First Congregational Church
June 30, 2019
Third Sunday after Pentecost, Independence Day Sunday
Luke 9:57-62 & Galatians 5:13-25
“The Good News and the Hard News”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Once, in the 1820's, a little boy named Sam was playing in the yard behind his house. During his pretend fighting game, he knocked over the outhouse. Sam was so upset and worried that he would get into trouble, that he ran into the woods and didn't come out until dark. When he arrived back home, his father was waiting for him. He asked suspiciously, "Son, did you knock over the outhouse this afternoon?" "No, father," Sam lied. "Well, let me tell you a story," said the father.
"Once, not that long ago, little Sven received a shiny new axe from his father. Excited, he tried it out on a tree, swiftly cutting it down. But as he looked at the tree, with dismay he realized it was his mother's favorite cherry tree. Just like you, he ran into the woods. When he returned, his father asked, “Sven, did you cut down the cherry tree?' Sven answered with, 'Father, I cannot tell a lie. I did indeed chop down the tree.' Then Sven’s father said, 'Well, since you were honest with me, you are spared from punishment. I hope you have learned your lesson, though.'
So Sam's father asked again," did you knock down the outhouse?" "Father, I cannot tell a lie any more." said the little boy. "I did indeed knock down the outhouse." Then his father sat the boy down for a time-out in the corner. The boy whimpered, "Father, I told you the truth! Why are you punishing me?" Father answered, "Because Sven's father wasn't in the tree when he chopped it down!”
In the middle of what was probably a long session of rattling off parables, Jesus gave the one we have today from the Gospel of Luke. When the second passage from Galatians is read, try to keep one part of your brain wrapped around the fact that it was written over 1,700 years before the holiday we will celebrate this week.
The Cost of Following Jesus
57 As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58 Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” 59 He said to another man, “Follow me.” But he replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”
60 Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 61 Still another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.” 62 Jesus replied, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”
13 You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh[a]; rather, serve one another humbly in love. 14 For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”[b] 15 If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.
16 So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever[c] you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery;20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.
Thank you, Paul and Clark. These two passages are so perfect for this particular week. The first tells us the what and the second tells us the how.
While I was pondering upon these passages, I got to thinking about the music world. In orchestras, the oboe is the one who plays the tuning note before the orchestra begins - so that all the woodwinds tune first to that one source. (The oboe is used because it is the least affected by humidity and other weather conditions.) Then all the brass and lastly all the strings - all tuned to the one (same) oboe and its player. Incidentally, most oboists today use little electronic tuners as they set the pitch. Before electronic tuners, they used tuning forks. Before that, it was more or less like a tuning free-for-all.
Anyway, Jesus’ words for the man who has to bury his father are probably not ones we immediately associate with Jesus, especially as that man was probably encased in grief - at some level - in needing to bury his father. We can get Jesus’ point of setting our sights on Christ’s path and sticking to it. And who knows? Maybe Jesus was having an “off” day, or maybe he’d eaten some bad goat stew earlier in the day, or maybe the phone kept ringing with familiar numbers and in answering it, was connected to the person who was deeply concerned about repaying his student loans or replacing his roof with a metal one. Or maybe it was Jesus’ version of fish or cut bait.
Whatever was behind the energy and statement, Jesus’ point, was that the disciples most important job was to “go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Essentially, that was the message of his life - to the disciples, certainly, but just as much to us in this 21st century. Jesus showed us and told us how to go and proclaim - in dining with outcasts, contacting with the unclean and providing for widows and children, mainly, but to all who are not on the most popular lists.
It is a bit interesting that - time-wise - the earliest versions of Galatians pre-date the earliest versions of Luke’s gospel. If and when a version of Luke is found - tested to be written before 50 AD - it will still be ironic that Paul’s letter to the Galatians gives us a job description that fleshes out the mission statement of “go and proclaim.”
It’s interesting, too, that the first big word in Galatians is the word, “free.” I wonder how many of us think about that word and almost immediately go the word “freedom,” especially this weekend.
Of equal interest is that the word “freedom” is not found in the Declaration of Independence. The Episcopalian priest, David W. Peters of Pflugerville, Texas pointed out that “instead of “freedom,” the Declaration highlighted “liberty,” along with “life” and the “pursuit of happiness,” as our inalienable rights. What makes this the most interesting is that, as Rev. Peters pointed out, “Over the years, the word “liberty” has fallen out of our national vocabulary, and “freedom” has replaced it.” Then I say, we get a passage like the one from Galatians, and now things start getting a lot more interesting.
“The most obvious meaning of freedom,” said Peters, “is the ability to do and say whatever we want, without interference from any authority or institution. With this definition of freedom, it is little wonder we often disagree on what it means to be a freedom-loving American.”
What the most marvelous and famous Rev. Dinah Haag says, is that we fail to include in definitions of freedom a sense of balance. Restrictions by city governments on blasting off massive amounts of fireworks in one’s driveway is not just about fire and safety hazards, but about the ability for one’s neighbors to live in an explosion-free environment. And in a day where we are becoming more aware of PTSD, our understanding of such “rules” that would appear to harness our “freedom” should be better understood laced with compassion. It’s not about one neighbor winning over the other, but both being able to compromise in giving a little and receiving a little - in freedom, safety, life and the pursuit of happiness.
The big deal is, however, that our freedom as followers of Christ is much older than the Declaration of Independence. It goes back to Christ, reminding us of the freedom that God saw for each of us since the beginning of time. Christ’s life and death and resurrection and ascension are all reminders of our freedom - to be for the world what Christ was for the world: an agent of reconciliation and love. We all have the freedom to choose that mission - or not.
For those that choose to take up that mission, that “Love your neighbor as yourself” thing isn’t really a suggestion. The Good News is that the mission is easy. The Hard News is that it’s also hard.
The Good News of walking in the Spirit is so simple. The Hard News of walking in the Spirit is that some days it is harder to do than others - especially when we feel contrary to that Spirit. We all have those days when we wake up and we wonder what grouchy bug bit us during the night. In sublime simplicity, there are days when we feel grumpy for no reason at all. In all our days, Christ calls us to love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. I don’t know about anyone else, but there are days, when I’m good with the first eight character traits, but that ninth one? That’s not always so much fun.
Those are the days when this passage becomes the clothing that we put on. Even if we can get just one of those “garments” of love, joy, peace or any of the others, to put on, they become, one day at a time, our comfy clothes. One day at a time the garments of impurity, idolatry, hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, and all the others make their way to the back of the closet.
Most of our nation will celebrate our political liberty this weekend. And more than a few folks sitting in pews will be reminded to celebrate our spiritual freedom in Christ as we put our pants on one leg at a time. For such honor and dignity and grace, let us pray.
God of Life and Grace, we thank you for those who have gone before us, who have lived lives so that we may sit here in relative peace and safety as we worship you in the ways you lead each of us. Thank you for your son, who has given and continues to give us pictures and lessons on how to go and proclaim the kingdom of God. We ask for your forgiveness when we are tempted to think that our way is the only way, because ever and always, there is your way first. So help each of us listen intently to you this week, as we tune our lives to you, enabling us to live in and through you all our days, as your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
June 23, 2019
Second Sunday after Pentecost
“Chaos, Fear and Christ”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Jesus Restores a Demon-Possessed Man
26 They sailed to the region of the Gerasenes, which is across the lake from Galilee.27 When Jesus stepped ashore, he was met by a demon-possessed man from the town. For a long time this man had not worn clothes or lived in a house, but had lived in the tombs. 28 When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell at his feet, shouting at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, don’t torture me!” 29 For Jesus had commanded the impure spirit to come out of the man. Many times it had seized him, and though he was chained hand and foot and kept under guard, he had broken his chains and had been driven by the demon into solitary places.
30 Jesus asked him, “What is your name?”
“Legion,” he replied, because many demons had gone into him. 31 And they begged Jesus repeatedly not to order them to go into the Abyss.
32 A large herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside. The demons begged Jesus to let them go into the pigs, and he gave them permission. 33 When the demons came out of the man, they went into the pigs, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.
34 When those tending the pigs saw what had happened, they ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, 35 and the people went out to see what had happened. When they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone out, sitting at Jesus’ feet, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. 36 Those who had seen it told the people how the demon-possessed man had been cured. 37 Then all the people of the region of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them, because they were overcome with fear. So he got into the boat and left.
38 The man from whom the demons had gone out begged to go with him, but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39 “Return home and tell how much God has done for you.”So the man went away and told all over town how much Jesus had done for him.
Thank you, ladies. I can tell by your faces that this is not how things usually go for you in your time of worship. I can also tell you that you need not fear. I am not here to instill fear, but to tell you my version of this story.
What you have heard might make you think that this nameless man had no family, but he did. He had me. His only sister. I tell you this not from a place of sorrow, such as one who has lost a beloved and of the lost opportunities for joy and delight and togetherness. I tell you this story, not to instill pity, but to share hope. I tell you my story from a place of being rescued to God, making a purse from a sow’s ear.
My brother and I grew up together, playing, working, learning like most other children in the neighborhood. Maybe I was too close, but it seemed like we had a very normal life - to me. Now, looking back, I see how my brother started to change, in ways I still can’t even put to words.
He would get so angry sometimes, and so mixed up, and I tried to help him straighten out what was confused. I tried so many different ways to help him and fix him and support him, and nothing seemed to work. I prayed so hard, on my knees, prostrate on the ground, but nothing seemed to help my brother. Now, I think, that it was just that maybe for whatever reason, he couldn’t do it on his own, nor could I.
It just got worse from there. He began to go to the cemetery, the tombs where we bury our dead. I don’t know if it was the silence or if it was because no one would pester him, but eventually it seemed that he preferred living without life - without bathing or even eating with any semblance of normality.
I don’t understand why he did it, but he even began to go naked, and instead of becoming weaker, he seemed to grow stronger. None of it made any sense to me, and in those rare moments we happened to see one another, I saw the torment in his eyes, too. It was as if he was looking for something, but he didn’t know what it was.
Eventually, I discovered that my brother’s chaos began to become mine. It started slowly, but I discovered that I began to retreat from spending time with my friends at the well, and my trips to the market were shorter and less frequent. For a while, I had tried to make food for him, and leave it near the caves. But I could tell that animals got to it before he did, if he even knew it was there.
Then came the day that I realized how afraid I was of and for my own flesh and blood. He not only scared people who came near him at the caves, but without any perceivable reason, he would pull up an olive tree or destroy a garden. That was when they began to shackle him, in the darkness, hands and feet.
How ever it came to be, my brother became so strong that the chains couldn’t keep him. My fear was twisted into a knot: fear for him - what the law keepers would do to him, and for me - what he might do to me if I tried to intervene. It seemed that there was no good end to my brother - or even myself.
And then “he” came by. You know who I’m talking about: the one that caused all the stir with his healing and scandalous associations with other outcasts of society. That Jesus.
He said he came from God. I guess that is probably a good answer, because where else would such a singular and extraordinary person come from? Who else would hold their own ground when my brother came at them, aside from the guards with spears and other weapons?
But Jesus stood there. And my brother went crazy! It was as if the spirits that possessed him were trying to draw attention away from themselves. And then, it is said, Jesus commanded the impure spirits to come out of my brother! It was the prayer of my own heart for so long, and here, this Jesus turned the prayer into a command - that was obeyed!
I wish I could have been there to see it! I wish I could have been there - for my brother - because if he was even aware of the spirits, I can’t imagine that he wouldn’t have been afraid - deeply afraid of what was going to happen next - maybe afraid of what life would be like if he were healed. I know it seems strange, but sometimes I wondered if he had been afraid to even get well, because how would that be?
In those earlier days, he would do terrible things and not remember. I wonder if he understood that he was being held hostage by whatever torment was shackling him. I remember, wondering at that time, if there would ever be a cure for people like my brother - even if it was a long time into the future.
It seems odd, I know, that this Jesus, who knew so much, who could see so much in a person’s heart, asked my brother for his name. One would have thought that he would have known it, especially if he was the Messiah - the Promised One he was supposed to be.
But maybe it was for my brother, needing to call it what it was: a host of evils that was killing him from a life of love and wholeness and wellness.
You heard the rest of the story that day, of the demons going into the pigs and then running off to drown in the lake. Ironic, if you ask me - demons - going into animals that our people hold in disdain - to die a physical death. Something’s of this world are so hard to wrap the mind around.
Speaking of which, never was a sight so welcome to my heart as the one of my brother, clothed - in his right mind - silent and still - sitting at the foot of the One who helped him become that way. The sacred writings don’t tell you, but it was a most glorious reunion with the one who had been lost to me - found and well!
Life is strange, is it not? Those who had witnessed this miraculous healing became afraid - ordering this Jesus to leave their city. Perhaps they were afraid there weren’t enough pigs for all the evils that plagued them? Isn’t it strange how human beings do things that we know are so very wrong for us, but we do them anyway? And why would they remove such joy from their own selves?
I know not everyone understands this whole thing. There are people who have healthy and happy families. But perhaps that is only what things look like on the surface. Even so, this Jesus, he’s an interesting fellow - giving a person the dignity to call their plagues by their own name.
He didn’t force my brother into saying the name of his malady. But he gave him the opportunity to say it. Like the townspeople were given the opportunity to deal with Jesus’ offering of healing and wholeness. What would it have been like, had the townsfolk allowed Jesus to stay?
Actually, he did stay - in my brother - and in the telling of his healing to those in the town. It’s amazing how long it can sometimes take us to figure things out, isn’t it? It makes sense now. Jesus didn’t leave them bereft and alone. He left my brother with them.
And what greater hope is there than the testimony of one who can tell you how this Jesus is able to sort out the chaos and fears of this world, with us doing our part, of course!
I think that the next best thing that we all can do is to pray, not only to this Jesus, but to God and God’s Holy Spirit. So if you will join me.
Loving God, Divine Redeemer and Holy Spirit, thank you for sending your son, this Jesus, to help us see how you love - regardless of our problems or plagues or warts or afflictions.
Help us to give name to those things that hold us back from being whole people, how we can be free of the maladies that threaten to kill us - spiritually, mentally, socially - even physically - when we are able - and give us the courage to do that which we need to do to assist in the process.
Help us to leave those places of chaos and fear - those we are able to leave - to settle into your housing of comfort, and love and security. For all the healings that you do, however they happen, all your people say thank you as we say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
June 16, 2019
First Sunday after Pentecost, Trinity Sunday
John 16:12-15 & Romans 5:1-5
"Divine Choreography, Deferential Joy and Deliverer of Truth"
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
About a hundred years ago, I stashed away an article I had come across from who knows where. I know it was a hundred years ago, because I didn’t have the common sense back then to include references to the stories I kept.
It was an article about UPS Pilots - those people that do the long haul maneuvering of the packages those wonderful brown trucks deliver. The story goes, that after every flight, the UPS pilot fills out a form called a ‘gripe sheet,' which tells mechanics about problems with the aircraft. The mechanics correct the problems, document their repairs on the form, and then pilots review the gripe sheets before the next flight.
The very nature of some of those particular gripes seemed appropriate for this Fathers Day, because there are some dads that are so good at these sorts of exchanges. Gripe: Left inside main tire almost needs replacement. Service Solution: Almost replaced left inside main tire.
Pilot: Test flight OK, except auto-land very rough. Service report: Auto-land not installed on this aircraft. Pilot gripe: Something loose in cockpit. Service report: Something tightened in cockpit. Pilot: Dead bugs on windshield. Service report: Live bugs on back-order.
Pilot: Suspected crack in windshield. Service report: Suspect you're right. Pilot: Aircraft handles funny. Service report: Aircraft warned to straighten up, fly right and be serious. Pilot: Mouse in cockpit. Service report: Cat installed. Very truly I tell you, part of the reason for the delight of these gripe and service reports is the simplicity of them. In regards to our scripture passages for this morning, well, that’s another story.
12 “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. 13 But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. 14 He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you. 15 All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you.”
Peace and Hope
5 Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we[a] have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we[b] boast in the hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only so, but we[c] also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5 And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.
Thank you, Andrea. There’s a word in the Danish language that is getting a little publicity these days. It’s the word hygge, and it means cozy. We all know what cozy is, mostly, but as with some words, a description fits better than a definition. So imagine a couple of your best friends and/or family members, curled up on couches, perhaps about 8:00 or 9:00 in the evening, on a cold winter’s evening, fire place crackling and popping, any number of candles silently adding to the conversation, you and your people sharing a little sweet thing and a cup of tea or hot chocolate. That’s hygge.
Or sitting on the front porch, during the height of summer, it’s early evening, the lemonade glass is sweating on the coaster, the watermelon squares are still a little cool in their plain bowl, and neither you nor the person next to you needs to say a thing, because in between the walkers and passers-by, you both realize the depth of the goodness of the moment. That’s hygge.
I sometimes think it’s a little easier to describe what the Holy Spirit does that to try to define it. James Packer at bible.org gave a great example of the Holy Spirit. “When floodlighting is well done, the floodlights are placed so that you do not see them; in fact, you are not supposed to see where the light is coming from; what you are meant to see is just the building on which the floodlights are trained. The intended effect is to make it visible when otherwise it would not be seen for the darkness, and to maximize its dignity by throwing all its details into relief so that you can see it properly. This perfectly illustrated the Spirit’s new covenant role. He is, so to speak, the hidden floodlight shining on the Savior.
Or think of it this way. It is as if the Spirit stands behind us, throwing light over our shoulder on to Jesus who stands facing us. The Spirit’s message to us is never, "Look at me; listen to me; come to me; get to know me", but always, "Look at him, and see his glory; listen to him and hear his word; go to him and have life; get to know him and taste his gift of joy and peace.”
Part of the reason I thought this was a good example to describe the Holy Spirit is that it’s a real, practical example that most of us have seen in real life. Another reason the article caught my attention is that Mr. Packer reminds us that the Holy Spirit is not an “it,” but a person, a person like Jesus is a person and God is a person, which seems weird, but hang in with me.
When the Bible writes about God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit, the Bible speaks of each of them in terms of “he.” If we aren’t diligent in our readings, we can miss the idea that these persons are more than genders, more than a particular kind of person. When the Bible talks about God as a father, look closely, because it’s just as likely that there is a description of God as mother close by. To be sure, my point here is not to support or disprove the gender of God, but to remind us that ours is a living God, a relational God, a God that is not like a statue with no life, but a God with depth and personality, along with energy.
Timothy L. Adkins-Jones, Senior Pastor of Bethany Baptist Church in Newark, N.J, suggests that the Holy Spirit, as painted in the passage from John, is described as a sage-like presence that will care for and guide the entire community after Jesus departs, offering exactly what these disciples need in a moment of grand anxiety.
I got to thinking about that. What is it that we long for when we are anxious and/or lonely? I wonder if often times it’s a presence we long for. Not necessarily someone to say anything, but someone that helps us to not feel alone. I wonder, too, if in our anxiousness or the chaos of a moment, we forget that God’s design was that we are never alone, just as God is never alone, because God has the Trinity, and we have God as Father, God the Christ and God the Spirit. That design that God created, it’s like the choreography of a dance. Whether it’s like the dances of grand waltzes, two-steps, or even the Twist, God’s choreography draws us into relational patterns for joy, delight and appreciation.
That part of the Trinity that belongs to Christ is an interesting piece. We know a whole lot about Jesus, and we are generally cognizant of his part within this complicated relationship of the Trinity. But I somehow came across this idea of Christ and Deferential Joy, and it surely made me think - and perhaps you.
Most of us know the word, deferential, as opposed to differential, which is a car part. These are some of the words my computer thesaurus used for deferential: respectful, humble, dutiful, obedient, submissive, meek, subservient, yielding, compliant. As much as some of those terms can be deemed derogatory, they are far deeper and richer than merely bad character tags. Christ set aside his royalty, his intimacy with God and the Spirit, his eternal existence, to become like us, making the way for a joy that we would never know on our own.
On this day of shining the light on the holy Trinity, the idea of God’s Spirit as Deliverer of Truth might be a helpful understanding of this yielding, rug-cutting relationship. I don’t know about anyone else, but I can certainly remember Tom and Jerry cartoons, or Popeye cartoons or any number of old cartoons, when a character faced a decision, a little version of the character with a halo appeared on one shoulder and one with a pitchfork appeared on the other shoulder, symbolizing the choice between good and evil, so to speak. While the Holy Spirit isn’t an angelic figure that stands on our shoulders, it is that voice of truth that whispers in our hearts and minds, urging us to do the right thing and the good thing, even if those things are hard things.
While all this glorious gab may or may not win a Pulitzer Prize for Preaching, what real difference does this Trinity thing make, and why should we care?
We are all wired in certain ways: introverts, extroverts, musically inclined and those not as much, Swedes and everyone else. We all have unchangeable histories of upbringing and learning: survival vs. thriving, how we were or weren’t nurtured, sheltered or experiential childhoods. And we all have differing brains and bodies - for good and ill. Despite all those differences, we all have a responsibility to make the best of ourselves with what we have.
In that Divine Choreography, Deferential Joy and Deliverer of Truth, all of them not only compliment each other, but they hone each other, so that they are more perfect than perfection. We won’t reach perfection ourselves, but we have this Holy Trinity to help us hone all of our selves, individually and as a church family, that we become the best of what God has always seen in us.
Sometimes it means literally learning new ways of communicating, even unto asking for forgiveness and forgiving. Sometimes it's practicing that art of holding one’s tongue, especially in an age when it seems that tongue wagging is all the rage. Sometimes it’s reframing our understanding of the world, determining to find goodness where bleakness abounds, or determining to do what is right and good, not even for the sake of doing right and good, but for the sense of knowing you have been honorable and therefore able to sleep without regret. Inviting that larger than life, more eternal that we can imagine Trinity into our everyday breath and consciousness of the world allows us to take steps back when necessary, to change directions when that is needful, that humility and honor become more a part of us than words would ever need to define. As we once again realize this dance of life, in all its dimensions and effects, let us pray.
Divine Choreographer, Deferential Joy and Deliverer of Truth, we thank you for your life, so long before ours, so long after our earthly life, and larger than we can even begin to imagine. We are grateful that you allow for our frailties and humanness, giving us opportunities to begin again and change direction whenever it is needful. For those moments we have stepped on your toes, running over your will and desire, we ask for your forgiveness. Enable us to let go of those things that we don’t have any business carrying and strengthen us for those things that need taking up. More than anything, near and dear God, help us to practice your presence in our present moments, so that when those times come on us that threaten our senses of security, we are able to resist the temptations that would lead us to apathy, disinterest and even isolation. For the blessings of you as Trinity and God and all else that you are, all your people say, Amen
First Congregational Church
June 9, 2019
Acts 2:1-21 & Romans 8:14-17
"Warm: Definitely. Fuzzy: Well, Sort Of"
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
I didn’t not actually see or hear this statement - as a whole - but I surely heard the individual words this past week. After da meat raffle, we’ll drive by da slough on the way home and have hot dish with a Grain Belt or Hamm’s for supper, don’tcha know. For those of the non-Minnesota persuasion, the translation of that statement is that ‘after a local bar or VFW has a raffle for real packages of meat - your choice - we’ll drive by the swamp, have a casserole and a beer for dinner, ya know.’
I hope all of you continue to feed and nurture your passions and curiosities, because they surely make life interesting. It’s no secret that one of mine is language: how it’s different, how it’s alike, nuances and generalities. I love that the number five in English is also five in Dutch. The word “can” is the same in Danish, but it’s spelled with a k instead of a c. The Danish word for bread, brød, is not that far from the German brot.
Just for kicks and giggles, I thought a little audience participation might be apropos this particular Sunday. So, when you hear the word Pentecost, what comes first to your mind?
*** (flames of fire, birthday of the church, speaking in languages, wind, Holy Spirit)
Thank you all for your contributions. I wondered if anyone would make the link to the cause for that first day of Pentecost, the festival of Shauvot, celebrated seven weeks and one day after the first Sabbath of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. A quicker reference is the "firstfruits of the wheat harvest.” For purposes of setting mood and atmosphere, it could be like a more spirited version of our Thanksgiving.
The Holy Spirit Comes at Pentecost
2 When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
5 Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. 7 Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? 9 Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” 12 Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?” 13 Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.”
Peter Addresses the Crowd
14 Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. 15 These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! 16 No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:
17 “‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. 18 Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. 19 I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billows of smoke. 20 The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord. 21 And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’
Thank you, Sonya. As for our next passage, the book of Romans is Paul’s dense, monumental masterpiece “letter” written, as Joseph Fitzmyer of the Catholic University of America describes, “to explain the gospel of the justification and salvation of Jew and Greek alike by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ, revealing the uprightness and love of God the Father."
14 For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. 15 The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” 16 The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.
17 Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.
Thank you, Betty. I don’t know about anyone else, but sometimes I just have to smile at God’s timing/leading. Of all weeks one could have chosen to fly to Minnesota and back, I picked the one right before Pentecost Sunday. Airports are truly one of the best places to get an idea of what that first Pentecost Sunday may have looked like - people-wise.
Those who live here year-round, we think we have a lot of people when the line in the grocery store is longer than 2 individuals. The line I stood in for the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport security check took a half hour to clear. Even walking down concourses was like driving down an interstate - weaving in and out of the flow, depending on your destination.
And all the variations: in fashion, hair colors, head shapes in absence of hair, facial hair expressions, eyeglass shapes and frames, and all the sorts of shoes! There were fancy people and plain ones, short ones and tall ones, skinny ones and those not so much, stressed people, those in need of a pulse check. And somehow we tend to forget that all sorts of people also means all sorts of smells - appealing and not so much.
Then to imagine a violent wind blowing through such a crowd accompanied by fire, one can only imagine the panic and chaos that would ensue for a modern day Pentecost and security personnel.
Then, as our passage tells us, “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.” I’m sure that any major airport these days has more languages flowing through them than we can shake a stick at. But, it’s the Holy Spirit part that caught my attention last week.
The passage from Romans reminds us that those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. It is said that we don’t really become adults until both of our parents have died. Even so, we’re not children without a parent as orphans. We have God - who fathers and mothers us. The word Abba translates to Daddy or Papa. It’s the word little kids use for that person they trust to protect them. Watch any child, and it’s obvious that when they know where their parent is, they are more secure and able to live more freely.
In the Acts passage, that wind that blew through? The Greek word is pneuma, which means breath. (I had to laugh when I was thinking about this, because it made me think of the movie, My Big, Fat Greek wedding, where the father of the bride tries to link all language back to Greek words.) The Greek word is pneuma, which is not only means breath, but it means spirit - as in Holy Spirit.
If the Holy Spirit is like breath, then it’s like air, and it’s not just a thing, but is in us and around us and keeps us alive and is a person of the Trinity. And that same Spirit makes us related, like blood makes a person related to parents and siblings, aunts and uncles and grandparents. Even in adopted children or fostered children, there is often a deep and hugely important link to those people who parent them and provide for them.
On top of that spirit-breath connection, we have God’s love and grace connection, which all comes together in a relationship with the larger-than-life God that knows not only the number of hairs on our heads, but loves us so much, that a real person had to be sent to show us that love. Throw in the flames of the spirit that would be symbolically passed on to each of us as members of Christ’s church, we can certainly appreciate the warmth that comes in being part of such a beloved body.
I don’t know if you could call it a warm and fuzzy relationship, however. If we are to share in Christ’s glory, then we will share in his sufferings. We aren’t likely to be crucified on an actual cross, but we will be called upon, from time to time, to stand up to the forces that seek to lure us into temptation, as Christ was tempted to easy street while in the desert. And some of us may be betrayed by one we loved and trusted. And some of us will experience people who will try to twist our words and even our actions into meanings we never intended.
But it is God’s Spirit that will never separate us from God. There is nothing that can separate you from the love of God. Not sin, not the most horrible awfulness. Not any disbelief, or lack of faith. Nothing can separate you from the love of God. Not your suffering, even if it feels deserved, which it is not. Not jail cells of isolation, relationship cancers, or any of your failures.
Nothing can separate you from the love of God. Not your anger at God when things stink. Not your questioning if God even exists at all. Nothing can separate you from the love of God. Not your turning away when that love feels too hot, too confining, too challenging.
Nothing can separate you from the love of God. Not when you feel absolutely nothing of God, for God is not your feelings, which are feeble and fickle.
Nothing can separate you from the love of God. Not disaster, which is not God, or triumph, which is also not God. Nothing can separate you from the love of God. You are in it like the air, like gravity. It is in you, for it is what you are made of. It's for you. On purpose. With delight. Nothing can separate you from the love of God.
Not when children say it is time to hang up the car keys. Not when people make bad decisions and you know it. When life gets too big and other people have to be called in. Nothing can separate you from the love of God. Ever. No matter what happens. That is how much God loves you. And it is ever and only as close as this air around us. So let us pray.
God of amazing love and spirit, thank you for such love that is so far beyond us and yet lives in us. Thank you for showing us the depth of that love in the gift of yourself, in Christ. We know that sometimes we forget that you are so near us, in us, and we ask for your forgiveness when our attention fails to include you. Help us in the week ahead, God, to walk through our days with one eye on you, as a parent watches the child in their care, that we not miss those moments of grace and joy. Grow our appreciation - all of us - for the diversity of this world that brings not only a variety of culture, but a depth of connection and relativity that is as precious as your creation of each of us. For each and every blessing in this world, the one that has gone before and the one to come, all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
June 2, 2019
7th Sunday in Easter & Communion Sunday
John 17:20-26 & Acts 16:16-34
"Prayin', Prayin', Prayin'
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
The temporary Sunday School teacher was struggling to open a combination lock on the supply cabinet. She had been told the combination, but couldn't quite remember it.
Finally she went to the pastor's study and asked for help. The pastor went into the room and began to turn the dial. After the first two numbers she paused and stared blankly for a moment. Finally she looked serenely heavenward and her lips moved silently. Then she looked back at the lock, and quickly turned to the final number, and opened the lock. The teacher was amazed. "I'm in awe at your faith, pastor," she said. "It's really nothing," she answered. "The number is on a piece of tape on the ceiling.”
Our first passage is one of a conglomeration of teachings and instructions that Jesus gave the disciples. In the book of John, these teachings and instructions come after Jesus washes the disciples’ feet, but I don’t know that they were delivered all in one evening - being more than 3 chapters worth. The second scripture passage from the book of Acts continues the description of the early disciples and their “acts” of meeting, visiting and preaching while they were on their mission trips.
Jesus Prays for All Believers
20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
24 “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.
25 “Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. 26 I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.”
Paul and Silas in Prison
16 Once when we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a female slave who had a spirit by which she predicted the future. She earned a great deal of money for her owners by fortune-telling. 17 She followed Paul and the rest of us, shouting, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.” 18
She kept this up for many days. Finally Paul became so annoyed that he turned around and said to the spirit, “In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!” At that moment the spirit left her.
19 When her owners realized that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to face the authorities. 20 They brought them before the magistrates and said, “These men are Jews, and are throwing our city into an uproar 21 by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice.”
22 The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten with rods. 23 After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison, and the jailer was commanded to guard them carefully. 24 When he received these orders, he put them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.
25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. 26 Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everyone’s chains came loose. 27 The jailer woke up, and when he saw the prison doors open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself because he thought the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul shouted, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!”
29 The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
31 They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” 32 Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. 33 At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his household were baptized. 34 The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God—he and his whole household.
Thank you, father and daughter, Tom and Jennifer. Isn’t it interesting how little things stay in our brains - or not? For instance, the sermon title. Sometimes, when people are asking for prayer - in a written format - I will respond with the words, prayin’, prayin’, prayin’ and as I write or read them, the tag “raw hide” automatically follows. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an episode of Rawhide, but somehow that little part of the opening song has made its way not only into my brain, but perhaps our cultural memory, too.
Another, non-cultural snippet is when people say grace, whether they sing it or say it, if it’s one that’s a memorized one, my brain mentally adds, ‘prayers, prayers, Amen.’ When my youngest sister was just learning to talk, and we’d do the God is good, God is great prayer, because she didn’t have all those words, yet wanted to be a part of the group, she’d say ‘prayers, prayers, Amen’ after we had said our Amen. And that’s how we said prayers in my family for a long time.
The theme of prayer is threaded through both scripture passages this morning. Paul and Silas were going to the place of prayer and later, when they were in jail, they were praying and singing - while no doubt in pain and darkness - other prisoners were listening to those hymns and prayers. Truth be told, I’d forgotten about the prayer Jesus offered in the passage from John, and for whatever reason, it found a soft place in my heart this time around.
There aren’t a lot of places in the world today, aside from a church, where we might hear a prayer, asking God that we be one, that God loves us. Aside from the various novels here and there, when was the last time you heard someone pray with such sentiment, “I want those you have given me to be with me where I am.” In fact, to bring the passage in just a little closer, when I draw a line with my finger, mentally say your name. Jesus said, “I want ___ to be with me where I am.” If that were the only part of the prayer we heard, we could read it as rather command-full. But we have the rest of the prayer, and it’s poignant and tender and it’s about you. (So make sure you go home and read that section again today or tonight.)
Not all our prayers can be such intimate moments of exchange, but there’s no where in the Bible that says our prayers have to be one way or another. True, Jesus said to pray like this, and he gave us the Lord’s Prayer. But he didn’t say always or only pray like this, and so he gave us a tool in that prayer - a rather powerful one at that.
I know I’ve said it before, but I’m still amazed when doing nursing home worship services, and someone will be there, appearing to be sleeping or completely disconnected, and when we get to doing the Lord’s Prayer, their lips may move, if ever so slightly. Going so deeply into a person doesn’t generally happen with one or two repetitions, but through the accumulated worship services, funerals, or other sorts of services that include that prayer. That truth is also shared with communion. It isn’t just one course of bread and cup that gives it deep meaning, but the regular feeding and watering of the soul, in God’s presence and with God’s family.
Sometimes our prayers are sharp and to the point, like Paul addressing the annoying spirit in the woman from the Acts passage. Sometimes our prayers are “observed” or offered vicariously, as the prisoners in the jail with Paul and Silas. Sometimes our prayers are motivated by necessity or fear, and sometimes they are out of gratitude and oddly oxymoronic, as for Paul and Silas - in jail.
We forget, sometimes, that God always answers our prayers - but not always the way we want. Sometimes the answers are backward and sometimes they are answered in God’s time rather than ours. But all our prayers - are not all about what we pray for - but about who they help us become.
For instance, we are already one - today - in that we who have gathered this day and in this time, and so we are family for the next moments - whether they be big or little moments. And with Christ’s ascension back to God, which is celebrated in churches on the 40th day after Easter, this past Friday, we have God’s glory because Christ lives, as will all of us. And to a degree, as Christ has made God known to us, through his examples and words and prayers, we already understand and have some of God’s love - even if it is a thread’s worth from a huge tapestry.
As we prepare our hearts and minds to receive Christ’ bread and cup, let us be mindful that our preparation is a prayer, too, a focusing in on Christ’s presence with us and within us and among us, the beauty and largesse and depth of that love. So let us prepare.
Holy and Reverent God, we thank you - for you, your son, your spirit, your glory, your love, your gifts of diversity and prayer and grace. Thank you, too, for Paul and Silas and all those, throughout the centuries, who have sought you through their circumstances, becoming examples of hope and inspiration to all of us. Help each of us remember those moments of prayer that have touched our lives, that they may inspire us and encourage us in our next steps and paths. For Christ’s prayers, and especially this one from John 17, may we all appreciate again, his love for all of us, and all people. For the blessing of having a God with such greatness of heart, all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.