First Congregational Church
February 21, 2021
First Sunday in Lent
Genesis 9:8-17 & Mark 1:9-15
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
There’s a plane going down over the desert with only 3 parachutes on board. There are four people onboard, the smartest man in the world, the best doctor in the world, an old priest, and a young nerd. The doctor says, “People need me for my medical skills.” grabs the first parachute pack, and jumps. The smartest man in the world says, “People need me for my intelligence.” grabs a pack, and jumps. The old priest says, “I have lived a long and happy life. You take the last chute.” The nerd says, “Don’t worry. There are enough chutes for the both of us. The smartest man in the world just grabbed my backpack.”
For those who may not know, there is this thing called the lectionary. It’s a list of prescribed scripture passages for each Sunday of the year, along with church holy days. Generally, each daily reading includes a passage from the Old Testament, a Psalm, a Gospel reading and one of the epistles - the fancy name for the rest of the ‘letters’ in the New Testament.
On any given Sunday, it would probably take a good ten minutes to read all the passages for that day, and most times, God’s mouth to my heart to your ears, just the gospel passage is sufficient for that day’s message. But this week, the part from the Old Testament just begged to be read along with the gospel.
8 Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, 9 "As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, 10 and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. 11 I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” God said, "This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14 When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15 I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. 16 When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” 17 God said to Noah, "This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth."
Jesus Is Baptized
9 At that time Jesus came from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to the place where John was. John baptized Jesus in the Jordan River. 10 When Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven open. The Holy Spirit came down on him like a dove. 11 A voice came from heaven and said: “You are my Son and I love you. I am very pleased with you.”
12 Then the Spirit sent Jesus into the desert alone. 13 He was in the desert 40 days and was there with the wild animals. While he was in the desert, he was tempted by Satan. Then angels came and took care of Jesus.
Jesus Chooses Some Followers
14 After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee and preached the Good News from God. 15 Jesus said, “The right time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Change your hearts and lives and believe the Good News!”
Thank you, Catherine and Judy. Actually, it’s a goofy thing, this brain of mine, that loves to look for similarities and differences between things. And so we can appreciate that both passages are set around ’40 days,’ although the first set of 40 is not explicitly mentioned. But just about everyone knows about the 40 day flood back in Noah’s day, not only because it makes for great children’s books, but because most all ancient and near-eastern cultures have a monumental flood story as part of their history.
While Jesus came up out of his baptismal water, the ark, animals and humans also came up out of a baptism of sorts. Both passages have God speaking to people, making a proclamation of relationship: God and all in and of the earth and God and Jesus and all of us.
The animals of the ark are most recognized as part of the ark. But I wonder how many of us recall or recognize that God’s covenant in the Genesis passage is not only with people, but about “all flesh,” i.e., living creatures.
There is the Spirit that came on Jesus as a dove in the gospel passage, but verse 13 reminds us that while Jesus was in the desert, he was there with the wild animals. Perhaps it is so with many of you, that when recalling the scene of Jesus’s forty day temptation in the wilderness, we don’t often include the living creatures that would have been there, too.
So we come to differences, and they are not so much with the two passages read today, but between the other two depictions of Jesus in the desert - in Matthew and Luke. In those books, Jesus’ temptations have more elaboration. Both Matthew and Luke describe Jesus being tempted by food, power and grandeur. Mark simply says Jesus was tempted by Satan.
While doing my homework for this message, I came across a dandy little chart about Jesus’ wilderness temptations, in - of all places - Wikipedia. Using Matthew as it’s basis, the temptations were hedonism, egotism and materialism - of mind, soul and heart, representing the divine virtues of faith, hope and love. Interesting connections. Heart equating to love - makes sense. The soul equating to hope - okay. But the link between mind and faith - that’s interesting! Linking the heart to feelings and the soul to wishes makes sense, but in this category of mind and faith - there are thoughts.
That faith is a matter of mind, more than heart or gut, is an interesting and is at least partly true thought. (I say partly, because I’ve not sat down to think out the potentials of why that would be a false statement.) But when we are tempted or tested, it isn’t a feeling that God will help us through, as much as a determination to believe that God will do so - even if it doesn’t look like the way we envisioned God’s rescue.
Music and film critic, Stephen Holden, commenting on Rodrigo Garcia’s film, “Last Days in the Desert,” points out that the Tempter, Satan, teases and lies and reflects ourselves. Apparently, there is a line in the movie where the Tempter - who is a doppelgänger for the main character - who happens to be Ewan McGregor - says, “I am a liar - that is the truth.”
The movie also suggests that some of Jesus’ fears appear in nightmares and when calling out to God, there is no answer, all of which makes Jesus’ desert sojourn more immediate and concrete for us. And now I can’t wait to see the movie, which you can rent on Amazon or watch with ads on Tubi or Crackle for free - so I read.
Perhaps there is a special poignancy in today’s passage, as we have been in a “life” desert for nearly a year - stripped of hugs and informal visiting and concerts and oh so many other things. In watching clips where exhausted medical personnel are emotionally empty and physically zapped, families struggle - on top of Covid - with food insecurity and housing, sometimes it’s just too much, and God, can’t you turn it all off, for just an hour so that everyone - in a collective, world-wide moment - could take a socially-distanced breath?
For whatever reason, it’s been on my heart and mind lately, that this Lenten season could include some of the great art that has been done in relationship to Jesus’ life and path. The pictures on the front of the bulletin, aren’t the best quality, but each was chosen for a reason. And those who can get to it later, the pictures can be found at www.fccfrankfort.org.
The first one in the upper left-hand corner is a rare one of Jesus and the animals - directly from Mark’s passage, the second of Jesus praying, the third, although harder to tell, it a computer drawing representing the vastness of the desert. I included the fourth one because of the nothingness of it, except the sun, and the fifth because it shows a dirty faced Jesus holding a pieta bread. The sixth one, I think, is from the movie mentioned earlier and the seventh is actually from a coloring book. The bottom left corner is an old pen and ink rendition, the middle is that idea of confrontation and the third shows Jesus over looking the valley that Satan took Jesus to in the Matthew and Luke versions.
I will venture to guess that all of us - to one degree or another - have stood on that precipice - been confronted with our own evil spirits, feeling as if we are walking into a vast nothing. Or we’ve been afraid, as if a pack of wild animals was ready to pounce on us. Desert places are not rare, nor are they completely void, because as Mark - and Matthew - remind us, there were angels there, too. In both those gospels, the angels were not only present, but they “waited” on Jesus.
We don’t know how they waited on him - with foot-tapping impatience to get in the car or else, or if they brought him invisible platters of divine take-out. But he wasn’t alone and those with him were here to help. And neither are any of us alone.
No matter how strongly it may feel otherwise, we know that our nightmares - as scary as they can be - are only dreams, dreams with a message perhaps, but there are no mean and threatening people out to get us when we wake up worrying about whatever subject that seems to be haunting you. No matter how loud we cry out to God, as Jesus most surely have done, and even though it seems that God has turned a deaf ear, we are not alone. Our gospel passage says that the Holy Spirit sent Jesus out into the desert alone, but the angels came in when they were needed.
Every year Martin's parents took him to his grandmother's house during the summer break and rode the same train home the next day. Then one day the boy says to his parents, “I'm pretty big now. How about I go to grandma alone this year?” After a short discussion, the parents agree.
Standing at the platform, parents hugging and giving him one last tip, Martin thinks, “I know you've told me that a hundred times…!" The train is about to leave and the father says, “Son, if suddenly you feel bad or scared, then for you!” And he puts something in his pocket.
Now the boy is sitting alone, sitting on the train, without his parents, for the first time...
He sees the passing landscape out the window, strangers around him rushing, making noise, coming and walking out of the compartment, the conductor addresses him that he is alone... A person even takes a sad look at him… This is how the boy always feels more uncomfortable...
And now he's scared. He lowers his head, cuddles in a corner of the seat, tears come to his eyes. He remembers his dad putting something in his pocket. With a trembling hand he is looking for this piece of paper, opens it. It says, “My son, I'm in the last car…"
As God’s people, let us pray. Protective and Providing God, we thank you for those times when you helped us through, and we didn’t notice or know it. We ask for forgiveness when we believe you have abandoned us or left us to our own devices. In the days and moments ahead of us this week, help us to look back on those times in our lives when we’ve been tempted - in whatever ways - and help us to find the angels that waited on us, that they become part of our knowledge in understanding the tests of life. Help us not to fear like moments in the future, but be able to come back to your time of testing, and going through it, to our times of testing and getting through, so that those future moments of testing will be met with a more mature faith in you and your goodness - despite the situations. For calling us your own, all your beloveds say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
February 14, 2021
Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, Transfiguration & Valentines Day
Mark 9:2-9, 2 Corinthians 4:3-6
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
After digging to a depth of 10 feet last year outside Buffalo, New York, scientists found traces of copper cable dating back 100 years. They came to the conclusion that their ancestors already had a telephone network more than 100 years ago.
Not to be outdone by the New Yorkers, in the weeks that followed, a Los Angeles, California, archaeologist dug to a depth of 20 feet somewhere just outside Oceanside. Shortly afterward, a story in the LA Times read, "California archaeologists, reporting a finding of 200 year old copper cable, have concluded that their ancestors already had an advanced high-tech communications network a hundred years earlier than the New Yorkers.”
One week later, a local newspaper in St. Paul, Minnesota, reported, "After digging 30 feet in his pasture near the community of Lake City, Minnesota, Ole Olson, a heck of an engineer and a self-taught archaeologist, and his friend Sven, reported that they found absolutely nothing. Ole has therefore concluded that 300 years ago, "Minnesota had already gone wireless.” I can understand if it weren’t for the days-on-end below zero temperatures, this sort of discovery would make anyone want to be a Minnesotan.
So follow my tracking here. Minnesota. St. Olaf. Golden Girls. Ma. “Picture this.”
One day Jesus calls for a disciple-scout retreat to a mountain. It’s Pete, Jim, John and Jesus. They were sitting around the campfire, probably eating s’mores in the middle of the day, all by themselves, and while they’re sitting there, Jesus’ clothes become white, like a satin, sequin, sparkly white. And then, out of the blue, Elijah and Moses show up and start talking to Jesus. They knew it was Elijah because he was wearing his favorite yak skin tunic and leather belt, and they knew it was Moses because he was holding the staff he used when he parted the Red Sea - just like Charleton Heston.
A lot of important individuals could have shown up that day. But Elijah and Mos - these were the two so intimate with God, it’s said that they didn’t even die! They went straight to heaven, no passing Go or collecting anything, much less $200.
Obviously, Pete and Jim and John were stunned at what they saw - right before their very eyes. And as they watched and observed all this, it occurred to Pete that they needed to mark this occasion, because it was so crazy dope. So he suggests that they make three shelters - like tents or markers - so people could find them and sit in this same holy spot. Or they could take the shelters down the mountain and have all kinds of people see them and be in the holiness of this miracle.
And while they were discussing whether to use pine or cedar branches for these tented shelters, this fog-like cloud settled over all of them - and they couldn’t see each other. And then, you know how quiet it is when it’s foggy or snowy outside, this voice came through the cloud - a different voice than the six that were there at that moment. And the voice said, “This is my son, the one I’m crazy about. Listen to him!”
2 After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. 3 His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. 4 And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus.
5 Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” 6 (He did not know what to say, they were so frightened.)
7 Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!”
8 Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus.
9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
2 Corinthians 4:3-6
3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. 4 The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. 5 For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. 6 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,”[a] made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.
Thank you, ___. I gave all of us that very modern - and might I say spectacular - version of Jesus’ transformation, because I wanted us to get drawn in to what that scene might have looked like, and the supernatural voice of God, directing our attention from the visual to the audio - from seeing to hearing - because we know how easily we can get those two things confused. blue/red card
It’s interesting, too, that the word that the writer of Mark used a word for the shelter tents that is more like the word “tabernacle.” What makes that interesting is that later, John would write his Gospel using that same term, tabernacle, “that the Word made flesh lived in a a “tabernacle” of flesh” - word with a capital W - meaning Jesus. Maybe John used that word, tabernacle, because he was thinking back to this moment, because as quickly as the Transfiguration had begun, it ended and the disciples were left with just Jesus, as Scott Hoezee noted. “The real tabernacle containing the glory of God was still right in front of him.” (them)
In his “Theological ABCs” book, Whistling in the Dark, Frederick Buechner muses on the Transfiguration this way: “[In the Transfiguration] it was the holiness of [Jesus] shining through his humanness, his face so afire with it that they were almost blinded. Even with us something like that happens once in a while. The face of a man walking his child in the park, of a woman picking peas in the garden, of sometimes even the unlikeliest person listening to a concert, say, or standing barefoot in the sand watching the waves roll in, or just having a beer at a Saturday baseball game in July. Every once and so often, something so touching, so incandescent, so alive transfigures the human face that it’s almost beyond bearing”
Those displays of glory may, in these grey days of distancing, seem far away. But the next time you catch your spouse looking out the window, really take in the sight - the hair, the lighting, the wrinkles, the energy - or lack-there-of. Or the next time you Zoom with a grandkid, look for those raw moments where you catch them in the midst of displaying that ‘glory display’ of divine life shining through them. Or the next time you get to a restaurant, take a moment to close your eyes and drink in the sound of life buzzing around you, that - and all those sorts of moments - that’s when you’re on holy ground.
And then, when you’re alone the next time, and have a minute, go back to those previous moments of pure holiness, and relive them in your mind. We may be covided, but we are not alone, even though it might strongly feel that way. As we end this season of Epiphany, this season of light and revelation, it is obvious that this scene of Jesus’ light and revelation makes sense. But maybe not to everyone.
To some people, the Good News of the gospel is veiled, like the veil that we see of brides in old movies. Or the veil of Middle Eastern women that allows for only the eyes to be seen. - Oh! Like medical masks in the US and all over the world. Underneath the masks, there is so much more! We get that. But not everyone.
Whether it be cynicism, pain, anger, grief, unresolved conflict or relationships, there are so many “gods of this age” - multiple layers of veils that can blind us to the light of Christ’s glory. Prayers - unanswered yet or answered in ways we didn’t want can add a layer, not of fine, delicate gossamer, but of the thickest, itchiest, warmest wool.
You know what else is amazing about this passage? The great retired Methodist preacher, William H. Willimon nearly copied my thoughts exactly! He wrote, “I’ve preached this text as a mystical, transcendent moment, a fleeting glimpse of eternity. This time around I’m reading it as a story, not as fleeting, mystical, and incomprehensible, but as a time of stunning revelation. God loves us enough not to leave us in the dark. There is given us a voice, a vision to indicate explicitly who Jesus is. We have a wonderfully self-revealing God who does not leave us to grope around trying to make sense out of ourselves and the world.” How on earth could that man know what was going on - not only in my mind, but in my heart?
Then he wrote this. “On Sunday mornings our job is not to try to laboriously climb up to God because in Jesus Christ, God has climbed down to us. In Jesus, God has self-revealed to us, spoken to us. All we’ve got to do is to listen.” Seriously! I’m thinking William should start giving me some credit with thinking this same stuff. Even if I didn’t get any royalties, just the acknowledgement would be most excellent!
6 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,”[a] made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ. God made God’s light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ. It’s possible that one could spend a good ten minutes on this idea, emphasizing different words of 2 Corinthians 4:6 - and be humbled with the ramifications.
When I started to think about a title for this message, it sort of came from Minnesota, from my mom’s cousin, Auggie Anderson, who used to be the window dresser for THE downtown Minneapolis Dayton’s/Hudson’s store. We’re talking an entire block’s worth of those huge glass windows, that required huge, stunning displays. So then the brain went to other displays, like the pyramid displays of fruit or canned goods in old movies that somehow became the Wreck of the Hesperus. Or displays of paint chips in Menards or Lowe’s or Hope Depot - perfection of symmetry, transition and orderliness.
God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ, displayed in you and you and you and me. Through time and on into eternity. Humbling, overwhelming, personal and private and public. What we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, the image of God. We’d best get to prayin’ about that.
Holy, Holy, Holy, God, Maker of Heaven and Earth, who are you to think of humanity, much less humans, much less individuals like each of us? You are God, and there is no other. So thank you: for your love and grace and mercy and joy and accessibility and promise and light and glory. Thank you for wanting us, mere humans, to be part of your work to make this life better than any of us can imagine, right here, right now. Forgive us when we fail you, fail to be what you know us to be. Thank you that each day begins anew, with new opportunities to see you and those miraculous displays of Christ’s glory in each other. And all your human glories say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
Sunday, February 7, 2021
5th Sunday after the Epiphany
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
I tucked away some yokes for this morning that are more like puns. For instance, a chicken crossing the road is poultry in motion. A rubber band pistol was confiscated from algebra class because it was a weapon of math destruction. A dog gives birth to puppies near the road and was cited for littering.
This morning’s scripture passage has nothing to do with chickens, rubber bands or dogs, except that maybe there were chickens and dogs that the writer of Mark thought so inconsequential as to not include them. The passage is, however, a direct continuation of last week’s passage and of the week before: John the Baptist and Jesus baptizing in the Jordan River, calling James, John, Andrew and Simon, aka, Peter, and going to Capernaum to preach and heal a man of a crazed spirit.
Jesus Heals Many
29 As soon as they left the synagogue, they went with James and John to the home of Simon and Andrew. 30 Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they immediately told Jesus about her. 31 So he went to her, took her hand and helped her up. The fever left her and she began to wait on them.
32 That evening after sunset the people brought to Jesus all the sick and demon-possessed. 33 The whole town gathered at the door, 34 and Jesus healed many who had various diseases. He also drove out many demons, but he would not let the demons speak because they knew who he was.
Jesus Prays in a Solitary Place
35 Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. 36 Simon and his companions went to look for him, 37 and when they found him, they exclaimed: “Everyone is looking for you!”
38 Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” 39 So he traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons.
Thank you, Rick. I don’t know about anyone else, but I don’t necessarily need every detail to appreciate a situation or story. But sometimes it would be so much more rich if we had some. Remembering that the writer of Mark is the one who was more to the point of matters, it’s possible that Jesus and Simon’s mother-in-law had an exchange of words, even if it doesn’t say so in the text. Or maybe it was a construct of the anonymous saying, “preach at all times, and if necessary, use words,” which is not biblical, albeit practical.
Since we could paint a picture of possibilities until the cows come home, I think it more useful to take a step back and look at what might be summaries of each paragraph.
The first paragraph, verses 29-31, Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law. The second paragraph, verses 32-34, Jesus heals other people, even strangers. The third paragraph, verses 35-37, Jesus heals himself, so-to-speak, by taking some time for himself and praying. The fourth paragraph, verses 38-39, Jesus takes the guys with him to continue to preach the Good News away from home, as Christ continues to heal those they encounter. Healing, mother-in-law, home folks, self, world.
Last week’s message touched on the idea of the Kingdom of God not being a “somewhere out there” time, but a present reality that is ours to assist in shaping, or to practice, as physicians, artists, chefs and all those who work to make this world a better place are want to do with their crafts.
There was a page in The Jesse Tree devotional booklet we used for Advent, written by Debra Grant, that had this. “My father owned a boat with his friend Sam. Mind you, this craft was no large vessel. Just big enough to manage the rolls of the open sea on a good day. Just small enough for two regular guys to afford. Just sturdy enough to hold their haul of flounder and fluke.
Every winter it lived in our garage. The boat was wooden-hulled and every other season had to be scraped of barnacles, sanded, refinished. How beautiful it was underneath a fresh coat of finishing oil. Placed back in the ocean, it moved through the waters like one of those graceful flounders. When Samuel took a horn of oil to anoint one of Jessie's sons as the new king of Israel, it would not be the only time David would need oiling. The anointing was meant to set apart and purify. Like the boat, David would need a fresh coat now and then for the journey ahead.”
When I read that, the neon sign in my brain flashed bright and bold: Communion!, which we celebrate on this day in the season of Epiphany, the season of light and revelation.
And I know there are more than a few folks needing reminding that - despite the grey skies that kissed the earth with snow this past week, Christ’s light is as close as a breath and as quick as a thought. That light is the kingdom, and that is what we practice each and every day, regardless of the weather. (Okay, so Mother Nature sloppy, slobbered the earth in the midwest this week, but that’s a different topic.)
I was caught up in the 78 episodes of the Canadian tv series, Heartland, earlier this winter, and it occurred to me that no matter how many times the bronco rider lasted eight seconds, how many times an individual won a dressage jumping contest, there was still the need to practice the next day. No matter if a whole team of people win a Super Bowl, the next season requires the same amount of practice that got them there. If you think about it, no matter how many times a person gets behind the wheel of a car, the drive is never perfected for all time. There is always an element of practice involved.
A grenade thrown into a kitchen in France would result in Linoleum Blownapart. Two silk worms had a race. They ended up in a tie. A backward poet writes inverse. (Inverse means backwards.)
There is nothing backwards about the table at which we all sit today, at which Jan Richardson says so well. “And the table will be wide. And the welcome will be wide. And the arms will open wide to gather us in. And our hearts will open wide to receive. And we will come as children who trust there is enough. And we will come unhindered and free. And our aching will be met with bread. And our sorrow will be met with wine. And we will open our hands to the feast without shame. And we will turn toward each other without fear. And we will give up our appetite for despair. And we will taste and know of delight. And we will become bread for a hungering world. And we will become drink for those who thirst. And the blessed will become the blessing. And everywhere there will be the feast.
Today we get to practice being at that table once again, with healing elements that are diverse and yet one. The symbol of bread, nourishment, life, crushed grain remade into sustenance. The symbol of the cup, replenishing, love, crushed fruit remade into richness and value. The table, coffee, chair-side, communion, sideboard, holders of the simple elements that mean so much more than what they are. The gathered body, near and far, young and matured, connected by a name stronger and greater than any other - that of Christ.
Just as our scripture pointed out the breadth of healing that accompanied so much of what Christ did, so do we recognize this day the length and breadth and height and depth of a love for each and every individual that brings it’s own unique healing.
Sacrament of the Lord's Supper
As we come to the time of practicing our Lord’s Supper, I’ll invite those here in person today to go ahead and open the bread end first, because otherwise, you know, Murphy’s Law. And then I suggest that you wait to open the drink side until right before you partake. Because, you know, Covid.
We are reminded, when holding the bread, that Christ held bread that last night, gave thanks for it, blessing it, and gave it to the disciples saying, “Take and eat, this is my body for you.” (eat) And then he held the cup, gave thanks for it, blessing it, and gave it to the disciples saying, “Take and drink, because this is my blood shed for the forgiveness of sins.” So, too, we are reminded with Paul’s words, that “Every time we eat the bread and drink of the cup, we proclaim Christ’s death and resurrection until he comes again.” All are gladly received at this table and welcome that is wide and free. Ministering to you in Christ’s name, practice taking in such love.
Let us pray. Holy God, thank you for those barnacle removing moments, that we can see once again the beauty of that which you created in each of us through your love. Sometimes we struggle with such healing, sometimes we can’t possibly see how it can be accomplished. And yet, we’ve come once again, because the thought of it is a part of our DNA. May each of us, in practicing living in your kingdom this coming week, recall that ours are not solo journeys, that we are all practicing until that day when our work on this side of eternity is complete. For all the glimpses we get into your glorious kingdom of love, all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
January 31 2021
Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, Council Commissioning
“On the Way to a Little Normal”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Considering the fact that my grandfathers barely knew who I was, I think it’s rather wonderful that some grandfathers impart great information and wisdom to their grand pups. We don’t know the name of the person, but since the internet posted it, we know that these things are true: the things grandpa taught me.
1. Life is simpler when you plow around the stump. 2. A yellow jacket is faster than a John Deere tractor. 3. Words that soak into your ears are whispered, not yelled. 4. Meanness doesn't happen overnight. 5. Don't sell your mule to buy a plow. 6. Don't corner something meaner than you.
Picking up right from where we left off in Mark last week, Peter, Andrew, James and John had dropped all their duties and obligations to family and friends to follow Jesus, because he called them to do so. This morning’s passage begins by saying that they went to Capernaum. Capernaum was a fishing village of about 1,500 on the north side of the Sea of Galilee. It would take about nine hours to travel on foot from little, unincorporated Nazareth to flourishing Capernaum.
I think it would be a little interesting, knowing if Jesus and the guys stopped for lunch, if they brought it with them, if they ate while they walked, saw anyone else going to Capernaum, and other trivial stuff like that. Was their walking leisurely or determined? Those things might make a difference in how they would need to rest before going on to the synagogue.
Mark 1:21-28 (The Message)
21-22 Then they entered Capernaum. When the Sabbath arrived, Jesus lost no time in getting to the meeting place. He spent the day there teaching. They were surprised at his teaching—so forthright, so confident—not quibbling and quoting like the religion scholars.
23-24 Suddenly, while still in the meeting place, he was interrupted by a man who was deeply disturbed and yelling out, “What business do you have here with us, Jesus? Nazarene! I know what you’re up to! You’re the Holy One of God, and you’ve come to destroy us!”
25-26 Jesus shut him up: “Quiet! Get out of him!” The afflicting spirit threw the man into spasms, protesting loudly—and got out.
27-28 Everyone there was spellbound, buzzing with curiosity. “What’s going on here? A new teaching that does what it says? He shuts up defiling, demonic spirits and tells them to get lost!” News of this traveled fast and was soon all over Galilee.
Thank you, Myra. I wanted us to hear this passage from Eugene Peterson’s Bible translation, The Message, because there’s so much more energy in it. It can become a little more alive in one’s mind, than the New International Version. And one of the very specific reasons for this change of versions lies around verse 22. The NIV says that Jesus taught with authority. The Message says he taught so forthright, so confident—not quibbling and quoting like the religion scholars.” Those “versions” definitely don’t have same color.
I was delighted when this week's ministerial association meeting began with this passage, because I think it’s good to see what various folks are thinking, when we have the opportunity. Have to say, I wasn’t expecting the first question to be, “What is our authority?” It was a rhetorical question, because of course, any authority we get comes from God. Even so, it got a fair bit of discussion around words like power and truth and ideas like internal and external places of authority.
I’m not the sharpest crayon in the box, and this topic of authority hadn’t even come up in my mind. If Jesus is who he claims to be, then who of us have the right to question that? Maybe in our current, politically hot world we are caught up in who has authority over what. But frankly, I don’t see a discussion about authority as one that is where a lot of us are at these days - at least in our heart of hearts. In fact, I think what we need is something that is more helpful and needful than that. And it was Scott Hoezee, from Calvin Theological Seminary that got me thinking in that direction.
In his exposition of this passage, he repeated this phrase: a few different times: “It was the Sabbath and so, naturally, the Jews of Capernaum went to the synagogue.” He described what has perhaps happened for millennia on Sabbath or Sunday mornings: tired people helping their children - being children - struggle to get to the place they always attended on those mornings. Not all, but some may have been out-of-sorts because they were out of milk for the morning cereal. But it was expected that you would show up, and so you made it.
And perhaps you were looking forward to heading home to Sunday brunch, after a little reading of the Torah, some singing of a few Psalms. But then this guy stands up and starts preaching, and “while he was no “John the Baptist full of theatrics and arm-waving fire-and-brimstone rhetoric,” there was something different about this Jesus.
It wasn’t just that his ideas and vocabulary were fresh and innovative and it wasn’t simply that he was a better orator than they at first guessed. Rather, there was something in the very presence of the man that made you want to sit up straighter. Even the teenagers, who had worked so hard at perfecting a bored-stiff look on their faces, couldn’t help perking up, slouching a bit less and listening more closely than they’d care to admit. This man had authority. He had a moral gravity, a weightiness and substance to him that people found difficult to explain.”
I got to wondering, is there anyone with such authority in our modern world, even if they would be 100% human. The closest I got was Billy Graham.
So imagine you’re on your way here, looking forward to yet another stellar sermon of keen insight and theological creativity, and Billy Graham is covering that day. And of all days, there’s a visitor in the back, and at some point in the service, there is a shriek, followed by a “What do you want to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to wipe us out already!? I know who you are, you are the Holy One of God!”
Let me tell you, while that scenario is not one of my nightmares, I do wonder about how I - or any of us would handle such a thing. I’ve wondered about such scenarios for years, actually. How do we handle the unexpected, the unpredictable, maybe even a little dangerous sounding or looking? Jesus tells the spirit to come out of the man, but hey - he’s Jesus. We certainly aren’t.
It was the Sabbath and so, naturally, they went to the Synagogue. We may anticipate the presence of the Holy Spirit, and we may even experience that Spirit - in a moment or two that touches our hearts. But we surely don’t expect something so crazed!
Jesus gave the man his life back. I sometimes wonder, of any of the people who come to worship with us - even from all the far away places on the internets - those who come who need their life given back to them - and how that life-return begins with simple acknowledgment of that other person and their need for Christ’s healing - as much as our own. It was Sunday and so, naturally, we go to Church. It was a day like today, and an epiphany happened on our way to a little normalcy.
That Grandpa who had those great lessons, earlier in the message? He also said “Always drink upstream from the herd and never miss a good chance to shut up.
And don't squat with your spurs on and don't judge people by their relatives.
In one of William H Willimon’s earliest sermons at seminary as a youth pastor in Anderson, South Carolina in 1968, he attacked Lyndon Johnson (maybe Lady Bird too), and denounced the then-current Vietnam War.
After the service, an enraged man shouted at the church door, “Punks like you are the shame of America,” and “You are a cowardly little "jerk” who doesn’t support our boys fighting in Southeast Asia.”
William was unsure whether to protect his face, his stomach, or his groin, he said. But he staggered back into the church, as far as the altar area. A member of the altar guild, an older woman in a small pink hat, was removing flowers from the brass vases.
“That was awful!” ha gasped. “Did you hear what he said to me?”
“Everyone heard,” she said, smiling. “I do wish people wouldn’t use such language when children are present. Could you hand me that container?” “He was going to hit me! How could that jerk be that upset by a first-year seminarian trying to preach?”
She looked up from fussing with flowers and said, “Dear, it’s not you who upset him. I’m sure you remind him of his son. Both of you have long hair, though you appear to have no tattoos or ear piercing. Tommy is gay, living in California or some such. He’s lost the son to whom he gave his life. Tom kept his promise to God to be a good father, but it seems that God failed to keep his promise to Tom.” She laughed to herself. “Now, who would be upset with a nice boy like you? No, Tom hates God.”
There’s a lot of anger “out there,” and it’s not all about who’s right and who’s wrong. In fact, I would be willing to lay down a little money - if’n I was a bettin’ woman - that maybe even a majority of the anger we encounter - even through computer screens and tv sets - is about what feels like God not keeping promises and other such perceptions.
And maybe, when we take a few minutes to really think about it, there may be a bit of anger in each of us, for not doing what we know we should have, or doing what we know we shouldn’t have. What I have learned is that when we don’t take the time to deal with our would-as, could-as and should-as, regret can fester into anger quicker than a deeply disturbed person can upset a worship service on their way to a little normal. So let us draw back the curtains of our hearts this morning, just for a bit, to take out a little trash, so it doesn’t combust or leak out in ways we would least suspect.
All knowing and all loving God, you know how much we love to have things under control, how we sometimes wiggle and squirm to look and seem “normal.” You also know that which we carry in our hearts, that which is heavy, crazed or painful - even dead. This morning, we lay those things down, at your feet, before your holy throne of grace —- and ask that you reform them, remake them and transform them into healing that makes a difference - even on our way to a little normal. —- Thank you, too, for the healing you have done in our past days and times, for the grace that has transformed us into message bearers of that same grace. For your grace and your deep, unmatched love for each of your beloveds, all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
January 24, 2021
Third Sunday after the Epiphany
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
In honor of our own Church Family Annual Meeting, I give you this. “There will be a meeting of the Church Board immediately after the service,” announced the pastor. After the close of the service, the Church Board gathered at the back of the sanctuary for the announced meeting. But there was a stranger in their midst — a visitor who had never attended their church before.
“My friend,” said the pastor, “Didn’t you understand that this is a meeting of the Board?” “Yes,” said the visitor, “and after today’s sermon, I suppose I’m just about as bored as anyone else who came to this meeting.”
I don’t know about anyone else, but it’s taken a long time to sort out the differences of the four gospels in this brain. I so understand that it’s hard to remember that Matthew and Luke were written by genealogists, that John was written by the poet-minded one, and that Mark was the bare-bones, just the facts ma'am, outline sort of writer.
Because Mark’s version was written to Roman Christians, maybe he skipped over the genealogies because that was more important to Jewish people than the Roman emphasis of leadership. Those observations certainly seem validated from today’s passage - in which Mark begins his whole book with grown-up cousin John baptizing Jesus - to John being imprisoned - all in just thirteen verses.
Jesus Announces the Good News
14 After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. 15 “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”
Jesus Calls His First Disciples
16 As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 17 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” 18 At once they left their nets and followed him.
19 When he had gone a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John in a boat, preparing their nets. 20 Without delay he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him.
Thank you, __. Anyone who has persevered through, I mean listened to even a few of the sermons I’ve delivered over the past year or two, knows that I have a great affection for a now retired Methodist pastor, Steven Garnaas Holmes. That he writes mostly in poetry is interesting, since I not overly passionate about that style of writing. What catches me, usually, is what he says, or how he says it. This week he was waxing eloquent about Jonah, and then mentioned some of those things that he seemed to think that a lot of folks learned in their youth - or even Sunday School.
Things like, “Ever watch somebody on slippery ice trying hard not to fall down? God is gravity. It's almost always funny when we try to resist it,” he said. I was trying like crazy to pick a different scripture passage for this morning, but that God and gravity thing won out - especially when I started looking at.
I mean, it’s so - nothing much. The passage basically describes Jesus calling the first four disciples. And the kingdom of God thing. Always the kingdom of God thing. What does all that - almost nothing - have to do with us and where we are on this January 24 in the year of our Lord 2021?
1. Putting up the first piece, like they do on crime shows, with actual paper thumbtacked to a bulletin board, would be something by Argentinian Osvaldo Vena, professor emeritus at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL wrote. The title of this piece that we are looking at would be “The Call” He said something I didn’t know, if you can imagine that.
He said, “This ‘fishers of people’ metaphor was used by missionaries all over the world to justify and legitimize the allegedly life-giving ministry of the Christian evangelist. And yet, it really is a metaphor of death: fish, when taken out of the water, die! But that has been interpreted as dying to the world, which results in life unto God, something the author of the Gospel clearly affirms later in Mark. The metaphor can also be explained by saying that since in the Bible the sea represents the place of the primordial chaos, inhabited by God’s mythical enemies, the fishing of people can have the connotation of rescuing them from the snares of the devil.”
Okay, impressive because of all the highfalutin theology. But the idea of the sea and chaos and dying and rescuing are interesting pieces. That’s especially so, when Rev. Vena ended his commentary with this. “The purpose of Jesus’ call to discipleship is not to take people out of a hostile world, promising them a better life in God’s heavenly kingdom. Instead, his purpose is to change the world in such a way that it will cease to be the hostile place it is, so that God’s reign can be established on earth.”
2. The Call to the fishermen was personal and relevant. Jesus used their names and spoke to what resonated with them. If they’d have been construction workers, maybe Jesus would have asked them to become builders of human hearts. Or if they’d have been real estate agents, he might have invited them to become sellers of kingdom turf.
3. The next note isn’t very big in size, but is huge in importance, and it would have the title “Kingdom of God.” (Back to that again.) God’s reign - in the ancient Greek - is not so much a place but more of a dominion or power with which to reign. This note is important because it makes more sense when Jesus says that “the kingdom is near.” God, Son, Spirit, all present then and now. Huge power all around. Ginormous power.
4. The next informational piece we tack onto the sermon scene bulletin board would be titled “Galilee.” We hear that name so much, but maybe we don’t remember so much that Galilee is a mountainous area on the west side of the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel and southern Lebanon. It was home to 1.2 million residents in 2006, mainly Jewish, but also Muslims and Arab Christians. Even in Jesus’ day, the area was largely multicultural, including a large Greek population, with a little over 200 towns lying within 1,341 square miles - roughly two times the area of Benzie County.
One gets a greater appreciation for Galilee when realizing that it’s great renown is for Nazareth and Cana (of wine and wedding fame). From last week’s message, Nazareth was comparable to unincorporated Nessen City or Bendon. No citadels of power or bright lights of notoriety. Not where one would expect to find Ginormous power with which one would reign.
5. Living in Harmony: It is, however, a place where people would live out the value of living in harmony, which can mean learning to agree to disagree. This little sub-note on our sermon scene board comes from a fair bit ago, when I wrote down this quote from a politician whom shall be named if you ask me. It must have been in a press conference or something like that because this was his response before moving on to another reporter. “Let me just extend appreciation for your effort to get my response and I respectfully defer to the next question.” Nice. Respectful. Classy.
6. Maybe as nice, but definitely not as classy would be the note entitled “The Brothers.” Fishermen, and by association, stretchers of truth. (I just made that last bit up.) Maybe a tad on the smelly side. Calloused and muscular and natives because of their dialect. A tangent note by Stephen Garnaas Holmes. “The storms in our life are not a test. But they might be a question.” So I wonder if father Zebedee and any other partners in these fishing enterprises asked any questions about being left in the lurch when The Brothers dropped their obligations and work to follow some guy that told them to.
7. “The Cost” of the passage is not cheap or always easy. But we like cheap and easy. We settle for cheap and easy - so easily. We’re not always keen on putting down our nets of familiarity and fear and pain to rise and follow one who knows there is a better way of hope and justice, raising lights of love and possibility that can be seen in us, to help others see the way in what may seem like a grim world.
C.S. Lewis once wrote, we are far too easily satisfied. We’re like a child who turns down an invitation for a day at the beach and chooses instead to stay sitting in a slum alley making mud pies just because the child really can’t imagine how much better a day at the shore can be. “What could be better than making these slimy mud pies?” the child might think. Oh, if only he knew!
Missouri born philosopher and university instructor, Dallas Willard, gives similar imagery from his growing up. When he was a boy, rural electrification was just happening and power lines were being strung throughout the countryside. But suppose even after the lines were up and running you ran across a house where the weary family still used only candles and kerosene lanterns for light, used scrub boards, ice chests, and rug beaters. A better life was waiting for them right outside their door if only they would let themselves be hooked into the power lines. “My friends,” you could proclaim, “electricity is at hand!” But suppose they just didn’t trust it, thought it was too much of a hassle, and anyway didn’t believe the promises that things might be easier with this newfangled juice running into their house. “If it’s all the same to you, we’ll stick with the old ways.”
When we add on the other points of Epiphany being the season of revelation, today being our church family’s annual meeting, i.e., looking back and forward, and it being January, the time for sorting through files and cabinets and drawers, and we stand back, we get this retrospective review and view.
Stephen Garnaas Holmes: In the middle of a raucous slapstick tale, Jonah, at the bottom of the sea, prays a beautiful prayer. Turns out the belly of a whale is a great place for contemplation. Seriously. One thing that makes it hard for people to repent is that we expect them not to. When saints judge people they trade places with the sinners. Ever notice how often we're mad because God isn’t? Life is more of a comedy than a tragedy. Lighten up.
When we step back, to look at this whole review, perhaps we can see - in retrospect, what Scott Hoezee adds: “the kingdom is - here, it’s real, it’s right outside our door. The kingdom of God is at hand! Don’t be so easily satisfied with the temporary pleasures. We can live knowing that this is true! We can live to help others believe it, too, because just look at what Jesus did with four guys not so unlike us. And so we should pray.
Faithful and Unchanging God, how well you know our propensity to do good is the other side of the coin that hosts our propensity to do nothing. How well you know that one laugh can conquer gloom, one smile can begin a friendship - even behind a mask, one tree can start a forest, one hope can raise spirits. Inspire us into tomorrow - and each tomorrow - to rise up from the nets that entangle us to the path of a new day into what we don’t know - because we trust you - not only because of a loved and/or respected encouragement, but also because of your fulfilled promises. Thank you, for you, your Son and your Holy Spirit for our call to a life lived in the divine and extraordinary. And all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
January 17, 2021
Second Sunday after the Epiphany
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
It was sometime last month that I set aside these Analogies Written by High School Students. “Her face was a perfect oval, like a circle that had its two sides gently compressed by a Thigh Master.” “He was as lame as a duck. Not the metaphorical lame duck, either, but a real duck that was actually lame. Maybe from stepping on a land mine or something.” Our scripture passage for this morning doesn’t belong on any analogy list, just so we are all clear.
Last Sunday we read about Jesus being baptized by his wild and crazy cousin, John the Baptist, as is told in Luke 3. Today we continue with Jesus’ path, two days after his baptism, but as revealed in the book of John, still at the Jordan River. The day before, Jesus had “called” Andrew and Simon Peter to follow him.
The context of today’s passage feels like the warning some shows screen before they start: For Mature Audiences only. Or like the background before the Star Wars movies: Long ago, in a galaxy far away, was a town called Bethsaida, the place Andrew, Peter and Philip called home. It was also just outside Bethsaida where Jesus fed 5,000 men and their families, as well as the place where he healed a blind man. Although not all scholars agree on the precise location, the name Bethsaida means “house of fishing” or “home of hunting,” so it’s location at the north end of the Dead Sea would make sense, except that one wouldn’t expect fish to be found in the Dead Sea. So there’s that little bit of consternation. Our passage will mention Nazareth, where we associate Joseph and Mary taking Jesus to grow up, to avoid the execution of baby boys ordered by Herod. It probably didn’t even dawn on Herod’s henchmen to look for a baby Messiah in Nazareth, because it was like a place we would call in this country, ‘unincorporated.’ Even Elberta has a classification of being a village! The guesses are that there were maybe a couple hundred people in Nazareth who lived in housing more like caves and sod houses. On top of its tininess, Nazareth inhabitants didn’t particularly like paying exorbitant taxes, so the Roman tax collectors would come in every so often and rattle the slats of those who hadn’t abided by “the law.” So let that understanding assist your listening.
Jesus Calls Philip and Nathanael
43 The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, “Follow me.”
44 Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida. 45 Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”
46 “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked.
“Come and see,” said Philip.
47 When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”
48 “How do you know me?” Nathanael asked.
Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”
49 Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.”
50 Jesus said, “You believe[a] because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.” 51 He then added, “Very truly I tell you,[b] you[c] will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’[d] the Son of Man.”
Thank you, Jim. I don’t remember who sent it along, but since I can actually vouch for it, Age 60 may be the new 40, bu 9:00 p.m. is the new midnight. When I say, “The other day,” I could be referring to any time between yesterday and 15 years ago. I remember being able to get up without any sound effects, and these days, the start of a brand new day sends me off like a herd of turtles. And now, when someone asks me what I did over the weekend, I squint and ask, “Why, what did you hear?”
In this film-esque lens through which we are catching this morning’s scripture, one could almost think that Jesus was a gaff operator, prompt person or make-up artist behind the line of the movie camera. There was Nathanael, sitting under a fig tree, probably minding his own business, and his brother comes along and tells him he’s got to see this guy from Bendon or Nessen City - for those who live in these here parts. Not knowing he was “being filmed” in Jesus’ mind, Nathanael must have thought that Jesus’ knowledge about him was nigh unto magical.
And then came the epiphany, the light bulb going off above his head, not so unlike Wylie E. Coyote. “You’re the Son of God! You’re the King of Israel!” I wonder if Jesus took Nathanael’s revelation like any really tall person when they go out in public. “Hey! You’re tall! You must play basketball! How tall are ya?”
But it’s not just a lightbulb going off in Nathanael’s mind, because Jesus sees more. Jesus said, “You believe - because I told you I saw you under the fig tree.” Nathanael didn’t just recognize Jesus, there was a movement of heart in that moment.
Maybe that movement of heart, that epiphany glimpse, was like hearing a piece of music that moves you to tears. Or watching an athlete do the smoothest, most beautiful move imaginable. Or the moment when all the columns of a spreadsheet come together and match a profit and loss statement. (You can tell where my head was this last week!)
There were some other epiphany glimpses this week, and one was The New Culinary Classics series of books. There is War and Peas. (Catch) Quiche 22, and Lord of the Pies. There is Animal Flan, Of Mice and Menudo (soup), Oliver Twix and Crimini and Punishment. I thought the most hilarious was Pride and Prune Juice, although The Lion, the Witch and the Waldorf Salad was quite clever, too.
So where have you seen some Epiphany Glimpses this past week? Now don’t get all worked up, because you weren’t given an assignment last week to look for Epiphany Glimpses, so no one needs to feel guilty or lost. But if you think back on it, I’m sure there is something that came together for you that stretched your brain a little bit. And no, I’m not talking about anything political or mind-tearing, either. Maybe it was remembering to take the mask with you before you went into the store. Or an insight of how utterly giving some people are in the caring of those who are ill these days - covid or not.
One of mine was a note from a friend of a friend, who wrote to say how much she appreciates being able to tune in each week and her being able to get used to going to “the other room” when her husband doesn’t feel like listening to her any longer. (I’m guessing that means singing, Mary?) Or maybe it’s akin to Monday morning quarterbacking - sort of like giving a score on a sermon point like an Olympic judge? That actually happened one Sunday. It must have been an Olympic year and two gentlemen held up the sermon ratings after the Amen. I kept the 10 and tossed the 9.5.
James Howell, over there at workingpreacher.org pointed out that Jesus “found” Philip, and that Philip “found” Nathanael, and that God “finds" people through God’s people. I found a layer of meaning in this passage this week that may well be part of an Epiphany Glimpse for you, too.
Verse 47, “When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” That word deceit, in the ancient Greek, can also mean guile, being crafty and/or underhanded. As James Howell said, the Old Testament’s Jacob, “always got ahead in life by his own wits. He relied on his own cunning and craftiness to snag life’s goodies. He outsmarted dim-witted (Brother) Esau, did an end-run on his nearly blind father Isaac, and then spent the better part of twenty years finding ever-more creative ways to snooker his Uncle Laban out of just about everything he owned.
For some reason, though, God liked Jacob. Once, when fleeing the wrath of Esau, Jacob had a dream of a ladder to heaven with angels ascending and descending on it. In that dream God assures Jacob that despite all the stunts Jacob had pulled, God was with him. And God would stay with Jacob, finally and quite literally wrestling him into an understanding that the best things in life come by grace alone. It’s not about the power to snag what you want. No, it’s about being humble to receive what only God can give.
“Here comes an Israel who is not Jacob,” Jesus basically said when he first saw Nathanael coming his way.” That’s a right interesting comment, seeing as how Nathanael had just sneered about backwater Nazareth. In fact, we know very little about ol’ Nate, so maybe his question, “How do you know me?” is a little closer to “Why, what did you hear?”
Bringing that epiphany glimpse closer to Nathanael, Jesus basically says, “I see the good in your heart, but there’s much more good waiting for you.” Jesus goes on to say, "you will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’ the Son of Man.”
So that’s the scriptural surprise. Jacob, some 2,000 years before, had that dream of a stairway to heaven, with God at the top of the stairs. When you see the two scenarios together, it’s quite stunning: both passages describing angels “ascending and descending.” God is at the top of Jacob’s “ladder,” Christ is as the top of the stairway to heaven. Both Jacob and Nathanael had a moment where they were given a divine opportunity and the ability to make their choice. Both made choices that changed their lives. Dimes to dollars, each of us will be given opportunities and abilities this week to make choices that will change lives.
Life-changing choices aren’t the brand of toothpaste to choose or the regular or fat-free Triskets. Those moments of epiphany glimpses will be quick, almost inconsequential. A word in an exchange with the under paid, unacknowledged front-line workers behind the grocery store cash register could be one of those opportunities. There are a lot of people that you will drive past this week, or who will drive past you, who may be on the verge of losing their job, their home, not to mention a loved one to whatever malaise you wish to mention. Maybe your Epiphany Glimpse is to not wish a person bad, but to wish them consciousness.
These days may seem like we either have to bring out our longies and woolies and armor up our hearts and minds in protection, or we may be holding our breath like when fragile butterflies that may or may not fly off our hand at any given moment. Just like Jacob and Nathanael, God gives us new opportunities to make decisions that can help others find the love we are commissioned to share. Every day is a new chance that is not dependent on the day before. May God help each of us to catch the epiphany glimpses that ascend before us each and every day, throughout the day and night as angels bring them to us and as we pray.
Holy God of Grace, thank you for the surprises you give us, surprises that are good and can lead to encouraging others to come and see and follow you in your love and grace. It is no secret that we blow those opportunities more often than we’d like to admit. And for that, we ask your forgiveness. We are grateful that you absolve our miscues in the grace you give us to start each day anew. When life seems overwhelming, send an extra abundance of your presence, peace and patience to those who so desperately need it. For all the glimpses of your light and the revelation of your love, all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.