Friday, March 4, 2022

Lukan Lessons and Carols for Lent: Ash Wednesday (March 2, 2022)

This year for Lent, I decided to do something different: instead of preaching a sermon every week, I'm going to read through Luke's gospel from beginning to end with my congregation. I will spend my energy creating liturgies that connect to the readings and help us think more deeply about why Luke shared his testimony with the world the way he did, and hopefully inspire us to think more seriously about our own testimony.

For the scripture readings, I'm largely using the International Children's Bible (ICB). This translation is easy to process when read aloud, lends itself to dramatic readings, and (importantly) unlike other versions that accomplish the same things, it tries to stay as close as possible to the original text - i.e., there are direct verse-to-verse parallels with more traditional translations, like the NRSV, NIV, or CEB.

I will post the liturgies for ensuing weeks as I write them. I'm happy for anyone to use any part(s) of this series in their own worship contexts with proper attribution, but I would request that you let me know in the comments that you're doing so.

Edited to add: I did not originally do this as a part of the Ash Wednesday Liturgy, but in retrospect, I might light the Advent wreath throughout the service, and then use it again at the end of Lent for a Tenebrae-like service on Good Friday. 

Ash Wednesday Worship Service (Liturgy by Rev. Katey Schwind Williams)

Opening Words:
“Many people have already applied themselves to the task of compiling an account of the events that have been fulfilled among us. They used what the original eyewitnesses and servants of the word handed down to us. Now, after having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, I have also decided to write a carefully ordered account for you, most honorable Theophilus. I want you to have confidence in the soundness of the instruction you have received.” [Luke 1:1-4, CEB]

Blessings to you this Lent, and welcome to Ash Wednesday worship. Christians are, and always have been, a people of story. We “prove” our faith not through science or logic, but through remembering and retelling our experiences of God. Indeed, that was what early worship was, and where Holy Scripture came from.

Today, storytelling has become a lost art, and testimony a loaded term, so that we’ve forgotten about our responsibility to share our faith in this way. As Luke explains in these words of introduction to his gospel, many people throughout time have already shared their testimony, their story of God’s redemptive work—but the fullness of God’s grace cannot be conveyed through any one person’s experience. It’s only by lifting our voices together, each one sharing their own experience of the divine from beginning to end, that we can begin to lift the veil between mortality and eternity. It’s only by sharing OUR stories with one another that we can hope to hear the entirety of God’s.

So listen closely, Theophilus—“Lover of God”. Listen to the story as Luke has experienced it. This Ash Wednesday, as we repent of our sins and return to God, let us return also to the beginning of the gospel story, hearing it with fresh ears and open eyes. And perhaps, by reclaiming our identity as a story-telling people, we might find renewed purpose in confidently proclaiming our own testimony in the world.

Throughout Lent, we will be paying special attention to words and phrases that we hear used to describe Jesus and writing them on speech bubble post-it notes. You may write them on your post-it notes as we go, or you can wait until the time for quiet reflection. There are extra notes if you need them.

Let us call ourselves to worship using the words printed in your bulletin.

Call to Worship (from the "Feasting on the Word Worship Companion," Year A, Vol. 1, p. 89)
Leader: We come to worship God as the Lenten season begins, aware of our frailty and our failings.
People: We come seeking God’s mercy, acknowledging our mortality.
Leader: Having received the waters of baptism, we are marked now with ashes.
People: The treasures of this earth do not last; our treasure is in heaven, our heart’s true home.

First Reading: Luke 1:5-56 (ICB)

Litany of Penitence
Leader: Let us respond to God’s Word through confession. When you hear “Together, we pray,” please respond by saying, “Have mercy on us, O God”: Holy and merciful God, we enter your presence in humility. We recognize ourselves in the stories of your people, but we struggle to admit the ways that we, too, have fallen short of your glory. We confess now the ways we have failed you in both faith and deed:

We have seen angels among us but have neglected to listen. Instead of joy and attentiveness, we respond with confusion and fear. We long to hear your voice, we but close our ears when you speak through others. Together, we pray: Have mercy on us, O God.

Like Zechariah, when you offer comfort and hope, we react with skepticism and doubt. We cannot imagine ourselves the recipients of your grace. We dismiss your promises as impossibilities. Our doubt silences us. Together, we pray: Have mercy on us, O God.

Like Elizabeth, we value the opinions of others above your approval. We withdraw from community to avoid judgement, even though there is nowhere we can go to escape your presence. We are ashamed of the lives that you have given us, never considering that your holy plan is greater than ours could ever be. Together, we pray: Have mercy on us, O God.

Like Mary, we, too, prepare for the divine presence to enter our lives. But unlike her, we hedge our bets, unwilling to place all of our trust in you. We maintain allegiances to mortal powers, instead of proclaiming ourselves to be your servants alone. We cling to self-sufficiency, instead of leaning on the community you offer. When we speak, we speak words of cautious self-preservation, instead of proclaiming your subversive Good News with wild abandon. Together, we pray: Have mercy on us, O God.

Lord of our lives, God of our stories, forgive us. Help us to hear your words more clearly, to listen more attentively, to speak more boldly, and to claim and proclaim our own story without fear as a testimony to your great mercy and love. In Christ’s name we pray, Amen.

Second Reading: Luke 1:57-80 (ICB)

Glory to God Hymn #109 “Blest Be the God of Israel”

Third Reading: Luke 2:1-21 (ICB)

Moment for Silent Reflection

Leader: Take this time to ponder the questions in the bulletin, or you can let your mind wander wherever the Spirit leads. There are blank paper and extra post-it notes available if you need them. (A moment of silent reflection is observed)

What words or phrases stood out to you?
Whose voice did you hear? Whose didn’t you hear?
Who’s missing from the story?
What questions do you have about the reading?
What words were used to describe Jesus?
When you picture this scene, what words would YOU use to describe it?

Fourth Reading: Luke 2:22-52 (ICB)

Prayer for Witness
Leader: Let us pray in word and in song. After each petition, please sing one verse of [Glory to God] Hymn #423.

Most holy and perfect one, you call us to witness to your love and grace poured out in the world. You call us to come as we are—broken, tired, grieving, sinful—and you offer to cleanse our hearts so that we might proclaim your goodness through our actions. Help us to be like Mary and Joseph, living your law and teaching those around us all that you command.

Create in me a clean heart, O God [x 3]
And renew a right spirit within me.

Faithful one, you promise that all our waiting will not be in vain. You promise that we shall see the Christ with our own eyes. Our salvation does not always come in the form that we expect, but your Spirit opens our hearts to recognize Jesus all around us. Help us to be like Simeon, patiently trusting in your promise and inviting others to marvel with us at your faithfulness.

Cast me not away from your presence [x 3]
And take not your Holy Spirit from me.

Unpredictable one, you reveal yourself first not to kings and emperors, but to those that our world has deemed the lowly and the least. Your Word is not reserved for the mighty; it is not to be shared only by the “worthy”. Every voice tells your story. Help us to be like Anna, refusing to let our age, status, relationship, isolation, or anything at all keep us from proclaiming your Good News.

Restore to me the joy of your salvation [x 3]
And uphold me with your free Spirit.

O wisdom from on high, your Word can be unsettling. It can make us uncomfortable, forcing us to think in brand new ways about heaven and earth. It sometimes requires us to stand against the powers of this earth, to break unspoken rules and cross invisible lines. Help us to be like young Jesus, going where we need to go, learning what we need to learn, saying what we need to say in order to let your justice and grace pour out into the world through our lives.

Create in me a clean heart, O God [x 3]
And renew a right spirit within me.

Leader: Together, let us pray the words that Jesus himself taught us, saying…

All: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name; thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. Amen.

Fifth Reading: Luke 3:1-22 (ICB)

Imposition of Ashes
Leader: Almighty God, we tell your story not only through our words, but through our bodies. We tell it when we are buried and raised again with you in baptism, and we tell it when we testify to our own mortality with mark of ashes. You have created us out of the dust of the earth to tell your story for all our days, and when our days are done, you claim us again through your promise through Jesus Christ our Savior. May these ashes bear witness to your gracious gift that gives us both life on earth and life everlasting. Amen.

(You may come forward if you wish and present either your forehead or hand to receive ashes.
If you prefer not to receive ashes, you may either cross your arms over your chest or remain in your seat. You may also bow your head if you wish to be sprinkled with water as a reminder of your baptism.)

Blessing and Charge: Luke 3:23-38 (ICB)
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. But also, remember that through Jesus, you are God’s, and to God you shall return. We are all connected, from generation to generation to generation. This is God’s story. This is OUR story. Keep listening as the story continues.

Leader: The Word of the Lord!
People: Thanks be to God!

(All depart quietly)

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