05-28-17 Sunday Sermon
First Congregational Church
May 28, 2017
7th Sunday after Easter, Memorial Weekend
Psalm 146, Revelation 21
“The Abundance of Hope”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
I wonder if one of the reasons that so many Americans love Memorial Day is that - rightly or wrongly - it reminds us of a time when life seemed simpler - of Memorial Day parades and flags flying on the porch when it was called Decoration Day, and Victorian ladies, gentlemen and children on vintage postcards that generally included a waving US flag. As is so often the case, that is only the surface of this day, and when you dig a little deeper, there are layers to the holiday that can make the head spin - sort of like this very day.
Today, our worship includes the celebration of Education Sunday - a day we express our gratitude for the education that takes place in the lives of our young people - both secular and sacred - that will become part of the fabric of the future.
In addition to that, today we wind up a four-week sermon series on the Abundance of God. We started with the Abundance of God in Creation, went on to the Abundance of Grace, then the Stewardship of Abundance and today we, of course, wind up with the Abundance of Hope.
Regardless of the radio, tv or other media news stations you frequent, if ever there was a time to latch on to the idea of an abundance of hope, this would be it. The ironic thing is that I think that sentiment is true for almost every era in the history of this world. Our own human near-sightedness often succumbs to the weight of this ball (head) attached to our necks, and we can forget that the neck was created to move this same ball up and down and to the right and to the left. The beauty of this morning’s passages are perfect for exercising our neck muscles, so that we don’t become stiff-necked or sore-necked.
The passage from the Psalms is fairly straight-forward, but the passage from Revelation needs some ‘splaning before we get to it. There will be a word “stadia.” It is a unit of measurement roughly an eighth of a mile. The number of stadia in the Revelation to John - as the book is more properly called - is 12,000, which translates to 1,500 miles. In this Revelation - or prophetic vision - recorded as a letter to the “Seven Churches of Asia,” the writer describes a new world with a new, holy city, in the shape of a cube. In the Jewish tradition, one of the most holy shapes was that of a cube, and it was the shape - not only Ezekiel’s visions of a New Jerusalem and a new temple, but it was the actual shape of the Holy of Holies in Solomon’s Temple, built in 587 B.C. The perfect shape of a cube would be the perfect abode for the dwelling place of God. And the walls described in cubits is 65 feet.
Praise the Lord. Praise the Lord, my soul. I will praise the Lord all my life; I will sing praise to my God as long as I live. Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save. When their spirit departs, they return to the ground; on that very day their plans come to nothing. Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God. He is the Maker of heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them—he remains faithful forever. He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets prisoners free, the Lord gives sight to the blind, the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down, the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the foreigner and sustains the fatherless and the widow, but he frustrates the ways of the wicked. The Lord reigns forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations. Praise the Lord.
Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children. But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.”
The New Jerusalem, the Bride of the Lamb
One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. It shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. It had a great, high wall with twelve gates, and with twelve angels at the gates. On the gates were written the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. There were three gates on the east, three on the north, three on the south and three on the west. The wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.
The angel who talked with me had a measuring rod of gold to measure the city, its gates and its walls. The city was laid out like a square, as long as it was wide. He measured the city with the rod and found it to be 12,000 stadia in length, and as wide and high as it is long. The angel measured the wall using human measurement, and it was 144 cubits thick. The wall was made of jasper, and the city of pure gold, as pure as glass. The foundations of the city walls were decorated with every kind of precious stone. The first foundation was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, the fifth onyx, the sixth ruby, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth turquoise, the eleventh jacinth, and the twelfth amethyst. The twelve gates were twelve pearls, each gate made of a single pearl. The great street of the city was of gold, as pure as transparent glass.
I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it. Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.
Thank you, Reagan and Peyton. Although there are some people who believe that this very description will be the actual New Heaven and Earth, I would guess that most folks understand the passage as a symbolic representation of a point in the future. Whether real or symbolic, there is a hope that can be gleaned from a place so spectacular that darkness would no longer cause fear and precious gems are as plentiful as concrete, so opulent that giant pearls represent gates and gold is used as asphalt.
That’s pretty heady stuff, and it can seem limiting. Except in Jewish thought, this description of the new heaven and earth is not limiting, but perfection. It is a place where there will no longer be need for war or remembering those who have died, because God will have this place of perfection waiting for us.
It is easy to think, that if God has all this waiting for us, then we should be able to skate along until that time comes. Except that there are people here who need to hear such promise of hope, people who have no hope. We often think that those who are in need of such hope live in the deep, dark jungles or remote arid places of the world. But it may well be the person right next to you, the person who lives next door, or someone in your phone’s contact list, that needs the light of Christ shone on God’s abundance of hope. As Erica Schemper, creator of this idea of an abundance sermon series says, “Our call is to work alongside God and to allow God to work through us. We don’t get to rest on our laurels, waiting for Jesus to return. Each and everyone one of us has work to do.
The same God that created such an intricate, vast, mind-boggling world such as ours would, of course, have an amazing place waiting for us - whether made of gems and precious stones or something far beyond our ken. By and large, hope is not going to be found in a piece of paper with a scripture and message - what was known as a gospel tract. People aren’t really going to care if we give them a Bible or even invite them to church - although I hope you all are doing that any time the subject comes up. What will draw folks to look further at an abundance of hope is how we live our lives - what we do - with God - that will help them understand how differently life is when transformed by the message of hope, grace, abundance and the creation we now have - but made new.
As much as we look back, to remember and pay tribute to those who have served us in history, we do well to look forward to the time when the prophecies of peace and perfection and abundance and wholeness will be complete. For this moment, however, we have the honor of being in God’s presence, being one with and in communication with the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. So let us pray.
Great God, we are grateful for those individuals who have gone before us - all those who served you and us in all the many and varied ways this world offers. In our humanity, we sometimes forget to be grateful, so we ask for and thank you for your forgiveness. Thank you, most especially this day, for the amazing abundance with which you bless us - in mercy, blessings, hope, church family, our own families and every other profusion of goodness with which you shower us - even when our lives feel far from good or blessed. Thank you, too, for giving us examples and reasons to put our hope in you - as promise keeper and vision giver. For all the blessings with which you hallow us, all your people say, Amen.
05-21-17 Sunday Sermon
First Congregational Church
May 21, 2017
6th Sunday after Easter
Deuteronomy 24:19-22, John 12:18, Acts 4:32-37
“Stewardship of Abundance”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
A few years back Ole, Sven and Maynard decided to go fishing together one day after church. They’d been on the lake for a bit when Maynard said, “Gentlemen, would you please excuse me to answer the call of nature.” He then laid down his fishing pole, stepped over the side of the boat, and walked across the water to the shore. After he finished, he then walked back across the water to the boat.
Then Sven decided that it was his turn, so he stood up, stepped over the side of the boat, and walked right on top of the water to the shore. Like Maynard, Sven returned on the water - right back to the boat.
Ole was awestruck. Imagine — WALKING on water! He thought to himself, “well, if they can do this, so can I!” He excused himself to the Sven and Maynard, put his pole down, stepped over the side of the boat … and sunk like a rock. Sven turned to Maynard and said, “You think we should have told him where the rocks were?”
The three scripture passages for this morning come from three very different times, reflecting various periods of our spiritual heritage. The Deuteronomy passage is from the time after the Hebrew enslavement in Egypt and after the Israelites 40 year hike through the desert. It is a Moses-written record containing historical, socio–cultural and theological elements that were to prepare the people for entering into the Promised Land. It was basically a list of what to do and what not to do in order to live life well.
The second passage, from the gospel of John, seems almost too short to have been included, except that hopefully it will make some sense in the end. It is near the end of John’s version of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem; that first Palm Sunday in which people were willing to lay down what was available to them - coats, clothing, palms - in demonstration of their support of Jesus.
The passage from Acts was written roughly 30 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection and covers the history of the early followers of Jesus, before they were even identified as Christians. Peter is the featured character in the first 12 chapters, while Paul and his three mission trips are the main event in the last 16 chapters. This morning’s passage will begin, “All the believers.” That number - of men - was in the 5,000 range. It seems that the general rule of thumb in estimating the women and children is to at least double that figure. So Luke, the writer of Acts, is talking about 10,000-15,000, perhaps up to 20,000 people.
19 When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. 20 When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. 21 When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. 22 Remember that you were slaves in Egypt. That is why I command you to do this.
Many people, because they had heard that he had performed this sign, went out to meet him.
32 All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. 33 With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all 34 that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.
36 Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”), 37 sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.
Thank you, Shar. In this series of abundance, we’ve looked at the Abundance of God in Creation and the Abundance of Grace. In the creator of this series idea, Presbyterian pastor, Erica Shemper suggested that this week’s focus be on the Stewardship of Abundance. What I’ve appreciated about Ms. Shemper’s work is that there is no condemnation of abundance, especially in the abundance of our treasure. Instead, she’s focused on the abundance of that which is more valuable than mere money and treasure: creation, grace and how to treat such abundance.
A Sunday School teacher decided to have her second grade class memorize Psalm 23, one of the most quoted passages in the Bible. She gave the children a month to learn the chapter. One little boy was excited about the task, but he just couldn't memorize the Psalm. Although he practiced and practiced, he could hardly get past the first line. The day came for the children to recite Psalm 23 before the congregation. The little boy was nervous. When his turn came, he stepped up to the microphone and proudly said, "The Lord is my Shepherd and that's all I need to know!”
The Stewardship of Abundance is an interesting topic. In fact, if I didn’t need to be at the Baccalaureate service at 1:00, I’d contemplated bringing back the “post-worship” “sermon” discussion - to find out some of your thoughts on the dichotomy of abundance: use it or lose it.
I’m hoping that all of you have the chance sometime in the future - if it’s not happened already - to go into a great cathedral church, especially an older one with lots of stained glass windows and ceilings that go on up forever. It’s moving to stand in such a hallowed space, and contemplate not only all the individuals that had walked those aisles, but the blood, sweat, tears and money that it took to build such an edifice. It’s satisfying to think about those same things in regard to such places as this church home, too.
Regardless of the time in which such a building was constructed, there was a decision - to build or channel the money into missions: feeding the hungry, clothing and housing the poor. I remember standing in such an old church in St. Paul, MN, before I came here, reading one of their pamphlets, which stated that they had a $5 million endowment fund or some such astronomical figure. And I remember thinking, if they just cashed in that money, they could do amazing things with it.
To be honest, I struggled with the gift that was given to us by Joe and Ruth Deacon a few years back. We could have spent all the money in mission giving, fixing the things that needed fixing around here, and even making some incredible gifts to this or that entity. I’m glad I kept my thoughts to myself on it, because through careful management of those funds, we’ve been able to do some amazing things using just 5% of the interest earned - which has thus far added up to nearly double the initial gift.
To make sure I give great monuments their due, I remember, somewhere in the dark areas of the grey matter, that Robert Schuller built the Crystal Cathedral, a seemingly impossible and wholy extravagant human endeavor, to make an example of the power of God to do great things when God’s people prayed and supported their prayers with God’s treasure.
Although we aren’t building a crystal cathedral and we don’t have other great projects going on at the moment, we still have the need to be mindful stewards of the abundance with which God blesses us. There are times in our lives when we have to pay more attention to such stewardship, but regardless of our times, there is an underlying point of which the passages from Deuteronomy and Acts reminds us: an assumption of abundance - even excess of abundance.
You can leave some grain at the edges of the fields, and you need not scrounge for every last olive, because there will be enough—and then some. The earliest Christians in Acts were able to live in community precisely because they were confident that there would be enough to go around.
Erica Shemper said it well, “Sometimes our messages about stewardship come from a place of anxiety. We feel that we need to take good care of our resources because we don’t have enough. Now, this is not to minimize very real concerns about the limits of a stressed environment or economy, nor is it a suggestion that we go out into the world with a naive optimism. But the correct Christian response to economic, environmental, or judicial disparity is not anxiety or even hoarding. Being good stewards does not mean that we put away more money than we can ever use, or amass … stuff* … in order to maintain the privileges that we have. The Christian response to injustice is to move forward with faith in God’s providence. There will be enough for everyone: God will find a way.
At the risk of being misunderstood, I appreciate the passage from Deuteronomy because it doesn’t promote a simple handout, although I’m not saying that simple handouts are bad. Sometimes they are needful. But leaving sheaves of grain, olives on branches and grapes in the vineyard requires an individual to go out and harvest them. It maintains an attitude of simplicity, honor and honesty in doing our own jobs to provide for our families.
I appreciate the passage from Acts that gives us a glimpse into a way of life that worked when they people prayed not for protection or safety or a comfortable life, but for boldness. And yet, while prayer was supremely important and the witness of words was supremely important, the culmination was love of the brotherhood.
Commentator William Barclay pointed out that “We must note one thing above all--this sharing was not the result of legislation; it was utterly spontaneous. It is not when the law compels us to share but when the heart moves us to share that society is really Christian.” Please understand, I’m not trying to make any political statement here. I am, however, suggesting that we examine our motivations.
Bob Deffinbaugh of Community Bible Chapel in Richardson, Texas reminds us of Jesus’ parable from the book of Luke, “Now suppose one of you fathers is asked by his son for a fish; he will not give him a snake instead of a fish, will he? Or, if he is asked for an egg, he will not give him a scorpion, will he?” (Luke 11:11-12).
“The response of this man to the request made of him is not the response of a generous man; it is the response of a father. Being a part of the family is what makes the difference. The early church looked upon themselves as a family, and they lived like a family. Thus, if one member of the “family” had more than enough possessions and other members had less than enough, it was natural to share these possessions within the family. “Private property” is viewed differently within the family than without.
“Ownership of property still remained, but the claim to ownership was relinquished. That is, one owned his possessions, but he gave up that ownership the moment it became evident another member of the family required them.
So we are all reminded that our own, individual stewardship of abundance needs attention from time to time. Even though, through the stewardship of Mr. and Mrs. Deacon, we have been able to remodel a great number of items around the church, send several kids to camp and help the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow (in Deuteronomy’s language), God’s ministry through this little church needs our stewardship of abundance. While the Deacon’s gift has allowed us to do some great things, we all have the unglamorous, yet incredibly honorable task of contributing to the family so that we can keep the doors open, the lights and heat on and the steeple pointing to heaven. It’s what we do in our personal lives, in our corporate lives and even in our spiritual lives. For such a holy mission, we are wise to pray.
Gracious God of Abundance and then some, we thank you for all with which you gift our lives: from the honor of good work, to the ability to help the family when we can, we are grateful. We confess that sometimes we forget that all that we have is really yours, so forgive us when we are greedy when we don’t need to be. Guide each of us this week to be aware of our jobs as stewards of your abundance, that we do our work wisely and well. Help us, to be humble in such endeavors, that our work not point to us, but to you and what we, as your people, are able to do because of and through you. For all the blessings with which you bless us, all your people say, Amen.
05-14-17 Sunday Sermon
First Congregational Church
May 14, 2017
John 4:5-30 & Romans 5:6-11
“Abundance of Grace”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
It wasn’t any of the teachers here, but one day, a Sunday school teacher asked Ole if they said prayers before eating in their home. Ole said, “No, ma’am, we don’t have to. My mom’s a good cook.”
Then there was little Doug who was talking to his best buddy, Dan. Doug said, “I think my mom’s getting serious about straightening up my room once and for all.” Dan said, “How do you know?” Doug said, “She’s learning to drive a bulldozer.”
This morning’s sermon is the second of four in a series on abundance, which sort of balances a series we had on “fear” during Lent. Last week, the focus was on "The Abundance of God - in Creation.” It’s interesting that this morning’s topic of the abundance of grace happens to coincide with Mothers Day, although it started only as a coincidence and seems to have turned into a God-cidence.
5 So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.
7 When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” 8 (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)
9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)
10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”
11 “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?”
13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”
16 He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”
17 “I have no husband,” she replied.
Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. 18 The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”
19 “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”
21 “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”
25 The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”
26 Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.”
The Disciples Rejoin Jesus
27 Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?”
28 Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, 29 “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” 30 They came out of the town and made their way toward him.
6 You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
9 Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! 10 For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! 11 Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
Thank you, Bill and Molly. A lot of folks get the idea of “grace,” even if they don’t really know its definition. As a verb, it is honoring someone or something by one’s presence. A person is definitely graced if my cat deigns to make an appearance to anyone that comes in the house. As a noun, it is simple elegance or refinement of movement - the stuff that I am often lacking when I trip on air. In Christian belief, it is the free and unmerited favor of God, as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings. If the apostle Paul had had that definition, he could have saved himself a whole lot of effort in writing the 16 chapters that make up one of the great books of the New Testament.
“Dear Romans, Here’s the deal. Grace is the free and unmerited favor of God, as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings. Go think and live on that. Your friend, Paul. Instead, after stating his credentials, Paul started his letter “To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be his holy people: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.” That phrase alone could offer a month of Sundays in theological discourse.
Grace to you. Because the Gospel writers weren’t standing there with notepads or recording devices, perhaps that is how Jesus greeted the woman from Samaria. Grace to you. Jesus didn’t have to leave God and all that is glorious. But he did - for you - because of the grace Jesus had, has and always will have through and because of God. If you were the only person in the entire world, God would have still sent Jesus to show you what grace and love and mercy. If we all left now, that is a huge amount of grace to contemplate and ruminate and envision pouring on to you like the head in your shower. Except not those little tiny shower heads that get caked up with calcium and actually hurt when they spit at you. We’re talking about those fancy rainfall shower heads here.
We know that God’s lavish grace of truth and forgiveness and mercy changed the Samaritan woman’s life. Hopefully, to one degree or another, we all get that God’s grace on us and for us is huge, unending, eternal, of cosmic proportions bigger than that which we can wrap our brains around.
Life can be hard sometimes, and it may not seem like God’s grace is all that abundant. But we get free rides around the sun every year. (Well, maybe they’re not so free, but just go with me here.) We get to watch babies grow into young adults and see how they go on to make their mark in the world. We get to watch the environment around us change and morph and we get sunrises and sunsets that rival any artist. Regardless of what goes on around us, God’s grace surrounds us abundantly.
Like the Samaritan woman, God’s abundance of grace is more than we can carry around in our own earthen jars. It was never really a point that stuck out before, but did you catch that she left her empty earthen jar with Jesus when she did what? She “went back to the town and said to the people, ‘Come, see.’” When we realize the enormity and grandeur of God’s grace to us as individuals, it’s hard sometimes to contain. It can ooze out to those around us and our joy becomes a “come see” God’s grace. In those instances, the Abundance of God’s grace becomes even more abundant.
The definition of reconciliation is “the restoration of friendly relations.” God’s grace restores our relationship to God. When God’s grace plays a part in reconciling other peoples’ relationships to God, we get first hand understanding of how the Abundance of God’s grace is so much greater than we realize.
But that’s also the place where the Abundance of God’s grace can become uncomfortable. Because if God’s grace is abundant to me - to you - then it’s abundance is relevant to every person. And the fine point of God’s grace comes down to this: either it’s limited or it’s for everyone. Either there is no grace at all, which is becoming less of a reality all the time - just from the standpoint of science - or God’s grace is abundant enough for everyone - no limits on enough to go around.
It’s easy to read John 4 and embrace God’s personal abundant grace. And it’s easy to see how Romans 5 relates to us. And it’s understandable how God’s grace can spill over on to those around us or those we love. But it becomes irksome when those passages apply to those people with whom we don’t see eye to eye or those who have done truly despicable things.
Be careful that you don’t hear those words as excuses for people that do bad things or bad events that happen in life. Those issues still carry their own sorrow and hurt. But there are no people who are beyond redemption - in God’s heart. Because God’s heart is in our heart, we live best when we try to forgive and still hold accountable. Like the idea of a good mother, God loves all God’s children just the same, even when the kids draw on the walls with color crayons or throw garbage all over the kitchen or jump in a mud puddle with their brand new Sunday clothes.
Erica Shemper, the Presbyterian pastor and composer of this abundance series said that the Abundance of God’s Grace is a hard thing to preach, and boy is she right. She also asked the question, “Are there people we think of as beyond redemption? She also suggested that we ask God’s Spirit for the strength and compassion to follow through on that answer. So let us do just that.
Holy Spirit, we know that there are people that we feel that are beyond the effort of redemption and reconciliation. We are reminded today that those are merely human thoughts, and not yours. So help us to draw closer to you, for the strength and compassion that you need of us to pray for those we’d rather not spend time thinking about, much less praying about - because we believe in - we have faith in the abundance of your grace being enough to not only fill us, but overflow our hearts, that others may share in the abundance of that same grace. Thank you for those whose understanding of such abundance has flowed into us, so that we may pass it along. And thank you for those whose understanding of your grace have inspired us to do great things for you. For the abundance of all your gifts, all your people say, Amen.
05-07-17 Sunday Sermon
First Congregational Church
May 7, 2017
4th Sunday after Easter
Genesis 1:24-31, Psalm 104:24-30, Matthew 6:25-34
“Abundance in Creation”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
God was sitting in Heaven one day when a scientist said, “Lord, we don’t need you anymore. Science has finally figured out a way to create life from nothing. In other words, we can now do what you did in the ‘beginning’.” “Oh, is that so? Tell me…” replied God. “Well”, said the scientist, “we can take dirt and form it into the likeness of you and breathe life into it, thus creating humans.” “Well, that’s interesting. Show Me. “ So the scientist bent down to the earth and started to mold the soil. “Oh no, no, no…” interrupted God, “Get your own dirt.”
During Lent, we traveled through a sermon series on fear: fear of the unknown, of circumstances, the unexplainable and the unmentionable. Somewhere around the same time I ran across the fear series, I stumbled on a series of ‘abundance,’ and the more I thought about it, the more that it seemed like the right ‘balance’ to the first series. So this morning, looking at the abundance in creation, it seems only right to start at the beginning, or near-abouts. Just one definition before the reading: a leviathan is a sea monster, identified in different passages with the whale and the crocodile or a thing that is very large or powerful, especially a ship.
24 And God said, “Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: the livestock, the creatures that move along the ground, and the wild animals, each according to its kind.” And it was so. 25 God made the wild animals according to their kinds, the livestock according to their kinds, and all the creatures that move along the ground according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good.
26 Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
27 So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
29 Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. 30 And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.
31 God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the sixth day.
24 How many are your works, Lord! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. 25 There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number— living things both large and small. 26 There the ships go to and fro, and Leviathan, which you formed to frolic there. 27 All creatures look to you to give them their food at the proper time. 28 When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are satisfied with good things. 29 When you hide your face, they are terrified; when you take away their breath, they die and return to the dust. 30 When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground.
25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?
28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
Thank you, Molly and Scott. When undertaking any topic, it’s always good to check the definition, because one just never knows what one doesn’t know. In checking the definition of abundance, I was surprised. It means what we usually think it means: “an extremely plentiful or over sufficient quantity or supply,” such as an abundance of grain. The second definition from dictionary.com is an “overflowing fullness,” as in abundance of the heart. The fourth definition from that website is from the areas of physics and chemistry, as in the number of atoms of one isotope of an element divided by the total number of atoms in a mixture of the isotopes - whatever in the world that means. Google added the definition in terms of solo whist: “a bid by which a player undertakes to make nine or more tricks.”
In one more little anecdotal bit of information, the word “abundance” has fallen out of favor in writing. Between the year 1800 and 2008, the use of “abundance” has fallen by two-thirds. I’m not exactly sure how that was determined, but it is definitely an interesting flavor to add into this abundance recipe.
Erica Schemper is the Presbyterian minister who put this series on abundance together, and her point for this first sermon is this: it is the Bible’s intention to teach us about God’s providence in creation. And she pointed it out beginning with the first scripture reading for this morning. Even in creating this world, God ensured that everything had the provision it needed before it was created. Before the world could be created, there had to be the separation of void and planet. Vegetation was created before birds so they would have something to eat when they would be created. The sun and moon and stars were not created until there was light with which they could shine. Before the created item, God provided what the item needed.
But there’s a problem with this idea of God’s abundance being in place before it is needed. And the problem lies in the fact that from our end of things, more often than not, it sure doesn’t look like God is in the business of abundance.
Reverend Grace Imathiu was born in Kenya and is the lead pastor at Community United Methodist Church in Naperville, IL. I’ve had the honor of hearing her preach, and she tells the story in a sermon she wrote 5 years ago, of when she was serving a church in Nairobi.
“Three young men came to my office. Although they were cheerful, they looked tired and wore out. Their tennis shoes were dusty and their clothes needed a wash. The first thing they asked when they came into my office was whether they could sing a verse of "Amazing Grace" in their language. They sang a cappella, in parts. It was so beautiful. Sounded like angel music, the kind of singing that tugs at the soul and brings tears to your eyes out of the blue. And then they told me their story.
They were university students from Rwanda, 23-year olds. Two of them had been medical students. When war broke out in their country, they had escaped with only the clothes on their back and the song in their heart. They had walked for weeks without a change of clothes with no place to sleep. They had often gone hungry, they said, and they had no clue where any of their family members and friends were.
(Now if this story were to end here, it would be downright sad and depressing. But as it is so often with God, the story didn’t end there.)
They said they had learned to be grateful for their life each day and they had begun singing "Amazing Grace" as a prayer as they walked. They had seen so much violence and death and cruelty that they could not find words to pray so instead they sang "Amazing Grace" as they walked and they said, "God knew and that was enough."
(If this story were to end here, it would be nice and happy, but perhaps a little shallow. But as is so often with God, the story doesn’t end there.)
On that afternoon in my office, these three young men had come to church asking for assistance. They said they had found a room to rent for eight U.S. dollars a month. They said they did not need beds; they would gladly sleep on the floor. They were asking our congregation to help them with a month's rent. Eight dollars and some money for food; a total of $12 a month. I asked the three students to come back in a few days so I could meet with the church leaders, and when I met my church leaders, they all agreed it was a great ministry.
(If this story were to end here, it would be interesting and perhaps a little inspirational, but still lacking in depth. But as is so often with God, the story doesn’t end there.)
But someone talked about the budget. Someone said $8 was not a lot, but if you multiplied by 12 months, the next thing you know, it would be impossible. And someone else suggested, “Let’s have a special project," they said. "Let's have a special offering. Let's tell the congregation about the situation, have these young men sing one Sunday morning, and whoever in the congregation is willing to help, could donate outside the usual tithing and offertory."
(If this story were to end here, it would be a little hopeful and perhaps a little thought-provoking. But as is so often with God, the story doesn’t end there - and it gets “sticky.”
The church leaders talked late into the night. Some were even concerned that so many refugees were in the city that the word would spread our church was involved in paying rent and buying groceries and we would be swamped with needs. Some wanted to keep church and revivals only a spiritual level. No picnics, no food, no dinner.”
(If this story ended here, it would be a political issue that could tear any church apart. But as is so often with God, the story doesn’t end there.)
Grace finished the story with this. “As I listened to my church leaders, I learned so much about the myth of limited resources. We often think there's just enough for some of us. Some have to go without. We're worried we'll run out, but guess what? God's world has enough for all of us. Someone has put it well, saying, "There is enough for all our needs, but there is not enough for all our greed."
And isn’t the abundance of God the story of Jesus and the feeding of the 5,000? The disciples came from the perspective of limited resources. They wanted to send everyone away, to eliminate the need. And Jesus said, “You give them something to eat.” They complained that they had just “five loaves of bread and two fish.” And Jesus said, “Bring them here to me.” “Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves.” How many other times have we seen Jesus do that very same thing with bread, breaking it and giving it out as he illustrates God’s abundant love and grace and mercy?
The bottom line of an abundance versus a limited world view lies in the view. When we view the life of this world, our human tendency is to see the enormity of issues and the limitations, which is true of our spiritual, mental, physical, private and corporate lives. When Jesus views the life of this world, he brings the power of God into the equation. And most times, God has already provided the resources, if after managing our treasure well, we know where to look. As we go about our business this week, let us go with the glasses of abundance, especially the abundance of creation. As the leaves open and fill the landscapes, let us be reminded how God does that all the time, when we remember to look at the world through God’s eyes. So shall we pray.
Glorious, Provider and Giving God, we thank you for the myriad of gifts with which you bless us: from the perfect combination of molecules that is the air we breathe to the rich relationships we have - with you, with each other and with this world. Sometimes we’re not so good at taking care of that which you give us: emotions, people, the environment. So forgive us and inspire us to do better with all your gifts and blessings. Accept our gifts of gratitude, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant. Use our gifts to you to further your kingdom, that we might all become better at living out of your abundance. And all your people say, Amen.
04-30-17 Sunday Sermon
First Congregational Church
April 30, 2017
3rd Sunday after Easter
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Sam, a business man was driving home after a long sales trip and saw a hitchhiker with a cow. Sam finally stopped and the hitchhiker approached the window and said, "Will you give me a ride to Denver Sir?"
Sam said, "I don’t mind, but you will have to leave your cow here.” "No Sir," the hitchhiker said. "I will just tie her to the back of the car, and I promise you sir, she will not slow you down. I Promise."
The business man was reluctant, but he was dying for company, so he agreed. The hitchhiker was elated and tied the cow to the back bumper. They started out and Sam took the car up to 10 miles an hour, he looked in the mirror and the cow seemed to be trotting along, just fine. 20 mph, 30 mph, 40 mph: didn’t phase the cow. The hitchhiker looked over to Sam and assured him that the cow would be fine, not to worry.
Sam took the car up to 55 mph and still the cow was looking very comfortable. Now Sam was getting a little frustrated by this cow who could keep up with his car. Sam watched the speedometer go to 65, 75 and finally 90 mph.
Sam looked back and finally the cow seemed tired, “Yes! Finally.“ said Sam. "What is the matter?" the hitchhiker asked. "Your cow seems tired, her tongue is sticking out," Sam said. "Is it sticking out on the left, or the right?" the hitchhiker asked. "The left side," Sam said with a smile. "Well," the hitchhiker said, "You better pull over, she is trying to pass you.” And the hitchhiker had kept his promise.
It’s always fascinating to me when I read a scripture passage I know I’ve read before, and how in this present reading, one word seems to stick out more than others. When I read the passage from Luke 24, the word “kept” seemed to come right off the page.
It’s an interesting word, kept, and there is more than one meaning for it, although we may not often think of them in that way. One of the definitions I came across said that as an adjective, having the expression of principles, ideas, etc., controlled, dominated, or determined by one whose money provides support: a kept press; a kept writer. There is the negative connotation of a “kept” woman, although we never hear of a “kept” man, and the opposite of “kept” is “release.”
13 Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. 14 They were talking with each other about everything that had happened. 15 As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; 16 but they were kept from recognizing him.
17 He asked them, “What are you discussing together as you walk along?” They stood still, their faces downcast. 18 One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, “Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?”
19 “What things?” he asked. “About Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. 20 The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; 21 but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place. 22 In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning 23 but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. 24 Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they did not see Jesus.”
25 He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.
28 As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus continued on as if he were going farther. 29 But they urged him strongly, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them.
30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. 32 They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”
33 They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together 34 and saying, “It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.” 35 Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread.
We don’t know who the two men were, except the name of the one called Cleopas, and maybe their identity isn’t so important. But what is interesting is that in all four gospels, all 89 chapters, only five chapters give us post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. 5.5% of the most sacred of our texts deal with the most miraculous part of our faith. And in that 5.5%, at least 514 men - not counting the women - witnessed this most miraculous, most incredible, most important hinge of our faith, and somehow, I’d suspect, we spend far less than 5.5% of our time thinking about those appearances. Hmm.
When the description begins, and Jesus came up and started walking with them, Luke says that the two walkers were “kept” from recognizing who he was. I wonder if there are any others here that find that a somewhat disturbing phrase.
If they were “kept” from recognizing Jesus, then it implies that “someone” was preventing them - had a control over them, and that doesn’t seem very much like how I’ve come to understand God; maybe you, too.
One of Christianity’s foundational theological tenants is that of free will. God gives each of us the mind and the heart to discover who God is and the freedom to determine to what extent we are willing to live our lives for that very same God. Being “kept” from seeing Jesus doesn’t seem like God was giving the two walkers much freedom that day. And if that is true, then would God be doing the same with us, keeping us from seeing certain things? The answer has to be yes, but the reason behind it, the cause of the “keeping” makes all the difference.
The reason that God would “keep” us from seeing or understanding falls into two basic categories - in my mind - to be a mean bully or a wise educator. The Bible - and life - seems to paint a lot of pictures of God as a mean bully - allowing innocent people, righteous people to die or suffer horrible things. If this is one’s perspective of God, there is little room for grace and mercy, not mention things like deep understanding and ownership of faith.
But if God were being a wise educator that day, and God “kept” the walkers from initially recognizing Jesus, what would the purpose be? Likewise, if God keeps us from recognizing Jesus walking with us, what purpose would there be in that?
I think a part of that answer lies in what took place later that day, when they were at the bed and breakfast, and Jesus broke the bread - so like he broke the bread on his last night with the disciples. Jesus’ revelation could have happened in so many other ways, but it took place in the coming together of action and understanding - in the walkers’ own minds and hearts. And once understanding like that takes place in us, it changes our world view.
We can explain and explain and explain how to tie a shoe, but slow demonstration makes it last forever. Memorizing multiplication tables usually takes a fair bit of time. But once it happens, we discover endless ways that they effect our lives - from restaurant tipping to gas mileage to figuring out the percentage of gospel chapters given to accounting Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances. ;)
Another important part of this passage lies in what was “unkept” - the disappointments. The walkers had hoped that Jesus would be the one who was going to redeem Israel. They and a vast number of other people had put all their bets on this one guy, Jesus. And it seemed as if he had failed them all.
He’d been dead for three days - the almost “other worldly” number of days dead that meant really dead - no hope of coming out of a coma - if that would have been the case. And the cherry on top? The tomb was empty! Not just one bad piece of news, but three pieces of bad news - three pieces that really said failure, disappointment and utter loss of hope.
At the Ministerial Association meeting the other day, we were talking about the idea of doubt - and that doubt was not necessarily a bad thing - especially when it results in greater faith. In many ways, disappointment is not necessarily a bad thing, especially when it results in greater faith.
Jesus doesn’t automatically wipe away disappointment, and it will always be a part of our lives as long as we live on this earth. But Jesus walks with us, as he did with the walkers that day, even if we aren’t able to recognize him as such. And when we do recognize Jesus walking with us - from the depth of ingenious complexities of ants and body cells to the breadth of human diversity to the height of galaxies and systems so beyond our ken - then we come to understand that God is truly not a mean bully but the wise teacher that allows us the freedom to learn and embrace such a God of complexity, extraordinary, intimate relationship.
When we sit with all those dimensions of greatness, words can seem a little diminutive, but we need to end this time of unparalleled eminence, so let us pray.
Holy One of Truth and Love, we thank you for your walk with us, when we are cognizant of it, and most especially when we forget it. We ask for your forgiveness for those times when we let disappointment overtake your presence, for when life seems too big and too heavy. We know that you understand how we feel and the reasons for our actions, but still, we do our best when we are honest with you. So help us, lover of our souls, to hold on to your hand, even when we can’t see it, even when we forget it’s there, reaching out to us. Thank you, too, for keeping things from us that could hurt us or hinder us from fully realizing the wonderment that surrounds a life permeated with your concern and care, love and grace. For these and all your blessings, all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.