“The best day ever!”

Sunday Evening
The First Sunday of Advent

Mark 10:15-16

15“Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” 16And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

“This is the best day ever!” she said emphatically and repeatedly at the end of our day today. Worship had been followed by the “Hanging of the Greens” as we set up and decorated the Christmas trees in the sanctuary, a “family” Christmas tree in the entryway (with ornaments from every family), and decorated the campus of the church with large ornaments hanging from the trees.

At the children’s sermon they had come forward and stood before a large mural of Mary and Joseph journeying towards Bethlehem, and discovered that it was a large Advent calendar. It’s only December 2nd, so there were only two doors to open, but the second contained a gift for the children – small binoculars because on this first Sunday in Advent we look towards the horizon of human history and a world made new, when Christ reigns in every heart.

I’m not sure they got the message. They were too excited looking for the numbers and getting the packages open to use their binoculars.

Their joy and enthusiasm is a healing balm and delight for a congregation. Children have the very important ministry among us of being children – even the sad child who came to the altar rail at communion with tear stained cheeks. I don’t know the source of distress, but I appreciated the child’s sad and yearning look into my eyes as I placed my hand and gave a blessing. We all need to feel the hand of blessing at times.

So Advent is come. Christmas draws near, but this is the season of waiting and hope, of expectation and joy. For the child of the manger is the one who comes at the fulfillment of the human story, and his hand is a hand of blessing.

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Small hands and eager eyes

I love the way children receive communion. There was a very young child at the altar last week, his parent teaching him by gently unrolling his fingers so that his open hands might receive the bread. (It’s hard when you’re small and the rail is high.) There was a child receiving the bread hungrily and stuffing it in his mouth with one quick sweep of his open hands straight to his mouth. Another received the bread with happy, twinkling, dancing eyes. A sleeping infant received the blessing gently without a stir, trusting completely the arms that held her.

A young girl lingered at the rail, deep in prayer, never noticing that everyone left and the next group came forward, filling in around her. There is a child always eager to remind me that he takes the gluten free wafer – apparently a bit too enthusiastically for his parents’ comfort. When the altar used to be up three steps and near the back wall, there was a child who left the rail running and jumped the steps to the sanctuary floor. There was a child, years ago, who went home and lined up his stuffed animals for communion, using poker chips for wafers.

When my daughter was three we attended a midweek Lent service at a neighboring church. At the distribution we stood in a circle around the altar, Anna in my arms, and she watched intently as the pastor went round the circle handing out the bread. I whispered to her, “What is that?” “Bread,” she answered. “Who gives us that bread?” “Jesus,” she responded. “Why does he give it?” “Because he loves us.”

The table is a wondrous miracle in a world much too loud and harsh. Here we stand or kneel, a people from all nations and walks of life, side by side in peace. Here grace and wonder reign. Here even a small child recognizes the presence of the divine.

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Image: Carl S. Gutekunst, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

The sweetness that will not perish

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Sunday Evening

Isaiah 35:1-10

10 Everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

I wish I could capture the joy of watching our children present the Christmas story. Or, for that matter, the exquisite beauty of the High School choral group that sang for our Christmas party/luncheon after worship. The little girl who played Mary also wanted to be an angel, so we had a little costume change in the middle of the service. And her swaddling of the baby Jesus became somewhat legendary last year – carefully spreading out the blanket and then plunking the doll used for Jesus down with a thunk to wrap him up tight.

I sat with a young man from the choral group – they joined us for the luncheon – and when I said that the children had presented the Christmas story in worship that morning, he asked, “What story is that?” Though he sang these exquisite carols and choral pieces, he didn’t know the story.

There is such power in this story for those raised in the church. Watching the children in their costumes, reciting the words, and singing the carols takes us all back through the generations to our own childhoods. The stable, the shepherds, the angels saying “Hark!”, Gabriel before Mary and Mary’s song (the Magnificat, the heart of this third Sunday of Advent) – it’s hard to explain how profoundly it all reverberates through our lives. For a moment, all is right with the world.

But this bright, talented young man didn’t know the story.

And then, when I got home today there was news of the bombing of the Coptic cathedral in Cairo.

All is not right with the world. And yet it is. Bombs are falling, but children are singing. The bodies of innocents lie in the rubble, but a child rests in a manger. The Roman authorities will degrade and destroy this Jesus, but he lives. The cathedral is in ruins, but the song goes on.

The sweetness of children dressed as angels and shepherds is far more than sweetness. It is a profound confession that sweetness has touched the earth, that sweetness abides, that sweetness will endure – that sweetness will triumph. Truth, mercy, justice, compassion, generosity, fidelity, courage, hope, laughter, joy – these are the things that are enduring. These are the elements of our true humanity. These are the things for which there are no regrets. Bombs may scar the world, but God works to heal it.

I told the young man the Christmas story in its brief outline. I thought, at the very least, he should understand the origin of these songs he was singing. But what I really wished was that I could have invited him into the wonder and awe of that story, and into the sweetness that will not perish.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACreche_de_noel.jpeg By KoS (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Encountered by Jesus

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Sunday Evening

John 13:31-35

34I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.

I wish it were possible to say how cute Steffan was, today. It’s unusual for a child to come forward for the children’s sermon the first time they come to worship – especially on a day when, it turns out, none of our other young people were present. But having only a single child who is new not only to me and to the parish but to the concept of a children’s message – and even to church itself – made the children’s time a challenge.

I am aware how much we take for granted when we use words like ‘God’ and ‘church’ and ‘Jesus’, let alone concepts like ‘grace’ and ‘love’ and ‘forgiveness’ and faith’. These are words with meaning inside the community of faith, but what do they mean to those who are strangers to the church?

Maybe the task of the children’s sermon is only to say, “God loves you,” and to make children feel welcome in worship.

And maybe it’s not just about children – maybe the task of the children’s sermon is to make adults feel welcome, too. It is something simple and cute and unscripted that makes church feels not quite so churchy.

But I want there to be something more, here. I think the children’s sermon should be like gathering and laying foundation stones for a spiritual life that is rooted in the experience of love and the importance of kindness, courage and hope. I want them to know something about Jesus. And I want them to be part of the worshipping community: they should know whatever it is that Jesus might be talking to us about that day in the Gospel reading.

None of us are here only to be feel welcome and loved. We are also here to encounter this Jesus and let his words and deeds work their work in us. We are here to hear what he has to say and to see what he does. It’s part of why I try so hard to explain what Jesus’ words and actions meant in their time.

I love the power, grace, rich imagery and, at its best, the beauty and transcendence of the theological and liturgical tradition of the church. But in the end it is not about any of this; it is about Jesus. Everything else is only meant to put us in a place and time where Christ may encounter us and call us into his grace and life.

I am not interested in the kind of preaching that tells people what they already know and believe. Nor am I a spiritual version of a self-help guru with keys to a better life. I am interested in this Jesus and the prophets and all the words of scripture that challenge what we think we know, and summon us not to be mere practitioners of religious ritual, but to seek and find our truest and best humanity – to be children of God, sons and daughters of light, citizens of the age to come when our shames and sorrows are left behind.

So I hope Steffan felt good about his little encounter with me and with church this morning besides the coffee hour cookies and the toys in the nursery where he played after worship. I hope there was something for him of the radiant love of God and the Christ who gives the new commandment that we should love one another.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AKunibertZinnerVolksschuleSeitenstetten1951.11A.JPG By Anton-kurt (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

An occasion for dancing

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Sunday Evening

Luke 3:1-18

5“Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
(Luke, quoting Isaiah 40)

There was a little girl who danced in the aisle during the Eucharistic Prayer this morning, the prayer that recites the story of God’s saving work in the world, culminating in Christ Jesus and the gift of the bread and wine. It proclaims the Words of Institution. It invokes the Spirit. It begins and ends with singing, including the Sanctus, (“Holy, Holy, Holy” that Isaiah heard the seraphim sing in the presence of God). It anticipates that day when all things are made new. As we recited the story, she danced – with joy, with freedom, with utter unselfconsciousness. It was perfect.

It was also the day of her first communion.

There is something deeply sacred and profound about Holy Communion. Here, we remember Jesus and that night in which he was betrayed. Here, we are again at the table where Jesus washed feet and broke the bread. Here, we are once again in the garden where the high priest’s thugs snatch him in the dark. Here, we are once again face to face with the mystery of the cross and the mercy that forgives even this – the complete rejection and murder of the perfectly faithful one.

But it is also a moment of perfect joy, for here we are on the hillside with the 5,000 as a child’s lunch becomes a feast for all. Here, we are at Cana in Galilee where water becomes the finest wine. Here, we are with the disciples at Emmaus where Jesus revealed himself in the breaking of the bread. Here, we are at the Sea of Galilee with the risen Christ preparing breakfast and bidding us come and eat. Here, we are singing the song of the angels and anticipating the day when the tree of life bears fruit every month and its leaves are for the healing of the nations.” Here, we are welcomed to the wedding banquet that has no end.

Here, we hear the promise that prison doors are opened and lives set free. Here, we hear the promise that troubled hearts are calmed and broken hearts made whole. Here, we are invited to hear the song of the angels. Here, we are invited to hear the music of the spheres: the world and all its creatures belongs to God. It begins in perfect goodness and ends in perfect goodness – because God is perfect goodness.

It is an occasion for dancing.

 

Image: By http://www.mariusfiskum.no (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Creatures of joy and wonder

Sunday Evening

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Rödeby Church.Relief of artist Eva Spångberg with motives: Jesus and the children

We received new members this morning. As the families stood near the altar rail and the Assisting Minister led the prayers, our newest and most energetic member – a little girl of three – stepped onto the kneeling cushions, grasped the rail, and started bouncing on the relatively new (and thick) (and bouncy) cushions.

As the community was absorbed in prayer, her mother and father and siblings each tried to discreetly distract her from her bouncing. I knelt and softly tried to explain that we were praying – talking to Jesus, asking for him to help people in need. She listened to me intently, but when I stopped whispering to her, she promptly began bouncing again. I don’t recall if I said it clearly that we didn’t want to distract people from their prayer, but she certainly didn’t consider joy and enthusiasm a distraction.

Would that all our prayer were filled with such joy, all our worship with such enthusiasm.

When our altar was up on a chancel platform, two steps above the main floor, we had a child who would run and jump the steps after receiving communion. I didn’t want any of our elders to risk jumping – but I wanted them to want to. There should be joy at the Lord’s Table. Great gifts are given.

The ministry of a child is to be a child: to remind us what it is to stand in God’s presence without pretense. To remind us that the world is wondrous and full of joy. To remind us that bouncy cushions are not just for kneeling.

We had a young child who used to linger at the altar rail in fervent prayer long after her family had left the table – and often through the next group as well. There was nothing feigned in her prayer. And she was not to be moved until she had laid before God every person for whom she was concerned.

The ministry of a child is to be a child. They remind us all of deep and essential truths. We are creatures of joy and tears. We are creatures of determined prayer, passionate feelings and deep imagination. We are creatures who know when we are welcome and when we are not. We are creatures who know how to love completely and unreservedly. And all these things we adults need to remember.

It is children who add the magic to Christmas and make it worth hauling out the tree and all the decorations. Alone and older we let such things go…until we are reminded that we are – and must remain – creatures of joy and wonder.

 

By Bernt Fransson,Lindås (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons