A Letter of Gratitude and Goodbye

October 4, 2017

Dear Willow Grove Presbyterian Church sisters and brothers in Christ,

Over the years, I have written many letters to you, but this is the hardest one I have ever had to write.

I need to share some changes in store for me, our family, and Willow Grove Church.  With the approval of the Committee on Ministry (COM) of Los Ranchos Presbytery, the session of the First Presbyterian Church of Garden Grove, California has invited me to serve as their Transitional Pastor as the congregation discerns the next chapter of their ministry and mission. I have accepted their invitation and will begin my work with them in late November.

Therefore, it is with sadness, hope, and gratitude to God that I request the dissolution of my pastoral relationship with Willow Grove Presbyterian Church, effective November 5, 2017.  My last Sunday in the pulpit and day of work will be November 5.   I have asked that the session call a congregational meeting on Sunday, Oct. 22, following worship, to act on my request.

 This decision has come after much prayer and reflection.  Jeffrey and I believe God is calling us to start a new chapter of our lives in California.  Being closer to extended family, including our nieces and nephews, has become a priority.  Also, my brother recently moved to Southern California. While we are some years from retirement, Southern California is the place where we would like to live.

Jeffrey and I are so grateful for the ways you have loved and supported us as a couple and a family.  Willow Grove Church helped love and raise Jackson and Joshua to become the wonderful young men they are today.  You have walked with Jeffrey and me through some of our greatest joys and some of our deepest sorrows.   You have laughed with me over the many foibles of church life and have been kind enough to share your lives and faith journeys with me.

The Committee on Ministry will assign a liaison to Willow Grove and will help the session and the congregation take the next steps.  Over the next 4 weeks, I am fully committed to my pastoral responsibilities, transitional tasks, and helping secure preachers for November and Advent.  Jeffrey will stay with Joshua in New Jersey through the end of December and then he will join me in California the first week of January.

My beloved Willow Grove family – I am humbled and grateful to have been your pastor for the past eleven and a half years.  I trust you know this. Together we have helped Willow Grove Church be a healthy spiritual home for children, youth and adults to grow as disciples of Jesus Christ.  Together we have deepened and broadened our mission.  I am convinced Willow Grove will continue to be a vital community of faith who seeks to follow Jesus Christ, worships God, shares the story of God’s love in Christ, grows in friendship, and serves neighbors near and far.

Grace and peace,



Wake Up! Time to Love

Wake Up!  Time to Love
Romans 13:8-14
September 10, 2017
Rev. Cynthia Cochran-Carney,
Willow Grove Presbyterian Church, Scotch Plains, New Jersey

            8 Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

            11 And do this, understanding the present time: The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. 12 The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. 13 Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. 14 Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh.     Romans 13:8-14

I spent part of every summer of my growing up visiting my aunt and uncle’s lakehouse near Spokane, Washington.  The house was on Newman Lake.  It was paradise for me. I spend every day exploring around the shore of the lake fishing, going out in the boat, swimming, playing volleyball and croquet with my cousins, playing the huge player piano and singing Moon River and Bye Bye Blackbird, playing hide and seek.

When everyone came to visit, the lakehouse was full.  Early on my Uncle Wade showed me my special room.  As I look back now it was a closet, but to me it was my special room with a special bed (fancy cot). I loved to pull quilts close against the cool night air….well, that was a long time ago, but I can still remember how good that felt, to be warm and safe and loved.

I remember one day when I was a teenager, after sleeping till noon the way teenagers do, I lay in my cocoon and listened to the sounds of my sister and cousins who had been up for hours, playing outside, and to the voice of my grandmother and aunts talking as they made cinnamon rolls.  I leaped out of bed, raced to get ready, knowing that I had missed out on an important part of the day, that adventures had already happened, that conversations were over, that opportunities had passed. I had to get out of bed! No time to sleep late! Who knows what might happen during a day at Newman Lake house. And I didn’t want to miss out on a thing!

Paul wanted to evoke that same deep sense of urgency in his congregation in Rome. “Wake up, get up,” he writes. “Get going, it’s time!” This is the day, this is the time for salvation. Don’t live in the darkness of the night; live in the light of the day! What has happened that has Paul so excited, so passionate? God has revealed himself in Jesus Christ, that’s what has happened! Paul had a dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus and he spent the rest of his life starting churches and teaching.  What God has done in the world, in a certain time and place through the life and ministry and crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, has changed everything, has changed the world.  The world is now a different place, says Paul. The kingdom of God has entered into the world, a wounded world that has longed for God and groaned for good news. God is here. The good news is that in the death and resurrection of Jesus God prevailed. Death is defeated; it is not the final thing. New life in Christ is the final thing.

There is some debate about whether or not Paul’s passion for people to adopt his own urgency for faith and conversion came from his belief that the Messiah was to come again at any time.  Possibly early on in his Christian life Paul thought that. But his letters span many years, and the letter to the Romans was written in about 57 AD, about 25 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. Paul’s energy and commitment to his firm faith in God’s saving power was only strengthened over the years of his ministry, despite no return yet of Jesus the Christ.

Fundamental to Paul was his unshakeable belief that in Christ, God had effected a cosmic change in creation. Everything was different in how God related to the world, and so everything must be different in how the world now must relate to God. It was hard for Paul to comprehend that people would not want to profess faith in this new kingdom that God had created, in this new relationship that was possible between God and his children, in this new possibility of trust and hope and the freedom that comes from giving all that you are to God’s care. Paul’s passion lasted his whole life. He knew that this good news was too good not to share.

What does Paul want people to do because of this good news?

First – Live in the light.

As Paul writes in this part of the letter to the Romans, he is applying his theology to actions.  He addresses the question of how we now need to behave and live given our having become all new people through baptism into Christ.  He uses the imagery of daytime sunlight and nighttime darkness to convey the sense that if we know the light of Christ, then our actions should reflect people who know they can be seen.

Then and now, most crime, most attacks, most evil happens under the cloak of darkness.  Of course, Paul is speaking as much metaphorically as he is literally in terms of deeds done in the dark.  He is saying that whether it’s 2:00pm or 2:00am, if you are in Christ, then you stand in his light.  Behave as though you are always visible, Paul says.  You cannot be a child of the light and yet hope to get away with saying or doing things that you hope no one will see for whatever the reason.  Trying to keep others in the dark as to what you are up to is not for people who are following Christ.

You live in the eternal daylight of Christ’s holy light.  So act like it!  You cannot be someone in love with the light and then do wrong, hurtful, unloving things in the dark.

Let us put on an armor of light, put on Christ, Paul asserts. This is a spiritual armor. It is the armor of character, love, and healing.

 “We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.”                                                                                                               Madeleine L’Engle

The other message comes just before Paul invokes the light-dark metaphor – simply our high Christian calling to be people marked by love. Love is fulfilling the law.

 Love one another.

How do we do that? Do we first have to believe in a loving God or act in loving ways? Which comes first?

In his book The Year of Living Biblically, A. J. Jacobs shares his experience of trying to adhere to all the Bible’s laws and rules for one full year. He tries to follow the major, well-known rules—such as the Ten Commandments—but also the more obscure ones, like this command from Leviticus 19:19: “Nor shall you put on a garment made of two different materials.” What emerges is a humorous yet poignant story of an impossible quest.  (1)

“Here’s my plan,” Jacobs writes during the first month of his experiment:

In college, I learned about the theory of cognitive dissonance. This says, in part, if you behave in a certain way, your beliefs will eventually change to conform to your behavior. So that’s what I’m trying to do. If I act like I’m faithful and God loving for several months, then maybe I’ll become faithful and God-loving. If I pray every day, then maybe I’ll start to believe in the Being to whom I’m praying.

 Over the course of the year, Jacobs finds that in some ways this theory holds true. His outward behavior has an effect on his inward beliefs and attitudes. For example, saying a mandatory prayer of thanksgiving each day does help him to feel more gratitude. He wonders, what comes first—one’s actions or one’s beliefs?

Here’s Paul’s answer: neither one. Action doesn’t come first, nor does belief. What comes first is the love of God.

In our tradition as Presbyterians, we baptize infants. I love this practice. I choke up every time I have the privilege to take part in the sacrament. That’s because to me infant baptism is a bold, affirmation that what comes first is the love of God. It proclaims that even before we can utter the word God, God claims us. God comes to us—not because of our own faith, not because of our own beliefs or actions, but simply because God loves us.

Our life of faith is more than just a set of rules and regulations to be followed. It is not just about what we do, although what we do is indeed important. Furthermore, our life of faith is more than just a set of beliefs and doctrines to be declared. It is not just about what we believe, although what we believe is important as well.

Our life of faith is ultimately found in the radical and inclusive love of God. For Christians, it is found in Jesus the Christ, whose life, death, and resurrection model for us a love that breaks down barriers and fulfills the whole of the law.

This passage from Romans makes it clear for people who would seek to follow all the rules of the Bible. “The commandments,” says Paul, “are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” We are not bound to a strict, legalistic, or literal following of the law. We fulfill the law by choosing love.  You want rules? Love God, your neighbor, yourself.

On the surface, this seems easy. We can break free from all the rules and regulations! Just following the rule of love.

It is not, however, necessarily easier. In fact, living by a rule of love involves a lot more intentionality and critical engagement. There is no script to follow. The question becomes – What is most loving?

It is much easier to follow a set of rules than it is to love each person we meet. Love requires vulnerability, hospitality, forgiveness, risk, and trust. Love is hard, and it asks us to do hard things. It asks us to live in community with people who are not just like us; it asks us to share our lives with those with whom we do not always agree; it requires us to forgive one another’s wrongs. Love asks us to do hard things, but it also envelopes us in light, showing us what it means to be fully known and fully loved.

Paul says – Wake up!  Time to Love!  The God of Love awakens us to a new day.  Be people who live in Christ’s light.

So where are you today?  When you think about faith, do you think it is mainly a set of rules – do’s and don’ts?  Do you understand faith as something that tells you who your enemies are?  Who to hate?  Does faith become a burden because you are trying to hide from God? Do you wonder if God is keeping score?  Or has faith and being a Christian become comfortable, like a familiar pair of shoes?  Has faith become simply a reminder to be nice and polite?  Or is Paul pointing us to a deeper, richer, radical source of meaning and source of wonder and mystery and transformation for us and the world? Does faith move us to be more loving, more committed to God’s shalom? Can we feel that urgency and passion he feels?

I want to close with a story.  Rev. Joann Haejong Lee is associate pastor of the House of Hope Presbyterian Church in St. Paul, Minnesota.  She gave me a new perspective on faith based on rules or faith based on love.

The household I grew up in did not have a lot of rules. My parents were first-generation immigrants who worked 12 hours a day, six days a week. So even if we’d had a lot of rules, they would not have been home to enforce most of them.

When I began high school, I treated anything resembling a rule as more of just a general guideline. My parents expected me to regulate myself, and often they were too tired and too busy to be strict.

After I got my driver’s license, however, my parents did ask me to do one thing: call if I would be home after 10. 

I distinctly remember one weekend when I lost track of time as I hung out with friends. As I drove home, I steeled myself, preparing to get in trouble and for the punishment that would follow. 

But when I walked through the door, my dad was so relieved he began to cry. I could see in his face all the worry that had built up each minute I was late. His love, turned from concern to relief, was palpable. And it was that love, not any rule, that made me strive to be a better daughter and a better person. (2)

In Romans, the Apostle Paul says that “love is the fulfilling of the law.” When we allow God’s love to encompass us, and then share that love with others, we are able to give even beyond the generosity, care, and concern for neighbor that the laws were set up to cultivate. In fact, the call to love is not an escape from our duties to one another. It’s a call to live with even more intentionality and attention to the needs of others.

We do so not because some rules or laws tell us we have to but because we have experienced that radical and welcoming love ourselves, and that love compels us to strive to be better. And to live in midst of brothers and sisters in Christ – who can offer Christ’s love, comfort, truth, and together we can serve our neighbors with compassion and justice.We are not called to be rule followers. We are called to experience and understand the deep love that undergirds and upholds the commandments of God—and by intimately being known and loved by our God, to then extend and share that love with the world.

Wake up!  Live in Christ’s light!  Love! Amen.

1) Rev. Joann Haejong Lee, “Sunday, September 7, 2014,”  christiancentury.org
2) Rev. Joann Haejong Lee, “Rules Vs. Love,” christiancentury.org

Following the Star in this Messy World

star-and-magiFollowing the Star in this Messy World
Isaiah 60:1-6, Matthew 2:1-18
Jan. 1, 2017  New Year’s Day,                                                     Focus on Epiphany
Sermon preached by Rev. Cynthia Cochran-Carney at Willow Grove Presbyterian Church, Scotch Plains, New Jersey

The big night has passed for Mary and Joseph.  They have packed away the swaddling clothes, cleaned up the stable, and moved into a little house in Bethlehem with their new baby.  They have been there for a while now.

Since the night when the shepherds and angels and everyone showed up in a wild blur of glory and honor, it’s been kind of quiet.  Really, there is almost nobody bringing meals or checking in on the young couple, a friendly hello here or a kind gesture there, perhaps, but they are not living near life-long neighbors, friends of their parents throwing a baby shower or aunties offering advice. They are kind of all alone – maybe seeing relatives of relatives from time to time since Joseph was from the house and family of David.  But this was not the way they had imagined their family life would start – not even once they rearranged their expectations to include God-incarnate crawling across the living room floor.

Joseph rented them a little house with room for a woodworking workshop, not too far from the stable, actually, but near enough to town that he got a little business, enough to keep food on the table.  They sent news back to Nazareth of the child’s birth, a few snapshots and updates now and then, –

“He just rolled over on his own!” “He took his first steps yesterday!” but no grandparents or cousins had yet met the toddler Jesus.  It had been just the three of them, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, in a kind of suspended rhythm of adjustment and happiness, sleep deprivation, an in-between time of sorts, settling into the miracle they shared, getting to know each other, becoming a family.

Until the day the pagans from the East showed up and called their little boy the king of the Jews.

Just when life began to feel rather ordinary,  when this baby had begun to feel like he was theirs, a reminder that he is not arrives in the form of sages from a far-off land, astrologers, mystic-scholars who had been watching the skies for signs of God.

Surprising, perhaps, that those with no personal stake in the story, with no generational anticipation of a Messiah, no claim whatsoever to the promises of Yahweh to the people of Yahweh, are the ones Yahweh sends next.  And their arrival bursts the bubble and exposes the light to all the world.

Epiphany, we call this day of focusing on the story in Matthew 2 celebrated on Jan. 6.  The word means – appearing.   God says – “See that star? – That is light for all people.”   That changes your perspective, and lays opens your life before you differently.

You realize that the Christmas moment was God WITH US, Epiphany is GOD with us.  Suddenly we see that Christmas story is much bigger than we first imagined.  Not just little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.  Sweet and cuddly though he may have just been, this isn’t your own private Messiah any longer, folks.  He belongs to the whole earth.

I have this crazy, cozy image of Mary and Joseph with these visitors, after their camels wisemen-camelhave been tended to and bedded down, when the strangers had washed up and unpacked a little bit, and the lamps are lit and the table is set. The meal at the table between these people who smell different and look different and wear different clothing and speak different languages and whose paths never, ever should have crossed in any conceivable way, but who were right now breaking bread together, drinking wine together, sharing together what used to be mostly their own private secret that nobody else could relate to but them.

And I almost can picture that star exploding right then. It had guided the Magi to the child, over desert and mountains, through night and day and night and day and night and day they followed its singular purpose, driven by the quest, knowing this is something big, being led right to it.  And then, from the moment they laid eyes on him, and Mary and Joseph laid eyes on them, the secret was out.

Back in Jerusalem, King Herod is now chomping at the bit to stamp out this newly discovered threat to his power, and the news is out, things are not business as usual; God has really come, the world is topsy-turvy.  He is plotting evil.

overview21-600x400And then I imagine the star, it’s purpose completed, shatters into a trillion pieces, filling the sky with scattering shards of radiance from one end of the globe to the other.

I picture the visitors staying for a while. After all, it took many months, maybe years, to get there; they’re not just going to stay one night and leave. At least, I wouldn’t.  I won’t drive 6 hours to my sister’s in Pittsburgh just for an afternoon.  No way. You’ve got to make the visit worthwhile.  Share a few meals, spend a night or three, settle in long enough to catch up over morning coffee and debrief over tea before bed.

So what was it like, adjusting to being next to the miracle for a while?  Was it all the more miraculous for its ordinariness? How did it feel to go from a distant star and a lifelong, theoretical quest for truth to a flesh and blood child who smeared his high chair with carrot mash and falling down exhausted to take a nap?

What was it like for Joseph and Mary and for the strangers from the East, to fall into some daily patterns together, to have almost nothing humanly in common and yet get one another at a level nobody else on earth could, because your very presence represents to the other that this really is real, something really big is really happening.

I think that is part of what we experience as the church – being the ones reminding each other that God has come, that God is here, and that our very lives are part of the wonder and life-giving, love-bringing conspiracy of God.

When they decided it was time for them to leave, the wise ones remembered the dream, the dream warning not to go back to Herod, and the Magi returned home by another road. I am sure Herod was steaming mad because they never swung back by the palace!

Just after the hugs and blessings and goodbyes, the little family turning back inside, sighing, and expecting, perhaps, that life might get back to normal, normal is redefined again. Another road. Epiphany keeps going.

Their road is revealed when, like the one who told him two years ago not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife, an angel messenger invades Joseph’s dreams again, take the child and his mother and flee, right now, go to Egypt. Get up! NOW.  It’s your turn to be the strangers from a foreign land, Joseph. God-with-us, who was born in a stable and is now a homeless refugee, and you along with him; foreigners in a foreign land.fieweb11

So to the land of Egypt they went, (part of the Roman Empire at the time), seeking safety and welcome in the hospitality, hearts and homes of strangers, who are part of the whole story anyway, while back home among the God’s chosen people, the children of Israel, “King of the Jews” Herod’s terrible wrath and fear commanded the deaths of all the male children under two in an effort to stamp out the light of the world before the flame caught and spread.

Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’

I hate that part of the story and will never understand it, and don’t have a whole lot to say about it, except to notice both that God’s love doesn’t keep madness from happening but suffers it with us.  My heart breaks when I am confronted with the Herods today and the realities of evil and violence that erupt when some in authority are threatened.   As sweeping and awful as Herod’s act of terrible evil was, it seemed not to make a dent whatsoever in the God-with-us project; and while Herod himself is long dead and gone, love endures forever, profoundly and mightily in small acts of kindness and care, and the every day, transformative sharing of life by ordinary folks that puncture the darkness with God’s light every moment of every day.

After Herod’s death the little family goes home for the first time, to Nazareth, to raise their first grader in Galilee among their own people, in their own village, with the grandparents, and the lifelong neighbors, and streets they grew up on, and the tiny, provincial world that had cradled and shaped them before their lives were ripped open by the light of the world.

epiphany_4420cEpiphany is our holy invitation to the miracle being revealed in our own lives, and shimmering in all the world.

Whatever this year has to bring, God is here.
Whatever the world goes through in the coming days, weeks and months, nothing can disrupt
the God-with-us project.
This truth does not belong to us. We belong to it.

So friends, let us be light-bearers, hope tellers, star gazers, descendants of the foreign magi who set out in trust that God will appear.

Love has invaded the whole earth and summoned all people to its unquenchable light that shines brightest in the ordinary moments between friends and strangers, in this messy, real, world.  So like the adventurers of old, we will watch together, open and ready, for the appearance of God with us, each and every day.

Star Words

(We worshiped in the Stone Chapel around tables in the round) 15843965_1206094186094846_7414783370418811842_o 15844837_1206094232761508_1738806302323678002_o

And now we are going to start a new tradition.  This practice has been part of Epiphany worship services of many friends and colleagues.  I have a basket of Star Words, words written on paper stars in this basket.  As we remember the wisemen and the star they followed,  we are called to be open to God’s guiding presence in our lives.  The word you choose is your Star Word for the new year.  Place it somewhere where you will see it often – near computer, mirror, refrigerator, car, desk.

Your word hopefully will give you a different way to approach your prayer life. How is God speaking to you through the particular word you got?   How can we keep reflecting on this word throughout the year and notice how God may be helping us grow, reflect, and deepen our sense of God’s presence in our lives?

My Star Word for 2017 is -COMMITMENT.  I am thinking about my commitments of time, energy, devotion, love.  I wonder in this next year how I will need to say “no” to some new opportunities so I can stay focused on my current commitments.  

* Parts of this sermon were adapted from a sermon by Rev. Kara Root, “This Bright, Blessed Mess,”  January 3, 2016


Doing The Hard Thing

175866-we-can-do-hard-thingsIt has been quite a while since I posted on this blog.  I have been writing sermons and reflections, but then I planted them other places and forgot to also plant them here.  It is a hard thing for me to remember all places I want to share my thoughts and the insights of others.

Sometimes a song gives me new inspiration and resolve.

On a crisp Sunday evening in early October, Jeffrey and I attended a concert with one of my favorite singer-songwriters, Carrie Newcomer. She sang a song that was inspired by her (now grown) daughter, who attended a Montessori school. When the children were getting ready to do something new that was going to be a stretch for them, the teachers would say, “You can do this hard thing.” It was a way to remind students that this was going to be a challenging task and that they were prepared to tackle it.

Every day people face challenges large and small. I find these words important in my own life, my ministry, and as a parent.  I turn to God for strength and grace so I may have hard conversations, listen to words of sadness, help my sons take on new challenges in school & job opportunities, be willing to risk bold words and actions as a pastor.

What hard thing are you facing in your life?  What have you experienced that may give you some of the tools you will need to face this challenge?  How do you pray to God in the midst of doing this hard thing?

Enjoy this song by Carrie Newcomer.

Worshiping at Home Resources Jan. 24, 2016

Worshipping at Home

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Willow Grove Presbyterian Church

josh snowAfter a historic snowstorm, we are all at home.  Even though we are not sitting together in the sanctuary, we are still the church, the Body of Christ, disciples who are called to respond to God’s amazing grace through loving God, our neighbor and ourselves.  May these materials be meaningful and helpful to you.

Praise Song  –

My Life is in You Lord

Link to video   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yjtSwSrE8ps

My life is in You, Lord

My strength is in You, Lord

My hope is in You, Lord

In You, it’s in You


My life is in You, Lord

My strength is in You, Lord

My hope is in You, Lord

In You, it’s in You


I will praise You with all of my life

I will praise You with all of my strength

With all of my life, with all of my strength

All of my hope is in You

Worshipping from Home Prayer

Instead of gathering in the sanctuary, we come together in spirit.

The snow has stopped falling. The sun has risen.

We give thanks, O God, for the beauty of your creation,

gleaming bright in the new light of day.

Help us feel your love today and the love of our church family.

O God, who brought us to the bright light of this new day,

bring us to the guiding light of eternity. Amen.

Hymn  Great is Thy Faithfulness

video link (sing along!)   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dTKIqmdfHSk

Great is Thy faithfulness,” O God my Father,

There is no shadow of turning with Thee;

Thou changest not, Thy compassions, they fail not

As Thou hast been Thou forever wilt be.


“Great is Thy faithfulness!” “Great is Thy faithfulness!”

Morning by morning new mercies I see;

All I have needed Thy hand hath provided—

“Great is Thy faithfulness,” Lord, unto me!


Summer and winter, and springtime and harvest,

Sun, moon and stars in their courses above,

Join with all nature in manifold witness

To Thy great faithfulness, mercy and love.


Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth,

Thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide;

Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow,

Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside!


Prayer of Confession

Wondrous God, we confess that at times our doubts and fears override

our hope and faith.

Forgive us when we lose sight of the joy of Your love

and instead fall into despair or indifference.

Lift up our spirits, Lord, and help us to remember

the promise of new life here and now,

not just the hope of resurrection for the future.

We give thanks for Your Son, Jesus the Christ,

who continues to offer us new life,

who continues to turn us and the world around

and upside down,

who continues to break down the walls of death, evil and hate.

Forgive us, restore us and renew us.

Help us practice resurrection each day.


Friends,  in Jesus Christ you are forgiven.  You are offered healing and hope, forgiveness and amazing grace. Amen.


Psalm 51:1-9  (printed below from The Message)

Luke 15:11-32  (printed below New Revised Standard Version)


Message The Prodigal Son Parable – Insights from Dr. Ken Bailey

video link  – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HpbJs8tafeg



Most holy God,

you who are our good news,

you who are the glad dance of the weary,

you who are the beginning and the fulfillment;


Our prayers are not celestial hymns or heavenly speech, but

these words bear our hearts, our hopes, our meditations. Have mercy.

You are grace beyond reason, power beyond imagination,

and beauty beyond compare. We worship you.


By your grace, help us love one another.

By your grace, draw close to those who need you.

By your grace, use our talents – use us for your purposes.


By your power, grant us courage to walk the difficult but necessary paths.

By your power, heal us —

for we war and rage.


By your beauty,

overwhelm us with delight.

By your beauty, awe us to humility.

By your beauty, pour your favor over this burdened earth

until all are healed.


In community and in crisis, with words and with silence,

bind us together and bind us to you —

for we are lost without you

and we are broken without one another.

In Christ’s name, Amen.


Prayer of St. Francis set to music


Prayers for each other

Prayers for all digging out and cleaning up today – for safety.

Prayers for communities and businesses with significant damage from the storm



For Children

 Story Video – The Prodigal Son


  The Runaway Bunny, by Margaret Wise Brown, follows a conversation between a young bunny and its mother.  The little bunny describes a series of ways he will run away from his mother.  In reply the mother tells how she will come after him in each case.  Finally, the little bunny decides he might just as well stay home with her.  I once heard this classic read at the end of an erudite sermon about grace.  The preacher concluded, “THAT is grace.”

Compare the journey of the younger son to Dorothy’s journey in The Wizard of Oz. When the tornado blows her away, Dorothy is mad at almost everyone.  By the time she returns she has new understanding and greets people around her with love.


Psalm   1 – from the Message

Generous in love – God, give grace! Huge in mercy – wipe out my bad record.

2 Scrub away my guilt, soak out my sins in your laundry.

3 I know how bad I’ve been; my sins are staring me down.

4 You’re the One I’ve violated, and you’ve seen it all, seen the full extent of my evil. You have all the facts before you; whatever you decide about me is fair.

5 I’ve been out of step with you for a long time, in the wrong since before I was born.

6 What you’re after is truth from the inside out. Enter me, then; conceive a new, true life.

7 Soak me in your laundry and I’ll come out clean, scrub me and I’ll have a snow-white life.

8 Tune me in to foot-tapping songs, set these once-broken bones to dancing.

9 Don’t look too close for blemishes, give me a clean bill of health.

10 God, make a fresh start in me, shape a Genesis week from the chaos of my life.

Luke 15:11-32

 11 Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them.

13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16 He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17 But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” ‘

20 So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21 Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.

25 “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27 He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29 But he answered his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’

31 Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’ ”


God on Broadway – The Lion King – Answering God’s Call—Family, Tribe and Community

Answering God’s Call—Family, Tribe and Community    god on broadway header final (1)
Summer Series – God on Broadway
The Lion King
I Samuel 3:1-9
Galatians 1:15-16
August 9, 2015
Rev. Cynthia Cochran-Carney,
Willow Grove Presbyterian Church,
Scotch Plains, New Jersey


1 Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. 2 At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; 3 the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. 4 Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” 5 and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. 6 The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” 7 Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. 8The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. 9 Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’ ” So Samuel went and lay down in his place. ( I Samuel 3:1-9)

The Lion King.  Like most parents, we bought the VHS of the movie and watched it many times with the boys.  One of the greatest experiences we had as a family was going to see The Lion King on Broadway in 2008.  We knew the boys would enjoy it because they knew the story.  I was so moved by the production – the costumes, the puppetry for the animals, the sets.  It was magical.  After intermission actors came into the audience with beautiful bird kites on long poles and the birds flew above us.  I think I will work on creating that for Pentecost Sunday for next year!

Opening song: Circle of Life…  Baptism
The opening scene of the movie and musical is rich with Christian symbolism.  I see an expression of Baptism.   An anointing of a child.  The child is presented, the clouds open reminding us of the story of Jesus’ Baptism where the heavens open and the voice of God speaks; “this is my son, my beloved.” That’s how we come into the community of faith.  The community celebrating and giving thanks for the gift of this child.

Clip – Opening Scene    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8zLx_JtcQVI

It is the story of paradise.  That is what the savannah is at the beginning of this movie.  The order of everything is as it should be.  It is the story of a father and a son.  In one of the opening scenes, the protagonist Mufassa (the Lion King) tells his son that, as the future King, he will have limitations and responsibilities. Mufassa is shaping his son…his identity, his awareness of his calling to be the next Lion King of the Pridelands.

The goal of  a parent and as a church family is to help our children know they are loved, and to let them know they are children of God and loved by their God.  We shape them.  We teach them will have limitations and responsibilities.  And we help them discover their calling, their purpose.   For some the calling may be clear.  Most of us need to discover our callings.

Samuel was called by God. He was called by God to be a priest.  To serve in the temple.  He was only a boy.  Not really expecting this word from God so early.

Paul said he was called by God.  He is not a leader because of his ego or popularity

But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased  to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being ( Galatians 1:15-16)

Sometimes we looking ahead to a future hope and dream and calling.  Sometimes only by looking back can we see how God called us.  Role, sometimes work, sometimes a way to use our gifts.

As the story unfolds, Simba is excited about being king.  He can’t wait.  He is called.  Simba was anxious.  Even bragging.

Song – Just Can’t Wait to be King  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RdZTLR4pvBY

Mufassa tells the young cub, Simba, there are some things to do and some things not to do. And what does Simba do?  Exactly what his father tells him not to do.  A familiar story in the Bible and life.

Scar tells Simba of the elephant graveyard…
Scar tells Simba of the elephant graveyard.  Simba was told by his parents never to go there, but he goesScar represents the shadow side.   He is jealous, has a lust for power and control.  He wants to be king and he will pursue at any cost.  Maybe he is meant to show us a little bit of ourselves…what happens to us when our desires are not checked by God’s call to love Him and love others.  Scar is tempter, the evil one, the one who tricks and deceives.

There is some guidance for us in I Peter 5:8-9.  Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith.”    Resist, stand firm in the faith.  Are we being alert?  Are we resisting forces that lead us away from God?  How does Scar show up in our lives?

Mufasa is upset and angry that Simba disobeyed him. Simba says that he was only trying to be brave like his father. Mufasa explains that he is only brave when he has to be, and that bravery does not mean recklessly seeking out danger. Simba asks whether he and his father will always be together, causing Mufasa to look up to the night sky and tell Simba about the Great Kings of the Past and how they guide and watch over everything. Mufasa tells Simba that he will always be there for him.

Song –  They Live in You  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sB0luULiZRk

As Christians, we remember the image of the Cloud of Witnesses – those brothers and sisters in Christ that have gone before us.  A sense of their influence.  We are not alone.  We draw from their wisdom and faith.

The situation is set up where Scar plans to kill his brother and Simba and become king himself. Scar begins a stampede of wildebeest.  Simba is almost killed.  Mufassa is killed in the stampede.

Death of Mufassa…
The Father gives his life for his son.  Scar says to Simba, “You did it…..it’s your fault.   Run away.  What would you say to your mother? You can never be forgiven.”

Simba runs into two characters, a Warthog and a Meerkat who give Simba a new way of looking a life.  Don’t worry….be happy.  Forget your responsibilities.  A bit like the prodigal son. There is a song: “Hakuna mattata”…  They sing about just be happy, a worry-free philosophy.  Worrying is not good for us, but maybe these are not such great friends.  Never take responsibility.  Don’t worry about anything.  Do worry about your calling.  Just live today.

Eventually like the prodigal son, Simba, comes to his senses.

Then he Remembers – Scene with father…
The story is about the maturing of Simba, the young prince . In a crucial conversion scene, he realizes  his negligence and chooses to return and face his fate. The conversion scene is brilliant. When Simba is confronted with his father’s ghost, he isn’t convicted of any specific wrongdoing. Instead, Mufasa confronts Simba with the state of their relationship.  Adult Simba is alone at night.

Adult Simba: Father?

Mufasa’s ghost: [appears among the stars] Simba, you have forgotten me.

Adult Simba: No. How could I?

 Mufasa’s ghost: You have forgotten who you are and so have forgotten me. Look inside yourself, Simba. You are more than what you have become. You must take your place in the Circle of Life.

 Adult Simba: How can I go back? I’m not who I used to be.

 Mufasa’s Ghost: [Now fully formed in the sky] Remember who you are. You are my son and the one true king. Remember who you are.

Remember who you are – made in the image of God.  Baptized. We were made to be God’s sons and daughters, and when we act from that identity, we act in accord with who we were made to be.  Simba’s greatest failing is not that he fled, but that in doing so he failed his father and turned his back on who his father shaped him to be.

Simba’s character echoes biblical characters

Moses – Both Simba and Moses run away, they run away into a desert like area, and then they both return to save their people.

Samuel – They are both called.  They both have a higher purpose of leadership.  God speaks to Samuel at night.  Simba – his father speaks to him at night.

Jesus -In some ways Simba is a hero, even savior.  His community is suffering.  Their communities are on the wrong path.  He comes back to show them life and hope and to lead them.

Finale of Lion King
Scar wanted Simba to live with guilt and regret.  Scar represents the Evil One  whose job is the accuser……..he accuses us too….you are unredeemable, unforgivable.  But that’s not what God says.  God says your worth is immeasurable and forgiveness is yours when you ask for it.

Simba comes back home and takes his place, fulfills his calling and restores life for his community.  The mystery of Circle of Life continues.

Clip – Closing scene from stage version 

In the church when we gather on Sundays and live each day, we can be aware of God’s presence and power, comfort and challenge.

We help the children and young people know God’s love and calling.
We discover and rediscover our callings.
Remember who you are.
Be careful who your friends are.  Your tribe.
Know that leaders who are courageous, compassionate and wise are to be valued.
Pay attention to what are you being urged, called, or summoned to do that builds up a person and  our community of faith of Willow Grove.

Being called by God, a God who knows our name, is a mystery. One thing I know about the human psyche: we don’t know what to do with mystery.

Much of the last five hundred years, we have lived through a continuing effort to remove all mystery from human life. We analyze everything scientifically. We work to remove all ambiguity. We develop technology that we can put in our cell phones, to know precisely where we are located and how long it will take to drive to Trexlertown, PA, or wherever else we want to go. In some ways it has been a vain attempt to control life, and overlook the truth that life is largely uncontrollable.  (1)

But our faith and the arts, shows like the Lion King, point us toward mystery and awe.  When I listen to people, I sense all have a deep hunger and thirst for holy mystery,  a longing for a living experience of God in their lives.

Jesus speaks in metaphors and stories that point to the mystery and power of God’s love and God’s invitation to abundant life.

The heart of the matter is that Jesus Christ is our life. He is risen and alive, for God is alive. His invitation is to take part in his life. It’s what he calls “the life of eternity.” (zoe aionios) in John’s Gospel.

A lot of times we translate this phrase as “eternal life.” I believe that is a flat translation. That, for many people, is a life that goes on and on forever. When a lot of folks hear about “eternal life,” they think only about the next life, about heaven.

As my friend and colleague Rev. Bill Carter wrote –  Jesus spoke of something far greater. He is speaking about this life, the only life we get. When he points to “the life of eternity,” it’s a way of referring to “the life that God lives” or “the life of the Risen Christ.” It’s a way of being and doing, serving and loving, forgiving and rejoicing, here and now. Certainly it continues into the future for into  God’s eternity. But it starts here and now.  (2)

The scene at the beginning of The Lion King reminds me of baptism.  We are going to baptize Libby in September.  When we baptize a child in worship we are saying she belongs to the Risen Christ today and forever. His love embraces her and her family. His justice sets a plumb line for her life.

In the years to come, if we all work together to tell her what the mystery of Christ is all about, she can be shaped in his image. She will not grow up to be a racist or be swayed by demeaning strereotypes. She will never walk by a hungry neighbor. She won’t ever demean somebody with whom she disagrees. She will find her strength in the living words of God.

That is the life of eternity.  Let’s imagine Jesus calling each one of us to that life as we sing “Circle of Life.”

Sing  Circle of Life

From the day we arrive on the planet
And blinking, step into the sun
There’s more to see than can ever be seen
More to do than can ever be done
There’s far too much to take in here
More to find than can ever be found
But the sun rolling high Through the sapphire sky
Keeps great and small on the endless round
It’s the Circle of Life
And it moves us all
Through despair and hope
Through faith and love
Till we find our place
On the path unwinding
In the Circle, The Circle of Life

1)  Rev. William G. Carter, Wonder Bread and the Life of Eternity, August 9, 2015.  The Sermons of Bill Carter  http://billcartersermons.blogspot.com/search?updated-min=2015-01-01T00:00:00-05:00&updated-max=2016-01-01T00:00:00-05:00&max-results=29

2)  Carter