December 5, 2021 | Sunday Worship

Shadow and Light: Advent 2021

Art by Eric Fisher

Advent Week 2: Waiting in Shadow, Holding the Light

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Prelude—“We Come,” VT #225, song by Jim Croegart, performed by Kim Thiessen

Lighting the Advent Candle—Last week, Susan introduced this season of Advent – waiting and anticipating the birth of Jesus – moving from the shadows to the light – with the help of lighting a candle. Today, on this second Sunday of Advent, which is also the eve of the Day of St. Nicholas which is celebrated in many parts of the world, we will look at gifts during this season and explore why this day of St. Nicholas is celebrated. 

Welcome—

I don’t know about you, but when I think of Santa Claus in the United States these days, I feel like Linus. Santa Claus appears to have no connection with the celebration of the birth of Jesus. According to St. Nicholas Center.org, the most common depiction of Santa Claus recognized in the U.S. today originated from an advertisement created by Haddon Sundblom in 1931. These ads were so successful that they continued for the next 32 years! Can you guess what product was being advertised?

That’s Santa Claus – but the story of St. Nicholas is a completely different story – almost.

I really enjoyed researching St. Nicholas in preparation for leading worship today. I took this quiz about St. Nicholas on Britannica.com and didn’t do so well – I scored a 50%, and I only did that well because I had already read some information about him before I tried the quiz! I think if I would have taken the quiz before I did any research, I would have earned a whopping 33%. So, who was St. Nicholas? How does he connect with the Christmas Story? What does he have to do with gifts? St. Nicholas was the Bishop of Myra, part of present-day Turkey, cAD 300. 

(1685) by Jan HeinschHulton Archive/Stringer/Getty Images

He was the patron saint of children and sailors, and he was known for his generosity. According toSt. Nicholas Center.org, “St. Nicholas showed us how to find Jesus in the poor, the oppressed and abused. He was devoted to charity, but charity always linked to justice.” WOW – it appears that St. Nicholas represents the best of what we strive to be here at CMCL!!

Call to Worship—Jolly Old St. Nicholas (II), verse 2– J.M. Rosenthal

Each December we await,
Come without delay,
Saint of children everywhere,
On your festive day.
You love people far and near;
Help us to prepare
For a Christmas filled with joy,
Saint, now hear our prayer.

Gathering Hymn—Solemn Stillness, VT #276

Children’s Time Invitation—Come and see, HWB #20

Children’s Time— Susan Gascho-Cooke,(In-person & Zoom only)

Offering— One story of St. Nicholas is that he used his generosity to save three girls destined to slavery because their parents had no money for their dowries. As each girl reached marrying age, he would secretly drop gold coins through the open window so that they would have a dowry large enough to be married. In the spirit of St. Nicholas, we would like to shower you with gold coins, albeit made of chocolate, during our offering time. As the first basket comes around, take a “coin,” when the second basket comes around, please drop a coin – or two or three ….

Offering Prayer Jolly Old St. Nicholas (II), verse 1– J.M. Rosenthal

Jolly Old St Nicholas
On this happy day
You bring joy and happiness,
Hear us as we say,
Teach us how to be like you
Loving, showing care;
Sharing gifts, we celebrate
Joy beyond compare.

Offertory—Cello & Viola duet performed in-person by Stock Weinstock & Christy Heatwole Kauffman 

What Child is This, VT #267
Helpless and Hungry, VT #268

Scripture— Psalm 130: 5-6

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
   and in his word I hope; 
my soul waits for the Lord
   more than those who watch for the morning,
   more than those who watch for the morning.

Sermon— “If it can’t be happy, make it beautiful,” Susan Gascho-Cooke (quoting Samuel Wells)

As I sat down to my trusty blank page to write out these words to you, my eyes started to water … that glaze of warm liquid that fills your eyes letting you know that you might start to cry. You might be wondering, why would she cry? I don’t have any bad news to share with you today … don’t worry! But being here, in this sanctuary, arouses big feelings.

Some of you may be thinking: well finally! Every other church on the planet is meeting in person again and has been for months now. Which might feel like the case in Lancaster, but there are actually other churches who’ve chosen not to meet indoors yet.

Some of you may be thinking: why risk gathering? why now? the numbers are going up again …
Some of you may feel conflicted about it … I sure do.

And I want to say, as publicly and clearly as I can, how very grateful I am for the CMCL COVID task force. We called upon them to give us guidance almost two years ago, and they have faithfully done that. We didn’t even know exactly what we were asking of them, and I sure as heck don’t think they or we thought they were making an almost 2 year commitment when they signed up.

Whatever decisions CMCL has made about responding to COVID, they have been decisions made by Council and staff, to whom the task force gave recommendations. And we’re not gathered in-person indoors today at their recommendation, but because leadership has decided to weigh more variables than just COVID risk in deciding how to gather.
So, here we are. Probably an imperfect decision. (interpret that as you wish: imperfect because it’s too little too late, or imperfect because it’s too much too soon), but I’ll be darned if I know what a perfect decision would be! All of our decision-making for the last 21 months has been imperfect: imperfect decisions made by imperfect people in an imperfect institution, in a frustratingly imperfect time on this planet.

In some ways, though, the timing of coming back together in this physical space in Advent is kind of perfect. Advent is the season of waiting … of anticipation … and we have all participated in a masterclass on waiting. Advent was a season created to reflect on Christmas

And Christmas (spoiler alert!) is about incarnation — the belief that God, the very Force and Function of Life Itself, out of frustration with virtual, remote-only connection, decided to become a part of creation, not just a grand witness to it from above; decided to become embodied, so as to be able to touch, share space, share air with us, here.
And as the story of Jesus’ life tells us, almost from day one, the choice to gather in-person, indoors with us was not, in fact a “safe” one, but it was a choice made out of desire for connection a desire I, for one, understand much more viscerally, and not just intellectually, as I perhaps once did.

But also spoiler alert! In the promise of the Spirit who was present before Jesus who came in body and who has been present since Jesus left in body we also know that God’s presence is not limited to the physical.
We have been in a long season of Advent, waiting for the miracle of in-person presence. Immanuel, God-with-us, is great, but just us-with-us feels pretty miraculous in and of itself.

The image on your bulletin was created by an artist during the pandemic reflecting on the desire for touch that the pandemic and its restrictions inspired: the reaching toward — yet tentative pause. It felt reflective to me of this time. When I imagined, early on into the pandemic, what re-gathering would look like, I imagined a full sanctuary: no masks, singing, passing the peace. I did not dream of this slow, halting, uncertain regathering, where some of us feel safe being here, some do not. Where we can be together, but with barriers and limits.

And I want you to know — in your virtual presence on so many Sundays for so long, you have represented God to me, showing me how very real “in spirit” presence is. Your presence has been felt. You have showed me that, even though I will always yearn for physical presence, that there is connection beyond the physical. I think I even understand transubstantiation now, that belief in Catholicism that Christ becomes literally present in the elements of communion. I always laughed a bit inwardly at the audacity of humans ringing a bell and believing a wafer becomes Christ (a totally inadequate description of what transubstantiation actually is). But I feel like I have experienced that, to some extent: that God’s presence surpasses the symbolic, even when nothing changes visibly.
You may feel like this is the first time in a long time that you have been in this building, but you have been here every Sunday, because I have been here, and you were with me. Let no one say that we did not gather during the pandemic just because we weren’t all here in this place.

This Sunday and next Sunday we are looking at some of the stories of the saints in Christian tradition that have shaped the way Christians have celebrated the Christmas season. Today St Nicholas, from whom some of our gifting traditions arise, and next Sunday St Lucia, of candles and light. I think human love of such stories is an expression of our yearning for incarnation … we are always longing for, looking for, and thus interpreting God’s presence with us, tangibly, in human form. And so when we witness the miraculous, the inspiring, in human action or interaction, we find it so reassuring, inspiring and comforting: “in these person’s actions, we can see God’s presence. So, let’s re-tell and re-enact, so that we all might, across the generations, experience God’s presence as the people in the story did “

In closing, I’d like to share an interesting phrase I read this week in The Christian Century, in a December 2020 reflection by Samuel Wells, an English vicar. To me, this phrase sums up much of how we have attempted to do church these too many months. And it also sums up much of the invitation to keep up our faith traditions, of gathering together, of lighting candles in our homes, of holding one another in prayer, of sticking with our commitments to justice work even in hard times, even amid imperfect decisions, even amid grief and loss and fear.
And there have been times when I have been judgmental of the overwhelming association of Christmas with gift-giving, wondering if that really coincides with the “Christ in Christmas.” But I think this statement also underscores the wisdom of St Nicholas around gift-giving — its potential and significance as a vehicle of grace and love and material resource.

So, finally getting around to the quote itself: “If it can’t be happy, make it beautiful.” Quoting Wells:

…that expression has become my template for almost every occasion when friends or congregation members face profound grief, their own mortality, or terrible distress.

As a widower plans a funeral, or as a person faces another kind of loss, I invariably return to those simple words: “I hope that, in the midst of your sorrow and the bleakness of what you’re facing, you can yet find a way to make it beautiful.”

Notice those words don’t say, “If it can’t be good.” Beauty isn’t an alternative to goodness; it isn’t a distraction from depth, seriousness, honesty, or integrity. Nor do they say, “Make it pretty.” Making it beautiful is about realizing we’re usually operating on a mundane level, where things will seldom make sense and where most things are fragile and contingent.

In the face of dismay, the best approach is to go up a level, to a realm of fittingness, recalibrated priorities, and God’s kingdom.

But making it beautiful also addresses the powerlessness at the heart of grief.

There is, it turns out, something you can do, and that is to take the wisdom, grace, or soul of what’s been lost and portray its transcendent quality in word, deed, or collective gesture.

… The pandemic has been an experience of powerlessness and sadness for most of us. It hasn’t been happy. But we can still make it beautiful.

Perhaps that is our invitation this Advent, this season in a world which is not safe in so many ways, this season in which we search for gifts to make our loved ones happy: to remind ourselves of the impossibility of happiness as a project.
God does not promise us happiness. God does not expect us to achieve it for ourselves, nor to be responsible for the happiness of anyone else. The promise of Christmas is not that Christ came to make us happy, but that Christ came so that God could simply be with us.

God is with us, in shadow and light. And expects us to be, too.
God is with us, in the most broken of moments, and in the mending and meaning-making that follow. And expects us to be, too.

As we all head into Christmas, and as we stumble into this new phase of being church again: “It hasn’t all been happy.” It won’t all be happy going forward. But together “we can still make it beautiful.”

Amen.

Song of Response—God, Whose Giving, VT #745, (In person, played by Stock & Christy)

Sharing Time—Please email your prayer requests or reflections this morning to susan@communitymennonite.org. They will be sent out by email by Monday.

Announcements—

Sending Song—Go, My Friends, In Grace, VT #810

Benediction— Jolly Old St. Nicholas, verse 3 (new words)– J.M. Rosenthal

Jolly Old St. Nicholas,
Help us be like you—
Being kind to young and old,
Shown in all we do.
Holy, happy, gentle man,
Now the stories told,
We now read and share with all
Your great legends bold.

Let us strive to be like St. Nicholas during this Advent season and all seasons — go in peace and love.

Worship Leader: Faith Cowell
Sermon: Susan Gascho-Cooke  
Song Leader: Beth Graybill
Children’s Time: Susan Gascho-Cooke
Prelude & Offertory: Stock Weinstock & Christy Heatwole Kauffman
Zoom Host/Audio: Daryl Snider/ Drew Brubaker