Sunday’s sermon: Never Too Far Gone

never too far

Text used – Isaiah 55:1-9

  • Believe it or not, we find ourselves at the 3rd Sunday in Lent already. You may remember from a few weeks ago that our Lenten series this year follows a popular song – “She Used to Be Mine” by Sara Bareilles.[1] When we started our Lenten sermon journey together, we talked about a common theme – in the song, in our lives, in the world around us: running on empty.
    • Hear it in the song
    • See it in our own over-busy, over-scheduled days
    • Feel it in our over-stressed, over-burdened lives
    • This is one of the main intentions behind our table of obstacles. No matter what it is that pulls your attention away from God, the further we get from that crucial spiritual connection, the emptier we often feel. Sometimes, we find ourselves so removed from our relationship with God that we end up feeling like we’ve gone too far – like somehow, there isn’t a way back.
      • Too doubtful
      • Too difficult
      • Too dark
    • And even though I find Lent to be a powerful time … a time of self-reflection, a time of really looking at ourselves in entirely and truth, a time of examining who we are – the good, the bad, and the ugly … Even though I find Lent to be a powerful time exactly because of this self-examination, it can also be a challenging time … exactly because of this self-examination.
      • Spiritual practice of examen[2]
        • Technique devised by St. Ignatius of Loyola[3] (Spanish knight turned hermit, priest, and theologian from the 1500s who founded the Jesuit order[4] – those who are often working on the “front lines” of the Catholic Church for justice such as Jorge Mario Bergoglio … better known as Pope Francis)
        • Examen = introduced by Ignatius in Spiritual Exercises[5]
          • Premise: a technique of prayerful reflection on the events of the day in order to detect God’s presence and discern [God’s] direction for us
          • Many versions that have been adapted throughout the centuries – basic idea: 1. Become aware of God’s presence. 2. Review the day with gratitude. 3. Pay attention to your emotions. 4. Choose one feature of the day and pray from it. 5. Look toward tomorrow. → Think of it as sort of a daily inventory of yourself and your spiritual life and your connection with God. “Where did I see God today? Where did I need God today? Where might I have overlooked God today?”
  • Intentional times of self-examination like this can help us to learn a lot about ourselves and a lot about God. But it’s also a double-edged sword. You see, when we look into the depths of our being, we very often find things that we don’t like.
    • Elements of ourselves that we would rather keep hidden – parts of who we are and what we do and how we go about being in the world that we feel we need to work on
      • Hear quite a bit of that in our song – [PLAY SONG]: “She’s imperfect … but she tries. She is good … but she lies. She is hard on herself. She is broken and won’t ask for help. She is messy … but she’s kind. She is lonely most of the time.” → Naming with brutal honesty all of those things about herself that she wishes were different … transformed … better. All of those things which we sometimes feel can pull us further and further away from God. Everybody has a list like this. Think about it for a minute.
      • That’s what self-examination is for.
        • Not just about building ourselves up – about finding those things that we love about ourselves
        • Also about finding our growing edges – places for improvement within ourselves
          • Hearts
          • Souls
          • Lives
    • Danger of self-examination in the dark – getting caught up in all of those growing edges … getting overwhelmed by our shortcomings and weaknesses … dwelling on all the mistakes we’ve made → Everyone has those moments: times when you find yourself wide awake in the middle of the night rehashing your mistakes over and over in your mind, going over past words and actions and decisions that we wish like heck we could change. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that most of the times, those moments come to us in literal darkness – in the deepest, darkest part of the night. Because it is in that darkness – darkness of the world around us as well as the world inside of us – that we sometimes feel we are beyond God’s reach.
      • What St. John of the Cross called “the dark night of the soul” – that experience of feeling beyond God’s reach, feeling too far gone from the presence of God
  • And yet, in the face of those feelings of emptiness, of struggle, of pain, of desolation, of fear … In the face of all those thoughts and concerns that we think make us unreachable, we hear the words from the prophet Isaiah: All of you who are thirsty, come to the water! Whoever has no money, come, buy food and eat! Without money, at no cost, buy wine and milk! … Listen and come to me; listen, and you will live.[6]
    • Reassurance of the abundance of God’s mercy
      • Unearned
      • Unrestrained
      • Unconditional
      • It doesn’t say, “You who are thirsty … and perfect.” It doesn’t say, “You who are thirsty … and totally put together.” It doesn’t say, “You who are thirsty … and unbroken.” It just says, “You.” God’s compassion and forgiveness are not reserved only for those who seem to be “right” in whatever form that takes – right job, right family, right prayers, right life.
        • Picture that often pops up on Facebook:
          imperfect disciples
  • But what’s the one thing all those people had in common? They said “yes” to God. → may have taken some time (Jonah), may have endured some ridicule (Noah, Martha), may have had to swallow their pride (David, Sarah), certainly had to take a leap of faith (all!) … But they still said “yes” with their words and, more importantly, with their actions! → scripture: Seek the LORD when [the Lord] can still be found; call [God] while [God] is yet near. Let the wicked abandon their ways and the sinful their schemes. Let them return to the LORD so that [God] may have mercy on them, to our God, because [the Lord] is generous with forgiveness.[7]
    • Takes some effort on our part (Seek the Lord … call on [God], etc.)
    • BUT reinforces the promise (Let them return to the LORD so that [God] may have mercy on them, to our God, because [the Lord] is generous with forgiveness) → The Lord is generous with forgiveness. Generous! “Liberal with giving or sharing … abundant … prolific.” Friends, this is our God, a God for whom we are never out of reach, never too far gone.
      • Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose someone among you had one hundred sheep and lost one of them. Wouldn’t he leave the other ninety-nine in the pasture and search for the lost one until he finds it? And when he finds it, he is thrilled and places it on his shoulders. When he arrives home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Celebrate with me because I’ve found my lost sheep.’ In the same way, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who changes both heart and life than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need to change their hearts and lives.”[8]

[1] “She Used to Be Mine,” written and performed by Sara Bareilles. From What’s Inside: Songs from Waitress, Epic Records, released Sept. 25, 2015.

[2] “The Daily Examen” from Ignaitan Spirituality,, accessed Feb. 28, 2016.

[3] “Ignatius of Loyola” from, last edited Feb. 25, 2016, accessed Feb. 28, 2016.

[4] “Society of Jesus” from, last edited Feb. 26, 2016, accessed Feb. 28, 2016.

[5] Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola, published in 1548.

[6] Is 55:1, 3a,

[7] Is 55:6-7.

[8] Lk 15:3-7.

Sunday’s sermon: Running on Empty


Text used – Luke 4:1-13

  • Lent. It began just a few days ago with the observance of Ash Wednesday and stretches for 40 days plus Holy Week beginning on Palm Sunday – 47 days total. It is a season of repentance. A season of fasting and sacrifice. A season of prayer and reflection. It is a season born out of our Scripture reading this morning, modeled on the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness.
    • Always found this to be one of those really interesting stories in the Bible → prior to today’s reading: Jesus has just experienced the “up” of God declaring “This is my Son, whom I dearly love; I find happiness in him”[1] – time of …
      • Public identification
      • Acceptance
      • Glory
      • And then, with the baptismal waters of the Jordan River still dripping from his hair and God’s words of love still ringing in his ears, Jesus followed the Holy Spirit out into the wilderness. → abrupt journey of stark contrasts
        • Moved from being thronged by crowds to being completely alone
        • Moved from refreshing waters to arid desert
        • Moved from rush of validation to 40 days and 40 nights of depravation and temptation – text: There he was tempted for forty days by the devil. He ate nothing during those days and afterward Jesus was starving.[2]
          • Important to note: not charicature we’ve come to associate with “devil” today (fire-loving guy the color of a fire engine with horns and a pitchfork who’s in charge of the underworld) → 2 words often used for idea The Opposition in Scripture, both have similar meanings
            • Accuser
            • Slanderer
            • Adversary
            • More about what the devil does than what the devil looks like → image from boys’ story Bible – cloaked and hooded figure (face isn’t visible)
  • Now, one of the things that I find most interesting about this passage is the fluidity of time. Yes, we are told that overall, Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness, but beyond that, time takes on this nebulous quality. Whenever you see this passage portrayed in movies or other visual representations, it feels like Jesus and the devil move from one temptation to the next in quick succession, but our text says nothing about how much time elapsed with each temptation.
    • Can imagine the devil drawing out those descriptions, making the food … the power … the security look and feel as desirable as possible
    • On the other hand: Can imagine Jesus wrestling long and hard with the answers that he knew were right in his heart and his mind (those answers that he ultimately gave) vs. answers of self-preservation that came from human gut-instinct → Food! Power! Security!
      • Jesus had been wandering around out in the desert for weeks. He was probably tired. He was probably lonely. He was probably sore. He was certainly hungry. Even though he was the Son of God – God indeed in human form – Jesus was still human. While he was out there in the wilderness dealing with everything that he was facing – the fasting, the weather, the terrain, the devil, the temptations – we can only assume that there were times when even Jesus was running on empty.
        • Imagine the more human side of Jesus
        • Supported by all those times in Scripture when Jesus loses control
          • Passage referred to as “cleansing the Temple” → Jesus throwing out merchants and money changers[3]
          • Jesus weeping over death of his friend Lazarus[4]
          • Jesus’ struggle in the Garden of Gethsemane just before his arrest[5]
          • All times when pull of Jesus humanity overcame the calm teacher, the composed leader, the peaceful Savior → indicators of running on empty
  • A few months ago, I heard a song, and when I heard it, I immediately thought, “This is a song for Lent.” It’s a song about struggle. It’s a song about regret. It’s a song about being lost … and a little bit about being found.
    • Words are in your bulletin
    • Listen to song – “She Used to Be Mine” by Sara Bareilles[6]
    • Now, we’re going to be talking about some of the messages and themes running through this song throughout Lent because there’s a lot in it. But in the beginning, this song speaks of running on empty. You can hear the ache. You can hear the weariness. You can hear the desire – desire for what used to be, desire to be better, desire for everything to be okay.
      • Can imagine those desires being something Jesus identified with during his time in the desert, especially since he went straight from glory of baptism to harshness of time in the desert
  • Ya’ll, God knows there are times that we find ourselves running on empty – times when we feel life carving things out (carving bits of ourselves away) despite our best efforts … times when we feel like all we’ve done is pour out and pour out and pour out without being refilled … times when we feel like our flaws and our mistakes and our missed opportunities are all that are visible – like those parts of us are the only ones that matter.
    • Can feel like this in …
      • Church life
      • Work life
      • Home life
      • Life inside of ourselves – that story we tell ourselves before we go to sleep at night
    • And yes, Lent is a time when we reflect on ourselves and our lives, a time when we deliberately turn back to God and seek forgiveness … seek clarity … seek wholeness. Part of that reflection and that seeking is laying our whole lives and our whole spirit’s bare before God and saying, “This is me with all my screw-ups and all my successes, all my weaknesses and all my wonderfulness, all my problems and all my potential.” And that, my friends, is hard. It is a hard thing to do, especially if you’re in a place where you’re more empty than full. But if that’s where you are today, I want you to know it’s okay. God knows what it’s like to be running on empty – to need, to want, to be weary and hungry and depleted. God has been there, too.
      • Beauty of this strange story of Jesus’ wilderness encounters = Jesus was never alone
        • Remember, Jesus followed Holy Spirit out into the desert → And I don’t believe the Holy Spirit ever left him … just as God’s Spirit never leaves us.
          • Wandered with him
          • Struggled alongside him
          • Sustained him when he needed it
          • Wanders with us
          • Struggles alongside us
          • Sustains us when we need it
        • Also, in the face of strongest, most appealing temptations, Jesus clung to Word of God
          • Tempted by food[7] → quoted Deuteronomy[8]
          • Tempted by prestige[9] → quoted Deuteronomy[10]
          • Tempted by security[11] → quoted Deuteronomy[12]
          • The Word of God was with Jesus for support and for strength, to give him the boost that he needed and to begin to fill him up when he was at his emptiest. [hold up Bible] Friends, that Word is still here. It still supports. It still strengthens. It can still fill our hearts and minds and souls when we feel like we’re running on empty.
  • So as we journey through Lent together, whether our spiritual tanks are full or empty or somewhere in between, let us remember the advice from our Ash Wednesday reading: “With Lent, we are granted 40 days to honestly search our hearts. We are granted time to ponder where our souls reside. We don’t need to be pressured to arrive too quickly at conclusions. … We are granted time to be still and just know what God already knows about us.”[13] Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Mt 3:17.

[2] Lk 4:2

[3] Mt 21:12-17; Jn 2:13-17.

[4] Jn 11:33-35.

[5] Mt 26:36-46.

[6] “She Used to Be Mine,” written and performed by Sara Bareilles. From What’s Inside: Songs from Waitress, Epic Records, released Sept. 25, 2015.

[7] Lk 4:3.

[8] Deut 8:3.

[9] Lk 4:6-7.

[10] Deut 6:13.

[11] Lk 4:9-11.

[12] Deut 6:16.

[13] Mark Fredericksen. “Day One – Ash Wednesday” in Lenten Meditations: A Forty-Seven Day Devotional Journey, 2012 Edition. (Arlington, TX: KLG Press), 5-7.

Ash Wednesday – What gets in our way?

Throughout the month of January, I’ve asked my parishioners one question: What gets in the way of your relationship with God? There were small slips of paper in the bulletin every Sunday.

What gets in the way

I asked people to write down their responses on those slips of paper and return them to me. All of this way done anonymously. As Ash Wednesday approached, I shuffled all the responses into six general obstacles:







Then I set up a table in each sanctuary. The table is full of objects that represent those obstacles – a clock for busyness, a mirror for selfishness, a chain for control, a computer screen for media, a pair of sweatpants and a remote control for complacency, and framed blackness for fear. There are also seven candles on the table. We’re doing sort of a backwards Advent. Each Sunday, we’ll have a short reading and a prayer. Then we’ll extinguish one of the candles, removing the fuel and energy from those things that get in the way of our relationship with God.

2016 Ash Wed. O collage
Lenten obstacles table – Presbyterian Church of Oronoco

2016 Ash Wed. Z collage
Lenten obstacles table – First Congregational UCC, Zumbrota

And so we gathered for our Ash Wednesday service last night – to repent and to acknowledge those times and places and habits and realities in our lives that need to be redeemed. We highlighted each of the obstacles, naming our complicity in their presence in our lives and our continued struggle with these things that get in the way of our relationships with God.

SELFISHNESS – “Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others. Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus: Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings. When he found himself in the form of a human, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” ~ Phil 2:3-8
          It’s mine! My decision … my choice … my life … my time … MY WAY. We often become so concerned with ourselves – what’s going on in our careers, our families, and our lives – that we forget to look at the world around us. We’re so concerned with getting wherever we’re trying to go that we shout at the other drivers around us. We’re so concerned with getting what we think we deserve that we neglect those who are truly in need. We’re so concerned with making sure that our own voices and opinions are heard that we often talk over the still, small voice of the Living God in our midst. We come together tonight to remember that our time, our lives, our strength is in God. Alone, we are the ash and dust from which we come. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” * God of all things, remove us from ourselves. Make your desires our desires. Make your Way our way. May our lives reflect not our own selfish ambitions but your own eternal hope. Amen.

FEAR – “You yourself have kept track of my misery. Put my tears into your bottle— aren’t they on your scroll already? Then my enemies will retreat when I cry out. I know this because God is mine. God: whose word I praise. The LORD: whose word I praise. I trust in God; I won’t be afraid. What can anyone do to me? I will fulfill my promises to you, God. I will present thanksgiving offerings to you because you have saved my life from death, saved my feet from stumbling so that I can walk before God in the light of life.” ~ Ps 56:8-13
          We cannot deny that there is darkness in our world. And there are many things to fear in the darkness – uncertainty, illness, grief, anxiety, isolation, hatred, and pain. And so much more. We know about all those things that lurk just outside our vision, waiting for us to feel safe and secure … waiting until just the right moment, our most vulnerable moment, to pounce and devour whatever strength and confidence and peace we have. Yes, fear is a natural part of the world. It is a defense mechanism that has allowed us to survive in the face of challenging and dangerous circumstances for millennia. The problem comes when we allow our fears to paralyze us … when we allow our fears to consume our whole selves, stopping us in our tracks and cutting us off from everything – our friends, our lives, and our faith. In the face of our greatest, most overwhelming fears, we must remember that our God is greater. * Strong and faithful God, be our light in the midst of whatever darkness scares us the most. Be our strength in the face of whatever weakness threatens to paralyze us in fear. You are stronger. You are greater. You indeed are our light and our salvation. Of whom should we be afraid? Amen.

COMPLACENCY/HABITS – “Everybody who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise builder who built a house on bedrock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the wind blew and beat against that house. It didn’t fall because it was firmly set on bedrock. But everybody who hears these words of mine and doesn’t put them into practice will be like a fool who built a house on sand. The rain fell, the floods came, and the wind blew and beat against that house. It fell and was completely destroyed.” ~ Matt 7:24-27
          This is my rut. This is the path that I travel, and I know it so well. It’s familiar. It’s comfortable. It’s easy. I know where the path goes uphill and down. I know where the potholes and pitfalls are. I know where it gets messy and where it gets confusing and where it veers off in a completely different direction. We don’t like change because it’s challenging. It’s scary. It’s strange. And so we fall into old, familiar habits. We do what we’ve always done because it’s what we’ve always known. We settle into our complacency like a well-worn pair of sweatpants, satisfied to do just enough … to get by. But how many times has God called people to be safe and complacent? Was Moses’ call to lead the people out of Egypt anywhere near his comfort zone? Did Peter and the other disciples live lives of familiarity and habitualness? Imagine what Paul’s ministry might have looked like had he stuck only to the territory that he knew. God created us in God’s own image – the image of One who is wildly creative, the One who is always doing something new, something inventive and invasive, the One who bursts through, not the one who lays back. * Inspire us, Holy One. Stir us up. Shake us up. Move in our hearts and in our souls in a way that inspires us to shake off our complacency, abandon our fruitless habits, and follow you anew. Amen.

BUSYNESS – “There’s a season for everything and a time for every matter under the heavens: a time for giving birth and a time for dying, a time for planting and a time for uprooting what was planted, a time for killing and a time for healing, a time for tearing down and a time for building up, a time for crying and a time for laughing, a time for mourning and a time for dancing, a time for throwing stones and a time for gathering stones, a time for embracing and a time for avoiding embraces, a time for searching and a time for losing, a time for keeping and a time for throwing away, a time for tearing and a time for repairing, a time for keeping silent and a time for speaking, a time for loving and a time for hating, a time for war and a time for peace.” ~ Ecc 3:1-8
          It’s all about priorities. There are only so many hours in the day – nothing we can do about it, no way for us to change it. And the way that we use those 24 hours is telling. How do we fill up those minutes and hours? But we have so many activities pulling us in so many different directions. There’s always something we need to be doing, somewhere we’re supposed to be. We’re supposed to do it all – keep things running smoothly at home, go above and beyond at work, be involved in the community, and everything else. For some reason, we place our worth in the number of things that we get done – the number of accomplishments under our belt and the number of hours we spent running, the number of hours we spend away from home. As this familiar passage of Scripture says, there is a time for everything … but we have to make that time. We have to make the choice – make the effort. We have to set aside time for important things like family and self-care … and God. * Be with us in our decisions, Everlasting God. You have all the time in the world for us. Remind us to make time for you in our day-to-day lives. Help us to slow down. Help us to stop. Help us to breathe. Amen.

CONTROL – “Truly the eye of the Lord is on those who fear him, on those who hope in his steadfast love, to deliver their soul from death, and to keep them alive in famine. Our soul waits for the Lord; he is our help and shield. Our heart is glad in him, because we trust in his holy name. Let your steadfast love, O Lord, be upon us, even as we hope in you.” ~ Ps 33:18-22.
          We’ve got this, right? Things are a little stressful, but we’re in control. We’ve got this. Things are a little crazy, but we can handle it. We’ve got this. The society we live in praises our ability to hold it all together, to be cool under pressure, to be able to juggle work and a personal interests and relationships and outside interests and hobbies. Sometimes we’re really good at that juggling act. Sometimes all we can do is duck as the balls come tumbling down around us and hope one of them doesn’t hit us in the head. The biggest problem with juggling: focus. When our energy is so exclusively focused on keeping things running our way, how can we possibly have anything left to give to God? While we should be using our energy first and foremost to the One who gave us life to begin with, more often than not, God is lucky to get a quick “thank you” as an afterthought. * Almighty God, remind us that the power is yours. The plan is yours. Help us to relinquish our illusion of control and teach us to pray again and again, “Thy will be done.” Amen.

MEDIA – “Nobody should deceive you with stupid ideas. God’s anger comes down on those who are disobedient because of this kind of thing. So you shouldn’t have anything to do with them. You were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord, so live your life as children of light. Light produces fruit that consists of every sort of goodness, justice, and truth. Therefore, test everything to see what’s pleasing to the Lord, and don’t participate in the unfruitful actions of darkness. Instead, you should reveal the truth about them. It’s embarrassing to even talk about what certain persons do in secret. But everything exposed to the light is revealed by the light.” ~ Eph 5:6-13
          The headlines are inescapable. This celebrity is marrying that one. This candidate insulted that one.  This athlete did the right thing … or the wrong thing … or the childish thing … or the crazy thing. They’re bold. They’re eye-catching. They’re sensational. It doesn’t matter whether the news is good or bad or somewhere in between. It’s all about selling. The more outrageous the story, the more inflammatory the soundbite, the more scandalous and salacious, the better. Somehow, as a society, we have shifted away from news for the sake of information and instead seek out whatever production will entertain us the most, no matter how accurate or inaccurate the “report” may be. And our eyes are so pulled from one crazy “news” story to the next that they are pulled further and further away from God. When the stories of the world – be they good or bad – are presented in this way, they encourage separation among us. Stories like these make it easy to criticize THEM because THEY do things differently, strangely, wrong wrong WRONG. “This must be so because if they were “normal” like me, they wouldn’t be in the news to begin with.” But when we begin to think and believe this, we mar the beauty of God’s creation with ugly divisions. * Temper our hearing, our seeing, and our acceptance of the words in the world around us, Gracious God. Help us to see through the illusion of entertainment to find the story that matters most – the human story, the truth about your beloved children, wherever they may be. Embolden us to speak your words of truth, love, and grace loud enough to drown out competing voices of exaggeration and sensationalism. Amen.

After naming and claiming all of these, after calls to prayer and repentance from Isaiah 58:1-12; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21; and Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, we participated in the imposition of ashes. As I told my parishioners last night, it is such a humbling and honoring experience to do that for people.


When you think about it, this is an odd thing to say to someone – to remind them of their own mortality and the fleeting nature of life. And yet it is such a powerful moment. The responses I got varied from “Amen” to “Thank you” to a simple smile or a somber nod. The best was the 6-yr-old who grimaced as I drew the sign of the cross on his forehead. But as Nadia Bolz-Weber said, “If our lives were a long piece of fabric with our baptism on one end and our funeral on another, and we don’t know the distance between the two, then Ash Wednesday is a time when that fabric is pinched in the middle and the ends are held up so that our baptism in the past and our funeral in the future meet. The water and words from our baptism plus the earth and words from our funerals have come from the past and future to meet us in the present. And in that meeting we are reminded of the promises of God: That we are God’s, that there is no sin, no darkness, and yes, no grave that God will not come to find us in and love us back to life. That where two or more are gathered, Christ is with us. These promises outlast our earthly bodies and the limits of time.”

And so we came together – to repent, to remember, and also to rejoice in God’s promises that outlast even the dust. We affirmed our faith. We sang hymns. And we extinguished our first candle with the following reading from Mark Fredericksen’s book Lenten Meditations: A Forty-Seven Day Devotional Journal.

Create in Me Pure Heart[1]
Ash Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2016

Psalm 51:1-17

            Sometimes, it’s easy to gloss over scripture and make unexamined assumptions. For instance, without reflection, one can assume that a willing spirit, or a pure heart, is already ours. Lenten liturgies that use these verses often communicate a subtle presumption of our holiness or purity. A prayer, a cross made on the forehead with ash and we’re good to go. But do we really pause long enough to check if we feel the pure heart? The steadfast spirit? God’s presence and the Holy Spirit? Joy in our salvation? …

            [There] is, perhaps, too quick a jump to the Easter good news. There is a wisdom to The Church holding onto the forty days of Lent prior to Easter. It is forty full days to explore deeply within ourselves some questions we might not really want to explore, except privately with our God.

            Consider these questions as you travel through Lent: do I really want a pure heart? Is my spirit willing or steadfast? We may not be ready on these first days of Lent to say “yes.” Sure “yes” is the right answer, but is it MY answer right now? If not, why not? Perhaps our very first step should be to pray for a willing spirit or pure heart. Truthfully, taking on either one can directly change your whole existence and life habit. We should never be in a rush to get some place spiritually just because others are already there, or want us to be there with them!

            With Lent, we are granted 40 days to honestly search our hearts. We are granted time to ponder where our souls reside. We don’t need to be pressured to arrive too quickly at conclusions. These conclusions need to be more gently grown or fermented or aged. We are granted time to be still and just know what God already knows about us. We can take in that knowledge and use it creatively and constructively for God.

Extinguish one candle.

Prayer: God, you are holy and faithful. You are glory and light. You are joy and peace, hope and above all, you are love. We are created in your image, gracious Lord, but even though we try to follow, we can’t. We come to you with broken hearts and tarnished dreams, tired souls and disordered lives. Love us in the midst of our brokenness. Love us through our frustration and misunderstanding and hesitation to the grace and compassion waiting for us on the other side. As Jesus taught us, “Forgive us our sins and we forgive those who sin against us.” Amen.

[1] Mark Fredericksen. “Day One – Ash Wednesday” in Lenten Meditations: A Forty-Seven Day Devotional Journey, 2012 Edition. (Arlington, TX: KLG Press), 5-7.

And then we went out with a blessing and sharing the peace of Jesus Christ with one another.

Sunday’s sermon: Being Dancing People


Texts used – Psalm 30 and 1 Thessalonians 3:7-4:1 (read within text)

  • For thousands and thousands of years, people have used movement to express themselves. – movement = dance in some form or another
    • Present in every culture around the world
    • Part of ceremonies, rituals, celebrations, entertainment → Throughout the centuries, people have danced for healing, for prayer, for show, and even as a challenge.
    • Dance tells stories. Dance expresses emotions and ideas, theologies and beliefs. Dance can run the gamut from strong, powerful and forceful to gentle, delicate and serene.
    • Dance can be anything from …
      • Classical ballet to modern hip hop
      • Huge, theatrical Bollywood numbers to solo contemporary
      • Flashy tap to exuberant swing
      • Choreographed Broadway numbers to a country bar room two-step
      • Extemporaneous riffing of break dancers to ancient steps of Native American dances handed down through the centuries from one generation to the next
      • Boys’ book: Elephants Cannot Dance![1]

Elephants Cannot Dance

  • Piggie is learning to dance → wants to teach her best friend, Gerald → Gerald = elephant → Despite Gerald’s warnings that “elephants cannot dance” Piggie tries so hard to teach Gerald the moves she has learned, but Gerald just can’t get it → Gerald quits in spastic explosion of frustration (flailing, grunting, stomping, grimacing, etc.) → as Piggie is comforting her friend, others approach wanting to learn to dance → Piggie tries to send them away because she’s busy comforting her best friend → But as it turns out, they do not want to learn the conventional steps from Piggie. They want to learn “The Elephant”!
    • SPOILER ALERT: Gerald teaches them all how to flail and grunt and stamp and grimace – teaches them to dance in his very own way

Elephant dance

    • Moral of the story: Dance can be anything
    • And yet despite the universality of dance, there have been many times throughout history when people in power – especially church power – tried to repress dance … to convince others it was shameful, wrong, and sinful. Or that it was a frivolous waste of time – not important, not productive, not beneficial to society.
  • Friends, sometimes it feels as though the world we’re living in is solely about the negative.
    • News reports sensationalize the bad while often forgetting to highlight the good
    • Confronted daily (if not hourly) with images and stories and warnings about all the terrible things in the world
    • Constantly reminded by culture of the ways that we are flawed
      • Salary isn’t high enough
      • Appearance isn’t perfect enough
      • Family isn’t ideal enough
      • Something about me doesn’t fit into this impossibly perfect box that has been created.
    • Can lead to a worldview of defeatism and dread
    • Can lead us to become pessimistic and critical and judgmental → comparing ourselves to the people around us and turning a spotlight on their mistakes in order to distract attention from our own
    • Can sometimes get lost in all the negativity
    • Can sometimes get bogged down in all the “have to”s and “should do”s that society has created for us → forget that God created us to be something different, something more
      • Created to be special
      • Created to be treasured
      • Created to be testament to God
        • Do God’s powerful work in this world
        • Be God’s amazing love
    • Hear this tension in our psalm[2] this morning:
      • Down side – speaking of “my enemies [celebrating] over me,” about “crying out for [God’s] help,” about weeping and the grave and mourning
      • But in the midst of all that: I exalt you Lord, because you pulled me up … You who are faithful to the LORD, sing praises to him; give thanks to his holy name! … Because it pleased you, LORD, you made me a strong mountain.[3]
      • One of the things that I love about this psalm is that it doesn’t separate those low points and those high points into different sections. It doesn’t just speak of the bad, then switch to extoling the good. It’s a bit of a rollercoaster ride! Up … down … up … down.
        • g.: () You who are faithful to the LORD, sing praises to him; give thanks to his holy name! () His anger lasts for only a second, () but his favor lasts a lifetime. () Weeping may stay all night, () but by morning, joy! … Because it pleased you, LORD, you made me a strong mountain. () But then you hid your presence. I was terrified.[4]
        • I gotta say … it feels a little truer to life, doesn’t it? Up … down … up … down.
  • But the point and the power in this psalm is how it ends: You changed my mourning into dancing. You took off my funeral clothes and dressed me up in joy so that my whole being might sing praises to you and never stop. LORD, my God, I will give thanks to you forever.[5]
    • Reminds us that even in the midst of all the muck and yuck and mess and struggle that we find in those down places, God made us to be dancing people
    • Sometimes we can see this for ourselves. We are a solo act – dancing with the joyful abandon of King David before God despite all the crazy looks that we’re getting from everyone else around us. We are God’s embodiment of praise and joy and thanksgiving and light. But sometimes, we need others to draw us into the dance.
      • Hear prayer from 1 Thess 3:7-4:1
      • Have you ever been to a Native American Powwow? → powwow = powerful e.g. of this
        • Hold one at UWEC every year – Honoring Education Powwow → description from UWEC: The powwow is a celebration of culture that bridges the customs and stories of the past with the energy and vitality of 21st-century Native American people from the UW-Eau Claire campus and the community. Music, song, dance, food and storytelling will bring together indigenous people as well as the greater community in a day of socializing and visiting with family and friends.[6]
      • Powwows are incredible because you get to witness history and culture and storytelling in one of its most extravagant forms: dance.
        • People dancing individually
        • People dancing in small groups
        • People dancing in large groups
        • People supporting the dancers with their voices and their drumming
        • But what’s even more powerful is that often, there are a few times when those who are watching are invited to join the dance. Despite all the downs – all the ugliness and repression and suffering and humiliation – in the history between white people and the Native peoples, still we are invited to join the dance … to travel that sacred circle together in steps as old as time with the heartbeat-drumbeat of the world and the intense cry of the singer filling your ears and your soul. It is a powerful moment.
  • Today, we come together for our annual meeting. It may not always be the most exciting part of church. It may not be our highest high (though it’s also hopefully not a low for you either). We come together to remember the year that we’ve had and to look to the year before us. We come together to lift up new people to do particular works of this church – to fulfill crucial roles of governing and caring in our midst. As Christians, this is part of our dance together. This is part of the way we remind each other of who and how and where God is among us, and it’s part of the way that we are inspired again to do God’s work in this world.
    • May love indeed cause our hearts to be strengthened before our God when our Lord Jesus comes with all his people. … So then, brothers and sisters, let us be encouraged in the Lord Jesus to keep living and worshipping and meeting and dancing in the way we already are and even do better to please God.[7]

[1] Mo Willems. Elephants Cannot Dance! (New York, NY: Hyperion Books for Children), 2009.

[2] Ps 30, various verses.

[3] Ps 30:1, 4, 7.

[4] Ps 30:4-5, 7.

[5] Ps 30:11-12.

[6] Denise Olson. “Honoring Education Powwow Set for Nov. 7” on the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire news website, Written Nov. 2, 2015, accessed Jan. 31, 2016.

[7] based on 1 Thess 3:13-4:1.