First Congregational Church
October 21, 2018
22nd Sunday after Pentecost
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
The story is told of two ducks and a frog who lived happily together in a farm pond. The best of friends, the three would amuse themselves and play together in their waterhole. When the hot summer days came, however, the pond began to dry up, and soon it was evident they would have to move. This was no problem for the ducks, who could easily fly to another pond. But the frog was stuck. So it was decided that they would put a stick in the bill of each duck that the frog could hang onto with his mouth as they flew to another pond.
The plan worked well - so well, in fact, that as they were flying along a farmer looked up in admiration and mused, "Well, isn't that a clever idea! I wonder who thought of it?"
The frog said, "I did…"
Ronald Reagan recalled an occasion when he was governor of California and made a speech in Mexico City: "After I had finished speaking, I sat down to rather
unenthusiastic applause, and I was a little embarrassed. The speaker who followed me spoke in Spanish, which I didn't understand and he was being applauded about every paragraph. To hide my embarrassment, I started clapping before everyone else - and longer than anyone else - until our ambassador leaned over and said, I wouldn't do that if I were you. He's interpreting your speech.’"
Reverend Paul W. Powell, retired Dean of Baylor University (name shortened here) Theological Seminary, once observed: "Pride is so subtle that if we aren't careful we'll be proud of our humility. When this happens our goodness becomes badness. Our virtues become vices. We can easily become like the Sunday School teacher who, having told the story of the Pharisee and the publican, said, “Children, let's bow our heads and thank God we are not like the Pharisee!”
Today’s scripture passage comes to us, once again, from the Gospel of Mark. Last week it was the description of the young rich man wanting eternal life, only to be disappointed by Jesus’ answer that exposed the young man’s honesty of heart. After Jesus mentioned that it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for most of us to give up the one thing we hold most dear, whatever that one thing is, Jesus predicted his death a third time, and then, as they were walking along, toward Jerusalem and the approaching crucifixion, this happened.
Mark 10:35-45 (NIV) The Request of James and John
35 Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”
36 “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.
37 They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”
38 “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” 39 “We can,” they answered.
Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, 40 but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.”
41 When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. 42 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Thank you, Kelly. I think that one of the best teaching techniques is that of contrast - especially when you begin with something already familiar to the learner. If you are attempting to help someone understand Congregationalism, it’s helpful to know if they are familiar with Catholicism, because we’re not like that. Or if they have experience with churches that use the same liturgy most every week, because we’re not like that either. If they are familiar with Presbyterianism, we can point out nuances, like their higherarchy of presbyteries and our associations with other Congregational churches within in the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches. These comparisons are not injunctions against those of other practices, it’s just how we’re different.
Or say that someone wants to learn how to play the piano. So the teacher starts with a little song the student already knows - like Mary Had a Little Lamb or Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. Once the student has a mastery of that piece, they can learn to listen for melodies in other great works - or even to master them, like Mozart.
One of the other easy teaching techniques is employing opposites. The opposite of fast is: slow. The opposite of high is: low. The opposite of many is: few. One of the many opposites of great is: servant or slave - as Jesus explained.
Golf immortal Arnold Palmer recalls a game when he was at the final hole of the 1961 Masters tournament, and in his own words, he said, “I had a one-stroke lead and had just hit a very satisfying tee shot. I felt I was in pretty good shape. As I approached my ball, I saw an old friend standing at the edge of the gallery. He motioned me over, stuck out his hand and said, Congratulations." I took his hand and shook it, but as soon as I did, I knew I had lost my focus. On my next two shots, I hit the ball into a sand trap, then put it over the edge of the green. I missed a putt and lost the Masters.” He ended his accounting with these words. “You don't forget a mistake like that; you just learn from it and become determined that you will never do that again. I haven't in the 30 years since.”
I wonder how many of us “get” that illustration, because we’ve so been there. ‘Man, I’ve been so great with my driving, I haven’t had a ticket in over 30 years.’ (Refocus to the red and blue flashing lights in the rearview mirror.) “I’m so glad I haven’t had to eat any crow for the last many months, because I’ve been so good with wanting not to hurt those I love. (Envision scene in bed, covers pulled up, eye balls wide awake, replaying that uncomfortable conversation earlier that evening, wondering if you have to make an apology.)
Or there’s the eternal, “I feel really good about that sermon.” but no one says boo about it. Then there’s that other lesson we sometimes need to learn - whether the sermon was really just that bad, or it had touched people in ways that were not my responsibility, but God’s, and so don’t get yourself all bunched up, thinking you are so much better than you really are.
In case you were wondering, yes, the disciples had a very similar conversation just two chapters before the one for this morning. The Zebedee boys were in the popular group, Jesus’ inner circle, which also included Peter. Besides the brothers being known as the Sons of Thunder, they alone were present for the healing of Jairus’ daughter and for the Transfiguration when Jesus was glorified. If they were living today, they’d have had their own little texting group. More than anyone, they had reason to call “Shotgun” on the eternal stagecoach.
Jesus doesn’t call them derogatory names, shaming their presumptions, but essentially asked them if they could handle the cross. All these years, and yesterday was the first day that the idea came together in this small mind - of James and John asking for seats, overlapping the thieves who hung on Jesus’ right and left on the crosses.
I know there are many that are going to find this a little difficult to grasp, but sometimes I can get really worked up about injustices I perceive to be in the world. Yes, sometimes I can get a little crazy when I realize that not everyone knows what I know - regardless of how good or not good that information might be. And yes, sometimes, I hear something on the tv or I read something that I probably shouldn’t have spent much time on, and realize that I’ve used my soapbox to get onto my high horse - but hopefully not too often aloud. And I find myself wondering “what is wrong with people?” If everyone could be like me, we’d all be fine.
Thursday evening I attended a show at the Opera House, and was hilariously reminded, over and over, that it is “we” - not them, not they, we. We all do really great things and we all do really dumb stuff. We all get tired and we all think of ourselves as being better - than is probably healthy. We are the body of Christ - some better suited to be hands and some better suited to be feet and some better suited to be the skin that keeps us all connected. Much as we’d like to be sitting on either side of Jesus, he reminds all of us that it’s not about chairs or seating arrangements, but about serving. We are all called to be Christ’s servants.
I discovered a new nuance this week, that the word for servant (diakonos) originally meant to “heap dust because a good servant moved so fast that dust flew around him.” Some time after that, it was used for the boys who carried the towels in the bath houses, and so the word became associated with children. In the religious sense, the word “servant” took on the idea of one who ministered or rendered a service to another. The word “slave” (doulos), however, was one who did not have the right to refuse. The slave’s entire life was at the disposal of the master. So some might interpret this morning’s passage to be a requirement for us to be spinners for Jesus. (Just kidding.)
Whether it’s being crazy busy with the family and kids, gearing up or gearing down to or from a trip that is planned, having no energy or inspiration to be servants or slaves for Jesus, it’s perhaps easy to either blow off this reminder of who we are in Christ, or to become overwhelmed into emotions we just can’t add to our plate. But remember, it’s not all about seating in eternity.
Sometimes it’s serving someone who serves this church family; with a thank you or note of appreciation. Just a couple of sentences and the high horse is pastured and another individual has been raised up a little bit. Sometimes it about sitting next to the new person after church, because it’s so easy to sit with those we already know.
This servanthood mentality, this counter-cultural kingdom of God where the way up is the kneeling down of heart is not even a list of things to do, but a retraining or exercising of attitude. When we hear the line, “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the greatest of us all, we should see Christ’s face, and realize it to be a reflection of our efforts, regardless of how great or small, large or least those efforts might be. To pull that off, we best get first to praying.
Gracious, loving God, thank you for reminding us, again and again, what you desire for us. Remind us often in the coming week, that it is about we, not about them, or they, but about we - your people - all your people - doing our parts to bring your kingdom to life in this world. Give us strength and courage to do that which is beyond us, patience and understanding to that which seems least or insignificant. Thank you for those moments in our lives when we knew we were in that right place, doing what you needed of us for that moment in time. Help us to realize that we have so many of those opportunities around us at any given moment in time. And then help us to harvest those moments, that we might realize and embrace how good it is to be your people. For all the lessons and all the blessings and all those that are really “we,” all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
October 14, 2018
21st Sunday after Pentecost
Mark 10:17-31 & Hebrews 4:12-16
“The Real Struggle”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
I once saw a quote attributed to Anthony Burgess, that said, “Laugh and the world laughs with you. Snore, and you sleep alone.” I saw a picture of someone taking a picture of a sign attributed to the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, J. Murrey Adkins Library that said, “Please do not stand, sit, climb or Sharpie on sleeping students.” At the bottom of that sign, it said, A new way to think. Atkins Library. Kind of a weird saying, but there you have it. And of all the gazillions of those signs and quotes, I think one of the absolute best is the one that said, “Without Sleep, we become tall two year olds.”
Actually, it was a little sign by Brooke Hampton that resonated with what I’ve been hearing from a large number of folks I’ve encountered this week. It said, “No, we don’t need more sleep. It’s our souls that are tired, not our bodies. We need nature. We need magic. We need adventure. We need freedom. We need truth. We need stillness. We don’t need more sleep, we need to wake up and live.”
I don’t know about anyone else, but part of me retaliates against that saying, like a 7th grader who doesn’t want to do their homework. “Great. More to do.” Siri, put relaxing on the to-do list. But the other part of me gets that it’s not about sleep, but about being in alignment with life - which of course, is alignment with God.
Mark 10:17-31, The Rich and the Kingdom of God
17 As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
18 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’”
20 “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”
21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
22 At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.
23 Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”
24 The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
26 The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”
27 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”
28 Then Peter spoke up, “We have left everything to follow you!”
29 “Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel 30 will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
12 For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. 13 Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.
Jesus the Great High Priest
14 Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. 16 Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
Thank you, Hugh and Bob. I had to chuckle after reading the first two commentaries on this morning’s passage from Mark. Sarah Hinlicky Wilson, from workingpreacher.org said “The rich young man didn’t actually keep the law, so that business about giving up his possessions was just a way of calling his bluff. Nobody can actually keep the law, hence nobody can give up everything, either; it’s just a rhetorical device to call our bluff, and once we grasp that, we’re off the hook.”
Leonard Vander Zee from calvinseminary.edu said “Jesus says “Give it all away, everything.” Contemporary Jewish belief had taught them that riches were a sign of God’s blessing, so Jesus was asking the young man to let go of God’s blessing.
Who would be crazy enough to do that - especially understanding the deep meaning of blessings after a brief sojourn through and review of the book of “Rethinking Forgiveness” by Michael O’Shields this past Thursday? (For those who haven’t had an opportunity to check out this book, do. It could well do some healing of heart you didn’t expect.)
The question is, does Jesus demand this of everyone - giving away everything we have? Some commentators make the point that Jesus is talking to this one man. It says Jesus looked at him and loved him and then says exactly what this man needs to hear.”
So it seems that our first passage was either a vague lesson or a poignant statement. When you stand back a little, and look at what was written in this part of Mark, I think you can find room for both interpretations. So that’s why the passage from Hebrews became an important part of today’s readings. Not that the people who pick lectionary passages have such great insight or superhero powers to divine which passages should go together. But sometimes….
Some of you may remember the movie City Slickers, in which Mitch, played by Billy Crystal, is experiencing a sort of mid-life crises as work and marriage are falling apart. Mitch is roped into joining two friends on a cattle drive in the southwest, lead by the their guide, Curly, played by Jack Palance.
Near the end of the movie, having gone to the edge of death, the old Cowhand Curly said to Mitch: Do you know what the secret of life is? [holds up one finger] This.
Billy Crystal says, Your finger? Jack Palance says, “One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don't mean squat. Of course, Billy Crystal says, “That’s great but, what is the "one thing?” Jack Palance smiles, “That’s what you’ve got to figure out.”
While the answer to the question of that “one thing” can change from time to time, I think that an answer lies in the last half of the passage from Hebrews. In fact, it may well be the last sentence from our Hebrews passage. Knowing that we have a high priest - Jesus - who is able to understand our every weakness and temptation and burden and did not let those things overtake him, let us approach God and God’s grace for the mercy and grace to help us when we need it.
I surely seems like there are a lot of folks who are not only tired these days, but tired of being tired. Maybe it’s been politics, maybe it’s been the weather and the atrocities of hurricanes and flooding and fires, maybe it’s been that fall has been so long in coming, and now that it’s definitely here, we are wanting - needing to hibernate from the drawn-out summer. Maybe it’s health issues or relationship issues with family or friends or job. I don’t know how to fix the problems, but I do know that God really does care about the things that bug us, annoy us and even get under our skin.
Even if we can’t do anything to help the people whose lives have been effected in negative ways this last week, even if we feel like we can’t change the world through our gift of money or donation, even if we can’t seem to help ourselves, we can pray.
If we don’t know what to pray, we can pray that. If you are too tired to pray, God knows that, and not only cares about your situation, but loves you despite it. When the young, rich man said that he had kept all the commandments, did you catch what happened after that? Jesus looked at him and loved him.
Despite how we understand or misunderstand, our energy or fatigue, whether we “get” what God desires for us - that one thing, God continually - not just when God feels like it, not based on what we do or don’t do, God looks at us and loves us - looks at you and loves you.
Even so, maybe God is asking you to let go of some “stuff” that is holding you back. And maybe we may take a little self inventory of how we feel about people that look like they “have it all,” because sometimes that visual is far more incorrect than we realize.
Let us, in these last moments of our worship together, approach God’s throne of grace with confidence as we pray.
Holy, Loving God, we are grateful that you see through our faults and warts and all, to our hearts. We are grateful for the abundances you give us, so that we can help those around us - in whatever ways that help may arrive. Thank you for being an approachable God, that we need not fear you or feel that we are not worthy of coming into your presence. Help us, Lord, in the coming week, to look for ways of giving of ourselves, regardless of how we might feel or think. Help each of us to let go of what is keeping us from drawing closer to you, that we might all be rich people in you. For all your love and grace and mercy and blessings, all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
October 7, 2018
20th Sunday after Pentecost, World Communion Sunday
“The Arms and Hands of Faith”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
A man went to visit his doctor. "Doc, my arm hurts bad. Can you check it out please?" the man pleads. The doctor rolls up the man's sleeve and suddenly hears the arm talk. "Hello, Doctor," says the arm. "Could you lend me twenty bucks please? I'm desperate!"
"Aha!'' says the doctor. ''I see the problem. Your arm is broke!"
Our scripture passage for his morning is perhaps one of the top five best known. It's most likely one resonated with us children, and it is easily linked to the song, Jesus loves me - imagination-wise. As comforting as the 23rd Psalm, as innocent as the story of Jesus's birth, our passage for this morning is as appropriate for this World Communion Sunday as we can get without the mention of food or beverage.
Mark 10:13-16 The Little Children and Jesus
13 People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. 14 When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 15 Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” 16 And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.
Thank you, Mary. I wish we had the time to go around to each one here to find out what it was that stood out for or to you as you heard the passage. It would be equally interesting to be able to record those insights for future reference, that we could compare and contrast future insights and relevances with those of today. In the interest of time, you are stuck with mine.
It was the arms and the hands. Jesus laid his hands on the children. He took them into his arms and blessed them with his hands. I wonder how many of those children, most likely the littler ones, reached up their hands at the ends of pudgy baby arms, wanting Jesus to pick them up, for whatever reason inspired them to do so.
For the newer folks among us, or for those who didn’t know, I have this fascination with hands: the wrinkles, the veins, the knuckles and the directions that they grow, each in their own, individually unique ways. And then there are all the things that our hands have done - from changing diapers to writing checks, holding doors to holding other hands, shooting guns to spreading salves, woodworking to fabric working, cleaning and polishing, digging and feeding - our hands - and the lack of hands - have huge impacts on our lives.
Jesus didn’t just bless with his hands: he healed, he hugged, he upset tables. And through each of the million things he did with his hands, God flowed through them, God to the people in Jesus’ surroundings, through the centuries, to us.
In yesterday’s reading of a book called, Jesus Calling, there was this image, God’s message to all of us through the hands of the books writer, Sarah Young.
“Sometimes I lead you up a high mountain with only My hand to support you. The higher you climb, the more spectacular the view becomes; also, the more keenly you sense your separation from the world with all its problems. This frees you to experience exuberantly the joyous reality of My Presence. Give yourself fully to these Glory-moments, awash in dazzling Light. I will eventually lead you down the mountain, back into community with others. Let My Light continue shine within you as you walk among people again.”
It can be comforting, imagining yourself crawling up into God’s lap like children into Jesus’ lap - Just as it can be for God wrapping arms around you, like Jesus holding the children. Sometimes, when the path is tough, it’s good to know that God has our hand and will lead us - even with just that “limited” channel of guidance.
The beauty of this idea about arms and hands on this particular Sunday is that it is not just the vertical ability of our arms and hands, but their horizontal abilities, too. In a few moments, a plate will be passed to you, from arms and hands to your arms and hands. Younger hands, older hands, shaky hands and sturdy hands, calloused hands and smooth hands; the bread and the cup weaving between all of them and us.
And the obvious point of a World Communion Sunday is that this idea of one-to-one, hand-to-hand love from God to us is not merely about us - but about all 2.5 billion of us: Catholic Christians, Eastern Orthodox, Baptists, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Reformed, Pentecostalists, and of course, Congregationalists, to mention just a few. The bread and the cup have been or will be shared in the Pakistan and Poland, Brazil and Belarus, Serbia and Spain, Uganda and Uruguay, South Africa and South Dakota.
The bread and cup we share will look, taste and feel different from group to group, country to country, small country church to mega church. The words of institution, the words that Jesus used on his last night with his disciples will be, are being, have been already uttered this day in more languages than any of us can imagine, sometimes with the aid of a microphone, sometimes in hushed whispers in places where speaking them any louder will land you in jail, if not worse.
Some of those receiving the body and blood of Christ will be handsome people with lives that look good on the outside, others will be people hard to look at: those at risk, powerless, weak, unsure, those who have been wronged and broken, clinging to any thread of hope that makes sense at that moment. Christ gave this meal, this tradition, this sacrament to the highly intelligent, the mentally challenged and all those between, those who do well, those who fail, the lazy and ambitious, the loving and the unloving, the contented and discontented, the free and the imprisoned.
It matters not whether any of us are married, single or divorced, veterans or non-veterans, our ethnic origins or our status or standing. The sure and the skeptics, the passionate and the indifferent, the wise and the fools are all welcome to this table - this cup and this bread because they have been given to us as a gift, the most personal and precious gift God could give us - part of God’s self, part of the earth, regardless of time and place, only and ever able to be taken and shared involving hands and arms.
It is offered, to be received, not with great theological or philosophical debate, but simple faith, even if it’s as small as a mustard seed, as a gesture of God reaching to us and us reaching to God as we reach to each other. The elements are holy because God has given them to us, but otherwise, are as common and as fundamental to any life on this planet. Perhaps it is the sharing - in and of itself - at least on this particular day - that adds to this a holy meal.
As we use the next moments to prepare our hearts for this simple, complex and holy dining experience, let us be reminded of that hand of God, leading each of us to that high mountain of joyous reality of God’s presence, next to you as all those around the world that celebrate with us, reminding all of us of God’s enormously individual love for all God’s children.
Let us pray. Holy Mystery, Protector, Redeemer and Sustainer, we are grateful for the love that you bestow on us, so freely, so lavishly, so purely. We confess that our arms and hands sometimes get tired, sometimes our hearts becoming tired to the point of not even wanting to reach for your hand. In this time today, and even more so in our reflection on it in the coming week, help each of us to recognize your reflection in the eyes of those you send our way. Help us just to look, even when the person behind those eyes may not look like how we think we look, to see the love that comes from you through them. And thank you for your Son, who sees not only our eyes, but our hearts, hearts often needing your love and light and feeding. For your forgiveness, your love and many, many blessings, all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.