First Congregational Church
July 17, 2016
9th Sunday after Pentecost
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Abbott said, “Do you have any two-watt, 4-volt light bulbs?” Costello said, “For what?” Abbott said, “No, two.” Costello said, “Two what?” Abbott said, “Yes.” Costello said, “No.’
Little five year old Ole asked his mother if he could sleep with jumper cables under his pillow - because what five year old doesn’t ever ask that question? Ole’s mother said, “Okay, but you have to promise not to start anything.”
I was reading my hometown paper this week, and I noticed a couple things. In the section from the Sheriff’s department, it had an little blurb about an engineer that was putting sea water in his batteries without the boss knowing. He was arrested for salt-in-battery, but even though the charge wouldn't hold up, he is sitting in his cell serving two current sentences. I will say it again, Litchfield, MN was a great place to grow up! The other paper item was way at the bottom of the politics section. It said, “After suffering weak gain at the poles, the National Transistor Party has been trying to energize their base.
Since May, our sermon sojourn through the book of Acts has taken us through the whole Pentecost official church inauguration, the healings and teachings of the apostles, and the creation of a group called deacons, who were in charge of caring for the followers; from the helpless to the hungry. One of those first deacons, Stephen, was stoned for this assistance and his devotion to following the ways of Christ, making him the first martyr. But none of the apostles had been killed, until Acts, chapter 12.
It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. 2 He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword. 3 When he saw that this met with approval among the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also. This happened during the Festival of Unleavened Bread. 4 After arresting him, he put him in prison, handing him over to be guarded by four squads of four soldiers each. Herod intended to bring him out for public trial after the Passover. 5 So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him.
6 The night before Herod was to bring him to trial, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries stood guard at the entrance. 7 Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him up. “Quick, get up!” he said, and the chains fell off Peter’s wrists.
8 Then the angel said to him, “Put on your clothes and sandals.” And Peter did so. “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me,” the angel told him. 9 Peter followed him out of the prison, but he had no idea that what the angel was doing was really happening; he thought he was seeing a vision. 10 They passed the first and second guards and came to the iron gate leading to the city. It opened for them by itself, and they went through it. When they had walked the length of one street, suddenly the angel left him.
11 Then Peter came to himself and said, “Now I know without a doubt that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from Herod’s clutches and from everything the Jewish people were hoping would happen.”
12 When this had dawned on him, he went to the house of Mary the mother of John, also called Mark, where many people had gathered and were praying. 13 Peter knocked at the outer entrance, and a servant named Rhoda came to answer the door. 14 When she recognized Peter’s voice, she was so overjoyed she ran back without opening it and exclaimed, “Peter is at the door!”
15 “You’re out of your mind,” they told her. When she kept insisting that it was so, they said, “It must be his angel.”
16 But Peter kept on knocking, and when they opened the door and saw him, they were astonished. 17 Peter motioned with his hand for them to be quiet and described how the Lord had brought him out of prison. “Tell James and the other brothers and sisters about this,” he said, and then he left for another place.
18 In the morning, there was no small commotion among the soldiers as to what had become of Peter. 19 After Herod had a thorough search made for him and did not find him, he cross-examined the guards and ordered that they be executed.
Thank you, Peggy. For those of you wondering, the Festival of Unleavened Bread is also known as Passover, sort of like our interchangeable 4th of July and Independence Day. James is the first, actual apostle to be killed for his part in the whole Jesus scene. In fact, James and Judas’ suicide are the only two apostles’ death clearly mentioned in the Bible. Tradition and early historians tell us of the deaths of seven apostles, and we never do find out - definitively - what happened to John, Bartholomew and Simon.
Despite the apostolic necrological information - and yes - necrological is a real word, I fell in love with this passage when I read it again this week, despite it’s sad ending. Firstly, it’s probably as close to a sit-com as we will ever see in the Bible - Rhoda answering the door and leaving Peter there to tell everyone in the house, without inviting him in. In fact, with the actual name of Rhoda, I’d be willing to guess that there was at least one episode of the Mary Tyler Moore show that used that very scene with Rhoda Morgenstern.
And when the angel woke up Peter, I had to smile, too. For whatever reason, I heard the angel’s voice - with a sort of Brooklyn accent as he jabbed Peter in the side, “Hey Mac, git up.”
It’s interesting that this passage doesn’t make it into the lectionary - that three year, prescribed list of bible readings. That’s really too bad, because it leaves the less learned (me) having to do more of our own thinking in regards to insights and stuff that makes congregations go “oo” and “ah.”
The sentence that popped out this week was from verse 5: “So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him.” I don’t know exactly what it meant, but just sound of “four squads of four soldiers each” tells you that Peter was a big threat to Herod. Although it didn’t seem likely that Peter was going to be released, the church prayed anyway. And now we know what happened after that.
We don’t know if it was the “minute” that the church prayed, “the hour,” or even “the day” the church prayed, but they were praying. We don’t know their exact words, or how close the actual details came to the actual prayers, but they were answered.
The Bible doesn’t tell us how many other prayers were offered up by those same people - prayers that may or may not have had eventual answers, but I’m sure they were just like so many other churches - in praying anyway. And just like always, sometimes we see our prayers answered and sometimes we don’t, even tho God always answers our prayers.
During the sharing of joys and concerns last week, we heard of a father’s prayers that had been answered regarding his daughter, prayers that had gone on for years, prayers that were sometimes shared by this congregation. This week, we heard that the years of prayers for another couple’s grandchild weren’t answered. In both cases, at some point in time, we had prayed for those individuals, even though many of you may have forgotten. Although the prayers were similar, they had very different endings - at least to our eyes, ears, hearts and minds. And this pastor had the audacity to use a sermon title, “Unappreciated Power” - especially this week - especially on the heels of the last months in terms of world events.
Part of the “unappreciated power” of our prayers is that they sometimes do end in miracles - miracles that happen right before human eyes. For those times, we can offer a truly-heartfelt prayer of thanks, and a big ol’ Go God!
Part of the “unappreciated power” of our prayers, tho, is what our prayers together do for our own selves. Just to be clear, our prayers ought not be solely about the good they do for us. But numerous Facebook posts and internet postings have boasted of the good that singing together in a group does for one’s mental and physical health. Studies have been done that reveal the similarity of heart rates when people are singing together - which is especially good for the anxious or depressed.
I don’t know of any studies, but my theory is that there is a similar phenomena that happens when we pray together - even silently. Our own, personal prayer, becomes greater as it reflects off the hearts of others, and our hearts fall more in line with one another than when we aren’t praying together. Maybe our prayers together are like mirrors that reflect off one another - light spreading light - seemingly invisible, but with great definition. How ever it plays out, that time when we share our joys and concerns and pray about them together is far, far more than catching up on what is going on around town.
But what if the church in Peter’s day hadn’t prayed for him? What if they took the overwhelming situation for face-value - that there was no hope? Where would Peter have landed? And what if we hadn’t joined with the father in praying for his daughter during the years? Would her situation have changed at all - ever? If we had never prayed for the granddaughter, even if it was only once or even twice, would we put our arms around the grandparents as tightly as if we had never heard of that granddaughter?
This “unappreciated power” of prayer - as it pertains to our individual and corporate hearts - is especially important during these days of what looks and sounds like chaos and insanity. More than ever, we need the unappreciated power of people who will share of themselves, as Jessie Grant shared with us last week, that when we are a little unhinged, we can be reminded that we are never truly unhinged from God. Especially in a day and age when it is so easy to see the divisions in our lives, we need to share our vulnerabilities so that we can siddle up next to those who are fearful, grieving, depressed, or any of the vast other negativities of this world, and share with that person or those individuals the fact that they are not the only ones to feel such things.
We can all appreciate the person who wants to keep it together while their world is falling apart. And I get the part about how hard it is to share something with someone when the tears are falling all over and the snot running out of the nose looking so unattractive. But I’m telling you, martyrdom isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. And we weren’t create to be martyrs. We were created to be drawn together by love and compassion to a greater good. So we should pray.
Gracious, wise and loving God, we thank you for the gift of prayer - the gift that is so much greater than we often realize. Help us, in the weeks ahead, to pray with renewed desire and intent, that we might truly become the people you see us to be. Remind us, in those prayers, that they are not just about us, but that they are important for us, too. For the miraculous and answered prayers within our ken, we are truly grateful. For the prayers that you answer out of our realization, thank you, too. And for the privilege that we have - as people of a living God - to speak to you at any time and any place, all your people say, Amen.
07-10-16 Sunday Sermon
First Congregational Church
July 10, 2015
8th Sunday after Pentecost
"Look No Further Than Here"
Jessie Grant, preaching
So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Ephesians 4:11-13
(Instead), speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. Ephesians 4:15-16
Before I begin, will you take a minute and please pray with me!
Lord I pray that in these next few minutes, you would speak through me. May every word that comes out of my heart and through my mouth be from you and glorifying to you. I thank you for loving us and constantly being by our sides even when we choose things besides you or try to do things on our own. I pray that you will reveal more of who You are in our stories and in our lives and that we will truly put You first because You deserve no less than that. May we shine for you no matter where we are and may we glorify you in all we do. May Your will be done in our lives, In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Throughout my life, I have been incredibly blessed to go on eight mission trips to places such as Romania, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, the Appalachian mountains, and a native American reservation in California. And this church has helped make it possible for me to be able to go to the Dominican Republic and Romania. A quick summary of my trip to Romania: I visited there for three weeks with a group from my high school mission program. While we were there, our team supported a local church that had been there for hundreds of years and took on many tasks they asked including construction, Vacation Bible Schools, playing with kids in orphanages and engaging with the local people.
While there, I was struck by two huge problems that the people there faced. The first was sex trafficking. More than 1000 young girls and women annually vanish and unwillingly find themselves caught in this trade. Many of them are from poor villages are are just looking for something that would take them out of their struggles. That’s a very conservative estimate and this number continues to rise. The second was discrimination. There were two classes of people – the Romanians and the Gypsies – and the discrimination runs deep. Sad to say but neither of these problems are confined to Romania – and they are something that basically every country is embroiled in.
The Romanian gypsies are distinguished by their darker skin and when I first saw a young boy coming to one of VBS’s named Chris with darker skin I though absolutely nothing of it. But it was different for the Romanian people. They immediately started laughing and making fun of him because he looked different and his clothes and body were streaked with dirt. Once he came into my group, everyone kept their distances from him and he also stood away. I went up to talk to him and he was even hesitant to do that. As the day progressed, they still kept a distance from him. Finally at the end of the day they were all playing games and it came to the time when it was Chris’s turn to do a three legged race with another boy. The other boy wouldn’t even link arms with Chris, but they ended up beating the other teams and instantly the discrimination vanished! The team came around and high-fived them all while cheering.
It was amazing to see how games could bring people together and overcome their differences.
Serving on each of these trips has been incredible. God has revealed himself in astounding ways and has truly shown me a deeper love for His people and how Christ is alive and active everywhere I go. As westerners, we love to do what I’ve been able to do! Build houses, have vacation bible schools and camps, give people food, and do things where you can see the tangible results of our labors or donations.
And don’t get me wrong, these people are in need of help, but I think we often overlook those around us. We go out and serve those across the globe or maybe those at a local food pantry and yet we often forget those that are closest to us.
What I have found is that often those people we tend to serve are materially poor but so rich in their relationship with Christ and their communities. These people depend on God and those around them for everything. And because of that, I have been able to learn so much from them when I serve alongside them. God is literally the one that sustains and provides for them and they realize this. PAUSE They lean on each other for whatever they need as a community and are incredibly close because of that.
We are quick to give money or our own time to people who are materially poor. But what about those who are spiritually or emotionally poor?
You see, the amount of people in these two categories is continuing to rise to astronomical numbers in many western civilizations. Depression and loneliness are higher than ever before. 1 in 10 Americans are affected at one time or another by depression and there is an estimated 121 million people around the world that suffer from depression (healthline). And that number is increasing by 20% per year. And the situation is also on the rise for my generation. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among college students and it’s estimated that one in five Americans suffer from persistent loneliness.
How often do we respond, “I’m okay” or stay silent when asked “how are you doing?” And that is honestly so far from what we truly feel.
We believe that we’re burdening others with our problems when they have so many of their own to deal with. Sometimes we as Christians and myself included think that we’re serving the church and others by thinking that we don’t matter. We might do things so we look more selfless or appear more godly, but that is far from the truth. I know I have done this countless times. I may be struggling with feeling unworthy or something else, but I don’t share it. I keep it all to myself and think I can figure out my problems all on my own.
And I know that there is a risk when you let your guard down. There’s a vulnerability when you let people in. When you reveal your hurts and struggles, it gives people more power to hurt you. And while that’s true, there is also so much freedom in letting others listen to you and therefore letting God speak.
What would it look like if we as a church actually came together and served those around us by being genuinely real with each other?
What if we were unafraid of the judgements when people saw that our lives weren’t perfect and that we were hurting?
What would it look like if we began calling out for help when we needed it?
That we wouldn’t be afraid of being perceived as weak or alone?
What if we truly changed and began doing this together. Because here’s the thing, we are nowhere near perfect. And yet, in the church and in other places, we often feel like we need to be seen as perfect and having it all together. But we aren’t meant to go through this life on our own.
God didn’t create it to be that way. That is why the church was created. So that we could learn, encourage, and be there for those in the body of Christ. We are supposed to do life together! Even when it is messy and you might feel alone. When we are connected to the body, Christ gives us what we need to serve Him and others.
After all, a body doesn’t function solely by one part doing all of the work. Instead, each part (whether the hand, neck, heart, brain or kidney) has to do its role so that it functions the way it is supposed to. That is the same for us as the body of Christ. That’s in part why sharing our stories of what God has done in our lives is important. And basically all that means is just sharing about what’s happened in your life and how God has worked in the midst of that.
We share our stories because Christ works in and through them. They are ultimately not about us and what we’ve done, but how Christ has made himself evident in each of our lives. It is through those moments of deep transparency that God works. In that process our stories can also be such a witness of God’s faithfulness in our lives.
Often when we are going through trials, we think that we are alone in it and that no one else has been through it. But that is a lie from the pit of hell. In reality, there is likely someone pretty near that has actually been through the same things. And so in those places of deep hurt, others can often come alongside you and walk through life with you.
The power of the words “me too” or simply just sitting next to someone can mean so much. God has equipped each of us with of a story of His faithfulness that we can show through our lives. He moves through each of us whether you believe it or not.
And ultimately, it’s not our stories to share, but God’s story. By not sharing our stories, we’re saying that we know better than God. And I for one know I’m not even close to how wise or omniscient as God is. So, will you let him work through you by sharing what He has done in your life with others?
Are you willing to be vulnerable so that God can work through you in building others up?
Will you take the time and truly listen to those around you like Christ calls us to?
When we share our stories with others it also helps us see that God was faithful even if we did not see it in the moment. And if you don’t see it yourself, those around you can often point it out. Furthermore, when we share our hurts and pains, we are allowing God to work in those places so that he can redeem them and make them whole.
If you personally don’t feel that you can share with other people yet, I urge you to share it with God. He already knows exactly what we’ve been through, and when we choose to let Him in, He meets us right there in our place of deepest emptiness. He gives us His strength in place of our weakness. He gives us His love in place of our selfishness. He gives us His joy in place of our despair. He gives us His hope in place of our hopelessness.
It’s God’s nature to give, because He is love. And so that’s why being vulnerable feels like the worst thing but is really the best.
I love how author Caroline Coleman puts it:
“Sometimes God allows us to go to the deepest pits because it is in those times that we truly see how we are dependent on Him. We have to let Him take control because we cannot do it on our own. He uses the circumstances of our lives, especially our places of woundedness, brokenness, disappointment and rejection, for good. We are all completely and utterly reliant on God all the time –but we often don’t realize this.
“The very brokenness that we hate and try to hide and forget about, brings us to a place of such vulnerability that our hearts finally melt with compassion and love when we encounter other people. When circumstances and other people hurt us, and we start to live dependent and vulnerable to God out of our brokenness, we discover that we receive and are able to give of His perfect love.
And when we feel like we can’t do it, and we don’t want to be vulnerable, and we’re too afraid to trust God – we can remind ourselves that God became utterly vulnerable to us.
Jesus died naked, abandoned, and alone on the cross. Even His Father turned His back on Him on the cross, so that Jesus could experience hell for us so that we would not have to.
If God didn’t scorn the shame of the cross, who are we to be ashamed of anything?
Just as the cross is ugly, and yet God transformed it into the most beautiful thing, so our shame, rejection and vulnerability seem ugly to us – and yet if we bring them to the foot of the cross, God can transform our weakest ugliest most shameful places into sources of transcendent beauty.”
God ultimately desires you and your heart. That’s it! While God does delight in you serving others, he delights in nothing more than being with you and knowing you for who He made you to be.
Whether your life is out of control right now, or you are hurting or in pain, or you are doing good, God wants you to simply sit and be with Him.
And during those times he will sort through what’s happened, the mistakes you’ve made, and the times you don’t understand. And in those moments, if you choose to let Him in, he will come in and redeem those events, sorrows, and hurts.
God wants to sit with you, wherever you are and he wants the church to do the same with others. To sit with each other in the muck and mess of life. To be a shoulder for someone to cry on. To let someone know that they are not alone in what they are going through.
Jesus says in Matthew 11:28-30, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Let Jesus take whatever you are carrying, give it to Him! Give Him all of you so that He can reveal how He has worked in your life.
I encourage you over this next week to begin taking steps to serve those closest to you.
Jesus calls us to serve so that the body of Christ is built up wherever they are. And maybe the first step for you is just writing out your story or whatever you’re feeling just like David did in the Psalms.
For me, writing it out, made me truly reflect on what God had done in my life and illuminated that He really was there even when I didn’t necessarily see it. Maybe for some of you, it’s crying out for help to others when you need it. Or it’s just sitting down with someone and listening to their story and pointing out all that God has done.
Whatever it is, I pray that you will let God work through you to serve those closest to you because it can be absolutely incredible to be on an adventure with Him.
07-03-16 Sunday Sermon
First Congregational Church
July 3, 2016
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
“Freedom To – Freedom In”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Ole asked, “What do you call an American drawing?” Sven answered, “What?” Ole replied, “A Yankee doodle!” The teacher said, “More than 200 years ago, our forefathers defeated the British in the Revolutionary War. Maynard replied, “Wow! They must have been pretty strong, four men defeating a whole army!” four fathers….
It has been interesting, working our way through the book of Acts since May. The chapters were lined up with the Sundays, and adjusted slightly for vacation and such - but without reading ahead at all, seriously. So it was completely without knowing that this morning’s scripture passage would fall on this Independence Sunday, and I doubt I could have done much better, pulling a passage from thin air. So Go God, again!
Long before the Bible was written down, there were rules that the “chosen” people had to follow. In fact, there are not just ten commandments, but 613 in the first five books of the Bible. From the book of Leviticus, God told Moses and his brother, Aaron, “You may eat any animal that has a divided hoof and that chews the cud.”
So camels and rabbits chew their cud, but they don’t have hooves. Pigs have divided hooves, but don’t chew their cud, so pork is not permissible. As a personal aside, a world without bacon, side pork or or any other pork products would be just plain sad.
Fish - anything with fins or scales was okay, but seafood with shells were a no-no. It doesn’t say why, but eagles were also on the forbidden list, as were ravens, hawks, several kinds of owls, storks, herons and bats. If insects had jointed legs for hopping on the ground, they were okay - such as locusts, but flying insects that walk on all fours were forbidden. As was anything that walked on paws. If an unclean “animal” fell onto something made of wood, cloth, hide or sackcloth, it was to be put into water until evening, and then it would be clean again. If something unclean fell into a clay pot, the pot had to be broken. In some ways, these sorts of rules make life really easy. But then God decided to shake things up.
The apostles and the believers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him 3 and said, “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.”
4 Starting from the beginning, Peter told them the whole story: 5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. I saw something like a large sheet being let down from heaven by its four corners, and it came down to where I was. 6 I looked into it and saw four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, reptiles and birds. 7 Then I heard a voice telling me, ‘Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.’ 8 “I replied, ‘Surely not, Lord! Nothing impure or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’
9 “The voice spoke from heaven a second time, ‘Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.’ 10 This happened three times, and then it was all pulled up to heaven again.
11 “Right then three men who had been sent to me from Caesarea stopped at the house where I was staying. 12 The Spirit told me to have no hesitation about going with them. These six brothers also went with me, and we entered the man’s house (Cornelius). 13 He told us how he had seen an angel appear in his house and say, ‘Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. 14 He will bring you a message through which you and all your household will be saved.’
15 “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. 16 Then I remembered what the Lord had said: ‘John baptized with[a] water, but you will be baptized with[b] the Holy Spirit.’ 17 So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?” 18 When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.”
Thank you, Carlisle. Tomorrow we celebrate the day that put a stop to Americans having to pay taxes to England without any representation in English parliament. Before that day in 1776, Americans were subservient to a country that wasn’t our own, without the same rights that people in that other country had. And truthfully, we’ve been struggling with equality issues ever since then within our own nation.
In the scripture passage for this morning, God lifted the ban on all those foods, so that God’s people were free to eat anything they wanted. This freedom came not because they were such good people, or because they had done wonderful things, but because the Holy Spirit was helping the Jewish folks reach out to the Gentile folks. And just because they had the freedom to eat whatever they wanted, didn’t mean it was a good idea to do a great big taste testing all in one day to make up for lost time.
I would venture a guess that when we hear the word “freedom,” a good many of us think of the ability to do whatever we want, although we have become better at acknowledging that freedom generally comes with a high price tag. The Declaration of Independence didn’t give us to the right do whatever we wanted, but to have the equal ability - as the English of that time - to determine our own path. In that freedom, we can determine the rules that will make our lives easier. If there were no rules for driving, people could drive on both sides of the road, at all different speeds, and on super-highways, that would be quite the nightmare. Just as it was true back in the book of Leviticus, rules can make life much easier.
And freedom gives us a responsibility - to think and wrestle with decisions - even after those decisions have been made. As followers of Christ, we still have that responsibility - not in the freedom to do whatever we want, but in the Holy Spirit to use the gifts God has given us for the greater good of all of us. Then Peter’s words apply to us, regarding those gifts, that if God gave them, then who are we to stand in God’s way of using gifts - gifts from people we may love and adore - as well as people with whom we have isse. For all of that freedom, we should pray.
Great and Wise God, you have given us a free will and the blessing of living in the freedom of this land, and for those things we are grateful. So help us to be even more conscious of - and wise - in decisions and rule-making. And when we have gotten it wrong, help us to see the error and the strength to make needed corrections. Thank you for all that has taken place up to this time, that we may enjoy freedoms unrealized by so many. In the coming days, help each of us to tune into your Holy Spirit, that we can appreciate the freedom we have in it and our responsibilities for it. For all the many blessings you have bestowed on all your people, this gathering of your people say, Amen.
06-26-16 Sunday Sermon
First Congregational Church
June 26, 2016
6th Sunday after Pentecost
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
After watching sales falling off for three straight months at Kentucky Fried Chicken, the Colonel calls up the Pope and asks for a favor. The Pope says, ''What can I do?’' The Colonel says, ''I need you to change the daily prayer from, 'Give us this day our daily bread' to 'Give us this day our daily chicken'. If you do it, I'll donate 10 Million Dollars to the Vatican.’' The Pope replies, ''I am sorry. That is the Lord's prayer and I can not change the words.''
So the Colonel hangs up. After another month of dismal sales, the Colonel panics, and calls again. ''Listen your Excellency. I really need your help. I'll give you $50 million dollars if you change the words of the daily prayer from 'Give us this day our daily bread' to 'Give us this day our daily chicken.'''
And the Pope responds, ''It is very tempting, Colonel Sanders. The church could do a lot of good with that much money. It would help us support many charities. But, again, I must decline. It is the Lord's prayer, and I can't change the words.''
So the Colonel gives up again. After two more months of terrible sales the Colonel gets desperate. ''This is my final offer, your Excellency. If you change the words of the daily prayer from, 'Give us this day our daily bread' to 'Give us this day our daily chicken' I will donate $100 million to the Vatican.’' The Pope replies, ''Let me get back to you.''
So the next day, the Pope calls together all of his bishops and he says, ''I have some good news and I have some bad news. The good news is that KFC is going to donate $100 million to the Vatican.’' The bishops rejoice at the news. Then one asks about the bad news. The Pope replies, ''The bad news is that we lost the Wonder Bread account.''
We continue our way through the book of Acts this week, in chapter 9. So much has taken place in the prior chapters: Pentecost, the first martyr, Stephen stoned to death, while waiting for Jesus’ return Philip and an Ethiopian eunuch had a life-changing afternoon, and the great Saul started persecuting Christians with a vengeance, which is where today’s passage begins.
There’s just one little explanation that will help our listening. Before they were called Christians, early followers of Jesus were called members of the Way.
Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything. In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, “Ananias!” “Yes, Lord,” he answered.
The Lord told him, “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.”
“Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your holy people in Jerusalem. And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.”
But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”
Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
Thank you, Rob, Reagan, Jim and Paul. There is a little detail here that never caught my attention before, and that’s the name of the street. Straight Street. I’m guessing it’s a point that the writer of Acts used, whom most people think is Luke, as a validation of the event actually happening. When I thought about it, I don’t think any other local streets in the Bible have names. I also thought about cataract patients wishing the procedure could be just so simple.
Besides praying during those three days, I wonder what else Saul did. The passage says that he didn’t eat or drink during those days, but was that because no one brought anything to him, or because it was his choice? Sometimes people make choices that sound goofy to us, but as I keep relearning - people get to make their own mistakes - and decisions.
What happened to those travelers that were with him? Did they have other places to go, or did they hang around to see what was going to happen to Saul? Were their lives changed by this encounter with Saul’s experience?
Whatever else happened, I don’t think it was a mere coincident that Saul spent three days in darkness and then came back to the light - very much like what happened with Jesus.
Ananias only had to put his hands on Saul and his eyes were healed. But when Jesus healed a man of blindness, he spit on the man’s eyes and then put his hands on him. (Mark 8:23) What’s with the difference of spitting in a person’s eye or not - regardless of how gross that may seem to any of us?
As Saul, his job was to make sure that people kept the strict Jewish laws; that nobody dabbled in anything else, and that nothing changed. Those that were even suspect of intermingling with those outside the Jewish faith, or those who may have been in the wrong place at the wrong time even, were dragged from their homes and thrown into prison. And innocent Ananias, gets a commission from God - out of the blue - to heal the notorious zealot. It was a commission like a Jewish child being told to go up to Heinrich Himmler or Josef Mengele and informing them that the child was going to heal them of their blindness.
I don’t know how many close, personal friends Saul had before that day on that road, but he had to have at least one or two folks that would go to synagogue with him. When I read this morning’s scripture passage, the big question that came to my mind was, “How did those who loved Saul, counted him as a friend, deal with his encounter?” How did they treat Saul after those three days? Off the top of my head, I don’t recall the Bible speaking about those individuals. We hear about his new friends - friends in Christ - like all the disciples. But what about those who knew him “before,” and liked him that way?
I know it doesn’t sound like a really important question, but what if such a thing happened to you? What if one day, all that you held dear became that which you realized was not so dear any longer? How would you want to be treated? What if such a huge change came to one of your friends or family? How would you want to deal with it? In one sense, they are the same person, but in another, they are now someone completely different.
When you stand back from the passage a moment, I think it is a picture of what a maturing of faith looks like. We are going about our business, and then, sometimes in the blink of an eye, life changes, and sometimes we get stuck for a little bit, but we eventually remember that we are each on a path, and we get back to continuing on that path.
There are times when three days in the dark are a lot longer and a lot more difficult. There are times when we may feel completely alone, but we may be wrong about that feeling, too. There are times when we wish for a simplistic healing or change of direction. Or if things could just go back to the way they were, everything else would be just fine.
In one sense, we all know that “life happens.” But do we ever wonder about how we want to deal with those situations? Are our prayers more along the lines of “help now!,” or “help me do my best?” How we grow and blossom into our faith is an important deal, because it becomes an example for other people - for good or ill.
I hope that no one thinks that this message is “aimed” at them, because it’s not. For one thing, it’s “aimed” at all of us. But what has been underscoring this passage this week has been that reminder, food for thought, take a minute to think about - the big picture of our faith - how it was when we were a child, what it was like when we were teenagers, and what it was like when we were younger. (Note that not a word was mentioned about old or older!)
The older we get, the more that Change becomes a monster we desire to avoid. But sometimes, the change that comes to us is so much better than before, because it can ultimately follow God’s picture of our lives. We may need to wrestle with the changes that come in our lives, but Saul’s example shows us that not all changes need be bad or terrible. So for the changes that are ahead of each of us, whatever they are, let us pray.
Heavenly God, we thank you for Saul and all the apostles and disciples that have given us examples of grace and what it means to follow you. For those times when we dig in our heels, resisting that which is good for us, we ask your forgiveness. For those times that will come our way, when it may feel like we are in a dark place for too long, we ask for your light to lead us into the light again. For all the goodness and healing and leading you grant each of us, we are grateful. In gratitude for being our loving and caring God, all your people say, Amen.
06-19-16 Sunday Sermon
First Congregational Church
June 19, 2015
5th Sunday after Pentecost & Fathers Day
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
The teacher (on the phone) said: “You say Michael has a cold and can’t come to school today? To whom am I speaking?” The voice said: “This is my father.” The science teacher asked, “When is the boiling point reached?” The science student said, “When my father sees my report card!”
Little Ole and his father were having dinner and Little Ole asked, “Are bugs good to eat?” His father said, “Let’s not talk about such things at the dinner table, son.” After dinner Ole’s father inquired, “Now, son, what did you want to ask me?” “Oh, nothing,” Ole said. “There was a bug in your soup, but now it’s gone.”
To get all of us on board for this morning’s scripture passage, which is the last half of Acts 8, we should think - Jerusalem - 33-34 A.D. Jesus had ascended back to heaven, Mathias was chosen to replace Judas as one of the twelve apostles, the Holy Spirit birthed the church on the first “Christian” Pentecost, Peter did some preaching and healing and ended up in front of the Sanhedrin, accused of preaching about the resurrection of the dead - in Jesus. The believers were of one mind, expecting Jesus to return at any moment, so some of them sold what they had, moved with others - to live more simply and economically, sharing what they had.
The apostles continued to heal people, the religious leaders continued to persecute the apostles, and finally, Stephan ended up being stoned to death. Arriving in Jerusalem at the same time as Stephan’s stoning, before he became the great Paul, Saul approved the stoning. The result of all that is documented in the beginning of Acts 8, “On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. 2 Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. 3 But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.”
Immediately before this morning’s passage, Philip, Peter and John were preaching and teaching in Samaria, but meanwhile, back in Jerusalem, a sorcerer named Simon tried to buy the power of the Holy Spirit, which, of course, doesn’t ever work. And then this happened….
26 Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” 27 So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch (from the southern Nile region), an important official in charge of all the treasury of the Kandake (which means “queen of the Ethiopians”). This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, 28 and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the Book of Isaiah the prophet. 29 The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.”
30 Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked. 31 “How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. 32 This is the passage of Scripture the eunuch was reading:
“He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth. 33 In his humiliation he was deprived of justice. Who can speak of his descendants? For his life was taken from the earth.” (Isaiah 53:7,8) 34 The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” 35 Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.
36 As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?” 38 And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him. 39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing. 40 Philip, however, appeared at Azotus and traveled about, preaching the gospel in all the towns until he reached Caesarea.
Thank you, Ann. I don’t know where or when I found this little piece that goes with today’s “other” focus, but I stuck the Ten Commandments for Fishing away for this day. Thou shalt have no other sports before fishing. Thou shalt proudly boast of thy catch. Thou shalt exaggerate wildly about the one that got away. Thou shalt not sleep past dawn. Thou shalt clean thy own catch. Thou shalt not give away the secret of thy success. Thou shalt honor the ones too smart to be caught. Thou shalt practice the sport as often as possible. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s reel. Thou shalt not reveal the source of thy catch. Thou shalt give thanks to God, creator of all nature, for the catch of the day.
I got this morning’s sermon title from Scott Hoezee of Calvin Seminary, in a question he posed. “Does it strike you as maybe a lot of divine providential fuss to get at just this one eunuch?
For instance, where would this Ethiopian fellow - let alone any Ethiopian - get a copy of Isaiah? Kindles, Flea Markets and Used Scroll sections of the Jerusalem Barnes and Noble just weren’t around in those days. In fact, the Gutenberg press wasn’t invented until 1,400 years after today’s passage, so anything printed was done so by hand - which means scarce and expensive. Any synagogue at the time was “blessed” if they had just a single, complete copy of the Scriptures - meaning Old Testament.
To jump to conclusions, you don’t suppose he stole the thing, do you? Or did he manage to use his wealth to buy it off some Roman occupier who had lifted it from a synagogue? Maybe the man bought it for the Queen of Ethiopia, who may have been a collector of rare manuscripts and he was stacking up a little favor with her. However it happened, lots of things had to go exactly right for this story to have happened the way it did.
An Ethiopian eunuch. We hear about Ethiopian people every so often, sadly, most often when there is war or famine in the country. For those who are wondering what a eunuch is, let’s just say it is a man who doesn’t have male characteristics - like growing a beard.
We don’t hear about eunuchs so much these days, except after a little research, I discovered that just like so many situations, there are a good many people that could have such a label, walking among us. Some of those individuals have chosen to live their lives as such, others are decisions for medical or emotional reasons.
Aside from skin color, I’m pretty much guessing that the Ethiopian eunuch didn’t have a sign around his neck saying Ethiopian eunuch. Yet for some reason, the writer of Acts brings up the double “indictment” of this non-Jewish man.
As Scott Hoezee suggested, maybe this man went home after this encounter to bring the Gospel to Ethiopia. Maybe he had a ministry after returning home. It’s interesting that this man’s name is not given, yet Philip’s name is mentioned nine times in our passage. If the Ethiopian had been named, perhaps we would miss the significance of his ethnicity and his social ranking. So maybe, just maybe, his involvement with this whole story is not about Ethiopians, but about Philip - and us.
Eunuchs were excluded from participation in Temple rituals and from full admittance, as converts, into Israel's community. As a eunuch, he was ritually or religiously far removed from everyday life of Jewish Hebrews. Yet an angel of the Lord told Philip to go down a certain road and the Spirit told him to hang out by a certain chariot. Not one, but two divine beings urged Philip to get to this man. Definitely “Providential Fussing.”
To what end? We know that the Ethiopian learned about God that day, God’s prophecies about the Messiah and how they came true. I wonder what Philip learned that day. Although he had every reason to shun this person, he went to him, sat next to him, and they probably talked about more than just prophetic fulfillments. If they had been in Frankfort for this discussion, they would have discovered that a great-grandfather knew the other man’s second cousin twice removed or some other such connection. Perhaps Philip realized that day just how big - and small - the world is. I’m also guessing, that through their conversation, and upon some reflection, both men realized a little healing had happened sitting on the back of that chariot that day.
I came across an article by someone named Clarissa Pinkola Estes this week. She said, “Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely. It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good.”
We do well to remember that this exchange from two men so different from one another happened during a time when suspicions and paranoia were high. With Saul on the rampage, trust of strangers was probably pretty low. And here are two guys, 180 degrees different in so many ways, receiving an understanding they probably never dreamt of having.
So we can take our cues, practicing and practicing and practicing our faith - a faith that continually seeks understanding rather than an understanding that is seeking faithful followers. God is the ultimate object of our faith, and God remains mysterious, lest God becomes made in our image. And however unlikely it may seem, God’s providential fuss is a power in which to belief, because the chances of such details randomly happening are just too great to leave to mere coincidence. For those opportunities that will come our way this week, let us pray.
Gracious, omnipotent and omniscient God, we thank you for those individuals that came along in our lives, sat down with us, and taught us what is really important in this world. Many today think of their own fathers being part of your providential fuss, and for those people, we are grateful. But for those who were taught by other individuals, even people so unlike themselves, we have heartfelt gratitude for them, too. Enable all of us to listen better to the divine beings that come our way, that whether we are the teacher or the student, we are the richer for listening. For all the blessings you shower on us, divine and otherwise, all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.