First Congregational Church
February 23, 2020
Leviticus 19:1-2, Leviticus 19:9-18 & Matthew 5:38-48
“Worship and Rules”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
What do you call a place of religious worship for Tesla cars? An Elon Mosque. What do you call the misguided act of worshipping mediocre products at rock-bottom prices? I-Dollar-Tree What do you call people who worship cheese? Brielievers
Lately, my brain has been visiting the topic of worship. We come to church as often as we can, we call this thing we do worship, or we have a worship service, the ancient Israelites and even other cultures have forms of worship. But what is it - exactly? Is there a form or a pattern with a list we can check off so we can know if we’ve done it right?
As usual, and as with most things, the answer to those questions is yes, no, maybe and I don’t know. Obviously that’s an inadequate answer, but I think you get the drift that worship is not so easy to describe or that it’s deeper than we might think.
That being said, there are some people who worship at the race track, some at the bar, and some in front of their television. There are others who meditate on mountaintops in silence, and others who twirl themselves into abandonment of ego to focus on God. Some worship through singing and some through silence, some who set aside particular time and others who worship throughout the moments of the day.
I can still remember something one of my seminary professors said about God’s commands. I think it was some theology class or apologetics, which is how to make a case for Christianity, and Dr. David Clark said something to the effect that God gave us the commandments not because God loved rules and being strict, but so that we humans would know how to show God that we love God.
If you think about that, he makes sense, because isn’t one of the most uncomfortable things - not knowing what to do? When you go into someone’s home, do you take off your shoes or not? You generally don’t know until you enter the door, but at this time of year, it can be a thing.
I was once visiting a friend from Japan, and I walked into her house, with whatever other thing on my mind, and almost walked into the kitchen with my shoes on. I’d been to her house before, so I knew there was a pile of shoes at the door, and I know it’s the Japanese custom to remove shoes at the door, but I forgot that second time, and then felt so dumb, because I knew better, not that the removal of shoes - or not - would make or break the world. Taking my shoes off in Nozomi’s house was one way to let her know that I respected her, in abiding by her rules/tradition.
If a person is unaccustomed to attending classical music concerts, that person may not know that it is not considered “proper” to clap between the movements of a larger work, like a symphony. And should you do the clapping when no one else is doing it, it can feel right awkward.
Lately I’ve become more aware of how people do funerals and memorials differently. Some gatherings, the leader leads and the gathered people respond when asked. Other groups take it more as an exchange, like a group conversation, so there is no compunction about offering a remark at any point during the time. Neither way is right. But they are different, and if you’re unaccustomed to them, they might feel awkward.
Dr. Clark’s point was that humans - far newer on the scene than God - and being God’s offspring - come into existence needing to learn a lot - as individuals and as a whole. We aren’t born knowing how to tell God how we love God in return for God’s love for us. So God gave us “house” rules, guidelines and ways to communicate with God, what God means to us.
As our readers come forward, I’ll give you a heads up and ask you to pay particular attention to the first verse read by Myra and the last verse read by Chuck. After that, pay attention to the particular command that pops out to you, the one that takes your mind away from the rest of that paragraph, so to speak.
Leviticus 19:1-2 Various Laws
19 The Lord said to Moses, 2 “Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: ‘Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy.
9 “‘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. 10 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.
11 “‘Do not steal. “‘Do not lie. “‘Do not deceive one another. 12 “‘Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God. I am the Lord. 13 “‘Do not defraud or rob your neighbor. “‘Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight. 14 “‘Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind, but fear your God. I am the Lord. 15 “‘Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly. 16 “‘Do not go about spreading slander among your people. “‘Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life. I am the Lord. 17 “‘Do not hate a fellow Israelite in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in their guilt. 18 “‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.
Matthew 5:38-48 New International Version (NIV)
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, Myra and Chuck. If you missed those two sentences, they were “Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy.” and “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” They aren’t exactly the same, but they are perfect bookends for those two passages. The beauty of the pairing of these two passages is that between the books’ ends, we have scads ways to be holy and perfect - as much as we can be on this side of eternity.
And there is certainly a mountain of ways to reflect our love for God back to God within these verses. Offering the dignity of work in the gathering of food is important. And we offer dignity when we walk the thin line between helping and allowing people to make their own mistakes, which is not about being poor. Most of us might get that offering dignity and help for widows and orphans is necessary because sometimes people can’t physically go out and gather their own food. Adhering to God’s instructions on demonstrating our love for God includes offering dignity - to foreigners - whether they be Minnesotans or outside our county and beyond.
Justice and fairness seem like rather fluid terms these days, but justice is still about something being “just as” it is for one person, so is it for each other person, including ourselves. And fairness has nothing to do with winners or losers, but what is right and honest.
We worship God in our actions not when we stop with the bare minimum, but go above and beyond - loving neighbor as our self and our enemies and praying for those who persecute, giving the coat along with the shirt, so to speak. God doesn’t say we have to become poor door mats, but when we feel the nudges on our consciences and hearts, those become opportunities to demonstrate our love for God, rather than doing this or that because the Bible says so.
Most all of us have come to deeply understand “but by the grace of God, there go I.” And although it may not always look like it or feel like it, the sun really does rise on the evil and the good, the rain on the righteous and unrighteous alike. God doesn’t play favorites, and from what I’ve been able to figure out, we’re not supposed to play favorites either, except when it comes to your favorite pastor. ;)
I would guess that so many of us - maybe even all of us - think about God’s commands, guides and suggestions as one thing, and worship as another. But aren’t they really reflections of each other as we endeavor to show God how we love God - at least in ways that make sense to us? It’s not at all about God keeping a list of measuring up - like Santa’s list. This worship thing we do is very personal, very much about our relationship to God, a relationship with a large impact to and with those around us - so large - we best set to praying right away.
Holy God of Love and Light, thank you for loving us, each one of us, from the beginning of time, to this very moment, and on into eternity. Other gods are worshiped, but there are no other gods that love - especially in the way that you do. So help us to reflect that love more purely and wholly. Help us to see how our souls and spirits are so much more than what we do for an hour on Sunday mornings, how our actions are really the way we show you our love and reflect your goodness back to you. We are well aware that we fail in this endeavor, more times than we’d like to admit. But we begin again, from this moment, mindful of that which we do in response to your love. For all the love you have bestowed on us, all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
February 16, 2020
6th Sunday after Epiphany
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
In some ways, I feel a little bit sorry for myself, and a lot more for those younger than me - mainly because we didn’t get to know George Carlin very well. As a student of dark humor, it would be interesting to hear what his take on our current world situation would be.
That being said, we can still enjoy some of his timeless stuff, like, “What if there were no hypothetical questions?” Or “Just because the monkey fell off your back doesn’t mean the circus left town.” And then there’s this one: “People who say they don’t care what people think are usually desperate to have people think they don’t care what people think.” And one of those within the religious realm: Atheists are a non-prophet organization. (prophet / profit)
This morning’s scripture passage began with the rhetorical question: Which of the scripture passages for today is the lesser of all the evils? The Gospel passage carries the headings of murder, adultery, divorce and oaths. The non-Gospel New Testament passage is the one in which Paul wrote to the Corinthians that they needed to grow up. The Psalm passage seemed - to me - a little light on the lessons that could be gleaned. Which left the Old Testament passage.
After reading it, I anticipated the questions that might arise in some of your minds. “Is she nuts?” “What on earth was she thinking?” “How long until she retires?” I could also guess at some of the “answers” that might have come to mind. “I should have gone to the restroom before she started the sermon.” “I could have hit the panic button on my car alarm.” “I need to remember to add milk to the shopping list.”
I’d dragged my feet, about this message, through most of the later part of the week, because the passage seemed so black and white, so stern, so void of grace - at least on the first read. I’d been trying to think about what God really needs us to glean from this passage - at least in a general, thematic way for today. And then, Saturday morning came along.
I was still humming and hawing, and dragging my feet in getting to the office, with the Moth Radio program accompanying my dilly-dallying. In the very first story, it was as if God dropped the biggest, best present right on my ears and brain.
It was the story of an Indian gentleman named Ashok Ramasubramanian, of a day when he was in college and he started down the trek of living a life of joy. While he was in his third year of engineering school, a family member brought him a full Kit Kat candy bar. The family member said, “This is Kit Kat. They eat it in America. And it’s amazing.”
Apparently, in India, when you have a roommate, tradition dictates that you share this thing with your roommate. Ashok looked at the candy bar and it was like nothing he’d ever seen before. It was beautiful. So he decided to eat just a small piece. He would, of course, still share the bulk of it with his roommate, and no harm done. So he ate a small piece and it was amazing.
So then he said, “I’ll eat a little piece more.” Knowing where this is going, pretty soon, he had only a very small piece of Kit Kat in his hand. And at this point, some sort of twisted logic seized him. In Ashok’s own words, he said, “I mean, what’s the point of sharing now? I mean, the roommate’s going to come home, and I got to explain, ‘Dude, I got this full bar, I ate most of it, and there’s only a small piece to share with you.’ No, the safe thing to do is to eat that also and hide the wrapper. Which is what I did.”
“Now about two hours later, my roommate comes home. And he is clearly delighted about something. Joy is a very hard concept to pin down, but you know it when you see it. And I saw joy in the eyes of my roommate. The dudes clearly excited about something.
Now in his hand is a small paper napkin, folded up, and he opens it up, and inside is a small, 1 inch piece of Kit Kat. Now, unlike me, who had wealthy relatives abroad, a friend of a friend had given him a piece, and his eyes were filled with the joy of sharing, and he said, ‘This is Kit Kat. They eat it in America. And it’s amazing.’
And his eyes were sparkling with joy. I’ve never seen anything like that since or before with my own eyes, more confused than anything else. I mean, what am I supposed to say? Dude, I actually had a full bar. I ate it all. So you should eat this.
So he proceeded to take a ruler; this is engineering school, so there's rulers all over the place. And the rulers we use have one edge that is sharp, so he took the sharp edge, and he cut this tiny bit of Kit Kat into two and he offered one piece to me. I ate it. I mean what else are you supposed to do? It's too complicated to do anything else.
But you know, two Kit Kats in a single day within hours of each other…the universe, God, if you will, is trying to send me a signal. Dude, you are on the wrong path. You need to change. And so I did.
Back to the passage that started all this, in big, broad strokes, the whole book of Deuteronomy is basically a recap of the Law and history and how to worship, that was laid out in Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, as delivered to the people, through Moses. After long explanations of do’s and don’ts, a long list of blessings and a lavish recounting of the main covenant between us and God, which is God will be our God and we will be God’s people, Moses begins his wrap up of Deuteronomy’s 33 chapters with our passage for today.
15 See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. 16 For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess.
17 But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, 18 I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.
19 This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live 20 and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Thank you, Mike. It is probably a good thing that God didn’t consult with me when the rules of life were being laid down. I don’t know what your rules would have been, but I think mine would have had a theme of “common sense - that which is, indeed common - and sensical. Alas, there are reasons for the clothing labels that read, 100% cotton, remove baby before washing. Or, For Best Results, Machine was hcold. Tumble dry low. Never iron design. For Worst Results: Drag thru puddle behind car. Blow dry on roof rack.
To that point, the writer of our passage gives three points in verse 16: love God, walk in God’s ways, and keep God’s commandments, statues and judgments. Verse 20 gives those points a different flavor: love God, hear God’s voice and cling to God.
SO, the question - from the sermon title - is not a universal question, of course, but certainly a general one: Do you want to live? It may seem like an innocuous or even base question, but sometimes, we need to hear or review the most basic questions.
Sometimes, unless confronted with the question, do you want to get well, people are actually quite comfortable to stay broken or unwell, because it’s what is familiar and known. Getting well is not known and may be be a scarier place that being well.
Living? Well, being content with the same-old, same-old is familiar. If I was to truly go after wanting to live, which is not so much physically as mentally, I may have to change some of my thinking or how I operate in the here and now. I might need to explore areas of my life that I don’t want to look at. Naw, it’s much nicer pretending that I’ve not heard the question.
Except that we have. Do you want to live - not in a place in some time, out of fear, but in a place of promises fulfilled and wholeness, even in the here-and-now? One might expect answers like that of Eeyore: I suppose. Of course, we don’t have to go all Tigger as we live out our days, with our tops made out of rubber and our bottoms made out of springs. But we can take a look, in these longer, grayer days of replenishing, despite whatever age any of us might be, of how we answer, “Do you want to live?” and its subsequent question, “Then what?”
Because I’m guessing that none of us - including myself - likes to feel uncomfortable - when we know we should be sharing a Kit Kat. I’m guessing that most of us don’t often see enough eyes “sparkling with joy” - the deep joy that comes from living the life that is sheer gift by trusting the God who provides for us - sometimes in the goofiest of ways.
Two roads diverge in a world of grace, and glad we can make the choice. Long we can stand at the crossroads and look as far as we can to where it bends beyond our ken. So we take the one unknown, the betterment known in later days. And having the better choice, because it is life and living and truly not the same. Two roads diverge in a world of choice, and we - we took the one of life and ever. So shall we pray.
Holy and Everlasting God, it’s not often that doing what you desire is a mystery. You’ve made it quite clear to most all of us. But sometimes, Lord, we need to review the script, getting back to the basics and foundational principles. Forgive us when we turn away from the plain and essential question of life. Urge us to repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation, and all the other ways we can live fully in you. For the abundance of life that you bestow on us, all your people say, Amen
First Congregational Church
February 20, 2020
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany & Communion
1 Corinthians 1:18-31
“The Foolishness of God”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
I don’t want to sound like a conspiracy theorist here, but are we truly to believe that the Titanic sunk after being hit by an iceberg?! Do they think we're fools!? I've thrown lettuce at the window for hours and it hasn't even scratched, let alone put a hole in it. It’s interesting how we learn things over time, things we might never have conceived of in earlier days, but in later days, have made quite the difference.
When I was in seminary, we had chapel a couple times a week. We sang a hymn, had a prayer and then listened to a message brought to us, usually by one of the professors. One day, the speaker was a missionary, from someplace in Central America or the Caribbean. I don’t remember the point of the message, but a story he told still sticks with me, all these twenty plus years later.
It seems that while he was trying to understand the culture of the people to whom he was ministering, he ended up attending a ceremony conducted by some of the people who practiced voodoo. Until that day, I think I was probably taught to hold such cult teachings or experiences at an arm’s length - whether by the church or culture - I don’t know.
But here was a man, explaining the story of how he watched someone actually being levitated during the ceremony. I didn’t know the person in that day’s chapel, and he looked like a normal enough guy, and there he was, reinforcing a situation that I was taught to be impossible, with seemingly no other agenda than to tell his experience. That day was one in which I discovered there was far more mystery in the world than I had bargained for.
That kind of story/situation can change a person’s thinking and belief system.Yesterday, I was listening to the Moth Radio program, and a story told by Andrew Solomon caught me, something like the one about the missionary.
Andrew is highly susceptible to depression, struggling with it for a long time. When he finally got better, he began to write about his process of recovery, and at the same time, began to explore other kinds of treatment, like experimental brain surgeries to hypnotic regimes to electroshock therapies to making craft items. Andrew had a friend who lived in Senegal, the very most western country of Africa, who invited him to visit and explore some of the tribal rituals used to treat depression. So Andrew went to Senegal.
He spoke to a friend of a friend of a friend, driving a couple hours outside of Dakar, ending up interviewing an “extraordinary old, large woman wrapped in miles and miles of African fabric printed with pictures of eyes.” After explaining the procedure, Andrew asked the woman if he could attend such a ceremony. To make a longer, albeit fascinating, story shorter, Andrew experienced the ceremony, as it was done to himself.
I will spare you the more gruesome details, but suffice it to say that the ceremony included seven yards of fabric, three kilos of a plant cereal called millet, sugar, kola beans, two live young roosters, two older roosters and a ram. The millet ended up being rubbed on his chest and arms, and after several hours of dropping various shamanistic objects, everyone went into the square.
The entire village had taken the day off from their work in the fields, dancing in concentric circles, throwing blankets and sheets over Andrew, and just when he thought he was going to suffocate or die of heat, the cloths were pulled off Andrew and he was covered in the blood of the animals, which immediately drew in the flies. After a number of additional actions, the women of the village “cleansed” Andrew by spitting water on him. I know, just not a regular day in the life of an American. But here’s the thing.
Five years later, Andrew was speaking to someone in Rwanda, much further east and south of Senegal, and our guy Andrew was sharing his previous experience. That acquaintance mentioned that in Rwanda, it’s quite different, but there were some similarities.
This acquaintance said, “You know, we had a lot of trouble with Western mental health workers who came here immediately after the genocide, and we had to ask some of them to leave.” Andrew asked for an explanation and the acquaintance said,
“Their practice did not involve being outside in the sun, like you’re describing, which is, after all, where you begin to feel better. There was no music or drumming to get your blood flowing again when you’re depressed, and when you’re low, and you need to have your blood flowing. There was no sense that everyone had taken the day off so that the entire community could come together to try to lift you up and bring you back to joy. There was no acknowledgment that the depression is something invasive and external that could actually be cast out of you again.
“Instead, they would take people one at a time into these dingy little rooms and have them sit around for an hour or so and talk about bad things that had happened to them. We had to get them to leave the country.”
The apostle Paul was not attempting to cast out depression, but the Christian church in Corinth was not “well.” In his attempt to make the church “well” again, he began his letter with a statement of how absurd this world can seem.
1 Corinthians 1:18-31 New International Version (NIV)
Christ Crucified Is God’s Power and Wisdom
18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”[a]
20 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.
26 Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him. 30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness
and redemption. 31 Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”[b]
Thank you, Sonia. If you went back over this passage, you will discover that the word “foolishness” is mentioned four times: pertaining to the cross, God and twice to preaching. The one other way that the word is used is that the wisdom of the world is “foolish.” And then there’s the line from verse 26. “Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called.” There is the great preacher, near and dear to so many hearts, who recently said, “It’s interesting how we learn things over time, things we might never have conceived of in earlier days, but in later days, have made quite the difference.”
This whole thing that we do - investing our time and talents and treasures - to a group of rather disconnected other individuals, is rather absurd. Those who rise later than the early birds could be having Sunday morning brunch, reading the paper with a cup of coffee, getting those chicken wings marinating before the big game tonight. And yet, here we are, some folks actually liking the idea of being together, hearing how so-and-so are doing, taking our friends’ - and even unknown strangers’ - situations into our own hearts for lifting up. And what is more odd than celebrating the Son, born of the Spirit and of God, with the cup and bread? It just all seems so strange.
And yet, the strange - sharing a cup and bread - for many people - becomes anticipatory and familiar and can bring a comfort that is sometimes beyond words. As goofy as it all sounds, it is the love of a God - our God - that is so great - that we seek ways to express our gratitude for that love - and grace and mercy and healing and, and, and.
So this morning, as we prepare our hearts and minds for this “meal” that Christ gave us, let us also allow all of that which God gives us - the wise and the foolish to begin our celebration of this supper of marvel.
Let us pray. Heavenly and Eternal God, that you even created human beings after creating the universes and all that they hold, can sometimes seem like a foolish act on your part. We are well-aware that we are not always cracked up to what you envisioned for us. So we thank you, for believing in us and loving us, despite foolishness or disappointments on our parts. And thank you for giving us your most precious self, in your son and in your Spirit - that we might grow into your ways and desires - ways that would astound us on any other given day or time. So thank you, as all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.