First Congregational Church
February 21, 2015
Second Sunday in Lent
“Amazing Grace for the Healed"
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
21 Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 22 A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”
23 Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”
24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
25 The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.
26 He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
27 “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
28 Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.
Thank you, Jim. This morning we focus our worship around this year’s Lenten theme of Amazing Grace for the Healed. Most of us have probably heard this story often enough, but I will admit that it always catches me off-guard. At face-value, Jesus’ words sound terrible, arrogant, racist and just plain mean.
Maybe it’s the language of the children’s bread part that gets mixed up in my brain. Maybe it’s that in our culture, children and dogs are such good things, it’s hard to backspin them. More probably, it’s the problem our holy writings don’t often carry the emotion or body language that accompanied that present moment back then. Then again, maybe this passage makes perfect sense to you. Whatever the case, this morning we get to step into that moment with the help of Signe.
Call me Ginnie. As with many women who figure prominently in the Bible, my name is never mentioned, even though mine is an important story. I’m simply called a “woman” by the gospel writers Mark and Matthew. My daughter, the child Jesus healed, isn’t named either. I call her Isabel.
I was not from Israel. I was not a Jew, but I had heard of Jesus. News travels fast. Not long before Jesus came to the region near Tyre and Sidon, he’d fed thousands of people with five loaves of bread and two fish. Before that, he’d healed a man with a withered hand in the synagogue. Later Jesus cast a whole legion of demons out of man who lived among the tombs in the Decapolis. Imagine, a man naked and bleeding from throwing himself onto the rocks, became clean, clothed and in his right mind! It’s what gave me hope for my daughter.
Everyone was asking if Jesus was the Christ, the Savior of the world promised by the Hebrew prophets. Even the Samaritans were asking this, Samaritans, mixed blood people despised by the Jews, more despised than the Canaanites. With so many people being healed, why should anyone be surprised that I would seek out Jesus to heal my daughter?
Wouldn’t you? If your daughter was tortured with demons, mental and spiritual, if none of the physicians could help, if your own gods seemed powerless to do anything, but you had heard that there was a certain man who could help, wouldn’t you seek him out? I did.
As a mother who loved her daughter more than anything in the world, nothing would keep me from Jesus when I heard he was nearby. Jesus had come to a remote area in the region of Tyre, my home. This time he’d found refuge in the large and luxurious home of a rich host, a believing Jew. It wasn’t long before word spread that he was there along with his twelve disciples, resting and dining at a rich table.
I went to the house where Jesus was eating. I was there determined to get help for my daughter. Hearing the stories of Jesus and now seeing him with my own eyes, I had come to believe in him. This was the Messiah, the Savior, not just of the Jews but of the Gentiles too, people like me. “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David,” I shouted as I dashed through the open door and threw myself at Jesus’ feet as he reclined on his couch by the table. “Have mercy on me, O Lord!” I pleaded. “My daughter is severely oppressed by a demon,” I told him.
I needed help. I prostrated myself before Jesus, seeking his mercy while his disciples tried to throw me out. To them I was just an annoyance, a disruption in the middle of a very pleasant meal. No, I was worse than that; I was from the wrong side of the tracks, trying to crash a party to which I had not been invited. I wasn’t the right kind of person. In fact, as a Canaanite woman, I wasn’t even a person as far as these Jewish men were concerned.
But Jesus, the compassionate Son of God, knew exactly what they were thinking, but not saying. So he voiced their concerns. Objections that make sense when they are but unspoken inward thoughts can suddenly become absurd when spoken aloud. To hear their own bigotry was perhaps as shocking to the ears of the disciples as I am sure it is to yours. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” Jesus said.
That’s what the disciples were thinking, but was it true? Is that how the blessing of Yahweh was put to Abraham? Hadn’t Yahweh said, “All peoples on earth shall be blessed through you?” Surely the disciples knew this, but conveniently they had chosen to forget it.
And this, words from Isaiah, “On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all people, the sheet that covers all nations, he will swallow up death forever” (Isaiah 25:7). All peoples. All nations. Surely the disciples knew that, didn’t they? All people are the ones for whom Messiah comes delivering them from sin and suffering and death.
Am I not included in all people? Are you not included? Yes, we are all included!
Jesus said out loud what others were thinking: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Calling me a dog, someone who is not entitled to eat the bread of God’s children, insults not just me but Yahweh himself. Is God’s grace and mercy in such short supply God hasn’t enough to share with those who are not children of Abraham by birth? Is Yahweh a small and finite God after all? No, he is not! His love and mercy are wider and deeper than any ocean, never capable of depletion. Where there is mercy for one, there is always mercy for another, like me, and like you.
I refused to accept the excuses of the disciples to be rid of me. Leaving in a huff of self-serving pride in the face of such insults would not heal my daughter. I persevered. I even agreed, if that would help Isabel. “Yes, Lord,” I said, “But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” I was not asking for a place at the table with the Master and his disciples. All I sought were crumbs of mercy, crumbs of mercy sufficient to heal my daughter of her demons.
I was like Jacob, wrestling the Angel of the Lord, refusing to let him go without blessing me. In fact that is exactly the way it was because Jesus is the Angel of the Lord. He is Yahweh himself in human flesh. If I must be a dog to get his help, then I would be a bulldog. My tenacity, my perseverance, my faith was answered. Jesus said, “Oh, woman, you have great faith. Let it be it done for you as you will.”
And it was. Jesus gave me his word and I believed it. I returned home and found my daughter lying peacefully in her bed, alive and well and in her right mind. My daughter was healed that very hour, just as Jesus had said. When I went home and found my daughter well, it was not just her body and mind that were healed. Her soul had been healed by Jesus too. She had been re-created, made new by faith.
This tells me something about faith. You modern people think of faith as being a private matter between you and God and no one else. But the restoration of my daughter shows me it’s more than that. Faith is a family matter. As parents believe and trust Jesus for the souls of their little children, their prayers are answered and God makes those children God’s own.
That’s what you find Peter saying about three years after the day I trusted Jesus and my daughter was healed. On the Day of Pentecost, 50 days after the resurrection of Jesus, the Holy Spirit came on the Church in a wonderful way. Everyone there was speaking of Jesus in languages they hadn’t learned, so that every foreign visitor to Jerusalem could understand. It was a great miracle.
The disciple Peter got up to address the curious crowd that had gathered: “Let all the house of Israel … know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you have crucified” (Acts 2:36).
The crowd was horrified, ashamed to realize what had happened. Perhaps their shame was something like the shame the disciples must have felt when they realized they had insulted God by denying me mercy and calling me a dog. But what many had done in Jerusalem on Good Friday was much worse; condemning and crucifying the Son of God.
“Brothers, what shall we do?” they cried, suddenly afraid of the divine consequences. Peter answered - as it says in your book of Acts, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus for the forgiveness of your sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Acts 2:38-39).
Did you hear that? As you repent in the name of Jesus, forgiveness and the Holy Spirit are God’s gifts to you and your children, and to all who are far off. Jesus loved my daughter. He healed her, body, mind and soul. We were both living “far off,” but God’s mercy is wide and vast, including even Canaanites. If there is room for Isabel and me in God’s mercy there is room for you.
Thank you, Ginnie. It’s interesting that although the woman makes no confession of faith, Jesus tells her that her faith is what healed her daughter. And Matthew doesn’t do anything to the writing to clean up the story or make it any tidier. Perhaps this whole story is to help us see how the world opened up to Jesus that day, the day he came to see that one who was normally seen as unworthy, was just as worthy as the thousands he’d earlier fed. If one possible point from this story is about Jesus widening his world view in terms of grace, then what is the point for us? Do we need to widen our world view of grace, even if it’s just one person?
Let us pray. Lord, there are times when we, like the woman, beg for you to have mercy. God, we are grateful that you don’t turn us away in our sorrow and despair, our guilt and our anxiety. Hear us, heal us, forgive us and save us. Most importantly, help us to widen our worldview of grace, that we can be the agents of healing you see us to be. And all your people of grace say, Amen.
By Don Neidigk. © 2015 Creative Communications for the Parish, 1564 Fencorp Dr., Fenton, MO 63026. 800-325-9414. www.creativecommunications.com. All rights reserved.
First Congregational Church
February 14, 2015
First Sunday In Lent
“Amazing Grace for the Tempted”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Call me Angelo. I know that’s not a very creative handle, especially when compared to Michael or Gabriel, those great champions of the heavenly host. I’m just one member of that vast angel pool God calls on to do whatever God says whenever God pleases.
I’ve been around since the beginning. God created thousands upon thousands of angels to worship at God’s throne and do God’s bidding. But some of our ranks became discontented at the honor of always serving and worshiping and obeying. They rebelled. They fell from the lofty place to which God had raised them. Satan, sometimes called Lucifer, was their leader. Michael the archangel fought against them.
The war in heaven was so horrific human language can’t describe it and so the details have never been revealed to you. But to St. John, in his Revelation, a window was opened through which he could peer and catch just a glimpse of the awful event. Here’s what he says: “Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon. And the dragon and his angels fought back, but he was defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.” (Revelation 12:7-9)
That ended the rebellion in heaven. There never was and never will be any chance that Satan can defeat the eternal and almighty God. But that doesn’t mean he just goes away, conceding his loss. No, he keeps at it, hammering away at whatever is dear to God. And that would be the creation, the world, and especially that which is most precious to the Creator - human beings.
All of creation is precious to God. God’s the Master Planner, the Designer, the Maker, the Sustainer of all things. But most precious of all, more precious even than angels like me, is humanity, people, you, his highest creation. Of all that God created, only Adam and Eve were made in God’s image, holy and beautiful, each a unique echo and reflection of God’s self, able to see God and speak with God face to face. Even the holy angels cover own faces in the presence of God. But not Adam and Eve when God formed them and breathed into them God’s own spirit of life.
So, of course, Satan chose them for his target. If he could deceive Adam and Eve, tempting them to doubt God’s love and so disobey God, Satan could destroy what God cherished most and claim victory for himself. He could set himself up as the king of a world created by God but fractured and corrupted by the sin he introduced. That was Satan’s strategy.
It would appear to have worked. Adam and Eve were deceived. They were tempted. They fell. They ate fruit from the one tree God denied them in the Garden. The consequences for their sin were just as God had told them, a life of struggle, of suffering and eventual death.
But even in Eden, after what looked like a victory for Satan, God revealed, ever so cryptically, God’s plan to redeem fallen creation. Far in the future the serpent would strike at a descendant of the woman, wounding him, but that descendant would in turn deal a crushing blow to the serpent’s head (Genesis 3:15).
That brings me to another scene of temptation, not a lovely garden of plenty this time, but a barren wilderness. Yes, Satan had claimed the world as his kingdom, but it was never really his. It was still the property of its Maker, and its fallen children were still the love of God’s heart. What happened there in the wilderness would be part of the battle over you.
The battle to win back God’s highest creation, humanity, was announced again and again by the prophets. The Messiah would come, the Anointed One, the divine Son of God’s self. That One would do battle with Satan and his demon horde and vanquish them forever. But it would not be like the epic war that took place in heaven at the dawn of creation. It would be a quiet war that would hardly be noticed. It would begin small, like a mustard seed.
Every Sunday school child knows how the quiet war began. A baby was born to a virgin in Bethlehem. Gabriel was there to announce it. I was there with the angel chorus to sing the good news to shepherds. And so was Satan; but he was there to oppose it. Herod was his servant, the king who thought he was looking after his own interests.
But it wasn’t just Herod’s kingdom that the infant Jesus threatened. It was Satan’s. Satan knew that should the Child survive, Satan’s dominion would be lost. So Satan attacked with full fury, slaughtering innocent little boys, using Herod’s soldiers to carry out his brutality. But the Child escaped. The champion for the invasion by the Kingdom of God was secured.
It’s not my purpose to tell you of the stories of Jesus’ childhood and manhood. Suffice it to say that he grew up as a normal boy in a normal family with normal brothers and sisters. He was every bit as normal as you or anyone in your family or any neighbor or friend you’ve ever had. He had the same needs, the same emotions, the same growing pains, as anyone else. In fact, like every other human being he was susceptible to temptation.
Satan knew that. Temptation was where he had scored his first great victory and introduced suffering and death into the world. Having succeeded once, he would try it again. This time the stakes were much higher. This time it was winner take all; the victory of Satan and your enslavement to sin and death forever, or the victory of Jesus and your forgiveness and freedom forever.
The two met on an isolated battlefield. There was no one there to help Jesus. Yes, I was there with other holy angels, but we were not there to intervene. We were there to watch, to witness.
So Jesus, alone, faced Satan in combat for the life of the world. The temptations that attacked his needs as a human being, his identity as the Son of God, his natural desire to live and avoid the agony of the cross. For Jesus, these temptations didn’t come when he was well fed and safe and rested and living in Paradise, as it was when Adam and Eve were tempted. No, these temptations came as Jesus chose: exhausted, starving, thirsty and alone in a desert.
For forty days he had eaten nothing. “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread,” the tempter mocked him (Matthew 4:3). IF you are the Son of God? Of course he was the Son of God! And he who made the stones could certainly turn them into bread if he wanted to.
What will Jesus do? This was a very real temptation. Remember that though Jesus was the Son of God, he was also human, just like you.
Here’s how he answers, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” (Matthew 4:3-4) Life is more than food, Jesus is saying. Life is believing in and trusting God’s promises. And there in the wilderness that is what Jesus does in your place, making up for all your failures to believe in and trust God.
Another temptation comes. “The devil took him to the holy city [Jerusalem] and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down,’ for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone’” (Matthew 4:5-6).
Say what you will about Satan, he’s a fast learner. If Jesus turns the sword of Holy Scripture against him, then Satan will just use the same weapon against Jesus. That’s what’s he’s doing here. He’s using God’s own Word to spin his web of deception.
But Jesus is no fool. He sees through this trick. Yes, God is always there for God's people as they go through the threatening perils of life. But God doesn’t bless their foolish and dangerous behavior. So Jesus replies, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test’” (Matthew 4:7).
Then there’s the last temptation, perhaps the most powerful one. Jesus knows what’s ahead for him. He knows that the price of redemption for the world and his own return to the right hand of God is the horror of Good Friday. The betrayal of Judas, the trials with false witnesses, the denial of Peter, the whip, the thorns, the nails, the cross, separation from God, the grave—incomprehensible suffering lies ahead for Jesus, but he must bear it if sinners are to be saved and Paradise restored. It would be so much easier just to call in sick, refuse the suffering and take the devil’s next offer, a very rich one.
Now the devil takes Jesus to a high mountain and shows him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory; their wealth, their power. “All these I will give you,” he says, “if you will fall down and worship me” (Matthew 4:9).
This would be so easy. This is exactly the sort of offer Satan has used to entrap the children of God for centuries. In the days of the Roman Empire, Christianity was illegal; you could lose your property, your family and your life if you were baptized. But, said, Caesar, “If you will just worship my statue, if you’ll just burn a little pinch of incense before it, I’ll leave you alone. All your suffering will go away. You can live happily ever after.”
Thousands died rather than do it. Thousands more worshiped before the statue.
These oaths to Caesar are really just examples of people bowing down to Satan so they can get ahead, so they can keep their jobs, so they can be successful. If you were put in the position of taking an oath like that, what would you do? If it meant losing your life or property or livelihood or family if you didn’t take the oath, what would do?
I’m not human—I’m just a holy angel. But I’ve observed human nature for a very long time. I suspect that many if not most of you would take the oath; in effect falling down and worshiping Satan. Many of you, to your shame, would fail.
But what about Jesus? What does he do when faced with that choice, a choice of ease and luxury and power on the one hand, or incomprehensible loss, suffering and death on the other?
Here’s how Jesus answers Satan, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’” At that point, “the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him” (Matthew 4:10-11).
And that, of course, is me. I’m like the trainer at a boxing match, observing everything, but able to do nothing till the round is over. Now I offer my champion a cool wet towel to refresh him.
Back to those oaths. Guess what? In every case, when the person demanding the oath is defeated or dies, the oath is no longer in effect. The consequences are canceled! Caesar is dead. None of the oaths he forced on others will bind anyone ever again.
That’s where you come in, and all the temptations you’ve faced, and failed to overcome. Having watched over God’s people as long as I have, even having been in their churches, I’ve heard interesting takes on the temptations of Jesus. Perhaps most popular is that Jesus’ use of Scripture to defeat Satan is the secret to overcoming temptation in your own life. All you need to do when the devil puts you in a tough spot is quote the right Bible verse. The devil will run away, and you’ll have victory over your temptation.
It would be great if it worked. Unfortunately, it doesn’t. Many is the time I’ve been at the side of a sorely tempted Christian and heard him quote Scripture even as he gave in to the very temptation he sought to avoid. That’s because Christians, while forgiven, are still fallen sinners. Quoting scripture may bring comfort to a moment, but even Adam and Eve quoted God, adding a few of their own words, just before they fell. Now that Adam and Eve have fallen, and bequeathed to all their progeny a sinful nature, human beings are even less able to withstand temptation.
So there has to be a better interpretation of what happened when Jesus defeated Satan in the wilderness. Here’s what it is: Jesus’ success against temptation is accounted by God as your success. Just as Adam represented you in the Garden and failed miserably, bringing sin and death upon you, so Jesus represents you in the wilderness and restores to you holiness and life. God accounts Christ’s victory as your victory, even as his suffering and death are accounted as your suffering and death, and so you are spared - by faith - the consequences of sin.
It’s just as the writer of Hebrews says, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
So the next time you’re tempted, don’t come looking for me. We holy angels will be around but we can’t get you out of a mess you get yourself in. And don’t just quote Bible verses; that’s probably just going to make you feel more guilty. Here’s what I recommend: cling to Jesus by faith, be joined to him, and let him take on the devil for you. When you do, the devil flees.
Let us pray. Lord Jesus, you know the power of the temptations we face, having faced them yourself and won. Grant us boldness to resist evil, not in our own strength but in the strength of faith in you, our champion in the fight. Thank you for the victory over temptation, sin and death you have gained for us. In your name all your people say, Amen.
By Don Neidigk. © 2015 Creative Communications for the Parish, 1564 Fencorp Dr., Fenton, MO 63026. 800-325-9414. www.creativecommunications.com. All rights reserved.
First Congregational Church
February 7, 2016
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, Communion Sunday
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
There’s a Methodist pastor that posts her sermon thoughts online, Rev. Dr. Janet Hunt. Just for fun, she decided to ask her phone, Siri, about the meaning of life. As one can imagine, a phone’s answers about life played across a large field. For instance:
Siri said, “Life: a principle or force that is considered to underlie the quality of animate beings. I guess that includes me.” Then, contradicting ‘herself’, Siri said, “I find it odd that you would ask this of an inanimate object.” Later on, Siri said, “All evidence to date suggests it's chocolate.” At another time, Siri’s answer was, “I don't know, but I think there's an app for that.” In a more practical vein, 'she' said that life’s meaning was to “Try and be nice to people. Avoid eating fat. Read a good book every now and then. Get some walking in. And try to live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.
Standing on the threshold of new seasons is sometimes good to think about the larger pictures of life, and since Lent begins this week, today is as good a time as any for threshold pondering. I know that there is a Monty Python movie called The Meaning of Life, but in reality, it should be given only partial credence to the topic at hand.
Our scripture passage gives us an opportunity to look at that big picture. I, like many pastors, was tempted to opt just for the first part of our passage for this day, since it is Transfiguration Sunday. But David Lose, from working preacher.org, challenged me - and all of us - to keep these two smaller passages together.
The gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell this story of Jesus’ Transfiguration (underscoring its importance to the early church), and all of them end their accounts with the narrative of a "demon-possessed" boy. As you listen to this account, you may want to keep in mind that when the names of Moses and Elijah are used together, and although the individuals are long dead, they are code for the law and the prophets of the Old Testament. The other thing that may enrich the passage is that when Peter suggests putting up tents, it is the suggestion that since it was so nice on that mountain, why not stay a little longer, actually, a lot longer.
Luke 9:28-43 (NIV) The Transfiguration
28 About eight days after Jesus said this (predicting his death), he took Peter, John and James with him and went up onto a mountain to pray. 29 As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. 30 Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus. 31 They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem. 32 Peter and his companions were very sleepy, but when they became fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. 33 As the men were leaving Jesus, Peter said to him, “Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (He did not know what he was saying.)
34 While he was speaking, a cloud appeared and covered them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. 35 A voice came from the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.” 36 When the voice had spoken, they found that Jesus was alone. The disciples kept this to themselves and did not tell anyone at that time what they had seen.
Jesus Heals a Demon-Possessed Boy
37 The next day, when they came down from the mountain, a large crowd met him. 38 A man in the crowd called out, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son, for he is my only child. 39 A spirit seizes him and he suddenly screams; it throws him into convulsions so that he foams at the mouth. It scarcely ever leaves him and is destroying him. 40 I begged your disciples to drive it out, but they could not.”
41 “You unbelieving and perverse generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you and put up with you? Bring your son here.”
42 Even while the boy was coming, the demon threw him to the ground in a convulsion. But Jesus rebuked the impure spirit, healed the boy and gave him back to his father. 43 And they were all amazed at the greatness of God.
When I first read the passage, I was surprised at the amount of energy/indignation I put into Jesus’ response to the son’s father. And then it dawned on me that it was to the disciples that he ranted. Either way, “You unbelieving and perverse nation” seems right harsh. There’s no explanation or apology, so maybe Jesus didn’t say it with as much emotion as I thought. Maybe it was because it was Sunday and he just wanted to go home and kick back with a beer and turn on the tube. I am, however, fairly certain that the point of this - these passages - is far from that one line.
David Lose suggested that these two passages needed to be together because they represent what worship does for us. If I asked any of you what it means to worship or why you go to church, I’m sure many of you would come up with something that had God’s name in it and maybe something about seeing friends. But I’m also guessing that there would be some silent spots and some wondering if we really do understand why we keep coming back each week.
When Peter suggested the raising of tents, in a sense he was suggesting that this little mountain hike was turning into a retreat. For those who haven’t ever been on a retreat, there are usually some teaching times, worship times, relaxation and socialization times.
If you think about it, all those elements were present on that mountain top that day, to one degree or another. God teaching the guys - and us - to listen, the guys getting sleepy - as happens at any worship service worth its salt, the worship and interaction of history, prophecy and the Word of God - capital W.
People often think about retreats as retreating from the world. In actuality, they are times away in order to come back to the world with renewed love, mercy and grace - for the continuing of the work set before us. In the larger passage for this morning, Jesus, James and John retreated from the world so that when they came back down to reality the next day, they were ready to deal with the man and his beloved son.
And therein is the added link between these two passages - the love of sons - the love of beloveds. From the height of the mountain, God proclaimed the love of God’s beloved in Christ. From the depth of the valley, the anonymous man - who could have been any one of us - begged for the restoration of his beloved.
It would be poignant to see where each of us are on that path between the mountain top and the valley. How long has it been since you were able to retreat to the mountain? How long has it been since you were able to escape the valley - if even for a short time? And I wonder how many of us interpret the Bible as if its stories apply only to our own individual selves. My mountaintop experience. My valley. My relationship with God.
That is part of what this book is meant to do - to develop and cultivate that relationship between us and God. But if we think it is only about us, then we are misguided, because the truth is that my mountain lies right next to your valley. The truth is that my pain does not cancel out your joy. The truth is that it is entirely possible for you to sit in church on Sunday morning and bask in the sweet presence of God's Spirit — while one pew over I cry my eyes out because the ache of God’s absence feels unbearable. And those scenarios are so very sacred and right.
Today we are vividly reminded of our connection and relationship to God and each other in the breaking of the bread and sharing of the cup. In the holding of the tray and the passing of the bread, we are reminded that we are not singular, but a community. We are reminded that just as our lives touch one another, so does God touch all and each of us.
In this sacred time, without words, we speak glory to agony, and agony to glory. In the larger picture, we hold the mountain and the valley in faithful tension with each other — denying neither, embracing both and the beloveds we see all along the path. So let us prepare our hearts and minds for this moment of sacred communion.
Let us pray. Gracious God, we thank you that Jesus came down from that mountain, not just to heal, but to be one among us. Help us to embrace the Beloveds among us, that we might learn from them and enlarge our own hearts and souls. Give us courage and patience to be in those places that challenge us. Grant us wisdom and discernment to when feelings seem to take over understanding. For the gift of your Beloveds, for your own Beloved and for considering each of us your Beloved, all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
January 31, 2016
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
Luke 4:21-30, 1 Corinthians 13
“Being Human with a Divine Savior”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
So my cousin Sven, having been a good Congregationalist all his life, was feeling a little curious one day, so he stopped by the local Catholic church and went into the confessional. He was amazed to find a fully equipped soda pop machine with everything from Dad’s Root Beer to Vernor’s Ginger Ale to Diet Coke. On the other wall was a dazzling array of the finest chocolate treats - from Fanny Farmer to Ghirardelli to Kilwin’s Fudge.
Then the priest came in. Excitedly, Sven began..."Father, forgive me, for I’ve never been to confession, but I must first admit that the confessional box is much more inviting than I thought it would be.” The priest replied, "Get out. You’re on my side.”
Last week’s scripture passage was right before the one for this morning. Jesus had spent his forty days of desert temptations, followed by the momentary spotlight of praise and popularity brought about by his teachings. Then he stood in the synagogue to read their passage for the day, which happened to be a portion from the book of Isaiah. When he finished, he proclaimed all from that chapter of Isaiah, was “fulfilled in their hearing.”
Before we start there, a couple of insights. Capernaum was where Jesus called Peter, Andrew, James and John and where they lived and Jesus spent most of his adult time there. Nazareth was where Jesus mostly grew up. Before that, Elisha was a disciple of Elijah in the ninth century before Christ was born. Elijah raised the first person, a son of a widow, from the dead during a famine while Elisha cured a prophet of leprosy.
Luke 4:21-30 NIV
21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked.
23 Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ And you will tell me, ‘Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’”
24 “Truly I tell you,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. 25 I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. 26 Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. 27 And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.”
28 All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. 30 But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.
Thank you, Marti. This is not one of the easiest passages in the Bible. Jesus was doing so “well,” at the beginning of the passage, and by the end, they are ready to make him walk the plank. If he hadn’t mentioned the line “Physician, heal yourself,” he probably would have been fine. If he hadn’t implied a lack of faith in that crowd, they may have held a parade and community picnic to honor him.
But he didn’t clench his teeth or pretend that everything was rosy when it wasn’t. Maybe he raised his voice, but we don’t know. But what the passage says is (apparently without too much emotion), Jesus just walked away.
Maybe Jesus made a mistake here, by saying what he said. If so, then I think that’s pretty darn great, because even the great Son of God is also part Son of Man - as has been said. The greatest person in the entire world - because of his divine and human parentage - didn’t always have the most perfect days. Wouldn’t it have been helpful, even divinely enlightening, if we could know what it was that caused Jesus to take such a higher road?
At least for us, we have our own reminder of high road thought in one of the other lectionary passages for this day. We hear it - or parts of it - often enough at weddings, sometimes even at funerals. But in reality, it is way more “every-day” than those special occasions.
1 Corinthians 13 The Message
If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate. 2 If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing. 3-7 If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.
Love never gives up. Love cares more for others than for self. Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have. Love doesn’t strut, Doesn’t have a swelled head, Doesn’t force itself on others, Isn’t always “me first,” Doesn’t fly off the handle, Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, Doesn’t revel when others grovel, Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Puts up with anything, Trusts God always, Always looks for the best, Never looks back,
But keeps going to the end.
8-10 Love never dies. Inspired speech will be over some day; praying in tongues will end; understanding will reach its limit. We know only a portion of the truth, and what we say about God is always incomplete. But when the Complete arrives, our incompletes will be canceled.
11 When I was an infant at my mother’s breast, I gurgled and cooed like any infant. When I grew up, I left those infant ways for good. 12 We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We’ll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us! 13 But for right now, until that completeness, we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love.
Thank you, Marti. We can admit that the way this Luke passage turns out is not very nice. But we can also remember that Jesus came into this world - precisely to enter into all our human silliness and pettiness and tawdriness - so as to save us from all that - showing us over and over and over - how we can live as human beings with a divine savior.
That poet-devotional guy I like so much, Steve Garners-Holmes, knocked it out of the part twice this week, so here you go.
Imagine God's presence in you, God's power--
not to get your own way, not to sway crowds,
but to convey love, to be truth,
not just to say words but to live life
with power in it.
You do not have to apologize for yourself.
You do not have to be afraid
of those to whom you bring yourself.
You only have to be yourself.
And because it is from God
the truth of you will prevail.
In his second poem, embrace the words for yourself - as our final prayer.
I am a candle
whose only light
Created by Love
Let me burn today
in all I do
my only hope
my only success
love not devised
flowing through me
mercy for every person
gratitude for every thing
love in every breath
I your candle
my only flame.
And all God’s people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
January 24, 2015
Third Sunday after Epiphany, Annual Meeting Sunday
Isaiah 61 & Luke 4:14-21
“The Hidden Hand of God”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
I got an email this week that listed some of the things we learn at various ages, like the child, at age seven, who said, “I've learned that our dog doesn't want to eat my broccoli either.” There is the fifteen-year-old who said, “I've learned that although it's hard to admit it, I'm secretly glad my parents are strict with me.” There is the aged wisdom of the 29-year-old in realizing, “I've learned that wherever I go, the world's worst drivers have followed me there.” Then there’s the 47-year-old sage who said, “I've learned that children and grandparents are natural allies.” I particularly like the 66-year-old’s realization “I've learned that whenever I decide something with kindness, I usually make the right decision.” And the icing on the cake comes from the 92-year-old, who said, “I've learned that I still have a lot to learn.”
For the folks that call this place home, today is the day we look back - and forward - to see some of what we’ve learned and to make sure we are headed in the right direction. After I read the scripture passage for this morning, thinking about looking ahead, I needed to take a look back, to the book of Isaiah, to chapter 61, to set the scene for the gospel reading and message.
Isaiah lived roughly seven hundred years before Jesus’ birth, and this chapter comes out of the dashed hopes of those who first returned from exile in Babylon, and things were not what the Hebrew people had hoped. Amidst their grief and disappointment, Isaiah shocks their world with these words.
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, 2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, 3 and provide for those who grieve in Zion— to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor.
4 They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations. 5 Strangers will shepherd your flocks; foreigners will work your fields and vineyards. 6 And you will be called priests of the Lord, you will be named ministers of our God. You will feed on the wealth of nations, and in their riches you will boast. 7 Instead of your shame you will receive a double portion, and instead of disgrace you will rejoice in your inheritance.
And so you will inherit a double portion in your land, and everlasting joy will be yours 8 “For I, the Lord, love justice; I hate robbery and wrongdoing. In my faithfulness I will reward my people and make an everlasting covenant with them. 9 Their descendants will be known among the nations and their offspring among the peoples.
All who see them will acknowledge that they are a people the Lord has blessed.” 10 I delight greatly in the Lord; my soul rejoices in my God. For he has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of his righteousness, as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. 11 For as the soil makes the sprout come up and a garden causes seeds to grow, so the Sovereign Lord will make righteousness and praise spring up before all nations.
14 Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. 15 He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him. 16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Thank you, Phil. Imagine when the Pilgrims set foot on the wilderness and severity of their new, forever homes in this country, and one among them offered this prediction: that the day would come when every person in the country would have healthcare provided free and at no cost to them, when every unemployed person would find meaningful and fulfilling work, when every addict would recover from his or her addiction and when every broken down inner-city tenement would get an “extreme makeover” such that every such hovel would shine and gleam like some multi-million-dollar New York City penthouse overlooking Central Park - never having to worry about the deficit or drinkability of their water.”
Crazier still, imagine a woman, maybe dressed in dark Goth clothing and make-up, coming into our church, up the pulpit, reading that prophecy and then saying, “Today, this comes true in your hearing.” - and then left. While half of us would be trying to determine just what sort of nut this was, the other half would probably be wondering where this utopia was.
It’s interesting that the prison doors in the vicinity didn’t spring open at that moment; that the historic records from the time don’t record a mysterious mass healing of the blind folks in the area. I think those “miracles” are missing because Jesus wasn’t going to be a flashy savior. In the passage of Luke that comes right before today’s, Jesus again and again refused the temptations to do showy, big, flashy things in the desert. Even when healing others, it was lowly mud, or common words.
Jesus wasn’t interested in parlor tricks, miracles-on-demand or being hailed as the new Caesar. He was interested in the Word of God, serving God quietly, letting God’s slow-kingdom-coming reveal itself in God’s own time. It’s that hidden hand of God, doing the miraculous and other-worldly, coming in everyday events that we recognize as miracles when we look behind us.
One of my favorite preacher-story-tellers is Tom Long, from Emory University in Atlanta, GA. He tells a ‘hidden hand of God story from a gig he was to preach at that was billed as a special “family worship service.” The notion was to hold the worship service - not in the sanctuary - but in the fellowship hall. There families would gather around tables, in the center of which would be the ingredients for making a mini-loaf of bread. The plan was to have the families make bread together and then, while the sweet aroma of baking bread filled the hall, Rev. Long would preach. When the bread was finished, it would be brought out and used in a celebration of the Lord’s Supper.
Within minutes the fellowship hall was a hazy cloud of flour dust. Soggy balls of dough bounced off Rev. Long’s new suit as children hurled bits of the dough at each other. Husbands and wives began to snipe, nerves were frayed. Then the ovens didn’t work right and it took forever for the bread to bake. Children whimpered, babies screamed, families were on the verge of falling apart. But finally, and mercifully, the end of the service came. The script called for Long to pronounce the normal blessing saying, “The peace of God be with you.” Too tired and irritable to make up anything else, Long just said it straight out, holding limp, flour-caked hands to the air and said, “The peace of God be with you.” And immediately, from the back of the trashed fellowship hall, a young child’s voice piped up, “It already is.”
I may not be the brightest star in the sky, but I know how long bread takes to bake and I know that giving people something like flour and water is not going to turn out well, no matter how cool the idea sounds. If nothing else, I have learned to be very careful in executing or initiating things like “family services that have endless potential for that which can go wrong. But that doesn’t mean that we stop looking forward - to ways of worshiping better and deepening our spiritual lives.
As we look forward to those things that may happen in our future, we do well to make sure that we are moving in the same direction as our forefathers and mothers had envisioned all those years ago, when they decided to start meeting as a church family. We may not track exactly like them, but we can continue to point to God, continue to do what we can so that God’s message of a future kingdom of peace can belong to each one who comes this way.
I admit that sometimes I change what the lectionary proposes for a text. (That’s part of the beauty of being Congregational, that we are not “tied” to any specific patterns for preaching. We go where we feel the Spirit leads.) I will also admit that it was tempting to add another few verses to the gospel passage, because it leaves us in suspense-mode.
But this story doesn’t end there in verse 21. The ultimate reaction of the crowd is yet to come. But in another sense, there is also spiritual suspense at the end of verse 21: we are suspended between hearing Jesus’ promise that this goodness was going to be fulfilled - and experiencing that fullness. It’s coming, Jesus says, the kingdom is near, you can proclaim it to those longing and thirsting the most to hear it. But it’s not quite here yet. Not completely. Just like those Hebrew people in Isaiah’s day, and those from Jesus’ day, we know full well that there is much that remains broken, incomplete, wounding.
Still, in this suspenseful state, we keep looking for glimmers of the kingdom even as we do our best to let the Holy Spirit work in us to show us the kingdom and its grace-laden ways.
We may be in a state of suspense. But it’s a good suspense, bristling as it is with the coming of so very many good things! The best part is that it’s not about what we have done, are doing or will do, but about what Christ has done and continues to do. His brokenness is what will one day put our lives back together whole and complete, relationships and all.
So shall we pray? Gracious, kind God, we thank you for this time in this world - for our lives and the missions that you have for us. Help us to continue to look for your hidden hand in the life around us, that we can go into the future with more certainty of your presence in our next life. Thank you for the ability to look back - to learn - that we may look forward and fully trust. For all those hidden-hand actions you do for us and through us, we are all truly grateful. Grow us into great oaks of righteousness as all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
January 17, 2015
Second Sunday after Epiphany
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
There is an old story about a young minister asked to hold a grave-side service for a man who had no family or friends. The funeral was to be held at a new cemetery way back in the country, and this man would be the first to be buried there.
The young minister was not familiar with the backwoods area and didn’t have a John McElduff to take him to the graveyard, and soon he became lost. And then there’s that thing about certain individuals that are not fond of stopping to ask for directions. So our young cleric arrived an hour late.
He saw the backhoe and the open grave, but the hearse was nowhere in sight and the digging crew was eating lunch. He apologized to the workers for his tardiness and stepped to the side of the open grave where the vault lid was already in place. Assuring the workers he wouldn’t take long, he invited them to gather around the grave.
They stood silently as the pastor began to pour out his heart and soul, preaching about "looking forward to a brighter tomorrow" and "the glory that is to come," to which the workers replied "Amen," "Praise the Lord," and "Glory!" Being encouraged by the attendees responses, the preacher preached and preached like he had never preached before, all the way from Genesis to Revelations.
He finally closed the lengthy service with a prayer, thanked the men, and walked to his car. As he was opening the door and taking off his coat, one of the workers said to another, "I ain't NEVER seen nothin' like that before, and I've been puttin' in septic tanks for thirty years!"
I was so excited to see this morning’s scripture passage, this one not about a funeral but a wedding. I think it may well be my second favorite passage from the whole Bible, and it’s not because it’s about wine. But it is about Jesus’ first miracle, the first that we know of, and overflows with points and meaning.
On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, 2 and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3 When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.”
4 “Woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.”
5 His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”
6 Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons.
7 Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim.
8 Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.”
They did so, 9 and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside 10 and said, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.”
11 What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.
Thank you, Al. First, a couple details. The Greek for Woman does not denote any disrespect. In other cultures of that day, it was certainly a derogatory address. But our modern culture uses the word “man” in the same way, “Man, that was some fine fishing the other day.”
Just about every sentence in this pericope - as they say in seminaries - contains enough depth to warrant it’s own little study. But Scott Hoezee from Calvin Theological Seminary shined a light on a little word near the end of the passage that I know I’ve overlooked every other time I’ve read it. It’s the little word “glory.” “What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”
We typically think that “glory” is the bright shining presence of God, the white-hot holiness of the divine that is so stunning, even Moses had to be hidden in the cleft of a rock to keep it from frying him to a crisp. We think that “glory” is the power of God that is so raw and so real, the priests who once entered the Holy of Holies did so at great peril (and if anyone else tried casually to enter that place where the glory of God dwelled, they would surely die).
Even on a human level, when we talk about “glory,” we generally mean things that are dramatic, that raise someone up to such a pinnacle of splendor as to elicit the adoration of everyone else. The Hebrew word for “glory” is kabod, and it means something with gravity, something heavy, something weighty in the sense of being momentous.
The Greek word for “glory” is doxa, and it’s the first part of our word “doxology” because when we are in a doxological mood—singing our praises at the top of our lungs perhaps—it is likely because we have been exposed to something stunning, something spectacular, something loaded with heavenly portent and power. (By the way, this micro detail might also give us a hint as to how we would rightfully be singing the Doxology - any time we sing it.)
Generally, glory is big. Glory is bright. Glory is loud. Glory is a multi-sensory extravaganza that you will not miss if you are anywhere in glory’s neighborhood when it happens. But John 2:11 tells us that when Jesus quietly transformed water into wine - to solve a family’s social mishap that saved face in front of their friends - this first revelation of Jesus was no less than his glory. In fact, this glorious manifestation was sufficient as to cause the disciples to put their faith into Jesus.
And get this, this is a plain, ordinary wedding with almost plain, ordinary guests. There were no swirling winds or flashing lights to indicate Jesus’ power or glory, and it wasn’t the public nuptials of royalty or societal greatness. If any of us were walking by that day, there was nothing to indicate that such a miracle was going to take place. In fact, there is no evidence that the wider crowd at this wedding reception ever knew what had happened. Only Mary and the disciples—and the servants who had done Jesus’ bidding—realized what had happened.
Yet glory was revealed, and it was a thing big enough to generate faith in the hearts of the disciples. Somehow, the disciples saw - in that moment - all those soaring prophecies from Isaiah - about the coming of the kingdom and all the good things we enjoy flowing freely and in never-ending abundance. When needs are met—even needs as commonplace as the one in Cana that day—somehow joy follows and that joy is related to the glory of God.
Iranaeus once said that “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” That’s not likely the definition that the priests of old would use, but it certainly gives us cause to think for just a moment. The desire to flourish, to enjoy and take delight in God’s creation even as God did at the dawn of time brings us closer to the heart of God. Likewise, when God’s heart breaks over the spectacle of poverty and need, if we don’t attempt to come alongside God’s heart - the best that we mere humans can - we miss the fullness of God’s glory. Granted, running out of wine for wedding guests who may well have had their fair share to drink already may not seem like the kind of dire want or need that would break God’s heart—and perhaps it wasn’t—but John may be using this as an emblem, a shadow of the real thing. But the point remains the same: where God’s Messiah is, abundance follows.
Jesus, after all, did not make a case of wine but hundreds of gallons - some 2,160 cases of wine. It wasn’t a cheap or watery Boone’s Farm or Ripple but a vintage better than most had ever tasted. This entire story smacks of being “over the top” in so very many senses. There is an extravagance here, almost an element of luxury, that seems to burst the narrow confines of the event at hand. It’s as though someone asked for a bottle of water and Jesus gave him Lake Michigan. It’s as though someone asked for $50 to buy her child a toy and Jesus gave her the entire Toys-R-Us warehouse. At such a small event, Jesus’ actions seem outsized.
Yet the disciples saw the glory. It was the glory of God providing more than is requested, more than can be imagined. It was the glory of God giving access—if even for just a little while—to the abundant fullness with which God established this creation in the beginning.
So we may have to revise our definition of “glory” if John 2 is a revelation of it. But maybe, just maybe, that will mean we’ll see divine glory a lot more often in our lives than we might otherwise think; we’ll begin to see just that much more - how we are spiritual beings having a human experience.
So when the hungry in our cities are fed, the homeless are housed, children without decent shoes get nice new sneakers from a local clothing ministry, when the despairing are comforted by a word of hope, when the sad can dry their tears with the gospel comfort of the resurrection to come: when we see these things happening in our churches and in our communities and in our families, then we are seeing the glory of God as God continues to guide us back to that for which he created us and this whole cosmos to begin with.
So must we pray. Great God of all that is, we thank you for the gift of glory that perhaps more often than not, happens in front of our very faces. Give us the eyes and ears to see and hear the huge amount of glory that lies before us between Bethlehem’s birth and Easter’s resurrection. Help us to reshape our worldview that we see this place of connection and interrelatedness as the very life that flows from you, through us and back to you. Help us to see your greater glory as it is compiled of all the little glories that we may overlook. And thank you, too, for giving us the most glorious, the most over-the-top example of your love, that of your son. It is through him that we live and breathe, and come to know you and your love for us. As all your people say in the glorious name of your son, Jesus Christ, Amen.
First Congregational Church
January 10, 2016
First Sunday after Epiphany
Luke 3:15-17 & Acts 8:14-17
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
What can you hold without touching it? Your breath. Why does your sense of touch suffer when you are ill? Because you don’t feel well. Why do pickles laugh when you tickle them? Because they’re pickle-ish. Someone once said of an acquaintance: She had the Midas touch. Everything she touched turned into a muffler.
Our scripture passages this morning don’t actually mention the word “touch.” But the idea of touch is laced through the incidents as air is tied to breath and visa versa.
15 The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. 16 John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
14 When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to Samaria. 15 When they arrived, they prayed for the new believers there that they might receive the Holy Spirit, 16 because the Holy Spirit had not yet come on any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 17 Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.
Ole was coming out of church one day, and Pastor Ingqvist was standing at the door as he always did to shake hands. He grabbed Ole by the hand and pulled him aside. Pastor Ingqvist said to him, "You need to join the Army of the Lord!” - as they used to say. Ole replied, "I'm already in the Army of the Lord, Pastor.” Ingqvist questioned, "How come I don't see you except at Christmas and Easter?” Ole whispered back, "I'm in the secret service.
Although the passage from Luke would normally be the primary text for this day, the one from Acts ties in so perfectly when speaking about baptism, and what it means on this first Sunday after Epiphany, officially beginning this season of light.
For instance, both the books of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles - as is it’s proper title - were written by the same person; Theophilus, as it is said. One can surmise that items of importance to the writer would be raised in both books. In Luke, the word baptized is used five times. In Acts, it is used seventeen times.
In Luke, Theophilus tells us about John the Baptist’s “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3). Under his preaching, “even tax collectors” came to be baptized! And, of course, John baptized Jesus. Those that John had baptized earlier in Luke came to acknowledge “that God’s way was right,” (Luke 7:29) while the “Pharisees and the experts in the law rejected God’s purpose for themselves.” (Luke 7:30).
In Acts, Theophilus references John the Baptist’s legacy of baptism, and Peter’s call to the gathered crowd on the day of Pentecost to be baptized, of which 3,000 people took up the offer. And then he tells of Philip baptizing the eunuch on the way between Jerusalem to Gaza. (Acts 8:38) The great Saul-then-Paul’s baptism is described in this book (Acts 9:18). While Peter was at Cornelius’ house, he made the argument that even Gentiles were worthy to be baptized (Acts 10:47). Then some of the baptized believers in Jerusalem got all bent out of shape because Peter was baptizing those not like themselves. (Acts 11:2-3)
Later on, when Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God - as happens so often - the jailer was lulled to sleep, waking when the doors of the prison flew open following a violent earthquake. Being - understandably - deeply moved, the jailer wanted in on whatever it was that was going on. After talking about what it meant to follow Christ, the jailor ended up asking for baptisms - for himself and his entire household. (Acts 16:25-33).
Near the end of Acts, we are told about Silas, Timothy and Paul’s break-up, and Paul going on to baptize the household of the synagogue leader, Crispus (Acts 18:8), the re-baptisms of disciples at Ephesus (Acts 19:1-5), and finally Paul’s recollection of his baptism to those in Jerusalem (Acts 22:6-16).
In hearing that little baptismal history lesson - or is it historic baptism lesson - may slide all of us nearer to the edge of “sermon-fog,” so -
After the christening of his baby brother in church, little Ole sobbed all the way home in the back seat of the car. Ole’s father asked him three times what was wrong. Finally, Ole replied, “Dat pastor said he vanted us brought up in a Christian home, and I vant to stay wit yous guys!”
I was so glad for the Vigland family that so many of this church family were able to attend Alan’s Celebration of Life - or light - yesterday morning. If there are any who don’t recognize the name of Alan Vigland, he was a well-known potter - not only in our little county, but all over the nation. I would daresay that some of his work has made it to places outside our national boundaries, too.
The Rev. Dr. Ned Edwards - Alan’s brother-in-law, did a beautiful job of describing how that which Alan touched - and conceived and formed - has left a legacy that has touched more people than any of us could imagine.
For those who haven’t had a chance to see part of the living legacy of a “hand”ful of folks around here last week, do check out the Red Room downstairs before you leave - or what’s left of the red, anyway. It will not be seen like this for a long, long time. Should you ever need to “check out” of a sermon sometime, the exercise of imagining the hands that touched those red and white panels over 50 years ago, that protected the work of the hands from nearly 110 years ago is quite staggering.
All those baptisms from Luke and Acts, and all the baptisms since then, are probably most noted for the stream of water connecting them all. But I can’t be the only one who has thought a little about the other underlying element of unity throughout all these centuries - that of touch. Baptisms, even if done in large groups, are still a one-on-one process, a literal hands-on legacy from one person to the next, one life to the next. Machines don’t baptize and when it comes to baptism, I don’t know if anyone would really want to be baptized by any other entity than a human - regardless of the method of baptism.
I don’t often feel lead to preach about baptism, because on any given Sunday, we will have an unique mixture of baptized and unbaptized people sitting with us, and I think our spirituality is more about celebrating inclusion than pointing out exclusions. Some of us have been baptized more than once, and for different reasons, and that’s utterly cool. Others of us have never been and never felt the call to be baptized, and that just as cool. Some have been baptized to God and some have been baptized with the Holy Spirit and still others have been baptized into life. And this morning’s message has no underlying or over-all coercion for anyone to baptized - or not. It does have, however, a huge point in the personal touch that has been passed along from Christ - and before - handed down - one by one- person to person.
A little girl, dressed in her Sunday best, was running as fast as she could, trying not to be late for Sunday School. As she ran she prayed, "Dear Lord, please don't let me be late! Dear Lord, please don't let me be late!” While she was running and praying, she tripped on a curb and fell, getting her clothes dirty and tearing her dress. She got up, brushed herself off, and started running again. As she ran, she once again began to pray, "Dear Lord, please don't let me be late...But please don't shove me either!”
Whether it is literally or metaphorically, what has been handed down to us is not even so much the touch as the heart belonging to the hands. Whether it was the heart of parents wanting children to grow up learning about the ways of God and Christ and the Holy Spirit, or an individual’s own heart’s desire, we are the recipients of a desire and leading of the heart in ways we perhaps don’t even think much about.
The trickle of baptism carries the passing along of morals and lessons and ways of life. Had we not had the particular individuals in our lives and histories, including the forefathers and mothers of this place - even including Christ himself - some of us would not have come to embrace the profoundly simple things like kindness and blessing, honor and sincerity, integrity and that good old sense of right and wrong. Because of those willing to get soaked or sprinkled or crossed before us, we are better able to hold on in the rough patches and soar higher in the good patches.
Even though I said this message was not in anyway about coercing anyone into being baptized, I should also make the invitation clear, that if anyone would so like to be baptized, or baptized again, then do ask me. I’m rusty on reading smoke signals since the advent of emails. I have a feeling that too many people think it’s not a big deal - especially within our Congregational practice. But it is a big deal when it’s a big deal, and none of us should brush off something bigger that God may have for us but for the asking.
Lena’s mother came inside after gardening and found a big hole in the middle of the pie she had made earlier that morning. She found a gooey spoon lying in the sink and crumbs all over the floor. She went to find her daughter. “Lena,” she said, “you promised me dat you vouldn’t touch the pie I made. And I promised you dat if you did touch the pie, I vould spank you.” A look of relief came over Lena. “Now dat I’ve broken my promise,” she said, “I tink it vould be all right for you to break yours, too.”
To remind us that God’s word is not easily broken and is deeply personal, I’m going to ask you all to do something out of some comfort zones this morning. Since we’re here, we might as well take advantage of the heat and lights. So I’d like to ask all of you - if you’re not already - when I say go - to move next to someone else, so that you can touch elbows. Since there are some trying to avoid spreading and others wanting to avoid getting whatever is flying around these days, rather than holding or touching hands, I’d like for you to touch elbows this morning. Even if you have to move, I’ll ask you to indulge for just a few minutes. Go.
Mindful of the links of those who have gone before us, those who are here in spirit but someplace else in body, and even those we don’t know, let us pray. God of ever-lasting to ever-lasting, we thank you for drawing us to follow you. Thank you for sending your Son, who taught us what it means to humbly follow you. Thank you for the hands - the millions and millions and millions of hands from before John the Baptist to our day - that have molded us and fashioned us, sometimes like that of a potter, into the persons we are today. Thank you, too, that each one of us becomes a drop in your stream of life that flows into the future. Help us be aware of those times when we can be a safety line to those in need and a raft of respite for those who are weary. For the gifts with which you bless us, most certainly the personal touch passed onto and through each of us, and your Son, all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.