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!
Tagged with Advent
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”
We had a fantastic evening with children and families last Saturday, December 8th. Take a look!
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.
We had a wonderful first Sunday of Advent with a focus on Angels! Take a look.
The youth are traveling through Advent with a variety of opportunities to connect with God and with one another. Opening our hearts and minds to the messages of Advent, we find inspiration and encouragement to slow down, to be more patient in our “waiting”, and to trust that the light of God’s Love really does overcome darkness.
In early December, the youth visited Harvard’s Memorial Church to attend the Kuumba Singers Christmas Concert: “Voice in the Night”. This gospel choir, which has been singing since 1970 in celebration of Black creativity and spirituality, beautifully captured the power of Christmas story – both the peace that Jesus brings and the hope that he inspires to continue in the struggle for justice. http://kuumbasingers.org
That same weekend, youth were invited to experience “Journey in the Light” at WCUC – an evening for contemplative prayer walking in a 12-circuit labyrinth that covered almost the entire floor in the sanctuary. Youth members engaged the program as participants and also as helpers so that the younger children could enjoy the evening too.
In recent weeks, the youth have been learning about Advent in their Sunday morning classes, exploring its history and its context in the larger liturgical church calendar. Themes such as “waiting”, “balancing stillness with active preparing”, and noticing “light in dark places” have all been prominent in our Bible study and class discussions. Particular attention was given to the virtues represented by the candles of the advent wreath: Hope, Love, Joy, and Peace as we wrote, reflected, and shared on these four prompts/questions:
- “I really hope that…”
- Where have you experienced love/kindness in recent days? Given and received.
- What brings you joy?
- Who in your life especially needs to feel God’s peace right now? (We held a minute of silence to pray for these people.)
Finally, we celebrated Gaudete (Joy!) Sunday in style with donuts and a viewing of this incredible documentary about Walden Pond and the life of Henry David Thoreau. A local treasure and a man who was inspired by nature to believe in God’s transformative power as well as the power of people working together to transform the world. If you have 22 minutes to spare, this will be well worth your time!
May you experience many blessings during this Advent season and may you find moments of unexpected Grace as the Prince of Peace arrives yet again.
Imagine if you will, a picture of Mary: Mary of Nazareth, Mary, the mother of Jesus. Even those of us who did not grow up Catholic have seen plenty of images of her, the most famous woman in our Christian tradition. Imagine Mary. If you are like me, the Mary that first comes to mind is white, and young, and very beautiful. A soft light shines around her. Her eyes are downcast. Her expression is peaceful. Her hands are folded in prayer, or wrapped around the Christ child. Mary is passive. Mary is quiet.
Western culture has made Mary into our ideal woman. She tells us just what women are supposed to be like. But it turns out that the Mary we see in Christmas cards and church statues and museum portraits is not the Mary of the bible. The biblical Mary is not white. She is not passive. And she is not quiet. On the contrary, Mary is a loud woman.
When we first meet Mary in the bible, she doesn’t have much to say. But that’s probably because she is having the shock of her life. An angel appears to her, and tells her that incredible things are about to happen: a spiritual pregnancy, a royal son. All Mary can get out of her mouth in that encounter is a question: “How can this be?” ; and then, finally, a response: “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Or, to paraphrase, “Ok, I guess if this is what God has in mind we can go ahead.”
Mary takes a moment to get her bearings. But as soon as the angel leaves, she springs into action. Mary hits the road, defying morning sickness, hurrying through the hills to see her cousin. Why are there no pictures of Mary on the move? Mary with a climbing stick, Mary with a rucksack, Mary with dirty sandals, sweating in her rush to share her news?
When she has something shocking and important to tell, Mary seeks out the company of women. As far as we know, she doesn’t share her news with Joseph at all. Instead, she wants to talk with her kinswoman. Perhaps she imagines that Elizabeth is more likely to believe what she has to say.
Incredibly, Elizabeth does believe Mary, with the help of the Holy Spirit. In fact, Elizabeth figures out the news even before Mary shares it. And so begins the most extended conversation between two women that I can think of in the bible. Elizabeth exclaims with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women!” And Mary responds, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior!”
Elizabeth and Mary literally shout with enthusiasm. Two loud women. And in the midst of their exclamations, there is another woman there, too, in spirit. Mary is riffing on the words of her foremother Hannah.
Hannah says: The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength.
Mary says: God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
Hannah says: God raises up the poor from the dust, to make them sit with princes.
Mary says: God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.
The biblical Mary is a woman with a voice — a strong voice. She has a voice that is stronger because she has listened to the witness of other women. She has a voice that is stronger because she can speak to other women. Mary has a strong voice to proclaim God’s good news. For this conversation between two pregnant women isn’t about nursing, or nappies, though perhaps they talked about that later. Why not. Both of them understand that what they’re a part of is not only personal but also political: part of a plan in which justice and mercy will transform the world.
Mary is nothing like we usually imagine her or see her portrayed. She is a unmarried poor woman of color with a strong voice who cries out for justice. Mary is one of a mighty host who prepare the way for the women who are crying out in this season. There have been many loud women through the years, testifying to both devastating truth and astonishing hope. And a great many of these loud women have been women forced to the margins: enslaved women, Black women, Latina women, Trans women. For instance: Anita Hill. For instance: Tarana Burke.
Strengthened by the history and example of others, women have come forward in this season to say: #metoo. I was also harassed, I was also assaulted, I was also abused, I have also been ashamed, I have also been punished for trying to tell my story. #Metoo. We have heard witness after witness, and we know that these witnesses represent the tip of the iceburg.
As a result of the witnesses in this season, and the people who have finally listened and believed the witness of women, the bows of a few of the mighty have been broken. A few of the powerful have been brought down from their thrones. But the problem of patriarchy, of male privilege and dominance, of fiercely defended white cisgender heterosexual male power, will take much more work to fully disassemble. We need more testimonies. But there have always been testimonies. We need more people to believe those testimonies. We need more men and more white women willing to change. We need more women and more people of color and more GLBTQ folks in leadership.
We also need change in the church. Discrimination and harassment and abuse have taken place here, too. In the church universal, and in this local church. Some of you are aware that a former pastor here, Dick Bauer, who served in the 60s and early 70s, and was beloved by many, was eventually removed from the ministry due to sexual misconduct. This misconduct occurred in several congregations he served in Massachusetts and Connecticut, including West Concord Union Church. It’s not a secret. It’s also not something we talk about much. It’s not pleasant to talk about. But unless we tell the truth about these things, with loud voices, we are a part of the problem: complicit in silencing testimonies that need to be honored. Complicit in upholding structures of oppression that need to be torn down. Failing in our duty to reckon with the past and ensure that the church, and our church, is a safe space for all people today.
Mary, the biblical Mary, has a loud voice that cries out for justice. How can her voice encourage us to proclaim the devastating truths that are part of our personal and collective past and present? How can her voice encourage us to proclaim the astonishing hopes that God has given to us to share with the world? How can Mary help us to listen to other loud women, other marginalized voices, with greater trust and concern, and a stronger response?
The Christmas song asks, “Mary, did you know? Mary, did you know that your baby boy will save our sons and daughters? Mary, did you know that this child that you’ve delivered, will soon deliver you? Mary, did you know? Mary, did you know? Mary, did you know?”
Mary did know. Mary was the first human being to know. God told Mary, and Mary is the one who told all of the rest of us. Mary may even have been the one to break the news to Jesus. She certainly helped prepare him for the life he would lead.
The gospel of Luke begins and ends with two women named Mary who are entrusted with God’s good news. In both cases, men do not believe them. Mary of Nazareth carries the news of God’s incarnation. Mary of Magdala carries the news of God’s resurrection. Mary did know, and thank God for that. For she, and all who have come after her, bless us with their loud voices.
Mary of Nazareth said to Elizabeth:
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in the God who saves me.
For God has recognized and blessed a humble servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
For the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is God’s name.
God’s mercy is on those who regard her with awe, from generation to generation.
God has shown strength with her arm, scattering the pride of the proud.
God has dethroned the powerful, and lifted up the lowly.
God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
God has helped her servant people, in remembrance of her mercy,
According to the promise she made to our ancestors:
To Abraham and his descendants forever.
Thanks be to God.
On Saturday, December 9th, amid New England’s very first snowfall, more than a dozen families joined us for a special Advent experience centering around the tradition of Las Posadas. We read a story and sang an interactive song dramatizing Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem and their search for lodging (las posadas) and then journeyed together in song to our darkened sanctuary and lit candles one by one around the large labyrinth. Our crafts for the evening included creating lanterns, decorating a celestial map, and coloring a huge Advent poster (and don’t forget snacks, stories, and special nativity set explorations in the parlor!). And of course, each person experienced walking our labyrinth (some people walked it many times!) – some with their lanterns, some with their children or parents, and some just by themselves – and journeying in the light. It was an exceptional night of wonder and joy and peace for all. Please enjoy the many photos!
How does the story of Jesus begin?
Each of the four gospels begins the good news of Jesus Christ in a different way. The gospel of Luke begins with a long story of Jesus’ birth, full of angels and songs: more of that to come later this month. The gospel of Matthew begins with a genealogy connecting Jesus to powerful ancestors, drawing a line from the past to the present. The gospel of John begins with a poem about the eternal nature of Jesus: in the beginning was the Word.
Today we hear the very beginning of the gospel of Mark. In Mark’s gospel, there is no mention of the manger, or the magi, or the angels, or the ancestors. And there is no poetry. Instead, we hear this: “As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.’’”
Mark begins with prophecy: the prophecy of Isaiah, and the prophecy of John the Baptist, who carries on the legacy of Isaiah in a new era. John, as you may know, was a curious figure. He wore camel’s hair. He ate insects. But despite his odd personal habits, John drew people to him. Lots of people. People from all over the Judean countryside and from Jerusalem itself came out to hear him preach along the River Jordan. They listened to him, and their hearts were moved. Many chose to confess their sins and be baptized into a new life.
Mark’s gospel begins with the prophet Isaiah, and it continues with the prophet John the Baptist. And then, John says, “the one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” The next prophet in the lineup is Jesus himself.
What is a prophet? Sometimes we speak of prophets as predicting the future, like fortune tellers. But in our religious tradition, prophets are not primarily focused on forecasting what is to come. Instead, they reveal the hidden reality of the present. Prophets have an uncommon ability to perceive the wisdom of God, the perspective of God, and to share that with others. If we listen to what they have to say, we can also begin to perceive the world as God does.
We could use some prophets in this time and place. Some folks to keep us grounded, and clear-headed about what is going on around us. We live in troubling and tumultuous times! What are some of the things that are troubling you these days? What are you reading in the news, or experiencing in your daily life? (Members of the congregation named some concerns, including sexual harassment, failure to welcome refugees, wildfires).
We could use some prophets in this time and place. And I am glad to tell you: we have some. Just this week, there was a national call for moral revival, the launch of a new Poor People’s Campaign. Fifty years ago, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “there must be a radical redistribution of economic and political power.” King was part of a movement that worked to make visible, and audible, the reality of discrimination, dehumanization, and poverty in a nation with more than enough to go around. This movement was, King said, a multi-racial “nonviolent army of the poor, a freedom church of the poor.”
Honoring that history, and compelled by our current reality, a new movement is arising today. Led by the Rev. William Barber II, as well as the UCC’s Rev. Traci Blackmon and so many others, this new Poor People’s campaign is uniting people across the country to challenge the evils of systemic racism, poverty, the war economy, ecological devastation, and the nation’s distorted morality.
Last spring, I had the privilege of hearing the Rev. William Barber speak at the UCC’s General Synod gathering in Baltimore. It was an experience. I stood there having to remind myself to breathe in, and breathe out, as I listened to him speak. My heart was jumping out of my chest, because everything in me was saying, “yes, this is it!” He was able to articulate with stunning clarity what is going wrong in the world and what going right would be like. Rev. Barber refuses to be partisan, or to seek anything less than the full justice of God. He believes that we can be a remnant to transform this nation; that we can bring about a season of moral resistance; that together, we can change the moral narrative of our country. And as he was speaking, it seemed not only possible to me, but inevitable; because he and those who are working with him are calling out the good in us, the God in us.
Prophecy is one of the great gifts of the church. We, the church, have the capacity to profess a vision of what human society can and should be. We have the capacity, because we stand rooted in a history of justice seekers. We have the capacity, because we rely not on our own power, but on the power of God and the power of community. We have the capacity, and we have the call.
In the United Church of Christ, as the Rev. Traci Blackmon, one of our national leaders, has said, we have a history of crying out, and of showing up. Being part of this movement is the next step. Our local Associate Conference Minister, the Rev. Wendy Vander Hart, has been attending local meetings for this new movement in Boston. This week, she issued an invitation to all of us to join in. As the largest Protestant denomination in Massachusetts, we have power to use here, to strengthen a national effort that has been building for over a year now, preparing to mobilize in the months to come.
Now, I know what you’re going to say. Hannah – what are you asking us to do? There’s only two weeks until Christmas. No one’s got time to march on Washington right now.
Don’t worry. Today, all I am asking is this: honor the seasons of Advent and Christmas by listening to the prophets, both ancient and new. Take five minutes, or ten, to read about this movement. Watch a video of some of the leaders speak. Let the words and ideas seep into your heart. Notice whether these words offer you some clarity, or some hope. You can find out more at poorpeoplescampaign.org. There’s also a link on our Facebook page, and I will put one in the eWord.
How does the story of Jesus begin? How a story begins tells you so much about what it is really about. The gospel of Mark begins with prophets: Isaiah, and John, and Jesus.
In this season, when we are exhausted or disgusted, we can find our way to the feet of the prophets, ancient and new. We can lay down the burden of our sins, and drink in the words of God’s prophets like living water. Their words continue to prepare a way out of no way for us today. They make a clearing through wildernesses of confusion and despair.
The prophets tell us that every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low. The glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.
There are prophets among us, and they lift up their voices with strength, heralding good tidings, saying to the cities, “Here is your God!”
Thanks be to God.
Sunday Fellowship entered the Sanctuary on December 3 to find it utterly transformed. One hundred lit candles and a twelve circuit labyrinth invited us to enter the space with wonder and curiosity. Music and the tradition of Las Posadas became our guides as we began to explore what the familiar story of Jesus’ birth has to say to us and to our world at this moment in history?
Las Posadas or “The Lodgings” was first developed hundreds of years ago by Spanish religious leaders as a way of communicating the Christmas story to people unable to read the scriptures for themselves. While there are a variety of ways to celebrate Las Posadas, dramatizing the holy couple’s search for shelter in Bethlehem is always central.
Members of Sunday Fellowship acted out the story with wonderful music, costumes and a candlelit walk of the labyrinth. We took turns playing the roles of the weary travelers and the overwhelmed innkeepers. How would we respond to a stranger at our door in the middle of the night? How would we feel being refused shelter in our hour of greatest need? Las Posadas challenged us to get in touch with both our compassion and our vulnerability. Will we be prepared to offer both to God’s own child wherever and whenever he comes? We felt a little more prepared by the end of our time together.