The Gospel of Christmas Fairs

“Our church no longer holds a Christmas Fair,” this minister/colleague sniffed, “Instead we concentrate on the real work of the church.”

And to that I say, “Bah, humbug!”

 I know that selling Christmas knickknacks isn’t the mission of the church. More important – so do the members of my congregation.

But in these days leading up to our Holly Fair, our church has been filled with sounds of people talking and laughing as they create displays and sort through ornaments, angels, and brightly colored candles. It is especially sweet after 18 long months of isolation and distancing. Simply being together again – even with masks on! – is priceless.

They know that they are raising money to support the mission and outreach of our church.

As people wend their way between craft tables, jewelry displays, and an array of gift items, they will see the signs and symbols of our welcome and hospitality that are the cornerstones of our ministry.   They’ll notice our rainbow flags, “safe space” signs and declarations of welcome for all of God’s people. Maybe they’ll take home a brochure about our prayers shawl ministry or be inspired by the invitation to donate sheets and blankets to the homeless shelter. Perhaps they’ll see the sign advertising our food giveaway program or fuel assistance program. 

Our Christmas fair allows us to swing open our doors and invite people inside. And while they are here, they are welcome to enter our beautiful sanctuary and perhaps pause for a few moments of quiet and rest in our pews. Maybe this low-key experience of quiet beauty will encourage them to return on a Sunday morning or tune in to an online service.

Events like these offer us the chance to embody our welcome and to live out the Good News of meeting our neighbors and sharing God’s love.

So go ahead you Winter Wonderlands, Candy Cane Bazaars, Christmas on the Hill, St. Nicholas Fairs – enjoy your gatherings!  And know that is one more way to reach out to God’s people and celebrate the Good News.

Holy Week: Silent Saturday

During Holy Week we are invited to consider Jesus’ final days and wonder what those events might say to us today.

There is no Scripture for today because no events are recorded. The cataclysm of the crucifixion had taken place. Judas had betrayed. Peter had denied. The disciples ran away. On Saturday, there was simply the empty, hollow reality of pain. Jesus’ followers were left with the sad, miserable, terrifying aftermath.

            It is Silent Saturday.

We modern-day believers know that we simply have to wait until tomorrow – or until just after midnight if we attend an Easter vigil – and we will hear the triumphant, miraculous announcement of new life and resurrection.

But for the first believers, it was a day of sorrow and loss. A day without hope and a bleak future looming in front of them.

            Maybe you know someone who is experiencing that profound silence and loss. Maybe you are yourself. This seemingly endless experience, unbroken by any word of hope or comfort, is also part of our human story. There are times when there are no easy answers, no slick solutions, no rescue from our pain.

            In those times, we can simply acknowledge the reality. If we go to someone who is suffering, we will not help them by ignoring their agony or trying to convince them otherwise. Sometimes the greatest gift we can offer is to recognize their pain. We can validate their experience not by trying to alter it but by saying, “I hear you, I see you, I am with you.”

            Those early believers were not God-forsaken. God had not abandoned them. They simply could not see or believe or imagine that God could be in that excruciating place with them.

            It is a day of waiting, a day simply of existing. It is a day to cling onto the hope that God’s steadfast love will eventually break through our darkness.

Holy Week: Good Friday

During Holy Week we are invited to consider Jesus’ final days and wonder what those events might say to us today.

It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, for the sun stopped shining. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last.   (Luke 23: 44-46)

     Death comes in many ways; it can be tragic, gruesome, or unjust as Jesus’ was. It can also be a relief, a release, and a blessing. Death is a holy mystery that we cannot explain. A person embodies a physical presence and then – in a moment or after a lingering illness or tragically, unexpectedly – that person is no longer on this earth. They have gone to place we cannot follow. And though our love or relationship may still endure, we are separated from them in a way we cannot explain.

    Jesus was the Son of God. He did not have to suffer a human demise. Yet his willingness to endure death assures that I will not be alone when my own path inevitably leads me to the end of my days. He has gone before me. I visualize a trailblazer who will continue to guide me into the unknown beyond just as surely as he does right now.

     The death of another can leave us brokenhearted. Thoughts of our own death can paralyze us with fear. What can we learn from Jesus’ final act of courage? What does Jesus’ faith and trust tell us about the final moments of life? Can we turn ourselves and our loved ones over to God’s care with those same words, “Into your hands I commit my spirit”? Can we trust that our loved ones are safe in God’s care?

     Good Friday tells a sad story that nonetheless offers comfort and hope. God’s steadfast love endures forever – in life, in death, and beyond the life we know into life eternal.

Holy Week: Maundy Thursday

During Holy Week we are invited to consider Jesus’ final days and wonder what those events might say to us today.

While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.”  Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you.” This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.  (Matthew 26: 26-30)

It had all the elements of a wonderful supper – a leisurely gathering with close friends, an abundance of food and drink, singing, relaxing, and storytelling.  This pandemic year robbed us of this kind of evening – the profound gift of breaking bread together with loved ones.

So let’s start there – remembering what we have lost in the past year, the meals we didn’t share, the holidays we missed, the hugs that weren’t given, the postponed visits. If you could make up for lost time, what would be your ideal gathering? Who would be there? What would be on the menu?  What stories would you tell (again – because all the best stories deserve to be repeated). What memories would you share? What is the soundtrack? The next time we share a meal with family or friends, those moments when we look across the table at ones we love, let’s not take it for granted. Let us be aware that we are sharing a holy moment.

And what about this holy moment – this meal that Jesus knew would be his last. It is a meal of love and forgiveness, new life and promise. Everyone sitting at that table would let Jesus down. Every single one would fail the test of loyalty and friendship.  But Jesus shared his bread, his meal, and his life with them.

Maybe this meal will make us wonder – how is God feeding our spirits today? What gifts are we being offered today? Have we taken time to give God thanks and praise? Are we aware that there is always room at God’s table for each one of us? Can we be inspired by Jesus’ generosity and graciousness and love?

Holy Week: Wednesday

During Holy Week we are invited to consider Jesus’ final days and wonder what those events might say to us today.

Then Satan entered Judas, called Iscariot, one of the Twelve.  And Judas went to the chief priests and the officers of the temple guard and discussed with them how he might betray Jesus.  They were delighted and agreed to give him money.  He consented, and watched for an opportunity to hand Jesus over to them when no crowd was present.  (Luke 22: 3-6)

Yesterday’s story was filled with love and devotion and compassion as Mary anointed Jesus. In contrast, today’s reading is defined by betrayal and disappointment and hurt. Tradition calls today “Spy Wednesday,” the day that Judas agreed to betray Jesus.

            Life is filled with painful moments. A friend lets us down or isn’t there when we need them most. A loved one doesn’t seem to be listening or doesn’t appear to care about what is affecting us. We can feel alone, forgotten, pushed aside, even betrayed.

There is no explanation for Judas’ actions. This Holy Week story reminds us of the hard truth that we fallible, flawed human beings hurt one another regularly.

Judas’ story reminds us of times we have failed, of promises we have not kept, of moments when we have been self-absorbed and not available to listen or care or help. There have been times when we have turned our backs and when we have not done enough for someone in need.

There have also been times when we have been hurt by others. We have been on the receiving end of undeserved taunts and meanspirited gossip. Sometimes people don’t have our best interests at heart or may even try to actively do us harm.

Holy Week includes Judas’ story as well as other examples of our human failings. Maybe the story of Judas’ betrayal offers us a greater appreciation of God’s faithfulness. Unlike Judas, God will never leave or forsake us.

What can we learn from these stories? Can we ask for God’s forgiveness where it is needed – for ourselves and for others? Can we be inspired by Jesus who did not call for revenge?  Can we recognize our need for God’s help to face challenging, painful situations like these?  

Holy Week: Tuesday

During Holy Week we are invited to consider Jesus’ final days and wonder what those events might say to us today.

Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him, and Lazarus was one of those at table. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. – John 12:1-3 (NRSV)

        Actions really do speak louder than words. Mary never says a thing but Jesus recognizes her love and acknowledges the beauty of her tribute even while others criticize. “Leave her alone,” Jesus says, “She bought [the oil] so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.” Mary demonstrates her devotion and sorrow as she anoints Jesus.

        Anointing was a common display of hospitality in that time. Under normal circumstances, it might seem to be an ordinary, small, insignificant act. Just days before Jesus’ arrest, it took on new significance as Mary shared her concern for her holy guest.

We may never know the impact of a caring act; we may not be aware of the difference we are making. What seems ordinary to us may have a profound effect on someone else. How often do we hesitate to act? How often do we talk ourselves out of reaching out?

Mary might be surprised to know that her gesture has been remembered for over 2000 years. It stands as a testament to the power of compassion and caring. Let us be inspired to (in John Wesley’s words) “Do all the good you can, By all the means you can, In all the ways you can, In all the places you can, At all the times you can, To all the people you can, As long as ever you can.”

Who do you know that needs some love or thoughtfulness or encouragement today? Who might feel overwhelmed or scared or alone right now? What can we do to share the love that is given to us every day by God?

Holy Week: Monday

During Holy Week we are invited to consider Jesus’ final days and wonder what those events might say to us today.

        On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves,and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’”

 The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching. (Mark 11:15-18)

      The money changers and merchants weren’t actually the problem; they always set up shop within the temple walls.  But over time their business had expanded and took up increasingly more space until there literally wasn’t room for anyone else. Instead of offering a “house of prayer for all nations,” worshipers were squeezed out and had no place to pray.

       Without diving into a well of guilt and remorse and self-recrimination, let’s dare to ask the question – What might be taking up too much room in our lives?  What tables might Jesus want to tip over today? What would he like to throw out? What is demanding too much space and attention?

      If Jesus could enter into our “temple gates” or our homes or our lives, what would he see?  If he gazed into our eyes (or maybe into our souls), what would he point out as if to say– this just isn’t good for you. This is separating you from God.  This is distracting you from what is really important.

      What do we need to get rid of in order to make more room for Jesus?

Unrecognizable

When Jesus emerged from the tomb, no one recognized him. Mary mistook him for the gardener. The disciples drew back in fear thinking he was a ghost. The believers fleeing Jerusalem spent a long, dusty day with Jesus walking toward Emmaus but it never occurred to them that they were speaking with their Savior.

            Resurrection will do that. New beginnings can be like that. Sometimes that fresh start is so new, so different that there is little resemblance to what was.

            Jesus made several resurrection appearances – outside the tomb, on the road, in the disciples’ locked room, by the lake. He spoke to believers and people who knew him best. And yet every single time people wondered, “Is this the Lord?” Understandable, you may say, because they all witnessed his gruesome death on the Cross. And yet it was more than simply questioning the facts. They were not prepared for this turn of events. This new reality – a living, breathing, resurrected Christ – would challenge their assumptions and overturn their expectations. This post-Easter Jesus was inviting them on a new path of discovery and revelation.

            It makes me wonder about our post-pandemic experience. What will be new and different? What old patterns have been upset? What will we need to leave behind? What has been taken away and what have we gained?

            Just like the disciples, our lives have been disrupted by a life-changing event. Just like the disciples, we were sad, we were scared, we were uncertain. And just like the disciples, we did not always behave in honorable or rational ways. A crisis rarely brings out the best in everyone.

As we emerge from the pandemic we recognize that our lives are different. We are different.

While that is not necessarily a bad thing, it does demand that we open our eyes and spirits so we don’t miss what is new. We don’t want to overlook those resurrection appearances and the invitations to new life and hope.

Our pre-pandemic lives and our “business as usual” lifestyles are in the past. Now might be a good time to wonder and ask questions.

What new things is God doing?

What new direction might God be leading us?

How will we be surprised by where God is appearing?

Will we recognize God?

  God was not on “hold” while we endured the pandemic. Instead, the God of resurrection journeyed with us to make all things new – including us.

Our new circumstances and new attitudes and new experiences may be initially unrecognizable.  But we can be certain – God is in that place.

Until next year…

It was, on the one hand, a hard decision to make. Who wants to be the one to cancel a beloved event that has taken place on the East Woodstock Common since 1957?  It felt agonizing.

            And yet, on the other hand, it was very clear that it was the only practical and prudent decision that was available.

            Perhaps you won’t be surprised to hear that a Bible story played into the decision to cancel our Jamboree.

 In Genesis, the very first book of the Bible, there are two brothers, Cain and Abel, the sons of Adam and Eve.  Both brothers are trying to be faithful followers of God so each of them carries an offering to place on God’s altar. Without explanation, God accepts the gift of Abel but rejects what Cain has to offer. This infuriates Cain. He is filled with anger so he attacks his brother and kills him.

            When God comes looking for the brothers and can only find one, God turns to Cain and wonder about Abel’s whereabouts. Cain doesn’t want this responsibility so he angrily asks God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

            It is significant that the answer is so obvious that God doesn’t even bother voicing it. Instead, God shows what it means to care and especially to care for those in need. Throughout the rest of the Bible, God shows what compassion and care looks like. God protects the stranger, welcomes the outcast, tends to the sick, and searches for those who are lost. God is our keeper. And we are keepers of one another.

            That’s why we are canceling the Jamboree this year. We are trying to take care of one another. I might not be sick with Covid-19 and you may not be either. But we could easily infect someone else and that person could spread the virus to others. It is an unacceptable risk.

            We are not ending the Jamboree. We are pushing the pause button. We are planning to gather on July 4, 2021 so we can celebrate with renewed gratitude and a whole new appreciation of being together. Until then, we are all called to be each other’s keepers – to visit those who are lonely, to help those who may need a hand, to pick up groceries, to pitch in with chores, to make a phone call or send an email.

            The story of Cain and Abel reminds us that our lives are entwined with one another. We are all in this together. We can care for one another. Together, we will go forward to a brighter future.

            See you next year!

Corona and Tenebrae (shadows)

“I love the Tenebrae service so much, I would celebrate it even if no one showed up.” That statement will be put the test tomorrow evening as we prepare for Maundy Thursday. When I made that declaration over the years, I was thinking in terms of potential snowstorms that could keep people away or the busy-ness of schedules that interfered with a mid-week evening service. I was asserting that the beauty and solemnity of recounting Jesus’ final hours would compel me to commemorate Jesus’ Last Supper and the desertion of his followers.

But let’s be honest. Maundy Thursday (or Holy Thursday) is never a well-attended worship service. Far different than the standing-room-only experience of Easter, the Tenebrae service (of “service of shadows”) is a somber evening gathering attended by a handful of people. Those who do come are always moved by the power of our sacred texts that describe with moving detail Jesus’ final meal with his disciples. We listen to Jesus’ anguished prayer in the garden. Our hearts are moved by the deep hurt of betrayal that leads to his arrest followed by the callousness of a sham trial.

It is hard to hear the story relentlessly unfold as it brings us closer and closer to Golgotha and crucifixion. The fear, agony, and loss are palpable. Because it is so powerful, I’ve always wanted more people to experience what is the center, the absolute foundation, of our Christian story. We get to hear about God who loves us so much that God will not avoid the absolute hardest parts of being human. Jesus lives through loss, fear, betrayal, sadness, isolation, and excruciating pain. And he does it for us. When those terrifying experiences enter into our lives, we can turn to Jesus knowing that he walked through that dark valley before us. It is a gut-wrenching and yet life-giving story. It is vital that we hear it.

And thus my commitment to proclaim the story even if no one was there to listen.

So this year on Maundy Thursday I will be in the sanctuary alone with my family and our wonderful pianist Nancy. We will recount the story that has been given to Christians to tell. It is a story of loss and hope, agony and assurance.

I hope you will be with me in Spirit and perhaps also on Facebook Live. You are invited to light a candle – electric or wax – and listen to the story. As the story is read, we will extinguish candles to represent the approaching shadows of loss and death.  You’ll be invited to put out your candle. And then finally to light it again as we cling to the hope of the Christ candle shining in the darkness.

In this time of sickness, loss, uncertainty and death, we need to hear the story of Jesus’ undying love.