Communion and COVID-19: the remaining options

So, communion. I’d better start writing down these thoughts before the pandemic chips all the options away. I’d like to show there are options for regular, Maundy Thursday and Easter communion services.

My thinking has gone from we can be especially hygienic, to perhaps we can hold the service outside, to perhaps we can have walk-by distribution with social distancing and now I don’t think any public, in-person service is likely to be safe by Easter. Safety in distribution has long been a communion ethical concern, especially among Protestants, so this isn’t exactly a new thought. And even if we (collectively) don’t refrain, it’s possible civil authorities might stop any meaningful gathering.

If I can, I’ll show some of my influences later, but as of March 26, 2020, I think these are the best options for a communion service to minimize risk for communicants and presiding ministers. Please comment, because I’ll spell out the effective conduct for those options that grab your attention.

There are four likely options:

  1. The pastor, and perhaps any other ordained ministers of the church, presiding over communion at home, praying for the congregation and informing them of this.
  2. The church having a service of spiritual communion by phone or video conference; that is, a guided visualization which expresses the desire for communion, using the rite (text) for communion, but without the elements or any physical artifacts. It may also take on elements of a eucharistic fast, paradoxically, to stir desire and make the consummation (the return to normal communion practice) that much richer.
  3. The church having a “purely symbolic” communion service, by video conference where participation by the laity in by observation and prayer. The presiding minister (who might broadcast from home or church) might or might not commune by mouth.
  4. The church having a distributed service where communicants provide their own bread and wine, and are led remotely by the minister. More akin to some prayer breakfasts, but with people at home. This assumes the “lowest” ecclesiology of any option.

#1 needs no special technology as such. Only #3 absolutely requires a video broadcast. #3 and #4 are not mutually exclusive.

I can hear you saying “I don’t like any of those.” Fine, but these are the options I can think of, unless you count “don’t do it” or “risk infecting your people” as good options, and I don’t.

Please comment and, as I said above, we can work though the details. (Don’t comment minimizing the pandemic because I will delete those.)

Sermon: on healing

mosaic
UNMC chancel mosaic

I preached from this sermon manuscript online for the Universalist National Memorial Church, on March 23, 2020 using lessons for the common of Healers of the Sick from the 1963 Book of Common Worship of the Church of South India.  These are from the second Book of Kings (5:9-14) and the Gospel of Mark (1:40-45).


Good morning, and thank you for welcoming me into your homes. As far as I know, this is the first time a service from Universalist National Memorial Church has been broadcast to you, instead of being held at the church. We all know why; there’s no reason to rehearse the endless stream of COVID-19 news. But, given the occasion, I’m going to depart from my usual practice of preaching from the lessons of the Revised Common Lectionary, but instead use a set of lessons from the 1963 Church of South India Book of Common Worship for special days commemorating the Healers of the Sick.

At one level, this is an act of thanksgiving for all those who practice the arts of healing, including not only nurses, physicians and pharmacists, but therapists, medical researchers, nutritional staff, chaplains; and by extension administrators, cleaners and engineers. We thank those working double-time to produce masks and ventilators, and develop new vaccines and therapies. And I will remember those who care for the sick at home, and those who keep food and other supplies available, and those who watch out for their neighbors. Indeed, there are too many people to name even by category. May God bless and protect those helpers of humankind, today and always.

In our first lesson today, Naaman, “commander of the army of the king of Aram” suffered from a skin disease. His wife’s servant was an Israelite, and so he went to Elisha the prophet for healing. But Naaman was unimpressed by what little the prophet seemed to do in order to heal him.

In the second lesson, a leper asked Jesus (who knew about Elisha and Naaman) to heal him, which Jesus did. And Jesus asked the healed man to keep this a secret, but he proclaimed it openly and so people flooded to Jesus to be healed also.

So, from what exactly were Naaman and the unnamed man healed? After all, today we expect to have information about disease. How many days can you be contagious? Is my cough COVID-19 or just allergies? What kind of alcohol should I get? And so on and so on. If never see another one of those spiky ball graphics of the virus it’ll be too soon.

Which makes the diseases in today’s lessons that much more unusual. They were obvious to those who suffered them and to other people, but were evidently not life-threatening. And they assumed to know the cause. Back then, they thought illness depended on sin: either their own, or sin inherited from their ancestors. In other words, bad things happen for a reason, so clearly you are at fault for your own misery. This confuses personal responsibility over what we have control, with responsibility for those things we cannot control.

I’d like us to keep that in mind whenever it seems plausible that persons get what they deserve. Are they really? But I digress.

Now, we know that this “leprosy” wasn’t leprosy in the way we use the term today. Naaman and the man Jesus healed may have had psoriasis, a condition where the skin overproduces and comes off scales. It can be painful, embarrassing, debilitating. And while we no longer think it’s punishment for sin as they would have, it does attack one’s sense of self. In Jesus’ world, it was a sign of impurity, and so kept its sufferers from fulfilling their religious duties.

That is, it was an illness that kept sufferers away from away from God. So when Jesus healed the man and told him to go to the priest, it was so the priest could certify his re-inclusion into the community, and allow him to fulfill his religious obligations. The disease wasn’t, at root, about the skin, but about the soul. It may not be medicine as we know it, but the soul needs healing, too. I tell you: I think the secret that Jesus was trying to keep in that moment was that none of that blaming is true, and none of it from God, the rules about purity included.

Jesus, and prophets before him, healed diseases of separation: the leprosy here, but also blindness and paralysis. He healed those possessed by demons, for what other language did they have for the diseases of the mind. And he healed that greatest separation of all: the separation of life and death. Jesus healed the person or persons depicted, giving them health, function and life. But the people around the healing saw these miracles, and were changed by them.

We, too, hearing these accounts are changed by these healings. We empathize with the people who suffered in these passages, but it’s not at all clear that the people then did. Though empathy, we grow closer to God and to one another. We are also healed from a hardness of heart and a vision that excludes other possibilities. It’s a good lesson for how we regard people too. By not relying on the approval of others to measure our own worth.

This is part of the lifelong path of spiritual healing. In the moment, we could use a little emergency medicine.

Right now, we are physically separated in order to protect one another. That hurts. I’d love to be able to stand close and talk, or shake your hand or give you a hug. But we can’t do that right now. Even though we’re about a month into the pandemic, its effects have just begun. Something that seems easy, even thrilling now, might soon become burdensome, annoying and anxiety-provoking. And the longer we go, the harder it will be to be apart. Tempers will rise and nerves will shake. We’re still in that giddy, novel phase, like the when the winds and rain of a hurricane pick up, but before the power goes out.

So, let me offer some advice. Stay close to the church, even in this virtual form. This is a place of grace and caring, and something you can look forward to if you feel adrift. Keep in touch with one another, and especially pray for one another. Prayer isn’t a kind of magic, but a commitment to that closeness we have with God, and a listening to what God asks of us. And know that others are praying for your well-being. I am, and others, too. If you have a passing thought that nobody cares for you, remember that we not only care, but miss you, and carry you to our God and Creator.

After that, search out wisdom. Read the preaching passages for yourself, and other part of the Bible besides. You may find more in them that speaks to you directly. Read the spiritual classics, because wise people rise up in every generation and this is not the first time human beings have had to cope with epidemics (or economic downturns) in religious terms. Use that wisdom to preserve your health: physical, mental and spiritual. A deeper religious life doesn’t fix all your problems, but it does give you more language to interpret the world around you. Like Naaman, who wondered “is that all there is to it?” let’s accept that little bits of faith can unlock larger resilience and compassion. It’s this way that we find health and peace.

Friends: let us care for the sick, mourn the dead, support the healer, and grow toward health. In this unexpectedly challenging Lent, let us deepen in faith so might live in the fullness of life.

Communion and COVID-19: historical perspective

As bad as the COVID-19 pandemic is shaping up, it’s not the first time Christians have had to factor “general sickness” into their church lives, including communion.

That typical low Protestant practice of using individual communion glasses comes from a fear of contagion, but also an ethical impulse, combined with a robust bit of Progressivist thinking.  Protestants of the late nineteenth century and before used a common cup. But fears of communicable disease (typhoid especially I think) prompted a Lutheran minister to serve the wine in individual glasses, and the practice was born. (And no, I won’t call them “shot glasses” or deride the practice as far too many high Protestants do. So don’t try it here.) Mind you: this is not my original research or thought, but comes from three decades of education and reading. I am probably getting some of the details wrong, but this is really to set the mood rather than recover a well-established field of study. (Also, I’m tired, like most of you.)

And this isn’t the first time churches have been asked to close, or else watch members die. The 1918 “Spanish” flu is out of living memory, but only just and was a terrible plague of the twentieth century. The point of our efforts — including a decision and announcement by the Church of England today, to suspend public worship — is to prevent a repeat. Of course, we have technology that we don’t. But he have inherited practices, too, including a curious one adopted (and now lost) by the Unitarians. More about that next time.

Communion and COVID-19: limitations and options

So, I was working up the next installment of my series about using a portable communion set when the coronavirus outbreak created a very long and stressful week. (As you well know.) And this was just the beginning for the United States, western Europe and Australia where most of my readers come from.

Churches and temples of all kinds have closed, at least for this weekend, and for many at least through the end of March. We might still be under some kind of restriction through Holy Week and Easter (April 12) now. That’s a hard thought, but people have had to manage living with epidemics before, and it’s during difficult times that you learn to make alterations and concessions that both keep people safe and fulfill religious desires and duties. This weekend we’ll see a new flowering of online services. What’s next? Perhaps a renaissance of mainstream religious broadcasting?

But with Holy Week (specifically Maundy Thursday) and Easter, you have communion services. Unlike the long-televised Catholic mass “for shut-ins” there’s not much of a custom for broadcasting the Lord’s Supper, at least not at the Reformed end where we come from. In part because, apart from the Campbell-Stone traditions — it’s still a “special service,” a break from the normal Sunday preaching service. The Lord’s Supper, too, is felt but low Reformed administration of the ordinance isn’t much to look at if you’re not in the middle of it. You might ordinarily broadcast a sermon, but not the sacrament.

So, what to do without risking the spread of a deadly illness? I wanted to introduce the thought, and in short order review the history and map out some options.  Publishing this, to make some momentum…

Opening the communion kits

As I mentioned last time, I bought two vintage portable communion kits from eBay sellers and this article shows what they contain. Readers who aren’t interested in the specifics of these particular items can skip over this article. If I left out a detail you were looking for, ask in the comments.

I ordered the kits thinking they were identical models and while very similar, this was not the case. Indeed, as only one is marked, so I can’t be sure that they are from the same maker — Sudbury Brass, which no longer makes a kit like this — but if they are, they must come from different periods of production.

Advertisement for communion kit
From Du Bois, Lauriston J. (Editor), “Preacher’s Magazine Volume 30 Number 10” (1955). Preacher’s Magazine. 293. https://digitalcommons.olivet.edu/cotn_pm/293

The smaller kit is the model 1215, and from advertisements in ministers’ magazines seem to have been sold from about 1949 to 1955, perhaps longer. Other than a mark on the clasp of the case (SB 1215) the only markings are “silver on copper” on metal pieces. The larger case and its contents have no markings at all.

While the cases are different sizes, they contain essentially the same items, or did originally. Each has a shallow silverplate basin with a silverplate disc with six holes; this holds the six glasses. The one in the larger case is slightly larger and the disc lifts off easily, while the disc on the smaller one is more closely fitted: a bit harder to clean, but quieter. There is also a shallow bread plate; these are identical between the kits. (A loaf three inches in diameter would fit on the plate, but not in the kit.)

Both cases, seen from above, with lids open

The smaller case with the purple lining has no bread box, but has a place for where it would have rested. The bread box would be suitable for host wafers, small pieces of bread sold to Protestants and perhaps oyster crackers. The smaller kit has its original wine flask, while the larger kit had the original silverplate cap awkwardly wedged onto a modern plastic bottle; they were not threaded the same. The silverplate on both caps is worn. The box and flask are not interchangable with the other kit, which brings us to the cases themselves.

Each seems to be made of masonite or some other hardboard covered with a coated paper or cloth, similar to what would be used in bookbinding. Each is subdivided into three compartments, lined with velveteen: blue in the large case and violet in the small. The combined glasses tray fits in one compartment; the plate in another, while the flask sits in a “well” under a flange that holds the breadbox. The small case originally had a leather strap, now lost; the larger has a metal handle, like those found on small tool boxes of the period.

There’s no room for anything else: candles,  common cup, service book, cross or the like. You might slip in an icon card and a handkerchief, but otherwise what you see is what you can carry here.

I’ll be thinking about how you would use it next.

Reviewing the communion kit

A couple of weeks ago, I ordered two vintage communion kits from eBay sellers. This is the first of a short, open-ended series about what I bought, what I plan do with them and (since there’s not an endless supply of such kits) what some alternatives are.

Two black oblong hinged cases

I bought two because figured that between them I would have enough parts to have one good kit. But don’t go looking for a chalice or linens. These are the communion kits well known to “low” Protestants, and are often used for communion in home or hospital visitation. They typically include small, individual glasses and a way to present them, a vessel for serving some kind of bread and containers to store the bread and wine. Today (and for the two decades I’ve been ordained) these kits can be quite small: larger than an eyeglasses case, but usually smaller than two combined.

Unfortunately, they’re also often quite cheap looking, made of plastic or some other unknown hard material, lined with acetate cloth or molded plastic. These are nicer than most. Some use disposable plastic cups. (I’ve even seen one that is basically a carrying case for those all-in-one juice and wafer sets. The ones that look like individual coffee creamer cups. Think Keurig for communion; on second thought, don’t. My sacramental theology isn’t so high, but this form is so ugly, that I couldn’t bear it and wouldn’t serve it.) The most you can say for the typical communion set is that it’s convenient and light-weight, but they cost more than they should.

Contrast this with how beautiful and refined other consumer goods have gotten, and it’s clear to me that we can and should do more for worshiping God. The Lord’s Supper shouldn’t compare poorly in form to a take-out cup of coffee.

Next: what’s in the cases.

Sermon: “Mountaintops”

I preached from this sermon manuscript at Universalist National Memorial Church, on February 23, 2020 with the lectionary texts from the Book of Exodus and the Gospel of Matthew.


From the twenty-fourth chapter of the Book of Exodus:

Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel.

I would like to thank Pastor Gatton for asking me into the pulpit again, and thank you for welcoming me back.

Today is the Feast of the Transfiguration, and this is why that’s important. To transfigure here means to transform in such a way that improves and elevates, namely by being brought closer to God in space and purpose but mostly in spirit, and in so doing becoming more like God. It’s this becoming more like God that I think is the main purpose of life, and how we are able to enjoy a life of blessing here and now. If you want to know the point of the sermon, it’s that. It’s one thing to believe we are loved by God (and we are) but another to become more wise, more loving, more compassionate, more creative, more forgiving and so much more. In other words, to accept the inheritance we have as beloved children of the God who is. So I believe that we can, by grace and patience, grow in a God-like way.

Which makes the Transfiguration — the feast and the concept — very important. The passage we heard in the second reading is its warrant. It’s marked today in some Protestant churches: the capstone of the season following Epiphany. On the day of Epiphany, last month, Jesus’ divine essence was disclosed by the presence of a star and discerned by foreign sages, the “three Wise Men.” Now at the Transfiguration, the dim light of a star has become a light that is unavoidable and blinding, though seen only spiritually and not with the eyes. At Epiphany, we come as seekers, but at the Transfiguration we approach as trusted (if unsettled) friends. But the message is essentially the same: we will have more understanding, and that is what will guide us towards God. The wonder and amazement remain constant.

Today’s last-Sunday-before-Lent observance is a Christian minority opinion though. Catholics, Episcopalians and the Orthodox observe it on August 6, which you will recall is the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. That makes me shudder. But perhaps reminds us that dramatic change can also be traumatic change, and that bright light and power can also utterly destroy. And yet that horrible coincidence, which chills the blood and might move you to tears, is also a reminder that change for the sake of change promises us nothing more than change. What we want is a change towards something better. And yet the Godwards life has no promise of happiness, or sweetness or creature comforts in the usual sense. There’s so much pain and hurt in our world. To both love the people and living things in it, and yet hope for something greater and eternal, will stress us, will tear us, will break our hearts.

And so being changed is usually unwelcome, often distressing, and sometimes painful. But it is not optional. To live is to change. How you change, and what you become, relies in part on what you choose to become. Growing into the likeness of God means taking God as your guide. There are other options, but I cannot recommend them. Becoming an indifferent person (say) with a callous soul is also a change and a path, but one where where others pay the price for your comfort.

Sometimes I complain that the recommended passages from the Bible are hard to preach. After all, in any number of lessons brought together by custom or committee, it’s sometimes hard to see the connection. Or there’s a bit of Iron Age morality that needs to be interpreted for the Silicon Age. But I’m not complaining today; the lessons lock together like puzzle pieces. Someone early on, hearing the passage from Matthew, might have thought, “I know where this is going.” And like any good story, you’re happy to hear it in a new voice or from a new angle. Even in Jesus’ time, the story from Exodus about Moses and the rest was ancient. Arthur and Merlin and Guinevere ancient. Moses took his key deputies to a high place, where God was made manifest to him in the others’ presence. And Jesus took his key deputies to a high place where they had a stunning, divine vision of Moses and Elijah. So Jesus made the connection himself, and it was obvious to the disciples, if overwhelming.

These are both hierophanies, manifestations of a higher power like God, but can also be legendary heroes, angels and the like. We can anticipate them or prepare for the to a degree —that’s part of taking a pilgrimage, say — but we don’t have control over them, and there’s no reason to believe that any of us will have this transcendent experience. But can try and understand experiences like those in the reading. And we do have moments in our lives on which we must pivot or chose, and very often we don’t have control over those either.

But what if we have experienced something. Moses experienced hierophanies, and one can say that Jesus was a hierophany. What makes a manifestation a manifestation? Perhaps you’ve had an experience that defies description, or didn’t demand an explanation: an experience where you were called by God without words, or were just pulled up by a sense — somewhere between grief and elation — to a new place where you understood something in a new way. And that leads us to the devouring fire atop the holy mountain. Its light reveals what we carry in our hearts.

On the mountain in the gospel reading, Jesus was also joined by a manifestation of Elijah, and Elijah also had a hierophany It was one of my preaching texts a few months ago, but I don’t expect you to recall the details. He had just slain the priests of Baal — that’s another sermon — and now was on the run for his life. From the first book of Kings, chapter nineteen (7-12):

And the angel of the Lord came again the second time, and touched him, and said, Arise and eat; because the journey is too great for thee. And he arose, and did eat and drink, and went in the strength of that meat forty days and forty nights unto Horeb the mount of God. And he came thither unto a cave, and lodged there; and, behold, the word of the Lord came to him, and he said unto him, What doest thou here, Elijah? And he said, I have been very jealous for the Lord God of hosts: for the children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away. And he said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord. And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.

The New International Version translates the sound of God as “a gentle whisper” and the New Revised Standard Version as “the sound of sheer silence.”

And so seems to me that the violent storm surrounding Elijah, the “devouring fire” on the top of Moses’ mountain or even Jesus’ sure crucifixion mentioned in his disclosure to his disciples that a hierophany isn’t made up of troubles and tumult, violence and strife, but that they surround and perhaps hide it.

And one thing is sure: you don’t return from the mountaintop the way you came. The experience changes you. And even as we live, we are not exactly the same people we were. We do have some choices: to grow or to wither; to learn or to ignore; to take on a greater likeness to God or withdraw and betray what we might be.

Hierophanies give an experience of great and holy things, but not the means to interpret them to others. That is what we add to our experience of the holy. But direct language fails, even though we have vocabulary and concepts the people living millennia ago didn’t. We can speak meaningfully (if partially) of the working of our minds, of language, of various religious experience, of economics, of the natural world in the micro and macro scale and much more besides. Little wonder we turn to figurative descriptions and the arts to help. Little wonder we relive them though ritual. Preaching is supposed to help explain or at least describe sacred encounters, but can only go so far with the words and gestures we have in common.

Nevertheless, once we have experience of the Holy (if we have it) and once we have some interpretive means for understanding it in our lives — and this interpretation will take on new meanings over the years — you have to do something with it. Growing into a greater likeness with God has responsibilities.

Universalists have not, historically, made much of the Feast of the Transfiguration. An exception is Edwin Hubble Chapin, long-time minister of the church now known as Fourth Universalist in New York. He described a painting in the Vatican by Raphael depicting the Transfiguration, and what its moral implications were.

Writing in his Living Words (1860), he had to paint his own pictures in words of what he saw. The first thing you would see is Jesus is blazing white garments, lifted up as if swimming in the air.

But [Rafael] saw what the apostles at that moment did not see, and in another portion of his picture has represented the scene at the foot of the hill, — the group that awaited the descent of Jesus, the poor possessed boy, writhing, and foaming, and gnashing his teeth, — his eyes, as some say, in their wild, rolling agony, already catching a glimpse of the glorified Christ above; the baffled disciples, the cavilling scribes, the impotent physicians, the grief-worn father, seeking in vain for help. Suppose Jesus had stayed upon the mount, what would have become of that group of want, and helplessness, and agony? Suppose Christ had remained in the brightness of that vision forever, — himself only a vision of glory, and not an example of toil, and sorrow, and suffering, and death, — alas! for the great world at large, waiting at the foot of the hill ; — the [280] groups of humanity in all ages: — the sin-possessed sufferers: the cavilling sceptics; the philosophers, with their books and instruments; the bereaved and frantic mourners in their need! (pp. 279-80)

Raphael tied the scene of the Transfiguration with the next passage in Matthew, where Jesus healed the boy with epilepsy and scolded the faithless around him. Chapin carried the point in his own ministry in New York. The experience of God demands a change, and that change demands positive action that shows that each of us are heirs to God, whether we know it or not. And it shows God that we have heard and seen.

Now, if you know your Moses, Elijah and Jesus, you’ll recall a span of forty days. It’s a biblical convention for a long period of time. Elijah survived forty days on the divinely provided food he ate. Jesus fasted in the desert for forty days. And Noah had his forty days of rain and flood when all the earth was destroyed.

Friends, starting this Wednesday, we are beginning our own forty days with the coming of Lent.

In our society, Lent has become something between a self-improvement opportunity and a running joke, if it is known or understood at all. This is fine, so long we see the forty days as a preparation for a persistent change in our lives. We wouldn’t give up cruelty for Lent, only to re-adopt it for Easter. At its best, Lenten discipline changes you for the better, putting your steps in a Godwards direction. So I charge you not simply to do better but to be better. If you choose a Lenten discipline, make it something practical than will stretch you, but you can accomplish. Tie it to the direction that you feel God leading you towards. If you do not have a clear sense of how God is directing you, make your discipline an act of discovery. Review your life, so as to get a better scope of your life. Learn from the example of others who have gone before you, both to test your self-examination and to encourage you.

And with renewed focus, you can be better by adopting those habits of love and mercy that the logic of this world can not readily understand. Or if it does understand it, it is through the evidence of our lives made glad, living in a way that honor loving kindness.

In short, we will be known by our love for one another, with love to spare and overflow.

Thank you for the book

Last week, I was musing in front of minister friends about how I should read David Bentley Hart’s That All Should Be Saved: Heaven, Hell and Universal Salvation (Yale, 2019) for reasons that should be obvious to even casual readers of this site. And past the obvious: who would be the best audience for the book? I’ll write about it as I get deeper into it.

Well, muse in front of friends and what happens? One ordered a copy and had it shipped to me. My thanks to the Rev. Victoria Weinstein, D. Min. for the gift.

Last week was full of unhappy (personal) news, and a token was a balm and an encouragement. (It worked.) That’s a benefit of having friends for a long time. But she is not only a friend, but a colleague. The graces of collegial support aren’t always formal or programmatic, though it’s tempting in professional spaces to privilege structures and forms. Indeed, I wonder if most acts of ministerial collegiality are informal, or at last the ones that have lasting impact. Informal but not unimportant. It’s no secret that I don’t participate in formal, institutional collegial structures; my reasons are several and have changed in priority over the years. But my informal connections — some deep, some momentary — are now as wide as ever, and that’s a gift that also deserves thanks.

Christmas sermon, 2019

I preached from this sermon manuscript at Universalist National Memorial Church, on December 25, 2019 with the lectionary texts from the Letter to Titus and the Gospel of Luke.

The service format was drawn from the twelfth order of service (for Christmas Day) from the 1937 Services of Religion prepended to the Hymns of the Spirit. The responsive reading used the alternative, second-person text of the Magnificat from the English Language Liturgical Consultation.


Merry Christmas.

I would like to thank Pastor Gatton for asking me to preach again, and thank you for welcoming me back.

Plainly put, Christmas sermons tend to write themselves. The stories are well-known and well-loved, and they say something different to us in our different stages of life. And we fill in the details with the singing, the shared companionship and the general warm feeling. My sincere hope for anyone struggling now (and struggling with Christmas in particular) that these moments will bring you rest and refreshment; you’re among friends.

And yet for the familiarity of the Christmas stories — I learned part of today’s lesson in King James English through repeated viewing of A Charlie Brown Christmas — it takes years of living to recognize what strange stories they are, and to appreciate the differences between them. Today, we have two lessons from the Gospel of Luke, the most familiar version of Jesus’ origin story. We heard the part about the manger, the shepherds and the actual birth from chapter two, and Mary’s song from chapter one, which we read as the responsive reading. Though considered separately, they are part of a whole. In Mary’s song, she recounts her place in cosmic history. We took her part, and declared to God:

You have mercy on those who fear you from generation to generation. You have shown strength with your arm and scattered the proud in their conceit, casting down the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly. You have filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.

This is perhaps less familiar than the angel and Bethlehem, but it is very much part of the same story.

Mary speaks of those who fear God; they will receive mercy. Similarly, the shepherds were terrified: God was being revealed for them, as an infant and nearby. Yet it’s awkward to speak of fear and think of the love of God at the same time. Too often, we fear that which can and would hurt us. This is not what we mean by the fear of God. Rather we also fear what we cannot understand, and we fear disruption to our customary and ordinary life, even it means something good might be coming.

Divine living is not customary or ordinary, and we can scarcely understand how it might come about. That itself is frightening, but also gives us cause for hope. God’s ways are not our ways. In Mary’s time and ours, the proud get their way, the mighty get their way, the rich get their way and it’s hard living for the rest. When Jesus said “the poor will be with you always” we was not mandating poverty, but recognizing what had always been, casting a light on it, dignifying the suffering rather than ignoring it. Divine living is living with a God who knows us and sees us, and desires our good. And God acts by confusing our expectations. Thus a baby, not a warrior or Caesar. Thus Bethlehem, not Rome. Thus a word and not a sword.

And so too, the confusing, unexpected love that God shows us. It can make us afraid because we may not want to love so deeply. God would not hurt us, but love often does. It breaks our hearts, but also gives us life. We can be afraid of being loved so deeply. Consciousness of God’s love pulls out out ourselves, and away from anything low and self-serving. It can lead us to a life of serving one another, as Deacon Eliserena spoke of on Sunday. Is this how God scattered the proud, and cast down the mighty? And it is how God lifts up the lowly?

Or as the author of the letter to Titus puts it, “when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy…” We do not earn this love and cannot earn it; it’s God’s unreserved gift. Accept it. Let it take you to a moment of tenderness, answered by gentle tears. Let it take you, like the shepherds, to the manger.

And then, on returning, what? Where then do the Christmas stories take us? At the very least, this tender goodness and loving kindness should lead us to reflect on how we regard one other in families, among friend or at work, as a nation and in the world. Have been too hard on one another? And in doing, have you been too hard on yourself? For the gift and goal of Christmas is that nearness to God which draws out our likeness to God. Day by day, we can (by God’s grace) strengthen and express those same divine qualities, and above all, a heartfelt love for the world and the people in it. By it, we fulfill the angel’s song of peace and goodwill.

God bless each and all of you this Christmas morning.