First Congregational Church
November 23, 2014
Thanksgiving Sunday, 24th Sunday after Pentecost, Christ the King Sunday
2 Corinthians 9:6-15
“Living Out of Extravagant Gratitude”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
With all the crazy weather this year, especially the last couple weeks, we can perhaps more appreciate the life of farmers. They worry constantly about too much rain, not enough rain, freezing too soon, freezing too late, cattle get enough feed, expensive hay. The cornacopias, the dried ears of corn, gourds, gourds and more gourds remind us of the cycle of life, the time of sowing and the time for reaping, as the writer of Ecclesiastes reminds us. But I wonder if this season calls us back to our roots, to being grounded, not just for the “stuff” in our lives, not just the people in our lives, but in all that comes up, rises up from far deeper than we realize.
2 Corinthians 9:6-15 The Message
6-7 Remember: A stingy planter gets a stingy crop; a lavish planter gets a lavish crop. I want each of you to take plenty of time to think it over, and make up your own mind what you will give. That will protect you against sob stories and arm-twisting. God loves it when the giver delights in the giving.
8-11 God can pour on the blessings in astonishing ways so that you’re ready for anything and everything, more than just ready to do what needs to be done. As one psalmist puts it,
He throws caution to the winds, giving to the needy in reckless abandon.
His right-living, right-giving ways never run out, never wear out.
This most generous God who gives seed to the farmer that becomes bread for your meals is more than extravagant with you. He gives you something you can then give away, which grows into full-formed lives, robust in God, wealthy in every way, so that you can be generous in every way, producing with us great praise to God.
12-15 Carrying out this social relief work involves far more than helping meet the bare needs of poor Christians. It also produces abundant and bountiful thanksgivings to God. This relief offering is a prod to live at your very best, showing your gratitude to God by being openly obedient to the plain meaning of the Message of Christ. You show your gratitude through your generous offerings to your needy brothers and sisters, and really toward everyone. Meanwhile, moved by the extravagance of God in your lives, they’ll respond by praying for you in passionate intercession for whatever you need. Thank God for this gift, his gift. No language can praise it enough!
Thank you, Jim. Part of what I love about this passage is that it is what we do here. Over the years, I’ve participated in and heard about bad experiences with church pledge drives gone wrong. There is huge potential for those sob stories and arm-twisted giving that Paul was talking about in our scripture passage. As much as it drives the financial folks here a little mad - trying to create a budget against an unknown income - during the 16 years I’ve been here, people have seemed much happier in their giving than those churches I’ve been in where pledges and programs were annual events. Yes, people need to know when our funding is on the low side, so, our funding is on the low side. But whenever we’ve had a real need for money - since 1998, anyway, the need has been met, and most often, gladly so. Thank you, for trusting that God will provide, what and who, when we need them.
I don’t know about anyone else, but when I was a kid, I couldn’t get enough of the Little House on the Prairie books. Maybe it was because I lived so close to The Little House in the Big Woods and The Little Town on the Prairie where Laura and her family lived. It’s been years since I read it, but I still have the mental picture of Pa spreading the wheat seed by hand, bag over shoulder, walking the freshly plowed furrows, and praying for the right amount of rain and sun - at the right times.
I don’t remember if Pa’s father was a farmer, or if he learned about farming from the Bible, but somehow he knew how to sow extravagantly enough, but not wastefully, so that the stalks had enough room to breathe, and enough closeness for support. Out of that sowing, no matter what the weather, when a neighbor was in need, Ma made sure that Laura and sister Mary would take food and anything else they may have needed. They didn’t have reclining chairs or comfy sofas, they didn’t have iPhones, iPads, or iDon’tKnows, but what they had was for whoever needed it. Even when life was hard for the Ingalls family, they lived large - definitely with love - but also because of what God gave them that grew out of the earth.
Whether it is pioneering days or pilgrim days, this week reminds us of those earlier days, when there was certainty of purpose, where roots were crucial to the survival of everyone, and life seemed to be simpler. I wonder, if in earlier days, the connection to the land grew great gratitude for sheer survival.
And yet, despite a sort of disconnect with the land, we are still living amidst those who are grateful for for their survival. The real financial state of our country is - I think - somewhat unknown, because statistics and numbers can be easily made to support one’s cause. On top of that, whatever political party you listen to, a case for their position and cases against oppositions can be made. Although there are people who abuse the system, somehow, so many of the poor have become vilified as cheaters and low-lives that teeter on the brink of being criminals.
Way back in the book of Deuteronomy (15:7), God says, “If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them.” Just a few verses later, “Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.” Those verses, and I’d guess all the verses in the Bible pertaining to the poor, don’t speak about deserving or proving their need. We are simply to give. We are to be prudent in our giving, so that we don’t become enablers, most especially when emotions become involved and the temperature of relationships can get way out of control.
So it is good that we have this season, this upcoming holiday, to remind us to not only take a look at the giving of our treasure, storehouses, or whatever you call the “extra” God gives us, but to take a look at what we give - in terms of thanks - to God for the richness that rises from God’s extravagant sowing of blessings.
We might offer up grace around the table this coming Thursday, and that’s good. We might offer grace at a restaurant before eating, and that’s good, too. But how about when you first get up in the morning? I know, for some of us, instead of Good God, it’s morning!, it’s Good God, it’s morning.
But within those first moments, as soon as we “come to,” and aside from not seeing our name in the obituary of the news paper or internet sites, do we, can we - give thanks - real, honest-to-goodness thanks that comes from deep within us? Before we go to sleep, is there something for which we can give thanks to God, with every fiber of our being, out of our “delight?”
Maybe - for some of us - the prayer has to start, “Lord, help me be willing to thank you - for this hard thing.” “Lord, help me to see your giving this day, so that I can “give back” to you”. Perhaps for many more of us, the prayer is more along the lines of, “restore to me the joy of your salvation,” what it means to understand and live out of extravagant gratitude. So should we start.
Gracious, gracious God, thank you for calling us to be your people, and for providing all that we really need. Help us to be willing, when life is hard, to see the extravagance of your love, that we can live out of equal gratitude. Help us to realize our rootedness to this world as we are reminded that all that we have comes from you. Thank you for those we love, the food and shelter with which you bless us, and help those who don’t have enough. And most certainly, from the bottom of our hearts, thank you for your son, who lives and reigns with you. And all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
November 16, 2014
23rd Sunday after Pentecost
“Which Picture Is In Your Wallet?”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Before we hear the scripture passage, I’m going to ask you to pay particular attention, because I’m going to ask you to participate in this morning’s message with a question. In fact, to give you a better shot, I’ll suggest that you grab a Bible and turn to page 1540. As you are turning to that page, I’ll mention that the question, while being a bit of a set-up, helps in the hearing and reading. The question is, “What bothers you in this parable? As Robin comes up, I will set the scene that this parable sits between two other parables, all about the kingdom of heaven, the day when the Messiah returns.
The Parable of the Bags of Gold
14 “Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his wealth to them. 15 To one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags, and to another one bag, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. 16 The man who had received five bags of gold went at once and put his money to work and gained five bags more. 17 So also, the one with two bags of gold gained two more. 18 But the man who had received one bag went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.
19 “After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. 20 The man who had received five bags of gold brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five bags of gold. See, I have gained five more.’
21 “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’
22 “The man with two bags of gold also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two bags of gold; see, I have gained two more.’
23 “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’
24 “Then the man who had received one bag of gold came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. 25 So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’
26 “His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? 27 Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.
28 “‘So take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags. 29 For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. 30 And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
Thank you, Robin. I know this is not within everyone’s comfort zone, but what bothers you about this parable? violence, “to all those who have, more will be given” followed by “from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away,” the man is a “harsh” judge, slave owning, intimidation
Thank you all - not just those who verbalized their thoughts, but for all of you, really putting your mind to the scripture. I admit that I don’t do that often enough either, when reading a passage the first time. One of the commentators I read this week suggested that this passage would raise questions among those who hear it. He upped the ante by following that sentence with the thought that courageous preachers would address those questions head on. So here we are.
The traditional reading of this parable encourages people like us to use our resources effectively for the sake of the gospel, and that we’d better get right on it, or we will not pass go, collect $200, go to heaven but to where the nasty things are. More often than not, historically, this passage has been used to browbeat, guilt or scare people into giving money to the church. Even so, there is a sliver of good with this first layer, because maybe there are folks that need the reminder to think about or re-evaluate what we do with the treasure God gives us, and what better time to do so than during the Thanksgiving season?
Another layer of this passage could focus on the Greek word for the “bags of gold,” “talanton,” which sounds a lot like the word “talent.” In fact, the old King James Version of the Bible uses the word talent instead of bag of gold. One single talent was 71 pounds of gold, a lifetime’s worth of wages. Some have estimated that the entire sum was something like 5 million dollars - back then. And this “man” gave that sum of money over to his servants without instruction - that we know of. How would a servant back then know how to invest money, much less to get such great returns?
Actually, the Old Testament forbade charging interest when lending money to fellow Jews. It was okay to lend the money; they just couldn’t charge interest. In one sense, the third servant did the most logical thing with his bag of gold. So then, is this parable promoting the idea of “making” interest, and wouldn’t that go against the law that was held so dear to the Jewish people?
It’s an unfortunate coincidence that that Greek word sounds so much like our word talent, because our talents can work just as well as money. If I went back over the years, I’d probably discover that I’m guilty of misusing the meaning of this parable - in encouraging the use of our gifts and talents so that we are “richer.” Much as we all need to hear encouragements, unless we are careful in dealing with this parable, and dare I say, all parables, we can easily misunderstand grace and works, God’s gifts and our response to those gifts.
Another layer of this parable may be connected to the richness, but in terms of the Bible. The Torah - the first five books of the Bible - was, and still is, the most precious gift to the Hebrew people from God. It was such a gift, that a special ark was built to protect it, and it was carried from camp to camp until it found a home in the Temple built by King Solomon and his father, David’s, plans. In keeping such a treasure, it became a burden, a yoke around their necks, because they felt they had to protect it and guard it, to make sure it wasn’t defiled, watered down or compromised.
So this parable could be about giving away the Good News, that it becomes a gift to other people. Some ancient rabbis believed that the more the Torah is read, the more of God’s mercy is brought into the world. God blesses them so that they may bless others. In this parable, it would follow that Jesus is discouraging the hiding away, protecting and limiting of the Bible, and is encouraging giving it away - with all the love and mercy and forgiveness and relationship contained in this holy book.
When we begin to understand that this holy book is the record of how God has been reaching out to head-strong, free-willed people over the centuries, we begin to see that all that God has set up for us - is for us as treasure. The more we appreciate what has been given us, the more we can risk giving it away, offering not just joy, not just love, not just grace, but all of it - and more - to people who can then invest all of that, in giving it away to the next folks.
When we look at the contents of the gold bags, we begin to see the magnitude of the one who is giving the blessing, and we begin to see Jesus giving us a picture of what such a God is like: giving to each one - freely - making no stipulations or suggestions on how to use what each one had been given.
David Lose, over there at workingpreacher.org suggested that another layer of meaning to this parable lies with the preconceived notion about the master. Mr. Lose pointed out, that although we don’t know the feelings or opinions of the first two servants, we know that the third one was driven by his fear of repercussion. What the three servants “saw” changed how they reacted. Yet, might the master be reacting as much to the servant’s characterization of him - revealing his own true character? Perceptions and misperceptions - still - very much determine our experiences.
What we expect is most often what we see. Do we see conflict as something awful and to avoid at all costs? Is a crisis a threat or an opportunity? Is a challenge a problem to overcome or a mystery to be embraced? Is someone who disagrees with us an opponent or colleague? Again and again, our experience of life is so very deeply shaped by our expectations.
When it comes to expectations about God, well, there’s a topic that could keep us talking for days. For some God is loving and kind, like a benevolent grandparent. For others God is stern and judgmental. For some God is protective, for others God is always on the verge of anger. For some God is patient and long-suffering, while for others God is impatient and dour. These pictures shape not just how we think about God but how we actually experience so many events in our day-to-day life that we connect - often unconsciously - to God and our life of faith.
So David Lose asked, So what is your picture of God, Working Preacher? Just as importantly, what are the pictures your people hold of God? We'll never know, of course, unless we ask them. So which picture is in your wallet?
As much as I’d love to know each of your answers, keep this in the back of your mind. Ours is a God who loves us so much that God came in the person of Jesus and took on our lot and our life, sharing our hopes and dreams, fears and failures. Ours is a God who wants us to know of God's love - enough that Christ would finally die on the cross that we might have life and have it abundantly. Ours is a God that takes our picture out of God’s own wallet every time we pray - just to look at it. So shall we take a group photo?
Gracious, loving God, thank you that you are not like other gods in the world. Thank you for loving, caring, hoping, having compassion and all else that we often take for granted. Thank you for the life that you give us, that gives us opportunities to invest in your grace and forgiveness and mercy and joy, that we can pass on what you have given us. Help us to help others with good pictures of you, including action shots of what it looks like to follow you. For all you are, and for all we are to you, all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
November 9, 2014
22nd Sunday after Pentecost
“At That Time - At This Time”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
While I was trolling across the internet for some church appropriate jokes about light, I came across one person’s snarky thought. He or she said, “When I was young, I was afraid of the dark. Now, when I get my electric bill, I am afraid of the light.” There was another individual that talked about the economy being so bad that Motel 6 won’t leave the light on anymore. A bumper sticker I saw said, “God said, ‘Let there be light.’ Electricians make it happen.”
Our scripture passage this morning is recorded only in the book of Matthew, and is paired with a couple other parables that Jesus perhaps gave to the disciples near the end of his life. We don’t know how much Jesus “knew” about what was coming, but there was at least a sense that his time on the earth was limited, because of all the references to “the kingdom of heaven will be like….” or “When the Son of Man comes in his glory….” So, Naomi, will you please share the one slated for today, please?
“At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish and five were wise. 3 The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. 4 The wise ones, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. 5 The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.
6 “At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’
7 “Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’
9 “‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’
10 “But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut.
11 “Later the others also came. ‘Lord, Lord,’ they said, ‘open the door for us!’
12 “But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’
13 “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.
Thank you, Naomi. On one level, this parable can be pretty straightforward, the major elements of the story lending themselves readily to allegory. It is easy to match up each character and event of this story with a real life person or event. That being so easy, we assume that the meaning of the whole story is likewise easy to understand. The bridegroom is Jesus, the ten virgins are people in the church, the oil for the lamps is faith, and the bridegroom's arrival is the second coming of Christ at the end of history.
Bat I wonder how this parable sits with all of you, because it’s not very comfortable to me. Didn’t Jesus also say - at one point - that if someone asks you for your coat, to offer your shirt, also? It doesn’t seem very inclusive, or very fair - one arbitrary, permanent solution to a temporary problem. Except that that is life, that some things cannot be undone, no matter how much we wish them to be.
Except that the women are separated by a label: five wise and five foolish, all other factors seem the same. They arrive on time. They wait. They tire and fall asleep. Awakened, they all trim their lamps. But when the bridegroom arrives, five find their oil running out. Were ten lit lamps necessary? Could they have gotten by with just five lit at one time? Then they’d have had three times what was necessary. What made five women bring extra oil to begin with?
Interesting that there is all this mention of a bridegroom, but where was the bride? Perhaps Jesus was implying the often symbolized church as being the bride of Christ. But that gets all complicated if the “virgins” symbolized people in the church. Maybe the passage was more for those early Christians that would carry on after Christ’s death and resurrection. In that generation or so that scanned the skies - setting their sights and hopes on Christ’s quick return - needed to remember - that there is yet more than we are aware - that not even Christ knew the day or time of his return.
I don’t know how I got there, but oliveoilsource.com said that olive trees are some of the oldest known cultivated trees in the world - being grown before written language was invented. Baring disease or physical destruction, an olive tree may live forever - having no known life span. Greek mythology portrayed olive trees and oil to be a greater gift than power or might. Perhaps the light that the lamps brought represented the heat, food, medicine and perfume that also come from such a tree.
It’s interesting how Jesus ended this parable. He didn’t say that one sister had to share her oil with another sister, and there was no guilting about woulda, coulda and shoulda. Interesting that Jesus’ last words - in this parable - were not about light, but about keeping watch. “Therefore - not just those with a little, not just those with much, but everyone - keep watch.” Interesting correlation between these women and the disciples that couldn’t stay awake during Jesus’ last night in the garden. It is interesting that his words seem to be for all of us - foolish and wise - labeled and unlabeled alike.
It was Steve Garnaas-Holmes that provided an interesting path to this passage. He writes poems, many based on the lectionary passages of the week. So the one he wrote for this week went like this.
The wise maidens went in,
and reveled in the party, the noise,
the light and warmth, the joy
of the bride and groom...
looked around, and half of their friends
half the party gone,
the feast of faithful love undone,
the marriage gutted—
and only then they knew:
they could have shared their light
and then had more.
In times of darkness
neither folly nor wisdom
is worth light, worth mercy,
It was at that point that I looked at how this parable began “At That Time” and realized that there is also “at this time” - our time. And then I remembered that this is a parable - not a regaling of an event or moment in Jesus’ life. “At that time” the people had only that much sight. “At this time,” we have a greater breadth of vision, so we have a greater ability to be, as Bailey and Zolton sang for us, lights that can shine and give hope to those who need it. Even when our lights have been temporarily darkened, we have Christ’s resurrection hope to strengthen us and help us, to shine on us so that we are not ever in the dark. “There’s work to be done, So you’ve got to shine on” were the last of the lyrics that our guests sang today.
We always do well to pay mind to the idea of being prepared spiritually: from prayer and acts of charity to giving of our resources. When we do those things, conscious of the fact that we do those things as acts of worship, because they mean something to us, we can better appreciate what we receive - now, in the past and in the future.
How much richer are we, that we can read these holy words, adding layers of history and time and experience to them, that these words are not simply locked in time, but span time? How rich are we that we live in a place where we can question God, not necessarily because of doubt, but to increase faith, and we don’t have to fear imprisonment or death because of our questions? What comfort, that eternity won’t require anything of us, except to be - most especially in God’s presence. For such gifts and grace, so shall we thank God.
We are most grateful, gracious God, for the largesse of life, from light to freedom, seeking of knowledge to appreciation of faith. Help us to be aware of those “extra oil” moments, when we can take up extra faith or grace or life, to fill our lamps of life, so that others may join us in joy and peace. Reveal ways in which we can provide oil to those around us, that they can do the same for the wave of people beyond them. Thank you, most importantly, for your son, who came to be our light and life. In his light, all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
November 2, 2014
All Saints Sunday: Necrology and Cradle Roll
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
When it comes to saints, I didn’t grow up in a high liturgical church, like Roman Catholic, Eastern Rite Catholic Churches or Byzantine Churches. In fact, growing up in Minnesota, I thought the world-wide religion was a tie be Lutherans and Catholics, and I was in a minority being Methodist. It wasn’t until my work as a nursing assistant in a Catholic care center that I became aware of things like scapulas, which are pictures of saints worn around the neck or saint prayers cards. Little did I know that there are saint trading cards, like baseball cards, of all sorts and antique cards can go for upwards of $45 - per card!
Narrowing the focus, I had no idea that saints were patrons to various occupations and individuals. St. Matthew is the patron saint of bookkeepers, which makes sense since he was a numbers guy as a tax collector. St. Francis is the patron saint of animals, which also makes sense, since he is said to have been able to minister to and reason with them. In the interest of time, I will merely offer a few more from the American catholic.org/Features/Saints/patrons web page. The patron saint of bee keepers: St. Ambrose. Brewers have three: St. Luke, Nicholas and Augustine of Hippo. Yes, there is a patron Saint of Computers, and it’s St. Isidore of Seville.
Incidentally, the Catholic church doesn’t “make” saints, it recognizes them and what God has done in their life. And of course, they have to have died. What I appreciate about modern All Saints Sunday - as Congregationalists - at least in this church family - is that we get to celebrate not only those who have passed on to eternal life before us, but those who are coming after us, as well as those who surround us.
In the book of Matthew, by the time chapter 5 rolls around, Jesus has called the disciples to follow him and just started his ministry of preaching and teaching. In fact, his teaching and preaching have taken on such energy, there is the possibility that his ministry could become a new political kingdom. So he reigns in, gets off the bandwagon and sets for a spell. The section for today is known as the Beatitudes, the introduction to the larger message called the Sermon on the Mount.
1 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them. He said: 3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. 8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Thank you, Bill. As I was doing my homework for this morning’s message, I came across a beatitude that I’m sure Matthew forgot to include. It says, “Blessed are we who laugh at ourselves, for we shall never cease to be amused.”
For a long time, pastors and preachers and lovers of control used the Beatitudes to bully people into acceptable behavior. The line of thought was something like, “if you want to see God, then you better be darn pure of heart.” “If you want to be called a child of God, you’d better be about making peace or else.…”
The standard, contemporary interpretation of the Beatitudes is that they are not cause and effect, but descriptive. If you go behind the ancient Greek language, and understand the syntax, you see a description, not a prescription.
Which brings us to their modern application and how we can turn them into prayer. Of the names of the Necrology that were read, which person or persons would have you thought “poor in spirit?” Who had mourned, were meek, who hungered and thirsted after righteousness, were merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers? Were any persecuted because of Christ?
“Lord, thank you for those who find comfort in their mourning, and help me to become like them. Help me to understand that meek doesn’t mean weak, and that it is far more about inheriting all you have given us. Help me, God, to recognize those who have been merciful, that I, too, may extend mercy. Help me, God, to see you, so that my heart may be purer. Help me be a peacemaker like so-and-so.”
The beautiful thing of these beatitudes, is that they are not time-locked or present encapsulated. They are about the future as much as the past and present. Not that we want any of our children to necessarily be poor in spirit, but when Calista or Henry or Liam are, God, help them - in those times, to see your kingdom. When Cristian, Mason or Owen mourn, great God, help them to feel your comfort. Help Freddie and Miles understand that meekness is not about strength or lack of it, but about inheriting all you have ever wanted for them. Provide Odin and Samson the food and drink that will fill them with your love and grace and joy. Remind Nathalie and Finley, that when they are shown mercy, they can pass it on to others. Show Evelyn and Amelia your face, so they can see you, that they may have such purity of heart, others will want to emulate them, too.
I think one of the common characteristics about the people that tend to hang out in this church family is that we understand that we blessed. Most all of us have enough of our needs met, and are blessed enough with others who can help us when we need more. We can appreciate that life is not so good for a lot of other people, so we are humbled in gratitude.
How much more are we blessed by those who have come before us, those who if they stood next to us, or in the narthex, down the stairs around the church, would create a depth so deep, we would be awe-struck by the breadth of those who have gone before us. And if we could see how those who come after us will double and triple that passed number, well, we’d probably start blowing out minds that we get to be part of such blessing.
As we pause this day to look back and forward, let us also reflect - on our blessing and blessings. And may we express our gratitude to God in prayer.
Great, great God, we thank you for this day that allows us to stand still for a moment, to look back and forward, around us and down at our own feet. Thank you for the blessings that you give - so freely - so generously - not only in the things of life - but most especially in the people you give us. Help us to pray for them - and ourselves - that we can all become great followers after your Son and Holy Spirit. For all that you give us, all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
October 26, 2014
20th Sunday after Pentecost
“The Law of Love”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Christopher West is a writer who wrote about the need to put Bible or theological statements into their proper context or framework. He said, “Once you understand the context, everything else falls into place and makes sense.”
So he wrote this little paragraph. A seashore is a better place than the street because you need lots of room. At first it is better to run than to walk. You may have to try several times. It takes some skill, but it is easy to learn. Even young children can enjoy it. Birds seldom get too close. If there are no snags it can be very peaceful. But if it breaks loose, you won't get another chance.
If you are a bit confused, or wondering if there is a hidden joke, hear it again, after I create the context and say the word, “kite.” A seashore is a better place than the street because you need lots of room. At first it is better to run than to walk. You may have to try several times. It takes some skill, but it is easy to learn. Even young children can enjoy it. Birds seldom get too close. If there are no snags it can be very peaceful. But if it breaks loose, you won't get another chance.
When it comes to understanding the Bible and how it pertains to us, I’m learning that providing the context or framework to a passage is huge. I think more harm than good has been done - in the name of Jesus - by cherry-picking verses and passages out of their context - not always, but a good many times. So before we get to this morning’s scripture passage, which is a lovely passage in and of itself, we would do well to take a step back for that larger picture and context.
According to Matthew’s version, Jesus had ridden into Jerusalem that first Palm Sunday, and after all the hulla-baloo, Jesus got down to some serious teaching. So we need to keep in the back of our mind that after his donkey ride, he went to the Temple to do some house cleaning, had his authority challenged, shared some parables, had to deal with the pesky Pharisees about taxes, and then tamped down the Sadducees and their attempts to trap Jesus into blasphemy. So we come to this morning’s passage. As Mary makes here way here, because this passage is more of a two parter, and we all need to see some of this glorious day, we will focus on just the first half of this morning’s scripture.
34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Thank you, Mary. If you’ve spent any time in church at all, you’ve no doubt heard this passage a time or two. So maybe you do, maybe you don’t remember that loving “the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” comes from the book of Deuteronomy. And maybe you do, maybe you don’t remember that “loving your neighbor as your self” comes from the book of Leviticus.
If you think of the first commandment as the vertical, and the second commandment as the horizontal, you can get the impression of a cross, which makes that next sentence all the more poignant. “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” The Law and the Prophets is a nickname for the Old Testament - and the history of the Hebrew people. Of all 613 commandments in the Old Testament, Jesus picked these two to be the most important.
We forget - or maybe didn’t know - that at one time, God said that men must not shave their beards with a razor. And at one time, God said we are not to tattoo the skin. God said - at one point in time - that we are not to eat fresh grapes, grape skins, or fresh raisins, non-kosher flying insects or non-kosher maggots. But apparently the kosher ones were a non-issue.
One of my seminary professors once explained that God gave us commandments so that we would know how to show God that we loved God. After all, what was the language mere humans were to use to express their gratitude to the very One who created and sustained them? So the commandments were given so that humans could say, “Hey God, I am so grateful and love you so much for all you have given me, I am going to give the shoulder, two cheeks and stomach of whatever animal to the priest/pastor (kosher, I’m sure.) On top of that, for all you have given us, we are not going to burn honey or yeast on the altar. Those are commandments.
So Jesus’ summary commandments were good and right, and most of us get that. But what do they really mean, and how do they allow us to express our gratitude to God for all we hold dear?
Writer John Trent tells of his time as a church camp counselor, especially the year when the main speaker was a guy named Bob Mitchell. Apparently Bob was “one of those guys” that controlled much of what went on around him, even to the point of when the meals would be served. So Bob was always talking to the camp cook.
The cook loved her work, but it was exhausting. She always looked tired. Whenever she talked to Bob, he gave her his chair for a moment's rest, while they discussed meal plans. Nobody noticed Bob doing this except one kid named Mark.
Mark hadn't come to camp to hear about Jesus. But when he saw Jesus' love lived out in that simple act of kindness by the camp speaker, he began to listen to Bob's talks. Later that week, Mark decided to become serious about following Christ. It wasn't because of the messages, Mark said, but because of the love he saw in Bob. "If that's what it means to be a Christian," Mark said, "I want to be one.” If we are followers of Jesus, we are called to follow not just the law of love but Christ’s loving example as well.
When we enter into those two great commandments, and get serious about them, we begin to see that what we do - or don’t do - is not about following rules, but about love. From the backside of that idea, we simply cannot obey all 613 commandments, because it can’t be done.
In Exodus and Deuteronomy, God instructs the Israelites to plunder their enemies. Later in Exodus and in Leviticus, God prohibits stealing, defrauding, or robbing a neighbor. Six Old Testament passages clearly prohibit killing. Four other passages give evidence of God ordering killings. Even with this passage today, as much as Matthew tells us we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, there is a passage in 1 Corinthians that says we are to put our neighbors ahead of ourselves. The life of faith and following Christ is far too complicated to be defined by a mere 613 commandments.
I read that in Western Colorado there is a road called the Million Dollar Highway. Chances are that tourists and even most of the people who live there probably assume it got its name because it was expensive to build. That's not correct—although it probably was expensive to build because it runs through very difficult terrain and at a high altitude. The real reason it's called the Million Dollar Highway is because waste material from the ore in gold mines was used as the bed for that highway, and not all the gold dust and nuggets were removed by the mining processes available at the time. So there is a partial roadbed of gold that is probably worth a lot more than a million dollars. It isn't the cost that gave it its name, but rather what is inside it.
What gives these two commandments their true value is from whom they are given: the God who is love.” What gives us our immense value is not just that God looks on each of us - and all God’s children - with love and care and concern - but that God enables us to help other see the love that is behind Jesus, the commandments, the gifts, the Holy Spirit, even God’s own self. The law of love is not a list for checking yes or no, but a principle that cannot be reversed, overturned or undone. For - not just the love, or the law, - but as bearers of such an essential backdrop to all of life, so should we all pray.
God of all our days and enlightenment and love, we thank you for not only the gifts that you give us in our day-to-day lives, but in the gifts of our abilities to love one another and you. Help us to embrace your law of love - not because it is a nice thing, but because it is the essential thing against which we experience the rest of our lives. Help us to be mindful that the love you give us to give away is not limited, but because it comes from you, is unending, and we don’t need to hoard it.
First Congregational Church
October 19, 2014
19th Sunday after Pentecost, Baptism Sunday
“Whose image do you bear?”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
A Sunday School teacher held an art session in which she asked her youngsters to paint characters from the Bible. As they painted, the teacher toured the room. One child was using lots of white and some green here and there. She told the teacher she was painting the Good Shepherd with his flock. Another child had a huge circular blob. When asked she told the teacher that the figure was “round yon virgin.” One kid had drawn a huge furry-looking creature with a funny look on its face. The teacher asked what he was drawing. The kid responded that his picture was Gladly, the cross-eyed bear.” It simply had to be told with this morning’s scripture passage.
Not having had a child of my own, I would guess that part of the anticipation and joy of having one is to see “who” they will most resemble. When little Freddie was born, it was obvious he was Jimmy’s brother. And that is still true when he turns his head a certain way. We can see such similarities often enough, just by looking at family members of all sorts.
Maybe you have your father’s eyes, or your mother’s mouth. I’ve been marked with both my father’s hands and his joy of laughter. Both of my sisters have been marked with my mother’s accounting brain. What marks of family do you bear?
Before we get to the scripture passage for this morning, I think a little clarification will be good. The passage begins by mentioning the Pharisees, their disciples and the Herodians. Roman Herodians were the opposite of Jewish Pharisees. Regardless of all the differences that polarity implies, they shared an extreme dislike for Jesus, and all of them shared the desire to get him out of the public eye.
One other detail: there is a mention of the imperial tax. I hadn’t really paid any attention to that detail before, but it has importance. It was a special tax levied on subject peoples - but not on Roman citizens - on top of the temple taxes, land taxes, and customs taxes, just to name three. It was the insulting and humiliating tax that paid tribute to Rome to support the Roman occupation of Israel, so first-century Jews got to pay their oppressors a denarius a year to support their own oppression. I think that the inclusion of this little detail was to define the picture that was being painted: Jesus vs. both laws: religious and government.
15 Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. 16 They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. 17 Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?”
18 But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? 19 Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, 20 and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” 21 “Caesar’s,” they replied. Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” 22 When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.
Thank you, Mary. Like a lot of things Jesus said, these words are hard to pin down to just one meaning; the more you look at them, the more they seem to blossom with significance.
At least I - appreciate Jesus highlighting the physical features of the denarius: sort of an adult children’s message. Before Mary read this passage, most of us would probably have said that the coin was marked with image of Caesar. But how many of us know what the inscription said? “Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus, high priest.”
From this side of history and faith, those words may not have much punch. But back then, the Jewish folks had an issue with the coin because it had - in 3D - the designation that both Augustus and Tiberius were divine - God. So that little phrase broke the first commandment - the one about having no other gods before God. And then it broke the second commandment - the one about not making idols. On top of that, by pointing out that his opponents possessed and displayed such an object within the holy Temple grounds, Jesus seeed to raise, not lower, the stakes of the conversation about money and human loyalty. The issue at stake here is nothing less than idolatry.
There’s a little layer of meaning we miss because no one speaks ancient Greek anymore. It comes in the accusation that is thrown at Jesus early in the passage. It’s in the sentence, “You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are.” The last part of that sentence could be translated, “. . . for you do not look upon the face of people.”
That little translation may not mean much, except that just a breath later, Jesus calls the accusers “hypocrites.” Back in the day, a hypocrite was literally an actor, and in the Greek and Roman world of that time, actors wore masks to cover their faces when on stage. So Jesus’ opponents say that they know Jesus doesn’t look on the “face of people,” and they are right - and wrong. Jesus doesn’t look at the public face we show; he looks behind the masks, to our true faces - and hearts, and he doesn’t care whether we are black or white, young or old, tall or short, Swedish or not.
And while we’re looking at this passage with all the markings, we might make note that with just a few words, Jesus reveals the truth about his would-be accusers and at the same time, calls them to a higher loyalty than they’d imagined. And might Jesus also be calling us to the same - not trying to trap us, but to invite us to declare or reaffirm our allegiance.
If we close our eyes, and turn our head, perhaps we, like those early listeners, can hear that echo of Genesis 1, where God declares the divine intent in to make us in God’s own image. Funny how that identification can get lost in conversations about money and politics. While we may feel strongly about political loyalties, before any of us are Democrat, Republican, or Independent, we are Christian. And while we may be confident that how we spend our money is our business an no one else’s, yet if we forget in whose image we have been made, we may succumb to the temptation to believe that we are no more than the some total of our possessions and that our bank accounts tell a true story about our worth and value.
This passage’s background raises some interesting points, but Jesus’ statement is just as relevant today as it was then. There are elements of our lives that are, absolutely, part of the world order and should be “rendered to Caesar,” even if they don’t register very high on our personal priority lists. But those are elements – our deepest person and self is God’s, and if we remember that, all of life takes on greater focus and meaning.
Being reminded that we are marked as God’s beloved shouldn’t instill a fear of obligations, but a response to living a life out of being blessed. We don’t baptize people to pile obligations on them, to smother them with shouldas’ and need-tas. We take on the mark of Christ so that we can deeply realize how great God’s love is - was - always will be - for us, so that we can bless the world out of such blessing. No matter what we may do or say, no matter where we may go, no matter what may happen to us, yet we are first, foremost, and forever God’s own beloved child. And that identity will, in turn, shape our behavior, urging and aiding us to be the persons we have been called to be. So should we pray.
Gracious, loving God, we are so blessed! Sometimes life takes turns where that feeling is not the first thing that comes to mind. But it is true - no matter what life may bring. So thank you that you have placed us within your church. Thank you for the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us and carried the lamp of faith to our generation. We thank you, too, that we, now, for a time, have the responsibility to hold it aloft for others. Let the “same mind be in us that was in Christ.” Give us the renewed resolve to nurture a loving, caring community which reaches out always to the least of your children - especially when it challenges us. Cause us to be strong in faith, loyal in service, and patient in hope. Help us to be faithful to the heavenly vision of this place, and give us will and resolve to cultivate it in those who will come after us. For all the blessings, examples, and lessons, all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.