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A prayer based on Psalm 100 and Philippians 1

We sing ourselves into your presence, God,
for you are the One who has
made us
and called us your own
and has kept us safe thus far on the journey.

We sing ourselves into your presence, God,
and for a moment
we leave behind our worries
that the world we have cherished
is under threat
and fast disappearing.
For a moment,
we turn our anxious hearts toward you,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
and join your joyful dance of love.

We dance with you
and are caught up into your love:
your love that is stronger than death;
your love that is stronger than our fears;
your love that is even now
making the world new
with mercy and grace and joy.

We dance with you
and find ourselves in the company of others:
saints, past and present,
brothers and sisters in Christ,
your children around the world;
all called into your great love together.

Dance us beyond our selves, Lord of life.
Dance us into caring
and forgiveness
and your community of
peace and justice and hope.

We sing, we dance,
we yield our hearts to you.

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The worship service in which this sermon was originally preached can be found at Reformed Worship, week 8.

Scriptures: John 11: 1-7, 17-25

For a few years, Rowan Williams was the Archbishop of Canterbury in England. On the morning of September 11, 2001, he was leading a spiritual retreat at Trinity Church on Wall Street in New York, a couple of blocks away from the World Trade Centre. After the attacks on the towers, the staff of the church provided a place of refuge, safety and comfort for the terrified people who came into the building that day and for the rescue workers in the days afterwards. Archbishop Williams wrote a small book reflecting on the events of that day and the days that followed: Writing in the Dust.

In the introduction to the book, he asks, “After the 11th, what are we prepared to learn?” Ten years later, that questions remains. “Can anything grow through that terrible, terrifying event?” Williams states that he hopes that the answer is “Yes.”

The morning after 9/11, Williams was stopped in the street by a young man who was a pilot and an active Catholic. That young man asked the question that many people ask when confronted with unspeakable evil: “What was God doing when the planes hit the towers?” Williams mumbled something about human freedom. God creates us with free will and does not intervene. God does not just override the choices we make. Living in faith does not mean we escape evil. It means we are given resources to confront it. Through faith, we find a way to suffer, take it forward and then, in God’s own time, to have healed by the grace and mercy of the living God.

Williams knew that whatever he said would be inadequate. Ultimately, he said, this man did not want a theological discussion about free will. This man was a lifelong Christian, committed to a loving and saving God. However, now, for the first time, it had come home to him that he might be committed to a God who could seem useless in a crisis.

Have you been there? If you have not yet, be assured that, the further you go in faith, the more honest you are about life, you will come to a place where God does not do what you want or expect God to do.

That was the hard truth both Martha and Mary faced in this morning’s gospel story. Their brother Lazarus was ill. They sent for their good friend, Jesus, to come to help. But, Jesus did not come. “Lazarus” means “God helps”, except God did not help this family when they need God the most. The writer of the story makes a point of saying that they “dwelt in Bethany”, the “house of affliction”. Their affliction was not just that Lazarus was ill. Their affliction was that the one to whom they looked for help was absent. By the time Jesus showed up, Lazarus had died. In fact, he had been dead four days.

First Martha, and then Mary, confronted Jesus. “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” The same accusation was in the question that the young Catholic man asked: “Where was God when the planes flew into the towers?” We ask it ourselves: Where is God when children die of starvation in Africa? Where is God when someone we love suffers? Surely, if God is good, God should be there to help. God should fix things.

Much of living in faith is a matter of coming to terms with a God who does not meet our expectations. This God does not show up when we really need God to show up. All of us have some burden of suffering which we bear. There is some deep sorrow that hovers in the background of our days. There is some wound that we carry in our hearts that is in varying stages of being healing or refusing to be healed. Hopes and dreams have been shattered. We worry over our children. You can add to the list.

As Christians we know the promises of our Lord. Just before Jesus died, he promised, “I will not leave you orphaned; I will come to you. I will ask the Father and he will give you a Comforter to be with forever.” The psalms are full of such promises: God is our refuge and our strength; a very present help in trouble.” “Because you have made the Lord your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place . . . he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.” “I will protect those who know my name. When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble.”

Martha knew the promises. She knew the promises that the power of God is stronger than death itself. When Jesus says to her, “Your brother will rise again, she can recite them back to him. “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”

We know the promises but there are times when the promises seem all to lie in the future. They are some future hope we cling to in spite of all the evidence in the present that defies them.

Or, maybe they all lie in the past. They exist as memories of experiences where we did feel the presence of God, bearing us up as on eagles’ wings, holding us in the palm of God’s hands.

We find ourselves living between those memories and that hope and all we really know of God is the emptiness of God’s absence.

This is a difficult place to be. We want to move through it quickly. We want to have confident faith renewed. We want to move beyond the questions and the doubts and the uncertainties; to move into the promised joy and peace; to get on with being productive again. Instead, we are stuck in that in-between place and we cannot move past it.

The Bible knows a lot about such a space. It calls it by many names: wilderness, exile, the Pit. It is “Holy Saturday”, that time between the agony of Good Friday and the joy of Easter Sunday. Nothing is happening. Life seems suspended.

Rowan Williams calls this empty place, this void, a “breathing space”. He says that what you need to do in such a breathing space is breathe. You are not to get on with some action as you try to persuade yourself that you really are in control of the situation. You are to breathe. You acknowledge your hurt and disappointment and rage and sense of powerlessness. You let go of the expectations that you had of God. You come to terms with this God who has given you this emptiness, this breathing space. As painful as it is, it is a gift that is filled with God’s grace.

“Your brother will rise again,” said Jesus to Martha. Martha replies, “I know the promises. On the last day, in God’s promised future, my brother will be raised up in the resurrection.” Jesus tells her, “I am the Resurrection. I am the Life. Now. Here. Already.”

Jesus brings resurrection and life into the midst of the emptiness. In the midst of suffering; in the midst of brokenness; in all the little deaths you die throughout your life, God meets you with resurrection power. In Jesus, God enters into the emptiness and makes it part of God’s holy purpose for your life.

Even the emptiness.

You are baptized with suffering. You go down into the waters of suffering. God raises you to new life. What emerges from the waters of such a baptism is not the old self you had before. You can never go back. You will carry the scars for the rest of your life. But a new self is given by God. You are made new.

It takes courage to enter into such a time. it takes courage to give voice to all that is in your heart. That’s why I keep urging you to learn to pray the Psalms. They are written by people, by a community, that has practiced breathing its faith in the void and the emptiness.

The Psalms teach a language that helps you give voice to your anger and your fears, your hurt and your hopes. They lead you through the evil that you suffer with persistence and honesty. They teach you to yield your life to God. They open you to the healing work of God. Ultimately, they teach to you to praise God again.

They teach you to praise God again in a new song. That new song will carry the sorrow you have known but that sorrow will now be gathered into God’s good and holy purposes for you and for the world.

I want you to learn to pray the psalms because they are such a great gift for your spiritual journey. I want you to learn to pray the psalms because we live our faith in a world full of suffering: not just the global suffering we hear on the news but also the suffering in the lives of people you meet day by day. You may not be able to do much to turn the tide, but your vocation as a follower of Jesus Christ is to be with people in the places of their brokenness. Hear their laments. Help them give voice to them. Prayer with them to God because, in the end, it is God with whom we all must deal.

Stand with them as a member of a community of people who, from the days of our baptisms, have practised dying and being raised to new life in Christ. We are learning to let Christ take us, bless us, break our lives open, and give us life anew. Having trusted Christ to do that in our lives, we give our lives into God’s good hands over and over again.

You can help others hear God say to them in their suffering, “Do not be afraid. Nothing in life or in death — not even this terrible thing you are going through — nothing can stop my loving purpose for you.”

That will be a great gift. That will be a good and holy work. For such holy work, God has claimed you as Christ’s own.

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Scripture: John 11: 1-7, 17-25

For a few years, Rowan Williams was the Archbishop of Canterbury in England. On the morning of September 11, 2001, he was leading a spiritual retreat at Trinity Church on Wall Street in New York, a few blocks away from the World Trade Centre. After the attacks on the towers, the staff of the church provided a place of refuge, safety and comfort for the terrified people who came into the building that day and for the rescue workers in the days afterwards. Archbishop Williams wrote a small book reflecting on the events of that day and the days that followed: Writing in the Dust.

In the introduction to the book, he asks, “After the 11th, what are we prepared to learn?” Ten years later, that question remains. “Can anything grow through that terrible, terrifying event?” Williams states that he hopes that the answer is “Yes.”

The morning after 9/11, Williams was stopped in the street by a young man who was a pilot and an active Catholic. That young man asked the question that many people ask when confronted with unspeakable evil: “What was God doing when the planes hit the towers?” Williams mumbled something about human freedom. God creates us with free will and does not intervene. God does not just override the choices we make. Living in faith does not mean we escape evil. It means we are given resources to confront it. Through faith, we find a way to suffer, take it forward and then, in God’s own time, to have it healed by the grace and mercy of the living God.

Williams knew that whatever he said would be inadequate. Ultimately, he said, this man did not want a theological discussion about free will. This man was a lifelong Christian, committed to a loving and saving God. However, now, for the first time, it had come home to him that he might be committed to a God who could seem useless in a crisis.

Have you been there? If you have not yet, be assured that, the further you go in faith, the more honest you are about life, you will come to a place where God does not do what you want or expect God to do.

That was the hard truth both Martha and Mary faced in this morning’s gospel story. Their brother Lazarus was ill. They sent for their good friend, Jesus, to come to help. But Jesus did not come. “Lazarus” means “God helps”, except God did not help this family when they needed God the most. The writer of the story makes a point of saying that they “dwelt in Bethany”, the “house of affliction”. Their affliction was not just that Lazarus was ill. Their affliction was that the one to whom they looked for help was absent. By the time Jesus showed up, Lazarus had died. In fact, he had been dead four days.

First Martha, and then Mary, confronted Jesus. “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” The same accusation was in the question that the young Catholic man asked: “Where was God when the planes flew into the towers?” We ask it ourselves: Where is God when children die of starvation in Africa? Where is God when someone we love suffers? Surely, if God is good, God should be there to help. God should fix things.

Much of living in faith is a matter of coming to terms with a God who does not meet our expectations. This God does not show up when we really need God to show up. All of us have some burden of suffering which we bear. There is some deep sorrow that hovers in the background of our days. There is some wound that we carry in our hearts that is in varying stages of being healing or refusing to be healed. Hopes and dreams have been shattered. We worry over our children. You can add to the list.

As Christians we know the promises of our Lord. Just before Jesus died, he promised, “I will not leave you orphaned; i will come to you. I will ask the Father and he will give you a Comforter to be with forever.” The psalms are full of such promises: “God is our refuge and our strength; a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1). “Because you have made the Lord your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place . . . he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways . . . I will protect those who know my name. When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble” (Psalm 91).

Martha knew the promises. She knew the promises that the power of God is stronger than death itself. When Jesus says to her, “Your brother will rise again, she can recite them back to him. “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”

We know the promises but there are times when the promises seem all to lie in the future. They are some future hope we cling to in spite of all the evidence in the present that defies them.

Or, maybe they all lie in the past. They exist as memories of experiences where we did feel the presence of God, bearing us up as on eagles’ wings, holding us in the palm of God’s hands.

We can find ourselves living between those memories and that hope and all we really know of God is the emptiness of God’s absence.

This is a difficult place to be. We want to move through it quickly. We want to have confident faith renewed. We want to move beyond the questions and the doubts and the uncertainties; to move into the promised joy and peace; to get on with being productive again. Instead, we are stuck in that in-between place and we cannot move past it.

The Bible knows a lot about such a space. It calls it by many names: wilderness, exile, the Pit. It is “Holy Saturday”, that time between the agony of Good Friday and the joy of Easter Sunday. Nothing is happening. Life seems suspended.

Rowan Williams calls this empty place, this void, a “breathing space”. He says that what you need to do in such a breathing space is breathe. You are not to get on with some action as you try to persuade yourself that you really are in control of the situation. You are to breathe. You acknowledge your hurt and disappointment and rage and sense of powerlessness. You let go of the expectations that you had of God. You come to terms with this God who has given you this emptiness, this breathing space. As painful as it is, it is a gift that is filled with God’s grace.

“Your brother will rise again,” said Jesus to Martha. Martha replies, “I know the promises. On the last day, in God’s promised future, my brother will be raised up in the resurrection.” Jesus tells her, “I am the Resurrection. I am the Life. Now. Here. Already.”

Jesus brings resurrection and life into the midst of the emptiness. In the midst of suffering; in the midst of brokenness; in all the little deaths you die throughout your life, God meets us with resurrection power. In Jesus, God enters into the emptiness and makes it part of God’s holy purpose for your life.

Even the emptiness.

You are baptized with suffering. You go down into the waters of suffering. God raises you to new life. What emerges from the waters of such a baptism is not the old self you had before. You can never go back. You may carry the scars for the rest of your life. But a new self is given by God. You are made new.

It takes courage to enter into such a time. it takes courage to give voice to all that is in your heart. That’s why I keep urging you to learn to pray the Psalms. They are written by people, by a community, that has practiced breathing its faith in the void and the emptiness.

The Psalms teach a language that helps you give voice to your anger and your fears, your hurt and your hopes. They lead you through the evil that you suffer with persistence and honesty. They teach you to yield your life to God. They open you to the healing work of God. Ultimately, they teach to you to praise God again.

They teach you to praise God again in a new song. That new song will carry the sorrow you have known but it will now be gathered into God’s good and holy purposes for you and for the world.

I want you to learn to pray the psalms because they are such a great gift for your spiritual journey. I want you to learn to pray the psalms because we live our faith in a world full of suffering: not just the global suffering we hear on the news but also the suffering in the lives of people you meet day by day. You may not be able to do much to turn the tide, but your vocation as a follower of Jesus Christ is to be with people in the places of their brokenness. Hear their laments. Help them give voice to them. Pray with them to God because, in the end, it is God with whom we all must deal.

Stand with them as a member of a community of people who, from the days of our baptisms, have practised dying and being raised to new life in Christ. We are learning to let Christ take us, bless us, break our lives open, and give us life anew. Having trusted Christ to do that in our lives, we give our lives into his good hands over and over again.

You can help others hear God say to them in their suffering, “Do not be afraid. Nothing in life or in death — not even this terrible thing you are going through — nothing can stop my loving purpose for you.”

That will be a great gift. That will be a good and holy work. For such holy work, God has claimed you as Christ’s own.

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A prayer for an anniversary Sunday, reflecting on Psalm 42 and Luke 8: 26 -39.

God of our deepest longings,
you love us with a deep and abiding love
that never lets us go.

In Jesus, you have met us where we are
and claimed us as your own,
and summoned us into your holy work in the world.

Gathered here on this special day,
we remember before you those times
when it was easier to be your people:
when the pews were full,
when the children were plentiful,
when our hearts were full of laughter.

We remember those days with joy and gratitude.
Yet, even as we remember,
we confess that you have led us into a time
when being your people,
being your church,
is harder than we were expecting
or looking for.

You have called us to follow you
but you have ventured into strange territory
— beyond our settled ways of doing things
— beyond our comfort zones

We are not sure what it will mean to be your people
in this new time and place.
Sometimes it feels like we are dying.

Easter Jesus,
you died and are alive among us.
You can turn all our dead ends
into the stunning gift of new life.
Teach us now radical trust in you
and in your resurrecting power.
Give us now the courage to follow
your Holy Spirit
who leads in such wild, untamed ways.

Easter us.
We place our lives
and the life of this congregation
in your good keeping.

We pray in the name of the One
who has gone ahead
and filled the future with grace and truth.

 

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It is not unusual these days for people to characterize the mainline church as being ‘in the wilderness’. In the Bible, the wilderness is a time of scarcity: there are not enough resources. In that sense, ‘wilderness’ is an appropriate description of many congregations. Many congregations are experiencing declining attendance in worship, declining participation in the programmes they offer, and declining financial support. They are realizing that the church is no longer at the centre of power in the culture.

In the Bible, wilderness times are not merely times when the resources for surviving or thriving are scarce. Wilderness times are also times of dealing with God. Indeed, it is often the Holy Spirit that drives the people of God into the wilderness. The times in the wilderness push us to deal with God because alternatives are not available.

I think of the times when I have felt like I was in a wilderness: I was driven to prayer because there was no other way to get through such a time. I learned what the psalmist means when s/he prays the God is a fortress, a rock, a refuge. At times, I still felt pretty exposed and vulnerable. However, I was held; I was not deserted; I was given enough strength to keep going a little longer. When the Bible speaks of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness, that’s what I think about.

In his commentary on 1 & 2 Samuel, Eugene Peterson talks of the wilderness as an ‘untamed place’ (p. 131-132). Ironically, one of the gifts of the wilderness times is what the Bible calls “meekness”:  a strength that is tamed. Meekness is strength like a wild horse that has been tamed (N.T. Wright, For All God’s Worth, p. 70), its energies directed and purposeful, disciplined and controlled.

You can emerge from the wilderness stronger for having endured something difficult and challenging.The strength comes from having a clearer focus on what is real and what is illusion. It is rooted in learning to pay attention to God and in learning to wait for God’s timing and God’s action.

The ‘missional church’ conversation seeks to turn the church from being busy with our own agendas and plans to paying attention to what God is up to in our neighbourhoods. Our time in the wilderness is training us in that practice.

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Rejoicing yet thirsting

A prayer based on Psalm 63, after singing “I will enter the gates . . . God has made me glad”

We do rejoice in you, God our God
We rejoice in your steadfast love and faithfulness
— a rich feast for our souls.
We rejoice that you shelter us in the shadow of your wings
— strong protection against the storms.
We rejoice that you are more powerful than
the troubles that trouble us.

We rejoice that, when we wander far from You,
losing our way,
you do not leave us on our own.
You come to us in Jesus, your Word made flesh.
dwelling among us,
full of your grace and your truth.

O God who has drawn near, you know us as we are:
the songs of praise
tell only part of the story.

We have wandered down many paths,
seeking happiness or glory,
we have trusted in lesser gods,
looking for safe haven from the dangers that threaten.

But the deep hungers are not satisfied;
the fears and anxieties still haunt us.

And now we know:
our souls thirst for you, the living God.

Show us your power and your glory.
Take our weariness
and send your Holy Spirit to renew our hope.
Take our fears
and grow new courage in us.
Take our resignation to the way things are
and pull us into your passionate love.

Lord Jesus,
you meet us in the wilderness of our days,
and fill us with the bread of life.
You meet us in the desert of our loneliness
and streams of living water start to flow.

We drink deeply of the gift of your presence,
and we rejoice,
for you have made us glad.  Amen.

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A prayer based on Psalm 27

Light-giving, salvation-making God,
we have staked our living and our dying
and our being raised to new life
on your steadfast love and faithfulness.

You have promised
to hide us in your shelter in the day of trouble.
You have promised to set us high on a rock,
above those powers and forces
that batter us,
that tempt us,
that work against us.

We have sought your presence here,
listening for your Word:
your Word that gives life;
your Word that heals the wounded heart;
your Word that speaks truth.

Teach us your Way, O Lord Jesus.
Lead us on a well-lighted path.
In the times when you are silent,
grant us the courage to wait,
trusting in your grace that brings your resurrection power
to our dead ends.

You are doing a ‘new thing’ among us.
though, it is hard to see at times what that ‘new thing’ is.
We bring to you our grieving over what is being lost,
our fears about what the future might hold,
our desire to love and serve you.

By the power of your Holy Spirit,
you are refining us,
purifying our discipleship,
pulling us into following Jesus
In this new world.

Grant us mercy and grace
to trust you more deeply,
for the only secure place is with you,
our light and our salvation,
the stronghold of our life.

We pray all these things in the name of Jesus,
the first-born of your new creation
our hope, our life.

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