Advent – 28/11/21
Opening Music: ‘Midwinter Round’ by Marilisa Valtazanou
Opening: ‘Advent Hope’ based on words by Anna Blaedel and Megan Visser
This is the first Sunday of the season of Advent. It’s a season, in the Christian tradition, which looks towards the coming of the light, and recognises the transforming power of God in the world. This time of year we sing ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel’, the well-known Advent hymn, recalling that the very name ‘Emmanuel’ originally comes from the Hebrew for ‘God is With Us’.
Each week from now until Christmas, we will light a new candle on the Advent wreath, a circle of evergreens, along with each of the preceding candles. The flame of each new candle reminds us that something is happening now, but something more is still to come. The light of Advent grows brighter and brighter guiding us ever onward toward personal peace, shared joy, and more love.
And so, this Advent, we pause. We breathe. We pray.
We dig deep. We reach out. We rise up. We remember.
We vision. We sit with the pain. We stay with the trouble.
We wait, expectant. We light candles. We labour.
We open to You, and to one another,
and to the Sacred Mystery that is Emmanuel,
God-With-Us, Love Incarnate, Divinity Enfleshed.
And on this first Sunday in Advent we light the first candle
as a symbol of hope and expectation.
May we dare to open the shadowy places in our lives
to the healing light of community.
With the creative power of hope, we express our longing for peace,
and prepare our hearts to be transformed.
(video of first advent candle)
The Hope of God-With-Us does not come as guaranteed outcome,
or predetermined plan, or promise of a happy ending.
Hope cannot be imposed from on high. Hope cannot be commanded.
The Hope of God-With-Us is courageous, risky, unfolding, indeterminate.
The Hope of God-With-Us is collective, liberating us from deadly complacency.
Hope is gestating in darkness; it comes unexpectedly.
Hope invites our expectation, and demands our participation.
Prepare the way, for hope, with courage.
May Hope be birthed among, within, and through us, this Advent.
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel…
(stop sharing video)
These opening words, adapted from Anna Blaedel and Megan Visser, welcome all those who have gathered on Zoom for our Sunday service. Welcome to regular members of the congregation, to friends and visitors with us today – also those who might be listening to our podcast, or watching on YouTube, at a later date. For those who don’t know me, my name is Jane Blackall, and I’m Ministry Coordinator. Today I’m playing a supporting role – our service will be led by my dear chum Jef Jones – recently retired Lay Pastor of Brighton Unitarian Church.
If you are here for the first time today – we’re especially glad to you have you with us – welcome! I hope you find something of what you need here – a bit of consolation or spiritual insight perhaps. Please do hang around afterwards for a chat or drop us an email to introduce yourself if you’d like. Or you might think about coming to one of our small-group gatherings during the week as they’re a good way to get to know people more organically and get a rounded sense of the congregation. And if you’re a regular here – thank you for all that you do to welcome all who come each Sunday. Even on Zoom, we have a part to play in co-creating this sacred space, this sense of community. So whoever you are, however you are, know you are welcome in this space, just as you are.
As we always say, feel free to do what you need to do to be comfortable this hour – it’s always lovely to see your faces in the gallery and get a sense of our togetherness as a community – but we know for some it will feel more comfortable to keep your camera mostly-off and that’s fine. Similarly there’ll be opportunities to join in as we go along there’s no compulsion to do so. You can quietly lurk with our blessing – you know how to find us if you want to be in touch.
Chalice Lighting: ‘New Light’ by Charles A. Howe (adapted)
I’ll light our chalice now, as we do each Sunday, and at other times when we gather. This simple ritual connects us with Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists the world over, and reminds us of the historic and progressive religious tradition of which this gathering is part.
We light this chalice to affirm that new light
is ever waiting to break through to enlighten our ways:
That new truth is ever waiting to break through to illumine our minds:
And that new love is ever waiting to break through to warm our hearts.
May we be open to this light, this truth, this love, and to the rich possibilities that it brings us.
Candles of Joy and Concern:
Each week when we gather together, whether it’s in person at the church in Kensington or here as an online congregation, we share a simple ritual of candles of joy and concern, an opportunity to light a candle and share something that is in our heart with the community. So we’ve got a good few minutes now, for anyone who would like to do so, to light a candle (real or imaginary) and say a few words – in the spirit of prayer – about what it represents.
When you’re ready to speak, unmute your microphone so we can all hear you, and then re-mute yourself once you’ve finished. If you are going to speak, please be aware of how long you’re speaking for, so that there’s time for others to say something too. Let’s leave a pause between one candle and the next, so we can honour what’s been shared. And don’t worry too much if two people end up speaking at the same time, or there’s a technical hitch of some sort – these things happen on Zoom – please do persevere! At this point it’d be nice, if you can, to switch to gallery view so we can all see everybody.
I’ve got one more candle here and – as we often do – I’m going to light that candle to represent all those joys and concerns that we might be holding silently in our heart today.
Let’s take a moment now to think of all those joys and concerns we have heard expressed… and let’s hold them – and each other – in compassion and loving-kindness as we move into an extended time of prayer. I’m going to hand over to Jef to lead our prayers this morning.
Prayer: by Jef Jones
when we try to define you, to describe you,
we learn that our language is limited.
But Love knows no limits.
With forgiveness and courage
may we seek to love one another,
to treat ourselves and others
with compassion and respect.
hold us when we are in pain,
hold us in your love,
and hear our prayer for those we care for:
that they too be held in your love.
We pray for justice in the world
may its brokenness be healed
may all conflicts be resolved in peace and in justice
We pray too for the living world
may its habitats and creatures flourish.
Help us to know you, God of All.
In moments of joy and sorrow,
in moments of pain and pleasure,
in moments of fear and hope,
in the ordinary moments of each day,
help us to know you.
And may we know our place;
not grand and all-powerful,
not small and meaningless,
but dignified and free,
each of us with our own power
Let us be still together
Spirit of Life and Love
we give thanks for the fellowship of our online gathering.
We give thanks for the communion of our shared stillness.
May we be restored and affirmed,
may we be strengthened to meet the coming weeks.
Hymn: ‘O Come O Come Emmanuel’ (Kensington Unitarians 2018)
Time for our first of our two advent hymns, ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel’; both of our hymns today are recordings of the Kensington congregation singing back at the church in years gone by so please excuse any coughing or rustling you can hear. The words will appear on screen so that you can sing along – or you might prefer just to listen – we’ll do our best to make sure you’re all muted throughout so nobody will hear you.
O come, O come, Emmanuel, and with your captive children dwell.
Give comfort to all exiles here, and to the aching heart bid cheer.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come within as Love to dwell.
O come, you Splendour very bright, as joy that never yields to might.
O come, and turn all hearts to peace, that greed and war at last shall cease.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come within as Truth to dwell.
O come, you Dayspring, come and cheer our spirits by your presence here.
And dawn in every broken soul as vision that can see the whole.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come within as Light to dwell.
O come, you Wisdom from on high, from depths that hide within a sigh,
To temper knowledge with our care, to render every act a prayer.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come within as Hope to dwell.
Introduction to Meditation by Jef Jones:
Some time now for meditation and for more stillness. We will have about three minutes of stillness which will be followed by some lovely music from Marilisa. So let’s prepare ourselves for stillness. You may wish to take a moment to centre yourself. A moment to breathe and still yourself in the sacred space of our online gathering. To take us into a time of stillness some words from Thomas Merton
‘And the deepest level of communication is not communication but communion. It is wordless. It is beyond words. And it is beyond speech. Not that we discover a new unity. We discover an older unity. My dears we are already one. But we imagine that we are not. And what we have to discover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are.’
Let us be still.
Silence: 3 minutes silence accompanied by advent candle video
Musical Interlude: ‘O Come O Come Emmanuel’ performed my Marilisa Valtazanou
Advent Sermon by Jef Jones:
I’d like to say a few words about Advent and I’d like to begin with this poem by R. S. Thomas. He was a Welsh poet and priest writing and working in the twentieth century.
‘Kneeling’ by R. S. Thomas
Moments of great calm,
Kneeling before an altar
Of wood in a stone church
In summer, waiting for the God
To speak; the air a staircase
For silence; the sun’s light
Ringing me, as though I acted
A great rôle. And the audiences
Still; all that close throng
Of spirits waiting, as I,
For the message.
Prompt me, God;
But not yet. When I speak,
Though it be you who speak
Through me, something is lost.
The meaning is in the waiting.
‘The meaning is in the waiting’ he says and although the poem is set in the summer I think of that line every year at the beginning of Advent. In the Christian calendar the weeks between today and Christmas are a time of waiting: we wait for the birth of God in the form of a little baby. In the neo-pagan calendar we are also waiting: we wait for the Winter Solstice, for the rebirth of the Sun. From the Solstice onwards the days lengthen, albeit by tiny increments each day.
R. S. Thomas was by all accounts an austere and rather difficult man and this poem is typically challenging. What meaning is there exactly in waiting? How can we wait with meaning? And how can we learn to wait in a culture of instant gratification? How can we wait with meaning when our culture encourages us not to? When we are trained to believe that we can get what we want, more or less when we want it and without any moral repercussions whatsoever for ourselves, for other people or for the natural world?
So this is my question for the first Sunday in Advent; how can we spend this these Advent weeks in spiritual preparation? How can we wait in humility, in trust and in stillness? I have a few ideas I’d like to share
Christmas of course is a time for gifts, and this can be one of the loveliest aspects of the festive season; choosing and receiving and giving gifts with love and delight. But over Advent you might want to think about what your personal gifts are. In what ways are you gifted? What is it that you do with flair and a sense of satisfaction? What do you do that makes your soul sing? And what might you want to contribute to the people around you, to your community, to the world over the coming year? What time and skills and energy do you have that you would like to share. How might you do this with intention, with a sense of it being spiritually right, of it being congruent with your beliefs and your values? During Advent you might like to quietly explore this question: in 2022 what will be your gift to the world?
Waiting of course doesn’t have to be entirely passive. An old friend of mine had a personal spiritual practice for Advent; each day he used to give something away. It was not a practice of self-denial but a practice of gratitude. It was his way, he said, of thanking God for coming into his life. One day he would take something to Oxfam, another he would write a letter for Amnesty. He would call a friend he knew was struggling, he would make a small donation to a charity, or go out picking up litter for half an hour. These were quite deliberately modest things that he did, because he said, he wanted to honour the smallness of that infant in the manger. It was his way of honouring not an almighty God but God as a baby.
I’m interested in the baby-ness of baby Jesus and I think when it comes to Christmas we do sometimes throw the baby out with the bath water. In the middle of all that tinsel and Christmas cake, encouraged perhaps by the Bible we can overlook two aspects of the story – the realness of Mary’s pregnancy: did she have morning sickness early on, how tiring was it to have to sit of a donkey – Nazareth to Bethlehem is seventy miles – what of her fatigue? We also forget that at the very heart of the story God is a baby. Babies are so much fun and they’re such hard work and they have so much to teach us about the joys and the sacrifices of love. For what it’s worth I’ve never believed that babies are helpless. Each one has a very powerful effect on the world they’re born into and I believe that each one is a sacred. But they are dependent on the people around them for their safety, their nourishment, their shelter: and for love too. They need to be cherished and by the way I’d like to remind you that you used to be one of these truly magical beings and in some ways your needs are not so different. You might spend some time this Advent thinking about what you depend on other people for? And how are you grateful? What shape does your thankfulness take? How do you express your appreciation for the food, the shelter, the love in your life?
Babies are gloriously unembarrassed about expressing their needs and I wonder are there are things you would like – humbly – to ask for from other people: not out of entitlement but out of a sense of interconnection, out of wishing rather than demanding. Is there something that you would like from the people around you? Is there some kind of support, some kind of time, some kind of wisdom, some kind of practical help you might ask for from your family or your friends. You might think about this over Advent and at some point in the New Year give your self the gift of requesting it.
My last suggestion about how we might prepare ourselves for Christmas is this: how about doing nothing at all? How about giving yourself a break .This advent how about regularly putting aside all straining and striving to be spiritual. If you’re younger or fitter than I am, you might want to kneel, as R.S. Thomas does in a holy place – but you might just sit in your favourite chair and do nothing…don’t pray or meditate or read or listen to music, don’t try to think high thoughts don’t worry about improving yourself – simply trust the stillness, surrender to it, trust the sacred in the stillness.
Of course there is always a lot to do. So many improving things, so many interesting things, so much to learn and enjoy. And the world needs changing in so many ways: there is so much to campaign for, and so many people to love and look after and of course all of this is all rewarding and righteous and important.
But just try doing nothing.
Because God is always with us. The Christmas story is so beautiful, so rich with wisdom and poetry, all of these very diverse people journeying towards God. But there is a mystical truth even lovelier than all of these quest narratives. God is with us.
It’s right that we should think about how we make ourselves ready for the divine but the sacred is not in some other place – not in the corner shop, not down the launderette, or on the tube, instead of being with us. It is we who place ourselves apart from God not the other way round. Pilgrimages and spiritual development courses and retreats all have their excellent place in enabling us to grow in our spirituality but God is entirely available to you right now. All the mystery and the love and the joy and the healing and the peace and the beauty and the wholeness and the holiness are with us right now this morning.
God is always with us. Amen.
Hymn: ‘People Look East’ (Kensington Unitarians 2018)
We come now to our second advent hymn, ‘People Look East’. Once again this is a recording of the Kensington congregation singing from a few years ago. As before the words will be up on your screen in a moment and we’ll try to keep you all muted.
People, look east. The time is near
of the crowning of the year.
Make your house fair as you are able,
trim the hearth and set the table.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the Guest, is on the way.
Furrows, be glad. Though earth is bare,
one more seed is planted there.
Give up your strength the seed to nourish,
that in course the flow’r may flourish.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the Rose, is on the way.
Stars, keep the watch. When night is dim,
one more light the bowl shall brim,
shining beyond the frosty weather,
bright as sun and moon together.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the Star, is on the way.
Just a few brief announcements this morning: Thanks so much to Jef for leading worship today, thanks to Jeannene for hosting, and to Marilisa for a lovely selection of musical offerings.
Don’t forget we’ll have virtual coffee-time after the service to chat if you’d like. If that’s not your thing, as I said at the start of the service, do get in touch via email if you’d like to introduce yourself, as it’s harder to get to know people during online services. And if you can bear it we like to take a group photo after the closing music so stick around. We’ll be back next week on Zoom at 10.30am with a congregational service with contributions – so far – from Marianne, Marc, Maria and Rita – reflecting on the Gift of Presence. Feel free to share the link with friends.
As ever there are a number of opportunities to connect congregationally in the week ahead: Coffee morning 10.30 Tuesday – this week hosted by John – newcomers always welcome. Heart & Soul, our contemplative spiritual gathering – on ‘Slow Down’ – tonight and Friday at 7pm. Even if you’ve not been before it’s never too late to start. The congregation very much has a life beyond Sunday mornings; we encourage you to keep in touch during the week, drop each other a line, let’s look out for each other as best we can, especially while we’re still mostly-online.
We’re still looking for volunteers to be involved in a ‘virtual choir’ singing Christmas Carols to include in our Christmas Eve service. You don’t have to be a brilliant singer! The idea is that this is a fun community singalong. If you want to be involved please get in touch and I’ll send out instructions by next weekend. All you’ll need to do is video yourself singing a few well-known carols – we’ll send you the words and some guide tracks to sing along to – and then me and Marilisa will put them all together into a composite video. We can coach you! The more the merrier so drop me an email if you want to be a part of this fun community project.
An advance notice : As part of moving towards hybrid in-person services we are going to change our service time from next Sunday to a 10.30am start. As mentioned last week we are currently planning to hold an in-person Sunday service on Sunday 12th December. This may not be a fully hybrid service, by which I mean we may only manage to offer a passively-streamed experience for those joining in from home, because it doesn’t look like we’re going to have all the necessary technology installed in time. You’ll still be able to view the service on zoom as usual but for this week only you may not be able to fully interact with the candles of joy and concern for example. Apologies for this. We’re doing our best and I sincerely hope we’ll have the full hybrid system up and running early in the New Year so that everyone can participate as equals regardless of where they’re joining us from. I’ll be looking for a number of helpers to take on stewarding roles that day. Keep an eye out for a special update message towards the end of the month with more details.
And we’re hoping that after the service on December 12th there will be a GreenSpirit ‘Nature in the Park’ walk led by David Carter. Details of this are being finalised so look out for next week’s email.
We’ve just got our closing words and another song from Marilisa, a traditional advent song, to finish now. So I invite you to select gallery view at this point, if you can, so we can all see each other for the closing words and get a sense of our community-and-connectedness as we close.
Benediction: based on words by Mandie McGlynn
Everything is about to change.
And it already has.
It will be. It was. It is.
The dawn you eagerly await
to end the long, cold darkness
is already full sun far off in the east.
Yet even after light’s return spring is months away.
Thirty long years pass after His birth
before the Messiah comes.
Stones of justice have been tossed in the lake
but their ripples have not yet arrived,
have not resolved into the kin-dom
already present among us.
While we wait, let us seek
—in the darkness of the Now and Not Yet—
for the treasures God has hidden there,
the riches of the secret places only found by night.
This is what is promised us:
the wheel of life turns ever on
and darkness is a path to joy.
May it be so, for the greater good of all. Amen.
Closing Music: ‘Gabriel’s Message’ performed by Marilisa Valtazanou
Jef Jones and Jane Blackall
28th November 2021