A Time to Say Goodbye

There’s a season for everything

and a time for every matter under the heavens:

a time for giving birth and a time for dying,

a time for planting and a time for uprooting what was planted,

a time for killing and a time for healing,

a time for tearing down and a time for building up,

a time for crying and a time for laughing,

a time for mourning and a time for dancing,

a time for throwing stones and a time for gathering stones,

a time for embracing and a time for avoiding embraces,

a time for searching and a time for losing,

a time for keeping and a time for throwing away,

a time for tearing and a time for repairing,

a time for keeping silent and a time for speaking,

a time for loving and a time for hating,

a time for war and a time for peace.

-Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, CEB translation

Our lives are marked by the changes of the seasons. I don’t mean only winter, summer, spring, and fall. There’s also school and break, work and vacation, childhood, adulthood, parenthood, retirement. There are seasons that are harder to put a name on but that are no less real: seasons of personal growth, of disappointment, of success, of loss. There is, in other words, a season for everything.

This is how it’s been for a long time! We don’t know exactly when Ecclesiastes was written, but we know it’s at least 2200 years old, probably closer to 2500. In a way, it’s rather timeless. We know just as well as the first author that there is a time for silence and a time for speaking, a time for keeping and a time for throwing away, and all the rest. Our lives are full of these changes in season. Now, for Trinity, it is a time for saying goodbye. One day soon, it will be a day to say hello to a new pastor.

Yes, life is and always has been subject to change. In one thing, however, we see that there is no change. In verse 14, the author declares: “I know that whatever God does will last forever; it’s impossible to add to it or take away from it. God has done this so that people are reverent before him.”

Whatever God does lasts forever. God has done some truly amazing things in the years I have been at Trinity, and for the 160 years before I came! Nothing anyone could say or do would diminish God’s accomplishments in the past, or what God will do in future years yet to come. In all this, we humans are filled with awe and reverence for God’s faithfulness. The seasons change; God’s love for us does not.

In closing, I offer two verses of the hymn, “O God Our Help in Ages Past,” as a prayer:

O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come, our shelter from the stormy blast, and our eternal home; under the shadow of your throne your saints have dwelt secure. Sufficient is your arm alone, and our defense is sure. Amen.

The Wonder of Creation

Heaven is declaring God’s glory;

the sky is proclaiming his handiwork.

One day gushes the news to the next,

and one night informs another what needs to be known.

Of course, there’s no speech, no words—

their voices can’t be heard—

but their sound extends throughout the world;

their words reach the ends of the earth.

-Psalm 19:1-4

 

Do you ever just look up at the sky and feel amazed? Maybe it’s the stars at night, or a perfect sunset, or a clear blue sky all the way to the horizon. And have you seen the pictures of other planets and galaxies, brought to us by the diligence and creativity of astronomers? The marvels of the heavens we can see with our own eyes are multiplied and magnified by telescopes. Whether we look with our own eyes or see through a telescope, the wonder of the universe is an announcement of God’s creative handiwork.

So much of science is discovery that reveals how truly incredible God’s work really is. The way ecosystems work in balance between plants and animals? Amazing! The way sound waves can create images of the inside of a human body? Incredible! The way cross-breeding plants can create sturdier or better-producing crops? Fantastic! The way vaccines can be developed to prevent disease? Wonderful! In all these and more ways, science can tell us about an incredible world designed by an incredible God.

Science and faith can and often do coexist harmoniously. At times, science and religion have had a somewhat strained relationship, though they do not need to. Science and religion are not rivals, but rather more like coworkers. They have different jobs, asking different questions and offering different answers.

Science primarily asks the question: how does this work? How do stars shine, how do plants grow, how does a virus work, how old is the planet? Science answers these questions well. Science is a gift from God, helping us to understand how God’s world works. Faith asks different questions. Who am I? What is God doing? What is right and wrong? Who is my neighbor? Faith gives us hope for eternity and guidance for each day.

What’s wonderful about faith and science each having their own questions to answer is that those questions can then work together. When science tells us about the structure of an atom, faith marvels at the God who gave life to such an intricate universe. When faith tells us that human lives are valuable, and science tells us how vaccines protect life, then together those answers can guide our actions. These questions and answers are not at odds with each other, but rather partners in guiding us in our lives as individuals and communities. If they ever feel like they are at odds, it is probably because one is trying to answer a question that should be asked of the other.

And so thanks be to God for the gift of questions and answers, for the gift of thoughtful scientists and faithful religious leaders, for the gift of wonder at God’s creation. May we truly appreciate and use these gifts God has given us.

God, I am in awe of your magnificent creation, from the heavens to the human heart, from ocean waves to microwaves. I am in awe of your glory, your grace, and your love for me. Keep me always in faith and hope. Amen.

Singing Together

Lift every voice and sing

Till earth and heaven ring

Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;

Let our rejoicing rise,

High as the list’ning skies, let it resound loud as the rolling sea

Sing a song full of faith that the dark past has taught us,

Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;

Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,

Let us march on till victory is won.

-”Lift Every Voice and Sing,” verse 1 (ELW 841)

 

Have you ever sung in a choir? I know many of you have, whether in church or as a school child. It’s quite a bit of work to sing with other people, not quite as simple as singing in the shower by yourself. Singing in a choir takes practice, practice, and did I mention practice?

It often seems simple at first, especially in elementary school: there’s just one easy melody, and the director works to make sure the kids are beginning and ending together, and that they all know the words. Maybe by 3rd or 4th grade the choir begins to sing music with two separate melodies, sung in a round. The singers have to work together, listening to each other, and paying close attention to the director. Otherwise, well, it can all get a bit jumbled.

It’s in middle school that singing in a choir starts to get tricky. Kids who didn’t like singing in elementary music drop choir, leaving a smaller group to make music together. And make music they do! Directors separate upper voices into soprano and alto, and lower voices into tenor and baritone. Singers learn to stretch their vocal range with warm-ups pushing them to new highs and lows. The choir has to listen to each other as they work to create harmony. And then the director gets even more particular, correcting the way the sopranos shape their vowels or reminding the tenors to enunciate the consonants at the end of each word. Singers have to learn to keep an eye on their music and the director at all times, or they might miss an important cue.

And we haven’t even talked about high school or college choirs yet! Singers might divide into six or eight part harmonies to fill out the sound of the song. They might even learn to sing dissonant notes, seemingly at odds with one another, all so that they can resolve back into harmony. When this is done well, it moves the very soul of singer and listener alike. When it’s not, well, it’s easy to tell that things didn’t quite work out as they should.

It’s no wonder that many Christians have compared our lives of faith to singing in a choir. It’s something we do together, each with our own part that joins together with others to create something we could never make on our own. Sometimes we go through discord in order to resolve into harmony again. It’s equally unsurprising that singing in harmony was a metaphor used by Christian leaders in the American Civil Rights movements of the 20th century. With many Christians working together, inspired by their faith, it was as if their many voices made earth and heaven shake toward victory.

This brings up another important part of singing in a choir. All the choir members need to be singing the same song. If half are singing “Amazing Grace” while the other half sing “Jolene,” well, that isn’t going to work. If everybody picks their personal favorite song instead of singing what the director has laid before them, well, you can imagine the noise that would produce. Getting together out of a love for music isn’t enough; the whole choir must agree to the song. If a few voices won’t, the choir doesn’t benefit anything from keeping the discordant voices in the concert.

“Lift Every Voice and Sing” calls for a song of liberty, faith, and hope. Christians, whether at home, in their local community, online, or in their nation, ought to ask themselves: am I working together to sing a song that is liberating, faithful, and freeing to all my brothers, sisters, and siblings who hear it? Or am I singing my favorite song as if I’m alone in the shower, even though it doesn’t suit the choir God has assembled?

This weekend, our nation observed Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. His legacy may serve as a reminder to us that we can make beautiful, stunning, life-changing music together. It may also remind us that there is still singing left to do, calling us to join the chorus of that song of liberty, faith, and hope.

God of faith, hope, love, and liberty; God who made music and gave us each a voice to raise; let my voice be heard in your choir. Let me sing the songs you choose, following your direction as bravely and completely as saints like Dr. King have done. Amen.

Repentance

Jesus said, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” – Mark 1:15

Repentance is necessary to Christian life. It is also impossibly hard. Who among us can accurately name each of our sins? Who can ungrudgingly admit every time we have done wrong? If we even manage to name and admit to our sin, who among us can fully and completely turn away from it? That is what repentance requires.

Repentance, of course, assumes the existence of a Godly standard of thought, word, and deed against which we humans always come up short. Lutherans call this the Law: God’s demanding standard which accuses us of sin. The Law tells the truth about us sinners: that we have fallen dreadfully short of God’s expectation, and that no excuse can get us out of this guilt.

The Law then demands repentance: not only does it accuse us, but it expects us to admit our guilt! In private matters and public actions, no word or deed is exempt from God’s examination. The Law even demands whole groups of people to admit their guilt together for deeds done in their name. No wonder repentance feels so difficult. It gets harder and harder the longer we deny the truth that the Law is shouting at us: that we have gone desperately wrong and can’t do a thing to resolve it. Accept the accusation and admit guilt, too? Is that all? Actually, no. Repentance demands even more.

The word repentance means not only to identify and admit to sin but also to make a complete and utter turn away from sin. Repentance requires us to both tell the truth about our broken selves and fix ourselves up. We cannot do this. We may try. We should try. We will not succeed.

Repentance now begins to feel rather hopeless. We cannot recognize every sin, confess every guilt, fix every brokenness. Who can? Who can bear the weight of the Law’s accusation, tell the complete truth, and repair every breach?

The answer here is the simple Sunday School answer: Jesus. Sometimes the simplest answer really is the best. Jesus Christ tells the truth about us. This can feel rather uncomfortable, even downright painful, when the Holy Spirit speaks to your spirit the undeniable truth that you have failed, fallen short, missed the mark— in other words: you have sinned.

No wonder Christianity is unappealing to so many, since it begins by telling each person that they are not great, good, innocent, nearly perfect, or even moderately okay, but instead that they are plain sinners! For that matter, repentance seems to be out of style even with those who call themselves Christian but are unwilling to hear the truth that they, in thought, word, and deed, continue to sin. This is the truth. No amount of self-improvement or comparison to those other sinners on our part will excuse our guilt or deter our accuser.

So the truth is that we are sinners. If that were the whole truth, it would be too much to bear. Praise God, there is another truth that the Holy Spirit tells us on behalf of Jesus Christ: “I forgive you.” Now the comfort and good news and glad tidings appear! The truth is that “the Holy Spirit daily and abundantly forgives the sin of me and every believer,” as the Small Catechism tells us. Forgiving sins seems to be the chief delight of the Holy Spirit, as it allows a new truth to be told: “Here is a forgiven sinner!” This is the truth called the Gospel, for it is good news to sinners.

Repentance, at its fullest, is then not a task we must undertake, but an act of God that happens to us. In the same divine breath, the Holy Spirit accuses you of your sin and blows it away with forgiveness. No one can be a Christian apart from this divine repentance. If anyone says they have no sin and thus no need of repentance, the truth is not in them. But, when we confess our sin, admitting the truth that the Law has shown us, the sweet Gospel truth declares us forgiven in the name of Jesus.

“But, Pastor,” you may be saying to yourself, “If the Holy Spirit does the accusing and the forgiving and the reforming, all the work of repentance is done without my having done a thing! What should I do?”

Indeed it is God’s work, and if you must have something to do, then do this: repeat the truth. Say that you are a sinner, earnestly and boldly. Confess that you have lied, or cheated, or followed a wicked leader, or gossipped, or spoken maliciously, or held a prejudice against your fellow humans. Name your sin. Then in the very same breath, say that you are forgiven, earnestly and boldly. Declare that you are God’s own, and that you have repented and been forgiven completely. Insist that you are a sinner and a saint, all at once. You are only repeating what the Holy Spirit has already said about you, after all.

It is true: you are forgiven. Even if you cannot say or believe it about yourself, you can trust God’s word: “But if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from everything we’ve done wrong.” (1 John 1:9) I say now to you, who have confessed the truth of your selfishness, your disregard for others, your lies, your sin of every kind: God forgives you. By the Holy Spirit and the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, daily and abundantly, you are forgiven.

God, I confess that I have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed; by what I have done and what I have left undone. In your great mercy, forgive my sin in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

The Carol that Saved a College

Go tell it on the mountain,

over the hills and ev’rywhere;

go tell it on the mountain

that Jesus Christ is born!

 

1 While shepherds kept their watching

o’er silent flocks by night,

behold, throughout the heavens

there shone a holy light. [Refrain]

 

2 The shepherds feared and trembled

when, lo! above the earth

rang out the angel chorus

that hailed our Savior‘s birth. [Refrain]

 

3 Down in a lonely manger

the humble Christ was born;

and God sent us salvation

that blessed Christmas morn. [Refrain]

 

Everybody has favorite Christmas carols. This is one of mine- mostly because of how fun it is to sing! The refrain is bouncy and memorable enough for little voices to join cheerfully along in telling the good news “ev’rywhere” that Jesus Christ is born. It also tells the story almost straight out of Luke’s gospel, making it a great way for young and old alike to hear how Jesus was born.

Imagine my surprise, then, at learning that these verses are not the original words for this carol! They aren’t even close! I discovered this when singing carols with my family at Christmas one year. We made it all through the refrain together. When we got to the verses, my grandparents started singing completely different words.

When I was a seeker

I sought both night and day.

I ask de Lord to help me,

An’ He show me de way. [Refrain]

 

He made me a watchman

Upon the city wall,

An’ if I am a Christian

I am the least of all. [Refrain]

Now I was puzzled. How were there two such different carols for the same tune? Armed with curiosity and access to Google, I began my search. I learned that this sing began as a Spiritual, the style of songs that developed out of American slavery in the 19th century. Most Spirituals have a repeated refrain that can be easily learned and sung by a group, while the leader sings the verses. Because slavers often forbade the people they enslaved from learning to read or write, these songs were passed orally. The verses might change based on how one person remembered them, or on their inspiration to sing a new verse. This explained how my grandparents had learned a version totally different from the one I knew. Spirituals also often have a strong beat to keep a group of workers in rhythm with one another.

Go Tell it on the Mountain has an even greater claim to fame than being fun to sing or having verse variants- it helped save a college. Fisk University, in Nashville, Tennessee, was founded in 1866 as a college for newly-freed Black Americans in a time when other colleges wouldn’t accept non-white students. After only five years, Fisk University was struggling. Lacking wealthy donors and being unwilling to beggar students in exchange for an education, Fisk was nearing bankruptcy in 1871. With no other options, they took a leap of faith. A ten-member group formed the Fisk Jubilee Singers. They took every penny the university had for travel expenses and went out on an eighteen-month fundraising tour.

Though they didn’t start out singing Spirituals, they became the core of the group’s repertoire throughout the tour. Spirituals scholar Sandra Jean Graham writes, “The students were at first reluctant ambassadors for the songs of their ancestors. As [Jubilee] singer Ella Sheppard recalled, ‘The slave songs were never used by us then in public. They were associated with slavery and the dark past and represented the things to be forgotten. Then, too, they were sacred to our parents, who used them in their religious worship . . .” The Jubilee Singers were persuaded to include Spirituals, and they were met with international acclaim. By the end eighteen months, they had raised enough money to cancel all of Fisk University’s debts.

What does this have to do with Go Tell it on the Mountain? Well, it was one of those Spirituals that the Jubilee Singers shared with the world. In fact, we might say that the carol saved the college, but the Jubilee Singers saved the carol! Without their leap of faith to save the college, the world might never have heard and loved Spirituals like Go tell it on the Mountain.

God of mountains and hills, valleys and plains, thank you for the Jubilee Singers and others who have preserved Spirituals for our ears and hearts to enjoy. May we be as brave and faithful as Fisk University in taking the right risks to fulfill our mission. Amen.

O Holy Night

O holy night! the stars are brightly shining;

It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth.

Long lay the world in sin and error pining,

Till he appeared and the soul felt its worth.

A thrill of hope–the weary world rejoices,

For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!

Fall on your knees! O hear the angel voices!

O night divine, O night when Christ was born!

O night, O holy night, O night divine!

 

Led by the light of faith serenely beaming,

With glowing hearts by his cradle we stand.

So led by light of a star sweetly gleaming,

Here came the Wise Men from Orient land.

The King of kings lay thus in lowly manger,

In all our trials born to be our Friend.

He knows our need– to our weakness is no stranger.

Behold your King, before him lowly bend!

Behold your King, before him lowly bend!

 

Truly he taught us to love one another;

His law is love and his gospel is peace.

Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother,

And in his name all oppression shall cease.

Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we;

Let all within us praise his holy name.

Christ is the Lord! O praise his name forever!

His pow’r and glory evermore proclaim!

His pow’r and glory evermore proclaim!

His pow’r and glory evermore proclaim!

 

The carol O Holy Night comes to us from a most unexpected trio: an atheist, a vaudeville composer, and an abolitionist. (I promise this is not the start of a joke where they walk into a bar together.)

It all starts with Placide Cappeau, a French wine merchant who wrote poetry in his free time. Although Cappeau was known in his community for his objections to religion in general and priests in particular, the local parish priest was determined to use Cappeau’s poetic gift. When the church organ was renovated in 1847, Father Petitjean convinced the avowed atheist Cappeau to write a Christmas poem. After reading the gospels, Cappeau wrote Cantique de Noël, six stanzas of reflection on this holy night.

It might have all stopped there as a poem if a composer of vaudeville and opera music, Adolphe Adam, had not gotten involved. The poem was set to music, and it’s no surprise that a composer used to opera singers would write music with such a complicated melody. It became beloved in France, even though the Catholic church tried to ban it when Cappeau’s atheism was discovered. Cantique de Noël spread through Europe and eventually made it to America, still in French.

This is where the abolitionist comes in. John Sullivan Dwight, a Unitarian minister and avid musical critic, lived in Boston. In 1855, he encountered Cantique de Noëli, still in its original French. Dwight was touched by the lyrics, especially what became the English third verse. Dwight recognized, as Cappeau had, that the Jesus we meet in the gospels is determined to bring freedom from oppression and dignity to the downtrodden. Dwight knew that the love of Jesus Christ was enough to overcome even the greatest injustice. Once translated into English, O Holy Night became popular, especially with abolitionists working to outlaw slavery around the United States. Its anti-oppression message may continue to be deeply meaningful today to victims of trafficking, abuse, and exploitation.

Thanks to this unlikely trio of men, we have a beautiful carol, one that not only tells us the Christmas story as the Bible does, but one that reminds us that the babe in the manger came to change our world for the better. Through Jesus Christ, we have love, peace, community, and forgiveness. We have a friend who knows our weaknesses. We have hope for our weary world.

Dear Jesus Christ, born this holy night, prepare us to kneel before your cradle. Bring your law of love and your gospel of peace into our lives as you brought them into the world so many years ago. May we follow your chain-breaking example so all the world joins in the chorus of praise. Amen.

Silent Night

Silent night! Holy night!

All is calm, all is bright

Round yon virgin mother and child!

Holy infant, so tender and mild,

Sleep in heavenly peace!

Sleep in heavenly peace!

Silent night! Holy night!

Shepherds quake at the sight!

Glories stream from heaven afar,

Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia!

Christ the Savior is born!

Christ the Savior is born!

Silent night! Holy night!

Son of God, love’s pure light

Radiant beams from thy holy face

With the dawn of redeeming grace,

Jesus, Lord, at thy birth!

Jesus, Lord, at thy birth!

It wouldn’t be Christmas Eve without Silent Night. For generations, Christians have sung the carol together by candlelight on December 24. Our online Christmas Eve service this year includes a recording of our congregation singing Silent Night last year. Silent Night is a relative newcomer to the Christmas scene, though– it’s only two hundred years old!

Back in 1818, 26-year-old Father Joseph Mohr was the parish priest of a village called Oberndorf. That year, there had been significant flooding that damaged the church organ, rendering it inoperable for the Christmas Eve Mass. Desperate to make a meaningful Christmas Eve service, Father Mohr went to Franz Gruber, the organist of a neighboring town, and asked him to compose music to accompany Father Mohr’s poem on guitar. Gruber worked very well under pressure, creating the beloved Silent Night tune to go along with the words written by Father Mohr.

The song was immediately popular, first reaching the U.S. in 1839. Unfortunately, the original manuscript was lost, and for decades no one knew the true composer of the music or lyrics. An original copy created in 1820 was discovered in 1995, identifying the true creators and telling about the flooded organ.

For two centuries, Silent Night has been bringing people together. Notably, Silent Night was sung by German and Allied soldiers during the “Christmas Truce” of 1914. Barely five months into World War One, then called “the Great War,” the men in the trenches decided that Christmas was no time for death. Across Europe, they laid down their weapons for one night and day. They sang carols across the trenches. They traded rations, cigarettes, and liquor. They retrieved the bodies of their fallen comrades. In one case, they even held a soccer match. When Christmas ended, the war resumed.

Christmas often comes as a respite from life’s trouble. It can be a break at the end of a year, a time-out from winter blues. For children and school staff, it marks a half-way point. Does it make a difference on December 26, though? Those soldiers in 1914 went right back to killing each other the next day.

I pray that Christmas makes a difference for you, not just on one or two days, but every day. I pray that the redeeming grace of our Lord Jesus shines brightly for you all year long. I pray that this Christmas might find you joining with the heavenly hosts singing Alleluia, praise be to God.

Son of God, you shine love’s pure light into my heart. May your redeeming grace transform my life today and every day. Amen.

Stand with our Neighbors

For this Friday’s devotion, I had written a reflection on the history and meaning of the beloved Christmas carol Silent Night. However, I awoke this morning to news that Temple Emanuel, a synagogue in Davenport, was vandalized overnight. Specifically, on the first night of Hanukkah, someone spray painted a Bible verse citation: “JOHN 8:44.”

As Christians and as Iowans, we need to talk about this. At a bare minimum, we need to reject hate. That is the very lowest bar. Jesus calls us to more than the minimum, however. Jesus tells us that the twin great commandments are to love God with all our heart, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. I know I say this often. Since Jesus says that love of God and neighbor are the greatest commandments, I figure that means it’s worth repeating.

How do we love our neighbor whom we do not know? It’s hard enough to love some of the people we do know. What does love look like for strangers? One good place to start is with understanding. Hanukkah is a festival celebrated each December in memory of the rededication of the Temple in 164 BCE. Candles are lit for eight nights to remember the miracle of the Temple lamps burning for eight days with only one day worth of oil. It is a celebration of liberation from oppression. To learn more, check out https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/hanukkah-101/.

One other thing that we have to understand is that anti-Jewish violence has, historically, increased around Christian and Jewish holidays. For reasons I cannot begin to understand, Christians have used these holidays as an excuse to stir up prejudice and violence.

This violence often stems from an idea called “supersessionism,” which means that although the Jews were God’s chosen people up until Jesus, God replaced them with Christians, who now “supersede” Jews as the chosen people. Supersessionism is sin. It fundamentally misunderstands God’s character.

Just think about it for a moment. We often talk about God’s faithfulness. We give thanks that God keeps God’s promises. What sort of God would we worship if we believed that God could just abandon all the promises made to Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Moses, Hannah, David, Elijah, and the rest of God’s people in the Old Testament? Even Paul, when he wrote to Christian communities in the New Testament, reflected that Christians were like a branch grafted onto the tree established in the Jewish people, not that a new tree was being planted to replace the old one.

So let’s go back to what happened last night in Davenport. “JOHN 8:44” was painted on the wall of Temple Emanuel. In that part of the gospel, Jesus and his disciples are arguing with some Jewish leaders. There are some observers, described as “the Jews who believed in Jesus.” Every single person in the conversation is a Jew. In the verse painted on Temple Emanuel, Jesus says, “Your father is the devil. You are his children…. He’s a liar and the father of liars.” Associating Jews with the devil and deceit is an old, reprehensible pattern for those who wish them harm. We are called to reject sin, including the sin of antisemitism.

I believe that this abuse of his words brings grief to Jesus. Bible verses are not meant to be hurled like bricks through a window. The words of our faith are meant as encouragement, comfort, challenge, command, and promise. They are not a weapon to wage war against our neighbors.

Instead, we must reject hate and violence wherever it appears. We must cherish our Jewish neighbors, siblings in our human family. We must stand with our neighbors out of love.

God, we are troubled and grieved by evidence of hate. We ask that you cleanse our hearts from all unrighteousness, so that we may live as you have called us, in righteousness and holiness. We reject antisemitism, hate, and violence against our Jewish neighbors. Help us to live in understanding and peace with one another. Amen.

Advent

Wait for the Lord, whose day is near. Wait for the Lord: be strong, take heart!

-”Wait for the Lord,” ELW #262, by Taize Community and Jacques Berthier

Advent is the first season of the church year, observed each year during the weeks leading up to Christmas. Since it’s a season of preparing and waiting, it makes sense that it’s right at the beginning. Get ready, get set, and wait.

I have always loved Advent. I love the candles and the hymns. I love getting ready, the slow but irresistible build-up to Christmas. I love the subtle blues that make space for feelings that are not quite “holly, jolly” during this complicated time of year.

And I thought I loved waiting. I thought I loved the anticipation. What’s under the tree? Who sent a card today? What kind of cookies will we make with Grandma? These were the kinds of eager, exciting waits that I’ve always associated with Advent. As I’ve reflected on the past year, I realized something about waiting.

It turns out that what I really loved wasn’t waiting. It was countdowns. Countdowns are reliable. 21 days until Christmas, 18 days until break, 27 days until New Year’s Eve, 12 days until that package arrives in the mail. Countdowns aren’t exactly easy waiting, especially when the thing at the end of the countdown is really great, but they are predictable. Six hours or six days or six months: these are measurable. Each moment brings the wait-er closer to the end, and she knows exactly when that end will be.

That’s how I was doing Advent. It wasn’t a wait. It was a countdown. It turns out that I do not actually like waiting. At least, I don’t like to wait unless I know when the end of the wait will come. Advent, though, isn’t just a countdown to Silent Night. It’s a reminder of the long wait that God’s people faced until the birth of Jesus, and the long wait that we face until his return. That’s why the Advent readings are so often full of words of expectation, mixed with hope and longing.

The prophets spoke of the birth of Jesus for centuries before he became that wailing infant. The wait they faced wasn’t a wait for themselves alone. It was the whole people of God, waiting together as a whole for a Messiah who was, they trusted, coming soon. Immanuel might come in a year or a decade or a century, but the countdown wasn’t the point. It is a bold and daring thing, to declare that God will come to restore a world that seems so broken. Even more so, when the expected day can’t be pointed to on the calendar.

There is no countdown for the arrival of Jesus. He himself said, “no one knows the day or the hour.” For nearly two thousand years, the church has been waiting for a promised return that hasn’t yet happened. It’s no surprise that we treat Advent more like a countdown to Christmas than a reminder of the long wait for Jesus, whether at his first coming on Christmas or his second coming when he comes “again in glory to judge the living and the dead,” as the creed professes.

Generations of Christians have clung to the promise of Christ’s return. We don’t talk about it much, though. I think there are two reasons, mostly. First is that pesky countdown. If we can’t see how long it’s going to take, we lose interest in such a drawn-out wait. Second is that for most American Christians, especially the financially stable, the cultural majority, the socially acceptable, that return of Jesus to bring peace and justice to the world might not seem so pressing. If your life, like mine, has mostly been mostly okay most of the time, well… the kingdom of God might not always feel very urgent. Why bother waiting attentively for change when things seem mostly okay as is?

For that answer, we have to go back to the prophets who spoke to the people of God about the promised Messiah. It wasn’t for themselves that they trusted and waited. It was for the whole community. The wealthy and the powerful alongside the poor and powerless and everybody in-between, all longing for the day when the community together would experience peace and justice.

Advent, if it is true waiting, isn’t a single person waiting by themselves for things to go right. It’s the community taking a stand to say that God is going to come with a kingdom worth waiting for, that God’s will for the world is better than what we have now, that God’s people aren’t willing to compromise a single person’s life for the convenience of the rest.

To be honest, I think I still prefer countdowns to waiting. Yet I know that what I prefer all by myself isn’t what God is asking me to do. God, through the prophets and the blue candles and the mellow hymns, is calling us all to wait attentively. God is calling us to the Advent longing for Jesus Christ to come again, changing our hearts and our lives. God is calling us to wait, to keep watch for Jesus and keep watch over each other.

O come, o come, Emmanuel, into our hearts and our world. When things are hard, assure us that you will come and make things right. When things are easy, turn our attention to our suffering neighbors, your dear children. In your holy name we pray, amen.

Thank You Day

In Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, the cartoon successor to Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, there is an episode where Daniel and his friends are celebrating Thank You Day. On Thank You Day, the children are learning about saying thank you to the people who help them throughout their everyday lives. In their neighborhood, they make a Thank You Tree, where each person sticks a thank you note until the tree is filled with cards, just like leaves. One child thanks her parent for playing with her. Another thanks their teacher for teaching. One thanks his brother for showing him how to catch a ball.

Daniel Tiger, though, is stuck. He can’t decide whom to thank! It’s not because no one is helping him, but rather because there are so many people he could thank that it’s hard to pick just one. Everyone is going to the thank you tree to put their notes in, and he still hasn’t made up his mind. Then a gust of wind blows all the notes off the tree! Fortunately, Mr. McFeely, the mail carrier, is there to catch the cards as they fly away. He delivers each note to its recipient, and Daniel realizes that he wants to thank Mr. McFeely! He writes a quick card, then joins the neighborhood in singing, “Thank you for everything you do! Thank you for everything you do!”

Saying thank you is one of the earliest courtesies we learn. We teach one- and two-year-olds to say thank you. We expect older children to say thank you without prompting. We then up the ante by training teens to write thank you notes, often expecting hand-written notes mailed within a month of birthdays, graduations, and Christmas. You can even buy wedding invitations that come with matching thank you cards.

This is a time of year when we often think of gratitude. Thanksgiving is a time to be grateful. All too often, that gratitude is immediately swept away by the desire to have more stuff as Christmas advertising ramps up. Buy One Get One Free! This Weekend Only! Limited Stock! New and Improved!

But God’s people are called to be grateful people, not gimme people. I’m not saying no to gift giving. But what if, for every gift you bought leading up to Christmas, you went out of your way to thank someone for something they said or did, not for something they got you? Maybe you could write a thank you note to hospital staff working overtime to care for Covid-19 patients. Maybe you could thank a friend for always being there for you. Maybe, like Daniel Tiger, there are just too many people who need thanking. That’s okay! Thank you cards come in bulk, not just ten-packs.

Gratitude is like a muscle. The more we use and express it, the stronger it becomes. We say thank you to our neighbors, our friends, and our God. I knew someone who wrote thank you notes to God throughout the year, then read them all on New Year’s Eve to remind herself of all that God had done. She wanted to grow in gratitude.

Let’s make our own Thank You Days. Let’s show people that we appreciate them, that we thank them and thank God for them. Let this Thanksgiving be a time of gratitude in our words and in our hearts.

God, I thank you for all that you give me. I ask you to help me show gratitude to you and to the people around me, so the world abounds in grateful hearts. Amen.