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Gospel Lesson for Sunday, December 20, 2020

Our gospel lesson today tells the story of the angel’s revelation to Mary that she is to become the mother of the son of God. We encourage you to read this story on your own; it is found in the first chapter of Luke, verses 26 through 45. This morning, our consideration of this text again employs the ancient Jewish practice of midrash, the rabbinic method of expanding the narrative, adding details to the story which to highlight the meaning of the original text. (You might remember this is how we encountered the gospel texts this past Palm Sunday and also to tell the story of Rizpah in July.) This midrash was composed by Nikole Mitchell.

Image: A Dream Confirmed by Lisle Gwynn Garrity, A Sanctified Art


And just like that, the angel disappeared as quickly as he had arrived. Vanished. Gone. With no evidence to prove to others that an angel had indeed visited the frightened and dazed Mary. No evidence for Mary herself to force her to realize it wasn’t a dream but a reality that was taking shape quite literally within her. She was miraculously, unexpectedly, impossibly pregnant.

Her eyes were still adjusting to normal daylight after encountering the angel’s bright light and her ears were still ringing with the loaded and perplexing news he had shared with her. As her mind scrambled to make sense of what was just announced and done to her, she kept returning to the thought of her cousin Elizabeth. She had heard from the village that Elizabeth had become some sort of recluse, where she refused to leave her house, and even turned guests away when family and friends tried to visit her. People were wondering if she was becoming mentally ill. If the weight and shame of her barrenness and old age were finally overtaking her, and that maybe this was the beginning of the end for Elizabeth.

But now Mary knew. She knew why her cousin Elizabeth had been in seclusion all these months. She was pregnant! Miraculously, unbelievably pregnant just like Mary, and she was waiting for the right time to announce it to the world – not with her words but with the growing evidence of her six month pregnant belly. Oh, Mary was so grateful that there was one person who would understand her predicament.

But how would she prove to Elizabeth that an angel, indeed, had visited her? How will she prove the radical news of her own miraculous pregnancy without any physical proof? There was no baby belly or morning sickness, just her ringing ears and slight headache from the brilliant light of the angel. How will Elizabeth believe her?

Well, Mary couldn’t give it too much thought, for she was too anxious to run and be with her cousin and hope to find some form of comfort, some understanding of this bizarre and scary predicament she found herself in.

As Mary packed for her trip, she couldn’t help but think of her parents. How will her own parents believe her? They’ll think she’s become mentally ill just like her cousin Elizabeth when Mary tries to explain to them she had been visited by an angel. A poor peasant girl visited by an angel? That’s such nonsense. That’s child’s play. Yes, the people in her village believed God cared for and looked out for the lowly, but to visit and speak such radical news over a young peasant girl? That was over the top. No one would believe her. Once the village members started seeing her growing belly, they would only see the results of a promiscuous girl. There is no way they would believe in her miraculous conception. What blasphemy, in fact, they would tell Mary, for using God’s name as an excuse to be unfaithful to Joseph. This thought terrified Mary.

Oh, and what of Joseph? How on earth will she explain to her husband-to-be that she truly has been faithful to him when her belly starts to show? How will she explain it all to him?

Before Mary could panic even more, she hastily grabbed her packed bags and hurried off to visit her cousin Elizabeth in the countryside. In her haste, Mary told her neighbor to let her parents know where she went and that she didn’t know when she’d be back but that she’ll be okay. Everything will be okay. At least that’s what Mary kept telling herself, trying to convince herself, while she walked as quickly as she could to Elizabeth’s village.

Upon arrival, Mary didn’t know what she was going to say to Elizabeth. She rehearsed her story a hundred different ways on her journey but none of them seemed to do her story and the angel’s visit any justice. Before Mary could finalize on a story to tell Elizabeth, she came upon Elizabeth’s house, and before her fear could make her turn and run away in panic, Mary burst through the front door and cried out, “Elizabeth!” It came across as more of a desperate cry than an actual greeting, but, at this point, it was all Mary could do to keep herself from bursting into tears. As Mary choked back tears and wondered what words to follow her greeting, Elizabeth thankfully filled the void with her own voice, and instead of a formal greeting, Elizabeth too cried out—but into a song of joy! She knew! Somehow Elizabeth knew! Mary, relieved from not having to explain herself to Elizabeth, ran to her older cousin and collapsed into her arms. Elizabeth pulled her in close and Mary, exhausted and afraid, burst into tears.

Elizabeth, wiser and older than Mary by many years and many life experiences, held onto Mary and gently rocked their bodies back and forth. Elizabeth, too, had been afraid of the news of her own impossible, unexpected pregnancy. But she had the benefit of being married and had the past five months to digest the news, to feel the baby start kicking in her womb, and to watch her belly grow. As she prepared to tell her village of her pregnancy, she didn’t realize she was also being prepared to be a source of strength for her own little cousin from across the way. Sweet little Mary. How frightened she must be. Elizabeth felt a deep gratitude toward their God, for not only blessing them both with miraculous pregnancies that were going to change the world, but for blessing them with pregnancies at the same time. The journey ahead of them was lonely enough; Elizabeth was grateful that, at least for a few months, they could be each other’s companions on this mystical, mystery road of motherhood.

As Mary wept into her arms, Elizabeth reminded Mary that while there is much to fear, there is also much to celebrate. That their pregnancies were not just for them, but for the salvation of the world. The fact that God would use two women like themselves was almost too much to take in.

The two women were quiet for a while. At some point, Mary’s weeping ceased.

Just a few moments ago, Mary had been almost consumed with panic and fear. But now, somehow, almost as miraculous as her pregnancy, was this new peace Mary felt deep within her. Mary had been able to draw strength from the body and faith and wisdom of her older cousin. And her cousin had drawn strength from her.

Nothing externally had changed. Mary was still somehow pregnant. Mary still had to tell her parents and Joseph. Mary’s village was going to see her pregnant belly no matter how hard she might try to hide it. There was still going to be judgment, shame, and possibly even punishment by her parents and ostracization by her community.

But something had shifted inside of her….


In her earlier state of panic, Mary couldn’t see beyond the tears in her eyes. But now it’s almost like God gave her eyes for the future. She saw the bigger picture. She saw the coming of her Savior entering the world for the salvation of all people, for the healing of the broken, the liberation of the oppressed, the toppling of the empire, and she, of all people, was going to play a key role in that. She and her cousin Elizabeth. A barren elder and a young virgin girl. Mary could almost sense God’s humor in it all… that God would choose to use the two most unlikely candidates to bring his Kingdom on earth made her almost want to laugh. It seemed absurd and breathtakingly beautiful at the same time!

And, somehow, without any communication between the two, or maybe it was the communication between their two spirits, Mary and Elizabeth started to chuckle at the same time. And when they saw the other chuckling, they both couldn’t help but burst into gut-wrenching laughter! Tears streamed down their faces as they hugged and laughed and cried some more. These two women were about to change history, and nobody knew it.

Not yet at least.

So the two of them soaked it in, basked in the absurdity of it all, and found a strength and joy they didn’t know they had.

For a moment, they felt ready, as ready as they could be, whether or not the world was ready for them.

 

The Longest Night

The Longest Night
A Service of Remembrance and Grief

Monday, December 21, 7:00pm via Zoom

There’s an Advent tradition within Western Christianity of inviting people to come together for the Longest Night, a night around the time of the winter solstice—where that are more hours of darkness than light—a time to come together for prayers and laments, to mourn the losses and griefs of the year, to let the tears flow for the hurting places in our lives, as well as for our country and our world. Following a year of such great loss, grief, and despair, we invite you to join us for a Longest Night Service on Zoom.
If you are lonely, grieving, depressed, and/or just want to give full attention to the shadow side of the season, join us on Zoom for a deeply meaningful service of liturgy, music, and ritual.

A Prayer for Mother‘s Day (2020)

This prayer was offered by Pastor Todd during our Zoom Worship on May 10, 2020.


This morning we come to you oh God, who is our center, with many joys and troubles on our heart. We turn to you in prayer because we know–we claim and believe–that you hear our prayers and that we are never alone.

This morning we lean especially into the maternal nature of you, oh God, our creator who gave birth to this world and all life upon it. You, oh God, have created each of us, fearfully and wonderfully in our mother’s womb and we are thankful.

This morning we pray with gratitude for mothers—those who gave us life, those who have been like a mother to us—some of whom are still with us and some who have gone on from this life.

In the spirit of prayer, I invite you to say aloud or in the silence of your heart, the name of a mother you wish to lift up in prayer, joy, or memory…

We pray your blessing, mother God, on these who have been named. May they feel in this moment a special warmth in their hearts. May they feel honored and may they be blessed.

We pray also for

…for grandmothers, and sisters, and aunts, and sister-friends who provide for us a mother’s love

…for those who hope to someday become a mother…

…for those who have encountered difficulty becoming a mother…

….for those who have experienced loss as a mother…

…for those mothers who are in detention prisons or who have been separated from their children…

…for mothers of Black and brown boys who constantly fear for the safety of their sons and for mothers like Wanda Cooper, the mother of Ahmed Arbery, who continue to have their children taken from them as a result of the sin of racism

…for those with difficult relationships and experiences with mothers, bring about healing and reconciliation, Oh God

…and for those who are feeling the ache of the loss of their mothers, comfort them with happy memories and the hope of seeing them again one day.

All of these we lift up to you this morning, oh God. 

Comfort us, care for us, nurture us as a hen who gathers her children under her wing. 

Amen and Ashe

Worship Bulletin for 3/29/20

Download the worship bulletin for Sunday, March 29, 2020.

A Prayer for Peace

This morning God we wake up and find there is still conflict, still war around the world:
nation against nation,
brother against brother,
neighbor against neighbor.
Specifically, God, we come to you because there looms yet another threat of war! In this moment of prayer, we petition you in the name of the Prince of Peace, Jesus the Christ, to:
  • Quell the aspirations of war mongers who choose violence over peace, who risk the lives of mothers’ and fathers’ sons and daughters…
  • Defeat their worst impulses to inflict instruments of war upon people and the earth…
  • Convict the hearts of people of reason to do everything to find a peaceful solution and stop further acts of war and violence…
  • Shield the young men and women who are at this moment being deployed and comfort their families.
God who sent Jesus to live among us as the Prince of Peace, protect all who face in their lives the threat of war — whether actual or metaphorical.
And make us, above all things, the peace-makers Jesus asked us to be.
We end this prayer with these words from Dr. Howard Thurman:
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.”
Oh God, in the name of Jesus,
let there be peace … right … now!
 
Amen

Be Still…

New Sermon Series, Sundays in September

Starting Sunday, September 8, we will launch into a 5-week sermon series Be Still. Throughout scripture a particular emphasis is placed on the intentional time needed to be still before God. In our Christian tradition, we have liturgical seasons where time slows down and we are invited to pay close attention to God and be still. It’s in those times that we know God. It’s in those times that our ever-moving minds stop and know and remember who is in charge, who is leading us. We remember the One who is directing our movement.
This September, I wonder, what would it look like if we intentionally moved into the church program year observing this particular stillness? What if our worship was one of slowing down, finding stillness, so there can be lasting change and direction to our future movement as a congregation. I hope you will join us this Sunday and every Sunday throughout this series in September. I’m hopeful that in intentionally setting aside this season to be still, we will come to know God more fully and God’s direction for our life together this coming year.
See you in church,
Pastor Eric

Imagining: A Letter to Danville Congregational Church

Pastor’s note: Today in worship, we considered the epistle text recommended by the lectionary: Colossians 1:1–14. As he approached this text, Rev. Todd wondered what a letter to the Danville Congregational Church might include. Modeled loosely on this letter to the church in Colossae 2,000 years ago and through his own experience of DCC,  stories people have shared about their experiences, and conversations with the senior pastor Rev. Eric out of his great love for DCC, Pastor  Todd imagined just such a letter. This is not a letter from Pastor Todd but an imagining of what someone, some day might write to us.


To the saints and faithful siblings in Christ at Danville Congregational Church United Church of Christ:

Grace to you and peace from God our eternal mother and father.

Thankfulness

We are writing you from our little cabin up in the mountains. The morning air is crisp and clear—a bit chilly as one generally experiences this time of year. As we sip our coffee, the sun rises, casting its warm glow; we immerse ourselves in the silence. Our meditations are held within the Holy who surrounds us in nature and emanates from within us. 

It is in the beauty of this moment that we hold you in our prayers. We can’t help but smile when we think of you! If ever there were a shining example of a faithful community of believers, it is you. You who have been blessed so abundantly are continuing the great work that was started long, long ago by those who first followed Jesus as you do now; by those who built that first chapel on the land that now not only contains a thriving faith community but a school as well. 

Your good works are widely known; yet you do not boast; rather you continue the work set before you, possessing a fervent hope that what you do matters in the world. You long not for the notoriety or praise but for others to feel welcomed, loved, seen.

We have always remembered you when we pray, holding for you hope that you continue to ‘gird yourselves’ with knowledge, that your wisdom deepen as you seek out additional sources of knowledge to enrich your experience of the sacred texts you rightly hold so dear. “God is still speaking,” as you are known for saying, and we see how you understand that God comes to voice in manifold expressions, through a variety of messengers.

In particular, we are reminded of how your depth of love and fellowship has deepened because you opened yourself to the stories of gay and lesbian people–how you allowed their stories to open your own hearts to the depths of God’s love. We have observed how since then, you have sought to love more deeply and widely, how you have embraced the stories of others, holding them as sacred, weaving them together into the tapestry of your fellowship as a community of believers.

Beloveds at the church in Danville: you are sowers of seeds. And “just as it is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among yourselves from the day you heard it and truly comprehended the grace of God.” (1:6) And though you are aware of some fruit born from your good works and have even tasted some of its sweetness, by and by you do not fully know how truly fruitful you have been. While you often never saw where your money went or what the sweat of your brow brought to fruition, others experienced in their very lives.

Dear friends—

  • How many babies wear the craft of your hands and the prayers of your hearts when the weather is cold, children who may have never had anything hand-made for them or those who no longer receive handmade gifts from an abuela or tia who lives far, far away…
  • How many people who have experienced housing insecurity–including a transgender woman from Nicaragua seeking asylum here in the US–have been given not just the means for a place to live but also hope that they are cared for, that someone is rooting for them…
  • How many people struggling with addiction know there is a faith community that practices hospitality toward them…

All of this, and more, because you saw to it. You saw to it as an expression of your faith in a God who calls you to walk alongside those who are strangers, who suffer, who mourn, who just need someone to see them.

For all this we continue to give thanks to God who remains with us, made real through the expression of our shared work and ministry.

Jesus! 

We have seen how you love Jesus, how you strive to follow his ways.

  • When many of you bought extra coats so that a child would be warm and have something brand new…
  • When you tied a friendship bracelet on the wrist of a child you had no idea was transgender, transmitting to them through your smile and your eyes unconditional love and acceptance that will keep them from self-harm…
  • When you showed up for the children and teenagers among you, instilling a love for God and being present to them in a variety of ways…
  • When you companioned parents who struggled to understand their gay children and how to do right by them…
  • When you look after those in your number who are sick or homebound or have no children nearby…

These and countless other  acts offered in humility show us you know Jesus in a real and tangible way, making visible his presence for all to see and know. You are not perfect—none of us is—but you realize through Christ our sovereign all is being reconciled, as “you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel.” (1:23)

You have listened to the messengers and prophets sent to you—though you struggled at moments with their words. (Haven’t we all now and then?!) You have owned your faith, following the Way not the messenger. You honor the saints and elders among you who gave so much to provide a place of worship, a place of safety and sanctuary, a place from which you could strengthen your faith and go into the broader community taking this light with you.

The Way of Christ v. False Teachers

We have every confidence that you will continue to live your lives in [Christ Jesus the sovereign]. (2:6). As you do so, remain aware of those peddling a toothless Christianity or proclaiming a word that says Christians are not to challenge systems that oppress some while benefiting others or preaching gospel that says God has chosen some and not others. Always interrogate what you hear and feel in your heart; determine through study and relationship and prayer whether what you are hearing is true. Through prayer and meditation on God’s word and through understanding the lived experiences of others, we trust the Holy Spirit to make clear the living, breathing truth of God. We desire your “hearts to be encouraged and united in love, so that [you] may have all the riches of assured understanding and have the knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ[’s self], in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” (2:2–3)

New Life and Relationship with Each Other

You, beloveds of Danville church, have been raised with Christ (3:1) and exhibit a mature faith! “In each generation since your founding and through the present age, [you, the Danville Congregational Church, have sought and seek] to make this faith your own in reality of worship, in honesty of thought and expression, and in purity of heart before God.” (Preamble to the Constitution of the UCC)

This faith is made reality among you by showing up for each other and those to whom you are called to serve. Take care of yourselves, tend your spirits with things that bring you joy and rest, but tarry not long in idleness or recreation. For, our dear friends, we do not have time to be comfortable. Gone are the days of sitting back to enjoy the fruits of our labors. Rather, enjoy your blessings by exhausting the greatest measure of them to transform the world. 

Therefore, “as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as God has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. [Oh how we love the music there!]  And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of Jesus, giving thanks to God the Eternal Parent through Jesus.” (3:12–17)

Treat all people you come into contact with as equals—see and honor the dignity they inherently and always possess—and regard no one with disdain. For it is said, “be kind, for everyone you meet may be fighting a battle you know nothing about.” We know not the burdens or hardships another faces but know that kindness and love are the way of Christ. Excel at such things.

Further Instructions

”Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in [your meditations] with thanksgiving. At the same time pray for [all who are in this great work around the world—but particularly in this moment in history, in this country we know as ‘home’] (4:2–3), all those who bring good news to the poor, who labor tirelessly to release the captives and see that all who are oppressed go free. (Luke 4:18) Oh, our dear siblings in the faith, model a Way of being in the world that foregrounds compassion and justice-seeking over nationalism and an exclusive religion that is “whitewashed and beautiful on the outside but inside is full of dead men’s bones.” (Matthew 23:27) “Conduct yourselves wisely toward outsiders, making the most of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer everyone.” (4:5–6)

Final Greetings & Benediction

Our dear siblings in the faith:

Endure in your knowledge and faith—but pay special attention to the stories of others. 

Tire not of doing right, of showing up, of stretching your selves to gain Wisdom, to pursue her elusive insights, to grow beyond labels of progressive or conservative or liberal, to earn the reputation of a follower of Christ. 

Let not yourselves not be lulled into complacency by your comforts but be restless for justice always, never content until all of God’s children and the earth are free. 

Continue to show up for each other…to provide a safe, nurturing space for children and teenagers…to ever-stretch the boundaries of “open and affirming,” inviting all to share space and fellowship beneath God’s great canopy of grace. 

Remember always your baptism. Continue to meet each other at Christ’s table. Provide a safe space for all who the world around them oppresses. Be bold, resolute in caring for all children, for all people, for our precious Mother Earth.

And so we reach the end of our letter to you, written to you with great love. A new day has begun, full of promise and great hope for the advent of the kin’dom of God.

Grace be with you.

Amen