First Congregational Church
January 29, 2017
4th Sunday after Epiphany, Commissioning Sunday
“Why Would Anyone Seriously Consider Following Christ?”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
1 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.
Thank you, Lauren. I confess that this is one of the more confounding passages - for me - in the Bible. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Who wants to be an Eeyore? Blessed are the mourners. Who wants to be a habitual funeral junky? I’m not keen on becoming a farmer, so I’m not so sure about the meek inheriting the earth business. And righteousness? Any one of us could probably come up with folks that are puffed up with their own self-righteousness, why would any of us want to walk that fine line of righteous vs. self-righteous? We all could contribute to this vein of thought until the cows come home, but it probably won’t get us any ice cream in the end - cows - milk.
Sometimes this list of character traits is described as the Be-Attitudes, as in “be” this “attitude” of merciful and pure in heart and all the others. But when you back away from the list a little, and knowing what we know about Jesus, I don’t think that attitude was his target, either. Like so many things, I think that Jesus was not only asking us to live our lives in this heaven-bound way, but that these “traits” become goals that will eventually bubble up through our very beings.
I never dawned on me to look into how the Beatitudes would explained to children, but while I was doing some study on the passage, I discovered a lot of online sites that do just that. I’m not sure exactly if dltk-bible.org is a homeschooling website or just what, but I think that whoever wrote the page on the Beatitudes had rather “right on.”
“Jesus starts off with blessed are those who are poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Being poor in spirit means that we aren't attached to all the stuff that we have. That you understand that God has given you all the great things or blessings and we should be very thankful and even willing to give them up or share them with others. All our things on earth doesn't matter because we can't take it with us to heaven which will be more amazing than we can imagine.” My question is, why didn’t Jesus just say that?
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Mourning is when we're really sad. Maybe you've cried because you got hurt or someone you knew died but this is different than that. This is being very upset about those people that haven't heard about God or even about the (bad things in life we call evil. (sin in your life.) You might not think about these things very much yet but as you get closer to God this will bother you and that's okay. God promises to comfort us when we need it.” Note to self: Do I really feel badly about those who haven’t heard about God? Second note to self: What am I doing about that negative thing in my life - that evil - that seems to follow me wherever I go?
“Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth. Being meek is being patient, not easily angered and not thinking of yourself too highly. A bad example of this in the Bible were the Pharisees. They would make sure people knew that they were fasting and praying and seemed proud about what they were doing for God. Except God is looking for us to do these things without putting on a show for others but doing it just for God, not for approval from others.” Note to self: cancel the bragging I was going to sneak into discussion about cleaning up my office a week ago - not that anyone could tell today.
“Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled. Being righteous is impossible on our own. Can we always do right by God? No, and God knows that. We can try our best to do the right thing and if we don't, we can ask for forgiveness and the forgiveness erases all the bad.” Erases all the bad. It’s as good a line as one of my favorite Facebook comedians says, “I’m not as growed up in God as I thought I was.”
“Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. To have mercy is to be loving and kind to others. This doesn't mean just being loving and kind to your family and friends but also to those who you might not know and even those you don't like.” Ooo, Lord, there are a lot of us that are needing reminding about this mercy piece. A lot of us.
“Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God. Jesus is talking about the place where we think and make decisions, why we do things, and our thoughts. If we keep our mind, thoughts and decisions full of good, God says we'll understand God more.”
“Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God. The simplest way to explain this is someone who makes peace. Helping others to get along would be a big part of it.” Note for later contemplation: What am I saying - or writing - that is disturbing the peace? Not in terms of party music volume, but things that if they were said to me by someone from an opposing viewpoint, might make my hackles rise?
While all these simplified explanations are good and perhaps even something that was meant for your heart today, it is the last explanation that brings us to the point of this morning’s message.
“Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. God knows that being who God wants (us to be) is not the way the world acts. By doing the opposite of the world, we will be made fun of or worse, because people don't understand why we don't do things only for ourselves. By living a life of doing things for others confuses the way the world thinks. A lot of people in the world want beauty, money, and don't care about others as long as they get what they want. This is opposite to the life God wants us to lead. Doing the right thing isn't easy but God wants us to know that the kingdom of heaven is waiting for us if (when) we can get through the tough times in this life.”
When you put all this Beatitude stuff together, that’s a lot of work! It means we have to be a little more on our toes and make more of an effort to not only think before we speak, but to be willing to ask for forgiveness when we’ve said something that is “less than” what we would rather have said. And besides, there is the Old Testament passage of Ecclesiastes that tells us that there are times in life when we need to speak and act contrary to the life that Jesus is describing in Matthew 5.
But that is the difference, that “there are times” versus “being.” At the end of all these ways that Jesus tells us to be, he said, “Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Granted, none of us would necessarily sign up for religious persecution. But persecution for the sake of persecution isn’t the point. Great will be our “reward in heaven” is the point.
None of us, obviously, knows what heaven is like. But isn’t it better to place our bets on there being a heaven, a heaven of infinite blessing and reward, than to discover a place of infinite condemnation or even infinite nothing? And if, while we are waiting for that place of infinite blessing, we are able to help others see that goal, and at the same time, create lives of blessing, ours as well as anyone else, then why would we walk away from that? Why, then, would anyone NOT seriously follow Christ?
Holy God of all grace, you know that we sometimes get it wrong. You know that sometimes we get tired and are ready to throw the baby out with the bath water. For those times, we ask for your forgiveness. And we also ask for extra measures of patience, and courage and wisdom, that we may think better before we speak, ask for forgiveness when we fail, and the smarts to help us from continuing those things that drag us all down. Tip our chins up when our heads fall in despair, straighten our backs when we feel defeated and aimless. Help us to see the path you have designed for us, the path that ultimately leads to you and home. And all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
January 22, 2017
Third Sunday after Epiphany
“While Calling the Next 150 Years….”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
A man had been driving all night and by morning was still far from his destination. He decided to stop at the next city he came to, and park somewhere quiet so he could get an hour or two of sleep.
As luck would have it, the quiet place he chose happened to be on one of the city’s major jogging routes. No sooner had he settled back to snooze when there came a knocking on his window. He looked out and saw a jogger running in place. “Yes?” “Excuse me, sir,” the jogger said, “do you have the time?” The man looked at the car clock and answered, “8:15”. The jogger said thanks and left.
The man settled back again, and was just dozing off when there was another knock on the window and another jogger. “Excuse me, sir, do you have the time?” “8:25!” The jogger said thanks and left.
Now the man could see other joggers passing by and he knew it was only a matter of time before another one disturbed him. To avoid the problem, he got out a pen and paper and put a sign in his window saying, “I do not know the time!” Once again he settled back to sleep. He was just dozing off when there was another knock on the window. “Sir, sir? It’s 8:45!”
As I thought about this morning’s message - over the past week - I thought it interesting, maybe even “God-cidental” that we, as a church family, begin our 150th year of organization, while at the same time, our nation begins a period that will forever change the direction of our country - for good and ill. For those about to get squirmy in your seats because the topic seems right close to politics, fear not. I don’t think this morning’s message is so much about that which is political as it is about the common denominator that binds us together as followers of Christ. If there seems to be a piece that falls over onto the political side, well, that’s going to be God’s intention, and not mine.
Since the 23 individuals that officially pledged themselves to each other under the framework of First Congregational Church of Frankfort, January 26, 1868, a lot of water has passed under the bridge. It was the year that General Grant became the president-elect, the US House of Representatives voted to impeach sitting-President Andrew Johnson, Kit Carson and James Buchanan died, the Wyoming Territory was organized and Cornell University at Ithaca was opened, all according to the Standard Atlas of Benzie County, copyright of 1915.
The next year, the Pacific Railway was completed, the Fifteenth Amendment was passed, the Supreme Court pronounced Confederate currency to be worthless, and the great Wall Street panic, known as Black Friday, took place on September 24. And while all that was going on, a group of individuals felt a need - a call - to commit themselves to God and each other in spreading the Good News of Christ in this little cranny of Benzie County.
In one place I discovered that there were three - three - families recorded living in Frankfort in 1868 and 400 individuals in 1871, according to The Traverse Region, Historical and Descriptive, dated 1884. That same record noted that 45 of those 400 of Frankfort individuals were Congregationalists.
Jesus started out with small numbers, too. You may recall that after Jesus’ baptism, he went on his desert/wilderness/temptation/40 day test, and then he started preaching. We don’t know how long he preached without official disciples, but it was sometime during his solo preaching days that our passage for this morning took place. (Mary Ann…)
Jesus Calls His First Disciples
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.
Jesus Heals the Sick
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, Mary Ann. While proudly showing off his new apartment to friends, a college student led the way into the den. “What is the big brass gong and hammer for?” one of his friends asked. “That is the talking clock,” the man replied. “How’s it work?” the friend asked. “Watch,” the student said then proceeded to give the gong an ear shattering pound with the hammer. Suddenly someone screamed from the other side of the wall, “KNOCK IT OFF! It’s two AM!”
I’m guessing that a multitude of sermons have been written over this morning’s passage; some, no doubt, in the mind of a person sitting in a fishing boat. And I’d be willing to guess that a large percentage of those sermons were connected to the topic of evangelism - the winning or revival of personal commitments to Christ. Perhaps there may be a person or two here this morning who gave their lives to Christ because of a passage such as this one. Some people come to Christ through scripture, some through preaching, some through a mystical movement of the Holy Spirit, some were born into it, and others through ways that are beyond our ken, and what really matters is not the route, but the result. And should anyone ever wonder, it is always a good time to make your promise to follow God, through Christ and the Holy Spirit.
I’m grateful that the writer of Matthew didn’t change horses after verse 22, because the next verse is just as important. “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.”
150 years ago, I would guess that the original members of this church - or maybe even most any church - didn’t come together merely for the sake of saying that they belonged to a church. Church membership then, as it is now, has to/had to mean something.
So I’d also guess that when someone was sick, a plate of food was brought to the one who was ill. With such a small population, they needed to take care of each other. If someone broke their leg and the firewood wasn’t finished for the winter, I’d guess that there might have been a couple of folks that would have seen to it that there was enough wood to make it through the worst of the winter.
Or is Mrs. So-and-So had a hard time with a pregnancy, I wouldn’t doubt that perhaps a neighbor would take care of the other youngins while Mrs. So-and-So recovered a little. And I’d guess that they didn’t do those tasks and mercies because they were aiming to get paid or for glory. I’m guessing they did it because those are the things that are not only the “right things to do,” but they proclaim the good news of the kingdom in helping to heal every disease and sickness among the people - as best as we humans are able.
Speaking of youngins, January of 1868 must have been a hot time in the old town, because it was also the time when the first school in Frankfort, the second in the county, was started, by one of our founders, Mr. Warren H. Marsh. Even if Mr. Marsh couldn’t solve familial or social issues that the school children had in 1868, it’s good to know that at least one person from this place had a heart for the children in the area, and through them, made a stake in the future that we now enjoy.
It is with certainty that I tell other people about those with hearts for children among this church family. Whether they come to us weekly, occasionally, yearly, or once-in-a-great-blue-moon, not only do our faithful Sunday School and regular school teachers have a heart for the children among us; so do most all of us. And as your pastor, I gotta tell ya, few things make my heart sing as when I witness the exchange between a young person and a person older than them around here.
As Christ calls us to follow him, so can we continue to have a heart for our children, and our elders, our sick, less-abled, and all the others that come through our doors - as we continue to grow the foundation of this church family for the next 150 years.
150 years ago, the cost of $5,000 to build this church was astronomical. But it wasn’t all that was required to build this place. If you have the ability at all, I truly encourage one and all to attend Al’s Academy this week, as Andy Mollema will be telling us more about our early history, some of which will be done in the area of finances.
Today, however, for as many as can stay after the service, we will once again take up the discussion of our church finances as we think about the next year, the first of the next 150. But like all previous years, the discussion is not essentially about money, but about ministry, and what we are called to do to continue to bring the Good News of Christ to our communities.
As I wrote this message, I wondered if there might be any among us that would be visitors, and I hoped so, to remind us of the larger picture, that our faith is not just about our here and now, not only about what God has done for me in the past, but about what God is doing, through mere human beings, in fulfilling the call to spread the Gospel, teaching in our places of worship, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people, as best as we are able.
Christ called us to do a lot of things: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,” (Lk 10:27) “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Mt. 28:19)
Jesus also called us to do a lot of things by his example: speaking to the “unclean,” having dinner with those that others wouldn’t be caught dead breaking bread with, confronting injustice when he saw it. We look back today to his call, but it is not a call stuck in time; the call continues not just to the coming year, not just to the next four years, not even to the next 150 years, but for as long as we get to continue to wake up each and every morning. I was going to say, ‘each and every morning on this earth,’ but Jesus’ call is not just about us earth-bound land lubbers. And it’s not a call to sign-up on a dotted line. Jesus’ call is to do something, even if all we can do is pray, because of all that we can do, that is by far, the greatest we can. So let us get to it.
Eternal Emmanuel, we worship you this day as people that represent the wideness of your love for us. As we sit in this sanctuary, built and rebuilt and restored over all these years, we are cognizant of the depth of what our words and motions have in time. As the cross and steeple draw our eyes upward, continue to draw our hearts up to where you live, even if we have the barest of understanding, that we see not only promise, but home. Regardless of where we go when we leave this day, help us to realize that we have a job to do in helping others hear your call - to all of us - to do what we can to bring the Good News of your Son to our world. For the blessing of your calling on our lives and the “belonging” with which you have baptized us, all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
January 15, 2017
"What are you seeking?"
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Lena was wanting to earn some money, so she decided to hire herself out as a handyman-type and started canvassing a wealthy neighborhood. She went to the front door of the first house and asked the owner if he had any jobs for her to do. ”Well, you can paint my porch. How much will you charge?" Lena said "How about 50 dollars?"
The man agreed and told her that the paint and other materials that she might need were in the garage. The man's wife, inside the house, heard the conversation and said to her husband, "Does she realize that the porch goes all the way around the house?"
The man replied, "She should, she was standing on it."
A short time later, Lena came to the door to collect her money. "You're finished already?" he asked. "Yes," Lena answered, "and I had paint left over, so I gave it two coats.” Impressed, the man reached in his pocket for the $50. "And by the way," Lena added, "it's not a Porch, it's a Ferrari.”
I’m guessing that just about everyone in this room recognizes the name of Sesame Street. They used to do - maybe still do - a segment with four items displayed on the screen, and we were asked - which one was different. One clip, from 1969, shows an apple, an ice cream cone, a hamburger and a mitten. In a 2007 clip, Big Bird had three small bowls of bird seed and one large bowl of bird seed. (The big, yellow guy went on to say that the first small bowl was for lunch, the second small bowl was for seconds, the third small bowl was for thirds, and the large bowl of bird seed was for dessert.) Gotta love that yellow fowl!
You can do the same comparing with the four Gospels. Matthew, Mark and Luke all start with some aspect of Jesus’ birth, genealogically so. The book of John, however, starts much more ethereally. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Only after a brief statement about the Word and light, John 1 gets to talking about John the Baptist and the priests and Levites asking about his connection to the Messiah. The beginning of the book of John assumes that everyone knows about Jesus’ birth and so it gets right to the point.
John Testifies About Jesus
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.”
John’s Disciples Follow Jesus
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. 38 Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, “What do you want?” They said, “Rabbi” (which means “Teacher”), “where are you staying?” 39 “Come,” he replied, “and you will see.”
So they went and saw where he was staying, and they spent that day with him. It was about four in the afternoon. 40 Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, was one of the two who heard what John had said and who had followed Jesus. 41 The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, “We have found the Messiah” (that is, the Christ). 42 And he brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas” (which, when translated, is Peter).
Thank you, Myra. One of the interesting things about this passage is that if you stand back from it just a little, when the priests and Levites approach John, John points to Jesus. And when the disciples approach Jesus, Jesus points to God. I’m not sure why that popped out to me, except that maybe it’s a point about humility and focus, for whatever that’s worth.
Another piece that pops out is the use of the phrase, “Look, the Lamb of God” - twice. Most of us probably don’t think twice about that phrase that we’ve heard and sung hundreds of times. Scott Hoezee did some of the leg work to tell us; “Yet John 1 is the only place in the entire Bible where it is used. No Old Testament prophet ever referred to God’s Messiah as “the lamb of God” before John 1 and no New Testament writer will repeat it after John 1, either. Even in the Book of Revelation, where John mentions the image of the Lamb, the exact phrase “the lamb of God” is not repeated.”
Regardless of what any of us might think about such a phrase, it’s interesting that the scholars of such biblical phrases aren’t sure they know what “The Lamb of God” really means.
Without huge dissertation, it makes sense. A lamb can be gentle, meek and vulnerable, just as Jesus was before his accusers. But without coming right out to say that sheep are especially dumb creatures, sheep are probably on the lower end of the animal intelligence scale. But then Jesus calls himself “The Good Shepherd,” and we have to wonder, in regards to the Messiah, if one can be sheep and shepherd at the same time.
Back to the passage, obviously, this morning’s sermon title comes right from the mouth of Jesus, “What are you seeking?” As I thought about that, the first thing that popped into my head was “for the ice to go away.” I can handle winter with the best of folks, but I really dislike the slick, uber smooth ice that insidiously lies in wait for us this last week. Even with my new, heavy duty version of Yak Tracks, I still could have done better with a good pair of ice skates with the last snow blow.
I know there are others that share my disdain for having to do the “ice walk” at this time of year - taking a 3-4 inch steps at a time - for fear of falling. What do I want? I want to run down the streets in Frankfort like the young 20 something-year-old did yesterday, full of confidence and smile, the thought of slipping being the farthest from her mind. I just want to walk normally, Jesus. Thank you.
Snarkiness aside, if you spend a moment thinking about it, what do you want? I’m thinking that such things as money, fame, renown, youthfulness might be on some of your lists. But the more I thought about it this week, I wonder how many of us really know - deep down - what we want. I wonder, too, if or how much - what we want - is perhaps something we may really and truly fear - or know - can’t happen?
The disciples’ response is interesting. They don’t come right out and say, “We want to stay with you.” They ask where Jesus is staying; like if Jesus thought they were cool enough, maybe he’d let them hang with him for a while.
Once again, our English translation hides a deeper meaning for us. When the disciples ask about where he is staying, the word they use is about “enduring” and “abiding.” They want to know about the enduring, permanent, eternal, undying dwelling place of this Lamb of God - perhaps most especially in his mind. Where are you staying? Where do you “live?” Where can we go to be with you, to receive what you have to offer? Where can we be in the very presence of God? (pause)
When John first made reference to Jesus as the Lamb of God, how did he end that statement? “Who takes away the sin of the world.” When putting together the idea of a lamb and sin, it’s not so hard to recall the Old Testament practice of offering up sacrificial lambs on the temple altar. And of course, one of the most important tenants of Christianity is Jesus’ sacrifice on the altar of the cross - to take away the sin of the world. I’m thinking that our deepest “wants” and “places of abode” have a great connection to each other.
Lena and Ole are seated next to each other on a flight from LA to NY. Ole asks if she would like to play a fun game. Lena, tired, just wants to take a nap, politely declines and rolls over to the window to catch a few winks. Ole persists and explains that the game is easy and a lot of fun. He explains, "I ask you a question, and if you don't know the answer, you pay me $5.00, and vice versa.
" Again, she declines and tries to get some sleep. Ole, now agitated, says, "Okay, if you don't know the answer you pay me $5.00, and if I don't know the answer, I will pay you $500.00." This catches Lena's attention and, figuring there will be no end to this torment unless she plays, agrees to the game.
Ole asks the first question. "What's the distance from the earth to the moon?" Lena doesn't say a word, reaches into her purse, pulls out a $5.00 bill and hands it to Ole. "Okay" says Ole, "your turn."
She asks Ole, "What goes up a hill with three legs and comes down with four legs?" Ole, puzzled, takes out his laptop computer and searches all his references, no answer. He taps into the air phone with his modem and searches the net and the library of congress, no answer.
Frustrated, he sends e-mails to all his friends and coworkers, to no avail. After an hour, he wakes Lena, and hands her $500.00. Lena says, "Thank you," and turns back to get some more sleep. Ole, who is more than a little miffed, wakes Lena and asks, "Well, what's the answer?" Without a word, Lena reaches into her purse, hands Ole $5.00, and goes back to sleep.
We all have needs, hopefully and fortunately, most of us get what we need, and we are very aware that that is not the case in much of the world. But after your needs, what is your greatest want? After sorting through your list of those things you think would make you happy, which of them will ultimately point to God, whether they point first to Jesus or even other people? Once you narrow that want down to “that one thing,” can you see any ways that God is helping you with that ‘want?” Where is it - where you are living - that Jesus is telling you to live? Let us pray.
Lamb of God and Light of the World, we came this day for many reasons, and hopefully some of those reasons have been fulfilled. But as this day continues, inside and outside these walls, help us to see how it is that you not only provide for our needs, but for our wants, as well. Thank you for those provisions and empowerments and guidance you have given us in our past - whether we have paid attention or not. But help us, as you lead us into the rest of our day, week and life, to see not only what we want - of you - but what you want - of us. Thank you, for each and every want, necessity and blessing with which you shower us. And all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
January 8, 2017
First Sunday after the Epiphany, Baptism of the Lord
"Jesus' Baptism – Again…."
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
After a hardy rainstorm filled all the potholes in the streets and alleys, a young mother watched her two little boys playing in the puddle through her kitchen window. The older of the two, a five year old lad, grabbed his sibling by the back of his head and shoved his face into the water hole. As the boy recovered and stood laughing and dripping, the mother ran to the yard in a panic.
"Why on earth did you do that to your little brother?!" she said as she shook the older boy in anger. "We were just playing 'church' mommy," he said "And I was just baptizing him..... in the name of the Father, the Son and in...the hole-he-goes.” It’s been done before, but it’s still good.
Seeing as how the twelve days of Christmas concluded on Wednesday of this week, that made Thursday, January 6 the Day of Epiphany. There was an idea for a sermon weeks ago on that topic, but it fell flat after some time on a slow bake in the mental oven. So back to the lectionary for today’s message.
I don’t specifically recall if it was audible, but I’m sure there was a mental “sigh” when I read the passage from Matthew; Jesus’ baptism - again. It’s predictable as whiskers on cats that the first Sunday after Epiphany, the lectionary gospel passage will be about Jesus’ baptism - in any one of the four gospels. With last week’s sermon about truth still rolling around in my head, and the idea that we need to explore more before making our personal “decrees,” I figured I’d better be a little more patient with what God may be trying to tell all of us.
So just to get off on the right foot, if it’s been a while since you’ve looked over the book of Matthew, it starts off with Jesus’ lineage going all the way back to Abraham. Incidentally, that lineage mentions Ruth and Boaz, for those of you who were here for any part of the Advent sermon series on the book of Ruth. Matthew 1 also includes the story about Joseph and his dream about an angel, telling him to marry Mary and announcing the Messiah’s birth.
The second chapter of Matthew describes the visit of the Magi and the Holy Family’s escape to Egypt, after Herod’s order to kill the infant threats to his rule. The end of Matthew 2 recounts the return of Mary, Joseph and Jesus to Nazareth in Galilee, rather than to Bethlehem in Judea, to avoid the notorious Archelaus this time, who was reigning there. And just like that, we get to Matthew 3.
John the Baptist Prepares the Way
1 In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea 2 and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3 This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: “A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’ ”
4 John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. 5 People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. 6 Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.
7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
11 “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
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, Al. After the Baptism of his baby brother in church, little Johnny sobbed all the way home in the back seat of the car. His father asked him three times what was wrong. Finally, the boy replied, "That priest said he wanted us brought up in a Christian home, but I want to stay with you guys.”
I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, that it is easier to talk about baptism without an actual baptism being done during the service. You can come at the topic without as much emotionality as when there is a beautiful baby in your midst, stealing all the preaching thunder that might be rumbling below the cooing of the bambino. And then there are the debates that surround the subject of baptism: adult or infant, sprinkling or immersion, inside or outside.
Brett Younger, at Ministry Matters, said, “Some of us were baptized because we turned ten years old and decided that we were sick and tired of not getting to drink the grape juice. Some of us went to a worship service where the minister made us cry and invited us to be baptized. Some of us have never been baptized because we’ve never seen any reason why we should be. Some of us haven’t been baptized, but we’ve had to work hard to avoid seriously considering it.” So here we are, with Jesus and John and this crowd of witnesses, compelled, once again, to see what it has in store for us.
I asked Al to read this morning’s passage with a little more energy when it came to John’s parts because I was hoping you might see, as Scott Hoezee of Calvin Theological Seminary pointed out, that Jesus’ asking to be baptized was not the public appearance of Jesus that John had set everyone up to see. John knew that the Messiah was coming, and perhaps part of his weird dress and diet were to help the Messiah shine all the brighter when Jesus showed up, even though John’s lifestyle was decreed before his birth. However John knew that Jesus was the Messiah, when he shows up, he’s just like the other people going to John for baptizing.
By the way, I, for one, tend to forget that baptizing is not something that started with Jesus’ command to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” which is the last thing he says in the book of Matthew. People of Babylon and Egypt and other places practiced water baptism for various different reasons, and like so many things in life, Christians took up the practice, almost as if we were the ones who invented it. And for those wondering, yes, there were baptisms done with other things, like blood. But we won’t got there today.
One of the things that strikes me in this passage is John’s reaction to Jesus’ request to be baptized. John’s like, “Who, me? Baptizing the Messiah isn’t in my job description.” But after a little conversation, John gave Jesus the big dunk. Perhaps it was because John realized that Jesus’ baptism wasn’t so much about him - John - but more about Jesus - what Jesus needed from it - for whatever reasons. Sometimes when we are afraid of something, the fear is more about us than about what God needs. So the next time you feel God asking you to do something, and you feel out of your league, try to see beyond your fears to the possibilities of what God might have up God’s sleeve. Perhaps, ironically, you will see how minute your fear was to God’s greater purpose.
In his waiting in line for his baptism, as if he were in line at the grocery store, Jesus shows us that all of us - no matter how great or how humble - need to put forth effort in our relationship with God. Granted, John the Baptist wasn’t God, but perhaps to Jesus, he represented God. Sometimes we need to get off our horses and approach God, because there is something pure and holy about standing - sitting or kneeling - before God. That’s why we sometimes have communion by intinction, where we have to get out of our pews and go up to God - represented by the bread and the cup. It may seem a small thing, but it is the conquering of our fears or reluctance or even laziness, to approach the holiness that lies before us, often so very plainly before us.
Almost on the coattails of this very ordinary, human activity of standing in line, and being baptized, God comes to Jesus, bestowing a deeply individual, personal and holy blessing. (Which is why we, at other times, celebrate communion with individual cups, and where we are sitting, to remind us that God also seeks to bless us, right where we are in this life, right in the midst of the millions of people that surround us.)
We don’t know if God’s words to Jesus were heard by those around him or not. I guess I’d always envisioned the scene with God’s voice sounding remarkably like Charlton Heston, James Earl Jones or Morgan Freeman. But maybe God’s voice sounded only in Jesus’ head, and he shared that “moment” with the disciples at a later time.
For whatever reason, maybe Jesus needed to hear those words, to remember them when the disciples failed him in their sleep at the Garden of Gethsemane, when he wondered about the insanity of it all while he was standing in front of Pilate, when he was hanging on the cross. Maybe Jesus, King of Kings and Lord of Lords, needed this proclamation of being God’s beloved, so he could make it through what was to come.
I know we need to hear about us being God’s beloved, because of the paths that our life have taken, are taking and will take. In those moments, when we stand before God, wondering what this life is all about, we need this picture of Jesus to remind us that it is our picture, too.
I don’t know why or what it’s all about, but for whatever reasons, it seems that God has been bringing a lot to me lately about mental illness and addiction; the incredible magnitude of those two problems, the incredible dimensions to them, the ways we humans try to deal with them, and the many, slow and painful steps that we must take to deal with them. I don’t have a degree in psychology or psychiatry or any other degree than theology, but it seems to me, in my experiences, that we all need to know how much God looks on us as “beloveds.”
In the New International Version, it says, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” In the old King James, it says, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” The NIV is good, but the King James’ “beloved” seems to reach deeper, more intimately.
You, (say your name in your mind right now) are God’s beloved. However you envision God, imagine yourself in front of or wrapped up in or sitting next to God, and God says (say your name in your mind right now), in you I am well pleased.
This place, where you are right now, is not about what you’ve done, what you’ve said, how old or young you are, what color your skin is, or anything else you feel. This is what God says - about you.
That’s what we need to remember when we’re scared or lonely or feeling inadequate or adrift. No matter what happens in your life, there is nothing you can do that will take away God’s bestowing of “beloved” on you. God is always going to be “well pleased” with you, (say your name in your mind right now), even if you do or say things that are less than God’s vision of you.
That’s a part of the Good News that we need to share with people - in action or word - that can change lives. That’s what can reach into the hardest of scarred hearts and begin to heal from the God-side out. And that’s the message I think God needs us to remember, at least once a year. So let us pray.
Beloved and Loving God, we come to worship you, to give you thanks and praise for who you are. And that is right and good. But it is who you are - to each of us - that gives us the greatest reason to give you our worship. So we thank you and praise you for the love that you have had for each one of us, long before time even began, that will continue - for each one of us - long after our time on this side of eternity will end. Help us, dear God, to embrace your love more deeply, that we may share it more freely, that others may heal more completely. For all the ways that you love us and care for us, all your people are deeply grateful, as in our final Amen.
First Congregational Church
January 1, 2017
First Sunday of Christmas, New Year’s Day
“A Time to Seek”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
’Tis the season for reminiscing, reflecting, pondering and projecting. I believe those words may be a part of the mission for those who publish the Darwin Awards each year. The Wikipedia description of these prizes says, “The Darwin Awards are a tongue-in-cheek honor, originating in Usenet newsgroup discussions around 1985. They recognize individuals who have supposedly contributed to human evolution by selecting themselves out of the gene pool via death or “other means, at the hand of” their own actions.”
One recipient of these awards has not yet been officially identified, but this is his story. May 19, 2014, Arizona, the mummified remains of a man discovered in a Tucson manhole tell their own poignant story. In May the manhole was opened to investigate a fluctuation in electrical power. According to records kept by Tucson Electric Power the manhole had not been opened in the past five years, so the team that entered the underground high-voltage vault was quite surprised to find the desiccated remains of a man slumped near cut copper wires. In his shriveled hand was - can you guess? - a bolt cutter.
Crime pays so little, and costs so much. This nominee not only failed and fried but also, nobody noticed, making his death both stupid and sad. An autopsy confirmed the obvious conclusion that electrocution was the likely cause of death. The date of death was set at somewhere between one and two years previous to the discovery. The mummy was carrying ID for a 51-year-old man, and DNA testing is underway to verify the identity of the crispy copper critter. (You all realize that that story was included today, just for that last phrase.)
Sometime in 1998, Michael Anderson Godwin made News of the Weird posthumously. He had spent several years awaiting South Carolina's electric chair on a murder conviction before having his sentence reduced to life in prison. Whilst sitting on a metal toilet in his cell and attempting to fix his small TV set, he bit into a wire and was electrocuted.
Also in 1998, poacher Marino Malerba, who shot a stag standing above him on an overhanging rock - was killed instantly when it fell on him.
If nothing else, the Darwin Awards are true examples that truth can be stranger than fiction. It was the word truth that caught my eye this week. I was reading a devotional piece by Steven Garnaas Holmes, and the scripture passage he was using grabbed me in a way it had not previously.
14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
15 (John testified concerning him. He cried out, saying, “This is the one I spoke about when I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ ”) 16 Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. 17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.
Thank you, Cheryl. Maybe the word, “truth,” stood out because of my long held idea that there are usually three sides to most every story: my side, your side and the truth, which no one person may ever fully, truly know. Maybe it’s the backdrop of 2016 and the elections, with so many statements made about truth and non-truth - on all sides of the political spectrum. Maybe it’s the mental image I have of my mother standing in front of me when we lived in the house on 214 S. Austin, wagging her finger in my face, and practically breathing fire as she said, “I don’t care what you do, so long as you don’t lie to me.” The deepest irony of that image is that about six years ago, we discovered that my mother kept one of the biggest secrets in our lives, for about 40 years, about my youngest sister, fooling almost an entire town, and most sadly, at least two of her three daughters.
The thing about truth, is without it, we are at sea without a rudder. With lies, untruths, even misguided truth, we have nothing on which to stand when it comes to living our lives. Sometimes truth takes a long time to understand, such as the world being spherical rather than flat. Sometimes the truth is hard and ugly, like the deaths of so many innocents in any given war or point in history. Without truth, I, for one, cannot even begin to imagine how our lives would look.
So, for whatever reasons, you get an idea how this word, truth, at least at this point in time, jumped off the page this week. And then I looked at the passage a little harder, and maybe some of you noticed, too. The second sentence: “We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” In the Common English Bible, it says “full of grace, full of truth,” perhaps so we might not miss the comparison partnering.
So why did the writer of John use the words grace and truth together - to describe Jesus? Why didn’t they use one of the myriad of other words, like peace or righteousness or healing and love? Why those two words together? And then in the 17th verse, “grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” There’s that pairing again of grace and truth.
If, as it says in that verse, that the law was given through Moses, and grace and truth through Jesus, then did the people before Jesus not have truth and grace? It’s a little intriguing that the word ‘grace’ - Bible-wise, doesn’t appear until the Psalms. None of the first five books of the Bible, contain that word. And the word ‘truth’ shows up once in Genesis, when Joseph - of the many-colored coat fame - was testing his brothers. The next time “truth” shows up is in 1 Kings. The concept of truth is sometimes discussed in those various non-appearance books, but the actual word - not so much.
I don’t know about anyone else, but I’d love to chat with the writer of this morning’s passage and ask about that line, “we have all received grace in place of grace already given.” What does they mean by that? Perhaps, even if we can’t know its exact meaning, we can take it for the mystery that it is, the gift that ours is not a shallow faith/God, but one of depth, requiring continual revelation of meaning and understanding.
As this is New Year’s Day, and one might expect a pastor to mention something about New Year’s resolutions, rather than making those that are easy to measure, perhaps we might think about seeking after the meaning of things that perplex us, not that we would “master” them, but be richer by them. More specifically, what if we made - if we were going to make any at all - resolutions about making time to seek the things that make us - really - go hmm? When we explore those sorts of deeper questions, we have to make sure to include a wide variety of resources, so we can try to appreciate how those who don’t think like us - think. We may not like some of our discoveries, but our world will definitely be much wider and broader and higher and deeper. I thought a few words from other individuals might tantalize your brain buds.
German poet, novelist and playwright, Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, wrote, “It is easier to perceive error than to find truth, for the former lies on the surface and is easily seen, while the latter lies in the depth, where few are willing to search for it.”
Émile Zola was a French novelist, and he said, “If you shut up truth and bury it under the ground, it will but grow, and gather to itself such explosive power that the day it bursts through it will blow up everything in its way.”
Author Dan Brown wrote, “Truth has power. And if we all gravitate toward similar ideas, maybe we do so because those ideas are true ... written deep within us. And when we hear the truth, even if we don't understand it, we feel that truth resonate within us ... vibrating with our unconscious wisdom. Perhaps the truth is not learned by us, but rather, the truth is re-called ... re-membered ... re-cognized ... as that which is already inside us.”
Beatles guitarist and songwriter, George Harrison said, “You can be standing right in front of the truth and not necessarily see it, and people only get it when they're ready to get it.” American author, Susan Sontag, said, “The truth is balance. However the opposite of truth, which is unbalance, may not be a lie.”
I thought German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer’s thoughts very interesting. “Every truth passes through three stages before it is recognized. In the first it is ridiculed, in the second it is opposed, in the third it is regarded as self evident.”
Speaking of self-evident, when speaking of truth, we shan’t forget one of the truths upon which this nation was built, declared on July 4, 1776. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Sophocles said, “What people believe prevails over the truth.” The great Lutheran priest and scholar, Martin Luther, wrote, “Peace if possible, but truth at any rate.”
English cleric and eccentric, Charles Caleb Colton, said, “Truth can hardly be expected to adapt herself to the crooked policy and wily sinuosities of worldly affairs; for truth, like light, travels only in straight lines.” (Sinuosities - now that’s a $25 word!) He also said, “The greatest friend of truth is Time, her greatest enemy is Prejudice, and her constant companion is Humility.”
I’d never thought about truth as an art, but Russian and Soviet writer, Maxim Gorky, suggests it. “To speak the truth is the most difficult of all arts, for in its "pure" form, not connected with the interests of individuals, groups, classes, or nations, truth is almost completely unsuitable for use by the Philistine and is unacceptable to him.”
When you think about him, it is not really a surprise that Mark Twain wrote a fair bit about truth. One that has kept my life a lot simpler is actually his. “If you tell the truth, you don't have to remember anything.” He also said, “Often the surest way to convey misinformation is to tell the strict truth.”
I don’t know what kind of proverb it is, but you gotta love this one. “Tell the truth and then run.” There is a Greek proverb that says, “A truth spoken before its time is dangerous.” That is an interesting thought when you think about the timing of Jesus’ birth and death and resurrection, why then and not now, or before his days….
Also unknown is this line: “Beware of the half truth. You may have gotten hold of the wrong half.” German-Swiss-U.S. scientist, Albert Einstein, wrote this, “Whoever undertakes to set himself up as judge in the field of truth and knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the Gods.” He also wrote, “The pursuit of truth and beauty is a sphere of activity in which we are permitted to remain children all our lives.” U.S. educator, Horace Mann said, “Scientific truth is marvelous, but moral truth is divine and whoever breathes its air and walks by its light has found the lost paradise.”
British author, Aldous Huxley said, “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you mad.” Irish poet and dramatist, Oscar Wilde: “The pure and simple truth is rarely pure and never simple.” Harry S. Truman is said to have said, “I never gave anybody hell! I just told the truth and they thought it was hell.” Going back to Mark Twain, “No real gentleman will tell the naked truth in the presence of ladies.”
And so we should pray. Wise and prudent God, we thank you for the gift of all your days, this one today, all those in our past, all those that lie before us. Help us to walk in your truth, the truth that stands the test of time, the truth that sets us free. Thank you for giving us an example to follow, in your Son, the Way and the Truth and the Life. Help us to be aware of those times you give us to contemplate the bigger picture of life, that paints with brushes of truth and grace from the palette of your love and hope and joy. For all that is good and truth in this world, all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.