Angels in the Wilderness

Luke 3:1-6
I Kings 19:3-9

The scriptures of this second Sunday of Advent bring us each year to visit John the Baptist: a prophet who taught and baptized out in the wilderness by the Jordan River. Going out to be with John is a strange trip to make, both then and now.

A visit to John in the wilderness is a strange trip to make: because he was nobody important, and he was in the middle of nowhere. The gospel of Luke takes the trouble of telling us who was important at the time: the emperor, and the governor, and the local rulers,and the high priests. Surely, it would make more sense to pay attention to them. But, scripture tells us, the word of God came not to any of these people,in their well-appointed homes, in their busy cities, but to John, out in the wilderness.

The wilderness is also a strange place for us to go, today.  During December we’re surrounded by carols and lights, shiny decorations, and sugary treats.  It’s been Christmas in our culture since after Halloween. Why abandon the jingle bell cheer or even the sweet baby Jesus to make a trek out into the wilderness to meet this strange man?

John the Baptist is not a gentle person, or a cheerful one. He is the child of devout parents, but he practices his faith in a way I’m guessing his parents never expected.  He leaves his home and chooses to dwell far away from civilization. He puts on camel’s hair clothing; neither fashionable nor comfortable. He survives by scavenging insects, and wild honey. Surely there is a more moderate way of expressing devotion to God. I don’t imagine this kind of life is what any of you hoped for, those of you who have brought your children to church.

But John is an ascetic, a purist. He has a special calling, and a message about God’s nearness that he delivers with stirring and terrifying rhetoric.  And here’s the amazing thing: people love him.People who are hurting, people who are desperate, people who are spiritually hungry are drawn out into the wilderness to meet this man. John’s preaching about the realm of God changes lives. One after another, people come, and listen, experiencing a renewal in their hearts, and chosing to be baptized. They return to their regular lives transformed. Something amazing happens out there, in the wilderness, with John.

Preparing for this season’s focus on Angels, I went through the whole bible looking for their appearances.There are a lot. You may not be interested in angels yourself, but they are not easy to avoid in scripture. One of the things I learned in my exploration was that many of the angelic appearances recorded in our holy text happen out where John did his ministry: out in the wilderness. Hagar is out in the wilderness, near death from hunger and thirst, when she encounters an angel. The people Israel are out in the wilderness, on their 40-year journey between slavery and new land, when an Angel goes before them to lead the way. Jesus is out in the wilderness, facing temptationand preparing for ministry, when Angels come to wait on him.

When we meet Elijah this morning, he is also in the wilderness, fleeing for his life.  Elijah has just received a death threat from King Ahab’s wife Jezebel. If you read his back story, you may not be surprised– Elijah has done some outrageous and troubling things.  Now, distraught, Elijah travels across the border into Judah, where he might be safe from execution.  Then he leaves his servant and continues on for another day’s travel, before settling down under a solitary broom tree. Elijah is utterly alone, exhausted, and full of despair. And he asks God for death: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.”

But God does not send death to Elijah. Instead, an angel comes, and touches him, and says: “Get upand eat.” Elijah discovers bread, and water. He eats and drinks and lays down; and again, the angel comes to touch him, and offer him food. Somehow, this little assistance is enough: enough to persuade both Elijah’s spirit and his body to go on. Elijah travels on the strength of the food the angel provides for forty days and forty nights, until he reaches Horeb, the mount of God,where the word of God comes to him.

In our scriptures, the wilderness is a place, but also a spiritual state of being. Wilderness can be a time of great trial and also sometimes great possibility. Perhaps you have known some kind of wilderness in your own life: a wilderness of grief; a wilderness of loneliness; a wilderness of addiction, or mental illness; a wilderness of great personal change; a wilderness of physical or spiritual want; a wilderness of betrayal; a wilderness of distance from God. 

Most of the time, we don’t choose the wilderness, unlike the spiritual seekers who went out to find John. Instead, the wilderness finds us, or we are driven out into it, by forces out of our control.  Suddenly, there we are: untethered, unsupported, uncertain, and often, in great pain. 

No one’s required to be grateful for wilderness, and most of us aren’t. Still, the wilderness has this to say for it: it is a place frequented by God’s messengers.

Perhaps it is that God just cannot bear to see us lost, or in pain, and so She keeps trying to reach us. Perhaps it is that we are so desperate that we are more open to noticing and receiving the help that God is always offering us.  But again and again in our scriptures, those in the wilderness do find something that they need – perhaps just enough for their body or their spirit to continue. A cake baked on hot stones. A jar of water. The presence of a loving one who says, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”  So little, that changes so much, sending us off in a new direction.

This season can be so bright and loud, full of forced cheerfulness and terribly high expectations.  The scriptures offer us an opportunity, today, to pay attention to something else: the honest state of ouown hearts.  Do you long for the kind of renewal that John invites us to?  Are you in need of the kind of comfort, and sustenance, that angels can provide?  Perhaps you can accept a gift from them, today: an offering that may sustain or redirect your life. Spend some time with these scriptures, and let them bless you.

We may also find opportunities in this season to witness the state of  the hearts of those around us, and to be messengers of God ourselves.  Keep watch for a way that you could provide something for folks who are deep in the wilderness, desperate for hope, love, connection, or even bread. What could we offer them, so that the journey might not be too much for them?

Please pray with me. God, you know what we long for, the needs of our souls, the wildernesses we have known, the fears and struggles we face today. Open our hearts to your messengers, who will help make a way for us, even if it seems that there is no way possible. God, you know what the world longs for, the wildernesses in which so many souls and bodies dwell. Open our hearts to these fellow travelers in life, that we may make a way together, trusting you to go before us, and to dwell with us,  and to help us find what we need to go on. Amen.


Advent Blessings at Walden

  • December 11, 2018

Prayer walking in winter can be invigorating and inspiring!  Take a look at what we are seeing on our WCUC Walden Prayer Walks.  God’s Advent invitation to slow down, to ponder with expectation, and to stay awake comes alive in this place.


Gratitude

What did you notice?

The dew-snail;
the low-flying sparrow;
the bat, on the wind, in the dark;
big-chested geese, in the V of sleekest performance;
the soft toad, patient in the hot sand;
the sweet-hungry ants;
the uproar of mice in the empty house;
the tin music of the cricket’s body;
the blouse of the goldenrod.

What did you hear?

The thrush greeting the morning;
the little bluebirds in their hot box;
the salty talk of the wren,
then the deep cup of the hour of silence.

When did you admire?

The oaks, letting down their dark and hairy fruit;
the carrot, rising in its elongated waist;
the onion, sheet after sheet, curved inward to the pale green wand;
at the end of summer the brassy dust, the almost liquid beauty of the flowers;
then the ferns, scrawned black by the frost.

What astonished you?

The swallows making their dip and turn over the water.

What would you like to see again?

My dog: her energy and exuberance, her willingness,
her language beyond all nimbleness of tongue,
her recklessness, her loyalty, her sweetness,
her strong legs, her curled black lip, her snap.

What was most tender?

Queen Anne’s lace, with its parsnip root;
the everlasting in its bonnets of wool;
the kinks and turns of the tupelo’s body;
the tall, blank banks of sand;
the clam, clamped down.

What was most wonderful?

The sea, and its wide shoulders;
the sea and its triangles;
the sea lying back on its long athlete’s spine.

What did you think was happening?

The green beast of the hummingbird;
the eye of the pond;
the wet face of the lily;
the bright, puckered knee of the broken oak;
the red tulip of the fox’s mouth;
the up-swing, the down-pour, the frayed sleeve of the first snow—so the gods shake us from our sleep.                                  – Mary Oliver

Newcomers are always welcome.  Join us if you can!  We walk every Monday, beginning at 9am with joys and concerns sharing time, followed by a silent journey around this amazing pond!  Our last walk of this season will be on Monday, December 17th, and we will begin again on Monday, January 7th.

Youth in Action for Advent

  • December 5, 2018

The youth were busy on Sunday!  After worship, some helped to host a card making table for Concord Prison Outreach’s holiday bags while others learned a new song that they will sing in worship on December 16th.   Later in the afternoon, many returned to church to join with Sunday Fellowship in marking the beginning of Advent with songs, scripture, prayers, craft activities, and labyrinth walking.  Finally, we ended the day with a well deserved pizza party/game night in North Hall.  Feeling grateful for the many ways we can serve, sing, and celebrate during this holy season!

Advent All Ages Worship

We had a wonderful first Sunday of Advent with a focus on Angels! Take a look.

 

An Introduction to Angels

  • December 2, 2018

Numbers 22

This Advent we are exploring Angels. What do you think of, when you think of angels? Angels are very popular in our culture; many people believe in them. But few of the images and ideas we have about them have much to do with the angels we find in the bible.

There is no mention of baby angels in the bible. There is also no mention of Guardian angels. That doesn’t mean they can’t exist, but – not in the bible. Angels in the bible aren’t very gentle.

You may not believe me on this one, but: angels in the bible never sing. I love this detail from the Ghent altarpiece by Jan van Eyck. So many of the angelic singers are really struggling to get their parts right. Still, although they play instruments, biblical angels don’t sing.

Angels in the bible don’t have wings! At least, most of them don’t. The only creatures that are mentioned with wings are Cherubim and Seraphim, which some folks argue aren’t angels at all. Even if we think they ARE angels, Cherubim and Seraphim do not look quite like how we imagine angels. Cherubim, according to the book of Ezekiel, Have two pairs of wings, and four faces – like the picture on the left. Seraphim, only found in the book of Isaiah, have six wings: with two wings they cover their faces, with two they cover their feet, and with two they fly – that’s them on the right. A bit wilder than we usually imagine.

Nowhere in our scriptures does it specify that angels have European ancestry or pale skin. Neither are angels specifically female. So what CAN we say about biblical angels? Angels in our bible are strange, and surprising. Biblical angels visit unexpectedly: these angels are showing up on Abraham’s door step. Angels don’t make appointments.

Angels don’t always arrive in the flesh, either; sometimes they show up in dreams. In one of Jacob’s dreams they climb a ladder. Joseph and the Magi also hear from angels in dreams.

When angels show up, they bring a message from God. Sometimes, the message is good news. Sometimes, the message is a warning. Sometimes the message isn’t words at all, but a delivery of water, food, or comfort. Angels bring aid to people in the wilderness; to Hagar, and Elijah, and Jesus.

Angels show the way towards freedom. When the people Israel come up out of Egypt, an Angel of God goes before them.

Angels warn us away from foolish behavior. In the story today, King Moab, a powerful leader, is so scared when the people Israel come near his land that he tries to convince Balaam to curse them so that he can defeat them in battle. But God, and God’s Angel, protect the people Israel, warning Balaam to speak only holy words, to send blessings instead.

God sends angels to help other desperate travelers, too, like Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, who flee from King Herod. I imagine that angels are working with God now to comfort the refugees on our borders, and to guide us all towards greater compassion towards them.

Biblical angels are strong; they wrestle the evil within us and battle the evil in the world. Angels can be guards, defenders, even armies.

Angels love to worship. They draw us towards awe. They cry, ”Glory!,” again and again.

Let us give thanks for God’s angels: mysterious, unpredictable, fantastic agents of God’s will among us, forces of love.

A Special Thank You

Some special people have put together a special message with joy and gratitude for everyone who supports our shared ministry at WCUC. Take a look!

Dancing Like Dennis

  • November 28, 2018

November 25th would have been Dennis Lin’s thirtieth birthday if he had hadn’t died last September from the complications of Prader Willi, a genetic illness Dennis battled all of his life. But that didn’t prevent Dennis’ friends and family from coming together to celebrate him. After all, Dennis had always loved parties and his contagious joy was known for its ability to eclipse almost any obstacle.

Shortly after Dennis’ well-attended memorial service last fall, I was contacted by three people who had been close to Dennis during his time at CCHS: Joe Hehm, a retired earth science teacher who asked Dennis to be his teaching assistant, Thomas Keane, Director of Pathways, the alternative education program Dennis had attended at CCHS and Celeste Hall, a fellow 2010 CCHS graduate and a friend whose entire family had also come to love Dennis. Joe, Tom and Celeste wanted to find a way to honor and remember “one of the brightest lights in our school and our community” who was truly “a friend to all”.

The day after Thanksgiving last year, Joe, Tom, Celeste and I gathered with Dennis’ parents, Officer Scott Camilleri, the resource officer at CCHS, who continued to offer Dennis rides whenever he saw him in town and Pat and Jane Fleming, long-time members of WCUC and Sunday Fellowship who know all too well about life with Prader Willi. Although it took almost a year to determine how best to honor Dennis, it was within this group that the Dennis Lin Fund first began to take shape and eventually inspired an anonymous donor to match all funds raised up to $6000!

The mission of the Dennis Lin Fund is to provide financial support for the continued development of Sunday Fellowship and ministries like it so that more adults with disabilities can enjoy the kind of heart-warming, fun-producing and spiritually inspiring community Dennis enjoyed so much.As of 11/27 the Dennis Lin Fund has raised over $4300 and there is still plenty of time to reach our $6k goal! Donations can be given online here or mailed to West Concord Union Church (memo: Dennis Lin Fund) until December 31st.

Bring Forth: Celebration

Thank you to everyone who worshiped, gave, decorated, cooked, served, ate, played, and more to make Sunday morning a wonderful celebration.

Sowing Seeds

Isaiah 45:8
Matthew 13:1-9, 31-32

When I was growing up, my family planted morning glory seeds every year along the side of our house: long, green, curly vines, with brilliant blue flowers that open up in the morning. Our morning glories at Newhall Drive in Whitefish Bay Wisconsin grew up happily, twisting around a trellis. Every morning I would go out to check on them, to see how much higher they had grown and to count how many flowers they had.

It’s a sweet memory. So, I decided that I should plant some morning glory seeds for my kids. I can’t say I have a very green thumb, but watching my mother garden for so many years, I know the basics. So I went out to Verrill farm and found some morning glory seeds. Right next to the morning glory seeds at the store were some evening glory seeds, moonflower seeds that bloom at the end of the day. So, I bought some of those too.

I felt really good about my parenting that day. I was not only maintaining a family tradition, I was expanding it! Flowers to count in the morning, and also at night. Vines growing all around the house. Then the seeds just sat there, in their pretty paper packets, on my counter, for a year. A whole year passed without my managing to get any of those seeds into the ground.

Last spring I was determined to do better. My kids were out of diapers! I was ready to conquer the world, or at least, a little gardening. I even looked up the right date to plant the seeds, and put a notification on my electronic calendar. When the date came, and the notification popped up, I went outside with my trowel and spade and seeds and my kids, and we planted those seeds in the best spots I could find. We watered. And we waited.  And we waited. And we watered. Nothing seemed to be happening.

You never know what’s going to happen with seeds. Surely the crowds who surrounded Jesus knew that, even better than we do, as they lived closer to the earth. Jesus says to these folks: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground … and they sprang up quickly… But when the sun rose … they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundred fold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone who can hear, listen!

I wonder about the skill of this particular sower. Why sow seeds on a path? Why sow seeds among rocks, or thorns? Why wouldn’t a sower be more careful with her precious seeds, directing them towards only the best soil?

But of course, this is a parable. Jesus even goes on to explain it later on in this chapter. In this parable, Jesus tells us, the seed is the word of the kingdom, the good news of God.  This good news is scattered widely among all people, but it does not always grow. Sometimes the seed is stolen from a heart by evil.  Sometimes it wilts in the heart, as the result of trouble.  Sometimes it its growth is choked in the heart by the cares of the world or the lure of wealth. There are many ways for seeds of the word of the kingdom to die. Still, sometimes, the word reaches a heart that is open and ready, good soil, with good conditions for growth.  Someone hears the word and trusts it until it roots down deep within them, bearing fruit and yielding thirty, sixty, or a hundredfold.

I’ve been thinking this week about the seeds that this community scatters. Seeds of the good news, seeds of God’s kingdom. We scatter words of encouragement and wisdom, acts of kindness and service, gifts of presence and prayer, witnesses of justice and love. Our sowing does not always go perfectly. We may occasionally set ourselves too ambitious a planting schedule. We may not always have enough sowers at the right time, in the right place. And many of the seeds we sow, we never know if they grow.

This is simply the way of sowing, Jesus tells us. It’s an act of generosity, with an uncertain outcome. And yet, with all the seeds that die or get drawn away by the wind, some seeds take: and what a magnificent harvest they make.

A magnificent harvest. When someone is comforted by the visits and cards they receive at a difficult time. When young people are empowered to serve, and given a chance to lead. When weary hearts are encouraged with music and prayer, beauty and hope. When our capacity to welcome one another, and to accept ourselves, keeps growing. When our relationships with other faith communities are strengthened. When those who are lonely find companionship. When new people arrive and discover a place that will support and enrich them.

The sowing that we do together is sometimes difficult, but the harvest is enough to take the breath away. God multiplies our efforts, sometimes by thirty, or sixty, or a hundredfold.  Like a mustard plant, seeds of God’s good news sometimes find such good soil that they grow and spread like weeds: enormous, persistent, sprouting up everywhere.

As it turns out, the seeds my family planted did not grow very well. The moonflower seeds never even sprouted. The morning glory seeds did sprout, but they never creeped upwards or made flowers.

I’ll plant some seeds again this spring. There’s one thing we can be sure of: without seeds, nothing will grow. I am grateful to be sowing seeds of the kingdom with all of you. And I am grateful for all of the sprouting, and growing, and climbing, and bursting into flower that we get to witness together.

God our Gardener, we give thanks for all that you do. You prepare the soil of our hearts, breaking down rocks, tearing out weeds, sending water and grace. You scatter seeds of good news relentlessly among us, even when we are not ready for them, just in case a root, a sprout, a leaf might grow. You empower us to stretch and bloom,  until we can be sowers and seeds ourselves, partners in the work of cultivating your kingdom on earth. Bless us to be a blessing, now and always. Amen.