Christmas sermon #3

(Christmas morning)

Sometimes good news is overwhelming, where it seems so outstandingly good and surprising that the meaning or rest of reality is obscured. Sometimes we see the beauty without pausing to notice the warts and imperfections.

This day, we might be able to recall the kind of begging for a Christmas gift that I’ve heard from nieces and nephews, pleading “can I PLEEEEEASE have a puppy? I promise to take care of it?” The yearning and excitement obscures or overpowers the reality of the hard work and diligence to come.

Or imagine having your name pulled out in a drawing for a new Corvette. The thrill of winning probably overshadows the question, “How in the world am I going to pay for the taxes on this thing? And do I even really want a new Corvette?”

One more example that may be more relatable for some of you: think about learning that a baby is on the way. Some say that’s the most exciting, best news in life, but probably also means the realization will dawn that having a baby will change everything.

That all is to face the dawning realizations of this Christmas morning. Some of you were part of worship services last evening, those moments of ephemeral beauty, the sublime candlelight, the sweet tunes of a silent night. It seems easy to get swept up in the emotion of all of that; I even know people who aren’t really Christian who nevertheless love to be part of Christmas Eve worship services.

Yet, as we’re here today, some of the reality gets to sink in a little more. We don’t just enjoy what was or get bowled over by the emotion of it. If last night was a time of ecstasy—a word literally meaning that we’re in another state, standing outside of ourselves and removed from our normal existence—here in the light of day, things return more to the status quo, meaning the place where we usually stand, our regular state. Rather than the warm glow of fires, Christmas morning is the daylight exposure as we begin to ask ourselves, “what in the world does this mean?”

Did you notice that nice end to the Gospel reading? Amid the excitement of the beautiful story, amid the nativity scene and the manger and swaddling clothes, with the heavenly host singing their glorias and proclaiming peace, with shepherds marching into town to pay tribute and celebrate a birth, to extend well-wishes and good news, that by the time all of that is wrapping up, we almost bypass the summary that Mary “treasured these words and pondered them in her heart.”

Christmas morning, as we gather here, is a time for holding dearly onto these words and beginning to ponder them, to sort through it in our hearts.

That’s also what our other lessons were mulling through. They weren’t straight tellings of the Christmas story. They weren’t poetic glosses or artful characterizations with naïve romanticism. No, they were more realistic. There’s a frequent image for our faith, that it’s about holding the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. That’s what the pondering of these readings try to do, too. They take the ecstatic beauty of the Christmas story and hold it in comparison with our regular humdrum reality, stuck in stasis, with the distinct lack of good news in our lives and across our world and ask “what gives? What does this mean?”

The Martin Luther reading (see below for these) seems so delightful for its honesty. If somebody told you that your savior was snoozing out in the barn, you’d have to be a bit daft to go out for a look, almost like the old spiel of “gullible is written on the ceiling—made you look.” The shepherds might be excused somewhat, since they were made to look under the direction of angelic guidance. Yet still, probably there was no halo, no glowing aura of light. In spite of the carol claims of “little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes,” probably he was actually on occasion bawling his head off, just like any other baby you’ve met. So what would make you suspect he wasn’t just any other baby you’d met? If you had to convince yourself to believe the news, you’d be out of luck. There’s plenty about God and God-with-us that’s straight up incredibly unbelievable, which is worth admitting honestly rather than claiming it was just so heart-warmingly irresistible. The only way it works is because the power of the Holy Spirit is creating faith and trust in you. That’s a valuable thought in the piece from Luther.

The first reading we heard was from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a pastor and resistor during World War II who was imprisoned and eventually executed by the Nazis. That circumstance of his biography, and even his words we heard, may need the light of day in order to approach. There’s plenty about being confined in jail, about legal systems or injustices, about atrocities of murder and war and death that we would want to keep at arm’s length from Christmas cheer. We think we’d prefer to look on the so-called bright side, rather than admit anything dismal to interrupt.

Even if we’d disagree that a prisoner would better understand the true meaning of Christmas than the rest of us, still Bonhoeffer almost certainly has a point for us. He is right on spot, insisting on the importance of the glad tidings, of God sharing our lot and binding us all together. This isn’t a festival at the heart of our faith just because we like it or find it quaint or have favorable traditions. Jesus is not born just as a companion to accompany all that is so comfortable and joyful already for us. He is born precisely because our lives need comfort and joy. It is only in him that we can truly trust light, only this good news that brings us away from the dark side. The glad tidings, over and against all else, mark the significance of this day, of this birth, of a savior who has come to you.

That, finally, is exactly what Maya Angelou portrays in her poem—that the thunders and floods of disaster ebb into the background, as Christmas enables us not only to see the worst moments but all of life differently, in a new light. She realizes this is still dawning on us, that this peace-filled whisper that is louder than bombs still is coming in promise in and among us, that we continue repeating it, sometimes even to reassure ourselves, to become the change.

It can feel impossible for our world of anger and fighting and fears. Except that it isn’t. “Peace, My Brother.”

It must be too good to be true. Except that it isn’t. “Peace, My Sister.”

More than our unworthy lives could possibly expect. Except that it isn’t. “Peace, My Soul.”

 

Martin Luther’s Christmas Book 

This is a great miracle that the shepherds should have believed this message. They might easily have thought to themselves, “Are we shepherds worthy that the whole host of heaven should be marshaled for us and all the kings of the earth and the dwellers in Jerusalem be passed by?” I know I would have appealed to common sense and I would have said: “Who am I compared to God and angels and kings? It is an apparition.” But the Holy Spirit, who preached through the angels, caused the shepherds to believe. They were so strong in the faith that they were worthy to be spoken to by angels and to hear every angel in heaven singing a cantata just for them. This is a pure wonder that enters not into the human heart. Our God begins with angels and ends with shepherds. Why does God do such preposterous things? God puts a Babe in a crib. Our common sense revolts and says, “Could not God have saved the world some other way?” I would not have sent an angel. I would simply have called the devil and said, “Let my people go.” The Christian faith is foolishness. It says that God can do anything and yet makes God so weak that either God’s Son had no power or wisdom or else the whole story is made up. Surely the God who in the beginning said: “Let there be light,” could have said to the devil, “Give me back my people.” God does not even send an angel to take the devil by the nose. God sends, as it were, an earthworm lying in weakness, helpless, without his mother, and suffers him to be nailed to a cross. Yet in his weakness and infirmity he crunches the devil’s back and alters the whole world…

God is amazing. The Babe is in a manger, not worthy of a cradle or a diaper, and yet he is called Savior and Lord. The angels sing about him, and the shepherds hear and come and honor him as he lies with an ox and an ass. If I had come to Bethlehem and seen it, I would have said: “This does not make sense. Can this be the Messiah? This is sheer nonsense.” I would not have let myself be found inside the stable.

 

Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison 

Viewed from a Christian perspective, Christmas from a prison cell can, of course, hardly be viewed as particularly problematic. Most likely many of those here in prison will celebrate a more meaningful and authentic Christmas than in places where all that survives of the celebration is the feast in name only. That misery, sorrow, poverty, loneliness, helplessness, and guilt mean something quite different in the eyes of God than according to human judgment;, that God turns toward the very places from which humans turn away; that Christ was born in a stable because there was no room for him in the inn—a prisoner grasps this better than others.  For the prisoner the Christmas story is glad tidings in a very real sense. And to the extent that he believes it, a prisoner knows he has been placed in Christian community and is a part in the communion of saints, a fellowship transcending the bounds of time and space and reducing the months of confinement here in prison walls to insignificance.

On Christmas I shall be thinking of you all very much, and I want you to believe that I too shall have a few hours of real joy and that I am not allowing my troubles to get the better of me….When one thinks of the horrors that have overcome so many recently, then one becomes aware anew of how much we still have to be grateful for. Presumably it will be a very quiet Christmas everywhere, and the children will think back on it later for many years to come. But perhaps precisely this will reveal to some for the first time, the true meaning of Christmas. May God protect us all.

with great gratitude and love,

your Dietrich

 

 

 Amazing Peace: A Christmas Poem, Maya Angelou

Thunder rumbles in the mountain passes

And lightning rattles the eaves of our houses.
Flood waters await us in our avenues.

Snow falls upon snow, falls upon snow to avalanche
Over unprotected villages.
The sky slips low and grey and threatening.

We question ourselves.
What have we done to so affront nature?
We worry God.
Are you there? Are you there really?
Does the covenant you made with us still hold?

Into this climate of fear and apprehension, Christmas enters,
Streaming lights of joy, ringing bells of hope
And singing carols of forgiveness high up in the bright air.
The world is encouraged to come away from rancor,
Come the way of friendship.

It is the Glad Season.
Thunder ebbs to silence and lightning sleeps quietly in the corner.
Flood waters recede into memory.
Snow becomes a yielding cushion to aid us
As we make our way to higher ground.

Hope is born again in the faces of children
It rides on the shoulders of our aged as they walk into their sunsets.
Hope spreads around the earth. Brightening all things,
Even hate which crouches breeding in dark corridors.

In our joy, we think we hear a whisper.
At first it is too soft. Then only half heard.
We listen carefully as it gathers strength.
We hear a sweetness.
The word is Peace.
It is loud now. It is louder.
Louder than the explosion of bombs.

We tremble at the sound. We are thrilled by its presence.
It is what we have hungered for.
Not just the absence of war. But, true Peace.
A harmony of spirit, a comfort of courtesies.
Security for our beloveds and their beloveds.

We clap hands and welcome the Peace of Christmas.
We beckon this good season to wait a while with us.
We, Baptist and Buddhist, Methodist and Muslim, say come.
Peace.
Come and fill us and our world with your majesty.
We, the Jew and the Jainist, the Catholic and the Confucian,
Implore you, to stay a while with us.
So we may learn by your shimmering light
How to look beyond complexion and see community.

It is Christmas time, a halting of hate time.

On this platform of peace, we can create a language
To translate ourselves to ourselves and to each other.

At this Holy Instant, we celebrate the Birth of Jesus Christ
Into the great religions of the world.
We jubilate the precious advent of trust.
We shout with glorious tongues at the coming of hope.
All the earth’s tribes loosen their voices
To celebrate the promise of Peace.

We, Angels and Mortal’s, Believers and Non-Believers,
Look heavenward and speak the word aloud.
Peace. We look at our world and speak the word aloud.
Peace. We look at each other, then into ourselves
And we say without shyness or apology or hesitation.

Peace, My Brother.
Peace, My Sister.
Peace, My Soul.

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Christmas sermon #2

(Eve, 10:30pm)
In this service, with so much beautiful music of darkness and light, there’s one that didn’t get included. Here are a few of these words anyway:
To us, to all in sorrow and fear
In darkest night his coming shall be,
when all the world is despairing
Though a line claiming that winter is “dark and cheerless” may be an overstatement—indeed, we are likely still to find plenty of cheer these days—nevertheless we probably relate strongly to words of sorrow, fear, and a desperate world.
 
The part about being in darkest night has been particularly on my mind for this service, because this has to seem peculiar. Most obviously, this isn’t when we’d usually be at church. Indeed, it’s the sort of schedule when most of us are not likely to be anywhere except at home, and maybe nestled in bed.
 
Those who are at work now tend to have the disparaged title of “3rd shift,” seeming to indicate it’s not a first choice, that they’re not first rate or first class. That’s not to say those roles aren’t extremely important, for the nurses caring ‘round the clock, and firefighters ready at a moment’s notice, and those maintaining systems or security of buildings. Yet that those are extraordinary roles highlights again that it is unusual to be here in the dark middle of the night.
 
Venturing homeward in a bit, it’s the hour we might expect the only others driving are heading home from the bar or are long-haul truckers still making their way ‘cross country.
 
The unusual fact, though, is that even our being out now is not as strange or scary as it had been. We’ve got well-lit roads and reliable vehicles. But looking back in history, night was not a time to be out and about. Thieves and marauders lurked to attack travelers under the cover of darkness. It’s unsurprising in our Christmas story that shepherds were the only ones to show up to welcome the newborn baby; either they were tough enough to fight off the unsavory characters, or they themselves were the unsavory characters, rugged, stinky and unsociable, probably a bit uncouth.
 
So here you are, gathered in the middle of the night, repeating the pattern of those sketchy characters, the unsavory shepherds. You’ve left comforts of warmth and enjoyment behind to wander through the darkness to be here at this service.
 
Which begs the question: why? Why stay up late? Why adjust schedules? Why put off other types of celebration? Why venture to be here?
 
I know some of you’d answer that it’s your tradition, this is what your family has done. You may find it beautiful, the quiet and peacefulness of night. Again, we know that the line about winter being “dark and cheerless” is wrong because we long for that iconic scene of the “moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow.” We enjoy the notion of the “o holy night” with brightly shining stars. Ken Koscik would say that we still have enough of our ancestral genes in us that we are drawn to gather around the warmth of fires, even of small candle flames.
 
But I suspect there’s another, true explanation for being here and being here now. That is hope. Because of sorrow and fear in a despairing world. We are people who get scared. Of things that go bump in the night, sure, but not afraid only of the dark as afraid in the dark. In quiet seclusion of sleepless nights is when our minds are troubled, when our thoughts fret through details. Those worries can almost be overwhelming because the night can be so isolating.
 
Quiet moments of reflection can also intimidate since there really is much too much wrong with our world and the existence that surrounds us. We stare into the void of not knowing what to do about bad news—about violence and conflicts, about those with whom we disagree and whose opinion threatens to overpower us, about the collapse of things we’ve held dear, about deaths in big planetary ways and also the deaths and losses and longings we confront in an emptier holiday, and even just the no-big-deal but still-accumulating frustrations. Those become terrifying things to hold onto.
 
But this here isn’t just for distraction, not just sweet lights and pretty songs to take our attention away from being bombarded by things we’d prefer to ignore. No, actually we come to church to face those things more directly, and to be met by the good news that confronts the worst and changes it, transforms us, that saves. Our songs and lights aren’t diversions but are how we face the darkness of despair. And on this night, we don’t abandon each other to lonely worry, but gather together, united to face our troubles as community, joined by hearts and hands.
 
We come out into the darkness—into the middle of the night—partly because we long to hear this message. We need the proclamation that a savior has come. Our hope is desperate, is tenacious, is so very fragile. Our hope is so fragile that we can even cling to this baby born tonight, devoting ourselves wholeheartedly in him. We’re so eager to receive good news that we’ll cradle this one in our arms and in our souls.
 
While we wouldn’t just say that life is dark and cheerless, that we are wholly fearsome and worried folk, still we should notice a detail in this story: the shepherds feared and trembled. When the angel showed up, they were sore afraid. Is it that the darkness hides our rough edges, that we’re not really ready for change from the devil we know? Does any bit of blessing or actual good news catch us off guard? Or did those shepherds stop being scared as soon as they heard the amazing message, “Do not be afraid.” Don’t fear the angel chorus. Don’t fear this news. Don’t fear anything at all anymore—Jesus is born.
 
We venture into the darkness quite possibly as a bunch of raggedy shepherds who are now ready for this message, eager to hear the news. We’d probably also feel like saying we’re here because we yearn not just to receive but to embody this for others. We want to share and to practice this peace that has come to earth. We are filled by the Holy Spirit, blessed to be the blessing, offering compassion and love. That is the kingdom task we’re brought to by this newborn king.
 
And we’re people of joy. Our songs ring out into the darkness and candles keep shining against it. Together we have the confidence that, in spite of all that is wrong or we wish would be different, for all the precarious moments of life seeming at risk and even when it’s too late, still we celebrate. Our lives and our world have been entrusted into the arms of a savior, a redeemer. Be not afraid; Jesus is born!
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Christmas sermon #1

(Christmas Eve, 3:30pm)

 

“Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest.”

Those may be familiar words. You might use them gathered around a table for a feast on this day. Maybe you pray this in your home every day; it’s great as a simple and regular way to share faith in your families and attune your lives in gratitude toward God.

Yet for how good and how common those words can be, still they strike me as odd. Even Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol is labeled at one point as the “founder of the feast.” Even that stingy bugger gets credit for being a provider at the table, but when we pray—to Jesus, to God our Creator, who gives us all that we have and are—for some reason we don’t return credit where it’s due. Instead of recognizing this preeminent and most fundamental of hosts, we say, “Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest.”

Besides that backwardness, I’ve been pondering that prayer for our Christmas celebrations. Think about this: what do you normally do in preparing to receive guests? At my house, I clear away stacks of old mail, and sweep the fluffy clumps of cat hair out of the corners, scrub the grime off the bathroom, and turn up the heat above my eco-conscious high of 62°. Acacia is better at making bedrooms look congenial, turning on lights and thinking where suitcases will go, cutting flowers or setting out photos, plus shopping for ample foods and drinks. Maybe your house, too, has lately involved preparations of vacuuming and dusting, decorating and baking, rearranging and wrapping.

And then, finally, welcoming. I love that moment when the car pulls up outside our house, and our dog is excited, and we go out to meet our guests and invite them into the house.

So, I’ve been wondering if that’s how God is welcomed. We may pause to pray “Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest,” but even that seems like mild preparation or expectation. I mean, Santa Claus gets notes and milk and cookies. In Jewish families at Passover, Elijah has an empty chair waiting with a glass of wine. So what about Jesus?

That seems exactly the issue as we hear Christmas story from Luke, recounting the details of a young woman’s pregnancy. She and her fiancé were forced by those in power to travel far from home, perhaps on a bumpy donkey ride, over mountains, and past the haunts of roadside bandits. They got to Bethlehem and found no place. No friends or relatives. No room for rent, no hospitable stranger. Not even a homeless shelter. They ended up hunkered down with the livestock.

And that’s when the moment came for them who were expecting—another, special moment of arrival. Even if a trip to the hospital, with medical staff, antiseptics and anesthesia are benefits of childbirth in our modern time, still this came with no a bed, no blankets, no assistance or care from others.

And then this baby was laid in a manger, in the feedtrough where the sheep kept looking to munch hay. That was the only place to receive him, as those in homes and inns went about life, enjoying supper and company, savoring warmth and comfort. Baby Jesus was not welcomed as a guest to be cared for. His coming was pretty much ignored.

His arrival was neglected and unvalued…except by some shepherds. Yet, for that, just imagine what you’d think if some guys who’d been camping out in the wilderness surrounded by barnyard animals and their poop suddenly wandered in to join your holiday gathering, much less to meet you in the labor and delivery room. The one upside was that their odor, rather than being a distraction or annoyance, would’ve fit right in at a cattle stall.

Poor baby Jesus deserved so much but hardly had a birthday party. That may make us feel sorry or maybe ashamed. We may ask ourselves what we would’ve done, had we been around Bethlehem in the year zero. Or we feel we need to do more now, really to celebrate well, as if we’re proving to Jesus that we can do better.

In that way, we could easily turn this into a morality lesson: realizing Jesus was left out in the cold, and by analogy seeing Jesus in our neighbors, we try caring for the suffering. That might mean we especially ought not leave other babies out in the cold. I feel I should’ve had a more useful solution for Chrissy, who came a week ago looking for help because she and her four children are sleeping in a parked car.

Or, reminded that Jesus arrived as an unwanted outcast, displaced from his home, needing a safe place while a violent military was controlling his homeland, we might have reason to follow social media memes that highlighted for us how we’re treating refugees, to imagine those displaced people in Jesus’ boat. We might also harbor disappointment at how quickly that unresolved crisis has been fading from the news and our minds. Those may be honest and kind embodiments of our faith and may even have life-saving importance.

But we also have to recognize that Christmas isn’t about shoulds and oughts. If this were assessed by what we’re supposed to do, how well we’re prepared, what it means to welcome outsiders and whole-heartedly pray “Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest,” then partly at least we’re fooling ourselves, because we missed it.

This isn’t about preparing a cozy nursery for Jesus or only guilt and shame at failing to make progress or what’s necessary and right to do next. Because Jesus came. He came without a baby shower or a nurse’s specialty care or a society that valued him or even a bed. Yet he came just the same.

So rather than this being a lecture, trying to tell you what to do or what you did wrong, this story is telling us about God. It’s an amazing thing to keep repeating year-after-year through the generations, to tell that our God would come this way. God does not wait for you to tidy up, to get your house in order, to make things ready and pretty, to be all Martha Stewart-y. God doesn’t wait for the plate of cookies or the door to be opened, or the to-do list to be completely checked off.

This disregarded God who was born in a barn, this God who goes on to be found on a cross, this God is the God who would still be with you in your life. See, God doesn’t wait for all to be merry and bright, for the table to be set and the stockings hung with care, for those who are nice and not naughty.

Jesus comes exactly because our world is hurting, because our lives are messy, because you need him. Unnoticed, even as an uninvited guest, still he comes to your life, and the angel’s song is again the message for you: Jesus, your Savior is born! He comes to establish peace, to set you free, to give you life, to fill you up with joy. He’s making room for all that in you! That’s a lot! You’re welcome.

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a funeral sermon

With Thanksgiving for the Life of Nola Gale Jacobson

20 July 1932 + 18 December 2015

Psalm 57

 

This may be neither a favorite or familiar Bible passage. I was searching through the Psalms for ones with singing and music in them, looking for something that would go well with Nola. This certainly does, at least from my perspective.

See, all of you can say more about much of Nola’s life. The shared passions that Libby embodies and offered for us, or the piano skills that James is sharing, and the fullness of life in Corky’s song. You’ll have more chances to share stories and memories of this vibrant and vivacious woman in just a bit, as we’re transitioning to her requested cocktail hour (exclamation point!). There were plenty of these enormous aspects of Nola’s life—the things you so loved about her—that I only knew hints of, or caught around the periphery.

But this Psalm captures some of those things, plus also that faith of hers that was the part of her I did know. As in the Psalm, and as in the rest of Nola’s “lovely and fancy” life, her faith was one of delighting, of enjoying music, of contributing in the ways she could. Even when she wasn’t able to be at church, her devotion still kept her aware of what was happening. She was attentive and a fantastic listener, remembering details, and always ready for laughter.

That’s the shape of the Psalm, that exalts in the world around us, and that gives thanks for so much blessing, while still expecting more from God. That is a reasonable model for this gathering today. We have much for which to be thankful in Nola’s life and how we shared it with her. The chance to tell of those influences and remember so many good times is part of this day. But it is not only for looking back, not only for the past.

We also look forward. And the Psalm voices that with Nola and for us, as well, expecting that we are in God’s care and that this loving God is our refuge and our salvation. We trust that for Nola now. We hope for that good news, even as so much remains a mystery for us.

That seems especially the case during this week. This is a hard time to be at a funeral, in these days just before Christmas. As good as it is to be together and to continue enjoying the life that Nola enjoyed, still this is hard. It can’t help but feel wrong. Death so often feels that way, but especially during this season.

And it remains mysterious, why life is like this and how God is working through all of it. Perhaps at the most basic level, this is supposed to be a time of joy and celebration, of those good things in life. So we have to want to ask God “why?” Why this, why now?

Though we don’t get direct answers to that question, the answer we do have perhaps just leaves us pondering even more. We expect or wish that God would simply spare us sorrow, would deliver us from all evil, would take away pains and suffering and death. The notion of heaven and Nola being in a better place is a marker of that sense. But we don’t have a God who skips from happiness to happiness (or happy hour to happy hour), a God who bypasses the difficult times, transporting us from earthly delights directly to heavenly bliss.

This week, while we are confronting the loss of having Nola to share life with us on top of the death of her son, we are also hearing again the old story of God coming to share life with us. That is the center of the Christmas story, of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. It is a strange and unusual description for God—to be fragile and weak as a newborn, to be left out in the cold and laid in a feedtrough, since there was no room for them in the inn. This is a story not only of God offering us contentments and luxuries, but also coming to know our worries and our relationships and even just the daily grind of existence in life. This God is part of sleepless nights, and of travels, and shared feasting, and our music. This God in Jesus knows our sickness and our struggles and even our dying.

Why would God choose to be born as a baby? Why would God deal with the ups and, more particularly, the downs of this life? Why would God bother to confront death? Why wouldn’t God do it differently?

We’re left without an answer to that “why,” left with the mystery of God’s love shared in our life, and bringing us beyond the surprises of it all to something more. That is the faith and trust that Nola held. It is the God who holds her now, with Bob and with Eric.

And though we may wish that some things were different, we are also left with that faith now, left to embody it in the caring ways that Nola did. In these moments and in days to come, that does mean enjoyment, of time for a cocktail to toast life, and of time to be together, to listen and to laugh, to share in celebrations and in compassion, in tears and sorrows. This is what the God of Christmas did for you in Jesus, what God would have you do for each other, what Nola did, and what you may do while holding on to the mystery of faith.

 

Let’s pray.

God of heaven, we hear the Christmas angels with tidings of highest glory and of peace and goodwill on earth. Even as we look for more to come for Nola, anticipating promises of resurrection to life everlasting, we ask that you surround us with peace and faith in your goodness and love now.

In the midst of mystery and things we cannot understand, give us good courage to trust that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us.

For this week that has been almost too much, with sorrow for Eric and the rapid end for Nola, we ask for your comfort, including your presence through the compassion we share with each other. In our grieving and hoping, assure us by your Holy Spirit that we are in your tender care and that you prepare tables before us now and will bring us forever into your household, through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who taught us to pray:

Our Father, who art in heaven…

 

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Singing the Faith

sermon for 4th Sunday of Advent (Luke 1:39-55)

Having sung there with Mary (a setting of the Magnificat, ELW #251), we’re going to reflect on songs.

After all, this is a season of songs, on your lips, and perhaps even inspiring your heart to leap for joy. So today let’s consider a bit of why we sing.

First off, especially as we are doing it here, it is good to remember that we sing because it is enjoyable. Our choir had to put lots of hard work into preparing for The Messiah and Steadfast practices weekly, so it’s not always easy. It can be challenging, but rewarding and—yes, indeed—fun! Singing is just plain a good thing to do. This isn’t drudgery or dirges that we sing here, though we’ll come back to that and also to more on emotions.

The second immediate thing to note is that this task of trying to say words about our singing is mostly futile. Rather than diving into the deep end of “why” and trying to describe it, we’ll be best-served in the end by going ahead and doing the thing, letting loose our tongues and raising our voices. The reasons are too deep and multifaceted and overlapping to sort out, so spirit-filled we can’t rationalize it. Singing is like poetry, then. We probably notice the most frequent kind of poems are love poems, and the commonest songs are love songs. An essay on love just plain wouldn’t work, right? It can’t be explained or captured like that. That’s true of the spirit of our singing, as well.

Also indescribable is that songs are things of beauty. That can be simple elegance, like the chant we are using for this season, ancient melodies—one line of music that takes small, gentle steps. Other times, as we said, it’s not simple. There are huge, complex harmonies and melismas, of one word getting many notes. Listen to this bit with Rebecca and Tim from The Messiah (“Every valley shall be exalted”). Sure, it’d be quicker just to read those words, but it would lose the feeling and beauty. Communication isn’t just message, but medium. That song does exactly what it says: it exalts! Just imagine speaking that in monotone: shall be exalted.

That may also remind us that singing is natural. When we talk, our voice goes up in excitement or gets hushed in suspense. And singing is just sustained speaking. So if you can talk, you can sing! That’s a notion that my dad and probably any music instructor has had to combat: people claiming they can’t sing. Even for those of you thinking it right now, it’s just not true. Singing is so natural it doesn’t need to be taught—though, like any skill, you can learn to do it better.

With that, we might notice music as an art. We’re at a difficult point in history with arts, so used to having experts not only producing the art but also expert critics erecting further barriers by defining for us what is good art versus bad art. We get stuck with a sense, then, that it involves mastery, that singing should be done by a performer, partly because they’re very, very talented at it, but also because they can make money by doing it. Our songs have been capitalized.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t appreciate performances. We can enjoy being at concerts. We’d have to expect that the shepherds in their fields having the whole heavenly chorus show up for a late-night performance would’ve found it to be an enjoyable experience. The beauty and majesty of the angels’ song left them in awe.

But those shepherds were likely also tapping their toes along with it, swaying and dancing to the tune. Maybe they even “repeated the sounding joy” when they went to tell others, echoing it and explaining, “the angels’ song went kind of like this.” Whenever we sing “Gloria,” we’re imitating or resonating with (literally re-sounding) the angels’ song at Christmas. Maybe the shepherds were, then, the first tribute band.

Or maybe they made up a new song, putting it in their own voice and key. This is another mark of why singing is so much a part of us: it is creative, using creativity. That identity ties us to God the Creator, and it is part of living as creatures. We are not only created, but also creative. We weren’t made to be mechanistic robots. We were created to be co-creators, to join the innovations of life in this world. So we could say that God’s Word not only spoke us into existence (“let there be light”), but sang us into existence, and that we reverberate with that and continue in improvising with creativity. This might be how we understand the instruction repeated in the Psalms, to “sing a new song to the Lord.”

It becomes all the more amazing that creativity doesn’t lead to chaos. It is not that we each have our own songs competing and ratcheting up the volume to overpower other voices around us. Rather, singing becomes shared communally. It is, at heart, a social and not solo enterprise. Rebecca compared it to sharing candles on Christmas Eve, becoming more than the sum of parts.

We join in because we’re drawn in, like those toe-tapping shepherds. It moves us, emotionally but also quite literally, and more than we typically realize. In that sense of motion, songs change our energy, like the inspiration from pep bands or the rhythms of work songs. Others calm and sooth us, like lullabies. I was once at a workshop with Marty Haugen discussing how hard it is to sing when you’re tired. It’s exercise, using our whole bodies, which Rebecca calls marvelous wind instruments. There are muscles in our guts, and our expanding lungs, and our brains, and the flow of blood, eyes, ears, tongues.

And, of course, there is the vibration of our vocal chords. It is remarkable that when we sing in unison, we are actually, physically united. It’s responsive, because we have to listen. But even more, we vibrate together. For all that is different and unique about us and each of our bodies, in that moment of singing not only are we joined in the same song and breathing the same air, but our vocal chords are in sync, bodies synchronized and united together.

This is good for us to pay attention to because we have a diminished sense of these connections, compared to the ancient and medieval world. Back then, it was seen that the whole universe vibrated with these eternal tones, the music of the spheres, as it was known. Planets and the sun were understood to cycle with a rhythm. That meant our lives were best lived in harmony (again, in the quite literal musical sense) with these larger natural patterns. So even mathematics, medicine, and astronomy were seen as musical endeavors.

That vast communal, joining power of song we also realize when we describe music as its own language. If we don’t know the words to a song, much less speak different languages, still we can relate and hum together. Our song can be a form of expression even when we don’t have words. Perhaps you find yourself humming absent-mindedly when you are content, for example.

But to stay with knowing the words, for a moment, that is a large influence for our singing together here at church. We like these songs, these old favorites. It’s not just the jingles for commercials that get lodged in our brains. Putting words to music helps us to memorize, truly to “know by heart.” We love the Christmas story better because we have these songs. It’s ongoing communication, to tell the story, proclaiming and receiving good news. Singing God’s message simultaneously makes us angels for each other, including from our Sunday School children in their program this morning! We even sing to remind ourselves. And the songs stick with us when memories fade otherwise. Kathy was visiting Nola Jacobson this week in the hospital and sang “Away in a Manger” to her. And though Nola couldn’t join in, still the song brought a smile to her face.

That’s another of the benefits: our voices combine with saints of generations before us, and likely generations to come. We carry songs with us, and also send them beyond us, through time and across distances, with sound waves of music remaining clear.

Maybe, again thinking of this as so natural, we recall whales can sing through thousands of miles of ocean depths. Birds communicate different messages by their song. Even bats, with voices too high for us to hear, know their place in the universe by singing.

That awareness from our fellow creatures reminds us of this enormous symphonic chorus our voices are part of, “as heaven and nature sing.” “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” recognizes it, too, saying “angel hosts, his praises sing; let no tongue on earth be silent, ev’ry voice in concert ring evermore and evermore.”

We’re getting close to the center here, that the purpose of our song may be for praise, and so indelibly linked to worship and lifting our spirits. We also offer prayer to God as our voices rise to heaven or beckon God to come into our midst (making it fitting our prayers are framed by “Come, Hope of unity, make us one body. Come, O Lord Jesus, reconcile all nations.”)

For expressing ourselves, our songs are filled with emotions, almost unmatched in intimacy yet also a shared form of expression. They celebrate happiness, joy, love. They may be indeed dirges, because it is honest and needed for us to lament and grieve, maybe at the same time expressing compassion and hope. This week, a homeless man was singing to me on the phone, with sadness and yearning in his voice, from Elvis’ song “If Every Day was Like Christmas.”

That brings us, at last, back to Mary’s song. In her words of dashing the proud and filling the hungry and lowly with good things, we may wonder: are these words of hope and longing, for what Christmas may be or what our world become? Is Mary predicting the future of what Jesus will accomplish and God continues striving for? Are these words, as we put them on our lips, serving to change us, to inspire our hearts and—by the voice of the Holy Spirit—to transform our lives? It’s an interesting word Mary chooses, not only that she proclaims but that her soul and her song “magnify” the Lord. Our songs, like magnifying glasses, have power, to accentuate, to envision, to see more clearly, power to expand and make greater God’s purposes in our lives and across our world.

You may have realized I don’t usually engage in reactionary hysteria to current events, but maybe today as a summary and contrast we could see why that is by holding all of this against our own mini terror event in the shooting yesterday at East Towne. Where that isolates us and makes us flee, God’s song draws us together and unites us. Whereas we inherently sense that is wrong, God’s song comes naturally. Whereas that causes anxiety, God’s song leads to joy. Whereas that is about danger and chaos, God’s song is about life, about hope, about changing us and this frustrating, trembling, miserable world. That’s the center of our attention. That’s why we sing.

We’ll stop there. But having been speaking of songs, our Hymn of the Day is one of my favorite tunes in the hymnal, and this is the only Sunday in three years of lectionary Bible readings that the words really fit. Let’s sing!

Hymn: Unexpected and Mysterious (ELW #258)

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Carol Stories, week 3

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing (ELW #270, stanzas 1 & 2)

 You know, I’ve never repeated a sermon. I just don’t imagine it would work; it needs new words each time. But for this occasion, for a sense of history, I thought a flashback might be interesting. So this carol story is from the first week we did this, way back in the year 3 B.N. (that’s St. Stephen’s dating for “before Ned”). Let’s go back to 2008:

In our Bibles, we know the names of only two angels: Gabriel, who announced to Mary that she would bear a child, and Michael, who is sort of the prime heavenly warrior. We might add Satan to that list as a fallen angel. But there is definitely no angel named “Harold.”

In medieval times, a herald was an armor-bearer going in front of a noble. In this hymn, the noble is a newborn king. And what we have in the hymn is a call to “hearken,” an old English word for “hear,” the announcement of those angels who are heralding, or proclaiming, Jesus’ birth.

The hymn was written by Charles Wesley, whose brother John was the founder of the Methodist Church in England in the early 1700’s. Actually, Charles was the youngest of 18 children in that family. Both John and Charles were priests of the Church of England, and also traveling preachers in the U.S. Charles wrote plenty of hymn texts. The ten of them in the ELW are a small portion of the more than 6000 total he wrote. And for this hymn, we sing only three of the ten stanzas he wrote.

The tune is named for Felix Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn was the son of a wealthy banker, and the grandson of one of the most famous Jewish philosophers, Moses Mendelssohn. Felix was a prodigy, not only in playing, writing, and conducting music, but in linguistics and painting as well. He revived Bach as a favorite, and he also gave rise to symphony orchestras, like the one that plays at Overture Hall.

This piece of music was written for a work celebrating the 400th anniversary of Johann Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press. (An invention which, incidentally, made Luther’s reformation possible.) Mendelssohn didn’t think the music was fitting for a sacred text. Eight years after he died, though, Wesley’s text was added to Mendelssohn’s tune by William Cummings and that’s what we have here.

There you go. And though I’m not sure what the phrase “late in time” means, it might be about these passing years. So before we get any older and our voices lose their angelic triumph, let’s sing.

 

In the Bleak Midwinter (#294, stanzas 1 & 3)

While we’re doing some recollecting and reminiscing, let’s go back and be reintroduced to our good friend Gustav. Say “howdy, ol’ Gustav!” The Transition Team asked last weekend what brought you to St. Stephen’s—whether the music program or family connections or an invitation or for Sunday School. For Gustav, it was a place to get out of the cold and feel accepted when others were making him feel worthless. See, I spotted Gustav sitting on the curb over on Wallace Avenue, looking lonely and forlorn and definitely cast out. So I picked him up and we rode tandem on my bike (maybe it technically counts as a bicycle built for three, since Gustav also brought a lamb).

Well, Gustav got to be right at home here. In his early days, he had fun hiding around corners and creeping people out who were the last ones in the building after dark. Lately, he’s taken up residence inside the organ, where you’d probably be welcome to visit him sometime. You can, of course, also find him on Facebook. Last year he got to celebrate Jesus’ birthday at the 3:30 Christmas Eve service with our kids from church, so that is why he has the pointy hat. (He may be ugly, but he’s no dunce.)

So this shepherd man could’ve taken the name Wallace, as that nearby location of the road he came from. But instead, we’re going to go far afield, making this little shepherd into an astronaut and finding him with Jupiter, the planet connected with the tune of our next carol. See, The Planets is the most famous piece by our composer, with Jupiter’s tune found at hymns 710 and 880. (That tune was also used for a song for the sesquicentennial of Lawrence University, Rebecca’s and Deb Boushea’s alma mater.) For this moment, however, in this bleak midwinter, not in outer space but at a stable, we have a lovely poem set to a lovely tune by Gustav Holst. Thus, Gustav.

The original Gustav was a 3rd generation professional musician, born in England. It’s been said he believed it was a composer’s duty to write for practical purposes, and so he was inspired by Christina Rosetti’s poem to create the small masterpiece of this carol. Like our own rather reclusive Gustav, he was shy and didn’t like the attention of being famous. He also didn’t like when he had to give up his devotion to composing in order to earn some money by being a trombonist, calling it “a wicked and loathsome waste of time”. But his friend Ralph Vaughan Williams argued back that “the very worst a trombonist has to put up with…nothing compared to what a church organist has to endure.”

That makes us think of the endurance of Tim Mueller at these stump-the-organist events. Yet if we think that’s bad, just imagine what poor Gustav has to put up with, for all the racket he has to endure living inside the church organ. Pretty bleak! But maybe he wouldn’t give a lamb. Let’s sing!

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Carol Stories, week 2

All My Heart Again Rejoices (ELW #273, stanzas 1 & 2)

Last week we started with a non-favorite Christmas carol, and we’re going to again. I discovered this is one of only two carols in the Christmas section of the hymnal we hadn’t used in the 8 seasons of these carol stories. So, like the proverbial shepherd Gustav thrown with garbage to the curb, this was feeling left out.

It’s a little odd that it’s been left out, since both the author and the translator are among the most common names in our hymnals. Catherine Winkworth is listed with 19 hymns, including “Now Thank We All Our God,” “Christ the Life of All the Living,” Luther’s “Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Your Word,” and Advent’s “Comfort, Comfort Now My People.” Though Paul Gerhardt is named with only nine hymns, that actually shortchanges doing justice to the role he’s played in how we Lutherans sing. One of my professors, Dr. Paul Westermeyer, wrote the Hymnal Companion that offers explanations along with ELW. He called Paul Gerhardt “one of the most important Lutheran hymn writers” and said “he had the rare capacity to express the depth of the Christian faith in understandable yet durable ways. He moved hymnody from the public ruggedness of Martin Luther to a more introspective poetry, without losing the communal marks of faith.” Though it shouldn’t be overstated, some have observed that whereas Luther’s central theme was grace, Gerhardt focused on the love of God.

That love and joy in his words is noteworthy. This carol rejoices. One from Easter is called “Awake My Heart with Gladness.” It’s surprising because Gerhardt’s life certainly was not overly pleasant. For some reason it took him 14 years to graduate from Luther’s school, the University of Wittenberg, in 1642. That was during the Thirty Years’ War, which was utterly ravaging and decimating Europe—just awful—and so not only he did he not have a chance at a career right away, but also Swedish soldiers burned down his family home. It wasn’t until nine years later that he landed a job in a church. He was 48 years old when he finally got married, and he had five children, but four of them died in infancy. He tried to negotiate between fighting denominations, but ended up losing his job because of it, and about that time his wife died, too.

And yet his hymns still speak of joy through faith. This one not only has the sweet angel voices, but we hear the baby Jesus speaking to us, calling us beloved brothers and sisters in the original German, telling us, “You are safe from danger.” That’s the joy and love of faith. So let’s sing.

 

Let Our Gladness Have No End (ELW #291, stanzas 1 & 4)

Continuing with joy and wrapping up loose ends, the one other carol we haven’t heard about in all these years is #291.

I haven’t told you about it before mostly because we really don’t know much of any story to tell. The composer, the author, the translator are all unknown or anonymous to us. It first appeared in a hymnal in 1602, yet the suspicion seems to be that it was written sometime in the 15th Century. The term of “Bohemian” heritage is an old name for a region that’s now part of the Czech Republic. Speaking of which, we often presume Lutherans to be Norwegians, or to have German roots. Poor Randy Romanski weeps with joy anytime somebody with a Polish name joins the congregation (most recently Ryan Bujnowski). So it’s good that we’re getting around to this carol to honor the heritage of Don Jambura.

Perhaps as a reminder that even old favorites are not the same as they ever were, we notice that things change. The Lord’s Prayer continues to update language. Some wordings we adapt to make less gender exclusive. Some we tweak to fit more with the moods of our times. Sometimes old favorites aren’t really favorites anymore. And sometimes change just happens; so both this tune and these words have gone with other pairings over the years.

Even more interesting is that we changed the notes between the last hymnal and this one. If you look at the 4th note of the carol, you see a B-natural. In LBW, it was a B-flat. Tim will play both for us to hear. Technically, whereas the green book was a simple major scale this makes a Lydian modal scale in the new version (which is actually the older, original version—reminding us that changes aren’t always innovations but sometimes a return to truer origins). Westermeyer thinks it “gives it a festive folk color.” He also says that the excitement of the Hallelujahs interrupt the narrative with a rejoicing that cannot be delayed.

Maybe it’s good for me to stop delaying your joy, too. With this, we’ll have sung every carol in the Christmas section of our hymnal. So let’s sing.

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