Three Wise Women: A Service of Lessons and Carols

This service of lessons and carols is based on the wider narratives surrounding the Christmas story, encompassing the stories of the Three Wise Women[1], Elizabeth, Mary, and Anna. This service was assembled by Rev. Kathleen Henrion for worship at First Presbyterian Church of Holt, MI on December 28, 2014.

All poetry, songs, and scripture belong to the attributed authors and publishers.

Three Wise Women: A Service of Lessons and Carols

Call to Worship: “First Coming,” by Madeleine L’Engle [2]
Leader: God did not wait till the world was ready, till…the nations were at peace.
People: God came when the heavens were unsteady, and prisoners cried out for release.
Leader: God did not wait for the perfect time. God came when the need was deep and great.
People: God dined with sinners in all their grime, turned water into wine. God did not wait till hearts were pure.
Leader: In joy God came to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.
People: To a world like ours of anguished shame God came, and god’s light would not go out.
Leader: God came to a world which did not mesh, to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
People: In the mystery of Word made Flesh the Maker of the stars was born.
Leader: We cannot wait til the world is sane to raise our songs with joyful voice, for to share our grief, to touch our pain,
People: God came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!

Carol: “My Soul Cries Out with a Joyful Shout,” Verses 1 &4 [3]

Prayer of Illumination: Emmanuel, ever-present God, open our ears and our hearts to your presence here among us today. May we come to know you better through the scriptures read, the old and new poems shared, and the feelings evoked in own personal reflections. Amen.

Carol: “For All the Faithful Women,” Verse 1[4]

First Lesson: Luke 1:5-20 NRSV

5 In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. 7But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.

8 Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, 9he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. 10Now at the time of the incense-offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. 11Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. 13But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. 14You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. 16He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’ 18Zechariah said to the angel, ‘How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.’ 19The angel replied, ‘I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. 20But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.’

A Reading: “Zechariah” by Craig Joseph[5]

My silence speaks volumes:
Speaks of hollow reverberations in an empty womb,
Of my beloved’s muffled cries, hopeless, late at night,
Of unbroached topics between man and wife,
Isolated in their grief.

Speaks of a mute God
Who would not stoop to answer
The cacophony of impotent noise made by the righteous,
Striving to keep his commandments.

All this – echoes of despair, lost faith, abandonment.

My silence is God’s silence.

The lack of sound then resounds:
With the rustle of angels’ wings,
The gentle roar of a majestic announcement,
The metallic ring of a sword drawn in anger
Upon a fearful gasp
(An inrush of air
That cloaked a more resounding unbelief:
Faith as barren as a womb).

My silence is God’s answer, disbelieved.

But now I, mute and wildly motioning,
Fill the air with your laughter and endless queries,
Hearing what you cannot be aware of –
That to which divinely-imposed silence has bent my ear:

A distant cry from the beginning of time – from Creation –
Declaring that God will make the hearts of his people fertile again.
Yelled through the prophets (though most were deaf to this meaning),
Hollering through my son (hear that, and do not scoff,
Lest you be considered, Like I,
the town clown),
To announce itself shortly in a Bethlehem stable,
Calling to God’s people in stereo-surround sound.

My silence, alas, is God’s provision
That will not be silent for long.

Hymn: “You are Mine,” Verses 1 & 2[6]

Second Lesson: Luke 1:26-38 NRSV

26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.’* 29But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ 34Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’* 35The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born* will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.’ 38Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.

A Reading: “Liturgy” by Irene Zimmerman[7]
All the way to Elizabeth
and in the months afterward
she wove him, pondering,
“This is my body, my blood!”

Beneath the watching eyes
of donkey, ox, and sheep
she rocked him, crooning,
“This is my body, my blood!”

In the moonless desert flight
and the Egypt-days of his growing,
she nourished him, singing,
“This is my body, my blood!”

Under the blood-smeared cross
she rocked his mangled bones,
remembering him, moaning,
“This is my body, my blood!”

When darkness, stones, and tomb
bloomed to Easter morning,
she ran to him, shouting,
“This is my body, my blood!”

And no one thought to tell her:
“Woman, it is not fitting
for you to say those words.
You don’t resemble him.”

Carol: “On Christmas Night, All Christians Sing,” Verse 4[8]

Third Lesson: Luke 1:39-45 NRSV

39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’

Responsive Affirmation of Faith: Luke 1:46-54 NRSV
Leader: And Mary said, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
People: and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
Leader: for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
People: Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
Leader: for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
People: and holy is his name.
Leader: His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
People: He has shown strength with his arm;
Leader: he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
People: He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
Leader: and lifted up the lowly;
People: he has filled the hungry with good things,
Leader: and sent the rich away empty.
People: He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
Leader: according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
People: to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’

A Reading: “Visitation” by Mary Southhard[9]
Each woman listens
Each speaks:
Ah! the life within you, within me –
a new revelation:
God’s saving love
impregnates the universe
in woman…
in joy…
Magnificat!
Again today
women tell their
stories to each other –
magnificat!
Listen sisters, listen brothers,
A new outpouring.
This time: resurrection!

Carol: “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” Verse 1[10]

Fourth Lesson: Luke 1:57-66 NRSV

57 Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. 58Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.

59 On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. 60But his mother said, ‘No; he is to be called John.’ 61They said to her, ‘None of your relatives has this name.’ 62Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. 63He asked for a writing-tablet and wrote, ‘His name is John.’ And all of them were amazed. 64Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. 65Fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. 66All who heard them pondered them and said, ‘What then will this child become?’ For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.

Responsive Affirmation of Faith: Luke 1:67-70 NRSV
Leader: Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy: ‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
People: for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
Leader: He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David,
People: as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
Leader: that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
People: Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
Leader: might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
People: And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
Leader: to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.
People: By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
Leader: to guide our feet into the way of peace.’
People: The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.

A Reading: “Zechariah and the Least Expected Places” by So Elated[11]
Jerusalem and the holy temple filled with smoke
Zechariah shuns the news from the angel of hope
Stuck behind an incense cloud of religion and disappointment

God keeps slipping out of underneath rocks
in alleys off the beaten path
Open both your eyes.

Prophets and kings and poets can contribute their work
just like eggs in a nest are alive with the promise of birds
But the Lord of Creation will not be subjected to expectation

God keeps slipping out of underneath rocks
in alleys off the beaten path
Open both your eyes.

Elizabeth, barren, her knees black and dirty like coal
her consistent prayers float to the sky and revive her soul
God we will wait though we don’t understand your redemptive story

God keeps slipping out of underneath rocks
in alleys off the beaten path
Open both our eyes.

Carol: “Blest Be the God of Israel,” Verses 1 & 3[12]

Fifth Lesson: Luke 2:1-7 NRSV

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

A Reading: “A Christmas Carol” by G.K. Chesterton[13]

The Christ-child lay on Mary’s lap,
His hair was like a light.
O weary, weary were the world,
But here is all alright.

The Christ-child lay on Mary’s breast
His hair was like a star.
O stern and cunning are the kings,
But here the true hearts are.

The Christ-child lay on Mary’s heart,
His hair was like a fire.
(O weary, weary is the world,
But here the world’s desire.)

The Christ-child stood on Mary’s knee,
His hair was like a crown,
And all the flowers looked up at Him,
And all the stars looked down.

Carol: “O Little Town of Bethlehem” [14]

Sixth Lesson: Luke 2:8-19 NRSV

8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14 ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.

A Reading: “Let the Stable Still Astonish” by Leslie Leyland Fields[15]
Let the stable still astonish:
Straw-dirt floor, dull eyes,
Dusty flanks of donkeys, oxen;
Crumbling, crooked walls;
No bed to carry that pain,
And then, the child,
Rag-wrapped, laid to cry
In a trough.

Who would have chosen this?
Who would have said: “Yes,
Let the God of all the heavens and earth
be born here, in this place.” ?

Who but the same God
Who stands in the darker, fouler rooms of our hearts
and says, “Yes, let the God
of Heaven and Earth
be born here —-
in this place.”

Carol: “Away in a Manger” [16]

Seventh Lesson: Luke 2:22-24,36-38 NRSV

22 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23(as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’), 24and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons.’

36 There was…a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, 37then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child* to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

A Reading: Selections from “Anna” by Mary Lou Sleevi[17]
Exuberantly, Anna recognizes a child
at his Presentation in the temple.

Anna of the free Spirit is no solemn ascetic.
She talks to the baby, as well as about him,
She shoulders him closely, absorbing his softness, his heartbeat, his breathing—
experiencing a Benediction of Years between them.

Once upon his time, she welcomed The Promised One.
“She talked about the child…”
And talk Anna did.
She is more than prophet: she is a grandmother!

Because it is the Christ-child she hugs,
Anna, as prophet, is particularly aware
of the vulnerability of less-awaited children
and parents, who also have dreams.

Anna. Dimming eyes, still forward-looking, crinkle with joy.
Anna is Anticipation.
She is an Image of constancy and change…
the progression of peace and purpose at any stage of life.
Hers is the Holy City.

Carol: “Still, Still, Still” [18]

Prayers of the People

Offering: A Reading from Bernard of Clairvaux who lived from 1090-1153; “You have come to us as a small child, but you have brought us the greatest of all gifts, the gift of eternal love. Caress us with your tiny hands, embrace us with your tiny arms, and pierce our hearts with your soft, sweet cries.”[19]

May we respond to this greatest of offering with our own offerings of our times, talents, and tithes.

Response: “What Child Is This,” Verse 3[20]

Charge and Blessing: “Christmas Poem,” by Jim Strathdee[21]
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the magi and the shepherds
have found their way home,
The work of Christmas begins
to find the lost and lonely one,
to heal the broken soul with love,
to feed the hungry children
with warmth and good food,
to feel the earth below,
the sky above!
to free the prisoner from all chains,
to make the powerful care,
to rebuild the nations with strength of good will,
to see God’s children everywhere!
to bring hope to every task you do,
to dance at a baby’s new birth,
to make music in an old person’s heart,
and sing to the colors of the earth!

Carol: “Go Tell It On the Mountain,” Verse 3


[1] Inspired by Dandi Daley Mackall, Three Wise Women of Christmas (Saint Louis: Concordia Pub. House, 2006).

[2] Madeleine L’Engle, “A First Coming,” in A Cry Like a Bell, Wheaton Literary Series (Wheaton, Ill.: H. Shaw Publishers, ©1987), 57.

[3] Glory to God (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2013).

[4] Glory to God (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2013).

[5] Craig Joseph, “Zechariah’s Poem,” Plan A :: it all started in Ethiopia stories from our family of five (blog), December 12, 2009, accessed December 29, 2014, http://planaethiopia.blogspot.com/2009/12/zechariahs-poem.html.

[6] Glory to God (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2013).

[7] Julia Ahlers, Rosemary Broughton, and Carl Koch, Womenpsalms (Winona, Minn.: Saint Mary, ©1992).

[8] Glory to God (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2013).

[9] Mary Southhard, “Visitation,” in Julia Ahlers, Rosemary Broughton, and Carl Koch, eds., Womenpsalms (Winona, Minn.: St. Mary’s Press, 1992), 10.

[10] Glory to God (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2013).

[11] Ben Thomas, Zechariah and the Least Expected Places, So Elated, Ben Thomas B001LJVXNC, CD, 2008.

[12] Glory to God (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2013).

[13] “A Christmas Carol” by G.K. Chesterton. Public domain.

[14] Glory to God (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2013).

[15] Leslie Leyland Fields, “Let the Stable Still Astonish,” Leslie Leyland Fields (blog), December 2012, accessed December 29, 2014, http://www.leslieleylandfields.com/2012/12/can-stable-still-astonish-and-6.html.

[16] Glory to God (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2013).

[17] Mary Lou Sleevi, Sisters and Prophets: Art and Story (Notre Dame, Ind.: Ave Maria Press, 1993).

[18] Glory to God (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2013).

[19] Bernarrd of Clairvaux, in The Harper Collins Book of Prayers: A Treasury of Prayers through the Ages, compiled by Robert Van de Weyer (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1993), 64.

[20] Glory to God (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2013).

[21] Jim Strathdee, in response to a Christmas poem by Howard Thurman, 1969, quoted in Ruth C. Duck and Michael G. Bauch, eds., Everflowing Streams: Songs for Worship (New York: The Pilgrim Press, 1981), 33.

Christmas in July; “Emmanuel: God With Us;” John 1:1-5, 10-14 and Colossians 1:15-20, 28; July 21, 2013; FPC Jesup

“Emmanuel: God With Us”
John 1:1-5, 10-14 and Colossians 1:15-20, 28
July 21, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

SLIDE 1 - CalendarThis Sunday on the church calendar is called the “15th Sunday in Ordinary Time.” Sounds exciting, huh? The Christian calendar has a total of 33 weeks of ordinary time,” time that is not defined by Lent or Advent or Pentecost or any other liturgical celebration. The trouble with ordinary time in the church is it can lull us into a liturgical rut. While churches all over see decreased attendance due to vacations and busy summer plans, calling this “ordinary time” doesn’t exactly encourage excitement in worship either. Worshiping in ordinary time doesn’t carry the anticipation of Advent, the loneliness of Lent, or the joy of Easter. Compared to fanfare of the birth of Jesus at Christmas and the horror of Christ’s death at Good Friday and the joy of resurrection on Easter, this in between time can seem, well, ordinary.

SLIDE 2 - Ordinary TimeBut even in our ordinary time, we profess a faith that is much more extraordinary than we often give it credit. Which is why today as we crank up the air conditioning, walk about in shorts and skirts, and fan ourselves off with the order of worship, we are traveling back to the manger, drawing close to the story of a baby born into the world to save us all. We are celebrating Christmas in July not because it feels particularly Christmas-y out in the world, but because even in a week where we’ve hit 90 degrees almost every day, we are called to recognize and bring about Christ’s presence in this world.

SLIDE 3 - NativitySo what can you tell me about Christ’s birth?

[Received responses about Jesus’ birth]

We are used to the story of Christ’s birth and so all of these very extraordinary circumstances seem quite ordinary to us.  Our two scripture lessons today tell us that this could not be farther from the truth. This quaint story of a manger birth in Bethlehem was not just what we see at first glance.

SLIDE 4 - WordOur Gospel lesson tells the story of Christ’s birth not in the story we’re used to hearing on Christmas specials in December, but rather in scope of all of time. Through poetic language John’s Gospel emphasizes the theological implications of Christ coming into the world. In this passage, the manifestation of God is identified as “the Word”: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.”[1]

SLIDE 5 - FootWith Jesus’ simple birth, a greater mission was brought to fruition. Jesus united heaven and earth, by being both God and human, both eternal and temporary. Jesus experienced human pain, happiness, hunger, and certainly the discomfort of 90 degree plus days. He also carried within him the love of a God willing to get his hands dirty.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPaul’s letter to the Colossians also describes Christ with a long term lens as the “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible… He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”[2]

While we often think of Christ’s birth as something that happened about 2000 years ago, these two poetic and somewhat complicated passages remind us that Christ is without time and that the Savior who would come to redeem us all was set into motion from the very beginning of creation. Christ as an incarnate living and breathing walking about man was always intended to be a part of how we experience God.

SLIDE 7 - JesusColossians describes Christ as both “firstborn of all creation”[3] and “firstborn from the dead.”[4] While I could probably do a whole sermon on the many times Jesus is described like a zombie, today we can just recognize that Christ was in the beginning with God at creation and also made a way for us to have eternal life with God. Through living a perfect life and enduring the cross Christ brought life to all people.

SLIDE 8 - LightAs John 1 affirms saying, “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it… to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.”[5]

SLIDE 9 - Gods ChildrenJesus, God’s only begotten son, was born into the world and died in this world so that we might also become God’s children. So that we might be drawn into the covenant of God’s providence and covered by God’s grace.

Colossians 1:19-20 says, “For in [Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”SLIDE 10 - Fullness of God

“The fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” I love that phrase.  At the great commissioning Jesus passed along the joy and the burden of this calling unto his disciples, and by extension, on to us.

SLIDE 11 - God within“Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”[6]

SLIDE 12 - God With UsWhen we gather in worship we are strengthening ourselves for this mission, immersing ourselves in this hope. Since we carry such a powerful message of hope and restoration calling even these in between times in our year “ordinary time” seems a bit inconsistent with this great story we are called to be a part of.

SLIDE 14 - Nativity SetI was reading a story this week by Erin Newcomb, an English professor and author, about her own experience of ordinary time. She writes: “I was struggling with ordinary time this year. Even the weather refused to cooperate, with a brutal heat wave followed by days of downpours that kept us confined to the house for far too long. Our time was getting a little too ordinary, so I rummaged through the basement and brought up some of our Christmas things — a small, artificial tree, a play Nativity set, a box of miniature decorations…We’re listening to Christmas hymns and reading Christmas stories… My daughter and I are talking about what Emmanuel means, and why Jesus bears that name…”

SLIDE 15 - Baby JesusThere’s something about Christmas — the animal stories, the mama and baby — that make it innately more appealing and tangible for small children than the abstract and gruesome theology of Easter. I know the Incarnation is incomplete without the cross and the Resurrection, but sometimes in ordinary time we need a reminder of the vulnerable child who came to live among us.”

She continues, “I am loving Christmas in July, a celebration of the joy and hope of the Christ-child without the surrounding cultural commercialism. As much as I appreciate liturgy, this uncharacteristically spontaneous break from the church calendar is lifting my spirits more than the December season usually does, because this time it’s unburdened by a climate of greed, materialism, and social obligations that often exclude Christ. My departure from liturgy reminds me what liturgy is for: it’s not the dates that are significant but the acts of remembrance, not the calendar itself but the continual effort to walk with Christ throughout the year…Christmas in July assures me that Emmanuel is a year-round gift that transcends liturgy and history and makes all time extra-ordinary.” [7]SLIDE 15 - Walking with Christ

Perhaps your ordinary time has gotten a bit too ordinary. Maybe today, this Christmas in July, this singing of carols and celebration of Christ’s presence on earth will help you to continue to walk with Christ throughout the year.

SLIDE 16 - SurrenderEvery Christmas we celebrate God coming into this world walking and talking among us, but through our witness to God’s power in our world and in our lives Christ is still walking and talking among us, through us. May God become Emmanuel through you this day. Amen.

Here is the song that was sung by the Praise Team after the sermon:


[1] John 1:1-3a

[2] Colossians 1:15-17

[3] Colossians 1:15

[4] Colossians 1:18

[5] John 1:3b-5, 12-13

[6] Matthew 28:18-20

The Lasting Gift of Liturgy and Art

Yesterday I led a time of devotion at West Village, a local nursing care facility in nearby Independence, IA. I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect because this was my first time doing this within this context. While I have lead worship at both The Hermitage in Richmond, VA and Swan Creek in Toledo, OH, this was rather different. The services at the Hermitage and Swan Creek were structured like a Sunday morning worship service, with sung hymns, liturgy, and a sermon. I knew my role in that sort of arrangement and was comfortable preaching from those pulpits.

Here in Buchanan county, members of the ministerial association take turns leading a time of devotion in several different facilities in the area. I spoke with the coordinator and asked her what a typical devotion time at these facilities looks like. She said that there’s usually some a capella singing, a prayer, a story read, and some scripture, but that the aim of the time is really to give the residents some personal attention.

So, I looked through my trusty Presbyterian Hymnal, decided to bring along my copy of “All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” to read one of my favorite (slightly autumn themed) stories, brought a great booklet of prayers and scripture from Westminister Canterbury (Richmond, VA) and decided somewhat last minute that maybe I’d bring along my “I Believe” book just in case it would come in handy.

Yesterday morning, when I got to West Village I saw that this devotion time wasn’t in a chapel setting like at Swan Creek or the Hermitage, rather about 8-10 residents were gathered in a small activities room in a semi-circle. A woman working at West Village introduced me to each resident and then stepped out of the room. More than half of the assembled group were asleep and those who were awake seemed confused.

Thanks to some great seminary professors and lots of time spent at Swan Creek, I know that one of the most important tools in engaging people with issues with memory and cognition, is to utilize well known songs and liturgy. When experience becomes foggy, recalling common liturgy can become a light of something familiar and comfortable.

So, I began the session with prayer and then started with “Amazing Grace.” Some people looked up for the song and smiled, one woman sang with me. After another song, and a reading from Romans, I read to them one of my favorite stories from “All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” which you can read at the bottom of this post. Next we prayed the “Serenity Prayer,” and the same woman as before joined in with me on the prayer.

But the best part of this service came next.

Wanting to engage this place of memory and comfort, I decided to read from “I Believe.” The text of this book is simply the words of the Nicene Creed, but it is set up similarly to a children’s book, with few words on each page, and illustrations throughout. The illustrations are done by Pauline Baynes, probably best known for her illustrations in the Chronicles of Narnia books. She published this book in 2003, five years before her death. She was 81 when she completed the book, likely the same age as many of the people I was sharing this book with yesterday. I have no doubt she knew the timelessness of the words of the Nicene Creed, and the impact of Christian symbology in art.

As I read the book, I would read a page and then walk around and show the pictures to the residents, one by one, talking through some of the images of each page. The illustrations are quite detailed, so there was always something more to discuss. Gradually, each resident woke up, and would engage with the book when I came by.

One woman pointed at the book to an illustration of the Nativity and said quietly and firmly, “Jesus, that’s Jesus!” When I came by with a picture of Jesus on the cross, she said it again. And then when the next picture showed Jesus climbing out of the tomb and then surrounded by light, she giggled and said “That’s Jesus!”

Another woman would simply press her finger to the page and then look up at me. When it was a picture of someone preaching she pointed to me. When it was a picture of doves moving out and towards a man and I talked about the picture symbolizing the Holy Spirit speaking to us and through us, she pointed to several of the birds and then pointed to herself.

What an amazing act of worship. Through the haze, the stories of Jesus and an acknowledgement of the Holy Spirit were able to speak hope and truth to this small gathered congregation.

I individually thanked each resident for coming and one woman held on to my hand, looked me in the eye and said, “I love you.” And I told her, “I love you too and God loves you.” She smiled widely.

As the hymn says, “Surely the presence of the Lord was in that place.”

_______________________________

 

As promised, here is my favorite “All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” story:

In the early dry dark of an October’s Saturday evening, the neighborhood children are playing hide-and-seek. How long since I played hide-and-seek? Thirty years; maybe more. I remember how. I could become part of the game in a moment, if invited. Adults don’t play hide-and-seek. Not for fun, anyway. Too bad.
Did you have a kid in your neighborhood who always hid so good, nobody could find him? We did. After a while we would give up on him and go off, leaving him to rot wherever he was. Sooner or later he would show up, all mad because we didn’t keep looking for him. And we would get mad back because he wasn’t playing the game the way it was supposed to be played. There’s hiding and there’s finding, we’d say. And he’d say it was hide-and-seek, not hide-and-give-UP, and we’d all yell about who made the rules and who cared about who, anyway, and how we wouldn’t play with him anymore if he didn’t get it straight and who needed him anyhow, and things like that. Hide-and-seek-and-yell. No matter what, though, the next time he would hide to good again. He’s probably still hidden somewhere, for all I know.
As I write this, the neighborhood game goes on, and there’s a kid under a pile of leaves in the yard just under my window. He has been there a long time now, and everybody else is found and they are about to give up on him over at the base. I considered going out to the base and telling them where he is hiding. And I thought about setting the leaves on fire to drive him out. Finally, I just yelled, “GET FOUND, KID!” out the window. And scared him so bad he probably wet his pants and started crying and ran home to tell his mother. It’s real hard to know how to be helpful sometimes.
A man I know found last year he had terminal cancer. He was a doctor. And knew about dying, and didn’t want to make his family and friends suffer through that with him. So he kept his secret. And died. Everybody said how brave he was to bear his suffering in silence and not tell everybody, and so on and so forth. But privately his family and friends said how angry they were that he didn’t need them, didn’t trust their strength. And it hurt that he didn’t say good-bye.
He hid too well. Getting found would have kept him in the game. Hide-and-seek, grown-up style. Wanting to hide. Needing to be sought. Confused about being found. “I don’t want anyone to know.” “What will people think?” “I don’t want to bother anyone.”
Better than hide-and-seek, I like the game called Sardines. In Sardines the person who is It goes and hides, and everybody goes looking for him. When you find him, you get in with him and hide there with him. Pretty soon everybody is hiding together, all stacked in a small space like puppies in a pile. And pretty soon somebody gets giggles and somebody laughs and everybody gets found. Medieval thelogians even described God in hide-and-seek terms, calling him Deus Absconditus. But me, I think old God is a Sardine player. And will be found the same way everybody gets found in Sardines – by the sound of laughter of those heaped together at the end.
“Olly-olly-oxen-free.” The kids out in the street are hollering the cry that says “Come on in, wherever you are. It’s a new game.” And so say I. To all those who have hid too good. Get found, kid! Olly-olly-oxen-free.

An excerpt from “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” by Robert Fulghum