Asking: Am I ‘All In?’

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I was invited to participate in worship leadership yesterday, the first time in a while I’ve been asked, and the first time in a longer while when I felt I could reasonably say ‘yes.’ We enjoyed a relatively quiet weekend for the first time in too long, so there was space, both on the calendar, and in my spirit, to think creatively about a passage of scripture and attempt to lead God’s people in prayer.

The sermon was from a short text in Ephesians 6 — the two verses immediately following that long list of ‘armor’ that every follow of Jesus needs to live fully, carefully and creatively in this world of ours. The verses that talk about Paul being an ‘ambassador in chains,’ the ones that talk about being  full-out followers of Jesus, the ones that encourage us all to be people of prayer. . . all-the-time prayer, not just special-event-as-the-needs-build-up prayer.

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As always, the altarpiece helped us to ‘see’ the passage, and Pastor Don’s sermon unpacked those words very well indeed. After the sermon, the worship team led us through 3 rounds of that wonderful, small Taize chorus, the one that goes:

O Lord, hear my prayer; O Lord, hear my prayer.
When I call, answer me.
O Lord, hear my prayer; O Lord, hear my prayer.
Come and listen to me.

And then we prayed a community prayer in three parts, the first and last from me, the middle one from Don, with the chorus sung liturgically between each part. It was good to lead in prayer again; I’m grateful.

We’ve heard a word from you today, Lord.
A good word, but also, I must admit,
a hard word.
It’s hard because today you’re asking us to be ‘all in.’

All of us, all the time, everywhere.

Gulp.

Somehow, it’s easier for us to be partly in, you know?
Especially on days like today, when we can come here,
to this beautiful space, and specifically focus on you —
on who you are, on who you call us to be.

It seems simpler for us to do that when we gather with your people,
when we sing the songs and pray the prayers and hear the words.

But today, your word is asking something else entirely.
And that something is important, and inclusive,
and — let’s be honest here — more than a little bit demanding.
It feels uncomfortable, maybe even disorienting,
because you’re asking us to be ambassadors, out there, in the world.

The world we live in, and study in.
The world we shop in, and work in,
the world where we converse with other people, all kinds of other people,
some of them really difficult.
The world where too many problems seem to have no answers,
where ugly things happen — things that scare us and overwhelm us.

But that is the world you made, the world you have set us in, the world you love.
And if we’re going to call ourselves your friends, then that’s the world where we must be.

Will you help us, please?
Lean in close and whisper words of truth and courage,

remind us of the depths of your love,
tell us the truth of who we are as your called,

and gifted
and empowered
representatives.

We have good news to share, to live, to offer.

Make us bold in our living, wherever we are,
from the kitchen to the boardroom,
from the study hall to the golf course,
from the baby nursery to the retirement home.

Wherever we are, whomever we’re with,
help us to radiate your love and grace,

in every conversation,
transaction,
encounter,
and circumstance.

Help us to be all in.
Lord, hear our prayer.

Part Two.

Lord, we confess that we are not always prepared for the battle.
We expect things to be nice and polite and to go our way.
We confess that we get wounded too easily and fight with others too harshly.

And the weapons we use to do battle just don’t get the job done.

So today, O God, would you re-arm our lives with your full armor?

  • Would you belt our lives with your eternal truth?
  • Would you cover our hearts with your breastplate of righteousness?
  • Would you put on our feet those fast shoes that spread the gospel of peace and reconciliation anywhere and everywhere we go?
  • Would you put in our hands that strong shield of faith that can absorb and quench the fiery attacks that often undo us?
  • Would you cover our heads and minds with that strong helmet of our salvation that cannot be taken away?
  • And give us your sword, your Word, anchored in our hearts, that Word which can fell and undo Satan and all his lies.                                                                     Lord, make us strong.                                                                                                     Hear our prayer.

Part Three

Some of us, Lord, have been doing this discipleship thing for a long time now.
Others of us are newer to the journey.
But all of us still have so much to learn about prayer.

About settling into that place where we do what the epistles call us to do with that impossible sounding phrase: “pray without ceasing.”

Maybe we find prayer difficult because we’ve misunderstood the richness of this gift, this means of communion with you.

Maybe we’ve been stuck in a rut of list-making,
and detailed itemizing.

Or maybe we think prayer is some strange specialty that’s better left
to the pastors and the wordsmiths.

Whatever the reasons, Lord, will you help us, right here and right now,
to just relax?

To sit here, in your presence, and say as little as possible.

Maybe a, ‘thank you!’
Or a, ‘bless them.’
Or a, ‘you’re amazing, Lord!’

Because that’s at the heart of it all, isn’t it?
Moving through our days with an awareness of you,
with a spirit of gratitude,
with an eagerness to find you, already at work in the midst of the details
that fill our time and our minds.

So as we sit here in this quiet space, and as we sing this lovely small song,
will you help us to unkink,
to let go of our need to be ‘good’ at things,
and just discover the simple joy of
being quiet, with you?

Thank you, Lord.
Bless us, Lord.
Praise you, Lord.

Amen.

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We visited with some old friends and met a few new ones, too; we picked up some mail at our former home, and then we turned the car around, drove further than we’re used to on a Sunday morning, and spent the rest of the day enjoying the quiet beauty of our new space. I sat on a chaise lounge, in the sunshine for two hours, just being grateful for the ways in which we have been blessed in this life of ours. Not many words were said. And I was happy to be ‘all in,’ if only for an afternoon.

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What’s In a Name?

It’s been quiet around here of late. I’ve written around the blogosphere at several different places in the last few weeks, but not terribly often here, in my space, just writing for me, and whoever might stop by to see whatever words I’ve gathered.

We had a quiet weekend, celebrating Dick’s birthday in several small gatherings. On his actual day, just he and I went out for lunch and to a matinee. On Saturday, our son and his family surprised us with a drop-in, take-out dinner from our favorite local Mexican hang-out. And on Sunday, after church, we met our eldest daughter and her husband and youngest son at BJ’s in Ventura. We love s t r e t c h i n g birthdays out as long as we can — and three days was just about right.

My guy was hungry for ribs, and BJs never disappoints. And to finish things off very well indeed, he was served his own individual Pazookie, complete with candle! Do you know what a Pazookie is? Just one of the divinest desserts ever invented, that’s what. A freshly baked cookie (several choices – he picked peanut butter), fresh from the oven, topped with a scoop of Haagen Daaz vanilla. Heaven in a small aluminum pan, that’s what.

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The drive south took us past this lovely spot, looking down on Summerland Beach. The day was breezy and the water a little bit wild — always fun to see. And somehow, the celebratory mood of day and meal and family seemed fitting and right after a profoundly moving worship experience earlier in the day.

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This was our fabulous worship band-of-the-week jamming after the service was over. Our Director of Worship Arts, Bob Gross, planned a perfect combination of songs for the theme of the day, including a masterful arrangement (his own) of,  “Lord, I’m Amazed by You” with The Doxology. The entire opening sequence brought me to tears more than once — filled as it was with what we do best: contemporary and traditional music, both poured through the inventive mind of Mr. Gross. We sang that old favorite, “Holy, Holy, Holy” this way – verse 1, totally a cappella (and we can SING the harmony in our community!), verse 2, full band with quiet percussion, verse 3, up a key, adding the most moving slow roar of the drums I’ve ever experienced, and verse 4, straight ahead and gorgeous. Oh, my.

DSC01241As always, the music, the prayer, the readings from Old Testament and New coordinated well with the preaching text of the morning, which this week was taken from the last eleven verses of John 16.

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God spoke powerfully through Pastor Jon about what it means when we pray in the name of Jesus. Here are a few highlights from that passage:

“My Father will give you whatever you ask in my name . . . I am not saying that I will ask the Father on your behalf. No, the Father himself loves you because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God . . .  A time is coming and in fact has come when you will be scattered, each to your own home. You will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me . . . I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

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These few verses contain some mighty huge ideas, ones that linger and permeate. Ideas like these:

The name of Jesus is strong, redemptive, life-changing. It is not magical.

There will be suffering in this life — which should come as a surprise to precisely no one. But because of Jesus, because we are given the inestimable gift of praying in his name, we are never alone, no matter what. 

Praying is not about words alone. In fact it is more often about silence . . . or it is experienced in action. We pray in Jesus’ name whenever we offer comfort/aid/solace/provision for another.

We pray with our bodies, not just in them. WE are the continuation of the Incarnation as we allow the Spirit of our Lord to work through us, as we live out what it means to be the Body of Christ. 

Praying in the name of Jesus touches on one of the foundational truths of the Christian faith — we serve a Triune God, Father, Son, Spirit — One in Three, Three in One. 

We do not ask Jesus to pray for us, so as to somehow buffer the space between us and God the Father. Too much of the church has painted a picture of a scary God, one that Jesus saves us from, a God that cannot be approached by the likes of us. But Jesus says clearly and beautifully, “. . . I am not saying that I will ask the Father on your behalf. No, the Father himself loves you  . . . “

“Take heart,” Jesus says. Immediately after predicting that all his friends will desert him in his hour of need, that they themselves will have their share of trouble. “Take heart,”  he says. TAKE HEART?  Yes. And not only that, but because of that name, that powerful name, they — and we — will have peace, the kind of peace that makes room for this truth: the One in whose name we pray has overcome the world.

I carried these pieces of grace with me as we drove down the coast, as we laughed and ate a good lunch with our daughter’s family, as we came back home and prepared for the week ahead. Turns out there’s a lot, a LOT, in a Name. I am grateful

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Are You Listening? John 10:1-41

If you prefer to listen to sermons rather than read them, you can find a downloadable audio version here. It starts in the middle of a sentence, but you do hear the Readers’ Theater version of the scripture reading of the day.DSC00832
John 10:1-42
with Ezekiel 34:1-12, Psalm 23

A Sermon preached at Montecito Covenant Church
by Diana R.G.Trautwein
January 26, 2014

The reading of the passage from Ezekiel began this preaching time.

Thank you, Bruce, for reading what amounts to the bad news for this morning. That prophetic voice in Ezekiel, calling out the leaders of the Jewish people as ‘bad shepherds,’ downright lousy leaders. This is an important passage to bear in mind as we dig into the wonders of our passage from John’s gospel this morning.

For our second reading, we’re going to turn to the OT testament once again, this time to hear about the best kind of leader, the best kind of shepherd. But instead of reading it, we’re going to do something a little different: we’re going to sing it.

I first learned this call-and-response hymn at the memorial service for a dear friend and mentor about three years ago. My husband and I were both moved to tears by the way in which the composer took such familiar words and reworked them into poetry that was beautiful, both musically and literarily. The song is called, “Shepherd Me, O God,” and it’s a paraphrase of Psalm 23, perhaps the most well-known chunk of scripture anywhere in the world. In fact, this is the psalm that was read responsively last Sunday, so you’ve heard it recently.

But there was no way I could preach on John 10 this morning without somehow visiting this beautiful picture of the Good Shepherd, so today — this time –we’re going to sing it. We’ll learn the words to the chorus first, because that’s the part that we will sing. Then the worship team will sing the verses. And, at the end of each verse,  we’ll chime in with our sung response; it will be the same every time. Simple, right?

 Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants,
beyond my fears, from death into life.
God is my shepherd, so nothing shall I want.
I rest in the meadows of faithfulness and love.
I walk by the quiet waters of peace.
Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants,
beyond my fears, from death into life.
Gently you raise me and heal my weary soul,
you lead me by pathways of righteousness and truth,
my spirit shall sing the music of your Name.
Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants,
beyond my fears, from death into life.
Though I should wander the valley of death,
I fear no evil, for you are at my side,
your rod and your staff, my comfort and my hope.
You have set me a banquet of love in the place of hatred.
Crowning me with love beyond my pow’r to hold.
Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants,
beyond my fears, from death into life.
Surely your kindness and mercy follow me
all the days of my life.
I will dwell in the house of my God forevermore.
Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants,
beyond my fears, from death into life.
— words & music by Marty Haugen

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Thank you, Bob and team, for learning this song and then teaching it to all of us.

And as we turn to our text from John’s gospel this morning, that is my prayer for all of us — that we would invite the Good Shepherd to carry us beyond our wants, beyond our fears, from death into life.

We come to our text for today with two pictures in our minds – the Good Shepherd, whom we’ve just sung about, and the bad shepherds that Bruce read about earlier. In that passage, the prophet Ezekiel rips into the kings of Israel, who were given the task of shepherding the national flock. And God, the Holy, Righteous God, tells those shepherds, in no uncertain terms, that they have failed to do their jobs well, utterly failed. Therefore, they are out!

Instead, in a beautiful prophetic view of the future, we learn that the Lord Himself will ‘search for my sheep and look after them.’ God will be shepherd for his flock, his people.

So now, with both of those pictures in mind, we come to the tenth chapter of John’s gospel. Allow me to set the scene for you, before I invite some friends up to help me read this long passage.

First of all, the setting: Chapter 10 picks up right where chapter 9 leaves off – with lots of red letters. Jesus is addressing the Pharisees, the same Pharisees who have thrown the blind man out of the synagogue. You remember him from last week, right? The man, blind from birth, whom Jesus healed by mixing spit with mud and coating those eyes, eyes that had never seen anything, ever.

That remarkable miracle that got everyone jabbering. Remember? And the man at the center of all the buzzing, that blind man didn’t quite know what hit him. All he knows is that a man named Jesus made it possible for him to see – by offering mud and spit and a command to “go wash.” And the man who once was blind says that anyone who could do that is no magician, but a messenger straight from God.

And for that little statement, he gets thrown out. And Jesus, hearing this news, comes to the one he healed and asks a critical question in the closing verses of chapter 9: “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”

And yes, the blind man truly sees Jesus, and worships him. The Pharisees who were watching, however, do not get it. The ones who claim to see, to understand God and God’s ways, turn out to be the ones who are blind, indeed.

So that’s what has brought us to this big chapter, this turning point chapter numbered 10 in our Bibles. It contains the last set of public teachings in the entire gospel, the last time Jesus wanders through the streets of Jerusalem and the temple courtyards before the events of Holy Week.

This is a watershed moment, these 41 verses, and the work Jesus does here, the teaching and the arguing, and the accusing, and the claims he makes — these are pivotal and worth our careful attention today.

Greg and Janet Spencer have agreed to help me read for you John 10:1-41. I invite you to listen with your Bibles open in front of you, because we’re going to be going back to various parts of this long reading later in the sermon.

READING [This was a very fun Readers’ Theater for Three Voices that I suggested and my friends agreed to, with Greg re-working the verses into a much-appreciated dramatic format. 41 verses in 1 voice can be deadly. But 3 voices, reading dramatically? Everybody paid attention.]

The Word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

Thank you, Spencers, for your fine reading skills. I am grateful for your help.

There is a lot going on here, isn’t there? A lot of red letters in this chapter, a lot of Jesus-words. But also a lot of push-back, argument, anger, enough anger to threaten stoning. And all of it coming from a simple story about sheep and shepherds, about thieves, and hired hands and wolves and gates.

Well, maybe it’s not so simple after all. Our altar piece indicates this is far from a simple story with just these few pieces, doesn’t it? The staff, hat and cloak of a shepherd. And a handful of stones spread across the table. No, it’s not simple. But it is rich.

So to delve into that richness, I want to take just a few key phrases out of all these words and focus on those with you this morning. I want to try and distill the goodness for us, by reflecting for a few minutes on these ideas:

                                    He calls his sheep by name.

                                    My sheep listen to my voice.

                                    Believe the works.

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I think it is important for us to understand that this chapter is integrally connected to the healing of the blind man in the chapter before it. Why? Because healing is at the heart of all that Jesus came to do and all of who Jesus is, for us and for the world.

Whether we always recognize it or not, each one of us yearns to be healed, to be whole — to have our blindspots washed away, to have our hearts comforted, to know that we are seen, that we are heard, that we are loved. And, as he so often does, Jesus chooses to teach us about what our own healing looks like by telling us a story. Twice.

In the first telling, Jesus claims that he is ‘the gate,’ the place of entry into the safety of the sheepfold. And in the second, he says, “I am the Good Shepherd.” Two strong statements about who he is, using terms and images that were familiar to his listeners. Everybody knew about shepherds. So many of the villages and towns that comprised ancient Palestine bordered that great wilderness area that covers thousands of miles across the Middle East, all of it populated by herds of sheep, each one with its own shepherd.

But at another level, everyone also knew about the repeated use of shepherd imagery to describe leaders, both human and divine. Like our Ezekiel passage, like the 23rd psalm. That image of the strong, brave, selfless shepherd was used to describe ancient kings, religious leaders, even Almighty God.

It quickly becomes clear that in Jesus’ story, there is only one shepherd who truly cares for the sheep. And it ain’t the religious leaders, who were so quick to toss out a miraculously healed, blind-from-birth, gospel-witnessing recipient-of-grace back there in chapter 9. No. Jesus himself is the true shepherd, the one who knows each sheep by name.

There’s something special about hearing your name spoken out loud by a caring voice. I think that’s why those of us who own names that are closely related to other names make a big deal about others getting ours right.

My dad debated a long time before he put that ‘a’ on the end of my name. And, to tell you the truth, it took me a while to grow into it. I wasn’t so sure I liked it growing up. But as I listened to my dad, this man who loved me so well that I could understand all of the Father imagery for God in scripture without a moment’s hesitation — I began to appreciate the gift that this name is in my life: my dad picked it. And he put that ‘a’ on the end.

Diane is a fine name – I like it a lot. But it’s not my name, you know? So when you keep that ‘a’ in place when you talk to me or write to me, that tells me that you see me, you care enough about me to get my name right.

Jesus knows my name. All my names, the ones I’ve been given through birth and marriage, and the ones I sometimes call myself, too. And those are not so pretty. I’m betting that each of you knows something about those kind of names, too: “clumsy”  “stupid”  “foolish”  “lazy”  “ugly.”

But hear me when I tell you this: those are not your names, nor are they mine. If we look to Jesus as our Good Shepherd, these are our names: “safe”  “loved” “fed”  “rested”  “led to green pastures”  “anointed”  “blessed.”

The Good Shepherd knows our name. Our truest name. He calls his sheep by name. And. . .My sheep listen to my voice.

There are six different places in chapter 10 where Jesus makes reference to listening, more specifically, listening to his voice, the voice of the Good Shepherd, the voice that knows our names. Six times. That tells me that the whole idea of listening is central to everything that’s being taught here.

Listening is tough to do. And it’s getting tougher. There is so much noise in this world! And sifting through it to find that still, small voice . . . well, it’s not easy. It takes intentionality. And it takes time. Both of which are often in short supply. The Pharisees in this chapter are a case in point. They heard Jesus, but they weren’t listening. And there’s a difference.

My husband gets frustrated with me because I often don’t listen very well. I hear him, I hear a voice saying words, but I’m not listening. I’m distracted. I’m reading. I’m thinking about something else. I’m physically present, but aurally absent. I’m working on it, but sometimes it’s a tough go.

And listening to the voice of the Shepherd? If I’m not intentional, if I’m not quiet for at least a few minutes each day, if I’m not developing the habit of ‘praying without ceasing’ (which to me means keeping the channel deliberately open all day long, tossing up breath prayers in and around all of my thinking/reading/ writing/talking out loud) — if I’m not prayerful, then how can I possibly be listening?

As part of my training to become a spiritual director, I had to do several different listening exercises, the most excruciatingly difficult one was this. We were assigned to groups of six and each person was to bring a pre-written life story to read and share with the rest of the group. The rest of us were told to listen as carefully as possible and then. . .to simply reflect back what we heard.

Think about that! No asking questions. No giving advice. Nothing but evidence that we had indeed been listening to what was read.

Man, that was tough. But it was so important. What it did was to teach us to listen well to one another, but also, at the same time, to listen to the voice of the Spirit within. Which is, in sum, what the work of spiritual direction is all about: listening to the other, seated across from you, and listening the whispers of the Spirit at the same time.

Whether or not I’m ever able to facilitate anything of value in the life of those who meet with me, those exercises were in many ways life-changing for me. They helped me grow my inner listening skills. Like anything else, good listening takes practice.

And I’m guessing that my husband would probably appreciate it if I’d pull those skills out a little more frequently in our day-to-day life, too!

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Lastly, this phrase from the second half of long this chapter: Believe the works. It comes in the discussion late in the chapter, when everyone is in Jerusalem for a time of celebration, The Festival of Dedication, remembering the time when the temple was restored to the people of Israel 200 years earlier, when the foreign idols were thrown out, and the beauty of Jerusalem’s centerpiece was once again vibrant and real.

Into the midst of this celebrating, Jesus strides along Solomon’s porch, a covered portico with pillars 38 feet high, a place where Gentiles were welcome, where wintertime gatherings were a little more comfortable.

And, once again, He is immediately surrounded by angry Jewish religious leaders. “How long will you keep us in suspense?” they shouted. “Tell us now, tell us clear: are you the Messiah?”

The more times I read through this scene, the more I sense that these over-anxious Jewish leaders were baiting Jesus, snarling at him, pushing him to declare himself. And Jesus’ response? “I’ve already told you who I am. But you choose not to believe me. I’ve told you by what I do as much as by what I say.” And every one of them immediately picks up a stone, making ready to heave them at Jesus.

Several verses later, Jesus continues to say, “Do not believe me unless I do the works of my Father. But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father. Believe the works.”

You know, this just slays me. It becomes pretty clear that all the talking in the world is not going to convince these dudes of anything. Jesus even does some pretty nifty biblical interpretation in there, and he talks about his unity with the Father. He consistently reminds them that HE is the Good Shepherd and they are not. He uses his words, over and over again.

And they will have none of it.

And yet. . . right here in Solomon’s Porch, Jesus still gives them every opportunity to step through the gate of the sheep, doesn’t he? “Believe the works. Even if you struggle with what I say, even if you can’t quite believe I am who I say I am, there is room for you with me, if you will look at what I do, and see that it can only be from God. Believe the works.”

Friends, when we find ourselves in places where we simply can’t take in the words, when we find it hard to believe that Jesus is all he claims to be, when we’re not sure what to believe, then it’s time to believe the works.

Do we see evidence of Jesus’ healing work in us and/or in others? Do we see people acting with love and concern? Do we experience unexplained urges to do something good and kind that we might not ever think to do in our own steam? Can we look around our world and see the occasional spark of beauty, the rare moment of understanding, the surprising acts of kindness?

Believe the works.

They may be few and far between. The ugly things may seem to be in the ascendency, the darkness may loom. But are there flashes of light? Do we see beauty in the face of someone who is suffering? Can we find examples of healing and grace and laughter and light?

THINK ON THESE THINGS
Believe the works.

But these angry men cannot hear, and they cannot see. In chapter 9, the false shepherds are blind, though they claim to see. And here in chapter 10, they are deaf, though they claim to hear. And once again, they circle round him, furious, trying to grasp him, seize him.

The time is not yet, however. The time for grasping Jesus will come, but not today. And he slips away.

So at the very end of chapter 10, we find Jesus back where he began. He went ‘down by the river to pray,’ right back to where John had baptized him when he began these years of preaching and teaching and healing.

And note this, too. The healing continues. Next week, we’ll read about the biggest miracle of all, the raising of Lazarus.

As we finish our reflection on John 10 today, I am wondering, where do you need to find healing, wholeness, safety today?

Do you need to remember that Jesus knows your name?

Do you need to find more space for listening to the Shepherd’s voice?

Do you need to look for and then believe the works?

As we sing that sweet chorus we sang in the opening set one more time, will you look inside and see what it is you’re longing for today?

I have a Maker
He formed my heart
Before even time began
My life was in his hands

I have a Father
He calls me His own
He’ll never leave me
No matter where I go

He knows my name
He knows my every thought
He sees each tear that falls
And He hears me when I call
—  music & lyrics by Tommy Walker

If you are unfamiliar with the songs that were woven into this sermon, here are a couple of decent YouTube versions for your listening and worship:

The Truest Disciple: Reflections on John 12:1-8

I’m nearing the end of a wonderful online writing class (offered through www.tweetspeakpoetry.com) and for one of our lessons, we were asked to write something in the style of one of our favorite authors. I chose Barbara Brown Taylor, whose sermons are perfection. This small meditation is a very feeble attempt to echo her insightful handing of familiar Bible passages.

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“Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him.  Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”  (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.)

 Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

 

It was a party, you know. A dinner party. Because that’s where all the really good things in life happen, right? Sharing a meal with people we love, laughing over a shared glass of wine, telling stories, building memories.

And they were all there, the whole motley crew. The Twelve that followed Jesus up the road and down again. And the three – the siblings, Martha, Mary, Lazarus – who loved Jesus and hosted him time and again.

And this was a special party, truly special. Lazarus had been . . . well, there’s no other way but to put the bald truth out there — Lazarus had been dead.

And then he wasn’t, because Jesus said, ‘Come out.’

But like many parties often do, this one wound down to just three people, three people in the spotlight.

Jesus, because . . . well, he was Jesus, after all.

And Judas, because he asks hard questions and flings accusations.

And Mary.

Mary?

Right here, in the deeply misogynistic world of 1st century Palestine, the one in the fullest glare of the spotlight, the one truly faithful disciple turns out to be . . . a woman.

All the guys are there — the crusty fisherman, the bickering brothers, the tax collector, the one who sat under the fig tree. And they’ve all been there for the last three years, covered in dust, sprinkled with Galilean water, living the daily ins and outs of the Jesus life.

Yet somehow, they missed it. They missed the point of it all, the thrust of their mission, the terrifying end of the story they didn’t even know they were telling.

But Mary?

Mary gets it. She is so full of the glorious, heartbreaking truth that it literally pours forth from her body. She comes to the end of the dining couch, where Jesus is reclining by the table. She bends down, breaks open a wildly expensive vial of fragrant oil, and pours it over his feet, loosing her hair to rub it right into the cracks and crevices, scandalizing everyone in the room except the one she came to anoint.

Because, you see, she had been paying attention. Like that other Mary, she was ‘pondering these things in her heart,’ listening with care. As Judas snarled, Jesus calmed the storm: “Leave her alone . . . this perfume has been stashed away just for today, to prepare me for . . . my burial.”

Even here, on the eve of his own brutal death, Jesus insists on changing up the rules for acceptable behavior.  He shuts down what we might call the ‘churchy’ attitude, the self-righteous platitudes, and he elevates the simple but loving actions of a contemplative woman.

What we do and why and how we do it — that’s what counts. It’s not so much what we say or even what we believe — it’s what we do. Because the take-home truth is this: the surest sign of a true disciple is the delicious aroma that permeates every corner of the house.

Every corner.

 

In the midst of a hard and tiring week, I’m thankful tonight for 
the stories of scripture,
the gentle care of health aides where our moms live,
the sunshine sparkling on the water,
a 91 degree swimming pool for therapy on unhappy tendons,
CPK salads for dinner.

Joining this with Michelle and Jen, Ann & Jennifer this week:



Midweek Service: Inside Out and Upside Down

This will be the final sermon in this 10-part series of oldies.
I preached it in the last year of my ministry
and began it with a Readers’ Theater reading of the text,
something I love to do from time to time,
just to encourage people to really listen to the words.
It’s from the Old Testament, which is a favorite place for me.
Because mixed up with the violence and the seeming primitiveness
of those long ago times, there is beautiful, lasting truth.
Truth about human nature
and truth about the story God is telling in the universe,
the story that centers on grace.
This sermon touches on a lot of things that are close to my heart,
and I think, if they should ever read it,
my grandchildren might find
something good here to hang onto.
I think maybe this is my favorite one.

Inside Out and Upside Down
2 Kings 5:1-17
A Sermon preached at
Montecito Covenant Church
July 4, 2010 (Communion Sunday) by Diana R.G. Trautwein

Independence Day is traditionally a day for family gatherings and for family story-sharing.  Well, have I got a story for you today.  Oh my, this is a good one – one of the best-crafted of so many well-told tales in the Old Testament.  This one takes place in about the 9th century before the birth of Christ – and it’s found in 2 Kings – chapter 5, to be exact.  And today, I want to encourage you to have your Bibles open, but to just listen to this story as we read it for you.

READERS’ THEATER FOR THREE VOICES – 2 KINGS 5:1-17

Reader 1:           Now Naaman was commander of the army of the king of Aram.
Reader 2:          He was a great man in the sight of his master and highly regarded,
Reader 3:          because through him the LORD had given victory to Aram. He was a valiant soldier,
Reader 1:          but… he had leprosy.
Reader 3:         Now bands of raiders from Aram had gone out and had taken captive a young  girl from Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress,
Reader 1.         “If only my master would see the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.”
Reader 2:         Naaman went to his master and told him what the girl from Israel had said.
Reader 3:         “By all means, go,” the king of Aram replied. “I will send a letter to the king of Israel.”
Reader 2:         So Naaman left, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold and ten sets of clothing.  The letter that he took to the king of Israel read:
Reader 3:         “With this letter I am sending my servant Naaman to you so that you may cure him of his leprosy.”
Reader 1:         As soon as the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his robes and said,
Reader 2:         “Am I God? Can I kill and bring back to life? Why does his fellow send someone to me to be cured of his leprosy? See how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me!”
Reader 1:         When Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his robes, he sent him this message:
Reader 3:         “Why have you torn your robes? Have the man come to me and he will know that there is a prophet in Israel.”
Reader 1:         So Naaman went with his horses and chariots and stopped at the door of Elisha’s house. Elisha sent a messenger to say to him,
Reader 2:         “Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed.”
Reader 1:         But Naaman went away angry and said,
Reader 3:         “I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy.  Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Couldn’t I wash in them and be cleansed?”
Reader 1:         So he turned and went off in a rage.  Naaman’s servants went to him and said,
Reader 2:         “My father, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, ‘Wash and be cleansed’!”
Reader 1:         So he went down and dipped himself in the Jordan seven times, as the man of  God had told him, and his flesh was restored and became clean like that of a young boy.  Then Naaman and all his attendants went back to the man of God. He stood before him and said,
Reader 3:         “Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel. So please accept a gift from your servant.”
Reader 1:         The prophet answered,
Reader 2:         “As surely as the LORD lives, whom I serve, I will not accept a thing.”
Reader 1:         And even though Naaman urged him, he refused.
Reader 3:         “If you will not,” said Naaman, “please let me, your servant, be given as much earth as a pair of mules can carry, for your servant will never again make burnt offerings and sacrifices to any other god but the LORD.

 

Pretty good story, right?  Surprising people in surprising places, doing surprising things with surprising results.

A story filled with — the unexpected, the serendipitous, even a bit of the hilarious: curses that become blessings in disguise, important people who act like children, and children and servants who literally save the day. 

Here in this story, nearly 900 years before Jesus was even born, we have a pretty powerful illustration of the crazy mixed-up nature of the kingdom of God that Jesus taught his disciples about as they walked along the dusty roads of Palestine. 

In this story, as in so many of the stories of Jesus, the outsider is brought in, gentle words are more powerful than anger, the no-named ones make the difference, the high and mighty behave like the wild and wacky, the littlest, least likely one puts the whole thing in motion, and it all comes down to grace – pure and simple, free and fabulous, grace.

For that is the center of this story — and any story worthy of telling, it seems to me.  Grace is all around us, readily available to us, but…we must follow Naaman’s lead and step into it. 

We have to step into the water of grace.

What does that look like for you? for me? for us?  I think it looks like at least these three important truths:

  1. It looks like: Paying attention
  2. It looks like: Making space inside
  3. It looks like: Following through

Paying attention…to the people and the events and the space around us, and maybe most importantly, the space within us. 

Paying attention means listening carefully enough to our own hearts to discover the thing we want most in this world – not merely what we think we want. You know, those wishes and dreams that float to the surface pretty fast — like a new car or a better body or a perfect relationship or admission to just the right school or enough money to have whatever we want whenever we want it.  

And not even those things that we think we ought to want — like better habits, or a stronger character, or a more loving personality, or a deeper sense of compassion and a greater desire to help others. 

No. 

I’m talking about the thing that’s way the heck down deep in there, the thing that we take great pains to cover up with all kinds of other stuff just to distract us from the deepest yearning of our hearts. And that yearning goes by a lot of different names in our culture — names like…wholeness, fulfillment, completion, connection, even love. 

These are all fine things, good things – but they are not at the center of our most honest desire.  For the very truest thing about us, as human beings, and the truth that is foundational to all those fine things our culture thinks are at the top of the list – the very truest thing about us is that we were made to deeply desire the one true God – the God who made us, who calls us to be our best selves, who loves us even when we’re a long way from those best selves, who sees us and knows us and wants to share life and love and relationship with us.  That’s what we want.  That’s who we want.

It’s just that we have this bent place in us, a broken bit that pretty consistently calls us away from that deep truth and tells us to just go ahead and fill up that yearning, that space inside, with all kinds of other stuff – like those I listed out just a couple of minutes ago. 

We simply move one or more of those perfectly fine things into the space that was created for the one true God. And they do not fit. We work really, really hard to make them fit.  We even get addicted to them.  We even begin to act as though they are god and we convince ourselves that they can fill up that space just fine, thank you very much. 

And then we place layer upon layer of almost anything or anyone else we can think of right on top of that God-shaped space until there is no room to be found.  Very soon, our lives have become so filled with distraction that we simply cannot pay attention.  We haven’t the time or the energy or finally, even the ability to . . . stop. 

To slow down.  To peel back the layers a bit and look around in there.  But…and this is a lovely and grace-filled word for us human creatures… but…we can sometimes find a little help for our distracted busyness, help that comes from people and places that might surprise us.

Naaman needed help to pay attention, and it came from the most surprising people: a captured little girl with a message of hope and healing in the beginning of the story; and faithful, humble servants whose calming truth brought a little coolness into the heat of his temper tantrum near the end of the story. 

Sometimes we need a little help, too.  Maybe, just maybe, we can help one another to learn more about paying attention.  I know several of you have certainly helped me to do that at various times over the last 13 ½ years.  You’ve sent a sweet note, or written a provocative poem, or suggested a thoughtful book or website that helps me find my way back to center.  Because it’s at the center where paying attention becomes easier, more natural, more revealing.

And that brings us to the second truth for this morning – the importance of making – or perhaps more accurately – re-discovering that center, that space inside, that space that’s just the right size for grace, just the right size for God.

You know, I think Naaman was probably a pretty good guy.  We’re told three times in the first verse or two that actually, he was a great man, a recognized and famous man.  I imagine his life was full, busy, scheduled up the yin-yang.  If he wasn’t in the middle of one military campaign, he was probably at the map tables, busily laying out the next one.

We know he had servants and a household to run as well as an army.  We know he was part of the royal court of Aram.  We know he had immediate access to the king.  We can surmise that his servants thought pretty highly of him, which tells us that he probably was a pretty good guy, as well as a great military leader.

But all his fame, and all his great military prowess, and all his household possessions could not make up for the fact that he was a sick man.  He had a serious skin condition — not serious enough to keep him socially isolated — but serious enough for a little slave girl to be aware of it and concerned about her master’s overall well-being.  And that little girl brought something new to the table with her wide-eyed comment to the general’s wife — “Hey, I know a guy who could heal your husband.” 

This caused the busy, great man to stop.  To pay attention.  To seek the help he needed. 

But he still had a lot to learn, and discovering that space inside was at the top of the list.

Boy, he loaded up those donkeys, didn’t he?  He brought lots and lots of really cool stuff to the King of Israel, things that would look impressive, that would buy good favor, that would grease the wheels in the local power system. 

Sort of a picture of all the stuff that was likely piled up inside the man, too, don’t you think?

Now the king of Israel wasn’t exactly the sharpest pencil in the box – probably a bit of an editorial comment by the writer to let us know this king was a bad, idolatrous king and that the only help for Naaman, who was — let us not forget to notice this very important point — NOT an Israelite, but a Gentile, an outsider — in fact most of the time, an actual enemy of the state.  (So perhaps the king’s hissy fit is a little more understandable?) 

The only help for Naaman was not going to be found within the walls of the royal palace, but in the countryside abode of the man of God, the prophet whose name was Elisha.  So, Naaman lugs all his piled up stuff over the hill to the prophet’s house and waits to be greeted with the acclaim and admiration due a man of his stature.

Not gonna happen, Naaman, not gonna happen.

The countryside prophet wants to make it abundantly clear that he does not do magic, that he does not do parlor tricks, that he himself does not do anything to bring about the healing that will come.  And that healing can only happen if Naaman divests himself of some of those trappings and receives the healing as it is intended — a gift of grace.

Funny thing, though.  There doesn’t seem to be space in Naaman for anything except his aggrieved sense of entitlement and his unholy anger. 

Wow. 

What is it in us that makes us so prickly sometimes?  Why do we take offense if we feel like we’re not being treated ‘right,’ whatever that is?  Why do we so often hurl insults at the very things that will bring us hope and help and wholeness? 

A lot of the time, I do believe, it’s because we don’t have any room inside us to let the grace flow in.  We’re so full of ourselves, so full of self-righteousness, our own agendas, our own ideas of the way things should be done, so full of our own uncertainties and fears, that we have no space left to allow God to break through with healing love, with the help we need.

Once again, that help is on the way, however.  This time, it is the faithful servants who have accompanied Naaman on his journey.  They step into the heat of his anger, offering good and wise advice. 

(What was it Paul said in our Galatians passage?  “Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently.”  Ah yes — his servant-friends helped Naaman to make some room for grace.)

But ultimately, the decision to follow through had to be made by Naaman himself. 

With a little help, he was able to pay attention. 

With a little more help, he was able to open up some space inside. 

But . . .
All on his own, he went down to that riverside.
All on his own, he dipped his fevered skin into the Jordan River.
All on his own, he emerged from that seventh dip with the cleansed, restored skin of a young child. 

And see what happens!  This is not just a healed man that emerges from the Jordan.  This is a changed man, a converted man, a redeemed man.  The angry, entitled man of just moments before is transformed into a humble man, a deeply grateful man, a man filled with grace to the point of overflow. 

One of the first Gentile conversions recorded in scripture.  The only healed leper in all of the Elijah/Elisha sagas in the book of Kings.  One of the two Gentile believers noted by Jesus in the very first sermon of his ministry life. 

Naaman, the over-busy, easily-angered military leader becomes Naaman, the humble recipient of grace, eager to worship the one True God.  And he replaces some of his own stuff with Israelite dirt to form the base of an altar dedicated to Yahweh, the God of Israel, now the God of Naaman.

That’s what grace can do

It can wind its way into the tiniest available space and bring about wholesale transformation and change.  Grace will always seek us out, but it will not control our choices. 

It is there for us to receive, if we pay just a little bit of attention, if we open up just the smallest of spaces inside of us, and if we follow through on what we find. 

For it is the gift of grace that can bring healing and hope into the midst of sickness and despair. 

It is the gift of grace that can bring us into the inside out, upside down center of real life, where God is God, we are God’s loved children and Jesus is our elder brother and our Redeemer. 

It is grace that can change a small, torn piece of bread and a wee cup of grape juice into life and hope and promise. 

It is grace that can turn a roomful of strangers into the family of God. 

Praises be!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Midweek Service: Coming Home

We’re nearing the end of this summertime series of oldies,
and this one is about 10 years old, I think.
In honor of our time away on Kauai
this window is from the beautiful historic church in Hanalei,
where we worshipped yesterday morning. 

Coming Home
Luke 15 – The Parable of the Prodigal Son
A Sermon Preached at
Montecito Covenant Church
by Diana R.G. Trautwein
sometime in 2003 is my best guess

What is home? Where is home? How do we get there? What does it mean to go home, to come home, to be at home? What are the ingredients required to make home home?? Can one be at home without ever having a house? On the other hand, is it possible to be at house without being at home?

The story before us today deals with questions like these.  Because it is, at its heart, a story about homecoming, a story about welcome, a story about celebration, a story about grace, uncommon grace – the kind of grace, the kind of mercy, that we don’t understand, the kind of grace that we sometimes find puzzling, uncomfortable, unreasonable, unfair.

Grace, unfair? Yup!

Grace, unfair.Totally, completely, unhesitatingly, undeniably unfair. Because that is, after all, what the word means: unmerited favor; undeserved goodness; unwarranted kindness, forgiveness, acceptance, welcome, at-home-ness.

And most of the time, we haven’t got a clue what to do with it! We just do not get it. We need help, we need open eyes, open minds, open hearts.

The gospel of Luke tells us a whole lot about this grace, this weird thing that God does, this remarkable, divine grace that God puts flesh around in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Luke tells us about the surprises of God’s grace, God’s mercy, from the very opening verses of his gospel story. He puts it in the mouths of those two great singers in chapter 1, Zechariah and Mary. “For God has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant,” Mary sang out.  “God, the Mighty One, has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, he has brought down the powerful, he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

Surprise! Grace pays no-never-mind to wealth and power. What you have and who you control have no impact on the gifts God wishes to give. In fact, the less you have, the more you are likely to receive. Weird stuff, this grace.

And Zechariah, that strange old priest who fathered that strange young prophet – he gave melody to these words: “God has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors. You, my child, will go before the Lord, to give knowledge of salvation to God’s people, by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Surprise!  God’s mercy and grace are nothing new. They’ve been a part of God’s story from the very beginning.  The mercies of God have been promised from the earliest tracings of God’s dealings with the human family. And those who sit in the darkest places will be the first to see the light of God’s promises fulfilled.

Amazing grace, surprising mercy, remarkable love.

That’s the heart of the gospel message. That’s the heart of Luke’s story. That’s the heart of Jesus, who came to show us the Father. And the One that we’re looking at in this sermon series entitled, “Introducing Jesus.”

And this story, this parable, this teaching tool from the lips of the Savior — these 21 verses located about 2/3 of the way into Luke’s larger gospel – and told only here in the New Testament – this story contains some of the most important truth that we, as followers of Jesus Christ, need to know.

Before we dive into it, let’s pray together:

 Lord God, Maker of heaven and earth.
Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and our Father,
what in the world can I say about this tiny gem of a story
that hasn’t already been said a thousand times?
The story is old, the story is wonderful,
the story is rich and thought-provoking,
weird and wonderful,
and we’ve all heard it about a million times before.
Help us all, O God, to hear it again.
To hear it with new ears, with hearts that are open
to hear old truths in new ways.
Your word is the truth, and our only hope for finding our way.
Will you use it today to help us receive you,
to help us see you?
Thank you, Lord, that you hear and answer prayer. Amen.

Brent has read for us this remarkable and very familiar story, this story of fathers and sons, of going away and coming home, of wasted potential, of earnest hard work, of pig slop and fatted calves and great rejoicing and bitter rejection. A study in contrasts, a series of lessons we have such a hard time learning.

Who are you in this story today? At various times in our lives, we are at least one of the main characters described here.

Are you the wastrel today, the younger child, demanding your inheritance, going your own way, determined to have a good time, the consequences be damned?

Are you the hard worker, the older child, staying at home, doing your duty, secretly  angry, angry, angry and resentful beyond belief?

Are you the parent, rich in resources, but lonely for the children you love?

Who are you today? Where are you today?

If you were there in the crowd that day, listening to Jesus tell this story, you might have found it hard to hear. “Something’s wrong here,” you might have thought. “Something’s not quite kosher. Clearly the father in this story is wealthy. He’s got hired hands and he’s got slaves. He’s got goats and he’s got fatted calves. He’s got robes and rings and fancy shoes. But right there, at the very beginning of the tale, he’s as good as dead, no matter how much stuff he’s got. He lets that younger kid break up the estate, run off with his third of the money, and he gives the ranch over to the older one before he has even died! The old guy is basically giving up everything that means ‘life’ and identity and substance and ‘being’ in our culture. What kind of a story is this, anyway?”

If you’re part of the crowd that was testing Jesus – those Pharisees and scribes who wondered what in the world Jesus was doing hanging out with such riff-raff –if you’re a part of that high-falutin’ crowd, you’d really wonder where Jesus is going with this story.

And if you’re part of the riff-raff, you’d know that this gentle rabbi, who loved a good laugh and a good glass of wine, was bound to be upsetting folks before long!

By now, most of you folks who’re listening to Jesus teach – no matter which crowd you’re a part of – by now, you’ve gotten used to his methods. He likes to tell stories, just like a lot of the rabbis of the day.  He likes to tell stories that make you listen, that make you think, that make you do a large part of the work. He likes you to have to wrestle the truth out, to wonder what the point is, to take some ownership in the whole learning process. And right away, you can see that this story is no exception. And as the story begins, it’s anybody’s guess just where Jesus is headed.

(Well, there are a couple of clues in those other two stories he told right before this one -the first one about the lost sheep and the other one about the lost coin. Some common threads are showing up: things that are lost and then found, great parties, great rejoicing.)

“But what,” you might wonder, “is the real point of the deal?  How is this story an answer to all that grumbling the Pharisees have been doing?”

If you’re paying attention to the story the rabbi is telling, certain words, certain phrases, certain ideas begin to leap out at you, to catch your ear, and then your mind. Sometimes those words cause you to question and to wonder, sometimes they give you an ‘a-ha’ kind of experience, sometimes, they leave you just plain speechless.

But a lot of that depends on who you are today as you listen to the rabbi tell his stories –are you an older sibling or a younger one? a Pharisee or a sinner? An insider or an outsider? And which is which in this story, anyhow?

The younger child’s story is filled with ear-catching lines like these: ‘Father, give me my share…” “So the father divided his property…” “When he had spent everything…” “…he hired himself out to a man who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs…” “But when he came to himself…” “While he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion…” “…let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again…”

If you are a part of the riff-raff today, standing with those whom the Pharisees resent, those the scribes look down on, if you’re a part of that crowd of listeners, you probably hear these words of Jesus with recognition and relief.  You hear the rabbi’s story and you think: “Surely, that young man’s journey is much like mine! I have wasted my potential in wild living, I have hired myself out to keepers of swine, (those Romans for whom I collect all these taxes are certainly swine-like!) I, too, have yearned for the bean pods and found no one to feed me, no one to help me. I have felt cut off from my home, my people, my God. I wonder, have I come to myself yet? Is that what this rabbi is calling me to do? To come to myself? To come to the father? Could it be that the God I have turned my back on is anything like the father in this story? Can I trust myself to such a God?”

Yes, I think if you are in the noisier, earthier section of Jesus’ listeners, you see yourself in that younger son today. And you might even feel hopeful about your situation, hopeful for the first time in years.

But what if you’re part of that team of questioners, quibblers, and leaders, those righteous rulers who grumble and gossip and complain about the company Jesus keeps? Where are you in this story? As you listen, you’re beginning to see where Jesus is headed with this whole thing, and you don’t like it at all. You know where righteousness and justice are found even as the story begins. Some of the very same phrases that catch the ears of those riff-raff over there are catching your ears as well.

But somehow, you are not hearing the same things at all. “Who in the world does that young whipper-snapper think he is?” you wonder. “Everyone knows you don’t ask your father for your inheritance ahead of time, it just isn’t done, it isn’t done! And imagine the frustration of that poor older brother! He gets to stay at home and work like a dog, for what? So that his doddering old dad can waste that calf they’ve  been fattening up!  Why, that noble man has probably been holding that calf in reserve to impress some important potential clients, buyers of their livestock and produce, perhaps – and that crazy old man is wasting such a great prize on that scamp of a brother! Why, I don’t blame that guy one bit for his anger! I’d be madder than blazes myself, that’s for sure! What is that old geezer thinking?? He’s got a righteous son, a dutiful, obedient son, a hardworking and industrious son, a loyal and subservient son – and is the thanks he gets??? What kind of a story is this, anyhow?”

Ah.

We seem to have a bit of a problem here, don’t we? The riff-raff can find themselves in the story. Those who have been broken by life, by their own poor choices, by their own sin – they can see themselves for who they are. They can acknowledge their own weakness, they can hear the words of the younger son and say them with him: “I have sinned against heaven and against you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” They have nothing left to lose, and they see their humble return to the father as the only road available to them.

But the righteous rulers can’t see themselves at all. Well, actually, they do see themselves, they just don’t see themselves as Jesus sees them, as God the Father sees them. And that is the core issue here, isn’t it? Grace and mercy can only be perceived,  can only be re>ceived by those who are willing to admit that they need it, that they have done absolutely nothing to deserve it, that they are hopeless and helpless without it.

The older brother begins the story as the one on the inside, the father gives him all that he has. But somehow, he cannot see it, he cannot receive it, he cannot appreciate it. He cannot receive this loving gift from his father because he has not been willing to relinquish his right to have it. He insists that he can earn it, that he deserves it, that he is in control at all times of what should be his by right. He ends the story on the outside, looking in with anger, jealousy, resentment, bitterness and a stubborn refusal to join the party.

The younger son, on the other hand, begins the story on the outside, breaking up the family and leaving for a far country to live in ways unworthy of his home. When he loses it all, he sees the truth of his situation. He ends the story on the inside, the recipient of the father’s uncommon grace, his loving compassion and mercy. He is warmly enfolded into the center of family life, forgiven, renewed, restored.

I ask you now, what is fair about that??

Absolutely nothing.

There is nothing fair about it. Jesus, as God’s word enfleshed, completely redefines the world’s ideas about justice, about fairness, about righteousness, about goodness and grace and mercy. The father in this story loves both of his children, he goes out to both of his children, he offers gracious gifts to both, he includes both in the celebration of homecoming.

The younger child enters in, gratefully receiving all that the father offers.

The older one remains outside the door, and we are left wondering, will this much-loved child let go of pride? Will this one let go of the need to win? Can those powerful, culturally ratified ideas about rights, fairness, righteousness, the requirements of duty be let go? Will this child join with the father, join the party, join in the rejoicing because the one who was dead, is alive, the one who was lost, has been found?

This is what it’s all about, isn’t it?

Recognizing our need, relinquishing our rights, rejoicing in finding the lost. This is the mission of the church of Jesus Christ: to seek and to save those who are lost, to rejoice when they are found, to rely completely upon the  uncommon grace, the welcoming, loving mercy of the Father.

It’s all about moving from the outside to the inside, it’s all about recognizing home, coming home, being home, celebrating home, offering home, and welcoming others home.

Home is where the Father is, and Jesus shows us the way.

Let’s pray together:

 We come to you this morning, Lord,
as those who are in need of home.
Help us to see our need,
to acknowledge our need to you,
to know that there is absolutely nothing
that we can do
or earn
or win,
that there is
no amount of hard work,
or dedication to duty,
or any self-made righteousness
that can bring us home.

It is only by your mercy that we can come in,
it is only by your grace that we can be saved.
Here and now, Lord, help us to let go of
our need to be right, our need to prove a point,
our need to keep score!
We want to give it all over to you, O God,
because we know from your word that you don’t keep score.
And what a blessing that is!
Thank you for your grace, for your love,
for your welcome home.
Because of Jesus we pray,
Amen.

 

The Welcoming Sound of Vowels: A Photo Essay

There was just a small spot of light on the pew, the one just below the open window.
The window made of green sea foam glass,
through which the strong Hawaiian sun filters itself into softness,
becomes invitation.
The breeze welcomed us to worship as the service began,
offering gentle reminders of the wonders outside the building
as we enjoyed the simpler ones within.

We’ve been to this place before, five years ago,
and remembered the gentle, sometimes befuddled, kahu (pastor).
He was sitting in the tiny choir loft
as we walked into this beautiful old wooden building,
the one so often featured on postcards and travel brochures;
he was pulling notes together,
readying himself to lead.

But Sunday morning is not a time for postcards,
and there is no paragraph about what happens here in any brochure I’ve ever seen.

Sometimes we need reminders that real people live in this place, this paradise.
Real people, with jobs and families, worries and hopes and dreams.
To sit with them, to sing and pray and listen,
to watch the keiki (children) hurry to the front to meet with the kahu
and then make a quick exit to the open-air Mission Hall for music and stories;
to hear the sweet sound of ukeleles and Hawaiian voices during the offertory;
to watch the graceful hands and hips of two middle-aged women
offering a hula at the same time . . .

All of this reminds us of how much we share even though the details may differ.

The sermon was not exactly a sermon,
at least not a sermon using the seminary definition of same.
No biblical exegesis, no story-telling.
Rather, a collection of verses around a theme,
a series of quotes found online,
a bit of stumbling here and there in the delivery.

But you know what?

It was a wonderful theme, and some of the quotes were funny and memorable.
And the pastor was sincere and kind.

“Show proper respect to everyone . . . ” I Peter 2:17 = guiding verse.

And these were the 5 main points:

When you speak, be tactful not just truthful.
When you are served, be understanding and not demanding.
When you disagree, be gentle and not judgmental.
When you share your faith, be respectful, not rejecting.
When people are rude to you, respond politely.

And these were some prime quotes for each point:

“Being tactful is making people feel at home when you wish they were at home.”
“Why are we most disrespectful to the people we’re closest to, our families?”
“We are not morally superior to anyone.”
“Righteousness does not equal rudeness.”
“Don’t be a blowtorch with your faith witness, all you’re asked to be is a light.” 

No, it was not the intellectual challenge that we’re used to,
that we enjoy on Sundays in Santa Barbara.

But here’s the thing:
the pastor knew his people,
and the people knew their pastor;
every person in that room was glad to be there,
every person in that room was friendly,
every person in that room exuded gentleness of spirit,
thoughtfulness before speaking,
and a deep gratitude for the presence of visitors.
Out of a worshipping congregation of about 120,
approximately 25 were 1st time visitors —
and every one of them got a handmade flower lei.

And over and around everything,
from the printed bulletin,
to the unison prayers,
to every song sung but one,
there was the soothing sound of this language,
this mellifluous, lilting language,
these words composed of so many vowels.
Only 8 consonants and each one must be followed by a vowel
or a double vowel.
Something about hearing it is soothing, welcoming.

 Aloha is more than a word in this part of the world.
It is a way of life,
and we are grateful for it.

For the first time in a long while, happy to be joining with Michelle and Laura:

Midweek Service: An Old Advent Sermon — Let Every Heart Prepare Him Room

This sermon was preached 11 years ago as part of a series on creating ‘margin’ in our lives. Three of us preached in this series — on economics, relationships, time. And when my turn came, the topic was a tough one for me: honoring these bodies we’ve been given by caring for them well, including making space for Sabbath. It was preached during Advent and used one of the Isaiah Advent texts as its primary focus. And it was preached at the end of a very difficult year for me personally. I had been on an extended medical leave from January-August and the story I tell happened during those months.
Each week’s photo is from a collection of pictures taken in St. Vitus’ Cathedral, Prague.

     Let Every Heart Prepare Him Room
preached by Diana R.G. Trautwein
Montecito Covenant Church
Advent Series, December 15, 2002
“Making Ready: Is There Space for God in Our Bodies?”

I never cease to be amazed at God’s sense of humor.  I am perhaps the last person who should be standing up here in front of you all, giving you a pep talk on taking care of your bodies.  Because I’m doing a really lousy job of it at the moment and actually, to be honest, have done a really lousy job of it for most of my life.  And lots of people that I talk to, church people, followers of Jesus Christ,  tell me the same thing. 

Why do you think that’s true?  Why do you think we let our lives run right out to the edge of the page physically? Is there something we should be doing (or not doing!) that we’ve lost the knack for?  Is there something we should know that we have forgotten?

Our text for this morning offers some helpful ideas.  This beautiful poem from the prophet Isaiah has been read as part of the celebration of Advent for hundreds of years.  And I believe that it (and a couple of other admonitions in scripture) can point us in the right direction as we reflect together on what it means to live our lives with physical margin.

I want to make something crystal clear as we begin this morning:  to be a follower of Jesus Christ means that everything we are and everything we do is to be set inside the sphere of his Lordship.  Jesus did not come to Bethlehem, to be born in isolation, homelessness, and poverty so that he could establish yet another religion, another set of rules about sacred and profane.

Jesus came – as a baby born of a very human mom, as a young boy filled with curious questions, making messes, laughing, crying, eating, sleeping, dreaming; as a grown man, learning a trade, living in community, walking the dusty roads of Palestine, catching fish and catching people — Jesus came to save us, to bring rich meaning to our very human living, to show us what margin looks like in day-to-day life, long before the term ‘margin’ was ever coined.

Jesus came to call us to God, to point us to truth, to walk the way of holiness in our midst.  And every bit of Jesus’ coming speaks loudly and clearly to the worth and value of human life, of physical life as well as spiritual life.  By choosing to wear human flesh for 33 years, Jesus of Nazareth gave new meaning to our understanding of what this flesh means.

These bodies, my friends, are the place where we meet God, where we receive God’s grace, where we live the life granted to us on this earth.  And they are precious gifts.   No matter what shape they are in.  No matter what we or anyone else thinks they look like.  No matter what our culture tells us they should look like.  No matter what the ravages of age or disease may do to them.

No matter what. 

They are gifts and they are temples.  There is no sense of our bodies, in and of themselves, being outside the range of God’s saving grace.  Now what we choose to do with these bodies can be, and often is, anything but sacred.  In fact, we can choose to profane these gifts rather royally.  But the bodies themselves are hallowed, sacred and splendid, God’s chosen dwelling place through the grace of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit.  Therefore, what we do to and with our bodies is of primary importance and is not to be ignored.

Somewhere along the way, a whole bunch of us Christians got the idea that the body is somehow disconnected from our spiritual life, that it is of little or no value to God, that only what happens between our ears or in our hearts is important.

It just ain’t so, and the whole scope of scripture gives testimony to this truth.

Isaiah recognizes it here, in his word picture about the coming of God.  This beautiful poem is a vision on many levels – it speaks to the people to whom it was written – the Israelites living in exile and hoping for a better future; it speaks to the Jewish people who read it hundreds of years after it was written – nurturing their desire for the Messiah, who would bring about the glorious era pictured here; it speaks to us, followers of Jesus in 2002, who see in these words a description of the in-breaking kingdom of God, made real on earth by Jesus’ first coming and being brought to full fruit with Jesus’ second coming somewhere further out in the future.

It speaks to mind, spirit and body:  “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees,” the prophet cries.  Tell them this good news:  “The eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.”  The body and the spirit are redeemed, ransomed by the glorious salvation of God.

This beautiful chapter is a vivid picture of what life can and will be like for all of those who choose to put their trust in God, who choose to let God be God – no thing or no one else.  The desert turned to a pool-filled garden, human bodies restored to their creation design, harmony between humanity and the animal world and the created order, the joyous praises of God’s people resounding throughout – that is what is promised to those who choose to find their strength, their hope, their joy in God.

Ok.  So it’s a beautiful picture.  Sounds great – wish I was there.  In the meantime, how do I live in the now?  How do I manage these tired hands and these feeble knees?  While I’m waiting for Jesus to bring in the kingdom in all of its fullness, is there any way for me to experience just a taste of it in the present?

Yes, as a matter of fact, I believe there is. As I read and reflected on this picture, this passage, over the past couple of weeks, I also did some other kinds of reading. I read the book from which this sermon series gets its primary focus:  “Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives,” by Richard A. Swenson, M.D. and I read: “Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives,” by Wayne Muller.

Both books are excellent, helpful and come to you highly recommended.  And as I read these two gentlemen’s suggestions for living more balanced lives, it seemed to me that the picture Isaiah paints is available to us in the here and now, at least in part.  For the Kingdom of Heaven is alive and well in the hearts of believers right here, right now and there are ways in which we can connect with that truth, even in the daily-ness of living.

It also became increasingly clear to me that the questions I asked at the beginning of this sermon (and those question were:  Why do you think we let our lives run right out to the edge of the page physically?  Is there something we should be doing (or not doing!) that we’ve lost the knack for?  Is there something we should know that we have forgotten?) those questions can be answered, in the context of this week’s theme and topic with these two statements:

1.)          We need to remember that our bodies are sacred, gifts to us from God to be used for his glory, not our own. And . . .

2.)          We need to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy – so that it can help keep us holy.

We’ve already spent a few minutes this morning looking at the truth of that first statement and now it’s time to look at the truth of the second one, particularly in light of our need to create physical margin in our lives this Advent season.

From the opening verses of Genesis, God declares and models the need for margin in our lives – and he calls that space “Sabbath rest.”  It’s a thread that continues throughout the Old Testament, showing up as the 4th commandment (one of only two that are stated in the positive rather than a ‘do not’), and noted again and again as a necessary ingredient in the life of the people of God.

Jesus observes its importance – as it was originally designed by God, not as it was legalized by religious rule-making – and Jesus models its place in the flow of life.  Repeatedly, the gospels tell us of Jesus’ drawing away to be quiet, to pray, to be alone or with a small circle of friends.  He often left in the middle of ministry, he left with the job undone, he left with people in need, standing on the doorstep.  He honored, he remembered, that ‘Sabbath thing’ as an essential part of his life; we who are his friends are called to do the same.

God our Creator has built into us a need for rhythm in our lives – the rhythm of action and inaction, doing and being, moving and resting.  I want to give you just a small picture of how that need for rhythm was brought to my attention this past year.

After about six weeks of staying at home, seeing a few doctors, resting, worshipping in private, playing way too much computer solitaire. . .I began to feel stronger and more able to face the outside world.  The timing was wonderful, it was February and Ash Wednesday was coming.

I wanted to go somewhere for an Ash Wednesday service where no one would know me, but I could enter into the beauty of rhythmic worship and begin to find nourishment in community once again.  I chose to go to the noon service at the Old Mission.  Now I had lived in Santa Barbara for just over five years at this point in my history and I had never taken the time to visit the mission.  I had never been inside.  So I went, not knowing what to expect at all.  There was a good crowd of people there – probably about 400 or so – and there were printed worship folders, complete with melody lines, so that everyone could follow the service.  I sat on a hard wooden bench about 2/3 of the way back in the sanctuary and waited.

Suddenly, there was this gloriously beautiful voice drifting over my head, like an angel song, I thought at the time.  The service had begun and it was lovely.  The words of the songs, the rhythm of movement – standing, sitting, kneeling, processing – the words of the liturgy, the reception of the ashes – all of it was intensely moving and drew me into a time of true worship and repentance.  I had had a Sabbath experience at lunch hour on a Wednesday.

Later that same day, I drove down to Carp to get a gift for my husband for Valentine’s Day.  I had heard about this orchid warehouse and thought I’d check it out.  So in I went, feeling refreshed from the church service and some time in prayer with a friend.  I walked into the showroom and was suitably impressed at the wonderful arrangements and plants on display.

Then someone opened a sliding door near the back, and I walked into this absolute symphony of color and design.  There were thousands of brightly colored orchids extending to every edge of this huge warehouse.  I don’t remember ever seeing so many beautiful plants in one space ever before in my life.  It was truly breathtaking.

And I had another experience of Sabbath, of worship, right there in beautiful rural Carpinteria.

Tears came and I uttered a heartfelt prayer of thanksgiving to our Creator God for his genius and for the gift of partnering genius shared by us human creatures in propagating these gorgeous plants.

The entire day was a gift, a gift of the rhythms of life lived in Sabbath mode.  Somehow, the great gift of Sabbath rhythm, of Sabbath rest, has been lost in our time, in our culture.  If we are to experience it again, we must be very intentional about it, and we must look for opportunities to incorporate its benefits into our lives in all kinds of ways.

Let me suggest just a few ways in which you and I might experience a sliver of the paradise described by Isaiah and included in the biblical concept of Sabbath.  In addition to incorporating better health habits like eating well, sleeping well, and exercising regularly, I believe the intelligent, prayerful observance of Sabbath can give us the physical margin we all so badly want and need.

The age we live in values speed, noise, activity, money, success.  Sabbath values are centered around slowing down, being quiet, being still, saving time, building relationships – the very opposite of what we are told, every single day, is what really counts.  So what I’m asking us to do is not going to be easy, but it is going to be incredibly rich.

Here’s a beginning: if at all possible, set aside one afternoon or evening each week to observe the holiness of Sabbath.  Turn off the phones, the television, the computer, the beeper.  Light candles for dinner.  If you live with family or friends, enjoy their company over a good meal, play a couple of table games or read a book together.  If you live alone, create a beautiful space for yourself to eat, to be quiet, to read, to reflect.  Or invite someone over to share it with you.  Incorporate some simple prayers into your mealtime, inviting God to be present in your Sabbath.

If an entire evening or afternoon of keeping Sabbath seems overwhelming to you, start smaller.  Take a walk sometime during the week – for 20-30 minutes. Keep silence during the walk, and do it somewhere beautiful if at all possible.   Look around you, observe what you see. Then sit down and reflect for a few minutes on what you’ve experienced.

Observe moments of silence during your day.  Just stop whatever you’re doing and be still for 2-3 minutes.  Pray if you wish, or just breathe.

Breathing consciously, intentionally, slowly — breathing is actually a fairly important part of slowing life down. There are ancient Christian practices of prayer that are centered on our breathing patterns and they can help us for just a few minutes of the day – to capture some Sabbath time.

Offering blessings, silently, to those around you is another small way of keeping Sabbath.  Try that the next time somebody cuts you off in traffic!  Offer words of blessing instead of frustration (or worse!) – bless the people around you wherever you are.  Ask God to make you a blessing to others as well.

Rediscover the fine art of dinking around – spend time doing not much: sitting in the yard, pulling a few weeds, playing a board game with some kids or adults, tossing the baseball, shooting a few hoops.  I’m not talking about hustle here, I’m talking dinking around, deliberately slowing your pace.  And do this whenever – in the middle of your day, in the middle of the night if you have trouble sleeping.

Refuse to be driven by the need to be finished before you stop doing something.  Our need to be finished is one of the primary forces pushing us away from Sabbath-keeping.  The commandment is ‘to remember’ the Sabbath, to keep it holy.  And we so easily forget it, don’t we?  I surely forgot it these last few weeks and my body is telling me that’s a real shame!

Let’s face it.  There will always be more work to do than we can conceivably get done.  We will never be finished, and that’s the truth.  Therefore, we must learn to stop working, to stop pushing, to stop achieving, to stop trying to do it all: to stop.

That is a huge part of what Sabbath is all about.  Stopping what we ordinarily do.  Stopping.  And the other part is remembering: remembering whose we are, remembering to say thank you to God, to others, re-membering ourselves, getting ourselves together, in one piece, ready, then, to return to work, to daily doing.

My house this year does not yet have a single decoration in place.  There are very few Christmas gifts bought.  The Christmas letter has not been written.  And you know what?  I’m increasingly ok with that.  Surely one of the most powerful messages of Advent is the value of stopping – waiting — and being expectant rather than distracted or overwhelmed.  And Christmas itself is really about things like smallness, vulnerability, wonder, quiet, and mystery.  If I don’t somehow slow down enough to see it, to sense it, to experience it, the truth and beauty of Christmas can pass me right by.  And I don’t want that to happen again, do you?

I am going to stop long enough to enjoy a taste of the glorious kingdom described by Isaiah.  I am going to remember the keep the Sabbath, in ways both large and small.  I am going to acknowledge that this very tired old body of mine is a gift from God, a container for my spirit, a container for the holiness of God Almighty, a sacred thing, a set-apart thing, a living organism with a real need for that blank, white space around the edges.

My prayer for all of us, for me and for each one of you, is that this will be our experience this Advent, this Christmas.  That we will find ourselves traveling on the Holy Way, redeemed by our God, on our way to God, “singing,” as the prophet phrased it, “with everlasting joy upon our heads.”

Will you stand with me and sing a song of everlasting joy to our good and generous God, creator of all that we are?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Midweek Service: Deborah — “The LORD Is Marching Ahead of You”

This week finds me dipping once again into that time when we were between senior pastors, when we were in the midst of transition and new construction at the same time. It’s really good for me to remember how faithful God was to us during that 2-year time stretch — and how faithful the community was to one another, too.

All stained/painted glass windows in this series are from the Cathedral of St. Vitas in Prague, The Czech Republic

Made to Matter: People Who Partnered with God
Deborah:  “The Lord Is Marching Ahead of You”

Preached at Montecito Covenant Church
November 16, 2003
by Diana R.G. Trautwein

Today is a day for telling stories, for remembering stories, for celebrating stories. Today is a day for finding ourselves in the midst of someone else’s story, in the midst of our own story, and most wonderfully of all, today is a day for finding ourselves in the midst of God’s story, sometimes when we least expect it.

I find myself this morning nearing the end of a long, hard weekend. And there are about 15 other folks scattered around this room this morning who find themselves in the same place. Your Church Council leaders met on Friday night for 3 hours and then again yesterday from 9-4:30 in order to spend some concentrated time together, learning more about the people we’ve been seeing around the tables at our meetings each month, learning more about what it means to truly be a leadership ‘team,’ learning more about what it means to dream God’s dreams for this place, to take some risks with one another, to be encouraged by God’s words delivered to us through the words of a friend and fellow traveler.

Yes, it has been a long, hard weekend. But also, a tremendously exciting weekend. To catch a tiny glimpse of what God is up to in this place — to be reminded, even in the midst of what seem at times to be overwhelmingly difficult circumstances that, “The Lord is marching ahead of us” — this is a wonderful thing. In fact, I would venture to say, it is a life-changing thing, a life-saving thing.

And today, we’re going to look at the biblical story of Deborah and we’re going to remind ourselves that the Lord our God is not out of the marching business – that God does indeed remain faithful to his promise to walk with us, to partner with us in this life. We are going to hear the wonderful truth one more time, the truth that when we show up, God shows up. And that is all that is required, no matter how overwhelming the circumstances may appear to be.

So . . . the story-telling begins. With Deborah.

A little background, please. . . I’m sure you all remember Moses, the Exodus, Joshua and the taking of the land from the early books of the Old Testament, right? Sometimes it’s good to remember that this was a very long time ago, that the Israelites were a pretty rough-neck group, probably armed at any given time with wooden, maybe bronze implements and weapons. They had strong tribal ties, yet they were only very loosely connected to one another. And when they moved into the land, suddenly they found themselves surrounded by a much more sophisticated culture, one with fortified cities, elaborate and difficult religious rituals, and sometimes much more effective weaponry.

They struggled to settle in, and they did a pretty lousy job. This was true primarily because they allowed themselves to get sucked into and subdued by the cultures around them, adopting their rituals, intermarrying, and basically forgetting who they were as children of God, as God’s chosen people.

And if I’m honest, I can’t blame them too much for that. Sometimes it’s just plain easier to ‘go with the flow,’ to do what everyone else is doing, to worship the god you can see rather than the One who is unseen by human eyes.

And after the death of Joshua, that’s pretty much what happened. The book of Judges is the story of the people of God regularly forgetting who they were, of falling into the ways of the world around them, and then of suffering the consequences of their amnesia. And those consequences involved coming under the oppressive control of those surrounding people groups with alarming and depressing regularity.

Every so often, though, someone within the chosen people would remember — “Wait a minute here. . . we have a God who calls us by name. Shame on us because we’ve forgotten to call HIM by name.”

And the next thing you see in the whole, sad story of the Judges are these moments of remembering, of calling on the name of the LORD for mercy and deliverance, of deciding to show up. And guess what? Every single time they do that, every time they show up — God shows up. And the first thing God does is to raise up a leader, an encourager, sometimes a warrior, but always someone upon whom God’s Spirit rests in a special way. These leaders were called judges over the people, and through them, God showed the people the way toward freedom, deliverance and ultimately, peace in their land.

Our story this morning is early in the series of these sad cycles of forgetting and remembering, and it’s told in two chapters — one a narrative and the other a long poem or song. Chapter 4 outlines the events as they happened, but chapter 5 fills in the blanks of the narrative with a fascinating, creative and beautiful set of verses. These verses, this song, is probably the oldest piece of scripture that we have in the entire Bible — one of the very first things that the people of Israel wrote down to help them remember the faithfulness of God.

And this is the story it tells: Joshua is long dead. The people have sunk into despair and oppression at least three times and have then remembered God three times. And once again, times are tough. A Canaanite king named Jabin, who builds huge forts for cities and then lives behind the walls, has forced the scraggly band of Israelite people into a hard and discouraging life

They have endured twenty years of oppression of the worst kind. Jabin’s military general Sisera has built himself a terrifying army of men and machines. The Philistines had discovered the secret of smelting iron and then used that knowledge to devise a deadly killing machine — the heavy duty tanks of their day — in the form of a chariot made of iron. These chariots could trample a man on foot in mere seconds. The Philistines used these chariots to keep the Israelites off the roads and to continue to use the most primitive of farming methods. This meant they could never rise above subsistence living and it generally made their lives miserable.

What could a group of unsophisticated, under-equipped, tribal warriors ever hope to do against such technological superiority?

Well, they began by calling on the LORD for help, as verse 3 of chapter 4 tells us. And then the very next verse begins the amazing story of how God chose to deliver his people this time.

 “At that time Deborah, a prophetess, wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel. She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the Israelites came up to her for judgment.”

So, here is the new leader! A woman. A woman who is a prophet, who sits under a palm tree up in the hills.

Uh. . . I’m not sure this would have been MY first choice for the salvation of the people, but. . . Deborah is God’s choice.

And God’s choice calls on Barak, who lives in a different community, one that is in closer proximity to those walled cities and those awful chariots. Deborah has a word for Barak when he gets there. And in the original language, it comes in the form of a question: “Didn’t the Lord God command you to go? To take an army and lead the way to Mt. Tabor?”

And his reply is more than a little bit surprising: yes, he knows the question. Yes, he’ll go to Mt. Tabor . . . under one condition: if Deborah comes with him. I’m betting he figured that it might be a good idea to take the ‘word of the LORD’ along with them into battle. And Deborah, the one who sat under the palm tree, she IS the word of the Lord during this time period.

So Barak gathers together a very rag-tag bunch of 10,000 foot soldiers and they head to the top of Mt. Tabor, peering down into the Kishon River Valley. Which might not have been the smartest military strategy in the world.

EXCEPT. . .

Deborah is listening to the LORD. She comes along with Barak and she continues to listen as Sisera arrives with his men and his iron chariots and all of them fill that river bed. She is still listening . . . until . . . she yells out, “NOW. Charge! Now is the time. The LORD is marching ahead of you!”

At this point, I’d like to take a small pause in the story-telling and offer a word of support for Barak. It is true that he wanted a woman to go with him. And yes, Deborah told him that that choice of his would mean that he would be outdone by a woman before the day was over. And it is also true that early in this story, the narrator sets us up to discover who this woman might be when he mentions Heber the Kenite and his tent near the battle site.

But just try to imagine this, okay? You’re on the top of a mountain with a bunch of guys with sticks and maybe some very bendy bronze spears. At the bottom of the mountain are 900 iron chariots, at least that many horses and thousands of soldiers outfitted in the very latest fashion of heavy metal armor. You’ve decided to throw in your lot with this woman who talks to God and she says, “CHARGE!” just when your men can see the overwhelming might of the enemy.

What was she thinking??

To better help us understand the timing of all this, it really helps to jump from the narrative in chapter 4 to the song in chapter 5, where there are a couple of hints in verse 20 and 21:

“The stars fought from heaven, from their courses they fought against Sisera. The torrent Kishon swept them away, the onrushing torrent, the torrent Kishon. March on, my soul!”

So, what do you suppose Deborah was listening for up there on the mountaintop as she waited with Barak and his motley band of fighting men?

She was listening for a word from the LORD, and I think that word came in the rushing roar of a summertime flash flood, as a rainstorm caused a wall of water to surge down that canyon below them, engulfing those heavy iron monsters in a miry bog of water and mud.

So as the Israelites descended the mountain, all of Sisera’s men — including Sisera himself — jumped out of their chariots, off of their horses, dropped off their heavy armor and weaponry and ran for their lives. It was a complete rout!!

And then, of course, there is the wonderful, very gory footnote of this story — the detail that every Confirmation student just loves! Running in fear of his life from Barak and his men, Sisera caught sight of those Kenite tents. Now Heber has had a friendly relationship with Sisera’s boss, Jabin, and Sisera knows it. What he doesn’t seem to know is the long history of good relationship between the Kenites and the Israelites, going all the way back to Moses’ marriage to the daughter of Jethro, who was a Kenite.

Heber’s wife, Jael, stands outside her tent and offers Sisera hospitality as he runs toward them. “Have a rest,” she says. “How about some milk or yogurt?” she says. And the milk has its usual soporific effect and Sisera falls asleep, exhausted from his wild running retreat.

And then, Jael — amazing warrior that she turned out to be — took one of her hefty wooden tent pegs, and her handy-dandy wooden mallet, and she smashed that peg right through the man’s temple and into the ground beneath him.

End of Sisera. End of story.

But let’s notice how it is that God chose to do God’s work in this particular story for a few minutes. God brought deliverance to God’s people by assembling a surprising team of leaders. First and foremost, there was Deborah — who listened to God, who spoke for God to the people, who believed that God would do God’s part.

Deborah is like a brightly blazing torch, shining the light of God, the hope of God, the call of God, into the lives of the people God called her to lead. She spent time under that palm tree listening to God, listening to the people, reflecting on what God wanted, and, when asked, she also leapt into action, going with Barak and the troops to the mountaintop.

Without her, a willing instrument in God’s hands, there would be no story.

But there is also Barak. As I noted earlier, he gets a bit of a bad rap in both the story and the song. But the New Testament writer of Hebrews, chapter 11, lists him with some of the other judges rather than listing Deborah. What’s up with that?

Well, I think we can find ample evidence to support the argument that Barak had a measure of faith as well. Perhaps his was not as sure and steady as Deborah’s, but he was willing to trust her, to act on Deborah’s command without knowing what God was going to do to save the day, wasn’t he? I think that’s why he’s included in the roll call of heroes of faith in that chapter in Hebrews. Barak trusted Deborah’s relationship with God, and ultimately, he trusted Deborah’s God to get him through.

And then, of course, there is Jael. It’s tough to make a moral heroine out of a woman who uses subterfuge and violence to accomplish her goals, but she, too, is important to this whole tale. In a way, Jael did the dirty work. At least that’s how it appears to us, standing here in the 21st century. As followers of Jesus Christ, the Peace of God, it is hard for us to wrap our minds around the bloody violence of the Old Testament. Yet I find hope and encouragement even in this hard part of the story. For we, too, are warriors in a battle. And sometimes, the circumstances of the battlefield around us seem overwhelming.

Our children are sucked in by the values of this culture, and sometimes, so are we. We read the newspapers, listen to the news, try and balance the checkbooks, deal with aging and dying parents, or with rebellious and broken children, live with sadness and sorrow on every side. Sometimes it looks just plain overwhelming and hopeless.

The bad guys around us seem to have heavy-duty iron chariots and we’ve just got these pointy sticks!

And what can you do against the bad guys with a wooden stick and a mallet anyway?

Well, you can do a heckuva lot of damage! You can take the bad guy out of the picture entirely if you’re in line with God’s purposes for the battle, if you’re relying on God to ultimately snatch victory out of the jaws of defeat.

I have to tell you that for a long list of reasons this past week has been one of overwhelming circumstances for me. I can’t even tell you exactly why. We have dear friends in pain, parents living with loss, more work to do than can humanly be done, and I’ve been feeling more than a little bit hopeless about not finding enough people to do the work I think God is calling us to do right here, right now, at Montecito Covenant Church

But here’s the deal: I spend too much time looking at the hard stuff. Now that stuff is certainly real and I don’t want to make light of it in any way. But sometimes, looking at all of that tends to take my focus off the palm tree, that place where I can meet God, where I can talk and laugh and wonder with friends and co-workers, with the people who can speak God’s words of hope into my life.

There have been times in my life and ministry when I have been tapped by God to be a Deborah in the lives of others. I am humbled by that and grateful for those opportunities when they arise.

But this week, I needed a Deborah or two . . . or three or 14 or 15!

And here’s what happened: I showed up, 14 members of the Church Council showed up, and God showed up. It was a remarkable time. As we closed our time together on Friday night, we affirmed in one another some qualities of leadership we saw, using a list provided by our consultant as we move through this time of transition.

And we also asked for prayer for that one area where we each felt the weakest that night. One of us asked for more clarity and confidence; another asked for more compassion; I and several others asked for a greater degree of hopefulness as we continue together to provide leadership for this congregation.

I went home tired, feeling like the evening’s exercises had been good and helpful, but dreading another full day of group work when I had a sermon to write and a computer that had shut down.

As we began on Saturday, we were led in a time of sharing and prayer. And you know what? The woman who had asked for confidence and clarity, spoke with passion and great articulation about her faith in God, her faith in this process, her faith in this church. She lit a fire that morning that burned all day long. And a man, who had asked for compassion the night before, shared a wonderful story of family sharing and prayer that had broken through some barriers that night following our session.

Around the room we went and heard from one another exactly how God showed up! And I’ve got to tell you, at the end of the day, after listening and laughing and dreaming together, my own sense of hope was rekindled, big time.

So I’m here today to give testimony to the truth that overwhelming circumstances are God’s specialty! That if we show up, God will show up. In fact, God is already there,  waiting for us to catch a clue. My prayer for all of us this day is that we would meet God meeting us in the midst of whatever overwhelming circumstances we are facing. That we might cry with the psalmist, “That some boast in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD!” That we might learn to write and sing our own songs of victory, just as the Israelites wrote a song to celebrate Deborah and Barak and Jael.

Wherever you are this morning, whether you’re in need of a Deborah, or you’re equipped to be a Deborah; whether you’re needing or offering strong words of encouragement from the LORD; whether you’re more like Barak, looking for a partner in the LORD to face the battle together; or even if your circumstances are more like Jael’s, calling for a firm, clear stand against evil in order for the victory to be won. . . wherever you are this morning, I urge you to lift your eyes from the circumstances that surround you and to ‘call on the name of the LORD,’ and then to listen for the word of the LORD — in the pages of scripture, as God speaks to your heart in prayer, or as God speaks to you through the words of a fellow believer — and then to act on what you hear.

Look beyond the circumstances;
call on the name of the LORD;
listen to the word of the LORD;
act in confidence that the LORD will bring the victory. Amen.

Midweek Service: What Are You Afraid Of?

Continuing a summer series of sermons, posting them on Wednesdays to honor
a tradition of midweek services, long since gone.

This one was preached in the summertime about six years ago
and it is one of my favorites. Every sermon I’ve ever preached
has been preached to me first — and this one hit me where I live.
I am so grateful for a strong, healthy, loving Savior,
who is bigger than my fears and refuses to be categorized as ‘nice.’

What Are You Afraid Of?
Luke 8:26-39
by Diana R.G. Trautwein
A sermon preached at Montecito Covenant Church
June 24, 2007

Things that go bump in the night.  Scary stories or movies.  Invaders who do harm to hearth and home.  Kidnappers, car-jackers, rapists or mercenaries.  Cancer, heart disease, multiple sclerosis.  The list of things that frighten us sometimes seems endless, don’t you think?  There is something to be frightened about on the news or in the papers every single minute of every single day; there are hard and horrible things happening in our neighborhoods, around the corner, across the street.  Scary stuff happens to our friends, our families, even to us.

Honestly, it is a wonder that we ever leave our homes at all – except for all the scary things in that place!  Spiders in the corner, bathtubs to drown in, showers to slip in, steps to fall down, windows to be broken into, doors to be jimmied….there are days when it feels like they’re (whoever ‘they’ may be) out to get us!  Days when the onslaught of dangerous forces from without makes us want to curl into a fetal position and stay under the blankets all day long.

You think I’m exaggerating – and perhaps I am.  But here’s something I know to be true and not an exaggeration at all.  If you think the stuff that’s outside of us is really, truly scary: just wait ‘til you take a good, long look at the stuff that’s inside of us – that stuff can shiver your timbers, and send you scuttling back to bed for good.

That is, if we’re brave enough to take more than a peek at what’s in there.  Most of the time, it’s easier, and much, much safer, to look to the outside of us . . . and then get to work and build up those walls of resistance, dream up those plans for escape, invest in those security systems, add that extra alarm to our car, buy more insurance for our possessions. The inside of us is much harder to manage, much more difficult to protect, much more terrifying to examine.

There is a series of stories that have come down to us from the 13th century about a fabled wise fool named Nasrudin.  One of my favorites is this one, and I found it in this great little book titled, The Gift of Being Yourself: The Sacred Call to Self-Discovery, written by Dr. David Benner :

 “Nasrudin – the protagonist of many Middle Eastern, Greek and Russian folktales – was approaching the door of his house one night when he suddenly realized he had lost his key.  He tried to look around for it, but the night was so dark he could hardly see the ground.  So he got down on his hands and knees and examined the ground where he was standing.  But it was still too dark to see anything. Moving back toward a street-lamp, he again got down and began a meticulous examination of the area.

        “A friend came by and, noticing him, asked what he was doing.  Nasrudin replied, “I       lost my key and am looking for it.”  So the friend too got down on his hands and knees and began to search.

       “’After a while, the friend asked,  ‘Do you remember where you might have lost the key?’   “’Certainly,” answered Nasrudin.  ‘I lost it in my house.’   ‘’They why are you looking for it out here?’ Because,” answered Nasrudin, “the light is so much better here.””

It’s so much easier to look outside for things, and then try to arm ourselves against all the scary, hard stuff in life that comes at us from ‘out there,’ than it is to look inside, to examine the tough, scary truth about ourselves, as we really are, and by God’s grace and through his powerful word of authority, become who we can be.  It’s that internal look, that interior examination, that wrestling with the demons within that can make the difference between a life that’s lived in fear and denial and a life that’s lived in power and hope.

Our gospel story for today outlines this powerful truth in some interesting and thought-provoking ways.  Will you hear the word of the Lord as it is recorded for us in the gospel of Luke, chapter 8, verses 26-39:

They sailed to the region of the Gerasenes, which is across the lake from Galilee. When Jesus stepped ashore, he was met by a demon-possessed man from the town. For a long time this man had not worn clothes or lived in a house, but had lived in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell at his feet, shouting at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, don’t torture me!” For Jesus had commanded the evil spirit to come out of the man. Many times it had seized him, and though he was chained hand and foot and kept under guard, he had broken his chains and had been driven by the demon into solitary places.

       Jesus asked him, “What is your name?”

    “Legion,” he replied, because many demons had gone into him. And they begged Jesus repeatedly not to order them to go into the Abyss.

    A large herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside. The demons begged Jesus to let them go into the pigs, and he gave them permission. When the demons came out of the man, they went into the pigs, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.

    When those tending the pigs saw what had happened, they ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, and the people went out to see what had happened. When they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone out, sitting at Jesus’ feet, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. Those who had seen it told the people how the demon-possessed man had been cured. Then all the people of the region of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them, because they were overcome with fear. So he got into the boat and left.

    The man from whom the demons had gone out begged to go with him, but Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return home and tell how much God has done for you.” So the man went away and told all over town how much Jesus had done for him.

Oh my, what a story.  It comes second in a series of four stories in Luke’s gospel, four stories which tell us about the authority and power which Jesus had in several different realms of human existence.  It directlyfollowsthe story of Jesus calming the stormy sea, simply by the power of his word.  It comes justbeforetwo interwoven miracle stories – one illustrating Jesus’ power to heal chronic illness and one illustrating Jesus’ power over death itself.

In this story, Jesus has just calmed the chaos of the storm, thereby taming the beasts in the natural, created world, and now he proceeds to calm the chaos in this strange, wild, frightening beast of a man who wanders the tombs.

The presence of the swine in this story tells us that Jesus and his band of followers have entered Gentile territory; they’ve crossed the Sea of Galilee and entered a new and different place, only to be immediately accosted by a man described as demon-possessed.

We can’t even begin to understand all the layers of meaning implicit in the use of the word ‘demons’ in this story about Jesus and his word of authority.  21st century westerners are uncomfortable with the idea of evil forces inhabiting human persons.  Many, if not most, people walking the streets of Santa Barbara this morning would deny their existence outright.  Yet missionaries who carry the gospel to less sophisticated cultures than our own, tell stories that sound a whole lot like this one.  Perhaps what one commentator said is true, “Satan has less need to manifest himself openly in a culture that denies his existence.”

Yet despite our own culture’s struggle with the idea of Satan or the devil or his demons, no one living in the here and now can deny the existence of evil in our world and in ourselves.  A great old southern preacher named Fred Craddock says, “All names of the enemies have been changed but the battle still rages.” And while we may not know too much about the kind of demon possession that is pictured here, we certainly know about our own personal demons.  Those things that cripple us and trip us up, big-time.  Those addictions and behaviors and thought processes and reactions that hold us captive, that keep us wandering in the tombs, lonely and frightened and disconnected from our best selves, disconnected from God.

A look at just a few recent news headlines reminds us of this truth:

Last week, police around the world arrested hundreds of people involved in the internet trafficking of child pornography.  31 children – so far – have been released from captivity, some of them involved in horrific, sexual abuse, shown world wide through live video streaming.

Over 6 million Americans aged 12 and over have used crack cocaine at least once in their lives.

5 percent of high school students have used crystal meth.

A US Dept of Health and Human Services bulletin from January of last year, showed that 11% of 8th graders, 22% of 10th graders and 29% of high school seniors had done intense, heavy, binge drinking within the two weeks prior to the survey being taken.  Now, consuming large amounts of alcohol at any age is dangerous, but it is especially calamitous for adolescent brains, causing permanent damage and leading to a lifetime of risky, dangerous behavior patterns.

Every one of these terrifying statistics has at its base the reality of demons within. Because we live in the computer age, we can cover up the mess in there a tad better than the Gerasene man was able to do.  The pedophilia ring that was broken up last week named it’s website “Kids: the Light of Our Lives,” for heaven’s sake.

No, most of our ‘demons’ don’t cause us to wander the cemeteries without our clothes on, yelling at the top of our lungs.

Yet the truth is that every one of us in this room deals with now, or has dealt with at some point in the past, our own particular and unique set of demons.  We each have our shadow side, those areas of pain and difficulty that need to be named and then opened to the healing power of Jesus so that we, too, might become those who are, ‘clothed and in our right minds, sitting at the feet of the Lord.’

Please hear this wonderful truth, however: whatever it is that you’re dealing with inside, it is not outside the reach of Jesus’ authority to resolve.

Look at what happens in our story.  Jesus sails into foreign territory, and makes it his own.  He remains completely calm and unflappable throughout his confrontation with the demon-possessed man, never raising his voice, never saying or doing violence of any kind.  He immediately takes charge of this chaotic and chronic situation, commanding the evil forces to leave the man alone.  Those forces recognize the authority of Jesus, calling him “Son of the Most High God,” and begging for mercy. Jesus calls the demon by name and exercises complete authority over it.  In an almost humorous turn of events, Jesus agrees with the demons to send them into the nearby herd of pigs (one unclean thing into another, I guess!), clearly not allowing them to dictate their ultimate destination.  They end up in the abyss, despite their pleas to the contrary.

Jesus is in charge, from beginning to end, and his authority over the evil that dwells inside of us human creatures is complete and sure.

The man himself is able to witness the resolution of his long-term suffering and imprisonment – he can see those pigs running right off the cliff into the water, and he knows that his healing from the inside out has been accomplished.  He literally becomes a new man.  Discovered by the frightened townspeople to be – not a raving madman, haunting the lonely, desolate places outside of town – but a disciple – (the language of ‘sitting at Jesus’ feet’ is a dead giveaway to his new status) – now they find a learner, a quiet, calm, clear-headed, fully clothed, fully released, God-possessed human being.

Wow!  Time to bring out the fatted calf, right?  The people in the town must have wanted to have a big, old party, don’t you think?

Well . . . not exactly.

Apparently, the evil they knew was far less frightening to them than the power they didn’t know.  So their primary response to this strange Jewish man from the other side of the lake is one of fear, perhaps, even of terror.  Because the authority of Jesus is a very scary thing.  When Jesus comes on the scene, he shakes things up.  He rattles the cage, he upsets the status quo, he does startling things, he can’t be tamed, or put in a box, or sent to the tombs to wander around alone.

Too much modern Christianity forgets this truth.  We’ve tried pretty hard to make Jesus a really nice guy, with a nice smile and great hair. He loves little kids (and indeed, he does), he hunts for little lost lambs (and indeed, he does), he tells quaint stories, he helps people out a lot, he’s just a really great guy, you know?

Look again.  This is one gutsy guy, not intimidated by the crazy man wandering around naked in the graveyard.  This is a guy who talks right back to the demons, who clearly is in charge here, who is willing to do a daring and economically threatening thing like destroy an entire herd of pigs to salvage one human life.  This is a demanding guy, who tells the newly re-born Gerasene that, no, he cannot leave his home and follow him.  Rather, this new disciple must stay put and be a witness in his own hometown. He must tell the story of what God has done for him – he must go back to the town from which he had been ejected and isolated, back to the people who were even more frightened by the dramatic change in his demeanor and behavior than they were by his previous lunacy, back to the very ones who wanted him kept at a safe distance, outside the city gates.  And he must tell them of freedom and of healing and of God’s power.

These are not the responses, these are not the actions, these are not the words of a “really nice guy,” a really “great guy.”  Maybe this air-brushing we do so easily and so frequently is one of the ways in which we, too, ask Jesus to leave, to get away from us, because we cannot understand his power, we cannot accept his authority.  We domesticate him right out of the picture.  Dorothy Sayers, British writer and theologian from the early 20th century, put it this way:

“The people who hanged Christ…never accused him of being a bore. On the contrary, they thought him too dynamic to be safe. It has been left for later generations to muffle up the shadowing personality and surround him with an atmosphere of tedium. We have very efficiently pared the claws of the lion of Judea, certified him ‘meek and mild,’ and recommended him as a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies.”

May God forgive us for trying to smooth off the brave, outrageous edges of our magnificent Savior!

If we are to face our own demons, we need Someone who is strong and unflappable, One who is centered and authoritative, a Friend to stand with us, to go before us, to show us the truth about ourselves, to name that demon within and to tell it, in no uncertain terms, exactly where it can go!

Jesus is that Friend.  Thanks be to God.

 

Let us pray:

Holy God, Brave Savior, Powerful Holy Spirit,

Oh, how we thank you for this story.  For the clear evidence of your deep desire for our wholeness, for the word of authority that only you can speak to the demons within.  They have lots of names, Lord, and sometimes we’re too frightened or too proud to acknowledge their presence.  Deep and dark sexual fantasies, addictions to alcohol, or pornography, or drugs, or food, or shopping, or gambling.  An untamed tongue that too often flares in anger, or cuts in criticism, a spirit of despair that feels increasingly familiar and comfortable, an unwillingness to extend ourselves in your name to people we find scary or odd, a spirit of lethargy or apathy that keeps us at a distance from people or projects that would bring us good and build your kingdom, a debilitating shyness that inhibits our ability to offer that cup of cold water, a refusal to think of those from other cultures or other races as creatures also made in your image.

You know us better than we know ourselves, Lord.  Show us what we need to name.  By your grace, enable us to release authority over our demons to you, embolden us to ask for help, if we need it – medical or psychological or recovery help – all of them instruments of your healing power – then continue to heal us from the lingering aftereffects not only of our own demons, but also of the denial, of the wrong behavior, of the wrong choices that such demons produce in us. Then we will gladly bear witness to all that you have done for us, O Lord, because of Jesus, in whose name we pray, Amen.

 

 

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