Gathering Prayer for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, 2 Corinthians 12:2-10

You, who summon us from the depths of human struggle and into the bright light of day, we extol your name.   Clinging to lifelong patterns of hiding our insufficiency, our gnawing inadequacy, and darkest shame,  You, in Your Mercy, You in Your Glory, summon us to stand in the light of day.    Who would have ever guessed that boasting of the very things that terrify us – could be the means of your saving grace?    Who would have believed it is that which torments us and not our obvious strengths that lead to the perfection of your power?

God of Amazing Grace, whose grace is sufficient and whose power is perfected even in the likes of us, we implore you to open our hearts and minds to hear your unwavering Words of promise.    And giving thanks that you continue to walk alongside us even in the worst of times, let us pray as Jesus taught us saying, “Our Father, who art in heaven…”

 

 

Gathering Prayer for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Mark 5:21-43

Gathering Prayer: You who take us from the shores of Galilee to the byways, zoom sessions, and the post-vaccinated sphere of common life, we praise your name.   Though relying heavily on electronic communication and physically separated from loved ones these past sixteen months, You, in your majesty, You, in your glory, invite us to stand in the light of your countenance.   Even when overcome by the darkness and uncertainty of it all, You, in your audacious love assure us, saying, “Do not fear,” and “Go in Peace”

God of all Solidarity, during this worship hour, we beseech you to open our hearts and minds to hear your word of restoration and hope, so that by your grace, we may be empowered to live out a new story.

Giving thanks that You staunchly refuse to give up on us, let us pray as Jesus taught us saying, “Our Father, who art in heaven…”

When You’re Summoned to Write to Your Representative(s)

Dear Readers and Friends:

In response to the humanitarian and environmental crisis that continues to unfold in occupied Palestine and the egregious loss of lives on both sides, I’ve written to representatives concerning the passage of HR 2590.   It is a bill to promote and protect the human rights of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.   I would encourage you to consider reaching out to your representatives as well.   A copy of the letter is below:

May 19, 2021

The Honorable Senator…(followed by address)

RE: H.R. 2590 A Bill to promote and protect the human rights of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation and to ensure that US taxpayer funds are not used by the Government of Israel to support the military detentions of Palestinian children, the unlawful seizure, appropriation, and destruction of Palestinian property and forcible transfer of civilians in the West Bank, or further annexation of Palestinian land in violation of international law.

 Dear Senator…,

My name is Rev. Dr. Jessica McArdle.  Ordained in the United Church of Christ,  I am an Environmental Justice advocate whose work includes challenging the systemic impact of unjust and predatory practices directed against communities of color, indigenous, and other vulnerable populations.  In particular, the occupation and aggression against Palestine and Palestinians in favor of illegal Israeli settlements, has devastated the already limited water supply, uprooted established agriculture, accelerated soil erosion, and has increased toxic waste and dumping.

I support this bill for the following reasons:

1) As we strive to reposition ourselves as a world leader in terms of humanitarian rights, holding the Government of Israel or any nation that benefits from US taxpayer funding accountable, is paramount: Humanitarian Rights at the Center of Current US Policy

2) Along these same humanitarian lines, the displacement of Palestinians in favor of Israeli settlements, violates international law: Violation of International Law.

3) The continued occupation and aggression against the Palestinian peoples including the illegal seizure of their property, has devastated arable land, led to the depletion of water resources and increased toxic waste and dumping: Environmental Degradation of Land Due to Occupation

On a personal note, I saw this flagrant violation of the land and its people firsthand when visiting Palestine several years ago.    Traveling with a seminary delegation, we stayed overnight with Palestinian families in occupied Bethlehem, toured a Palestinian farm whose lush olive trees were later uprooted by Israeli soldiers, and met advocates who against overwhelming odds sought to provide a measure of protection and well-being for their communities.   Throughout our visit, the barrier that cut deep into Palestinian-occupied territory loomed large.  Still, through it all, I observed an unparalleled commitment to human dignity, was afforded generous hospitality, and experienced a quality of kindness that touched me deeply.

As a minister, advocate, and constituent, I urge you to support the passage of this bill.   Given the current escalation of violence in this region, I believe this bill addresses some of the root causes behind it.   As your constituent, I would appreciate knowing where you stand, relative to this issue and in particular, this bill.

Thank you, Senator…, in advance for your consideration.

Sincerely,

Rev. Dr. Jessica McArdle, (followed by your address)

 

 

Earth Day and the Spring Song of Justice

Commemorating the 51st anniversary of Earth Day while speaking to the “spring song” of justice long-denied for those in the black community, a poem by the late African-American poet, Langston Hughes.  Given the events of this past week, his words are timely.
               An Earth Song 
            It’s an earth song,
                    And I’ve been waiting long for an earth song.
                  It’s a spring song,
                     And I’ve been waiting long for a spring song.
                        Strong as the shoots of a new plant
                        Strong as the bursting of new bud
                        Strong as the coming of the first child from its mother’s womb.
                  It’s an earth song,
                     A body song,
                     A spring song,
                    I have been waiting long for this spring song.

Changing God’s Mind

 

Book of Jonah - YouTube

 “When God saw that the people had changed, how they turned from their destructive ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that would be brought upon them.”   Jonah 3:10

How often does God change God’s mind?

The story of Jonah is recorded not as an account but parable.   Here, a prophet called, Jonah, after emerging from the “belly of a whale” astonishingly succeeds.  Cut to the heart by the prophet’s warning, the entire city mends its ways.   When seeing that the people had turned from their evil ways, God changes his mind and spares the city.

But what if God wasn’t poised to destroy the city of Nineveh?  What if Nineveh, like the fall of the Roman empire or the rampant deforestation leading to the collapse of Easter Island and Norse Greenland, were well on their way to destroying themselves?  What if the figure of God in this parable and elsewhere, isn’t bent on bringing about the destruction of whole civilizations as much as trying to get our attention – using prophets like Jonah  – before it is too late?

Prayer: God of the Whale and the Dolphin, who broods over the waters of the deep, in your steadfast love summon us to make amends for the harm we have committed against each other and this planet we call home.   Teach us to turn from the violence that readily insinuates itself into every corner of human life.   Quell our voracious appetite for hoarding, while abolishing the meanness that festers and the parsimony that corrupts.

 In your mercy, transform us by thy grace.  So that you can change your mind about us, once more.  Amen.

 

 

Stepping into the Woods

 

Stepping into the woods and down a narrow path of gnarled branches on both sides, within the span of a heartbeat I entered nature’s womb.   Sometimes straight, other times the trail would veer off and curve into an unbidden direction.   Though not sure what lay ahead nevertheless I walked on, held fast by its raw but tender embrace.

Wrote the psalmist, “You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.” [2]  Though heavy-laden with grief, the tightly knit trees, and forest floor held fast incarnating the Spirit’s embrace.    Lovingly hemmed in from all sides, the sweet caress of your hand was upon me and this sojourner felt secure once more.

Creation’s Glory, be upon us this day and those ahead, we pray.   Lay your hand upon us, and smooth our furrowed brows.    Through your incarnation, surround and sustain our broken hearts, so that we may be strengthened for the work that lies before us.    For just as the path before us is uncertain, hem us in from all sides – so that whatever we say or do – will illuminate your mercy, justice, and steadfast love.  We ask all this in Christ’s name.  Amen.

[1] Photo image by Barry McArdle, Fells Reservation

[2] from Psalm 139:5

Epiphany is no stranger to Herod’s Shadow

 

“And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, the foreign kings and ambassadors left for their own country by another road.” Matthew 2:12
Of all the dimensions of human experience, some of the most compelling are dreams.   While Herod was compelled to grant three distant Persian kings audience while they sought a newborn child (and even feign interest in seeking him out as well), to their credit the Magi were not fooled.  Perhaps they are best remembered for not only seeking and paying homage to the Christ Child but paying heed to the ominous signs before them.
Writes minister and blogger, Ken Sehested, “By now you may have noticed the odd coincidence of today, Wednesday, January 6th being the date of Epiphany AND the Electoral College Presidental Tally.   [Usually, a proforma ceremony, opposition fueled by the current president is challenging the states’ votes.]” [1]  But then, Epiphany reminds us that blind ambition, feigned motives, and deadly violence are not remnants of a distant past but like Herod, continue to cast their ominous shadow.
Resisting all attempts to sentimentalize this narrative, Epiphany asks, ‘Like those travelers of long ago, will we pay attention to the signs before us?   Will we, like those ancient travelers, risk returning by another way?”

[1] Ken Sehested  www.prayerandpolitiks.org

A prayer of lament

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Holy One, you audaciously call us the “salt of the earth,” but who can hear you above the deafening roar of retaliation and mayhem?   You say that your followers are “the light of the world,” but what do you make of us, we who stumble in the darkness of despair?   You insist that “our light shines before others, so that they may see our good works and given glory to God in heaven,” but what if our efforts are insignificant when compared to the degradation and injustice that confronts us?

O Lord, in the face of suffering across our planet and this land now veiled in darkness, can you even hear the cries of your people?    Do you perceive the injustice committed in your name?   Are you aware of the cruelty committed against all your creation, but nevertheless justified by those who pervert your Word?

Yet you have promised that we are your children and will not forsake us – even to the end of our days.   You have sworn to be faithful, even when we have abandoned you.    You have suffused us with grace, so that we may set our sights on your hope once more.

Could it be when even a single voice is raised in opposition to wholesale complicity, it becomes salt for those weary of fabrication and incivility?   What if acts of kindness, however seemingly remote in the face of cruelty, become the illumination that lifts up the discouraged and disheartened?   Imagine if even the seemingly little that we strive to do becomes yeast, expanding the possibilities of what had seemed unlikely at best?

Hear our prayer, Divine Maker.   In your mercy, heed the distress of those who suffer – human and creature alike.   Hear the cry of those who despair of waiting in vain.    In these weary times, cover us with thy grace.  Come and come quickly, we pray.    Amen.

 

Called by name: a recollection of baptism

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43:5 I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth–everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.” Isaiah 43:6-7

    A year and a half ago, overcoming breast cancer consumed me.   Though the tumor was discovered early – its aggressiveness meant undergoing chemotherapy in addition to surgery and radiation.    Recalling the ordeal and how sick one can get during treatment, the passage from Isaiah 43’s theme of exiles came to mind, “I will say to the north, ‘Give them up,’ and to the south, ‘Do not withhold…”

How I longed to be released from the exile of illness and returned to the land of the living.

Throughout scripture, the Sovereign’s mandate bodes with nothing less than the full emancipation of God’s people.    Nor are God’s people summoned out of darkness nameless.   To be called by Jahweh’s name jettisons us out of categories long claimed by mortals.     Whatever our life’s circumstances, we were created for the Sovereign’s glory.

When a child is to be baptized, the officiant standing before the parents, asks, “What is the Christian name of this child?”

Note that the officiant doesn’t ask merely for the child’s name – be it Marie, Benjamin, Cynthia, or Andrew.   Whatever name is to be given to the child, it is not just prefaced but profoundly altered by the addition of the word, Christian.    Looking at its Greek equivalent, the name, Christian or Christianos, literally means “a follower of Christ.”

You and I belong to God-in-Christ.  No matter how long or brief our lifespan, the losses we’ve suffered, the deep-seated regrets we’ve shouldered, the assaults incurred, and the failures endured, the marvelous mystery is this: you and I remain faithfully known and irrevocably claimed by God.

And this is Good News…

 

Be a Light (in a dark place)…a sermon during the Season of Epiphany

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When [the Three Kings] saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary, his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.  Matthew 2:11-12

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.  John 1:5

Some fifty-two hundred years ago, before Stonehenge, before the great pyramids and before the birth of Christ, stone age farmers just north of what is now Dublin, conceived and constructed a large stone mound called Newgrange.   Two-hundred feet in diameter but just under fifty feet high, Newgrange consists of a solitary opening connected to a long passageway that leads into the interior of the mound.  At its center is a cavern made up of three alcoves.  What makes this structure especially remarkable is that the long passageway and its interior chamber are aligned to the rising of the sun each year during the Winter Solstice.

For at dawn, and on December 21st, a narrow beam of light penetrates the roof-box of Newgrange and reaches the floor of the chamber, gradually extending to the rear.
As the sun rises higher, the beam extends and widens, reaching its interior cruciform chamber so that the whole room becomes dramatically illuminated.

Each year scores of people gather in the darkness…and wait.

The activist theologian Bill Wylie-Kellerman was quoted by Sojourner’s, noting, [The Epiphany season] ‘beings and ends in light.   From the heavenly star to the radiant robes of transfiguration, Epiphany is about revelation, [a]…sudden brightness that lights up the landscape of a mind or a community or a whole social order.    The light reveals, but not passively; it summons and it sends.” [1]

Epiphany reminds us that we are summoned and sent to Be a Light (…in a dark place). [2]

Just last Tuesday and while offering a Bible study about the Christmas Season at the retirement community where I work, a resident asked, “If December 25 is over, just why are you continuing to talk about Christmas?”

But provided (as one author notes) that your eggnog hasn’t soured or that you haven’t stashed the creche until next December [3], there is a reason why the lectionary lingers on the Christmas Season and Epiphany.  Because the arrival of the Christ child is anything but sentimental…as much as we’re tempted to make it so.

Scripture recalls the visitation of Three Kings from the east, who seeing that the star’s radiance remained over Bethlehem, entered the house where Mary, Jesus’ mother, and Joseph were with the infant Jesus.   Despite that the newborn king was not surrounded by a royal entourage but lay in a feeding trough, the Magi were overcome with joy and adulation.  Kneeling down, these distant travelers paid him homage.  Then opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  And having been warned in a dream NOT to return to Herod, they left for their country by another road.

But there is a problem – both as identified by scripture, and as experienced in the world, Jesus was born into.   It is not coincidental that the journey of the Magi to see the newborn king begins and ends with Herod.    The subsequent passage that speaks of the Holy Family’s escape into Egypt following the Magi’s visit – because an enraged Herod sought to destroy the Light of the World by ordering the massacre of children and infants in the vicinity where Christ was born is not coincidental either.   Any more than it is coincidental that the gifts to the infant Jesus, foreshadowed his death.

Scripture points to this problem unequivocally, for darkness continues to cast its shadow.

Indeed, Herod and his kind have plundered humankind and all of creation for that matter, for thousands of years.

The birth of the Christ child and thus, the incarnation challenges our assumption – that the physical and the spiritual are irreconcilable.   Christ’s birth challenges the dualism and disconnect between matter and spirit, the secular and the religious, the practical, and the temporal.   It took a vulnerable infant born to impoverished Palestinian refugees who later crossed a border to flee from violence – to confront the lengths we go to – to keep the incarnation only about Jesus – so that we can get on with business as usual.

But what if each of us, as suggested by Augustine, Meister Eckhart, and others, were created to make real the incarnation, this synthesis between matter and spirit?   What if each of us like Mary are summoned and sent to give birth to the Son of God in our own persons and time and culture, to reconcile our spiritual sides with the work and action so desperately needed in the world?

In other words, to Be a Light (in a dark place).

Serene Jones, seminary president, theologian, and author observed how, for years, the conversion of the slave trader, John Newton, writer of the Song Amazing Grace, was often spoken of at the church she attended [4].  She had been told growing up, that after nearly losing his life at sea, John Newton became a Christian and completely turned his life around: returning to Africa to set the slaves on his ship free and becoming a fervent abolitionist from that time forward.

But the real story is quite different.  For though John Newton felt grateful to God that he had survived when others had perished in the storm, he did not immediately turn his ship around and free the slaves incarcerated on board.   If anything, though he became a personally pious Christian, he continued to trade and ship enslaved Africans for years – contributing his growing success to a state of blessedness.  It wasn’t until Newton reckoned the disconnect between his personal piety as being at complete odds with the human trafficking business he was engaged in that Newton realized aligned his professed beliefs with action.   It was then that he finally wrote the song, Amazing Grace, and became the abolitionist he is known for.

He finally chose to Be a Light (in a dark place).

I confess it is difficult to align one’s personal commitment – the matter of the heart – with what we do in the world.    It is and continues to be a lifelong struggle for me.    I suspect that many others struggle with this too.  But this is where God’s grace comes in.   To be an incarnate one of God, to continue to birth Christ in ourselves in this time and place is a high calling.   But I believe it is the only one worth giving our lives for.

Epiphany points to the incarnation, God made flesh in Jesus.   But as the incarnation means the synthesis of physical matter and the spiritual, then the nativity isn’t only about Mary giving birth to Jesus.

The birth of the Christ child didn’t begin and end on Christmas morning.  Christ came so that God would be born within us and reconcile the dualism that has long separated matter from spirit.  Christ came so that we as God bearers can “Be A Light (in a dark place), champions and advocates for ALL of humanity and God’s good creation.

For our desperate world hungers for light.   Remarkably, though Newgrange is 5,200 years old, the acquisition and reliance upon the sun’s energy have continued to illuminate not only the passageway and chamber but people’s lives, who come for miles if not across the world.   It is extraordinary to wait in darkness, as people did so long ago, for the longest night of the year to end. 

Poet Laureate Maren Tirabassi’s recently made a decision to leave Christmas candles in her window in the months ahead, despite taking down the tree and other decorations. [5] Knowing of how challenging it can be to synthesize matters of the heart with our work in the world, the candles are testimony to a grace-filled decision to be an incarnate one of God in a time of great trepidation…

…to be a light in a dark place.

[1] Jim Rice, Epiphany: A Light To The World, (Sojourners, Jan. 2012)

[2] John Pavlovitz, PavlovitzDesign

[3] Mary Luti, Merry Christmas (Stillspeaking Daily Devotional, Jan. 4, 2020)

[4] Serene Jones, Call It Grace: Finding Meaning in a Fractured World (Penguin House, 2019), 126-27.

[5] Maren Tirabassi, The candles in my windows (Gifts in Open Hands, Jan. 4, 2020)

[6] Photo Image from the Jewish Family & Children’s Service (JFCS) website of Greater Mercer County,

 

 

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