Welcome to this Online Meeting for Worship. Below you will find songs, scripture or poems, and a short message to frame and guide your time in worship. Each week, by Friday I will be publishing a new worship outline. The scripture used generally (though not always) comes from the weekly Revised Common Lectionary, connecting the Friends tradition to other Christian traditions around the world. For some of you this worship space may be a place of sanctuary when you are away from in-person worshiping communities. For others, this worship space may help you prepare for your weekly Sunday or mid-week worship.
I suggest that you open each link in a separate window and play through the beginning of the songs to get over any ads, preparing for your worship time. (Though you may want to first check to see if ads play while the songs are embedded in the post. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t!) You may also want to have a candle and a journal nearby. Since this worship is designed in the manner of Programmed Quaker Worship, it includes a period of waiting worship. There are several communities around the world that host online unprogrammed Quaker worship, for which I have included links. These communities worship together at certain times each day and week, so you may want to plan your worship around theirs.
If you would like to set up a regular time to worship through this site or if you have specific prayer requests to be held by my home worshiping community, please contact me through this site. If you would like to leave a message on this page, perhaps a message that rises for you during your worship, please comment below. Messages are filtered to counter spam attempts and it may take me up to 24 hours to approve a comment. Thank you for joining me in this weekly online Quaker programmed worship. May your time in worship be deep and faithful.
Perfectly Imperfect in Every Way
Centering Silence: Take a few moments to center yourself. Perhaps light a candle, find a comfortable place to sit and put away any distractions. Take a few deep breaths as you center yourself for this time of worship. Feel your body relax as your breaths become deeper. Turn your attention to the presence of the Divine throughout your body and throughout your life. When you are ready let the following worship elements guide your worship.
Teach me, Lord, the way of your decrees,
that I may follow it to the end.
Give me understanding, so that I may keep your law
and obey it with all my heart.
Direct me in the path of your commands,
for there I find delight.
Turn my heart toward your statutes
and not toward selfish gain.
Turn my eyes away from worthless things;
preserve my life according to your word.
Fulfill your promise to your servant,
so that you may be feared.
Take away the disgrace I dread,
for your laws are good.
How I long for your precepts!
In your righteousness preserve my life.
(Psalm 119:33-40, New International Version)
Scripture: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:38-48, New International Version)
Message: Perfectly Imperfect in Every Way
I have to laugh a bit at the end of this passage from Matthew which reads “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” for this week I have been anything but perfect. In the whirlwind of the last few days traveling between Baltimore, Boston and Vermont, my life has been more chaos than perfection. Throw in my husband coming down with a nasty virus, three snow storms, trying to feed everyone on the go and my 3 month old demanding more cuddle time than sleep—I lost my mind and my temper a few times in the last couple of days, leaving me feeling guilty and ashamed.
Brené Brown, in her book I Thought It Was Just ME (But It Isn't), defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.” The expectations we place on ourselves, especially as parents, triggers so often this feeling or experience of shame. I just couldn't do it all. Even more, I just couldn’t do it all on no sleep!
Yet, here in the Gospel of Matthew, we read the command, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” This command comes after a litany of instructions too: Turn the other cheek, hand over your coat, go the extra mile, give when asked—some of which have infiltrated our common vernacular and are now used as catch phrases. On top of them all, Jesus preaches that we should love and pray for those who persecute us. I can just feel Jesus’ audience squirming in their seats thinking, “Come on now, that doesn’t make any sense, I can’t do it all!”
To start, let us look at those commands. This passage exemplifies ancient means of non-violent action. The Roman government at the time of Jesus was allowed to exploit commoners to a certain extent. It was a little bit like our modern “civic obligations.” Our government can make us pay taxes, serve jury duty, sell our land to make roads, even impose curfew and other things like that, but our government isn’t supposed to do these things in a manner that impoverishes, oppresses, or creates other kinds of hardships. In some cases this works well, in other cases (like jury duty) compensation or exemption is offered if hardship is caused, and in a few cases, our government actually does impose on our civic and human rights.
Back in Jesus’ day, the Roman government was imposing on civic and human rights in great frequency, so Jesus preached a way to expose the injustices and rebel. For example, soldiers were allowed to discipline a commoner by slapping them on the left cheek with an open hand. By turning the other cheek, you would be inviting the solider to slap you on the right cheek with the back of the hand—violating social and political protocol. Soldiers were allowed to demand the shirt of a commoner’s back, but nakedness was considered an embarrassment. So when Jesus preached to “hand over your coat as well” he was suggesting that you strip down and embarrass the officials. Similar was the command to go the extra mile. Soldiers were allowed to demand a commoner to carry bags for one set length of time and then the commoner was supposed to be released. What if that commoner didn’t leave? What if that commoner continued for another set length of time causing the solider to appear to be breaking protocol? And then to round out the commands, Jesus said we should love our enemy, not “like” them, but actively be kind, generous, and loving. In a system of haves and the have-nots, it was a break from social expectations for the have-nots to be loving towards their oppressors. These actions were disruptive and got people in power in trouble with their supervisors. These actions gave the power back to the people who were being oppressed in the first place.
How does this translate today? Particularly in a society and political climate where giving to the powerful means they take more? While Jesus’ commands in this passage don’t specifically translate to our world today, perhaps the commands could sound something like this:
- Do something unexpected
- Challenge the status quo
- Don't give up, patiently keep resisting
- Love rather than hate
- Keep the message non-violent
- Engage with the hard, the messy and the unknown
These commands can feel overwhelming. They did back in Jesus’ day, for resisting the powers that be sometimes meant doing so full time. For some folks, their family and life obligations were in direct conflict with following Jesus’ commands. I wouldn't be surprised if folks thought, “I can't to it all!” And there were feelings of both yearning to follow and guilt for not being able to.
And yet this week, Jesus’ commands in Matthew 5:38-48 are paired with Psalm 119:33-40, where the Psalmist is asking God to transform us into faithful, good, and worthy humans. At there very least then, even if you aren’t able to do everything that Jesus urges us to do, the Psalmist prays that we try to live our lives as authentically, faithfully, and generously as possible. This call is like Michelle Obama’s words, “When they go low, we go high.”
How do we resist in a way where we retain the moral high ground? How do we, like Jesus, be subversive in our actions and in our faith without succumbing to our own pride, greed, and lust? How can we simply live good and decent lives?
While these are weighty and important questions to consider, it is in striving for perfection--the perfection that Jesus preaches about in Matthew 5:38-48 that starts us off in trouble. At least striving for a kind of perfection, an interpretation of perfection that equates us with Jesus or God.
To be perfect like God is impossible. To be perfect like God is like an asymptote, shown below. If God is the line y=3 then we are the curved line that attempts to draw closer and closer to that y=3 line. That curved line will never equal y=3, but we can get close. However, the closer we get to that kind of divine perfection—ironically—the more susceptible we are to our own pride, greed and lust, and the more we are aware of how far away we are.
For as we grow close to that image of Jesus or that divine perfection, we also are aware that others are not as far along as we are. And we are aware of when we stray and get farther away. And we are aware more and more of our own flaws, our own inadequacies, and our own sins, as well as the flaws, inadequacies and sins of others. It is as if God is reminding us that even in our imperfection, we are made in God’s image.
It’s easy right now to feel overwhelmed, immobilized, apathetic, depressed, even cynical about the state of the world and often I find myself feeling ashamed that I’m not doing more. I’m not calling senators or congresspeople. I’m not attending enough marches and rallies. I’m not contributing enough to organizations that I believe are doing good. I’m not challenging the status quo enough. I’m not participating enough in social radicalism, direct non-violence, or the resistance. My life feels very far away from God’s perfection. I feel ashamed for my inaction and guilty for my imperfection. I beat myself up hard for not having more to give after a long day.
But that’s when God’s grace steps in. Sometimes grace is an hour to write this sermon while my husband plays with our son. Sometimes grace is knowing that a dear friend of mine has his own way of staying engaged, building a lego structure where for each block he uses he does something like call a government official or attend an activist event. Sometimes grace is the sun shining through the snowy clouds or a good hot cup of coffee waking me up for the next day. Sometimes grace is forgiving myself for my own imperfection and reminding myself that God loves me—God loves me such much that the Divine Presence is working in and through my life without rest. Sometimes grace is pausing to consider God’s love for each of us, in our perfectly imperfect and messy lives, even for those who are prideful, greedy, and oppressive, even for those whom to me it makes no sense for God to love.
So my prayers reflect something more like Psalm 119:33-40. Teach me, direct me, turn my heart, turn my eyes, "take away this disgrace I dread." Mold me, oh Lord, so that when they go low, I can go high. Enliven in me the thirst for your justice, energy for your creative resistance of the powers at be, and grace for being perfectly imperfect as you have created me to be.
Silence-Waiting Worship: This is a time for you to turn your attention fully inward. The songs and passages and the offered message have prepared you to listen deeply to the Divine. Spend at least 20 minutes in silence listening for that still small voice of God. You may want to join an online waiting worship community. A few links for these can be found below.
When you have come to a place of closure in your waiting worship, continue on to bring your time of worship to a close.
Afterthoughts: Afterthoughts are thoughts that rose for you during waiting worship that didn’t completely form into a message. Perhaps you discerned that what was rising for you in waiting worship was a message for you alone, something not to be shared with others or perhaps you only received fragments of a message and it didn’t come together completely during the silence. Take a few minutes to journal these afterthoughts so that you can look back at them another time. Perhaps God is speaking to you through these partial messages and the fullness of their meaning will be revealed in time.
Joys and Concerns: It is traditional in Programmed Quaker Worship to have a time for the sharing of joys and concerns. Take a few moments to write down in your journal a few things from this week that you are thankful for and a few things that you are holding in prayer. Feel free to post these in the comments below as well (though remember that it may take up to 24 hours for them to be available to others to read) so that others can include your requests in their prayers and celebrate your joys alongside you.
Closing: Take another few moments of silence to close your worship time. Breath deeply and give thanks for your time in worship today. When you feel ready end in vocal prayer, either of your own creation or read out loud the following: "O Holy One, mold me so that when they go low, I can go high. Enliven in me the thirst for your justice, energy for your creative resistance of the powers that be, and grace for being perfectly imperfect as you have created me to be. Amen."