First Congregational Church
July 11, 2021
7th Sunday after Pentecost
“Spirit Traveling, and the Livin’ Is Easy”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
One hundred years and five days ago, the local Record Patriot newspaper printed a story with the title: “Midnight Assault-Murder-Swift Retribution-Double Funeral. Who can resist a title like that? So it happened that “Unexpected clamor from the outdoor premises greeted the ears of the residents of the Parsonage and Benzonia and neighboring precincts just before midnight Tuesday of last week.” (This just gets better and better!)
“The entire population of the house soon responded to the alarm and discovered that Corporal Skunk had invaded the chicken coop and was excitedly marching and counter-marching with a chicken in his mouth. In uniforms suitable for that hour of the night the manse household members were soon deployed for action. So was Skunk. Considering his nature, however, the latter behaved very seamly and withdrew into some works, where the mistress of the manse dropped the gate on him and made him prisoner. A council of war was at once held. Siege or direct assault with the weapons at hand, which?
It was considered that skunk was better armed than his enemies. Reinforcements were summoned by telephone. Harry Beghold appeared with rifle, shotgun, and searchlight. The searchlight was used to discover just which way skunk was lined up. The rifle was to be used to shoot him decently, if possible, and the shotgun to blow him into pieces, if necessary. The latter process was deemed necessary by the commander of artillery, and at a range long enough to escape possible retaliation on the part of Skunk, a broadside ended things so far as he was concerned. The victory was complete, except that Skunk had already laid low one poor chick, from which the last sparks of life were taken by the mistress of the manse, while the others were on guard and awaiting reinforcements.
Neighboring friendly powers showed great self restraint in not interfering in the conflict. They smelled the battle afar off and wisely withheld themselves until the noise of battle was over. The last rites were left as usual for the parson to perform, and friend and foe were laid together in one grave. There is little hope that a league of nations will grow out of this war at its present stage.” People just don’t write like that any more.
This morning’s scripture passage comes from the opening of the letter to the Ephesians; tenth book of the New Testament. Its authorship has traditionally been attributed to the apostle Paul or one of his disciples, addressed to the “saints” in Ephesus. Any similarity between the story about Colonel Skunk and this passage may seem galaxies apart, except that they both contain great amounts of detail, some of which are more profound than others, and both are written in ways we don’t speak so much these days.
Praise for Spiritual Blessings in Christ
3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. 4 For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love 5 he[a] predestined us for adoption to sonship[b] through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace 8 that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and understanding, 9 he[c] made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, 10 to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.
11 In him we were also chosen,[d] having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, 12 in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. 13 And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.
Thank you, Shar. The last few phrases of that passage, about marking with a seal and a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance reminds me of the Stevie Wonders song, “Signed, sealed, delivered. I’m yours.”
Leonard Sweet, American theologian, pastor and semiotician - one who studies signs - not just road signs, but all kinds of signs, wrote a sermon on this passage with the title, “Blue Highway Blessings.” In the sermon, Sweet wrote about Ira Spring, a hiking guide, explorer and author who opts for two way, lesser traveled blue roads over interstates, if one must travel on pavement at all.
In regard to this section from Ephesians, Rev. Sweet suggests that it “offers an extended, exalted declaration of thanksgiving the kind that if it were given as a grace before supper would guarantee that everyone got cold mashed potatoes. Paul's praise to God, his enumerations of all the rich blessings that are gifted to those who are in Christ, is itself a kind of blue highway blessing. It travels through all the dramatic, scenic theological points of interest that are on the way to praising God for enabling believers to be God's own people (verse 14).”
Personal confession: while each of the phrases within the scripture passage are worthy of a week’s study on its own, put them all together, well, they can feel a lot overwhelming. When Rev. Sweet somehow picked up on the beginning of the passage - Christ blessing us with every spiritual blessing - he somehow turned each of the phrases from this Magna Carta of Christianity into a list of signs of blessings — maybe a little like the Burma Shave signs of old.
What’s ingenious about this transformation of complicated theological truths into placards of God-sent favor and grace is that instead of religious suitcases of complicated theological baggage - to figure out what they mean, we have the breath of God - the Holy Spirit - to lift us into understanding, despite burdens that we have to carry from time to time. The transformation analogy about roads and truths of light got me to thinking about the famous George Gershwin song, “Summertime,” with a few lyric changes - Spirit Travelin’ and the Livin’ Is Easy.”
That’s what the whole of the Bible was intended to be - the “Wind Beneath Our Wings,” and no - I didn’t plan for a song-title sermon. That’s how you know that God is behind some of what comes from my fingers and heart, because it would take way too long to purposefully create a message like that - at least with this brain!
Back to the point, with the wonderful distractions of family, friends, beautiful scenery, amazing nature, it can be a hard task to look at any one - much less all - of these various blessings within this passage, of which there are approximately, a bunch. My suggestion, while we are in the glorious days of summer: allow the whole of the passage, the individual phrases and immensely long sentences to roll around with you this week, offering you a deeper look into the richness of our relationship with God, Christ and the Holy Spirit.
The Scarecrow, from “The Wizard of Oz” was searching for the brain he thought he needed, except that he already had one. The Cowardly Lion was searching for courage, not knowing that he already was courageous. The Tin Man was searching for a heart, not knowing that he already had a really good one. Dorothy was searching for a utopia of happiness, not realizing that she had it all along. How many of us forget, not in any sinful way, but just because we are human, that we have all that we need in this world, because we have the love of God, a family in Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit - for whatever task or situation comes our way?
There was a king who held court every day. He would sit on his throne wearing his robe and crown as the people of his country would come to him stating their needs and requests. Each day, in addition to all the people who would come to the throne, there was also a holy man dressed in a beggar's robe who would come to the king. The holy man would hand the king a piece of fruit which the king would receive and then hand over to one of his assistants. Then the holy man would leave without ever saying a word to the king.
This went on for many months and even years. Then one day something happened that no one expected. No one knew that a monkey had gotten loose in the palace. When the holy man presented his gift of fruit to the king, the monkey jumped up on the stage and grabbed the fruit out of the hand of the king. Then the monkey took a bite out of the fruit and all were amazed at what they saw, because precious jewels fell out of the fruit. The king quickly turned and asked his assistant what he had been doing with the fruit. The assistant said that they had been throwing the fruit through the window of a locked room. When they opened the door of that room they found among the rotten and decaying fruit a fortune in jewels.
It’s just a part of life that we sometimes forget to embrace the grace of God in earnestness. Maybe we do that - in part - because it’s free - and somehow free things can seem to be of less value. Or maybe we forget because sometimes we are reminded of it in the form of a cross, and we - as a culture - have a strange relationship with crosses - sometimes wearing them and other times abhorring them, like when they are on fire in a front yard.
A Sunday school superintendent had two new boys in her Sunday school. In order to register them she had to ask their ages and birthdays. The bolder of the two said, "We're both seven. My birthday is April 8, 1976, and my brother’s is April 20, 1976." "But that's impossible!" answered the superintendent. "No, it's not," answered the quieter brother. "One of us is adopted." "Which one?" asked the superintendent before she could curb her tongue.
The boys looked at each other and smiled, and the bolder one said to the superintendent, "We asked Dad awhile ago, but he just said he loved us both, and he couldn't remember any more which one was adopted.” God has adopted all of us - even the ones we wonder, “Why in the world….?”
In the early days of our country a weary traveler came to the banks of the Mississippi River for the first time. There was no bridge, it was early winter, and the surface of the mighty stream was covered with ice. Could he dare cross over? Would the uncertain ice be able to bear his weight?
Night was falling, and it was urgent that he reach the other side. Finally, after much hesitation and with many fears, he began to creep cautiously across the surface of the ice on his hands and knees. He thought that he might distribute his weight as much as possible and keep the ice from breaking beneath him.
About halfway over he heard the sound of singing behind him. Out of the dusk there came a man, driving a horse-drawn load of coal across the ice and singing merrily as he went his way.
There he was, on his hands and knees, trembling lest the ice not be strong enough to bear him up! And there, as if whisked away by the winter's wind, went the man, his horses, his sleigh, and his load of coal, upheld by the same ice on which he was creeping!
James S. Hewett ended this illustration, “Like this weary traveler, some of us have learned only to creep upon the promises of God.” That astounding pastor over there at First Congregational Church of Frankfort ended her message, “My sister has a convertible PT cruiser, and when she goes for a spin with the top down and the head banging music cranked up, and the big blue Minnesota skies, one can envision a drive on straight country roads with one hand in the air, cuz safety ya know, - a picture of Spirit Traveling and Easy Livin’. May we be so reminded of the blessing and grace of our adoption as Christ’s own - as we travel with the Spirit, easing our living in more ways than we can recognize as we pray.
God of all our days, thank you for these of sun and warmth and freedom that is denied to so many of your other children. Remind us, embolden us, encourage us to look to your word for its depth as well as its light. For the times and situations when we have forgotten or denied your Spirit and power, forgive us and remind us of your gifts in all our moments - the good, the bad and the ugly. And thank you for adopting us, as your own. For some of us, that is so much bigger than others can possibly comprehend. But you know each of our hearts, and for that we are grateful. And all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
July 4, 2021
6th Sunday after Pentecost
“Freedom to ….?”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Preacher person, Maxie Dunnam, in her Collected Sermons, wrote, “My friend, and mentor, the great Quaker Douglas V. Steer, tells a story that comes out of Maine. A, young blacksmith, short in stature, in a small town, fell in love with a tall local girl. But he was so short, he was too bashful to tell her. One day she went into the smithy to get a tea kettle that he had fixed for her, and she thanked him so nicely, that he suddenly found courage to ask her to marry him. She consented and he stood up on the anvil, put his arms around her and sealed it with a kiss. Then they took a walk out through the fields together. After some time he asked her for another kiss. When she refused, he said, "Well, I'm not going to carry this anvil any longer.”
Noted preacher, Ken Collins, wrote in his book, “No Honor in His Own Country,” When I was in elementary school, I remember when all the kids in the neighborhood got together and put on a show. We rigged up a curtain of sorts by hanging an old bedspread in a screened porch, and arranged folding chairs for the audience. Then we practiced a small play, and added in a few musical solos, for which I played the piano. (Because we couldn’t move the piano closer to the play, I had to play it very loud, and even then it was barely audible.) As I remember it, it was a prodigious feat for little kids like us.
We invited all our mothers to come to our performance. (That was back in the days when housewives were not an endangered species and most mothers were home all day.) Although we did not charge admission, we went through the motions of collecting tickets and ushering our guests to their seats. Our audience was charmed by how cute that was. Then we put on our play.
We put a lot of work into our play. We had to invent everything from scratch and improvise sets and costumes from things our mothers reluctantly loaned us, and yet they didn’t pay attention! They sat there and gossiped with each other, commenting on whether this kid was a natural singer or that kid was terminally shy. At the end, they retained nothing of the plot or the story of our play; they just told us how cute we were. Cute! The word stung! We wanted them to take us seriously, as if we were adults putting on a play. But they were so well acquainted with us that all they saw were cute little kids, and no play at all.
That is pretty much what happened to Jesus, in today’s reading, after a fair bit of teaching, preaching and healing had made him famous throughout the area.
Mark 6:1-13 A Prophet Without Honor
6 Jesus left there and went to his hometown, accompanied by his disciples. 2 When the Sabbath came, he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were amazed.
“Where did this man get these things?” they asked. “What’s this wisdom that has been given him? What are these remarkable miracles he is performing? 3 Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph,[a] Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.
4 Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.” 5 He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. 6 He was amazed at their lack of faith.
Jesus Sends Out the Twelve
Then Jesus went around teaching from village to village. 7 Calling the Twelve to him, he began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over impure spirits.
8 These were his instructions: “Take nothing for the journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. 9 Wear sandals but not an extra shirt. 10 Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that town. 11 And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, leave that place and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.”
12 They went out and preached that people should repent. 13 They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them.
Thank you, Bob. The story is told of Franklin Roosevelt, who often endured long receiving lines at the White House. He complained that no one really paid any attention to what was said. One day, during a reception, he decided to try an experiment. To each person who passed down the line and shook his hand, he murmured, "I murdered my grandmother this morning." The guests responded with phrases like, "Marvelous! Keep up the good work. We are proud of you. God bless you, sir." It was not till the end of the line, while greeting the ambassador from Bolivia, that his words were actually heard. Nonplussed, the ambassador leaned over and whispered, "I'm sure she had it coming.”
I’ve often wondered if red banana I could slip in things that would be out of place - if people would notice green overalls. Early in my study for this message, I came across an quote by James C. Howell at ministry matters.com, that got me to thinking. He was bemoaning the fact that this year, this 4th day of July falls on a Sunday, and that a lot of people would be celebrating - but not in churches. I think he should come to Benzie County some time. Anyway, in his attempt to link this day and faith, he said, “Scripture gives us plenty of thought on freedom, that gift of the Spirit liberating us not for fireworks, hot dogs and beer, but for holiness.
Rev. Howell also shared the point made by Rev. Dr. Sam Wells, pastor at St. Martin-in-the-Fields Church in London and Dean of Duke University, NC. “Sam Wells has helped us see that Jesus’ unremarkability is precisely God’s point: “The (three-year) ministerial period makes up perhaps 10% of Jesus’ life among us. What is the theological significance of the hidden 90% - the 30 odd years Jesus spent in Nazareth? Those Nazareth years demonstrate, in their obscurity as much as their sheer duration in their simplicity, God’s fundamental purpose to be with us – not primarily to rescue us, or even empower us, but simply to be with us, to share our existence, our hopes and fears, our delights and griefs, our triumphs and disasters.”
Rev. Wells’ wise claim is that “the most important word in theology is ‘With.’” God is with us. That subtle distinction shifts how we ‘do ministry.’ We don’t do for others. We are with them. Jesus was God with us. Emmanuel is his nickname! Then we also see “His family was with him.” Sort of. Earlier in the book of Mark, Jesus’ family took issue with him, claiming that he was “out of his mind,” preaching a new way of doing life and collecting twelve individuals to help him lead the charge.
There is an old monastery which was down to just three monks Years had passed since anyone joined the order. Its time had passed and the three monks figured they would be the last. The abbot in charge shared his sadness with a friend, the neighboring rabbi. The rabbi looked surprised. "Oh no," he said. "Your order will not die. Your monastery will not close. I have had a revelation that the Messiah is among you. So, no, you will not close."
The Abbot returned to the other monks scratching his head, and told his two colleagues. They were all astonished. And suddenly, they began to see each other in an entirely new light. They began to take care of each other as never before, as if they were taking care of the Messiah. They listened to each other as they had never listened before, as if they were listening to the Messiah. They blessed one another as they had never blessed one another before, as if they were blessing the Messiah.
Visitors to the monastery noticed the quality of the monks care for one another. It was beautiful. And it was contagious. People wanted to experience what they experienced. People wanted to join, and when they did, they were told the secret: "Sh-h-h-h-h! The Messiah is here among us!" And each met the Messiah in the other until all were drawn close in the love of God.
As we begin to pick up the points that have threaded themselves to this point, we are reminded that there comes a time when we have to put the anvil down - because we can keep trying too long and some burdens need to be put down. As we come out of the last 18 months, we have such a huge opportunity, as people of faith and people of God, to clarify our job and mission and even that around which we can wrap our hearts, because some of what we previously tried didn’t work all that well. Think: indifference, the sin of being too busy for whatever, distancing not so much socially, but because we didn’t want to get into the messy parts of other lives.
And we have a new - or renewed - freedom to tap into God’s power and authority to bless and heal and teach - just like the disciples, which is a point that is perhaps more relevant this day, in this county, surrounded by “opportunities” that may become frustrated and tired and surprised by road construction and ways to get around it that may not have been so clearly or timely announced as they try to partake in that glorious event known as 4th of July Fireworks in Frankfort, MI.
We have the opportunity, not to notice just how cute outfits are, how contagious the music, but the message that those around us bring, because they all have something to teach us and we’re all in this boat together - or parade - fireworks show - together. We have the freedom to listen, engage, invite people in to share Christ’s love - not just in church, but in so many aspects of life.
Not everyone here knew a gentleman named Theo Chandler, but he was a pretty great guy, and after almost eleven months, his life was able to be celebrated yesterday. And the more I listened to the reading and thought about Theo, the more it made sense to include that reading today - the day we can answer the question, as followers of Christ, “Freedom to….?”
Desiderata By Max Ehrmann © 1927
Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons; they are vexatious to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment, it is as perennial as the grass.
Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive God to be. And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.
Let us pray. Good, Good, God, we know you will not let us down, and we know you are a God of mercy and grace, and we know that sometimes we don’t do our best in helping others see the freedom you have given us to realize the holy and sacred in the everyday lives and events of this world. Forgive us when we fall short of reflecting your greatest gifts, living our own lives too much apart from our life with you. Help us to embrace the ability we have to minister to your world, not because of our faith in you, but because of Christ’s faith in what his love can do working through us. As we reflect on our fortune to live in this place, complete with our warts and stumbling, help us to determine and to rise to that holy path to which you have called us. And all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.