First Congregational Church
February 25, 2017
Second Sunday in Lent
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Last week, to begin this Lenten series on the “I AM” statements of Jesus, and because of that week’s passage from John, chapter 6, where Jesus says, “I AM the bread of life,” and because there was the celebration of the Benzie County Water Festival, I offered all of you one of the very most top drawer fishing jokes, about Sven and Ole ice fishing.
To begin this morning’s message, I offer the second very most top drawer ice fishing joke. It was a cold winter day when Ole walked out onto a frozen lake, cut a hole in the ice, dropped in his fishing line and began waiting for a fish to bite. He was there for almost an hour without even a nibble, when a young boy walked out onto the ice, cut a hole not too far from Ole, and dropped in his line. It only took about a minute and WHAM! A walleye hit his hook and the boy pulled in the fish. Ole couldn't believe it, but figured it was just luck.
The boy dropped his line in again and within just a few minutes, pulled in another one. This went on and on until finally Ole man couldn't take it any more - since he hadn't caught a thing all this time. He went to the boy and said, "Son, I've been here for over an hour without even a nibble. You have been here only a few minutes and have caught a half dozen fish! How do you do it?" The boy responded, "Roo raf roo reep ra rums rrarm." "What was that?" Ole asked. Again the boy responded, "Roo raf roo reep ra rums rarrm." "Look," said Ole, "I can't understand a word you are saying." So, the boy spit into his hand and said, "You have to keep the worms warm!"
This morning’s scripture passage can certainly stand on it’s own - without a need for prior context setting. But, if we don’t take a minute for setting the scene, as Peter Schickele, aka P.D.Q. Bach says, “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that certain je ne sais quoi.”
To get to that je ne sais quoi, we have to go back to the first chapter of John, to the very first verse, where it says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.” (Jn 1:1-9)
After that, and Jesus’ baptism, and calling the disciples, changing water into wine, clearing temple courts, a whole lot of teaching and talking, feeding and water walking, John gives us this passage.
12 When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
13 The Pharisees challenged him, “Here you are, appearing as your own witness; your testimony is not valid.”
14 Jesus answered, “Even if I testify on my own behalf, my testimony is valid, for I know where I came from and where I am going. But you have no idea where I come from or where I am going. 15 You judge by human standards; I pass judgment on no one. 16 But if I do judge, my decisions are true, because I am not alone. I stand with the Father, who sent me. 17 In your own Law it is written that the testimony of two witnesses is true. 18 I am one who testifies for myself; my other witness is the Father, who sent me.”
19 Then they asked him, “Where is your father?”
“You do not know me or my Father,” Jesus replied. “If you knew me, you would know my Father also.” 20 He spoke these words while teaching in the temple courts near the place where the offerings were put. Yet no one seized him, because his hour had not yet come.
Thank you, John. At a Wednesday evening church meeting a man rose to give his testimony. "I'm a millionaire," he said, "and I attribute it all to the rich blessings of God in my life. I can still remember the turning point in my faith, like it was yesterday: I had just earned my first dollar and I went to a church meeting that night. The speaker was a missionary who told about his work. I knew that I only had a dollar bill and had to either give it all to God's work or nothing at all. So at that moment I decided to give my whole dollar to God. I believe that God blessed that decision, and that is why I am a rich man today."
As he finished it was clear that everyone had been moved by this man's story. But, as he took his seat, a little old lady sitting in the same pew leaned over and said: "Wonderful story! I dare you to do it again!”
Whoever it was that made the final decision about what verses would be included and in what order, did a brilliant job in giving us this connection between John 1 and John 8. The theme of “light” is as bright as day. It is interesting, however, that in the book of Matthew, as Jesus preached his famous Sermon on the Mount, he told the crowd before him, “You are the light of the world.”
In fact, after he told them that they (we) were (are) the light of the world, he went on. “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.” Mt. 5:14-16
In some opaque way, we get that Jesus lived his life on a stand, giving light to everyone, and that is our job, too. But what is this light-living really about?
In today’s passage, what comes right after Jesus’ proclamation of being the light of the world - is the discussion between Jesus and the Pharisees - about testimony. Apparently, two people agreeing on a statement was enough to qualify for a statement being true. I wonder how well that worked out in practical terms, because we are surely still struggling with “he said” and “she said,” all these centuries later.
Timmy didn’t want to put his money in the offering plate Sunday morning, so his mother decided to use some hurried creative reasoning with him. “You don’t want that money, honey,” she whispered in his ear. “Quick! Drop it in the plate. It’s tainted!”
Horrified, the little boy obeyed.
After a few seconds he whispered, “But, mommy, why was the money tainted? Was it dirty? “Oh, no dear,” she replied. “It’s not really dirty. It just ‘taint yours, and it ‘taint mine,” she replied. “It’s God’s.”
At the end of our scripture passage, the Gospel writer said that Jesus wasn’t arrested by his words, because it “twasn’t” his time. And it ‘taint our time, since we’re all still here. But I wonder how often we try to appear as our own witnesses as followers of Christ, and thereby making a less-effective testimony for God’s work in our lives.
One of the big deals about these “I AM” statements from Jesus, aside from them being the same “formula” that God used in giving us a name for God, is that they help us in that wondrous, mind-boggling understanding of God becoming flesh, revealing Jesus’ full identity.
Associate Professor of Preaching at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, MN, Karoline Lewis said, “Lent is the season to remember one very important thing about what it means to be a Christian: that when Jesus goes to the cross, there goes God.” She also said, “that to believe in Jesus is to hold the fullness of Jesus’ humanity and Jesus’ divinity together.” And then she put out this great zinger: “The challenge of Lent is to negotiate these simultaneous truths -- and how to admit our own truth regarding which Jesus we prefer. Otherwise, all too often, Jesus ends up being trotted out and used to justify moral claims as if God were not a part of the picture.”
Sometimes it is so much easier to understand that the One we follow was like us - skin, bones, emotional, irritable, joyful, witty, prone to getting tired and hungry. Maybe it’s easier to grasp that side of Jesus, because we like to be in company with those similar to ourselves. But this unique One, this Jesus that we follow is also divine, part of God’s own self, having made post-death appearances, raised into heaven before people’s very eyes. The divine side of Jesus is harder to admit to, because it can make us a little crazier in the eyes of the world - following One who is capable of such other-worldly activity. And human beings tend to not be comfortable in that which is not of this world. And yet, that is our Savior.
It’s interesting that Jesus’ testimony as the Light of the World in our passage today was not for the disciples, but for the skeptics. It was first for those who questioned it and condemned it, refused it and rejected it. It was first for those who, even if they didn’t know it, needed to hear it the most. What part of you needs to hear Jesus’ declaration of being Light? And why does it matter?
Because, as Karoline Lewis also said, “Light that exposes people and systems and institutions that have used darkness to hide what they don’t want to be seen.” Now that starts to get us squirmy. Our testimony, as followers of Christ, is one that is plagued by our humanity, our failures and frailties. But when we are reminded to be the light as Christ is the light, then we can lean on Christ’s divinity, his forgiveness of the darkness when forgiveness is asked for, his mercy and grace. That’s when our light, because of Christ’s light, shines brightest. So shall we pray?
God of Light and Life, thank you for giving us standards and testimonies - those of your Son and those you give us. Help us to live into them with all of our beings, that we might be inspiration for those who are living in darkness and hopelessness. Forgive us for the times we prefer to hide in darkness, for the danger our darkness has been to others. Help us to deepen our understanding of your Son - his divinity and his humanity - that we might become better at testifying for the largesse and blessing of living a life devoted to you. And thank you for your Son, who not only have us the ultimate of testimony, but showed us how to lean not on our own witness but to rely on you. For all that you give us and for all which you call us to do, all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
February 18, 2017
First Sunday in Lent
“At the Very Core"
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
There is the classic joke about ice fishing that just about every person who has baited a hook knows. It begins with our friends Ole and Sven grabbing their poles and heading out. As they were auguring a hole in the ice they heard a loud voice from above say, "There are no fish under the ice."
Ole and Sven moved about 25 feet over and started to make another hole. The voice said a little stronger, " There are no fish under the ice.” They both looked around and then looked up. Ole said in a humble voice, "Are you God?” The voice spoke back, “Ya, sure, ya bettcha! I'm the ice rink attendant."
Then there was the time that Ole and Sven wanted to do some fishing up in Canada. So on the way to the lake, they stopped at a little bait shop and got all that needed. Included on their list were the usual minnows, wax worms and an ice pick.
They got their gear and took off. In about two hours, Ole was back at the shop and said, "We're going to need another dozen ice picks." Well, the gal in the shop wanted to ask some questions, but she didn't. She sold him the picks, and Ole left.
In about an hour, he was back: "We're going to need all the ice picks you've got."
The bait gal couldn't stand it any longer. "By the way," she asked, "how are you fellas doing?" "Not very well at all," said Ole. "We don't even have the boat in the water yet.”
This past week, if you weren’t aware of it, there has been a celebration of the Benzie County Water Festival. There have been various events throughout the week; from a potluck and panel discussion at Grow Benzie to the Betsie Bay Frozen 5K race to events involving water at Beulah’s new interactive children’s museum, Cognition, and this morning’s message.
I’ve had some questioning comments from my ministerial colleagues about preaching on water during a water festival weekend, and part of me has been surprised. Why wouldn’t we preach about water? Jesus used it in his first miracle, changing water into wine, he and John used water to baptize people and he walked twice on water — there being, by the way, no mention of Michigan or Minnesota in February.
In the gospel of John, water is mentioned 2-3 times more often than in the other gospels, and before this morning’s passage, there is the discourse between Jesus and the Samaritan woman, where he says to her, “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.”
And then we have this morning’s passage from John 6. After feeding the 5,000 and the first of Jesus’ water walking wonders, we get the first of Jesus’ great “I AM” declarations.
35 Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. 36 But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe. 37 All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. 38 For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. 39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. 40 For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.”
Thank you, Jim. I was poking around on the internets and discovered that “I AM” has its own Wikipedia page, Wikipedia being the ever-evolving internet dictionary. As any English student learns, I am is the present form of the verb “to be”. There are at least seven films with the name “I AM”, along with dozens of songs and recording albums. But when it comes to the Bible, “I AM” - both words in all capital letters - that’s a horse of a different color.
Just before Jesus said the words that Jim just read, Jesus was referencing the bread from heaven, given by God to Moses and the people as they wandered in the desert for those 40 years. That reference is important, because while God and Moses had that famous meeting of Ten Commandment fame on Mount Sinai, Moses was well aware of the difficulty he would have to convince the people - “They shall say to me, What is this god’s name?”. "God said to Moses, I AM THAT I AM.... say.... I AM has sent me to you”.
To add a little more depth of understanding, when God said, I AM, it wasn’t some future third person reference, like “I am going to be the one who sent you.” God’s use of “I AM” in a first person reference, means that God is doing it right now: God is sending God’s self to us now, and now and now and all the nows into eternity.
So it’s significant that Jesus uses the same first person reference. In fact, seven times, in the book of John, Jesus begins a reference to himself with this first person “I AM.” I AM - right here, right now and always will be, the Bread of Life. Right here, right now, without any possibility of ending, I AM the Light of the World. Right here, right now, I AM the Door. I AM the Good Shepherd. I AM the Resurrection and the Life. I AM the Way and the Truth and the Life.. And I AM the Vine.
When God gave Moses a name to use for God’s self, that made the name really holy - so holy that it was too sacred to be spoken aloud or even properly written. To get around it, for centuries God’s most common Hebrew name has been spelled without any vowels, and in capital letters: YHWH. Even to this day, the vowels that we recognize in the word Yahweh are still uncertain.
Back to our passage, not only is Jesus claiming that he is the bread of life, but using the formula that God used, claiming the holiness of God, and that being the bread of life is not just some point in the future, but right now, breading as we live and breathe. And for those who believe in Christ will never be thirsty - in a spiritual sense, naturally.
Sometimes the season of Lent can be a drudgery to endure. But it can also be a time for deeper, more intense - in a good way - time to take a more profound look at the One who has loved us more that we can comprehend and sacrificed the highest gift - for us - the gift of his life for our life.
At the end of the day, we all have things that were necessary for the fulfillment of that day: bread, water and God. Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. Rock, Redeemer, Friend. We can survive without any one of these things, for a while, but that survival is not the same as wholeness, being fulfilled and satisfied. At the very core of our beings, we have holes in our souls that are nutrition shaped holes, hydration shaped holes and aspiration shaped holes. The book of John, and particularly this 6th chapter, tells us that God fills those holes with God’s own self.
When the lectionary assigns this John 6:35 passage, it often skips the following verses that Jim read today, going right on to verse 41. For whatever reason that is done, it short changes us. If they weren’t an important part of the larger whole, why include verses 36-40 in the Bible?
My best guess is that verses 36-40 tell us how Jesus is being the bread of life. It’s like his job description as the bread of life, which doesn’t really look like bread or water at all.
Wheat doesn’t grow for its own self. Wheat grows for the farmer to use. In his own words, Jesus didn’t come to do his will, but God’s. Wheat isn’t collected into granaries to be merely accumulated, but to made into something else, something that sustains life. Jesus’ job in this world was not merely to make notches in a stick in collecting souls. He came that there would be life beyond him and us, life beyond life.
After coming up with that mind-boggling paragraph, and I sat back to think a little more, and the thought occurred to me that bread needs water to make bread. And water needs wheat to make bread. And water and wheat need an agent to make the dough stick together, flatbread or yeast bread. So in this analogy, I don’t think it would be too much of a stretch to liken that “sticking together” agent to the Holy Spirit. All three items are good things on their own, but you can’t have just two to make bread. But put together, they are far greater than their individual selves.
At our very core, we are not intended to be solitary ingredients that sit on a shelf for people to know we are there. We are created to be a part of something greater than ourselves, a life force that is larger and more expansive that any of us consider while determining the best value between brands of cottage cheese or salsa. As we wait for the oil to be changed or getting the mail out of the box or watching people hurl themselves down a mountain side for a prize that’s not even made of precious metal, even then, in those moments, God is providing the bread and water that keeps us from spiritual starvation and death. Even while we sleep and daydream and pay the bills, even in our most difficult times, when it least feels like it, Jesus is being our bread and water of life.
In many ways, this is not new news for some of us. But it is some of the most important and vital basic information for the living of our lives. This week, we get to think about this gift of bread - and water - and Spirit - that gives us the ability to overcome that which we need to overcome, and the ability to embrace that which we need to embrace. Not that those obstacles and embrasures are all soft and cuddly. But in God’s promise to be the very basic that we need, we can appreciate the gift of that promise as often as we can think of it in this coming week as we make the journey to the cross of resurrection life. So let us begin by recognizing God’s part in this.
Holy God, who embraces us into your arms, we have gathered on another ordinary Sunday to sing and pray and say nice things to each other. But we know that is not all you desire for us. So as we go out into each of our weeks, send your Holy Spirit to attend each of us in ways that cause us to recognize the provisions you give us - not just provisions for the very core of our beings, but for all of that which blesses us and fills our hearts to overflowing, that then gathers up into all that is good. Help us to respond to your provisions in ways that are honorable and life-giving and shine on us as followers of your son. For your bread, and water and all that you are - now and now and now and forever, all your people say, Amen.
It was a Foot-Stomping Sunday, so the message came in the lyrics of the hymns we sang.
First Congregational Church
February 4, 2017
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany and Communion Sunday
“Why We Have Come….”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Since our scripture passage this morning deals with healing, I thought these actual lines from doctors’ notes would serve as appropriate introductory material.
Patient has left her white blood cells at another hospital.
On the second day the knee was better and on the third day it disappeared.
The patient has been depressed since she began seeing me in 1993.
Discharge status: Alive, but without my permission.
Skin: somewhat pale, but present.
Patient has two teenage children, but no other abnormalities.
The patient was in his usual state of good health until his airplane ran out of fuel and crashed.
I know they’re bad, so may all our doctors be good note writers. We begin today where we left off last week, in terms of scripture passages. Jesus and his band of four were in Capernaum, and he was teaching in the synagogue when a man with an impure spirit challenged Jesus. Naturally, Jesus healed him and everyone went on their way.
29 As soon as they left the synagogue, they went with James and John to the home of Simon and Andrew. 30 Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they immediately told Jesus about her. 31 So he went to her, took her hand and helped her up. The fever left her and she began to wait on them.
32 That evening after sunset the people brought to Jesus all the sick and demon-possessed. 33 The whole town gathered at the door, 34 and Jesus healed many who had various diseases. He also drove out many demons, but he would not let the demons speak because they knew who he was.
35 Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. 36 Simon and his companions went to look for him, 37 and when they found him, they exclaimed: “Everyone is looking for you!”
38 Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” 39 So he traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons.
Thank you, Myra. Seeing as how we’re still in the early verses of Mark, I’ll remind all of us that Mark is the oldest of the discovered gospels, and the most terse, getting right to the point. Mark doesn’t waste any time or gives flowery descriptions. He’s really about the facts, “just the facts, ma’am,” for the Dragnet fans among us. So that means that the little things are important in Mark, and there are certainly a good number of details in this passage.
I’m glad that we have the little scene about Simon’s mother-in-law and her response. I wonder if we’ve gotten out of the habit of actually doing something for God after a prayer has been answered - not because God expects it, but because our human spirit needs to acknowledge a thank you, lest we become insensitive to the miracles that go around us each and every day. We may thank God all the time. But when the big things come along, maybe we might think of ways we can serve God, as this woman served Jesus.
It’s interesting that Jesus is still having to deal with demons. While not everyone agrees on the reality of demons and evil spirits in our modern world, they were a very real part of life in Jesus’ day. Maybe those labeled with having demons actually had Parkinson’s disease, nerve damage or were schizophrenic. And maybe the actual conditions of the people weren’t so important, because Jesus healed all of them, giving us the assurance of Jesus being in the healing business.
Going away by himself to a solitary place to pray didn’t make Jesus exceptionally holy, although that is a holy endeavor. It was probably self-care as much as anything else, giving us the example and permission to take care of our own selves, especially after we’ve gone through something that has taken out a bit of our own starch. It struck me, thinking about this idea of Jesus going off by himself to allow for the healing of his spirit is not so unlike the time needed for the healing of a concussion. He may have looked fine on the outside, but the inside was needing rest and healing, and I daresay that there are a great many people walking around with such healing needed. We can give people a break when they don’t feel up to joining in, except on Sunday mornings, of course, sic. We need to be together as much as we need alone time - just sayin’.
I would love to be able to ask each one of you why you came this morning - this snowy, very wintery morning. Was it your spouse who gave you the jab in the ribs when you wanted to stay under the covers a little longer? Maybe it’s part of the way you keep your week straight, because a week without a Sunday not only makes one weak, it makes it hard to remember if you’re on Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday.
It’s interesting that Jesus suggested going to the nearby villages to preach, because “That is why I have come.” I wonder how many of us forget that part of the reason we come to church is to become better disciples. We’ve heard about Jesus calling us often enough, but without looking it up, what does Jesus call us to do? ___ Just so no one is late for the kick-off this afternoon, Jesus calls us to follow him and to be his disciples. He doesn’t call us to be admirers or faces in the crowd. In following Jesus and endeavoring to be better disciples, sometimes we experience healing, sometimes we experience restoration, sometimes we get community and sometimes we get lessons and surprises we didn’t expect.
Today, part of God’s call comes in the sharing of the cup and the loaf. In the silence of preparing our hearts and minds, there is a holiness that is unlike any other we might encounter on a week-to-week basis, because God’s presence is among us, stronger than at other times, simply because we are together. In the time of listening and holding and smelling and tasting, we are reminded of God’s provisions - for more than just food and drink.
Let us pray. Gracious, Holy Spirit, thank you for your particular presence this morning. Thank you for calling each of us to be followers and disciples of your beloved Christ. Continue to speak to each of us, that we may more clearly hear your voice, that we may know our calling to be ever more important and dear to our hearts. Thank you for your Son, who paid the ultimate sacrifice for our lives, and yet lives to join us for all the days beyond those here on earth. For all the gifts of you, God and God’s Son, all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.