12-27-2015 Carol Sing Sunday
First Congregational Church
December 27, 2015
First Sunday after Christmas
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Joy to the world! the Lord is come
As an opening hymn for worship on the first Sunday after Christmas, “Joy to the World!” makes all the sense in the world. It’s up-beat, it’s familiarity allows us to sing with a little more gusto than usual, and the words are so spot-on.
It’s ironic that the writer of the words never intended his hymn for Christmas use. Instead, he intended to paraphrase the words of Psalm 98: "Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth . . . for he comes. . .”, Christianizing the Psalms, as it were. With his pen, the author celebrated God's protection and restoration of God’s chosen people, in addition to the salvation that began when God became human. Both the psalm and the hymn also look ahead, to Christ coming again to reign: "He will judge the world with righteousness"
In our familiarity, we may forget that it was written by the Congregational composer, Isaac Watts, nearly 300 years ago. He became recognized as the "Father of English Hymnody", credited with some 750 hymns. As of the late 1900’s, our opening hymn this morning was the most-published Christmas hymn in North America.
Once in royal David's city
One of the Christmas traditions celebrated by many people in the English-speaking world is to tune in on Christmas Eve, either on radio or television, to the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, originating from King’s College, Cambridge. This tradition began in 1918, was first broadcast in 1928, and is now heard by millions around the world.
Arthur Henry Mann, the organist at King’s College at the time, introduced an arrangement of “Once in Royal David’s City” as the opening, processional hymn for the service. In his version, the first stanza is sung unaccompanied by a boy chorister, followed by the choir on the next verse and finally the congregation joining in on the following verses. Not that being that boy chorister would bring a lot of pressure, but I’ve heard it told that the soloist is never told which boy it will be until right before he takes the first step down the aisle, the chorus master pointing to the chosen one.
The gentleman that wrote the tune, the melodic part that has been given the name IRBY, was Henry John Gauntlett. He was no schmo, either - having studied in the fields of law and music, out of which - it is said - that he wrote over 10,000 hymn tunes. This morning we all get to be the chosen chorister, singing verses 1, 2 and 3.
O little town of Bethlehem
The author of “O Little Town of Bethlehem, Phillips Brooks, came from a long line of Puritan ancestors, many of whom had been Congregational clergymen. He was the most famous preacher and the most widely-loved clergyman of his time, perhaps much like Billy Graham of our day.
He was fortunate to take a trip to the Holy Lands in 1865, then riding a horse for two hours to get to Bethlehem. Before dark, they rode out of town to the field where it is said the shepherds saw the star. Brooks described the place as a fenced piece of ground with a cave in it (all the Holy Places are caves here, said Rev. Brooks), in which, strangely enough, they thought the shepherds to be. The story is absurd, but somewhere in those fields we rode through the where the shepherds must have been. . . . As we passed, the shepherds were still “keeping watch over their flocks or leading them home to fold.”
A few years later, after Rev. Brooks had written the words, he asked a church colleague to write the music to this carol for Sunday morning worship. Rev. Brooks went to Mr. Redner on Friday, and said, ‘Redner, have you ground out that music yet to “O Little Town of Bethlehem”?’ He replied, ‘No,’ but that he should have it by Sunday. On Saturday night, Lewis Redner’s brain still struggled with the tune. The composer was roused from sleep late in the night, hearing an angel-strain whispering in his ear, and seizing a piece of music paper he jotted down the melody of the tune as we now have it, and on Sunday morning before going to church he filled in the harmony. Neither Rev. Brooks nor Mr. Redner ever thought the carol or the music to it would live beyond that Christmas of 1868.
Lo, how a Rose e'er blooming
“Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” is a familiar and beloved Advent hymn. The hymn’s origins may be traced back to the late 16th century in a manuscript found in St. Alban’s Carthusian monastery in Trier in the original German, “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen.” The original verses numbered between 19 and 23, focusing on the events of Luke 1 and 2 and Matthew 2.
The origin of the image of the rose has been open to much speculation. For example, an unauthenticated legend has it that on Christmas Eve, a monk in Trier found a blooming rose while walking in the woods, and then placed the rose in a vase on an altar.
Some Catholic sources claim that the focus of the hymn was originally on Mary, who is compared to the symbol of the “mystical rose” in the Old Testament book, Song of Solomon (2:1): “I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys.”
It has been suggested that at a later date Protestants took the hymn, altering its focus from Mary to Jesus. Citing Isaiah 11:1—“And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots.” - some controversy arose as to the original German word in the first line of stanza one: Was it “Ros” (rose) or “Reis” (branch)?
A third passage from Isaiah 35:1 suggests a stronger biblical basis for the image: “The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for them; and the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose.”
261 Away in a manger, no crib for a bed
The first two verses of "Away In A Manger" are anonymous. They have been attributed to Martin Luther, but this is not clear and likely not true. The popularity of this hymn is noted in the over 41 versions that exist.
In fact, we get an example of the importance of tune names in this very song. The version we will sing today is #261, and if you look down to the bottom of the hymn, you see that the tune name is “Cradle Song.” #262 has the same words, but different melody and harmony, being called “Away In a Manger.”
You will note that there is a number below the hymn tune name. That is that song’s metrical number. For those who weren’t here the last time this number was mentioned, it is the number of syllables in each line. You can count them as we sing it, but the “fun” of that number is the interchangeability of other hymns with the same metrical number in the metrical index - that can be found in the back of most hymnals. So we could sing “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise” to either of these hymn tunes, as we could with “My Jesus, I Love Thee” and “How Firm A Foundation, Ye Saints of the Lord.”
Although this last bit of information has no real correlation to the season of which we sing, it does, for me, provide another example of the perfection in the combination of music and numbers, a beautiful connection for the more left-brained among us. For those whose brains are now exploding with insight, we will get to “Away in the Manger” after we first sing “Lo, How a Rose.”
264 Break forth, O beauteous heavenly light
“Break forth, O beauteous heavenly light” will not be found on any top ten Advent carol, Christmas carol or Christmas song list. It is in part because it is an Epiphany hymn. And the harmonization of the melody was composed by Johann Sebastian Bach, it thus being a Bach chorale. Johann would take a melody like the one from this hymn and construct an entire worship service around it: prelude, vocal and instrumental solos and hymns, of course basing them on that rotating schedule of scriptures called the lectionary, at one point in his career, cranking out one chorale a week.
For a long while, hymns of this age and complication were dismissed or disliked for those very reasons of age and complication. But studies are discovering what church musicians have known for centuries; that old hymns have a substance to them that does not disappear or wears out. In fact, some of the best theology the Christian church has today is wrapped within old chestnuts as “Break forth.”
267 I heard the bells on Christmas day
If “Break forth, O beauteous heavenly light” would be considered more theological, “I heard the bells on Christmas day” would be more pastoral. One of America's best known poets, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned the words to our final hymn this morning on December 25, 1864, just three years before this church family gathered.
Originally in seven verses, two were omitted because of their direct connection to the Civil War. When Longfellow penned the words to his poem, America was still months away from Lee's surrender to Grant, his poem reflecting the prior years of the war's despair, ending with a confident hope of triumphant peace. As with any composition that touches the heart of the hearer, "I Heard the Bells" flowed from Longfellow’s experiences - involving the tragic burning death of his wife Fanny and the crippling spine injury of his son Charles from war wounds.
It has been assumed that this darkish carol was written because of Longfellow’s son’s death. It is the opposite; he lived. The message for Longfellow was that the Living God is a God of Peace, proclaimed in the close of the carol: "Of peace on Earth, good will to men.” And so may it be for us as well.
12-20-15 Sunday Sermon, Advent 4
First Congregational Church
December 20, 2015
4th Sunday in Advent
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
(The following play was purchased with our Sunday School Curriculum.)
BARBIE: Hey, Ken, it’s me. Just wondering where you are. I’m in the Play Doh aisle if you get this, so call me. Or drop by.
GUY: Well hello there. Fancy seeing you here.
BARBIE: (sighs) Hello, Monopoly Guy
GUY: We have to stop meeting like this, you know.
BARBIE: Oh, if only we could.
GUY: Seems like every year about this time, we find ourselves here.
BARBIE: It’s the toy department. It’s where we belong.
GUY: You still dating Ken?
BARBIE: What if I am?
GUY: Never got what you saw in that guy, with his painted on smile and plastic hair.
BARBIE: At least he has hair.
GUY: Too bad he doesn’t have money.
BARBIE: It’s Monopoly money!
GUY: It’s more than he has.
BARBIE: I see you have a few new special editions out.
GUY: Ah yes. Always diversifying, you know.
BARBIE: I bet that Harry Potter Monopoly edition sells more than you do.
GUY: Maybe it will, maybe it won’t, but a year from now, Harry Potter will be gone, and I’ll still be here.
BARBIE: As will I.
GUY: You can’t beat the classics.
BARBIE: No, you sure can’t.
GUY: Speaking of which, have you seen the Potato Heads?
BARBIE: I had lunch with Mrs. Potato Head today.
GUY: I hear they have quite a few offspring of their own. Star Wars Potato Heads, Spider-Man, Batman.
BARBIE: It’s ridiculous.
GUY: That’s kids today. They want something new, hip, and shiny. You know they swapped out the iron for a cat?
BARBIE: No! Not the iron!
GUY: Dreadful business. Next thing you know, Col. Mustard will be off the Clue game, replaced by Justin Bieber.
BARBIE: Don’t get me started on the Biebs. I’m so sick of him and his dolls. I’d like to see him be the victim on Clue.
GUY: In the billiards room?
BARBIE: With the wrench!
GUY: Relax, Bieber will be gone in a year.
BARBIE: And someone else will take his place.
GUY: But we’ll still be here.
BARBIE: You can count on that.
GUY: We’ve been popular for decades. No reason to think that’s gonna change. BARBIE: Some gifts are eternal, aren’t they? JESUS: Only one of them. GUY: I’m sorry, I don’t believe we’ve met. I’m the Monopoly Guy. BARBIE: Hi, I’m Barbie. JESUS: Nice to meet you both. GUY: I don’t think I’ve seen you around. Are you a new movie tie-in action figure? JESUS: Not at all. BARBIE: You look like something out of one of those ancient history epics. JESUS: I do go back quite a ways. GUY: How long? JESUS: Two thousand years. GUY: Two thousand years? Why that would date you back to the first Christmas. JESUS: Yes, it does.
BARBIE: Who are you?
JESUS: I’m the giver of the very first Christmas gift, and I’m also the gift. I’m the one who gave up everything to give the world something it could never earn on its own.
JESUS: Eternal life.
GUY: Eternal life? That’s incredible. That’s unbelievable! That’s--
BARBIE: The most amazing gift anyone could ever receive.
39 At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, 40 where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43 But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”
46 And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me holy is his name. 50 His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. 51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. 52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. 53 He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful 55 to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.”
Thank you, John R., Jean N., Dale H. and Missi G. Albeit light-hearted, there is a sweet juxtaposition between the reader’s theater piece and this morning’s scripture passage. Those elements of comparison have some good points for us, as well as the actions of Elizabeth and Mary giving us some good lessons.
Somewhere in the past, I came across a statement that said our primary job in all the world is to worship God. Since we do this “worship” thing every week, and a lot of people all over the globe put money, effort and talent into this weekly event, just exactly what is it we are are to be doing?
Gabe Campbell once said that the only requirement of a wedding is for the bride and groom to promise to be married to each other in front of another person and that there are two witnesses. That’s it. Just the witnessed promises - not the prayers, the ceremony, and especially not the reception and flowers. So what are the bare essentials of worship, especially in this season in which we “worship the newborn king?”
While the Monopoly Guy and Barbie knocks down the Biebster, Elizabeth shows us an element of worship: in her proclamation - speaking words of truth and praise and calling on God’s goodness. Not in a little, quiet, unsure voice, but with an immediacy and certainty statement of what she knew to be true. There are times when our situations are such that our worship is barely audible, and God understands those times. But the general idea of worship is to be bold and sure.
It is firstly, but not completely about God, because there is the element of humility in her wondering the opposite of ‘somewhere in her youth or childhood, having done something good.’
Our worship of God is saying - out loud - truths about God and our relationship to God. Mary talked about what was going on inside, her soul being a light reflecting the light and magnitude of God, actually singing in delight.
The Call to Worship, the hymns, the Lord’s Prayer, are all important in that they are uttered, and once hurled out into the universe, there is no taking them back - from us or from God. Our strength - as a church family - is increased when we hear what we are saying in that singular point in time that can never be repeated again in exactly that way. That is the strength that goes with us when we leave to go back to our individual lives, all through the year.
After the lesson about worship, there is the lesson of promise from our passage this morning. Barbie and the Monopoly Guy talked about it in terms of the classic qualities of toys, and Luke used the idea of generation to generation, God’s gifts of mercy, protection, filling the hungry with good things, all the way back to Abraham and all the generations in the future.
Just as it has been for God’s people throughout all of history, there will be times and individuals that will not look as if they are some of God’s protected and filled - physically or metaphorically. Just because things don’t look like they are true doesn’t mean they are not true. In the early months of any pregnancy, the mother doesn’t look pregnant. Her looks don’t negate the fact that she is with child. Just because it doesn’t look like Jesus loves me enough to get me the right job or the right toy for Christmas doesn’t mean that God isn’t mindful of how we are and what we need.
So this little passage about birth announcements tells us about worship and promises, but it also tells us about identity. In one sense, we have the identity of worshipers and recipients of God’s promises. But our identities are greater than just worshipers and just promise recipients, because they also include the idea of servanthood.
I think that far too often we associate servanthood with aspects of slavery; lack of freedom and being poorly treated. Willfully choosing to take on the identity of a servant, is respectful, honorable and a calling that is given to all of us. Both Mary and Elizabeth could have gotten themselves into tizzies because of their pregnancies. But they took their situations in stride, because they understood that they were about doing God’s work, whatever that was - how crazy it seemed.
We, too, are about God’s work, whatever it is. Some days, God’s work is pretty big and scary. Other days, God’s work can look like anything but work. The real importance is the condition of the heart, about doing all that we can to help others see God’s grandeur and intimacy, love and mercy.
Along with the identity of servanthood, there is the idea of blessedness. Both Elizabeth and Mary clearly understood God had chosen them to have particular roles in the history of time. Them. Just the two of them.
So what has God chosen for you to do? Just you?
Too often we try to avoid our assignments for a multitude of fears and insecurities. But in our heart of hearts, if and when we sit still enough,we realize just what an incredible opportunity we have in being co-workers with God in God’s kingdom. God certainly uses trees and lakes and animals and galaxies to bring about God’s kingdom. But we were created last, so that we could use those very creations - with God - in bringing peace and harmony to the people that call this little, old planet home. God never had to use us, but God chose - and continues to choose us. God’s been doing that for longer than any of us can imagine, but today, we are reminded of what God’s choices mean for us, so we had better pray.
Creator God of all that we know, we come to you this morning just a little awed by all that you have for us. That you give us jobs give us identities of worthiness, and that you keep your promises throughout time displays your worthiness and that you give us examples of how to praise you gives us direction. And there are no other gods that give such classic gifts. So for that alone, we thank you. But you didn’t stop there and you sent your beloved son, in the most priceless of gifts; that of a baby. That you did that out of love gives us the cause to praise, believe and follow you all the more. Help us to point to you, gracious God, whenever we think this world is completely about us, that others will know the blessedness of belonging to you. And all your children say, Amen.
12/13/15 Sunday Sermon, Advent 3
First Congregational Church
December 13, 2015
Third Sunday in Advent
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
In looking up potential jokes about fiddles, I was somewhat surprised. There were the anti-fiddle jokes, like, what’s the best thing to play on a fiddle? A flame-thrower. Why are fiddles better than ukuleles? They burn longer. How can you tell if a fiddle is out of tune? The bow is moving.
And then there were the anti-violin jokes, like, what's the difference between a violin and a fiddle? A fiddle is fun to listen to. How do you get two violinists to play in unison? Shoot one.
There was one joke that split the difference. What's the difference between a fiddle and a violin? No-one minds if you spill beer on a fiddle. This differentiation between them is helpful to note. It's a violin if you're selling it. It's a fiddle if you're buying it.
It has been said that Leonard Bernstein, director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra for many years, was once asked what was the hardest instrument in the orchestra to play. The famous orchestra conductor said, probably with a smile, “Second fiddle!”
As so many know, every instrument is vital to the harmony of an orchestra. The finest musician in each section of the orchestra always occupies first chair. But there can be no triumphant harmony without those playing second, third, and even fourth chair.
Second fiddle was the role that God called John the Baptist to fulfill and his role was to prepare for the advent of Christ. In some ways, having so much focus on John the Baptist in this Lectionary Year C is sort of apropos, in that, I, for one, can’t wait to get to some of the real Christmas story and characters.
On a little side note, the word advent is interesting. It is defined as “the arrival of a notable person, thing, or event.” (Notice the lack of a specific individual, like Jesus.) In Christian theology, it is the coming or second coming of Christ. But it also looks a little like the word “adventure.” Or to disassemble it a bit, into add and vent, it’s like adding a vent like air. And really confounding - is that Christ has already come, but we celebrate his coming - every year. I know that all may seem a little strange or weird, but it is sometimes in the weird and strange that insights rise up and become a point that makes for a richer understanding.
Anyway, that John understood his role is clearly seen in his own words, not very long after this morning’s passage. John said, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). Contrary to popular understanding the role of second fiddle is not an inconsequential role but rather a significant one. All who occupy positions of leadership in any category depend upon hundreds of people behind the scenes who give support. Whatever melody is being played is dependent upon scores of people.
Drew J. Gunnels Jr., of Spring Hill Baptist Church in Mobile, AL once said that “God had raised up John, the son of Zechariah, as a witness to the coming of his son, Jesus. John was an ascetic, living in the desert on locusts and wild honey. He was a fiery preacher and always preached for a verdict.” I would venture to say that my preaching is not for a verdict so much, but for reflecting on our own lives, mine included, and how we can become better at following Christ, witnesses to the Holy Spirit, and servants of God.
7 John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 9 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
10 “What should we do then?” the crowd asked. 11 John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”
13 “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them. 14 Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”
15 The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. 16 John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” 18 And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.
Thank you, Bill. What a sweet little passage for this third Sunday in Advent! Yes, that was sarcasm.
But it has some relevant points for us in the 21st century crowds. Part of John’s point is that we cannot ride on the coat tails of those who came before us. Being related to the great Abraham would not be enough to anyone to avoid asking for God’s forgiveness. It would be like any one of us saying we were sinless because we could trace our roots back to Adam and/or Eve. But in order to be that sinless, we have to be living completely sinless lives, living in purity on our own, to our own accounts. And Lord knows that just ain’t gonna happen.
Despite all the dire and drear warnings from John the Baptist, the crowd gets the warning and asks what they need to do. He told them to do three things—first, to share what they had with those in need. The “haves” were to share with the “have-nots.” In addition, John told them to be honest. Perhaps it has always been so, but it sure seems that our world today could sure use a good batch of honesty, sprinkled with tact and kindness. And finally John said to be content. Like our day, the people wanted more. They were never satisfied.
In one sense, if John the Baptist had said that the crowd would be exonerated of their sins by climbing a mountain or paying X number shekels or making a pilgrimage to the great state of Minnesota, that would be easy. Instead, John says to be rightly related to God as well as to our neighbor, essentially living our lives around the basics of humility, justice, and mercy.
He could have told people to become ascetics, moving out into the middle of nowhere or some mountaintop cave - to meditate and chant mantras and offer prayers day and night for the rest of their lives. John could have told folks - especially the soldiers who were there - no doubt armed - to go launch a revolution and found a political movement. Or he could have told the ordinary working folks - carpenters, bakers, tax collectors - to go and establish some huge social service agency to reach out to lepers and to other marginalized people in the culture of the day.
He basically sent every person who came to him back to his or her regular life, regular activities, regular vocation and then told each person, “Do what you’ve been doing but do it better, do it more honestly, do it as an act of service for others.” Share what you have, John said. Be honest and above board in your work, John said. Be faithful to whatever task is yours to perform in life, John said. In a way, John’s words boiled down to, “Be nice!” And I know a lot of us are, especially those from Minnesota.
In a crazy sort of way, that is the message that foretells the advent of the Messiah. The coming of Christ and Christ’s salvation and the reconciliation of all things - entails and involves a nearly endless lists of things. Ultimately we believe that no corner of the cosmos will go untouched by the renewal project that is salvation through Christ. The Dutch Reformed theologian Abraham Kuyper is famous for many things, and one of his most famous is the saying, “There is not one square inch of this universe about which Christ cannot say ‘That is mine.’” True enough.
Such a sweeping claim involves all sorts of really big things - powers and principalities, nations and kings, planets and star systems. And it also involves all the not-so-big things like cooking lutefisk and working on Excel spreadsheets and volunteering at a food pantry.
When people went to ask John what the coming of all this change meant for them in their ordinary lives, John sent them back to their ordinary lives as changed people. He sent them back - not necessarily to try to change the world on their own, and not necessarily to assume a new set of spiritual practices or ambitious projects the likes of which they’d never dreamed of before. John just told them to do what they had been doing all along and do it better, to do it all in ways that are a part of their every day lives - little though those actions may seem to be - that would be part of a grander work of cosmic renewal.
So often people don’t think they are very spiritual. They don’t think that what they do at retirement, at their work, in the classroom, around the dinner table matters much or has much by way of spiritual implications. But they are wrong. You are wrong if you think that. If even a preacher as radical as old John the Baptist was could dole out the advice he did to people who wondered what active repentance and salvation would look like in their lives, then everything we do is profoundly spiritual and profoundly important.
“And with many other words . . . John preached the good news to them.” That’s how Luke sums up John’s ministry. It was Good News to be told both to stop the excuses and get it together AND to be told a little bit about what the result of such honesty and synchronicity would look like in action. The Gospel will change the whole world, including that little corner of the world where you and I live and work every Tuesday morning, Friday afternoon or Sunday evening.
Advent has become such a “special” time of the year that preachers and those who listen to preachers alike can too easily forget that this special time of the year is not so very special at all unless it has a profound effect on all the ordinary, non-special moments of our lives as well. And in that realization, there is a deep and satisfying joy that can change us from the inside out. To that end, let us pray.
God of time and eternity, we thank you for this season that reminds us of the scope of your world in its timelessness and meaning - even if we sometimes forget those things. For all the ways that you give us to help bring about your “coming again,” we are grateful. For the opportunities, which are as constant as our breath, we thank you for be able to be workers with you in bringing your kingdom to this world. For your Son, who brings your love to a place where we can so much more appreciate it, we are blessed. So help us be mindful in the coming week of our true relationship with you, that we are never separated or divided in you, that you are the tuning fork to which we all play second, third and fourth fiddle. For the joy of such great and meaningful work and privilege, all your people say, Amen.
12-06-15 Sunday Sermon, Advent 2
First Congregational Church
December 6, 2015
Second Sunday in Advent
“Preparing the Way of the Lord One Valley, One Brick at a Time”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Back in the wild West, a stranger stands at a saloon bar. Suddenly a cowboy runs in screaming, “Hey, everybody, Big Bad John is coming to town.” Several others exclaim: “Big Bad John is the meanest, toughest, biggest outlaw in the West. Let’s run for it.” Everyone heads for the door except the stranger and the bartender. The bartender says, “Are you deaf, mister? Big Bad John is coming!” The stranger replies, “I don’t know who he is, but he can’t be all that big and bad. I’m not afraid.” So the stranger and the bartender wait. Soon the saloon doors fly off their hinges, and a mountain of a man stomps through the door. Covered with scars and sporting a scowl, he demands a drink. The bartender meekly complies. The stranger nervously thinks to himself, “Now I wish I had run away; this guy is the biggest, meanest-looking outlaw I’ve ever seen.” The outlaw downs the drink in one gulp, slams it down on the bar, then turns and looks the stranger coldly in the eye to announce, “I don’t know about you, stranger, but I’m gettin’ outta here. I don’t wanna be here when Big Bad John comes in!”
It is a different John that is at the center of our scripture passage this morning, and definitely not from the wild West, although it was wild. Scott Hoezee from Calvin Seminary described the scene as “a wilderness wasteland, coming to land at the calloused and filthy foot of a wild ox of a man called John. He’s got wild honey dripping off his scraggly beard and is arrayed in something that could best be described as resembling the fur of some road-kill animal from the side of a highway. He’s got a distant look in his eye, as though at any moment he might lunge forward and begin to spout off whatever fool things came into his head. In some ways, what John says sounds like fool things coming off the top of his head.
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar - when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene - 2 during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 4 As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. 5 Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. 6 And all people will see God’s salvation.’”
Thank you, John. There is a part of me that is fascinated at large machinery. In fact, in a delusional moment in high school, I took the military test to see if I would qualify to drive bulldozers and derricks and such. For those wondering, I passed.
In Minnesota, just as it is in Michigan, there are really just two seasons: winter and road construction. One hour commute one-way, pre-Frankfort day, I drove up on a construction site that had massive potential to make me late for work. The first things were the big roller machines that compact asphalt, and in front of that was the machinery that lays asphalt. But in front of that was a machine that was mixing asphalt and in front of that was a machine that was scraping up and picking up the old asphalt. It may have been a mile, but the line up of eating up old road, chewing it up and spitting it back down as brand new road - was marvelous!
In a similar fashion there online videos - equally as cool and fascinating - of machines that lay down bricks like a giant, heavy ribbon, in a herringbone pattern for a new road - like giant sheets of bricks. Although all those machines are not cheap, they are SO over the top awesome - in my mind, anyway. If only we could get those sorts of machines for highway 115….
So I had those sorts of machines in mind when I read this morning’s passage, especially in how easy it would be to fill valleys and level mountains and hills - even making straight roads. Except that the passage is not really about hills and valleys. And way too much mountain-top skimming and land-filling is happening these days.
We know the passage is not really about hills and valleys because of all those names at the front of it. Previously, I would have glossed right over those names. But again, Scott Hoezee made the names plain. He said, they are “seven names of the high ranking folks of that time. Today the list would be headlined by Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and Paul Ryan. If it were a narrative taking place in New York, Andrew Cuomo and Bill DeBlasio might get thrown into the mix. These are the big names, Luke is saying.”
The paving of the way is a big thing - bigger than the powerful governmental headliners - of any era. And John the Baptist’s message is to get ready, because the one that is to come is more powerful than any element that could flatten hills and mountains, and this one yet to come will take us home. So we prepare our hearts in this season for the celebration of the powerful one that God sent - in the form of a newborn baby. The irony is huge! What was expected turns out to be unexpected.
Regardless of glitz and glitter of any season, and despite precautions to get rest and eat well, we all are apt to `overlook the small and seemingly insignificant and overlooked. Last week’s message was about doing our duty, not getting wigged out by all that seems terrifying in the world, praying for those who need our prayers, lifting up those who need lifting up.
This week’s message is somewhat similar in regards to duty, plus preparing the way. As David Lose from workingpreacher.org says, “Maybe it’s not an Emperor that makes life miserable, maybe it’s just a difficult colleague or unhappy marriage. Maybe it’s not a Roman procurator that oppresses, but instead a struggle with addiction to alcohol, drugs, or porn. Maybe it’s not governors that threaten to destroy, but instead feeling lost at school or work with no real friends. Maybe it’s not rulers and priests that overwhelm, but instead a struggle with depression, grief or loneliness.”
Those things are hard enough to do at any given time of year, much less at holiday time. And then throw on the social expectations of holiday cheer and joy and why bother? Besides, we know what’s coming. We’ve done this preparation/anticipation thing so many years, maybe we struggle with the guilt of feeling little if any anticipation about the coming of Christ again as a child, much less in his second coming. Just leave me alone to fight my way through the stores, unpack the ornaments (if I even make it to putting them up), let me eat too much and leave me alone.
God didn’t ask the prepared, the educated, those who had asked. God asked people of no significant consequence to play an important part in the history of understanding God’s love. We know Elizabeth and Zechariah were without hope of a child, and ta-da - wild and wooly John. We know Mary had some important genealogical history, but that was all the kid had going for her. And God gives her the ability to not only bear the Savior of the world, but to bear the looks of suspicion and contempt that had to have been hurled her way during her pregnancy. Same thing for Joseph.
Our assistance in road-building for God’s love is not something more than we can do, because God would not ask it of us if we weren’t able to do it. And God doesn’t require that we do it all at once, either. So we can enter into this “preparation,” this helping to bring the kingdom of heaven down to earth with one valley and mountain and brick at a time.
This morning each of us have the opportunity to lift a brick or shovel-full of preparation when we come forward to partake of our Lord’s Supper. Goofy analogy, yes. But God started it. In sharing the bread and cup, we remind ourselves that this preparation for the coming Christ is not something we do alone - that we have each other - and God’s Holy Spirit, to set the stage for the gift God have for each of us in God’s love, mercy, grace and joy.
Let us pray. Gracious ever present, ever reaching out God, we thank you for reminding us of our holy job with you. Thank you for reminding us that all of us have a purpose and part of leveling hills of hatred and filling valleys of love, that the path of your salvation is smooth and straight for others to walk upon. When we are weary, help us be aware of those who share the yoke with us, and when others seem to be overwhelmed, help us to see how we can lean into their burdens. For the gift of your son, who came once and will come again, all your people say, Amen.
11-29-15 Sunday Sermon, Advent 1
First Congregational Church
November 29, 2015
First Sunday in Advent
“Doing Our Duty”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
In trying to wrap my head around this day being the first Sunday in Advent - while far away in Minnesota and deep in Thanksgiving with my family, I read an article called Nine Tips to Help You Survive Advent. (There’s just nothing like a family holiday to remind one of survival technics!) I won’t read all nine, but I thought a couple would be helpful for any of us.
Since Advent is often a time of welcoming relatives to the home, make an effort to include them in the family Christmas traditions they missed out on last year, such as loading the dishwasher, making their own beds, and picking up after themselves.
Decorating the outside of your house is a great way to show the neighbors how important Advent is to your family. And remember, it’s not a competition to see whose house is the best on your block, although if your lights are not bright enough to interfere with the navigation of passing jetliners then, frankly, you’re just not feeling the true Christmas spirit.
Advent begins the Christian year, and this year, the lectionary cycle is C. Year A highlights Matthew, Year B focuses on the gospel of Mark and this year, it’s Luke. What’s interesting is that Luke is where we get so much of what we might consider the Christmas lead-up: the prediction of John the Baptist’s and Jesus’ births, Mary visiting her cousin Elizabeth, Mary and Zechariah’s songs and John the Baptist being born. But what’s really crazy, is that rather than beginning with any of those passages, Lectionary Year C begins with a passage near the end of Luke, a passage that seems anything but Advent-like.
25 “There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. 26 People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken. 27 At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. 28 When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
29 He told them this parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. 30 When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. 31 Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near.
32 “Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.
34 “Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you suddenly like a trap. 35 For it will come on all those who live on the face of the whole earth. 36 Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man.”
Thank you, Mary Ann. It is interesting that today’s passage is somewhat close to the one from last week - in terms of describing the end of time as we know it. Last week, in the book of John, Jesus said that his “kingdom is not of this world,” and this week Luke tells of things that could be imminently anticipated by people from any age, much less this one.
It was a story from the pen of Scott Hoezee of Calvin Seminary that began the process of making sense of this passage. According to a story that Os Guinness tells, two hundred twenty years ago the Connecticut House of Representatives was in session on a bright day in May, and the delegates were able to do their work by natural light. But then something happened that nobody expected. Right in the middle of debate, the day turned to night. Clouds obliterated the sun, and everything turned to darkness. Some legislators thought it was the Second Coming. So a clamor arose. People wanted to adjourn. People wanted to pray. People wanted to prepare for the coming of the Lord.
But the speaker of the House had a different idea. He was a Christian believer, and he rose to the occasion with good logic and good faith. We are all upset by the darkness, he said, and some of us are afraid. But, “the Day of the Lord is either approaching or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause for adjournment. And if the Lord is returning, I, for one, choose to be found doing my duty. “I therefore ask that candles be brought.” And men who expected Jesus went back to their desks and resumed their debate.
Before Jesus’ birth, there is no mention of the “Kingdom of God” or “Kingdom of Heaven” in the Bible. As much as Jesus’ second coming seems incongruent with this particular time of year, it was the gift of Christ that began to direct us even more pointedly toward that time when there shall be no more tears, no more pain, no more struggling with the limitations of this earthly world.
The kingdom will be God’s grand reversal of fortunes, God’s glorious return of this creation to what God intended in the beginning. But it may be a while. Meanwhile faithfulness is called for and gospel “success” is defined by all those times we notice the unpopular people, the down-and-outers, the sick and marginalized and proclaim to them Good News. It may not grab headlines—and in a world plagued by so many problems it may look like the equivalent of trying to empty the ocean one thimble-full at a time—but kingdom vision sees things differently!
It’s interesting how short our memories are. Every year I hear people - myself included - saying things to the effect, “can this world get any crazier and/or dangerous?” I’m sure there were folks that said that same thing when Gatling guns and nuclear bombs were invented. I’m guessing that those sentiments were uttered during each of the wars prior to this year. There are, undoubtedly, accounts of overwhelming certainty of end times from writers during the bubonic, polio, smallpox, cholera, yellow fever and aids epidemics.
Like other years, we end up holding the juxtaposition of War and Peace in our hearts as we anticipate the celebration of Christ’s birth. We will undoubtedly hear about more bombings, shootings and riots in the coming days.
And just like it has so often been, it will be an Advent to test what we really believe. It is not news that there are nations of this world in disarray and responding the way they mostly know how: meeting fire with fire.
Yet we in the church are supposed to believe that the kingdom of God is the greater reality. We are supposed to believe that the kingdom is spreading like yeast in dough, like a seed germinating and sending down roots silently in the soil. We believe Jesus HAS come once and WILL come again - and all that we do - how we pray, how we worship, what we say and do - especially in times of fear and tumult - is a witness to our belief in the power of Jesus to heal.
Just like in other years, given the news of the day, it may not feel like a very “Merry Christmas” this year, and the traditional greeting may even stick in our throats a bit, feeling more like an effort to cover over the world’s mayhem than a genuine expression of heartfelt merriment from our hearts.
We forget that our hearts seek the deeper things of joy, not mere happiness. Without always realizing it, we innately strive to celebrate the coming of shalom - when everything is at that feeling of contentment, completeness, wholeness, well being and harmony - that which is our true home.
So we celebrate the One who came to this world to remind us and show us the way toward that shalom. Not saying that the holiday season is senseless, or that the greetings we offer one another are trite, we do well to keep in mind that Jesus said to be on guard - whatever the season - that we don’t get weighed down with narrow anxieties and amusements. Be on guard against fatal absorptions with self! Take care! Stay alert! “Stand up and raise your heads because the Kingdom is coming.”
Jesus’ words - in this passage - are an antidote to seasonal and worldly cynicism. If the Messiah was prophesied - and came - and Jesus’ words are meant to raise our heads and hopes, then we can do some real believing in other prophecies, like justice coming to earth, real peace on earth, and enemies not only being able to look into each others’ eyes, but able to live together - in shalom.
If we are to survive this Advent season, we will need to be at work: believing in the Kingdom of God, praying , and hoping for those without much hope left. We will work in the same direction as we hope.
In a book entitled Standing on the Promises, Lewis Smedes said that hoping for others is hard, but not the hardest. Praying for others is hard, but not the hardest. The hardest part for people who believe in the second coming of Jesus Christ is in “living the sort of life that makes people say, ‘So that’s how people are going to live when righteousness takes over our world.”
The hardest part is simple faithfulness in our work and in our attitudes-the kind of faithfulness that shows we are being drawn forward by the magnet force of the Kingdom of God. So shall we pray.
God of all days and times, we thank you for this new season, that can offer us a homecoming of heart and a hopeful expectation of the future, despite what the world around us seems like. So remind us to stay on task, and help us to do our duty - in praying and reaching out and caring for and all the other things that we are called to do as your followers. Thank you for work, that we don’t have to fall into hysteria or head for cover, but that we can go about our work, secure in the knowledge that your kingdom will come, has come, and is here, if we can simply stay on task. So for your guidance and encouragement and all else that is good, your people thank you with our Amen
11-22-15 Thanksgiving Sunday Sermon
First Congregational Church
November 22, 2015
26th Sunday after Pentecost, Thanksgiving Sunday
“Let Us Count Them Now” from Western Star, Stephen Vincent Benét
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
I’m not positive, but I think I got this morning’s illustration from a member here who moved to Arizona, Marvelee Kneisel. I think. It’s been sitting, waiting, so long, I just don’t know any more. But do I know that given this season, and given the time in our world’s history, it seemed like it was time for this piece to be read aloud into the air and atmospheres that surround each of us.
“Let us count them now, the beginning of New England. There were thirty-eight grown men, From Brewster and Carver, both of them in their fifties, To young John Alden and other bachelors, Eighteen married women, three of them with child, Twenty boys, eleven girls (And seven of these were parish waifs from London Or seem to have been and no one knows why they came, But five of the seven died ere they were grown) Nine servants, five men hired for various tasks, Including two sailors who would stay a year, A spaniel dog and great mastiff bitch. And that is the roll. You could write the whole roll down On a single sheet of paper, yes, even the dogs. And when you have written them down, you write New England.
So think of them through the sixty-five long days of tempest and fair weather, calm and storm, They were not yet Pilgrim Fathers in steeple-hats, Each with an iron jaw and musketoon, They were not yet Pilgrim Mothers, sure of their fame. They were men and women and children, cramped in a ship, Bound for an unknown land and wondering. The godly prayed, the ungodly spat overside, The sailors jeered now and then at the pious speeches, the Billington boys behaved like limbs of Satan, And the three pregnant women walked the decks or lay in their cabins, wondering at night What hour their pain would strike and what would be born. In fact, there were human beings aboard the Mayflower, and not merely ancestors.
And yet there is An unforced, almost childish sweetness about the whole - The sweetness they could muster with their rigor, The honey of the iron, the naïve Devoted, confident wonder that made them Pilgrims. (1) Were they sick? They staggered up to the decks and the air And felt better. (2) Did the tempest break And the ship’s planks strain and leak? They braced the main beam With an iron jackscrew they’d brought, and all was well. They might long for the bliss of God and groan at his Judgements,
But they brought with them butter and pease and beer - And scurvy did not strike - and the voyage was healthy. Only one boy died, a servant of Doctor Fuller’s, While the crew lost four or five, and one most profane, So God be with them - God must be with them here, On the sea as on the land, ever present God, With his great right hand outstretched like the Winter cloud.
And Elizabeth Hopkins labored and bore child, (The cries in the narrow cabin, the women waiting) And they named the son Oceanus and rejoiced For that was surely a sign of God’s mercies too, A fine strong boy and the mother alive and well. And Susanna White and Mary Allerton Knew their time was soon to come, And wondered, seeing the child, when it would be.
And so, at last, on the nineteenth of November, On a clear, crisp morning, at daybreak, With a slice of old moon still bright in the dawn-sky, They saw the long dim outline of Cape Cod.
Then Christopher Jones tacked ship and made for the Southward, For they thought to settle, perhaps, where the Hudson flowed, If they might reach it, at least in a milder clime, But they got among white water and tangled shoals, They got in the broken part of Pollack’s Rip, Where currents run like a millrace and veer and change, The bitter water, The graveyard of ships to come. They knew they were in danger from the grim Faces of crew and captain - but they were landsmen. There were roaring waters. That was all they knew. But Christopher Jones and his sailors knew the truth And he must have wiped his brow when at last, Toward evening He worked the clumsy Mayflower into deep water, Hove to the night and knew he’d not lost his ship. He had not done badly, Captain Christopher Jones, Though you’ll find no statue of him in Plymouth Harbor And to him, no doubt, ‘twas a day’s work and no more.
And next day, they looked at the land, and it was good, A fair land, wooded to the brink of the sea, Washed with blue, biting air and brave in the sun, A land for God’s plantation. And suddenly They were sick of the ship and the ship’s smells and the sea.
They had come so far. They were within sight of land, Not where they had planned - but land - and the look of it! Earth after long waters, solid peace in the hand. They were ready for harbor, now. And the sixty-seventh Day out of England, they let go anchor at last In Provincetown Harbor, just inside Long Point, And their firewood was spent and they sent a party ashore, And there, not on Plymouth Rock, was the first landing. They searched. They found neither person nor habitation. But the wood they cut for their fire was juniper And it smelt very sweet and strong. Look, if you choose, at the large iced wedding cake We have built, at great expense, over Plymouth Rock (or over a rock that happened to be at Plymouth) Look at it well and buy your souvenirs. But it does not tell the story.
It does not tell The silent emptiness of the Winter land, The smell of juniper - and breathless wonder As they splashed ashore for their first discovery, For they couldn’t wait for the shallop to be mended. How could they wait? It was dangerous of course. But Captain Standish led them - and you can see them, The sixteen breathless men, The staid husbands, the sober fathers of families, Who had been wool carders and printers, hosiers and tailors, With sword and musket and corselet, warily treading, The new wild shore, where there might be anything. And sure enough, they were hardly well on their way When they saw five red men or was it five or six? They were not quiet sure - but there were men and a dog - You couldn’t imagine a dog, but he was there. They all ran away the moment they were seen, Swift naked figures, their dog pelting after them,
And the English gave pursuit but could not catch up, But they had seen Indians And a little later They came to a flowing spring, “And sat us down And drank our first New England water With as much delight as ever drank drink” Wonderful to drink water in a new land! To taste the bright nipping air! They were bolder now. They went on. They would not be Stayed.
They found where a house had been, found a ship’s kettle, Found a heap of sand, of course And they found A little old basket of Indian Corn Real grains of corn, you could hold them in your hand. They dug further - and, oh, there was a fine new Basket! With thirty-six ears in it, yellow and blue and red, And they looked at the ears and passed the ears around. (And the corn was to help to save them from starvation, But they did not think of that then. They were busy digging.
Have you ever dug in the earth and found something hidden? Penny or corn or pearl, it is all the same. It is a treasure trove, it is a gift of the ground) And after all of them had looked at the ears, They wondered what to do with what they had found.
But they took them along, of course. One always does. You will carry a stone ten miles, if you found it so, And tell everyone about it, once you are home.
And that night it rained. But they camped by a great fire. (in the house of the wild wood) They were safe to be sure. They had set up a palisade. They had their muskets And a Sioux war party Could and would have quietly cut their throats in spite of sleepy sentry or barricade Ere the morning came. They were ten times more fortunate than they knew For, the year before, there had been a plague in the land And the tribes who might have slain them were dead or broken Except for a scattered few And at dawn the next day Having slept all night, yea verily, on the ground, (And some, no doubt, the first time they had ever slept so)
These men of streets and children of settled ways, Went wandering again through Somebody’s house With the pure excitement of boys at their first camp, For somebody had been there and wasn’t home, Though they found the traces - two canoes of his (You wouldn’t have thought they were canoes at first, But they were for we looked them over) A noose made of sinew, aye and cleverly, too, Somebody had been there. They gathered around it, staring please to the bone. ’Tis a deer trap, Aye. Does not think so, Neighbor Hopkins? Aye a deer trap and it worketh so! And William Bradford boldly investigated And caught himself in it neatly by the leg And they all agreed ’twas a very pretty device.
A very pretty device for Somebody. They couldn’t leave it. They had to bring it along. It wouldn’t be any of use, but they had to bring it. And when they got back to the ship and their wives greeted Them, Heard all about the things they had to tell And were shown the corn and basket and the deer-trap, They had the pride of all hunters, from Nimrod on.
Humility Lanyard saw them coming home, The small black, distant figures, walking the beach, And the women dropped their washing and counted quickly, Counted with the quick dread, But there were sixteen. It was well. God had spared them all.
The first of all the endless waitings and counting, The long, sick waiting, the count of the frontier. When your eyes try so hard to see what is far and small And you tell the children, “Yes, it’s all right - it’s Father.” And you make your face as it should be when they come. For you must not show fear. It is bad for them To have their women show fear.
Even if one has to look up a lot of the words in that piece of prose, it is certainly worth the effort - to catch the drift of that important part of our history. It’s a great story, but it is weak, and almost inconsequential, until we put the motivation behind it. And the gospel reading for this day, reminds us.
33 Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” 34 “Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?” 35 “Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?” 36 Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.” 37 “You are a king, then!” said Pilate.
Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”
Thank you, Andy. As we give thanks this week, it’s important to remember that one of the strong influences in that group of adventurers, perhaps their main influence, had to do with their faith, most especially that they would not be governed by a king, but by the resurrected Christ, who not only showed us how to live, but gave his life for us, that we might know a life and place and time greater than this little old earth. As we count our blessings this week, let us remember to include those that give our life meaning and substance, greater than that of this world, even if we don’t fully understand all that.
Gracious, Giving God, thank you for creating the hearts you’ve given us, that we can have a sense of you and all that which is you. Thank you, most certainly, for our earthly treasures, for those things that make our lives easier and nicer. And thank you, too, for those things that lift us from the soils of this earth - things like love and the arts, health and emotion. But most of all, Most Loving God, thank you for giving us glimpses of what our new homes with you will be like, where we will not want, where there will be no tears and sadness. And thank you for your son, who loved so much, that he offered the ultimate gift for us. And all your children say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.