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.

Sweet, but so profound

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Watching for the Morning of December 10, 2017

Year B

The Second Sunday of Advent

The children of the parish take center stage during the portion of the worship service called “the service of the word.” I don’t want to call it a “Christmas Pageant”, because it is not a little show stuck into the middle of the service, it is the vehicle through which the story is proclaimed to us of a wondrous God who comes to a world, frail and vulnerable as a child. A God who trust himself into our hands, though those hands will scourge and pound nails and press a crown of thorns into his head. Yet our hands will also reach out to touch the edge of his cloak, and his hands will touch and heal.

The message of the child in the manger is profound.   Sweet and terrible. It is fitting for children to tell it.

When I first held my daughter, I was overwhelmed not only by her vulnerability, but by my own. Suddenly my heart was thoroughly exposed. Here, indescribable joy and terror were woven together. I was attached to a child whose every wound would tear at my heart.

The story of the nativity is sweet, but so profound. Here is God risking all. Here is God come to dwell. Here is God desiring only to heal and redeem, whatever the cost to God’s own self.

So Sunday the children will tell the story. And because of that story we will adapt our service, hearing the prophet’s fabulous words that begin “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God,” then turning to the story of Zechariah in the temple learning that he and Elizabeth are to be given a son. They are to name him John. He will go before the Lord “in the spirit and power of Elijahto make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” The last words of that story will invite us to sing with Zechariah that great prophetic song that begins: “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel; he has come to his people and set them free.” And then the children will speak to us the priceless story. And we will think it cute. We will laugh and smile and sing the carols.   And in between the sweetness will be the awe and wonder at such a God who shows our frail flesh a fit vessel of the holy, and fills all creation with light and life.

The Prayer for December 10, 2017

Eternal God, Breath of Life,
Font of Hope, and our Eternal Joy;
Open the doors of our hearts, and the gates of your mercy
to come into our world and our lives,
and grant us the peace of your kingdom.

The Texts for December 10, 2017

First Reading: Isaiah 40.1-11
“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.” – A prophet is called to speak a word of comfort to the people in exile in Babylon. Forgiveness is at hand, and the cry goes forth to build a highway through the desert to bring God’s people home.

Gospel: Luke 1:5-20, 57-67 (“The angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John.) The angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah while he is serving in the temple to announce the birth of a son and, when the child is born and obediently named, Zechariah’s tongue is released and he sings the Benedictus:

Psalmody: Luke 1:68-79 (the Benedictus)
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel.” –
Zechariah sings a prophetically inspired song celebrating the mighty work of God and the special calling of his son, John

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The appointed texts for December 10, 2017

Psalm: Psalm 85.1-2, 8-13
“Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.”
– The poet prays for renewal of Israel’s life in the land after the return from exile, acknowledging God’s previous help and expressing prayerful trust that God, in his faithfulness, will come to their aid.

Second Reading: 2 Peter 3.8-15
“The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” –
In the circular letter where we hear the familiar words “with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day” the author writes to encourage the fledgling Christian community to patience and faithfulness as they wait for the day of the Lord.

Gospel: Mark 1.1-8
“John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” – Mark begins his Gospel with the language of royal decree and the prophetic words of John pointing to the one who will wash the world in the Holy Spirit.

During Advent our parish departs from the appointed psalms and sings Isaiah 51:4-11, the Benedictus, the Magnificat, and Isaiah 12 on the four Sundays. We also adjust the readings between the Sundays to allow for the celebration of a children’s Christmas program during worship in Advent. Next Sunday we will read Mark’s account of John the Baptist that is assigned for today.

During Advent we provide daily verses and brief reflections that can be found by following this link to Advent 2017.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3A02014_Krippenspiel_in_Sanok.jpg By Silar (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://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

Practice, practice, practice

Sunday Evening

Psalm 147

Lutheran Altar7 Sing to the Lord with thanksgiving;
make melody to our God on the lyre.

Today was Boy Scout Sunday. Our troop served coffee hour and joined us in worship.  I was reminded of the difference it makes when there is a larger number of people in worship. The energy of the service is different. The singing is stronger. The energy in the preaching is higher, because the feedback from the congregation is greater.

When I have been on vacation, I have tended to think I had an obligation to myself to find a worship service. I have thought “this is what Christians do” – they gather on the first day of the week to hear the word and share in the Lord’s Supper.

The time I had a sabbatical, the worship service was less of an obligation, but still something I did for what I received. It was a healthy pattern, a focal point of the week, an occasion for prayer and the sacrament. It was good for me. What I didn’t consider was that my presence – as one of many – made worship better for others.

I have told parents who bring infants for baptism that their children have a ministry in the church. One of the promises the parents make in the baptismal service is that they will bring their children “to the services of God’s house.” But we often don’t see them until the child is ready for Sunday School. It’s a shame. The ministry of babies in a congregation is to be babies. Babies attract a crowd. They make everyone smile. There is an “aaaw” effect that connects people to one another.

No one coos over me at this point in my life, but nevertheless each voice makes the worship of the church richer, fuller. I have not only an obligation to God to come thank and honor him with the first hour of my week; I have not only the privilege of hearing God’s Word and receiving God’s gifts; I have a ministry to the community to come and sing and pray and add myself to our shared experience.

There have been times I have been unable to sing, times when the prayers stick in my throat, times of grief and despair when I have needed the community to pray the prayers and sing the songs for me. Though I couldn’t get the words out, the community spoke them for me. I have understood this. And yet, I never thought about the importance of doing this for others when I was trying to decide on Saturday night whether to go someplace on Sunday morning.

We make worship about me. My convenience. My enrichment. My spirituality. (I had members of one church leave for another because the new church had a 45-minute 8:00 a.m. service and they could “get in and get out and still have [their] whole day.”) But worship is not just about me. It is about the community. I add something to their experience just by being there. So even if I got nothing else from the service, it would still be worthwhile, for I have been there for the sake of others. And this is the whole point of worship – to practice being people of God.

Running to the table

Sunday Evening

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By Erik (HASH) Hersman (Flickr: Running Samburu Boy) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

I apologize that there was no meditation for Saturday. Late Saturday evening, when I finally had my blog composed the way I wanted it, my hard drive crashed. I lost the blog entirely – and my sermon for this morning.

To be honest I didn’t regret the loss of the sermon as much as the loss of the blog. The sermon I wasn’t yet happy with – though I needed the hours I spent fixing my laptop. The blog, on the other hand, was finalized. I was just adding the text links and getting ready to post it.

So I had to “wing it” somewhat with Sunday’s sermon. I knew the texts. I knew what I wanted to say. I just had to do it without the reassurance of having composed the words ahead of time, so that I said what I wanted to say. I call it “working without a net” – nothing to catch me if I lose my train of thought or get off track and end up in a cul-de-sac. (You could also call it depending on the Spirit, though I know I am depending on the Spirit when I write my manuscript.)

A manuscript also helps me stay within a reasonable time frame. (Years ago, on my first try, when I felt the need to try preaching without a manuscript, I preached for 40 minutes – about twice what is customary in our churches.)

Some church services are a sermon with a little bit of music. Lutheran services are sometimes music with a little bit of preaching – though the tradition calls for equal attention between the liturgy of the Word (readings and preaching) and the liturgy of Holy Communion.

We are creatures who need liturgy. We need the power that comes with symbolic acts. An engagement ring is a symbolic act. Thanksgiving dinner is a symbolic act. A retirement dinner, a housewarming, graduation, bringing flowers to your daughter after her performance in the school play, these are all symbolic acts. They mark the moment. I could have given my daughter a picture of my high school play (though I was not on stage) but the tradition is to give flowers – so we give flowers. It has a culturally defined meaning – just like candy or roses on Valentines’ Day.

That small bit of bread and sip of wine are one such symbolic act with a culturally defined meaning. Only this meaning is defined by the promise of the prophets, the actions of Jesus, the last supper, and the whole history of the church. It means we are welcome at God’s banquet table – we are accepted, we are loved, we are forgiven, we are joined to of God’s people, we are joined with God in Christ, we have a share in the feast to come, and we bear Christ’s body into the world.

Ask a child and they may not be able to tell you all this. But this morning, as communion was being served, the children were late coming from Sunday School (they go to a lesson after the children’s message, during the time of the readings and sermon, and return to participate in the Lord’s Table). As I served the ushers and the organist – usually the last to be served before the assisting minister and me – I could see out the back door that the children were running to get to the table in time. I was more than happy to wait.

Running to the table. Eager to participate in this stylized action that symbolizes all God’s promise for the human community – that we will eat together at one table in that day of perfect peace, when every wound is healed and every debt forgiven. A promise that we are called to live now, knowing it is the destiny for which we were made.

These small children could not likely have explained any of this, but they were running to be there.  They know what it is to be included with everyone else in something that is very special.

As do we who imagine ourselves rational adults.

From the lips of children

Saturday

Psalm 8

2From the lips of children and infants
you have ordained praise
because of your enemies,
to silence the foe and the avenger.NIV

I have pondered these lines often. I like best these sentences I don’t understand. They are the ones that make me work, make me struggle, like staring at puzzle pieces trying to see how they fit together. The “Aha!” at the end is not only satisfying, it usually involves some breakthrough – and I never look at the text the same way again.

It is those tough texts that are the easiest to preach. The struggle is harder, but in the end I know I’m talking about the text and not my ideas.

But this verse eludes me. And not me only, based on the variety of translators and commentators.

2Out of the mouths of babes and infants
you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
to silence the enemy and the avenger. NRSV

2From the mouths of infants and sucklings
You have founded strength on account of Your foes,
to put an end to enemy and avenger. TNK

For poetry, such uncertainty has a place. It’s good that some days the text tastes like strawberries and other days like toast.

“From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise.” Does our poet suggest that the babbling of infants before they learn to speak is a language of angels singing God’s praise? Is it a sound of joy echoing through the world that belies all our work of hate and destruction? Is it a sound that melts the human heart, eternally creating smiles and drawing people together? Is it this that silences our eternal foe? Or maybe it is just the satisfied gurgling of a nursing child at its mother’s breast, that wondrous bond of love and tenderness, that is the bulwark against all life’s evils.

Or perhaps it is meant to be more literal: the power of a child’s cooing to stop the hand of vengeance? The psalmist speaks in Psalm 137 of wanting to dash the heads of his enemies’ children against a stone; does their babbling stay his hand and heart? And what if God is the avenger? This, too, is deep in the scriptures. God the protector of widows and orphans. God who rises against pharaoh who would murder the infants of the enslaved. God who declares “vengeance is mine, I shall repay”? Does the cooing of an infant stay God’s hand? Is that why God forgives Nineveh to Jonah’s dismay? Is that why the wicked prosper? Why the wrath of God is slow? Has God filled the universe with the sounds of children to remind him to have mercy on us all?

Perhaps if we could hear the chorus of children we might stay our hand, stay the sale of weapons of war, stay the bombings and shootings, stay the lust and perversion, stay the anger and rage, stay the neglect and greed, stay the hunger and poverty, stay all that leaves so many children in tears.

The text is rich with such thoughts, such uncertainties, so that it becomes not just one of these meanings but all of them. There is something in the happy utterance of infants that is a bulwark against life’s evils. Something in their babbling that melts the hearts of all. Something in the brightness of new life that causes even the face of God to shine. Something that stands tall against every dark vision and abandoned hope. Something that forms a bastion against despair. Something that testifies to the God of life.