Good Friday of Holy Week

Gospel Lesson: Mark 14:43-15:47

Key Verse: Some women were watching from a distance, including Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James (the younger one) and Joses, and Salome. When Jesus was in Galilee, these women had followed and supported him, along with many other women who had come to Jerusalem with him.
 
Commentary

We know Mary Magdalene, although she gets an undeserved bad reputation. The other Mary might be Jesus’ mother, since tradition has it that two of his brothers are James and Joses. As for Salome, this is notthe daughter of Herodias, who danced in exchange for John the Baptist’s head, but one of Jesus’ disciples who has come with him from Galilee. There they stand, at a distance, but near enough to see and hear the agony of death on the cross. There they stand, silent witnesses to the sacrifice of their beloved Lord. We who watch distanced by centuries, comforted by what we know comes next, often turn away, unable to bear the horror and grief. Yet there they stand, watching and waiting, these women of Galilee, who cared for this One’s needs, supplied food and places to rest and sleep, listened to his stories and watched him heal broken people and broken lives. There they stand, providing strength to one another, holding one another as grief and fear shakes their bodies. Yet they stand, and watch. Watch until it is finished, determined to see where they take him. For there is one final service to be provided. His body that was anointed before his death by unnamed woman will be anointed once again. That is their plan. Named and unnamed, the sisterhood of the disciples from Galilee will care for their Lord.

 
Meditation/Call to Action
  • Those of us who have stood at the bedside know the feelings of grief, loss and love as life slips away. Can we – dare we – imagine what it would be like to watch in public, from a distance, as our loved one perishes from a cruel death? What does it take to remain at the cross?
  • Have we ever poured our time and energy into a movement, an opportunity, an experience, only to find it slipping through our fingers, never fully realized or completed?
  • Was Jesus’ death more than just a leader’s death, but also the death of a dream of new life?

 

Prayer

O God,

            our presence at the cross does indeed cause us to tremble,

            as our hearts break and our eyes fill with tears.

The depth of your love for us becomes real in that moment,

            for you are willing to be sacrificed to give us life.

Help us, in the darkness of this day,

            remember your promises,

            rely upon your assurance,

            and keep us near to your heart. Amen.



Maundy Thursday of Holy Week

Gospel Lesson: Mark 14:17-30

Key Verse: Jesus said, “I assure you that one of you will betray me – someone eating with me.”

 
Commentary

The sacrament of holy communion, the words we speak and the bread and cup we share, are a participation in the supper in the upper room. We re-member the occasion, as if were there that night, each time we celebrate the sacrament. But sometimes we forget that the meal was shrouded in betrayal and faltering faith. We are told that all the disciples asked, “It’s not me, is it?” Jesus does not name the one among them, but later, in the garden, says, “You will all falter in your faithfulness to me.” As we know from the rest of the story, Jesus was accurate in his prediction. Although we prefer to blame Judas, and shame Peter, the probability is that we, too, will falter in our faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus does not break the covenant God is making, does not limit the table to those who are worthy. Who among us would sit down to a meal with people we know will betray or deny us? Yet that is what Jesus does – offering himself to us – in spite of our unworthiness. Knowing us, knowing our faults and failures, Jesus offers us love and forgiveness. Knowing that, we are better able to love him and forgive one another, sharing the meal that makes us one.

 
Meditation/Call to Action
  • What if we had been among the disciples in the upper room, and heard Jesus’ announce that one of us would betray him?
  • Can we imagine a time or way in which we might do that? Would we ask, “It’s not me, is it?”
  • In what ways does a recognition of our likelihood of stumbling in our faith journey, as well as Jesus’ compassionate response to us, encourage us to move deeper in faith and commitment?
 
Prayer

O Jesus, who knows us so well,

            who feeds us knowing we will stumble,

            how we long to love as you love.

Teach our heart to love,

            and our lives to serve,

            that we may glorify your name. Amen.

 



Wednesday of Holy Week

 

Gospel Lesson: Mark 14:12-17

Key Verse: The disciples left, came into the city, found everything just as he had told them, and they prepared the Passover meal.
 

Commentary

For most of us, the image that shapes the meal in the upper room is Leonardo DaVinci’s painting, The Last Supper. Jesus and twelve disciples, with enough details to puzzle generations of art and biblical scholars, a moment captured for eternity. Only when we learn more about the Jewish tradition of the Passover meal do we recognize that the image is incomplete. The ritual requires the presence of at least one woman, who lights the candles and begins the observance. Young people are necessary to ask the historic questions that define the occasion. And in Jesus’ time, guests did not sit, but reclined at the table. When we think of Jesus’ disciples, the twelve men who are named come to mind. In this passage, the gospel writer is clear that disciples were sent to prepare the Passover meal, but the Twelve arrive later, with Jesus. In our family celebrations, it is often women who care for the plans and preparations. Because Passover is a family celebration, it is likely that at least some of the disciples sent to prepare were women, maybe the same ones who have been providing for Jesus’ ministry with their money. When we add women and children to picture, when we remember this is a gathering of family and close friends, the meal in the upper room adds texture and richness to our faith that DaVinci’s painting, with all its intricate details, cannot add.

 

Meditation/Call to Action

  • Even the most familiar of stories can surprise us with details we failed to notice, with insights we hadn’t caught, with new meanings relevant to a particular moment in our life. What, if anything, surprises you about this reading of a very familiar story?
  • If we think of holy communion as a celebration of family and close friends, akin to the Passover meal which is one of its origins, does it change how we receive the elements and offer our thanks to God?
  • In what ways does that expand our experience of the words, “Do this in remembrance of me”?

 

Prayer

You invite all of us, O God,

            to share at your table of grace.

You call people of all genders, races and ethnicities to be your disciples,

            and give them the opportunity to prepare for your holy meal.

We are humbled by your invitation,

            and honored to serve your people at the holy meal. Amen.

 



Tuesday of Holy Week

Gospel Lesson: Mark 14:3-9

Key Verse: She has done what she could. She has anointed my body ahead of time for burial.
 
 
Commentary

Sometimes, like the woman who anointed Jesus, we receive criticism for what we have done. We are accused of wasting money or time; we didn’t do enough to support people in need; we don’t belong at the table; we interrupted an important conversation; we are not wanted or valued. The woman’s gift is extravagant, a treasure received or earned with effort. Often, those who criticize are suspicious of unknown women who behave in embarrassing ways, that suggest a relationship with Jesus that we do not understand. We wonder about her motivation, and about what she expects to receive in return. Such extravagance makes others uncomfortable, wondering about their own extravagance – or lack of extravagance. What a gift Jesus gives to the woman when he defends her, recognizing the significance of her anointing his body for burial, accepting the gratitude and love that pours from the alabaster jar and from her life. Sometimes, the voices criticizing our actions for what we have done are our own. We waited too long; we spent too much; we acted without considering the consequences; we intruded when we should have stayed out; people will misunderstand what we intended. Whether the voices come from within or without, remember what Jesus had to say: “She did what she could. . . .wherever in the whole world the good news is announced, what she’s done will also be told in memory of her.”

 

Meditation/Call to Action

  • In what ways does extravagance toward Jesus – our own or someone else’s – make us uncomfortable?
  • Does fear of criticism act as a barrier toward doing what we would like to do to express our love for Christ?
  • Is there a gift that might anoint the body of Christ in the world that we have been afraid to offer?
  • Have we been afraid of criticism or rejection if we pour out oil from our alabaster jars?
  • What might help us offer our gift of love, as the woman did that evening?

 

Prayer

O Jesus,

            how we long to pour our love upon you,

            to express our love and gratitude in tangible ways.

Knowing that you honor unnamed men and women frees us to serve,

            encourages us to give,

            and increases our love for you.

We give thanks in your holy name. Amen.

 



Monday of Holy Week

Gospel Lesson: Mark 11: 1-3, 10-11

Key Verse: But they agreed it shouldn’t happen during the festival; otherwise, there would be an uproar among the people.

Commentary

Hidden agendas are nothing new, as we learn that the temple leaders are plotting to arrest Jesus and kill him, and that one of Jesus’ disciples is willing to assist them in the plan. The leaders are protecting their own authority, but we do not know Judas’ motive; the text suggests it was money that motivated his betrayal. Interestingly, the leaders are willing to kill Jesus, but not to create an uproar among the people. As the story continues, they will gather enough of the crowd to support their cause, to shout “Crucify him!” when Pilate would prefer to release Jesus. “The crowds” play an important role in Jesus’ ministry, including this final week. We are quick to blame Judas, and find it shameful when Peter denies him. But the crowd is feared by the leaders, and the crowd’s decision distresses Pilate. Who holds the crowds responsible for the part they play in the events of the week? Dare we ask, were there some who shouted “Hosanna!” on Sunday, only to shout “Crucify him!” Friday morning?

 

Meditation/Call to Action

  • In what ways are we influenced by the crowds of our time? Are there ways that “we the people,” as responsible participants, might affect the outcome of those who plot against our best interests?
  • A popular phrase in some Christian communities is “Jesus died for your sin.” That’s a simplified version of atonement theology, meant to get our attention and . . . response. What is the response we expect from those to whom we refer? Perhaps, if we choose to use that phrase, it would be wiser to say, “Jesus died for my sin.” If we remember Judas at that moment, what shall our response be?

 

Prayer

O God,

            who forgives us while we are yet sinners,

            accept our gratitude for second chances.

As we move through this week with all its anguish and challenges,

            be our strength and support that we might submit to your will,

            through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

 



6th Sunday of Lent: Palm Sunday

Gospel Lesson: Mark 11:1-11

Key Verse: “If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘Its master needs it, and he will send it back right away.’”

 
Commentary

We do not know who owns the colt the disciples bring to Jesus, nor whether those who question what the disciples are doing are the owners of the colt. But the words, “Its master needs it, and he will send it back right away,” satisfy those who questioned. There are times when the master needs what we have, but we are not always satisfied with the words, “the master needs it, and he will send it back right away.” We set up structures and regulations to ensure that it really is the master who needs it, that those who might benefit from our gifts are worthy of our help, and that what we “lend” will indeed be returned to us. It takes great faith to trust without question, to give without reservation, to be satisfied with the words, “Its master needs it.” Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was intended to send a message. VIPs and conquering heroes enter the city on gallant horses or in chariots, surrounded by regalia. Jesus enters on a borrowed colt, surrounded by common folks shouting hosanna, “Save us, Lord!” Branches pulled from trees substitute for flags and banners, clothes spread on the ground instead of a red carpet. When Jesus asks to borrow what he needs, will we offer it freely? Will we make it possible for a new kind of leader to enter Jerusalem with a different kind of honor as we shout, “Hosanna! Save us, Lord!”?

 
Meditation/Call to Action
  • We have come to celebrate Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem as a magnificent parade, but in truth, it was more likely an unnoticed entry, surrounded by a rag-tag crowd of supporters. His visit to the temple went unnoticed by the officials. At the end of the day, he returned to Bethany, accompanied by the twelve. Where might we find ourselves on this eventful day? Do we have a place in the story?
  • We celebrate Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem, and we plead to be saved, but the rest of the week will be filled with fear, grief, and loss. How might the memory of Jesus’ entry help us during this week that leads to the cross?

 

Prayer

O gracious God,

            who enters the holy city on a borrowed colt,

            surrounded by ordinary people who long to be saved,

let us be among those who celebrate Jesus as we lend what we have,

            that the hope of this day will sustain us through the dark days ahead.

Amen.

 



5th Sunday of Lent

Gospel Lesson: John 12:20-33

Key Verse: [Some Greeks came to Philip] and made a request: “Sir, we want to see Jesus.” Philip told Andrew, and Andrew and Philip told Jesus.
 
Commentary

Why Philip? We are accustomed to thinking that Peter, James, and John are the disciples closest to Jesus. If we were asking to see Jesus, we would go to one of them. Perhaps the Greeks were unfamiliar with the hierarchy of Jesus’ disciples. Maybe they had met Philip somewhere. And why did Philip go to Andrew before going to Jesus? In John’s gospel, it is Andrew who hears Jesus and follows, inviting Peter to come and see. Philip, we are told, comes from Bethsaida, the home of Andrew and Peter. Perhaps the Greeks, lost among the crowd that was following Jesus, went to the first disciple they could reach. Perhaps they were afraid that, as Greeks, their request might be ignored. We don’t know why they wanted to see Jesus. The mystery of how the good news spreads in the world is not logical, based upon information. Rather, it is a haphazard network of connections that are not obvious, not sensible. If those who receive the request insist upon knowing the why, how and when from those who want to see Jesus, the network breaks down. If the disciples fail to take the request to Jesus, the Greeks have no chance to see him. As disciples, even those who think of ourselves as minor players in Jesus’ ministry, we must be willing to take those who want to see Jesus to him, without erecting barriers based upon human distinctions or concerns. Without Andrew following Jesus, there might have been no Peter, the rock upon whom Jesus’ church is built. Who knows what Jesus might do with the Greeks who ask to see him?

 

Meditation/Call to Action

  • Although we seldom have someone ask to see Jesus, we are often in relationships where people’s longings become apparent. Sometimes, we ourselves want to see Jesus. What might be the ways we can see Jesus, and help others to see Jesus in ways that are genuine and true to the gospel message?
  • Think about the people who have helped us see Jesus. Perhaps they were Sunday School teachers, relatives, or neighbors who heard our spoken or unspoken request. What have we learned from them which will help us bring people to see Jesus?
 

Prayer

Open our eyes, O God,

            that we may see Jesus for ourselves.

Open our ears

            to hear the people who come asking to see Jesus.

Open our hearts,

            that the Good News may continue to spread throughout the world,

            from age to age,

            from generation to generation. Amen.

 



4th Sunday of Lent

Gospel Lesson: John 3:14-21

Key Verse: God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again. (from The Message)

 
Commentary

The verse that is most often cited from this passage is “John 3:16.” It appears on bumper stickers, billboards, posters at sporting events, and public bathroom stalls. While John 3:16 could be understood as an invitation to faith, it often feels like an accusing finger is being pointed at those who have not yet accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. Adding verse 17 to our posters makes all the difference in the world. Now, we discover Jesus is the way the world is put right again. When I have made a mess in the kitchen, there is no need for someone to point out the mess. What a relief it is when they get a mop and clean the floor, gather up trash that has spread throughout the room, or fill the sink with water and begin to wash dirty pots and pans! Through Jesus’ presence, and through belief in the one who believes in us, the mess we have made can be cleaned up. When we have given up hope of ever being set right within ourselves or with others, Jesus’ grace floods us with assurance of God’s love, and the will to do the difficult work of reclaiming a whole and healthy life. The mess we create as individuals, as well as the mess we make in community, affects us all. When we begin to apply Jesus’ mercy, when we begin to seek Jesus’ justice, when we stop blaming and start fixing, Jesus really does make all the difference in the world.

 
Meditation/Call-to-Action
  • Think of a time when it felt like life was messed up, when trouble was coming down from all sides. What kind of response helped put our situation in perspective, making it possible to admit our errors, accept responsibility, and begin to “clean up our act”?
  • How might we, as ones who believe that Jesus came to set the world right again, become partners in the work?
 

Prayer

Thank you, God,

            for sending Jesus to set us and our world right again as a sign of your great love.

Remind us to lean on your strength as you repair brokenness in us and others,

            and to invite those whom you love to receive your gift of new life,

through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
 


3rd Sunday of Lent

Gospel Lesson: John 2:13-22

Key Verse: His disciples remembered that it is written, Passion for your house consumes me.

 

Commentary

The disciples remembered a phrase from Psalm 69, an appeal to God from one who is suffering from hatred and estrangement. “Because passion for your house has consumed me, the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me!” Jesus’ anger and actions are about far more than merchants conducting business in the temple. Anyone who insults God is also defiling God’s house. The temple officials who profit from the business taking place, the ones who put unnecessary or harsh burdens on people who are poor, the ones who use the letter of the law to deny God’s law of love, are guilty. Though Jesus cleanses the temple, passion for God’s house includes far more than caring for a religion facility. The passion that consumes Jesus’ ministry is the well-being of all creation, all people, all that is and all that will be. The passion that consumes Jesus’ ministry is creating a world which is the fulfillment of God’s plans, where it will be “on earth as it is in heaven.” Although we often understand “passion” to refer to deep feelings about something, another definition of the word is “suffering,” and a third definition is “love.” In Jesus, the three come together, for his deep feelings for God’s house, his willingness to suffer for the sake of what he loves, lead to the cross and resurrection, the Passion of the Christ. The disciples remembered, and believed.

 
Meditation/Call to Action
  • Sometimes this passage of scripture is used as an example of “holy anger,” the willingness to confront practices or assumptions that are destructive to God’s holy ways. What are some of the ways in which God is being insulted today?
  • Are there ways in which religious laws are being used to place burdens on people whom God longs to set free?
  • How strong is our passion for God’s house?
  • Are there ways in which we might put “holy anger” to work in our lives to eliminate those things that prevent our passion, our willingness to serve God and God’s people, even to the point of suffering ourselves?
 

Prayer

O God,

            if our passion for your house grows dim from weariness or doubt,

            ignite our hearts once again with your love,

that we may remember, and believe in your love,

            through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

 



2nd Sunday of Lent

Gospel Lesson: Mark 8:31-38

Key Verse: “You are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts.”

Commentary

Although Peter had been a disciple since the earliest days of Jesus’ ministry, when Jesus announces his crucifixion and resurrection, Peter insists upon scolding and correcting Jesus. Whether it is concern for Jesus, fear for the ministry, or some other issue that sparks Peter’s response, Jesus says he is thinking like a human. While we might rush to defend Peter (and ourselves) by responding that we are human, and we can’t be expected to think God thoughts, Jesus will not let us off so easily. As disciples, listening to his preaching and teaching, observing and participating in acts of healing, feeding, and mercy, we can learn to think “God thoughts.” But as Jesus goes on to teach, God thoughts often put our safety and comfort at risk. When we begin to think God thoughts, we forget ourselves, and the needs of others become our priority. Losing the life we planned, giving up what we thought would make for a good life, is not easy at the best of times. We cannot do it if we are thinking human thoughts. But if we catch even a glimmer of God thoughts, we see that giving up this life in exchange for real life is the best deal offered.

 

Meditation/Call to Action

  • Consider a time when it was necessary to give something up to be faithful to Jesus. Perhaps it was speaking up to friends who told jokes or stories that made fun of women, Jewish believers, or people of another culture or ethnicity. Maybe it involved refusing to participate in a party or event to which “everyone was going.” In what way did that affect your spiritual life, and your relationship with God?
  • When Jesus asks something of us, even if it is very difficult, God provides all that we need to do what is being asked of us. What would you ask God to provide if you were asked to give up your life for the sake of the good news?
 
Prayer

O God,

            whose thoughts are not our thoughts,

            and whose ways are not always clear to us,

when you ask us to follow God thoughts instead of human thoughts,

            give us your Spirit to lead and protect us,

            and give us faith to do the work you expect of us. Amen.

 



1st Sunday of Lent

Gospel Lesson: Mark 1:9-15

Key Verse:  After John was arrested, Jesus went to Galilee preaching the Message of God: “Time’s up! God’s kingdom is here. Change your life and believe the Message.” (from The Message)

Commentary

“Time’s up!” are words that strike fear in our hearts when we are students taking a timed test. Whatever mistakes we might have made cannot be corrected. Whatever questions we have omitted cannot be answered. Our grade depends upon what we have done. When the music stops on the final Jeopardy question, the winner has been determined, to be revealed by the host. But when Jesus announces, “Time’s up!” it is an invitation, not a sentence of judgment. Jesus is announcing the opportunity to correct our mistakes, to answer the questions we have omitted or ignored, to trust God’s good news is meant for us. Jesus’ arrival and Jesus’ message offer each of us the opportunity to become more attuned to God’s love for us, better able to get the right answers for us and for our world. We may have been studying the scriptures and listening to the religion scholars, but for one reason or another, we still find ourselves confused or uncertain. Jesus invites us to believe his message which will clear up our confusion and help us see – and become – kingdom people. If we have failed to be loving, now is the time to love more fully. If we have not helped people who are in need, now is the time to help in big and little ways. If we have held grudges, now is the time to forgive. We can change our lives – our answers on the test – as we trust this Good News.

Meditation/Call to Action

  • Often we are encouraged to downplay the “should have, could have” moments in our lives. But sometimes those are the circumstances that pierce our hearts with the possibility of a new way of thinking, a new way of living. Where are the places we would like to correct, the omissions we would like to fill in?
  • In what ways might we practice a changed life, through helping, healing, loving or forgiving?
  • Are there practical acts we might make that would amaze ourselves or those who receive what we offer?
  • Might someone ask, “Why are you doing this?” giving us the opportunity to share our faith with them?
Prayer

God, whose grace invites us to change our lives and believe this good news,

            show us opportunities to change our lives and our world,

that we might grow in love and commitment to our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

 

 

 



Finding Our Blind Spots

At a recent visit to the ophthalmologist, the technician who was setting up the vision field test remarked, “We’re going to find your blind spot. Everybody has one.” The test requires focusing on a central dot, but clicking each time one sees a flashing light elsewhere. The progression of glaucoma may result in changes to the blind spot, which is why the test is done regularly. Unless the blind spot grows or changes significantly, we aren’t aware of its effect on our vision.

The technician’s comment was made to reassure me. “Everybody has a blind spot.”

What if our “everybody has one” blind spots are not limited to our eyes, but also to other areas of life? To become a good reader, we progress from sounding out words one letter at a time to reading a word as a single unit. Eventually, our reading fluency improves, and we don’t “see” some words that don’t affect the meaning. Some studies have shown that many of us can read sentences with words that have all the correct letters, but not necessarily in the correct order. [Forget about auto-correct that changes “ahaed” to “ahead” or ‘taht” to “that”!] The same process holds true in learning to read music, as we go from the note on the page to the note on the instrument without thinking “That’s g.” Yet even the best reader or the finest musician can miss something important when we read too quickly.

In considering the events of the past weeks, it’s possible I’ve been reading too quickly, or have failed to compensate for my blind spots. Horrified and sickened by the desecration of the U.S. Capitol and threats of violence in many other locations, my first thoughts were unkind, to say the least, judgmental, and unforgiving. Those who committed criminal offenses must be prosecuted and held accountable for their actions. But prosecuting those who are guilty will not lead to a change in attitudes and behaviors of others, especially among those persons who stopped short of criminal activity, but continue to support and admire those who did. Until we are able to understand the beliefs that led to such actions, we will not be able to address the problems and resolve future tension. Things I cannot see – because of my blind spots – or things I am reading too quickly, may prevent me from responding in an appropriate way to those with whom I differ.

When I was a toddler, my mother and father discovered I was frightened of balloons. They have no idea why I was frightened, but used balloons to keep me from going places they didn’t want me to go! I was terrified of dogs for most of my growing up years, possibly the result of an unfriendly interaction with a neighbor’s dog. The first family dog was a total failure in eliminating my fear. But the second family pet became a part of my rehabilitation. His calm, welcoming presence when we pulled into the driveway, his own fear of being indoors even when the weather was terrible, and the fact that he never jumped up on me (he was a beagle with short legs!) helped overcome my fear.

The fears and anxiety that many are expressing right now may have no origin that can be identified, like my balloon phobia. But those balloon fears may be enough to keep people from going to places where others don’t want them to go. Some of the fears may be the result of uncomfortable or unfriendly interactions with those who have different agendas. Perhaps it will take some time in a less threatening dialogue, without being jumped on, to change fear to tolerance, and perhaps even to cordial relationships and common goals.

Everyone has a blind spot, as the technician noted. Fluent reading is an achievement to pursue. But only by being aware of our blind spot, only by recognizing that fluency sometimes ignores details that change meanings, will we be able to better understand one another. As for me, I’m going to work on compensating for my blind spots, and read with greater attention as I converse with others. Maybe then, we’ll be able to pop some of the balloons and recognize that dogs may be worthy companions.

 



There is More than One Way to Swim a Lap

Swim teams follow a regimen that requires the precision of a ballet troupe. Each lane is filled with swimmers who go back and forth, maintaining a common speed and distance. Turns at the ends of the pool are executed with precision, and woe to the swimmer who messes up the rhythm. Lap swimmers, on the other hand, have unique ways of maneuvering through the water from end to end and back again. Some use one stroke only, never varying from the free style. Others use a variety of strokes. Some swimmers take no breaks, and others insist upon breaks timed to the second at specific intervals. Some begin or end with stretching exercises, and others use flippers, swim gloves, weights and snorkels to enhance their performance. As for me, I refer to myself as “grandma turtle,” for I am usually the slowest swimmer in the pool. At the suggestion of a physical therapist, I swim one length of back stroke, followed by one length of free style. My twenty laps (a bit over half a mile) are broken into groups of four, with each group spelling out L O V E. (I lose my place when I try counting. Letters work better for me.)

 

The majority of adults who swim laps on a regular basis are not doing it to compete in the Olympics, or any other organized program. We are swimming to stay fit, to keep our joints moving, maybe to lose a little weight, and to promote good health. At one pool where I swam, almost every swimmer/walker had a scar or two from joint replacements, heart operations or other medical procedures. We may have our unique ways of accomplishing our exercise, but our goals are surprisingly similar.

 

As our country moves through a time of transition in governments at many levels, in what is “normal” in schools, workplaces, recreation and shopping, in ways of being in connection with one another, we may want to act more like lap swimmers than a swim team. Some of us may need adaptive equipment or practices to manage technology. We may have to admit that, when it comes to the computer or our smart phone, we are not smarter than a fifth grader! Some of us may take longer to complete tasks until we become more proficient. When we order groceries and get one green bean instead of one pound of green beans, we may have to change the menu. We need the swim team and true athletes to allow us the freedom to be grandma turtle, and grandma turtles need not feel inadequate because we can’t swim with the fishes.

 

Perhaps, most of all, we may all need to stay in our preferred lanes. An unwritten “rule” of the pool is that one doesn’t enter another person’s lane without permission. Unless the swimmer is at the far end of the pool, don’t cross a lane without asking permission. Don’t suggest to another swimmer that they are swimming incorrectly. Don’t assume that there is only one way to swim laps – my way. If our goals are the same – a community where all people are treated with respect, where justice is available to everyone, where children are valued and elders are protected, where all people have the right to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happinesswe can reach those goals without lockstep agreement. In fact, we can achieve the goals sooner, with greater success, by swimming our laps in ways that encourage others to swim beside us, using their lane and their gifts in the best way possible.

 

Stay safe and be blessed,

Pastor Barbara



A Lesson from Christmas Lights

Three years ago, we moved back to our original home, after making significant changes to it. We also took the move as an opportunity to pare down our possessions, which included the outdoor Christmas lights that were unused for many years. We didn’t replace them until this year, when we invested in blue meteor shower lights, plastic tubes in which the bulbs cascade from top to bottom. We’ve had at least one regular walker tell us that she walks her dog one more time each day so that she can enjoy our lights! As we are on a main street in our city, many vehicles and walkers pass by, and we hope they are all enjoying the lights as much as we are.

At least, as we were until we discovered a problem. Strongwinds, made known to us through the ringing of our Soleri bells from Cosanti in Phoenix, Arizona, had an unexpected effect on our meteor lights. I looked out the front window and discovered several “gaps.” It looked like some of the lights had disappeared. On inspection, we found they had been blown by an updraft, and were now resting in the storm gutters! We realized that a daily routine of getting the ladder and restoring the lights to their rightful place was not something we had anticipated. After considering options, Dave attached small brads to the eaves, and used a loop of picture framing wire to anchor the lights. Fortunately, my previous career as a picture framer left us with a plentiful supply of brads and picture wire. So far, the fix has kept the lights hanging down instead of blowing up.

Sometimes, the problems of our lives can be resolved because of what we’ve accumulated in the past. Just as the brads and picture wire were repurposed to solve a current problem, the wisdom we’ve accumulated can be a source of inspiration and hope for the present and the future. Disappointments are part of most lives: unreturned love, promotions and awards not received, deaths that break our hearts, diseases or injuries that affect our abilities. . . . Too many to name. How we respond to disappointments and troubles affects our lives. Those who choose to focus on the problems often feel overwhelmed and incompetent. Those who figure out a way to live with, or relieve, problems usually discover there are possibilities available.

Until I broke my arm some years ago, I thought a broken arm was no big deal. Then I realized how many every-day activities and movements depended upon two useful arms! Even sleeping involved finding a new position that kept my arm from hurting. There were times when I wanted to sit in a chair and do nothing. Fortunately, that wasn’t an option, so I had to figure out a new way to accomplish what needed to be done.

Though I wouldn’t wish a broken arm (or anything else) on anyone, I did accumulate some wisdom from the experience. I no longer think of anyone’s pain as “no big deal.” I’m also more likely to consider other ways of meeting challenges, rather than giving up in frustration. [Sometimes I discover an easier way to do things than what I’ve always done. I learned a more efficient way of slicing apples from watching Chopped.] For almost nine months, we’ve been confronted with a problem that is both personal and communal. The coronavirus pandemic has forced us to alter our ways of living and relating. We’ve responded in many ways, some more helpful than others. Some of us have discovered more efficient ways of doing things. Some of us have learned new methods of communicating and maintaining daily life. We may or may not go back to “the way things were.” We’ve used our brads and picture frame wire to keep the lights shining. And that’s a very good thing.

 

Stay safe and be blessed,

Pastor Barbara



Advent Meditations: Week 4 – “Let It Be”

(Light three blue candles and one pink candle. Read the verses below.)

 

Luke 1:26-38, from the CEB

When Elizabeth was six months pregnant, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a city in Galilee, 27 to a virgin who was engaged to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David’s house. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 When the angel came to her, he said, “Rejoice, favored one! The Lord is with you!” 29 She was confused by these words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Mary. God is honoring you. 31 Look! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father. 33 He will rule over Jacob’s house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom.”

34 Then Mary said to the angel, “How will this happen since I haven’t had sexual relations with a man?”

35 The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come over you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the one who is to be born will be holy. He will be called God’s Son. 36 Look, even in her old age, your relative Elizabeth has conceived a son. This woman who was labeled ‘unable to conceive’ is now six months pregnant. 37 Nothing is impossible for God.”

38 Then Mary said, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said.” Then the angel left her.

Commentary by Rev. Barbara Wiechel

Although the Mother Mary in Paul McCartney’s song is not Mary the mother of Jesus, his words in “Let it Be” could be addressed to the woman who became Theotokos, God-bearer. Written out of his own need, McCartney says, “And when the broken-hearted people living in the world agree, there will be an answer, let it be.” In a few short verses, in a brief conversation with God’s messenger angel, Mary moves from confusion to consideration, to acceptance of her role in God’s plan of redemption. As God’s partner, she agrees to give birth to Holy Wisdom, clothed in human flesh. After the child’s birth, Mary ponders what all this means, knowing from the prophecy of Simeon that “a sword will pierce [her] innermost being, too.” “Let it be” could be a phrase used to mean “leave well enough alone,” a refusal to participate. Instead, Mary’s words are a holy amen, “Let it be with me just as you have said.” When God’s messenger comes to us, and asks us to become God-bearers, will we choose to leave well enough alone, or will we be bold enough to echo Mary’s holy amen, “Let it be with me just as you have said”?

Personal Reflection

In what ways are we called to be God-bearers, to share the good news with our very being? What will be birthed in us if we agree to be God’s partners in redeeming creation? How will we make room within ourselves for all that God intends to birth in us?

 

Let us pray.

O God,

     give us the courage and the wisdom of Mary,

          that we may move from confusion to consideration to acceptance of your invitation to partner with you in redeeming the world.

Fill our being with your presence,

     and send us to the broken-hearted people in our world,

that they may know the answer: Let it be. Amen.



Advent Meditations: Week 3 – “Rejoice Always”

(Light two blue candles and one pink candle. Read the verses below.)

 

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24, from the CEB

Rejoice always. 17 Pray continually. 18 Give thanks in every situation because this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. 19 Don’t suppress the Spirit. 20 Don’t brush off Spirit-inspired messages, 21 but examine everything carefully and hang on to what is good. 22 Avoid every kind of evil. 23 Now, may the God of peace himself cause you to be completely dedicated to him; and may your spirit, soul, and body be kept intact and blameless at our Lord Jesus Christ’s coming. 24 The one who is calling you is faithful and will do this.

Commentary by Rev. Barbara Wiechel

As Advent was first practiced in the church, it was a season of penitence and self-denial similar to Lent. But the third Sunday provided a bit of relief, a Sunday dedicated to rejoicing, and the candle symbolizing that joy is rose, or pink. Included in the Apostle Paul’s advice to the church is to rejoice always, pray constantly, and give thanks in every situation. Only if we consider all of our life a prayer to God can we manage praying constantly. When we are facing difficult times, it is not easy to give thanks. And if our joy is defined by the world’s standards, it will be limited. The true gift of faith is that our joy is in God, not in life’s circumstances. Our prayers are not just spoken, but lived out in responsible, generous, compassionate acts.

Perhaps Paul’s most helpful advice for us is “Don’t suppress the Spirit.” Help is always available to us if we are willing to accept it. That is the good news. The awkward news is that the Spirit will lead us to rejoice, will enable us to pray constantly and give thanks in all circumstances, but at the Spirit’s leading, not ours. If we suppress the Spirit, we may feel safer, but we may also limit God’s grace in our lives. If we trust that God desires only what is best for us, we will refuse to suppress the Spirit, and rejoice always, pray constantly, and give thanks in every situation.

Personal Reflection

Think about a time when it was difficult to rejoice. Perhaps life was overwhelming, or grief was so raw that pain filled every waking moment. What is God’s gift for us when we are places like that? What would the Spirit offer us that would allow us to breathe and move toward rejoicing? Is it possible that rejoicing, praying and giving thanks are ways to ease pains of life? How do we learn to welcome, not suppress the Spirit?

 

Let us pray.

O God,

     when times are troubled and our lives are falling apart,

          still we will rejoice in your love.

We will welcome your Spirit,

     trust in your goodness,

          and learn to give thanks in all situations.

Let your peace rest upon us,

     and keep us intact and blameless as we wait for the coming of the Lord.

Amen.

 



Advent Meditations: Week 2 – “Prepare the Way”

(Light two blue candles and read the verses below.)

 

Mark 1:1-8, from the CEB

The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, God’s Son, happened just as it was written about in the prophecy of Isaiah:

Look, I am sending my messenger before you.
He will prepare your way,
a voice shouting in the wilderness:
Prepare the way for the Lord;
make his paths straight.”

John the Baptist was in the wilderness calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins. Everyone in Judea and all the people of Jerusalem went out to the Jordan River and were being baptized by John as they confessed their sins. John wore clothes made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He ate locusts and wild honey. He announced, “One stronger than I am is coming after me. I’m not even worthy to bend over and loosen the strap of his sandals. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

 

Commentary by Rev. Barbara Wiechel

Whenever a celebrity makes an appearance, an advance team comes first, ensuring that everything is set up for the best possible effect. The team inspects the site, orders what equipment will be needed, and often plans for the comfort of the celebrity. That might include ordering special snacks, entertainment options, transportation and comfortable spaces for waiting and preparing. Jesus’ advance team is a wild man living off the land, wearing home-made clothing, and shouting for people to change their hearts and lives. We are told that all the people who hear of this prophet head for the Jordan to be baptized by John. To be baptized is to make a commitment to make a way for the Lord to arrive. It is not the end, but the beginning, of our life with Jesus Christ. The prophet Isaiah, who is slightly misquoted by the gospel writer, says that valleys will be raised, mountains brought low, and uneven ground made level, that God’s glory might arrive. Advent reminds us there is work to be done, in our lives and in the world, if we are to prepare a way for God. The advance team tells us what must be done, and we must ready ourselves and our world for the arrival.

What are the mountains that we need to bring low? Might it be high opinions of worth that prevent us from seeing flaws in ourselves or others? What are valleys that need raised? Are we called to care for and about those who live in poverty, who lack education or training, who are suffering from addiction, violence, indifference? Where are the rough places that we might smooth out? Could it be our responses to those with whom we disagree, or our busy lives that leave no room for God? What are some of the ways we will go about the work of filling valleys, lowering mountains and smoothing rough places to make a way?

Let us pray.

O God,

     how often we invite you into our lives,

          but fail to make a way for your arrival.

Give us the tools we need to lower our mountains,

     fill our valleys and smooth our rough spots.

Then give us the will to live into the work

     to which we are called through baptism,

          that we might change our hearts and lives,

          through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

 

 

 

 



Advent Meditations: Week 1 – “Stay Woke”

(Light one blue advent candle and read the following scripture verses.)

 

Mark 13:32-37, from the CEB

32 “But nobody knows when that day or hour will come, not the angels in heaven and not the Son. Only the Father knows. 33 Watch out! Stay alert! You don’t know when the time is coming. 34 It is as if someone took a trip, left the household behind, and put the servants in charge, giving each one a job to do, and told the doorkeeper to stay alert. 35 Therefore, stay alert! You don’t know when the head of the household will come, whether in the evening or at midnight, or when the rooster crows in the early morning or at daybreak. 36 Don’t let him show up when you weren’t expecting and find you sleeping. 37 What I say to you, I say to all: Stay alert!”

Commentary by Rev. Barbara Wiechel
 
Amazon sends customers an email that confirms what they have ordered, when it will be shipped, and when it will be delivered. They even follow up with an email that says, “Your package has been delivered.” God doesn’t work that way. In West Side Story, Leonard Bernstein’s lyrics say, “Something’s coming, something good, if I can wait. Something’s coming, I don’t know what it is, but it is gonna be great!” That is the same message that Jesus announces to his disciples. Whatever is coming is worth waiting for. We don’t want to miss it because we are asleep.

“Stay woke” is a phrase being used that encourages us to be aware – more aware –

of the underlying issues behind news reports, internet posts, and tweets. Not every source is reliable, insists “stay woke,” and not all information is available to us. “Stay woke” reminds us that God is always at work in our lives and in our world, but if we are not alert, we might miss the signs. The first message of Advent is to wake us up from sleep that dulls are awareness of God.

Think about some of the ways we are awakened to new ideas, new skills, new problems or new solutions. Perhaps it is a conversation, instruction, or an idea that comes to us when we are pondering. If we pay close attention, if we “stay woke,” we discover God is very active in our lives. Take some time to write down some things that have occurred to change your life, or share them with another person.

Let us pray.

O God who is always doing a new thing,

     whose creation is a masterpiece of beauty and diversity,

wake us up to the possibilities of life for us.

Open our eyes with a sense of wonder;

     open our ears to hear melodies that soar to heaven;

     open our hearts to feel your love surrounding us;

     open our minds to knowledge that goes beyond facts.

And then, O God,

     help us stay awake to all that you are doing in and for us,

          through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.



Decorating for Christmas

A number of years ago, when we were not expecting any of our family or friends to be with us during the Christmas season, I decided that it was too much trouble to put up a Christmas tree. At that time, we were still using cut trees, which were far more complicated to prepare. There were no pre-strung lights, no automatic solid base. Once it was up, the tree required water in the pan, but still continued to shed needles. My decision was quite sensible. But as I was driving home after some errands, I passed a tree lot, and it tugged at my heart. I began to re-think my decision. To my great joy, when I arrived home, a package containing a small, live, pre-lit, pre-decorated tree was in the garage! My sister’s gift saved me from that tree lot! We had a tree, and it was ideal for our situation.
 
The year that we were in the process of moving from our house in Dayton to our house in Kettering, we “made do” with a small ceramic tree that belonged to my parents, a gift from friends who made it for them. Our granddaughter Isabelle was quite upset with me for not having a tree! I promised her that it would only be for one year. The next year, she helped us select the tree that sits in our living room. She chose well!
 
Once again, we are in a year when our entertaining will be limited, and it was tempting to forgo some of the traditions of the season. The outdoor lighting I hoped to achieve has been sidelined by the extended process of pouring a new driveway and digging up much of the landscaping around the house. When the work is completed, we will have electrical outlets which should make it easier to string lights, and new plantings that will be attractive. But that’s for another year.
 
I read a post from a friend who has not yet put up his tree, since his son will not be coming home for Christmas and he is in a different home from the past few years. When he expressed his reluctance to decorate, countless people encouraged him to rethink that decision. They recognized that there is healing for our despair in surrounding ourselves with signs and symbols that hold memories of precious moments and beloved people. Many suggested that we should all take pictures of our trees or decorations, and flood the internet with signs of joy.
 
Our hearts are aching that we cannot gather in our beloved sanctuary for holy moments on Christmas Eve. We will be seeing fewer of our friends and family in person, as we cancel open houses, parties and celebrations. We are grieving the loss of loved ones from COVID19 and other diseases, and our inability to be with them for final moments and last conversations. It is difficult not to lose hope, even though there are breakthroughs in vaccines that offer some good news. We, too, might be tempted to “skip” Christmas Eve, since it just won’t be the same. But the light is coming. We may be people walking in darkness, but we have seen a great light. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light.”
 
We are waiting, but our waiting time need not be a time of fear or doubt. We know that “God is with us,” Emmanuel. So, let us decorate our homes and our lives with light and love. Let’s bake the cookies and prepare the foods that hold memories of times of rejoicing. Let’s light up the world with acts of kindness and generosity through donations to worthy causes. Let’s remind the world, and ourselves, that Christ is coming soon.
 
Stay safe and be blessed,
Pastor Barbara


Time to Get Treatment

What do we do when the decision is made, when the uncertainty is over, when our hopes and dreams or our greatest fears seem realized? Almost three years ago, when I was dealing with the unanticipated death of a dear friend who was also a co-worker, when changes in our music offerings, our congregation’s celebration of Christmas, had to be altered from “normal,” I got a phone message from my brother-in-law. He doesn’t call to chat, so I knew it was something important. He wanted me to know that the day before, as they were putting up the Christmas tree, my sister broke down, and admitted she was afraid she was dying. After a trip to the emergency room, a diagnosis of metastasized breast cancer was made. Her worst fears were realized.
 
My nephew flew home from Saudi Arabia, and his brother was already “on duty.” She expected to have the doctors say there was nothing they could do for her. Instead, they announced a course of treatment that had a good possibility of success in containing, not curing, the disease. And her family insisted that she move forward with radiation and chemotherapy. She was fortunate to have a treatment center within blocks of her home, with a support team for every aspect of life, and with access to trials and new treatments. She discovered that, disease or not, she was blessed. During this time, she’s had the opportunity to visit her family in Saudi Arabia, enjoy Christmas in Austria and Germany, spend much time at their beach condo, and make trips to Arizona to be with our brother when his wife died unexpectedly. Now we’re looking forward to my nephew’s marriage next summer. The treatments are not easy or pleasant, but each time she receives a check-up with no evidence of the disease, their value increases.
 
As a result of a global pandemic, a pandemic of violence that seems to be sweeping our country, and the anticipated change of leadership in our country, many of us may wish to refuse treatment and let the disease run its course. Like a dog severely wounded in an auto accident, we may want to bite the ones who would come to our rescue. Angry words have severed families and friends, and we don’t have the will or energy to forgive, let alone do the hard work of reconciliation. Even if we think we’ve “won,” we are afraid that those with whom we disagree will continue to attack with name-calling, threats or fear-mongering comments. Yet our hearts ache with the loss of loved ones, and our better selves long to reunite in many ways. We are fractured, broken, and pain and fear are our constant companions. But there are treatments available – treatments of compassion, hope, rebuilt trust and common causes.
It will be some time, depending upon our willingness to undergo treatment, before we know whether the diseases that are destroying our peace are being contained, and even longer before we know if they are being cured. There will be unpleasant side effects as we negotiate actions to address the issues that threaten our well-being, such as economic and educational inequalities, racism and other prejudices, climate safety and access to health care. Sometimes we will achieve our goals, but most of the time we will fall short, able to make only slight improvements in our condition. But if we continue the treatments, the possibilities of containment and, ultimately, cure, will increase. We may discover that we are not as divided as we seem to be, since we all want a world that provides peace and possibilities for us and for our children. Our goals are the same. Health, prosperity, contentment, peace can be ours. We will be blessed, if we are willing to do the work of reconciliation and progress to which we are called.
Stay safe and be blessed,
Pastor Barbara