First Congregational Church
September 28, 2014
16th Sunday after Pentecost, Baptism Sunday
“Authority, Relevancy, Grace, Oh My!”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Apparently it is true that two battleships were training, doing maneuvers in heavy weather for several days. The visibility was poor, so the captain of one of the ships remained on deck to keep an eye on all the proceedings.
Shortly after dark, the lookout on the wing reported, "Light, bearing on the starboard bow."
"Is it steady or moving astern?" the captain called out.
The lookout replied, "Steady, Captain," which meant the ship was on a dangerous collision course with the other ship.
The captain then called to the signalman, "Signal that ship this message: 'We are on a collision course, advise you change course twenty degrees.'"
The signal came back, "Advisable for you to change course twenty degrees."
The captain said, “Send this message: "I'm a captain, change course twenty degrees.'" "I'm a seaman second-class," came the reply. "You had better change course twenty degrees."
By that time the captain was furious. He spat out, “Send the message: 'I'm a battleship. Change course twenty degrees.'"
Back came the response, "I'm a lighthouse."
Our scripture passage for this morning has potential for several different lessons, including that of authority. Just before this passage, Jesus had ridden into Jerusalem that first Palm Sunday. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus went from that cheering crowd to the temple, where he drove out the money changers, healed some blind and lame folks, and managed to get himself more under the saddle of the chief priests and teachers than ever before. In frustration or weariness or agitation or whatever, Jesus curses a fig tree for not having fruit. In the Hebrew tradition, a cursed fig tree symbolized judgment on the people of Israel. (Apparently there wasn’t a lack of barren fig trees back in the day.) In that situation, the curse seemed to be directed more at the leaders of the temple than the population at large.
23 Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?”
24 Jesus replied, “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. 25 John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or of human origin?”
They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” 27 So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.” Then he said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
28 “What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’
29 “‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. 30 “Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go. 31 “Which of the two did what his father wanted?” “The first,” they answered.
Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.
Thank you, Josie. I came across an old Jewish witticism in which someone asks his rabbi, "Why do rabbis always answer a question with another question?" to which the rabbi replied, "Why shouldn't a rabbi answer a question with another question?” They say that in politics, one should never ask a question unless you know the answer. It almost lends credence to the popular idea - back then - of Jesus becoming a new political ruler.
At one level, it appears that Jesus is merely being a little arrogant. On another level, maybe Jesus is simply recognizing that there is very little sense in talking to people who are so close-minded. Maybe they weren’t really seeking information. Maybe their minds were made up about Jesus long before they asked their questions. If that is true, then was Jesus equally guilty of stereotyping - in his non-answer? Even though they are conjectures, there is a question we can ask ourselves. Is there something about which I being close-minded? The follow-up to that question would then be, ‘do I need to do something about that?’
For the gospel writer, Matthew, authority was a big deal. That’s why he began the whole book with Jesus’ genealogy - going all the way back to the father of the Hebrew people, Abraham. That theme runs all the way through Matthew, right up to the penultimate verse, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…” (28:18-19). The bottom line of this authority issue is that the teachers and chief priests got their authority as it had been handed down from Abraham. Jesus got his authority straight from God.
One contemporary question for us is, ‘what difference does it make to us - Jesus’ authority?’ What does his authority - as it comes from God - mean for us? Perhaps if nothing else, his authority allows us to trust that his name is above every other name, anywhere, any time, so that praying in Christ’s name is not just a nice way to end a prayer, but invokes God’s greatest power.
On the surface, the parable portion of our passage poses a possible follow-up to the idea of evaluating our motives, and it would be easy to get caught up in the rightness and wrongness of the first or second son. It seems that Jesus even leads us down that path.
But if we focus only on the brothers, we miss the core of God; God’s grace - and that which underlies the second part of today’s passage. All throughout the Bible, including the New Testament, chosen Israel is often compared to a vineyard. In this parable, Scott Hoezee of Calvin Seminary, suspects that when we hear the father asking his sons about working in the vineyard, it is the equivalent of asking people to do good work among the people of Israel, whoever they were.
Mr. Hoezee also suggested that, “What Jesus confirmed what his cousin, John, said, is that it is precisely the people who constitute the vineyard - the tax collectors and prostitutes - those deemed to be “other” than privileged - it is in their midst that we find amazing, holy work. We sometimes forget that this very gathering, in this very community, in this very county, this is the holy vineyard to which God calls us.
Vineyard work is sometimes dirty, sometimes hot, sometimes unrewarding, often times repetitive. We can find a million reasons to delay working in the vineyard, with every good intention to spend our precious time visiting those who need visiting, serving those who need to be served.
If we ignore or postpone working in the vineyard, we essentially write off those opportunities in which we could experience incredible holy moments. It’s the equivalent of telling God we will work in God’s vineyard but then never doing it. And in the end, not only do we risk disappointing God, we disappoint ourselves and all that we are able and capable of doing. Lest we miss our opportunities for holy moments and God’s grace, let us pray.
God, we are well-aware that it is our actions, not as much our words, that confirm the authority you have given us - through Christ - to do great things for your kingdom. Help us to be cognizant of those sacred moments in your vineyard, and that we not delay what you have need of us to do. Help us to remember that we are all your children, and that as followers in the way of your Son, we all have an important part of revealing your kingdom. For all your moments of sacred and holy grace, all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
September 21, 2014
15th Sunday after Pentecost
“Generosity and Envy”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
A man suffered a serious heart attack and had open heart bypass surgery. He awoke to find himself in the care of nuns at a Catholic hospital. As he was recovering, a nun came in to ask how he was going to pay for services. He was asked if he had health insurance.” No health insurance,” The nun asked if he had money in the bank. “No money in the bank.” The nun then asked, “Do you have a relative who could help you?” He said, “I have only a spinster sister, and she’s a nun.” The nun got a little perturbed and announced loudly. “Nuns are not spinsters! Nuns are married to God,” “Yes, that’s right!” said the patient, perking up. “Send the bill to my brother-in-law.”
The gospels of Matthew and Mark and Luke all contain similar passages as what was read by Miss Ella this morning. They all talk about Jesus and the “little children” and the kingdom of God or kingdom of heaven in the same passage. That “little children” passage from the book of Matthew is one of several that talk about the kingdom of heaven. In fact, the kingdom of heaven must have been one of Matthew’s favorite topics, because he included in his gospel, “the kingdom of heaven is like: A man who sowed good seed in his field, a mustard seed, yeast, treasure hidden in a field, a merchant looking for fine pearls, and a host of other symbols.
Matthew 20:1-16 NIV
1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2 He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.
3 “About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. 4 He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ 5 So they went.
“He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. 6 About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’
7 “‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered. “He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’
8 “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’
9 “The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. 10 So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. 11 When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 12 ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’
13 “But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16 “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
Thank you, Bob. I won’t ask anyone to raise hands, but I wonder how many of you side with the workers hired in the morning, and how many side with the landowner. And how many of us thought about those who were hired at the end of the day and what they might be feeling.
Can we imagine - setting aside any feelings of merit or misconduct - to what it might feel like to have no job, to be passed by all day, living all day with the distinct possibility that once again, you won’t be bringing home the bacon for dinner that night. Maybe it would be good for us, to once in a while be in that place, for a moment, when gratitude and blessing erupt all over you, and humility is not forced but a genuine condition of the heart.
As children, it seems like we learn words in threes: please thank you, I love you and it’s not fair. When we hear passages like this parable, for some, it strikes at that innate sense of fairness that seems to be part of our DNA, regardless if you are wearing the workers’ shoes or the landowner’s shoes.
I wonder how often we think about generosity and its tendency to set up expectations. And I wonder how often we think past those expectations and take a look at the envy that can creep in and begin to squeeze the heart. When our hearts are so squeezed by envy and unfairness, we begin to live life out of a scarcity mentality, rather than an abundance mentality, and instead of beauty, life begins to take on that hard, darkness that so describes someone that may come immediately to mind.
I think we need to hear this parable sometimes, so that we remember to look at our lives and decide how we will live. There’s another parable that goes around the internet sometimes, a Native American legend. A grandfather is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy. “It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.” The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?” The old grandfather simply replied, “The one you feed.”
“Christ’s life was - in part - about showing us that we have a choice in deciding which wolf to feed. David Lose, from Luther Seminary applied this struggle so perfectly. He said, Jesus was “killed not just because he proclaimed that the grace, and mercy of God was available to everyone, even to those (we in our human frailty) deem so incredibly unworthy. Christ’s declaration revealed the hardness of heart, the stone-cold frozenness of spirit that afflicts far too many of us. His inclusive, boundary-breaking generosity revealed the envy and competitiveness of those in power. His vision of another way of being in the world - he called it the kingdom of God - betrayed the lie told by the protectors of the status quo that theirs was the only way. Shamed by such a vision, and unable to embrace it, they put the visionary to death.”
Mr. Lose also suggested a congregational activity, that given any other Sunday, we might have done. But in the interest of time, imagine that you have two 3x5 cards. On one card, you write a resentment, a grudge, a lack or something of which you are envious. Mentally do that, and no peeking at your neighbor’s card! On the other card, write a blessing, an abundance, something for which you are grateful in your life or of someone else. Mentally do that, and still no peeking at your neighbor’s card.
Now hold both cards in your hands, face down in the palm of each hand. Notice with them that, physically, these two pieces of paper weigh the same, but the subjects are very different weights. Spiritually, existentially, one of those cards is weighing heavier, like chains secured to an anchor wrapped tightly around your heart, while the other is light as a feather.
To finish the illustration, we would have passed some empty offering plates, for each of us to “offer” the one we want to God and the other to take home as a reminder of what we chose. We might have even burned the “offered” cards, or shredded them for special effect. Just in case you’d like to finish your illustration, there are empty offering plates at the sanctuary doors, where you can mentally leave your card.
It’s not always easy to keep up with our choices, and sometimes life hits us upside the head with what we least expect - with everything from grief to envy to even contentment and peace. But we can continue to try to be more true to our choices. Christ’s choice was to give us the ability to choose more than we deserve, loving us from the death of scarcity and fear to the new life of abundance, courage, and faith. So let us pray our way into the new week.
Gracious God and Giver of all that is Good, thank you for constantly and continually loving us with the freedom to make our own choices. Help us to be true to our choices and you, that regardless of age, we continue to grow into the people you have always seen us to be. Help us to put down the burdens that keep us blinded to possibility and stooped to what may seem like defeat. For all the ways you reach out to us and love us, all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
September 14, 2014
14th Sunday after Pentecost
“The Hardest Blessing”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Our scripture passage for this morning is the one that immediately follows the one from last week. The passage for last week was one of the top ten tough ones - in my book, because of the great propensity for confusion, misunderstanding and the harm it can do and has done. For those who weren’t here, it began, “If your brother or sister sins,” detailing the steps of what has been called “church discipline.” It ended with “if two of you on earth agree and pray” and “where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” I wasn’t surprised, then, when today’s passage turned up, and at the immediate response to this well-known text.
Matthew 18:21-35 NIV
21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”
22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. 25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.
26 “At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.
29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’
30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.
32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
Thank you, Mary. Some of my initial thoughts in regards to this passage went like this: If you take Jesus’ words literally, on one side of the coin, forgiving 77 times sounds like a lot - until you realize that you don’t have to do it anymore after that 77th offense. On the other hand, being forgiven 77 times is awesome, until you realize that you are at number 75. Good thing it’s a parable, because 10,000 bags of gold would take a lot of work to maneuver. (The second amount owed was about 100 days worth of labor, and the first amount was about 150,000 years of labor at the time, about $1 million in our time.) Back to the initial thoughts, at what point - in torture - or jail - is a debt repaid? How does time served actually repay a monetary amount? Interesting that this passage falls on the Sunday after the 13th anniversary of 9/11. Ironically, in the end, Jesus doesn’t actually tell us the steps or the potion or the whatever of how to forgive. And I can’t wait to hear what some of your impressions are.
Most folks would take this passage to be about forgiveness, which is where I started. Earlier in the week, I asked a question on Facebook: “In preparing for Sunday's sermon, what is your favorite quote on “forgiveness?”" I never expected 35 responses by yesterday afternoon! I wish there was time to read them all, but here are a few of the delightful nuggets some by local folks, others from history. (By the way, I decided to print them all, and have a copy here for those who don’t do Facebook, if you’re interested.)
Forgiveness is giving up the hope that the past can be different or change. To not forgive is like living in a cell and the lock is on the inside. “An eye for an eye, and the whole world would be blind.” Not forgiving is like drinking poison and expecting someone else to die. It doesn't take a very big person to carry a grudge! Forgive your enemies- it messes with their head. And my ultimate favorite: You weren't in church....I forgive you!
Somewhere in the back of my mind, I sort of remember a study that was once done to determine which was more necessary: food or forgiveness, and it turned out to be forgiveness. It therefore makes all the more sense that the prayer for daily bread lies right next to the forgiveness of debts in The Lord’s Prayer.
On the surface, there seem to be a couple of motivational tools that Jesus is utilizing: one of grateful response and the other of punishment. They may be effective, but not always or necessarily the most helpful.
Scott Hoezee from Calvin Seminary said, “Forgiven” is who and what we just are. Forgiveness is not a tool you need just once in a while. Forgiveness is not like that Phillips screwdriver that you keep out in the garage and that you fetch now and then when a kitchen cabinet is loose (and when a regular flat-head screwdriver won’t work). Forgiveness is not a specialty tool to be utilized occasionally.
Eric Barreto from Luther Seminary mentioned that we do well to remember that this is a parable, not a real event. He said, “Jesus seems to treasure teaching in parables. He is a vivid storyteller. He casts simple but memorable stories that communicate profound and life-altering truths.” I was all over that thought, until I realized that Jesus never actually explained “how to forgive,” - and I listened to The Moonshine Jesus Show.
While the easiest take on this passage may be forgiveness, if you think about it, there is more - a whole lot more. Everyone who hears this parable gets the surface lesson: how could the servant possibly not overlook that (relatively) minor debt when he had just been forgiven an impossibly huge one? What I think many of us fail to do at that level is to extrapolate it to something like - if God forgives all my stuff, and welcomes me, then shouldn’t I at least be able to “allow” others into my realm of influence, others that may not be like me? That’s that big, open, magnanimous love for all people.
Go back to the generous king, the one who had forgiven so much, the one we would all most likely pat on the back for such a gracious gift. Skip over the middle bit, and listen to the tune the king is playing at the end of the parable. The very one that he had just gifted may be free of debt, but he remains a slave - and now in prison. The king is blind to the fact that he has not freed anyone or done anything gracious, but has perpetuated slavery. Back in the day, slavery was so common, that a huge argument could be made over the relevance of this “made-up” detail.
But it’s an excellent lesson for us contemporary followers of Christ. We all have blindnesses to which we buy into societal standards that hurt other people: an inexhaustible water supply, a mentality that some deserve differently than others, that we can withhold forgiveness because we can find many reasons not to forgive.
The original Greek word for forgiveness in this parable means to “let go.” (Too late I realized that we could have had someone sing “Let It Go” from the Disney movie, Frozen.) To let something or someone “go” is a huge blessing. The hardest part of that blessing is going from hurt to forgiveness, pain to freedom.
But our passage has another hard lesson, to take a look at the things that give us the most pride, and see if they are really serving a worthwhile purpose. I’m not talking about fishing boats or cars or bread makers or artistic endeavors. It’s the three fingers that come back at us when we are pointing at someone else.
It would be easy to say, let us pray at this point, but we all need the last reminder that 1. my prayer is always that God will teach the points we need to hear, despite the fact that I don’t know everything, and 2. we don’t have just 7 or 77 chances with God. God keeps no record of wrongs, and will not treat any of us differently than God has in the past - or will in the future. God’s love is as steadfast and gracious as it has been since the day God dreamed of each one of you. Out of that grace and steadfastness, we are able to begin to let those things that loom over us go, over and over as many times as we need, beginning with prayer.
Grace-full and Gracious God, we thank you for forgiving us our debts, trespasses, sins, slip-ups, fall-outs, and all the other ways we sometimes seem to goof up and/or fall short. We are grateful for the unending supply of forgiveness that is ours for the asking. So help us when it comes to forgiving others. Help us to “want” to forgive those who have wounded us deeply. Help us to patiently lay down our burdens of sorrow and pain and injustice at your feet, that you may roll them out to the sea of forgetfulness. Help us, too, to realize those situations that can make us appear blind to our own foolishness. More than anything, God, help us to not focus on the miscues and mistakes, but on the good and betterment. Thank you for loving us, gracing us, forgiving us, over and over and over and over. And all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
September 7, 2014
13th Sunday after Pentecost
“If God Is There, and We Agree…”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Since it’s been a while since I’ve used this one, and since it sort of fits today’s message, Mahatma Gandhi, as many of you know, walked barefoot most of the time, which produced an impressive set of calluses on his feet. He also ate very little, which made him rather frail and with his odd diet, he suffered from bad breath. This made him...a super calloused fragile mystic hexed by halitosis.
As I was doing research for this morning’s message, I came across a new website that just sucked me right it. It’s called “The Moonshine Jesus Show” with - Mark Sandlin and David Henson. This is going to go up on my favorite list, along with desperate preacher.com, not only because of the title, but the content.
I knew that I was going to like this - blog, actually - after my initial reading of our scripture passage and the opening lines of The Moonshine Jesus Show. Mark asked David, “So how are you this week?” David said, “I’d be better if we were doing a different text.” I’d have had a better week without this passage, too. Well, maybe not. Maybe the struggle of it has helped me be just a little better person, and maybe that will be passed on to you.
As the book of Matthew has 28 total chapters, the passage we will look at from chapter 18 is a little over halfway. Matthew, a Jew, writes to the Jewish people, trying to get them to embrace Jesus as The long-awaited Messiah. Matthew starts this chapter with a reminder that the greatest in the kingdom are not high government or religious officials, the great intellectuals or the rich and famous. He says, “whoever takes the lowly position of a (this) child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus then goes on to talk about not causing anyone to stumble, and gives them that little parable about the lost sheep and the shepherd leaving the ninety nine to find the one that got lost.
Matthew 18:15-20 NIV
15 “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. 16 But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ 17 If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
18 “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.
19 “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”
Thank you, Al. I’ll admit that I thought - a lot - about doing another passage. But like so many things in life, we can learn from what is good, and the not so good.
Maybe my biggest reluctance of using this passage comes from what I perceive as the low level of situations in this church family that resemble the “sins” that need such resolving. Sure, every so often, things happen, situations arise. But by and large, most especially in light of the wide variances of opinions and endearments that are held by those that call this place home, we haven’t had the big brew-ha-ha’s that have demoralized and torn other churches - for a long while. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
In the original Greek the word that has been translated as brother suggests a close relationship, as in church membership. So if you aren’t an official member of a church, does that mean you are outside the ‘circle of accountability?’ How big is this “membership?” Does it apply to just this church or all Congregationalists? All Christians? And just who has to keep the record books on that sort of thing? Who has time for all these siblings and what they do right or wrong?
Another reason I was so loathe to deal with this passage is because it says that if “sinners” don’t “repent” after all doing all these steps, then the “sinner” is to be treated like a “pagan or tax collector.” It seems, again, like Jesus is sorting people into the good ones and the bad ones. But Jesus also said, “"A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (Jn. 13:34) Some might call this a “tough love” passage, but I’m not so sure.
So we need to remember that tax collectors in Jesus’ day were often Jewish people, who collected taxes from Jewish people for the Roman government - or whatever non-Jewish government. The approved practice was to collect what the government required, plus a little extra for one’s self. If the tax was - let’s say - $25, a tax collector could charge an additional $5-$10 - for their trouble/own income. The problem was that there were no set rules about this collection method, so sometimes greed interfered and the tax collector would charge $15-$25 on top of the regular tax. Their despised status was not about the original taxes or even the collectors’ need to make a living, but the fact that they took advantage of their own people.
Besides that, wasn’t Jesus forever eating with the “wrong people,” speaking to women, hanging out with people of different ethnic backgrounds? Wasn’t that behavior precisely what got under the saddles of the scribes and Pharisees to begin with? Sadly, this passage - more specifically - verses 15, 16, 17 and 18 have caused more heart-ache than good, even within the history of this church family. Excluding “sins” that break actual laws, it seems that praying for the offender seems - at least to my small mind - the higher road. Even if the prayer starts with, “Lord, help me to want to pray for this situation or person,” I think we do more good than harm. When we get to the place where our prayer (genuinely) becomes “Lord, give this person a really good day,” I think we get closer to “loving one another” than we have ever thought possible, not to mention that we significantly lower the gossip potential.
And maybe that was Jesus’ point. Even after all that rig-a-marole of Step One, Step Two and Step Three, in the end, we’re still supposed to love them as Christ has loved us. Being the lazy sort that I am, I’d just rather side-step all the meetings and deal with my own heart and what is driving the need to make a big deal of something that may be outside my purview. Chances are, there’s a lot more on the table than my own - our - sense of injustice. Chances are, most true offenses are more misunderstandings and miscommunication than true sins.
So we get to verse 19, the one about two people agreeing on something and asking God for it and it will be done for them. This verse is a two-edged sword if ever there was one. One edge seems to be a support for a church movement called Prosperity Theology. The idea is that God rewards faith with health and wealth. That theology first appealed to those described as “the dispossessed” — the very poor. It’s how some of the very poor became even poorer at the hand of a preacher or minister - one of the many offenses under the umbrella of spiritual abuse. Now, its updated version appeals to the aspirational class of the suburbs. Whereas the early devotees of Prosperity Theology prayed for a roof over their heads that did not leak, adherents of prosperity theology pray for ever bigger houses for the sake of having bigger houses and moving up that very unsteady social ladder.
Another reason passages like this one make me squirm is that just as soon as I say something about a way of life, I will, in reflection, realize once again just how close Murphy - of Murphy’s Law - lives next to me. Believe me, my heart-felt intent behind this morning’s passage is not about what any one of us may or may not have. It is, I think, a good reminder to keep reviewing our motivations, so that we don’t end up saying things like, “If I had only listened to Dinah…” Kidding. So we don’t end up with regret.
The other side of the sword of agreeing about anything and asking God for it is - pick out any headline in any newspaper, website or newscast. Pick one: Ferguson, Missouri, ISIS, Ukraine, Kelli Stapleton, fracking, Democrats, Republicans, Tea Party, you name it, we could find two people who agree about the topic, and have them pray about it, and we can find two other people who hold the opposite view on the topic and ask them to do the same. And in the end, has anything, will anything change? It sure makes a case for those who say that prayer is useless.
So maybe, again, the surface reading of this verse isn’t the greater issue. Perhaps the greater issue is about talking to other people, to cultivate an interest in understanding how other people believe, that is more important. We can make guesses about people, and maybe we’re right more often than not. But how often have you been talking to someone, and you realize that what they really felt was not what you thought they would think?
So we get to our last verse: “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” As you prepare to eat your dinner with at least one other person, and you say grace, and notice I didn’t say “if” you say grace, but in that act, you acknowledge the truth of this verse 20. Sitting downstairs after church for a little cup and bite of something is not as much about the elements as it is about the extension of being present with Christ. Being with someone else is an opportunity to be mindful of God and acknowledge God’s presence with you. Even without the presence of another person, the Holy Spirit is hovering around, making every moment holy. How many places and instances have you realized that you are standing or sitting or swinging or teeter-tottering on holy ground? Presbyterian minister, author and theologian, Frederick Buechner once said, “Wherever people love each other and are true to each other and take risks for each other, God is with them and they are doing God’s will.” So let’s pray before we go and do more loving and being true and risk taking for God!
Great God, we are all aware that life can be hard and sometimes it’s easy to roll around in that bog of quick judgment. But we are aware, too, that you forgive each of us our sins, so help us to not be pejorative, but kind, and compassionate and loving - as you love us. We are also well aware that those are big shoes, God, but help us to rise to the moments when we can be the best that you created your church to be - in ones, twos or more. Help us to make sure our motives are good, and that we learn to relish contentment and the richness of the blessings with which you surround us. For all the blessings of the guidance of your Holy Spirit, all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
August 31, 2014
12th Sunday after Pentecost, Hymn Sing Sunday
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Prelude, Welcome and Meditative Sentences
We don’t often think about the difference, but most hymns have a composer and author. The author deals with the words and the composer with the musical elements of melody, rhythm and harmony. Sometimes words and music can be written at drastically different times, as is the case with our opening hymn this morning. The words came first, over 800 years ago, long before our nation was much of a thought, from the hand of Francis of Assisi. Seven hundred years later, the English translation came from a village priest in England named William Draper, who prepared this paraphrased version for a children’s choir festival. In the richness of it’s history, let us stand and sing our first hymn this morning, vs. 1, 2 and 5 of #63 in the red hymnals.
*Hymn “All Creatures of Our God and King” #63, vs. 1, 2, 5
*Call to Worship
*Greeting Our Neighbors
Scripture Reading Romans 15:1-6
1-2 Those of us who are strong and able in the faith need to step in and lend a hand to those who falter, and not just do what is most convenient for us. Strength is for service, not status. Each one of us needs to look after the good of the people around us, asking ourselves, “How can I help?” That’s exactly what Jesus did. He didn’t make it easy for himself by avoiding people’s troubles, but waded right in and helped out. “I took on the troubles of the troubled,” is the way Scripture puts it. Even if it was written in Scripture long ago, you can be sure it’s written for us. God wants the combination of his steady, constant calling and warm, personal counsel in Scripture to come to characterize us, keeping us alert for whatever he will do next. May our dependably steady and warmly personal God develop maturity in you so that you get along with each other as well as Jesus gets along with us all. Then we’ll be a choir—not our voices only, but our very lives singing in harmony in a stunning anthem to the God and Father of our Master Jesus!
Worship in Tithes and Offerings
The next two hymns feature the same composer. In fact, William Bradbury wrote over 60 of the most beloved and recognizable hymns, including: “Just As I Am,” “Sweet Hour of Prayer,” “Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us,” and “The Solid Rock.”
“He Leadeth Me,” perhaps more than any other modern hymn, has been translated into many different languages. Servicemen during World War II were greatly surprised to find it in one of the favorite hymns song by the primitive Polynesians in the South Pacific.
Author Joseph H. Gilmore distinctly remembered the writing of this hymn. “I had been speaking at the Wednesday evening service of the First Baptist Church in Philadelphia, corner of Broad and Arch Streets, about the 23rd Psalm, and had been especially impressed with the blessedness of being led by God. . . . At the close of the service we adjourned to Deacon Watson’s pleasant home where we were being entertained. During our conversation the blessedness of God’s leading so grew upon me that I took out my pencil, wrote the hymn just as it stands today, handed it to my wife, and thought of it no more. She sent it without my knowledge to the Watchmen and Reflector magazine, and there it appeared in print.
Three years later I went to Rochester, New York, to preach as a candidate for the 2nd Baptist Church. Upon entering the chapel I took up a hymnbook, thinking, “I wonder what they sing.” The book opened up at “He Leadeth Me,” and that was the first time I knew that my hymn had found a place among the songs of the church. For this morning, let us sing just the first two verses as you remain seated.
*Hymns “He Leadeth Me” #690
Anna B. Warner wrote the words to “Jesus Loves Me,” just over 150 years ago, with her sister, Susan, for a character to sing to a dying boy in a novel that the sisters penned. Living along the Hudson River, the sisters conducted Sunday School classes for the cadets at West Point.
Going back to the composer and link between the next two hymns, William Bradbury served as a choir director and organist in several large Baptist churches in the East, where he became especially noted for his work with children. Among the highlights of his career were his annual musical festivals, where more than 1000 children would gather, all dressed alike, and singing many of his own compositions. I don’t think he would care what children - big or small - would wear, so long as we sing it.
“Jesus Loves Me” #185
Time for Our Children
The next hymn this morning is the inspiration for this whole service, and it is found in the spiral songbooks. It’s written by Fred Pratt Green, who has been called the successor to the great Methodist hymn writer, Charles Wesley. Mr. Green, who I don’t know if he ever wore jeans - regardless of color (Greenjeans) - was born in England in 1903 and died just fourteen years ago.
While the words may be somewhat unknown to you, the tune may have a distant familiarity, because it was originally sung with the words “For All the Saints.” Ralph Vaughn Williams took over the words to “For All the Saints,” composing the tune we use today. Although it is the most modern of our hymns today, it has just as deep meaning and theology as any other good hymn.
One of my favorite lines in this song refers to the night before Christ’s crucifixion; “And did not Jesus sing a psalm that night?” Christine Stevens, a music therapist, says that listening to and participating in music heals the body/mind/spirit by helping to align all three promoting stress reduction, contentment and sense of community. When we are “in a bad way,” perhaps we should do more singing - if even to our own selves.
*Hymns “When In Our Music God Is Glorified” S 168
There are a lot of stories that float around, called “urban myths,” and the one about the next song, also in the spiral songbooks, happens to be true. Billy Graham and John Wayne did have a hand in its creation.
Back in the 50s there was a well-known radio show host/comedian/songwriter in Hollywood named Carl Stuart Hamblen was noted for his frowned-upon behavior and life-style. He heard that there was to be a revival in town, so he thought he’d go to “get some good material.” To make a longer story shorter, the preacher at that revival was Billy Graham, and during that week, Mr. Hamblen gave up his former life to follow Christ. After losing his job at the radio station, Carl tried his hand at song writing, but the only one that seemed to do anything was “This Old House,” which he wrote for Rosemary Clooney.
John Wayne was a long-time friend of Mr. Hamblen, and one day he pulled him aside and pointed out “All your troubles started when you got religion. Is it worth it all?” Carl answered simply, “Yes”. Then John Wayne said, “You liked your booze so much. Do you ever miss it?” And the answer was, “No.” John then said, “I don’t understand how you could give it up so easily.” And Hamblen’s response was, “It’s no big secret. All things are possible with God.” To this The Duke said, “That’s a catchy phrase. You should write a song about it.” And just as an aside, Carl Hamblen appeared in a number of minor westerns, including Summit starring the Duke and was nominated by the Prohibition Party as their candidate for president of the United States in 1952.
“It Is No Secret” S 79
There is a tribe in Africa called the Himba tribe, where the birthdate of a child is counted not from when they were born, not from when they were conceived, but of the day that the child was a thought in its mother’s mind. And when a woman decides that she will have a child, she goes off and sit under a tree, by herself, and she listens until she can hear the song of the child that wants to come. And after she’s heard this song of this child, she comes back to the man who will be the child’s father, and teaches it to him. And then, when they make love to conceive the child, some of that time they sing the song of the child, as a way to invent it.
And then, when the mother is pregnant, the mother teaches that child’s song to the midwives and the old women of the village, so that when the child is born, the old women and the people around her sing the child’s song to welcome it. And then, as the child grows up, the other villagers are taught the child’s song. If the child falls, or hurts it’s knee, someone picks it up and sings its song to him or her. Or perhaps the child does something wonderful, or goes through the rights of puberty, then as a way of honoring this person, the people of the village sing his or her song.
In the African tribe there is one other occasion upon which the villagers sing to the child. If at any time during his or her life, the person commits a crime or deviant social act, the individual is called to the center of the village and the people in the community form a circle around them. Then they sing their song to them.
The tribe recognizes that the correction for antisocial behavior is not punishment; it is love and the remembrance of identity. When you recognize your own song, you have no desire or need to do anything that would hurt another.
And it goes this way through their life. In marriage, the songs are sung, together. And finally, when this child is lying in bed, ready to die, all the villagers know his or her song, and they form a circle around them – for the last time – to sing that person’s song.
We may not have grown up in an African tribe that sings our song at crucial life transitions, but life is always reminding us when we are in tune with ourselves, and each other and God, and when we aren’t. We may not be in a circle, but this time, together, we are reminded of the songs that remind of who we are.
Worship in Prayer
“Count Your Blessings” was authored by Rev. Johnson Oatman, Jr., who wrote over 5,000 hymn texts, was busily engaged throughout his life in a mercantile business and later as an administrator for a large insurance company in New Jersey. Whoever it was, once said of this this, his most famous hymn, “It is like a beam of sunlight that has brightened up the dark places of the earth.” Early on it was especially popular in Great Britain, where it was said, “The men sing it, the boys whistle it, and the women rock their babies to sleep on this hymn.”
I found it interesting that some people might understand this hymn to mean “Cheer up and act like everything is fine.” I had never thought of it as being a hymn to “beat up” the soul, but to “raise up” the soul. Perhaps my lesson from this morning’s many messages is to try to wear other people’s moccasins more often. Let us sing verses 1 and 2 of #786.
“Count Your Blessings” #786
It wouldn’t be right to have a hymn-sing service without a mention of the great English, Congregational hymn writer, Isaac Watts. His greatest influence in the history of Christian hymnody is for introducing and then mainstreaming a new type of congregational song; the modern English hymn. Before Watts, metrical psalmody was the primary type of congregational song used in the worship services of both the Established Church of England and the dissenting churches - those churches that were opposed to state interference in religious matters, i.e., congregationalists. In English, that means that before Isaac Watts, churches that were ruled by governments, like Churches of England, sang songs that came only from the Bible - mostly psalms, in a sort of chant style. So the big scuttle in that day was: hymns or psalms?
While Mr. Watts was the author to “We’re Marching to Zion,” Robert Lowry was the composer. It has been said that Dr. Lowry was a man of rare administrative ability, a most excellent preacher, a thorough Bible student, and whether in the pulpit or upon the platform, always a brilliant and interesting speaker. () He was of a genial and pleasing disposition, and a high sense of humor was one of his most striking characteristics. Of “We’re Marching to Zion,” Mr. Lowry said, "It is brass band music, has a march movement, and for that reason has become popular, though for myself I do not think much of it.” And yet, on Children's Day in Brooklyn, in 1865, this song was sung by over forty thousand voices. Let us sing vs. 1 and 4 for #416.
“We’re Marching to Zion” #416
The partnership of author “Major” D.W. Whittle and composer James McGranahan did not have the most romantic beginning. They met at a train wreck, because a mutual friend died there. Major Whittle was in the Civil War, and after getting wounded, lost an arm. Discovering a New Testament his mother had sent with him, Whittle was reading when another soldier asked if he would come and pray with him. All this religion stuff was new to Whittle, but he went to the soldier’s side and prayed with him, and when the prayer was done, the young man had died peacefully. Even when this religion stuff feels new or odd or even uncomfortable, God can do some mighty stuff through us.
In fact, big, fire and brimstone, hell and damnation tent-revivals aren’t even needed to bring about God’s kingdom on earth. Mercy drops are falling around us - in the lightest of showers and the heaviest of downpours. What a beautiful thought on which to end our family worship of God this morning! Let us end our hymn feast with vs. 1 and 4 of #430.
*“There Shall Be Showers of Blessings” #430
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.