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Sermons at First Parish Church

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Reading for December 4

Blessing the Door, by Jan Richardson

First let us say
a blessing
upon all who have
entered here before
us.

You can see the sign
of their passage
by the worn place
where their hand rested
on the doorframe
as they walked through,
the smooth sill
of the threshold
where they crossed.
Press your ear
to the door
for a moment before
you enter

and you will hear
their voices murmuring
words you cannot
quite make out
but know
are full of welcome.

On the other side
these ones who wait—
for you,
if you do not
know by now—
understand what
a blessing can do

how it appears like
nothing you expected

how it arrives as
visitor,
outrageous invitation,
child;

how it takes the form
of angel
or dream;

how it comes
in words like
How can this be?
and
lifted up the lowly;

how it sounds like
in the wilderness
prepare the way.

Those who wait
for you know
how the mark of
a true blessing
is that it will take you
where you did not
think to go.

Once through this door
there will be more:
more doors
more blessings
more who watch and
wait for you

but here
at this door of
beginning
the blessing cannot
be said without you.

So lay your palm
against the frame
that those before you
touched

place your feet
where others paused
in this entryway.

Say the thing that
you most need
and the door will
open wide

and by this word
the door is blessed
and by this word
the blessing is begun
from which
door by door
all the rest
will come.

Say the Thing You Most Need and the Door will Open Wide (Advent Two)


Rev. Elea Kemler
First Parish Church of Groton

Beginning when my children were about three years old, I began getting them an Advent calendar. I remember that year they were three I thought they might be old enough to understand a little bit about waiting for baby Jesus to get born. And all went well. We opened the doors each night to reveal sweet, chubby angels and shepherds and sweet, chubby manger animals with smiles on their faces. The final door revealed the sweetest and chubbiest baby Jesus lying on a bed of hay. As I have mentioned to some of you before, the problem was that Jesus was pictured with a bright yellow halo around his head, leading one of my children – I can’t remember which one – to ask brightly why baby Jesus had a plate on his head. As I have also mentioned, I failed utterly, being a tired minister/mother during the Christmas season and not equal to the challenge of trying to explain the concept of the incarnation to three-year-olds. So I told them the halo was a yellow hat. I think this was the first time I was completely theologically perplexed by my children, though it has certainly not been the last.

A couple of years ago they discovered that Trader Joe’s sells Advent calendars with pieces of chocolate behind the little doors, so of course that is what they are now desperate for. They start asking for the chocolate calendar in early October. At first I insisted on a religious themed calendar to go along with the chocolate one but then I realized it didn’t matter. They already know the story of Jesus getting born and they seem to be able to hold that story alongside the one about Santa and the elves. The important part of the Advent calendar for them is the expectancy, the counting of the days. But mostly, the part they love is the experience of opening all those tiny doors. And I think this is a good way for all of us to think about Advent, as a time for searching for tiny doors and then opening them. Advent is a time for opening doors, doors which reveal a glimpse of something, a small bit of a picture, a tiny bite of sweetness, doors which open into rooms we have not been in before, or rooms we have not visited for a very long time.

Advent is the time in the Christian liturgical year of the four weeks of waiting before Christmas; it is the time of waiting for the infant Jesus to be born. In Christian theology, it is through Jesus that God chose to incarnate, to become fully human and enter the world. In our Unitarian Universalist faith tradition, we focus on two aspects of the story: we focus on the adult that Jesus grew up to be and on the message of radical, inclusive love that he brought into the world. We also focus on the possibility of each human being bringing holiness into the world. We imagine each one of us as an incarnation, so to speak. Each one of us has that same divine spark within us. This is why we ask parents of the babies in our congregation to hand them over to play the baby Jesus in our Paper Bag Nativity Pageant. We could use a doll and, if there is crying, we hand the real baby back to her or his parents and substitute the plastic baby because no one should suffer for the Christmas Pageant. But real babies are best. They are best because it is good for us, important for us, to see those babies getting older and to think, “oh, last year Hugh was Jesus.” Or, “oh, remember when Zoe was small enough to be baby Jesus and look at her now!” In other words, baby Jesus is all of our children. Baby Jesus is all of our children because all of our children are holy, full of truth and grace and wisdom and able to change the world for the better.

So Advent is the time of waiting and of preparing ourselves for this ancient story to unfold again. It is the time for stillness, for pondering as we are told the young girl Mary pondered when she learned of her strange and surprising pregnancy. Advent is the time for standing at the window, for watching the sky at dawn and sunset and for coming to know something about our own deep yearnings, about the quiet, stirrings deep within our own hearts. These things are gentle and subtle. They are hard to hear above the noise and busyness of most of our daily lives. Sometimes I wonder if it is the fear of stillness, the fear of waiting and pondering that has led to the almost mass hysteria of the holiday season in our culture. Just when our bodies seem to want to go into hibernation, just when we yearn to become quiet and reflective and go to bed early, we are invited into this frenzy of shopping and decorating and parties and noise and activity. To me, this is strangely at odds with the purpose of Advent. It seems like all the lights and parties would be much better later on – in February for example – when we have started doubting that the winter will ever end and the snow is grey and dirty and piled up everywhere. Advent needs quiet and time for reflection and I urge you to find some of it, however you can.

I think often these days of the beautiful words by Rainer Maria Rilke: I love the dark hours of my being. My mind deepens into them. There I can find, as in old letters, the days of my life, already lived, and held like a legend and understood. [from Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy]

The poet Theodore Roethke writes, “In a dark time, the eye begins to see.” [from In a Dark Time]. What it is that our eyes might begin to see if we let them adjust to the dark? What might we begin to see or hear or feel if we took the invitation that Advent offers us into stillness and quiet, if we didn’t run so quickly from the darkness and silence and what might be waiting for us there. What would happen if, instead, we searched for our own tiny Advent doors and opened them? What glimpse of holiness, of mystery, of sweetness might we find? What picture might be revealed to us in tiny fragments?

The poet and visual artist Jan Richardson keeps a blog every Advent full of her original images and poetry inspired by the stories and scripture of the season. In her first entry for this year she writes, “So today, we begin with a door, and with a blessing. As you stand on the edge of Advent, here at the door, what do you hope for the season ahead? How will you keep yourself – your eyes, your ears, your heart – open for [the Holy] who has been waiting for you?” Jan Richardson writes:

First let us say
a blessing
upon all who have
entered here before
us.

You can see the sign
of their passage
by the worn place
where their hand rested
on the doorframe
as they walked through,
the smooth sill
of the threshold
where they crossed.
Press your ear
to the door
for a moment before
you enter

and you will hear
their voices murmuring
words you cannot
quite make out
but know
are full of welcome.

On the other side
these ones who wait—
for you,
if you do not
know by now—
understand what
a blessing can do

how it appears like
nothing you expected

how it arrives as
visitor,
outrageous invitation,
child;

how it takes the form
of angel
or dream;

how it comes
in words like
How can this be?
and
lifted up the lowly;

how it sounds like
in the wilderness
prepare the way.

Those who wait
for you know
how the mark of
a true blessing
is that it will take you
where you did not
think to go.

Once through this door
there will be more:
more doors
more blessings
more who watch and
wait for you

but here
at this door of
beginning
the blessing cannot
be said without you.

So lay your palm
against the frame
that those before you
touched

place your feet
where others paused
in this entryway.

Say the thing that
you most need
and the door will
open wide

and by this word
the door is blessed
and by this word
the blessing is begun
from which
door by door
all the rest
will come.

[All Jan Richardson’s writings come from her blog, “The Advent Door”]

Jan Richardson says, and I deeply believe this is true, that the mark of a true blessing is that it will take you somewhere unexpected, somewhere you did not think to go on your own. Blessings appear in strange and unexpected disguises as well. They come in all sorts of forms – as dreams and invitations, children, visitors, love, holiday cars, poems and old songs. Sometimes they wear the face of loss, change, even death.

“Say the thing that / you most need / and the door will open wide / and by this word the door is blessed / and by this word / the blessing is begun … and all the rest will come.” What is the blessing you yearn to receive this year? What is the blessing you yearn to give to another? What is the thing you most need to say and have not yet said? What is the shape of this blessing, the sound of it, the feel of it? Several years ago the blessing I received was when my children fell in love with our Christmas tree. They named the tree Green and their passion for Green grew daily. They took turns feeding it cups of water in the morning and evening. We learned that Isabel, like all the women in my family, has a tendency to overfeed. They sang songs to Green and told it Good Morning and Good Night with great sweetness. They discovered, don’t ask me how, that Green was a girl and that Green liked to kiss so they held their round cheeks up to the branches for kisses and then kissed the branches back. The tenderness of all of this practically broke my heart, especially since I was acutely aware of what my children had not yet realized – that Green’s life span was going to be pretty short. And because I am a mother who worries, I worried about the pain of goodbye. What was so interesting was that when the time came for Green to be, how shall we say, cremated on the town’s bonfire pile, the kids were completely and utterly fine.

The blessing for me that year was in the learning that I always want to hold onto what is not graspable. I always want things to stay even though I know that love, joy, beauty, grace, all of these things are not permanent. We inevitably lose things and people we adore. And yet, if we want to be fully alive, fully human, we will need to love. We will need to risk over and over. We will need to open the doors that present themselves to us and move through those doors to receive our blessing, even though we never know how things will end. Even though we never know where everything will lead, even though we can’t see the whole picture, and even if we do get to see it, the picture is always changing.

One of the poets of our own congregation, Melinda Green, writes about the lessons she has learned from the Advent calendar this way:

When I was a girl, I’d wake up each December morning thinking about my Advent calendar, eager to find the day’s numbered door hidden in the colorful Christmas picture. What would be revealed? Would it be a picture of a random object like a ball or a trumpet? Or would the revealed image become integrated into the big picture, like an orange inside the toe of a stocking or a mouse in the base of a grandfather clock? Every year my scary, alcoholic grandmother sent me an Advent calendar in an oversized envelope. The calendars (and the annual subscriptions to Seventeen magazine) are my only fond memories of her. Funny how families and Advent calendars can be like each other – an unpredictable combination of beauty and disappointment, joy and longing, wondrous contradictions and surprises.

I grew up, my grandmother died, and now I buy my own Advent calendars. In recent years, I’ve started sending Advent calendars to the young college students in my life. Amidst their studying, stress and creeping Christmas homesickness, I hope that opening the numbered doors offers them a brief moment of stillness, peace. And it occurred to me, finally, distinctly, consciously, to try to live my life as if every plain-numbered-square day of every month of my kitchen-calendar life contains an invisible numbered door. To watch for surprises lurking beyond the meetings and appointments and obligations heaped up on any given day.

I’ve discovered there are surprises all around me, many joyful, lovely or inspirational, some shocking, disappointing or painful:

Black Angus cattle on a smooth green hillside, all facing the same direction, broad backs soaking up the warm noontime sun, grazing out the dark round dinner plates of their own shadows

Neighborhood children playing “fort” by the side of the road, pails filled with mud and grass clippings and sticks hanging in the low branches of a young pine

Roadkill, especially pets and turtles

Passing an open window and catching a whiff of someone’s breakfast cooking

The “thwock” of a baseball caught in the sweet spot of the glove

The moment on someone’s face when they have lost the ability to keep from crying

The friendly wave of a stranger mistaking you for someone they know

The voice on the phone saying, “I have cancer”

Seeing the quarter moon during the daytime

A child at the public library dragging his tongue up the entire banister while his mother walked ahead of him without noticing

The face of a child who has just seen her first card trick

So I practice keeping alert for each day’s invisible numbered door. I believe it must be revealed to me – I can’t make it happen merely by wishing or willing it. All I can do is keep engaging in that intentional waiting of the Advent season. It’s kind of trusting that something – though I know not what – will happen – though I know not when. And when the “something” is revealed I sometimes get a glimpse of the (hopefully long) calendar of my life. Not knowing the day of my death, nor what will be revealed behind the ultimate door, motivates me. I feel motivated to continue practicing attentiveness, to keep myself open to the present arriving over and over, whether soothing or uncomfortable, gleeful or gruesome. I am motivated to begin each day, eager, curious, expectant, observing the constantly shifting images, smells, tastes, sounds and sensations that comprise the big picture of my unique and wondrous life. [“The Advent Door” by Melinda Green, used with author’s permission]

May each one of us seek and open the doors of this Advent season. May we say the thing we most need and see the door before us open wide. And from this all the rest will come, that we might be blessed and that we might also be a blessing in these days of waiting.

grad-rainbow

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