We had our Christmas pageant at church this week. I have to say, it was wonderful to celebrate the Nativity, an act of joyful resistance and a declaration of hope into a world in need of goodness. The Nativity: Good news for everyone. A child is born. Hope emerges from a womb of darkness, blood and water, the inland sea of birth into the light; God loves life, so much, that he made a home with us.
Everyday, our hearts are broken open with compassion for the suffering we hear and see, here at home, and in other parts of the world. Yet, the times were fearsome when Jesus was born, too. And still, he came and lived among us. God chose life. We can, too. Remember that angels bring good news: don’t be afraid. The Lord is with you.
We were blessed, as we began the First Week of Advent, to receive three new members to St. Paul Lutheran Church. During the sermon, the three of them offered their reasons for wanting to be a part of this community. The homily addresses the theme of “arriving” in Advent. We give thanks for those who have “arrived” among us, through the mysterious workings of the Holy Spirit. You can hear the homily and our new members’ comments below.
The following Thanksgiving prayer is adapted from an Iona resource called Celtic Prayers from Iona. It seemed particularly beautiful for this year, because of its compassion for creation, and our stewardship of this island earth we call home.
O Sun behind all suns
I give you greeting this new day.
Let all Creation praise you,
Let the daylight
and the shadows praise you
Let the fertile earth
and the swelling sea praise you
Let the winds and the rain,
the lightning and the the thunder
Let all that breathes,
all beings, praise you
And I shall praise you.
O God of all life
I give you greeting this day.
This Psalm echoes the some of the praise psalms, especially Psalm 148, another wonderful Psalm for Thanksgiving. May both of them be prayers for a blessed Thanksgiving week and our on-going everyday practice of gratitude.
Hallelujah! Praise the LORD from the heavens;
praise God in the heights.
Praise the LORD, all you angels;
sing praise, all you hosts of heaven.
Praise the LORD, sun and moon;
sing praise, all you shining stars.
Praise the LORD, heaven of heavens,
and you waters above the heavens.
Let them praise the name of the LORD,
who commanded, and they were created,
6who made them stand fast forever and ever,
giving them a law that shall not pass away.
Praise the LORD from the earth,
you sea monsters and all deeps;
fire and hail, snow and fog,
tempestuous wind, doing God’s will;
mountains and all hills,
fruit trees and all cedars;
wild beasts and all cattle,
creeping things and flying birds;
sovereigns of the earth and all peoples,
princes and all rulers of the world;
young men and maidens,
old and young together.
Let them praise the name of the LORD,
whose name only is exalted, whose splendor is over earth and heaven.
The LORD has raised up strength for the people and praise for all faithful servants,
the children of Israel, a people who are near the LORD. Hallelujah!
Last Sunday, October 23rd, the Pastor was ill. The congregation experienced the priesthood of all believers as all came together to help lead worship service. Laurie Jamieson was willing to preach, again, and on short notice. Below is her sermon–the audio, and the printed version.
All the Verses II
The Gospel today tells the story of two people who come to a temple to pray. One is a tax collector and the other a Pharisee. At the time the Gospel was written a tax collector was often an outsider, someone who separated themselves from the community. A Pharisee was often depicted as a devout participant in religious practices.
Let’s modernize the story a bit and think about it as being a story about two people who come to a church to pray. In today’s terms, one is a member of the congregation and one is an outsider, someone no one knows. Perhaps the outsider is someone who has just moved into the neighborhood or someone who has never gone to church before. Perhaps the second person sits in the seat that the member always uses. The story continues…the person who is a member of the church prays to God that she is thankful that she is not an outsider and that she belongs to the church community. She probably glances over at the new person when she says her words of prayer. The visitor just keeps her head down and prays to God for mercy. What’s striking about this story is that in His response to their prayers God doesn’t say that one person is better than the other. We are told only that the one who is a member becomes “humble”…more like the one who prays for mercy and the one who prays for mercy becomes “justified” and thereby a member. Both people pray to God in the same church and as a result are drawn closer together.
At the end of the service we can imagine that the newcomer leaves the church feeling comforted and has a sense of belonging and the church member is made new in her awareness of the other person’s cries for mercy. Both are better off for having been in the same service and both are part of the same faith community.
Because I am in the midst of stewardship and in the embrace of the theme of “All the Verses” I imagine that during the service, there was a lot of singing. I imagine that while the two people were deep in prayer those around them were singing and that God’s Word flowed into them from the music of the liturgy. I imagine that as Martin Luther would say “Music drove away the devil and made the people happy; they forgot all their short comings, arrogance and the like.” I imagine that the two people in prayer could not resist the music around them and as Luther has said they were drawn in by it and their hearts “bubbled up and overflowed in response”…one was refreshed and the other delivered.
Today’s Psalm seems to echo my belief. Just a few minutes ago we sang: “Happy are they who dwell in your house! They will always be praising you.” And “Happy are the people whose strength is in you, whose hearts are set on the pilgrims’ way.” I believe that as each of the two people in our story left the service, their hearts were on the pilgrim’s way. Perhaps they were even humming the sending hymn. All the Verses, All the People, All the Faith, All the Time.
It is a gift this morning to be here with you. I was not originally scheduled to give the sermon this morning as I spoke last Sunday but plans changed yesterday when Pastor woke up feeling unwell. At first I was a little nervous having to speak again, but then I felt a sense of calmness come over me and I knew that I was supposed to be here. Not that Pastor was supposed to be unwell but that I was being given an opportunity to speak to you and I couldn’t say no.
Not long after I first came to St. Paul, the Church decided to replace its green hymnals with the red hymnals we now have in the pews. I hadn’t been a member very long and I didn’t see the harm in changing a hymnal. It seemed the older books published in 1978 had served their purpose. However, an interesting thing happened to me during the retirement of the Hymnals. As it became known that my grandfather was Lauri Seppälä, a former member and Treasurer of the Church, more and more people approached me and offered to give me a Hymnal which had been dedicated to him. Apparently, because he had passed away right before the green hymnals were purchased, many members of the congregation had purchased a Hymnal in his memory.
At first I was moved and accepted each Hymnal but when I was offered the 10th and 11th Hymnal, I realized I could not possible save them all. As I wrote this sermon I had in front of me the Hymnal dedicated to my grandfather by his brother Albert. When I was forced to say no to each repeated request to preserve a Hymnal I realized that the people offering me the Hymnals didn’t want them to leave our community. They felt that if they passed the Hymnal on to me, the Hymnal would survive.
The sense that the Hymnal was more than a listing of Church songs took me by surprise, but as those of you who heard me speak last week or who have downloaded my sermon from the Church website, the Hymnal in the Lutheran Faith is so much more than a list of songs. If you take a look at the Hymnal in front of you…and I admit on short notice the only Hymnal I had when I wrote this sermon was the old green one, you’ll notice that the Hymnal is actually called the “Lutheran Book of Worship.” It contains the Church calendar, the prayers of the day, the Psalms and the Lessons for each service. It contains Petitions, Intercessions and Thanksgivings. It contains settings for Holy Communion, Baptism, Marriage and Burials. It contains daily prayers and all the Psalms. Only at the relative end of the book does it actually include the hymns.
It’s almost as if the humble Hymnal contains everything we need to praise God. And I think that is no accident. The book in which our music is contained is a truly holy book. As Luther would say: “Next after theology I give to music the highest place and the greatest honor.” So, if you add singing to the Catechism and the Psalms and the prayers and the Bible, you get the Hymnal. If you put the Hymnal together with the Bible, you pretty much have all you need. If each of us were to start on the first page of the Hymnal and read or perhaps sing it from cover to cover we would find ourselves deep in the midst of the Lutheran Reformation as it lives today.
As I mentioned last week, the stewardship theme this year of “All the Verses” comes not only from the fact that as Lutherans we are called to be present in our faith and to praise God unceasingly but that we are lucky enough to live in a time when we are free to practice our faith. We are free to pray for mercy for ourselves and free to show mercy to others. We are both delivered and refreshed. Each of us is able to sing in our own way and with our own words and even in our own key if we want to.
There is no wrong in singing and there is no wrong in faith. The Hymnal tells us that the Word of God flows through us and within us and is not something present only in the voices of those on the altar or those in positions of authority. We are saved by faith alone and because we are free from fear, we can welcome the stranger and be generous in our community.
And by the way, our Hymnal is not so very humble. In 1524, Luther published a hymnal which included twenty-three of his own hymns. Twelve were paraphrases from Latin chant, and six were psalms that had been put into verse. So the green hymnal I held as I wrote this sermon and the red Hymnal you have in your lap or in your hand or in the rack in front of you had its beginnings in the hands of Martin Luther himself.
If you go into the Church library or the choir room in the back you’ll see not only the red hymnals and the green hymnals but other hymnals collected by the Church. Hymnals from other times and other places. If you glance through the Hymnal in the pew you’ll see songs written by Martin Luther himself but you’ll also see songs brought to us from other countries and other faiths – songs written in English and in many other languages. Sometimes we sing from a hymnal other than our own, sometimes we sing an unfamiliar song from our own hymnal. These new or different songs do not represent a letting go of a past community but rather a broadening of our faith. When we sing a new or unfamiliar Hymn we are hearing God’s Word in a new way with a different voice.
Like the Gospel reading, our Hymnal and our singing comfort both those who embrace the familiar practices of Church and those who cry out for mercy in the loss of an outsider. If I am honest I know that in fact I am both a person feeling a separation from others and seeking mercy and a person who knows that this community is home. It is only in this church and with the blessing of God’s Word that I feel whole. It is only by singing all the Verses that I am complete.
In my heart I know it is hard to let go of the green hymnal or a hymn that appeared in a past version of the Lutheran Book of Worship but is now missing, but we change because Martin Luther changed. We evolve our faith to include the new and the different. We hold on to the memories of the past, but we welcome those who do not sing as we sing or worship as we worship. Because God’s Word has been put to music in many languages throughout time, we are now called to sing all of the Verses. All the Verses, All the People, All the Faith, All the Time.
In a way the story of our old green Hymnal is the story of those who have come before us. In the Second reading this morning we heard Paul’s writing to a younger minister near the end of Paul’s days. In his writing Paul offers comfort to the younger man telling him that he, Paul, has fought the good fight and as he finishes his race “the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed.” Our old green Hymnals have fought the good fight and with our help, the red ones will do the same. The red Hymnal in our lap is evidence of our calling. Our calling to pick up the proclamation from Paul and to praise God in song as Martin Luther did. In this time of stewardship and as we go forward we are called to sing to the Lord with Thanksgiving. We are called to sing All the Verses. We are called to welcome All of the people. We are called to have all the Faith. And we are called to do these things all the Time.
As we continue through this time of stewardship we will continue to celebrate the Hymnal through the selection of some of the congregation’s favorite hymns and some hymns with which we are not familiar. We will hear in the voices of our choir and our children the proclamation of God’s Word. We will celebrate the generosity of our community in the dedication of the piano and will sing to the Lord with Thanksgiving for everything we have is from God. As you hold your Hymnal today and each Sunday I hope you’ll remember that God hears our cries for mercy and grants us justice. God hears our prayers for understanding and humbles us with His Word. God gives us everything and calls us to remember.
On Sunday, October 16th, we were blessed to hear the preaching of Laurie Jamieson, one of our gifted lay preachers at St. Paul Lutheran Church. Laurie is also our very gifted Stewardship Director, inspiring us each year to consider the blessings of this church and our ministry together. Each year, when we open our Stewardship season, as we’ve come to call it, Laurie has focused on a particular theme to stir our hearts, our faith and our generosity. This year, she tells the story of what it means to be a church that sings “all the verses,” to be a people of faith who embrace the whole of life, all of it. She says: “All the verses, all the people, all the faith, all the time.” Her sermon is included here, as she gave it, and the text is may also be found on the Stewardship page.
This morning’s sermon was a communal sermon, focusing on Mustard Seed faith at St. Paul Lutheran Church. The congregation helped tell the story. The painting below is The Mulberry Tree by Vincent Van Gogh–a mulberry tree appeared in Jesus’ parable this morning from Luke.
This is a teaching on true contentment. It comes from knowing who we are, and the Lord we follow. I never thought of Jesus as particularly content, at least as I understood contentment. But, then, considering the question in relationship to the prophetic voice of Amos, Psalm 146, Paul’s teaching to Timothy, and Jesus’ parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, contentment becomes something like contemplation in action, or prayer in action, or faith active in love, simultaneously resting in God, and active in love of justice and mercy in the world. The whole message is in the old spiritual, “Rock My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham.” God’s love is so high we can’t get over it, and so low, we can’t get under it.
St. Paul Lutheran Church has long enjoyed a solid relationship with our Lutheran outdoor ministry, Camp Calumet, in Freedom New Hampshire. As one of the pastors in our Synod, I had the opportunity recently to be a chaplain and a co-leader for a Camp Calumet Lutherhostel in Freedom, New Hampshire, called “Let There Be Light.” The other leader was my good friend, Dr. Kevin Luhmen, an astrophysics professor at Penn State. He has occasionally attended St. Paul when he’s in the area, so some of the congregation know him. Kevin and I have been friends for many years, and our conversations often revolve around theology and science. We decided to see if we could offer a program at Calumet and Judy Hakanson Smith, of Calumet, helped us put it together. Our goal was simple: we wanted to put the most recent research with regard to the beginnings of the universe, time, star formation, life on earth, in conversation with faith. Naturally, in such a conversation, climate change also became part of our discussion, especially as we considered the history of the evolution of seas and the emergence of life on earth.
Kevin and I were delighted by the participation, the questions, the theological musings, and the wonderful program. Among our participants were another astronomer and geologist, a chemist, a mechanical engineer, and an oceanographer; all of us were people of faith. The ancient quest at the heart of theological inquiry, “faith seeking understanding,” was alive and well in our midst. I would say, for me, the four days circled around wonder at the astonishing creativity of God, the beauty, complexity, and sheer vastness of creation, and the preciousness and rarity of life. We came away with a sense of Earth’s unique beauty and possibility, with a renewed desire to protect and love this planet.
This morning, we returned to our 10:00 a.m. hour. Remy and Zoe Blazzard opened the service with a Prelude on violin and cello, and a quartet of men from the choir sang for the Psalm, today. Eva DiLascio led us in worship on the piano. It was beautiful outside, with the wind just starting to pick up from the remnants of a tropical storm. Inside, we were filled with the sweetness of the Spirit. Here’s the sermon for this week.
We are in our fifth week of spiritual practices for tough times. This week’s spiritual practice is “Deep Listening.” So far, each week we have tried something, and then come back the following week to report on our experiences. After gratitude, we practiced generosity; then patience, which needed two weeks (at least!!!!), and then this last week, we practiced joy. It’s a challenge to remember joyful things in the midst of trials and troubles, but joy is one of the gifts of the Spirit, and it’s also something we can offer as people of faith to a world in need. This week’s “Deep Listening” is one of my favorites. Here is what we will be doing. We invite you to practice along with us!
Spiritual Practice—Week V
Deep Listening: this is a phrase we can use when referring to compassionate, non-judging, empathetic listening. Deep listening includes all the other practices we have tried so far. Gratitude, for example, is part of listening: we feel grateful for the opportunity to be with someone we are listening to. Generosity, we offer the person our time, without judgment, without denial, without interrupting. Patience is present, as well, in deep listening, for we wait attentively as the other person talks, or whatever it is we are listening to, God, nature, a symphony; we listen without being distracted, and when someone stops speaking, we don’t offer our opinions, or advice, just our empathy, and perhaps we may ask clarifying questions, to make sure we understand. Joy comes into play, because when one person understands another, joy rises up—it is a wonderful experience to be listened to. Take time to check in this week, 4X each day, to see how we have been listening. When did I listen? How did I listen?
Deep listening includes listening to ourselves. For example, we could listen in to ourselves for a few minutes, listening to our bodies with self-empathy, with acceptance, listening in to our thoughts, perhaps, and offering them quiet reassurance. Can we listen to ourselves with self-compassion? Take a few minutes to sit quietly, or if you are in the middle of the day, just take a quick time out, and notice how your body is feeling. Where is the tension? What thoughts are going through your mind? What are you needing? Take the time to listen to what your body is saying, and to offer compassion for yourself, or acceptance, whatever it is, whatever feeling it is; just pay quiet loving attention to those feelings, or tensions, or aches, or thoughts will help us hear ourselves better. In turn, when we have listened to ourselves deeply, and are more attuned to ourselves, our feelings and thoughts, we are better able to listen to others more deeply.
Deep listening doesn’t require us to “say” anything. It does require our openness to hear what’s there. We can practice this way of listening anytime anywhere, even subversively. It’s a form of empathy, and in the words of one of my coaches: “people melt when they receive empathy.” Listening leads to understanding, and understanding opens us to love.
Some aspects of deep listening:
Presence. You need to be there, you need to show up, without distractions. Take time to feel grounded first, to be in yourself and ready to listen.
Empathic presence: an open attitude to the other person, or to yourself, or whatever you are listening to. A willingness to see/hear the world from another perspective.
Quiet attention: Suspend the impulse to judge, to comment, to interrupt, to analyze, to give advice with our own ideas or perspectives. The goal is to hear the other person as fully as possible without our own filters. Listen for the feelings and tones in the other’s voice, listen to their body language. We can often help another person relax by being relaxed while they are speaking, or sitting quietly.
Prayerful attention: As we are listening, invite God to be present also. This doesn’t have to be done outloud; we can do it as we are listening; simply ask for assistance in hearing what is being said.