First Congregational Church
November 14, 2021
25th Sunday after Sunday
Mark 13:1-8, Hebrews 10:19-25
“When Holy Doesn’t Feel So Holy”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
In 1872, Pierre Pachet, Professor of Physiology at Toulouse said, "Louis Pasteur's theory of germs is ridiculous fiction."
H. M. Warner, of the movie company Warner Brothers fame, said in 1927, "Who (in the world) wants to hear actors talk?"
There was an inventor by the name of Lee DeForest. He claimed that "While theoretically and technically television may be feasible, commercially and financially it is an impossibility.”
This morning’s gospel passage has us at the temple with Jesus and the disciples. I’m guessing that a goodly number of us tend to forget that this was the second temple, known as Herod’s Temple, built almost 600 years before Jesus’s time - so not the Herod of Christmas time, built considerably larger - actually 40 times larger - on the ruins of Solomon’s temple.
Also known as the Second Temple, we probably don’t realize that the smallest stones in the structure weighed 2 to 3 tons. Many of them weighed 50 tons - or 7.5 elephants.
The largest existing stone, part of the Wailing Wall, is almost 40 feet in length and 10 feet high, and it weighs hundreds of tons! The stones were so immense that neither mortar nor any other binding material was used between the stones. Their stability was attained by the great weight of the stones.
The walls towered over Jerusalem, over 400 feet in one area. Inside the four walls was 45 acres of bedrock mountain shaved flat and during Jesus' day, 250,000 people could fit comfortably within the structure. Just for comparison’s sake, the University of Michigan’s football stadium seats 107,601 people. No sports structure in America today comes close.
So the plain guys from Galilee were on their first trip into Jerusalem and the great temple, and even if you didn’t hear them speak, you could probably have picked them out by their craning necks, pointing fingers and the look of enthusiasm on their faces. If there had been cameras in those days, you could almost picture the disciples mugging for the camera in front of the magnificent opulence of the Temple. You don’t see stonework like that back on the farm.
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, Jim. To set up the second passage from Hebrews, the beginning of birth pains had started, mainly in Jesus’ death, by which we do well to remember that his death was accompanied by darkness, an earthquake, from the book of Matthew, the resurrection of saints through the opening of tombs and the curtain in the Temple was torn in two, from top to bottom, which along side the fact that the “curtain” was 4 inches thick, implies that it was not a human act. The curtain, which was renewed every year, could not be pulled apart by horses tied to each side, and it barred all but the High Priest from the presence of God. It was the tearing of that curtain that gave us our freedom to commune with God as individuals, personally and freely.
Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
Thank you, Robin. Wars, rumors of wars, nation rising against nation, kingdom against kingdom, earthquakes and famines. If you think about it, those very things had been happening since the beginning of humanity, which in and of itself, is a rather mind-boggling thought. At risk of exposing my ignorance, what was it that Neanderthals and Denisovans fought over? How did they experience earthquakes, and how would their reactions be all that different from our own?
Wars, rumors of wars, nation rising against nation, kingdom against kingdom, earthquakes and famines. All those things could be found in most any newspaper or newscast in the last year. The “preacher” considered to be the writer of Old Testament Ecclesiastes said, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”
In an interesting bit of knowledge, the writer of Hebrews is also known as “preacher.” And in the book of Hebrews, the preacher goes back again and again of what it means to follow Christ. I’d not thought about it before, but there were no chairs in the early places of Jewish worship, because the priests work was never done. They had to continually be making sacrifices for the people. The preacher reminds us that any sacrifices to be made these days have to do with the heart rather than a priest.
I was listening to a radio program yesterday, to an interview with a person that worked at a food bank in Alameda County, California, concerning the price of food and the availability of it. Across the nation, the number of people relying on food banks has doubled since the start of the pandemic. The particular food bank was having to spend $60,000 more each month to feed their clients, the cost of food rising between 3 and 17%.
Before they got to the subtopic of holidays, I was wondering about that very thing, how in the midst of this time, that if we’re not careful in our comprehension of it, can feel dark, shaky, and rather unholy. I had thought back to last week and the illustration of the mother who put out lunch in front of the family’s burned out house, complete with a tin can of wildflowers. Then there are the events that we have all celebrated in the past, against the backdrop of hard times, lean times, unknowing times, and how the celebration of that holiday or event was helpful in getting through that period.
We’re such a diverse bunch of people this group we call humanity, and while one group may be celebrating abundance, at the exact same moment, another group can be experiencing poverty. While one faction may feel like they are walking on holy ground, another sector can feel like they are walking on hot coals, a bed of nails or unholy ground. There are times, that though there is a cornucopia on the church altar, there is nothing in the pantry back home - both literally and rhetorically.
It is our job to help those who struggle, with physical, mental, emotional or spiritual needs. We don’t have to cure everyone, each of us individually, but we can hold out the light that “he who promised is faithful.” Sometimes we don’t even have to do any real thing other than just be, because what is needed is the meeting together, encouraging one another, even during a pandemic, even through a hand-held computer discussed as a phone, even though we utter no words. Sometimes, when holy doesn’t feel so holy, we can feel a little bit of it by being in community, conversation, proximity, and even a phone call with one another.
King Duncan, over there at sermons.com, gave this illustration of making it through when holy doesn’t feel so holy. “Kristi Denton had always relied on her husband, David, to take care of her.
He was her source of strength, the one she relied on to keep their lives running smoothly. Then in December of 1995, David was in a horrible accident. He suffered massive brain damage. Kristi prayed for God to work a miracle and heal her husband instantly, but it didn't happen. How could Kristi find the strength to take care of David now? In desperation, Kristi took Isaiah 40:31 as her motto: "They that wait upon the Lord will renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles.”
Over the next few years, David slowly recovered from his accident. Among the lessons Kristi learned from that time was that waiting on the Lord in itself is healing. You're not just marking time while God does God's thing. Each day you are making new discoveries about how much God loves you. Each day you are growing stronger in your confidence in God's promises.
Not all of us can see God’s hand in periods of crisis, but it’s still there. Not everyone can have immediate confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, that being the quiet of our hearts to find the full assurance that faith brings. Regardless of anything we might or might not feel, the Good News still stands.
Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks did a comedy skit called the "2013 Year Old Man" where Reiner interviews Brooks, who is the old gentleman. At one point, Reiner asks the old man, "Did you always believe in the Lord?"
Brooks replied: "No. We had a guy in our village named Phil, and for a time we worshiped him."
Reiner: You worshiped a guy named Phil? Why?
Brooks: Because he was big, and mean, and he could break you in two with his bare hands!
Reiner: Did you have prayers?
Brooks: Yes, would you like to hear one? O Phil, please don't be mean, and hurt us, or break us in two with your bare hands.
Reiner: So when did you start worshiping the Lord?
Brooks: Well, one day a big thunderstorm came up, and a lightning bolt hit Phil. We gathered around and saw that he was dead. Then we said to one another, "There's somthin' bigger than Phil!”
Martin Luther was once asked what he would do if he knew that the world was coming to an end tomorrow, and he said: “I would plant an apple tree.” In other words, Luther, trusting in God’s gracious, unmerited mercy would live life just as he had been living it.
"It will be years - not in my time - before a woman will become Prime Minister.” said Margaret Thatcher, just five years before she became Prime Minister. In 1932, Albert Einstein said, ”There is not the slightest indication that nuclear energy will ever be obtainable. It would mean that the atom would have to be shattered at will.” It got done did. On his decision to not take the leading role in “Gone With the Wind,” Gary Cooper stated, "I'm just glad it'll be Clark Gable who's falling on his face and not Gary Cooper.” So shall we pray.
Holy, Holy, Holy God, you certainly know how easy it is for us to be lead astray sometimes; sometimes willfully, more often unknowingly from your assurance and hope and glory. In each of our lives, things may get worse, worlds may end, but those are not the final acts. Help us to remember that agony is our canal - from what we have known to what we will know in new beginnings. Remind us that what waits for us is not some surprise that comes later, but a mystery that is greater than we can see. Encourage with our becoming - not of unbecoming who we are, but in the unfolding of our lives as creatures of holiness and light. For all your leading and reminding and challenging, all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
November 7, 2021
24th Sunday after Pentecost, All Saints Sunday and Veteran’s Day Sunday
“The Prints that We Leave”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
I recently read that in order to be born, a person needs 2 parents, 4 grandparents, 8 great-grandparents, 16 second great-grandparents, 32 third great-grandparents, 64 fourth great-grandparents, on down to 2,048 ninth great-grandparents. That’s just 4,094 individuals covering twelve generations, which means the early 1600’s. There wasn’t enough time to figure out the exponentials all the way back to two million years ago to our earliest human ancestors. But it is quite the brain exercise.
I also read the section “100 Years Ago” in the Record Patriot this week. Even as a teenager I’ve been drawn to those little glimpses into history. The one from this week’s paper comes from the hand of L.P. Judson, Editor of the Benzie Record-Banner, with the title, “A cross country motor trip in 1921”. (pg.5)
As many of our friends were anxious to hear from us I take this way to let them know we arrived here in Fresno safe Saturday evening the 15th as many of you know, we drove to Ludington September 8, took the boat to Milwaukee, and drove to Madison, Wisconsin, is it there until the 19th, then started on the long trip. Most of the day had paved roads. Oh the next day in Iowa encountered mud; the third day did not drive.
From then on no more mud and rain until crossing the last range of mountains, after leaving Lake Idaho. About 11 o'clock just as we reached the summit it began to rain, but not enough to hinder as much. We left the Lincoln Highway at Mount Vernon, Iowa, and came by Iowa city, and Grinell country quite rolling but very good dirt roads to Council Bluffs. Cross the river and camped and campgrounds in Omaha over Sunday.
Found very good dirt roads most of the way through Nebraska and Wyoming, but in Utah often very bad roads and extremely rough, Nevada whenever we found alkali in the valleys the trail (for you can hardly call them roads) we're very bad, but we came through them without mishap and reached here somewhat tired but feeling well, finding our friends well, and we are enjoying the pleasant sunshine.”
Even if I’m not sure about the article’s sequencing and travel route, out of all that happened in the world in 1921, this little glimpse gives us a sense that we wouldn’t know without it.
Somewhere in my homework for this message, our passage for this morning transformed itself from a “holy scripture,” “far away” and perhaps rather austere episode into a rather newsy and informative glimpse, and maybe it might be so with you, too.
Continuing from last week’s passage where Jesus and a religious teacher were having a discussion in front of the Sadducees, the question was posed regarding the greatest of the commandments. These two a good many of us know: to love God and to love one another.
Warning Against the Teachers of the Law
38 As he taught, Jesus said, “Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39 and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. 40 They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.”
The Widow’s Offering
41 Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. 42 But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.
43 Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. 44 They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”
Thank you, Dale. For a very long time, my guess is that the teachers of the law, back then, walking around in flowing robes and lengthy prayers, have been treated as sinister fellows, rather than descriptions, like “very bad and rough roads” in Utah. And I will admit that I’m probably as guilty as the next one is such pointing and deflecting and blaming them. The poor and widows and orphans and slaves and children certainly had a rough time of it back then, but then again, some advancements have not been as quick as others.
And just as off-sided as the teachers, I’m guessing that the focus, has at times, been too restricted, narrowing in to the woman and her two copper coins, rather than on the idea of her being able to add her two cents and the fact that she is still remembered 2,000 years later, even if we don’t know her name.
The Methodist preacher, William H. Willimon put it out there that on most weeks, “As we preachers prepare for Sunday, we are busying ourselves with preparations required to listen to the saints. Sunday is that day of the week when we take time to talk with the dead,” and that this particular Sunday, we pay more attention to “those who have walked the path before us, as well as those who will come after us.”
Willimon also pointed out that by being reminded of the gift of the saints, “the peculiar wonder of a community (the church) that moves forward by looking back, lives through talk with the dead. We do not have to make up our faith as we go. There are trustworthy guides who have walked before us” - people like Moses, the writer of Mark, the poor widow, as well as our resurrected guide, Jesus Christ.
Willimon ended with an unidentified quote, “History is a fine teacher with no students.” “All Saints is a reminder “that we believe that God speaks to us through history and from history. Let us therefore submit ourselves to the wisdom of the saints. Let us forgo our arrogance to think that our time is so different, our problems and challenges are so special, that we have nothing to learn from those of the past.”
That’s why it’s important to hear the stories of faith, that we can not only embrace their veracity for ourselves, but that we, by our faithfulness, point a way for those who follow us, that they can travel in wisdom and grace. Whether it is through our footprints, fingerprints, news print or heart prints, our job in this life is important and holy and regardless of the state of our hearts, we can face the future with confidence, knowing that our paths are sacred and rich and significant.
Episcopalian theologian author and professor, Ruele Howe tells about growing up with his parents in the country. When he was 15 years old, the house caught on fire. They escaped with only the clothes on their backs. There were no close neighbors to help so he and his father walked to a distant village to get supplies. As they returned they saw something that stayed with Ruele Howe all those years.
Beside the charred remains of what had been their house, his mother had laid out lunch on a log. She had placed a tin can filled with wildflowers on the log. It was a symbol of hope in the midst of tragedy.
Such commitment to beauty and hope and determination is a big part of Christian faith, isn't it? Howe’s mother didn't try to cover up the disaster with flowers, but in the midst of that gloomy scene she had brought in a symbol of hope. The two coins that the widow placed in the temple treasury were her wildflowers. They were her symbol, her way of saying I know God will provide. So let us pray.
Holy and Life-Affirming God, we thank you for this day, of remembering and honoring, of avowing and re-avowing to be the best we can be, as ambassadors of life in you. May all the prints we leave behind be good and inspiring. When our prints are less than affirming, forgive us and absolve us that we might continue to point to you for all we’re worth. Thank you, too, for those who have gone before us and those who will come after us, that we will know our work here is good and valuable. We hold all these things in our hearts as all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
October 31, 2021
23rd Sunday after Pentecost
“What Does “Love” for Neighbor Look Like?”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
A man dies and goes to heaven when Peter meets him at the Pearly Gates. Peter says, “You need 1000 points to make it into heaven. You tell me all of the good things you’ve done, and I give you a certain number of points for each item. When you reach 1000 points, you get in.” “Okay,” the man says, “I was happily married to the same woman for fifty years and never cheated on her, not even in my mind.” “That’s wonderful,” says Peter, “that’s worth two points!” “Two points?” he says.
“Well, I attended church all my life and gave my ten percent tithe faithfully.” “Terrific!” says Peter. “That’s definitely worth a point.” “One point? Well, I started a soup kitchen in my city and worked in a shelter for the homeless.” “Fantastic, that’s good for two more points,” he says. “TWO POINTS!” the man cries. “At this rate the only way I can get into heaven is by the grace of God!” “Now that’s what we’re looking for! Come on in!”
Keith Wagner, of sermons.com, offered a most beautiful illustration. He wrote, “Jesus wants us to love God and others with our soul. The soul is that part of us that defies logic. It is a mystery. Loving with our souls goes beyond what people would consider as normal. We give forth our love because we want to and it probably makes no sense to outsiders.
During the course of earning her master's degree, a woman found it necessary to commute several times a week from Victory, Vermont to the state university in Burlington, a good hundred miles away. Coming home late at night, she would see an old man sitting by the side of her road. He was always there, in subzero temperatures, in stormy weather, no matter how late she returned. He made no acknowledgment of her passing. The snow settled on his cap and shoulders as if he were merely another gnarled old tree. She often wondered what brought him to that same spot every evening. Perhaps it was a stubborn habit, private grief or a mental disorder.
Finally, she asked a neighbor of hers, "Have you ever seen an old man who sits by the road late at night?" "Oh, yes," said her neighbor, "many times." "Is he a little touched upstairs? Does he ever go home?" The neighbor laughed and said, "He's no more touched than you or me. And he goes home right after you do. You see, he doesn't like the idea of you driving by yourself out late all alone on these back roads, so every night he walks out to wait for you. When he sees your taillights disappear around the bend, and he knows you're okay, he goes home to bed.”
In the verses prior to those that will be read momentarily, Jesus and the disciples had been in discussions with the pharisees, chief priests, teachers of the law, elders and Sadducees about topics of lordship, merit and right understanding when our passage for today took place. Chelsey Harmon of Calvin Seminary wrote about this passage, suggesting that it was, and perhaps still is, “a normal practice within the Jewish faith to summarize and prioritize teachings and scripture, to remember the spirit behind particular laws because of the belief that each commandment communicates something bigger about God, God’s design and God’s intent for the world.” In a way, that’s part of our gathering each and every Sunday during this time we call “worship.”
28 One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”
29 “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.[a] 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’[b] 31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[c] There is no commandment greater than these.”
32 “Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. 33 To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
34 When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.
Thank you, Donna. Zooming in for just a moment, it’s an interesting turn - a teacher agreeing with and almost praising him for Jesus’ understanding. It’s an important teacher to remember because not all the teachers of Jesus’ day were out to catch Jesus in heresy.
The other thing that is of interest, but probably not worth an entire sermon is the differentiation between what Jesus says and what the teacher repeats back to him. Jesus says to love God with heart, soul, mind and strength, while the teacher uses heart, understanding and strength - omitting soul and equating mind with understanding. What I felt God asking us to look at this morning is in zooming out, to the commandments themselves.
When Jesus says, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one,” he is quoting the prayer that is the first of the day in many a Jewish person’s life - the prayer referred to as the schema, which comes from the book of Deuteronomy 6: Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” When Jesus mentions the other commandment, he quotes Leviticus 19:18, “‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.”
Being so reminded of the Old Testament and commandments, naturally we should hear the folksy version of the big ten: Just one God, Put nothin' before God, Watch yer mouth, Git yourself to Sunday meetin’, Honor yer Ma & Pa, No killin’, No foolin' around with another fellow's gal, Don’t take what ain't yers, No tellin' tales or gossipin’, Don't be hankerin' for yer buddy's stuff.
I came across a more modern version of the big ten, and although they might be more accurately identified as the self-help commandments, they have some good truths, too.
You should not worry, for worry is the most unproductive of all human activities. You should not be fearful, for most of the things we fear never come to pass. You should not cross bridges before you come to them, for no one yet has succeeded in accomplishing this. You should face each problem as it comes. You can only handle one at a time anyway. You should not take problems to bed with you, for they make very poor bedfellows.
You should not borrow other people's problems. They can better care for them than you can. You should not try to relive yesterday for good or ill, it is forever gone. Concentrate on what is happening in your life and be happy now! You should be a good listener, for only when you listen do you hear ideas different from your own. It is hard to learn something new when you are talking, and some people do know more than you do. You should not become "bogged down" by frustration, for 90% of it is rooted in self-pity and will only interfere with positive action. You should count thy blessings, never overlooking the small ones, for a lot of small blessings add up to a big one.
Most of us have probably never actually counted all 613 commandments in the first five books of the Bible - the Jewish Pentateuch, but all of them form the whole of the Old Covenant - the pact and/or promise between God and God’s people. With Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection, we have the new covenant, the new commitment and/or pledge. And I’m sure most of us are familiar with the two that replaced the 613 - Love God and love neighbor. So my first question is, “What Does “Love” for Neighbor Look Like?” ___
Thank you for your contributions. So now the second question is, “What Does “Love” for God look like?” ___
Again, thank you for your contributions. With gratitude to Amanda Brobst-Renaud of workingpreacher.org, there are some nuances that we miss, since ancient Greek is not our mother tongue.
She points out that the sound and word repetitions - in Greek - were designed to draw the audience’s attention to the repetitions in the text as well as their connection to the purpose of the New Covenant: You shall love the LORD the God of you With the whole heart of you And the whole soul of you And the whole strength of you
To love God with the whole heart And with the whole understanding And with the whole strength And to the neighbor as oneself Are even more crucial than all of the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.
So now comes the third question, remembering the spirit behind the commandments, in which loving God is first so that we love neighbors rightly, now what does “love” for neighbor look like? I won’t ask for actual verbal answers to that question, because those answers are really between your heart and God. But I will guess that there is a nuance of difference in this answer in contrast to the first time the question was asked.
A rabbi was asked, "Which act of charity is higher - giving out of obligation or giving from the heart?”
All in the class were inclined to respond that giving from the heart had something more in it, but they knew the rabbi was going to say just the opposite, because in spiritual teaching nothing is logical. They were not disappointed.
"Giving from the heart is a wonderful thing," the rabbi said, "It is a very high act and should never be demeaned. But there is something much more important that happens when somebody gives charity out of obligation.
"Consider who is doing the giving. When somebody gives from the heart, there is a clear sense of oneself doing something; in other words, heartfelt charity always involves ego gratification.
"However, when we give out of obligation, when we give at a moment that every part of us is yelling NO! because of one reason or another - perhaps the beneficiary is disgusting, or it is too much money, or any of thousands of reasons we use to avoid giving charity - then we are confronting our own egos, and giving nonetheless. Why? Because we are supposed to. And what this means is that it is not us doing the giving, rather we are vehicles through which God gives… So we love others as we love God and so we pray.
God, you know how we put other things first: to be right, to be safe, to belong. We confess. We repent. We already belong to you, eternally, absolutely. We are safe in you. We need not earn your love, or prove our worthiness, or have others approve.
We only need to let the love you give us become all of us: to love you with all of our own self, every little thing we do - an act of love, and to pass that love to others, always and no matter what, to never compromise our love with anything else.
With your Spirit, we are able to stand for justice, speak the truth, say the hard things, prohibit abuse, but only with love, not anything else, anything else, to which all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.