Saturday, December 28, 2013

Tiny Dancers and Children in Church

We held very simple Advent services on Wednesday evening this year.  We used Holden Evening Prayer, read an Old Testament Reading and read a children's story.  We worshipped around tables in our Fellowship Hall rather than in the Sanctuary.  We had confirmation students bring in the cross and candles and had candles at every table.  We had a few small children take the offering.

I loved hearing the congregation singing together in the round, even in a room with not the best acoustics in the world.  We know the liturgy well enough now that some people felt bold to sing different parts on the canon, even if they were sitting right next to each other.

We had hoped that the service would be short and engaging for families with small children.  But, truth be told, there were only a very few small children (all of the confirmation students came every week).

On the last Wednesday, there were a few more small children.  They were all pre-school age.  One of them had been coming every Wednesday with her grandmother.  Another one was the daughter of our children's ministry coordinator.

Though they were glad to be with us for worship, I could tell that they were also excited and antsy.  They had a hard time paying attention to the story.  It had pretty pictures, and there were opportunities to count down the Advent candles, but other parts of the story were too hard for them to understand.

Toward the end of the service, though, we began the prayer litany.  With piano and violin accompanying, we began to sing, "God of mercy, hold us in love."  The soloist also began, "In peace, in peace, we pray to you."

And two of the little girls began to dance.

They put out their arms as if they were ballerinas; they bumped into each other a couple of times.  They did not understand the words, but they understood the music.  If they had been a little older, I would have said they were tiny liturgical dancers.

Their parents were understandably chagrined.  Children need to learn how to behave in church.  This was a time of prayer, after all.  We were praying for the sake of the world.  And their daughters were dancing.

Yet, I thought that their dance was beautiful.  They were graceful in their smallness, arms flung out, listening to the violin as if it were the voice of God.  They were praying, too, even though they didn't know it. Perhaps we can teach them:  not to sit still, but to believe that all of their movements, their tears and their laughter, are sent up to God, as an offering, as incense.

Perhaps we can teach them, but then we would have to know it too:  we would need to know that church is for sitting still and for dancing, for weeping and for laughter, and that all of it, all of us, is offered up to God, as incense.

Perhaps we can teach them.  Perhaps they can teach us, too.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Christmas Day Worship

My congregation has a worship service on Christmas Day.  It was not my idea.  They have held worship services here on Christmas Day for much longer than I have been here.

It's not a large congregation that gathers on Christmas Day, at least not by "Christmas Eve" size standards.  But like Christmas Eve, it's a motley crew, equal parts regular attendees and visitors, people I know well, and people I have never seen before.  Somehow, though, the mix of strangers and visiting family members and regulars seems different on Christmas morning than it does the evening before.

I have no interest in shaming congregations who do not have worship on Christmas Day.  I just do not want to have that conversation.  In fact, I do not remember ever attending a Christmas Day worship service before I became a pastor.  (My first parish also held worship services both on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.)  And it is true, that we have sort of struggled to consider, after the drama of Christmas Eve, what the Christmas morning service is about. It's true, the readings are different, but the theme is really the same:  The Mystery of the Incarnation, the Word Made Flesh.  In the evening, you have the shepherds and the manger and all of the earthy details; in the morning, you have light and life and a more cosmic view -- poetic, but perhaps less compelling for many.  You can't do a Christmas pageant based on John, chapter 1.

 Even so, and though I am tired after the long night before, and even though I too would like to stay home and make breakfast and play with my toys, I love to get up and go to worship on Christmas morning.  Here are some of the reasons why:

1.  At my congregation on Christmas morning, we begin with the traditional Christmas Proclamation.  I know that at some churches this is read at the late service on Christmas eve, but here we read it at the beginning of the service in the morning.  The last two years, the bells have played, softly at first, and then more loudly, under the reading.

2.  There are a few people I see every year; Christmas Day is their service.  I see one family who I love dearly.  We walked with them through their beloved husband and father's long battle with cancer.  They recently joined another church, one with a more conservative theology.  I miss them,  but they still come back on Christmas Day.  It is a great reunion.  Their new church is wonderful, but does not hold a Christmas Day worship service.   "This is when Christmas should be," the mother says, but it doesn't sound like scolding.  It is always good to see them.

3.  This year almost all the hymns at the morning service were "by request."  We opened with "Good Christian Friends, Rejoice," closed with "Go, Tell It On the Mountain" and sang "The Huron Carol" for the hymn of the Day.  Requested hymns included:  "What Child is This", "Silent Night,"  "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear", and "The Bells of Christmas" (the Scandinavian tradition is not dead here).  Normally shy Lutherans were not shy about naming their favorite carols, and the children especially seemed to enjoy it.

4.  When your congregation is small, you get to notice small things:  who is crying during the sermon, the little boy who anticipates loudly the word "Go" on the chorus of "Go Tell it on the Mountain",  two teenagers I had never seen before, a family from India who had just moved here and were attending church for the first time, the deaf woman and her two sons, for whom I copied the sermon and the Christmas proclamation.

On Christmas Eve, there is the mystery of the light in the darkness, the excitement of large crowds, the reunion of families.

In the morning, we are still here.  There are just a few of us, but as it turns out, it is enough.  There are enough of us to sing, to ring bells, to weep, to eat and drink, to remember that we are children of God, full of grace and truth.

The Word made Flesh.  God is still incarnate.  Not just in straw and stables and shepherds.  In us.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas Day Sermon: "The Most Beautiful Feet in the World"

This is the sermon I preached this morning for Christmas Day worship.  The story is adapted from a wonderful story I found over at Luther Seminary, called "Christmas Moccasins", by Ray Buckley.  The Hymn of the day was the "Huron Carol."

Isaiah 52:7-10
John 1:1-14

          The night was cold and the moon was bright one Christmas eve, when a grandmother and her grandson started on a journey together. 
They held hands as they walked.  The grandmother’s moccasins made barely a sound in the soft snow. 
She always wore moccasins.
While they walked along quietly, the grandson wondered why they were walking this way, and through these woods together. 
He remembered – and he wondered if the trees remembered – what had happened here earlier in the winter –what had happened to his grandmother and him. 
He wondered if the trees remembered how three drunken youths had stopped them as they walked along, how they had hit them, and knocked them down. 
How they had stolen both of their coats, and his grandmother’s moccasins. 
He wondered if the trees remembered that his grandmother had walked home barefoot in the snow, and that frostbite had taken two of his grandmother’s toes.

            And he wondered why they were walking this way again, on Christmas eve.

            When the boy and his grandmother had returned home that evening months before, they had not spoken to one another. 
Grandmother had heated up water for drinking, and for washing, and they had washed their faces and soaked their feet.
Then she splashed water on her face, and she began to pray. 

            She took out small beads that evening, and she began to sew new moccasins. 
She was a remarkable beader.  It was an art. 
She used the smallest, most beautiful, most colorful beads, and she began right away to sew new moccasins.


            “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,” says the prophet Isaiah in the first reading today. 
Today – Christmas Day – it is the message that we focus on – “Peace on earth, good will to all.” 
That is the message of Christmas – and it's a joyful message. 
Originally, the messenger brought news of the return of the exiles – and the good news was that the Lord was returning to dwell in Jerusalem. 
It’s a joyful message, and I’ll confess to you, that when I’ve heard these words, “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,” I’ve often thought of Julie Andrews, singing with all of her heart as she runs through the hills.  
"The Hills are alive..."
 “How beautiful on the mountains…..”  
 Today we focus on the message, the message of peace on earth, the message that God is dwelling among God’s people…..

            But today, Christmas Day, I want to focus on – the feet.

            Have you ever wondered about that?  How beautiful are the FEET? 
Why not how beautiful are the eyes?  Or how beautiful is the mouth? 
Or even, how beautiful are the hands?   Why beautiful feet?  Because when I think of the word “beautiful” I don’t often think of the word “feet”. 
When I think of the word “feet” – I think more of how tired feet can be after a long day of working, I think of feet that are dirty after walking, I think of feet pounding the pavement, feet walking the malls searching for presents. 
I think of feet that walk and pace with babies who need calming, feet that go out searching for lost dogs. 
And I think of the feet of the long-distance runner.  And then I think that the messenger’s feet must have been tired, after delivering such an important message, walking and running over valley and mountain, rivers and deserts.  

            “How beautiful are the feet…..,, not just the voice, and not just the eyes, and not just the hands, but how beautiful are the feet
– the feet that take you there, to Jerusalem, or to any place that needs peace, that needs to know that God is present. 
How beautiful are the feet – because the feet walk the earth, the feet get tired, the feet go to the places that need healing hands and words of forgiveness. 
“How beautiful are the feet….” Because it’s so important to go, it’s so important to be there, not just in Jerusalem, but here. 
How beautiful are the feet that walk the halls of hospitals, and how beautiful are the feet of the ones who break bread with the hungry,
And how beautiful are the feet of the ones who hold hands with the dying, and how beautiful are the feet of the ones who shelter the homeless. 

            How beautiful are the feet of the one who announced, and who brought peace. 
How beautiful are the feet of the one who walked this earth, healing us and feeding us and shedding tears and bending down and washing feet.

            And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and walked among us.  How beautiful.


            So the boy and the grandmother walked that Christmas eve. 
They held hands, and they held gifts. 
They held three pairs of moccasins.  They were the moccasins that the grandmother had begun sewing earlier that winter, that very night when they were attacked.  They were beautiful and finely beaded. 
The grandmother had prayed all the while she beaded them. 
And she did something rare and beautiful when she beaded those moccasins.  She turned them over and she even beaded the bottoms. 
Then she wrapped them up in paper.  And she prayed.  She splashed water on her own face, and she splashed water on her grandson’s face.  It was how she prayed.

            Then they put on their coats and stepped on into the snowflakes.

            The grandmother paused at the top of a low hill,  and she paused  to pray again.  The boy’s heart pounded.  “Why are we here?”  he asked.  “Why are we going to see them?  On Christmas eve? 
The grandmother answered, “We are here to do the Creator’s work.  We are here to do the Creator’s work.”

            How beautiful are the feet……

            The walk from the top of the hill to the house below seemed to take forever.  Their steps grew slower as the snow swirled around them.  But they finally reached the doorway.

            The door was opened by a large man.  Behind him was a tree covered with Christmas lights.  “I have small presents for your sons,”  grandmother said.  “May I give them?”  She handed each a package carefully wrapped, and she said to each,  “I wanted to wish you a Merry Christmas.  God bless you.”

            The room was quiet.  The three  pair of moccasins lay in three sets of hands – they sparkled in the light, with red and blue, white and yellow.  No one spoke.

            How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of the one who announces peace.  How beautiful.

            The moon shone down that evening on an old woman with a limp and a little boy holding onto her coat.  They walked through the grove of trees and paused to touch each one.

            And the word became flesh, and lived among us.
            Full of grace and truth.

            How beautiful are the feet of the One who came among us, announcing peace, bringing peace.
            How beautiful are the feet of the One who set us free to love one another.
            Merry Christmas.



Sunday, December 22, 2013

Advent 4: Invitation to Trust

*(I am indebted to Barbara Lundblad at Working Preacher for her thoughts regarding Isaiah 7:10-16 this week)

A long time ago and in a place far away from here, a prophet came to a king and said, “Trust me.”   
            The King’s name was Ahaz – and the prophet’s name was Isaiah.  And when Isaiah said, “Trust me,” he really meant “Trust God.” 
            Now you might wonder why the prophet came to the king with such a message. 
            Isaiah knew that King Ahaz was worried and frightened.  He knew that there were two other kings that were plotting against him – the king of Israel (the northern kingdom) and the king of Aram. 
            They wanted to overthrow Ahaz and set up another king in his place, for their own political purposes.  
            Ahaz was worried, and the prophet came to him said to him, “Trust me.”
             That’s what it means when Isaiah says, “Go ahead – ask for a sign.  You can ask for anything!  The sky’s the limit!  Just ask!”
             It’s an invitation.  But Ahaz won’t do it. 
            He won’t ask for a sign, and he makes a big show of saying, “I won’t put God to the test.”  Sounds pious right? 
            We are not supposed to test God, right?  But really, Ahaz is not pious.  The truth is, he has his own ideas about how he’s going to deal with Israel and Aram, and he doesn’t want God to get in the middle of it.   “Ask God for a sign,” Isaiah says. 
            As deep as sheol or a high as heaven.  The sky’s the limit!  And Ahaz refuses.

            Perhaps it seems like an odd story for the Sunday two days before Christmas Eve. 
            Two days until Christmas Eve and if you are like me, you are starting to get worried that you won’t get everything done before Christmas, or you are starting to anticipate with joy the return of family members from places far away, or you are thinking about the people who – for whatever reason – will not be with you this Christmas.
             Two days before Christmas eve, and for some of us, it really is Christmas already, because in this day and age when families live in many different places, some are sitting down to a family Christmas dinner already this weekend.
            But according to the church year, it is still advent, we are still waiting, and still preparing, still getting ready.

            And advent – well, advent is about many things.  Advent is about hope – about waiting for what only God can do in our lives.
             And Advent is about preparing – not just our homes but our hearts –  And advent is about repentance – about turning around and going in another direction. 
            Advent is about many things, but the more I think about it, the more I believe that advent is about God, saying to us, “Trust me.” 
            Trust me with your future. 
            Trust me with your present. 
            As Isaiah came to King Ahaz and said “trust me”, so during advent we are invited to trust the one who is coming to us, the one who will come to us, soon, the one who will be born among us and laid in a manger, because there is no room for him in the inn.

            Of course – this is not the reason that we read this passage from Isaiah on the 4th Sunday of Advent. 
            No – really we read this passage because of that sentence “ the young woman will conceive and bear a son, and she will name him “Immanuel.”
            And most of you will hear the word “Emmanuel” and you will immediately know that it means “God is with us.”  
            And when the early Christians heard this verse from Isaiah, they couldn’t help but think of Mary, and her son, Jesus.  
            “Emmanuel” was the sign given to Ahaz – the one he didn’t want – and “Emmanuel was the sign given to Joseph, and Emmanuel is the sign given to us, today.  “God is with us.”  Emmanuel Emerges
            “Trust me,” God says.  Ask me for a sign, and I will give it to you.  And when we say,
            “No, God, that’s all right.  I think I can get this all worked out without your help,”  God says,  
            “You know what?  I will give you a sign anyway.  And the sign will be a child.”

            And what kind of a sign is that?

            Well, for starters, we can say it is A good sign…..A child is a good sign, in many ways. 
            To the couple who are longing for a child, to a church wondering if they have a future, to a world looking for signs of life…. A child is a Good Sign. 
            I remember reading something a long time ago – that the era that my mother grew up in – the children that were born during the depression – is the smallest generation. 
            There were a few years  during the depression when there were just not that many children being born. 
            And the baby boomers – the generation born right after World War II ended – the boom was in part because of the spirit of optimism.  The sign of the child. 
            It is a good sign, a sign of hope.  A young woman has a baby and names him “Immanuel”.  God is with us. 
            Because that’s how she feels.  Something good is emerging in the world.

             But Immanuel is not just a good sign. 
            It’s also a vulnerable sign.  It is not a sign that tells you (if you are Ahaz) that God is going to send his armies and annihilate your enemies. 
            It’s not a sign that tells us that God is out to give us everything we want.  It is a sign that tells us that God is at work for good in the world,  but perhaps not in the ways we are expecting.  ‘God is with us.’ 
            A woman whose father served in the German army in World War II – has this memory – that the buckles of the German army had these three words printed on them,  “God with us.”   
            So we can lift those words out of the context and try to use them for our own purposes.  But the words are meant to be held together with the sign,  the sign of the child. 
“Trust me,”  God invites us. 
            Instead of trusting your own might, your own power, your own cleverness, trust me.   That’s the invitation to us, two days before Christmas eve.

            Two nights ago, my husband and I again went to a local performance called “All is Calm:  The Christmas truce of 1914.” 
            Hearing the music and listening to the readings from letters and poetry the soldiers wrote, I was struck again by how unusual it was, how unprecedented this action was
            Not just a small cease-fire, but really a temporary truce.
And it didn’t come from above, but from the soldier in the trenches.
It came from the soldiers in the trenches, who longed for peace, and trusted – somehow – that “God with us”  “Emmanuel”  meant was not a sign on a belt buckle of a conquering army --- but Emmanuel was a sign of peace for them – and for their enemies.
So They took a risk.
 I remember one voice during the performance, soldiers who were told by their sergeant to stop fraternizing with the enemy, to get back in their trenches. 
            “Shut up, sergeant,” the soldiers said back, suddenly unafraid.  “It’s Christmas!”  “God with us.”   

            “Trust me.”  That was the message to King Ahaz. 
That was the message to Joseph as well. 
The angel came to him in a dream and said, “Don’t be afraid.  Take Mary as your wife.   This child – this child will be called ‘God is with us.’” 
            This child will change the world – and your life – but not in the ways you were expecting
            Not through conquering armies – but through conquering hearts.
So Joseph trusted the angel.
And Emmanuel was born into the world.
            “Trust me.”  That’s the message for us as well, these two days before Christmas eve. 
            It is the message for us as individuals, and the message for our faith community. 
            Trust that God is working in your life, through your lives, that the baby born in a manger, is born into the ragged and messy parts of your lives, that God is with us – not in conquering armies and great successes, but in every changed heart, in every welcome guest, in every stranger, in every child who is fed, every prisoner visited. 
            God is with us – at Christmas, not in the ways we expect, or even in the ways we want, but in the ways we need –
Making us new
 making us instruments of his love.

            Trust him.


Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Visiting at Christmas

Yesterday afternoon, I spent some time visiting with shut-ins at one of our local nursing homes.   It is the week before Christmas, and even though there is a lot of getting-ready to do, both at home and at church, I squeeze in a few more visits.  In fact, it wouldn't be the week before Christmas without some visiting.

I began with the newest resident.  She has just been in the home for a couple of months.  I come bearing a prayer shawl for her, not just because she is a new resident, but because her only son died not long ago.  For many years she lived with her sister and her one son in a little house not far from the church.  The son took care of them, and they took care of him.  Her sister had died several years earlier, after struggling with dementia.  Then, this fall, her son died suddenly.  Now she lived here.  I brought her a prayer shawl, and we talked about Christmas.  She wasn't sure whether she had any plans, but thought she might go back to the farm, the place where she grew up.  (The farm is like heaven to her, or the Garden of Eden, perhaps).  She loved the prayer shawl, even though it was cold from being in the car.  I read the gospel of Luke, chapter 2 to her, and asked her what was her favorite part of the story.  "The whole thing," she said.  I told her I think I liked the shepherds out in their fields the best, imagining what that was like.  We also sang a couple of Christmas songs.  She liked all of them, too.  I told her that people still remembered her at church, and thought of her.  It was true.  I named some names.

Then I rode the elevator up two floors to visit another resident.  Her cabinets and walls were lined with photos.  I am always captivated by the picture on the wall behind her bed.  It is an old picture, a little girl held against the cheek of a young woman with long long hair and glasses.  It seems like it ought to be a picture of her mother, but it is a picture of her aunt, who took care of her after her mother died, but before her father remarried.  "Did you stay close to your aunt?" I asked her once.  "No," she said.  "Did your aunt ever marry or have other children?"  "No," she said.

She asks me about church; she wants to hear how we are doing.  I tell her about the Christmas program, and how good it is, and that we have a baptism this Sunday, and two baptisms on January 5th.  They are signs, I think, but don't tell her that.  But I know this is what she wants to know:  are there children coming to church?  If so, perhaps God is with us.

Finally, I walk over to the other side of the nursing home.  I ride the elevator with a number of noisy pre-schoolers.  The nursing home is adjacent to a day care center, and the children came over to sing Christmas carols and bring cheer to the 4th floor residents.  They run ahead and lag behind, and the two adults with them need to remind them to walk in a straight line.  They spontaneous break out in a chorus of "Jingle Bells", and I join in.

Perhaps God is with us.

I knocked on the door of the last woman I would visit that day.  She will be 104 on Christmas Day.  She can't hear very well, and she can't see much at all, but she was glad I stopped in.  I asked her what she would be doing for Christmas, and she said that she would be visiting with some of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.  She had just had one child, a daughter, who died.  But she had grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and (she thought) even great-grandchildren.  It was hard to count.

Sometimes when I visit at this time of year, I bring her a small poinsettia or a tiny potted pine.  After all, it is her birthday.  This year, I did not, but one of the potted plants from years past was still going strong.  She has a nice bright window.

We had a good conversation, and I wished her a Merry Christmas.

It wouldn't be the week before Christmas without these visits.  I don't think I could write my Christmas sermon without them.  I am not sure why.   There is nothing like reading Luke 2 with someone who has heard it for at least 90 years.  There is nothing like discussing Christmas plans with someone who is not so much interested in receiving presents.  The holiday whittled down to its most essential elements.

God with us.  Here.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Escapism and Hope

This year we are trying to offer opportunities for faith formation on Sunday morning and Wednesday evenings.  So, in the fall, we had an introduction to Spiritual Formation, a course called "Making Sense of Scripture" and the DVD series "Animate: faith."  I wondered what to do for the short weeks of Advent, and hit on the idea of a carol study.

So every Sunday morning and Wednesday evening we sing, and study a different Christmas carol.  We learn a little about the text and the tune, and the story behind it.  We look up the Bible passages associated with the text.  We talk a little bit about what the carol means to us, when we first heard it, how we might hear differently now than we did when we were five years old.

We also sing the carol.  Twice, if there's time.  It's a little subversive pushback to the "no Christmas carols until Christmas" meme.

The first carol we sang, and studied, was "Once in Royal David's City."  It's a song I didn't really know as a small child; I didn't get accustomed to it until I started buying the choral albums from the famous choirs in Great Britain, and listening to the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols on the radio.  Some of our group had known it for a long time; others were just singing now, tonight, for one of the first times ever.

None of us knew that Cecil Alexander was a woman, a young woman who liked to write poetry, and was worried that her father would disapprove.  We didn't know that the carol was originally written for children, to help teach them a portion of the Apostles Creed.

Though this is not one of the carols I grew up with, and know by heart, I found myself unexpectedly moved to tears at that last verse, thinking of my father and his recent death:

Not in that poor lowly stable, with the oxen standing by,
we shall see him; but in heaven, set at God's right hand on high;
there his children gather round, bright like stars, with glory crowned.

I couldn't help thinking about my father, now shining with glory.

Another person noted the line in the second verse, "with the poor and meek and lowly, lived on earth our Savior lowly." She thought it was a good idea that the hymn writer reminds us that Jesus lived not among the rich and powerful, but with the ordinary and the struggling.

Yet another person expressed some frustration with the hymn though.  Sure, Jesus lived with the poor and meek and lowly while he was on earth, she said.  But then it seems that in the next verse, it's all about Jesus leading his children on 'to the place where he has gone.'  What about, instead of singing about us all following Jesus to heaven, we could sing about all of us following Jesus to be with the poor and the meek and the lowly?  What about acknowledging that Jesus still lives among the poor and meek and lowly, even now?

She has a point.

I can rationalize that these carols were written at a time when infant and child mortality was higher; I can also point out that probably the children who gather round in glory at the last verse are also some of the poor and meek and lowly.  At least I imagine it that way.  Those who follow Jesus, living plain and unlettered lives, will someday shine like the sun.

But, maybe I'm reading between the lines.

There's a fine line between escapism and hope.  The hope of the resurrection makes us yearn to see creation restored, to long for the time when the lowly ones will shine, will be seen for who they really are.  My passion for social justice does not preclude the hope that I will be reunited with those I love (and those I don't love, to be honest) as we gather around the throne of the Lamb.  But when does that hope become escapism?  When do we use the promise of heaven to ignore the hurts and injustices on God's beloved earth?

Just now I read a story about an incident in Iceland.  The police there killed an armed man.  This is a rare occurrence in Iceland.  It was the first time that police officers had killed someone since 1944.  And then the police actually apologized for killing a man.  You know what my first thought was, "Honey, let's move to Iceland!"  Escapism.

Escapism leads us straight to heaven.  But hope leads us back to earth again.  Hope sees the promise of the resurrection as a clue to abundant life right now.

Especially at this time of the year, with the message of the incarnation, maybe we should sings songs that tell us that, since God has come here and walked upon this beloved earth, let us plant our feet firmly on the earth, and walk in the ways of mercy and justice, as he did.