Song of the Ages

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Song of the ages,
you sing across the glistening waters of time.
You sing with an eternal enjoyment
of everything your hands have made.
Your song is a gloria carried on the winds
and punctuated by pulsating waves.
Your song sings itself into our lives
for our very being is hidden within you.
Song of the ages,
may all of our days harmonize
with your deep notes of justice, compassion and peace.
May our lives sing out with joy too
so that all may hear of your blessing
and want to join in your unending song.

Words (c) 2014 Mark Lloyd Richardson

Inhabiting a Common and Precious Space

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"Reach" Photo credit: Dallis Day Richardson

“Reach” Photo credit: Dallis Day Richardson

Methodists have a way of envisioning and living out our faith that is expressed in three simple rules:

  1. Do no harm
  2. Do good
  3. Stay in love with God

Bishop Reuben P. Job describes the first rule in such a way that we can see its potential to change the world one relationship at a time. We live in a time of intense culture wars, political battles, religious squabbling, and international tensions. We see the huge scale of harm being done in the world through both careless and deliberate acts, too often by people of faith and religious institutions. So it helps to hear Bishop Job describe the first simple rule as an “act of disarming, laying aside our weapons and our desire to do harm.” Healing the world requires change from within the human heart as well as outward behavioral change.

For years now the United Methodist Church has been doing considerable harm to our LGBTQ neighbors, family members, and friends. We have had language in our guiding document The Book of Discipline that marginalizes a whole community among us. A day will come when the language will be removed and the church will repent of all of the harm it has knowingly or unknowingly done to peoples’ lives. Especially painful is the legacy of young people who have felt rejected by the very church that exists to nurture love for God and one another.

Bishop Job writes that the act of disarming and seeking to do no harm is revealing in other ways: “We discover that we stand on common ground, inhabit a common and precious space, share a common faith, feast at a common table, and have an equal measure of God’s unlimited love. When I am determined to do no harm to you, I lose my fear of you; and I am able to see you and hear you more clearly. Disarmed of the possibility to do harm, we find that good and solid place to stand where together we can seek the way forward in faithfulness to God” (Reuben P. Job, Three Simple Rules: A Wesleyan Way of Living, Nashville: Abingdon Press, © 2007, pages 23-24).

We, the people of the United Methodist Church, need to remove language from our Discipline that continues to harm individual lives as well as the heart of our spiritual community. We need to listen deeply and intently to the stories of our LGBTQ neighbors, family members, and friends, about how the gospel is being misrepresented in our broken institutional life. We need to look deeply and intently into our own hearts for the places we are armed with weapons of fear, mistrust, and judgment, and seek God’s help in laying those weapons down. We need most of all to repent of the harm the church has already done to persons of sacred worth and commit ourselves anew to manifesting the beloved community where God’s justice and righteousness reign!

We inhabit a common and precious space. Let us begin to act like it.

God, in your grace that exceeds our imaginations and confronts our complacency, hear our prayer.

Words © 2014 Mark Lloyd Richardson
Photo © 2014 Dallis Day Richardson

God’s Year to Act

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Prayer Vigil for Pastor Frank Schaefer at First UMC, Santa Barbara, CA

Prayer Vigil for Pastor Frank Schaefer at First UMC, Santa Barbara, CA

Tomorrow morning in a makeshift courtroom in a Memphis hotel, the Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church will meet to hear the final appeal of Rev. Frank Schaefer who performed a same-sex marriage ceremony for his son Tim in 2007. Many prayers have been said for Pastor Frank and his wife Brigitte as they have traveled this difficult journey through a church trial and previous appeal process to arrive at this day. Many of us are deeply grateful to Frank for his prophetic witness to both church and society regarding the gospel imperative to offer grace and peace to all of God’s children, including our LGBTQ neighbors!

On this eve of Frank’s appearance before the Judicial Council, many people came together for a prayer vigil in the sanctuary of First United Methodist Church in Santa Barbara. During this vigil, we lifted up Frank and Brigitte, that they be surrounded by God’s comforting and empowering presence. We prayed for the team of people representing Frank and for the members of the council to exercise wisdom and compassion in their deliberations. We prayed for faith communities and followers of Christ everywhere that together we move forward in the ministry of Christ for the sake of the whole world, which is beloved of God.

At this critical time in the life of the church, I am claiming the inaugural sermon of Jesus found in Luke, chapter 4, for all of us. Here’s how Eugene Peterson’s The Message states these familiar words of Jesus to his hometown congregation:

“God’s Spirit is on me; he’s chosen me to preach the Message of good news to the poor, sent me to announce pardon to prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to set the burdened and battered free, to announce, ‘This is God’s year to act!’” (Luke 4:18-19)

At the close of our prayer vigil this evening we called Pastor Frank and Brigitte and through the wonders of speakerphone we prayed with and for them. We prayed that the church that seeks to follow Jesus fully embrace the ministry of Jesus that extends to all of God’s children. We prayed believing that in the end love will prevail, because it is a force stronger than fear or prejudice or discriminatory church law!

Words (c) 2014 Mark Lloyd Richardson

In the Stillness Find Grace

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Meditation Chapel at La Casa de Maria in Santa Barbara, California

Meditation Chapel at La Casa de Maria in Santa Barbara, California

Be silent.
Be still.
Let your God look upon you.
That is all.

Our hour of centering prayer in the small Meditation Chapel tucked among the oak trees was nearing an end recently when our facilitator, Jeanette, said words to this effect.

I am always grateful to be able to sit prayerfully in silence with others. It is a community of prayer that lends support and peace to my life. Centering prayer is a contemplative form of giving your intention to God, and allowing your body, mind, and spirit to simply be in the presence of the Holy. It’s not about forming words or thoughts, like so much of the prayer I am asked to do in my work as a minister. Even though I am conscious of trying to let go of the need to say the right words or the best words when I pray in public, there is usually a sense that someone (not least of all myself) is measuring those words for an adequate expression of faith.

In centering prayer I let go of any need to satisfy others and simply sit in the stillness that is able to fill the cathedral of my inner being. Even when thoughts arise and distract me from my prayerful intention, I do not worry that my prayer is inadequate. I am aware of the Spirit welcoming me again and again into life and joy.

Jesus said, “The Reign of God has come near.”

For me, one of the most powerful settings for God to release the healing balm of grace is in a contemplative community praying alongside one another.

Words (c) 2014 Mark Lloyd Richardson

Like a River Flowing

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WyomingWe sang this song at the close of worship this past Sunday using the familiar tune FINLANDIA. If you wish to use these lyrics in worship sometime, please let me know.

The peace of Christ is like a river flowing
from God’s own heart in healing streams of grace.
In all our comings and in all our goings,
God’s mercies lead us to a holy place.
Peace like a river flowing through our lives
reminds us what it means to be baptized.

This earthly home we share with one another
cannot withstand our hatreds and our fears.
So when we look and see a sister, brother,
we know Christ’s peace is also coming near.
May we now live into this hopeful dream,
a day made new in shared humanity.

This dream for peace seeks out the meek and lowly,
children of God by blessing and design,
created in the image of the holy,
to reconcile this life with life divine.
Peace like a river flowing through our days
renews our hearts in gladness and in praise.

Copyright (c)2010 Mark Lloyd Richardson

Every Common Bush

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burning-bushIn her poem “Aurora Leigh,” Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote:
Earth’s crammed with heaven
And every common bush afire with God:
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it, and pluck blackberries.

The story of Moses and the burning bush (Exodus 3:1-15) has long fascinated believers. Moses is going about his usual business as a sheepherder when he catches a glimpse of something unusual in his peripheral vision, and decides that he must turn and look. Like other call stories in scripture, this one provides a window into how we interpret the ways God calls us.

The story of Moses, and the story of each person who has been grasped by God’s unconditional love, shows that there is One who knows us and calls us by name. There is One who calls us to a centered life, a life full of burning bushes, a life lived on holy ground. These burning bushes are everywhere. We need only open our eyes.

Our primary source as Christian disciples is Scripture, not because it’s free of error or contradiction, but because it is the remembered story of a people seeking after God. We read it, study it, and wrestle with it. Scripture is a burning bush, demanding our attention.

Anything that brings our attention to our Creator is potentially a burning bush. Prayer can be a burning bush, as can meditation. Other people can be windows into the divine. Relationships sometimes cause us to look deeply within ourselves to encounter the intrinsically relational nature of life. Events sometimes converge in such a way that we find ourselves brushing up against what it means to be human. As we engage our conscience and take moral stands a bush is burning in our midst!

As followers of Christ, the shape our lives take in the world is the cross, reflective of the self-giving love of Christ. “If any want to become my followers,” Jesus tells his disciples, “let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). Jesus knew that the God-centered life always involved a willingness to put one’s life on the line in order to participate in the divine presence in the world.

Therefore a person like Rosa Parks boldly refused to cooperate with the evil of segregation by refusing to sit at the back of the bus that day many years ago in Montgomery, Alabama. Every day, ordinary people work for social justice, among them the advocates for the full inclusion of our LGBTQ neighbors in society and in the church.

Then there are those dear souls who daily show mercy to others – nurses, teachers, social workers, first responders, caregivers, hospice workers. There are those who go beyond what is reasonable to cheer the depressed, to comfort the grieving, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked. Burning bushes, every one!

God cannot be kept on a shelf, or in a private corner of our lives. God tells Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” Therefore we walk into the world with this One whose name is I AM, and realize that we can’t take anything for granted, and we surely can’t assume to know what comes next. We worship the God who is the great I AM, whose relationship with the world is dynamic and active. We turn aside often to see what God is doing. We take off our shoes, and feel the holy ground beneath our feet. We remember that in our baptisms we put on Christ. We become the presence of Christ as we move out into the world. We go in the name of the great I AM, the Lord of life and hope!

Words (c) 2014 Mark Lloyd Richardson

This Preaching Life

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Pulpit of First United Methodist Church, Santa Barbara (taken by Dallis Day Richardson)

Pulpit of First United Methodist Church, Santa Barbara (taken by Dallis Day Richardson)

Every week
week after week
I put words on a page
and I pray
as I write each one out
it is a word
that in combination with other words
will speak peace into the lives of hearers.

I am a preacher –
not a wild, untamed preacher like John the Baptizer,
whom one might be excused for judging as harsh
as he roared his message of repentance
at the righteous and unrighteous alike,
calling every soul out
to take a clear-eyed look at themselves
and finally grasp that something’s got to change!

I preach with trepidation,
aware that some may find my words inspired
while others seem to know better.

This preaching life does not get any easier.

The preacher stands in need of grace too.

I am a preacher.

Week after week,
the Word who took on flesh calls to all who have ears to hear,
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.
I do not give to you as the world gives.
Do not let your hearts be troubled,
and do not let them be afraid.”

Words (c) 2014 Mark Lloyd Richardson

Breaking the Bread of Abundance

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loaves-and-fishesThere’s a Gospel story (Matthew 14:13-21) about a day when Christ’s abundant life was on full display! It begins when Jesus withdraws from the crowds, and goes by boat to a deserted place by himself. However, the crowds follow him on foot. Among them are many sick people, and Jesus is moved with compassion. The day soon passes and evening comes. Jesus’ disciples urge him to send people away into the surrounding villages to get something to eat. Perhaps they are exhausted by the overwhelming need.

You and I can handle only so much too and we get “compassion fatigue.” We grow weary because of the needs presented by particular circumstances. We see the pain etched on children’s faces as we watch the evening news – children in Syria and Lebanon, Israel and Gaza, Haiti, Honduras, or Chicago’s south side – and it is often more than we can bear.

We work all day long doing good things for people, giving back to the community, making the world a better place, and at the end of the day we just want to kick back and enjoy a nice glass of Chardonnay. We don’t want to worry about families without health care, workers losing their jobs, homeless persons sleeping on the church steps, soldiers on the battlefront, or an endangered planet. We don’t want to worry about whether there is still racism, sexism, or homophobia working their ugly campaigns of deception in what we wish were a more humane and decent world. We don’t want to deal with other people’s problems.

“Send them away,” we say. “The hour is late. Let them go and take care of their own needs for awhile.”

That, my friends, is our human reality. The needs are great. The work of justice and compassion never ends. We get tired. We want an easier way.

I believe the reason we sometimes grow weary is because we haven’t reached into the well and taken a drink of living water in awhile. The reason we grow weary is that we have bought the cynical, secular paradigm that says this life is based on scarcity.

But Jesus refuses to send the crowds away, and instead says to the disciples after a long day of serving others, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”

Don’t you hate that? Don’t you hate being reminded that it isn’t all about you? Don’t you hate the feeling that Christ has higher expectations of you than you do? Be honest now!

The disciples reply, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” Scarcity! There’s not enough, Jesus. Get your head out of the clouds and listen to the bean counters for a change.

But Jesus says, “Bring the five loaves and two fish here to me.” And he has the crowds sit down on the grass. He takes the loaves and fish, and blesses and breaks the loaves. He gives the food to the disciples and the disciples give it to the people.

Jesus demonstrates God’s generosity. Jesus makes the grace and goodness of God visible to the crowd. Jesus breaks the bread of abundance and shares it with all.

God is the one who gives to us in abundance, and it is from abundance, not scarcity, that we are invited to give.

Too often the message is scarcity on the lips of those who profess to follow the Lord of abundant life!

Where can your faith become more life-giving as you bear witness to God’s abundance?

Words (c) 2014 Mark Lloyd Richardson

People Who Live By Hope

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Today’s scripture reading from Romans 8:12-25 reminds us that while what we see all around us every day – human tragedy, strife, conflict, illness, and death – are signs of this life in the flesh, as children of God we are heirs to a future we do not yet fully see. The apostle Paul never claims that the lives of Christ’s followers will be trouble-free. In fact, he acknowledges the very real suffering at the heart of the life of faith. Yet these are not worth comparing with the glory that is yet to be revealed (vs. 18). Paul is convinced that nothing in all creation is able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (see verses 31-39), a powerful reminder for us to always remember who we are.

Bishop Minerva Carcaño and other interfaith leaders have called us to pray and act on behalf of unaccompanied migrant children. There is a humanitarian crisis at our borders and many of the thousands of children making the arduous journey north are refugees fleeing the violence of gangs, drug cartels, and severe economic conditions in Central America.

In many instances, the lives of these children have become so unbearable that they have little hope but to flee. Bishop Carcaño has reminded us that how we receive these unaccompanied children will determine whether our witness bears the heart of Jesus who said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19:14b).

We are a people who live by hope! We hope for what we do not yet see – creation set free from the bondage of decay, the redemption of our whole selves, and the inheritance of the children of God. We hope for a world where vulnerable children do not have to flee their homes in order to merely survive.

Hope always moves us forward into God’s future! Hope helps us endure the suffering of the present age knowing that God even now is at work to redeem all of creation. Hope gives us a restless heart, because it is a yearning for a more peaceable and just world than currently exists. We can’t create this new world ourselves, but we can join God in the places God’s kingdom is coming and God’s will is being done on earth as it is in heaven.

The American prophet William Sloane Coffin once observed: “God is as much ahead of us as within and above us. When asked, ‘Where do you stand?’ Jews and Christians should probably reply, ‘We don’t; we move!’ Both should regard themselves, if not as permanent revolutionaries, at least as pilgrim people, people who have decided never to arrive, people who live by hope, energized not by what they possess but by what is promised: ‘Behold, I create new heavens and a new earth’ (Isa. 65:17)” (“People Who Live by Hope,” The Living Pulpit, July-September 2006, pp. 23-24).

As people of hope, we lean forward into what God is bringing to pass, even though we do not yet fully see it. We have been adopted into God’s purposes and become heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ. We see the suffering of the world, and we don’t just take a stand; we move out into the world with the grace of the One who loves us with an everlasting love. We hope, because God has not abandoned us, and God has not abandoned the children who want nothing more than to live beyond childhood.

We also groan inwardly, along with all creation, while we wait for God’s redeeming purposes to come to fuller fruition. Hope saves us from a sense of futility or desperation. Hope saves us from throwing in the towel. Hope saves us from our own worst instincts of protecting life only for ourselves and those we love.

Hope calls us toward greater faithfulness, deeper compassion, and a more just and humane world where all of God’s children are given the possibility of life in its fullness. Hope calls us toward beloved community where we live in relationship with God in ways that give us freedom, joy, and life abundant enough to be shared.

Let us be a people who live by hope!

Words (c) 2014 Mark Lloyd Richardson

What Grows in God’s Garden?

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I don’t usually post entire sermons, but on Sunday, June 15, I preached my final sermon among the wonderful congregation at the First United Methodist Church of Santa Maria, California, and am being appointed now to the First United Methodist Church of Santa Barbara, California, as of July 1st. So here I am including my final sermon called “What Grows in God’s Garden?” based on 1 Corinthians 3:1-9.

As I look over the vastness represented in Scripture – the many voices, times, cultural and historical contexts, the personalities, and the ways of expressing faith – a consistent theme is faithfulness. It is a theme that encompasses the relationship between God and creation, and between God and humankind.

Scripture portrays God as always faithful to the people God has called for particular purposes – first Abraham and his descendents, the Israelites, and then the early communities who gathered around the story of Jesus and moved out under the Spirit’s power to change the world.

Those who seek to live according the commandments of God in the Hebrew scripture are themselves called the faithful. Those who seek to live according to the way of Jesus and the greatest commandment in the New Covenant are also called the faithful.

In other words, faithfulness is somehow sown into the very fabric of this divine-human encounter toward which each of us is drawn.

The Psalms lift up this theme of faithfulness repeatedly. In Psalm 145:10 we hear:

All your works shall give thanks to you, O Lord, and all your faithful shall bless you.

Then just a few verses later, after extolling the glorious splendor of God’s everlasting kingdom, the psalmist adds (vs. 13b):

The Lord is faithful in all his words, and gracious in all his deeds.

As we theologize on Scripture and consider how God is revealed in this world, in the church, and in our lives, and as we pray “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” we are aware of only glimpses of the kingdom here and now. Yet we still believe God’s kingdom will come in the fullness of glory someday! We believe that God is always faithful and that as we contribute our own faithful witness and actions, the kingdom is revealed a little more and a little more.

We celebrated 140 years of Christian ministry in this valley last year – 140 years of people doing their utmost to be faithful to the call of God so that this congregation could be part of what God is doing in the world.

Imagine the settlers of this town and others who followed them putting their sweat and their tears and the joy they had in Christ and their Wesleyan spirit of grace all out on the line so that a Church could be planted here and so that all who would listen would hear of God’s faithful love.

Think of how many Sunday School classes have been taught and how many children have been touched by the story of Jesus in those years!

Think of the worship that has been conducted in several different locations, and now in this place, and of all the worshippers who have felt the strange warming of their hearts in the presence of Christ expressed through word and sacrament!

Think of the caring fellowship that has been expressed among the faithful in this church over the years, moving beyond the superficial to love one another as Christ commands us!

Think of the mission trips, service projects, outreach efforts, and ministries that have been undertaken by this community of faith … and more importantly, think of the lives that have been changed, the addictions that have been overcome, the meals that have been served to the poor, the lonely who have been visited, the lost who have been redirected, the grieving who have been comforted, the showers that have given a new sense of self-worth to so many, and the homes that have been rebuilt or repaired!

These are all validation of God’s faithfulness to us and our faithfulness to God. These are a confirmation of the fruit of the Spirit in our life together. These are an authentication of the presence of Christ in this community.

I commend you for carrying on the vision of this faith community after 140 years – building beloved community and helping people commit their lives to Christ and grow in grace.

All of the beautiful ways that this church has witnessed to the faithful love of God over many years continue to this day. We can look upon all of it and see what God has done in our midst, and be grateful.

As I came here four years ago, I told you that I was pleased and proud to be appointed to this church. As I leave here I want to express the same sentiment – I am pleased and proud that I was given the opportunity to be your pastor and to provide spiritual and temporal leadership for a time.

You will continue to be a witness to the love of Christ through your ministry presence in this community. You will continue to give spiritual nurture to children and people of all ages.

You will continue to serve others with tangible signs of God’s gracious kingdom, by visiting the sick, feeding the hungry, encouraging the stranger, praying for those in need, and serving the poor.

I have no doubt of any of this because I believe God is faithful, and I believe you are faithful, and that is enough.

The apostle Paul, writing to the Corinthian church, says that he is one of the “servants through whom (they) came to believe” (1 Cor. 3:5). But he acknowledges he isn’t the only one. Paul says to them, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (3:6-7).

In the United Methodist Church, appointments are made and ministers are moved, and congregations must rely upon the growth that God gives. None of us is indispensable, but each of us is necessary. Our gifts are necessary. Our hearts are necessary. Our love is necessary.

Like Apollos, I have carried the water pail for awhile, and have tried to give the right amount of attention to the needs of the church, and now another one of God’s servants is coming to be in ministry with you, to help you grow in faith and trust, to listen with you for the promptings of the Spirit, and to walk with you in discipleship and mission. You are called to live out your baptisms and be the people God created you to be – generous, giving, hopeful, loving, gracious, Christ-like.

Paul uses a metaphor for God’s people not used anywhere else in scripture. In the midst of his observation of how God desires growth in the spiritual life, Paul says to the people of God, “you are God’s field” (vs. 9). This is an intriguing way to think of ourselves, as a field in which things grow, things of beauty and things of usefulness. God’s field – a place of growth and emerging life. As I look over the past four years and consider the growth that God has caused in our lives together, I am glad that I could be a part of your journey for this brief time.

A father and daughter prepared to part at the airport one day. After a hug the father said, “I love you. I wish you enough.” His daughter boarded the plane, and a few moments later, a woman who overheard their conversation asked the father what it meant to wish someone “enough.” He said that wishing someone “enough” was a tradition in their family. There was even a short poem attached to it.

I wish you enough sun to keep your attitude bright.
I wish you enough rain to appreciate the sun more.
I wish you enough happiness to keep your spirit alive.
I wish you enough pain so that even the smallest joys in life appear much bigger.
I wish you enough gain to satisfy your wanting.
I wish you enough loss to appreciate all that you possess.
I wish you enough ‘hellos’ to get you through the final ‘goodbye’.
(Mennonite pastor and author Ralph Milton in an e-zine titled Rumors)

The life of faith provides us with the opportunities to be generous and supportive of one another. As Paul says, “God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share it abundantly in every good work” (2 Cor. 9:8). That’s a pretty healthy way to think about our discipleship – seeing our lives as full of enough of God’s goodness and grace, and choosing to help other people see their lives as full of enough too.

I close with a Franciscan Blessing that makes me want to be a Franciscan:

May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers,
half-truths and superficial relationships,
so that you may live deep within your heart.

May God bless you with anger at injustice,
oppression and exploitation of people,
so that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.

May God bless you with tears to shed for those
who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation and war,
so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them
and turn their pain into joy.

And may God bless you with enough foolishness
to believe that you can make a difference in this world,
so that you can do what others claim cannot be done.

God is faithful.
You are faithful.
That is enough.

Words & photo (c) 2014 Mark Lloyd Richardson

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