In the North Sea, above the land we now call Scotland, lie the Orkney Islands. The rule of these islands, was split between two cousins, Earl Hakon, a mighty warrior, and Earl Magnus, also mighty in battle but gifted in peacemaking. Together they ruled peacefully for seven years until evil men gained the ear of Hakon and turned him against Magnus. There were great arguments until good men, persuaded the two rulers to work out their difference diplomatically. It was agreed that they would meet on a small island during Holy Week to make their peace. When Hakon arrived, he saw Magnus waiting for him in a field before an old church, with his arms outstretched in peaceful welcome. But Hakon was not there for peace. He took the life of his cousin Magnus on that very spot.
Magnus’ men sorrowfully buried their leader in that sparse, rocky field. Although the field had always been full of moss and not good for any kind of farming, that spring it grew lush and green with grass. People came there to pray and sheep came there to graze. It was said that the field turned green with grassy new life because it was not only the spot where Magnus, remembered now as St. Magnus the Peacemaker, died and was buried. It was also the place where his soul was lifted up to God to be with the Holy One in Paradise. And so, God returned the favor and granted the Orkney Islands a bit of Paradise. Magnus died with God and rose with God. And the field is the witness.
Some time after Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection and ascension to Paradise, Peter declared, “We are witnesses to all that he did” (Acts 10:39). At Easter the Church celebrates the good news that Jesus died and rose with God at the end of what we still call Holy Week. But the most desirable manner of celebrating Easter is by being ever open to new life taking root in the rocky, mossy barren places of our lives. Like that field in the Orkney Islands, may the Church always bear witness to the resurrection life pioneered by Jesus by being fertile ground to justice, peace, and righteousness.
The forty days of Lent (not counting Sundays) commence with Ash Wednesday and conclude with the day before Easter. This span of days commemorate the time Jesus spent in the wilderness wrestling with temptation before beginning his ministry. Historically, Christians have used Lent as a season for confronting their own temptations and rededicating themselves to faithful discipleship. Lent contains some of the richest worship services of the Church year, including Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. These services give us opportunities to reflect deeply on the last week of Christ’s earthly life. Some ways of marking the solemn nature of the season include temporary changes to the worship liturgy and the “burying of the Alleluias” (the discontinuance of praise music) until the “resurrection of the Alleluias” on Easter Sunday.
The significance of Jesus’ final week (which we commemorate as Holy Week) is attested to by the fact that all four gospels devote so much space to the events of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, his trial and crucifixion. Despite the prominence given to them, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday are among the least attended services of the year. I encourage you to embrace the experience of Lent and Holy Week this year, both in communal worship (see the Lenten worship schedule below) and in private devotions. Those who share the trials and suffering of our Lord can most fully enter into the joy of Easter. And those who face their own shortcomings are best able to embrace the gift of grace.
From the Pastor’s Pen
“Would you like to join the Diaconate?” asked an older church member.
She was a nice person, diligent in her service to the church. Most every week, she showed up early on Sunday morning to prepare the sanctuary for worship. She put up the hymn numbers, checked the candles and arranged the flowers. On Communion Sundays, she set the table, cut the bread and poured the juice and wine.
Sounded like holy housework to me.
Instead of saying yes or no, I responded, “Why?”
“Because I’ve been doing it for thirty-five years,” she said impatiently, “and I’m really tired. It’s time for someone else to do it.”
Not exactly an appealing invitation. I turned the offer down.
I suspect the woman had a rich faith life. I always wondered what might have happened if she had answered the question this way:
You know, I’ve been serving on the Diaconate for thirty-five years. Every Sunday, I awake before dawn and come here to the church. It is so quiet. I come into the building and unlock the sacristy. I open the drawers and take out the paraments, so beautifully adorned with the colors of the liturgical season, and drape them on the pulpit and lectern. While I set the table for the Lord’s Supper, I’ve often wondered what it must have been like to set the table for Jesus and his friends. I’ve meditated on what it must have been like to be there with him. I’ve considered what it will be like when we eat it with him in heaven. And I’ve learned a thing or two about service and beauty and community. You know, I’d like to share that with you. I’d like you to experience that, too.
I know how I would have responded: “Sign me up.” (adapted from Christianity After Religion by Diana Butler Bass)
In the church, we often attempt to recruit people to serve on committees or take on projects, out of a sense of obligation and duty. No wonder it is tough to fill vacancies; or that those who agree to serve only do so grudgingly. What if we helped people instead to see service less in terms of obligation and more as a response to God’s grace in their lives? What if the expectation of inconvenience turned into unexpected experiences of sacredness and deepening one’s spirituality?
From the Pastor’s Pen
On Sunday, May 6, the Central Association will be holding their Annual Meeting in West Boylston. I am pleased to say that my name will be on the list of new officers and committee members to be voted in at that gathering. I will be serving on the Central Association Committee on Ministry. According to UCC polity, Associations are delegated with the function of recognizing, authorizing and maintaining ordained, commissioned and licensed ministry. Each Association has its own Committee on Ministry, which examines applicants who are discerning a call to ministry, monitors the progress of their preparation for ministry, examines their fitness for ministry and either approves or denies their authorization for ministry in the UCC. Often a member of the Committee is assigned as a kind of mentor to a particular candidate for ministry. When the Committee on Ministry is satisfied that a candidate for ministry has met the requirements of training and education for ministry, the next step is to schedule an Ecclesiastical Council. Delegates and clergy from all churches within the Association attend the Ecclesiastical Council to hear the candidate present their Ordination Paper and answer questions. Upon the recommendation of the Committee on Ministry, the Council votes on whether to approve the candidate for Ordination.
As you can see, Committees on Ministry are entrusted with one of the most important responsibilities in the United Church of Christ. It is a sobering and demanding duty but also a very gratifying one. I know this from personal experience. Prior to coming to Westminster, I served several years on the Committee on Ministry for Franklin Association, including two years as Chairman of the Committee. There is a big difference in the size of those two Associations, though. Franklin Association contains 19 churches. Central contains 90 churches and stretches north to south from the New Hampshire to the Connecticut border and east to west from Milford to Ware.
The Committee on Ministry meets on the third Thursday of every month, so I will not be in the office on those dates.
Once upon a time, churches were looked upon as safe havens to which even fugitives could go for protection. “Church” and “safety” were all but synonymous. The exposure of clergy abuse scandals changed all that. Gone forever were the days when it could be taken for granted that any church was a safe sanctuary. Suddenly, “Safe Church Policies” were needed, primarily to protect children from predatory behavior within churches. Over time, a broader awareness of safety issues within places of worship and the rise of external threats to the sanctity of church safety, demanded expanded thinking on how to keep churches safe and evolving policies to better accomplish those goals. Churches wrestled with finding the right balance between their calling to be open and welcoming to all people, and the need for providing security to minimize the possibilities of innocent people becoming victims to violence or abuse.
I am happy to report that our Safe Church Team has been proactive in addressing safety concerns for the protection of this congregation. Regular fire drills, first aid kits, and Automated External Defibrillators (AEDs) are just a few examples of the resolve to be as prepared as possible for a variety of emergency situations. The Safe Church Team, along with groups from other churches in town, has attended two special presentations on church safety provided by the Westminster Police Department. These were offered in response to the unprecedented escalation of violence directed at houses of worship. One result of this information sharing has been that several other local faith communities have requested copies of our Policy to assist them in formulating safety procedures for themselves.
Recently, you may have observed signs posted on the side and rear entrances to the church with the notification that those doors will be locked shortly after worship begins on Sundays. Anyone arriving after that time will need to enter the building by the front entrance, which will remain unlocked. This was adopted as a reasonable safety measure, with the expectation that whatever occasional and modest inconvenience might result will be offset by our fidelity to the purpose of being a sanctuary where the ministry of the church can be conducted with reasonable safety and extravagant welcome for all.
It feels like an unusual number of calendar dates have been pulling double duty this year. Christmas Eve fell on a Sunday, which meant worship in the morning, early evening and late night. Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day doubled up for the first time in almost 75 years. And now Easter and April Fool’s Day will be sharing the spotlight on April 1. Typically, the Sunday after Easter is referred to as Holy Humor Sunday. More than a gimmick to fill the pews on one of the least attended Sundays of the year, Holy Humor Sunday actually boasts a longstanding tradition in some denominations. For centuries in Eastern Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant countries, one day was deemed insufficient to celebrate the joyous resurrection of the Lord. So, the week following Easter Sunday was observed by the faithful as “days of joy and laughter” with parties and picnics to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection. Churchgoers and pastors played practical jokes on each other, drenched each other with water, told jokes, sang, and danced.
Holy Humor is also grounded in some solid theology. The custom was rooted in the musings of early church theologians (like Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, and John Chrysostom) that, just when the Devil thought he had triumphed over God by seeing that Jesus was crucified, God played a practical joke on the Devil by raising Jesus from the dead. “Risus paschalis – the Easter laugh,” the early theologians called it.
All this suggests that April Fool’s Day might actually be the perfect day of the year to celebrate Easter. If there is one word that personifies April Fool’s Day, it would have to be “unpredictable.” And if the Resurrection was anything, it certainly was unpredictable.
From the Pastor’s Pen
Years ago, in the city of Muenster, Germany, a strange love story unfolded. A female black swan who was given the name Petra, became so attached to a paddleboat shaped like a great white swan, that she refused to leave its side. If you look closely at this picture, you can spot Petra floating contentedly alongside her “beau.” Even when winter arrived, she would not abandon her companion for a warmer location. Ultimately, the swan boat was temporarily relocated to the Muenster zoo, to coax Petra into joining it there for the winter. After a failed attempt at an “arranged” relationship with a live bird, zookeepers resigned themselves to reuniting Petra with her beloved paddleboat swan.
The season of Lent is a time for purposeful reflection on the non-life giving relationships in our lives. What objects or experiences are we giving our hearts to that can never give us what our spirits are thirsting for? Augustine of Hippo once said of the human need for relationship to God, “Thou hast created us for Thyself, and our heart is not quiet until it rests in Thee.” We are no more designed to satisfy the deepest longings of our soul apart from a relationship with God than Petra was created to be mated with a paddleboat. God is the source and the destination of our lives. Jesus is the one who is the way to that destination. Lent is the time set apart by the church for letting go of attachments that interfere with our spiritual progress so that we can embrace the life that truly is life.
Here is the schedule of worship services for Lent:
Ash Wednesday – February 14, 7 PM
Palm Sunday – March 25
Maundy Thursday Service of Tenebrae and Communion – March 29, 7 PM
Good Friday Walk to the Cross self-paced meditative experience (in the sanctuary) and Labyrinth Walk (in Covenant Hall) from noon to 6 PM – March 30
Easter Sunrise Service on Academy Hill – 6:30 AM
Easter Worship in the Sanctuary – 9:30 AM
From the Pastor’s Pen
Some holidays have special traditions attached to them. Easter has eggs, Christmas has trees and Thanksgiving has turkeys. Epiphany isn’t usually considered one of those holidays. But there is an old Epiphany tradition that can be celebrated by families. It’s called “Chalking the Door.”
In Deuteronomy 6:9 God tells the people of Israel: “These words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house… You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”
Chalking the door with the inscription 20 + C + M + B + 17 is a tangible way to honor God in our lives. The first and last numbers refer to the current year. The letters C M B come from the traditional names for the three kings (or wise men, or magi): Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. On Epiphany (January 6th, twelve days after Christmas) gather family members, friends, neighbors or whomever. Then just add chalk. Write the inscription above or beside the door, or on a chalkboard that can be hung by the door.
As the inscription is chalked, all may say together: “The three Wise Men, [C] Caspar, [M] Melchior, [B] and Balthazar followed the star to Bethlehem and the child Jesus  two thousand,  and seventeen years ago. May Christ bless our home, and remain with us throughout the new year. Amen.”
After that, one or more of the following prayers maybe said:
May all who come to our home this year rejoice to find Christ living among us; and may we seek and serve, in everyone we meet, that same Jesus who is your incarnate Word, now and forever. Amen.
God of heaven and earth, you revealed your only-begotten One to every nation by the guidance of a star. Bless this house and all who inhabit it. Fill us with the light of Christ, that our concern for others may reflect your love. We ask this through Christ our Savior. Amen.
Loving God, bless this household. May we be blessed with health, goodness of heart, gentleness, and abiding in your will. We ask this through Christ our Savior. Amen.
May Epiphany be the start of a blessed 2018 for your household!
On the first Sunday in December, we begin our celebration of Advent. On the four Sundays leading up to Christmas, we will rejoice in the great gift that is ours in Jesus Christ. To help us celebrate, we will be lighting the candles of the Advent wreath. The candles signify that Jesus is the Light of the World. The evergreens remind us that He is life and brings life to us. All these are arranged in a circle because life in Christ has no end. Each Sunday we will light an additional candle. Then on Christmas Eve, we will light all the candles, including the center one, the Christ candle. As we do, we will rejoice that Christ has come to us. He is Immanuel…God with us.
Advent music is comprised of songs full of theological depths, generally sung in a minor key, which are purposely composed to call us to reflection on the meaning of Jesus’ birth. Meanwhile, the secular songs of the season are holly, jolly Christmas carols that motivate shoppers but do not lend themselves to a deeper understanding of our Lord’s birth.
But, I figure that if a flesh and blood child born 2000 years ago can reveal the fullness of God’s glory, and if two millennia of churches filled with imperfect people can reflect God’s hope, love, joy and peace, then who’s to say that Frosty the Snowman or Silver Bells can’t teach us something about the true meaning of Christmas?
Which led to the sermon series I’ll be preaching during Advent, which is titled, Finding the Sacred in the Secular: What Christmas Songs That Have Nothing to do With Jesus Can Tell Us About the Lord’s Birth.
This is the Advent schedule of worship with sermon titles:
1st Sunday of Advent (Dec. 3) “Santa Claus is Coming to Town: John the Baptist Prepares People for the Messiah’s Arrival”
2nd Sunday of Advent (Dec. 10): “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, and Other Unlikely Heroes of Christmas Eve”
3rd Sunday of Advent (Dec. 17): Crèche Service
Longest Night Service at 7 pm
4th Sunday of Advent (Dec. 24): “Home for the Holidays: Joseph and Mary Journey to Bethlehem.”
Christmas Eve Services of Lessons and Carols at 7 and 11 PM
Merry Christmas to all, and to all a blessed Advent!