First Congregational Church
November 26, 2017
Christ the King Sunday
“The Spirit of Wisdom and Revelation”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
In an effort to assist in removing any remaining tryptophan inhibiting the little grey cells, Q: When is a 'piece of wood' like a King? A. When it's a ruler! Q: Which one of Henry VIII's wives enjoyed playing golf? A: Catharine Par. Q: What do Richard the Lionheart and Winnie the Pooh have in common? A: The same middle name! Q: What member of the royal family should always carry an umbrella? A: the Reigning Monarch!
Though not a king, Pope Pius XI, in 1925 and in response to growing secularism, determined that there should be a special Sunday, a feast Sunday in Catholic churches, to remember and honor the holy combination of Christ’s deity and reign as the Son of God.
Wanting to give this feast day all the solemnity it is due, in 1970 it was determined that this Christ the King Sunday should fall on the last Sunday before the beginning of the new church year, that being the first Sunday in Advent. Because of our calendar, sometimes Christ the King and the First Sunday in Advent fall on the same day. This year, Christ the King gets its very own day. For whatever reasons, many Protestant churches took up the celebration of The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, as is its proper name.
For a good many Protestants, giving attention to this day may seem irrelevant. But Christ the King Sunday marks the ending of a year and sets the scene for the wondrous unfolding and waiting of Advent. And it can bring us back in touch with some of the breadth and depth of Christ, not only in celebrating the King of Kings, but the servant and Shepherd King, the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End, the Beloved Son of God, the Chief Cornerstone, Immanuel, our Great High Priest, the Good Shepherd, Light of the World, the Lamb of God, Messiah, Redeemer, our Rock, the Way, the Truth and the Life, Wonderful Counselor and the host of other names by which Jesus is known. There are way more names of Jesus than you can shake a stick at, and without them, I think our faith would be more shallow and less meaningful.
To celebrate this special day, our scripture passage comes from the book of Ephesians. It’s an appropriate book for this day, because Ephesus, being the most easily accessed city in Asia, both by land and sea, was a hub for a plethora of different religions. According legend, Ephesus was founded by a tribe of the Amazons, and after numerous take-overs and invasions, by the time we get to this morning’s passage, Ephesus was ruled by Rome and Caesar. It is against this backdrop that Paul developed the main theme of his letter to the Ephesians: "the Church, which is the Body of Christ.”
Ephesians 1:15-23 (NIV)
Thanksgiving and Prayer
15 For this reason, ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all God’s people, 16 I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers. 17 I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. 18 I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, 19 and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength 20 he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, 21 far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. 22 And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.
Thank you, Michael Grant. Amy Peeler, Associate Professor of New Testament, Wheaton College, Wheaton, Ill had a great way of giving this passage a little more shape - as in a sandwich. She said, “Paul has begun and ended this section with comments about the Ephesians, their faith and their participation in the church, but it is the meat in the middle that gives the bread on the outside its identity as a sandwich. In other words, they know who they are because they are coming to know who God in Christ is.
It is, I think, fascinating that this theological sandwich is really one long sentence in the original Greek: a 169 word sentence. And much of it hinges on the part from verse 16, where Paul says, “I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers.” He starts with a prayer of thanksgiving, but then he moves on to prayers of supplication, asking God to give the Ephesians the Spirit of Wisdom and Revelation, a power like that which raised Jesus from the dead to the place that is above all power, rule, authority and dominion.
Think about that for a minute. There are some mighty prayers out there, the Lord’s Prayer, the Serenity Prayer, the Irish Blessing. None of them, however, ask for the Spirit of Wisdom AND Revelation. What if we started praying that for each other - for those in this place, certainly. But what if we started to pray for a Spirit of Wisdom and Revelation for our friends who attend other churches, acquaintances and unknown people who attend other kinds of churches, even synagogues, mosques and atheists? What would the kingdom of God on earth look like?
I think, in someways, the idea of having a Spirit of Wisdom and Revelation is linked to a maturation of faith, a growing up in God that begins to better understand Christ’s place in the universe and the church’s participation - as a whole body - in Christ’s sovereignty. It is an understanding that appreciates both the greatness and the intimacy of God’s love for us.
In some ways, a Spirit of Wisdom and Revelation would be a better version of the world in which we live. But I wonder if it would be a little like C.S. Lewis’ “Chronicles of Narnia,” when the children at one point walk into what appeared from the outside to be no more than a shabby little building. But once they step into it, they discover a vastness they could not have guessed at before. “Why,” Lucy exclaims, “it’s bigger on the inside than on the outside.” “Yes,” another character replies, “something like that once happened on earth. In a place called Bethlehem there was a tiny stable whose inside was bigger than its outside because that stable contained the whole world.”
Lest we focus only on a future world of such maturation, wisdom and revelation, those aspects of life are here with us now. The idea of understanding the majesty and sovereignty of Christ in the spirit of wisdom and revelation pairs perfectly with a verse from Philippians 2, “Therefore God exalted him (Christ) to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth….”
But - and no good sermon worth its salt is without a “but,” How can one be bigger than the entire solar systems and yet still have one’s on the sparrow? How can you be mightier than the sum total of every president, king, queen, prime minister, dictator, and ruler on the earth right now and yet at also be concerned for the welfare of the widow and the orphan?
For a while, I would send an article I thought interesting to my niece. I probably sent the articles without any explanation or my understanding of their relevance, which was definitely a mistake. I didn’t understand that my niece took these articles as threats to her parenting skills. Now the articles weren’t all about parenting, but just stuff I thought she might find interesting, some on parenting, probably, but not all.
After she blew up at me for her perceived attack on parenting, in some wondrous, revelatory way, I understood that I could argue about the intent of my digital gifts till the cows came home, but my niece needs to learn her lessons herself. Much as I’d love to try to spare her and my nephew some of the heartache I’ve encountered over all 35 years of my life, I only learned the lessons because I learned them myself.
Scott Hoezee said something similar. "Each generation of believers should challenge all the notions concerning the identity of God. Christians should be involved in a self-discovery of God: asking new questions, discovering new ways of seeing and relating to God.”
In some Eastern and Greek Orthodox churches, there is a huge icon, or painting of Christ, on the ceiling or the front of the church. This art type is called a Pantocrator, which is Greek for “Ruler of All.” In these works of art, Jesus seems to stare directly out at you with wide and often rather stern eyes. His outer robe is deep blue, symbolizing the majesty and mystery of God and the tunic he wears under this robe is red, symbolizing Jesus’ shed blood. In his left hand Jesus holds a Bible, and his right hand is raised to give a blessing, with two fingers held up and the other three fingers held together, symbolizing the two natures of Christ (divine and human) and the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The size, awe and grandeur of these works seem to dwarf the one looking at the icon and certainly leaves one with a sense of a stern Ruler of All. In some of those same places of holiness, there are other works of art, smaller, at a more human level that gives Jesus a gentler facial expression and kinder eyes.
There are layers to the Good News of Christ, that Christ rose from the dead and promises that those who follow him will be raised from the dead, too. And there is the Good News that Christ sent us the Holy Spirit so that we are never alone in continuing Christ’s ministry on earth. There are undoubtedly scores of other layers to the Good News of Christ, but for today, there is the layer that is the miracle of God’s Holy Spirit, as huge as the Ruler of All that can collapse down into something shaped just like and fit into the human heart. And with that Good News comes the power of the Holy Spirit that can do what seems far beyond reality. So let us enter into this week, mindful of the power of God’s gifts of wisdom and revelation that God’s Holy Spirit gives us.
God of Wisdom and Revelation, we thank you for these powerful gifts that we too often take for granted or fail to recognize. We pray for your Spirit to develop better - deeper and richer - wisdom and revelation in our own lives, that they may help us to mature in our faith and following of Christ. For the grace that you call us into ministry with you to help others understand you and all your gifts, we thank you. Help us to better appreciate the gift that is wisdom and revelation that permeates our hearts - now and in all our days this week and years and all time. For all the answers to our prayers and gifts of your Trinity, all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
November 19, 2017
24th Sunday after Pentecost, Thanksgiving Sunday
Deuteronomy 8:7-18 & 2 Corinthians 9:6-15
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
I never thought about it before, but have you ever thought about how many Thanksgiving jokes there are? And the number of topics - from turkeys to pilgrims to food to really bad puns. And some jokes are so old, I’m guessing they may have been graffitied into the Mayflower - like if the pilgrims were alive today, what would they be most famous for? Their age.
I did have to inwardly chuckle at the cartoon of the turkey in front of a computer, saying, “I wonder what it means when the farmer unfriends me on Facebook.” The one that would be called Dinah’s joke is the one where I’m picking through the frozen turkeys at the grocery store, but can’t find the right size. Because I’m in a hurry, with a thousand other things in my mind, I asked an employee, “Do these turkeys get any bigger?” The employee answers, “No ma’am, they’re dead.” That’s when I know I need to take a step back and claim this joke as mine.
I think part of the attraction or endearment of holidays are the traditions - until they can no longer be traditions because someone breaks up, divorces, there’s a death, or there’s a move, and all those traditions become harder - perhaps more so in facing the necessity to change.
Between the good and ill of todays’ politics, there is great room for contemplation and thinking. While modern day Thanksgiving has become more associated with commerce, food and football, the dark side of our historic Thanksgiving has been receiving more attention - that dark side being the deaths and killings of people who had no say in the arrival of non-native peoples to this land - including the death and sickness of infants and children. But if that’s where our Thanksgiving stops - in either the acknowledgement or disagreement - then we are cheating ourselves - and God.
Our first scripture passage today comes from the Pentateuch - the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy is a book that consists of three sermons delivered to the Israelites by Moses on the plains of Moab, shortly before they enter the Promised Land. It is comprised of 34 chapters that 1) recounts the Israelites forty years of wilderness wanderings, 2) reminds the Israelites of the need for a single God belief system with the observance of the laws God gave them, and 3) offers the comfort that even should the chosen people prove unfaithful and so lose the land, with repentance all can be restored, a la, Ms. Wikipedia. Perhaps it might be thought of - in really broad terms - as the past, the present and the future of Israel.
Anyway, this morning’s passage is part of that first sermon, perhaps delivered from a vantage point near the Dead Sea that allowed the listeners to look out over the land, as Moses perhaps used his best sermon hand gestures.
The second passage for this morning comes from the hand of Paul, who, feeling his authority attacked a little by the people of Corinth, wrote to remind them of his love for them and their mission as followers of Christ.
Deuteronomy 8:7-18 (NIV)
7 For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land—a land with brooks, streams, and deep springs gushing out into the valleys and hills; 8 a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and honey; 9 a land where bread will not be scarce and you will lack nothing; a land where the rocks are iron and you can dig copper out of the hills.
10 When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you. 11 Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day. 12 Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, 13 and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, 14 then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. 15 He led you through the vast and dreadful wilderness, that thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions. He brought you water out of hard rock. 16 He gave you manna to eat in the wilderness, something your ancestors had never known, to humble and test you so that in the end it might go well with you. 17 You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” 18 But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your ancestors, as it is today.
2 Corinthians 9:6-15 (NIV)
6 Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. 7 Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 8 And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. 9 As it is written: “They have freely scattered their gifts to the poor; their righteousness endures forever.”
10 Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. 11 You will be enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.
12 This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of the Lord’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God. 13 Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, others will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else. 14 And in their prayers for you their hearts will go out to you, because of the surpassing grace God has given you. 15 Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!
Thank you, Tom. The Bible tells us it was God’s direction that the Israelites were “given” the Holy Land, but I’ve wondered about the people that were living there before the Israelites got there. I wonder, if in reality, most of where we are and what we have, as a world population, has come at the hands of those who were conquered and dismissed.
I am well aware that this message, up to this point, has been a little on the dark side, even more political than with what I am comfortable, and perhaps some feathers ruffled. But it’s precisely in those places, the dark places, the uncomfortable places, the disenfranchised places, the vulnerable places, the ‘I’d rather not look’ places where we need to find a way through. It’s in those places that we need to know where and what the Good News is. Regardless of whether the crop was good this year or not, while some have prospered and are filled with great thanks, others are suffering loss and disappointment. Is there a place where we all - regardless of situations, politics, or even our faith, can come to that place of true Thanksgiving?
I think that “place” is suggested in our scripture passages. The Deuteronomy passage alludes three times - and remember that three is a most divine number in the lives of the Hebrew people - to remember - or not forget the Lord our God. And the 2 Corinthians passage begins with the admonition “Remember this.” How nicely these two passages come together joining efforts and energies!
If any one of us could trade places with someone who lives in Texas, Louisiana, Florida, Georgia, Puerto Rico or any other place where water, fire and/or wind destroyed their present mode of life, what or who would our greatest Thanksgiving be about? What or who, over the past year, would be included in that memory list of goodness and blessing?
It is always right and good to thank God for the blessings we have so that we can give more abundantly. But if you take a good look at the first two verses from the 2 Corinthians passage, there’s no word about money or possessions. That one place where we can all join together in our focus on thanks this week is not about money or possessions or positions - although it is good to be thankful for them - but about that which we can sow for the Master Gardener - or Farmer - as the case may be - and the Master Farmer’s own self.
I’m sure a great many you would include spouses, family, and of course, your humble and amazing, favorite pastor, but how about remembering God’s part in your past year? I couldn’t find the name of the author, but over there at calvin.edu, someone wrote, “A good Thanksgiving is impossible without a keen memory. Only when we stir up our memory of the events of the past year, and recognize the hand of the Lord in them, will we be prompted to declare our thanks.”
I don’t know if it’s “impossible” to have a good Thanksgiving without a keen memory, or if we must stir up memories of the events of the past year, but the broader idea is pretty good. As the scripture passages seemed to hint, and from this keen insight by an anonymous journal contributor, there is a deep connection between remembering and giving thanks.
We can give God repeated thanks for this, that and the other, toothbrushes, and brussel sprouts and technology. But it is our remembrance of situations and the results of those situations that cause our thanks to God to be deeper and perhaps even more meaningful. And it may not always be the case, but I’d like to think that when we get to those deeper places of giving thanks, we are even more so moved to give thanks for the Giver - thanking God for giving us God’s self, even a human version of God’s self.
There are as many things for which to give thanks as there are stars in the sky. But none of those things - or stars - are even possible without The One who created them; The One who incidentally loves you more than you are generally cognizant. So let us begin our Remember-giving week.
Gracious and Loving Lord, we come before you this day with the beginning of memories over the past year that were brought about mostly by your hand, whether we realized it or not. As this week progresses, help us to remember more of those moments where your leading and guiding and love and mercy were so much a part of the moment; helping us to remember especially in those moments when we were most apt to forget about you. In this week, when we are reminded of how blessed we are to be your people, help us to peal back the blinders of separation and even elitism, even if we can peal back those blinders just a little bit. Help us to see the plenty that is there for all of us - all your people - those who look like us as well as those who don’t. And thank you for you, dear God, for your love and light and life and all that you are to us, and for taking our seeds of effort and the abilities you have given us and growing them into life that is sometimes beyond our realization. For the gift of faith which sees beyond the present moment and looks to eternity, we thank you. For the gift of faith small as a mustard seed, which has power within its simplicity, we thank you. For the strength and encouragement that comes in remembering and thanking you, all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
November 12, 2017
23rd Sunday after Pentecost
Matthew 25:1-13 & 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
“Oil For Our Lamps”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
In honor of our recent holiday, How do you get the most apples at Halloween? Take a snorkel. What is the left side of an apple? The part that you don't eat. Why didn’t the two worms go into Noah’s ark in an apple? Because everyone had to go in pairs! What did the worm want to do when he grew up? He wanted to join the Apple Core (Corps).
Apparently someone asked the great Martin Luther, “What would you do if you knew Jesus was coming again tomorrow?” And apparently his answer was, “I think I’d go out and plant an apple tree.” Not necessarily the answer any one of us might have guessed.
Our gospel passage today has nothing to do with apples, but the longer you look at it, the more questions bob to the surface. The passage is part of a larger sermon Jesus delivered two days before his final Passover, that starts way back in chapter 24, as Jesus is taking leave of a long day, teaching in the temple that started three chapters before that - according to Matthew’s accounting. He had to have been exhausted, dealing with the crowds that wanted a revolution and the plotting of the Pharisees and friends to get rid of him - and probably knowing something about his time on earth ending. So it’s no wonder that this parable is a little on the dark side.
Before Linda comes up to read the passages, I will encourage you all to pick up those pew Bibles and turn to page 1540, so you can read along, because I’d like to discover the holes your brains see in it.
While you’re doing that, and as for the second passage from today’s lectionary, it continues the letter written to the Thessalonians; a letter of encouragement to the church Paul had planted that seemed to be doing the best in balancing their lives in light of their new faith - as compared to other churches Paul had planted. It may seem odd, Paul reminding those early Christians about Christ’s return, but then, it was a letter written approximately 19 years after Christ’s death. I don’t know about any of you, but about all I can remember from 19 years ago is that it was my first year here, getting to know about this beautiful place, this delightful little church and the precious folks that have hung together while walking their - your - walks of faith. I am sure that I have forgotten a few things that happened in those early months, as I’m sure all the rest of you have forgotten a few things from 19 years ago.
“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.
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
13 Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. 14 For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. 15 According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.
Thank you, Linda. As I mentioned earlier, I am curious to see what some of you see - or don’t see - in the passage from Matthew. So go ahead, raise your ponderences.
Thank you all for your insights. It’s so tempting to assign roles in parables. The bridegroom would be Jesus, the ten virgins would be the people in the church, the oil for the lamps would be faith, and the bridegroom’s arrival would be the second coming of Christ at the end of history when there will be that ultimate sorting out process known as the last judgment. Rev. Hoezee also asked a great question, “Where is the bride, and who or what would she represent?”
Weren’t we taught - at least in Kindergarten if not before - that we’re supposed to share with others? And didn’t Jesus say, ““If someone asks you for your coat, give him your shirt, too”?
Steve Garnaas-Holmes had a great take on this parable. “Everybody in the story fails to be there for each other. The “wise” maidens could have shared. It wouldn't have killed them. But they make their sisters go shopping at midnight— and are happy to go to the party without them. They're not willing to be there for the others.
And the groom—in what way is he not a jerk? He won't let his friends come to the party—because they're late? After he himself has made them wait all night??And on top of that he insults them, saying, “I don't know you!” He vaporizes his friendship over
tardiness? Wow. What a prince of selfishness.”
Rev. Hoezee goes on. “So what's Jesus up to in this story? I think he's setting us up. We're so anxious to “get” the story, to believe something pious about it, to judge between wise and foolish, we miss the actual relationships—like the maidens out buying moral-of-the-story oil instead of just being there. Sometimes we're obsessed with our lamps instead of with each other. It really doesn't matter what we think, or how much “oil in our lamps” we have, or how well others meet our expectations. What matters is that we're there for each other.”
And Rev. Garnaas-Holmes final point is to “Pray that you might run out of oil, having given it away to be there for someone in need. Trust the Bridegroom will be happy for you to be there.“ Now that’s just one way to look at it.
Rev. Janet Hunt is a Lutheran pastor in Illinois, and her comments were a little closer to home - likening the passage to having a fully stocked pantry, but in the midst of the old family recipe, realizing that you are out of the one ingredient that makes the banana icebox dessert as sinful as it really is. So off to the store you go. Or having all the other sized sockets but the one you need to fix the bathtub. So off to the store you go. It’s not really about being foolish or wise, but about realizing that sometimes we forget that we need extra oil - or to check our oil containers.
Rev. Hunt talked about a particularly difficult week, one of those weeks that are as heartbreaking as they are dry, sprinkled with a measure of brokenness and unable to do anything but pray. She said she was surprised that she actually slept that night, because the week was wrapped in preparations for a weekend presentation she was to give and the next day was her annual physical.
Rev. Hunt said she was surprised that as she sat in her doctor’s office that afternoon, that the tears kept threatening to come. And she was even more surprised when the doctor asked how she was - and she told him. She said that, “in the next moments, for just an instance, my doctor became my pastor. Truly. For he spoke then of John 4 and urged me to return to the ‘fresh water’ which is always mine, always ours. In the image before us now, he held out the promise that the oil is always there for our lamps. All we have to do is receive it.
And isn’t this so? For today’s parable does not speak of there being a shortage of ‘oil for our lamps.’ It speaks only of those five bridesmaids forgetting that they would need it. As I sometimes do. As too often I do as well.”
“We have already have Jesus as we await the ‘bridegroom’s’ return,’ she said. We already have Jesus. If only we will pause long enough to recognize and receive this precious gift, it is already ours. All we have to do is fill our lamps.”
Then Susan Hylen, Associate Professor of New Testament, Emory University, Atlanta, Ga. pointed out that “the point of the parable is not constant readiness. “Keep awake” does not imply that the disciples should never sleep, standing vigil through the ages for Christ’s imminent return. In fact, all of the bridesmaids, wise and foolish, are asleep when the shout announces the groom’s approach…. The passage does not simply call for right action in the groom’s absence. It calls for recognition that he may be delayed.”
And then there is the Rev. Dinah Haag’s thought that combined with someone else’s thought that she couldn’t remember - of remembering how Jesus started the parable. “At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like”…. Maybe Jesus isn’t really talking about the short view, but the long view, the view that Paul alludes to in 1 Thessalonians. The short view is the one that sees the imminent end of everything, so there is no need to worry about taking care of the environment, working on long-term peace strategies among the nations and/or nurturing faith to deal with issues that may crop up in the future.
The long view isn’t the one that simply gazes at the horizon, waiting for Jesus to ride up on a nice piece of horse-flesh, either. It is the understanding that keeping our oil lamps trimmed and burning is about keeping “our lights shining as signs of promise and hope.” There is, I suppose, a great allure to think that this promise and hope stuff is not very practical. But what if, instead of it being the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas it was the First Congregational Church of Frankfort, MI?
Please understand, I’m not going for fear and paranoia here. But if we were in their steads, how much would we pay for hope and light? Or what if it were another sort of issue that would threaten the connection of the brothers and sisters we call our church family? We would, I’m sure, appreciate all the “oil” we could get from others, but maybe our passage reminds us to top off our own oil cans.
Maybe we need to remember that until Christ comes again, there are people to visit - in nursing homes and at home - not just by me - but by all of us - perhaps most especially to people we don’t really know well. Maybe you could use the introduction of “Dinah said we were supposed to find someone to visit, so I chose you.” Maybe we, like Martin Luther, need to do some seed planting for the future - regardless of whose future it might be.
Or maybe we need to not just think about other people that come to mind, but whoever comes to mind, that we lift up a real prayer for him or her. The thing is that while the prayer may be about the other person, it is also about us, about keeping our hearts supple and robust - oil cans filled and all. So let us start the refilling with some of that very prayer.
God of hearts and souls, we thank you for those individuals who have shared their oils of faith and light with us in the past, especially for those we may never realize had a part in who we are today. We pray for hope and promise for those you send our way, whether through our ears or our eyes or our hands, that we can help those people fill or refill their faith vessels. And we pray, too, that you remind us to lift our heads to see the further goal, of that life that will not require oil cans or lamp trimming or tear drying or worry or any of the other stones that can trip us in this life. Bless the oil of faith you have given each of us, that we can do more for you than we may ever anticipate. And all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
November 5, 2017
All Saints Sunday
Matthew 5:1-12 & 1 John 3:1-8
“Tending to the Work at Work In You”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
So you know when you do something rather unflattering, something that makes you feel embarrassed and/or something awkward happens, but you can’t help it and you long for a hole in the ground to swallow you up?
And then, you know when someone else does something rather unflattering unto themselves, and that that thing - in an embarrassing way - makes you feel so good, because it’s something that you are so apt to do? Like if George Clooney were to spill gravy on his shirt or Meryl Streep would trip on the Red Carpet.
Don’t get me wrong, I mean, you feel bad for the other individual, but it really, really, really blossoms up a sense of gratitude and normalcy inside you - that we are all very human beings. Although this morning’s gospel passage isn’t really funny or embarrassing, it certainly has aspects of being familiar, just because of our shared humanity - in a really good way. And somehow, regardless of how the lives of those younger than us turn out, we will have an eternal link with them, simply because we are all human and loved by God.
5 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.
1 John 3:1-8 (NIV)
3 See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 2 Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. 3 All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.
4 Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness. 5 But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin. 6 No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.
7 Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. The one who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. 8 The one who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.
Thank you, Chris. Of all the church holidays and holy days, I think the All Saints season is one of my favorites. I say season, because there is more to this one day than what meets the eye. The National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty has gone on record to say that “Hallowtide covers the three days – 31 October (All-Hallows Eve or Hallowe'en), 1 November (All Saints) and 2 November (All Souls).” Once word gets round that we’ve added all those who have been born to this holiday season, I’m pretty sure they will turn it into a four day event.
All Hallows Eve is a religious vigil or observance on the evening before - All Saints Day, being the celebration of all those who have died that has nothing to do with candy.
All Souls Day is the celebration of all the Christian souls that have died. It is during this three day period when “thin places” in the world become more noticeable or get more attention — a Celtic notion that during certain and special times, the distance between heaven and earth and sacred and secular seems more transparent. Interestingly, there is a Celtic saying that heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in the thin places that distance is even smaller.
Two of the most famous “thin places” in the world are the isle of Iona in Scotland and Santiago de Compostela in Spain. San Antonian retreat leader and author, Sylvia Maddox described one of her “thin places.” She said, “As I stood on the pebbled beach, the waves of the ocean seemed to whisper Jesus’ words,” I am with you.” These words could be said in a book, in a classroom, in a sermon, but in a thin place there is an immediacy of experience where words of faith become words of life.”
Maybe you have a “thin place” moment or two in your life, a place or time when you know how you felt, but you may not have all the words to express those feelings - feelings that somehow shifted your understanding of the world.
We all have loss in our lives - not just in death, but in diseases like Alzheimers or dementia, or harsh words. Or we lose a job, a marriage, a relationship, status, health, a home, or dignity. And while Jesus’ words in the Beatitudes are really good at first hearing, there is that hard under layer - the bitterness and pain that occurred when someone insulted you because of your faith, the unrighteousness from which righteousness seemed to shine like a beacon, the tears and loneliness that takes the place of a beloved.
But there is deeper good news. Not only are you sometimes poor in spirit or mourning or hungering and thirsting for righteousness, there are many, many others feeling the same way. Granted, we are all unique with unique situations. But too often we somehow think we are the only ones going through the stuff we have to go through. And not only are there others on whom we can lean for support, advice and even companionship, we have the promises from Jesus, via Matthew, that the hard parts of life will be redeemed, and the promise from the book of Revelation that God will “wipe away every tear” and the promise from our other passage for this morning - that we are children of God.
And Christ didn’t say, “One day you will be blessed,” but “Blessed are…” David Lose also pointed out that “blessing isn’t like the flu shot. Blessing doesn’t immunize you from pain or loss, and it’s not a guarantee of safe passage through this life unscathed. Rather, blessing is a sense of fullness, of contentment, of joy that is like, but also transcends, ordinary happiness. And like love and hope and so many other things, it can’t simply be mustered into existence but rather is responsive, springing forth in response to the love and promises of another.” - that “another” I’m guessing he means Christ.
While we are grateful for those precious individuals that have passed on to eternal life, and for those souls God has given us for their time on earth, God sees each one of us, knowing the grief that weighs down hearts, the depression or addictions that oppress us, the challenges that we face and uphill struggles we are contemplating. God sees them, honors them, accompanies them and blesses them. And when we struggle with the stuff of life, it doesn’t mean that we are being faithless, but that we are tending to the work that is working in us.
God could have kept each and every one of us in that eternal life to which we will return. But there is something about that “blessing” and the seasons of life that God thought was greater than skipping over it. So we’ve been born into this life, and no matter where any and each of us are this day, let us rejoice and be glad, because great is our reward in heaven. And so should we pray.
Eternal God of Forever and Ever, they are gathered around you, the well-known ones like Martin Luther, Mother Teresa, C.S. Lewis, Helen Keller and so many more. And there are those less famous, like Saint Agnes, the angel Gabriel, Patrick, Joseph and Teresa of Avila. And others are rather ordinary, such as the teacher from second grade who guided our fingers under the words; the nurse in the hospital who held our hand while blood was taken; the coach who trusted us with the ball and not the end of the bench. May we realize how they endure with us, holding our hearts and encompassing us with fierce and stubborn love that persists across time and distance. In this thin place, where we join that cloud of faithful witnesses, help us to tread paths and leave footprints that witness to the work and joy and blessing of following you and living kingdom lives. And all your precious ones say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.