Worship Words-Sermon, Jesus Welcomes Children and So Do We!

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Mark 9:33-37

Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

 

I love stories where the disciples’ humanity shines through. These twelve faithful followers of Jesus were walking along not listening to Jesus, not debriefing something Jesus had said, not coming up with great questions to ask Jesus. Instead of any of these things, they spent their time arguing. What do the disciples of Jesus argue about you might wonder? They argued about which one of them was the greatest. The good news for us today is that, despite actions like this, Jesus never gave up on the disciples and Jesus never gives up on us. We mess up just like the first 12 and there is forgiveness and another chance.

The Scripture tells us Jesus sat down. …Here’s how I see it. Jesus sits down. Palm to forehead, maybe he shakes his head for a few moments. He sighs a big sigh and then spends a few minutes doing some deep breathing. He doesn’t immediately go to the next lesson. Nope. Sometimes, we all need a minute to think about what we have done and what we should have been doing. When he is ready and hopefully when the disciples are ready to listen, Jesus says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

Now, I picture the disciples shaking their heads, sighing, and trying to figure what this means and why things are so backwards. They wanted to be first, best, greatest, and Jesus is telling them to be last and a servant. While they are still trying to understand his words, Jesus does something even stranger. He welcomes a child into their midst. He offers a big extravagant welcome to a child. Jesus keeps surprising the disciples even when they should know to expect the unexpected from Jesus. Jesus welcomes tax collectors, prostitutes, people with physical disabilities and mental illnesses, women, and now children. One could almost assume that Jesus is telling his disciples then and his disciples today that we are to welcome everyone.

Picture these scenes playing out in the sanctuary…

A mother brought her children to church regularly. One Sunday, this mother asked to speak with the pastor. She was crying as she told the pastor how someone had asked if her family could sit elsewhere because her children were distracting and making it hard to worship God.

A child is so excited that it is time for church. He runs as fast as he can to get to the sanctuary. An usher stops him to remind him not to run in God’s house.

6 children would arrive at church each week, all related, all delivered to church by an extended family member They joyfully sang and participate in worship. People began to talk about them because they needed to brush their hair, wear season appropriate clothing, and bathe more often. One woman didn’t join in the judgment or gossip. Instead, she started inviting all the kids at church for special hair time before worship. She brushed and styled anyone’s hair who wanted. She didn’t single out the ones who others thought needed help. She welcomed all and loved the children. What if the other two stories I told you had an ending like this one?

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Worship Words-Finding Balance

 

In 2006, I traveled with clergy from the Wisconsin Conference of the United Church of Christ to San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico for an education mission trip. For ten days, we learned from people and organizations working and living in this part of the world. While tidying my house as part of the KonMari method, I found notes I took on this trip.

 

Thursday 25 July 2006 Bible Study with Doris

Jeremiah 2: 14-19 and Isaiah 65: 20-25

How can one find balance? Balance doesn’t have to be a daily thing. You can’t have balance everyday. The goal is to have balance in God’s time. At time you need to be prophetic (like Jeremiah) and at other times you need to comfort (like Isaiah). What is God telling you to do now? The balance comes overall not daily.

 

These words from 9 years ago were new to me when I read them recently. I found affirmation and inspiration in the idea that to achieve balance does not mean we need to be all things in every moment. In God’s time and overall in our lives, we can strive for balance. At times, we will need to comfort those in need. At times, we will need to stand up and speak out for each other. At times, we will need to rest and renew ourselves. What a welcome message for our over-scheduled culture. God is not calling you to do everything now. God is calling you seek a balance overall about how you are living in the world.

 

Creating God, You didn’t create the whole world in one day. Why do we think we need to do everything in one day? Be with us as we seek to find balance in the way we live as your disciples. Give us a spirit of justice and compassion. Challenge us and soothe our hurts. Open our eyes to the beauty of your creation and the ways we are ruining it. Balance us, O God, for this journey is long. Amen.

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Racial Justice…Same as It Ever Was?

Sometimes I don’t know what to do or say in response to a situation. I listen to the news and pray for the people around the world whose stories draw media attention. I read stories and comments posted by my facebook friends and colleagues. The story that caught my attention this week was the arrest and death of Sandra Bland. I did not know her. I do not know all the facts of this story. What I do know is that too many people are dying needlessly and senselessly in this country. Last week my facebook feed featured stories of black churches burning and black clergywomen receiving death threats. And this morning I heard this song, Same as It Ever Was by Michael Franti and Spearhead. I felt like I could not remain silent about the black lives matter movement any longer. I firmly believe that we are all created in the image of God and we are all God’s beloved children. Saying black lives matter at this time in history does not diminish God’s love for all of us, instead it is a reminder that because we are called to care for each other we must speak out on behalf of those whose voices are being silenced.

I have so many questions. I want answers. I want to fix things. I want everyone in this country to have opportunities, to feel safe, to be loved, and to have enough.

I’m writing this to figure out what to say while recognizing there are no right words and knowing what needs to be said right now is that something needs to be done! So what am I doing? I’m writing this post in the hope it will encourage conversation and raise awareness. I’m participating in a new book group to study the history and current status of racism and using what I learn to change myself and to influence change in others. I’m learning from others and seeking out great resources like Showing Up for Racial Justice. And I’m wondering what you are doing? How can we partner to change things?

And, I’ll continue to pray. Join me in praying for our country.

Worship Words-10 Commandments Sermon

Scriptures-Exodus 20:1-17 and Mark 10:17-27

As we ponder the ten commandments today, what do you think about them? What do they mean for you as a person of faith? Are they one more list of things to add to your already full to do list or are they life giving models for how God dreams we can live? Possibly they fall somewhere in between for you or maybe you rarely think about the 10 commandments.

Thomas Long said this in an article on the commandments, “In popular religious consciousness, the 10 commandments have somehow become burdens, weights, and heavy obligations. For many the commandments are encumbrances placed on personal behavior. Most people cannot name all ten, but they are persuaded that at the center of each one is a finger-wagging “thou shalt not.”¹ For others, the commandments are heavy yokes to be publically placed on the necks of rebellious society.”

Viewing the 10 commandments in this way as a burden or restraints around our necks, rules that must be followed or else, holds us back from living our lives in the way God intended. God gave us the gift of life, so not living our lives the best way possible is in fact, a sin. We sin when we live in fear of failure because we are not using the gifts God has graciously given us. If we spend all our time thinking about what we aren’t supposed to do, there is no time left to do anything. God wants us to live our lives, to see the beauty in creation, to build strong relationships, to help others live. We were created to do good and that is what the 10 commandments help us to do.

Let me briefly sketch the story that surrounds the commandments. As the book of Exodus begins, there arises in Egypt a king who didn’t know Joseph. Remember, Joseph had found favor with the Pharaoh when through Joseph God interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams. The Egyptians were saved from starving in years of drought and for this Joseph became the Pharaoh’s right hand man. When the book of Exodus starts, Joseph has been dead long enough that those in power no longer remember him or his technocolor dreamcoat. This leaves the Hebrew people vulnerable.

This new king noticed that the Israelite people outnumbered the Egyptians. With their great numbers will they soon become more  powerful than the King and his people? He decides to exercise his power in a decisive way. And so the Hebrew people were forced to work for the Egyptians. The work became more and more difficult until the Hebrew people were slaves in the land of Egypt.

God calls Moses to lead the people to freedom. God says to Moses, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”

And God does just that. This is why today’s scripture began with these words, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.” God begins this life-affirming set of instructions with a reminder to the people of where they have been, where they are now and how they got here. Even though they haven’t yet arrived in the Promised Land, they are no longer slaves and their new land, the land God promised, is coming soon.

The story is as simple as this. God sees our suffering. First, God frees us to new life and then God offers a new way to live. A life rooted in freedom with ways to live that will allow us to stay free. God gave us these commandments as a way to live in God’s promise of life for everyone. In my previous church, the chidren learned our faith stories by using Young Children in Worship by Sonja Stewart and Jerome Berryman.  This book calls the 10 commandments, The Ten Best Ways to Live. What if we stopped calling them the 10 commandments? Instead, we could call these life-giving, relationship-strengthening, community-building verses The Ten Best Ways to Live.

Would they sound easier, if they were worded in this way, “Because the Lord is your God, you are free not to need any other gods. You are free to rest on the seventh day; free to love your elders and keep them safe now as they protected you when you were young; free from the tyranny of lifeless idols and empty words; free from murder, stealing and covetousness as ways to establish yourself in the land.”¹

By the time God gives the 10 Best Ways to Live to Moses, God has been in relationship with humans long enough to know a lot about the way we operate. That is why these guidelines, instructions, commandments were not handed to the people as soon as they left Egypt. God knew the people had been forced to do things, told what to do for so long that they might just rebel if they were told what to do again even if God was offering something better. So after the people escaped there was a time of celebration – dancing and singing. As the people began their journey, God provides water and manna from heaven.

God was with them as they met up with people who lived in the land they were traveling through and as people had disputes with each other that Moses mediated. And finally, God knows the people are ready for some instructions, some guidance for their lives. And so God give them a better way to live, freedom. Not a to-do list or a list of laws or requirements to be a good person. God gives these best ways to live to those God loves, the people with whom God is in a relationship.

And our gospel reaffirms that these are the 10 Best Ways to Live. Jesus encourages a man who questions him to live the commandments. I’ve always struggled a bit with this man’s response, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Wow. We know the 10 Best Ways to Live are life enriching and we know they aren’t easy. I’m not sure anyone here today would say sure I’ve been faithfully following all 10 for years. And yet, even with this man’s faithfulness, Jesus says there is more to do and the man is unable to do that one last thing. Do not be discouraged when we cannot do one more thing for God or for each other because this week’s gospel passage ends with these words of hope “for God all things are possible.”

The 10 Best Ways to Live and Jesus’ call to follow him are offers of relationship. We are those with whom God wishes to be in relationship. How is your relationship with God? What, if anything, is holding us back from strengthening this relationship? It could be any number of things in these days of busyness and hurrying. So many things filled our lives that God gets pushed to the side. And sometimes the relationship is strained because of events in our lives-we wonder why this happened and where is God? Or your relationship with God may be great right now which still doesn’t mean you can stop thinking about it. Are you neglecting your relationship with God? If so, what can you do about it?

Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, An Altar in the World is filled with ordinary practices you can do with thoughtfulness while looking for God in our midst. In the introduction she says, “If you are tired of arguing about religion, tired of reading about spirituality, tired of talk-talk-talking about things that matter without doing a single thing that matters yourself, then the pages that follow are dedicated to you…My hope is that reading will help you recognize some altars in this world—ordinary-looking places where humans being have met and continue to meet up with….God.” (xvii)

Her fifth chapter or practice is about getting lost. She talks about how we get into routines and fail to pay attention. We drive to work and can’t remember the route we took or anything we saw along the way. We go about our daily lives without ever paying any attention. We get from point A to point B as fast as possible because we have much to do. In the midst of this chapter she talks about all the people who got lost in the Bible and how while they were lost they found God. Our ancestors in the faith who received the 10 Best Ways to Live, “needed forty years in the wilderness to learn the holy art of being lost…(because) by the time they arrived in the land of milk and honey, they knew how to say thank you and mean it” (74-75).

I hope you have a great getting lost story…where your best laid plans flew out the window as the route you planned to take was no longer available or the place you planned to stop was not open. When we have to move from our carefully constructed plans to plan b, c, or d, we are changed…hopefully for the better.

Where do we need to get lost to be more attentive to our relationship with God? Toward the end of the chapter, Barbara says, “If you are not able to set priorities any other way, then getting lost may be the kick in the pants you have been waiting for” (85). I hope today you feel the Holy Spirit moving in your life inviting you into a stronger relationship with our God.

Are these commandments rules from long ago that should be etched in stone, in our courthouses, for symbolic reasons perhaps more than practical ones, or are they etched deeply into our hearts, where we long for the wholeness and newness that God offers us? Are they holding you back or giving you new life in God? If they are holding you back, may you find some time today or this week to get lost and see God in your ordinary, everyday life. Amen.

This sermon was originally preached on October 14, 2012 at St. Giles Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. It has been edited for this blog post.

¹Thomas G. Long, “Dancing the Decalogue.” Christian Century 123, no. 5 (March 7, 2006), 17.

Worship Words-Pentecost and Retirement Sermon from June 8, 2014

A year ago, I was preaching at my Dad’s church. We were celebrating his forty years of ordained ministry. We were celebrating his retirement from full-time ministry. It was my parents’ last day with this congregation. A special joy for me was celebrating communion with my Dad. My ordination was the only other time we’ve celebrated communion together.

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Although this sermon seems very specific to the events happening somewhere in central Illinois 365 days ago, when I reread it today I was delighted to see universal themes that apply to all people of faith every day of the year.

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Ephesians 4: 1-16

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it is said,
‘When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive;
   he gave gifts to his people.’ 
(When it says, ‘He ascended’, what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.) The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

Acts 2: 1-4

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

John 20:19-23

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’

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A Sabbatical of Sorts

For years I have been part of a group called The Young Clergy Women Project. We are clergy in our 20’s and 30’s who support, encourage, and journey with each other in our ministry. And yesterday, they published this piece that I wrote.

A Sabbatical of Sorts

While I was in seminary, I read Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, The Preaching Life. In the chapter about call, she shares the story of asking God what she was supposed to do with her life. It is a question I’ve asked God multiple times in my life. The answer she heard and the part of this story that has stayed with me for years was “do anything that pleases you and belong to me.” This phrase has been a source of comfort and inspiration in my ten years of ordained ministry. It was easy for me to feel like I was applying this idea to my life and helping others apply it to their lives while I was serving congregations as their pastor.

Now, I find myself as a young clergy woman without a congregation. It’s been a sabbatical of sorts. There are days when I feel like I am wandering in the wilderness while wondering, Where is God calling me next? How will my gifts be used? What do I do in this time of waiting?

If God says “do anything that pleases you and belong to me,” what does this look like for those of us who are not employed? It can feel like freedom; no matter where we go God is there. Whatever we are doing—paid or not—we still belong to God. It can feel vast and overwhelming because nothing is limiting us except our imaginations, and that is scary. Add to this time of unemployment any other major life events like moving to another state, as I did, and it becomes even more perplexing. What does “do anything” look like when your whole landscape has changed, you need to find a new local support system, and you no longer have a church where you are expected to (and want to) be on Sunday mornings?

Barbara Brown Taylor tells this story again in An Altar in the World. And this version of her story includes these words, “Whatever I decided to do for a living, it was not what I did but how I did it that mattered. God had suggested an overall purpose, but was not going to supply the particulars for me. If I wanted a life of meaning, then I was going to have to apply the purpose for myself” (110).

For the last decade the meaning and purpose seemed easy enough to me. I worked for God (and about 300 church members). I journeyed with other disciples as they discovered God at work in their daily lives. I led Bible studies. I preached and led worship. I prayed with and for all ages of children of God. I laughed and cried with children, youth, and adults as we discerned together where God was calling them and how to faithfully follow God. For me, there was always so much to do that I had to make myself stop and think about why I was doing it.

Now, the opposite is true. I have so much time to think, ponder, and question. Most days, I’m using my time to do those things and I believe it will help me in whatever comes next. Other days, I want to do more and think less. As I search for ways to find a balance, I find myself reflecting on one of my favorite quotes. It is a memory that my favorite singer, Harry Chapin, shared about his grandfather, who said the following to Harry:

Harry, there are two kinds of tired: there’s good-tired, and there’s bad-tired. Ironically enough, bad-tired can be a day that you won. But you won other people’s battles, you lived other people’s days, other people’s agendas, other people’s dreams and when it was all over there was very little “you” in there, and when you hit the hay at night, somehow you toss and turn—you don’t settle easy. Good-tired, ironically enough, can be a day that you lost. But you don’t have to tell yourself, ’cause you knew you fought your battles, you chased your dreams, you lived your days, and when you hit the hay at night, you settle easy—you sleep the sleep of the just, and you can say “take me away.”

I first heard this on Harry’s The Gold Medal Collection album while I was in seminary and was inspired to live by this motto of good-tired. In fact, while in a liturgy class where we were to prepare an order of service for a funeral I requested that my friend include this quote in my funeral service.

During my time between calls, I’ve been tired, but it has been good-tired because I’ve been listening for God and focusing on using my God-given gifts. Working in the church will leave you tired. There is no doubt about that. The question is what type of tired?  I believe God is challenging me to find the balance, to take the time in whatever my ministry setting is to work so I’m good-tired with time to think and not just do. In our world, busyness leads quickly to bad-tired.

I’ve been calling this season of life my sabbatical. I’ve never had a sabbatical before, and I’m trying to use this time wisely and faithfully. My hope is that when my sabbatical ends I will have had time to rest and renew the most important relationships in my life. I hope to have learned more and slowed down enough to see more too. And, if I am tired, I want to be good-tired. My task now is to discover those deepest desires that God has given me: what I want to do and what I love to do. I hope that I can make a living doing these things. Most of all, I must remember in this time of discovery that I belong to God. I am God’s beloved and so are you.

 


Post Author: Susannah DeBenedetto

The Rev. Susannah DeBenedetto is ordained in the United Church of Christ. She has served churches in Missouri, Wisconsin, and North Carolina. Currently, she is between calls and discerning her next steps in ministry while exploring her new home, the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

You can learn more about the Young Clergy Women Project and read my article here.