Leader: Sing praises to the LORD, O you faithful ones, and give thanks to God’s holy name.
All: For God’s anger is but for a moment; God’s favor is for a lifetime.
Leader: Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.
All: O LORD, my God, I will give thanks to you forever.
* Gathering Prayer (Unison)
God of joy, God of adventure, give us the courage to try. Not every endeavor works out the way we plan. Sometimes we feel awkward trying new things. Because you are the master, we can join the adventure of lifelong learning. Thank you for the example of our ancestors in faith who fell down nine times and got up ten. Amen.
Prayer of Dedication
God of abundance, we too often act out of an attitude of scarcity. Teach us to give freely so that we might live freely. Amen.
Holy God, on this Easter morning we welcome the sunrise. We welcome the birdsong. We welcome the branches swaying above our heads. We welcome the opportunity to greet familiar faces and meet new ones. We welcome the energy and joy and promise of a new day, new beginnings, and new challenges to face. We welcome the chance to hear with new ears the old story of Jesus: how he died at the hands of violent people and was raised by the unstoppable power of your boundless love. Renew our faith in resurrection. Renew our commitment to the Jesus way. Amen.
“Marriage mergers occur when two comparable churches, similar in size and/or health realign with each other under a united vision and new leadership configuration. Marriage mergers in churches are a lot like a marriage of two people coming together as one bringing strengths, and liabilities to the new entity. and like a lot of human marriages churches coming together may have some difficulties, but they can work through them.”
This seems to pretty accurately describe our situation. In this metaphor, as I understand it, the past three years of Union Services and GUCCI meetings and other joint efforts could be described as “dating.”
The vote this coming Sunday is to “get engaged.” No metaphor is perfect. Different folks will have different understandings of what it means to “get engaged.” The important thing to keep in mind is that getting engaged is NOT the same thing as getting married. It’s a commitment that the parties will make whole-hearted and good faith preparations for making public and sacred vows of union.
So engagement is serious, but it doesn’t mean the marriage is a done deal. Even with the best of efforts things can fall apart. That’s OK. There’s no way to know for certain beforehand, but if we proceed with openness and honesty we can walk this journey together and find some blessing in it regardless of the outcome.
My wife, Nicole, and I are both children of divorced parents. We approached our engagement with few illusions. I asked Nicole to marry me Valentine’s Day (I know, so cliche) 1996. She said, “Yes.” Afterward we had a very serious but honest conversation about our expectations for our engagement and anticipated marriage. Nicole said to me, “This means that whatever happens, we do it together.” Fast forward, this year we are getting ready to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary.
That’s my understanding of the step we as churches are being invited to take. What’s yours?
How marvelous! How wonderful! We gather in your presence, Holy God. We gather in this sanctuary space. We gather in our home spaces. We gather online here in Granby and around the world and in every place and every time you are there. Each cup of coffee, each snowflake, each fur baby, each floorboard, each thing shines with your light. Every smiling face, every salty tear, every broken heart, shines with your glory. Give us eyes to see, minds to perceive, and voices to praise you. Amen.
“My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; 4 and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1:2-4)
As I shared in my last installment of “What’s Up,” at the First Congregational Church of Granby Nov. 23 “What’s Next” workshop, I was tasked with researching and sharing information on current trends in church vitality. There’s a ton of information out there. The trick is curating relevant content (to use a current turn of phrase)!
I’ve been trying to keep Advent themes. The theme for this week is joy so I did a very “current” thing: I googled “church vitality and joy.” VoiLa! Google gave me a Facebook post from what looks to be a new church start called “Vitality Church,” whose physical location is the building of a (now closed?) Disciples of Christ congregation. Look at all the kids! You can check out the post here. Included in the post is the above Scripture from the Epistle of James: “whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy . . .”
First Church (like many churches) is facing trials, and our faith is being tested. James reminds us that this is part of the process! This isn’t a “bug”; it’s a feature! Think about it. Our ancestors faced all kinds of trials: the Civil War, the Spanish Flu, the Great Depression, etc. etc. etc. Why should we expect our experience to be any different? The fact is Christianity and congregational life is designed to test us. That may come as a surprise to some of us who have been taught either implicitly or explicitly that as “good people” we have a “right to comfort.” James says, “No.” As Christians we don’t have a ‘right to comfort’ but we do have the promise of joy. Testing builds endurance, which leads to maturity and “completion.” Completion here means “perfection, holiness, happiness, bliss.” So be joyful! This is it, friends, this is the Christian way. This is the real deal.
I encourage you to check out the “about” tab of Vitality Church’s Facebook page. Notice how they describe themselves. Notice their values and how they aim their message. Remember the Simon Sinek video we watched during our “What is Your Why?” workshop? He said vital organizations and movements (including the civil rights movement!) operate out of their “why” because that helps them connect with others who share that “why.” Vitality Church makes it clear that they are an imperfect church for imperfect people that is nevertheless focused not on their own personal preferences but on meeting the needs of their neighbors. To quote: “No matter what we will always do our best to be whatever people need us to be.”
Making a transition from decline to vitality is difficult! It is at times painful and exhausting. Hooray! Our faith is being tested in order that our joy might be complete.
Today is the beginning of Advent–the preparation time for celebrating Christ’s birth. We are here because God’s promises to our ancestors came true when Jesus was born. God’s promise is kept each Sunday when we worship and wherever we worship because Christ is in our midst. God will keep the promise to come again in glory.
Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.
2 For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the LORD will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you.
Lighting of the Candle
We light this candle to proclaim the coming of the light of God into the world. With the coming of this light there is hope. (Share one thing that gives you hope.) We believe in hope that is more than wishful thinking. We believe in hope that is grounded in the birth of Jesus.
Light the first candle on the Advent wreath.
God we thank you that Jesus brought hope into the world. Help us to be ready to welcome Jesus so that we may be a people of hope for the world. Amen.
Advent Wreath week 2: Peace
We gather around the Advent wreath today knowing that we are not perfect–we all make mistakes and cause others harm. Jesus creates a more peaceful world by helping us repair the harm we’ve done. Jesus helps us accept ourselves and others so that we can be at peace.
For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7 His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onward and forevermore.
The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.
Lighting of the Candle
We light this candle to proclaim the coming of the light of God into the world. With the coming of this light there is peace, for Christ is called the “Prince of Peace. We believe in the power of peace to heal the world.
Light the second candle on the Advent wreath.
Eternal God, we thank you that through all the years you have given peace to your people. Help us to cultivate peacefulness in our lives. Show us how to be peacemakers with those around us because we believe in peace. Amen.
Advent Wreath week 3: Love
St. John wrote, “God is love.” As we gather around the Advent wreath today we celebrate God’s love sustaining us moment to moment regardless of our actions or circumstances. God’s love is embodied in Jesus and in each one of us. Because of this we say, “We believe in love.”
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.
Lighting of the Candle
We light this candle to porcelain the coming of the light of God into the world. With the coming of this light there is love. Such grat love helps us to love God and one another.
Light the third candle on the Advent wreath.
O God, we thank you that Jesus showed your love for every person–old people and young, sick people and those who were strong, rich people and those who were poor. Your love in Jesus changed the world. For this reason we say, “We believe in love.” Amen!
Advent Wreath week 4: Joy
Soon we shall celebrate the birth of Jesus. We worship God with joy in our hearts as we are reminded of the words the angel said on that first Christmas Day: “Behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will come to all people.” With the angels long ago we say, “We believe in joy.”
Reading of Scripture
As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
Lighting of the Candle
We light this candle to proclaim the coming of the light of God into the world. With the coming of this light there is joy. Joy is ours not only at Christmas but always.
Light the fourth candle on the Advent wreath.
O Holy One, as Christmas draws near, we look for that familiar sense of excitement. Perhaps we glimpse it out of the corner of our mind’s eye: a wisp of memory, a childhood song. In this time of global pandemic and political transition we confess to you and to all the world that we believe in joy because you promise us that while “weeping may linger for the night, joy comes with the morning.” Thank you for the gift of Jesus–Morning Star, light of life, bringer of joy.
Good evening! On this Christmas Eve we are gathered as God’s people to celebrate again what Christ’s coming means to the world. We join with Christians and all people of good will around the world who are celebrating tonight in saying, “We believe in hope. We believe in peace. We believe in love. We believe in joy.”
Reading of Scripture
0 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
Lighting of the Candles
Tonight we relight the four Advent candles and recall what the good news means.
A leader lights a candle while saying each word: hope, peace, love, joy.
Jesus Christ is the greatest gift who makes all these other gifts possible. So we light the Christ candle now as we welcome the birth of Christ in our lives.
A leader lights the central Christ candle.
We thank you God, for your gift of Jesus Christ to the entire world. We thank you that Christ’s coming makes hope, peace, love, and joy possible. Make us your hands and heart to our hurting world because we believe
[Explanation: For over 20 years my spiritual practice has been Zen meditation. I am currently a member of Boundless Way Temple, Worcester, MA. I study koans under the instruction of David Rynick, Roshi. “Koan” comes from the ancient Chinese practice of law and simply means “case,” as in the record of a legal proceeding that points to the truth of the matter at hand. Koans are statements of proceedings usually in a monastery context, that point to truth. Another one of David’s students and I have taken up the practice of writing verses in response to some of the koans we study. My dharma name is “Setsusho.” Below is the koan. The koan translation from the original Chinese is by poet David Hinton. Rather than transliterate the character names, Hinton uses a literal translation of the Chinese characters: “Visitation-Land” a.k.a. Zhaozhou/Joshu. Confusing, but perhaps opening up more nuance of meaning. Following the koan is “Setsusho’s” response!]
Master Visitation-Land stopped at a shrine-master’s hut and called out: “Anyone there? Presence? Any Presence there?”
The shrine-master simply held up his fist.
“You can’t anchor a boat in water this shallow,” said Land. Then he left.
Later he returned to the shrine-master’s hut and again called out: “Anyone there? Presence? Any Presence there?”
Once more the shrine-master simply held up a fist.
“Ah you–you can offer up and steal away, put to death and bring to life,” said Land. Then he bowed reverently.
This coming Sunday is known by many names in the church world: Homecoming Sunday, Rally Day, Christian Education Sunday, or–more recently–Faith Formation Sunday. It’s the Sunday in American churches that marks the beginning of the program year, the return of children to school, the return of families from summer vacation, the fall season of sports, holidays, harvest.
I’m not sure which of the terms for this coming Sunday I prefer. The UCC, our denomination, calls it Faith Formation Sunday now, so I’ll go with that. In any case, Faith Formation Sunday 2020 is unlike any other I’ve planned and led in my entire career. Kids are going back to school–sort of. Many of our young ones are on a “hybrid schedule,” which means both days distance learning at home and days in the classroom. My college-age daughter, who should be in Los Angeles right now, spends her class time sitting in front of her laptop on our three season porch here in Windsor, CT.
At First Congregational Church of Granby this Sunday marks the next stage in our gradual reopen process. We are inviting the public to pre-register online to observe the worship livestream in person in the Sanctuary. COVID protocols will be followed to ensure that everyone who chooses to be together in person can do so safely. Last Sunday we successfully celebrated our second outdoor in person worship service. I’m grateful to everyone who worked so hard to make it possible to be together safely. It was moving to see the faces of friends again.
Confirmation class, which was disrupted by the pandemic, will resume on Zoom this Sunday. I will be working together with the Explore Team to figure out our programming for the young ones. I don’t know about you, but I have moments when all of this feels very difficult, stressful, and depressing, but I’ve noticed that those moments, like all moments, pass, and a new thought, feeling, or experience arises. Remaining spiritually grounded through the changes gives me the energy I need to forge ahead.
Last Sunday after worshipping outside under the trees, feeling the breeze on my skin, seeing the sun above and familiar faces around me, I realized that the sadness I had been carrying with me was gone. In its place was joy. This experience reminds me of a favorite song, one I’ve shared before: Richard Smallwood’s “The Center of My Joy.” I leave you with links to a couple of versions: one from the composer himself, and another . . . well, check it out for yourself.
On Sunday, June 28, 1970 the first Pride Parade was held in New York City. Similar events were held in June of 1970 in Chicago and San Francisco. All were in response to the Stonewall uprising the previous year, which marks the beginning of the modern gay rights movement.
For the first time in its 50 year history the NYC pride parade is cancelled due to coronavirus. Cancelled for the first time in 50 years, on its 50th anniversary.
A couple weeks ago I began an online training for leadership and organizational coaching during the COVID pandemic. As the group was naming the different dynamics around loss, grief, and trauma folks are experiencing during this time, the AIDS epidemic came up. For those of us who lived through the 1980s/1990s decades of the AIDS epidemic, when thousands upon thousands of mostly gay men were dying in places like New York City, San Francisco, and Miami, COVID brings up ghosts of that trauma. As many of you know, my dad was one of those gay men who died of AIDS, so this year’s Pride is just a strange, strange time for me, and I’m guessing for many of my LGBTQIA+ brothers and sisters.
Folks are hosting virtual Pride events, but for me and my family the highlight of Pride has always been the parade. My kids tell me that Providence (RI) Pride was their favorite event of the year. People of all ages, colors, and creeds gathered downtown for a day of fun and joy and celebration. We marched as a church. We waved banners and wore silly hats and cheered for the crowd as the crowd cheered for us. The City of Providence was never happier or more together than on Pride weekend.
My Pride story is a family story. It’s a story of my family finding its family: a community of people committed to living without shame; people of all different identities committed to accepting and loving every inch of themselves and every part of every other. Nothing needs to be hidden. Everything can be talked about. Vulnerability, instead of a sign of weakness, is lifted up as a sign of strength. Pride is a time of honoring those who have gone before: martyrs and heroes and loved ones lost who had the courage to live their truth, and because they chose to do so, paved the way for those of us who would follow to more perfectly manifest what, for me, is nothing other than God’s boundless, unconditional love.