I was supposed to preach this Sunday at Emmanuel Congregational-Christian Church, a United Church of Christ in Sanford this morning. I talked about my experience supporting my wife through her experience of Arnold Chiari Malformation. Her disease of Chiari took her life the Thursday night before I was supposed to preach, with her dying in the night. There is no way I can preach this sermon. In fact I cannot look at it right now, and that is why I am posting my whole service outline including children’s sermon notes. The sermon, though it wrongly assumed Kat and I had a future recovering from the neurological episode provoked by her Chiari, was on the grief we shared and others share. I have found I wrote this for myself because I needed to think about grief and remember what I tell people every day in my work as a chaplain. I share it so that it might help some of you who, too, are grieving.
Brokenheartedly your progressive redneck preacher,
= = = =
PRELUDE and CHIMING OF THE HOURS
Call to Worship (Jeremiah 31: 7-9)
One: Sing aloud with gladness:
Many: God is gathering the people!
One: From the farthest parts of the earth we come:
Many: All who struggle; all who labor with new life!
One: Those who are weeping, God will console;
Many: Those who get lost find a clear path home.
One: Let us worship the God who gathers us!
WELCOME & ANNOUNCEMENTS
We give thanks that you have gathered us into your church
and graced us with your faithful presence.
We ponder our history, ancient and still developing,
and marvel at the many expressions of your church.
Grant us the vision to be a part of a new reformation for the Church
that will bring ever more joy and justice to the world.
Continue to gather us, the diverse lot of us,
into Jesus’ vision and dream
that your faithful people may be one in you. Amen
HYMN #263 A Mighty Fortress
Prayer of Reconciliation
When we want to be a church ever-reforming, yet cling to comfortable ways:
Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on us!
When we want to honor your “still speaking voice”, but are fearful of insights which challenge old assumptions:
Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on us!
When we want to live into Jesus’ dream of oneness,
but fail to listen to voices of difference:
Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on us!
Assurance of Pardon
Take heart, get up; Jesus is calling to us!
We trust in the one who has guided the church for two millennia.
Through Christ, God forgives us our failings,
and continues to call us into a community of mutual love and forgiveness.
GLORIA PATRI p 338
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.
(Bring out cut out of two pots for demonstration)
By Sacinandana Swami
A water bearer in India had two large pots, each hung on one end of the pole he carried across the back of his neck. One of the pots had a crack in it, and while the other pot was perfect and always delivered a full portion of water at the end of the long walk from the stream, the cracked pot arrived only half full. This went on every day for two years, with the bearer delivering only one and a half pots of water to his master’s house.
Of course, the perfect pot was proud of its accomplishment and saw itself as perfectly suited for the purpose for which it was made. But the poor cracked pot was ashamed of its imperfection and miserable that it was able to accomplish only half of what it had been made to do. After two years of what it perceived as bitter failure, it spoke to the water bearer one day by the stream. “I am ashamed of myself and I want to apologize to you.”
“Why?” asked the bearer. “What are you ashamed of?”
“For the past two years, I have been able to deliver only half my load because this crack in my side causes water to leak out all the way back to your master’s house. Because of my flaws you have to work without getting the full value of your efforts,” the pot said.
The water bearer felt sorry for the old cracked pot, and out of compassion he said, “As we return to the master’s house, I want you to notice the beautiful flowers along the path.” Indeed, as they went up the hill, the old cracked pot took notice of the sun warming the wildflowers on the side of the path. The pot felt cheered.
But at the end of the trail, the pot still felt bad because it had leaked out half its load, and again it apologized for its failure. The bearer said to the pot, “Did you notice that there were flowers only on your side of your path, but not on the other pot’s side? That’s because I knew about your flaw and took advantage of it. I planted flower seeds on your side of the path, and every day while we walk back from the stream, you’ve watered them for me. For two years I have been able to pick these beautiful flowers to decorate my master’s table. If you were not just the way you are, he would not have such beauty to grace his house.
Moral: Each of us has his/her unique flaws—we are all cracked pots. But a compassionate and expert devotee can engage us in the Lord’s service, and then we can all be useful, despite our defects.
JOYS & CONCERNS
PRAYERS OF THE CHURCH
On this Reformation Sunday,
we thank you for those persons you have poured your spirit into
that then set about reforming your church.
We thank you that you are still at work in the life of the church
reforming us reshaping us,
and remaking us into your image. One of the ways we reflect your image, Lord,
is how we care for one another with love, care and prayer.
We pray for those who are in the hospitals today.
We pray for those at home with illnesses,
and recovering from treatments and/or surgeries.
We pray for those in nursing homes
and those who are home bound.
We pray for their families during these times.
We pray for those who are facing death.
We pray for those who have died and for those who are grieving.
We pray for their Doctors, nurses,
health care workers and care takers.
Lord may we reflect your image in our love, care and prayer
that we put to action for these your children. We reflect your image in how we love, care and pray for the world.
We pray for those around the world
who as Christians face imprisonment and martyrdom.
We pray for those who countries torn by civil war.
We pray for those living in poverty.
We pray for those who live in starvation.
We pray for those who are being used in slave labor, child labor and sex labor.
We pray for those who have been affected by disasters.
We pray for those in disaster areas who face outbreak of diseases.
Lord, may we put into action our love, care and prayers for the world. Lord, we pray for your church
that we be a beacon of hope, grace, love and light in this world.
May our open doors reflect your open arms to all.
May our arms and hands reaching out to those in need reflect your love for all.
May our forgiveness of one another reflect your forgiveness for all. We pray in the name of the One who is the rock upon which our faith, even our very lives, can stand secure, our Savior Jesus who taught us to say
Our Father who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done
On earth as in heaven
Give us this day our daily bread
Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors
Lead us not into temptation
But deliver us from evil
For thine is the Kingdom, the Power, the Gloyr
Now and Forever.
Call to Offering
Our ancestors in faith and church-building
show us the way to share the gifts God has given us with the whole community.
Let us gather our gifts together and offer them to God
with heartfelt gratitude, commitment and praise.
PRESENTATION OF TITHES & OFFERINGS
DOXOLOGY p 356
Praise God from whom all blessings flow; Praise him, all creatures here below; Praise him above, ye heav’nly host; Praise Father, Son, & Holy Ghost. Amen.
Reform our lives, O God,
and let these gifts change the world into which we send them.
Take them and multiply them to be a blessing of justice and peace
in the world you love!
Jeremiah 31:7-14 (based on the Common English Bible)
7 The LORD proclaims: Sing joyfully for the people of Jacob; shout for the leading nation. Raise your voices with praise and call out: “The LORD has saved God’s people, the remaining few in Israel!” 8 I’m going to bring them back from the north; I will gather them from the ends of the earth. Among them will be people who are blind and people with disabilities, expectant mothers and those in labor; a great throng will return here. 9 With tears of joy they will come; while they pray, I will bring them back. I will lead them by quiet streams and on smooth paths so they don’t stumble. I will be Israel’s father, Ephraim will be my oldest child. 10 Listen to the LORD’s word, you nations, and announce it to the distant islands: The one who scattered Israel will gather them and keep them safe, as a shepherd her flock. 11 The LORD will rescue the people of Jacob and deliver them from the power of those stronger than they are. 12 They will come shouting for joy on the hills of Zion, jubilant over the LORD’s gifts: grain, wine, oil, flocks, and herds. Their lives will be like a lush garden; they will grieve no more. 13 Then the young women will dance for joy; the young and old men will join in. I will turn their mourning into laughter and their sadness into joy; I will comfort them. 14 I will lavish the priests with abundance and shower my people with my gifts, declares the LORD.
This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.
Would you pray with me?
Still-speaking God, we believe you have more light to break forth from your holy word. We pray you open the eyes of our minds and ears of our hearts so that we may see and know what light your Word has for us in these words of Scripture. As I strive to proclaim your Word, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be pleasing in your sight. In Christ’s name, Amen.
Almost two years ago, I went through an experience in which I felt like the ground had dropped out from underneath me without a handhold in sight. My wife had an episode like a stroke, related to her spina bifida. Waves of numbness went throughout her body. She could barely use her arms and legs. She had trouble seeing for days at a time, finding her words, at times hearing, and, perhaps most painful to my well-read wife, reading. She was working as a pastor at the time. Her health fell through so badly and suddenly she had to stop her work which she loved. At the time I was working as a chaplain on the neurology floors at UNC where I saw every day the heart-wrenching effects of neurological episodes like hers when they make turns for the worse. So of course my heart sank to see the suffering it caused her. I had trouble imagining she might get through it. I had no way to know that she would begin to recover some from her episode. I felt like I was losing my dearest and closest friend, my life’s love.
Illness is not the only time in which the world seems to drop out from beneath us. We can feel this way in times when, despite our best efforts, our marriage or intimate relationship falls apart. We can feel it when our kids or grandkids go down a dangerous path which we cannot rescue or protect them. We experience it when we lose the job that lets us stay one step ahead of the power being out and we do not know where we can turn.
That this reading is suggested for today, Reformation Sunday, suggests such despair, pain, and grief comes not just to individuals but to churches too. Reformation Sunday remembers when the young preacher Martin Luther looked around and saw the church in shambles. It was putting barriers up keeping people from God rather than building bridges. It was using its power in ways that oppressed the poor and the uneducated, taking advantage of them to gain wealth and power. Aghast at these abuses of God’s people, Luther nailed a declaration of spiritual independence on the door of Wittenburg church, marking the birth of the Reformed movement in whose tradition our United Church Christ stands. The Reformers’ call to be reforming and ever being reformed is reflected in our mottos “God is still speaking” and “never put a period where God has put a comma.” These call us to continually ask how the church may have lost its way again, beginning again to put up barriers to exclude or oppress others. They challenge us to join Luther in working to overturn such barriers, Reforming the church & world.
That the still-speaking God calls us to be reformers today suggests our churches like Luther’s can face times of desolation. In such times, the church may appear tattered, in shambles from folks fighting for power of from folk misusing the church’s beautiful traditions to hold at bay the hurting all around them whom they deem too different or too far gone. Even when the church hears this call to tear down such barriers – and I want to applaud Emmanuel church for I know you’ve been working to do just that lately — it can be costly, unpopular with some, and leave people feeling the church is in a precarious situation. We can look around in both cases and wonder “What has become of us?”, uncertain of how to find our way from the pain of where we are to God’s joyous future for us.
It is in just such an experience of grief and loss that today’s reading from Jeremiah was written. Jeremiah has been proclaiming to his people in Judah that due to their refusing to consider what God has been saying to them, they will face utter desolation. The nation will fall. They will be oppressed. People will be carted off as slaves to Babylon. Their treasured temple will be destroyed and lain in ruins. Instead of being heeded, Jeremiah is thrown in jail for his words.
Right after telling of his imprisonment, the book of Jeremiah offers an interlude from this tale of woe known to scholars as “the book of consolation”, the section that includes our reading. These words are a promise by God that though Jeremiah and his people face the destruction of all they hold dear, there is a hope beyond this experience of desolation. Grief, shock, loss, and trauma are not God’s final word to them or to us. Rather, like the plant springing from the seed crushed in the earth, hope will arise out of the depth of their despair. Turn to someone and say Whatever desolation you are facing, know: hope lies on the other side.
Writer Jack Canfield once said that “everything you want is on the other side of fear”. Our reading from Jeremiah paints a picture of a bright future that lies on the other side of Judah’s greatest fears and our own. These words invite us, as we confront our own fears, griefs, and losses, to imagine what we might discover on the other side of such heart-wrenching experiences and emotions. We too can hope for something beautiful on the other side of our pain, if we engage such pain in a way that opens us up to healing.
It is important to note this future is not automatic. It is only if we engage this pain in a healing way that such healing can home. Too often we send a different message. You hear it when well-meaning people say that “time will heal all wounds”. When you are hurting, such empty clichés come across as cold and hurtful, but what’s more, they aren’t true. Time alone does no such thing. All of us know people for whom time does heal. They come out of times of grief and heartache more generous, compassionate, more loving. I think though we also all know people for whom time only leads to more bitterness, anger, resentment. They walk away with a chip on their shoulders. Time alone does not heal. Time only can transform us as we are open ourselves to the power of our experience to teach us new things. Too often we fail to do this. Instead we rush through the experience of loss. We push down our pain, ignore our heartache, and blaze on without facing our losses. That is a recipe for a chip on your shoulder, for resentment, if I ever heard one. Yet if we take time to face into our pain and open up to God & others, we can find not only healing but discover through our griefs a deep compassion for others as they too face trying times.
One of my favorite writers is the Sufi poet Rumi. Like some of you here, Rumi tended to use writing to deal with pain and loss. Some of his most beautiful poems were written in response to the unexpected disappearance and likely murder in the night of his closest friend, Shams, whose body was never found. In one of these poems Rumi says that our wounds are the broken places in our souls that like windows that let in the light of God. When fully opened, windows not only let it the sunlight, changing our whole view of a room, but also let in fresh air changing the whole environment around us. So too when we do the work of opening up our souls by being present to our pain, that pain can be a source for lessons God can teach us which help awaken us to new and better ways to more fully embrace life, hope, and healing for ourselves and others.
This process is beautifully described by the late Catholic pastor and teacher Henri Nouwen in his book Here and Now: Life in the Spirit. He shares about his friendship with the Dalai Lama and how the Dalai Lama experienced the desolation of his home country of Tibet, persecution for his faith as a Buddhist, and the expulsion of his people from his homeland at the hands of Chinese authorities, just as Judah faced expulsion from their home in this text. Despite such suffering, the Dalai Lama always radiates deep peace and compassion when he talks about the Chinese people. When asked how he does this, the Dalai Lama talks about his faith. He says that he takes the pain he has experienced personally, the pain and suffering endured by his people, and also the pain and suffering of the Chinese people. Through his practice of meditation, he takes time to be present to that pain. As he does so, he finds his practice of meditation transforms that suffering into a deep identification with the sufferings of others, including his persecutors, through heartfelt compassion.
Being present to one’s suffering and that of others is what Israel and Judah go through in the years between their exile and the fulfillment of these words of Jeremiah. It only takes reading the Psalms written during this period and the book of Lamentations to see that they are present with their pain. In fact, they are so honestly and blunt about their loss in those texts that at times we are shocked by their words, living as we do in a world that teaches us to push down and hide our pain. Yet as they begin in exile to finally begin to listen to the still-speaking, they begin to realize they cannot run from themselves any longer. They must face their pain. They discover that though others may not be able to take their pain, God can handle it, so in prayer they openly express this pain to God. Turn to somebody and say, If you are hurting, know God can take it. Don’t run from your pain; run to your Creator with your pain.
If you are facing grief, loss, and desolation, do not give up! Face into your pain, make room for it, and use your practices of faith to cast your cares on Christ who can help you transform your pain into compassion. This is true whether your practices of faith are turning to prayer and Scripture like the people of Judah, meditation like the Dalai Lama and Christian mystics throughout the ages, writing poetry and music like Rumi and like King David, or simply sharing your heart with others as hurting people in all communities can do.
What lies on the other side of this work of grief is the new future the prophet beautifully pictures in our reading, a new beginning this work of being present with our pain makes possible. It is important to notice, though, that this restoration comes in a shape that, before facing into their pain, Jeremiah’s people never would have embraced. My work as a chaplain suggests that this is almost always the case. The new beginning that comes for us after we finish the work of grief is never the same old life you lived before, because you can never see the world in the same way. Grief forever transforms your vision, either wrecking it with resentment or coloring it with compassion that enables you to see the humanity of people you never would have noticed before your heartache.
This is why the new beginning is pictured as being carried in the arms of folks we would have walked right past before our times of tragedy. It is with those the world casts aside those exiled from Judah’s new future and ours will come. It is through the proverbial ten lost tribes associated with the town Ephraim their new start comes. These ten tribes have come to picture the scattered and hopelessly lost in the eyes of the world in Jeremiah’s day. In their time and ours, it is in the hands of those our society says are too washed up, too far gone, too forgettable to expect anything from, that our new future will be born.
It is with expectant mothers and mother in labor who are without fathers and husbands due to the ravages of war and exile that this new future will break out, the future on the other side of loss. This group is one of the most more vulnerable groups in the ancient world and today.
It is through the voice of the people who are blind or have other physical disabilities that their future and our own can come, people treated as burdens in the ancient world and today. We see it today how far too often people with disabilities continue to not be given a voice, a welcome, if they can even make it through the often non-wheelchair accessible entrance to the church. In Jeremiah’s day this viewing people with disabilities as burdens can be seen in how the book of Leviticus bans them from the temple by calling them an abomination. In our day, we have our own lists of people we treat as abominations, so much so people with signs will stand outside the courthouse and the church trying to say such as these are not welcome in God’s house, yet through such ones God’s future comes – it is in the voices and hands of those with disabilities and those the world deems as abominations who are not welcome that their future and our own will break forth.
Our bright future lies in including such often marginalized and vulnerable groups both in our personal lives and especially our life as a church. We become able to see them as precious children of God full of potential as we let our suffering teach us compassion, and so we can stand in solidarity with them.
Friends, as we face our times of loss, grief, pain, & desolation, let us make space to face into our pain that it be transformed into compassion. Let us remember to continue to bless and be a blessing in distressing places & times. Let us learn to widen our welcome and embrace as individuals and as a church. Amen & Amen.
CONFESSION OF FAITH: A New Creed, 2010
We are not alone,
we live in God’s world.
We believe in God:
who has created and is creating,
who has come in Jesus,
the Word made flesh,
to reconcile and make new,
who works in us and others
by the Spirit.
We trust in God.
We are called to be the Church:
to celebrate God’s presence,
to live with respect in Creation,
to love and serve others,
to seek justice and resist evil,
to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen,
our judge and our hope.
In life, in death, in life beyond death,
God is with us.
We are not alone.
Thanks be to God.
HYMN #266 How Firm a Foundation
Go into your week
with your ears pitched
to the sound of our still-speaking God’s voice calling your name.
Go into your week
with your eyes peeled
for the face of Jesus appearing in unexpected places and unanticipated people.
Go into your week
with your soul poised
to receive the Spirit of God,
the Spirit that restores life to all that is threatened by death and sets the heart free. Amen.