First Congregational Church
June 30, 2013
6th Sunday after Pentecost, Sunday before Independence Day
Galatians 5:1, 13-18, 22-26
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
The nursery school teacher was aware that the Fourth of July was just around the corner, so she decided to take the opportunity to teach the class about patriotism. "We live in a great country," she said. "One of the things we should be happy is that, in this country, we are all free." Little Lena came up to the teacher after class, hands on hips and said, "I'm not free. I'm four."
A young couple came into the church office to fill out a pre-marriage questionnaire form. The young man, who had never talked to a pastor before, was quite nervous (if only he knew) and the pastor tried to put him at ease. When they came to the question, "Are you entering this marriage of your own free will?" there was a long pause. Finally, the girl looked over at the apprehensive young man and said, "Put down yes".
I try really hard to remember certain things as perfectly as when I once sat so tall on my high horse. Being so far removed from 1642, 1776, 1861, 1914, 1939, 1950, and all those since 2001, I wonder if we - as a nation - forget what those dates are really about - clumping them altogether under the patriotism banner. So while I was reminding myself of the fact that the Boston Tea party was about two-and-a-half years before the Declaration of Independence was signed, and that the Constitution came two years after the Declaration, I also found a couple of other interesting tidbits.
In the same year that the Constitution was signed, General George Washington marked July 4th with a double ration of rum for his soldiers and an artillery salute. That got me to thinking "what was a ration from that time?" Our friends, Inter and Net over there at the US Army Quartermaster Foundation said that a daily ration as 1 pound of beef, 6.8 oz. of peas (the official weight of a softball), a little over a pound of flour, 1.4 oz. of rice (the weight of glue in those mini bottles), 2 cups of milk, .1830 oz. of soap, (that's about the weight of three pennies), .0686 oz. of a candle (that's a shade less than the weight of a penny) and 1 quart of spruce beer. (Spruce beer is fermenting molasses and other sugars with the sap of spruce trees. Yum!)
The website also said "Compared with our present dietary requirements, this ration provided more calories, twice as much protein, (and) an adequate supply of all minerals and vitamins with the exception of vitamins A and C." I'm not sure how all those supplies got to the soldiers, but I'm going to bet that some of the veterans here today could fill us in on some of their "interesting" ration memories.
Part of the reason of sharing such valuable statistics with all of you is to remind us that the freedom we have to determine our own course as a nation is not as glamorous as the parade and fireworks of this coming Thursday. And even if we "get" the message of Independence Day being a big thing to our nation - not so much to Great Britain - we may be tempted to stop there. But this idea of celebrating freedom is much, much older.
Our Bible passage for this morning speaks well to the topic of freedom, most likely written sometime before 48 A.D. The apostle Paul was writing to various people in the church who were making trouble: causing confusion, agitating others, demanding that Gentile converts strictly observe Jewish Laws and practices. In fact, Paul was writing to people just like himself, before his conversion on the road to Damascus - a mere 10 years or so prior to this letter - as it will be read from Eugene Peterson's translation, The Message.
Galatians 5:1, 13-18, 22-26 The Message
Judy: 1 Christ has set us free to live a free life. So take your stand! Never again let anyone put a harness of slavery on you.
13-15 It is absolutely clear that God has called you to a free life. Just make sure that you don’t use this freedom as an excuse to do whatever you want to do and destroy your freedom. Rather, use your freedom to serve one another in love; that’s how freedom grows. For everything we know about God’s Word is summed up in a single sentence: Love others as you love yourself. That’s an act of true freedom. If you bite and ravage each other, watch out—in no time at all you will be annihilating each other, and where will your precious freedom be then?
16-18 My counsel is this: Live freely, animated and motivated by God’s Spirit. Then you won’t feed the compulsions of selfishness.
Michael: 22-23 But what happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.
Julie: 23-24 Legalism is helpless in bringing this about; it only gets in the way. Among those who belong to Christ, everything connected with getting our own way and mindlessly responding to what everyone else calls necessities is killed off for good—crucified.
David: 25-26 Since this is the kind of life we have chosen, the life of the Spirit, let us make sure that we do not just hold it as an idea in our heads or a sentiment in our hearts, but work out its implications in every detail of our lives. That means we will not compare ourselves with each other as if one of us were better and another worse. We have far more interesting things to do with our lives. Each of us is an original.
Thank you, Grant family readers. One of the things I love about this church family - and by the way - if you are here today - then you are family today. Anyway, one thing I truly love about this family is how sharp and quick people's minds are. I so wish we had time to see how you all might fit this into today's message.
Since 1916, Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest in Coney Island, Brooklyn, New York City supposedly started as a way to settle a dispute among four immigrants as to who was the most patriotic. Now just think about that while you're waiting in the grocery line next time!
But back to the point at hand. The whole of Galatians became the cornerstone of the Protestant Reformation - another "war" so-to-speak - that ended in the creation of a new "nation" of faith that was different from the Roman Catholic way of faith. This letter has been called the "Magna Carta of Christian liberty." For those who haven't had that history class, the Magna Carta was a document that King John of England was forced to sign in the year 1215, that limited his powers as a king, allowing for a parliament to govern the people.
Paul wrote this letter to remind the people that it wasn't certain individuals that had the power to decide how a person who decided to follow Christ's way was to act. Being so long ago, we don't always appreciate the idea that when Paul wrote this letter, the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John had not yet been formally written. All that people were going on in those days - for the most part - was what had been passed on from person to person. And if you've ever played "Post Office," you can understand how sometimes a message can be changed in the transferring.
In our recent book study on "When Bad Things Happen to Good People," we spent three weeks on "reframing" the oft asked question, "why has this (thing) happened to me?" In the end of the study, after allowing some of the emotionality of that question to settle down, the better question is, "Now that this has happened to me, what am I going to do about it?"
We might do a "reframe" of our scripture passage this morning. We tend to think that freedom - living a free life - allows us to do whatever we want, to do this or that, to live without rules or reigns on our actions or words - even our thoughts. Taken to the extreme, one could make an argument that these words from Paul exempt us from traffic laws and taxes or even our Constitution and Declaration of Independence. But that's not what Paul says in this part of his letter.
Paul's address is not in terms of "freedom to," but "freedom for" - serving others, loving, growing our abilities like the cherries and peaches and apples growing in the orchards around us this very moment. Instead of hoarding our realm of living free, look at the abundance that one tree produces, and in the gathering of the fruit for others, there is no diminishment to the tree. In loving other people, in serving them, we don't lose our supply of love. We are only able to give more love and service and growth as we give ours away.
Notice that Paul didn't say we had to like everyone. There's a world of difference in liking and loving, and we do well to remember that. So do we do well in remembering that our freedom for serving and loving and growing comes because Christ first loved us - before the foundations of the world - much less the foundations of our nation - came into being. As we are reminded of the sacrifice that Christ suffered on our behalf - long before we were born - so are we reminded today that his suffering was for our freedom.
So this week we will celebrate the freedom we have to determine our own path as a nation of imperfect people who have individual free wills. We can celebrate the freedom we have for serving others, even in the simplest of smiles, the freedom for loving others - who may feel not so much like a unique individual as a lone, lost soul, and the freedom for growing and admiring those who are good and interesting - having a unique, one-of-a-kind value. So let us pray to the very God who is all of that and so much more.
Gracious God, we thank you this day for the freedom we have as a nation. Thank you that even in all its imperfections, we have freedoms to do things like voting and paying taxes and working and all those things that are not so glamorous in day-to-day living. But more than that, God, thank you for creating us with the freedom for serving and loving and growing - even when life can overwhelm us, causing us to forget our high calling. We are grateful for all those who have given of themselves to help us be the people we have become. For all the blessings you so freely bestow on and to and for us - all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
June 23, 2013
5th Sunday after Pentecost
2 Corinthians 9:6-15
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
A number of years ago, I was attending a church back in Minnesota, and it was time for the annual pledge drive. It was really the first time that I had paid much attention to any sermon on money, and apparently it struck some chords, since I remember the gist of it all these years later. As I talked about that "sermon" and time with some folks around here, one person decided to respond by writing letter.
We are a most fortunate church family. Dedicated contributing members fund the operating expenses of our church. Your financial support of our church is greatly appreciated and of great importance to continue the day to day operation.
Unlike many churches, we do not ask for a formal pledge from our members but leave it to their own prayerful decision between themselves and God as to what amount will be given.
We have been asked, however, for some guidelines as to what is appropriate. A chart has been included in this newsletter only as an informational guideline. Each of us has our own personal budgets, responsibilities and agendas for the use of our income. Please understand this is only a suggestion and is being presented as a guideline.
We are so fortunate to have a generous investment account that enables our church to meet expenses for upkeep, religious education, community outreach and missions. No monies from the investment account, however, are available for day to day operations.
Your continued generosity of giving week by week and /or month by month and even on a yearly basis, is greatly appreciated and necessary in the continued operation of our church.
Thank you for your support and understanding of this as an informational message.
Thank you, Marilyn. What struck me about that "sermon" all those years ago was a challenge to find our income on the far left of the graph and then the amount of our charitable giving - to discover the percentage of return to God. Two very specific points I remember all these years later are: 1) if you want to know what has the greatest importance in your life, look at your checkbook or credit card statement. And 2) while giving a tenth of what we make back to God is what the Old Testament asked of the Jewish people back then, our challenge was to evaluate our own situation and make a pro-active decision about what we would give.
As your pastor, I've probably not done well at addressing issues about money more often. But so that you don't get nervous, this morning's message is not about asking for money, guilting any of you to do something you don't want to or can't do, or that we have any extraordinary financial issues here at the First Congregational. So you can relax. There shall be no manipulating or arm-twisting. You all may breathe freely.
The professors in seminary alluded to this little saying, but whoever thought it up put it well. If you are a preacher and you want to: grab people’s attention, talk about SEX. If you are a preacher and you want to: lose people’s attention, talk about SIN. If you are a preacher and you want to: make people run for the door, talk about MONEY! I'm not talking about sex or sin and I've locked the church doors.
So a little background on the idea of tithing. Back in the day and the books of Numbers and Deuteronomy, the tithe was a tenth of each year's produce and livestock to be given to God by giving it to the Levites who served in the temple. Offerings were above and beyond the tithe. I always wondered why church bulletins used the phrase "tithes and offerings."
The amount came out of the idea that 1) God owns everything and that we were made to oversee and manage what God owns and 2) as a means to show God that we love and trust God. It's not that God doesn't own ten percent of our income, but that God owns it all, and that people got to live on 90% of it. That concept was in place for a long time, and then Jesus came into the picture.
Jesus commended the widow who gave two copper coins above all those who gave greater amounts. He told all of us through the rich farmer that we shouldn't be greedy. Sixteen of Jesus' parables were concerned with how to handle money and possessions. In fact, ironically, 1 out of every 10 verses in the gospels deals directly with the subject of money.
But after Jesus returned to eternity, there was a little trouble in Jerusalem. Historians don't know exactly what happened, but they do know that the apostle Paul wrote four letters to the Corinthians about helping support the church in Jerusalem. Although just two of those letters survived time, our scripture passage for this morning comes from the second of those surviving letters.
2 Corinthians 9:6-15 (CEV)
Paul: Remember this saying, “A few seeds make a small harvest, but a lot of seeds make a big harvest.” Each of you must make up your own mind about how much to give.
Reagan: But don’t feel sorry that you must give and don’t feel that you are forced to give. God loves people who love to give. God can bless you with everything you need, and you will always have more than enough to do all kinds of good things for others.
Peyton: The Scriptures say, “God freely gives his gifts to the poor, and always does right.” God gives seed to farmers and provides everyone with food. He will increase what you have, so that you can give even more to those in need.
Kyah: You will be blessed in every way, and you will be able to keep on being generous. Then many people will thank God when we deliver your gift. What you are doing is much more than a service that supplies God’s people with what they need. It is something that will make many others thank God.
Carlisle: The way in which you have proved yourselves by this service will bring honor and praise to God. You believed the message about Christ, and you obeyed it by sharing generously with God’s people and with everyone else. Now they are praying for you and want to see you, because God used you to bless them so very much. Thank God for his gift that is too wonderful for words!
Thank you Paul and grand-darlings. I've known for weeks that this particular message was coming up, but I cracked up when I heard a radio program on Friday that touched on the idea of giving and just what we do with our "harvests of seeds."
The first of those programs talked about the Economics of Happiness, a book by a Lord Richard Layard, an economist and director of the Well-Being Program at the London School of Economics Center of Economic Performance. He suggested that roughly 2% of our happiness is due to our income - as it relates to the income of those around us, and that a third of our happiness can be measured by external factors like relationships - family, if you have work, what that work is like.
The other program I heard talked about the new science of spending. Michael Norton of Harvard Business School and Elizabeth Dunn of the University of British Columbia have been exploring the a similar idea to Lord Layard: that how we spend our money can have a significant impact on how happy we feel.
Norton and Dunn suggest that experiences bring us longer lasting happiness than material items. We can get more lasting happiness from a vacation, special meal or concert than a television or car - things that we get used to having around. In both the programs that aired this week, the gist was that being deliberate in what we spend our time and energy on - the seeds we plant or sow - have direct implications in the happiness we reap and are able to pass along.
So as you contemplate your new yacht or buying trip to Paris, let us all be mindful of our job as God's managers over the seeds we have been given. Let us remember that our happiness is not dependent on things, but in us. Let us thank God for the gifts that can seem too wonderful for words.
God of all that we have and all that we are, we thank you for investing in each our individual lives. We are grateful for the seeds that were planted eons ago that have grown into blessings that can seem too wonderful for words. Help each of us to remember that you bless us - that we can bless others. When it comes to the money with which you have blessed us, help each of us be wise and generous and glad for the opportunities you give us - no matter how big or small they may seem to us. And no matter what our bank accounts say, Gracious God, remind us of how rich we are because of the gift you gave us in Christ. And all your harvesters say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
June 16, 2013
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost and Fathers Day
"Forgiveness Is Where We Live"
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
If you think about it, holidays are tough subjects for people - and pastors - in terms of topics for preaching. There are individuals for whom the holiday is nearly pure joy: children or parent, breakfast in bed, handmade gifts from little hands, quality family fun time, the sense of satisfaction at its pinnacle. There are also individuals for whom the holiday is nearly pure agony: children - having them or not having them, parent - having them or not having them, guilt, disappointment, anger, regret and a plethora of other emotions - also at their pinnacles.
So how does one open a message on a day when you have to be so careful? I thought about Duck Dynasty. If you've not heard about this show, you may want to check it out on A&E, because it's currently the second-highest-rated cable show with an average of 8.5 million viewers per episode. And what's not to love about two bearded, camo-fashioned brothers, Phil and Si and Phil's sons Jase, Willie and Jep, a rags to riches family business making duck calls that has expanded into everything from Duck Dynasty bandaids to books. Rumor has it that one of the books includes a recipe for boiled squirrel with butter and evaporated milk that begins, "Skin the squirrel, then cut in half." I thought about using the show and it's intrigue, but it's just not where I live.
So then I thought about wisdom. Wisdom doesn't have a gender-identity or so much of a "preference" quality, and it could be a safer and still relevant path. For instance, there was the boy who asked his father if bugs are good to eat. The father said, "Let's not talk about such things at the dinner table, son." After dinner, the father inquired, "Now, son, what did you want to ask me?" "Oh, nothing," the boy said. "There was a bug in your soup, but now it's gone."
There was a small boy at the zoo with his father. They were looking at the tigers, and his father was explaining how ferocious they were. "Daddy, if the tigers got out and ate you up..." "Yes, son?" the father asked, ready to console him. "...Which bus would I take home?"
Then there was the father who told his son, "You'll never amount to anything because you procrastinate." To which the son replied, "Oh yeah? Just you wait!"
And there was the little guy who asked his friend if he liked the drum set he got for his birthday. The friend said, "I love it!" The little guy asked the curiosity question: "Why?" The friend said, "Whenever I don't play it, my dad gives me ten bucks!" If I were looking for relevant space fillers, I might have gone down the path of wisdom. But that didn't seem like it might be a place where many of us might be living today.
So I decided to check out a preachers good friend, the lectionary - the listing of scripture passages appropriate for given days or occasions. I don't always use the lectionary, because sometimes I feel "inspired" to do something different. Other times, I let God inspire through the prescribed passages. Since we have been spending time in the seventh chapter of Luke this month, it seemed fairly natural to wind up the chapter. As Bill makes his way up here, I'll let you all know that he will be reading from Eugene Peterson's translation of the Bible, "The Message."
Luke 7:36-50 The Message
36-39 One of the Pharisees asked him over for a meal. He went to the Pharisee’s house and sat down at the dinner table. Just then a woman of the village, the town harlot, having learned that Jesus was a guest in the home of the Pharisee, came with a bottle of very expensive perfume and stood at his feet, weeping, raining tears on his feet. Letting down her hair, she dried his feet, kissed them, and anointed them with the perfume. When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man was the prophet I thought he was, he would have known what kind of woman this is who is falling all over him.”
40 Jesus said to him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.” “Oh? Tell me.”
41-42 “Two men were in debt to a banker. One owed five hundred silver pieces, the other fifty. Neither of them could pay up, and so the banker canceled both debts. Which of the two would be more grateful?” 43-47 Simon answered, “I suppose the one who was forgiven the most.”
“That’s right,” said Jesus. Then turning to the woman, but speaking to Simon, he said, “Do you see this woman? I came to your home; you provided no water for my feet, but she rained tears on my feet and dried them with her hair. You gave me no greeting, but from the time I arrived she hasn’t quit kissing my feet. You provided nothing for freshening up, but she has soothed my feet with perfume. Impressive, isn’t it? She was forgiven many, many sins, and so she is very, very grateful. If the forgiveness is minimal, the gratitude is minimal.”
48 Then he spoke to her: “I forgive your sins.” 49 That set the dinner guests talking behind his back: “Who does he think he is, forgiving sins!” 50 He ignored them and said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”
Thank you, Bill. In light of the "ponderings" I was going through for this message, when I came to this passage, I almost went on to find something else. First of all, although I love how this version makes the story so much more alive than the version in our pews, there is the little issue of "labeling." The pew version says this woman lived a "sinful life." The old King James just called her a "sinner."
What's not so very "fair" about this labeling is that there isn't anyplace in scripture that specifically says what she did wrong, although the entire town seemed to know. If nothing else, then this passage is a good reminder that until have traveled a mile in a person's sandals, we might do our best to protect dignity - especially of those who seem so much less "seen" than others. Perhaps this point is not so much for anyone else this week, but for me.
Along with this labeling issue, there is the issue of judgment, which seems to be woven all through this passage. When Simon said to himself, “If this man was the prophet I thought he was, he would have known what kind of woman this is who is falling all over him" - you can almost see his nose go up as he said it. In fact, after Jesus said, "Simon, I have something to tell you," Simon's nose practically scraped the clouds when he said, "Oh? Tell me." Can't help but think of the word haughty - not that I'm being haughty in my judgement of this event, either.
It's an interesting twist I've noticed about judging or judgment. When being so, we need to be very careful, because it's that one finger pointing away, with three fingers coming back at us. And the stronger the judgment, the more we ought to take a look at the reasons behind the triple effect pointing back at us.
I also cringed at this passage because it seems that Jesus talks about love in economic terms. When talking about the two indebted men, Jesus confirms that the one who is forgiven the most would be - might be - the more grateful. But if there's anything we've come to know of God and Jesus, it's that love and economics seem to be worlds apart. Except that real love sometimes costs dearly. We have only to think of Christ's sacrifice for us to get that connection.
And then there is the end of the passage, where Jesus takes Simon to task as he "forgives" the woman, and Jesus says to her, "Your faith has saved you. Go in peace." It's interesting that Jesus used the word "peace" rather than freedom or happiness or relief or any other sort of word. "Go in peace." It's also interesting that he said, "Your faith has saved you." Why '"faith" and not repentance or humility or gift - as in the anointing of his feet?
There are so many questions and ponderings and issues around this passage, we could be here until the cows come home. But sometimes we need the obvious: to stop and realize what is before us, and I think this may be one of those days-slash-passages.
There is no doubt that this passage deals with forgiveness. It's interesting that "confession" has little - if any real - part in this scenario. In fact, the woman doesn't even say a thing. But what she does - speaks volumes.
There are times, but I'm guessing that no so many of us has something so big that needs forgiveness to the point that we would spend a great deal of money to buy or do something that may seem like a waste to other people. Sometimes, like the younger son of the Prodigal Father, we "come to our senses" and need to return to the home of our heart in God. But by and large, most of us aren't "living" in that place.
Most of us are living in that place where perhaps we are the one that can grant someone else a forgiveness - especially those who don't even ask for it. Human tendencies are to act more like the faith-bouncer, Simon, deciding who can "get in" and who has to "stay out" of our homes of forgiveness. If there is nothing else about this morning's passage and message, it's that we live in a place where forgiveness is the home where we live. Forgiveness is not a morgue or cemetery or jail cell or trap. Forgiveness - receiving and giving - is not a commodity to be sold or bartered, but the place where we live - where we flourish and thrive and where there are no boundaries of gender or role or job or wisdom or flash-in-the-pan notoriety.
So in this place of life, let us pray. Gracious God of Mercy and Love and Forgiveness, we are grateful for those who have raised us - are raising us. Even more than that, God, we are grateful that you sometimes forgive us even before we ask, because your love is that great. There are times when we need to verbalize our need for forgiveness, so we are grateful that you do not require hoops and barriers to jump, but by simply asking, you forgive. More than anything, Gracious God, we thank you for sending your son, the embodiment of what forgiveness looks like and sounds like and is and always will be. Help us to bring the realm of forgiveness to those who so need it, especially if it is us who need to do the forgiving. For all the blessings you so freely give us, all your people say, Amen
First Congregational Church
June 9, 2013
3rd Sunday after Pentecost
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
I don't know if everyone knows it, but Lena and Katrina are not exactly spring chickens, and one day they were out driving Lena's new car. Having succumbed to one of the amazing features of aging, they could barely see over the dashboard. As they were cruising along, they came to an intersection. The stoplight was red, but they just went on through. Sitting in the passenger seat, Katrina thought, "I must be losing it. I could have sworn we just went through a red light."
After a few moments, they came to another intersection; the light was red, and again they went right through. This time, Katrina was almost sure that they light had been red, but was concerned that she might be seeing things. She was getting nervous and decided to pay close attention.
At the next intersection, sure enough, the light was definitely red and they went right through it. Katrina turned to Lena and said, "Lena! Did you know that you ran through three red lights in a row? You could have killed us!" Lena turned to Katrina and said, "Oh no! Am I driving?" The good news about that joke is having just one stop light in the county. If nothing else, I am hopeful that you will "notice" the link of that joke to this morning's scripture passage - eventually.
Before we get to the scripture, just a little catch-up. Last week we were in Capernaum - on the northwest corner of the Sea of Galilee, with a centurion with questionable self-worth issues asking Jesus to heal his servant, which, of course, Jesus did. Today's passage takes place twenty miles south and a little west of last week's passage.
As Al makes his way to the pulpit, I will remind all of us that while this may seem like a rather "tame" account by our standards, we have to remember that in Jesus' day, touching a dead person made a person ritually unclean and headed for the purification procedures.
Luke 7:11-17 NIV
11 Soon afterward, Jesus went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went along with him. 12 As he approached the town gate, a dead person was being carried out—the only son of his mother, and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the town was with her. 13 When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her and he said, “Don’t cry.”
14 Then he went up and touched the bier they were carrying him on, and the bearers stood still. He said, “Young man, I say to you, get up!” 15 The dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother.
16 They were all filled with awe and praised God. “A great prophet has appeared among us,” they said. “God has come to help his people.” 17 This news about Jesus spread throughout Judea and the surrounding country.
Thank you, Al. On a recent flight, Ole kept peering out the window. Since it was totally dark, all he could see was the blinking wing-tip light. Finally he rang for the flight attendant. "I'm sorry to bother you," he said, "but I think you should inform the pilot that his left-turn indicator is on and has been for some time. "
Like last week, there is a treasure trove of information in this passage that we can "notice." Just like us, when we are in situations of such sadness, it was easy for Jesus to say, "Don't cry." It is a simple example of Jesus' humanity in a passage that displays his divinity. Or maybe he said it because he knew what was coming - what he was to do. We say, "don't cry," because we want to take away the source of the pain, because things are not as they should be.
I've tried to be better about saying, "Don't cry." Sometimes we need to cry - sometimes the wayward tear that runs down our cheek, sometimes the big boo-hoo that comes from the bottom of our toes. It is an appropriate reaction, one that was designed for us, to heal us when we come up against things like the Newtown shootings and the Oklahoma City devastation, when someone dear has gone away. We cry when we understand all too clearly that this is not yet the place of shalom and flourishing that God has designed for us in eternity.
This passage comes to us on the third week after Pentecost, what some denominations call "Ordinary Time." As it happens so often, the places where the kingdom of heaven bursts forth are precisely in the everyday circumstances of ordinary folks like you and me. A little nondescript village appears out of nowhere as do the main characters in the story. They appear and disappear into the mists of history as soon as the story is finished.
It's an interesting passage because of what's missing: the mother's request to heal her child, or a prayer for that to happen. Which brings up an interesting topic: prayer - and what we want. It's a natural thing to want healing for ourselves and certainly for someone we love. Author Lewis Smedes suggests that there is danger in reducing the Christian life to mostly an exercise in seeking greater ease, comfort, and healing - that when we are comfortable and at ease, we are perhaps a little more blind to the unalleviated suffering around us.
And speaking of unalleviated suffering, even though Jesus resurrected this one man, what about all the other funerals taking place that day? Or the widows in that day that had no place in society, the crippled and impaired that had no way of fending for themselves? Jesus didn't make make everyone's lives better that day; just this particular widow. And raising her boy from the dead that day didn't mean that he would escape death down the road.
While all that seems so drear, Scott Hoezee says this: The miracles were foretastes of kingdom fullness, not the fullness itself. The miracles (or signs as John called them) were arrows pointing a certain direction, they were not the destination that was being indicated. Jesus' healing is not to make heaven right now, but to point to the place where there will be incredible healing and life.
Just because Jesus came to free us from the shackles of eternal death doesn't mean that we will have a perfect earthly life. But we have a Savior with the power to raise the dead. Other gods can't do that.
While all of this is "interesting" and maybe even helpful to one degree or another, it was a sermonette from a Lutheran pastor in northern Illinois named Janet Hunt that really caught my attention. It is her sermon title that I blatantly stole. And they are her words that I share with you, because she arranged them so wonderfully.
"I have to say I have no parallels for the story before us now. Never in my life or ministry have I encountered such as this. I have been part of hundreds of funerals by now and while there are some which have perhaps proceeded not quite as expected, all of them have ended in the usual way.
Not so in the remarkable account before us now. Death has been pronounced. The mourners have gathered. Words have been spoken and perhaps sung. The procession is making its way to the cemetery. The widow's grief is of course, as grief often is, complicated by what this will mean for her now. With no ready means of support, with no male voice to speak for her, from here on out life will be only hard. And then the procession is interrupted. She has been seen by Jesus. And all those gathered that day know that nothing will ever be the same again.
I have no parallel for the story before us now. But like this widow, I do know what it is to have been 'seen.' And I have a sense of what a wonder that can be.
It was the first day of January sixteen years ago. My dad's surgery had not gone well and his doctor was urging us to transfer him to a hospital where he could get more specialized care. The fog lay heavy on the ground that night, so he would be going by ambulance instead of helicopter.
I remember little of the hour's drive into the city that night. I do not remember parking the car once we got there. I can't recall the elevator ride up to the intensive care unit or even what floor it was on. What I do remember is this. The nurse who rode with him in the ambulance tracked us down that night. And while I did not, do not know her name and would not recognize her if I passed her on the street, I will never forget what she told us then: "I want you to know I held his hand all the way here."
I remembered this today as I thought about Jesus 'seeing' the widow in all of her pain. I remembered this as I thought of Jesus feeling that woman's loss deep in his own being. And I thought of a nurse whose name I do not know who saw my dad --- and even more than that --- 'saw' the rest of us, too, knowing that this difficult time was felt by a whole web of people, each one impacted by that hour's ambulance drive and all it meant. She must have felt that same kind of compassion for us then. Oh yes, I remembered this today and truthfully, I wept, remembering that 'seeing' and the act of kindness shared.
Every single time the 'seeing' results in even small acts of kindness offered. Every time we get a glimpse of at least the beginning of what it will one day mean when all of our funerals are interrupted - when our grief will be interrupted by joy once and for all. For the story before us today begins with simply being seen by Jesus." (end of sermonette.)
It's doesn't seem to be a common event, to "be seen." I wonder how our lives would be different if we lived out how it feels, what it means to "be seen" by God. What wonderful incentive for us - to pass on that moment of recognition, even if we don't know the other individual.
On her final "Oprah" show, Oprah Winfrey said "I’ve talked to 30,000 people on this show and they all wanted validation. Everybody wants to know, ‘Do you see me? Do you hear me? Does what I say mean anything?” Jesus' answer is always a strong and resounding "Yes, you matter more than you could ever know." Let us pray.
Gracious God of this world and then next, we thank you that you are not afraid of our humanness, and that at times, you come very near us - near enough to "notice" us, near enough to touch us even when we seem untouchable. For the help that you offer us in our day to day living, we are grateful. For answers to prayers we've not asked, thank you. For the signs that you give us - of that place where all our funerals will be interrupted - we are hope-full. For the times when it is hard, we are thankful that you give us tears to cleanse and heal our hearts and spirits. Help us to "notice" those that we might overlook, that even in a glance, we might bring them the kingdom of heaven, right here on earth. For all your glances, all your answered prayers and all your blessings, all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
June 2, 2013
Second Sunday in Pentecost, Communion, SS Recognition
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
You know how sometimes a movie or tv show will give you lots of information, but one word or part of a picture (intentionally or unintentionally) pops off the screen? I was thinking of the old Batman and Robin shows, especially when it went from "real life" to the animated part, and there were pictures of the caped crusaders taking a punch with the proverbial "kapow" or "bam." That's what reading the scripture passage for this morning was like for me this week with one particular word - worthy.
As Bob makes his way to the pulpit, I'll give you a couple of relevant points. A centurion in Jesus' day was a military employee of the Roman government, which, for all intents and purposes, was code for enemy of the Jewish people. The original number of men a centurion was in charge of was 100 - like in 100 years is a century. A cohort - in that day - was in charge of six centuries - 600 men. Although a legion was originally ten times a century - or 6,000, that number changed over time to mean numbers between 3,000 and 6,000.
When Jesus had finished saying all this to the people who were listening, he entered Capernaum. 2 There a centurion’s servant, whom his master valued highly, was sick and about to die. 3 The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and heal his servant. 4 When they came to Jesus, they pleaded earnestly with him, “This man deserves to have you do this, 5 because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.” 6 So Jesus went with them.
He was not far from the house when the centurion sent friends to say to him: “Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. 7 That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you. But say the word, and my servant will be healed. 8 For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”
9 When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.” 10 Then the men who had been sent returned to the house and found the servant well.
Thank you, Bob. This is one of those passages that I wish we could sit with for a few hours - there being so many different topics to explore. It's interesting that we don't really know if the three main characters ever actually meet. Again, one perceived to be an enemy seems to have more faith in Jesus than his "friends." Just as the Roman centurion understood that his authority came from those ranking above him to command those under him, he seemed to understand that Jesus has an authority from God that he can enact by simply willing that thing to be. But there are balls to cue up, naps to take and fish to catch.
Despite all the really incredible avenues to be pursued from this passage, my heart kept going back to the centurion and his issue of worth. For those of you who didn't happen to count, the word "worthy" is used just once. But there are three other - obvious - places where the issue of being worthy is implied. There was a centurion's servant, whom his master valued highly. The second occurrence was when the elders begged Jesus to heal the servant, because the centurion "deserves to have you do this." And the third is the centurion's response to Jesus' impending arrival, "Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof."
For those of you who listen to Prairie Home Companion and Garrison Keillor, you understand how Scandinavian Minnesotans have been bred to have high levels of humility. In other words, you are not to have too high an opinion of yourself, because you make less of a mess when you don't have so far to fall. It's almost a genetic predisposition to admire those with healthy self-esteem. So was the centurion a Scandinavian from Minnesota?
Maybe he was doing some political maneuvering. Maybe some of the centurions higher-ups caught wind that he was being kind to the Jewish people, and they didn't like hearing such things. If those same folks found out that this same centurion was hosting a potential Messiah who was causing a stir in Palestine, well, those higher-ups could make life miserable for the centurion. Maybe it would be easier to keep this Jesus person at bay. And we could "maybe" the morning away with what may have been going on.
But my heart kept going back to "worthy," especially the faces I saw in my mind of people who really listen in when I talk about our worth to God. Maybe the centurion wasn't being so cynical as real, thinking that he didn't deserve for Jesus to stop in for a quick healing and a glass of wine. Maybe this guy, like so many of the hearts that I see and know and hear about, need to hear that you are worthy: of God's love.
You are worthy of God's healing, even if it doesn't come in the way you may expect. You are worthy of God's mercy, and you don't even have to do anything to get it. You are loved that much. You are worthy of forgiveness, because there is nothing that Jesus' cross doesn't cover, no matter what human laws say. You are worthy of God's grace, because if you weren't, God would not have created you. You are worthy, because you belong to God. Period.
We don't have to beg, we don't have to have anyone vouch for us. As simply as Jesus caused the servant to be well, so simply do we get to stand before God, next to Jesus, surrounded by the Holy Spirit, and take in that precious relationship. As we celebrate the time of relationship over a meal with Jesus' disciples, we have the opportunity to drink in and eat of the reminders that we, like the original disciples, are worthy to sit at the table; even if we do so in our pews. So let us allow that truth to settle in as we prepare to be reminded of our worth.
Let us pray. God of Grace and Mercy and Love, we thank you for reminding us of how you see us. Sometimes to understand how much you love us and adore us and cherish us can be overwhelming. But you don't allow our humanity to slow you down. So thank you for the blessings that you continue to shower on us, regardless of what we have done, are doing or will do. Thank you for the love you have had for each of your beloveds from before the beginning of time. To this, and for all of you, all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.