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Posts Tagged ‘new beginnings’

A sermon based on John 20: 19-23

The very first worship service of the Christian Church took place in the evening of the first Easter Sunday. The gospel of John says that the disciples were gathered “in the house”. All the earliest churches were house churches. The followers of Jesus would gather in someone’s home. They would tell the stories of Jesus; they would share the meal as Jesus had given it to them; they would pray together. That was the shape of their worship.

As John tells it, the first worship service wasn’t much of a service at all. There were no announcements about upcoming fundraisers and programmes. Even though it was Easter, there were no special anthems sung by the choir. The worship leader didn’t say, “Christ is risen!” and the people didn’t respond, “He is risen indeed!” There were no joyful shouts of “Alleluia!” In fact, the congregation seemed to be having trouble getting past the Prayer of Confession.

That morning, some of the women had brought news of having found the tomb empty. They told of messengers telling them that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Mary said that she had actually seen Jesus and that he had talked with her. He had told her he was “ascending to the Father”, whatever that might mean. However, when the disciples gathered that evening, they locked the doors behind them.

They were afraid of the Judeans, the religious authorities. They were troubled. They were troubled not just by events in the world around them; they were troubled in their own hearts and minds. You can imagine that they were still reeling from the loss and the grief of Jesus’ death just a few days previous to this. They were confused about the reports from the women at Jesus’ tomb. I may be reading too much into it, but they were probably enveloped with a sense of failure and guilt and shame for having deserted Jesus. William Willimon called this, “the church of the sweaty palms and shaky knees and firmly bolted door. . .  All who were there had gotten an “F” in following Jesus. (You Call This A Church?)

The worship service seemed to have stalled there. They couldn’t get past the Prayer of Confession.

Then, suddenly, unexpectedly, Jesus shows up. He pronounces the “Assurance of Pardon”, the “Assurance of Grace”. He says, “Peace be with you.”  He could have said, “You guys really messed up.” He could have said, “Shame on you. I thought we were friends. Where were you when I needed you?” He didn’t. He said, “Peace be with you.”

He showed them the wounds in his side and hands. Then, he said it again, “Peace be with you.” The disciples were experiencing everything except peace and Jesus offers them this great gift of God’s mercy and grace.

He offers it not just in the first church service on the first Easter. He offers it to us every Sunday. We gather together and we bring with us the trouble that we have been carrying all week long. Most of the time we keep the trouble locked behind the closed doors of our hearts. We keep it hidden, but it is still there.

There’s trouble in the world — in the streets of London, England; in the refugee camps in the Sudan; in the sea between North Korea and Japan; in the Arctic where the ice cap is melting at accelerated rates.

There’s trouble in this neighbourhood where people are grieving the death of someone they love and parents are worried about the drug addictions of their children; and young people search for a reason to live.

There’s trouble in our own hearts and minds: the fears and worries; the regrets and sense of failure; the guilt and shame that haunt our souls.

We bring all that with us into worship. In the Prayer of Confession, we tell the truth about it to God.

Some churches no longer have a prayer of confession in their worship services. “That’s too negative,” they say. “We don’t want to make people feel bad. People come to church to feel good.”

The point of the Prayer of Confession is not to make people feel bad. The point of the Prayer of Confession is to make a space where we can tell the truth about the troubles that makes us afraid. It gives you a place where you can tell the truth about the things that you have done that cannot be made right. It gives you a place to speak the guilt and shame that is crippling your soul.

Together, we tell the truth and we offer all of it to our crucified and risen Lord. Then, we listen. We listen for his offer of forgiveness, he release from the burden, his “Peace be with you.”

The Prayer of Confession proclaims: You don’t have to keep carrying your guilt. You don’t have to keep letting fear drive your life. You don’t have to let shame hold you in its grip. Failure doesn’t need to turn to into a victim. Jesus went to hell and back to free you from all that. With grace more powerful than death, God takes you old life and gives you a new one. You can begin again, in a different place. You can move down a different path. You are no longer a victim. You are no longer “guilty”. You are forgiven and graced and redeemed and made new and set free.

I read once about a prison chaplain who had on his desk a framed photograph of a Christmas pageant. There were angels in white robes, holding candles and bringing “good news of great joy”. There were the shepherds kneeling and looking like they were frightened. Except, the characters in the photograph were not children as we are used to seeing in Christmas pageants. The shepherds and angels in this photo were rough looking men. They were convicts — convicted of murder and violent crimes; criminals serving time in jail. Yet, there they were, men who had been transformed by Christ, acting out the story of the birth of Jesus. When the chaplain was asked why he kept the photograph on his desk, he said, “It reminds me of the awesome power of God to change us, to set us free, to give us new life.” (William WillimonPeople Don’t Change — Do They?”)

We proclaim that truth every Sunday. Sometimes you will believe it. Sometimes, you will be glad and you will worship Jesus and you will find your way into the new life he offers. Sometimes, you will hear the gospel and you will doubt it. You will say with Thomas, “Unless I can touch Jesus’ wounds, I won’t believe that a new beginning is possible.”

What do you do when you are in that space? You keep showing up, Sunday by Sunday. You “practice resurrection”. You practice resurrection until you experience resurrection in your life. You do the slow work of making a space where God can work: you tell “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” as best you can. You confess the trouble, the mess, the fears and the doubts. Then, you wait for the risen Christ to show up and say, “Peace be with you.”

That’s why we share the peace of Christ every week. We practise with our voices and with our bodies the peace that Christ gives. We practise living into what Jesus says is God’s own truth about our lives. We practise trusting that the God who raised Jesus from the dead is at work in our lives too, forgiving sin, making all things new. We practise until, one day, Jesus enters the locked doors of our spirits. Then, we know we are forgiven. We know we have received the underserved mercy and grace of God. You know God’s peace is setting is setting you free and you can begin again. Thanks be to God.

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God of the new creation in Christ,
God of new beginnings,
we come to you this day
in daring hope
That you can begin again in us.

Redeem us from our slavery to fear and anxiety;
rescue us from pride and jealousy;
restore us to the healing mission of your Holy Spirit;
renew in a a passion for your work.

We set our lives within your renewing grace.
By your Holy Spirit,
forgive us,
revive us
reshape us
in the image of your Son Jesus,
for we would serve him
to whom we owe our life
our salvation
our hope.

 

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God of mercy,
Saviour of the world,
Healer of our souls,
you come to us in our brokenness and sin.
You invite us to follow you into your realm of
love and reconciliation.

We open our lives to you
so that your Holy Spirit may do for us
what we cannot do for ourselves.

There are days,
weeks,
sometimes months,
when the sin and violence of this world overwhelm us;
when the hurt and anger silence our songs of praise to you.

On those days, Lord Jesus,
take us with you as you pray.
Show us your glory that even death cannot defeat.
Write deep into our lives your truth and love:
the truth,
the love,
that will one day
rule the world
and is
even now
making all things new.
So may we receive your grace and your courage
to keep us on this journey in faith.

As in our baptism you cleansed us and made us new,
so, today, we ask you to cleanse us again:
heal our lack of trust in your grace;
help us to start again where we have stumbled and fallen down;
restore in us the joy you have prepared for all your children.

Your claim upon us summons us into your promised newness.
Now we live in the wide open spaces of God’s steadfast love and mercy.
Thanks be to God!

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A prayer based on Mark 1: 21-28

You are the God who makes us.
By your powerful, creative Word
you made the heavens and the earth
and all living things.

By your powerful, creative Word
you are still making new beginnings
where we can only see dead ends;
new life springing forth
from the chaos of our world.

We come to this time of worship
having listened to other voices —
voices that lead us to fear and anxiety,
to despair and resentment,
to cynicism and weariness.
There is no life in them
but they are strong and persistent
and we are easily held in their grip.

We come here wanting to hear your voice
override our fears and our weariness.
We come here waiting to hear your voice
speak a life-giving word —
a word with the authority and power
to create new hope and purpose within us,
among us.

Speak, Lord, for your children wait.

Then, grant us courage to trust your Son
as we walk down the road together,
the road that leads toward life and joy.  Amen.

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A prayer based on Isaiah 65 and Luke 21

Source of Life,
Source of our lives:
You are the one who makes new futures where none seem possible;
You open a path forward when all we can see are blocked roads.
Your prophets speak hope into our imaginations —
hope for a time of peace;
hope for a time of justice;
hope for joy and delight in the streets of the city.

It sounds like such good news
but you know the ways that we resist
the changes that you bring.

We are afraid of your new futures
that are not in our control.
We find it hard to let go
of the familiar and the comfortable,
the places of privilege we have carved out for ourselves.

Your newness is different than what we had planned.
Yet, we yearn for the life that your presence brings.
Our spirits wither without your breath.

So, speak your world-transforming words
into our hearts and imaginations again.
And send Your Holy Spirit to breathe into us
so that we see You at work.
And seeing You,
we are ready to let go and to take up
and to be your people
even in this newness.

We pray in the name of Jesus
who promised us both trouble
and words and wisdom sufficient for the time.
Amen.

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I’m attending the annual meeting of the Association for Reformed and Liturgical Worship, a group of congregations, individuals and congregations focused on promoting, supporting the practice of worship in the reformed tradition.
Last evening, John Witvliet, quoted Howard Hageman: “We have convinced our people that nothing happens in church”. Is that true in your experience? Is that why young people stay away in droves? Why people would rather be golfing or playing soccer on a Sunday morning? Are they convinced that nothing significant is happening when we worship?
I wonder how congregational ministers perceive the place of worship in the health of the congregation?
I served one congregation where worship was seen either as a convenient vehicle for recruiting people for social justice issues (everyone was gathered all in one place at the same time, so the people were a ‘captive audience’), or as something that had to be done because this was a church, but worship wasn’t really important the way social justice was important.
In what ways would our worship be different if the people of the congregation were convinced that worship is the most important thing the church does? Worship is certainly a counter-cultural act — focusing on somebody besides ourselves and on something besides our own needs for a sustained period of time; engaging in non-productive activity as a way of reminding ourselves that we are not in control of the world (God is and can keep the world going even when we ease up for a short period of time); learning to live in community with people who are not part of our own ‘affinity group’; singing songs that won’t make the top 100; listening to stories of a peculiar God actively at work in the world; giving money to people who won’t ever repay us.
Perhaps our most counter-cultural claim about worship is that God is at work in it, speaking to us, feeding us, forming us. Worship isn’t just about us getting our spiritual needs met. It’s about submitting our lives to God to let God work in them. It’s about letting God transform us. It’s about entering into something that is beautiful and good and creative. We get to participate something deeper and bigger than our own little lives — something worth giving our lives to; something that gives our lives hope.
That ‘something’ is the resurrection that God is making out of our dead ends. It is the new beginning that God is making out of the chaos and disorder of our world. It is the new possibility that God is opening up before us when we thought all options had been exhausted.
There is a lot going on in worship that is significant — that is changing the world and changing our lives. What would it take for us to become more aware of that and, so, not want to miss out?
Just wondering.

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A prayer based on Psalm 77

“I will call to mind the deeds of the Lord”
Exodus
making a way through the sea
water above
water below
chaos
the world falling apart
BECAUSE
Yahweh has shown up.

It was You, making the deep trembling!
It was You, causing the disturbance!
unsettling
noise crashing
lights flashing

We wanted less disturbance,
a safe shelter in the storm.
We blame those who upset
the settled peace we have made
with decline
with death
with despair.

Hidden beneath our distress
You are at work
churning the waters
so there’s space for new creation.
“Your way, O God, is holy”
and we miss it
when we resist your unsettling mighty deeds.

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