Many thanks to Music Minister Jim Barcovic and the Senior Choirs of both West Concord Union Church and Holy Family Parish for the beautiful music this past Sunday!
I cannot tell you
how the light comes,
but that it does.
That it will.
That it works its way
into the deepest dark
that enfolds you,
though it may seem
long ages in coming
or arrive in a shape
you did not foresee.
by Jan Richardson
Nothing like a snowstorm on the first day of Advent to throw its themes of waiting and mystery into sharp relief! “I cannot tell you how the light comes, but that it does.”
Sunday Fellowship gathered a few hours earlier for SF in the Light, our annual tradition for welcoming Advent. As in years past, the Sanctuary was transformed by a room-sized labyrinth and the many, many candles providing the only light. We removed our shoes and walked in knowing we were on holy ground.
This year, we read A Savior is Born by Patti Rokus which uses rock art to depict the story of Jesus’ birth. Rokus writes in her author’s note about the healing and inspiration she received through telling the story with rocks: “I wondered if each rock over time was shaped for this very moment– to represent Mary or Joseph, an angel or even our savior…Could it be that we’re like that too– designed for significance we could not begin to imagine, and that will inevitably be so, not by our own making, but by a power much greater and much more loving than we ever imagined?” Of course, we were inspired to create as well. Check out the beautiful rock art and the 3D star ornaments we made together.
The 3D star ornaments now hang in Sanctuary on the Gift Tree and will soon accompany gift requests from Minute Man Arc clients who don’t receive much at Christmas time. Gift requests will be available on December 8th. Please take one and keep your star as a reminder of the joy you are bringing to someone else. You can place the gift under the Tree by December 17th. Thank you all!
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!
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.
Thank you for your presence, prayers, and labor to bring this service and fellowship together! It was a wonderful day!
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.
For three years running, the children of WCUC have been eager and enthusiastic participants in our church’s Congregational Giving campaign. Beginning in October, our children learned about our church’s finances – where our money comes from and where our money goes. And we talk about giving. What does Jesus say about money and possessions? How do people decide how much to give away? Why is giving such a good thing? Our children also want to participate in the financial health of our church and experience the gift of giving. So once again, the kids worked hard to create cards and crafts to sell at our third annual Congregational Giving sale, with all the proceeds being offered back to WCUC as our Children’s Ministries pledge for 2020. Because our giving theme this year was “Bind Us Together,” we decided to use yarn, twine, and lots and lots of needles to create our beautiful cards and our woven bracelets. Please enjoy the pictures, which show our crafting process and tell our giving story from sewing to sale! Thanks to ALL who came to support the children’s amazing efforts!
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.
Last weekend, WCUC hosted a book sale to support children in Honduras who need medical, financial, and educational assistance. We raised over $600.00 and had a great time doing it! To read more about Emily and Tom Collins’ non-profit organization click here.
A huge thank you to all of the volunteers from WCUC that helped to make this possible – those who donated or bought books, helped with set up, the sale itself, and clean up! The left over books were donated to More Than Words, a local non-profit book store that is managed and operated by foster care youth and young adults. A special shout out to those who helped box up all of the books after the sale ended on Sunday – a great joint effort by the Youth, Sunday Fellowship and other WCUC adults.