Ed Pierce introduced us to Kathleen Dorr who preached in June.
“Getting Down To Earth“
Luke 1: 39-45
Chilmark Community Church
December 20, 2015
Rev. Vicky Hanjian
I love the story of Mary and Elizabeth. In my memory banks there is a painting of the two women, one slightly stooped, older, with somewhat wispy, scraggly graying hair, visibly pregnant, reaching out to embrace a much younger
woman – – a girl actually, who looks relieved to be in the company of what turns out to be her older cousin.
As we move through the wonderful texts from the prophets – – the beautiful language of Handel’s “Messiah”, the great stories of expectation and yearning for the Great One of God who will save the people, the story and the image of Mary and Elizabeth embracing each other is one that brings it all down to earth.
Elizabeth takes her place in a long lineage of women reaching back to Sarah and and Hannah – – an elderly woman, barren, becoming pregnant by God’s grace for the first time late in life. It turns out that Elizabeth’s child, already 6 months in the womb by the time of the encounter with Mary will be the disturbing John the Baptist who will come charging out of the desert calling the people to repentance. He is the child who will grow up to be a messenger who prepares the way – – to make a straight path for another who is to come.
But, we don’t know this just yet – – all the story tells us is that Elizabeth’s baby “leaps” in her womb when Elizabeth hears Mary’s greeting – – and Elizabeth has an incredible moment of recognition – – a transcendent moment – – the story says she was filled with the Holy Spirit. She blesses Mary and the baby Mary is carrying.
But there is an even more powerful and telling exclamation that comes with Elizabeth’s illuminating awareness – – (Lk.1:45) Elizabeth says “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
As the celebration of Jesus’ birth approaches, we are called upon to suspend rational thinking for awhile. The stories we love and cherish are ones that defy logic and reality. A pregnant virgin, a barren old woman expecting her first child, angels appearing out of nowhere, babies leaping in wombs, shepherds receiving revelation from heaven, stars guiding visitors from foreign lands – – the birth of a much longed for infant who will save the world.
We are invited and challenged to stop thinking rationally – to stop trying to figure it all out – – to stop saying “well maybe this could be a logical explanation”. Indeed the stories invite us into an alternate reality – – they have the ability to throw us off balance while at the same time giving us great joy and comfort.
At the end of the day, the stories are faith stories – – not historical documentaries. Mary’s willingness to carry and give birth to the Living Word of God – – Elizabeth’s openness to recognizing another human being as a bearer of The Word – – John’s eventual willingness to “clear the way” for the Word – to open peoples’ ears – – all powerful stories that push and pull and prod us to examine our own willingness to receive the in-flowing presence of God in our own lives.
When Elizabeth says “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord” she encapsulates the challenge of faith for us in these times.
We are immersed, especially at this time of year, in sacred texts that span at least 2500 years – – texts that repeat over and over again the story of a God who continually seeks out humankind – a God who yearns for relationship with us.
It starts with the story of the creation of human beings at the very beginning as
God yearns for companionship that will partner with God in the ongoing work of creation. The story continues with God seeking out Abraham and Sarah to carry the notion of One God forward into the future. Then God seeks out Moses to bring God’s people liberation. Later, God seeks out prophets who call the people back into relationship with God when they have gotten seriously off track. And then, as our Christian tradition teaches, it seems as though God’s seeking for us comes down to earth – – two pregnant women greeting each other – – it doesn’t get more real than that. And Elizabeth blesses Mary’s firm belief in the promises of God – that God will fulfill all that God has promised.
Our tradition calls to us over the eons and over many generations to be bearers of God – – to bring the reality of God’s passionate love for us to each other and to the world. How we go about bringing this passionate love into the world is unique to each one of us and that is a sermon for another day – – but it is what we are called to do nonetheless. I think that what Elizabeth recognizes in Mary is what we are called to recognize in one another – that we each bear the presence of God, the very image and likeness of God, into the world wherever we go. In the metaphors of pregnancy and birth, Mary accepted that responsibility. The story tells us she absolutely trusted what the angel had told her would come to pass. Elizabeth saw Mary’s trust and responded to it – – and in a fraction of a moment, a little more of God came into being in their relationship.
As the story unfolds, Mary literally gives birth to God – With – Us – – – Emmanuel, the one for whom we yearn and wait. When we set aside all the rational inquiry – all the scientific discussion about virgin birth – all our resistance to mystery – – we are left with the most basic and fundamental truth – – we belong to a God who yearns and desires to be with us. We belong to a God who promises from the beginning that “I will be your God – if you will be my people.”
Elizabeth recognizes and blesses Mary as one who has said “yes” – – one who is willing to be wholeheartedly aligned with the fulfillment of God’s promise to be with God’s people. Elizabeth brings the challenge of a life of faith down to earth.
As the day of celebration draws near, may we be among those whom Elizabeth would recognize and bless as bearers of God’s Living Word of hope and light and peace in the world. May we be among the ones who bring it all down to earth.
“It’s Hard To Stay In Exile”
Zephaniah 3: 14-20
Chilmark Community Church
Rev. Vicky Hanjian
December 13, 2015
Across the past week, as I have immersed myself in the rhythms of Advent, I have been impressed by how closely this time of year in the Christian tradition resembles the dynamic time that leads up to Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur in the Jewish tradition. The Jewish month of Elul (that begins somewhere between the middle of August and the middle of September, depending on the cycle of the moon) signals the beginning of 60 days of self examination, repentance, repair of relationships – – all movements of the spirit that find their grounding in the prophetic texts that describe the terrible pain and isolation of the exile of Israel in foreign lands. About halfway through this period, the weekly readings shift from sorrow, and sadness to comfort and peace and reconciliation.
And so it is with Advent. We are at the midway point. We have heard the warnings and admonitions of John the Baptist –calling for us to return from the narrow and sorrowful and conflicted places in our lives – – to turn around and face ourselves toward God. We have encountered, quite literally, the jarring, disorienting nature of exile as we have lived through the emotional and spiritual impact of the events of the last several weeks – – and now – -midway through – -the Advent scriptures abruptly call us to rejoice – to let go of sorrow and entertain joy. The great rhythms of our tradition keep us moving.
It is not comfortable to stay with the 1st half of this 4 weeks of holy time. Yet somehow, we have to confront the discomfort, the sense of unfamiliarity, the dire warnings of the prophets and the gospels, the calls for repentance – – even though we might want to leap over that and find the comfort of the familiarity of Christmas. Early Advent gives us the chance to do the self-examination we need to do in preparation for receiving the gift that awaits.
Our texts for today were written for the encouragement of Israel as they lived out their time as deportees, first at the hands of the Assyrians and then at the hands of Babylon. The brightest and best of Israel’s people had been removed from the land of Judah, uprooted from their homes, their culture, their religious center….
Their homes were destroyed – – and they did not know what the future would hold for them. The Psalms attest to their distress as they mourned…”How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” The writings of Isaiah and Jeremiah and Amos and Micah and Malachi are full of the dire warnings about what will happen to Israel because of her failure to live up to her high calling as God’s people. The warnings proved to be true – – and the exile happened.
Exile is a powerful metaphor because exile comes in all shapes and sizes. Exile is happening at every moment – from the massive movements of refugee populations in Europe and the Middle East to the personal exiles we all experience from time to time. Exile might describe the feelings of disorientation that come with a difficult diagnosis. It can come as the anger and sadness that accompany a breach in the family or in a friendship. Sometimes exile is the state of grief when a loved one dies. Exile can be the disjointedness that comes with the loss of our health or with the loss of a job. Exile is, perhaps, most profound when it comes as a dark night of the soul when we feel separated from ourselves and from God. Exile comes in all shapes and sizes – and it is hard to be there.
This is why the ever – rolling seasons of the church year are so valuable and necessary. As Advent cycles around again, we are reminded of our various exiles – those things that often make the Christmas holiday challenging and uncomfortable for us. And we are once again presented with the challenge and the opportunity to make the return trip back to where we sense the greatest peace and well being and wholeness – – represented by the Holy Birth that we begin anticipating in November.
So – here we are – midway through. The 3rd Sunday in Advent is traditionally called Gaudete Sunday – – Gaudete – Latin for Rejoice – the day of rejoicing. We light a different color candle – rose pink – a color for joy – contrasted with the purple of repentance. In our liturgy, unfamiliar and sometimes uncomfortable hymns of early Advent shift ever so slightly away from the themes of warning and repentance and yearning toward the fulfillment of Christmas as the time of our waiting moves into the final days.
This Sunday is also known as Mary’s Sunday. In some lectionary cycles, Mary’s song of rejoicing is the scripture for today. In Luke’s gospel, Mary sings out: My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God, my savior, for he has looked with favor upon his lowly servant. Surely from now on all generations will call me blessed. (Luke 1:46-48) So, joy and rejoicing are the theme as our anticipation increases – – even thought we aren’t quite there yet.
God’s time is funny that way. It does not move forward in a straight line. It is continually folding back in on itself and seems not to have the orderly predictability of calendar time. This is everywhere evident in the Christian year, but, perhaps most obvious in this season when the pull is toward The Big Day, even while we still have our feet somewhere in the exiles that hold us back. It seems as though only young children get to know a Christmas that is purely joy and excitement. The rest of us keep moving back and forth in God’s time – exile and return, exile and return.
But the inexorable movement is toward reconciliation and peace and wholeness. We are not created to live in exile indefinitely – – and the word for today is that wherever we find ourselves, there is the potential for returning and rejoicing. Zephaniah calls to us: Sing aloud! Rejoice with all your heart! The Lord your God is in your midst….God will rejoice over you with gladness…God will renew you in God’s love…..God will exult over you with loud singing! Imagine! – – a singing God!! Isaiah promises that we will draw water from the wells of healing with joy! This is the promise of the birth we celebrate –made real in the love that is continually bursting into our lives in the person of Jesus.
Even as we anticipate the celebration of the birth, God’s time moves us toward the Holy presence available to us right now in the sacrament of communion – something that happens totally out of synch with this time of year. A celebration instituted at the very end of the life of the One whose birth we celebrate. It almost seems like an Einsteinian moment – when all time is in the present moment – past, present and future. Not so strange really as we celebrate belonging to a God who is, was, and will be both now and forevermore. So wherever we are on the journey between exile and home, let us take a little time in the present moment to rejoice together as we join one another at the table that has been prepared in love for us. May God bless us with moments of peaceful gratitude and glimpses of rejoicing as we break bread together. AMEN
What Are We Waiting For?
Chilmark Community Church
December 6, 2015
Rev. Vicky Hanjian
What are we to do with the dire warnings of the end times that appear in the 21st chapter of Luke? Why do we read these warnings and admonitions right before Christmas? I have never like these apocalyptic scenarios and have managed to avoid preaching on them for a lot of years. But this year the text wouldn’t leave me alone – so here goes!
Luke wrote his story of Jesus for a tumultuous and ugly time in the history of the Jews and of the early community of “Jesus people”. Indeed, their world was falling apart. By the time Luke wrote the Romans had already destroyed the great Jerusalem temple that stood at the center of Jewish life. Judea was utterly occupied by Rome with the intent of obliterating both Jews and Judaism including the relatively new Jewish sect that embraced the teachings of Jesus. So these warnings have their ground in the terrible disruptions happening 2000 years ago.
As I wrestled with how to find meaning in them questions about what we expect in the way of a messiah kept rumbling around. The notion of a coming messiah was around long before Jesus as the Jews suffered through one devastating occupation after another. There was always the hope that there would be the one strong military leader who would arise from the ranks and deliver the Jews into a “golden age” of order and justice and peace and well-being and wholeness. The historical reign of Kind David epitomized this longing. The loss and devastation was so thorough and the hope for a messiah was so profound and seemed so distant that a certain kind of thinking arose around it – – that, indeed, everything had to end so that a new beginning could happen. This is the thinking that pervades the 21st chapter of Luke. There will be wars and devastation and destruction – and this all has to happen so that a new thing can take place. In a nutshell, this is what apocalypse means. So why is this text chosen for us to read in the run up to Christmas? Where is the hope and light and peace and joy in a text that warns of destruction and desolation?
Quite some time ago I came across a scientific metaphor that has helped me to find a way to appropriate this text for today. I found it in Ilya Prigogines’ Theory of Dissipative structures. – How is that for a tongue twister? Prigogine was a physical chemist. He thought about the critical role that stress plays in transformation. He used the language of open systems and closed systems. A closed system might be a cold cup of coffee or a piece of granite. In a closed system there is not much energy being exchanged with the environment around it. Nothing much happening. Open systems, on the other hand, take in energy from their environment and transform it and give it back into the environment again, frequently changing the environment around the system in the process.. Prigogine described an open system as a flowing wholeness. Open systems are complex. There are often many interconnections in an open system – we can see this in the human networking that happens on the island. The global human community is an open system – – incredibly complex, with billions of points of connection. One of the main characteristics of an open system is that it is not stable – – it is subject to perturbations or disruptions as the energy of interconnection moves. If a disruption is large enough, the whole system is shaken up. The elements of the old patterns of relating come into contact with each other in new ways and make new connections. The parts reorganize into a new whole – – and the whole system “escapes” to a higher order.
Isis and Paris and, now, San Bernadino have become metaphors for things falling apart – for chaos and destruction – for the disruption of so many patterns relationships that humans depend on for order and a sense of well being. They are the perturbation in the open system of global human realtionships.
And yet – even as we worship here in Chilmark, a large group of men and women from 150 countries have gathered in Paris to attend to the issues of global climate change – – San Bernadino’s holiday parade went forward as scheduled – – human beings once again have rallied around each other to offer comfort and compassion in the midst of another unthinkable crisis –fightng fear with joy as the newscasters reported. The human system begins reordering itself right in the epicenter of a major disruption.
Do we dare to understand Luke’s Jesus to be teaching about a way of looking at the world through the eyes of a physical chemist? Do Jesus’ words about the coming disruption carry a far more hopeful purpose? What are we waiting for? What are we watching for? Is it possible that the things that Jesus tells us to be alert for – to be on the watch for are already happening? Is it possible that the idea of “messiah” – the hoped for bringer of order and justice and wholeness is a metaphor for the kind of creativity and regeneration that is already happening in the midst of chaos and fear and destruction? Is the “messiah” hidden and working in the midst of the turmoil? Are we to be watchful and awake to what this “messiah process” is doing right now?
The apocalyptic scenarios in the scriptures are there for a reason.
I am inclined to think that Jesus’ words want to wake us up to how the Holy One is working all the time in the midst of the terrible things we fear the most to bring to birth a new creation. Birthing is painful. It is frightening – sometimes it is life threatening. We are tempted to lose hope – – and then Advent rolls around again with its promise of a great new act of generativity and love and peace and hope coming into the world – – in the midst of the chaos.
The prophet Isaiah said it well when he preached the word of God to Israel at the end of her exile: Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth from the bud, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. And so we light our candles. We share our light with one another. We find ways to meet the needs of the world around us. In the midst of all the chaos that goes on in the world, we watch, we wait, we see, and we celebrate a birth – – new life ever emerging. This is our Advent hope.
Chilmark Church – November 22, 2015
Endi- in the language of the Ewe people of Ghana West Africa – Endi – good morning. It is good to be with you this morning, Just this past Wednesday, we returned from Ghana after almost three weeks there. It was a busy and God blessed time for us. Joining Carol and I were summer residents of Windy Gates, Alan and Evonne Lipke. Evonne is a recently retired teacher and Alan, a producer of documentaries for public radio. As many of you may already know, we have made over a dozen trips working with our United Church of Christ Global Mission Partner, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church,Ghana. Our’s is a ministry of presence, meeting people where they are and helping them to become what God would want them to be.
We each brought over to Ghana 3 – 50 pound suitcases, full of medical supplies, school materials, eyeglasses and clothing for widows and orphans and as well as funds to support projects, schools, the cured lepers’ village, scholarships and programs of the church and community. These funds were raised through donations and the sale of goods, often at the Chilmark Flea Market. We purchased goods from local craftsmen and projects of the church.
This year our mission was one of encouragement. Wherever we were, we encouraged, and enabled persons. We visited 18 different schools reminding them that education was important, that teachers work was of worth & value and that students needed to be in school. We also delivered educational materials to them. We delivered 25 first kits to schools and project areas. We helped with school fees, purchased school uniforms and offered scholarships to worthy junior high and post junior high school students. We encouraged a teacher and financial helped her to prepare for her accreditation exam.
We visited and delivered medical goods, PT apparatus, breathing equipment, and unexpired prescription medicines to the Volta Regional Hospital in Ho encouraging their leadership and staff to carry on. We encouraged the students at Mawuko Girls High by delivering funds to help further furnish the resource and learning center.
We encouraged the eco-clubs at junior high schools and contributed to Relbonet – an interfaith Christian-Muslim group which supports those eco-clubs. This project is lead by Charles Agboklu, an agent of the EP Church, Ghana. We met with and encouraged a church sponsored fire team who protected 8,000 trees from those who would burn the bush to scare out animals for food. We visited their teak plantation and met with the leaders of that community at Adaklu Waya.
We encouraged and helped fund the building of a new junior high school in Takla- the old one could fall down during the next heavy rain. In Dzofeme Avatime, we encouraged the renovation and helped toward the funding of a new roof for its chapel. We visited its schools and its elders and got an up- date on its water/sanitation project.
We met with the leadership and paramount chief of Kpenoe and were accompanied by the chief as we brought words of encouragement and food to the cured lepers village. We saw a new clinic being built to enable that village to have closer and better medical care.
We worshipped and prayed with 3 congregations, including at a funeral and met with pastors and catechists at those places. We met with the chief and leaders of Takla Gbogame and looked at the water/ sanitation issues, dilapidated junior high and arranged for an inoculation program for their 700 goats and sheep to coincide with the program in two adjacent villages.
We met with educational officials and learned of the crying need in rural areas for resources to enable students to pass national exams. We encouraged families to pay up past due school fees so children could stay in school.
Alan Lipke conducted radio workshops at Ho Polytechnic and its radio station, 98.5 AM Volta Premier, helping students produce documentary stories. Yvonne and Carol taught in schools and brought & helped students make crafts which are rarely done.
In addition, we visited several communities and participated in two cultural programs of dance, drama and song; toured a Monkey Sanctuary; visited the highest water fall in West Africa at Wli; as well as the slave dungeon at Elmina .
We encouraged a pastor and lay church leader by giving them Bible study material and shared our faith and heard their stories. We met with development people at the church headquarters and the leaders of the 800 congregation Evangelical Presbyterian church and worshipped with them.
It was a busy and fruitful time and everywhere we went we experienced warm hospitality, deep appreciation and a sense that God is alive and well and working out His plan. God is good all the time and all the time God is good. Thank you for your prayers, for having the summer flea market where we met Alan and Evonne and helped raise funds. Akpena malu – thank you God. Akpe – thank you
Prepare The Way of The Lord
Perhaps some of you watched the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in the early fifties on TV. You may have missed this aspect of it – just before the service in Westminster Abbey, right after the congregation was seated, there suddenly appeared a whole squad of workers with brushes and vacuum cleaners who proceeded to clean the carpets so that they would be immaculate for the coming of the queen. Any trace of dirt carried in by the congregation would be removed. It sounds a little too much for us, but for the British, it was quite natural. The way of royalty must be prepared carefully.
In ancient times, when kings traveled, their servants would precede them filling holes in and smoothing the road. For the Christian, the 4 weeks before Christmas is the season of Advent – a time of preparation. We are called to prepare for the coming of Christ. Surely, this is more important than the coming of any earthly ruler.
Obviously, Christ is not born physically each Christmas. There is a permanent mark in history when his physical birth occurred. It happened about 2000 years ago, about 63 generations ago. However, the Christian faith affirms his coming again and again. Advent calls us not only to recall his coming in the flesh, but also his coming in the spirit. This sort of birth requires a special preparation.
Let us think together how we should be preparing for his coming. First, we should center, focus, concentrate our attention on Him. We are such creatures of habit, that if we do not set our mind on a particular course,
It will be set for us. The affect on us is for the benefit of others, not necessarily for our own benefit.
We are affected by advertising whether we think it’s stupid or not; if we were not, companies would not spend millions on it. Now if we do not have a course of action, a center of attention, what do you think a magazine for example, during the Christmas season would aim us toward? This one from Time Magazine years ago, in just one issue (roll out display) had over 50 liquor ads. You have a mind; use it during advent to keep your thoughts and actions Christ centered.
If you ever lived on a farm, then you know more about hens and eggs than I do; but as I understand it, before they developed artificial incubation, they depended on hens to sit on the eggs in order that they might hatch. If there were too many eggs in a nest, and they were not all covered by the hen, the uncovered ones would not hatch. In fact, it took a special kind of hen, a persistent one, one that would stay with the eggs and not run off or be easily scared off the nest.
You know we need the same sort of persistence. Christ’s spirit can never be brought to birth in our lives as long as we keep him at the periphery of our living. We must brood long enough and regularly enough over the meaning of his life and death and triumph until we have the mind of Christ, until his character and disposition come alive in us.
So first, we must focus our attention On Jesus. Second, in our advent preparation we must heed the call of John the Baptist. John prepared the way of the Lord by calling his followers to repentance for the forgiveness of sin. John said, “His sandals I am not worthy to untie.”
John realized that this need for repentance and forgiveness was part of preparing for the coming of the Lord. Malachi asks, “who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire…”
Samuel Miller, once Dean of Harvard Divinity School, makes a clear comparison when we are placed along side of Christ. “He was courageous, we are cautious. He trusted the untrustworthy, we trust those who have good collateral. He forgave the unforgiveable, we forgive those who do not truly hurt us. He was righteous and laughed at respectability, we are respectable and smile at righteousness. He was meek, we are ambitious. He saved others, we save ourselves as much as we can. He had no place to lay his head, and did not worry about it, while we fret because we do not have the last convenience manufactured by clever science. He did what he believed to be right regardless of the consequences, while we determine what is right by how it will affect us. He feared God, but not the world. We fear public opinion more than we fear the judgment of God. He risked everything for God, we make religion a refuge from every risk. He took up the cross, we neither take it up nor lay it down, but merely let it stand.”
Yes, when Jesus confronts us, it is an embarrassment. Yet, he comes with love and forgiveness. We dare not presume on his goodness and grace. This Advent, let us be busy with reexamining our lives, with mending our relationships – both human and divine. John the Baptist’s call to repentance and forgiveness is still valid.
There is one more essential if Advent is to thoroughly prepare us for Christ’s coming. We must have a sense of anticipation, a sense of expectancy during these weeks. How often Jesus made this point. The one who seeks finds, the one who knocks will find doors unsealed. He told of servants which were prepared, for they remained watchful for their master on his return journey. The rule seems to be that if nothing ever happens in our spiritual lives it is because we never expect anything to happen.
Yes, those who seek Him, find Him. And the good news is that those who find Him find themselves, they become a somebody instead of a nobody.
Don’t we all long for communication with others be it verbal or letters or e-mail? We do, for without it we have no relationships with others, and without others we are lost; we are nothing; we hardly exist. Without others we don’t know who we are, for we have no identity except in reference to our fellows. I identify myself as the son of these persons, the father of these persons, the husband of this women, the pastor of these people and so on. And you can identify yourself in a similar way. Even the hermit identifies himself by the people from whom he has fled. You heard about the hermit who lived outside a city and woke up one morning and found the city missing. He had to find another city to live outside of.
Yes, we yearn for relationships so that we can be established as persons. If wholesome personal relationships are hard with persons we see, how much harder it must be for a relationship with God we do not see. So we long for some word from God that says “God is” – A word that tells us we are not alone in this universe. It is just at this point that the Gospel, the Good News is relevant to us. The Word has been and is being spoken to us in Christ. No longer need we see the world as an impersonal accident of moving atoms. The Ultimate One we now can call Abba, Father. For in Christ, The word became flesh and dwelt among us. In him was life, and that life was the light of men and women and children. And it was not to those who merely learned about him, but it was to those who received him and still receive him that he gave power to become children of God. There we have it; that is our true identity. We are children of God and that makes us the most real persons in the world.
In a play, “The Desperate Hours,” by Joseph Hayes, the story is told of an escaped bandit who keeps a family prisoners in their home. He holds a 10-year old boy in front of him as a shield. Unknown to anyone else, the father of the family has managed to get at the bandit’s two guns several hours prior to this moment. He had unloaded one and had taken the other one for himself. The father now stands across the room from the bandit. The bandit holds the son as a shield. Only the father knows the convict’s gun is unloaded, and that everything will be alright if the boy pulls away from his captor. The father shouts, “Pull away son; he can’t hut you.” The convict challenges him: “Try it and see.” The father responds: It has no bullets in it; run.” The boy does so, and the bandit’s gun clicks helplessly without power to enslave any longer.
It is just that kind of setting-one-free” that God does for us in the gift of Christ. In the experience of a new Christmas we find the gift and the giver are one. His coming anew to us identifies us as persons, persons now set free from all that enslaves and dehumanizes. We know who we are because we know whose we are.
Do you really want a meaningful Christmas? Then focus yourself on Jesus Christ, be busy with some of the about faces that repentance demands – mending those strained and broken relationships, and finally anticipate that Jesus will actually come into your life and be born anew in you – setting you free to minister in his name.
“And why do you worry…….?
Chilmark Community Church
Rev. Vicky Hanjian
November 22, 2015
Way back in 1988, a simple song flooded the airways for a period of time – Bobby McFarrin’s – – “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”. Some days, just listening to it would lift my spirits. But on other days, I would want to turn it off and throw something at the radio because life really can be very heavy and there is a lot to worry about. A simple “Don’t worry – be happy” can sound pretty callous and unfeeling in the face of the enormity of what life throws at us sometimes – and especially in the light of the trauma of the daily news of terrorist attacks in Paris and Mali – – and the continued threat in different places around the world.
Jesus’ message about “don’t worry” doesn’t seem quite realistic in the complexity of our lives. His words seem out of step with our society and the world we live in. On the surface they lack coherence with the lived experience in the 21st century. As Ulrich Luz has put it, “when [Jesus’ words are] interpreted in a superficial manner, this statement could only have been written by a single guy living a carefree life on the beach in sunny Galilee.”
But there they are – – impertinent questions and teachings, really: “Why do you worry about your clothing?” “Don’t worry about what you will wear or eat or drink….don’t worry about your life……
Worry is another word for anxiety – – and anxiety is always directed toward the future – – what will happen if…….. What will happen if I lose my job…..what will happen if my social security is not enough to sustain me? What will happen if I get really sick and my health insurance won’t cover expenses? What will happen if I can no longer take care of myself? What will happen if I can’t meet the rent or the mortgage…..Who will take care of my family if something happens to me?…. What will happen if the terror afoot in the world cannot be contained?……..anxiety is with us a lot.
In our culture and our time and location, for the most part, our food and clothing needs are pretty well met. On this island if we are up against it, there are organizations and systems in place to help us. Food Pantries, free clothing ministries, Meals On Wheels, community dinners, food assistance programs and so on. In a small community like ours, there is no need for anyone ever to go hungry or without adequate clothing. It was not so for Jesus’ listeners who might only own one garment and who might face starvation if a family was not able to trade for food in the local markets, if a father thrown in prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his hungry children.
So how are we to hear these words for us today? Part of the answer is in verse 34 at the end of what we just read – but I think it needs a little unpacking. Jesus teaches “Don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”
Ram Dass, a meditation teacher in the Eastern religious tradition, sums it up this way when he says “Be here now.”
Many spiritual teachers across the ages have taught that God can only be experienced in the present moment – – we cannot reach back into the past and feel God’s presence – although we man be able to see where God has been at work in our lives. We can’t reach into the future to find God because the future does not yet exist. When Jesus challenges us with the words “Do not worry…” he is inviting us to stay very much in the present where we can indeed feel and know the presence of God working in our lives and in the world right here and now – from moment to moment.
The more we are able to focus on that holy energetic presence working with us, the more our anxiety quotient goes down. When, through worry and anxiety, we move ourselves into some imagined and frightening future, we have lost touch with the companionship of God in this moment. How often do we manage to create tension and worry about something that is going to happen and then we get on the other side of it and realize that all that anxiety simply wasn’t necessary at all?
I think it is important to know that there is no moral judgment in Jesus words here. Jesus simply recognizes that his followers do indeed worry – this does not make them sinful or bad – it is just a state of being human. What Jesus is saying is that we don’t have to worry so much – – that by focusing on the truth that the Holy One dwells in every moment of our lives – and does indeed know exactly what we need in any given moment, we can relax into that truth and give ourselves some breathing space when we are feeling challenged by what life is presenting.
Now – I have to tell you – – I have to listen to my own sermon, because I can generate anxiety with the best of them. I need a little help along the way. So – I listen to teachers who suggest practices, spiritual disciplines, if you will, to keep me focused and present to the Holy. One practice is to notice when I am feeling worried or anxious about something – especially about things over which I have no control. That is the first step – – simply noticing my anxious state of mind – to say to myself – Hmmmm – -getting a little uptight about this aren’t you?” A second practice is to acknowledge that when I am anxious, I have in that moment separated myself from the Presence of God. As soon as I realize that, I have taken a step away from the worry or anxiety and a step closer to feeling myself back in God’s Presence. A third practice is to ask “What is God unfolding for me in this moment?” Now, a direct answer to that question may not come right in the moment, but the question has the effect of bringing me back into the awareness that God is indeed working with me even in the midst of my worry and I can begin to relax. I also have to tell you that this is not a magic formula. It is a discipline and I have to practice it over and over again – – sometimes a dozen times a day. Anxiety is a slippery thing – – but – – here’s the reward – – – the more I practice, the more aware I become of the active, energetic presence of the Holy in every moment – – and that leads to gratitude and thanksgiving. Gratitude and anxiety cannot share the same space for very long.
As we approach our national day of Thanksgiving, in a world fraught with danger and suffering, with violence and uncertainty about what it all means, it is good for us to take the teachings of Jesus to heart, to affirm that God does indeed, know what we need, and to give extravagant thanks for God’s continual involvement with our lives for our benefit.
Some of you might remember the old Ma and Pa Kettle television series? In a classic scene that was to be found in many of the episodes, Ma Kettle would bang the triangle on the porch, and from every corner and crevice around the yard hordes of screaming, yelling children would pour into the house fighting for a place at the table. Then Ma, in her best stentorian tones would holler, “Hold it!” and everyone would freeze in silence. Pa Kettle would roll his eyes heavenward, tip his hat, and say, “Much obliged.” And immediately the melee began again as abruptly as it had stopped. Maybe those simple words are enough, but it would be good for us, wherever we are on this Thanksgiving Day, if we stop for longer than a breath and bless God for all the ways the Holy Presence clothes and feeds and sustains us throughout the moments of our days, through all the years of our lives. Have a blessed and happy Thanksgiving.
Sunday I was seated on a park bench, beneath the branches of an elm tree, playing the squeeze box. I had been sitting there for quite a while. It was that intermediary point between late afternoon and dusk. The amber street lamps ignited almost imperceptibly. Their soft glow accentuated the golden hues of the autumn foliage. Topaz chips of glitter. The skies were smokey and subdued. The November winds twisted through the yellow leaves that had collected on the pavement.
With a symmetry intelligible only from altitudes, the park consists of a maze of concrete walkways, footpaths trimmed with wrought iron gates on either side, lined with benches. At various points the pathways open into small piazzas, where skateboarders can circle and cruise, fathers can play catch with their sons, lovers can stroll, and pigeons can flock amidst a spray of crumbs. There are notable varieties of elms growing amidst such asphalt expanses, their roots writhing and swirling from the exposed and hardened surface of the earth, protectively sectored by cobblestone masonry that designate where the ground ended and the concrete began. Squirrels habitually shimmy up and down the gray bark of the trunks. Dogs are drawn to sniff the scent left by the squirrels, and, in summer months, the Hari Krishnas are known to gather beneath one particular elm, the largest in the park and centrally located. The monks sit cross legged in their orange togas and shaved heads, and chant mantras. And so to some, it has come to be known as the Hari Krishna tree. It is reputedly the oldest in the park, and serves as a centerpiece, of sorts, the spindle of a circular shaped plaza, the compass needle of a binnacle. This tree serves to inform many of their bearings. It is the source, the meeting place, so to speak. Its branches gracefully extend themselves at great length, sloping and bending, with smooth, soft curves, inclined in all directions. Its foliage provides shade to those who sit on the partial ellipses of benches situated around the interior parameter of the piazza. It was on one such bench that I sat late Sunday afternoon and into the early evening, with my instrument, savoring the unseasonably warm temperatures which combined with the brooding, tempestuous skies.
Barely visible amidst the leaves at my feet, was a small cigar box i had bought from a neighbor at a sidewalk sale enroute to the park. A wooden cigar box that she had transformed decades ago into a receptacle for keepsakes and mementos, by cutting and affixing a detail from a well known Modigliani to the topside of its wooden exterior. Inside too, another well known female figure by the same artist was inserted into the underside of the lid. It had probably been refashioned in during her college years, when many drank Mateuse and used the bottles as candlestick holders afterward. Because of the predominate golds and browns, the box was barely distinguishable from the dry crumpled foliage.
It was growing continuously darker. The skies had gradated from lavender to a deeper shade of amethyst. The hours advanced like a troop of soldiers marching fearlessly into the frontline of an austere enemy line that awaited ahead. The winds were recurrent, of varying velocity, sometimes gentle and enduring, other times occurring as sudden blast that seemed to be a torn segment from a greater gale, vanishing as instantly as it arrived. When such winds passed through, they swirled through the bed of leaves compiled beneath the elm, air lifting them momentarily and causing them to toss and turn in their suspended state, to flip and flop. Those that remained on the ground seemed to chase each other in circles and scuttle across the concrete. Toddlers were often induced to run from their mother’s side, and kick through the accumulating mound, further releasing the rich and fecund aroma notable to the Fall.
Autumn has its own ominous beauty, calling us back, letting us know another season is coming to its conclusion – and, if only as an innuendo, preparing us for what’s ahead.
People drew nearer, compelled by the plaintive cry of the music. From various, directions they deviated temporarily from their course, beckoned by the distant appeal of the intoned melodies. Combined with the magisterial beauty of the foliage, the music persuaded many to take a seat , to rest and ponder for a moment. Slowly the crowd continued to gather, disparate individuals, who were permitted and persuaded to pause, to observe the richness and slender of the elements occurring about them. The foliage of the trees, the turgid skies, the fragrant aroma which seemed to be intensified by the unlikely threat of rain. Still visible, beyond the parameters of the park, the soft wash of tenements and brownstones rising above the tree tops – Emitting a certain charm and appeal probably not so different than when Henry James inhabited such an address. Sienna, Rust, and Brown Brick edifices that retained a well kept stateliness, with water towers on their roofs, and onyx fire escapes zig zagging down their facades.
Each time a breeze passed through, a shower of leaves began to flutter from the elm. It was a majestic, mesmerizing. An umbrella of falling petals. Butter colored, the disengaged leaves flitted and fluttered, frivolously, in no particular hurry, catching glimpses of light as they descended, to the pavement below. They seemed to flicker, as the underside and topside of the leaves alternatively wavered, revealing the subtle gradation and variation in hue. Throughout the park, and perhaps throughout the city, all the trees participated in unison. Munificent showers of supple amber leaves, swept by the momentary tumult and turbulence of the tempest. There were other varieties of trees as well. The supple fan shaped leafs of the ginkgo, the leaflets of the honey locust, and the massive, paw shaped leafs of the Oak, all contributing to the confetti of amber, gold and topaz. It was stunning and ritualistic. A moment that pulled everyone out of the confines of their own mentality to behold in unified wonder. It induced the same awesome sense in all those that beheld with steadfast gaze – the same feeling as experienced by all who had ever watched in generations past, regardless of the particular landscape or setting.
The descent of an autumn leaf is Iconic in this sense. And en masse, symphonic.
Old timers could not help but observe the occurrence and wonder, how many autumns they had left. They inhaled the caramel flavored air, smelling of summer’s sweetness slightly toasted in ghee. Children leapt from their mother’s side to run beneath the cascade, with outstretched arms, kicking through the accumulative mound of leaves. Mother’s watched from the benches, strollers parked nearby. Soon, they thought, it would be time for mittens and sleds, for ice skating on ponds beneath a vast prairie the stars. But perhaps that was their own remembered winters they were envisioning. For this was new york, the nostalgic interlude was occurring within an urban landscape.
Strange how the past stencils itself so readily upon our apprehension of the future.
An elderly asian woman bent over from a nearby bench, and picked up a leaf to press between the pages of a volume she held in her lap.
A student wrote copiously in the pages of a composition book.
Lovers sat beside each other hand in hand.
Onlookers, incredulated by the great spectacle, snapped photographs with their smart phones.
Still others shuddered to think of what waited in the coming weeks. Leafless and barren, etched against the pallid and anemic skies, the elms would appear attenuated and arthritic, as if scrawled and scribbled with charcoal on low grade scraps of a sketch pad. Which is what the drab and dreary skies would be comparable to – cheap rag paper. Even if propped on an easel, each day could be torn off from the tablet and discarded. Crumpled up and tossed on Avenue B. Temperatures would plummet. In less than a month’s time, these very same trees would seem so gaunt and haunting. And even that would only signify the beginning. The bleak passage toward the season of the Undertakers. The morticians and pall bearers whose elongated apparitions still stride along the widened sidewalks in front of the brownstones. Tall wooden figures in tuxedo jackets and stripe pants, with top hats and walking sticks.
Perhaps it was the knowledge of what waited ahead, that served to make these moments even more precious. Increasing the intensity of the offering. Likely it persuaded some to cling more tightly to the beauty unfolding before them. To surrender. To be pliant.
(Completion? Finality? Such concepts seem an anathema to the Divine. God is an unaccomplished artist just setting out, and each day is an awkward clumsy sketch, that will be torn off and begun over. Constantly being altered, edited, modified. Never finished. Never perfect. Always a work in progress. )
My fingers deftly knitted and crocheted the keys, as reminiscent melodies wheezed out.
The poignancy of the falling leaves compelled something in the depths of each singular heart to dance. It reached in and invited the soul to tango. Each interior landscape was momentarilly transformed into a ballroom, Roseland, a massive dance hall in which an often unconuslted aspect of our being was called forth from the shadows and recessitudes to exult. To be swung around in the rhapsodic embrace of a mysterious and faceless stranger.
The angels are always pleading to be let in. They scurry amongst us. Fleeting. As Vaporous as the el greco clouds that were beginning to assemble overhead.
An ember in the smoldering ashes was stirred. A glint, a glimmer. A gleam. For some, its always a matter of such a flame is being ignited. Or extinguished.
The skies darkened. A storm of pigeons squabbled. They strutted across the pavement in their red shoes and grey suits, clucking their heads to some unheard rhythm that had nothing to do with the songs i was cranking out. Individuals seated on the benches eventually rose, drifting off in various directions, though their places were constantly replenished by new wanderers, that had been compelled by the music. Songs known the world over. The theme from the Godfather. La Vie En Rose. Somewhere Over the Rainbow. Songs that i had played throughout India, Morocco, South East Asia, Egypt, Europe. Songs that had angered me rides on elephants in Udaipur, camel rides across the moon drenched desert sands to the great pyramids. Songs that had persuaded the old and unwanted indian women, sitting in endless succession along the dusty streets of Delhi, to remove bangles from their wrists and offer them in exchange for another melody.
No, please don’t go, they pleaded in Hindi. The same appeal as we held toward these final rhapsodic days of the season.
Like the leaves, the songs had a universal appeal.
Beauty is like that. It has such traits and attributes. It is capable of knocking down borders. Slipping through barriers.
Multitudes of men dressed in sheets followeed through Marrakesh singing Hi Lili Hi Lili Hi Lo. Women in burkas peered out from the corners to watch in fascination.
Had the cigar box been more conspicuous it might have dissuaded many from pausing. Especially the poor, the elderly, those who might feel guilty not being able to contribute. Because the box was so submerged, people took no notice. those who did, approached to thank me, and discreetly dropped a few dollars in before leaving.
It was when i began cranking out Moon River that another shower of butter colored leaves began to descend, prolonged by a breeze that did not want to let up. The air seemed to suddenly condense and thicken with moisture. The predicted evening rains were drawing closer. With darkness encroaching, the glow of the street lamps seemed more vibrant, the chips of amber blazing throughout the park. Like metallic chips in a painting by Hunterwasser. Or Klimpt. The line between dusk and twilight, between day and night, was disputable. The borders were being smudged. The leaves fell in great multitudes. Like the flakes of snow that fall when a child’s glass dome is shaken. I lifted my gaze as my weathered fingers pressed on, and beheld the tree from its underside. The leaves fell on my shoulders, on my lap, and on the bellows. They collected in the rim of my hat. They continued to descend into the innermost depths of my being. They forced the lips open of an invisible mouth, one hitherto muted, that had remained undisclosed in my own interior darkness. The beauty tore at the crack that sealed shut those lips. It ripped apart at the seam that confined its secrets. Unrelentingly it pried. And as the leaves continued to fall, and my fingers continued to press the succession of notes, while the bellows continued to expand and contract, to heave pendulously and with certain intent, the power of beauty suddenly yanked from the throat of that dark orafice – an apology to the universe. Yes, suddenly my soul cried out. It wrenched out a thank you. The song continued like a moon lit river through the tributaries of the past. Bursting forth, from such unconsummated depths, a tacit and unprecedented gratitude for my childhood. For growing up in the woods, and having a pond that my foster father had made with his bulldozer in a clearing formed after sawing down a lot of trees. There were brooks that tickled through those woods, with moss covered banks and gurgling black waters that fed into the pond. The earth, especially where the truncated stumps had been removed, smelled of anise and sasparilla. Of horehound. Overhead the stars began to glimmer. The stars in the skies of my memory, and in the skies above tompkins square park, abolishing time. Eradicating the line between the past and the present.
The angels are always waltzing with the phantoms across such borders. The spirits are entangled in each other’s embrace, dancing amid the casualties and corpses. The shapeless shadowy adumbrations.
How many leaves had fallen from the elm in the few hours i had played. Hundreds? Thousands? Tens of thousands? How many autumns had i played through. How many more awaited? Each a requiem as much as a rendezvous.
The rapture induced by the falling leaf. Multiplied to the square root of poetry. Some would call it God’s duplicitous sense of mercy. For it diverted our attention from the branch that was being denuded. Slowly, incrementally, death was nibbling at each limb, and licking its chops. Gazing up from beneath the boughs, the heavens became increasingly more visible.Seconds passed. Minutes. Hours. Time marched like an indefatigable troop of soldiers impervious to the passage that had left so many of us battle weary. The most we could do was trudge. And even that would be with belligerence.
Soon the snow would fall and the branches would be articulated by its accumulation, as would the park benches and the railings of the wrought iron fences. The swing sets of a nearby play ground would creak arthritically in the wind.
Suddenly a mother rose, lifted her toddler from the pile of leaves, and began dancing with him in her arms.
November 8th 2015
Completed November 12th