A Victorian Christmas In Danielson, CT

Okay – so I cannot possibly think of a better way to get into the Christmas spirit than this.

Victorian Christmas

My sweet friend Jon over at Westfield Congregational Church, UCC in Danielson, CT has started an AMAZING Christmas tradition over there.

From their website

Experience a candlelit Christmas
straight from the 1800s.
Classic Decorations,
Favorite songs, and the reading of the Christmas Story
are highlights of this new tradition!

The First Four Sundays of December
December 1, 8, 15, 22
7 pm, Sanctuary

Unbelievable does not even begin to describe these services. Bruce and I both went last year and felt instantly transported to a different time and space.  The prayers, music, decor and outfits are all from the Victorian Era.  The attention to detail is exquisite!

IMG_7542 IMG_7527

Some photos I took last year.  They have the most beautiful space – it really lends itself nicely to this event.  I’m not sure you could pull a Victorian Christmas worship off as well as they do in other spaces.

IMG_7544 IMG_7529 IMG_7559

If you live within driving distance of Westfield, I would STRONGLY encourage you to check it out!  Bruce and I plan on going this weekend, so let me know if you are going!

Visit Westfield’s website for more information – or like them on Facebook!

Living In A New Age Of Faith

Jon and I participated in a pulpit sway on Sunday!  I drove out to Danielson to preach at Westfield and he came here to Rehoboth to worship with my folks.  We had a blast!  Here is my sermon that I preached there …

Pulpit Swap 1Pulpit Swap 2

Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
Luke 12:32-40

Living In A New Age Of Faith

A few weeks ago I was hanging out with some friends and somehow we got on the subject of the meaning of different names. We started off the conversation by sharing the meanings of the names that we knew and eventually started looking up the meanings of the ones we did not know.

As often happens when I get together with my girlfriends, the conversation got a little bit loud as we delighted in discovering new things and all tried to talk over one another (the women in the congregation understand this, I’m sure!).
At one point, however, my friend’s daughter wandered into the kitchen and asked us what we were doing. We told her we were talking about what our names meant. She nodded as if she understood, but then cocked her head to the side and suddenly had a very curious look in her eyes. “Well what does my name mean?” she asked us.

And in an instant – despite the presence of seven women – the kitchen was silent. No one knew how to explain to her what her name meant.

Her name is Faith.

Of course, with all of those women, as instantly as the silence took over the kitchen the babbling started again. We all frantically tried to come up with a definition of faith that made sense and sounded plausible. Of course none of our definitions were the same and we were simultaneously laughing and horrified that we could not come up with an answer or a consensus for her on the meaning of faith.

Eventually Faith looked over at me and – as only an eight-year-old can – said, “Uhhh, you’re a minister, shouldn’t you know these kinds of things?”

She had a point.

So what does ‘Faith’ mean?

Truth be told, faith is just something that is difficult to define. But it is also something that we all want to define; it is something that we want to know and understand in our lives. As human beings, we wish that we could find answers to our questions, that we could see palpable proof of God’s presence in our lives and that we could know what to believe and what not to believe. We wish that we could not only understand that the Gospel is truth, but also see and know the Gospel as truth.

The world around us is often a difficult place to live in and understand. And, as people who are trying to navigate this world, we are thirsty for a faith that is both easily understandable and easily accessible. We are craving a faith that will guide us and give us strength along our journeys.

Let’s be honest – we struggle – every single day. And while faith may seem like the obvious place to turn to when we are struggling, so very often during those difficult times God seems far away and our faith is lost.

In this morning’s Epistle reading, the Letter to the Hebrews, the author described faith as, “The assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” The author reminded us of the faith of Abraham; a man who – thousands of years ago – journeyed through his life and faith often not knowing where he was going; a man who faced real challenges and whose faith helped him fight to overcome them; a man who saw difficult times and whose faith could have been lost.

Faith is not something that we can always see tangibly, but time, history and scripture have proven to us that it is something that is real and that is active in our lives.

I come from a long line of clergy; my mother is ordained and still serving a congregation here in the Connecticut Conference of the United Church of Christ and my grandfather and great-grandfather were ordained clergy as well. Ordained ministry runs through our veins; but each generation of clergy saw and continues to see a very different view of the church and ministry.

Church ministry is very different today than it was 10 years ago … 25 years ago … 50 years ago. The world is different, people are different and – yes – our churches are different. Our churches have changed and continued to change. I am sure that many of you sitting here today have been around Westfield long enough to witness some of these changes. Some things have changed us for the better; some changes are kind of scary for us to experience. And while I do not think that our faith has changed, I do think that the way we access and express our faith has changed.

Where does faith fit into these changes?

I was reading a commentary on this passage from Hebrews and the author posed the question, “Do we live in an age of faith?”

What do you think? Do you think that we live in an age of faith?

This is actually a really intriguing question for me to think about. As I watch churches around the country decline in numbers and vitality, I am tempted to answer ‘no’. I think that we live in an age of social media, where people build virtual connections and community instead of physical ones. I think we live in an age where youth and children have sports commitments and adults have work commitments on Sunday mornings. I think we live in an age where both parents are working and do not have as much time to volunteer. I think we live in an age where people are turned off by the church. I think we live in an age where the church often does not seem relevant to people’s lives. I think we live in an age where people who are active in church communities are in the minority, not the majority.

But we also live in an age where – because of the Internet and social media – people are exposed to a lot more pain and tragedy than they used to be. We live in an age where people struggle in real ways – physically, emotionally, mentally and financially. We live in an age where our to-do lists seem to grow and our time seems to disappear. We live in an age where we can never seem to catch up. We live in an age where we are constantly asking difficult questions and not finding any answers. We live in an age where people are crying out for help.

Let’s face it – we live in an age where we need faith more than ever.

The same author, the Rev. David Gray, that posed the question, “Do we live in an age of faith?” also spoke beautifully on why we so desperately need faith in our lives. Gray wrote:

It is difficult to follow God when we are not sure where God is leading. When we do not see evidence of action, we begin to wonder whether God is watching over us. We hope that God is watching. We see loved ones grow ill and pray in faith that God will hold their future. Then every once in awhile something positive happens in our faith, something special that restores our conviction, strengthens our hearts, and reminds us why we believe what we believe.

Faith matters. Our faith gives assurance that God has our best interests at heart, knows what we hope for, and holds our future.

We can hope, but in faith we often have to trust God and other people with our future and find our assurance outside ourselves.

Believing in something is what faith is all about. Our faith is a gift of God’s grace.

{Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 3, Page 328}

Faith is truly a gift that has been given to each and every one of us. It exists within us and it exists in different and unique ways.

In this morning’s Gospel reading, Jesus said to crowds who had gathered, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” The world can be a very scary place to live in, but we are reminded through Jesus’ words that we are not alone, that God is with us always and that – if we allow it to – our faith will carry us through the ups and the downs of life.

Yes, I think we do live in an age of faith. But I also think that we live in an age of a new kind of faith. I think we live in an age where faith is personal, where faith is individually based and where faith is challenged. I think we live in an age where faith is expressed in a multitude of ways – yes within our religious traditions, but also in the secular worlds that we live in every day. I think we live in an age of faith where we do not need to separate our faith from the rest of our lives, but rather where we should live our lives faithfully.

And I do think that now more than ever we, as church communities, need to create a space for people to engage, explore and strengthen their faith.

“Be dressed for action,” Jesus said, “and have your lamps lit.”

So let the light of your faith shine. Let it shine in this church, let it shine in your families, let it shine in your communities and let it shine in the world.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

On The Wings Of The Holy Spirit

It was an honor to preach at Jon‘s installation this weekend!

20130520-094907.jpg

Here is my sermon … I was preaching with Westfield in mind, but I think it speaks nicely to experiencing transitions in ministry.  Enjoy!

(And if you live in the Danielson, CT area – check out the church!)

***

John 11:1-44

On The Wings Of The Holy Spirit

I come bearing gifts! Three of them, in fact (how Trinitarian of me).

The first gift comes with a story.

A few weeks ago the choir at my church was rehearsing before worship. I walked into the sanctuary as they were running through the hymn, “We’re Marching to Zion.”

The last time I sang this particular hymn was actually at Jon’s ordination in 2010 at Elon Community Church United Church of Christ in Elon, North Carolina. Now this was the south, where ever church was influenced by the Baptist Church; there was energy in the church when we sang that hymn. We sang, we moved, we clapped and we marched right on into Zion.

As I am sure you can imagine, the energy was not quite the same at my church that morning. I mean, let’s face it, New England country churches are not exactly known for moving, dancing and clapping during worship (YET!). And so I may have insinuated (okay, okay, I came right out and said it) that it seemed like our choir wasn’t so much marching into Zion as they were kind of, well, strolling into Zion.

I was told to just stick to preaching.

And that nobody would clap with me.

Fast forward a few weeks; I was telling Jon this story over dinner and we started talking about how we, as worship leaders, can bring some of that spirit and soul into our traditional churches without making people feel too uncomfortable. Jon told me that he always prepares people to sing “We’re Marching to Zion” by encouraging them to step outside of their comfort zones, to feel the Holy Spirit move through them and to sing out with passion and enthusiasm.

And then – and this was my favorite part – he usually removes his ring in preparation for the intense and spirit-filled clapping that will come during the refrain of the last verse.

That’s my kind of marching.

So, Jon, my first gift to you this afternoon is a bowl. It was made by Lindsey Epstein, who owns a pottery studio in Rehoboth. As you continue in your ministry with this community, as you continue to breathe a new spirit into worship and as you continue to journey with them through new and different experiences, may you always have a place to put your ring when you make people clap with you during a hymn.

I wanted to share this story because, not only will we be marching into Zion later on in the service, it reminds us that transitions in ministry – whether it be transitions in leadership, transitions in church structure or transitions in the period of time that we are living in – are multifaceted. There is always a lot going on. They force us to get our hands dirty; they encourage us to try new things; they can be hectic and confusing; and sometimes they make us uncomfortable.

But one way or another they always find a way for us to feel the breath of the Holy Spirit.

A lot of this is already happening at Westfield Church. As someone watching from the outside, I have been a witness to some spectacular things like Victorian Christmas, beautiful fabric installations and altarscapes and a church-wide painting effort that spruced up the common areas of the building. Members and friends of Westfield Congregational Church, let me assure you that something incredible is happening in your midst right now.

We just heard a reading from the gospel of John that speaks volumes. In addition to a story of the miraculous healing of a man named Lazarus, we start to see signs of the invitation that Jesus extends to us into the priesthood of all believers, of Jesus’ call for us to be the Body of Christ.

I read a commentary on this text that said, “Like much of the rest of this Gospel, the passage points repeatedly to the importance of the act of believing (always a verb in John, never [a noun]).” {West, Audrey – Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 2, Page 141}

Jesus said to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” And Martha replied to Jesus, “Yes, Lord, I believe.”

And after he arrived at the tomb and told Martha to remove the stone, Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”

First and foremost, Jesus calls us to believe. Jesus calls us to believe in God, the powerful creator, to believe in the teachings and the truth of the Gospel and to believe in the sustaining presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Jesus reminds us through the healing of Lazarus that belief is not something we have, it is something that we do. Jesus does not want us to be seeking belief in our lives, rather he wants us to live our lives believing.

I think the same is true with the church. We cannot look for belief in the church, we have to believe in the church. We have to believe in the church if we want it to experience healing and growth. We have to believe in the church if we want it to thrive. We cannot wait for something miraculous to happen in order to believe in the church, we have to believe in the church in order for something miraculous to happen.

You – as a congregation – have to believe in this church. You have to believe in your ministry, both inside and outside its walls. You have to believe, not only in who you are, but also in who you can be. You have to believe in one another as you journey together.

Lazarus – a man who had been dead for four days – walked out of his tomb alive. It truly was a miraculous expression of the act of believing. What awaits this church through the act of believing? The possibilities are endless.

This story also reminds us that – in addition to calling us to believe – Jesus calls us to be part of his ministry in the world. The healing of Lazarus was not complete when he walked out of the tomb. Jesus then said to the people, “Unbind him and let him go.” Jesus called the people of that community into his healing ministry; he called them to help nurture and strengthen Lazarus and to be part of the resurrection that was happening in his life.

Jesus invokes healing in the world, but he also calls us to be part of that healing as well. We have to be active participants in the Body of Christ in order for the Body to function well.

In the New Testament, the second chapter of the Letter of James reminds us that, “faith by itself, it is has no works, is dead.” {NRSV James 2:17} In a similar way – a church, without works, is also dead. Without strong and vibrant leaders, a church will not thrive. Without strong and vibrant leaders, a church may not even live.

And when I say “leaders,” I am not talking about the pastor.

Do I think that you have made an absolutely wonderful choice in calling Jon to be your pastor? Yes! Do I think that Jon will energize you, push you and lead you in transformative directions? Yes!

But Jon is not Westfield Congregational Church. YOU are Westfield Congregational Church. This is your church. And your church needs you to be an active participants in its life and ministry in order for it to grow and to thrive.

When someone is ordained, it is common practice for ordained clergy to come forward and take part in the ancient tradition of the laying on of hands.

When Jon was ordained, he not only invited ordained clergy, but he invited everyone who was present that day – EVERYONE! – to come forward and lay their hands on him. When I asked him why he said to me, “Because we are all part of the priesthood of all believers.”

Jon, my second gift for you this afternoon is a poster of a photograph I took at your ordination. You asked me specifically to capture this moment, the moment when the priesthood of all believers came to life in that space and affirmed your ministry. You never wanted to stand alone in ministry – not even for a second. From the very beginning, you wanted to be part of something much bigger.

Westfield Congregational Church, with this gift, I invite you into this moment three years ago – and I also invite you to create your own moments like this in the days, weeks, months and years to come. Know that this church needs you. This church needs you to accept the invitation extended to you into the priesthood of all believers, to heed Christ’s call into the Body of Christ and to be a minister within this community of faith. You all have so much to give, so many passions and talents to share.

The real work of Christ did not end with his death, it only began. There is so much more work that needs to be done. This text demands of us full participation in the Body of Christ. Jesus demands of us full participation in the Body of Christ.

And the vitality of this church demands of you full participation in the Body of Christ.

I am not saying that this will always be easy. As we celebrate today remember that we are living and ministering within the imperfections of a human world and the church is no exception. Your journey together may not always be smooth. You, as a congregation, will make mistakes. Jon will make mistakes. You will face conflicts. You will not agree on everything. And you may not always like each other.

But on this day of Pentecost, remember that we are all united by a spirit. Through the best of times and the worst of time, you will be strengthened and lifted up by the Holy Spirit.

(And when the Holy Spirit is not enough, make sure you have an ample supply of Cherry Coke Zero.)

I cannot think of a better day than Pentecost to celebrate Jon’s installation. There is a spirit alive and at work at Westfield right now. It exists within the community and it exists within every single one of you.

Through the creativity of some and the hard work of many, we are surrounded by beautiful and tangible expressions of the Holy Spirit in the sanctuary. And later on in the service, everyone will be given a piece of this installation; a reminder to you that the Holy Spirit is with you always – strengthening both you and this community.

So – Believe always. Actively participate. And feel the spirit move.

You are the Body of Christ. You are the priesthood of all believers. You are Westfield Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, united, strengthened and lifted up on the wings of the Holy Spirit.

And it is good. It is very, very good.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.