First Congregational Church
September 9, 2018
16th Sunday after Pentecost
“Comfort Is Not Always Comfortable”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Two men are talking about animals. One says to the other, ‘I know of a dog worth $10,000.’ ‘Really?’ replies the other. ‘Who would have thought a dog could save so much.’
A dog walks into a job center. ‘Wow, a talking dog,’ says the clerk. ‘With your talent I’m sure we can find you a gig in the circus.’ ‘The circus?’ says the dog. ‘What does a circus want with a plumber?’
Three boys see a fire engine with a dog go by and discuss what his job is. ‘Crowd control?’ says one boy. ‘He’s the mascot.’ says the second boy. The third boy nods sagely: ‘He finds fire hydrants.’
Walking past a veterinary clinic, a woman noticed a small boy and his dog waiting outside. ‘Are you here to see Dr Meyer?’ she asked. ‘Yes,’ the boy said. ‘I’m having my dog put in neutral.’
This morning’s scripture passage naturally includes the mention of dogs, and a few other words, as well.
The passage begins in Tyre, way north of Jesus’ hometown of Galilee, and ends up in the Decapolis, much closer to Jesus’ home. The uniting factor between these two places is that they are far outside the realm of Judaism, deep in the land of Gentiles. The writer of Mark calls it Syrian Phoenicia. We know it today as Syria, Lebanon and northern Israel.
Mark 7:24-37 (NIV)
Jesus Honors a Syro-Phoenician Woman’s Faith
24 Jesus left that place and went to the vicinity of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; yet he could not keep his presence secret. 25 In fact, as soon as she heard about him, a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an impure spirit came and fell at his feet. 26 The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter.
27 “First let the children eat all they want,” he told her, “for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
28 “Lord,” she replied, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
29 Then he told her, “For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter.”
30 She went home and found her child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
Jesus Heals a Deaf and Mute Man
31 Then Jesus left the vicinity of Tyre and went through Sidon, down to the Sea of Galilee and into the region of the Decapolis. 32 There some people brought to him a man who was deaf and could hardly talk, and they begged Jesus to place his hand on him.
33 After he took him aside, away from the crowd, Jesus put his fingers into the man’s ears. Then he spit and touched the man’s tongue. 34 He looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh said to him, “Ephphatha!” (which means “Be opened!”). 35 At this, the man’s ears were opened, his tongue was loosened and he began to speak plainly.
36 Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone. But the more he did so, the more they kept talking about it. 37 People were overwhelmed with amazement. “He has done everything well,” they said. “He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”
Thank you, Judy. I think another unifying factor between these two passages is that they are a little outside the scope of normal - even for Jesus.
I don’t know about anyone else, but I’ve struggled with this passage - and sort of still do. First the woman asks for healing and then Jesus starts talking about dogs and dinner. It took a long while to figure out that this was actually the perfect example of an hyperbole - an exaggerated statement or claim not meant to be taken literally.
Long before I understood that Jesus was insulting the woman, that she was, untouchable to him as an ancient enemy of the Jewish people, a woman without even the dignity of a name or the accompaniment of the required male, I didn’t really realize the mother’s desperation - in seeking out healing - from a stranger - for a daughter with a mental illness and a life of darkness. Just about every negative characteristic of the ancient world list is checked off in this scenario.
I think I’ve mentioned before that I am on a prayer list of a friend, who has befriended a mother of a 4 or 5 year old daughter who has been sexually abused by her father. The mother of this little girl is desperate to obtain safety for her daughter. This mother has begged people - strangers - to fast and pray for her little girl’s safety, while the mother has been tossed out of her home, has not been able to hold a job because of the need to care for this daughter who is developmentally behind other children her age, and is ploughing ahead in the preparation for an appeal to the ruling of the father’s shared custody. I don’t know, most of us don’t know, that depth of desperation, but it was a person like this mother that came before Jesus, throwing herself at his feet for mercy - on behalf of her child.
And then, Jesus, so uncharacteristially, derides her, chides her and treats her unlike so many others in refusing to heal her daughter. “First the children, then the dogs like you.” Mr. Compassion doesn’t seem that compassionate. Maybe it was code for Jesus’ mission strategy: First the Israelites and then the Gentiles. Maybe not.
Amazingly, the woman persists. An uneducated woman argues with a rabbi; she dares to challenge him, saying, “Well, that may be true, but even the dogs are allowed to eat some of the crumbs that fall from the children’s table.” She doesn’t demand to be treated like an Israelite - wanting manna to fall miraculously from the sky, but points to the abundance that overflows from Jesus’s table. And she gets it - both she and her daughter.
Like the Syrophoenician woman, the Decapolis man is also an outsider. He is cut off from the world by his inability to hear and communicate with others. His is not necessarily the dire state of the woman, but life can’t be any picnic for him, either.
Despite all the differences and all the previous ministry he did among people, Jesus just up and heals this guy. But really, Jesus. Did it really need to be in such a gross manner? Granted, it was a deeply human and intimate manner, but ear willies and spit in his mouth? Even if the spit had healing qualities, it was still way out there on the edge.
Just in case it should ever come up on crossword puzzle or Jeopardy, the meaning of the word that Jesus spoke meaning, “Be Opened,” is the motto of Gallaudet University, the national school for the deaf.
Maybe Jesus chose such an earthy manner of healing because when you take a step back to look at both of these passages, aren’t they both at least a little bit about Jesus’ humanity? Just like today, not that it’s an excuse, Jesus’ lack of tact was perhaps influenced by his fatigue and depletion, irritation and disgruntlement. Going so far from home, where he it was less likely to be recognized would be a descent plan to get some needed rest and recovery.
Maybe at first, all of us would like a Savior that was unfailingly nice and an exemplar of love and availability. But then our Christ wouldn’t fully understand our human needs of struggle to follow God’s will, the battle to do the right things and be the person God aspires each of us to be.
Perhaps these passages this morning are more about instances of a divine change of mind. We are so often reminded that our God is a steadfast God - with a will or plan. Maybe sometimes our prayers lack the energy or vitality that they really can make a difference in the greater picture of time and life. The great theologian, Karl Barth, once asked the question, “Why do we pray to God if we don’t believe that God is responsive to human entreaty?” Not that this is about getting that expensive house or luxury fishing boat. But it does have everything to do with faith and constancy. Which is a very good place to pray.
Good and Gracious God, thank you for answering prayers. We try to remember that you always answer prayers, even when the answers are “no” and “not yet.” So thank you that you never leave us as unrecognized petitioners. Thank you, too, for both sides of your son - the human and the divine. We sometimes fail to realize the unique nature of our Savior, so forgive us when we fall onto one side or another of his makeup. Thank you, God, for there always being enough, more than enough - love, grace, mercy and all the other necessary aspects of life. Help us to be generous with that which you have blessed us, that we may all relish in the joy of helping this world be what you have envisioned it to be. For all the many and vast blessings you bestow on us, all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
September 2, 2018
15th Sunday after Pentecost
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
When I was a kid, before my parents got divorced, when life was more like Mayberry for our family, Saturday nights belonged to my dad. There were no remotes, but he absolutely controlled the tv viewing. It didn’t matter that Rogers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella with Leslie Ann Warren or Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer was airing on another channel. Saturday nights were for All-Star Wrestling and Hee-Haw.
Come to think of it, maybe it’s really my dad’s fault for my goofy love of humor, forcing me to sit through those episodes of Hee-Haw. And for those of you who don’t know my dad, if Waldo were here, I’d say the same thing and he’d be grinning from ear-to-ear.
Anyway, there was a snippet during one of the Hee-Haw shows that has stayed with me for over forty years, and I was forever looking for the script of it, because it was just pure genius - in my humble, tasteful opinion. I am pleased to say that I finally found it, and I share it with you, from Archie Campbell’s lips to your ears.
Once apon a time, in a coreign fountry, there lived a very geautiful birl; her name was Rindercella. Now, Rindercella lived with her mugly other and her two sad bisters. And in this same coreign fountry, there was a very prandsom hince.
And this prandsom hince was going to have a bancy fall. And he'd invited people from riles amound, especially the pich reople. Rindercella's mugly other and her two sad blisters went out to buy some drancy fesses to wear to this bancy fall, but Rindercella could not go because all she had to wear were some old rirty dags. Finally, the night of the bancy fall arrived and Rindercella couldn't go, so she just cat down and scried. She was a kitten there a scrien, when all at once there appeared before her, her gairy fodmother. And he touched her with his wagic mand ... and there appeared before her, a cig boach and hix white sorces to take her to the bancy fall. But now she said to Rindercella, "Rindercella, you must be home before nidmight, or I'll purn you into a tumpkin!"
When Rindercella arrived at the bancy fall, the prandsom hince met her at the door because he had been watchin' behind a woden hindow. And Rindercella and the prandsom hince nanced all dight until nidmight...and they lell in fove. And finally, the mid clock strucknight. And Rindercella staced down the rairs, and just as she beached the rottom, she slopped her dripper!
The next day, the prandsom hince went all over the coreign fountry looking for the geautiful birl who had slopped her dripper. Finally he came to Rindercella's house. He tried it on Rindercella's mugly other ... and it fidn't dit. Then he tried it on her two sigly usters ... and it fidn't dit. Then he tried it on Rindercella ... and it fid dit. It was exactly the sight rize!
So they were married and lived heverly ever hapwards. Now, the storal of the mory is this: If you ever go to a bancy fall and want to have a pransom hince loll in fove with you, don't forget to slop your dripper!
I share this story with you, because there is a part of this morning’s scripture passage that sounds a little like this backward fairy tale. At least until you understand a little background.
Back in the day, there was a word for dedicating something as an offering to God, and the word is corban. To declare something to be corban would be like putting money in the offering plate, dedicating that money, as an offering to God. People used to think that giving things like old pianos or organs or worn furniture to churches would be corban, dedicating them as an offering to God, but that practice is more like giving your hand-me-downs to God and calling them exquisite. The problem with corban is that it can sometimes appear to try to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.
In regard to our scripture passage, Jesus was referring to the practice of corban to when a person was afraid of losing too much by having to care for his or her own parents in their old age. The offspring could declare some of their assets as corban, dedicated to God, even though that person had no intention of offering the assets to either God or parents.
Even back in the days of Moses, God gave the Jewish people “rules” to set them apart, sort of like knowing that we are Christians by our love. Their observance of the law was meant to be a witness to the nations around them, to give glory to God. Some of those rules had good, basic hygiene concepts behind them, which have become validated over time. Washing hands and feet and cookery and clothing were not just about personal cleanliness, but they were an outside representation of what the Jewish leaders held in their hearts, as dedicated people to God.
Incidentally, you will hear the phrase, tradition of the elders. Some of those “rules” for the Pharisees and other religious leaders were somehow transferred as being relevant to everyone, rather than just those in leadership positions. It was sort of the idea of cutting off the ends of a ham, because you thought that was how one baked ham, the tradition being handed down through the cooks in the family, when really, your great-great grandmother cut the ends off her ham because the pan wasn’t big enough.
Mark 7:1-23 NIV
The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus 2 and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. 3 (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. 4 When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.[a])
5 So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?”
6 He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: “‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.
7 They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’[b]
8 You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.”
9 And he continued, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe[c] your own traditions! 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’[d] and, ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’[e] 11 But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God)— 12 then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. 13 Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.”
14 Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. 15 Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.”  [f]
17 After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. 18 “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? 19 For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)
20 He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. 21 For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, 22 adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. 23 All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”
Thank you, Bill. If you followed along in a pew Bible, you may have noted that some of what Bill read was encased in parentheses. These pieces have come to be known as editorial snippets. Near the end, when it said that “In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean,” there is no place in the gospels where Jesus said, “all foods are clean.” In this little piece, I wonder if people, over time, have understood those words to mean that Jesus actually said those words, rather than it being something that the writer of Mark inserted.
There are a lot of things that come from the “outside” that are not good for us, from pornography to submersion in violent reading, viewing or gaming, to sound and noise used as torture. In terms of this passage, it seems that Jesus is making his point using food and a long-held tradition. And for this morning, it seemed that the point of congruency made a lot of sense.
Merriam-Webster defines congruent as having the same size and shape, as in congruent triangles. The Cambridge Dictionary defines congruent as “similar to or in agreement with something, so that the two things can both exist or be combined without problems.” In the Dinah Dictionary, congruency is doing what you mean and meaning what you do, not because it such a high and noble concept, but because it is a lot simpler and less work.
It has always been a temptation, in trying to live faithfully, to judge those who don’t live the same way, setting ourselves above others. The thing is, if we do that, we miss the greater part of our calling - to monitor what is going on within - more than what is going on without - because by our fruits, they will know us - as Matthew noted Jesus saying.
Elisabeth Johnson, a professor at Lutheran Institute of Theology in Cameroon started her commentary on this passage with these words. “In the Gospels, it seems that Jesus saves his sharpest words, his most pointed criticism, for the most religious.” She ended her contribution thusly: “No law or tradition can protect us from the darkness that lurks within our own hearts. We can try to project a squeaky clean image, but one way or another, the evil within will find its way out. The highly edited version of ourselves, the façade that we present to the world, will crumble sooner or later.”
Like a good preacher, Ms. Johnson also reminds us of the “gospel” in this passage. “that Jesus sees clearly the ugliness of human hearts, yet he does not turn away. He sees right through our highly edited versions of ourselves, knows what lurks in our hearts, yet loves us still. In the larger story of the Gospel, he shows us what true faithfulness is by daring to touch those considered unclean, by daring to love those who are social outcasts, by loving and serving and giving his life for all people -- tax collectors and sinners, lepers and demon-possessed, scribes and Pharisees, you and me.”
Jesus’ outside actions were congruent with his inside motivations and feelings. He didn’t stop to evaluate anyone’s worthiness or value. He wasn’t foolish in testing God, but simply lived out God’s love. It’s actually a very simple call that he gives to us - to do like him - to live lives with the same shape and size of Jesus’ love - as much as we are able, and then just like always, a little bit more.
So let us pray. Holy and Perfect God, may we be vessels of your love today. We are all of us a little flawed and a little inadequate, but you have chosen to bring your love into the world through us. No matter our own fear or shame or the resistance of others, let your love shine through us. Help us to heed your call - to the intimate and the stranger, ally and enemy, welcoming and bristly, let us convey your love for their sake, which is your sake, and not our own. Fill us to overflowing, filling our skinny passions, with your deep, life-giving love that is not ours for the keeping. Thank you, for those who have shared such passion and depth of love with us, and may we simplify our lives in the singular quest of offering not only the magnitude of love, but of grace and forgiveness - whenever and however you enable us to do so. For such gifts, all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
August 26, 2018
14th Sunday after Pentecost
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
How can a person go eight days without sleep? They sleep at night.
The other day, as the glovebox of my car was being cleaned out, I got to wondering, seriously, does anyone keep gloves in the glove box of their car? Or does anyone keep a foot in a foot locker, for that matter? Going back to the glove thing, I wonder, too, how it came to be called a glovebox. Did people leave gloves in cars back in the day? Where they afraid of the wind blowing the gloves out of the cars or someone stealing them? While we’re in the mode of question asking, what is the best question anyone has ever asked you?
As a good Minnesotan, I truly took the teaching about humility to heart - for a long time. In fact, like a host of others, self-esteem is not always my best friend. I don’t remember the exact words, but one day, when I was speaking with one of my ministry mentors about how everyone else is more deserving of about everything than I was, she asked me ‘what made me so special that God would raise you above everyone else’? She’d turned what I thought was humility onto it’s head - that of superiority, and it was one of those moments that a question truly changed my life. Not that I don’t still struggle with stuff, but I can still see her face and hear the reproof in her voice those twenty some years ago.
Jesus said a lot of things during his three years of ministry, but he also asked a lot of questions. Some of his questions were rhetorical: Which of you who has a sheep that falls into a pit on the Sabbath will not take hold of it and lift it out? (Matt 12:11) Some were simple and straightforward: “What do you want me to do for you?” (Matt 20:32) Sometimes he asked multiple choice questions: “which is greater, the gold or the temple that makes the gold sacred? (Matt 23:17-19) He used accusatory questions: “Why do you make trouble for the woman?” (Matt. 26:10) And then there are the questions that go right to the heart: “Who do you say I am?” (Matt. 16:15)
This morning’s scripture passage has some interesting questions, too. It follows Jesus feeding the 5,000+ and the walking on water event. The first “miracle” in this 6th chapter was witnessed by thousands of individuals directly affected by that same miracle, and a second “miracle” was witnessed by the twelve disciples only. When the crowds realized that Jesus was missing, they went looking for him the next day on the other side of the lake on which he walked. Then things started to get really weird, and Jesus started talking about things that either made no sense or were gruesome, to say the least.
56 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. 57 Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” 59 He said this while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum.
Many Disciples Desert Jesus
60 On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”
61 Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you? 62 Then what if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! 63 The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life. 64 Yet there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him. 65 He went on to say, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them.”
66 From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.
67 “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve.
68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.”
Thank you, Bill. Giving this passage a little more context, when it was written, the Lord’s Supper wasn’t practiced as it is now. They ate meals together, but the tradition of holiness had not yet been bestowed onto bread and wine, so the readers and listeners of this scenario most likely took it more literally than we do today. What confused the people of the day even more was when Jesus mentioned the word “manna.”
In case it’s been a while, manna was the heavenly wonder-bread that kept the Israelites alive on their forty year wilderness wandering. Every morning, they would pick up as much as they needed for the day. Any leftovers rotted overnight. Breakfast, lunch and dinner; manna. Manna pancakes, maybe with pine nuts they may have found along the way, manna sandwiches, made with manna and maybe some dandelion leaves for a little tang or some prickly pear sauce for dessert. But then there was manna for dinner - manna souffle, roasted manna with sage and manna dressing, or manna chops, with a little side of yucca crustinis, made with yucca and manna. Forty years of manna this and manna that, but the complaints about the manna weren’t really about the manna, but about the lack of trust in God that it represented.
At first the Israelites were massively impressed with the availability and no-cost of their provision, but forty years of three meals a day comes to the modest little number of nearly 44,000 dishes of manna per man, woman and child. God had provided 23,783 manna meals, but would God really provide number 23,784? Was God really leading them after 34 years of touring in the desert? Sure, God had taken care of them over the course of a few dozen decades, but what about tomorrow? Which all boils down to the question of trust - trust that God would truly take care of them.
144 decades later, people stuck with Jesus, who called himself the manna of his day, listening to his words, followed by questions; questions big enough to dissuade them from continuing their following of Christ. There seemed to be only two options: follow Jesus or not. When given the options, Peter’s answer revealed the singularity of the answers - for him and the disciples: You’re the one with the answers, Jesus, so we pick you.
We can say we pick Jesus, too, but sometimes we have a little trouble wondering about his follow-through. Sure - you got me through the cancer before, but what about this time? You were my grandmother’s best friend, Jesus, but I’m not feeling it so much myself. The disciples were - for the most part - totally devoted to Christ, but none of them escaped pain or difficulty or ridicule or old age. We - like the disciples - and even the Israelites of long ago - have options, even if the options are rather few in number. So why tie up our boat to God’s dock? In all the freedom of will that we have been given, the question Jesus asked the disciples back then still hovers over us: “Are you going to leave me, too?”
Truth be told, it may have been easier during Jesus’ earthly lifetime, because there he was performing miracles and healings and all sorts of other-worldly chores. But without his earthly presence, it’s much easier to “take a walk” than to take a stand for Christ.
The other day, I was listening to the classical music radio station, which was celebrating the 100th anniversary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth. They played a spot of the overture he wrote for the operetta, Candide, and as it was playing in the background, the person being interviewed mentioned that when the New York Philharmonic Orchestra plays that piece, a member of the orchestra gives a downbeat, and then the rest of the piece is played without a conductor. It is their homage to the composer-conductor that his spirit lives on in the assembly of that body of musicians.
Our homage to God, through Christ and the Holy Spirit, is in the coming together each week, giving our time to receiving and giving encouragement to one another, collectively lifting up our praise of God and the offering of our hearts to some of the most outstanding sermons ever preached on the face of the earth.
Over the last 200 decades, not much has changed since Christ rose from the grave. We still have the Holy Spirit, we still have God’s Holy Word, we still have our witness to what God has done in our lives. And yet, because we are so very human, we still sometimes have doubts. And we still have Peter’s question: “Lord, to whom would we go?” What is our alternative?
We have Peter’s answer - Christ has the words of eternal life - words that are so much bigger and longer and deeper and broader than our human minds can comprehend. Like the disciples and the Israelites, our job is to merely have the faith, one minute and moment at a time, that God is leading and guiding us as we make our way back home to eternal life.
There was a French philosopher, mathematician and physicist in the 1600’s names Blaise Pascal. He came up with a philosophical “argument” that has become known as Pascal’s Wager. His “wager” is that the wise thing to do is to live your life as if God does exist because such a life has everything to gain and nothing to lose - even if a person doesn’t really believe in God. If God doesn’t exist, then what have we really lost? It’s a sort of apathetic reason for choosing to follow Christ, but somedays, even apathetic reasons have validity.
Until then, God offers us opportunities to strengthen our faith - stretching it and exercising it in ways that are not always to our liking. But still, Jesus keeps saying, “You have come this far, come a little farther. You have committed this much, commit a little more. You love these people in this arena, now open your arms to these people over here. You have compassion for the one hurting person in front of you, now broaden that compassion to all hurting people in God’s world.”
As it came time to wrap up this morning’s message, it seemed that a prayer written in the 1500’s by Teresa of Avila might be tweaked to serve as our ending prayer. So let us.
God of Light and Life, let nothing disturb us. Let nothing frighten us. We know that all things pass, that you don’t change. Help us to have the patience that achieves everything. Remind us often, that whoever has you, lacks nothing, that you are more than sufficient. Help us, too, to remember that Christ has no body now on earth but ours; no hands but ours; no feet but ours. Ours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ looks out on the world. Ours are the feet with which He is to go about doing good. Ours are the hands with which He is to bless His people. For the gifts of healing and purpose and love and forgiveness and every other thing under the sun, all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
August 19, 2018
13th Sunday after Pentecost
“Stop. Right There.”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Children’s Time: Finding the Differences (in two similar but different pictures)
I don’t know if there are people willing to claim the origin of these thoughts, but I came across some dandy thoughts. Don't sweat the petty things, and don't pet the sweaty things. One nice thing about egotists is that they don't talk about other people. Age is a very high price to pay for maturity. If all the world is a stage, where is the audience sitting? If the #2 pencil is the most popular, why is it still #2? If you try to fail, and succeed, which have you done?
Our scripture passage for this morning is probably a familiar one to many an ear here today. Indeed, I have crafted a sermon or two over the last 20 years using it. But when I read this morning’s passage, I almost instantly stopped. It’s a take-off of the passage from last week, when the topic was developing our own kinder and gentler spirit as a testimony to God’s work in us.
Ephesians 5:15-20 (NIV)
15 Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, 16 making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. 17 Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. 18 Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, 19 speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, 20 always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Thank you, Mary. As I said, I had hardly started reading, and was prompted to stop. “Be very careful, then, how you live - not as unwise but as wise.” In many ways, it’s not an earth-shattering statement. But in other ways, it’s got gusto. Or as I’ve heard that is said in the upper peninsula, It’s got go.
There is a word, sapience, which means ultimate reality or the ultimate truth of things. According to Wikipedia, “Wisdom, or sapience is the ability to think and act using knowledge, experience, understanding, common sense and insight. Wisdom is associated with attributes such as compassion, experiential self-knowledge, non-attachment and virtues such as ethics and benevolence.” Those who like to sort out differences have categorized wisdom into two large groups: sophia is the Greek word meaning wisdom and phronesis is the Greek word for prudence and/or practical intelligence. Interestingly enough, while the worlds of theology and management recognize wisdom, the psychological world does not.
It’s also interesting that so much has been written about wisdom. Knowing that the sanctuary would be warm, hoping to help you all stay awake, there are numbered quotes that have been attached to various bulletins throughout the congregation this morning. Each has been numbered, and if you have one of those notes, if you would stand and read it aloud, including the name and designation of the author when it is your turn, something may take your mind away onto God’s side sermon this morning. And worry not, I’ll keep each of our contestants on track with the numbers. So, who has number one?
1. “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” ― Socrates, Greek Philosopher
2. “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” ― Aristotle, Greek Philosopher
3. “Any fool can know. The point is to understand.” ― Albert Einstein, German Physicist
4. “The unexamined life is not worth living.” ― Socrates, Greek Philosopher
5. “By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.” ― Confucius, Chinese Philosopher
6. “Angry people are not always wise.” ― Jane Austen, Author
7. “There are three things all wise men fear: the sea in storm, a night with no moon, and the anger of a gentle man.” ― Patrick Rothfuss, Author
8. “Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom.
9. Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power.” ― Lao Tzu, Chinese Philosopher
10. “Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.” ― Rumi, Persian Poet
11, “The only way to get through life is to laugh your way through it. You either have to laugh or cry. I prefer to laugh. Crying gives me a headache.” ― Marjorie Pay Hinckley, Later Day Saints Member
12. “Don’t Gain The World & Lose Your Soul, Wisdom Is Better Than Silver Or Gold.” ― Bob Marley, Jamaican Singer-Songwriter
13. “Knowledge speaks, but wisdom listens” ― Jimi Hendrix, American Singer-Songwriter
14. “The mind once enlightened cannot again become dark.” ― Thomas Paine,
15. “We can know only that we know nothing. And that is the highest degree of human wisdom.” ― Leo Tolstoy, Russian Author
16. “Music is ... A higher revelation than all Wisdom & Philosophy” ― Ludwig van Beethoven, German Composer
17. “The desire to reach for the stars is ambitious. The desire to reach hearts is wise.” ― Maya Angelou, American Poet
18. “The more I read, the more I acquire, the more certain I am that I know nothing.”
― Voltaire, French Philosopher
19. “We shall not cease from exploration, And the end of all our exploring, Will be to arrive where we started, And know the place for the first time.” ― T.S. Eliot, American Author
20. “The older I grow, the more I distrust the familiar doctrine that age brings wisdom.”
― H.L. Mencken, American Journalist
21. “Authority without wisdom is like a heavy axe without an edge, fitter to bruise than polish.” ― Anne Bradstreet, Puritan Poet
22. “Common sense in an uncommon degree is what the world calls wisdom.”
― Samuel Taylor Coleridge, English Poet
23. “Wonder is the beginning of wisdom.” ― Socrates, Greek philosopher
24. “It is unwise to be too sure of one's own wisdom. It is healthy to be reminded that the strongest might weaken and the wisest might err.” ― Mahatma Gandhi, Indian Author
25. “Half of seeming clever is keeping your mouth shut at the right times.” ― Patrick Rothfuss, American Author
26. “Life would be tragic if it weren't funny.” ― Stephen Hawking, English Scientist
27. “Honesty is the first chapter of the book wisdom.” ― Thomas Jefferson, American President
28. “It is one thing to be clever and another to be wise.” ― George R.R. Martin, American Author
29. “Having children makes you no more a parent than having a piano makes you a pianist.” ― Michael Levine, American Author
30. “If we encounter a man of rare intellect, we should ask him what books he reads.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson, American Author
31. “A wise man will make more opportunities than he finds.” ― Francis Bacon, English Philosopher
32. “I believe that what we become depends on what our fathers teach us at odd moments, when they aren't trying to teach us. We are formed by little scraps of wisdom.” ― Umberto Eco, Italian Author
Thank you all for participating in the Frankfort Congregational Church wisdom-athon. Feel free to see if the person who read your favorite is willing to give it up. Like so many things, I think that each of these thoughts has a little bit of the truth attached to them. Being intelligent is nice, but without wisdom, it is merely a brain thing. Being smart is good, but without wisdom, it is impersonal. Being savvy can be good, but without wisdom, it can be hurtful, too. Wisdom is an ancient concept, and not necessarily one to which we aspire these days. We might first pray for patience or for situations to work out the way we want, but perhaps wisdom ought be the first thing to pop into our mind when it comes to praying.
Our scripture passage gives us ways of acting wisely; for instance, making the most of opportunities, singing to and with each other, and being thankful. Those are things that we can do - mark off on a list - perhaps even on our own steam. It also says to be filled with the Spirit, which is not just a one-sided venture, but one in which we and God work together - in giving us the best well-spring for all that takes place in our lives. If we remember, too, to whom the book of Ephesians was written, we are reminded that this wisdom of which the apostle Paul wrote, is what marks people as being followers of Christ - like the contrast between the wild west of Ephesus and the civility of Christ followers. This wisdom is not a dividing line, but an inclusionary circumference, that gathers God’s people into “the” church.
This wisdom idea seems like a big, heavy deal, and in many ways, it is. But it is also easier because we don’t work toward it alone. It is God’s wisdom for which we are to pray. It would be flattering to pray for Dinah’s wisdom, I know, but every time I think I’m up to take the God test, seems that I mess up right before it.
The tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, rises more than 2,700 feet—over half a mile tall. It has 160 floors and is twice as tall as the Empire State Building in New York City. It is home to the world’s fastest elevator that travels at 40 miles per hour. The Burj Khalifa also hosts the world’s highest outdoor observation deck (on the 124th floor) and the world’s highest swimming pool (on the 76th floor).
The secret to the stability of this massive building is found underground. Before construction began to rise up, workers spent a year digging and pouring the massive foundation that supports the building. The foundation contains some 58,900 cubic yards of concrete weighing more than 110,000 tons. The building is safe because the foundation is solid. Let us shore up our foundations as we pray.
God of Wisdom and Power, instill in us - and all your people - a greater desire for wisdom. We are grateful for the knowledge and experience you given each of us, but help us to follow you more closely, with more wisdom, that others would be attracted to you and your way of life through us. And help us to use that wisdom in ways that honor you, that we be part of creating, with you, your Kingdom. For answering all our prayers, in your wisdom, all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
July 15, 2018
8th Sunday after Pentecost
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Fresh out of business school, the young man answered a want ad for an accountant. He was being interviewed by a very nervous man who ran a small business that he had started himself. "I need someone with an accounting degree," the man said. "But mainly, I'm looking for someone to do my worrying for me."
"Excuse me?" the accountant said. "I worry about a lot of things," the man said. "But I don't want to have to worry about money. Your job will be to take all the money worries off my back.” "I see," the accountant said. "And how much does the job pay?” "I'll start you at eighty thousand.” "Eighty thousand dollars!" the accountant exclaimed. "How can such a small business afford a sum like that?” "That," the owner said, "is your first worry."
I’ve been reading the last of a series by Bernard Cornwell, about an English archer from the 1300s who is on quests to find certain things. In this last book, one of the things he is looking for is the back story for a picture he comes across. It’s an outdoor scene, in the winter, and while there are a couple of buildings in the background, the focal point is of a monk, sleeping on the ground. It may sound rather usual, except that while there is snow piled up all around the monk, he is sleeping peacefully on the grass and there’s no snow on him. Scenarios like that painting, of peace while being surrounded by a tempestuous storm, is part of the picture that came to mind when thinking about this morning’s scripture passage - after thinking about it.
Before we get to the passage, there is a word that will come up in the version that will be read from The Message: the word signet. For the those who haven’t watched a lot of movies from the 13, 14 and 1500’s, a signet is a seal, either like a stamp or a ring, that is pressed into liquid wax or ink that seals a letter or marks the paper that people sometimes use instead of writing their name or in addition to their name, to make papers and letters official.
Ephesians 1:1-14 (NIV)
1-2 I, Paul, am under God’s plan as an apostle, a special agent of Christ Jesus, writing to you faithful believers in Ephesus. I greet you with the grace and peace poured into our lives by God our Father and our Master, Jesus Christ.
The God of Glory
3-6 How blessed is God! And what a blessing he is! He’s the Father of our Master, Jesus Christ, and takes us to the high places of blessing in him. Long before he laid down earth’s foundations, he had us in mind, had settled on us as the focus of his love, to be made whole and holy by his love. Long, long ago he decided to adopt us into his family through Jesus Christ. (What pleasure he took in planning this!) He wanted us to enter into the celebration of his lavish gift-giving by the hand of his beloved Son.
7-10 Because of the sacrifice of the Messiah, his blood poured out on the altar of the Cross, we’re a free people—free of penalties and punishments chalked up by all our misdeeds. And not just barely free, either. Abundantly free! He thought of everything, provided for everything we could possibly need, letting us in on the plans he took such delight in making. He set it all out before us in Christ, a long-range plan in which everything would be brought together and summed up in him, everything in deepest heaven, everything on planet earth.
11-12 It’s in Christ that we find out who we are and what we are living for. Long before we first heard of Christ and got our hopes up, he had his eye on us, had designs on us for glorious living, part of the overall purpose he is working out in everything and everyone.
13-14 It’s in Christ that you, once you heard the truth and believed it (this Message of your salvation), found yourselves home free—signed, sealed, and delivered by the Holy Spirit. This signet from God is the first installment on what’s coming, a reminder that we’ll get everything God has planned for us, a praising and glorious life.
Thank you, Peyton. There’s a pastor named Nadia Bolz Weber, whom I’d love to meet. She and I don’t bear much resemblance from any which way you would look at us. She’s tall, thin, wears sleeveless black shirts with tab collars like Catholic and Lutheran clergy wear - since she’s a Lutheran pastor. She often uses hair product to add to the style that she boldly wears on her long arms, that are covered in grand tattoos in vivid colors, which are just as vivid as her language. She’s currently looking for a new gig, having just resigned from the last church that she started, called The House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado.
In a sermon she wrote for a bunch of Lutheran pastors, she talked about worry. She said, “I began to realize that, on some level, worry is nothing more than fear. Fear that either I will not get something I want or fear that something I have will be taken away. And both of those fears seem to be centered on finitude.” She goes on to remind her colleagues that while there is finitude - limits and bounds - to the stuff of earth, that Jesus reminds us that there is no finitude to God’s grace and love.
It was at a miniature golf course on a brutally hot day when Lena saw a father with 3 kids. "Who's winning?" Lena asked cheerfully. "I am" said one. "No, I am" said another. "No," the father said. "Their mother is!"
I came across a quote this week by author Sam Keen that is just luscious. “Deep summer is when laziness finds respectability.” Then there was this one by Nancy Gibbs. “What is it about summer that makes children grow? We feed and water them more. They do get more sun, but that probably doesn't matter as much as the book they read or the rule they broke that taught them something they couldn't have learned any other way.”
We are in the height of vacation time in Benzie County, including all the family and guests and celebrations that happen during these precious weeks. Even as I am thinking ahead to my tribe coming east for a week in August, I find myself thinking of all the things that we could be doing during their time, and in some small way, find that “thinking”, although it may not be worry, it is certainly an entity that lives rent free in my head, thus being robbed of opportunities to just “be” - with a movie or brushing a cat or sitting on a porch.
Maybe there are some others today, beside myself, that need the reminder to not get too caught up in “what to do” and just let things happen a little more. I’m guessing that there are not a lot of folks that have deep-seated theological angst among us today, but should there be, take another run at this morning’s passage, a phrase at a time, and let it ruminate in your head.
As theologian, Scott Hoezee said, “in a mere fourteen verses Paul manages to include every significant topic of Christian theology. The Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Redemption. The seal of the Holy Spirit. Salvation by grace alone. The doctrines of creation and providence. Eschatology. Faith. Sanctification. The proclamation of the gospel. It’s all here. Of course, each topic could be fleshed out, but by the time you finished fleshing them out, what you would have would be close to a complete seminary curriculum.
Hoezee finished his point with this. “But let me point out something even more remarkable. Throughout these verses–words that range over the height and breadth of all theology–we human beings are all but completely passive. God is the chief actor and is the subject of every active verb.”
One of the other passages that goes along with the one from Ephesians today is the 23rd Psalm, the shepherding psalm about lying down in green pastures, beside quiet streams and head anointing. Seems there’s more to that aspect of faith, too.
I saw a post on Facebook about sheep getting horrid little flies laying eggs in their nostrils which turn into worms and drive the sheep to beat their head against a rock, sometimes to death. I looked it up, and yes, sheep get diseases, their ears and eyes susceptible to tormenting insects. So the shepherd anoints their whole head with oil. Then there is peace. That oil forms a barrier of protection against the pests that tries to destroy the sheep. This passage from Ephesians 1, is like that protective barrier for our minds and hearts, that God has all things in hand, so that we can do the ultimate of unwinding in the gift we are given in lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer.
I don’t know about the veracity of the story, but apparently there was a timid older lady who approached the front desk of an insurance office during the great depression. When she was asked what she wanted, with trembling hand, she took from her well-worn purse an old policy and explained regretfully that she was unable to meet the current premium. She explained that it was hard for her to get work and what little she did get was hardly enough to clothe, feed her and keep a roof over her head.
After quick investigation, the clerk recognized that the policy was very valuable. He warned the lady that she was making an unwise move to stop payment. Did not her husband have anything to say? It was his policy made out to her benefit, he explained. “My husband? Oh, he has been dead for three years,” she remarked sadly.
Immediately the company officials went into action. They soon discovered that she was indeed telling the truth. What she didn't understand was that the policy was her husband’s and that she was the beneficiary at his death. The company rightfully refunded the overpaid premiums plus the full amount for which the husband had insured his life in her favor. The money was sufficient to keep her in comfort the rest of her life.
As the great Desmond Tutu puts it, “There is nothing we can do to make God love us more” and “there is nothing we can do to make God love us less.” It’s a done deal, so if there is any worry about where you sit, in terms of the state of your heart and mind, you can check that one off your list, sit back in the sand, under the umbrella or on the rocker of the front porch, and sit a spell with the blessedness of being loved by the very God who did not send God’s Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Let us pray.
Merciful and Lavish God, we thank you for the abundance with which you bless our lives, most especially for those things to which we give the least thought. Help us to set aside some time in the coming week, if even ever so briefly, to bask in the glory of your love for us. Help tormented minds to unwind a little, that they can rest - really rest - in your love, grace, mercy, forgiveness, wisdom, joy and provision. Then out of that blessedness, help us to treat those around us a little more tenderly, with more kindness and patience than we can do on our own, that we take up our apprenticeship with you in the care of your kingdom a little more refreshed. For blessings and purpose and direction, all your people say, Amen.