Here are several web links that present a variety of ways that you as an individual or family may prepare for and observe a meaningful Lent this year. If you have any questions, or you would like support in choosing a Lenten practice, please feel free to come talk to us! Revs. Caroline & Molly
Psalm 51:1-17 (from Voices United)
We conclude our 5-sermon journey through the Psalms for Lent, exploring the faith questions that arise from these readings that prepare us to celebrate Easter. Today we read Psalm 51 together. For those of you who worshiped with us on Ash Wednesday, when Lent began, you will recognize it. In addition to being read this Sunday, Psalm 51 is assigned to Ash Wednesday every year because it clearly names our sin and guilt, and pleads with God for mercy.
Have mercy on me, O God, in your great kindness,
in the fullness of your mercy blot out my offences.
Wash away all my guilt, and cleanse me from my sin.
For I acknowledge my faults, and my sin is always before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned, and done evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence, and blameless in your judgement.
Guilty I have been from my birth, a sinner from the time of my conception.
But you desire truth in our inward being, therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean,
wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear the sounds of joy and gladness,
let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Turn away your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
Put a new heart in me, O God,
and give me again a constant spirit.
Do not cast me away from your presence,
do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and strengthen me with a willing spirit.
Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.
O God, open my lips,
and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.
You desire no sacrifice, or I would give it;
you take no delight in burnt offerings.
The sacrifice you accept, O God, is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
Of all the questions this Lenten season might raise for us followers of Jesus, certainly those pertaining to our sin, guilt, shame and repentance must eventually be addressed. Over the centuries Christian leaders seem to have obsessed on laying guilt trips on people, trying to convince us that our proper repentance is the first (and maybe the only) condition necessary for restoring a right relationship with God – that somehow God forgiving and accepting us is solely dependent on us confessing our sins the right way. And in too many instances this has become so manipulative that people began rejecting the Church and its teachings, and just walking away … except of course, those of us who feel too guilty. Just kidding. But, let’s be honest, it can feel like that sometimes. Here we are … the faithful … carrying with us not only our own guilt, but also the guilt and shame of family members and friends who have long since walked away from the church and its teachings. So this morning perhaps it would be helpful to ponder together what a life beyond guilt trips could offer us and our loved ones.
The question is, What conditions are necessary for your spirit to be “put right” with God? … for you to live in a right relationship with God? … and by extension, for you to live in right relationships with others and with God’s creation? And I’m going to be speaking personally here about my own journey (that is, in first person), and will leave it to you to translate it into your own personal experience. We will explore four conditions that emerge from Psalm 51 this morning.
I begin with this necessity, though I don’t think it is the first or the only condition: An honest assessment of my guilty conscience. I don’t know if you noticed but the verses in this Psalm that include “guilty I have been from my birth … a sinner from my conception” sounds like God made me this way and I was born to feel guilty. The Church calls it “original sin” and even if you’ve never heard of that, much of our human experience of guilt and shame comes from it. I’m a sinner at the core and don’t deserve God’s love. So the only thing I can do is plead for God to forgive me … and yet I never really stop feeling guilty, which suggests to me that God has not really forgiven me yet … and on and on it goes. I’m running in circles and never feel good enough to be in a right relationship with God. The Psalm writer’s understanding of God begins this way: “Against you, God, have I sinned and you are justified in your judgement and condemnation of me.”
And yet the Psalmist breaks free from the endless cycle of unworthiness to show me the God who wants me to experience what God intended me to know and be from the very beginning: “You, God,” the writer prays, “you desire truth in my inward being, so please teach me this wisdom in my secret heart.” Remind me that I was born with original blessing and not sin. Remind me that the guilt I feel can be useful as a guide to grow in relationship with you and others, but never as an endless cycle of shame and alienation. Remind me that you accept me as I am, and long for me to become the person you are creating. And that feels to me like an honest assessment of my guilty conscience.
A second condition necessary for a right relationship with God may actually be the first one in the process – a genuine longing to be put right with God … a sincere desire to live in a right relationship. Many of the requests made to God in this Psalm I hear in this way, pleading with genuine longing for God to “have mercy in your kindness” … to “wash away my guilt and cleanse me from my sin” … to “purge and wash me so I can feel whiter than snow” … to “let me hear the sounds of joy and gladness.” These petitions describe the experience of being freed from sin, but for me a right relationship is more than being freed from something; the bigger question is: freed for what purpose? And then probably the most familiar line of this Psalm breaks on the ear: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” When I speak those words from my heart, I make room for God to prepare me for a greater purpose, for something good, for something worthwhile in God’s creation … I’m asking God for a heart that not only feels clean, but is made new for seeking right relationships with others. My genuine longing to be put right with God, opens the door for God to use me as an instrument of establishing good and healthy relationships with those around me. I am invited to share what I have been given … the gift of relationship.
This points to a third essential condition for my spirit to be put right with God: A gentle trust in God’s goodness that awaits and enfolds me as I am. Whatever desire I may have to restore my relationship with God, it’s God’s desire first, prompted by God’s never-ceasing welcome into God’s own loving heart. The Psalmist describes it like this: “Restore to me the joy of your salvation and strengthen me with a willing spirit.” God’s saving work – that we as followers of Jesus see in his life, death, and resurrection – God’s saving work is preparing in me a spirit willing to rely on God’s restoring goodness in all circumstances in life; so that even when I realize how much of a mess I have made on my own, the love of God in Christ is there to embrace me. And the joyful hope this promise gives me offers all the courage necessary to ask forgiveness from God and share forgiveness with others. Trusting in God’s never-ending forgiveness helps me realize how much God wants to be in right relationship with me … and God is hard at work in my heart to make it so.
One last condition to consider in being ‘put right’ with God: A humble spirit and an open heart. When the Psalmist admits that God does not want formal ceremonial confessions of sin (sacrifices) but rather “a broken spirit and a contrite heart” I wonder what that means really. Does God break me to make me realize how desperate I am? Does God shame me to wake me up to my shattered life? I don’t believe so. I’ve struggled with these images over the years and have come to trust that the brokenness referred to here is, for me, really more like breaking open … like my heart is closed off to the many possibilities of God’s goodness and God breaks my heart free to imagine more. Similarly, I also trust that the desperate sadness I feel when I make mistakes in my relationships – you know, because of my arrogance, my selfishness, my anger – these failures humble me in a way that breaks my heart wide open, and I realize how much I need God … God’s love, goodness, forgiveness, help, and presence. A humble spirit and a heart broken wide open brings me to God … and when that happens, I feel God’s open arms enfold me anew.
So that’s how I experience it. Maybe you’ll take some time between now and Easter and try to sort out how you experience God’s promise too.
Orleans United Church
March 22, 2015
Is saying grace at meal times enough? How do we make giving thanks a living reality in our world?
What Makes You Notice God’s Goodness and Praise God?
Lent 3: Psalm 19
Today is the third Sunday in Lent, and we have been looking at the assigned Psalms for those days, asking ourselves certain questions they imply. Molly began in week 1 by asking, “Where is God when life is hard?” and last week I explored with you “What do you really need from God?”
We continue this morning by pondering together “What in the world makes you notice God’s goodness, causing you to praise God?” We take a closer look at Psalm 19, and interspersed, we sing God’s praise. We will share the Psalm in three parts, with a brief reflection following each. “May the words of our mouths and the thoughts of our hearts be acceptable to God.”
PSALM 19 (from Voices United)
The heavens declare the glory of God;
and the vault of the sky reveals God’s handiwork.
One day speaks to another,
and night shares its knowledge with night,
and this without speech or language;
their voices are not heard.
But their sound goes out to all the lands,
their words to the ends of the earth.
In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun
which comes out like a bridegroom from under the canopy,
like an athlete eager to run the race.
Its rising is at one end of the sky,
it runs its course to the other,
and there is nothing that is hidden from its heat.
Refrain: Glory and praise to God whose word brings life!
Who among us has never stared reverently at the horizon either at dawn or dusk, waiting expectantly for the very moment of sunrise or sunset? Who of us has never found ourselves at some time far from city lights, gazing in awe at the black night sky, awash with a billions stars or that perfect full moon? Has anyone here never rushed outside into the final shower of a thunderstorm, when the sun has just broken through the clouds, in eager anticipation of seeing a rainbow, God’s eternal promise of peace in storming times?” Anyone? Really? And if you haven’t, well, what have you been doing with your life. Get out there and look around. “The heavens declare the glory of God … one day speaks to another … night shares knowledge with night … and all this without speech or language.”
In answer to the Lenten question, “What makes you notice God’s goodness?” that’s what the psalmist would say. Not a single day goes by without our Creator revealing the miracle of life on this planet we call home. Nature praises God … from polar vortex to sweltering heat, from babbling brook to hurricane tossed ocean, from autumn colours to spring budding, from tiny sparrow to sperm whale, from scientific reasoning to artistic imagination… all around us, all the time is the evidence that God has drawn life out of the elements, and has given us the privilege of reflecting on it. So when we accept God’s invitation to see again the awesome potential in which we live … that gentle sigh we experience when the sun finally appears, that deep breath when the rainbow is brush-stroked across the canvas of cloud, that little, surprising gasp when a star suddenly streaks through the heavens … these form our instinctive response … our praise to God for such goodness.
PSALM 19 God’s law is perfect, refreshing the soul;
God’s instruction is sure,
giving wisdom to the simple;
God’s precepts are right, rejoicing the heart;
God’s commandment is pure
giving light to the eyes;
God’s fear is clean, enduring forever;
God’s judgements are true,
every one of them righteous;
more desirable than gold, even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey,
pure honey from the comb.
Refrain: Glory and praise to God whose word brings life!
The first example in this Psalm of what makes us notice God’s goodness comes from nature. The second is found in scripture. For the ancient Hebrew believer, the “Law” referred to here, was the name given to the first five books of their sacred scriptures. We know them as Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy – God’s holy word given through Moses to guide the chosen people. So, according to the Psalmist, believers will find evidence of God’s goodness throughout these holy writings; and of course for followers of Jesus, we would include the gospels and letters in what we call the New Testament. God’s word is “perfect and sure,” the psalmist writes; “wise and pure, right and true, light-giving and clean, joyful, refreshing and obviously desirable.” Make no mistake, the Psalmist wants us to receive and reflect on God’s message as blessing, filled with goodness and grace, peace and hope.
Yet so often, especially in this generation, we avoid studying the Bible because we don’t think we really understand it, perhaps … or don’t have the time. Or when we do read it, we seem to experience God’s harsh judgment and condemnation at least as much as God’s kindness and compassion, and that bothers us. Now, admittedly there’s a fair bit of both throughout the Bible, in both Old and New Testament. But I’m inclined to believe that the God we meet there is often the God of our own imagining. So if we feel ourselves being judged and condemned in life, we have a tendency to impose those feelings on God’s actions. It strikes me, like in much of life, that we have a tendency to actually see in the Bible what we expect to read there. If we’re looking for God’s condemnation, we certainly will find it. Yet the Psalmist here encourages us to look for God’s life-affirming goodness in the sacred word. And the promise, of course, is when we do, that’s what we will discover, even in the rough parts of the scripture story. And that’s the way we read the Bible here at OUC … on Sunday mornings and during weekly Bible studies. We’re trying to encourage everyone to seek God’s goodness in your Bible reading – because if you do, you will certainly find it. And when you do notice it, let your praise to God flow. “Glory and praise to God whose word brings life.”
PSALM 19 By them is your servant warned;
for in keeping them there is great reward.
But who can discern unwitting sins?
O cleanse me from my secret faults.
Keep your servant also from presumptuous sins,
lest they get the better of me.
Then shall I be clean and innocent of great offence.
Refrain: Glory and praise to God whose word brings life!
In nature, in scripture, and now in forgiveness … that’s where we notice God’s goodness. In this third example of Psalm 19, we’re invited to reflect on the warnings which are reflected in scripture. I don’t know if you noticed the line in the previous section, “God’s fear is clean, enduring forever.” I was perplexed by this because of the possible interpretation that God wants us to be afraid in order that we will live more faithfully … afraid of the consequences … afraid of God’s judgment and condemnation if we misbehave. But you see, that’s what I was looking for – I sometimes mistakenly believe that the only motivation to make me live better is being afraid that God will negatively judge my failures. What if the true motivation is not in fear but in faith that God forgives. When fear leads us to trust in God’s forgiveness of the failures that we cause as well as those we don’t even realize we’re committing, then we shall discover what it really means to feel clean and whole again. In God’s amazing forgiveness we recognize the inherent goodness that gives life meaning and hope. We are forgiven and that’s the true motivation to live more faithfully. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved someone like me … and you .. and all.”
PSALM 19 Let the words of my mouth
and the thoughts of my heart
be acceptable in your sight, O God,
my strength and my redeemer.
Of course, there are many other ways that we might notice God’s goodness in our lives. We are people in relationships, and even though some of them may be trying at times, within those precious relationships lives the evidence of sacred love. And we’re especially blessed here to witness that within our faith community. Last week I received an email that read:
“We just received the exciting news that our refugee family are arriving Thursday evening, March 12. Would you pray for Sylvester, Anjelique and their 3 children on Sunday, please? They have a very long journey and a lot of uncertainty ahead of them, with a warm welcome at the end.” And when I thought about the folks at OUC who work tirelessly on behalf of refugee families we have co-sponsored with the Interfaith Refugee Group, I paused and thought, “Praise God.”
That got me thinking about another note to Scott I saw just after Christmas, from a family here whose son spontaneously got up and stood with the junior choir on Christmas Eve:
“Thanks, Scott for allowing Ben to join in tonight. It meant the world to him. We were truly shocked when he announced 5 min before the service that he intended to sing with the choir. He was adamant that he could do it. As Molly said tonight, Christmas brings miracles and this was ours. Thank-you for going with the flow to help Ben’s dream become a reality. We will never forget this Christmas Eve. It was so special for us all.”
And I can remember thinking when I read it, “Praise God.”
These sorts of things happen all the time here. Moments of God’s goodness shared with love and generosity. For the rest of this season of Lent, keep your eyes and ears and hearts open, and you might be amaze at what good things you will notice. But don’t forget, when you do, take time to whisper, “Praise God!”
Orleans United Church
March 8, 2015
Psalm 22:1-2, 23-31 (from Voices United)
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me,
from the cry of my distress?
O my God, I cry out in the daytime, but you do not answer;
at night also, but I get no relief.
Give praise, all you who fear God!
Proclaim God’s greatness, all you children of Jacob;
stand in awe, all you children of Israel!
For God has neither despised
nor scorned the poor in their distress.
You, O God, have not hidden your face from them.
You heard them when they called to you.
You are the theme of my praise in the great assembly.
I will keep my promise in the presence
of those who fear you.
Let the poor eat to satisfaction;
let those who seek you praise you.
May they be in good heart forever!
Let all the ends of the earth remember and turn to you, O God.
Let all the families of the nations bow down before you.
For yours is the dominion, O God,
you rule over the nations.
Even all who sleep in the grave shall worship you;
those who go down into the dust shall bow before you.
I too shall live for you.
Our children shall serve you,
and tell generations yet to come about you
To a people yet unborn,
they shall make known the saving deeds you have done.
Last Sunday we began a sermon series following the Psalms for the season of Lent, and asking the faith questions they imply. Molly first pondered “where God is when life is hard,” and certainly in the opening verses of this week’s Psalm it’s easy to see the anguish some people experience in difficult times, including Jesus. You may have noticed that Psalm 22, verse 1 is quoted by Jesus in the Gospels as he hung on the cross just before he died: “My God, why have you forsaken me?” At the most trying time of his life, Jesus too felt God’s abandonment. And even though not all of us experience or express it that dramatically, most of us at one time or another have suffered the feeling that God is far away and may not even hear our cries of pain. It made me wonder in moments like that, “What do we really need from God?”
Actually, the first question that came to mind was, “What do you really want from God.” Then early last week I was reading a daily installment in the United Church of Canada’s Reflections for Lent series called Longing for Home (which by the way is still available for anyone to participate in on Facebook and would be a worthy addition to your Lenten journey). In a prayer there I read this phrase, “Help us discern our wants from our needs.” And that reminded me of something I learned a long time ago, but often requires learning over and over again – What we want is not always what we need. So today this sermon addresses that question, “what do you really need from God?”
Psalm 22 is one of many laments in this large collection of prayers and songs. And the laments can be very graphic in describing the desperation people of faith can feel from time to time as they plead for God’s help with no satisfaction. In fact, you may have noticed that we jumped over 20 verses of this Psalm which are filled with vivid details that television networks would describe as “Not suitable for some audiences. Viewer discretion is advised.” (You might want to check those out, especially if you’re feeling that way right now.) But one curiosity of all the Psalms of lament is that they include a curious way of praising God, even while the writer might be feeling deserted by God. And in Psalm 22 the concluding 9 verses are such expressions of praise. “Give praise, all of you who fear God.”
Being afraid of God is often expressed in the Bible. Frequently fear is translated as awe, or reverence, or respect, and appropriately so; but we shouldn’t disregard that for most of human history, people have been afraid, because God was understood as someone so great and powerful, a being so far beyond us that we might not even be on God’s radar. People worried, “What if I’m so insignificant in God’s eyes, that I’m afraid God doesn’t even hear me?” As the Psalmist lamented in another prayer, “Who are we, Lord, that you are mindful of us?” Perhaps the fundamental need we have of God is some assurance that God hears us. And from some mysterious place deep within, some spiritual instinct that can only be interpreted as an essential connection with the Holy, the Psalmist proclaims on our behalf, “God’s not hiding from you; in truth God hears your voice.” Trust me your voice echoes in the heart of the Holy.
But being heard is often not enough. What if God hears, but just doesn’t care and simply ignores us; or even worse, what if God is so demanding, someone who controls everything and can do to anyone whatever God wants – what if God doesn’t approve of our behaviour and intentionally rejects us. In our deepest fear, we need some humble confidence that God cares, a renewed trust that God is with us … that we’re never alone. Yet somehow, even the Psalmist’s promise that “God does not despise or scorn you,” may not be enough.
When we ask the question, what do you really need from God? we long for a way to experience God’s caring presence that is meaningful and recognizable. We need relationships that will reflect God’s compassion and care, God’s forgiveness and welcome, God’s encouragement and trustworthiness. We need from God a meaningful place in God’s community. From the very beginning of human history, it appears that we are being drawn into relationships that will reveal the presence of the Holy among us. And the Psalmist certainly affirms the acceptance that is available in the community of faith, the sacred assembly of the faithful. At our best, involvement within a congregation like Orleans United will remind us over and over again that here, we both experience and express God’s goodness through meaningful human relationships. That’s why, even though you might come with whatever fears in your personal life, together we reflect the promise that God’s grace and peace is alive for all.
What we need most from God, God reveals within the faith community. It’s here where we discover God’s goodness; and that is God’s gift to you personally and to our church community, but not to us alone. God’s promise is for all people everywhere, for past generations and especially for future ones. And we need this sacred hope because it’s the only thing of true value we can pass on to our children, and our grandchildren, and our great-grandchildren, and to grandchildren of generations long after we’re gone. What do we really need from God? We need a promise in God’s goodness that we can describe to the next generation not only in our words, but in our choices, in our promises, in our actions, in our faith. And God offers it freely through communities of the faithful who, like ours, are not afraid to show it in their lives and praise God for it in all circumstances.
That’s why we’re here. God invites us to practice what we need most. A faith community who will remember God’s faithfulness even when we’re frightened, and who will spread God’s goodness as our legacy to those who will come after us.
Holy God, we praise you for all that enriches and blesses our lives. Help us discern our wants from our needs. Nurture in us a deep longing for all that makes life worth living. Lead us beyond worry and hold us in your generous peace and renewing grace. Amen.
Orleans United Church
March 1, 2015 (Lent 2)