Recording of our September 20, 2020 online worship service
This is the original work of the Reverend Mandy Beal (firstname.lastname@example.org), unless otherwise attributed.
Good morning, and welcome to Birmingham Unitarian Church! I am the Reverend Mandy Beal, this congregation’s Senior Minister. I am joined in worship leadership by our Co-Directors of Music Ministry, Abha and Steven Dearing and Worship Associate Tony Kubien. We also have technical support from our Communications Coordinator, Sara Constantakis and Zoom Greeter Mary Jo Ebert.
BUC is a spiritual home for all people of good will. We believe in justice and hospitality and have earned such designations from the Unitarian Universalist Association. We are a Green Sanctuary Congregation, which means that we continually educate ourselves and take action to protect our environment. We are also a Welcoming Congregation, a term that means we are intentionally inclusive of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer individuals and families. Our commitment to both of these programs was renewed this year. And although there is no official UUA designation for racial justice, we are deeply committed to that work, as well.
Our worship services are hosted on Zoom every Sunday morning at 10:30 and then later posted on Facebook. After the service, we invite you to stay for a virtual coffee hour. If you are worshiping us for the first time today, we extend a special welcome to you. We hope that you’ll stay after the service and get to know us.
We have one announcement this morning. 8th grade Coming of Age classes begin this afternoon. Our high school youth group, GUUSH, will begin meetings today, as well. Both groups meet at 1pm and there are links on our website. If you haven’t already, please go to our website to register your K-12 graders for our religious education program.
Thank you, again, for joining us this morning, or whenever you’re watching this. Although we are not together physically, we are together in spirit, and it is good to be together again.
And with that, our service will begin.
We worship from our separate homes, but we are joined by a multitude of Unitarian Universalists in lighting our chalice with words from Lois Van Leer:
We light this chalice on the brink of a new year
Letting go of what has been
Open and hopeful for what may come
Renewed, restored, ready
To live Life fully anew
May we move forward with intention.
“A New Year for Beloved Community” by Rev. Debra Haffner
Happy new year!
Happy new year for our beloved community.
Happy new school year.
Happy New Year, La Shana Tova, to those of you from Jewish backgrounds, as you celebrate Rosh Hashanah
We gather together at the start of this new year
As people of many ages
As people of many sexual orientations and gender identities
As people of many races and ethnicities
As people of many theologies and religious backgrounds.
Woven together in our love for this community
With our hopes and dreams and prayers for the year before us.
With our hearts and minds and spirits ready to be touched by the year before us.
With our hands and time and talents ready to be offered in the year before us.
We gather together at the start of this new year
With gratitude and love
For those who have come before us
For those who stand here with us
May it be a good year. May it be a sweet year.
Come, let us worship together.
Our world has changed so much this year, but BUC’s mission remains. Our mission is to create a free and welcoming religious community that encourages lives of integrity, learning, service and joy. To this end, we continue to offer worship, fellowship opportunities, social justice programming, and religious education.
The care and stewardship of this community and our mission is in your hands. So let there be an offering for support of this Beloved Community and our good works. Contributions can be made through our website and through Venmo, or a check in the mail. In an act of love and support for our congregation, I invite you to give generously.
Joys and Sorrows
From Kaye Rittinger - Yesterday was my birthday. I’m happy to report I am in good health and recovering nicely from my second arm surgery.
From Mary Samal - Rolland Vriesenga was admitted to the hospital with neck pain and stiffness in the upper legs. After a diagnosis of some blockage in the heart and carotids, he was released with medications and advised to follow up with a cardiologist.
From Cindy Goldman - I have both a sorrow and a joy. My brother Doug had quadruple bypass surgery this past Thursday. My joy is that he came through surgery and has encouraging signs that his recovery is on track! Thank you for your thoughts and prayers for him. Happy new year!
From Walter Dean - My youngest sister died on Wednesday, after a long battle with breast cancer. Your thoughts of comfort for her family will be greatly appreciated.
A sorrow for the passing of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg - a titan of justice, a voice for minority rights, an outstanding juror; many in our community mourn her loss and worry about the changes this could bring to the Supreme Court.
Jeremiah 31: 2-17
Thus says the Lord:
The people who survived the sword
found grace in the wilderness;
when Israel sought for rest,
the Lord appeared to him from far away.
I have loved you with an everlasting love;
therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.
Again I will build you, and you shall be built,
O virgin Israel!
Again you shall take your tambourines,
and go forth in the dance of the merrymakers.
Again you shall plant vineyards
on the mountains of Samaria;
the planters shall plant,
and shall enjoy the fruit.
For there shall be a day when sentinels will call
in the hill country of Ephraim:
“Come, let us go up to Zion,
to the Lord our God.”
For thus says the Lord:
Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob,
and raise shouts for the chief of the nations;
proclaim, give praise, and say,
“Save, O Lord, your people,
the remnant of Israel.”
See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north,
and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth,
among them the blind and the lame,
those with child and those in labor, together;
a great company, they shall return here.
With weeping they shall come,
and with consolations I will lead them back,
I will let them walk by brooks of water,
in a straight path in which they shall not stumble;
for I have become a father to Israel,
and Ephraim is my firstborn.
Hear the word of the Lord, O nations,
and declare it in the coastlands far away;
say, “He who scattered Israel will gather him,
and will keep him as a shepherd a flock.”
For the Lord has ransomed Jacob,
and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him.
They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion,
and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord,
over the grain, the wine, and the oil,
and over the young of the flock and the herd;
their life shall become like a watered garden,
and they shall never languish again.
Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance,
and the young men and the old shall be merry.
I will turn their mourning into joy,
I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.
I will give the priests their fill of fatness,
and my people shall be satisfied with my bounty,
says the Lord.
Thus says the Lord:
A voice is heard in Ramah,
lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
she refuses to be comforted for her children,
because they are no more.
Thus says the Lord:
Keep your voice from weeping,
and your eyes from tears;
for there is a reward for your work,
says the Lord:
they shall come back from the land of the enemy;
there is hope for your future,
says the Lord:
your children shall come back to their own country.
by Rev. Mandy Beal
It’s hard to know exact timelines of the ancient world, but it’s thought that Jeremiah’s career was approximately 627 to 586 Before the Common Era. The historical context of his life was the end of Israel’s Golden Age. First, Israel fell to the Assyrian Empire in 722 BCE and became a vassal state. Then, the Babylonian Empire conquered the Assyrians and took control of their lands. Israel came under Babylonian rule around 605 BCE.
The Babylonians were harsh overlords. They prevented uprisings by deporting members of the ruling class to Babylon, using their lives as insurance against a rebellion by their family back home. Israel revolted anyway. Babylon reacted with a military campaign like nothing ever experienced by the kingdom of Israel. For the first time in its history, Jerusalem was sacked and the Temple was destroyed. Babylon doubled down on deportations after the revolt. Almost every member of the ruling class, the aristocracy, religious leaders, and people with any kind of power were sent to Babylon around 587 BCE and remained there until the empire fell. We call this period the Babylonian Exile.
This was the backdrop for most of Jeremiah’s prophetic works. Biblical prophecy is often dismissed by modern readers because it is assumed to be a supernatural divining of the future. However, a more modern analysis of Biblical prophecy understands this genre to be a type of political satire. Prophetic literature uses mystical language and fantastical imagery as a means to only slightly obscure the target of criticism. It can be assumed the people who heard these stories in their context knew the true subject was political and religious authorities, rather than a literal seven headed beast, for example. To use a modern phrase, Biblical prophecy was speaking truth to power.
One of the more notable aspects of Jeremiah’s work is when he chose to say what. In times when the political position of Israel seemed strong and the people were hopeful, Jeremiah spoke of destruction and desolation. When things were at their worst and most of the nation was exiled in Babylon, he offered hope and consolation. Today’s text is sometimes called the Book of Comfort because it is an example of Jeremiah offering consolation in a time of national mourning.
During the Babylonian Exile, the Israelites were strangers in a strange land. It was a time of fear, grief, and isolation for the Israelite diaspora. And in this heartache rose the voice of Jeremiah telling God’s everlasting love and faithfulness. The Lord says: “I have loved you with an everlasting love.” I can’t imagine that statement being well received by a broken and enslaved people. Yet that was Jeremiah’s message to them: we are hurting and confused, but there is an everlasting Love that holds us in the midst of our pain.
This passage continues with talk of wine, fruit, and oil. These were all symbols of celebration in the ancient world, associated with festivals. What’s more is the production of these foods takes time. It takes years for new vineyards, fruit trees, and olive trees to bear good fruit. Enjoying these things means being in one place long enough to plant, tend, and process them. It also means not dying while they grow. None of those are possible in a time of war or in a time of exile. These images are meant to inspire faith in a return home and a lasting peace that leads to prosperity and celebration. Here Jeremiah is signaling the end of exile; the ingathering of a scattered people. Even the blind and the lame will find their way home. The women with babes in arms and even the ones in labor; they too, will be brought home. Everyone that you know couldn’t physically make that journey - they will return. And upon that return, the entire nation will feast together, as one family, reunited after a time of suffering.
The celebration theme of this passage is connected to the concept of suffering. This isn’t an escapist fantasy of a life without pain or struggle, but rather the promise of a nation made whole after such an experience. A voice is heard in Ramah, Rachel weeping for her children. It’s important to know that Ramah was the port used by ships that carried Israel’s exiled to Babylon. Rachel is one of the most important matriarchs of the nation of Israel, and here she is imagined to weep for those forcibly removed from their homes and from each other. But even the grief and loss of a mother who watches as her children are taken into captivity is met with reassurance that those children will return.
This scripture of restoration and reconciliation is the Haftarah portion for the second day of Rosh Hashanah, which is today. The Jewish New Year is a time of celebration characterized by sweetness. Jeremiah’s vision for the world made whole is sweet, but it is no billowing cotton candy fluff. His words of healing and reconciliation are sweet, but they are of substance; they are nourishment to a suffering people in the context of a bitter reality.
This holiday, this time of sweetness, is the renewal of the cosmic order. It is the anniversary of creation and the re-crowning of God as the ruler of the Universe. For those who celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the reaffirmation of Biblical cosmology is the restoration of life it was meant to be; a peaceful, predictable life, a life that allows for planting and reaping; a sweet life. As a symbol of this sweetness, Rosh Hashanah celebrations include eating apples dipped in honey and the traditional holiday greeting is L’shanah tovah; “a sweet year.”
And in the midst of this sweetness and celebration is the remembrance of the Babylonian Exile, a reckoning with a complicated and troubled past that calls for deep introspection. The Jewish High Holidays are a time of spiritual inventory, leading to the atonement of Yom Kippur. This scripture passage holds the concepts of sweetness and introspection in a balance that is at once delicate and powerful.
Sweetness and introspection are not opposites or mutually exclusive, but experiences dependent upon each other. It has been said that Jeremiah was a prophet who always knew what time it was. It was, and always is, time for balance.
Jeremiah starts the passage with an exquisite statement of balance: The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness. This is a call back to the exodus from slavery in Egypt. Notice Jeremiah doesn’t connect the concept of grace to the end of the journey to Canaan, but to the experience of wandering the desert. Why would he speak of wandering the desert for a generation as a time of grace?
It was in the desert that the Hebrew people became the nation of Israel. It was here they were bound to God and each other through the covenant we call the Ten Commandments. In the desert, they were uniquely dependent upon each other and upon God. The Babylonian exile was an echo of that identity-forging despondency; a time of struggle that reinforced the importance of interdependence with each other and the Holy. This was the grace the people found in the desert. By connecting the exile to the desert experience, Jeremiah calls to mind another time of despair and gives the hope of grace, building the theme of balance.
This Rosh Hashanah finds us in our own time of exile. We are separated from each other during a time of difficulty and loss. This is our time of discernment and introspection. We face serious challenges: extreme weather, a pandemic, race-based violence, and unchecked political anxiety. But we can have hope that we will be returned to each other and our nation will be returned to its better self. We can have hope for restoration of a peaceful, predictable life; a sweet life. We can have hope that we will find grace in this wilderness and be renewed in our interdependence with each other and with the Holy.