Palm Sunday

Preparing for Palm Sunday as an all-in (my preferred, more all-encompassing term for intergenerational) worship, I wanted to create a space that would give voice to the clamour of voices in our own lives by moving from lots of noise and movement to a stiller listening which would ready us for the silence and shadows that deepen as we move through Holy Week.

PREPARATION

The sanctuary can be decorated with Palm fronds or these can be brought in during the singing of a processional hymn like All glory, laud and honour (Together in Song 333). Stones should also be strewn around the altar to create the scene of the Gospel reading.

Palm fronds sufficient for the average number of children attending your service should be cut out of light green cardboard and given to children/volunteers seated throughout the sanctuary (there are plenty of easy templates available through Google search). These will be used in making worship a little more interactive for children, as well as for the prayers of praise later in the service.

WELCOME

This or some other introduction:

Today, Palm Sunday,  marks the beginning of Holy Week. This is the day when Jesus weeps over Jerusalem and then enters it on a donkey as a person of peace rather than a rising power. Yet, in spite of his humble entry, he is hailed by the crowd who recognise him as being of God and praise him with loud hosannas. Only weeks later, they will be baying for his blood with shouts of “Crucify him.”

Our King is coming.
And so, we cry from our hearts,
“Hosanna. Save us!”

If it has not been sung as a processional hymn, TiS 333 is sung now.

CALL TO WORSHIP – CLAP YOUR HANDS

A rap/ rhyme with clapping and verbal responses. The leader should prepare the congregation for the expected actions which are either a repetition of the words “when the Lord comes” or three claps following any other phrase. The overall effect should be a fairly fast, fun, flowing call to worship in which people of all ages can participate. It really doesn’t need to be perfect, just loud! Here’s a (poor) example of the rhythm:

Clap your hands (clap, clap, clap)
Clap your hands (clap, clap, clap)
Everyone             (clap, clap, clap)
Clap your hands (clap, clap, clap)

All you people (clap, clap, clap)
Shout to God (clap, clap, clap)
With loud songs (clap, clap, clap)
Songs of joy (clap, clap, clap)

When the Lord comes (when the Lord comes)
When the Lord comes (when the Lord comes)

We’ll shout and sing (clap, clap, clap)
Fear no earthly thing (clap, clap, clap)
Give Him everything (clap, clap, clap)
When the Lord comes (when the Lord comes)

Clap your hands (clap, clap, clap)
Clap your hands (clap, clap, clap)
Everyone             (clap, clap, clap)
Clap your hands (clap, clap, clap)

All you people (clap, clap, clap)
Shout to God (clap, clap, clap)
With loud songs (clap, clap, clap)
Songs of joy (clap, clap, clap)

When the Lord comes (when the Lord comes)
When the Lord comes (when the Lord comes)

We’ll call His name (clap, clap, clap)
Proclaim the fame (clap, clap, clap)
Of He who stays the same (clap, clap, clap)
When the Lord comes (when the Lord comes)

Clap your hands (clap, clap, clap)
Clap your hands (clap, clap, clap)
Everyone             (clap, clap, clap)
Clap your hands (clap, clap, clap)

All you people (clap, clap, clap)
Shout to God (clap, clap, clap)
With loud songs (clap, clap, clap)
Songs of joy (clap, clap, clap)

When the Lord comes (when the Lord comes)
When the Lord comes (when the Lord comes)

See Him enter in (clap, clap, clap)
Our humble King (clap, clap, clap)
Let us shout and sing (clap, clap, clap)
When the Lord comes (when the Lord comes)

Clap your hands (clap, clap, clap)
Clap your hands (clap, clap, clap)
Everyone             (clap, clap, clap)
Clap your hands (clap, clap, clap)

All you people (clap, clap, clap)
Shout to God (clap, clap, clap)
With loud songs (clap, clap, clap)
Songs of joy (clap, clap, clap)

SONGS OF JOY

A medley of two or three choruses are sung with recurring words. The children are invited to wave their (cardboard) palm leaves in the air every time they hear those chosen words e.g. “hosanna” and “glory” sung. I would suggest Hosanna in the highest and Glory, glory in the highest and maybe the “laughing song” for the children in particular.

PALM PRAYERS (AND OFFERTORY)

In groups of 5 or 6, mixed group of adults and children write down on a (cardboard) Palm leaf some of the things that they would like to praise God for. When sufficient time has been given, one of the choruses above can be sung through again as children bring their “palms” forward and scatter them among the rocks at the altar as a symbol of bringing their prayers of praise to God. The offertory can also be collected at this time as an act of adoration.

GOSPEL READING: LUKE 19:28-40

Before this familiar story is read, set the scene by picking up one of the stones and holding it to your ear. Then look at it quizzically, tell everyone to shhhhhhhh, and listen again. Say, “In today’s story, Jesus tells the Pharisees that even if the people who were singing songs of praise to him were quiet, the stones would shout out. Can you help me find a stone that speaks?”

Encourage the children to help you look – or rather listen! – for one that talks. When you’ve exhausted all the options, suggest that maybe they’re keeping quiet because there are so many other voices in our lives that we’re always listening to. Ask them whose voices these may be.

After a short time of sharing, say, “So many voices. In our story from Luke today there are a lot of voices too. Maybe we can listen together and count how many people are talking.”

The story is read.

With the congregation, try to identify the “voices.” I count 5 that I will be talking about in the time of meditation:

  • Jesus – the voice of authority/instruction 
  • The colt’s owners – the voice of ownership/interrogation   
  • The two disciples – the voice of imitation/obedience
  • The voice of the multitude – the voice of praise/expectation
  • The Pharisees – the voice of criticism/offence 

“SILENT” PRAYER

To be offered slowly, gently.

O Still Point of our Turning World,
Let us be aware of You in silence this day.
Let us not be distracted by the clamour of every thought
But let us sit – still and safe –
In the certainty of Your presence
And the assurance of Your love.

Let us trust that You are enough
And we are enough
And it is enough just to be here,
Just as we are.

Free us from the voices that would have us believe otherwise:
That would lead us away,
That demand we get back to the busyness of our day,
That question our worth,
That criticise our efforts,
That worry us and wear us down.

In this moment,
May our hearts be still,
Our minds uncluttered,
Our faces unmasked,
Our spirits at ease.

Be still in the silence and aware of the Love with and within you….

A time of silence is observed – just allow it to expand as long as is comfortable. Then ….  

May the peace of the Lord be with You.
And also with you.

The peace is shared.

PALM CROSS ACTIVITY

As people return to their seats, the children can be invited to make palm crosses at the table – they will probably need assistance, or, at the very least, company.

https://www.catholicicing.com/how-to-fold-a-palm-cross-in-10-easy-steps/

MEDITATION/REFLECTION

PRAYERS FOR THE WORLD

(An adaptation of a prayer by Tess Ward)

Great God whose love can never be silenced
Hold us in Your heart when the noise of our busyness is hushed:
After the gunfire of war, the stillness of the fallen.
After the crying of the baby, the contentment of sleep.
After the gossiping of tongues, the wounded heart of the one that is reviled.
After laughter with friends, the void of solitude.
After the hymns have been sung, the watchful waiting of an empty church.
After the beloved voice of those dear to us, the nothingness with which we are faced when they are gone. 

Be with those who are afraid of the stillness that this day may hold,
With those for whom quiet is equated with loneliness or loss,
With those who know silence to be the calm before the storm of violence and abuse erupts,
With those who feel so voiceless in their situation that they wish the stones would cry out on their behalf.
Great God whose love can never be silenced
Hold them in Your heart.
Amen.

TiS 585 I heard the voice of Jesus say is sung

BENEDICTION

In the clamour of this day
grant us a stillness of seeing, O God.
In the conflicting voices of our hearts,
grant us a calmness of hearing.
Let our seeing and hearing,
our words and our actions,
be rooted in the silent certainty of Your presence.
And, in our certainty let us cry out,
“Hosanna. Save us!”
that the world may be blessed
By the love of the Father,
The Life of the Son,
And the leading of the still, small voice of the Spirit.
Amen.

TiS 779 May the feet or some other quiet song of blessing is sung

Lenten letters

To my fellow pilgrims in this season of Lent

I love this time of year!
Palms. Passion. Pentecost.
The autumning of the earth as the temperature cools. 
Leaves donning their gold and orange colours.
Kevin baking his famous chocolate pudding for dessert.
Darkness deepening, lengthening,
inviting us to slow down and rest. 

It is, for many, a time of anticipation – an all-around-us reminder of the turning and re-turning rhythms written into our world by our Creator. Tess Ward, in her prayer book The Celtic Wheel of the Year, offers this profound praise to be offered on rising and resting in these autumn days:

Blessed be you Balance-Holder,
unafraid of the dark from which all newness must begin,
giver of light that draws us on and out into fullness.

(On rising)Help me to balance my need for outgoing
and restoring this day.

(Before resting)With thankfulness for my going out,
restore to me my rest this night.

The story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32) is the focus of our worship in this fourth week of Lent. It is a story of turning and re-turning; of a young man cutting ties with his family to seek adventure and pleasure and independence but finding himself full of loneliness and longing for that same family when times are hard and work is undignified and unrewarding and friends are fickle. Finally, when he is able to overcome his pride, his feet follow his heart which has turned towards the warm memories of home. He returns to his father’s embrace – and his older brother’s angry face. 

“It’s not fair!” is the anguished cry of the good and faithful son who had stayed behind to work the land with his father and restore their fortunes for little recognition or reward. And there he stands – outside his home, arms crossed in wounded indignation, denying himself the opportunity to share in the joyous feasting that is taking place just a few feet away. The son who had gone out is now restored. But what about the son who had stayed? 

Palms. Passion. Pentecost. Autumn. Turning and re-turning. Dark and Light. Going out and restoring. These are the rhythms written into our world, our life, our church by our Creator, or – as Tess Ward names God in her prayer, Balance-Holder.

I wonder how often we miss out on real joy
~ because we refuse to move and sway to these divine rhythms,
~ because going out seems risky and uncomfortable,
~ because we’re fiercely protecting what is ours,
~ because we want things to stay exactly the same.

May this week bring you opportunities to perceive God in motion and the courage to come to life in big and small ways as the Balance-Holder draws us on and out into the fullness of life together. 

Yours, in Christ,
Yvonne 

Lenten letters

To my fellow pilgrims in this season of Lent

Last Sunday was a wonderful celebration of Christian calling as I led a commissioning service for new elders in Tumbarumba in the morning and was then inducted as the minister of the Southern Region in Henty in the afternoon. There was a beautiful symmetry to the day which reminded me of how vital and necessary every single part of the Body really is.

Thank you to all who were present, and to the many others who have offered their support, prayers, encouragement, and friendship to my family and I in recent weeks. 

Thank you, especially, to all within the Church of Christ who have listened for and responded to the leading of the Spirit in their lives, who have made sacrifices and put their self-interests aside to serve others, who have acted as agents of healing and reconciliation and justice in our community, and who – in various big and little ways – hold the sacred mystery of God before us in our mission, our decision-making, and our worship. 

Leading where God calls is not always an easy task. It can be humbling, confusing, frustrating, uncomfortable, and even positively unrewarding at times! 

Sometimes, we might encounter what seem to be obstacles in our way or stumbling blocks to our vision, only to find that they were actually route markers along an unimagined journey – places where God came very close to us and we were able to come very close to God.

Sometimes, we may feel vulnerable or unsafe opening up to or standing in front of others – like “spiritual flashers” to borrow a term from a friend – and risking criticism for what we are doing and how we are doing it from people who seem unwilling to do anything but throw stones.

Sometimes, our passion and urgency might chafe against the processes and the structures of the church that seem slow and unwieldy but can actually offer us the space to follow our thoughts home, hone our gifts, deepen our conversations, and build authentic, supportive relationships that honour our mutual gifting and collective discernment.

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it”

Luke 13:34a

As I read Christ’s words this week concerning Jerusalem, I am struck yet again by his humility and trust in the Father as he walks towards the city of Jerusalem knowing what awaited him there. It fills me with wonder that he is still full of love and longing to gather up the people like a mother who hen covers her chicks with her wings – even though they will soon mock, betray, deny and crucify him.

As we journey towards the cross, together, I hope that we will:

  • have the courage to explore and/or continue on the journey to which God has called us;
  • take a moment to affirm and encourage those who are exercising their gifts for the benefit of the Body;
  • and pray for the same love and longing of Christ to see his people welcomed, embraced, and protected in this place.

Yours, in Christ,
Yvonne 

Lenten letters

To my fellow pilgrims in this season of Lent

Almost seven years ago I attended my first Ash Wednesday service. I listened to Jesus’s searching question to James and John as they sought power and privilege in his coming kingdom: “Are you able to drink from the bitter cup of suffering I am about to drink?” (Matthew 20:22, NLT). I knelt in silence at the altar. I received upon my forehead a dirty cross of oil and ashes. And I rose, ready for the return to daily routine, with new insight into the significance of this season in the Christian year: 

we are not called to be passive observers (or even penitent celebrants) of the Easter story but active participants in the offering of God’s perfect peace on the path of suffering, in the place of death, by the pool of people’s tears.

I was reminded of this as we marked the beginning of our Lenten season in a very special way this year: journeying between nine congregations to pray intentionally with members of Christ’s body for those within our communities who have drunk so long and deep of such a bitter cup that they have lost their sense of hope, of joy, of dignity, and, especially, of their belovedness. 

  • Have we drunk this cup? 
  • How has the bitterness changed us? 
  • Where is Christ in the midst of the suffering? 
  • Do we dare to drink deeply on behalf of another?

These are some of the questions with which we wrestle as we set our sights towards Jerusalem and share in the slow, and often painful, journey towards the cross on Calvary.

This cup, along with the broken bread, is at the centre of our table: a constant reminder that love is hospitable, grace is costly, and togetherness can be painful as we sacrifice our power and privilege to make room for each other. 

This journey is at the heart of our pilgrimage towards the perfect, eternal shalom of God’s kin(g)dom – complete with sore feet and dusty sandals, unrelenting ups and sudden downs, places of rest and refreshing, spectacular views, and surprising companions along the way.

This season in the church year is a starting point for repentance and renewal: inviting us, in Scripture and fellowship and prayer, to acknowledge and turn from attitudes and behaviours that keep us from experiencing and sharing in the love, the mercy, the humility, and the justice of Christ.

I pray that over the next six weeks you will intentionally commit to drinking of this cup of suffering, this cup of glory.

  • Perhaps you’ll take the pledge through UnitingWorld’s (or other) lent event (www.lentevent.com) to give up items you can live without for forty days and donate what you save to life changing projects.
  • Perhaps you’ll volunteer at a shelter or food ministry – or even invite someone who you know is struggling for a meal in your own home.
  • Perhaps you would like to join a local Lenten Bible Study happening in your area.
  • Perhaps you’ll let go of a grudge or a resentment that you’ve been holding on to for far too long.

As we drink deeply, may we be fill to overflowing with the love of Christ – for the world, and for each other.
Yvonne 

A pebble in my hand

So, I realise that this is late – if you were looking for a liturgy for Ash Wednesday. But if you’re looking for a guided reflection in the season of Lent around the themes of repentance, rebuilding and renewal, well then it’s probably still in good time.

I used this as part of a day of prayer within the congregations with whom I journey to “the promised end.” It worked particularly well in less formal settings, seated in a circle, or around a table.

You’ll need two small bowls filled with dark and light pebbles (enough for each member of your group) and a candle.

Opening up

Welcome friends,
we meet here today though we are busy
and life is full of pressures and demands.

We meet to pray –
to pray for ourselves,
to pray for our church
to pray for the community in which we gather.

We have chosen to be here
instead of somewhere else.

For our time together,
I invite you to choose a small pebble 
to accompany you as we pray.

And, as you choose,
I invite you to share – in a single word or sentence –
why you have chosen to come
to this time and this place.

<the bowl is passed around and a dark pebble is taken by each person present as they share their choosings>

Prayer of Invocation

<a candle is placed in the centre of the group>

As we have chosen to be present,
let us open ourselves up to God’s presence … with and within us ….

God.
God, You are.
God, You are everywhere.

God of sand,
God of stream,
God of everywhere
in between…

God of the dry places
where the sun beats down
and the rivers dry up
and the grasses brown …

God of the streams
where creatures meet
to quench their thirst
and escape the heat …

God of hearts
as hard as stone,
struggling through life
as though alone…

God of children
called by grace,
to meet You
in this sacred space …

bless us
in this time of Lent;
change our lives
as we repent;

give us eyes to see
and ears to hear:
the time has come,
our God draws near.

<the candle is lit>

Preparing to listen

I invite you to take a moment to look carefully at the stone that rests in the palm of your hand.

Turn it over. Trace its outline. Study its texture.

See if there is any fault or blemish on it. Does its flaws make it less perfect for you? Or more beautiful?

Feel its weight. Is it light or heavy? How does it compare to the circumstances of your own life right now?

Consider its temperature – is it warm or cold?

Squeeze it tight. Now let go. Look again. Have you changed its shape or has it left an impression on you as you’ve held it tight?

Now I know it’s just a pebble, a small stone … but in our hands and along life’s journey what else might it represent or be?

<people are given time to respond to the question>

Like a pebble thrown into a pond, it could be a catalyst for change.

Like a stone in my shoe, it could be a painful grudge that I’ve held onto which has crippled my heart and my posture.

It could be a stumbling block – that I throw into the path of another or trip over myself.

Or it could be a journey marker which shows me the way to go.

It might be the means of slaying a giant.

Or a weapon of judgement with which I wound another.

The pebble seems less important 
than the heart of the one who holds it,
as we hear in our Gospel story today.

Gospel reading: John 8:1-11 (NRSV)

Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. 

The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 

They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. 

Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 

When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” 

And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground.

When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 

Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 

She said, “No one, sir.”

And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”

Prayer of confession:

As the woman’s encounter with Christ freed her from condemnation and from her sin, so too do we seek God’s liberating love as we pray (based on Psalm 51):

Have mercy on us O God,
according to Your faithful love!
Wipe away our wrongdoings according to Your great compassion!

Wash us completely clean of our guilt.
Purify us from our sin!

Because we know our wrongdoings,
our guilt weighs heavily within our hands.

We’ve sinned against You – You alone,
committed evil in Your sight.

Purify us with hyssop
and we will be clean.
Wash us and we will be
whiter than snow.

Create a clean heart for us, O God;
and put a new and faithful spirit
deep inside us!

As a symbol that God has heard and answered our prayers, I invite you to exchange your dark people for a light one.

<in a time of silence people make the exchange> 

Words of assurance
from Isaiah 58:9-12 (the Message)

Then when you pray, God will answer.
You’ll call out for help and I’ll say, ‘Here I am.’

“If you get rid of unfair practices, 
quit blaming victims,
quit gossiping about other people’s sins,

If you are generous with the hungry
and start giving yourselves to the down-and-out,
your lives will begin to glow in the darkness, 
your shadowed lives will be bathed in sunlight.

I will always show you where to go.
I’ll give you a full life in the emptiest of places—
firm muscles, strong bones.

You’ll be like a well-watered garden,
a gurgling spring that never runs dry.

You’ll use the old rubble of past lives to build anew,
rebuild the foundations from out of your past.
You’ll be known as those who can fix anything,
restore old ruins, rebuild and renovate,
make the community livable again.

Meditation or group reflection on the passages

Prayer of response 

"Living stones" by Marianne Musgrove (with a few adaptations)

God, in this moment, remind us
that we are river stones
tumbled and polished,
burnished
by living water

We are unearthed fossils
revived 
by the warm breath of God 

We are 
stalagmite and stalactite
reaching out to one another –

We are skimming stones
skipping over translucent
water
fuelled by joy

We are
meteors blazing
trailing tails like wedding veils
eager to answer God’s call

We are 
rough cut stones
hewn to form a highway
the master builder placing us
just so

We are 
stones and dust and clay 
divine spark-animated – 
created and loved by God

And with Jesus as our
cornerstone
we’re built into a
spiritual house.

We are stones
we are living stones 

build our congregation, 
enliven our community,
reveal Your love to the whole world
as we lay down our lives
and offer our gifts
to Your glory.

<people place their pebble on the altar, offering their own prayers for the community in this place>

Benediction

Go into this community of <insert name> as builders rather than stone throwers. 

Point people to the God’s handmade beauty in all the creation. Stand firm with those weathered and worn by the harshness of life’s journey. And work together to build a temple of love for all who long for justice.

And may the peace and the power of our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer accompany you on your way – both now and forevermore. Amen.

From Sand to Stream

I’m captivated by the selection of Scriptures for this first Sunday in Lent  (lectionary readings) which have much to do with this sacred time of preparation for Easter being a period of promise as  God’s draws ever nearer in the acts of repentance, affirmation, retreat, and testing.

Below is an idea for entering a time of worship and fellowship with the call to worship being taken from the Gospel for a refreshing change and the Psalm being used later in the service as a responsive prayer of confession/promise after the sermon/meditation.

The altar/focal point should be set up with a tray or box (preferably perspex) of sand covered with small pebbles and a blue flowing scarf to resemble water or a jug and bowl into which water can be poured during the prayer of invocation.

Call to Worship: Mark 1: 9-15 (NCV)

Reader 1:
At that time Jesus came from the town of Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan River. Immediately, as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven open. The Holy Spirit came down on him like a dove, and a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love, and I am very pleased with you.”

Reader 2:
Then the Spirit sent Jesus into the desert. He was in the desert forty days and was tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and the angels came and took care of him.

Reader 3:
After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, preaching the Good News from God. He said, “The right time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Change your hearts and lives and believe the Good News!”

 

Prayer of Invocation

God.

God, You are.

God, You are everywhere.

God of sand,
God of stream,
God of everywhere
in between…

God of the dry places
where the sun beats down
and the rivers dry up
and the grasses brown …

God of the streams
where creatures meet
to quench their thirst
and escape the heat …

God of hearts
as hard as stone,
struggling through life
as though alone…

God of children
called by grace,
to meet You
in this sacred space …

bless us
in this time of Lent;
change our lives
as we repent;

give us eyes to see
and ears to hear:
the time has come,
our God draws near.

Fasting by feasting

*** a sermon for Ash Wednesday based on Isaiah 58:1-9 and John 60:30-35, 41***

Today is the beginning of Lent – a 4o day period of repentance and fasting as we prepare for the coming of Easter. It is a time of self-examination and reflection in which we focus on our relationship with God, often giving up something as a sign of our desire to walk the way of suffering and sacrifice with Christ.

For many of us, this is not a new commitment; not a new journey. Many of us have, in fact, grown up in homes and churches where the Lenten language is familiar and fasting is  common practice. Really, even the secular world now recommends that people participate in this Christian custom because of the health benefits associated with abstaining from certain meals or food groups.

So, at the beginning of this well-worn, world-sanctioned season, let us acknowledge that, like the Israelites, we are well-practiced in these particular religious rituals: we lament in loud voices, we come forward for the imposition of ashes with sad faces, we dress somberly, we dismiss our colleagues’ invitations to lunch with an offhand “I can’t. It’s Lent. I’m fasting.”

But often, like the Israelites, our outward actions do not reflect our inner state. Truth be told, we feel smug in our self-imposed suffering; proud of ourselves for our willpower, our discipline, our sacrifice. And just below the often-authentic desire to repent, to be different, lurks the unconfessed belief that God will owe us something good for what we’re putting ourselves through, for doing the right thing.

And yet, like the Israelites who went through the right religious motions, we miss the point of this period, of this practice, and the fast we offer is not really the kind of fast that God desires.

Sure, we may cut out sugar, but that means nothing if our lives lack the sweetness of God’s love. We may give up caffeine, but it’s pointless when we still cling to to our grudges, our disagreements, our prejudice. We may go without meat, but what does that matter when we show no concern for those who go without bread, without shelter, without dignity, without justice on a daily basis? We may even waive all but one meal a day, but if we won’t abandon our ambitions, our pride, our busyness it’s all for nothing.

This struggle is not a new thing. Even Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, wrote in the 4th century to the Christian community of the time:

“Do not limit the benefit of fasting to the abstinence of food, for a true fast means refraining from evil. Loose every unjust bond, put away your resentment against your neighbour, forgive him his offenses. Do not let your fasting lead to wrangling and strife. You do not eat meat, but you devour your brother; you abstain from wine, but not from insults – so all the labour of your fast is useless.”

How do we get it so wrong? And how do we, on this first day of Lent, put aside the “right” religious rituals to which we have become so accustomed and enter into a true spirit of sacrifice and penitence?

Our Scripture reading from John’s Gospel holds the key.

The story is set after the miraculous feeding of the 5000 where the crowd wants to crown Jesus as king, and a time of teaching at the Feast of the Tabernacles where the crowd wants to kill him for preaching against the legalism that binds them in favor of what God really wants.

In the conversation with those who have followed him hungry for more, the question from the people reveals their preoccupation with their history, with the beliefs and practices of their ancestors handed down over many generations: “What miracle will you do?” they ask him. “Our ancestors ate manna in the desert, bread from heaven. So what will you do?”

Jesus shocks, and even offends some of them, by explaining that he is the real miracle – the true bread sent from heaven to give his life for the world.

It is a disruptive moment in which Jesus challenges their tradition, their faith; in which he proclaims that they should not be following Moses, a man who worked miracles, but God in heaven who made such miracles possible. He contests their tendency to follow after that which is temporary and unsustainable while that which is transformative and eternal is right in front of them. He opposes their desire to be satisfied – to be full – by revealing that it is only in the brokenness of his body and the giving of his life that they can enter into the abundant and the everlasting.

Perhaps our preoccupation with tradition is why our fast fails; for instead of fixing our eyes on our Father in heaven, we focus on that song, that ritual, that preacher who – for a moment – made us feel satisfied.

Perhaps it is our infatuation with the tangible: we fast from food, from television, from Facebook, from the things that we can physically give up rather than the powers that possess our minds and our spirits – the lust, the fear, the hatred that has taken hold in our hearts.

Perhaps it is our absolute lack of understanding that the fullness of life is not found by mourning and praying and fasting for forty days but in a costly and ongoing commitment to the broken and shared life of Christ… which is why so many of his listeners grumbled. They wanted a ready supply of food for their stomachs, not a lifetime of sacrifice and surrender. And, honestly, are we any different?

This year, may the Lenten invitation be clear: not just to fast for the sake of fasting, or because that’s what we think good Christians do, or because we hope to earn God’s favor going forward for the rest of the year; but rather to feast on Christ, to feed on the eternal, to nourish our souls with God’s Word, to spend time in his presence, to open ourselves up to uncomfortable conversations, to make ourselves vulnerable and available to that broken and shared life, and to be surprised by the abundance…

of mercy,
of generosity,
of forgiveness,
of love,
of peace,
of joy  that emerges when this season centers around the Bread of Life and the fullness of life on offer in Christ.

A true fast starts with and is sustained by feasting on the One who gave up all that we would never be hungry, never be thirsty. Will you grumble and complain, or partake and eat in the Feast that is set before you?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lent: Feast or fast?

A Service for Ash Wednesday based on Isaiah 58:1-9 (1-14) and John 6:30-41

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Call to worship (based on Isaiah 58:1-9 – The Message)

Shout! A full-throated shout!
    Hold nothing back—a trumpet-blast shout!
Tell my people what’s wrong with their lives,
    face my family Jacob with their sins!

We’re busy, busy, busy at worship,
    and love studying all about You.
To all appearances we’re a nation of right-living people—
    law-abiding, God-honoring.

We ask You,
‘What’s the right thing to do?’

    and love having You on our side.
But we also complain,
‘Why do we fast and you don’t look our way?
Why do we humble ourselves and you don’t even notice?’

Well, here’s why:

The bottom line on our ‘fast days’ is profit.
    We drive our employees much too hard.
We fast, but at the same time we bicker and fight.
    We fast, but we swing a mean fist.

God says,
“The kind of fasting you do

    won’t get your prayers off the ground.
Do you think this is the kind of fast day I’m after:
    a day to show off humility?
To put on a pious long face
    and parade around solemnly in black?
Do you call that fasting,
    a fast day that I, God, would like?


This is the kind of fast day God’s after:

    to break the chains of injustice,
    get rid of exploitation in the workplace,
    free the oppressed,
    cancel debts.
What God’s interested in seeing us do is:
    sharing our food with the hungry,
    inviting the homeless poor into our homes,
    putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad,
    being available to our own families.

Do this and the lights will turn on,
    and our lives will turn around at once.
Our righteousness will pave our way.
    The God of glory will secure our passage.
Then when we pray, God will answer.
   We’ll call out for help and God will say, ‘Here I am.’

Prayer of Confession

O God who sees through our pretty words and religious rituals,
our fancy dress and false smiles,
our huge egos and hurried excuses …

to the poverty of our faith,
the hardness of our hearts,
the emptiness of our lives;

we humble ourselves before You
at the beginning of this season of Lent,
longing to journey closely with You
but not entirely sure how …

to enter the way of suffering
with hearts so full of pride and resentment and ambition,
with hands so clenched against mercy and compassion and generosity,
with minds so set on our worries and opinions and plans,
with voices so silent on peace and justice and hospitality.

Forgive us for the brokenness that separates us from You and from one another:
we have followed our pride,
given in to our pleasures,
ignored truth,
neglected love,
abandoned righteousness.

Seat us in the desert place
where we may be starved of self-conceit and sin,
deprived of extravagance and comfort,
and reminded once again that from dust we were made
and to dust we shall return.

The ashing commences with the words:
“Fast from sin and feast on Christ”

The Absolution

As Christ fasted for forty days and forty nights within the wilderness, attended only by wild animals and angels, yet triumphed over temptation, may we know that we do not live by bread alone but feast in the forgiving, redeeming, transforming power of his love.

Amen.

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Scripture reading: John 6:30-35, 41

So the people asked, “What miracle will you do? If we see a miracle, we will believe you. What will you do? Our ancestors ate the manna in the desert. This is written in the Scriptures: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”

Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, it was not Moses who gave you bread from heaven; it is my Father who is giving you the true bread from heaven. God’s bread is the One who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

The people said, “Sir, give us this bread always.”

Then Jesus said, “I am the bread that gives life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

***

Some people began to complain about Jesus because he said, “I am the bread that comes down from heaven.”

Holy Communion

The peace of the Lord be with you.
And also with you.

the peace is shared ….

Lift up your hearts.
We lift them to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give God thanks and praise.

Everliving, ever-loving God, it is indeed right to give You thanks and praise
for the feast You have set before us –
the bread and the fruit of the vine which the earth has given
and human hands have made;
and for the eternal Feast which awaits us –
made possible through Your Son, Jesus Christ,
who came to heal and bring wholeness by the forgiveness of sins.

And so we remember how on the night that he was betrayed,
he took bread and broke it and gave it
to those who would follow, to those who would fail,
to those who felt empty that they might be full.
This is Your body – broken for me.
I feast in remembrance of You.

In the same way He took the cup, gave thanks and gave it
to those who would follow, to those who would fail,
to those who felt empty that they might be full.
This is Your blood – poured out for me, for the forgiveness of my sin.
I will feast in remembrance of You.

And so, in the memory of your great love, we call upon the Holy Spirit
to bless the holy bread of life and the cup of eternal blessing
that they may be for us the food of heaven
and the assurance of eternity.

the elements are shared with those serving communion …

Here, at the start of this season of Lent, we come to the Lord’s table,
to weep, to fast, to mourn, to pray.
Marked by the ashes of your grace,
nourished by the feast of Your love,
may we be broken like bread and poured out like wine
in a world longing for peace and for justice.
Amen.

Benediction

God does not want pious faces or solemn parades
but hearts full of justice and mercy.
In the name of the One who gives us our daily bread,
and forgives us our sins,
may we bear the fruit of holiness and love in this season of Lent.
Amen.

A Lenten Confession

Lenten Prayer
inspired by Isaiah 58:1-12 and the featured image which was sourced from : www.sourcanvas.blogspot.co.za

Holy God,
Lover of righteousness and truth,
We have come into this place and time
declaring that we are eager to know You;
almost excited to enter into this season of prayer and penitence
for what we might get out of it –
what we might gain –
from the Lord of lords and God of gods
as (s)he gazes down on us from highest heaven
and finds us as expected
~ in the proper place,
~ at the proper time,
~ singing proper songs,
~ raising proper hands,
~ using the proper symbols,
~ making the proper promises ….

Who do we deceive, O Sinless Saviour, besides ourselves?
For You dwell not only in the highest heavens
but also in the hidden depths of our hearts.

What greeting have we given Your Spirit within us?
What does Love see in our secret places
deep beneath the proper postures and props?

We are unapologetic liars,
shameless frauds:
a people who pray for Your Love to live with and within us
even while we point judgmental fingers
and gossip behind each others’ backs.

We put on the right clothes
and bow our heads in apparent submission and humility,
even as the weight of our boots press down heavily
on the necks of those less powerful, less important,
than ourselves.

We give up meat or bread or booze
and declare that truly we have shared in Your suffering,
made an acceptable sacrifice,
when we will not spend a cent
on food for the hungry
or shelter for the refugee.

We even turn away our own flesh and blood,
declaring them unworthy of our help and our compassion.

Violence and hatred smolder throughout our land;
racism and bigotry are birthed daily though our words –
yet we stand with pious faces
and prayerful hands
and accuse You of not intervening.

Forgive us, O God, for our selfishness and sin.
Let Your light break through – into our darkness.
Illuminate the truths from which we long to hide.
Strip away our pretty masks of self-deceit
to touch marred and scarred faces long unseen.
Show us the actual meaning of sacrifice and surrender.
Hold onto us when we cannot bear the discomfort
of this season of wrestling with who we really are.

Bear our shame and give us the courage
to meet You face to face –
in the fullness of Your glory –
that we may come away changed:
~ bone deep, soul deep;
~ not just skin-deep.

Amen.

Ash Wednesday: a liturgy of stones

Based on Psalm 51 and John 8:1-11

Call to worship (based on Psalm 51)
Have mercy on us O God,
according to Your faithful love!
Wipe away my wrongdoings according to Your great compassion!
Wash us completely clean of our guilt.
Purify us from our sin!
Because I know my wrongdoings,
my guilt weighs heavily within my hands.
We’ve sinned against You – You alone,
committed evil in Your sight.
Yes, I was born in guilt, in sin;
from the moment my mother conceived me I’ve wanted to go my own way.
That’s why You are justified when You render Your verdict,
completely correct when You issue Your judgment.
Purify me with hyssop
and I will be clean.
Wash me and I will be
whiter than snow.
Create a clean heart for me, O God;
and put a new and faithful spirit
deep inside me!

Prayer
O Lord, Your love for us is too vast for us to comprehend;
its height and width and length and breadth
beyond our shallow imaginings.
Your glory is indescribable,
Your mercy incomparable,
Your faithfulness like nothing
we have ever known.

When we consider who You are
and what You have done for our sake,
we should fall to our knees
in awe and trembling,
knowing how unworthy we are
to enter into Your Holy presence –
so full of sin and selfish ambition.
Instead, we spend our days trying to
build our own kingdoms,
elevating ourselves above all others,
isolating ourselves in a tower of Babel
built stone by stone with selfish hands.

When we consider who You are
and what You have done for our sake,
we should fall to our knees
in awe and trembling,
knowing how unworthy we are
to enter into Your Loving Presence –
so full of judgement and hatred and envy.
Instead, we spend our days casting stones at others:
Words designed to hurt and harm,
Slurs and slander to tear down what we have not earned and do not have,
Judgements and criticisms that cover our own fears and inadequacies.

When we consider who You are
and what You have done for our sake,
we should fall to our knees
in awe and trembling,
knowing how unworthy we are
to enter into Your Perfect Presence –
so full of half-hearted commitment and excuses for not following in Your way.

Instead, we harden our hearts against You and tell You to take us just as we are.
We deafen our ears through the noise of our lives
that Your still, small voice may not disturb us in our guilty pleasure.
We justify our failures, our bad choices, our addictions
though they keep us from wholeness and newness and real life.

Here, at the start of this season of Lent, we sit with the weight of our choices,
our sinfulness, our selfishness in the palm of our hand.
And we know that we are unworthy –
unholy, unloving, imperfect.

Silence is kept

But we remember how on the night that You were betrayed,
You took bread and broke it and gave it
to those who would follow, to those who would fail,
to those who would deny and betray.
This is Your body – broken for me.
I will eat in remembrance of You.

In the same way You took the cup, gave thanks and gave it
to those who would falter, to those who would fall,
to those who would doubt and hide away.
This is Your blood – poured out for me, for the forgiveness of my sin.
I will drink in remembrance of You.

Here, at the start of this season of Lent,
we come to Your table, Lord, knowing that we are unworthy, unholy, unloving and imperfect,
and we fall on our knees in awe and in trembling at who You are
and at what You have done for our sake …
… for my sake.
Amen.