First Congregational Church
September 17, 2017
15th Sunday after Pentecost
Matthew 18:21-35 & Romans 14:1-12
"Is Limitless Forgiveness Even Possible in Our World?"
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
This week I ran across a question that read, “Why is the number six so scared?” And the answer is “Because seven eight nine!” I also read that 6 out of 5 people have difficulty with fractions and that 63.7% of statistics are wrong. Upon further study, I discovered that math is made of 50 percent formulas, 50 percent proofs and 50 percent imagination. I also discovered that there are three types of people in the world, those who can count and those who can’t.
Numbers can be really frustrating and really fascinating. Balancing a checkbook can bring one to their knees in exasperation and contemplating the numbers that describe the universes can astound us. And then there’s the symbolism of numbers, particularly as it relates to Christianity.
The number one signifies unity; both the unity of God and the unity of members of the Church. The number three is a sacred number in Christianity as it represents the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Four can represent the Four Evangelists (authors of the Gospels), the four corners of the earth, or the four seasons. Five symbolizes the five wounds Christ suffered on the cross (hands, feet, and side), and by extension represents sacrifice. Six represents creation, because God created in six days, or it represents imperfection, because it falls short of the perfect number seven.
And then there is seven. Seven is the number of perfection. God rested on the seventh day, Paul lists seven gifts of the Spirit and Jesus spoke seven utterances from the cross. The number seven is especially prominent in the apocalyptic Book of Revelation, in which there are seven seals, seven churches and many other things numbering seven. Ten symbolizes completion, since there are Ten Commandments, Ten Plagues, etc. One hundred usually denotes completeness or plenitude, since it is ten times ten. And one thousand represents a very large number, infinity or eternity.
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.”
Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. 2 One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. 3 The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. 4 Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.
5 One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind.6 Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. 7 For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. 8 If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. 9 For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.
10 You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. 11 It is written:
“‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord, ‘every knee will bow before me; every tongue will acknowledge God.’” 12 So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God.
Thank you, Julie and Paul. It’s rather interesting that the lectionary brought these two passages together. In fact, if you look at them for a bit, they don’t really seem to have much to do with one another, except that both passages deal with the heart. Matthew’s passage coaches the heart when we have been wronged while the Roman’s passage advises our hearts when we are perhaps feeling rather righteous. Beyond that, these two passages speak to a way of life. From our passages this morning, forgiveness is our lifestyle because it was Jesus’ lifestyle. And whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord, so it behoves us to act like it.
That being said, I will be the first to admit that sometimes, forgiveness and therefore - grace - can be mighty hard. There are times when revenge would feel oh, so good. Except that while we can wrap our heads around the idea of forgiveness, getting our hearts to that place can be a little tougher.
I don’t know about anyone else, but I could be a better forgiver if I could just say some magic words or wave a magic wand and there would be that right feeling. The problem is that the issue of forgiveness keeps coming up again and again, mostly because the human brain has this double-edged sword called memory.
Then there is perception, because when one can perceive the black and white lines of what is right and what is wrong, life is easy! Even in an age where technology can measure our speed and take a picture of a license plate at the same time, like it or not, it’s black and white. 55: speed limit. 56: over speed limit. So, if you forgive someone seventy seven times, then you should be done, right? If there still isn’t forgiveness in your heart, then you don’t have to try any more, right?
Stanley Saunders, New Testament professor at Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta, said, “we should resist the inclination to read the parable as a simple allegory, in which the power figure, in this case a king, represents God, and the servant who is forgiven much but refuses to forgive another stands for Israel or some other too easily vilified social group. Parables work best when they are read primarily as simple, integral stories, rather than as ciphers to be decoded in terms favorable to Christians. In any case, parables do not usually convey a simple moral point so much as they are meant to induce critical reflection and to pull the blinders from our eyes.”
Because he said it as eloquently as I would have, whoever David C. Hockett is, he said, “Forgiveness is a practice, a discipline made possible by the grace of God, not some heroic act of the will. It is something that we practice again and again, on a daily basis, until it becomes a part of who we are.”
He went on to say that “practicing forgiveness does not deny the possibility or the necessity of justice. Rather, it redefines justice, and ensures that it is God’s peculiar brand of justice we are practicing and not the retribution and retaliation that often masquerade as justice. In calling us to forgive, Jesus offers us a different kind of justice that holds open the possibility of a new future, a way through the hurt and pain that can lead to resurrection and new life. Forgiveness is about having our lives defined by the justice of God’s kingdom rather than the justice of the kingdoms of this world.”
And so, there may be that day when we come to the 78th time that we are to forgive a person. And maybe you’ve had just enough of trying to beg or plead or cajole God into giving you this feeling of forgiveness, so you can get on with life. Then what?
Scott Hoezee said that someone once said that the scariest word in the entire New Testament is that tiny little word “as” in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our sins AS we forgive those who sin against us.”
If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.
This forgiveness thing is not some weird demand on God’s part. It’s not some hoop we must jump through to earn our salvation or to perform like some trained dog just because God enjoys watching us do tricks. The reason for the connection between God’s forgiving us and our forgiving others is because of the sheer power of God’s forgiveness.
I purposefully saved the Lord’s Prayer for this time today. And I’d like us to do it just a little differently than usual. Today, I’d like to give a phrase of it alone, and then you all repeat the phrase together, and then we’ll take a moment to dwell just on that part of the prayer. Let us take a few moments to allow this time-tested, God-given prayer soak in.
Our Father, Our Father, Who art in heaven, Who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, Thy will be done, on earth on earth as it is in heaven. as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. but deliver us from evil. For Thine is the Kingdom, For Thine is the Kingdom, and the power and the power and the glory, forever, and the glory, forever, forever, Amen. Amen.
First Congregational Church
September 10, 2017
14th Sunday after Pentecost
Matthew 18:15-20 & Romans 13:8-14
“The Simple Life”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
This morning’s scripture passages are two of the several listed for this day in the Revised Common Lectionary, that calendric list of Bible passages for every day of a three year cycle. Not every single word of the Bible gets a slot in the Lectionary, and in some ways, I really wish that these two passages might have been skipped over.
Matthew 18:15-20 (NIV)
Dealing With Sin in the Church
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.”
Romans 13:8-14 (NIV)
Love Fulfills the Law
8 Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
The Day Is Near
11 And do this, understanding the present time: The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. 12 The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. 13 Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. 14 Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh.
The Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton is Assistant to the Bishop in the Southeastern Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and he told a story in 2011 that spoke to this morning’s scripture passages.
“A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit my mother on the farm where I grew up in the foothills of Virginia. I went for a drive to check on old familiar places and while driving about, I glanced down a road and across a pasture at a church and remembered a story my late father had told me about that church. It brought a smile to my face as I stood at his grave later that day.
Most of the denominations in that part of the world were against tobacco, but the vast majority ignored the fact that many of their members were tobacco farmers or worked in tobacco factories. Not that church. They took their anti-tobacco stance seriously.
Daddy told me that every spring, when the farmers in his congregation planted their tobacco, the Preacher would go and see them and read them the section in the church discipline book, forbidding involvement in “the tobacco trade,” and the scripture we read from Matthew. A few weeks later he brought two elders with him and did it again. And some time before Memorial Day, the women and children of the congregation gathered in solemn assembly to excommunicate their fathers and husbands and brothers, etc. Then everyone would go home to a nice Sunday dinner.
Sometime in the Fall, after everyone had harvested their crop and sold their tobacco, the women and children would gather again and vote their menfolk back in, just in time, my father added with a wink, for the church to collect a tithe on the proceeds of the tobacco sale.
There are so many “pieces” of these passages that are just uncomfortable. Knowing what we all know of Jesus, does it make any sense that he would suggest that we deal with sin in a simple set of 1-2-3 steps? While the verses from Matthew about dealing with sin may sound logical, practical and neat-and-tidy, who of you would like to be on the receiving end of such a procedure? And in your heart of hearts, who of any of us would really like to be on the administrating end of that one, either? And goodness knows I have enough to keep me busy without trying to be a disciplinarian to the likes of all you!
Wise Scott Hoezee, from Calvin Theological Seminary said this. “I would suggest that Jesus was being gently ironic here, telling his disciples that even when you’ve done all you can to come to an understanding with a person whose behavior is genuinely difficult—and even if you had to keep some distance from such a person for various reasons—you are even so never finished with reaching out to that person in grace and love.”
There’s the 19th verse of Matthew, where it says, “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.” How many times have really good and faithful people come together, two or more, and prayed in God’s name, and what they prayed for didn’t seem to happen? I would venture to guess that more than one or two individuals that met over a cup of coffee and prayed in Jesus’ name for the hurricanes to take different directions were a little disappointed, if not frustrated.
And from the Romans’ passage, Christians have been trying to get ready for that distant day of salvation for a couple millennia now, and we don’t seem to be any closer than just after Jesus’ resurrection.
But we need these passages to remind us of our larger tasks as followers of Christ: to make sure our houses are in order, meaning our mouths and tongues and hearts and minds, because whatever we let loose, out of our mouths, we can’t take back, and the words are out there - for eternity. And whatever we bind up in our hearts, holding our tongues and reigning in our hearts and minds, stay there for eternity, too. I’m certainly not suggesting that we don’t share important information when it’s appropriate. But sometimes, at least for me, the reminder is needed, that I have far more control over what comes out of me than I realize.
My pal, Steve Garnaas Holmes suggested that When it comes to “whatever you” do, having eternal consequences, maybe “whatever” refers to our own sins. The hurts you hang onto you're stuck with. The hurts you forgive open you to divine healing.
Maybe: “whatever” means whatever relationship. The relationship in which you stay connected, despite conflict, is rooted in God. The relationship you break loses its divine energy.
Maybe: “whatever” means whoever. Whoever you oppress truly experiences oppression; whoever you set free is truly free.
Maybe “whatever” means yourself. You can set yourself free, or bind yourself up. God doesn't do it; we do it to ourselves.
Maybe: let go of what God doesn't care about and hang onto what leads you to God.
“ ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” In some ways, it’s so very simple. All those rules from the Old Testament were about helping people to fulfill God’s holy law. Except that a holy law needs more than mere actions; it needs a holy motivator. And what is more holy than love - from sensual or romantic love, to love of family and kin, to the love that we practice toward one another, to agape love, God's immeasurable, incomparable love for humankind. So we were given Christ, who regardless of who we are, or what we’ve done or ever will do, loves - us - to the deepest of our being. So shall we pray.
God of Love and Light and all that is good, thank you for giving us such love that is beyond our wildest imaginations. Help us to remember that you love each of your children with that same love, that regardless of what any of us do, have done or will do, you will continue to love us as your beloved. Help us to go into this world, into this week, and no matter what happens, help us remember that nothing will separate us from your love in Christ Jesus; that your presence is a near as our next breath. Inspire us to really live this high life and our calling to be your people. And all your children say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
September 3, 2017
13th Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 1:1-3, 11, 14-25
“And the Lord God Made Them All”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
So how does one properly identify a dogwood tree? By the bark! And how does one give a brief explanation of an acorn? In a nutshell, it’s an oak tree. Did you know that I can cut down a dead tree just by looking at it? It’s true. I saw it with my own eyes!
This morning’s sermon began around August 10, as I began to revisit familiar trees while in Canada on vacation. Some of those trees were uprooted, exposing their large circumferenced yet very shallow roots, but were still able to grow into magnificent beings, before wind upseated them. Others were familiar by their spot in the distance, being a target when crossing a large portion of the lake. All those trees and all that sky and all that water got me to thinking about the abundance of blessing all around us - even as we sit in a boat or a pew. And it all began, begins - with God’s creation. To understand where all this thinking took me - and us - I chose a smattering of verses from the first chapter of Genesis, with kudos to author James Herriot.
Genesis 1:1-3, 11, 14-25
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
3 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4 God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.
11 Then God said, “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.” And it was so.
And God said, “Let there be lights in the vault of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark sacred times, and days and years, 15 and let them be lights in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth.” And it was so. 16 God made two great lights—the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars. 17 God set them in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth, 18 to govern the day and the night, and to separate light from darkness. And God saw that it was good. 19 And there was evening, and there was morning—the fourth day.
20 And God said, “Let the water teem with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the vault of the sky.” 21 So God created the great creatures of the sea and every living thing with which the water teems and that moves about in it, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. 22 God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the water in the seas, and let the birds increase on the earth.” 23 And there was evening, and there was morning—the fifth day.
24 And God said, “Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: the livestock, the creatures that move along the ground, and the wild animals, each according to its kind.” And it was so. 25 God made the wild animals according to their kinds, the livestock according to their kinds, and all the creatures that move along the ground according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good.
As so often happens, I came across an article that spoke to this morning’s message, a note from a piece called “Choosing Church,” by Marilyn McEntyre. She said, “Distracted, reluctant, confused, or apathetic you may be on any given Sunday, but if you go, something will happen. A word, a phrase, a flicker of candlelight, a gesture, an image, an extended moment of silence—all these have their effects. On Sundays, and they are not infrequent, when I don't really feel like getting dressed and going to church, but do it anyway, I invariably leave with a gift I could not have foreseen. It's not always the sermon—a good sermon is hard to find.”
As I began the 475 mile trip home, and as I thought about the multitude of blessings, and wanting more of an over-all feel, rather than a specific point, I came up with this “idea.” Perhaps the idea will inspire your own thoughts and create your own overwhelmed-ness. Your part in this sermon will not be to merely listen, but you will get to respond with the sermon title, “And the Lord God Made Them All,” when I give you the cue.
There is water that is running and water that is still and water that is great as in lakes and oceans and icebergs, and water that is small as in that which seeps from rocks and can grow mold in a basement, that falls and rises and comes out of the sky. Water comes in creeks, seas, ponds, seas, lagoons, streams, and rapids. There is water that is cold and old, as in glaciers and water that is hot as in geysers and pot holes, waters that flow south and waters that flow north in watersheds and the Lord God made them all.
There are red headed people and black headed people and brown headed people, white headed people and people with hair that boasts the colors of the rainbow, people with no hair, and the Lord God made them all.
There is light that comes from the sun and the moon and light that comes from lightening and light that is noticeable from shadows, light that is reflected off clouds, and fire and fireflies, and the Lord God made them all.
There are birds that eat fish and birds that eat meat and birds that eat plants and birds that eat insects, birds that are all one color like ravens and crows and indigo buntings and multi-colored birds such as toucans and parrots, and distinctive colors like cardinals and chickadees, birds that mainly fly, birds that mainly swim, birds that can’t fly and don’t swim, and the Lord God made them all.
There are people that need a lot of sleep and people that don’t need much sleep, early risers and late risers, lighter skinned people, and people with darker skin and people with freckled skin and scaly skin and smooth and oily skin, shoulders that hold arms and that can carry burdens, that can lean and be leaned on, arms that can carry and hug and embrace and spread out and lift up and hold near and push up and push down, hands for holding sweetheart’s when sitting in church and the Lord God made them all.
There is soil that is fine as in dust and sand that can be made into glass and brick and concrete and adobe, and soil that is rocky as in gravel and soil that is thick as in clay and soil that is black as in dirt, land that is arid and poor and land that is rugged as in mountains and land that is fertile as in farming and land that is rich and the Lord God made them all.
There is time as in days and nights and minutes and seconds and nano seconds and weeks and months and years and decades and centuries and eternity, and the Lord God made them all.
There are trees that are ancient and pliable and wave easily and trees that are stiff and stand tall and proud, trees that make us smile and turn colors and trees that make us think as in the cross, trees with white trunks and grey trunks and trees with smooth trunks and trees with rough trunks, tall trees and short trees, trees that peels easily and trees that have to be peeled, as in cork tress, and trees that can be tapped as in maples and rubber, and the Lord God made them all.
There are people who are generous and people who are thrifty and people who keep things close to their chest and people who lay everything on the table, shy people and gregarious people, introverts and extroverts, heads that hold our brains and eyes and ears and nose and mouth, heads that can turn and think and nod, and the Lord God made them all.
There are sunsets and sunrises and cloud bursts and snow storms, there are stars that form galaxies like the Milky Way and stars that form pictures like the Big Dipper and Orion and the bear, clouds that are high and thin and big and puffy and clouds that predict weather and the Lord God made them all.
There are rocks that are shiny as in gold, sparkly as in granite, flat as in sandstone and rocks that can be made into metals and rocks that are precious and rocks that are as plain as day and unique rocks like Petosky stones and marble, and the Lord God made them all.
There are plants that are showy as in lady slippers and plants that make us itch as in nettles and poison ivy and plants that we eat and we can make into liquids that we drink, that make us feel good as in chamomile and comfry, and plants that remind us of certain seasons like cattails, plants that smell good and plants that make us sneeze, plants that are medicinal, plants that give us clothing and plants that annoy us, plants that can grow in water and those that can grow in arid land, and the Lord God made them all.
There are people who are smart and people who are creative and people who are differently abled and people who are kind hearted and people who are dour and people who are funny and people who seem odd to us, and the Lord God made them all.
There are insects that take from us - like mosquitoes and insects that give to us - like bees, loud insects like crickets and quiet insects such as mosquitoes and no-see-ums and the Lord God made them all.
There are people with two legs and people with one leg and people with no legs, legs that can walk and run and crawl and climb and jump and sit cross legged and legs that are stiff and legs that can kick for good and ill, people who can hear and people who can’t hear, people who can see and people who can’t see at all, bodies with skin that can heat and cool, sweat and protect organs, skin that can heal and die and create new life and the Lord God made them all.
There are things we can’t see like gravity and inertia and the elements of the periodic table, emotions like love and anger and surprise and joy and awe and happiness and anxiety and fearfulness and sadness and melancholy, and the Lord God made them all.
There is work: studying oceans and storekeepers and consultants and teachers and doctors, keepers of animals and plants and earth, jobs that combine our passions and our need to make money, and jobs where you can sing all day if you want - like farmers or a flag person on a construction crew in Canada, and the Lord God made them all.
And the One who made all these things, and so much more, who is sure and steadfast, forgiving and merciful, loving and caring, the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, trustworthy and is the Way and the Truth and the Life. Lest we be here ‘till the cows come home, let us pray.
Lovely and Extravagant God, when we drink in the multitude of your blessings, we can better understand David’s words from Psalm 8: When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of us, human beings that you care for us? You have made us a little lower than the angels and crowned us with glory and honor. You have made us rulers over the works of your hands; you put everything under our feet: all flocks and herds, and the animals of the wild, the birds in the sky, and the fish in the sea, all that swim the paths of the seas. There is no amount of words to make an adequate response to such gifting and grace, except to respond as David ended that Psalm, Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” Lead us, this week, in the humble awareness of such blessing and rejoicing, and all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.