Three simple photos, taken today as I sat in the silence of a familiar and much-missed spiritual home and prepared for another funeral:
first, the pretty purple flowers that would have been changed to a white bouquet for our Easter celebrations – reminding me of our current dis-ease and ongoing need for a Saviour,
second, the cross created by the children out of pieces of coloured paper (thinking of you Carolyn and Andrew!) which are visible both inside the sanctuary and to those who pass by on the street – reminding me that there is no boundary between the sacred and the secular but that, in God, everything and everyone belongs,
last, the bright light of the candle along with the beautiful butterfly stole (thinking of you too my Lombardy East family) – reminding me of God’s constant, guiding presence in the changing circumstances of life where beginnings become endings and endings, beginnings ….
Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
Not the distance presently between us.
Nor the boundaries – visible and invisible – that we draw.
I used to know the wilderness only as pain; A land without food, a land without water. But you rained down manna And even water flows in your desert.
I used to think the wilderness was total isolation— But the Israelites had each other, And you had the stars in the sky.
So then I thought the wilderness must be time wasted— Forty years of circles. Forty years of wondering. But then I realized, each step is a step, And maybe there’s growth in that.
So then I concluded that the wilderness must be lonely spaces— The woman and her well, The blind man and his gate, Martha and her kitchen, Peter and his fire. But then you showed up in each of those places, To each of those faces.
So now I wonder— What if the wilderness is the birthplace of creation? What if the wilderness is where call begins? What if the wilderness is where joy is birthed? What if, between the dirt and the sky And that wide orange horizon, The wilderness is where we find you?
by Sarah Are – A sanctified Art
Welcome, brothers and sisters in Christ, to the dim hours of dawn as the sun slowly climbs into the sky, bringing light and warmth upon the land.
How we have travelled these weeks, through the wilderness of scarcity and isolation, loss and loneliness, uncertainty, ill health, and strange time which passes now too quickly, now too slowly, to the praises of Palm Sunday and the horrors of the cross and the silent hours of waiting … to this moment.
We begin with two questions for you to consider: 1. Why is this day special to you? 2. And, what emotions are you feeling today?
Gospel reading: John 20:1-18
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved,and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”
So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen. Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.) Then the disciples went back to where they were staying.
Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomband saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.
They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”
“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.
He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”
Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”
Jesus said to her, “Mary.”
She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”).
Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”
Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.
New International Version
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Living One, no tomb can keep You, no door is closed to You, no life is shut off from You. Come lead us out of darkness into light, out of doubt into faith, out of death into life eternal. Jesus Christ, our Risen Lord. Amen.
Interesting that the day starts and ends at the tomb, a morning like any morning. No earthquake. No flash of light. No bright star to announce his arrival. No chorus of angel song to testify to the Good News of resurrection. Simply the awareness that what has been is gone.
So we pause for a moment to be still, to be quiet, in the pale light of morning and we hold before God that which is gone in our own lives.
Mary Magdalene, in the dark, notes that the stone has been moved. And her despair is doubled – for her mind does not go to the promises and prophecies of resurrection but to her broken experiences of a world in which a crowd one day utters “Hosanna” and the next “Crucify,” where the beloveds become betrayers, where those in authority wash hands of their responsibility, where an innocent man is crucified between thieves. In such a world, it makes sense that the very same enemies who have orchestrated all of that, will have taken the body and hidden it so that the name of Jesus did not become mightier in his martyrdom.
We pause for a moment to be still, to be quiet, in the cold air of morning and we hold before God that which is broken in our own world.
She goes to get help. Or at least, some company in her grief – but Peter and John run off ahead of her. The one who was at the cross and entrusted with the care of Jesus’s mother cannot bear to go, at first, beyond the door but notes that the body is gone and the wrappings have been left behind. The one who denied any association with the Lord, goes straight into the burial place and pronounces it empty of the Christ. They see and believe – not in the resurrection – but that the body is gone. And they go back to where they are staying – leaving Mary outside the tomb, crying and alone.
We pause for a moment to be still, to be quiet, in the wake of bad news and we hold before God those who we have left alone in their frailty or sickness or grief.
As she weeps, Mary bends over again to look into the place that has been declared empty. She knows that the one she is looking for is not there so I wonder why she does so. Why she alone stays in the dark, cold place of death when the others have returned to a safe place. What instinct drives her to look again. What she expected to find. Certainly not two angels who she doesn’t even recognise as angels through her tears. Nor Jesus, himself, standing behind her.
We pause for a moment to be still, to be quiet, in the blur of tears and we ask God to hold those times and places in our lives which it feels like God is not present with us.
“Mary,” Jesus names her. “Rabboni!” she cries out. And the whole reality shifts. He was dead. Now he is risen. His body was gone. Now he is here. She wants to reach out and hold on to him in her relief- but Jesus gently stops her. Nothing will ever be the same and he is to leave his disciples in order to be with all people. His Father has become our Father. His God is our God.
We pause for a moment to be still, to be quiet, in the truth that changes everything and we ask God to hold the realities that need to named and challenged and transformed.
Again, Mary returns to where the disciples have sought sanctuary. Her news is radically different from what it was. The misery and uncertainty of “they have taken the Lord and we don’t know where they have put him” is now the joy-filed eye-witness testimony “I have seen the Lord” and the careful retelling of what he said to her.
We are not actually told how her news was received; whether they believed her or wrote her good news off as the imaginings of an overwrought woman. Certainly, it did not seem to change their fearfulness for when Jesus next appears to them, they are still behind locked doors. Yet, that does not really matter. Easter Sunday reminds us that we all have a testimony to offer of the personal touch, the power, and the presence of Jesus.
So we pause for a final moment to be still, to be quiet, in the brightening light and we ask God to hold our lives as living signs of God’s love for the world.
Prayer for the world
Lord, like Mary, we weep. We weep with all who suffer, with all who are persecuted, with all creatures who endure our cruelty.
Lord, we weep with those who are lonely, with those who have buried a beloved, with those for whom life is harder than death.
Lord, we weep with all who are oppressed, with all who are bound by their addiction, with all who are wrapped up in suspicion and hate.
Lord, we weep where disease is spreading, where war has erupted, where tempers run high.
Lord, we weep with children abused by the people they trust, with young people bullied, and silenced, and shamed, with homes where the anxiety of this time is made worse by violence.
Together Lord, we weep. We weep.
May we all, at the end of this Lent, though many of our lives still feel like the wilderness place, receive again with the rising of the light each day, the knowledge that You are with us, that You call us by name, and that You have left us – like the empty tomb and and the folded wrappings – as signs for all the communities of earth of Your power and Your purpose: to heal all who are hurting and bring us back to life.
Hymn: Christ the Lord is risen today
Christ the Lord is risen today: Hallelujah! Let the whole creation say: Hallelujah! Raise your joys and triumphs high: Hallelujah! Sing now, heaven, and earth reply: Hallelujah!
Love’s redeeming work is done; Hallelujah! fought the fight, the battle won; Hallelujah! vain the stone, the watch, the seal: Hallelujah! Christ has burst the gates of hell. Hallelujah!
Lives again our glorious king; Hallelujah! where, O death, is now your sting? Hallelujah! Once he died our souls to save; Hallelujah! where your victory, O grave? Hallelujah!
Soar we now where Christ has led, Hallelujah! Following our exalted Head; Hallelujah! made like him, like him we rise: Hallelujah! ours the cross, the grave, the skies. Hallelujah!
Before offering a prayer of lament and longing today, I wanted to take a moment to acknowledge what many others have shared over the course of the last week: that underneath the excitement and opportunities of finding different ways to connect and worship with one another is a very real sense of loss that is exacerbated by simply not knowing when we will next gather in person.
For me, the call to act decisively, in the interests of those most vulnerable and in solidarity with a world that is suffering, is what being Church is all about. My mind was quickly occupied with what might be possible given the ranging age and contexts of the congregations with whom I share life. And there is a very simple pleasure in, each day, offering something small – and, I hope, full of hope – to a Church far bigger than the boundaries we have held on to as we seek to offer a word of comfort and promise in a time of loneliness and anxiety.
But, as I pinned up the notices on the closed doors of a sanctuary to let people know some of the ways in which we can enter fully into this season of prayer and care for another, I must admit that I was overwhelmed with grief as I pictured the faces of the people that I would normally see gathering in that place each Sunday, the children I would hold, the hands I would touch.
Hence Monday’s mourning – a space to turn to God with our sorrow.
God of promise, please pay attention to my prayers this day. Don’t judge me for how I’m feeling – but acknowledge my cries. I live in the darkness of death’s shadow. My life is crushed into dust. My heart is heavy with despair and a deep depression settles into my soul. I am nearly at the end of my rope.
Help me to pause in Your presence, to stretch out my hands to You as a thirsty desert waits for rain to bring new life. Let the dawning day bring me a revelation of your tender, unfailing love. Remind me of the good old days – of all the ways I have seen You at work – that I might have light for this path and trust in You to lead me by Your blessed Spirit into clear and level pastureland.
*based on the Passion Translation and the Message paraphrases*
Welcome friends, fellow pilgrims on the way to God’s promised end in this time of disaster, disease and dis-ease when many of us feel truly anxious and alone in the wilderness ….
Yet, as we gather in new ways and in new times and in new spaces like this one, we remember that it was through the ascension of Christ and his return to the Father, that we have received the gift of the Holy Spirit who dwells within each one of us and is with us even now, ensuring a deep and spiritual connection with all the heroes of the faith who have gone before us and with the whole host of heaven. So, in faith, let us pray:
Gracious, gathering God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, from the beginning, connected, and through the connection, creative, and in all creation, communing
with Your children who You fashioned in Your image, wove together with Your own hands, named “beloved,” and called according to Your good purpose and plan, how wonderful, how truly delightful it isto enter this day into the sweet harmony of Your salvation song:
Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.
As we gather together in this moment with all our sisters and brothers across time and space, may the togetherness of our spirits be a source of blessing and a sigh of our deep yearning for the day when You will gather all things up in heaven and on earth into Your perfect peace -forever and ever. Amen.
Our Good News comes today from John 9 and I read from The Passion Translation.
Afterward, as Jesus walked down the street, he noticed a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Teacher, whose sin caused this guy’s blindness, his own, or the sin of his parents?”
Jesus answered, “Neither. It happened to him so that you could watch him experience God’s miracle. While I am with you, it is daytime and we must do the works of God who sent me while the light shines. For there is coming a dark night when no one will be able to work. As long as I am with you my life is the light that pierces the world’s darkness.”
Then Jesus spat on the ground and made some clay with his saliva. Then he anointed the blind man’s eyes with the clay. And he said to the blind man, “Now go and wash the clay from your eyes in the ritual pool of Siloam.” So he went and washed his face and as he came back, he could see for the first time in his life!
This caused quite a stir among the people of the neighbourhood, for they noticed the blind beggar was now seeing! They began to say to one another, “Isn’t this the blind man who once sat and begged?” Some said, “No, it can’t be him!” Others said, “But it looks just like him—it has to be him!” All the while the man kept insisting, “I’m the man who was blind!”
Finally, they asked him, “What has happened to you?”
He replied, “I met the man named Jesus! He rubbed clay on my eyes and said, ‘Go to the pool named Siloam and wash.’ So I went and while I was washing the clay from my eyes I began to see for the very first time ever!”
So the people of the neighbourhood inquired, “Where is this man?”
“I have no idea.” the man replied.
So the people marched him over to the Pharisees to speak with them.
They were concerned because the miracle Jesus performed by making clay with his saliva and anointing the man’s eyes happened on a Sabbath day, a day that no one was allowed to “work.”
Then the Pharisees asked the man, “How did you have your sight restored?”
He replied, “A man anointed my eyes with clay, then I washed, and now I can see for the first time in my life!”
Then an argument broke out among the Pharisees over the healing of the blind man on the Sabbath. Some said, “This man who performed this healing is clearly not from God! He doesn’t even observe the Sabbath!” Others said, “If Jesus is just an ordinary sinner, how could he perform a miracle like that?”
This prompted them to turn on the man healed of blindness, putting him on the spot in front of them all, demanding an answer. They asked, “Who do you say he is—this man who opened your blind eyes?”
“He’s a prophet of God!” the man replied.
Still refusing to believe that the man had been healed and was truly blind from birth, the Jewish leaders called for the man’s parents to be brought to them.
So they asked his parents, “Is this your son?”
“Yes,” they answered.
“Was he really born blind?”
“Yes, he was,” they replied.
So they pressed his parents to answer, “Then how is it that he’s now seeing?”
“We have no idea,” they answered. “We don’t know what happened to our son. Ask him, he’s a mature adult. He can speak for himself.” (Now the parents were obviously intimidated by the Jewish religious leaders, for they had already announced to the people that if anyone publicly confessed Jesus as the Messiah, they would be excommunicated. That’s why they told them, “Ask him, he’s a mature adult. He can speak for himself.”)
So once again they summoned the man who was healed of blindness and said to him, “Swear to God to tell us the truth! We know the man who healed you is a sinful man! Do you agree?”
The healed man replied, “I have no idea what kind of man he is. All I know is that I was blind and now I can see for the first time in my life!”
“But what did he do to you?” they asked. “How did he heal you?”
The man responded, “I told you once and you didn’t listen to me. Why do you make me repeat it? Are you wanting to be his followers too?”
This angered the Jewish leaders. They heaped insults on him, “We can tell you are one of his followers—now we know it! We are true followers of Moses, for we know that God spoke to Moses directly. But as for this one, we don’t know where he’s coming from!”
“Well, what a surprise this is!” the man said. “You don’t even know where he comes from, but he healed my eyes and now I can see! We know that God doesn’t listen to sinners, but only to godly people who do his will. Yet who has ever heard of a man born blind that was healed and given back his eyesight? I tell you, if this man isn’t from God, he wouldn’t be able to heal me like he has!”
Some of the Jewish leaders were enraged and said, “Just who do you think you are to lecture us! You were born a blind, filthy sinner!” So they threw the man out in the street.
When Jesus learned they had thrown him out, he went to find him and said to him, “Do you believe in the Son of God?”
The man whose blind eyes were healed answered, “Who is he, Master? Tell me so that I can place all my faith in him.”
Jesus replied, “You’re looking right at him. He’s speaking with you. It’s me, the one in front of you now.”
Then the man threw himself at his feet and worshiped Jesus and said, “Lord, I believe in you!”
And Jesus said, “I have come to judge those who think they see and make them blind. And for those who are blind, I have come to make them see.”
Some of the Pharisees were standing nearby and overheard these words.
They interrupted Jesus and said, “You mean to tell us that we are blind?”
Jesus told them, “If you would acknowledge your blindness, then your sin would be removed. But now that you claim to see, your sin remains with you!”
*** It’s an interesting way to start a story, isn’t it?
The disciples see a man afflicted from birth by blindness and their immediate assumption is that somewhere along the line someone in his family must have done something terrible to deserve this punishment.
Their question reveals as much about their culture as it does about their picture of God, their notion of justice, and the attitudes that they have towards others that have been ingrained since birth by teachers and parents and rabbis and priests. It is a wonder, actually, that they did not spit on the ground and curse at him as they passed him by.
Yet, Jesus does not just walk on without seeing both the need of this man and the opportunity to open the eyes of his disciples to shine a light wherever it is dark.
As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that the physical limitation of the man born blind is far more easily remedied than the disbelief of his neighbours, the rigid and enraged hearts of the religious leaders, and the fearfulness of the man’s family of being thrown out in the street – excommunicated from their faith community if they celebrate that something miraculous has happened to their son and publicly confess Jesus as the Messiah.
By the end of the story, we only hear account of one man – the blind man – seeing with new eyes Jesus, the Son of God, as the source of his healing and salvation and declaring, “Lord, I believe in you!”
I wonder what the disciples believed in this moment; how watching the interaction between Jesus and this so-called cursed creature and then Jesus and their Jewish leaders may have challenged what they thought they knew about the world and people’s place in it.
On Thursday morning, I felt that I had woken up in a new world as we, in the Uniting Church in Australia, have been urged – like churches in other denominations throughout the world – to cease meeting in person for the common good of all on our planet, but particularly the most vulnerable in our midst.
COVID-19 follows so closely after the devastating bushfires and a period of prolonged drought and other natural disasters that we must surely say, “This is the dark night when no one is able to work.”
Yet, as spit on the ground could be used to open the eyes of those who desire to see, this time in our life as God’s Church, challenges all who believe in the Son of God, to become signs of His presence with us and lights that pierce the world’s darkness.
As we are challenged by this dark time to forgo many of our religious traditions and rituals, to think about what we know of the world and people’s place within it, and to embody the healing and transforming power and presence of Jesus, let us be particularly mindful of those who feel forgotten as the public eye has shifted so quickly from the horrors of this summer and a long, dry season to this global pandemic.
Let us be mindful of vulnerable communities throughout the world whose little access to adequate healthcare or good nutrition or sufficient space to self-isolate or maintain social distance places them at great risk.
Let us be mindful of the elderly in our midst, and, especially, those on their own who already feel isolated, and who cherish the company offered in physical gatherings and in the peace passed by human touch.
Let us be mindful of those whose names we have forgotten, who have been on the margins of our Christian communities or ceased to worship a long while ago due to difficult family circumstance and ill health, and may slip through the cracks in our care
Let us be mindful of all who have already been struggling day in and day out with cancer, and depression, domestic violence, and addiction, broken relationships, and financial concerns.
Let us be mindful of those whose employment makes them vulnerable to infection and those whose employment and income are currently at risk.
Let us be mindful of individuals and families who can neither celebrate wonderful moments nor grieve great losses as they would normally do.
As I end with an encircling prayer, I invite you to write down some of the names of people and places that come to mind as we consider those who are especially impacted and to lay them out on a piece of cloth or a scarf which you will fold over them each time you hear the word “encircler” – just as Christ covered the man’s eyes with spit and mud his act of healing.
Let us pray (adapted from the Carmina Gadelica III):
My Christ! My Christ! My shield, my encircler, Each day, each night, each light, each dark: My Christ! My Christ! My shield, my encircler, Each day, each night, each light, each dark.
Be near us, uphold us, our treasure, our triumph, in our lying, in our standing, in our watching, in our sleeping.
Jesus, Son of Man! Our helper, our encircler, Jesus, Son of God! Our strength everlasting: Jesus, Son of Man! Our helper, our encircler, Jesus, Son of God! Our strength everlasting. Amen.
One of the most common complaints around our dinner table since arriving to Australia in 2018 has been the lack of salt in every meal. It’s not that we don’t put enough salt in – my mom’s pinch is very generous and she has taught me well. It’s simply that the salt is insufficient to produce the meaty flavours we’ve grown up with when we’re suddenly cooking with salt-reduced soy or low-salt chicken stock or salt lite.
In the well-known words from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus questions what use salt is when its lost its saltiness or who would light a lamp and then hide it from sight (Matthew 5:13-14).
As people who seek to live according to the very best way when God’s law and God’s love hold us together in abundant grace and humble obedience, we should enrich the world all around us: the land and the sky and the waters and all that live within them.
I have found that the Uniting Church in Australia has a particularly savoury saltiness, an inviting rainbow-coloured light spectrum that intrigues the palate and expands the palette by intentionally holding together people of such different traditions and cultures and journeys and spiritual practices and theological beliefs as a sign of the promised reconciliation and perfect shalom we will find in God’s right-here-right-now-for-all-eternity kingdom.
What great things God has prepared for us! Not just for us – but for the world to which God came. What great gifts God bestows on us! Not just for us – but that the world may be full of rich and complex sights and flavours.
Through the love that we bear and the stories that we share as members of the Body and, particularly, of this UCA family, may others come to taste and see that God is good!