First Congregational Church
October 25, 2020
19th Sunday after Pentecost
“When We Can’t”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Things that make you go, “hmm.” Every year the television channel, ABC, cuts down the length of A Charlie Brown Christmas--a movie about the over-commercialization of the holidays—to make room for more commercials. The site where Julius Caesar was murdered in 44 BC is now a no-kill animal shelter for homeless cats. According to researchers, duct tape should never be used for sealing ducts. Sweden’s celebrated Ice Hotel has a smoke detector.
A famous teacher in Onekama, named Naomi Kolehmainen, posted an article on Facebook yesterday that was so good. The title of it is “Please Stop Expecting Normal from Kids (and Teachers) Right Now.” It was written by middle and high school English teacher, wife and mother of boys, Julie Mason - sort of like that famous teacher in Onekama.
Ms. Mason pointed out that since things are so different this year, in so many aspects, we shouldn’t expect “normal” things from our schools - like standardized tests, teacher evaluations, assigning homework, rethinking grading and reevaluate extra credit, because all those things are intended to assist in comparing apples to apples, and we don’t have apples this year. We’ve got bananas, and those bananas are all in different states of being, i.e., unripeness vs. ripeness.
And Ms. Mason has got a great point. If any student had a house fire and lost all their possessions and sense of well-being in that fire, every single teacher worth their salt would cut that kid all kinds of slack - for most all of the year. Whether any one of us has a house on fire right now - in terms of the virus or health issues or financial issues or even mental health issues - we might think about cutting people some slack - more than we might have in the past.
I know, there are some egregious things that people do and are doing, and they need to be dealt with within the proper channels. But this point is for most of the people with whom any of us might interact in any given day.
Within the book of Matthew and this morning’s text, Jesus wasn’t experiencing a day like any other given day. It was a day between his entrance into Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday, during the festival of Passover, and the day he died on the cross. Jesus had turned the tables in the synagogue and had been telling parables to the disciples and anyone else who would listen to him.
The chief priests and elders had been trying to catch Jesus in any sort of a religious crime or misdemeanor. They sidled up next to him, asked him some questions, then went off the edge of the crowd to continue their plotting. Not all that much time later, the Pharisees got involved, also planning to arrest Jesus away from the crowds. When they went away, the Sadducees came up to Jesus and he ended up sending them away, too.
Scripture Matthew 22:34-46
The Greatest Commandment
34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’[a] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b] 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Whose Son Is the Messiah?
41 While the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them, 42 “What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he?” “The son of David,” they replied.
43 He said to them, “How is it then that David, speaking by the Spirit, calls him ‘Lord’? For he says, 44 “‘The Lord said to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet.”’[c] 45 If then David calls him ‘Lord,’ how can he be his son?” 46 No one could say a word in reply, and from that day on no one dared to ask him any more questions.
Thank you, Jeanne. Father Michael Renninger is the pastor of St. Mary Catholic Church in Richmond, Virginia. In his thoughts on this passage from Matthew, he recalled the time, when he was eight years old, when he, his younger brother and parents decided to go on a camping trip. Usually, all four slept in one large tent, but for that particular trip, Fr. Michael’s father brought along a pup-tent. He told Michael that since he was the oldest boy, he could sleep in the tent himself.
When they arrived at the campground, Michael’s dad told him, “In just a minute, I’ll show you how to set up the pup tent. But, as Michael said, he “was eight years old, and I already had a male ego.” So he told his dad, “I can do it myself.” Fr. Michael wouldn’t need to tell any of us of the disaster that ensued.
Not knowing how to put the poles together, tie the knots, put the clamps into the ground, and that Michael wasn’t going to ask for help, there is no real surprise that later that night, the tent collapsed on his face. And then, of course, it started to rain. Fr. Michael owned the fact that there was at least a little humility when he went over to the dry tent and told his dad that he needed his help. In finishing the story, Michael said that his father - who could have responded in any number of ways - said, “Come on. I’ll show you how to do it.”
It’s a cute story, but it was what he said after that that really captured this heart - and perhaps yours. Fr. Michael was recalling how challenging the last weeks were, in terms of the Bible passages. There was the parable about the vineyard owner, who paid all the workers the same wage, regardless of the number of hours they worked, and that Jesus asks us to radically change our sense of fairness. Fr. Michael said, “Well, I don’t know how to do that.” Like Michael, we do know how, but we don’t, at the same time.
And then there was the parable about the wedding banquet (even though we didn’t delve into that one here that week), and the lesson that Jesus wants us to always be ready for the banquet, without telling us when it’s going to happen. Again, Fr. Michael said, “Well, I don’t know how to do that.”
Last week it was the parable about figuring out how to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and God what is God’s. And then from today’s passage, we’re told we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind and our neighbors as our selves.
Here at FCCF, over the last weeks, we had messages on how to do these tasks God requires of us, and there were some stunning gems in some of those messages. And yet, we get tired, distracted and just don’t wanna.
Love the Lord your God with all your heart? Sounds good! Amen, Jesus! But then, squirrel, swing, or whatever other object or issue comes by and swipes the attention away from loving God with every fiber of our being. Even the happiest and most content of those among us can find our heart becoming restless sometimes. The eye wanders, the brain starts to daydream. Passions start to prickle. How can I love God with all my heart if this fickle heart won't stay focused hour by hour?
And then Jesus says, love your neighbor. But what if your neighbor is a pain in the neck? Or some other body part? What if your neighbor is the wrong color, or the wrong sexual orientation? What if your neighbor speaks through wrong language? Who came from the wrong homeland? What if your neighbor is going to vote the wrong candidate? What if your neighbor is the wrong candidate?
Wait, I love them? Are you kidding? Well, Jesus said to love your neighbor as yourself. What if you were one of the countless millions who have low self-esteem and fear that you are unlovable, due to some aspect of your life? What if society has taught you that you have no inherent value due to your gender or your race or your economic background? How do I love God and neighbor as myself if I don’t know how to love myself? Jesus tells us to love God and neighbor and self with our whole reckless heart. How do I do that? How do I do what I know that I should - and I want - to do?
In laying what appeared to be impossible impossible goals of discipleship, Jesus is not setting us up for failure. He doesn't do that. He's opening up an invitation. He's not setting the bar far too high, showing us how to stoop down low. He's not judging us. He's waiting for us to crawl out of the collapsed tent and to say with real humility, I can't do this myself.
Redefine your sense of fairness. Be ready for the invitation to the wedding celebration. Discern what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God. Love the Lord and your neighbor with every ounce of strength do you have.
And when you reach the point of saying, I can't do this on my own, I need your help, you've reached the place where authentic discipleship begins. I think Fr. Michael’s whole point on this is that while God is asking the impossible of us, and since we are human beings who probably won’t do it as well as God would hope us to do, God has given us the Holy Spirit to sit with us and fill in all the places that don’t make sense.
Even when we don’t know what to pray for or don’t know how we’re feeling, when we finally get the idea that we need to ask God to help us figure it out, even then, we don’t have to do anything great and profound. That’s the point when we can put all our doubt and anger to be held in the hands - the Holy Spirit’s hands - of love. That’s when, as Stephen Garnaas Holmes suggested this week, that in my desire to love with my whole being - I can put all my fears and desires to be held in the hands of love. So shall we sit a spell with those hands of love as we pray?
Holy God of Love, we know you want so much for us, and sometimes, we don’t do so well in working with you and for you. Forgive us in our naïveté that we can do everything ourselves and our arrogance in that we don’t need you in all the nooks and crannies of our lives. We know you want our whole heart and soul and mind, and yet, you know that we can’t give those things on our own. Thank you, that we don’t have to measure up or jump through hoops for your love. Encourage our spirits, that we may find the wherewithal to attempt - to the best of our abilities - to be your holy people, regardless of age or gender or experiences, whether we are apples or bananas. Remind us, especially in the next few weeks, that while we have a call to be your good people on this side of eternity, we are really residents of a larger, eternal life in your love. For all your encouragements, strengthening and inspirations, when it feels like we can’t and you do, all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
October 18, 2020
20th Sunday after Pentecost
“Getting Worked Up”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Because of this morning’s scripture passage, I went to look for jokes about masks. The first link was titled, the harm in mask jokes. I wasn't thinking about masking for Covid, I was thinking more in terms of Halloween masks and masks from ancient Greek classical plays. Instead, the first result of my search was about the contentious nature of wearing a medical mask and it's symbolism of masculinity - for good and ill. That’s what came up first. Totally didn’t want to step into that hornet’s nest. Even so, the initial search was a good reminder that it is always good to be careful about jokes and how they are not always funny to everyone.
The second link was about funny tweets about wearing Covid masks. I wasn't as eager to click on this link, as I figured that there would be some old stuff from way back in March. To my surprise, many of the top tweets were about unwelcome comments when women are told to smile. Time was running out, so I picked out some of those with which I have personally struggled.
Person named Jill said, “my ears are currently carrying sunglasses, headphones, and a face mask. My ears are a purse.” Nicole wrote about the lack of forethought in applying lipstick before donning a mask, and how unattractive the result can be, if you’re not using long-lasting lipstick. And then there’s Diep, who dared to state the most obvious - at least to me. “The upside about a face mask is that it catches your snot when you’re outside and your nose is running because you forgot to take your antihistamine. I need to give Abbi props, though, because she asked, “I just removed my mask to sneeze into my sleeve. Am I doing this right?”
In my study for this message, I came across a word that was completely new: the word “obverse.” I wondered if it was a typo - for adverse, which it isn’t - or the wrong word for converse, which it isn’t either. It’s actually the opposite of reverse, and refers to the two flat sides of coins or other two-sided objects, including paper money, flags, seals, metals, and more pertinent to our scripture, coins, according to Wikipedia. Obverse means the front face of the object and reverse means the back face. In other words, heads and tails.
When the passage is read, earlyish on, it will say, “because you pay no attention to who they are.” That line could be translated as “because you do not look on the face of people.” This little twist could possibly be part of a pun, because a just couple sentences later, Jesus uses the word hypocrites.
In the Greek and Roman world of art at that time, a hypocrite was literally an actor, and actors often wore masks over their faces when on stage. It was our good buddy over there at Calvin Theological Seminary, Scott Hoezee, who wrote that, "a hypocrite is someone who hides his true face behind a mask, a false front - a hypocrite grins at you and butters you up with unctuous words of flattery but he's secretly sneering at you. So Jesus’ opponents say that they know Jesus does not look up on the “face of people,” and if by that they meant the public face people show, they were right. Jesus does look upon the true face of people, the one behind the masks we present to those around us.
Scripture Matthew 22:15-22
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 you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren't swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are.
17 Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes 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 portrait is this? And whose inscription?"
21 "Caesar's," they replied. Then he said to them, "Give 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.
Thank you, Marti. I had mentioned to Marti that when I read this passage, one of the ways I could hear it was with her voice, because I know that the teacher in her is still there, and good teachers can lay it on when necessary.
But it was also not the only way that this passage could be heard. With our propensity to lump all Pharisees into the “bad Pharisee camp,” we can miss the possibility that the Pharisees actually questioned Jesus in sincerity and without animosity. And that possibility is even plausible, until Jesus refers to their hypocrisy. And that’s when - I think - even the most docile among us get drawn into the “discussion.”
It’s so easy to get all worked up, especially when it comes to money. As a complete aside, I thought it interesting when Scott Hoezee also pointed out that some scholars believe that the coin in question likely bore the image of Tiberius with the inscription "Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus" and an image of the "high priest" Livia on the coins obverse. “In God WeTrust” it wasn’t.
It’s hard to tell, because one can’t imagine that Jesus’ use of the word “hypocrites” - and the question about them trying to trap him - wasn’t wrapped in some sort of high energy. And it’s just as unlikely that Jesus went from the high energy with his hypocrite question to a mild-mannered teacher stating the obvious about giving credit to whom credit is due.
In all the influences of our time, all the news reports, all the tweets and political signs in yards and boulevards, all the ups and downs of the markets, it’s easy to get pulled in and get worked up about things. And part of getting worked up is a very important, normal, human part of being alive. The struggle is in getting worked up about the most important things, as followers of Christ and children of God.
In giving to Caesar what is Caesar and to God what is God’s, Jesus is reminding us of the deeper and more profound reality that the whole world belongs to God. And when we know that, above all, the human heart is what belongs to the Creator God who fashioned us in God’s own image, then even the big, bright, loud and resplendent realities of this world become mere sideshows and distractions. But they do not ultimately touch or threaten God. Perhaps, in this era of loud and constant and unrelenting, we might have it easier in refocusing our senses, so that we get worked up and not waste our energies.
In holding up that coin that day, Jesus reminds all of us - the Pharisees that day and all of us followers since that day, that the coin isn’t the thing that will love us and care about us and for us. Money can do a whole lot, and from all the work that we’ve seen on the roads around here lately, maybe we won’t complain as loudly next April 15th.
We can get all worked up about money, but it has no lasting value. Having the new church boiler almost ready to be put into play, I will be the last person to say that money isn’t important, especially in how we give it to help others. Sometimes, however, we can get all worked up about who we think deserves money, who deserves what kind of money, and when that money should be available.
Yesterday I was able to attend the 179th Annual Meeting of the Michigan Congregational Christian Churches Conference - for my first time. I wondered, if 179 years ago, if people got worked up about the idea of putting some money toward an endeavor to support the Congregational Way of being Christ’s Church, regardless of how long that endeavor might last.
Before the wedding that began just minutes after that Zoom meeting, I once again was able to recall he history of this church sanctuary, being built on the ground in 1871, raised up on 1907, and added onto in 1957. I wonder if the folks from 1867, in those initial gatherings in homes, if they got all worked up about an endeavor that looked into the future - a future that included meeting with fellow Congregationalists covering hundreds and hundreds of miles, all in peoples’ own living rooms and offices.
I don’t know when electricity came into this sanctuary, or even this little city, but when it did, I wouldn’t doubt that some folks got worked up about it - from costs to changing the way of life that they enjoyed - perhaps not completely understanding the immense possibilities that electricity could bring. And today, we are just beginning to understand how it is not only electricity, but wifi and towers and computers and not all that many other pieces that allow for today’s worship family to be limited to just the 20 some folks here in person, but the 100 folks we average in reaching out on Facebook Live each week - which doesn’t include the people who “join” us from our website. It is a far different thing, getting worked up about how we see a new life - on a new frontier - with encounters that ripple on out into time in ways that we are only beginning to see.
When we get all worked up about the right things, we begin to see - even more broadly and deeper and longer - how all that we have is God’s - and how we are the ones blessed to be a part of such a vista. Yes, we still have Covid and the flu and strep throats - and will for a fair bit. Yes - some people may never go out into public without a mask again, and hopefully that’s not such a big deal any more. As I like to share with people, I’ve become accustomed to wearing a seatbelt in the car and a shirt in the store, so now if I can just remember that dang mask…..
I’ll admit, when this whole pandemic started, and there was such a stir about masks and no masks, there was sometimes judgment on my part, when I saw someone without one. I’d get all instantly huffy, and then, however it was that God was getting through to me, I would be reminded that some people just can’t wear them, or forget them - innocently and don’t even realize until they are all the way into the store.
Whether it’s about a mask, or hiding behind a perception or innocently being preoccupied with something else that has us worked up to one degree or another, the coins that we handle, the masks that we see all remind us that we can grant some grace to those around us, who are really truly trying to do their best while wrestling with the things that can get us worked up and forgetting that God has it all in hand. We just need to do our part, and God will do God’s part. So shall we pray?
Holy and Gracious God, thank you for having “it” all in hand. Thank you for being the steady, reliable, unmovable Love that will not let us go, no matter what else grabs at our hearts these days. So many people and things and situations vie for being the way and the truth and the life. But you are those things, so help us with that priority. Remind us, when we feel the negativities that you are the possibilities, of belonging to your family of faith, a kin to our brother of salvation and eternal life. We pray, too, for those who are in the midst of being worked up about things that don’t deserve such energy, and for those who are trying to direct us in the best uses of energies. For all that you give us, and the freedom to invest that energy in ways we pray are good and true, all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.