Monthly Archives

September 2018

Whose Side Are You On?

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Whose Side Are You On?”

Rev. Art Ritter

September 30, 2018

 

 

Mark 9:38-50

John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.

“For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

 

Linda Petracelli, a United Church of Christ minister, tells a tale about a little girl who attended a very strict Catholic school.  One day her teacher, Sister Mary Roberts Cecilia, preached a very important lesson about salvation to the classroom.  She told them that everyone, especially the Lutherans and the Episcopalians who worshipped down the street, everyone who was not Catholic was going to hell.  While many of the children were frightened, the little girl did not seem affected.  When she returned home from school that night, her mother greeted her with the usual end of school day question; “What are you thankful for today?”  Without hesitation the little girl answered, “I am thankful that Sister Mary Roberts Cecilia is not God!”

Last spring, as I was walking to my car to head home from the office, another car pulled up in the parking lot in front of me.  The gentleman inside lowered his window and introduced himself as a minister of a new church in this area.  He carried a flyer of a program that the church was hosting, something of which he was certain the members of my congregation would be interested.  I was not quite as excited at this attempt to minister to “my people” but I told him that I would at least put in on our bulletin board.  The gentleman then spoke about how he very excited about his ministry and about the prospects of the new church.  He said that we was glad his new church could do things the way Jesus intended, without having to worry about paying for a building or maintaining years of tradition.  Whether intentional or not he seemed to be saying that his new church was doing things the right way and that my old church was failing miserably.  I must admit that I felt a little angry at this apparent outsider who did not seem to have any authority or history making judgments about me and my church.  I hadn’t heard of his church.  I hadn’t seen him at any clergy meetings.  Where did he get off talking to me like that!

I recall the day my spouse got an invitation from a community college to take classes toward a degree in nutrition therapy.  She read the information and discovered the degree could be achieved in six months.  That is when the smoke started coming out of Laura’s ears.  To become a registered dietitian you see, Laura had to get a bachelor’s degree, serve an 11 month internship, pass a registration exam, pay an annual fee to the American Dietetic Association and spend a promised number of hours in annual education.  It peeved her to learn that someone else could claim a similar authority by taking a six month course at a community college.

I have a friend who is an ophthalmologist.  If you really want to get him going, try calling him an optometrist.  He will immediately go into a ten minute lecture on the specialized training and expertise which have awarded him the title of an ophthalmologist.

Perhaps it is just human nature to look down upon those who claim a certain authority without paying the price of experience or authenticity.  We might all be resentful of those who claim to be as legitimate as we are without first walking the path that brought us to where we are today.  As Hubert Humphrey once said, “Though everyone has the right to speak, not all have earned the same right to be taken seriously.”

Perhaps it is human nature to emphasize that we sets us apart as exclusive.  Carl Sandburg once said that “Exclusive” is the ugliest word in the English language.  Still, being an insider carries with it a great deal of pride and security.  We like belonging to groups and places and we enjoy the privileges that such belonging brings.  When threatened with loss or when feeling insecure- we circle the wagons around that which we know and trust.  When we are afraid we identify perceived enemies and we do what we can to resist them.   We find assurance in determining who is “in” and who is “out.”  It helps to support our ideas and our ways of thinking and being.  It helps to discount the hair-brained notions and even the existence of those who think and act differently than we do.  We have probably heard and seen too much of this kind of behavior from both sides in the current debate over political and national issues.

As illustrated in my opening story, organized religion is not without its desire to find strength in being exclusive.  Individual faiths define salvation and then document the narrow path that leads to God through their doors.  We use denominational titles and labels like “liberal” and “conservative” or “evangelical” and “progressive” to define who we are and who is on the outside of us in a place where we really don’t want to be.    We shake our heads at the practices of the so-called “megachurches,” saying they don’t do anything like a church should.  The new churches which reflect a different culture shake their heads at us wondering why we are so resistant to change.  As evidenced by my feelings with the clergy colleague in our parking lot, ministers are some of the worst at dividing and then choosing sides.  A few years ago I spent a summer attending worship services at other churches.  I had to fight the urge of being critical instead of simply observing to learn.  I had to throw out the initial feeling I had that these churches were doing worship wrong so I could admit they were simply doing things differently.

The Scripture lesson teaches us about drawing lines and choosing sides.  Jesus’ disciples were a little more than upset that day long ago.  Apparently some outsider, someone distant from the group, some fraud, had been healing people and claiming to do so in the name of Jesus the Christ.  “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”  Rather than recognizing any goodness or grace in what was being done, the disciples were angry because the healing was being done by someone else, someone different from them.  Who gave these people the right to heal?  They didn’t get their expertise at the feet of Jesus!  They were not eyewitnesses to his miracles!  They did not receive a personal call while fishing at the shore of the Sea of Galilee!

Jesus responded, “Don’t try to stop this person.  Let him continue to heal.  No one who performs a miracle in my name will be able to say evil things about me.  Whoever is not against us is for us.”

This was an important lesson for the disciples.  Their group was not to be exclusive.  This was an important lesson for the early church.  They were not to waste their time deciding who was “in” and who was “out.”  In order for the Kingdom of God to grow, margins needed to be increased and barriers needed to be broken down.  Through Jesus the Christ, God had come to embrace all believers- Jew and Gentile alike.

The gospel of Mark then includes this warning: do not put a stumbling block before one of the little ones who believe in me.”  Do not hinder those who might come to faith differently that you have.  Do not be as concerned about proving you are right, than you are about following the intention of God which calls you to reach out in love to others.

The story teaches a lesson to us today.  When we try to confine God’s presence and power to ourselves and our own way of thinking and acting, we simply distort the gospel message.  When we believe God acts only as we wish God to act, we diminish the power of God.  When we judge others by whether or not they are “one of us” and when we criticize the ideas of others simply because they are different than our own we limit the generous and joyous presence of God in the world.  Jesus taught that we cannot confine God to one people, one place, and one institution.  He challenged others to see God’s presence on the other side of the fence.  The assumption that only those “on our side” could do the work of God blinds us to the very presence of God in one another.

Jesus had a history of working through outsiders.  There was a Good Samaritan, a tax collector, a foreign woman at the well, and a religious persecutor on the road to Damascus.  Nothing hinders the work of God more than when we try to keep others out.  When we try to confine the truth of God to our own way of being, to our own worship, and to our own ideas of Scripture and theology- we have already let the presence of God slip through our hands.

 

Salami Slicing

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Salami Slicing”

Rev. Steve Schafer

September 23, 2018

 

 

Psalm 1

1Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers;

2but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night.

3They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper.

4The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away.

5Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;

6for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.

Philippians 4:1-9

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved. I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

 

I’ve always been impressed with people who go to church every Sunday. They get up in the morning, get dressed and head out into whatever weather there might be out there, while many of their neighbors are still in bed or sitting in their living rooms in their pajamas reading the newspaper over a cup of coffee and a sweet roll. You get to church and you see people you’ve come to love over the years. You sing a few hymns, join in a few prayers, listen to the announcements. You stand and you sit several times, you give your money generously (that neighbor sitting in his living room enjoying a quiet Sunday morning doesn’t understand any of it but especially your paying big bucks for the privilege). Then, at some point in the service, you sit quietly as a minister stands up at the pulpit and says virtually anything he or she wants to say. You didn’t choose the topic. You didn’t give any guidance on the theme of the morning. You didn’t even get a preview of what was going to be said so you could decide if it would be worth your time or not. There were no trailers of upcoming sermons last week…

I’ve always felt bad about that. But I’m pretty much a traditionalist, so I haven’t ever overturned the apple cart and done things much differently than anyone else – except for my sermon titles. I’ve always thought that, maybe, people come to church, take their seats and skim through the bulletin to see if there is anything new going on. It’s usually pretty much the same format week after week, isn’t it?  And there’s nothing wrong with that. We LOVE things to stay the same. Change makes us uncomfortable. If things were changed up every week most of us would find somewhere else to worship. We LIKE a hymn at the beginning and at benediction at the end and the offering somewhere in the middle. But the sermon title… If I can make it intriguing enough (“What in the world is he going to say about THAT? or “How is he going to tie that in with anything spiritual? or “This should be interesting…”)… If I can capture your attention with the title of a sermon, I’ve gotten off to a good start – at least in my thinking…

I see you’re all looking – except for those of you who saw it earlier and had those predictable reactions. Today’s sermon is titled, “Salami Slicing.” You’ve heard of this haven’t you? It’s a real thing. It has shown up in a few television shows and movies. It showed up, maybe for the first time, back in 1972 on the classic comedy, “Mash.” Some of you remember that show. You remember the little corporal, Radar O’Reilly? He decided that he was going to steal a jeep from the army. But can’t just steal a jeep. He had a plan. The way he was going to steal it was that he was going to mail home a jeep, one part at a time. One lug nut, one windshield wiper, one door handle, one gear shift. His thinking was that they would never miss it if he could steal just one little piece at a time.

Or – if you are a fan of the Superman movies – if you saw Superman 3, you may remember computer programmer, Gus Gorman, who was told, when he received his paycheck one day, that he had a half cent less in his paycheck because his salary, prorated over all the pay periods for the year, came to a certain dollar amount and 48 ½ cents. So they rounded it down half a cent.

Gus Gorman got this brilliant idea. He would create a computer program that would glean all the half cents from the salaries of everyone in the corporation and have a check written to himself for that amount. His first week he got a check for over $80,000. That came to be called “Salami Slicing.”

Who along us hasn’t watched “Shawshank Redemption?” It’s one of the greatest movies around. In it Tim Robbins, over a period of years digs through a wall, taking one pocketful of dirt at a time out into the yard to dispose of it. Doing that every day until, eventually he has tunneled himself all the way to freedom. It’s called “Salami Slicing.”

Look it up. It’s on Wikipedia.

For those of you who are numismatist – that’s a person who collects coins – you will probably know why there are ridges on the edges of coins. One reason is to keep people from counterfeiting. The other is to keep people from Salami Slicing. Back in the day, when coins were made of real silver and a one dollar coin was literally worth a dollar from the sliver in it, people would file off parts of the coin and still spend the coin as a dollar, keeping a little of the silver from each one. They’d melt all the filings and sell the silver. It’s called Salami Slicing. It is that amazing practice of taking little things or doing little things, over time, in order to experience larger consequences. Let me say that again (it really is on Wikipedia) – it’s the practice of doing a series of many small actions that, as an accumulated whole, produces a much larger consequences.

Now in our NT reading this morning, Paul, in writing to the Philippians, understands the negative power of Salami Slicing. Listen to chapter four: “My dear brothers and sisters, remain strong in the Lord. I love you and long for you. Dear friends, you are my joy and my crown. Here is what I’m asking Euodia and Syntyche to do. I’m asking them to work together in the Lord. That’s because they both belong to the Lord. … Here is what I ask you to do. Help these women get along.”

Now, you realize that the book of Philippians and most all of the New Testament ‘books’ are not actually books, don’t you? They are letters that Paul or John or Peter wrote to the churches with whom they had some kind of relationship. So imagine this: The word has spread that Paul, the founder of our church, has sent us a letter. He’s gone on to do some great things in other parts of the world and we are all intensely proud of him. EVERYONE goes to church that Sunday morning because ‘the letter’ is going to be read. So we sing a couple of hymns, we take the offering, we have some prayers and now, it’s time to hear from our saintly brother, Paul. One of the deacons stands up to read and a hush falls over the congregation. “Dear people of Meadowbrook Church, I truly love you. You are simply the best. Of all the churches I’ve founded, I consider you my crowning achievement.” This is good. There’s a smile on every face in the place. WE are Paul’s pride and joy. How cool is that?

Paul talks about Jesus’ servanthood, how he was in nature, God, but he didn’t take advantage of that fact… He talks about his own ‘learning to be content’ even in the midst of hardships and prison. He talks about us all being ‘citizens of heaven.’ ‘This is one of the best letters Paul has ever written,’ you think.

Imagine yourself, sitting about half way back, basking in Paul’s praise and pondering the depths of his thoughts and theology. You know this letter is going to be read in the church for the next thousand years – maybe two thousand… OUR church being praised throughout the centuries… then he takes a bit of an aside and says, “tell Euodia and Syntyche to stop fighting. Tell them they need to get along. All of you – help them.”

What’s it like to get called out in church? It would be like Pastor Ritter being away on a sabbatical or long vacation and sending his church a letter. “I really miss you all back there in Novi. I’m having a wonderful time of relaxation and seeing things and meeting people. I’ve been soaking up the sun and eating great food. Still, you are all the joy of my life and I long to get back to be with you. I know you’re all doing wonderful things to keep the church going while I’m away.” You even have brought in an excellent pulpit supply preacher… Then, in the middle of this wonderful, tender letter, he says, “I’ve heard that YOU and YOU (point) have been in a squabble. The rest of you – be the referees and stop them. Help them get along.”

How would that feel – getting called out, by name, in church?

Paul understands the negative impact of Salami Slicing. Euodia and Syntche were probably stunned. “Really? Did I just hear that right? Did Paul just call ME out in public? I didn’t think he even knew me…. And besides, it was no big deal. We were just disagreeing on the color of the new carpet for the sanctuary. Does it really matter? Is such a little thing worth putting into the Bible that will be read for the next two thousand years – OUR NAMES!”

Yes, it does – because Paul understands the negative power of Salami Slicing… how something that happens, little by little, over time, can create larger consequences.

I’ve been trying to take off a few pounds. Many of us are. But you know, it didn’t get there over night. I didn’t wake up one morning and suddenly discover that I don’t weigh what I did when I got married. It happened one Dorito at a time. It happened one bagel at a time – one candy bar at a time… It’s called Salami Slicing. …the accumulation of many small things to make me tip the scales at a higher number than I can imagine…

I did a funeral a while back and, as I met with the family, it was obvious that one of the brothers of the deceased and his sister didn’t like each other. It was cold in the room – icy. So I did my pastor thing and asked him what the problem was and he said, “She called me ‘second’ when mom died. She called one her friends first.” I was incredulous. I said, “Is that all this is about?” But when we dug a little deeper we discovered it was a long succession of little digs and jabs that had gone on over the years. Little things – inconsequential things – things that didn’t really mean anything. But they did. It’s called Salami Slicing.

Paul knows the negative power of doing little things over a long period of time and how it will, eventually, affect the whole.

But Paul also knows the positive power of Salami Slicing. So he says, “I want you to rejoice always. I want people to know your gentleness. I want you not to worry but to pray. I want you always to think about what is noble, think about what is right and pure. Think about what is lovely and worthy of respect. If you can find these things in another person, praise them – tell them what you see. If anything is excellent or worthy of praise, think about those kinds of things. So fill your mind, your heart, your life with so many tiny acts of kindness, so many small good thoughts, so many little good deeds, that there will be, in the end, tremendous consequences.

You see, that’s how life works. Little by little things can get worse – a lot worse OR little by little things can get better – tremendously better. It’s the power of Salami Slicing and it’s your choice.

Jesus did it. We tend to think Jesus changed people in an instant. He did sometimes. But if you read the gospels that’s not the way it happened in the lives of the people who were closest to him. It was little by little. It was little by little with Peter. “Peter, leave your net and follow me. No, you can’t walk on water yet – maybe some day. Today you need to stay in the boat. You need to feed my sheep. You need to walk with me for a while, step by step.”

Think of the most spiritual person you know. Have you ever wondered who their first Sunday School teacher was? You know, being that most spiritual of people didn’t happen over night. It happened with some faithful teacher telling him or her the story of David and Goliath when they were little – then of Moses and then of Jesus and his parables and his love. Week after week, year after year, one Sunday morning after the other, until those little tiny things made something of real significance. Little things week after week, time after time, faithfully showing Christ, until something significant came of it.

Have you ever thought of the little by little effect of the things you do – or don’t do – in the lives of others? That accumulation, for good or for ill, is nothing short of profound.

Back in 2008, there were some members of our congregation – Mt. Hope –  who were hurting financially. There wasn’t anyone in the congregation who could afford anything substantial to help them out. I felt helpless as their minister… Then I remembered the Salami Slicing concept and put benevolence envelopes in all the pews, suggesting that, if everyone could give just $1 each week, ALL OF US could do something substantial for those in need. So many gave a single dollar – it didn’t hurt them in the slightest – but it helped several make it through. One dollar didn’t help much, but a couple of hundred one dollars coming in each week most certainly can… Salami Slicing in the body of Christ.

Paul had no problem calling out two who were having a dispute. It may have seemed small, but he knew the small things add up and ultimately affect us all.

How might the church be different if, little by little we gave differently – if little by little we acted more charitably – if little by little we became more like Jesus? I’m not suggesting that we try to change the world. I’m just saying that, little by little, consistently done, the world WILL be changed.

Go out there and do half a dozen inconsequential kind things today – to your spouse or children or to the stranger at the check out counter. Then do the same tomorrow and the next day and the next – – and eventually you’ll be amazed at the power of those acts – those kindnesses – those words of encouragement or appreciation… not only in the world, but in yourself. The little things in our lives add up and they WILL change your world. They WILL change us.

 

Bearing the Cross

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Bearing the Cross”

Rev. Art Ritter

September 16, 2018

 

Mark 8:27-38

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

One of the treasures that stands on the bookshelf in my office is my Living Action Figure Jesus.  I have showed it off in a children’s sermon or two and I use the Living Action Figure Jesus at the beginning of each session of Confirmation classes.  I found the Living Action Figure Jesus in a store in Times Square.  Jesus was standing there quietly, between Superman and Spiderman and Iron Man.  There was only one Jesus left on the store shelf so I had to buy him!

Wiley Stephens tells of a large department stores that a few years ago tried marketing a doll in the form of the baby Jesus.  Perhaps the doll was advertised around Christmas time, thus marking the birth of the baby and also taking advantage of parents who were looking for presents for their children.  The ads for the doll said that the baby Jesus was “washable, cuddly, and unbreakable.”  Just how we imagine the baby Jesus to be, right?  And it was neatly packaged in straw, plastic, satin, and plastic.  To complete the packaging and to increase demand, the manufacturer added a biblical text to each box containing the baby Jesus.  To the department store executives, it seemed like a sure fire profit and a real winner.  But they were wrong.  It didn’t sell.  In a last ditch-effort to sell the existing inventory, one of the store managers put a huge sign in front of the display.  It read:  “Baby Jesus, marked down 50%.  Get him while you can!”  Clearly, such a Jesus, even at a reduced bargain price, proved not to be such a good investment.

In this morning’s Scripture lesson, the writer of Mark describes what can best be called the turning point of Jesus’ ministry.  Before this event, things were going well.  Certainly there were some disputes with the Pharisees and priests, but generally the crowds were fascinated by Jesus’ teaching, compelled by his preaching, and moved by his healings.  But after this event, things moved quickly in a different direction – toward Jerusalem, to betrayal and arrest, and to the cross.  In the 8th chapter of Mark, as Jesus and his disciples walked near the village of Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asked them, “Who do people say that I am?”  They answered, “Elijah, John the Baptist, or even one of the prophets.”  Those were pretty good characters with which to be compared!  Then Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I am?  Peter rose to the bait and answers, “You are the Messiah!”  An even better answer perhaps and Jesus must have been quite proud.

But then Jesus began to teach about the reality of what would be coming next.  He said, “I will suffer much and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the teachers of the Law.  I will be put to death, but three days later rise to life.”  These words must have stunned Peter and the rest of the disciples.  This plan did not seem to fit the path of a Messiah.  Peter rebuked Jesus but Jesus’ rebuke of Peter was even stronger, calling his disciple nothing less than the instrument of Satan.  And then Jesus filled in the job description of discipleship even more.  “Take up your cross and follow me.”  Self-denial, sacrifice, and following the example of Jesus would be the marks of the faithful follower.

My friend Robert Baggott from Community Church in Vero Beach FL writes that as followers of Jesus today, we need to consider how literally we interpret this text.  “If you want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  Do we take Jesus’ words about carrying a cross as an actual invitation?  Or are we more likely to understand the cross as a metaphor for the convictions we must hold as a faithful disciple of Christ.  Is the cross a piece of art that we place in front of our sanctuaries and building and wear around our necks as a symbol of faith that doesn’t necessarily require a life-changing choice or is the cross a cost that we must bear and suffer for in the face of a world and culture and powers that oppress?

Steve Garmas-Holmes writes that “the cross in Jesus’ day was not a logo or metaphor….The cross was an instrument of pain, shame, absolute loss, and death.  It was a real weapon:  the only way to, ‘take it up’ was to become its real victim.”  When Jesus picked up his cross, it meant he was going to his death.  It meant that the choices he was making to introduce the arrival of God’s Kingdom would put him in conflict with the power of the authority of the world.

Here in the gospel of Mark, Jesus tells his disciples that to follow him, they must also bear a cross.  In the time of the author of Mark, the same kind of fate that awaited Jesus was clearly possible for those who would choose to profess faith in him.  The government in Rome was persecuting Christians.  The Jewish leaders in Jerusalem were suspicious of this new band of Christ followers, fearful that they might be stirring up the wrath of the Roman legions.  Most of the early Christians who read Mark’s gospel were Jewish Christians.  Thus the decision to become a Christian set you apart from your family and your friends and your comfortable past associations.  Choosing to follow Jesus was a risky and dangerous thing.  Disciples were jailed and persecuted and killed.  Those who followed the one who carried a cross could find that they too were given a cross to bear.

But what about us, modern Christians who seek to follow Jesus the Christ and are told that in order to do so we must bear a cross.  What do we risk by living out our faith?  We know that there are places in the world today where Christians are persecuted for their beliefs.  We have read stories of faithful disciples in the Middle East or in Asia who have lost their lives for continuing to worship Jesus in a land where it is not a popular thing to do.  There has been some talk about Christians in our own country being persecuted for their beliefs, for taking a stand on social issues based on faith.  Yet in my 60 plus years of being a Christian and 33 years of ordained ministry I can’t recall a single moment of feeling persecuted for my faith.  Perhaps that says something about my lack of courage in my convictions but I believe it is a safe assumption to say that we do not face the actual physical threat of the cross as our ancestors of faith.

As Christians today, I believe we need to see Jesus’ invitation to bear a cross in a different way.  Ben Witherington III writes that saying “we all have crosses to bear” is a great perversion of Jesus’ call to “take up our cross.”  Taking up a cross does not refer to putting up with arthritis, tolerating your annoying in-laws, or surviving an accident or health scare.  All of these things may come into our life and may require great faith to navigate but they have no direct connection with taking up a cross.  The hard way for Jesus is not about self-inflicted pain, senseless martyrdom, or even normal human trial.

Theologian Henri Nouwen once spoke about the difficult choices made in bearing the cross of Jesus in life.  He said, “Everything in me wants to move upward.  Downward mobility with Jesus goes radically against my inclinations, against the advice of the world surrounding me, and against the culture of which I am a part.”  That is the cross we bear, a cross that separates us from the ways of the world; a cross that has a cost in the eyes of the world.

I believe that for modern disciples, bearing a cross is nothing less than realigning your life toward God’s perspective.  The cost of discipleship for most of us will not include torture, beatings, or execution.  But the teachings of Jesus and the faithful examples of others make something of a mockery of the idea that the gospel is about health and wealth and happiness.    It means dying to self so that we all can live in harmony with one another.  It means letting go of our quest for more security, more power, more possession, and more knowledge.  The self that is to be denied, to be hung on the cross is the self that seeks to control and dominate others; to judge others according to our own selfish standards; to use others for our own end; and to advance our own interests at the expense of others.  Bearing a cross is not just any kind of suffering.  Taking up a cross is suffering for God’s intention in the world, a death of something important in our life that needs to die for something else more gracious and good to live, a commitment of one’s self to something greater than one’s individual needs.

Rudyard Kipling once gave an address to the graduating class of the medical school at McGill University in Montreal.  Kipling said, “You will go out from here and very likely you will make a lot of money.  One day you will meet someone for whom that means very little, and then you’ll know how poor you are.”

The measure is not only in wealth but in all of the things that normally measure success through self-achievement.  Jesus said, “Deny yourself.  Take up your cross.  Follow me.”  Everything about bearing a cross seems so difficult because it carries a cost and separates us from the rest of the world.  But that is the point that Jesus wanted to make.  He promised that in our frantic desire to save our own lives, to build our own security, to insure our own success- we would lose our lives.  And he promised that if we would dare throw away our lives with him, to offer of what we have to others, to take upon ourselves the burdens of others- then we would find the true source of life.  Jesus taught the point of following him was not simply to listen and to live comfortably.  Bearing a cross is living a life against the grain.

 

Crumbs For the Dogs

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Crumbs For the Dogs”

Rev. Art Ritter

September 9, 2018

 

Mark 7:24-37

From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

 

In his poem “Mending Wall,” Robert Frost writes about the various walls we build in life.  “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall” Frost comments as he watches his neighbor put up another stone upon the wall that separates their New England farm properties.  While Frost comments that the wall isn’t really necessary and that his apple trees will never cross the line and devour all of the neighbor’s pine trees, the neighbor only says, “Good fences make good neighbors.”  Frost then ponders, “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know what I was walling in or walling out, and to whom I was like to give offense.”

The Scripture lesson from Mark that we heard this morning is one of the most challenging passages in all of the Bible.  I hope that you were listening closely.  Jesus was traveling the region of Tyre, a land filled with pagans and no established religious authorities or temples.  Jesus’ disciples probably were concerned about being there and not doing what they were supposed to be doing: preaching and teaching among the Jews.  Mark writes that Jesus entered a house and did not want anyone to know that he was there.  Suddenly a Gentile woman, a Canaanite, an outsider appeared.  Her daughter was infested with demons and she bowed down at Jesus’ feet and begged him to cast the demons out.

What makes this passage so difficult is Jesus’ response.  He comes off as rude, if not worse.  “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  Did he really call her a dog?  To our ears, that sounds very harsh, even cruel.  While we might think of dogs are soft and cuddly and cute, to be called a dog in Jesus’ day and age was about a low of an insult as there could be.  Jesus’ words seem terrible vile.  But to the faithful of that day, Jesus’ response was not out of the ordinary.  Virtuous women did not approach male strangers and speak to them.  Gentile women were especially to be ignored because they were of an unclean race.  Religious teachers were supposed to only teach the Jews.  There was probably no rabbi alive who would have even spoken to this woman.  Yet Jesus did, albeit in a rather demeaning way.

The woman was so desperate to help her daughter that she had a quick response.  “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”  Upon hearing that statement, Jesus was moved by the woman’s faith and he told the woman that her daughter was healed and when she returned home she found the daughter well and embraced her.  The demons had disappeared.

For centuries commentators have tried to explain away Jesus’ words to this woman.  Some believe that Jesus was merely toying with the woman, testing her faith to see how far she would go in believing in his power of healing.  Others think that Jesus was using the prejudices of his day to teach a lesson to the crowd.  His unkind words were sarcasm at its best.

I prefer an interpretation that puts Jesus into my human situation.  He was being tested here.  He was being tempted, just like in the wilderness, about his own limitations and his own prejudices and how he would be faithful to God’s command in those difficult situations.  Jesus reached beyond his level of comfort.  He opened his mind to new understanding.  He acted with the belief that God was always creating new possibilities and new potential.  He began to take seriously the words he preached when he said that all people are equally deserving in the eyes of God.

All of us draw lines, or build walls if you will.  We place limits on what we can do and who we can help.  We are fearful of others who are not quite like us and even wonder if our neighbor is up to no good.  We make unconscious judgements each day about who deserves our help, our kindness, our attention, and even God’s favor.  It is easy for us to grow complacent about how we treat the stranger and those who are different from us.  The good news is that Jesus fought through his complacency and saw God’s presence in this outsider, this woman who he compared to a dog.  He understood that all creatures deserve even the crumbs of the divine.

Silverius Galvan writes about an old Native American farmer who neighbor’s dogs were always killing his sheep.  It got so bad that he knew he had to do something.  As he saw it, he had three options.  He could bring a lawsuit and take his neighbor to court.  He could build a bigger and stronger fence so his neighbor’s dogs could not enter his property.  And he discovered a third option.  He gave two of his lambs to his neighbor’s children.  In due time, the lambs grew into sheep and had other sheep and then the neighbor and his children got to know sheep not as an impersonal property of someone else, but as something warm and fuzzy and personal- with traits and history and names.  They soon penned in their own dogs.

Unless you live and eat and sleep with sheep, almost like one of them, then they will never be unique.  They will all look alike.  It is the same with us.  Unless we get to know others as persons, as individuals with problems and concerns of life, then they will be just members of a certain group.  They will look like everyone else in the crowd.  And we can treat them in a manner that is calculated and distant and uncaring.  Yet on that day long ago. Jesus recognized God’s call to see the unique nature and faith of one person, to eliminate his clear and easy lines of perception, and to change how he thought and what he did.

Nadia Bolz Weber was once told that every time we draw a line between us and others, Jesus is always on the other side of the line.  On that day with the outsider, the Canaanite women, Jesus saw through his own human tendency to divide and judge and opened himself up to God’s tendencies of grace and mercy.

Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Let go!  Step out!  Look a Canaanite in the eye, knock on a stranger’s door, ask an outsider what his life is like, trespass an old boundary, enter a new relationship, push a limit, take a risk, give up playing it safe!  You have nothing to lose but your life the way it has been…with Jesus as our model and our Lord, we are called to step over the lines we have drawn for ourselves, not because we have to, and not because we ought to, or even because we want to, but because we know that it is God’s own self who waits for us on the other side.”

 

Holier Than Thou

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Holier Than Thou”

Rev. Art Ritter

September 2, 2018

 

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,

‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’

You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”

For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

 

Laura and I are planning our winter vacation trip to Vero Beach, FL.  It has become an annual event.  We have spent time at the Disney Vacation Club there for the past seven years.  We have occasionally thought about going somewhere else but we now know the place so well and find the environment so relaxing that we are not prone to make a change without good reason.

While we are on vacation there, we fall into a routine, a routine that perhaps others would not find so enjoyable.  But we love it! We get out of bed in the morning, grab a quick and light breakfast and head to the exercise room for a workout.  Following the workout we change clothes and go for a powerwalk on the beach.  The walk is relaxing but not at a relaxing pace.  We challenge ourselves, trying to go just a bit further each and every day, walking one way for at least an hour and then returning home.  After our walk we have lunch and then change clothes again for a couple of hours at poolside.  This is the time for relaxation and reading and perhaps a cold beverage.  Late in the afternoon we take another short walk, perhaps around the grounds or on the beach, this time a more leisurely stroll, listening to the sound of the water or noticing the color of the flowers.  Then it is time for dinner and evening entertainment at the resort.

We didn’t actually plan this to be a routine.  Perhaps it is some of my regimented personality rubbing off on Laura.  It just kind of happened.  The routine has become a habit that we really don’t want to break.  It is amazing to think that we can so easily fall into such a pattern.  Sometimes I worry a bit that doing the same thing over and over again might be taking away from the excitement of new adventures and the learning that comes from new experiences.  Yet I suppose that we are all creatures of habit, easily becoming accustomed to doing things the consistent and comfortable way.

I think we do the same thing in church.  During the past couple of weeks I have been reviewing the church calendar with Abbie Holden, our office manager; and with Colleen Foster and Marcus Peterson; and with Advisory and Trustees and Deacons.  We have learned to count on the comfortable predictability of doing certain things at a certain time each year.  It is a safe way of planning and it keeps you organized.  You place events on specific dates and you become hesitant to see them change.  It worked well once or twice so we need to keep doing it at the same time and in the same manner.  Things become a tradition without you intending them to be.  I believe that is true of other things in the church.  The order of worship.  The setup of Fellowship Hour.  The color of paint on the walls.  The hymns and choral music.  The temperature at which the thermostat is set.  The places where people sit in worship.  The times of meetings.  The way we serve The Lord’s Supper and take up an offering.  Mickey Anders writes that most churches take these routine things and raise them to the standard of a sacred tradition.

There is an old story joke about how many Congregationalists it takes to change a light bulb?  The answer is, “Change?  Change?  My grandfather donated that light bulb?”  We love our traditions.

As one who values routine, I tend to cherish tradition.  Tradition connects us to the past and honors that which has gone before.  In the musical Fiddler on the Roof, the character Tevya sings the song “Tradition,” remarking that our tradition tells us who God is and who we are.”  That is indeed the positive aspect of routine and tradition – when it is a practice that continues to point to the greater reality which is behind it.

In the Scripture lesson from the gospel of Mark, the Pharisees and Jesus are having a difference of opinion in regard to tradition.  The Pharisees were upset that Jesus and his disciples did not wash their hands correctly before they ate.  They did not do it in the ritually correct way.  While we believe in hygiene and cleanliness, we might find such ritual hand washing to be a bit silly and unnecessary.  But the ritual had some meaning for the Hebrew people and was an important connection to the past.  It was a way of sanctifying and blessing the ordinary act of eating.  By not washing their hands correctly, the Pharisees believed that Jesus and his disciples had sinned.

From our backward glance at Biblical history, we have labeled the Pharisees as somewhat bad people.  They were always giving Jesus a hard time about his interpretation of the law and seemed to be setting legalistic traps for him.  They had this “holier than thou” kind of attitude that often offends us.  Yet the Pharisees were perfectly sincere in what they were doing.  The laws they followed and the rituals they observed were designed to add a religious dimension to everything they did.  The problem was that they had forgotten to remember the religious dimension.  Their system of ritual and legal performance had grown so strict that it had taken control of them.  Everything they did hinged on the concern that they might be breaking a law or that they might not appear holy and distinct.  They became afraid that if they failed to follow a law or if they allowed others to break a law – if the tradition they believed in would somehow be broken, then their entire faith would die out.  They became fearful of change and of others in a world that was changing rapidly around them.  Jesus pointed out that while they remained clean on the outside, their fearful suspicion of anything that ran counter to their established routine kept them unclean on the inside.  He saw through their dead tradition.  He condemned tradition that became more important than the things they represented. Their “holier than thou” attitude prevented them from embracing God’s holiness.

I remember a woman from the first church I served in Toulon, Illinois.  She was truly a keeper of tradition, a member of the Board of Deacons and Sunday School committee.  It was her task it seemed to make certain that everyone, including the minister, did thing the correct way, the way it had been done before.  The woman designed and constructed the church’s Advent wreath and took great pride in making certain it was in its proper place on the altar and was used in the proper way.  One year, on the first Sunday in the season of Advent, I asked a young family to light the candle of Hope on the Advent wreath.  The family was quite new to town and very new to the church and included a little girl, about five years old, who was pretty excited that she was going to be allowed to handle an acolyte’s wand and light a candle.  I had mailed the family the appropriate reading and had met with them before worship to discuss which candle to light.  When the time came for the little girl to light the first Advent candle, excitement might have overcome her.  She lit the candle that was supposed to be lighted the second week of Advent.  While probably half of the church didn’t realize the mistake, the woman in charge of church ritual and the Advent wreath certainly did.  She let out an audible gasp that could be heard for miles.  It was almost as if a Pharisee were yelling “Unclean, unclean.”  While I tried to laugh off the situation, the family was embarrassing and hurt.  Despite the efforts of many people to encourage them, after that day they did not return to our church.

As Jesus challenged the Pharisees, so Jesus’ words challenge us as to how our rituals, our traditions, our acceptable ways of believing might actually prevent us from finding the holiness of God.  Sometimes we busy ourselves so much with practice and labor that we lose touch with God’s heart.  Perhaps we are so comfortable in what we do and what we believe that we spend more time judging the wrong actions and beliefs of others instead of seeking a greater faith relationship ourselves.  Does our participation in meaningless routine mask our inward disposition to God?  Where in the church are we so busy that we have lost the sense of the sacred?  What habits and routines have become more than tradition, instead used now as a marker of right and wrong, a force of stability that minimizes change and the opportunity of the Holy Spirit?  Have our practices become more important that our mission?  Where in our lives has our faith with God become so secure that our own beliefs cannot be challenged?  Are the things that we do, the standards that we use to measure success, and the opinions we hold about events happening around us – are they a part of us simply because they have always been that way?  What routines and traditions have worn you down so much that they have desensitized you to the very heart of God?

The good news today is that our God is more concerned about who we are on the inside than the routine and traditions we observe.  God hears prayers that are shouted and silent, prayed standing up or sitting down or standing upon one’s head.  God delights in our worship no matter what room we worship in, what instrument is being played, what song is sung or what clothes we are wearing.  God understands our heart, no matter how dirty our hands are.  Our God is a God of new wineskins, of new things and possibilities that break through the comfort of conformity.  When God moves in our midst, we have to be changed and we cannot remain the same.  God wants to do a new thing and we need to be open to it.  We must listen and respond to the word of God for this new day.