First Congregational Church
November 29, 2020
First Sunday in Advent & Hanging of the Greens
Rev. Dinah Haag
As we enter into the first and only verse of our opening hymn, let us be reminded that the Light of Christ is with us as we are gathered in Christ’s name, as it will go with us when we leave.
Bringing In the Light & Hymn “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” #240, vs. 1
Scripture John 1:1-5
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
Decorating the Sanctuary
Not being sure about when angels came into the story of time and creation, I’ve gathered that they’ve been here for a long, long time, so the angels stand near the place where the nativity will be played out. Once human beings came into the picture, we’ve had this innate urge to mark certain events as part of our life stories. From writing on cave walls to creating a pile of rocks as an altar, “doing” something has been a large part of understanding our world and life.
During the Advent season we do certain things to prepare for the One who has come, whom we expect to come, and who will come again. We prepare our hearts and make room for the Messiah. In the hanging of the greens we share with Christians throughout the ages the memory and anticipation of Christ’s coming. We decorate our church home with symbols of love, joy, hope, and peace. We do this to tell the story again and then proclaim: Jesus is born. God is with us!
Hymn: “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” #245, vs. 1 & 2
Decorating the Advent Wreath/Wreaths
Christmas greens point to the deep, rich meanings of the season: mistletoe symbolizes peace; and the prickly leaves of holly are symbols of the crown of thorns. The circle shape of wreaths are a Christian symbol of the eternal God and eternal love, without beginning or end.
This circle of evergreen branches testifies of the continuation of life and life without end. As you notice circular wreaths this season, remember the continual, unending love that God has for each of us, as demonstrated in Christ’s life and the power of the Holy Spirit.
The four candles - for each week in Advent - encircle the Christ candle to signify God’s Son as the light of the world. Each week we will light a candle and on Christmas Eve the Christ candle will be lit. With increasing brightness from the candles, we are reminded of the Light of the world and find hope in the coming of Jesus.
Advent Candle Lighting
While having a dream and before Jesus was born, an angel came to Joseph and said, “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). To celebrate Christmas is to hope, to remember, and to prepare for something great to happen. As we light the Advent candle of HOPE, we celebrate the hope found in Christ’s birth. May we become a people of hope in the midst of our world.
Hymn: “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” #245, vs. 3 & 4
Time for the Children The Creche
Possibly the best known Christmas decorating tradition is the picture of Bethlehem, where Jesus was born. Lots of pictures have a little barn like place, filled with all kinds of creatures, who all celebrate Jesus being born. We set this scene before us during the Advent season as a reminder of God’s gift of Jesus to us.
The cool thing about this year’s nativity is that it is being put together with many different kinds - on purpose - because our world is filled with people of different kinds, all of us loved by the same God, who made each of us different from one another. So each time you see a nativity - which means being born - you can remember that the God who made every single person in the world loved you enough to make you different.
Hymn: “O Little Town of Bethlehem” #250
Decorating the Greens
The Advent custom of decorating with evergreen branches comes to us from the peasants of the Middle Ages who believed that preparations should be made for the coming of Jesus. On the first Sunday of Advent, each family would gather evergreens and place them near the hearth in their home. We continue that tradition by hanging the greens in our congregational home of this sanctuary. When you are aware of various greens and trees around you this year, let them remind you of God’s ever alive love in Christ and of our living relationship with God.
Hymn: “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” ##277
Decorating with Poinsettias
The poinsettia, or “Flower of the Holy Night” as the plant is referred to in Mexico, is the most popular Advent flower. It was discovered growing wild in Mexico and then cultivated and developed into the type of flower seen there today. The star-shaped center of the bloom reminds us of the star that shone on that first Christmas. When you see all the various poinsettias around this year, let them remind you that God continues to lead us.
Hymn: “The First Noel #265, vs. 1-4
Decorating with Banners: Emmanuel, God with US
People say that a name is everything. Products are named to make everyone want to try them. Books are named to entice people to read them. A name with a good reputation communicates trustworthiness and quality. So what is God’s child to be named?
He could have been a Moses or a David or an Isaiah. But the name chosen was Emmanuel-God with us. It is a name that comforts in times of need and stress, strengthens in times of challenge and decision, and encourages in moments of weakness and doubt. God with us! Forever. Continually. Every time you see it this year, let it remind your heart of such great love.
Hymn “Come, Thou Long-expected Jesus”
Benediction (from pulpit)
As we continue to prepare our hearts for the day we celebrate Love coming into the world, may God bless you and keep you. May God’s face shine upon you and bring you peace as Christ leads you, and goes behind you to protect you, beside you to be your friend and in your heart to bring you peace. Amen.
First Congregational Church
November 22, 2020
Christ the King Sunday
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
If you call a large turkey a gobbler, what do you call a small one? A goblet. You know, if your great-grandmother saw you making boxed mashed potatoes, she’d turn over in her gravy. I’m guessing that there are a lot of folks who might wish me to stop telling Thanksgiving jokes, but I just can’t stop cold-turkey.
In a letter that may well have been written while the great Paul was in a Roman prison, Ephesians was likely a circular letter - one intended to be passed around many different churches. It’s not positive Paul was the author, but that’s a point for experts. Writer or not, the point is the same: to inspire those churches how to practically maintain unity; how to live a holy, pure, and Christ-inspired lifestyle. After some initial verses giving praise for spiritual blessings in Christ, that includes being called by Christ, we get this morning’s passage. As you listen, hear it as a part of a letter from God to you, and one that I wish I had written to each one of you.
15 For this reason, ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, 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 also 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 the saints, 19 and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is like the working of his mighty strength, 20 which he exerted in Christ when he raised him 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 title that can be given, 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, Nancy. Not everyone knows the true source of Jennie-O turkeys, but now you can answer any such question confidently with the answer of Litchfield, MN. In fact, I lived about five blocks from it until I was about 14. Although I think they have come to use a different mode of transport, it was common enough to see a semi truck of turkeys with metal wires, no metal sheeting on the sides of the trailer. My dad shared a garage space with some other guys right across the street, so being around the open garage door that revealed turkeys being moved on a conveyer belt was as much a part of my life as cornfields and the smell of silage.
Being it was a human run factory with very live birds, every so often a turkey would escape and would wander around town until someone caught it. To this day, I can’t remember all the exact details, but the larger memory is - of not once, but twice, catching a turkey with my bare hands and bringing home the bacon - so to speak. That may be my most proud Thanksgiving-related memory.
My favorite Thanksgiving was when I lived in Denmark while in college. It happened while we were on a break, so most of the 81 of us living in a youth hostel were gone - traveling to who knows where. Partly because I was on work-study, and partly because I probably didn’t have the funds to go away on that break, I found myself alone that Thanksgiving. My five roommates were away and the couple of students way down the hall were not part of my social circle, but it was okay. I was doing it my way. So I picked up a box of Knoor Minestrone Soup mix, added water to the pot on the hot plate, and got down to the business of gratitude - for being able to do what I was doing, for the amazing opportunity, for the abilities I was discovering in being able to be anywhere in the world and know that I would be just fine. It was nothing like the family gatherings that I was forced to - I mean attended as a kid. And it was the best - ever since.
This Ephesians section isn’t a traditional Thanksgiving scripture passage, but it gets right down to the heart of the matter: being grateful for those given to us. In a year when not everything is as traditional as other years, I know many folks are going to be celebrating differently this year - most likely with less people around. It’s been much on my heart this week to encourage you in allowing this holiday to be about the business of gratitude, that it might make a way to be one of your significant Thanksgivings down the road.
Not everyone has picked up on my idea of maybe doing something different, but I know of one house that is foregoing turkey and the accouterments and making pizza pot pies, and our Administrative Assistant, Katherine and her husband are having spaghetti and venison meatballs. Who knows, maybe someone may end up having reconstituted, lye soaked lutefisk, although someone might want to check on anyone making that to see that they’re okay.
Pilgrims and Congregationalists aren’t the only ones with a corner on the Thanksgiving event. I would guess that every culture - throughout time - has a form of giving thanks to the Creator for the sustenance of life and living. As our world becomes more educated, we may find ourselves needing a different context from our grade school plays about someone saving someone else’s hide. Our passage for this morning is a fine place on which to lean.
“For this reason, ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, 16 I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers.” Gracious God, thank you for Lawrence Welk, who said, “Over and over I marvel at the blessings of my life: Each year has grown better than the last.” Thank you for Henry David Thoreau, who said, “I am grateful for what I am and have. My thanksgiving is perpetual.” And thank you for Jim Davis, who admonishes us, “Vegetables are a must on a diet. I suggest carrot cake, zucchini bread, and pumpkin pie.”
“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.” Thank you, Great Giver, for 16th century Swiss physician and theologian, Conrad Gesser, who said, “Best of all is it to preserve everything in a pure, still heart, and let there be for every pulse a thanksgiving, and for every breath a song.” And thank you, too, Lord, for Henry Van Dyke’s thought, “Gratitude is the inward feeling of kindness received. Thankfulness is the natural impulse to express that feeling. Thanksgiving is the following of that impulse.”
The 18th verse of our passage states, “I pray also 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 the saints, 19 and his incomparably great power for us who believe.” Heavenly Parent, thank you for the insight you gave Willie Nelson: “When I started counting my blessings, my whole life turned around.” And God, there is beautiful inspiration in Neal A. Maxwell’s line, “We should certainly count our blessings, but we should also make our blessings count.” And of course, there is the piece de reistance from Melody Beattie, “Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life.”
And speaking of fullness, If you're sitting in public and a stranger takes the seat next to you, just stare straight ahead and say, "Did you bring the money?” I finally got eight hours of sleep. It took me three days, but whatever. I don't mean to interrupt people. I just randomly remember things and get really excited.
Our passage writer continues, “That power is like the working of his mighty strength, 20 which he exerted in Christ when he raised him 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 title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.”
In a paraphrase of this passage, there is gratitude in tinting the lenses just a little, so that it is seen in a little different light. I pray that God—the God the Beloved, Jesus Christ, showed us, God our beautiful Life-Giver—may give you a spirit of mindfulness and wisdom as you deepen your openness to God, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you will have the hope God has for you. May you live in wonder and trust of the gifts we all receive as God's Beloved. May you feel in your bones the immeasurable greatness of the power of love when we trust it. This is God's power in us. Love is the power that raised Christ from the dead, the power that orders the universe, the power above all human systems, every rule and authority and dominion, and above every seen or unseen power, force or value you could imagine. God subjects everything to love. And we—we are the embodiment of that love, which conquers everything, and fills everything, and completes everything. We are the body, and Love is what makes us alive.
Even in the final verse of today’s passage gives us direction in vision. “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.”
Tegan Langley posted this story, most likely from England. "Sitting in McDonald’s carpark waiting for an appointment, a gentleman who I later found out was named Tony, approached my car window. He asked if I knew about the state of my tyres. I explained that I knew I needed new ones but at the moment simply couldn’t afford it.
He asked me if I would follow him to the Bridgestone store across the road to see what they could do for me. This complete stranger, Tony, explained he couldn’t live with himself if he walked away from the situation knowing they were about to blow at anytime.
Tony didn’t expect anything in return, just asking that one day when I’m in the position where I’m able to help someone that I pay it forward. 535 dollars, a lot of tears on my behalf, a few hugs, three brand new tyres, a wheel alignment and the offer to fuel up my car. Then he left. No last name, no contact number. Just Tony the gentle giant with his two beautiful sons teaching them a life lesson. Let us pray.
Gracious, Gracious, Loving God, you are well aware of how over-powering life can feel sometimes. And you know how we just don’t always live up to our call to follow after Christ. But there is so much good in the world, God, good that is done for us, and to us, and through us. We may not be able to give tires, God, but we can give so many other things - like grace and lover and forgiveness. This week - not just Thursday - but the whole week - help us to be attuned to the kindnesses that meet us, the moments of fullness that we can so easily miss, for the wisdom that surrounds us - not only in this age, but from the past as well. Grant us a new prescription that affords us to have a Thanksgiving Vision, that allows us to see opportunities that can transform how we recall events in our lives. And thank you for you, and your Son and your Holy Spirit, that we live our fullest lives here until the time we join you there. And all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
November 8, 2020
22nd Sunday after Pentecost
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Sometimes a person’s got to wonder - like calling a sock without its mate a lost sole. Or when the past, the present and the future get into a fight and you realize it’s pretty tense. Or the idea that I was going to tell you all a joke about time-travel, but none of you liked it.
Of the 28 chapters in the book of Matthew, between the beginning of Jesus’ last week in chapter 21, and his betrayal by Judas in the Garden of Gethsemane in chapter 27, a lot of teaching takes place. Most of those chapters focus on two very broad areas: pointing to the time after Jesus’s earthly life and the kingdom of God. Over those days and chapters, the people - regular folks, disciples, and all the religious folk - heard about a dried up fig tree, a couple of sons, vineyard renters, a wedding dinner, Caesar and taxes, the greatest commandment, warnings against deception, and predictions of future trouble. Today, we get the Ten Bridesmaids or Virgins as our pew version calls them.
Scripture Matthew 25:1-13
1 "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, 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. 'Sir! Sir!' they said. 'Open the door for us!' 12 "But he replied, 'I tell you the truth, I don't know you.'
13 "Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.
Thank you, Rosemary. So there’s a little video running around these days on the internets, connected to “Trending World” by the Epoch Times, where a number of kids are asked what they are hoping to get for Christmas and what they would want to get their parents. The kids wanted things like a computer, a big, giant Barbie house, a trophy case and an Xbox 360 for themselves, and a ring, a dress, a new TV, and a night watch for their parents. These kids are probably fourth of fifth graders, and once they’ve made the decisions about the gifts, the people doing the test actually purchased both gifts for each child. Then they threw the curve ball “The catch is that you can either have the gift for yourself or the gift for your parent.
For some kids, the choice was pure agony. One sweet, sweet boy, before the questioner even finished asking which one, patted the one for his father and said, “I’ll give him this.” When the questioner asked him to state his reason for such a decisive answer, the little guy said, “Because Legos don’t matter. Your family matters. Not Legos, not toys, your family. So, it’s either family or Legos and I choose family.”
Another little girl said, “I get gifts from my family every year and mom don’t get anything.” “If I get a laptop, my mom will lose something. She helps me when I’m sick. She helps me with my homework. She gave me a house to live in. They look out for me and do stuff for me so I need to give back to them. Now I have an opportunity to give him something.” It’s not so much that this is such a sweet experiment, but a reflection of not only the parenting that has taken place in these children’s lives, but of a future view of this event, that will undoubtedly have these young ones remembering, cherishing and instilling the same values into the people, especially children, they will encounter as they live out their lives.
And then, you know, they told the kids that because they chose the gift for their family, they would go home with both. When asked how they felt about it, then the waterworks came on. And after they let the parents in on the choices, they got to see their kids. And well, then it was all hugs and tears and joy.
I wondered about the parable about the ten women and this particular day, after this particular week. I think there are more holes in this tale than a barrel of Swiss cheese. What’s with the bridesmaids, or more specifically, virgins? In the ancient Greek, they could have been marriageable maidens or young married women. Time and time again, the power of words is huge. And where was the bride - who is still often considered to be the central figure in a wedding.
How did five women think to take extra oil? It’s sort of like thinking to take extra gas if you are going for a ride. Although they were “prepared,” not sharing the blessing of the extra seems a little on the selfish side, because apparently it wasn’t an issue of supply. More oil was available - just not in that spot. And not all that much earlier, Jesus said, “If someone ask you for your coat, give them your shirt, too.”
What if you’d not thought to bring extra oil? It’s not like you planned to not think of it. And hey, they all fell asleep waiting for the bridegroom. Just like any other parable Jesus told, it is so easy to be drawn in, that we forget to step away from it, to take in the larger view.
At whatever age it was written up, Katharine Hepburn remembered a day from her teenage years. She and father were standing in line to buy tickets for the circus.
Finally, there was only one other family between them and the ticket counter.
As she told it, there were eight children, all probably under the age of 12. The way they were dressed, you could tell they didn't have a lot of money, but their clothes were neat and clean.
The children were well-behaved, all of them standing in line, two-by-two behind their parents, holding hands. They were excitedly jabbering about the clowns, animals, and all the acts they would be seeing that night. By their excitement you could sense they had never been to the circus before. It would be a highlight of their lives.
The father and mother were at the head of the pack standing proud as could be. The mother was holding her husband's hand, looking up at him as if to say, "You're my knight in shining armor." He was smiling and enjoying seeing his family happy.
The ticket lady asked the man how many tickets he wanted. He proudly responded, "I'd like to buy eight children's tickets and two adult tickets, so I can take my family to the circus." The ticket lady stated the price.
The man's wife let go of his hand, her head dropped, the man's lip began to quiver. Then he leaned a little closer and asked, "How much did you say?" The ticket lady again stated the price. The man didn't have enough money. How was he supposed to turn and tell his eight kids that he didn't have enough money to take them to the circus?
Seeing what was going on, my dad reached into his pocket, pulled out a $20 bill, and then dropped it on the ground. (We were not wealthy in any sense of the word!) My father bent down, picked up the $20 bill, tapped the man on the shoulder and said, "Excuse me, sir, this fell out of your pocket.” The man understood what was going on. He wasn't begging for a handout but certainly appreciated the help in a desperate, heartbreaking and embarrassing situation.
He looked straight into my dad's eyes, took my dad's hand in both of his, squeezed tightly onto the $20 bill, and with his lip quivering and a tear streaming down his cheek, he replied; "Thank you, thank you, sir. This really means a lot to me and my family.”
My father and I went back to our car and drove home. The $20 that my dad gave away is what we were going to buy our own tickets with. Although we didn't get to see the circus that night, we both felt a joy inside us that was far greater than seeing the circus could ever provide.
Sometimes we are awake enough to remember all the things we’re supposed to do, and sometimes, especially in goofy times, we can struggle with bringing the barest of light to the story. Sometimes fairy tales have happy endings and sometimes parables are left up in the air. Sometimes the wise ones fail to be generous and sometimes the foolish ones forget to be prudent and sometimes hope appears to fail on all sides.
But here’s the thing. Our Bridegroom has come to us in the form of the Holy Spirit, and that Spirit, God’s breath, is with us, in this very moment, filling the lamps of our hearts and minds and souls with the grace of God, the water of life and the long view of life beyond this moment and this day.
There are some worshiping with us today who are ecstatic over the present state of our election, and there some worshiping with us today who are angry and sad over that same state. 100 years from now, 1,000 years from now, perhaps the longest lasting effect of the state of our national election may be the earth that will be left for those who come after us. By-and-large, who ever sits in the White House, the Kremlin or on any other leadership chair in the world will be what it will be. What really matters in the here and now is the lamp filling we are doing - for ourselves and for our families, friends, neighbors and complete strangers.
The beauty of Lamp Filling is that it can happen in so many different ways. Letting someone merge into traffic with a wave and a smile. Going slightly outside one’s comfort zone at least once a day to make someone smile. (And I can tell you, standing on the corner, on a beautiful Halloween afternoon, waving and giving a big smile to those driving by only makes you smile bigger in their vast reactions to your bit of goofiness.)
Sharing a compliment or a funny incident can completely change a person’s day, and how easy it is to do so. Treating someone to a cup of coffee or paying for the order behind you is so subversively charitable, while at the same time being an exponentially greater spreader of kindness and graciousness. Dropping a $20 bill can mean so much more than a few circus tickets.
Good ol’ Mr. Stephan Garnaas Holmes provided the conclusion for today’s message, even before I knew which direction this sermon was headed.
Brush your teeth.
Our sickness is greater
than we let ourselves think,
our wound more profound.
But so is our love.
Our grief and even despair
are the work of the Spirit in us.
Let your flesh feel your rage,
your voice find your sorrow.
Let the river flow.
We are not called to end the winter
but to bear the light
that will become the spring.
The road is long.
The Suffering One walks with us,
bearing something. Come along.
The mending of the world
is threaded with simple
kindness and courage.
Attend to the small miracles.
Even as the cold descends
we can love. We can love.
Let us pray. Holy and Gracious God, thank you for giving us the Light of Christ and for continuing to fill our lamps as we help to fills those around us, that we can be a bright beacon of your love. HELP us to love. Help US to love. Help us TO LOVE. And all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
November 1, 2020
22nd Sunday after Pentecost and All Saints Sunday
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Who was the greatest financier in the Bible? Answer: Noah -- he was floating his stock while everyone else was in liquidation. Who was the greatest female financier in the Bible? Answer: Pharaoh's daughter -- she went down to the bank of the Nile and drew out a little profit. Why was Goliath so surprised when David hit him with a slingshot? Answer: The thought had never entered his head before. If Goliath would come back to life today, would you like to tell him the joke about David and Goliath? Answer: No, he already fell for it once.
This weekend, so famous in the secular world for it’s front-end, is actually far more rich in it’s whole, especially as celebrated in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions. The front-end is known as a contraction of All Hallows Eve, greatly attributed to the Christianization of ancient Celtic harvest festivals. The middle of the celebration, All Saints Day, is to commemorate the baptized who have gone to heaven after their physical death. The back-end of the holy festival is what is known as All Souls’ Day - tomorrow - the celebration of those who were baptized, but hadn’t repented of their sins, so are in Purgatory. The interesting part of those in Purgatory - that place between heaven and hell, is that people who are still alive - can pray people into preparation for heaven. Like I said, most of us are far more familiar with Halloween than All Saints or Souls. The beautiful part about Congregationalism is determining how we chose to celebrate who, what, when, where and how, based on our own understandings of God’s word under the leadership of Christ.
Today’s scripture text closely follows last week’s: Jesus had gone into Jerusalem on the donkey that first Palm Sunday, and had spent a fair bit of time preaching in the synagogue, after turning the tables on the money changers, who were basically gouging the people in their religious sacrifices during the high holy time of Passover. It was probably a lot closer to a Friday Fourth of July in Frankfort than a Monday or Tuesday in most any part of Benzie County in January, February or March. It may even have been March Madness when Jesus made this full-court press to those where were listening - wink, wink.
Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples. 2 “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat,” he said. 3 “So you must be careful to do everything they say. But don’t do what they do. They don’t practice what they preach. 4 They tie up heavy loads that are hard to carry. Then they put them on other people’s shoulders. But they themselves aren’t willing to lift a finger to move them.
5 “Everything they do is done for others to see. On their foreheads and arms they wear little boxes that hold Scripture verses. They make the boxes very wide. And they make the tassels on their coats very long. 6 They love to sit down in the place of honor at dinners. They also love to have the most important seats in the synagogues. 7 They love to be greeted with respect in the markets. They love it when people call them ‘Rabbi.’
8 “But you shouldn’t be called ‘Rabbi.’ You have only one Teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 Do not call anyone on earth ‘father.’ You have one Father, and he is in heaven. 10 You shouldn’t be called ‘teacher.’ You have one Teacher, and he is the Messiah. 11 The most important person among you will be your servant. 12 People who lift themselves up will be made humble. And people who make themselves humble will be lifted up.
Thank you, Catherine. On any other given year, the scripture passage for this morning might be a tad uncomfortable, as it is tempting to envision a little finger-wagging in it. But anyone who has glimpsed even a couple of commercials of late can see the huge potential for this to be a political sermon. Actually, it is a political passage, but not in terms of Democrats, Republican, Libertarians or any other political group you might mention. But it’s about one’s personal politics - or ethics.
Some day I should take a poll among other preachers - to see how often - or how quickly - points within a sermon come to kick them from behind. Some weeks, it might take several days, but I’ll suddenly realize that the very thing I had preached about on Sunday was tripping alarm bells in the noggin: Hello! Dinah! Remember what you said - God said - through you - on Sunday? So how’s that working for you? Need to set that burden down? Need to forgive - again? Need to pray for — again? I’m telling you, sometimes it can be just hours before “being made humble” comes to visit again. I don’t suppose there are any others that might encounter such experiences?
Over the years, I’ve received a lot of flack for doing a lot of what I do around here, and I will admit to a certain amount of control issues getting into the mix of the ministry of this church family. But really, it was many years in churches, watching other pastors, maybe not wearing fancy clothing or engaging in particular religious practices, but not really leading by example, not willing to get their hands dirty or use a little elbow grease alongside the rest of the church family that has driven much of what happens around here. And I hope it comes through that I’m not saying any of this to heap up praises or pats on the back, but to remind all of us to pay attention to what motivates us.
There is a Peanuts comic strip that has Snoopy on top of his doghouse with a flock of baby birds. The time had come for the baby birds to learn how to fly, and Snoopy was their teacher. Snoopy flapped his ears and walked to the end of the roof of the doghouse. He leaped into the air and continued to flap his ears. Unfortunately he landed right on his head. He got back up onto the roof and shared this lesson: “Do as I say to do and not what I do.”
I think the richness of this morning’s passage is in its underlying implications that none of us are without the potential to get on high horses with big hats to accommodate good-sized egos. No matter how good the marriage, how dear the friendships, how compatible the colleague, all of us can use this message this week to remember that we are brothers - and sisters - and that those relationships are more important than an ideology or political promise - regardless of your own inclinations.
There’s been an interesting development lately, probably well underneath most radars here in Benzie County. It is no secret that there are many different churches here, with many and varying leanings in how they do church. There is no judgment in this statement, because I truly think that one reason we have so many different denominations and practices is because we are all wired so differently. What feels stiff and rigid to some can feel like safety and direction to others. And visa versa.
But what has been happening is the coming together of some of these churches, via a nation-wide non-profit group that calls for people to be in relationship with each other and out of those relationships, figure out how to help their communities. This particular group is called Michigan Faith in Action, and at monthly meetings, Christian pastors, Catholic priests, Jewish rabbis, Muslim imams, pastors, preachers of all sorts come together to get inspiration to listen, in deep, caring ways that are respectful and honorable. That same thing is happening with all the sorts of churches within this little county, and I’m telling you, it’s making a difference - at least in this heart and mind - and hopefully, by extension, to your hearts and minds, to be passed along from you to others.
These discussions, listenings, gatherings, have given all of us, I hope, the encouragement to pay attention, to our own selves, certainly, but also to those around us, our leaders, our brothers and sisters in faith, so that we don’t become nasty, hateful, inhuman and anything else God didn’t create us to be. Sometimes we have to raise our voices, but we can use good words that can build up and help to bring good changes around us. Sometimes we do better to keep our voices softer, so that people can hear us better and can understand our points more clearly. Never - I think I can say never - do we need to raise our hands for hurt or pain, because we don’t do that to people we love.
In paying attention to our own hearts and minds, we can do better in helping others pay attention to their voices, and ultimately become better people who can demonstrate our trust in following the very One who created us and leads us. So let us pray.
Heavenly and Holy God, so often we forget that the secret power of the blessed saints is no sword they wield, no influence they possess, but simply trust that they are God’s beloved children, and the courage to act that way toward all others. Help us - like them - to know you, to the core of our being, of your love for us - to overflowing, the spilling of love their blessing to the world, and the resurrecting power of your grace sufficient to redeem all of us in all our troubles. Help all of us dare to confront the world’s evil with love, knowing it's deep power, having opened ourselves to it. Let the mystery that we are all your beloved children lead us to live so, and to treat others so. What love we have been given, that we, God’s children, should have love for all your children. For all your leading, guiding, gracing and loving still, all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.