First Congregational Church
November 26, 2017
Christ the King Sunday
“The Spirit of Wisdom and Revelation”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
In an effort to assist in removing any remaining tryptophan inhibiting the little grey cells, Q: When is a 'piece of wood' like a King? A. When it's a ruler! Q: Which one of Henry VIII's wives enjoyed playing golf? A: Catharine Par. Q: What do Richard the Lionheart and Winnie the Pooh have in common? A: The same middle name! Q: What member of the royal family should always carry an umbrella? A: the Reigning Monarch!
Though not a king, Pope Pius XI, in 1925 and in response to growing secularism, determined that there should be a special Sunday, a feast Sunday in Catholic churches, to remember and honor the holy combination of Christ’s deity and reign as the Son of God.
Wanting to give this feast day all the solemnity it is due, in 1970 it was determined that this Christ the King Sunday should fall on the last Sunday before the beginning of the new church year, that being the first Sunday in Advent. Because of our calendar, sometimes Christ the King and the First Sunday in Advent fall on the same day. This year, Christ the King gets its very own day. For whatever reasons, many Protestant churches took up the celebration of The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, as is its proper name.
For a good many Protestants, giving attention to this day may seem irrelevant. But Christ the King Sunday marks the ending of a year and sets the scene for the wondrous unfolding and waiting of Advent. And it can bring us back in touch with some of the breadth and depth of Christ, not only in celebrating the King of Kings, but the servant and Shepherd King, the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End, the Beloved Son of God, the Chief Cornerstone, Immanuel, our Great High Priest, the Good Shepherd, Light of the World, the Lamb of God, Messiah, Redeemer, our Rock, the Way, the Truth and the Life, Wonderful Counselor and the host of other names by which Jesus is known. There are way more names of Jesus than you can shake a stick at, and without them, I think our faith would be more shallow and less meaningful.
To celebrate this special day, our scripture passage comes from the book of Ephesians. It’s an appropriate book for this day, because Ephesus, being the most easily accessed city in Asia, both by land and sea, was a hub for a plethora of different religions. According legend, Ephesus was founded by a tribe of the Amazons, and after numerous take-overs and invasions, by the time we get to this morning’s passage, Ephesus was ruled by Rome and Caesar. It is against this backdrop that Paul developed the main theme of his letter to the Ephesians: "the Church, which is the Body of Christ.”
Ephesians 1:15-23 (NIV)
Thanksgiving and Prayer
15 For this reason, ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all God’s people, 16 I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers. 17 I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. 18 I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, 19 and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength 20 he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, 21 far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. 22 And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.
Thank you, Michael Grant. Amy Peeler, Associate Professor of New Testament, Wheaton College, Wheaton, Ill had a great way of giving this passage a little more shape - as in a sandwich. She said, “Paul has begun and ended this section with comments about the Ephesians, their faith and their participation in the church, but it is the meat in the middle that gives the bread on the outside its identity as a sandwich. In other words, they know who they are because they are coming to know who God in Christ is.
It is, I think, fascinating that this theological sandwich is really one long sentence in the original Greek: a 169 word sentence. And much of it hinges on the part from verse 16, where Paul says, “I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers.” He starts with a prayer of thanksgiving, but then he moves on to prayers of supplication, asking God to give the Ephesians the Spirit of Wisdom and Revelation, a power like that which raised Jesus from the dead to the place that is above all power, rule, authority and dominion.
Think about that for a minute. There are some mighty prayers out there, the Lord’s Prayer, the Serenity Prayer, the Irish Blessing. None of them, however, ask for the Spirit of Wisdom AND Revelation. What if we started praying that for each other - for those in this place, certainly. But what if we started to pray for a Spirit of Wisdom and Revelation for our friends who attend other churches, acquaintances and unknown people who attend other kinds of churches, even synagogues, mosques and atheists? What would the kingdom of God on earth look like?
I think, in someways, the idea of having a Spirit of Wisdom and Revelation is linked to a maturation of faith, a growing up in God that begins to better understand Christ’s place in the universe and the church’s participation - as a whole body - in Christ’s sovereignty. It is an understanding that appreciates both the greatness and the intimacy of God’s love for us.
In some ways, a Spirit of Wisdom and Revelation would be a better version of the world in which we live. But I wonder if it would be a little like C.S. Lewis’ “Chronicles of Narnia,” when the children at one point walk into what appeared from the outside to be no more than a shabby little building. But once they step into it, they discover a vastness they could not have guessed at before. “Why,” Lucy exclaims, “it’s bigger on the inside than on the outside.” “Yes,” another character replies, “something like that once happened on earth. In a place called Bethlehem there was a tiny stable whose inside was bigger than its outside because that stable contained the whole world.”
Lest we focus only on a future world of such maturation, wisdom and revelation, those aspects of life are here with us now. The idea of understanding the majesty and sovereignty of Christ in the spirit of wisdom and revelation pairs perfectly with a verse from Philippians 2, “Therefore God exalted him (Christ) to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth….”
But - and no good sermon worth its salt is without a “but,” How can one be bigger than the entire solar systems and yet still have one’s on the sparrow? How can you be mightier than the sum total of every president, king, queen, prime minister, dictator, and ruler on the earth right now and yet at also be concerned for the welfare of the widow and the orphan?
For a while, I would send an article I thought interesting to my niece. I probably sent the articles without any explanation or my understanding of their relevance, which was definitely a mistake. I didn’t understand that my niece took these articles as threats to her parenting skills. Now the articles weren’t all about parenting, but just stuff I thought she might find interesting, some on parenting, probably, but not all.
After she blew up at me for her perceived attack on parenting, in some wondrous, revelatory way, I understood that I could argue about the intent of my digital gifts till the cows came home, but my niece needs to learn her lessons herself. Much as I’d love to try to spare her and my nephew some of the heartache I’ve encountered over all 35 years of my life, I only learned the lessons because I learned them myself.
Scott Hoezee said something similar. "Each generation of believers should challenge all the notions concerning the identity of God. Christians should be involved in a self-discovery of God: asking new questions, discovering new ways of seeing and relating to God.”
In some Eastern and Greek Orthodox churches, there is a huge icon, or painting of Christ, on the ceiling or the front of the church. This art type is called a Pantocrator, which is Greek for “Ruler of All.” In these works of art, Jesus seems to stare directly out at you with wide and often rather stern eyes. His outer robe is deep blue, symbolizing the majesty and mystery of God and the tunic he wears under this robe is red, symbolizing Jesus’ shed blood. In his left hand Jesus holds a Bible, and his right hand is raised to give a blessing, with two fingers held up and the other three fingers held together, symbolizing the two natures of Christ (divine and human) and the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The size, awe and grandeur of these works seem to dwarf the one looking at the icon and certainly leaves one with a sense of a stern Ruler of All. In some of those same places of holiness, there are other works of art, smaller, at a more human level that gives Jesus a gentler facial expression and kinder eyes.
There are layers to the Good News of Christ, that Christ rose from the dead and promises that those who follow him will be raised from the dead, too. And there is the Good News that Christ sent us the Holy Spirit so that we are never alone in continuing Christ’s ministry on earth. There are undoubtedly scores of other layers to the Good News of Christ, but for today, there is the layer that is the miracle of God’s Holy Spirit, as huge as the Ruler of All that can collapse down into something shaped just like and fit into the human heart. And with that Good News comes the power of the Holy Spirit that can do what seems far beyond reality. So let us enter into this week, mindful of the power of God’s gifts of wisdom and revelation that God’s Holy Spirit gives us.
God of Wisdom and Revelation, we thank you for these powerful gifts that we too often take for granted or fail to recognize. We pray for your Spirit to develop better - deeper and richer - wisdom and revelation in our own lives, that they may help us to mature in our faith and following of Christ. For the grace that you call us into ministry with you to help others understand you and all your gifts, we thank you. Help us to better appreciate the gift that is wisdom and revelation that permeates our hearts - now and in all our days this week and years and all time. For all the answers to our prayers and gifts of your Trinity, all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
November 19, 2017
24th Sunday after Pentecost, Thanksgiving Sunday
Deuteronomy 8:7-18 & 2 Corinthians 9:6-15
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
I never thought about it before, but have you ever thought about how many Thanksgiving jokes there are? And the number of topics - from turkeys to pilgrims to food to really bad puns. And some jokes are so old, I’m guessing they may have been graffitied into the Mayflower - like if the pilgrims were alive today, what would they be most famous for? Their age.
I did have to inwardly chuckle at the cartoon of the turkey in front of a computer, saying, “I wonder what it means when the farmer unfriends me on Facebook.” The one that would be called Dinah’s joke is the one where I’m picking through the frozen turkeys at the grocery store, but can’t find the right size. Because I’m in a hurry, with a thousand other things in my mind, I asked an employee, “Do these turkeys get any bigger?” The employee answers, “No ma’am, they’re dead.” That’s when I know I need to take a step back and claim this joke as mine.
I think part of the attraction or endearment of holidays are the traditions - until they can no longer be traditions because someone breaks up, divorces, there’s a death, or there’s a move, and all those traditions become harder - perhaps more so in facing the necessity to change.
Between the good and ill of todays’ politics, there is great room for contemplation and thinking. While modern day Thanksgiving has become more associated with commerce, food and football, the dark side of our historic Thanksgiving has been receiving more attention - that dark side being the deaths and killings of people who had no say in the arrival of non-native peoples to this land - including the death and sickness of infants and children. But if that’s where our Thanksgiving stops - in either the acknowledgement or disagreement - then we are cheating ourselves - and God.
Our first scripture passage today comes from the Pentateuch - the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy is a book that consists of three sermons delivered to the Israelites by Moses on the plains of Moab, shortly before they enter the Promised Land. It is comprised of 34 chapters that 1) recounts the Israelites forty years of wilderness wanderings, 2) reminds the Israelites of the need for a single God belief system with the observance of the laws God gave them, and 3) offers the comfort that even should the chosen people prove unfaithful and so lose the land, with repentance all can be restored, a la, Ms. Wikipedia. Perhaps it might be thought of - in really broad terms - as the past, the present and the future of Israel.
Anyway, this morning’s passage is part of that first sermon, perhaps delivered from a vantage point near the Dead Sea that allowed the listeners to look out over the land, as Moses perhaps used his best sermon hand gestures.
The second passage for this morning comes from the hand of Paul, who, feeling his authority attacked a little by the people of Corinth, wrote to remind them of his love for them and their mission as followers of Christ.
Deuteronomy 8:7-18 (NIV)
7 For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land—a land with brooks, streams, and deep springs gushing out into the valleys and hills; 8 a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and honey; 9 a land where bread will not be scarce and you will lack nothing; a land where the rocks are iron and you can dig copper out of the hills.
10 When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you. 11 Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day. 12 Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, 13 and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, 14 then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. 15 He led you through the vast and dreadful wilderness, that thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions. He brought you water out of hard rock. 16 He gave you manna to eat in the wilderness, something your ancestors had never known, to humble and test you so that in the end it might go well with you. 17 You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” 18 But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your ancestors, as it is today.
2 Corinthians 9:6-15 (NIV)
6 Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. 7 Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 8 And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. 9 As it is written: “They have freely scattered their gifts to the poor; their righteousness endures forever.”
10 Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. 11 You will be enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.
12 This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of the Lord’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God. 13 Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, others will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else. 14 And in their prayers for you their hearts will go out to you, because of the surpassing grace God has given you. 15 Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!
Thank you, Tom. The Bible tells us it was God’s direction that the Israelites were “given” the Holy Land, but I’ve wondered about the people that were living there before the Israelites got there. I wonder, if in reality, most of where we are and what we have, as a world population, has come at the hands of those who were conquered and dismissed.
I am well aware that this message, up to this point, has been a little on the dark side, even more political than with what I am comfortable, and perhaps some feathers ruffled. But it’s precisely in those places, the dark places, the uncomfortable places, the disenfranchised places, the vulnerable places, the ‘I’d rather not look’ places where we need to find a way through. It’s in those places that we need to know where and what the Good News is. Regardless of whether the crop was good this year or not, while some have prospered and are filled with great thanks, others are suffering loss and disappointment. Is there a place where we all - regardless of situations, politics, or even our faith, can come to that place of true Thanksgiving?
I think that “place” is suggested in our scripture passages. The Deuteronomy passage alludes three times - and remember that three is a most divine number in the lives of the Hebrew people - to remember - or not forget the Lord our God. And the 2 Corinthians passage begins with the admonition “Remember this.” How nicely these two passages come together joining efforts and energies!
If any one of us could trade places with someone who lives in Texas, Louisiana, Florida, Georgia, Puerto Rico or any other place where water, fire and/or wind destroyed their present mode of life, what or who would our greatest Thanksgiving be about? What or who, over the past year, would be included in that memory list of goodness and blessing?
It is always right and good to thank God for the blessings we have so that we can give more abundantly. But if you take a good look at the first two verses from the 2 Corinthians passage, there’s no word about money or possessions. That one place where we can all join together in our focus on thanks this week is not about money or possessions or positions - although it is good to be thankful for them - but about that which we can sow for the Master Gardener - or Farmer - as the case may be - and the Master Farmer’s own self.
I’m sure a great many you would include spouses, family, and of course, your humble and amazing, favorite pastor, but how about remembering God’s part in your past year? I couldn’t find the name of the author, but over there at calvin.edu, someone wrote, “A good Thanksgiving is impossible without a keen memory. Only when we stir up our memory of the events of the past year, and recognize the hand of the Lord in them, will we be prompted to declare our thanks.”
I don’t know if it’s “impossible” to have a good Thanksgiving without a keen memory, or if we must stir up memories of the events of the past year, but the broader idea is pretty good. As the scripture passages seemed to hint, and from this keen insight by an anonymous journal contributor, there is a deep connection between remembering and giving thanks.
We can give God repeated thanks for this, that and the other, toothbrushes, and brussel sprouts and technology. But it is our remembrance of situations and the results of those situations that cause our thanks to God to be deeper and perhaps even more meaningful. And it may not always be the case, but I’d like to think that when we get to those deeper places of giving thanks, we are even more so moved to give thanks for the Giver - thanking God for giving us God’s self, even a human version of God’s self.
There are as many things for which to give thanks as there are stars in the sky. But none of those things - or stars - are even possible without The One who created them; The One who incidentally loves you more than you are generally cognizant. So let us begin our Remember-giving week.
Gracious and Loving Lord, we come before you this day with the beginning of memories over the past year that were brought about mostly by your hand, whether we realized it or not. As this week progresses, help us to remember more of those moments where your leading and guiding and love and mercy were so much a part of the moment; helping us to remember especially in those moments when we were most apt to forget about you. In this week, when we are reminded of how blessed we are to be your people, help us to peal back the blinders of separation and even elitism, even if we can peal back those blinders just a little bit. Help us to see the plenty that is there for all of us - all your people - those who look like us as well as those who don’t. And thank you for you, dear God, for your love and light and life and all that you are to us, and for taking our seeds of effort and the abilities you have given us and growing them into life that is sometimes beyond our realization. For the gift of faith which sees beyond the present moment and looks to eternity, we thank you. For the gift of faith small as a mustard seed, which has power within its simplicity, we thank you. For the strength and encouragement that comes in remembering and thanking you, all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
November 12, 2017
23rd Sunday after Pentecost
Matthew 25:1-13 & 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
“Oil For Our Lamps”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
In honor of our recent holiday, How do you get the most apples at Halloween? Take a snorkel. What is the left side of an apple? The part that you don't eat. Why didn’t the two worms go into Noah’s ark in an apple? Because everyone had to go in pairs! What did the worm want to do when he grew up? He wanted to join the Apple Core (Corps).
Apparently someone asked the great Martin Luther, “What would you do if you knew Jesus was coming again tomorrow?” And apparently his answer was, “I think I’d go out and plant an apple tree.” Not necessarily the answer any one of us might have guessed.
Our gospel passage today has nothing to do with apples, but the longer you look at it, the more questions bob to the surface. The passage is part of a larger sermon Jesus delivered two days before his final Passover, that starts way back in chapter 24, as Jesus is taking leave of a long day, teaching in the temple that started three chapters before that - according to Matthew’s accounting. He had to have been exhausted, dealing with the crowds that wanted a revolution and the plotting of the Pharisees and friends to get rid of him - and probably knowing something about his time on earth ending. So it’s no wonder that this parable is a little on the dark side.
Before Linda comes up to read the passages, I will encourage you all to pick up those pew Bibles and turn to page 1540, so you can read along, because I’d like to discover the holes your brains see in it.
While you’re doing that, and as for the second passage from today’s lectionary, it continues the letter written to the Thessalonians; a letter of encouragement to the church Paul had planted that seemed to be doing the best in balancing their lives in light of their new faith - as compared to other churches Paul had planted. It may seem odd, Paul reminding those early Christians about Christ’s return, but then, it was a letter written approximately 19 years after Christ’s death. I don’t know about any of you, but about all I can remember from 19 years ago is that it was my first year here, getting to know about this beautiful place, this delightful little church and the precious folks that have hung together while walking their - your - walks of faith. I am sure that I have forgotten a few things that happened in those early months, as I’m sure all the rest of you have forgotten a few things from 19 years ago.
“At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish and five were wise. 3 The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. 4 The wise ones, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. 5 The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.
6 “At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’
7 “Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’
9 “‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’ 10 “But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut. 11 “Later the others also came. ‘Lord, Lord,’ they said, ‘open the door for us!’ 12 “But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’
13 “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
13 Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. 14 For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. 15 According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.
Thank you, Linda. As I mentioned earlier, I am curious to see what some of you see - or don’t see - in the passage from Matthew. So go ahead, raise your ponderences.
Thank you all for your insights. It’s so tempting to assign roles in parables. The bridegroom would be Jesus, the ten virgins would be the people in the church, the oil for the lamps would be faith, and the bridegroom’s arrival would be the second coming of Christ at the end of history when there will be that ultimate sorting out process known as the last judgment. Rev. Hoezee also asked a great question, “Where is the bride, and who or what would she represent?”
Weren’t we taught - at least in Kindergarten if not before - that we’re supposed to share with others? And didn’t Jesus say, ““If someone asks you for your coat, give him your shirt, too”?
Steve Garnaas-Holmes had a great take on this parable. “Everybody in the story fails to be there for each other. The “wise” maidens could have shared. It wouldn't have killed them. But they make their sisters go shopping at midnight— and are happy to go to the party without them. They're not willing to be there for the others.
And the groom—in what way is he not a jerk? He won't let his friends come to the party—because they're late? After he himself has made them wait all night??And on top of that he insults them, saying, “I don't know you!” He vaporizes his friendship over
tardiness? Wow. What a prince of selfishness.”
Rev. Hoezee goes on. “So what's Jesus up to in this story? I think he's setting us up. We're so anxious to “get” the story, to believe something pious about it, to judge between wise and foolish, we miss the actual relationships—like the maidens out buying moral-of-the-story oil instead of just being there. Sometimes we're obsessed with our lamps instead of with each other. It really doesn't matter what we think, or how much “oil in our lamps” we have, or how well others meet our expectations. What matters is that we're there for each other.”
And Rev. Garnaas-Holmes final point is to “Pray that you might run out of oil, having given it away to be there for someone in need. Trust the Bridegroom will be happy for you to be there.“ Now that’s just one way to look at it.
Rev. Janet Hunt is a Lutheran pastor in Illinois, and her comments were a little closer to home - likening the passage to having a fully stocked pantry, but in the midst of the old family recipe, realizing that you are out of the one ingredient that makes the banana icebox dessert as sinful as it really is. So off to the store you go. Or having all the other sized sockets but the one you need to fix the bathtub. So off to the store you go. It’s not really about being foolish or wise, but about realizing that sometimes we forget that we need extra oil - or to check our oil containers.
Rev. Hunt talked about a particularly difficult week, one of those weeks that are as heartbreaking as they are dry, sprinkled with a measure of brokenness and unable to do anything but pray. She said she was surprised that she actually slept that night, because the week was wrapped in preparations for a weekend presentation she was to give and the next day was her annual physical.
Rev. Hunt said she was surprised that as she sat in her doctor’s office that afternoon, that the tears kept threatening to come. And she was even more surprised when the doctor asked how she was - and she told him. She said that, “in the next moments, for just an instance, my doctor became my pastor. Truly. For he spoke then of John 4 and urged me to return to the ‘fresh water’ which is always mine, always ours. In the image before us now, he held out the promise that the oil is always there for our lamps. All we have to do is receive it.
And isn’t this so? For today’s parable does not speak of there being a shortage of ‘oil for our lamps.’ It speaks only of those five bridesmaids forgetting that they would need it. As I sometimes do. As too often I do as well.”
“We have already have Jesus as we await the ‘bridegroom’s’ return,’ she said. We already have Jesus. If only we will pause long enough to recognize and receive this precious gift, it is already ours. All we have to do is fill our lamps.”
Then Susan Hylen, Associate Professor of New Testament, Emory University, Atlanta, Ga. pointed out that “the point of the parable is not constant readiness. “Keep awake” does not imply that the disciples should never sleep, standing vigil through the ages for Christ’s imminent return. In fact, all of the bridesmaids, wise and foolish, are asleep when the shout announces the groom’s approach…. The passage does not simply call for right action in the groom’s absence. It calls for recognition that he may be delayed.”
And then there is the Rev. Dinah Haag’s thought that combined with someone else’s thought that she couldn’t remember - of remembering how Jesus started the parable. “At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like”…. Maybe Jesus isn’t really talking about the short view, but the long view, the view that Paul alludes to in 1 Thessalonians. The short view is the one that sees the imminent end of everything, so there is no need to worry about taking care of the environment, working on long-term peace strategies among the nations and/or nurturing faith to deal with issues that may crop up in the future.
The long view isn’t the one that simply gazes at the horizon, waiting for Jesus to ride up on a nice piece of horse-flesh, either. It is the understanding that keeping our oil lamps trimmed and burning is about keeping “our lights shining as signs of promise and hope.” There is, I suppose, a great allure to think that this promise and hope stuff is not very practical. But what if, instead of it being the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas it was the First Congregational Church of Frankfort, MI?
Please understand, I’m not going for fear and paranoia here. But if we were in their steads, how much would we pay for hope and light? Or what if it were another sort of issue that would threaten the connection of the brothers and sisters we call our church family? We would, I’m sure, appreciate all the “oil” we could get from others, but maybe our passage reminds us to top off our own oil cans.
Maybe we need to remember that until Christ comes again, there are people to visit - in nursing homes and at home - not just by me - but by all of us - perhaps most especially to people we don’t really know well. Maybe you could use the introduction of “Dinah said we were supposed to find someone to visit, so I chose you.” Maybe we, like Martin Luther, need to do some seed planting for the future - regardless of whose future it might be.
Or maybe we need to not just think about other people that come to mind, but whoever comes to mind, that we lift up a real prayer for him or her. The thing is that while the prayer may be about the other person, it is also about us, about keeping our hearts supple and robust - oil cans filled and all. So let us start the refilling with some of that very prayer.
God of hearts and souls, we thank you for those individuals who have shared their oils of faith and light with us in the past, especially for those we may never realize had a part in who we are today. We pray for hope and promise for those you send our way, whether through our ears or our eyes or our hands, that we can help those people fill or refill their faith vessels. And we pray, too, that you remind us to lift our heads to see the further goal, of that life that will not require oil cans or lamp trimming or tear drying or worry or any of the other stones that can trip us in this life. Bless the oil of faith you have given each of us, that we can do more for you than we may ever anticipate. And all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
November 5, 2017
All Saints Sunday
Matthew 5:1-12 & 1 John 3:1-8
“Tending to the Work at Work In You”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
So you know when you do something rather unflattering, something that makes you feel embarrassed and/or something awkward happens, but you can’t help it and you long for a hole in the ground to swallow you up?
And then, you know when someone else does something rather unflattering unto themselves, and that that thing - in an embarrassing way - makes you feel so good, because it’s something that you are so apt to do? Like if George Clooney were to spill gravy on his shirt or Meryl Streep would trip on the Red Carpet.
Don’t get me wrong, I mean, you feel bad for the other individual, but it really, really, really blossoms up a sense of gratitude and normalcy inside you - that we are all very human beings. Although this morning’s gospel passage isn’t really funny or embarrassing, it certainly has aspects of being familiar, just because of our shared humanity - in a really good way. And somehow, regardless of how the lives of those younger than us turn out, we will have an eternal link with them, simply because we are all human and loved by God.
5 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them.
He said: 3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. 8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
1 John 3:1-8 (NIV)
3 See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 2 Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. 3 All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.
4 Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness. 5 But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin. 6 No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.
7 Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. The one who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. 8 The one who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.
Thank you, Chris. Of all the church holidays and holy days, I think the All Saints season is one of my favorites. I say season, because there is more to this one day than what meets the eye. The National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty has gone on record to say that “Hallowtide covers the three days – 31 October (All-Hallows Eve or Hallowe'en), 1 November (All Saints) and 2 November (All Souls).” Once word gets round that we’ve added all those who have been born to this holiday season, I’m pretty sure they will turn it into a four day event.
All Hallows Eve is a religious vigil or observance on the evening before - All Saints Day, being the celebration of all those who have died that has nothing to do with candy.
All Souls Day is the celebration of all the Christian souls that have died. It is during this three day period when “thin places” in the world become more noticeable or get more attention — a Celtic notion that during certain and special times, the distance between heaven and earth and sacred and secular seems more transparent. Interestingly, there is a Celtic saying that heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in the thin places that distance is even smaller.
Two of the most famous “thin places” in the world are the isle of Iona in Scotland and Santiago de Compostela in Spain. San Antonian retreat leader and author, Sylvia Maddox described one of her “thin places.” She said, “As I stood on the pebbled beach, the waves of the ocean seemed to whisper Jesus’ words,” I am with you.” These words could be said in a book, in a classroom, in a sermon, but in a thin place there is an immediacy of experience where words of faith become words of life.”
Maybe you have a “thin place” moment or two in your life, a place or time when you know how you felt, but you may not have all the words to express those feelings - feelings that somehow shifted your understanding of the world.
We all have loss in our lives - not just in death, but in diseases like Alzheimers or dementia, or harsh words. Or we lose a job, a marriage, a relationship, status, health, a home, or dignity. And while Jesus’ words in the Beatitudes are really good at first hearing, there is that hard under layer - the bitterness and pain that occurred when someone insulted you because of your faith, the unrighteousness from which righteousness seemed to shine like a beacon, the tears and loneliness that takes the place of a beloved.
But there is deeper good news. Not only are you sometimes poor in spirit or mourning or hungering and thirsting for righteousness, there are many, many others feeling the same way. Granted, we are all unique with unique situations. But too often we somehow think we are the only ones going through the stuff we have to go through. And not only are there others on whom we can lean for support, advice and even companionship, we have the promises from Jesus, via Matthew, that the hard parts of life will be redeemed, and the promise from the book of Revelation that God will “wipe away every tear” and the promise from our other passage for this morning - that we are children of God.
And Christ didn’t say, “One day you will be blessed,” but “Blessed are…” David Lose also pointed out that “blessing isn’t like the flu shot. Blessing doesn’t immunize you from pain or loss, and it’s not a guarantee of safe passage through this life unscathed. Rather, blessing is a sense of fullness, of contentment, of joy that is like, but also transcends, ordinary happiness. And like love and hope and so many other things, it can’t simply be mustered into existence but rather is responsive, springing forth in response to the love and promises of another.” - that “another” I’m guessing he means Christ.
While we are grateful for those precious individuals that have passed on to eternal life, and for those souls God has given us for their time on earth, God sees each one of us, knowing the grief that weighs down hearts, the depression or addictions that oppress us, the challenges that we face and uphill struggles we are contemplating. God sees them, honors them, accompanies them and blesses them. And when we struggle with the stuff of life, it doesn’t mean that we are being faithless, but that we are tending to the work that is working in us.
God could have kept each and every one of us in that eternal life to which we will return. But there is something about that “blessing” and the seasons of life that God thought was greater than skipping over it. So we’ve been born into this life, and no matter where any and each of us are this day, let us rejoice and be glad, because great is our reward in heaven. And so should we pray.
Eternal God of Forever and Ever, they are gathered around you, the well-known ones like Martin Luther, Mother Teresa, C.S. Lewis, Helen Keller and so many more. And there are those less famous, like Saint Agnes, the angel Gabriel, Patrick, Joseph and Teresa of Avila. And others are rather ordinary, such as the teacher from second grade who guided our fingers under the words; the nurse in the hospital who held our hand while blood was taken; the coach who trusted us with the ball and not the end of the bench. May we realize how they endure with us, holding our hearts and encompassing us with fierce and stubborn love that persists across time and distance. In this thin place, where we join that cloud of faithful witnesses, help us to tread paths and leave footprints that witness to the work and joy and blessing of following you and living kingdom lives. And all your precious ones say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
October 29, 2017
21st Sunday after Pentecost
Matthew 22:34-46 & 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
“Becoming More Human”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
At the end of their first date, a young boy takes his favorite girl home. Emboldened by the evening, he decided to try for that important first kiss. With an air of confidence, he leaned with his hand against the wall and, smiling, he said to her, "Hey, how 'bout a goodnight kiss?"
Horrified, she replied, "Are you mad? My parents will see us!"
"Oh come on! Who's gonna see us at this hour?"
"No, please. Can you imagine if we get caught?"
"Oh come on, there's nobody around, they're all sleeping!"
"No way. It's just too risky!"
"Oh please, please, I really like you!!"
"No, no, and no. I like you too, but I just can't!"
"Yes you can. Please?"
"NO, no. I just can't."
Out of the blue, the porch light goes on, and the girl's sister shows up in her pajamas, hair disheveled. In a sleepy voice the sister says: "Dad says to go ahead and give him a kiss. Or I can do it. Or if need be, he'll come down himself and do it. But for crying out loud tell him to take his hand off the intercom button!”
There are no kissing cousins or young loves in either of this morning’s scripture passages, but there is a lot of love. However, before we get to them, I have a few points of information.
In the Jewish tradition, there is a thing called the Shema, from Deuteronomy 6. “Shema”
is the Hebrew word for “hear” or “listen” and it comes from that verse, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” The Shema was traditionally recited by every Jewish child and adult at the start and conclusion of each day. There was no other single verse from the entire Jewish Bible that the average person knew better than this one. It was - and perhaps still is - not unlike our Lord’s Prayer.
And in case it’s been a while, I’ll remind you that there are 39 books in the Old Testament. The first five - as a group - have different names, including the Pentateuch, the Torah and the Law. Of the remaining 34 books, 20 are categorized as the Prophets. When the two terms - the Law and the Prophets - are used together, they generally refer to the sum of the Old Testament; the prophecy of Christ.
Another rather relevant factoid is that God gave Moses 10 words, or commands, to take back to the people. But if you comb through the Old Testament as a whole, one could scrounge up some 613 commandments.
For those who haven’t been here, this morning’s Matthew passage continues a series of scenarios in which Jesus is giving hard lessons from the synagogue. He’s offered difficult parables and truths that will get him into big trouble. Despite the unrest and dis-ease of his situation, he keeps on teaching and preaching.
The passage from 1 Thessalonians is a continuation of a letter begun last week, from the great Paul, Timothy and Silas, a letter of encouragement to continue raising the bar of excellence, integrity and morality.
Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Whose Son Is the Messiah?
While the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them, “What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he?” “The son of David,” they replied. He said to them, “How is it then that David, speaking by the Spirit, calls him ‘Lord’? For he says, “‘The Lord said to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet.”’ If then David calls him ‘Lord,’ how can he be his son?” No one could say a word in reply, and from that day on no one dared to ask him any more questions.
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
You know, brothers and sisters, that our visit to you was not without results. We had previously suffered and been treated outrageously in Philippi, as you know, but with the help of our God we dared to tell you his gospel in the face of strong opposition. For the appeal we make does not spring from error or impure motives, nor are we trying to trick you. On the contrary, we speak as those approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. We are not trying to please people but God, who tests our hearts. You know we never used flattery, nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed—God is our witness.
We were not looking for praise from people, not from you or anyone else, even though as apostles of Christ we could have asserted our authority. Instead, we were like young children among you. Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well.
Thank you, Mary. The Rev. Dr. John Fairless is the Senior Pastor of the First Baptist Church in Gainesville, Florida, which looks like a rather busy church family with numerous ministries. The Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton’s title is Assistant to the Bishop in the Southeastern Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. However these two intelligent and aspiring men met, for several years they kept a blog called “Two Bubbas and a Bible.” Their postings have been of great assistance in sermon prep, especially since the Moonshine Jesus blog is no longer running.
It was Rev. Chilton who wrote what has been hanging in my heart, starting with a quote from G.K. Chesterton, who once said of this morning’s Matthew passage, “Jesus here tells us to love our neighbors. Elsewhere the Bible tells Jesus said we should love our enemies. This is because, generally speaking, they are the same people.” How true.
Back in the olden days of 2011, Rev. Chilton went on to say, “Politics certainly makes strange bedfellows; the Pharisees and Sadducees cooperating makes about as much sense as the Tea Party and the Re-elect Obama Committee working together; but these folks (were) are determined to keep Jesus from upsetting their very settled and profitable way of life.
So Jesus did two things. First he answered their question about the greatest commandment and then he shut them down with a semi-serious riddle from Psalm 110 - the riddle being about who is answerable to whom: David to Jesus or Jesus to David. It is an unanswerable question, somewhat akin to “which came first, the chicken or the egg,” One can only imagine the possible twinkle in Jesus’ eye when he implied, “Look, two can play at this game, and this time, I win.”
As most any of us could determine, it all boils down to the business of loving God and neighbor. And it is not simply a matter of being nice and getting along. It’s easy to love God because a good many of us don’t think of God as sitting down next to us, perhaps in “our spot.” And God doesn’t say things to us that we are apt to take the wrong way, mostly because we may have not understood God’s motivation, or we may be tired, or sick, or sick and tired of being sick and tired. I think, that as a people, we are far more apt to forgive God, if there is any forgiving to be done, than to forgive another person. We can define God in such a way that God is not responsible for any of the pain of discomfort we experience in life. That way, we don’t ever have to be angry with or resentful of God.
That ‘loving your neighbor as yourself,’ tho, it is hard work. It involves getting beyond our likes and dislikes, it involves hanging in with individuals when the going gets tough, listening to their heartaches or pains or jokes over and over. Loving neighbor as self involves self-sacrifice and devotion even you’re not “getting anything out of,” the relationship. Sometimes it’s giving up something dear to you, to allow someone else to experience the joy that you find in that activity or object. Loving neighbor as self can involve taking the neighbor seriously as a child of God who deserves our respect and care, no matter how much we oppose their politics, tactics or way of life.
I don’t know about any of you, but sometimes I just have to laugh at God. Just before I began writing this message, I opened up the devotional called “Jesus Calling” by Sarah Young. I’d been thinking about these scripture passages most of this week, and then Ms. Young put it so perfectly. She wrote, as a note to me - and to you - as a note from God:
“Do not expect to be treated fairly in this life. People will say and do hurtful things to you, things that you don’t deserve. When someone mistreats you, try to view it as an opportunity to grow in grace. See how quickly you can forgive the one who has wounded you. Don’t be concerned about setting the record straight. Instead of obsessing about other people’s opinions of you, keep your focus on Me. Ultimately, it is My view of you that counts.
As you concentrate on relating to Me, remember that I have clothed you in my righteousness and holiness. I see you attired in these radiant garments, which I bought for you with My blood. This also is not fair; it is pure gift. When others treat you unfairly, remember that My ways with you are much better than fair. My ways are Peace and Love, which I have poured into your heart by My Spirit.”
If, as Jesus says, loving God and loving our neighbors are tightly bound and inseparably linked co-commandments; then we are forced to deal with love in the real world of people who are imperfect and incomplete, people who are at times undeserving of our affection or unresponsive to it; people who are sometimes incapable of loving us back.
The root of the word “religious” is ligare, which is also the French root of ligament, and from which we get the word liaison. Ligare means to tie to or to tie back. Ligaments connect muscle to the bone; religion ties us to God and one another. I often hear people refer to themselves as spiritual but not religious, and while spiritual is lovely, religious is earthy, and much more true to God, because it involves being connected to each other, regardless of whether we like each other or not, because it is what Christ has asked us to do. Like Paul, we have been entrusted with the Gospel, to bring that love to those who need it, so very many times to the very people whom we’d rather steer clear.
God in Christ took on ligaments and sinews and walked among us and suffered among us and died among us and with us and for us. God in Christ was raised from the dead and draws us together, ties us together, as the Body of Christ, held together by ligaments of love and sinews of service. And we, the tied together Body of Christ in the world, are called to the task of loving God, most especially by loving our neighbors and enemies in God’s stead and in God’s name.
So shall we pray. Heavenly and Holy God, we may not always consciously desire it, but we really do want to follow you in ways that make you proud of us, in ways that are pure and right. It is ironic that we are so good at taking that pride on our selves, rather than the humility that Christ showed us. So help us to see our neighbors as our other selves, and to realize that how we treat others is how we treat ourselves - and you. Set us free from the woulda’s, coulda’s and shoulda’s and help us to become more human - in loving you and those you have given us - here and at home and even across the globe. For all the opportunities you give us to rise up to be all that you’ve ever seen us to be, all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
October 22, 2017
20th Sunday after Pentecost
Matthew 22:15-22 & 1 Thessalonians 1
“our better selves”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
A teacher asked her students what religious objects they had in their homes. One boy answered, "We have a picture of a woman with a halo holding a baby and every day my mother kneels in front of it.” The next little boy said, "We have a brass statue of a man seated with crossed legs and a Chinese face, and every day my parents burn an incense stick before it.” Then a third boy piped up, "In the bathroom we have a little platform with numbers on it. Every day my mother stands on it first thing in the morning and screams, "OH MY GOD!!!” I’m trying to be more egalitarian these days, but having the father get on the scale just wouldn’t cut it for this joke.
Before we get to this morning’s scripture passages, I thought it would do to make a little distinction clearer. Like we have Lutherans and Baptists and Congregationalists in our modern day, back in Jesus’ time, there were/are differing groups of Jewish people. There still are different Jewish groups, but they’ve changed a fair bit from Jesus’ day.
The larger group, the Pharisees, were at various times a political party, a social movement, a school of thought and the top dogs - in their minds.
The Sadducees, fewer than the Pharisees, as a whole and as a sect, fulfilled various political, social, and religious roles, including maintaining the Temple. In my understanding, they were more specifically, the rule keepers or Temple police.
The Essenes, whom some think were the writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls, were yet fewer in number, adhering to severe self-discipline, voluntary poverty and avoidance of all forms of indulgence. And then there were the Herodians.
Although their precise relationship to the other sects or schools among the Jewish people are often matters of conjecture, some people think Herodians were the courtiers or soldiers of Herod Antipas or at the least, a public political party. Herodians were linked to the Pharisees because both groups wanted independence for the Jewish people. But while the Pharisees longed for the old days and governance as under King David, the Herodians wanted government by someone from the Herodian dynasty.
As Donna makes her way forward, I’ll give you just a tiny intro to the second of the scripture passages. Back then it was and area called Thessalonia. Today it is a city called Thessaloniki, the second largest in Greece.
Matthew 22:15-22 (NIV) Paying the Imperial Tax to Caesar
15 Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. 16 They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. 17 Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?”
18 But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? 19 Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, 20 and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” 21 “Caesar’s,” they replied. Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” 22 When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.
1 Thessalonians 1 (NIV)
1 Paul, Silas and Timothy, to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace and peace to you.
Thanksgiving for the Thessalonians’ Faith
2 We always thank God for all of you and continually mention you in our prayers. 3 We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.
4 For we know, brothers and sisters loved by God, that he has chosen you, 5 because our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction. You know how we lived among you for your sake. 6 You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. 7 And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. 8 The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia—your faith in God has become known everywhere. Therefore we do not need to say anything about it, 9 for they themselves report what kind of reception you gave us. They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.
Thank you, Donna. In regard to the Thessalonians passage, those words that were just read are some of the very oldest in the New Testament. Scholars differ on most all topics, but it fairly certain that 1 Thessalonians was the first of the great Paul’s letters to be written down, pre-dating the writing down of the Gospels. 1 Thessalonians was probably written down in 52 AD, while Mark was probably written down 18 years later, and Matthew and Luke some 10 to 20 years after that. If all the dating and discovery that has been done is correct, then the first chapter of 1 Thessalonians, as Calvin Seminary professor Scott Hoezee contends, is not only very old but very, very remarkable.
As the apostle Paul reflected on the congregations he had established, visited, or was about to see for the first time, he never hesitated to declare his assessment of the state of each Christian community. (I wonder how he would assess this congregation!)
The congregation in Galatia, for instance, had compromised the gospel with a cramping legalism, confusing faith in Jesus Christ with moral achievement and ritual observance. Paul told them bluntly they had denatured the gospel, turning wine into water. At the other extreme, Christians in Corinth had come to think that faith in Christ entailed no moral commitment whatsoever. He told them that sadly, they were a disgrace.
The Christians in Thessalonica, however; Paul found to be exemplary, holding them up as a model for all of Asia Minor. And yet, while they were a model of Christian faith and practice, they weren’t perfect, needing further growth in light of what they’d already become. In reminding them that they were a church “in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ”, he was reminding them that they were no longer a group or community in the many idols that were worshiped before the gospel came to their fair city. Even people in outlying communities knew about their about face in faith, the results of their labor in love, their faith-produced work and hope-inspired endurance.
After all these centuries, one would think that human beings would understand how easily money can become an idol, despite the fact that it is good to be economically self-sufficient, allowing for money to enable good and great things to happen. Despite all our technology and advancements, even in the world of wealth, an all-engrossing concern for financial gain renders self-sufficiency idolatrous, and like all idolatry, totalitarian in its grip on us because no degree of amassing the goods for the preoccupied is ever sufficient, including the idolatry of things like education, popularity, and self-righteousness, to name a few.
Victor Shepherd, Presbyterian minister from New Brunswick and Ontario said, “It seems that we have a deep human tendency to want to make the divides between God and the world - wide and deep and perilous-looking.” He went on to say, “Education is good, even God-ordained, since God insists that we love God with our minds. But education rendered idolatrous announces itself as the only good, or at least as the singular saving good; and of course it,” he says, “renders its victims insufferable snobs and contemptuously cruel.” Those words got me to thinking, what are the idols we have that make us contemptuously cruel?
Scott Hoezee suggested that “in a political age when so many people are so sharply divided along so many various cultural and social and economic fault lines, Jesus’ confident posture and consistent, laser-like focus on God both challenge us and call us back to our better selves.” Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s, remembering that all of us belong to God.
Understanding that not just the Thessalonians were chosen by God, but that all of us are chosen by God, how do yo, envision, through the eyes of Christ, the Good News of God’s love, grace, joy and justice in our modern world? How do you, see your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in Jesus, influencing and bettering the world? And no, no one is exempt from this task, so don’t even look for loopholes, because we are all called regardless of ability, time or any other excuse we might offer up.
Each one of us might have specific ideas on how to balance the national budget, how to be in the world but not of the world in terms of terrorism or hatred or poverty or the myriad of other issues that some see as dividing us. But what does the Good News of Jesus Christ - whom God raised from the dead to deliver us from sin and evil by the power of the Holy Spirit as we await Christ’s return - what does that look like in a world where it seems that everyone has their opinions on everything from soup to nuts?
Perhaps, as Erick J. Thompson of St. John Lutheran Church, over there in Fargo, North Dakota says, “Essential to this endeavor - of proclaiming God’s Good News and thinking about what that Good News looks like in the world, is: being open to listening to others and realizing that others may hear that Good News differently than we do. As the great preacher over there in First Congregational Church in Frankfort, MI says, “perhaps we need to remember that while what belongs to Caesar’s is Caesar’s and what is God’s belongs to God, we do best not to step in the way of someone else’s journey of faith, because regardless of age or experience, none of us are done with the work God has for us, which is to love as Christ loves, the famous and the less famous, the rich and the poor, young and old, the bold and the timid, the kind and the cruel, because the only thing on which we can stand is that we are a church family in God and Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. So shall we pray.
Merciful and Forgiving God, we thank you for those who have gone before us, who listened to your voice and wrote down that which is important for us to embrace. Sometimes, God, it is easier to feign our faith in self-righteousness than to walk in humility, so for those times, we ask for your forgiveness and motivation to become our better selves. Help us, when we are quick to judge, to be quicker to remember that none of us can truly understand where another individual comes from, and so we all require the healing mantle of love and grace and mercy. Lead us, Great God, from the easy and insidious idols that creep into our lives, to those paths where we can enable others and each other to become their better selves. We pray these things in your love, the grace of your son, Jesus Christ, and the communion of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
First Congregational Church
October 15, 2017
19th Sunday after Pentecost
Matthew 22:1-14 & Philippians 4:1-9
“think about such things”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
My favorite way to dress is in all black. My fashion sense is second to nun. I always get really frustrated trying to put clothes in my wardrobe. Think I could do with some Hanger Management. I've never understood the fashion industry, those people are so clothes minded.
This morning’s gospel passage is a little bit tough. Actually, it’s a lot tough, in my humble opinion. But, before we get to it, I discovered a little clue to the passage from a sermon by John Gaston, pastor at First Assembly of God Church in Huntsville, Texas.
He said, “Among the Wealthy of the Near East, it was a common custom for wedding guests to be given garments to wear to Wedding Banquets. This may have been to have certain colors, to make sure it was festive, to de-emphasize distinctions between rich and poor, or simply to show off how wealthy they were. If someone refused to wear one, it was an insult to the host and they were thrown out.” So, as we hear our morning passages, keep that little nugget in mind.
On top of that, I want to set the panorama of the gospel passage. The one for today is from the first fourteen verses of chapter 22. Chapter 21 starts with Jesus going into Jerusalem on that infamous Palm Sunday. Then he chased the money changers out of the temple, left Jerusalem for Bethany, just a mile and a half down the road and back to Jerusalem the next morning. While on his way to the temple, he cursed a fig tree for not having fruit on it when he was hungry.
He finally made it to the temple, where he was going to do some teaching, but the chief priests and elders interrupted him, asking him who gave him the authority to do what he was doing. Jesus embarrassed them by challenging their understanding, then went on to give the parable of the two less than perfect sons, and then on to the parable from last week where the landowner lost his servants and his son to the ruthlessness of the lousy tenants.
Granted, Jesus probably knew that his time on this earth was limited, and he probably wasn’t getting any real, good rest in those days before his crucifixion, but one could surmise that he was in one foul mood. And as much as he was trying to prepare the people - all the people - for life after his death, the authorities were trying to figure out a way to get rid of him.
Matthew 22:1-14 (NIV) The Parable of the Wedding Banquet
22 Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying: 2 “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. 3 He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come.
4 “Then he sent some more servants and said, ‘Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.’
5 “But they paid no attention and went off—one to his field, another to his business. 6 The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them. 7 The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.
8 “Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. 9 So go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’ 10 So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.
11 “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. 12 He asked, ‘How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?’ The man was speechless.
13 “Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
14 “For many are invited, but few are chosen.”
Philippians 4:1-9 (NIV) Closing Appeal for Steadfastness and Unity
4 Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends!
2 I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.3 Yes, and I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.
4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
8 Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. 9 Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.
Thank you, Marti. Those of you who were here last week, or read the passage from last week, doesn’t it strike you as interesting that the gospel writer of Matthew put these two parables back-to-back? In some ways, they are nearly identical. There’s the landowner and the king, the harvest and the banquet, the representation of hope in a good, full life in the harvest and in marriage. There were message-bearing servants in both parables, although one set was seeking payment while the other sought guests. There were people beat-up and people killed, innocent people doing their jobs and I don’t know about anyone else, but that really irks me! But such is life, and life is uncertain and if you think about all the “near-misses” we have in life, it’s actually quite astounding that there are as many people alive as there are.
But then, the writer of Matthew ends the similarities of the two parables about tenants and seeking guests, and he throws in this equally infuriating culmination of the Parable of the Wedding Banquet with the bit about the guest who wasn’t wearing the correct wedding attire. The king, desperate for wedding guests, even to the point of searching the streets for any stranger that would come, ostracizes one of those he called in the first place! What’s up with that, God?
It just doesn’t seem congruous - the merciful king - taking back his word, so to speak. And like it or not, God is God and can do whatever God wants, even to the point of being incongruous in his actions, but it just doesn’t seem right. But then, we have to remember that God is congruous in all God’s ways, even if it doesn’t seem like it. And the parable is not an actual event, but a made-up story that seeks to make a point. I now ask you to leave that whole scenario, for the time being, as we go to the passage from Philippians.
Despite all the academic endeavors, we still don’t have a good clue as to who Euodia and Syntyche were, but it seems likely they were prominent, active members of the church. Perhaps they were deacons, perhaps they were the founders of the Women’s Bible Study program, perhaps they were the chairpersons of the Philippian inner-city soup kitchen. Whoever they were, they were among the core of the congregation, but lately they’d had a falling out. Maybe it was doctrinal, maybe it was personal. Maybe they’d disagreed over the best way to run the soup kitchen, maybe one of them had insulted the other’s child-rearing techniques. Whatever the dispute was, it soon became known that these two women were at odds.
For those can remember Euodia and Sentyche at all, you might remember their disagreement. But remember how I spent all that time in the first part of this message setting up the relationship of gospel sections with each other? It’s important here, too.
For whatever reasons, I, like so many others, thought about the passage from Philippians as two rather separate units: the part about telling the church ladies to get it together and the part about good character listed in verses 4-9. I had never really thought about the necessity of treating those two units as one until good, ol’ Scott Hoezee of Calvin Theological Seminary pointed it out.
Mr. Hoezee also pointed out that “Because of the paragraph breaks that were imposed on the text by translators, it’s easy to read verses 4-9 in isolation from verses 2 and 3. We chop up Philippians 4, severing Paul’s words about rejoicing from their true context: namely, Paul’s attempt to end an argument!”
Some of you have figured out that one of my favorite ways to change the topic is to throw out the question, “How about those Lions?” or “How about those Vikings?” Paul does it with much greater intention and goodness, “Rejoice! And in case you have forgotten about that over which you can rejoice, try gentleness or prayer and petition, thanksgiving. Or how about - instead of the Vikings - how about whatever is noble, right, pure, lovely and so on?
Maybe it’s a stretch, but why not take Jesus’ admonition to “think about these things” as a directive to our brain and head, and you know, if the hat fits, wear it. Or how about cloaking yourself in whatever is true, praiseworthy, excellent and admirable. Put on that which is noble and right - one leg at a time.
It’s interesting that Paul mentions the word “peace” twice in these nine verses. In the first one, it’s the peace that transcends all understanding. If you’ve not been there, perhaps you know someone who has been in a hard or bad place, and yet, there is that sense - that sense that is surely God-given - that everything will be okay - despite all that seems logical or practical.
I’m sure God would have been much more straightforward if his intention for us was about being properly clothed with such things as nobility and righteousness - at least more straightforward than trying to bridge two such distant passages as these two from Matthew and Philippians. And yet, there they are, in the lectionary for our use and edification. And if the shoe fits, they why not wear it as we pray?
Kind and Respectful God, we thank you for giving us such respect as brains to think and hearts to feel. When we have not thought or felt as you know we can, forgive us, and give us other opportunities to show you just what we’re made of. For those who have felt attacked or maimed in what we think is our job in pointing out errors, forgive us our self-righteousness as well. And help us all to think about that which we can be - in you - people of virtue and character - such that others wish to draw closer to you because of our witness. For all the gifts with which you bless us, all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
October 8, 2017
18th Sunday after Pentecost
Philippians 3:4-14 & Matthew 21:33-46
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
It may be a more frequent internet search than many of us might think, but I was a little surprised at the plethora of answers I discovered in how to handle rejection. Yeah, I know. Not one of the top ten sermon topics of any decade, but, well, we’re human beings, and life happens.
Anyway, despite the number of ways to deal with rejection that can’t be mentioned from the pulpit, there are some that can. Whoever Joe Soriano is, his method to handle rejection is to remember that Tom Brady was the 199th overall pick in the (football) draft. And he made it work. Maybe not the most practical of methods, Meg Silver said that she deals with rejection with rubber gloves, Clorox bleach, and quick drying cement.
Then there was the person with an earnest plea that said, “Can someone please tell me how to get over my fear of rejection. I can’t even ask a girl out because I’m afraid she’ll say, “No.” I’m not bad looking. I’m just afraid I’ll look stupid if I get rejected. And then in capital letters, the individual wrote, “Please help.” And you gotta know that the first answer after that plea was “No.” Rejection can cut so deeply, and we get that, in part, with this morning’s scripture passages.
As Mary Ann and Sharon make their way to the pulpit, I’ll give you a little spoiler alert. The passage from Matthew can feel a little like Jesus getting distracted in the midst of his story. But stick with it, because it makes sense in the end.
Matthew 21:33-46 (NIV) The Parable of the Tenants
33 “Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place. 34 When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit.
35 “The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. 36 Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way. 37 Last of all, he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said.
38 “But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.’ 39 So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.
40 “Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”
41 “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end,” they replied, “and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.”
42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: “‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?
43 “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. 44 Anyone who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; anyone on whom it falls will be crushed.”
45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them. 46 They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that he was a prophet.
Philippians 3:4-14 (NIV)
If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.
7 But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8 What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. 10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.
12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
Thank you, Mary Ann and Sharon. I won’t give away any specific names, but there was a day when the Worship Committee was meeting in my office, and it was one of those days of lively discussion, which, upon reflection, is most all the meetings of the Worship Committee. Anyway, we were discussing the topics important to that group, and all of a sudden, one of the members of the committee said, “Swing!” The person had never noticed the swing in the tree between the church and the driveway, and it struck that person, at that moment, and out the word came. Something very similar happened in the animated movie, “Up,” when Doug the talking dog was introducing himself to Carl, the main character, and all of a sudden, Doug interrupts his own introduction by noticing the nearby “Squirrel.” I think, in the Matthew passage, something sort of similar happens when Jesus says, “stone.”
Jesus had been painting this agricultural story, and then Jesus goes off to a metaphor about construction. Thankfully, Jesus ties up the two seemingly disparate analogies and the chief priests and Pharisees understood that the rejection that Jesus was speaking about was in reference to themselves - rejecting Jesus himself. As shocking as such a pronouncement was, it wasn’t a strong enough indictment for the chief priests and Pharisees to change their ways. In fact, they rejected Jesus’ point and passed right on to trying to figure out how to get around the popular opinion of the people.
Then there is passage from Philippians, from the great Paul, describing the things that at one time made him a poster child for Pharisee of the year in the Roman/Jewish world in what is today, modern Turkey. The passage is not about how anyone rejected Paul, although there was probably good reason for it in his earlier life, but how he rejected the very attributes of his earlier life that caused such pride, choosing instead the life as a follower of Christ. The “life” of rejection is certainly a double-edged sword: there is rejecting and being rejected.
It’s interesting that, as Scott Hoezee of Calvin Theological Seminary point out, that “This parable is one of only three that appears in all of three synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Curiously, some of Jesus’ best-known parables (like the Good Samaritan) occur in (just) one gospel alone but nowhere else. Only the parables of The Sower, The Mustard Seed, and The Tenants get repeated in triplicate in the New Testament. It seems that (Matthew, Mark and Luke) the synoptic evangelists each concluded that no gospel account of Jesus’ life and ministry could be complete without these particular parables being in there somewhere. You could pick and choose among the others but not with these three.
In one sense that is rather surprising, especially considering that these days The Parable of the Tenants is not as familiar or beloved as any number of other parables that did not get repeated. Yet there is something within this story that Matthew, Mark, and Luke all perceived was central to the gospel.
I think, one of the big aspects of both these scripture passages comes in the little line at the end of Paul’s passage, “I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me” and then just a sentence later, “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”
At various times and places in our lives, any one of us may be or feel rejected for one reason or another. I don’t know that there are various kinds of rejection, but I’m guessing that by and large, if a person rejects you or says something that is deeply hurtful, it is probably not so much about you as the other individual. There is so much truth in that gesture of a finger pointing at someone - that while there is one finger pointing at the other person, but there are three fingers pointing back at you.
Even so, if someone says something a little sideways or without as much thought and care as they perhaps should have, it hurts. And it can hurt deeply, to the very core of our being and we can get stuck on that word, sentence or phrase. And letting go of such rejection can take a good deal of work.
Or we can, after some good soul-searching, discover that we have a need to reject or turn away from some things of our lives that are keeping us from being what we sense God needing us to be. It could not have been an easy conversation at Paul’s parents house, when he told them that all he had considered dear, as his parents had probably taught him, was now nothing, compared to the love and mercy and grace that he found in Christ.
Rejection is one of those elements of life that is tough to live through. But there is that little “sign” in this morning’s passage from Paul, like the sign in a crowd at a marathon, that tells the runners, “You can do it!” Paul’s sign, though, says, “Press on!” “Forget what was behind you, and strain toward your goal.” And in case any of us forgets what that goal is, Paul tells us, it is the “prize for which God has called us heavenward in Christ Jesus.”
Whether it’s rejection, dismissal, enmity, animosity, antagonism, bitterness, resentment, bad blood, hatred, loathing, malice or spite, Paul reminds us that none of those things is our end goal. We may get caught up in those things from time to time, like a plastic bag that gets caught in a tree. But God - through Paul and the Holy Spirit - reminds us that ours is not a race against any one person or issue, but a race toward Christ and the eternal life that he has prepared for us. Everyone else’s races are none of our affairs. Those belong to God, although if we have it within us to help another racer get up after a tumble, it is all to the greater good. Our main race is the one that gets us to God’s presence, to that place of pure, unadulterated love, joy, mercy and peace. Which seems like the place to pray.
Gracious and Most High God, we thank you that you give each of us a course to run in this life - one that is ours alone, even though we live it out with others. We regret those times when we forget that that course is ultimately the most important thing in this world, because it is the thing that will live with us into eternity. Forgive us when we make that course difficult for others, especially those times when we know nothing of the inflicted pain. Make us aware of those opportunities we have to rectify rejections that have deeply wounded us, inspiring us to do so through the power of the love of Christ and the indwelling of your Holy Spirit. Help each of us help each other, that we can be the people that make you proud to call your own. As we all press on, all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
October 1, 2017
World Communion Sunday
Matthew 21:23-32 & Philippians 2:1-13
“What’s Our (Your) Mindset?”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Lena and a Katrina have a ranch and they have just lost their bull. The women need to buy another, but only have $500. Katrina tells the Lena, “I’ll go to the market and see if I can find one for under that amount. If I can, I’ll send you a telegram." She goes to the market and finds one for $499. Having only one dollar left, she goes to the telegraph office and finds out that it costs one dollar per word. She’s stumped on how to tell Lena to bring the truck and trailer. Finally, she tells the telegraph operator to send the word "comfortable." Skeptical, the operator asks, "How will she know to come with the trailer from just that word?" Katrina replies, “Lena will read it slowly: 'Come for ta bull.’”
There is a Jewish witticism in which someone asks their rabbi, “Why do rabbis always answer a question with another question?” to which the rabbi replies, “Why shouldn’t a rabbi answer a question with another question?” This morning’s gospel passage opens with such a question answered by another question, followed by a parable and then a hymn, from the book of Philippians. Although any number of us have heard one or both passages often enough, there are still words that are not necessarily easy or “comfortable.”
23 Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?”
24 Jesus replied, “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. 25 John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or of human origin?”
They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” 27 So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.” Then he said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
The Parable of the Two Sons
28 “What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’ 29 “‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.
30 “Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go. 31 “Which of the two did what his father wanted?” “The first,” they answered.
Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.
1 Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2 then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. 3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; 7 rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! 9
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Do Everything Without Grumbling
12 Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.
To be honest, I think that the first part of the gospel passage for this morning is sort “squishy.” Granted, the chief priests and elders “started the cuffule” by challenging Jesus’ authority. And it would have been so much more neat and tidy if Jesus had simply said, “God.” All he would have had to say was one little word, and the confrontation may well have been over. Instead of not giving the challengers a clear answer, Jesus leaves them hanging in embarrassment, and at least some of us, in perplexity and/or discomfort.
I don’t know about anyone else, but the parable part of the Matthew passage seems frustrating, because there is no clear “winner.” I am fairly certain, however, that had I any children, I’d probably have had two sons, like the two who were asked to go work in the field - no doubt devilishly handsome and capable, but lazier than a blood hound on a front porch on a sunny afternoon.
The longer you look at those two segments, the more you see the correlation that the chief priests, elders and sons “didn’t get” that we naturally act out what we believe and hold dear. One doesn’t need the volume turned up on a college football game to know what some folks hold dear. Whether it’s a newspaper, tv or internet, you can find oodles and oodles of people acting out their beliefs of respect and rights and as a culture, we’re actually pretty good about acting out what we believe - at least in some areas.
William H. Willimon, Methodist pastor and Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry at Duke Divinity School, recalls the Easter when he preached as skillfully as he knew how on the resurrection, a sermon about how (as today’s scripture says):
God highly honored him and gave him a name above all names, so that at the name of Jesus everyone in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
After the sermon, a departing worshipper said, “Good sermon, preacher. But don’t you think that on a Sunday like Easter, music is more to the point?” Willimon said, “I thought she was exactly right. There is some truth so deep, so glorious, mysterious and wonderful, that only singing can do it justice.” (And while that anecdote speaks to the heart of this morning’s message, it just happens to be a shameless plug for the study that begins this week on Music and Worship and Why They Are Important.)
While the volume of our “behaviors” can, at times, be higher than others, our passages, the Word that God inspired, needs it’s volume turned up, too. And lest we get to chest bumping and high-fiving our devotion to God and how well we follow Christ, we need the anthem from Philippians 2.
The great Paul wrote the letter to the Philippians to give them concrete ways for the believers to demonstrate their devotion to God and Christ and the Holy Spirit. Philippi was a commercial, ethnic and religious hub that attracted all sorts of people from all around the known world, and one could probably see any and all kinds of forms of worship to gods as vast as the stars in the sky. To help those early Christians in acting out their faith, Paul gave them - and us - the patterns and clarity to demonstrate our devotion to God.
Even within any given faith community, there are differences of understanding and interpretation. But there are unifying aspects that strengthen the faith of each person, and today, we celebrate one of those aspects - the sacrament of The Lord’s Supper.
All around the world today, despite our differences and opinions and experiences, those who follow Christ are gathering around the bread and cup to remember the gift that has been given us in Christ’s son, that we may re-devote ourselves to the mindset of following Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit and to the glory of God. So let us prepare our hearts and minds for this great and precious meal.
Let us pray. Gracious and loving God, we thank you for never giving up on your people, even to the point of sending that which is most precious to you - to us - that we might find ourselves closer to you. Help us to recapture your mindset, that we may be able to live to our fullest selves in passing on your precious love and life and light. For these and all your blessings, all your people say, Amen.