First Congregational Church
February 26, 2017
8th Sunday after Epiphany
Leviticus 19:1-2, Leviticus 19:9-18, Psalm 119:33-40,
1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 1 Corinthians 3:16-23, Matthew 5:38-48
“How to Love with Integrity”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
To get your minds thinking collectively, what do rocks eat? Pom-a-granites. Which reminds me to just put it out there that geologists always sleep like rocks, and that we shouldn’t take life for granite. During an investigation, Dr. Watson said, Holmes! What kind of rock is this! Sherlock replied, “Sedimentary, my dear Watson.” We should perhaps heed the reminder to not lend a geologist money because they think a short term loan is a million years. I know that while these jokes would have been funnier during the stone age, I think many will agree with the epiphany that a volcano is a mountain with hiccups.
We may forget that life during Jesus’ time was quite cosmopolitan, in that languages and cultures had a way of integrating with each other. So it makes sense that in the book of Matthew, while it was intended for a Jewish audience, there would be “connectors” to other cultures. For instance, his given, Jewish name was Simon. His Greek name, given to him by Jesus, was Peter. His Aramaic name, Jesus’ own native language, was Cephas, and regardless of the language, the name means “rock.”
The other introductory comment this morning deals with the fact that we have not one, not two, but four scripture passages. And, they were last week’s lectionary passages. When I first read them, they really struck a chord, and so I stashed them for this week, giving over to a rather wonderful sermon on water last week.
For those still getting used to this lectionary thing, not only is it a prescribed list of Bible readings, designed to listeners to hear - in church - most of the Bible read aloud over the course of three years, it is also broken down into sections: the First Reading coming from the Old Testament, the Psalm generally coming from a Psalm, the Second Reading coming from the New Testament - outside of the Gospels, and the Gospel Reading - is obviously from Matthew, Mark, Luke or John. Each Sunday, in fact, each day of the week, there is a designated passage that falls under each of these categories.
Generally, I skim over the First, Second and Psalm Readings. But for whatever reason, nearly two weeks ago, all four passages jumped out and seemed to connect to each other and us in - what I felt were - significant ways.
If you don’t remember the last time you heard a sermon that involved the book of Leviticus, you’re not alone. While many think Leviticus to be a book about rules and rules and rules, it is really meant to be a kind of charter for the sort of community that takes seriously God’s gracious presence among her, that stems from God’s holiness, through the “chosen ones” to those around them.
Denis’ reading today is a small part of a much larger Psalm that describes how the Law of God - the rules, so-to-speak - are a source of joy and delight, because it gives life and light. I don’t think that is true when shellfish is forbidden, but there were probably other reasons for that. Anyway, Leviticus is a call to trust and submission to God, not a call to works righteousness. Like the rules of Leviticus, if we focus too much on the minutia, we can get stuck - not seeing the forest of love for all the trees of law, even though that forest and those tress didn’t really fill the bill.
The passage from 1 Corinthians reminds us that as reflections of God, we are like mini-tents of God, reminiscent of the time when God “lived” in the tent that traveled with the people as they made their way through the desert. It’s the reminder that we are holy beings, including people that dress differently, people with spikes through nostrils and ear cartilage and tattoos galore, with nice complexions and acne-pocked ones, blue-eyed, blonds, brown-eyed, brunettes, hazel-eyed red heads, suntans, freckles, bushy haired and bald headed, hearing aided and glassed . . . everybody is a graced temple of God’s Holy Spirit.
The readings may end with the last part of Jesus’ historic Sermon on the Mount, but the lessons and connections and relevances will continue to challenge and stymie and confound and bring humility - probably until the cows come home or the Vikings win the Super Bowl. Or maybe longer.
Leviticus 19:1-2 (Jean)
The Lord said to Moses,“Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: ‘Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy …. “‘When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God.
“‘Do not steal. “‘Do not lie. “‘Do not deceive one another. “‘Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God. I am the Lord. “‘Do not defraud or rob your neighbor. “‘Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight. “‘Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind, but fear your God. I am the Lord. “‘Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly. “‘Do not go about spreading slander among your people. “‘Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life. I am the Lord. “‘Do not hate a fellow Israelite in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in their guilt. “‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.
Psalm 119:33-40 (Denis)
Teach me, Lord, the way of your decrees, that I may follow it to the end. Give me understanding, so that I may keep your law and obey it with all my heart. Direct me in the path of your commands, for there I find delight. Turn my heart toward your statutes and not toward selfish gain. Turn my eyes away from worthless things; preserve my life according to your word. Fulfill your promise to your servant, so that you may be feared.
Take away the disgrace I dread, for your laws are good. How I long for your precepts! In your righteousness preserve my life.
1 Corinthians 3:10-11 (Jean H.)
By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.
1 Corinthians 3:16-23
Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple.
Do not deceive yourselves. If any of you think you are wise by the standards of this age, you should become “fools” so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight. As it is written: “He catches the wise in their craftiness”[a]; and again, “The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile.” So then, no more boasting about human leaders! All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God.
Matthew 5:38-48 (Dale)
Eye for Eye
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’[a] 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
Love for Enemies
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[b] and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Thank you, all. For whatever reasons, it seems that God has been wapping me upside the back of my head like Jethro Gibbs used to do to Special Agent Tony Denozo on NCIS - the idea of working at being a good Christian. Even that term can bring a little shiver to the heart when one thinks of the detrimental things that have been done in the name of religion - Jesus’ name, even.
But why turn the other check when it would feel much better to either deck the person or turn and run away? Why, as Mr. Rudyard Kipling asked, “If you can keep your head when all about you Are losing theirs and blaming it on you, If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, But make allowance for their doubting too; If you can wait and not be tired by waiting, Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies, Or being hated, don’t give way to hating?
It is, as Mr. Kipling said, not only that ours is then the Earth and everything that’s in it,” but more than that, “you’ll be a Man, my son!,” he said. Or a woman. Or an adult. Or mature. Or as God seems to be saying, a holy abode that recognizes the holy in the one next to you, next to the next one, next to the next one, and on out, to the ends of the earth.
Karoline Lewis of Calvin Seminary commented on the passage from Matthew. “Jesus now helps his disciples realize that following him will mean meeting up with those with whom you would rather not come in contact, with whom you might consider your enemy. Love your enemies. You will come across those outside of your immediate circles with whom the principles you learned from Jesus you’d rather not share. You will meet others for whom you’d rather the Kingdom of Heaven need not apply.”
She went on, “Loving your enemies will not sit well with most. It may not even sit well with you. First, you have to determine just who those enemies are. They are often not the obvious suspects. Ms. Lewis suggested that “we might be tempted to interpret such a plea as dated. As something that belongs in Jesus’ time and not ours.”
But then Ms. Lewis ended her commentary with this: “Our enemies are not always those we deem our opposites, our detractors, our challengers, or resisters. Our enemies are all too often those whom we do indeed love.” I don’t know about anyone else, but that made me sit there for a minute and think.
Scott Hoezee, also from Calvin Seminary, threw this even more poignant thought out there. “My “enemies” (such as I’ve had them) have not exactly risen to headline-grabbing people who kidnap children, rape women, or kill other people. Still, I’ve been hurt by others and even harder to take, I’ve seen people hurt those whom I love.
I remember an argument that happened on Christmas Eve, standing in the entryway to leave for church. I think it was in 1971 or 72, during my college days. My family was discussing the ‘after church’ plans, and my sister wanted to stay overnight at her finance’s sister’s house, with him, along with a lot of other cousins. My sister was in tears and I was like a mother goose with a gosling under attack. Actually, I was probably much more of a maniac than anything else. It was really my step-father saying it wasn’t right, and right or not, he was “attacking” my sister - who was 21 and old enough to make her own decisions. Just to make my point loud and clear, I gathered whatever I had brought with me and drove back to my apartment 30 some miles away, never making it to church that Christmas Eve. Not my best cheek-turning moment.
Regardless of the fact that my stepfather has been dead some 30 years, why should I now turn my other cheek? Because I am to be holy, as God is holy. You are to be holy as God is holy. We all are to be holy as God is holy. And that’s fine. But how, regardless of the emotion, or even years dead, do we then love those who hurt us and/or those we love?
I think we do that by going back to the passages read this morning and doing the things that we know are right to do and loving others as we love ourselves. We don’t have to like someone to love them by being honest. We don’t have to like someone to be mindful that they are as holy as we are, even though our opinions may be vastly different. We don’t have to be super humans to wish the same things for others that we would wish for ourselves; to pray for them the things we pray for ourselves. Don’t get me wrong; we are to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. And God values us too much to allow other people to continually diminish the holiness in us, and so sometimes loving others as ourselves is to put some space between.
But what really matters in this life are things that are already yours, so you can be steady and strong, like a rock, the foundation of your faith laid in Christ, knowing that God loves you enough to set the course of the world on a different track, in raising Jesus from the dead, so that you know of God’s sacrificial love for you. Compared to that kind of love, turning the other cheek, giving your coat, going the second mile, loving the one hard to love, righting a wrong, apologizing, walking away, isn’t really that big a deal. So we should pray.
Loving and Gracious God, thank you for all the ways you reach out to us, to help us see the holiness of life, the holiness of our lives and the holiness of all those who share this globe with us. It’s hard sometimes, God, to include our love to all those we think don’t deserve it. So forgive us when we forget that, and remind us of our humanity, that while we can fail you, you will not fail us, that despite our frailties, you are our strength, our Lover of Souls When We Can’t, the One who forgave us, on a cross, in agony we will never know, so that we might enjoy an eternal life with you. For such a challenge, such a life, such a world, your beloved people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
February 29, 2017
7th Sunday after Epiphany, Water Sunday
“The Reflection of Water”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Ole sends his son, Sven to bed. Five minutes later, Sven screams downstairs, “Dad! Can you get me a glass of water?” Ole says, “No. You had your chance.” After a minute Sven screams again, “Dad! Can you get me a glass of water?” Ole says, “No. I told you, you had your chance. If you ask one more time, I’ll come up there and spank you.” After a short silence, the father hears, “Dad! When you come up to spank me, can you bring me a glass or water?”
The impetuous for this morning’s message came at the invitation of Aubrey Ann Parker, as a part of the Benzie County Water Festival. She and I have collaborated a few times on advertising events for each other’s interests, and I’ve friended her on Facebook, and I look forward to the day when we actually meet. She asked, if as part of the Festival, I would be willing to preach on the topic of water, and I figured, that would be easy enough.
Pure water (solely hydrogen and oxygen atoms) has a neutral pH of 7, which is neither acidic nor basic - perfectly balanced. My research suggested that although somewhere between 70 and 75 percent of the earth’s surface is covered with water, 97% is saltwater. Another 2% is locked in ice caps and glaciers, which leaves just 1% for all of humanity’s needs. On a daily basis, we use 10 billion tons of freshwater worldwide, and it is said that the United States uses nearly 80 percent of its water for irrigation and thermoelectric power.
We live near one of the Great Lakes and the DNR website says there are 17 smaller lakes in Benzie County. Wikipedia says that of the 860 square miles in our county, 63% of our land is water.
Our human body is 2/3 water, absorbs cold water faster than hot water and by the time a person is 70 years old, they will have required 1.5 million gallons of water. If you lose 2% of your body’s water supply, your energy will decrease by 20%. A 10% decrease in water, you will be unable to walk, and a 20% decrease, you will be dead.
In the same sense, drinking too much water too quickly can lead to water intoxication. Water intoxication occurs when water dilutes the sodium level in the bloodstream and causes an imbalance of water in the brain and is most likely to occur during periods of intense athletic performance. (I’m probably not going to be worrying about that this week.)
Poseidon was the Greek mythologic Olympian God of the Oceans and king of the sea gods, and the Norse people had 10 entities, gods and goddesses of various sorts of water, from waterfalls to sea faring to water spirits, and Rán, sea goddess of death who collects the drowned in a net. Herman Melville wrote one of our great literary works about water, “Moby Dick,” Robert Louis Stevenson gave us “Treasure Island,” and Earnest Hemingway wrote “The Old Man and the Sea.” Most all of us have seen the movie “Titanic” or “The Perfect Storm,” and a good many of us could sing along with the “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”
Native peoples hold water as food, a means of transport and a sacred being that holds life on earth. They recognized that a seed does not germinate until it receives water, the spirit of water igniting the production of life. Chief Tamale Bwoya of Uganda wrote, “Though water has several benefits, it should be treated with respect and dignity because it is a sacred natural resource that holds life” and he pointed out that “nature provides it freely with the rains.”
I have to thank my hair dresser for asking me about the effect of prayer on water. And oh, my, there is a new topic to explore. Apparently there is a man named Masaru Emoto who has been conducting worldwide research on the effect of ideas, words, and music upon the molecules of water. A water sample taken from the Fujiwara Dam in Japan had ugly blob shapes. After an hour of prayer beside the dam, water samples revealed a clear, bright-white hexagonal crystal-within-a-crystal. In another experiment, when water samples are bombarded with heavy metal music or labeled with negative words, or when negative thoughts and emotions are focused intentionally on water, the water did not form crystals at all and displayed chaotic, fragmented structures.
The Bible has references to water 617 times, according the New International Version, and I actually went through each of them, with some interesting observations. Only twice is the word “ocean” used in the Bible, most all other references to large bodies of water used the word, “seas.” And by the way, those 617 times, was for the word water only; it didn’t include rivers, streams, dew, rain or any of the other forms of water we use in our language.
The Spirit hovered over the waters after God created the heavens and the earth, but it wasn’t until God created light, day and night that water was separated from - water - and it was after that that water was gathered in one place so that dry ground could appear. (When you have a few minutes to spare some time, go read the first verses of Genesis 1 again. There is some great thought-provoking language there.)
Then there are the big miracles that involved water. One of the great covenants between God and humanity was made after the Great Flood, as witnessed by Noah and his family. Moses purified water with a stick, drew water from a rock and drowned an army after parting the Red Sea for the Hebrew people to escape from Pharoah. And by the way, Elijah also parted waters in a river for the safe evacuation of people. Then there was the whole Jonah and whale incident. Jesus’ very first disciples were familiar with water as fishermen, and then he took that little jaunt walking on the water, turned water into wine, and of course, there were baptisms by John the Baptist and Jesus.
Water was an important part of Middle Eastern hospitality; immediately brought to guests for the washing of hands and feet. When a livestock owner failed to express this hospitality of water to King David, David declared war on him. It was a conversation over hospitality that Jesus pointed to the woman that washed his feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. There was an element of hospitality when Jesus washed the disciples’ feet, too. When we think about the Bible and water, I wonder how quickly this event came to mind for any one of us.
1 Now Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that he was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John— 2 although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples. 3 So he left Judea and went back once more to Galilee. 4 Now he had to go through Samaria. 5 So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.
7 When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” 8 (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.) 9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.) 10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”
11 “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?” 13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.” 16 He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.” 17 “I have no husband,” she replied. Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. 18 The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.” 19 “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”
21 “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” 25 The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.” 26 Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.”
Thank you, Cecelia. Water is always in front of us: from the Flint water issues, to the Dakota Area Pipe Line, the floods in California and the blizzards in the northeast. In the world’s dirty secret, somewhere between 900 and 4,500 children die every day from a lack of water, which is becoming the number one killer of children. Even in forest fires and droughts, water is at the heart of conversations. In our scripture passage, I think it is the reflection of God that is at the heart of the conversation.
In the scarcity and rarity of water in the Middle East, the requests for water from Jesus and the woman are more precious. Her burden, to care for her family, no matter how it looked, was not light, a five gallon bucket of water weighing about 40 pounds, carried in the worst heat of the day to avoid the ridicule by other women who didn’t care enough to even keep their mouths shut.
Jesus’ request is a touching, vulnerable moment, one of the very few times that we hear him make a request of another person. He needs something that she can provide. And he knows she needs something only he can provide. The woman has been surrounded with things that cannot quench the thirst in her soul. She has been married five times – those relationships have not met her ultimate need. She works hard – hauling water and whatever other household chores she had – but work does not fulfill the need of her soul. Us modern people, we think work, money, entertainment, sporting events can fulfill the need of our spirit. None of these are inherently harmful, but they will not satisfy the spirit’s longing for the close, satisfying relationship that comes from the One who created us in the first place.
There is a story about a man who was on a train going across the desert in Arizona. He was the only person in the car who had not pulled down the window shades to keep out the glare of the hot sun on the parched earth. In contrast to the other passengers, he kept looking out his window, and actually seemed to enjoy the dismal scene.
After a while the curious man seated across the aisle, asked, “Sir, what do you see in that wasteland that makes you smile?” “Oh,” he replied,” I’m in the irrigation business, and I was thinking if we could only get water to this land that the desert would become a garden.”
There are some in the world who get it, mostly, some who get it, sort of, and some who can’t even begin to understand God’s desire to bring water our hearts, to fill our ultimate need of love and inclusion and acknowledgement and value. As I thought about this message about water, and that which we need to be whole people, it was easy to see in this relationship between the Samaritan woman and Jesus - he acknowledging her worth and she finding that which would end her search for that which is intended to be filled by God’s own self. When she looked at Jesus, quite unexpectedly and in an every-day-sort-of manner, she saw God’s reflection.
And maybe that’s why so much of our earth is made up of water, and so much of our lives are dependent on it, because it reflects God back to us. May God help each of us to recognize those moments in the coming week, moments when we will see God’s reflection and the holiness of water in unexpected and every-day ways and means. Let us pray.
Wise and Omniscient God, we thank you for the perfect design with which you created this world. Thank you for the perfect balances you provide in water itself, in its symbolism and in its commonness. Help us to be cognizant of the ways we can be more respectful of this gift that runs through our homes, our world, even our own bodies. For the times when we have misused water, we ask for your forgiveness. Remind us, too, to pray for the living bodies of water that surround us, that which runs through trees and creatures, even that which is used in the food we eat. For all the blessings with which you shower us, all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
February 12, 2017
6th Sunday after the Epiphany
“The Reason Against Murder”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
I know there are some here today who read it, but not all of you have come across one of the most recognized obituaries in the world these days. Veteran Pillsbury spokesman Pop N. Fresh died yesterday of a severe yeast infection. He was 71. Fresh was buried in one of the largest funeral ceremonies in recent years. Dozens of celebrities turned out including Mrs. Butterworth, the California Raisins, Hungry Jack, Betty Crocker and the Hostess Twinkies. The graveside was piled high with flours, as long time friend Aunt Jemima delivered the eulogy, describing Fresh as the man who "never knew how much he was kneaded". Fresh rose quickly in show business, but his later life was filled with many turnovers. He was not considered a very smart cookie, wasting most of his dough on half-baked schemes. Still, even as a crusty old man, he was a roll model for millions. Fresh is survived by his second wife - they have two children and one in the oven. The funeral was held at 4:25 for about 20 minutes.
Just in case there were any who not might not have been here in weeks previous, we’ve been taking the lectionary path lately, that list of prescribed scripture passages that would theoretically allow for a relatively complete reading aloud of the Bible in church every three years. This morning’s section is the third successive section from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ sermon that begins with all the “Blessed are they” designations, called the Beatitudes.
I, along with perhaps others, tend to think that Jesus’ Beatitudes were - and are - the new Good News that we all need to hear. Granted, they are Good News, but they aren’t so new. Roughly five hundred to a thousand years before Jesus, either King David, the priest Ezra or the prophet Daniel wrote Psalm 119, which begins, “Blessed are those whose ways are blameless, who walk according to the law of the Lord. 2 Blessed are those who keep his statutes and seek him with all their heart— 3 they do no wrong but follow his ways.” Besides this reference in Psalm 119 and the instances in the Beatitudes, there are 30 other times that the Bible contains the phrase, “Blessed are” - one going all the way back to the book of Deuteronomy.
Anyway, after the Beatitudes, is the encouragement to be good salt and good light - in and to the world, which come right before this morning’s passage. I will admit that the sermon title for this morning may not be the most creative or instantly thought-provoking. But perhaps it will make a little more sense later on. Before we get to the scripture passage for this morning, I need to let you all know that there is a word we don’t hear much these days; the word “Raca.” It’s an Aramaic term of contempt, probably something along the lines of jerk, liar, dimwit and the like.
21 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.
23 “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.
25 “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.
Thank you, Kathy. Isn’t it interesting that only the first sentence in this passage uses the actual word “murder?” The rest of the passage seems to describe the results of verbal murder or the “murder” of relationships.
In full disclosure, the complete lectionary passage for this morning, is actually verses 21-37, which includes sections entitled adultery, divorce and oaths. Rather than keeping you all here till the cows come home, the reason for using a smaller passage is that those three sections, aside from their surface meanings, have a similar underlying meaning that seemed to emerge together as demonstrated from various sources in the preparation for this morning’s message.
The first came from Lutheran Seminary President, David Lose: “What if God cares that we keep the law for our sake -- not for the law's sake?” We all get that the sixth commandment is “you shall not commit murder.” It’s fairly black and white, but when you add other layers of “murder,” like adultery, theft, bearing false witness and covetousness, this topic of murder covers a lot more territory, including peace of mind, safety, honor, and therefore affects a lot more of us.
The second source that underpinned the direction for this morning’s message came from the great Fred Craddock, preaching professor at Emory University. One of the sermons Rev. Craddock used in regard to this sermon passage was called “If at the Altar You Remember,” in which he suggests that we look at this passage as an example of Jesus’ use of hyperbole and exaggerated speech. Jesus seemed to love phrases like “If your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out, throw it away” and “Take the log out of your own eye and then you’ll be better able to see the splinter in your neighbor’s eye.” “You strain at gnats and swallow camels.” Fred said Jesus “talked that way a lot,” and we should keep his love of exaggeration in mind when it comes to the part of our scripture passage when Jesus paints the picture of any one of us, worshiping at the altar, in a holy place and that sacred moment and we remember ‘someone has something against’ us and we leave to go rectify the relationship.
Craddock goes on to say that if you take the passage seriously, “it seems to me you could change the church into a circus. We’d all be running around, “Do you have anything against me? Have I offended you in any way?” He ends his point by saying “You come to me eight or ten times with that, “Do you have anything against me?” and I would say, “I’m beginning to. You’re getting on my nerves really.”
A great deal of the rest of Rev. Craddock’s sermon is about how we tend to react to people and situations in ways that are probably are not as helpful as they could be. We meet someone in the hall and they don’t say hello, and we get miffed, even silently saying “Raca,” but we don’t realize that their sister or brother, mother or father just received a cancer diagnosis, and their mind is rather full of things not about us. In that moment, without thinking and with knee-jerk reacting, we’ve just committed murder of grace. Or perhaps someone has dared to open up to us about something that is causing them concern, and we trample all over that risk, ultimately trivializing not only their experience, but we’ve murdered their trust in us.
True, murder is an issue that has an impact on the way we live, whether it be in physical, mental, emotional or even spiritual terms. But it also causes a noise that masks the tranquility and holiness that happens when we are able to be with God in our most holy places. Craddock said that he would warn students about going to chapel, saying, “It’s a very serious thing and it can affect you in ways that will touch every moment of your life after this.”
Coming to church, sitting in the midst of God’s holy people, we come to the altar each week, and unless we’ve worked to rise above the morass of that which goes around us, when we get here, we can be defensive and self-protecting and when that happens, we close off parts of our hearts to God.
Maybe that sounds scary, or threatening, coming to sit with God, unprotected and vulnerable. Certainly it’s not necessarily what we - as humans and a society - are good at. But it’s where moments of truth will likely happen. And it’s where memories can rise up - things that you thought you had finally buried deep enough that they had no possibility of life arising from them.
I’ve recently been thinking a lot about how so much floods our brains and our minds with messages that are not helpful, destructive and even fatal. Rather than dealing with those things that need dealing, we turn up the volume on the radio, go back to check Facebook - just for a minute - and the plethora of other adversarial things that distract us from dealing with the issues that are murdering and imprisoning our hearts, bit by bit.
So the reason against murder is not just about guns and knives or even the mob. Keeping the law is not so much about rules as about ways of making peace and resolving the pains and burdens that don’t receive the attention they need to be let go.
I know I’ve mentioned his name a lot this morning, but that’s because he made sense of a passage that seemed so one dimensional. Anyway, Craddock encouraged his audience then - and us now: “Memory is a powerful stab of awakening to face our duty. If you’re at the altar and you’re offering your gift and then you remember, then leave it and go. And it’s urgent; it’s urgent, do it immediately. Don’t wait, delay is deadly. It will fester. Trifles light as air will become proofs as strong as Holy Writ and you’ll find yourself in a daily ritual of going into the backyard and lifting the stone to make sure the snake is still there.” God cares that we keep the law with grace - and seasoning grace with the law - that the clearing of our dis-eases is not for the law’s sake, but for our sake.
There was a woman who was older than sixty who remembered her life as a little girl, when there were six children in the family. She said that the happiest time in their home was at supper. “We laughed and talked about school and what we’d done and this and that. Mom and Dad would talk and it was just such a wonderful time.”
But she said, “I remember, I was about six or seven years old, just before supper, Mom and Dad got into some sort of quarrel. We’d never heard them quarrel. It reddened their faces, increased their voices. They were actually screaming and when we children came in, they fell silent. My mother turned her back, stirred in a few pots, put it on the table and said, “Let’s eat.” That’s all that was said that night. That’s all that was said the next night. That’s all that was said the next night.” She said, “It seemed weeks that we did not say anything at the table. By and by Mom and Dad started speaking. They became civil to each other. We talked a little bit, but our family was never the same. They never dealt with it.”
So if you’re at the altar of a holy place, deep in worship and it comes to the surface, take care of it. You can come back later and worship. I wonder, too, if sometimes we don’t know the name for that which needs our attention, because we don’t take the time to think about it. Not wanting to fix what ain’t broke, if someone else is heavy on your heart today, take these next few moments and silently lift up that name while we’re at the holy altar in God’s Holy Spirit. ….
Holy and Healing God, we are a blessed people, in having a God that not only created us and our lives, but cares about us, about our hearts and our peace of mind. Regardless of what is going on in the world, sometimes, God, we need the reminders to protect that which is sacred, most especially our hearts and the hearts of those around us. You know as well as we, God, that some things take time to heal and be restored in the ways that are possible. But in this time, while we are together, cognizant that we are not alone in our worship of you, we lift up those people, issues, situations that weigh on us, and we ask that you let us leave them here, that we can go and do the work necessary to take care of that which needs to be taken care of, that we can come back again and worship you. ….
For all healing and restoration of wholeness, all the offers of hope and reconciliation, all your people thank you, praise you, and say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
February 5, 2017
5th Sunday after Epiphany, Communion Sunday
“Blessing and Responsibility”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Because of this morning’s scripture passage, I thought it would be appropriate to begin this message with a joke or two about salt. But when I Googled “salt jokes,” I found a lot of references to chemistry, and I was reminded once again why I went into music rather than nursing. I and all those -orides and odiums and fancy endings like that just don’t get along all that well.
It was not a search in vain, however, in that I discovered a rather new vernacular meaning of the word “salt.” According to funnycaptions.com, nowadays, “when someone is salty, it means they are bitter, upset or agitated and is generally used as an insult. A person can be salty for any reason: like about a comment made or an unfortunate end to a romantic relationship. That definition, however, is not necessarily helpful in-regards to this morning’s scripture that references salt as a good thing. But it may help you when in conversation with a young person or reading graffiti.
So I went looking for light jokes. Naturally lightbulb jokes came up, but if you think about it, so many of those jokes come with the price tag of stereotyping, and in today’s culture, I am trying harder to be sensitive to things that may not be funny to everyone. Except that there was the one about how many computer programmers does it take to change a lightbulb. How many, you wonder? None. It is a hardware problem. But again, if you don’t have a friendship with computers, it’s not even remotely funny. Some days you win, other days you are boring.
For those who haven’t been here the last couple weeks, the Lectionary has been visiting the book of Matthew, and last week it was the verses commonly referred to as the Beatitudes - the “Blessed are” verses. The Beatitudes are a smaller part of Jesus’ most famous sermon, The Sermon on the Mount; that mount being northwest of the Sea of Galilee. Immediately following the Beatitudes are the verses for this morning.
13 “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.
14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.
The Fulfillment of the Law
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
Thank you, Bill. For most of our lives, a reference to the “salt of the earth” has been taken as a compliment. These are the people thought to be down-to-earth, fundamentally good, reliable, straightforward persons. That phrase was probably derived - in part - from the fact that salt is the only mineral that we human beings take directly from the earth and eat. Without it, food is not only less interesting, we would die.
Historically, some cultures exchanged salt as money, the earliest roads were built to transport salt, the earliest taxes were levied on it, and whole military campaigns were launched to secure salt. Salt gave Venice its start as a commercial trading empire in Europe and it helped Gandhi bring India to independence in the mid-twentieth century. Besides helping cheese to ripen and preserve meat, too much salt for some individuals can be deadly. It’s an interesting and vital point, that Jesus did not say to become salt but that by virtue of being a disciple, each of us IS salt. The same is true of Jesus’ reference to us being light.
The thing about salt is that it does no good unless it is used. Having a shaker of salt next to the stove will not season the pot. Nor can you put all the salt in one part of your concoction. It has to be stirred into the mix. It makes our “being” salt less opportunistic and more significant.
Jesus talks about salt losing its saltiness. Actually, under all the layers of translation, in Greek Jesus wonders about salt becoming moronos, from which we derive our English word “moron,” or “fool.” If salt becomes foolish, Jesus asks, then what good is it?
While all this talk about salt may make us crave a few potato chips or pretzels, it is one thing to know our identity as salty lights. It is completely another thing to live out that identity.
Karoline Lewis of workingpreacher.org suggests that our default settings are probably more geared toward comfort, conformity, and complacency when what Jesus really needs from us is to be the salt and the light—the salt that just might sting and the light that just might expose what we do not want to see. When I read that statement, I thought, “Oh, great!” as I am generally lazy and not wanting to cause irritation.
Then Ms. Lewis said, “What if Jesus’ intention was for us as disciples to imagine and live into a righteousness that makes the kingdom of heaven possible? If this is true, no wonder Jesus tells this to his disciples from the beginning. They will need the rest of the Gospel to make sense of and embrace such a request.”
When Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them,” his reference to the Law was not only the Ten Commandments, but all the other parts of the Old Testament that were intended to help others and keep the peace, which hasn’t work as well as maybe even God figured. His reference to the Prophets was not only about the prediction of a coming Messiah, but of his fulfillment of that prophecy. His fulfillment of those references comes in his later words in Matthew, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory” and all the hungry are fed, the thirsty receive drink, strangers are welcomed, people are clothed, the sick are tended and prisoners are visited. When Jesus ends his comments in Matthew 25, and we hear him say “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me,” we get a better idea of just how important our tiny grain of salt and our little light is.
I had thought to give each person here today a tiny stub of a candle, probably those little ends of Christmas Eve candles, as a means of reminding all of us of the importance of our “lights,” no matter how small that light. But then I figured that I really needed to add to those lights, lighters, and it got a lot more complicated than I could even mentally handle. But as you take the bread, that has salt in it, and the “wine” that was grown with sunlight, to fortify you in being the salt and light for those around us, we become fortified for others needing those things from us.
Whether they are religious or not, known or unknown, political issues or not, each of us has things that we deal with, things that can isolate and cause monsters to grow from such isolation. When we share our light and salt, the kingdom of heaven becomes more of a reality in this world, in our here and now, giving us glimpses into the beauty and glory of the kingdom of heaven in eternity.
Ms. Lewis is right. To be so blessed as to be light and salt carries an important blessing and responsibility to us and others. And sometimes we get tired in bearing those blessings. Sometimes our hearts and souls need tending to weed out the things that threaten to overgrow or overtake the blessings. God gave us this meal, to give us sustenance and reminders of who we are and to whom we belong. So let us prepare our hearts, clear our minds and open the windows and doors to our hearts, to let the Holy Spirit drift in with the sweet breeze of love and forgiveness and mercy and grace.
Let us pray. Holy Spirit, thank you for an early spring cleaning of our hearts and minds and souls. Forgive us, God, when we are tired and comfortable and not wanting to go out of our ways for those who need us to be a little uncomfortable. Thank you for the blessings you give us, and help us to remember the responsibility that goes along with them, to raise those around us and our own selves. We are grateful for this gift of food and drink, that mean so much more than their elemental states, the reminder of your sacrifice for us, and the depth and height of your love for each and every soul. For each and every blessing, each and every soul, each and every heart, all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.