First Congregational Church
January 26, 2020
Third Sunday after Epiphany
“Theology of Place”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
For those who don’t know, there is a website that “investigates” the truthfulness of claims made on the internet, called Snopes. I’m not sure how it came to be, but I discovered that the story about four college students showing up late to a chemistry test - is true.
As can happen to the best of us, the students stayed up too late the evening before, thus their tardiness to the test. On their way to class, they determined that they needed a good excuse, so they came up with the tale that their car had a flat tire, there was no spare tire, and it took a long time to get help. The professor said he understood the situation, and told them that they could make up the test the next day.
Obviously relieved, the students went back to their dorms and studied with all their might, and arrived on time for the make-up test. The professor gave each of them their test. The first question, worth five points, was a rather easy one about molarity and solutions. The students were thinking that they had a chance. They turned the page to see the next question, worth 95 points: Which tire?
Before going any further, I have to apologize for the sermon title. At the time it seems rather clever. After the bulletin was printed, it occurred to me how feeble it is. But I think the point behind it is still relevant, and perhaps you may think the same - in the end.
I chose to go to Charleston on my vacation, because, for whatever goofy reason, I have always been drawn to the Revolutionary and Civil Wars of this country. Not the wars so much as the history they represent and how people lived. Over time, I’ve read tons of material and accounts and viewpoints of those eras. But it wasn’t until I was standing in front of Fort Sumter that I realized it was a man-made island, built before the technology of hydraulics or even steam. And it was while standing in the doorway of the slaves’ quarters of the Aiken-Rhett House that I realized that not all slaves were housed in small cabins, like on the larger plantations.
The Aiken-Rhett House is shaped like a U - with the stables along one side, the cooking and laundry along the other side and the owners quarters at the bottom, joining the two sides. It just hadn’t occurred to me what it would be like to sleep in those quarters - in the heat and humidity of the southern clime, without a direct window to the outdoors and air, over an already hot kitchen or laundry, or over the odiferous stables. We get big pieces of understanding and insight when we take in location.
Turning our attention to the scripture passage for this morning, there are lots of names of places that may mean little to us 21st century followers of Christ. Except that they’re not complicated.
The passage begins with Jesus withdrawing to Galilee. According to Matthew, Jesus was last in the Judean Desert, where he was tempted. Depending on the specifics, the trip from the desert to Galilee was 95-125 miles. The average speed of walking means that the trip would have taken up to a solid week.
Before Jesus came along, the area - from our scripture passage - was known by the names of the twelve tribes of Israel - after Jacob’s twelve sons. Two of the four areas nearest the Sea of Galilee were Naphtali and Zebulun. By the time Jesus came into the picture, the area was known as Galilee. It’s sort of like what was formerly South Frankfort, known as Elberta today. Within Galilee were several cities, but the two from our passage, Nazareth and Capernaum, were almost 50 miles apart - from here to the other side of Traverse City.
Jesus Begins to Preach
12 When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he withdrew to Galilee. 13 Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali— 14 to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah:
15 “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—16 the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.”[a]
17 From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
Jesus Calls His First Disciples
18 As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 19 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” 20 At once they left their nets and followed him.
21 Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, 22 and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.
Jesus Heals the Sick
23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.
Thank you, Jim. With all the background before hearing our scripture passage, I’m hoping it was easier to think about the scene of lakeshore, with various boats, the smell of a fish market, the sounds of buyers and sellers making their business known to everyone within earshot. And in the middle of a regular day, Jesus picked out a couple of regular guys to join his crew with the intent to change the world - forever. And Jesus did it not just once, but twice on that seashore.
We may think it a dramatic scene, but it is no more dramatic than the Holy Spirit nudging a handful of people, in a fledgling port city in northern lower Michigan, over 150 years ago, to start a Sunday School, and then to start meeting in homes, while arranging for itinerant preachers to visit, all leading up the establishment of a body of Christ near and dear to more than a few folks around the world.
As those early folks farmed and kept store fronts and raised children, God called individuals out to do some world changing endeavors - from the selling of land at a really good deal, to the laborers who literally laid hands on the studs and walls and ceiling and floor around us, to those who ponied up the funds to do even crazier stuff - like raising a sanctuary and putting a meeting room room below, adding a whole two story wing, not to mention acquiring a bell and even restoring the steeple to house said bell. After all that, one might be tempted to wonder what is left for any one of us.
Given the odds, on any given Sunday, there are some folks here who could care less about what God wants of them. Isn’t going to church enough? There are surely some among us who have put in their time and why should they (we) have to think about doing anything further in this life - with whatever time we might have left?
There is a group page on Facebook called “I’m a Choir Director.” On that page, people ask for suggestions for their girls chorus, their church choir, how to deal with indifferent administrators and parents. It’s a good page.
One of the people who follow that page is a woman named Susan Gartman Almjeld. This is the scenario she shared. Back story: My last name is difficult to pronounce, so I often use "mom yelled" as the basis of saying it (drop the beginning m). The students have co-opted the phrase and now just call me Mom yelled.
"Jingle Bells" is my nickname for an 8th grade singer - since 6th grade. She always had a bell on her backpack and merrily jingled down the hallways, leaving smiles in her wake. She also suffers from depression and is truly struggling this year. I noticed during Tuesday's rehearsal that my Jingle Bells was having a hard day. After class, she came and stood by the piano and waited until everyone was gone. With tears running down her cheeks, she asked for a hug. I enveloped her and let her cry and repeated my mantra to her, "you are enough." "You are loved." (Yes, she is getting professional help; yes all staff are keeping our eyes and ears on her)
Bright and early this morning, she gave me a handmade card and a thank you. We shared smiles and tears. If all else fails, I know I have helped my Jingle Bells in some small way.
Maybe a better title for the sermon might be something along the lines of “Keeping the Bells Jingling,” or “In Some Small Way.” Whatever it might be called, it is our reminder that God doesn’t call us after we’ve done this thing or that thing or because we happen to be in a particular place at a particular time. God calls us - and has need of us - in the most usual of moments, in the most common of circumstances and in the most everyday encounters. In fact, just like the four brothers from our passage, we aren’t necessarily called out to do anything super crazy, except being willing to do what we know to be the right thing and the good thing and the needful thing.
While I was searching for good travel jokes, because of all the traveling mentioned and insinuated in the scripture passage, I came across a couple lines that caught the brain. “On a road trip, I remember passing a sign that said, “Rest Stop 1 Mile.” I thought to myself, “Wow, that’s really big.”
Being kinder than we might feel at any particular moment, being more forgiving when we’d rather do anything else, realizing the sacred in the ordinary are all really big things that will continue the legacy started by those folks well over 150 years ago, right here in little old “Frank’s Fort,” as well as the legacy of the One who came to change the trajectory of this world forever. It is a high calling, but the execution of that call is so simple and straightforward, taking what we know to be the higher road. So should we pray.
Gracious God of All Time, thank you for seeing each of us, as so special and so unique, out of the breadth of time and beings. Sometimes when the way grows drear, we forget that you have called us to continue your holy and sacred ministry of love. Sometimes the aches and pains and darkness and uphill battles can seem overwhelming. When those times come, give us those glimpses of where we are, when we are, and who we are - being yours - to help this world that is so in need. Remind us, God, that our mission is that same as those from the seashore that day, to proclaim the Good News of your Kingdom, and the heal every disease and sickness among the people. For our own healing, the healing of those whom we love and for your Good News, all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
January 5, 2020
Second Sunday after Christmas
John 1:1-18, Ephesians 1:3-14
“Grace In Place of Grace”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
So one day, a police officer pulls Ole over for speeding, and naturally the officer asks for his ID. Ole said he didn’t have one - that it had been suspended when he got his 5th erratic driving offense. When the officer asked for the proof of ownership, Ole said that it wasn’t his car, because the vehicle was stolen. Then he said, “Come to think of it, I think I saw the owner's card in the glove box when I was putting my gun in there.” The officer was, naturally, getting a little excited. “There's a gun in the glove box?” Ole said, “Yes sir. That's where I put it after I shot and killed the woman who owns this car and stuffed her in the trunk.” “There's a BODY in the TRUNK?!?!?” Backing up, the officer told Ole to stay right where he was.
The officer called for backup, and the Captain soon approached the car. When the officer asked for Ole’s license, he politely handed over the valid card. When asked about the ownership of the car, Ole said that it was his, issuing the certificate card. The captain asked Ole to slowly open the glove box, so he could see the gun, but, of course, there was nothing in the glove box. And, we all know that there was no body in the trunk.
The captain voiced his confusion over the lack of license, the stolen vehicle, the gun, and the body in the trunk. To which Ole replied, “Yeah, and I’ll bet the other officer told you I was speeding, too!
I got to thinking the other day. I know. Starting off the new year with a bang! Being a little loosey-goosey with the particular official start date, I figure that there have been some 7,928 Sunday morning sermons delivered from this pulpit - or space. There have probably been more overall, if you include Sunday evening services, Ash Wednesday services, Maundy Thursday services and the like. That’s a lot of sermons.
Then I picked the year 64 AD, because I’m figuring that was a fair bit of time after Jesus’ death for the development of early churches. Considering there have probably been millions of churches of all varieties since that time, the number of sermons delivered are probably as vast as the stars in the sky. But, just for one little narrowing of the topic, there have been 102,059 weeks since January 1 of 64 AD. Not only is that a lot of sermons, for what would be one, ongoing church, but one can begin to understand just how it is true that no matter how clever or talented the preacher, there are just a certain number of topics that can be the point of a sermon. Or as the writer of the book of Ecclesiastes put it, “There is nothing new under the sun.”
And yet, we sit on the edge of a new year, some of us having been going to church since Noah was a small boy, and our soul is crying out for something - a something we might not even know we are needing. And so we show up once again, to see what God might have for us on this particular day, at this particular time in your own life as well as in the life of this church family, our nation and the world.
So we come first to the book of John, most likely the last written of the Gospels, international in its scope, beginning with a macroscopic view, microscoping in to a third of John focusing on just 24 hours of Jesus’ life, heavily sprinkled with the word, “believe.” If I were queen of the Bible arrangers, this would be the book to begin the New Testament, rather than Matthew. But, perhaps I’ll have my shot in eternity.
The second passage for this morning comes from the book of Ephesians, probably written by the great Paul as a circular letter, intended to be read in several churches in the area of Ephesus in ancient Greece and the far western coast of modern Turkey, home to several differing religions and ways of life - even back then. As a fledgling religion, Christians struggled with each other in the rigidity or laxity of God’s rules, and so Paul wrote a letter telling them to knock it off and start acting like grown-up followers of Christ.
John 1:1-18 New International Version (NIV)
The Word Became Flesh
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.
The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.
He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
(John testified concerning him. He cried out, saying, “This is the one I spoke about when I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’”) Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.
Ephesians 1:3-14 New International Version (NIV)
Praise for Spiritual Blessings in Christ
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.
In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.
Thank you, Beth/Mike. With all the sermons you may - or may not - have heard before in your life, you have to admit that there is a lot in these verses for thinking on. In fact, if ever a person should find themselves bored, sitting at a stoplight, waiting for a cashier, practically any one of these verses could give you enough content to do some real pondering.
“The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.” Go chew on that one for a spell, because the phrase “was coming” wasn’t meaning just then, but continuing since then. “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” Let that one twirl in your brain for a bit. “Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given.” I love that one, mainly because it sort of popped off the page at me this week, and so I throw it out to you, that maybe it might pop off your ears and your brain for whatever you may need of it this week.
Grace in place of grace already given. In terms of all things God, it probably mostly means that the Law - the Old Testament - all the rules that were intended to help us show God our love for God - which was not all about nefarious and odious rules of suppression - but ways to begin the expression of our gratitude to God if we had no other ideas of how to do that - how that ‘law’ was replaced by a greater gift of grace - the New Testament and the “law” of love made more understandable and relative to us human beings.
But then I wondered, how else is that “fullness” we have all received - grace in place of grace already given? So I have these two cats, Bella and Gracie. Everyday they get fresh water, and every day a little bit is gone out of their bowl. In the winter, I catch the shower water that otherwise goes down the drain, waiting for it to be warm enough to use. I don’t use the bucket of collected water every day, but when I do, it’s for the humidifier. On the days or times that it’s not used, the full bucket sits on the bathroom floor, minding it’s own business.
Even though the cats both have the “grace” of fresh water every day, this greater “grace” of the water in the bucket is so much more wonderful - for lack of a better term. Both Bella and Gracie have discovered the joy of drinking out of that big bucket, probably because it doesn’t cramp their whiskers like maybe the bowl does.
But then there’s the added bonus for Bella - being able to dip her paw into the bucket and then lick the water off her paw. Actually, it’s not really her paw, but her entire arm - up to her elbow. She doesn’t make a mess of splashing the water all over like some cats might be apt to do. And I don’t know if it’s the novelty that it’s not available in the summer or just what all else, but there is a certain amount of ‘grace in place of grace already given’ in that scenario. At least in the world of felines. And it’s good that they are drinking more water than otherwise, too.
Going back to the Ephesians passage, what spiritual blessing have you been given that is for the praise of God’s glory - that is over and above what might be usual in another person’s life? I can hear eyes rolling or the groans in some of your heads, that this is a question for everyone else, but me - meaning you. I understand how easy it is to think that God has given other people a particular gift, or that particular talent, but me, not so much.
Except that’s not the way it is. If you had no particular grace upon grace, then why would God have thought about you before you were born - back when time began? Some folks might be tempted to think that others have been “graced” with an extra portion of compassion or the great super power of joy. While some folks have rather apparent ‘graces,’ others of us have quieter ones, or ‘graces’ that seem less consequential, like being able to catch the eye of a person who needed to be seen that day. Or maybe you are a huge influence in a person’s life, and without you, that person would be much the poorer in soul. Or using someone’s name who hasn’t heard it spoken in a few days or even weeks. It is easy to think that what we do is not a big thing, except that it is a big thing, because it is given to us by the One who was, is and always shall be the Word, through whom all things were made to the praise of God’s glory.
It seems like the beginning of the year is a good time to be reminded of those things that we know - of God’s Creation, Redemption and Salvation, of Christ’s Love, Hope and Peace, and of the Spirit’s Indwelling, Inspiration and Empowerment. While not new news, it is even so, Good News, that we need to hear every so often. So shall we pray into that reminder?
God of Light and Love, thank you for your love, the love that is often times so far beyond our comprehension and sometimes inability to fully incorporate in our daily lives. In this new year and the weeks ahead, continue to remind us as you give us moments of using our grace upon grace in loving those you have given us. Help us to realize our lives as one foot on earth and one foot in eternity and how that not only changes us, but can change how we interact with our families and friends and even strangers. Empower us to be the praise to your name that you have seen in us from so very long ago. And all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
December 29, 2019
First Sunday after Christmas
“Lingering at the Stable” (Stable Songs)
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Welcome to this Christmas Hymn/Carol Sing Sunday. With all the work that goes into getting ready for the holidays, when we have to move right on to the “next thing,” maybe we get cheated out of some of that reflection and reveling time. So it’s a good thing, that within the church calendar, there is generally at least one Sunday where we get to appreciate how all the preparations have come together, and today, we will do that through some of the songs, hymns and spiritual songs of the season.
Besides “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” the other most appropriate song to start a service or season is “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” The tune that we know, found in the lower righthand corner, is Veni Emmanuel, music written for a French Franciscan Requiem Mass Processional in the 15th century.
The words, however, are ancient, with some 90 scriptural references. Each verse of this hymn, originally there were six, refers to Christ by various Old Testament titles, like Emmanuel, Dayspring, Wisdom and Desire of Nations, exemplifying Christ as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. In addition to its anticipation of Christ’s birth, the hymn can also be interpreted to refer to the Second Coming.
John M. Neale translated the original Latin verses into English. He was born in London in 1818, and over the course of his 48 years and ill health, John actually accomplished a great deal. He attended Trinity College in Cambridge, England, was ordained in the Church of England, spent 20 years as the warden for a retirement home for poor men, that he expanded to include women and orphans, founded the Sisterhood of St. Margaret, which became one of the finest English training orders for nurses, wrote two volumes of hymns for children and translated numerous hymns from Greek and Latin.
If there is nothing else that comes from this hymn, it is a reminder, that even when we feel like we aren’t able to do much, God can do much with what we offer. Through all his pulmonary issues, Dr. Neale maintained a mixture of gentleness and firmness along with a high degree of courage of his definite and strong convictions, maintaining the greatest charity towards and forbearance with, those who didn’t agree with him. So let us stand and sing all the verses of #245, this most remarkable work.
“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” #245 1-4
A fair number of our Christmas song repertoire comes from Germany, and then the next most common carols come from France, Italy, Spain and Scandinavia. So our very old, Polish carol of unknown origin, “Infant Holy, Infant Lowly, is rather precious. Unlike our first hymn that was published in 463 hymnals, this one has a been published in just 93 hymnals. And yet, it has been recorded by such famed musicians as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, and opera singers Kathleen Battle and Christopher Parkenin.
There is a fair bit of agreement that many of our hymns - of all types - come from the music of the people, including dance music. With that thought, it is quite interesting that this Polish carol, in 3/4 time, comes from the same place as the famous Frederic Chopin, most notable for his rhythmic mazurkas. If we put such carols and music into our feet, how much deeper will they go into our hearts and minds and souls? Despite what the bulletin says, you can remain seated for the singing of our next two hymns.
“Infant Holy, Infant Lowly” #279 both
“While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night" was "the only Christmas hymn to be approved by the Church of England in all of the 18th century and this allowed it to be disseminated across the country with the Book of Common Prayer." This was because most carols, which had roots in folk music, were considered too secular and thus not used in church services until the end of the 18th century.
The original “story” was in six verses, telling the story of Christ’s birth from the shepherds point of view. The writer of this song, Nahum Tate, was born in Ireland, but lived most of his life in London. Mr. Tate wasn’t a household name by any stretch, but he was appointed poet laureate and royal historiographer, even though he died while living at a refuge for debtors.
There is a “joke” that musicians like to toss around, saying that much of Emily Dickinson’s poetry can be sung to the song “Yellow Rose of Texas.” To that point, down in the bottom righthand corner, under the tune’s name of Christmas, C.M. with Repeat stands for Common Meter, which is 4/4 time. Any song with a common meter can be interchanged with any other song with a common meter.
So in Cornwall, this carol is sung with the tune usually sung with “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” while the rest of the United Kingdom uses the tune Winchester Old. Here in the states, is it most commonly sung to Christmas, the tune based on a soprano aria by George Frederic Handel. It’s not just every song - or text - that becomes so associated with a classical composer.
“While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks” #272 1 & 4
Noël is the French word for Christmas and is from the Latin natalis, meaning "birthday." Though “The First Noel” is often used for Christmas, its narrative is actually better suited to Epiphany, as its loose basis on Luke 2 and Matthew 2 includes the wise men.
This carol is an anonymous folk song, believed to date from the 13th or 14th century, a time in which all medieval civilization in Europe was springing to life, and used in dramatizations of favorite Bible stories for holidays called the Miracle or Mystery Plays. Most medieval poetry was written to be sung, so it is presumed that the words were written with an existing tune in mind. This probably makes the tune to the song even older, and is likely English or French, which makes it a lot like a lot of us - mixed combinations of elements that come together in some good and lasting ways. And thank you, God, for that! Let us stand and sing verses 1, 3, 4 and 5 of “The First Noel”.
“The First Noel” #265 1, 3, 4, 5
“Joseph Dearest, Joseph Mine” is perhaps the most obscure carol we have this morning. With the tune, Resonet in Laudibus” and the translator both being anonymous, there is little with which to fill out this song. Except that it is a sort of lullaby, and it has Joseph asking to rock the baby, so maybe, at the very least, it could be called one of the more progressive Christmas carols.
Edward L. Stauff put this particular harmonization - or chording - together, and he is most definitely our most contemporary music contributor this morning. The Choral Public Domain Library says that he is a software engineer by trade and a musician by calling. And he even has a couple of emails and a website (that doesn’t work.)
Back in the 1400s, when people were not allowed to attend pagan plays, the Church sponsored various Christmas and Easter mystery plays that provided sacred entertainment interwoven with religious instruction. It’s good food for the soul - when it can span 700 years and still speak to the creative parts of us. Feel free to remain seated as we sing the two verses of this classic carol.
“Joseph Dearest, Joseph Mine” S 89
I have to admit that I hadn’t heard of Ken Bible, the writer of the lyrics for “Love Has Come!”, born in 1950. Like so many others we’ve heard of this morning, Mr. Bible took an old melody that is attributed to the son from a long line of herdsmen from Provence, France, put it on top of the familiar “Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella,” and came up with a Christmas carol that not only speaks about God’s love, but makes great sense in our modern day. Mr. Bible was rather brilliant in putting his text onto a tune that most of us know, one degree to another. And he helps us to see that it was Love, with a capital L, lying in that manger. “Love Has Come” helps us to actually see that “The heavens could not contain the message of God’s love to humanity, so it exploded in the Bethlehem skies. That’s the gift of Christmas, the love of God brought to us in Jesus Christ, God in the flesh.” So let us give ourselves some of that message, in the singing of verses 1 & 2.
“Love Has Come!” 256 1, 2
When it comes to the song, “Away in a Manger,” any musician worth their salt would make sure to specify: Kirkpatrick or Murray. Long thought to be the work of Martin Luther, modern thought is that, maybe not so much. In fact, the tune was once known as Luther’s cradle hymn, but in the lower right corner, you can see how the non-attribution to Luther has caused even the tune name to be contemporized. To add even more to the obscurity of this beloved hymn, no one is sure about the words, especially the entire third verse.
As you all have, no doubt, become more sensitive to the wealth of information included on the pages of our hymnals, you can see in the lower left corner that today we are singing Kirkpatrick’s version - or as it is in my head - the other version.
William James Kirkpatrick was born in Ireland, and when he was about two, his parents immigrated to the US, leaving him behind, thinking that he was too young, although his mother gave birth on the ship during the crossing. By the time he was sixteen, Kirkpatrick was living in Philadelphia, studying music and carpentry, because even back then, musicians didn’t make enough working just one job. Along with voice studies, he also took on cello, fife, flute, organ, and violin. Throughout his life, Mr. Kirkpatrick was a Sunday School teacher, a member of the church choir, a Fife-Major of the 91st Regiment of the Pennsylvania Volunteers, and continued to write and publish hymns, ending with a career track of 49 major books. Mr. Kirkpatrick might have - might not have - but might have thought of his life, being separated from his parents at a young age as a rather large stumbling block in his life. If he did, we surely don’t see it in what was left of his life after he died. May we so be inspired - not only by the sweetness and beauty of the words of this precious carol - but in the life and legacy of the man who wrote the music for it.
“Away in a Manger” #261 or #262 1-3
Those paying attention to the bulletin and the verse numbers to be sung may be a bit confused, indicating that we would sing verses 1, 2 and 4 of “Go, Tell It,” because there are just three verses in our hymnals. Not to be one to gloat, I would like to point out all the rest of the bulletin that doesn’t have any mistakes. Just sayin’.
Technically an African-American spiritual song, “Go, Tell It” is considered a Christmas carol because its original lyrics celebrate the Nativity of Jesus. The only tune ever associated with it is “Go Tell It,” but one group that adapted the song was Peter, Paul and Mary, rewriting the lyrics to refer to the civil rights struggle of the early 1960s, making reference to the Exodus and using the phrase "Let my people go”.
It’s an interesting premise, “telling it on the mountain”. In the Bible, the mountain often represents the holy presence of God, the mountain being a barrier between the Israelites and God’s presence, much like the curtain in the temple dividing the people from the Holy of Holies. Moses has to go up the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments and to see the Promised Land. In the Gospel, Jesus is transfigured on a mountain. In the Old Testament especially, the mountain is a place that is set apart – not just everyone can go up the mountain to be in God’s presence.
When Christ was born however, God’s presence came down to God’s people in a new form, in the helplessness of a baby. In ‘Going and Telling,” we sing out the story of the nativity, as we become part of those who tear down the walls between us and God, so that the Holy Spirit can bridge our hearts with God’s. Going and Telling is a far more holy and sacred task than many of us might have previously thought.
“Go, Tell It on the Mountain” #258 1, 2, 4
The writer of our last text, James Montgomery, was born in Scotland, the son of missionaries who left him to go to the West Indies, where they died within a year of each other. (One has to wonder about the lot of hymn writers and the difficulty of their early lives!)
On failing to complete his schooling, he was apprenticed to a baker, then to a store-keeper. After an unsuccessful attempt to launch a literary career in London, Montgomery became an assistant auctioneer, bookseller and newspaper printer and owner. He was twice imprisoned on charges of sedition, first for printing a song that celebrated the fall of the Bastille and again when he printed an account of a riot.
Even so, Mr. Montgomery published eleven volumes of poetry, mainly his own, and at least four hundred hymns. Some critics judge his hymn texts to be equal in quality to those of Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley. His poems tended to be rather lengthy, and some of them addressed some of the social issues of the times. One of his most famous poems came out of his imprisonment, called “Prison Amusements.” A large portion of his writings reflected concern for humanitarian causes such as the abolition of slavery and the exploitation of child chimney sweeps.
Being a great summation of the Stable Story, “Angels, from the Realms of Glory” makes sense to be placed at the end of such a service as this, because it commends us to go out as shepherds to worship where our journeys take us, just as it was for them. The refrain gives us an extra push, that as we go where Christ takes us, that we embrace the worship of that same Christ, in all our moments and paths, as a way of life, living in joy like that when a child is born. So let us do all of that as we stand and sing all the verses of our final hymn this morning.
“Angels from the Realms of Glory” #259 1-5 (end)
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.