WORSHIP THIS WEEK: This Sunday, December 11, we celebrate the Third Sunday of Advent. This week we turn to Mary’s story – the stunning word she receives from the angel Gabriel and the powerful way that she responds. Join us for worship, either in person or via livestream here: https://youtu.be/Z-YSB5FJy9s
ADVENT MIDWEEK WORSHIP: Our Advent midweek worship continues on Thursday, December 15 from 7:00-7:30pm with a beautiful service that uses Holden Evening Prayer to nourish our weary souls. Together we’ll ponder the mysteries of the season and root ourselves in the hope, love, peace, and joy represented by the Advent candles. Thursday, December 22, we will have a Service of Comfort and Hope to help us carry the grief that we often experience at this time of year.
November 6, 2022
In earlier eras, a bell would be sounded immediately after someone died.[i] One purpose of the bell was to let the community know who had passed away. So tolling the bell was a kind of telling – a telling of the news of death. The system varied from region to region, but it was often common for two strikes of the bell to indicate a woman had died; three strikes signaled that a man had died. Tenor bells, ones that sounded a lower note, indicated an adult’s death. Higher treble bells were used when a child died. Then, after a pause, there would be one stroke of the bell for every year of the person’s age.
This practice of sounding the bells continued in some parts of the country well into the 1900’s, especially in places where telephones and other modern forms of communication were slower to arrive.
Amanda Held Opelt, in her book that explores historic rituals for death and grieving, quotes someone from Cades Cove, Tennessee, who describes a moment when the death knell was sounded. The person writes:
You can feel the silence pass over the community as all activity is stopped and the number of rings is counted. One, two, three—it must be the Myer’s baby that has the fever. No, it’s still tolling—four, five, six. There is another pause at twenty—could that be Molly Shields? Her baby is due at any time now—no, it’s still tolling. Will it never stop? Thirty-eight, thirty-nine, another pause—who? It couldn’t be Ben; he was here just yesterday; said he was feeling fit as a fiddle—no, it’s starting again. Seventy, seventy-one, seventy-two. Silence. You listen, but there is no sound—only silence. Isaac Tipton. He has been ailing for two weeks now. It must be Isaac.
You can see how this system only works when people know each other. The community has to be small enough that people know each other’s names and ages, know when someone has been sick, know how to look out for each other in times of grief.
We will ring the bell later this morning as we read the names of the saints who have gone to be with God. And though we didn’t know all of them personally, we can look around this morning and know that all of us carry some kind of grief. We can hear that bell as a summons to be tender with each other. That’s part of what it means to be community together.
Jesus tells us something about living as a community in today’s gospel. As he talks to those who are gathered for what’s often called The Sermon on the Plain, it seems at first as if he’s sorting people into two categories. Over here are the lucky people. They’re the ones who, in spite of being poor or hungry or sad, are blessed. They’re going to receive what they need – food, laughter, a place in the kingdom of God. And over here, Jesus seems to say, are the people who might seem like they’ve got it good now, but later they’re going to be hungry and sad.
The word for “blessed” – makarios in the Greek – doesn’t really mean “unrelentingly happy.” It means more like “unburdened” or “satisfied.”[ii] And the word for “woe” doesn’t mean “cursed” or “unhappy.” It’s more like the word “yikes.” Jesus is calling the comfortable to pay attention. Jesus is at once promising those facing difficulty that their challenges will not break them and warning those whose life is easier to “look out,” to make sure that they don’t get complacent about their situation or that of their struggling neighbors.
I suspect that Jesus knows that most of us will confront both blessings and woes in our lives. There are times when we are hungry and broke, times when we’re almost crushed by grief. There are times when we’re scared about what the next week will bring, and we wonder how we’re going to make it. And there are times when things are good, when we have all that we really need, and laughter comes easily. And because life is what it is, those times can be jumbled up together. So part of what Jesus is calling us to do is to pay attention to what we are feeling – to recognize that life is rarely pure joy or unrelenting sorrow. It’s an odd mixture of both.
Given the often-strange emotional landscape of our lives, Jesus then tells us how to be community for and with each other. In a life that includes both blessings and woes, delights and dilemmas, happiness and hardship, how do we live like the flawed saints that we are?
This is where it gets hard. Jesus tells us to love our enemies, to bless those who curse us. To share what we have, offering both coat and shirt to those in need. To do to others as we would have them do to us.
Jesus is, quite simply, telling us to take care of each other. If we have enough food, enough influence, enough happiness in a given moment, then we can be the way that someone else is blessed by receiving what they need. I met a woman recently whose son Nathan died tragically decades ago. She thinks about him all the time and she said this: “Time has given me more land on the other side of Nathan’s death on which to stand.” She makes a point of being with other people whose children have died, not to assume that their anguish will look exactly like hers, but to help them know that they are not alone.
Jesus is well-aware of the things that separate us, from the isolation of grief to the conflicts that we’re so good at creating. We are sometimes better at creating adversaries than making friends. Jesus’ reminder to love our enemies is a good thing to remember as we head into this election week. We remember that we are all part of the same human family, that no matter how much we’re inclined to see others as enemies, we are all just people. People who cry and laugh, people who can savor a good meal and hunger for what we don’t have, people who cheer for our favorite teams and are crushed when the game doesn’t turn out the way we hoped, people who tuck our children in at night and dream of a better world for them, people who want to love and be loved.
We live in community. A communion of saints, created by God and blessed by God so that we in turn can be a blessing to each other.
I attended the opening night of the Dodge Poetry Festival a couple of weeks ago, which involved about 25 poets reading one or two poems each. Poet Patricia Smith read near the end, and before she started, she gestured to her colleagues, all the poets who had read that night and who are sitting together near the stage. She said: “This is the community of witnesses. Some of us boldly love each other. Some of us reluctantly love each other. Some of us don’t know we love each other. But we love each other.”
We can say the same about the family of God: “This is the community of witnesses – witnesses to what God has done and continues to do. Some of us boldly love each other. Some of us reluctantly love each other. Some of us don’t yet know we love each other. But we love each other.” Thanks be to God for that. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i] Opelt, Amanda Held. A Hole in the World (pp. 149-151). Worthy. Kindle Edition.
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Join the fun this summer as we experience the ride of a lifetime with God!
Rafters will explore how to serve God and God’s mission for their lives. Rolling River Rampage VBS is for children who will be 4 years old by October 1, 2018 with the oldest completing Grade 5 in June.
Monday through Thursday, July 16-19, 9:30 am – 12:15 pm
Click here for registration form: