First Congregational Church
October 16, 2022
19th Sunday after Pentecost
“How Much More So? Keep On Keeping On”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
There was a time when Ole was sent to his room because he had been bad. A short time later he came out and said to his mother, "I've been thinking about what I did and I said a prayer." "That's fine," she said, "if you ask God to make you good, God will help you." "Oh, I didn't ask God to help me be good," replied Ole. "I asked God to help you put up with me.”
Dr. Helen Roseveare was a missionary to Zaire and told this story. "A mother at our mission station died after giving birth to a premature baby. We tried to improvise an incubator to keep the infant alive, but the only hot water bottle we had was beyond repair. So we asked the children to pray for the baby and for her sister.
One of the girls responded. 'Dear God, please send a hot water bottle today. Tomorrow will be too late because by then the baby will be dead. And dear Lord, send a doll for the sister so she won't feel so lonely.'
That afternoon a large package arrived from England. The children watched eagerly as it was opened. Much to their surprise, under some clothing, was a hot water bottle!
Immediately the girl who had prayed so earnestly started to dig deeper, exclaiming, 'If God sent that, I'm sure God also sent a doll!' And she was right! The thing was that the package had to begin its journey five months before that day and that prayer. Not only is it a story of answered prayer, but it’s one of listening to the Holy Spirit in its nudging.
Last week’s scripture passage was the one from Luke about the healing of ten lepers with one going back to thank Jesus. After that, there are seventeen verses about the coming of the Kingdom of God. Most any of us who have put in some pew time will have heard about the Kingdom of God - at least a few times. But imagine how the disciples heard about it.
In those seventeen verses, a number of things are mentioned, and to the disciples’ ears, they must have sounded crazy. At one point, when asked about the coming kingdom, Jesus said that the kingdom was already in their midst. In the next breath, he mentioned that the kingdom would be as instant as Lot’s wife and the sulfur and rain that accompanied her transformation into a pillar of salt. When asked where the predicted people would be disappearing with the revealing of the Son of Man, Jesus replied, “Where there is a dead body, there the vultures will gather.” Say, what?
Imagine being Peter, either of the James, John, Thomas, Philip, Bartholomew, Andrew, Matthew, Thaddaeus, Simon, even Judas. Granted, these were not young things still wet behind the ears, but grown men, responsible people, respected. And now imagine that this was not your first rodeo with all this Jesus talk about coming doom and gloom.
1 Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. 2 He said: "In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about men. 3 And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, 'Grant me justice against my adversary.'
4 "For some time he refused. But finally, he said to himself, 'Even though I don't fear God or care about men, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won't eventually wear me out with her coming!' " 6 And the Lord said, "Listen to what the unjust judge says.
7 And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? 8 I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?"
Thank you, Molly. It sort of paints a picture of the disciples standing there with their mouths open, wondering just what was going on with this person to whom they’d devoted their lives.
A person named Jean McMahon tells the story about attending a church in Kentucky, where an especially verbal and boisterous child was being hurried out, slung under his irate father’s arm. No one in the congregation so much as raised an eyebrow - until the child captured everyone’s attention by crying out in a charming Southern accent, “Ya’ll pray for me now!”
I’m just going to say right up front, I don’t know about ya’ll, but I have questions about today’s passage. Yes, it’s a parable, but I think the questions are still relevant. Like, if God will bring about justice for the chosen, will God bring about justice for the “unchosen” - whoever they might be? If anyone is interested, I think that it’s not such a question upon which to spend much time, because all the bringing of justice is God’s job. We’re just supposed to love people and spread God’s love.
Anyway, there are scripture passages that essentially tell us to pray, put the concern into God’s hands, and then trust God to take care of it, because going back over and over - whatever the topic - is like not living in the faith that God hears our prayers or is powerless to do anything about them. So how does that fit with the directive to “always pray?”
As I thought about that question, the image that is often seen in connection with courts came to mind; the one of a blindfolded woman holding an equal arm balance scale, as it is called. Maybe it’s a representation of balance between continued praying and continued faith that God will take care of things. I don’t know, but it is an interesting image to have as a part of this exploration of today’s passage.
Still, what about the victims of violence or harm, like Hitler’s genocide? Imagine the number of prayers that were raised over the course of those four years, not to mention the lead-up to and the hardships after the end of his reign of terror. Or the Cambodian people in the 70s, the Armenians in the early 20th century, the Rwandan genocide of 1994, not to mention all the other massacres throughout history. I’d be willing to bet a lot of money that a large number of people were “always praying” in and around those situations.
Yes, this is a parable, but how “Christian” is it to harangue and irritate people, esp. those in places of leadership, to get what we want, regardless of the worthiness of our desire? The job of a judge or politician or civil servant can’t be all Candyland and Chutes and Ladders. While making a point, is harassing someone making that person’s job just that much more stressful?
We can and should be critical of those with power and authority and call out wrongdoing when we see it happening, but should we use our power and authority to hurt or make worse someone else’s situation? It’s a little naive, I know, but how much better is our witness as Christ's followers, when we are tactful and creative, rather than being just a pain in the tochas.
The woman from our story would have been without anyone to help, i.e., a man, who would have pleaded the case for her. A woman, poor, probably being cheated in one way or another. At least she wasn’t a leper or had an isolating disease. Even so, even way back in the Old Testament, widows and orphans are to be given extra care and consideration. Even though it’s a parable, my version of the story would have the judge knowing that element of Jewish law, just sayin’.
Jesus says, “Listen to what the unjust judge says.” Was Jesus condoning the behavior of a judge that was out to save his own neck? We miss the picture with our English translations, because “so that she may not wear me out” is literally, “so that she doesn’t give me a black eye.” Chelsey Harmon, from Calvin Theological Seminary, asked the better question. “If this judge provides justice, then how much more can we trust our God to make justice?"
William Willimon tells a story about author Malcolm Gladwell, who talks about the difference between a competent amateur tennis player and an athlete who plays professional tennis or the difference between a violist in the community orchestra and a soloist playing at Carnegie Hall.
Mr. Gladwell says the difference between the people polarities is about ten thousand hours. It’s not natural talent, genius, intelligence or other means that explain high attainments. It’s persistence, continued, self-sacrificial, relentless persistence.
So the insistence to keep on praying is actually shaping us into becoming mature and faithful followers of Christ. Sometimes, we can get our heads around the idea that God answers our prayers, just not always within our time frames. Other times, it’s hard to keep on keeping on. And God gets that, too. Thank goodness God doesn’t ask us to do it perfectly!
It’s the last sentence that gives the greater punch. “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?" Does that question paint a picture of massive numbers of people flooding Christian church doors, or is it more of a commitment to our human struggle to do better, to keep on keeping on, persistent to receive what God wants to say to us?
Rev. Dr. Willimon describes the experience of an esteemed writer of Christian spirituality, Anne Lamott. When she went to the forlorn little Presbyterian church in her neighborhood, the sermon sounded like “talk about Martians,” as she described it. Yet she went back the next Sunday.
Months later, Jesus nabbed her one evening when her defenses were down as she was in a drunken stupor. While Lamott’s life-changing encounter with Christ occurred at home rather than at church and not as a direct result of a sermon, Anne is clear that the sermons she heard at that church - few specifics of which she remembers - left her vulnerable to the overtures of Jesus.”
Willimon said, of his own experience in a new church, “It took us a year before we figured out how to listen to your preaching. Your brain works weird. Glad we didn’t give up.” Can I hear an Amen?
Willimon’s conclusion is “Fortunately, they were persistent enough either to give me time to get better as a preacher, or give themselves time to learn how to listen to someone like me, or maybe even to give God time to decide when the time is right for speaking.”
If God hears prayers for hot water bottles - months before those prayers are even realized - how much more will God answer your prayers for your spouse, partner, children, grandchildren, neighbors, even people you don’t necessarily like?
If God hears prayers that may never see or realize answers in our lifetimes, how much more important is it for us to pray for the future - for those who will follow us - not to be like us, but to be able to hear God’s voice and do that which God needs of them?
If God hears the prayers of a second rung from the bottom widow in a parable, how much more will God answer our prayers of us, keeping on keeping on? Let us join our hearts in this keeping on business.
Holy and Wise God, thank you for answered prayers, even when we think you aren’t even listening. Thank you for providing for us even before we ask. Forgive our ingratitude and give us consequent opportunities to do better and grow in faith.
When we tire of praying, hold us up that we can pray through your Holy Spirit. When we are reluctant to pray, remind us of the prayers prayed for us, long ago, by people we won’t know until we meet up in eternity. In our time together at table today, remind us of that same Spirit that had breakfast with your son on a beach after his resurrection, the same Spirit that worked with you in the creation of creation. For all your blessings and all your answers to prayers, all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
October 09, 2022
18th Sunday after Pentecost
“Thin, Sacred, and Healing Spaces”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Sermon and Scripture
Mr. Santa Claus had started feeling like he was losing some of his mojo at one point, so he had taken to periodically stopping during his annual Christmas Eve present run to take in words of wisdom from spiritual leaders from various backgrounds all over the world, hoping that someone could re-ignite that spark for him that made Christmas special.
Eventually, he realized that it wasn't just him; the reindeer were tired, his sleigh was starting to look a bit run-down, and even the magic that kept him alight wasn't as strong as it used to be. But then, he discovered that the diversity of the world - itself a wonderful thing - was just what he needed. Each part of the world seemed to have an affinity for a different part of his operation. And so on his journey, he would periodically pit-stop and recharge, tune up, and re-energize before taking to the skies again.
Northern and Western Canada he found to be full of tundra-dwelling First Nations shamans who would lovingly tend to his reindeer. In various locations in the Orient, he found the peaceful tranquility of zen meditation to be just the healing salve his weary soul required. In the Middle East, he found amazing storytellers who were just as good at listening, for those times when his journey seemed so lonely. And the craftspeople of Germany were experts at getting the best performance out of his sleigh.
One Christmas Eve, after getting his sleigh blades sharpened, and his sleigh seat re-upholstered, master craftsman Sven joined him in a prayer: "Bless this sleigh, and bless the man who will use it to bring joy to children all over the world." Then Sven stopped abruptly, as if realizing something he had forgotten. "Santa!" he asked, "You want us to check your steering apparatus?” "Nein, my good Sven. I bless the reigns down in Africa.” (For those who are wondering, that last line is a lyric from a song called “Africa,” by a group named Toto.
Most of the time, before we get to the actual reading of the scripture passage, I try to set it up, with connections to time, place, and sequence; whatever points might help in understanding and embracing, getting the fuller picture in our minds. This morning, that setup is even more necessary.
The passage will say that Jesus is traveling along the border between Samaria and Galilee. When we hear it, it can go by quicker than we might catch, so I’m making the point now. Galilee was in the north and Samaria was right next door to the south. We could spend hours on the attributes of these two countries and peoples, but if you think of the difference between a small country farmer in Texas compared to a New York executive, you get the picture.
I could point it out on a map for you, but the bottom line is that this specific area carried psychological, social, and cultural residue of people with the same history to a point, slightly different faith practices, who would have nothing to do with each other, going to great lengths to avoid one another. The land between Samaria and Galilee was neither one nor the other, and with the unknowing of who belonged where, it was an uncertain place, un-trusting, and even a little fearful.
11 Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance 13 and called out in a loud voice, "Jesus, Master, have pity on us!" 14 When he saw them, he said, "Go, show yourselves to the priests." And as they went, they were cleansed.
15 One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. 16 He threw himself at Jesus' feet and thanked him--and he was a Samaritan. 17 Jesus asked, "Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? 18 Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?" 19 Then he said to him, "Rise and go; your faith has made you well."
Thank you, Jim. Lena’s doctor said, “You took quite a tumble! You’re going to need to take it easy and definitely avoid stairs for several weeks while you heal.” Lena said, “I suppose I could sleep downstairs, but what if I realize I need something and it is upstairs?” The doctor said, “Do you have a neighbor you could ask that could help you?” Lena replied, “Well, I suppose I could ask a neighbor”.
Six weeks later she visits her doctor for a follow-up. The doctor said, “You are healing nicely, but be very careful on stairs from now on, ok?” Lena said, “That is good news, doctor, so you mean I can start using stairs again?” The doctor replied, “Yes, but be careful so as not to take another tumble.” Lena said, “Oh, that is wonderful! My neighbor lent me a ladder but it has been quite an ordeal climbing it with this hip!”
The Greek word traditionally translated as leprosy was used for various diseases affecting the skin, and the mentions of that disease in the Bible are not the Hansen’s disease we know today. So think psoriasis, eczema, acne, shingles, even hives - would put a person into the group with a leprosy label. It was a lonely disease so that the ten were together - makes for more understanding.
If you didn’t notice all the “yelling” going on in this passage, check it out. The fear of contamination and infection required that such labeled lepers had to stand away from people and announce their presence with a bell.
And if you lost contact with people, including your family and where you lived, you likely lost your work and your place in society, and you became poor and destitute.
If we were to create a hierarchy of people and class from Jesus’ day, right or wrong, the men would almost always rank above women, people of means definitely rose above the poor, and the sick were definitely on the bottom.
Should you have one or more “conditions,” that would send you lower on the imagined hierarchy. The only thing the ten Samaritans really had going for themselves is that at least they weren’t women. After all these years, it seems unimaginable that we are still fighting the stigmas that are so difficult to take down.
While we don’t know how many feet they were apart from each other, when the men asked for healing, apparently there was no hesitation on Jesus’ part as the very next thing is his direction to get their clean bills of health from the priests. That was a normal requirement, that someone would have the authority to allow people back into society should a disease be healed.
The one sentence that would really rile up a whole lot of people from Jesus’ day was, “And he was a Samaritan.” Stark words loaded with implications. The one tainted by Gentile blood when non-Jews occupied Samaria, not only came back to thank Jesus, but threw himself at Jesus’ feet. Whether he touched Jesus or not, the Samaritan man crossed the line of separation, and Jesus didn’t say a thing about it, like that wasn’t even a thing.
I know a lot of time has been spent on this scene, but it’s for a point. There was a lot of energy in that place of distrust, impurity, fear, and separation animosity. The writer of Luke - in the whole gospel - put a lot of energy into pointing out that the “other” is the one who is close to the heart of God. Places with a lot of energy are called “thin places,” where the veil between this world and the eternal world is thin.
Often, we will hear about thin places during the church season of Epiphany, just after Christmas, the season that calls us to look underneath and beyond the ordinary to discover the extraordinary. Francisco J. Garcia, at working preacher.org, put it all so beautifully.
“The healing encounter between Jesus and the ten men with a skin disease, a condition that relegated them to a life of physical and mental suffering and isolation, and economic deprivation as a result, converts the borderlands between Galilee and Samaria from a forbidden wasteland to a sacred place, perhaps even a thin place where the veil between the material and spiritual worlds is lifted, and an awareness of their interconnection is more deeply known and felt.”
Mr. Garcia also said, “Healing is not a spectator sport: the ten men readily approach Jesus with a faithful and expectant posture, as if they could sense that their healing was at hand in Jesus’ presence. That amazing pastor over there at First Congregational Church of Frankfort, MI says, “How do we approach people - those we know and don’t know? Might the ones we least suspect become the agents of healing, community and belonging?”
In speaking beyond the one man, or the ten men, but perhaps to all the Samaritans and Galileans, even all of us, Mr. Garcia said “A just and comprehensive healing cannot happen in isolation—it requires direct participation and community. Dinah Haag says, “Another reason we need to go to church is that you may be part of someone else’s healing, knowingly or unknowingly. And why deny yourself being such an important part of someone’s life?
There’s a website called thinplacestour.com that has some interesting statements about thin places. “Thin places aren’t perceived with the five senses. Experiencing them goes beyond those limits. A thin place pulsates with an energy that connects with our own energy – we feel it, but we do not see it. We know there’s another side – another world – another existence. Truth abides in thin places; naked, raw, hard to face truth. Yet we also find the comfort, safety and strength to face that in those same mystical spaces. You can look for thin places, but frequently they will find you.
Thin Places are ports in the storm of life, where the pilgrims can move closer to the God they seek, where one leaves that which is familiar and journeys into the Divine Presence. They are stopping places where men and women are given pause to wonder about what lies beyond the mundane rituals, the grief, trials and boredom of our day-to-day life. They probe to the core of the human heart and open the pathway that leads to satisfying the familiar hungers and yearnings common to all people on earth, the hunger to be connected, to be a part of something greater, to be loved, to find peace.
Be aware of where you are. Look for the Samaritan in your midst. Expect healing. So we pray.
Almighty and Holy God of all places and all people, thank you for those moments of connectedness that can catch us off-guard. Energize your Spirit to infuse ours to be more attuned to you - right in front of us. Urge us to set aside the not-as-necessary to make room for the more necessary, that we might be more full and rich in spirit and therefore able to pass on those riches to those in need of them. And all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
Sunday, October 2, 2022
17th Sunday after Pentecost and World Communion Sunday
1 Corinthians 12:1-31
“The Body of Christ”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
It might be that a point could be made to say that cleaning- anything - is a dangerous act. Yes, there are sometimes chemicals involved, sometimes dangerous chemicals, although there are efforts to make less hostile, yet still effective products. But what I’m really talking about is how you are going about the cleaning of the fish tank, going through the linen closets, dusting the dust-ables, and without a second thought you can find yourself not cleaning, but holding and reminiscing about an object that represents a flood of memories.
As you recollect, you turn it over, noticing the intricacies, realizing the cost and worth, and even should the moment be brief, it becomes a nourishment of the soul, a serendipity of grace. I think that’s what we get with today’s scripture passage and the designation of World Communion Sunday; an opportunity to give them a loving look and re-valuation.
1 Corinthians 12:1-31 Spiritual Gifts
Now about spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be ignorant. 2 You know that when you were pagans, somehow or other you were influenced and led astray to mute idols. 3 Therefore I tell you that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, "Jesus be cursed," and no one can say, "Jesus is Lord," except by the Holy Spirit.
4 There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. 5 There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. 6 There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men people. 7 Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. 8 To one there is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, to another the message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, 10 to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines.
12 The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. 13 For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body - whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free - and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.
14 Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. 15 If the foot should say, "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, "Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body," it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. 19 If they were all one part, where would the body be?
20 As it is, there are many parts, but one body. 21 The eye cannot say to the hand, "I don't need you!" And the head cannot say to the feet, "I don't need you!" 22 On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, 24 while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, 25 so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.
27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. 28 And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues ? Do all interpret? 31 But eagerly desire the greater gifts. And now I will show you the most excellent way.
Thank you, Susie. I don’t know if this chapter makes the next - the great 1 Corinthians 13 - richer or vice versa. But it makes more sense of love being kind, so as to not hurt the body; of love protecting and trusting, hopeful and perseverant.
The little girl stood before the small civic group on Thursday morning before breakfast, the morning after Hurricane Ian made landfall. The child had brunette pigtail braids, a white dress, and patent leather shoes.
It was your average weekday. Local business people gathered for a quick meeting before going to work. Tired businesspersons sat at small circular tables, wearing sports jackets and neckties, wearing hosiery and skirt suits. I had been invited here by my friend Howie. I was wearing a tie if you can imagine. I was wishing I would have never agreed to come.
When the little girl took the podium, I was wandering through the buffet line, stacking a Styrofoam plate with imitation breakfast fare that tasted more like wet napkins than it did edible organic matter. The little girl tested the sound system by tapping the microphone loudly. The speakers nearly exploded. TAP! TAP! TAP! That got everyone listening.
“Can I have everyone’s attention?” said the master of ceremonies. “We have a special guest here to pray for breakfast today.” He presented 9-year-old Sadie and everyone applauded.
Sadie’s grandmother lives in Fort Meyers, Florida, and nobody has heard from the grandmother yet. Sadie is taking it pretty hard. Her mother is a wreck. Her father has driven down to Fort Meyers to locate the elderly woman. Ever since Ian hit, hundreds are presumed dead in Lee County. Florida is a disaster zone. Everyone bows their heads.
“Dear Lord,” Sadie began. “Please help the people in Florida.” And this is all she says. She’s a kid, not a public speaker, and her words were followed by a long silence. Sadie didn’t really know what to say. Her mother told me that her daughter had not spoken before a crowd this large before. Sadie added nervously, “Help everyone to be okay, God.”
This was followed by another long gap - a quietude that was starting to get pretty awkward until someone in the audience added their words. “God, let Florida’s power come back on soon,” a man said in the back. An older woman in a tweed suit chimed in, “And help the people who drowned, dear God. Help their families find their bodies, and give their families strength to endure the worst.”
“Help my son, Lord,” said one white-haired man. “God. Help Justin and his family get power back on.” A woman with hair that was more blue than white, said, “Father God, grant safety to the linemen and the line women who are trying to restore the power to Lee County, Florida. Guide their hands, and keep them from harm.”
A mid-forties man with cropped red hair and forearms like Virginia hams said, “Help the young woman I saw on the news to find her children, dear Lord. Help that poor, poor family.” “Help all the pets,” said a young professional woman with a blond ponytail. “All those dogs and cats who are confused, wandering around, and don’t know where to go. Please help them.”
“Grant grace to the emergency crews and first responders, God,” said a man who looked like a military guy: crew cut, large shoulders. He looked like he could crush a Buick’s front end with his bare hands. “Help the EMTs, Lord. I know they have their work cut out for them.”
“Please God,” said a guy in the back of the room. “Please let families find their missing people. Please be with all the people who’re looking for someone they love.” This got several yeses from the audience and three amens. “I pray, Lord,” said a young guy with a mullet and a mustache, which is apparently a popular hairstyle again, “that you would let the policemen be taken care of. Those officers get put into some horrible situations, God. Please take care of my brothers. Help them to stay safe in all this mess.”
“Heavenly father,” said one woman. “Watch over my daughter in Southwest Florida. Please. God, if anyone can protect her, it’s you. Please let her call her mother when she gets a moment.” The woman began to cry. Then the whole room went quiet. Nothing can make a room fall silent like a woman’s tears.
A small civic group. A Thursday morning before breakfast. The morning after Hurricane Ian made landfall. Sadie spoke into the microphone like an old pro. “And all God’s people said?” And well, you know the rest.
Regardless of era, or circumstances, the Body of Christ is precious and priceless and deserves our prayers, for those in and those outside the body, because God’s love, well, God’s love.
Words of Institution
Lord of Life and Mercy, forgive us when we think too small, or without humility. Forgive our human nature to pigeonhole, rather than thinking of “hole” with a “w.” We lift up those who are suffering, who are lost and are scared to pieces, including our own selves. May our inward natures cling to the comfort and safety of being part of your body as go out to do the work you have for each of us. And all God’s people say, Amen.
No sermon as the pastor was ill. It would have been amazing!
First Congregational Church
September 18, 2022
15th Sunday after Pentecost, Blessing of the Backpacks, Internet Access Sunday
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
It has been said that the grace of God is like the man who went into the clothing store to buy a suit and was shown a blue one. "No," the customer said, "That won't do. I want a green suit." So the clerk called out to his partner, "Turn on the green light, Joe, the man wants a green suit!” I’m not exactly sure how that is like God’s grace, but the illustration is fun.
A young man in Montana bought a horse from a farmer for $100. The farmer agreed to deliver the horse the next day. However, when the next day arrived, the farmer went back on his promise.
“I’m afraid the horse has died,” he explained. The young man said, “Well, then give me my money back.” The farmer said, “Can’t do that. I spent it already.” The young man thought for a moment and said, “Ok, then, just bring me the dead horse.” The farmer asked, “What are you going to do with a dead horse?” The young man said, “I’m going to raffle it off.”
The farmer said, “You can’t raffle off a dead horse!” The young man said, “Sure I can. Watch me. I just won’t tell anybody he’s dead.” A month later, the farmer met up with the young man and asked, “What happened with that dead horse?” The young man said, “I raffled him off. I sold 500 tickets at two dollars apiece and made a profit of $998.” The farmer said, “Didn’t anyone complain?” The young man said, “Just the guy who won. So I gave him his two dollars back.”
Last week, the scripture passage was about leaving the 99 sheep to find the lost one, and the second part of the passage was about the woman who turns her house upside down looking for a lost coin, and when she finds it, there is great rejoicing for a little thing that was a big thing.
It's really too bad that the Lectionary doesn't include the rest of chapter 15, because it is the parable of the lost son or, as many of us recall it, the prodigal son. All three stories are directed to the crowd that has gathered around Jesus as he travels around the countryside, including the disciples, the tax collectors, and sinners, whomever Jesus determined was in that group.
Presumably, this gathering of people is still intact, at least according to the Gospel writer of Luke, but now Jesus directs his attention to the disciples.
Luke 16:1-13, The Parable of the Shrewd Manager
1 Jesus told his disciples: "There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. 2 So he called him in and asked him, 'What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.'
3 "The manager said to himself, 'What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job. I'm not strong enough to dig, and I'm ashamed to beg-- 4 I know what I'll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.'
5 "So he called in each one of his master's debtors. He asked the first, 'How much do you owe my master?' 6 " 'Eight hundred gallons of olive oil,' he replied. "The manager told him, 'Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred.' 7 "Then he asked the second, 'And how much do you owe?' " 'A thousand bushels of wheat,' he replied. "He told him, 'Take your bill and make it eight hundred.'
8 "The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light.
9 I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings. 10 "Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. 11 So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? 12 And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else's property, who will give you property of your own?
13 "No servant can serve two masters. Either they will hate the one and love the other, or they will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money."
Thank you, Phil. In case you were wondering, you are not the only one wrestling with the difficulty of this passage. It seems as if Jesus is condoning less-than-upfront business practices. I ran across numerous commentators and preachers whom all said that this was a really difficult passage and that there were a ton of implications that could be made from it.
I kid you not, Pastor Stinky, on desperate preacher.com was referenced by more than a few individuals looking for help. He said, “I have no freaking idea what to do with this.” In some ways, parables are supposed to make us wrestle with the points trying to be made. My question is, is it so necessary to struggle so hard?
If we’ve learned much at all about Jesus’ parables, it’s that they rarely deal solely with the most obvious meaning - as in this morning’s passage of wealth. I’ve been noticing that more often than not, the beginning of a passage plays a huge part in it’s meaning. In the very first verse - the manager was “accused of wasting his possessions.”
Most presumably, we think “his possessions” references the olive oil and the bushels of wheat belonging to the rich man. So here is that sentence again. "There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions.”
If we go down this path, then maybe the meaning is in the manager’s shrewd thinking - and that’s what was being wasted. First of all, the word shrewd has developed into a negative adjective these last few decades, associated with self-serving, generally ethically questionable behavior. But that’s not all it means. It originally meant “bright in the perception of things”, “creative in thoughts and actions,” and “sound in judgment”.
So throw those definitions of shrewd into the question, and you get a clearer answer. What possessions were being wasted? I think it was his ability to be shrewd.
I know, it sounds like a circular argument, but that’s because it’s sort of a circular understanding. If the manager was quick and clever enough to bring about a resolution that seemed to make everyone happy, imagine what he could have done from the get-go, had circumstances been different, whatever they were. Maybe the one who was wasting his “possessions” was the rich man because apparently, he had a cracker-jack business person in his employ.
I wish I could remember how it was stated because years ago, I vaguely remember a sermon I wrote - and that’s an extremely rare thing - that was focused on money - not the evilness of money as people think the Bible says, but about the opportunity money has for us to help others. It’s not right to shame people who have the acumen and talent for creating wealth. Some of us - you - are better at it than others - like some of us are better at catching walleye than salmon. People who are able to accumulate money in greater amounts just have greater opportunities to do great things that people with less resources can do.
So the question is, how are we wasting our possessions, and don’t forget the non-physical ones. What is it you know you’re pretty good at, and even makes your heart feel good when you do it? I think that’s one of the things we can take from this passage, to think about our gifts and talents and are there ways to do even more with them? I thought about this passage in our day and age, where we live, and I wonder if the possession we waste more than we realize is that of creativity.
Retired or working, young or old, male or female, fishing person or not, we still have ministries as people of Christ. Maybe not as many opportunities or energy behind them as we all get older, but we still can be creative in how we use what we have; that faithfulness in little - leads to faithfulness in greater - here and in eternity. So shall we pray.
Holy and Brilliant God, thank you for giving us such an exquisite gift as creativity. It encompasses such huge parts of our lives and has brought us to such amazing places since your Creation was created. Forgive us when we waste opportunities and leadings. Nudge our minds and hearts to use all that you give us with wisdom and graciousness. Thank you, for all your blessings, as all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
September 11, 2022
14th Sunday after Pentecost
“Identity as Joyful Parts of the Whole”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
I just read that Albert Einstein was a real person. All this time I thought he was a theoretical physicist. I also read about a store that only sells bagels and donuts. It’s called ‘Hole Foods.’ Then I read that a sheep was seen driving a car in a swimsuit. It was a lamb bikini. And then I ran across the term domestic housewife, which, you know, implies that there are feral housewives, so if I’d have known that was an option…. The out-take from all that reading is to not believe everything you read.
ID. We get asked for it for good reasons and not-so-good reasons. Some people put more importance on their identity than others, but we all deal with our identities all the time.
Years ago I had an appointment with my eye doctor, just down the road, Kevin Nelson. Somehow the conversation came to him saying, “You know, I’d really love for people to know me as a genius.” Of course, as with many a conversation with Dr. Nelson, we laughed and laughed, and the conversation went on from there. But the thought stuck in my mind.
So I had a couple of hundred business cards made up for him. I think it was a rich green with a white business font in which the first line was Kevin Nelson and the second line was “Genius.” He has referenced those cards every so often over the years, especially when he golfs with someone he doesn’t know and he gets to hand them his card. Kevin Nelson, Genius. The out-take from that story is, what would your ideal business card read - first thing that comes to mind? I think I’d like mine to read comedian, but I’m not really all that funny, so there’s that.
This morning’s scripture passage picks up where last week’s left off: crowds gathering as Jesus traveled around the countryside, teaching and healing. Like a good teacher, Jesus varied his approaches to get his points across, using hyperbole, humor and relatable stories. This morning’s passage shines the light on the tax collectors and “sinners” that were joining those crowds.
It’s an interesting designation because I wonder if the tax collectors and sinners were one group or two. We know that the designation of tax collectors fell to those Jewish individuals who collaborated with the Roman government, not always in ways that reflected well on their Jewish heritage.
If tax collectors and sinners were one group, then the sinners might well have been Pharisees, Sadducees, or other religious leaders that didn’t quite live up to their status. If the sinners were a separate group, they may well have been “those who are unable to follow the exacting standards of Torah.” Either way, there were a lot of people around, including officials.
Now the tax collectors and "sinners" were all gathering around to hear him. 2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them."
3 Then Jesus told them this parable: 4 "Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? 5 And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders 6 and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, 'Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.' 7 I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.
8 "Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Does she not light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? 9 And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, 'Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.' 10 In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents."
Thank you, Judy. An interesting side note of identities is when they have more shocking elements attached to them. Those who have had the opportunity, know that the Cherry Hut in Beulah is as much a phenomenon as quintessential Michigan. But did you know that last summer, which was still in the throws of Covid, they went through 650 turkeys? As for their little red moniker, they sell between 20,000 - 25,000 cherry pies a season.
Another shocker bit of information, among teenagers who sought information about mental health, 95% said that they trusted their parents, 80% said they trusted their teachers and other adults at school and 78% trusted their friends. Those are really hopeful numbers.
As followers of Christ, part of our identity is in boosting knowledge about mental health - for all ages, to help decrease the stigma associated with those who struggle with it, and to help build support. It’s critical to notice people, to have even short conversations with them, especially with kids - whether they are legally yours or not - in this Suicide Prevention Month.
These are interesting parables because neither the sheep nor the coin made a decision to become lost, it just happened, nor did they ask to be found. The parables don’t stop with simple lostness, but there is an effort to go out of the way to find and restore them. Add to all that, and there is rejoicing - in heaven and in the presence of angels.
A few years ago, I had my DNA tested, just because I was curious. For 55 years or so, I thought I was three-quarters Swedish, a quarter German, and a hairline of French. Well! I was nearly indignant to discover that I was just a third Swedish! At the same time, I was astonished to learn that there were Eastern European aspects to my Heritage and even British elements.
Since that initial reveal, fine-tuning has been achieved, and the latest report is that I’m 60% Swedish and Danish, still more Eastern Europe and Russian DNA than Germanic European, with a cherry topping of 2% Sardinia and 2% Northern Italy. Within a particular area in Central Sweden encompassing a square of 200 miles, all the members of those communities and I, are linked through shared ancestors. I probably have family who lived in this area for years—and maybe still do. Ooo!
It’s really mind-boggling - belonging to a group of people that I haven’t yet “found” and who haven’t found me. The answer to those wondering if siblings have the same DNA composite, the answer is a near firm, “no.” I can explain more of that on a one-to-one conversation if you’d like.
The point of all that is not about me, but about how we think of ourselves. Some folks really don’t care a fig about their ancestry, while others have sisters who have bins and binders with not one or two but upwards of eight branches of the family tree. Those who might not care about DNA might really care about the NRA card in their wallet, or the student id, military id, security clearances, and the list goes on. We all have things that define us, some that have high financial value and others that come at a great emotional cost.
While almost all our identities are different, we share some: as people of faith, followers of Christ, and beloved of God. We belong to the One who is 1) a seeker who 2) is not fatigued and 3) experiences joy and fosters celebration when the lost is found. Jesus’ call to the tax collectors and sinners is our call, all these centuries later: to treasure the lost, and be concerned about those who lose their way.
Neither the coin nor the sheep have to repent of becoming lost, not only because that is an unrealistic idea, but it also doesn’t make any difference. They were lost. They were found. There was rejoicing.
I would venture to guess that a lot of us know the song “Edelweiss,” made famous by the movie version of The Sound of Music. It’s so accessible in its simplicity and hopefulness, yet most of us don’t realize that while it sounds like an old song, it’s rather recent. It’s even more precious when we shine a light on its inclusion in the famous show.
The producers of the out-of-town shows determined that the musical needed another song in the second act, so they went to Oscar Hammerstein, who happened to be in the hospital, dying of stomach cancer. Dying, in pain, only 65 years old, rather than giving in to cynicism or writing a gritty song, Oscar wrote about beauty, eternal renewal, rebirth, and hope. He wrote a song that shows us that goodness lasts much longer than hate and that pure, beautiful symbols grow out of the snow that seeks to bury us.
Knowing his time was up, Oscar decided to leave the world a final gift - after giving so many - that would be a reminder that life goes on, and it is beautiful. It’s the sort of gift that followers of Christ and beloved of God may well find leaking out the corners of their eyes - some out of gratitude, some out of sorrow for those who are still waiting to be found.
We can, in our humanness, get a little zealous in our perceived need to put people in pigeonholes. Jesus never seemed all that concerned about whether a person or persons belonging to the “in” crowd or not, unless they caused harm to individuals. For Jesus, people were/are parts of the family of God; the single reason for joyful celebration.
There are few folks who would argue that this has been a tough summer, a tough season, and a tough couple of years. A lot of people have put their shoulders to the yoke and leaned in, helping others, going the extra mile, keeping the tissue companies afloat, and more than a few have come to feel as if they are lost. You are not lost. God knows exactly where you are, and nothing will change God’s desire for that knowledge.
For those who want to verify, there is a website: www.lostandfound.com. Yep, you can post anything lost, report anything found, and there are even lost and found software programs for restaurants, hotels, train stations, schools, and airports - like hello!? - ballparks, amusement parks, bus systems, movie theaters, you name it, there is software for it.
While it’s a good example of how technology can help people connect in a useful way, it’s a good thing we don’t need apps or software, or other retail venues to know that God will never give up on us. And not only will God never give up on us, but God’s delight is also simply us - who we are - who you are - valued and precious - members of God’s whole creation. And so we pray.
God of all your people and all our ways, thank you for never even considering that we have more or less value, that we are all invaluable to you. Thank you for the delight you have in us - all of us - that is so much greater than we even realize. Remind us and embolden us to the extra effort to seek lost sheep and coins and hearts and minds, because our mission in those realms never, ever ends, regardless of age or ability. Help us to lift up those who have fallen into cracks and crevices - regardless of how they get to those places, that we might all realize our “Identity as Joyful Parts of the Whole,” as all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.