a fever, and they told Jesus about her at once. He went to her, took her by the hand, and raised her up. The fever left her, and she served them. That evening, at sunset, people brought to Jesus those who were sick or demon-possessed. The whole town gathered near the door. He healed many who were sick with all kinds of diseases, and he threw out many demons. But he didn’t let the demons speak, because they recognized him. Early in the morning, well before sunrise, Jesus rose and went to a deserted place where he could be alone in prayer. Simon and those with him tracked him down. When they found him, they told him, “Everyone’s looking for you!” He replied, “Let’s head in the other direction, to the nearby villages, so that I can preach there too. That’s why I’ve come.” He traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and throwing out demons.

Reflection on the Gospel
Rev. Jeffrey Vickery

Let me begin with a confession. I have been avoiding some of the lectionary readings from the Gospels that have healing stories. We are, after all, still in the throes of a global pandemic where almost 500k people have died because of the coronavirus in the last 13 months. I have avoided these healing stories not because I feel a need for us to ignore what they say but because they are often misused in ways that I don’t think Jesus intended. Today I will venture into the healings in Mark 1 convinced that we need a better way to think about prayer, healing, and death given our global pandemic.  

At our Wednesday night online Bible study this past week, we were discussing James 4:4 in which James (whoever he is?) warns against friendship with the world which can lead to becoming “God’s enemy.” It is a strikingly brash statement that needs some context to understand. It seems clear that in the 1st century when the book of James was written, Christians were a small and insignificant minority of citizens in the larger Greco-Roman Empire that considered the pantheon of gods and goddesses as the “normal” understanding of religion. In that context, it is easy to imagine that James is teaching the same kind of distance from pagan gods and idols that other writers of the New Testament also required. In other words, for Christians in the first century, “friendship with the world” likely meant keeping the traditional idols of your family’s favorite goddess, or participating in the local festival to the patron god of your city, or thinking of Jesus as being like all the other sons of Greek gods as though he were somehow like Perseus who was half-human and half-god because his father was the god Zeus and his mother was a woman named Danaë.  

If that’s part of the caution James is offering Christians back then, what does it mean today for us to be warned about being a friend of the world and possibly becoming God’s enemy. Or to say it differently, how are we tempted to be friends of the world and end up embracing ideas that are counter to a Gospel-centered faith? Other people likely have some good answers to that question. I want to put forward these three things, from my perspective, that we have let our “world” define for us that are simply out of line with Jesus’ teachings. We have adopted too much of the world’s teaching on wealth, race, and health.  

To be honest, Christianity’s struggle with wealth has been a problem for millennia. But it’s also the easiest to critique. The biblical teaching is that no one is defined as more holy because they have more money. No one is cursed by God because they are poor.  Any reading of what Jesus says about the poor, his criticism of wealth, his focus on generosity and giving…these are clearly at odds with the American ideal of having mounds of money and living in luxury. The Gospel highlights generosity, the American Dream encourages greed. James thus warns us to consider that our money may be making us an enemy of God. Some money is necessary; too much desire for money makes us enemies of God. 

Likewise the Gospel is clear that one’s race, as defined by one’s country of origin, or language, or citizenship status, or family has nothing to do with God’s preference for any one group. The starting point for this conversation in the New Testament is the dividing line between Jew and Gentile. Over and over and over again the Bible denies the “racist” idea that God privileges Jews over Gentiles. From John 3:16’s “for God so loved THE WORLD…” to Peter’s clear confession “God shows no partiality…” but accepts “anyone from any nation…” (Acts 10:34-35) the Christian scriptures in no way supports any teaching that one race is more blessed, entitled, holy, or beloved of God. It should be clear to all Christians, that racism as well as race privilege are actively taught to us by our culture and will make us an enemy of God. 

But then we come to the subject of health, and here it may seem that the way is less clear. Our current pandemic and its firestorm through the US sets us on edge. It is like we have been on a year-long airplane flight. Perhaps like me you have that feeling, every time you board a plane, that it is possible that this plane will crash and we will all die. The odds are low, but it is not impossible; the fear is not debilitating but it should be acknowledged. Really faithful Christians are not immune to airplace accidents. I know this to be true in part because my first cousin was on the US Air flight that crashed while attempting to land in Charlotte in 1994. Facing the pandemic has the same effect. For the last year, every fever might be COVID, every face-to-face meeting might share a viral load that is infectious, every trip to the grocery is a possible transmission encounter. These are not irrational, in fact the exact opposite is true—they are both logical and proven as evidenced by the 27 million times it has happened in the US in the last year. Given our new context for disease and health, we are today in a new environment for understanding the relationship between faith and health, or in this case between Jesus and healing. With this in mind, let’s consider our story today from Mark 1:29-39. 

Jesus is in Capernaum with his first apostles. When he goes to Simon’s house, it turns out that Simon’s mother-in-law has a fever. No big deal, it’s just a fever, or so we used to think. Just take some Advil or Tylenol, maybe the doctor will prescribe an antibiotic, and the fever will go away. In Jesus’ day they had no medicine and physicians only treated illnesses with no real expectation that they could heal any fever. It is not difficult, then, to imagine the people in Capernaum living with the concern that a simple fever may in fact lead to death. So when Jesus enters Simon’s house and he discovers that this woman has a fever, this healing story becomes a way for Mark to tell us something about Jesus. Since Mark has no Christmas story, he identifies Jesus’ divine nature in chapter 1 this way: no one can heal a fever but God; no one can cast out a demon but God; no one can cure leprosy but God. Since Jesus healed a woman with a fever, and cast out demons, and cured a man of his leprosy, he is, therefore, divine. In other words, Mark’s healing stories here are to identify something about Jesus. What they say about our health in general is not the main part of the story.  

Look with me at what Jesus does after a few healings in Capernaum. Verses 35-39 read, “Early in the morning, well before sunrise, Jesus rose and went to a deserted place where he could be alone in prayer. Simon and those with him tracked him down. When they found him, they told him, ‘Everyone’s looking for you!’ He replied, ‘Let’s head in the other direction, to the nearby villages, so that I can preach there too. That’s why I’ve come.’ He traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and throwing out demons.”  

What these verses tell us is that Jesus left many people in Capernaum un-healed. In our contemporary lingo, Jesus takes some “me time” and goes into the wilderness. For Jesus this is a spiritual retreat and not just a stress-relieving hike. He goes away alone to pray. He recognizes that spiritual fitness is an exercise more important than what we find at the gym or track. I’m not going to tell you that this means God wants us to all get up before sunrise to pray and this is the preferred method for any real Christian to have a meaningful devotional life. What is important here is not Jesus’ method or time of prayer, but the intentionality of prayer and the purposeful practice of a healthy spiritual life.  

In this way, our current times have led us away from a biblical understanding of health. We are easily led to believe that physical health is more important than spiritual health. We want people to pray for us when we’re sick (and this is a good practice and something we encourage) but we don’t often admit even to ourselves when we are spiritually unhealthy. And when we do, we find little help from the world. When society takes on spiritual practices like prayer and meditation, they become defined by secular purposes and outcomes. In other words, spirituality does not have a spiritual outcome or deepen a relationship with God. Instead we tend to create a measureable productivity even for prayer. That’s a problem. To use a cultural example, it has become common to teach “mindfulness” in schools, which is an adaptation of a Zen Buddhist practice. The purpose for school students has no spiritual goal even though its only purpose in Buddhism is spiritual. For students, however, it has an educational aim. As one advocate for mindfulness states, its purpose is to help school students “flourish academically, socially, and emotionally”. Hear me clearly: I’m not opposed to teaching mindfulness in schools to children even if it comes from Buddhism. I am emphasizing, however, that spiritual practices in our Christian faith are ends to themselves. To spend time in prayer or some other spiritual practice is not necessarily assessed based upon measurable outcomes. In this way, prayer is a “waste of time” to borrow a phrase from Marva Dawn. The purpose of prayer is not to lower my blood pressure, or to help me relax. Prayer is not one of the “5 Steps to a Healthy You.” It is to encounter God personally and genuinely.  We are called to pray for the sake of praying, to have time to hear and listen to the Holy Spirit of God so that we’re not just hoping for a selfish dream. Or as the great Thomas Merton said, to intentionally “entertain silence in the heart and listen for the voice of God—to pray for your own discovery [of God],” as Thomas Merton said. If we want an outcome to prove prayer effective, that goal is immeasurable and by our world’s standard a “waste of time.”  

If we go back to the book of James chapter 4 again, he says that prayer is wasteful in a different way. He warns that prayer that seeks to fulfill our own “cravings” (in the CEB), or prayer that is from “evil intention” are wasted. This time, James calls prayer a waste because it fails to seek God but rather is used as a tool to pry something out of God for our own end. It puts our desire first, our need takes priority, our craving seeks to be satisfied at God’s action in response to our prayer. Prayer that seeks to convince God to give us what we want is not prayer but trying to bend God’s will to ours. Every prayer to win the lottery or the Superbowl is, in James’ words, a waste. That’s prayer that displays our attempt to control God when instead, genuine prayer begins with humility and a hope to participate in God’s Way rather than ours. That’s why in the Lord’s prayer Jesus tells us to pray “God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” to “hallow” God’s name and not ours, to forgive because God forgave us. Prayer’s origins and hopes are to know God better long before it is ever to be healed or blessed. Prayer is meaningful, Jesus seems to be teaching us, when it comes as a result of our reliance on God, when it seeks a deepened relationship with God so as to better live God’s Way in this world. At least it is easy to infer that is why Jesus retreats to pray in Mark 1.  

We must recognize, however, that in heading out of town in the dark of the morning, Jesus left some people behind still sick. Someone in Capernaum likely died after Jesus left and went on to the other cities. It turns out that Jesus did not heal everyone. Why? Jesus certainly healed some people who were sick, but his purpose was not to come to Earth and be a physician alone. He is becoming famous in the Gospels for his healing, so much so that I think he left Capernaum so that the emphasis would not be on his healing but on his teaching about salvation. Jesus is our Savior always, but not our medicine for good health. If the only reason we become a Christian is because we think it will make us “healthy, wealthy, and wise,” then we need a course correction to our Christian journey through life. Faith is not a protection against illness. Following Jesus is not a guarantee of health. Just praying that we won’t end up with COVID is not an exercise in faith in God. It’s a reckless attempt to test God based upon a flawed understanding of faith that has been defined by the world around us rather than the Bible.  

From the very beginnings of Genesis to the book of Revelation, hundreds of examples of faithful God-serving neighbor-loving people die too soon, experience serious illness or crises, and suffer in this life. In Genesis just after the Garden story, the son of Adam and Eve who most pleased God in worship, Abel, was killed. He had more faith than his brother, and he died. Jumping to the end of the text, Revelation tells us that faithful Christians who hold their faith will likely die, but they should be faithful anyway because the emperor can kill but he cannot take away our salvation. What it says directly is this: “Don’t be afraid of what you are going to suffer… Be faithful even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Rev. 2:10). 

People who think they can pray “a hedge of protection” around those who are sick are often  reflecting an American cultural understanding of health and not a biblical one. This kind of thinking reduces health to a faith-test or an effective prayer exercise. It teaches us that to pray and have faith is to protect us from illness. That’s not a Christian truth. It is both not biblical and likely sinful. I sigh when I read about a popular study in which the writer describes prayer as “storming the gates of heaven” in order to, as the marketing for her book says, learn the “secret to praying prayers that really ‘work.’” These are disappointing because they equate good health with good faith. They dilute prayer into its measurable result. That’s not just a waste, it’s dangerous. This kind of theology puts every Christian with a chronic illness, every parent who loses a child to disease, every family member reeling from a sudden deadly accident, every Christian and/or caregiver of someone with cancer or Alzheimer’s or MS, each of the 500k families who are grieving death by COVID… it puts them all either in the category of “God caused your illness/death” or “you don’t have the right faith” or “your prayers are not effective because you are not praying right.” No —  a thousand times, no.  

Why does Jesus not heal everyone, either in the Gospels or now? I don’t know and neither do you nor does the person who writes the books we read. Whether we remain sick or become healed, our hope is in God’s salvation rather than our physical health and longevity. We can take comfort that the fragility of health and life is not a human weakness in the eyes of God. Disease is not God’s judgment on a lack of faith or the presence of sin. Death is neither a failure of faith nor an end – it is another beginning of life with God that is unfiltered by our human limits.  Jesus understands that healing illnesses is not more important that bringing salvation. That leaves those who live with illness and caregiving and grief with a hope beyond this present suffering. The miracle of wholeness and healing is God’s salvation. If we put our hope in medical care and treatment, it will one day let us all down.   

So at the end of this story in Mark, Jesus leaves Capernaum to go to other cities — not to heal more people but to preach the good news. He leaves behind some who are sick knowing that illness is not an impediment to salvation. Disease is not a judgment against someone’s faith. Healing when it does happen does not come because that sick person had more faith, prayed the right prayers, or somehow trusted more and sinned less. Our human mortality does not offer a commentary on God’s justice or our faith. Were that the case, then those 500k people who have died from the coronoavirus would not include any “real” Christians. Try saying that, and defending it without giving up practically every dimension of Christian teaching. You can’t. 

Please keep praying for people with COVID, those in the hospital, our family who have long-term chronic diseases. Pray for their comfort. Pray for their hope. And, yes, pray for their healing. Just know this: whether healing comes or not, it is not bestowed as an act of God’s preference, nor is it a commentary on God’s love, nor does the ongoing disease in any way diminish the certainty of our salvation. Anyone, literally anyone, who tells you otherwise is speaking as one who is not God’s friend.  

Prayer of Thanksgiving 
Thank you, God for constant love.
Please help our church family grow
deeper and deeper in your love. Amen.

Song of Faith
Guide My Feet
Tune: GUIDE MY FEET
African American Traditional

1 Guide my feet while I run this race,
guide my feet while I run this race,
guide my feet while I run this race,
For I don’t want to run this race in vain.

2 Hold my hand while I run this race,
hold my hand while I run this race,
hold my hand while I run this race,
For I don’t want to run this race in vain!

3 I’m your child while I run this race,
I’m your child while I run this race,
I’m your child while I run this race,
For I don’t want to run this race in vain!

4 Stand by me while I run this race,
Stand by me while I run this race,
Stand by me while I run this race,
For I don’t want to run this race in vain!

5 Search my heart while I run this race,
Search my heart while I run this race,
Search my heart while I run this race,
For I don’t want to run this race in vain!

6 Guide my feet while I run this race,
guide my feet while I run this race,
guide my feet while I run this race,
For I don’t want to run this race in vain.

Sending Out
May the path that Christ walks
to bring justice upon the earth,
to bring light to those who sit in darkness,
to bring out those who live in bondage,
to bring new things to all creation:
may this path
run through our life.
May we be
the road Christ takes.

Blest Be the Tie 
by John Fawcett 

Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love. 
The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above.

When we are called to part, it gives us inward pain; 
but we shall still be joined in heart, and hope to meet again. 

This glorious hope revives our courage by the way; 
while each in expectation lives and waits to see the day.  

Acknowledgements:

  • The image is a photo taken by Stefan S uploaded to Flickr on April 8, 2018.
  • The call to worship was written by Fiona Barker printed in Winter Liturgical Resource for November, December and January, ed. by Ruth Burgess. Wild Goose Publications, Iona Community, © 2016.
  • The opening prayer was written Louise Gough printed in Spring Liturgical Resources for February, March, and April, ed. by Ruth Burgess, Wild Goose Publications, Iona Community, © 2019.
  • The opening hymn was sung by Mindy and accompanied by Tracy on the organ.
  • The anthem was sung by Ally, Mindy, Elizabeth, Laura, and Tonya, accompanied by Tonya on the piano and Mindy on the cowbell.
  • The closing hymn was sung by Mindy accompanied by Tracy on the organ.
  • The Sending Out was written by Jan L. Richardson, and posted on The Painted Prayerbook website.

    Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-724755. All rights reserved.  All writings have been used by permission from the posting sites or authors.

Who’s in charge? To what authority will you defer? After which authority will you follow? These are the questions upon which we reflect in worship today. May the following prayers, scripture readings, music, and reflections serve as a guide in your worship of God today to help you focus your heart on the Lord.

The Worship of God

Passing the Peace 
Say to one another, “May the peace of Christ be with you.”
And reply, “And, also with you.”

Call to Worship

As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat,
summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease. Genesis 8:22

The trees of the wood await spring’s re-clothing;
the branches will be green again:
This we affirm: God is faithful and true.

The sun will rise higher in our skies;
its light will be warm upon our faces once more.
This we affirm: God is faithful and true.

The days will grow longer;
light will push back the darkness.
This we affirm: God is faithful and true.

Seeds will germinate and grow;
the flowers will bud and bloom.
This we affirm: God is faithful and true.

The ears of the wheat will form and ripen;
the grass will grow to feed the cattle.
This we affirm: God is faithful and true.

Swallows will return and fill the skies;
birds will fill the land with song.
This we affirm: God is faithful and true.

Opening Prayer
Let us pray,
As the days lengthen
Alpha and Omega, you were there at our beginning
and you will be there at our end.
Coasts and islands wait for the dawn,
the dark sea surrounds us like waters in the womb,
like the last river we have to cross.
We wait, trusting, seeing the sky lightening, horizons opening up,
colours of dawn dancing across restless waves.

Spirit of God, in Jesus, you shared our birth and our mortality,
and you are present with us now. We wait.
The clouds become bright, the rocks glow,
our hearts catch fire with sudden joy – the sun rises.
Rise in our hearts, we pray, today and every day.
God of creation, you greet us every new day,
and, as the days lengthen, we see green shoots of spring;
snowdrops, faithful in their presence year by year;
lengthening days and sunlit moments,
all these speak to us of your love.
We praise you for these signs of your life-giving Spirit
and for Jesus, who embodied that love,
who came to share our human lives,
calling men and women to follow him,
and to be salt and light in their communities;
Jesus who listened and shared meals, taught and healed,
walked country tracks and city streets in the land that we call Holy;
who kept the faith and challenged apathy and abuse of power;
who was rejected and reviled, tortured and nailed to a cross.
Who died.
And who rose again, like the sun in the morning,
so all the world can see that your love is stronger than death.
We praise you now in the power of the Spirit,
enlivening, encouraging – and present with us now. Amen

Song of Praise
God of Grace and God of Glory
Author: Henry Emerson Fosdick
Tune: CWM RHONDDA

1 God of grace and God of glory,
on your people pour your pow’r.
Crown your ancient Church’s story,
bring its bud to glorious flow’r.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
for the facing of this hour,
for the facing of this hour.

2 Lo! the hosts of evil round us
scorn your Christ, assail his ways!
From the fears that long have bound us,
free our hearts to faith and praise.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
for the living of these days,
for the living of these days.

3 Cure your children’s warring madness;
bend our pride to your control;
shame our wanton, selfish gladness,
rich in things and poor in soul.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
lest we miss thy kingdom’s goal,
lest we miss thy kingdom’s goal.

4 Save us from weak resignation
to the evils we deplore.
Let the gift of your salvation
be our glory evermore.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
serving you whom we adore,
serving you whom we adore.

Psalm 111
Common English Bible

Praise the Lord!
I thank the Lord with all my heart
in the company of those who do right, in the congregation.
The works of the Lord are magnificent;
they are treasured by all who desire them.
God’s deeds are majestic and glorious.
God’s righteousness stands forever.
God is famous for his wondrous works.
The Lord is full of mercy and compassion.
God gives food to those who honor him.
God remembers his covenant forever.
God proclaimed his powerful deeds to his people
and gave them what had belonged to other nations.
God’s handiwork is honesty and justice;
all God’s rules are trustworthy—
they are established always and forever:
they are fulfilled with truth and right doing.
God sent redemption for his people;
God commanded that his covenant last forever.
Holy and awesome is God’s name!
Fear of the Lord is where wisdom begins;
sure knowledge is for all who keep God’s laws.
God’s praise lasts forever!

Prayer for Others
Pause after each paragraph to give voice to prayers as prompted.  Let us pray,

Merciful God, who shelters us and guides us,  
we give you thanks for…. 

God who comforts,  
receive those who are fearful and lonely…. 

God whose love is steadfast,  
be refuge for the ill, the dying, and those who care about them.… 

God of righteousness,  
we ask for your wisdom and ways of justice to prevail  
in our community, this nation, your world…. 

God who seeks our trust, grow us and guide us in your ways
that are life-giving in your world.  Amen.

Anthem
Undivided Mystery
Author: Bev Easterling
Composer: Mark Schweizer

Holy Father, Saving Son,
Blessed Spirit, Three in One:
Undivided mystery,
Author of eternity.

Loving God, Anointed Son,
Eternal Spirit, Three in One:
Word Incarnate, Well Beloved,
Heav’nly King and Lord of Love.

Mighty God, Redeeming Son,
With the Spirit, Three in One:
As the sacred Trinity
Alpha and Omega be.

Mark 1:21-28
Common English Bible

Jesus and his followers went into Capernaum. Immediately on the Sabbath Jesus entered the synagogue and started teaching. The people were amazed by his teaching, for he was teaching them with authority, not like the legal experts. Suddenly, there in the synagogue, a person with an evil spirit screamed, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are. You are the holy one from God.” “Silence!” Jesus said, speaking harshly to the demon. “Come out of him!” The unclean spirit shook him and screamed, then it came out. Everyone was shaken and questioned among themselves, “What’s this? A new teaching with authority! He even commands unclean spirits and they obey him!” Right away the news about him spread throughout the entire region of Galilee.

Reflection on the Gospel
Rev. Tonya Vickery

Listen to Tonya’s reflection or read below.

The gospel of Mark demonstrates the power of the ministry and mission of Jesus through the telling of the story of Jesus.  Through each story we see and hear the kin-dom of God breaking into our world. Mark offers no explanations or dogmas or theories. Mark doesn’t outline theologies or rules and regulations. Instead Mark writes down the story of Jesus knowing that the stories themselves are full and meaningful enough to attest to the amazing ministry and mission of Jesus. This is a quick paced gospel with exciting news. We are invited on an adventure into the amazing revelation that God is interested in us, God has come among us, and God offers free grace to everyone!

One of Mark’s favorite words  to use is the word immediately.  Just in chapter 1 alone Mark uses immediately 11 times and the passage for this morning contains three. Mark uses this word like a drumbeat. It emphasizes moments and increases the momentum of the story moving forward into more momentaneous moments. This aural drumbeat gets lost in translation. Did you catch how many times I used a form of the word moment in the previous sentence?  In English composition classes we are taught not to use the same word over and over again.  Repeating the same word too often is poo-pooed. So translations clean up Mark for our English ears and eyes. “Immediately” becomes “then” or “at once” or “when” or “just then” and yes, sometimes “immediately.”  However, if the same word is translated multiple ways, we don’t lose the meaning of what is being said, but we do lose that insistent gospel drumbeat. So let’s “immediately” turn our hearts and minds to the gospel this morning.🙂

In this Sunday’s passage, Jesus and his newly called disciples travel to the village of Capernaum. Capernaum was a town or village of perhaps 600 people. “Immediately on the Sabbaths” Jesus goes to the synagogue and he teaches. Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus is teaching. Mark doesn’t share with us any information about the audience. But we do know Jesus’ teachings blow their minds and astonish them. Jesus’ teaching is different and they are amazed by it.

Synagogues were stone block buildings a little bigger than the footprint of our the concreate area behind the church where we have held outdoor worship (80 by 60 feet). Synagogues were something akin to community centers. The building functioned as court, and as places for political discussions. Archives were stored in synagogues. Children were educated there. And of course this was the place where the Torah was read aloud and taught by rabbis, and it was a place of prayer. Regular meetings were held in the synagogues on the Sabbaths.  No work was done on the Sabbath out of respect and honor to God. It was a day set apart as holy unto God as defined by the 10 commandments. Back then there were two sure signs of your Jewish faith and your commitment to God–circumcision and keeping the Sabbath.

Without hesitation (think “immediately”), Jesus attended synagogue services while in Capernaum. And he was called upon by the synagogue officials to teach. That he was invited to teach is not surprising to the people of Capernaum. But what surprised everyone was the manner in which Jesus taught. The lessons Jesus shared with them set him apart from everyone else. Normally, rabbis taught by sharing the words of the Torah and then explaining them by referencing the teachings of other rabbis.  The teachers of the law (also called “scribes”) were professional experts in the Torah. They studied, explained and applied the Torah to specific situations. But Jesus did not teach this way. Jesus didn’t reference other rabbis nor was he a trained professional expert in the law.

Instead, Jesus is God incarnate. Jesus is Divine come to live among us. Jesus is a part of that undivided Mystery of which the choir sang. This revelation of the Undivided Mystery, this Jesus does not need to consult any human authority to bring truth to those who listen. Jesus speaks on the basis of his own authority.  Nothing less could happen than they be profoundly impacted by this experience, for it is with Jesus–with God. Were they astounded because the teaching was extraordinary? Or were they astounded because the teaching was bold, true, and prophetic? Were they astounded because Jesus was teaching them something new, something they had never considered before? Or were they astounded because Jesus’ teaching challenged their safe sanitized understandings of God forcing them to rebirth their imaginations about God? I would say, all of the above is possible.

What if Jesus were to come literally and physically among us and teach us today? What would astound us? Would we be astounded merely by God being present with us? Would we be astounded because we were hearing something we had never heard before?  Would we be astounded because Jesus’ teaching was redirecting our ideas about truth, justice, compassion, and love? Yes, all of the above is possible.

In the midst of  teaching, an impure spirit interrupts Jesus.  (An impure spirit or  unclean spirit is synonymous with demon.)  It wasn’t the man that cried out, it was the impure spirit. The influence of the impure spirit is at odds with a liberating God who came, in no small part, to set the captive free. This impure spirit has a hold on this man–mind, body, and/or soul. And this human needs to be set freed from its grip. This kind of work is central to the gospel — setting people free from whatever keeps them away from God and restoring God’s vision for all humanity.  The action does not happen without opposition. The unclean spirit identifies Jesus by name and place, and as the “Holy One of God.” The first thing Jesus does is silence this enemy of humanity. Jesus takes away the voice of the enemy and the grip loosens. Then Jesus demands the spirit to come out and the man is set free. The kin-dom of God which will come one day in all its fullness, this kin-dom has broken into the world and the captives are being set free. In the words of Zechariah 13:4 , On that day I will remove from the land the unclean spirit.  This day has come with Jesus Christ.  When Jesus commands the impure spirit to come out of this man here at the very beginning of the story of Jesus, it is like a flag for the kin-dom of God has been staked on earth. The territory claimed was not Capernaum or even the synagogue, but the territory claimed is the person who is possessed, oppressed, who is suffering, who is pulled away from God. And in this act, Jesus reclaims the holy place of humanity. 

If Jesus were to come to be literally and physically among us today, what impure spirits would he silence, rebuke and exorcise? What powers would Jesus silence? From what evil grip would Jesus set us free? What impure and unclean spirits torture us, overshadow us, overwhelm us? What evil is attempting to stand between you and God?  What addictions, habits, apathies, or attitudes are holding us back, pulling us away from the kin-dom of God? What evil powers among us would Jesus command to leave?

I’ve led us astray a little bit for I’ve seemed to imply that Jesus being among us is something like a dream or a distant hope instead of a present reality. Jesus has full authority over heaven and earth. But that authority is not something in the past only or only for the future. That authority is present now. God is interested in people. Jesus’ life shows us this. God cares about us, loves us, seeks us out to save us. A flag has been staked, a kin-dom is being built where we will live with God forever. And that life is not in the past or only in the future, that life is for today. God is at our side and all that causes us pain and suffering is painful and alien and antithetical to God. God in Jesus enters our sufferings. Jesus’ ministry shows a defiance of the destructive powers that enslave humanity. God doesn’t like them and God is against all that would rob us of the fullness of life God would have us experience. So I need to change the questions. What astounds you today about Jesus’ teachings? And what impure spirits today are keeping you away from God?  Jesus is still teaching us. Faith is not to be a static part of our lives, but something that should be growing deeper day by day. And yes, there are still impure spirits getting in the way of us living the Way. As in the 1st century as is today and will be tomorrow, Jesus will silence them, rebuke them and cast them away so that we might know that God loves us and is always at our sides.

Prayer of Thanksgiving 
Thank you, God for constant love.
Please help our church family grow
deeper and deeper in your love. Amen.

Song of Faith
O Christ, the Healer, We Have Come
Author: Fred Pratt Green
Tune: CANONBURY LM (Schumann)

1 O Christ, the healer, we have come
to pray for health, to plead for friends.
How can we fail to be restored,
when reached by love that never ends?

2 From every ailment flesh endures
our bodies clamor to be freed.
Yet in our hearts we would confess
that wholeness is our deepest need.

3 In conflicts that destroy our health
we recognize the world’s disease;
Our common life declares our ills.
Is there no cure, O Christ, for these?

4 Grant that we all, made one in faith,
in your community may find
The wholeness that, enriching us,
shall reach and prosper humankind.

Sending Out
May the path that Christ walks
to bring justice upon the earth,
to bring light to those who sit in darkness,
to bring out those who live in bondage,
to bring new things to all creation:
may this path
run through our life.
May we be
the road Christ takes.

Blest Be the Tie 
by John Fawcett 

Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love. 
The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above.

When we are called to part, it gives us inward pain; 
but we shall still be joined in heart, and hope to meet again. 

This glorious hope revives our courage by the way; 
while each in expectation lives and waits to see the day.  

Acknowledgements:

  • The image is from Our Lady of Mercy Lay Carmelite Community website.
  • The call to worship was written by Simon Taylor printed in Winter Liturgical Resource for November, December and January, ed. by Ruth Burgess. Wild Goose Publications.
  • The opening prayer was written Jan Sutch Pickard printed in Spring Liturgical Resources for February, March, and April, ed. by Ruth Burgess, Wild Goose Publications.
  • The opening hymn was sung by Mindy, accompanied by Tracy on the organ.
  • The anthem was sung by Mindy, Elizabeth, Laura, and Tonya, accompanied by Tonya on the piano.
  • The closing hymn was sung by Mindy accompanied by Tracy on the organ.
  • The Sending Out was written by Jan L. Richardson, and posted on The Painted Prayerbook website.

    Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-724755. All rights reserved.  All writings have been used by permission from the posting sites or authors.

This week’s readings make compelling arguments for us to drop everything when we are invited to a deeper relationship with God. It can be challenging to leave behind what we once found reliable. Thankfully, God is persistent!

May the following prayers, scripture readings, music, and reflections serve as a guide in your worship of God today to help you focus your heart on the Lord.

The Worship of God

Passing the Peace 
Say to one another, “May the peace of Christ be with you.”
And reply, “And, also with you.”

Call to Worship
The invitation is given to every person by Jesus Christ:
“Come to me! Follow me! Be my disciples!”
We come to this place, to this time,
at the invitation of Jesus Christ.

In the name of Christ,
we accept the invitation to discipleship.
In the name of Christ,
as his disciples, we worship and praise God
.
In the midst of a world where cruelty abounds,
we proclaim the God of Compassion.
In the midst of despair that threatens to swallow up
whole lives, whole peoples,
we proclaim the God of Hope.

In the midst of indifference and apathy,
we proclaim the God of Love.
Come, let us worship together
and share our witness of God’s living presence in the world.

Opening Prayer
In you alone we put our hope,
God the Father, Creator and Sustainer,
who gives all good things
seen and unseen.

In you alone we put our hope,
God the Son, Saviour and Redeemer,
who died for our sins
and rose again.

In you alone we put our hope,
God the Spirit, Teacher and Comforter,
who moves us to sing
“Our God reigns!”
In you alone we put our hope.

Song of Praise
Let Us with a Joyful Mind
Author: John Milton; Adapt. Thomas Troeger
Tune: INNOCENTS (The Parish Choir)

Let us, with a joyful mind,
praise our God forever kind,
Rich with mercies that endure,
ever faithful, ever sure.

Newmade earth was filled with light
through God’s all commanding might,
Rich with mercies that endure,
ever faithful, ever sure.

Dazzling bright the sun obeys
God who shines with brighter rays,
Rich with mercies that endure,
ever faithful, ever sure.

Stars and moon that spangle night
all depend on heaven’s light,
Rich with mercies that endure,
ever faithful, ever sure.

Creatures of the sea and land
all are fed by God’s own hand,
Rich with mercies that endure,
ever faithful, ever sure.

Therefore with a joyful mind,
praise our God forever kind,
Rich with mercies that endure,
ever faithful, ever sure.

Psalm 62:5-12
Common English Bible

Oh, I must find rest in God only,
because my hope comes from him!
Only God is my rock and my salvation—
my stronghold!—I will not be shaken.
My deliverance and glory depend on God.
God is my strong rock.
My refuge is in God.
All you people: Trust in him at all times!
Pour out your hearts before him!
God is our refuge! Selah

Human beings are nothing but a breath.
Human beings are nothing but lies.
They don’t even register on a scale;
taken all together they are lighter than a breath!
Don’t trust in violence;
don’t set false hopes in robbery.
When wealth bears fruit,
don’t set your heart on it.
God has spoken one thing—
make it two things—
that I myself have heard:
that strength belongs to God,
and faithful love comes from you, my Lord—
and that you will repay
everyone according to their deeds.

Prayer for Others
Pause after each paragraph to give voice to prayers as prompted.  Let us pray,

Merciful God, who shelters us and guides us,  
we give you thanks for…. 

God who comforts,  
receive those who are fearful and lonely…. 

God whose love is steadfast,  
be refuge for the ill, the dying, and those who care about them.… 

God of righteousness,  
we ask for your wisdom and ways of justice to prevail  
in our community, this nation, your world…. 

God who seeks our trust, grow us and guide us in your ways
that are life-giving in your world.  Amen.

Anthem
Lead Gently, Lord
Author: Paul Laurence Dunbar
Composer: Clif Cason

Lead gently, Lord, and slow,
For oh, my steps are weak,
And ever as I go,
Some soothing sentence speak;

That I may turn my face
Through doubt’s obscurity
toward thine abiding-place,
E’en tho’ I cannot see.

For lo, the way is dark;
Through mist and cloud I grope,
Save for that fitful spark,
The little flame of hope.

Lead gently, Lord, and slow,
For fear that I may fall;
I know not where to go
Unless I hear thy call.

My fainting soul doth yearn
For thy green hills afar;
So let thy mercy burn-
My greater, guiding star!

Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Common English Bible

The Lord’s word came to Jonah a second time: “Get up and go to Nineveh, that great city, and declare against it the proclamation that I am commanding you.” And Jonah got up and went to Nineveh, according to the Lord’s word. (Now Nineveh was indeed an enormous city, a three days’ walk across.) Jonah started into the city, walking one day, and he cried out, “Just forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God. They proclaimed a fast and put on mourning clothes, from the greatest of them to the least significant.

God saw what they were doing—that they had ceased their evil behavior. So God stopped planning to destroy them, and he didn’t do it.

Mark 1:14-20
Common English Bible

After John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee announcing God’s good news, saying, “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!” As Jesus passed alongside the Galilee Sea, he saw two brothers, Simon and Andrew, throwing fishing nets into the sea, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” he said, “and I’ll show you how to fish for people.” Right away, they left their nets and followed him. After going a little farther, he saw James and John, Zebedee’s sons, in their boat repairing the fishing nets. At that very moment he called them. They followed him, leaving their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired workers.

Reflection on the Gospel
Rev. Jeffrey Vickery

Those of you who know me will not be surprised that I admit to being an optimist. Those who know me well are aware of the parent from which I inherit this disposition. As an optimist, then, I hear people state “Murphy’s Law” — “anything that can go wrong will” — as a call to preparation rather than defeat. If we are told something will fail eventually, then we can prepare for its failure, or not trust its permanance, or not pity ourselves at its loss. Every new car will eventually need to be repaired and later replaced. We will dread its unreliability at the end and likely hate this thing we once loved. Knowing that ahead of time helps us balance our expectations and desires. Murphy’s Law can apply in this way to everything from tech devices to careers to pets and even friends. 

Yet as a true optimist, I am aware of Murphy’s Law’s reverse truth, sometimes referred to a Yhprum’s Law (“Yhprum” being “Murphy” spelled backwards) which states that “if anything can go right it will, eventually.” This maxim too is a call to preparation. It allows us to consider lost opportunity as a one-time failure but not a final sentence of doom. All it takes is one person who wants to hire me, just one manager’s email that begins with “I’m delighted to offer you the job.” It will happen one day so prepare for it. 

I want to apply this same principle, optimistic though it may be, to our readings from Jonah and Mark today. Here’s what I hope you take away from this sermon: One day God will speak to you. It will happen. Eventually. Be prepared to hear and respond. In fact, since we don’t control what or when or how God speaks, the only thing we can control is how we respond. So be ready to say “yes” even though it will change you.      

Jonah 

Jonah heard the word of God. I honestly don’t know how. I can’t explain how the prophets heard God, whether they experienced an audible voice or not, but it was understandable and seemingly without doubt from God. “Go to Nineveh and speak these words,” is what Jonah understands God to say. Jonah hears and then has a choice to make. Honestly, his first choice was to do the opposite of what God said. That’s why after Jonah boarded the boat headed away from Nineveh God sent the storm at sea, and the great swallowing fish. Neither of these (the storm or the fish) were God’s punishment of Jonah but instead became a way for God to give Jonah a second chance. When we start reading Jonah’s story in chapter 3, God’s message hasn’t changed, and Jonah hears it again and still has a choice to make. This time he follows the divine request to go to Nineveh and tell. Given what we hear about him in chapter 4, it’s clear that he’s not enthusiastic about his brief career as a prophet. In fact, if I had to describe Jonah’s attitude I would call him petulant and boorish. Yet he fulfills God’s request and in that way furthers God’s work in Nineveh. Always remember that the substance of God’s word and God’s way are of more importance than the personality or proclivities of the prophet or preacher or disciple. Because Jonah lets the words of God move him to action, the people of Nineveh expand our concept of “children of God.” Though they are not Jewish, though they live in a “foreign city,” though they haven’t heard the Torah or the preaching of the prophets, God loves them whether Jonah does or not.  

The People of Nineveh 

Like Jonah, the people of Nineveh hear the word of God. This time we know how God spoke and how they heard it. The voice of God came out of Jonah’s mouth as it uttered God’s message. What prophets have in confidence the rest of us must make up for in trust. The prophets are certain of God’s message knowing its origin, while we have to test to see if the words we hear as proclamation are God’s words or not. Some people find, through prayer and scripture, words to speak that help us hear God’s call, and others can unknowingly tell us what God wants us to hear. The people of Nineveh hear God’s word through Jonah and then have a choice to make. They willingly make the right choice.   

The people of Nineveh in many ways represent us. We are not Jewish nor born in the Promised Land. We are foreigners and Gentiles. At the same time, we are heartened that God’s beloved community of saints is not defined by looks or language or location. The only restriction on God’s call is either to refuse to hear it, or defy any meaningful response. Although Jonah was not from Nineveh, his meager message was received with enough truth from God that the people responded. We don’t know the sins they confessed or the prayers they uttered before God. Yet fast and pray they did. They all did. From the king of Nineveh to the domesticated livestock, from the head to the herd. They sought God’s forgiveness with utter humility – sackcloth for clothes, ashes on their heads, no food or drink to bring them comfort. They felt the burden of their sin and each itch of skin or grumble of the gut poked and proded at their need for God’s forgiveness. They heard God’s word through Jonah and responded – not to Jonah but to God. God not only heard their prayers but read their hearts. The people prayed, yes, but they also changed. We would say they repented. The translation we have of verse 10 simply says “they ceased their evil behavior.” That’s repentance. Again, the people heard God and made a choice. Their prayers were not words that they simply said in order to either trick God or make a demand of God. A single prayer spoken lacks substance by itself. We don’t speak magic when we pray to God. And we don’t cross our fingers behind our back, even figuratively speaking. “God forgive me” is a great prayer unless we don’t really intend to end our sinful behavior. “God I’m sorry” is meaningful except for when it actually means, “God I’m sorry I was caught and now let me convince you to forgive me so I won’t feel guilty.” The people of Nineveh are not giving us any “method” to achieving forgiveness from God. Instead, they demonstrate where a genuine response to God leads. They will not stay in sackcloth for long, they will eventually eat and drink again, but they seem truly to have turned from their evil ways to God’s Way. They can go back to farming and blacksmithing and shepherding and cooking. But they have chosen not to go back to sin, or evil, or life before God’s word moved them to action. 

Peter and Andrew, James and John 

If we jump ahead in time historically to the Gospel of Mark’s story of Jesus, we find that some of the people who hear Jesus speak believed that they heard God’s words. Isn’t it so much more certain that we hear God’s words through Jesus than wondering about a transcendent divine appearance. Divine encounters on this side of the thin veil between the physical and the spiritual will sometimes come, but in the meantime, the words of Jesus say things we must hear as the words of God.  

Simon and Andrew are at work and they hear God’s voice in this Jesus from Nazareth. They were fishermen, rowing their boats and casting their nets as a business that supported their families and fed many others. The Sea of Galilee was the primary source of meat and protein for thousands of people so long ago. The heat and weather of the Middle East meant that herds were less profitable than fishing, although, to be sure, sheep and goats played their economic role. The lake was, nevertheless, a reliable source of fish in all seasons and therefore both nutrition and income. So when we hear of Simon and Andrew, and add to that the story of James and John, consider that they were not fishing on their day off – it was not a hobby or a relaxing weekend on the water. They were at work and heard God’s word through Jesus’ call and they had a choice to make. That choice changed them—they left their jobs and hometowns and reasonable comfort. Fortunately, it seems they were prepared to respond. Unlike Jonah, these disciples didn’t need a second calling. Maybe they had heard John preaching by the Jordan, and they remember their Jewish teachings about the Messiah, and they were prepared to choose to follow should they have the chance. Well, the opportunity came, Jesus spoke their names, and they responded by leaving their jobs, and their father (in the case of James and John) and went with Jesus. These disciples don’t pray and fast about their decision, perhaps because they had already committed to God in prayer that, given the opportunity to hear God’s voice, they would say “yes.” They were, in this way, prepared disciples already. Maybe one morning as they were putting away their nets, James said to John, “I pray that God will send the Messiah soon. And if I have the chance, I will follow God’s Servant. I will not let wealth and work prevent me from participating in God’s Way. I sincerely hope I can see that day and hear God’s voice. One day, maybe. If not me, then I pray it will be you. If possible, maybe it could be both of us.” Well, James, if anything can go right, it will, eventually. God called and you responded.  

The Rest of Us 

Like Jonah, and the people of Nineveh, and the apostles of Jesus, one day we will hear God’s word. It will happen or perhaps it already has. Certainly most of us have heard the call to repent, believe, and be baptized. Yet if that is the end of what we hear from God, then we are less than God intends for we, too, hear God’s words and have a choice to make. Do we follow them? Do we change our actions, our choices, our desires, our hearts? Do we leave behind what we once thought defined us? Do we pray and fast, or just pray and pretend? Just like it is impossible to explain how Jonah heard God’s words, it is unpredictable how any one of us will hear God next. Perhaps we will hear the very voice of God, either “still and small” as the Psalm describes, or startling and courageous as a Wild Goose as the Celtic Christians described the Holy Spirit. Like the people of Nineveh, we sometimes hear God’s words in each other’s messages when they reflect and resemble the heart of God. And we all have the Gospels to help us hear the words of Jesus, which are no small wonder and certainly not to be ignored by those who call ourselves Christian. So hear this one and all, not because I think I’m speaking God’s word but because it is what I hear this day from the Gospel – be prepared to hear God’s words and make a choice to follow them. Whenever they come and whatever call they make. God’s words will come to you and me. Eventually. For God still calls disciples to follow, and to love, and to offer grace, and to be kind, and to reconcile differences, and to make peace, and to overcome injustice, and to heal and pray and hope and care. Be ready to respond, for we will hear God’s voice. Maybe even today. Amen. 

Prayer of Thanksgiving 
Thank you, God for constant love. Please help our church family grow deeper and deeper in your love. Amen.

Song of Faith
You Walk along Our Shoreline
Author: Sylvia Dunstan
Tune: SALLEY GARDENS (traditional Irish melody)

1 You walk along our shoreline
When land meets unknown sea.
We hear your voice of power,
“Now come and follow me.
And if you still will follow
Through storm and wave and shoal,
Then I will make you fishers
But of the human soul.”

2 You call us, Christ, to gather
The people of the earth.
We cannot fish for only
Those lives we think have worth.
We spread your net of gospel
Across the water’s face,
Our boat a common shelter
For all found by your grace.

3 We cast our net, O Jesus;
We cry the kingdom’s name;
We work for love and justice;
We learn to hope through pain.
You call us, Lord, to gather
God’s daughters and God’s sons,
To let your judgment heal us
So that all may be one.

Sending Out
May the path that Christ walks
to bring justice upon the earth,
to bring light to those who sit in darkness,
to bring out those who live in bondage,
to bring new things to all creation:

may this path
run through our life.
May we be
the road Christ takes.

Blest Be the Tie 
by John Fawcett 

Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love. 
The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above.

When we are called to part, it gives us inward pain; 
but we shall still be joined in heart, and hope to meet again. 

This glorious hope revives our courage by the way; 
while each in expectation lives and waits to see the day.  

Acknowledgements:

  • The image comes a stained glass window created by George Walsh in 2005 at the Church of the Most Holy Rosary, Tullow, County Carlow, Ireland to celebrate the bicentennial of the church (1805-2005) and depicts an ichthys (Jesus fish) in combination with a cross. The image was taken by Andreas F. Borchert in 2014.
  • The call to worship comes from the On Earth Peace website. http://www.onearthpeace.org/
  • The opening prayer was written by John Birch, and posted on the Faith and Worship website. http://www.faithandworship.com/
  • The opening hymn was sung by Mindy, accompanied by Tracy on the organ.
  • The anthem was sung by Mindy, Elizabeth, Laura, and Tonya, accompanied by Tonya on the piano.
  • The closing hymn was sung by Mindy accompanied by Tracy on the organ.
  • The Sending Out was written by Jan L. Richardson, and posted on The Painted Prayerbook website.

    Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-724755. All rights reserved.  All writings have been used by permission from the posting sites or authors.

The forecast for the week ahead of those of us who live in the United States appears to be one of potential turmoil and uncertainty, sickness and death. Just south of us in Greenville County, SC the number of COVID cases is soaring with a positivity rate of almost 40%. Even with the two major healthcare systems in the county pleading with residents to wear masks and social distance, we see South Carolinians in the upstate heed the hospitals — the very people who will care for them when they are sick — with deaf ears. The US inaugurates a new president this week, but rumors of hate and potential violence swirl in response. On Monday the US celebrates the birthday of civil rights leader and Baptist minister, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. King reminded us to meet anger with compassion in order to heal hurts, right wrongs, and change society. All these events create a stage upon which we have the opportunity to “display” our faith in God and the hope we have through Jesus Christ that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. So do not flag in zeal in your faith and in your hope in God! In Joshua 24, Joshua challenges the people to be faithful to God. “Serve the Lord honestly and faithfully,” says Joshua. “Focus your hearts on the Lord.”

May the following prayers, scripture readings, music, and reflections serve as a guide in your worship of God today to help you focus your heart on the Lord.

The Worship of God

Passing the Peace 
Say to one another, “May the peace of Christ be with you.”
And reply, “And, also with you.”

Call to Worship
based on Psalm 139

 O God, you know us inside and out,
         through and through
You search us out
        and lay your hand upon us.
You know what we are going to say
         even before we speak.
We praise you, O God, 
         for the wonderful knowledge that
whoever we are and wherever we go,
         you are with us.

Opening Prayer
Insistent God,
by night and day you summon your slumbering people,
So stir us with your voice
and enlighten our lives with your grace
that we give ourselves fully
to Christ’s call to mission and ministry.
Amen.

Song of Praise
We Are Marching in the Light of God
Author: South African Traditional Song
Tune: SIYAHAMBA

We are marching in the light of God.
We are marching in the light of God.
(Repeat.)
We are marching. We are marching.
We are marching in the light of God.
(Repeat.)

We are singing in the light of God.
We are singing in the light of God.
(Repeat.)
We are singing. We are singing.
We are singing in the light of God.
(Repeat.)

We are dancing in the light of God.
We are dancing in the light of God.
(Repeat.)
We are dancing. We are dancing.
We are dancing in the light of God.
(Repeat.)

We are praying in the light of God.
We are praying in the light of God.
(Repeat.)
We are praying. We are praying.
We are praying in the light of God.
(Repeat.)

1 Samuel 3:1-10
Common English Bible

Now the boy Samuel was serving the Lord under Eli. The Lord’s word was rare at that time, and visions weren’t widely known. One day Eli, whose eyes had grown so weak he was unable to see, was lying down in his room. God’s lamp hadn’t gone out yet, and Samuel was lying down in the Lord’s temple, where God’s chest was. The Lord called to Samuel. “I’m here,” he said. Samuel hurried to Eli and said, “I’m here. You called me?” “I didn’t call you,” Eli replied. “Go lie down.” So he did. Again the Lord called Samuel, so Samuel got up, went to Eli, and said, “I’m here. You called me?” “I didn’t call, my son,” Eli replied. “Go and lie down.” (Now Samuel didn’t yet know the Lord, and the Lord’s word hadn’t yet been revealed to him.) A third time the Lord called Samuel. He got up, went to Eli, and said, “I’m here. You called me?” Then Eli realized that it was the Lord who was calling the boy. So Eli said to Samuel, “Go and lie down. If he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down where he’d been. 10 Then the Lord came and stood there, calling just as before, “Samuel, Samuel!” Samuel said, “Speak. Your servant is listening.”

Prayer for Others
Pause after each paragraph to give voice to prayers as prompted.  Let us pray,

Merciful God, who shelters us and guides us,  
we give you thanks for…. 

God who comforts,  
receive those who are fearful and lonely…. 

God whose love is steadfast,  
be refuge for the ill, the dying, and those who care about them.… 

God of righteousness,  
we ask for your wisdom and ways of justice to prevail  
in our community, this nation, your world…. 

God who seeks our trust, grow us and guide us in your ways
that are life-giving in your world.  Amen.

Anthem
What Star is This?
Author: John Chandler
Tune: TALLIS CANNON (Arranger: Richard Shephard)

What star is this, with beams so bright,
More lovely than the noonday light?
’Tis sent announcing a new King,
Glad tidings of our God to bring.

’Tis now fulfilled what God decreed,
“From Jacob shall a star proceed”;
And lo! the Eastern sages stand
to read in heaven the Lord’s command.

While outward signs the star displays,
An inward light the Lord conveys,
And urges them, with force benign,
to seek the Giver of the sign.

O, while the star of heavenly grace
Invites us, Lord, to seek Thy face,
May we no more that grace repel,
Or quench that light which shines so well!

To God the Father, God the Son,
And Holy Spirit, Three in One,
May every tongue and nation raise
An endless song of thankful praise!

John 1:43-51
Common English Bible

The next day Jesus wanted to go into Galilee, and he found Philip. Jesus said to him, “Follow me.” Philip was from Bethsaida, the hometown of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law and the Prophets: Jesus, Joseph’s son, from Nazareth.” Nathanael responded, “Can anything from Nazareth be good?” Philip said, “Come and see.” Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said about him, “Here is a genuine Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” Nathanael asked him, “How do you know me?” Jesus answered, “Before Philip called you, I saw you under the fig tree.” Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are God’s Son. You are the king of Israel.” Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these! I assure you that you will see heaven open and God’s angels going up to heaven and down to earth on the Human One.”

Reflection on the Gospel
Rev. Tonya Vickery

One of the choir’s favorite hymn writers is John Bell. Not our John Bell of Cullowhee, but the John Bell  of Scotland. One of our many favorites is the hymn called The Summons. It begins with Jesus asking

Will you come and follow me if I but call your name?
Will you go where you don’t know and never be the same?
Will you let my love be shown? Will you let my name be known?
Will you let my life be grown in you and you in me?

The hymn ends with the people responding to God
Lord, your summons  echoes true when you but call my name.
Let me turn and follow you and never be the same.
In your company I’ll go where your love and footsteps show.
Thus I’ll move and live and breath in you, and you in me.

Over the past couple of weeks here in the United States, we have seen a lot of  examples of “following.”  It has highlighted the fact that who you follow matters. It matters not only in the physical world but in the virtual world too. We know that when protesters rallied in Washington over a week ago, not everyone was dead set on violence. Not everyone circumvented barricades. Not everyone pushed law enforcement aside. Not everyone broke a window. Not every busted down a door.  Not everyone screamed hateful language. Not everyone murdered. But did you see how many people followed?  Who you decide to follow matters.

The gospel reading for this 2nd Sunday of Epiphany takes us to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. He has been baptized by the Holy Spirit through the baptism of John. And now he is making his way back to the region of Galilee and he is calling disciples to follow him. Our reading begins with Jesus calling Philip. As Jesus sets out on the road to Galilee, making the journey home after being baptized, Jesus finds Philip on that same road. Philip being from Bethsaida, the same hometown of other disciples, Andrew and Peter.  And as Cullowhee means Judiculla town, Bethsaida means Fisher town. Anyhow, along the road to Galilee, Jesus meets Philip and invites him to join the company of his followers. Two simple words tell the story. With a note of authority Jesus says, “Follow me” and Philip does.

There’s no record of what Philip says in response to Jesus’ invitation, but we know that he follows, for the gospel tells us that Philip goes to find Nathanael to share the good news about finding Jesus. Philip says to Nat, “We have found the one about whom Moses and the prophets wrote! His name is Jesus. He’s the son of Joseph of Nazareth.”  Why include the father’s name and the hometown? That’s just how they did it back then. Like, “here is Stone, the son of Mike of Cullowhee.” But it wasn’t the name that mattered, it was who they had found that mattered. Philip was saying to Nathanael, “We have found the Lord’s anointed one. The one about whom the prophets wrote. The one who will bring and establish worldwide righteousness. The one who will bring peace to everyone along with the fear and knowledge of God.” Let that sink in for a minute. Imagine how Philip must have felt. The excitement. The awe. The amazement. The overwhelming sense that here is the One. Here is the One whom the prophets foretold. Here’s the One whom Moses spoke of. What we have been taught, Nathanael, what we have come to believe and hope for, here is God’s anointed One among us.

Nathanael isn’t impressed at first. News of finding the Messiah, or the Anointed One is exciting, but who cold imagine the messiah coming from Nazareth. Just to be clear, Nazareth was  not an important place before Jesus came along. Jesus is the one who put Nazareth on the map. Nazareth was a village of maybe 300 people. (And we thought Cullowhee was small.) The Hebrew scriptures, the Old Testament, doesn’t mention Nazareth at all. It was too common a place for the Messiah to come from. It was just a small little hole in the wall village. Not a place of origin fit for the Anointed One of God. You can hear the doubt in Nathanael’s voice. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” It’s like saying, “Philip, you’ve made a mistake. Nazareth cannot be the origin of the Anointed One of God.” A simple Jew from an insignificant village in Galilee. Surely the Messiah would come from a more significant town and family. Well, the best way to figure something out is to see it for yourself. And that’s what Philip invites Nathanael to do.  “Come and see,” he says.

Now this interaction between Nathanael and Jesus is a curious one. It seems to be one of the longest recorded conversations Jesus has with the calling a disciple.  Most of the time the gospels just record Jesus saying, “Follow me.” And people drop what they are doing and they start tagging along. But not with Nathanael. There’s a few background stories playing out in the exchange between Jesus and Nathanael. I figure if it was important enough for the writer of John’s gospel to put it down this early in story of Jesus, then there must be some to it.

First off, Jesus greets Nathanael as if he had known him quite well.  Jesus says of him, “Here is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” This isn’t a quiet reflection like Jesus is pondering something. Jesus says this with an exclamation point at the end of the gospel sentence. To better understand Jesus’ loudly proclaimed compliment of Nathanael, we have to go back to the Hebrew story of Jacob. 

You recall the story of the brothers, Jacob and Esau. Esau was the older brother, and therefore in line for the family blessing to be given him by their father Isaac. However, Jacob tricks Isaac, their daddy, into giving him the family blessing. Isaac is almost completely blind and Jacob takes advantage of the weakness. He dresses up like his brother Esau and pretend to be him. He sits down with his father and receives the family blessing. The blessing cannot be taken back. Once it was given back then, it was given. And it mattered back then who physically receives the words. You can imagine how upset Isaac is finding out that Jacob has deceived him. Isaac breaks the news to his son Esau by saying, “Your brother came with deceit and has taken away your blessing.”  That word deceit in the Hebrew scriptures is the same word deceit in John’s gospel. One more thing to note. Later on in the life of Jacob, he gets his life turned around and at that point God gives him a new name, Israel.

So with those reminder, you can hear better the compliment from Jesus to Nathanael. It is like Jesus says, “You are a true Israelite, but not like Israel was when he was full of trickery and deceit.” Jesus says of Nathanael, “Here is one who is honest and dependable, who is trustworthy and sincere, who is decent and good.”
Nathanael forgets to say thank you. Instead he seems to be shocked and asks, “How do you know me?” Jesus merely says, “I saw you standing under the fig tree.” Well that clearly explains it. Surely only true Israelites stand under fig trees, right? Who knows. We can only guess at the significance of the fig tree. Did it imply a place of meditation? Was it a figure of speech to imply one knew  accurately about a person’s whereabouts and thoughts? Or was it merely a place of relief from the heat of sun? Whatever is meant by the phrase, “I saw you standing under the fig tree” it clears up any and all hesitations and doubts that Nathanael might have had towards Jesus being the Messiah. The word spill out of Nathanael’s mouth. “Rabbi, you are God’s son, you are the king of Israel.”  Now “Rabbi” means teacher. But “God’s son” and the “king of Israel” are Messianic phrases.You can call anyone a teacher, but you only call God’s Anointed one, God’s son or king of Israel. The words from Psalm 2 fill Nathanael’s heart and head: for the LORD says of the Anointed One, the Messiah, “I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill….You are my son; today I have begotten you.”

Whatever the “standing under the fig tree” language implied, Nathanael is persuaded. This is the Messiah, the One of whom Moses spoke and the prophets proclaimed. Jesus is amused by Nathanael’s quick change of heart and mind. And Jesus goes on to promise Nathanael that he will see greater things than this. Just wait and see what is about to happen. “Amen. Amen,” says Jesus. “You will see heaven open and God’s angels going up to heaven and down to earth on the Human One.” Okay, again, we need to turn back to the story of Jacob to better understand what Jesus promises to us here.

If you remember after Jacob stole his brother’s blessing, he left the family to go back to his mother’s hometown to find a wife. One night along the journey back he had a dream. He was sleeping out in the open using a stone as a pillow (And we thought the National Guard had it rough sleeping on the tiled floor of the Capitol. At least most of them have a backpack they can use for a pillow.) Well, as Jacob slept with is head on a rock, he dreamed of a ladder or a ramp propped up on the earth that went into heaven. On that ladder the angels of God were coming up and going down; coming down and going up.  As he watched the angels of God going up and down, the LORD stands beside him. The LORD tells him that he, Jacob, and his descendants will become a blessing to all the families of the earth. (Reminds me of what God told Abraham.) When Jacob wakes up he considers the place he this first, this surely is the gate of heaven. He recognizes that he was in the very presence of God. And he renames the place Bethel, meaning “the house of God.” [Now I cannot move on without making the note, after this Jacob says, if God will be with me, keep me, and give me bread to eat and clothes to wear, and the ability to see my father’s house again in peace, then this God will be my God…. and by the way, all that you give me, I will give back to you 1/10th. Anyhow, back to Jesus.] 

Jesus points back to the story to make a point. The wonder of Jesus’ special knowledge about who Nathanael is, this is of little importance compared to the wonder of God’s using Jesus as the One who comes from heaven, meets us in human form, and returns to heaven again. Jesus is not merely a messenger from God, but Jesus is the Human One by which we human beings can have an encounter with the divine. We are heirs to this promise. Jesus is the Human One by which we can encounter God. And most importantly, the greatness of God always exceeds what we have already seen and what we can imagine!

So let’s return back to that idea of following. First off, God has already chosen us. We are invited to chose God and follow. God has blessed us with God’s presence literally among us by coming to be with us as one of us as Jesus the Christ. Jesus is the one anointed by God to be the living Word of God among us. It is a gift. We have this great gift, the gift of the presence of God, for all times and every place. But this gift is not like a prize. You put a prize on a shelf. This gift is not an award we post that we have received. This gift is not a reward for our good deeds or a perfect life. It is not a badge of honor or a blessing that makes us untouchable, unstoppable, or unshakeable. This gift of God’s choosing, of God’s constant abiding presence, it is to become a way of life for us.

We follow the One who sees us under the fig tree–the one who knows us through and through. Just as Jesus knew Nathanael, Jesus knows us. There is a blessing to be found in that. That the one who is always with us, knows us. God understand us. We are not alone. God knows the truest depths of our hearts and God can help polish us, and make us into the beautiful person God created us to be because God knows us.

Now, Nathanael showed that he would follow Jesus by calling Jesus “God’s son” and the “king of Israel.” He also called him “Rabbi” or “teacher” too. So that makes me give pause to ask, what names do we give Jesus to show we follow Jesus? Some might be Best Friend or Great Teacher. Sometimes it’s Savior. Sometimes it is Radical Revolutionary. Sometimes it is Word of God. What kind of name are you calling Jesus by? How are you following Jesus? The way you follow gives Jesus that name.

And never, ever lose hope in the promise Jesus made that day to Nathanael and to those around him. In fact the “you” is plural there. “You [all] will see greater things than these!” That promise, that word, that commitment Jesus gave that day to Nathanael and those around him is a commitment that comes down through the ages all the way to us. You will see greater things. As you follow Jesus, don’t limit the way or the road you walk with God to such a small view. The love of God, the reach of God, the embrace of God, the creativity of God is far greater, far greater than we could ever imagine. Hold on to that.

Jesus asks of us,
Will you come and follow me if I but call your name?
Will you go where you don’t know and never be the same?
Will you let my love be shown? Will you let my name be known?
Will you let my life be grown in you and you in me?
Amen.

Prayer of Thanksgiving 
Thank you, God for constant love. Please help our church family grow deeper and deeper in your love. Amen.

Song of Faith
Jesus Calls Us, o’er the Tumult
Author: Cecil Frances Alexander
Tune: GALILEE

Jesus calls us, o’er the tumult
of our life’s wild, restless sea;
Day by day that voice still calls us,
saying “Christian, follow me.”

2 As, of old, Saint Andrew heard it
by the Galilean lake,
Turned from home and toil and kindred,
leaving all for Jesus’ sake.

3 Jesus calls us from the worship
of the treasures we adore,
From each idol that would keep us,
saying “Christian, love me more.”

4 In our joys and in our sorrows,
days of toil and hours of ease,
Jesus calls, in cares and pleasures,
“Christian, love me more than these.”

5 Jesus calls us! By your mercies,
Savior, may we hear thy call,
Give our hearts to your obedience,
serve and love thee best of all.

Sending Out
May the path that Christ walks
to bring justice upon the earth,
to bring light to those who sit in darkness,
to bring out those who live in bondage,
to bring new things to all creation:

may this path
run through our life.
May we be
the road Christ takes.

Blest Be the Tie 
by John Fawcett 

Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love. 
The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above.

When we are called to part, it gives us inward pain; 
but we shall still be joined in heart, and hope to meet again. 

This glorious hope revives our courage by the way; 
while each in expectation lives and waits to see the day.  

Acknowledgements:

  • The image was taken by Peter Trimming. Source= flickr.com/photos/peter-trimming/5649252218/
  • The opening prayer was posted on Thematic, Intercessory and Scripture Prayers for the RCL, Vanderbilt Divinity Library, http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/.
  • The opening hymn was sung by Mindy, accompanied by Tonya on piano and Kendall on percussion.
  • The anthem was sung by Mindy, Elizabeth, Kendall, Laura, and Tonya; accompanied by Tonya on the piano, Kendall on the marimba and kalimba, and Jeffrey, Ally, and AJ on the handbells.
  • The closing hymn was sung by Mindy accompanied by Tracy on the organ.
  • The Sending Out was written by Jan L. Richardson, posted on The Painted Prayerbook website.

    Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-724755. All rights reserved.  All writings have been used by permission from the posting sites or authors.

Invitation. Today we celebrate the baptism of Jesus. In one of my worship resource books, Winter (ed. Ruth Burgess; Wild Goose Publications) there’s a poem about Jesus’ baptism titled Pirate Jesus written by Thom Shuman. The poem ends with these words

but you come
to me,
dripping wet
with that dove
perched on your shoulder
(like a pirate
with his parrot)
and grabbing me
by the hand
you count, ‘1, 2, 3!’
and together
we jump
faith-first
into
grace.

May the following serve as a guide in your worship of God encouraging you take the hand of Jesus and jump “faith-first” every day.

The Worship of God

Passing the Peace 
Say to one another, “May the peace of Christ be with you.”
And reply, “And, also with you.”

Call to Worship
The heavens open. The Spirit descends.
Jesus emerges from the water.
And a voice echoes through the blue expanse.
“This is my child, the Beloved, with whom I am well-pleased.”
Jesus is named. Claimed.
We come to the water. We remember we are named. Claimed.
Can it be so? What a thing to be named. Claimed.
Let us worship the one who names and claims us still.

Opening Prayer
We come before you God in prayer today seeking your calm and peace after a week of shame, disappointment, fear, anxiety, and visual hate. We turn our hearts to you today. Shine your light upon us as we worship you. Wash our emotions, hearts, and minds with your love so we might better praise and honor you. In the name of the One in whom we have placed our trust, Jesus the Christ, Amen.

Song of Praise
All Things Bright and Beautiful
Author: Cecil Frances Alexander
Tune: ROYAL OAK

Refrain:
All things bright and beautiful,
all creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful,
our dear God made them all.

1 Each little flower that opens,
each little bird that sings,
God made their glowing colors,
and made their tiny wings.

Refrain:
All things bright and beautiful,
all creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful,
our dear God made them all.

2 The purple-headed mountain,
the river running by,
The sunset, and the morning,
that brightens up the sky.

Refrain:
All things bright and beautiful,
all creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful,
our dear God made them all.

3 The cold wind in the winter,
the pleasant summer sun,
The ripe fruits in the garden,
God made them every one.

Refrain:
All things bright and beautiful,
all creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful,
our dear God made them all.

Genesis 1:1-5
New Revised Standard Version

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from god swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

Song of Praise
God, Your Almighty Word
Author: John Marriot
Tune: ITALIAN HYMN

1 God, your almighty word
Chaos and darkness heard,
And took their flight:
Hear us, we humbly pray,
And where the gospel-day
Sheds not its glorious ray,
Let there be light!

2 Savior, you came to give
Those who in darkness live
Healing and sight,
Health to the troubled mind,
Sight to the inward blind:
Now to all humankind
Let there be light!

3 Spirit of truth and love,
Life giving, holy dove,
Speed on your flight!
Move on the water’s face
Bearing the lamp of grace
And, in earth’s darkest place,
Let there be light!

4 Holy and blessed Three,
Glorious Trinity,
Wisdom, Love, Might!
Boundless as ocean’s tide,
Rolling in fullest pride,
Through the world, far and wide,
Let there be light!

Prayer for Others
Pause after each paragraph to give voice to prayers as prompted.  Let us pray,

Merciful God, who shelters us and guides us,  
we give you thanks for…. 

God who comforts,  
receive those who are fearful and lonely…. 

God whose love is steadfast,  
be refuge for the ill, the dying, and those who care about them.… 

God of righteousness,  
we ask for your wisdom and ways of justice to prevail  
in our community, this nation, your world…. 

God who seeks our trust, grow us and guide us in your ways
that are life-giving in your world.  Amen.

Anthem
This Baptizing Day
Author: William Allen Pasch
Based on Martin Luther’s Christ Our Lord to Jordan Came
Tune: DOWN TO THE RIVER TO PRAY (American Folk Hymn)

Jesus went down to the river one day,
his Father’s calling to obey.
Then John baptized him, and the Lord God said,
“This is the way!
This is my own dear son,
Follow him; his work’s begun.
Sin’s drowned, the victory’s won!
River, wash guilt away!”

This water flows as the river of grace
for all God’s children in this place,
It’s not our doing; Christ has done it all.
Give God the praise!
Now let this flood of love wash us clean,
all fear remove.
From earth and heaven above,
loud thanksgiving we raise!

When I go down to the river to pray,
thinking on my baptizing day,
the Holy Spirit tells me I’m newborn,
Old sin, away!
My Savior died for me.
Resurrection sets us free,
Grace reigns eternally,
through this baptizing day!

Mark 1:4-11
Common English Bible

John the Baptist was in the wilderness calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins. Everyone in Judea and all the people of Jerusalem went out to the Jordan River and were being baptized by John as they confessed their sins. John wore clothes made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He ate locusts and wild honey. He announced, “One stronger than I am is coming after me. I’m not even worthy to bend over and loosen the strap of his sandals. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

About that time, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and John baptized him in the Jordan River. While he was coming up out of the water, Jesus saw heaven splitting open and the Spirit, like a dove, coming down on him. And there was a voice from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”

Reflection on the Gospel
Dr. Jeffrey Vickery

This past Wednesday we celebrated as a man stood in front of a crowd of people to address them. They had come from out of town specifically to see and hear him. He was, some claimed, a prophet of God. The words he said to them mattered. They had consequences. Those who listened to his words were moved to action. And shortly after he spoke, they responded.  

This celebration was Epiphany and the man I’m referring to is John the baptizer, cousin of Jesus, who was out near the Jordan. With his words he issued a call to seek forgiveness from God, to admit to sin, to have hearts changed from selfishness and greed and power and desire to the holy pursuits of God’s children, principally these two: forgiveness and humility. The people responded by marching toward the waters of the Jordan to be baptized. In the words of Mark 1 that I just read, “they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins.” God’s pleasure that day did not only rest on Jesus, but on these other children of God with whom God found happiness. 

This past Wednesday another man also stood before a crowd of people to address them. They, too, had come from out of town specifically to see and hear him. He was, some claimed, a prophet of God. But let’s stop right there! I care far too much about Christianity and the Gospel of God to let anyone claim that Donald Trump is God’s messenger. To do so is to ignore the entire sweep of the biblical story which calls for the kind of holy virtues that have not in any way been evident in what he has said or done, either before or after he became President of the United States. He called for force; Jesus praises weakness. Trump wants what is best for himself; Jesus asked us to care for others. Trump demands loyalty to himself; Jesus constantly turned people toward the poor and powerless, and toward God. Trump claims himself to be the best president in history; Jesus praises the humble. Trump says if someone hits you then you should hit them back ten times harder; Jesus says to turn the other cheek. Trump praises his riches; Jesus said blessed are the poor.  Trump uses lies and dishonesty on a daily basis; Jesus said the truth will make you free. Trump boasted in an interview that he doesn’t ask for forgiveness from God; Jesus and John and Paul and Peter and practically every Christian text begins the Way of faith with confession and forgiveness. As an American citizen or an international onlooker or a member of our church, you can have any opinion you want regarding Trump’s politics. I am uninterested in whether you think he’s a good president or who you voted for in November. But as an ordained minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, I will not stand by quietly if someone claims that Mr. Trump represents Jesus, or promotes Christianity, or is a prophet of the holy God. He is not and to say so is blasphemy.  

I heard someone say this week that when George Orwell was writing his dystopian novel 1984 Orwell said that when things are at their worst it is time to restate the most basic principles. Fortunately for us, Mark’s story in chapter 1 of John’s preaching in the wilderness is a call back to the foundational basics of a life of faith. If we assume an appropriate understanding of God, then the first movement toward becoming a faithful worshipper of God and follower of the Gospel is forgiveness. The second, is a willing exercise of humility. Forgiveness requires confession. Humility requires trust. John gives voice to both of these, and Mark’s story of John puts them on display at the beginning of Jesus’ story. 

The Gospel of Mark was written 20 years before either Matthew or Luke wrote their account of the things that Jesus said and did. For centuries, the beginning and ending have remained the two most surprising elements of Mark’s Gospel. We know that Mark’s last chapter is uncertain, its actual text missing from any historical document we have. What came after Mark 16:8 we simply do not know. Likewise, something is missing from the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, but not because we lost a text but rather because Mark doesn’t say anything about it—that is, Mark’s Gospel contains no Christmas story. Gabriel doesn’t appear to anyone, Jesus is not in a manger, and no wise men travel to worship at the home of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus in Bethlehem. Mark begins with Jesus all grown up and ready to go. 

I have noted before, in both sermons and Bible studies, that by the time we finishing reading the entire first chapter of Mark, this Gospel leaves us with as much evidence of the incarnation of God in Jesus as any Christmas story. In this first chapter, Jesus is approved by God with a direct voice from heaven, surrounded by Jewish disciples, casts out an evil spirit, heals a woman with a fever, and cleanses a man of leprosy. Any one of these stories would generate hopeful gossip about the possibility Jesus may be the Messiah. All of them together in this first chapter means that one keeps reading the Gospel of Mark with the identity already revealed – Jesus is the Messiah.  

So let’s look at the opening verses of Mark’s Gospel more closely. If these are the first things written about Jesus, what do they tell us about being a follower of this One? Here is where we turn to the two basic principles of faith: forgiveness and humility. 

First, forgiveness is arguably the most central idea in Christianity. I say “idea” but really I think of forgiveness as a self-reflected outlook, a way to see ourselves and God and the world through the lens of our faith. I really like the way the Common English Bible translates verse four: “John the Baptist was in the wilderness calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins.” John didn’t invent baptism as it was already a Jewish ritual associated with spiritual cleansing, but he is the one who attaches the practice of baptism with forgiveness. This biblical baptism story doesn’t spend much time telling us about the “how-tos” of baptism. We do hear that Jesus was “coming up out of the water” which presumes a full immersion perhaps. But we miss the point of the baptism if we focus on how it’s done, or when, or where. The point of the baptism is that people “were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins.” Without that willfully chosen change, Christianity is unable to be discerned in anyone’s life. Unless we know our need to ask God’s forgiveness, confess our sin, and move to a Way of life exemplified in the grace and mercy of God, then we will be Christians in name only and in no way “followers” of Jesus. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus will say, “Many people call me ‘Lord’ … others will say “I preached in your name” … some will claim to have done great things for God in the name of Jesus … but it will be as though I don’t know them.” [my paraphrase of Matthew 7:21-23.]  Christianity begins with forgiveness in the same way that writing a novel starts by learning ABCs in kindergarten.  

Second, Christianity as heard in John’s words and seen throughout the actions of Jesus in the Gospels rests on humility. Consider John’s popularity. Rumors must have flown throughout the country that a new Jewish prophet was out by the Jordan. He sounds like Elijah of old. He’s in the same place where Elijah went to live after confronting King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. He’s dressed like a prophet of God and sounds like one too. If John had been in contemporary times, he’d be selling out stadiums of people who applauded his words and started fan clubs. And yet, John has perspective. He is not the important one. These people should not be his followers. He’s not interested in saying something that sounds wise and will find approval for himself. His words, his actions, his popularity, his audience…he seeks to turn all of these things toward Jesus.  

Humility is not the same as self-deprecation. John does not think himself incapable, nor lack esteem, nor is he without motivation to achieve what is in his capacity to do and say. His genuine humility means he knows that, in his own words, “One stronger than I am is coming after me. I’m not even worthy to bend over and loosen the strap of his sandals. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (vv. 7-8). John is not the savior. John is not the incarnation of God. And he won’t pretend that he is, either by lying to himself or to others.  

Even looking at John suggests a lack of vanity and pride. Here is a person not defined by material comfort. His humility extends even to the way he dresses and eats and lives. We are told that John wore camel’s hair clothing and ate the diet of a desert ascetic not because we are all called to be monks or nuns, but to note that possessions are often distractions from spiritual awareness and trust in God. John exemplifies and Christians are taught that God is not reflected in the outward appearance or possessions or wealth of a person. In fact, since John serves as a first-glimpse of discipleship, Christians are called to consider the value of voluntarily forsaking materialism for simplicity. The comfort of wealth and possession and fashion and beauty and abundance are not a measure of spiritual virtue and may, in fact, hinder our relationship with God. We can debate about whether discomfort (or suffering) is required for spiritual growth (I expect to hear from Dale Melton on this one!) but it seems undeniable that prosperity is an impediment to our spiritual health and that chosen simplicity and intentional asceticism can help our ability to recognize God’s Way in the world. What might this mean in real terms? Perhaps we emphasize “going to church” too much and have neglected private prayer, personal devotional practices, or individual exercises of spiritual discernment. Worship at home has been a practice of spiritual discipline rather than social connectivity. It is therefore an act of humility. The worship of God that we practice when no one knows about it or sees us necessarily grows from an intrinsic acceptance of the value of worship that only God acknowledges rather than that which is motivated by social participation that seeks group approval.   

Humility also requires us to recognize that God has authority over us while knowing that humility is exercised in our relationships with other people. Jesus talked as much about loving someone other than ourselves as he did about loving God. It may be easy for Christians to willingly seek to be humble before God, but the Gospel also calls us to humility with other people. “Don’t think too highly of yourself” is a direct teaching from Romans 12. “When you cared for these people others consider unvalued and poor and overlooked, you cared for me” Jesus said in Matthew 25. “If someone asks you to go one mile, go two” he said in Matthew 5. “No one shows greater love than to give up your own life for someone else” he said in John 15. And in 1 John 3 the New Testament tells to that loving others is exactly the same as and begins from a love for God. All of these holy acts of obedience to God begin with an actual personal understanding of healthy humility. Recently on the news a South Carolina politician said that Americans don’t like to be told what to do. He also said that Protestant Christians don’t like to be told what to do. That reasoning was used as an explanation as to why Baptists in South Carolina don’t wear masks – because someone told them they had to do so. Stubbornness is not a substitute for Christian humility. Pride does not justify disobedience of a biblical teaching. Personal preference is often the opposite of care for others. Jesus’ understanding of being a servant to others, a call to humility that every real-life servant knows, does not allow for Christianity of any kind to justify the endangering of another person for my own personal preference. In fact, it is hard to identify an act of individual convenience as in accord with the Gospel of Jesus if it diminishes or threatens the life of another one of God’s beloved children.  

See, we are tempted read the story of John in the wilderness baptizing Jesus with crowds watching and the voice of God descending from heaven and we think, “wow, what an event—I wish I had been there to post it on my social media account.” Instead, we should read Mark 1, hear John’s story, listen to his words, and consider his example. Confession to seek forgiveness cannot be faked. God will always know the truth of our heart. And genuine humility will always be exercised in relationship with other people so that it is evident to ourselves and others.  

The baptism story in Mark 1 ends with Jesus coming up out of the water and God’s Spirit coming down from the heavens. Imagine the scene. Consider this approval of God upon Jesus that was not called down by any person or affirmed by any observer. It was only made manifest by God’s initiative. These words of God, “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness” were said about Jesus. And through Jesus, every single creation of God has the capacity to be God’s delight. That includes you and me as well. May that goal guide our life of faith as we take daily steps toward the practice of forgiveness and humility.  

Prayer of Thanksgiving 
Thank you, God for constant love. Please help our church family grow deeper and deeper in your love. Amen.

Song of Faith
Mark How the Lamb of God’s Self-Off’ring
Carl P. Daw, Jr.
Tune: WAYFARING STRANGER

Mark how the Lamb of God’s self-off’ring
Our human sinfulness takes on
In the birthwaters of the Jordan
As Jesus is baptized by John.
Hear how the voice from heaven thunders,
“Lo, this is My beloved Son.”
See how in dovelike form the Spirit
Descends on God’s Anointed One.

From this assurance of God’s favor
Jesus goes to the wilderness,
There to endure a time of testing
That readied Him to teach and bless.
So we, by water and the Spirit
Baptized into Christ’s ministry,
Are often led to paths of service
Through mazes of adversity.

Grant us, O God, the strength and courage
To live the faith our lips declare;
Bless us in our baptismal calling;
Christ’s royal priesthood help us share.
Turn us from ev’ry false allegiance,
That we may trust in Christ alone:
Raise up in us a chosen people
Transformed by love to be Your own.

Sending Out
May the path that Christ walks
to bring justice upon the earth,
to bring light to those who sit in darkness,
to bring out those who live in bondage,
to bring new things to all creation:

may this path
run through our life.
May we be
the road Christ takes.

Blest Be the Tie 
by John Fawcett 

Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love. 
The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above.

When we are called to part, it gives us inward pain; 
but we shall still be joined in heart, and hope to meet again. 

This glorious hope revives our courage by the way; 
while each in expectation lives and waits to see the day.  

Acknowledgements: The image was taken by Emily Burttram. The Call to Worship was written by Caela Wood, Pastor at the First Congregational United Church of Christ, Manhattan, Kansas. The prayers were written by Tonya. The Opening Hymn was sung by Mindy accompanied by Ally on the piano and Tessa on the flute. The Song of Praise was sung by Mindy and accompanied by Tonya on the piano. The anthem was arranged by Tonya; sung by Mindy, Laura, Michelle, Tonya, Ally, and Elizabeth; and accompanied by Tonya on the piano and Michelle on the guitar. The Closing Hymn was arranged by Tonya, sung by Mindy, and accompanied by Michelle on the guitar and Tonya on the piano. The Sending Out was written by Jan L. Richardson, posted on The Painted Prayerbook website. Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-724755. All rights reserved.  All writings have been used by permission from the posting sites or authors.

Invitation. Today we celebrate Epiphany–the coming of the magi to worship Jesus! The “official” date for the Epiphany is this Wednesday, January 6, twelve days after Christmas Day! Wednesday looks to be an interesting day in the life of United States politics, but look beyond this sure to be distraction. Watch the international news for how Christians around world celebrate the day when God Incarnate shines through all the boundaries with which we might restrict God.

May the following serve as a guide in your worship of God.

The Worship of God

Passing the Peace 
Say to one another, “May the peace of Christ be with you.”
And reply, “And, also with you.”

Call to Worship
People of God, arise, shine,
for your light has come!
The light of Christ has come into the world.
Immanuel.
God with us.

So arise, shine, for your light has come!
And we will follow the light–
when it shines brightly in the night sky
when it glows dimly on the horizon.

We will follow the light–
when it leads down familiar paths to expected destinations
when the road is unfamiliar
and the star rests above a dubious-looking home.
We will lift up our eyes and look around.
And when we see the Christ child,
may our hearts be overwhelmed with joy.

When we are in the presence of Immanuel,
may our knees bend in worship.
When our journey brings us, finally, to the heart of God,
may our hands open in generous sharing;
may our mouths open in generous praise.

Opening Prayer
Lord of yesterday, today and tomorrow,
we gather here this first Sunday of the New Year,
in a mixture of hope, anticipation, fear, excitement, and expectation.
We do not know what the year holds for us.
There are things we are afraid of:
worries about health and family, job security and finances.
There is much to look forward to –
weddings or anniversaries or baptisms,
holidays to enjoy,
friends to laugh with.

Lord God,
the coming year is full of uncertainty and hope.
Whatever the year holds for us, though,
we trust You, and we place every day of this year in your care
knowing that, as in the past, You are with us,
caring for us with constant love.

And so Lord, we place ourselves into your keeping
and dedicate our lives to your service
through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Saviour. Amen.

Song of Praise
Arise, Your Light Is Come
Author: Ruth C. Duck (1974)
Tune: FESTAL SONG

1 Arise, your light is come!
The Spirit’s call obey;
show forth the glory of your God
which shines on you today.

2 Arise, your light is come!
Fling wide the prison door;
proclaim the captive’s liberty,
good tidings to the poor.

3 Arise, your light is come!
All you in sorrow born,
bind up the brokenhearted ones
and comfort those who mourn.

4 Arise, your light is come!
The mountains burst in song!
Rise up like eagles on the wing,
God’s power will make us strong.

Ephesians 1:3-14
New Revised Standard Version

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance towards redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.

Prayer for Others
Pause after each paragraph to give voice to prayers as prompted.  Let us pray,

Merciful God, who shelters us and guides us,  
we give you thanks for…. 

God who comforts,  
receive those who are fearful and lonely…. 

God whose love is steadfast,  
be refuge for the ill, the dying, and those who care about them.… 

God of righteousness,  
we ask for your wisdom and ways of justice to prevail  
in our community, this nation, your world…. 

God who seeks our trust, grow us and guide us in your ways
that are life-giving in your world.  Amen.

Anthem
The Stars Looked Down
Composer: Mark Schweizer
Poem by G.K. Chesterton

The Christ-child lay on Mary’s lap,
His hair was like a light.
(O weary, weary were the world,
But here is all aright.)

The Christ-child lay on Mary’s breast,
His hair was like a star.
(O stern and cunning are the kings,
But here the true hearts are.)

The Christ-child lay on Mary’s heart,
His hair was like a fire.
(O weary, weary is the world,
But here the world’s desire.)

The Christ-child stood at Mary’s knee,
His hair was like a crown.
And all the flowers looked up at Him,
And all the stars looked down.

Reflection on the Gospel
Rev. Tonya Vickery

Listen and/or read along to Tonya’s reflection and the scripture being read.



Happy New Year! Like you, I’m determined for this year to be a joyful one!  Although a microscopic fuzzy virus has overshadow our lives and our world, altering and changing the way we interact with one another, its shadow does not stand a chance against the joy of the Lord in our lives and world. You recall Romans 8:38 which says that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord. God’s love is the source of our being and God’s love is the source of our joy!  All the moments of 2021 may not be “happy” but they are guaranteed to be joy-filled when each moment is placed and held in the hands of the Creator God.  It will take courage on our part, along with persistence and determination for the joy of the Lord to overshadow our lives, but the possibility is real.  Now is the time for all of us who are gifted with “stubbornness” to lift up your voices and hearts to encourage the world in our faith in God, the source of our joy. Stubborn persistence can get us in trouble sometimes, but it can also be turned into an awesome blessing.

We see that gift of persistence, courage, and determination in the gospel story of the magi from Matthew 2. Read along with me or listen again the story of their faith, courage, and hope on this first Sunday of 2021. 

Matthew 2:1-12
Common English Bible

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.”

When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him. He gathered all the chief priests and the legal experts and asked them where the Christ was to be born. They said, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for this is what the prophet wrote:

You, Bethlehem, land of Judah,       
by no means are you least among the rulers of Judah,           
because from you will come one who governs,           
who will shepherd my people Israel.”

Then Herod secretly called for the magi and found out from them the time when the star had first appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search carefully for the child. When you’ve found him, report to me so that I too may go and honor him.” When they heard the king, they went; and look, the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stood over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were filled with joy. They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother. Falling to their knees, they honored him. Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Because they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another route.


Who in the world were these travellers and from where did they come? 

Unfortunately, the gospel of Matthew doesn’t give us much to answer these questions, but here’s what we do know. Matthew calls them “magi.” So let’s go with their occupation defined by the scriptures instead an occupation defined by a song. They are not kings, even though we have called them “kings” in our anthem this morning. Even though we have sung before the hymn We Three Kings, they are not kings.  They are magi. History suggest they may have been sages, or even political advisors. Matthew says they came from the “East.” You may want to think Persia and if so, then recognize that Persians opposed the Romans.  Imagine the “other” super power come knocking at your door ready to “worship” a newborn king that you have yet to hear about.

We do know they are stargazers who allow the stars to write their travel plans. They seem to be wealthy or they are entrusted with someone else’s wealth, and they are definitely not greedy or dishonest. They are not intimidated by others, whether that be Herod or a new born king. And they don’t bat an eye in kneeling before the One who is different from them in age and race and social standing. They have come to worship the newborn king. They are open to dreams guiding their lives, but they are not vagabonds or wanderers for they return home after completing their quest.

These travellers are determined and persistent. I love how they are willing to trek miles upon miles out into the unknown based on a hunch. For that’s what it was–a hunch. No one can be certain that a star in the sky is a sign of the birth of a new king. Their hunch reminds me of Abraham. Abraham had a “hunch” that God was calling him to go and set up house in another land. So in faith he packs up the whole lot and treks into the unknown. If you think about it, certainty is always missing when we are following God’s lead. Faith is required of us when we follow God and faith is not certainty. Faith is trust in God. And yes, following God or living the Way of Jesus Christ requires determination and persistence. Don’t give up on living the way of Jesus Christ as you venture out into the unknowns of 2021. In faith trust that God will be with you–when the road is long, uncertain, dusty, or sandy, and tiring. Keep your heart and mind set on Christ.

These travellers are also willing to embrace the unexpected. I love how they willingly  accept the fact their quest leads them to a simple family: a young mother, a father, and a baby boy. I’ve often wondered if they thought, “Is this the right child because no one else around here seems to care or recognize the greatness among and around them?”  But the star’s commitment to the place gives them the push they need to show up where Mary, Joseph, and Jesus are. They are at the right place, at the right time, before the right Child. So convinced about this are they, and Matthew doesn’t explain how or why, but they are so convinced that they leave behind the contents of their treasure chests and return home, mission complete. 

So what happens when we live the way of Jesus Christ, but things don’t turn out like we expected them to? Do we measure the worth of our lives using the weights of the world, or do we judge the worth of our lives through the eyes of God? Are we here to get ahead? Or are we here to bring honor to the newborn king?  Our lives may not turn out to be anything like we expected them to be, but hold firm to that belief that whatever your life is like, if it is bringing God honor and glory, then it is exactly what it needs to be. In Matthew 2:2 in the Common English Bible we read that the magi have “come to honor” the newborn king. The NRSV reads that the magi have “come to pay homage.” This is worship–the magi say, “We have come to worship the newborn king.” Herod says, “Let me know where he is and I will go worship him too.” Whatever happens as you live the way of Jesus, just make sure your living, your life is worshiping Jesus. This is what is required of us. It is how we show God our love.

So what was in all of this for the magi?  What did they gain from this quest? Truthfully it is easier to see what they lost. They lost time that could have been spent doing other things travelling all the way over there and all the way back. They surely lost a few good nights sleep travelling like they did. They willingly lost the contents of their treasure chests.  They found what they were looking for and the discovery brought them joy. But what did they gain from this journey into the unpredictable?

The only thing they carried back home with them was a story. You might say they returned home empty handed and without any proof to convince others that their quest was a success. All they had was a story about an encounter. Granted it was an encounter that inspired them to leave their treasures behind, an encounter that led them to deny the requests of a foreign government, and an encounter that required them to return home quietly so as to escape the wrath of the authorities.  I dare say that most of our encounters with God leave us empty handed without any proof of God. All we have is just a story. But the “proof” (if you will) of God in the “story” or the “encounter” comes from how it changes your life.  In fact, the story becomes a part of your life. It changes you. It polishes you. It transforms you into becoming a sign of God’s presence here in the world.  Think back to Moses. Remember when he went up on the mountain to meet with God. And when he came back down off the mountain, his face glowed with radiance from being in God’s presence.  Our encounters with God don’t typically leave us with glowing faces, but they do cause a brightness in the world that enables others to see God through us. There’s a verse in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says, “You are the light of the world.” Jesus goes on to say, “Let your light shine before others, so they can see your good works and glorify God in heaven.”

The magi had only a story to share when they returned home. But the story was no small thing for it was about their encounter with God Incarnate, Jesus, the Christ. Truly, if you don’t look for signs of God in the world, then you are not going to encounter God, and if you don’t encounter God, then you don’t have much of a story to tell. We have a new year spread out before us. We are just three days into 2021. So how about going on a quest with me this year? Will you walk in the shoes of the magi with me and set out this year to find signs of God’s presence in the world. God is here. But if we don’t look, we will miss, and our stories of faith and about God will be thin and faded. It will take persistence on our part and courage, and a willingness to let God show up how God wants to show up instead of how we expect God to show up. But there is nothing less to gain than that same joy the magi found along with a transformed life that will bring honor and glory to God more and more every day.


Prayer of Thanksgiving 
Thank you, God for constant love. Please help our church family grow deeper and deeper in your love. Amen.

Song of Faith
Angels from the realms of glory,
Author: James Montgomery (1816)
Tune: REGENT SQUARE (Smart)

  1. Angels, from the realms of glory,
    wing your flight o’er all the earth;
    As you sang creation’s story
    now proclaim Messiah’s birth:
    Come and worship, come and worship,
    worship Christ, give thanks and sing.
  2. Shepherds, in the field abiding,
    watching o’er your flocks by night,
    God with us is now residing;
    yonder shines the infant light:
    Come and worship, come and worship,
    worship Christ, give thanks and sing.
  3. Sages, leave your contemplations,
    brighter visions beam afar;
    seek the great Desire of nations;
    guided by Christ’s natal star:
    Come and worship, come and worship,
    worship Christ, give thanks and sing.
  4. Saints, before the altar bending,
    watching long in hope and fear,
    Suddenly, your prayers attending,
    Christ beside you shall appear.
    Come and worship, come and worship,
    worship Christ, give thanks and sing.

Sending Out
May the path that Christ walks
to bring justice upon the earth,
to bring light to those who sit in darkness,
to bring out those who live in bondage,
to bring new things to all creation:

may this path
run through our life.
May we be
the road Christ takes.

Blest Be the Tie 
by John Fawcett 

Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love. 
The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above.

When we are called to part, it gives us inward pain; 
but we shall still be joined in heart, and hope to meet again. 

This glorious hope revives our courage by the way; 
while each in expectation lives and waits to see the day.  

Acknowledgements: The Call to Worship was written by Joanna Harader, posted on the Spacious Faith blog. The Opening Prayer was written by Rev. Ian Elston, posted on the Church of Scotland’s Starters for Sunday website. The anthem was sung by Mindy, Laura, Michelle, Tonya, Ally, and Elizabeth accompanied by Tonya on the piano. Mindy sang the hymns accompanied by Tracy on the organ. The Sending Out was written by Jan L. Richardson, posted on The Painted Prayerbook website. Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-724755. All rights reserved.  All writings have been used by permission from the posting sites or authors.

100+ Free Snow Lane & Snow Photos - Pixabay

Invitation. Our waiting is over! Christ has come! On this first Sunday after Christmas, we celebrate the gift of God’s redeeming grace. This is no small thing! With our hearts and minds turned towards God as we worship, may we reaffirm God’s unhindered ability to reshape and restore. May we recognize the spark of God’s holiness in one another and all things. And may we work to make visible the reign of God — a reign of grace and love, a reign that claims us as God’s own.

The Worship of God

Light two candles in recognition of Christ’s presence.  
In our practice, one candle represents Jesus’ divinity and the other Jesus’ humanity.

Passing the Peace
Say to one another, “May the Peace of Christ be with you.”
Respond by saying, “And also with you.”

Call to Worship
~posted by Rev Gord on the site, Worship Offerings

The people who walk in darkness. That’s us!
We have seen deep darkness in the world around us.
So we have come to search for the light.
We want the light to shine on us!

“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given”
A child is born for US!
A son is given to ALL of US!
We come to see the child that has been born,
we come to gather in the glow of the stable,
we come to sing with angels and wonder with shepherds.
Come and worship, come and worship!
Worship the one who is born for us this day….

Opening Prayer
Almighty and Everlasting God, who by the birth of the holy child Jesus has given to all a great light to dawn upon our darkness: Shine your light on us! We want to see more clearly the great love you have for the world. May the light of your love brighten our hope in you today and always. Amen.

Song of Praise
Joy to the world! the Lord is come!
Author: Isaac Watts (1719)
Tune: ANTIOCH

1 Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth its praises bring;
let ev’ry heart prepare Christ room,
and heav’n and nature sing,
and heav’n and nature sing,
and heav’n, and heav’n and nature sing.

2 Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns!
Let all their songs employ
while fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains,
repeat the sounding joy,
repeat the sounding joy,
repeat, repeat the sounding joy.

3 Christ rules the world with truth and grace,
and makes the nations prove
the glories of God’s righteousness,
and wonders of God’s love,
and wonders God’s love,
and wonders, wonders of God’s love.

A Reading from the Psalms
Psalm 148
Common English Bible

Praise the Lord from heaven!
Praise God on the heights!
2 Praise God, all of you who are his messengers!
Praise God, all of you who comprise his heavenly forces!
3 Sun and moon, praise God!
All of you bright stars, praise God!
4 You highest heaven, praise God!
Do the same, you waters that are above the sky!
5 Let all of these praise the Lord’s name
because God gave the command and they were created!
6 God set them in place always and forever.
God made a law that will not be broken.

7 Praise the Lord from the earth,
you sea monsters and all you ocean depths!
8 Do the same, fire and hail, snow and smoke,
stormy wind that does what God says!
9 Do the same, you mountains, every single hill,
fruit trees, and every single cedar!
10 Do the same, you animals—wild or tame—
you creatures that creep along and you birds that fly!
11 Do the same, you kings of the earth and every single person,
you princes and every single ruler on earth!
12 Do the same, you young men—young women too!—
you who are old together with you who are young!

13 Let all of these praise the Lord’s name
because only God’s name is high over all.
Only God’s majesty is over earth and heaven.
14 God raised the strength of his people,
the praise of all his faithful ones—
that’s the Israelites,
the people who are close to him.

Praise the Lord!

Song of Praise
Hark, the herald angels sing
Author: Charles Wesley (1739)
Tune: MENDELSSOHN

1 Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the Christ-child bring:
peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinner reconciled!”
Joyful, all you saints arise,
join the triumph of the skies;
with the angel host proclaim,
“Christ is born in Bethlehem!”
Refrain:
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the Christ-child bring.”

2 Christ, by highest heaven adored,
Christ, the everlasting Lord,
late in time the Savior comes,
offspring of the Virgin’s womb:
veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
hail the incarnate Deity,
pleased on earth with us to dwell,
Jesus, our Immanuel. [Refrain]

3 Hail the Bearer of God’s peace!
Hail the Sun of righteousness!
Light and life our Savior brings,
risen with radiant, healing wings.
Mildly laying glory by,
born that we no more may die,
born to raise us all from earth,
born to give us second birth. [Refrain]

Prayer for Ourselves and Others
~written by John Birch and posted on the site, Faith and Worship

Circle us, Lord
Circle us with the light of your presence within this dark world
Enable us to be overcomers of fear and temptation
Enable us to be victors over sin and despair
Enable us to become that which you would desire
(Silent prayer)
Lord of creation, Lord of Salvation
Circle us with the light of your presence

Circle us, Lord
Circle our church family within the shelter of your outstretched arms
Protect them in each moment of their daily lives
Protect them in the decisions that they face
Protect their homes and relationships
(Silent prayer)
Lord of creation, Lord of Salvation
Circle our church family with the light of your presence

Circle us, Lord
Circle this world with the joy of your Salvation
Where there is sickness and disease bring healing
Where there is hunger and despair bring hope
Where there is torture and oppression bring release
(Silent prayer)
Lord of creation, Lord of Salvation
Circle this world with the light of your presence

Song of Adoration
Gesu Bambino
Composer: Pietro A. Yon

When blossoms flowered ‘mid the snows
Upon a winter night
Was born the Child, the Christmas Rose
The King of Love and Light.

The angels sang, the shepherds sang
The grateful earth rejoiced
And at His blessed birth the stars
Their exultation voiced.

O come let us adore Him
O come let us adore Him
O come let us adore Him
Christ the Lord.

Again the heart with rapture glows
to greet the holy night
That gave the world its Christmas Rose
Its King of Love and Light.

Let ev’ry voice acclaim His name
The grateful chorus swell
From paradise to earth He came
That we with Him might dwell.

O come let us adore Him
O come let us adore Him
O come let us adore Him
Christ the Lord.

A Reading from the Prophets
Isaiah 61:10-11 to 62:4
Common English Bible

I surely rejoice in the Lord;
my heart is joyful because of my God,
because he has clothed me with clothes of victory,
wrapped me in a robe of righteousness
like a bridegroom in a priestly crown,
and like a bride adorned in jewelry.
11 As the earth puts out its growth,
and as a garden grows its seeds,
so the Lord God will grow righteousness and praise before all the nations.

For Zion’s sake I won’t keep silent,
and for Jerusalem’s sake I won’t sit still
until her righteousness shines out like a light,
and her salvation blazes like a torch.
2 Nations will see your righteousness,
all kings your glory.
You will be called by a new name,
which the Lord’s own mouth will determine.
3 You will be a splendid garland in the Lord’s hand,
a royal turban in the palm of God’s hand.
4 You will no longer be called Abandoned,
and your land will no longer be called Deserted.
Instead, you will be called My Delight Is in Her,
and your land, Married.
Because the Lord delights in you,
your land will be cared for once again.

Reflection on the Reading from Isaiah
Rev. Jeffrey Vickery

Listen to Jeffrey’s reflection and/or read below.

Let me tell a brief story about two Christmas gifts I received as a child. One gift, the one I wanted really badly because it was in the JC Penney Catalog, was a pogo stick. The other gift, the one I didn’t ask for but received because my older brother wanted one and I had to get the same thing he got … longer story there …, this other gift was a bicycle. The pogo stick was the trendy gift that year. It was shiny and red and the child bouncing on it in the catalog looked so happy. I was too (happy, that is) when I took the pogo stick out that Christmas day and the next and jumped and jumped. Then, I was done with it. I tried jumping with it down the street to Rudy’s Convenience Store but it took way too long. It was easier to walk. I continued to like the pogo stick and even bragged about having it. But I just never really used it again.  

The bicycle was different. I didn’t ask for it. I didn’t choose the orange color but it was different than my brother’s yellow one so we could tell them apart. It was also too big for me at the time with my tip-toes barely reaching the ground. But it was a ten-speed Schwinn. That was good. And unlike the pogo stick, it was great for transportation. That bike took me far beyond Rudy’s Convenience Store. I rode that bicycle everywhere. For months. Actually, for years. I used it to go across town to my friend Allen’s house by the lake. I rode it to the elementary school yard on Sundays to play football after church. I won a “Bicycle Derby” contest with it at school the next year. I rode it to church, to baseball practice, and just sometimes for fun. The Christmas bicycle I had not expected is the one that I probably used the most of any Christmas gift I ever received.  

If you’re like me, you find that Christmas is fun, it’s beautiful (especially with this year’s snow), it is approached with anticipation. We long for Christmas to come so we can give gifts and open them. We can watch children’s wonder and joy. But then what? What’s left after the glittery and marketed Christmas consumerism?   

On this first Sunday of the Christmas season, now just two days since we celebrated the birth of Jesus who is proclaimed as “Emmanuel, God with us,” we have a gift from God that comes with a question – what do we do with Jesus now? The gift of Jesus doesn’t jingle. He’s not a toy to entertain us. If we’re honest, we don’t do a good job of teaching ourselves that the gift of Jesus is enough regardless of anything else we have. Yet Jesus remains more substantial than any box with a bow that we unwrapped on December 25. The coming of Jesus engages us far beyond the holiday. We will soon wind up the lights and box away the ornaments. The pretty Christmas day will be in the past. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll one day soon realize that Jesus doesn’t remain a baby, but grows up to call us into a Way of life and love that is much more needed than any gift we wanted. In short, we asked for and received salvation so that now we can practice discipleship far beyond Christmas. 

The end of the book of Isaiah tells us of a time much anticipated by Jesus’ Jewish ancestors. They had been captured and taken away to another country, to Babylon. For decades they worked, lived, married, birthed children, and made a home as best they could in a place that was not theirs. They struggled to find hope enough to imagine a return to their land. They tried to tell their children about Jerusalem and keep alive the dream of a home-going. For at least 70-something years they had various messages from God. It started with a reminder that the consequences of their sin of idol worship contributed to their being conquered. They had worshipped other gods and thus weakened their trust in and commitment to God. Worse than angry, God was disappointed in them. Isaiah 43 puts words to God’s perspective of their disobedience: “You did not call upon me…you have wearied me with your sins” (Isaiah 43:22, 24). The people later respond to God and in so doing they recognize the rift they have caused between themselves and God: “The LORD has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me” (Isaiah 49:14). These honest appraisals of their sin give way in the later chapters of Isaiah to hope. God’s voice through Isaiah changes and the message becomes one of renewal. Imagination is now embellished with hopeful visions. Among them are the words of Isaiah 61 and 62 in today’s reading. They can now announce their good news: “I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God; for God has clothed me with the garments of salvation, and covered me with the robe of righteousness.” 

It is not just a turn of events but a change in relationship. The people of God understand that they will not just return to the land, but they will be restored. Whereas before their sin stood between them and God, now they are presented before God as righteous. From sin to righteousness – it is a conversion of relationship, a renewal of identity, and a blessing hoped for but unable to attain on one’s own. God provides the “garments of salvation” and God covers them with the “robe of righteousness.” God has granted this gift. Now they must wear it. 

And so the children and grandchildren of those who were captured in warfare return to Israel, they anticipate the rebuilding of Jerusalem, they eagerly plan to replant their ancestors’ vineyards, they commit to both peace with God and one another. If there had been gaudy plastic battery-powered strings of LED lights in the 6th c. BC, they would have decorated their caravans with glitz and bling as they marched back from Persia to Judah. The gift they longed to receive was about to be unwrapped.  The people returning from exile also received a gift they had not put on their list. The long hoped for gift was a return. That’s now done. The gift they had not anticipated was a new name and with that name, a responsibility.  

Isaiah 62:4 tells us that Israel during exile had been called “Abandoned” and “Deserted.” These are figurative names, to be sure, but they represent the way “the nations” perceived the people of God. Disobedience of the people showed their abandoning God and God abandoning them—or so it must have seemed. And then being conquered by Nebuchadnezzar left the land that had symbolized promise now reminding the remnant of a vacant deserted home. These are names of insult and derision, but also symbolic of the consequences of their sin. But the gift of return brings new names, the first being “My Delight is In Her” and the second is “Married.” This was surprising. It is the gift they didn’t ask for but received anyway. God takes delight in the people, and they so belong to God that marriage symbolizes the constancy of this new relationship. 

According to Isaiah, God’s gift of return didn’t just leave them with the work of building homes and walls and a temple, it gave them the responsibility of changing the way the “nations” understood both God and God’s people. It turns out that God is invisible to others. The non-Jewish people around the Israelites learn about God by seeing God’s people. This happens both when the people of God act in accordance with God’s will and when they fail to be holy and just. In this regard, little has changed. People here and everywhere will only see and know God through those who take God’s name and live it among them. It’s a high calling.  

Names and titles instill meaning in many ways. For example, we call the celebration of Jesus’ birth “Christmas” rather than “Jesus-mas” because the title “Christ” identifies what God brings to the world through the birth of this child, not just what God gives to Mary and Joseph. At Christmas we don’t just celebrate the birth of Jesus but the bringing of salvation that breaks into the world anew in this Incarnate One. Just as the name “Christmas” amplifies the meaning of Jesus’ birth, when we take the name “Christian” we do more than offer approval of carols and tinsel in December. We take the responsibility to show the immortal invisible God to the people who stand before us. Christmas is a season but the identification as “Christian” defines a life-time responsibility to be part of God’s work in the world. Today as in biblical times, people will only see God through the reality of God’s people. Other folks will believe God loves and forgives and sees goodness on the Earth only when those of us who call ourselves “Christian” serve in the example of Jesus. We have received the gift of Jesus this child born in Bethlehem, but we also receive a new responsibility from God. God has granted salvation and we are called to daily discipleship. Forget the motto of “keeping Christ in Christmas,” it’s time for us to be Christian every day of the year with the understanding that as we show God’s mercy the nations will begin to believe that God is merciful. When we demonstrate love for all people our neighbors will believe that God is love. When we exemplify grace and peace our family will believe that God gives grace and desires peace. And here’s the key: God invites this identification between us and God. God wants us to be the representatives of the divine.   

On this Sunday after Christmas as we recycle the wrapping paper we note that salvation has come from God as a gift, but so has our lifetime of discipleship. We can take hope for God’s eternal gift but we must also exercise our daily calling. Whenever a Christian only glories in salvation but does not take out the gift of discipleship and live it among the world, the Gospel appears like an empty box, without substance or hope or cheer. So Christians, here are far, take heart and listen to what the inside of God’s Christmas card might say to us…paraphrased from Isaiah’s words: God says, “I delight in you, and I am proud that you carry my name. I will help clothe you in righteousness; I commission you to follow my Way; I will tell your neighbors that they can look to you to know who I am. I claim you anew as my people, and will tell everyone to see your works and know your heart. We belong together, and to all who willingly receive my gifts of salvation and discipleship.” 

Unwrap this gift of discipleship with both humility and resolve. Take it out and practice it with near and far with joy. Let it carry you around the corner, to your friend’s home, and into the world. And as we go, may we find ourselves renewed by God’s confidence in our lives each day. Amen. 

Prayer of Thanksgiving. Thank you, God for constant love. Please help our church family grow deeper and deeper in your love. Amen.

Song of Faith
Go tell it on the mountain
African American Spiritual, adapted by John W. Work
Tune: GO TELL IT

Refrain:
Go tell it on the mountain,
over the hill and everywhere;
go tell it on the mountain
that Jesus Christ is born!

1 While shepherds kept their watching
o’er silent flocks by night,
behold throughout the heavens
there shone a holy light. [Refrain]

2 The shepherds feared and trembled
when lo! above the earth
rang out the angel chorus
that hailed our Savior’s birth. [Refrain]

3 Down in a lowly manger
the humble Christ was born,
and God sent us salvation
that blessed Christmas morn. [Refrain]

Sending Out
May the blessing and peace of God uphold you, 
May the compassion and love of Christ enfold you, 
and may the vitality and power of the Holy Spirit embolden you, 
today and always.  
Amen.

Closing Prayer
Blessed be the tie
Author: John Fawcett

Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love.
The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above.

We share our mutual woes, our mutual burdens bear, 
and often for each other flows the sympathizing tear. 

When we are called to part, it gives us inward pain; 
but we shall still be joined in heart, and hope to meet again. 

This glorious hope revives our courage by the way; 
while each in expectation lives and waits to see the day. Amen.

Credits. The anthem was played by Tonya on the piano with Mindy, Michelle, Tonya, Ally, Kendall and Elizabeth singing. Tracy played the organ and Mindy sang the hymns. Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-724755. All rights reserved.  All writings have been used by permission from the posting sites or authors.

Invitation. Christmas Eve is special night for us; the night we celebrate the coming of our Savior Jesus Christ. Oh how we miss gathering together in the sanctuary, singing Christmas carols, hearing the Christmas story from Luke, sharing communion, and singing Silent Night by candle light! As we stay safely at home this year, may the peace of Christ be with you. We are blessed to know that God welcomes and appreciates our prayers and our praise even as we are apart from one another. So pause this Christmas Eve to pray, read the story, and sing. You may even want to have your own candles at the ready for Silent Night.

The Worship of God

Light two candles in recognition of Christ’s presence.  In our practice, one candle represents Jesus’ divinity and the other Jesus’ humanity.

Passing the Peace
Say to one another, “May the Peace of Christ be with you.”
Respond by saying, “And also with you.”

Opening Prayer
(from RevGord’s worshipofferings.blogspot)
(have one or more persons read while other follow along and/or listen)

Story-telling God, tonight we retell the old, old story.
Tonight we listen for angels and shepherds and a baby’s cry.
Tonight we look to the old story and ask
that you would be born in us again this year.

Tonight, this year, God, we listen for the story of PEACE
Peace in a world so given to conflict.
All year we have heard the stories of the ways things go badly.
This night, and in the year to come,
open our ears to the other stories,
the stories of the kind and good things people have done
and are doing for each other.
And in hearing those stories
may we be re-committed to our own acts of kindness,
the small ways we can make “Peace on earth, Goodwill to all” a reality.

Tonight, this year, God, we listen for the story of HOPE
Hope in a world that gives us so many reasons to despair.
Tell us, we pray, the stories that lie beyond the despair.
When the world falls apart at the seams,
remind us that you are there as we stand in the wreckage,
helping us to pick up the broken pieces.
Open our hearts to feel your presence,
open our souls to the possibility of new hope, new life.

Tonight, this year, God, we listen for the story of JOY
Joy in a world where so many struggle and grieve.
Life does not always go as we had planned,
some days it feels like life never goes as we had planned.
Help us find the possibility of joy both on the good days and the bad.
When the bad news makes us depressed,
show us the Good News hiding in the shadows,
and let that Good News fill our heart with joy again.

Tonight, this year, God, we listen for the story of LOVE,
Love in a world so full of fear and hatred.
You would have us act lovingly to friend and family and enemy.
In a world where love is so sorely needed,
help us all take the risk to love.
Show us the drama of love enacted in our community.
Help us bear the wounds and scars that may come
with being vulnerable, open and loving.
And when love seems too hard,
help us remember that we can love others
because we are loved with a love that will not let us go.
As we gaze at the baby in the manger,
may we see Your amazing love for the world
shining across the miles and centuries.
And may that love fill our own hearts to overflowing.

This year, this night, God, we listen for the story of CHRIST
The story of You coming to share our lives.
The story of You coming to change our world.
The story of love and hope, of peace and joy.
A story that happened a long time ago in a place far away,
a story that happens in this very place this very day.
Help us, God, to hear the story, help us, God, to welcome the baby,
Help us, God, to live into the new world that Christmas brings.
We pray in the name of the One who lies in the manger.
Joy to the World! The Lord is Come!
So Be It! Amen.

Song of Praise
Joy to the world! the Lord is come!
Author: Isaac Watts (1719)
Tune: ANTIOCH

1 Joy to the world! the Lord is come:
Let earth its praises bring;
let every heart prepare Christ room,
and heaven and nature sing,
and heaven and nature sing,
and heaven, and heaven and nature sing.

2 Joy to the earth! the Savior reigns!
Let all their songs employ;
while fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains
repeat the sounding joy,
repeat the sounding joy,
repeat, repeat the sounding joy.

3 Christ rules the world with truth and grace,
and makes the nations prove
the glories of God’s righteousness,
and wonders of God’s love,
and wonders God’s love,
and wonders, wonders of God’s love.

A Reading from the Gospels
Luke 2:1-20

In those days Caesar Augustus declared that everyone throughout the empire should be enrolled in the tax lists. This first enrollment occurred when Quirinius (kwi-RY-nəs) governed Syria. Everyone went to their own cities to be enrolled. Since Joseph belonged to David’s house and family line, he went up from the city of Nazareth in Galilee to David’s city, called Bethlehem, in Judea. He went to be enrolled together with Mary, who was promised to him in marriage and who was pregnant. While they were there, the time came for Mary to have her baby. She gave birth to her firstborn child, a son, wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guestroom.

Nearby shepherds were living in the fields, guarding their sheep at night. The Lord’s angel stood before them, the Lord’s glory shone around them, and they were terrified.

The angel said, “Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people. Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord. This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great assembly of the heavenly forces was with the angel praising God. They said, “Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.”

When the angels returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go right now to Bethlehem and see what’s happened. Let’s confirm what the Lord has revealed to us.” They went quickly and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. When they saw this, they reported what they had been told about this child. Everyone who heard it was amazed at what the shepherds told them. Mary committed these things to memory and considered them carefully. The shepherds returned home, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. Everything happened just as they had been told.

Prayer for Others
Jesus, whose mother was Mary,
we pray for families of all shapes and sizes
all over the world.
Lord Jesus,
hear our prayer.

Jesus, cradled in a manger,
we pray for those who have no home,
and for those who have left behind all they know.
Lord Jesus,
hear our prayer.

Jesus, sharing the stable with the animals,
we pray that we might treat the animals and plants
which share our world with kindness and respect.
Lord Jesus,
hear our prayer.

Jesus, worshipped by shepherds and kings,
we pray for all kinds of people
all over the world.
Lord Jesus,
hear our prayer.

Jesus, our Emmanuel,
we pray that all would know
that you, God, are with them this Christmastime.
Lord Jesus,
hear our prayer.

Sending Out
(from RevGord’s worshipofferings.blogspot)

Peace on the Earth, Goodwill to all.
The angel song rings in our ears.
The baby has been born, the story is just beginning.
The promise of peace shines from the manger,
calling us to live as peacemakers.
As we go out to celebrate the Christmas Season,
we share the light of the Christmas star,
the light that brings hope, peace, joy, and love.
And we do so knowing that the Light shines in the darkness
but the darkness can never overcome it.
Glory to God in the Highest! And on Earth, Peace.

Closing Hymn
Silent night, holy night!
Author: Joseph Mohr
Tune: STILLE NACHT

1 Silent night, holy night,
all is calm, all is bright
Round yon virgin mother and child,
Holy infant, so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace,
sleep in heavenly peace.

2 Silent night, holy night,
shepherds quake at the sight,
Glories stream from heaven afar,
heavenly hosts sing Alleluia;
Christ the Savior is born,
Christ the Savior is born!

3 Silent night, holy night,
Child of God, love’s pure light,
Radiant beams from your holy face
bring the dawn of redeeming grace;
Jesus, Christ, at your birth,
Jesus, Christ, a your birth!

Preparation for Worship at Home. When worshipping at home, set aside a time and a place each week for worship. During the Advent season (today through Christmas Eve), set out four candles. One candle will be lit for each Sunday that passes as we approach Christmas Day.

May the following serve as a guide in your worship of God.

The Worship of God

Passing the Peace 
Say to one another, “May the peace of Christ be with you.”
And reply, “And, also with you.”

Advent Candle Litany
Zephaniah 3:17; Psalm 86:15 and 136:26; Isaiah 54:10

light four candles

We light four candles today:
one candle to remind us
that God is our everlasting and constant abiding hope,
a second candle to remind us
that God brings peace to our weary and troubled hearts,
a third candle to remind us
that God provides us abundant joy
and a fourth candle to remind us
that God loves us, yes, God loves us.

To the One who has made
this everlasting promise to us:
that even though the mountains may shift
and the hills may shake,
my love for you will not shift and my peace towards you will not be shaken;
to the One who is compassionate and gracious,
to the One who takes great delight in us,
we give our thanks and praise this day.
May the Lord increase our love!

Opening Prayer
O Wondrous God,
send your Messenger to us today with a word of grace.
If we are fearful, move us to Confidence.
If we are weary, offer us Rest.
If we are empty, fill us with Hope.
We have been searching for you far away;
Let us find you at home in our midst,
Changing hearts and minds,
Urging us to join your work of Love.
We pray in the name of the One who is coming,
Jesus, the Christ. Amen.

Hymn of Praise
People, Look East
Author: Eleanor Farjeon
Tune: BESANCON (French Trad.)

  1. People, look east. The time is near
    Of the crowning of the year.
    Make your house fair as you are able,
    Trim the hearth and set the table.
    People, look east and sing today:
    Love, the guest, is on the way.
  1. Furrows, be glad. Though earth is bare,
    One more seed is planted there:
    Give up your strength the seed to nourish,
    That in course the flower may flourish.
    People, look east and sing today:
    Love, the rose, is on the way.
  2. Birds, though you long have ceased to build,
    Guard the nest that must be filled.
    Even the hour when wings are frozen
    God for fledging time has chosen.
    People, look east and sing today:
    Love, the bird, is on the way.
  3. Stars, keep the watch. When night is dim
    One more light the bowl shall brim,
    Shining beyond the frosty weather,
    Bright as sun and moon together.
    People, look east and sing today:
    Love, the star, is on the way.
  4. Angels, announce with shouts of mirth
    Christ who brings new life to earth.
    Set every peak and valley humming
    With the word, the Lord is coming.
    People, look east and sing today:
    Love, the Lord, is on the way.

Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26
Common English Bible

I will sing of the Lord’s loyal love forever.
I will proclaim your faithfulness
with my own mouth
from one generation to the next.
That’s why I say,
“Your loyal love is rightly built—forever!
You establish your faithfulness in heaven.”
You said, “I made a covenant with my chosen one;
I promised my servant David:
‘I will establish your offspring forever;
I will build up your throne from one generation to the next.’”

Once you spoke in a vision
to your faithful servants:
I placed a crown on a strong man.
I raised up someone specially chosen from the people.
I discovered my servant David.
I anointed him with my holy oil.
My hand will sustain him—
yes, my arm will strengthen him!
No enemy will oppress him;
no wicked person will make him suffer.
I will crush all his foes in front of him.
I will strike down all those who hate him.
My faithfulness and my loyal love will be with him.
He will be strengthened by my name.
I will set his hand on the sea.
I will set his strong hand on the rivers.
He will cry out to me:
“You are my father,
my God, the rock of my salvation.”

Prayer for Others
Pause after each paragraph to give voice to prayers as prompted.  Let us pray,

Merciful God, who shelters us and guides us,  
we give you thanks for…. 

God who comforts,  
receive those who are fearful and lonely…. 

God whose love is steadfast,  
be refuge for the ill, the dying, and those who care about them.… 

God of righteousness,  
we ask for your wisdom and ways of justice to prevail  
in our community, this nation, your world…. 

God who seeks our trust, grow us and guide us in your ways
that are life-giving in your world.  Amen.

Choral Anthem
Love is All Our Joy!
Composer: Malcom Archer

Anointed as God’s chosen ones,
beloved, pure, and holy,
With patience, kindness, clothe yourselves,
a mantle, meek and lowly.

Refrain:
Love, love, is all our joy,
binding us in harmony,
With love we can ne’er destroy
the peace of Christ within us.

Compassion, mercy, charity,
these gifts to us are given;
Forgive all others, bear with them,
as you have been forgiven.
Refrain

Our words, our deeds, our gifts of love,
to Jesus Christ we raise them,
Give thanks to God who reigns above,
sing psalms and hymns to praise Him.
Refrain

Luke 1:26-38
Common English Bible

When Elizabeth was six months pregnant, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a city in Galilee, to a virgin who was engaged to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David’s house. The virgin’s name was Mary. When the angel came to her, he said, “Rejoice, favored one! The Lord is with you!” She was confused by these words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. The angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Mary. God is honoring you. Look! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father. He will rule over Jacob’s house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom.” Then Mary said to the angel, “How will this happen since I haven’t had sexual relations with a man?” The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come over you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the one who is to be born will be holy. He will be called God’s Son. Look, even in her old age, your relative Elizabeth has conceived a son. This woman who was labeled ‘unable to conceive’ is now six months pregnant. Nothing is impossible for God.” Then Mary said, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said.” Then the angel left her.

Reflection on the Gospel
Rev. Tonya Vickery

The college Bible study group is reading through the book of Acts. Last Wednesday night we were reading Acts 15. where a major church conference is happening down in Jerusalem. Some believers are having a difficult time accepting into the church people who profess faith in Jesus but are not following some of the essential Jewish customs. For us, this seems strange. We easily recognize that one doesn’t have to be a Jew to be a Christian. Nor does one have to practice certain aspects of Judaism to be a Christian. But remember these early Christians down in Jerusalem were Jews as well. It wasn’t an either/or thing for them. They were both Jews and Christians. The Jewish disciplines they practiced were not a hindrance to their faith in Jesus. But these disciplines were becoming a hindrance to their ability to welcome all into life with God through Jesus Christ. So the church had a meeting to decide what to do.

After debating the matter, they decided not to cause further trouble for those ho were turning to God who were not Jewish. They would only require four things: to avoid eating food associated with idols, avoid sexual immorality, refuse to eat meat from strangled animals, and refrain from consuming blood. They wrote all this down in a letter which they had Paul and Barnabas hand deliver to the non-Jewish believers in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia. In the letter these four refusals are described as “essentials.”

When we move the story into our present day context, we can push ourselves to see what unnecessary burdens we might be placing on others who turn to God. Are there disciplines that are meaningful to us, that bring us closer to God, but we have made them requirements for others to be included in the church? Now the early church came up with four essential no-no behaviors. We could be lame and leave it with those four. I don’t have a problem with any of them. I’m not tempted to drink blood, nor eat meat that comes from a strangled animal. Nor am I interested in sexual immorality or eating foods that have been offered to idols. But, truly, what are the essentials we should be placing on ourselves today? If we were to write a letter to people who are new to living the way of Jesus, what would we say is essential to being a Christian and a part of the church? I think at the top of the list is the word, “love.”

1 John 3:11 says “This is the message that you heard from the beginning: love each other.” The discipline of love is an essential “burden” we must carry if we want to be a Christian and a part of the church. If we are to trouble ourselves with any Christian discipline, if we are going to require anything of one another, if we are going to put down some essential to our faith, “love” should be at the top of the list. 1 John 3 goes on to say that “We are to love one another not with words or speech, but with actions and truth.” I like the way T.S. Eliot describes the family love in his play, The Elder Statesman . It echoes this idea of not loving one another with words or speech but with actions and truth. Eliot wrote

There’s no vocabulary
for love within a family, love that’s lived in
but not looked at, love within the light of which
all else is seen, the love within
which all other love finds speech.
This love is silent.

That’s the kind of love we are to have for each other. It is a love that does something, not merely says something. Love is essential in the life of a Christian. The way we live as followers of Jesus should reflect God’s love. If we follow Jesus, we will love each other. If we follow Jesus, we will reflect that love of God which 1 John 3:1 describes this way. “See what kind of love the Father has given to us that we should be called God’s children, and that is what we are!” We are God’s children and we are loved.

Everybody needs to be told that God loves them. We all need to be told that God loves us. It is true, God loves us. God’s love is not earned. God’s love cannot be measured. God’s love is not withheld from some and provided more for others. God’s love is constant, abounding, and certain. God does not love us in word and speech, but God loves us in action and truth. God’s love is “lived in” as Eliot wrote. As we live in God’s love, we see everything better and brighter and easier because we look at the world through the love of God.

We see the love of God in action in the opening chapter of the gospel of Luke. Here in our gospel story for the day, the angel Gabriel is sent to Galilee to a young girl named Mary. She is engaged to be married to a man named Joseph. In those days, engagements lasted for a whole year. Gabriel’s presence and greeting confused and disturbed Mary, but Gabriel calms her fears and gives her some good news. She is going to have a baby whom she will name Jesus. This baby will be called the Son of the Most High. This baby will be given the throne of David. But unlike David, this baby’s reign will never ever come to an end. Without any opposition to any of this news, Mary gets straight to the point and asks Gabriel, “How will this happen?” Gabriel reassures her that this is the work of the Holy Spirit of God. And to further reassure Mary, Gabriel shares the good news that Mary’s cousin Elizabeth who had been labeled as unable to get pregnant is now six months pregnant. Yes, nothing is impossible for God. And Mary in great humility, trust, and devotion says, “Let it be as you have said.”

God loves us. And our response to that love is critical. Mary responded to God’s love by accepting it, welcoming it into her life, and committing her life to it. She says to Gabriel, “I am the Lord’s servant.” Mary responds to God’s love without knowing all the details, without knowing all that would be required, without knowing where this love would lead her. This was a risk she was taking. Did you realize that an engaged woman who was found to be pregnant could be punished for her mistake by being stoned to death? But Mary says, “Here I am.” She did not run from God’s love for the world. Instead she responds with humility and deep trust in God and says “yes” to God’s love which is not just for her but for the whole world.

Sometimes the way we live and the decisions we make do not reflect the love God has for the world. You see, the way we respond to God’s love is critical. Sometimes we assume God loves the world and God loves us, but we are just indifferent to it. We take God’s love for us and for the world for granted, and we go about our merry little way (and “our way” is quite little in comparison to the way of Jesus). At other times, we get so caught up in the fact that “God loves us” that we forget that God loves the whole world. Instead of being super spreaders of God’s love, we excel in making God’s love individualistic, just like a “designed for me” gift. And we have all witnessed the trend to simplify the love of God proclaimed in John 3:16. God’s love is turned into this individual evacuation plan for the end of all time. “Are you saved,” one asks. “Yes, I am saved.” God’s love morphs into something Jesus can do for us personally and privately. That’s not the good news. That’s not what Mary humbled herself for. That’s not why God took on human form, became flesh, vulnerable in all ways possible, as one of us, and lived among us.

God’s love is for all, everyone, all things, the world. God’s love leads the world along the paths of reconciliation, mercy, peace, and forgiveness. God’s love urges the world towards wholeness. God’s love points the world in the direction of mending what is broken, not tossing out the broken and replacing it, but God’s love points towards mending. God’s love does not destroy, but God’s love creates. God’s love is about life giving renewal and restoration. God’s love sees and acknowledges the brokenness, the wreckage, and the despair. But God’s love doesn’t turn away; it is tender and thoughtful and works towards repair.

Somewhere this past week I have read about the art of repairing broken pottery with gold. Imagine a bowl broken into four or five pieces. It is no longer useful. It’s purpose is gone. However, instead of tossing out the broken pieces, the bowl is repaired. A lacquer mixed with gold powder and that is used to seam the bowl back together. What once was broken is repaired. Maybe not to be used in the same way, but now with added beauty and perhaps a new purpose. This is such a great visual to how God’s love works in the world. God takes the broken, God takes the wreckage, God takes the despair and mends it. God puts it back together and it is beautiful.

God loves us. God loves the world. How will we respond to God’s love? It will help if we stop idolizing the illusion that we have control over life’s events. It will help if we can recognize our brokenness, our weaknesses, and our poverty. And it will help if we respond to God’s love with humility and deep trust just as Mary did. For God so loves the world….

Prayer of Thanksgiving 
Thank you, God for constant love. Please help our church family grow deeper and deeper in your love. Amen.

Song of Faith
O Come, O Come Emmanuel
Tune: VENI EMMANUEL
Author: based on antiphons from Advent Vespers

O come, O come, Immanuel,
and ransom captive Israel
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Child of God appear.

Refrain:
Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel
shall come to you, O Israel.

O come, O Wisdom from on high,
and order all things far and nigh;
to us the path of knowledge show
and help us in that way to go.
Refrain

O come, O Key of David, come
and open wide your heavenly home;
make safe the path to endless day,
to hell’s destruction close the way.
Refrain

O come, O Day spring, come and cheer
our spirits by your advent here;
love stir within the womb of night
and death’s own shadows put to flight.
Refrain

O come, Desire of nations, bind
all peoples in one heart and mind;
make envy, strife, and quarrels cease
fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.
Refrain

Sending Out
May the blessing and peace of God uphold you, 
May the compassion and love of Christ enfold you, 
and may the vitality and power of the Holy Spirit embolden you, 
today and always.  
Amen.

Closing Song 
Blest Be the Tie 
Tune: DENNIS (Nageli) 
Author: John Fawcett 

Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love. 
The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above.

When we are called to part, it gives us inward pain; 
but we shall still be joined in heart, and hope to meet again. 

This glorious hope revives our courage by the way; 
while each in expectation lives and waits to see the day.  

Acknowledgements: Artwork by Elizabeth. The Opening Prayer is provided by the United Church of Christ (www.ucc.org). The anthem was played by Tonya on the piano, Tessa on the flute with Mindy, Laura, Michelle, Tonya, Ally, and Elizabeth singing. Tracy played the organ and Mindy sang the hymns and played the recorder. Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-724755. All rights reserved.  All writings have been used by permission from the posting sites or authors.

Preparation for Worship at Home. When worshipping at home, set aside a time and a place each week for worship. During the Advent season (today through Christmas Eve), set out four candles. One candle will be lit for each Sunday that passes as we approach Christmas Day.

May the following serve as a guide in your worship of God.

The Worship of God

Passing the Peace 
Say to one another, “May the peace of Christ be with you.”
And reply, “And, also with you.”

Advent Candle Litany

light three candles

We light three candles today:
one candle to remind us
that God is our everlasting and constant abiding hope,
a second candle to remind us
that this God’s hope brings peace to our weary and troubled hearts,
and a third candle to remind us
of the always present possibility of joy that comes from God.

For the One who makes the gateways of the evening and the morning sing for joy,
who clothes the desert pastures and hills with pure joy,
who causes the countryside and the trees,
the valleys and the meadowlands to shout for joy,
this One sustains us, forgives us, and stays with us.
Therefore, let your hearts rejoice.
God will clothe us with joy,
God will water our souls with rivers of pure joy,
and God will help us sing and shout for joy again.
May the Lord increase our joy!

Opening Prayer
Holy One,
Builder who delights
in making spaces of safety and beauty,
fill us today with the gifts we need
to join you in your life-sustaining, hope-giving work in the world;
let us share your joyful vision
of beauty and justice
in this world you have created and loved.
In the name of the One who is coming,
Amen

Hymn of Praise
The King Shall Come When Morning Dawns
Author: unknown; trans. John Brownlie
Tune: MORNING SONG (John Wyeth)

The King shall come when morning dawns
And light triumphant breaks.
When beauty gilds the eastern hills
And life to joy awakes.

Not, as of old, a little child,
To suffer and to die,
But crowned with glory like the sun
That lights the morning sky.

The King shall come when morning dawns
And earth’s dark night is past;
O haste the rising of that morn
Whose day shall ever last.

And let the endless joy begin,
By weary saints foretold.
When right shall triumph over wrong,
And truth shall be extolled.

The King shall come when morning dawns
And light and beauty brings.
Hail, Christ, the Lord! Your people pray:
Come quickly, King of kings.

Psalm 126
Common English Bible

When the Lord changed Zion’s circumstances for the better,
it was like we had been dreaming.
Our mouths were suddenly filled with laughter;
our tongues were filled with joyful shouts.
It was even said, at that time, among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them!”
Yes, the Lord has done great things for us,
and we are overjoyed.

Lord, change our circumstances for the better,
like dry streams in the desert waste!
Let those who plant with tears
reap the harvest with joyful shouts.
Let those who go out,
crying and carrying their seed,
come home with joyful shouts,
carrying bales of grain!

Prayer for Others
Pause after each paragraph to give voice to prayers as prompted.  Let us pray,

Merciful God, who shelters us and guides us,  
we give you thanks for…. 

God who comforts,  
receive those who are fearful and lonely…. 

God whose love is steadfast,  
be refuge for the ill, the dying, and those who care about them.… 

God of righteousness,  
we ask for your wisdom and ways of justice to prevail  
in our community, this nation, your world…. 

God who seeks our trust, grow us and guide us in your ways
that are life-giving in your world.  Amen.

Choral Anthem
Joy!
Author: Isaac Watts
Composer: Glenn Wonacott

Joy to the world! the Lord is come:
let earth receive her King;
let every heart prepare him room,
and heaven and nature sing,
and heaven and nature sing,
and heaven and nature sing.

Joy to the earth! the Savior reigns:
let us, our songs employ;
while fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains
repeat the sounding joy,
repeat the sounding joy,
repeat the sounding joy.

No more let sin and sorrow grow,
nor thorns infest the ground;
he comes to make his blessings flow
far as the curse is found,
far as the curse is found,
far as the curse is found.

He rules the world with truth and grace,
and makes the nations prove
the glories of his righteousness,
and wonders of his love,
and wonders of his love,
and wonders of his love.

Luke 1:46b-55
Common English Bible

Mary said, “With all my heart I glorify the Lord!
In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior.
He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant.
Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored
because the mighty one has done great things for me.
Holy is his name.
He shows mercy to everyone,
from one generation to the next,
who honors him as God.
He has shown strength with his arm.
He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations.
He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones
and lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty-handed.
He has come to the aid of his servant Israel,
remembering his mercy,
just as he promised to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.”

Reflection on the Gospel
Dr. Rev. Jeffrey Vickery

Fifteen years ago we were visiting Disney World in Florida with our family. It was early Spring in 2006 and we spent part of a day at the Disney Hollywood Studios. The movie version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe had just been released a few months previous. I remember walking through a plain set of doors into what looked like a warehouse and instantly the sunny spring day outside was transformed into the snowy white paradise of Narnia. Disney had re-created the set of the movie to look as it did when Lucy walked out of the wardrobe for the first time and into the winter snow of Narnia. I know it’s a bit cheesy, but it really did seem like Disney magic. The idea that on one side of this small door was spring and the other was a make-believe winter that looked and felt so real was startling.  

In some ways, Advent and Christmas are times to venture more deeply into God’s alternative reality. We live too much of our year thinking that what we see is as good as it gets. We forget that on the other side of the door is a version of God’s Way of life and love. If we spend too much time unaware of the world as God sees it, we can become unaware of the promises of light and salvation. We think we have to accept reality as it is, or at least as we think that it must be.  

Even more troublesome, it is easy to wonder if what is happening in the world that we see is what God really wants. Maybe if my car’s transmission failed then maybe God intended it. Maybe if my cousin contracted COVID then maybe God intended it. Maybe if I lost my job then maybe God intended it. When we only measure God’s purpose and presence by the reality we see around us then we will be tricked into accepting the status quo as God’ Holy Way. Advent and Christmas both pull back the curtain. God does not intend human suffering. God is not the author of sin. God does not secretly command evil or empower the ungodly. It is easy to confuse God’s intent and God’s knowledge. In all its messy and sinful state, this reality is what we may have to endure but it’s not the reality that God intends. 

Right here is where Mary’s words in Luke 1 come into the mix. Mary reminds us of what she can see of God’s Way even before Jesus is born. It’s a vision of faith in God and hope in God’s very real world. This young Jewish woman has something to teach us even after all these years.    

The storyline goes something like this: The angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah, a Jewish priest, and tells him that he and Elizabeth will have a son that they are to name John. Zechariah is rendered speechless, Elizabeth ends up pregnant, and together they await their son. A few months later, the same angel, Gabriel, visits Mary and asks her if she is willing to be the mother of the Messiah. She agrees, and her obedience changes the world. In the first trimester, Mary decides to travel and visit Elizabeth in the hill city of Hebron, presumably a 60-mile journey. Mary was clearly not timid. When she arrives and greets Elizabeth, two things happen: the not-yet-born John jostles with joy and Elizabeth is filled with the Spirit of God. Under holy inspiration, Elizabeth explains the importance of Mary’s child and the blessing that falls upon Mary as a result of her courage and trust in God. While this is the Advent week of joy for many reasons, we cannot overlook Mary’s courage and trust in God because acting on these are what amplifies her joy.  

Everything Mary says in vv. 48-55 helps us see God’s alternative reality. Mary is not simply being an optimist, she gives voice to a reality that is both the foundation and the future of her life. Yet her words stand in counterpoint to what the current circumstances of her life must have been like. Consider the following.  

Mary is young, poor, unknown, and of no social status. While famous beyond measure today, she was of “no account” as they might say in my native SC. No one other than Elizabeth would look upon her and think that her small “yes” to God was going to matter to anyone other than her. Yet she can see enough of God’s reality to say (vv. 48-50) “God has looked with favor on the low status of his servant. Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored because the mighty one has done great things for me. Holy is his name.” 

Mary is uneducated, certainly illiterate, isolated in her Palestinian Jewish homeland, and unable to know or understand the world at large. She would not have owned maps and books. Did not sit at the feet of teachers. Didn’t wait in the marketplace to hear the stories of travelers or the escapades of soldiers and they came through the town.  Yet she can see enough of God’s reality to say, (v. 50) “God shows mercy to everyone, from one generation to the next, who honors him as God.” 

Mary lives on land that is hers in name and history but is occupied by a Roman pagan government. She walks through streets and down highways that are frequented by Roman soldiers. She has no rights from the government including almost no ability to choose her own way of life. It is bad enough that she can’t do anything about the political power imposed on her personal life, she also has to tolerate Jewish patriarchy from her own religious leaders. Yet she can see enough of God’s reality to say (v. 51-52), “God has shown strength with his arm. God has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations. God has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.” 

Mary was poor and common, frequently surviving on only one meal a day, two on good days, but far from enjoying abundance. She knew hunger herself, and likely saw others who were even hungrier. Yet a few were rich and received their unfair portions as the expense of others. Even more found wealth through corruption and theft and fraud and using others for their own gain. Sound familiar? Yet she can see enough of God’s reality to say (v. 53), “God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed.” 

Mary has not been educated enough to read her own scripture. That itself is a travesty. She would not have been allowed a Bat Mitzvah when she was of age because only boys had Bar Mitzvahs at that time. She had to learn to know and love the Torah stories by listening and remembering scraps and pieces from Sabbath blessings and Jewish festivals and traveling rabbis. Yet she can see enough of God’s reality to say (v. 54-55), “God has come to the aid of his servant Israel, remembering his mercy, just as he promised to our ancestors, to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.” 

Mary is not in denial about the difficulties of her everyday circumstances. She knows that, on a day-to-day basis her son soon to be born will not change these parts of her life. At the same time, she is keenly aware of God’s view of reality. She can see that the divine perspective is an alternate reality. It is very real but no longer overlooked by her. Its promises help her endure to the point of knowing a joy that last beyond a moment’s sorrow or happiness.  

That’s all good for Mary. She was after all the Mother of God, Jesus’ first disciple, and a first-hand witness to God’s salvation. She communicated much of the book of Luke and kept alive the sayings and doings of Jesus. So again, that’s all good for Mary, but what about us? 

Oh, how much I want to see the world through Mary’s eyes. This Advent we are called to catch a vision of God’s reality. Especially when the circumstances of the everyday are dimmed by despair, when the future is muddied by uncertainty, when our anxieties and fears are exaggerated by the actuality of another crisis, we need to see this world within God’s holy alternative reality. For in God’s world all our troubles do not disappear, but they are re-focused. God thinks highly of us. God shows mercy to us. God knows the sin of the arrogant and powerful and in God’s reality they have no sway over us. God will satisfy all our needs and the greedy will be left in want. 

May we know God’s joy this Advent season for as we prepare for the coming of God, we are peering over the edges of the day and looking to time in which God’s Way becomes our life and our hope and our joy.

Questions for Reflection

  1. What do you think that God wants in our world that we don’t see or hear enough?
  2. How does “Joy” become part of lives at times other than Christmas?

Prayer of Thanksgiving 
Thank you, God for constant love. Please help our church family grow deeper and deeper in your love. Amen.

Song of Faith
Mary Gladly Told Her Cousin
Author: Carolyn Winfrey Gillette
Tune: IRBY (“Once in Royal David’s City”) / Gauntlett

Mary gladly told her cousin, “Praise the Lord! My spirit sings!”
Young and humble, she’d been chosen! God was surely changing things!
God of love, her words ring true As we sing her prayer to you:

“Now my soul is gladly singing At the greatness of the Lord.
I rejoice, for God is bringing His salvation to the world.
All who live will say I’m blest Even in my lowliness.

“God is mighty, just and holy, And he’s done great things for me.
Those who fear him know the mercy That God gives us endlessly.
Mighty ones are brought down low; Lowly ones find blessings flow.

“God has filled the poor and hungry, And he’s sent the rich away.
God is active here in history, In a real and wondrous way.
God has promised, and I’m blessed, For I know God’s faithfulness.”

Sending Out
May the blessing and peace of God uphold you, 
May the compassion and love of Christ enfold you, 
and may the vitality and power of the Holy Spirit embolden you, 
today and always.  
Amen.

Closing Song 
Blest Be the Tie 
Tune: DENNIS (Nageli) 
Author: John Fawcett 

Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love. 
The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above.

When we are called to part, it gives us inward pain; 
but we shall still be joined in heart, and hope to meet again. 

This glorious hope revives our courage by the way; 
while each in expectation lives and waits to see the day.  

Acknowledgements: Artwork by Elizabeth. The Opening Prayer is provided by the United Church of Christ (www.ucc.org). The anthem was played by Tonya on the piano with Mindy, Laura, Tonya, Ally, and Elizabeth singing. Tracy played the organ and Mindy sang the hymns. Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-724755. All rights reserved.  All writings have been used by permission from the posting sites or authors.

Preparation for Worship at Home. When worshipping at home, set aside a time and a place each week for worship. During the Advent season (today through Christmas Eve), set out four candles. One candle will be lit for each Sunday that passes as we approach Christmas Day.

May the following serve as a guide in your worship of God.

The Worship of God

Passing the Peace 
Say to one another, “May the peace of Christ be with you.”
And reply, “And, also with you.”

Advent Candle Litany
O Holy One, we light this second candle,
a candle offering comfort to weary spirits
after a year of pain and loss.
Let its glow remind us of your tender care
and warm our lives in the Light of Peace.
Let it guide us to your presence in our midst,
leading us to your Justice and Joy in the service of Love.
God be with us in this Light of Peace.

Two candle are lit today.

Opening Prayer
O Holy One,
you are tender shepherd,
architect of the Way,
beguiling hope of all who go looking for you
deep in their lives.
Surprise us here with
Sweetness, challenge, vision—
Whatever we may need
In this moment to recognize you
and follow you into the future.
We pray in the name of Jesus, the Beloved.
Amen.

Hymn of Praise
Comfort, Comfort O My People
Author: Johannes G. Olearius; tr. Catherine Winkworth
Tune: GENEVA 42 (Louis Bourgeois)

Comfort, comfort O my people, tell of peace, thus says our God;
Comfort those whose hearts are shrouded, mourning under sorrow’s load.
Speak unto Jerusalem of the peace that waits for them!
Tell them that their sins I cover, and their warfare now is over!

For the herald’s voice is calling in the desert far and near,
Bidding us to make repentance since the realm of God is here.
Oh, that warning cry obey! Now prepare for God a way;
let the valleys rise in meeting, and the hills bow down in greeting.

Straight shall be what long was crooked & the rougher places plain!
Let your hearts be true and humble, for Messiah’s holy reign.
For God’s glory evermore shall be known o’er all the world;
and all flesh shall see the token that God’s word is never broken.

Isaiah 40:1-11
Common English Bible along with The Jewish Bible

Comfort, oh comfort My people! says your God.
Speak compassionately to Jerusalem,
and proclaim to her that her compulsory service has ended,
that her penalty has been paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins!

A voice is crying out:
“Clear the Lord’s way in the desert!
Make a level highway in the wilderness for our God!
Let every valley be raised up, and every mountain and hill be flattened.
Let uneven ground become level, and rough terrain a valley plain.
The Lord’s glory will appear, and all humanity will see it together;
the Lord’s mouth has commanded it.”

A voice rings out: “Call out!”
And another asks, “What should I call out?”
“All flesh is grass; all its goodness is like the flowers of the field.
The grass dries up and the flower withers
when the Lord’s breath blows on them.
Surely the people are grass.
The grass dries up and the flower withers,
but our God’s word is always fulfilled.

Go up on a high mountain, messenger Zion!
Raise your voice and shout, messenger Jerusalem!
Raise it; don’t be afraid; say to the cities of Judah,
“Here is your God!”
Here is the Lord God,
coming with strength, with a triumphant arm,
bringing his reward with him and his payment before him.
Like a shepherd, God will tend the flock;
he will gather lambs in his arms and lift them onto his lap.
He will gently guide the mother sheep.

Prayer for Others
Pause after each paragraph to give voice to prayers as prompted.  Let us pray,

Merciful God, who shelters us and guides us,  
we give you thanks for…. 

God who comforts,  
receive those who are fearful and lonely…. 

God whose love is steadfast,  
be refuge for the ill, the dying, and those who care about them.… 

God of righteousness,  
we ask for your wisdom and ways of justice to prevail  
in our community, this nation, your world…. 

God who seeks our trust, grow us and guide us in your ways
that are life-giving in your world.  Amen.

Choral Anthem
Comfort My People
Composer: Ian Callanan

Comfort, my people, and calm all your fear;
the day of salvation is quickly drawing near.
The One you long to see will soon set you free.
O come, Lord Jesus, come. O come, Lord Jesus, come.

Silence the thunder, silence sounds of war.
End all destruction and comfort those who mourn.
Your dream draws near; your vision is here.
O come, Lord Jesus, come. O come, Lord Jesus, come

Be light in the darkness; be truth for our lives.
Be strength for the helpless, the poor and lost who cry.
O saving voice, O living choice,
O come, Lord Jesus, come. O come, Lord Jesus, come

Reflection on Psalm 85
“Peace” / Rev. Tonya Vickery

I don’t know if you can remember what Advent and Christmas was like last year. This year’s pandemic, hurricanes, social unrest, and downright ugly political conversations have made the year seem like three or four years at least. However, it was just a little over 365 days ago that we celebrated Advent and Christmas all warm and cheery in our comfortable sanctuary closely surrounded by family and we were not afraid. But for some, Advent and Christmas was hard. I know it was for me. Alzheimer’s was changing my mom’s demeanor and erasing her abilities slowly but surely. I ached for her, my dad, and myself. If I could have given her anything last Christmas, I would have given her the ability to know peace.

Well here I am again this Advent/Christmas season, and if there was one gift I could give to all of you all, it would be the ability to know peace. We have all had a heck of a year and it isn’t over yet. We’ve been afraid. We’ve been sad. We’ve been angry. We’ve been flippant and short. We’ve been tired. We’ve been alone. We have been anxious. And after so many days and months of these restless feelings and emotions, we need peace. And I am grateful that the second Sunday of Advent aims to deliver.

Psalm 85:8-13
Let me hear what the Lord God says,
because he speaks peace to his people and to his faithful ones.
Don’t let them return to foolish ways.
God’s salvation is very close to those who honor him
so that his glory can live in our land.
Faithful love and truth have met;
righteousness and peace have kissed.
Truth springs up from the ground;
righteousness gazes down from heaven.
Yes, the Lord gives what is good,
and our land yields its produce.
Righteousness walks before God,
making a road for his steps.

Our Psalm reading begins today in the middle of the chapter with these words: “Let me hear what the Lord God has to say….” In other words, in response to all that has happened, what does God have to say about it? In this psalm, the writer’s life has been messed up. Life among God’s people had moved so far away from what God would have life to be. And God was angry.

This reminds me two winters ago when we were study the prophet Jeremiah on Wednesday nights. God used the common image of thirst and water to describe how God provides for us but how often we respond. God is like a fountain of living water, always running with water, always available. However, we people who are thirsty are also stubborn, arrogant, and stupid. We can see that fountain, but the way we respond to that water is by deciding to carve out our own cisterns out of stone so that we can catch the rain to drink. As we carve, and we work hard, day in and day out. It takes a long time to carve out rock. we crack our cistern, but we ignore the flaw, and when we finish we still set our leaky rock bowls out to catch the rain so we can have something to drink for ourselves. In Jeremiah, God says, when we finally realize our homemade cisterns are cracked, we don’t turn to the fountain of living water, we start looking for water in other places. We look for an alternative source, while the fountain of living water keeps on running, waiting, always ready for us to come and drink. God in Jeremiah says, please stop being so stubborn, arrogantly self-sufficient, and stupid. Please change the direction of your gaze and look this way, and come and drink.

Well, in Psalm 85, God’s steadfast patience is running out. And God is more than just a little mad with the people for doing the wrong things and acting the wrong way — ignoring the fountain of life in their midst. God is furious with them. You know, it’s bad enough when you disappoint yourself and others, but when you disappoint God, what is left to do? How can you ever make it right with God again? It is a horrible feeling when you realize you have turned your back on God out of arrogance, stubbornness, or plain stupidity, or carelessness. What does God have to say about all this? “Let me hear what the Lord God will speak.” And what is it God says? Peace.

I lean heavily today on one of my preferred theologians, Jurgen Moltmann. Moltmann says that peace is “an experience of the Spirit in our restless hearts.” I don’t know about you, but I know that my heart is restless these days. It is hard for me to be at ease. Each week something happens and it seems like we hold our breath that things will turn out okay. But man, the magnitude of loss surrounds us and it’s like it’s trying to smothers us. Jobs have been lost. Trust has been lost. Civility has been lost. But worst of all life has been lost and continues to be lost more and more each day. Leaving us little time to grieve. I used to think that maybe, just maybe our small little county might be sheltered from the storm of the pandemic, but it seems that as the world we let our guard down and now the virus taunts us. Our hearts are restless. When will this end? When will life be safe again? When will we be able to see smiling faces and hug one another? When will we be able to joyful gather as family and not be terrified that we have shed the virus where we have been?

The Spirit of God comes to our restless hearts and the voice of the Lord God says to us, peace. Hear the voice of the Lord God say to you, peace. God loves you. And God does not hold back love. Instead God through the Spirit pours love in our hearts, minds and inner souls. And as God’s love permeates your whole being, peace begins to bloom and thrive. All those tense muscles, all that anxiety, it lessens it grip on us, slows our heartbeat and racing minds.

Moltmann also writes, as Christians, as believes of God through Jesus Christ, “we are possessed by a hope which sees unlimited possibilities ahead because it looks into God’s future.” Jeffrey talked about this last week. God’s future for us is a wonderful thing, not a dreadful thing.

When that kind of hope takes root in your life, you begin to see and recognize the endless possibilities in store for all of us and all of creation. And that’s when your restless heart can stop struggling to control the day, the moment or the future, and instead your heart, mind and soul can be at peace, at rest because you know that God’s future is certain and God’s future is good. We who believe God, we have the possibility of seeing through the haze of this world and past the horizon of destruction and fear, and the ability to look into God’s new world. And we live our lives looking ahead, beyond the current fears and sufferings and disappointments in this life, and we see the beautiful coming world God and our restless hearts can sigh and be at peace. Think on the beautiful world of God to come. Breath the air of the Spirit and be at and in God’s peace.

Prayer of Thanksgiving 
Thank you, God for constant love. Please help our church family grow deeper and deeper in your love. Amen.

Song of Faith
On Jordan’s Bank
Author: Charles Coffin; tr. John Chandler and others
Tune: WALTHAM

The Baptist shouts on Jordan’s shore,
the earth shakes with the mighty roar,
awake, let lazy sleep now flee:
behold, the voice of prophecy!

The earth and sky and sea now feel
that which their Author will reveal:
the Child now leaping in the womb
as God does human form assume.

Clean up your hearts, lay down the way,
for God approaches day by day;
prepare for such a worthy heir,
for such a guest your house prepare.

Through you, O Jesus, you alone
salvation, solace, strength are known;
without your love we fade like grass,
like wilted flowers our lives will pass.

O One who comes to set us free,
O Child, to you our song will be,
with Father, Spirit mothering,
to you shall praise for ever ring!

Sending Out
May the blessing and peace of God uphold you, 
May the compassion and love of Christ enfold you, 
and may the vitality and power of the Holy Spirit embolden you, 
today and always.  
Amen.

Closing Song 
Blest Be the Tie 
Tune: DENNIS (Nageli) 
Author: John Fawcett 

Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love. 
The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above.

When we are called to part, it gives us inward pain; 
but we shall still be joined in heart, and hope to meet again. 

This glorious hope revives our courage by the way; 
while each in expectation lives and waits to see the day.  

Acknowledgements: Artwork by Elizabeth. The Advent Candle Litany and Opening Prayer were provided by the United Church of Christ (www.ucc.org). The anthem was played by Tonya on the piano, Kat on the cello, and Michelle on the guitar with Mindy, Michelle, Tonya, Ally, and Elizabeth singing. Tracy played the organ and Mindy sang the hymns. Scripture readings are from the Common English Bible unless otherwise noted. Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-724755. All rights reserved.  All writings have been used by permission from the posting sites or authors.

Preparation for Worship at Home. When worshipping at home, set aside a time and a place each week for worship. During the Advent season (today through Christmas Eve), set out four candles. One candle will be lit for each Sunday that passes as we approach Christmas Day.

May the following serve as a guide in your worship of God.

The Worship of God

Passing the Peace 
Say to one another, “May the peace of Christ be with you.”
And reply, “And, also with you.”

Advent Wreath Litany
In the beginning was the Word –
spoken and breathed,
a promise made and kept.
Listen and hear –
God’s promise is true!
The Word was in the beginning,
and through him all things come into being.
Eternal and near at hand,
already and not yet,
God’s promise is the foundation of all life.
Listen!
Hear the covenant anew, giving voice to a future with hope.
~Teri Carol Peterson

One candle is lit today.

Opening Prayer
We have had enough feasts of anger and bitterness,
so come, God-who-aches-to-be-with-us,
to feed us with the simple Bread of heaven.
Every day we are handed steaming mugs of tears,
so come, to hold the Cup of hope to our lips.
Every day seems to be the longest day
in this year which goes on and on,
so come, God-who-approaches,
using the stars in the night sky
to light the way to the grace
we long to find in Bethlehem,
where we will find a home with you
when all the power and wealth of the world
slams their doors in our faces,
leaving us huddled with all our fears and worries.
We are deafened by all the arguments, the rhetoric,
the foolish boasts, the outright lies,
so come, God-who-is our peace,
to fill our ears with the angelic songs,
to pour love and wonder into the emptiness of our souls.
Come, God in Community, Holy in One,
come to assure is that out of these uncertain times
will come the Advent of new life.
~Thom Shuman

Hymn of Praise
Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus
Author: Charles Wesley
Tune: HYFERDOL

Come, thou long expected Jesus,
born to set thy people free;
from our fears and sins release us,
let us find our rest in thee.
Israel’s strength and consolation,
hope of all the earth thou art;
dear desire of every nation,
joy of every longing heart.

Born thy people to deliver,
born a child and yet a King,
born to reign in us forever,
now thy gracious kingdom bring.
By thine own eternal spirit
rule in all our hearts alone;
by thine all sufficient merit,
raise us to thy glorious throne.

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
Shepherd of Israel, listen!
You, the one who leads Joseph as if he were a sheep.
You, who are enthroned upon the winged heavenly creatures.
Show yourself before Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh!
Wake up your power!
Come to save us!
Restore us, God!
Make your face shine so that we can be saved!

Lord God of heavenly forces,
how long will you fume against your people’s prayer?
You’ve fed them bread made of tears;
you’ve given them tears to drink three times over!
You’ve put us at odds with our neighbors;
our enemies make fun of us.
Restore us, God of heavenly forces!
Make your face shine so that we can be saved!

Let your hand be with the one on your right side—
with the one whom you secured as your own—
then we will not turn away from you!
Revive us so that we can call on your name.
Restore us, Lord God of heavenly forces!
Make your face shine so that we can be saved!

Prayer for Others
Pause after each paragraph to give voice to prayers as prompted.  Let us pray,

Merciful God, who shelters us and guides us,  
we give you thanks for…. 

God who comforts,  
receive those who are fearful and lonely…. 

God whose love is steadfast,  
be refuge for the ill, the dying, and those who care about them.… 

God of righteousness,  
we ask for your wisdom and ways of justice to prevail  
in our community, this nation, your world…. 

God who seeks our trust, grow us and guide us in your ways
that are life-giving in your world.  Amen.

Choral Anthem
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
Composer: Richard Shephard

O come, O come, Emmanuel, And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.
O come, Desire of nations, bind In one the hearts of humankind.
Bid Thou our sad divisions cease, And be Thyself our King of Peace.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

Mark 13:24-37
“In those days, after the suffering of that time, the sun will become dark, and the moon won’t give its light. 25 The stars will fall from the sky, and the planets and other heavenly bodies will be shaken. 26 Then they will see the Human One coming in the clouds with great power and splendor. 27 Then he will send the angels and gather together his chosen people from the four corners of the earth, from the end of the earth to the end of heaven.

28 “Learn this parable from the fig tree. After its branch becomes tender and it sprouts new leaves, you know that summer is near. 29 In the same way, when you see these things happening, you know that he’s near, at the door. 30 I assure you that this generation won’t pass away until all these things happen. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will certainly not pass away.

32 “But nobody knows when that day or hour will come, not the angels in heaven and not the Son. Only the Father knows. 33 Watch out! Stay alert! You don’t know when the time is coming. 34 It is as if someone took a trip, left the household behind, and put the servants in charge, giving each one a job to do, and told the doorkeeper to stay alert. 35 Therefore, stay alert! You don’t know when the head of the household will come, whether in the evening or at midnight, or when the rooster crows in the early morning or at daybreak. 36 Don’t let him show up when you weren’t expecting and find you sleeping. 37 What I say to you, I say to all: Stay alert!”

Reflecting on the Word
“Apocalypse Later” – Dr. Jeffrey Vickery

It just might seem to many of us that 2020, of all years, is apocalyptic. Let me assure you, it is not. Do not fear the end of all things. While everything from the out-of-control pandemic to the extraordinary number of hurricanes to the murder hornet invasion to the circus spectacle of politics has disrupted the lives of possibly every single person in America, yet these are not signs of the end of time. These are mostly the result of human sin in one form or another. Whatever we do, Christians cannot misunderstand human sin and assign it to God’s purpose. God is the architect of redemption, not sin. God is the Creator of a good humanity and not the instigator of human evil. God is the light of hope, not the dark knight of death and destruction. 

So even though 2020 is not the apocalypse warning sign some claim, this dramatic reading from Mark 13 is a good place to think about the end of 2020 and the beginning of a new church year as Advent starts today. Why? Because the biblical message of the apocalypse is not one of doom and gloom but of hope. I’m serious. It is not a message of the end of all things, but the beginning of all that God imagines. While sun and moon turning dark sounds ominous, the end result is salvation. Just as Advent asks us to consider what we need to do in order to prepare for God’s coming, so too these messages that we have come to call the “end of times” are really lessons from the biblical story about “the coming of God.” And when God comes among us, there is hope and salvation. In this way, the message of the apocalypse is identical to the message of the manger. God is coming soon. For the people of God, this brings hope not fear.   

This story of Jesus from Mark 13 uses three different stories to make the same point. The first story is cosmic, the second is seasonal, and the third is domestic.  

Jesus’ first illustration (beginning in verse 24) draws our attention because we are often enamored by the sensational. The sun and moon will darken. The stars and planets will shake and waver in the sky. These are things that only God can do. The first reminder about the apocalypse is that it comes at God’s time and not ours. It is the result of God’s action, not human accomplishment. It is a work of salvation, not a path of destruction brought on by human mishap and sin. Because these are only accomplished by God’s direct intention, they are hopeful reminders of salvation. Mark does something interesting with these signs by directly attaching them to the coming of the Messiah. The mention of the “coming of the Human One” is a clear reference to Jesus. And for centuries Christians have confessed as our central doctrine that Jesus came to dwell among us, full of grace and truth, as a way to bring us hope and salvation. The character of God is consistent. The truth of God’s grace is unerring. The trust in God’s forgiveness is unwavering. Therefore, the coming of God, at any time and in any place, is a reason for hope. This includes any future coming of God. If the next time we look to the heavens we happen to see the stars and planets dance, we should join the celebration. God is near, enter into the joy of salvation! 

Jesus’ second illustration (beginning in verse 28) draws us into the agriculture of Jesus’ Palestinian homeland where fig trees were common. The movement from winter to spring and spring to summer is something that we as humans depend upon but not something that we control. Without summer, Jesus can’t eat figs. That doesn’t sound dramatic, of course, but what if we were talking about a world without tomatoes, corn, squash, and beans? In order to have this good harvest, summer must come in its time. Since Galilee and Cullowhee (where Jesus lived and where we are today) are at the same latitude, our seasons are similar. And in Jesus’ Galilee, they lived in a world where they had to grow their own food. Any indication that summer is on the way, like the young shoot on a fig tree, is a sign of sustenance and hope. Without summer the health and welfare of our family is uncertain. Yet summer comes. Every year. And it comes in the way that God set forth at the creation of this world. Summer is a certainty just as God’s care is without doubt. As our Advent season leads us into winter, we know that snow and frost will eventually give way to new fruit and garden dirt warming in the spring sun. One way to read verse 30,  when Jesus says, “I assure you that this generation won’t pass away until all these things happen,” is that Jesus gives us the assurance that, just as summer brings enough food to sustain life for another season, God gives life in every season. Salvation is like an eternal summer in which the garden of God is always abundant and thus our life is sustained for eternity. Think of the images of heaven at the end of Revelation in which a river flows so that water is always available, two trees that grow twelve kinds of fruit are always producing, and the light of God never dims. It sounds like heaven is an eternal summer!  

Mark ends this teaching of Jesus with the assurance that “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will certainly not pass away.” Consider all the ways in which the biblical story places emphasis on “the word.” In Genesis 1, God speaks a word and creation takes on life. John’s Gospel (chapter 1) gives us the assurance that “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.“ In this way and others, one designation of Jesus himself is as the “Word of God.” Additionally, following the Jewish perception of the Torah, we Christians identify scripture as the word of God. So when Jesus says here in Mark 13 that “my words will certainly not pass away,” it is a statement of assurance. A trust given to us that God’s creative Spirit will always speak and life will not be diminished … regardless. The Gospel of God incarnate in Jesus is not contingent upon any other creation or the possibility of catastrophic destruction. These words of God in all their form both bring and give life. Once again, the apocalypse expresses hope. 

Jesus’ third illustration (beginning in verse 33) brings us home. Or maybe I should say, brings us into the household. The emphasis here is that the homeowner is always to be expected to be present or to return soon by those who are employed in the house. The repeated advice, three different times, is “stay alert” — “stay alert” — “stay alert.” Why? Because the owner will come home at a moment that is not determined by anyone inside the house. If God is, in this analogy, the house owner, then God is the only one that determines God’s return. We do not and cannot control God’s actions, but we are indeed responsible for our own. We are like the doorkeeper. We have a job to do and it is one that is common rather than spectacular. It is to be prepared. Do our job. Keep awake. Stay alert. This call is one of basic daily obedience to the Gospel. Since we are surrounded by entertainment and media industries that broadcast superlatives – the best, the scariest, the prettiest, the most dramatic, the world champion, the crazy sensational – we are sometimes led to believe that only these media-worthy actions are important, or make us feel important. But the Gospel lesson here is that the common daily practice of faith is what prepares us for any moment of obedience, whether it involves the extraordinary or not.  

I’m reminded of the day that Ronald Reagan was shot. It was March 30, 1981 and I was on Lake Keowee fishing with my father. While listening to the radio we heard the news of the shooting of the President after he had given a speech at a hotel in Washington. Attention turned almost immediately to Jerry Parr and Timothy McCarthy. They were the Secret Service agents who protected the President. Agent Parr pushed Reagan into the limousine while Agent McCarthy jumped between Reagan and the gunman and was shot himself. These two men, as is true for every agent who protects every President, were ready and prepared and trained to respond at a moment’s notice to any threat while at the same time expecting that almost every day will end without any incident. Their daily task is watchfulness. They are present at every event and mostly do nothing sensational. But they are always ready, always alert. They train for an unexpected moment that they also hope will never come.  

When Jesus tells the “doorkeeper” to be ready for any return of the “house owner” he is calling us to be ready to respond with the Gospel in any instance. True, we may be alive and living out the Gospel at the end of all the world. But most likely, this day and every other day of our lives will end without cosmic cataclysm. Yet we live today and the next, we train our hearts and minds and bodies, to respond today as though we are prepared for the unfiltered presence of God among us. After all, the host of angels came to the shepherds to announce the birth of Jesus on an ordinary sheep-herding night. Today is by all accounts normal, but it is possibly this day that we are called to show love and grace in a way that just may make this world a bit more as God intends. We don’t start the day expecting to save a life, discover our life’s calling, meet the person who will change our future, or teach the next Nobel Peace Prize winner. We don’t plan these things because, like the apocalypse, they are often within the reach of God’s intent but require our obedience in some common way. Whoever we are, this day we must remain alert to God’s way of living. We are required to exercise forgiveness, and kindness, and generosity, and grace. We cannot treat others as a means to our end but as a value to God’s work and world just because of who they are. We are alert to God’s coming in such a way that will require us to respond with justice for others and to help heal creation. We live in obedience to God now with the hope that this day will be the apocalypse, but most likely it will not. In either eventuality, we are God’s people now, and prepared for this day whatever opportunity we may have to show love. 

During this Advent season, don’t just look ahead to the joy of Christmas and skip past this common day, like so many other days, that we are to be obedient to God in the ordinary. That’s our discipleship watchfulness. In so doing, we will be a part of this day of God’s creation, and will be prepared for the hope of an apocalypse later. 

Prayer of Thanksgiving 
Thank you, God for constant love. Please help our church family grow deeper and deeper in your love. Amen.

Song of Faith
Angels from the Realms of Glory
Author: James Montgomery
Tune: REGENT SQUARE

Angels from the realms of glory,
wing your flight o’er all the earth;
ye who sang creation’s story
now proclaim Messiah’s birth:

Refrain:
Come and worship, come and worship,
worship Christ, the newborn king.

Shepherds, in the field abiding,
watching o’er your flocks by night,
God with us is now residing;
yonder shines the infant light: [Refrain]

Sages, leave your contemplations,
brighter visions beam afar;
seek the great Desire of nations;
ye have seen his natal star: [Refrain]

Sending Out
May the blessing and peace of God uphold you, 
May the compassion and love of Christ enfold you, 
and may the vitality and power of the Holy Spirit embolden you, 
today and always.  
Amen.

Closing Song 
Blest Be the Tie 
Tune: DENNIS (Nageli) 
Author: John Fawcett 

Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love. 
The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above.

When we are called to part, it gives us inward pain; 
but we shall still be joined in heart, and hope to meet again. 

This glorious hope revives our courage by the way; 
while each in expectation lives and waits to see the day.  

Acknowledgements: The anthem was played by Tonya on the piano, Connor on the violin, Tessa on the flute with Mindy singing. Tracy played the organ and Mindy sang the hymns. Scripture readings are from the Common English Bible. Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-724755. All rights reserved.  All writings have been used by permission from the posting sites or authors.

Preparation for Worship at Home
While worshipping at home, set aside a time and a place each week for worship. Light two candles to begin worship: one to represent Christ’s humanity and the other to represent Christ’s divinity. To celebrate communion, have something to eat and drink for everyone. The type of food and drink does not matter for they are merely symbols which help us celebrate the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  

May the following serve as a guide in your worship of God.

artwork by John Hain from Pixabay

The Worship of God

Lighting Two Candles
We begin worship by lighting candles to remind ourselves that the One whom we worship, Jesus, is the light of the world.

Passing the Peace 
Say to one another, “May the peace of Christ be with you.”
And reply, “And, also with you.”

Opening Prayer
Today, Lord, we want everything to be for your glory.
We want our thoughts,
our words, our music,
our church, our community,
our resources, our time, our lives:
all to be for you.
Everything ours is yours,
and we come together to declare this to be so,
on this holy day of thanksgiving.
Bless our time together with your holy presence,
Amen.
~ written by Carol Penner

Hymn of Praise
We Sing the Mighty Power of God
Author: Isaac Watts
Tune: FOREST GREEN (trad. English Melody)

We sing the mighty power of God
that made the mountains rise,
that spread the flowing seas abroad
and built the lofty skies.
We sing the wisdom that ordained
the sun to rule the day;
the moon shines full at God’s command,
and all the stars obey.

We sing the goodness of the Lord
that filled the earth with food;
God formed the creatures with the word
and then pronounced them good.
Lord, how your wonders are displayed,
where’er we turn our eye,
if we survey the ground we tread
or gaze upon the skies.

There’s not a plant or flower below
but makes your glories known,
and clouds arise and tempests blow
by order from your throne;
while all that borrows life from you
is ever in your care,
and everywhere that we can be,
you, God, are present there.

Psalm 65
Praise awaits you,
O God of Zion;
O God of Zion, promises made to you will be fulfilled.
O Hearer of Prayer,
unto you all living things may come!
When sinful deeds overwhelm us,
pardon our rebellious acts.
How blessed is the one whom you choose and bring near;
the one who dwells in your courts.
May we be sated with the goodness of your house, your holy temple!
With awesome deeds which put things right, answer us,
O God of our salvation,
the one who is trusted by all the ends of the earth
and the distant seas.
Who by power sets the mountains in place;
who is clothed with might;
who stills the raging seas;
the raging of their waves, and the turmoil of the peoples.
So that those who dwell on the far edges stand in awe of your acts.
You make the gateways of morning and evening sing for joy.
You visit the land and give it abundance,
greatly enriching it.
God’s stream is full of water!
You provide grain by preparing the land.
Drench the earth’s furrows;
soak down its ridges.
Let showers soften it;
bless its growth.
You crown the year with your bounty;
your paths drip fatness.
Even the dessert pastures drip with fatness,
and the hills cloth themselves with rejoicing.
The meadows are clothed with flocks,
the valleys dressed with grain;
they shout and sing for joy.
~ translated by Marvin Tate 

Prayer for Others
Pause after each paragraph to give voice to prayers as prompted.  Let us pray,

Merciful God, who shelters us and guides us,  
we give you thanks for…. 

God who comforts,  
receive those who are fearful and lonely…. 

God whose love is steadfast,  
be refuge for the ill, the dying, and those who care about them.… 

God of righteousness,  
we ask for your wisdom and ways of justice to prevail  
in our community, this nation, your world…. 

God who seeks our trust, grow us and guide us in your ways
that are life-giving in your world.  Amen.

Choral Anthem
Now Thank We All Our God
Tune: MIDDLEBROOK
Composer: William A. Pasch

Now thank we all our God, with heart and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things has done, in Whom this world rejoices;
Who from our mothers’ arms has blessed us on our way
With countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.

O may this bounteous God through all our life be near us,
With ever joyful hearts and blessèd peace to cheer us;
And keep us in His grace, and guide us when perplexed;
And free us from all ills, in this world and the next!

All praise and thanks to God the Father now be given;
The Son and Him Who reigns with Them in highest Heaven;
The one eternal God, whom earth and Heaven adore;
For thus it was, is now, and shall be evermore.

Celebrating Communion
Communion celebrates our unity–our unity with God and with one another. At Cullowhee Baptist Church we practice an open communion which means anyone seeking to live the Way of Jesus Christ is invited to share in communion with us. Although we are not able to meet together, our bond still remains with one another and God through Jesus Christ.  

Invitation to Communion
Imagine Jesus setting a table for us, a place where we may come together and share a meal. Before we “come to the table,” let us set our hearts aright and seek the Lord’s forgiveness for our shortcomings.

Prayer for Ourselves and Others
For what we are about to receive,
may the Lord make us truly thankful.
We pray today for all who are too jealous to be thankful, who complain, “Why do they get everything?” and who are always comparing themselves with those who have more.
We pray for all who have forgotten how to say thank you; who have gotten used to saying, “I earned this,” and who truly feel they have only themselves to thank. 
We pray for all who are too busy to be thankful; who asked themselves this morning, “Do I have time to go to church?” and who even in worship are thinking about their to-do lists.

We pray for all who are grudgingly thankful; who say, “I guess this will have to do,” while believing that God has given them a raw deal.
We pray for all who are too tired to be thankful, who sigh, “I just want to get through this day,” and who have no energy to open their eyes to the blessings around them.
We pray for all who are not thankful enough to be generous, who bargain with God, “I’ll be unselfish when you give me more,” or who are free with money, but are stingy in spending time with others.
We pray for all who are barely thankful; who say the words, but don’t feel grateful in their hearts who go through the motions, but think, “I don’t know how to be really thankful.”
Today we pray a simple prayer.
For what we have received,
what we are receiving,
and what we are about to receive,
Lord, make us truly thankful.  Amen.
~ written by Carol Penner

silent prayer and medititation

Assurance of Pardon 
2 Corinthians 5:17-18a, Common English Bible 

If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!  All this is from God, to whom we have been reconciled through Christ. Amen.

Share the Meal 
Share what you have to eat and before eating, have someone say, “This food represents the body of Christ.  As we eat, we remember Jesus.” 

Share what you have to drink and before drinking, have someone say, “This drink represents the covenant Christ made with us that our sins will be forgiven.  As we drink, we remember Jesus.”

Prayer of Thanksgiving 
Dear God, thank you for your abounding compassionate love. Thank you for guiding and leading us through these difficult times. Thank you for always being with us. Amen.

Song of Faith
Amazing Grace 
Tune: NEW BRITAIN (from the Virginia Harmony, 1831) 
Author: John Newton 

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound 
That saved a wretch like me. 
I once was lost, but now I’m found, 
Was blind, but now I see.

A Reading from 2 Corinthians 9:6-15
Common English Bible

6 What I mean is this: the one who sows a small number of seeds will also reap a small crop, and the one who sows a generous amount of seeds will also reap a generous crop.

7 Everyone should give whatever they have decided in their heart. They shouldn’t give with hesitation or because of pressure. God loves a cheerful giver. 8 God has the power to provide you with more than enough of every kind of grace. That way, you will have everything you need always and in everything to provide more than enough for every kind of good work. 9 As it is written, He scattered everywhere; he gave to the needy; his righteousness remains forever.

10 The one who supplies seed for planting and bread for eating will supply and multiply your seed and will increase your crop, which is righteousness. 11 You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous in every way. Such generosity produces thanksgiving to God through us. 12 Your ministry of this service to God’s people isn’t only fully meeting their needs but it is also multiplying in many expressions of thanksgiving to God. 13 They will give honor to God for your obedience to your confession of Christ’s gospel. They will do this because this service provides evidence of your obedience, and because of your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone. 14 They will also pray for you, and they will care deeply for you because of the outstanding grace that God has given to you. 15 Thank God for his gift that words can’t describe!

Reflecting on the Word
Rev. Tonya Vickery

Listen and/or read below.

I got tickled two weeks ago when Jeffrey was working on his sermon for last Sunday. After reading through Matthew 25 he looked at me and said, “I feel like these parables keep saying the same thing over and over again.” I laughed and agreed. Well guess what. I’ve veered off the gospel course for today. And I’ve skipped ahead to the Thanksgiving text for Thanksgiving Day. Here we are in the New Testament, but yet again, we find the same message as last Sunday’s.

In case you missed last week’s reading from Matthew 25, let me summarize Jesus’ story in my own words. The parable goes like this. A land owner was going to travel the world for a bit, so he entrusted large sums of his money to his workers. He had a great and glorious trip. Now, when he finally returned home so thankful to once again sleep in his own bed, he brought each of the workers in to see how they had fared with his money. The first worker reported that he had doubled what had been entrusted to him. The second worker did as well. But the third one? This lazy worker didn’t do a thing with the landowner’s money. He tried to blame the landowner for his lack of trying . He whined, “It’s not my fault that the amount of money is the same. I just hid it because I was afraid that you would be so mad with me if I lost all of it or any of it. So here it is fair and square, nothing’s been lost. I thought you would be happy.” The landowner was anything but happy. The worker knew better. He knew the landowner was able to reap where he didn’t sow and harvest where he hadn’t even scattered seeds. His lack of trying was a disrespect of the One who had entrusted him with much.

Now the point of Jesus’ parable in Matthew 25 is that God trusts us. With a story about money and investments, Jesus makes this point: God trusts us. Here in 2 Corinthians, the same point is being made. In the context of planting seeds and harvesting crops, we glean again that God trusts us.

2 Corinthians 2:6 reads, “The one who sows a small number of seeds will also reap a small crop, and the one who sows generous amounts of seeds will also reap a generous crop.” Agriculturally speaking, this statement is true. If you plant one row of corn, you are going to reap one rows worth of ears of corn. If you plant a hundred rows of corn, you are going to reap one hundred rows worth of ears of corn. Same goes for tomato seeds. If you plant ten tomato seeds, you will have a few tomatoes to eat during the summer. But if you plant 99 tomato seeds, you will have a bountiful plenty of tomatoes so much that you will have more than you need.

God knows better than to trust me to be a gardener or to be a money investor, however, the money and the seeds are merely symbols. What are these seeds we are expected to sew liberally? What is the money we are to invest? Look back at verse 8 of 2 Corinthians 9. It reads, “God has the power to provide you with more than enough of every kind of grace. That way, you will have everything you need always and in everything to provide more than enough for every kind of good work.” The seeds and the money are the grace which God gives us. It is the Greek term, charis. It is grace, kindness, blessing, and even gratitude.

“God is able to provide you with more than enough of every kind of grace….” These are seeds and investments that bring joy, delight, and loveliness. These seeds bear good will and loving-kindness in situations and to people who do not deserve such grace. These seeds bring about thanksgiving and gratitude. These provisions are steeped in joy and gladness. These gifts from God are blessings. God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance….

Even before the Gratitude Journal movement began, the hymn Count Your Blessings taught us to be grateful. The refrain repeatedly says, “Count your blessings, name them one by one. Count your blessings see what God has done. Count your blessings, name them one by one. Count your many blessings, see what God has done.” The counting is not meant to turn the blessings of God into a competition of who has more. Numbering your blessings from God isn’t supposed to make you feel superior. Counting and naming blessings are a way for us to recognize how great and abundant God’s blessings towards us are. “God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance….”

God is not stingy when it comes to loving and blessings us. God is not a hoarder of goodness and grace. God does not withhold from us but generously provides. 2 Corinthians says, God is able to provide and God will supply and multiply. The blessings of God are not scarce. There’s another hymn we sing, one that I love to play and sing, it’s There Shall Be Showers of Blessings by D.W. Whittle. The refrain sung with every verse ends with the words, “but for the showers we plead.” Now that refrain can sometimes leave us pondering if god might withhold blessings from us if we are having to plead for them. Fortunately most hymnals leave out the fifth verse of the Whittle’s hymn which would have us sing, “There will be showers of blessings if we just trust and obey.” That’s the wrong way to look at God’s blessings. The blessings of God are not rewards for our ability to trust, nor a payment for our obedience. I would say that if we do trust and obey God, we are more likely to recognize the blessings of God, but the giving of God’s gifts does not depend upon the piety of the person. They depend upon a generosity and love of God who trusts us, all of us. Remember, the workers did not earn the money that was entrusted to them. The seeds were given to the farmer, not bought for a price.

What blessings, what graces has God given you? given us? What blessings, what joys has God entrusted to you? to us? What kindness has God provided you? given us?

In our worship today we have spent a lot of time thanking God for all the many blessings. God says back to us, “You are welcome, but now go do something with those blessings.” We would completely miss the point of God’s blessings if we were to just to depart with a plan of naming and counting God’s blessings this week. For in doing so we make the mistake of believing that God’s blessings are solely meant for us. The parable from last week’s worship service and scripture passage today both clearly say God’s provisions are to be invested or sewn like seeds.

The blessings of God are not to be stored away. The gifts and graces God abundantly provides us are not to be collected or stockpiled. The kindness of God is not to be squirreled away. We don’t just put the blessings of God in our wallets, snap it shut, and pull it out in the end.  We don’t just set the blessings of God on a shelf and admire them. Yes, God gives us blessings in abundance, but those blessings do not become memorials to how great we are or how great our lives are. We are taught and expected to move beyond just thanking God for the many blessings in our lives.

Here comes that Old Testament question. What does the Lord require of us? To be thankful? Yes, oh yes. Remember the story about the lepers whom Jesus healed. Only one came back to thank and praise the Lord. But in addition to being grateful, God also expects us to be generous. Some say it this way, the blessings from God that have been given to you are to become blessings to others. When we are generous with God’s blessings, we don’t just provide for someone in need, but our generosity with the gifts of God becomes a source of great thanksgiving to God. And the praise of God grows and grows.

The point first made by Jesus in the parables from Matthew’s gospel is made again here in 2 Corinthians. God trusts us. God showers us with blessings trusting that we will share the blessings. God abundantly provides for us trusting that we will be generous with those provisions. God trusts us, that we will take what God gives us and share it cheerfully, willingly, and abundantly. God trust that we care for others like God cares for all. Now, go make God proud and share what the Lord has given you in such a way that others will not thank you, but thank God!

Prayer of Thanksgiving 
Thank you, God for constant love. Please help our church family grow deeper and deeper in your love. Amen.

Song of Faith
For the Fruits of All Creation, Thanks Be to God
Author: Fred Pratt Green
Tune: AR HYD Y NOS (Welsh melody)

For the fruits of all creation,
Thanks be to God.
For the gifts to ev’ry nation,
Thanks be to God.
For the plowing, sowing, reaping,
Silent growth while we are sleeping,
Future needs in earth’s safe keeping,
Thanks be to God.

In the just reward of labor,
God’s will is done.
In the help we give our neighbor,
God’s will is done.
In our world-wide task of caring
For the hungry and despairing,
In the harvests we are sharing,
God’s will is done.

For the harvests of the Spirit,
Thanks be to God.
For the good we all inherit,
Thanks be to God.
For the wonders that astound us,
For the truths that still confound us,
Most of all, that love has found us,
Thanks be to God.

Sending Out
May the blessing and peace of God uphold you, 
May the compassion and love of Christ enfold you, 
and may the vitality and power of the Holy Spirit embolden you, 
today and always.  
Amen.

Closing Song 
Blest Be the Tie 
Tune: DENNIS (Nageli) 
Author: John Fawcett 

Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love. 
The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above.

When we are called to part, it gives us inward pain; 
but we shall still be joined in heart, and hope to meet again. 

This glorious hope revives our courage by the way; 
while each in expectation lives and waits to see the day.  

Acknowledgements:

The anthem was played by Tonya and sung by Mindy, Tonya, and Ally. Tracy played the organ, Tonya played the piano, and Mindy sang the hymns. Aidan played the piano for Amazing Grace. Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-724755. All rights reserved.  All writings have been used by permission from the posting sites or authors.

Preparation for Worship 
While worshipping at home, set aside a time and a place each week for worship. Light two candles to begin worship: one to represent Christ’s humanity and the other to represent Christ’s divinity. If you would like to celebrate communion have something to eat and drink for everyone. The type of food and drink does not matter for they are merely symbols which help us celebrate the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  

May the following serve as a guide in your worship of God.

The Worship of God

Lighting Two Candles
We begin worship by lighting candles to remind ourselves that the One whom we worship, Jesus, is the light of the world. We light two candles to remind us that Jesus is God and lived alongside us as a human being.

Passing the Peace 
Say to one another, “May the peace of Christ be with you.”
And reply, “And, also with you.”

Invitation
We lift our eyes to you, O God; we lift our spirits in worship.
We look to you, seeking guidance and comfort.
We look to you seeking healing and renewal.
We look to you, seeking mercy and grace;
for we have had our fill of struggles and stress.
We have had more than our fill of worrying and wondering.
To you, O God, we lift our eyes and spirits,
with hope and confidence in your love.
Be known to us as we worship and help us find rest.

Hymn of Praise
God Whose Giving Knows No Ending
Tune: BEACH SPRING (attributed to Benjamin F. White)
Author: Robert L. Edwards

God, whose giving knows no ending,
From Your rich and endless store:
Nature’s wonder, Jesus’ wisdom,
Costly cross, grave’s shattered door.
Gifted by You, we turn to You,
Off’ring up ourselves in praise:
Thankful song shall rise forever,
Gracious donor of our days.

Skills and time are ours for pressing
Toward the goals of Christ, Your Son:
All at peace in health and freedom,
Races joined, the church made one.
Now direct our daily labor,
Lest we strive for self alone:
Born with talents, make us servants
Fit to answer at Your throne.

Treasure, too, You have entrusted,
Gain through pow’rs Your grace conferred:
Ours to use for home and kindred,
And to spread the Gospel Word.
Open wide our hands in sharing,
As we heed Christ’s ageless call.
Healing, teaching, and reclaiming,
Serving You by loving all.

Psalm Reading 
Psalm 90:1-12. Common English Bible

Lord, you have been our help,
generation after generation.
Before the mountains were born,
before you birthed the earth and the inhabited world—
from forever in the past
to forever in the future, you are God.

You return people to dust,
saying, “Go back, humans,”
because in your perspective a thousand years
are like yesterday past,
like a short period during the night watch.
You sweep humans away like a dream,
like grass that is renewed in the morning.
True, in the morning it thrives, renewed,
but come evening it withers, all dried up.
Yes, we are wasting away because of your wrath;
we are paralyzed with fear on account of your rage.
You put our sins right in front of you,
set our hidden faults in the light from your face.
Yes, all our days slip away because of your fury;
we finish up our years with a whimper.
We live at best to be seventy years old,
maybe eighty, if we’re strong.
But their duration brings hard work and trouble
because they go by so quickly.
And then we fly off.
Who can comprehend the power of your anger?
The honor that is due you corresponds to your wrath.
Teach us to number our days
so we can have a wise heart.

Prayer for Others
Pause after each paragraph to give voice to prayers as prompted.  Let us pray,

Merciful God, who shelters us and guides us,  
we give you thanks for…. 

God who comforts,  
receive those who are fearful and lonely…. 

God whose love is steadfast,  
be refuge for the ill, the dying, and those who care about them.… 

God of righteousness,  
we ask for your wisdom and ways of justice to prevail  
in our community, this nation, your world…. 

God who seeks our trust, grow us and guide us in your ways
that are life-giving in your world.  Amen.

Choral Anthem
From All the Earth Send Up the Song!
Tune: NORTH HILL (LM) by Robert J. Weaver
Composer: Robert J. Weaver and William A. Pasch

From all the earth send up the song 
Shout glad hosannas loud and long! 
Serve joyfully! Our God adore. 
Acclaim God’s honor evermore! 

Great God, Creator, Source of all, 
both keeps and guards us when we fall. 
One flock in our Good Shepherd’s fold, 
we feast on bounties yet untold.

The gates of glory beckon here. 
Come, bless God’s name. Give thanks. Draw near. 
God’s mercies last through all our days. 
New psalms, spring forth in grateful praise!

Our God is true from age to age. 
Our God is good beyond our gauge. 
Our God is faithful, ever sure. 
God’s kindness, love, and grace endure!

Celebrating Communion
Communion celebrates our unity–our unity with God and with one another. At Cullowhee Baptist Church we practice an open communion which means anyone seeking to live the Way of Jesus Christ is invited to share in communion with us. Although we are not able to meet together, our bond still remains with one another and God through Jesus Christ.  

Invitation to Communion
Imagine Jesus setting a table for us, a place where we may come together and share a meal. Before we “come to the table,” let us set our hearts aright and seek the Lord’s forgiveness for our shortcomings.

Prayer for Forgiveness
Holy God, the maker and sustainer of all things,
You teach us to be good stewards of your generosity,
but we confess that we have been dishonest managers
of your blessings.

You teach us to love our neighbor as ourselves,
but most of us are so isolated
that we don’t know our neighbor’s name.

You teach us that if we are dishonest in small things, 
we will be dishonest in greater things,
yet we treat your words as if only the big things really matter.

We have heard your high and holy standards,
and then lowered the bar so low
that we can hardly even trip over it.

We repent.
Thank you for your patience.
Thank you for not deserting us.
Open our hearts, ears, eyes, minds, and lives to follow you.
We place our lives completely in your hands.
Amen.

Assurance of Pardon 
2 Corinthians 5:17-18a, Common English Bible 

If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!  All this is from God, to whom we have been reconciled through Christ. 

Share the Meal 
Share what you have to eat and before eating, have someone say, “This food represents the body of Christ.  As we eat, we remember Jesus.” 

Share what you have to drink and before drinking, have someone say, “This drink represents the covenant Christ made with us that our sins will be forgiven.  As we drink, we remember Jesus.”

Prayer of Thanksgiving 
Dear God, thank you for your abounding compassionate love. Thank you for guiding and leading us through these difficult times. Thank you for always being with us. Amen.

Song of Faith
Amazing Grace 
Tune: NEW BRITAIN (from the Virginia Harmony, 1831) 
Author: John Newton 

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound 
That saved a wretch like me. 
I once was lost, but now I’m found, 
Was blind, but now I see.

The Gospel Lesson
Matthew 25:14-30, Common English Bible
“The kingdom of heaven is like a man who was leaving on a trip. He called his servants and handed his possessions over to them. To one he gave five valuable coins, and to another he gave two, and to another he gave one. He gave to each servant according to that servant’s ability. Then he left on his journey.

“After the man left, the servant who had five valuable coins took them and went to work doing business with them. He gained five more. In the same way, the one who had two valuable coins gained two more. But the servant who had received the one valuable coin dug a hole in the ground and buried his master’s money.

“Now after a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. The one who had received five valuable coins came forward with five additional coins. He said, ‘Master, you gave me five valuable coins. Look, I’ve gained five more.’

“His master replied, ‘Excellent! You are a good and faithful servant! You’ve been faithful over a little. I’ll put you in charge of much. Come, celebrate with me.’

“The second servant also came forward and said, ‘Master, you gave me two valuable coins. Look, I’ve gained two more.’

“His master replied, ‘Well done! You are a good and faithful servant. You’ve been faithful over a little. I’ll put you in charge of much. Come, celebrate with me.’

“Now the one who had received one valuable coin came and said, ‘Master, I knew that you are a hard man. You harvest grain where you haven’t sown. You gather crops where you haven’t spread seed. So I was afraid. And I hid my valuable coin in the ground. Here, you have what’s yours.’

“His master replied, ‘You evil and lazy servant! You knew that I harvest grain where I haven’t sown and that I gather crops where I haven’t spread seed? In that case, you should have turned my money over to the bankers so that when I returned, you could give me what belonged to me with interest. Therefore, take from him the valuable coin and give it to the one who has ten coins. Those who have much will receive more, and they will have more than they need. But as for those who don’t have much, even the little bit they have will be taken away from them. Now take the worthless servant and throw him out into the farthest darkness.’

“People there will be weeping and grinding their teeth.

Proclaiming the Word
Dr. Jeffrey Vickery

Let’s take the opportunity here to change the way we refer to this parable of Jesus. I want to call it, “The Parable of the $10,000 Bills.” For a long time and by the vast number of people who read Matthew 25:14-30, this story is known as the “Parable of the Talents.” That title comes from the Greek word for a large sum of money that is simply transliterated as “talent” in our English language. The CEB version we are reading today more rightly calls it “valuable coins.” The problem, as you might can see, is that our English word “talent” brings to mind skills and ability and innate capacity to excel at something. If the parable imagines God as the master and us as the servant, then we can tend to think this means God gives people gifts and talents which, far too often, has left Christians who are untalented feeling overlooked by God.  It is important to me, however, that we recognize that the master in the parable is expressing his trust in the servants rather than rewarding their ability. In fact, the unexpected surprise in this parable of Jesus is that a master would give tens of thousands of dollars to a servant without any strings attached. The master simply says, “I’m going away for a long time so here, take five $10,000 bills, and you take two $10,000 bills, and I’ll trust you with this one $10,000 bill. See ya later. ” 

As you can tell, I want us to begin our understanding of this parable with the idea that God trusts us. Surprise! All those old crusty sermons about God’s anger and human depravation and original sin we can set aside. God trusts us to rightly display the grace and love and justice of God. I know, I know, it is equally hard for us to trust other people as it is to see the good in us. After all, we see sin around us daily. Our news is saturated with what is wrong with the world and we humans are the ones who create such disgust and distress. Yet God trusts us. No matter what we hear from others, the first word of God to us is “You are my beloved, and I trust you,” rather than “You are a sinner worthy of hell, but I’ll find some way to get through to you despite that.” So again, as the parable demonstrates, God trusts us.  Not with pittance but abundance. Without designated restrictions or making us fill out forms to justify what we did with that $50,000, God gives a valuable sum to us freely. Why? Because God trusts us.  

Do you remember the story in the book of Acts when the disciples are gathered in Jerusalem after Jesus’ resurrection and they watched him ascend into heaven? They must have been anxious about his absence. After years of stability and direction and protection and hope with Jesus near them, now he’s no longer there. He left us, just as the master left the servants and went on a journey.  Yet the Ascension of Jesus is another testament to the trust God has in us.  Jesus is no longer with us as God incarnate. We can wish that “Jesus will return and make everything right” but that in itself is not the point of any apocalyptic message in the Bible. What is the point? To make sure we don’t just sit and wait. To recognize that God’s physical absence is neither disinterest nor permission for revelry. We are the people of God who are called to create a just and peaceable kin-dom of God on Earth. It is an opportunity to exercise the responsibility to show God’s love and help folks know that, to paraphrase Psalm 27:13, we shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. How will we see the goodness of the Lord? By you and me being trustworthy of God’s gift.  

So then Jesus’ parable seems to point in two directions at once. God trusts us, and we are trustworthy in God’s estimation. Both of these statements are good news. So it’s time to stop whining about our short-comings. We can be free from the weight of our weaknesses. We can give up the justifications for our inaction. God trusts us and has gifted us with the responsibility of representing God’s Way in this world because God believes in us. 

If the first act of the master in the parable is an act of trust, the conclusion to the parable is an act of love. In fact, the parable spends most of its time describing what happens when the master returns. The first two servants are praised by the master for taking responsibility with their $10,000 bills. They had taken what the master gave them and now there is more—double as much in fact. The master says to both servants: “‘Well done! You are a good and faithful servant. You’ve been faithful over a little. I’ll put you in charge of much. Come, celebrate with me.’” In simple fashion, the master is not concern over the amount of return or even the amount that he gave them, only that they chose to do something instead of doing nothing. Just as it is surprising that he gave the servants so much money, it is now equally surprising that the master describes the initial sum by saying, “You’ve been faithful over A LITTLE.” What? Since when was $50,000 just a little?!? Yet in God’s abundance, the amount matters less than the responsibility taken on its behalf. 

No character in the story receives more attention than the third servant. We hear more of his conversation with the master and in so doing we have a clearer sense of his motivation and intention. The master also addresses him directly in a way unique to the story because of his unwillingness to do something with what he was trusted. This last servant simply kept the master’s money and returned it as it was. No more was done. No tasks completed. No responsibility taken. The servant chose to hide and protect rather than serve and enhance. He expects praise from the master and instead receives a holy rebuke.  

First, the servant acted as he did, or in this case didn’t act, because of his wrong estimation of the master’s intention and personality. He calls the master “hard” and describes him as someone who will take advantage of others for his own gain. Yet nothing in this parable seems to fit that presumption. Whatever takes place in the imagination of the third servant, he has come to the wrong conclusion about the master. This man just gave a literal fortune to his servants. He trusted them. He left his possessions in their care. He gave them carte blanche to do as they wished with considerable wealth at their disposal while he was gone. The harsh and conniving nature of the master is a figment of the servant’s imagination. 

Many make the same mistake with God, casting our imagination wildly such that we have assumed or been instructed that God’s most central characteristics are wrath, judgment, fear, cursing, and destruction. If these are the virtues that we think motivate God’s action toward us, then we will become like that third servant. We will have misunderstood what the biblical stories say about God who is described multiple times as “… a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” (Jonah 4:2, and parallels). Ultimately, God cannot be changed by our ideas, but our perceptions of God powerfully influence our own choices and actions. Here in the parable, the third servant’s misunderstanding of the master leads him to act out of the fear of retribution rather than as though he were trusted by the master to act on his behalf. This servant took the “don’t blame me” road rather than going ahead with the idea that “I’ll do something and trust the master knows it’s my best”.  

In my opinion, what the master says and does in response to this timid third servant is an exercise of love. The master does, in fact, love the servant enough to be honest with his irresponsibility. But the master also loves what he entrusted to the servant so much that he will not let the servant misuse the gift. 

Love does not mean permissiveness. Love does not tolerate irresponsibility with the Gospel. Love does not allow misrepresentation of God’s goodness and justice. Love does not just say “ho-hum, oh well” when God has entrusted us to represent the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living and we fail to do anything. Love means not a single one of us is left to do nothing and God is okay with that. God not only loves us, but God loves the Gospel that we are entrusted to make come alive in this world. God loves grace and mercy and hope and goodness and justice and servanthood and righteousness. And when the people of God do not love in a way that amplifies God’s goodness in the world, God’s response is not “Oh well. I guess I’ll just tolerate their apathy because I love them.” Because God loves me and God loves you, God will not simply let irresponsibility and misrepresentation of the Gospel be overlooked. We are responsible to show God’s love in God’s absence. We are invited to display God’s goodness in every situation. We are not given the opportunity to hide God’s Way and receive God’s approval.  Genuine love knows how to call one to responsibility and honestly offer correction and clearly require a high (gospel) standard of action and intention. We do not show love if we allow someone to do anything and then say nothing. Neither does God. That’s not love, that’s care-less-ness. God both cares and loves, for us and the Gospel, so much that we are entrusted with the Gospel and our response becomes a measure of our love for God.   

Perhaps it is now obvious but the $10,000 note that the master gives the servants is either (1) Jesus himself, or (2) the Gospel, or (3) all creation. Either way, the gift is a royal one. It is made holy by the one who gives it freely. We are entrusted with what is most valuable to God. This “good news” that God dwells among us full of grace and truth, the consistent perception that we are all God’s children, the call to make peace and build just and fair human communities, the willingness to forgive as God forgives and love all whom God loves, the recognition of creation as the most visible mirror displaying God’s beauty … these are the valuable coins, the $10,000 bills that God hands to each of us. None of us should take the gift lightly. All of us should know that God does not give these things to us randomly. All of us can make more peace and forgiveness and justice and grace and love with the peace and forgiveness and justice and grace and love that we have been given. That’s the point, maybe not just of the parable, but of the exercise of our faith in the human community. May it become so today and each day. Amen.

Questions for Reflection

1. How does it feel when you hear God has trusted you enough to want your help?

2. Since our perceptions of God influence our choices, what characteristics of God do you focus on the most? Who taught you the most about God?

3. The sermon ends with a call to make peace, forgiveness, justice, grace, and love. Which one of these are you willing to attempt today?


Prayer of Thanksgiving 
Thank you, God for constant love. Please help our church family grow deeper and deeper in your love. Amen.

Song of Faith
Take My Life and Let It Be
Author: Frances Ridley Havergal
Tune: HENDON (Henri A. Cesar Malan)

1 Take my life and let it be consecrated, Lord, to thee.
Take my moments and my days; let them flow in endless praise,
let them flow in endless praise.

2 Take my hands and let them move at the impulse of thy love.
Take my feet and let them be swift and beautiful for thee,
swift and beautiful for thee.

3 Take my voice and let me sing always, only, for my King.
Take my lips and let them be filled with messages from thee,
filled with messages from thee.

4 Take my silver and my gold; not a mite would I withhold.
Take my intellect and use every power as thou shalt choose,
every power as thou shalt choose.

5 Take my will and make it thine; it shall be no longer mine.
Take my heart it is thine own; it shall be thy royal throne,
it shall be thy royal throne.

6 Take my love; my Lord, I pour at thy feet its treasure store.
Take myself, and I will be ever, only, all for thee,
ever, only, all for thee.

Sending Out
May the blessing and peace of God uphold you, 
May the compassion and love of Christ enfold you, 
and may the vitality and power of the Holy Spirit embolden you, 
today and always.  
Amen.

Closing Song 
Blest Be the Tie 
Tune: DENNIS (Nageli) 
Author: John Fawcett 

Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love. 
The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above. Amen. 

Acknowledgements:

The Invitation was written by Thom Shuman, a gifted retired Presbyterian minister in Columbus, Ohio. The tune BEACH SPRING is attributed to Benjamin F. White who was born in 1800 in Union County, SC and was co-editor of The Sacred Harp (1844). Robert L. Edwards who wrote the hymn God Whose Giving Has No Ending was born in Auburn, NY in 1915. A graduate of Princeton University, Harvard University, and Union Theological Seminary, Edwards served Congregational churches in Connecticut. His ministry interests included low income senior housing and prison ministry. The tune NORTH HILL was written by Robert Weaver and named in honor of the retirement community where he and his wife live in Needham, Massachusetts. The words to the anthem, From All the Earth Send Up the Song! is a paraphrase of Psalm 100 by William Allen Pasch. Pasch serves as Organist and Composer in Residence at First Presbyterian Church in Peachtree City, GA. The Prayer for Forgiveness has been adapted from a prayer posted on Jeff’s Blog. (blog.wisch.org/category/
benedictions-and-prayers/). Frances Ridley Havergal wrote the hymn, Take My Life and Let It Be. Havergal was born in 1836 in Worcestershire, England. Her hymns were frequently printed as leaflets and ornamental cards. She died of peritonitis in Wales at the age of 42. Her sisters published most of her works posthumously. Henri Abraham Cesar Malan who composed the tune HENDON was born in 1787 at Geneva right before the start of the French Revolution. He served as a minister in the Reformed Church and became an ardent evangelist. On Easter of 1817, he delivered a sermon entitled, “Man only justified by faith alone.” The sermon created a storm that lasted for years. His proclamation that salvation without good works was deemed dangerous. In 1823, Malan was expelled from ministry in the Reformed Church. Nevertheless, he built a chapel in his own garden where he preached for 43 years. The anthem was played by Tonya and sung by Mindy, Tonya, and Elizabeth. Tracy played the organ and Mindy sang the hymns. Aidan played the piano for Amazing Grace. Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-724755. All rights reserved.  All writings have been used by permission from the posting sites or authors.

Preparation for Worship 
While worshipping at home, set aside a time and a place each week for worship. Light two candles to begin worship: one to represent Christ’s humanity and the other to represent Christ’s divinity. If you would like to celebrate communion have something to eat and drink for everyone. The type of food and drink does not matter for they are merely symbols which help us celebrate the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  

May the following serve as a guide in your worship of God.

The Worship of God

Lighting Two Candles
We begin worship by lighting candles to remind ourselves that the One whom we worship, Jesus, is the light of the world. We light two candles to remind us that Jesus is God and lived alongside us as a human being.

Passing the Peace 
Say to one another, “May the peace of Christ be with you.”
And reply, “And, also with you.”

Invitation
Psalm 98:4-6 / New Revised Standard Version

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth;
break forth into joyous song and sing praises.
Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre,
with the lyre and the sound of melody.
With trumpets and the sound of the horn
make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord.
Come, make a joyful noise, sing praises!

Come, let us worship the Lord!

Opening Prayer
Holy God,
you have commanded us to not be afraid
and assured us of your presence.
In the midst of trials and joys,
sorrows and dreams
may we know your presence and rejoice.
Grant us courage, O God, to take delight in your spirit
in all times and all places.
Grant us faith, O God, to see the myriad of ways you give life.
Grant us hope, O God, to participate in your work in the world.
Grant us love, O God, to welcome, respond, and act with compassion
in all we say and do.
In the name of Jesus Christ, we pray.
Amen.

Hymn of Praise
Canticle of the Turning
Tune: BUNESSAN
Author: Rory Cooney

1. My soul cries out with a joyful shout
That the God of my heart is great,
And my spirit sings of the wondrous things
That you bring to the ones who wait.

Chorus:
My heart shall sing of the day you bring
Let the fires of your justice burn
Wipe away all tears for the dawn draws near
And the world is about to turn!

2. Though I am small, my God, my all,
You work great things in me,
And your mercy will last from the depths of past
to the end of the age to be.

3. Your very name puts the proud to shame,
And to those who would for you yearn
You will show might, put the strong to flight
For the world is about to turn.

4.  The hungry poor shall weep no more
For the food they can never earn
There are tables spread, ev’ry mouth be fed
For the world is about to turn.

Psalm Reading 
Psalm 78:1-7. Common English Bible

Listen, my people, to my teaching;
tilt your ears toward the words of my mouth.
I will open my mouth with a proverb.
I’ll declare riddles from days long gone—
ones that we’ve heard and learned about,
ones that our ancestors told us.
We won’t hide them from their descendants;
we’ll tell the next generation
all about the praise due the Lord and his strength—
the wondrous works God has done.
He established a law for Jacob
and set up Instruction for Israel,
ordering our ancestors
to teach them to their children.
This is so that the next generation
and children not yet born will know these things,
and so they can rise up and tell their children
to put their hope in God—
never forgetting God’s deeds,
but keeping God’s commandments—

Prayer for Others
Pause after each paragraph to give voice to prayers as prompted.  Let us pray,

Merciful God, who shelters us and guides us,  
we give you thanks for…. 

God who comforts,  
receive those who are fearful and lonely…. 

God whose love is steadfast,  
be refuge for the ill, the dying, and those who care about them.… 

God of righteousness,  
we ask for your wisdom and ways of justice to prevail  
in our community, this nation, your world…. 

God who seeks our trust, grow us and guide us in your ways
that are life-giving in your world.  Amen.

Choral Anthem
Keep Your Lamps
Tune: Traditional Spiritual
Composer: arr. Victor C. Johnson

Keep your lamps trimmed and burning,
Keep your lamps trimmed and burning,
Keep your lamps trimmed and burning,
The time is drawing nigh.

Children don’t get weary,
Children don’t get weary,
Children don’t get weary,
‘Til your work is done.

Soon this journey will be over,
Soon this journey will be over,
Soon this journey will be over,
The time is drawing nigh.

Celebrating Communion
Communion celebrates our unity–our unity with God and with one another. At Cullowhee Baptist Church we practice an open communion which means anyone seeking to live the Way of Jesus Christ is invited to share in communion with us. Although we are not able to meet together, our bond still remains with one another and God through Jesus Christ.  
 
Imagine Jesus setting a table for us, a place where we may come together and share a meal. Before we “come to the table,” let us set our hearts aright and seek the Lord’s forgiveness for our shortcomings.

Invitation to Communion
Psalm 145:18 assures us,
The Lord is near to all who call sincerely on God in truth.
So with the assurance of God’s presence and listening ear,
God’s steadfast love,
and God’s overwhelming mercy,
let us confess our sins before God.

Prayer for Forgiveness
Holy God, we come before you a broken people in broken world.
We confess that we have ignored your assured presence.
We have forged our own paths and charted our own waters.
In the name of independence
we have ignored your aid, your comfort, and your peace.
We have called upon you in desperation
rather than recalling your mighty and faithful acts in all times and places.
Forgive us.
You have been with us in exile and liberation;
be with us even now.
Amen.

Assurance of Pardon 
2 Corinthians 5:17-18a, Common English Bible 

If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!  All this is from God, to whom we have been reconciled through Christ. 

Share the Meal 
Share what you have to eat and before eating, have someone say, “This food represents the body of Christ.  As we eat, we remember Jesus.” 

Share what you have to drink and before drinking, have someone say, “This drink represents the covenant Christ made with us that our sins will be forgiven.  As we drink, we remember Jesus.”

Prayer of Thanksgiving 
Dear God, thank you for your abounding compassionate love. Thank you for guiding and leading us through these difficult times. Thank you for always being with us. Amen.

Song of Faith
Amazing Grace 
Tune: NEW BRITAIN (from the Virginia Harmony, 1831) 
Author: John Newton 

‘Mazing grace, how sweet the sound 
That saved a wretch like me. 
I once was lost, but now I’m found, 
Was blind, but now I see.

The Gospel Lesson
Matthew 25:1-13, Common English Bible

[Jesus said] At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten young bridesmaids who took their lamps and went out to meet the groom. Now five of them were wise, and the other five were foolish. The foolish ones took their lamps but didn’t bring oil for them. But the wise ones took their lamps and also brought containers of oil.

When the groom was late in coming, they all became drowsy and went to sleep. But at midnight there was a cry, “Look, the groom! Come out to meet him.” Then all those bridesmaids got up and prepared their lamps. But the foolish bridesmaids said to the wise ones, “Give us some of your oil, because our lamps have gone out.” But the wise bridesmaids replied, “No, because if we share with you, there won’t be enough for our lamps and yours. We have a better idea. You go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves. But while they were gone to buy oil, the groom came. Those who were ready went with him into the wedding. Then the door was shut.

Later the other bridesmaids came and said, “Lord, lord, open the door for us.” But he replied, “I tell you the truth, I don’t know you.”

Therefore, keep alert, because you don’t know the day or the hour.

Proclaiming the Word
Rev. Tonya Vickery

The gospel reading today is smack dab in the middle of a lot of stories that Jesus is telling about God’s coming kin-dom. Some people call it “the end times,” but I prefer to think of it more like a “beginning,” or an “on-going.” It is God’s kin-dom coming. This story is unique to the gospel of Matthew. Mark, Luke, John, they don’t have this one. I used to think it was a silly story. It appeared to me that a groom was very late for his own wedding. Can you imagine the bride waiting all day long and eventually around midnight the guy shows up. For some reason the bridesmaids are sent out to meet him. All of them have lamps in case it grows dark, but only half of them have lamps completely filled with oil. When the groom takes forever to arrive, half of the bridesmaids are like, “We don’t have enough oil to see this through.” And they ask the well prepared bridesmaids to share their oil. “Nu, uh. If we give you what we have, we will all run out of oil. Go quick, buy some before the groom gets here.” And off they go. But when they get back, the groom has already arrived and everyone else is already at the party. So they hurry on to the banquet. But when they get there, the groom won’t let them in. In fact, he says, “I don’t even know you.” And then the line from Jesus, “Keep awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” Like I said, some would say, the “day” or “hour” to which Jesus is referring is “the end times.” I still say, it is the beginning. This life with God isn’t going to “end” with a big party. This life with God is going to continue on and one day there will be this huge shift while life will be like God intends and that season of life will “begin” with a huge party. Okay, you get the picture. I don’t go for the great and glorious day being called “The end.”

I had a few things wrong in my early impressions of this story and perhaps you have too. This is a story about the kin-dom of God, but weddings were different back then. First, the bride’s family was expected to give the groom or the groom’s family a dowry, some type of substantial gift. It might be property, but most likely it was money. On the day of a wedding, the groom would go to the bride’s parents’ home to finalize dowry arrangements with the father-in-law to be and to pick up his bride and bring her back to his house. Now, the bridesmaids in the story are not equivalent to bridesmaids in today’s weddings. These women were maidens, and most likely they were from the groom’s family. Their purpose is to welcome the groom and his bride to the house. The go out to greet them and escort them to the wedding feast. And then they all eat and drink and have a ton of fun. The end.

It is important to understand the customs and setting of this story because the story Jesus tells is an allegory. A parable told to teach us something and in this case, Jesus wants to teach us something about the kin-dom of God. The groom represents Jesus. The maidens in the story represent the church or the ones who profess to live the way of Jesus Christ in the world while waiting on Jesus to come again. The wedding feast represents the full realization of the reign of God–you know, that day of rejoicing when everything, everything will be the way that God intends it. Sadly, the rejection of the foolish maidens represents the final judgment of the church. Our attention may be fully focused on the maidens in the story, because that’s us. Are we foolish? Are we wise? But remember Jesus doesn’t tells the story to teach us about ourselves, but rather Jesus tells the story in order to teach us what the kin-dom of God will be like. The focus is on God, not ourselves.

The groom’s return to his house with his bride has been delayed. It is a significant delay. So much so that the maidens fall asleep waiting. Then a shout wakens them in the middle of the night, “Look! Here comes the groom!” followed by the invitation, “Come, and meet him!” The maidens get up. They trim the wicks of their lamps which have been burning all night waiting on the groom. However, the lamps are running short on oil and the flame is going out. The wise maidens are prepared for the delay. They have brought with them flasks of oil. So they pour more oil into their lamps and go out to meet the groom with their lamps lit. The foolish maidens don’t have enough oil. They demand of the wise ones, “Give us some of your oil.” But it is of no use. There in the middle of the night they go out in search of oil to buy to light the way for the groom. By the time it is said and done, they come to the feast to find the door fastened shut with the groom refusing to recognize them and allow them in.

Okay, what does Jesus’ story teach us about the kin-dom of God? Quickly we deduce that there will probably be a delay in the coming of God’s kin-dom. It will not happen when we expect it to happen. It will tarry. It will take a while. So be patient. The righteousness and justice of God will fully be realized one day. Don’t give up. There is coming a day when everything will happen in the best ways possible–God’s ways. It’s not here yet, but it will come. There is a coming a day when we won’t need to be critical, or make judgements. There is coming a day when we will be able to fully trust one another. There is coming a day when the righteousness and justice of God will triumph over all. There is coming a day when everyone will have enough. There is coming a day when children will live, fear will be gone, sorrow will melt away, bitterness will dry up, conflict will be exchanged for companionship. There is coming a day when all of creation and everything in it will be made new again by God’s doing. So don’t give up even though you may be weary, says Jesus. Don’t give up even though you may need to rest a little while and take a nap. Don’t give up even though the lamp won’t hold enough oil alone to light the long night. Don’t give up. God’s kin-dom will come. When? We don’t know. We are assured that it will take some time to arrive, but it will come just as sure as the groom came in Jesus’ story.

We also learn that the kin-dom of God is something for which we prepare. Jesus says watch for it. Be wise, not foolish. Be prepared. Have your lamps, yes, but also have oil. Keep the light of Christ shining through you. Keep the love and mercy and grace of God shining brightly from what you say, what you do, how you think, how you react, how you respond. When you trim the wick of an oil lamp, you do so that the light will shine clear and bright. Let the light of Christ be this way through you shining clear and bright. Even though the groom is greatly delayed in coming, even though the day when all things will be made right tarries, keep the light of Christ burning in your life. You can’t rely on someone else’s preparation and you can’t rely on a time schedule. Jesus wants you, you fully invested at all times, not just following the crowd. Jesus wants us live out what he has taught us and how he has taught us to live. And above all, we are not to grow weary of doing the good of God. See it as a privilege. See it as an opportunity. Not a curse or a limitation. See it as living abundantly. Recall and believe the words of Jesus from Matthew chapter eleven where Jesus says, “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Jesus will lead the way for us. We do have something to do, to carry while we follow, but Jesus will lead the way.

Finally, know that you have a place at the feast. You are expected. There’s a place card at the table with your name on it. So don’t neglect the invitation nor diss it with the way you live. As you wait, you wait with purpose. In Christ, we wait living in hope and we live never giving up on God. In Christ, we express God’s love and compassion and work for God’s justice. In Christ, we know that whether we live or die, whether we are in pain or feeling great, whether our hearts are broken or beating strong, we are always and forever ultimately safe in the love of God. In Christ, give yourself to the work of God’s kin-dom even as it delays in coming. Don’t give up, Jesus says. Keep those lamps burning.

Questions for Reflection 
■ What type of situation makes you feel that you are only partially committed and consequently only going through the motions?
■ How do you feel when hoped-for results fail to materialize? How does that affect your commitment and readiness to offer your best?
■ When have you recognized that your growth, your learning, was something only you could do?
■ When have you experienced opportunities that might never have been there without preparation?

Prayer of Thanksgiving 
Thank you, God for constant love. Please help our church family grow deeper and deeper in your love. Amen.

Song of Faith
Christ, Be Our Light
Author: Bernadette Farrell
Tune: CHRIST, BE OUR LIGHT (B. Farrell)

Longing for light, we wait in darkness
Longing for truth, we turn to You.
Make us Your own, Your holy people
Light for the world to see.
Christ, be our light!
Shine in our hearts.
Shine through the darkness.
Christ, be our light!
Shine in Your church gathered today.

Longing for peace, our world is troubled
Longing for hope, many despair.
Your word alone has pow’r to save us.
Make us your living voice.
Christ, be our light!
Shine in our hearts.
Shine through the darkness.
Christ, be our light!
Shine in Your church gathered today.

Longing for food, many are hungry
Longing for water, many still thirst.
Make us Your bread, broken for others
Shared until all are fed.
Christ, be our light!
Shine in our hearts.
Shine through the darkness.
Christ, be our light!
Shine in Your church gathered today.

Longing for shelter, many are homeless
Longing for warmth, many are cold.
Make us Your building, sheltering others
Walls made of living stone.
Christ, be our light!
Shine in our hearts.
Shine through the darkness.
Christ, be our light!
Shine in Your church gathered today.

Many the gift, many the people
Many the hearts that yearn to belong.
Let us be servants to one another
Making Your kingdom come.
Christ, be our light!
Shine in our hearts.
Shine through the darkness.
Christ, be our light!
Shine in Your church gathered today.

Sending Out
May the blessing and peace of God uphold you, 
May the compassion and love of Christ enfold you, 
and may the vitality and power of the Holy Spirit embolden you, 
today and always.  
Amen.

Closing Song 
Blest Be the Tie 
Tune: DENNIS (Nageli) 
Author: John Fawcett 

Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love. 
The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above. Amen. 

Acknowledgements:

The Invitation to Communion was written by Thom Shuman. The Opening Prayer, Invitation to Confession, & Prayer of Confession comes from Feasting on the Word Worship Companion: Liturgies for Year C, Volume 2: Trinity Sunday through Reign of Christ. Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition. The anthem was played by Tonya and sung by Mindy, Michelle, Tonya, Ally, Laura, Kendall, and Elizabeth. Tracy played the organ and Mindy sang the hymns. Aidan played the piano for Amazing Grace. Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-724755. All rights reserved.  All writings have been used by permission from the posting sites or authors.

Preparation for Worship 
While worshipping at home, set aside a time and a place each week for worship. Light two candles to begin worship: one to represent Christ’s humanity and the other to represent Christ’s divinity. If you would like to celebrate communion have something to eat and drink for everyone. The type of food and drink does not matter for they are merely symbols which help us celebrate the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  

Today is All Saints’ Sunday. Today we remember the “saints” of Cullowhee Baptist Church who have gone on before us in the past year. We celebrate and give thanks for how their lives among us shaped and informed our faith, how they made our community of faith better, and how their love for the Lord became a blessing to us.

May the following serve as a guide in your worship of God.

The Worship of God

Lighting Two Candles
We begin worship by lighting candles to remind ourselves that the One whom we worship, Jesus, is the light of the world. We light two candles to remind us that Jesus is God and lived alongside us as a human being.

Passing the Peace 
Say to one another, “May the peace of Christ be with you.”
And reply, “And, also with you.”

Invitation to Worship
Blessed are those who will not trade in their faith for a bushel of fear,
for they know God’s heart.
Blessed are those who stand alone at gravesides,
for they are wrapped in God’s arms.
Blessed are those who humbly care for the vulnerable,
for they shall create new communities.
Blessed are those who miss dinner, and happy hour each night,
in order to care for the forgotten,
for they shall be filled with the manna of hope.
Blessed are those who are compassionate,
even with those who rub them the wrong way,
for they will be cared for by others.
Blessed are those who look out for their neighbors,
for they live next door to God.
Blessed are the menders of brokenness,
for they know what it is like to be reconciled to God.
Blessed are those who are mocked by the rich and the powerful,
for they know they are walking the streets of the kin-dom.
Blessed are you when others mock you,
point at your mask,
think you are foolish for keeping your distance,
caring for others,
for then you know you are a sibling of Jesus.
Blessed are all those who model faith for us
in these uncertain days, weeks, months.

Opening Prayer
Sovereign of Creation,
          all that we have comes from you.
Physically distanced, we gather in your presence,
          surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,
          people from every tribe and nation,
          every kindred and tongue,
          to lift our voices in praise,
          to be transformed into your saints,
          to be sent out to gather others to share the eternal banquet.
Hear the praise we offer,
          work in us and through us.
You alone are holy,
          you alone are the Most High,
          you alone are worthy of our praise.
Glory to you O God,
          and to the Lamb, our Shepherd,
          and to the Spirit that unites us all,
today and ever more.
Amen.

Hymn of Praise
Sing with All the Saints in Glory
Tune: ODE TO JOY (Ludwig van Beethoven)
Author: William J. Irons

1. Sing with all the saints in glory,
Sing the resurrection song!
Death and sorrow, earth’s dark story,
To the former days belong.
All around the clouds are breaking,
Soon the storms of time shall cease;
In God’s likeness we, awaking,
Know the everlasting peace.

2. O what glory, far exceeding
All that eye has yet perceived!
Holiest hearts, for ages pleading,
Never that full joy conceived.
God has promised, Christ prepares it,
There on high our welcome waits.
Every humble spirit shares it;
Christ has passed th’eternal gates.

3. Life eternal! heav’n rejoices:
Jesus lives who once was dead.
Shout with joy, O deathless voices!
Child of God, lift up your head!
Patriarchs from distant ages,
Saints all longing for their heav’n,
Prophets, psalmists, seers, and sages,
All await the glory giv’n.

4.  Life eternal! O what wonders
Crowd on faith; what joy unknown,
When, amid earth’s closing thunders,
Saints shall stand before the throne!
Oh, to enter that bright portal,
See that glowing firmament,
Know, with you, O God immortal,
Jesus Christ whom you have sent!

Psalm Reading 
Psalm 34:1-10, 22. Common English Bible

I will bless the Lord at all times;
    his praise will always be in my mouth.
I praise the Lord—
    let the suffering listen and rejoice.
Magnify the Lord with me!
    Together let us lift his name up high!
I sought the Lord and he answered me.
    He delivered me from all my fears.
Those who look to God will shine;
    their faces are never ashamed.
This suffering person cried out:
    the Lord listened and saved him from every trouble.
On every side, the Lord’s messenger
      protects those who honor God; and he delivers them.
Taste and see how good the Lord is!
    The one who takes refuge in him is truly happy!
You who are the Lord’s holy ones, honor him,
    because those who honor him don’t lack a thing.
Even strong young lions go without and get hungry,
    but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.
The Lord saves his servants’ lives;
    all those who take refuge in him
    won’t be held responsible for anything.

Remembering the Saints
We remember all who have gone before us into God’s eternal splendor especially those from our church family who have died in the last year. We remember and give thanks for

Irene Hooper
(January 17, 1922 to December 26, 2019)

Lou Jane Mills
(February 28, 1945 to May 10, 2020)

Anne Setzer
(January 30, 1936 to June 16, 2020)

Pelham Thomas
(April 18, 1922 to July 5, 2020)

Lavonia “Pinky” Andrews
(April 14, 1947 to September 13, 2020)

Carolyn Wike
(November 11, 1935 to September 17, 2020)

We join them and all the angels and saints of heaven in the hymn of unending praise to God our Rock and Redeemer! Amen.

Choral Anthem
Hark I Hear the Harps Eternal
Tune: INVITATION (Sacred Harp)
Composer: Mark Schweizer

Hark, I hear the harps eternal
Ringing on the farther shore;
As I near those swollen waters
With their deep and solemn roar.

Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
Hallelujah! Praise the Lamb!
Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
Glory to the great I AM!

And my soul, though stained with sorrow,
Fading as the light of day,
Passes swiftly o’er those waters,
to the city far away.

Souls have crossed before me saintly,
To that land of perfect rest;
And I hear them singing faintly
In the mansions of the blest.

Prayer for Others
Pause after each paragraph to give voice to prayers as prompted.  Let us pray,

Merciful God, who shelters us and guides us,  
we give you thanks for…. 

God who comforts,  
receive those who are fearful and lonely…. 

God whose love is steadfast,  
be refuge for the ill, the dying, and those who care about them.… 

God of righteousness,  
we ask for your wisdom and ways of justice to prevail  
in our community, this nation, your world…. 

God who seeks our trust, grow us and guide us in your ways
that are life-giving in your world.  Amen.

Celebrating Communion
Communion celebrates our unity–our unity with God and with one another. At Cullowhee Baptist Church we practice an open communion which means anyone seeking to live the Way of Jesus Christ is invited to share in communion with us. Although we are not able to meet together, our bond still remains with one another and God through Jesus Christ.  
 
Imagine Jesus setting a table for us, a place where we may come together and share a meal. Before we “come to the table,” let us set our hearts aright and seek the Lord’s forgiveness for our shortcomings.

Invitation to Communion
God’s Table is for everyone, no matter how old one is, or young; for those we think of as saints, and those we know are foolish, because we look in the mirror. For God knows that we all try, and no matter how many times we mess up, God will forgive us, quickly and mercifully. I invite you to join in the prayer for forgiveness.

Prayer for Forgiveness
Beloved God,
who was known to our mothers and fathers,
and to our spiritual forebears,
have mercy on us.

We do not always love as you would have us love.
We do not always do as you would have us do.
In stubbornness,
we turn from you when we should turn toward you.
Hold us, Beloved God–
comfort us when we mourn the passing of friends and family,
and help us to know that they are rejoicing in your presence.
We praise you for the grace you shower on us,
constantly forgiving our errors,
especially the ones that we don’t share with any but you.
Hear now our silent fears and worries of our hearts.

Silent prayer and reflection

Assurance of Pardon 
2 Corinthians 5:17-18a, Common English Bible 

If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!  All this is from God, to whom we have been reconciled through Christ. 

Share the Meal 
Share what you have to eat and before eating, have someone say, “This food represents the body of Christ.  As we eat, we remember Jesus.” 

Share what you have to drink and before drinking, have someone say, “This drink represents the covenant Christ made with us that our sins will be forgiven.  As we drink, we remember Jesus.”

Prayer of Thanksgiving 
Dear God, thank you for your abounding compassionate love. Thank you for guiding and leading us through these difficult times. Thank you for always being with us. Amen.

Song of Faith
Amazing Grace 
Tune: NEW BRITAIN (from the Virginia Harmony, 1831) 
Author: John Newton 

‘Mazing grace, how sweet the sound 
That saved a wrench like me. 
I once was lost, but now I’m found, 
Was blind, but now I see.

The Gospel Lesson
Matthew 23:1-12, Common English Bible

Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and his disciples, “The legal experts and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat. Therefore, you must take care to do everything they say. But don’t do what they do. For they tie together heavy packs that are impossible to carry. They put them on the shoulders of others, but are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. Everything they do, they do to be noticed by others. They make extra-wide prayer bands for their arms and long tassels for their clothes. They love to sit in places of honor at banquets and in the synagogues. They love to be greeted with honor in the markets and to be addressed as ‘Rabbi.’  But you shouldn’t be called Rabbi, because you have one teacher, and all of you are brothers and sisters. Don’t call anybody on earth your father, because you have one Father, who is heavenly. Don’t be called teacher, because Christ is your one teacher. But the one who is greatest among you will be your servant. All who lift themselves up will be brought low. But all who make themselves low will be lifted up.

Proclaiming the Word
Rev. Jeffrey Vickery

Jesus said, “The one who is greatest among you will be your servant.” Remember that. It doesn’t make sense in many ways. If anyone other than Jesus would have said it, most people in most churches would not be too sure that it’s true. But Jesus did say it, and as far as I can tell he was not being sarcastic when he did. So it bears remembering – the greatest among you will be your servant.  

This teaching of Jesus is part of the great “reversal” sayings we find in the Gospels. Like when Jesus said, the first shall be last and the last shall be first. Or when he’s talking about important people at a feast and he concludes by saying the exalted shall be humbled and the humble shall be exalted. Or when he’s discussing wealth and poverty and describes the seeking of wealth as a poverty that depletes our spirit, but praises the poor for having genuine trust in God. These sayings reverse what the world around us teaches is true. Our task is not to serve ourselves first, or work to win fame and awards, or think of ourselves as great because someone else said it about us. In this Gospel story Jesus identifies the greatest as the one who serves. 

I have to admit that I find it quite important that we read these words of Jesus on the eve of a presidential election – or any election for that matter. Both politicians that I support and the ones that I find unacceptable have to carry more than their share of ego. Servanthood is not on their radar. Power and privilege and prestige surround any politician and can easily lead her or him to think more highly of themselves than they ought to do. While I love the democratic process in America, this is a good day to be reminded that Christians do not look to politics to save us or our world. Politicians are not to be followed as though they speak God’s truth. Their seat in Congress or the White House does not endow them with God’s blessing or confer on them God’s choosing. The Gospel is found in the teachings of Jesus and not in a legislative agenda. Don’t take me wrong, politics are important as they impact real people’s lives for good and for ill. That’s why all of us who are able should vote, and why we must all be aware that our votes matter for others as much as for ourselves. Yet we must guard against replacing the teachings of Jesus with support for any one candidate or party. And we must recognize that any room in which any president resides, the greatest person in that room will not be the elected official, but the servant who dusts the desk or the custodian that cleans. 

How can this be true when almost everyone refers to the President of the United States as “the most powerful person in the world”? Because in God’s reckoning of people, powerful doesn’t mean “great.” Nor does great mean famous. In the Gospel of God, the greatest is not the winner. Nor is “Greatest” a title of recognition given by bosses or teachers or judges. Jesus wants us to see people through God’s eyes and not our own. We are so deceived that we think God approves of people using the same measure that we do. Instead, Jesus helps us see that God knows and finds greatness when we serve others rather than seeking attention to ourselves.    

In the Gospel story, Jesus uses well-known leaders around his disciples as a way to draw them into the spiritual depth of religious servanthood. He points to the “legal experts and Pharisees” and tells his followers to “take care to do everything they say.” We should not be surprised at this affirmation. They taught people to pray three times daily, to worship every Sabbath, and to practice their faith in every relationship of their life. The Pharisees and teachers had read the stories of Noah and Ninevah, Rebecca and Rahab, Job and Jocabed, and taught these stories to many of the same people Jesus is now teaching. And these Pharisees are not wrong. Their words and teachings are valuable. Yet Jesus turns the proverbial tables. They rightly teach you what to do but not why to do it. They say the right words, but they act from selfish motivations. Imitate their practice but not their heart. Listen to their words but don’t share the same attitude. Jesus is interested in the integrity of our intention before God. These leaders care about how the public perceives what they say, and Jesus wants us to consider what we say and what we do and why we do them.  

Think about it this way. Imagine I am given the advice to bring flowers to Tonya as a way to express my love. So every Thursday I place a clutch of fresh flowers in a vase and put them on the table at home. It’s a good practice but whether or not it communicates love depends on my intent and behavior in buying and giving the flowers, as well as the way I treat her throughout the week. Gifts can be given as a selfish act, or done out of guilt, or just perfunctory in order to check some expected box, or even with lingering disdain. I can use the gift as a way to brag about being a great husband, or better yet, have Tonya brag about me. What is intended to be generous and loving can become meaningless or (even worse) manipulative. The same is true with prayer. Or worship. Or acts of care and kindness and justice. Or servanthood. Jesus does not just expect obedience to God but a genuine intent of our spirit. 

Jesus criticizes the religious leaders, and thus criticizes us if it applies, for wanting attention and praise from others. These Pharisees he notes even change their practice of prayer, not out of a response to God, but in order to appear holy or smart or competent or proper in the eyes of the public. They like their official titles like “Rabbi” and “teacher” but only because it makes them sound influential and important. In other Gospel stories, Jesus will say that when they (or we) receive praise from others for our religious practice it has no bearing on whether or not we have pleased God in our practice of faith. And if we act like a Christian for the purpose of being awarded some prize of reputation or respect from others, then God not impressed.  

So let me repeat, Jesus said the greatest among us is the servant. This is not the place where he says, “in order to be great, become a servant.” That’s something quite different. It is easy to go there with this story because it exposes our desire to be great, or at least to think of ourselves as important. Many will then attempt servanthood in order to be considered the greatest revealing a strange cultural emphasis on personal accolades as a sign of significance. In fact, this approach to Jesus’ teaching is the opposite of what Jesus intends. Imagine one of the Pharisees hearing Jesus say this, and so that Pharisee then starts serving people so that people will think he’s great. Jesus had criticized them for praying excessively in order to gain attention. The same can take place with servanthood. Its purpose is focused on the person being served and not ourselves as doing and giving and serving. If I am praised for going on a mission trip, or helping feed families during the summer, or giving money to help our sister church in Brazil, and what I want is that praise, then Jesus finds little greatness in that approach to serving.  

It turns out that the hardest thing about being considered great by God is to desire genuinely to be a servant. And to do so for the sake of the people we serve. And to not get our feathers ruffled if we do something that is servant-like and no one says “thank you” or gives us a plaque that says “Volunteer of the Year.” Many people want to be great; Jesus is interested in those who want to be servants.  

Two things seem necessary: first, to see the people who serve us as great; second, to consider serving others as more important than serving ourselves. 

In case we miss it, Jesus is praising the servants already among us. Probably the ones overlooked by us. The truth is that we are dependent as humans even though the myth of independence is woven into the fabric of American life. But no single person is without the help of many people who are willfully hidden from us. Who is the best person in Cullowhee? Or Jackson County? It’s not the County Council or the mayors or the wealthy business developers or the tourists who bring their spending money or the famous celebrities who were raised here. It is likely the migrant farmworker without whom we would not have local produce or Christmas trees; or the single mom who cleans hotel rooms as a second job to support her children; or the Hispanic construction worker, or the stock person at Ingles, or the recycling center staff, or the high school fry cook at Bojangles. This teaching of Jesus must turn our attention to the personal and spiritual value of the people who are already the servants among us. God knows their name and sees their heart. God’s people should recognize that these servants are greater in God’s eyes than our pastors or politicians or public celebrities. Why? So that we can treat them with respect and care. We are so often the ones who are served that we cannot let our place of privilege blind us to the real valuable greatness of the persons around us who are considered unimportant by the world. We must learn that God’s greatest people are the ones we too often ignore. And may that knowledge compel us to repent of this sin and renew our ability to see the holy virtue of the people that society undervalues.          

Perhaps the harder part of Jesus’ teaching here is that he is asking us to want to be a servant to others. Servanthood is tough. It requires humility, it takes effort, it will not win awards. It is truly found when we take our motivation for servanthood from seeing the virtue and value of the ones we serve. In the Downton Abbey television series, the butler Mr. Carson is a servant in every literal sense of the word. His character is so virtuous, in part, because he sees his task of serving Lord Grantham as a meaningful life’s work because both Lord Grantham and the family are worth Mr. Carson’s efforts. The same can be said about our opportunities to serve others. Many people find the church as a worthy place to be a servant because by serving the church we are serving God and God’s work. The volunteers at United Christian Ministries, or the Center for Domestic Peace, or the Community Table will be Gospel servants when they see the clients they serve as worthy of their service. Whether one is a social worker at DSS or a kindergarten teacher or a Senior Center volunteer, the greatest servant is the one who finds value in God‘s people whom they serve.  

In the end, we read Jesus’ story and hear his conclusion and we are left with a difficult prayer. “Lord, help me to want to become a servant rather than to be considered great.” We will find an answer to that prayer when we serve without hope of consequence but out of the value we already see in another person whose life is worthy of the time and effort we have to give. 

Questions for Reflection 

  1. Who are the people that serve you or your family?  
  1. Who are the people that you serve, or the work that you do that is in service to others? 
  1. Take time this week to honestly assess your attitude and motivation to serve. As you do so, remember the prayer: “Lord, help me to want to become a servant rather than to be considered great.”    

Prayer of Thanksgiving 
Thank you, God for constant love. Please help our church family grow deeper and deeper in your love. Amen.

Song of Faith
For All the Saints
Author: William Walsham How, adapted by J. Cotter
Tune: SINE NOMINE (Ralph Vaughan Williams)

1. For all the saints who from their labors rest,
who in the world their faith in God confessed,
your name, O Jesus, be forever blest.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

2. You were the stranger in the dark of night
with whom they strove to find their one True Light,
to whom you gave God’s blessing ever bright:
Alleluia! Alleluia!

3. They are the folk who gave with Love Divine,
always in service did their wills incline,
forgetting self, they did with glory shine:
Alleluia! Alleluia!

4. They followed you, cast out the city’s gate
killed by the eyes and guns of human hate,
yet trumpets sound their resurrection fête:
Alleluia! Alleluia!

5. And there will dawn a yet more marvelous day,
the saints with laughter sing and dance and play,
the Clown of Glory tumbles in the way:
Alleluia! Alleluia!

6. With earth restored, with this our fragile star,
in gladness home from pilgrimage afar,
we find in God a joy that none can mar:
Alleluia! Alleluia!

Sending Out
May the blessing and peace of God uphold you, 
May the compassion and love of Christ enfold you, 
and may the vitality and power of the Holy Spirit embolden you, 
today and always.  
Amen.

Closing Song 
Blest Be the Tie 
Tune: DENNIS (Nageli) 
Author: John Fawcett 

Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love. 
The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above. Amen. 

Acknowledgements:

The Invitation to Worship and the Invitation to Communion was written by Thom Shuman. The Opening Prayer was written by Bob Gross and comes from Worship Ways an online publication of the United Church of Christ. The Prayer of Forgiveness was written by Lucus Keppel and posted on LiturgyLink. The Psalm was read by Donna. The anthem was played by Tonya and sung by Mindy Tonya, Ally, and Elizabeth. Tracy played the organ and Mindy sang the hymns. Aidan played the piano for Amazing Grace. Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-724755. All rights reserved.  All writings have been used by permission from the posting sites or authors.

Preparation for Worship 
While worshipping at home, set aside a time and a place each week for worship. Light two candles to begin worship: one to represent Christ’s humanity and the other to represent Christ’s divinity. If you would like to celebrate communion have something to eat and drink for everyone. The type of food and drink does not matter for they are merely symbols which help us celebrate the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  

Today is Reformation Sunday. This Sunday celebrates the occasion of Martin Luther posting his 95 theses on the church door in Wittenberg, Germany in 1517. Thus began the Protestant Reformation.  Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531), a Swiss minister, was another strong leader of the Reformation. In autumn of 1519, he spent his days ministering to the citizens of Zurich afflicted by the bubonic plague. That fall, Zwingli and his brother Andreas contracted the disease falling seriously ill. By spring Zwingli was making a slow recovery. However, Andreas along with 25% of the population of the city died from the epidemic. At the end of the year 1520 Zwingli wrote the following song to memorialize his illness and recovery. May it serve as a witness to us of how others respond to great lose and mysterious tragedy.

I. At the Beginning of the Illness

Help, Lord God, help in this trouble! I think death is at the door.

Stand before me, Christ; for Thou hast overcome him!
To Thee I cry: If it is Thy will, take out the dart, which wounds me,
Nor lets me have an hour’s rest or repose!
Will’st Thou, however, that death take me in the midst of my days, so let it be!
Do what Thou wilt; me nothing lacks.
Thy vessel am I; to make or break altogether.
For if Thou takest away my spirit from this earth,
Thou dost it, that it may not grow worse,
nor spot the pious lives and ways of others.

II. In the Midst of the Illness

Console me, Lord, God, console me! The illness increases,
Pain and fear seize my soul and body.

Come to me then, with Thy grace, O my consolation!
It will surely save everyone, who his heart’s desire
and hopes sets on Thee, and who besides despises all gains and losses.

Now all is up. My tongue is dumb, it cannot speak a word.
My senses are blighted.

Therefore it is time that Thou my fight conductest hereafter;
Since I am not so strong, that I can bravely make resistance
To the Devil’s wiles and treacherous hand.
Still will my spirit constantly abide by Thee, however he rages.

III. During Convalescence

Sound, Lord God, sound! I think I am already coming back.
Yes, if it please Thee, that no spark of sin rule me longer on earth.
Then my lips must Thy praise and teaching bespeak more than ever before,
However it may go, in simplicity and with no danger.
Although I must the punishment of death sometimes endure,
Perhaps with greater anguish than would now have happened, Lord!
Since I came so near; so will I still the spite and boasting of this world
Bear joyfully for the sake of the reward by Thy help,
Without which nothing can be perfect.

May the following serve as a guide in your worship of God.

The Worship of God

Lighting Two Candles
We begin worship by lighting candles to remind ourselves that the One whom we worship, Jesus, is the light of the world. We light two candles to remind us that Jesus is God and lived alongside us as a human being.

Passing the Peace 
Say to one another, “May the peace of Christ be with you.”
And reply, “And, also with you.”

Invitation to Worship
Heaven and earth, be witness to our work
of creating a world steeped in liberation for all.
We commit ourselves to working for justice,
standing up for the defenseless,
and defending the vulnerable.

God, we know that the nation’s hands are bloody.
        We cannot change the past.
        We are invited to learn from it.
        We can create a new reality in the present.

God, we commit to being transformed people.
        We will no longer oppress.
        We will no longer marginalize.
        Poverty will no longer prevail.
        Supremacy will be unwoven from this nation’s tapestry.
        Inequitable laws will not thrive in our justice system.

God, just as you love us, we will love all people.
Love will be infused in all that we do.

Opening Prayer
God, thank you for giving us life. Thank you for setting us here in this moment and in this place. Thank you for tending to our growth. Thank you for showing us how to scatter the seeds of justice and righteousness. Thank you for showing us how to tend earth’s bounty. Sometimes in our haste we set out bad plants and leave fragrant blossoms to the killing frosts. Come among us, Keeper of the vine, and show us how to cultivate your world, for you are wonderful in counsel and excellent in wisdom. Amen.

Hymn of Praise
We Praise You, O God, Our Redeemer
Tune: KREMSER (Netherlands Folk Song)
Author: Julia Cady Cory

1  We praise you, O God, our Redeemer, Creator;
in grateful devotion our tribute we bring;
we lay it before you; we kneel and adore you;
we bless your holy name: glad praises we sing.

2  We worship you, God of our fathers and mothers;
through life’s storm and tempest our guide you have been;
when perils o’ertake us, you never forsake us,
and with your help, O Lord, our battles we win.

3  With voices united our praises we offer,
our songs of thanksgiving to you we now raise;
your strong arm will guide us, our God is beside us,
to you, our great Redeemer, forever be praise.

Psalm Reading 
Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17. Common English Bible

Lord, you have been our help,
    generation after generation.
Before the mountains were born,
    before you birthed the earth and the inhabited world—
    from forever in the past
    to forever in the future, you are God.
You return people to dust,
    saying, “Go back, humans,”
    because in your perspective a thousand years
    are like yesterday past,
    like a short period during the night watch.
You sweep humans away like a dream,
    like grass that is renewed in the morning.
True, in the morning it thrives, renewed,
    but come evening it withers, all dried up.
Come back to us, Lord!
    Please, quick!
    Have some compassion for your servants!
Fill us full every morning with your faithful love
    so we can rejoice and celebrate our whole life long.
Make us happy for the same amount of time that you afflicted us—
    for the same number of years that we saw only trouble.
Let your acts be seen by your servants;
    let your glory be seen by their children.
Let the kindness of the Lord our God be over us.
    Make the work of our hands last.    
Make the work of our hands last!

Prayer for Others
Pause after each paragraph to give voice to prayers as prompted.  Let us pray,

Merciful God, who shelters us and guides us,  
we give you thanks for…. 

God who comforts,  
receive those who are fearful and lonely…. 

God whose love is steadfast,  
be refuge for the ill, the dying, and those who care about them.… 

God of righteousness,  
we ask for your wisdom and ways of justice to prevail  
in our community, this nation, your world….  God who seeks our trust, grow us and guide us in your ways
that are life-giving in your world.  Amen.

Choral Anthem
Prayer of St. Richard of Chichester
Composer: Roland E. Martin

O holy Jesus, merciful Redeemer,
friend and brother,
may I know thee more clearly,
love thee more dearly, and follow thee more nearly, day by day.

Celebrating Communion
Communion celebrates our unity–our unity with God and with one another. At Cullowhee Baptist Church we practice an open communion which means anyone seeking to live the Way of Jesus Christ is invited to share in communion with us. Although we are not able to meet together, our bond still remains with one another and God through Jesus Christ.  
 
Imagine Jesus setting a table for us, a place where we may come together and share a meal. Before we “come to the table,” let us set our hearts aright and seek the Lord’s forgiveness for our shortcomings.

Prayer for Forgiveness
When our culture or religion binds us
to complicity in the systems of oppression,
O Lord bring your love to set all free. 
Turn our hearts and minds away from intrigue and duplicity.
Turn our hearts and minds away from systems that confine.
O Lord bring your love to set all free.
O Lord forgive us.
Fire within us a mood of coexistence,
that we may work to end repression,
to set lives free, and to break the bonds of hidden hatred.
O Lord forgive, begin with me. Amen.

Assurance of Pardon 
2 Corinthians 5:17-18a, Common English Bible 

If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!  All this is from God, to whom we have been reconciled through Christ. 

Invitation to Communion
The table has been prepared as Jesus requested, 
and we have been invited to the meal. 

Come to the heart of Christ, where all are one:
which alone expects nothing in return;
Through the boundless hospitality of the Spirit.

In this communion, find healing, rest, and release;
In one another, find love for body, mind, and spirit;
Come to the table of God and be at peace.

Share the Meal 
Share what you have to eat and before eating, have someone say, “This food represents the body of Christ.  As we eat, we remember Jesus.” 

Share what you have to drink and before drinking, have someone say, “This drink represents the covenant Christ made with us that our sins will be forgiven.  As we drink, we remember Jesus.”

Prayer of Thanksgiving 
Dear God, thank you for your abounding compassionate love. Thank you for guiding and leading us through these difficult times. Thank you for always being with us. Amen.

Song of Faith
Amazing Grace 
Tune: NEW BRITAIN (from the Virginia Harmony, 1831) 
Author: John Newton 

‘Mazing grace, how sweet the sound 
That saved a wrench like me. 
I once was lost, but now I’m found, 
Was blind, but now I see.

The Gospel Lesson
John 3:1-8, Common English Bible

There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a Jewish leader. He came to Jesus at night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could do these miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.” 

Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born anew, it’s not possible to see God’s kingdom.”

Nicodemus asked, “How is it possible for an adult to be born? It’s impossible to enter the mother’s womb for a second time and be born, isn’t it?” Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom. Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit. Don’t be surprised that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ God’s Spirit blows wherever it wishes. You hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. It’s the same with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Proclaiming the Word
The Answer to the Soul’s Eternal Question
Dr. James Forbes

The Alliance of Baptist has provided a wonderful opportunity to hear Dr. James Forbes preach for Reformation Sunday. How fortunate for the Vickery’s who were away this past week and weekend celebrating the marriage of their daughter.

Prayer of Thanksgiving 
Thank you, God for constant love. Please help our church family grow deeper and deeper in your love. Amen.

Song of Faith
O Christ, the Great Foundation
Author: Timothy Tingfang Lew
Tune: AURELIA

O Christ, the great foundation on which your people stand
To preach your true salvation in every age and land:
Pour out your Holy Spirit to make us strong and pure,
To keep the faith unbroken as long as worlds endure.

Baptized in one confession, one church in all the earth,
We bear Christ’s own impression, the sign of second birth:
One holy people gathered in love beyond our own,
By grace we were invited, by grace we make you known.

God, for today’s encounters with all who are in need,
Who hunger for acceptance, for righteousness and bread,
Bring us new eyes for seeing, new hands for holding on;
Renew us with your Spirit; God! Free us, make us one!

Sending Out
May the blessing and peace of God uphold you, 
May the compassion and love of Christ enfold you, 
and may the vitality and power of the Holy Spirit embolden you, 
today and always.  
Amen.

Closing Song 
Blest Be the Tie 
Tune: DENNIS (Nageli) 
Author: John Fawcett 

Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love. 
The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above. Amen. 

Acknowledgements:

The Invitation to Worship was written by Aretha Flucker, Director of Community and Spiritual Life at Brite Divinity School.  The Opening Prayer is based on writings in Litanies and Other Prayers for the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, edited by Phyllis Cole and Everett Tilson.  The Prayer of Forgiveness is based on the hymn When Our Culture or Religion by Andrew Pratt. The Invitation to Communion was written by Julie Greenan from Acorns and Archangels, published by Wild Goose Publications, Iona Community.  The anthem was sung by Mindy and Laura. Tracy played the organ and Mindy sang the hymns. Aidan played the piano for Amazing Grace. Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-724755. All rights reserved.  All writings have been used by permission from the posting sites or authors.

Preparation for Worship 
While worshipping at home, set aside a time each week for worship and designate a place. Light two candles to begin worship: one to represent Christ’s humanity and the other to represent Christ’s divinity. If you would like to celebrate communion have something to eat and drink for everyone. The type of food and drink does not matter for they are merely symbols which help us celebrate the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  

Each October we set aside the third Sunday to celebrate the children of our nation. This weekend we join sister churches and other faith groups to focus on the urgent problems facing children in the US. Together we amplify our voices calling for justice.

May the following serve as a guide in your worship of God.

The Worship of God

Lighting Two Candles
We begin worship by lighting candles to remind ourselves that the One whom we worship, Jesus, is the light of the world. We light two candles to remind us that Jesus is God and lived alongside us as a human being.

Passing the Peace 
Say to one another, “May the peace of Christ be with you.”
And reply, “And, also with you.”

Invitation to Worship
Bring yourselves before the Lord.
Offer your works, your labors, and your hopes to the glory of God.
Welcome in full conviction the good news of God’s love.

Opening Prayer
Gather our hearts, O God,
knitting us together across difference and division
to live with your compassion.
Gather our minds, O God,
from distractions and distance
to focus on you and your children.
Gather our wills, O God,
to be strong and courageous
in pursuit of your justice.
By the power of your Holy Spirit,
make us one in heart, mind, and spirit
as we worship you on this Children’s Sabbath day.
Come, let us worship God.
Amen.

Hymn of Praise
O Sing a Song to God
Tune: ROSAS
Author: Carolos Rosas

O sing a song to God, a song of celebration;
A hymn of praise and love for the wonders of creation.
He formed the earth, the sky, the sun, the stars, the oceans.
O sing a song to God; Sing a song of our devotion.
Hallelujah, Hallelujah! O sing a song to God. Hallelujah!

O sing a song to God, who was in the beginning;
And tells to all the world that in Him there is no ending.
For all his mighty works we bow in adoration.
O sing a song to God; Sing a song of celebration.
Hallelujah, Hallelujah! O sing a song to God. Hallelujah!

Psalm Reading 
Psalm 96 / Common English Bible

Sing to the Lord a new song!
    Sing to the Lord, all the earth!
Sing to the Lord! Bless his name!
    Share the news of his saving work every single day!
Declare God’s glory among the nations;
    declare his wondrous works among all people
    because the Lord is great and so worthy of praise.
He is awesome beyond all other gods
    because all the gods of the nations are just idols,
        but it is the Lord who created heaven!
Greatness and grandeur are in front of him;
    strength and beauty are in his sanctuary.

Give to the Lord, all families of the nations—
    give to the Lord glory and power!
Give to the Lord the glory due his name!
    Bring gifts!
    Enter his courtyards!
Bow down to the Lord in his holy splendor!
    Tremble before him, all the earth!10 Tell the nations, “The Lord rules!
    Yes, he set the world firmly in place;
    it won’t be shaken.
    He will judge all people fairly.”
11 Let heaven celebrate! Let the earth rejoice!
    Let the sea and everything in it roar!
12     Let the countryside and everything in it celebrate!
    Then all the trees of the forest too
        will shout out joyfully
13         before the Lord because he is coming!
He is coming to establish justice on the earth!
    He will establish justice in the world rightly.
    He will establish justice among all people fairly.

The State of America’s Children
The following is a narrative in list form of one day in the life of America’s children. As we prayerfully read, may we recommit our lives to continue to seek God’s justice for the children of our nation.  

Each day in America        
5 children are killed by abuse or neglect.
        8 children or teens die by suicide.
        9 children or teens are killed with a gun.
      61 babies die before their first birthday.
    126 children are arrested for violent crimes.
     248 children are arrested for drug crimes.
     589 public school students are corporally punished.*
     773 babies are born into extreme poverty.
     826 babies are born without health insurance.
  1,683 babies are born into poverty.
  1,844 children are confirmed as abused or neglected.
  1,995 children are arrested.
  2,956 high school students drop out.*
14,640 public school students are suspended.*
(* Based on 180 school days a year.)

Prayer for the Children
Loving God, the challenges facing children and those who care for them are daunting and seem insurmountable. When will things get better? We lift up to you the children of our nation.

For children struggling to learn,
bless them with determination and good teachers.
For children who are sick and in pain,
bless them with hope and good doctors, comfort and excellent care.
For children who have given up,
help them see all the possibilities
and bless them with an understanding ear.
For children who are angry,
calm any fear and still their raging hearts;
may you teach them how to turn their anger into fuel for positive actions.
For children who are abused and neglected,
give them courage and hope;
provide a way for them out of such terror.
For children who don’t have enough,
God, give us eyes to see and wisdom to respond.

silent prayer & reflection

Lord, we also lift up to you the children in our church family. We miss seeing them each Sunday. On this Children’s Sabbath Sunday we pledge again to help them grow in wisdom and knowledge of you. We pledge to provide them a safe place to learn of your amazing love, mercy, and grace. We pledge to live our lives so that your ways are reflected in what we do and say. Today we give you thanks for

name the children

Help us to be witness to them of your great and abiding love.
Amen.

Choral Anthem
As God Has Called You
Composer: Carol Dixon

As God has called you, live up to your calling,
As God has claimed you, live your life in Him;
As God has freed you, preserve your freedom,
And come before Him full of love and praise.

As God has called you, live your life for others,
As God has loved you, share his love with all;
As God has filled you, live in His Spirit,
And come before Him full of hope and faith.

As God has called you, live your life like Jesus,
As God has led you follow in Christ’s way;
Proclaim God’s kingdom of peace and justice,
And come before him full of joy and grace.

Celebrating Communion
Communion celebrates our unity–our unity with God and with one another. At Cullowhee Baptist Church we practice an open communion which means anyone seeking to live the Way of Jesus Christ is invited to share in communion with us. Although we are not able to meet together, our bond still remains with one another and God through Jesus Christ.  
 
Imagine Jesus setting a table for us, a place where we may come together and share a meal. Before we “come to the table,” let us set our hearts aright and seek the Lord’s forgiveness for our shortcomings.

Prayer for Forgiveness
Great Lover of Justice, hear our prayers:
     called to treat all people equally,
          we take sides and pick favorites;
     chosen to be your children,
          we arrogantly assume others are not so honored;
      challenged to be examples of faith,
we reveal our worst natures to our families and friends.

Forgive us, Giver of Rest.  Enable us to stop putting you to the test, so we can open our hypocritical hearts to your healing touch of compassion and hope. As Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, has given all for us, may we give ourselves to you – confidently, completely, faithfully. Amen.

Assurance of Pardon 
2 Corinthians 5:17-18a, Common English Bible 

If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!  All this is from God, to whom we have been reconciled through Christ. 

Invitation to Communion
The table has been prepared as Jesus requested, 
and we have been invited to the meal. 

Come to the heart of Christ, where all are one:
which alone expects nothing in return;
Through the boundless hospitality of the Spirit.

In this communion, find healing, rest, and release;
In one another, find love for body, mind, and spirit;
Come to the table of God and be at peace.

Share the Meal 
Share what you have to eat and before eating, have someone say, “This food represents the body of Christ.  As we eat, we remember Jesus.” 

Share what you have to drink and before drinking, have someone say, “This drink represents the covenant Christ made with us that our sins will be forgiven.  As we drink, we remember Jesus.”

Prayer of Thanksgiving 
Dear God, thank you for your abounding compassionate love. Thank you for guiding and leading us through these difficult times. Thank you for always being with us. Amen.

Song of Faith
Amazing Grace 
Tune: NEW BRITAIN (from the Virginia Harmony, 1831) 
Author: John Newton 

‘Mazing grace, how sweet the sound 
That saved a wrench like me. 
I once was lost, but now I’m found, 
Was blind, but now I see.

The Gospel Lesson
Matthew 22:15-22, Common English Bible

Then the Pharisees met together to find a way to trap Jesus in his words. They sent their disciples, along with the supporters of Herod, to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are genuine and that you teach God’s way as it really is. We know that you are not swayed by people’s opinions, because you don’t show favoritism. So tell us what you think: Does the Law allow people to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

Knowing their evil motives, Jesus replied, “Why do you test me, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used to pay the tax.” And they brought him a denarion. “Whose image and inscription is this?” he asked.

“Caesar’s,” they replied. Then he said, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God. When they heard this they were astonished, and they departed.

Sharing the Word
Rev. Tonya Vickery

In the gospel reading of Matthew this Sunday, it is still Tuesday of Holy Week. It is a long day for Jesus. He spends the day teaching people in the temple. He is interrupted a number of times by those who challenge his right to be there. In today’s gospel reading, it is the Pharisees who interrupt him. They want so badly to prove Jesus wrong, that they cozy up with supporters of Herod to trap Jesus.  They use the presence of Herodians with a question about Roman taxation to try and turn the enamored crowd away from Jesus.

No one liked paying taxes to Rome. It was money you had to cough up and hand over without any say so in how it would be used.  It was a head tax and every adult who had a head had to pay it.  The land belonged to God, but Rome was running it and God’s people had to pay the bills. So there in the house of God, under the watchful eye of God, surrounded by God’s people, how could anyone affirm financial support of Rome’s dirty business?  No one liked living under Roman rule. They longed for the day when they would live again under the sole rule of God Almighty. So, the Pharisees planned to push Jesus to the brink. With a crowd around him, which side will he choose? Will he stand up for this kingdom of God of which he speaks thus challenging the authority of the Roman Empire? Or will he support Roman taxation thus appearing to be pro-Roman and undermine his position about the kingdom of God?  In other words, will he support a revolutionary overthrowing of the government, or will he support the authority of the government?

As their confrontation with Jesus begins, we are not to be fooled by the compliments they lay at Jesus’ feet. They call him “Teacher,” as if they would humble themselves to learn from Jesus. They praise him for being genuine, for teaching God’s way as it really is. They highlight his ability to rise above popular opinion. All these accolades poured out to set him up. Will he speak the truth of God and risk the appearance of being against the government in front of these Herod supporters? Or will he cave in, take the easy way out, support Roman taxation to save himself from Rome, but lose the crowd that welcomes his news about the kingdom of God? 

Smugly they ask, “Does the Law allow people to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

Whichever way Jesus answers this question, he will be wrong in someone’s eye. If Jesus says, “No, taxes are not legal,” he defies Caesar, the head of the Roman empire.  Paying taxes to Rome is not a choice. It is an obligation, a mandate. And refusing to pay them carries extreme consequences. On the other hand, if Jesus says “Yes, paying taxes to Caesar is legal,” then he presents himself as pro-Rome and a huge disappointment to his followers who are ready to be rid of Rome. The Pharisees are counting on Jesus to answer the question with either answer providing the way for them to be rid of Jesus’ influence.

I can’t pass up the chance to point out that this isn’t the first time paying taxes has come up in the gospel of Matthew. If you turn a few chapters back to chapter 17, begin with verse 24. Here’s what it says,

        When they came to Capernaum, the people who collected the half-shekel temple tax came to Peter and said, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?”

        “Yes,” he said.

        But when they came into the house, Jesus spoke to Peter first. “What do you think, Simon? From whom do earthly kings collect taxes, from their children or from strangers?”

        “From strangers,” he said.

        Jesus said to him, “Then the children don’t have to pay. But just so we don’t offend them, go to the lake, throw out a fishing line and hook, and take the first fish you catch. When you open its mouth, you will find a shekel coin. Take it and pay the tax for both of us.”

The temple tax was an annual collection of a half-shekel which every adult Jewish male was required to give. The amount was equivalent roughly to the amount you would be paid for two days of work. As you can tell from the story, Jesus isn’t a supporter of the temple tax. The temple is God’s house, and we are God’s children, so we shouldn’t be required to pay a tax to use the temple. But Jesus tells Peter to go ahead and pay it, so as not to offend. And a fish coughs up the price to be paid.

Okay back to chapter 22. Here we are no longer talking about a temple tax. Now we are talking about Roman taxes. On one hand, the question put to Jesus is political. That’s why they have the Herodians there. But on the other hand, the question is a religious moral one. Is it right in God’s eyes to pay taxes to Rome? What does paying money to Caesar say about my allegiance to God? Does paying the tax mean I am a supporter of Rome even when I don’t agree with what Rome is doing?

I think it is fair to say that paying taxes is not a vote of support for a nation. That paying taxes is not a vote of support for the way of life the nation promotes. Jesus says, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.” Go ahead and pay the taxes Rome requires of you.  It is an obligation set by Rome, but it is just money, coinage. However, there is a greater allegiance required of you than that of the one Caesar presents. Going well beyond the temple tax which Jewish males were obligated to pay, Jesus adds to the Roman tax an even greater price, “and [give] to God what belongs to God.”

Jesus’ answer shuts down the Pharisees and Herodians so they leave him alone. Once again Jesus outsmarts his opponents. Once again Jesus shows he is wise enough not to step into the trap set to catch him.  Once again Jesus shows he can discern any human strategy and cannot be fooled by anyone. But is that what Jesus is doing here? Avoiding being caught? Showing that he is greater than the foolish Pharisees and their short-term friends the Herodians?

We might pray to be smart enough to win an argument. We might dream of being wise enough to read any situation, so we remain in control and on top of things. We might long to be seen as great, smart, and powerful. But these aspirations are not the aspirations of Jesus. Jesus isn’t striving to be the smartest, the wisest, or even the most powerful. Jesus isn’t interested in knocking others down so he can rise above. Jesus isn’t motivated by making others look like fools so he can look perfect. No, Jesus aspires to live so that we might see the wide embrace of God; to see the inclusive, welcoming, inviting nature of God. Jesus longs to help us reorganize, transform, and straighten out our lives so we can live the abundant life God has in mind for us. Pay your taxes to Caesar, but more importantly give God what belongs to God.

What belongs to God?

The words of Psalm 24 come to mind.
        The earth is the LORD’s and everything in it,
          the world and its inhabitants too.

In one of those many times Moses stood before the Pharoah demanding that he release God’s people, Moses said to him, “As soon as I’ve left the city, I’ll spread out my hands to the LORD. Then the thunder and the hail will stop and won’t return so that you will know that the earth belongs to the LORD.”

Deuteronomy 10:14 says, “Clearly, the LORD owns the sky, the highest heavens, the earth, and everything in it.”

Psalm 89 rings out in praise to God,
        Heaven is yours! The earth too!
        The world and all that fills it….

Yes, everything belongs to God. So, give Caesar those shiny pieces of metal called money, but give to God what belongs to God.  What belongs to God? Well it is more than just shiny pieces of metal, it is everything.

The verb Matthew uses in verse 21 speaks of giving back, rendering, paying, restoring, and returning. Something is expected from us to be given back or paid to God. What does God expect us to pay? What is the price required of us? Jesus says give “to God what belongs to God.” So, what do we have that belongs to God? What is it that Jesus expects us to give back to God? 

Maybe it helps to note this isn’t a question of what do we need to give up for God. This isn’t a story told to encourage us to do some soul searching, find what is hindering us, keeping us from God, and give it up to restore our relationship with God. No, this is a question of what do we have from God that we can give back to God. Jesus’ answer recognizes that God has given us something, many somethings and we are to give those things back to God.

In order to know what you can give back to God, you have to recognize what God has given you?

The answer to this question is not limited. But here are a few things to start you thinking.

God has given us constant presence. God is always with us. Never abandoning us. Never turning away from us. God is steadfast and doesn’t give up on us. So how do we give this back to God?

God has given us creation. He formed and fashioned the earth where we might live. Set the sun above our heads. Gave us plants to nourish us; rivers, lakes and streams from which to drink; a plethora of food options from wheat, to corn, to cows.  So how do we give this back to God?

God has given us minds with which to think. How do we give our minds back to God?

God has given us the capacity to love. How do we give that love back to God?

God has given some of us the ability to teach, others of us the ability to encourage, others the ability to make good sound decisions. God has given some of us the ability to communicate through written words, others the ability to communicate through music, others the ability to communicate through speaking, and others the ability to communicate through doing. God has given some of us the ability to see potential in all things, others of us the ability to love deeply, others the ability to be outgoing, others the ability to be reflective. Take time to name what God has given you and decide how you can give those things back to God. The possibilities are as infinite as God is. May our offerings and gifts to God become worship and praise. Amen.

Questions for Reflection
What has God given you? How can you give it back to God?

Prayer of Thanksgiving 
Thank you, God for constant love. Please help our church family grow deeper and deeper in your love. Amen.

Song of Faith
They’ll Know We are Christians
Author: Peter Scholtes
Tune: ST BRENDAN’S

We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord,
We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord,
And we pray that all unity will one day be restored:

Chorus:
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love,
Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.

We will walk with each other, we will walk hand in hand,
We will walk with each other, we will walk hand in hand,
And together we’ll spread the news that God is in our land:

We will work with each other, we will work side by side,
We will work with each other, we will work side by side,
And we’ll guard each one’s dignity and save each one’s pride:

All praise to the Father, from whom all things come,
And all praise to Christ Jesus, His only Son,
And all praise to the Spirit, who makes us one:

Sending Out
May the blessing and peace of God uphold you, 
May the compassion and love of Christ enfold you, 
and may the vitality and power of the Holy Spirit embolden you, 
today and always.  
Amen.

Closing Song 
Blest Be the Tie 
Tune: DENNIS (Nageli) 
Author: John Fawcett 

Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love. 
The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above. Amen. 

Acknowledgements: The opening prayer comes from 2020 Christian Worship Resources, National Observance of Children’s Sabbaths® Celebration. The prayer of forgiveness was written by Thom M. Shuman. The invitation to communion was written by Julie Greenan from Acorns and Archangels, published by Wild Goose Publications, Iona Community. The anthem was sung by Mindy, Ally, and Elizabeth. Tonya played the piano, Tracy played the organ, and Mindy sang the hymns. Aidan played the piano for Amazing Grace. Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-724755. All rights reserved.  All writings have been used by permission from the posting sites or authors.

Preparation for Worship 
While worshipping at home, set aside a time each week for worship and designate a place. Light two candles to begin worship: one to represent Christ’s humanity and the other to represent Christ’s divinity. If you would like to celebrate communion have something to eat and drink for everyone. The type of food and drink does not matter for they are merely symbols which help us celebrate the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  

Amid the peaceful setting of Psalm 23, Matthew 22:1–14 is jarring. The passage comes across as if people who do not dress right are the ones whom God punishes. But remember, this is a parable, and parables speak in symbol and irony. What might the clothing signify? Perhaps, our spiritual preparedness for what God provides; or maybe justice and equality; or perhaps community. Then we have to ask, when are we so busy or fearful or distracted that we forget to clothe ourselves in the values of God?

May the following serve as a guide in your worship of God.

The Worship of God

Lighting Two Candles
We begin worship by lighting candles to remind ourselves that the One whom we worship, Jesus, is the light of the world. We light two candles to remind us that Jesus is God and lived alongside us as a human being.

Passing the Peace 
Say to one another, “May the peace of Christ be with you.”
And reply, “And, also with you.”

Invitation to Worship
Do you remember who first invited you to worship?
We come in praise for those who brought us here.

Do you remember the first community of faithful ones you joined?
A nursery class who welcomed you with care and open arms?
A youth group who accompanied you with energy and open minds?
A congregation, large or small, rural or urban, quiet folk or rowdy ones?
We come in praise for those who meet and receive us here.

Do you remember the God you have come to worship?
The One who delivered Israel from Egypt;
the Maker of earth and sky;
the Ground of all being.
We come to worship God in remembrance that leads to hope.

Opening Prayer
Great God, the beauty of creation reminds us of the beauty of your way. Your teachings bind us together as pilgrims, on a common path towards abundant life for all. Your laws are sweeter than honey in a honeycomb. Guide us towards your path, God, and lead us away from dangerous roads, so our words, and the meditations of our hearts may always be acceptable to you, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

Hymn of Praise
When, in Our Music, God is Glorified
Tune: ENGELBERG (Stanford)
Author: Fred Pratt Green

1.  When in our music God is glorified,
and adoration leaves no room for pride,
it is as though the whole creation cried,
Hallelujah!

2. How often, making music, we have found
a new dimension in the world of sound,
as worship moved us to a more profound
Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

3. So has the church, in liturgy and song,
in faith and love, through centuries of wrong,
borne witness to the truth in every tongue:
Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

4. And did not Jesus sing a Psalm that night
when utmost evil strove against the Light?
Then let us sing, for whom he won the fight:
Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

5. Let every instrument be tuned for praise!
Let all rejoice who have a voice to raise!
And may God give us faith to sing always:
Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

Psalm Reading 
Psalm 23 / Common English Bible

The Lord is my shepherd.
    I lack nothing.
He lets me rest in grassy meadows;
    he leads me to restful waters;
        he keeps me alive.
He guides me in proper paths
    for the sake of his good name.

Even when I walk through the darkest valley,
    I fear no danger because you are with me.
Your rod and your staff—
    they protect me.

You set a table for me
    right in front of my enemies.
You bathe my head in oil;
    my cup is so full it spills over!
Yes, goodness and faithful love
    will pursue me all the days of my life,
    and I will live in the Lord’s house
    as long as I live.

Prayer for Others 
Pause after each paragraph to give voice to prayers as prompted.
[Additionally, if you would like our church family to pray for someone or something in particular, email the request to tonya@cullowheebaptist.com or call the church office at 293-9024.]

Let us pray:

Merciful God, who shelters us and guides us,
we give you thanks for….

God who comforts,
receive those who are fearful and lonely….

God whose love is steadfast,
be refuge for the ill, the dying, and those who care about them.…

God of righteousness,
we ask for your wisdom and ways of justice to prevail in our community, this nation, your world….

God who seeks our trust,
grow us and guide us in your ways that are life-giving in your world.
Amen.

Choral Anthem
The Lord’s My Shepherd
Tune: Brother James’ Air
Author: Roger Price

The Lord is my Shepherd,
I’ll not want.
He makes me down to lie

in pastures of green; He leadeth me
the quiet waters by.
My soul He doth restore again,

and in His love abide.

Yea, though I walk in death’s dark vale,

yet will I fear no ill;
For Thou art with me; and Thy rod
and staff my comfort still.
My table Thou hast furnished,

my cup Thou overfills.

Goodness and mercy, all my life

shall surely follow me;
And in God’s house forevermore

my dwelling place shall be.
And in God’s house forevermore

my dwelling place shall be.

Celebrating Communion
Communion celebrates our unity–our unity with God and with one another. At Cullowhee Baptist Church we practice an open communion which means anyone seeking to live the Way of Jesus Christ is invited to share in communion with us. Although we are not able to meet together, our bond still remains with one another and God through Jesus Christ.  
 
Imagine Jesus setting a table for us, a place where we may come together and share a meal. Before we “come to the table,” let us set our hearts aright and seek the Lord’s forgiveness for our shortcomings.

Prayer for Forgiveness
We would never refuse an invitation to feast at Christ’s table, would we? 
What could possibly be more important?

  • Mom and dad, don’t forget my soccer game –I know it’s Sunday, but you promised you’d come and watch.
  • My best friend is coming over today with a new video game. –I know it’s Sunday, but the game is new.
  • I have to go shopping today. –I know it’s Sunday, but I’ve been too busy all week and I need a new outfit for the wedding.
  • I’ve had to bring some work home this weekend. –I know it’s Sunday, but I’ve got to get work done.
  • The weather is finally better. No more rain. –I know it’s Sunday, but the garden is so important and the weather is perfect for planting!

Jesus criticized those who said “Yes” to him with their lips but denied him with their deeds.

Forgive us, O God,
when we use feeble excuses
to evade following in Christ’s footsteps.

The invitation to us is an invitation of grace – those who eventually sat down at the banquet could never have expected such an invitation.
Forgive us, O God,
when we trivialize the gracious invitation to share your life in Christ –
when we expect you to be there for us –
but fail to respond to your call on our lives.

Help us to empty ourselves
of all that hinders a ready response to the call to follow Jesus,
even when that means putting our personal agendas on hold.

Amen.

Assurance of Pardon 
2 Corinthians 5:17-18a, Common English Bible 

If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!  All this is from God, to whom we have been reconciled through Christ. 

Invitation to Communion
The table has been prepared as Jesus requested, 
and we have been invited to the meal. 

Come to the heart of Christ, where all are one:
which alone expects nothing in return;
Through the boundless hospitality of the Spirit.

In this communion, find healing, rest, and release;
In one another, find love for body, mind, and spirit;
Come to the table of God and be at peace.

Share the Meal 
Share what you have to eat and before eating, have someone say, “This food represents the body of Christ.  As we eat, we remember Jesus.” 

Share what you have to drink and before drinking, have someone say, “This drink represents the covenant Christ made with us that our sins will be forgiven.  As we drink, we remember Jesus.”

Prayer of Thanksgiving 
Dear God, thank you for your abounding compassionate love. Thank you for guiding and leading us through these difficult times. Thank you for always being with us. Amen.

Song of Faith
Amazing Grace 
Tune: NEW BRITAIN (from the Virginia Harmony, 1831) 
Author: John Newton 

‘Mazing grace, how sweet the sound 
That saved a wrench like me. 
I once was lost, but now I’m found, 
Was blind, but now I see.

The Gospel Lesson
Matthew 22:1-14, Common English Bible
Dr. Jeffrey Vickery

Jesus responded by speaking again in parables: “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding party for his son. He sent his servants to call those invited to the wedding party. But they didn’t want to come. Again he sent other servants and said to them, ‘Tell those who have been invited, “Look, the meal is all prepared. I’ve butchered the oxen and the fattened cattle. Now everything’s ready. Come to the wedding party!”’ But they paid no attention and went away—some to their fields, others to their businesses. The rest of them grabbed his servants, abused them, and killed them.

“The king was angry. He sent his soldiers to destroy those murderers and set their city on fire. Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding party is prepared, but those who were invited weren’t worthy. Therefore, go to the roads on the edge of town and invite everyone you find to the wedding party.’

“Then those servants went to the roads and gathered everyone they found, both evil and good. The wedding party was full of guests. Now when the king came in and saw the guests, he spotted a man who wasn’t wearing wedding clothes. He said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without wedding clothes?’ But he was speechless. Then the king said to his servants, ‘Tie his hands and feet and throw him out into the farthest darkness. People there will be weeping and grinding their teeth.’

“Many people are invited, but few people are chosen.”


It’s ironic that this sermon text is today’s gospel reading because our family has spent a good bit of time this week planning a wedding feast for Ally and AJ. Nevertheless I refuse to read too much into the parallel circumstances. The wedding plans we’re making are real and not a part of the symbolic meaning of Jesus’ parable. But I do understand the context in which Jesus frames his story. Invitations, guests, meal plans, appropriate wedding clothes – it’s a big part of our family’s life right now.  

So it’s not hard to put the plot of the story into order. The prince is getting married and the day has come and the king sends for the guests. Yet the guests are uninterested, or maybe self-interested, and simply find something else to do. They display by their choices that the wedding is unimportant to them personally. Then, just for sport it seems, some of the presumptive guests abuse and kill the king’s servants. It’s no wonder that the king is angry and protests against them in their cities. The banquet is ready, however, and the wedding list changes and the feast of the king has now become a place for people from the streets, or better anyone willing to come. As the king surveys the feasting crowd, he spies out a man who is not wearing a wedding robe and asks him some hard questions. Where is his robe? How did he get here without one? The man didn’t know what to say but the king knew what to do. The man was bound and tossed out of the banquet. Jesus ends the parable with the part we’re supposed to remember the most: “Many people are invited, but few people are chosen.” 

This story is both a mirror and a flashlight. As a mirror, we find ourselves in the story and examine what we see in our own reflection. Which guest list are we on? How did we come to the party? Are we properly dressed? As a flashlight, we see around us with honesty and wisdom. Look at how many others are here! Consider what that one is doing and saying? The point of both the mirror and the flashlight is to consider our lives of faith in regard to Jesus’ conclusion: “many people are invited but few people are chosen.” 

Let’s think a little more about the parable and its teaching. 

I am under the impression that nearly every one of us are on the king’s first invitation list. That is, my name is on the Baptist-since-birth list of wedding guests. I’m part of the royal family since my parents were Christian. By the numbers, a majority of the American population (69%) claims to be Christian, and our culture presumes Christianity as normative. In this regard, social pressures often compel people to claim Christianity for their faith. It is also true that some of us come to Christianity to help ourselves, or to fit someone’s expectation, or to calm our fears of death. When people are on the guest list but don’t bother showing up to the feast, it is often the case that they find the name “Christian” quite comfortable but give priority to some other “feast.” 

Statistically in the United States we know that only 36% of Americans attend religious worship regularly. That’s not a very impressive finding. This means that the number of Christians in the US that are members of a church but don’t attend regularly is larger than the number of members who do attend. (Yes, these are pre-COVID numbers.) In the parable, maybe the guests who were on the first list and didn’t bother to come to the wedding were not being disrespectful but rather were self-absorbed. They did not really care about the king or the son. These guests had better things to do. Important tasks demanded their attention. They are friends or family of the prince but they would rather help themselves then celebrate someone else. To the extent that this is true of me then I’m left hearing Jesus’ conclusion and wondering if I’m one of the invited many but not one of the chosen few. It’s my desires and choices and priorities that will let me know if I’m invited but not participating. 

The second entry point to this parable involves the man without the proper wedding robe. In the parable, he is part of the “all y’all come” invitation. When the first guests refuse to participate and the feast for the few turns into a banquet for the bunches, the inclusion and welcome of all people takes center stage.  Anyone can become a Christian. God’s feast is open to all. No one can say that God does not want them, or that they are not deserving to be at God’s party. I love this part of the parable. And I celebrate that Cullowhee Baptist Church exemplifies this openness willingly and fully.   

Inclusion and embrace is not, however, the last point Jesus makes in the parable. For the king does not overlook the actions of the man improperly dressed. Instead the king dismisses him forcefully from the feast. It sounds harsh, but remember, this parable is symbolic and not literal. God does not bind people by hands and feet and throw them out. And of course this parable isn’t really about wearing nice clothes to church, or dressing the proper way. That image, too, is symbolic. It’s a metaphor for the manner in which we practice our faith. I remember as a youth memorizing Colossians 3:12 as part of the Disciple Youth classes. It reads in part, “as God’s chosen people, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.” Even if I am part of the second invitation to the party, I’m still required to act proper. Christians who do not display any Christian virtue in the way they live are as willfully disobedient to God as those who are invited but just don’t care enough to come. It matters what we say and do when we are dancing at God’s party. If I’m at God’s house I should reflect God’s ways. God is too honest to let the unrighteous offer a public display of sin while at God’s wedding feast. Yes, wearing the wrong wedding clothes in this parable symbolizes tolerating or even celebrating sin in my life. The proper attire for the wedding feast is living the Way of Jesus. Maybe Jesus wanted to call to mind other places in the Bible where living righteously was metaphorically like wearing clothes. For example, Job said to his friends, “I put on justice, and it clothed me; righteousness as my coat and turban” (Job 23:14). And Isaiah celebrates that “God has clothed me with garments of salvation and wrapped me with a robe of righteousness” (Isaiah 61:10). 

I read the parable like this: do you want to know what makes God mad enough to spit? Say you are a Christian and act like it didn’t change you at all. Go to church and act as though the teachings of Jesus do not apply. Say you love God but act like you can’t stand anyone else. Expect everyone else to be generous but believe your own excuses that you don’t have enough to share.  Ask for prayer because you pulled a muscle cutting the grass but complain about how the global pandemic is no big deal and thus dismiss the death of 214,000 Americans who have died from COVID-19 related illnesses. Wear a hat that says “John 3:16” with a t-shirt showing an assault rifle and the flag that says “God, Guns, Beer, Bacon, America.” (Yes, that t-shirt is for sale online!).  These will cause the king to call you to account and promptly escort you out of the building. Or to make Jesus’ point, these choices and actions and directions in life help determine if I am among the many who were called but not the few who were chosen.    

In plain language, don’t claim to be a Christian and act in ways that are unlike Jesus. No one is expected to be a great Christian when we first profess our faith. But everyone is obligated to try to be like Jesus more and more every day. By saying we are Christian, we represent God in this world. And when we misrepresent God’s love as hate, we are no longer welcome to take the name “Christian.” Sure, everyone is invited to faith. Yes, anyone can become a Christian. No, we don’t give up hope that anyone from our best friend to our enemy will turn to follow Jesus if they are not already doing so. While God has no restrictions on who can have faith, God’s demands for obedience to the Gospel will not be diluted. 

Welcome to God’s feast dear sister and brother. God has laid the table with rich food and refined wine. Together we are deserving guests at God’s celebration of life and love and salvation. And by our faithfulness to the Gospel, we will be counted in the company of those who are chosen.   

Questions for Reflection
What are the temptations that sometimes compete with our faith?

What is the damage done when Christians publicly do and say things that are inconsistent with the Gospel?

What does the phrase “many are invited but few are chosen” mean to you?

Prayer of Thanksgiving 
Thank you, God for constant love. Please help our church family grow deeper and deeper in your love. Amen.

Song of Faith
The Kingdom of God is Justice and Joy
Author: Byrn A. Rees
Tune: LYONS (Robert Grant) [Think, O Worship the King.]

1 The kingdom of God is justice and joy;
For Jesus restores what sin would destroy.
God’s power and glory in Jesus we know;
And here and hereafter the kingdom shall grow.

2 The kingdom of God is mercy and grace;
The captives are freed, the sinners find place,
The outcast are welcomed God’s banquet to share;
And hope is awakened in place of despair.

3 The kingdom of God is challenge and choice:
Believe the good news, repent and rejoice!
God’s love for us sinners brought Christ to his cross:
Our crisis of judgement for gain or for loss.

4 God’s kingdom is come, the gift and the goal;
In Jesus begun, in heaven made whole.
The heirs of the kingdom shall answer his call;
And all things cry ‘Glory!’ to God all in all.

Sending Out
May the blessing and peace of God uphold you, 
May the compassion and love of Christ enfold you, 
and may the vitality and power of the Holy Spirit embolden you, 
today and always.  
Amen.

Closing Song 
Blest Be the Tie 
Tune: DENNIS (Nageli) 
Author: John Fawcett 

Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love. 
The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above. Amen. 

Acknowledgements: The Invitation and Opening Prayer come from Seasons of the Spirit™ SeasonsFUSION Season of Creation • Pentecost 2 2020. Copyright © Wood Lake Publishing Inc. 2019. The Prayer for Forgiveness and Invitation to Communion were written by Moira Laidlaw. The anthem was sung by Mindy, Tonya, Kendall, Ally, and Elizabeth. Tonya played the piano and Mindy sang the hymns. Aidan played the piano for Amazing Grace. Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-724755. All rights reserved.  All writings have been used by permission from the posting sites or authors.

Preparation for Worship 
The pandemic has forced us to be physically apart from one another and has kept us from coming together in one place to worship God. But just as nothing can separate us from God’s love, nothing can keep us from worshipping God. Worshipping God is not just something done on a Sunday morning at 11am inside a particular building. Worshipping God is a part of our whole lives–at home, at work, at play, and yes, at church.

In using this worship guide, you may want to light two candles to begin worship. We light two candles to celebrate the humanity and divinity of Jesus, the light of the world. To celebrate communion, have something to eat and drink for everyone. The type of food and drink does not matter for they are merely symbols which help us celebrate the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

May the following serve as a guide in your worship of God.

The Worship of God

Lighting Two Candles
We begin worship by lighting candles to remind ourselves that the One whom we worship, Jesus, is the light of the world. We light two candles to remind us that Jesus is God and lived alongside us as a human being.

Passing the Peace 
Say to one another, “May the peace of Christ be with you.”
And reply, “And also with you.”

Invitation to Worship
Dear friends, the Spirit of God gives life to the world!
Life that never ends!
Here and now Christ feeds the world!
Plenty for all, enough for today!
Come to the table of justice and joy!
No one will be turned away!
No neighbor in need will go wanting!
Let praise go up to God our Life!
From every creature on God’s good earth!

Hymn of Praise
Morning Has Broken
Author: Eleanor Farjeon (1931)
Tune: BUNESSAN, a Gaelic tune

1 Morning has broken like the first morning,
Blackbird has spoken like the first bird.
Praise for the singing! Praise for the morning!
Praise for them, springing fresh from the Word!

2 Sweet the rain’s new fall sunlit from Heaven,
Like the first dewfall on the first grass.
Praise for the sweetness of the wet garden,
Sprung in completeness where his feet pass.

3 Mine is the sunlight, mine is the morning,
Born of the one light Eden saw play.
Praise with elation, praise every morning,
God’s re-creation of the new day!

Psalm Reading 
Psalm 80:7-15a. Common English Bible

Restore us, God of heavenly forces!
Make your face shine so that we can be saved!

You brought a vine out of Egypt.
You drove out the nations and planted it.
You cleared the ground for it;
then it planted its roots deep, filling the land.
The mountains were covered by its shade;
the mighty cedars were covered by its branches.
It sent its branches all the way to the sea;
its shoots went all the way to the Euphrates River.
So why have you now torn down its walls
so that all who come along can pluck its fruit,
so that any boar from the forest can tear it up,
so that the bugs can feed on it?

Please come back, God of heavenly forces!
Look down from heaven and perceive it!
Attend to this vine,
this root that you planted with your strong hand,

Prayer for Others 
Pause after each paragraph to give voice to prayers as prompted.
[Additionally, if you would like our church family to pray for someone or something in particular, email the request to tonya@cullowheebaptist.com or call the church office at 293-9024.]

Let us pray:

Merciful God, who shelters us and guides us,
we give you thanks for….

God who comforts,
receive those who are fearful and lonely….

God whose love is steadfast,
be refuge for the ill, the dying, and those who care about them.…

God of righteousness,
we ask for your wisdom and ways of justice to prevail in our community, this nation, your world….

God who seeks our trust,
grow us and guide us in your ways that are life-giving in your world.
Amen.

Choral Anthem
Grant Us Your Peace
Composer: Felix Mendelssohn
Author: Mark Schweizer

Grant us your peace, O loving Lord,
our Rock and firm foundation.
Our faith is in your excellent word,
speaking to every nation.
Your promise of sure salvation.

Celebrating Communion
Communion celebrates our unity–our unity with God and with one another. At Cullowhee Baptist Church we practice an open communion which means anyone seeking to live the Way of Jesus Christ is invited to share in communion with us. Although we are not able to meet together, our bond still remains with one another and God through Jesus Christ.  
 
Imagine Jesus setting a table for us, a place where we may come together and share a meal. Before we “come to the table,” let us set our hearts aright and seek the Lord’s forgiveness for our shortcomings.

Prayer for Forgiveness
Forgive us, O God, when we believe that righteous behavior means performing perfect deeds and that is what is required to secure your love. silent reflection

Forgive us, O God, when we lose sight of the goal of our lives as Christians – that of following Jesus; even when that means sharing in the sufferings and struggles of others.
silent reflection

In his life and his death Jesus demonstrated above all his desire to give true meaning to the depth of divine love so that we could fully understand his commandment that we love one another as he loved us. May that commandment be so imprinted on our lives that whatever gains we may have experienced in our lives are as loss compared to the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus as our Lord, in whose name we pray.

Amen.

Assurance of Pardon 
2 Corinthians 5:17-18a, Common English Bible 

If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!  All this is from God, to whom we have been reconciled through Christ. 

Invitation to Communion

The table has been prepared as Jesus requested, 
and we have been invited to the meal. 
We come to the table
like Peter, with more enthusiasm than resolve; 
like James and John, dismayed by Jesus’s vision of a kingdom. 
We come to the table
like Martha, hosting and leading with confidence; 
like Mary, eager to learn, and full of grief and love. 
We come to the table
like Judas, disillusioned and rebellious; 
like Mary, faithful to the end. 
Jesus offers us the bread and the cup. 
We come to the table of Christ.

Share the Meal 
Share what you have to eat and before eating, have someone say, “This food represents the body of Christ.  As we eat, we remember Jesus.” 

Share what you have to drink and before drinking, have someone say, “This drink represents the covenant Christ made with us that our sins will be forgiven.  As we drink, we remember Jesus.”

Prayer of Thanksgiving 
Dear God, thank you for your abounding compassionate love. Thank you for guiding and leading us through these difficult times. Thank you for always being with us. Amen.

Song of Faith
Amazing Grace 
Tune: NEW BRITAIN (from the Virginia Harmony, 1831) 
Author: John Newton 

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound 
That saved a wrench like me. 
I once was lost, but now I’m found, 
Was blind, but now I see.

Proclaiming the Word
Matthew 21:33-46
Listen to Rev. Tonya Vickery and/or read below. (If you listen to the sermon, the dripping noise is compliments of the dehumidifier. And if you listening closely, you may hear the crickets chirping.)

Reading a not so fun parable with the prophet Isaiah’s help.

In chapter 21 of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus’ ministry has reached a decisive point. At the beginning of this chapter, what we refer to as “Holy Week,” Jesus enters Jerusalem with a crowd waving palm branches in the air. He then goes on to clear the temple of the money changer whom he calls a “den of robbers.” Children are running around the temple yelling, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” and the chief priests and scribes annoyed by them.  I like to think that Jesus chuckles when he see the little ones running around, for he says in response, “Out of the mouth of babes….” The next day on his way back to the temple he passes a non-producing fig tree which he curses because he is hungry and the tree is useless to meet his needs. What a prelude to the encounters he is about to have in the temple with the religious leaders.

The religious leaders don’t like Jesus teaching in the temple. They question his authority to be doing so. Now Jesus genuinely wants them to discover from where his authority comes. He gives them opportunity to recognize the work of God in him by asking them about who worked through John. But they treat the invitation to give thanks to God for the work of John like some kind of trick. So since they refuse to honor God through the works of John, Jesus refuses to give them a direct answer to their question of his authority. It is sad when people cannot give God the honor and glory because God is working through someone else other than themselves.

It’s in the midst of their stubbornness, this refusal to believe, that Jesus tells this parable about tenant farmers.  Jesus says,

“There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a fence around it, dug a winepress in it, and built a tower. Then he rented it to tenant farmers and took a trip. When it was time for harvest, he sent his servants to the tenant farmers to collect his fruit. But the tenant farmers grabbed his servants. They beat some of them, and some of them they killed. Some of them they stoned to death.  Again he sent other servants, more than the first group. They treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said.  But when the tenant farmers saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come on, let’s kill him and we’ll have his inheritance.’ They grabbed him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.”

“When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenant farmers?”

They said, “He will totally destroy those wicked farmers and rent the vineyard to other tenant farmers who will give him the fruit when it’s ready.”

Jesus said to them, “Haven’t you ever read in the scriptures, ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. The Lord has done this, and it’s amazing in our eyes?’ Therefore, I tell you that God’s kingdom will be taken away from you and will be given to a people who produce its fruit. Whoever falls on this stone will be crushed. And the stone will crush the person it falls on.”

Now when the chief priests and the Pharisees heard the parable, they knew Jesus was talking about them. They were trying to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, who thought he was a prophet.

…………………………..

In first century Palestine and Syria, people would have been familiar with the agricultural and economic arrangements of this story. It was common for absentee landowners to rent out their farms and vineyards to others farmers. The renters would have worked the land in exchange for a fee or percentage of the harvest. The majority of the profits belonged to the landowner. And at the appropriate time, the landowner would send an agent to collect what was owed. To think that farmers who rented the property might inherit it was not possible as long as the landowner was alive. It was a foolish thought held by the tenant farmers which caused them to make some desperate moves.

Matthew’s original audience would have easily associated any mention of a vineyard with God’s people. In fact the opening lines of Jesus’ story come from the opening words of Isaiah 5 which reads,
“Let me sing for my beloved a song of my lover about his vineyard.”

And then the song begins, 
“My beloved had a vineyard on a fruitful hill.
He broke the ground, cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines.
He built a watchtower inside it,
he even hewed a wine press in it.”

The next line of the song give us a better understanding of this parable which Jesus tells. The line reads,
“For he hoped it would yield grapes.”

The song continues to explain that the vineyard was a flop. The owner had done everything right, but the vines did not respond. They failed to produce any grapes. The vineyard was such a huge disappointment that the owner ended up tearing down the hedge, leaving the grape vines exposed and untended, and the owner did not bother with watering the farm–in fact, water was withheld from the plants. The owner gave up on the vines.

And then the song goes on to explain that that vineyard is a metaphor for God’s people and the owner is God. God planted the people like a farmer plants seedlings. God lovingly tended the people. God cared for them. And God eagerly anticipated the good that would come from them. God expected them to produce justice and equity, but instead they brought forth injustice and iniquity. The song says God’s people “never gave a thought to the plan of the Lord” and “never took note of what God is designing.”

Whereas the prophet Isaiah focuses on the vineyard, Jesus focuses on the tenant farmers who are taking care of the vineyard. The parable says the tenant farmers, not the vineyard, need to be replaced.  Jesus is talking directly about those who are caring for and leading God’s people, not God’s people.

Wouldn’t you imagine that God expected the leaders of the people to welcome the ministry of John the baptizer and thus the preaching of Jesus. But instead they rejected John and now they are rejecting Jesus. They deny and frustrate the works of God in the world by refusing to place trust and confidence in God’s own act. The gift God has given to the world, the gift of God’s self becoming one of us, living among us, and dying as us, this gift is being rejected by those who profess to be followers of the Gift Giver and leaders of God’s people.  Those who should have welcomed and embraced Jesus instead are offended by him.

With this kind of attitude towards God, what do you imagine will be the attitude of God? How does God respond? God’s work will not be thwarted. God will move on with those who are willing to place their trust and confidence in God.  God says a new foundation will be established upon which God’s plan and designs will be carried out. Jesus serves as the cornerstone of that foundation; Jesus, the rock upon which the community of faith is founded.

Religious leaders do not define our faith. That’s what Baptist believe. We believe that each and everyone of us has a direct relationship with God that does not need mediating or interpreting. So, I guess we should see ourselves as the vines in the vineyard from Isaiah 5 and as the tenant farmers in Matthew 21. 

As a people who have committed themselves to live the ways of Jesus Christ in the world, we are expected  to bear the fruits of justice and equity. How much justice and equity we are bringing to the world is easily measured by how the most vulnerable among us is living.  We have a lot of “living the way of Jesus” to do.  So we learn from Jesus calling out the religious leaders. They had moved so far from God’s way that they no longer were able to place their trust and confidence in God because God’s way looked so different from how they imagined it.

We look at how the world is today and we want God to hurry up and do something. Can’t God work a little faster? Let the plan of the Holy One come quickly so we can understand it! We give up on God’s justice and righteousness because we don’t’ understand it, or it doesn’t look like what we expected, or it is just taking too long to come about, or it is just too hard to figure out. We give up on God’s justice and righteousness because we are not seeing immediate results.

This isn’t the first time the people of God have felt this way. They were experiencing the same kind of faith crises when Isaiah was a prophet.  God said to them, as God says to us today, Don’t give up on trusting me. Don’t fear. Don’t be terrified. It is the Lord of heavenly forces whom you should hold sacred, whom you should fear, and whom you should hold in awe. Don’t fear what everyone else is fearing, for God is more powerful than any human decision, plan, or deed. AND the plans of God will not be thwarted. What God wishes will prevail. If lack of trust and confidence in God puts a hiccup in the plan of God, God will just move on and find some other tenant farmers to tend the vineyard. So don’t be afraid.

With all the uncertainty which has shattered what we once thought were predictable lives, as the distress and troubles of life wear us out and exhaust us, as we are kept from meeting together to worship the Lord, remember who is the cornerstone of your life and who is the cornerstone of all of God’s people. Jesus is our cornerstone, a cornerstone that cannot be broken, a cornerstone that will not fail. So you need not look at the future with eyes of dread or sorrow, for we are not doomed. God Almighty, the Holy One, is our future. May we continue to place our trust and confidence in God, and may we bring honor and glory to God as we live through uncertainty giving testimony to our faith in God even as we struggle to believe. Amen.

Questions for Reflection
What helps you place your trust and confidence in God?
Who are the most vulnerable living among us? How can we bring justice and equity to them?

Prayer of Thanksgiving 
Thank you, God for constant love. Please help our church family grow deeper and deeper in your love. Amen.

Song of Faith
O Christ, the Great Foundation
Author: T. T. Lew (1933; alt.)
Tune: AURELIA (Samuel Sebastian Wesley, 1876)

1 O Christ, the great foundation on which your people stand
to preach your true salvation in every age and land:
pour out your Holy Spirit to make us strong and pure,
to keep the faith unbroken as long as worlds endure.

2 Baptized in one confession, one church in all the earth,
we bear our Lord’s impression, the sign of second birth.
One holy people gathered in love beyond our own;
by grace we were invited, by grace we make you known.

3 Where tyrants’ hold is tightened, where strong devour the weak,
where innocents are frightened, and righteous fear to speak;
there let your church awaking attack the powers of sin,
and, all their ramparts breaking, with you the victory win.

4 This is the moment glorious when he who once was dead
shall lead his church victorious, their champion and their head.
The Lord of all creation his heavenly kingdom brings
the final consummation, the glory of all things.

Sending Out
May the blessing and peace of God uphold you, 
May the compassion and love of Christ enfold you, 
and may the vitality and power of the Holy Spirit embolden you, 
today and always.  
Amen.

Closing Song 
Blest Be the Tie 
Tune: DENNIS (Nageli) 
Author: John Fawcett 

Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love. 
The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above. Amen. 

Acknowledgements: The image is of the sunrise at Badlands National Park posted at https://www.flickr.com/photos/matthewpaulson/5053214794 was taken by Matthew Paulsen. The Invitation to Worship comes from Acorns and Angels © Ruth Burgess, published by Wild Goose Publications, Iona Community, 4th Floor, Savoy House, 140 Sauchiehall St, Glasgow G2 3DH, UK. The anthem was sung by Mindy, Tonya, Ally, and Elizabeth. The Prayer for Forgiveness was written by Moira Laidlaw. The Invitation to Communion was written by the Mennonite Worship and Song Committee, 2018. Tracy played the organ. Mindy sang the hymns. Aidan played the piano for Amazing Grace and Tonya played for the anthem. Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-724755. All rights reserved.  All writings have been used by permission from the posting sites or authors.

Preparation for Worship 
The pandemic has forced us to be physically apart from one another and has kept us from coming together physically to worship God. But just as nothing can separate us from God’s love, nothing can keep us from worshipping God. Worshipping God is not just something done on a Sunday morning at 11am inside a particular building. Worshipping God is a part of our whole lives–at home, at work, at play, and yes, at church.

This Sunday is the last in our Season of Creation and the theme is rivers. We usually begin worship by lighting two candles to celebrate the humanity and divinity of Jesus, the light of the world. Add a bowl of water to your worship space as a reminder of God’s provision of a living water that once we drink from it, we will never be thirsty again (John 4). To celebrate communion, have something to eat and drink for everyone. The type of food and drink does not matter for they are merely symbols which help us celebrate the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

May the following serve as a guide in your worship of God.

The Tuckasegee River

The Worship of God

Lighting Two Candles
We begin worship by lighting candles to remind ourselves that the One whom we worship, Jesus, is the light of the world. We light two candles to remind us that Jesus is God and lived alongside us as a human being.

Invitation to Worship 
This last Sunday in our Season of Creation, we give thanks to God for rivers. We reflect upon our relationship with the natural ribbons of water flowing all over the earth. Rivers can be wide and deep, or shallow enough for us to walk across. Some flow year round and others only flow during seasons of heavy rain. Some are a few miles long while others span a continent. No two rivers are exactly alike. Rivers provide water to drink, routes by which we travel, water for farmlands, habitat for animals, and replenishment for the oceans.

Passing the Peace 
Say to one another, “May the peace of Christ be with you.”
And reply, “And also with you.”

Reading from the Hebrew Bible 
Genesis 2:4-9, Common English Bible 

On the day the Lord God made earth and sky— before any wild plants appeared on the earth, and before any field crops grew, because the Lord God hadn’t yet sent rain on the earth and there was still no human being to farm the fertile land, though a stream rose from the earth and watered all of the fertile land— the Lord God formed the human from the topsoil of the fertile land and blew life’s breath into his nostrils. The human came to life. The Lord God planted a garden in Eden in the east and put there the human he had formed. In the fertile land, the Lord God grew every beautiful tree with edible fruit, and also he grew the tree of life in the middle of the garden and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. 

Litany of Praise
Creator God,
we praise you for bright crisp mornings,
for leaves crackling underfoot
and wisps of cloud in a pale sky.

We praise you for the night-time rain,
for the wind buffeting the trees
and light reflected in the water.

We praise you for the season’s labours,
for the smell of new-turned earth
and smoking bonfires.

We praise you for the season’s gifts,
for fruitfulness beyond measure
and time to reflect and remember.

CREATOR GOD, WE PRAISE YOU.

Hymn of Praise 
Let All Creation Dance
Tune: DARWALL’S 148th, by John Darwell,
originally published as a setting for Psalm 148
Author: Brian A. Wren

Let all creation dance
in energies sublime,
as order turns with chance,
unfolding space and time,
for nature’s art
in glory grows,
and newly shows
God’s mind and heart.

God’s breath each force unfurls,
igniting from a spark
expanding starry swirls
with whirlpools dense and dark.
Though moon and sun
seem mindless things,
each orbit sings:
“Your will be done.”

Our own amazing earth,
with sunlight, cloud and storms
and life’s abundant growth
in lovely shapes and forms,
is made for praise
a fragile whole,
and from its soul
heaven’s music plays.

Lift heart and soul and voice:
in Christ all praises meet,
and nature shall rejoice
as all is made complete.
In hope be strong,
all life befriend
and kindly tend
creation’s song.

Psalm Reading 
Psalm 25:1-9. Common English Bible

I offer my life to you, LORD.
My God, I trust you.
Please don’t let me be put to shame!
Don’t let my enemies rejoice over me!
For that matter,
don’t let anyone who hopes in you
be put to shame;
instead, let those who are treacherous without excuse be put to shame.

Make your ways known to me, LORD;
teach me your paths.
Lead me in your truth—teach it to me—
because you are the God who saves me.
I put my hope in you all day long.
LORD, remember your compassion and faithful love—
they are forever!
But don’t remember the sins of my youth or my wrongdoing.
Remember me only according to your faithful love
for the sake of your goodness, LORD.

The LORD is good and does the right thing;
he teaches sinners which way they should go.
God guides the weak to justice,
teaching them his way.

Prayer for Others 
Pause after each paragraph to give voice to prayers as prompted.
[Additionally, if you would like our church family to pray for someone or something in particular, email the request to tonya@cullowheebaptist.com or call the church office at 293-9024.]

Let us pray:

God who makes the Earth,
who gives us to the world,
who labors with us in our struggles,
Hear us,
Be near us in our fears and needs,
Walk with us–hold our hand, advise us, and encourage us.

We give you thanks for…. 

Comfort those who are fearful and lonely…. 

Be a refuge for the ill, the dying, and those who care about them.… 

Bring your justice to our community, this nation, and your world…. 

Grow us and guide us in your life-giving ways….
  
God who makes the Earth,
who gives us to the world,
who labors with us in our struggles,
Hear us,
Be near us in our fears and needs,
Walk with us–hold our hand, advise us, and encourage us.
Amen.

Choral Anthem
Forth in Thy Name, O Lord I Go
Composer: Richard Shephard
Author: Charles Wesley

Forth in thy Name, O Lord, I go,
my daily labor to pursue;
Thee, only thee resolved to know
in all I think or speak or do.

The task Thy wisdom hath assigned,
O let me cheerfully fulfill;
In all my works Thy presence find,
And prove Thy good and perfect will.

Thee may I set at my right hand,
Whose eyes mine in-most substance see,
And labor on at Thy command,
And offer all my works to Thee.

Give me to bear Thy easy yoke,
And every moment watch and pray,
And still to things eternal look,
And hasten to Thy glorious day.

For Thee delightfully employ
Whate’er Thy bounteous grace hath giv’n;
And run my course with even joy,
And closely walk with Thee to Heav’n.

Celebrating Communion
Communion celebrates our unity–our unity with God and with one another. At Cullowhee Baptist Church we practice an open communion which means anyone seeking to live the Way of Jesus Christ is invited to share in communion with us. Although we are not able to meet together, our bond still remains with one another and God through Jesus Christ.  
 
Imagine Jesus setting a table for us, a place where we may come together and share a meal. Before we “come to the table,” let us set our hearts aright and seek the Lord’s forgiveness for our shortcomings.

Prayer of Confession 
God, giver of life, we gather today acknowledging the harm we have done to your creation and one another.

We pollute the rivers and endanger the creatures within them, rather than honoring their sacredness. We seek control and have power over the waters, rather than respecting their might. We overlook the many enslaved and vulnerable lost in the waters, rather than acknowledging our role in this violence. We focus on our own desires, rather than seeing how they impact the world around us.

We come yearning to be refreshed and replenished by the water of life, so that we might seek ways to honor you better and all of creation. Forgive us for the injury we have caused. Inspire us in seeking new ways to participate in and with your creation. Renew us with your life-giving water.

Amen.

Assurance of Pardon 
2 Corinthians 5:17-18a, Common English Bible 

If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!  All this is from God, to whom we have been reconciled through Christ. 

Invitation to Communion

The table has been prepared as Jesus requested, 
and we have been invited to the meal. 
We come to the table
like Peter, with more enthusiasm than resolve; 
like James and John, dismayed by Jesus’s vision of a kingdom. 
We come to the table
like Martha, hosting and leading with confidence; 
like Mary, eager to learn, and full of grief and love. 
We come to the table
like Judas, disillusioned and rebellious; 
like Mary, faithful to the end. 
Jesus offers us the bread and the cup. 
We come to the table of Christ.

Share the Meal 
Share what you have to eat and before eating, have someone say, “This food represents the body of Christ.  As we eat, we remember Jesus.” 

Share what you have to drink and before drinking, have someone say, “This drink represents the covenant Christ made with us that our sins will be forgiven.  As we drink, we remember Jesus.”

Prayer of Thanksgiving 
Dear God, thank you for your abounding compassionate love. Thank you for guiding and leading us through these difficult times. Thank you for always being with us. Amen.

Song of Faith
Amazing Grace 
Tune: NEW BRITAIN (from the Virginia Harmony, 1831) 
Author: John Newton 

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound 
That saved a wrench like me. 
I once was lost, but now I’m found, 
Was blind, but now I see.

Gospel Reading
Matthew 21:23-32, Common English Bible

When Jesus entered the temple, the chief priests and elders of the people came to him as he was teaching. They asked, “What kind of authority do you have for doing these things? Who gave you this authority?”

Jesus replied, “I have a question for you. If you tell me the answer, I’ll tell you what kind of authority I have to do these things. Where did John get his authority to baptize? Did he get it from heaven or from humans?”

They argued among themselves, “If we say ‘from heaven,’ he’ll say to us, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But we can’t say ‘from humans’ because we’re afraid of the crowd, since everyone thinks John was a prophet.” Then they replied, “We don’t know.”

Jesus also said to them, “Neither will I tell you what kind of authority I have to do these things.”

“What do you think? A man had two sons. Now he came to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ ‘No, I don’t want to,’ he replied. But later he changed his mind and went. The father said the same thing to the other son, who replied, ‘Yes, sir.’ But he didn’t go. Which one of these two did his father’s will?”

They said, “The first one.” Jesus said to them, “I assure you that tax collectors and prostitutes are entering God’s kingdom ahead of you. For John came to you on the righteous road, and you didn’t believe him. But tax collectors and prostitutes believed him. Yet even after you saw this, you didn’t change your hearts and lives and you didn’t believe him.

Proclaiming the Word
Listen to Dr. Jeffrey Vickery and/or read below.

I have given much thought lately to the practice of hypocrisy. It is one thing that our media-savvy culture and the Gospels have in common. Stories about hypocrites receive a good deal of attention. In the Gospel of Luke chapter 11, for example, Jesus pronounces a list of criticisms of hypocritical religious leaders that begin “woe to you…” or perhaps in more contemporary language, “how dare you!” In each case, Jesus is accusing them of hypocrisy. He says, and I’m paraphrasing the meaning without using the exact words, “How dare you make a show of giving money to God but you don’t care about people in poverty who need justice.”  “How dare you teach that God requires humility but you want to be the center of attention because you think you are important.” “How dare you make yourself look good on the outside for the sake of others when you are rotten on the inside because of your greed and wickedness.” Jesus calls out the religious hypocrites because he expects more from them. It makes Jesus mad when people use God’s name or God’s reputation for things that are selfish or ungodly.   

Our contemporary culture highlights hypocrites more than calling them out. During an election season it seems to be focused on politicians. It does not take much effort to find a politician who said last term “I support this policy, I always have and I always will.” And then in a different election cycle, they say the exact opposite. Politicians’ convictions seem to change when they are in the minority and then then they end up in the majority. Our in-the-moment fact-checking computers will be able to point out when candidates in a presidential debate tell a lie, but it may not be as good at detecting hypocrites. One difference between the hypocrites Jesus criticizes and the hypocrites in public office is that I think Jesus sincerely hoped the religious hypocrites would become genuine and faithful. The American public has lost all hope that our politicians will be. 

If we look a bit more closely at hypocrisy, however, we find that it is more subtle than we expect. I was always told that hypocrisy is to say one thing and do another. If we examine it, however, hypocrisy means to act in a way that does not conform to your own sense of virtue or religious standard. This definition presumes we have an expectation for how we should, even how we want to, respond to the world around us that we think is virtuous. In this way, we begin our inward look at our own possible hypocrisy by examining how or under what conditions we want to live in order for my life and relationships to reflect the good that I believe creates healthy relationships.  

It turns out that Jesus starts with a baseline of expectations – the ability to love God and love neighbor as oneself. And since this sermon is intended to help us examine our own place within the scope of Christian practice and faith, I will make the assumption that this moral statement is a starting point for us all. That is, if we claim to be followers of Jesus, we start here: love God and the person in front of us in the same manner as we would want to be loved by them. This supreme teaching is the central truth of Christianity, but making it become the basic way we live our life is the hope of our discipleship.    

The religious pretenders in Luke 11 failed this basic presumption. Giving money to the temple as an excuse not to help the needy violates Jesus’ command to love one another. Praying to get what I want rather than seeking what God wants means I haven’t loved God. Becoming rich to excess, considering someone else beneath my care or less important or smart or capable than me, defining my faith by what others think about me – all of these mean we don’t love God and the person in front of us. To say we follow Jesus but ignore his greatest commandments means we live a public lie. Following Jesus rightly does not harm, cannot hate, refuses revenge, eschews dishonesty. It provokes justice, promotes peace, provides for the needy, presumes hope. To publicly espouse our faith and yet violate the Gospel is to put hypocrisy on public display, and this alone seems to invoke Jesus’ righteous anger.   

In today’s Matthew 21 reading, Jesus tells a parable about two sons. The father asks the first son to “go and work in the vineyard today.” “‘No, I don’t want to,’ he replied. But later he changed his mind and went. “The father said the same thing to the other son, who replied, ‘Yes, sir.’ But he didn’t go.  

First, let’s be clear that this story is not about either parenting or farming. Jesus is discussing hypocrisy without naming it. It turns out that both sons did something different than what they said they were going to do. Hypocrisy is not just going against your word. Instead it exposes how one’s choices display the truth of one’s desire. The first son probably honestly didn’t want to go work today and he simply said so. But the change of mind indicates that his commitment to do what was right could override his present-moment desire and so he did the work even though he originally said otherwise. Likewise the second son did what reflected his true internal moral compass despite the reality of his words. He is not committed to his father, or the work, even though he can use words to make one think that he is. This may explain why Jesus ends the parable with a question that is answered rightly by the crowd: “31“Which one of these two did his father’s will?” They said, “The first one.”  

I am convinced that most people are committed to their own sense of what is right and true. In this way, the politician who flip flops on a policy may not be hypocritical at all if their internal committed moral position is to do anything necessary to be elected. If that is one’s moral compass, then whether one supports or opposes a policy is internally justified by the outcome of an election rather than the impact of legislation. They, like us, most often act in accord with our actual genuine commitments even if that commitment is to selfishness. Similarly, in our personal lives, with our jobs, our family, our friends, even our church, we can conduct ourselves in such a way that we justify our choices and commitments simply by judging what outcome is right for me. Selfishness or egoism is indeed a moral position that some people defend, and that many more practice even if they are unwilling to say that it is their motivation.  

The problem for any Christian comes when we let our selfishness have influence over the basic expectation of the Gospel of grace and peace and justice. If I only practice Christianity in such a way that it is good for me, then making selfish choices while also claiming Christian faith is easily justified by me though deemed hypocritical by Jesus. But living and acting in ways that are selfish while making it appear to others that I am doing it because of my faith is what brings criticism from Jesus. The second son in Jesus’ parable is the one who acts hypocritically and disrespectfully to his father because he said “yes” to the work but his actions revealed that he never meant to be helpful in the first place. It is possible to say “yes” to our faith, to attending church, to serving the church, but only ever really intending to serve ourselves, or at least not to let the church get in the way of my personal life.   

Jesus ends the parable by being hopeful about sinners and thus heaping more criticism on the religious hypocrites. Those who pretend to be Christian but really are selfish, they not only harm the church but also receive the brunt of Jesus’ criticism for, to use Jesus’ words, “[the] tax collectors and prostitutes are entering God’s kingdom ahead of you. … [Because] you didn’t change your hearts and lives and you didn’t believe him.” 

In the end, this conversation about hypocrisy leaves me hopeful. The antidote to hypocrisy becomes a genuine commitment to doing what God sees it right. This doesn’t mean that we are perfect, but that we are determined to follow God well. It doesn’t mean that we won’t make mistakes, but that our intention is to live in God’s way. It doesn’t mean that we never falter, but that our hearts are bent toward God and others rather than my own and my self. In other words, selfishness is the root of hypocrisy, but we are capable of change. We are not trapped in our selfishness. Even if no one else knows but God, the honest commitment to the Gospel is the heart of overcoming any hypocrisy.  

Throughout the last couple of weeks, I have had the text of a prayer from Thomas Merton in my head. I shared this prayer with the youth group a couple of weeks ago, and a singer named Kate Campbell put it to music. It is her song that is playing over again and again in my mind. Merton’s prayer to God includes the line: “I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.” 

When I read Jesus’ parable, the first son can offer this same prayer honestly. Even though he initially said “no,” he evaluated his genuine desire and his commitments and acted in response to the desire to please God. He didn’t so much as change his mind as he corrected his action to reflect his commitment. He acted honestly. The second son, initially said “yes” but also evaluated his own desire and his commitments and acted in response to the desire to please himself. Although he reflected his true nature, it is targeted to himself rather than God. Making private selfishness into a perceived good will fool some people, but never fool God.  

Jesus calls us to cultivate a desire to please God. As that desire grows, as it becomes the hope of our life and the commitment of our choices, we will act more and more in ways that reflect our love for God and others. Like every other discipline of faith, we must practice it.  We don’t assume it comes naturally, fully alive in us without intention and work. We can have more desire to please God today than we did yesterday, and that in itself is a work of faith. Then as we make choices and move through life in a way that attempts to please God, we will sometimes get it right and sometimes fail. But each attempt is a step toward more and more desire to please God, and each work of faith an opportunity to strengthen that genuine hope to represent God’s way in this world truly.  

________________________ 

The full text to Thomas Merton’s prayer: “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.” 

Questions for Reflection

  1. If possible, share about a time when you reacted to a situation like the first son and also like the second son. 
  1. Who is someone that, in your opinion, genuinely acts without being selfish or who displays a consistent desire to please God? 
  1. Name a time when you were certain that you were following God’s will.  

Prayer of Thanksgiving 
Thank you, God for constant love. Please help our church family grow deeper and deeper in your love. Amen.

Song of Faith 
For the Faithful Who Have Answered
Tune: PLEADING SAVIOR, 8 7 8 7 d; Christian Lyre, 1830
Author: Sylvia G. Dunstan

For the faithful who have answered
when they heard your call to serve,
For the many ways you led them
Testing will and stretching nerve,
For their work and for their witness
As they strove against the odds,
For their courage and obedience
We give thanks and praise, O God.

Many eyes have glimpsed the promise.
Many hearts have yearned to see.
Many ears have heard you calling
Us to greater liberty.
Some have fallen in the struggle.
Others still are fighting on.
You are not ashamed to own us.
We give thanks and praise, O God.

For this cloud of faithful witness,
For the common life we share,
For the work of peace and justice,
For the gospel that we bear,
For the vision that our homeland
Is your love–deep, high, and broad–
For the diff’rent roads we travel
We give thanks and praise, O God.

Sending Out 
As this year’s Season of Creation comes to a close, the world is still in crisis. We see wildfires burn the land. We see the glaciers melt and the sea level rise. We see a new virus disrupt humanity forcing us away from one another. We have had to change the way we interact with one another so that we might live. Change requires humility–a discipline of one who has chosen to live the way of Jesus Christ. Philippians 2 teaches us “Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others. Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus….” The humility of Christ enables us to seek transformation instead of control and solutions in our relationships with God, with one another, and with the world. May the Lord help us “change our hearts and minds and believe” more and more everyday as we continually learn how to live as God’s children.

May the blessing and peace of God uphold you, 
May the compassion and love of Christ enfold you, 
and may the vitality and power of the Holy Spirit embolden you, 
today and always.  
Amen.

Closing Song 
Blest Be the Tie 
Tune: DENNIS (Nageli) 
Author: John Fawcett 

Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love. 
The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above. Amen. 

Acknowledgements: The Litany of Praise comes from Acorns and Angels © Ruth Burgess, published by Wild Goose Publications, Iona Community, 4th Floor, Savoy House, 140 Sauchiehall St, Glasgow G2 3DH, UK. The Prayer of Confession comes from Seasons of The Spirit™ SeasonsFusion Season of Creation • Pentecost 2 2020. The anthem was sung by Laura, Mindy, Tonya, Ally, and Elizabeth. The Invitation to Communion was written by the Mennonite Worship and Song Committee, 2018. Tracy played the organ. Mindy sang the hymns. Aidan played the piano for Amazing Grace and Tonya played for the anthem. Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-724755. All rights reserved.  All writings have been used by permission from the posting sites or authors.

Preparation for Worship 
While worshiping at home, set aside a time each week for worship and designate a place. You may want to have two candles to light to begin worship: one to represent Christ’s humanity and the other to represent Christ’s divinity. To celebrate communion, have something to eat and drink for everyone. The type of food and drink does not matter for they are merely symbols which help us celebrate the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Middle Prong Wilderness

Lighting Two Candles
We begin worship by lighting candles to remind ourselves that the One whom we worship, Jesus, is the light of the world. We light two candles to remind us that Jesus is God and lived alongside us as a human being.

Invitation to Worship 
Today we give thanks to God for the wilderness areas of the Earth. Wilderness areas are untouched, unmodified or only slightly modified. They are without intrusive or extractive human activity, settlements, infrastructure or visual disturbance. Wilderness areas are open-ended, undefined, natural, and dynamic. Since they are unknown to us, they are often seen as intimidating and scary. They remind us of the times in our lives when things become undefined and beyond the control of human plans. May we open our hearts to God’s teachings so we might learn from the beauty and grandeur of the wilderness which God has created as we continue to live through the wilderness of a pandemic.

Passing the Peace 
Say to one another, “May the peace of Christ be with you.”
And reply, “And also with you.”

Reading from the Hebrew Bible 
Genesis 2:4-9, Common English Bible 


On the day the Lord God made earth and sky— before any wild plants appeared on the earth, and before any field crops grew, because the Lord God hadn’t yet sent rain on the earth and there was still no human being to farm the fertile land, though a stream rose from the earth and watered all of the fertile land— the Lord God formed the human from the topsoil of the fertile land and blew life’s breath into his nostrils. The human came to life. The Lord God planted a garden in Eden in the east and put there the human he had formed. In the fertile land, the Lord God grew every beautiful tree with edible fruit, and also he grew the tree of life in the middle of the garden and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. 

Opening Prayer 
Loving God, we thank you for the wild, beautiful, eternally changing world that is always beyond our understanding. In the wilderness, help us to find wonder and awe, to mourn when the land calls us to mourn, and to rejoice when it calls us to rejoice. Amen.

Hymn of Praise 
Creator God, We Give You Thanks
Tune: CANONBURY (Robert Schumann)
Author: Betty Anne J. Arner

1 Creator God, we give You thanks
for all the glories You have made.
Help us to see You in Your work,
the Artist in the art displayed.

2 As we survey Your handiwork,
restrain our minds from petty greed.
Respect before Your great design
is reverence paid to You indeed.

3 What You have given us in trust
is only ours to rightly use.
Deliver us from thoughtless deeds
that plunder, pillage, and abuse.

4 Help us to see Your draftsman’s hand
in every blade of grass, each flower,
that we may stand in awe before
the work of Your creative power.

Psalm Reading 
Psalm 145:1-8, Common English Bible

I will lift you up high, my God, the true king.
I will bless your name forever and always.
I will bless you every day.
I will praise your name forever and always.
The Lord is great and so worthy of praise!
God’s greatness can’t be grasped.
One generation will praise your works to the next one,
proclaiming your mighty acts.
They will talk all about the glorious splendor of your majesty;
I will contemplate your wondrous works.
They will speak of the power of your awesome deeds;
I will declare your great accomplishments.
They will rave in celebration of your abundant goodness;
they will shout joyfully about your righteousness:
“The Lord is merciful and compassionate,
very patient, and full of faithful love.”

Prayer for Others 
Pause after each paragraph to give voice to prayers as prompted.
[Additionally, if you would like our church family to pray for someone or something in particular, email the request to tonya@cullowheebaptist.com or call the church office at 293-9024.]

Merciful God, who shelters us and guides us,  
we give you thanks for…. 

God who comforts,  
receive those who are fearful and lonely…. 

God whose love is steadfast,  
be refuge for the ill, the dying, and those who care about them.… 

God of righteousness,  
we ask for your wisdom and ways of justice to prevail  
in our community, this nation, your world…. 

God who seeks our trust, grow us and guide us in your ways
that are life-giving in your world.  
Amen.

Anthem
When Morning Gilds the Skies

When morning gilds the skies,
our hearts awaking cries:
May Jesus Christ be praised!
When evening shadows fall,
This rings my curfew call.
May Jesus Christ be praised! 

When mirth for music longs,
this is my song of songs:
May Jesus Christ be praised!
God’s holy house of prayer
hath none that can compare
with “Jesus Christ be praised!”

No lovelier antiphon
in all high Heav’n is known
Than, Jesus Christ be praised!
There to the eternal Word
the eternal psalm is heard:
May Jesus Christ be praised!

Sing, suns and stars of space,
sing, ye that see His face,
Sing, Jesus Christ be praised!
God’s whole creation o’er,
for now and evermore
Shall Jesus Christ be praised!

Celebrating Communion
Communion celebrates our unity–our unity with God and with one another. At Cullowhee Baptist Church we practice an open communion which means anyone seeking to live the Way of Jesus Christ is invited to share in communion with us. Although we are not able to meet together, our bond still remains with one another and God through Jesus Christ.  
 
Imagine Jesus setting a table for us, a place where we may come together and share a meal. Before we “come to the table,” let us set our hearts aright and seek the Lord’s forgiveness for our shortcomings.

Prayer of Confession 
God, we remember our thirst for more. Humans take up more and more space every year, choking the homes of our plant and animal companions. Help us to share the forests and the deserts, the oceans and the prairies, with our earthly neighbors. Amen.

Assurance of Pardon 
2 Corinthians 5:17-18a, Common English Bible 

If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!  All this is from God, to whom we have been reconciled through Christ. 

Invitatio to Communion

The table has been prepared as Jesus requested, 
and we have been invited to the meal. 
We come to the table
like Peter, with more enthusiasm than resolve; 
like James and John, dismayed by Jesus’s vision of a kingdom. 
We come to the table
like Martha, hosting and leading with confidence; 
like Mary, eager to learn, and full of grief and love. 
We come to the table
like Judas, disillusioned and rebellious; 
like Mary, faithful to the end. 
Jesus offers us the bread and the cup. 
We come to the table of Christ.

Share the Meal 
Share what you have to eat and before eating, have someone say, “This food represents the body of Christ.  As we eat, we remember Jesus.” 

Share what you have to drink and before drinking, have someone say, “This drink represents the covenant Christ made with us that our sins will be forgiven.  As we drink, we remember Jesus.”

Prayer of Thanksgiving 
Dear God, thank you for your abounding compassionate love. Thank you for guiding and leading us through these difficult times. Thank you for always being with us. Amen.

Song of Faith
Amazing Grace 
Tune: NEW BRITAIN (from the Virginia Harmony, 1831) 
Author: John Newton 

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound 
That saved a wrench like me. 
I once was lost, but now I’m found, 
Was blind, but now I see.

Gospel Reading
Matthew 20:1-15

“The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. After he agreed with the workers to pay them a denarion, he sent them into his vineyard.

“Then he went out around nine in the morning and saw others standing around the marketplace doing nothing. He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I’ll pay you whatever is right.’ And they went.

“Again around noon and then at three in the afternoon, he did the same thing. Around five in the afternoon he went and found others standing around, and he said to them, ‘Why are you just standing around here doing nothing all day long?’

“‘Because nobody has hired us,’ they replied.

“He responded, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’

“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the workers and give them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and moving on finally to the first.’ When those who were hired at five in the afternoon came, each one received a denarion. Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more. But each of them also received a denarion. When they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, ‘These who were hired last worked one hour, and they received the same pay as we did even though we had to work the whole day in the hot sun.’ “But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I did you no wrong. Didn’t I agree to pay you a denarion? Take what belongs to you and go. I want to give to this one who was hired last the same as I give to you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with what belongs to me? Or are you resentful because I’m generous?’

Proclaiming the Word
Listen to Rev. Tonya Vickery and/or read below.

A couple of years ago I was teaching the children on Wednesday nights. I began Bible study playing a game with the children. I separated them into two teams, the younger ones against the older ones.  This was pre-playground days when the side yards was just green grass. I had a bucket of water for each team sitting on the sidewalk outside the fellowship hall windows. On the other end of the yard, I had an empty bucket for each team. The goal was to move the water from the full bucket all the way across the yard to the empty bucket and the team who had the fullest bucket on the other side of the yard would be the winner. The trick was I had given the older kids cups that had holes in the bottom of them.

It did not take long for me to realize how competitive these children were. They had such an ingrained sense of things have to be fair, that the older ones completely lost it and started running after the younger children to grab their cups. It became complete chaos and mayhem in the side yard of the church that Wednesday evening. I just stood there among them completely flabbergasted. They were tackling one another. They were screaming and running. Their sense of fairness was tied completely to the cups. And they were upset. Eventually I was able to get them to stop and move over to the concrete benches in front of the cross. I was at a loss for words. The older ones were angry with me. They were so upset that I had given them a disadvantage intentionally. It was not fair Tonya, they complained loudly.

It took me months before I would play a competitive game with them again. And at the most it was BINGO. And even BINGO became unfair at times.

I would love to be in the homes of the children this morning and hear their responses to Jesus’ story. But it’s not just children who assume and expect fairness. All of us row  that boat. That’s what makes this passage of scripture hard for us. We have to adjust our thinking. Because what if we see God represented in this story as the generous landowner? That would mean that God is anything but fair.

An owner of what must be a vast vineyard needs people to work in the  fields. As the day begins, the landowner goes to the marketplace where workers are hired with the agreement that they will paid one denarion for theirs day’s work.  It is an honest wage. Later in the morning, the landowner sees there are still workers standing around in the marketplace waiting to be hired. They are offered work in the vineyard and promised to be paid what is right. Off they go to join those who were hired first thing that morning. Twice more during the day workers without jobs are hired and promised to be paid what is right. And yet again, at five o’clock in the afternoon with just one hour left to work, more workers are hired and promised to be paid what is right.

Workday ends and it is time for everyone to be paid. The landowner intentionally starts with those hired last. Those who were hired at 5pm were given one denarion for their day’s work. Those who were hired at 3pm were given one denarion for their day’s work. Those who were hired at noon were given one denarion for their day’s work. Those who were hired at 9am were given one denarion for their day’s work. And finally, those who started off the morning with the landowner were given one denarion for their day’s work.

As each group went through to be paid, the attitude among the workers grew more sour. The generosity of the landowner was not appreciated by all. Those who had worked all day long out in the hot sun were upset. How in the world could they be paid the same amount as those who had just worked one hour for the landowner?  How in the world could they receive the same pay? It’s just not fair.

The landowner doesn’t care about being fair in the way they assume fairness. And besides, the landowner didn’t cheat them out of anything. They were paid what they agreed to work for. And if the landowner wants to give the one hired last the same as the one hired first, then that’s the landowner’s business, not the workers’. The landowner asks, “Are you resentful because I am generous?” The Greek word which the CEB translates as resentful comes from a root which means pain or laborious trouble. “Are you painfully miserable because I’m generous,” asks the landowner.

The story highlights how God is not interested in showing favor, not to the best, the brightest, or the earliest, to the first in line, somewhere in the middle, or last. God does not favor those who are more capable, those who are more educated, those who are more successful. God does not favor those who work longer hours, nor does God favor those who have it all together. God does not favor the long suffering, nor does God favor the perfect. God does not favor the quick to learn, nor does God favor the quick to trust. God does not have favorites.

In God’s kin-dom, fairness, justice, and equality are completely different from what we expect and assume. Jesus’ makes this point. In the story, the workers are not judged by their hours. Why was everyone not there at the beginning of the work day? Everyone needed work. But everyone didn’t show up at the beginning.  Again, the landowner does not judge the worker by their hours.  So, why would people start late?

Hmm, not everyone begins on a level playing field. Sometimes it’s just who you are. It is like pitting the younger children against the older children in the game. They are less able than the older ones. Their bodies are smaller. Their experience is shorter. We would assume the older ones to be faster and wiser. But sometimes the playing field is not level because some outward force has made things more difficult for you. Like the older children in the game. They were given cups with holes in the bottom. Their resources were putting them at a disadvantage.

So it is in real life, some are not as savvy or wise as their competitors. Some have to lug around depression and/or anxiety. Some don’t look physically able to do the job. Some don’t live in the right neighborhood. Some don’t know where to go because they don’t have internet access or a working cell phone. Some have a difficult time at home with their immediate family. Some have others to care for. Some have lost  their cars and show up when they can get a ride. Some have lost their steady support systems of friends and family to keep them on track. Some can’t get the right papers to be hired. Some have given up.  Some have been labeled as useless and they are starting to believe it. Some are not the right fit for the job because of their gender identity, their sexual identity, their skin color, their political affiliation, or maybe just the way they dress. Some have messed up in the past, they have a record, and no one wants to hire them. Perhaps that’s why they started late.

Whatever the reason, the landowner does not require them to explain themselves or defend their lateness. All the landowner cares about is that everyone in the marketplace has a place in the landowner’s vineyard. There is a spot for everyone–for the one who comes early and the one who comes late, for the young and the old, for the experienced and the newbie, the advantaged and the disadvantaged, the well loved and the overlooked. When the work day draws to an end, the landowner is not focused on who deserves what. The landowner is focused on everyone having what they need.

That’s the kin-dom of God.

Fairness is worthless, if it turns me into a stingy selfish person who would leave someone else out in the dark and justify it as fairness.  Justice is empty when it mocks the generosity of God. We can only thrive when everyone — everyone has a place of dignity and a place of purpose. Our dignity and purpose comes from God. And there is a place for everyone in God’s vineyard.

Questions for Reflection
How would you feel if you were the worker hired at 5pm? How would you feel if you were the worker hired at the beginning of the day? How does a desire for everyone to have what they need change the way you would feel?

How does not having enough to secure basic needs like food and shelter affect human life?

The story highlights the generosity of God, but it also highlights how God values and provides for everyone. Think of ways you can participate in God’s generosity by providing for others this week.

Prayer of Thanksgiving 
Thank you, God for constant love. Please help our church family grow deeper and deeper in your love. Amen.

Song of Faith 
For the Fruit of All Creation
Tune: AR HYD Y NOS (Tradition Welsh melody)
Author: Fred Pratt Green

1 For the fruit of all creation,
thanks be to God.
For his gifts to every nation,
thanks be to God.
For the plowing, sowing, reaping,
silent growth while we are sleeping,
future needs in earth’s safekeeping,
thanks be to God.

2 In the just reward of labor,
God’s will is done.
In the help we give our neighbor,
God’s will is done.
In our worldwide task of caring
for the hungry and despairing,
in the harvests we are sharing,
God’s will is done.

3 For the harvests of the Spirit,
thanks be to God.
For the good we all inherit,
thanks be to God.
For the wonders that astound us,
for the truths that still confound us,
most of all, that love has found us,
thanks be to God.

Sending Out 
May the blessing and peace of God uphold you, 
May the compassion and love of Christ enfold you, 
and the vitality and power of the Holy Spirit embolden you 
today and always.   Amen.

Closing Song 
Blest Be the Tie 
Tune: DENNIS (Nageli) 
Author: John Fawcett 

Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love. 
The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above. Amen. 

Acknowledgements: The Opening Prayer and Prayer of Confession come from Seasons of The Spirit™ SeasonsFusion Season of Creation • Pentecost 2 2020. The anthem was composed by Rachel Aarons and published by St. James Music Press. Tessa played the descant on flute. Mindy, Ally, and Elizabeth sang. The Invitation to Communion was written by the Mennonite Worship and Song Committee, 2018. Tracy played the organ. Mindy sang the hymns. Aidan played the piano for Amazing Grace and Tonya played for the anthem. Jeff read the opening scripture passage from Genesis. Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-724755. All rights reserved.  All writings have been used by permission from the posting sites or authors.

Preparation for Worship 
While worshiping at home, set aside a time each week for worship and designate a place. You may want to have two candles to light to begin worship: one to represent Christ’s humanity and the other to represent Christ’s divinity. To celebrate communion, have something to eat and drink for everyone. The type of food and drink does not matter for they are merely symbols which help us celebrate the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Lighting Two Candles
We begin worship by lighting candles to remind ourselves that the One whom we worship, Jesus, is the light of the world. We light two candles to remind us that Jesus is God and lived alongside us as a human being.

Passing the Peace 
Say to one another, “May the peace of Christ be with you.”
And reply, “And also with you.”

Invitation to Worship 
We celebrate September as the Season of Creation. This Sunday we reflect upon the relationship we have with the land. Genesis 2:4-9 reads,

On the day the Lord God made earth and sky— before any wild plants appeared on the earth, and before any field crops grew, because the Lord God hadn’t yet sent rain on the earth and there was still no human being to farm the fertile land, though a stream rose from the earth and watered all of the fertile land— the Lord God formed the human from the topsoil of the fertile land and blew life’s breath into his nostrils. The human came to life. The Lord God planted a garden in Eden in the east and put there the human he had formed. In the fertile land, the Lord God grew every beautiful tree with edible fruit, and also he grew the tree of life in the middle of the garden and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Opening Prayer 
We remember the dry land that rose from the waters in the beginning of creation, and the plants that emerged from the soil to cover the land with vegetation.  We remember with delight the gardens and the fields of our childhood, the places where we played in the dirt, when we felt close to the ground, to bright flowers, and to baby animals.  We remember and rejoice. Thank you, God, for the land, for soils that sustain our life.  We come to worship you as we remember. Amen.

Hymn of Praise 
Fairest Lord Jesus
Tune: ST. ELIZABETH (18th century Silesian tune) 
Author: unknown

Fairest Lord Jesus, ruler of all nature,
O thou of God and man the Son,
Thee will I cherish, Thee will I honor,  
thou, my soul’s glory, joy, and crown. 

Fair are the meadows, fairer still the woodlands,
robed in the blooming garb of spring:
Jesus is fairer, Jesus is purer
who makes the woeful heart to sing.

Fair is the sunshine, fairer still the moonlight,
and all the twinkling starry host:
Jesus shines brighter, Jesus shines purer
than all the angels heaven can boast. 

Beautiful Savior!  Lord of all the nations!
Son of God and Son of Man!  
Glory and honor, praise, adoration,  
now and forevermore be thine. 

Psalm Reading 
Psalm 26:1-8, Common English Bible

Listen to a church member read and/or read below.

Establish justice for me, Lord,
because I have walked with integrity. 
I’ve trusted the Lord without wavering. 
Examine me, Lord; put me to the test! 
    Purify my mind and my heart. 
Because your faithful love is right in front of me— 
    I walk in your truth! 
I don’t spend time with people up to no good; 
    I don’t keep company with liars. 
I detest the company of evildoers, 
    and I don’t sit with wicked people. 
I wash my hands—they are innocent! 
    I walk all around your altar, Lord, 
        proclaiming out loud my thanks, 
        declaring all your wonderful deeds! 
I love the beauty of your house, Lord; 
    I love the place where your glory resides. 

Hymn of Response
Touch the Earth Lightly
Tune: TENDERNESS (Gibson) 
Author: Shirley Murray

Touch the earth lightly, use the earth gently, 
nourish the life of the world in our care: 
gift of great wonder, ours to surrender, 
trust for the children tomorrow will bear. 

We who endanger, who create hunger, 
agents of death for all creatures that live, 
we who would foster clouds of disaster– 
God of our planet, forestall and forgive! 

Let there be greening, birth from the burning, 
water that blesses and air that is sweet, 
health in God’s garden, hope in God’s children, 
regeneration that peace will complete. 

God of all living, God of all loving, 
God of the seedling, the snow and the sun, 
teach us, deflect us, Christ reconnect us, 
using us gently, and making us one. 

Prayer for Others 
Pause after each paragraph to give voice to prayers as prompted.
[Additionally, if you would like our church family to pray for someone or something in particular, email the request to tonya@cullowheebaptist.com or call the church office at 293-9024.]

Merciful God, who shelters us and guides us,  
we give you thanks for…. 

God who comforts,  
receive those who are fearful and lonely…. 

God whose love is steadfast,  
be refuge for the ill, the dying, and those who care about them.… 

God of righteousness,  
we ask for your wisdom and ways of justice to prevail  
in our community, this nation, your world…. 

God who seeks our trust, grow us and guide us in your ways
that are life-giving in your world.  
Amen.

Choral Anthem
Harvest Blessings, Richly Showered
Composer & Author: Vernon Hoyle

Harvest blessings, richly show’red by the God of love; 
Field and garden, sweetly flow’red; heav’n’s blue sky above. 
For these mercies now we sing grateful praise to God our King. 

Nature’s wonders yearly sharing, thank we now our Lord, 
Who, for all his creatures caring, doth his gifts afford. 
For these mercies now we sing grateful praise to God our King. 

Loving God and loving neighbour, man in joy doth reap 
Harvest of the farmer’s labour, harvest of the deep. 
For these mercies now we sing grateful praise to God our King. 

He who took the bread and brake it, blessed it with the wine, 
Common food of earth doth make it sustenance divine. 
For these mercies now we sing grateful praise to God our King. 

Harvest blessings, richly show’red by the God of might; 
Body, soul and mind, empow’red praise him in the height!

Celebrating Communion
Communion celebrates our unity–our unity with God and with one another. At Cullowhee Baptist Church we practice an open communion which means anyone seeking to live the Way of Jesus Christ is invited to share in communion with us. Although we are not able to meet together, our bond still remains with one another and God through Jesus Christ.  
 
Imagine Jesus setting a table for us, a place where we may come together and share a meal. Before we “come to the table,” let us set our hearts aright and seek the Lord’s forgiveness for our shortcomings.

Prayer of Confession 
Author: Diocese of Oxford Clergy Conference 2018 

Holy and merciful God, we confess that we have failed to honor you by rightly claiming our kinship with all your creatures. We have walked heavily on your earth, overused and wasted its resources, taken for granted its beauty and abundance, and treated its inhabitants unjustly, holding future generations hostage to our greed. Have mercy on us and forgive us our sin. Renew in us the resolve to keep and conserve your earth as you desire and intend, with grateful and compassionate hearts, through your Son, our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. 

Assurance of Pardon 
2 Corinthians 5:17-18a, Common English Bible 

If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!  All this is from God, to whom we have been reconciled through Christ. 

Invitation 
Author: Mennonite Worship and Song Committee, 2018

The table has been prepared as Jesus requested, 
and we have been invited to the meal. 
We come to the table
like Peter, with more enthusiasm than resolve; 
like James and John, dismayed by Jesus’s vision of a kingdom. 
We come to the table
like Martha, hosting and leading with confidence; 
like Mary, eager to learn, and full of grief and love. 
We come to the table
like Judas, disillusioned and rebellious; 
like Mary, faithful to the end. 
Jesus offers us the bread and the cup. 
We come to the table of Christ.

Share the Meal 
Share what you have to eat and before eating, have someone say, “This food represents the body of Christ.  As we eat, we remember Jesus.” 

Share what you have to drink and before drinking, have someone say, “This drink represents the covenant Christ made with us that our sins will be forgiven.  As we drink, we remember Jesus.”

Prayer of Thanksgiving 
Dear God, thank you for your abounding compassionate love. Thank you for guiding and leading us through these difficult times. Thank you for always being with us. Amen.

Song of Faith
Amazing Grace 
Tune: NEW BRITAIN (from the Virginia Harmony, 1831) 
Author: John Newton 

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound 
That saved a wrench like me. 
I once was lost, but now I’m found, 
Was blind, but now I see.

Gospel Reading 
Matthew 18:21-35

Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Should I forgive as many as seven times?”  Jesus said, “Not just seven times, but rather as many as seventy-seven times. Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle accounts, they brought to him a servant who owed him ten thousand bags of gold. Because the servant didn’t have enough to pay it back, the master ordered that he should be sold, along with his wife and children and everything he had, and that the proceeds should be used as payment. But the servant fell down, kneeled before him, and said, ‘Please, be patient with me, and I’ll pay you back.’ The master had compassion on that servant, released him, and forgave the loan. When that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him one hundred coins. He grabbed him around the throat and said, ‘Pay me back what you owe me.’  Then his fellow servant fell down and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I’ll pay you back.’ But he refused. Instead, he threw him into prison until he paid back his debt.  When his fellow servants saw what happened, they were deeply offended. They came and told their master all that happened. His master called the first servant and said, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you appealed to me. Shouldn’t you also have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’ His master was furious and handed him over to the guard responsible for punishing prisoners, until he had paid the whole debt.  My heavenly Father will also do the same to you if you don’t forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” 

Proclaiming the Word
Dr. Jeffrey Vickery

Listen to Jeffrey’s sermon and/or read below.

The first lesson in theology is “God is God and I ain’t.” The second lesson, less well known, is related to the first — “I will be and do things that resemble God.” The first lesson is about humility without self-loathing, and respect without arrogance. The second lesson is a reminder that Genesis 1 identifies each one of us as being created in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-28).  That holy resemblance leaves us with a task – to consider carefully what we think about God. What we affirm about God we often manifest in our life. If we imagine God as a divine overlord waiting to swoop in attack at our smallest of miscues and mishaps, then we will often treat people the same way, especially those we consider beneath us. But if we imagine God as comforting, generous, and benevolent whose intent is to bring goodness and beauty into the world then we will want to treat others in these ways. In short, if I imagine God as angry, it validates my anger as being like God. If I think of God as the Universal Mother, birthing the Earth and all this creation that surrounds it, and caring for it as her favorite child among the planets, then I will develop a holy motivation to care for creation.

As it turns out, the insistent monotheism of Christianity is helpful here. Think about being a part of a polytheistic world where gods and goddesses create individual parts of creation rather than the whole. Each god has a different personality—some kind and caring while others are capricious and vindictive. They often are said to resemble the parts of nature associated with them, and, let’s be honest, sometimes creation is scary and dangerous. Consider the sea. The vast ocean means the God who created the ocean must be big and powerful, but also destructive and deadly.  If the god I choose to venerate is the god who created the sea, and I look to the sea to tell me something about God, then God appears sometimes calm and peaceful while at other times storm-enraged to the point of destruction. We are not surprised then to learn that Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea, was both the creator of islands and calm waters, but also the originator of earthquakes and floods and shipwrecks and even mental disturbances. Poseidon was, like the sea, capable of calm yet prone to chaos.

Our confession that one God created all things and named them all as “good” in the first creation account, tells us that no one part of creation alone can fully resemble God. Nor can one event, either human or in creation, define God’s essence. If God was defined by the volcano alone, or the plague, or war, then God would be solely destructive and deadly. If the gentleness of a giraffe, or the companionship of a kitten, or the domestication of a heifer were the only creatures through which we defined our God, then God would be tame and under our control. It turns out that God is more broadly good and richly deep in purpose than any one part of creation.

In Chrisitanity, rather than having God resemble a part of nature, the biblical creation story tells us that humanity resembles God. God is not made from humanity, but our human nature is a reflection of the image of God in a way that the dolphin and the donkey are not. One of the most elemental tasks of being human in God’s image is to be like God in our relationships with each other and the world.

It’s hard to say, “Be like God” without the childhood memory of a certain Gatorade commercial that began running in 1992. It had a catchy phrase –“Be Like Mike”– set to percussion filled, Disney-esque music, and a constantly smiling celebrity, THE biggest celebrity of the day, Michael Jordan. He had won an NBA championship with the Chicago Bulls just one year before, and he was on his way to winning a second one. The commercial was a hit and is still available on YouTube. The premise is simple—kids dream of being like Mike and Gatorade helps make it possible. The second part was the scam – Gatorade doesn’t make you a better player. The first part was closer to the truth. Kids, adults, anyone with a basketball, wanted to be like Michael Jordan. He wasn’t just happy, he was joyful. He wasn’t just the greatest ever, he was humble enough to share the court with children. I imagine Adam Holt, age 11, seeing this commercial on television, and then dribbling a basketball behind his back “like Mike” during PE class, or Onifer Wilmoth at age 13 trying that shot from the top of the key as Jordan’s moving left and guarded by Larry Bird and hits nothing but net. In the early 90s, whether you had game or didn’t, you likely wanted to be like Mike.

In our Christian arena, playing the game of life and hope and grace, we are called to “Be Like God.” No catchy song required although practice and discipline and willful choosing are necessary. Remember, to “be like God” does not mean that we are God, nor does it mean that we are given divine power that we don’t have. It signifies a willingness to resemble the God of Jesus the Christ, whose Spirit compels us into a world where we can help create goodness and beauty.

In the biblical witness, God’s nature is wholly goodness and the world God created out of that goodness was governed by wisdom. (Read Genesis 1 and Proverbs 8). Thus it is out of goodness and through wisdom that God created us as part of the good creation. Because of this foundation, the first half of our Bible has a clear and often repeated description of God — “You are a merciful and compassionate God, very patient, full of faithful love, and willing not to punish” (see Jonah 4:2 as one example). This description of God’s nature is repeated at least seven times in the first testament, so much so that when Jesus discusses forgiveness, it is already clear to him from the Jewish text that he could read and recite, that God’s character is founded on this confession: “You are a merciful and compassionate God, very patient, full of faithful love, and willing not to punish.”

All of this matters by the time we come to Jesus’ story in Matthew 18. Jesus is fielding a question from Peter about forgiveness. Jesus could have simply given Peter a “duh” look – like, “don’t you know Peter that God forgives and therefore so should we.” Jesus as is his custom has more in mind than a dismissive remark.

We’re not certain, but I like to think that it is almost time for Yom Kippur in the Jewish festival calendar when this story takes place in Matthew 18. Since the gospels tell us that Jesus observes Sabbath every week, celebrates the Festival of Booths, Hanukkah, and Passover, it should be assumed that he also would have observed Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur is the “day of atonement” when Jews seek God’s forgiveness for sins, those known and unknown, individual as well as corporate sins, both committed by will and mistake but also omitted by lack of action. The day of Yom Kippur includes a complete 24-hours without food. Jews will wear their prayer shawl or tallit all day to remind them of their need to repent and confess before God. In the Talmud, a Jewish collection of teachings by the rabbis, it is said, “Yom Kippur does not forgive transgressions between one person and another until or unless they seek forgiveness directly” (Mishnah Yoma 8:9). The day’s worship ends with a song that recites verses from Numbers 14:19-20: “Please forgive the wrongs of these people because of your absolute loyalty, just as you’ve forgiven these people from their time in Egypt until now.” Then the Lord said, “I will forgive as you requested.”

So when Peter asks about forgiving others, Jesus’ parable reflects what both Peter and Jesus know about God’s goodness from Genesis, and Numbers, and Jonah. God forgives. It is what God does. Why? Because God is good, and God’s goodness is governed by wisdom rather than vengeance or anger. All followers of Jesus, including Peter and you and I, are to be like the God we worship. There is no question that God forgives, and so Jesus makes Peter’s question reflect God’s nature rather than social custom. “God forgives a lot, Peter, and you should forgive just as much.” Peter offers a number that seems generous – forgive seven times? Jesus doesn’t laugh, at least the gospel doesn’t say that he did but in my imagination he offered a knowing grin to Peter. God does not just forgive us seven times. And since that second lesson of theology is that we are supposed to resemble the God we worship, then seven is not enough times for us to forgive someone either. Jesus suggests seventy-seven times. I agree that he’s not being literal, but what if he is? Then we should forgive the same person seventy-seven times. That’s a lot. It may even be enough times to sustain a lasting relationship that is becomes healthy for both persons.

All would be well if the story ended with this challenge from Jesus to Peter. But the story is more disturbing when Jesus tells the parable. The master in the parable forgives his servant a large debt that amounts to bags and bags of gold. The master showed mercy and by doing so reflected God’s mercy. This action has nothing to do with best practices in accounting! But the forgiven servant turns around and finds a colleague that owes him a few coins and throttles him and throws him in prison without forgiving him the debt. When the first master finds out, he’s rightfully upset. He made the proper assumption that if he, the master, had forgiven the servant, then the servant would offer the same mercy to his friend.

If I don’t think I need forgiving, then I won’t ask God. If I do ask God and God forgives me, then I exhibit no awareness of the reality of that mercy if I don’t forgive others. In this logic, then, to be able to forgive someone else means we know and thus reflect God’s forgiveness of us. Because God forgives we forgive. Because God cares, we care. Because God creates goodness and beauty, we create goodness and beauty. Do you remember the other confession that Jonah offered? Mercy, compassion, patience, faithful in love, willing not to punish. These describe God. Jesus is also making the second theological point – they will describe how we respond to the people and creation around us. If not, we haven’t understood God rightly.

If we pair this story of Jesus with the gospel lesson from Tonya’s sermon last week, we begin to see a pattern emerge. Our human relationships should be based upon our understanding of God’s relationship with us. Think about our forgiveness from God. To be forgiven by God returns us to relationship, but its premise is honest confession and repentance. We can’t demand that God forgive us as a threat. We don’t have a right to God’s forgiveness if we’re just doing it for personal gain. We would be unwise to think we can fool God and make promises and ask forgiveness and seek mercy if we don’t really mean to repent. Blatant misuse of God’s mercy is something we can be fooled into thinking we receive, but God is not fooled by our hypocrisy. I assume that Peter honestly repented and found God’s forgiveness and so Jesus is right to tell him that he has every spiritual gift necessary to forgive others. At the same time, Jesus is not suggesting that we forgive infinitely those whose request for mercy is unjust, or hypocritical, or self-serving, or manipulative, or not genuine. We have a harder time telling the difference than God does, but Christianity is not full of doormat submissive wimpy people who will overlook wanton disregard for God’s way in the world. Injustice by its definition is acting, either personally or systemically, as though forgiveness is not necessary and sin that becomes abuse is normative. Injustice is not to be forgiven until the one who sustains the injustice is changed. Forgiveness is not toleration of evil but recognition of genuine repentance. God forgives and redeems. We at least can do the first, and do it more often, and hopefully, the second will follow when sin is replaced with holiness and justice is realized for the oppressed. May it be so in my relationships and yours. May it be so for this earth that is God’s good creation. May it be the goal of our life until breath no more inspires us and the Spirit of God ushers us home.

Questions for Reflection
What part of God’s nature and what characteristic of God is the easiest for you to live? And which is hardest?

If someone were to watch a video of the way you treat other people, what would they think that you believe about God?

God is described in the Bible as merciful, compassionate, patient, steadfast in love, and ready not to punish. Which one of these do you hear others say about God the most, or the least?

Prayer of Thanksgiving 
Thank you, God for constant love. Please help our church family grow deeper and deeper in your love. Amen.

Song of Faith 
Lead on Eternal Sovereign 
Tune: LANCASHIRE (Smart) 
Author: Ernest W. Shurtleff, alterations by Pilgrim Press 

Lead on eternal Sovereign, we follow in your way; 
loud rings your cry for justice, your call for peace this day: 
Through prayerful preparation, your grace has made us strong, 
to carry on the struggle to triumph over wrong. 

Lead on eternal Sovereign, we follow not with fear, 
for in each human conflict your words of strength we hear: 
That when we serve with gladness, you will not let us fall, 
our trust is in your promise that love will conquer all. 

Lead on eternal Sovereign, till sin’s fierce war shall cease, 
And all your saints together will sing a hymn of peace; 
Then all in your dominion will live with hearts set free, 
To love and serve each other for all eternity.

Sending Out 
May the blessing and peace of God uphold you, 
May the compassion and love of Christ enfold you, 
and the vitality and power of the Holy Spirit embolden you 
today and always.   Amen.

Closing Song 
Blest Be the Tie 
Tune: DENNIS (Nageli) 
Author: John Fawcett 

Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love. 
The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above. Amen. 

Acknowledgements: The organ was played by Tracy. Mindy sang the hymns. Ally played the piano for Touch the Earth Lightly. Aidan played the piano for Amazing Grace. Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-724755. All rights reserved.  All writings have been used by permission from the posting sites or authors.

Preparation for Worship

  • Something to remind you of the forest. At CBC, we designate the month of September as the Season of Creation. We spend time each Sunday reflecting on our relationship with different aspects of creation. This Sunday we take a look at the forest. So add something to your worship space to remind you of the forest.
  • Two candles. Our worship begins with the light of two candles: one represents Christ’s humanity and the other represents Christ’s divinity.
  • Something to eat and drink to celebrate communion. The type of food and drink does not matter for they are merely symbols which help us celebrate the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

The Worship of God

Light two candles in recognition of Christ’s presence.  In our practice, one candle represents Jesus’ divinity and the other Jesus’ humanity.

Gathering for Worship

Passing the Peace
Say to one another, “May the Peace of Christ be with you.”
Respond by saying, “And also with you.”

Call to Worship
Today is Forest Sunday. We acknowledge that we stand in the company of the trees who have lived longer than we have, housing a myriad of creatures, and given us our holy breath. Let us breathe, and pray, and sing today, and worship with the emerald forests.

A Reading from the Hebrew Bible
Genesis 2:4-9

Listen to a church member read the scriptures and/or read below.

On the day the Lord God made earth and sky— before any wild plants appeared on the earth, and before any field crops grew, because the Lord God hadn’t yet sent rain on the earth and there was still no human being to farm the fertile land, though a stream rose from the earth and watered all of the fertile land— the Lord God formed the human from the topsoil of the fertile land and blew life’s breath into his nostrils. The human came to life. The Lord God planted a garden in Eden in the east and put there the human he had formed. In the fertile land, the Lord God grew every beautiful tree with edible fruit, and also he grew the tree of life in the middle of the garden and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Opening Prayer
God, we come before you today to worship you — you who made the trees of the forest and all their companions. All are fearfully and wonderfully made!

We acknowledge that you created trees to be our companions from the beginning of time. When you formed us, you placed us in the midst of trees where we might live. Trees fed us and nourished us. Trees taught us. Trees gave us the opportunity to choose to follow you or to follow ourselves. And yet even though we were made in your image, we chose to worship and serve our desires instead of yours. So with humility we come to worship you today. Our heart’s desire is to honor and glorify you. We pray that our worship will be pleasing and acceptable. Amen.

Song of Adoration
The Trees of the Field

You shall go out with joy
And be led forth with peace
The mountains and the hills
Will break forth before you
There’ll be shouts of joy
And all the trees of the field
Will clap, will clap their hands

And all the trees of the field
Will clap their hands
The trees of the field
Will clap their hands
The trees of the field
Will clap their hands
While you go out with joy

Psalm Reading and Prayer for Others

A Reading from the Psalms
Psalm 119:33-40

Listen to a church member read the Psalm and/or read below.

Lord, teach me what your statutes are about,
and I will guard every part of them.
Help me understand so I can guard your Instruction
and keep it with all my heart.
Lead me on the trail of your commandments
because that is what I want.
Turn my heart to your laws,
not to greedy gain.
Turn my eyes away from looking at worthless things.
Make me live by your way.
Confirm your promise to your servant—
the promise that is for all those who honor you.
Remove the insults that I dread
because your rules are good.
Look how I desire your precepts!
Make me live by your righteousness.

Song of Praise
Walking with You

You’re growing me like a tree,
Your Spirit and love in me.
The glory of all You are is making me new.
O Fullness of Life,
My joy, my delight,
In worship unending I’m walking with You!

Almighty the Lord I Am,
Great Sov’reign and Son of Man,
The touch of the Father’s love so faithful and true,
Beginning and End,
Forgiver and Friend,
My Savior, My Shepherd, I’m walking with You!

You’re growing me like a tree,
Your Spirit and love in me.
The glory of all You are is making me new.
O Fullness of Life,
My joy, my delight,
In worship unending I’m walking with You!

Prayer for Others
Pause after each paragraph to give voice to prayers as prompted. [Additionally, if you would like our church family to pray for someone or something in particular, email the request to tonya@cullowheebaptist.com or call the church office at 293-9024.]

Merciful God, who shelters us and guides us,
we give you thanks for….

God who comforts,
receive those who are fearful and lonely….

God whose love is steadfast,
be refuge for the ill, the dying, and those who care about them.…

God of righteousness,
we ask for your wisdom and ways of justice
to prevail in our community, this nation, your world….

God who seeks our trust, grow us and guide us in your ways that are life-giving in your world. Amen.

Song of Faith
Canticle of the Sun

Listen to the choir sing and join in on the refrain.

Refrain
The heavens are telling the glory of God,
and all creation is shouting for joy;
Come, dance in the forest, come, play in the field,
and sing, sing to the glory of the Lord!

1 Sing to the sun, the bringer of day,
he carries the light of the Lord in his rays;
the moon and the stars, who light up the way unto your throne.

2 Praise to the wind, that blows through the trees,
the seas mighty storms, the gentlest breeze;
they blow where they will, they blow where they please to please the Lord.

3 Praise to the rain, that waters our fields,
and blesses our crops so all the earth yields;
from death unto life her myst’ry revealed springs forth in joy.

4 Praise to the fire, who gives us his light,
the warmth of the sun to brighten our night;
he dances with joy, his spirit so bright, he sings of you.

5 Sing to the earth, who makes life to grow,
the creatures you made to let your life show;
the flowers and trees that help us to know the heart of Love.

6 Praise to our death, that makes our life real,
the knowledge of loss that helps us to feel;
the gift of yourself, your presence revealed to lead us home.

Celebrating Communion

Communion celebrates our unity–our unity with God and with one another. At Cullowhee Baptist Church we practice an open communion which means that anyone who seeks to live the Way of Jesus Christ is invited to share in communion with us. Although we are not able to meet together, our bond still remains with one another and God through Jesus Christ.

Imagine Jesus setting a table for us, a place where we may come together and share a meal. Before we “come to the table,” let us set our hearts aright and seek the Lord’s forgiveness for our shortcomings.

Prayer of Confession
God, we acknowledge that in the last five minutes, around five hundred thousand trees were destroyed across the world by human hands. That’s over 600 acres of forest habitat – of homes for birds and bees, monkeys and rabbits, jaguars and tree frogs. God, we pledge to feel this pain and to know that we carry the blame in our own ways. We pray for forgiveness, and for the possibility that we can become assistants in restoring our unity with the forests of the world.

From the moment we are born, we feel the grace of God coming off the wind, and whispering from the forests. We are always whole, and always part of creation’s wholeness, no matter what we do.

Assurance of Forgiveness
2 Corinthians 5:17-18a
If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, to whom we have been reconciled through Christ.

Now let us come to the “table.”

Invitation
The table has been prepared as Jesus requested,
and we have been invited to the meal.
We come to the table like Peter,
with more enthusiasm than resolve;
like James and John,
dismayed by Jesus’s vision of a kingdom.
We come to the table like Martha,
hosting and leading with confidence;
like Mary,
eager to learn, and full of grief and love.
We come to the table like Judas,
disillusioned and rebellious;
like Mary,
faithful to the end.
Jesus offers us the bread and the cup.
We come to the table of Christ.

Share what you have to eat and before eating, have someone say,
“This food represents the body of Christ.
As we eat, we remember Jesus.”

Share what you have to drink and before drinking, have someone say,
“This drink represents the covenant Christ made with us
that our sins will be forgiven.
As we drink, we remember Jesus.”

Prayer of Thanksgiving
Dear God, thank you for your abounding compassionate love. Thank you for guiding and leading us through these difficult times. Thank you for always being with us. Amen.

Song of Faith
Amazing Grace (NEW BRITAIN)

Amazing grace how sweet the sound
that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now I am found,
was blind but now I see.

The Gospel Reading

A Reading from the Gospels
Matthew 18:15-20

Listen to the gospel being read by a church member and/or read below.

If your brother or sister sins against you, go and correct them when you are alone together. If they listen to you, then you’ve won over your brother or sister. But if they won’t listen, take with you one or two others so that every word may be established by the mouth of two or three witnesses. But if they still won’t pay attention, report it to the church. If they won’t pay attention even to the church, treat them as you would a Gentile and tax collector. I assure you that whatever you fasten on earth will be fastened in heaven. And whatever you loosen on earth will be loosened in heaven. Again I assure you that if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, then my Father who is in heaven will do it for you. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I’m there with them.

Reflection on the Gospel from Tonya

Listen to the reflection and/or read below.

Have you ever noticed how we Americans are enamored with individualism. Just take for instance the latest Disney movie release, Mulan. Disney has taken an actual ancient Chinese Ballad and dusted it with Disney movie selling points. You know, young romance, animals, maybe a side kick or two, the triumph of good over evil, and yes, individualism.  In Disney’s Mulan, Mulan saves the emperor’s life and defeats the evil Huns all on her own. She needs no assistance from anyone. If it hadn’t been for Mulan, the whole dynasty would have collapsed.

The actual Chinese Ballad of Mulan dates back to the 350-500’s. It tells the story of young girl who volunteers to take the place of her father and younger brother. You see, at that time a male from each family is called upon to serve in the army. Mulan’s father is old and weak. Her brother is younger than she is, just a child.  So she voluntarily takes their place. After 12 years of military campaigns and service to her country, she returns home with honor and gifts from the emperor. Her family is overjoyed to see her. They prepare a feast for her homecoming inviting everyone. She changes back into her normal clothes. She makes up her hair and face and greets her fellow soldiers. They are shocked. Her comrades had no idea that she was a woman.  Missing from the original tale? Individualism. 

Our compulsion and drive and expectations to be self-supporting and independent comes from growing up in the United States. Our country’s foundations were built upon the philosophical ideas of a British man named John Locke. I probably first learned of Locke in high school, but I don’t remember him from then. I was more interested in math. My first memories of Locke come from my studies to be a teacher. Locke’s name was the answer to fill-in-the-blank questions on exams at Clemson, “Who is credited for the ‘tabula rasa’ theory?” “John Locke” is the answer.  Locke said our minds are like blank slates when we are born, without a thought or an opinion yet developed. The environment, experiences, and influences which shape our development and leave a lasting effect on who we become.  It wasn’t until seminary that I learned that John Locke was famous for his call for the separation of church and state. Baptist are all about separation of church and state. But probably Locke’s greatest influence upon the United States can be seen in the establishment of our government. It is from Locke that we get the American ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Locke’s ideas have become our tradition as Americans. They have become our rights. And meshed in our traditions, founding documents, and rights is individualism.

That’s what makes Jesus’ teaching in today’s gospel reading hard to swallow. When someone wrongs us, Jesus wants us to sit down and talk with them. Not about the weather, or how things are going in their life, but Jesus wants us to talk with them how their actions or lack of actions have offended us. Offended is not the right word. It is more than just, “You upset me.” It is those time when we sin against one another. Think of the 10 commandment kind of sins. Now think of the Greatest Commandment that Jesus added in. You are to love others as you love yourself.  It’s those times when we miss the mark in what our relationships with one another should be as God requires it: life giving. Jesus wants us to let others know when they sin against us. When a relationship starts to break, that’s when you start putting it back together before it completely breaks. But also, Jesus is saying, when the sinning first begins, help your sister or your brother see and understand before the sinning becomes a way of living for them.

But let’s say you try to do just that, but the person won’t lend you a listening ear. They won’t sit still long enough to hear you out. It may be pride getting in the way. It is hard to admit our faults. Sometimes it’s just a pure lack of respect. So what do you do then? When the offender won’t listen to you, Jesus says don’t give up. Go and get another person or perhaps two others to come with you to confront the offender. The two or three of you try to sit down with the person again and talk about what they have done. This 2nd attempt towards reconciliation with additional people coming with you isn’t about making a power move or being a bully by numbers. It is about clarity and accountability for the victim and the offender.  Sometimes it takes more than just the two to get repentance and forgiveness right.  If we truly desire to bring out change and healing, if we truly are seeking to restore community, then toss out that individualism of me against them. No, this is in the context of God’s community.

But what if the offender still turns away, stomps off, won’t listen?  What do you do then? Jesus again says you don’t give up–don’t give up on person. You don’t just turn a blind eye to what has happened, but you don’t give up offering and creating a path that leads to life. Jesus says when the offender still refuses to listen, go get the church involved. Tell the church what has happened and let the church talk with the offender. When an offender is so arrogant or stubborn or dismissive of another that they will not listen and they will not take responsibility for their sins, then it will require the involvement of the whole community of faith to hold that person accountable, to teach repentance, and to actively forgive. I can imagine that when refusal to admit wrong gets to this point, it will take all of us to right  the relationship. For in the body of Christ, in the church, there is ample experiences of offending and being offended. There are ample experiences of repenting and forgiving. There are ample experiences of brokenness and healing. We are blessed to be a part of faith community that truly believes and tries hard to practice grace. Grace does not erase accountability, but it lays a path toward healing for the wronged and the sinner.

But what in the world do we do when all of this doesn’t amount to a hill of beans? It is then, and only then, when the sinner won’t listen to the church family, it is then that Jesus says treat ’em like a Gentile or a tax collector. Now it’s easier to move to that part first. Finally, Jesus is telling us to do something that we can do. If a person won’t listen, then we can move on. We can shake the dust off our feet and wash our hands clean of the situation. We tried. Jesus knows that we did.  And we don’t have to worry about it anymore.

But where, tell me, does Jesus say in the Bible not to worry anymore with the tax collectors and the Gentiles?  Where does Jesus say forget about them, they ain’t got no sense? Well, they may not have any sense, but we cannot write them off. Matthew was one of Jesus’ 12 disciples. Matthew was a tax collector before he started following Jesus. Jesus had dinner multiple times with tax collectors. The religious leaders thought less of him for it. If you have your Bibles in front of you, turn a few pages over to Matthew 21:31. I quote Jesus in mid-sentence. “…the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.” 

So when someone sins against you and they won’t listen to anybody, not even to the church, don’t give them up as lost or worthless. The rest of the world reaches a point where they write people off and they teach us that this is okay. But we are members of the body of Christ before we are members of the world. We have chosen to live the Way of Jesus Christ. We follow in the footsteps of Jesus who has taught us to forgive and who has taught us to seek healing. We cannot draw a line and stop extending the love of God and the grace of God to one who has sinned against us. Even when they stick their fingers in their ears, refusing to listen.  If we, the community, write the person off, then there is no accountability. If we, the community, dismiss the person, there is no option for repentance. If we, the community, treat the person as if they do not exists, then there is no opportunity for forgiveness. Like God, God’s children desire to mend what is broken. And please remember that at this point in Jesus’ teaching, it is no longer the “problem” of just the one offended. It is now the responsibility of the whole community of faith. It is not to be a burden to be carried only by the one who has been wronged.  If we expect that as the community of faith then we sin against the one who has already been sinned against.

The kind of relationship Jesus expects us to have with one another as a church family is different from any other group or organization or even blood family. When you mess up, when you wrong someone in your faith family, you are not to be excluded or pushed out. But when you mess up or wrong someone, when you sin against them, you are also expected to listen. In this passage Jesus makes it clear what is required of us when we sin against one another. Look at verse 15. Jesus says to the offender, “Listen.” Now look at verse 16. There’s the word “listen” again in a different form. Verse 17, says it twice. “Listen.” “Listen.”  Four times Jesus points out the fault, the refusal to listen.

Right now, our Black sisters and brothers in the faith are asking us to “listen.” They have tried to speak with us one on one. They have tried to speak with us with just a few. And they have tried to speak to us within the church family. But we still don’t get it. I truly believe that if we wonder why our Black sisters and brothers are so upset, then we just don’t understand. And that means we need to listen. Listen, and participate in the process of accountability.  Listen, and participate in active repentance. Listen, and participate in offering and receiving forgiveness.  Listen, when our sisters and brothers are saying, “Black lives matter.” They are naming the sin. People of color have been devalued in our nation. Do all lives matter? Oh yes! But when we challenge the statement “Black lives matter” with the statement “All lives matter” do you see how we show a disregard for the wrongs we have committed against people of color. The sin has been named. We are guilty of assigning unequal values to people based on the color of their skin.

Unfortunately today, the majority of Americans suffer from poverty, economic insecurity, lack of access to adequate health care, and environmental destruction. Our country was founded on ensuring Locke’s three ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness but to a select few who looked and acted like the handful of men in charge. And for decades we as a nation have practiced indifference to these maladies among the Black community. And now it extends and extends. Our nation’s practice of indifference became a bad habit which we extended to Hispanics, Latinos, and many others.

God requires something more of us. The Lord won’t give up on us and the Lord won’t let us give up on one another either. What does the Lord require of us? Think back to the Old Testament prophet Micah. Micah 6:8 says we are to do justice, to love goodness, and live humbly with God.  That means we have to acknowledge our failures, restore right relationships, and pursue peace building and humility. These are life-giving ways of living.  May we have the courage to confront. May we have the courage to name the sins. May we have the courage to spend the time needed to repent.  May we have the courage to listen to what are faults are and may we have the courage to forgive in the name of Christ. Amen.

Questions for Reflection
1. How does the ideal of being self-reliant get in the way of being community in Christ?
2. How do we keep an open heart when someone confronts us when we have sinned against them?
3. Many would say the church is irrelevant today. So why is the church important to God? to you? to the world?

Prayer of Thanksgiving. Thank you God for constant love. Please help our church family grow deeper and deeper in your love. Amen.

Song of Faith
Jesu, Jesu, Fill Us With Your Love

Refrain.
Jesu, Jesu, fill us with your love,
show us how to serve
the neighbors we have from you.

Kneels at the feet of his friends,
silently washes their feet,
Master who acts as a slave to them.

Neighbors are rich folk and poor,
neighbors are black, brown, and white,
neighbors are nearby and far away.

These are the ones we should serve,
these are the ones we should love;
all these are neighbors to us and you.

Loving puts us on our knees,
silently washing their feet
this is the way we should live with you.

Sending Out
May the blessing and peace of God uphold you,
May the compassion and love of Christ enfold you,
and the vitality and power of the Holy Spirit embolden you
today and always. Amen.

Closing Song.  In our tradition, we close worship by singing the first verse of Blest Be the Tie.  Mindy starts us each week, and so she does today as well.

Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love.
The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above. Amen.

Credits: The image of the forest was taken by Michele. The Call to Worship and the Prayer of Confession are from The Seasons of the Spirit™ SeasonsFusion Season of Creation • Pentecost 2 2020. The Opening Prayer was written by Tonya. The Trees of the Field is a paraphrase of Isaiah 55:12 written by Steffi Karen Rubin and set to the tune TREES OF THE FIELD by Stuart Dauermann. Genesis 2:4-9 was read by Tyler. The Psalm was read by Calley. Walking with You was written by Ken Bible and set to the Bahamian Folk Tune, JOHN B. SAILS. The words to Canticle of the Sun is based on the writings of St. Francis of Assisi, translated by Georgina Pando-Connolly with music composed by Marty Haugen. The song is sung by Kendall, Ally, Elizabeth, Mindy, and Tonya. The communion litany was written by the Mennonite Worship and Song Committee, 2018. Amazing Grace is set to the tune NEW BRITAIN from the Virginia Harmony, 1831. The words were written by John Newton (1807). The song was played by Aidan. Matthew was read by Kendall. Jesus, Jesus, Fill Us With Your Love was written by Tom Colvin set to the tune CHEREPONI, a Ghana Folk Song. Blest be the Tie is set to the tune DENNIS which was composed by Johann G. Nageli (1836) and arranged by Lowell Mason (1872). The words were written by John Fawcett (1782). Scripture readings are from the Common English Bible translation. Hymns were sung by Mindy and played by Tracy. Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-724755. All rights reserved.  All writings have been used by permission from the posting sites or authors.

Preparation for Worship (same as last week)

  • Something green. Christian worship has different seasons throughout the year. We are in the season after Pentecost. The color green represents this time communicating growth and discipleship. Add some green to your worship area with cloth, paper, or plants.
  • Two candles. Our worship begins with the light of two candles: one represents Christ’s humanity and the other represents Christ’s divinity.
  • Something to eat and drink to celebrate communion. The type of food and drink does not matter for they are merely symbols which help us celebrate the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

The Worship of God

Light two candles in recognition of Christ’s presence.  In our practice, one candle represents Jesus’ divinity and the other Jesus’ humanity.

Gathering for Worship

Passing the Peace
Say to one another, “May the Peace of Christ be with you.”
Respond by saying, “And also with you.”

Call to Worship
Psalm 105:1-6a

Listen to a church member read the Psalm and/or read below.

Give thanks to the Lord;
call upon his name;
make his deeds known to all people!
Sing to God;
sing praises to the Lord;
dwell on all his wondrous works!
Give praise to God’s holy name!
Let the hearts rejoice of all those seeking the Lord!
Pursue the Lord and his strength;
seek his face always!
Remember the wondrous works he has done,
all his marvelous works, and the justice he declared—

Opening Prayer
Awesome and great God, whose holiness is beyond our capacity even to imagine – we worship you. God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Rachel, we glorify you as our God also. Your care for your people of old is evident through the stories of your involvement and constant covenant with them. Your care for us is evident through your grace and mercy which we experience in Jesus Christ and through the power of the Holy Spirit. You love us so lavishly, and empower us so mightily, that we come to see the world as a place charged with blessing – your blessing. We stand on holy ground whenever we are in your presence O God, which is always and forever when we praise you as we ought. We offer our praise and adoration and this time of worship as our response to your extravagant initiative of entering our lives in the person of Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.

Song of Praise
Sing to God with Joy

Refrain:
Sing to God, with joy and gladness
hymns and psalms of gratitude;
with the voice of praise discover
that to worship God is good.

  1. God unites his scatter’d people,
    gathers those who wonder’d far,
    heals the hurt and broken spirits,
    tending ev’ry wound and scar.
    (Refrain)
  2. Such is God’s great pow’r and wisdom
    none can calculate or tell;
    keen is God to ground the wicked
    and humble folk to dwell.
    (Refrain)
  3. God, with clouds, the sky has curtain’d,
    thus ensuring rain shall fall;
    earth, responding, grows to order
    food for creatures great and small.
    (Refrain)
  4. God’s discernment never favors
    strength or speed to lift or move;
    God delights in those who fear him,
    trusting in his steadfast love
    (Refrain)

Psalm Reading and Prayer for Others

Psalm 26:1-8

Listen to the Psalm and/or read below.

Establish justice for me, Lord,
because I have walked with integrity.
I’ve trusted the Lord without wavering.
Examine me, Lord; put me to the test!
Purify my mind and my heart.
Because your faithful love is right in front of me—
I walk in your truth!
I don’t spend time with people up to no good;
I don’t keep company with liars.
I detest the company of evildoers,
and I don’t sit with wicked people.
I wash my hands—they are innocent!
I walk all around your altar, Lord,
proclaiming out loud my thanks,
declaring all your wonderful deeds!
I love the beauty of your house, Lord;
I love the place where your glory resides.

Prayer for Others
Pause after each paragraph to give voice to prayers as prompted. [Additionally, if you would like our church family to pray for someone or something in particular this week, email the request to tonya@cullowheebaptist.com.]

Merciful God, who shelters us and guides us,
we give you thanks for….

God who comforts,
receive those who are fearful and lonely….

God whose love is steadfast,
be refuge for the ill, the dying, and those who care about them.…

God of righteousness,
we ask for your wisdom and ways of justice
to prevail in our community, this nation, your world….

God who seeks our trust, grow us and guide us in your ways that are life-giving in your world. Amen.

Song of Faith
World Peace Prayer

Listen to the choir sing and join in on the refrain.

Lead us from death to life,
from false-hood to truth,
from despair to hope,
from fear to trust.
Lead us from hate to love,
from war to peace;
let peace fill our hearts,
let peace fill our world,
let peace fill our universe.

Still all the angry cries, still all the angry guns,
still now your people die, earth’s sons and daughters.
Let justice roll, let mercy pour down,
Come and teach us your way of compassion.

So many lonely hearts, so many broken lives,
longing for love to break into their darkness
Come teach us love, come, teach us peace
come and teach us your way of compassion.

Let justice ever roll, let mercy fill the earth,
let us begin to grow into your people.
We can be love, we can be peace,
we can be your way of compassion.

Celebrating Communion

Communion celebrates our unity–our unity with God and with one another. At Cullowhee Baptist Church we practice an open communion which means that anyone who seeks to live the Way of Jesus Christ is invited to share in communion with us. Although we are not able to meet together, our bond still remains with one another and God through Jesus Christ.

Imagine Jesus setting a table for us, a place where we may come together and share a meal. Before we “come to the table,” let us set our hearts aright and seek the Lord’s forgiveness for our shortcomings.

Prayer of Confession
Merciful God, you call us to live out our faith in everyday actions beginning with loving one another with a love that is completely sincere – love with no thought of gain for self, but love totally at the service of others. We are to hate evil and to hold fast to what is good. We are to care for and honor one another. Our faith is to be visible through our joy and our hope – our patience – even in suffering, and through our persevering in prayer and we are to share what we have with those in need, and to extend hospitality not just to those we know and like – but to strangers. We know we fall short of living out our faith in these ways. So we ask you to renew us, strengthen us, and empower us with your Spirit. Amen.

Assurance of Forgiveness
2 Corinthians 5:17-18a
If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, to whom we have been reconciled through Christ.

Now let us come to the “table.”

Invitation
The table has been prepared as Jesus requested,
and we have been invited to the meal.
We come to the table
like Peter, with more enthusiasm than resolve;
like James and John, dismayed by Jesus’s vision of a kingdom.

We come to the table
like Martha, hosting and leading with confidence;
like Mary eager to learn, and full of grief and love.
We come to the table
like Judas, disillusioned and rebellious;
like Mary, faithful to the end.

Jesus offers us the bread and the cup.
We come to the table of Christ.

Share what you have to eat.
Before eating, have someone say,
“This food represents the body of Christ.
As we eat, we remember Jesus.”

Share what you have to drink.
Before drinking, have someone say,
“This drink represents the covenant Christ made with us
that our sins will be forgiven.
As we drink, we remember Jesus.”

Prayer of Thanksgiving
Dear God, thank you for your abounding compassionate love. Thank you for guiding and leading us through these difficult times. Thank you for always being with us. Amen.

Song of Faith
Amazing Grace (NEW BRITAIN)

Amazing grace how sweet the sound
that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now I am found,
was blind but now I see.

The Gospel Reading

A Reading from the Gospels
Matthew 16:21-28

Listen to the gospel being read and/or read below.

From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he had to go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders, chief priests, and legal experts, and that he had to be killed and raised on the third day. Then Peter took hold of Jesus and, scolding him, began to correct him: “God forbid, Lord! This won’t happen to you.” But he turned to Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan. You are a stone that could make me stumble, for you are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts.”

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me will find them. Why would people gain the whole world but lose their lives? What will people give in exchange for their lives? For the Human One is about to come with the majesty of his Father with his angels. And then he will repay each one for what that person has done. I assure you that some standing here won’t die before they see the Human One coming in his kingdom.”

Reflection on the Gospel from Jeffrey

Listen to the reflection and/or read below.

What are you saving? We are taught to save money. We sometimes try to save time – without success of course as the clock stops for no one. The phrase, “I’m saving it for a rainy day” can  apply to food, to-do list tasks, travel dreams, or home-owner crises. And of course, people save lives of others, sometimes literally like in a hurricane, or an ER, or on a mission trip to Arkansas, and at other times figuratively, like when you befriend the lonely, or call the elderly, or help someone out of a crisis.

Losing on the other hand, is something we try to avoid. My favorite pocket knife might easily be lost. We can lose money in the stock market. People lose both money and track of time at the casino – that’s the reality of gambling. Teams lose in sports. When we talk about losing someone it means they have died and are, thus, “lost” to us. In a broken relationship we lose a friend or a partner.

We are accustomed, then, to the idea of “saving” being positive and “losing” being negative. It can come as a surprise, then, that Jesus turns saving and losing on their heads when he says, “All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me will find them.” In the space of such a short phrase, saving becomes the liability and losing the gain. Jesus is not being obscure for the sake of sounding wise. He is, however, asking us to re-focus our life and envision a new way to approach the world.

I think it matters that Jesus gives us this teaching about saving and losing our life in the long shadow of John’s unjust murder at the orders of the authorities. The death of someone you know, a family relative of Jesus in this case, for no other reason but the capricious choice of one person in power is unsettling even for Jesus. It is still on his mind (I’m convinced) and also confirmation that his own impending death is now a certainty. He will continue to do God’s work in God’s way among the people despite the successful efforts of the powerful to take his life. As he tells his friends what he’s thinking, that the men in power are going to kill him also, he gives them a hope that must have sounded empty on this day, but that became their lifeline of hope when the women gave witness on Easter morning – that he would be raised on the third day. 

Famous for his faux pas, Peter had other plans for Jesus, but Jesus was blunt enough to call him out for it. To Peter, suggesting that Jesus should now stop what he’s doing and work instead to save his own life makes sense, and sounds good, and might be justifiable until Jesus calls out this plan as from Satan rather than from God. Yes, it turns out that not following God sometimes looks good and sounds right and receives approval from our friends. Sometimes letting the temptation to preserve myself at all costs, or not get involved because it might be messy, or passing off responsibility to someone else is “satanic” — not in the sense that some personified devil is sitting on my shoulder whispering in my ear convincing me to get into trouble. That’s an imagined scenario from fantasy fiction rather than biblical teaching. No, here I mean “satanic” in the sense that it serves as a good-looking temptation to refrain from following God for the sake of something that helps me personally. This idea comes from the fact that Jesus used the Hebrew title “Satan” here rather than the Greek word “devil.” He is recorded as using either term in the Gospels, but from Jesus’ own Jewish background, he has an understanding that “the Satan” is a referent to “the Tempter” and not an anti-god with a pitchfork.

For some reason, every time I read this story I think of the choices Dietrich Bonhoeffer made in life. Bonhoeffer is a much-celebrated German Christian and pastor. His book entitled “The Cost of Discipleship” is certainly one of the most important books for Christians to come out of the 20th century. Bonhoeffer was horrified when the church leaders in Germany convened the Brown Synod and concluded that all Christian pastors of non-Aryan ancestry and any clergy who did not give unqualified support to the Nazi party should be dismissed or forced into retirement. With this news, Bonhoeffer’s active but non-violent resistance to Nazism begins. Among other things, he moves to London for two years to gather support and encourage other German pastors who join the resistance. He returns to Germany in 1935 and opens an illegal seminary where he trains more than 150 pastors in justice and non-violence and open resistance by becoming conscientious objectors to the impending war. Bonhoeffer told his students, “It is an evil time when the world lets injustice happen silently, when the oppression of the poor and the wretched cries out to heaven . . . when the persecuted church calls to God for help in the hour of dire distress and exhorts people to do justice, and yet no mouth on earth is opening to bring justice.” Eventually, Bonhoeffer flees for refuge in America. Mahatma Gandhi offers him the opportunity to live and train with him in India. Yet Bonhoeffer sees his life of faith taking a different path. After struggling with the decision to remain in the safety of New York City or return to Germany he writes, “I must live through this difficult period of our national history with the Christian people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people . . .” “I know which of these two alternatives I must choose; but I cannot make that choice in security.” Bonhoeffer’s story ends with his choice to be faithful to God’s work despite the danger to his life. It ended with his obedience to the Gospel unquestioned, but his life taken far too soon. While helping to resist the German government and encouraging those Germans who objected to the war, Bonhoeffer was arrested and imprisoned in the concentration camp at Flossenbürg where he was executed at the age of 39 only days before the American forces liberated it and WWII would end. Bonhoeffer’s last words were, “This is the end – for me, the beginning of life.” 

I read the Gospels and try to really understand the human struggle of Jesus in his grief and facing the violence of his death. I consider the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and wonder about my own allegiances and where they would have been cast had I been a pastor in Germany, told by my church to support the government, expected by my country to take up arms in war, and convinced by the rhetoric of deceiving politicians that they were solving the Jewish “problem” as a protection of my German way of life. Would I be willing to lose my patriotism to save my life with God?

To add a different context, what sermons would I be preaching if I pastored Cullowhee Baptist Church in May 1830 when the Indian Removal Act was signed, or in May 1861 when NC seceded from the country and joined in the impending war against the United States for the sake of defending slavery? Christian teachings and Gospel truths are insistently against the injustice imposed on the Cherokee, and the defense of slavery by the Confederacy. Would I have criticized the US president for stealing Cherokee land and killing thousands on their forced march to Oklahoma? Would I have resisted the call to fight against the US Army and kill fellow Americans for the sake of an economy built on the enslavement of human beings? These seem clear points in history where choosing to follow God is not going to end with congratulatory success, but will save our life with God.

How much clearer can it be, then, that the willingness to follow God first, even if it comes at the cost of preserving our own self, is a cost we are asked to carry even today? If we secure our success or aid our comfort in life as our first priority, and then add on following Jesus as a secondary appendage to our life and hope, then we will let human will rather than God’s will determine the definition of our “life” and what it means and how we live it.  The temptation will happen in the everyday places of work and school and family first. We can make more money and provide for our family by choosing to be devoted to our job first rather than following God first. Jesus can be paraphrased as saying, “everyone who wants to save their family will lose it, and those who lose their family for my sake will find it.” Or we could substitute “work” for “family.” Or “lifestyle” or “success.” Or “heritage” or “society.”

When Jesus says (in v. 25), “All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me will find them,” he is clearly talking about life and death for himself, and at times for us. Yet Jesus is also considering that losing our “life” may include a re-calibration our identity in the world around us. After all, he follows that statement with two questions: “Why would people gain the whole world but lose their lives? What will people give in exchange for their lives?” So let me be blunt for a moment.

It is not more important for me to be Baptist than it is for me to follow Jesus’ teachings. Even more, to say that by definition a Baptist will always be like Jesus is to make the mistake of thinking that Baptists can’t fall into temptation to follow something or someone else than the Gospel of God. Like Bonhoeffer’s push back against the German churches, I have chosen at times to lose being Baptist in order to remain faithful to God first. I grew up with my “self” identifying as Southern Baptist, and then they tied themselves to one political party, they claimed the Bible forbids women from pastoral leadership, they narrowed into a fundamentalism that no longer recognizes the wideness of God’s mercy. And so I “lost” being Southern Baptist and saved my life before God. Gratefully, the Alliance of Baptists is my “Baptist home” and reflects the Gospel faithfully.

In the same way it is not more important for me to be a White American of privilege than it is for me to follow Jesus’ teachings. And so I will support, even from this virtual pulpit, the efforts of the Black Lives Matter Movement in the struggle against the injustice of systemic, societal racism that is allowed by the government in power whether it is local, state, or federal.  I do so not because of my political party affiliation or my family values or my education, but by the Gospel affirmation that violence and death and fear and cover-up and misuse of authority are in no way Christian. Were Jesus faced with these things today, he would call out our current president and any politician or citizen or agency who blindly supports the current political climate of fear and dishonesty and injustice as being satanic. 

I am convinced that we are faced with this kind of losing and choosing often. That is, we must constantly be choosing God rather than self; we must choose Gospel rather than culture; we must choose love rather than hate; we must choose embrace rather than abuse. One function of society is to try and impose a definition of what is acceptable, and successful, and approved for citizens in that culture. Being able to discern what is the society’s definition of life and self is important in determining if that contradicts with the Gospel identity of our life and self with God. To be American is to embrace greed, but it’s not a Gospel virtue. To be American is to be aggressive and boastful, but the Gospel calls us to meekness and humility. To be American is to never run from a fight, but the Sermon on the Mount calls for turning the other cheek. To be American is be take revenge, but the Golden Rule does NOT say “do to others what they did to you.” If I have to choose these ways of being American, then I will willingly lose that part of myself for the sake of the Gospel. I have committed my life to being a follower of Jesus rather than an American.

Peter had to follow Jesus enough to watch Jesus die for the sake of living for God. And Peter failed at first to make the same choice for himself. When Peter denied Jesus, he must have felt like he lost his life for the sake of his security. He followed the Tempter instead of the Savior. But that was not Peter’s last chance or final choice. More opportunities came his way and later, he chose better.  What about us? Have we gained a way of life but lost our life with God? Our latest choice is not our last one. Thanks be to God for this indescribable gift.   

Questions for Reflection
1. What makes you you? Or asked differently, of what part of your “self” are you most aware?

2. The New Testament uses many images intended to remind us that we belong to God. When do you feel most like you belong to God?

3. The pandemic has limited our excess activities and experiences. How has a forced pause in life shown you things that you can live without?

Prayer of Thanksgiving. Thank you God for constant love. Please help our church family grow deeper and deeper in your love. Amen.

Song of Faith
The Summons

Will you come and follow me
If I but call your name?
Will you go where you don’t know
And never be the same?
Will you let my love be shown,
Will you let my name be known,
Will you let my life be grown
In you and you in me?

Will you leave yourself behind
If I but call your name?
Will you care for cruel and kind
And never be the same?
Will you risk the hostile stare
Should your life attract or scare?
Will you let me answer prayer
In you and you in me?

Will you let the blinded see
If I but call your name?
Will you set the prisoners free
And never be the same?
Will you kiss the leper clean,
And do such as this unseen,
And admit to what I mean
In you and you in me?

Will you love the ‘you’ you hide
If I but call your name?
Will you quell the fear inside
And never be the same?
Will you use the faith you’ve found
To reshape the world around,
Through my sight and touch and sound
In you and you in me?

Lord, your summons echoes true
When you but call my name.
Let me turn and follow you
And never be the same.
In your company I’ll go
Where your love and footsteps show.
Thus I’ll move and live and grow
In you and you in me.

Sending Out
May the blessing and peace of God uphold you,
May the compassion and love of Christ enfold you,
and the vitality and power of the Holy Spirit embolden you
today and always. Amen.

Closing Song.  In our tradition, we close worship by singing the first verse of Blest Be the Tie.  Mindy starts us each week, and so she does today as well.

Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love.
The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above. Amen.

Credits: The soccer image was taken by Torsten Bolton and posted at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Soccer_Youth_Goal_Keeper.jpg [retrieved August 27, 2020]. Psalm 105 was read by Gail. The Opening Prayer and Prayer of Confession were written by Moira Laidlaw. Sing to God with Joy was written by John L. Bell and set to the tune GLENDON (JLB). It is based on Psalm 147. World Peace Prayer was composed by Marty Haugen. The refrain was written by Satish Kumar (dates unknown), a Jain monk, who based the poem on passages from the Hindu scriptures known as the Upanishads. The verses were written by Haugen. The song is sung by Ally, Elizabeth, Laura, Mindy, and Tonya. The communion litany was written by the Mennonite Worship and Song Committee, 2018. Amazing Grace is set to the tune NEW BRITAIN from the Virginia Harmony, 1831. The words were written by John Newton (1807). The song was played by Aidan. The Summons was written by John L. Bell and set to the tune KELVINGROVE, a traditional Scottish melody. Blest be the Tie is set to the tune DENNIS which was composed by Johann G. Nageli (1836) and arranged by Lowell Mason (1872). The words were written by John Fawcett (1782). Scripture readings are from the Common English Bible translation. Hymns were sung by Mindy. Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-724755. All rights reserved.  All writings have been used by permission from the posting sites or authors.  

Preparation for Worship (same as last week)

  • Something green. Christian worship has different seasons throughout the year. We are in the season after Pentecost. The color green represents this time communicating growth and discipleship. Add some green to your worship area with cloth, paper, or plants.
  • Two candles. Our worship begins with the light of two candles: one represents Christ’s humanity and the other represents Christ’s divinity.
  • Something to eat and drink to celebrate communion. The type of food and drink does not matter for they are merely symbols which help us celebrate the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
Caesarea Philippi as seen by Jeff, Sandy, and Annelise.

The Worship of God

Light two candles in recognition of Christ’s presence.  In our practice, one candle represents Jesus’ divinity and the other Jesus’ humanity.

Gathering for Worship

Passing the Peace
Say to one another, “May the Peace of Christ be with you.”
Respond by saying, “And also with you.”

Call to Worship
Psalm 124

Listen to a church member read the Psalm and/or read below.

If the Lord had not been on our side,
let Israel now say;
if the Lord had not been on our side,
when enemies rose up against us;
then would they have swallowed us up alive
in their fierce anger toward us;
then would the waters have overwhelmed us
and the torrent gone over us;
then would the raging waters
have gone right over us.
Blessed be the Lord
who has not given us over to be a prey for their teeth.
We have escaped like a bird from the snare of the fowler;
the snare is broken, and we have escaped.
Our help is in the name of the Lord,
the maker of heaven and earth.

Opening Prayer
God our Help and our Redeemer, if you had not chosen to become a part of our lives, through the gift of your Son, Jesus Christ, where and who would we be? Helpless! -helpless without you – and so we offer our heartfelt thanks and praise, for such evidence of your care for us. In and through Jesus, we have become more deeply aware of your goodness and mercy. As your presence enabled him to live courageously, so you strengthen us to live boldly through the gift of the Holy Spirit – your empowering presence in us. We pray that our worship and our daily living will resonate with our gratitude and praise for your presence with us, and all your gracious gifts to us.  This we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen

Song of Praise
Alleluia, Alleluia! Give Thanks

Refrain:
Alleluia, alleluia! Give thanks to the risen Lord.
Alleluia, alleluia! Give praise to his name.

Jesus is Lord of all the earth.
He is the King of creation.
(Refrain.)

Spread the good news o’er all the earth;
Jesus has died and has risen.
(Refrain)

We have been crucified with Christ.
Now we shall live forever.
(Refrain)

Come, let us praise the living God,
Joyfully sing to our Savior.
(Refrain)

Psalm Reading and Prayer for Others

Psalm 138

Listen to church members read the Psalm and/or read below.


I will give thanks to you, O Lord, with my whole heart;
before the gods I will sing your praise.
I will bow down toward your holy temple and praise your name,
because of your love and faithfulness;
for you have glorified your name
and your word above all things.
When I called, you answered me;
you increased my strength within me.

All the rulers of the earth will praise you, O Lord,
when they have heard the words of your mouth.
They will sing of the ways of the Lord,
that great is the glory of the Lord.
Though you are high, you care for the lowly;
you perceive the haughty from afar.

Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you keep me safe;
you stretch forth your hand against the fury of my enemies;
your mighty hand shall save me.
O Lord, you will make good your purpose for me;
your love endures for ever;
do not abandon the works of your hands.

Prayer for Others
Pause after each paragraph to give voice to prayers as prompted. [Additionally, if you would like our church family to pray for someone or something in particular this week, email the request to tonya@cullowheebaptist.com.]

Merciful God, who shelters us and guides us,
we give you thanks for….

God who comforts,
receive those who are fearful and lonely….

God whose love is steadfast,
be refuge for the ill, the dying, and those who care about them.…

God of righteousness,
we ask for your wisdom and ways of justice
to prevail in our community, this nation, your world….

God who seeks our trust, grow us and guide us in your ways that are life-giving in your world. Amen.

Celebrating Communion

Communion celebrates our unity–our unity with God and with one another. At Cullowhee Baptist Church we practice an open communion which means that anyone who seeks to live the Way of Jesus Christ is invited to share in communion with us. Although we are not able to meet together, our bond still remains with one another and God through Jesus Christ.

Imagine Jesus setting a table for us, a place where we may come together and share a meal. Before we “come to the table,” let us set our hearts aright and seek the Lord’s forgiveness for our shortcomings.

Prayer of Confession
Merciful God, we proclaim that Jesus is Christ, your Son. In Jesus, our lives, our minds, and our hearts are transformed and renewed so that we may discern your will for our lives, and all that is good and acceptable and perfect. We confess, however, that there are times when our actions and our words seem to be conformed more to other values than to doing your will.

If we believe that our faith experience is superior to the way others have come to faith and so fail to recognize and share the humility that life in Christ possesses. Forgive us.

If our relationships are so shaped by bitterness and jealousy, that we fail to recognize and share the joy that life in Christ reveals. Forgive us.

If we exclude people from our fellowship through our prejudice and discrimination; and so fail to recognize and share the love that life in Christ imparts. Forgive us.

If selfishness and greed so corrode our lifestyles that we fail to recognize and share the generosity that life in Christ delights in. Forgive us.

Merciful God, so transform us with the life of Christ and renew us in your image that the grace, humility and compassion which marked the life of Jesus will be clearly visible in and experienced through our lives; so that we who are one body in Christ may delight in sharing the gifts you graciously give us for both the building up of this community of faith and the communities where we live and work and play. This we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Assurance of Forgiveness
2 Corinthians 5:17-18a
If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, to whom we have been reconciled through Christ.

Now let us come to the “table.”

Invitation
The table has been prepared as Jesus requested,
and we have been invited to the meal.
We come to the table
like Peter, with more enthusiasm than resolve;
like James and John, dismayed by Jesus’s vision of a kingdom.

We come to the table
like Martha, hosting and leading with confidence;
like Mary eager to learn, and full of grief and love.
We come to the table
like Judas, disillusioned and rebellious;
like Mary, faithful to the end.

Jesus offers us the bread and the cup.
We come to the table of Christ.

Share what you have to eat.
Before eating, have someone say,
“This food represents the body of Christ.
As we eat, we remember Jesus.”

Share what you have to drink.
Before drinking, have someone say,
“This drink represents the covenant Christ made with us
that our sins will be forgiven.
As we drink, we remember Jesus.”

Prayer of Thanksgiving
Dear God, thank you for your abounding compassionate love. Thank you for guiding and leading us through these difficult times. Thank you for always being with us. Amen.

Song of Faith
Amazing Grace (NEW BRITAIN)

Amazing grace how sweet the sound
that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now I am found,
was blind but now I see.

The Gospel Reading

A Reading from the Gospels
Matthew 16:13-20
13 Now when Jesus came to the area of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Human One is?” 14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.” 15 He said, “And what about you? Who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

17 Then Jesus replied, “Happy are you, Simon son of Jonah, because no human has shown this to you. Rather my Father who is in heaven has shown you. 18 I tell you that you are Peter. And I’ll build my church on this rock. The gates of the underworld won’t be able to stand against it. 19 I’ll give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Anything you fasten on earth will be fastened in heaven. Anything you loosen on earth will be loosened in heaven.” 20 Then he ordered the disciples not to tell anybody that he was the Christ.

Reflection on the Gospel from Tonya

Listen to the reflection and/or read below.

Throughout the summer our scripture readings for the most part have been from the Common English Bible translation. It is the translation of the Bibles that was given to our church children at the beginning of June. The Common English Bible is a very readable translation. One hundred and twenty scholars from 22 faith traditions worked on this translation which was completed in 2011. The translators chose to be accurate in translating, but to also offer clarity of expression.

For example, the phrase “Lord of hosts” appears hundreds of times in older Biblical translations. Those of us who grew up with those translations know the word “host” is referring to heavenly beings, like the angels and all those in the heavenly realm. We think of the Christmas story in Luke’s gospel where a multitude of the heavenly hosts were singing and praising God.  But “hosts” doesn’t have the same meaning for English readers today. Instead “hosts” are people in charge of a party or a dinner. Or in the realm of science, a “host” is something on which a parasite lives.  Although God is the Lord of Entertainment especially when it comes to meals, and one could say God is the the Lord of homes for all parasites, this is not exactly what the Bible was trying to say. Therefore, the CEB translators renders the phrase “Lord of hosts” as “Lord of heavenly forces.”  

All that is to say that when you listened to gospel being read or as you read it yourself, you heard or read Jesus referred to as “the Human One.”  This is how the CEB translates the Greek phrase we typically hear translated as “Son of Man.” You may have found the reference to Jesus as “the Human One” a little jarring, but it probably does us some good to be jarred by the names of Jesus every once in a while.

So why did the CEB translators choose to say “the Human One” instead of “the Son of Man”? When the Greeks used the phrase “son of x,” they were implying “one who has the character of x.” So if we were to use the phrase, “son of Mother Teresa,” we would be implying that this one has the character of Mother Teresa, not that Mother Teresa had a son. Another example can be found in Acts 13:10.  Paul calls a sorcerer “a son of the devil.” Paul isn’t saying the person’s daddy is a devil. Rather, Paul is saying the character of the sorcerer is like the character of the devil.  In other words, he is devilish. So when the phrase “son of man” is used to describe Jesus, the phrase is saying Jesus is humanish. Jesus identifies with humanity. Jesus has taken on the characteristics of human beings. Jesus shares in our humanity. So the CEB chose to translate the phrase as Jesus, “the Human One.”

Now, let’s take a look at the gospel story. What good news does God have for us today?

In this Sunday’s reading, Jesus and the disciples have traveled north into the area of Caesarea Philippi.  If you have a chance to look at a map of Palestine from that time, find the Sea of Galilee, paddle your way north up the Jordan River all the way to Lake Hula. By the way, you won’t find Lake Hula on a map today. The lake was drained in the 1950’s. Zionist philosophy in the 50’s wanted to increase the amount of land for growing crops and grazing cattle. They also touted the claim that draining the lake would help eradicate malaria. Now they are working to restore the Hula Valley and hopefully the lake. Look back to your biblical map which still shows the tranquil lake. Now go a little east and a little north from the lake and you will be that foot of a mountain chain (think Mt. Hermon) and there you will find Caesarea Philippi.

Sometimes it is good to see where the story is happening. Jesus and his disciples always seem to be on the move: traveling along the Mediterranean seashore, hopping over to the Sea of Galilee, and now back up north to Caesarea Philippi. I’m not sure there’s a rhyme or reason to the zigzag travel pattern, but I’m sure someone has affixed some spiritual or religious meaning to it.

Back when Jesus was in the Mediterranean seashore cities of Tyre and Sidon (which are south of present day Beirut), Jesus encountered a woman who sought healing for her daughter from Jesus. However, the woman wasn’t Jewish. Jesus called this to her attention when she asked for his help.  He had been sent to help Jewish people who had been overlooked by their faith tradition. She knew better and would not be deterred by what he perceived to be his marching orders. She begged him to help her little girl. He again pointed out that she was not Jewish and that it wouldn’t be good to take what gifts and talents he had and use them for those who were not Jewish. And then she counters what he says by implying that there is enough of Jesus for everyone. It was just like she had heard Jesus’ story about the mustard seed or the one he told about the wee little bit of yeast leavening a ton of bread. Jesus, just even a little bit of you will do. You are more than enough for everyone. Jesus answers her with these words, “Woman, you have great faith.” I’m not sure he ever said that to the disciples–the great faith part; however, I do recall him saying to them, “O ye of little faith.”  

It fascinates me that shortly after this encounter with the woman of great faith, Jesus tries to get a feel from his disciples for how he is being seen by others. He has had the Jewish religious leaders barking at him. They want him to do some tricks especially for them so they can see if he really is who people say he is. He declines the invitation. But up north, at the foot of Mt. Hermon, Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do the people say I am? What’s the talk out there in the field about me?”  They give him the laundry list. Well, some see you as John the Baptist come back to life. Some rumors are going around that you are Elijah come back to life. And then there are some out there who say you just might be Jeremiah. And there are tons of other rumors floating around saying your are one of the other prophets come back from the dead.  

Then Jesus asks them what they think.  “What about you? Who do you say that I am?”

Peter is the only one the gospels record as speaking up. However, no additional word was needed. Simon Peter confesses, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”   

You are “the Christ” means You are the One who has been anointed and appointed by God to come and save the world. You are the “Son of the living God” means we see the character of God in you. I view Peter’s confession as an affirmation and thus a blessing. Did Jesus need someone to say these words so that he could become the Savior of the world? No. But what a difference it makes when others can see the living God in you. What an encouragement when your closest companions can see that God has anointed you and sent you to save the world. Jesus, the Human One, can relate to our need to be affirmed. Jesus, the Human One knows what it is like to just need a little bit more encouragement from those around you.

You know what a difference it makes, how empowering it is when the community of believers affirms you and the identity God has created within you. You know how uplifting it is when the community of believers lets you know that they can see the nature of the living God in what you do and say. You know how assuring it is when the community of believers affirms the calling of God in your life. Did Jesus need Peter to say these words?  No.  But think of how leaders of the faith tradition wanted to suppress Jesus. They did not affirm the anointing of God upon him. They did not affirm the character of God in him that everyone else could see. They could not affirm him because Jesus did not fit into their definition of what God would look like or act like. Jesus didn’t meet their expectations. So think what a difference it must have made to Jesus to have those who knew him best affirm his identity in God.

Jesus’ question to the disciples is a question we must ask ourselves, not just once, but every day. Who do we say Jesus is? 

I hope and pray that we can join with Peter in saying, “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.” We may be like the woman on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. We have been shunned and pushed away from the Christian faith because we were seen as the wrong kind of person to be included. Others may think that there is no way on God’s green earth that we could live the way of Jesus  We may be like Jesus’ close companions. We didn’t have a difficult time being seen as a Christian and we are eager to learn so we can better live the Way of Jesus.  We may even be like the religious leaders. We refuse to believe because Jesus doesn’t do what we want or what we say we need in order to believe.  I pray for each us no matter where we are in our relationship and understanding of Jesus, that we will join with Peter in saying, “Jesus is Christ, the Son of the living God.”  

But these are not just the words we say with our mouths. Last week’s gospel reading has already made this point. These are words that we live as well. How we act and what we do says a lot about who Jesus is to us. You may want to think of it this way. If we confess that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, do others know this by what we do and how we live? Turn the idea a little bit more and ask yourself, what kind of Jesus am I confessing and professing through what I do. Does my family see my profession of Jesus matching with my actions? If I’m professing Jesus is the Christ, what kind of Jesus are my actions reflecting to my coworkers? Think about your neighbors? Member of the community? Members of our church family? Our sister church in Brazil?  Are our words and actions confessing Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God?

Jesus says, “What about you? Who do you say that I am?”

Questions for Reflection

  1. In what ways do you want to be more like Jesus? 
  1. How do our choices and actions communicate the goodness of God? 
  1. How do you distinguish between your faith in God and faith in God’s people? Do they depend upon one another?

Prayer of Thanksgiving. Thank you God for constant love. Please help our church family grow deeper and deeper in your love. Amen.

Song of Faith
Christ is Made the Sure Foundation

1 Christ is made the sure foundation,
Christ the head and corner-stone
chosen of the Lord and precious,
binding all the Church in one;
holy Zion’s help for ever,
and her confidence alone.

2 All within that holy city
dearly loved of God on high,
in exultant jubilation
sing, in perfect harmony;
God the One-in-Three adoring
in glad hymns eternally.

3 We as living stones implore you:
Come among us, Lord, today!
with your gracious loving-kindness
hear your children as we pray;
and the fulness of your blessing
in our fellowship display.

4 Here entrust to all your servants
what we long from you to gain
that on earth and in the heavens
we one people shall remain,
till united in your glory
evermore with you we reign.

5 Praise and honour to the Father,
praise and honour to the Son,
praise and honour to the Spirit,
ever Three and ever One:
one in power and one in glory
while eternal ages run.

Sending Out
May the blessing and peace of God uphold you,
May the compassion and love of Christ enfold you,
and the vitality and power of the Holy Spirit nourish and sustain you
today and always. Amen.

Closing Song.  In our tradition, we close worship by singing the first verse of Blest Be the Tie.  Mindy starts us each week, and so she does today as well.

Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love.
The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above. Amen.

Credits: The psalm readings are from the Anglican Liturgical Psalter (https://www.anglican.ca/wp-content/uploads/GS2016-Liturgical-Psalter-2016-05-04.pdf). Psalm 124 was read by Donna. The Opening Prayer, Prayer of Confession, and Sending Out were written by Moira Laidlaw. Alleluia, Alleluia. Give Thanks was written by Donald Fishel and set to the tune ALLELUIA, NO. 1 composed by Fishel. Psalm 138 was read by Tonya, Laura, and Kelly. The communion litany was written by the Mennonite Worship and Song Committee, 2018. Amazing Grace is set to the tune NEW BRITAIN from the Virginia Harmony, 1831. The words were written by John Newton (1807). The song was played by Aidan. Christ is Made the Sure Foundaion is set to a tune REGENT SQUARE composed by Henry T. Smart (1879). The words were written by John M. Neale. Blest be the Tie is set to the tune DENNIS which was composed by Johann G. Nageli (1836) and arranged by Lowell Mason (1872). The words were written by John Fawcett (1782). The gospel reading is from the Common English Bible translation. Hymns were played by Tracy on the organ and sung by Mindy. Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-724755. All rights reserved.  All writings have been used by permission from the posting sites or authors.  

Preparation for Worship

  • Something green. Christian worship has different seasons throughout the year. We are in the season after Pentecost. The color green represents this time communicating growth and discipleship. Add some green to your worship area with cloth, paper, or plants.
  • Two candles. Our worship begins with the light of two candles: one represents Christ’s humanity and the other represents Christ’s divinity.
  • Something to eat and drink to celebrate communion. The type of food and drink does not matter for they are merely symbols which help us celebrate the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

The Worship of God

Light two candles in recognition of Christ’s presence.  In our practice, one candle represents Jesus’ divinity and the other Jesus’ humanity.

Gathering for Worship

Passing the Peace
Say to one another, “May the Peace of Christ be with you.”
Respond by saying, “And also with you.”

Call to Worship
Psalm 133

How good and pleasant it is
when those who worship God
desire to live in unity and peace.

It is like the joy experienced
on seeing rainfall transform arid desert land
into a floral firework extravaganza,
a carpet of blooming colors.

In these ways, God’s blessings are truly visible.

Opening Prayer
God of all creation, your beauty and your blessings are visible not only in the Blue Ridge Mountains and the rivers running through, but also wherever people gather to worship you.  In this time, we come before you grateful for all your blessings.  We praise you for creating us and thus inviting us to share life with you. We praise you for showing us how to live through Jesus, the Christ. We praise you for empowering our lives with your Spirit. You desire a just and peaceful world. May we work with you to peacefully break down the barriers which separate people from you and from one another. This we pray in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Song of Praise
All Are Welcome

Let us build a house where love can dwell
And all can safely live,
A place where saints and children tell
How hearts learn to forgive.
Built of hopes and dreams and visions,
Rock of faith and vault of grace;
Here the love of Christ shall end divisions:
All are welcome, all are welcome, all are welcome in this place.

Let us build a house where prophets speak,
And words are strong and true,
Where all God’s children dare to seek
To dream God’s reign anew.
Here the cross shall stand as witness
And as symbol of God’s grace;
Here as one we claim the faith of Jesus:
All are welcome…

Let us build a house where love is found
In water, wine and wheat:
A banquet hall on holy ground,
Where peace and justice meet.
Here the love of God, through Jesus,
Is revealed in time and space;
As we share in Christ the feast that frees us:
All are welcome…

Let us build a house where hands will reach
Beyond the wood and stone
To heal and strengthen, serve and teach,
And live the Word they’ve known.
Here the outcast and the stranger
Bear the image of God’s face;
Let us bring an end to fear and danger:
All are welcome…

Let us build a house where all are named,
Their songs and visions heard
And loved and treasured, taught and claimed
As words within the Word.
Built of tears and cries and laughter,
Prayers of faith and songs of grace,
Let this house proclaim from floor to rafter:
All are welcome…

Psalm Reading and Prayer for Others

Psalm 67
Let God grant us grace and bless us;
let God make his face shine on us,
so that your way becomes known on earth,
so that your salvation becomes known among all the nations.

Let the people thank you, God!
Let all the people thank you!
Let the people celebrate
and shout with joy
because you judge the nations fairly
and guide all nations on the earth.
Let the people thank you, God!
Let all the people thank you!

The earth has yielded its harvest.
God blesses us—our God blesses us!
Let God continue to bless us;
let the far ends of the earth honor him.

Prayer for Others
Pause after each paragraph to give voice to prayers as prompted. [Additionally, if you would like our church family to pray for someone or something in particular this week, email the request to tonya@cullowheebaptist.com.]

Merciful God, who shelters us and guides us,
we give you thanks for….

God who comforts,
receive those who are fearful and lonely….

God whose love is steadfast,
be refuge for the ill, the dying, and those who care about them.…

God of righteousness,
we ask for your wisdom and ways of justice
to prevail in our community, this nation, your world….

God who seeks our trust, grow us and guide us in your ways that are life-giving in your world. Amen.

Celebrating Communion

Communion celebrates our unity–our unity with God and with one another. At Cullowhee Baptist Church we practice an open communion which means that anyone who seeks to live the Way of Jesus Christ is invited to share in communion with us. Although we are not able to meet together, our bond still remains with one another and God through Jesus Christ.

Imagine Jesus setting a table for us, a place where we may come together and share a meal. Before we “come to the table,” let us set our hearts aright and seek the Lord’s forgiveness for our shortcomings.

Prayer of Confession
Lord Jesus Christ, you swept away centuries of prejudice and legalism when you reached out and accepted people as they were – accepted them as loved fellow human beings.

We confess our failure to be as inclusive as you….
if people feel excluded from our fellowship because of their appearance, their poverty, their lack of power or low self-image:
Forgive us.
Pause for reflection on these words, think carefully and honestly about where we are and who in our community may feel excluded from our fellowship.

If people feel excluded from our fellowship because of their sexuality, their addiction, their lack of education, their lack of a job……
Forgive us.
Pause for reflection on these words, think carefully and honestly about where we are and who in our community may feel excluded from our fellowship.

Strengthen us, Lord, where we are weak, and make us strong to withstand the seduction of a society which seems obsessed with the acquisition of wealth and power. We know in our hearts that discipleship demands an utterly new way of seeing people as you did, and being with them unconditionally, as you were, but the journey from heart to eyes and hands and feet can be long and difficult .

We ask your forgiveness Lord. As people who have received your grace and mercy over and over, may we be as merciful and as compassionate as you, in all we say and do in your name. Amen.

Assurance of Forgiveness
John 3:17-18
We rejoice in the good news that God sent Jesus into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned.
Thanks be to God!

Now let us come to the “table.”

Invitation
The table has been prepared as Jesus requested,
and we have been invited to the meal.
We come to the table
like Peter, with more enthusiasm than resolve;
like James and John, dismayed by Jesus’s vision of a kingdom.

We come to the table
like Martha, hosting and leading with confidence;
like Mary eager to learn, and full of grief and love.
We come to the table
like Judas, disillusioned and rebellious;
like Mary, faithful to the end.

Jesus offers us the bread and the cup.
We come to the table of Christ.

Share what you have to eat.
Before eating, have someone say,
“This food represents the body of Christ.
As we eat, we remember Jesus.”

Share what you have to drink.
Before drinking, have someone say,
“This drink represents the covenant Christ made with us
that our sins will be forgiven.
As we drink, we remember Jesus.”

Prayer of Thanksgiving. Dear God, thank you for your abounding compassionate love. Thank you for guiding and leading us through these difficult times. Thank you for always being with us. Amen.

Song of Faith
Amazing Grace (NEW BRITAIN)

Amazing grace how sweet the sound
that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now I am found,
was blind but now I see.

Special Music
What Wondrous Love

The Gospel Reading

A Reading from the Gospels
Matthew 15:10-20
Jesus called the crowd near and said to them, “Listen and understand. It’s not what goes into the mouth that contaminates a person in God’s sight. It’s what comes out of the mouth that contaminates the person.” Then the disciples came and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended by what you just said?” Jesus replied, “Every plant that my heavenly Father didn’t plant will be pulled up. Leave the Pharisees alone. They are blind people who are guides to blind people. But if a blind person leads another blind person, they will both fall into a ditch.” Then Peter spoke up, “Explain this riddle to us.” Jesus said, “Don’t you understand yet? Don’t you know that everything that goes into the mouth enters the stomach and goes out into the sewer? But what goes out of the mouth comes from the heart. And that’s what contaminates a person in God’s sight. Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adultery, sexual sins, thefts, false testimonies, and insults. These contaminate a person in God’s sight. But eating without washing hands doesn’t contaminate in God’s sight.”

Reflection on the Gospel from Jeffrey
“Wash Your Heart Out With Soap” 

Listen to the reflection and/or read below.

Famously the French philosopher René Descartes wrote, “I think therefore I am.”  He was not in search of religious knowledge but existential recognition. That is, he was answering the question, “How do we know we exist?” As long as I think or even doubt, he writes, I can only do so because I exist. And since I think, therefore, I am, therefore, my existence is proven.  

Most of us don’t put too much work into answering the questions of existence. Yet I like the fact that he is willing to explore it. Descartes does not take for granted something that is so basic to life as existence. Whether we agree with his philosophy, I like his interest in finding understanding for things that are essential to life.  

When Jesus brings up the question about eating, he is asking us to consider something that every single person in the entire world does. We all eat. If we don’t, we can’t survive. In addition, as I have said numerous times, all people deserve to eat. If the world were a just place then the only person who would ever go a day without eating is the one doing so voluntarily. Living with an unjust distribution of wealth and resources, however, means that people by the millions are forced to endure hunger daily. But, before I go off on one of my favorite topics, let’s return to what Jesus says about food. This time, he’s talking about holiness rather than hunger.    

Christianity is the only major world religion that does not have restrictions on food consumption as part of its central teachings. Jews have kosher food laws. Muslims follow halal practices to determine what is permitted to eat and foods to avoid. Hindus and Buddhists are well known vegetarians believing that they should not eat the flesh of any sentient being because the life within them is the same as the life in us. Though all the Jewish food restrictions are in the Bible (mostly in Leviticus), Christians simply ignore these biblical requirements. Even biblical inerrantists who will argue with their own grandmother that every word of the Bible is inspired and without contradiction will queue up in the Bojangle’s take-out window and order their fill of sausage biscuits without considering that the Bible is explicit when it says “And the pig…it is unclean for you. You must not eat their meat or touch their carcass. It is unclean for you.” (Leviticus 11:8) While I am convinced that the story of Peter in Joppa played a big role in Christianity setting aside the kosher food laws (see Acts 10), Jesus paved the way for Baptists to enjoy their bacon in Matthew 15.   

In every way, Jesus was a bar mitzvah-ed, Torah-reading, Sabbath-attending, festival observing Jewish Palestinian. Like his Jewish disciples, Jesus likely never ate food that was not kosher. So consider the angst he caused among his Jewish followers when he says publicly to a crowd of people, “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” (Matthew 15:10b-11) Kosher food was so basic to Jewish life and here Jesus is questioning its religious power. Yet it is clearly delineated in the Torah. And the Torah is God’s Word. No wonder the very next thing the disciples tell Jesus is, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?” 

I really don’t think Jesus was either being snarky — “Hey, Peter. Listen to this. It’s really going to tick off those Pharisees” — or showing disdain — “Good, I’m glad they were offended. I meant to do that.” And he certainly is not criticizing the practice of eating kosher on its own. My conclusion is different: I believe Jesus knew that too many of his own followers trusted that their holiness was a result of following good things like eating kosher. When we judge ourselves and think that all is well with our soul because we remembered to skip the bacon cheeseburger and order the lamb stew, then Jesus says we have relegated our righteousness to rules. It turns out that even the unholy ones can play by the rules and still be wicked. Something more is required to be holy. 

You and I don’t eat kosher, though, remember – Christianity has no food restrictions. Before we go any further with Jesus’ teaching, then, we have to examine ourselves and see what it is that we have substituted for kosher laws. What rule do we observe that makes us feel good about God’s judgment on our life? The trick is, it has to be something that is not inherently wrong but that we trust way too much.  

Given that the novel coronavirus is disrupting almost every area of life right now, perhaps we can put attending worship in the sanctuary in place of eating kosher food. All of us want to be gathered together in the sanctuary on Sundays for worship. Other than eating every day, attending worship on Sundays with other Christians in a sanctuary may be the most “normal” part of my entire life. I have been doing it nearly every single Sunday for the past 53 years. It began as a family practice. Then became a habit. Maybe for a time it was even a way to cope with life and its difficulties. In college, my roommate went to worship to find a girlfriend. I’ve had people tell me they come to church because it helps them not feel guilty. Others come because they always feel guilty. Some have determined that the end result of worship is that it makes them a better person, and their mama said to go to church as long as it helps you. I have known couples who came to church just to have a free place to get married. Perhaps we all can agree that worship is not only a good thing, but is one of the most central disciplines for all Christians everywhere. But we also know inherently that worship can be misused, turned into a selfish gain, and often attended rather than practiced. If we worship only to force God to like us, then we have missed the target. Worship is to be centered always on God’s presence and our humble response. God is the focus of worship. Not us. Not what it produces. Not how it makes us feel. And it is always free to choose and never a compulsion. Thus in Matthew 15 Jesus might well say, “It is not missing worship that defiles you, nor coming to worship that sanctifies. It is what is in your heart that defiles.”  

So hear this, Jesus says. If we think coming to the sanctuary is what it takes for God to like us, even love us, and therefore be required to accept us, then we are deceiving ourselves. Worship in the sanctuary is not a vaccination against damnation. In the same way, being prevented from attending worship in the sanctuary in order to keep other people healthy is not an evil perpetrated by cancel culture or a conspiracy of anti-Christian liberals in American politics. 

Here is my paraphrase of Jesus’ words in response to the disciples: “Do you see that whoever goes into the sanctuary also leaves the sanctuary and returns to the world. It is the worship of God that comes from the heart that God sees. Thus in worship and out in the world, our heart reveals our love for God and one another. The heart also shows what defiles us – manipulative intentions, power over others, over indulgence in desire, wanting what we don’t need, repeating false lies, celebrating when people we don’t like fail. These are what defile a person, but to worship at home during a pandemic does not defile.” 

I’m convinced that much of what Jesus says is intended to move us away from legalism. Legalism is childish ignorance. Righteousness is not a checklist. Commandments are not like bumper gates at the bowling alley. Following God doesn’t have GPS coordinates. Holiness is not a part of your aura. Discipleship is not calculated by karma. You are not what you eat…or drink. These are all façades and can be made up. It’s as easy to dress up on the outside and fool a bunch of people as it is to cheat at solitaire. Yet in both instances, we know the difference. So does God. 

When I was growing up, strict orders against vulgar language were enforced. Not just by parents at home but nearly everywhere. Which means my friends and I, the ones who taught me how to “cuss the right way” when I was about 11 years old, also learned the meaning of “wash your mouth out with soap.” In my house, this phrase was used figuratively. But I had a friend named Corey who came to school one day and we learned that some families take the saying literally. I think we laughed every time we saw him for the next two days. 

Jesus seems to be calling us to wash our hearts out with soap. Or at least, to recognize that hearts can be mended. They can be sanctified, cleansed, as it were, in order to direct our lives in God’s Way with a genuine and honest search for holiness. In this way, our worship is acceptable to God both in the sanctuary and on the sofa. Worship away from the sanctuary may even have the added benefit of focusing our worship on God rather than our friends, or being seen by others, or demoting the worship of God to a social gathering. Even beyond worship, Jesus is offering us a second chance, or a third, or a seventh. The reason and manner in which our hearts respond to God and others can be made right. While I don’t like the term “saving souls” perhaps there’s a way Jesus is coming close to “saving hearts.” Turning them from evil to holy. Training them to serve God rather than ourselves or the world. Fixing their broken parts that desire sin and repairing them for the work of God’s grace. 

Because of COVID-19 people seem to be asking often, “how are you doing?” Jesus is asking us a different question: “How is your heart?” He knows the answer. So do you. That leaves us all with an opportunity – to live out our heart’s depth, or to renew our heart under God’s care. 

Questions for Reflection

  1. What to you is the purpose of worship? 
  1. How do we maintain the church’s focus on worship and spiritual growth without becoming just a social club? 
  1. [For you to think about rather than say out loud] What in your heart needs to be cleansed? 

Prayer of Thanksgiving. Thank you God for constant love. Please help our church family grow deeper and deeper in your love. Amen.

Song of Faith
God Be in My Head

God be in my head, and in my understanding.
God be in mine eyes, and in my looking.
God be in my mouth, and in my speaking.
God be in my heart, and in my thinking.
God be at mine end, and at my departing.

Sending Out
May the blessing and peace of God uphold you,
May the compassion and love of Christ enfold you,
and the vitality and power of the Holy Spirit nourish and sustain you
today and always. Amen.

Closing Song.  In our tradition, we close worship by singing the first verse of Blest Be the Tie.  Mindy starts us each week, and so she does today as well.

Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love.
The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above. Amen.

Credits: The image is from our Summer 2012 mission trip to Haiti. All Are Welcome was written and composed by Marty Haugen and sung by Mindy. The Prayer of Confession and Sending Out were written by Moira Laidlaw. The communion litany was written by the Mennonite Worship and Song Committee, 2018. Amazing Grace is set to the tune NEW BRITAIN from the Virginia Harmony, 1831. The words were written by John Newton (1807). The song was played by Aidan. No one know who wrote the words to the song, What Wondrous Love. This solo arrangement was composed by Charles Dupree and sung by Mindy. God Be in My Head is set to a tune with the same name composed by Walford Davies. The words are from The Book of Hours, 1514. Blest be the Tie is set to the tune DENNIS which was composed by Johann G. Nageli (1836) and arranged by Lowell Mason (1872). The words were written by John Fawcett (1782). All scripture passages are from the Common English Bible translation. Hymns were played by Tracy on the organ and sung by Mindy. Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-724755. All rights reserved.  All writings have been used by permission from the posting sites or authors.  

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