One: Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is the LORD their God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry.
All: The LORD sets the prisoners free; the LORD opens the eyes of the blind. The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down; the LORD loves the righteous.
One: The LORD watches over the strangers; God upholds the orphan and the widow.
All: The LORD will reign forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations. Praise the LORD!
* Gathering Prayer
God of the widow and orphan, God of the oppressed and imprisoned, God of the overlooked and overburdened, hear our prayer. Give us eyes to see strangers as friends. Give us ears to hear new voices. Give us minds open to fresh perspectives. Give us hearts made whole by the power of your Spirit. Amen.
Prayer of Dedication
God who provides in every circumstance, we thank you for all you have given. Teach us to live with open hands ever ready to receive, ever freely giving. Amen.
One: The LORD is king! Let the earth rejoice; let the coastlands be glad!
All: Clouds and thick darkness are all around God; righteousness and justice are the foundation of God’s throne.
One: Light dawns for the righteous, and joy for the upright of heart.
All: Rejoice in the LORD, O you righteous, and give thanks to God’s holy name.
We thank you, God, for this opportunity to remember. We remember those who have given their lives in service to our country. We honor their sacrifice and the sacredness of their lives. We honor families and communities who grieve. Making peace begins with facing the incalculable cost of war. We celebrate the struggle for freedom. Remind us where our true freedom lies: in loving service of you and our neighbors. Amen.
Prayer of Dedication
God of service and sacrifice we make our humble offerings out of gratitude for the countless acts of selfless devotion that make our lives possible. Amen.
Leader: For I am about to create a new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.
All: But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy and its people as a delight.
Leader: Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear.
All: The wolf and the lamb will feed together, the lion shall eat straw like an ox; but the serpent–its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the LORD.
Gathering Prayer God of resurrection, we thank you for your child, Jesus, who died and rose again that we might have abundant life now and eternal life in the world to come. In every moment you make us anew. With every breath your Spirit sustains us. Teach us to breathe out the past–hurts that hinder us, traumas that haunt us–and breathe in fresh possibilities, wild dreams, new hopes. This is the day of resurrection. Today we find our freedom. Amen.
Dedication of the Offering
God whose generosity knows no bounds, we give with humble gratitude for your gift of abundant life. Amen.
Who are we? Where are we going? How do we get there? These are questions a church vitality coach/consultant that I’ve worked with successfully for many years suggested we at First Church Old Saybrook consider. This vitality coach, Rev. Paul Nickerson, also told me that this is the bulk of the work he’s doing with congregations right now. Following the COVID pandemic many congregations are feeling a need to reinvent themselves. Worship attendance is down 40%-60% in all sizes of churches and in all denominations. As Americans continue to explore the many options available to us to lead lives of meaning and purpose, where does the local congregation fit in?
This echoes some of the things I’ve been hearing from FCC Saybrook. At a recent deacons meeting one of the deacons raised the issue of identity and the fact that in her opinion the church didn’t have a strong sense of identity–the “Who are we?” question–and is nevertheless moving in a direction to better define that identity.
Paul suggested FCC Saybrook gather a group of leaders for a Zoom consult with him around the questions Who are we? Where are we going? How do we get there? My invitation to you is to consider whether you might be interested in being a part of that call. Stay tuned!
Leader: Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
All: Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves with rich food.
Gathering Prayer (Unison)
Holy God, in a place of so much wealth, why is there so much need? In a land that affords every available comfort, why do we find ourselves uncomfortable, discouraged, depressed? What is this food you spoke of through your prophets? Where is this promised land of milk and honey our ancestors sought? Open our hearts to the only true satisfaction our hearts will ever know: your boundless love.
“I realize that this might seem a little disconcerting. But as I said at the beginning, I’ve found that the most powerful bonds are built when we start with the ending. As your Transitional Senior Minister, I begin with the acknowledgment of impermanence. Every one of us is temporary. It is not up to us to decide how much time we will have. It is up to us to decide how we will use the time we’ve been given. As for me, I vow to make the most of it. What will your promise be? I hope that whatever the future brings, we will face it together.”
I wrote the above words for my column from May 16, 2019–my first “What’s Up” as Transitional Senior Minister at First Congregational Church of Granby. Looking back nearly three years later, it’s easy to see how impermanence has manifested in unforeseen ways. COVID has changed how we do church in ways I never imagined back in 2019. Some of them have been difficult: foregoing in person worship for months at a time has been a particular challenge for me. Some of them have been really great. COVID has made us more visible and engaged in our community. It also jump-started our online ministry. We even welcomed 7 new members during the heart of the pandemic. It’s easy to think of impermanence in terms of loss; however, impermanence is also what creates the space for new things to emerge. The Apostle Paul wrote, “. . . to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish far more than we could ask or imagine.” Through all of the coming and going of impermanence the One at work within us has accomplished things I never imagined, for example, Granby Racial Reconciliation. I had no idea I would have the opportunity to be a part of founding a new racial justice organization in town. Impermanence confronts us with the difficult work of letting go. It also carries within it the promise of new things to come.
At our Deacons meeting this month we took some time to reflect on what God has done among us. “Reaching out in new ways” was at the top of nearly everyone’s list. Another mentioned that “vitality has real meaning for us” as a church. Another mentioned TGIF social gatherings when we could just enjoy each other’s company. Another mentioned a shift in perspective so that we began to consider how newcomers experience our church and how we might do things like worship with first time guests in mind. We learned to question what we are doing as a church and why we are doing it. We’re no longer looking for people to come to us; rather, we are going out into the community and meeting people where they are. We have new awareness of the experience and history of marginalized groups, particularly Native Americans and African Americans, and how that awareness changes what we do as Christians. Weekly Bible study, screens and other technology in worship, staying together and staying safe through a pandemic. These are all accomplishments to celebrate.
Just as each new beginning starts with an ending, so too each ending carries within it the promise of new beginnings. Our transition work is coming to a close. As we look back at how far we’ve come we can look forward to what God has in store. As the Prophet Jeremiah wrote, “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope” (Jer. 29:11).
The year is 1965. The place is Newport, RI. The event is the Newport Folk Festival, which had been founded six years earlier as a response to the more established Newport Jazz Festival. The Newport Folk Festival quickly became a gathering place for the various protest movements of the time: the anti-war movement, the civil rights movement, women’s liberation, the labor movement. Famous artists like Pete Seeger, Peter, Paul & Mary, John Lee Hooker, Joan Baez sang a mix of traditional folk songs and their own compositions that told the stories and reflected the values of common, everyday people. Of all these great artists, perhaps the most famous was a young, newcomer from Minnesota named Bob Dylan.
By 1965 Dylan had released three hugely successful albums: “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963), “The Times They Are a-Changin’” (1964), and “Bringing It All Back Home” (1965). Dylan’s song “Blowin’ in the Wind” had become the anthem of the anti-war movement. In fact, the 1964 Newport Folk Festival closed with the entire lineup of artists joining Dylan onstage to lead the crowds in singing “Blowin’ in the Wind,” a song that today is considered a classic of American songwriting–one of the many classics that earned Dylan a Nobel Prize for literature in 2016.
Already in 1965 Dylan was shifting away from the traditional folk compositions for voice and acoustic guitar that had made him famous toward music that featured electric guitars and a full band. Nevertheless, at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival he was planning on playing an acoustic set like people expected of him. The story goes that the day before his performance, Dylan overheard someone from the Folk Festival make disparaging remarks about electric guitars. In a flash of righteous anger Dylan completely changed his set list to feature him playing an electric guitar backed by the Butterfield Blues Band. When he took the stage the next night, he began his set with “Maggie’s Farm.” He played a loud, jangly Fender stratocaster and sang, “Ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s Farm no more”–a clear declaration of artistic independence. People started booing and shouting. Pete Seeger was furious. By the end of his set Dylan did return to his acoustic guitar in a gesture to the crowd’s expectations, but the message was clear: Dylan would not allow himself to be defined by any person’s or group’s expectations. His ultimate allegiance lay far beyond any particular style or movement. Dylan’s ultimate allegiance was to the artistic endeavor itself.
I was reminded of the above story during the First Church South Church Bible study this week. We were considering the gospel lectionary for this coming Sunday: Luke 4:16-29. It begins with Jesus getting a very favorable response to his preaching from his hometown crowd and ends with them attempting to throw him off a cliff. Why this sudden turnaround? Jesus had been preaching about the “Lord’s favor.” The crowd understood this to be a simple affirmation of the lives they were currently living as God’s “chosen people.” They became upset when Jesus corrected their understanding. Jesus explained that their God wasn’t theirs alone, that God chooses sides and it wasn’t necessarily theirs. Rather the God revealed in Jesus choses the unchosen. God loves the hated. And Jesus’ ministry won’t be defined by any person’s or group’s expectations. His allegiance lies far beyond any particular style or movement. Jesus’ ultimate allegiance is to the boundless love of God itself.