First Congregational Church
September 30, 2018
19th Sunday after Pentecost
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
"For the Beauty of the Earth”, S 38
One has only to look out the window these days, and just by the look of the leaves and the sky, and even the wind, you can tell it’s fall. One has only to look and/or listen, and you can know that it’s a very complicated world these days, and that can be wearying to the soul and heart. So this morning’s worship service has been designed as a bit of a soul-retreat, to take a step back, or a deep breath, to recharge the batteries.
One of the ways to reset broken internal clocks - what is otherwise known as the body’s circadian rhythm - is to go camping. Since nature is presenting such a show in the coming weeks, it seemed logical that we can reset our spiritual clocks - in a little camping trip with singing and worship. And since it’s the fifth Sunday of the month, it seemed the right time.
Our first hymn this morning paints a picture of gratitude embodied in different aspects of God’s creation. Originally written with eight verses, the verses in our spiral book picture gratitude in the earth - verses 1 and 2 - human love - verse 3 - and the church - in the original, “thy Bride” in verse 4.
The story goes that Folliot Sandford Pierpoint, of the later 19th and earlier 20th centuries, is said to have been inspired by the view of his native city of Bath on a spring day in the writing of “For the Beauty of the Earth” at the ripe old age of 29. History tells us he was a teacher of classics at Somersetshire College, the writer of seven books of poetry, contributed hymns to various publications and published at least two song books.
If this hymn has a familiar feel beyond learning it as a kid, it may because it is also the tune for the Christmas carol, ”As with Gladness Men of Old.” While we would be inclined to classify “For the Beauty of the Earth” as a hymn of thanksgiving or praise, Pierpoint wrote it originally as a Eucharistic or communion hymn.
Perhaps the best aspect of this hymn, for this morning, is that it reminds us that all that we are, all that we have, all that there is, is a gift from the One made us, also, making it the perfect way to open our worship with grateful praise. Let us stand and sing number 38 in the spiral books.
"Earth and All Stars”, S 34
The writer of our next hymn, “Earth and All Stars,” was one busy person. Dr. Herbert F. Brokering served Lutheran pastorates, was a pilgrimage leader, popular speaker, hymn writer, playwright, poet, and author with over 40 books. He collaborated with Dave Brubeck, taught Navy and Air Force chaplains and received honorary doctorates from four Lutheran higher-education institutions.
Apparently there are basically two groups of opinions regarding this hymn: those that like it and those that don’t. Those that don’t may not appreciate his lack of rhyme, his use of the word “loud” and it’s complementary phrase, such as loud boiling test tubes or loud sounding wisdom.
But Dr. Brokering grew up in rural German-Lutheran parsonages in southeast Nebraska where there is an abundance of sky and land. And he wrote this text for the ninetieth anniversary of St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minnesota, so it is easier to appreciate the references to the academic world. And what institution of higher education isn’t in a continual building mode, so even the references to limestone and beams make a little more sense when understanding their context.
And then there’s David Johnson, the writer of the music for this hymn. He was no schmo, either. He was an organist, composer, educator, choral clinician, lecturer, organ instructor and music department chair at St. Olaf. Johnson served in the U.S. Army Signal Corps/Air Corps in India, Burma, and China, receiving a Meritorious Service Award and campaign ribbons. His career includes the writing of over 300 compositions, mainly for church use.
In all the verses, there is reference to the first verse of Psalm 91, “Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth.”
Then there is the reference to Psalm 98
Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things; his right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him. 2 The Lord has made his salvation known and revealed his righteousness to the nations. 3 He has remembered his love and his faithfulness to Israel; all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God. 4 Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth, burst into jubilant song with music; 5 make music to the Lord with the harp, with the harp and the sound of singing, 6 with trumpets and the blast of the ram’s horn—shout for joy before the Lord, the King. 7 Let the sea resound, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it. 8 Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy; 9 let them sing before the Lord, for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples with equity.
And we can’t forget Psalm 150.
1 Praise the Lord. Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens. 2 Praise him for his acts of power; praise him for his surpassing greatness. 3 Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet, praise him with the harp and lyre, 4 praise him with timbrel and dancing, praise him with the strings and pipe, 5 praise him with the clash of cymbals, praise him with resounding cymbals. 6 Let everything that has breath praise the Lord. Praise the Lord.
You may remain seated as we sing number 34 in the spiral books.
"As the Sun Doth Daily Rise”, S 12
Our next hymn is shrouded in mystery. It is not really known who actually wrote the words or composed the melody, although it was originally discovered in Latin. In the sparse information available about “As the Sun Doth Daily Rise,” apparently a person by the name of J. Masters translated the hymn and The Rt. Hon. Horatio Nelson, a British politician and the 3rd Earl Nelson - Earl being a title - adapted the hymn - basically into what we have before us on page 12 of the spiral books. Yes, this Horatio Nelson is related to the great Horatio Nelson of sea-faring fame.
There is also a potential connection of this hymn to the English King, Alfred the Great, who came to rule in 871. Edwin McKean Long wrote a book called “Illustrated History of Hymns and Their Authors,” in which Long credits the King with the creation of the lyrics.
The story goes that “after many conflicts with the Danes, who invaded his land, the King was at last compelled for a time to abandon his throne, and conceal himself in disguise in a cottage of one of his herdsmen. While performing menial service in his hiding place, his hostess gave him a severe reprimand for permitting some oatmeal cakes to be burned, which, while baking, she had directed him to watch; sayin, “No wonder thou art a poor houseless vagrant with such neglect of business. I shall set by all the burnt cakes for thy potion of the week’s bread, and thou shalt have no other till they are all eaten.” Dependent thus on others for his daily bread, although a King, he could in after years feel the import of his words addressed to the King of Kings in the second verse of his hymn, - Day by day provide us food, For from thee comes all things good; Strength unto our souls afford From thy living Bread, O Lord.
In defense of Alfred’s country, he was compelled to fight no less than fifty six battles by sea or land, in which he exposed himself to innumerable dangers, and no doubt often uttered the prayer contained in the third verse.
Not being any sort of slacker, Alfred translated the Psalms into English, and constantly carried a copy, as Mr. Long cited, in his bosom, so the fourth verse is said to be in the language of his heart.
All that being said, The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology states that “‘There is no proof that any part of the Latin text is by King Alfred, neither have we found the Latin text elsewhere.’” So there you have it - the non-story behind the story of our next hymn, which is still a good hymn, especially when you wake up in the morning and the sun is shining and this hymn or “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” from Oklahoma rolls into your head. You may remain seated as we sing number 12 in the spiral books.
“Sing to the Lord of Harvest”, S 140
“Sing to the Lord of Harvest” is maybe one of the top six Thanksgiving hymns of all time - at least in our modern day. It was written by John Samuel Bewley Monsell, an Irish Anglican clergyman and poet. Although he received an academic degree in law, he was ordained as a priest two years later.
During his career, Monsell was responsible for the building or rebuilding of three of his churches: one in northern Ireland and two in southern England. While inspecting the rebuilding of one of the English churches, Rev. Monsell fell from a boulder, and subsequently died in 1875 from an infected wound at the age of 64. Before that happened, however, he managed to write 11 books of poetry and compose 300 hymns, many that celebrate the seasons of the church year.
The tune for our next hymn was written by a gentleman who served his city in Germany as town clerk, cantor and organist in the Lutheran church, was a notary public, mayor, and secretary to the Elector of Saxony. Somehow, Johann Steurlein found time to rhyme both the Old and New Testaments in German.
It is said that the tune was originally a love song and when I looked it up, it is rather close to that which we will sing shortly, except a lot fancier. A comment from the Psalter Hymnal Handbook suggests that the tune can be sung in harmony by agile voices, but congregations may prefer to sing in unison. At first I thought that the microphone had been dropped - a modern way of stating a challenge. But when I listened to the German “love song” online, well let’s just say that we’ll sing it as it appears in our spiral book.
Lest anyone think that the song sounds less relevant to this morning’s service than the title suggests, I give you the scriptural reference, from Psalm 65:9-13.
9 You care for the land and water it; you enrich it abundantly. The streams of God are filled with water to provide the people with grain, for so you have ordained it. 10 You drench its furrows and level its ridges; you soften it with showers and bless its crops. 11 You crown the year with your bounty, and your carts overflow with abundance. 12 The grasslands of the wilderness overflow; the hills are clothed with gladness. 13 The meadows are covered with flocks and the valleys are mantled with grain; they shout for joy and sing.
Let us stand and sing “Sing to the Lord of Harvest”, number 140.
“Let All Things Now Living”, S 92
The composer of “Let All Things Now Living” was one of the pioneers of women composers in the early 20th century. Beginning piano lessons at an early age, composing at 15, winning not only the Billings Prize for Composition at Wellesley College, but a position at Wellesley as piano and theory instructor at the grand age of 22, Katherine Davis eventually went to Paris to study briefly with iconic music pedagogue Nadia Boulanger, instructor to such icons as Aaron Copeland, Philip Glass, Daniel Pinkham, and Virgil Thomson. For those of you who don’t recognize those names, it was a really big deal that Katherine got to study with Ms. Boulanger.
One other tidbit about her life; Ms. Davis was at one time a Congregationalist.
Of her over 800 music compositions, Katherine’s mega hit came with her piece, "The Little Drummer Boy,” although it took the Trapp Family Singers of Sound of Music fame to bring it to public awareness. And to give everyone their due, it didn’t hurt the popularity of “The Little Drummer Boy” - or Katherine Davis - when Bing Crosby and David Bowie sang it as a duet.
Back to the hymn at hand, like the great Martin Luther, who used familiar folk songs in creating new hymns, Ms. Davis used the familiar Welsh folk song “The Ash Grove” when she put her verses to music.
A scriptural reference for this hymn comes from a seemingly odd book, but it surely fits. From the book of Job: (Job 26:7-10)
7 He spreads out the northern skies over empty space; he suspends the earth over nothing. 8 He wraps up the waters in his clouds, yet the clouds do not burst under their weight. 9 He covers the face of the full moon, spreading his clouds over it. 10 He marks out the horizon on the face of the waters for a boundary between light and darkness.
Let us join our praise to that of the entire universe as we sing number 92 in the spiral books.
“My Shepherd Will Supply My Need" S 112
The next composer is no stranger to this congregation - at least to my recollection of memorable and impressive worship services. That’s mostly because Isaac Watts is to Congregationalism what Martin Luther is to Lutheranism and the Wesleys are to Methodism.
Perhaps it is the non-conformist part of our religious heritage that makes it a good thing - in a strange way - but before Isaac was even born, his father was a “respected Nonconformist” schoolmaster.
Isaac Watts’ education began with Latin at the age of 4, writing “respectable” verses at the age of 7, and by age 16, he was off to attend a Nonconformist Academy. He preached his first sermon at the age of 20 and by the time he was 28, he was an ordained pastor, eventually preaching to the likes of Cromwell's granddaughter, Lady Haversham and other distinguished Independents.
There is no disputing the basis for the hymn we will sing next from the spiral books. And there is no disputing the power of Psalm 23. Even people who looked dis-engaged with the world, will move their lips when this Psalm is read. Despite how the sentiments are arranged, the meaning of God’s guidance, presence and hope is as strong today as it was all those centuries and centuries ago, when it was first composed at the hand of the great King David.
One has merely to take a drive around the county to find green pastures in the summer time, quiet waters in the early mornings, hills and valleys and trails and fauna all over the place. And like a good walking stick, God’s rod of promises are there for leaning, just like the staff of community comforts us. Whether we sing or say or read or hear the words, just taking a look around us, listening to that that surrounds us, whether outside or within the walls of this church home, we get clues and nudges and lessons on the magnitude of blessing that is given freely, without strings or requirements, other than to take care of what we have.
I invite all of you to grab a pew bible and turn to page 862, that we can all speak the words of truth aloud and together before we sing them.
1 The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. 2 He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, 3 he refreshes my soul. He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake. 4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. 5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. 6 Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Now let us turn to number 112 in the spiral books, that we may sing the words down into our souls and DNA.
“Bringing In the Sheaves”, S 20
I don’t know about anyone else, but I’ve always wondered about our final hymn this morning - in terms of where its inspiration came. And low and behold, I discovered it was Psalm 126, verse 6: Those who go out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with them.
Psalm 126 is thought to be penned by the scribe or priest Ezra or by some of the prophets. It was likely written as a song to be sung by worshippers as they ascended the road to Jerusalem to attend the three pilgrim festivals or by priests as they approached the altar in the temple. Interesting words for such activities: Those who go out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with them.
Despite the serious nature behind the scripture reference, “Bringing In the Sheaves” has been used a lot in the world of film. Several movies, including Texas ChainSaw Massacre used it in some part of the story, they were singing this hymn every time the Ingalls family went to church on Little House on the Prairie, and Granny Clampett used to sing it in the Beverly Hillbillies!
Maybe the spirit of those instances comes from the fact that the writer of the hymn, Knowles Shaw, was a popular fiddler at dances in his teen years. He later became known as the singing evangelist, in part because of a fine singing voice, in another part because of being a good preacher - an even better preacher than the great Dwight L. Moody - and in third part because he would effectively intersperse his sermons with his own singing. It is also said that he baptized over 11,000 people, but I’m guessing he had help on that account.
The real greatness of this hymn is note really due to any of the above, but because of it’s scriptural and practical message. Most of us don’t have so much experience with the sowing of seeds in our own lives, but back in the day, when the weather was right, farmers would sow and reap in the dark early and late hours as well as in the daylight hours, because so much depended on that crop. There was an urgency in dealing with that crop, because the time for planting and harvesting was not unlimited.
And then there is the picture of the sowing of seed that Jesus described - seeds that fell onto the hard path, rocky ground, and thorny places - and the seed that fell on good ground - yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Later on, Jesus talked about the harvest being ready and the workers being few.
All these images come after the opening line: “Sowing in the morning, sowing seeds of kindness.” What a beautiful way to start a day, because isn’t that really where grace and love start? With a kind word. A kind action. An act of forgiveness that opens the door to share the good news of Jesus. And if it comes in the morning - at the start of the day - talk about potential to change the world exponentially. So let us stand and sing our last hymn today, number 20 in the spiral books, knowing that in the end, all will be well.
First Congregational Church
September 23, 2018
18th Sunday after Pentecost
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
A duck, a skunk, and a deer went out for dinner at a restaurant one night. When it came time to pay, the skunk didn’t have a scent and the deer didn’t have a buck, so instead, they put the meal on the duck’s bill!
A young boy enters a barber shop and the barber whispers to his customer, "This kid just isn’t very bright. Watch while I prove it to you.” The barber puts a dollar bill in one hand and two quarters in the other, then calls the boy over and asks, "Which do you want, son?" The boy takes the quarters and leaves. "What did I tell you?" said the barber. "That kid never learns!"
Later, when the customer leaves, he sees the same young boy coming out of the ice cream parlor. "Hey, kid! Can I ask you a question? Why did you take the quarters instead of the dollar bill?” The boy licked his cone and replied, "Because the day I take the dollar the game is over!"
This morning’s scripture passage is not really even connected to last week’s passage, except that it comes from the same gospel of Mark. The lectionarians skipped the passages between last week and this week - Jesus’ big transfiguration on a mountaintop and healing a demon possessed boy. Instead, the lectionarians went right past the passages where Jesus said that - what happened on the mountain stayed on the mountain and the insinuation that the disciples didn’t know how to pray.
Somehow, this word “instead” got into my brain this week, and it just begged to have some play-time. To make the point, instead of doing the Gloria Patri, like we’ve done for the past 20 years, I wanted to bring in a different light - based on a slip of paper someone left in those blue pew notebooks - just in case anyone wonders about them.
And instead of the old, traditional lyrics, the words, particularly of the last phrase, were tweaked to not only mirror those that are sung in so many other churches across this country, but carry a little modernization with them. Instead of doing the same-old, same-old, glazed eye response to what should be an uplifting song, today we moved a little out of some comfort zones to widen the circle of inclusion. Not that I don’t try to stretch all of you on other Sundays, but this one seemed to beg for the effort.
Mark 9:30-37 (NIV)
Jesus Predicts His Death a Second Time
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, Donna. If anyone was looking for the title of the sermon in the passage, don’t feel bad that you didn’t find it, because it wasn’t there. It came from the commentary of Elisabeth Johnson, a professor at the Lutheran Institute of Theology in Meiganga, Cameroon. It might not have been a “super, big deal sentence” to her, but the first word almost popped off the page. “Instead of asking questions of Jesus, the disciples turn to arguing with each other.”
This passage truly begs the story of the disciples’ conversation after Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount. Then, Peter said, "Do we have to write this down?” And, Andrew said, "Are we supposed to know this?” And, James said, "Will this be on the test?” And, Phillip said, "I don't have any paper.” And, Bartholomew said, "The other disciples didn't have to learn this.” And, John said, "Do we have to turn this in?” And, Matthew said, "Can I go to the bathroom?” And, Judas said, "What does this have to do with real life?"
Then, one of the Pharisees who was present asked to see Jesus' lesson plan and inquired of Jesus: "Where is your anticipatory set of objectives in the cognitive domain?” And Jesus wept.
I wonder if, to be fair, we should cut the disciples a little slack. Jesus talks about what will happen to the “Son of Man,” who Jesus refers to as “he,” not “I.” Terrible things will happen to the Son of Man. Jesus speaks in the third person, and that’s not always easy to follow.
Jesus carries some of the fault of misunderstanding, too. Instead of using vague, third person references, Jesus could have said it more plainly. But then, maybe his humanity was his own stumbling block, too. Who among us wants to talk about our own deaths - especially plainly?
Maybe the disciples subconsciously didn’t hear what Jesus was saying, because they didn’t want to hear about their friend suffering and dying. Maybe we do that sometimes, not really listening to people, because we don’t want to deal with the difficult truth they are trying to tell us, even most especially when they are struggling to deal with it themselves.
And who likes to reveal their ignorance in front of a group of people? ( ) Maybe they were thinking back to the uncomfortable discussion that happened when Jesus asked Peter, “Who do you say I am?” Even when we can muster enough courage to ask a question, being shot down with silence, evasiveness or a sideways comment is enough to prohibit future questioning.
And who knows? Maybe the disciples were distracted, thinking about what the weather was going to be like for fishing the next day, or what they wanted to eat for dinner that night, or who was going to be on Bible Jeopardy that evening. They maybe looked liked they were listening to Jesus, but maybe not so much. It’s interesting the things we do instead of doing what we ought to be doing.
And then, Jesus did the crazy thing. Imagine being invited to dinner at Buckingham Palace, and at the end of the meal the Queen stands up, takes off her crown and says, “would you mind passing down your plates”, then goes and does the washing up? Yet what Jesus does in today’s gospel was just as ridiculous in the eyes of the disciples.
He sits down - the rabbi signal that they were about to teach something important. He uses the tried and true method of teaching: pronouncement and demonstration. He offers a pithy saying and picks up a nearby kid to underscore that pithy saying about first and last and servant.
I don’t know if Jesus was aware of it, but taking a child for his children’s message was quite the stroke of genius. As children grow older, their questions tend to get smaller. They learn to be careful in their questions because they don’t want to look “dumb” or “stupid” or any other big stick term you want to use.
There’s a delightful quote by theologian Frederick Buechner that says that honest doubt is essential for growth in faith, not the enemy or the opposite of faith. “Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith—they keep faith alive and moving,” said Buechner.
Jesus deals with all the doubted, the last and the least: a Gentile woman, bleeding women, lepers, raging demoniacs, tax collectors and children. Instead of lobbing rotten tomatoes and other fruit at me for going over an hour, I ask each of you, later today or tomorrow, to create your list of vulnerables in our world today. Once you have your list, then add three more, since we’re in the stretching mode today.
Regardless of our age, we are not like the children Jesus was using in his illustration. We are not considered nobodies - regardless of what we might think at times. Our worth is not merely tied to our adulthood, but to our childhood, also. At times, we may be vulnerable like children, dependent on others like children, but even those things are not bad things; they’re just very human things and they just are.
What Jesus said - about being being servants and last and first is still not always considered a high priority life quest, but too often, a milquetoast aspiration of weakness and lacking in zeal. And like so often, our culture doesn’t carry the best expressions of what it means to be a servant; being last rather than first.
Instead of a last resort consequence, servanthood is the mark of a person who knows who he or she is. Instead of being ignorant of one’s worth, a servant knows their true worth - coming from the heart of a person who knows he or she is loved and valued.
Leonard Hander Zee, from Calvin Theological Seminary, had a great statement about this servanthood state. He said, “The more we become identified with Christ and sure of God’s love, the more we will be able to drop the pretense of greatness and assume the role of servanthood.”
It’s interesting that there is a vein within the corporate world that understands this underlying foundation of a servant heart. Business leaders have figured out that putting others, most especially their staff and employees, ahead of themselves doesn’t reduce a leader’s own position, but raises everyone up within a sense of safety and well being.
Jesus’ lesson that day was and is not about adopting a corporate world view or even wise leadership style. Instead, it is a way of life, given by the One who called himself, “the way, the truth and the life” - the One sent from God to show us how to live - instead of die in this life we live. Instead of dying, let us live as we pray.
Holy God, we thank you for not leaving us to figure out life alone and without direction. Help us to take on the mantle of servanthood with desire and purity of heart that changes the world - and us - into the vision you have for the goodness and righteousness of a life lived within your love and mercy and grace. Thank you for those who have given us examples of servant hearts, and forgive us for those moments when we turned away from those opportunities to serve your people and this world. Help each of us stay focused on our quest to be your people, with all the wisdom you have ordained. In humility and renewed commitment to you and your will, all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
September 16, 2018
17th Sunday after Pentecost
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
A lovely little boy was holding two apples with both hands. His mother came in and asked her little boy if she could have one of the apples. The little boy looked up at his mom for a minute, then suddenly took a quick bite from one apple and then from the other. The mother tried hard not to reveal her disappointment. (Pause) Then the little boy handed one of the bitten apples to his mother and said,”Mommy here you are. This is the sweeter one.” As the great Paul Harvey once said, “And now you know the rest of the story.”
Some of you may remember the Chicken Soup for the Soul era. There were versions of sentimental, true stories for regular people, women, men, new mothers, teenagers, cancer survivors and baseball fans. There were Second and Third and Sixth bowls, servings and courses of CSftS. They even made Chicken Soup for the Soul dog food - which I think it totally bogus, because what about the cats out there? To date, there are 227 different titles of Soup for the Soul books. Naturally, the next illustration comes from A Second Chicken Soup for the Woman’s Soul, back in 1998.
At age ninety-two, Grandma Fritz still lived in her old two-story farmhouse, made homemade noodles, and did her laundry in her wringer-washer in the basement. She maintained her vegetable garden, big enough to feed all of Benton County, with just a hoe and spade. Her seventy-year-old children lovingly protested when she insisted on mowing her huge lawn with her ancient push mower.
"I only work outside in the cool, early mornings and in the evenings," Grandma explained, "and I always wear my sunbonnet.” Still, her children were understandably relieved when they heard she was attending the noon lunches at the local senior citizens' center. “Yes,” Grandma admitted, as her daughter nodded approvingly. "I cook for them. Those old people appreciate it so much!”
So last week, we heard about the Syro-Phoenician woman’s daughter and a deaf/mute man being healed. For whatever reason, the people who make up the Bible lectionary lists decided to skip the events that followed those healings - the feeding of 4,000 people with bread and fish, followed by an oddly placed story about Jesus warning the disciples - what seemed at first to be about pharisees, but turned out to be about Jesus’ overflowing grace. And then, the story line changes again, and we find our selves with days’s passage, at an ancient Roman city at the base of Mount Hermon, which is 20 miles north of the Sea of Galilee. Today Caesarea Philippi is called Banias, a village of some 50 houses with many interesting ruins, the main one being an old temple dedicated to the Greek god, Pan - of pipes fame.
Mark 8:27-38 (NIV)
Peter Declares That Jesus Is the Messiah
27 Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?”
28 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”
29 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.”
30 Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.
Jesus Predicts His Death
31 He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. 32 He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.
33 But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
The Way of the Cross
34 Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. 36 What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? 37 Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? 38 If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”
Thank you, Kathy. Apparently there is a little book called Non Campus Mentis, a little anthology that has compiled mistakes, bloopers and creative interpretations of history from university students around the country.
For instance: "Judyism was the first monolithic religion. It had one big God named “Yahoo.” Moses was told by Jesus Christ to lead the people out of Egypt into the Sahaira Desert. The Book of Exodus describes this trip and the amazing things that happened on it, including the Ten Commandments, various special effects, and the building of the Suez Canal. Forty centuries later they arrived in Canada. This was the promise land of milk and chocolate.”
There were some other snippets I came across this week that seemed relevant to this passage. One of those snippets begins Steve Garnass-Holmes poem on Thursday, “Jesus is God’s best selfie.” Another comes from the hand of recently retired Methodist Bishop, William Willimon, “All of the church’s educational and formational ministries are our way of enabling people to respond to Jesus’s penetrating question, “Who do you say that I am?”” Think about that. “All of the church’s educational and formational ministries are our way of enabling people to respond to Jesus’s penetrating question, “Who do you say that I am?””
That’s an interesting thought - because isn’t it really true? Isn’t pretty much everything we do in and around church a reflection of our answer to that question of Jesus’ identity? That question, of who Jesus is, is pretty much at the heart of every time I sit down to work on a sermon, listen to someone in my office or even when I’m sitting in the chair at the beauty salon. Whether you - we - recognize it every single moment of the day - or not - wherever we are, whatever we are doing, with whomever we are, we are living out the answer of the question Jesus asks us, “Who do you say I am?”
I think we may sometimes wonder why Jesus so often told the disciples not to say who he was - to others - was because of misperceptions and inaccurate perspectives. Notice that when Jesus asked, “Who do you say I am?”, and Peter said, “You are the Messiah.”, Jesus didn’t say he was wrong - or even right. His reply was not to tell anyone.
Incidentally, the writer of Mark so often used this command for Jesus’ followers to maintain silence about his identity as the Messiah, it has become known as the Markan Messianic Secret. There’s a lot more behind this Markan Messianic Secret, but if there’s nothing else to talk about at lunch today, you can bring up that phrase and sound pretty important.
Our perspective in this 21st century is so different from that of the 1st century. I’m generalizing that our modern understanding is that the term “messiah” means either Jesus or the One that God promised would come. But back in Jesus’ day, the term “messiah” was basically a code word for a political coup. There were many people of the day who hoped for some powerful general who would ride into town, raise an army, and finally throw the Romans out, and when this “Messiah” came, it would be the start of this take-over.
It’s taken more than a few years to realize that Jesus wasn’t about taking over a territory or government, but about being the leader and “over-taker” of our heart - so to speak. I want to be careful not to leave you with this idea of a dominator Jesus, but the Christ who will take us to places we never knew existed - when we allow God to deepen our faith into a more mature, robust faith - in ways that may seem upside down and backwards.
Taking that idea a little further, ‘To die to our “ego,” from a Christian point of view, is to awaken to our true selves, to be who we were really created to be, rather than who we thought we had become by our own efforts.” When we switch places - in spiritual perspective terms - we look at this proclamation of Messiah not as a matter of Peter’s having “gotten it.” It becomes a matter of the truth, Jesus, having gotten him. - us - you - your heart and soul and mind and strength.
Understanding - viewing - Christ as Messiah - as the winner of heart - is much different from Messiah as political overlord. And if we are sometimes a little mistaken, or have forgotten about certain perspective understandings of Christ, then we have this thing, called the Holy Spirit, that will lead us and guide us in the richer and fuller paths - if we dare to allow God such access to our hearts.
I have to say, that to embrace such a perspective of our hearts and the ownership of them is not an easy one to catch hold of - or even desire. It’s nice in our own little, safe, even if boring worlds of thinking we are “good with God.” But when we do a little work, take some moments to just stand still - or sit still - in awareness of God - we see God - in the thousand winds that blow, in the diamond glints on snow, the sunlight on ripened grain and the gentle autumn rain, in the morning’s hush or the swift, uplifting rush of quiet birds in circled flight, or the soft stars that shine at night. That’s when we begin to see with a different perspective - God’s perspective.
This perspective thing is a big deal, because when we go beyond just showing up at church on a Sunday morning or get together with church folks, we begin to see the real truth behind Jesus being God’s best selfie. That’s when we begin to see God’s vulnerability surviving among us and what it looks like when the Divine begins to burn in us and not only the world becomes bigger, but God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit become bigger, too.
When we take those moments of pause, to ‘look,’ we begin to appreciate Christ as teacher, healer, peace, and not mine. That’s when Jesus becomes our possibility and infinite mystery. That’s when Jesus shifts from being “that guy when” to always dying so we get the hang of it. And rising. Always one step ahead of us except when he’s disappeared into us. That’s when we begin to see Jesus as having heaven all over him like pollen on a bee’s legs, as light spilling out all over, especially through the holes in his hands. That’s when we understand that Jesus has a million questions, and most of them are the same one: “Do you know how much I love you?” That is when it seems like we can’t not pray.
Holy and Wondrous God, thank you for your invitation to walk through this part of our lives - in deeper relationship with you. Sometimes we get carried away with ourselves, God, but we are comforted in your understanding of our humanity. Give us ample opportunities this week, God, to see you in as many different perspectives as we can possibly imagine - and then some. Lover of our souls, coach us in the ways that can fill our hearts no matter what else may happen - in this world and the world to come. In gratitude for all with which you bless us, all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
September 9, 2018
16th Sunday after Pentecost
“Comfort Is Not Always Comfortable”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Two men are talking about animals. One says to the other, ‘I know of a dog worth $10,000.’ ‘Really?’ replies the other. ‘Who would have thought a dog could save so much.’
A dog walks into a job center. ‘Wow, a talking dog,’ says the clerk. ‘With your talent I’m sure we can find you a gig in the circus.’ ‘The circus?’ says the dog. ‘What does a circus want with a plumber?’
Three boys see a fire engine with a dog go by and discuss what his job is. ‘Crowd control?’ says one boy. ‘He’s the mascot.’ says the second boy. The third boy nods sagely: ‘He finds fire hydrants.’
Walking past a veterinary clinic, a woman noticed a small boy and his dog waiting outside. ‘Are you here to see Dr Meyer?’ she asked. ‘Yes,’ the boy said. ‘I’m having my dog put in neutral.’
This morning’s scripture passage naturally includes the mention of dogs, and a few other words, as well.
The passage begins in Tyre, way north of Jesus’ hometown of Galilee, and ends up in the Decapolis, much closer to Jesus’ home. The uniting factor between these two places is that they are far outside the realm of Judaism, deep in the land of Gentiles. The writer of Mark calls it Syrian Phoenicia. We know it today as Syria, Lebanon and northern Israel.
Mark 7:24-37 (NIV)
Jesus Honors a Syro-Phoenician Woman’s Faith
24 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, Judy. I think another unifying factor between these two passages is that they are a little outside the scope of normal - even for Jesus.
I don’t know about anyone else, but I’ve struggled with this passage - and sort of still do. First the woman asks for healing and then Jesus starts talking about dogs and dinner. It took a long while to figure out that this was actually the perfect example of an hyperbole - an exaggerated statement or claim not meant to be taken literally.
Long before I understood that Jesus was insulting the woman, that she was, untouchable to him as an ancient enemy of the Jewish people, a woman without even the dignity of a name or the accompaniment of the required male, I didn’t really realize the mother’s desperation - in seeking out healing - from a stranger - for a daughter with a mental illness and a life of darkness. Just about every negative characteristic of the ancient world list is checked off in this scenario.
I think I’ve mentioned before that I am on a prayer list of a friend, who has befriended a mother of a 4 or 5 year old daughter who has been sexually abused by her father. The mother of this little girl is desperate to obtain safety for her daughter. This mother has begged people - strangers - to fast and pray for her little girl’s safety, while the mother has been tossed out of her home, has not been able to hold a job because of the need to care for this daughter who is developmentally behind other children her age, and is ploughing ahead in the preparation for an appeal to the ruling of the father’s shared custody. I don’t know, most of us don’t know, that depth of desperation, but it was a person like this mother that came before Jesus, throwing herself at his feet for mercy - on behalf of her child.
And then, Jesus, so uncharacteristially, derides her, chides her and treats her unlike so many others in refusing to heal her daughter. “First the children, then the dogs like you.” Mr. Compassion doesn’t seem that compassionate. Maybe it was code for Jesus’ mission strategy: First the Israelites and then the Gentiles. Maybe not.
Amazingly, the woman persists. An uneducated woman argues with a rabbi; she dares to challenge him, saying, “Well, that may be true, but even the dogs are allowed to eat some of the crumbs that fall from the children’s table.” She doesn’t demand to be treated like an Israelite - wanting manna to fall miraculously from the sky, but points to the abundance that overflows from Jesus’s table. And she gets it - both she and her daughter.
Like the Syrophoenician woman, the Decapolis man is also an outsider. He is cut off from the world by his inability to hear and communicate with others. His is not necessarily the dire state of the woman, but life can’t be any picnic for him, either.
Despite all the differences and all the previous ministry he did among people, Jesus just up and heals this guy. But really, Jesus. Did it really need to be in such a gross manner? Granted, it was a deeply human and intimate manner, but ear willies and spit in his mouth? Even if the spit had healing qualities, it was still way out there on the edge.
Just in case it should ever come up on crossword puzzle or Jeopardy, the meaning of the word that Jesus spoke meaning, “Be Opened,” is the motto of Gallaudet University, the national school for the deaf.
Maybe Jesus chose such an earthy manner of healing because when you take a step back to look at both of these passages, aren’t they both at least a little bit about Jesus’ humanity? Just like today, not that it’s an excuse, Jesus’ lack of tact was perhaps influenced by his fatigue and depletion, irritation and disgruntlement. Going so far from home, where he it was less likely to be recognized would be a descent plan to get some needed rest and recovery.
Maybe at first, all of us would like a Savior that was unfailingly nice and an exemplar of love and availability. But then our Christ wouldn’t fully understand our human needs of struggle to follow God’s will, the battle to do the right things and be the person God aspires each of us to be.
Perhaps these passages this morning are more about instances of a divine change of mind. We are so often reminded that our God is a steadfast God - with a will or plan. Maybe sometimes our prayers lack the energy or vitality that they really can make a difference in the greater picture of time and life. The great theologian, Karl Barth, once asked the question, “Why do we pray to God if we don’t believe that God is responsive to human entreaty?” Not that this is about getting that expensive house or luxury fishing boat. But it does have everything to do with faith and constancy. Which is a very good place to pray.
Good and Gracious God, thank you for answering prayers. We try to remember that you always answer prayers, even when the answers are “no” and “not yet.” So thank you that you never leave us as unrecognized petitioners. Thank you, too, for both sides of your son - the human and the divine. We sometimes fail to realize the unique nature of our Savior, so forgive us when we fall onto one side or another of his makeup. Thank you, God, for there always being enough, more than enough - love, grace, mercy and all the other necessary aspects of life. Help us to be generous with that which you have blessed us, that we may all relish in the joy of helping this world be what you have envisioned it to be. For all the many and vast blessings you bestow on us, all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
September 2, 2018
15th Sunday after Pentecost
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
When I was a kid, before my parents got divorced, when life was more like Mayberry for our family, Saturday nights belonged to my dad. There were no remotes, but he absolutely controlled the tv viewing. It didn’t matter that Rogers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella with Leslie Ann Warren or Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer was airing on another channel. Saturday nights were for All-Star Wrestling and Hee-Haw.
Come to think of it, maybe it’s really my dad’s fault for my goofy love of humor, forcing me to sit through those episodes of Hee-Haw. And for those of you who don’t know my dad, if Waldo were here, I’d say the same thing and he’d be grinning from ear-to-ear.
Anyway, there was a snippet during one of the Hee-Haw shows that has stayed with me for over forty years, and I was forever looking for the script of it, because it was just pure genius - in my humble, tasteful opinion. I am pleased to say that I finally found it, and I share it with you, from Archie Campbell’s lips to your ears.
Once apon a time, in a coreign fountry, there lived a very geautiful birl; her name was Rindercella. Now, Rindercella lived with her mugly other and her two sad bisters. And in this same coreign fountry, there was a very prandsom hince.
And this prandsom hince was going to have a bancy fall. And he'd invited people from riles amound, especially the pich reople. Rindercella's mugly other and her two sad blisters went out to buy some drancy fesses to wear to this bancy fall, but Rindercella could not go because all she had to wear were some old rirty dags. Finally, the night of the bancy fall arrived and Rindercella couldn't go, so she just cat down and scried. She was a kitten there a scrien, when all at once there appeared before her, her gairy fodmother. And he touched her with his wagic mand ... and there appeared before her, a cig boach and hix white sorces to take her to the bancy fall. But now she said to Rindercella, "Rindercella, you must be home before nidmight, or I'll purn you into a tumpkin!"
When Rindercella arrived at the bancy fall, the prandsom hince met her at the door because he had been watchin' behind a woden hindow. And Rindercella and the prandsom hince nanced all dight until nidmight...and they lell in fove. And finally, the mid clock strucknight. And Rindercella staced down the rairs, and just as she beached the rottom, she slopped her dripper!
The next day, the prandsom hince went all over the coreign fountry looking for the geautiful birl who had slopped her dripper. Finally he came to Rindercella's house. He tried it on Rindercella's mugly other ... and it fidn't dit. Then he tried it on her two sigly usters ... and it fidn't dit. Then he tried it on Rindercella ... and it fid dit. It was exactly the sight rize!
So they were married and lived heverly ever hapwards. Now, the storal of the mory is this: If you ever go to a bancy fall and want to have a pransom hince loll in fove with you, don't forget to slop your dripper!
I share this story with you, because there is a part of this morning’s scripture passage that sounds a little like this backward fairy tale. At least until you understand a little background.
Back in the day, there was a word for dedicating something as an offering to God, and the word is corban. To declare something to be corban would be like putting money in the offering plate, dedicating that money, as an offering to God. People used to think that giving things like old pianos or organs or worn furniture to churches would be corban, dedicating them as an offering to God, but that practice is more like giving your hand-me-downs to God and calling them exquisite. The problem with corban is that it can sometimes appear to try to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.
In regard to our scripture passage, Jesus was referring to the practice of corban to when a person was afraid of losing too much by having to care for his or her own parents in their old age. The offspring could declare some of their assets as corban, dedicated to God, even though that person had no intention of offering the assets to either God or parents.
Even back in the days of Moses, God gave the Jewish people “rules” to set them apart, sort of like knowing that we are Christians by our love. Their observance of the law was meant to be a witness to the nations around them, to give glory to God. Some of those rules had good, basic hygiene concepts behind them, which have become validated over time. Washing hands and feet and cookery and clothing were not just about personal cleanliness, but they were an outside representation of what the Jewish leaders held in their hearts, as dedicated people to God.
Incidentally, you will hear the phrase, tradition of the elders. Some of those “rules” for the Pharisees and other religious leaders were somehow transferred as being relevant to everyone, rather than just those in leadership positions. It was sort of the idea of cutting off the ends of a ham, because you thought that was how one baked ham, the tradition being handed down through the cooks in the family, when really, your great-great grandmother cut the ends off her ham because the pan wasn’t big enough.
Mark 7:1-23 NIV
The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus 2 and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. 3 (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. 4 When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.[a])
5 So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?”
6 He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: “‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.
7 They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’[b]
8 You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.”
9 And he continued, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe[c] your own traditions! 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’[d] and, ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’[e] 11 But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God)— 12 then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. 13 Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.”
14 Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. 15 Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.”  [f]
17 After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. 18 “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? 19 For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)
20 He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. 21 For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, 22 adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. 23 All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”
Thank you, Bill. If you followed along in a pew Bible, you may have noted that some of what Bill read was encased in parentheses. These pieces have come to be known as editorial snippets. Near the end, when it said that “In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean,” there is no place in the gospels where Jesus said, “all foods are clean.” In this little piece, I wonder if people, over time, have understood those words to mean that Jesus actually said those words, rather than it being something that the writer of Mark inserted.
There are a lot of things that come from the “outside” that are not good for us, from pornography to submersion in violent reading, viewing or gaming, to sound and noise used as torture. In terms of this passage, it seems that Jesus is making his point using food and a long-held tradition. And for this morning, it seemed that the point of congruency made a lot of sense.
Merriam-Webster defines congruent as having the same size and shape, as in congruent triangles. The Cambridge Dictionary defines congruent as “similar to or in agreement with something, so that the two things can both exist or be combined without problems.” In the Dinah Dictionary, congruency is doing what you mean and meaning what you do, not because it such a high and noble concept, but because it is a lot simpler and less work.
It has always been a temptation, in trying to live faithfully, to judge those who don’t live the same way, setting ourselves above others. The thing is, if we do that, we miss the greater part of our calling - to monitor what is going on within - more than what is going on without - because by our fruits, they will know us - as Matthew noted Jesus saying.
Elisabeth Johnson, a professor at Lutheran Institute of Theology in Cameroon started her commentary on this passage with these words. “In the Gospels, it seems that Jesus saves his sharpest words, his most pointed criticism, for the most religious.” She ended her contribution thusly: “No law or tradition can protect us from the darkness that lurks within our own hearts. We can try to project a squeaky clean image, but one way or another, the evil within will find its way out. The highly edited version of ourselves, the façade that we present to the world, will crumble sooner or later.”
Like a good preacher, Ms. Johnson also reminds us of the “gospel” in this passage. “that Jesus sees clearly the ugliness of human hearts, yet he does not turn away. He sees right through our highly edited versions of ourselves, knows what lurks in our hearts, yet loves us still. In the larger story of the Gospel, he shows us what true faithfulness is by daring to touch those considered unclean, by daring to love those who are social outcasts, by loving and serving and giving his life for all people -- tax collectors and sinners, lepers and demon-possessed, scribes and Pharisees, you and me.”
Jesus’ outside actions were congruent with his inside motivations and feelings. He didn’t stop to evaluate anyone’s worthiness or value. He wasn’t foolish in testing God, but simply lived out God’s love. It’s actually a very simple call that he gives to us - to do like him - to live lives with the same shape and size of Jesus’ love - as much as we are able, and then just like always, a little bit more.
So let us pray. Holy and Perfect God, may we be vessels of your love today. We are all of us a little flawed and a little inadequate, but you have chosen to bring your love into the world through us. No matter our own fear or shame or the resistance of others, let your love shine through us. Help us to heed your call - to the intimate and the stranger, ally and enemy, welcoming and bristly, let us convey your love for their sake, which is your sake, and not our own. Fill us to overflowing, filling our skinny passions, with your deep, life-giving love that is not ours for the keeping. Thank you, for those who have shared such passion and depth of love with us, and may we simplify our lives in the singular quest of offering not only the magnitude of love, but of grace and forgiveness - whenever and however you enable us to do so. For such gifts, all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
August 26, 2018
14th Sunday after Pentecost
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
How can a person go eight days without sleep? They sleep at night.
The other day, as the glovebox of my car was being cleaned out, I got to wondering, seriously, does anyone keep gloves in the glove box of their car? Or does anyone keep a foot in a foot locker, for that matter? Going back to the glove thing, I wonder, too, how it came to be called a glovebox. Did people leave gloves in cars back in the day? Where they afraid of the wind blowing the gloves out of the cars or someone stealing them? While we’re in the mode of question asking, what is the best question anyone has ever asked you?
As a good Minnesotan, I truly took the teaching about humility to heart - for a long time. In fact, like a host of others, self-esteem is not always my best friend. I don’t remember the exact words, but one day, when I was speaking with one of my ministry mentors about how everyone else is more deserving of about everything than I was, she asked me ‘what made me so special that God would raise you above everyone else’? She’d turned what I thought was humility onto it’s head - that of superiority, and it was one of those moments that a question truly changed my life. Not that I don’t still struggle with stuff, but I can still see her face and hear the reproof in her voice those twenty some years ago.
Jesus said a lot of things during his three years of ministry, but he also asked a lot of questions. Some of his questions were rhetorical: Which of you who has a sheep that falls into a pit on the Sabbath will not take hold of it and lift it out? (Matt 12:11) Some were simple and straightforward: “What do you want me to do for you?” (Matt 20:32) Sometimes he asked multiple choice questions: “which is greater, the gold or the temple that makes the gold sacred? (Matt 23:17-19) He used accusatory questions: “Why do you make trouble for the woman?” (Matt. 26:10) And then there are the questions that go right to the heart: “Who do you say I am?” (Matt. 16:15)
This morning’s scripture passage has some interesting questions, too. It follows Jesus feeding the 5,000+ and the walking on water event. The first “miracle” in this 6th chapter was witnessed by thousands of individuals directly affected by that same miracle, and a second “miracle” was witnessed by the twelve disciples only. When the crowds realized that Jesus was missing, they went looking for him the next day on the other side of the lake on which he walked. Then things started to get really weird, and Jesus started talking about things that either made no sense or were gruesome, to say the least.
56 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. 57 Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” 59 He said this while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum.
Many Disciples Desert Jesus
60 On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”
61 Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you? 62 Then what if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! 63 The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life. 64 Yet there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him. 65 He went on to say, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them.”
66 From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.
67 “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve.
68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.”
Thank you, Bill. Giving this passage a little more context, when it was written, the Lord’s Supper wasn’t practiced as it is now. They ate meals together, but the tradition of holiness had not yet been bestowed onto bread and wine, so the readers and listeners of this scenario most likely took it more literally than we do today. What confused the people of the day even more was when Jesus mentioned the word “manna.”
In case it’s been a while, manna was the heavenly wonder-bread that kept the Israelites alive on their forty year wilderness wandering. Every morning, they would pick up as much as they needed for the day. Any leftovers rotted overnight. Breakfast, lunch and dinner; manna. Manna pancakes, maybe with pine nuts they may have found along the way, manna sandwiches, made with manna and maybe some dandelion leaves for a little tang or some prickly pear sauce for dessert. But then there was manna for dinner - manna souffle, roasted manna with sage and manna dressing, or manna chops, with a little side of yucca crustinis, made with yucca and manna. Forty years of manna this and manna that, but the complaints about the manna weren’t really about the manna, but about the lack of trust in God that it represented.
At first the Israelites were massively impressed with the availability and no-cost of their provision, but forty years of three meals a day comes to the modest little number of nearly 44,000 dishes of manna per man, woman and child. God had provided 23,783 manna meals, but would God really provide number 23,784? Was God really leading them after 34 years of touring in the desert? Sure, God had taken care of them over the course of a few dozen decades, but what about tomorrow? Which all boils down to the question of trust - trust that God would truly take care of them.
144 decades later, people stuck with Jesus, who called himself the manna of his day, listening to his words, followed by questions; questions big enough to dissuade them from continuing their following of Christ. There seemed to be only two options: follow Jesus or not. When given the options, Peter’s answer revealed the singularity of the answers - for him and the disciples: You’re the one with the answers, Jesus, so we pick you.
We can say we pick Jesus, too, but sometimes we have a little trouble wondering about his follow-through. Sure - you got me through the cancer before, but what about this time? You were my grandmother’s best friend, Jesus, but I’m not feeling it so much myself. The disciples were - for the most part - totally devoted to Christ, but none of them escaped pain or difficulty or ridicule or old age. We - like the disciples - and even the Israelites of long ago - have options, even if the options are rather few in number. So why tie up our boat to God’s dock? In all the freedom of will that we have been given, the question Jesus asked the disciples back then still hovers over us: “Are you going to leave me, too?”
Truth be told, it may have been easier during Jesus’ earthly lifetime, because there he was performing miracles and healings and all sorts of other-worldly chores. But without his earthly presence, it’s much easier to “take a walk” than to take a stand for Christ.
The other day, I was listening to the classical music radio station, which was celebrating the 100th anniversary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth. They played a spot of the overture he wrote for the operetta, Candide, and as it was playing in the background, the person being interviewed mentioned that when the New York Philharmonic Orchestra plays that piece, a member of the orchestra gives a downbeat, and then the rest of the piece is played without a conductor. It is their homage to the composer-conductor that his spirit lives on in the assembly of that body of musicians.
Our homage to God, through Christ and the Holy Spirit, is in the coming together each week, giving our time to receiving and giving encouragement to one another, collectively lifting up our praise of God and the offering of our hearts to some of the most outstanding sermons ever preached on the face of the earth.
Over the last 200 decades, not much has changed since Christ rose from the grave. We still have the Holy Spirit, we still have God’s Holy Word, we still have our witness to what God has done in our lives. And yet, because we are so very human, we still sometimes have doubts. And we still have Peter’s question: “Lord, to whom would we go?” What is our alternative?
We have Peter’s answer - Christ has the words of eternal life - words that are so much bigger and longer and deeper and broader than our human minds can comprehend. Like the disciples and the Israelites, our job is to merely have the faith, one minute and moment at a time, that God is leading and guiding us as we make our way back home to eternal life.
There was a French philosopher, mathematician and physicist in the 1600’s names Blaise Pascal. He came up with a philosophical “argument” that has become known as Pascal’s Wager. His “wager” is that the wise thing to do is to live your life as if God does exist because such a life has everything to gain and nothing to lose - even if a person doesn’t really believe in God. If God doesn’t exist, then what have we really lost? It’s a sort of apathetic reason for choosing to follow Christ, but somedays, even apathetic reasons have validity.
Until then, God offers us opportunities to strengthen our faith - stretching it and exercising it in ways that are not always to our liking. But still, Jesus keeps saying, “You have come this far, come a little farther. You have committed this much, commit a little more. You love these people in this arena, now open your arms to these people over here. You have compassion for the one hurting person in front of you, now broaden that compassion to all hurting people in God’s world.”
As it came time to wrap up this morning’s message, it seemed that a prayer written in the 1500’s by Teresa of Avila might be tweaked to serve as our ending prayer. So let us.
God of Light and Life, let nothing disturb us. Let nothing frighten us. We know that all things pass, that you don’t change. Help us to have the patience that achieves everything. Remind us often, that whoever has you, lacks nothing, that you are more than sufficient. Help us, too, to remember that Christ has no body now on earth but ours; no hands but ours; no feet but ours. Ours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ looks out on the world. Ours are the feet with which He is to go about doing good. Ours are the hands with which He is to bless His people. For the gifts of healing and purpose and love and forgiveness and every other thing under the sun, all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.