“Joining the Parade”; Luke 19:28-40; March 20, 2016, FPC Holt

“Joining the Parade”
Luke 19:28-40
March 20, 2016, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

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2016 3 20 SLIDE 1 - Building the Beloved CommunityThroughout the past several weeks we have been preaching through what it means for us to build God’s beloved community, addressing sanctuary, vulnerability, self-awareness, brokenness and redemption, and shared life. At each step along our way I hope that it has been a chance to better understand what it means to be the beloved community and a challenge for each of us to fulfill that calling. Our word for today is accountability.

2016 3 20 SLIDE 2 - AccountabilityAccountability is not exactly a fun word, not one that would be highlighted in some peppy promotional video trying to get someone to buy something. “Check it out, it’s fresh, new, and comes with a side of accountability!”

When we hear the word accountability on the news it’s generally in reference to calling someone to task, an assignment of blame, a call for justice. 2016 3 20 SLIDE 3 - Gov SnyderJust this past week I saw parts of Governor Snyder’s hearing about the Flint Water Crisis. The word accountability was used repeatedly to establish the lines of responsibility for this tragedy and assess what action should be taken going forward.

2016 3 20 SLIDE 4 - CandidatesAt any point in the 24 hour news cycle we can see presidential candidates seeking to hold one another accountable for any number of actions they took part in, either explicitly or implicitly, turning the race into an overwhelming tide of vilification and hyperbole, through which no one escapes untarnished.

2016 3 20 SLIDE 5 - Book of OrderIn our denomination, the PCUSA, we have a specific section in our constitution called the Rules of Discipline, whereby we seek to hold our members and leaders accountable to their actions.

2016 3 20 SLIDE 6 - Hands InAccountability is foundational to a functioning community of any kind, from governments to families to classrooms to churches. It serves as a covenant between all of us, enabling justice, yes, but also helping us to uphold one another into being our best selves.

2016 3 20 SLIDE 7 - Holy WeekOur text today serves as the opening to a world changing week, when accountability was demanded of temple sellers, disregarded by Judas, denied by Peter, deferred by Pilate, and wrongly dealt to Jesus.

2016 3 20 SLIDE 8 - Triumphant EntryBut before we get to all of that, we find ourselves in the midst of Jesus and his disciples, setting out for a parade. While joyfilled, this parade is far from tame, rather it is a revolutionary act.

At this time in Jerusalem parades were a way for Romans to demonstrate their physical and political might, especially during Passover when there were a lot more Jews in the city. It was an act of sedition to be holding their own parade, offering their devotion to a rabble rousing Jew who they claimed as king.

2016 3 20 SLIDE 9 - Trajan QuoteNot too long after this particular gathering, about 111 CE, the emperor Trajan writes in a letter to Pliny the Younger, saying, “When people gather together for a common purpose — whatever name we may give them and whatever function we may assign them — they soon become political groups.”

2016 3 20 SLIDE 10 - Jesus on DonkeyIndeed this was the case that day, as their support of Jesus was more than just that of a fan in a crowd. They were placing their trust in who Jesus was and the change that Jesus represented. In both Matthew and Mark’s accounts of this story, the crowd shouts, “Hosanna,” meaning “save us.” Shouted over and over, it was both a question and a plea. Can you save us? Will you save us? Why haven’t you yet saved us? They wanted revolution and were determined to hold Jesus accountable to making that happen.

While they were busy holding Jesus accountable, their own accountability would all too quickly be disregarded, as the shouts of “Hosanna” at the beginning of the week turned to “Crucify him,” by the end of the week.

2016 3 20 SLIDE 11 - CrowdEvery time I read through these texts I struggle with that shift. What is it in them that makes them so fickle, so changeable? Can hate really become so loud and be so unchallenged? Why isn’t anyone stopping this?

2016 3 20 SLIDE 12 - BullhornI hesitate to say this, but it makes me think of our current political landscape, where all too often the volume of the voice bears much more weight that the content of the words and the more inflammatory the rhetoric is the more broadly it is shared not only on the news, but also in personal social media accounts.

2016 3 20 SLIDE 13 - SilentJesus says to the Pharisees, “If these were silent, the stones would shout out.” Why do we fall silent in the face of opposition? Why are we so hesitant to oppose the status quo? To speak justice? To hold one another accountable to the gospel we profess? Or perhaps even more challenging, how are we like those Pharisees who want that Jesus loving mob to just be quiet?

2016 3 20 SLIDE 14 - Comfort ZoneThe value we place on comfort cannot be overstated here. Change is hard, especially when you are in a place of power and that change would mean conceding some of that power, even when it expands the reaches of justice in our world.

It’s more comfortable to join our voices with the parade around us than to speak out against them, even when the shouts become “crucify him.” To oppose such a mob would be to risk making ourselves the target of their shouting, it’s better to blend in, right? It’s much easier to be nice than it is to be honest.

Will our silence keep us safe? It might, for a while at least. But lauding civility for the sake of civility over the justice that the gospel demands is to disavow the accountability merited by being in community with one another.

2016 3 20 SLIDE 15 - Marilyn Chandler McEntyreMarilyn Chandler McEntyre spoke at our most recent presbytery meeting about the importance of language, highlighting many of her theses from her book, “Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies.” In it she writes “An appropriate response to the competing claims of public voices is to take these obligations quite personally. We have been ‘called by name’ – not every one of us to public speaking, political activism in streets and on telephones, or investigative journalism, but all of us seek truth and follow after it, to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God.” continuing she writes, “How much information is sufficient to allow me to take a position? To support or resist a policy that has implications for other human beings? Whose is the burden of proof? What is my burden?”

2016 3 20 SLIDE 16 - Jesus JusticeWhat we say and what we left unsaid both matter. As we make our way into this Holy Week, may we be ever mindful of the accountability our Gospel demands. Amen.

“Anticipation of the Journey”; Luke 1:68-79; November 29, 2015; FPC Holt

 “Anticipation of the Journey”
Luke 1:68-79
November 29, 2015, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

Today’s sermon will be a little bit different. I will be telling you the story of Zechariah, but what makes this sermon different, is that I will be telling this story in first person, taking on the perspective of Zechariah. So far we’ve heard the “canticle of Zechariah,” the joyful proclamation at the birth of his son, John, later to be known as John the Baptist. But, this story is much more interesting than a proud father’s exclamation, with many unanswered questions for us to explore. And so together let us listen to what Zechariah might’ve said and thought, and may we hear in it God’s message for our own lives as well.

SLIDE 1 - ZechariahI’m not used to being quiet. As a priest, I spend many of my days surrounded by words, teaching what other priests throughout time have understood about the meaning of our sacred texts, preaching so that those who can’t read may hear what God has told them to do, and debating with others in the temple so we can better understand.

Then the silence came, and nothing was the same. At first it was hard to remember what had happened. I’d wake up in the morning and begin to say my prayers, and my lips just moved wordlessly. I’d see a friend approach me in the synagogue and start to say hello and couldn’t even manage a squeak. Eventually it set in and I’d try different ways to communicate. I could always write things down, but not everyone could read what I was trying to tell them. Even those who could didn’t always have the patience to follow along with what I was trying to convey. After all that had happened, to be silent was maddening.

SLIDE 2 - Zechariah and ElizabethYou see, I’ve lived my whole life waiting for what was now happening. My wife Elizabeth and I had waited our whole long, long marriage for a child, someone who could carry on our legacy and family name. But at our age? Impossible. Or so I thought.

SLIDE 3 - TorahAs a priest, I’ve read over and over again the scriptures of the prophets, telling of a Messiah, one who could start a new future for us, saving us from the oppression of the Roman emperor, saving us from the oppression of our own sinfulness. And for year we’d waited for the opportunity for me to go to the Holy of Holies and offer incense. You see, we priests serve in a group, two times a year for a week we would draw lots each day for the chance to approach the temple Holy of Holies. Again and again, my lot was not called.

SLIDE 4 - Zechariah and ElizabethFor years I’ve wondered what my purpose was as a husband, and as a priest, if all I’ve been waiting for and hoping for just weren’t happening. Had God forgotten me? Was I so stuck in going through the motions that somehow what I’ve been doing has ceased to honor God? I thought God was through with me, that is, until the day of the silence. That day that changed everything.

SLIDE 5 - Jerusalem TempleIt seemed like just a typical day, traveling to the Jerusalem temple with my fellow priests. Chatting with each other as we walked, sharing our joys and our frustrations. I knew the way this worked, we would go to the temple draw lots, and I’d try my best to graciously support whoever was chosen that day. But then, my name was drawn, and I was to experience the Holy of Holies!

For all my training and years of experience, as I entered into the chamber I’ll admit my hands shook a bit. I was about to enter into the very presence of God! I knew what that space was like by rote, and had heard others talk about the stillness, but couldn’t imagine it fully until I was there. Lighting the incense I suddenly felt like I wasn’t alone. SLIDE 6 - AngelI looked and gasped as I saw…well, it’s hard to put it in words… but there was a presence in front of me, winged and bright and powerful. I was terrified! Wouldn’t you be?

This, this… angel spoke me, I’ll never forget this part, it said, “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.  You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth,  or 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.  He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God.  With 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.”

I was shocked, incredulous, frightened, and I’ll admit, a bit angry. What on earth was this thing telling me? We’ve never been able to have a child and now, we’re being given instructions not only what to name him, but also what he should drink? This was absurd!

SLIDE 7 - Angel touching lipsI made the mistake of expressing my… disbelief and was immediately admonished. The angel said, “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. But 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.”

I started to object again, but found my mouth would make no sound, try as I might. SLIDE 8 - Zechariah trying to talkStumbling out of the inner sanctuary into the daylight I’m sure the gathered crowd thought I was stunned. And well, I guess I was. Try as I might I couldn’t tell them anything of what had happened, couldn’t explain my silence, couldn’t explain my incredulous joy. Then after the week was up I headed home to Elizabeth.

SLIDE 9 - Zechariah and ElizabethIt was one thing to not be able to tell the other priests, but to not tell my wife? Especially about something so dear to us, so immediate to her own body, it was maddening. Try as I might I couldn’t speak a word. And my dear, darling wife, had never learned to read, so I couldn’t begin to share this story.

But soon, she knew for herself what miracle was happening within her, the family forming between us, the journey that was before us. We’ve been waiting so long, that this additional nine months of waiting seemed like nothing, but in the silence, it was so, so hard.

For so, so many years we had hoped for this, but after so many years, we dare not plan for this. Even after the birth of our child we couldn’t be sure of our own ability to support him into adolescence, or adulthood. What would be come of this child of ours, this John. His name was John. But I couldn’t tell Elizabeth that. I couldn’t share the promises of the angel. I couldn’t say a thing.

But I could listen. And in listening I heard Elizabeth weep with joy. She told me of so many times she was overlooked in the synagogue, in the town, in our own family, for not being able to be a mother. She spoke of her pain. And all I could do was hold her and listen.

In this silence too, my prayers changed shape. I was so used to talking, sharing with God the ways I had been left out, the way I wasn’t getting what I hoped for. But in the silence, I learned to listen, listen to the ways that God’s bigger plan was unfolding. The way that my meager hopes could be used for eternal glory.

SLIDE 10 - John birthFinally the day came when Elizabeth gave birth to a son, our son. The one to prepare the way of the Lord! Over the past many months I had made peace with my silence, and with the future that lay before Elizabeth and me. My incredulity had been transformed into joy, my distrust into steady belief. I knew that God had a plan for this child, our child who was so much more than ours. The one who would make a way for the Messiah.

After so much silence the family knew Elizabeth spoke for the both of us and so asked her directly what our son’s name should be. She said “John,” the name I had been unable to share with her for months, the name I had heard in the temple. How could she know his name? Surely she had felt God’s presence too. SLIDE 11 - His name is JohnWhen those at the temple for his circumcision questioned it I confirmed by writing “His name is John.” And all at once I could talk again. My voice had come back and I had so much to say, no longer bitter from waiting, no longer fearful from mistrust, I had nothing to share now but praise: And so I began: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel. For God has looked favorably upon God’s people, and has redeemed them.”

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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.

Photo a Day Lent – Day 28: Silence

“Silence”

SONY DSC

This picture was taken during our quiet sabbath time at the Project Burning Bush staff retreat in 2011.

“‘Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’ Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.” – 1 Kings 19:11-12

“Thanksgiving for the Exceptional and the Everyday;” Psalm 95:1-6 and 1 Timothy 4:4-5; November 11, 2012, FPC Jesup

“Thanksgiving for the Exceptional and the Everyday”
Psalm 95:1-6 and 1 Timothy 4:4-5
November 11, 2012
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

A few days ago I was walking my dog Bailey outside late at night. With the absence of traffic, I could hear the faint humming of the grain silo and the scratching of tree branches in the wind. The air felt electric. Perhaps it was my imagination but Bailey seemed to sense it too. He sniffed at the air, looking around expectantly. I looked up and the stars were brighter than what I could experience back in my hometown in Ohio, and then all of a sudden a shooting star blazed across the sky. I looked around, had anyone else seen it? Had anyone else witnessed this quick and bright moment of beauty?[1] Standing there in the midst of God’s amazing creation, I remember thinking, “surely God is present.”

In Genesis 28 we are given the story of Jacob having such a moment with God. Jacob was traveling in the wilderness and stopped to rest, using a rock as a pillow.That night he had a dream where God came to him and said,

“I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is in this place—and I did not know it!”Jacob then takes his stone pillow and sets it up as a pillar, pours oil on it and names it Bethel, House of God. In Hebrew Beth means house and El is short for “Elohim,” a name of God.

The space where this dream happened was not particularly exceptional. It was merely a patch of land with a stone. By any outside observation Jacob’s remarkable evening would’ve seemed like a rather mundane occurrence. A man, falls asleep outside with his head on a rock, and then wakes up and pours oil on it and keeps on walking. All in all, it was not a very remarkable experience. It became remarkable through God’s presence, and Jacob’s acknowledgement of that presence. God did not need Jacob’s monument to be present in that space. God was already there. But by drawing attention to that space, Jacob left a reminder of God’s presence and called it the “house of God.”

My favorite author, Barbara Brown Taylor explains her own encounter with God’s presence in her book “An Altar in the World.” After explaining a particularly beautiful scene during a visit to Hawaii she writes, “I knew the name of the place: Bethel, House of God…I wondered how I had forgotten that the whole world is the House of God. Who had persuaded me that God preferred four walls and a roof to wide-open spaces? When had I made the subtle switch myself, becoming convinced that church bodies and buildings were the safest and most reliable places to encounter the living God?” She continues, saying:

“Do we build God a house so that we can choose when to go and see God? Do we build God a house in lieu of having God stay at ours? Plus, what happens to the rest of the world when we build four walls – even four gorgeous walls – cap them with a steepled roof, and designate that the House of God? What happens to the riverbanks, the mountaintops, the deserts, and the trees? What happens to the people who never show up in our houses of God? The people of God are not the only creatures capable of praising God, after all, There are also wolves and seals. There are also wild geese and humpback whales. According to the Bible, even trees can clap their hands.”[2]

Barbara Brown Taylor’s redefinition of the House of God as the whole world opens up the worship of God to all parts of creation and speaks to God’s inability to be contained in a single building or community. Our uncontainable God is spoken of in this way in scripture, especially in the Old Testament. Before God came to earth in Jesus Christ, God was perpetually being described as One who is unknowable, unnameable, and far beyond the bounds of human convention. This view of God is described in the poetic devices of the Hebrew texts.

Our Psalm today speaks in merisms. Merisms are phrases that list two extremes with the implied, “and everything in between.” Merisms are not foreign to our culture, we still use phrases like, “searched high and low,” “through thick and thin,” and “in sickness and in health.” Merisms are used quite a bit in the Bible, particularly in the poetry of the Hebrew Bible. I’m going to read through a few of them and just to help all of us to be aware of what is really being said, I’d like you to say with me, “and everything in between” after each one.

Our passage today says, “In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also.” And say it with me, “and everything in between”Later in the passage it says, “The sea is his, for he made it, and the dry land, which his hands have formed.” And… “and everything in between.” Psalm 139:2 says, “You know when I sit down and when I get up.” And… “and everything in between.” Psalm 113:3 says, “From the rising of the sun to its setting the name of the LORD is to be praised.” And… “and everything in between.” I particularly enjoy this verse because the rising and setting of the sun can be interpreted both in terms of geography and in terms of time. God is to be praised in all places at all times.

God is present in shooting stars, rocky wilderness, Hawaiian vistas, and everything in between. God is present in this building, in the other churches of Jesup, in my home church in Ohio, in the temples of Jerusalem, the cathedrals of Rome, and everything in between.  God is there when we take notice, and there when we don’t. God is there in the exceptional circumstances of our lives and there in the mundane. God is in the everything in between. Our experiences are made holy by God’s presence. And God’s presence is made known to us when we praise God with thanksgiving.

This is what we acknowledge in our sacraments of baptism and communion. Sacraments are a visible sign of the invisible actions of the Holy Spirit in our midst. Sacraments change our experience, making sacred meaning out of secular elements.

Just as with the seemingly everyday actions of Jacob in the wilderness, if an outside observer was watching us today without an explanation of what was going on, they would think that later on in the service as we share bread and grape juice that we are simply having a snack together. It might seem a bit odd, everyone lining up and ripping off bread. But while we outwardly receive bread and juice, “by the work of the Holy Spirit [we] also inwardly receive the flesh and blood of the Lord, and are thereby nourished unto life eternal.”[3]

This is what Jesus did too. He was born in an ordinary stable into an ordinary body. He was beyond exceptional, but also lived an everyday sort of life. He is immortal and beyond time, yet He also lived, breathed, dreamed, cried, and died, all in a very real way. He was the shooting star surrounded by the dark night.

John 1:1-5 tells us:

“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. 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.”

Jesus was in the beginning, He will be with us in the end. And in everything in between.

With gratitude towards God’s presence in all of creation and all of our experience, I’d like to close today with a poem by e.e. cummings:

thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any—lifted from the no
of all nothing—human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

May the ears of your ears and eyes of your eyes be open to God’s presence in every in between of your life. Amen.


[1] I discovered later that this was the North Taurid Meteor Shower.

[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: a Geography of Faith (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2009), 9.

[3] Second Helvetic Confession 5.196