A call to worship, based on the NRSVUE version of Genesis 1:1-5.
One: When God began to create the heavens and the earth, Many: the earth was complete chaos, and darkness covered the face of the deep, One: at the same time, a rushing wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said,
Many: Let there be light. One: And there was light. The light and darkness were distinct, Many: And God called them good.
One: God named the light, Day Many: and the darkness, Night. One: There was evening and there was morning, the first day.
All: Swept in by the Breath of God, we gather in the goodness of this moment to worship the Creator.
Come, Holy One, Breathe in us your spirit-spark. Rest on us like a gentle wind. Transform our ways of being from muted grays to radiant rainbows, that we might find in you and in one another and in all creation the gifts of hope, healing, and liberation. Amen.
The Ignatian Imagination Prayer is a sensory, engaging spiritual practice that encourages one’s imagination to run free with the Spirit through scripture. Teresa A. Blythe writes in her book, 50 Ways to Pray, that the intent of this practice is “to imagine that you are physically present” in a particular scripture, “and to allow that scene to become a prayer for you.” (p 100)
Especially for passages that we know (or think we know) well, this spiritual exercise invites us to look, listen, and feel again. To be open to an awareness of words and emotions we hadn’t noticed before. To let the scripture speak to us in our present experience.
This practice can be used by individuals or in a group. To use it on your own, simply read slowly through the passage and the questions, taking the time you want to enter into each portion. Allow about twenty minutes to go through the following scripture. Jot down your experience in a journal, if you like, and any insights that dwelling in the word brought you.
For use in a group, read through the passage and questions, allowing more time than you think might be necessary. (As one who has received guided meditation before, I often feel rushed in my imaginings!) You may want to invite shared reflection at the end. A pdf version of this reflection is available here.
Prayer of preparation
Spirit of New Life, I/we ask for grace: that all my/our intentions, my/our actions, and my/our imaginings will be used for the service and praise of the Divine. Amen.
Ignatian Imagination Prayer
Within a few days [of the angel Gabriel’s visit to her], Mary set out and hurried to the hill country to a town of Judah, where she entered Zechariah’s house and greeted Elizabeth.
Take a moment to imagine yourself in this scene, not necessarily taking on the character of Mary or Elizabeth (or Zechariah). Simply be an observer for now.
What do you notice about Mary as she hurries down the roads of Judah? Does her face tell you anything about how she’s feeling?
What time of year is it in in Judah? What do you smell?
What does Zechariah and Elizabeth’s house look like? As Mary nears the house, when does she call out to Elizabeth? What does she say? Where is Elizabeth when she hears Mary call her name?
As soon as Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.
In your mind’s eye, notice how Mary and Elizabeth meet face-to-face.
What does it look like as the Holy Spirit settles on Elizabeth? Is there a visible change, or do you feel a shift in your surroundings?
Imagine Mary notices you, and calls out to you, too, to join their delighted embrace. Does anything move in you—does your heart beat quicker or your stomach do little flip flops? Stay there, in the scene, as a full participant in the story.
In a loud voice, Elizabeth exclaimed, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! But why am I so favored, that the mother of the Messiah should come to me? The moment your greeting reached my ears, the child in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who believed that what our God said to her would be accomplished.”
What is the energy like in the room as Elizabeth shouts this blessing? After her long journey, how does Mary react to Elizabeth’s words? Does anyone or anything else in the area also join the scene, drawn in by Elizabeth’s excitement?
Do you eagerly join in the blessing, or do you hold back?
Mary said: “My soul proclaims your greatness, O God, and my spirit rejoices in you, my Savior. For you have looked with favor upon your lowly servant, and from this day forward all generations will call me blessed. For you, the Almighty, have done great things for me and holy is your Name.
What does Mary’s song sound like? Is it in a major key or minor key; a rapid tempo or meandering pace? Does she start out tentatively or boldly? How is she moving her body?
Do you feel an impulse to sing or sway along? What is Elizabeth doing?
You have shown strength with your arm; you have scattered the proud in their conceit; you have deposed the mighty from their thrones and raised the lowly to high places. You have filled the hungry with good things, while you have sent the rich away empty.
What emotions cross Mary’s face as she describes God’s actions? Are there hints of rage, hope, frustration, or joy? How does the tune and volume of her singing shift in these stanzas?
As you hear her revolutionary words, sung there in your presence, do you feel nervous…or comforted?
You have come to the aid of Israel your servant, mindful of your mercy— the promise you made to our ancestors— to Sarah and Abraham and their descendants forever.”
As Mary’s song ends, survey the scene again. Look all around you. What do you notice? Has anything changed between Mary’s arrival and now?
Notice your body in the scene—emotions, sensations, tension.
What do Elizabeth and Mary do following this greeting, blessing, and song?
Let your full imagination run free now. Allow the scene to change in any way you feel inspired. Linger and interact with the characters there. What are you doing? Do you go off to tell someone about your experience? How do you describe what happened?
Either in a journal or in a group discussion, take time to reflect on the experience. What does it mean to make ready for the birth of the Divine within us? Consider how Mary and Elizabeth prepared.
What does this mean to you? What part of the story helps you lean into a welcoming spirit? What part of the story disturbs you most? What insight does this imaginative exercise provide?
Close by offering a prayer of thanksgiving to God or pray a version of the Prayer Jesus Taught.
In our backyard, a gorgeous, expansive oak hovers with a regal grandeur, providing shade and scurrying space for the squirrels, chipmunks, blue jays, and goldfinches. The last few weeks, the oak has been dropping thousands of acorns, which plummet to the earth with a powerful velocity. (One does not want to be sitting under her branches when there is any wind, lest an acorn drops with forceful precision on an exposed head…) It’s clear that autumn is arriving as the boughs sigh with relief as they lighten with each released acorn.
Tomorrow marks the autumn equinox here in the northern hemisphere of Planet Earth. In Madison, the weather has subtly shifted with the days still (mostly) bright and warm, and the nights cool and breezy. In this threshold between seasons, the earth reminds me to prepare for the winter ahead. The annuals and perennials alike are shifting their focus, nudging me, too, to let go of those things that were wonderful for a season, but now need to be put to rest…perhaps until next spring, or perhaps for good.
O Spirit of Change, prepare my heart for the winter ahead, but not before I have celebrated the fruit of summer. In this Great Transition Time, as the earth continues in its path, may I sense, like the Mother Oak, a lightening in my body, as the gifts of the long summer days drop to their earthen womb below. Amen.
Today at Madison Mennonite, we round out a full year of worshipping distanced–a sobering, disappointing, and often discouraging reality…while also a testament to the Spirit’s faithfulness in all circumstances.
We are taking some time today and in our Koinonia Groups next week to hold the tension, grief, and anxiety of the last year. It feels important–necessary, even–to mourn the pain that the pandemic has caused: bodily, relational, emotional, economic, spiritual pain.
Then there are the divisions that have emerged or grown more obvious: cracks within familial relationships, extreme othering within political discourse, racial inequity.
Yet I think it’s important, as the church, to recognize that some of the divisions, like physical distancing, have emerged for the sake of community and the love of neighbor. This purposeful distancing is counter-intuitive for Christ-followers, and yet it aligns with the call to think bigger, beyond ourselves, from what’s good for a few to what’s good for the collective.
These are complicated, contradicting, and disorienting realities. I am hoping that our world grows a little gentler this week, as we hold space for ourselves and for one another. So many are dealing with pandemic-inflicted wounds that are still tender to the touch. I pray for God’s grace to abound.
A Congregational Prayer of Remembrance Eternal Presence, This has been a strange year. Disorienting and isolating for some, liberating and full of opportunity for others, our experiences are disparate.
As we look back on this year, O God, help us be gentle with ourselves and with one another. Draw us together in curiosity and compassion. Unite us in our common commitments, to loving our neighbors, extending the tables piled high with grace, as we continue to seek your reign in our midst.
We give you thanks, Abiding Spirit, for journeying with us, renewing our spirits through the generosity of this Beloved Community. In Christ’s holy name we pray. Amen.
A prayer for the second Sunday of Advent, Year B, based on the lectionary text of Psalm 85:1-2,8-13.
O Steadfast Love, you are the source of goodness and grace, and you delight in the sweet embrace of righteousness and shalom. Speak your peace to us, your people, that our faithfulness might be restored; through Christ we pray, Amen.
Author of Life, Painbearer, and Peacemaker, we long for you. As the sunlight diminishes each day, the shadows seem to overtake our world. Chaos, confusion, and uncertainty threaten to spill into every vacant space in our minds and hearts.
We long for your presence. All: Loving God, be our peace.
As we move through this election season, we pray for inner peace. We pray for an awareness of our belovedness, of the Spirit’s empowering presence. Center us in our true, whole selves. Give us clarity of mind and a discerning heart.
We pray for inner peace. All: Loving God, be our peace.
We pray, too, for the peace we share with the world. In the midst of harsh and hateful language, may we speak words of healing. In the midst of hypocrisy and hyperbole, may we act with integrity. In all the ways we live and move this week, may we be bearers of justice, mercy, and nonviolence, modeled on the way of Jesus.
We pray for our peace witness in the world. All: Loving God, be our peace.
We pray for the peace of the world. We pray for those in power, that they will use their power for unity and not for division. We pray for each election site in our communities and nation, that intimidation and fear-mongering will be absent, and safety, wisdom, and a commitment to just process will flourish.
We pray for our communities, that neighbors will reach out to neighbors in recognition of our common humanity.
We pray for the peace of the world. All: Loving God, be our peace.
We long for your presence and peace, O God, in all people and all places, this day and everyday.
All: We ask this in the name of the Creator, Incarnate Wisdom, and Inner Breath. Amen.
Lord, have mercy. “Lord, have mercy.” It’s one of those phrases that suits so many situations and can be taken so many different ways. Sometimes we utter it in exasperation, in disbelief or sarcasm, with an eye roll for good measure. Perhaps more often these days, we say it in grief, shock, or surrender. It’s a line for when we are at a loss for words or when words are simply insufficient.
The Canaanite woman of Matthew 15 yells this phrase at the top of her lungs. “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented.” Jesus doesn’t answer, but we know that he heard her, for the disciples sidled up to Jesus and urged him to send her away. “She keeps shouting. Her voice is shrill.”
Jesus weighs the situation, doesn’t say she can’t be there, and sort of diplomatically says, “Sorry, can’t help. You’re not in my constituency. Not my responsibility.”
The woman, of course, persists. She jostles forward, using her body to block his forward progress. “Help me, Rabbi.”
Again, with the excuse that the healing salve he has developed only works in certain cases, Jesus denies her access – he doesn’t have enough to spare, and it won’t work for her type.
Yet she remains, unmoving at his feet. “Yes, Lord, yet even my type are healed by a drop of this balm for which we would scour the rubbish heaps at the edge of town.”
Jesus, whether in mock or true surprise, responds, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”
Her wish, the desire of her heart, in contrast the Pharisees earlier in chapter 15, is pure and life-giving. What comes out of her mouth is the hope of her daughter’s healing. And her daughter is healed instantly.
Healings in the Gospel of Matthew Looking at the Gospel of Matthew as a whole, healings like this are commonplace. Generally, you can separate the healing stories into two themes or categories.
The first category is the smaller of the two. These healing stories are grouped because they’re the ones where Jesus is the proactive actor. There’s Peter’s mother-in-law in ch. 8, who is ill and Jesus goes in to heal her. She does not, in the text, ask for healing and yet receives it. Or there’s the man with a withered hand who Jesus encounters upon entering the synagogue in ch.12. Again, the man does not ask for healing but receives it. The healing of these stories reflects a proactive grace or proactive salvation – these are the people whom Jesus seeks out or whom he seems to just encounter along the way and offers healing.
The second category is the bigger group: healings that occur because people have sought out Jesus. If the first group shows the proactive healings of Jesus, these stories show the responsive grace of Jesus. Certainly, the Canaanite woman of Matthew 15 falls in this camp, but this group also includes the crowds who are constantly following Jesus around. Who materialize instantaneously as he walks into towns, or gets off a boat, or comes down a mountain. Many are healed or cured because they have sought out Jesus.
As a whole, the Gospel of Matthew encapsulates both proactive and responsive healings and grace. There are those who seek Jesus out and those whom he encounters along the way, and the end result is the same: healing.
Seeking Jesus Out Given today’s text, I want to take a closer look at those who seek Jesus out. The story of the Canaanite woman connects closely with three other healing stories in Matthew.
Two of them involve two blind men – so four blind men in total – and the third is a father who advocates for his epileptic son. In each of these four stories, the ones-seeking-healing enter the story with the same line: Lord, have mercy! And they all do so with equal gusto and persistence, for they are portrayed as speaking this line, “Lord, have mercy,” while “crying loudly,” or “shouting” or jostling through a crowd. All, inevitably, find healing in Jesus’ response.
But the Canaanite woman’s story diverges here. The first distinction is that while all experience some level of marginalization because of being affected by illness, the Canaanite woman has two additional stigmas. She’s a woman, of course, an unfortunate gender in that context. And the fact that she makes herself known in public through shouting is serious faux pas.
And, she’s Canaanite. The ethnic backgrounds of the others are not mentioned, from which we can infer that the men were Jewish. She’s a woman…from the wrong tribe. So the first divergence is that she should not be there; or, if she’s going to be there, she should know her place and stay in the background.
The other detail that is unique is that she is the only one who meets resistance from Jesus and the disciples when she cries out for mercy. The disciples–silent in the other three stories–openly voice their desire for her to shut up and go away. Not only is her voice not welcome, but they also want her to leave. Jesus also puts up a barrier for healing that he does not construct for the others.
She did nothing different from the others who approached Jesus for healing, crying out, “Lord, have mercy!” Yet she encounters resistance. The relevance of how this still plays out today–even at the highest rungs of social and political power–should not be overlooked.
The “Foreigner” of Isaiah Commentaries pitch a variety of hypotheses on what is happening between the Canaanite woman and Jesus. In drawing in Isaiah 56, my sense is that the Canaanite woman is the example par excellence of the “foreigner” in Isaiah 56, whom God has committed to “gather in.” Her body and her embodiment of covenant faithfulness bridge the good news of the Hebrew Scriptures and Jesus’ teaching.
Hear again the words of Isaiah 56:6-7:
And the foreigners who join themselves to me, Ministering to me, Loving the name of YHWH and worshipping me– All who observe the Sabbath and do not profane it, And cling to my Covenant– These I will bring to my holy mountain And make them joyful in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices Will be acceptable on my altar…
The Canaanite woman persistently joins herself to the Son of David, who shares Canaanite blood with her through their common foremothers Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth. She ministers to Jesus with her wisdom and tenacity, acknowledging Jesus’ authority, and throws herself at Jesus’ feet like a servant.
She is committed, in her own way, to the law of the Sabbath, setting aside her daily labors to seek restoration, renewal, and healing for those in her care. The desire of her heart is a worthy offering.
She knows that she is one who, while an outcast of Israel, deserves a welcome at the house of prayer. In fact, she will not be kept from it, even if she has to scour the rubbish heaps at the edge of town or sweep up the crumbs from the communion table. I Am Who I Am has promised to gather all those in – the outcasts who seek the Holy One and the ones the Holy One encounters on the way.
Have Mercy, O God For what or for whom do you seek healing? When have you received healing as a gift?
Whether we have sought out Jesus or unexpectedly encountered him on our journeys, our status as foreigners or even imposters will not be a barrier to the welcome table.
As we see others drawn in, perhaps throwing elbows and shouting for mercy, may we not stand in their path, or ask them to be quiet and leave. May we instead step out of the way, for all deserve healing and a place at the table. The Spirit is at work, gathering us to the holy mountain, where there is enough bread and wine for us all.
Prayer of Petition, in preparation for Communion
Have mercy on us, O God, Son of David. If we might but taste the crumbs which fall to the ground, that will be enough to feed our faith, to make us whole. Draw us in, we who were once far off, to your holy mountain, to your house of prayer – not only for our healing, but for the healing of our children, our siblings, our community, for the healing of all nations. Amen.
Featured Image: Bazzi Rahib, Ilyas Basim Khuri. The Canaanite Woman Asks for Healing for Her Daughter, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=57555 [retrieved August 18, 2020]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ilyas_Basim_Khuri_Bazzi_Rahib_-_Jesus_and_the_Canaanite_Woman_-_Walters_W59243A_-_Full_Page.jpg.