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…”
Divine Interuper, what were you thinking? Surely you knew that having Gabriel show up unannounced and speak openly to an unchaperoned fifteen year old girl would place her at risk? You knew, did you not, that she was already betrothed to another? You knew that the society Mary inhabited was rigidly patriarchal and would never tolerate any deviation from this norm.
Yet when Gabriel informs her that she will be impregnated outside of the only acceptable option at the time, she responds by saying, “I am a servant of the Lord,” But then this is what sets her words apart. Given a frightfully risky endeavor, a ‘mission impossible’ nevertheless, she consents. “May your word to me be fulfilled,” she then adds.
Have you ever regretted saying, ‘no?’ Have you wondered if your life would have take a different path if you had not clung so closely to the expectations of others and yourself? Have you pondered what it may have been like, if you took that ‘leap of faith’ and in spite of everything put your trust in God?
Holy One, we are a people mired in the land of mourning. Not merely hundreds or hundreds of thousands have perished, but almost two million globally. Many, who only weeks or months ago were making plans for the morrow, were consumed by a predator virus that shows no sign of abating. Fear has overtaken us, invading our waking hours and haunting our dreams.
Yet you have promised your people beauty instead of ashes, the balm of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of stumbling and faint spirits. In reclaiming those who are bent down with grief, torn asunder by fear, consumed by anxiety – you transform weary souls into mighty oaks of rightfulness. You do this, so that all may see this as revelation of your radiance.
So in your mercy, in your steadfast love where the fullness of grace in Christ Jesus abounds, deliver and restore us, we pray. So that through your Spirit, we may build up whole communities torn asunder by contagion, and raise up a people devastated by hatred and division. By your audacious Spirit, equip us once more to repair what was devastated and even ruined:
rundown urban centers and neglected national parks,
decimated reservation outposts and ravaged inner city neighborhoods,
struggling small towns and migratory farmhands,
fragments of civil discourse and frayed legislative bodies,
vacant seats at the dinner table and traumatized families,
overrun hospital wards and exhausted care providers.
In this Season of Advent, hear our prayer, O God. In your mercy, let your light once again shine in our darkness. In your steadfast love, let your garland of gladness brighten our days. Amen.
From Isaiah 61:3-4, “…to provide for those who mourn…to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, to display his glory.
And they shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.” Isaiah 61
Mercy, as in showing compassion when it is within your power to punish.
Truth, as in what is genuinely based in reality.
Justice, as in righteousness or moral rightness.
Peace, as in Shalom, signifying completeness, wholeness and wellbeing.
Here mercy, truth, justice and peace not only belong together but as declared ty the psalmist, they meet and embrace.
In this Season of Advent but in the wake of an escalating pandemic, economic peril, perpetual chaos and disquieting uncertainty – if seemingly oppositional qualities of mercy AND truth, justice AND peace were brought together – what might that look like or be?
When reflecting on this, I kept fast forwarding from when this psalm was written to the time of the Gospel of John’s composition, centuries later. This particular Gospel does not open quietly. If anything, the writer begins by making an audacious if not thunderous claim, unequivocally stating, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” In other words, if you and I sought to come up with one element of speech or writing that would be the culmination of all that is merciful, all that is true, all that is just and all that is peaceable – it would be this singular WORD.
“The Word became flesh,” wrote John’s author and then added a few verses later, “…from his fullness we have received grace upon grace.” Perhaps even as we long for the coming of the Beloved One of God – we will discover rest in the singularity of this wondrous WORD that became flesh and dwelt amongst us. That through his fullness, we can at last taste the unfathomable riches of mercy, the assurance of truth, the equimity of justice and the sweet splendor of peace.
Advent One, awaken us from our self-induced slumber, we pray. Numb from uncertainty and isolation, our senses have dulled. We confess it is easier to nurse diminished hope, than respond to the suffering of our neighbors, or the hurt lodged deeply within.
Yet we know that just as you came before, you will come again. You who seek to awaken our innermost self. You who come to us in the inconspicuous, the marginalized and the forgotten. You who know our fear of being released from this numbness. Yet in love you urge us on, saying, “My children, keep awake!”
So, God of All Awakening, in your mercy awaken us, we pray. Rouse us from this deadened slumber. Sharpen our senses and set us on our feet. For we want to prepared when we see you – be it in glory or in the least of these.
So we may be counted, as blessed, once more. Amen.
 Image from Kekovacs.blogspot.com
 Based on The Gospel of Mark 13:37, “And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
Grateful for this sheltered place With light in every window Saying, “Welcome, welcome, share this feast Come in away from sorrow”
from the Thanksgiving Song, by Mary Chapin Carpenter
As we continue to shelter in place, O God, will we ever be able to sing your praises? Will these anxious hearts weary and heavy from sorrow be lifted? Can Thanksgiving, Advent and Christmas even be celebrated this year, when we’re separated from those we love?
Before you and you alone, we acknowledge these painful uncertainties. Loss of employment, housing and health, are ravaged further by inequality. Loved ones lost are unable be mourned. Events that once sustained us have been put aside. Deep divisions and threats to our democracy persist. Our planet and her peoples crumble under the weight of injustice and exploitation.
So, we cry out, when will we be able to throw our doors wide open, O Lord? When will lighted windows signify the sharing of the feast? When will the Thanksgiving Song be joyfully lifted up even as we clasp hands with others?
Yet you remind us that you are always in the face of the least of these. You come as the ignored, the marginalized and the hungry. Yours is the face lined with sorrow. Yours are the eyes who have seen too much. You come as the one who is incarcerated, the one who is sick but without adequate health-care, the one who stands outside a food bank wondering if there will be enough.
Great Redeemer, in our searching and longing for you, be with us in the light of your countenance and shine through the windows of our hearts. Let your welcoming affirmation accompany us when we bring food to the shelter, make a phone call to the lonely and write a message of cheer to the imprisoned. So that all your children – through your unfathomable grace – may come away from sorrow, seeing one another not as strangers, but as long-lost brothers and sisters who together share in the feast of gladness. May it be so. Amen.
“If I say [in my despair], ‘Surely this darkness shall engulf me and what remains of light will become as night,’ even gloom’s obscurity is no match for you; for its darkness is as light to you.” Psalm 139:11-12, paraphrased
It has been said that the late Howard Thurman, black activist, theologian and Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University turned daily to Psalm 139 during the course of his lifetime. What was it about these words that kept this theologian and activist going? And what advice would he give us in the wake of a joyful, historic and momentous victory – yes – but knowing full well that we face a challenging and hazardous road ahead?I
Injustice and weariness were not unknown to Thurman. He witnessed firsthand depravity’s cruelty and was no stranger to the viciousness inflicted on the marginalized and most vulnerable. Yet it was because of these things, that he could unwaveringly make the case for God’s proximity even when feeling acutely alone. Indeed, he was convinced that grief, heartache and being cast into utter darkness – especially for those in the trenches and on the frontlines of seeking justice – will not or cannot diminish this intimate connection with the transcendent One.
Such was this daily practice that sustained him through the years. Thurman’s legacy radically affirms God’s proximity whenever any of us finds ourselves in the throes of darkness. A darkness that is lifted whenever we turn to the psalmist’s profound and undefeated words, day after day, month and after month and year after year.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside everything that hinders..and let us run with perseverance the race set before us…” Hebrews 12:1
On this Election Day, fear and anxiety bests us at every turn. Threats of violence, voter suppression and yet more chaos looms. Intimidation abounds and many fear to go to the polls. Should democracy perish, what will become of us?
Yet lest we forget, we are not alone in this struggle. Those who have gone on before us are now a cloud of witnesses. No longer can they be silenced or oppressed, beaten or incarcerated. Instead, having labored for justice and emancipation, fair voting rights and equal protection under the law, a living wage and affordable health care – they stand alongside us. Cheering us on! Encouraging us onward. No strangers to intimidation or trepidation, they call out, “Be not afraid.”
So come and stand alongside us, you audacious cloud of faithful witnesses. Come, Sojourner Truth and Rosa Parks, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. Come, Medgar Evans and Howard Thurman, John Lewis and Martin Luther King, Jr. Come, so we may draw upon your courage and conviction. Come, so that together we may work towards the emancipation of this generation, and those that are to come.
Divine Maker, when will we experience your promised rest? For we are weary and afraid. Those who labor for justice are assailed on every side. Shallow and self-serving religiosity has replaced our nation’s moral compass, and expediency all too often has the upper hand. Even slumber at night is elusive and the hope of former years fails us.
In our dismay we cry out, “Have you abandoned us in our hour of need?
But just as you declared to the one called, Moses, you abide with us always – even in the darkest of hours. Though overwhelmed and hemmed from every side, you proclaim that in our struggle we find favor in your sight. Indeed, it is by your presence, we are set apart. You know each of us by name, and even the hairs on our head are counted.
For just as you revealed yourself to Moses, come Divine Maker, again, again and again. Reveal your mercy, make all your goodness known, lavish your compassion and faithfulness, and restore us once more. So that we may be the seekers and doers of justice that you have summoned us to be. Amen.
“The LORD said, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided…” 
Holy One, we are a country that may as well be two nations. For we are at war with one another. Though many call America their homeland (whether born upon her soil or journeying to her shores from distant lands), we are sorely divided. Indeed, we even struggle with those closest to us, besides the enmity painfully evident elsewhere. Before you and you alone, we confess that our predilection for division runs deep.
So, when your beloved son, Jesus asked, “Who is my mother, and my brother and my sisters,”  how could he have done so knowing that his biological family was just outside, waiting for him to return home? What could his hearers have been thinking, given the ironclad grip of familial bonds in his day? Was the One who spoke of honoring your mother and father as stated in the Ten Commandments, nevertheless spurning his own?
Yet we thanks that after making this declaration, Jesus answered his own question. And by answering it, your son testified that love of God AND the love of neighbor  applies to all humanity, O God, not just those who are immediate members of our biological family, our local church, or tribe. Instead, as our Sovereign, you created us to be far, far more inclusive than we alone can fathom. For under the shelter of your love you call forth the new family: that includes the foreigner, the welfare mother, the unemployed, the transgendered, the homeless, the uninsured, the elderly, the disabled, the indigenous, and all people of color, not just those who think and look like we do.
We give thanks that having said these words, your son then stretched out his hand toward his followers, saying, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my heavenly Father is my brother, and sister, and mother.” O God, in your love and mercy, we beseech you to mend our weary hearts and ease our burdened minds, so that we might embrace the fullness of your incarnation and be healed. For when we dare to manifest what love of God and love of neighbor actually looks like, we celebrate your kindom and the goodness of all creation. We pray in Christ’s name. Amen.
 A depiction of the power struggle between Jacob and Esau, by Yoram Ranaan
 Genesis 25:23
 Matthew 12:48-50 (these verses immediately precede this week’s lectionary reading, setting the context for Matthew 13:1-9)
 Love of God and love of neighbor are the anchors Jesus used to succinctly illustrate what is required of us. Mark 12:30-31, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ No other commandment is greater than these.”