First Congregational Church
October 25, 2015
22nd Sunday after Pentecost
“It’s About Freedom"
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
A teacher was going to explain evolution to her class. The teacher asked little Sven: Sven do you see the tree outside? Sven said, “Yes.” Teacher: Sven, do you see the grass outside? Sven: Yes. Teacher: Go outside and look up and see if you can see the sky. Sven: Okay. (He returned a few minutes later) Yes, I saw the sky. Teacher: Did you see God? Sven: No. Teacher: That's my point. We can't see God because God isn't there. God doesn't exist.
Little Lena spoke up and wanted to ask Sven some questions. The teacher agreed and Lena asked: Sven, do you see the tree outside? Sven: Yes. Lena: Sven do you see the grass outside? Sven: Yessssss (getting tired of the questions by this time). Lena: Did you see the sky? Sven: Yessssss Lena: Sven, do you see the teacher? Sven: Yes Lena: Do you see her brain? Sven: No. Lena: Then according to what we were taught today in school, she must not have one!
For those who don’t know, I was not only a teacher for seven years, but I am also Swedish, so I can say that sometimes teachers have their moments of incredulity - which ever way you’d want to take that. This morning’s scripture passage has some similar moments - which ever way you’d want to take them.
Since the last Sunday in August, the lectionary - that prescribed, cyclical list of scripture passages for daily and weekly consideration - has been appointing gospel readings from the book of Mark, primarily chapter 7 to this morning’s conclusion of chapter 10. For whatever it’s worth, next week - being All Saints Sunday - the lectionary sidesteps to the book of John, then back to Mark for two weeks and then the liturgical year ends back in John the Sunday before Advent begins.
But back to the set-up. During those four chapters, Jesus and the disciples traveled throughout Galilee, the Decapolis and Judea. We know those places as Lebanon, Israel, Jordan and Syria - places of great political unrest, not to mention danger. Without the guns and other modern weapons, that whole area was probably as politically charged as it is today. So it was in those places, against an insane backdrop that Jesus tried to prepare his disciples by predicting his death three times. And we shouldn’t forget that in Hebrew literature, if anything is repeated, it’s important. If it’s a three-peat, you’d best pay attention. So they were going about following and listening to Jesus.
46 Then they came to Jericho. As Jesus and his disciples, together with a large crowd, were leaving the city, a blind man, Bartimaeus (which means “son of Timaeus”), was sitting by the roadside begging. 47 When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
48 Many rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” 49 Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.”
So they called to the blind man, “Cheer up! On your feet! He’s calling you.” 50 Throwing his cloak aside, he jumped to his feet and came to Jesus. 51 “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked him. The blind man said, “Rabbi, I want to see.” 52 “Go,” said Jesus, “your faith has healed you.” Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road.
Thank you, Carolyn. I don’t know how many of you caught it, but I didn’t - on first or second reading. Maybe I’d come across it before, but if I did, I know I forgot. “They came to Jericho.” I bet we could all come up with the last significant Bible action that took place in Jericho - on our first try. The only mention of Jericho in the New Testament relates either to this passage or to the big one in the Old Testament.
And check this out: Mark says that as Jesus was departing Jericho, Bartimaeus shouted. Get it: Jesus is outside of Jericho with a large crowd and someone is shouting.
Sound familiar? Ring any bells? In case you are looking for some light afternoon reading, the Book of Joshua is the place to find the story of the Israelites’ seven-day march around the city. Only on the seventh and decisive day, however, do the Israelites lift up their voices in a mighty shout, bringing down the walls of the fortified city. What follows, of course, is a lot of Old Testament-style carnage as every man, woman, child, and animal are put to the sword and the torch. Not nice stuff, that.
Scott Hoezee of Calvin Theological Seminary agrees with me - that it isn’t too much of a stretch to suggest that Mark is showing a gospel reversal of all that Joshua mayhem. After all, there was Jesus—the new Joshua—outside the walls of Jericho. A large crowd is with him. And a lone beggar shouts to be heard. When people tell him to shut up, he shouts all the louder.
The writer of Mark even gives us the beggar’s name: Bartimaeus - son of Timaeus. The vast number of those healed by Jesus were anonymous. But we get a name in Mark’s version, to remind us that this was a real, flesh-and-blood human being, not a mere symbol of this or that condition, illness, or disease. Even in all the parables, the only one with a name is Lazarus. So Blind Bartimaeus is a real person - as much a human being and bearer of God’s image as any of us.
Not that it’s news, but not much has changed in the last couple thousand years. When the poor cry out to someone reputed to be important and powerful, society’s first inclination is to hush them up. Maybe the good citizens of Jericho saw this man as a social embarrassment, an eyesore, a blow to civic pride. Letting Jesus see him would make them all look bad. Best to hush him up.
But the unpleasant nature of human pride is on display here, too, In that the moment the man is invited to come over to the VIP in their midst. Now suddenly people flock to him, treat him like he suddenly has collective importance. It’s amazing how quickly we can pivot from avoiding, if not actively dissing, a person - to wanting to cozy up to him or her the moment this person can give us a connection to someone famous. That point probably doesn’t bother us much, unless it were a friend, who has two tickets to a dinner with the president, and you happen to belong to the other side of the president’s political fence.
The gospels show us again and again that Jesus has already called all this world’s disenfranchised, lowly, marginalized, and invisible people to himself. That is the reality in which the Church is supposed to exist. We don’t have to wait to see if Jesus will notice the unnoticed. He already has. What we are to do in response is rather obvious.
This time, at Jericho, the shouting leads to a crumbling of a different set of walls; this time the social barriers/walls that get erected in all societies between the well-to-do and the down-and-outters like Bartimaeus. Bartimaeus shouts in Jericho, but this time the result of all the shouting is not bloody battle and loss of life but a restoration of shalom.
When we choose that place of being at peace with ourselves, doing what we know we are supposed to be doing, should be doing, we are truly acting out of the gift of our free will. The Good News is that we have been graced with freedom to choose if and how we will reach out to those who are shouting for salvation.
I wonder if most of us, when confronted with the loud needs of the world, are quick to fall into silence, worried about offending or hurting feelings or being rejected or whatever. When folks tell us to shut up, we’re all too quick to oblige. But Bartimaeus won’t. He’s free. Free to defy his neighbors. Free to call for help. Free to make his needs known to Jesus. Free. Perhaps he’s suffered enough, or feels like there’s nothing left to lose, or just doesn’t care anymore. Or perhaps he just senses — or, really, sees — that in the presence of Jesus all the rules change and he is no longer “Blind Bartimaeus” but instead “Bartimaeus, Child of God.” Whatever the reason, he knows he is free and seizes his faith and his courage to live into that freedom and Jesus says that’s what made him well.
What if we seized our faith and courage that way? What if we decided that we didn’t have anything to lose any more? What if we were to really leave our chains behind and claim the abundant life and freedom God offers? Guess what? God has already made you free and called you a beloved child.
What if we saw the past for what it is for some - a trap that can remind its prisoners of all their shortcomings and failures and disappointments? I probably shouldn’t say “guess” what, but “remember” what? Jesus has willfully taken care of that which would eternally separate us from God. And then God has willfully forgotten about all that past stuff.
What if we saw the future for what is is for some - a paralyzing illusion of fear and unknowing that imprisons those who need to move ahead or away from their circle-spinning? Even in that place, you are free, although it can be really, really hard to believe. No memory of the past, no memory of sin, no need to yell and shout, the future is open. In God’s eyes, you are already free.
Some of what’s happened to us seems so huge, so important, so all-encompassing. But it only “seems” that way. Not to say that these things don’t matter. They do. Illness, disappointment, hurt, whatever. They matter and they may, in fact, be descriptively true of us. But they do not define us. Nothing we have done or has been done to us captures who we are completely. Only one thing can do that: God, the one who created us and sustains us, who has chosen to call us beloved children, holy and precious in God’s sight. That’s what - and who - defines us.
My sermon guru, David Lose, had this to say about this passage. That’s what all these readings are about, what our whole ministry is about – freedom. So tell them (partner in ministry) they’re free this week. Free from their past, free from regret, free from fear, free from self-limitation, free from old hurts and mistakes. They’re free. And then tell them again. Because it’s hard to believe. And then tell them one more time, because it takes a while to get used to this truth. And then tell them once more yet, because freedom takes some practice. Tell them they’re free, and then tell them to come back next week to hear this same good news, because the world will often try to convince us otherwise and so the freedom that sets you free, well, it takes a little while to sink in.
We’d probably do best by praying. So shall we? Gracious God, it is hard to live into the real gifts you give us. So thank you for the repetitions and reminders, that we might have that shalom peace. Thank you for the grace of freedom and free will, that we can risk and serve and help and care and try and struggle and laugh and all the rest. Thank you, that we are free to love, as you have loved us. Help us to see those things that we need to set down in asking for forgiveness.
First Congregational Church
October 18, 2015
18th Sunday after Pentecost
“Whose Voice Is In Your Head and On Your Heart?”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Since a good many of you are probably unfamiliar with Scandinavian humor and other myths, you may not realize that Ole and Sven, growing up together, had a real rivalry that developed over the years. They were always boasting of their parents' achievements to each other.
Ole: "Have you heard of the Suez Canal?" Sven: "Yes, I have." Ole: "Well, my father dug it." Sven: "That's nothing. Have you heard of the Dead Sea?" Ole: "Yes, I have." Sven: "Well, my father killed it."
Even as adults, they just couldn’t help themselves. Ole: "I can get in my truck first thing in the morning and drive all day before I reach the other side of my property.” Sven replied, "I used to have a truck like that, too!”
And any chance they could pull their cousin Torval into the one-ups-manship, it was a free-for-all. One day, all three were in the schoolyard bragging about their dads.
Sven said, ”My dad scribbles a few words on a piece of paper, calls it a poem, and they give him $50.”.
Ole said, ”Well, get this, my dad scribbles a few words on a piece of paper, calls it a song, and they give him $100."
Torval said, ”I have both of you beat. My dad scribbles a few words on a piece of paper, calls it a sermon, and it takes eight people to collect all the money!"
Before we get to the scripture for today, we need a little large picture backdrop. Way back in Mark’s chapter 8, Jesus cured a blind man and Jesus proclaimed his coming death. But none of the disciples “got” the prophecy, and in fact, Peter rebukes Jesus.
In Mark’s chapter 9, Jesus repeats his declaration of death, but the disciples start arguing over who is the greatest, again, because they don’t get it. “So he puts before them a child and tells them that leadership and greatness are about welcoming the vulnerable.” (David Lose)
Once again, in Chapter 10, Mark has Jesus proclaiming his death and resurrection, and again, the disciples don’t get it. And after another “incident” of “greatness contention, Mark ends the great section with the healing of blind Bartimaeus.
35 Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”
36 “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.
37 They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”
38 “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”
39 “We can,” they answered.
Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, 40 but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.”
41 When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. 42 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Thank you, Myra. Isn’t it interesting how the healings of blindness bracket Jesus’ three pronouncements of his impending death, the disciples’ failure to understand, and Jesus’ ongoing teaching about what constitutes greatness? Granted, it is sort of cherry picking out that section from the rest of Mark. But David Lose, of Lutheran Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh thinks that “Mark tells the story this way because he knows that Jesus’ words – indeed, his whole life! – run contrary to our natural tendency to think about power, leadership, and all of life according to the terms of the world and therefore take time to sink in.
I think Rev. Lose is on to something there. In that first sentence, James and John really ought to be Gibbs smacked upside the back of their heads. For those of you not raised in Minnesota, to blatantly tell a person what you want them to do - just isn’t done. Granted, these were adults, but across the lake and Wisconsin, you’d best learn the polite way of asking for favors or someone will teach your backside some manners!
And then when Jesus asks if James and John can drink his cup or be baptized with his baptism, the J boys are like non-Minnesotans: “We can.” Minnesotans would hang their heads, scuff the ground with their toe and say something like, “I suppose I could.” To be fair, perhaps it was the writer of Mark that was so brash, having James and John answer so bluntly. But even so, asking such a bold question and making such a brazen answer certainly revealed that James and John certainly weren’t thinking about the other ten disciples. It was like bringing gum to class, but not enough to share with everyone.
It is interesting, tho, how some things, some voices, some ways of doing things are so right there at the front of your memories. And isn’t it humbling to be reminded that our perception is sometimes so very, very wrong?
In today’s reading, for instance, James and John think greatness comes from status and power. And in response Jesus points out the 180 degrees of those things - that there is no escaping service. We either willingly, even joyfully, serve others, or we become a slave to our illusions that we can be free, and secure our future through status and power (or, in our modern day, wealth or youth or fame or possessions, or whatever the illusion.).
So we’ve heard it before and we’re likely to hear it again - perhaps until we “get it”: who will you serve? The voices of our culture that say that we can be free – indeed, must be free – on our own and at any cost. Then there is the voice of Jesus that calls you to find your freedom, in fact, your true self, through service to neighbor.
But, darn it, Mark, Jesus, God, I’m tired! I’ve done my bit, sometimes even to the detriment to my family or my own self. I make my way to church, I even do nice things for other people on occasion. You, better than anyone else, know how much I’ve got on my plate at the moment. If you would just make my hip better, I could do more, I promise. Why do you keep nagging me - even when I try to ignore you?
I made up the question that was used as the Meditative Sentence in the bulletin this morning, and if you didn’t get that far in the reading, the question is this: When have you “given” of yourself for the sake of another and received back so much more than you’ve given?
It might be interesting to hear all the responses to that question. But if we were to have a moment of sharing, I wonder how many of us would feel like underachievers. There are missionaries, doctors without borders, peace corps members, and all kinds of other people that often find themselves in those places of being able to give and receive altruistically.
Karoline Lewis, from WorkingPreacher.org asked this question: “What is it about us that we locate our ableness in our own efforts?” Her question, in regards to what we can do for others is like looking for a fall color tour on the ground in front of us. When we lift up our eyes, to the hills, from whence our help comes, we see that there is so much more to this whole serving others way of life.
What we are able to do now is not the same as what we were able to do in days gone by. And it won’t be what we will be able to do in the future. But Jesus’ words are the same - today, then and in the future. We become “great” by serving. That’s the voice we need in our heads and our hearts.
Poet Mary Oliver had this to say about our abilities and ableness.
“I have refused to live locked in the orderly rooms of reasons and proofs
The world I live in and believe in is wider than that.
And anyway, what’s wrong with Maybe?
You wouldn’t believe what once or twice I’ve seen.
I’ll just tell you this: only if there are angels in your head will you ever, possibly, see one.”
So, do you see the soul needing a smile or a kindness? Do you see the professional person, who is rightly held to a high bar, as a person who has a life away from their office or field, a life that is possibly, normally rather usual, but for whatever reason is steeped in chaos and uncertainty? Whose voice do you want in your head and heart when you encounter someone down on their luck or when someone has wronged you? And we do well to notice that Jesus didn’t say anyone needed to be a doormat when it comes to serving others.
It’s interesting, going back to the long distance view of this morning’s scripture passage, to remember the three predictions of Jesus’ death bookended with healings of blindness. Maybe that is our need of healing: to be able to see the opportunities and the need that lie all around us, needing a moment of listening, a time of just “being” with another person, an invitation for someone to come out into the world of light and life.
It’s so easy to get caught up on what we think is important or pressing. So we need to have our hearing retuned, our eyesight recalibrated. So shall we pray.
Great God of more than we can possibly ever know, thank you for reminding us that you are also the God of detail and relationships. Thank you for reminding us that what we sometimes think is so important, is perhaps not so in the larger vista of life. Help us to remember that our ableness to serve you comes from you through us, for others. Help us realize how holy those moments are, even in their mundane ordinariness.
For those moments when we heard your voice and we knew we were on holy ground, we are deeply grateful. Help us to never take them for granted. For those times when we were able to set aside this world’s to do list and take up yours, thank you. Help all of us grow into your greatness, which is really and truly, your greatness. For such a calling - in following you - all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
October 11, 2015
20th Sunday after Pentecost
“What Do You Call Him?”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
What do camels use to hide themselves? Camelflauge! Why don’t camels laugh at desert jokes? Because they have dry humor. Why was the camel so proud of his son? He was the spitting image of the dad.
This morning’s message is sort of two parts that are very much like the intercalations that the writer of Mark’s gospel used. Intercalations, also called sandwiches, are two pieces that make a point that neither could do by themselves. The Bible itself would be an intercalation, because the Old Testament, with it’s rules and history, and the New Testament with its grace are more together because of the promise and fulfillment of Jesus, the Messiah.
So the first part of the sermon sandwich today comes from the anthem, “The Lily of the Valley.” It’s a term some of us have probably heard often enough, but probably haven’t given much serious thought. The same goes for the other phrase: “Rose of Sharon,” which, although it is wasn’t in the anthem, is often paired with the Lily of the Valley.
These two phrases come from the Old Testament, Song of Songs. For whatever reason, Song of Songs is the Jewish reference to that book, and long ago it was Canticles, or the Canticles of Canticles - to the Catholics. Some Bibles call it the Song of Solomon, because the king supposedly wrote it. Whatever you want to call it, the references to flowers comes from the end of chapter one and the beginning of chapter two and is a conversation between two people who are definitely in love.
He says, “How beautiful you are, my darling! Oh, how beautiful! Your eyes are doves.”
She says, “How handsome you are, my beloved! Oh, how charming! And our bed is verdant.” (which means a green countryside.)
He says, “The beams of our house are cedars; our rafters are firs.” (remembering that trees were not always easy to find in that area.)
She says, “I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys.
He says, “Like a lily among thorns is my darling among the young women.
She says, “Like an apple tree among the trees of the forest is my beloved among the young men.”
While this passage is sweetly poetic, there are other parts to that book that don’t make any sense for use as bedtime reading for little ones, if you catch my drift. And some people say the Bible is boring!
We’re not perfectly positive about what the lily of the valley refers to, but it’s probably not like what we call those little white bell flowers that smell so fragrant. They were probably more of a crocus, tulip, iris, anemone, or gladiola, and symbolic of friendship. I don’t think it would be unfair to use the lily of the valley to mean sweetness or beauty of relationship.
The rose of Sharon reference is quite like that of the lily of the valley; possibly being a crocus, tulip or Narcissus. In Hebrew, the word Sharon means a plain or a level place. Some say that because the rose of Sharon grows in dry, unfavorable conditions, it symbolizes Jesus coming from the root of Jesse and David. So perhaps the long of it is that rose of Sharon symbolizes depth of relationship.
17 As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
18 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’”
20 “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”
21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
22 At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.
23 Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”
24 The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
26 The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”
27 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”
28 Then Peter spoke up, “We have left everything to follow you!”
29 “Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel 30 will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
Thank you, Gail. Some of you may recognize the name of David Lose from Philadelphia’s Lutheran Seminary as one of my current sermon prep professors. He talked about this passage as one that was terrifying to him as a child. David was the fourth son of a pastor, which meant that growing up in the sixties, his family didn’t shop at the Puma, Nike, and Adidas stores. And he was well aware that knock-off brands and hand-me-downs were not what cool kids wore.
But he had to lay his experience against that of his mother’s, who grew up in India the daughter of a missionary. David said, “You can only sit at the supper table protesting the lima beans in front of you and listen about the starving children in India so many times before you realize that compared with almost any other part of the world, you are, in fact, quite well off.”
So did it mean that he was going to hell? Knockoffs though they might be, his Thom McCann specials still beat showing up at school barefoot, and the thought of selling them so that he could send his lima beans to India was “grievous.” And Mr. Lose didn’t seem to find much comfort when gospel writer Mark pointed out that Jesus loved the rich man. If that’s love, he said, he didn’t want anything to do with it.
Sometime in the nineteenth century, to spiritualize this same passage, someone came up with the idea of “the eye of a needle” being a small door in a larger gate door into Jerusalem where the camels would have to be unpacked before entering in. There were no such doors. Later on, Mr. Lose, as hopefully some of us, realized the passage didn’t have to be read literally and that what Jesus really meant was unburdening ourselves of whatever might be keeping us from relying on God. That burden might be wealth, but it might not be, and it is most very likely that whatever the burden, it is sure to include the spiritual things associated with those burdens that would keep us from living fully in the kingdom of God - now or to come.
It was poet-pastor Steve Garnaas-Holmes who helped to bring together the thoughts that lead to today’s sermon title. He said, “We continually have to resist the belief that there's something we have to do to “be saved.” We think there are “good” people (the man thought Jesus was one) and others who are less so. We believe our salvation is up to us. Clearly the disciples think so. Were that true, of course it would be impossible. But it's up to God. And God has already “saved” us.
Take note that Jesus looks at the man and loves him. The man does not need to do anything for Jesus to love him; he already does. He responds to the man not with requirements but with love. Because that's his point. There is no requirement. God already loves us. We are already saved. There is no salvation beyond God's love; God's love is not insufficient for our eternal joy. All we need to be “saved” from is our own distrust. The man seems to have great possessions but “lacks one thing.” Jesus looks on him in his poverty and sets him free: let go of what you can measure and what you can lose—either riches or goodness—and grasp only what is infinite, what is already yours.
Meditate on this infinite love of God. It is yours, now. It surrounds you, fills you, gives you every breath. You can't deserve it more or less. It is simply here. Even as you ask and wonder, maybe even doubt, God looks at you with love. God's delight is not up to you. Let this light break in, and become you.”
So, with all that of which we’ve been reminded, all that is behind us, what do we call Jesus? “Good” - although correct, to me seems inadequate. Gracious, honorable, Savior - in all the sense of the word - is closer - in my mind. Redeemer, Lily of the Valley, Rose of Sharon, Deliverer, Rod and Staff, Holy Messiah, Emmanuel, Revealer, Comforter, Son of Righteousness, the Truth, Wisdom of God - are just a few of what you might call Jesus. Whatever words you might use to describe your relationship to him, names mean nothing unless we act on them. So shall we pray?
Great God of all things, thank you for the gift of language. Sometimes we forget words or struggle to find the right ones. But at the end of it all, you give us words to describe our relationship to you and with you and for that we are glad. We thank you for names, that we might live into them, lean into them when we have cause. Help us to so embrace your free, unmerited love that it spills over as inspiration to others. For our ability to have a free relationship with you that will never be based on our own efforts, all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
October 4, 2015
19th Sunday after Pentecost, World Communion
“Receiving the Kingdom Like a Little Child”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
This past Friday, while listening to the radio, I heard about a contest about scary two sentence stories. While I was looking up the information about the show, I discovered a website called twosentencestories.com. I kid you not! Naturally, I couldn’t resist sharing this one: “On some nights I loved hearing my cat purr as it slept on my shoulder. And on other nights I remember I don’t own one.” Perhaps not as erie, but certainly uncomfortable was this one: “Unfortunately, I have never known my mother. She had already died long before my birth.”
That website lead to another, thoughtcatalog.com, which had this one: “My wife woke me up last night to tell me there was an intruder in our house. She was murdered by an intruder 2 years ago.” The last one this morning is like a great opening for a movie: “The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock at the door.”
The purpose of including these cheery little delights is not to decorate the stage of this fall season, but to give examples of how much just one or two sentences can say. But before we get there….
I love this day. It began last night - as we were going to bed—World Communion Sunday. Asian Christians shared the bread and the wine. Churches in China met in secret so that they would not be arrested. Christians in the Middle East met under the watchful eye of the government as they celebrated the Eucharist. Just hours ago, in Europe, Christians gathered in churches that used to be much fuller and celebrated the Lord’s Supper. In Africa the sacrament was celebrated by a growing number of Christians, many of whom bare scars of persecution as they commune together.
Those celebrating today include Presbyterians, Methodists, Catholics, Lutherans, Pentecostals, Baptists, Congregationalists, thousands of other denominations, and even those without denominations. Some take the sacrament today with organ music, others with simple singing, and still others in quiet so as not to be arrested.
In wealthy churches and in desperate poverty the sacrament is observed. In churches, homes, huts, and in God’s creation this seal of the covenant is experienced. The bread is given to people that could overeat all day and to people who had no idea what they would eat or where they would get it today. The one thing in common - we all come to the same table of our Lord.
The bread is wildly varied in types and colors and from many places. Some created primarily from wheat, others from rice or other kinds of grain. Some will have bread left over. Some with very small pieces that could barely give every Christian there a morsel. Still - it represents the body of Christ broken and the sustained body of Christ around the world today.
The juice around the world will be different. For many it will be wine, some will have juice, some will celebrate with water that had to be carried from a dirty well some miles away. Some will use individual cups, others fancy goblets, still others have been passing around whatever cup was in the home where they were meeting. Still - it represents the blood of the covenant in their place and in their communities, just as it does in ours.
A number of weeks ago, I stashed this poem by Steve Garnaas-Holmes. The poison ivy in the woods this morning was lovely. The fall colors sparkled after last night's bath, the rocks and trees glistened, everything shone. Especially the poison ivy. At the divine wedding banquet, the feast of love and faithfulness, everyone is invited.
The Creator knows each one's sacred worth and beauty, the venomous snake, the innocent mosquito. Even the hurtful ones belong. At the feast, one who isn't dressed to celebrate, not ready to dine with “those people,” or feeling unworthy to wear your finest, will miss out. Wear a party dress, not a judge's robe. In the lovely woods of human society everyone shines, everyone belongs, both good and bad. Come to the table.
So against all this background, we have this morning’s scripture passage. It follows those of the last two weeks: Jesus predicting his death and resurrection, the disciples not understanding that proclamation, discussion over first and last, and finally, salt and fire.
13 People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. 14 When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 15 Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” 16 And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.
Thank you, Mary. Any time we come across this passage, I think it’s important to do so differentiating between “like a child” and “childish.” Jesus doesn’t say anything about childish here, but child-like.
I’m sure a good many of us can bring a childish adult to mind. There are even some sad situations were there are child-like adults. But if you think about a child, any of those here on a Sunday morning, and those moments when they are all engaged in whatever it is that is being said, you see their eagerness to soak up that which is new, fun, delightful and joyous. It is that wonder behind their eyes, that pureness of heart that stymies you with their innocence of character. I think that’s what Jesus is asking of us - to be that open and ready to what God has for us. The irony is that this sort of “stance” is so far removed from those moments when we even unknowingly cross our arms and shake our head “no” to God.
I came across a little story from a woman named Jane Hunt, from her book, “Some (Not So) Random Thoughts on Bread,” a story told to her by her Uncle Harold. “I could not have been more than nine or ten years old and I certainly cannot remember the context or the reason for him sharing this, but this is what he offered. Apparently at some time, hundreds of years ago, the only staple in the diet of a particular people was potatoes. The grown ups would scrape out the meat of the potatoes, leaving the potato skins for the children. The children survived. Their elders did not.
As I said, I have no recollection of why this was shared. I only know that I remember it now these more than forty years later. It speaks of 'reversals.' What we think is good for us, may not be. And in the end, it may turn out that those receiving the 'worst' are actually receiving the very best: the best which leads to life. I think of this when I think of the bread that is Jesus - of how in Jesus things are always getting turned upside down. And that you and I eat the bread: the body of the Unlikely One who was shamed - crucified, even, on a cross. And this leads to life.
So what is your two sentence story or statement about God? What words will you make sure are a part of your two sentences? What have you “found” in this thing called faith that changes you, that causes you to pay attention to your stance with God? How do you “receive Go ahead and play with that thought this week, of actually writing a two sentence statement of your faith. It won’t necessarily be the same the next day or next year. But when we can write something about our faith, it becomes, greater than just a thought, and perhaps you will surprise yourself in that little exercise.
But for these next moments, I encourage you to mentally put down any burden you might be carrying; just let it sit on the floor at your feet. (If you forget to pick it up on your way home today, that’s fine, too.) But with your hands in your lap, turned up, ready to receive that which God has for you, let us prepare our hearts and minds for a little time with Christ.
Let us pray. God of every sort and all kinds, thank you for this day that reminds us that you welcome all of us, no matter what. Thank you for your mercy, forgiveness, grace, and especially those moments that take our breath away. Help us to realize the depth of our faith, that we may own it at deeper and more relevant levels. Show us how we can help others in the maturation of faith that would bring your peace of passing all understanding. And thank you, too, good God, for giving each of us the relationship we have with you, as all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.