Monday, November 21, 2016

Pondering:  Advent 1 

So many years ago – so many memories come to me as I sit here by myself in John’s home.  My life was lived so fully but at such a young age.  As the memories flood back I can honestly say I have indeed been blessed and favored by God.
I remember my childhood.  It was so different from my contemporaries.  I did not know the fun of hide and seek after the chores were done.  I did not have ordinary friends to talk to and with whom I could share confidences.  My life was sheltered.  Perhaps that was part of the preparation…

An account of Mary’s birth and childhood is recorded in the Infancy Gospel of James, one of those early Christian writings that circulated at the beginnings of the Christian Church but were not included in the canon of what we know as the New Testament.

According to this account, Joachim was Mary’s father and Anna was her mother.  Theirs was a childless marriage in the tradition of Sarah (Isaac), Hannah (Samuel), and Elizabeth (John).  All women gave birth well after child bearing years and in answer to prayer.  Childlessness was a serious matter because it was considered a sign of God’s displeasure.  It would also mean there would be no one to protect the woman in widowhood.

Anna prays her lament and suddenly a messenger from the Lord God appears to tell her that she will conceive and give birth.  Her child will be known around the world.

I was that child.  My childhood was determined for me before I was born.  My parents dedicated me to the Temple.  Only unlike the prophet Samuel, I was a girl and therefore my life was particularly restricted.  My childhood was spent amidst the Temple practices of worship, study, High Holy Days, and sacrifices.  Although the Temple was a very busy place I was an observer not a participant.
That was acceptable until I reached the age young women become physically able to bear children.  Then it became an issue of purity and impurity.  My life changed again.
A husband was chosen to take me as his wife.  I was lucky when it came to that.  Joseph was a kind man.  More would be asked of him than he could ever imagine.

Mary was considered betrothed (engaged) to Joseph.  She would normally be betrothed for a period of one year.  Then Joseph would come to her home and take her to his home, the symbol of the wedding.  The celebration would last one week.  Legally however the relationship was sealed with the betrothal.

Things did not proceed quite according to ancient customs.  After the betrothal was announced, Mary got a visitor.  Gabriel, the messenger, was from God and had something to tell Mary.
I remember the feel of the true purple and scarlet threads as they slipped through my hands.  I had been spinning the scarlet thread that would go into the new veil for the Temple of the Lord.  I took my water jar and went out to fill it.  That is when I heard those words:
“Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God.  And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.  He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David.  He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”


Gabriel’s words conform to the structure of birth annunciations in the Hebrew Testament.  An angel or messenger says “Do not be afraid.”  Then the woman is named and told she will give birth to a child whose name is also disclosed.  Finally the future role of the child is described in sacred language.

I admit I was fearful.  I was confused.  I was anxious.  Yet I remember Gabriel’s calming presence.  I knew at the core of my being that this was God sent and God promised.

Most of the art work depicting the Annunciation has Mary in some sort of pious pose, usually holding a book or being next to a place for study.  The most intriguing painting I found was “The Annunciation” by John Collier.  In it Mary is shown as a suburban schoolgirl, complete with saddle shoes and a uniform with a white blouse and blue jumper.  She stands outside the door of her house.  A vase of lilies is between Mary and Gabriel.  Lilies are a symbol of virginity. Its modernity reaches across the centuries and is a reminder of the youth and vulnerability of Mary.  The account from the Infancy of Gospel of James 10:1-12:2 tells the story this way:

“Meanwhile, there was a council of the priests, who agreed: ‘Let’s make a veil for the temple of the Lord.’
And the high priest said, ‘Summon the true virgins from the tribe of David.’ And so the temple assistants left and searched everywhere and found seven.  And the high priest then remembered the girl Mary, that she, too, was from the tribe of David and was pure in God’s eyes.  And so the temple assistants went our and got her.
And they took the maidens into the temple of the Lord.  And the high priest said, ‘Cast lots for me to decide who’ll spin which threads for the veil: the gold, the white, the linen, the silk, the violet, the scarlet, and the true purple.’
And the true purple and scarlet threads fell to Mary.  And she took them and returned home.  Now it was at this time that Zechariah became mute, and Samuel took his place until Zechariah regained his speech.  Meanwhile, Mary had taken up the scarlet thread and was spinning it.
And she took her water jar and went out to fill it with water.  Suddenly there was a voice saying to her, ‘Greetings, favored one!  The Lord is with you.  Blessed are you among women.’  Mary began looking around, both right and left, to see where the voice was coming from.  She became terrified and went home.  After putting the water jar down and taking up the purple thread, she sat down on her chair and began to spin.
A heavenly messenger suddenly stood before her: ‘Don’t be afraid, Mary.  You see, you’ve found favor in the sight of the Lord of all.  You will conceive by means of his word.’
But as she listened, Mary was troubled and said, ‘If I actually conceive by the Lord, the living God, will I also give birth the way women usually do?’
And the messenger of the Lord replied, ‘No, Mary, because the power of God will overshadow you.  Therefore, the child to be born will be called holy, son of the Most High.  And you will name him Jesus – the name means “he will save his people from their sins.”’
And Mary said, ‘Here I am, the Lord’s slave before him.  I pray that all you’ve told me comes true.’
And she finished (spinning) the purple and the scarlet thread and took her work up to the high priest.  The high priest accepted them and praised her and said, ‘Mary, the Lord God has extolled your name and so you will be blessed by all the generations of the earth.’”

The story of the Annunciation can be found in the Gospel of Luke 1:26-38.

Grace and Peace

Rev. C.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

395 Years and Counting

            In 1621 Pilgrims and Native Americans sat down together and joined in a pot luck meal together.  You know what a pot luck meal is like – a little of this from one person and a little of that from another and first thing you know everyone is satisfied. 

            That “First Thanksgiving” has become a seasonal staple now.  Although there is some variety,  the meal usually includes a turkey (roasted or now deep-fried) along with plenty of side dishes heavy on the starches and carbohydrates.  Many families get out the “best” china and encourage everyone to sit around a table to eat at least this one meal a year.  The timing of the meal varies across the country to fit into travel schedules, parades, football games and early shopping.   Conversation around the table is somewhere on the spectrum of polite and restrained to open hostility.  It has become the embodiment of our American experience.


            This year has the potential to be particularly trying because so much that has become common is antithetical to peaceful quiet celebrations.  Our dietary habits (or restrictions because of disease) place restraints on the possible menu.  Many families are so busy they rarely sit down together for a daily meal.  Our electronic devices have consumed our interest, replacing  real conversation.  Our recent political season has been full of negativity, offensive language, and destructive rhetoric.  Happy Thanksgiving.  Let’s all get together.  Groan.

            Yet this, of all years, is a time calling us to rewrite the narrative into something that includes us all as persons fortunate enough to live in this great country.

            We cannot even rely on the history of that feast to show us how harmony and unity played out almost four centuries ago.  The colonists and the Native Americans would shortly be engaged in open warfare and the local tribes would be pushed out of their native habitat to make room for more settlers.

            What does offer a possibility is how Thanksgiving became a national holiday.  In 1846 Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, an influential magazine of the period, decided the nation needed a national Thanksgiving holiday.  She began this project during a time of great divisions and conflicts in our nation.  She perceived that there was a need to rewrite the national narrative beyond the divisions.  A spirit of unity would not erase the sin and suffering of slavery practiced over the  years in both northern and southern states.  A spirit of unity would not ease the regional divides where distance precluded contact and conversation.  A spirit of unity in the name of remembering the experience of the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Native Peoples would not result in a narrative free of potential conflict and exertion of power.

            I suspect that what Sarah Joseph Hale sensed was that setting apart a day of national remembrance might make people think ever so briefly, but ever so importantly, about the things that bind us together even if those things are not identical.  The Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Native Peoples, along with the handful of non-Pilgrim Mayflower travelers, all had a faith story that directed their lives.  The Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Native Peoples had found ways to accommodate to one another.  The Pilgrims would not have survived, and the Puritans would not have had a “destination” port for the Massachusetts Bay Colony had the colonists not received life-giving lessons in gardening, planting, harvesting and hunting.  Stories of faith belief and shared need helped them get through the winter and the growing season to reach harvest time.  The Harvest Festival (the National Pot Luck Extravaganza) was a time to celebrate what could be and what had been experienced.

            We come to another time of deep divisions in our country.  We are in a time when hateful and destructive epitaphs are being heaped on some people because of who they are or for whom they voted.  Thanksgiving 2016 is a time to celebrate our faith stories (and may I suggest Psalms 111, 100, 8) and it is a time to  remember we are all created by God and beloved by God.

            Five hundred years ago the Aztecs of the Southern Hemisphere of what we call the Americas had this prayer:

Lord most giving and resourceful,
I implore you;
make it be your will
that this people enjoy
the goods and riches you naturally give,
that naturally issue from you,
that are pleasing and savory,
that delight and comfort,
though lasting but briefly,
passing away as if in a dream.

May it be so.  Happy Thanksgiving.

Grace and Peace

Rev. Clara

Monday, November 7, 2016

Eleventh Hour, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Month

            Those three “elevens” signify a time and place – a season of our lives – when we, as citizens of America, say “Thank You” to those who have worn and do wear the uniform of our country by serving in the Armed Forces. 

            This is a civic holiday not a church holiday.  It is a holiday that has become increasingly lost in the preparations for the holiday season and the busy schedules of our lives.  At church Sunday we will celebrate a service of worship around our gratefulness for those veterans in our lives. 

            Veteran’s Day is one of those holidays that hold special significance for me.  One of the yearly rituals is to walk the sacred grounds of Arlington National Cemetery and pay respect to those we know who are now interred there – a friend, a neighbor, fellow servicemen, and a relative.  In other words, Arlington is personal.

            I am both an Army Wife (married to a career Officer as well as an Army Civilian Employee) and a clergywoman serving in The United Church of Christ.  I can honestly say that I am who I am because of each of these communities – the military community and my faith communities.  They have been complimentary in my formation.

            There is an abundance of wars and warring language in the Bible and those passages are NOT the touchstones of my faith.  Rather I have always returned to John 15:13:  No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 

            This is not a passage designed by Jesus to give a framework for military life.  Indeed, Jesus had a very different view of resolving conflict – that of Love, reconciliation, caring.  In fact only 4 verses later he says:  I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

            Yet as an Army Wife I have always been aware that the cost of service was expressed in those few words from the Gospel of John.
I was fortunate.  My husband returned from Viet Nam in one piece (all two and a half years of serving there).  Our assignments led us to Washington DC and the Pentagon instead of the front lines.  And when things returned to a state of continual conflict after September 11 he was able to be of service as an Army Civilian. 

            While he was on active duty I experienced first hand the Army family (and I am sure the other Services are the same).  The support and caring we gave one another became a way of life.  I still experience that unscripted support and caring whenever I am in a military setting.  There is something about knowing the cost of service that binds us together.

            While I was fortunate enough not to have to deal with life crushing or life altering circumstances, others have not been as fortunate.  We honor veterans every November because they have “Lain down parts of their lives – lost forever” in order that they and we have the freedoms we so cherish. 

            When we have medical appointments at Walter Reed National Medical Center we see so many who are in various stages of recovery from life-altering experiences in service to their country.  When we visit with friends whose sons or daughters have answered the call to service we sometimes hear of the night horrors they face, the reality of PTSD.  When I served a church in Baltimore we worked with the Chaplain’s Office of the Maryland National Guard to help service personnel who were stranded by the system for one reason or another.  When we were stationed in Ft. Ord in the 1980s I saw first hand the reality of low ranking military personnel subsisting on food stamps and living in a dilapidated  Guest Quarters that didn’t have heat on Christmas Eve.   (I was very pleased to be part of the solution for that second condition!  Because I was  President of the Officer’s Wives Club I was in a position to make a difference.)

            On this Veteran’s Day I hope all will take time to say “thank you for your service” to those who accept the responsibility of serving in our Armed Services. 

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

“Begets and By-Gollies”

            I imagine many of you have decided to read the Bible straight through from Genesis 1:1 to Revelation 21:21 only to get as far as Genesis 5 and give up with one of the ten genealogies recorded in the book of Genesis alone!

            This week the Church has celebrated All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day.  We have read the names of those who died during the past year.  We have remembered all they were to us and the ways they still influence us.  We sing “For All the Saints: and we remember the “great cloud of witnesses”.

      I have been remembering my great-grandmother, Eliza Jane Dieffendieffer Wasser, and my grandmother, Clara Rebecca Wasser Powell.  They were two women of faith who quietly shaped my own faith even though I only knew one of them.  I carried my great-grandmother’s Reformed Church Hymnal and Prayer Book with me the Sunday of my ordination sixteen years ago.

       (Zions’ Reformed Church UCC, Greenville, PA)

            I am also an enthusiastic participant in researching family history and compiling the narratives for those lines entered on the charts of births, marriages, children and deaths.  We plan some of our vacation time to visit those places where our ancestors once lived.

            That is why the genealogies found in the Bible touch this season of sacred remembrance.

            The family tree listings found in the Bible would not be found in popular websites.  Each genealogy is its own kind of family story-telling.  The name are not listed because there are documented papers nor are they recorded in county courthouses.  In the book of Genesis alone there are ten different genealogies.  Their purpose is to provide a structure for the stories of the Hebrew people.  They also serve to remind those who read the book of Genesis of the connectedness of humankind.  In all the changes of life that familial relationship (defined in many ways) is constant and sustaining, even when people are not under the same roof (or tent).

            I never knew Eliza Jane Wasser, but her story, her faith, her persistence in times of great difficulty are threads that reach out to me almost 100 years later.  I can say the same for one of my ancestors who risked all on that Mayflower crossing.  When I learned that one of my ancestors was imprisoned in London for being the pastor of a Congregational Church, his story became my story.  When my sister and I visited Quaker meeting houses still existing in Rhode Island and New York State three hundred years later, those ancestors who worshipped there showed me a new connection to my religious faith.

      (Friends Meeting House, Little Compton, RI)

When I worshipped at Trinity Great Swamp United Church of Christ, I knew that my faith was formed by those who risked everything for the sake of the Gospel.

     (Trinity Great Swamp UCC, Spinnerstown, PA)

            The genealogies of the Bible are not line charts of parenting.  They are witnesses to defining moments of a faith community.  When you encounter them in the Bible look for the stories behind the lists.  There are two genealogies for Jesus in the Bible.  One is found in Matthew 1:1-17 and one is found in Luke 3:23-38.  They are different listings of people.  When you read them I encourage you to wonder what stories are being told to help you know more about Jesus.

            I also encourage you to think about those in your own ancestry who influenced your faith journey.  Who would you put in your personal genealogy of faith?  I can tell you that some names will be related to you and some won’t.  That is the nature of faith genealogies.  They tell stories.  They tell the story of how God has touched your life and formed you into the person you are becoming. 

Grace and Peace

Rev. C.