First Congregational Church
March 30, 2014
Fourth Sunday in Lent
“Broken Justice Restored"
Scripture: 2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
So what do you call an arrogant thief falling from a building? Condescending. Did you hear that the Energizer Bunny was arrested? He was charged with battery. What was the charge when Ole threw sodium chloride at Sven? A salt. A lawyer was interviewing his plaintiff, and the conversation went like this.
Lawyer: Tell us about the fight. Witness: I didn't see no fight. Lawyer: Well, tell us what you did see. Witness: I went to a dance at the Turner house, and as the folks swung around and changed partners, they would slap each other, and one fellow hit harder than the other one liked, and so the other one hit back and somebody pulled a knife and someone else drew a six-shooter and another guy came up with a rifle that had been hidden under a bed, and the air was filled with yelling and smoke and bullets. Lawyer: You, too were shot in the fracas? Witness: No sir, I was shot midway between the fracas and the navel.
This morning we continue the Lenten series on Brokenness. It began with the brokenness of vessels/people, and the woman who broke and poured out a jar of perfume on Jesus’ head. Week two dealt with the story of Judas breaking his trust with Jesus. Last week time was spent on broken promises and the incident of Peter’s promises to be faithful to Jesus and the rooster’s crowing revelation of the broken promises. In dealing with all these rather personal and close topics, it wasn’t just about the brokenness, but about how Christ’s life, death and resurrection restores our brokenness.
While the first three sermons used the gospels of Mark and Matthew, this morning we meander over to one of the famous letters written by the apostle Paul to the churches in Corinth. In Paul’s day, there were some 750,000 people in Corinth, perhaps mostly because it was on the north-south trade route, and from east to west, it was only four miles, versus the 200 miles to sail around the island of Peloponnese. The incredible trading routes also brought many different faith practices, although the main temple was to the Greek goddess, Artemis. Most of the people that became Christians in Corinth were from the middle and lower economic classes, and they had trouble leaving their old lives behind them.
As I’ve been “observing” the threads of communication in the last six months or so, for some reason, there seems to be a resurgence of women and their roles in ministry and life. This morning’s message is not to stand on a soapbox to defend women’s rights. But part of the message is to understand the culture at the time, and how the apostles were trying to raise up the early Christians.
One way to get people to notice you is to do something drastically different. So we’ve been through the eras of big hair and permed hair, bell-bottoms and skinny legged jeans, Goth and preppy. In a sense, the apostle Paul was trying to get the early Christians to “stand out” by not doing things like everyone else.
To get people back then to “notice” Christians, the apostles told the followers to cover their heads, or to be respectful, or any of the other “behaviors” that have been pulled out of contexts. To fix the broken ways of how they treated each other, new ways needed to be implemented for the time, so that through following Christ, that which sin had broken - could be restored. That is why all the cultural education of the day is needed in the hearing of this morning’s scripture.
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
16 So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
Thank you, Bob. At the first reading of this passage, I sort of glossed over the word “ambassadors,” but one of my old commentary buddies, William Barclay, brought the word to life, even though he wrote this in 1952, hence all the pronouns “he.” He said, “There is no more responsible position than that of an ambassador. An ambassador of Britain is a Briton in a foreign land. His life is spent among people who usually speak a different language, who have a different tradition and who follow a different way of life. The Christian is always like that. He lives in the world; he takes part in all the life and work of the world; but he is a citizen of heaven.” “The honour of a country is in its ambassador's hands. His country is judged by him. His words are listened to, his deeds are watched and people say, "That is the way such-and-such a country speaks and acts."
Remember that most of the new Christians in Corinth were middle and lower class citizens. Thinking of themselves as an ambassador was a crazy as, say, both Michigan and Michigan State basketball teams making it into the elite eight bracket. Better yet, it would be like me, running for president of the United States. Sure, the potential is there, but seriously….
Seriously, God always saw the Corinthian people as honored and beloved, but they couldn’t see it for themselves. Christ’s sacrifice on the cross was a way to help them - and us - see the depth of love and honor that God has for us - that God would give up God’s own son for us to see it.
There is a little video clip on the internet of a woman filming a guy driving too close behind her. Before the story even starts, there are all kinds of wrong: filming a video while driving - in the left lane of a four lane highway. Despite all her excuses, basically she was not driving very politely. As they say, it is what it is, so we have this little two minute clip that catches the young man behind her, eventually passing her on her right side, slowing down in the same lane so that he can pass her again, but this time with a little sign-language, if you catch my drift.
As the young man pulls up in front of the lady again, not watching his own driving, he swerved to keep from hitting a bendable divider pole, overcompensated the swerve, hitting another divider pole, skidding out to 180 degrees, running backward into the opposite ditch, across two lanes of on-coming traffic. Some people use the word karma, others use justice, but I’m pretty sure that whatever a person calls it, that young man probably won’t do that little stunt again.
I will point out that although the word “justice” is in today’s sermon title, it is not found in the scripture passage. But listen how Merriam Webster defines it. “the maintenance or administration of what is just - especially by the impartial adjustment of conflicting claims or the assignment of merited rewards or punishments.” Since that is a mouth-full, I’ll repeat it. “the maintenance or administration of what is just especially by the impartial adjustment of conflicting claims or the assignment of merited rewards or punishments."
Too often, churches, ministers, well-meaning individuals “preach” about the punishment part, and give little more than passing thought to the maintenance or administration of what is just” - like reminding each other that we have a royal brother, which makes us princes and princesses of the most high God. The longer I look at what God has given us in Christ and in God’s word, the more it seems that it is about restoring the brokenness and oppression that has ruled us for so long. The truth is that while a broken justice system put Jesus on the cross, his resurrection and ascension back to God restored us all to being members of a royal priesthood and ambassadors in a weary land.
In related terms, from somewhere in the back closet of my memory, there is a definition of justification, which is a term from the legal system, that means “just as if it (sin) never happened.” From a file I stashed away a long time ago, “Justice us when you get what you deserve. Mercy is when you don't get what you deserve. Grace is when you get what you don't deserve.” And from Paul, “So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view.”
Paul tells us that God has committed to us the message of reconciliation. Most of us could come up with Merriam Webster’s definition of reconcile: “to cause people or groups to become friendly again after an argument or disagreement.” But that is not the first definition. That one is, “to find a way of making (two different ideas, facts, etc.) exist or be true at the same time.” There are so many folks that need to be reminded that they are of great value to God, because they are beloved. There are so many hurting hearts that need us to help them see that while the way may be dark, Christ is the light of the world. And there are so many ready to give up on God and/or Christianity, that our openness, encouragement and embrace is the breath of fresh air that will help them live into their new creation.
For such an high calling, we should most definitely pray. Holy and Great God, you have given us a great calling. We do our best work when you enable and empower us, so we ask for extra measures of those things. Give us energy to reach out to those needing your love, especially when we don’t feel so energetic or so lovely ourselves. Help us to not regard anyone from a worldly view, but from your view, no matter how good - or not so good - he or she might be. And thank you, God, for so loving us that you have gone to a great length to give us justice, mercy and grace. Thank you for the love that gave us Christ and restored us to your intended life for us - at least as much as is possible - until we return to eternity with you. For all your blessings, all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
March 23, 2014
Third Sunday in Lent
Matthew 26:31-35 & Matthew 26:69-7
"Broken Promises Restored"
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
A dying man gives each of his best friends -- a lawyer, doctor and clergyman -- an envelope containing $25,000 in cash to be placed in his coffin. A week later the man dies and the friends each place an envelope in the coffin. Several months later, the lawyer confesses that he only put $10,000 in the envelope and sent the rest to a college for scholarships. The doctor confesses that his envelope had only $8,000 because he donated to a medical charity.
The pastor is outraged, "I am the only one who kept my promise to our dying friend. I want you both to know that the envelope I placed in the coffin contained my own personal check for the entire $25,000.”
This week we continue the Lenten series of Brokenness. Week one was about broken vessels being restored, last week was about restoring broken trust, and this week we look at how Christ’s sacrifice restores broken promises. We laughed at the “broken promise” in the joke with the three gentlemen, but broken promises are a great deal more serious. Broken promises, when gathered together, can lead to broken trust. And broken promises can lead to individuals being broken - most especially in spirit.
The basis for this morning’s message comes from two passages from the same chapter in Matthew. After a woman broke a vessel of perfume over Jesus’ head - at Simon the Leper’s house - and Judas made the deal with the chief priests to betray Jesus, and Jesus had Passover supper with the twelve disciples, they all went to the Mount of Olives. While they were there, the first of our two passages took place. After that, Jesus went with the disciples to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray - that time and place where the disciples fell asleep on him. It was after Jesus was arrested and while he was being tried that we get to the second of our passages.
Matthew 26:31-35 NIV
31 Then Jesus told them, “This very night you will all fall away on account of me, for it is written: “‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’ 32 But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.” 33 Peter replied, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.” 34 “Truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.” 35 But Peter declared, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” And all the other disciples said the same.
Matthew 26:69-75 NIV
69 Now Peter was sitting out in the courtyard, and a servant girl came to him. “You also were with Jesus of Galilee,” she said. 70 But he denied it before them all. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said. 71 Then he went out to the gateway, where another servant girl saw him and said to the people there, “This fellow was with Jesus of Nazareth.” 72 He denied it again, with an oath: “I don’t know the man!” 73 After a little while, those standing there went up to Peter and said, “Surely you are one of them; your accent gives you away.” 74 Then he began to call down curses, and he swore to them, “I don’t know the man!” Immediately a rooster crowed. 75 Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken: “Before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly.
Thank you, Dale. We all know what a promise is, but just for curiosity, I looked up the definition. As many of us could have determined, a promise is “a declaration or assurance that one will do a particular thing or that a particular thing will happen.” (Interesting that there is an action implied.) What seemed more integral, however, were the synonyms: “word (of honor), assurance, pledge, vow, guarantee, oath, bond, undertaking, agreement, commitment, contract, commit oneself, bind oneself, covenant.” Those are not your ordinary $2 words.
The idea of “covenant” is a big deal within Congregational churches, because a it is an agreement, usually formal, between two or more persons to do or not do something specified. In this church family, when new members officially join us, they make a promise - out loud - with their own mouth - to be a part of this church family and the church universal.
We make this covenant because of the covenant God made with us - that God would be our God and we would be God’s people - which we get way back in the book of Genesis. Since then, there have been covenants with Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and our “new covenant” that comes from the book of Hebrews.
Before the Mayflower Compact - there was the Iroquois compact that joined five tribes together. The Mayflower Compact - another word for covenant - the first written binding document in the U.S., made our forefathers and mothers accountable to each other. From that compact, we’ve followed with the Resolution of the Stamp Act, Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Emancipation Proclamation and the individual amendments. Throughout the course of time, we have taken covenants and vows very seriously.
Sometimes - because our humanity gets in the way - we fail to understand that we are making such important agreements. Sometimes - because communication is what it is - what I may think I’m promising is not what the listener thinks I’m promising, and visa versa. Sometimes, the breaking of a promise is a complicated matter.
The broken promise in our scripture passages is one of those that was self-generated and therefore all the more hurtful - to both the one to whom the promise was made (Jesus) and the one who made the promise (Peter.)
There are people quick to point out Peter’s “failure,” because he was the impetuous one, the one more apt to fly by the seat of his pants. But that doesn’t negate his sincerity. I think he really, truly meant what he said about “being there” for Jesus. And just like the rest of us humans, his humanity got in the way of what he wanted.
A lot of times, maybe most of the time, we don’t mean to break a promise or vow. Sometimes we realize the brokenness of the vow in the midst of it being broken. Broken promises are sometimes evil, sometimes not, and they do not necessarily make us bad people. Broken promises, when realized, are cause for apologies, and forgiveness, because that is often how promises get as close to they can to being “fixed.”
We don’t know if Peter asked for Jesus’ forgiveness, but Jesus forgave him - from the cross. “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.”
The difference between us and God is that God doesn’t break promises. We see the best work of God’s restoration in Peter: from these passages and one in John, when Jesus was having breakfast with some of the disciples on the beach after his resurrection - which of course, I remembered after the bulletin was printed. It’s the passage where Jesus recommissioned Peter to feed Jesus’ sheep - three times. (Interesting link between the trice crowing rooster and the triple call to feed sheep.)
15 When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” 16 Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”
17 The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.
That same passage restores us and any promises we may have broken with or to God. A much loved-minister of God once carried a secret burden of long-past sin deep in his heart. He had committed the sin many years before, during his Bible school training. No one knew what he had done, but they did know he had repented. Even so, he had suffered years of remorse over the incident without any sense of God's forgiveness.
A woman in his church deeply loved God and claimed to have visions in which Jesus Christ spoke to her. The minister, skeptical of her claims, asked her, "The next time you speak to the Lord, would you please ask Him what sin your minister committed while he was in Bible school." The woman kindly agreed.
When she came to the church a few days later the minister asked, "Did God visit you?" She said, "Yes." "And did you ask God what sin I committed?" "Yes, I asked," she replied "Well, what did God say?" "God said, 'I don't remember.'"
God forgives - and forgets - our broken promises, and not only forgives, but recommissions us to do the work in the kingdom God has for us. Thing is, sometimes we forget to ask to be forgiven, or we think the “crime” too big or maybe not important enough. Sometimes we allow promises made to us and then broken to collect on our soul and it weighs us down, like wool on a sheep that isn’t regularly shorn. (To see such a picture, check out our March newsletter.)
So we have this season of Lent to clean out the drawers and closets of our heart, so that when Easter comes, we can fully celebrate Christ’s unbroken promise of resurrection to flood all the places that became full - one way or another. Let us - like so many of you have done at home in this long season of snow and cold - do a little drawer and closet cleaning.
God, sometimes we make promises - intentional or unintentional - and for whatever reason, we break them. Whether we are the breaker or the receiver of such promises, they tend to cause more pain than we realize. We can’t give up on promises, because they are important. So when they are broken, remind us not to give up on them, because you don’t give up on us and your promise to be our God and we your people.
Sometimes it’s hard to let go of broken promises - whether we break them or they are broken on us. So for those of us that need to let go of that which clings to our hearts and souls, we confess them to you in the silence of our hearts. ________________
We thank you, too, Gracious God, that you forgive us - and you don’t keep records of wrongs, sins, or broken promises or trust. Thank you for recommissioning us and repurposing us to do work that is not only important, but necessary for your kingdom. So help us to grab on to these days as important ones to do important, life-saving and life-changing work for you. And all in your forgiven flock say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
March 16, 2014
Second Sunday of Lent
"Broken Trust Restored"
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
I’ve got a knock-knock joke to start this morning’s message but you have to start it. Knock-knock. Who’s there? ___ What is brown and sticky? A stick. What do you call a broken boomerang? A stick. Where did Napoleon keep his armies? In his sleevies. Two fish are in a tank. One says to the other, “How do you drive this thing?” What’s white and can’t climb trees? A refrigerator. Why does a chicken coop have only two doors? Because if it had four, it would be a chicken sedan.
For those who wonder about my “broken” sense of humor, the jokes are included because of the Lenten theme of brokenness. Last week it was the brokenness of the woman who poured a jar of expensive perfume on Jesus’ head as he was eating dinner at (the broken) Simon the Leper’s house. The bottom line of the message was that because of what Christ did for us, all of us broken vessels are restored. This morning’s topic is one of the famous brokenness matters: that of trust.
Matthew 26:14-25 NIV
14 Then one of the Twelve—the one called Judas Iscariot—went to the chief priests 15 and asked, “What are you willing to give me if I deliver him over to you?” So they counted out for him thirty pieces of silver. 16 From then on Judas watched for an opportunity to hand him over.
17 On the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread, the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Where do you want us to make preparations for you to eat the Passover?” 18 He replied, “Go into the city to a certain man and tell him, ‘The Teacher says: My appointed time is near. I am going to celebrate the Passover with my disciples at your house.’” 19 So the disciples did as Jesus had directed them and prepared the Passover.
20 When evening came, Jesus was reclining at the table with the Twelve. 21 And while they were eating, he said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.” 22 They were very sad and began to say to him one after the other, “Surely you don’t mean me, Lord?
23 Jesus replied, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me. 24 The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.” 25 Then Judas, the one who would betray him, said, “Surely you don’t mean me, Rabbi?” Jesus answered, “You have said so.”
Thank you, Molly. Most of us modern Christians lose a fair bit to history and the culture of Biblical times. So we don’t think much about the Festival of Unleavened Bread or Passover. The fact that these two designations fall in the same sentence probably add to the perception that these two Jewish events are different names for the same thing. Passover however is only one 24 hour period while Feast of Unleavened Bread lasts for seven days - perhaps not so unlike Good Friday and Holy Week.
The whole Passover / Unleavened Bread Feast began back in the book of Exodus, while the people were in slavery to the Egyptians. During the series of plagues that were intended to cause the Pharaoh to free the Hebrews, God told the Jewish people to mark their doors with the sign of a cross. That night, when the angel of death came to the land, it would skip over the marked households. With the instructions for marking the door, when the freedom was granted by the Pharoah, God told the Hebrew people not to allow their bread to rise, but to grab everything and get out of Dodge. The ancient peoples used to gather yeast on grape leaves to leaven their bread if they needed to speed up the process, but God said "Don't even let any leavening touch the dough. Just bake it and go.” The symbolism was that the yeast represented sin.
Some 1500 years later, we encounter Jesus’ disciples celebrating again the festival of leaving behind sin and the power of God’s kept promises.
And like last week, Jesus is reclining at the table. There were different ways of dining back in those days; tables and chairs being for the wealthy. Ordinary people sat or squatted around the food, whether it was on a low lying table or even a cloth on the bare floor. Individual plates were also for the wealthy, so most folks sat around the one or two large bowls of whatever, using pieces of bread to pick up the food and sop up the juices.
Regardless of the dining position, eating food with another person was - and still is - a rather intimate experience. It’s just not so pleasant to be at the same table with someone that strongly dislikes you - or visa versa - and it doesn’t help the digestion any, either. It is worth noting that both last week, and today, the scenes of “brokenness” center around that place of intimacy and seeming trust.
When Jesus announces the impending betrayal by one of his inner circle, as each one wondered, “Is it I, Lord?”, I wonder how Judas was feeling. He’d had his suspicions about this Jesus - or a lack of trust at any rate. When Jesus marks Judas out-loud, I wonder how Judas felt then. From that moment until Judas kissed Jesus on the cheek, how did Judas feel? I’m guessing that righteous indignation was one that he visited a lot during those few hours. I’m also guessing that he was doing a lot of mental justification of his actions. Maybe that’s a clue for us, when we find ourselves justifying our actions, to “check in” with our motives.
The “greater” broken trust most logically comes from Jesus’ point of view. I would hope that it’s not many, but I’m sure there are some here this morning that have been hurt, deeply wounded, at a betrayal, most likely at the hand of a friend or trusted individual. Some of our most emotionally charged words come with the definition of betray: to fail or desert especially in time of need; to deliver to an enemy by treachery.
Google has a much more sophisticated definition: “Betrayal is the breaking or violation of a presumptive contract, trust, or confidence that produces moral and psychological conflict within a relationship amongst individuals, between organizations or between individuals and organizations. “ The online etymology dictionary implies that it is not merely betrayal, but complete, thorough, whole-enchilada deception, deceit, handing over. Whatever the definitions or words, the pain is usually deep, gut-wrenchingly heinous.
We can relate to betrayal on a human level, but this account is also important to help us translate it to the spiritual world. God is much greater, so much more than we are. But understanding Judas’ trust breaking with Jesus helps us get a glimpse of the trust breaking that happened in the Garden of Eden, when sin officially came into the world. And maybe it gives us a glimpse into God’s heart, when any of us break the trusts we’ve been given - whether it be with children, adults, the earth or our treasures. Christ’s sacrifice was - I don’t think - so much about appeasing an angry God, but about healing broken relationships.
Speaking of relationships, I wonder if we forget about the other disciples when we think about Judas’ betrayal. For the good part of three years, the thirteen had been together, endured the hardships and enjoyed the good times. By all accounts, they had become a band of brothers. I’m sure it’s happened to some here today, but of those who are supposed to be loyal, trustworthy and having your back, it’s supposed to be siblings. It’s probably why betrayal at the hand of a family member is that much more painful. So Judas didn’t just betray Jesus. He broke the trust of all his “brothers.”
There was probably more than one disciple that would have loved to extract their pound of flesh from Judas. But when he hung himself, he cut off any potential for resolution or restoration. That was true not just for the disciples, but for Jesus. When someone has committed an offense of whatever kind, we - through Christ - are to grant forgiveness when it is asked. It doesn’t excuse or deny the fault, but it is to help bring about the restoration of the fallen one. It would have been a perfect example for Jesus to show us how it was done, had Judas given him the chance.
Instead, Jesus had to do it from the cross. “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.” From that point on, Jesus’ words restore the brokenness, throughout history. That was the day Judas was restored, the day each and every one of us were restored. Judas’ betrayal was so huge, but it gives us the outdoor movie screen to see what happens everyday on much smaller screens - from watch telephones to the largest living room entertainment systems. Each and every one of us are forgiven and restored, at the mere asking. Which seems like a pretty good thing to do.
God of love and compassion, we are mindful this day of the brokenness that happens in relationships, by words and/or actions, silence and/or inaction. Most of the time, God, we’re pretty good at knowing when we are starting down a path that isn’t becoming to our image as one of your loving children. But sometimes, Gracious God, we aren’t as good at recognizing the path that leads us away from the one you know best for us. So before any of us become like Judas, stop us, refrain us, and remind us again of the love that is there to guide us, nourish us and overflow for others.
Some times, God, we don’t do as well as we could, or we don’t do at all. Some times, we just fall flat on our faces. Regardless of the reasons, we succumb to our humanness and we betray you. So forgive us, Merciful God, that we may not become useless in our betrayals, but restored, filled again with the purpose you have for each one of your precious ones. Thank you for the sacrifice of giving us your Son, that we may all live into the relational restoration you have provided. And all the grateful hearts say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
March 9, 2014
First Sunday in Lent
"Broken Vessel Restored"
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Although it seems that Christmas was just a few weeks ago, here we are on the first Sunday of Lent. If nothing else, people perhaps most often associate this time with “giving something up.” My mentor, Cindy Shepherd, would give up coffee, caffeine, chocolate and sugar for lent. I’ve always secretly wondered if she was aiming to become a martyr.
A lot of folks still “give up” something for Lent - to give themselves an opportunity to focus more on God. So I’ve made some resolutions for Lent, too. I’ve decided to give the past tense for Lend. I also decided I’m tired of speaking the English language correctly, so I’m giving it up for Borrowed. But then I decided to give up procrastination - next Lent.
Then, I decided to give up my New Years Resolution. 4 and a half days into Lent and I still haven’t bragged! After that, I tried giving up self-deprivation for Lent, but I wasn’t very good at it.
As goofy as all those “decisions” were, so may seem the decision to do a Lenten sermon series on brokenness. From broken hearts to compression fractures to falling on your knee to rotator cuff pain from shoveling, I’m sure there are more than a few folks that are wondering just how cold it got over there in Minnesota. I don’t know if it makes matters any “better,” but I’ve had this series tucked away longer than any planning for a sabbatical took place.
The thing is, regardless of the time of year, we are surrounded by brokenness. We live in a world of brokenness. And maybe, too often, we think of the whole realm of brokenness as a bad thing. That perception is certainly a part of the context of this morning’s scripture passage.
Mark 14:1-9 NIV
Now the Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread were only two days away, and the chief priests and the teachers of the law were scheming to arrest Jesus secretly and kill him. 2 “But not during the festival,” they said, “or the people may riot.”
3 While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head.
4 Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume? 5 It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly.
6 “Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. 7 The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. 8 She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. 9 Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”
Thank you, Jim. I don’t know about anyone else, but I’ve never really thought about nard before. Lard: yes. Nard: no. You have to be careful looking up nard. Some internet sites will tell you it stands for North American Restoration Dry Cleaners and other sites tell you it is an acronym for the National Association of Rudimental Drummers.
Biblical nard comes from a plant called spikenard, a flowering plant from the Himalayan mountains - a good three months journey away from Jerusalem. The roots and rhizomes of the plant are crushed and steamed into a pale, golden liquid; a profound and complex aroma; sweet, spicy, and musky. Perfumers of the time were a mysterious bunch who kept their trade secrets to themselves. So there’s no wonder that nard was “costly.” It was used in burial preparations, along with other perfumed and oil substances. When King Tut’s tomb was opened, there was a jar that had a still pungent unguent, some 3500 years later.
But how did she know? Had she “heard” what Jesus had said something about his impending death? The disciples didn’t seem to listen - or get it - or pay attention. Part of the beauty of this account is the woman - however she heard or felt the urge - acting on what her heart or gut told her to do. Sometimes we think we hear God asking us to do thus and such, but we resist what may seem foolish - if not to others - at least to ourselves. Is God calling you - us - to break a symbolically expensive jar of perfume for what may seem an illogical reason?
In April 2000, John, near Pittsburgh, posted a devotional about this woman that may give us some insight into why this woman poured the perfume on Jesus’ head. Our passage doesn’t say that she’s “broken” or had some reason for sorrow, but his piece may allow any of us to stand in her sandals.
“He - Jesus - can tell by their expressions that they are both shocked and disgusted at the same time. They’ve got that “How dare you!” look about them but he doesn’t turn to see who just walked into the room. He can tell by their reaction that it’s someone who needs him. He’s pretty much accustomed to these kinds of interruptions but he knows that she must make the first move. So he simply continues to recline at the table, leaning on his right elbow, feet tucked behind him. He picks up a piece of bread and then he hears her.
Finding no words to dismiss the embarrassing silence she just begins to sob. The guests roll their eyes while she just stands there, staring through her watery vision at Jesus’ feet. Tears drop on the dirt and darken the floor like raindrops on a dry path. And little does she know that it is her own path of salvation that she is preparing. When she notices that her tears have also been falling on his feet, shamefully she kneels down and begins to wipe them dry with her hair. Her heart is in control of this moment and not her head, and her heart is confessing: “I thought I was strong. I thought I didn’t need anyone. I tried to convince myself that they weren’t using me, that I was using them. I know that what I have been doing is wrong. I’m so tired. I’m so weary. Jesus, I’m so broken, but I’m yours.” When his feet are dry she pours expensive perfume on them, wipes her cheeks with the sleeve of her dress and sits there quietly crying.
Jesus breaks the silence and speaks to his host, “Simon, I know who this woman is and I know what she does, but is she too dirty to touch God? Can’t you hear her heart? Don’t her tears tell you anything? I tell you, her many sins are forgiven – for she loves much. But whoever has been forgiven little, loves little.”
Finally, turning around he cradles her face in his hands and looks her in the eyes. Smiling at her he speaks the absolution: “Woman, your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.” She touches his hands touching her face and begins to smile as she gets up to leave. Releasing his hands she turns toward the door and notices that it’s still open. She walks into the street and turns back to close the door behind her but something deep within her speaks: “Leave it open.””
As many times as I’ve heard this passage, this may have been the first time that I really “heard” that they were at Simon the Leper’s house. Which raises a whole host of more unanswerable questions:
Weren’t lepers supposed to live out in the wildernesses, away from people? Weren’t they supposed to “announce” themselves as “unclean” if they were going through a city or town? How did this particular person - so afflicted - come to have a home? Could he have been one of the individuals that Jesus had cured in his career?
Regardless of the questions, there was Jesus, eating with this “broken” leper - and who knows how many others. But imagine how Simon the Leper felt, having Jesus come over for some grilled cheese and tomato soup - or at least some hummus and pita bread? You’ve got to wonder, just how “normal” Simon felt that night - just having someone at his home for dinner, forget that it happened to be the Messiah. There was Simon, entertaining, just like “normal” people! How often do we miss the fact that even the little things we do, can help another person feel “normal - even though normal is only a setting on the washing machine?” Just our mere presence can help rebuild brokenness in ways beyond our ken.
I don’t know about anyone else, but I never really thought about the fact that after the woman had poured the nard on Jesus’ head, and the other guests were grumping because of the “wasted” expense, we don’t have any evidence that Simon the Leper said anything. In fact, his silence seems to throw him into the same group as the grumpers and gripers. Does Simon realize that his silence - or complaining with the others - turns himself into the worst kind of broken soul - one who cannot - will not - offer restoration to another broken soul? Is he allowing his new “normal” at having Jesus for dinner to make him into a self-righteous hypocrite?
I don’t know about anyone else, but I need a God to forgive and restore me when I’m the one pointing my finger at someone else, failing to recognize our common need for a redeemer. The beauty of Lent - or Lend - or Borrowing - is that we have the opportunity to examine our own questions, motives and actions, being reminded that we have already been restored because Christ put us together when he went to the cross.
We have this season, too, to be reminded that the alabaster jar had to be broken to “spend” something incredibly valuable. If Christ had not been “spent”, the cost of God’s grace and mercy would not be nearly so great. For a person to give up their life - for us - for you - is indeed, an expensive gift of love that has already been lavished on all of us. It, therefore, seems only right to humble our hearts in prayer before the very one who made our lives so valuable.
God of grace and God of glory, we are grateful that you so loved each of us, even in our faults and warts, that you desired our wholeness above your claim on your son. We are greatly thankful that you choose to redeem us and restore us, rather than throwing us away or ignoring us. Thank you for this season that allows us to look long at what you value, and that we see ourselves in that scene. For these gifts and all your blessings, all your restored vessels say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
Wednesday, March 5, 2014
Psalm 139:1-16, The Message
“The Hidden Life Within”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
One: God, investigate my life; get all the facts firsthand.
All: I'm an open book to you; even from a distance, you know what I’m thinking.
One: You know when I leave and when I get back;
All: I’m never out of your sight.
One: You know everything I’m going to say before I start the first sentence.
All: I look behind me and you’re there,
One: then up ahead and you’re there, too—your reassuring presence, coming and going.
All: This is too much, too wonderful—I can’t take it all in!
One: Is there anyplace I can go to avoid your Spirit? to be out of your sight?
All: If I climb to the sky, you’re there!
One: If I go underground, you’re there!
All: If I flew on morning’s wings to the far western horizon,
One: You’d find me in a minute—you’re already there waiting!
All: Then I said to myself, “Oh, he even sees me in the dark!
One: At night I’m immersed in the light!”
All: It’s a fact: darkness isn’t dark to you; night and day, darkness and light, they’re all the same to you.
One: Oh yes, you shaped me first inside, then out; you formed me in my mother’s womb.
All: I thank you, High God—you’re breathtaking!
One: Body and soul, I am marvelously made! I worship in adoration—what a creation!
All: You know me inside and out, you know every bone in my body;
One: You know exactly how I was made, bit by bit,
All: how I was sculpted from nothing into something.
One: Like an open book, you watched me grow from conception to birth;
All: All the stages of my life were spread out before you, The days of my life all prepared before I’d even lived one day.
Part of the “ease” of coming back from time away so close to Ash Wednesday was because of the bulletin cover. I have no idea how many months ago I found it, but it’s been in the folder waiting for this day. But before I impose my thoughts on all of you, what do you see in this photo?
Thank you all for your contributions and insights. Part of the delight of this picture was that much of this “message” written was the description on the back page of the bulletin.
“In The Hidden Life Within, Giuseppe Penone carves out a young tree within an older tree to reveal its past, showing us what once grew inside so that it may now “live in the present.” Inspired by the quiet slowness of growth in the natural world, the artist asks us to take a moment to stop and think about the concept of time and how there’s a common vital force in all living things.”
I love the balance of this picture - that represents us. There is a hidden beauty in all of us that lies under the bark of our exteriors. And there is a sorrow that the revelation of the inner life became visible when the outer life of the tree ended. The sculpture reveals the honesty of potential and limitation; the juxtaposition of earth and aesthetic.
I also loved the idea that there is darkness in this day - like the darkness of the man’s suit. But it is so human to switch the colors - the black for the browns and the light. It is so easy to fail to see the life of this day, because in our misperceptions, the darkness can seem to loom over us, rather than the light and life that comes from seeing this day for what it really is.
It is easy to think that this day is about us, that little tree in the middle. But it’s also about the bigger tree - the community of people we call family. As a church family, we, too, have a need to get honest with God, that we can be free to inspire others to follow Christ’s light and life. It’s easy to think that our contribution to the ministry is small, inconsequential. But without each one of us, the tree is simply a log with a hole. So each of us has a need to take honest responsibility for our selves - that our together is that much more credible and vital.
We all know I could go on and on with the reasons. But the words are meaningless if we don’t walk the talk. So let each of us put on our walking shoes and turn to page 54 in the spiral books.
Let us pray. Wondrous God, we come before you this day, cognizant that you already know all about us. You know that our hearts need cleaning out every-so-often, and you’ve given us this day to do that very thing. You know our potentials and our failures and the obstacles we knowingly and unknowingly place on our paths. We confess, as individuals and as a family, that we don’t always live up to our potentials, and we hang on to our failures with far too much earnestness. So today we ask for your forgiveness, which you have already given, drenched in mercy and grace. Today we lay that burden, obstacle, guilt, complaint, blame, misgiving, hurt, mask, at the foot of the cross.
Redirect us, by your Spirit, that we may be honest this day, about our life - all of it. Clear our hearts and heads to that we live - really live - in all the ways you have for us.
Recreate us into the family and individuals you have seen us as we pray the prayer Jesus taught us.
Blessing and Imposition of the Ashes
Almighty God, you created us out of the dust of the earth. May these dusty ashes be to us, O God, an acknowledgment of desire - of being honest about life. In these ashes of repentance may we see our forgiveness and acceptance, mercy and grace.
Should anyone be wondering about the space between postings, it is because I was granted a four week sabbatical. The flock was well-shepherded by the Rev. Dr. William Hirschfeld. As Dorothy said, "There's no place like home."
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.