Pageant Pictures!

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An Ordinary Miracle

A Christmas Eve meditation on Luke 2:1-20

Image by Steve Erspamer

According to this passage of the gospel of Luke, the birth of Jesus begins in a very ordinary way. Everyone is just going about their business.

The Roman Emperor wants to collect taxes more efficiently, so he organizes a census.  The people who live under the control of the Roman Empire don’t want to get in trouble, so they follow the census instructions. Everyone travels to the town of their birth to be counted, and, naturally, rooms for the night grow scarce. Meanwhile, a baby is born in the stable behind an overflowing Bethlehem Inn. Not so strange — Babies come when they’re ready. They arrive every day. So far in this story, there’s taxes, travel, and birth: common human stuff.

It’s only when the angels arrive that we are invited to notice that something amazing is happening. An angel of God comes before shepherds doing their work in the fields. The angel shines with the glory of God, and says: “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people; to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord!” Then a multitude of the heavenly host arrive, just in case someone has missed the point, shouting “Glory to God, and on earth, peace.”

We come here, tonight, in the midst of our own ordinary lives. Like the folks in the story, we have to contend with leaders who make choices about our nation.  Like the folks in our story, we know what it is to pay taxes, and to travel. Our lives are full, we work and rest and play. We fall in love, receive diagnoses, struggle, fight, grieve, break things, get exhausted, make up, fix what can be mended, and try again. Our lives are full to bursting with ordinary and heartbreaking stuff.  Babies are born here every day.

How often do we notice the wonder of it all?  How often do we take a deep breath, and gaze at life, and notice its beauty? 

We’ve been talking about Angels all season here. Angels, who bring messages. Angels, who bring comfort. Angels, who arrive unexpectedly. Angels, who guide us towards freedom. Angels do all these things and more.  And above and beyond these things, the angels in our scriptures invite us to awe. See the good in this, they encourage us. Feel the God in this. Sense the amazing power of this moment, and give thanks. Cry “glory.”

It’s a little daunting, to be asked to notice the good, to notice the God, going on in and around us. The folks in the story tonight aren’t sure what to do.

The shepherds, at first, are terrified. Who is this dazzling being?  From terror, they turn to curiosity.  “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place.”  In other words, let’s see if this whole thing is actually true. Only once they have visited Mary, and Joseph, and the child, and seen for themselves, do the Shepherds get around to glorifying and praising God.

Mary shows us yet another possible reaction to the angelic invitation.  Instead of reacting in fear, or seeking proof, or giving thanks, Mary treasures the words of the angels, and ponders them in her heart.

No one said awe or gratitude was easy.  Still, the angels invite us to try them out.

On this holy night, we remember a time when God’s presence on earth was magnified. God shone bright in a star up above.  God beamed forth in the face of a newborn. Still, the miracle could have been missed. God does things in surprising ways. She chose a little one with brown skin, from a poor family, in a small nation, to show the world more about who she is. 

Thank God for the angels. The angels called to those folks back then, busy or bored, lost in pain or pleasure.  The angels called to them, and they call to us now.  Do not be afraid, they tell us. Dare to take a breath. Dare to take notice. Right now, close by, in the humblest place, is a love that can change your life, and a reason to cry, “Glory!.”

God, you are good, from the beginning of the world. Our lives are a gift from you, and our home is your beautiful creation. Still, there is a lot of pain here, and plenty of ordinary everyday. It’s easy to miss out on the most important stuff in the midst of everything else. Help us to notice the holiness shining forth in our lives: if only for a moment. Urge us on, to ponder it more deeply, and to pour forth our praise. Amen.

Angels in Advent: a peek into Sunday School

Angels have been hovering all around us this Advent season, and we continued this theme last Sunday in our multiage Sunday school class.  After lighting our third candle in our Advent wreath and a candlelit opening combining all three classes, the multiage children enjoyed finding angels illustrated in the book The Nativity by Julie Vivas and then watched a fantastic short video called An Unexpected Christmas, featuring God’s host of angels very surprised by God’s plan for Jesus’ birth.  Check out the video here.  We then explored three different activity stations: decorating angel coloring pages, creating sparkly angel messages, and reading Christmas books in an ever-expanding twinkling fort.  The reading fort started under one table with three children, then grew (with the help of some very motivated kid engineers) to encompass the entire stage to fit everyone.  Always room for one more!

Entertaining Angels

Offered by Joyce DeGreeff on December 16th, 2018

Genesis 18:1-16, Hebrews 13:1-2

When I was a child, I lived in Ogunquit, Maine, otherwise known as the “beautiful place by the sea”. Many of you might recognize this place as a popular vacation spot with a gorgeous sandy beach. You might have walked the famous Marginal Way path that winds around the rocky part of this coastal town to the harbor of Perkins Cove, or visited the many interesting shops and restaurants in the local village.  Well, my family owned one of those shops – it was called The Oxbow Gift Shop – and we lived in a tiny 900 square foot apartment above it.  When I say “we” I mean our family of 8 … 2 parents, 4 kids, and 2 dogs! 

As you can imagine, I have many memories and funny stories to retell from our life together above that gift shop.  But one in particular comes to mind in relationship to this morning’s readings. 

On a cold winter day, my parents decided to give an open invitation at church to anyone who might like to come over for a sledding party in our backyard.  With very short notice, 37 people thought this was a great idea!  Now most hosts, in this situation, would enjoy the party outside and perhaps make a big pot of hot cocoa that everyone should share before calling it a day.  Well, not my parents.  They decided it would be fun to extend the party and invite everyone inside for a spaghetti dinner.  37 plus our 6 – that’s 43 people in 900square feet…for dinner!  Everyone had a great time and no one went away hungry as far as I know, and to this day, people are still talking about my mom’s famous spaghetti sauce.  My dad’s favorite part of the story is when he finally got his plate of food, he looked around at the overcrowded apartment and couldn’t find a place to sit – on chairs or anywhere on the floor.  Then he had what he thought was a brilliant idea and headed for the bathroom.  But when he got there, to his surprise he found two people already in there eating- one on the bath tub and one on the toilet! So he resigned himself to the fact that he would just need to eat standing up. 

When both of my parents, and some of their longtime friends, talk about this day (trust me,we’ve heard the story many times!) there’s a sense of joy-filled playfulness and pride in pulling off such an unconventional, and even downright ludicrous,dinner party.  There were no cloth napkins or fancy china, no candle light or peaceful music playing the background – just pure chaos, great food, and even better company.  As a child I thought it was really crazy and super fun.  And now as an adult, looking back, what stands out the most to me is the open hearted hospitality, the generosity, and the pure joy of the occasion.

This dinner party is what first came to my mind when I read today’s story from Genesis 18where three men suddenly appear to Abraham outside of his humble house.  Immediately, Abraham offers them water to wash their feet and then goes into his tent to ask Sarah to prepare bread and his servant to prepare a meat offering. These travelers gladly receive the meal and eat it together, with Abraham standing by, under a tree outside of his dwelling place.  And then one of them, claiming to be ‘the Lord’,  mentions to Abraham that he will“return in due season” and that his wife Sarah will “bear a son”.  Sarah overhears this from the tent entrance and begins to laugh.  Given the circumstance of their ages, do you blame her? 

But the messenger questions her laughter and reiterates his promise:

The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarahlaugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’  Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season,and Sarah shall have a son.” But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. And he said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.” (Genesis 18:13-15)

You gotta love Sarah – brave enough to bicker with the Lord!

It’s all here…hosptality, generosity, humor, and most importantly the very real presence of God. 

In both Jewish and Greco-Roman culture, hospitality was highly regarded and very important for those who wanted to be considered “virtuous”.  And travelers tended to lean on this “culture of hospitality”, relying on the kindness of normal folks when they found themselves in need in unfamiliar territory. So that they showed up isn’t all that unusual, but their identity and their message is a bit more intriguing.  Many have wondered

Who exactly were these three men?  Not all agree on the answer. 

The Jewish Talmud refers to the visitors as three angels, and although the Torah doesn’t mention the names, the Talmud identifies them as Raphael, Michael, and Gabriel.

Some Christians have interpreted the appearance of the three visitors as a vision of the Trinity – in that all three men, together, represent the one true God.

Neither of these explanations seems to fit the text exactly, though.  A more agreed upon Christian understanding is that one indeed was God (given the many references to “the Lord” in the passage) and the other two were angels – partly there for support and partly just passing through on their way to fulfill other missions described later in this chapter of Genesis. 

 In this case,  the visitation represents a “Theophany” or a manifestation of God in human form.  Some Christians would take it even a step further and call it a “Christophany” – suggesting a notion of a pre-incarnation of Jesus,  a foreshadowing of when God is made flesh through the eventual birth of the Christ child.

Regardless of how one chooses to understand the exact identity of these visitors, it’s clear to me that Abraham and Sarah experienced a “holy moment” – a life-changing and life-giving encounter with the Spirit of God.  It doesn’t seem to me that the author of this story is so concerned with proving the existence of heavenly messengers or supernatural beings;  rather, what I think is significant is to witness what happens when we offer hospitality and open ourselves up to entertain unexpected guests. Through human connection, generosity, and vulnerability … God shows up!  When we show up for each other, the Spirit of Love and Grace that is God, is there too – helping us to find the right words,to show compassion. and even to have a little fun!

As our brief reading from Hebrews this morning reminds us:  “Let mutual love continue.  Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for doing so, some have entertained angles unawares.” 

These words, commonly assigned to Paul, are likely a direct reference to the Abraham story which, for first-century Jewish writers, would have been considered the premier model of hospitality.  I can’t help but to notice the implications of this ancient text for our world today. What if we were to receive and welcome those in need with the same sort of hospitality that Abraham and Sarah, and countless other Biblical characters,offered to fellow travelers?   Refugees, immigrants, prisoners and other displaced people come to mind  … veterans, people mourning the loss of loved ones, struggling kids and their parents, people who need food, shelter, or maybe just a listening ear and some company?  My guess is that we’d often been tertaining angels – and in doing so, experiencing the very real gift of God’spower and love.

I can think of many examples here at WCUC, of the ways in which this kind of hospitality already happens.  I remember when Sarah Hindle opened up her home for a day long women’s retreat, and when others in this congregation have hosted Dine with Nine dinner parties and end-of-year celebrations for the staff or the choirs. This year there was even a  house party to brainstorm ideas for Congregational Giving! 

“Hospitality”, though, isn’t just about opening up our homes…more to the point, it’s really about opening up our hearts and inviting the Spirit to be with us.  God shows up in places like this sanctuar yand the downstairs classrooms when we welcome all people with no exceptions.   Jesus’ way of healing and inspiration shows up to journey with us when we gather at Walden Pond for weekly walking prayer.  And the Spirit often shows up in one on one conversations too, like the ones we had last year as part of our “In Reach” program.  Many of us experienced the true joy that can come from simply meeting up with someone we don’t know very well and sharing our stories.  In these moments of vulnerable storytelling,God empowers both the teller and the listener to gratefully receive the gift of Love found through genuine human connection.

 When youth group parents gather at my humble dorm apartment (Ok, “humble” is a relative term here…we do have more room than the 900 square feet of my childhood, but we also share our building with 31 teenage boys!)… In any case,when we fill our living room for important conversations about the joys and challenges of raising adolescents, God’s Spirit is there.

And when those adolescents arrive for game night with a distinct mix of awkward silence, playful laughter, nervous energy, and authentic presence… there, too, is God. 

 When we show up for each other, God shows up for us, time and time again. This grace-filled Spirit helps us to step out of our comfort zones, to take risks, and to open our hearts to unexpected possibilities and sometimes even life-changing transformation.

“The angels proclaim You will arrive among us, a joy to meet our longing:  Come, O Come, Emmanuel -God with Us”

Amen.


Advent in the Light

We had a fantastic evening with children and families last Saturday, December 8th.  Take a look!

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.