First Congregational Church
October 29, 2017
21st Sunday after Pentecost
Matthew 22:34-46 & 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
“Becoming More Human”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
At the end of their first date, a young boy takes his favorite girl home. Emboldened by the evening, he decided to try for that important first kiss. With an air of confidence, he leaned with his hand against the wall and, smiling, he said to her, "Hey, how 'bout a goodnight kiss?"
Horrified, she replied, "Are you mad? My parents will see us!"
"Oh come on! Who's gonna see us at this hour?"
"No, please. Can you imagine if we get caught?"
"Oh come on, there's nobody around, they're all sleeping!"
"No way. It's just too risky!"
"Oh please, please, I really like you!!"
"No, no, and no. I like you too, but I just can't!"
"Yes you can. Please?"
"NO, no. I just can't."
Out of the blue, the porch light goes on, and the girl's sister shows up in her pajamas, hair disheveled. In a sleepy voice the sister says: "Dad says to go ahead and give him a kiss. Or I can do it. Or if need be, he'll come down himself and do it. But for crying out loud tell him to take his hand off the intercom button!”
There are no kissing cousins or young loves in either of this morning’s scripture passages, but there is a lot of love. However, before we get to them, I have a few points of information.
In the Jewish tradition, there is a thing called the Shema, from Deuteronomy 6. “Shema”
is the Hebrew word for “hear” or “listen” and it comes from that verse, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” The Shema was traditionally recited by every Jewish child and adult at the start and conclusion of each day. There was no other single verse from the entire Jewish Bible that the average person knew better than this one. It was - and perhaps still is - not unlike our Lord’s Prayer.
And in case it’s been a while, I’ll remind you that there are 39 books in the Old Testament. The first five - as a group - have different names, including the Pentateuch, the Torah and the Law. Of the remaining 34 books, 20 are categorized as the Prophets. When the two terms - the Law and the Prophets - are used together, they generally refer to the sum of the Old Testament; the prophecy of Christ.
Another rather relevant factoid is that God gave Moses 10 words, or commands, to take back to the people. But if you comb through the Old Testament as a whole, one could scrounge up some 613 commandments.
For those who haven’t been here, this morning’s Matthew passage continues a series of scenarios in which Jesus is giving hard lessons from the synagogue. He’s offered difficult parables and truths that will get him into big trouble. Despite the unrest and dis-ease of his situation, he keeps on teaching and preaching.
The passage from 1 Thessalonians is a continuation of a letter begun last week, from the great Paul, Timothy and Silas, a letter of encouragement to continue raising the bar of excellence, integrity and morality.
Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Whose Son Is the Messiah?
While the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them, “What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he?” “The son of David,” they replied. He said to them, “How is it then that David, speaking by the Spirit, calls him ‘Lord’? For he says, “‘The Lord said to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet.”’ If then David calls him ‘Lord,’ how can he be his son?” No one could say a word in reply, and from that day on no one dared to ask him any more questions.
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
You know, brothers and sisters, that our visit to you was not without results. We had previously suffered and been treated outrageously in Philippi, as you know, but with the help of our God we dared to tell you his gospel in the face of strong opposition. For the appeal we make does not spring from error or impure motives, nor are we trying to trick you. On the contrary, we speak as those approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. We are not trying to please people but God, who tests our hearts. You know we never used flattery, nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed—God is our witness.
We were not looking for praise from people, not from you or anyone else, even though as apostles of Christ we could have asserted our authority. Instead, we were like young children among you. Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well.
Thank you, Mary. The Rev. Dr. John Fairless is the Senior Pastor of the First Baptist Church in Gainesville, Florida, which looks like a rather busy church family with numerous ministries. The Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton’s title is Assistant to the Bishop in the Southeastern Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. However these two intelligent and aspiring men met, for several years they kept a blog called “Two Bubbas and a Bible.” Their postings have been of great assistance in sermon prep, especially since the Moonshine Jesus blog is no longer running.
It was Rev. Chilton who wrote what has been hanging in my heart, starting with a quote from G.K. Chesterton, who once said of this morning’s Matthew passage, “Jesus here tells us to love our neighbors. Elsewhere the Bible tells Jesus said we should love our enemies. This is because, generally speaking, they are the same people.” How true.
Back in the olden days of 2011, Rev. Chilton went on to say, “Politics certainly makes strange bedfellows; the Pharisees and Sadducees cooperating makes about as much sense as the Tea Party and the Re-elect Obama Committee working together; but these folks (were) are determined to keep Jesus from upsetting their very settled and profitable way of life.
So Jesus did two things. First he answered their question about the greatest commandment and then he shut them down with a semi-serious riddle from Psalm 110 - the riddle being about who is answerable to whom: David to Jesus or Jesus to David. It is an unanswerable question, somewhat akin to “which came first, the chicken or the egg,” One can only imagine the possible twinkle in Jesus’ eye when he implied, “Look, two can play at this game, and this time, I win.”
As most any of us could determine, it all boils down to the business of loving God and neighbor. And it is not simply a matter of being nice and getting along. It’s easy to love God because a good many of us don’t think of God as sitting down next to us, perhaps in “our spot.” And God doesn’t say things to us that we are apt to take the wrong way, mostly because we may have not understood God’s motivation, or we may be tired, or sick, or sick and tired of being sick and tired. I think, that as a people, we are far more apt to forgive God, if there is any forgiving to be done, than to forgive another person. We can define God in such a way that God is not responsible for any of the pain of discomfort we experience in life. That way, we don’t ever have to be angry with or resentful of God.
That ‘loving your neighbor as yourself,’ tho, it is hard work. It involves getting beyond our likes and dislikes, it involves hanging in with individuals when the going gets tough, listening to their heartaches or pains or jokes over and over. Loving neighbor as self involves self-sacrifice and devotion even you’re not “getting anything out of,” the relationship. Sometimes it’s giving up something dear to you, to allow someone else to experience the joy that you find in that activity or object. Loving neighbor as self can involve taking the neighbor seriously as a child of God who deserves our respect and care, no matter how much we oppose their politics, tactics or way of life.
I don’t know about any of you, but sometimes I just have to laugh at God. Just before I began writing this message, I opened up the devotional called “Jesus Calling” by Sarah Young. I’d been thinking about these scripture passages most of this week, and then Ms. Young put it so perfectly. She wrote, as a note to me - and to you - as a note from God:
“Do not expect to be treated fairly in this life. People will say and do hurtful things to you, things that you don’t deserve. When someone mistreats you, try to view it as an opportunity to grow in grace. See how quickly you can forgive the one who has wounded you. Don’t be concerned about setting the record straight. Instead of obsessing about other people’s opinions of you, keep your focus on Me. Ultimately, it is My view of you that counts.
As you concentrate on relating to Me, remember that I have clothed you in my righteousness and holiness. I see you attired in these radiant garments, which I bought for you with My blood. This also is not fair; it is pure gift. When others treat you unfairly, remember that My ways with you are much better than fair. My ways are Peace and Love, which I have poured into your heart by My Spirit.”
If, as Jesus says, loving God and loving our neighbors are tightly bound and inseparably linked co-commandments; then we are forced to deal with love in the real world of people who are imperfect and incomplete, people who are at times undeserving of our affection or unresponsive to it; people who are sometimes incapable of loving us back.
The root of the word “religious” is ligare, which is also the French root of ligament, and from which we get the word liaison. Ligare means to tie to or to tie back. Ligaments connect muscle to the bone; religion ties us to God and one another. I often hear people refer to themselves as spiritual but not religious, and while spiritual is lovely, religious is earthy, and much more true to God, because it involves being connected to each other, regardless of whether we like each other or not, because it is what Christ has asked us to do. Like Paul, we have been entrusted with the Gospel, to bring that love to those who need it, so very many times to the very people whom we’d rather steer clear.
God in Christ took on ligaments and sinews and walked among us and suffered among us and died among us and with us and for us. God in Christ was raised from the dead and draws us together, ties us together, as the Body of Christ, held together by ligaments of love and sinews of service. And we, the tied together Body of Christ in the world, are called to the task of loving God, most especially by loving our neighbors and enemies in God’s stead and in God’s name.
So shall we pray. Heavenly and Holy God, we may not always consciously desire it, but we really do want to follow you in ways that make you proud of us, in ways that are pure and right. It is ironic that we are so good at taking that pride on our selves, rather than the humility that Christ showed us. So help us to see our neighbors as our other selves, and to realize that how we treat others is how we treat ourselves - and you. Set us free from the woulda’s, coulda’s and shoulda’s and help us to become more human - in loving you and those you have given us - here and at home and even across the globe. For all the opportunities you give us to rise up to be all that you’ve ever seen us to be, all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
October 22, 2017
20th Sunday after Pentecost
Matthew 22:15-22 & 1 Thessalonians 1
“our better selves”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
A teacher asked her students what religious objects they had in their homes. One boy answered, "We have a picture of a woman with a halo holding a baby and every day my mother kneels in front of it.” The next little boy said, "We have a brass statue of a man seated with crossed legs and a Chinese face, and every day my parents burn an incense stick before it.” Then a third boy piped up, "In the bathroom we have a little platform with numbers on it. Every day my mother stands on it first thing in the morning and screams, "OH MY GOD!!!” I’m trying to be more egalitarian these days, but having the father get on the scale just wouldn’t cut it for this joke.
Before we get to this morning’s scripture passages, I thought it would do to make a little distinction clearer. Like we have Lutherans and Baptists and Congregationalists in our modern day, back in Jesus’ time, there were/are differing groups of Jewish people. There still are different Jewish groups, but they’ve changed a fair bit from Jesus’ day.
The larger group, the Pharisees, were at various times a political party, a social movement, a school of thought and the top dogs - in their minds.
The Sadducees, fewer than the Pharisees, as a whole and as a sect, fulfilled various political, social, and religious roles, including maintaining the Temple. In my understanding, they were more specifically, the rule keepers or Temple police.
The Essenes, whom some think were the writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls, were yet fewer in number, adhering to severe self-discipline, voluntary poverty and avoidance of all forms of indulgence. And then there were the Herodians.
Although their precise relationship to the other sects or schools among the Jewish people are often matters of conjecture, some people think Herodians were the courtiers or soldiers of Herod Antipas or at the least, a public political party. Herodians were linked to the Pharisees because both groups wanted independence for the Jewish people. But while the Pharisees longed for the old days and governance as under King David, the Herodians wanted government by someone from the Herodian dynasty.
As Donna makes her way forward, I’ll give you just a tiny intro to the second of the scripture passages. Back then it was and area called Thessalonia. Today it is a city called Thessaloniki, the second largest in Greece.
Matthew 22:15-22 (NIV) Paying the Imperial Tax to Caesar
15 Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. 16 They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. 17 Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?”
18 But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? 19 Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, 20 and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” 21 “Caesar’s,” they replied. Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” 22 When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.
1 Thessalonians 1 (NIV)
1 Paul, Silas and Timothy, to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace and peace to you.
Thanksgiving for the Thessalonians’ Faith
2 We always thank God for all of you and continually mention you in our prayers. 3 We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.
4 For we know, brothers and sisters loved by God, that he has chosen you, 5 because our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction. You know how we lived among you for your sake. 6 You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. 7 And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. 8 The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia—your faith in God has become known everywhere. Therefore we do not need to say anything about it, 9 for they themselves report what kind of reception you gave us. They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.
Thank you, Donna. In regard to the Thessalonians passage, those words that were just read are some of the very oldest in the New Testament. Scholars differ on most all topics, but it fairly certain that 1 Thessalonians was the first of the great Paul’s letters to be written down, pre-dating the writing down of the Gospels. 1 Thessalonians was probably written down in 52 AD, while Mark was probably written down 18 years later, and Matthew and Luke some 10 to 20 years after that. If all the dating and discovery that has been done is correct, then the first chapter of 1 Thessalonians, as Calvin Seminary professor Scott Hoezee contends, is not only very old but very, very remarkable.
As the apostle Paul reflected on the congregations he had established, visited, or was about to see for the first time, he never hesitated to declare his assessment of the state of each Christian community. (I wonder how he would assess this congregation!)
The congregation in Galatia, for instance, had compromised the gospel with a cramping legalism, confusing faith in Jesus Christ with moral achievement and ritual observance. Paul told them bluntly they had denatured the gospel, turning wine into water. At the other extreme, Christians in Corinth had come to think that faith in Christ entailed no moral commitment whatsoever. He told them that sadly, they were a disgrace.
The Christians in Thessalonica, however; Paul found to be exemplary, holding them up as a model for all of Asia Minor. And yet, while they were a model of Christian faith and practice, they weren’t perfect, needing further growth in light of what they’d already become. In reminding them that they were a church “in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ”, he was reminding them that they were no longer a group or community in the many idols that were worshiped before the gospel came to their fair city. Even people in outlying communities knew about their about face in faith, the results of their labor in love, their faith-produced work and hope-inspired endurance.
After all these centuries, one would think that human beings would understand how easily money can become an idol, despite the fact that it is good to be economically self-sufficient, allowing for money to enable good and great things to happen. Despite all our technology and advancements, even in the world of wealth, an all-engrossing concern for financial gain renders self-sufficiency idolatrous, and like all idolatry, totalitarian in its grip on us because no degree of amassing the goods for the preoccupied is ever sufficient, including the idolatry of things like education, popularity, and self-righteousness, to name a few.
Victor Shepherd, Presbyterian minister from New Brunswick and Ontario said, “It seems that we have a deep human tendency to want to make the divides between God and the world - wide and deep and perilous-looking.” He went on to say, “Education is good, even God-ordained, since God insists that we love God with our minds. But education rendered idolatrous announces itself as the only good, or at least as the singular saving good; and of course it,” he says, “renders its victims insufferable snobs and contemptuously cruel.” Those words got me to thinking, what are the idols we have that make us contemptuously cruel?
Scott Hoezee suggested that “in a political age when so many people are so sharply divided along so many various cultural and social and economic fault lines, Jesus’ confident posture and consistent, laser-like focus on God both challenge us and call us back to our better selves.” Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s, remembering that all of us belong to God.
Understanding that not just the Thessalonians were chosen by God, but that all of us are chosen by God, how do yo, envision, through the eyes of Christ, the Good News of God’s love, grace, joy and justice in our modern world? How do you, see your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in Jesus, influencing and bettering the world? And no, no one is exempt from this task, so don’t even look for loopholes, because we are all called regardless of ability, time or any other excuse we might offer up.
Each one of us might have specific ideas on how to balance the national budget, how to be in the world but not of the world in terms of terrorism or hatred or poverty or the myriad of other issues that some see as dividing us. But what does the Good News of Jesus Christ - whom God raised from the dead to deliver us from sin and evil by the power of the Holy Spirit as we await Christ’s return - what does that look like in a world where it seems that everyone has their opinions on everything from soup to nuts?
Perhaps, as Erick J. Thompson of St. John Lutheran Church, over there in Fargo, North Dakota says, “Essential to this endeavor - of proclaiming God’s Good News and thinking about what that Good News looks like in the world, is: being open to listening to others and realizing that others may hear that Good News differently than we do. As the great preacher over there in First Congregational Church in Frankfort, MI says, “perhaps we need to remember that while what belongs to Caesar’s is Caesar’s and what is God’s belongs to God, we do best not to step in the way of someone else’s journey of faith, because regardless of age or experience, none of us are done with the work God has for us, which is to love as Christ loves, the famous and the less famous, the rich and the poor, young and old, the bold and the timid, the kind and the cruel, because the only thing on which we can stand is that we are a church family in God and Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. So shall we pray.
Merciful and Forgiving God, we thank you for those who have gone before us, who listened to your voice and wrote down that which is important for us to embrace. Sometimes, God, it is easier to feign our faith in self-righteousness than to walk in humility, so for those times, we ask for your forgiveness and motivation to become our better selves. Help us, when we are quick to judge, to be quicker to remember that none of us can truly understand where another individual comes from, and so we all require the healing mantle of love and grace and mercy. Lead us, Great God, from the easy and insidious idols that creep into our lives, to those paths where we can enable others and each other to become their better selves. We pray these things in your love, the grace of your son, Jesus Christ, and the communion of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
First Congregational Church
October 15, 2017
19th Sunday after Pentecost
Matthew 22:1-14 & Philippians 4:1-9
“think about such things”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
My favorite way to dress is in all black. My fashion sense is second to nun. I always get really frustrated trying to put clothes in my wardrobe. Think I could do with some Hanger Management. I've never understood the fashion industry, those people are so clothes minded.
This morning’s gospel passage is a little bit tough. Actually, it’s a lot tough, in my humble opinion. But, before we get to it, I discovered a little clue to the passage from a sermon by John Gaston, pastor at First Assembly of God Church in Huntsville, Texas.
He said, “Among the Wealthy of the Near East, it was a common custom for wedding guests to be given garments to wear to Wedding Banquets. This may have been to have certain colors, to make sure it was festive, to de-emphasize distinctions between rich and poor, or simply to show off how wealthy they were. If someone refused to wear one, it was an insult to the host and they were thrown out.” So, as we hear our morning passages, keep that little nugget in mind.
On top of that, I want to set the panorama of the gospel passage. The one for today is from the first fourteen verses of chapter 22. Chapter 21 starts with Jesus going into Jerusalem on that infamous Palm Sunday. Then he chased the money changers out of the temple, left Jerusalem for Bethany, just a mile and a half down the road and back to Jerusalem the next morning. While on his way to the temple, he cursed a fig tree for not having fruit on it when he was hungry.
He finally made it to the temple, where he was going to do some teaching, but the chief priests and elders interrupted him, asking him who gave him the authority to do what he was doing. Jesus embarrassed them by challenging their understanding, then went on to give the parable of the two less than perfect sons, and then on to the parable from last week where the landowner lost his servants and his son to the ruthlessness of the lousy tenants.
Granted, Jesus probably knew that his time on this earth was limited, and he probably wasn’t getting any real, good rest in those days before his crucifixion, but one could surmise that he was in one foul mood. And as much as he was trying to prepare the people - all the people - for life after his death, the authorities were trying to figure out a way to get rid of him.
Matthew 22:1-14 (NIV) The Parable of the Wedding Banquet
22 Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying: 2 “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. 3 He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come.
4 “Then he sent some more servants and said, ‘Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.’
5 “But they paid no attention and went off—one to his field, another to his business. 6 The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them. 7 The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.
8 “Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. 9 So go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’ 10 So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.
11 “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. 12 He asked, ‘How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?’ The man was speechless.
13 “Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
14 “For many are invited, but few are chosen.”
Philippians 4:1-9 (NIV) Closing Appeal for Steadfastness and Unity
4 Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends!
2 I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.3 Yes, and I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.
4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
8 Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. 9 Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.
Thank you, Marti. Those of you who were here last week, or read the passage from last week, doesn’t it strike you as interesting that the gospel writer of Matthew put these two parables back-to-back? In some ways, they are nearly identical. There’s the landowner and the king, the harvest and the banquet, the representation of hope in a good, full life in the harvest and in marriage. There were message-bearing servants in both parables, although one set was seeking payment while the other sought guests. There were people beat-up and people killed, innocent people doing their jobs and I don’t know about anyone else, but that really irks me! But such is life, and life is uncertain and if you think about all the “near-misses” we have in life, it’s actually quite astounding that there are as many people alive as there are.
But then, the writer of Matthew ends the similarities of the two parables about tenants and seeking guests, and he throws in this equally infuriating culmination of the Parable of the Wedding Banquet with the bit about the guest who wasn’t wearing the correct wedding attire. The king, desperate for wedding guests, even to the point of searching the streets for any stranger that would come, ostracizes one of those he called in the first place! What’s up with that, God?
It just doesn’t seem congruous - the merciful king - taking back his word, so to speak. And like it or not, God is God and can do whatever God wants, even to the point of being incongruous in his actions, but it just doesn’t seem right. But then, we have to remember that God is congruous in all God’s ways, even if it doesn’t seem like it. And the parable is not an actual event, but a made-up story that seeks to make a point. I now ask you to leave that whole scenario, for the time being, as we go to the passage from Philippians.
Despite all the academic endeavors, we still don’t have a good clue as to who Euodia and Syntyche were, but it seems likely they were prominent, active members of the church. Perhaps they were deacons, perhaps they were the founders of the Women’s Bible Study program, perhaps they were the chairpersons of the Philippian inner-city soup kitchen. Whoever they were, they were among the core of the congregation, but lately they’d had a falling out. Maybe it was doctrinal, maybe it was personal. Maybe they’d disagreed over the best way to run the soup kitchen, maybe one of them had insulted the other’s child-rearing techniques. Whatever the dispute was, it soon became known that these two women were at odds.
For those can remember Euodia and Sentyche at all, you might remember their disagreement. But remember how I spent all that time in the first part of this message setting up the relationship of gospel sections with each other? It’s important here, too.
For whatever reasons, I, like so many others, thought about the passage from Philippians as two rather separate units: the part about telling the church ladies to get it together and the part about good character listed in verses 4-9. I had never really thought about the necessity of treating those two units as one until good, ol’ Scott Hoezee of Calvin Theological Seminary pointed it out.
Mr. Hoezee also pointed out that “Because of the paragraph breaks that were imposed on the text by translators, it’s easy to read verses 4-9 in isolation from verses 2 and 3. We chop up Philippians 4, severing Paul’s words about rejoicing from their true context: namely, Paul’s attempt to end an argument!”
Some of you have figured out that one of my favorite ways to change the topic is to throw out the question, “How about those Lions?” or “How about those Vikings?” Paul does it with much greater intention and goodness, “Rejoice! And in case you have forgotten about that over which you can rejoice, try gentleness or prayer and petition, thanksgiving. Or how about - instead of the Vikings - how about whatever is noble, right, pure, lovely and so on?
Maybe it’s a stretch, but why not take Jesus’ admonition to “think about these things” as a directive to our brain and head, and you know, if the hat fits, wear it. Or how about cloaking yourself in whatever is true, praiseworthy, excellent and admirable. Put on that which is noble and right - one leg at a time.
It’s interesting that Paul mentions the word “peace” twice in these nine verses. In the first one, it’s the peace that transcends all understanding. If you’ve not been there, perhaps you know someone who has been in a hard or bad place, and yet, there is that sense - that sense that is surely God-given - that everything will be okay - despite all that seems logical or practical.
I’m sure God would have been much more straightforward if his intention for us was about being properly clothed with such things as nobility and righteousness - at least more straightforward than trying to bridge two such distant passages as these two from Matthew and Philippians. And yet, there they are, in the lectionary for our use and edification. And if the shoe fits, they why not wear it as we pray?
Kind and Respectful God, we thank you for giving us such respect as brains to think and hearts to feel. When we have not thought or felt as you know we can, forgive us, and give us other opportunities to show you just what we’re made of. For those who have felt attacked or maimed in what we think is our job in pointing out errors, forgive us our self-righteousness as well. And help us all to think about that which we can be - in you - people of virtue and character - such that others wish to draw closer to you because of our witness. For all the gifts with which you bless us, all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
October 8, 2017
18th Sunday after Pentecost
Philippians 3:4-14 & Matthew 21:33-46
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
It may be a more frequent internet search than many of us might think, but I was a little surprised at the plethora of answers I discovered in how to handle rejection. Yeah, I know. Not one of the top ten sermon topics of any decade, but, well, we’re human beings, and life happens.
Anyway, despite the number of ways to deal with rejection that can’t be mentioned from the pulpit, there are some that can. Whoever Joe Soriano is, his method to handle rejection is to remember that Tom Brady was the 199th overall pick in the (football) draft. And he made it work. Maybe not the most practical of methods, Meg Silver said that she deals with rejection with rubber gloves, Clorox bleach, and quick drying cement.
Then there was the person with an earnest plea that said, “Can someone please tell me how to get over my fear of rejection. I can’t even ask a girl out because I’m afraid she’ll say, “No.” I’m not bad looking. I’m just afraid I’ll look stupid if I get rejected. And then in capital letters, the individual wrote, “Please help.” And you gotta know that the first answer after that plea was “No.” Rejection can cut so deeply, and we get that, in part, with this morning’s scripture passages.
As Mary Ann and Sharon make their way to the pulpit, I’ll give you a little spoiler alert. The passage from Matthew can feel a little like Jesus getting distracted in the midst of his story. But stick with it, because it makes sense in the end.
Matthew 21:33-46 (NIV) The Parable of the Tenants
33 “Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place. 34 When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit.
35 “The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. 36 Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way. 37 Last of all, he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said.
38 “But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.’ 39 So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.
40 “Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”
41 “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end,” they replied, “and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.”
42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: “‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?
43 “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. 44 Anyone who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; anyone on whom it falls will be crushed.”
45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them. 46 They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that he was a prophet.
Philippians 3:4-14 (NIV)
If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.
7 But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8 What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. 10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.
12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
Thank you, Mary Ann and Sharon. I won’t give away any specific names, but there was a day when the Worship Committee was meeting in my office, and it was one of those days of lively discussion, which, upon reflection, is most all the meetings of the Worship Committee. Anyway, we were discussing the topics important to that group, and all of a sudden, one of the members of the committee said, “Swing!” The person had never noticed the swing in the tree between the church and the driveway, and it struck that person, at that moment, and out the word came. Something very similar happened in the animated movie, “Up,” when Doug the talking dog was introducing himself to Carl, the main character, and all of a sudden, Doug interrupts his own introduction by noticing the nearby “Squirrel.” I think, in the Matthew passage, something sort of similar happens when Jesus says, “stone.”
Jesus had been painting this agricultural story, and then Jesus goes off to a metaphor about construction. Thankfully, Jesus ties up the two seemingly disparate analogies and the chief priests and Pharisees understood that the rejection that Jesus was speaking about was in reference to themselves - rejecting Jesus himself. As shocking as such a pronouncement was, it wasn’t a strong enough indictment for the chief priests and Pharisees to change their ways. In fact, they rejected Jesus’ point and passed right on to trying to figure out how to get around the popular opinion of the people.
Then there is passage from Philippians, from the great Paul, describing the things that at one time made him a poster child for Pharisee of the year in the Roman/Jewish world in what is today, modern Turkey. The passage is not about how anyone rejected Paul, although there was probably good reason for it in his earlier life, but how he rejected the very attributes of his earlier life that caused such pride, choosing instead the life as a follower of Christ. The “life” of rejection is certainly a double-edged sword: there is rejecting and being rejected.
It’s interesting that, as Scott Hoezee of Calvin Theological Seminary point out, that “This parable is one of only three that appears in all of three synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Curiously, some of Jesus’ best-known parables (like the Good Samaritan) occur in (just) one gospel alone but nowhere else. Only the parables of The Sower, The Mustard Seed, and The Tenants get repeated in triplicate in the New Testament. It seems that (Matthew, Mark and Luke) the synoptic evangelists each concluded that no gospel account of Jesus’ life and ministry could be complete without these particular parables being in there somewhere. You could pick and choose among the others but not with these three.
In one sense that is rather surprising, especially considering that these days The Parable of the Tenants is not as familiar or beloved as any number of other parables that did not get repeated. Yet there is something within this story that Matthew, Mark, and Luke all perceived was central to the gospel.
I think, one of the big aspects of both these scripture passages comes in the little line at the end of Paul’s passage, “I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me” and then just a sentence later, “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”
At various times and places in our lives, any one of us may be or feel rejected for one reason or another. I don’t know that there are various kinds of rejection, but I’m guessing that by and large, if a person rejects you or says something that is deeply hurtful, it is probably not so much about you as the other individual. There is so much truth in that gesture of a finger pointing at someone - that while there is one finger pointing at the other person, but there are three fingers pointing back at you.
Even so, if someone says something a little sideways or without as much thought and care as they perhaps should have, it hurts. And it can hurt deeply, to the very core of our being and we can get stuck on that word, sentence or phrase. And letting go of such rejection can take a good deal of work.
Or we can, after some good soul-searching, discover that we have a need to reject or turn away from some things of our lives that are keeping us from being what we sense God needing us to be. It could not have been an easy conversation at Paul’s parents house, when he told them that all he had considered dear, as his parents had probably taught him, was now nothing, compared to the love and mercy and grace that he found in Christ.
Rejection is one of those elements of life that is tough to live through. But there is that little “sign” in this morning’s passage from Paul, like the sign in a crowd at a marathon, that tells the runners, “You can do it!” Paul’s sign, though, says, “Press on!” “Forget what was behind you, and strain toward your goal.” And in case any of us forgets what that goal is, Paul tells us, it is the “prize for which God has called us heavenward in Christ Jesus.”
Whether it’s rejection, dismissal, enmity, animosity, antagonism, bitterness, resentment, bad blood, hatred, loathing, malice or spite, Paul reminds us that none of those things is our end goal. We may get caught up in those things from time to time, like a plastic bag that gets caught in a tree. But God - through Paul and the Holy Spirit - reminds us that ours is not a race against any one person or issue, but a race toward Christ and the eternal life that he has prepared for us. Everyone else’s races are none of our affairs. Those belong to God, although if we have it within us to help another racer get up after a tumble, it is all to the greater good. Our main race is the one that gets us to God’s presence, to that place of pure, unadulterated love, joy, mercy and peace. Which seems like the place to pray.
Gracious and Most High God, we thank you that you give each of us a course to run in this life - one that is ours alone, even though we live it out with others. We regret those times when we forget that that course is ultimately the most important thing in this world, because it is the thing that will live with us into eternity. Forgive us when we make that course difficult for others, especially those times when we know nothing of the inflicted pain. Make us aware of those opportunities we have to rectify rejections that have deeply wounded us, inspiring us to do so through the power of the love of Christ and the indwelling of your Holy Spirit. Help each of us help each other, that we can be the people that make you proud to call your own. As we all press on, all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
October 1, 2017
World Communion Sunday
Matthew 21:23-32 & Philippians 2:1-13
“What’s Our (Your) Mindset?”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Lena and a Katrina have a ranch and they have just lost their bull. The women need to buy another, but only have $500. Katrina tells the Lena, “I’ll go to the market and see if I can find one for under that amount. If I can, I’ll send you a telegram." She goes to the market and finds one for $499. Having only one dollar left, she goes to the telegraph office and finds out that it costs one dollar per word. She’s stumped on how to tell Lena to bring the truck and trailer. Finally, she tells the telegraph operator to send the word "comfortable." Skeptical, the operator asks, "How will she know to come with the trailer from just that word?" Katrina replies, “Lena will read it slowly: 'Come for ta bull.’”
There is a Jewish witticism in which someone asks their rabbi, “Why do rabbis always answer a question with another question?” to which the rabbi replies, “Why shouldn’t a rabbi answer a question with another question?” This morning’s gospel passage opens with such a question answered by another question, followed by a parable and then a hymn, from the book of Philippians. Although any number of us have heard one or both passages often enough, there are still words that are not necessarily easy or “comfortable.”
23 Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?”
24 Jesus replied, “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. 25 John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or of human origin?”
They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” 27 So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.” Then he said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
The Parable of the Two Sons
28 “What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’ 29 “‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.
30 “Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go. 31 “Which of the two did what his father wanted?” “The first,” they answered.
Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.
1 Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2 then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. 3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; 7 rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! 9
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Do Everything Without Grumbling
12 Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.
To be honest, I think that the first part of the gospel passage for this morning is sort “squishy.” Granted, the chief priests and elders “started the cuffule” by challenging Jesus’ authority. And it would have been so much more neat and tidy if Jesus had simply said, “God.” All he would have had to say was one little word, and the confrontation may well have been over. Instead of not giving the challengers a clear answer, Jesus leaves them hanging in embarrassment, and at least some of us, in perplexity and/or discomfort.
I don’t know about anyone else, but the parable part of the Matthew passage seems frustrating, because there is no clear “winner.” I am fairly certain, however, that had I any children, I’d probably have had two sons, like the two who were asked to go work in the field - no doubt devilishly handsome and capable, but lazier than a blood hound on a front porch on a sunny afternoon.
The longer you look at those two segments, the more you see the correlation that the chief priests, elders and sons “didn’t get” that we naturally act out what we believe and hold dear. One doesn’t need the volume turned up on a college football game to know what some folks hold dear. Whether it’s a newspaper, tv or internet, you can find oodles and oodles of people acting out their beliefs of respect and rights and as a culture, we’re actually pretty good about acting out what we believe - at least in some areas.
William H. Willimon, Methodist pastor and Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry at Duke Divinity School, recalls the Easter when he preached as skillfully as he knew how on the resurrection, a sermon about how (as today’s scripture says):
God highly honored him and gave him a name above all names, so that at the name of Jesus everyone in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
After the sermon, a departing worshipper said, “Good sermon, preacher. But don’t you think that on a Sunday like Easter, music is more to the point?” Willimon said, “I thought she was exactly right. There is some truth so deep, so glorious, mysterious and wonderful, that only singing can do it justice.” (And while that anecdote speaks to the heart of this morning’s message, it just happens to be a shameless plug for the study that begins this week on Music and Worship and Why They Are Important.)
While the volume of our “behaviors” can, at times, be higher than others, our passages, the Word that God inspired, needs it’s volume turned up, too. And lest we get to chest bumping and high-fiving our devotion to God and how well we follow Christ, we need the anthem from Philippians 2.
The great Paul wrote the letter to the Philippians to give them concrete ways for the believers to demonstrate their devotion to God and Christ and the Holy Spirit. Philippi was a commercial, ethnic and religious hub that attracted all sorts of people from all around the known world, and one could probably see any and all kinds of forms of worship to gods as vast as the stars in the sky. To help those early Christians in acting out their faith, Paul gave them - and us - the patterns and clarity to demonstrate our devotion to God.
Even within any given faith community, there are differences of understanding and interpretation. But there are unifying aspects that strengthen the faith of each person, and today, we celebrate one of those aspects - the sacrament of The Lord’s Supper.
All around the world today, despite our differences and opinions and experiences, those who follow Christ are gathering around the bread and cup to remember the gift that has been given us in Christ’s son, that we may re-devote ourselves to the mindset of following Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit and to the glory of God. So let us prepare our hearts and minds for this great and precious meal.
Let us pray. Gracious and loving God, we thank you for never giving up on your people, even to the point of sending that which is most precious to you - to us - that we might find ourselves closer to you. Help us to recapture your mindset, that we may be able to live to our fullest selves in passing on your precious love and life and light. For these and all your blessings, all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.