Sermons

What Does It Mean to “Trust God”?

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Part of putting together a bulletin for Sunday morning is finding an image for the cover. This past week I googled “trust in God” to see what images came up, and what came up were dozens of “inspirational” posters and plaques filled with clichés and platitudes that reminded me of something Anne Lamott wrote in a Facebook post not long ago. She said, “There is no one left in my circle who would dare say, brightly, ‘Let go and let God,’ because they know I would come after them with a fork.”[1]

We’ve all heard those vaguely biblical-sounding clichés. “When God closes a door, God opens a window,” or, “Everything happens for a reason.” Neither of these is in the Bible. And then there’s, “God will never give you more than you can handle.” It isn’t in the Bible, and unfortunately, it isn’t true. One I poster I found was brief and to the point: “Everything’s gonna be all right. Just trust God.”[2] Maybe some of you take great comfort in these platitudes and that’s OK but I will warn you now, that I, like Anne Lamott, do not.

But then again, I suppose it depends on what you mean by “Everything’s gonna be all right.”

What does it mean to trust God? It’s printed on our money, for crying out loud: “In God we trust.” But what does it mean? What does trust mean – is it the same as faith, or hope, or believing, or something else? If we trust God, what do we trust God to do? Or to be? And what difference does it make if we do trust God? What difference does it make in our lives, the lives of those we love and in the life of the world?

And perhaps most confounding, if it turns out that trusting God is a good thing, then how do we do that? How do we come to trust God? How do we grow in our trust in God?

These are big questions. And first of all I want to say that a 15-minute sermon can only start a conversation. But we have to start somewhere, because these are central, foundational, life-giving and life-altering questions for those of us who strive to be disciples of Jesus. They are questions without easy answers, and faithful people disagree about the answers. They are questions that are worked out, worked through, asked and re-asked and answered and re-answered over the entire lifetime of faith.

Both of our passages this morning deal with trusting in God. In Psalm 62, apparently the writer has been falsely accused. Some scholars think perhaps this psalm was a type of psalm used specifically in a temple ritual in which someone who believes he’s been falsely accused seeks acquittal.[3] One way or another, the writer has enemies – people who have hurt him.

And yet he speaks with confidence of his trust in God. In the powerful movie, “Selma,”[4] still in theaters, we get some insight into just what this can look like, this trust in God in the face of accusations, threats, attacks and loss. The movie is a chronicle of Martin Luther King’s campaign to secure equal voting rights with an epic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965. If you haven’t yet seen the movie, I’ll warn you that if you, like me, are sensitive to scenes of brutality, you may want to wait until it comes out on DVD so you can fast forward through four or five scenes. But one of the very important and powerful aspects of the movie and the reason I recommend it anyway is that while people sometimes overlook King’s deep faith and the faith of his followers as a catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement, the movie does not. King quotes scripture. He rallies supporters from the church sanctuary. In scene after scene, we see his faith motivate him and his trust in God sustain him.

In “Selma,” King faces grave danger, and the people who follow him get hurt and even killed. Does God ever intervene in such a situation? I cannot say. But here is the first thing we can say about trust: Trusting God is not a formula or an equation that works like this: If I trust God, or if I trust God enough, I’ll stay out of harm’s way. That kind of thinking is magical thinking; it pretends we can manage God or control people and forces we can’t control. So when we say we “trust God,” we must mean we trust God to do something other than keep us safe from all harm.

We’re given a clue about what that might be in a scene where Dr. King is outside the morgue at a hospital in Selma. He approaches a man whose grandson was killed by an Alabama state trooper in a melee that followed a nighttime voting rights demonstration. The grandfather says his grandson was a good man. Why did this happen? Dr. King says he doesn’t know. And then he says, “I am certain of one thing; God was the first to cry. … God was the first to cry for your boy.”

Now, I know people who will say they want nothing to do with a deity that doesn’t miraculously stop tragedy but this is not a sermon about why that wouldn’t really work for humankind or why bad things happen to good people. The trust that King has and that scripture describes is trust that God cares, that God is present, that God is all in with all of us, that God loves us regardless of what we face, and God intends good for us. As Brennan Manning puts it, that God, by definition, is thinking of me. This is the trust expressed in chapter 8 of Paul’s letter to the Romans, which we read so often at memorial services but which applies equally to the living:

35Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? … 37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”[5] 

This kind of trust creates the a quietness of soul that the psalmist describes, an inner stillness that comes from turning over fears and anxieties to God, not because God will magically whisk away trouble but because our ultimate hope is that God wants for us what we want for us: for all to be safe, for all to live in peace and justice, for all to be truly alive.[6] The way we describe this hope is with Jesus’ phrase, “the kingdom of God.” The kingdom of God is the now and the not yet in which God fulfills all God’s promises, and invites us to participate. Jesus announces the kingdom of God in the Mark passage, and it is an invitation to turn away from the things we have come to trust that are not trustworthy, that do not last, that will control you rather than giving you life and freedom – the same things the psalmist warns against: money, corruption, power over people.

What difference does it make if we trust God, if we trust God’s intentions for us, God’s kingdom?  Besides the quietness of soul, it makes us more resilient: when we get knocked down, we get back up again. Social science research supports this. The research shows that without exception, one factor emerged as a component of resilience, and that factor is what we might call “spirituality” – the belief in connection, in a power greater than self, and in interconnections grounded in love and compassion. Most people in these studies spoke of God, but not everyone. Either way, people who trust God are more resilient. God alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall never be shaken,”[7] writes the psalmist.

I’ll borrow Dr. King’s own words on this topic from a sermon he preached in 1959:

“Our capacity to deal creatively with shattered dreams is ultimately determined by our faith in God. Genuine faith imbues us with the conviction that beyond time is a divine Spirit and beyond life is Life. However dismal and catastrophic may be the present circumstance, we know we are not alone, for God dwells with us in life’s most confining and oppressive cells. And even if we die there without having received the earthly promise, [God] shall lead us down that mysterious road called death and at last to that indescribable city [God] has prepared for us. [God’s] creative power is not exhausted by this earthly life, nor is [God’s] majestic love locked within the limited walls of time and space. … The Christian faith makes it possible for us nobly to accept that which cannot be changed, to meet disappointments and sorrows with an inner poise, and to absorb the most intense pain without abandoning a sense of hope, for we know, as Paul testifies, in life or in death, in Spain or in Rome, ‘that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them that are called to his purpose.’”[8]

This is a power, my friends. It is the power to see it through that we see in the movie “Selma” and that we witnessed in Martin Luther King’s life. This isn’t a power available only to saints, the exceptionally brave and talented, or the super-religious. Feeling drained and discouraged one night, King calls and wakes up gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, telling her he needs to hear the voice of the Lord. She sings to him over the phone; she sings “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” the hymn we sang last Sunday. Doubt and discouragement are part of any honest faith and what King did was reach out to reconnect to God – through music and through his community of support, both of which are familiar to us here. One of the best aspects of the movie is the way it shows that as great as King was, the civil rights movement was a team effort.

There is another way the movie “Selma” shows trust in God. After the first attempt to march from Selma to Montgomery ends in a brutal attack by state troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, King leads a second attempt. The marchers reach the bridge and the troopers are there, again, clubs in hand. King kneels to pray. He turns to God for guidance. He trusts God for guidance. The crowd kneels with him. He decides to turn back. His friends are disappointed but he decides he’d rather take their anger than send more people into a repeat of the earlier attempt.

You might be wondering: How do I get this trust in God? Where do I begin? The Mark passage, an almost rushed version of Jesus’ calling his first disciples, points us to a starting place. After announcing the kingdom of God, Jesus invites Simon and Andrew, James and John, to join him, and they follow. It sounds sudden but we don’t know, we just don’t know whether they’d heard Jesus speak before or even already knew him well. We do know they responded to a call that was unclear, undefined and maybe even frightening. We know they weren’t offered security in any traditional sense; that if they’d thought about it long enough, they probably could have anticipated danger. We know that there was no way those four men could fully understand what they were getting into. Nevertheless, they follow him.

Just like trust in any other relationship, trust in God grows the more time you spend with God. But just as with any other relationship, it starts with that first vulnerable step. The first “Yes” to God, as your bulletin covers put it.[9] That first yes might feel like a gift or it might feel like a direct response to an experience of God but there is no way any one of us can fully understand what we’re getting into when we take that first step. Whatever we get into, we move toward the trust that, indeed, “Everything’s gonna be all right.”

“[F]or we know, as Paul testifies, in life or in death, in Spain or in Rome, ‘that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them that are called to [God’s] purpose.’”[10]  Maybe not tomorrow, my friends, or next year, or in our lifetime, or even in a way that the rest of the world understands it. But brothers and sisters, believe the good news: the kingdom of God is here and we are called to work in it and for it and toward it, and everything’s gonna be all right.

May it be so for you, and for me. Amen.

© Joanne Whitt 2015 all rights reserved.

[1] https://www.facebook.com/AnneLamott/posts/524013137728334%20.

[2] http://inspirably.com/quotes/by-amira-fraga/everythings-gonna-be-alright-just-trust-god

[3] Fred B. Craddock, John H. Hayes, Carl R. Holladay and Gene M. Tucker, Preaching Through the Christian Year: Year B (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1993), p. 84.

[4] “Selma,” (2014), directed by Ava DuVernay; written by Paul Webb.

[5] Romans 8:35, 37-39.

[6] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking (New York: Jericho Books, 2014), p. 141.

[7] Psalm 62:2.

[8] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Shattered Dreams,” in The Strength to Love (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2010), pp. 96-97.

[9] The quotation on the bulletin cover is, “I don’t know Who – or what – put the question, I don’t know when it was put. I don’t even remember answering. But at some moment I did answer Yes to Someone – or Something – and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore, my life, in self-surrender, had a goal.” Dag Hammarskjöld, Markings, translated from the Swedish by Leif Sjöberg & W. H. Auden (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965), p. 205.

[10] King, ibid.

Claim the Grace

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Lessons: Isaiah 43:1-7, Mark 1:4-11

If you arrived after the opening greeting this morning or haven’t yet had a chance to peruse the announcements in your bulletin, our liturgist this morning is the Rev. Dr. Jean Morris, visiting us from Grace Presbyterian Church in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. And my first cousin. My mother was Canadian – a war bride who married my Californian father just before VE Day. The U.S. Army was putting communications lines up along the Alaska Highway, important to the war effort because of Alaskan oil. My father was a company clerk with the Army Signal Corps, stationed in my mother’s hometown of Edmonton. He met my very Scottish Canadian mother at a young people’s group at the First Presbyterian Church of Edmonton, and she ended up a Californian. My mother’s name, before she married, was Jean Morris.

Our names tell us who we are, and sometimes our names remind us of “whose” we are. If you look at my family tree on my mother’s side, you’ll see many of the same names. Lots of Jeans and Janets and Jessies; lots of Donalds and Johns and Gordans. My name came from my mother’s sister, our Aunt Agnes. I am deeply grateful that when my Aunt Agnes was still a young girl, she told my mother, “If you ever name a child after me, for heaven’s sake, don’t name her Agnes. Name her Joanne,” which was Agnes’ middle name. My name tells me that even though I was born and raised in California, I belong to my Scottish Canadian family, too.

Belonging is that innate human desire to be part of something larger than ourselves.[1] Social science researcher and author Brené Brown asked a large group of eighth graders to come up with the difference between “fitting in” and “belonging.” They said, “Belonging is being accepted for you. Fitting in is being accepted for being like everyone else.” “I get to be me if I belong. I have to be like you to fit in.” Brown says it doesn’t matter where in the country she asks this question, or what type of school she’s visiting. Middle and high school students understand how this works:[2] Fitting in – the skill most of us learned all too well in adolescence and can’t entirely shake in adulthood – is all about changing yourself so you’re acceptable to your peer group, while belonging is simply being accepted and valued just as you are.[3] “I have called you by name; you are precious to me,” says God through the prophet Isaiah. Those are life-giving words, life-changing words, grace-filled words. Everyone should hear those words sometime or another.

And that is exactly what baptism says to us.

Today we celebrate Baptism of the Lord. In the Mark passage, it seems as though everybody’s heading out to the wilderness by the River Jordan to be baptized by John, who is described as looking enough like an Old Testament prophet that we know we’re supposed to make that connection. Jesus heads out too, but not to fit in; rather, to belong, to be in solidarity with all those people looking for a new beginning, longing for a new life. The dramatic description of the heavens ripping apart and the spirit descending like a dove tell us tell us it’s really God who shows up as a witness to the baptism. These special effects also symbolize that this is new beginning, a new creation, a new human being.[4] The real focal point of the story, however, is when God speaks: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”[5] Life-giving words, grace-filled words. Words of belonging; of identity, worth, and unwavering regard. Everyone should hear those words sometime or another.

This event – Jesus’ baptism – isn’t a minor detail in Mark’s story about Jesus; it’s foundational. It’s the very first episode of Jesus’ life that Mark shares with us – just 4 verses into chapter 1. It happens before he begins his ministry. Before he does anything that we know about. And it isn’t just a preamble to all that comes later in his life; it’s the highpoint and climax of the whole story in a nutshell: You are God’s beloved. In you, God is pleased. For the rest of the gospel story, again and again, as Jesus casts out unclean spirits, heals the sick, feeds the hungry, and welcomes the outcast, he will only do to others what has already been done to him. He will tell the hurting and the broken and the ordinary folks in word and deed that they, too, are beloved children of God with whom God is well pleased.[6]

So these words of grace and belonging are not unique to Jesus. They echo the Isaiah passage: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. … Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.” And just as with Jesus, these words of grace are for us before we do anything. That’s one of the reasons we practice infant baptism: Before we believe anything, before we can recite creeds, accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior, before we do anything, God claims us. We don’t have to do anything at all to be declared worthy of God’s love. We are worthy because we belong to God.

Today is an anniversary of sorts for me. Ten years ago on Baptism of the Lord Sunday, I preached my candidating sermon here in this pulpit. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the way a Presbyterian church selects a pastor, a candidating sermon is sort of like the final audition before a congregation votes to call a pastor. Ten years ago I told a story, and it’s a story worth retelling and so I’m celebrating my anniversary by retelling it this morning. In his book The Good News from North Haven, Michael Lindvall describes a baptism in a little Presbyterian congregation in Minnesota. Angus McDowell, the patriarch of the church, came to the pastor and informed him that his son, Larry, and Larry’s wife, Sherry, who lived in Spokane, would be visiting for Thanksgiving weekend and they had just had a son, named Angus Larry. Angus wanted to know if the pastor could baptize the baby while they were in town.

The pastor, good Presbyterian that he was, talked about the integrity of the sacrament of baptism, and asked about Larry and Sherry’s church affiliation, explaining that it would be best for a child to be baptized in the church where he would be raised. Though they had been in Spokane for nine years, they just hadn’t settled into a church. The pastor talked about the importance of the parents’ commitment to a church – any church – and the weighty promises they would be making, and Angus caught the drift: Larry and Sherry ought to find a church home out in Spokane, and then they could have a baptism, either in Spokane or in North Haven.

Angus listened with quiet dignity, and the pastor thought the matter was settled. Angus left the meeting, and called a special meeting of the session to approve the baptism of Angus Larry. They had the meeting, and voted nine to zero to approve the baptism.

So on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, little Angus Larry was baptized. In that congregation it was the custom for the pastor to ask, “Who stands with this child?” and then the whole extended family of the little one would rise and remain standing for the baptism. So, with Angus Larry in his arms, the pastor asked, “Who stands with this child?” and Angus and his wife Minnie, and Sherry’s parents and a couple of cousins all stood.

After church, the pastor went back to the sanctuary to turn out the lights. There was a middle-aged woman sitting in the front pew. She wasn’t as well dressed as most of the folks who’d just rushed home for turkey leftovers. The pastor had seen her before but didn’t know her name. She said her name was Mildred Cory. She said it was a lovely baptism. After a long pause, she said that her daughter, Tina, had just had a baby, and, well, the baby ought to be baptized, shouldn’t it?

The pastor suggested that Tina and her husband should call him and they would talk about the baptism. Mildred hesitated again, and then took a deep breath and said, “Tina’s got no husband. She’s 18 years old and she was confirmed in this church four years ago. She used to come here, but started seeing this boy and then she got pregnant and decided to keep the baby and she wants to have it baptized here in her own church, but she’s nervous to come and talk with you, Reverend. She named the baby James, Jimmy.”

The pastor said that he would bring the request to the church session for approval.

When the matter came up at the session meeting, there were a couple of moot questions about why in the world Tina Cory was keeping the baby. The pastor explained what they already knew: that Tina was a member of the church, unmarried, and he didn’t know who the father was. Everybody else knew, though, because it was a small town. The father was Jimmy Hawthorne, who was now at basic training at Fort Bragg. Some asked if Tina would stick to the commitment she was making in having her child baptized. The pastor remarked that she and little Jimmy were, after all, right here in town where the congregation could give her support. He didn’t have to say, “and not in Spokane.” They all thought it.

Session approved it, but it hurt to picture it: the teenager Tina holding little Jimmy, and Mildred the only one to stand when the question was asked.

It was the Sunday before Christmas, and the church was full. The elder read the 3 by 5 card the pastor had given him. “Tina Cory presents her son for baptism.” She came down the aisle, nervously, shaking slightly with month-old Jimmy in her arms, a pacifier in his mouth.

The pastor began the baptism liturgy. “Who stands with this child?” He nodded at Mildred, coaxing her to her feet. She rose slowly. The pastor’s eyes went back to his service book and he was ready to proceed when he noticed some movement in the pews. Angus McDowell was standing, and Minnie beside him. Then a couple of other elders stood up, then the 6th grade Sunday school teacher, then a new couple, and soon, the whole church was standing up with little Jimmy. Tina was crying, of course, and Mildred Cory was holding on to the pew in front of her as though she were standing on the deck of a ship rolling in a great wind, which, in a way, she was.[7]

And in one way or another, many if not most of us are, as well. Everybody is going through something. Everybody sitting around you this morning, in these pews, everyone you know is facing something: the loss of a loved one, the loss of a job, economic insecurity, a scary diagnosis, kids making bad choices, divorce, addiction, depression, the ravages of aging in yourself or someone you love, loneliness. Will I have enough money to retire; will I ever find a job; will my brother or mother or daughter ever speak to me again? We Presbyterian types tend not to publicize these things and that’s OK; really, it is. But the risk is that people start believing everyone around them has it all together; that they are the only ones whose life is messy, complicated, and hard. We can think we’re alone; that we don’t fit in.

But here’s the thing: We belong. We belong to God, who claims us and calls us by name. Being God’s children doesn’t protect us or any of the rest of the world from the messy stuff, the complicated stuff, the hard stuff. But it’s in the midst of it that God whispers to all of us, to everyone, “This is my beloved. In you I am well pleased.” “I have called you by name; you are precious to me.”

And we belong to each other. When we are baptized with Christ, we are baptized into his ministry of grace, to love others as we are loved, to stand with everybody whose life is messy and complicated and hard which means: with everybody. We are baptized to stand with all the Tina Corys and baby Jimmys, as well as with the Angus McDowells. We are baptized to stand with the hurting and the doubting, the weak, the lonely, the outcast, the forgotten. We are baptized to stand with the very old and the very young. We are baptized to stand with all those who fear: this week, the French, including the Muslims who face having their whole religion blamed for the wrongs of a few fanatics.

And we are baptized to stand with each other. We are baptized to stand with you.

“This is my beloved. In you I am well pleased.” “I have called you by name; you are precious to me.” Accept it. Claim it. Live it.

May it be so for you, and for me. Amen.

© Joanne Whitt 2015 all rights reserved.

 

[1] Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead (New York: Gotham Books, 2012), p. 231.

[2] Brown, p. 232.

[3] David Lose, “Baptism and Blessing,” January 5, 2015, http://www.davidlose.net/2015/01/baptism-of-our-lord-b/.

[4] Herman C. Waetjen, A Reordering of Power: A Socio-Political Reading of Mark’s Gospel (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1989), pp. 70-71.

[5] Mark 4:11.

[6] Lose, ibid.

[7] Michael L. Lindvall, Good News from North Haven: A Year in the Life of a Small Town (New York: Crossroads, 2002).

The Light Shines in the Darkness

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Lesson: John 1:1-18

Again, happy New Year! I lived in Texas for seven years as a young adult, which was long enough for the tradition of eating black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day for good luck to become my tradition. Apparently eating special foods on New Year’s Day for luck is a tradition in many cultures. For some it’s pork with sauerkraut; for others, pickled herring; for still others, lentils and sausage. In Spain, folks eat one grape with each toll of the clock at midnight. If you can eat all twelve grapes within the period of the chimes, you’ll have good luck in the New Year.

Good luck in the New Year. We all long for it. When you think about it, “New Year” is a curious fiction, isn’t it? The planet has been spinning through space a lot longer than 2,014 years, and not everyone celebrates the beginning of a new year on January 1st.[1] So when you think about it, the hoopla we make at midnight on December 31st is a tad over the top for one more fairly arbitrary tick of the clock. But this annual ritual allows us to imagine that maybe, just maybe, we’re on the threshold of something new and better, whether we call that good luck or blessings or just a better year than last year. At my house, we watched the local news station on New Year’s Eve, waiting for the fireworks display at the San Francisco Ferry Building at midnight. The Channel 4 newsman asked a crowd of young revelers whether 2015 would be better or worse than 2014. They all shrieked, “Better!” Whether it’s an arbitrary tick of the clock or not, we all hope for the fresh start, the resetting of our possibilities for the future that we imagine at New Year’s. Poet Anne Hillman offers this evocative guidance for threshold crossing: Read more →

Adopted as Heirs

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Today’s sermon was preached by Sharon LeClaire, M.Div., M.A.T.S., a church member, seminary graduate, and candidate for ordination in the Presbytery of the Redwoods.

Lesson: Galatians 3:23-4:7

We gather here this morning as another Christmas has come and gone.  Some of us are back from our travels or have said goodbye to our guests and are unpacking or cleaning up and settling down a bit from the busy-ness of the season. There can be kind of a let-down after the peak of Christmas day.  It seems that so much energy is focused on the one day that after it is all over we can feel like we put in an awful lot of time for those few hours that pass so quickly. And isn’t it amazing how busy we find ourselves each year?  So many events to attend, so many gifts to give, so many lovely encounters with friends and family…it can be exhausting. Others of us struggle this time of year. Some are experiencing losses and others just find all the merriment too much to handle.  We clean up and put away and do laundry and we’re here on the 28th in church feeling a kind of in between feeling…not Christmas   not really ordinary time yet either for we haven’t yet seen the Magi.

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Expect Something New: Come and See

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A Christmas Eve Sermon

Lesson: Luke 2:1-20

I’m a sucker for “A Christmas Carol,” by Charles Dickens. I’ve read the novella multiple times and try to watch at least one of the film or TV adaptions every Christmas season. There’ve been about 50 film and TV versions, from 1901 to the present, featuring such diverse talent as Bill Murray, Michael Caine, the Muppets, the Smurfs and Scrooge McDuck.[1] I still have a soft place in my heart for “Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol” because I grew up on it.[2] My favorites are the productions with Patrick Stewart[3] and George C. Scott[4] as Ebenezer Scrooge, and while I love Jim Carrey in the Disney animated version from a couple of years ago, I’m not nuts about that script. Disney’s Scrooge is terrified into his transformation – he changes because he’s scared out of his wits again and again – whereas in Dicken’s novella, it is so abundantly clear that Scrooge wasn’t terrified; he was touched. When the ghosts showed him the heartbreak of his past that created the hardened, cynical person he became, and the courage of Tiny Tim and the other Cratchetts in the face of hardship, his heart was melted by compassion and empathy. This softening of the heart is what allowed him to say at the end of the story, “I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.”

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Expect Something New: From Impossible to Possible

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Lesson: Luke 1:26-38

I saw a Roz Chast cartoon this week with the caption, “Obsessive-Compulsive Santa,” showing Santa singing, “He’s making a list, he’s checking it twice, but the margins are crooked so he’s writing it again. And he’s checking it again, and he’s checking it once more, but somehow he misspelled ‘Laura’ so he’s crossing it out. …. ” and so on.[1] I think I find this Santa funny because it hits pretty close to home for me, this time of year, as my colleagues will attest. So I hope your sense of neatness and order isn’t thrown off too much by the fact that, this morning, we take a step backwards in Luke’s gospel to hear what came before the story we heard last week. Last week we heard Vivaldi’s Magnificat, sung so beautifully by our choir. The Magnificat is the song Mary sings in Luke’s gospel after her cousin Elizabeth recognizes that Mary has been chosen to give birth to Jesus. This morning’s passage, a few paragraphs earlier, is our first encounter with Mary in Luke. The angel Gabriel visits her, and tells her she is going to give birth to the Son of God.

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Expect Something New: Joy (The Vivaldi Magnificat)

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Lessons: Luke 1:46b-55

Our Advent theme this year invites us to expect something new, and today, in particular, we are invited to expect new joy. It might seem an odd invitation given both the stories in the news lately and the losses we’ve experienced here in our congregation. Joy might seem in short supply. But that means it’s the perfect time for a song. Not because singing helps us forget or plasters over the rough parts of life but because songs are powerful.

In Luke’s gospel, Mary learns she is pregnant and then runs to see her older cousin, Elizabeth, for consolation, wisdom, or maybe even protection. Elizabeth recognizes that Mary carries the One who will fulfill God’s promises. We don’t know that Mary is less fearful, but she’s certainly less alone, and more sure of God’s promises, and so she sings.

Mary sings the song we call the Magnificat. The version we’ll hear today is the most famous of several settings of the Magnificat composed by Italian Baroque composer Antonio Vivaldi. This version, set in g minor, is referred to as RV 610, and was composed some time around 1717. Many of his compositions were written for the female music ensemble of the Ospedale della Pietà, an orphange in Venice. Vivaldi, who had been ordained as a Catholic priest, was employed at the orphanage as the violin master for about 30 years. It isn’t known whether he composed this Magnificat during his tenure there, but it was composed near that time. I was interested to learn that while Vivaldi was relatively popular during his own lifetime, his work was mostly forgotten after his death, and then rediscovered in the early twentieth century.

The Magnificat is a song of God’s mercy, promising that God lifts up the lonely, the downtrodden, and the oppressed, not just of Mary’s day, but of our own as well. According to Luke, when Mary sang, she entered into God’s promises. Notice, for instance, that the verbs in Mary’s song are all in the past tense. The past tense in this case doesn’t so much mean that everything Mary sings about has been accomplished, but rather that Mary is now included in God’s history of redemption. That is what makes a song so powerful.

And so it is with us, when we sing.   When we give our voices over to “The Canticle of the Turning,” the hymn we’ll sing at the close of worship, a fabulous adaptation of Mary’s song, we sense that, indeed, the world has begun to turn and we feel ourselves invited into that turning. Singing doesn’t just help us to name things; it draws us into the actual experience and reality we voice. God has promised to change the world, and in singing these promises we enter into that work.

So this morning, as we do a couple of times a year, I will limit my spoken words to make room for sung ones. The Vivaldi Magnificat.

Expect Something New: Prepare

20020808 Prepare the Way of the Heart

Lessons: Isaiah 40:1-11; Mark 1:1-8

Our theme for Advent this year is “Expect Something New,” but when it comes to Christmas traditions, “new” is probably not what most people have in mind. A list of America’s 25 favorite Christmas songs[1] shows all the old carols at the top of the list, and only a handful of more contemporary songs. “Contemporary” should be in quotation marks because the newer songs on the list, like “The Little Drummer Boy”[2] and “White Christmas,”[3] come from the middle of the last century. And when it comes to family Christmas traditions, well, the word “tradition” says it all. I celebrated Christmas several times with a family whose tradition was to serve Welsh cheese soup for breakfast on Christmas morning. The dad’s family came from Wales, and apparently that’s what you do in Wales. I don’t know if the mom, who was not Welsh, just didn’t know how to make it correctly or if it’s just an awful dish no matter what you do to it, but it was awful, and everybody knew it, and everybody made the traditional Christmas morning jokes about how awful it was while eating Welsh cheese soup Christmas after Christmas. It was their tradition, and traditions are comforting. And who doesn’t need a little comforting, especially this time of year – and especially this year?

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Expect Something New: Do Not Be Afraid

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Lesson: I Corinthians 1:3-9

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I want to share with you a sentiment I found online this week: “There are things you do because they feel right & they may make no sense & they may make no money & it may be the real reason we are here: to love each other & to eat each other’s cooking & say it was good.”[i] Another poem that caught my eye is called, “God’s World,” by Edna St. Vincent Millay.

O world, I cannot hold thee close enough! . . .
Thy woods, this autumn day, that ache and sag
And all but cry with colour! . . .
Lord, I do fear
Thou’st made the world too beautiful this year.

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Doxology

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Lesson: Psalm 100; Ephesians 1:15-23

For about a century, week in and week out, the people of this congregation have sung the Doxology at some point in Sunday morning worship.

Praise God from whom all blessing flow.

Praise God all creatures here below.

Praise God above ye heavenly hosts. …

And here’s where folks break into two or three different versions: Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; Creator, Son and Holy Ghost; or Creator, Christ and Holy Ghost. They’re all fine. Thanks to our lovely church history, published to celebrate our centennial in 1997, we know that the Doxology has been part of the regular Sunday worship service since about 1913.[1]

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