First Congregational Church
April 28, 2019
Holy Humor Sunday
“Perplexities, Humor and Other Venues of Truth”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Author Jack Kornfield once said, “If you can sit quietly after difficult news, if in financial downturns you remain perfectly calm, if you can see your neighbors travel to fantastic places without a twinge of jealousy, if you can happily eat whatever is put on your plate, and fall asleep after a day of running around without a drink or a pill,…if you can always find contentment just where you are, you are probably a dog.” I love this quote, not just because it’s cute, but there is a theological underpinning that is so good.
For those who have been wondering, here’s the deal. During the 15th century, Bavarian churches celebrated Risus Paschalis, a Latin term which translates as God’s Joke, or the Easter laugh. The medieval church believed that Satan could absolutely not stand laughter. At least not genuine laughter. If you laugh at the evil one, the evil one has no power over you.
Sometimes called Bright Sunday, it is said that originally, priests would sit around on the day after Easter, smoking cigars, drinking cognac, and laughing at God’s final joke on death, evil and Satan in the resurrection of Christ. Embracing the idea from the great Danish theologian, Søren Kierkegaard, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”, we celebrate Holy Humor Sunday on odd numbered years - because who wants to get into a rut? Since smoking is prohibited in public places, it would hardly seem worth the effort to celebrate communion with cognac today, she said tongue-in-cheek.
We have so many goofy expressions in our American language, from raining cats and dogs to barking up the wrong tree to not judging a book by its cover. No one is really sure of how it came to be, but I’m guessing that “pulling my leg” was not a phrase used by the ancient Greeks or Hebrews, in terms of scriptures usage. But perhaps there is a bit of “being fooled or teased” exaggeration in this morning’s scripture passage.
Jesus Appears to His Disciples
19 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.
21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
Jesus Appears to Thomas
24 Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”
But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!”27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”
28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
29 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
The Purpose of John’s Gospel
30 Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31 But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
Thank you, Mary. There is so much good stuff in this passage, we could spend a month of Sundays exploring them. But in light of today’s grand celebration, if the ancients had the term, I can easily see people, not in that locked room, hearing about Jesus showing up, and those folks responding with a “stop pulling my leg.” Or hearing about Jesus breathing the Holy Spirit on them, and the listeners responding with a “Holy Halitosis, Dude!” Or hearing about Thomas’ encounter with the risen Christ and responding with gales of laughter, thinking it was a joke or that maybe Thomas had a little more Passover wine that usual.
If nothing else, this first Sunday in Easter offers us an opportunity to take a look at our human behaviors and bring them into the light of levity, reality and Christ’s resurrection. It reminds us that even though we have a written account that has no need for doubt - as for Thomas - our human nature is rather doubtful and desirous of wanting or thinking we need to see and experience life our own selves. Living life vicariously through others is often just not good enough, especially if those others are long gone.
The reality is, however, that we don’t live in the time where the political chaos, just outside the walls of that room, were so explosive that the disciples weren’t just having a little get-together, they were hiding, in sorrow and fear for their lives because of their association with Jesus. We live in a time where we know that Christ triumphed over the grave, and yet, in all our humanity, we forget that sorrow and grief and the hard parts of life don’t have the last say. Or sadder still, sometimes we know the truth of the resurrection, but choose to stay in hopeless valleys of darkness.
This morning, this day that the Lord has made, is one in which we can step out of any such valleys into the light of healing and life. In this time, we get to sit in the joy of the Lord, in the gratitude of being able to see the humor of life, even if it is for such a short time. And when we leave today, we have the opportunity to be conscious of that light going with us into the coming week, to add the spice of our Christian witness in the living of Godly joy.
Besides, it wasn’t only 15th century monks, but the Bible itself tells us that there is a time for everything under heaven, including a time to weep and a time to laugh. 13th century St. Thomas Aquinas said that there is a time for “playful deeds and jokes.” The great Martin Luther said, “You have as much laughter as you have faith.” and the Reformation’s John Calvin pointed out that “we are nowhere forbidden to laugh.” The Methodist forefather, John Wesley made the point that “A sour religion is the devil’s religion.” Perhaps the greatest of all theologians, the great comic strip writer of Peanuts, Charles Schultz told us that “Humor is proof that everything is going to be alright with God nevertheless.”
“A hot air balloon was floating over the countryside when suddenly the people onboard realized they were lost. Below them they saw two people walking along a road so they lowered the balloon close enough to the ground to yell out to them. “Do you know where we are?” asked the balloonist to those on the ground. One of the two folks on the ground looked up and yelled back, “You are up in a balloon, in the air!” And with that, the wind caught the balloon and they sailed back into the sky.
A little later, after getting back on track, the balloonist told the passengers, “That person on the ground, he was a Congregational pastor.” “How do you know that?” asked the passengers.” “Well,” said the balloonist, “two reasons. First, what he said was absolutely true and, second, what he said was not helpful at all!”
A little boy opened the big family bible. He was fascinated as he fingered through the old pages. Suddenly, something fell out of the Bible. He picked up the object and looked at it. What he saw was an old leaf that had been pressed in between the pages. "Mama, look what I found", the boy called out. "What have you got there, dear?" With astonishment in the young boy's voice, he answered, "I think it's Adam's underwear!”
A pastor was speaking to a group of children about the resurrection of Jesus when one of the children asked, “what did Jesus say when he came out of the grave?” The pastor started to answer when one of the other children became very excited and said, “I know, I know what he said: He said, ‘Tahdah!’”
A nine-year-old theologian once explained that, “Despite the fact that Jesus preached to some Germans on the Mount, the Republicans and all those guys still put Jesus on trial before Pontius the Pilot, and they killed him. But he came back to life again, went up to Heaven, and will be back at the end of the Aluminum. In the meantime, we’re supposed to be kind to strangers because you never know when you might be entertaining angels in their underwear.”
A woman arrived at the Gates of Heaven. While she was waiting for Saint Peter to greet her, she peeked through the gates. She saw a beautiful banquet table. Sitting all around were her parents and all the other people she had loved and who had died before her. They saw her and began calling greetings to her "Hello - How are you! We've been waiting for you! Good to see you."
When Saint Peter came by, the woman said to him, "This is such a wonderful place! How do I get in?" "You have to spell a word," Saint Peter told her. "Which word?" the woman asked. “Love." The woman correctly spelled "Love" and Saint Peter welcomed her into Heaven.
About a year later, Saint Peter came to the woman and asked her to watch the Gates of Heaven for him that day. While the woman was guarding the Gates of Heaven, her husband arrived. "I'm surprised to see you," the woman said. "How have you been?"
"Oh, I've been doing pretty well since you died," her husband told her. "I married the beautiful young nurse who took care of you while you were ill. And then I won the multi-state lottery. I sold the little house you and I lived in and bought a huge mansion. And my wife and I traveled all around the world. We were on vacation in Cancun and I went water skiing today. I fell and hit my head, and here I am. What a bummer! How do I get in?” "You have to spell a word," the woman told him. "Which word?" her husband asked. “Czechoslovakia.” So should we all pray.
God of Joy and Sorrow and all our days, we are truly grateful for all the gifts you give us, and certainly for the gift of laughter. Thank you for the cause of any of our laughter - your triumph over death and sin. When it seems that those negative forces are winning the day, help us to remember that none of them have the final say in life - especially in the world to come. Help us to find the balance of genuine joy while acknowledging the brokenness of the world. Remind us that we don’t have to be a dog to find contentment in this world, that you are our peace and our stay. As the great Peter Marshall said, “Let’s not live another day as if Christ were dead.” And all your grateful people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
April 14, 2019
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
This morning, in preparation for the reading of the scripture passage, I encourage you to grab one of the bibles near you and turn to page 1631, so you can read along when we get there.
As we begin a week of holy details that make a lasting difference in the story of humanity, I ask you all, how many palms did each Jewish person wave in the air on that first Palm Sunday? Two each: their right hand and their left hand. I know it’s really bad, but really, truly, it was the only other joke I could find about this particular day, aside from the one I’ve shared before, about the little boy who had to stay home from church on Palm Sunday because he had a sore throat.
Those of you who keep track of these things will remember when the rest of his family returned home, they were carrying several palm fronds. Little Ole asked them what they were for. "People held them over Jesus' head as he walked by," his father told him. "Wouldn't you know it," little Ole fumed, "the one Sunday I don't go and Jesus shows up." That’s it. The only two Palm Sunday jokes out there.
While there aren’t so many jokes to grab your attention, there are a number of details that make it a richer Palm Sunday. In countries where palms are not native, other branches have been used, from box, olive, willow, and yew trees to pussy willows, so some places know this day as Branch Day. Because some traditions understand the day before Palm Sunday, to be the day Jesus raised his friend from the dead, yesterday is sometimes known as Lazarus Saturday.
In the Greco-Roman world, palm branches represented triumph and victory - think Olympic head wreaths, while in other places palms also represented goodness. In ancient Egyptian religions, the palm was carried in funeral processions and represented eternal life. In the Saxon regions of the Netherlands, crosses are decorated with candy and bread, made in the form of a rooster. In Poland, there are artificial palm competitions, the highest in 2008 being 109 feet. I think my favorite would be the practice from the Philippines, where a statue of Christ riding a donkey, or the presiding priest on horseback, is brought to the local church in a morning procession - and one picture I saw had the priest riding in the church. I could be all over the horse riding thing, if I knew how to ride a horse.
Luke 19:28-40 New Century Version (NCV), Jesus Enters Jerusalem as a King
28 After Jesus said this, he went on toward Jerusalem. 29 As Jesus came near Bethphage and Bethany, towns near the hill called the Mount of Olives, he sent out two of his followers. 30 He said, “Go to the town you can see there. When you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here to me. 31 If anyone asks you why you are untying it, say that the Master needs it.”
32 The two followers went into town and found the colt just as Jesus had told them. 33 As they were untying it, its owners came out and asked the followers, “Why are you untying our colt?”
34 The followers answered, “The Master needs it.” 35 So they brought it to Jesus, threw their coats on the colt’s back, and put Jesus on it. 36 As Jesus rode toward Jerusalem, others spread their coats on the road before him.
37 As he was coming close to Jerusalem, on the way down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of followers began joyfully shouting praise to God for all the miracles they had seen. 38 They said, “God bless the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Psalm 118:26 There is peace in heaven and glory to God!”
39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, tell your followers not to say these things.”
40 But Jesus answered, “I tell you, if my followers didn’t say these things, then the stones would cry out.”
Thank you, Sharon. Getting back to the idea of details, if you are a retired or current clergy person, you may not answer this question. For everyone else, what do you notice about this passage? What strikes you as odd? No palms, no children, no hosannas.
Thank you for your answers! In one of the earlier episodes of the TV series M*A*S*H the doctor known as “Trapper” gets diagnosed with a stomach ulcer. Although initially upset about having to deal with a hole in his gut, Trapper soon beams with joy when his bunkmate Hawkeye reminds him that according to Army regulations, Trapper was going home! His ulcer was his ticket out of the misery of the Korean War.
As the episode progresses, they arrange a farewell party for Trapper. But minutes before Trapper shows up for his party, he is informed by the Company Clerk, Radar, that the Army had recently changed its regulations and his ulcer would have to be treated right there in Korea.
Trapper goes to the party anyway and allows the hilarity, festivity, and joy of the evening to proceed for a good long while until he’s asked to give a final speech, at which time he tells everyone the truth: he’s not going anywhere after all.
Throughout the party, both Trapper and Radar have a look in their eyes that betrays the truth, if only anyone had looked close enough to notice. Trapper smiles and even laughs during the party at times but it’s a bit muted and the sadness in his eyes tells the reason why: it’s a nice party but it’s not going to end the way he had hoped or the way all the other partygoers were anticipating.
I wonder if the stripping down of the eventful entry into Jerusalem is intentional by Luke, so as to get us to look at Jesus’ eyes during that crazy little event amidst the even crazier larger political event of Passover. Passover was that day that celebrated Jewish independence from Egypt. We’re talking Fourth of July celebrations here. It was also the day of celebrating the parting of the Red Sea - that stopped enemy soldiers following in attack, God’s blessing of the Jewish people in the giving of the commandments and the eventual occupying of Canaan. More than political, it threatened revolution, which is perhaps partly why Pontius Pilate left his comfortable palace in Caesarea Maritima for provincial, backwater Jerusalem - to ride herd over the celebrations.
We shouldn’t forget that mixed into all that political quagmire was the Jewish hope for someone, anyone, a Messiah-one who would come to set the people free from the imperialism of human and financial burdens that the Romans placed on them. Over 500 years before Jesus came along, Zechariah had prophesied that there would be one who would come in the “name of the Lord,” and wasn’t that what Jesus had been saying who he was for over the last three years?
Against the backdrop of all that, if you or I had been riding into Jerusalem that day, knowing what Jesus knew, I wonder what people might have seen in our eyes. What would we hope people would see in our eyes? Would people even notice the probable fear, sorrow, betrayal and anticipatory pain, not just in our eyes, but in our body language and on our face?
Part of the reason I asked you to think about this last thought is to get all of us to not just understand but to more embrace the idea that whatever it is that we face, Jesus gets us, gets the real crappy parts of human life, as well as the good stuff.
I know that there are people who think of Jesus as just a good teacher and a moral leader, and okay. But he’s not apart from us, but of us. He understands how hard it can be to be dying on the inside while trying to hold it together on the outside. He understands how hard it can be to try to control tears while others are singing joyous songs of praise around him. And he understands that just because something is hard doesn’t mean that it is okay to avoid the pain that will take place in the going through, because at the end, there is the hope and joy and promise of a time when pain and sorrow will be replaced with joy and glory that is beyond our comprehension.
Good ol’ Scott Hoezee of Calvin Seminary put it superbly. “Joy for Christian people is a last feeling, not a first. Christian joy is refined and thoughtful because it has passed through death.” Perhaps the writer of Luke allows us to see the darker side of this day not because it so Lenty, but because there is such deep hope in it - even joy because we know that the story doesn’t end here.
In the version we heard a few minutes ago, the crowd was shouting, “God bless the king who comes in the name of the Lord! There is peace in heaven and glory to God!” (Side note, when Luke was writing about the birth of Jesus, he wrote that the angels were singing, “Give glory to God in heaven, and on earth let there be peace among the people who please God.” That peace is what happens when we realize that there is nothing in this world or the world to come that will change the depth and length of Christ’s love for us - or God’s - or the Holy Spirit’s love for us.
When the Pharisees told Jesus to tell the crowd to shut up, he told them “If my followers didn’t say these things, then the stones would cry out.” That phrase caught my brain this week. What would it take, what would it look like, what would have had to have taken place that the stones would proclaim this depth of love, because human beings couldn’t or wouldn’t? Maybe a zombie attack or an apocalypse? Nuclear bombs lobbed by too many enemies, she suggested darkly? I know it sounds rather facetious, but seriously, what would the world look like if stones were the ones shouting “God bless the king who comes in the name of the Lord! There is peace in heaven and glory to God!”?
For kicks and giggles, I got to thinking about the rocks and the stones, non-living things, but not just the little pail of stones at the back door or sitting in the garage waiting to be put into service someplace. Part of that wonderment was because Stephan Garnaas Holmes had some prayers this week that included stepping stones and stumbling blocks, a dream stone as in Jacob’s pillow, tablets of stone as in commandments, the stone that was rejected, that stone that was rolled away from the tomb. Which of course, took me on a mental tour of Stonehenge, Easter Island, the Rocky Mountains and the Grand Canyon and that crazy Stone Forest in Shilin, China. As a sad testament to humanity’s failure, there is still hope in these and others singing God’s praises.
We aren’t stones, we’re humans, with hearts that can be happy and sad and sorrowful and silly and whatever state our heart is in, God holds it precious - holds you precicous. As precious as the heart God held when he turned to face an immediate future that none of us will ever experience - for us.
That heart will walk with us, look at life with us, face what we will face, and will not turn away from us. Christ didn’t just die and go back to heaven for a big reunion. He went through what he went through so that we would know we are not alone, ever. That we are loved, forever. And that none of that will change, ever.
For this day of love, let us pray. God of Life and Love, we thank you for your love, of which you give us a glimpse through your Son and our Savior. Truth be told, we don’t have enough thanks, ever, to express our full gratitude. So enable us to act out some of that gratitude in the way we live. Be present with us when there is hurt and give us your risk in loving those who are hard to love. Give us your thoughts and your voice in the way we treat strangers. Give us your courage when we have to ask for forgiveness and your mercy when we have to forgive. Redeem our fickleness and give us joy, even before road bumps and stumbling blocks, knowing that we will have joy again. Bless our brokenness and transform evil, not that we might have happy lives, but that we might resist the need for rocks to assume jobs that are rightfully ours. Enable us to live in your revolutionary love in all confidence that is possible. And may we live into all that you have ever seen us to be, as all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
April 7, 2019
5th Sunday in Lent
“Scandalous Mistaken Intentions of Glory”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
One day a frog hopped into a bank to try to get a loan. He asked to see a loan officer and was told to see Patty Black. She gave him the appropriate papers, and when the frog was finished filling them out she looked them over.
"Mr. Frog, everything seems to be in order, except that you have not listed any collateral. Do you own a house?" "No," he croaked. "What about a car?" she asked. "No," he replied again. "Well, I'm sorry, Mr. Frog, but you must have something of value to put up as collateral in order for me to give you this loan."
The frog thanked her and promised that he would return with something to use as collateral. The next day the frog hopped back to the bank, carrying an odd-looking figurine of some sort and showed it to the loan officer. "I would like to use this as collateral for my loan," he croaked.
She looked it over and replied, "I'm not convinced that this is valuable enough for a loan of this amount." "But this is an antique!" the frog protested. "It has been in my family for generations!"
The loan officer, sensing the frog's sincerity but knowing very little about antiques, took the item to her the head of the loan department. "Sir," she said, "there is a frog out here who wants a loan and the only thing he has to offer for collateral is this . . . THING, and I don't even know what it is. He claims that it's a valuable antique. What do you think?" The man looked it over carefully, then replied, "Why, it's a knickknack, Patty Black, give the frog a loan!"
The place in the Bible called Bethany probably doesn’t mean so much to us modern-day Christians, other than it is often part of a name like Bethany Lutheran Church and Bethany Christian Services. The non-Hebrew word means something like House of Misery or Poor House. According to the New Testament, it was home to a number of rather well-known folks, like Simon the Leper, Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus. Because Bethany was just two miles from Jerusalem, there were probably a fair number of tombs and graves between the two towns, as Jewish people didn’t bury their dead within city limits, so you could say that death was in the air.
John 12:1-11 Jesus Anointed at Bethany
1 Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2 Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. 3 Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
4 But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, 5 “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” 6 He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.
7 “Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. 8 You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”
9 Meanwhile, a large crowd of Jews found out that Jesus was there and came, not only because of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 10 So the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well, 11 for on account of him many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and believing in him.
Thank you, Jim. The other day, I was thinking about this passage, and wondered, what if verse 7 was omitted? What if we were left with “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages?” Reading any amount of scripture, sitting in any number of church services, we can readily pick up the point that Judas was a man with plenty of issues. Why did the writer of John feel the need to add the indictment of character?
In this season of reflection, hopefully not only myself, but all of us, are a little more aware of that which we don’t need to say - as much as being aware of the things that we need to say. If for no other reason, the writer of John reminds us that while truth is valuable, prudence is priceless.
In Tennessee Williams’ play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, one of the characters keeps saying over and over to the character of Big Daddy that you can just smell “the mendacity in the air.” This was a play with many layers of deception and lying and it became so very palpable to some of the characters that it was as though the air was filled with mendacity, with lies. You could smell the untruthfulness that was afoot.
In John 12, a little mendacity melds with the ironic smell of death. It’s ironic because being raised on the fourth day, one would certainly have thought Lazarus would be a little pungent, as they say. It didn’t even matter how long it was since Jesus had raised his friend, the miracle lingered, clinching the case against him as far as the religious authorities were concerned. If they let Jesus keep doing this kind of thing, there’d be no stopping him and the scandal would be outrageous.
Not only was mendacity and death swirling in the air that day, but so were politics. It was taboo for a man to be touched by a woman, and if he did, ceremonial cleansing would need to take place before moving on with his day. And the feet were as suggestive as other private parts of human anatomy.
On top of that, a woman’s loose hair was perceived as being sensual by men in Galilean culture, as it is still true in some segments of present-day society. She “wasted” costly perfume, anointing the one called The Messiah, a Hebrew word meaning “anointed.”
Naval engineer, Richard A. Jones, was trying to make a meter devise to monitor power on naval battleships. While working with tension springs, one of them fell to the ground, bouncing from place to place, giving birth to the Slinky.
Sir Alexander Fleming was a scientist who was trying to make a “wonder drug” that could cure diseases. When his experiments weren’t working, he threw them all away, eventually noticing a contaminated Petri dish that contained a mold that was dissolving all the bacteria around it. We now know that bacteria as penicillin.
Electrical engineer, John Hopps, was trying to use radio frequency heating to restore body temperature. Somehow, during his experiment he realized if a heart stopped beating due to cooling, it could be started again by artificial stimulation. This realization led to the pacemaker.
In all the chaos of the coming Passover, the rather recent raising of Lazarus, the excitement of having good friends come together for a meal, the static within the conversation that included Judas, Jesus was setting about to create not just a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, but over time, he would reveal the scandalous mistakes of some intentions and turn them into glory - for God, for us, for all time. Before returning to his eternal home, Jesus turn the jeers and tears into hope and victory. But that’s not really new news.
This passage is also a story to encourage us not to save the good dishes only for special events, to hoard the blessings that have been bestowed on us, and to listen to that still small voice in each of us, to bless each other when the Spirit moves us, because who knows what we will all be facing tomorrow or six days down the road.
The man whispered, ”God, speak to me”. And a meadowlark sang. But the man did not hear. So the man yelled, ”God speak to me!” And the thunder rolled across the sky, But the man did not listen. The man looked around and said, ”God let me see you”. And a star shone brightly, But the man did not notice. And the man shouted, ”God show me a miracle”, And a life was born. But the man did not know. So, the man cried out in despair, ”Touch me God and let me know that you are here!” Whereupon God reached down and touched the man. But the man brushed the butterfly away and walked on.
Who knows if Judas could have seen the blessing that the burial nard represented, regardless of his history, had he looked a little deeper into what Mary did for Jesus. And to be fair to Judas, who of us would have been oblivious to Mary as a woman of sorrows, acquainted with grief?
I’m not suggesting that anyone go into hock in extravagant blessing. Although, if anyone is thinking about asking me to join them in the option of renting a yacht with full crew for seven days to make seven Caribbean ports of call, I might be available. Apparently, a family of four for this jaunt could have the whole thing for a cool $1.06 million. But just know that the onboard masseuse is extra.
We can’t escape death, and we can’t escape the poor. But we can all come closer to the glory of God - in our blessings and even our scandalous mistaken intentions when we take the moments to notice all that with which God blesses us. So let us pray.
Gracious God of Blessing, thank you for your son, and certainly for his sacrifice of love. Thank you, too, for all the stories and accounts - in the Bible - and out - that show us how to live into your glory. Forgive us when we say or fail to say the things that can bring blessing to those who so need it. Help us to be prudent in our conversations and understanding of our actions, that we represent you to the best of our abilities. For all the blessings and love and joy and grace, all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
March 31, 2019
4th Sunday in Lent
Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Before launching yet again into another spectacular sermon that will be remembered for one reason or another, I ask all of you to make sure you have a little room next to you. You may need to move just a bit to give yourself a little elbow room. More on that later.
I know I’ve used this introduction before, but I think it’s been a long while. For those who remember it, perhaps, like scripture, you will hear something new in the telling today.
Every Friday night after work, Ole went over to Sven's for supper. They would fire up his outdoor grill outside of Duluth and cook some venison steaks. But many of Sven's neighbors were Catholic. And since it was Lent, they were forbidden to eat meat on Friday.
The delicious aroma of the steaks wafted over Duluth all the way to Esko. It caused such a problem for the Catholic faithful that they finally talked to their priest. The Priest visited Ole and Sven, and suggested that they become Catholic. After several classes and much study, the two attended Mass. As the priest sprinkled holy water over them, he said, "You were born Lutheran, and raised Lutheran, but now you are Catholic."
Ole and Sven's neighbors were relieved, until Friday night arrived. Once again the wonderful aroma of grilled venison filled all of Duluth. The Priest was called immediately by the neighbors. As he rushed into Sven's yard, clutching a rosary and prepared to scold his two new converts, he stopped in his tracks and watched in amazement.
There stood Ole with a small bottle of holy water which he carefully sprinkled over the platter of grilled meat held by Sven. Ole chanted: "You vuz born a deer, an' you vuz raised a deer, but now you is a walleye!"
Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus.2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3 Then Jesus told them this parable: (about the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin)
11 Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”
Thank you, Tom. This morning’s scripture passage is perhaps Jesus’ best story. It sits at the end of Luke’s 15th chapter, after the telling of two other parables about lost and found. It has been called the story of the Prodigal Son, although the word “prodigal” is not found within the passage. In fact, it’s a Latin word, first found in the Latin translation of the Greek originals. And if you look at the meditative thought at the top of the bulletin proper, Miriam Webster’s definition could be used in reference to all three men in today’s story: the younger son in his squander of resources, the older son in his poor use of opportunity and the father in his lavish love.
There are certainly a lot of details that make the story more poignant: remembering that the younger son’s job at a pig farm would be considered abhorrent to a Jew - one could not get any lower, that the younger son wasn’t just spending just his “own” money, but his father’s security, how undignified is was for an older man to lift his robes and run - for anyone or anything - and that it’s not about the younger son’s real change of heart, but about his hunger and desperation, even if it is all a bit cynical - still taking advantage of his father. In fact, as the Rev. Dr. James Howell of Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, NC, says, as a story about God’s Kingdom, it “isn’t about getting straight with God, but it’s about raucous delight, total joy.”
When I was trying to figure out if the Ole and Sven story had a place in today’s message, it struck me that we all are who we have always been - not venison or walleye, but beloved. It’s easy to get caught up in the poignancy of the story, forgetting that it is also a story about God’s kingdom, about all of us, having the free will to do what we want, getting to pay for our decisions, but always, forever and ever, being one of God’s dearly beloveds and always, always, welcomed back home, no matter what we’ve done.
One of the great spiritual writers, Dutch Catholic priest, professor, writer and theologian Henry Nouwen, wrote a sentence that grabbed my mind - and then my heart. He said, “Had I really ever dared to step into the center, kneel down, and let myself be held by a forgiving God, instead of choosing over and over again the position of the outsider looking in?” It was a response to a comment by Rev. Howell, but it got me to thinking: when was the last time I envisioned myself in that story - as the one coming home - after doing all the dumb things of which I am so thoroughly capable? When was the last time you did that?
In this season of reflection and confession, we might go down our lists of “God forgive me’s,” and “thank yous,” but do we take the moments - as many as are required - to just sit there, looking into the eyes of the One who is overjoyed with love for us - for you?
There was another pastor, a Rev. Joseph Graumann, Jr. of Saint Stephen Lutheran Church in Marlborough, Massachusetts, who was talking about the value of grace from an economic point of view. In a reflection from a college economics class, Rev. Graumann talked about grace in terms of supply and demand, and of the great principle: as the demand for something increases, all other things being equal, its price increases.
Graumann, referencing another great German pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, described Bonhoeffer’s idea that “cheap grace” is the disease by which the Christian comes to rest on their laurels. With cheap grace, a Christian is led to believe “the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing. Cheap grace produces no change of life, no discipleship, but rather becomes a throwaway commodity, an abundance of rotten apples.” Bonhoeffer contrasted cheap grace with costly grace, that which costs the Christian much, even their life, resulting in a counter-cultural living. Rev. Graumann suggested “I can hear the older brother yelling, “Cheap grace!” as he argues with his father.”
In making his point, Rev. Graumann said, “Prodigal grace is neither cheap nor costly but rather hyper-abundant. From the Magnificat to the breaking of bread in Emmaus, Luke announces that Jesus brings the world into God’s economy. This economy is not bound by the earthly laws of supply and demand, for one could argue that the demand of sin is eternally high. God foolishly and enthusiastically showers us with grace upon grace, believing like the parable’s father that our life is worth celebrating. Yet, in God’s world, that which is abundant remains extremely valuable; a precious gift.”
Graumann’s last point was that “the weekly churchgoer, faithful though they may be, may likely see themselves as the prodigal son, the forgiven one. However, their actions may be more like the older brother, preferring that the price of God’s love remain out of the reach of “those people.” In his concluding remarks he said, “Prodigal grace is priceless, lavished on those who can’t afford it. Prodigal grace offends the pious. Prodigal grace even forgives the bad joke at the end of an essay.” I say, now that’s an expensive grace!
No matter how, how often, if, when, where we miss the mark of God’s target for us, God doesn’t simply pat us on the back and say, “too bad.” Every time, every day, every moment, in every breath we take, God’s grace is trying to draw us back into the arms of love that is costly, priceless, beyond comprehension astounding. And how often we forget to “be” in that grace?
I suggest that you go find a place to “be” in that grace this week. Do it in the bathroom if you need a place out of sight of eyes that may think you a little off-plumb. Breathe in the Holy Spirit, and breathe out the distractions and their names: irritating individuals, offensive brain obsessions, would-a’s, could-a’s and shoulda’s. Breathe in the Holy Spirit, breathe out that which isn’t, and “be” with the Spirit - in all it’s grace and love and mercy and peace. I know it will be weird for some of you, but just try it. See what happens. I won’t cost you a thing except a few minutes of time.
To get you going, in a moment I will ask you all to close your eyes, so that you can use your arms and no one will feel goofy. I ask that when you breathe in the Holy Spirit, you use your arms to invite it into you, and when you name the thing to yourself that you are breathing out, you use your arms to not only flow out of you, but that you free it into the cosmos, trusting that God will take it from there - for the moment, at least. And repeat for as long as you need, until you are able to focus on the Holy Spirit without needing to remember to breathe it in.
So go ahead and close your eyes, and breathe in the Holy Spirit, and breathe out the most worrying thing on your mind at the moment, silently naming as you release it. Breathe in the Holy Spirit and breathe out the next thing that has been troubling you lately, silently naming it as you release it. Breathe in the Holy Spirit, and breathe out that thing that you know you should or shouldn’t have done, silently naming it as you release it.
Holy Spirit, Creator and Redeemer, silence our impudent minds and come into us. It is so easy to forget whom we have always been - your beloved. We forget that your joy is in us - all of us, broken and miraculous, human and beloved “us.” We forget there are no lost and founds in your kingdom, only love and love and more love. And grace. Loads of prodigal grace. With each breath, remind us of the magnitude of your love and grace - that spreads not only over the globe, but over all of time, before and into eternity. Enable each of us to live into such love and grace, not just in the coming week, but in all our days, as representatives of all you are to the world. For each and every blessing and grace and love, all your beloved say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.