Monthly Archives

August 2018

Choose This Day

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Choose This Day”

Rev. Art Ritter

August 26, 2018

Joshua 24:1-6, 14-18

Then Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel; and they presented themselves before God. And Joshua said to all the people, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Long ago your ancestors—Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor—lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods. Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan and made his offspring many. I gave him Isaac; and to Isaac I gave Jacob and Esau. I gave Esau the hill country of Seir to possess, but Jacob and his children went down to Egypt. Then I sent Moses and Aaron, and I plagued Egypt with what I did in its midst; and afterwards I brought you out. When I brought your ancestors out of Egypt, you came to the sea; and the Egyptians pursued your ancestors with chariots and horsemen to the Red Sea.

“Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” Then the people answered, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods; for it is the Lord our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed; and the Lord drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.”

 

There is an old story, perhaps the tale is even told in a cartoon, about a conversation between a hen and a hog.  The pair are standing outside a church following a worship service.  The minister has just provided the congregation with a sermon about helping the poor and the hungry.  The hen says, “I’ve got it.  We can help the poor and hungry by providing a ham and eggs breakfast.”  The hog answers, “Oh that works well for you.  For you, only means a contribution.  But for me, that’s a total commitment!”

A couple of weeks ago a woman stopped into the church.  Colleen Foster was the only one here to greet her.  Evidently the woman was interested in renting our Fellowship Hall and kitchen for a Saturday evening event.  Colleen correctly explained the procedure to her – that she would need to fill out a building use request which would then need approval by the Board of Trustees.  Colleen also told her that because she was not a member of the church, the rental fee would be a bit larger than it would be for members and that the church also might find it difficult to rent out the facility on a Saturday night before a Sunday worship service.  The woman responded, “How do you become a member of the church?”  As Colleen told me this story, I began to recall that I’ve had similar conversations with people interested in our building before.  Sometimes people see churches like private clubs and want to know what they have to do to start enjoying the benefits.  Colleen patiently said that she should start attending worship services, get to know the rest of the community of faith, become involved in a ministry project or two, and then make a decision based on how comfortable she felt.  The woman’s next question was, “How long does that take?”  Colleen told her that it usually took a few months and that the woman would probably also be interested in coming to a church information class.  This didn’t seem to register.  The woman’s final response was, “When can I join?  I am ready to join now.”  Colleen tried to turn down the ease of obligation level a couple notches again saying that the best thing to do was to come and worship with us on Sunday.  And so the woman left with the building request form in hand.  She seemed very committed, but perhaps more toward using the building than joining the church.  She seemed very committed, although her commitment was so glib and casual that it would be hard to trust it at all.

Commitment is kind of an old school thing.  Life today is more about choices and the opportunity to chart our own course at our own pace and in a manner that makes us feel good and promotes our own needs.  Perhaps commitment doesn’t seem as practical anymore is because there are more choices and we want the ability to pursue a certain direction today but then the freedom to change our minds and move in an entirely new path tomorrow.  Commitments are fine as long as they benefit us.  Commitments are acceptable as long as they work into our priorities and schedules.  We make commitments to areas in which we can measure our achievements and position ourselves for success.

Theologian Walter Bruggemann writes about some young friends who have a four year old son.  Recently the mother of the boy told Bruggemann that she was about to make a crucial commitment.  She had to get her son into the right kindergarten because if she didn’t, then he wouldn’t get into the right prep school and if he didn’t get into the right prep school than he wouldn’t get into Davidson College.  And if he didn’t go to school at Davidson he wouldn’t be connected to the bankers in Charlotte to be able to get the kind of job where he would make a lot of money.  Commitment these days is based on our choices and we are less loyal to commitment than we used to be.

We feel a lot of within the church as an institution.  People tend to choose a church as they would a dry cleaners or restaurant, like a consumer picking something that brings benefit to them rather than as a place to learn and grow and serve.  People want to participate in the activities of the community of faith but are more hesitant to make a commitment to volunteer to be a regular part of a ministry or a board if it infringes upon the rest of the lives.

On the other hand, commitments of faith are sometimes made too casually.  We don’t measure the cost of discipleship when we make decisions regarding things like church membership, stewardship, and baptism.  We fall prey to the idolatry of the false gods of culture and politics and personal success.  We take Jesus’ words seriously when they benefit us or agree with our beliefs.  We sacrifice faith for comfort and commitment for popularity.

In today’s Scripture reading from the book of Joshua, the leader of the people of Israel Joshua, has gathered the people together at Shechem, the very place where God promised Abraham land and many descendants.  Joshua is an old man, well advanced in years and he seems to have some concern about the future of his people.  He is worried about their commitment.  He seems to think that in the future they will be prone to make choices that will benefit themselves and not the way of God.  He is afraid that they will forget their covenant with God and their promise to be faithful in word and in deed.  He fears that sentimental and romantic pledges made in the heat of the moment won’t last when things get tough or more tempting choices come along.  Joshua wants them to reckon with the reality that it is easy to be tempted into idolatry and to recognize that a covenant with God is a serious commitment, not some frivolous choice that one can later ignore.

He calls the people to a type of covenant renewal ceremony, beginning with a recitation of God’s history with Israel.  One commentator states that Joshua’s words are akin to the famous recitation of the genealogy of Kunta Kinte in the television miniseries Roots.  It is kind of a grandfatherly speech.  He speaks of what God has done to bring them the promise, to lead them to and out of Egypt, to the Promised Land, and past every foe that might squelch the promise.  Now Joshua urges the people of Israel to reaffirm their covenant with God and to renew their commitment to serve God – as individuals and as a nation.  “Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that you ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord.  Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”

Choose this day whom you will serve.  While this question is part of an ancient narrative of the history of the people of Israel, its language and imagery provide the substance of the church’s and Christian’s discernment of how we are committed to the promise of God in the midst of competing allegiances of the world.  We may not worship a wooden idol or burn incense in front of a golden calf, but we do create other idols that demand our worship.  Do we revere God in the priorities and choices of our lives?  Do we serve God in our words and in our actions?  Do we forsake what God calls us to do and be when we give our affection to money, power, pride, ambition, or pleasure?  Do we profess belief and service but are all too ready to offer ourselves to gods too beautiful and enticing to pass up?  Talk about religion is easy and cheap.  Adhering to God’s intention in the midst of difficult choices and cultural pressure is yet another thing.

In his book Future Grace, John Piper defines covetousness as “desiring something so much that you lose your commitment in God.”  Covetousness is idolatry because it comes from a heart divided between two or more gods.  This is what Joshua was afraid would happen to the people of Israel.  This is what the ancient writers of Scripture knew would happen to all of us who enter into covenant with God.  We must have something more than God to make us complete.  We must find something more to elevate ourselves, something we can’t trust God to provide.  We find it easier to put our confidence in things and stuff rather than in the promise of faith.

High atop the Black Mountains of California is Dante’s View, an overlook with some of the best panoramic views in the world.  On a clear day, you can see both the lowest and highest points in the contiguous United States.  You can easily see Death Valley, around 282 feet below sea level.  Across the valley and barely visible in the distance is Mt. Whitney, at 14,496 feet above sea level.  You can choose to look and consider whichever view you wish.

And so to each generation of believers and to each of us as individuals comes the question, “Whom will you choose?”  The question of choice, commitment, covenant, and faith comes to each of us this and every day.

 

 

 

 

A Visit with Wisdom

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“A Visit with Wisdom

Rev. Art Ritter

August 19, 2018

Proverbs 9:1-6

Wisdom has built her house,
she has hewn her seven pillars.
She has slaughtered her animals, she has mixed her wine,
she has also set her table.
She has sent out her servant-girls, she calls
from the highest places in the town,
“You that are simple, turn in here!”
To those without sense she says,
“Come, eat of my bread
and drink of the wine I have mixed.
Lay aside immaturity, and live,
and walk in the way of insight.”

Ephesians 5:15-20

Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

 

An angel once appeared at a college faculty meeting and told the dean, sitting at the front of the conference table, that in return for her unselfish and exemplary behavior, God would reward her with a gift.   She would have her choice of infinite wealth, wisdom, or beauty.  Without hesitation, the dean selected the gift of infinite wisdom.  “Done!” said the angel, disappearing in a cloud of smoke and with a bolt of lightning.  After the angel departed, all heads turned to the dean, who sat quietly at the conference table, now with a faint halo of light around her head.  When her silence became uncomfortable, one of her colleagues sitting next to her leaned over and whispered, “You have to say something.”  The dean looked up and glanced at the faces around the table.  Then she uttered, “I should have taken the money.”

Wisdom is a popular subject in the tradition of Hebrew and Christian scripture.  The gift of wisdom is something that is attributed to a blessing from God.  The wise person is one who is faithful to God and can recognize God’s presence in the midst of life and respond with actions that respond to God’s intention.  The readings assigned to this week’s lectionary readings all seem to speak of the concept of wisdom.  I have included two of those readings for our reflection this morning.

The one reading assigned to this Sunday that we didn’t hear is the ancient story from the book of 1 Kings, in which Solomon, the son of David ascends to the throne as King of Israel.  He prays for wisdom in his duties and in a dream God appears to him and asks, “What shall I give you?”  Solomon responds, “an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil.”  Expressing admiration that Solomon did not ask for riches or a long life, or victory over all of his enemies, God promised to give him the wisdom that he requested.

We heard mention of wisdom from the book of Proverbs.  Wisdom is a common topic in these writing, usually personified in female form.  Wisdom is something present from the time of creation.  In the ninth chapter of Proverbs, Wisdom invited people into her house for a feast.  The feast is a reminder to us of the invitation we receive at The Lord’s Supper.  She sends her servant girls out saying, “You who are simple, come in here.  Eat of my bread and drink of my wine.  Lay aside immaturity and live and walk in the way of insight.”  Divine wisdom, according to the author of this Proverb, is a feast.  The food is delicious and healthy and it is rich yet never leaves one feeling too full.

Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus includes the other passage we heard this morning.  In this fifth chapter of the letter, Paul urges his readers to live wisely.  Wisdom for the apostle Paul is living a life that is consistent with our identity as those whom God has created in God’s own image.  Paul writes, “Live, not as unwise people, but as wise, making the most of the time.”  Wisdom is not so much an intellectual thing as a common sense thing.  Instead of being something mysterious to be sought from a mystic in a far-away place or a professor in an Ivy-covered hall, wisdom is something down-to-earth and practical.  Wisdom has to do with the stuff of everyday life and the faithful living of these days.

It is interesting that Paul’s words about wisdom speak of “careful” living.  We might think of being careful as being cautious, of being hesitant to try new things or place oneself in new situations.  But the word that Paul uses for “careful” could be more accurately translated as “care full” or kindhearted.  It means filled with compassion for the world and for others, seeking what God wants for neighbor and for the world.  Then Paul also writes, “make the most of your time.”  This isn’t an invitation to celebration or actions of excess.  From the Greek this could be translated, “redeem the time.”  Redemption was freeing something or someone from bondage so that they could be fruitful and productive.  A redemption of time would mean that we are supposed to claim our moments for God’s purposes.  Wisdom then, according to Paul, is always caring for others and always finding God’s purpose in your time, your choices, and your actions.  Wisdom is a meaningful way of life that has to be intentionally cultivated.  Paul concludes by saying that wisdom fills the person with God’s spirit, to cultivate God’s will.  Our response to that recognition is another sign of our wisdom:  rejoicing, giving thanks, and singing praise- recognizing the source of our blessings in all things.  Wisdom brings gratitude.

I don’t know of anyone who openly claims or embraces the idea that they are foolish.  Yet wisdom teaches us that one of the characteristics of the greatest fools is their incapacity to recognize their foolishness.  While perhaps every generation throughout history can point out moments in time where there has been a lack of wisdom and overflow of foolishness, our current day and time seems to present us with many clear examples.  It is easy to see foolishness in our culture, our politics, and even in our religious leaders.  I read a couple of articles this week, one from The Guardian and the other from Psychology Today that pointed out the rise of foolishness is especially evident in the increase of narcissism within our society.  We have become more selfish than selfless in our action.  Instead of being “care full” with our time we are more prone to use the time we have to draw attention to ourselves and to promote our own virtue.  Instead of “redeeming” time we are more interested in how the time can serve us.

Some commentators believe we live in an age of “digital narcissism,” a world of endless ostentation opportunities and unlimited bragging possibilities.  There seems to be a greater need for self- promotion.  Showing off has never been easier and in fact, arrogance is now celebrated by some as a virtue.  Is that really wisdom?  First there was reality television where attention was focused on the mundane lives of everyday people.  Those mundane lives then had to be upgraded, made even stranger and more spectacular to draw more attention and ratings.  Then came social media.  Tomas Chamarro Premuzic, professor of business psychology at University College in London writes that “it all begun with MySpace, a directory for wannebe pop stars and DJs.  Then came Facebook, the encyclopedia of common people.  YouTube gave everybody their own TV channel, Blogger and Tumblr made us all creative writers.  Twitter brought in tons of followers, Instagram made selfie the word of the year and LinkedIn gave us positive endorsements…We are now more connected than ever, but also less interested in other people, except when it comes to finding out what they think about us….Needless to say, most social media users are not narcissistic.  Yet, social media is to narcissists what crack is to crack addicts: the more narcissistic you are, the heavier your social media use is.”  Premuzic concludes, “The big problem with the rise of digital narcissism is that it puts enormous pressure on people to achieve unfeasible goals, without making them hungrier.”

As I was researching my sermon this week, I noticed that my son-in-law Max had commented on Twitter, that he had become fed up with Facebook because it has become a place for people to just talk about themselves.  Selfies are posted for compliments, some posts are made to receive notice and earn attention- to let others know that you live an important life, and many comments are made on other people’s posts which acknowledge the original post but then quickly turn the attention onto the commentator.  “I see you are having a tough day.  Let me tell you about my more difficult day.”  While I might not agree with the totality of these arguments, I have to agree that we have to try harder to find the care full ways of wisdom in a world that prizes self-love and self-promotion.  One definition of wisdom I found this week was that wisdom was the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you would have preferred to talk.

Evangelical preacher John Ortberg writes, “Ironically, the more obsessed we are with our selves, the more we neglect our souls.  All of our language reflects this.  If you’re empty, you need to fulfill yourself.  If you’re stressed, learn now to take care of yourself.  If you’re on a job interview, you have to believe in yourself.  If you’re at the tattoo parlor, you must learn to express yourself.  If someone dares to criticize you, you have to love yourself.  If you’re not getting your own way, you have to stand up for yourself.  What should you do on a date?  You ought to be yourself.”  Ortberg goes on to point out that to feed our souls, to find true wisdom, we need to empty ourselves of self and live instead for the sake of God and others.

There is a story from the Hebrew tradition, about a famous rabbi and his friends, who had spent an entire morning at manual labor, far from their village.  The work was difficult and dirty.  At lunchtime his friends brought a pail of water, so their teacher could wash his hands thoroughly, fulfilling the religious law.  To their surprise, the rabbi used only a few drops of water.  How could it be that their wise and pious teacher would avoid the command to wash his hands thoroughly before eating?  Cautiously, one of the students asked, “Rabbi, you used so little water.  It was not nearly enough to get your hands clean.”  Without a word, the rabbi pointed to a servant girl walking up the road from the well.  Across her shoulders was a yoke, with a heavy jar of water dangling from each end.  The rabbi then explained, “How could I do my washing at the expense of this poor girl?  The water I save may prevent one trip to the well for her.”  The friends and students then understood.  That- and not the narrow-minded observance of law- was truly the way of wisdom, the way of care filled living.

According to Scripture- this is the way of wisdom:  a life filled with God’s spirit, bearing fruit of that spirit, serving in the strength of that spirit, adopting attitudes inspired by that spirit.  It is a way of living that is not complex but simple; not self-centered and self-promoting but filled with empathy and caring for others; not using time for personal advantage but redeeming the time to be used for God’s purposes; and recognizing that the source of life’s blessing lie outside of us and expressing gratitude for what we have received, living life with praise and thanksgiving and compassion rather than suspicion and fear and hate.  Wisdom is not earned through knowledge and intelligence and position.  Wisdom is found by living a life that loves God and loves others.