First Congregational Church
November 24, 2013
27th Sunday after Pentecost, Christ the King Sunday, Thanksgiving Sunday,
Last Sunday of Pentecost
Jeremiah 23:5-6 and Luke 23:33-43
"Subjects of Gratitude"
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Perhaps it's been a while, but there is a wonderful story about a king from the pen of Dr. Seuss. On the far-away Island of Sala-ma-Sond, Yertle the Turtle was king of the pond. A nice little pond. It was clean. It was neat. The water was warm. There was plenty to eat. The turtles had everything turtles might need. And they were all happy. Quite happy indeed. They were until Yertle, the king of them all, Decided the kingdom he ruled was too small.
So Yertle, the Turtle King, lifted his hand. And Yertle, the Turtle King, gave a command. He ordered nine turtles to swim to his stone. And, using these turtles, he built a new throne. He made each turtle stand on another one's back And he piled them all up in a nine-turtle stack. And then Yertle climbed up. He sat down on the pile. What a wonderful view! He could see 'most a mile! "All mine!" Yertle cried. "Oh, the things I now rule! I'm king of a cow! And I'm king of a mule! I'm king of a house! And, what's more, beyond that, I'm king of a blueberry bush and a cat! I'm Yertle the Turtle! Oh, marvelous me! For I am the ruler of all that I see!"
For the few of you who have never read the masterpiece, Yertle decides that his perch is not high enough. So, he orders more turtles, at least 200 more. And, now his throne allows him to see for 40 miles. Still not enough. More turtles. He needs 5,607, he says, stacked all the way up to heaven. Because even kids know that's what a king does. A king orders people around and sits on a throne and rules. A king is high and exalted. The king is the most important person. And everybody serves the king, does what the king wants, tries to make the king happy. If the king's not happy, nobody's happy. Because the king is powerful and mighty. A king, the dictionary says, is one that is supreme or preeminent. If you're not the king, you're subservient to the king. The king serves no one. The king is served. Even kids know that.
Which is what makes this morning's second scripture passage all the more "right." Both passages were listed in the Lectionary for today. The first of the two - although it is a bit shortened - is the prophecy of the king that would come and rule over the lost and the "found." The second passage, not so much. In fact, the passage may seem to have little, if anything, to do with Christ the King, Thanksgiving or any other calendar demarcation.
Jeremiah 23:5-6 (NIV)
5 “The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, a King who will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land. 6 In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. This is the name by which he will be called: The Lord Our Righteous Savior.
Luke 23:33-43 (NIV)
33 When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. 34 Jesus said,“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.
35 The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.”
36 The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar 37 and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.” 38 There was a written notice above him, which read: this is the king of the jews. 39 One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”
40 But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? 41 We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Thank you, Mary. In preparing for this morning's message, I came across a wonderful question that sort of smoothed out the wrinkles of discomfort I felt at the initial look at the passage from Luke. The question was: Isn't calling Christ "King" antiquated and oppressive? A person named David Bennett answered, "I would say "no" ..... 'Christ the King Sunday' has a much better ring to it than 'Christ our Democratically Elected Leader Sunday.'
Over a thousand years before Jesus was born, the Hebrew people had whined and begged long and hard for a king to lead their people. Their first king was Saul, followed by David and then Solomon and then the nation split into two kingdoms: Israel on the north and Judah to the south. Both kingdoms went through 20 kings - from good to bad and everything between. After all that and then wars of invading "outsiders" who destroyed the Chosen People, God said enough, laying down the path for a better king and kingdom.
On the physical, literal face of it all, that didn't seem to happen. Except for those of us who have a different view. We believe that the better king came. It's just that he came in diapers and his coronation was an execution. The thing is that we just doesn't expect a king to look like the picture in our mind when we have this passage laying in front of us. And we sure don't expect the palace of the Skull, the crowd of connivers and compassionates or the pathetique of the prisoners to be the precursor to the Advent season. Good Friday seems like it should be a long way away from Advent.
Jesus said his kingdom wasn't going to look like the kingdoms of the world, and just like much of his ministry, his "coronation" didn't look like those of earthly kings and queens. This king ushered in his kingdom with a prayer of forgiveness for those who treated him unfairly. "Father, forgive them." And then Jesus promised to take a criminal with him into his kingdom. Earthly kings are shielded from criminals. Jesus invites them to spend eternity with him.
Jesus did everything backwards. He didn't fast when he was supposed to fast. He worked when he wasn't supposed to work. He hung around with the wrong crowd. He blessed those who were poor and hungry and weeping, and he had only words of woe for those who were full of themselves. He believed in forgiving those who have wronged you, even when you are justified in refusing to forgive. He tried to teach his disciples that the way of service is the way of life, that the way up is down.
And, so, when he hung there that day and forgave those whom he would have been justified in never forgiving, when he hung there that day and extended love to a common criminal, he was confounding the world's notions of what it means to be a king, of what it means to have power, of what it means to be a human being, of what religion is really supposed to be about. This king rules by vulnerable love, not by domination. This king teaches us to the very end that God's power is made perfect in weakness. Jesus could have been "forgiven" for telling the first prisoner to "leave him alone."
We would expect a person with nails in hands and feet, bent in a position that induced pain just to breathe to rail against anyone talking to him, period. We might expect a vehement, "Forget it, buddy! Can't you see that I'm finished, washed up, through?" But, of course, he says nothing of the kind. Instead he makes a promise: "Today you will be with me in paradise." Even on his best days Jesus did not talk much about paradise--in fact, this is the only place in the entire Bible where the word "paradise" passes Jesus' lips. All along he'd tried to make clear that the kingdom is not what you expect: it's a mustard seed, a treasure hidden, yeast that disappears in the dough. Mighty strange moment to mention paradise for the first time!
Truth is, I think you and I experience the crucifixion of Jesus with some trepidation because we sense that at The Skull we see our reflection. And if we're honest, there's a part of us, maybe even a large part, that wants Jesus to be a different kind of king.
There are 196 countries in the world; twenty-six of them have monarchs. Twenty four of those are male: kings, sultans, emperors, sheikhs, princes or grand dukes. Two are queens. Only three are absolute monarchs. Unless we live in one of those three absolute dictatorship countries, kings don't mean much to us. Calling Jesus our president or prime minister does not say what the Scriptures are talking about when they call Jesus a king. They are saying that he is the absolutely most important person in our lives.
When God promised a righteous branch, I doubt that anyone within earshot could have guessed the King of Kings didn't ascend to a throne, stepping up on the backs of others, but came down from his kingdom and throne (if we think in directions), to be one of us, then to return to the place of the right hand.
Anne Lamott is a 59 year old, white American novelist and non-fiction writer, progressive political activist, public speaker and writing teacher who wears dread locks. She recently posted on Facebook that she at a fundraiser at a church where the choir made an astonishing spread for her reception, 'much of which she ate so that no one's feelings would be hurt.'
She said, "I ate all those warm chocolate chip cookies out of Christian love. God told me to. Thy will be done and all that. I ate the brownies because they seemed sad. And the lemon bars were having tiny anxiety issues." I think Jesus once said, "Greater life has no one than the one who lays down his life for another." Anne Lamott may make a weak case of laying down her life for the sake of that fundraiser. Jesus really did lay down his life - because of his love: for the criminals next to him, for Judas, for the priests and Pharisees, who weren't fair, you see and the Sadducees, who were sad, you see. And Jesus laid down his life for Mother Teresa and Billy Graham and little Jimmy Kolehmeinen and his little brother, whom we have yet to meet. He may not be the king we expected, but we are his subjects, and that is something for which we can all be grateful. So let us pray.
God, the sign over your son's head said, "This is the king of the Jews." In that scene that we'd rather not look on, you made him not a sign, but the king of humility, the absolute monarch of love. You gave us a sovereign ruler of forgiveness, whose reign is over life and death, whose might is compassion, whose power is in his willingness to suffer with the lowly and dignify the outcast, whose glory is mercy, who makes no demands upon his subjects but only showers them with blessings, who passes no law and wields no sword, who threatens no violence but only suffers it, and redeems those who suffer, whose army is those who humbly love, who utters no commands but one.
As his loyal and royal subjects, help us obey his law of love. Help us serve in his army of gentleness. May we join in his service and his love and dedicate ourselves to his mercy. For our families and our lives, for the fruit of the earth and our shelters from the storms of life, we are grateful. For reminding us that we are more than creatures of this earth, and you are more than just a crown and throne, all your subjects, in great gratitude say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
November 17, 2013
26th Sunday after Pentecost
"The Participial Form of the Verb Makes All the Difference"
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
There was once a king of large country with many people. The king wanted to extend his control into the realm of nature as well as over the people. So he launched what he called "A Campaign Against Four Evils." The Four Evils were rats, flies, mosquitoes and sparrows. The sparrows, he said, were special enemies, because they freely helped themselves to millions of tons of food each year. How dare they take away food from the People?
So one day the entire populace was ordered to wage war on the sparrows. They were to relentlessly pursue the sparrows by banging loudly on pots and pans so as to chase them into a frenzy. And it worked. Sparrows by the millions finally dropped dead of exhaustion, clearly no match for the dictator.
The next day the country's newspapers were triumphant with stories of marketplaces all over the land being glutted with more fried sparrow than the people could eat. But those papers never seemed to report on the following two years of massive crop loss and famine. It seems that without the sparrows eating "millions of tons of food," wheat-eating insects flourished, consuming massive amounts of grain and other foliage. * It, is, if nothing else, a point to the song, "His Eye Is On the Sparrow."
We may - from time to time - think about God's redemptive work in the lives of people. Redeeming people from death, from abuse, from grief, from sin, from illness, from addiction, from anything from a long list of maladies that fall on us and the human race. But we don't often put the two words - redemption and nature - in the same sentence.
Before we get to reading our passage from Isaiah, we may hear a little richness in remembering that when chapter 65 was written, Solomon's 6th century before Christ, glorious, gargantuan, gilded temple had been destroyed by the Babylonians, and the elite of the Jewish people were taken into captivity back to Babylon - modern-day Iraq. Seventy years had passed, and a lot of the exiled people had died, babies had been born, and a generation or two had known only the magnificent Babylon, with its wide streets, canals, sumptuous gardens, huge protective wall that was twelve feet thick, and the stunning gates to the city proper.
But the king of Babylon at that time, Cyrus, set the Hebrew people free, to go home to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. During the time of exile, those who stayed in Jerusalem had bought up some of the "vacated" land, and the Samaritans had caused some trouble, so "home" was not exactly home. On top of all that, the rebuilding of the temple was not as exciting as it may have been anticipated. It was much smaller than the temple that the old-timers could remember, much less opulent, and certainly a step "down" or "backward" from life in Babylon. So the writer of Isaiah says,
17 “See, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind. 18 But be glad and rejoice forever in what I will create, for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy. 19 I will rejoice over Jerusalem and take delight in my people; the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard in it no more. 20 “Never again will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not live out his years; the one who dies at a hundred will be thought a mere child; the one who fails to reach a hundred will be considered accursed. 21 They will build houses and dwell in them; they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit. 22 No longer will they build houses and others live in them, or plant and others eat. For as the days of a tree, so will be the days of my people; my chosen ones will long enjoy the work of their hands. 23 They will not labor in vain, nor will they bear children doomed to misfortune; for they will be a people blessed by the Lord, they and their descendants with them. 24 Before they call I will answer; while they are still speaking I will hear. 25 The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, and dust will be the serpent’s food. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain,” says the Lord.
Thank you, Pat. This is one of those passages that may ring a far-off bell, with familiar parts heard at funerals and Christmas-time. Some of us may recognize it as the basis for the famous paintings depicting "The Peaceable Kingdom." For the people some 2,500 years ago, Isaiah's prophecy would sound like a Peaceable Kingdom. Even in the last 100 years, we've come a long way from the 75% infant mortality rate and complications of childbirth that left many women dead or unable to bear children. To not have to settle legal battles of property rights would be heaven.
It would be so wonderful to have the time to ask each one of you what you think about the last verses that Isaiah talks about - about the critters - and how you "see" that part of the prophecy playing out. There is a little clip on a website called 22 Words, that shows little Marshall Shaffer, who is all of maybe 18 to 24 months old, dressed in a tiger costume. He's at the Point Defiance Zoo in Tacoma, WA, in front of a tiger cub that is maybe three to four months old. Separated by a glass, the child and the cub play together, tagging one another, faking each other out, running back and forth between the ends of the glass. The laughing little boy and the extra large kitten give a clear glimpse of what it could look like - when God redeems all of nature - us and the animals and birds and even the vegetation and the land itself - for God's new world.
I wonder how many of us read or hear this passage as coming from far-off history, way back, when life looked so different from our present. And yet, there is a way out-there sense, as in that apocalyptic day when Jesus returns, an apocalyptic time that is yet to come. History and future are good things, and they are good for various purposes. But the present, that's where most of us live, and outside the "future," there seems little to apply to our lives today - regardless of our situations. Except that "The Participial Form of the Verb Makes All the Difference."
To be honest, I wouldn't know a participle if it ran up and smacked me upside the head. On behalf of all of us who have failed you, I apologize to the English teachers among us. And knowing that the original language of our passage was in Hebrew, well, I can't bluff you all that well. Suffice it to say that when I read Corrine Carvalho's commentary on Isaiah and this part about the participial form of the verb in the first verse of our passage, I couldn't pass it up.
It's not so much that it's a brilliant sounding title, but the implications are what really matter. It has to do with the verb create - from which we get creation - and the idea that it is an on-going activity. Ms. Carvalho put it so simply and beautifully: "That ideal world is being created "new" every day. Then she put this cherry on the top: "God's creative work turns the profane world of the city (Jerusalem) into holy space, God's territory."
"That ideal world is being created "new" every day. God's creative work turns the profane world of the city into holy space, God's territory." I tell ya, I got so excited about those sentences last night, I almost said "Amen" right out loud!
Isaiah's words are not just about what happened in the past, which didn't result in a lasting peace, and they aren't just words about an indefinite future. They are words about now, today, this moment, and God's creation making this - and this world - all the worlds - holy space.
Ms. Carvalho ended her commentary by saying that Isaiah 65:17-25 "invites people today to consider how our experience of God's holiness changes the world for us." So how - in your experience - does God's holiness change the world for you? How are you "glad" and able to rejoice in what God creates day after day? Where does the wolf and lamb lie down together in your heart? Perhaps it's the wolf of pain and the lamb of letting go? Perhaps the wolf of resentment and the lamb of grace?
I suspect that these questions are not easily answered by everyone here today. For some, I suspect that the next moment is a dark, unknown place or a possible element on the list of things we consider "bad," and for others, it is a place of joy or gratitude and the long list of "good things." For some of us, tomorrow is not only a very long way away, it, too, holds great potential for worry, anxiety or disappointment. For others of us, tomorrow will take care of itself, it is all about living in the delight of that which God has created.
For now, life isn't fair, but we have each other and God. For now, a new world has already begun, because Christ has risen. For now, it may seem like life is a roll of the dice toward chaos, but it is really a picture of communal harmony. In terms of music, there are "perfect" intervals, unison, the perfect 4th, the perfect 5th and the perfect 8th or octave. But there are so many other intervals, and without the augmented fourth there would be no Bebop, and without minor sevenths, the Star Trek theme just wouldn't be the same.
Things may/will look different in God's "upside down kingdom" (lions and lambs together.) But in the midst of trouble, God is not caught by surprise and our answer is already on the way, having already come in the Christ.)
"In the Lord's Prayer, we pray 'Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." From our Isaiah passage, we are reminded that before we can call, God will answer, not just once or twice, but every day, every moment. God's answers are not always what we want to hear, but "faith" comes in when we step forward, believing that God not only answers our prayers, but will lead us, if we allow God to take the lead. This passage reminds us that while we are yet speaking, God hears. Not heard or will hear. Hears. Right now. Always, right now. So let's.
Ever-Creating and Always Redeeming God, we thank you that the participial form of your verbs all the difference. Today, we are especially grateful that you create - new, every day - a new heaven and new earth, even when we don't recognize them as such. Thank you for the history you've given us, that we may rely on your past leadings and creations to help us as we look to you for those things in our present. And we thank you for the future you give us, that we may look forward to the time when yours will truly be a peaceable kingdom. For now, God, remind us that you care about our lives in such detail, that it matters when a sparrow falls from the sky, and how much more when one of our hearts weep or a soul cries. In great gratitude for all our blessings and for the gift of your son, who redeems us all, all your created ones say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
November 10, 2013
25th Sunday after Pentecost
"Dorothy, We're Not in Babylon Anymore"
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
While rummaging through her attic, Lena found an old shotgun. Unsure how to dispose of it, she called her parents. "Take it to the police station," her mother suggested. Lena was about to hang up when her mother added, "And Lena?" "Yes, Mother?" "Call first."
Sven lost his horse one day, so he got down on his knees to thank God. Ole was passing by and asked, "Why are you thanking God when you've lost your horse?" Sven replied, "Well thank goodness I wasn't on it at the time or I'd be lost too."
I don't know about anyone else, but I find a great delight in "watching" for those things that may seem ordinary or not even very worthy of notice, that point to God and what God is doing. This week, part of that "discovery" came near the end of one of my guilty pleasures: the television show, Grey's Anatomy. For those who aren't familiar with the show, it's a nighttime hospital soap opera, Dr. Webber is the former chief of surgery at Seattle Grace, and for the last weeks, he's been recovering from a severe electrocution. He's been laying low, regaining his strength, but this past week's episode brought opportunities for him to start getting back into the swing of the hospital again. In fact, the whole episode could be summed up in Dr. Webber's comment after doing CPR on another patient. He said, "I lost myself for a while, but now I'm back."
The other interesting "sign" that caught my attention this week was a little video from YouTube, about a homeless man named Jim Wolf, a United States Army Veteran. For decades, Jim has struggled with poverty, homelessness and alcoholism. Just a couple months ago, he volunteered to go through a physical transformation that included a good hair cut - and color - beard trim, and his every day clothes replaced with a white shirt, suit coat, tie and tack. When he was finally given the opportunity to look in a mirror, it was easy to realize that he wasn't much of a smiling guy, probably from his missing teeth, but the look of surprise even caught him. At the end of the little clip, it said that since the filming, Jim has taken control of his life. He is now scheduled to have his own housing and is attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings for the first time ever. I don't know who Kathy Lynn Setser is, but it was her comment that made the link: "he was lost and now he is found."
Unless you have one of those really great memories, or you look at the Table of Contents, most of us can feel a little lost when it comes to finding the book of Haggai. And no, Haggai is not the plural for Haag.
In looking at the potential Lectionary passages for today, under normal circumstances, I would have probably glossed right over Haggai. But spending time with it for the Bible Study this week gave me understanding and insight that I may not have thought about. Lesson 1 has written all over it "forgiveness and grace and not judging a scroll by it's obscurity.
Our passage this morning is interesting, too, because it deals with a specific point in history. In 586 BC, the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem, captured the Hebrew people and took them back to Babylon, exiling them from their country. Nearly 50 years later, a Jewish governor of Persia named Zerubbabel led 50,000 people back to the promised land in order to rebuild the Temple of God in Jerusalem.
So the Hebrews get back to Jerusalem, and do some work on rebuilding the Temple. But the people also needed their own homes, and there were Samaritans who were causing some turf wars, and work on the temple stopped. It's understandable that after the immediate setting up of maybe the roof and altar, people needed their own protection from the elements. But the reasons for not working on the temple had become excuses.
One of the big "excuses" was that there were some folks who remembered what the old Temple looked like: huge, with gold covered cedar pillars (and many of us can appreciate how long it takes a cedar to get pillar-sized), silver covered this, ornate ivory that. But the Hebrew people didn't have the same resources to spend, and the temple that Zerubbabel was helping build was looking puny and pathetic. It was like going from a five bedroom, 3,000 square feet floor space home to a two bedroom apartment with 800 square feet. It may be a lovely apartment, but you aren't going to be able to do the same things as before, so why bother? God appreciates the efforts, and bucks up the people through the prophet Haggai. (By the way, before anyone gets nervous, this is not an introduction to a building project around here.)
Before Missi gets up here, I'll fill you in on a few of the other "names" in this passage. The subtitle is "The promised glory of the new house in the second year of King Darius. What's "odd" about the reference of the king is that he was not of Hebrew descent. The Hebrew people had been so "lost" away from home, they had no key people or events to mark their own time. It would be like us, in our country, having our history marked by the reign of Carl Gustaf XVI of Sweden.
The reference to Joshua in our passage has nothing to do with the Joshua of many colored coat fame. He was the son of Nun. This Joshua is the son of Jozadak, another in a long line of high priests. This mention of Jozadak is a reference that points to the lineage of the Jewish people and with that lineage, God's presence through time. Pretty clever reference, especially when we gentiles can figure it out. So God speaks to the civil side of life to Zerubbabel and the religious side of life to Joshua through the prophet (Haggai.)
Haggai 1:15-2:9 (NIV)
15 on the twenty-fourth day of the sixth month.
The Promised Glory of the New House In the second year of King Darius,
2 1 on the twenty-first day of the seventh month, the word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai: 2 “Speak to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, to Joshua son of Jozadak,[a] the high priest, and to the remnant of the people. Ask them, 3 ‘Who of you is left who saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Does it not seem to you like nothing? 4 But now be strong, Zerubbabel,’ declares the Lord. ‘Be strong, Joshua son of Jozadak, the high priest. Be strong, all you people of the land,’ declares the Lord, ‘and work. For I am with you,’ declares the Lord Almighty. 5 ‘This is what I covenanted with you when you came out of Egypt. And my Spirit remains among you. Do not fear.’
6 “This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘In a little while I will once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. 7 I will shake all nations, and what is desired by all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,’ says the Lord Almighty. 8 ‘The silver is mine and the gold is mine,’ declares the Lord Almighty. 9 ‘The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house,’ says the Lord Almighty. ‘And in this place I will grant peace,’ declares the Lord Almighty.”
Thank you, Missi. Lord Almighty, that's a lot of Lord Almightys! That, too, is an interesting reference, because in Hebrew, it has something to do with the God-of-the-Angel-Armies. I don't know that it is as much a reference to the "battle" linked to such armies, but perhaps more to do with the numbers that are in God's Angel Armies. And that isn't a reference that some folks might grab on to today, except that it is interesting that three times - that religiously significant number of three - God says, "Be strong."
God says, very pointedly to Zerubbabel, Jozadak, insert your name here, "Be strong," right before Haggai makes reference of God shaking the heavens and the earth that will announce the completion of the temple. Interesting that at the moment when Jesus died, there was an earthquake, and the veil in the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom, rather than bottom to top, which would have given more "evidence" for human interaction.
I think another of those "God pointers" came in the realization that over there at desperatepreacher.com, there is still only one comment on this Haggai passage, verses the bunches of comments on the gospel lesson from Luke. (I double checked this morning.) In fact, the last comments about this section on Haggai came from November of 2001 - just weeks after the heavens and earth shook around the Twin Towers in New York City. How "God-ciental" is that - realizing that the Lectionary is created months ahead of a new year?
God said to the people then and to us now, be strong - and get to work. The reference to the gold and silver belonging to God? God is already at work, and has the "materials" so-to-speak, ready for us. Have we perhaps forgotten that we need to bend down and pick up bricks? For those with back issues, you don't get an excuse, because God has all kinds of jobs to meet all our abilities - or even what we might call dis-abilities. And much of the work God has need of us is not so much physical as it is of the heart.
Doing the work gives us a nod back - way back before Haggai, Zerubbabel and Joshua - to the days and time the Hebrew people spent enslaved (again lost from home) in Egypt. If God could deliver thousands of people through the desert over forty years, and God can provide what is needed to rebuild the temple, then what is it that is stopping us from doing the work God needs us to do? The reason - more than likely - has nothing to do with materials or necessary abilities.
Disappointment, fear, being lost, and losing our way are great reasons that so easily become excuses. We may have been in Babylon for a while, but Haggai reminds us that we're not there any more. Through this passage and Haggai, we are reminded that exteriors are not unimportant. Just check out all the chapters that gave instructions on how to build the temple in the first place in those beautiful devotional books of 1 and 2 Chronicles, Kings and Samuel. Paying attention to such a thing as an exterior of a building can mirror other attitudes that are important. But the exterior is not the heart of the matter. As God said it, ‘The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house,’
Be strong and do the work. You know when you've done a good load of poles, as a friend of mine used to say? You know when you've cleaned out that closet or sorted out those files or whatever it is that you've been "excuse-ing" away, and when you finally get down to doing it, how good that feels? I think that's what God is talking about in the granting peace in that place - that place we know as the temple of God in our hearts - maybe not so much the files at home. To get the process started, let us pray.
Great Lover of our souls, we thank you for the direction and encouragement you give us - even in the ordinary things of life. Help us realize the materials that you've given us to build up the temple in our hearts, that place where you reside. Help us be strong and do the work that we know we need to do, whether it's extending a hand in greeting, calling someone up for coffee, laying hurt feelings to rest, and the myriad of hurdles that impede our faith and wholeness and peace. Thank you that we are not in Babylon anymore, that we are here, with good and important work to do. So send your Holy Spirit to enable us to do that work well, as all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
November 1, 2013
All Saints Sunday
Habakkuk 1:1-5, 2:1, 2:4, 2:20, 3:17-19
"Living By Faith"
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Litchfield, Minnesota is a rural farming and dairy community of 5,000 in the middle of the state, nearly straight west of here. The comparison strength of the women - between here and there - may be debatable, but the men here are definitely better looking, and with the except of my three great-nephews, the children here are higher above average than in Minnesota.
The local rag there is called the Independent Review, and this week's headlines included the Opera House holding an open mic night, the Litchfield Area Mentorship Program will hold a turkey bingo fundraiser, and, of course, the Police Report, which practicaly lists every single 911 call, every police pull-over, and every dumb thing for which one can get caught. Oh and there was a fire destroyed a combine owned by a man from Watkins man last month.
As I got to thinking about the Lectionary passage from Habakkuk this week, it dawned on me that the entire book, which is all of three chapters, is a sort of local, hometown newspaper, in the form of a dialogue between God and Habakkuk. The nice little "flip" at the end of Habakkuk is that instead of an editorial, the writer wraps it up with a prayer.
Habakkuk 1:1-5, 2:1, 2:4, 2:20, 3:17-19 (NIV)
1 The prophecy that Habakkuk the prophet received.
2 How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save? 3 Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds. 4 Therefore the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted.
The Lord’s Answer
5 “Look at the nations and watch— and be utterly amazed. For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told.
Habakkuk's (Second) Complaint/Answer
2 1 I will stand at my watch and station myself on the ramparts; I will look to see what he will say to me, and what answer I am to give to this complaint.
The Lord’s Answer
2:4 “See, the enemy is puffed up; his desires are not upright— but the righteous person will live by his faithfulness--
2:20 The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him.
3:17 Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, 18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior. 19 The Sovereign Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to tread on the heights.
Thank you, Mary Jane. The verses that were just read were not exactly those from the prescribed list of Bible passages called the Lectionary, although some of the verses read today are from the list. The longer I thought about the verses, and this particular day, the more it seemed that perhaps they would be good in reminding all of us that there is hope in this circle we call life. We get a glimpse of that truth and hope in these few verses.
These verses have been attributed to a little-known minor prophet, although there is speculation that his name means to "embrace" or "wrestle." Perhaps someone surmised that correlation because of the way Habakkuk verbally "wrestles" with God and the events of his day - that could just as well have been ripped out of the headlines from newspapers around the globe this morning. There's a beauty in the back-and-forth conversation between Habakkuk and God, one of honesty and sincerity, even if the conversation wasn't all that soft and fuzzy. It may be that there is someone today that needs the reminder that we can be honest with God, no matter what we may feel or think.
As I thought about these verses and our modern lives, the idea of "waiting" came to mind. Those who are celebrating the birth of a child, there was waiting involved - about nine months - give or take a few. For those here honoring one that has gone on to eternal life, perhaps there was or is "waiting" for you, for the person's physical body to wind down, for the cause of death, for the next step through that valley of grief, for the day of eternal reunion.
Hab, as I'm sure all his friends called him, had waiting to do, too. He sure wanted the world to "be right" just as much as any of us. Hab's desire is perhaps something like ours - the world "fixed" according to the way I (we) think it should be "fixed." If there are just over 7 billion people on the earth, if we really got to the core of reality and truth, there are probably just over 7 billion versions of what that "fixed" world might look like. Maybe that is part of the reason that God tells Habakkuk - and us - that this life is not about "being right" - as in righteous - but about faith.
The prophets foretold the idea that God's plan would be revealed, and we have seen part of that plan realized in the life and resurrection of Christ. Habakkuk didn't have any clue about Jesus, but he chose to believe that God would be his strength, that Hab would rejoice and be joyful in God, because it would be God that would bring about a new way of understanding life - that we call as Christianity.
It's maybe an odd link, but I thought about marriage and the idea of choosing to believe "something" to be even when we don't feel like it. Sometimes when I do weddings, I mention that being married is choosing to love a person, even if the "offended" spouse doesn't feel loved or loving. (Actually, that's true of single people, too.) Or maybe it's like choosing to love a child even when they have destroyed the brand new (insert the name of the current sacred household cow) or said something hurtful. We chose to believe that God leads us and cares about us, even if it seems not to be the case.
What weaves through these verses is an image or vision of faith, even when the present view is dim. The man who wrote the words to our second hymn this morning was named Horatio Spafford. His 4 year old son died of scarlet fever, most of his holdings were lost in the Great Chicago fire of 1871, and when he sent his his wife and four daughters ahead to England for a little family vacation time, the ship Spafford's family was on hit another boat and sank within twelve minutes. The four Spafford daughters drowned and Mrs. S was rescued. When she reached Wales, she was finally able to cable her husband, "Saved alone. What shall I do?"
She waited, while Horatio hopped on the first thing that could sail. When the captain of the ship determined that they were in the same spot as when the first ship sank, Mr. Spafford retired to his room and wrote the words that have carried so many hurt and wounded hearts through this world - in deciding to choose faith. The story of the Spaffords, that hymn, the book of Habakkuk, are all testaments of living by faith.
When we live by faith, we become the people God has seen us to be: sometimes broken, sometimes hurt, sometimes jubilant, sometimes grateful. When we so live - by faith - we may not always like how the circle of life rolls, but we can look forward to when the circle becomes a communion with the countless souls that have gone before us and those that will come after us, in the light of Christ's eternal love. We do that now - in a small degree. But one day, one day, it shall be glory and rest and life in a way that we can only begin to imagine. Until then, we have prayer, which is also a good idea.
Gracious God of life and love, we are grateful for those you have given us - even for those who have gone before us into your presence. Remind us that even if we might not see the fulfilled promises that God made back then, you have already fulfilled your greatest promise in sending Jesus and raising him from the dead to eternal life. Remind us to watch for the things you do in our days that we would not believe if you had told us ahead of time. Help us, when it seems right, to remind us that we are spiritual beings having an earthly experience, and that we will one day return home. Until that day, Great God, help us to live - to really live in our choices and in our hearts desires. For all the blessings that you pour on us, all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
October 27, 2013
23rd Sunday after Pentecost
"Who Do You Want To Be?"
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Did you hear about the minister who said she had a wonderful sermon on humility but was waiting for a large crowd before preaching it?
Walter Cronkite recalls the following incident: Sailing back down the Mystic River in Connecticut and following the channel's tricky turns through an expanse of shallow water, I am reminded of the time a boatload of young people sped past us here, its occupants shouting and waving their arms. I waved back a cheery greeting and my wife said, "Do you know what they were shouting?" "Why, it was 'Hello, Walter,'" I replied. "No," she said. "They were shouting, "Low water, Low water.'" Such are the pitfalls of fame's egotism.
Winston Churchill was once asked, "Doesn't it thrill you to know that every time you make a speech, the hall is packed to overflowing?" "It's quite flattering," replied Sir Winston. "But whenever I feel that way, I always remember that if instead of making a political speech I was being hanged, the crowd would be twice as big."
This morning's scripture passage continues the lessons on prayer Jesus teaches the folks in the middle of Luke's gospel. It was back in Luke, chapter 11, that Jesus' posse asked him how to pray, and he gave all of us what we know as The Lord's Prayer. In the chapters following, and including our passage this morning, it's sort of like Jesus said, "Okay, here's the formula....Father, hallowed be your name" and all the rest of it, and then he followed it with a lot of "don't pray like this," and "not like this," and don't forget about this point." It's such a long lecture, so-to-speak, we don't always remember that "teaching point" of prayer being an underlying factor.
Before we get to the passage, though, I wanted to uncover another little "teaching point." Remembering that Jesus was raised in the Jewish religion, he was taught to memorize great parts of the Torah - the first five books of our Old Testament, along with parts of the Talmud. The Torah was the written law and the Talmud was the oral law, the "argued" definitions of the Torah. In a terrible over-simplification, if the Torah said, you shall not work on the Sabbath, knowing that cattle had to be feed regardless of the day, the Talmud defined how much a person could lift - on the Sabbath - before it was considered work.
The Talmud contained a formula for morning prayers that was to be recited by traditional Jewish men. The prayer began, "Blessed are you, Lord, our God, ruler of the universe who has not created me a woman." Professor Eliezer Segal of the University of Calgary shed some light on this formula. He said, "The 'has not created me a woman' blessing is part of a subgroup that expresses similar gratitude for not having been created a gentile (i.e., a heathen) or a slave." We will hear a prayer in a moment, but then, it would have been as common as "Now I lay me down to sleep" is to us.
The final teaching point before hearing our scripture today has to do with tax collectors. Just like in our day, someone has to collect the taxes. Being a tax collector in any culture may not be a glamorous job, but someone has to do it. In our culture, there are very specific formula for a tax collector's compensation, and I'm sure it has to do with education level, years of employment, and a host of other factors.
In Jesus' culture, some tax collectors were Jewish, some were Roman, some were perhaps Samaritan or other religions. Their religion didn't matter, so long as they collected what the government wanted. But the government didn't pay their tax collectors. The collectors had to add a price or percentage on top of what they were to collect. So if the tax was - let's say - $50, the tax collector would charge us and additional $10 or 20% for the effort. It wasn't the fact that they charged more than the government tax that made tax collectors such "scum." It was how much more they added. In my little parable, let's say the acceptable surcharge was 1-3% - not 20%. And in the Jewish realm, to "cheat" your own kin folk with a 20% surcharge was truly highway robbery.
Now I don't know if there were prescribed morning or evening or any other prayers for Jewish women. And the odds were that not all tax collectors were bad guys. But I do know that understanding more of the background of the culture of this morning's passage may change your view of both the Pharisee and the tax collector.
Luke 18:9-14 (NIV)
The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector
9 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Thank you, Judy. There are great potential sermon titles with this passage: "Who Do You Judge?" "Are Some Prayers Better Than Others?" "Can Gratitude Go Bad?" Even "Who Do You Want To Be?" - although it is a common question at Benzie Community Chorus rehearsals - is a question that requires more thought than what we might immediately determine after Jesus' parable.
It is so easy to jump to the answer - "Well I sure don't want to be the Pharisee." But has time given us an unfair understanding of the Pharisee? Wasn't he just doing what he was taught to do? We can't hear his voice, so maybe he isn't belting out his prayer like a common braggart. We don’t know whether he is a Pharisee with heart or not. We know only that he is grateful for what he has escaped in life and for what he has achieved through his own strength of character. And yes, he's a character in a story.
Likewise, we don't know whether the tax collector has heart or not. And we don't know his voice either. And we don't know if he stopped being a tax collector after his "repentance." It was a pastor named Roy Terry from Sarasota that got me to wondering who was who in this passage. His suggestion is that maybe Jesus was trying to make a point about either extreme. And maybe he's right. Because I don't know that the real point here is about groveling before God, beating our chests and loading up on sackcloth for the spring fashion scene. Both men are grateful, for different things, yes.
If only we could have been there that day, because I - for one - would like to have seen Jesus' eyes when he was telling the story. Was his face all hang-dog, weary of the having to seemingly teach the same lessons over and over? Or was there a twinkle in his eye, suggesting that there was something else going on - underneath the surface story?
Dave Lose - over there at workingpreacher.org suggests that maybe this parable is a trap. "For as soon as we fall prey to the temptation to divide humanity into any kind of groups, we have aligned ourselves squarely with the Pharisee. Whether our division is between righteous and sinners, as with the Pharisee, or even between the self-righteous and the humble, as with Luke, we are doomed. Anytime you draw a line between who's "in" and who's "out," this parable asserts, you will find God on the other side. Read this way, the parable ultimately escapes even its narrative setting and reveals that it is not about self-righteousness and humility any more than it is about a pious Pharisee and desperate tax collector. Rather, this parable is about God: God who alone can judge the human heart; God who determines to justify the ungodly." As Sheldon, from the Big Bang Theory says, "Bazinga!"
Jesus started his parable with the address: "To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else," The first question we might rightly ask is, "Is Jesus speaking to me?" "How much am I positioning myself "against" others - for whatever reason? How often do I say things that are really about making me sound or feel better - than I need?
The next question from this parable might well be asked from a distance: If it is not comparison that answers "Who Do I Want To Be?," then what is it that we all - the Pharisee, the tax collector, those confident of their own righteousness, those who look down on others, and us - what is the key component of prayer for all of us? God's grace.
It is God's grace that forgives us when we misunderstand or when we miss the true nature of God's blessing. It is not anything we can do - no prayer, no posture, no action on our part can obtain God's free and unmerited favor that makes us righteous and justified. It was a Richard Burkey that states it so succinctly. "In this parable, Jesus calls us to humility. The best definition I’ve ever heard of humility is: "Humility is not denying the power you have but admitting that the power comes through and not from you." He ended his remarks with this: "The challenge of the parable is not to put ourselves down, but to lift our need for God up."
William Beebe, the naturalist, used to tell a story about Teddy Roosevelt. At Sagamore Hill, after an evening of talk, the two would go out on the lawn and search the skies for a certain spot of star-like light near the lower left-hand corner of the Great Square of Pegasus. Then Roosevelt would recite: "That is the Spiral Galaxy in Andromeda. It is as large as our Milky Way. It is one of a hundred million galaxies. It consists of one hundred billion suns, each larger than our sun." Then Roosevelt would grin and say, "Now I think we are small enough! Let's go to bed."
Let us pray. God of grace and God of glory, on your people, pour your power. Crown your ancient church's story. Bring your people into glorious flower. Grant us wisdom and courage, faith and honest humility, lest we miss your kingdom's goal and we fail you and ourselves. Remind us to reach down - to lift up, to hold up rather than push away. As we go about our week, remind each of us to seriously contemplate the question, Who Do We Want To Be?, that we may become the person you have always seen us to be. For loving us, forgiving us, and gracing us, all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.