First Congregational Church
October 31, 2015
24th Sunday after Pentecost
“Here, Too, Is a Son of Abraham”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
You know, optometry jokes just keep getting cornea. Did you hear the one about the optician who fell into the lens grinder? He made a spectacle of himself. What do you call a deer without eyes? No idea. How many optometrists does it take to screw in a light bulb? You tell me — is it one — or two? Where is the eye located? Between the H and the J.
Lena walks into an optical store to return a pair of spectacles that she purchased for Ole a week before. The assistant asks, “What seems to be the problem, Madam?” Lena replies, “I’m returning dese spectacles I bought for Ole. He’s still not seeing tings my vay.”
In regards to this morning’s scripture passage from the 19th chapter of Luke, it’s interesting that it follows a chapter that includes the story about a blind bigger receiving sight, instantly — no mud, no herbs, to medications. A little before that, there is the parable about the pharisee and the tax collector, and how each one “saw” themselves — as compared to those around them. Before that, there was the parable about the widow and the judge, and how each one “saw” their need. And in the chapter before that, there were the ten lepers who saw healing, one of whom saw the deeper sight of a second blessing in his return to thank Jesus.
As a physician, the apostle Luke was probably a guy obsessed with observations of all kinds, but it is a little intriguing, all these pieces in his writing, that contain a common element of sight. It’s an interesting subject, sight, especially knowing that there are several — and I’m not just talking about one or two — but several people in and around this church family that struggle with sight issues, macular degeneration being the most prevalent.
As Molly comes forward, I’ll make a last point, that in the progression of Luke’s gospel, this event immediately follows Jesus’ third prediction about his death and the healing of the blind roadside beggar, just days before his entrance into Jerusalem and his final, holy week.
1 He entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2 A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3 He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 5 When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, "Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. 7 All who saw it began to grumble and said, "He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” 8 Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, "Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” 9 Then Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
Thank you, Molly. Having lost his donkey a man, got down to his knees and started thanking God. A passerby saw him and asked, "Your donkey is missing; what are you thanking God for?" The man replied "I am thanking Him for seeing to it that I wasn't riding the donkey at that time, otherwise I would have been missing too."
It’s easy to “see” what this story about Zacchaeus says. We read the words, and I’m guessing most all of us have a very similar vision in our minds. The thing is, hidden under our American English are the ancient, dead, Greek words of the gospel’s original language. And there are words that we don’t necessarily relegate as important, because they are so casually “every day” words.
So not only was our guy, Zach, a tax collector, he was a chief tax collector, which we should read as “very rich.” He was probably disliked, if not disdained, by his fellow Jews, because he was rich — a traitor and a robber — in their minds. Zacchaeus was short, not just in stature, but also in terms of moral standing — among his neighbors at any rate.
The quick glimpse and simplified math of this morning’s passage would be something along the lines of: if a, then b: if repentance, then forgiveness, including matters of the wallet. But here’s the thing; Jesus does not commend Zacchaeus' penitence, or his faith, or his change of heart. He doesn’t say, “Because you repented, you are forgiven.” From what Luke tells us, Jesus doesn’t even ask for any repentance. Instead, Jesus blesses Zacchaeus.
Zach doesn’t get blessed because of anything that he did, but because, as Jesus said, “he, too, was a son of Abraham.” The writer of Luke has a thing for the down-and-outers, those not as valued in the eyes of the world. In Bible terms, most of the time we think of those folks as orphans and widows, the “challenged” and the sick. Zacchaeus may have been rich, but he was still despised, so he had a soft spot in Luke’s and Jesus’ hearts. In front of God and man, Jesus tells everyone that this guy, that is not so much up a creek without a paddle, but up a tree with a stained Armani robe and scuffed Bruno Mali sandals — is, too, like them, a son of Abraham.
On a little aside, according to the scienceinstories webpage, sycamore trees have stood sentinel on earth long before humans appeared. They have back dropped human history and inspired people to survive devastating tragedies. Some sycamore trees can live for 500-600 years. Because these trees often divide into two or more trunks near the ground, it would have been an easy thing for Zacchaeus to shimmy up into that sort of tree.
This phrase, a son of Abraham, is also a hidden phrase to most of us, because it’s from long before Zacchaeus was even a twinkle in his parents’ eyes. In an article by a guy named Bruce Prewer, this identity as a son of Abraham is a revelation. In the Old Testament days, this was a phrase about dignity. Abraham was immortalized as the supreme example of a man of faith. To call a Hebrew person a true child of Abraham was to give the highest honor. Jesus said, in not so many words, that Zacchaeus as a child of Abraham, was one of the covenantal people, a beloved child of God, one worthy of noticing. Now that’s a horse of a different color!
If we hold on to this idea of hidden — remarkable meaning, then some of the other “hidden” or obscure aspects of this passage, hidden in ancient Greek, become even more important. As I reread the passage for the umteenth time this morning, I thought about how “dull” it sounds.
Most of us probably glossed over it, but our passage says that Jesus said, “I must stay at your house today.” In other translations, the words are “it is necessary that I stay at your house today.” In the Biblical book of Dinah, it’s translated as, “Dude, if I don’t go to your house today, the world is actually going to stop!”
It’s the same word that a writer used of the necessity of Jesus’ becoming human or the utter necessity of Jesus’ death on a cross. Those things were — and are — imperative, absolutely essential in becoming the people that God has always seen us to be. There was going to be no way around it; Jesus had to go to Zach’s house that day. It probably was a life-changing visit for Zacchaeus, and maybe for Jesus, too. But it sure would have been interesting to be a fly on the wall in all the neighbors’ houses, too!
An atheist was spending a quiet day fishing when suddenly his boat was attacked by the Loch Ness monster. In a second the monster tossed him and his boat high into the air. Then it opened its mouth to swallow both. As the man fell head over heels, he cried out, "Oh, dear God! Help me please!" At once, the ferocious attack scene froze in place, and as the atheist hung in mid-air, a booming voice from above said: "I thought you didn't believe in Me!” "Come on God, give me a break!" the man pleaded." Two minutes ago I didn't believe in the Loch Ness monster either!”
There is another word that escapes our notice, because it’s used so often. It’s the word that describes Zacchaeus’s reaction to Jesus: he received Jesus chairon, “with joy.” Our version says that Zach hurried down from the tree and was happy to welcome Jesus. Flash back 4 chapters in Luke and we see this kind of joy and rejoicing in the bottom line of all three of the parables of lost-and-found in Luke 15: the joy of the saving of a lost sheep, the joy of a poor widow finding a lost coin, and the joy of a prodigal child returning home. As Scott Hoezee of Calvin Seminary said, the “joy” with which this little tax collector received Jesus is the very joy that always crops up when salvation is in the air. I thought of that kind of joy — like a shift in your private universe when something is so very full of delight and how it sticks with you for a very long, life-changing time. Perhaps, then, there is more to the last line of this passage: For the Son of Man came to seek out — and to save the lost.
It is interesting that according to our passage for this morning, this joy was present before Zacchaeus did any of his own changing of lives — giving money back to the poor and those he cheated. It is grace first, then deeds that flow out of that grace and love. It’s what God does first, and then how we react to God’s love and thoughtfulness (in a larger, rather than diminutive way) that changes the world.
After all that, if we take a step back to look at this whole passage again, it, like so many events in the Bible, is about relationship — between Jesus, Zacchaeus and the people in the immediate area — as well as all of us — and all those down through the ages. And it’s about God’s deep, abiding, tenacious desire to be in a relationship with each and every one of us - God calling us down out of our trees, to go to our houses (hearts).
Sometimes there are problems in the way of living in that relationship: problems that I would guess are mostly about our own understanding of ourselves, of the limitations of our own minds and in the limitations of what we think we can do, because of who we think we are. There are so many with pained and hurting hearts that have short statures of faith, feeling like they are short on the stuff needed for God to use them and be of use to God. In our earthly, human short-sightedness, we don’t have the same vision that God has — of what is possible because we — like Zacchaeus - are sons — and daughters — of Abraham, covenantal people, an individual and beloved child of God.
In our busyness, our crazy schedules, our running from here to there and every where, we forget to stand to our fullest height, and regardless of what we think, there is no one that is just a waste of space, incapable of doing anything of value. Even those in people in vegetative states require someone to see after their needs, to supply those who need it, with a job as a caretaker. And those of us not in those states, even though you — we — may have failed God more times than you can count, it doesn’t change God’s belief in you and God’s love for you. For that reason alone, we should pray.
God of all the universes and molecules and everything in between, we thank you that you care about each of us — the tall, the short, the sighted and the blind, the loud and the quiet, and all the other ways in which we think we are different. Thank you that you see us as sons and daughters of dignity and respect and honor, even when we may feel so far from those things or act so far from those things. Help us, when we need to rectify our wrongs, that we can see them quickly and clearly and help those we have hurt to forgive. Help each of us to see the dignity and respect and worth in others, even in those we deem undignified and unworthy. May we all — your people in this whole world — come to live and be the sons and daughters you have always dreamt of us to be. And all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
October 23, 2016
23rd Sunday after Pentecost
“Almost, But Not Quite”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
A young boy lived in the country. His family had to use an outhouse, which the young boy hated. It was hot in the summer, cold in the winter, and always smelly. The outhouse was located near the creek so the boy decided that he would push it into the water. After a particular spring rain, the creek swelled so the boy pushed it in.
Later that night his dad told him that he and the boy needed to make a trip to the woodshed. The boy knew this meant punishment. He asked his father why, to which his dad replied, "Because someone pushed the outhouse into the creek and I think that someone was you. Was it?"
The boy responded that it was. Then he added, "Remember when George Washington's father asked him if he had chopped down the cherry tree? He didn't get into trouble because he told the truth.” "That is correct," the dad said, "but his father was not in the cherry tree when he cut it down.”
This morning’s scripture passage is another of Jesus’ parables, one that doesn't really have a name, but someone I read this week called it the Parable of the Prayers - or Prayers. In the book of Luke, this passage immediately follows the one from last week, the passage about prayer that never actually uses the word prayer. So today’s passage - is almost like last week’s, but not quite.
9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, 'God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Thank you, Mary. There was a very lost, wicked, and rebellious man who decided it would be good for business if he went down to the church and joined it. He had a little scam business on the side, cheated on his taxes, and had never been a member of a church in his life. But when he went down to be received into membership, he gave public testimony to the church that there was no sin in his life, and that he had grown up in the church, so they readily accepted him as a member.
When he went home he told his wife what he had done, and his wife, a very godly lady, exploded. She condemned him for being a hypocrite, and demanded that he go back to the church the next week and confess what he really was. Well, God used his wife to speak to him, and he took her admonition to heart.
The next Sunday he went back to the church, walked down to the front again, and this time confessed to the church all of his sins. He told them he was dishonest, a cheat, a scam-artist, and that he was sorry. They revoked his membership on the spot. He walked out of the church that day scratching his head and muttered to himself: "These church folks are really strange. I told a lie and they took me in; and when I told the truth they kicked me out!”
In Jesus’ time, the Pharisee would have been considered the good guy–wearing the white hat - a good synagogue leader in his town. What the Pharisee said he did in our passage, he likely did. For the most part, Pharisees were super-religious men who were extremely careful about obeying the Torah, which is basically the first five books of the Old Testament. They also followed the Mishnah, which explained how to obey the Torah, of which there might be several chapters in the Misnah devoted to one single verse in the Torah. In addition, they followed the Talmud, which was a commentary on the Mishnah.
A tax collector, in Jesus’ day, was considered the scum of the earth, the very bottom of the religious food chain in Israel. He was considered the villain–the one with the black hat, so-to-speak. Tax collectors were usually Jewish people, hired by the pagan Romans to collect taxes to be paid to Caesar. (Insert the recollection of Jesus’ words, “render unto Caesar what was Caesar’s.”)
Because the Roman government didn't pay these Jewish tax collectors, the collectors demanded more than what Rome required, adding their own sur-charge. Most of the Jewish population would have been fine with this arrangement, except that many tax collectors, on top of being deemed traitors to their own people, extolled more than their fair share of tax from the people, lining their own pockets at the expense of the everyday people.
Over the years, when looking at scripture passages, I’ve learned that one of the first things is to look for, is the most obvious lesson. In this case, it would be the easy judgment of the Pharisee to be a self-righteous hypocrite and assume that the moral of this story is to be humble. Maybe the second thing to look for in a scripture passage is the less obvious — in the obvious; what - in our understandings - may actually be interpretational traps.
The “trap” of the simple interpretation of this parable is in completing the circle. If we don’t pay attention, as David Lose says, our prayer can become, "Lord, we thank you that we are not like other people: hypocrites, overly pious, self righteous, or even like that Pharisee. We come to church each week, listen attentively to Scripture, and we have learned that we should always be humble, which of course we are, or we wouldn’t be praying this prayer.”
How many of us, on seeing someone down on their luck, have said - a little too cavalierly, ”There but for the grace of God go I?” It isn't that the Pharisee is speaking falsely, but rather that the Pharisee misses the true nature of his blessing. As Luke states in his introductory sentence, he has trusted in himself. His prayer of gratitude may be spoken to the Lord, but it is really about himself. He locates his righteousness entirely in his own actions and being.
We don’t know if today’s tax collector was a crook or not, but in his mind, he thinks that he possesses no means by which to claim righteousness. He believes that he has done nothing of merit; in fact, he has done much to offend the law of Israel. For this reason he stands back, hardly daring to approach the Temple, and throws himself on the mercy of the Lord.
It’s also helpful - when looking at parables and passages - to take into account the physicality of the situation, and in today’s parable, it takes place at the Temple. On the grounds of the Temple, one was always aware of who you were, of what status you had, of what you thought you could expect from God. Although everyone could go into the Temple, only Jews could pass into the next section. And then only Jewish men could go into the next section, which was closer to the Holy of Holies. Then there was the section where only Jewish religious leaders were allowed. And finally, there was the place, the Holy of Holies, where only the High Priest was allowed to enter, once a year. Each section had clear “insiders” and “outsiders.” In the mind of this morning’s Pharisee, there were two kinds of people: the righteous and the immoral, and Lord Almighty, wasn’t he glad that he wasn’t one of the later?
Since this is a parable - a story that Jesus made up to make a point - a story with many layers of meaning - here’s my thought. Both men had a little bit right and a little bit wrong. While humility is a great characteristic, I don’t think that God gets all excited when we view ourselves - or anyone, for that matter - as low as dust and good as worm slime. Granted, the passage doesn’t use that language, but it gets darn close, with the tax collector beating on his chest, not daring to even look up, standing in the back, so unworthy. For people who suffer from or grew up with various mental illnesses, humility is not necessarily the best quality to nurture.
Yes, we need to realize our own sins, to repent and work hard at not repeating them. But at some point, we need to come to the place of realizing and embracing the fact that God has gifted each of us with a unique set of abilities, to do things in this world that not everyone else can do. Those abilities can change over time, but that doesn’t mean we are without purpose.
And even though the Pharisee gets a little right, and the tax collector gets a little wrong, neither one has the complete truth - almost, but not quite. Because whenever we fall prey to the temptation to divide humanity into any kind of groups, we have aligned ourselves squarely with the Pharisee and the tax collector.
It was my not-yet-met buddy, David Lose, who dropped the bomb on this idea of dividing groups into those like us and those not like us. He said, “Anytime you draw a line between who's "in" and who's "out," this parable asserts, you will find God on the other side. And therein lies my personal struggle. “But God,….”
He finished his thought with this: “Read this way, the parable ultimately escapes even its narrative setting and reveals that it is not about self-righteousness and humility any more than it is about a pious Pharisee and desperate tax collector. Rather, this parable is about God: God who alone can judge the human heart; God who determines to justify the ungodly.”
And then Scott Hoezee finished the thought. “If you are able in your life to avoid committing crimes or cheating, should you be thankful for the strength of character that prevents you from walking down certain sordid paths? Of course on all counts! But we must never forget that each of those things is a FRUIT of God’s prior grace at work in us. (space) Let us pray.
God of all that is good, so many of us thought that we would go to a nice little Sunday church service and call it good. But sometimes, Great God, you catch us - with convictions so close to the heart that we stand, stymied and silent. So forgive us our sins of dismissal, of one-upmanship, of appraisal and assessment before compassion. Give us wisdom to avoid that which will ultimately damage the vision you have of us, wisdom to bring about the good that is needed from each unique individual. In the acknowledgment of the gifts and talents you give us, and in your forgiveness and mercy, accompany each of us with that sense of wholeness in you, of justification in you, in peace in you. And all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
October 16, 2016
22nd Sunday after Pentecost
“Not Just What Jesus Said”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
As many of you know, Mother Theresa was recently canonized as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church. Renown preacher, Tom Long, once told of a time when Mother Theresa was in New York City to meet with the president and a vice-president of a large company. Before the meeting, however, the two executives had privately agreed not to give her any money. Eventually the diminutive Mother Theresa arrived and was seated across from the two men separated by a very large desk. They listened to her plea but then said, “We appreciate what you do but just cannot commit any funds at this time.”
“Let us pray” Mother Theresa said. She then asked God to soften the hearts of the men. After saying, “Amen,” she renewed her plea and they renewed their answer that they were not going to commit any money. “Let us pray” she said yet again, at which point the executive relented and asked for a checkbook!
This morning’s scripture passage is not only absent from the top ten list, but from the top twelve of Jesus’ most famous parables. (That is not to imply that it is number 13, but that I didn’t take the time to investigate beyond that point.) But this passage is not completely foreign or fresh to most ears here today. Like most any parable, it would probably serve better as a Bible study than a sermon, because parables can have so many layers of meaning - intentionally so or not. And the exchange of understanding would be so interesting.
But for the moment, the parable follows Jesus’ healing of the ten lepers, one of whom went back for an extra blessing, and a little sermon from Jesus about the Kingdom of God.
Luke 18:1-8 NIV
1 Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. 2 He said, “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. 3 And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’
4 “For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’”
6 And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? 8 I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”
Thank you, Donna. Right off the bat, I’m guessing that most folks would say that the topic of this passage would be about prayer, since Jesus says that in the very first sentence. “Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.”
That sentence could have been intended for the passage about his preaching on the Kingdom of God, in the chapter just before this one, and then maybe Jesus told a different parable, followed then by the one Donna just read. It’s easy for us to think that these “sections” follow one another, just the way they would have actually happened. And maybe we forget or don’t know that the original documents didn’t have verse or chapter numbers to help us in our understanding. So maybe the first sentence may not be a real clue - or the first one we should consider - in understanding this parable.
Way back in the book of Exodus, after the Ten Commandments were spelled out, there is a long section — several chapters — where Moses was being schooled on what those commands meant and how they were to be played out. In Exodus 22, God says, “Do not take advantage of the widow or the fatherless.” In fact, only orphans were more urgent cases than widows for considerations. And it says that God would go so far as to kill anyone who took advantage of widows and the fatherless, even threatening to kill that individual’s wives and children for their indifference. While it may sound like a harsh God, caring for the “desolate” the outcast, and offering hospitality to those in need were extremely high virtues in the Jewish world of Jesus’ day, so this widow’s request was not to have been taken lightly.
Because it is so easy to assign characters in parables, most times the judge is equated with God and the widow represents us. But assigning personalities paints God as an uncaring, indifferent, exasperated Judge, worried about his reputation, and turns the widow into a pesty stalker.
The widow went to the judge for justice, yet Jesus didn’t tell us why there was a need for justice. We don’t know if someone shortchanged her at the market or if another widow took her begging spot at the town gate or whatever thing it was that got under her saddle.
And yet, because it’s a parable, and there are layers of meaning, and we live in this day and age, perhaps there is the possibility that this is a case for peaceful, prayerful protesting, except that I’m not looking for any lawsuit about politics from the pulpit and try hard to avoid that whole scene. But maybe, for someone or some folks, this morning’s passage may be the “voice” we needed to hear to do something - for or about someone else, especially if that person or persons is or are outcasts for whatever reason - to do something beyond giving to the upkeep of this place and to the missions we support.
It’s been a while since I visited my old friend, desperatepreacher.com, and when I checked it out this week, there was a great illustration about the downside of this parable. Whoever Indy CLP is, he or she told this story.
A few years ago during the Harry Potter craze my son convinced his young daughters that if they believed hard enough and ran fast enough they could run right through the wall just like Harry Potter. They both tried once with predictable results but the youngest kept getting up and going at it again and again till they had to make her stop for fear she might injure herself, plus my son was having trouble breathing he was laughing so hard.
It is a funny and somewhat mean story, but it also is a lot of what prayer sometimes feels like. If we believe hard enough, if we do everything right maybe this time our prayers will make it through and each time we try and fail faith tells us to get back up and run at it again. But that is not what prayer is about, either.
Going back to what Jesus said, it’s interesting that Jesus doesn’t actually say anything about the widow - or the judge - doing any real praying. If you wanted to get technical about it, when the writer says that the widow was going to the judge with a “plea,” as it says in our pew version, the original Greek word doesn’t have such energy. She was simply “saying” that she wanted justice - something more like a conversational exchange.
In regards to prayer, just eleven chapters earlier, Jesus said, “If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
In the Book of Dinah, which, as we know, didn’t make it into the Biblical canon, it would say, “If persistence can pay off with even a lousy human judge, how much more effective will our perfect, Godly God be to us? In the BoD - Book of Dinah - Jesus would have probably said something like, Who among you, parents, if your child asks for a sandwich, will give him or her lutefisk instead. Or if they ask for a fishing pole, will give them frozen fish sticks instead.”
While someone today may need to be reminded that ours is a good God, who loves to shower God’s children with blessings, others may need the reminder that lifting up our needs - and even our wants - to God is not about what God may think, but about doing what we need to do to move forward. Being the humans that we are, sometimes it may not occur to us to lift a particular item - a burden or concern - or even joy - up to God. So maybe, for someone today, maybe this is a message about getting to the business of prayer.
As I thought about this passage and a potential non-message about prayer, I got to thinking about what prayer really is - regardless of the actual words. It’s about relationship. Despite the assumption that neither judge nor widow previously knew each other, over the period of petition and refusal, they came to know each other - at least a little. The judge came to understand the widow as determined, and the widow came to know the judge as unencumbered with bias or judgment, and their relationship maintained a cloak of respect. What furthers the idea of this passage being about relationship is that Jesus goes on to talk about the relationship between God and God’s chosen ones, the ones that have a similar sort of relationship as that between the judge and the widow - those needing justice and the one that can grant it.
In checking out the definition of “justice,” there is - in ancient Greek - a sort of circular connection - a relationship, as it were - between justice and “adversary.” To get justice is to avenge a thing, and an avenger is without law or and justice. Whatever was against this widow, we will never know. But, then, again, this is a parable, a story made up by Jesus to help us understand a point, which may be one of many points, in the many layers of meaning.
It was while I was at desperatepreacher.com that Rev. Christopher pointed out something by one of my other favorite sermon guys, David Lose, that “prayer changes us.” That point seems relevant in completing the parable with Jesus’ last words, “However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” So we come back to that relationship idea again, that happens as we work toward becoming better followers of Christ and recognizing our ever increasing depth of faith - in God - with God - in our hearts and souls and minds.
In a goofy way, the word faith is not so much a noun as it is a verb, although we don’t say that we are “faithing” like we would say we are swimming or driving or any other “ing” word. But perhaps we get closer to the real practice of our faith, the real “faithing” when we don’t give in when it feels like no one is listening, when it feels like we are being ignored, that no one cares. Because God is there, listening, recognizing, caring, loving, strengthening, forgiving, in endless patience and compassion, mercy and grace.
For this blessing, and all that is dear, we do well to pray.
God, regardless of our age, our address, even our race or our color, you created us human beings with a hole in our hearts that is shaped like you, that can be filled only by you. So help us in opening our hearts to you and your Spirit, most especially as there are so many other voices competing for our attention - some of those voices needing justice and any other help we can offer. When we get tangled up in relationships that are not in our best interest, help us to untangle, and help us to move closer to you. When our thoughts drift from your truth, and fables and fancies begin to seem real, help us to realize the blessings that you constantly pour on us, blessings to help us in bringing about the justice that is needed in our own lives and in the lives of all your people. And all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
October 9, 2015
21st Sunday after Pentecost
“Completing the Circle”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Before we can say Rumplestiltskin, the holiday season will be on us. But with the scripture passage for today, there were some introductory remarks that couldn’t be avoided. From the “Ten Things to Say about a Gift You Don’t Like,” No. 9, “Well, well, well.” No. 7, “This is perfect for wearing around the basement.” No. 5, “If the dog buries this, I'll be furious!” No. 4, “I love it - but I fear the jealousy it will inspire.” No. 3, “Sadly, tomorrow I enter the Federal Witness Protection Program.”
This morning’s passage is from the Top Ten Bible Stories about Jesus, the one about the healing of the ten lepers. The writer of Luke placed this story after Jesus had been telling a number of parables dealing with the idea of “lost and found.”
Today’s passage begins with Jesus making his way between the Samaritan and Galilean borders - to Jerusalem. “Galileans” was not so much a derogatory name as an identification by the Roman emperors. Centuries before this they had been one people, all Jews, living in different areas. But after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem nearly 600 years before Christ’s birth, changes and tensions from the Jewish exile and return put them at odds with one another - regarding beliefs about scripture, worship, what it meant to be holy, etc. I think our modern understanding of this clash might be most easily understood in the clash between the Irish Catholics and Protestants in the last century.
This road Jesus was on was neither inside nor outside Jewish territory, but a border land of unsafe territory - a no man’s land, as it were - perhaps something like the valley of the shadow of death. Whether Jesus knew - at that moment - about his path leading to impending violence and death - or not - he was walking through this valley - because sometimes it is not so much about the destination, as it is the journey.
Luke 17:11-19 NIV
11 Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance 13 and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”
14 When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed.
15 One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. 16 He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan.
17 Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? 18 Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”
Thank you, Bob. One of the classic children’s letters to God is the one from little Joyce that says, “Dear God, thank you for the brother, but what I prayed for was a puppy.” For those who are early to bed, comedian Jimmy Falon, of the Tonight Show fame, has a little segment of Fridays in which he writes thank you notes - with a slight bit of sarcasm - for the overlooked in our world. So one week his note was to the owner of a Dodge caravan. He said, “Thank you for informing me that you have a stick figure family of 6. Your minivan had me under the impression that you were wild and single.”
In the 1980s, there were approximately 5.2 million cases of leprosy worldwide, and due to the now free treatments from the World Health Organization, in 2012, the number of leprosy cases was down to roughly 120,00, with 200 of those cases in the US. Spread between people, leprosy is not highly contagious, although that was not the understanding in the ancient world.
Leprosy in Jesus’ day was like a deadly sin and made a person unclean and an outcast. If a leper left his or her isolation colony, they were required to announce their presence ahead of themselves, which is the reason for the note in today’s passage, the ten men standing “at a distance and calling in a loud voice.”
In those days, if a person were so fortunate to be healed of the otherwise deadly disease, it wasn’t so simple to take up their pallet and go back home. A person hoping they were cured would have to go to the priests - the health departments of the day - who would inspect the skin - all of the skin - to determine if any indicators remained. If any white, scaly areas remained, it was back to the leper colony. If the skin was healthy, the individual had to go through the purification process for one who became ceremonially unclean - as for those who touched dead people, which is a whole other story you can read in Leviticus 14 on a day when the sermon you are listening to is boring.
Big Sven was furious when his steak arrived too rare. "Waiter," he shouted, "Didn't you hear me say 'well done'?" "I can't thank you enough, sir," replied the waiter. "We hardly ever get compliments here.”
Thank you signs can be so good. Please be safe. Do not stand, sit, climb or lean on fences. If you fall, animals could eat you and that might make them sick. Thank you.
And thank yous can be so unexpected, too. It’s so awkward when you say goodbye to loved ones on the phone and you’re like “I love you” and they’re like “Thank you for choosing Dominoes.” If I make you breakfast in bed, a simple “thank you” is all I need. Not all this “How in the world did you get into my house” business.
The big deal about today’s passage, however, lies with the singular man who went with the other nine to get an official clearance from the priests. They all did what Jesus asked of them. Regardless of their background, their political or religious views, without having to prove their worth or who they were, Jesus healed each one the same as they made their way to the priests - perhaps not an instantaneous miracle, but one that happened over a little time. But one man went out of his way to go back to Jesus, and he was made well.
Since Jesus’ day, some observations have been made regarding gratitude. Ingratitude, little by little, kills those who never receive the gratitude they deserve in life. And anything that kills others is not exactly healthy for the person who fails to say “Thanks” either.
Failing to express gratitude sooner or later coarsens us even as it fosters an undue sense of entitlement. After a time of such entitlement, we can become loath to say “Thank you” to various workers in our lives because we may feel we deserve the service they’ve rendered. We’ve earned it. We’ve paid our dues, laid down our cash, slaved away at our own job to make this dinner out, this vacation, this shopping spree possible. To say “Thank you” to certain people would be to admit that maybe what we’re getting in life is less our accomplishment and more part and parcel of the larger gift of God. The sad truth is that sometimes we can get “dulled” to God’s provisions - all of them.
In a time, too, when a good lament might seem more appropriate, perhaps were are more in need of gratitude than we may realize. There is more than enough in a single newspaper or news feed to freeze us in fear, wrap us in worry and anesthetize us into anxiety. One way, we as Christians, can help to heal this country is to take an inventory of our gratitude stores, making sure we are restocking when supplies are low.
In German, if you thank someone by saying “Danke,” the person whom you are thanking is likely to respond with “Bitte,” which is the German equivalent of “You’re welcome.” Except that “bitte” is also the word for “please” and is further a cognate of the verb “bitten,” which means to ask for something, to make a request. This idea of “thank you” with a reply of a presumed “welcome” also happens in Italian, with “grazie” and “prego.”
Lately, in emailing or texting my Minnesotan sister, I’ve noticed that she will often end an exchange with YW - which stands for “you’re welcome.” It’s not necessary for her to say “you’re welcome” after I’ve thanked her for her opinion or information, and frankly, I’ve been a bit mystified by it. Except that she works in Human Resources, so I thought that maybe it’s a carry-over from her professional world. Except that the more I thought about it, it completes the circle we try to instill in our littlest ones: Please. Thank you. You’re welcome.
After expressing his wonderment at the fact that only 1 out of 10 had returned with thanksgiving, Jesus said to the Samaritan who did come back, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.” The New International Version we heard from Bob says that the guy was made whole. But the Greek word there is means that his gratitude SAVED him. That’s what it literally says in the Greek, although other Bibles translate it as “healed you” or perhaps “has made you whole.” All ten lepers were healed, but there is that hint in Jesus’ final words that it was the one who came back to say “Thank you” that gave Jesus the opportunity to say, “you’re welcome,” saving him in some deeper sense.
The other nine did nothing wrong: they received the blessing promised them, and their lives were probably fairly normal after that healing. But the one, who got the same healing and blessing as the nine, got a second blessing.
Gratitude draws us out of ourselves into something larger, bigger, and grander than we could imagine and joins us to the font of blessing itself. But maybe, just maybe, gratitude is also the most powerful emotion, as it frees us from fear, releases us from anxiety, and emboldens us to do more and dare more than we'd ever imagined. Even to return to a Jewish rabbi to pay homage when you are a Samaritan because you've realized that you are more than a Samaritan, or a leper, or even a healed leper; you are a child of God, whole and accepted and beautiful just as you are.
Steve Garnaas Holmes gives us great direction in his poem from earlier this week. “Take nothing for granted, even sunlight or breathing. Don't let your privilege blind you to the sheer underserved miracle of your blessings. Don't think you're entitled to colors or conversation. Let gratitude overwhelm you, sneak up behind you and lift you off your feet. Pick anything to practice on—the sunlight on the poorly painted ledge of the apartment across from yours, standing as if ready to leap off into your arms—pick something, and give thanks. When someone asks you how you are today say, “Grateful,” then use the surprised pause to think of what for. The person looking at you quizzically may give you a hint.
It is that recognition of completing the gratitude circle, allowing that expression in our lives, that can do so much in bringing about the healing that is needed by so many. For such important work, let us pray.
Gracious God, we are grateful for all your blessings, and we’re mindful today of the importance of that gratitude. Help us to allow others to see our gratitude, to show others in the cracks of our personas and the miracles you have worked in us, allowing us to be whole and complete in you. None of your birds or blossoms or trees in autumn splendor are bashful about the beauty that’s been given them. Help all of us to allow your glory to shine through all of us in ways that are so much greater than our own. And all your children say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
October 2, 2015
20th Sunday after Pentecost, World Communion Sunday
Hebrews 1:1-4 & 2:11
“And the Table IS Wide”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Besides this being American Cheese Month, Feral Hog Month, National Popcorn Poppin' Month and National Toilet Tank Repair Month, today is Guardian Angels Day, Name Your Car Day and Philes Fogg’s Wager Day. It is also one of my favorite days, that of World Communion Sunday. 80 years ago, the Presbyterian Church (USA) designed this day to stretch beyond its use, that all of us, THE Body of Christ, all God’s children, would hear God’s call to sit up to the table.
It is a Presbyterian minister named Jordan Rimmer who reminds all of us that “It began last night - as you were going to bed. 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, some of whom have come to know him only by having dreams of Jesus, met under the watchful eye of the government as they celebrated the Eucharist. In Europe, Christians gathered in churches that used to be much fuller and celebrated the Lord’s Supper. In Africa, the sacrament was celebrated in great congregations by a growing number of Christians, many of whom bare scars of persecution as they Commune together.
Those celebrating today include Congregationalists, Methodists, Catholics, Lutherans, Pentecostals, Presbyterians, Baptists, thousands of other denominations, and even those without denominations. And we gather this day to celebrate that which is most integral to our faith.
Hebrews 1:1-4 NIV
In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. 3 The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. 4 So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs.
Hebrews 2:11 NIV
11 Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.
Thank you, Sharon. Since last night, Christ followers met in public and in secret. Some met in freedom while others gathered under threat of persecution and death. 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 currently being, will be and has been experienced. The bread is given to people that can overeat all day and to people who have no idea what they will eat or where they will get it today.
The bread is many different 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 sustains the body of Christ around the world today.
The juice around the world will be different, too. 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.
Let us pray. Loving God, we thank you for this sacrament of communion shared with Christians around the world. Pour out your Holy Spirit on these elements and on those who partake—that we may be your body and the representation of your covenant in our lives and throughout the world. Amen.
The one thing in common - We all come to the same table of our Lord. In many different languages, by ordained clergy and volunteer pastors, something like these words of institution were given.
On the night He was betrayed Jesus took bread. And when he had given thanks and blessed it, He broke it and gave it to His disciples, saying, “This is my body, broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way after supper Jesus took the cup and gave it to His disciples, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Drink you all of it.”
Today, as you see the bread come around, you will see many different colors and types of bread to remind us of all those around the world with whom we share the table today. Ours is an open table, and everyone is welcome here. You may wish to hold the cup until all are served, that we can drink together, in unity with one another. And you may wish to eat the bread as you feel lead, as our God is one that loves individually.
As important and holy as this sacrament is, it is symbolic of the life to come. Jan Richardson not only created the artwork on the bulletin this morning, which is called “The Best Supper,” she created the blessing that reminds us of the time to come, when we will sit down with all those who have gone before us, who will come after us, who sit beside us, for suppers that will surpass our dreams.
And the table will be wide. And the welcome will be wide. And the arms will open wide to gather us in. And our hearts will open wide to receive. And we will come as children who trust there is enough. And we will come unhindered and free. And our aching will be met with bread. And our sorrow will be met with wine.
And we will open our hands to the feast without shame. And we will turn toward each other without fear. And we will give up our appetite for despair. And we will taste and know of delight. And we will become bread for a hungering world. And we will become drink for those who thirst. And the blessed will become the blessing. And everywhere will be the feast. And all God’s children say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.