First Congregational Church
July 21, 2013
9th Sunday after Pentecost
"The Tale of Vision"
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Many of you know that oft read poem, "Footprints in the Sand" by Mary Stevenson.
One night I dreamed I was walking along the beach with the Lord.
Many scenes from my life flashed across the sky.
In each scene I noticed footprints in the sand.
Sometimes there were two sets of footprints,
other times there were one set of footprints.
This bothered me because I noticed
that during the low periods of my life,
when I was suffering from
anguish, sorrow or defeat,
I could see only one set of footprints.
So I said to the Lord,
"You promised me Lord,
that if I followed you,
you would walk with me always.
But I have noticed that during
the most trying periods of my life
there have only been one
set of footprints in the sand.
Why, when I needed you most,
you have not been there for me?"
The Lord replied,
"The times when you have
seen only one set of footprints,
is when I carried you."
Part of the beauty of that poem is our ability to mentally envision the scene. Especially when you are at the big beach, and the tourists are fewer, you can really see the possibility/reality of God carrying us or us walking beside Jesus.
So now imagine you and Jesus walking down the beach together again. For much of the way, the Lord's footprints go along steadily, consistently, rarely varying the pace. But your prints are a disorganized stream of zigzags, starts, stops, turnarounds, circles, departures and returns.
For much of the way it seems to go like this. But gradually, your footprints come more in line with the Lord's, soon paralleling God's consistently. You and Jesus are walking as true friends.
This seems perfect, but then an interesting thing happens: your footprints that once etched the sand next to the Master's are now walking precisely in His steps. The footprint inside the larger ˇfootprint seems to grow larger. Eventually it disappears altogether. There is only one set of footprints. They have become one.
Again, this goes on for a long time. But then something awful happens. The second set of footprints is back. And this time it seems even worse. Zigzags all over the place. Stops. Starts. Deep gashes in the sand. A veritable mess of prints.
You're amazed and shocked. But this is the end of your dream. Now you speak. 'Lord, I understand the first scene with the zigzags and fits and starts and so on. I was new to following you, just learning. But You walked on through the storm and helped me learn to walk with You.' 'That is correct.'
'And when the smaller footprints were inside of yours, I was actually learning to walk in Your steps. I followed You very closely.' 'Very good. You have understood everything so far.'
'Then the smaller footprints grew and eventually filled in with Yours. I suppose that I was actually growing so much that I was becoming like You in every way.' 'Precisely.'
'But this is my question. Lord, was there a regression or something? The footprints went back to two, and this time it was worse than the first.' The Lord smiles, then laughs. 'You didn't know?' He says, 'That was when we danced!
This morning's scripture passage is on par with the popularity of "Footprints in the Sand," and it shares the easy visual of both footprint illustrations. While either Footprint illustration has great sentimentality to it, our passage for this morning steps it up, because like it or not, a number of us have "been there."
As Melissa makes her way up, I'll give you a bit of a preview in telling you that we will be lining the passage this morning. Back in the olden Congregational days, when they wore their best woolens to Sunday services - yes - it was an all morning and afternoon event - one way to help those in the congregation "own" what the Bible said, was to have them "line" it. One of the deacons would stand behind the communion table, on the raised pulpit (which symbolized the elevated regard for educated preaching) and they would put out a phrase after which the congregation repeated it.
Luke 10:38-42 NIV
38 As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. 39 She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. 40 But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
41 “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, 42 but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
Thank you, Melissa. Talk about a Tale of Vision." I'm sure that most of us can see the house, the rooms, the clothing, even Jesus sitting, which was the posture rabbis took when they were to teach. As a preacher, there are practically an infinity of sermons begging to be preached out of this little scene.
And oh the sermon title possibilities: "To Do or to Be; That is the Question," "Do-Be-Do-Be-Do or Be-Do-Be-Do-Be?" In light of a recent editorial in the Record Patriot, which claimed that churches with female pastors were in chaos, it would be SO tempting to make a big deal of the fact that rather than assuming the expected role of women in their culture, Mary sits at Jesus' feet, a huge symbol of her being a student, a role traditionally reserved for men. But being wired as a Martha, I am trying hard to remember that engaging in a media battle is not always a true picture of one who really and truly wants to follow Christ.
If I felt that God would have this morning's message be about who should and who shouldn't be role models, I would also bring up the fact that immediately preceding this Mary and Martha story is that of the "Good" Samaritan. In Jesus' culture, Samaritans - who were like foreigners - and women had about equal status. And yet, Jesus uses both, male and female subjects, to make examples of what those who follow Christ do and are.
But, looking at the Good Samaritan and the M&M story - together - perhaps has more merit. At the end of the Good Samaritan story, Jesus says to the rich lawyer, "Go and DO likewise." In the M&M story, Jesus said that Mary, who chose to sit, had made the better decision. It's interesting that both stories have a great vein of hospitality to them, and Jesus doesn't condemn Martha's preparations.
It's not that she was busy serving and providing hospitality, but that she was distracted by her hospitality to the point that one of the most important aspects of hospitality - gracious attention to the guest - is overlooked.
In her agitation, Martha forgets the rules of hospitality and tries to embarrass her sister in front of her guests. To put the cherry on the top, she asks the guest to intervene in this family dispute. In fact, she's gotten so distracted, she goes so far as to accuse Jesus of not caring about her. "Lord, don't you care?"
The one thing Martha needed was to receive the gracious presence of Jesus, to listen to his words and to know that she was valued not for what she did or how well she did it, but for who she was a a child of God.
I'm never completely sure, when I hear people say things that suggests that God loves them based on things like how many times they go to church, how much they put in the offering plate, if they've said something egregious. I would hope that people that make those sorts of statements are truly joking; that there is not some underlying uncertainty of the wrath of God coming down to bop them on the head.
We are to be gracious and hospitable to people because we don't know when we are entertaining angels. And we're to do whatever we do to the best of our ability, because it reflects on our character as followers of Christ. But if - on occasion, we fail to live up to what we think God expects of us, then it doesn't make us a bad person in God's eyes. For those of you with children, no matter how much they exasperate you, at the end of the day, you still love them. The same goes with God and us.
Lest anyone get the impression that we should all just sit at Jesus' feet, we need to think again. I can't imagine that Mary got to be the age she was without hearing that wonderful phrase, many hands make light work. Martha may have been a whiner, but Mary was lazy, and I don't know about any of you, but in the house where I grew up, laziness was the greater sin.
As a Tale of Vision, Mary and Martha's is one to remind us that there is more than one way to understand a situation. There's Jesus' view of the bigger picture and distraction, Mary's view of opportunity, Martha's view of inequity and distraction, and our view of spiritual discernment. And of course, there are all the views that have not found their way into this message. Regardless of the view, our best is when we are looking at God, sitting in God's presence, just enjoying God. So let us do just that.
God of love beyond any mistake or flaw, we are grateful that your love for us is not dependent on how well we do this or that, whether we feel worried or distracted. It is true that none of us can add a single hour to our span of life in worrying. So help us to set down our anxious thoughts and take those moments that are free of frantic activity - to just be with you. Even if that idea is new to us, help us with the first step, that we renew our relationship with you - dancing and even to allow ourselves to be carried by you. Remind us that only one thing is needed: attention to you, and that your are our guest and host with abundant gifts to give. And all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
July 14, 2013
8th Sunday after Pentecost
“The one who had _____ on him.”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
So Ole vas in bed wit Lena ven der vas a knock at da door. He rolls over and sees that it's 3:30 a.m. "I'm not getting out of bed at this time of the night," he tinks and rolls over. Then a louder know follows. "Aren't you going to answer dat?" says Lena?
Ole drags himself out of bed and goes downstairs. He opens the door and there is a man standing at the door, holding on to the doorframe to steady himself. "Hi there, says the stranger. "Can you give me a push?" "No, get lost. It's half past tree. I vas in bed," says Ole and slams the door. He goes back up to bed and tells Lena what happened and she says, "Ole, dat vasn't Minnesota nice of you. Remember dat night vi broke down in the pouring rain on da vay to pic de kids up from the baby-sitter, and you had to knock on dat man's house to get da car started again? Vat vould half happened if he'd told us to get lost?"
"But Lena, " says Ole. "It doesn't matter," she says. "He needs our help and it vould be de Christian ting to help him." So Ole gets out of bed again, gets dressed and goes downstairs. He opens the door, and not being able to see the stranger anywhere, he shouts, "Hey do you still vant a push?" He hears a voice cry out, "Yeah, please." So, still being unable to see the stranger, Ole shouts, "Vere are you?" The stranger replies, "Over here, on the swing."
I'll give you a big heads up that our scripture for this morning is probably not new to your ears. In fact, it's probably so familiar, I'm thinking that some of you, who haven't looked ahead to the scripture passage, could, with no context, complete one of the verses near the end: "The one who had _____ on him." If it's not coming to mind clearly, you will definitely get it in a few moments.
Luke 10:25-37 NIV
25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?” 27 He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.” 29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” 37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
Thank you, Naomi. There is no doubt that in all of the Bible, this and the story about the Prodigal Son are the most famous. There is no doubt that the Prodigal Son is about forgiveness and today's passage is about kindness and compassion, to use broad sweeping subjects. But coming across someone beaten and robbed, lying on the ground - and being passed by - not once but twice - just doesn't happen as much in our modern world. In fact, there are laws against walking away from someone who is injured.
I think we've tried to be a compassionate nation, most of the time, anyway. But since that particular September 11th, perhaps we are more leery of those we call neighbor. Hearing about law suits against someone who tried to help another can keep us from lending a hand when we can. It's a lot easier, when seeing someone trying to hitch a ride, to find reasons not to pick up him or her: the car is too full, I'm in a rush. And believe me, I'm not advocating that we should throw caution to the wind.
But I wondered, and still wonder, do modern-day Good Samaritans still exist? What does the one lying on the road, beaten and robbed, look like in 2013? Where have you seen either the one on the road or the one who stopped and stooped? This past week, Good Morning America carried the story of Samantha La Rocco.
She said she had just been "dumped" by her boyfriend of a year and a half, and she was in full-blown break-up mode. So the 23 year-old was ordering online from a Los Angeles restaurant called Truly Vegan, sitting at home, hair a mess and in her break-up pants. (As one reviewer noted, How many break ups does it take to designate a pair of "break up pants?")
In the midst of her sorrow, she decided to include a note in the special instructions box of her order that read, "I've just been dumped. Please draw something inspiring on the container." Not expecting the restaurant to even really read the note, let alone follow through, she was more than pleasantly surprised when she received her salad.
Included on the Styrofoam box was a stick figure holding a sign surrounded by hearts that said, "You're worth it," followed by "You don't need him to be happy," with a sunshine above it. The message on the box was exactly what La Rocco needed to pick herself up and dust herself off. "This is the best break up I've had," she said. "It was the happiest salad I've ever had in my life." I kept the container. It's still in the refrigerator."
I'm thinking that Ms. La Rocco may think about rinsing out that styrofoam container - from the rather "green" sounding Truly Vegan. But all in all, even it if sounds trite, it's a really great Good Samaritan story.
So maybe the artist of the container and Ms. La Rocco weren't enemies by their tribe or faith affiliation - like Samaritans and Jewish people - back in the day. And yes, Samantha asked for "help," rather than waiting for someone to "notice" her condition, which is, by the way, a rather healthy thing to do. But the essence of one unknown reaching out to another unknown is timeless, even if we may not always see such moments of divine exchange as that. And granted, this story may seem eons away from the beaten and robbed man in Jesus' parable. But it's also not very compassionate to distinguish between broken bodies and broken hearts.
Many of us have heard this story so many times, we could probably recite if from memory and get most of it right. We hear stories like this parable, and just about every time we hear them, we hear something different. So this week, when I read our passage, I was struck by the word "mercy."
It's not as foreign to our modern ears as repentance or atonement or some of those other highfalutin' church words. But when was the last time you stopped to think about that word? Over there in the cyber world, mercy is, in one place, described as a "broad term that refers to benevolence, forgiveness and kindness in a variety of ethical, religious, social and legal contexts." It, interestingly, comes from Latin, and means "price paid, wages." In the social and legal contexts, the definition of mercy is "may refer both to compassionate behavior on the part of those in power, or on the part of a humanitarian third party. A judge may show mercy to a convict or a help agency may offer aid."
When Jesus was asked how to get eternal life, he flipped the question back on the young lawyer. Jesus wouldn't have done that had he not suspected that the young man already knew the answer to his own question. And he did.
Sometimes in life, we struggle with knowing what God would have us do. But by and large, I don't think those situations are all that common. I think we do know what we are supposed to do most of the time. The priest and the Levite surely would have known what they were supposed to do.
As men of the cloth, they would have studied Deuteronomy 6:5: "Love the Lord your God." It's the first prayer that every Jewish child knows by heart: "Hear, O Israel. The Lord is our God, the Lord alone." And the men surely would have known Leviticus 19:18: "love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord."
And most all of us know about loving the Lord our God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our strength and with all our mind and loving our neighbor as ourself. But I'm guessing that at least one of us, in this coming week, will come upon a situation when we are presented with an opportunity to be the priest, the Levite or the Good Samaritan. In the words of a person I know, "Who do you want to be?" And how do we become who we want to be? By tending to the wounded by listening. By paying the price with our time and heart, rather than our pocketbook.
A few weeks back, I was talking with the owner of Bennet Barz Funeral home, and she was telling me about her love for old cemeteries and how the really old gravestones have great messages about a person's life. And I totally cracked up when she said that there is a gravestone somewhere in the area that actually says, "I told you I was sick." But in a serious mode, wouldn't it be a remarkable thing - for others - to put on our gravestones, “The one who had mercy on others"? Let us pray.
God of healing and compassion, we are reminded this day - again - of what it means to follow you. Thank you for the Good Samaritans you have sent to us - those we have recognized and those we have ministered to us even if we haven't seen them. Help us to go and do likewise. Help us to be wise and attentive to your Spirit, that we not be someone else's pawn for evil. But help us to see those who, in their woundedness, need us to be their Good Samaritan. Thank you for sending your Son, our own original Good Samaritan, who not only stopped and stooped down to us from his eternal life from you, but who paid the highest cost of mercy - with his life. For each and every blessing you give us - in human and non-human bodies, and in helping us write our epitaphs in our lives, all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
July 7, 2013
7th Sunday after Pentecost
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
So for those of you who aren't into computers, I want to tell you about this new "fad" called Pintrest. I don't know much about it, but it's sort of like an invisible bulletin board, where you can "pin" things you like - from recipes to furniture pictures, kinds of music to hobbies,
In working on the introduction for this morning's message, I Googled up "encouragement jokes." One of the first results was a person's Pintrest page. I've never heard of this Debi Malerba, but part of the beauty of this phenomenon is that you can look at other people's Pins and put them on your board if you'd like - for future reference. So under the category of "lunch box jokes and words of encouragement," I found a gold mine. There are little tags you can print, to stick in someone's lunchbox or bag. There are graphics you can print on label paper for a person's name that carries a sort of encouragement or smile-maker.
And then there are the lunchbox jokes you can print. So with all the preparation, what do elves learn in school? The elfabet. How do you get straight A's? With a ruler. What's a pirate's favorite subject? Arrrrrrt. And what do you get when you cross a pair of pants with a dictionary? Smarty pants.
Being that it is High Summer here in paradise, we finally got the warmth so many were wanting, the sunshine so many needed, and the visitors for whom others were longing. There are places to go, people to entertain, bedding to change and meals to plan. For those who are retired, this routine may feel re and tired. For those who are working, the days are already long, and the customers that are polite and sensitive seem too few. In the middle of our busy lives, it seems most appropriate to be reminded of the importance of encouragement.
I wonder how many people - all of us included - hear this "encouragement" of "encouragement" and we droop our shoulders just a bit, because it means extra effort, extra thought on our parts. Except that it doesn't always happen that way.
Mercedes Ruehl is one of the few actresses to win a Tony and an Oscar in the same year, and is 65 years young. Her Tony was for Lost in Yonkers and her Oscar was for The Fisher King. When she was in grade school, her family was in New York visiting relatives when they drove through Times Square. On the spur of the moment, her parents decided to see if they could get tickets to "The Unsinkable Molly Brown."
"I remember waiting in the car," says Mercedes, "while my mother ran up to the box office. The only tickets left were for box seats. Box seats! To me there were no better seats, and I remember my father saying, sure, go for it. One of the best qualities of my parents was that they liked to have fun.
"As we watched the play, I could not take my eyes off its star, Tammy Grimes. She must have felt my adoration, because at one point she looked up and held my eyes. It was probably for no more than one second, but it seemed like ten seconds. I always felt that was my official invitation to be an actress. With her gaze I was touched like a knight on both shoulders with a sword." How often we forget the power of a look, the magnitude of a recognition of a person's soul.
Last Sunday's scripture passage came from the book of Galatians, and this week we continue with that same book. Galatia was a highland area in our modern day Turkey. From what I can tell, the Galatians were originally Europeans who invaded the native people called Cappadocians. The native people were allowed to keep their lands, but had to tithe their property to their Galatian overlords. That little "arrangement" allowed many Galatians to continue their military lifestyle at that time - one that didn't necessarily have an interest in becoming a forgiving, gentle, peace-loving body of people.
The great apostle Paul made three mission trips during his lifetime. All three had him traveling through Galatia, so he knew the people and their situations. He knew of the Christians who lived in Galatia, especially the ones who were getting "overzealous" in how they thought Christian converts should be acting. These Christian fanatics were living far more by the Law - capital L - Old Testament, black and white "thou shalt" and "thou shalt not", rather than by the love and grace and mercy that Christ preached, demonstrated and lived. It is against that background that we hear this morning's scripture passage, read from Eugene Peterson's translation, The Message.
Galatians 6:1-10 The Message
1-3 Live creatively, friends. If someone falls into sin, forgivingly restore him, saving your critical comments for yourself. You might be needing forgiveness before the day’s out. Stoop down and reach out to those who are oppressed. Share their burdens, and so complete Christ’s law. If you think you are too good for that, you are badly deceived.
4-5 Make a careful exploration of who you are and the work you have been given, and then sink yourself into that. Don’t be impressed with yourself. Don’t compare yourself with others. Each of you must take responsibility for doing the creative best you can with your own life.
6 Be very sure now, you who have been trained to a self-sufficient maturity, that you enter into a generous common life with those who have trained you, sharing all the good things that you have and experience.
7-8 Don’t be misled: No one makes a fool of God. What a person plants, he will harvest. The person who plants selfishness, ignoring the needs of others—ignoring God!—harvests a crop of weeds. All he’ll have to show for his life is weeds! But the one who plants in response to God, letting God’s Spirit do the growth work in him, harvests a crop of real life, eternal life.
9-10 So let’s not allow ourselves to get fatigued doing good. At the right time we will harvest a good crop if we don’t give up, or quit. Right now, therefore, every time we get the chance, let us work for the benefit of all, starting with the people closest to us in the community of faith.
Thank you, Peggy. Although it is Eugene Peterson's translation, there still is a lot of Paul in that first - very necessary - sentence, "Live creatively, friends." A long time ago, back in the days before I even knew that Frankfort, MI existed, I had done some work in and with the then 7 or 8 Congregational churches in Minnesota. (There are now 9 churches in Minnesota that have grown from the same National Association roots that we have. By the way, Michigan has 60 NACCC churches.) There was a minister working in one of the larger churches that decided to "borrow" some funds from the Missions account to cover some of the expenses of remodeling their home - at least that's about what I remember.
That minister was tried, found guilty and after a little time in jail or prison, went home with an ankle bracelet, as would be "normal." I remember the shock and wrestling that we did as a state Association - and as individuals. With just nine churches in the state Association, everyone pretty much knew everyone else. The wrestling came over the idea that the great Paul says so pointedly. "If someone falls into sin, forgivingly restore him, saving your critical comments for yourself." It's at that point in Minnesota that they say, "uffda!"
"Forgivingly restore him" - or her. We've spoken about this concept at our Benzie County Ministerial Association meetings, how we would do such a thing in various situations - to protect all parties involved - and we never hold those conversations without a great deal of seriousness and a dash of "but for the grace of God" thrown in. I don't know about any of you, but there sure are a number of names running through my head when I hear these words - from the Bible - forgivingly restore them. There would need to be great "creativity" in restoring people whose names find themselves at the front end of a newscast or the front page of the paper.
I still don't know about anyone else, but I am tempted, in just that much of "God's Word" to put my foot into my "high horse" saddle, because I do know the difference between right and wrong. Except that the wise Paul followed up those first two sentences with this one: "You might be needing forgiveness before the day’s out."
Sometimes, somehow, life just happens, and right or wrong, we need forgiveness - to receive it and to give it. It is a hugely precious gift that we don't hear much about these days. And yet, while it would be easy to stick with just these three sentences from this book of Galatians, wise - and practical - Paul encourages us with verse 9. "So let’s not allow ourselves to get fatigued doing good."
One of the television shows I've really grown to love is one that often - like Duck Dynasty - ends with the family sitting around the dinner table. What I love about Blue Bloods, after having to watch the very handsome Tom Selleck, are some of his lines as the New York City Police Commissioner. More than once I've tried to write down a line that he spoke, because it was just plain good. In season 3, Commissioner Reagan said, "Doing the right thing may be hard but it sure as hell (heck) isn't complicated." In a very Paul-like manner, Commissioner Reagan also said, "It takes guts to stand by your principles, not just when it's easy but when it can cost you something."
There have been a lot of people that have said a lot of good (encouraging) things about encouragement over the centuries. I wouldn't doubt that most everyone here - given a minute or two to think about it, could come up with a line or phrase that has been important in your life or someone you know.
Even at that point, Paul has excellent advise for us. "Each of you must take responsibility for doing the creative best you can with your own life." For that, we do our very best when we remember to include God in the creativity and restoration and reaching out and everything else Paul encourages us to do in this morning's passage. So let us go back into our world with some of God's creativity and words.
Gracious God, help us to live creatively. Help us to forgive and restore those who "fall." Help us to hold our tongue, and to remember that forgiveness is a give and take thing. Help us to reach out to the oppressed and to share their burdens. And make us mindful that we are not too good to do so.
Remind us not to be impressed with ourselves at the right times, and at the other right times, to be proud of jobs well done because of the abilities you give us. Remind us that life is not a comparison race, but that our test is only with our own self. Remind us of what we learned in or before Kindergarden, that sharing is a good thing - in our burdens as well as our joys. As we are so blessed with good fruit from your earth at this time of year, remind us that what we reap what we sow - for good or ill. When we are weary, Lord, or overwhelmed, remind us that the world is not dependent on us, but on you, so our best is good enough. And when we have the opportunity, Lord, nudge us to offer the smile or glance that can make a change for greatness. For all the answers to our prayers, and in thanks for all your blessings, all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.