steeples in the sky

Sunday, January 19, 2014

On third Sundays our worship experience focuses on sung prayers, silence, scripture, guided meditation, and embodied prayers. Below is today’s worship service with my text for the guided meditation inserted here into the worship bulletin.

Epiphany 2: A Service of Sung Prayers, Silence, and Scripture

As you enter, pause before the print of Pheoris West’s Baptism of Christ, 1993. Do any aspects of the painting surprise you? What is this image saying to you? Then be seated, quiet your spirit, and let the song “Dona Nobis Pacem” wash over you like baptismal waters.

*PROCESSIONAL “Lord of Life, We Come to You” p. 53 in songbook

CALL TO WORSHIP Psalm 40: 1-10 (inclusive version)
LEADER: 1I waited patiently for God; God inclined to me and heard my cry.
PEOPLE: 2God drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure.
LEADER: 3God put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and be in awe, and put their trust in God.
PEOPLE: 4Blessed are those who put their trust in God, who do not turn to the proud, to those who go astray after false gods.
LEADER: 5You have multiplied, O God my God, your wondrous deeds and your thoughts toward us; none can compare with you. Were I to proclaim and tell of them, they would be more than can be counted.
PEOPLE: 6Sacrifice and offering you do not desire, but you have given me an open ear. Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required.
LEADER: 7Then I said, “Here I am; in the scroll of the book it is written of me. 8I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.”
PEOPLE: 9I have told the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation; see, I have not restrained my lips, as you know, O God.
LEADER: 10I have not hidden your saving help within my heart, I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation; I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness from the great congregation.
PEOPLE: 11Do not, O God, withhold your mercy from me; let your steadfast love and your faithfulness keep me safe forever.
LEADER: 1I waited patiently for God; God inclined to me and heard my cry.

SUNG RESPONSE “Wait for the Lord”

I am waiting for . . .
I am thankful for . . .

SUNG RESPONSE “On God Alone I Wait Silently” p. 73 in songbook

Listen to me, O coastlands, pay attention, you peoples from far away! God called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb God named me.
Is there a story behind the name you were given—or the name you gave to another? Does your name reflect your identity and calling? Why or why not? There are multiple ways to interpret this idea that God calls us and names us even before we are born. What does that mean to you? Pair off and share your naming story with another.

*SONG “Bless the Lord” p. 19 in songbook

*GOSPEL READING Matthew 3: 13-17
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

GUIDED MEDIATION “Knowing our Belovedness”

Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved reveals the terrible cost of forgetting our belovedness. Sethe is a runaway slave who, though free in post-Civil War Cincinnati, lives a constricted and tormented life. In fact, she believes her home to be haunted—perhaps by the spirit of a daughter who died. When a mysterious young woman who says her name is Beloved shows up, Sethe takes her in, believing her to be the ghost of Sethe’s dead child, in part because the only word upon the dead daughter’s tombstone was “Beloved.” Beloved is a strange and disruptive character. She is our past that can haunt us. But she ultimately helps Sethe and others move into the future. Sethe’s haunted past includes not only her enslavement but also her infanticide. We come to learn that shortly after escaping to the north, Sethe’s former master tracked her down and tried to bring her and her children back to the plantation. Out of her mind with fear, Sethe runs into a toolshed where she takes a hacksaw—and kills her youngest child because, she said, “I was trying to put my babies where they would be safe.” The horror of slavery and guilt of her own response to it follow Sethe and her surviving children. Beloved unhinges them in some ways and puts them back together again. And then leaves. And eventually Sethe comes to accept the love of Paul D., a fellow former slave who sees her belovedness.

Friends, we have all been named “Beloved.” Here’s one way of understanding today’s Gospel story. When we follow Jesus in baptism, we, too, hear a voice naming us by our true name: “This is my beloved Son/Daughter. In you I am well pleased.” And engraved on each of our tombstones, at least figuratively, will be the single word, “Beloved” –no matter what we’ve done or endured. Through baptism we enter into a naming rite—and an understanding of God that should follow us all our days: God loves us. But from time to time we may need to pause and rehear that voice from heaven or from deep within or from the vastness of the universe saying, “You are my beloved daughter (or son). With you I am well pleased.”

Recall moments in your life for which you are proud: You accomplished a goal. You maintained your integrity though others did not. You spoke tenderly to someone who was troubled. You gave your money or time selflessly. You were honest when truth needed to be spoken.

Was there people in your life to tell you they were “well pleased” with you? Was there someone beaming a smile your way or applauding at your piano recital or basketball game? Was someone embracing you in ways that said the equivalent of “You are beloved!”? I hope so. Give thanks for those in your life who affirmed you.


If you did not feel affirmed, acknowledge to yourself that you feel hurt. Try to find a gracious place in your heart to forgive those who did not support you as you’d hoped. And know that something larger than the moment of your great need, larger than any human support team here and now, is sweeping you forward in grace and luring you toward a fuller realization of your belovedness.


Reflect now on the parts of your life that are not so praiseworthy. While you did not commit infanticide, you have at times, if you’re human, hurt those you loved. But consider this. The Spirit of God present at Jesus’s baptism did not say, “This is my Son. The Perfect One. The one who has succeeded in every attempt and who has never failed at anything.” Certainly the writer of Matthew might have described the Spirit’s voice as confirming Jesus’s perfection. Instead what we are to know about Jesus and about ourselves is this: God sees Beloved children. In these moments let that sink in. Let us accept God’s love—and the love of friends and family—knowing that we don’t have to be perfect to be worthy of love.


One important spiritual task for us is to love and forgive ourselves because, as Richard Rohr reminds us, “Wounded people wound others. If we do not transform our hurt we will transmit it.” Or as another has put it more succinctly: “Hurt people hurt people.” We see that in the story of Sethe, a young mother so badly damaged by the brutality of slavery that she killed her own daughter.

Accepting our belovedness is not about ignoring our stupid and mean mistakes. It’s about accepting who God is. It’s about helping to form the “beloved community” preached by Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday we celebrate tomorrow. It’s about seeing one another as beloved sisters and brothers. Amen

Walk back to the baptismal font and look into those waters as you prayerfully “see” yourself as a beloved child of God. A common myth features a character seeing his or her future or understanding his or her past by gazing into a reflective pool of water. The baptismal waters for Jesus disclosed his identity to others—and perhaps to himself as well. At our baptism we were also “named” beloved son or daughter. If you wish, place your hands in the water and prayerfully, symbolically, and joyfully wash away any harmful names the world has named you. Know yourself as Beloved.
Write a new name for yourself on a name tag provided and let it represent something that is already developing in you or that you hope will develop in your life. This new name could, like some Native American names, tell a story. (Remember some of the characters from the movie Dances With Wolves—like the title character, and Stands With A Fist and Kicking Bird?) Or you might adopt the name of someone you admire. Or a name representing your aspiration or a formative event in your life or a longing. Place your name tag on the display board as you offer a silent prayer that you will live up to and into this new name. You may later share your name with us if you wish.
As beloved children, we participate in the family of God as receivers and givers. Come to the family table now where all people are welcomed and loved. Receive the bread of new life and the cup overflowing with love. Give as you are able with thanksgiving. As you do, recall the story of the life, death, and life again of Jesus the Christ. Prayerfully hear Christ speaking your name with love. Remember that to participate in the life of the Christ requires us to work toward building up the body of Christ.


Beloved One, who calls us “beloved,” our minds yearn to comprehend more of your vastness; our spirits aim to live into our belovedness. Grateful people everywhere say: Amen. Amen. Amen.
Posted by Ellen Sims at 9:07 PM No comments:
Email This
Share to Twitter
Share to Facebook
Share to Pinterest
Links to this post
Labels: contemplative service, embodied prayers, Matthew 3: 13-17
Sunday, January 5, 2014

Leading Onward

TEXT: Matthew 2: 1-12
On this day when we are thanking last year’s church council and officers—and commissioning our new lay leaders for responsibilities that lie ahead—we return to a story we touched upon last week. But today we’re reading the story for what it might say about leadership. No, the Gospel of Matthew did not include the story of King Herod and King Jesus a to provide future churches like ours with a manual for church leaders. Yes, more relevant writings on becoming successful leaders abound in modern blogs and books. But today’s reading may provide epiphanies for us through positive and negative examples of leadership. We might find in Matthew some leadership lessons that remain consistent with that Gospel’s idea of a “kingdom” led by the One who comes to us as a child, who rules by love rather than fear, who upends traditional notions of authority, and who always leads us into new territory.

By the way, whether you have an official leadership role at Open Table or not, this sermon is for you—and me—because each of us has potential for a positive or negative influence upon this faith community. Each of us, for instance, can invite others to the Open Table—or squander our influence. Each can, by following Jesus, accompany others along the way to joy, hope, peace, compassion. Each of us can steer by a Star lighting the way Godward.

Let’s look at our Gospel story today as a choice between two polarities of leadership: the traditional king of a dying realm and the newborn ruler of a coming kingdom.

The first thing the scripture mentions about the Traditional Leader, Herod, is that he is afraid. The leader who will (according to the second half of chapter 2) terrorize and slaughter innocent children is himself terrified. When wise men from another culture tell the powerful Herod they have come to pay homage to a new leader, he feels threatened. By a baby. Which tells us just about all we need to know about his leadership. Frightened people can be dangerous. Anxious people transmit their anxiety. Matthew compactly correlates the leader’s fear to the people’s fear in verse 3:

“When King Herod heard [that a new king of the Jews had been born], he was frightened—and all Jerusalem with him.” Was all Jerusalem terrified by a new baby? Of course not. They were terrified because Herod was. His subjects knew that when Herod was nervous, they’d soon be on the receiving end of his jitters.

We know that parents can sometimes pass along their insecurities to their children. Church leaders may transmit their worries to other church members. The despots of big and small realms infect others with their nightmares.

But the alternative is not to put on a brave face. The alternative is to be who we are called to be and leave the rest to God. To take on responsibility for the hard work ahead without becoming discouraged (which literally means to lose our courage). The antidote to fear is love and a trust that God has gifted us with what we need to live out our unique callings.

You may have heard the story of a rabbi named Zusya who died and waited before the judgment seat of God. As he waited for God to appear, he grew nervous thinking about his life and how little he had done. He began to imagine that God was going to ask him, “Why weren’t you a Moses or a Solomon or a David?” But when God appeared, the rabbi was surprised. God simply asked, “Why weren’t you Zusya?”

You and I won’t worry that Open Table is not measuring up to some other church, or that you as a church leader are not measuring up to another leader. Church starting is tough. We’re making the plane while flying it. And church leadership is especially challenging in an era when the Church itself is undergoing changes the likes of which we’ve not seen for 500 years. In prepping for this sermon, I reviewed nearly a dozen texts on church leadership from seminary courses that I took just over 10 years ago. Much of the then-current literature, though not obsolete, now seems dated, given the rapid changes in the Church.

But here’s what floats my boat: the freedom we have at this time in the life of the church—and in the context of a brand new church. I hope you feel the freedom to use your leadership gifts without fear that we have to do things the way they’ve always been done. We can envision new ways of being church.

We are not afraid to chart new territory. Thank God. I am energized by the freedom that comes from starting a new church—in an era of experimentation. Remember Matthew’s nativity story begins with the announcement of an unprecedented pregnancy and an angel’s message to Joseph to “fear not.” “Do not fear” are the first words anyone speaks in this Gospel (Matt. 1:20)—and they preface the angel’s next command that Joseph treat his betrothed with compassion. Love and compassion conquer fear. When we’re uncertain about how to move ahead into God’s future, we can seek the sure way of compassion.

Which can then lead to a kind of exhilaration. Our choice to follow the path of compassion in new ways may leave us, like the Magi, “overwhelmed with joy” (Matt. 2: 10).
Here’s one reason you and I don’t need to be anxious church leaders: we have not been charged to achieve someone else’s idea of a “successful” church. We have been called to follow in Jesus’s ways. Not to compete with other faith communities. Not to care merely about our own survival. Certainly not to fear failing or looking foolish.
And because we’ve heard in our dreams the angel words, “Don’t be afraid,” we are able to take risks. We are called to do a NEW thing. You see, another mark of the New Leader, represented both by the Christ Child and the Magi who seek him, is a willingness to lead people in a new directions. The Magi were reading the signs of the times and, like culture watchers of today, foresaw major changes ahead. The pericope ends as the wise men go home “by another road.”

Open Table’s vision of church is evolving. A bracing new vision of church will require young dreamers and young voices and young leaders. The church emerging today, represented by the young king in today’s story, will not change just to change but will evolve substantively to adapt to new information and insights and circumstances.

In this week’s participant guide for our “Painting the Stars” series, we read Bruce Sanguin’s vision for the future church in which he predicts:

“The church of the future will have little attachment to buildings and real estate; it will honor tradition without descending into traditionalism; it will be aligned with the spirit and teachings of Jesus who began his teachings with the words, ‘You have heard it said, but I say unto you…’; it will seek to be enlivened and renewed by the wisdom of other religious lineages; it will be in deep conversation with science, celebrating an evidence-based view of the world, and will understand the realm of facts as a mode of sacred revelation; it will be radically incarnational, tracking and trusting the wisdom of the body in its ecstatic yearning for rhythm and movement to lead us into the future; it will celebrate Earth and her stunning diversity of life as incarnational expressions of the Christ, and live upon our beloved planet with a congruent reverence; it will organize itself around the simplest and most effective forms of governance, the sole purpose of which is to facilitate the spiritual evolution of the community of faith; it will be absolutely dedicated to discovering where Spirit is arising in the people and in the community, letting nothing stand in the way of nourishing that life; the people will be able to articulate the distinction between Jesus of Nazareth and the cosmic Christ; it will be grounded in spiritual practice, not beliefs or dogma, wherein participants will realize their mystic identity, as unique and personalized, consciously evolving, as expressions of the Heart and Mind of God.”

Sanguin may or may not be right in his predictions. You may or may not like the picture he paints of the future church. But the future of the church does not depend on what we WANT it to be. If the church is to survive—and there’s no guarantee it will exist indefinitely in a form we’d recognize—then the church has to adapt and change. The church of Jesus must evolve in order to remain faithful.

Some experiments in new ways of being church will fail. That’s the nature of evolution. What will matter is if new forms of church can continue to make meaning as a community, can still foster loving relationships with others and with our God, and can teach healthy spiritual practices. Will Christian faith continue to be transmitted through sermons—or captured in creedal statements—or organized along denominational ties—or practiced in special buildings? We should probably hold those things lightly, or at least more lightly than the law of love and the leadership of the Spirit.

Herod was reinforcing his position of power in Jerusalem through violent and secretive means, but the Wise Men discovered and honored a very different model of power just nine miles away in Bethlehem. The power of love made manifest in a human infant would prove to be greater than military might. The leadership of a tender shepherd who cares for his flock (Matt. 2: 6) would prove to be more lasting than the Roman Empire.

Strong leaders will take us into new territory. Fake and frightened leaders don’t really go anywhere new. But the Light of God beckons us onward into new territory—in hope.

So much has been said this past year about the new pope. Much of what Pope Francis has said and done makes him the poster pope of emerging Christianity. He does seem to be offering the world a more compassionate face of leadership that is concerned for the poor and less concerned about maintaining his own stature. But at the risk of sounding petty—and, to quote Francis, “Who am I to judge?”—it’s a sad commentary on Christian leadership that the world finds it astonishing that a holy man would give up ostentatious garb and minister to the outcasts and ratchet down the mean rhetoric. For all his exemplary “innovations,” the endearing Pope Francis, whom I do admire, has a long ways to go before he does the truly Jesusy thing for women and gays and steps out of the quagmire of ancient doctrine to deal intelligently on matters like contraception. Nevertheless . . . church leadership is changing.

And you are part of this change. You are living in an exciting time. Even our tiny outpost of progressive Christianity here in Mobile, Alabama, has some part to play in the expansion of God’s vision for the Church That is Yet To Be. Even you have a part to play in following the Star of Light and Love.

Category Prayer, Scripture
Write a comment:

© 2015 Open Table, United Church of Christ
Follow us: