Category Archives: Church Seasons & Holy Days

Sermon, Feb. 5

Today we are celebrating Candlemas! 

Its other name is the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, which is the Gospel story we just heard.

This holy day comes deep in the winter, at a time of year when people are longing for spring and the return of longer days. 

So over the centuries – especially as Christianity moved into more northern regions with longer, darker winters – the holy day became a festival of light and a time to bless candles, to be burned in times of peril, storms, or sickness.

Candlemas is a minor feast of the church, falling on February 2. 

We bring it into Sunday church here because there’s a Candlemas story about St Dunstan, the saint of our church, and that makes it special for us.

The story goes like this… 

It happens about eleven hundred years ago! 

In the western part of England, where winters were long and cold and dark and sometimes stormy. 

And it wasn’t just the winters that were hard.

It was a time of violence, poverty, sickness, corruption, and unjust rulers. 

It was Candlemas Eve, and everyone in the village was at church. In the crowd was a young woman named Cynethrith. She was married and was expecting a child. 

She was a woman of deep faith, and she prayed every day that her child would grow up to be someone who could help her country and her people. 

So, everybody came to church for Candlemas, and they brought their candles to bless. 

This was before electricity, so they didn’t have flashlights or lamps with bulbs… just candles, and little lamps that burned oil or fat, and the fireplaces in their homes. 

Imagine a little stone church full of candlelight! It must have been beautiful. 

But! There was a big storm that night…. And suddenly, in the middle of the praying and singing, a gust of wind blew through the church and blew out everybody’s candles! Every single one! 

The church was in total darkness! Adults cried out. Children wept. The priest begged everyone to stay calm. 

Nobody had lighters or matches – they didn’t exist yet! 

But then, suddenly, there was light again. 

The candle that Cynethrith was holding had lit – all by itself. 

As if by magic. As if by a miracle. 

She shared that holy and mysterious flame to her neighbors, and the light spread until the whole church was lit up again. 

The lighting of Cynethrith’s candle was a sign of what her baby would become: Saint Dunstan, monk, friend of kings, founder of monasteries, and Archbishop of Canterbury, a leader who would share and spread Christ’s light in difficult times. 

And it was a sign of her own role as the mother of a saint, kindling God’s light in her son’s heart. 

Dunstan shined his light in the difficult times when he lived.

Just like Jesus says in our Song of Faith today: Be light! Be salt!  

This is part of a big sermon Jesus preached. 

We heard the beginning last week: A big crowd had gathered, so Jesus went up on a hill so people could see and hear him, and preached to the crowd. 

The people in that crowd weren’t rich or important or special.

They were ordinary people from the villages and countryside.

Matthew just told us that Jesus was healing people who were sick or disabled or hurt, so the crowd probably included a lot of people who were sick or disabled or hurt, and their loved ones. 

And Jesus starts his sermon off with a big surprise for everybody:

It’s not the people who are rich and important and special in their own eyes who are really on top of the world.

People who are grieving or struggling, people who feel hopeless, people who are full of frustration and yearning for a better world, people who take time to be kind instead of always pushing to get ahead, people who are bullied and bothered for doing what is right – those are the people who are especially held in God’s love.

Those are actually the people who really matter in the world, no matter how it might look on the surface.  

Then he goes on to tell this group of ordinary, unimportant people, including kids and old people and sick and disabled people and all kinds of folks – he tells them: 

You are the salt of the earth!

You are the light of the world! 

I want us to hear those words, that thing Jesus is telling us about ourselves – and I do think he’s speaking to us as well as that original crowd. 

What does it mean to be salt and light? 

Salt and light are both things where a little bit can make a big difference. 

Let’s start with salt. 

When food is flavored just right, it doesn’t just taste like salt, right?

Salt brings out the other flavors. It doesn’t dominate. 

But you can really tell the difference between food that has just the right amount of salt – or not enough – or too much! 

And this stuff Jesus says about salt losing its saltiness? 

That’s not a thing. Salt is very simple.  

It’s a sodium cation and a chloride anion. NaCl. It doesn’t go bad. 

There are two ways we can read what Jesus says here: 

Either he is surprisingly uninformed about salt,

Or he’s intentionally saying something that can’t happen. 

Like, if salt just refuses to be salt, then sure, it’s basically sand, and the best use for it is to scatter it on an icy spot. 

But it is salt’s nature to be salty.

Jesu says we can trust our God-given saltiness and just let ourselves get mixed in and spice up the world. 

A little salt can change and improve the flavor of the whole dish. 

And a room with one candle in it – or a sky with one star – is so different from total darkness. 

Who grew up with the song? 

“This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine!… 

Hide it under a bushel? NO! I’m going to let it shine!

Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine…”  

In my research this week I learned a fun fact.

Think about a lit candle in the dark. 

If you were in a wide open, dark space, and you turned around and started walking away from that candle, and looked back at it now and then, how far away do you think you could still see it? …. Two physicists studied this question, and they found that it’s about 1.6 miles. 

They did it by comparing it with the visibility of stars from earth! 

At about 1.6 miles, a candle flame is about the same brightness as some of the stars that we can just barely see from earth. 

1.6 miles is a lot farther than I would have guessed!

For those who know the local terrain: From here at St. Dunstan’s, it’s about 1.6 miles to the intersection of University Avenue and Whitney Way. 

Even a single candle can shine its light pretty far!…. 

In a commentary on today’s Gospel, The Salt Project says, “Like salt and light, God made you as a small thing that can make a big difference for a larger whole. God made you to spice things up — not to overpower the dish, but to enliven it… And likewise, God made you to shine, as only you can: a flame that can light up an entire room, or help guide a lost traveler home… But we do have to claim and embrace and live out these gifts. We do have to actually be salty and luminous…  [In the Sermon on the Mount,] Jesus does not say, Follow these instructions and you’ll be blessed.  Rather, he says, You are already blessed with gifts for blessing the world — so go and bless! Spice and shine!”

I love that. Spice and shine, dear ones!

But I want to explore one more thing before we move on. 

Light is one of the big themes of the season of Epiphany.

It’s in our songs and prayers and Scriptures all over the place. 

Over the past few years I have been trying to pay attention to how we talk about light – and especially how we talk about darkness. 

I read an article a couple of weeks ago by a Christian songwriter who’s been thinking about this too – Steve Thorngate. 

First, he lays out some of the tensions and complexities. 

He writes, “There is a long history in the church of using words like light, white, bright, and fair to [suggest] goodness in a straightforward way – and words like dark, black, shade, and dim to [mean] the opposite. Most instances… were not written for explicitly racist purposes (though some were). Still, this language has thrived alongside racism in White-dominated church contexts. And language—especially ritual language, repeated again and again—has great power among those who speak or hear it, [beyond] the intent of its creators. So there is a compelling case to simply avoid this whole family of descriptive language at church, [because] it can be and has been used to bolster White supremacy.” 

On the other hand, he says, “The Bible is chock-full of light/dark imagery, with much (though not all) of it presenting light as the positive side of the coin.”

Furthermore, he says, “[Light and dark] language, after all, is more than biblical: it’s elemental. It names a fundamental experience of all living things. The earth’s days and seasons are defined by the planet’s relationship with the sun’s rays…These cycles of darkness and light have shaped creatures, ecosystems, and communities across generations and continents, and the depth of this shared reality makes it a rich source for [Christian symbolic] language. This universal experience of time and of the created order… is fundamental to Christian [worship].” 

That’s an especially salient point here at Candlemas. 

You might know at least two other celebrations on February 2nd. 

Can anybody name one? … (Groundhog Day; Imbolc.)

February 2nd is important, is named and celebrated in all these ways, because it falls halfway between the winter solstice – the shortest day, the longest night – and the spring equinox, when the night and day are the same length; after that the days start to get longer than the nights.

So February 2nd is a human way of naming a planetary waypoint, a particular moment in the interaction of the Earth’s tilted turning in relation to the Sun. 

And we humans, observers and meaning-makers, have layered on all these feasts that are different ways of saying that we are yearning for light and spring and rebirth. 

Light and dark really do have this elemental, fundamental meaning. But that doesn’t free us from responsibility to be thoughtful in using this language, with its history of harm. 

Steve Thorngate writes that he has decided – for now – to keep using these images in his songs, but carefully, and with a few guidelines. 

For example: Think about what we mean when we talk about light. “Light can mean illumination, vision, transparency, openness, the revealing of secrets.” Those meanings stay close to the literal function of light. 

But let’s be careful about layering on more moral or value-laden meanings, like innocence, goodness, cleanness, purity. 

He also suggests that we be very cautious about using negative language for darkness – and look for opportunities to say positive things about darkness, too. He writes, “Fertile soil is dark. A dark sky without light pollution promotes healthy rest and… visibility. Secrets and mysteries aren’t always bad things.” 

And he urges us to work on broadening and diversifying the language and imagery we use in worship – the ways we talk about God and about our Christian vocation. 

I wonder what it would be like to spend a whole Epiphany exploring salt, instead of light? There would have to be lots of snacks!

Thorngate’s essay summed up a lot of things I’ve been thinking about – and I’ve been trying to follow similar guidelines for a while. But I am still thinking and wondering about it all. 

I invite you to think and wonder with me.

How we can use these images that are so central in our Scriptures and that are so natural to us as human beings who live on a planet that spins from dark to light, dark to light again; but also who live in a society with a deep and persistent history of sorting and ranking people based on their skin color, and using darkness to stand for ignorance or evil? 

I invite you to wonder and notice with me… and if you have ideas or questions or noticings, let’s talk about it. 

 

 

SOURCES

The Salt Project’s commentary on this Gospel: 

https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2020/2/3/salt-and-light-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-epiphany-5

About candle flames and distance:

https://www.technologyreview.com/2015/07/31/72658/how-far-can-the-human-eye-see-a-candle-flame/

Steve Thorngate on light and dark imagery:

https://www.christiancentury.org/article/features/should-we-avoid-liturgical-language-light-and-dark

Epiphany Pageant 2023 Gallery

 

Sermon, January 8

  1. About the Gospels.
    1. Start with basics; bear with me
      1. Bible – a collection of many kinds of texts spanning over a thousand years that, together, tell the story of God’s relationship with God’s people. 
      2. Old Testament – before Jesus, scripture we share with the Jews; New Testament – foundational texts of Christianity. 
      3. New Testament includes letters, sermons, prophetic texts, a chronicle of the early church, and four different accounts of the life, teaching, works, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. = Gospels. 
      4. Sunday lectionary (calendar of readings) – three of these get their own “year”. 
    2. Some folks find those many voices confounding. If all this Jesus stuff was real, why don’t we have one clear account of it? Why, instead, four, that differ on many details & some big stuff too? 
      1. I find the four voices of the Gospels very human, very real, and very reassuring. I’d go so far as to say that it’s one of the anchors of my faith. 
      2. An analogy for us: Imagine a funeral, or a gathering before or after. 
        1. People share memories, stories, what that person was like and what they meant to them. 
        2. Some things – big events, oft-repeated stories – will be told much the same by everyone, though perhaps some differences – how you understood that person, your relationship with them, your own personality and perspective. 
        3. Other memories or impressions aren’t shared as widely – part of someone’s particular relationship with the deceased, or an experience that only a couple of people shared. 
        4. When you put it all together, you get a sense of who that person was. But no one person has the whole picture. And often people’s impressions don’t all line up neatly. 
        5. If you asked four people to write down that person’s life, those four versions would be pretty different. 
      1. Now, in our funeral analogy, those four people probably all knew the deceased. It’s unclear whether any of our Gospel writers knew Jesus directly. 
        1. The Gospels seem to have been written down between thirty and sixty years after Jesus’ death. 
        2. But let me clear up a minor pet peeve. You might have heard that the life expectancy in Jesus’ time was around forty. That does not mean that people dropped dead at forty! 
          1. Numbers like that are an average that includes infant mortality, which was really really high right up to the mid-20th century. 
          2. Most people who survived early childhood might easily live to 55 or older; and many lived to seventy, eighty, or ninety. 
          3. Many of Jesus’ followers were younger than him. The Gospel writers seem to have used earlier written sources, now lost; but they could also easily have known people who did know Jesus and were present at the events they describe. 
          4. And talking with people with different memories and interpretations could be part of why the Gospels are different. 
  1. Let’s talk about the voices of the Gospels.
    1. Seminary exercise: read the first verse of all four Gospels – gives you a good sense of their voices and agendas. 
    2. Baptism of Jesus kind of does too. 
      1. It’s in all four, which doesn’t go without saying. 
      2. Look at your sheet. Vaguely chronological order, though Matthew and Luke may have been written around the same time, or Luke may be a little later than Matthew. 
        1. How John the Baptist is introduced, and whatever is said about Jesus’ actual baptism, in all four. (There’s more about John in all four, and there are interesting differences – but beyond our scope!) 
  2. First, and briefly: what is happening here? 
      1. John was a prophet and religious ascetic – meaning he chose simplicity and poverty – who hung out in the wilderness outside Jerusalem. He preached a message of metanoia, to use the Greek word. I dislike the translation of metanoia as “repentance”; it feels limiting to me. 
        1. Fave translator, David Bentley Hart: “a baptism of the heart’s transformation”; John: “Change your hearts, for the kingdom of the heavens has come near!” 
      2. Baptism – an adaptation of Jewish practices of ritual washing or bathing. Greek word baptizo just means to immerse or dunk. 
      3. There’s a whole thing about how John’s baptism was just a water baptism, but Christian baptism is with water and the Holy Spirit. That is important but we will not go down that rabbit hole today. 
      4. In all four Gospels, Jesus’ baptism by John is the beginning of his public ministry. Apart from the birth stories and one childhood story, he has been invisible for thirty years, presumably living an ordinary life and waiting for the right time. 
  1. MARK
    1. First written Gospel, perhaps as early as 66 – soon after the death of the apostle Paul, whose letters are our earliest window into the beliefs and life of the early church. 
    2. (When we say 66, by the way, the Zero that we’re counting from is in theory the year Jesus was born. And he would have died around the year 33, give or take.) 
    3. Mark dives right into the story – Jesus is baptized by John in the ninth verse – the sixth sentence – of his Gospel. 
    4. Jesus is coming from Nazareth of Galilee – his hometown and region. About 30 miles to the Jordan River, depending on where exactly John was baptizing. Not just a casual day trip, or stopping by on his way somewhere else. 
    5. As he is baptized, Jesus has a vision, hears a voice: “YOU ARE my Son, the Beloved.” Affirmation and comfort. And then – immediately – the divine Spirit drives him into the wilderness. We get that story at the beginning of Lent, late in February!
    6. What’s Markan about it? Brisk, clear, no nonsense. Purposeful. It happens and the story moves on. 
  1. MATTHEW
    1. Matthew and Luke both knew Mark’s Gospel and used it as a source. 
    2. Matthew follows Mark pretty closely here, but adds this dialogue between John and Jesus: “John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.’ Then John consented.”
      1. Maybe this happened; maybe Matthew is capturing the testimony of an eyewitness that Mark didn’t have.
      2. But maybe Matthew adds this to address a discomfort that all the Gospels besides Mark seem to share. 
        1. Why would Jesus, God’s Son, the Beloved, need this weird wilderness preacher to shove him down in the water of this muddy river, as a sign of repentance? 
        1. Furthermore: There are hints in the Gospels that John had followers, disciples, and that his movement continued at least for a while beyond his death – which probably happened just a few months after Jesus’ baptism. 
          1. Some of John’s followers came to follow Jesus instead, but others may have felt like John was the real deal. The fact that Jesus came to John for baptism could seem to seal their guy’s position. 
        2. Jesus’ answer in Matthew is vague: Let it be so, to fulfill all righteousness. Okay, boss. John does as he is told. And again, Jesus has a vision – heavens open, dove-like Spirit, voice. 
          1. But this time the voice says, THIS IS my Son, the Beloved. Not YOU ARE. Implies a broader audience – not just Jesus hearing, but others receiving this revelation of Jesus’ true identity. 
      1. What’s Matthean about this? Not the most distinctive; John calling people a brood of vipers, a few verses earlier, is more on brand. 
        1. Emphasis on fulfillment – though usually Matthew has a specific passage from the Hebrew Bible that he describes Jesus as fulfilling. 
  1. LUKE
    1. Luke does not actually describe John baptizing Jesus. He says, “When all the people had been baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized…” I think that’s how Luke manifests his discomfort about this baptism – by kind of rushing past it. 
      1. Again, the heavens open, there’s a dove, there’s a voice. But this isn’t just Jesus’ vision anymore – the words “he saw” drop out. And the Holy Spirit descends IN BODILY FORM like a dove. Maybe Luke is trying to make sense of Mark’s metaphorical language and decides there must have been an ACTUAL REAL HOLY DOVE. 
      2. What’s Lukan about this? 
        1. “John son of Zechariah” – Luke is the Gospel that gives John a backstory. 
        2. Also: Luke doing this very Lukan thing of naming a bunch of government officials. He likes historical details, though he sometimes gets them wrong, and he likes contrasting the big global-empire scale stuff with the very local events he’s describing, which secretly have cosmic significance. 
  2. JOHN
    1. Confusing that this is another John. And the John of Revelation is yet another John. What can you do? 
    2. John’s language is cosmic and poetic right from the start. The first verse of his Gospel is, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” That sets the tone! 
    3. What’s Johannine – John-ish – about this? Lots. 
      1. One of John’s themes: bearing witness. The role of the Church and her members – to bear witness or testify to what we have seen and experienced, and how God has acted in our lives. 
      2. John describes the Baptist’s mission: to testify to the Light, which is Jesus.
        1. Luke’s birth story for John the Baptist has a similar upshot – he is destined from before his birth to prepare the way for God’s Messiah. This is just John’s very Johannine way of saying the same thing. 
      3. John goes a step further than Luke and doesn’t “show” Jesus’ baptism at all; it happens offscreen, so to speak. 
        1. This is another John thing. I think John – the latest-written Gospel – assumes people have read one of the others and know the basic plot. So sometimes he doesn’t tell about the big events, but comments on them instead.
        2. The biggest example: the Last Supper. John’s Jesus has a long farewell speech that evening, but he does not describe the meal itself. He assumes you know. 
        3. Here – John’s John the Baptist tells about baptizing Jesus, bears witness to what he has seen and heard:  God’s Spirit descending on Jesus, marking him as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
    4. So there we have it. The baptism of Jesus, the beginning of his public ministry, refracted through the lenses of four different Gospel voices. 
  1. VIII. The baptism of Christ – the Gospel event that the church always celebrates on the first Sunday of the season of Epiphany – raises a kind of riddle for the church. Jesus was baptized; Jesus told his followers to baptize people; but Jesus did not baptize people. Why not?
    1. One possibility: Jesus’ insight into how best to build his movement. In the early phases, you just need people to follow and listen and spread the word. 
      1. It’s later in the process of movement-building and eventually institution-building that you need a boundary rite, something to mark who’s fully committed, and who’s an outsider or inquirer.
    2. Second – there’s a cranky bit in one of Paul’s letters where it sounds like people are arguing about who’s most important, based on who baptized them. (Paul is disgusted and wants none of it.) 
      1. I can imagine that Jesus knew that kind of thing would happen, and that it would be counter to his hopes for equity and mutual service within the church. 
      2. He never baptized anyone so that there could not be people who would try to set themselves apart as having been baptized by Christ himself. 
    3. I think those are both good reasons. But it’s completely possible that there are other reasons we cannot know. It’s definitely on my list of questions to ask someday!
  2. What our baptism, the church’s practice of baptism, means for US is another sermon, or several. But let’s wonder briefly what Jesus’ baptism means to us. Why DID Jesus need – or choose – to be baptized by John? As John says in Matthew: Why are you coming to me? 
    1. There’s much of mystery here too – no clear or complete answers on this side of things. But when I put these four accounts side by side, I noticed something I hadn’t thought about before.
      1. In three of the Gospels, Jesus’ baptism follows some kind of birth story. 
        1. Luke has the one we all know best, with Caesar Augustus and the stable and the shepherds. 
        2. Matthew has the angel telling Joseph in a dream that he should take Mary as his wife despite her mysterious pregnancy; and he has the wise men, the astrologers, who come to visit the child, and King Herod trying to kill him, forcing the family to flee. 
        3. John’s birth story is very different, but it’s there. He names Jesus as the Word, and the Light; he tells us that from the beginning of everything, Jesus was with God, and was God. And then in the fulness of time, the true Light came into the world; the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. 
        4. And then there’s Mark. The only thing Mark says about where Jesus comes from is Nazareth. There is no birth story in Mark.
      2. Or is there? 
        1. When I’m talking with families about baptism, I like to say that baptism is, among other things, a symbolic birth. There’s water and mess and crying and joy and naming and welcome. 
        1. What if Jesus’ baptism is Mark’s birth story? 
          1. There is water, and there is rending open.  
          2. There is naming, and beginning. 
          3. There is a Voice crying out with joy: My Son! I am delighted with you! 
        2. I like thinking of Jesus’ baptism as another birth story. It helps ease the sudden jump in the church’s calendar from the babe in the manger to the full-grown man standing in the river. 
      1. Just as the other Gospels tell us that God chose to be born among us as a baby, Mark tells us that God chose to join that crowd gathered by the Jordan – the desperate, the confused, the curious, the skeptical, dusty and poor and weary and wary.  God chose to join that crowd, and then to step out from among them, and into the waters, to be born among us and for us. Amen. 

Sermon, Christmas Eve, 4:30 & 9PM

A few months ago I stumbled on a book called “A Church Year-Book of Social Justice,” for the year 1919 to 1920. It was compiled by the Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross, a spiritual community of lay and ordained women in the Episcopal Church. 

The book has a short reading for each day of the church year, exploring Christian thinking over the centuries and how it relates to “the great principles of social justice which preoccupy our own time.” 

As an Advent practice this year, I started posting the readings for each day on Facebook. That drew me into pondering what our siblings in faith were thinking and talking about, just over a century ago. 

1919 was a tough year. 

World War I had just ended – a shocking, brutal disruption. 

A deadly influenza pandemic closely followed the war, killing many children, healthy young adults and elders.

And then there were the ongoing struggles of poverty and unregulated industrial development. 

Upton Sinclair published his expose of the meat industry, The Jungle, in 1906.  

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, which killed 146 garment workers, was in 1911. 

The West Virginia Mine Wars, a series of violent clashes as mine workers struggled to organize for safer working conditions, began in 1912. 

There were big reasons that social justice was on the hearts and minds of people of faith and conscience in 1919. 

As I’ve posted readings from the Yearbook day by day for the past month, I’ve noticed that some don’t resonate – don’t “hold up.” But other passages have given me a vivid sense of standing with these siblings in faith a century ago. 

W. E. Orchard wrote: “In the anguish of the hour, when kingdoms are rocking to their base, the social structure of modern civilization is strained to the breaking point, and all hearts are full of fear…”

Who’s felt like that at some moment in the past few years?… 

In this era of climate change and the overwhelm of capitalism’s excesses, I feel like this text may be MORE relevant to us than it was when John Ruskin first wrote it in 1917: 

“Think you that judgment waits till the doors of the grave are opened? … The insects that we crush are our judges, the moments we fret away are our judges, the elements that feed us judge as they minister, and the pleasures that deceive us judge as they indulge.”

And then there’s this, from the great preacher Phillips Brooks: 

“The real question everywhere is whether the world, distracted and confused as everybody sees that it is, is going to be patched up and restored to what it used to be – or whether it is going forward into a quite new and different kind of life, whose exact nature nobody can pretend to foretell, but which is to be distinctly new, unlike the life of any age which the world has seen already… It is impossible that the old conditions, so shaken and broken, can ever be repaired and stand just as they stood before. The time has come when something more than mere repair and restoration of the old is necessary. The old must die and a new must come forth out of its tomb.”

I resonate with every word of that passage. 

One day, when I posted some particularly salient snippet to Facebook, I asked: Is it comforting or disconcerting to know that people living a century ago also felt like civilization was strained to the breaking point? 

And some wise soul replied: Both. 

It’s comforting not to be alone with these feelings, to have the bold and hopeful and urgent words of these siblings in faith to encourage us. 

It’s comforting to know that humanity survived another century despite it all, and that some of the great challenges they faced are actually better now, thanks in part to the efforts of bold reformers who worked and fought for change. 

But it’s also disconcerting, the resonance of these texts with our present moment. 

The 20th century is hardly a consoling tale.

We know some of the costs and struggles to come. 

The Depression. Another world war, atomic weapons, the Holocaust. 

The bitter social strife, as well as the important legislative strides, of the 1960s. 

The recognition of environmental degradation in the 1970s. 

The rapid increase in economic inequality and incarceration in the 1980s and 1990s.

Knowing that companions in faith a century ago also felt like their whole way of life was coming apart at the seams is no reassurance that our way of life is not coming apart at the seams. 

Dwelling with the 1919 Yearbook has made me think about time. 

We tend to think of time as a line that we’re moving along, in one direction. 

For example, we would draw the events I just named as tick marks along an arrow from 1900 towards 2000 and beyond. 

The Church brings another way of thinking about time alongside linear, historical time. 

Church time is all circles and cycles. Turning and returning. 

In the church’s time, it isn’t Christmas again; it’s just Christmas.

This Feast of the Incarnation is every Feast of the Incarnation.

[The Eucharist we will celebrate tonight is every Eucharist.]

We’re not recreating or re-enacting something.

We’re returning to something that has always been waiting for us. 

These are moments when we step into holy time, and meet the Divine present in our world in immediate and tangible ways. 

Thinking about the Yearbook from that perspective: It’s not just that people 100 years ago felt and thought similar things to what we might be feeling and thinking.

It’s that we’re all living Advent together. 

Brooks and Ruskin and the others are not just forebears but companions in this season of holy anticipation. 

Let me take this one step further. 

There’s everyday historical linear time and there’s the church’s cyclical time that returns and returns again. 

And then there’s God’s time.

Jesus, the baby we welcome tonight, when he grows up, will talk a lot about time. 

He will talk about two Ages, or Aeons, or Epochs, or Dispensations, or whatever fancy word you want to use for something we aren’t really equipped to comprehend. 

There’s the present Age, this messy ordinary world with all its problems; and then there’s the Age to Come, the Age of the Kingdom of God. 

The Age to Come is mysterious, distant, not yet fulfilled; and yet it’s not so far away that it’s irrelevant. 

It is, somehow, already dawning, already unfolding, within reach in small shimmering moments, in hopeful possibilities, in the thin places where grace breaks through. 

This kind of time isn’t linear time and it isn’t cyclical time. 

It’s more like, I don’t know, the before and after of a really good dream home makeover show: The way things are and the way things could be, transformed towards beauty and joy and wholeness.

In terms of the Present Age and the Age to Come, we are in the exact same Before situation not only as our early 20th century siblings from the Yearbook, but as Jesus’ first followers. 

We’re all watching and waiting and working for the coming of the Kingdom of God.

We’re all yearning for God’s great intervention in the confusion, struggle and suffering of our times.

Advent – the four-week church season that ended when the Feast of the Incarnation began at sunset this evening – Advent is a season of double anticipation. 

We anticipate Christmas; but we also anticipate the fulfillment of God’s purposes for the world. 

That holy After when Christ will return to earth and that new Age we have been taught to hope for will come to fruition. 

The theologian Fleming Rutledge writes, “In Advent, we don’t [just] pretend, as I once thought, that we are in the darkness before the birth of Christ. Rather, we take a good hard look at the darkness we are in now, facing and defining it honestly, so that we will understand with utmost clarity that our great and only hope is in Jesus’s final victorious coming.”

In Advent we pray, again and again, for the dawning of that new Age. It’s woven through our liturgies and hymns: our longing for God’s rescue, restoration, renewal. 

When we cry Come, Lord Jesus! in Advent we’re not just talking about the baby in the manger, although he is very nice indeed. 

We are praying for the end of the world, friends. 

At least, the end of the world as it is, and the beginning, in Brooks’ words, of a “quite new and different kind of life.” 

For something more than mere repair and restoration; 

For the old to die, and the new to rise up from the tomb. 

And yet when we arrive at Christmas – when we enter holy time to gather in wonder around the manger, gazing at that surprising, ordinary, luminescent child – when Christmas comes, we tend to let that second layer of our anticipation drop away. 

We act like what we were waiting for, has arrived.

And then – even if we have a really good, lovely Christmas – there will be a moment, tomorrow or Tuesday or next week, when we think, “Well, Christmas came, but we still have all the same problems. I guess all that praying and hoping and expecting didn’t really amount to anything.” 

Instead of faithful, joyful and triumphant, we may feel uncertain, weary and discouraged.

What I need from Christmas this year, and therefore what I’m offering you – because preachers are always preaching first to themselves, beloveds – is the reminder that God coming among us in love and mercy and fury is not a once-long-ago thing, friends.

It is always and it is already and it is not yet.

It is still and it is someday and it is surrounding us right now. 

We live in the world’s time, the relentless onward march of history, dates and events, wars and elections and pandemics, birthdays and graduations and deaths. 

We live in the church’s time, holy rhythms that circle and cycle and always bring us back to sacred moments and pivot points.

And we live in God’s time, as people of expectation, who know that things are not as they are meant to be. 

As people whose hopes and imaginations reach beyond the satisfactions and struggles of our present moment. 

People who believe that another world is not just possible, she is on her way. (Arundhati Roy)

And that our purposeful acts of mercy, courage, justice and generosity can help pave the path for her arrival. 

And sometimes our biggest fight is with the powers and principalities of the world as it is, and sometimes our biggest fight is within ourselves: with our own inner resignation to the broken reality around us, our honest skepticism that better is possible. 

What I want from Christmas this year as its gift to all of us is a profound sense of sacred incompleteness. 

The knowledge that what we’ve been waiting and yearning for is not here yet, and that it’s safe to say that out loud, to name that a lot of stuff still seems real bad, even on Christmas Eve.

And the knowledge, planted deep in our hearts, that the gulf between this Age and the Age to Come, between our long Before and God’s After, is itself a holy space, a space of promise. 

A space of darkness and unknowing and possibility. 

A space of birth. 

May it be so.

Amen.

Sermon, Christmas Eve, 3PM

This is a story about big and small. 

God is big. 

Not big like a whale or a tall building or the ocean. 

Big like you can’t even find the edges, where God begins and ends. 

Big like you can’t find the beginning when God wasn’t yet. 

Big like everywhere, like always. 

God is so big that nobody is more or less important to God.

God can know and love each star and every dog. 

God knows how many hairs are on your head, and still has time to be present with a parent grieving in Ukraine and an elephant giving birth in Botswana. 

God is big. 

But a baby is small. 

Who’s seen a newborn baby?

Who has held one? … 

They’re pretty small, right? 

Small and floppy and helpless. 

The heart of this story, the story we tell today, the reason it’s important, is this:

God who is big, SO big, became as small as a newborn baby. And why? To come close to us. 

It’s a big mystery, a strange thing to think about! 

It’s the kind of thing that is easier to talk about with poems and music and art, than to explain it like a lesson at school.

Let’s talk a little more about big and little. Let’s do a quiz.

Is an elephant big or little?

Is a chipmunk big or little? 

Is an ocean big or little?

Is a puddle big or little? 

Is ice cream big or little? 

Is a star big or little?

Is dawn big or little?

Is a sprouting seed big or little?… 

Has anybody ever grown a seed & watched it sprout? 

I learned something interesting a couple of weeks ago. 

The Bible wasn’t written in English. English didn’t exist yet! 

Parts of it were written in a language called Hebrew, and parts of it were written in a language called Greek.

And in Greek, there’s a word that can mean two things: 

It can mean dawn, sunrise. When the sun comes over the horizon and starts to light up the whole sky and everything under the sky.

Did we decide dawn is little or big? 

That Greek word can also mean a seed sprouting, breaking through the ground to stick up a tiny green sprout.

Did we decide that a sprouting seed is little or big? …

It says in the Bible that Jesus’ birth is like a kind of dawn.

Like the sun rising on people who have been sitting and waiting in the dark for so, so long.

And maybe Jesus’ birth is also like a sprouting seed. Like life springing up where you couldn’t see anything alive, before…

Dawn is big and a sprouting seed is tiny, but they can both be held in the same word. Pretty cool! 

The thing about dawn and a sprouting seed is that they both make you think things are going to keep happening, right?

Dawn is just the very very beginning of morning, of a new day.

And a sprouting seed is the very, very beginning of a plant. Maybe of a field, or a garden, or a forest. Who knows? 

There are so many things a sprouting seed could become.

You have to keep watching and pay attention and find out. 

In the Christmas story, when God is born as a human baby, God comes to us as something very small. 

But that’s not the only way God shows up in the little things. 

When we read the Bible and listen to the Spirit and learn from the saints and wise ones of the faith, we learn about God’s purposes, God’s intentions, how God means things to be.

Things like kindness and peace, justice and making things right, healing what hurts, building better ways and worlds, helping people have enough, helping people be their real true selves. 

When we watch and pay attention, we might notice the small ways God is nudging those things along.

And we might notice the little ways we have a chance to join in and help move the world towards kindness and justice. 

Like putting out food for the birds when it’s snowy. 

Or listening to someone who’s struggling. 

Or sharing with people who don’t have enough.

Or writing a letter to a leader to ask them to do the right thing. 

We need some big changes, too; we all now that.

But it’s important to tend to the little things.

Little things can be beginnings. 

Little things can add up.

Little things can matter in big ways. 

I like to give people a gift on Christmas Eve. My gift this year is to help you remember to tend to little things. 

It’s a little box, and inside is an even littler baby Jesus. … 

Sermon, Dec. 4

The readings for today, the second Sunday in Advent, call us to attend to the relationship between Christians, Jews and Judaism. 

While perhaps not as loaded as Holy Week, Advent and Christmas raise these questions too: do we think Jesus fulfilled Judaism, completely and finally?  If so, do we see Jews as irrelevant, spiritually extinct? And if we don’t think that: Are we using language in church that suggests that we do? 

These questions matter. The consequences range from the kind of causal Christian cultural supremacy that results in public school classrooms being decorated for Christmas – to the kind of violence that means synagogues routinely hire armed guards to watch their doors during worship. And that my rabbi colleagues are still tending to the pastoral needs of families shattered across generations by the experience of the Holocaust. 

Today each of our Scripture readings raise questions of how Christians think about Judaism – in three different ways. We’ll start with our Gospel reading, from Matthew. 

In our 3 year cycle of Sunday Scripture readings, which we share with many churches, we have readings from one primary gospel each year – with chunks of John, the fourth gospel, scattered all around. We just started a new church year on the first Sunday in Advent, last week; and our gospel for this year is Matthew. 

Let me confess right now: Matthew is my least favorite Gospel – in part because of his often violent and frightening language. 

Why is Matthew like this? About thirty years after Jesus’ death, in the year 66, some of the Jews of Judea began to rebel against Roman colonial rule. The rebels never really had a chance against Rome’s military might, and the revolt quickly turned bloody. Rome crushed the rebels and burned Jerusalem. The Great Temple was destroyed. Many people died; many lost everything. 

This earth-shaking event profoundly shaped both Christianity and Judaism, from that moment onward. All the Gospels are marked by it – but perhaps Matthew most of all. His Gospel text boils over at times with his grief and rage. He seems to blame the Jewish leadership for what happened – feeling that it’s their rejection of Jesus that brought down this destruction, rather than the predictable eruption of the tensions inherent in colonial rule always and everywhere.

Turning to today’s passage: Matthew introduces John the Baptist. The Gospels are pretty consistent in their picture of John: A preacher who separated himself from society to live in the wilderness, wearing simple clothes he made himself and eating what he could find, and proclaiming that people need to change their hearts and their lives and turn back towards God and God’s ways – and to be baptized, a ritual washing, in the Jordan River. 

To all that, Matthew adds this angry speech against the Pharisees and the Sadducees. We know this is Matthew, because later, in chapter 12 and again in chapter 23, Matthew’s Jesus says almost the exact same thing, calling groups of Pharisees and Sadducees “brood of vipers” and yelling at them: “How can you speak good things, when you are evil?” And “how can you escape being sentenced to hell?” Those passages are NOT echoed in the other Gospels. 

Who were the Pharisees and the Sadducees? The Pharisees were a reform movement within Judaism at the time of Jesus, focused primarily on the common people. The Sadducees were an elite and privileged group who more or less ran the Great Temple in Jerusalem. The Pharisees and Sadducees would not have been natural friends; I suspect it’s Matthew throwing them together as enemies of Christianity in his eyes. 

Far too much of Matthew’s hatred of these groups seeped into Christianity as a general suspicion and hatred towards Jews – which in turn has spawned unimaginable violence. I read this passage with pain and repentance. 

It’s ours, but it’s not comfortable, and it shouldn’t be. 

Then there’s our Epistle – a portion of the apostle Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, written in the late 50s. Paul is writing here to the Christians of Rome, who included both Jewish and non-Jewish Christians, and he’s trying to help them respect one another and get along.

Before he became a Christian, Paul was not just any Jew. He had studied Jewish texts and scholarship deeply. He had become a Pharisee, a member of that reform movement that sought to spread more active and heartfelt Jewish practice among the folk of Judea. He was an up and coming young Jewish leader, when Jesus called his name and changed his life on the road to Damascus. 

Scholars have wondered, over the centuries, what to make of the fact that Paul was a Roman citizen, as we learn in the book of Acts. Maybe one of his parents was a Roman. Maybe his family was gifted citizenship, a major privilege, as thanks for service to the Empire. 

Either way, perhaps young Paul threw himself into his Jewish faith as a way to resolve the tensions of divided allegiances, of having ties to both subjects and empire. And perhaps it’s by growing up both Roman and Jew that Paul learned some of the skills of both/and living. Of holding ambiguities within yourself; of finding the value in different worlds and ways – even when they seem at odds. 

That’s the wisdom that Paul brings to this letter to the church in Rome, as he urges Jewish and non-Jewish Christians to welcome one another just as Christ has welcomed them. In today’s passage, he is trying to help the Jewish members of the Roman church see that it’s right and joyful! for God’s saving work to extend to non-Jews – without their having to first convert to Judaism. He quotes a series of texts from the Old Testament, the Jewish Scriptures, that mention God’s intentions to also bring Gentiles – the nations, the goyim – into God’s saving purposes. 

A few chapters earlier he was urging Gentiles, in turn, to feel humbled and grateful for being grafted onto the living tree of God’s covenant people, the Jews. 

He concludes this passage with this beautiful prayer for the Roman Christian community in its diversity: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

Paul is dealing here specifically with Jews who have become Christian, like himself. But Paul’s attitude towards Judaism is nuanced and interesting. He knows that he was called to something different – something more; but he honors the beauty and integrity of what he came from. He’d like other Jews to become Christians too, but I think he’d also like to see Christianity stay pretty Jewish. 

It’s complicated! But I do think a truly Pauline Christianity would have a much more open and humble heart towards Judaism than historical Christianity has had. 

For Matthew, Christianity fulfills Jewish faith – and leaves Jews behind. For Paul, it’s less clear: he loves his Jewish heritage and kin, but feels called to a new way of faith beyond Judaism.

Who’s right about God and salvation: Jews or Christians? What if it’s not up to us to decide – or even to know? 

One of the texts Paul quotes is today’s Isaiah passage: “The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope.”

Back in Lent of this past year, Father Tom McAlpine led us in a study of how Christians read the book of Isaiah. We were looking specifically at a set of texts from much later in Isaiah, known as the Suffering Servant songs. Today’s passage is somewhat different – focusing on a wise and righteous leader who will bring peace to God’s people – but it raises similar questions. 

Historically, the prophet Isaiah and his eighth-century-before-Christ audience probably thought this prophecy was about King Hezekiah of Judah. Hezekiah was a young king who called his people back to exclusive and faithful worship of God.  But it’s the nature of prophetic language not to be fulfilled or exhausted by any given historical figure or event. Hezekiah did big things – but his reign did not usher in a cosmic realm of peace. It’s possible to see elements of a prophecy fulfilled, while other parts still hang in the air, waiting and shining. 

This text is here, in our Advent lectionary, because Christians have assumed for millennia that it’s about Jesus. That he is the “shoot of Jesse” – meaning, a descendant of Israel’s great king David, whose father was named Jesse. 

Now, Matthew and Luke both make a point of the fact that Jesus is born into a family with links to King David. But listen: David lived in Judea a thousand years before Jesus. And he had a lot of kids. By sheer dint of math and time, a heck of a lot of Judeans could have claimed Davidic ancestry by the time Jesus was born. 

It’s so, so hard for us not to read these Old Testament texts backwards from Christianity, as as inevitably and exclusively pointing to Jesus. In Father Tom’s class we kept tripping over that, how deeply-seated our impulse was to read these texts and think: “Well, this is obviously about Jesus; how could it not be? What else could it possibly mean?”

Texts from the Old Testament, and especially from Isaiah, shaped the language and hopes of the Jewish people for centuries. The way they thought and spoke about a coming Messiah, a holy leader sent by God to save and restore God’s people. And these texts likewise shaped the ideas and language of the first Christians, especially those steeped in the Hebrew Bible – like Matthew, like Paul. They used Isaiah and other Hebrew Scriptures to help them make sense of what they had experienced in Jesus’ life and ministry, and in his death and resurrection. 

We think we recognize Jesus in these Old Testament texts because how Christians think and talk about Jesus has been shaped by these Old Testament texts, literally from day one. 

I would rather say that everybody’s right than that everybody’s wrong. And I think that’s more faithful to the mystery of how holy texts can speak and speak again in new times and places. 

This passage is about Hezekiah and it’s about Jesus and it’s about the promised Messiah whom our Jewish siblings still await and it’s about the second coming of Christ that we still await. 

What passages like this tell us about God’s purposes for Israel and for the world can help us understand the person and work of Jesus. We can rightly treasure these texts as Christians. But we need to hold them carefully, with an awareness that they don’t only belong to us. 

At the Beth Israel Center across town, when my friend Betsy’s congregation opens the ark where the scrolls of Scripture are kept, and take out the scroll of the Nevi’im, the Prophets, and remove its silver end caps and its embroidered velvet cover and unroll it on the altar and chant it aloud in Hebrew – Isaiah’s words resonate differently in that space than they do here. 

Not entirely differently, to be sure. But importantly differently. And some of the difference is history and humanity – and some of it is holiness and mystery. 

It’s important for Christians to grapple with the anti-Judaism embedded in our history, our texts, our practices. Good citizenship and good ally-ship are part of our call to love our neighbors and serve the common good. 

But for me there’s something more here too – something a little hard to put my finger on, but I’ll try.

I find a sense of joy and freedom and possibility in the idea that God’s saving purposes are bigger and broader and honestly messier than any human mapping. We can’t pin down the meanings of ancient prophecy, or the mechanics of salvation, to fit within our categories of belonging and belief, doctrine and truth. 

This is one of the fundamental themes of Advent: The God who came among us as Jesus of Nazareth is coming again. 

We are people of expectation.

People called to expect mystery.

To expect disruption. 

To expect redemption. 

To expect, someday, whether in this world or the next, to come face to face with the Living One who both fulfills and transcends all our scriptures and theologies.  

May it be so. Come, Lord Jesus. 

 

Advent Song Cycle, week 3 – Dark

The third week of Advent, December 11 – 17

This Week’s Song: “Honor the Dark”

Lea Morris

Learn this song and the ASL signs that go with it on YouTube:

About the song

Lea Morris (who also performs as LEA) is as Unitarian Universalist songwriter and musician.  This song was composed recently, during the Covid pandemic. This is a great song for this time of year when the nights are getting longer and it may be dark by the time we leave work or school. While we may prefer the light, the dark can also be holy and have gifts for us. 

WORD FOR THE WEEK: DARK

How to say “Dark” in American Sign Language…  If you watch the song video you will see it! 

Hold your arms out to each side with your upper arms a little below your shoulders and your lower arms pointing towards the ceiling, palms flat and towards your face. 

Then swing your lower arms inward so that your flat palms cross each other in front of your face. Your hands end lined up in front of your chest, elbows out. 

The sign expresses not being able to see, as your hands briefly cover your face. 

SOMETHING TO LEARN… What is the solstice? 

We live on the Earth, which goes around the Sun. The Earth also spins as it goes around the sun – each spin is one day and night. The Earth tilts on its axis as it spins, which is why in many parts of the world the days are sometimes longer and sometimes shorter. (There is a belt around the middle of the Earth – the Equator – where days and nights are always about the same length!) 

Every year has two solstices, a day/night when the Earth is tilted as far as it can tilt. In the summer, in the northern hemisphere (the half of the Earth that’s closest to the North Pole; we live in the northern hemisphere) is tilted TOWARDS the sun. That means we have the LONGEST day of the year – the summer solstice – on June 21st. (That’s also the SHORTEST day of the year in Australia!)  In the northern hemisphere, we have the winter solstice – the longest NIGHT of the year – on December 21. It’s coming up, next week! 

Even though it is early in the winter, after the solstice, the nights will start getting a tiny bit shorter – bit by bit – and the days will start getting a tiny bit longer – bit by bit. We can honor the dark, and also be glad to see the light beginning to return.

 

PRAYER PRACTICE for this week…

Take a walk in the dark. 

Walk in a familiar area, like the street or block where you live. Be safe; use a flashlight, or go for a walk when it’s not fully dark yet so that you can see. Wear something light-colored if you are walking where there might be traffic. 

If walking isn’t a good idea for you, you could sit in the dark on your porch or in your home and see what you can notice there. 

If you can find a red flashlight (or tape something transparent and red over a normal flashlight), that can be a good tool for a night walk, because the red light will help your eyes adjust to the dark so you can see better. 

Before you set out, ask God to help you notice the gifts of the dark, and to walk with you. 

What can you see, in the dark? What can you hear? What can you smell? What do you notice that is different from what you notice in the daytime? 

Does it feel different inside of you to walk in the dark? 

At the end of your walk give thanks to God for what you noticed or felt on your walk. You could sing this week’s song, “Honor the dark”!

(The Emily Dickinson poem on the Resonating Texts page goes well with this activity.) 

 

HANDS-ON PROJECT: 

  1. Make a Light & Dark Play area! 

Gather some things that are shiny in interesting ways, or colorful and translucent. Suggestions: colored clear or translucent glass or plastic cups, vases, and so on – even things that look solid may be translucent, meaning light can shine through them; shiny/reflective things – mirrors or an old CD or two. If you have a prism or a crystal paperweight, that might be interesting too!

Arrange everything a table. Find a couple of light sources – a flashlight or phone light, a headlamp or small portable lamp that you can point in a particular direction. Glow sticks could be fun too.

Turn off the lights and use your flashlights or lamps to explore how all those things look when you shine a light on or near them in the dark. Can you cast their shadows on the wall?

2. Learn some winter constellations!

A constellation is a group of stars that people have thought for a long time look like a particular shape or creature.  There are apps and websites that can help you figure out where to look – or Rev. Miranda can send you files for some constellation pages for winter constellations here in the northern hemisphere.

BONUS ACTIVITY: 

Celebrate the Feast of St. Lucy, on December 13! 

St. Lucy was one of the earliest Christian martyrs, meaning someone who died for her Christian faith. Lucy was a young woman who became a Christian. She made a vow that she would never marry, so she could commit her whole life to following Jesus. She was killed for her faith during persecution under the Roman emperor Diocletian in the year 304. 

St. Lucia’s Day is celebrated as a festival of lights in many parts of Scandinavia. Traditionally, a young girl will dress in white and wear a wreath with lit candles on her head. (We do not recommend this!) The wreath with candles comes from a story about St. Lucy. During her life it is said that she brought food and blankets to prisoners in a dark underground prison. Because she wanted to use her arms to carry as many supplies as possible, she made a wreath for the top of her head and inserted candles so she wouldn’t have to carry her candle. (Source: https://www.catholicicing.com/st-lucy/) 

The traditional foods for the day are coffee, saffron bread, and ginger cookies. It’s also a traditional time to make gingerbread cookies or houses.

A gory detail: Legend has it that Saint Lucy either plucked out her own eyes to avoid marriage to a pagan, or had her eyes put out by the Emperor Diocletian as part of her martyrdom. Sometimes images of St. Lucy have her holding her own eyeballs on a platter. She is the patron saint of the blind. 

RESONATING TEXTS

These texts offers another perspective on the dark. 

We grow accustomed to the Dark Emily Dickinson

We grow accustomed to the Dark –

When Light is put away –

As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp

To witness her Goodbye –

 

A Moment – We uncertain step

For newness of the night –

Then – fit our Vision to the Dark –

And meet the Road – erect –

 

And so of larger – Darknesses – 

Those Evenings of the Brain – 

When not a Moon disclose a sign – 

Or Star – come out– within –

 

The Bravest – grope a little – 

And sometimes hit a Tree

Directly in the Forehead –

But as they learn to see –

 

Either the Darkness alters – 

Or something in the sight

Adjusts itself to Midnight –

And Life steps almost straight.

 

Ode to Winter – Gillian Clarke, National Poet of Wales – link here: 

http://beingtransformed-bonnie.blogspot.com/2013/02/winter-poem.html

Cwtsh: Welsh word for a cubbyhole. It also means a hug! 

Hiraeth; a sense of longing for something you cannot find.

Advent Song Cycle, Week 0 – PREPARE

As our home-grown Advent resource this season we are offering a Song Cycle – with a song each week, a keyword, and some activity and prayer suggestions. This post is for Week 0, the week BEFORE Advent begins – November 20th through 26th.

This Week’s Word: PREPARE

This Week’s Song: “People, Look East!”

1. People, look East! The time is near of the crowning of the year. 

Make your house fair as you are able, trim the hearth and set the table.

People, look East and sing today: Love the Guest is on the way!

Read the whole poem at this link: https://www.yourdailypoem.com/listpoem.jsp?poem_id=2853

Listen and learn the tune here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7SPLN1g_ZFY

People, Look East was written by Eleanor Farjeon, who lived from 1881 to 1965, and published in 1928. Farjeon was a British children’s author and poet. She wrote wonderful short stories and poems, and her Christian faith was often part of her work. She also wrote another well-known hymn, “Morning has Broken” (#8 in our Hymnal). 

In this song, Farjeon uses different images to help us think about preparing to celebrate the coming of Jesus at Christmas: Guest, Rose, Bird, Star, Lord. 

Why look East? East is the direction of the rising sun. In the Bible, many texts describe God’s salvation as coming from the East. Many churches face towards the East for this reason. 

WORD FOR THE WEEK: PREPARE 

How to say “Prepare” in ASL:  Hold your hands in front of you, a little to one side, palms facing each other, with some space between them. 

Now, keeping your hands in the same position with facing palms, move them across in front of your body, making a small loop-the-loop as you go. 

Watch the sign here at this link:

SOMETHING TO LEARN… 

Which way is East, at your house? Which was is East, at church? 

Try finding East in other places you often go. 

Notice the sunrise! 

PRAYER PRACTICE for this week…

Clean, tidy, or decorate, prayerfully. Prayer doesn’t have to involve sitting still, or reading the words of a prayer from a book. Washing dishes, clearing a table to make room for your Advent wreath, unboxing seasonal decorations, preparing food for yourself or people you love – all of these can be prayerful acts.

Just turn your heart towards God before you begin, and try to do what you are doing with your full attention, focused on the task and what it means to you. 

HANDS-ON PROJECT: Prepare your Advent wreath!

This is a good week to prepare your Advent wreath, so you are ready for Advent to begin on Sunday the 27th. Maybe you have a wreath already, and you just need to get it out and set it up. Maybe you don’t have one, and you need to get materials from church or shop for some candles you like. We have simple Advent candles, and booklets with Advent prayers to use, available at church. Reach out to Rev. Miranda if you need to pick something up, or have something dropped off! 

The Advent wreath has roots in pre-Christian Europe, when evergreens and candles were symbols of the persistence of life and light through the dark and frozen winter. In the Middle Ages, the custom was Christianized and became a way for families to observe Advent at home. 

An Advent wreath can be as simple as four candles – they don’t even have to match! Pillar, jar, or votive candles work well. Set up your candles/wreath somewhere central in your home, like the center of the table where you usually eat. You can decorate your wreath or candles however you like – evergreen cuttings, pine cones, ribbons, whatever feels pretty and special for the season. Purple and blue are traditional Advent colors, but you don’t have to use them. 

When you sit down for dinner, or at another quiet moment in your evening, light a candle (or two, or three, or four) and spend a moment praying or just enjoying the light. During the first week of Advent (after the first Sunday of Advent), light one candle; after the second Sunday, light two candles, and so on. You may add a fifth candle to light at Christmas. Adding lights week by week, as it grows darker and darker outside, helps us enter into the anticipation of the season. 

RESONATING TEXTS

These texts offer some other ways to think about preparing for Christmas.  Click the links to read the poems and texts! 

What is the crying at Jordan? – by Carol Christopher Drake; Hymn #69 in our hymnal.

Making the House Ready for the Lord (Mary Oliver, 1935 – 2019)

The Guest House,  by Jalaluddin Rumi 

Yes, by William Stafford

Homily, Nov. 6

Today I want to talk about the Communion of Saints. 

The outline of the faith in the back of the Book of Common Prayer, the official prayer book of our church, says, “The communion of saints is the whole family of God, the living and the dead, … bound together in Christ by sacrament, prayer, and praise.”

I found a lovely description on another Episcopal church’s website: “All Saints’ Day [November 1; we’re celebrating it today] and All Souls’ Day [November 2nd] remind us of our belief that all Christians that ever lived, are living, and will ever be, are bound together in one Communion – the Body of Christ. All Saints’ and All Souls’ celebrates this bond as we continue the ancient practice of praying for the saints who have gone on before us and acknowledge that those saints in heaven are praying for us.”

(The Rev. Jeff Shankles, https://wearestalbans.org/celebrating-communion-saints/ ) 

The Communion of Saints binds us together with all Christians in all times and places. But at All Saints’ and All Souls’ we may be most mindful of the saints who have gone on ahead into the nearer presence of God. 

Of those holy ones whom the Church names as witnesses to celebrate and remember, and of our own beloved dead. 

There are several reasons the Communion of Saints is on my mind right now.

I think it’s no accident that these feasts of remembrance, this time when the Church and her people acknowledge that the veil between worlds feels particularly thin, comes at this turning time of the seasons in the northern hemisphere. 

Autumn is dying, winter is on the horizon. 

In the words of a favorite hymn: 

Signs of endings are all around us. 

These solemn feasts resonate with the cycles of the natural world; change, loss, transience and mortality are writ large everywhere we look. 

The second reason the Communion of Saints is on my mind is – of course – that it feels like our little St Dunstan’s chapter of the greater Communion has been growing, lately. 

Jane. 

Martina. 

Dan Geisler.

Dan Hanson. 

Scott Tyre.

Mike Vaughan. 

Mo Lewis. 

Sue Lloyd. 

All gone on ahead in 2022. 

Some more remembered than known, by today’s congregation, but some very much known and loved – and missed.  Absences keenly felt. 

I keep expecting to Martina to stop by and drop off some political buttons, or an email from Jane that starts with an error in the Enews but goes on with an update on her life, and kind questions about my family. 

It helps to remember that they’re still out there, somewhere. 

The third reason the Communion of Saints is on my mind is that I heard a great sermon about it recently, at our Diocesan Convention in early October, given by Bishop Matt Gunter, the bishop of our sister diocese of Fond du Lac. 

Bishop Matt challenged us to take that idea of the Communion of Saints seriously. To think of church as the momentum of all those holy lives pushing us forward, encouraging us. 

What if all those people we named at the beginning of this service – what if they are actually listening? Hearing our call, our invocation of their presence and prayers? 

Bishop Matt talked about how we might feel a sense of unease at the idea of being watched over by the holy departed. Surely they’ll judge our every small failure or unkindness!

But what if – he said – what if instead it’s the reverse? What if they break out in joyful cheers every time we manage to be patient or kind or generous in some tiny way? 

And what if the saints don’t just watch us like some trans-dimensional twitch stream? What if they’re an active presence in our lives?

Coming alongside us to whisper: You’re going to need to be patient, today. Pay attention in this conversation; there’s something here for you. Get some rest this evening; tomorrow may demand a lot from you. 

After all, the saints know what it is like to try to be people of justice and mercy and love in the real world. In ordinary times and in extraordinarily difficult times. 

Bishop Matt reminded us of the great theologian Augustine of Hippo, who lived in a time when the Roman Empire, the world as everyone had known it for centuries, was falling down around his ears. 

And Augustine writes this great work called the City of God, saying, This earthly city, this earthly empire, may crumble; but there’s another city that we really belong to, and that city endures, because God is the Founder of that city.

Julian of Norwich, a beloved saint for some people in this congregation, lived in the 14th century – in the time of the Black Death, the great plague that killed something like a third of the people of Europe. But she encounters Jesus in a vision, and Jesus tells her that despite the suffering she sees around her, the heart of the Divine is not judgment but deep, deep love. And Julian is able to say: All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.

Not because the hard and terrible stuff isn’t real. But because it’s not as real as the love that holds her – that holds us. And it’s not as real as the joy that awaits us. 

These people lived in times that make what we’re dealing with look not so bad. But we may well have harder times ahead.

As I’ve gotten to know Bishop Matt, I’ve noticed that he carries a keen awareness that we may be moving into a difficult chapter in the life of the world – with worsening climate change, polarized violence, and pandemic disease. I find it – oddly comforting? – to hear a church leader name that.

And he makes the case that it’s important to anchor ourselves in what matters, in what’s deeply true and truly good, to face the coming times. Our understanding, our awareness, of the Communion of Saints is one aspect of that anchoring.

Because all these people – Augustine, Julian, Dr. King, Sophie Scholl, so many others – they lived in hard times too.They faced into it with love and courage. 

Bishop Matt told us: The saints remind us that we are part of a bigger story.  My part in the story, or your part, might be pretty small. But we’re called to play our part in the great story, in our time.

And what kind of story is it? Well: We know where the story is going. Because of Jesus, who comes into the story to give us a foreshadowing of how the story will end. The story ends with resurrection.  With restoration and renewal. 

It’s not a tragedy, no matter how it might look sometimes. It’s the kind of story that ends with laughter, with joy. With old friends and loved ones reunited. With feast and song. 

Knowing how the story ends might free us to see the hard stuff along the way in a different light. 

And as we continue to live the rest of our parts of the story, we can be assured that there is this great cloud of witnesses, the Communion of Saints, cheering us on. 

The St. Dunstan’s chapter, and all the others you’re thinking of today too – maybe a beloved grandparent, a friend from childhood, a mentor, a sibling or child – watching over you, praying for you, urging you on. Standing here beside you. Beside us. Accompanying us on the journey. 

Thanks be to God. 

Homily, May 22

It’s not a very nice story, is it?  For the story, the Devil is the embodiment of evil, who is always trying to trick and hurt human beings… so the story thinks it’s OK to trick and hurt the Devil. Maybe we would want to try to solve this problem another way!

This is an old story – but it’s probably not as old as St. Dunstan himself. Dunstan lived about 11 hundred years ago. He lived in a place that we call England, now… though then it was a group of little kingdoms that had just begun to think of themselves as being a country, together. It was an unstable, uncertain time, with a lot of violence and poverty. 

When he was a young man, Dunstan became a monk. That means he committed his life to serving God, living simply as part of a community of other monks. Later on he became a bishop, a leader in the church – and then Archbishop of Canterbury, leader of ALL the churches in England. He also served in the court of several English kings, helping and advising them – if they would let him. 

We know a fair amount about Dunstan’s life, from historical documents and other evidence. He died on May 19 in the year 988. Soon after his death, people began to honor him as a saint, and to tell stories meant to show how holy he was – like this story about Dunstan defeating the Devil! 

When the church calls someone a saint, it usually means that we think they followed God in ways that mattered to the people of their time and place. Let’s look at a couple of images – historical documents – to remember Dunstan today and think about his sainthood. 

Dunstan was one of the leaders in the English Benedictine Reform movement of the tenth century. Monasteries and convents – places where monks and nuns lived lives of prayer and study, devoted to God – were a really important part of society back then, as centers for for faith, education, medical care, and more. But centuries of war and struggle made it hard for those places to thrive and do what they were meant to do. 

Dunstan and his colleagues wanted to fix that. To make monasteries centers of true faith and learning again – and to start MORE monasteries, where they could train priests to serve God and God’s people.

This is a page of the Rule they used in their monasteries, based on the Rule of St. Benedict.  The Rule was a document that told the monks and nuns how they should live in community, with a balance of daily work, study, rest and prayer. 

The most important thing about this page is something you might not notice right away. Back then, not very many people knew how to read or write. And all the books were handwritten… Does everybody have the same handwriting?

Have you ever seen somebody’s handwriting that was hard for you to read? Maybe they had bad handwriting, or maybe they had GOOD handwriting but you just did’t know how to read it?… 

In Dunstan’s time, if you wanted to study and read about religion or science or travel or philosophy or poetry, anything – well, first, you had to be able to read the language it was written in, often Greek or Latin. Latin was the language of the Roman Empire. And long after the Romans were gone, it kept being used as the language of scholarship and literature and church, in lots of places. 

But even if you could read Latin, you also had to be able to read the handwriting, the script style, that the text was written in! It was hard for a lot of people, even educated people, to read books that came from previous centuries or from other places, because of those problems. So it was hard to study and learn and build up new knowledge. 

But starting not long before Dunstan was born, there was a movement across Europe to start using one form of writing, called Carolingian Miniscule. People wrote new books in this script, and they also rewrote older books in this script. So suddenly a lot more knowledge and culture could be read and shared! It was a big deal!

Scholars think they know Dunstan’s handwriting, from parts of a book called the Glastonbury Classbook. He wrote in his own version of Carolingian Minuscule, with some influence from the Irish monks who first trained him. 

Dunstan didn’t write this page. But it is in the Carolingian style. It’s hard for us to read – and the text is in Latin – but you can notice that the letter forms are very clear and regular. And if you look closely, you’ll see some other words on the page, written in between those nice neat lines. The written-in part is the same thing in Old English, the language ordinary people spoke. 

Those words were written in to help monks and nuns who didn’t know Latin, or only knew a little bit – so that they could also read this important text about how they were called to live. 

So both that Carolingian script – and the written-in Old English – show us that for Dunstan and other leaders of this movement, having more people be able to read and learn and understand was really important. I think that’s really cool! And it’s one of the ways Dunstan’s work mattered to the people of his time and place. 

Dunstan did the things he did – even when they were hard! – because he loved God and wanted to follow God’s will. Here’s the second image we’ll look at today. You may have seen it before. 

This is the icon of Dunstan that we like to use here.

It’s an image from that book I mentioned, the Glastonbury Classbook, and – here’s the part I think is really cool – it’s likely that Dunstan drew it himself. He was an artist, as well as a scribe, a writer of books. 

Usually our icons, our holy images, put the person we’re honoring right in the middle.  But in this picture Dunstan drew himself kneeling at the feet of Jesus Christ, on a throne. That’s how Dunstan drew himself so that is how we honor him – as a servant of Jesus. 

Look: you can see that he’s dressed as a monk, in a robe, and with his hair shaved on top – that’s called a tonsure. 

The words above him are a prayer: “I ask, merciful Christ, that you protect me, Dunstan;  A medieval drawing of a seated Christ, robed, with a monk bowing at his feetdo not permit the storms of the Underworld to swallow me.”

I learned about that prayer a few years ago, and I think it’s a really good prayer. 

It’s a prayer asking Jesus to help us feel his presence and love when we feel overwhelmed – when we feel like chaos or anxiety or struggle might just swallow us up. 

Praying a prayer like that isn’t like flipping a switch; the struggle or anxiety doesn’t just go away. But maybe it reminds us that we’re not alone with it. And that it won’t last forever. And sometimes pausing to pray can help us catch our breath, and unclench our fists, and notice that the earth is still under our feet, and there is still breath going in and out of our lungs, and that we are loved. 

This week when I read that prayer again, it came with a tune. Dunstan was a musician too – so maybe it was a little gift from our saint. 

Here’s how it goes… in Latin first: 

Memet clemens rogo, Christe, tuere / 

Tenarias me non sinas sorbsisse procellas.

Now in English: 

Kindly Christ, I pray thee, save my humble soul;

Let me not be swallowed by the storms of the netherworld! 

 

Merciful Christ,  Protect us, each and all; when the world feels like a storm that batters us, like waters rising to swallow us up, calm our hearts and give us peace. Amen.