Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Christian Values

Christian Values is my suggested worship theme for the fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 1, 2013. Focus scriptures are Luke 14:1, 7-14 and Hebrews 13:1-16.

In Luke Jesus teaches two values that are high on his list: humility and helping the poor. Both require the ability to curb our egos. Both eventually win the esteem of God and even human leaders. Neither comes easily to our anxious selves, since we have a strong human tendency to worry so much about our own place and well-being that we preempt God and spring into action seeking what is best for us.

In Hebrews, this same ability to curb our egos and seek to do God’s will is expanded. Here the values include loving one another, offering hospitality to strangers, helping and praying for fellow Christians who are imprisoned and tortured for their faith, honoring marriage vows, not being enslaved by money, relying on God’s grace and praising God each day.

Here is a Call to Worship based on Hebrews 13:1-16. Please use or adapt anything helpful to you.

Call to Worship    From Hebrews 13:1-16

L: Sisters and brothers, let us re-commit our lives to do God’s will:
     We will love one another.  We will offer hospitality to strangers,  
     remembering that by doing so, some have entertained angels unaware.
P: We will visit who are in prison, as though we were in prison with them.
     We will help those who have suffered abuse, as if we had suffered with them.
L: We will honor the bonds of marriage and be faithful in all relationships.
P: With God’s help we will live free from the love of money.
     We will be content with what we have, trusting God alone for our true security.
L: We will honor our faith leaders, consider their way of life, and imitate their faith.
P: We will remember that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.
     We will not be captured by anxious teachings, but be strengthened by his grace.
L: Jesus suffered outside the city gate in order to win our hearts by his own blood.
    We will also live as “outsiders”. We will live for others and bear the abuse he endured.
     For we are not citizens of this earth, but our true home is in heaven.
P: In Christ, we will praise God every day!
L: We will do good and share what we have, knowing that giving to others pleases God.
All: Alleluia! Let us worship God!

Monday, August 19, 2013

Celebrating Sabbath

Celebrating Sabbath is my suggested worship theme for the fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 25, 2013. Focus scriptures are Luke 13:10-17 and Psalm 71.

In Luke, the predominant issue is the nature of the Sabbath. The congregation’s leader sees it as a matter of faithfully observing the commandment to rest. No work should be done out of respect to God, who created the universe in six days and rested on the seventh. Jesus, however, sees things quite differently. To him it is not keeping the outer appearance of respecting God, but fulfilling the very nature of Sabbath by creating rest for a woman imprisoned with pain and embarrassment for 18 years. She cannot rest because she is crippled. Healing her gives her the gift of rest. And it is always God’s intention that we be freed from all that binds us spiritually, relationally, and physically. As Jesus goes on to point out, all the farm animals will be fed and watered Sabbath or no Sabbath. Is this woman of less value to God than the animals? Or does God celebrate her release from bondage and her chance to rest?

Psalm 71 is the prayer of an aging petitioner asking God not to forsake him or her at the end of life. Like the woman Jesus heals, the psalmist is weakened by the vicissitudes of age. Perhaps unlike the woman who after 18 years may be resigned to her fate, the psalmist is forthright in his plea for help.

Here is a Call to Worship based on Psalm 71. Please use or adapt anything helpful to you.

Call to Worship    From Psalm 71

L: God, be my refuge! Don’t let me be put to shame!
P: You are righteous: listen to me! Save me. Rescue me.
L: You watched over my birth. I’ve leaned on you from day one.
P: I praise you every day, but now I need your help!
L: People see me and some of them don’t like what they see.
     I remind them of their lack of faith. I speak out for the cause of justice.
P: Those people have it in for me. They’ve waited for their chance.
L: Now they think I’m old and helpless.
    They think you’ve forsaken me and they’re ready to pounce!
P: O God, come to me in my time of need! Help me!
L: You know the troubles I’ve seen. Now lift me up from the depths once again.
All: I’m going to sing your praise. I’m going to shout for joy.
       Everyone will know of your faithful love!

Monday, August 12, 2013

Keeping Faith

Keeping Faith is my suggested worship theme for the thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 18, 2013. Focus scriptures are Hebrews 11:29-12:2 and Luke 12:49-56.

In Luke, Jesus pointedly asks why we can interpret the signs of the weather, but we can’t seem to interpret the signs of the times. He says that his ministry will not bring an easy peace and comfort but will set even family members against each other. And he shares the pressure this puts him under, the fire of a baptism that can only end in his very painful and disappointing death.

The difficulty of reading the signs of the times, of course, is the pressure of having to do something about what we discover! It's hard to keep faith with God's call for justice when we see clearly the journey involved to make things right. We’d much prefer to go along pretending that the rising stock market is based on strong, honest companies who employ people fairly. We’d like to keep on pretending that our increasingly terrible forest fires and floods are not the leading edge of global warming with much worse to follow. We’d like to pretend that closing Planned Parenthood health centers will increase the health of women and fix the problem of too many abortions or that rigorous standard testing will save our public schools. We can pretend all we want, but pretending doesn’t fix anything. A faithful reading of the times uncovers many inconvenient facts!

The author of Hebrews is clear-eyed on both the power and the sacrifices required by faith. When we step out on faith in answer to God’s call to create justice and peace, we have God’s power behind us. Remarkable things happen which have saving power for our world. But as the deaths of the martyrs and of Jesus demonstrate, it sometimes comes at a very steep cost.   

Here is a Call to Worship based on Hebrews 11:29-12:2. Please use or adapt anything helpful to you.

 Call to Worship   From Hebrews 11:29-12:2

 L: Sisters and brothers, keeping faith is not an easy thing!
      It’s far easier to give in to the ways of the world.
P: Yet the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us of the power of faith!
L: For faith empowered the people to cross the Red Sea… made the walls of Jericho  
     fall flat… and saved Rahab and her family against all odds.
P: In fact, time fails us to tell of the heroes of Israel: Gideon, David, the prophets…
L: Through faith they conquered kingdoms, did justice, shut lions’ mouths,
     escaped the sword and sent enemies running.
P: Yet others were tortured, choosing to die before forsaking their faith.
L: They were flogged, chained, stoned, even sawn in two!
     They went about destitute and persecuted. They were homeless.
P: For them, faith was not easy. The world was not worthy of their sacrifices.
     But all the while they kept their eyes fixed on heaven.
L: They knew a better day was coming, a day we can now enjoy with them.
P: Therefore, let us join these faithful witnesses and give our all to Christ’s work.
L: For Jesus is our ultimate example of faith. For the joy of accomplishing
     God’s work he endured the cross and now is enthroned with God.  
All: Thanks be to God! Amen.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Invest in the Kingdom

Invest in the Kingdom is my suggested worship theme for the twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, August 11, 2013. Focus scriptures are Isaiah 1:1-20 and Luke 12:32:34.

Isaiah pictures the aimlessness and violence that result when a people abandon God and pursue selfish goals. At the end, however, he sees God offering an olive branch – the possibility that all is not completely lost -- that despite their bloody sins the people can yet return and be healed.

In Luke, Jesus makes essentially the same offer -- assuring us that it is God’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom. Therefore we can trust investing ourselves in creating the love and justice and peace that God created us to create. And we can restrain ourselves from abandoning God by investing too much in material possessions.

Our hearts, after all, need to go somewhere. They want to be joined to some worthy cause. Both passages tell us that there is only one really satisfying end. As Augustine remarked about the way our search must end with God, “Our hearts are restless till they rest in you.”

Here is a Call to Worship based on Isaiah 1:1-20. Please use or adapt anything helpful to you.

Call to Worship    From Isaiah 1:1-20

L: Sisters and brothers, do you ever wonder how God feels about us?
     Let’s recall what the prophet Isaiah saw in a vision a long time ago…
P: God speaks: “Once I had children, and I cared for their every need.
      But can you imagine this, they disowned me and ran away!
L: A dog would never bite the hand that feeds him, but not my children!
     No, they left home and never looked back!
P: It’s the funniest thing, though. They’re not doing too well on their own.
    They kill each other. A lot of them are poor. They fight stupid wars.  
    They’re greedy. They’ll do anything for money but they aren't happy.
L: And then they have the audacity to complain to me! Why aren’t you listening?
     We send up our prayers. We go to church. Why don’t you help us?
P: Why don’t I help you! It’s all lip service!
     Your pious prayers are like putting a tiny band-aid on a gaping wound.
     You’re wrecking lives as fast as you can and your hands are bloody!
L: To be frank, I can’t stand your prayers. I shut my ears to your drippy music.
     Please don’t hold another meeting! Just do what I taught you in the first place:
     create justice; help the poor; house the homeless; stop the violence!
P: If you really want help, come back to me. Sit down and let’s talk this out.
     Even if your sins are blood-red, I’ll make them white as snow.
L: If you keep my commandments – really keep them – you’ll thrive in every way.
     But if you go down the path that you’re on now, you’ll die like fools.”
All: This is God’s word. Let us worship – really worship – God!

Monday, July 29, 2013

A Self-Made Man

A Self-Made Man is my suggested worship theme for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost, August 4, 2013. Focus scriptures are Luke 12:13-21 and Psalm 49.

In Luke, Jesus warns against placing too much faith in material wealth as a way to security and happiness. He may have just read Psalm 49 when he tells the story of the rich man set for life with overflowing barns, now prepared to eat, drink, and make merry. Then suddenly, the man’s life is required of him by God and all his goods help him not at all. Life is scary, and frightened humans love to fool ourselves into the idea that we can pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps and make ourselves secure. But alas, it all turns out to be an illusion. The only source of true security is God.

Here is a Call to Worship based on Psalm 49. Please use or adapt anything helpful to you.

Call to Worship    From Psalm 49

L: Here’s a riddle for everyone, rich and poor! What good is wealth?
P: Are you kidding? Money makes you strong, sets you up to thrive!
L: Really? Then answer me this: what is the cost of eternal life?
P: Are you asking if we can buy eternal life from God?
L: Right. Does God have a price you can pay?
     Don’t the wise and foolish die together?
P: But what about the rich and famous?
     Some even name buildings after themselves.
L: Right. And then what? Death shepherds them home to the grave.
P: So what’s the answer, then, since no one escapes Death?
L: God is the answer. We can’t save ourselves, but God can.
P: So we don’t need to chase money or be jealous when someone else gets rich?
L: Be rich in faith and rich in service. Keep straight who is who.
     Like all creatures, humans age and weaken and die. But our Creator loves us!
All: Thanks be to God! Let us give God our worship and praise!

Friday, July 19, 2013

God Asleep?

God Asleep? is my suggested worship theme for Sunday, July 21, 2013. The focus scriptures are Genesis 18: 20-32, Luke 11:1-13, and Psalm 85.

What effect do human beings have on God?

This question lurks in both the Genesis story of Abraham bargaining with God over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and in the teaching of Jesus on prayer.  In the story from Genesis, God appears intent on destroying two evil cities, but Abraham is bold enough to inquire if it is just to destroy everyone when there may be 50 – or even 10 – individuals who are upright. As they talk this over, God agrees to forestall the punishment of the sins of the many for the sake of the few who are blameless – if any such can be found.

In Jesus’ teachings on prayer, there is the vivid parable of the householder who receives guests late in the night without anything to offer them. The rules of hospitality in the Middle East being strong, the host runs over to borrow bread from a neighbor who is asleep with his whole family in a single bed. Shamelessly he knocks on the door until his neighbor grudgingly gets up to lend him the bread for fear that all the children will wake up. It may take some doing to rouse God, the parable suggests, but keep at it for those who seek will find, and to those who knock, the door will be (eventually) opened.

How alert and responsive is God to our needs? Is God open to bargaining? Is persistent prayer eventually effective in getting God’s attention? Or are humans the ones who are asleep and unresponsive to God’s call? Is God knocking on our doors with generally poor results? As Paul Newman famously says at the end of the movie Cool Hand Luke, “What we have here is a failure to communicate!” Why?

Here is a Call to Worship based on Psalm 85 – a psalm which optimistically aims to persuade God to wake up and help God’s people. Please use or adapt anything helpful to you.

Call to Worship     From Psalm 85

L: God you blessed your land and reversed Jacob’s fortunes. 
     You forgave our ancestors and pardoned their sin. 
P: You didn’t get mad. You held back your anger.
L: Restore us again, O God of our salvation! Put away your wrath.
     Don’t hold our wrongdoings against us forever!
     Revive us again so we can rejoice in you.
P: Give us your grace, O God. Save us!
L: Let us listen for God’s answer. Surely God’s peace is ready to dawn.
P: Love and faith will hold hands.
     Justice and peace will kiss.
L: Truth will spring up from the earth and justice will rain from heaven.
P: God’s blessing will yield a harvest of bounty.
     God’s goodness will create a path to our future.
All: Alleluia! Let us worship God! 

Monday, July 15, 2013

Christ the Key

My suggested worship theme for Sunday, July 21, 2013 is Christ the Key. The focus scripture is Colossians 1:15-29.

In this passage Paul quotes an ancient Christian hymn to describe the cosmic attributes of Christ’s primacy and power in a compelling way. As John Robinson suggests, Christ is the human face of God. And Christ is the key to all authentic human living. We look at his life and love, and we see God’s intention for the human community – for human relationships with each other, with nature, and with God.

Here is a Call to Worship based on Colossians 1:11-22. Please use or adapt anything that is helpful.   

Call to Worship    From Colossians 1:11-22

 L: Rejoice sisters and brothers! Even in suffering God makes us strong with God’s astonishing strength. And God invites us into the glorious inheritance of the saints.
P: God rescues us from the powers of evil and carries us into the kingdom of Christ.
     There we are safe. There we receive forgiveness for all our sins.
L: For Christ is the human face of God. God created him and he created everything else!   
     Christ created this visible world and in all its beauty.
     And Christ created all the invisible powers – the laws that hold all things together.   
     Christ created it all to serve his love!
P: Christ is the foundation of all things and the glue that holds all things together.
     He is the head of his body, the Church.
     He is the first-born to human life, and the first-born to eternal life.
     His life reveals the purpose of all authentic human living.  
L: In his life the fullness of God joined us on earth. By his death on the cross God
      captured our hearts and drew us back into a loving relationship.
P: Now we – who were once estranged from God, hostile in mind, doing evil –
     are reconciled to God and made new creatures by Christ’s death on the cross.
All: Thanks be to God! Let us worship God!