First Congregational Church
September 27, 2015
18th Sunday after Pentecost
“Have salt among yourselves?”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
The first line of this morning’s introductory joke says that “All members of Mensa have I.Q.s of at least 140.” Not belonging to such a prestigious group, I looked up Mensa to discover that it is the Latin word for table - indicating a group of equals sharing ideas, like a roundtable discussion. It’s okay if no one found that funny, but I laughed to myself - not knowing what Mensa stands for, but having the where-withal to at least look it up. Somedays, it doesn’t take much….
So at a particular Mensa convention, several members, at a local cafe, noticed the shaker with an S on top, for salt, contained pepper and their pepper shaker, with a P on top, was full of salt. Challenge on: how could they swap the contents of the bottles without spilling anything and using only the implements at hand? Clearly, here was a marvelous Mensa mystery!
They presented ideas, debated them, and finally came up with what they felt was a brilliant solution involving a napkin, a straw, and an empty saucer. They called the waitress over to dazzle her with their solution.
"Ma'am," they said, "we couldn't help but notice that the pepper shaker contains salt and the salt shaker contains…" "Oh, sorry!" interrupted the waitress. "Here," and she unscrewed the caps of both bottles and switched them.
I wish this morning’s scripture passage was as easy to “resolve.” It takes place immediately after last week’s passage, where Jesus predicted his death a second time and the disciples had been talking about who was the greatest behind Jesus’ back. When confronted with what they said, the disciples were able to dodge the topic when Jesus took a nearby child and gave the world’s most famous children’s sermon, which Jesus references in today’s passage. So the disciples try to continue dodging the truth about their “greatest” conversation by pointing to another event that happened at the same time.
38 “Teacher,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.”
39 “Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, 40 for whoever is not against us is for us. 41 Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward.
Causing to Stumble
42 “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea. 43 If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out.  [a] 45 And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell.  [b] 47 And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, 48 where “‘the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched.’[c] 49 Everyone will be salted with fire. 50 “Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? Have salt among yourselves, and be at peace with each other.”
Thank you, Donna. Many of you know of the Martha Stewart “tricks and shortcuts” that have made her fame.
Martha’s way: Stuff a miniature marshmallow in the bottom of a sugar cone to prevent ice cream drips.
My way: Just suck the ice cream out of the bottom of the cone, for Pete's sake, you are probably lying on the couch with your feet up eating it anyway.
Martha's way: Use a meat baster to "squeeze" your pancake batter onto the hot griddle and you'll get perfectly shape pancakes every time.
My way: Buy the precooked kind you nuke in the microwave for 30 seconds. The hard part is getting them out of the plastic bag.
Martha's way: To prevent egg shells from cracking, add a pinch of salt to the water before hard boiling.
My way: Who cares if they crack, aren't you going to take the shells off anyway?
One of the saddest parts - in my opinion - about our holiest of books is the huge lack of adverbs - especially when Jesus was speaking. When he is told about the one healing in his name, Mark wrote very simply that Jesus said, “Do not stop him.”
Scott Hoezee, from Calvin Seminary, had this to say. “A saccharine-infused piety would lead one to read that line as though Jesus were speaking in the vacant-stare monotone you usually see in all those movies that are made about Jesus. But I rather think that before Jesus spoke that line, first his jaw dropped to the floor before he managed to sputter in exasperation, “Don’t stop him, for pity sake! Anybody who believes in me enough to know my name can deliver a knockout punch to demons is a friend of ours and of mine. He’s not taking my name in vain, he’s using my name to take it to the demons and unless you’re of the opinion that leaving the demons alone is a good idea, let these people carry on with their work, which is at the end of the day also MY work!”
If Jesus did have some emotion of that sort about the scenario, then it would make sense for Mark to include the next shocking section about getting rid of that which causes us to sin or stumble. Maybe Jesus was frustrated with the disciples’ inability to understand his message about his resurrection. Maybe he’d had enough of people interrupting his lesson plans. So he spews out a stream of metaphors that I wonder if he really meant to to be taken literally.
So we get to the end of the passage, and the bit that has perhaps brought about more spiritual backfire than anyone could have ever anticipated, the part about fire, salt and hell. Hell in the Hebrew world was known as Gehenna, an actual place, a real, true dump, actually, just south of Jerusalem. The place where the filth and dead animals of the city were cast out and burned eventually became linked to a symbol of the wicked and of future destruction.
While a great deal has been made of this imagery over the centuries, I wonder if the “fire of Gehenna” visual has overpowered the goodness of fire’s purifying properties. Just as it was then, fire is still a means to destroy contaminated items, to purify raw metals and bringing light to darkness.
I wonder how often we forget that fire represents the very presence of God. From Moses’ burning bush to the glory of the Lord looking like fire, there is a sacredness in this double-edged gift.
Then there is salt. Babies were salted way back in Ezekiel’s day, although no one seems to know why. My guess is that it was so valuable that it was used as a blessing on the infant. The ancient Hebrew word for salt isn’t just about the seasoning, but can mean tempered together, or vanish away. To eat salt with another person is to partake of his or her hospitality, and because that person has given you substance, you now have the responsibility to look after your host. A "covenant of salt" was a covenant of perpetual obligation.
I’m sure I’ve read this passage at least a few times over the centuries, but I surely don’t remember all of the last two verses. Maybe you’ve heard often enough, salt being good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? But do you remember, “Everyone will be salted with fire.” And more pointedly, “Have salt among yourselves, and be at peace with each other.”?
Last week I brought up the idea of intercalations, when a writer pairs two stories side by side as way of making a point that could not have been achieved without such contrast, and apparently, the writer of Mark is famous for this. I probably skipped that day in seminary to have learned that.
One side of the sandwich is the demon-driving unknown follower and the other side of the sandwich would be real, live, salt and fire. And I have to say, it took a while to discover the middle meaning of the sandwich, which I think is essentially the blessing we are to other people.
Staying home with the crud this week, in between naps, there were opportunities to watch some of the Pope’s activities. I confess that the more I watched, the more I was drawn to this ordinary man who is having an extraordinary impact - at least with the media, but more seriously, in the lives of millions of people. I am wondering how many other churches, including those of our Catholic brothers and sisters, will hear this passage and liken the Pope to one of those whom we would call “the salt of the earth?”
I know there are as many different opinions of the Pope as there are people in this room, so for the moment, if you have issues with him, try to put them aside. Regardless of what he was trying to say politically or religiously or any other way, flitting from one place of opulence to the next, numerous times the Pope stopped his micro-mobile to get out and bless someone, or stopped as he exited or entered a building to look someone in the eye and lay a hand on a person. And for any of you that saw any of those moments, did you see the faces of those who loved the one being blessed? I don’t know how any of those people actually felt, but their faces told story after story of deep joy.
What’s so amazing is that you and I have that same ability to bless someone - with our realness, our interest and our genuine care and concern - even if we can’t do anything to change a single circumstance. We forget how powerful we are in paying attention to someone, even if we’ve heard their story time and again. And yet, it’s not about power or patience, but about humility and being the salt of the earth, to be salt among each other, salting each other with the fire of God’s presence and purity, vanishing away that which weakens us, tempering together that we become stronger as people after God’s heart. So shall we pray.
Great God of us all, thank you for reminding us of your presence in the simple flame. Purify our hearts that we can be the blessings of salt to one another, that perhaps we all could be at peace with each other. Help us to really see those among us that need your touch that can come through us. Help us to overcome the inhibitions that keep us from reaching out when we know you are prodding us to do even the simplest of acts. And thank you for those who have given us the pat on the shoulder or the knee when we so dearly needed one. For the salt you have given each of us in each other, all your people thank you with a great, Amen.
First Congregational Church
September 20, 2015
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
“Do We Understand What He Meant?”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Our teacher asked what my favorite animal was, and I said, “Fried chicken.” She said I wasn’t funny, but she couldn’t have been right, because everyone else laughed. My parents told me to always tell the truth. I did. Fried chicken is my favorite animal. I told my dad what happened and he said my teach was probably a member of a group that loved animals. I do, too. Especially chicken, pork and beef. Anyway, my teacher sent me to the principal’s office. I told him what happened, and he laughed, too. Then he told me not to do it again.
The next day in class my teacher asked me what my favorite live animal was. I told her it was chicken. She asked me why, so I told her it was because you could make them into fried chicken. She sent me back to the principal’s office. He laughed, and told me not to do again.
I don’t understand. My parents taught me to be honest, but my teacher doesn’t like it when I am. Today, my teacher asked me to tell her what famous person I admired most. I told her, “Colonel Sanders.” Guess where I am now….
Truth is such an interesting thing. I’ve sort of come to the conclusion that when two people have an argument - or discussion - which can generally be reduced in some way to the issue of truth or what is true - there are three sides to any story: my truth, your truth, and the real truth - which no one person may ever discover. We all see truth through our own eyes, so even in the quest for such a noble aspiration, we have human complications.
The gospel book of Mark is supposedly famous for its intercalations, which are also known as “sandwiches”. And I thought I wasn’t going to learn anything new this week! The writer of Mark puts stories side by side as way of making a point that could not have been achieved without such juxtaposition. It is sort of like visiting Benzie County on a beautiful sunny day, but knowing how much glorious it is after you’ve been through a dull, grey winter.
So naturally our scripture passage for this morning has one of these such intercalations. Before we get to the reading of it, however, it may be helpful to set the scene with a little insight from Ramsey MacMullen’s book, Roman Social Relations: 50 B.C. to A.D. 284. (I know it sounds like a terribly dry seminary text book, but do pay attention, because I think it will add a sense of depth that we might not otherwise appreciate - like an intercalation in an intercalation.)
His book describes a sense of class in the ancient world that, although recognizable to us today, was of a scale that we might have a hard time imagining. The ancient world had no middle class. Most of the wealth was accumulated at the very top of the social structure, and the bulk of people found themselves poor.
Within the elite world, honor was incredibly important. The components of honor and shame were common: “The upper classes emphasized, for everyone to notice and acknowledge, the steep, steep social structure that they topped”. The rich wanted to associate only with other rich, they would intentionally insult and demean those who were slightly less rich, and hoped to accumulate favor with those who were above them.
Within the lower class, the hierarchy of the society placed children just below farm animals because you could get a lot more out of a goat than a toddler, and the goat would probably live longer. Children had no rights or protections. They weren’t even considered people until they were old enough to work.
Just before this morning’s account, Mark has Jesus and some of the disciples coming down from the Mount of Transfiguration, and they see a large group of people arguing with the teachers of the law, i.e., religious upper-classmen.
30 They left that place and passed through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were, 31 because he was teaching his disciples. He said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.” 32 But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it.
33 They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” 34 But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.
35 Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”
36 He took a little child whom he placed among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”
Thank you, Ann. Now that you know about intercalations, which is a word recognized by spell-check, by-the-way, it’s interesting how those two pieces of bread are so easy to see. The one side is the first part - where Jesus prophesied his death and resurrection - divine - and the other side is one of the parts that helps us to identify so well with Jesus - human. The inside of the sandwich is meaning.
Part of the reason it’s nice to use the lectionary for scripture passages is that I feel like I get less blame. If I had deliberately chosen this passage, particularly in light of the refugee and immigration issues, all the political heat around Planned Parenthood, and in these exciting days of pre-presidential election emotions, then I would deserve any sticks and stones cast my way. But if I chose from a set number, and make that choice on what I think God would have us wrestle, then I think God gets as much blame as I - as if the issue were about blame at all.
So, getting down to the meat of the story, remembering the status of lower class children of the time, because you know no respectable upper class parent would allow their child to mingle with such riff-raff, create that picture in your mind - of Jesus taking the child into his arms - not in front of the disciples, or behind them, but among them. You know, the kid probably wasn’t wearing designer labels, most likely no shoes or sandals, and there would be no surprise of a dirty face and maybe even a snotty nose. And Jesus holds him, and speaks words to which we are to aspire.
So what if we had such children around us? Actually, there are such children around us, many in adult bodies, so the question is how do we treat them? Do we even look for the light in their eyes or the fear of abandonment? If Jesus takes the lowest of the low into his arms, and gives us the charge to welcome such smelly and squirmy ones like him, do we really understand what he means?
On the other side of the literary sandwich, Jesus predicts his death and resurrection for a second time - the first was in the previous chapter (Mark 8:31-33). Although the disciples’ reaction by this point is unsurprising, they still seem to have no idea what he is talking about. The most logical reasons - in my mind - they don’t ask for clarification are most likely 1) fear of asking a stupid question, and/or 2) fear that they still won’t understand. Its is interesting that fear is pervasive in the book of Mark. Characters repeatedly fear Jesus (Mark 4:35-41) or some manifestation of the Kingdom of God associated with him (Mark 5:1-20) - like a ghost or a spirit.
But here is where we start getting to the meat of the subject, and yes, this and the previous pun is intended. Fear, in Mark’s gospel, is the paired opposite of faith. In the calming of the storm, Jesus asks the disciples: “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” Jesus’ statement to Jairus about his dead daughter is similar: “Do not fear; just have faith” (Mark 5:36). Faith in Mark is not an intellectual assent to a series of ideas or articles to be believed, but more about what is in your gut.
Arguing about who was the greatest - is not an issue that relative only to four-, five- or six-year-olds. Sometimes our “arguments” don’t have words. When the Apple Watch was released, it was revealed that it came in aluminum, stainless steel, and gold versions. The only conceivable need for a $10,000 gold arm computer that will be obsolete in 2 to 3 years is status, to proclaim to the world that money can be spent with no correlation to value. And please understand, I love life’s conveniences as well as the next person, and I’m just not ready to give up flush toilets for Jesus. I don’t think Jesus is asking anyone to become a pauper. But do I - do you - really understand what Jesus meant when he said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”
Adam Thomas writes for an online site called Ministry Matters, and he tells this story - and you need to remember his name - Adam Thomas. “Every day of my fourth grade year, my class lined up at the end of recess to go back inside. The bell rang, and we raced to our spots in the queue. But the race was in vain because no matter who arrived at the door first, we always lined up alphabetically by last name. By last name. What I wouldn’t have given to line up by first name. Then (Oh happy day!) I would have been at the very front of the line. (There were) No Aarons or Abigails in my class. No. Adam would have been the first name on the list. But those days were cruel. Every morning, I stood on tiptoes to see over the twenty-three heads in front of me, and only one boy — stricken with a name beginning with the letter “Y” — was worse off than I.
Then, on the day my math teacher, Mrs. Hughes, challenged us to line up in reverse alphabetical order. And for one cold, drizzly, glorious day, I stood at the front of the queue and only one head obstructed my view of the playground doors.
Standing at the front of the line feels good and the benefits are numerous. Being in front means that the concert tickets aren’t sold out. The first baseman hasn’t tired of signing autographs. The stalls of the women’s bathroom still have an opening. The bucket of fried chicken at the church potluck retains its full complement of chicken legs.
Of course, these benefits are all about me. I get the tickets and the autograph and the preferred piece of chicken. I get all these things because I got in line before you. You are behind me and someone else is behind you and countless faceless others line up behind that someone else. So we stand in our line and stare at the backs of the heads in front of us. In this linear configuration, no one can converse. No one can relate. No one can do anything more than slowly shuffle forward, both surrounded and isolated at the same time.
This isolation is the danger Jesus envisions when he places a little child among his disciples. They’ve been arguing about which one of them is the greatest (in other words, which one of them should be first in line). The prevailing linear culture has thoroughly molded the disciples. They only understand relationships in terms of hierarchy based on class, gender, and age. But they’ve been hanging around Jesus long enough to know that Jesus is thoroughly countercultural. He talks with women. He eats with outcasts. He touches the unclean.
Maybe this whole passage really is an intercalation, two parts that are bigger because of each other. This earthly part - about inclusion of the lowest of the low - pairs with this divine part - about an eternal life that is beyond us - and the two paint the picture of not only what eternal home will be like, but of what can can aspire here on earth. Maybe we forget that life is not only about linearity, because sometimes lines are important, but about a circle that is large enough for everyone. Lest any of us lose any more time - to search our hearts about what Jesus really meant here, let us pray.
God of earth and eternity, we thank you for giving us such a greater scope than we often realize. Help us keep one eye to the heavens and one eye on the world around us. Help us to be wise in places where we need to be wise, and more embracing of those that need us. Because you created each of us differently, wired our brains differently, give each of us the understanding of your truth and more insight into different ways of understanding those not like us. For the gift of our minds that can appreciate so much from complexity to simplicity, all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
September 13, 2015
Worship, Blessing of the Backpacks, Eva Strom’s Baptism
First Day of Sunday School, Grandparents Day!
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Lena asked her eight eager 10-year-old Sunday Schoolers if they would give $1,000,000 to missionaries. "YES!" they all screamed!! "Would you give $1,000?" Again they shouted “YES!" "How about $100?" "Oh, YES we would!" they all agreed!! "Would you give just a dollar to the missionaries?" she asked. The boys exclaimed "YES!" just as before except for Ole. "Ole," Lena said as she noticed the boy clutching his pocket, "why didn't you say 'YES' this time?” "Well," he stammered, "I HAVE a dollar.”
I’m guessing that sometimes, you all, like myself, wonders how so may elements of a Sunday morning come together. How it happened this week was in part because of an editorial I read in this week’s Record Patriot, written by a church member. (Go look it up later, because you don’t want to miss it now, trying to figure out who wrote it.)
If you been around here long enough you realize that I don’t often use things from the editorial column because they can be so politically charged, and true to my Swedish heritage, I try hard to avoid politically charged anything. But this article was so good - on so many levels.
It read, “In the grueling world of competitive cross-country running, the athletes are always talking about striving to achieve their personal best time when they compete in the various events.
On August 29, at the Pete Moss invitational, held at Benzie Central, I had the privilege to see what that really means.
With the finish line in sight, I watched as a member of the Cadillac Junior Varsity girls team begin to slow down and eventually stop as she had reached the limits of her endurance and was unable to cross the finish line. It was heartbreaking to watch as runner after runner streamed past her.
Then, something incredible happened – two members of the Traverse City St. Francis team, along with one of her own teammates, stopped their own quests for personal best times, and went back to offer assistance.
With kind words of encouragement and gentle hands, they helped this exhausted runner get back on her feet. It was one of the most out standing displays of good sportsmanship I have ever witnessed, but what they did next took my breath away.
These amazing young women linked up arm in arm and crossed the finish line together.
While I do not know their names I want to thank these young athletes for renewing my faith in the future. That being said, I also want to acknowledge the hard work and effort of the coaches, the parents and the community members who play an active role in developing the kind of character and courage that seemed to come so naturally for them when these young athletes decided to put their own goals aside to help someone else, they exemplify the true meaning of the phrase, “personal best”. Their actions should serve as a reminder to the rest of us that the opportunity to achieve our own personal best can arise when we least expect it. We just have to take notice then take action.”
11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
Thank you, Jim. This morning is one of those days about lifting up those who are actively helping to mature the younger ones of our family. With our vow of helping to raise little Eva Marie and surrounding those who are learning about and teaching what it means to be a follower of Christ, we take on the promise to speak truth in love, helping those same individuals to grow into the mature body of Christ. Our work in this little area may not give cause for any of us to see a single one of them stop their own foot race to help another walk across the finish line, but with our prayers and support, hopefully that will happen metaphorically over and over and over again, as they become those who take our place in the chain of Christ followers.
Bringing in the Grandparents Day aspect, we can recognize those young folks among us. With smiles and eye contact, yes. But remember when you were little and an older person recognized you - and spoke to you - and how that felt? If it was in a church, didn’t it make you feel even more a part of that family? We all get to make memories in the lives of those people that come through our doors, memories that help them continue that link of Christ followers since his resurrection.
Blessing backpacks may not seem like a big thing, or it may seem like a busy thing, but through it we remind our children that they have important work, not only as members of this family, but as bringers of hope to those who fall, especially when a ligament breaks or is injured. So shall we do part of our part as we pray for them?
Gracious and loving God, we thank you that you care whether one of us falls - really or metaphorically. Thank you for those who come around to speak kind words of encouragement and use gentle hands to get us back on our feet. Help us to be the bringer of those words and at the ends of those gentle hands. Help us to remember our vows to help our little ones grow in faith that they may fully become the people you have always seen them to be. Help each of those that leave this place and go into the big world realize that sometimes our help may be as simple as the offer of a hand or a silent reminder of their value and importance. For the answers to all our prayers, all your people say, Amen.
Blessing of the Backpacks
Blessing of the Backpacks
Today, we have before us backpacks to be carried to and from school by the children and youth gathered here. These backpacks will contain work to be done, work that's been returned, books to be studied, tools to complete homework. Notebooks with blank pages waiting to be filled, pencils with erasers, pointy crayons, rulers, safety scissors, glue sticks, calculators and other items used for school work will find their way in and out of these backpacks.
And now our young people may come forward.
One of the big lessons we learn in school is how to be patient, and today we’re learning how to do that here, as we wait for the real tags to come in the mail. But for now, these are sort of what they would look like.
The words this year will say, “You are stronger than you think.” Sometimes school may feel hard and you might forget that God made us to be able to do great, wonderful things. So the tags will be reminders to you that God knows you are strong and able, no matter how you might feel, to do great things in this world. Sometimes other people can feel sad or down or not very strong, maybe a person you don’t really know, and you may not know that they need to remember that they are strong, too. So your tag will be like a secret reminder that God knows they are able, no matter how they feel, to do great things in this world. But if you don’t remember any of that, remember this.
These people love you a lot. They want the best for each one of you, and they believe that you are already strong, that you can do more than you may believe you can. So your tag is a reminder - from us - that you are greatly loved - by God and us.
As our young people come down to the floor, I invite anyone who wishes, to come and bless them with the laying on of your hands.
Let us pray. God, we thank you for these special people. Bless them with curiosity, understanding and respect. May their backpacks and tags be signs to them that they have everything they need to learn and grow this year in school and in Sunday School. Give them peace when they feel nervous, focus when they feel distracted, energy when they feel tired. Help them to make friends that build one another up, and be friends to those who need them. Help them and us to remember that asking the right questions is often as important as giving the right answers. May they be reminded of the love and care of this congregation that surrounds them each day. All this we ask in the name of Jesus, who as a child in the temple showed his longing to learn about you, and as an adult taught by story and example your great love for us. Amen.
Commissioning of Sunday School Teachers
Commissioning of God’s Servants
To begin our blessing time, I’d like to invite our Sunday School teachers to come forward.
As we set you apart to do this special work with our young people, we encourage each of you to teach and live in such a way that you are an example to those who learn. We ask that you join us in praying for your students and encourage them to grow in faith and godliness. Let us all pray for you.
Lord, bless those in the ministry of teaching future generations. As they embark on a new school year, grant them energy, passion, discipline, and endurance for their daily tasks. Infuse their classrooms with an atmosphere of care and mutual respect, that all interactions there will be bathed in patience and understanding. Help their lessons to grow pupils in both knowledge and character, and help us all to support the work these teachers do building up our community and our future. Amen.
First Congregational Church
September 6, 2015
Labor Day Sunday, 15th Sunday after Pentecost
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Reaching the end of a job interview, the Human Resources Officer asks a young engineer fresh out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, "And what starting salary are you looking for?" The engineer replies, "In the region of $125,000 a year, depending on the benefits package." The interviewer inquires, "Well, what would you say to a package of five weeks vacation, 14 paid holidays, full medical and dental, company matching retirement fund to 50% of salary, and a company car leased every two years, say, a red Corvette?" The engineer sits up straight and says, "Wow! Are you kidding?" The interviewer replies, "Yeah, but you started it.”
I’ve always thought that question odd: “What are you looking for in a salary?” Who was not want $125,000 a year? And who would not be the fool for asking such an amount for a job washing dishes or mowing the average lawn? I know that there are sometimes exceptions, but why wouldn’t an employer say, “Here is the amount I can afford to pay. If it works for you, great. If not, good luck in your continued search.” In my naive brain, instead of an honest working relationship, such a question would immediately set-up the me vs. the boss situation. I know, the boss is the boss, but if you give your boss the best, then don’t you expect the same in return?
I don’t know about any of you, but I sort of remember early childhood sermons about the honorability of work. It’s interesting that in the preparation for this sermon, given the holiday tomorrow, I didn’t come across a lot of folks talking about the subject of work. And yet, not only the holiday tomorrow gives a nod to the institution of laboring, but our scripture passage also gives us an example of why the subject of work needs to be elevated and partnered with the subject of sabbath.
I did a quick search on Labor Day, and the Department of Labor’s site said “The form that the observance and celebration of Labor Day should take was outlined in the first proposal of the holiday — a street parade to exhibit to the public "the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations" of the community, followed by a festival for the recreation and amusement of the workers and their families.” My guess about the shift of focus from labor to picnics was about wanting to avoid the hot politics of such a declaration.
Wanting to make sure that information is fair, I found another explanation of Labor from a site called Patheos, which means God path. It said, “First celebrated in 1882 by the Central Labor Union in Boston, "Labor Day" became a federal holiday in 1894 in response to the deaths of a number of workers during the Pullman Strike between labor unions and railroads. I’m sure there are a few other versions of what really happened out there, but for this morning, what matters more is what the two-in-one scripture passage has for us.
Mark 7:24-37 (NIV)
Jesus Honors a Syrophoenician Woman’s Faith
4 Jesus left that place and went to the vicinity of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; yet he could not keep his presence secret. 25 In fact, as soon as she heard about him, a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an impure spirit came and fell at his feet. 26 The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter.
27 “First let the children eat all they want,” he told her, “for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
28 “Lord,” she replied, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
29 Then he told her, “For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter.”
30 She went home and found her child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
Jesus Heals a Deaf and Mute Man
31 Then Jesus left the vicinity of Tyre and went through Sidon, down to the Sea of Galilee and into the region of the Decapolis. 32 There some people brought to him a man who was deaf and could hardly talk, and they begged Jesus to place his hand on him.
33 After he took him aside, away from the crowd, Jesus put his fingers into the man’s ears. Then he spit and touched the man’s tongue. 34 He looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh said to him, “Ephphatha!” (which means “Be opened!”). 35 At this, the man’s ears were opened, his tongue was loosened and he began to speak plainly.
36 Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone. But the more he did so, the more they kept talking about it. 37 People were overwhelmed with amazement. “He has done everything well,” they said. “He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”
Thank you, Bill. At first I was tempted to focus on just the second part of the passage, but it made sense to keep the first, even it contains one of the goofiest passages of scripture - at least in my mind.
So to get it out of the way, not even the great theological minds agree on the understanding of this bit about the dogs, children and crumbs. Stranger yet, in the old Greek, Mark uses a word for dog that actually means a little girl dog, if you get my drift. Even then, calling a woman a dog was pretty low, and apparently, even Jesus did it!
And one has to admire this woman’s courage to stand up to the very savior she believed could heal her daughter - reminding him that even the lowliest among us have worth. It would have been interesting to have been a mouse in the corner, to see if Jesus blushed or hung his head or whatever. He ends up making up for his “error” by making it right - which is a pretty cool example for God’s anointed “worker” of miracles. Maybe one of the many lessons here is that no matter who we are, when we’ve made a grave error, we do best to make it as right as we can. And if any of you retired folks are thinking you are except from this reminder, just remember that God always has a job for you.
The reason I thought it important to keep both passages together is that it sets a scene that shows us Jesus’ very real human side. At the beginning of the first part, Jesus left where he was ,to go to Tyre, and he didn’t want anyone to know. Maybe he just needed some good rest and relaxation, and Tyre had good deals on vacation rentals. Maybe his fatigue was behind his words with the Syrophoenician woman. Maybe Jesus was really trying to take care of himself, to be better help for others, but he just couldn’t catch a break.
So he goes down to the Decapolis, maybe because he had some coupons - stay three, get one free - that were soon to run out. Just because Jesus may have been tired did not change the fact that people still needed healing. I think it was his fatigue and weariness that caused Jesus to do this extraordinary, unsanitary, gross, healing process. Jesus did some pretty odd things with his healings - sending someone for ritual bathing, stirring up optical mud plaster and such. I’m quite sure this second part of today’s passage really pushes the buttons of the obsessive compulsives among us.
We don’t know if Jesus’ healings “depleted” his stores of miracle within himself, like many of today’s cartoon action heroes. But we all can appreciate the need for rest and re-energizing after a long haul. I have to do some more thinking about it, but maybe those who loose a significant person - to death or even divorce or an argument - might do well to think of the time following that loss as a time for sabbath - a time of religious observance and abstinence from work.
In the Hebrew language, sabbath means “to stop, to cease or to keep.” It surely looked like Jesus was attempting to stop or cease his work for a bit, telling people to keep quiet about his healings and whereabouts. William Faulkner once pointed out that work is about the only thing we can do for eight hours at a time. My immediate exception to that thought is sleeping and breathing, and even in a weird sort of thought, all of us have the job to try to get enough sleep. And the body, best as it can, works the breathing apparatus 24/7 for us, including the circulatory and nervous machines.
So maybe some of us will “stop” tomorrow to appreciate those who work over hot machines, carry heavy trays, drive endless hours, stand in front of scanners and stands of plastic bags. Maybe some of us will bring this message back to mind in the coming week and think about the crazy amounts of labor that have changed this country from what it looked like before immigrants created a land and culture that were beyond our ancestors’ imaginations. Still others of us may appreciate the purpose that our work has given us, that is missing in those places where unemployment appears equal with the lack of jobs, generating prayers for those unknowns to overflow our hearts. And to complete the circle, we can be mindful of those, whether forced or through their own need, who work long days and nights without the ability to take the sabbath time that they so desperately need. So let us begin.
God of creation and sabbath, thank you for your own example as well as your “command” to keep holy sabbath days. From our very beginning, you gave us work to give us purpose and the honor of joining you in caring for the kingdom. Help us know how to help those looking for the means to care for themselves and their families, as well as how to help those who are working with fatigue and without hope. Help those who can’t work, yet have the same needs most all of us have. Show us ways that we can help others realize their great contributions to our lives, regardless of the presence or lack of a paycheck. As we continue on into our sabbaths, help us to realize the depths of our labors, that we all may be encouraged to keep on keeping on. For your work in answering all our prayers, all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.