First Sunday of Advent: Hope

“Beware, keep alert, for you do not know when the time will come.” Mark 13:33

A few weeks ago, I was interviewed for a podcast about the United States’ political situation. It was just a few days before the presidential election, and tensions were running relatively high. The host of the program asked if I was nervous about unrest following the results regardless of who won. I admitted I was a little apprehensive, but I did not think things would be all that bad since I live in Massachusetts. As the interview continued, I could sense that the host was unsure of where I was going with the answers to his questions. I finally said, “as a person of faith, I have to have hope.”

The First Sunday of Advent’s theme is hope, hope for things to come, and hope for the long-expected Messiah.

The Gospel for this first Sunday comes from Mark 13:24-37, and at first glance, one might not find much hope in the words Mark had written. Mark writes of what is know of the “end times,” the time when Jesus will come as King and ruler of the world. I don’t spend much time thinking about those days because Mark tells us we don’t know when it will happen; only God knows. But we have hope anyway.

My hope is not for the day when Jesus returns and wipes certain people off the face of the earth. Hope does not lie in his “flaming chariot of smoke” or any other apocalyptic language that Mark uses and that some fixate on. My hope rests on the assurance that “God so loved the world.”

The last seven or eight months have been difficult for all of us. Not only have we had to deal with the pandemic, but race relations are at an all-time low here in America. Riots and protests have broken out in most major cities across our country. The political situation has not helped either. As a society, we have become divided along so many different lines; it is hard to keep them all straight, and at times, it is difficult to hold on to this idea of hope. But hold on, we must.

Advent is a time of waiting, of expectation, of preparation, and hope. In the Gospel, Mark tells us to watch for the signs, and he uses the fig tree as an example. When the tender shoots of the fig tree begin to grow, and the first of its fruit begins to show, we know that summer is close at hand. Mark is telling us not to worry about figuring out when things will happen but to be watchful and ready when it does.

This Advent season gives us a time like no other. The pace of our lives has slowed down a little from what we usually go through this time of year. We will not be attending the parties we usually attend nor many of the events. For the most part, our shopping will be online or very limited in person, so we have more time to sit and prepare spiritually for the coming of the Christ Child, which is “the reason for the season.”

As Christians, we have hope because, as the Prophet, Isiah told us, “darkness shall cover the earth, but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.” (Isaiah 60:2) We light the first candle of Advent today, hoping that the light will overcome the darkness in the world. And we have hope that it will.

The Advent Wreath

I was asked recently about the meaning of the Advent wreath. I had to search my seminary memory banks to answer that question. In essence, the Advent Wreath is about bringing light into a dark world, but the meaning is deeper than that. I was also surprised to learn that the Advent Wreath tradition only dates to the 17th century.

According to research conducted by Mary Jane Haemig, Professor of Church History at Luther Seminary of St. Paul, Minnesota, the modern-day Advent Wreath was started by Johann Hinrich Wichern, a Protestant Pastor and missionary to the urban poor. In 1839, Pastor Wichern created a large wooden ring from a cartwheel and placed twenty red and four small white candles around the circle. Each weekday, and Saturday a red candle would be lit, and on Sundays, a white one. The popularity of this ring grew into the smaller version that we are familiar with today. During the 1920s, Roman Catholics in German began to adopt the wreath’s use during the Advent season, and its popularity spread to North America in the 1930s.

So, what is the symbolism of the Advent Wreath?

Advent wreaths a circular indicating the endless love of God for all of creation. Most Advent Wreaths are made from evergreen leaves or branches representing the eternal life brought by Jesus Christ. As previously mentioned, the candles on the Advent Wreath represent the light of Christ coming into the world, although each candle has a meaning of its own.

Each candle of the Advent Wreath represents one of the Christian concepts of hope, peace, joy, and love. Many Advent Wreath will also have a larger white candle in the center that lit on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day to symbolize the Good News of the birth of Jesus Christ. The candle is white because this is the Liturgical color for the celebration of feast days.

Three of the four candles on the Advent Wreath are purple. Purple is the traditional color for the Advent Season, which represents the original penitential nature of Advent. The fourth candle is pink or rose and is lit on the third Sunday, Gaudete Sunday, from the Latin word meaning “rejoice ye.” The theme of the third Sunday is joy, so the penitential nature of the season is paused as we recall the joy of the Christ Child’s coming.

I encourage all of you to begin or continue the tradition of lighting the Advent Wreath in your homes. The wreath does not have to be fancy or even store-bought. It can be made from simple items from around your home and yard. Whatever you chose to use, a blessing of the wreath is appropriate. Here is one I like to use.

Lord our God, we praise you for your Son, Jesus Christ: he is Emmanuel, the hope of the peoples, he is the wisdom that teaches and guides us, he is the Savior of every nation. Lord God, let your blessing come upon us as we light the candles of this wreath. May the wreath and its light be a sign of Christ’s promise to bring us salvation. May he come quickly and not delay. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

The blessing may conclude with a verse from “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”:

O come, desire of nations, bind in one the hearts of humankind; bid ev’ry sad division cease and be thyself our Prince of peace. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

—From Catholic Household Blessings & Prayers

Advent – A Time of Preparation

On Sunday, November 29th, the Church enters the season of Advent, the preparatory time before the celebration of Christmas. Advent comes from the Latin word Latin adventus “coming; arrival” and was considered, by the early Church, a time of penitence and reconciliation much like the season of Lent before Easter.

With the commercialization of Christmas, Advent has fallen out of favor as a time to slow down and meditate on the season’s meaning. Advent was a time of fasting and abstinence that lasts for the four weeks before Christmas. Homes would not be decorated until the eve of Christmas, a season that lasts until the Epiphany on January 6th.

Like most traditions in the Church, it is unclear as to when Advent became celebrated. There is some thought that Advent existed before 480 AD but became an official part of the Church calendar at the Council of Tours in 567 AD.

Four distinct themes mark the season of Advent; Hope, Peace, Love, and Joy, and in current practice, a candle is lit for each week in Churches and homes. The candles’ lighting reminds us, in the darkness of the time of year, that the light is coming. Each week, as we light more candles, the light becomes brighter to lighten the darkened world. The Scriptures appointed for the Sundays of Advent also remind us of the light that is to come.

For most of us, Advent is a time filled with shopping, parties, sending Christmas cards, and decorating our homes for Christmas. Forgotten is the real meaning of the season as a time of expectation, waiting, and preparation. The weeks leading to Christmas get busier and busier with each passing year, and Advent is all but forgotten.

With the pandemic still about, this year could be a time for us to recapture some of what Advent is supposed to be about. Most of us will not be as busy as we usually are, which will allow us time to slow down and meditate on the coming season. Perhaps we can spend more time reading the Scriptures and attending worship services online, or just spend some time in quiet contemplation.

Prayer for Thanksgiving

Almighty God, We thank you for all we see of your own beauty in the world you have created, and in people’s lives you are re-creating day by day. We thank you for the details of love which enrich our lives even when the going is difficult, and we thank you most particularly for your love to us. In Jesus Christ who gives us purpose and hope today, and for the future. Thank you, Lord.

Book of Common Order, Church of Scotland

Thanksgiving Proclamation




 On Thanksgiving Day, we thank God for the abundant blessings in our lives.  As we gather with family and friends to celebrate this season of generosity, hope, and gratitude, we commemorate America’s founding traditions of faith, family, and friendship, and give thanks for the principles of freedom, liberty, and democracy that make our country exceptional in the history of the world.

This November marks 400 years since the Mayflower and its passengers faced the unknown and set sail across the Atlantic Ocean.  Propelled by hope for a brighter future, these intrepid men and women endured two long months at sea, tired and hungry, to arrive in a new world full of potential.  In the winter weather that greeted their arrival, they lost nearly half of their fellow travelers to exposure, disease, and starvation.  Despite unimaginable hardships, these first Americans nevertheless remained firm in their faith and unwavering in their commitment to their dreams.  They forged friendships with the Wampanoag Tribe, fostered a spirit of common purpose among themselves, and trusted in God to provide for them.  The following year, they celebrated a successful harvest alongside their Native American neighbors — the first Thanksgiving.  This seminal event in the history of our Nation is a continual reminder of the power of faith, love, perseverance, prayer, and fellowship.

The Mayflower’s arrival to the New World in 1620 also marks the arrival of the first seeds of democracy to our land.  Absent the rule of a monarch in an uncharted wilderness, these early settlers resolved to create their own government through what is known as the Mayflower Compact.  Defined by majority rule through elected leaders responsible for creating “just and equal laws,” the Mayflower Compact represents the first chapter in the long tradition of self-determination and rule of law in America.  One hundred and fifty-six years later, our Nation’s Founding Fathers resolved to break free from England, building upon the Mayflower Compact to establish an enduring government whose authority came solely “from the consent of the governed.”

This year, as our Nation continues to combat the coronavirus pandemic, we have once again joined together to overcome the challenges facing us.  In the midst of suffering and loss, we are witnessing the remarkable courage and boundless generosity of the American people as they come to the aid of those in need, reflecting the spirit of those first settlers who worked together to meet the needs of their community.  First responders, medical professionals, essential workers, neighbors, and countless other patriots have served and sacrificed for their fellow Americans, and the prayers of our people have once again lifted up our Nation, providing comfort, healing, and strength during times of uncertainty.  Despite unprecedented challenges, we have not faltered in the face of adversity.  To the contrary, we have leveraged our strengths to make significant breakthroughs that will end this crisis, rebuilding our stockpiles, revamping our manufacturing capabilities, and developing groundbreaking therapeutics and life-saving vaccines on record-shattering timeframes.

During this season of gratitude, we also acknowledge those who cannot be with their families.  This includes the brave American patriots of our Armed Forces who selflessly defend our sacred liberty at home and abroad.  And we pause to remember the sacrifices of our law enforcement personnel and first responders.  We are deeply grateful for all those who remain on watch over the holidays and keep us safe as we celebrate and give thanks for the blessings in our lives.

This Thanksgiving, we reaffirm our everlasting gratitude for all that we enjoy, and we commemorate the legacy of generosity bestowed upon us by our forbearers.  Although challenges remain, we will never yield in our quest to live up to the promise of our heritage.  As we gather with our loved ones, we resolve with abiding faith and patriotism to celebrate the joys of freedom and cherish the hope and peace of a brighter future ahead.

NOW, THEREFORE, I, DONALD J. TRUMP, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim Thursday, November 26, 2020, as a National Day of Thanksgiving.  I encourage all Americans to gather, in homes and places of worship, to offer a prayer of thanks to God for our many blessings.

IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this

twenty-fifth day of November, in the year of our Lord two thousand twenty, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and forty-fifth.

                             DONALD J. TRUMP

Sermon: Giving Thanks

Luke 17:11-19

Four hundred years ago, a group of people set sails from Scrooby, England, for the new world. One hundred two passengers, including a man called Richard Warren, who is my 10th Great Grandfather, were seeking a new life in a new place as well as religious freedom. As they were called, these pilgrims, or separatists, had been living in Hollard for several years with the desire to worship as they saw fit. Since the mid-1500’s it was illegal to not attend a Church of England Church on Sunday, and for each Sunday missed, a fine was imposed equal to about $20 today, which was about a month or more wages.

We Congregationalists are the inheritors of the faith and order of that first church established in Plymouth in 1620.

These Separatists had moved to Holland, where they were able to worship as their conscience dictated. Still, the colony was losing the sense of being English, which is one reason they sought investors to finance their voyage to the new world. They were given a land grant by the King in Virginia, but because the journey took longer than expected, they put ashore at what would become Cape Cod near Plymouth. They set foot on dry land on November 11, 1620, by the calendar’s old style. On the calendar we use today, that date was November 21, 400 years ago yesterday.

The 41 male passengers signed the Mayflower Compact, which would lay down how they would govern themselves. The Compact states that they undertook the voyage for the “Glory of God,” “Advancement of the Christian Faith,” and for the “Glory of King and Country.” They agreed “in the Presence of God and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick.” And that would enact laws to promote justice and the “good order of the colony.”

After 65 days on board the Mayflower, the spotted land and gathered on the ship’s deck to give thanks that God had brought them safely to the end of their journey. I think they were just glad to get off the ship!

What we now call the First Thanksgiving was not held until the following year, sometime between late September and mid-November, and was in thanksgiving for the harvest. Just over 50 pilgrims attended because the others had died during that first winter in Plymouth. Along with being thankful for the harvest, they were grateful for being alive.

Although not as bleak or desperate as that first winter of 1620, these last seven months of the pandemic have been trying on all of us. We have been isolated from those we love, and we are unsure of what the future holds for us. This has been a very trying political season that has seen friendships lost or changed because of who we support. It has been challenging to find the things that we need for our daily lives. Many have lost their jobs or had their hours reduced. We worshipped virtually for Easter and will do so again for Christmas, and as of today, 255,753 of our fellow citizens lost their lives due to COVID. Just like that first Thanksgiving, many tables will be missing loved ones this year.

In today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus asks where the others are?  Why have they not come to give thanks to God? Jesus had just healed a group of people from a deadly disease that kept them separated from their families for years. For the first time, they would be able to sit at the table with them and feel their embrace, but only one returned to give thanks for the fantastic thing that had happened to them.

In this story, we find Jesus traveling along a road, and he encounters ten men with leprosy. Knowing how deadly this disease is, they stay at a distance from everyone. They knew that if they practiced good social distancing, they would help to slow the spread and not infect their loved ones. These men left all they had and isolated themselves outside of the city as a way to show love for others. They sacrificed all they had for the safety and wellbeing of others.

Along comes, Jesus and they call to him from a distance and ask him to have pity on them. He tells them to go and “show themselves to the priest.” The priest determined if someone were ritually clean or not, so they would have to present themselves for inspection. The story tells us that along the way, they were cleansed of their disease.

Sometime later, one of the men returned, praising God and thanked Jesus for what Jesus had done for him. Jesus was surprised that the others had not also returned and asked where they were. The Gospel points out that the man who returned was a Samaritan. The implication was the others were not but that this one man, the Samaritan, came back to give thanks for what had been done for him.

The point of the story is that we should give thanks for all that we have, even in the darkest times. The pilgrims lost more than half their number that first winter, yet they gathered to give thanks to God for a successful harvest and for the health of those that remained. Having been cleansed of the disease that has kept him separate from his family for who knows how long, the one-man came back to give thanks. We are to praise God and give thanks in season and out of season. We are to give thanks in good times as well as in the bad. Rather than focus on what we have lost these last months, focus on what we still have!

Our Pilgrim ancestors came to the new world to offer a better life for those that would come after them. They had a difficult time, but they did not give up. They persevered when all the odds were against them. Our ancestors in faith who founded this congregation sacrificed time and fortune to ensure that we had a place to worship, and we hope that the generations that come after us will as well.

On Thursday, we will gather, albeit in smaller groups than usual, to give thanks; let us not forget all that we have to be thankful for. Let us be thankful that through the magic of technology, we can still gather for worship and fellowship. Let us be thankful that we have had a stretch of good weather, for we know that soon, it will change. Let us be thankful that, due to smaller gatherings this Thanksgiving, we might avoid those political conversations around the table. But most of all, let us be thankful that God loves us and that we are forgiven.


Reflection on the Election

On Sunday, November 8, 2020 I shared this reflection with the Congregation at the Second Congregational Church in Beverly, Massachusetts.

In every election, there are winners, and there are losers. By all accounts, we have a new President and Vice President-Elect, and I wish them well and will offer prayers for their every success.  As someone said to me four years ago, the President’s success is the success of the Country. I sure hope they mean it. And as I am always reminded, the President is the President of everyone in the United States, not just those that voted for him.

But the election of a new President and Vice President will not change America overnight; in fact, it is just the beginning. I know this may sound trite, but my firm belief that the only way we will fix what has gone wrong in the Country is by all of us working together. I know some on both sides want to keep the divisions alive, and I know others wish one side or other to pay. I say to all of us, enough! It was not one side that brought us to this point, and it will not be one side that gets us out of it. All of us are Americans, no matter what party we belong to or what candidate we supported. America is at its best with a loyal opposition, and when we all come together.

I have to repent for the part I have played in the division that exists in this Country and do penance for that part I have played. I would hope that all of us can recognize our failings and recognize that we have, at times, been part of the division. For whatever our role was, large or small, let us ask for forgiveness and work towards unity rather than division. True healing can only begin when we recognize the part we have played and try to change our behavior.

I do recognize many people have been hurt, and I understand it will take time for that hurt to be healed, but we have to start at some point and bind up and heal the wounds and to be sensitive to those who have been hurt and continue to hold them in our prayers.

Yesterday I was asked if I would be seeking unity if the election had gone the other way, and my response was I certainly hope so; otherwise, I would be a hypocrite, and the Church has enough hypocrites right now. It saddens me to see fellow clergy, myself included adding to the division of this nation.

I was not ordained in the United Church of Christ, but I joined with my clergy colleagues each year and renew our ordination. Part of that ordination are promises that we make, two of which are:

Will you be zealous in maintaining both the truth of the gospel and the peace of the Church, speaking the truth in love?

Will you seek to regard all people with equal love and concern and undertake to minister impartially to the needs of all?

One of the Church’s primary missions is to seek reconciliation of all people and, as you have heard me say before, to love everyone regardless of what side they happen to be on. The Church needs to be that beacon of light that shines in the darkness and brings people together, but we have to have unity inside before we can hope to have unity outside.

However, my desire to seek unity does not mean that I will not continue to fight for what I believe is right and that I stop speaking for those with no voice and those on the margins. I am called to be their voice regardless of who the President is, and the importance of that call did not end with the calling of an election.

One of the pictures that speaks the most to me is that of two old veterans reaching across a stone wall and shaking hands. One wore blue, and one wore gray, and the place was Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Although it was not easy, and much of what divided us then still divides us now, but we somehow managed to come together and heal the wounds that war had caused.

In his second inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln Said:

“With malice toward none with charity for all with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right let us strive on to finish the work we are in to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

To those of you celebrating, take your victory lap, but remember it is just a lap and time to work. To those of you not feeling that great this morning, here is my hand; although I am celebrating, I am also here for you to help you and to also say to you, take your time, but we need you to join us to help us turn this thing around.

In the great hymn “America The Beautiful” there is this line:

America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!

America is not perfect and the thing that makes America great is that we are not finished yet. America is difficult but America is worth fighting for.

My prayer today is for unity and my prayer today is for peace. I pray for President Trump and Vice-President Pence as they begin the peaceful transfer of power and for President-Elect Biden and Vice-President Elect Harris as they take up the mantle of leadership.

My God bless us all, and my God bless America.

Prayers for the Elections

Written by The Rev. Shannon Kelly, Director Department of Faith Formation, The Episcopal Church

Loving God, creator of this world who is our source of our wisdom and understanding, watch over this nation during this time of election. Help us to see how our faith informs our principles and actions.

Intercessor: God, our creator,
People: Guide us in truth and love.

We give thanks for the right to vote. Help us to hold this privilege and responsibility with the care and awareness it merits, realizing that our vote matters and that it is an act of faith.

Intercessor: God, our creator,
People: Guide us in truth and love.

Guide us through this election as a nation, state, and community as we vote for people to do work on our behalf and on the behalf of our communities. Help us to vote for people and ballot initiatives that will better our community and our world so it may reflect the values Christ taught us.

Intercessor: God, our creator,
People: Guide us in truth and love.

Help us create communities that will build your kingdom here on earth – communities that will protect the poor, stand up for the vulnerable, advocate for those who are not seen and heard, and listen to everyone’s voice.

Intercessor: God, our creator,
People: Guide us in truth and love.

We pray for this nation that is deeply divided. May we come together for the common good and do as you have called us to do – to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with you through creation.

Intercessor: God, our creator,
People: Guide us in truth and love.

Help us act out of love, mercy and justice rather than out of arrogance or fear.

Intercessor: God, our creator,
People: Guide us in truth and love.

Lord, continue to guide us as we work for the welfare of this world. We pray for places that are torn by violence, that they may know peace.

Intercessor: God, our creator,
People: Guide us in truth and love.

We pray for communities who are struggling with inequality, unrest, and fear. May we all work toward reconciliation with one another and with God.

Intercessor: God, our creator,
People: Guide us in truth and love.

Help us to listen in love, work together in peace, and collaborate with one another as we seek the betterment of our community and world. 

Intercessor: God, our creator,
People: Guide us in truth and love.

Choose one or more of the collects:

Collect for Social Justice (BCP pg. 823)

Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart [and especially the hearts of the people of this land], that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Collect For an Election (BCP pg. 822)

Almighty God, to whom we must account for all our powers and privileges: Guide the people of the United States (or of this community) in the election of officials and representatives; that, by faithful administration and wise laws, the rights of all may be protected and our nation be enabled to fulfill your purposes; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Collect For the Nation (BCP pg. 207)

Lord God Almighty, who has made all the peoples of the earth for your glory, to serve you in freedom and in peace: Give to the people of our country a zeal for justice and the strength of forbearance, that we may use our liberty in accordance with your gracious will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Collect For our Country (BCP pg. 820)

Almighty God, who hast given us this good land for our heritage: We humbly beseech thee that we may always prove ourselves a people mindful of thy favor and glad to do thy will. Bless our land with honorable industry, sound learning, and pure manners. Save us from violence, discord, and confusion; from pride and arrogance, and from every evil way. Defend our liberties, and fashion into one united people the multitudes brought hither out of many kindreds and tongues. Endue with the spirit of wisdom those to whom in thy Name we entrust the authority of government, that there may be justice and peace at home, and that, through obedience to thy law, we may show forth thy praise among the nations of the earth. In the time of prosperity, fill our hearts with thankfulness, and in the day of trouble, suffer not our trust in thee to fail; all which we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sermon: Becoming Saints

Hebrews 12:1-3

Today, the Universal Church will be gathering to commemorate All Saints Day. This is the yearly remembrance of those who have gone before us, and it is a time for remembering and celebration of those lives and what they have meant to us.

It isn’t easy to trace the origins of this feast, but many would agree that the celebration started around the 5th century in Italy and grew. Before the Reformation, this feast focused on those saints declared such by the Church. These were men and women that, through a long process, were named saints and given a particular day on which the Church recognized them. Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglicans still follow this practice today.

All Saints Day survived the Reformation period and was celebrated in many Anglican and Lutheran Churches in Europe. However, for many Reformation Churches, of which we are one, transformed this day for not only those men and women declared saints by the Church but for all of those who have gone before us as we would consider all believers as saints and therefore worthy of remembrance.

There is often confusion about reverence for saints. Christians do not worship saints but rather use saints, and their images, as a way to help them focus their prayers. People will often ask saints to intervene, much like we would invite friends and others to pray for us. I guess some would call this worship, but I do not. Asking for prayers is a very normal request, so why would this not extend those on the other side.

So how does one become a saint? I would typically say that first, one must die, but there are living saints as well. Mother Theresa, for example. I would say that she was a living saint for all the work that she did in India and around the world. The Roman Catholic Church has officially declared her a saint, but she was revered long before she died. In my way of thinking, saints are those who do the will of God and, if you have heard me for any length of time, you know what that is; love God, love neighbor, care for the poor, and those less fortunate.

We need more saints in our world today!

I also want to speak for a minute about grief and loss. Many of you have lost loved ones this past year and have been experiencing the grief associated with that loss. But we have all experienced a loss that most of the time goes unrecognized. Our lives have been radically different since this pandemic began some seven months ago. We have not been able to gather completely as a community for worship and fellowship. Easter Services were canceled, and it looks like the same will happen with Christmas Services.

 We are heading into the season when we would typically gather with family and friends and, although we might be able to gather in smaller numbers than usual, things will not be the same. This is a loss as painful as the loss of a loved one. It would help if you allowed yourself to grieve this loss. Talk to each other about it. Support those struggling with this grief or with those who are unsure of how to express this grief. We have all experienced this loss, not only of the more than 200,000 who have died because of this pandemic but because of what we have all lost. Take time to grieve; it’s okay.

Let us now turn our attention toward the Scripture passage from Hebrews, specifically the first verse “since we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses” and what I believe this means.

What does it mean to be surrounded by a cloud of witnesses in relation to All Saints Day?

I have spoken before about the Celtic idea of the think places. These are places where the distance between this world and the next is very thin. Some say that the Isle of Iona off Scotland’s coast is a thin place as well as the Island of Lindisfarne off England’s coast. Historically these were places of pilgrimage and attracted hundreds if not thousands of people each year.

Thin places are those places where we encounter God not in some far-off sort of way but in a real, personal, intimate way. The Celtic Christians were deeply connected to the natural world and believed that every aspect of life was infused with the divine. Historically the Celts believed that thin places were locations like I have just mentioned or times of the year when the veil that separates the world and the spiritual realm diminished, and we could encounter those gone before us. Today there is a belief that these thin places are becoming more common or that we are becoming more aware of them.

After my father died, my brothers and I began the process of cleaning out the house. This was not an easy task, as any of you who have done this well know. Each weekend we would all come together and tackle a little bit at a time. In the basement of the house was my father’s workshop. My father and I spent many hours there, working on projects and spending time together. One Saturday, while I was packing up the last of the tools, I felt relatively low, this was the only house I had ever really lived in, and my connection was ending. While packing up the tools, I felt a presence in the room with me, and I felt a hand on my shoulder as if to say it will be okay. For me, that was a thin place.

Many of us grew up with the image of heaven being on some far-off cloud where everyone dressed in white and sat around all day playing the harp. Now I am not saying that is a bad thing, just not very realistic. The experience I just shared from the basement and many others prove that those who have gone before us are not all that far away. For me, they are here with us just in another dimension, we interact with them, but we cannot see them. So, we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses.

I find great comfort in knowing that those who have gone before me are still here with me and not on some far-off cloud somewhere. I find it reassuring that at times I can feel their presence through a word, a song, thought, or other time in my life. It helps me to know that I am not alone and that there are physically not present with me; spiritually, they are here.

Today as we think about those gone before us, be open to the idea that they are here, right here with us, and find some comfort in the fact.


Sermon: Wisdom for the Way

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20

So much has happened in the last three days. It is hard even to know where to begin. Of course, we will continue to pray for the President and his family as he recovers from this horrible virus that, as it turns out, is worse than the seasonal flu and will not go away on its own. But we also remember in our prayers the almost 100,000 people who have faced the same diagnosis as the President, and many of those will have inadequate health care or will have to wait their turn to gain entrance to a hospital. But we also need to remember the 7.2 million Americans that have contracted this virus since it began and the 211,975 who have lost their lives, two of that number, by the way, were friends of mine. And we remember with joy those who have recovered and continue to pray for their recovery.

Today we heard the story of the giving of the 10 Commandments. Many of you will be familiar with Cecil B Demille production with Charlton Heston in the lead role of Moses with his long robes and flowing white hair. He climbs to the top of Mount Sinai, the place where God lived, and there, along with the burning bush, God wrote those commandments on tablets of stone with lightning bolts from the sky. In the movie, while Moses is up on that mountain, the people rebel against him and do exactly what God does not want them to do. They doubted, and they built a calf of gold and began to worship it, and when Moses sees this, he gets angry and throws the tablets at them, and they all perish.

Ignorance and willful disobedience to the law led to their destruction; it was not God that did this. It was themselves. In the face of knowledge, they turned to their own ways, and in the end, it brought their destruction. Moses paid the price as well; he was their leader, but he could not cross over with them to the land that God had promised them. He had to stay on the other side as a punishment for his anger; Moses did not get to see the promised land.

Willful disobedience, willful disregard for best practices, and the law never turn out well for the willfully disobedient.

I do not usually stroll back into the Hebrew Scriptures pages, for I believe there is much to discuss and learn from in the words that Jesus and the other Christian writers left for us. Sure, there is much in those Hebrew Scriptures that link with those words of Jesus, but I think we Christians tend to spend more time with the rules and the smiting, and we miss all that Jesus came to say and do.

Sure, the laws of most societies today were built around those passages that we heard; they are, in fact, some of the oldest laws on the books. Still, they have to be taken into context with the entirety of Jewish law. We simply do not have the time today to go into all of that but suffice it to say, those of you wearing clothing made from two different clothes should be grateful that particular law has been removed.

But today, I wanted us to begin with that passage of the law, so we have an understanding of what Jesus means when he says I have not come to abolish the law but to fulfill the law. Jesus fulfilled the law and the Prophets and gave us a new law, a new Commandment love God and love your neighbor. But Jesus did not just pull this out of his hat; Jesus’ words are very much based on what we have read today.

The Commandments we read from Exodus can be broken into two parts: those involving our relationship with God and those involving our relationship with our neighbor. Do not have any gods before me, do not make images and bow before them, do not use the Lord’s name in vain, and keep holy the sabbath day. All of these involve our relationship with God.

Then the tone changes: honor your father and mother, do not murder, do not commit adultery, Do not steal, do not give false testimony (that means no lying by the way), do not covet anything that does not belong to you—all these points to our relationship with our neighbor.

If you have a chance, read the pages that follow this passage in Exodus and the parts of Deuteronomy where this story appears, for what follows can be described as the law books. God gave them laws, and then comes the explanation. Pages upon pages of do this and not that and what the penalty is for not doing what you are supposed to do. It’s not a very edifying read, but it was necessary for people who were just starting out.

Many of you have raised children, so you know that when children are young, the rules you establish must be firm yet straightforward, and there are usually many of them. On the other hand, I am quickly learning that neither Nicky nor I am the lawgivers in our house; that role belongs to Oonagh! But one day, soon I hope, that will change. Children need structure and guidance. If left on their own, they will not do well. Before starting seminary, I was a middle school teacher; classrooms need order, structure, and discipline to enhance the learning environment.

However, as we get older, the rules shift a bit and begin to change. More emphasis is placed on making the right decisions for ourselves, and we do not need as much supervision, well some of us don’t anyway. Our ancestors in faith were just starting out; they were spiritually children, so they required rules, guidance, and structure, so God provided the law and the prophets. When Jesus came along, they had grown up, and although they still needed rules, what they really needed was to learn to make decisions for themselves.

So, Jesus summarized the rule, love God, and love neighbor. Those listening to him would have understood that he was talking about the law of Moses; they were as familiar with that as they were with the grocery list. But what comes next is what shocked them. And for this, we turn to John 13:34-35:

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples if you love one another.”

The new command is love! Love each other as God has loved you. Love one another and treat others as you wish to be treated. Don’t focus on the law of don’t do this and don’t do that, just love, and the rest will work itself out.

How do we do this? We love one another by wearing a mask. We love one another by washing our hands. We love one another by keeping proper social distance. We love one another by staying at home as much as possible. We love one another by only congregating in small groups. We love one another by listening to science. We love one another by not making fun of people. We love one another by working for a society that is just and merciful. We love one another by giving to those who have less then we do. We love one another by standing up for what is right, for what is just, and for what is true. We love one another by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and working towards a day when all will be fed, and all will be clothed. We love one another by denouncing hate in all its forms, racism, white supremacy, anti-Semitism, nationalism, sexism, xenophobia, and all the rest.

Friends, the wisdom for the way is to treat people how you wish to be treated, without exception. We love God by loving our neighbor because that is what Jesus told us to do, and that is how the world will know we are his followers. If what we do or what we support does not show love, justice, mercy, and compassion toward our neighbor, it is not from God, and it is not worthy of our support.

Let us resolve to go from this place today and show a little more love for one another.


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