Worship notes for lent 5...

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for Lent V.  As you might observe, after last week, I have altered my approach to Sunday morning messages.  There is a place, to be sure, for deep theological reflection and scriptural exegesis; but for some deep reason I sense this is a time for tender pastoral care and assistance.  So, my focus has shifted... and we shall see. Blessings.
When I think about how most of us live our ordinary lives – our going to work, caring for our families and pets lives; our watching movies and TV and computer game lives; our making love and having fights with those closest to our hearts lives – I’m struck by how absurd and out of touch most of the scriptures sound most of the time.  Week after week, we’re given these readings that take us on a metaphorical journey, and all too often they strike me as a waste of our time. Do you know what I’m saying?

·   Ezekiel and the valley of dry bones? The resurrection of Lazarus?  Sure, if we plumb the depths of these texts we’re likely to find a resonance with some of our hardest times – many of us here today have had moments when we feel like we’re the living dry bones eking out a labored existence each day in search of new life – or we’ve had a passing sense that some-times we’re like Lazarus buried in that tomb aching to be unbound and set free – but such revelations are not a regular occurrence, right?

·   Who has time for such complex and theologically nuanced thoughts? Maybe if we were living in a monastic community – or at the top of some Zen mountain retreat house – it might happen.  But when we’re hustling to get to the office – or get our children on the bus – or figure out how we’re going to pay our bills AND purchase the necessary meds we need this month – when our hearts are breaking and we’re filled with a terrifying loneliness – when our puppy is sick – when our parents are dying…

·   Let’s just say that in times such as these, what we read and share on Sunday mornings are rarely remembered.

That’s why each week buried in a little tune – hidden or squeezed in-between the big and important readings – there is a psalm.  Now I don’t know if you pay much attention to the psalms or not, but more often than not they capture a tiny truth that is at the heart of God’s message for us each Sunday.  In words that are both poetic and profound the psalms give us resources for making God’s love real in our ordinary lives.  Often more than anything else we say during Sunday worship, the psalms cut to the chase:  they contain truth and grace of the highest order – news we can use as some like to say – and they do so with such quiet gentility that we can miss and overlook their blessings.
Hymns can do much the same thing because during music that is sung we’re engaging many of our senses.

·   Our mouths are moving and making some kind of sound that is often very musical – not always – but often.  Our ears are open to what we’re creating as well as the song others are singing alongside the organ, piano or guitar.

·   Our eyes are working to take in the words on the page as well as how the people are moving to the music, right?  Our hearts and minds are opened to the way the whole THING makes us feel. 

·   Our memories are active when we’re singing a hymn, too.  There are some hymns that make me smile, others that cause me to weep – often for very competing reasons – and sometimes they happen at the same time!

·   Do you know the old revival hymn “Softly and Tenderly?” I LOVE that song:  Softly and tenderly, Jesus is calling, calling to you and to me; see, on the portals he’s watching and waiting, watching for you and for me. Come home, come home, ye who are weary come home; earnestly, tenderly Jesus is calling, calling O sinner come home.

Some weeks, I may not remember much from the Sunday readings, but I always remember that hymn – it is so sweet – a tender invitation to rest in God’s love. You probably have a few songs – and they don’t have to be hymns – that do much the same thing for you, don’t you?  So you know what I mean:  songs and hymns – instrumental music and concerts – bring many of our emotions together so that we sense and experience the message more than simply remember it.  It is a sensual encounter with God’s grace.

That’s what the psalms we use on Sunday try to evoke – a sensual encounter with God’s grace – which we can carry with us when life is busy and challenges seem like they are falling down all around us like rain or snow.  Psalm 130, the poem set aside for today, has some powerful truths that I bet some of you have shared even if you haven’t used these wordsOut of the depths, I cry to you, O Lord – hear my voice!

·   This is real prayer – not romantic religious poetry – this comes from a person’s gut and heart.

·   What do you think would make somebody pray words like this?  What real experiences make you cry out to God?  Loneliness?  Guilt?  Shame?  Fear? What’s going on here…?

St. Paul prayed these words – as a faithful and devout Jew he knew them well – and it’s my hunch they partially inform what he’s trying to tell us today.  Now here’s the thing:  in Greek, Paul’s words are really helpful – they are clear and descriptive in his world – but they are confusing when we put them into English. All that flesh and spirit talk – what the devil is going on – how is that news I can use?  So let me put it like this:  Paul is trying to tell us two things.

·   First he wants us to remember that each of us has a selfish and cruel side and a loving and tender side.  Do you think that is true?  Can you think of times or experiences that brings out your worst self?  How about your best and most loving self?

·   The first truth in Paul’s words is that everybody has these two sides – without exception – it is just how we’re made.  And the second truth is that nobody can be consistently good – or gentle – or tender and loving. Nobody.  No matter how hard we try, no matter what we think, say or do, nobody can consistently live in the spirit.

·   Are you with me?  Does that ring true?

So what are we to do with this truth?  Give up?  Take our lives?  Quit trying?  This is where the psalm comes back in because Paul simply says that when we bump up against our selfish side – our broken or even sinful side – that’s when we need to cry out to the Lord:  Out of the depths, I cry to you, O Lord – hear my voice!  Cry out in your car – cry out in the shower – cry out when you go downstairs to the basement to finish the laundry – cry out on your way to work.  Cry out to the Lord and keep crying out because… what does the psalm tell us right there in verses 4 through 6? 

(Take a Bible to someone in the congregation and ask them to read it out loud)

There is forgiveness with you…  
So I will wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
and in his forgiving word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord 
more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning my soul waits for the Lord’s forgiveness.

Last week I spoke to you of not wasting your time – not wasting it on crazy-making people or soul-devouring situations that just drain you from the love you want to share – and now let me take that deeper.  Most of us will never be a part of a huge shift in our culture or politics. That is, we’re not likely to find ourselves standing with the prophet Ezekiel and prophesying to the dry bones to stand up and have life.  Nor are we apt to be called by the Lord to cry out and evoke the resurrection of Lazarus in our life time. These moments come and go in history – and are happening all around us – but my hunch is that most of us will continue to live our out our days doing small things. 

·   Little acts of mercy – tiny gifts of tenderness – petty sins and seemingly insignificant failures that we may think don’t really matter.  But they do – cumulatively they matter – both the blessings and the curses. Over time the little things shape our soul and character.

·   And what I have come to realize is that the little psalms help keep me grounded in this truth. The little psalms point me towards the gentle ways of kindness and hope.  They give me permission to cry out to the Lord when I am afraid – or need forgiveness – and they offer me a small sense of God’s presence when I am alone and confused.

And I don’t know about you, but I need all the help I can get.  I need help recalling  that I am forgiven, I need help trusting, I need help letting go of my inequities and resting in God’s grace from out of my depths.  And probably you do, too. 

·   So here is what I want to leave you with this morning:  God refuses to quit on us. We are never alone – even when we feel empty – the emptiness is a small sign of God’s mysterious presence.  God does not forsake or abandon us – God forgives and loves us – softly and tenderly.

·   And the more we nourish an awareness of these small clues, the more we can rest in God’s peace.  Mostly God’s love – and our faithfulness – is revealed in the small things – like the psalms we sing that are squeezed in-between the so-called important readings.

And that, beloved, is the good news for today for those who have ears to hear.


Peter said…
Final scene, the original film Trip to Bountiful, with Cynthia Clawson singing Softly and Tenderly over the departing car-- we're talking hair-standing-straight-on-end moving...
RJ said…
Ain't that right? I will never forget that as long as I am in this realm. I think that was where I first heard it and it has become a favorite ever since. Love to you my man... you are in my thoughts and prayers often. (BTW I will send an email tomorrow re: other links. Seems I can't get into some of your works.)

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