Sermon Seeds: Open Invitation

Third Sunday in Lent Year C color_purple.jpg

Lectionary citations
Isaiah 55:1-9
Psalm 63:1-8
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Luke 13:1-9

Sermon Seeds

Special preaching notes on Luke 13:1-9 in preparation for the One Great Hour of Sharing Offering 2016
by Mary Schaller Blaufuss

Focus Scripture:
Isaiah 55:1-9
Additional reflection on Psalm 63:1-8

Weekly Theme:
Open Invitation

by Kathryn M. Matthews katehuey150.jpg

Prophets are poets, really, which might explain why they are such great theologians. Today’s reading, or better, today’s poem from the prophet-poet Isaiah offers us in nine short verses what might be described as the heart of the biblical message: God loves us, no matter what, and reaches out to us even (or especially) in the worst of times, making promises that are not just pie-in-the-sky, not just theoretical. God promises the things that we most yearn for, deep down in our hearts, the very basics of life: homecoming when we’re lost or far away, a rich feast when we’re hungry, flowing fresh water to satisfy our thirst, and a community of hope when we long for meaning in our lives – something greater than ourselves, in which and through which we might be a blessing to the whole world.

Oh, and another thing: there will be no cost affixed to this wonderful feast, no price of admission, and everyone (even people you would never expect) will be invited to the party. Underneath and through this message runs a deep and tender compassion for the human predicament, our habit of getting entangled, trapped, in ways and habits that cut us off from the source of what we need most, or worse, being taken captive against our will by forces beyond our control, like racism, sexism, and materialism, to name only a few.

The Book of Comfort

Our passage from Isaiah comes from the beautiful Book of Comfort, addressed to the Jewish people in exile in Babylon almost six hundred years before Jesus. We know that a prophet speaks sternly to the people when they need it, but also knows how to speak tenderly, to convey God’s great love and mercy; in fact, that really brings out the poet in a prophet. And this prophet knows that the people are hungry for a message of hope, a message that promises an end to their captivity and a different way of life, back home, where they can be who they are called to be, and live lives faithful to the God who has made an everlasting covenant with them. Today, we might say that these words are “comfort food” for the soul of the people.

Isaiah knows that even the mention of the great King David’s name will stir the people’s memory, drawing their hearts and minds back to a time when Israel was a people great and glorious. Here, however, he adds that this time, as God renews the covenant, it is extended beyond one king or dynasty and even beyond one people, for the chosen people will be a light to the nations, drawing to it people they have never known or even heard of.

Overflowing feasts and good news

Long ago, God had led the people from bondage in Egypt and fed them manna and water on their way to a land flowing with milk and honey, but this trip home will be no bread-and-water journey. This will be an overflowing feast of delicious, delightful foods. Timothy Saleska recalls his mother’s voice calling him to supper as a child: “Come and get it!” was music to his ears, not a command but “good news.” He and his brother were happy to run home when they heard these words, just as the people long ago, in exile, in “desolation and death,” would have thrilled to hear an invitation to come and enjoy free food, wine, milk, and the restoration for which they longed (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts). It would have sounded to their hungry hearts like their mother, calling them home to supper. The same might be said of us, today.

Voices calling to us

Perhaps the voice we hear, calling us to “come to the waters,” to “buy and eat” – but with no money – is the voice of an ancient street vendor selling his wares. I’m reminded of the people who stand on a street corner, wearing green Statue-of-Liberty costumes and holding sandwich boards that invite passers-by to a carpet sale, with “bargains you won’t believe” (the connection to the Statue of Liberty, however, escapes me). How easy is it to just pass on by this kind of offer and the voice that beckons us to check it out?

Or maybe this vendor is more like the nice ladies in the grocery store who invite us to try a sample of this or that new cheese on this or that new cracker. In either case, the offer is made to people who have other things on their minds, other destinations on their schedule, and the point is to get them to change course and put carpet-buying or cheese-and-cracker buying at the top of their to-do list, to imagine their home given a whole new, fresher look by laying down some new carpet, and a new dish added to their repertoire for the next time they entertain.

What is God saying to you today?

This poet-prophet is calling us to a much bigger change in our schedule, of course. Isaiah is saying that “God is trying to tell us something,” as the spiritual goes: we may have settled so comfortably into a routine and worldview that keep us busy and distracted that we’ve lost touch with our deepest selves, made in the image of God, and our spirits may be thirsty, starving, and homesick, even if we can’t name those feelings on our own.
Daniel Debevoise describes the heat of the southwestern United States, where the humidity is so low that they post signs like those in the Grand Canyon National Park that say, “‘Stop! Drink water. You are thirsty, whether you realize it or not.'” Isaiah the poet is doing the same thing, “telling us something true about ourselves at every moment of our lives,” Debevoise writes. “We may not be immediately aware of how we have wandered away from God – how life has lost its meaning in pursuit of a promotion or raise, how we have gotten buried under the demands of economic and social status” (Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 2). We may not realize how thirsty we are.

Our true worth

Like some of the ancient Jews exiled to Babylon, we may have made a strange and uneasy kind of peace with the empire that imposes what Walter Brueggemann calls a “pseudo-order” on our lives. Just as “they gave their lives (and their faith) over to imperial productivity” (Texts under Negotiation), we are easily trapped from our earliest days into thinking that worth is equated with productivity, that a dollar amount can be assigned to our value (think of the term “net worth”).

I recall hearing on television that the compensation received by family members of those who died on 9/11 was based on the victims’ earning potential. It made me stop and think about the grief of the widow of a minimum-wage worker in a restaurant I’d visited in the World Trade Center years ago. How can we tell her that her husband’s life was worth less than that of the executive 100 floors above?

How much are we worth?

Is our value fixed by “an open market”? Have we made a home for ourselves in that market, in a way of living that is alien to who we all are, as children of God? Or, as Brueggemann puts it, are we in an exile – right where we live – where “we are bombarded by definitions of reality that are fundamentally alien to the gospel”? He then makes a curious claim, that our exile is not simply “fact,” but “a decision one must make.” Like the Jews who assimilated in ancient Babylon and found a relatively comfortable way of life if they adopted the values and ways of the empire, we might not perceive ourselves as exiles, either, Brueggemann writes (Hopeful Imagination: Prophetic Voices in Exile). However, like the sign that warns us that we may not realize that we are thirsty, the prophet wakes us up with a call to come back to God, the source of what will truly satisfy our souls.

Many commentators on this text press this point about our living in an empire of capitalist tyranny, and they are quite eloquent about the effect on our spiritual and physical health. Darryl Trimiew writes of the accommodations that we make with the powers that be, in order to survive. After a dreary week of meeting the expectations of the system (what Brueggemann calls the empire could, after all, be called “the system” in our day), we come to church exhausted and empty, Trimiew says. Like many readers of this text, he describes a world in which we are caught up in a commercial, profit-driven culture of excess that does not know the meaning of enough, and he acknowledges that what we really need, what will really satisfy our deepest hunger and thirst, is God (Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 2). That’s what Isaiah tells us, and that’s the truth that lies buried deep inside us, the truth that makes us restless even in the midst of plenty, even and especially in the midst of excess.

Finding hope and acknowledging the good

At the risk of appearing to be one of those who do not experience the tension between the gospel and our cultural values (a concern of Brueggemann), I wonder if our recent economic problems do not provide fertile ground for reflection on that interface. Brueggemann is only one of the eloquent voices that call us to change course, to uproot ourselves from a semi-comfortable, dulled-by-consumption exile by listening to and following God’s call to a different way of thinking and living. A sermon on this text, then, could open up the question of what we spend our money on that does not satisfy us, “that which is not bread” (v. 2). What are the alternatives to what does not satisfy? What are the different ways of living that life in God offers?

When we stand in the pulpit before a congregation that includes many people who work honestly and hard to provide a living for their families and to contribute to the wider community (including the church), I think it’s easy to sound as if we’re equating capitalism with “the evil empire” rather than inspiring the church to call society to ever higher expressions of justice, to demand from society the kind of course corrections that will avoid turning us into something that violates our greatest shared values.

Seeing the positives in our culture

I suppose preachers/pastors could too easily become co-opted by that “system,” but I also believe that we don’t have to sound harshly judgmental of the people who sit before us. This culture, after all, has improved the life experience of women and children, paid more (but not enough) attention to civil rights, struggled with bigotry, and raised the standard of living of a huge (but not great enough) percentage of the population.

So while we speak of exile and empire, we might focus on the difference between “excess” and “enough,” between what we need and what we want, and, beyond that, far more than we could ever enjoy but are seduced into thinking that we need. In that pursuit, we are indeed captive and in need of a liberating word from the poets and the storytellers. We might begin with Sara Miles’ book Take This Bread, an extended and graceful meditation on the theme of spiritual and physical hunger.

What does bread mean to you?

may_7_7.jpgWhile Brueggemann has written stirringly on this text in many of his books, his words about bread and the symbolism of bread are especially moving: “The street vendor knows that all the way from manna to Eucharist, we have taken food to be a sign, sacrament, and gesture of an alternative….that touches everything, economics as well as liturgy” (Hopeful Imagination). In the church, we give thanks for all good gifts and struggle to discern and articulate alternatives to the powers—the systems and practices—that deny those gifts to any of God’s children. Like our secular culture these days, we’re mindful that we can consume junk food for our spirits as much as our bodies, and we have to learn to say no.

And, Brueggemann says, we have to be aware that this bread “always comes with a price. Eat royal bread and think royal thoughts. Eat royal bread and embrace royal hopes and fears,” but we remember that “we are children of another bread” (Finally Comes the Poet). Like Jesus speaking of the reign of God, we are called to “redescribe the world” so that we might know the difference between exile and home, and learn to “live out of the promise,” together (Hopeful Imagination).

Again, the heart of the biblical message

Many of us may be attempting with varying degrees of success one kind of Lenten discipline or another, to learn to act and think in ways that will transform not only our lives but the world around us. It’s hard work, and it requires persistence. Two weeks into Lent, we may have already become discouraged, perhaps a result of thinking that pure willpower on our own part is the source of our strength and determines what will happen in our lives.

And why not? We breathe in a culture of self-determination—the peril of freedom, perhaps—and find it difficult to admit our powerlessness in the face of the relentless seductions and messages of our culture. Maybe the point of Lent is for us to adjust our sights so that we at least understand what it is we should hunger for, or in fact what we do hunger and thirst for, in our deepest being: justice, mercy, peace, healing, acceptance, love. And not just for ourselves, but for all of God’s children. It sounds like shalom, and it’s at the heart of the biblical message.

The mystery of God’s ways and the hunger of the heart

The closing verses of the reading remind us that we can never fully understand or even lay out God’s “plan”; was it Kurt Vonnegut Jr., who observed that if we needed something explained to us in the first place, we wouldn’t be able to understand it? And yet we have a powerful confidence that homesickness and hunger are not at the heart of that plan. But maybe we need to feel, to connect with, our hunger, our homesickness, not for “what does not satisfy,” but for God and for the gifts of God. All humans share this deep need for God, whether we name it in that way or not.

However, at any given time, not all of us share physical hunger and thirst. It is a spiritual discipline—not only in Lent, but in every season—to remember the difference between metaphor and the harsh reality of those who hunger and thirst for physical food and water, and to strengthen our unity in both religious and secular settings by responding to that need. Can we gather at the table each Sunday without remembering all those beyond our walls, in our neighborhood, our city, the countryside that surrounds us, and the world beyond? Are we building communities that reach out as well as welcome in? Both are important: after all, we never know which exiles might be coming home this Sunday, hungry and thirsty, and longing for a community of meaning in which to put down roots.

Heather Murray Elkins describes “sacrifice” in a much better way than we have traditionally understood it, that is, as giving something up with almost grim determination. She speaks instead of “the right sacrifice” as something that happens inside us, “a gift of the heart, of the self. God, who is all merciful, looks for true seekers, people who hunger for God” (The Storyteller’s Companion to the Bible, Michael Williams, ed.). I can still hear the haunting words of “Come to the Water,” a hymn by John Foley, S.J., who paraphrased this reading and put it to slow and meditative melody: “Why should you spend your life,” he wrote, “except for the Lord?” Is there a more fitting call to the communion table this Lent?

The Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.

You’re invited to share your reflections on this text on our Facebook page.

A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.

For further reflection:

Mahatma Gandhi, 20th century
“There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.”

Victor Hugo, The Memoirs of Victor Hugo, 19th century
“The need of the immaterial is the most deeply rooted of all needs. One must have bread; but before bread, one must have the ideal.”

Frank McCourt, 20th century
“After a full belly all is poetry.”

Thomas Fuller, 17th century
“We never know the worth of water till the well is dry.”

Mahatma Gandhi, 20th century
“Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s needs, but not every man’s greed.”

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, 20th century
“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”

George Eliot, 19th century
“It seems to me we can never give up longing and wishing while we are still alive. There are certain things we feel to be beautiful and good, and we must hunger for them.”

John Piper, A Hunger For God, 20th century
“If you don’t feel strong desires for the manifestation of the glory of God, it is not because you have drunk deeply and are satisfied. It is because you have nibbled so long at the table of the world. Your soul is stuffed with small things, and there is no room for the great.”

Mick Jagger, 20th century
“You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you might find, you get what you need.”  

Additional reflection on Psalm 63:1-8:
by Kathryn M. Matthews

Focus Theme:
Enduring Love

Last week, in reading the story of our ancestors Abraham and Sarah, we remembered who we are; this week, we are keenly aware of whose we are. The Genesis passage was a story of anxiety reassured, and a covenant “cut” by God. This week, as we recite or, better, sing an ancient prayer addressed to that same God, we too long to take shelter from the things that strike fear in our hearts today, the forces that drive us to church or perhaps to other places and other things, the conflicts within us and all around, the hungers and thirsts that seem never to abate, the losses and the experience of being lost ourselves, wandering in a wilderness of confusion and doubt.

What, or better, who is this shelter? It is the God whose faithful love and tender care comforts our weary souls in the deep of the night. The God whose awesome yet gracious presence abides with us, when “fast falls the eventide; the shadows deepen…when other helpers fail and comforts flee…” (“Abide with Me,” Henry F. Lyte, The New Century Hymnal). The God whose right hand upholds us, who has been our help in every generation.

The spirit can hunger and thirst, too

In every age, the human spirit longs for God. In this psalm we hear of that longing, that thirst, that hunger that feels like being lost in a dry, weary desert, without the most essential things for life, including the life of the spirit. Our spiritual longing takes on a physical dimension, and it feels like our very flesh hungers for spiritual nourishment. Right in the middle of this passage, however, the psalmist sings of finding God’s presence in the sanctuary, of experiencing God’s glory and power in the holy place of worship.

Just as the longing felt like a physical one, the response is an embodied one, with lips and eyes and hands all engaged in giving God praise, and one’s soul feeling satisfied as after a great feast. But this sense of peace and fulfillment remains even when the psalmist returns home and goes to bed, lying peacefully in the dark of night, when fears often loom large and faith needs reinforcement.

Refuge in the shadow of God’s wings

Perhaps the most poignant question one might consider after reading, and praying, this psalm is in regard to the “sanctuary” that we offer to seekers today. Have we built places of worship in which people, God’s children who long for God, can truly feel that they are in the shadow of God’s wings? The first two definitions of “sanctuary” in my dictionary speak of safety, one for humans and the second for God’s creatures.

Have we turned our sanctuaries into “unsafe” places where broken and hungry people feel turned away or judged rather than taken under the shadow of God’s wings? It’s particularly discouraging for pastors to hear comments about the church that suggest that God is better experienced outside rather than inside its walls, when the church appears to care more about institutional preservation than it cares for “the least of these” or for the freedom of inquiry that marks the history of the United Church of Christ.

Feeling God’s presence

Lent is a time of seeking God’s presence, earnestly and thoughtfully, in a time of spiritual discipline and particular attentiveness to the ways God is still speaking in our lives. Whether in our church community, or alone, on our bed in the quiet and stillness of night, we can listen for God’s voice, feel God’s presence abiding with us, sense God’s reassuring love and challenging call.

What we face when we walk out of church or rise from bed in the morning is what God calls us to, and we can be sure that God’s right hand will uphold us in whatever we face. We may even be surprised to find God most eagerly waiting for us, most unexpectedly, in those highways and byways of life, in the bustle and busyness of everyday activities, in the peaceful quiet of time spent doing nothing but waiting on God. In the watches of the night, in the promise of a new dawn, we will bless God, and praise God, as long as we live.

Note: Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, An Altar in the World, provides rich material for reflection on sensing God’s presence in unexpected places and ways, and provides a good source of further reflection for preaching on this text.

For further reflection:

Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, 5th century
“You have made us for yourself, O God, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in you.”
Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, 20th century
“I wonder how much of the day I spend just callin’ after you.”

Adam S. McHugh, Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place in an Extroverted Culture, 21st century
“When introverts go to church, we crave sanctuary in every sense of the word, as we flee from the disorienting distractions of twenty-first-century life. We desire to escape from superficial relationships, trivial communications and the constant noise that pervade our world, and find rest in the probing depths of God’s love.”

Christopher Forrest McDowell, 20th century
“Beyond its practical aspects, gardening – be it of the soil or soul – can lead us on a philosophical and spiritual exploration that is nothing less than a journey into the depths of our own sacredness and the sacredness of all beings.”

Frederick Buechner, 20th century
“Go where your best prayers take you.”
Lectionary-based reflection on Disaster, Refugee and Sustainable Development ministries of the United Church of Christ through One Great Hour of Sharing (OGHS)
by Mary Schaller Blaufuss

Focus Text:
Luke 13:1-9

Preaching Theme:  

In a blame-the-victim society, Jesus reverses the responsibility to social systems that don’t function to fulfill God’s intention of abundance for all. We are called to be fertilizers of those systems of abundance.

Interpretation and Informing Stories:
by Mary Schaller Blaufuss

Jesus uses specific events of his day and images of his listeners’ culture to communicate the nature of repentance and grace. The events and images in this passage would have evoked a visceral reaction from the first century listeners. They do the same for us. The political violence of Pilate resulting in the blood of Galileans and a natural disaster that destroys buildings and the people beneath them do not affect all individuals the same. The symbolic nature of these events becomes real in the experience of listeners of all time periods. Why do the innocent suffer? Why did this tragedy happen to these people? Why the seeming randomness of death and destruction? It is reminiscent of questions raised in Job, Psalm 37 or Psalm 73. It parallels the question raised in John 9:2, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

MSB.jpgJesus moves those “why” questions from a focus on those individual victims to the society and systems of which they are part. “Unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did,” he tells the disciples (and us). In Jesus’ world, repentance requires turning and change into a path of right relationship with God and with one another. “Life in the kingdom is not an elevated game of gaining favors and avoiding losses. Without repentance, all is lost anyway” (Fred Craddock, Luke, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching).

Corporate and individual repentance is the go-to response for Jesus because although the cause of the suffering is not the main point for God, the reality of those without power as the most vulnerable to political violence or natural disaster persists. People who live on the margins of society already struggle with multiple layers of hardship to which the crisis at hand is added. Those who already suffer also have fewer resources at hand or available to them to recover. In the spirit of the word Ubuntu from southern Africa, “I am because of who we are,” or Paul’s Greek nuance recorded in I Corinthians 12:26: “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it: if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”

Jesus then switches from historian to story-teller in this Lukan passage to communicate the grace in this repentance. He refers to the fig tree and a verbal exchange between master and gardener. Matthew and Mark record a version of this story as the “cursing of the fig tree” while Luke uses it to reinforce the grace in repentance. In all accounts, the fig tree is held accountable for not producing good fruit as is intended.

Fertilizing and working with the soil

In Luke, the master is ready to cut it down and start over until the gardener pleads for another chance. The request is not just one more year to let things ride, but one in which the gardener will fertilize and work with the soil so the tree will produce the abundance intended for itself and for the vineyard of which it is part. Fred Craddock speaks of this as God’s mercy still in serious conversation with God’s judgment (Luke, Interpretation). The master agrees to another year, offering the fig tree, with the gardener’s accompaniment, another chance to be in right relationship as intended – to bear fruit.

The seeming randomness of natural disaster adds to the difficulty of experiencing the event and its aftermath. Life is going on as expected one moment and in the next everything is thoroughly disrupted. Recovery, therefore, includes shaping a “new normal” physically, communally and spiritually, assigning meaning to the experience. When that assigned meaning is to blame the victim though, it not only causes more suffering for the group already affected, but also compromises the whole society. Jesus turns that go-to response of blaming the victim on its head, insisting instead on the responsibility of all in an attitude of repentance. Inherent in repentance is turning and change. That gardener is given the grace of yet another chance to be the one who fertilizes and cares for the tree so it produces good fruit.

Earthquake in Nepal OGHS.jpg

In April of 2015, the Himalayan Mountains shook and the people of Nepal experienced a devastating earthquake. People were killed. Homes and communities tumbled. Nepal has few resources as a nation for massive rebuilding. Explanations exist: tectonic plates shift. People have few resources, and homes are poorly built. On-going and long-lasting political turmoil and violence reflect and create social instability. Nepal’s closed government is suspicious of outside groups. As a Hindu government, it is especially dubious about outside religious groups. It might have seemed easier for the rest of the world to go about our business and let the Nepalese deal with this tragedy on their own. Why bump up against international boundaries and cultural expectations? But the God-experience of corporate repentance and turning to right relationship addressed those boundaries and made possible participation in international response.  

As part of global church disaster agencies with global credibility of technical expertise and insistence on serving all, the United Church of Christ could be part of immediate response through these organizations already in place in Nepal. Seeking partnerships of organizations serving globally with particular skills in housing construction, the UCC could be part of the construction of earthquake-resistant homes. As participants in the 2015 global Paris Climate Summit, the UCC could be part of changing attitudes and international norms to address climate change that is making the mountainous Himalayan region of Nepal even more unstable. Nepal does not headline the global news media, but through a repentance that recognizes our interdependence and mutual responsibility for all who suffer, we can be part of the journey of the people of Nepal as they rebuild their lives and communities.

Water in Flint, Michigan

In Flint, Michigan, a two-plus year journey by the local people fighting a loss of democracy and embodied in lead-filled drinking water, exploded onto the U.S. national media platform last month. State-appointed emergency managers had been appointed by the governor to low-income communities with a mandate to control spending. The emergency manager in Flint made the decision to switch the city’s water supply from the treated supply from nearby Detroit to the untreated Flint River in order to save money. The polluted water flowed into homes for drinking water as well as corroded pipes in the city’s run-down infrastructure to send lead from those pipes into people’s homes for drinking water as well – all the while assuring people that the foul-tasting and smelling and brown water really was safe to drink.

A medical study of lead levels in Flint children caught the attention of the nation, resulting in a FEMA disaster declaration. UCC Disaster Ministries has been involved through a solidarity grant and accompanying local people in their plans for intermediate recovery steps of filters and community support for those with the least access to recovery efforts. Rachel Maddow of the national media’s MSNBC has been particularly vocal in the midst of this crisis. Maddow hosted a town-hall-style news show in Flint on January 27, 2016 which aired as her show, “An American Disaster: The Crisis in Flint (MI)” January 27, 2016. The conclusions she voices at the end of the show echo what I hear Jesus saying in these verses in Luke 13.   

Rev. Charles Williams, National Action network of Michigan President, had just lamented, “We’ve been fighting this thing for over 2 years…When is enough, enough?” Rachel Maddow turns to the camera to address the wider public. “I want to tell you. Being here in Flint there is a conclusion I have come to today; being here and talking to people; that I did not expect to come to.  The conclusion is that this crisis IS fixable, that it will be fixed. I believe it.”  

After a commercial break she explained why this conclusion:

“America does big things. America has done an interstate highway system, man on the moon, expectation of clean drinking water everywhere in this country – big things. You here in Flint did nothing to bring this disaster upon yourselves. The poisoning of this town has been done to this town by your state government and not by you. And it really is a big disaster. And it has consequences for this generation and for generations to come. This is not some little thing that went wrong in a small-to-medium- sized city that used to be a little bit bigger. This is a disaster. This is a man-made American disaster of national consequence. And part of the reason we came here to Flint tonight is not because I’m from here or I’ve got some Michigan connection. I don’t. And most Americans aren’t from here or have some specific connection to this place. But we, as your fellow Americans, have to start thinking about the restoration of this town – the restoration of Flint – as one of the big things we need to do as a country.”  

“Flint already is strong. You all know how strong you are. You are not alone. IT TOOK A WHILE. But America is with you now, Flint, MI.  [It is] It is a matter of getting it done; of getting people in place who will do the big things that need to be done to fix this. I am convinced it is going to happen. It is going to be hard but it has to happen and it will happen; because we, as a country, won’t let something like this lie.”

The nuts and bolts of not letting this lie do take hard work.  The fertilizing work of the church goes on when the national media might go on to different topics. The repentance that comes with recognizing our interdependence creates space for another chance to accompany local people as they recover and create abundance.

The Rev. Dr. Mary Schaller Blaufuss serves as Team Leader, Global Sharing of Resources, with Wider Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ at the national offices in Cleveland, Ohio.

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Lectionary texts

Isaiah 55:1-9

Ho, everyone who thirsts,
      come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
      come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
      without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money
      for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which
      does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
      and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me;
      listen, so that you may live.
I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
      my steadfast, sure love for David.
See, I made him a witness to the peoples,
      a leader and commander for the peoples.
See, you shall call nations that you do not know,
      and nations that do not know you shall run to you,
because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel,
      for he has glorified you.

Seek the Lord while he may be found,
      call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake their way,
      and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the Lord,
      that he may have mercy on them,
and to our God,
      for he will abundantly pardon.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
      nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
      so are my ways higher than your ways
      and my thoughts than your thoughts.
Psalm 63:1-8

O God, you are my God,
     I seek you,
my soul thirsts for you;

my flesh faints for you,
    as in a dry and weary land
where there is no water.

So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary,
     beholding your power and glory.

Because your steadfast love is better than life,
     my lips will praise you.
So I will bless you as long as I live;
     I will lift up my hands and call on your name.

My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast,
     and my mouth praises you with joyful lips

when I think of you on my bed,
     and meditate on you in the watches of the night;

for you have been my help,
     and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.

My soul clings to you;
     your right hand upholds me.

1 Corinthians 10:1-13

I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ. Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness.

Now these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not become idolaters as some of them did; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play.” We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did, and were destroyed by serpents. And do not complain as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer. These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come. So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.

Luke 13:1-9

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'”

Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ

(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: “Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place” in Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)  

The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about “traditional” colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.

The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.  
Before the Reformation’s iconoclasm, and Trent’s code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of “best,” “second best,” and “everyday” — not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the “best” vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got “second best” or “everyday.”   

So, here is a challenge to worship planners: Take it upon yourselves to develop and expand the “received” tradition!