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)
First Congregational Church
December 24, 2019
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Just after the dinosaurs became extinct and I was young, there were certain things that came with the lead-up to Christmas in the family. My great-aunt Eileen would deliver the plate of cookies and candies. If you were lucky and got the plate early, sometimes the fudge would still be soft and the divinity would be edible.
After Aunt Eileen’s “gift”, Grandma Anderson would drop off hot-crossed buns. Now there was a wonderful bakery in Litchfield, MN, but I’m pretty sure she didn’t get them from the bakery. And where ever they came from, I would guess that they were delivered to the store two or three months ahead of the time we would get them. Maybe a microwave would have softened them up, had microwaves been invented back then. I doubt much could have been done to enhance the hard dried fruits sown into the dry bread. The only saving grace about those hot cross buns was the frosting crosses. Even dried out frosting can be good when the rest is so not good. But bless all the hearts of those who give gifts with the best of intentions, because sometimes, their gifts live long into the future.
Now that all of you are settled in, and not much more can be done in preparing for this infamous holiday - at least in the next moments - we all have the opportunity to hear the prophecies and birth announcement and news reports of that first Christmas night.
I often struggle with changing this service, except that hearing the familiar words, singing the cherished carols and being together in this particular way brings a comfort and connection and grounding that can’t be obtained in any other way.
While we worship, in a serene sense of timelessness, there is still upheaval - within hearts and beyond these walls, not so unlike some 2,000 years ago. Much as we’d like the story to be different, Joseph and Mary still had to travel nearly 68 hard and dusty miles to fulfill a decree made by people in high places. The savior born one night would eventually die by crucifixion. The hot-crossed buns remind us of the dichotomy of this season - that Christ was not born between a shimmering Christmas tree and a cozy fire crackling on the hearth, but in the midst of animals and dung and in a world loaded with violence, as Juergen Moltmann once said.
As Scott Hoezee once said, God did not send Christ to be born into this world because it was a place of peace and goodness that would somehow mirror the peace and shalom the Son was meant to bring. God sent Jesus to this world precisely because it lacked those qualities. The world did not have to look like a Hallmark Christmas card as a precondition for the incarnation of God’s Son. Jesus was born into a world where people were at each other’s throats as often as not - a world agitating for change but unable to find words or actions with any hope of generating any real—much less lasting—change. And that’s not to mention personal sorrow and sadness and all the other dark places of life.
It is not because all is so dire in our world, that the Christ is born once again, but precisely in the face of life - all of it, so that by the Spirit of God, we can hear God speaking words of hope, of peace, of joy that can reset our souls and hearts and minds as the people God aspires of us - right where we are - right now. So snuggle in and let all the pieces of this night fall together in just the way that God needs them to land. Amen.
First Congregational Church
December 15, 2019
Third Sunday in Advent
“The Smells of The Season”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
As I looked for and contemplated the opening for this morning’s message, it became apparent that it must be Pun Day Sunday. Or Fun Day Sunday. Or at the very least, Groaner Joke Sunday. To that end,
Why does a giraffe have such a long neck? Because it has smelly feet. What did one eye say to the other? Between you and me something smells! Two parrots sitting on a perch. One says to the other, "Can you smell fish ?” What is the worst part of milking a cow?
The smell of the dairy air.
A couple of weeks ago, I was listening to an episode of the Moth Radio Podcast while I was getting ready for the day, and don’tcha know that there was a story that was perfect for this morning’s message. It was about the time after Nikesh Shukla’s mother died, and he’d come home to visit his father about a year after her death.
The home was neat and tidy, but it had a cold, rather indifferent feel to it. His mother’s purse was still on the landing, the last place she’d set it. To make a good story shorter, he ended up looking in the freezer to see what was there, and to his surprise, he found several frozen containers of foods that his mother had made before her death.
He pulled one of them out and started defrosting it in the microwave, and very quickly, his mother’s presence filled the house again. It was the smell of that favorite dish that “resurrected” her.
Here we are in the third week of Advent, coincidentally the third Sunday in December and third week of the new church year. Having tucked away a series for Advent on our five senses, in week one, we explored the idea of Advent and taste; appropriate for that day, since it was communion. So the bread and the cup were reminders of Christ’s love, as the various tastes of the season remind us of Christ’s birth. Last week, the focus was on the sense of touch, and the message poked around on the highly emotional aspects of how we feel things - from without as well as within, and the remarkable way that God touches our lives. This week, we come to the sense of smell - pleasant and otherwise. To that end, I tried to find a joke about someone who can't see, hear, taste, smell, or feel anything, and then I realized it was senseless.
The creator of this series, Mark Vande Zande, pastor of First Christian Reformed Church in Orange City, Iowa, gave us a scripture passage that requires a little creative thinking, in terms of Christ’s birth and the idea of smell being a part of the lead up to the celebration of Christ’s birth.
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while[a] Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to their own town to register.
4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 5 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
Thank you, Rosemary. Unless I’ve missed something, the most direct reference we get to smell - in this passage is the mention of the manger - suggesting a barn, cave, stable or other place where animals would be kept. We might get an idea - from the part about everyone being in town - suggesting the smell of food or dust of the road or even other animal smells as they would have been brought in to become food for the census participants.
From other Gospels, we can get the smell of the shepherds, that tangy, stringent smell associated with those who spend time in the rangy pastures with their charges. And later on, when the Wise Men would come into the picture, there would perhaps be more exotic smells, and no doubt - camel smells - and maybe leather smells from saddles, if they had used them.
Aside from any exotic, Eastern smells, I think it would be safe to say that all the rest of the smells at that first Christmas were rather humble. The stable, with the au de straw, and perfume of manure, and essence of donkey, none of those are smells you find very often around Saks and 5th Avenue in New York. Or even Division and Grandview Parkway in Traverse City. Or Fifth and Forest in Frankfort, for that matter.
If one thinks about it, a lot of Jesus’ life had smells associated with it. Maybe he associated the smell of cut wood and wood shavings with his earthly father, Joseph. Perhaps he associated his disciples - at least some of them - with the smell of fish. And we shouldn’t forget the pointed reference to his friend, Lazarus, being dead three days by the time Jesus got to him - and the accompanying odor of decomp. His was not so much a life of the hoi-polloi, but one of humble humanity.
And in that stable, even within just a few hours of his birth, would be that baby smell. Being over two thousand years ago, there would be no lingering essence of Johnson and Johnson baby lotion. But even so, it would be that smell of something - someone - who had not been before. Of all the people in the world, babies are the most approachable, so it made sense that the shepherds and the Wise Men would want to see the infant. Not everyone loves babies. But those who do, really love babies and find them irresistible. And perhaps that is part of the draw to him at this time of year.
And yes, there would eventually be the diaper smell. We might mentally see an infant - the baby Jesus - diapered, but how many of us think about Jesus and a dirty dipe? How many of us envision Mary changing those diapers? After nearly 20 years working as a nursing assistant, one learns a lot about changing people pants, and what it means to do so without judgement. We are all so very human, and we all put pants on one leg at a time, no matter how much money we make, what color our skin, how many miles we have under the tires of our feet. It may not seem like it, but being with someone in the midst of some of our most intimate of basic of functions, regardless of our ability to say yes or no to such care, gives us great insight into what real love looks like, how real love behaves.
We could spend a month of Sundays listing smells - of all sorts. Fresh mown grass, burnt toast, new puppies or kittens, bleach, a fire, various buildings - including this one. As I mentioned two weeks ago, the sense of smell and that of taste are so intricately linked, that even thinking of various foods can set the saliva glands a swimming.
There is nothing like the smell of diesel that will take me back faster to my time in Denmark or riding in the truck with my dad when I was little. For others, it might well be the smell of fresh bread and a particular relative. And like touch, some smells can send us to dark and terrible places. Like taste, some of us lose the ability to smell, which can - at times - also put us in harm’s way.
The stable into which Jesus was born most likely didn’t have eucalyptus lingering about, but it certainly had the smell of life in the air. It most likely didn’t have cucumber and herb ice water available for guests like any descent spa would have. But it surely had buckets of water for cattle and animal skins of water for the humans. It wasn’t a romantic resort, but it was a stable of life, real and of earth and heaven.
We can smell the cinnamon infused pinecones that smack you - I mean greet you - at hobby stores. We can smell the woods and the earth, the clean, cold air of night and the aroma of a fireplace, and we are at once connected to the Christ child at his birth, because as much as those things were somewhere around his birth, they have not changed to this day. We can inhale the humility and approachability and the love of that day so long ago, when we think of those same things in our own day.
For those who haven’t had a chance to be here for a Candlelight Christmas Eve service, there are those other smells we sometimes associate with all this preparation in celebration of Christ’s birth. Wet wool in a warm room, the scent of mothballs that protect that coveted coat kept for special occasions, the various perfumes and colognes that people pour when they get gussied up. There was a time when the smell of men wearing Polo would sweep me away like in a cartoon. And just as it is for so many others, some perfumes and smells have turned away from being a friend, if you catch the drift.
As I wrote and thought about this message, maybe the best way we could “worship” in celebration of the baby that would change the world, would be to go to a working barn, to allow the dirt and liquids and images, as well as the smells, to permeate our minds, hearts and souls in ways we might not truly experience other ways. Except that we have been given the gift of imagination, so we’re off the hook for finding a barn over the next week.
A lot of people have been busy, and will continue to be busy getting ready for Christmas. And while all the preparations and thoughts and baking and decorating lend their part to the celebration, we can sometimes forget to take some moments, to even beg off of other responsibilities, to take a breath and breathe in Christ’s humanity, divinity, humility and royalty as Son of God and Son of Humans. Before we miss another breath, let us take one of those moments now as we pray.
Heavenly God of such earthly life, thank you for giving us all our senses, but especially that of smell. When we dismiss it, forgive us. When we focus too much on it, help us to find the balance of what is important. Mostly, God, thank you for the ability of smell to link us to the Christ child - born so long ago - in ways that often escape us. Help us, in this season of preparation, to breathe in all that our senses have to offer us, to see not just Christ’s birth, but the whole of his life, then, now and forever. And all God’s people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.