First Congregational Church
August 21, 2015
14th Sunday after Pentecost
“The Road We’d Rather Not Take”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
This morning’s sermon title is, indeed, a bounce off the famous poem by Robert Frost. Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both And be one traveler,
long I stood And looked down one as far as I could To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim, Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that
the passing there Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
There was a man, Edward Aloysius Murphy Jr., who lived between 1918 and 1990; an American aerospace engineer who worked on safety-critical systems - whatever they were/are. He is more famous, however, because of the observation he once made that has since become a “law” of the universe.
The gist of his law is: Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. The most classic example of Murphy’s Law is: if you drop a piece of toast it always falls buttered side down. There are finer points and variations to this law of which many of us are completely unaware: Finagle's Rider says that if “anything that can go wrong, it will-at the worst possible moment.”
Other examples of Murphy’s Law include: Change is inevitable, except from a vending machine. For the Do-It-Yourselfers, any project will require at least two trips to the hardware store. The Law of Probability reads: the probability of being watched is directly proportional to the stupidity of your act.
You never find a lost article until you replace it. Tell a person there are 300 billion stars in the universe and they'll believe you. Tell them a bench has wet paint on it and they'll have to touch to be sure.
Under the subject of fishing, this “law” often takes a variant form in that while you can be sitting in the same boat, using the same lure, and while the other person in the boat is hauling the perch or walleyes in hand over fist, you can’t even get a strike for love or money. The other person in the boat can give you their lure, give you their rod, and still, it’s just not going to be your day.
After that first day of Pentecost - as Christians count it - some days belonged to the early Christians, others - not so much. Back in Acts, chapter 5, we read “12 The apostles performed many signs and wonders among the people. And all the believers used to meet together in Solomon’s Colonnade. 13 No one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people. 14 Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number. 15 As a result, people brought the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and mats so that at least Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by. 16 Crowds gathered also from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing their sick and those tormented by impure spirits, and all of them were healed.” (Acts 5:12-16)
Immediately after that, “17 Then the high priest and all his associates, who were members of the party of the Sadducees, were filled with jealousy. 18 They arrested the apostles and put them in the public jail.” For those who remember the story, some days you’re pike and some days you’re the eagle and for those who can’t remember or don’t know, see me later for that story.
Then, between that scenario of success and what some might call failure and the passage for this morning, Stephen was seized and stoned to death, the church was persecuted and scattered, and a great many conversions occurred, including the great Paul, and Peter had a vision.
There was a guy, too, named Joseph, but the disciples called him Barnabas. Barnabas sold one of his fields and gave the money to the disciples. Apparently, Barnabas and the disciples kept in contact, because at one point, Barnabas took Paul to the church at Antioch, because it was such a hot and happenin’ place. Barn and Paul spent a year together at Antioch, teaching and meeting with the disciples, and it was while those two were there - that disciples began to be called Christians.
Paul and Barnabas were such good buds and such a good team, they went to Judea, taking supplies and food to the famine suffering that was taking place there. After they returned to Antioch, the Holy Spirit spoke to the disciples, telling them to set Paul and Barnabas apart for the work to which God was calling them. So after fasting and praying Paul and Barn had hands laid on them, and they went to the island of Cyprus, back to Antioch, then to Iconium, Lystre and Derby.
In each of those places, the general Jewish population didn’t like hearing the “Good News” of Christ, although some Jews heard their preaching and teaching and joined the followers. Despite their quasi-success, the disciples were run out of town, and as any of us can imagine, such pressures and stresses had to have a result in the relationship between Paul and Barnabas.
So Paul and Barnabas went back to Antioch, and while they were there, a dispute broke out - imagine - a dispute among Christians - about the distinction between Gentiles and Jews in regards to inclusion. Not knowing how to answer the question, Barn and Paul, along with Judas and Silas, went to Jerusalem, to consult with the church leaders there, and see how they should proceed. This meeting was such a big deal, it became known as the Council of Jerusalem. (sit)
So the men were sent off and went down to Antioch, where they gathered the church together and delivered the letter. The people read it and were glad for its encouraging message. Judas and Silas, who themselves were prophets, said much to encourage and strengthen the believers. After spending some time there, they were sent off by the believers with the blessing of peace to return to those who had sent them. But Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, where they and many others taught and preached the word of the Lord.
Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us go back and visit the believers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord. He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.
Thank you, Jim. Yesterday I performed a wedding for a couple from Connecticut, here in the church. I really do love performing weddings, because they are so individual and sometimes even fun. Someday I will look back over the 183 weddings - to this point - to recall some of the goofy, crazy and endearing things that happened over the years in those weddings. The distinguishing feature of yesterday’s wedding was the inclusion of a paragraph from the children’s book, “The Velveteen Rabbit.”
‘What is REAL?’ asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. ‘Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?’
‘Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When someone loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.’
‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.
‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’
‘Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?’
‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in your joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.’
‘I suppose you are real?’ said the Rabbit. And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse only smiled.
‘Someone made me Real,’ he said. ‘That was a great many years ago; but once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.’
I would guess that most of us truly value the depth of character that comes to us as a side effect of the process of becoming “real.” We may not really appreciate getting our hair “loved off,” the dropping out of eyes and/or the loosening of joints and the shabbiness that can attend aging processes.
Regardless of our age, we sometimes come to forks in the road that give us cause to make a decision that will likely change us forever. Those times are not always easy to endure, but there is a comfort that not even the greatest of disciples was immune from the harder roads.
Paul, of course, went to on to do more ministry. But we don’t really hear much about Barnabas after this account from today’s scripture passage, except that he and Paul are considered to be the founders of the Orthodox church on the island of Cyprus, and that he was stoned to death in 61 A.D. And Paul wrote in Galatians that he and Barnabas went to Jerusalem with Titus. Since Galatians was written after Paul and Barn’s split, there must have some sort of healing that happened that allowed them to come together again. And apparently there was a good reason for not taking Mark with them to Syria and Cilicia, but that’s a story for another day.
We don’t really know if there were lingering issues for Paul - from his previous life as a persecutor of Christians - that made for rough sailing in their relationship. We don’t know if their split was amicable or contentious. But like so many of us, they both undoubtedly experienced a pain of heart that lingered for a long while, because of the roads they chose.
Whether it’s a flat-out argument, a divorce, a death, loss of job, whatever the last straw, the Good News is that we are never alone on our paths. Whether we have a plethora of friends and family or we seem to be standing completely by our selves, God does not choose one over the other. We are never an undesired second-best. God stands by us, regardless of how cognizant we are of God’s presence, to comfort us and hear us and heal us and lead us. And sometimes, if we are so blessed, and not without prayer, we get to see the healing of messy and/or ugly splits of relationships.
Christ’s death and resurrection is the proof that God is nearer than our breath, true to God’s promise of presence, love, mercy and grace. There are days when we may feel utterly and completely alone, but we are not completely alone. Just as God’s Spirit is wrapping around you and flowing in and around this time, so is God’s Spirit present in those times that feel more threatening and/or solitary. Even on the roads we’d rather not take, God is with us, walking before us, behind us, beside us and in our hearts to bring us peace. So shall we pray?
Gracious and Ever-Present God, we thank you for your presence in our lives - at all times, but especially so in the hard times. Help us to have faith when relationships appear to mend, that we can move forward in restoration and healing. When those relationships appear to end, help us to “let go” with all the honor and dignity that you can give us. Whatever our circumstances, help us, like the disciples so long ago, to strengthen the churches in all our relationships - by being real and admitting not only to our faults, but to your accomplishments through us. For the gratitude of the fullness of our lives, all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
August 14, 2015
13th Sunday after Pentecost
“While Blinking an Eye….”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
In the bush of Ontario, Canada, anything can happen. You can be passing an “extra” walleye to the second boat that doesn’t yet have their limit, and in the blink of an eye, a northern pike may suddenly fly into the first boat, setting off pike kung fu moves that have never been named.
Or a sweet and kind hearted woman - of course, not me - although this is a true story - may have wrangled a really good sized northern pike into the boat. For the non-fishing temperaments, pike can be eaten, and they can be fun to reel in, but they are a little slimy and smelly, and they are usually thrown back. But this was an exceptional pike and after a long battle and all the requisite photos, it was time to release the fish back to its world. So the woman spent 45 minutes - 45 minutes - 43 minutes longer than I might have spent - helping the fish to regain it’s strength by gliding it back and forth in the water until she felt the return of life-sustaining strength. Just as the pike begins to swim away, in the blink of an eye, an eagle swoops down and picks off the pike for its dinner. Just that fast, the incident becomes a sermon illustration, pointing out that some days, you’re the pike, and some days, you’re the eagle.
It’s been a few weeks, but today we come back to the book of Acts, the diary of the early followers of Christ in those first years after his death and resurrection. Over the course of the first twelve chapters, Pentecost came with the Holy Spirit - birthing the church, we’ve been reminded to listen to the whispers of that same Spirit and to keep our heads when others around us seem to be losing theirs. We witnessed the stoning of the first martyr, Stephen and the great (New Testament) Saul was miraculously freed from a prison after three days. We were reminded of our freedom in Christ - as opposed to our freedom to do whatever we want, as well as the under-appreciated power of our prayers. Today, we move on to what may seem to be a rather science-fiction part of the early church’s history.
1 Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul. 2 While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” 3 So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.
4 The two of them, sent on their way by the Holy Spirit, went down to Seleucia and sailed from there to Cyprus. 5 When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the Jewish synagogues. John was with them as their helper.
6 They traveled through the whole island until they came to Paphos. There they met a Jewish sorcerer and false prophet named Bar-Jesus, 7 who was an attendant of the proconsul, Sergius Paulus. The proconsul, an intelligent man, sent for Barnabas and Saul because he wanted to hear the word of God. 8 But Elymas the sorcerer (for that is what his name means) opposed them and tried to turn the proconsul from the faith. 9 Then Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked straight at Elymas and said, 10 “You are a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right! You are full of all kinds of deceit and trickery. Will you never stop perverting the right ways of the Lord? 11 Now the hand of the Lord is against you. You are going to be blind for a time, not even able to see the light of the sun.”
Immediately mist and darkness came over him, and he groped about, seeking someone to lead him by the hand. 12 When the proconsul saw what had happened, he believed, for he was amazed at the teaching about the Lord.
Thank you, Julie. For those folks who have been able to watch the Olympics, you have come to appreciate how “little” numbers can be such a big deal. The commentators for the men’s 50 meter freestyle swimming race suggested that if one of the two that tied for first place could shave off 5/100ths of a second in his start, he could win the final. 5/100ths is .05 of a second. The average human blink of an eye takes whopping big third of a second, or 0.33 seconds. Last night, I believe there was a swimming race won by 1/100ths of a second.
In the blink of an eye, the last seven months have flown by - for most of us. For most of us, we may barely remember what we did or even where we were on Sunday, June 19 of this year. Unless I remind you that it was Fathers Day. And the choir sang Joanne Brown’s favorite anthem, “What a Wonderful World.” Even with the promise of a good back scratch, I don’t know that all that many people could remember the title of the sermon that day. Except that what whooshed by in the blink of an eye for most of us - became a pivotal point for some folks who were here that day. As I tell you this story, please, please, please, do not hear this as an ego trip on my part. Have no doubt, I will certainly tell you when you can listen to a story in that frame of mind. But because most all of us - myself included - might have missed it, here is the “blink” that Mary tells. By the way, Mary is married to Dave and Cindy is married to Dan, and a good many of you would most likely not remember these folks even if I told you where they were sitting that day.
Cindy and Dan, the friends who were at church with Dave and me that morning (June 19th), had a lot going on in their extended families, but decided that the week away would be good for them, nonetheless. Several things happened that week which showed them that God really DID plan for them to be there (-here). Every time Cindy spotted something that was a sign of such, she called it an “upgrade” because the day before when we checked into Watervale, they “upgraded” us to the cottage on the dune (Gull Dune) for no extra charge since Hill was still being worked on. So of course, that was great!
Sunday, during the service, she leaned over to me and shared just how beautiful she felt the sanctuary was, what a homey feeling she had, and then … how great the anthem was!! How you pulled together the 2 songs “What a Wonderful World” as a tribute to fathers and our beautiful world. If that wasn’t enough, we both just loved your message “Providential Fuss” and found ourselves hitting each other’s legs when a part of it especially talked to either one of us………………and of course, the message that “timing” is never our doing, but God’s hand in our lives.
Sooooo, that service cemented the theme of “upgrade”, but also spoke to Cindy that the whole trip, the timing, the location, the exceptional weather, the company of each other… all were exactly God’s doing and that He wanted them (well, all of us!) to see His beauty and feel His love and comfort, as it turned out … in preparation for what happened in Cindy and Dan’s lives just after we returned.
Cindy’s 45 yr old Downs Syndrome sister was in the last days of her life, in Hospice, at Cindy’s parents’ house. It pulled at her if she should even be away that week instead of helping her parents, who insisted that she go. As it turned out, she got word that Friday morning that Connie had peacefully passed away.
Cindy had had a spot of cancerous tumor on her leg and needed surgery which was scheduled for the Monday after we returned … and would keep her off work for 2 weeks. Thankfully, they feel like it went well.
Then, Cindy and Dan’s 30 yr old daughter, Faith, was pregnant with a child whose brain had not developed; the dr. didn’t expect it to go full term, nor did they expect it to live, but if it did, it would be very handicapped, and Cindy was in contact with Faith every day. The Tuesday after we returned home, Faith went into emergency labor and the baby lived a little over an hour.
Even though she wasn’t supposed to drive, Cindy jumped in the car, drove to Dan’s work, and the 2 for them drove to Grand Rapids, where they didn’t make it to see the baby alive, but got to hold him just the same, shortly after he passed away.
So, from the Friday news of a death heard when up north, to the Mon. with surgery, then the next day with the delivery … Cindy still said even more strongly that the trip and all of its “upgrades” was God’s way of helping her make it through what quickly followed; timing was everything. Your service and your message that morning were a big part of it, and you never would have known (as often happens) how you were the vessel that spread the word that touched a life. So, thanks, Dinah. Cindy knew I was going to write to you; she wanted you to know.
If you didn’t catch it, in our scripture passage for this morning, Saul became Paul. I know that there have been some folks waiting with worms in mouth - baited breath - for this day when Saul became the Paul we think we know.
The Holy Spirit commissioned Barnabas and Saul to do “the work to which the Spirit called” them - the work to which the Spirit calls all of us - in the large picture sense - of reaching out for Christ, through the Spirit, in God’s name - to those who need God’s healing - even if it baffles us in the process.
All too often, I think that we get whispers from the Holy Spirit to do this or that, and we underestimate the whisper, or the possibility of such a message, or even the split-second timing of such whispers - convincing ourselves that God wouldn’t have need of something so minute as our attendance at church, because, those four visitors on Fathers Day were not here in isolation, but surrounded with those who showed up that day, those who went from Saul to Paul, just by showing up.
Granted, none of us may go on to writing such historic and spiritual documents as the great Paul, but it’s not about the single-handedness or grandeur of any of us. It’s about those little moments, those things that we do with a blink of an eye decision, that can come together for others in allowing them to walk through their next valleys. So for those parts that others have played, for those parts we have played and will play, so should we pray.
Omnipotent and Omniscient God, we thank you for those times when we hear your voice in making “blink of eye” decisions, turning us from Sauls to Pauls. Help us to listen more carefully, not to what our brains may be guilting us to do, but to do those things that you need us to do - that will empower others to travel through their valleys and trying times. Help each of us savor the moments of goodness in our lives, that they may fuel the times with less goodness. For your love and joy, your grace and peace and for the body of Christ that surrounds us this day, all your people say, Amen
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.