Posted in Worship

Wake Up to Hope

The season of Advent, this season of preparation for Christmas, begins with Prophets. Prophets are people who have a special ability to understand God’s longing for our world.  Prophets are people who are willing to share God’s longing for our world with others: to share it loud, to share it strong, no matter what the consequences.  The Prophet Isaiah says:

God will make justice among the people, and they will beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. (Isaiah 2:4)

No one will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11:9)

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. (Isaiah 35:1-2)

Isaiah was a prophet. He also spoke of another prophet who would come after him, someone who would be a voice crying out in the wilderness, saying, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” Some people think the prophet Isaiah described was a man we call John the Baptist. He preached and baptized out by the Jordan River, saying:

Turn around, change your ways, for God’s heavenly way has come near. (Matthew 3:2)

Many people feel that John’s work made way for the ministry of Jesus.

Another person who bears witness to God’s truth in this season, and who makes way for Jesus, is Mary of Nazareth.  Mary accepts a frightening invitation from an angel and agrees to bear a special child. She says:

O God, your mercy is for those who fear you from generation to generation. You show your strength and scatter the proud. You bring down the powerful from their thrones, and lift up the lowly. You fill the hungry with good things, and send the rich away empty. You help your people, remembering to be merciful, as you promised our ancestors. (Luke 1:50-55)

I wonder if you can think of people today who bravely share their ideas about how our world should be, how our world could be, how God longs for our world to be.

This season between Thanksgiving and Christmas, there are so many ways that we could use our time and energy. If we listen to our television, and our email inbox, and our postal mail, and our calendar, they may tell us to do things like:

  • Make a list of all the things that we wish we had.
  • Spend lots of time and money shopping for things we think other people might like to have.
  • Stay up late and attend lots of parties
  • Get really busy with planning and wrapping and travelling and cleaning and cooking
  • Eat lots and lots of things, including lots of sugar
  • Drink lots and lots of things, including lots of alcohol (for the adults).

Now I’m sure that many of us will do many of the things on that list. Most of them can be fun in moderation for most of us.  They can also provide some distraction from the fact that it’s cold outside, and dark at 4:30 p.m..

But the season of Advent, and the prophets in it, invite us to include something different in this season. They invite us to:

  • Find a moment to get quiet: by ourselves, or with a few people we really care about.
  • If it’s already dark, to light a candle.
  • Breathe in and out, and become aware of the moment we are living in.
  • Be honest about what is difficult or painful in our lives, and in the life of the world, not trying to cover it up.
  • Wake up our sense of hope for healing, for change.
  • Pay attention, to all those who are working for beautiful change around us.
  • Begin to imagine how we could be a very small part of that great big beautiful change.

I hope you’ll get some resources from this church to help you do these things, this season; or that you’ll spend some time today considering how you might make this a season of holy preparation, of spiritual nourishment.

At the service, we went on to learn a new (to us) version of Mary’s Magnificat by Ray Makeever, complete with motions learned at Holden Village!


A Reformation of Worship Music

Psalm 100, Philippians 4:4-9

This year we have been exploring the history of the music we sing in worship. So far, however, we have mostly discussed the music sung by choirs. During the first fifteen hundred years of the Western church, singing was mostly for select groups and cantors, and sung in Latin. Hymns for all to sing were only used outside the central worship service, where they existed at all.

This story changes during the Protestant Reformation.  In fact, many of the theological heroes of the reformation were also musical innovators and champions of congregational singing. As Christians began to read the Bible in their own common languages for the first time, as they began to understand themselves as part of a universal priesthood, it seemed only natural for them to begin to share in making worship music.

The earliest hymn books during the Reformation were mostly Psalters: collections of psalms translated into metrical vernacular, to be sung to simple tunes. The first was the Genevan Psalter of 1539, written in French. It was produced by John Calvin, who wrote:  “it is a thing most expedient for the edification of the church to sing some psalms in the form of public prayers … so that the hearts of all may be roused and stimulated to make similar prayers and to render similar praises and thanks to God with a common love.” Another famous early Psalter is the Bay Psalm book of 1640, the first book printed in what was known by many as British North America. 

As songs for congregational singing became more popular, both their form and content began to develop. Some were translated from existing Latin songs, often with additional verses added to emphasize the theological points most important to reformers. Other hymns were new scripture paraphrases set to popular secular tunes. Although this was a clever idea for spreading the faith, these combinations didn’t always work; Martin Luther reported that some songs just had to be given back to the devil. Some Reformation hymns were entirely new, in both text and tune. 

These songs were designed to be easily sung by anyone. This fact alone shaped how they were written and revised, and which became most popular. Much of the new hymnody had rhyming verse, which was catchier, more memorable. Over time, more and more tunes had a set and predictable rhythm, so that they was easier for many people to sing them together.  One fun bit of trivia: at first, the melody line of a hymn was most often located in the tenor part.  It was only after 1586 that giving it to the sopranos became standard practice. Techniques of harmonization also developed over time, enriching earlier melodies, thanks in large part to J.S. Bach.

Some reformation-era hymns are still among the best-known in many of our churches. They form a significant portion of many hymn books, including the Pilgrim Hymnal.  With an original copyright of 1931, the Pilgrim hymnal claims as its source texts the Geneva Psalters and the Bay Psalm book, as well as Isaac Watts, often known as the father of English hymnody.  The Pilgrim hymnal was originally made for Congregational and Christian churches, predecessors to the current United Church of Christ.  Later revisions of this hymnal, like the 1958 version that we have, are claimed by the then new United Church of Christ, and added some music from the ancient church, and a wider range of denominational sources.

But perhaps a better way to tell this story is by exploring the music itself.  Let’s take a brief tour through a few hymns.

Our opening hymn today was Our God, Our Help in Ages Past, the first hymn in the Pilgrim Hymnal and a defining one. This is perhaps the greatest hymn written by Isaac Watts (as I just mentioned, the father of English hymnody).  The British were latecomers to the Reformation hymn-writing party. Isaac Watts did his best to make up for that, writing hundreds of hymns in English. This hymn was written in 1714, a time when there was anxiety about the royal succession.  It was later played on BBC radio as soon as WWII was declared, and speaks to the theme of faith as a source of stability in times of uncertainty.

At the end of the service we will sing “Now Thank We All Our God,” which was also formed by a context of conflict.  The text’s author, Martin Rinkart, served as pastor in a small walled city in Germany called Eilenberg. Eilenberg became a refuge for those fleeing violence and plague during the 30 years war. Eventually, Rinkart was the only pastor left there, burying as many as 40 or 50 people a day, including, eventually, his wife.  This context makes a striking background for Rinkart to celebrate the wondrous things God does.  This became a defining hymn in Germany, and is sung for days of national thanksgiving there. The tune, written by Johann Cruger, was used by J.S. Bach in his Reformation cantata.

I can’t talk about this time period in the formation of our hymnody without mentioning the OLD HUNDREDTH, perhaps the best known and most widely used of all psalm tunes. It was first published in the Geneva Psalter of 1551, oddly enough as the tune for Psalm 134.  We don’t know it as the Old 134th, however, because its first English words were a translation of Psalm 100 in 1561. Many of us know this tune best with still more recent words, but we’ll sing a version of this first English setting today during the blessing of our offerings.

One thing that surprised me over and over in learning about these hymns is how many versions they often went through before becoming the classics we now recognize. One such adaptation occurs in the hymn “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.” The text was originally written by Bernard of Clairvaux, in Latin, in 1153.  Like other beloved texts, it was translated during the Reformation and set to music that was popular at the time. In this case, it was a secular piece by Hans Leo Hassler. He wrote it in 1601 and it had been unsuccessfully paired with several hymn texts before being matched with this one in 1656. This tune is also found in Bach’s works, and we borrow the current harmonization from him. Let’s sing v. 1&3, Pilgrim (Red) Hymnal #170.

We can’t talk about this time period without including Charles Wesley, an Anglican priest who helped to spread the Methodist movement founded by his brother John. He wrote the words to over 6,000 hymns.  In 1747, he published a pamphlet titled: “Hymns for those that seek and those that have Redemption in the Blood of Jesus Christ.”  One of those hymns was “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” arguably one of his best. The tune we know wasn’t written until 1870, 120 years later, by a German-born man named John Zundel. Zundel served as church organist for 28 years in the Brooklyn church where Henry Ward Beecher was minister. Thus, this popular tune is most commonly (and quite unfairly) known as BEECHER. Let’s sing Pilgrim Hymnal #228, Love Divine, All Loves Excelling: 1st & 4th verses.

Perhaps the most famous hymn writer of the reformation was Martin Luther. A theological and political leader, Luther also loved music from childhood. He worked with musicians to create new music for Christians in the common language. His most famous hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” written in in 1529, is a paraphrase of Psalm 46.  Unlike many other famous writers I have mentioned, Luther wrote both text and tune. Reflecting on this hymn again, I was struck by the similarities of the theme it expresses to others we are singing today.  During the Reformation, a time of great religious and political conflict and change, the steadiness and strength of God was a particular focus of hymnody. Perhaps it is not surprising that these same hymns rang true for those forming and revising the Pilgrim Hymnal, following the first and second world Wars.

This beloved hymn has been translated from German to English many times. It has also changed in both rhythm and harmonization over time; you can find both old and new versions next to each other in the New Century Hymnal. In a moment, Jim will play the tune in the old way, then I invite you to rise and sing the form familiar to us.

But, before we sing, after all that information, I invite you to take a deep breath. Consider the gift we have received, in the faith and artistry of so many writers and musicians, and the bravery of Christians living through so many challenges.  Through the grace and inspiration of God, and the labor of many, we have music to share together that people of faith have been singing in many different forms for 3, or 4, or 500 years. Thanks be to God.

Congregational Giving Celebration

Thank you for your presence, prayers, and labor to bring this service and fellowship together! It was a wonderful day!

Worthy of Repair

A guest sermon from the Rev. Laura Everett, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches. Learn more about Rev. Everett’s mending work here.

Colossians 3:12-17

I bring you the blessings and greetings of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, a network of individuals, congregations and 18 denominations convinced that what binds us together in Jesus Christ is stronger than anything that might divided us. Anything that might divide us. Anything. We are bound together, knit together, sometimes patched and mended together. When so much threatens to tear apart the Church at the seams, the Massachusetts  Council of Churches is in the business of repair.

Let us pray: Gracious God, I am bold to stand before your people and proclaim your good word. Send your Spirit among us that we might so we might receive the Word you have for our lives this day, in this place. I claim you again, my rock and my redeemer.

Did you ever feel the power of new clothes? A whole new world seemed possible with a first day of school outfit. My Girl Scout uniform proudly proclaimed with patches that I can tie knots and blaze trail. I think of the black suit jacket my mother bought for me at the store Express in the Rockaway Townsquare Mall in suburban NJ.  The shoulders are too big, the fabric likely flammable, but somehow it felt possible that I could be someone different, someone professional, someone who could get a job.

For some of us who grew up poor, new clothes mostly just mean new to us. Those new clothes had been broken in by others, older siblings handing down, or strangers who left behind a butterscotch candy and a crumpled tissue in the pocket by the time we found their old coat at Goodwill.

New clothing, wherever it comes from, signals a change: the white cotton of a baptismal gown, the pale blue silk tie of a wedding day. New clothes for a job interview, a sports jersey, a work uniform, dress military uniform, a jail uniform, a hospital gown, a burial shroud. Often, something big has changed, more than just our exterior when we put on new clothes.

St. Paul turns to this idea of clothing to explain how the Christian community should act. He writes “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” What I love about this metaphor is the ability to become something new. Put it on. Try on something different. Right before this passage, St. Paul tells the Church in Colossae (koh-LA-see) to “strip off the old self” of its practices of malice, slander and wrath, and to clothe yourself in the new image of your Creator. This is a powerful idea- we can behave differently. Take off your anger choking at your neck like a collar that’s buttoned too tight. Instead, put on the soft, handmade, well-fitting sweater of love.

Clothing would have functioned very differently in the ancient world of this text. People would have had only a few items of clothing- a tunic, a cloak, a belt, sandals. Clothing was precious, which is why the soldiers cast lots for Jesus cloak.  When Jesus tells the disciples to “take nothing for the journey,” not even a second tunic or pair of sandals, rest assured these disciples did not have a closet full of extra tunics. When the woman reached out to touch the hem of Jesus’s cloak, she likely felt wool or linen. Clothing was homegrown, homespun, home woven, hand dyed and hand sewn. And so, Paul’s command to take off the garments of your former self and clothe yourself anew is an invitation to major change of that one garment you’ve been wearing all the time. Beloved, if there’s an ill fitting garment you’ve been wearing for too long, you do not have to wear it any more.

To this Christian community in Colossae, Paul is pointing to a new way to be in the world. The thing about clothing is that it’s visible. These are not private virtues, but visible to the world. When we are clothed with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, others will see it. They will know we are Christians by our clothes. In a way, yes. This is the promise of the Christian life, in our baptismal gowns, we are all clothed in a new garment. We can wear our love like heaven. We can be different than what we’ve been. We can clothe ourselves in love.

A 19th C Baptist minister in Manchester, England wrote, “It takes a lifetime to fathom Jesus; it takes a lifetime to appropriate Jesus; it takes a lifetime to be clothed with Jesus. And the question comes to each of us… Are we daily, as sure as we put on our clothes in the morning, putting on Christ the Lord?” (Wearing God, p40)

And yet, and yet, even as Paul tells the Church to clothe ourselves in love, even as we’re asked if we’re putting on Christ as we put on our clothes each morning, we know that some of us are not able to dress ourselves. Some hands can’t manipulate fiddly buttons. Some eyes can’t see the tiny clasps. Young and old and everything in between, we rely on others to assist in clothing us, to get to that zipper all the way in the back. And much of what has been draped on our bodies are not the garments of heaven but things that constrain, cover, denigrate and deny.

The writer Lauren Winner puts it this way: “On Paul’s terms, Jesus is not the kind of clothing that creates social divisions, but the kind of clothing that undoes them. Jesus is not a Vineyard Vines dress or a Barbour jacket; He is the school uniform that erases boundaries between people.” (Wearing God, pg 50)

When it’s at its best, Church is where we clothe one another in love. Here is where we put on Christ, together.  When we’re tangled up in that sweater that’s too small, when we’re drowning in that suit jacket that’s too big, we come here and get right-sized.  We come to Church together so that sometimes, someone else can remind us that however banged up and scuffed up and torn up we feel, we are clothed in Christ. Every Sunday we can come in frayed, and aim to leave wrapped in the garments of God.

And this is why you are giving generously to this church. West Concord Union Church has a beautiful reputation of being a place where everyone, regardless of ability, is clothed in love. We give because we believe in this work and witness. To the Church, Paul writes “clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” When we’re all clothed in love, we are bound together.

I see how you’ve been weaving in this season. Over the past 5 years, I’ve been learning how to mend textiles. I’m trying to learn with my hands what I long for in my life and in the church: repair. Because so much is broken, and the threads of community and country feel like they are coming apart.

Well- loved clothes wear out. The things we wear all the time become threadbare. Seams start to fray. Moths break in. Places of regular use and friction need reinforcement.

And this is what I’ve come to know, Church: mending is an affirmation. We do not mend what we do not value. We repair what we cherish, what we love, what is precious in our sight.  When I patch the hole in my wife’s pants, I’m showing my care for the garment and the one who is clothed by it.

This has become one of my most prized possessions- a wool scarf I’ve been mending for years. All those orange bits are darned with wool. With every stitch, ever act of repair, it becomes more valuable to me, not less. This is what your giving to Church does, you mend.  Your repair what you love.

The longer I’ve sat in on my couch with a darning egg and some orange wool and my scarf in my hands, the longer I know this to be true: This is our God, the repairer, the healer, the mender.

God longs for our healing, in our messy, human bodies and in our messy, human community. God longs for us to be clothed in beauty, in compassion, in tenderness and glory. God is a mender.

Maybe it is like this:  Maybe God makes a cup of tea and tucks a quilt around. Maybe, God takes our brokenness in her hands and slowly stitches us back together. Attentive, precise, tender. God takes what the world considers disposable and mends so that we might clothe ourselves, clothe one in love, be clothed in Christ.

Mending is an act of devotion, and affirmation of worth. And you, beloved kin of Christ, are worthy of repair. Clothe yourselves in love.

Money Problems

Luke 18:9-14

Image by Jesus Mafa

The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil, according to our scriptures (1 Timothy 6:10). I wonder if you can remember a time when money has been the cause of evil in your life: when money has caused a problem for you.

There are so many different kinds of money problems.  There are personal money problems; we may experience a conflict between our income and our needs, or our income and our wants. There are relational money problems; differing amounts of money, differing approaches to money can cause tension with family and friends. Money can divide us politically, as we argue about how it should be taxed and spent by our government.  Our wealth also divides us socially, and is used to reinforce racial divisions, granting or denying us access to neighborhoods, to schools, to careers.  And there’s at least one other sort of money problem. According to Jesus, money can cause problems in our relationship with God.

In the parable Jesus tells today, two people go up to the Temple in Jerusalem to pray.  Both are at odds with God because of money.  One is a tax collector, a collaborator with the Roman Government. Like Zachhaeus, whose story we heard last week, this person has taken advantage of others, charging them more than what is owed. Through avarice and greed, this person has divided themselves from both God and neighbor.

The other person is a Pharisee, someone who carefully follows the guidance of Torah. This one observes righteous practices, such as fasting and giving away a tenth of their income.  Knowing this, we might assume that they are at peace with God and beloved in their community. However, the scripture story is quick to destroy that idea.  Apparently this person stands apart from everyone else, and prays what can only be called an obnoxious prayer: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people!” For this person, generosity has led to self-satisfaction and contempt for others. They are also divided  from both God and neighbor.  

Every year in this season we reflect on issues of money.  In part, that’s because we ask you to consider making a giving commitment to the church. But that’s not the whole story.  Jesus talks about money all the time – more than just about anything else. According to Jesus, money is one of the biggest barriers that we face when trying to get close to God. We have to talk about money in church, if we’re going to be faithful to the teachings of Jesus.

Everyone’s relationship with money is different, depending on our background, our experiences, and our current bank balance. But most of us struggle somehow in this area. We are plagued by pride or shame, privilege or want, jealousy, or some confusing combination of these feelings. Few of us may have reached the extremes of greed or self-satisfaction illustrated by Jesus’ parable.  Still, we may find ourselves fairly mixed-up about what a faithful way might be to spend, to save, and to share what we have.

I must confess to you that this is something I continue to struggle with.  Living in Concord, I am oddly aware of all the things that my family doesn’t have: fancy vacations; unlimited extracurricular activities, high fashion, club memberships, constantly new electronics. This environment encourages me to view my own means as quite moderate. It teaches me to protect my income for the use of myself, my children, my retirement.  On the other hand, I have only to pay closer attention to the world around me, even right here in this geographic area, to remember that my family’s means are not only sufficient, but extravagant.  Just the fact that we don’t need to worry about money (as long as we plan a little) is an extraordinary privilege.  Add to that a beautiful neighborhood, an extraordinary school system, the ability to afford daycare, access to good produce; connection to the arts… I could go on and on.

For many years now I have shared my own giving habits with you.  I am fortunate to be able to continue dedicating ten percent of my income towards this church.  It has become a habit, something that our family’s finances are structured around.  Some of you have heard the story of how this happened: how my spouse’s giving spurred me on to greater generosity. I admit to still struggling over how to prioritize my other giving: how much it should be, and where it should it go. Pray for me, as we make the transition out of daycare bills this year, as I continue to discern how God is calling us to be stewards of what comes into our hands.

No matter where we are on the spectrum of wealth, and no matter where we are in our practice of generosity towards others, our practices about money belong in our prayer life.  There are so many conflicting messages within and around us concerning money, that only with God’s help can we make some peace in our divided hearts.

But once we open ourselves to God’s help, then the Spirit really starts to move. For the amazing thing about money is that it not only causes problems and divides us from one another; it can connect us, too.  Think of what money makes possible, when it is used for good.  Money can buy food and fuel social transformation. Money can support the arts and make reparations for injustice.  Money can connect us to people right next door or around the world in common cause.  And when we give with peaceful and humble hearts, money can also connect us with God, who fills us with power and purpose and joy.

And I have to say: it is a joy for me to use the money that has come into my care to help fuel this congregation, and to witness you doing the same.  To hear the stories of those who need this place, and whose lives have changed because of their encounters here with God and with all of you, because of your generosity. In music, care, service, prayer, personal growth, deep sharing: this community binds up hearts, and reaches out to facilitate connections far beyond our walls.

Beloved, how is your relationship with money, right now? Is it a source of stress, or pride, or shame, or all of the above, or something else entirely? How do the ways that you use your money separate you from and connect you with God and your neighbor? Jesus invites us to pray on these things with humility; to seek ever greater alignment of our conscience and our practice, for our own sake, and for the sake of others.

Those two people in the parable came to the temple with their money problems; and we come here, to church; because at least some part of us longs to worship God, instead of wealth.  The good news is that God offers abundant grace to all of us: the penniless, and the over-privileged; the generous, and the grudging; the self-satisfied, and those who are ashamed.  God offers us grace, and invites us to try again, and again. Each day the next breath, the next choice, a bit more freedom, peace, and gratitude. May it be so for each of us. Amen.

Invited In

Luke 19:1-10

I love this story. I hope you were listening closely. What do we know about Zachhaeus, what kind of job does he have?

Zachhaeus is a Jewish tax collector for the Roman government.  We can understand, maybe, why he isn’t wildly popular.  Most of his fellow Jewish community is not fond of the Roman Empire that is ruling over them.  Many folks don’t like taxes, either, especially taxation without representation, oppressive taxation, which is what the Jewish people have under the Romans.

But Zachhaeus doesn’t just have a job that people love to hate. He’s not just collaborating with the enemy. What else does Zachhaeus do that might make him unpopular? Zachhaeus takes advantage of his position. He charges people more than they owe, and he keeps that money for himself.

Now, if you had never heard this story, and you found out about Zachhaeus, and his job, and what he’s been up to, what would you expect to happen to him? This seems like the perfect set-up for a downfall.  Surely someone is going to catch Zachhaeus red handed, and then throw him into jail or out of town, or, at the very least, shame him publicly.

But – that’s not what happens to Zachhaeus.

Zachhaeus, we discover, is not a one-dimensional character. His whole heart and mind are not entirely taken up with greed.  There is something else inside of him, something we might call… curiosity. Zachhaeus hears that a famous rabbi named Jesus is coming through town, and Zachhaeus wants to see him.

Zachhaeus wants to see Jesus — not just a little. He really wants to catch a glimpse. So when he discovers that, being a short person, he can’t see over the crowds (Zachhaeus, I feel your pain!); when he discovers that the crowds won’t let him in; what does he do?  He runs down the street, and up into a tree, to get a glimpse. A grown man, clambering up a Sycamore tree.

It turns out that whatever curiosity, longing, loneliness drives Zachhaeus into the tree, Jesus is ready to meet it.  Jesus sees this adult man in fancy clothes, this wealthy man who has climbed up into a tree to see him, and Jesus knows: this is the person I need to have dinner with tonight. So Jesus invites himself over to Zachhaeus’ house for a meal. Jesus talks to Zacchaeus like a friend.  And as they talk, Zachhaeus confesses what he has done, and promises to change his ways.

Maybe you know what it feels like to be Zachhaeus: stranded on the outside, wishing you were in.  Sometimes we’re excluded because of mistakes that we make, because of bad choices, like Zachhaeus was.  Sometimes we’re excluded because of who we are: what we look like, who we love, our history.  Sometimes we just find ourselves the odd one out, for no particular reason at all.  No matter how it happens, it doesn’t feel good, to be the one no one talks to, the one no one makes room for, the one no one invites over for dinner.

The good news is that God has a special care for those on the outside.  God’s always searching for folks who are curious, who are longing, who are lonely.  God specializes in offering unexpected invitations. Are you weighed down with guilt? God says, Come unburden yourself.  Have you been made to feel that you are not an infinitely precious child of God, just as you are?  God says, come receive my blessing.  Are you just lonely, tired, in need of a little grace?  God says, There is room at my table for you. Come, rest awhile, and have something to eat.

As followers of Jesus, as church, we have the opportunity to both receive God’s invitations, and to offer them to one another. It takes all of us, drawing the strands in and out, to make the weaving of our holy community come together.  I am so grateful that in God’s wisdom, they chose to weave each of you into the fabric of this particular cloth. I am so grateful, to be bound together with all of you, and for the binding together that you do among us, through God’s grace, week to week.

So let’s praise God, that we are not alone this morning, on the outside, wishing we were in.  God is our host here, and that means everyone is home, even if we’re still working on feeling that way.  And let’s praise God that we get to become bound together more closely in love with everyone here this morning, and with a few folks who have chosen to become members of our community today.

Saints of WCUC

On October 27, we heard Ephesians 1:15-19 and these reflections on saints of our congregation.

Emma Hefty Mitchell, remembered by her daughter, Jean Moscariello

The person I most admire is my mother, Emma Hefty Mitchell.

My mother was a very devoted Christian and very generous, helping others whenever she could.  She instilled in me good values and I have tried to be like her.

Emma was born in 1905 and was placed in the Cradle Roll of the church.  In 1991 she and George Hefty were 2 of the six Centennial Babies we celebrated at our Centennial Covenant.  She was a member of the church and attended faithfully until 1927 when she married and moved to Guilford, Connecticut.  However, when she came to live with me she once again became a member.  It meant so much to her.

I would now like to read excerpts from a letter I found that my mother wrote to give you an idea how things were a hundred years ago at Union Church:

“My association with West Concord Union Church began on My 14, 1905, when I was enrolled in the Cradle Roll at  the age of 2 months.  Mary B Lane was Superintend of the Cradle Roll at that time and for the next 3 years she sent me a birthday card on March 23 which I still have.  Mr. Campbell was pastor then. As I grew older my mother took me with her to Prayer Meeting every Wednesday night.

I well remember the huge Christmas trees which were set up in that same room.  The presents from the parents and other relatives would be brought and put on the tree and Christmas Eve Santa would be there and climb on a high step ladder to reach some of the presents and call the name of the person it was for.  I’ll never forget the night I received the biggest doll near the top of the tree which I very much longed for.  When my name was called I instead received a small baby doll from my Aunt but before the evening was over I did receive the big one which my daughter now has.

When I was in my teens I joined the Christian Endeavor Society and spent many happy hours with that group.

I became a member of the church May l, l921 when Alfred Stone was pastor.  Before that I remember attending Sunday School when Mildred Stone was my teacher and we met in the choir cloak room, some of us sitting on the steps.

When I got married in 1927 I moved to Guilford, Connecticut and attended the First Congregation Church regularly but could not bring myself to take a letter from the West Concord Union Church until 1950 when I did finally join the Congregational Church.

My memories of the years at Union Church are very dear to me and I still have connections there through my daughter, Jean Moscariello, and brother, George Hefty, and attend church whenever I come to Concord.”

I give thanks to God for the life of Emma Hefty Mitchell.

Mary Aldrich, Marilyn Cousins & Edna Wagner, remembered by Ann Schummers

I give thanks to God for 5 amazing women. They were known as the lunch bunch because they shared birthdays, holidays and fun times together.
They loved each other, they loved their families, they loved their friends and they loved this church. They are role models for all of us.

Mary Aldrich shared her beautiful voice with our church and with other places of worship, including a Synagogue. She cared for countless little children in her day care program with gentleness, kindness and love.

Marilyn Cousins sang in our choir and rang bells for many years. Her nursing background helped her care for children and her loving gentleness helped her care for all who knew her, especially her husband Norm and her family.

Edna Wagner gave us energy, enthusiasm, and an eagerness to share her love of travel. She loved Wednesday morning Bible Study and never missed a day unless she was in China, Antarctica or wherever! She showed us how powerful friendship can be and what we can give each other.

Fran Gardella is a saint and she is still with us as we worship. Her laughter, her kindness, her energy and her skills as a teacher enrich our lives on a daily basis. She has served this church as a Deacon, a Trustee, and a member of the Fellowship Committee and Helping Hand. She is a joy to us all.

Annie Holt is another saint sitting in our congregation every Sunday. Her warmth, her smile, her gentleness, her laughter warms our hearts and caresses our soles. She was a teacher for many years and she continues to teach all of us to share the love of God with all who touch our lives.

We are all blessed by the presence of these women in our lives.

Miriam Coombs, remembered by Constance Putnam

I first met Miriam Coombs when we served on one of the sub-committees of Concord’s 350th celebration.  When the chairperson asked for a volunteer to serve as secretary, no one budged—until Miriam said that she, as a former high school English teacher, could perhaps manage. When she discovered I would be driving past her house to attend those meetings, she said I could easily give her a lift to subsequent sessions of the committee.  I liked her immediately, for that directness and its correctness.

From then until the day she died, Miriam was my closest friend in town, despite the age gap.  Or maybe because of it; certainly I benefited from her Elder’s Wisdom on many occasions.  Many people—including a number here today—also were close friends;  Miriam was generous with friendship in many forms. 

I learned that only later, when Miriam—figuratively speaking—opened the door of West Concord Union Church for me, giving me a community I had not had up to that point in town.  Miriam cared deeply about this church, and she served it in many ways, too many to list here; a couple of examples will give the flavor.  She used to quietly make sure Sunday Fellowship members were well served during coffee hour and befriended Charles, who still remembers her.  For a number of years she directed the children’s choir.  Long after she gave up that connection with the children, her favorite Sunday was still Children’s Sunday.  Thus I was very surprised the year she told me not to pick her up on Children’s Sunday because she was not going to church.  When I asked why not, she said simply that the children get excited—as they should—and rush around.  She did not want to risk one of them knocking her off balance.  “Just think how terrible that child would feel if I fell?”

More dramatic and more important, because very public, was what Miriam said the day of the congregation’s vote on whether to go on record officially as an Open and Affirming community.  When someone moved to table the motion for six months to allow  additional time for discussion, Miriam pulled herself up, using the back of the pew in front of her (she was 91), and said, “I am not in favor of the motion to table—because who knows whether I will still be here in six months?  I want to be able to vote on the issue itself, and I want to vote YES!” 

The motion to table was defeated.  The vote in favor of this congregation making public its Open and Affirming stance was overwhelming.  

And an old woman led them.

Julia and John Forbes, remembered by their son, Maynard Forbes

My parents, John and Julia Forbes, were strong church people who were involved with the church as long as I can remember. John came from a Presbyterian church in Merrigomish, Nova Scotia and Julia came from a Baptist church in Greene, ME. When they married they joined the Winthrop Congregational Church where they were very active and where they made sure Carolyn and I attended church school and church regularly.

When we moved to West Concord in 1951 joining the West Concord church was one of the first priorities. Julia sang in the choir and became involved with the helping hand society. She also was also a Deaconess and stalwart member of the flower committee. A quiet presence but she was always there.  John was an usher and chaired the ushering group for many years. Because he was in business in the community he knew and met many people so when a new face came into the church he was always there to greet them, and see that they were well received.  John served on the trustees and was involved with many stewardship campaigns.  He was also involved with counting the collection after church. He dealt with money every day so this was a simple task for him.

John might do a little bookkeeping or sneak in a quiet project at the store on a Sunday, but Sunday was a day of rest from the work of the store. Even as more stores would be open on Sunday he held the line on being closed on Sunday. Sunday was church day and the two of them were very regular attendees. Together they lived strong Christian lives with a faith in God and faith in the church. Following John’s strong work ethic has helped me throughout my life. Julia’s patience and love provided a great solace as a youngster and many other times through my life.  They were great examples to follow. I thank God for the lives of John and Julia Forbes.

Ancient Christian Songs and Canticles

The music listed in this sermon (and more!) can be found in this Spotify Playlist.

John 1:1-5

This year we’re taking one Sunday each month to explore the music we sing together.  The music we share in worship is such a central part of our life together; this is a chance to learn about its history, and consider what we wish to sing today. We started, last month, with the Hebrew psalms, a scriptural book of songs. Today we’ll move to ancient songs, canticles, and hymns from the early era of the church.

Much of the most ancient Christian music we have is part of the liturgy of the mass, music for worship services including communion.  During special music Sundays, we often get to hear a whole mass setting; we will hear another in December. In our worship here, you are more likely to hear a small piece of a mass, such as a gloria, an alleluia, or the sanctus (holy, holy, holy). Like so many ancient songs, we do not know the tunes that were originally used with these pieces of the mass, but settings abound. One familiar hymn that finds its source in a mass is Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence (NCH 345). The words, originally in Greek, are ascribed to St. James the Less, the first Bishop of Jerusalem, and were used while bread and cup were brought to the table.

Other ancient Christian music finds it source in other worship services: the liturgy of the hours, short prayer services held throughout the day.  This is where we find the canticles: songs of praise that take their text directly from the Bible, but not from the psalms.  A few of you may remember some of these canticles from the summer series on Songs of the Bible a year and a half ago, such as the victory song of Moses and Miriam in the book of Exodus. The most famous of the canticles, however, are from the birth narrative in the beginning of the gospel of Luke: Mary’s song, the Magnificat, which we sang as our opening hymn; the song of Zechariah, known as the Benedictus; and the Song of Simeon, known as the Nunc Dimittis, which we’ll sing as our closing hymn.

One canticle you may never have heard of is the Canticle of the Three Holy Children, also known by its Latin name: Benedicte omnia opera.  This canticle comes from the book of Daniel, although the passage is not included in most Protestant bibles. It’s a song of praise lifted up by Shadrach, Meshack, and Abednego, after they are freed from the fiery furnace. Like all the ancient canticles, you can find many different versions of this to listen to.  I thought it might be interesting to sing it together as it might be traditionally sung in a liturgy of the hours. So, I invite you to imagine that you have just been freed from a fiery furnace and are full of gratitude to God; or that you’re sitting in a monastery, at vespers…

Our scripture reading today was from the beginning of the gospel of John. These are the words of a Greek song of praise to Jesus that precedes the recording of the scriptures. Unfortunately, we don’t know how it was originally sung, but translations and musical settings of this text abound. One of the most famous is a Latin text written by Marcus Aurelius Clemens Prudentius, a Spanish monastic, in the 5th century. Most of us know it (if we know it at all) by the title, “Of the Father’s Love Begotten.” When I saw that the translation in our New Century Hymnal was “Of the Parent’s Heart Begotten,” I assumed this was an attempt of the hymnal editors to be more inclusive in their imagery for God.  Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the original Latin is Corde natus ex parentis, born from the heart of the parent. Somehow, in the 19th century this was translated from Latin to English variously as “Of the Father sole begotten,” “Born of the Father’s bosom” “Of the Father’s will begotten” “Son eternal of the Father,” and “Yea! From the Almighty mind He sprung.” It’s a fascinating example of patriarchal bias being perhaps stronger in modern times than it was in the early church.  At any rate, our hymnal’s editors chose to commission an entirely new translation from the Latin. Let’s sing it together, Black Hymnal # 118, first and last verses.

Before we leave early Christian music, after an entirely too brief visit, I have to tell you one of the more fascinating stories I learned in my research.  As you may recall, almost all early Christian music is designed for choirs to sing, not congregations. One early exception is O Splendor of God’s Glory Bright, a Latin hymn from the 4th Century.

The story of this hymn begins with Saint Ambrose, bishop of Milan.  Ambrose was particularly passionate in defending the church against what eventually became known as the heresy of Arianism. Arianism is the idea that Jesus, while coming from God, is not as great as God, or made of the same stuff as God. If you are inclined to Arianism yourself (I know you’re out there), or if you can’t see what difference it makes either way, trust me: this was a major dispute within the church for centuries. Things got so hot in Milan between the Arians and the non-Arians that the churches led by Ambrose came under siege.  In one telling, Ambrose and his followers locked themselves inside a church for safety, and kept cheerful by writing hymns proclaiming the divinity of Christ.  Ambrose carefully crafted his songs with rhyme and meter so as to be easy for anyone to sing: a great strategy for spreading trinitarianism.

So let’s sing one of the very first congregational hymns of the church, one of the very first protest songs of the church.

I encourage you to take some time exploring Masses and Canticles and early hymns there and beyond.  Let’s give thanks, for those early Jesus-followers who knew that words were not enough, but used music to enrich our worship life together, and to inform our theology. Let’s give thanks, to the God who inspired it all. Amen.

White Fragility

  • October 15, 2019

Luke 17:5-10, Habakkuk 1:2-4, 2:1-4

I will never forget the day I visited the Voortrekker monument in South Africa.  This monument celebrates those of Dutch descent who travelled from the Cape Colony on the tip of the continent to settle further east. Like many monuments, this one is imposing: set on a hill, with a great bank of steps leading up to the door. As I entered the building, I was surrounded by yellow light, and the biggest marble frieze in the world.  It was beautiful — until I got a closer look.  The frieze was full if images of conquest. Some were gruesome in and of themselves. Others were gutting because I knew what they led to: the collapse of the Zulu empire, a nation of Apartheid, and a modern South Africa of unspeakable inequality. This monument marks the beginning of it all. Worse, it celebrates that beginning. It is constructed so that once a year, a beam of light shines directly on the center of the monument, symbolizing God’s blessing on the Voortrekkers and their achievements.

Just being in the room made me nauseous. How could anyone build such a monument? How could anyone leave it standing? I walked out into the sunshine and sat down on the great steps, full of self-righteous disgust for the white peoples of South Africa. Then, suddenly, my world turned upside down.

I thought about the pilgrims and pioneers who we so often celebrate in New England. I thought of the indigenous communities who were systematically cheated and destroyed here. I thought about the African peoples and their descendants who have endured 246 years of enslavement, followed by racial segregation, and continuing disparities in incarceration, health, wealth, and so much more. Of course, I had known about all of this history before; this was just the first time that I realized it had anything to do with me. Witnessing the price of white dominance somewhere else, I began to grasp the cost of my own racial privilege.

You may wonder, what does the bible have to say about race and racism? That’s a complicated question.  It’s important to remember that our scriptures contain passages like the one we heard today from the gospel of Luke, where Jesus equates discipleship with slavery.  By doing so, Jesus implicitly condones the institution of slavery. Now, slavery in Jesus’ time and place was not exclusively based on race.  Still, Jesus’ implicit approval is deeply problematic. Biblical passages accepting or even promoting slavery have been one brutally effective tool in the effort to legitimize slavery and other forms of racism in our country.

At the same time, our scriptures speak strongly against violence and injustice, and champion those who are excluded or vulnerable.  The Prophet Habbakuk, who testified to God’s word in Jerusalem around 600 bce, is so overcome by the injustice of his time and place, that he offers a rare prophetic challenge to God: “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you do not listen? Or cry to you “Violence” and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails.  The wicked surround the righteous – therefore judgement comes forth perverted.”

Today we begin discussing the book White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo.  DiAngelo invites us to a new level of awareness of racism as “a far-reaching system that functions independently from the intentions or self-images of individual actors.”  Those of us who are white have been carefully taught to think of racial injustice as somebody else’s problem. It’s the problem of folks who are on the receiving end of discrimination. It’s the problem of folks who speak and act viciously, out of hate.  Yet those of us who consider ourselves both white and well-meaning are integral to this pervasive system of institutionalized bias. We are the ones who benefit from it, and we are the ones who uphold it – consciously or not. 

Put away all your excuses, Robin DiAngelo tells us. Maybe you have a great education, unique personal experiences, or family ties that persuade you that you cannot possibly be party to this vast and often subtle system of racial oppression. Do not believe it. Racism is not the sin of a few scattered extremists. Racism is not even a matter of personal intention.  Racism is a natural consequence of socialization.  None of us can escape the disease. Therefore, to deny the diagnosis, and to refuse treatment, is to doom the whole body of society to graver illness.

So what do we do?  If racism is an integral part of our history, a part of our country, a part of our scriptures, and even a part of us – what can we do?

One step is to shift our dominant historical narrative.  This season marks the 400th anniversary of chattel slavery in the United States. There has been some great journalism exploring the impact of that history. The Massachusetts Council of Churches chose to mark the event by celebrating Black Resiliency in our commonwealth. They remembered the writer Phillis Wheatley; and the first woman of African descent allowed to purchase a house in Boston, Zipporah Potter Atkins. They remembered children who rode busses to unfamiliar school districts, and youth who marched to protest police brutality. They remembered Belinda Sutton, who was enslaved in Medford, who petitioned the Massachusetts General Court again and again for her back pay. They remembered Prince Estabrook, who though enslaved, fought with the Lexington Militia in the Revolutionary war. They remembered Lucy Foster of South Church in Andover, who ran a tavern as well as a stop on the Underground Railroad. They celebrated so many folks who have lived with courage and determination through these 400 years.  Why isn’t that part of the story I learned in school, a part of the story we tell ourselves, this legacy that includes both white injustice and black strength?

Another step is to change our monuments. On the cover of your bulletin is a photograph of Kahinde Wiley’s new statue, Rumors of War. Standing 27 feet high and 16 feet wide, it was inspired by equestrian statues of Confederate generals in Richmond, VA. Instead of a Conferederate General, however, it features a young man of African descent, with dreadlocks, a hoodie, and ripped jeans.  At the unveiling, the artist described his experience of seeing the Confederate monuments: “I’m looking up at those things that give me a sense of dread and fear… Today,” he said, “we say yes to something that looks like us. We say yes to inclusivity. We say yes to broader notions of what it means to be an American.” Soon this statue will join the others in Richmond.

There is so much that we can do, so much that we need to do.  We can change our historical narrative, our monuments, our holidays.  We can challenge our scriptures and shift our policies.  All of this, though, will only be possible if we stop lying to ourselves about the pervasive, pernicious nature of white supremacy.  It will only be possible if we develop both deep curiosity and deep humility, about how white supremacy operates in our lives, and in the world around us.

The prophet Habakkuk, surrounded by wrong-doing, does finally receive word from God. She says: there is still a vision for the appointed time. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come. Until then, live by faith; put your trust in God. Later, Habakkuk writes: Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines… yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation. (Habakkuk 3:17a, 18).

We may not always recognize the vision that will transform our troubled time. We may not always find fruits of righteousness in the world around us, or even in ourselves. Still, it is our duty and our joy to rejoice in the God of our salvation. For it is this God who invites us into freedom from every falsehood, and forgiveness for every error.  The One who led the Israelites up out of slavery in Egypt will not abandon us to the injustices around and within us today. Thanks be to God.