First Congregational Church
July 23, 2017, 10:30 a.m.
150th Celebration Sunday
“so the next generation would know”
Mrs. Harriet Kittridge Voorheis (Rev. Dinah Haag), preaching
1 My people, hear my teaching; listen to the words of my mouth. 2 I will open my mouth with a parable; I will utter hidden things, things from of old— 3 things we have heard and known, things our ancestors have told us. 4 We will not hide them from their descendants; we will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord, his power, and the wonders he has done. 5 He decreed statutes for Jacob and established the law in Israel, which he commanded our ancestors to teach their children, 6 so the next generation would know them, even the children yet to be born, and they in turn would tell their children. 7 Then they would put their trust in God and would not forget his deeds but would keep his commands. 8 They would not be like their ancestors—a stubborn and rebellious generation, whose hearts were not loyal to God, whose spirits were not faithful to him.
Good morning, my children! You know, I call you that, because you are! Two years before my husband, Jacob, and I moved to Frankfort - in 1864, mind you, the pioneers of the town heard the first sermon preached by Rev. George Thompson of Benzonia.
During the next few years, Mr. Walcot or Mr. Kirkland, Rev. J. B. Walker or Rev. John Pettit would come on Sundays - as often as they could make it - over a blazed trail from Benzonia to hold services in a small barn near the north side of the mouth of Betsie Bay.
Before I forget to give due respect, I need to mention that we actually arrived here through the efforts of Oberlin College. A Rev. Charles E. Bailey came to this area, looking to recreate the Oberlin missionary school in the north, and after five years, he established the Grand Traverse College in Benzonia. It was an institution that sought to “afford to both sexes, without distinction of color, the opportunity of acquiring a liberal education.” It was quite the institution, although all that remains now is what I believe you call the Benzonia Library or the Mills House - the red brick building on that fancy paved road you call US 31.
When Jacob and I and our passion for teaching and learning arrived in 1866, it seemed only natural to begin Sunday school classes and Bible studies in our home. And it was just a short time after that - all our small efforts culminated in a Council called for January 26, 1868. With minsters and deacons from Benzonia and with our 23 charter members, a church was born - right here in the sophisticated wilderness of Benzie County, on the shore of Lake Michigan! You may think that as common as saddle soap in a general store, but there were just 19 houses in the whole town. And so it was, that the children we taught, taught their children, who taught other children, and 6 generations later, here you are - people still after God’s heart.
It would take another 14 years before the Lutherans would build their church home, another two before the Methodists made their mark, and another eleven years for the Roman Catholics to build.
I declare that we had no hard vision of 150 years down the road! We had enough to figure - cutting enough wood for winter Sunday Services, working to call our first pastor and all. Oh, and you younger folks, you should remember that we were a down-to-earth group back then - really. None of this high-flying, church in the sky like you have now, although it is still beautiful and grand!
Back then this floor was flat, and on the ground, and there were no stairs to climb. When I was an old woman, in 1907, they raised this place up and put the parlors underneath. Man power and horse sweat and levers and intelligence - all were needed and all were used to have what you see around you.
Speaking of horses, we had split rail fences around the church, so’s we could tie up horses and buggies and such, too. I have a feeling in my left knee that all those horses are part of the reason for all those pretty flowers you have outside there - if you catch my drift!
We needed that space downstairs, because in no-time-flat, Frankfort moved from a little place at the end of the road to a destination. The Royal Frontenac Hotel was built by the Ann Arbor Railroad Company and completed in 1902 “for the sole purpose of popularizing beautiful Frankfort, and no attraction and accommodation that money, skill and ingenuity could provide would be omitted.” The 3-story, 500 feet long, 250 room hotel came with all the latest amenities of the times, including telephones in every room, a cigar and candy store and a beautiful bar room.
With all those folks making their way here on passenger boats (from Chicago, St. Louis and Milwaukee), by railroad (from Toledo, Ann Arbor and Detroit), horse and buggy and even those new fangled cars (from places unknown), there was a growing need to make room for those God sent us. And children needed to learn about Jesus and everyone needed to understand the expanse of God’s love. And the more that love and teaching was shared, the more that the love and mercy overflowed.
Don’t get me wrong, we had our times, and we struggled. We struggled with personalities that didn’t blend well. We struggled like the rest of the nation, trying to make ends meet and to be responsible with what God gave us, summoning creativity to survive in a tourist town. But the best part of what we had, didn’t really cost us anything, because God’s love is free. The only real cost is in the courage and learning to share it.
There is a place here called the Congregational Summer Assembly that is here because of this little church, too. Congregational ministers would combine vacations with continuing education and camping in Ohio. But wherever they tried to meet, the skeeters there would like to carry off small children. So it was suggested that the planners check out some property owned by the railroad in Frankfort, Michigan. As so many of us know, the hills and dunes and lakes and shores of this little slice of heaven can hardly be resisted, and the skeeters weren’t near so bad. Thus Frankfort became the official home of the CSA in 1904.
At that time, the pastor of this church, Rev. John Hull, was not only our pastor, but was instrumental in the purchase of the CSA land as well as serving as the CSA Secretary and Manager for a time. If you go through the CSA grounds, you will notice that the lanes and avenues were named after our Pilgrim forefathers, such as Standish and Robinson and Fuller. Teaching sometimes happens even when we aren’t aware it is happening. Making the connections between teachings sometimes is a little tougher, but isn’t that why God gave us the Holy Spirit?
It would be another 50 years or so before the north wing was added, and oh, how that space would be needed! At one point in time, they were sectioning off class groups in the parlors, in the sanctuary and even packing Sunday schoolers into the balcony. But those teachers kept teaching, and the students kept learning, and God’s message of love and grace and mercy was instilled into the next generation.
Over time, there would continue to be births and deaths, weddings and funerals and hundreds and hundreds of people have passed through the doors of this little white church in the vale. 34 pastors would serve this church family from those early days until this day. (I hear the current pastor is a pip!)
I’m not surprised that your current pastor is a woman. The first woman to be ordained as a mainstream Protestant minister in the United States was Antoinette Brown - later Antoinette Brown Blackwell - and don’t you know - she was a Congregationalist! She was given a license to preach by the Congregational Church way back in 1851 and then offered a position as Minister of a Congregationalist church in South Butler, New York. Antoinette grew up in a home of faith, and was accepted into the church before the age of nine. She set her sights early on her education and hope to attend Oberlin College. And yes, she obtained her bachelor’s degree. But the college’s theological course presented more of a problem.
Antoinette could enroll in the courses, but she was not to receive formal recognition. But she kept listening to her heart and God’s call and ironically, Oberlin College ended up awarding Antoinette an honorary Master's and Doctoral degree in 1878 and 1908, respectively. Someone taught Ms. Brown’s parents about God, someone taught them, and so the line goes back to Jesus.
Today, you celebrate that lineage, too. Someone taught you about the message of Christ’s love, and someone taught those people, and someone taught them. We forefathers and mothers taught our little ones, and they passed the Word along to their offspring, and the love has been spread not only in time, but in distance.
I’m so happy for you this day - and yes, I know that the exact date has caused a bit of confusion. We officially gathered - I forget exactly when - in 1867 - and formally organized in 1868. Regardless, 150 years is no small thing, and God surely must have a great big smile for this auspicious day, too. It is a day of testament to the faithfulness of the people of this town and the parishioners of this place, to keep pointing to God and spreading God’s word.
But, more than anything, it is also a testament to God’s faithfulness. The people from early days - even from Jesus’ days - put their faith in God - remembering God’s deeds, keeping God’s rules - to the best of their abilities and sensibilities - some better than others - naturally.
Some were certainly stubborn and rebellious, and some viewed our Pilgrim forebears as such. But with hearts loyal to God, great strides have been made - from Bethlehem to Frankfort, MI and beyond. Those with pliant hearts, withstanding the winds of temptation and complacency, have strengthened the lineage of God-trusters and deed-rememberers.
So keep on teaching your children. Keep on reminding them of God’s faithfulness, of God’s mercy and grace and most of all - God’s love. Because your deeds this day will have great consequences long after this one - some you can’t even begin to imagine. And always, always, always, remember to pray.
Gracious and Loving God, we thank you! We thank you for this day and for all those people who have had a hand in us being here at this moment. For your faithfulness in all those days, each and every one of them, we are truly grateful. We pray, too, for those who are yet to come, babies that will grow into adults that will carry your word and light into the next centuries. Bolster the hearts of the teachers, which is really every one of us, to strive against stubborn and rebellious hearts, so that all your people will come to know of your faithfulness and love and mercy and grace. For all that has been, for all that is, and for all that will come, in the name of your Son, all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
July 16, 2017
6th Sunday after Pentecost
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 & Romans 8:1-11
“Overcoming Failure” - by celebrating the harvest
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
There was a little boy who wasn't getting good marks in school. One day, he surprised the teacher by tapping her on the shoulder and saying, ”I don't want to scare you, but my daddy says if I don't get better grades, somebody is going to get a spanking.”
I came across this anecdote from one of the preaching “greats,” William H. Willimon. He wrote, “An experienced teacher told me she had learned through her years of teaching that ‘about 80 percent of what you teach is wasted. They are listening, but they are not learning.’” Willimon commented that that’s a lot of wasted effort. Then the wise woman added, “But a teacher waits patiently and keeps on talking, keeps teaching, attempts another approach, tries a different explanation in order to be there for the 20 percent who say, ‘Oh, I get it!’ Their eyes light up, you can see that your words have hit home, and it’s a wonderful harvest.”
It’s quite possible that both of the scripture passages for this morning fall into that 80% bracket, because they are some of those that would land on the top ten most recognized passage list. No matter whether it’s the first or the hundredth time we have heard either passage, may some part of them leap out to you - as if God chose them just for you this morning.
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 (NIV)
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear.”
“Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path. The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful. But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”
Romans 8:1-11 The Message
7:25b I want to serve God with all my heart and mind, but am pulled by the influence of sin to do something totally different.
8:1 With the arrival of Jesus, the Messiah, that fateful dilemma is resolved. Those who enter into Christ’s being-here-for-us no longer have to live under a continuous, low-lying black cloud. A new power is in operation. The Spirit of life in Christ, like a strong wind, has magnificently cleared the air, freeing you from a fated lifetime of brutal tyranny at the hands of sin and death.
God went for the jugular when he sent his own Son. He didn’t deal with the problem as something remote and unimportant. In his Son, Jesus, he personally took on the human condition, entered the disordered mess of struggling humanity in order to set it right once and for all. The law code, weakened as it always was by fractured human nature, could never have done that.
The law always ended up being used as a Band-Aid on sin instead of a deep healing of it. And now what the law code asked for but we couldn’t deliver is accomplished as we, instead of redoubling our own efforts, simply embrace what the Spirit is doing in us.
Those who think they can do it on their own end up obsessed with measuring their own moral muscle but never get around to exercising it in real life. Those who trust God’s action in them find that God’s Spirit is in them—living and breathing God! Obsession with self in these matters is a dead end; attention to God leads us out into the open, into a spacious, free life. Focusing on the self is the opposite of focusing on God. Anyone completely absorbed in self ignores God, ends up thinking more about self than God. That person ignores who God is and what he is doing. And God isn’t pleased at being ignored.
But if God himself has taken up residence in your life, you can hardly be thinking more of yourself than of him. Anyone, of course, who has not welcomed this invisible but clearly present God, the Spirit of Christ, won’t know what we’re talking about. But for you who welcome him, in whom he dwells—even though you still experience all the limitations of sin—you yourself experience life on God’s terms. It stands to reason, doesn’t it, that if the alive-and-present God who raised Jesus from the dead moves into your life, he’ll do the same thing in you that he did in Jesus, bringing you alive to himself? When God lives and breathes in you (and he does, as surely as he did in Jesus), you are delivered from that dead life. With his Spirit living in you, your body will be as alive as Christ’s!
Thank you, Beth and Mike. When you sit back and squint your eyes at these two passages a bit, you can begin to see why the lectionary people put them together. The passage from Matthew talks about God’s abundant love, grace and mercy that is available to grow into all God’s people while the passage from Romans talks about how to live in that love, grace and mercy. And perhaps the bottom line of these two passages is about our default human nature vs. developing our kingdom nature.
Back to William H. Willimon, who is a retired Methodist pastor and Duke University professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry, tells a story on himself about how quick he is to point out what’s wrong rather than what’s right.
He said, “We were discussing a new initiative in children’s ministry. Enthusiasm was building to find a way to turn our declining attendance around and attract more children. Then someone said, “The whole country is in a church attendance recession.” Another said, “As I recall, we tried something like this about a decade ago. It didn’t work then, I bet it won’t work now.”
And that was that. We focused on the failure (which is all too easy to do in any church) and failed to have faith in the possibility of success (which Jesus seems to focus on at the end of this parable). That was the part that jumped out at me this week that caused the question - what - specifically - was the success?
If you go back to the end of the Matthew passage, Jesus didn’t get all bent out of shape about the three places where the seed didn’t grow. He celebrated the harvest of that which did grow! 75% of his parable dealt with failure, but 25% focused on the success.
It’s a great reminder for any of us, because at any given time or day, because we are so very human, we can allow for the failed parts of life to overcome us, to speak louder, to beat up what can look small and insignificant in our lives.
But that’s where the Romans’ passage comes in to play. Paul said it before, but in this Romans’ passage, he is saying it one more time - with feeling. Paul has said that the solution to the problems of life is faith. In Romans 8, he describes what faith means. It means being ‘in Christ Jesus.’ “It is not simply putting faith in Christ, it is being in Christ.”
While that can sound a little lofty, try it with love. Love is not the same as ‘being in love.’ “It is not simply putting faith in Christ, it is being in Christ.”
Rev. Willimon made it even larger when he said, “to live in the Spirit is to allow God's infinite power to live in us and give us life that is eternal. God's power becomes our power. It's the power to love as Jesus loved. It changes our lives, which changes the world.”
My buddy, Steve Garnaas-Holmes said, “When God's love exists as pure energy we call it “Spirit.” When God's love is embodied, made finite and mortal, we call it “Christ.”” Now go back to that idea of living ‘in Christ.’ It has a different flavor or hue than just “having faith.”
This sort of living is like the saying I have on the wall behind my desk. We are spiritual beings having a human experience. It’s living in a different cosmos.
Paul is seeking to help his hearers leave behind their old identities which were shaped by the structures of sin and death and rigid law. Being “in Christ” means that believers are not ruled by sin, not ruled by death. Believers have been transported to a new place where life and not death is in charge and where there is no condemnation because sin is not the master.
The candle doesn't trouble itself with the journey of light. The bird doesn't care who hears. Beloved, you waste many seeds. You offer kindness unnoticed. You try seventy times to forgive, and fail, and those you forgive don't repent. Living in Christ, we transform what can feel like failure into that which is worthy and valuable and honorable. As we prepare to refocus our lives on living in Christ, let us pray.
God of Life and Transformation, we thank you for giving us a different way of living life - the way that Christ focused on. We are grateful for the generous sowing of love and grace and mercy in our lives, and for the failed celebrations of those harvests, we ask for your forgiveness. Help each of us find the places of rich, life-giving soil in our lives that can help others to find your love and grace and mercy. Direct us so that the sowing of your dimension of living is not purposefully wasted, but graciously offered to those who need us to be planters of your Word. Remind us not to judge or measure the growth, because that is your job. But do help each of us to tend the gardens of our hearts and minds, that we might be a harvest pleasing to you. And all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
July 9, 2017
5th Sunday after Pentecost
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
“The Curious Good News”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
I came across a story this week by man a named Dr. Philip W. McLarty, who told about his early teaching days as a band director in Winnie, TX. He and a new history teacher named Harold found rooms to rent from a very religious lady I’ll call Sally. Over the summer, Sally got her brothers to enlarge the bathroom and build a closet in Harold’s room because she wanted everything just perfect when school started. When our guy, Philip, showed up for rehearsals a few days before school was to start, everything was done except for the taping and mudding of Harold’s closet.
Sally asked Philip if he knew anything about sheet rocking, and it happened that he did. He was making good enough time, but he knew he wasn’t going to finish the project before midnight, and that would be a problem for Sally, as she was a very strict and proud Southern Baptist who didn’t believe on working on the Sabbath.
So Philip stopped work around 11:30 and came to the living room where Sally was quilting. He told her he could be finished in another hour or so, but it was going to run into Sunday morning. Apparently the look on Sally’s face was one for the history books. Luckily, she had a sense of humor. She looked up at Philip with a twinkle in her eye and said, “You work, I’ll pray!” Dr. McLarty didn’t say if he finished before midnight, but it is a story that demonstrates how one can treat bad news.
In regards to this morning’s scripture passage, I’m sure they had their reasons. I refer to the folks who put together the readings for the Revised Common Lectionary. I’m sure they had their reasons to leap-frog over verses 20-24 but in so doing, they gave us no clue nor help. Granted, in those missing verses, Jesus rants against various cities and his words are difficult to read. If you take a step back from Matthew 11, the excluded verses don’t really seem to fit into the overall flow, and even the passage - or passages - for this morning aren’t necessarily all that plain, either.
But maybe it makes more sense, before we get to the reading of our passages, that we take a minute to understand that Matthew 11 begins with John the Baptist in prison for the crime of pointing out that Herod had married his brother’s wife. Apparently Herod didn’t have such an issue with John’s truth-telling, but it really bothered Herod’s wife, Herodias. So it was at her insistance that John found himself in the hoose-cow.
Being isolated from the general population, apparently John was curious and wanted to know if Jesus was the expected Messiah or should they be waiting on someone else. As we know, neither John the Baptist nor Jesus looked or acted much like one might think a Messiah or the Messiah’s herald would look like. So John was asking for confirmation of Jesus’ Messiahship.
Jesus’ public reply was something along the lines of, “Yep. I’m the one. And yes, John the Baptist was the guy prophesied to announce me. And you, the ones listening to me, get a grip.”
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
16 “To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others: 17 “‘We played the pipe for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’
18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’19 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.”
25 At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. 26 Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.
27 “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.
28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 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. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Thank you, Peggy. I have to admit that verses 16-19 are not necessarily some of Jesus’ easiest words to understand. But these were words of lament, over those who refused to accept Jesus as the Messiah, because he didn’t do the “tricks” the requested of him - like dancing to a flute tune or mourning when they wailed. In other words, they were fickle and restless; unfulfilled in laughter and unmoved by sorrow. They were acting like spoiled children, never satisfied and often complaining. (I’m so thankful I never act like that!)
Several commentators pointed out how the passages for this morning are a pivot point in the book of Matthew. Timothy L. Owings calls Matthew 11 the chapter for the contemporary church, because it is the place where Jesus turns from God’s mission focusing on Jesus to focusing on us. In the book of John, Jesus majestically pronounces, “I am the light of the world.” But in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus looks at his ragtag group of disciples and, despite his knowledge of their all-too-human limitations, pronounces, “You are the light of the world.” Except that he doesn’t talk about light here, but taking up a yoke and burdens.
One just has to love Jesus and his oxymoronic statements. Jesus calls the yoke we are asked to take up “easy” and “light.” But a yoke is still a yoke that either adds weight to our shoulders or chaffs the necks of livestock to pull in the same direction.
When Jesus says that his burden is light, it is a word that means light in terms of weight. When he says his yoke is easy, it is a Greek word that means more than easy. The word ‘chrestos’ carries more of “kindness” and “pleasantness.” Jesus’ yoke transforms the usual cruelty to a kind and pleasant phenomena, as when someone you love lays his or her hand on you to encourage you, to love you, to lead you gently and lovingly where you should go and to that place where you can flourish.
I don’t think I’ve danced with anyone since my college ballroom dance class, but I sort of remember hearing that really good dancers know how and where to go - not just because of years of practice - but because of gentle hand pushes with fingers tips or nudges with the heal of the hand. I should have consulted with our resident ballroom instructor before this morning, but there is only so much time in a day. The bottom line is that becoming attuned to the gentle hand nudges and pushes from God makes for a much easier and less awkward life dance.
We come to church for as many different reasons as are represented by the number of individuals here today. So some of us come to receive a firmer faith, to find answers to life quandaries, or to be in that place where God and humanity meet - called family. Still others come to keep peace in their own family.
Regardless of our particular generation, a good many of us long for answers, solutions, and neat formulas for success. Despite our searching and deep desires, we can find our minds wandering or we become aware that we weren’t really thinking about anything, because we are just so tired, trying to fit so much into the short summer. And yet, here Jesus says, “I will give you rest.” It’s the promise that attends the charge of yoke-bearing.
Sometimes Jesus delivers us from the burdens we place upon ourselves. And sometimes he unburdens us only to lay another weighty burden on our backs. Sometimes Jesus frees us from the constraints of the world that has harnessed us in order to place our necks in a more demanding yoke.
Many times we come, knowingly or unknowingly, to lay down our burdens and to take the weight off our shoulders. This Sunday, Christ invites us to press into his yoke, the one that he wears with us, the one that brings rest because we don’t have to work so hard, so that more can be done in his name and because of his relationship with God. As we prepare to step out into our own lives and weeks and yokes, let us pray.
Holy and Loving God, your gift of Christ and relationship is a Good News that is indeed curious. You tell us things that seem oxymoronic, yet they are good and true and even more right than we can imagine. Sometimes we fail to see the wonder of your call on our lives, and we ask your forgiveness when that happens. Help us, Giver of Rest and Breath, to use those gifts you give us to make for better lives, even when life seems confusing or nonsensical. For the simple beauty of a life danced with you, all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
July 2, 2017
4th Sunday after Pentecost, Independence Day Weekend
“A Hitchhiker, A Brick and A Cup of Cold Water On the Fourth of July”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
A seminary student drove about thirty miles to church on Sunday mornings and she would frequently pick up hitchhikers. One day she picked up a young man who noticed that she was wearing a suit and asked if he could go to church with her.
The student said, "Of course you can." The stranger came to church and afterward was invited over to one of the members' home for lunch and fellowship. While there, he received a hot bath, some clean clothes, and a hot meal. In conversation with the youth, his hosts found that he was a Christian, but he had been out of fellowship with God. His home was in another state and he was just passing through on his way back.
Later in the evening, they bought him a bus ticket and sent him on his way. A week later, the seminary student received a letter from the hitchhiker. Enclosed with the letter was a newspaper clipping with headlines reading, "Man turns himself in for murder."
The young man had killed a teenage boy in an attempted robbery and had been running away from the law for some time. But the kindness and hospitality of Christians had convicted him. He wanted to be in fellowship with God, and he knew he needed to do the right thing about his crime. Little did those Christians know that by their faithfulness to show hospitality they had influenced a man to do what was right in God's eyes and thereby help restore him to fellowship with his God. (pause)
A successful man known for his generosity was driving his new car through a poor part of town. A boy tried to flag him down. The man didn’t want to get involved, so he pretended he didn’t see the child. As he slowed for a red traffic light, he heard a loud crash. Someone had thrown a brick at his car, denting the trunk.
The man stopped, jumped out of his car and grabbed the boy that threw the brick. “You juvenile delinquent!” he yelled. “You’ll pay for this or go to jail!”
“I’m sorry, mister,” the boy cried. “My mom’s lying on the floor in our apartment. I think she’s dying. Our phone’s been cut off and I’ve been trying for ten minutes to get someone to stop. I didn’t know what else to do! Take me to jail, but please, call a doctor for my mom first.”
Regardless of what came next, just about all of us can figure out how that man felt. “I’m a doctor,” he said and asked, “Where is she?” The boy took him to his mother and the doctor administered CPR and called an ambulance.
“Will she live?” the boy sobbed. “Yes, son, she will,” the doctor said. “Then it’s worth going to jail. I’m sorry I ruined your car. You can take me in now.” “You’re not going anywhere,” the doctor said. “It was my fault you had to throw a brick to get my attention.” The doctor made sure the boy was taken care of, and as he drove home he resolved not to fix the dent. He would keep it as a reminder that not everyone in need has a brick to throw.
Many of us have heard Loren Eiseley’s story of “the star thrower” -- the one about the guy tossing starfish after starfish back into the sea. When asked why, he replies that if they don’t get back in the water soon, they’ll dry out and die. Looking at a beach strewn with thousands of starfish, his interviewer responds that he can’t possibly hope to make any difference. To which he says -- and this is famous closing line -- “To the ones I throw back, it makes all the difference in the world.”
There is a story about a farmer who grew award-winning corn. Each year he entered his best corn in the regional fair where it won a blue ribbon. One year a newspaper reporter interviewed him and discovered that the farmer actually shared his best seed corn with his neighbors.
“How can you afford to share your best seeds with your neighbors when they are entering corn in competition against yours each year?” the reporter asked. “Why sir,” said the farmer, “didn’t you know? The wind picks up pollen from the ripening corn and swirls it from field to field. If my neighbors grow inferior corn, cross-pollination will steadily degrade the quality of my corn. If I am to grow good corn, I must help my neighbors grow good corn.”
I don’t remember how many years ago I saw “The Last Samurai,” but a scene in the movie so struck me, that soon after it ended, I sat down to write some notes about it, knowing that one day it would fit somewhere.
There is a woman whose husband is killed by Tom Cruise, and she knows it was him. When Tom is brutally attacked by a group of Samurai, he is spared from death and taken to the woman - to her home, where she has to care for him and treat him as an honored guest. She hides behind her smiles, there is a language issue, and utter disregard for what the woman is being asked to do. But there is also hospitality - that allows for a person who doesn’t understand, to come near, who is a foreigner, to learn and grow into their own awareness.
The Book of Matthew was written somewhere around 85 AD, after the devastation of the Roman-Jewish War that destroyed the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. It was written less than 20 years after that war, so memories of atrocities and destruction were still fresh in the minds of those left alive. In the tenth chapter of Matthew, the writer reminds us of things that Jesus said fifty years earlier, but were no doubt still difficult to hear and embrace.
40 “Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41 Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. 42 And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.”
Thank you, Serenity. Part of what I love about preparing sermons is looking at various words and their underlying meanings, and this morning’s passage is rich with nuance. There’s that little rule of thumb that whenever something in the Bible is repeated, it’s a big deal. If twice is nice, three times is big time.
The Greek word that is repeated six times is δεχόμενος, which is translated as "the one who receives….” It’s where we get ambidextrous. It literally means “to take with the hand, to take hold of, to take up, to receive. So the point is not just to say, how’dee doo, but to get close to whoever comes our way - represented in the span from prophets, righteous persons and “little ones,” not that those are any real designation of people groups.
Cognizant of our national holiday on Tuesday, I got to thinking back to 1776, to the colonial revolt from 1765 to 1783, and I wondered about all those individuals that “welcomed” and “took hold of” the wounded into their homes, offered them cool cups of water for drinking or bathing. I wondered about all those “little ones” that lost a family member, or whose lives were altered when a hand or leg was lost to the war - people that needed hospitality and more than just a few cups of cold water. And those people that provided such hospitality, who were never compensated for the efforts and situations with which they had to deal. And while we may glorify the result of that war, that has allowed us to come to this place in time, God was also present, God’s Holy Spirit worked in the hearts of those who’d rather not be bothered, people who already had enough mouths to feed, people who were barely scraping by.
They may have seemed like small gestures at the time, but I wonder how many of those who reached out did so realizing that by doing those actions of relief and comfort, they were agents of God’s comfort and caring, transforming not only the lives of those for whom they cared, but for their own selves, not unlike a certain doctor and his dented car. Not that they cared for others with the expectations of blue ribbons, mind you, but that the love in their hearts grew.
Bruce Epperly, of patheos.com stated it well. “We welcome and encounter God in encountering the other. Our acts of comfort and kindness, especially toward the vulnerable, touch the very heart of God, and transform our own lives.”
It is not always the wisest thing to pick up a hitchhiker these days, but there are times in our lives when we are representing God by our simple acts of hospitality - of welcoming the stranger, of listening to the frustrated or downcast, even giving a silent hug. In those moments, we are Christ’s agents, representing God in concerns of great matter, more often than not, far beyond our understanding.
Colin Yuckman from working preacher.org said of today’s scripture, “Here is the passage for the anonymous disciple, the one who does hard work but is hardly ever recognized.” And Dave Lose, from the same site, said something like, “There is no small gesture, when we are part of caring for the world God loves so much.”
The thing about our small cups of cold water, regardless of when they are served, is that they require effort on our part, sometimes when we feel least like offering such service. So for all those times that you’ve reached out as God’s agent to bring a little comfort and hospitality, thank you. A good many of us realize that a cold cup of water, which is code for any small act of kindness, is generally not anything fancy, but it truly honors God.
Before we pray, I leave you with words from Ferdinand Funk of sound faith.com. “Christ is God’s hospitality toward us. God gives Himself fully to us in His Son Jesus Christ. In fact, He did not spare His own life to show us how much He wants us to be with him for all eternity. But, God doesn’t only give Himself fully to us. He also fully receives us and accepts us as we are. In Christ we experience both sides of the coin of God’s hospitality toward us.”
Let us pray. God of the Open Door and Open Heart, we thank you for the opportunity and honor we have as your agents to this world. We are grateful for all those who came before us, that have had a hand in us being here, now. We are especially mindful of the gift of freedom with which this nation has been blessed, freedom to make mistakes and to make good. Guide us and lead us to be the agents that reflect light back to you. Help us to remember that hospitality is sometimes a gift we can offer others and sometimes a gift that we must receive. May we not flaunt our own freedom, but help us to work for the freedom of all your people. For all the hospitality and freedom that is ours through your name, all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
June 25, 2017
Third Sunday after Pentecost
“Against the Grain”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
I would guess that there are few people who wonder about the real life of a pastor. I would guess that people think that pastors spend a great deal of time praying and reading the Bible and visiting the sick. I would guess that few people know that the life of a pastor is constantly filled with good news and bad news.
The good news? Seven people were baptized today in the river. The bad news? Two of them were lost in the swift current. The good news? The Personnel Committee accepted your job description the way you wrote it. The bad news? They were so inspired by it, they also formed a search committee to find someone capable of filling the position. The good news? Church attendance rose dramatically the last three weeks. The bad news? You were on vacation. The really, really good news? Six people officially became members of this church family today. The bad news? This morning’s scripture passage.
It takes place shortly after last week’s passage, in which a sort of mission-themed message arose, laced with elements of doing the right thing, the loving thing, because Jesus said. Matthew’s chapter 10 begins gently enough with Jesus naming all twelve disciples to go and do ministry in Jesus’ name because ‘freely they received, so they were to freely give. We skip a dozen verses that mentions things like shaking the dust off your feet if anyone doesn’t welcome you and that Jesus is sending the disciples out as sheep among wolves, so they are to be shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. And then we get to this morning’s passage.
24 “The student is not above the teacher, nor a servant above his master. 25 It is enough for students to be like their teachers, and servants like their masters. If the head of the house has been called Beelzebul, how much more the members of his household!
26 “So do not be afraid of them, for there is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. 27 What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs. 28 Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. 30 And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. 31 So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.
32 “Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. 33 But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven.
34 “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to turn “‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law— 36 a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’
37 “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38 Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.
Thank you, Reagan. Perhaps now you understand a little bit of why I was grousing about this passage. A real barn-burner - not just for official new members, or for visitors, or for any of us! And yet….
The irony wasn’t lost in the little section about the sparrows - as we have a nest of sparrows on the side door of the church. And it was particularly pointed as I had to remove one of the day old darlings from the wreath and move it to it’s burial place behind the forsythia bush.
While there is comfort that God knows about all 10,000 hairs on the average head, it can be a little uncomfortable in that God also knows everyone’s real hair color, too, including mine. And yet….
Scott Hoezee, of Calvin Theological Seminary has asked a great question: Why is the gospel sometimes hated? The more obvious reason has not so much to do with the actual gospel, but the bearers of the gospel - the ones who preach, who embrace, who espouse Christianity and at the same time, don’t act anything like Christ or loving.
There are those who try really hard to do as Christ has asked of us, and probably most all of us in this room would like to hope we are in that camp. And yet, even with the purest of motives, we can still feel a resistance to this thing that we call Good News - at least in sections like the one for this morning.
Scott Hoezee’s idea about that resistance comes from the idea of surrender. He said, “The heartbeat of the gospel is grace and love, forgiveness and renewal, hope and joy. These are commodities so precious that on the surface you can’t imagine anyone’s not wanting them. Rejecting the gospel would be similar to someone’s just hating the site of adorable kittens and puppies. How can you not like puppies!? They’re so cute! So also how can you not like the gospel: it drips with love, grace, and hope!
But, he pointed out, that “it’s what lies behind the love, grace, and hope that nettles people. God’s forgiveness is great until you realize that accepting it means acknowledging” - and I’ll paraphrase here - that you have issues.
For instance, suppose Sven came up to me and said, “Dinah, I would like to forgive you for that completely rude and inappropriate thing you said to me a few months ago after that committee meeting.” Well, if I happen to believe that I didn’t say anything that was even remotely out of line after that meeting, then I might very well react, “You can keep your lousy forgiveness! I don’t want it because I don’t need it.”
But going back to the gospel resistance idea of surrender, maybe the issue isn’t about Sven’s forgiveness, but my need for forgiveness. Maybe it’s about my need to surrender to God’s whisper in my ear - that came out of Sven’s mouth. Maybe I did say something that was out of line. Here’s one - maybe I (or you) don’t remember saying something that I thought was out of line. What would it really cost me (or you) to go back to Sven - or whoever - and explain that A., my last reaction wasn’t one that revealed my best side, and B., if I did offend whenever it was, I am sorry.
What does an apology really cost us in the long run of things? What does surrendering ourselves to God’s whispers really cost - in terms of the big picture and our reputations as being honest and forthright? Peace with our family, friends and neighbors? A minuscule step toward world peace? A better night’s sleep? Family and household cohesion?
In this morning’s passage, Jesus said this sentence in a number of different ways: Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. I wonder if we take that sentiment too much on the surface, because below the surface, if we give up our need to stifle hurting feelings to keep fragile peace, to pussy foot around or avoid difficult discussions, then aren’t we - in a really goofy way - really loving father and mother, brother and sister, whomever, more than God? In not heeding God’s whispers about our need to surrender our pride and/or need to be right, then are we feeding our relationships with junk food, rather than good, organic honesty and sincerity?
Listening to God’s voice, even when it’s uncomfortable, sometimes goes against our grain. But when those cross-grain moments come, maybe, most likely, those are the times when God is whispering into our ear that we need to do a little surrendering to God’s leading, a little less to our own nose-following, to come out healthier, happier - in the long run - and more congruent with and toward the life we know God is leading us.
For a life of depth and integrity, let us pray. Loving God, we are well aware that sometimes we aren’t so good at the hard parts of life. We would much rather have a life of puppies and kittens, rather than discussions and revelation of hearts. But we know or somehow understand that there is a depth to life that comes from doing the difficult, of getting off our self-soapboxes and allowing the light of good honesty to shine through us. We are reminded once again, that this life you have given us is not really about us, but about you, and so we ask for your forgiveness when we get that backwards. Help us, en-courage us, strengthen us and guide us to surrender to your will, that we may be happier and genuinely more glad than a life lived on the surface. For those individuals that have risked and exposed their hearts to us, we ask for a special blessing on them today. For anyone to whom we may need to make amends, we pray for their reception of our surrender to your will. For your blessings of honesty, forgiveness, mercy and love, all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.