Monthly Archives

January 2018

With Authority

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“With Authority”

Rev. Art Ritter

January 28, 2018

 

Mark 1:21-28

They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

 

There is a story that has been around a long time, with perhaps several adaptations told.  The version I am about to share is from the journal Bits and Pieces and is about former Massachusetts governor Christian Herter, who served the state back in the early 1950’s.  Herter was running for reelection, and one day in the busy schedule of an election campaign, he arrived at a church barbeque.  It was late in the afternoon and Herter hadn’t eaten anything since a light breakfast.  He was famished.  As he moved down the serving line, he held out his plate to the woman who was serving the chicken.  She put a piece on his plate and turned to serve the next guest.  Herter said to her, “Excuse me.  Do you think I could get a second piece of chicken?”  “Sorry,” answered the woman.  “I am supposed to give out one piece of chicken to each customer.”  “But I am very hungry and the chicken looks really good,” the governor pleaded.  “Sorry,” the woman repeated.  “One piece to a customer.”  Finally Herter played his big card, “Do you know who I am?  I am the governor of this state!”  The woman looked at him straight in the eye and answered, “Do you know who I am?  I am the lady in charge of passing out the chicken.  Move along!”

I remember a classmate at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, whose wardrobe consisted of t-shirts with various slogans written upon them.  Some of us mockingly called him the “walking bumper sticker.”  I can’t recall most of the slogans his t-shirts featured but I do remember one that he seemed to wear at least once a week.  The t-shirt simply said, “Question Authority.”  I guess that slogan was a popular one in the sixties, and my classmate carried it into the eighties.  I sense that the climate of our current culture is one that tends to embrace authority more, perhaps we even perceive it as lacking in our institutions.  Many bemoan the lack of respect for authority and see it as the cause to much of our division and conflict within our society.

The beginning of the gospel of Mark takes place in not in Bethlehem and not in Jerusalem, but in Capernaum, perhaps in the place where Jesus lived.  Following his baptism, after the temptation in the wilderness, immediately after the calling of the disciples, Jesus is teaching in his local synagogue.  As we read this brief account from Mark, we have no idea what he was teaching.  Mark refers to Jesus as a teacher more than any other gospel.  He is called a teacher by the disciples, by the crowd, and by the Pharisees.  The verb meaning “to teach” is used by the writer of Mark more than any other gospel writer.  And yet we don’t really know what it was that Jesus said while he was teaching.  In Matthew, the words of the Sermon on the Mount were written down.  In Luke, the Sermon on the Plain and parables were recorded by scribes.  But we don’t know what Jesus taught as he stood or sat in the synagogue in Capernaum.  We only know that it was a rather impressive teaching.  “The crowd who heard it were astonished at his teaching for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes.”  Jesus taught as one who had authority.  What did that mean?

I remember the famous New York Knicks and NBC basketball announcer Marv Albert’s favorite phrase when a player came flying down the lane and hammered the basketball through the rim.  The players underneath the basket would scatter at the power of the dunk and the crowd would go crazy at the incredible sight.  Albert’s words were always, “With authority!”  That seemed to always convey the wonder and awe of the moment.  Perhaps that is what the crowd was experiencing when they saw and heard Jesus teach.  He was a Michael Jordanesque slam dunk when compared to the outdated two-handed set shots of the scribes.

It is interesting and important to note what happens immediately after the comments of the crowd.  A man walks in right in the middle of the service, perhaps in the middle of Jesus’ sermon.  There is a wild voice that is disruptive and crazy.  “What do you have to do with us, Jesus?  I know who you are!  You have come to destroy us.”  Jesus came down from the pulpit, confronted the man or at least the voice of the man and said, “Be silent and come out of him!”  With those words an unclean spirit came out of the man, crying in a loud voice.  And again the writer of the gospel notes that everyone was amazed at the authority with which Jesus taught.

It is clear that in Mark’s gospel, Jesus’ words are not as important as his personality and his presence.  His authority did not come in what he said but in who he was.  The scribes and Pharisees acquired their authority through the possession and interpretation and judgment of the law.  Right makes might and it was vitally important for them to be right!  Instead, Jesus gained authority through valuing people and including people.  He emphasized the power of moral authority over legal and political authority.

I can’t help but think that Jesus was especially aggravating to the establishment of his day.  And I truly believe that if we take him seriously, he can be quite annoying and irritating even today.  We like things to be clear and well-defined.  Jesus presents options and struggles.  We like easy answers and slogans, and solutions to problems that we can just look up in a book.  Jesus’ authority did not come in simple rules but in responses that brought to life interruption, complication, and dialogue.  While don’t like to go against the grain of what is normal and accepted in society, standing out from our family and neighbors and friends;  Jesus confronted the forces of society that hold false authority through rules and standards.  He wasn’t afraid to challenge the actions of even the most respectable people and places of his time; if those people and places were holding others in darkness.  His authority came because he proclaimed the love and truth of God everywhere he went and to everyone he met.

It seems to me that this story from Mark is very appropriate as we consider the identity of the church and the gospel message in our time.  In many ways, the church today is portrayed as a stale and oppressive institution with its structure and program designed for maintenance and survival.  Many of the voices of the church speak with judgment and righteous certainty.  Popular preachers often suggest that God is a power that destroys people who don’t conform to the rules and standards and behaviors established by their own interpretation of Scripture.  Sometimes the church and organized faith appears to be part of the power of oppression rather than liberation.

Yet here in the first pages of Mark, Jesus is talking about God’s need to set people free.  Jesus was liberating people from things which kept them from hopeful living.  Jesus’ authority was one that did not rule over people and keep them in line.  His authority was one that released them from bondage to be the persons that God created them to be.

Scott Hoezee tells the story of the late Pope John XXIII.  One day the pontiff was having an audience with a group of people, one of whom was the mother of several children.  The pope said to the mother, “Would you please tell me the names of all of your children.  I understand that anyone in the group could tell me their names or that they could tell me themselves, but there is something special that happens when a mother speaks the names of her own children.”  Hoezee writes that perhaps this is what is was like when the people witnessed Jesus that day long ago.  Maybe this is what they meant when they said that he taught with authority, a power that others lacked.  The others drew off their training, their knowledge of the law, their office or power within the synagogue.  Although they were good at what they did, there always seemed to be a gap between the scribe and the God that the scribe was talking about.  But this wasn’t the case with Jesus.  There was something personal in his knowledge of God.  He spoke as if he knew God intimately.  At times, he was speaking as if he were God.  When Jesus talked about God, it was as if a mother was reciting the names of her own children.  There was love and personal involvement.  It was coming from his heart as well as his head.

 

 

Come and See

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Come and See”

Rev. Art Ritter

January 14, 2018

 

John 1:35-51

The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”

The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

 

A little boy named Willie wanted a birthday party.  His mother consented, but only if he invited the neighbor boy Tommy, a young man with whom Willie was to quarrel.  Yes, the boys had problems, but rather than not have the party, Willie promised his mother than Tommy would be invited.  On the day of the party, all of the invited guests arrived, with the exception of Tommy.  Willie’s mother grew suspicious and asked her son, “Willie, did you really invite Tommy to your birthday party?”  “Yes,” replied Willie.  His mother replied, “And did he say he wouldn’t come?”  “No,” explained Willie.  “I invited him all right.  But then I dared him to come.”

Do you remember the first time you saw the ocean, the Mackinaw Bridge, the Pacific Ocean, the Statue of Liberty, or a high mountain peak?  I grew up in a small town in central Michigan and while growing up my family vacations didn’t take me anywhere out of the state.  While we had our share of hills near Stanton, there was nothing really of significant elevation until you reached northern Michigan.  I had always thought that the hills around the ski resorts around Traverse City were quite impressive!  When I met Laura I was intrigued that she was from Colorado and I couldn’t wait until the day I could visit her home in Colorado Springs.  Following our engagement in 1983, we flew into Denver so I could met her parents.  It was late at night so the drive between Denver and Colorado Springs was uneventful.  Laura mentioned that there were large mountains off to the west but I had no idea what they might look like.

I will always remember waking up the next morning.  I crawled to the foot of the bed and pulled open the blinds, looking into the distance to catch a glimpse of the mountains that I had been promised.  What I saw was unbelievable!  There was Pike’s Peak in all of its purple mountain’s majesty, with just a little snow on top for greater visual effect.  It was such an awesome sight.  It hardly seemed real to me.  I found my camera and quickly took a picture.  And then I did what anybody who grew up in Michigan without mountains would probably do.  I called my parents immediately.  “Mom and Dad, you would never believe what I am looking at right now!  There are mountains.  Lots of mountains.  Pike’s Peak is right in front of me.  You’ve got to get out here and see this for yourself.  It is incredible.”  A few years later, after Laura and I were married, we took my parents out to Colorado Springs.  As I recall, when they first saw Pike’s Peak, they began to take pictures and then immediately called my brother and sister, imploring them to come and to see what they had now seen for themselves.

Come and see.  We use that phrase a lot when we have witnessed something important and inspiring.  Perhaps we have been swept off our feet by something beautiful or something significant.  Perhaps we heard something profound or moving.  A new home.  A completed do it yourself project.  A lovely melody.  A play in which our children have a part.  An exquisite sunrise or sunset.  An unusual baseball play being shown on instant replay.  Come and see.  We want others to see and hear and be moved by what we have seen and by what has touched us in some meaningful way.  Have you ever tried a product or purchased an item because of someone’s recommendation?  Have you gone to see a movie or eat at a restaurant favored by a friend?  Come and see.  It is an invitation to others not only see something but to come along and be part of something of which we are a part.

Come and see.  These words are a large part of the first chapter of the gospel of John.  Before our reading today, Jesus confronted Andrew, one of John the Baptist’s disciples.  When he saw Jesus, he began to follow.  He had never met anyone like Jesus before.  At the beginning of their conversation, Jesus first asked Andrew, “What are you looking for?”  It was a profound question, a deep question, one that actually reaches to the core of the person.  It moved beyond comfortable conversation about the weather and last night’s game to inquire about what was ultimately important.  What are you looking for?  It is like asking someone “What is the meaning of life?” but asking in a way that forces the answerer to focus upon their own deepest needs.  What are you looking for?  What question do you need answered?  What need to you need satisfied?  What emptiness or longing do you need filled?  Jesus seemed to be taking Andrew into his own heart and into his circle of concern.

Andrew then asked where Jesus was staying and Jesus replied, “Come and see.”  Andrew quickly ran to his brother Peter and told him the story.  “I’ve met someone incredible, someone with great wisdom and compassion.  You’ve got to come and see.”  And so Peter came and was moved by what he heard and saw.  Peter went to Phillip, a friend from the hometown of Bethsaida.  He told Phillip about meeting Jesus and how his heart was transformed.  He said to Phillip, “You must come and see.”

Phillip then sought out his friend Nathaniel, and urged him to come and meet this Jesus.  Nathaniel seemed a bit suspicious, perhaps as suspicious as we might be when a friend invites us to participate in their new business venture, suspicious and prejudiced as we might be wondering what we might gain or learn from someone so different from us.  Nathaniel asked, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”   His words seem to echo some of the angry rhetoric we heard this past week during the immigration debate in Washington.  Nathaniel seemed to measure Jesus’ worth purely by his hometown.  Yet upon meeting him, Jesus seemed to know all about Nathaniel.  Jesus said, “Here is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”  If we translate accurately, we know this was not really such an insult in return.  Jesus wasn’t putting down all Israelites.  He was saying that he was impressed with the purity and honesty of Nathaniel’s heart.   And Nathaniel was captured by that moment.  He knew that Jesus was the Son of God.  There was some understanding and grace that reached beyond ignorance and self-interest.  One could then imagine Nathaniel going out to his friends and family and recommending to them a conversation with this man Jesus and urging them also, “There is something special about this man.  Come, and see!”

Come and see.  They are such easy words.  But perhaps the writer of John has them featured so prominently here in the early part of his gospel because they are words that are essential to the Christian faith.  We are to be followers of Christ who implore others to “Come and see.”  We are to invite.  We are to be evangelists.  It is one thing to read about who Jesus was.  It is one thing to hear about what Jesus means.  Yet it is an entirely different things to come and experience Jesus within the community of faith.

That word “evangelist” is a frightening one for most of us.  It conjures up pictures of altar calls and judgmental standards.  But it seems that is not the case, at least according to this story from John’s gospel.  We are called not to cram our faith down another person’s throat.  We are to invite, but not by questioning another’s eternal destiny or with threats of hellfire and brimstone.  We are to ask others to come and see, to see what God is doing through what we are doing and to participate in what Jesus is doing through the community of disciples who have chosen to follow him.  Come and see a place that is important to us and to experience an environment that makes a difference about the choices and priorities of our life.

Frederick Buechner writes that the gospel writers understood that there was no language which could convey the miraculous power of the truth of Jesus.  What they wrote about his birth, the shepherds and angels and wise men and star, were only ways at pointing to the truth.  Yet how do we know whether or not this truth is true?  How do we find out for ourselves whether in this child born so long ago there really is a power to give us a new kind of life, a life with deeper meaning and a life in which we can appreciate our friends and try to understand enemies and maybe even love ourselves?  The only answer is to come and see.  “Come and have faith enough, hope enough, despair enough, foolishness enough to see it for yourselves.”  Buechner says that the only way to understand is to come and see for yourself.  He says that this is the attraction of Jesus’ call- its simplicity and yet its possibility.  There is something wonderful when ordinary people with an honest assessment of the needs of the world come together, finding hope through humility and gentleness and compassion and sacrifice.  And there is something powerful when the messengers fit the message.  And there is something more powerful when others are invited to come and be part of the story.

As I read over this account of the calling of Jesus’ disciples, I find a powerful and important lesson for us in the church today.  First, we must understand as Jesus did, that everyone is looking for something.  What are we looking for and where is our faith taking us?  Is it filling us with compassion is it telling us that we must protect our own interests?  Is it offering signs of hope or telling us that we need to take action in fear?  Is it revealing to others the likeness of Christ or is it lifting up our own self-importance?  And what is it about us as followers of Christ that is important enough to invite others to come and be part of our community?  We may not feel comfortable or confident in inviting others.  We may not know what to say.  We may not want to put others in a place of having to refuse our invitation.  But the future of the church and the future of our own church is deeply dependent upon all of us summoning the courage and energy to invite someone to come and see, to experience what we have found to be important in our lives.

 

 

 

Now What

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Now What”

Rev. Art Ritter

January 7, 2018

 

Mark 1:4-13

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

I’ve seen the movie Finding Nemo a few times but I did not specifically relate the ending of the movie to my sermon title until my memory was activated by my daughters this week.  They saw the title of the sermon and immediately thought of the conclusion of the movie.  At the end of Finding Nemo, the main plot is already finished.  Marlin and Nemo have been reunited.  Nemo, who had been taken from his home on the Great Barrier Reef, had been in captivity in the fish tank of a dentist in Sydney.  But a group of fish in that tank helped Nemo escape and then just about all of the movie is about Nemo’s time away.  But at the very end there is this quick scene.  Somehow the rest of the fish in the tank have managed to get the dentist to take them out of the tank and put them into plastic bags.  They have made their way into the ocean, rolling out the window and into Sydney Harbor.  The group, known as The Tank Gang, is seen bobbing up and down in the plastic bags, celebrating their freedom.  There is a period of silence, broken when Bloat the puffer fish, voiced by Brad Garrett breaks the silence.  He says, “Now what?”  Oddly enough, in the sequel movie “Finding Dory,” The Tank Gang appears again in their plastic bags, this time in California.  After the credits they are scooped up by Marine Life Institute employees and Bloat again voices the question, “Now what?”

It is that kind of Sunday in the Christian church.  Advent is over.  The decorations are down.  We’ve put everything back in its normal place.  Mary and Joseph made it to Bethlehem where Jesus was born.  The angels sang, the shepherds visited, and the wise men followed the star, delivered gifts, and then went home by another way.

We are on the other side of Christmas now- the ordinary side.  While perhaps we were just here a few weeks ago, right before Advent began, somehow it is supposed to be different now.  The gift of love has come.  God is with us.  Things have changed.  But have they?  And if they have, now what?

The gospel of Mark begins the story of Jesus not with a birth narrative, not with a story of angels and shepherds and wise men, but with the background of John the Baptist and the narrative of Jesus’ baptism.  John preaches in no uncertain terms that what will follow him will be the story of the true Messiah, the Son of God, who will fulfill prophecy and inaugurate God’s plan.  “Now what,” we might ask and Mark’s gospel attempts to answer the question.  There is this baptism- when the heavens open and the voice of God confirms the holiness and the purpose of Jesus.  “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”  It sounds so good.  It is such a nice ending to the story.  But the story isn’t over.  “Now what,” we ask again.

The very next thing that happens after the baptism is important.  The Spirit whisks Jesus away from the scene of triumph and into the wilderness, into the realm of death and evil and suffering and uncertainty.  It seems as if God did not send Jesus into this world just to be nice.  Jesus came to engage the darkness and the evil that holds it captive.  Jesus came not to stay out of trouble but to assure us that the power and presence of God would be with us in the midst of trouble.  He came to teach us that when things don’t go our way, we still have the blessing of God and the encouragement of the Spirit.

This week I discovered that “Now What?” is actually the name of a company in Brooklyn, NY that helps companies and organizations develop a vision.  Oddly enough, “Now What?” works with groups not to create a vision statement but a vision question.  The philosophy of the company is that “questions are the new answers.”  It is in finding more questions that we find more solutions.

I believe that Mark tells the story of Jesus in the way he does because he wants us to know what following God meant for Jesus just as we try to figure out what following God might mean for us.  Sometimes it brings more questions than answers.  But that is how we find our faith.  Now that the warm fuzzy feeling of Christmas is over, now that the decorations are gone, now that the angels and shepherds and wise men have returned to their boxes in the storage shed, now what?  Mark wants us to know that God will be with us, as God was with Jesus, as we live Christmas into the wilderness of real life, with the promise of our baptism- that we have been chosen by God.  As we live out our hopes in the reality of our circumstance, and as we find ourselves in the midst of doubt and fear, God is with us and God will use us.  Like Jesus, we have God’s blessing.  We are beloved.