First Congregational Church
November 6, 2022
All Saints Sunday & 22nd Sunday after Pentecost
2 Thessalonians 2:13-17
“Blessings Back and Forth
”Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
I read that there is a special hospital in London for those whom other hospitals consider a lost cause. It is a hospital for those who are diagnosed as “terminal.” Most people would consider such a hospital to be a very sad place, but it is not.
Actually, it is a hospital filled with hope and a lot of life. The emphasis in this London hospital is on life and not on death. The truth is that several of the patients have seen remissions in the disease process instead of death. A great deal of credit is given to the way the facility is run.
The basic philosophy is different from most other hospitals. In this program, the patients are expected to give themselves away in service to the other patients. Each patient is given another patient for whom to care. So, for example, a person who is unable to walk might be given the task of reading to another who is blind. The blind person would then push the wheelchair of the one who could not walk but who gives directions on where to push the chair.
This example of Jesus’ new commandment shows us the call to be disciples who love one another. We are the ones who are healed and strengthened when we learn how to give and how to love.
This morning’s scripture passage and the theme for this day are a bit of that new commandment, and how it’s lived out. Coming from the book of 2 Thessalonians naturally implies that there is a 1st Thessalonians, and that is true. Both letters were written by the great Paul, to address misconceptions about the Day of the Lord, or Christ’s Second Coming.
All these centuries later, those two intricately developed items are hardly even on the back burner anymore. That being said, this morning’s particular passage, in the middle of the second letter, is still highly relevant, even on this day of celebrating those who have come and those who have gone.
2 Thessalonians 2:13-17
13 But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers loved by the Lord because from the beginning God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. 14 He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. 15 So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter. 16 May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, 17 encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word.
Thank you, Larry Kneisel. There is a story on the internets from the hand of Robert A. Jensen, who tells the story of Pastor Mike when he was asked about his spiritual journey as they celebrated his ordination anniversary.
"My grandmother," said Pastor Mike without hesitation. "I believe that my grandmother had a tremendous shaping power over my life of faith even though I never knew her. She died eight years before I was born. But I heard the stories. I heard stories of how she headed up the Sunday school until she died. I heard stories of how she was the pioneer in seeing to it that the English language was introduced to her congregation of immigrants. I heard many stories of her faith.”
"I can't explain it but I have always felt that my call to the ministry was a call to fulfill my grandmother's legacy. In some mysterious way, I feel that her vision of Christian service has been passed along to me. She is, in a very special way, my 'gospel grandmother.' I thank God, we should all thank God, for our grandmothers in the faith!"
With that illustration, our scripture passage and this morning’s focus, we have the opportunity to think about our Gospel Grandparents - or parents - or aunts or uncles, or whomever. And with the story about Pastor Mike, we have the relevance of our present actions on future actions, many of whom we won’t meet in our lifetimes, maybe even to some of those with a name on today’s cradle roll.
As we allow our hearts and minds to appreciate all those influences, we need to also be realistic, acknowledging our human tendencies, not only to do well and good but not so well and good. Although it probably doesn’t seem like such a good example at first, those with larger-than-life examples can fall, with really big thuds.
Televangelist Jimmy Swaggart got terribly caught up in his dark side until he was caught. He not only preached and preached that with the Holy Spirit, we can overcome all sin, but Swaggart sat in judgment of those individuals who couldn’t overcome their sin. At some point after his exposure of disgrace, Mr. Swaggart was reported to have said, “I have seen that the gospel is perfect but its messengers are not.” So we are reminded to check the humility and honesty lights on the dashboard, that they are congruent our hearts and minds, and souls.
Into our saint and spirituality legacies, we also need to add a dash of sensibility. In the same vein as the practice of cutting off the end of a roast, in a Danish village there was a Lutheran Church where each Sunday the people would walk into the church by way of the center aisle. At the front of the church, there was a break between the pews and a blank white wall. Every Sunday, the people of that church would walk down the center aisle to the front of the church and genuflect at the blank wall.
A man visiting the church didn’t understand the customs, so he asked about it and they said that they had always done this. Upon further investigation, he learned that hundreds of years before there had been a painting of the Virgin Mary on that wall. At the time of the Protestant Reformation when the church became Lutheran - it being Catholic, they had painted over the display of the Virgin Mary. Since the people had always bowed before the Virgin Mary, they just kept on bowing even though there was nothing there. While they were still probably quite sainted individuals, their lights of faith weren’t quite as bright as they might have been.
While all this most stunning verbiage that has so far has been largely about us, as I thought about this passage and those we celebrate this day, it occurred to me that those mentioned in the very front end of the passage, “our good friends - so loved by God - is not just about those of us living. It’s actually just as true for those who have passed on, as well as a prayer for those newly born - thanking God, that God chose them, from before time began.
If God created the idea of us before time began, making us spiritual beings having a human experience, then it makes sense to pray for and bless those on this side of eternity - as well as for those on the other side. As we stand firm and hold on to the teachings that have been passed on to us by those who have gone home before us, so God gifts us to be able to stand firm in passing them along to those new to earth. We can continue our thanks for Gospel Grandmothers, Grandfathers, spiritual sisters and brothers, saints and even sinners throughout the course of time who bless, with or without their cognition of so doing.
Many of you are familiar with Eugene Peterson’s version of the Bible, The Message. As we begin to shift our attention to the coming Fellowship downstairs - or wherever you are - let us use Mr. Peterson’s version of this morning’s passage - as a prayer for all of us - on earth or in eternity.
13-14 Meanwhile, we’ve got our hands full continually thanking God for you, our good friends—so loved by God! God picked you out as God’s from the very start. Think of it: included in God’s original plan of salvation by the bond of faith in the living truth. This is the life of the Spirit God invited you to through the Message we delivered, in which you get in on the glory of our Master, Jesus Christ.
15-17 So, friends, take a firm stand, feet on the ground, and head high. Keep a tight grip on what you were taught, whether in personal conversation or by our letter. May Jesus himself and God our Father, who reached out in love and surprised you with gifts of unending help and confidence, put a fresh heart in you, invigorate your work, and enliven your speech. And all God’s people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
October 30, 2022
21st Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 35:29-35 & Colossians 3:16
“Richer Than We Know"
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
16 There are many others more qualified to undertake the idea of art and worship, but just as each of you has traveled your path to this point, so has it been for yours truly.
So today’s message has been made possible because of observations from a bronze statue of Peter, a South Carolina Baptismal Font, a church in Denmark, a statue in Italy, and oodles and oodles of pew time.
17 Bronze Peter is my name for this statue in the Vatican. It’s a nice statue that sits on a high base, as the Prince of the Apostles gives a blessing with his right hand and holds the keys of heaven in his left hand. Even though the artistry is heavenly, it’s his foot that grabs the attention. Over the last 800 years or so, it has been a custom to touch or kiss the statue's feet, especially the right one, and ask for a blessing.
The pictures give an idea of what it once may have looked like and the way the current one slopes. It is fascinatingly smooth and the metal is much thinner than when it was created. But for a piece of bronze, to be so worn, imagine the number of people that had a physical interaction with it. Yes, there’s a bit of a yuck factor post-covid, but still
18 In the book Visual Faith by William Dyrness, he wrote “Like the biblical notion of Sabbath (which means at its root to “stop”), art stops us in our tracks and forces us to pay attention to life in a way that we have not previously done. The painting that arrests, our gaze in the gallery, insists that we ignore all the needs and duties of everyday life and look at life, as it were, from a distance. Unlike music, which plunges us into time and holds us there until it brings its harmonic world to resolution, visual art stops time. In such experiences, art provides an important image of transcendence with which” so many have wrestled.
19 The oldest surviving church building in South Carolina is St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Charleston. It isn’t a super spectacular church, but it survived the Civil War, as it was built 155 years before the war began.
20 But it has its quirks, and besides having a wrought iron staircase into the pulpit that twists like a lemon rind, is less than 2 feet wide, (truth!), it has a baptismal font with a wrought iron base of three pelicans. It turns out that while pelicans represent piety, humility, devotion, and unconditional love, sharing so many similarities to doves, their real connection to spirituality is based on a myth about mother pelicans’ selfless sacrifice and martyrdom for the life of their chicks. Whomever the ironworker was, regardless of representational accuracy, he - or she - was really good at their craft.
21 Nørholm Kirke i Aalborg, is one of the oldest churches in Denmark, going back to somewhere around 1200 A.D. It’s like a lot of Danish Churches - with an elevated and elaborate pulpit, a red roof, and painted white, outside and inside.
22 The pews aren’t as wide as ours, it has a mismatched chandelier, and a rather cool balcony front - with all the disciples painted across it. But if you don’t know to look, a lot of Danish churches have a ship hanging from the ceiling. Fishing is - has been - a mainstay of the economy for centuries, and asking God to keep the ships and crews safe was literally at the forefront of most congregations.
23 There are probably more churches in New England with ships in them, but whether they have them or not, it is no coincidence that the part of every church where the people sit is called a nave. It’s a Latin word, navis, that means ship, portraying the church as an upside down ship, protecting those inside it from the waves and buffets of the world. Ships pass through seas and rivers, and carry useful things for life, quite like we do, too.
In early Christian art, the subject of Noah’s ark is typically used to represent the Church, and Christ’s mother, Mary is sometimes referred to as the “Star of the Sea.”
The last point before getting to this morning’s scripture is not related so much to any text but that this particular day is the fifth Sunday, and for those who haven’t picked up on it, we often do things a little differently on those special Sundays.
24 As Tuesday is November 1st, it is the anniversary of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling reveal in 1512 AD. For four years, Michelangelo worked with his helpers to adorn the 134 ft. by 44-foot summary of Biblical history 68 feet in the air.
25 Interesting side note, while the most focus is on the panel of The Creation of Adam, it is the Creation of Eve that is actually at the very center of the whole thing. I know it’s hard to see, but the top photo is the actual painting and the bottom one is like a blueprint of the design. And by the way, I’ll try to get the entire powerpoint on the church website - fccfrankfort.org - as soon as I can.
26 Sometime between the Creation and now, there was Moses, trying his best to lead the Jewish people out of their bondage, from the Pharaoh to the Promised Land. But the people became bored and needed some reigning in, so there were commandments - 10 of them. While Moses was busy taking notes on these commandments, the people decided a Golden Calf would at least provide some entertainment, which didn’t go well, either. So Moses lost his self-control, and well, there was a second set of commandments.
29 All the Israelite men and women who were willing brought to the Lord freewill offerings for all the work the Lord through Moses had commanded them to do. 30 Then Moses said to the Israelites, "See, the Lord has chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, 31 and he has filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, ability, and knowledge in all kinds of crafts - 32 to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver, and bronze, 33 to cut and set stones, to work in wood and to engage in all kinds of artistic craftsmanship. 34 And he has given both him and Oholiab son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan, the ability to teach others. 35 He has filled them with the skill to do all kinds of work as craftsmen, designers, embroiderers in blue, purple, and scarlet yarn and fine linen, and weavers - all of them master craftsmen and designers.
16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.
An argument could be made that we should have art in our churches and worship because God said so - right there in the directions to construct a tabernacle. Interestingly enough, there are churches that don’t buy into that thought, even hard-core Congregational Christian Churches.
Any art - including music - was thought to distract the mind and heart from one’s main task of prayer and study. If we followed that line of thought, there would be no altar, no cross, no stained glass windows, no beautiful lights, organ, piano, or choir - even should there are enough sopranos to carry it off. (No blame, just fact.)
The thing is, the education of the whole person became an important part of life and accomplishing that education took a lot of different directions. It was discovered that different colors of light have different healing properties, so churches were built to act as early hospitals to allow people to come into the church building, taking advantage of the healing of colored light.
27 Those who know Sandy Campbell may remember that she’s done some work with color in churches. It would have been amazing to have her as a part of this time, but the envelope was pushed pretty hard. But perhaps some time.
So stained glass windows not only keep us from following the neighborhood mowing and traffic patterns, but they can impact our sense of well-being or un-easiness. The field of chromotherapy, started in churches long before science got really serious about it.
28 If the poor couldn’t read, it didn’t mean that they couldn’t learn about the Gospel message, either. Going back to William Dyrness, apparently, early on, Christian symbols such as the cross seem to have been intentionally avoided by the early Christians, even hidden from outsiders because such symbols could get them killed.
Instead, they borrowed generously from Greek imagery. Christians from the beginning used pagan vocabulary to express Christian sentiments while carefully avoiding humanistic connotations. For those wondering, the graphic on the far top left is a Chi Rho, the first two letters of Christ’s name in Greek. It looks like an X on top of a P. On the right, it, too is another name for Christ, even though it looks like ihc. The symbol for a fish is still another expression for Jesus. If you are confused about these names for Jesus and their spellings, think about the name Robert, Bob, Rob, Bobby, and you get the idea.
29 Architecture became part of the plan to spread the Gospel. As more people learned to read, more people were able to add to the creative ways of reaching out, and some churches chose to tell stories in their artwork. The Chapel of Souls in Porto, Portugal is covered in tiles representing moments in the life of Saint Francis of Assisi and Saint Catherine. On top of that, the Chapel is located near a metro station and one of the best-known shopping streets in the city. Who needs billboards when you have talented artists?
30 Vinje Evangelical Lutheran Church is in Willmar, MN about 30 miles from where I grew up. The 150-year-old congregation, on their fourth building, wove theology, telling stories and their faith heritage together in the design of their church home. The downside of that design is the difficulty in capturing it on camera.
It’s a church in the round, so you can’t corner anyone into any arguments, which is of course, not true. But the design allows for two distinct works of art to work together. The first is the contemporary stained glass that flows with the story of creation and the water of life.
31 The second work of art rides right above the stained glass windows and is a list of patriarchs, prophets, disciples, theologians, and fathers and mothers of the faith. But it’s an interesting mix of moving forward while cherishing the heritage as they work for God, even if they still hold lutefisk dinners.
32 The part that caught my ear when reading the Exodus passage today was how Bezalel was not only filled with the Spirit of God, skill, ability, and knowledge in all kinds of crafts, working in wood and engaging in all kinds of artistic craftsmanship, but he taught others how to utilize their gifts in works of art to inspire and use their own creative gifts. So if you’re going to have an organ, then part of the challenge and joy is figuring out how to make it as visually appealing as it would be musically appealing.
33 Art in Worship allows the creativity of accommodation - for labyrinths to become part of a sanctuary and chairs to replace pews that allow for the inclusion of people with all sorts of abilities.
Now before anyone gets all excited thinking that we’re going to get video screens and clear out the pews, just hold on. That is not what this message is about at all. Because it’s about realizing the wealth of that which surrounds us. Even that which we don’t know.
34 One of those little-known riches is in the last roofing job that we had however many years ago. It’s pretty awesome knowing that we are literally covered with Grace in our ice and water shield.
35 One of those other mysterious riches is under the paint above the chimes on the wall. When the painters were repairing cracks, they discovered remnants of some sort of design that included red and dark blue and even a brownish-yellow floral pattern. Those people who came before, I can’t be the only one eager to ask them about art and design and so many other gifts on this side of eternity.
So let us pray. Great God of Grace and Beauty, thank you for gifting us in so many more ways than we realize. Thank you for curiosity and creativity and talents that not only provide our food and shelter, but allow us to worship you in so many richer ways. May we be the artful houses of rest and inspiration to those around us, as all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.