Prayer for Pittsburgh

God of Grace, God of Mercy,

We pray today for the people
of the Tree of Life congregation
in Pittsburgh.

We pray for all those
who suffer from violence,
for those who grieve,
and for those who have died
because of a hatred that
has no point,
and makes no sense.

May they find comfort in
the knowledge of your love,
and healing in the support
of the community.

We ask forgiveness
for the ways in which
your word has been twisted
to support acts of evil.

Give us the courage
to challenge the evil rhetoric
that supports hatred and violence,
and to speak the truth boldly,
that your love, grace, and mercy
extend to all without limit.

May the love of your people do the same.

Amen

Prayer for Labor Day

Father,

We pray for those who labor,

For those who are blessed
to do what they love,

For those who do what they must
in order to simply survive.

For those with hands as rough
as the son of a carpenter,

For those with backs as bent
as the one who bore a cross
through the streets of Jerusalem,

And for those who have been
shamed, despised and humiliated,
while serving at earthly tables,
patiently and humbly waiting
for a seat at the heavenly banquet.

Amen

Family Separation at the Borders

I tend to find most political issues to be difficult and intricate, requiring complex and nuanced responses. So, I believe that there is generally room for rational disagreement when evaluating particular policy decisions.

This, however, is not the case with the current administration’s family separation policy — it is simply heinous, cruel, inhumane, and contrary to the teachings of Jesus.

We should not return to the Obama administration’s lesser evil of locking up children with their mothers. It is past time for Congress to undertake the difficult task of immigration reform.

If God is both just and good, then justice and goodness are not incompatible. We could develop an immigration policy that is both just and good, if we were but willing to do the work.

I expressed this today to the offices of my congressional representatives. To find yours, go to whoismyrepresentative.com.

Benediction

The benediction from last Sunday’s sermon:

The almighty God who made you
from the dust of this earth,
now sends you out into the world.

Go with faith, hope, and courage,
knowing that he is with you.

He has called you by name,
and you are his.

Amen

Prayer in Times of Fear

God of compassion,

In this week of violence and tragedy,
we mourn with those who grieve,
cry with those who weep,
and sit in silence with those in pain,

But what should never happen even once
seems to happen over and over again,
until we are left with nothing
but bloodshot eyes and numb hearts.

Even so, Lord, this is our witness:

You are with us,
and in your presence,
We will not be afraid.

We will not fear the world,
for it is your creation.

We will not fear the future,
for you have already redeemed it.

We will not fear the unknown,
for surely you have seen it.

We will not fear the stranger,
for that person was made in your image,
even as we are made.

We will not fear our weakness,
for you will give us strength.

We will not fear the darkness,
For we carry the light with us.

You are there,
and we are not alone.

We will not be afraid.

Amen

Homily for Ash Wednesday

Delivered on February 14, 2018 at NorthHaven Church, Norman, Oklahoma.

Like most people, I have a somewhat love-hate relationship with myself, which means that I also have a love-hate relationship with mirrors. When I pass by a mirror, I can never resist the urge to look, but I’m never completely satisfied with what I see. I look into some mirrors, and I’m confronted with the cold, harsh reality — the ugly truth, as it were. I look into other mirrors, like those found at the carnival, and I like what I see; I’m a bit taller, and a bit thinner.

Neither mirror can give me what I need. The first mirror shows me the truth, but only as it is now, whether I want to see it or not. The second mirror shows me what I want to see, even if it could never be possible. What I need is a mirror that shows me what I truly am, but also gives me a glimpse of what I truly could be. That’s the mirror I need, even if it may not be the mirror I want.

We have such a mirror in Scripture. In fairness, we must confess that we can bend and distort Scripture so much that it functions exactly like those carnival mirrors, showing exactly what we want to see, confirming our desires and reinforcing our biases. There are times, though, when I come to the text openly and honestly, and it shows me who I am, as I cry with David in Psalm 51:

For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
and blameless when you pass judgment.
Indeed, I was born guilty,
a sinner when my mother conceived me.

But Scripture can also show me what is genuinely possible — the beauty of a life lived fully in the Kingdom of God; more than just a glimpse of who I am, but a vision of who God wants me to be.

The book of Isaiah was written when the people of Judah desperately needed both of these mirrors. The small nation of Judah, what was left of the once mighty nation of Israel, had not only been defeated by Babylon, but had been taken away in captivity. The people of God were apparently forsaken by their God — prompting the psalmist to lament, “By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.”

Even in the midst of that despair, however, there is a voice of hope. We hear it in what are called the “servant songs” of Isaiah, found sprinkled in the text, from chapter 42 through chapter 53. In these passages, God speaks of his promised servant, who will establish justice in chapter 42, be the light to the nations in chapter 49, be vindicated in the face of humiliation in chapter 50, and exalted and lifted up in chapter 52.

And so, we sit back and wait for the promised servant, the one who will finally do the will of God. Who is this servant? It is difficult to read chapter 53 and not see Jesus there in the text:

But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.

I do believe that this text speaks prophetically of the Crucified Christ, but that doesn’t mean that the servant songs are simply about Jesus, a point that is made clearly in Isaiah 41:8,

But you, Israel, my servant,
Jacob, whom I have chosen,
the offspring of Abraham, my friend;
you whom I took from the ends of the earth,
and called from its farthest corners,
saying to you, ‘You are my servant, ….’

A message that is repeated in chapters 44, 45, and 49. We will see the servant, if we will but look in the mirror. The reflection that we see, however, is harsh and unyielding. It is a clear picture of what God wants us to be: people who seek justice, something that is mentioned three times in the first four verses, yet seek it in a way that is not self-serving. It is a kind of justice that does no harm to the weakest in society — we are to be the light to the nations, helping the blind to see, and freeing those who are in darkness and imprisoned, in a way that does not call attention to ourselves.

It is, at the same time, a beautiful image of what can be, and a devastating contrast to what now is, one that forces me to ask, what is it that I really seek?

Is it justice, or merely my own advantage?

Is it righteousness, or merely my own rights?

Is it to serve, or to be the one who is served?

This day, Ash Wednesday, is the day on which the church is faced with the truth. The ashes are remnants of the palms that we waved on Palm Sunday, a vivid reminder of how quickly our vows of dedication to God become cries of denial and betrayal.

We come before the altar of God to hear the humbling words, “Remember, you are but dust, and to dust you shall return.”

We come, bringing our pride, our pretension, our vanity, and our feelings of superiority to be cleansed in God’s holy fire. Out of the ashes that are left, God has chosen to raise up his servant.

Thanks be to God, for his mercy and grace.

Amen

Prayer for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

A prayer for Mitch Randall’s last Sunday as pastor of NorthHaven Church, before he takes his new position as executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.

God of peace and joy,

For centuries,
Israel anticipated
the coming of the Messiah;
and as one expectation
was fulfilled,
another was born,
for we still long
for the day when
that same Messiah
will come again.

Christmas is still a day
when old dreams are fulfilled,
and new dreams are born.

We give thanks for what
this church has become
in the years that Mitch
has been with us:

For those who have
been rejected,
it is a place to feel welcome.

For those who have
felt constrained,
a place to be free.

For those whose gifts
have been denied,
a place to serve.

And so it is fitting
that at Christmas
We share with the world.
this gift that we have received,

And may we, through our
words, actions, and gifts,
declare to the world
that there is still
good news of glad tidings,
for all people, everywhere.

Amen

Ordination Prayer

This is a prayer for the ordination service of Kim Divelbiss at NorthHaven Church on December 9, 2017

God of grace and hope,

We confess that, sometimes,
we are like Israel in Egypt,
overwhelmed by life and
tempted to believe that
you have abandoned your people.

In this, though, we have hope,
though Israel had forgotten you,
you did not abandon her.
Instead, you called Moses
to be her minister.

And so, from the desert
of our dry and parched lives,
you continue to call —
not from a burning bush,
but from within,
from a heart aflame
with passion for
the kingdom of God
and for your people.

Today, we give thanks for Kim,
a minister with such a heart,
who, like Moses,
has answered your call.

Grant her the vision
to see things as they are,
and the spiritual imagination
to recognize what they could be.

May her laughter be joyful;
her anger, righteous;
her compassion, gentle;
her witness, bold;
and her love, deep.

Fill her with the
power of the Almighty,
who took what was
formless and void
and created the universe,
then declared it good.

May her ministry
be the means by which
you continue to take
what is broken and empty,
and create that which is
new, beautiful and good.

In the name of the Father
who gives us our mission,
and of the Son,
whose obedience is our model,
and of the Spirit,
who gives us strength
for our task.

Three persons,
one God,
forever and ever.

Amen

Moltmann on Peace

Peace is not merely the absence of war; it is also the overcoming of injustice and oppression. In positive terms, it is life that is blessed, affirmed, loved and successful–life as shalom. Anyone who wants to serve peace must serve life. He must therefore resist war, because this is the deadliest form of discord. But this resistance against war is only one part of a much wider devotion to life. The service of peace is the whole task of life.

Jürgen Moltmann, The Power of the Powerless

Prayer for Times of Grief

God of compassion,

There are times when it
seems impossible to give thanks,
for the loss is too recent
and the pain is too great.

But in this, we have hope,
That even in the darkest valley,
we are not alone, for you are there

And our hope is not in vain,
for we see your presence in
the church, the body of Christ,
which walks beside us.

Give us the grace and love
to maintain this community,
so that our hope may be proclaimed,
again, and again, and again,
until that day when Christ himself
will wipe every tear from every eye.

Amen