First Congregational Church
January 26, 2014
Third Sunday after Epiphany, Annual Meeting Sunday
"Move Over, Peter, Andrew, James and John"
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
To get your brain ready for this morning's message, what do you get when you cross a fishing lure withe a gym sock? A hook, line and stinker. What fish can perform operations? A Sturgeon. What swims in the sea, carries a machine gun, and makes you an offer you can't refuse? The Codfather.
Our scripture passage this week begins by saying that Jesus "withdrew from Nazareth" to Capernaum in Galilee. I don't know about any of you, but when I hear such a thing, I don't really think much about it. But that's an 80 mile trip - at least a good week of walking. It wasn't so much a retreat as a journey. Capernaum had about 1,000 people - definitely more people that in Frankfort at this moment. The area had historically belonged to the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali, known as the Galilee of the Gentiles, back in the day of Isaiah, some 700 years before Jesus.
Matthew 4:12-23 (NIV)
12 When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he withdrew to Galilee.13 Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali— 14 to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah:
15 “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—16 the people living in darkness have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.” 17 From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
18 As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 19 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” 20 At once they left their nets and followed him.
21 Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, 22 and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him. 23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.
Thank you, John. Maybe Jesus left Nazareth to get away from the heat of John the Baptist's imprisonment. Maybe he went to Capernaum because it fulfilled Isaiah's prophecy. Either way or both ways, Jesus put on a lot of miles to get to a place that didn't seem like a logical place to begin the Messiah's ministry.
Calling those first four disciples to follow Jesus didn't seem to logical, either. Brothers Peter and Andrew didn't fish on their day off, when the weather was fair and the wind light. They fished to survive, earning their livelihood, like their father and grandfathers. As far back as there was family memory, the men fished. And then, all of a sudden, some passerby, who doesn't even introduce himself waltzes up and "nets" them. Says, "Come after me, and I will make you fishers of people." And crazier yet, the brothers - in mid-throw of the nets, drop them and go with Jesus.
The three walk down the beach a way, and come on a second set of brothers, James and John, and it's deja vu. These two aren't actually fishing, but mending their nets, and the same thing happens. Jesus says come, and they go. Just like that.
In both cases, the gospel writer Matthew uses "immediately" to describe the response of the brothers. They turn their backs on everything they have held sacred; all commitments dropped like a hot potato.
It would be like a daughter coming home after her first high school dance and announcing to the family that she's getting married to this wonderful guy. I know that in the past, especially during the war years, people would get married after three days - or some insanely short amount of time. But they at least knew each other's names.
Or it would be like a spouse coming home and announcing, "I decided today to retire early." "Oh? But you're only 35 years old." "I know, but I've been thinking about it for awhile." "And when did you come to this decision?" "During lunch." One has to wonder if these four guys were foolish, fickle, irresponsible, or even something else in-ain.
Maybe they had heard about Jesus before the moment he stood before them. As we all know, when someone new comes to town, it doesn't take too long before that news spreads. It is interesting, however, that Jesus choses two sets of brothers to be his first followers. Perhaps the choice of "brothers" is an indicator of how Jesus' posse was to consider themselves - how we are to consider ourselves - as family.
It's "ironic" that Jesus goes to a little, out-of-the-way, "unimportant" place to begin his ministry. He could have collected a huge group of disciples if he'd started in Jerusalem. Maybe it was Jesus' way of saying that the Kingdom of God is not tied down to a single location.
Likewise, Jesus could have chosen movers and shakers in Jerusalem, done some "really big things" with their connections. But he chose down-to-earth - or lake - real guys to teach and mentor. He didn't choose highly educated, slick people to form the basis of his world changing mission. He chose humble fishermen going about their daily work.
We don’t need more Supermen or Spidermen or Wonder Women or Xena: Warrior Princesses. The world just needs you and me living our lives… doing our most humble tasks… sharing our love and our faith with our brothers and sisters as we meet them every day along our journey.
That's been the "need" since Peter, Andrew, James and John. That's been the "need" since the dedicated souls that gathered together 53,691 days ago and covenanted with one another to follow Christ. And that's the "need" today: for us, this family, to do what Christ showed us and told us, using the gifts and talents that we have been given. So move over, Peter, Andrew, James and John. We aren't replacing you. We're joining you once again, remembering our connection to you and those who have gone before us as we prepare for our future in prayer.
God of all relationships, we are grateful for those who have taken risks to follow you - even when those choices didn't make sense. Help us to remember that we already know how to weave nets of healing and belonging, nets whose strands have meaning in each other. Help us to hear your call to let go and go, to be led and to be lured, not necessarily farther, but deeper, closer to you and your kingdom. And thank you for your Son, who didn't call just one or once, but calls all - all the time. For the sheer blessing of being your people, we all say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
January 19, 2014
Second Sunday after Epiphany
"Swimming with the Elephant"
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
"I've just had the most awful time," said a boy to his friends. "First I got angina pectoris, then arteriosclerosis. Just as I was recovering, I got psoriasis. They gave me hypodermics, and to top it all, tonsillitis was followed by appendectomy." "Wow! How did you pull through?" asked his friends. "I don't know," the boy replied. "Toughest spelling test I ever had."
Have you ever wondered why we have trouble with the English Language? Let's face it English is a stupid language.
There is no egg in the eggplant
No ham in the hamburger
And neither pine nor apple in the pineapple.
English muffins were not invented in England
French fries were not invented in France.
We sometimes take English for granted
But if we examine its paradoxes we find that
Quicksand takes you down slowly
Boxing rings are square
And a guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig.
If writers write, how come fingers don't fing.
If the plural of tooth is teeth
Shouldn't the plural of phone booth be phone beeth
If the teacher taught,
Why didn't the preacher praught.
If a vegetarian eats vegetables
What ever does a humanitarian eat!?
Why do people recite at a play
Yet play at a recital?
Park on driveways and
Drive on parkways
You have to marvel at the unique lunacy
Of a language where a house can burn up as
It burns down
And in which you fill in a form
By filling it out
And a bell is only heard once it goes!
English was invented by people, not computers
And it reflects the creativity of the human race
(Which of course isn't a race at all)
That is why
When the stars are out they are visible
But when the lights are out they are invisible
And why it is that when I wind up my watch
But when I wind up this observation,
If it hasn't come to you yet, this morning's message is about language. When I was looking for a Meditative Sentence, I looked for the word "lamb," because of the scripture passage. When I found the one by John Owen, I also found the title of this message, because we will be going to the deeps - at least for me. If you didn't catch it, his quote is, "In the divine Scriptures, there are shallows and there are deeps; shallows where the lamb may wade, and deeps where the elephant may swim."
Came across some interesting "language" this week, too. Actually, it was slang from the 1920s, and the thought that we should start using some - if not all of them - again. Some I can't say in church. But, has anyone ever hear of the phrase, "Banana oil?" It means, "That's doubtful."
I don't know if "bangtail" will become popular again for a race horse. Or will "eel's hips" ever come back as an equivalent to "the cat's meow" or "The Monkey's Eyebrows." I'm sure, however, that we won't be bringing back "Rock of Ages," because as a reference to middle-aged women over 30, it just ain't gonna fly.
The passage for this morning comes from the book of John, the fourth Gospel, the one that not like the other three. Matthew, Mark and Luke are called the Synoptic Gospels, which means that they include many of the same stories, often in similar sequence and wording. But John is different. John spends more time talking about Jesus as the revelation of the divine Word. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God" - all with capital W's. In John, Jesus talks more about his divine role and there is less time spent on parables.
As Kathy makes her way forward, I'll give you a little clue into the passage. There is a repeated phrase. So see if you can pick it out.
29 The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.”
32 Then John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. 33 And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One.”
35 The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. 36 When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!” 37 When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus.
Thank you, Kathy. So, did anyone catch the repeated phrase? "Lamb of God." Actually, "Look, the Lamb of God." If you look up "Lamb of God," it is used in exactly that order in only two places in the Bible: the two contained in our reading today. When the Bible contains repetition, you might pay more attention than usual.
At the Ministerial Association this past Thursday, it was Fr. Skip Comer's turn to do the devotional part of our meeting. So he read this passage, and asked us, "Who is the Lamb?" He extrapolated the question with another, "What does the Lamb of God mean?"
Skip reminded us that the "lamb" reference came from the Jewish tradition of worship sacrifice. Long before Jesus' day, way back in Abraham's era, lambs were used in the temple every morning and evening for the sin of the people. Our culture is not necessarily so fond of such practice, for a number of reasons, including sensitivity to the unpleasantness all the way to animal rights and protection. And yet, that is - in part - why Jesus came, so that we don't have to bring lambs or grain or doves or any thing else to sacrifice.
There was that nasty incident with Abraham and his son Isaac, and that time God told Abe to sacrifice his son - as a burnt offering - none-the-less. One doesn't need to be a parent to abhor such a "command," much less the carrying out of it. Even when God provides a ram in a thicket, the obedience of Abraham - or any one - to such a situation is hard to take in.
Then there was "the" Passover, the tenth plague on the land of Egypt, because Pharoah wouldn't release the Jewish people from their captivity. The actual plague was the death of every first-born male child. The only way to prevent the Lord's angel of death from stopping at your house was to put some lamb's blood on the sides and top of the door frame of the house. Then you were "passed over." We're not fond of such drastic measures these days, and more than a few have wondered why we need to keep this reminder of brutality, much less talk about it.
In fact, there are tons of questions about a "lamb of God." Does the lamb belong to God, or come from God, or possess some sort of godly status? Is it God’s Passover lamb? Even after Jesus' death and resurrection and ascension back to eternity, sin isn't eradicated. People still kill; individuals are hurt. And sometimes we swim with the elephant.
My friend, although he doesn't know he's my friend, Richard Swanson, is a professor of religion, philosophy and classics over der at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, Sout Dakoda. On this topic of "lamb of God," he said, "What matters, I think, is that the phrase “lamb of God” does not point easily and simply to a single symbolic referent. Rather, it weaves this chance encounter with Jesus into the whole variegated tapestry of Jewish Scripture."
Maybe pastors and religious know-it-alls have been focusing too much on the phrase, and we've forgotten that it was John the Baptist, Jesus' locust-eating, camel-skin wearing preacher cousin who voiced the title. Maybe it wasn't so much a proclamation as much as an affirmation.
Maybe this was the best term John could come up with to make his point, "This is the man." This is my home-boy, the one I've been telling you about. Maybe John had known Jesus as his cousin, and in that moment, it dawned on him - the depth of what Jesus was to do; he had seen Jesus in a new way.
Maybe the point of this morning's message has more to do with recognizing Christ around us in ways we'd not thought before - in the face of our neighbor, in the crisp, cold winter air, in the laughter of children. Maybe it's about seeing the holy in the people around us and the environment we're in. Maybe it's about taking a hard look at God, without expectation.
I don't know who The Lamb of God is, except that John said it of Jesus, nor do I know what it means, except that John also said he takes away the sin of the world. (Not the little sins, those are left to us.) But I don't know what that means, either. I do know this. When we look at Jesus, we aren't seeing just the guy who welcomed kids or the guy who changed water into wine or the guy who did miraculous healing. When we take a good, hard look at Jesus, we begin to understand that God is willing to go to great lengths to get us to understand love, even if we can grasp just a small strand of that fabric of understanding. Allowing the mystery of faith to be as big and beyond as it is, let us go to the place where that same mystery of faith becomes close. So let us pray.
Omnipresent and Omniscient God, it's not easy to swim with the elephant. Wading with the lamb is so much easier, less messy. But sometimes, Lord, when we come away from those deeps, we realize how much richer we are, even if we don't have the language for those experiences. So we are grateful for those times when we can wade in the easy waters of life. And we are grateful for the times when we go to places that aren't necessarily comfortable, yet we know there is a reason, even if we can't articulate it. Thank you, too, for those who point us to you, and help us to see you in ways we'd not thought of before. More than anything, Gracious God, thank you for sending your Son, that we may begin to understand the depth of your love for us. And all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
January 12, 2014
First Sunday in Epiphany
Isaiah 42:1-9, Matthew 3:13-17
"Being an Example to Your ___"
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
A young businessman had just started his own firm. He had just rented a beautiful office and had it furnished with antiques. He saw a man come into the outer office. Wishing to appear the hot shot, the businessman picked up the phone and started to pretend he had a big deal working. He threw huge figures around and made giant commitments. Finally he hung up and asked the visitor, "Can I help you?" "Yeah, I've come to activate your phone lines."
Last week's scripture was from the rarely mentioned book of Ecclesiastes, the passage that reminds us that there is a time for war and a time for peace, a time to embrace and a time to let go, and all those other eloquent 180 degree opposites that are necessary in life. What was/is so precious about that passage, in my humble opinion, is that it gives us permission to be human - in all the vast arrays that we can express our humanity.
This week's passages are more aspirational - more about what we might try to attain. I might have brushed off either or both of these passages, except that I fell across a poem by a Pastor Steve Garnaas-Holmes that just about stopped me dead in my tracks. But more on that later.
To set the scene for our two passages, way back, God delivered the Hebrew people from bondage in Egypt, made a covenant with them - to be their God and they God's people, and brought them through wilderness into the land of Canaan. They became a nation and built a temple for God. For centuries they saw military victories and defeats under kings and generals. They strayed from God’s covenant but prophets called them back. Then, in the sixth century before Jesus was born, the unthinkable happened.
The Babylonians defeated Israel. They destroyed the temple, plundered Israel’s treasure and livelihoods, took them into bondage, and marched them back to the gates of Babylon in chains. That event is why the Psalmist wrote “By the rivers of Babylon there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion” (Ps. 137:1). The Babylonian victory over Israel was absolute. This was utter, complete devastation of the political, social, economic and religious life God’s people had known for centuries. Against all of that, the prophet Isaiah offers a word, reminding the people of who God is. More than that, Isaiah's mission was to remind the people of 1) who they were and 2) the one that would come to serve them, who would be unlike the "rulers" they had ever known.
Then there is the passage from Matthew, where John baptizes Jesus. It may be familiar, maybe not. But it beautifully paints the picture - of who we are.
Isaiah 42:1-9 NIV
“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will bring justice to the nations. 2 He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets. 3 A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; 4 he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth. In his teaching the islands will put their hope.”
5 This is what God the Lord says— the Creator of the heavens, who stretches them out, who spreads out the earth with all that springs from it, who gives breath to its people, and life to those who walk on it: 6 “I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, 7 to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.
8 “I am the Lord; that is my name! I will not yield my glory to another or my praise to idols. 9 See, the former things have taken place, and new things I declare; before they spring into being I announce them to you.”
Matthew 3:13-17 NIV The Baptism of Jesus
13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. 14 But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.
16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased."
Thank you, John and Leslie. There are some interesting parallels between these two passages. Isaiah wrote, "Here is my servant, whom I uphold." Matthew wrote, "This is my Son, whom I love." Isaiah wrote, "my chosen one in whom I delight," Matthew wrote, "with him I am well pleased." Isaiah, "I will put my Spirit on him," Matthew: "he (Jesus) saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him." There is a term called the elephant test, which refers to situations in which an idea or thing "is hard to describe, but instantly recognizable when spotted." Isaiah described the promised Messiah, and Matthew revealed the humble Messiah.
One thing we learn from television cop shows is that when a situation happens, watch for the quiet ones or the ones that are easily overlooked. In the Matthew passage, that would be John the Baptist. He would definitely stand out: long hair, funky clothes, rather unsavory diet. We forget that he was the one to point his finger at respected religious figures and call them a slithering heap of snakes. He actually looked like somebody. Today, his picture would be on the cover of Newsweek, one of People magazine's 25 Most Intriguing People of the year and the darling of every grocery store tabloid.
I think John may have been brash, but he was also bright - bright enough to realize that Jesus was looking good to take over and set the religious dunderheads right. He was bright enough to realize how crazy it was for him to baptize Jesus. And he was bright enough to back down without making a big fuss. I'd not thought of it before, but John is a good example for us - in allowing God to do what God is asking of us, rather than getting all snarky or stubborn. Imagine the real, humble, blessed - stunned - feeling John must have felt at baptizing Jesus.
Because I was the oldest of three girls, I forever heard certain things. "If you don't do thus and such, you will be grounded." "You can't beat up your sister." "You're supposed to set an example for your sisters." I secretly laughed at the grounding bit, because I could walk wherever I really needed to go.
I am guessing that those who were also the oldest or at least older than others, got tired of "being that example." After all, when did we sign up to be examples? The thing is, after those to whom we were to be examples grew up, we don't get to stop being examples. In fact, all of us, just by our very being, are examples to other people, whether we know it or not. We probably should work at being the best examples we can.
So we remember the Isaiah passage, to remind ourselves to try not to bruise or break or snuff out the souls around us. We remember that God keeps us and calls us to be a promise for all God's people, a light to Gentiles and non-Gentiles, young and old, men and women, Scandinavians and non-Scandinavians. We are to help in opening blind eyes and freeing those caught in personal prisons.
John the Baptist is our reminder that we are an example in the way we go through things that seem confusing, over and above us, odd or uncomfortable. There are blessings we can't anticipate by doing that which seems awkward or that stretch us beyond our comfort zones.
We always do well to follow Jesus' example: of remembering that there is a high, righteous road that we can chose to take - or not - of remembering that sometimes in dying to ourselves - what we want - God can show us how much we are loved.
The thing is, sometimes we get tired. Sometimes we wander off the path or feel lost; life happens. How can we be an example if we don't have enough energy for an ex, much less an ample?
Many of you remember the abduction of Elizabeth Smart, the fourteen-year-old kidnapped from her Salt Lake City bedroom at night by Brian Mitchell. Mitchell and his wife brutalized Elizabeth for nine months until she was finally recognized and freed. During her captivity, Elizabeth couldn't call out or own name, because Mitchell had threatened to kill her and her family. During those nine months, the only people who knew the real name of the young woman were her two captors and herself. But she never forgot who she was, even when no one recognized her.
Going back to the afore mentioned Pastor's poem. Dearly Beloved, Grace and Peace to you. "You are my Own, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased. This is as unalterable as the heavens: you are God's Beloved, God's own. Nothing you do or fail can change that.
You are anointed with the promise of the Messiah, the task of bearing God's will into the world. You are upheld in your work. Unseen though it may be, and seemingly unimportant, it is God's desire; it is God's delight.
Nonviolently as Christ, without force or coercion, with only love for all, you will act for the fullness of life for all those to whom it is denied. The promise is not happy trails or the comfort of triumph but the mystery of the cross, dying and rising as you enter the suffering of the world. It is not your power or success but your belovedness, and that of all whom you meet, that you bear gloriously into the world, that transforms it. Go in peace, and serve the Lord with joy. May it be so, as all God's people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.