In pm's words
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March 9, 2016, 7:00 PM

Open My Heart, Lord

From our Mid-Week Lenten Series theme on "Open My Life, Lord."


Grace and peace to each of you this evening as we gather for our fourth Lenten Wednesday service.

We’ve called upon God to open our eyes, our hands, and our ears. This evening we begin to look inward to ourselves as we call upon God to open our hearts. To open our hearts to the ways of God, to hear the words of Jesus, and to open our hearts to be present and in relationship with those in need around us.

When I look back on my life I know that I’ve been pretty lucky. Unlike many I have not only been able to travel around the world, but I’ve always been blessed to live around the country and world as well. I’ve been blessed to see, to know, and to be present with so many different types of people.

And yet, I notice as I get older it becomes more and more difficult at times to see others with an open heart. As individuals come into the church office to receive help; there is that in-breaking thought of – how is this person trying to swindle me? Am I going to be taken advantage of? Am I doing the right thing?

The older I get there are times where I become cautious with those around me who are in need because somewhere I’ve either had an experience or been told of an experience where ‘that type of person’ did me/someone wrong so I should be wary – I should be guarded.

And, I think I remember the first time that I thought that. I was living in Italy and I believe we were traveling with my family in the historic area of the Campagna region – the former seat of royal power in Italy, we lived in Naples which is the historic capital of this region. One day my family and I went to visit the historic downtown sections of Naples as it is filled with wonderful art, architecture, history, and culture.

I remember watching a man approach a woman sitting on the street with her hand outstretched while she held on to a baby wrapped in a blanket. As he got closer, he took his wallet out to help this new ‘mother.’ When he got about a foot away and he was pulling some Lira out of his billfold, the woman threw the bundle in her arms at him. Naturally he went to catch the baby and he dropped his wallet. The woman snatched the wallet and she and an older girl ran away as fast as they could. Turns out, the ‘baby’ was just a doll with a cassette player with a tape of baby sounds wrapped in a thick blanket.

I remember thinking – well if that’s what they are going to do. I’m not going to help.

Another story. I was in high school and involved in my church’s youth group. We went to the Oliver Gospel Mission in Downtown Columbia to help serve the homeless food. While I served mashed potatoes and chicken, I remember being yelled at by a few men because I was being ‘stingy’ with the food. Couldn’t I see that they were hungry they would ask me – give me more. Yet, I couldn’t because the leaders of our group had given specific instructions on how much food is to be given so that more could eat.

I was torn. How much do I help – does the church help – without the thought that I’m just going to get swindled or taken advantage of or told off because it ‘wasn’t enough.’

I imagine that there are many of you who have felt the same way. Wanting to help – but, not knowing how to help, but also not wanting to be taken advantage of or to fall in the trap of enabling a person to continue living in the space and way that they are in.

It's tough. Yet, I am convicted by our scriptures this evening to open my heart to God’s call. To open my heart – our hearts – to what Jesus proclaims. To open the heart of the world to the Spirit’s guidance.

And, that’s not easy. It doesn’t help that our hearts close to those in need because of an experience we had or a story we’ve heard. A story we’ve heard from a friend (or friend of a friend) or something we saw on the news.

There is so much around the world that attempts to tell us that it is silly, foolish, dangerous to open our hearts to those in need. Don’t place yourself in that position.

And, yet we hear from Paul’s words to the church in Corinth this evening about how those things that the world sees as ‘bad’ that are lifted up in God’s eyes as righteous and good. And then Paul throws in that line that really tugs at us – he speaks as to children – open wide your hearts.

Children are amazing. Their love and hearts are always open wide to those around them. It ceases to amaze me and fills my heart with joy about how caring my children can be to those they don’t know. They’ve never met. And to those they never will meet.

They want to help and love because they are helped and loved. They know – even at that young age – that when people are hurting you help. You care. You love. You open your heart.

As we call on to God to open wide our hearts we know that it can be difficult and it won’t always be easy. But, we are called to open wide our hearts. To open our hearts so that we can proclaim Christ through our words, our actions, and our thoughts to those around us. Where we are called to err on the side of grace.

Where we pray to God that our hearts might be so opened as Lydia’s was. As she listened to Paul proclaiming the gospel – she and her household were baptized to live into the faith that God has called for all of us. Opening her our hearts and our life to the ones around us. Amen.

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March 7, 2016, 8:00 AM

the one about the prodigal father...

Sermon from March 6, 2016

Text: Luke 15: 1-3, 11b-32

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord Jesus who is the Christ. Will y’all pray with me? Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen!

How many of y’all have heard a story countless times from a friend or a family member that you know the story and the way the person tells it so well that you could pretty much retell the same tale with the same inflections and passion? How many have heard a story so many times that you just kind of ‘zone out’ when that person starts telling it?

I do that with my dad sometimes. We talk every so often and he’ll sometimes forget about what he told me the last time we talked and I sometimes use this opportunity to think about something else or – usually – I’ll play a game with him. Right before he gets to the ‘highlight’ of the story, I’ll finish it for him with 10x the amount of enthusiasm he puts in. After that he’ll usually get pretty silent and say, “So, I guess I told that one, huh?”

I think everyone has had similar experiences throughout life – hearing about that fish Joe caught 20 years ago for the millionth time (and how it usually gets bigger and bigger with each re-telling), about how Ms. Whitney once met that famous actor, or even hearing about ‘the Big Game’ from grandpa one more time. We hear those stories and we can kind of zone out a bit. We know where the story is going, we feel we’ve received everything from it that we could possibly imagine, so we just bide our time until the story is done and the conversation can move further along once again.

This morning, I think we come to one of those instances in our lives of faith. Here, we read a story from scripture that many of us know quite well – The story of this wayward son. In fact, I’d guess that if you asked anyone to recall one parable, more often than not, this would be the one they would remember. This is a story that we all know. The younger son goes out living the ‘high life,’ squanders it all and comes back and the father welcomes him. The song Amazing Grace comes into our minds as we remember our own trials and tribulations and how we might have wandered off at times and then came back to God.

I’m sure there are other images and feelings that pop into our minds as we hear the title of the “Parable of the Prodigal Son,” but, I think that too might just be a problem. Just like we know the well-worn and told stories of others we have a habit of ‘tuning’ out when we hear this story come along. Not because it isn’t important mind you, no I don’t think we ever think that. But, we tune out because we feel that we know this story so well that the temptation to ‘zone out’ for the next few minutes is strong and instead we’ll just hum Amazing Grace silently to ourselves.

It happens, and I think when we feel we get the ‘gist’ of something in the Bible, God will come a long and try to throw our world for a loop. I don’t know if you’ve been told this before, but I think this parable is titled wrong. I really don’t think it has all that much to do with the son – the younger or the older – at all. In fact, I’d call this story the Parable of the Prodigal Father.

First, how many here know the definition of prodigal. Any volunteers to give an answer? Anyone, Bueller? Prodigal itself means extravagantly wasteful. So wasteful that it borders on recklessness.

And let me tell you, the father in this parable is prodigal beyond belief. He is incredibly wasteful – in our eyes at least – with all this grace stuff.

First, as this parable begins the younger sons essentially says, “Hey dad – let’s play a hypothetical game.  Imagine you’re dead – what do I get?  Let’s take it a step further, I’d like to imagine you are dead right now. So I get what’s coming to me.” Now, I know that if one of my kids played that game of ‘what if’ with me I’d be tempted to answer with a lot of anger.  How DARE you have the conversation with me?

But, that isn’t what the father does. The story implies that not only did he not get angry, but he just hands the inheritance right on over. What? How prodigal of this father, how utterly, recklessly wasteful he is with what he’s ‘earned.’ Or even how prodigal the father is with his grace to give to this kid what he has the audacity to ask for. The father gives to the son after he effectively says, “Dad, I wish you were dead…”

Next we get to see the son live it up, and fall down. As they say, the bigger they are the harder they fall, right? The son hits rock bottom, ‘he comes to himself’ – whatever that means can be interpreted in so many ways – and he decides to return home. He realizes that he was better off there than what he is living in now – a Jew not only tending to pigs (which is already pretty bad for a Jewish person since they view pigs as unclean), but a Jew who longs to eat from the same trough as those pigs. As he returns home he comes prepared with a speech ready in hand in hopes to squeeze or manipulate his father into welcoming him back.

But, let’s get back to that prodigal father shall we. He sees his boy far off into the distance. Now, during this time and dare I say during our time too, the ‘dignified’ thing to do would be to wait for the boy to get here. I mean, we don’t even know how long it has been SINCE this man’s son left. Obviously the ‘right’ thing to do would be to wait at the home and prepare our ears for whatever sob story would come out of this son’s mouth that wished his dad to be dead.

But, remember, this is the story about the prodigal father. He isn’t worried or concerned with doing what is ‘right’ or dignified. Instead he bolts and runs to his son. Dignified men don’t run. This is an upstanding businessman. He’s got money, obviously. He isn’t supposed to ‘run’ to anything.  People come to him; he isn’t supposed to go to them. And his running isn’t out of anger at all. If it was, we couldn’t blame him for it. No, he runs out of love. There is his boy! He runs, leaps, and bounds and grapples him into a warm embrace. I’m sure there were tears, exhaustive laughter, kisses of welcome.  The outpouring of love towards this lost son is palpable. This, for me is one of the most tangible examples of God’s love. 

The son begins his rehearsed speech, but the father seems to not care and even interrupts whatever he is going to say, not to chastise him but instead to get the attention of his hired hands to start preparing a celebration. And how utterly prodigal this celebration will be. The fattened and choicest calf is to be prepared, the father calls for his son to be showered with food, rings, robes, and shoes.

This, this isn’t how it’s supposed to be. The kid wished you were dead. He literally left you high and dry.  He had NO RELATIONSHIP with you! He wasted your good intentions! Why? Why? Why?

Those, of course are the words and thoughts of the son who stayed by his father’s side. Those are the thoughts of those who identify with the older son and I’d hazard a guess that as we read this story there are more of us who identify with the elder son than the younger son.

But, the prodigal-ness of the father isn’t done. There is one more he comes to with this reckless grace and love. He finally comes to his older son. The one outside the party and invites him in. But, the son rebuffs and asks why are you doing this? I never got this from you did I?

Everything that I have is yours. You’ve been with me this entire time. Enjoying the riches that I give your brother. But, we’re celebrating because he’s returned. No matter what he did, where he went, or why he came back – we celebrate because he came home. I’m celebrating because my boy, your brother, is home. Come in and join us.

You know, the father could have used this as an opportunity to chastise his older son. You can’t even call him brother! You say you listen to me always, but you told me ‘no’ when I invited you in. 

But, the father doesn’t. The father hears the laments of the older son, listens to him, goes to where he is, and listens. But, he then invites him back to be in relationship not only with the father – but also back into relationship with his own brother. The love of the father is so ‘prodigal’ that it can and does mend relationships that were once very frayed. The father’s love – the reckless love and grace he showers upon both sons - the one who has been with him the entire time and the one who left and now returns - is abundant, merciful, accepting, and forgiving. This love that smooths away the harshness of life, this love that is given freely to all those around – no matter what.

During Lent, I think this is a much needed way of hearing this parable. All through Lent, we focus on what ‘we’ need to do. What ‘I’ need to give up. How ‘they’ need to repent and turn back. But, in this story – the focus is on the action of the father. The focus is on God’s love in our lives. That no matter what, God runs to us out of an undignified, reckless, wasteful, prodigal love.

We go through Lent and at times we think again and again – I need to turn back; I need to repent so that God will love me. In fact, that is what we hear from many of our brothers and sisters in other traditions of the church around us. But, like I mentioned last week, I don’t think that is how God works. We don’t repent because God will love us, we repent because God already does love us. All that prodigal love and grace.

The father, our Father, isn’t worried about WHY you’ve turned back. God isn’t worried about the ‘words’ you’re going to say to try to turn the heart of God back upon you. God isn’t worried about that. All God cares about, as shown through this wonderful parable, is that you’ve turned back. Because the son turned and came home – God showers that one with so much love, so much celebration. As we look upon that scene we see it as extravagant and reckless, yet God says, “I don’t care. This is how I love.  This is how I love even you. Come and join me and your brother.”

God’s grace is open to all and free to all. God invites each of us in, God pleads for us to come and share with him and the entire family. Your family, my family, our family. The prodigal feast has been prepared.  No matter how we understand, or even misunderstand God’s prodigal grace and love, we are welcomed guests, regardless. We are invited to come to the table. Will you come in and celebrate too? Amen.


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March 2, 2016, 7:00 PM

Open My Ears, Lord

From our Mid-Week Lenten Series theme of "Open my life, Lord."


Grace and peace to y’all this evening on our third Lenten Wednesday Worship Service.

We have gathered to lift up prayers to our Lord in hope that God might open our eyes and open our hands. We’ve called upon God to open our eyes so that we might see the needs of our fellow sisters and brothers – all of our neighbors – before us. We’ve lifted up to God the desire to open our hands so that God’s work might and will be done through us for the world.

This evening, we again call to God to open us to ministry and it might be the most difficult one so far.

When I was in high school and running cross-country I happened to be good enough to run in the state championships at Fort Jackson in Columbia, SC. My coach and I had a goal – I was going to break 18 minutes in the 5k (3.1 miles) because I hadn’t done it before, but also because that seemed at the time to be the magic number for colleges to at least start taking notice of you.

So, in the midst of the race I could tell that I was pushing myself harder than ever before, but there’s this thing about pushing yourself harder – you get tired more quickly. You become drained. The things that you used to be able to ‘push’ yourself through things become more difficult and ever more out of your grasp. When you feel like you’re pushing yourself to the limit it seems like a lot of your senses start shutting down and you get into that tunnel vision of sorts as you still attempt to propel yourself forward. Anyways, I was in the midst of that coming around the last 600-800 meters in the race. I was drained, I didn’t think I was going to accomplish my goal and I felt like I was just going to fallout right there and embarrass myself.

All I could here was the pounding of my heart and my own feet. Things were becoming a blur. But, then I heard a voice. It was my coach yelling from off in the distance – at the finish line – and I heard her clearly say – Matt, if you want this. You’ve gotta move. Now. You’re doing great.

That’s all I needed. I heard her voice over the sound and roar of the crowds around me and the other runners. I picked it up and was able to finish in 17:37 – even better than I had hoped for.

I share that story, because I think a lot of life is a sort of cross country race. Running through the course on different types of ground, through difference sceneries, among different people and places. Sometimes it goes well, sometimes not so great. When we’re in the midst of that life we can close ourselves off and we cease to hear the voices around us. We become so transfixed on what we are hoping to do that we close off the voices and sound around us.

We close off ourselves to God’s voice, the voices of those encouraging us, and especially the voices of those crying out for help.

We can be really good at not listening.

We can be really good at only listening to the loudest voices around us.

We can be extremely good at only listening to those things that benefit ‘us’ even when those things might hinder or hurt the one next to us.

This evening we ask to God to – Open my ears, Lord.

Open our ears so that we might hear the cries of those in need. To open our ears so that we might hear the Gospel. Open our ears so that we might see where God is leading us. Open our ears so that we might see the wolf among the sheep who leads us away from God’s Word and love.

And having our ears opened isn’t so much about hearing, as it is about listening.

Hearing is easy to do. Listening is what takes practice. Listening requires being attentive and caring and understanding. Listening requires us to open ourselves to the one who is speaking – giving our attention to the one before us.

When I am able to have premarital conversations with couples who are moving towards marriage one of the first things we do is to practice listening. Listening to the one before us so that we understand what they are saying.

It’s always an awkward exercise because we are accustomed to adding our own interpretation to what others say. We hear them up until they say something we want to respond to, and then we cease listening as we form in our minds how we are going to respond.

Just look at all the political debates and stumps speeches this year. Nobody is listening to one another – or even listening to those who are voting – instead they are most concerned with getting a soundbite in, a zinger there, some press here. No one is listening to the words and thoughts and beliefs that are forming the basis of those words.

They just hear something that sounds good or bad without listening to why this might not be a bad or good thing to implement.

So, we come this evening asking God to open our ears. To open our ears so that we not only hear those around us, but that we also listen. That we listen to God. We listen to our neighbors. We listen to those in need.

Listen – God is calling. Open our ears, O Lord. Amen!

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March 1, 2016, 10:03 AM

March 2016 Newsletter

Grace and peace y’all! It’s March and we are in the thick of Lent as we journey together towards the cross and resurrection.

Many of us have given things up and have taken devotional practices on. Some of us have held to those promises very well, some of us have fallen to temptation, and some might have bitten off more than we could chew when it comes to our Lenten fasts. No matter where you fall within that range – know this – God loves you, Christ is with you, and the Spirit is guiding you. No matter what – it all ends at the cross and the empty tomb. And that my friends – my sisters and brothers – is the grace and love of God!

One of my favorite ways to see God at work in our lives is in the midst of those places that we wouldn’t expect. Whether it be a book, a song, a painting, a movie, or more. The gospel can be ‘gleaned’ from so many different places. It doesn’t have to be strictly limited to things that happen within the church or with only those places that are ‘religious’ in nature. God is present in them all.

In fact, sometimes, it is easier for those to see and experience God first in those places. Where they can see that God is present in the things that they enjoy and love. It isn’t that we throw away a lot of the things that we enjoy in order to be loved by God, but that God comes to be with us in so many things and ways.

One of my favorite movies that covers this (if only briefly) is the movie Bruce Almighty with Jim Carrey and Morgan Freeman (not to mention the early film appearance of Steve Carrell). There is one particular moment where Jim Carrey’s character Bruce is pleading to God to show him a sign – any sign – that God is present. Naturally Bruce drives past a truck full of ‘signs’ – stop signs, yield, turn around, etc… The signs were there, Bruce didn’t notice because he didn’t expect God to show up in the ‘ordinary’ or the things and places we take for granted.

I think that is one of the most important and yet, most difficult things to practice during Lent – seeing and knowing that God is present within the ‘ordinary’ of our lives. That we take for granted the things we see and we don’t expect God to show up there. We don’t expect God to show up in our lives in places that aren’t worship because we don’t think we’re worthy enough, good enough, smart enough, pious enough, or ‘anything enough’ for God to be present in our lives.

Yet, during Lent we are in the midst of the wilderness and the presence of God. Lent isn’t an avenue for us to somehow ‘call’ or ‘invoke’ God into our life. Instead, Lent is that time where we remember that God is indeed present here. That God is so present in our life – in the ‘ordinary’ – that we are able to be closer to God within our fasting, giving, and prayer because God is right here! We are able to do this because God is here – not that we do this so that God will come.

We remember during Lent and throughout each day of our lives that God is indeed present here among us. That gospel is and can be told through ways that we wouldn’t expect – a movie, a song, a book that might not have anything religious or sacred at first glance. But, we remember that Christ is there. That God is among us. That the Spirit is indeed guiding us.

We remember this throughout these last few weeks of Lent as we journey together towards the cross and the empty tomb! Thanks be to God!

February 29, 2016, 9:00 AM

the one where we forget...yet God is here...

Sermon from February 28, 2016

Sermon Text: Luke 13: 1-9

Grace and peace to you from God our father and our Lord and Savior Jesus who is the Christ – will y’all pray with me? Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our rock and our redeemer; amen!

So, we are in the midst of Lent – in fact we are in the middle of it now. Whenever I think of Lent, I always circle back at some point to the length of this season and wonder why 40 days is so important.

Granted, I know that the 40 days we journey through this season is designed to remind us of the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness in the midst of his own temptations, tests, and trials. A reminder that what Jesus went through we attempt to journey through as well.

But, that number still resonates with me – why 40? What is it about that specific number that is so important for us? Recently this question was brought up in my weekly sermon writing group that I attend with many local pastors – see, pastors ask these sort of questions too.

We bat around ideas here and there, nothing seeming to really fit quite right. It takes about 40 days to set a new habit, or break an old vice. Someone figured what was the longest time someone could suffer without chocolate – then added 10 days. Of course, none of those answers seemed really ‘good.’ We were about to just move on and give the tried and true answer of, “well, it’s just one of those things we weren’t meant to understand…” Which is really just the equivalent to your mom’s answer of, “because I said so, that’s why.” And sometimes, that answer is good enough and all we – as humanity – can muster.

But then, one of us had a thought – what if 40 days is around the time that we forget that God is with us. That leading up to 40 days there is that thought that creeps into your head of why on the earth are you doing this – I can’t do it any longer – God’s not really here with me…

Think about where we started this season of Lent. That Sunday before Ash Wednesday was Transfiguration Sunday. The story of Jesus being changed dramatically before his disciples in a mountaintop experience. That service every year speaks so strongly to each of us – through the word, the music, the remembrance of those mountaintop experiences in our lives.

In those early moments – in those first few days – it is easy to remember that God is present with us. The excitement, and awe, and fear of that moment still resonates with us deeply. It’s as if we can still tangibly touch the spirit around us immediately after that time. The same is true when we venture into Lent full of zest for our Lenten fast. Those first few days are great and we are buoyed by our resolve to abstain from the temptations of the world.

But, as with everything those first few days pass. A week or so rolls by and what was once so easy begins to pull and draw and call to us ever more seductively than it did before. Or perhaps the discipline we’ve taken on begins to feel like a weight upon us, where at first we were excited to partake in it, but now? Now, we try to see where it can fit within the busyness of our days – and if we skip today – we’ll just double up tomorrow.

Any of that sound familiar to y’all?

In the midst of this point in Lent, sometimes it is hard to see where God is present. It seemed so easy when this journey began to know that the Spirit was right there, seemingly guiding my hand and my thoughts throughout the day – but, now? Now that feeling seems so far away…

40 days. 40 days is long enough for the presence of God to seemingly fade into the background. What once seemed so close, now feels no closer than the sun. That presence that we take for granted so much that it’s as if it is not there at all.

I imagine that is what Jesus felt like during those 40 days, or perhaps the nation of Israel felt like in the midst of their 40 years as they traveled the desert in search of their homeland. A time just long enough for that feeling and presence to fade into the background that makes us think that perhaps God wasn’t there all along.

And yet, we read our texts this morning and we are reminded again and again of God’s presence. The promises that have been made in us and for us through the one who has loved and created us. In our first reading, God is crying out to the people – I’m here! Be fed! Be filled! Come to me and suffer hunger and thirst no more!

Our gospel text tells the story of a fig tree that doesn’t seem to bear any fruit. Yet, the gardener – the one to care for it asks to pay more attention to it. To dig around it, to fertilize it, to prune it, to help it grow. The gardener promises to continually be present with it so that it will bear fruit.

In the midst of these 40 days of Lent and in the life of faith that we live into, sometimes we can feel like that fig tree. Planted, but not growing. Rooted, but not flourishing. There, but not worth being around. We all can feel like that – we’ve all experienced that at some point in our lives.

But, we remember that there is one who looks over us. Where God speaks to us through Christ our Lord and says – let me dig around you, fertilize and fill you with good things, let me tend to you so that you once again bear fruit.

In the midst of these 40 days, as we fast as we look towards the end that doesn’t seem to get any closer, we can forget that God is present. That the presence of the Spirit seems to fade away into the background of our lives. That God’s presence seems no closer than that of the sun…

Yet, that warmth that we take for granted is still there. That light is still shining before us. The Spirit is still guiding us along our Lenten journey and our life of faith.

The gardener is indeed present with us. Tending to us, digging around, caring for us so that fruit might burst from within us.

And that’s they scary part isn’t it? That’s when we remember the first part of our Gospel reading and think that we’re going to end up just as the rest of those who fell victim to tragedy during Jesus’ time. Just another statistic lost to eternity.

Yet, we remember that we are able to repent because of God’s great grace for each of us. We are able to turn from that which draws us away from our Lord because our Lord is there to forgive. We repent not so that God forgives us, we repent because we know God already has.

The gardener is already working on you. The cup that Christ offers is already offered to us. Repent and be filled. Thirst no more.

Yes, 40 days is a long time. Just long enough to take for granted and forget the presence of God. Remember this day – God is present with you. Caring for us so that we might know that we are not alone. Amen.

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February 25, 2016, 9:00 AM

Open My Hands, Lord

Sermon from February 24, 2016

Mid-Week Lenten Series: "Open My Life, Lord"

Grace and peace to y’all this evening as we gather together for our second Lenten Wednesday worship service. Throughout the season of Lent this year, we are calling out to God that our Live’s might be opened.

Last week, our service focused on the Lord opening our eyes. Opening our eyes to the needs of those around us. Actually seeing those in need. Recognizing and acknowledging that there is great need around us. Not only around us – but, that there is need within us as well.

This evening, our theme continues as we call on to God with the words of, “Open my hands, Lord!”

Open my hands.

One of my favorite things about tradition of the church that we belong to – the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America – and as Lutherans as a whole – is that we focus a lot of our ministry in physically helping others. In fact, the ELCA’s motto is “God’s work, Our hands.”

I’ve always loved that motto and tagline for the church because I think it is something that we usually try not to play up in ourselves that often. For whatever reason, we don’t like to think that God works through us in order to enact change, participate in ministry, and spread the Gospel. It could be that many of us don’t feel ‘worthy’ in specific ways (or any way) in order to be used by God. It could be that we don’t feel like we actually ‘do’ anything in order for God’s work to be done – or not enough, or not in the right areas.

And yet, still – that motto stands. God’s work. Our hands.

And then we read our first text this evening and we hear a line that might be incredibly familiar to us. Of course, when I’ve heard it; it is almost always taken out of context and trumped up as a means to not open our hands. “There will never cease to be some in need on the earth.”

That’s usually the line we hear isn’t it? It’s usually the verse people lift up to say, “Well – there will always be poor, so how can we help – what good will it do? Even God said the poor will always be here.”

When taken out of context, this verse – words spoken by Moses mind you – it seems like it is an ‘exasperation’ of sorts. A large sigh, talking about how the poor will always be here, and then moving on to something else. That’s the sort of idea we hear – or at least the one I’ve heard when I see this verse propped and trumped up on the internet.

And yet, when you read this text in context we see that there is indeed more to the story. That we are called to open our hands to help those in need. To help our neighbors around us – all of them. And within that opening of our hands to help those in need, we are called to do so with glad and generous hearts, and with no hostility among us.

Of course, those aren’t easy things to do. Sometimes it is difficult to be so freely giving of ourselves to help those in need. We don’t know what to offer, how to offer, or if we should offer help. We hear stories of why we shouldn’t offer and help those in need. What I hope and pray that we are able to do in those times is not to be paralyzed into inaction when we feel at a loss, when we are confused, or when we let the loud voices around us attempt to impede us into living into the faith and life that we profess as followers and disciples of Christ.

We are called to help those in need, because there will never cease to be some in need on the earth. In that knowledge, we are called to open our hands to help in the ways that we can and know. That we recognize that through each of us – through each of our hands – God is at work. God is at work, through our hands to bring healing and wholeness to those in need. To proclaim the gospel to a world in desperate need to hear it. To enact justice, to stand with the oppressed, to be with all of our neighbors. It is God’s work – through our hands – our open hands – that ministry is done.

As I end this time, I want to do something new. For those who are willing. I’d like you to come forward to receive a blessing upon your hands as I anoint them with oil. Know that you are blessed and that God does work through you and God is at work in you. Amen.


Bless and open these hands so God’s work will be done.

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February 22, 2016, 9:00 AM

the one where we care...

Sermon from February 21, 2016

Text: Luke 13: 31-35

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus who is the Christ – will y’all pray with me? Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our rock and our redeemer; amen!

I thought something was pretty interesting as I read our gospel text for this morning. Normally when we hear about the Pharisees, they are usually the ones putting Jesus to the test. Trying to stump him in any number of ways. Attempting to get him to ‘incriminate’ himself in blasphemy. Debating with him at every chance they could. For the most part, it always seems like the Pharisees were the constant thorn in Jesus’ side.

So, it is a bit surprising to read this morning that the group that came to protect Jesus are this very same group who has been hassling him throughout his ministry. “Jesus – you gotta go, Herod’s on the warpath and he’s coming for you!” I think most people when asked if the Pharisees ever saw Jesus with compassion they’d probably say, “No – I don’t think so.” Well, now we have the answer to that little nugget of Bible Trivia tucked away in our brains.

It got me thinking – especially since today we are in a very heated political climate that there are many who do not agree with one another. Friends. Co-workers. Family members. Church communities. Everyone has their opinion and everyone thinks they are right and the others are wrong.

I’ve noticed that in the last few years – especially this year – that the rhetoric between those who identify as – well pretty much any political party – speak in such negative ways. Not only about one another, but towards one another. Don’t even get me started on how people within the same group can speak about one another. It’s ugly out there.

Yet, this morning we are confronted with a story between two sides that generally didn’t get along. Jesus and the Pharisees didn’t see eye-to-eye on very many things. In fact, Jesus was involved in a lot of debates with them where he referred to them as hypocrites and the Pharisees thought that he proclaimed blasphemy.

And, yet – even in their dissent of opinions with one another, a group of Pharisees still come to protect Jesus from Herod’s desire to kill him. Not only that – but, Jesus includes all of Jerusalem – the seat of Pharisaic power – as those who he has desired to gather under his wings just as a mother hen gathers her baby chicks.

The two groups didn’t agree on much, but they did have respect for one another. A respect that was deep enough that they cared and had compassion for one another; to the extent that the Pharisees in our gospel this morning urged Jesus to leave to keep him safe and alive. I find that fascinating. And something that we all can learn as we mix and work and play with those in our lives who have opinions different from our own.

It again reminds me – with the recent news of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s death – how much of a deep friendship that he had with his fellow Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Where Justice Bader Ginsburg reflected that their dissent with each other’s views helped firm and strengthen their own. Where they developed a friendship over their love of travel and opera.

One of the things that I hear a lot of folks tell me that they try – honestly and with great difficulty – is to be open and welcoming to those who have views different from their own. You know what – it is hard. It’s hard to live into the words that Jesus and the Pharisees model for us this morning and what Jesus calls us towards when he says that we should love our enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

When you’re a fan of Carolina, sometimes it’s really difficult to ‘love’ those Clemson football fans. I think sometimes it’s even hard for Clemson fans to love Carolina baseball fans. Microsoft fans loving Apple fans. Republicans and Democrats praying for one another. Lutherans and Baptists sharing worship together. Dogs and cats living together! What Jesus proclaims is just sheer madness to the world!

Yet… yet… that is what Jesus models for us. That is what Jesus has shown to us in his ministry – his life, death, and resurrection. That Jesus cries out his desire to gather all of Jerusalem under his wings just as a mother hen does her chicks.

And don’t let that image fool you – hens are tough. Just go watch videos on the internet of people and animals that try to mess with a hen’s eggs. Jesus using this image would be similar during this modern day as if we heard him say – Jerusalem, O Jerusalem how I have desired to wrap you in my arms as a mother bear does her cubs. Because no one messes with momma bear!

Jesus desires to gather us all – those who have turned to him – and those who still resist that love and grace. Jesus desires to gather us all under the wings of the mother hen that is Christ.

That is powerful. That is grace. That is what Jesus desires for us as we live into the kingdom of God.

Imagine what the world would look like if – even in our dissent and disagreement with one another – we showed care and love for and with each other? Where our opposition in conversation and debate helps strengthen our own views – something unheard of during this day and age it seems.

Where even as we may bicker and lament and groan in our disagreement with one another. That we can still look to the one across the aisle and say, and think, and live out – “You are my sister and brother. We are a part of the community of God together. I may not agree with you – but, I love and pray for and with you.”

And in that mutual respect and love lived out for one another – together we can be in ministry with each other to help those in need. To care for those who desperately need help. To listen to the voices of those crying out in the wilderness – to fight against injustice and seek righteousness.

During the season of Lent, we continually strive for ways to dive into deeper faith and relationship with God. Where we strive to live out the faith that God has called us to. Where we re-turn to the one who gathers us all as a mother hen – fiercely protecting us from the sin that exists and calls to us in the world.

That is the world that I want to see lived out. Where we all follow what Christ commands of us in our love and prayer for one another. Where we live, worship, play, forgive, love, and extend grace within the messiness of our lives. The ‘realness’ of our relationships with one another. Where we grow and thrive in our diversity.

Knowing and living into the faith that Jesus gathers us all – just as a mother hen gathers her chicks under her wings. Amen.

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February 18, 2016, 9:00 AM

Open my Eyes, Lord

Sermon from February 17, 2016

Mid-week Lenten Series - "Open My Life, Lord"

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior who is Jesus the Christ.

When I was on internship in Alabama I was able to go to the Southeastern Synod’s Assembly in Chattanooga that year. It was about 2.5 hours from where we were living at the time and it began on a Sunday afternoon. After worship that day, I said my goodbyes to Erin and drove through the mountains to get to Tennessee. I didn’t stop and made really good time. Needless to say – I was starving when I got there. I stopped at a Jimmy John’s restaurant and began devouring my sandwich as I looked out at the park just beyond the restaurant’s windows.

That park was full of people – full. But, I noticed that there was something ‘off’ with those gathered there. They weren’t lounging or relaxing. Instead, they were a bit ‘dirty’ if you want to call it that and there were a lot of shopping carts filled with items in them. It dawned on me that they were homeless. They gathered and lived there. And here I was eating my sandwich and staring right at them. I remember saying a brief prayer for them, but thinking to myself ‘I’m really busy, I wish there was something I could do, but there really are too many of them and it would be unfair for me to only help one or so…’ So, I prayed, finished my sandwich, and headed to the assembly hall.

I never saw them again. I never noticed them again.

It wasn’t because I was in the assembly hall the whole time. In fact, I was probably more active around that city than anyone else since I was the ‘bishop’s minion’ during that time. Running errands, fetching coffee, having conversations with him as he walked to the restroom so others wouldn’t disturb and stop him as he was on a strict time schedule, running in the morning and during break times around the city, going out with friends and colleagues at night during free time. Yet, I never noticed those in the park again.

It wasn’t because they weren’t there anymore. They still were. It wasn’t because they had ‘cleaned up’ and didn’t stand out as before. They still did.

No – for me – they faded into the background of the city because I was too busy to notice or care enough. I was having fun at the assembly and I was blinded by my own selfishness to notice those in need around me. Again, I’m not sure there was anything that I could do – but we did have over 400 people gathered there that week – faithful and faith-filled – individuals. I’m sure there was something we could do – anything to help them in their time of need.

But, no. I was blinded. We were without sight.

I thought about that experience as I read these scripture readings and thought about our theme for this even – Lord, Open My Eyes.

I thought and I wondered what we have difficulty seeing within our community. Difficulty seeing because we don’t care to look? Are we too proud to notice? Are we too naïve to think about? Are we, too busy to take the time? We come up with so many excuses as to why we can’t open our eyes to see the needs of those around us. We find ways to keep ourselves from noticing and taking action.

And then – when there are those opportunities where our eyes cannot help, but notice the need, the hurt, the crying around us – it hurts us. It hurts us because we become angry that someone is shifting our worldview in a way that challenges how we normally see the world. It hurts us to know that there are those in the world – in our country – in our community – who are in such need and we’ve fallen from God’s call to help them in their time of need…

And then, we hear this story from Acts about Paul and we are challenged further. For Paul saw plenty of people. He saw those who were ‘bad,’ who were ‘wrong,’ who were ‘better off dead’ than living. Paul was zealous in his persecution of those who were different from him. I hear this story and cannot help but, notice that there are many within our world who hold the same ‘fanatical’ views that Paul once did as he persecuted those who followed Christ. How our own country and history are full of those zealous to ‘deal’ with those who were different than the majority.

We have all fallen into that same way of life that Paul once did. Thankfully – from what I know – no one has gone to the lengths that Saul did before his conversion. I don’t know of anyone standing by as people in the community were stoned to death recently here in Newberry.

So, we come this evening and we ask the Lord to open our lives. In this beginning we ask the Lord to help open our eyes. To open our eyes to see the world as Christ sees. To see the hurt and the need. To see the opportunity to be in service to those around us. To see that those before us are fellow sisters and brothers. To see that all of creation is a blessing and a beautiful creature of God; plants, animals, our neighbors.

Our perspective changes. Our worldview shifts when we begin to see the world through the eyes of Christ. And that shift of perspective is scary. It opens us up to new ways of approaching life and neighbor. It opens us up to be in deeper relationship with those around us – real relationship. A relationship of hospitality and love. A relationship of true and full community.

A worldview that says no to the loud voices around us that asks/demands/expects us to view others as dangerous, as unworthy, as wrong, as not whole. We re-turn to the one who sees us for who we are; beautiful creations. We re-turn to the one who calls for us to see as the Lord sees; to care for all those we see because God ‘sees’ them too; just as God sees each and every one of us.

We come this evening, acknowledging that we all have not been able to see – to see the hurt and need; to see the beauty of the Lord in the faces and lives of those around us. We come this evening asking, “Open my eyes, O Lord… open my eyes…” Amen…

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February 15, 2016, 9:00 AM

the one about the wilderness...

Sermon from February 14, 2015

Text: Luke 4: 1-13

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus who is the Christ – will y’all pray with me? Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our rock and our redeemer; amen!

In the years that I have been lifted up into a pastoral leadership role (which is just a bit longer than my time of actually being an ordained pastor) I have always been intrigued by the notion of what the ‘wilderness’ means within our faith. There are some different interpretations of ‘wilderness’ or ‘desert’ that many faithful Christians have used throughout the years. Most of those interpretations revolve around the fact that the wilderness in our lives is that place where we either A) don’t want to be, B) a place we get lost in as we seek to find God in our life, or C) that place where we will be tested – and that usually isn’t very fun.

The more I thought about that, the more I wondered if that was really what the wilderness was to God for us. Now of course, there is truth to those interpretations. The wilderness of our lives are places that we find uncomfortable. Those places that stretch us, pinch us, and potentially unnerve us in so many ways. So, I can understand how there are times (well probably a lot of the time) that the wilderness is a place that we don’t necessarily want to ‘hang out’ in. There is also truth to the interpretation that when we feel lost, alone, and scared that we are in the midst of the wilderness as we seek to find God in our life. And because the wilderness thrusts into a place in our lives that challenges us, we naturally will experience some sort of test through it.

Those interpretations are not wrong, but I do know that they aren’t the only ways to interpret the wilderness.

For you see, the wilderness is also the place where we do meet God and are led by God. The nation of Israel was led in the wilderness by God in a pillar of cloud and fire. Jesus was guided by the Holy Spirit throughout his 40 days in the wilderness.

There is the temptation to think that the wilderness of our lives is the place where God is absent from us. That my friends – my sisters and brothers – couldn’t be further from the truth.

God is present in the wilderness – guiding us in ways that we both can see (when we look) and in ways that are sometimes so subtle that we don’t even notice. Nevertheless – God is there.

We of course have entered in the season of the ‘wilderness’ in our Christian faith as we join in worship this first Sunday in Lent and through the rest of this 40-day journey to the cross. In many ways journeying through Lent is a wilderness for each of us. That time when we seek to bring ourselves closer to God within our lives.

Many have ‘given’ and will ‘give something’ up during this Lenten season. We deprive ourselves of things in our lives so that we can focus more on where God is present in our life. It isn’t so much that some might give up sweets for Lent, but we remove the sweets from our diet during this season so that we can remember more fully that the goodness of God is what sustains and provides for us fully. We remove from our lives those things and activities that we know are not the best for us that we may ‘over-indulge’ in so that we can more completely place God in the epicenter of our lives. So that God might continue to be the center – the core – of who we are. Where we seek to remind ourselves that God is the one who defines us.

There are of course those who add in devotion and God-centered practices into their lives too. Making note to be in active prayer for those in their life and in deeper conversation with God. Seeking to give of themselves and their possessions in more substantial ways knowing that we have been blessed with an abundance of what we truly need from God which overflows more and more.

And yet, throughout the season of Lent the pull and lure to fall back into our old routines is great. It is difficult to be in active prayer for others when we are upset with others in our lives. It is hard to be fully giving of ourselves and our possessions because of a mantra of scarcity that is proposed by so many in our world and media. It is sometimes difficult to maintain those devotional practices because we feel so stretched thin between all the people, places, and activities that seem immediately more urgent. That doesn’t even touch on the enticing draw of that piece of chocolate, that cigarette, that scotch, that thought, that action, and more that we have vowed to relinquish from our lives during this season of Lent.

Then, during this first Sunday of Lent we hear this story of Jesus’ temptations by the devil within the wilderness. And even we are tempted to say, “if Jesus could do it – so could I!”

Of course, when we fall into that temptation – especially during this wilderness season – we can become even more disillusioned because we know that we are not Jesus. I don’t know about y’all, but I probably would’ve succumbed to the temptations the devil proposed. It doesn’t take me very long to be ‘so hungry’ that the mere idea of snapping my fingers and turning something into food would be incredibly enticing. In fact, I don’t even have to be all that hungry to want to do that! The temptation to be the ‘ruler’ over a vast area can be tantalizing as well. We’ll finally get to do the things that I think would be just and right. Even if I did have to lay allegiance to the evil one – I wouldn’t rule this land in that way. I promise!

And, then we get to that final temptation and test that Jesus is thrust with and I can honestly say that all of us have done this. We’ve all been the devil tempting Jesus in this regard. Lord – if you allow me to do this – win the lottery – win the big game – win my crush’s heart – pass this test – get this promotion – achieve this small goal – make it to church – then I’ll promise to live for you to the fullest. I’ll promise to live the life that you’ve wanted for me. I’ll promise to clean up my act and be the servant of Christ that you’ve called me to be. We’ve all put Jesus to that test.

So, we walk in the wilderness of Lent and we think to ourselves – how in the world are we going to do this – how are we going to learn from this season so that these temptations aren’t so alluring the rest of the year. How can I do this?!

Well, there is good news and bad news folks. The bad news is – that alone – we can’t. For us, sin in our life is so great and appealing that we are going to succumb to it. The little pulls of what looks like innocent sins build up and before we know it, we haven’t thought about God in a long time. We continually speak bad about our neighbors. We close ourselves off from others because we can’t ‘trust’ those people.

That’s the bad news.

The good news – the glorious news – the gospel – is that we don’t do this alone. We have been filled by the Spirit. The Spirit was poured into us in our baptism – the spirit is/was poured into Allyssa Claire Bruce this morning. The Spirit is present in and around us. The Spirit helps guide us and leads us to the way of Christ. Calling us to say in the still quiet voice of God – that there is another way – a better way – a just way – a way of love. A way where we all are honored, cared for, grace-filled, forgiven and sent.

The season of Lent is at one a time where we seek to be closer to God through the discipline of Lent—self-examination and repentance, prayer and fasting, sacrificial giving and works of love—strengthened by the gifts of word and sacrament. But, the season and journey of Lent is also that time where we are reminded that God is ever close to us in the wilderness of our lives.

That the Holy Spirit is present in this wilderness. That the Holy Spirit is guiding us to see God in the center of our lives. The Holy Spirit is there, it is here. We are not alone as we struggle with the sin that separates us from God. The Holy Spirit is here to assure us that we are loved, forgiven, and sent to proclaim. That in the Spirit – the spirit that was poured into us – we are able to follow Christ. For it is Christ who sent us that Spirit to be with us.

We do this together. Not only this journey of Lent, but this life of faith. As we wander through the wildernesses of our lives – when it seems that God is so distant from us – we have the Spirit who guides us into the lives of one another to see God at work in us and in them. Where others come into our lives and where we come into the lives of others to help us all better see, know, and experience God’s presence.

In our baptisms we are joined together in this great community – this wonderfully diverse body of Christ.

We begin this season of Lent with a story of test and temptation. A story that at its center and core is the Holy Spirit – the spirit that fills Jesus and leads him is the same one that fills and leads us. Leads us to see where God is at work, and how God is the true center and being of who we are. Amen.

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February 11, 2016, 9:00 AM

the one on Ash Wednesday

Sermon from February 10, 2016 - Ash Wednesday

Grace and peace to you this evening in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – will y’all pray with me? Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our rock and our redeemer; amen!

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Those are important words that we will hear this evening as each of you are welcome to come forward to receive the imposition of ashes upon your foreheads. The sign of the cross will be marked upon us as we hear those words – remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Those are ominous words we hear this evening. On this Ash Wednesday we come face-to-face with our own mortality. We come face-to-face with the knowledge that we are finite. As much as we wanted to believe when we were teenagers (and which the teenagers of every time and place believe) we are not invincible; we are not immortal. One day – we will return to the dust in which we were formed.

And that is how we begin the season of Lent. Where we remember that we are a small and fragile part in the history of life; in the workings of the kingdom of God. As we begin this 40-day season of penitence, repentance, and re-turning towards God; we remember that one day we’re going to be dust. We are confronted with our own mortality.

We hear from Joel this evening about the trumpets that are sounding – sounding the coming of the Day of the Lord. The trumpets that call out to all to turn. To re-turn to God.

So we come this evening to remind ourselves to re-turn to re-orient ourselves back towards God and the words that we hear to spring us into action is that we are dust, and to dust we will return. I don’t know about y’all, but reminding me that one day I’m going to die is not usually the best way to ‘spur’ me into action. In fact, I think most people when they hear that they just want to turn right back around and say, “Nope – sorry I’ll just go over here and listen to this guy talk about how great I am – we are – or will be again…”

Yet, tonight – in some ways more than any night – is a night where the church gets real and honest. Honest about how fragile we are, honest about how in the grand scheme of things we are ‘temporary.’ And that can scare us. It doesn’t matter how young or old you are being reminded about that eventual day can make our heart race and cold sweat to trickle down our backs.

We don’t like to be reminded of those things. I’ll be honest, I don’t like being reminded of those things. It is that sort of stuff that sometimes keeps me awake at night without countless questions and an onslaught of thoughts.

But – but – that is not all we hear this evening. That is not all we know. For though we remember that we are dust, and to dust we will return – we know that dust isn’t something that is absent from our God. In fact, dust – dirt – is incredibly important and special to God.

We remember in the book of Genesis that God collected and formed the dust. That God blew breath into that dust and created man. The Adam. Or in Hebrew – adamah; the one from the ground. That we remember in the Gospel of John that Christ – the Word – was present before creation because it was there in the beginning.

We remember that not one thing separates us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord. Not even death. Not even when we remember the fragileness of our lives.

Where others might speak those words in order to scare, provoke, or startle. We hear those words – spoken to us by our God of love – our God of creation – our God with us and we are reminded that it is God who breathes life into the dust. That out of dust God has made beautiful things, that out of each of us God has made beautiful things.

And that is the part of this night that I love. That tonight we get to be little trouble makers. As sin, the devil, and death might use those words to scare us, to turn us away from our God and into the arms of those who speak false promises and only cater to the good things in life. The ones that disappear when things become rocky and tough.

Yet, we get to be trouble makers this evening where we stand in defiance of sin and death. Where we proclaim as walk around with ashen crosses upon our foreheads that death does not have the final word. That sin is not going to guide our life. Where we remember that yes we are finite, we are not immortal, but that our God who has fashioned us from the dust, breathed life into the dust, continues to walk with us and guide us. The one who gathers us and forms us into beautiful creations from the dust.

That even in death we known that we are not forgotten. We are not alone. We are not abandoned.

We walk with crosses on our foreheads to remind us of the promise that God has made to us in Christ Jesus our Lord. That we are resurrection people. We journey these coming 40 days in Lent to find ways to remind ourselves of that promise and life – that dusty life of knowing who and whose we are.

Where it could be in pictures taken and posted to social media about where you see God present in the everyday – in the simple – in the beauty of creation. Where it could be in the giving up of those things that we take pleasure in as we remember that God is the goodness that sustains us through it all. Where we might dive more deeply into scripture so that we might see and know how we too are a part of this great and grand story. Where we may come into deeper conversation with God through prayer and devotion to help strengthen our faith during difficult and thankful times. No matter what it is that you practice during this 40-day journey – it is done so that you – that we all – might know that God is present with us. As we re-turn our lives back to the one who created us, formed us, who loves us, who forgives us, who redeems us, and who sends us.

Lent begins this night as we hear that we are dust, and to dust we will return. We remember that God is present in the dust and breathes life into the dust of our lives. Where we walk this dusty life knowing that God is here. Here in our life. Here in this meal. Here in the word. Here in our prayer, our giving, our devotion, God is here in everything.

Remember that you are dust – the dust that God has gathered, formed, breathed into – and that to dust you will return – that dust that God continues to gather, form, and breathes life into. Amen.

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