11/15/15 Sunday Sermon
First Congregational Church
November 15, 2015
25th Sunday after Pentecost
“In the Waiting Room”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
To begin, a Minnesota classic. There were three fathers to be in a hospital waiting room, waiting for their babies to be born. The first nurse comes out and tells the first father, "Congratulations you're the father of twins!" He says, “Great! I am the manager for the Minnesota Twins.” The second nurse comes out and tells the second father, "Congratulations you're the father of triplets”! He says, "That's cool! I work for 3M.” The third father faints onto a near-by chair. The third nurse comes out, and asks, “What’s the matter with the third father?" One of the other fathers said, "Oh he just fainted.” The nurse asked, "Why?" He replied, "He works for Seven Up!”
This morning’s scripture passage is somewhat of a classic, but not necessarily for seemingly happy or hopeful reasons, at least on the surface. It’s classic in that all of Mark 13 follows the apocalyptic theme found in Ezekiel and Revelation. What makes Mark 13 stand out a little more than the other books, is that Jesus himself issues the visions, and at one level, it has come to pass.
As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!”
2 “Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”
3 As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John and Andrew asked him privately, 4 “Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?”
5 Jesus said to them: “Watch out that no one deceives you. 6 Many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and will deceive many. 7 When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. 8 Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains.
Thank you, Missi. If we think about it, Jesus’ disciples were generally not big city folks. They were fishermen and such from mostly small towns. But now in Mark 13 they are in - Jerusalem - and they predictably do the touristy thing of being wowed by the big buildings, by the Temple masonry work, by the sense of history that permeates the place. If they had had cameras, the shutters would have been snapping away wildly. One can imagine the Facebook status updates, the Instagram posts: “In Jerusalem—can’t believe the Temple’s grandeur!” “LOL: Peter, James and John doing the selfie in front of the Temple Portico itself!”
“Master, get a load of this limestone block! Can you imagine the work it took to lift these one on top of the other?! (I know I have said the same thing about the work it took to lift this sanctuary to put the Red Room under it in 1907.) For his part, though, Jesus turns a rather blank face their direction and swiftly deflates their enthusiasm with the words, “Impressive? Maybe. Shame about the impending destruction, though, because somebody is going to take those impressive blocks of stone and scatter them all around Jerusalem like a child’s Legos.”
Jesus’ prediction about the fall of Jerusalem was fulfilled in the year 70 AD, at the hands of the Romans. It was another example of why it’s better that we don’t know about the future, because imagine how wigged-out the disciples would have been if they’d known - not just about the temple destruction and Jesus’ death, but their own deaths, of which most were horrid.
A photographer for a national magazine was assigned to take pictures of a great forest fire. He was advised that a small plane would be waiting to fly him over the fire. The photographer arrived at the airstrip just an hour before sundown. Sure enough, a small Cessna airplane was waiting. He jumped in with his equipment and shouted, "Let's go!" The tense man sitting in the pilot's seat swung the plane into the wind and soon they were in the air, though flying erratically.
"Fly over the north side of the fire," said the photographer, "and make several low-level passes." "Why?" asked the nervous pilot. "Because I'm going to take pictures!" yelled the photographer. "I'm a photographer, and photographers take pictures." The pilot replied, "You mean you're not the flight instructor?”
As flight instructor, Jesus, in verse 5, tells the disciples, and us, “to watch.” Interestingly, Jesus says it again in verse 9 - the beginning of the next passage - and again in the end of chapter 13.
Ironically, all through the history of the Church - people have been “watching” for Jesus’ return, but so often this “watchfulness” gets translated into a kind of starry-eyed sky gazing - whereby watchers scan the distant horizon for any and every sign that could get interpreted as some impending arrow pointing forward to the return of Christ. Although I don’t know of any specific incidents, I’m sure that there are some folks out there using Friday’s Paris bombing as another confirmation of Jesus’ imminent return.
Even before Friday, this passage seemed to be all about doom and gloom, until you remember to include the little line at the end of this morning’s passage; there’s that curious little sentence: “These are the beginning of birth pains.
Chris Hayes, of Ministry Matters, had this to say about that little sentence. “Jesus wants to remind, encourage, and warn the disciples and us that there are many opportunities to hear legacies and create legacies that will draw us off course from where God intends for us to be, but when we follow the legacy of the Christ, we can weather the storms and trials that come and we can move forward in faith.”
The main point of Mr. Hayes’ commentary on this passage was that people who know they are going to die tend to leave legacies in their last words, thoughts and deeds. As Jesus got closer to his impending death, he would naturally want to leave a lasting legacy with the disciples - and us. So he tells about the coming tribulation - that took place - and then gave the promise of birth pains.
Most of the time - so I’ve heard - there is a great deal of pain in the giving of birth, but the immediate look and feel and sound and smell of a baby seems move the memory of pain far away from the joy of receiving what was so long awaited.
Those birth pains happened to the disciples when Jesus was buried; his resurrection birthing a new era with a resurrected Messiah. Perhaps there are birth pains for the Jewish people as they await the third temple to be built on the Temple Mount in Old Jerusalem, prophesied in the book of Ezekiel. And perhaps our current wars and unrest, political hotbeds, natural disasters and famines are the birth pains for Jesus’ second coming.
The thing is, we can get all torqued up about what is going on around us, or we can remember that Christ already came, and left us with the Holy Spirit. We certainly need to be sympathetic and helpful as we can, but as Mr. Hayes said, we can’t let the “news” draw us off course from where God intends for us to be. Following Christ, waiting in the waiting room, as it were, “we can weather the storms and trials that come and we can move forward in faith.”
The best part of Mr. Hayes’ statement is that very last snippet about moving forward in faith. Despite Paris, Beirut, Baghdad, the refugee crisis, the college campus unrest this week, we all need to move forward in faith. That means praying for our world, the strangers who live lives unknown to us, our neighbors, families, friends, co-workers, as well as those who “check” us out, who wrap our stuff, keep track of our treasures, and the oh-so-many-other individuals that touch our lives.
We take a step forward in our faith when we stop, in the middle of dashing between the car and the house or store, to listen and to feel whatever wind or breeze there might be. We step forward by bringing out the good in others as well as our own selves. So I give you this poem by Steve Garnass-Holmes.
I am this morning meadow
into which you pour yourself.
I am the still air
in which you rise, a mountain, huge.
I am this city street
which you walk, a crowd
with your stories, your nations.
I am this bird
and you are flight, and song.
I am the ocean
and you are my water.
I am the desert
and you are my stillness.
I am this heart
and you are my beating.
You are this day
into which you pour me,
breath by breath.
we are this life.
The other thing we can do in this waiting room is to pray together. Great God of all Creation, thank you for that which you are constantly birthing. Thank you for this time you give us - to explore, blossom, grow into that which you know we can be. Enable us to help those who need help, encourage us to step up when we are needed. Be with those who are mourning, grieving, struggling and frustrated. Give them encouragement and hope. Most of all, thank you for your love and provision, that we are never alone, and always being born into new versions of ourselves after you. And all your people say, Amen.
11/01/15 Sunday Sermon: All Saints Day
First Congregational Church
November 1, 2015
All Saints Sunday, 23rd Sunday after Pentecost
“Saints and Souls”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Lost on a rainy Friday night, a pastor stumbles into a monastery and requests shelter there. Fortunately, she's just in time for dinner and was treated to the best fish and chips she's ever had. After dinner, she goes into the kitchen to thank the chefs. She is met by two brothers, "Hello, I'm Brother Michael, and this is Brother Francis." "I'm very pleased to meet you. I just wanted to thank you for a wonderful dinner. The fish and chips were the best I've ever tasted. Out of curiosity, who cooked what?" Brother Michael replied, "Well, I'm the fish friar." She turns to the other brother and says, "Then you must be…." "Yes, I'm afraid I'm the chip monk..."
When we get to this particular Sunday, or we think about saints, I wonder how many of us think about the Russian and Greek icons that depict the adult Jesus, or his mother, Mary. For us protestants, we might recognize some of the names: St. Paul - the man - not the city - St. Matthew, Mark and Luke - as writers of the gospels, St. Francis, St. Nicholas, St. Patrick, maybe even St. Benedict. Apparently another miracle needs to be credited to Mother Theresa before she continues on her path to sainthood.
For myself, when I think about saints, I can’t help but think about the little Catholic ladies - and one man, as I recall, in the nursing homes where I worked, and the scapulars they wore. The scapulars I came across were little pictures of a saint on one side, and a prayer on the other side, laminated in plastic - so they wouldn’t get wet when bathing - and tied around the neck with a long shoe string. The micro researching I did on scapulars revealed a huge assortment of sizes and ways of wearing the specific colors of brown, red, black, blue, white and green.
While the whole idea of saints, as it specifically relates to Orthodox and Catholic churches, is quite distant for some Protestants, here we are, on All Saints Sunday, and with this scripture passage from John.
32 When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. 34 “Where have you laid him?” he asked. “Come and see, Lord,” they replied. 35 Jesus wept. 36 Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
Jesus Raises Lazarus From the Dead
38 Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. 39 “Take away the stone,” he said. “But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.” 40 Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”
41 So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”
Thank you, Judy. It's the ending we all hope for, isn't it? Whether a person has been buried in the ground or returned to ashes, sometimes it would be wonderful to see that particular loved one walk back into our lives - regardless of whether it is four days, four months or four years - full of breath and color restored.
Sometimes I wonder about this passage - for this day - wondering if it’s too much emotion or too much whimsy. Could it even be harmful? But then there is Jesus, chocking up when his best friend’s sister comes with news of his death, and then Jesus openly weeping at his own pain. If grieving were such a bad thing, I don’t think Jesus would have done it himself. So he shows us, by his actions, and by being real, that grieving is part of being human.
Having been raised up once, Lazarus surely didn’t live forever. There is no known Biblical reference to a second death of Lazarus after being resurrected from the grave, but the Roman Catholic tradition has it that he was the first Bishop of Marseilles, while the Greek church says that his body was buried in Constantinople. If he had not died a second time, we surely would have heard about that.
We could speculate about this passage ’til the cows come home, but where is the hope? And the Good News? Especially for those who are still grieving? And what about those who are celebrating new life this day?
Part of the answer comes not in the scripture passage, but in church tradition, which made great distinctions between All Hallow’s Eve, All Saints and All Souls days. Hallowe’en is a contraction for All Hallows’ Evening - was an evening vigil before All Saints Day, beginning at sunset; vigil being a period of keeping awake during the time usually spent asleep, especially to keep watch or pray. All Saints Day would be the day to celebrate the holy people that have gone before us and how we should live as saints now and how we intend to pass on the faith to future generations of believers. All Souls Day, on the other hand, is a day set aside exclusively for commemorating the faithfully departed, particularly one’s relatives and friends. When they wrap up the whole three days, they called it Allhallowtide - all one word.
Lutheran pastor Janet Hunt tells about having the occasional, ordinary snapshot dream about her father, and one in particular. She is sitting at her computer and hears her father come into the room, walks over to her, laughing, and leans down, pressing his face against hers. She remembers that his face was cold as though he'd been outside working and had just come inside. She woke up a few moments later feeling that cold on her cheek, and it wasn't long before she realized that what she felt was probably the cool October breeze coming through the open window. But in those first waking moments, she couldn't be sure, not really. If nothing else, it was a good reminder of her father, where he now resides, and of the hope that she has in one day reuniting with him.
The scripture passage today has a lot of heaviness about it, maybe even some sadness, because in the end, all those we love will die. And so will we. But then there is the last sentence of our passage: “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.” It would be just as apropos: “Take off the grave clothes and let her go.” Go where? Into the future. Into eternity, into the life of hopeful expectation that one day there will be even more joy and surprise and amazement and more - more than what Mary and Martha and Lazarus experienced - for them and for all of us and all we have so loved. And between now and when that hope is realized - perhaps we'll have cool breezes in the night - gifts of God in a way - to remind us of the promise of life and love, safety and joy, wonder and hope.
We can take off the grave clothes of our little ones and let them go, too, into the life that God has for them. Being a child these days is not as easy and carefree as it was when we were children. So we can “let them go,” free of our expectations, to walk into the light that God has for each of them. Maybe that is what we need from some of our little ones that are not so little. Whatever the specific message God has for you in this message and day, we do well by lifting up our circle of life.
God of the past, on this feast of All Saints we remember before you, with thanks,
the lives of those Christians who have gone before us: the great leaders and thinkers,
those who have died for their faith, those whose goodness transformed all they did; Give us grace to follow their example and continue their work. (pause)
God of the present, on this feast of All Saints we remember before you those who have more recently died, giving thanks for their lives and example and for all that they have meant to us. We pray for those who grieve and for all who suffer throughout the world: for the hungry, the sick, the victims of violence and persecution. (necrology)
God of the future, on this feast of All Saints we remember before you the newest generation of your saints, and pray for the future of the church and for all who nurture and encourage faith. (cradle roll)
We give you thanks for the whole company of your saints with whom in fellowship we join our prayers and praises in the name of Jesus Christ, all your people say, Amen
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.