Monthly Archives

April 2018

Where Paths Cross

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Where Paths Cross”

Rev. Art Ritter

April 29, 2018

 

Acts 8:26-40

Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.

 

One of the surprises of my thirty-three years of ministry is the pleasure I have found in writing funeral eulogies.  I don’t mean to sound morbid.   I have actually found it to be an interesting privilege just to sit with a family and learn more about the life of the deceased; to hear memories of situations that I had not previously heard; and to share in the laughter and tears that such storytelling tends to produce.  I try my best to relate what I have been told into a larger story which paints a brief yet important picture of someone’s life.

I have a colleague in ministry who has just retired.  Part of his retirement activity is a new business that he has started.  He writes eulogies for people.  Although much of his work is done quickly, when a family contacts him following the death of a loved one, a surprising amount of his business is coming from people who are constructing their own stories of their own life – a story that will be read after they have died.  The business is something that my colleague enjoys and it is filling a need since most eulogies today are given by family members and friends rather than the clergy.  He has told me something which reaffirmed my belief – a good funeral eulogy is a story, the story of a life and touches upon the stories of everyone who is there to remember and celebrate a life.

In her book, The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries, author Marilyn Johnson writes about the pleasure and pain and complications of those who compose obituaries for newspapers.  Johnson interviewed Richard Pearson who was the obituary editor for The Washington Post.  Pearson said that there are times in which people complain that there isn’t enough in an obituary and sometimes that the obituary pages are too thin.  His reply, which Johnson says is probably over the desk of every obituary editor in America was, “God is our assignment editor.”

This Easter season we have been reflecting upon stories of the early Church taken from the book of Acts.  These stories are something we might tend to avoid because they feature the power of the Holy Spirit, a mysterious force with which we are not often comfortable.  These stories are also tales that we might overlook because they illustrate the power of belief in the Risen Christ, a power that challenges and even convicts us when we too easily accept the ways of the world and the forces of death and darkness that control us.  I am fascinated by the book of Acts because in its pages the writer clearly associates Easter behavior with behavior motivated and fueled by Spirit.  The once disheartened and fearful disciples become a brave and vibrant force.  The good news of Jesus Christ began to spread across the world.  The influence of resurrection and new life embraced all within its grasp.

Today we read the story of Philip.  An angel of the Lord spoke to him and told him to get up and move to the road that went from Jerusalem to Gaza.  The author noted that this was not a well-travelled road.  It was a wilderness road.  It was a road that went right through the barrenness of a desert.  It is important to remember that this journey was not Philip’s idea.  He was called to go there by the angel, by God’s Spirit.  There in the heat of the desert, Philip encountered a rather strange sight, an Ethiopian, a member of the court of the Queen of Ethiopia, a man probably of a different race, a man of an uncertain gender or sexual orientation, a man of some power and influence since he was in charge of the Queen’s treasury.  The man was in a chariot, again something rather odd for the desert, and was reading not the latest best-seller or the morning newspaper.  He was not checking responses to his latest Tweet or his Facebook status.  He was reading a scroll containing the words of the prophet Isaiah- which just so happened to be Jesus’ favorite author.

The Spirit spoke again to Philip.  “Go over and talk to that man.”  It is fascinating to me to see the Spirit pushing people to do things beyond their comfort zone!  Go over to that chariot and talk to that man, that man who has nothing in common with you!  A great invitation, right?  And Philip did just that.  The Ethiopian admitted that he was having trouble understanding what he was reading and so Philip, whose life with Jesus informed him a great deal about what Isaiah was talking about, filled the Ethiopian in on the meaning of the prophecy.  It is about Jesus and how Jesus died.  Philip didn’t do or say anything too spectacular.  He simply told his story and related what he knew.  He told the story of Jesus and let the Spirit do the rest.

Philip must have done a pretty good job because after hearing these words, the Ethiopian man asked to be baptized.  Philip explained that that would be rather impossible since baptism required water and they were in the middle of the desert.  Deep down inside he was probably relieved because baptizing this strange man who was so different from the stereotypical early Christian would not be a comfortable thing to do.  And then, wouldn’t you know it.  Miraculously an oasis appears with a pool of water.  Every excuse was removed!  Philip and the Ethiopian get into the water and the Holy Spirit descends.  Philip just disappears and the Ethiopian leaves rejoicing as a new disciple.

I ask myself why this narrative is there in the book of Acts.  What was the writer trying to teach the early followers of Jesus and what could we learn from it today?  Clearly it is a story of evangelism.  It is a tale of conversion.  When Philip explained the Isaiah passage to the Ethiopian, the man who was outside the faith understood and was baptized into the faith.  Yet Philip was also the target of evangelism.  He discovered the power of the Spirit to move him to places he didn’t think he could go, to knock down walls that he believed kept him from doing things, to give him the ability to use his story and his experience to speak to the story and experience of others.  Philip was the example of how God works in the intersection of human lives and of how God speaks where human paths cross.

This is a story that informs you and me about how we can be an evangelist.  The sharing of the gospel isn’t as difficult or complicated as we think it is.  It doesn’t have to be an organized program with a clever slogan and appointed calendar dates.  Evangelism doesn’t have to be sparked by award winning sermon and altar calls.  Evangelism is something that involves each and every follower of Christ.  Evangelism is what keeps the church interesting, outward focused, challenged and evolving.  Evangelism is the power of our story that touches the story of others in the places where paths of people cross in everyday life.

At the recent Ministers’ Convocation that I attended, our speaker from Western Theological Seminary Dr. Kyle Small mentioned that the local church and ministers are often frustrated by lack of growth and low attendance.  The truth, Dr. Small said, is that the church is growing but we aren’t noticing it.  We don’t notice it because it just doesn’t look like us.  In order to grow we have to model the spirited risk that Philip took and look outside the room to places of everyday life.

There is a perhaps apocryphal story about Martin Luther who allegedly claimed that he led the Protestant Reformation, by sitting in the tavern drinking good beer and minding his own business.  Luther said that the Holy Spirit did the rest.

Perhaps it really wasn’t that easy.  But whether or not the story is true, we can often forget that the church is not the product of our most creative and earnest efforts but the product of the Holy Spirit which works in our ordinary story and activity.  We are the evangelists, the proclaimers of the good news, led by the Spirit into places and situations where we are challenged to share of our story, on the road in the midst of life’s deepest problems.

In her book Bread of Angels, Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Under the power of the Holy Spirit, shy people have been known to step up onto platforms and say audacious things.  Cautious people have become daredevils, frugal people have become philanthropists and people who used to be as sour as dill pickles have become rich with friends.  There is no limit to what the Holy Spirit can do.  You just cannot hold your breath, that’s all.  You have to keep breathing, keep paying attention, and keep responding to whatever crazy idea you come up with next.  Some people call it intuition.  Others call it inspiration.  Forever and ever, the church has called it Holy Spirit.”

Be attentive to where the spirit leads you.  Pay attention to those who may cross your path.  Be ready to tell your story in whatever way you can.

Power to Speak

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Power to Speak”

Rev. Art Ritter

April 22, 2018

 

Acts 4:5-22

The next day their rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem, with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John,* and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. When they had made the prisoners* stand in their midst, they inquired, ‘By what power or by what name did you do this?’ Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, ‘Rulers of the people and elders, if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth,* whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus* is
“the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.”*
There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.’

 Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized them as companions of Jesus. When they saw the man who had been cured standing beside them, they had nothing to say in opposition. So they ordered them to leave the council while they discussed the matter with one another. They said, ‘What will we do with them? For it is obvious to all who live in Jerusalem that a notable sign has been done through them; we cannot deny it. But to keep it from spreading further among the people, let us warn them to speak no more to anyone in this name.’ So they called them and ordered them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered them, ‘Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.’ After threatening them again, they let them go, finding no way to punish them because of the people, for all of them praised God for what had happened. For the man on whom this sign of healing had been performed was more than forty years old.

Lou Nicholes tells the story of the 19th century Methodist evangelist Peter Cartwright, whom I don’t know if was related to our own Peter Cartwright.  Cartwright was known for his uncompromised preaching.  However, one day, when the President of the United States, Andrew Jackson, came to Cartwright’s church the preacher was tested.  The elders warned the evangelist not to say anything that would offend the President.  When Cartwright got up to speak, the first words out of his mouth were, “I understand the President Andrew Jackson is here this morning.  I have been requested to be very guarded in my remarks.  Let me just say this, Andrew Jackson will go to hell if he doesn’t repent of his sin.”  The entire congregation gasped with shock at Cartwright’s boldness.  How could this young preacher dare to offend the tough old general and Commander in Chief, in public?  After the service, everyone wondered how the President would respond to Cartwright.  When Andrew Jackson met the preacher at the door, he looked him in the eye and said, “Sir, if I had a regiment of men like you, I could conquer the world!”

It may be hard for my wife Laura to imagine, but there was a time in my life when it was very difficult for me to speak with women.  I was extremely shy and introverted and afraid to ask a girl out on a date lest the invitation would be refused and my world shattered.  I think back, with a great deal of embarrassment, to the first time I actually asked a woman out.  I had been on some group dates but had managed to avoid high school proms and formal dances.  It was when I got to college that I decided that I had to take the risk of asking out a woman named Linda.  It took me a couple of weeks to work up the courage.  I decided it would be better to call her than to ask her in person, let she refuse the invitation.  I recall picking up the phone several times before dialing her number.  I know that I rehearsed my smooth invitation script tens of times.  It seems silly now but it was one of the most frightening moments of my life.  I finally summoned up some boldness and made the call.  When her voice appeared on the other end, I began my speech, all without taking a breath.  “Linda, this is Art Ritter from your 9 a.m. Political Science Class.  I was wondering if you would like to go to the movie at the Dow Center this Friday night with me.”  Without hesitation, she said yes.  When I think about it, I believe Linda said yes before I finished the invitation.  But I was so nervous that I kept on talking.  And when I realized that she had said yes, I was stunned.  I think that I was quiet for the next several seconds.  The date went OK, just OK.  But there was some kind of reward for what I perceived as boldness that made it much easier to survive the ordeal in the future.

The early chapters of the book of Acts describe the followers of Christ living with the power of resurrection.  Some of them had witnessed the empty tomb.  Jesus’ disciples had encountered the Risen Lord.  But now Jesus had ascended into heaven and these followers were left with the task of spreading the good news of the gospel.  At first glance, this seems like a rather impossible task, because the leaders of this group included those who denied Jesus, those who doubted his resurrection, and those who fled following his arrest, for fear of their own safety and lives.  As a context to the specific Scripture lesson we hear this morning, we must remember that Peter’s lame denials of Jesus on the night in which he was arrested make him almost a patron saint of the timid and the tongue tied.  The untrained, ordinary Galilean who could not answer a question put to him by a poor serving girl in the courtyard, has been called before the Jewish equivalent of the United States Supreme Court.  It was like a timid young man who couldn’t ask the girl next door for a date, suddenly finding the will to invite Miss America to the prom.  In the wake of resurrection, the quiet and reserved and fearful Peter is the one who has to speak for the Risen Christ.

Peter and John are standing before this tribunal because they had healed a lame man at the Temple.  Following that healing the two men taught confidently, proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead.  The leaders of the Temple, the scribes and the Pharisees didn’t like that for more than one reason.  First of all, they didn’t believe in resurrection, in fact they claimed that the ancient Torah thoroughly rejected such a claim.  And now Peter and John were telling everyone who would listen that Jesus’ resurrection had launched a new and long awaited moment in the history of the world.  The blessings of the end time were and resurrection age were now available to anyone who believed in Jesus.  The temple authorities weren’t too happy to have these ordinary fisherman claiming that they had information about a new religious age that would bring salvation and would not involve any of the power and prestige of the priests and scribes.  They were angry that someone or something was threatening the status quo and the way of the world as they knew it.

Peter and John were arrested and escorted to stand trial before the very same court that condemned Jesus.  It is a bit ironic to think that in a period of a few weeks, followers who ran and hid while Jesus was sentenced where now bold and brave enough to stand before that same court and defend themselves.  The author of Acts describes the court specifically: Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, Alexander, and all who were of the high priestly family.  John Holbert writes that we don’t who John and Alexander were, but Annas and Caiaphas were the most famous high priests of Israel during that time period and they served at different times.  It would be as if someone appeared before Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson together.  This was not a historical scene but a deliberate described confrontation between the old and the new.  Peter and John were standing in front of authority and tradition representing the change that the Risen Christ had brought.

The multiple high priests ask the same question that Peter and John were asked when healing the lame man.  “By what power or in what name did you do this thing?”  Peter’s answer was typical of those early followers of Jesus.  “Let it be known to all of you and to the entire people of Israel, that it is through the name of Jesus of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead.  It is through him that the man was healed and it is through him that all can be saved.”

The writer of Acts notes that the court took note of Peter and John’s boldness.  These uneducated and ordinary men spoke about Jesus with authority.  They knew who he was and they knew what his gospel meant for the world.  They were healing and teaching in ways that he exampled and called them to do.  They were living as if they really believed that God was not just referenced in history and in law but in the words and deeds of the present age.  The priests and scribes, these men of power who were so ruthless to Jesus, did not know what to do with such boldness of faith.  If locked doors couldn’t keep the Risen Christ from his disciples, not even jail cells and threats could keep the Holy Spirit from doing God’s work among Jesus’ bold followers.

Tom Long, professor of preaching at Emory University writes, “Whenever political or religious authorities set themselves up as the only legitimate broker of what people need and defend that authority, inevitably, the Holy Spirit breaks down those structures.”  All too often we are too timid to challenge the powers of the world.  We are afraid that we are not capable.  We are afraid that they are too strong.  We are not certain if we really want things to change.  We are comfortable with old patterns of behavior and thought.  We are comfortable keeping things stable and quiet and peaceful.

German Johann Goethe wrote this about boldness, “Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back- concerning all acts of initiative, there is one elementary truth that ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans.  Then there is the moment one definitely commits oneself and Providence moves too.  All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred.  A whole stream of events from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way.  Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it.  Boldness has genius, power and magic.  Begin it now.”

Easter and resurrection is supposed to be a radical departure from the status quo.  In Easter we are reminded of the power of the Risen Christ to transform and the need we have as followers of that Christ to speak and act boldly.  In the stories from the book of Acts, we read when these early Christians were so empowered that they could not refrain from talking about their new life.  They were so emboldened that they stood without fear in front of the very earthly courts that condemned Jesus.

 

 

 

Table Grace

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Table Grace”

Dr. Diana Butler Bass

April 15, 2018

 

1 John 3:1-7

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.

Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.

 

Luke 24:35-48

Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread. While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence. Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.

 

Good morning. It’s good to be here this morning, and you are truly looking like the ‘frozen chosen.’ When I was standing out there, someone said to me, “Oh my gosh, there aren’t so many people here today, usually the church would be almost twice as full.” And that that brought to mind something that happened to me many years ago. This would have been in 1986, and oddly enough it was on Thanksgiving Day. I was married then to someone I’m not married to now, I’m on my second marriage, which has lasted a very long time. But I was with my first husband, and he was a fellow who was from the ‘reformed’ side of Christianity, and I was an Episcopalian. We’d only been married for about eighteen months, and it was Thanksgiving morning. It was his tradition, in his religious family, to go to church on Thanksgiving. And I knew that the Episcopal church that we were attending was having a small Thanksgiving service on this particular day. And so we had decided to go together, in this blending of our two traditions.

Well we got up that morning, and it was awful weather. It was a Thanksgiving in Massachusetts, where it had snowed and it was sort of sleet and ice rain, it was just terrible. And there was six inches of stuff on the road. He was the kind of guy who would go to church no matter what, and so we got in our car and drove several miles to get to our Episcopal church. And when we got there, it was just the two of us, one other couple, a priest, and the organist. And I actually will never forget that service, because outside the winds were howling. Here we are in New England, and we’re celebrating Thanksgiving, and the winds are howling and it’s this horrible weather, and six people made up this tiny pilgrim band of gratitude on that Thanksgiving day. There weren’t hardly any people there, but it was a church service that has remained in my mind every year since on Thanksgiving.

And so it’s funny to be here standing here with you around Easter, this is Easter season, the third Sunday of Easter. We’re part way through the great fifty days of Easter. To have outside be full of ice and icky slush and unexpected weather and wind, and to be talking about gratitude. Thinking about thanks. It almost forms two really odd bookends of Thanksgiving in my own experience, and that’s what I want to talk about today. The unfolding of Easter and thanksgiving. And what a shame it is that we think of Thanksgiving as a day in church, as a day with our families only once a year, and that we haven’t really mined the spiritual depths and power of the idea of Easter as our season of thanks.

When you write a book about gratitude, I can confess now from person experience, that people will ask you the same set of questions over and over again. And that is, everybody seems to want to know these days what I do in order to practice thanks in my own life. I’ve been asked this now by reporters—Christian ones and secular ones—by people at events, by my neighbors. Everyone seems to know what to do when it comes to thanksgiving. Well I’ve done many things over the years to learn and strengthen gratitude as a practice in my own life. But today I want to share with you what is probably the most sustained practice that I have embarked upon over many, many years. It’s something that I do not do by myself, it’s something that I do with my family. And that is a very simple thing. So simple that you might not necessarily think of it as a practice of thanksgiving, but that is saying grace over meals.

Now I come from a family, my Methodist family when I was growing up did not do this. When we said family prayers together they tended to be evening prayers. My mother would come and sit by our bedsides at night and we would say some prayer together. Of thanks for the day, and then for safekeeping during the night, to pray away the fears of the darkness. But my husband’s family—this husband, Richard, the one who I’ve been married to for almost twenty-two years—he actually did. Maybe it’s something about husbands that have to remind me about thanksgiving, but Richard’s family always did say prayers over their mealtimes, and it was the simple prayer, one that I’m sure many of you say: “Lord, make us thankful for these and our many other blessings, in Christ’s name, amen.”

So when Richard and I got married, this was his tradition. And we started saying grace together, not at bedtime, but at meal time. Thus our house was framed in this simple practice of thanksgiving. Our daughter was born nine months and one week after we were married, and she is now twenty—a second-year student at UVA. I can remember when we would sit and she would be in her baby chair right there at the table, and even as a tiny little thing, she would stop and be quiet when we’d say grace together. Today, she still feels like saying grace at meals is incredibly natural. When she comes home from college, if we ever forget to say grace, she reminds us. When we sit down at the dinner table she says “What are we going to pray about tonight?” It’s become part of who we are to sit together at a table and say ‘thank you.’

We’re not alone in this practice. A recent survey found that fifty percent of Americans still say grace at meals at least a few times a week. And this fifty percent is not politically determined—Republicans and Democrats both say grace at meals—nor is it nor is it particular to any particular religious tradition. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, even a high percentage of people who understand themselves to be Atheists, Agnostics, or spiritual but not religious, say some sort of grace, a blessing, at a table before a meal. What a simple thing, and what a beautiful thing. It is also a profound thing, a deeply biblical thing, and an ancient practice, one that comes to many people who would be in this room through both Judaism, and later Christianity.

Christians, of course, inherited this amazing ancient practice from the Jews. For thousands and thousands of years, the table has been considered the most sacred place in Jewish life. It is the place of gathering, of feasting, or receiving God’s blessings of enacting the Sabbath. There has always been in Jewish families a blessing to open the meal, one that emphasized God as the creator, the Lord, and the ruler of all. That blessing, these words, translated from Hebrew, is so old that we do not even know when they began:

“Blessed are you, O our God, ruler of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth. Blessed are you, O our God, ruler of the universe, who creates the fruit of the vine.”

 

Our Jewish friends didn’t think it was enough just to bless the meal at the beginning. They drew from a verse in Deuteronomy that taught the most important blessing was actually after the meal. So they began with a simple blessing, “Blessed are you, Lord our God—” notice it’s not a blessing of the food, it’s blessing to God. Then after the meal, they say a more extensive blessing—they actually have entire liturgies, I’ll just read you the short version of that blessing—but again, incredibly ancient words.

“Sovereign God of the universe, we praise you; your goodness sustains the world, you are the God of grace, love, and compassion; the source of bread for all who live, for your love is everlasting. In your great goodness, we never lack for food. You provide food enough for all. We praise you, O God, source of food for all who live.”

 

And thus, the Jewish table, blessed at the beginning of the meal and praised at the end of the meal, acknowledging two things: God is creator, and the abundance that God has given to the whole of the world. That prayer is amazing. “Your great goodness is such that we will never lack for food. You provide food enough for all.” The Jewish table reminds us that we are the recipient of gifts, and that those gifts are the primary, most basic, fundamental nature of the universe. Those gifts will never stop coming at us, God is an ever-creative presence with us, who feeds and feeds and feeds and feeds and feeds again.

We live in a gifted world, and we are surrounded by abundance. That is a great thing to remember for thanksgiving. And it is also, I think, key to understanding what Easter is all about. For here, in these great fifty days, on every Sunday following the Sunday of the resurrection, the church recounts the early testimony of Jesus post-resurrection, appearance to his friends and followers. Now depending upon how we go back and look at scripture, how we count those appearances, there are some ten or fifteen stories that we are told in scripture about Jesus showing up after the resurrection. And if you’ve never noticed—actually, you might be a lot brighter than me, because if you’ve noticed, I had never noticed this before—almost all of those appearances share one detail in common: Jesus shows up at tables.

Like today, in the gospel of Luke there’s a food story about these friends of Jesus on the road to Emmaus, they have lunch with Jesus, and it’s only once that Jesus is breaking bread with them do they recognize Jesus and that Jesus disappears; they are so overcome by this amazing thing that has happened to them, they run back to the rest of Jesus’ friends and they say “Oh my gosh, we knew Jesus and the breaking of bread, he was really there,” and they’re telling this story about having lunch with Jesus, and Jesus shows up again. And in the story where Jesus shows up, Jesus is hungry. So we have a food story of a very hungry Jesus who asked for something to eat. And you know that Jesus is not just standing at the kitchen and they open the refrigerator. They must have been gathered around a table, and Jesus shows up and says “feed me.” It’s an amazing story. They know who Jesus is, they don’t have to wait for the fish to be eaten. Instead, Jesus simply eats food with them.

And then there’s the story of the upper room, last week, a story that takes place in the same room where the last supper had taken place, and there’s a story about a breakfast on a beach that will be coming towards us in just a couple weeks. Whatever else the resurrection is about, it is clearly about Jesus coming to dinner. Jesus sitting at a table with his friends. Jesus eating with other people. Jesus cooking dinner with other people. Indeed, near the end of his time with his friends here on earth, Jesus commissions his friends to feed people. “Feed my sheep,” he says. We take that as not literal, but I have to ask myself why. Jesus seems absolutely obsessed with food in the Easter season. As a matter of fact it’s a little like The Jesus Show on the Food Network. Now these people, these good Jews who want to do all this eating together, there is something else that’s not told to us because it would have been assumed by everyone who heard these stories and who read these texts, is that every one of these table encounters would have started with those prayers that I just read to you, with a table grace. And every one of those encounters would have ended with that prayer of abundance.

So every time Jesus sits down with his friends in these post-resurrection stories, in the same way that they did when Jesus was alive, was their teacher walking around with them, sharing the good news of God; a God who has created this beautiful world for us to inhabit with joy and compassion and love and justice. This same God who had provided great abundance for the people of Israel, that was the God that they prayed to when Jesus was alive; that is the God they prayed to when Jesus is alive again, after the resurrection. These are prayers that honor creation. These are prayers which recognize a life of abundance.

In Easter, we celebrate victory over the cross and the grave, a victory that we talk about all the time, it’s about life and not death. And the oddest thing about that victory, perhaps, is not that we will have full life in the age that is to come, but the victory, this victorious life takes us right back to the Thursday night before the cross. Jesus’ victory takes us to the table. Sometimes in our Easter celebration we still think a lot about the cross. We think about how Jesus died there for our sins, but I want you to consider something very odd for just a moment with me: when Jesus himself returns and hangs out with his own friends, the people he wants to feed his sheep, he does not go back to Calvary. He never once goes back to the hill where the torture, where the execution happened. He never once goes and stands in that desolate place and points to a cross and says “Hey, look there, that’s the point.” He doesn’t do that.

Instead, what Jesus does is he shows up in the last place, the upper room, where he and his friends had dinner together. This makes me think that the real point of this story for our lives, the continuing Easter joy, is about feasting. It is about the centrality of Maundy Thursday; the supper the Jesus had with his friends, and those table graces of creation and abundance. In a very real way, the last supper that they had on that Maundy Thursday would be the last supper of a world of injustice and oppression. The last supper where Caesar was going to be the lord and savior of the universe. The last supper where violence would seem to have the last word. And it becomes something we rarely talk about, but I think that this is really what the theological point is. That last supper is also the first feast. It is the first feast of life in the age to come. It is the first feast of full joy. It is the first feast of understanding and living the deepest kind of gratitude for participating in a gifted world; in recognizing, receiving, and embracing he abundance of God.

The last supper is the first feast. And that’s why Jesus keep showing up over and over and over again at tables during the fifty days of Easter. He never once points back to the instrument of death, but in that fifty days, between the resurrection and the time we see him no long here on this earth, he constantly points to bread and wine. Over and over and over again, and not bread and wine as a metaphor. Jesus is not eating a metaphor when he asks for food. He’s having a party with his friends. Easter life is that table. It is a life of table grace where our lives are set with the gifts of God, for the people of God, and then when we get up from that table, we say “Lord, thank you. Thank you that we live in a world of abundance.” It is about gratitude.

Easter is our Thanksgiving. It is a radical grace. It reminds us daily that scarcity and oppression and violence and death are not the last word. Instead, the last word is “dinner.” In a wonderful, short piece, published by some theologians from Baylor University, they say this:

“The power of Christ’s resurrection is realized most not in our building of monuments or institutions, but in the breaking of bread. The quotidian collecting of those whom we love around a table that nourishes all. And praying that God would give us new eyes to see those who belong alongside of us.”

 

Wouldn’t it be amazing if instead of celebrating Thanksgiving only once a year in November, we took these fifty days and made them a season of table grace? Made them an entire fifty days of gratitude? A Lutheran theologian by the name of David Loss who teaches at St. Paul Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, he actually did this one year. For fifty days of the Easter season he thanked someone he knew, someone who had blessed him. And he said it changed his entire perspective of what the resurrection as about. Easter. Easter is our season of gratitude.

I leave you with that memory of a Thanksgiving and an unexpected snow, and standing with you here with an Easter of unexpected snow. And in my own life, those two things now overlap, and enfold one another.

My friend, Jan Richardson, she’s a Methodist, she’s a lay person. She’s a poet and she’s a painter. And she has written a table blessing which is used frequently in churches for communion Sundays. But I’ve come to think of this table blessing as more than just a blessing for communion. It is instead a blessing of Easter; a blessing for the resurrection life; a blessing for this season. She writes: “And the table will be wide, and the welcome will be wide, and the arms will open wide to gather us in.” I love that line. I wasn’t going to do this, but think about that for a moment. “The arms will open wide to gather us in.” Perhaps during Easter the cross turns into a table.

“And our hearts will open wide to receive

and we will come as those who trust that there is enough

and we will come unhindered and free,

and our aching will be met with bread

and our sorrow will be met with wine

and we will open our hands to the feast without shame

and we will turn toward each other without fear

and we will give up our appetite for despair and hopelessness

and we will taste and know delight

and we will become the bread for a hungering world

and we will become drink for those who thirst

and the blessed will become the blessing

and everywhere will be the feast.”

 

Jesus says “Go forth and proclaim the good news.” Everywhere will be the feast. That is the good news of Easter, and not only is it the good news; not only is it even better than good; but it is great news. And I hope that you feel and understand the deepest sort of gratitude that grows out of that, and that we can all sing grateful from the recesses of our beings to the ends of the earth. Amen.

 

Barnabas: The Encourager

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Barnabas: The Encourager”

Rev. Art Ritter

April 8, 2018

 

John 1:5 – 2:2

This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

Acts 4:32-35

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.

 

In an old Reader’s Digest article, Marion Gilbert tells the story of opening her front door one morning to receive the newspaper.  She was surprised to see a little stray dog standing at the door with the newspaper in his mouth.  Delighted with this unexpected and helpful delivery, Marion went to her pantry and rewarded the dog with a couple of dog bones.  The little dog wagged his tail, took the treats and ran off down the sidewalk, apparently to his home.  The following morning Marion opened the door to pick up her newspaper, only to find the same little dog sitting there wagging his tail.  This time however, there were eight newspapers surrounding the dog.  Marion said that she spent the rest of the morning returning newspapers to her neighbors, including one who was the owner of the little dog.

William Arthur Ward said, “Flatter me, and I may not believe you.  Criticize me, and I may not like you.  Ignore me, and I may not forgive you.  Encourage me, and I will not forget you.”

The English journalist G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “The really great person is the person who makes every person feel great.”

The great American author Mark Twain said, “I can live for two months on a good compliment.”

When we are in relationship with another person, for a short period of association or for an extended relationship of time, we are changed by that person.  The change may be small or significant, helpful or hurtful, but the interaction can have a lasting significance upon us.  Part of what we remember about our relationships with others, whether they are parents, teachers, coaches, spouses, ministers, or friends- is whether or not we were encouraged.  Those who provide encouragement to us are special people in our lives.  They are enthusiastic and confident.  They tend to focus on the needs of others first.  They are interested in us and care deeply about what it is that we need.  Encouragement is a special gift in any relationship and it is an important gift within the relationships created within the life of the community of faith.

This Easter season I will be using my sermons to reflect a bit upon the life within the early Christian Church.  I will be looking at stories and people from the book of Acts, the narrative that describes how people were so empowered by Christ’s resurrection and the gift of the Holy Spirit that they acted in ways that changed the world.  These incidents relate how the early Church functioned as a community and how that community was able to influence and attract those who witnessed their actions of love and compassion.  What gifts or actions did that early church display that we can model as we seek to be the body of Christ today?

In the fourth chapter of Acts we read about one of the first gatherings of the church.  The whole group of believers, of one heart and soul, shared everything in common, claiming no private possession.  There was not a needy person among them as those who owned land and houses sold them to share of their wealth with those who had less.  Throughout history this particular passage has caused more than its share of grief within the Christian community.  Was Luke, the author of the book of Acts advocating socialism or communism?  Or was he simply illustrating the one mind of care and concern shared by the resurrection community?  Certainly in a day in which we tend to seek our own interests and act in ways that separate and divide us, these words can hold some meaning.  The power of the resurrected Lord always flows through us and we need to remember that it is through our words and action that the Risen Christ lives today.

I would like to concentrate on the next two verses of that fourth chapter of Acts.  “There was a Levite, a native of Cyprus, Joseph, to whom apostles gave the name Barnabas, which means ‘son of encouragement.’  He sold a field that belonged to him, then brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet.”  This is an interesting citation in the narrative of the early Church.  Joseph, called Barnabas, the son of encouragement.

This week after Easter I decided to do something that I enjoy and I did a bit of research on this man Joseph known as Barnabas.  We meet him here in the early stories of Acts, when he sold some property and donated the money for the good of the post-resurrection community.  Evidently Barnabas didn’t hold back anything or hedge his bet on the new group of believers.  He was all in.  Joseph, now called Barnabas, was a Levite, part of the Jewish tribe that served in the Temple.  But his family had moved to the Mediterranean island of Cyprus and thus couldn’t serve the Temple.  His family had left Jerusalem thus Barnabas was a Greek or Hellenistic Jew, not part of the Judean or Galilean establishment of Jesus’ disciples.  According to the book of Acts, there was a large company of Hellenistic Jews in Jerusalem at the celebration of Pentecost just after Jesus’ crucifixion.  Many were converted to what would later be known as Christianity, either through the preaching of the disciples or perhaps through experience with Jesus himself.  Yet most were still viewed with suspicion by the long time members of the Jerusalem church.  They had come late to the party.  So Barnabas’ contribution was truly a risky commitment.  He was an outsider yet he still was willing to go all in with this new community of faith.

Later in the book of Acts, the persecutor of Christians named Saul had a conversion experience on the road to Damascus.  He now claimed to be a follower of Jesus.  Of course some of the Christians were skeptical, thinking that this man who was a persecutor was simply trying to be a spy.  They couldn’t trust Saul.  They were ready to dismiss him.  Enter Barnabas, the encourager.  He introduced the man now called Paul to the leaders of the Jerusalem church and helped soothe their nerves and suspicions.  He was able to see past Paul’s former acts of persecution and look at the potential he had for preaching the gospel.  He publicly supported Paul.  The two men became partners in ministry together in Antioch, in what we now call Syria.

While most of the early Christians believed that one had to be first Jewish before accepting Jesus as Christ, Barnabas’ ministry was among Gentiles, those who came straight to Christianity without being part of the Jewish faith.  Although this set Barnabas at odds with the establishment in Jerusalem, it was his church in Antioch that grew the fastest.  The Gentiles there found Barnabas to be “a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith.”  It was in Antioch that followers of Christ were first called Christians.  It was in Antioch where money was collected to provide for Jerusalem famine relief after the city was destroyed by the Roman army.  All of this was done through the leadership of Barnabas the encourager.

Finally, Scripture records a missionary journey of Paul and Barnabas and a young man named John Mark.  It was a difficult trip of over 1400 miles.  They encountered opposition and persecution.  Paul was stoned along the way.  Early in the journey, John Mark dropped out.  Paul believed him to be a quitter and did not want him to be on any future mission trips.  Barnabas insisted on giving John Mark a second chance.  This story of disagreement is the last time that Barnabas is mentioned in the book of Acts, yet later in his letters Paul remarks about the goodness of John Mark and his helpful role in the Christian ministry.

While Barnabas is a minor character in the Bible and in the history of Christian faith, I wonder what things would have been like if he had not sold his property and contributed to the welfare of the early believers.  I wonder how Christianity would have begun if Barnabas had not vouched for Paul in front of the suspicious, established disciples who saw Paul as an enemy.  I wonder how the early faith would have grown if Barnabas would not have supported preaching Christ to the outsiders, the Gentiles.  I wonder how Paul’s work would have succeeded if Barnabas had not taken a chance on a young man who previously failed, John Mark.  Barnabas, the encourager, made a tremendous difference simply because of his gifts of reconciliation, inspiration, and praise.

Howard Baston tells the story of Duane Brooks, a pastor in Texas.  While growing up, Duane’s father worked two jobs to support his family of four sons in tough times.  When he was nine years old, Duane told his father that he really wanted to play baseball.  “No, you don’t want to play baseball,” his father barked.  “Yes, Dad, I really do.”  “But you’re not a baseball player.”  I really want to play baseball.  I’d like to sign up for a team.”  “Okay,” his dad said abruptly.  He took Duane out to the field, gave him a glove and then threw the ball as hard as he could at Duane’s chest.  Duane dodged the ball, and his father yelled at him, “See, I told you that you weren’t a baseball player!”  And with that his father walked away, discouraging the dreams and hopes of his son.  Years later, Duane who had his own nine year old son, remembered his father’s words and tried to encourage his son’s athletic endeavors.  One day when Duane’s father came to visit, the group went to a park and Duane played catch with is son.  Soon Duane’s father yelled out, “Hey, can I do that?  I’d like to play catch with my grandson.”  For an hour Duane watched as his father and his son played catch.  And a wound was healed as the discourager became an encourager.

Barnabas the encourager is the example that we can carry with us in our lives within and outside of the community of faith.  We can encourage by giving of ourselves to others.  We can encourage by making sacrifices so that the needs of others can be met.  We can encourage by believing in others and pointing out their goodness and taking the time to make them feel special.  We can encourage by serving others, by getting involved in the lives of others in ways that support constructively.  We can encourage by forgiving, by seeking reconciliation, and by being kind.

It seems that the early church owes a lot to Barnabas.  Perhaps the best way of acknowledging that would be to be a Barnabas to others today.

 

Bad Ending

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Bad Ending”

Rev. Art Ritter

April 1, 2018

 

 

Mark 16:1-8

When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

 

On June 10, 2007, the final episode of HBO’s series The Sopranos aired.  While the concluding episodes of most long running series tend to be a bit disappointing to loyal fans, the last episode of The Sopranos elicited a surprisingly massive negative response.  Near the end of the final show, Tony Soprano entered a diner.  Because there were only a few minutes left in a show that had aired for years, I supposed the audience was ready for a solid ending, perhaps one with questions answered and plot points resolved.  I think it is safe to assume that a majority of viewers thought that Tony would somehow be “taken out” in that diner, thus ending the show with accustomed blood and violence.  In the last three minutes, viewers saw Tony meeting his family and discussing everyday family concerns while eating onion rings.  The camera showed lots of suspicious characters in the diner, people you would imagine might be responsible for a hit on Tony.  Yet there were also Cub Scouts and young lovers in the booths, people lost in the midst of ordinary life.  The Journey song “Don’t Stop Believing” was on the jukebox.  Daughter Meadow was outside the diner, having a difficult time parking her car next to the curb.

Suddenly, during a close up of Tony’s face, the screen went blank.  Some viewers thought that their power in their homes went out.  Others thought that someone in the room had unplugged the television.  Perhaps some thought they had forgotten to pay the cable bill.  Indeed cable providers reported that they received many phone calls from angry viewers thinking that somehow they were responsible.  But that is how the show ended, in the mystery of the screen going blank.

Eleven years later people still want to talk about the final episode of The Sopranos.  If you google it, you will find pages and pages of theories and explanations.  You will discover thousands of viewer who are still frustrated at the bad ending.  In my research this week I read an interview with David Chase, the creator and director of the series.  He was the one responsible for the so-called “disappointing” ending.  What he said I found most interesting.  Chase said that he wanted to close the long-running show with a “big moment.”  But he also wanted the viewers to understand that the “big moment” was not necessarily something expected, clear or well-defined.  He wanted the “big moment” to be the audience anticipation of what might come next.  The “big moment” was the mystery, the possibility of something always out there waiting, perhaps coming in the next moment.

We all like a good ending to stories.  We like it when the loose pieces of what has happened before, come together.  We prefer to have the problems of the plot resolved and the end of the story bring something which satisfies our hopes and dreams for the main characters.  We are not fans of bad endings.

The Easter story, according to the gospel of Mark, is a lot like that final episode of The Sopranos.  For many in the community of faith, the ending is just plain bad.  Mark describes the two Marys and Salome going to the tomb to tend to the body of Jesus.  They are worried about how they will roll the heavy stone away to even get to the body.  When they look up, they notice that they stone has already been rolled away.  Then they see a young man in a white robe who tells them, “Don’t be afraid.  Jesus has been raised.  Go and tell others that he has gone ahead of you into Galilee and there you will find him.”  And Mark closes this Easter story by saying, “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Mark’s resurrection story is the only one in the Bible where the risen Jesus never actually makes an appearance.  If you read along with the Scripture lesson in your pew Bibles, you will notice that there are at least two alternative endings to the gospel of Mark.  But just about every scholar believes that the real Mark ends at verse 8 and that what follows is endings written by separate authors, offered perhaps a generation or two after the original.  These early Christians were so dissatisfied with Mark’s Easter narrative that they tried to tie a neat little bow around all of the unanswered questions and uncertainty.  I think of Hemingway, of whom it was said, had written 47 different endings to his classic novel “Farewell to Arms.”  When his friends and advisors couldn’t reach a consensus on any of those potential endings, Hemingway went back to his first words and kept the original ending, even though it seemed uncertain and disappointing for those who first read it.

An empty tomb without a resurrected body?  No words of the Risen Christ to offer explanation and comfort and inspiration?  Witnesses filled with fear and terror?  Women given instructions to go and tell the other disciples yet who flee the tomb and say absolutely nothing?  Not only is this a bad ending, it is a description of failure.  As readers, we expect Easter to come to a better end!

This week I saw a clip posted by several Facebook friends, a video of a man named Lee Strobel offering proof of Jesus’ resurrection.  Strobel, a one-time legal editor of the Chicago Tribune and former atheist, is now a committed Christian, having accepted Christ in 1979.  Strobel is a proponent of what he calls, “evidence based Christianity.” In the clip, Strobel presented a great deal of historical and scientific evidence that he said demanded belief in Jesus’ resurrection.  While watching the clip I noticed that Strobel did not mention the gospel of Mark’s Easter account.  I can only imagine that his search for evidence finds frustration in Mark’s bad ending, which offers only an empty tomb and fearful witnesses.

Let’s look back at Mark’s Easter story.  What kind of resurrection proclamation is this?  Listen again to the words of the young man in the white robes who tells the women, “But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” Throughout the gospel, the disciples and followers of Jesus didn’t seem to understand what Jesus said and what he taught.  They didn’t seem to catch on to the principles of sacrifice and serving.  They continued to seek glory and honor while he exampled humility and mercy.  They scratched their heads when Jesus mentioned that he was going to be put to death and would rise on the third day.  What he talked about with Peter and James and John just didn’t seem to resonate with their worldly experience.

Now to understand the meaning of the empty tomb, to understand what Jesus was really talking about, these followers are told to remember the beginning of the story- when Jesus preached and taught and healed and announced the coming of God’s Kingdom.  They are told that Jesus has gone ahead of them, into the times and events of their own lives, to meet them just as he promised.  The resurrection will be found, not in physical evidence of the day, not in the certainty of historical record, and not in a happy ending.  Resurrection will begin by finding Jesus in the midst of our ordinary experiences.

The empty tomb is a place of either hope or fear.  Yet, it is the place that we tend to live in each and every day.  We walk that fine line between achievement and disappointment.  We teeter between faith and uncertainty.  Some days we see the world as a pretty reliable place and our lives as meaningful.  Other days we are frightened by life’s tenuous nature and frustrated when we are boxed into corners by our failures.

I have always found Mark’s Easter story to be my favorite.  Perhaps it is because it isn’t so certain or so clear.  Mark’s telling of Easter puts a great deal of responsibility upon our shoulders and our lives.  The resurrection is real when we take the risk of living with hope, fueled by our belief that God has acted to bring death to an end and the reign of God to our awareness.  Mark’s ending is a powerful encouragement for living in faith even in the face of unanswered questions and unknown future.  There is work to be done, risks to be taken, dangers and disappointments to be faced, but Jesus will be there with us- having already defeated these things.

Easter is a game changer.  The tomb is empty.  Death has been bested.  Possibilities are born again.  We no longer linger in hopelessness.  Jesus is risen and he has gone again of us.  We will find him in the extended endings of his story that are lived out in the story we write for ourselves, in the situations of life that we cannot predict.   As Brennan Manning writes, “the most radical demand of Christian faith lies in summoning the courage to say yes to the present risenness of Jesus Christ.”

The promise of Easter has come.  The story has never ended.  It is up to us to leave the empty tomb and continue to seek the promise of the Risen Lord in the story in our lives.