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October 2018

The G.O.A.T.

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“The G.O.A.T.”

Rev. Art Ritter

October 21, 2018

 

Mark 10:35-45
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”
When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

 

In a famous sermon delivered over 50 years ago, perhaps the second most famous sermon he preached, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. talked about an alternative way of life, one devoted to service of others rather than personal success and achievement. The sermon was entitled, “The Drum Major Instinct.” Whenever I hear or read this sermon I remember a story of a young man’s experience being a drum major during the big homecoming parade at this school. The band was making their way down Main Street. The drum major was dressed in his spiffy, new uniform, controlling all of those who followed him, attracting the eye and admiration of each and every parade watcher. His adrenaline was flowing and his steps were extra high and effortless and he enjoyed this experience that he dreamed of- his moment in the sun. All the drum major could think about was how wonderful the band was, how wonderful the parade was, and how wonderful he was. Suddenly, about halfway through the parade, a voice called from the crowd. “Hey drum major! It looks like you’ve lost your band! The horrified drum major turned around to peek. Sure enough, his entire marching band was almost a block behind. He was so caught up in the moment of glory and in the enjoyment of his leadership that he forgot to keep track of everyone behind him.
Muhammad Ali was famous for shouting out the line, “I am the greatest!” When asked why he did this Ali once said, “I said that I was the greatest even before I knew I was. I figured that if I said it enough, I would convince the world that I really was the greatest.”

In May of 1991, Rickey Henderson ran his way into baseball’s record book by stealing third base and breaking Lou Brock’s record for most career stolen bases. The steal set off a five minute celebration for the sport’s new record holder. Henderson immediately pulled up the base from the ground, held it over his head and pumped his fist in celebration. Brock who was there watching, left the stands to come onto the field to congratulate Henderson. When finally given the microphone Henderson said this, “Lou Brock was a symbol of great base stealing. But today, I am the greatest of all time.”

There is nothing wrong with being great. If I were to ask each of you what you are great at doing, I am sure that you would be able to tell me at least one thing. Everyone is great at something. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be the very best you can be. But there is a difference between being great and have the need to be the greatest.

Karoline Lewis writes that “we lack a certain sense of self-reflective capacity to evaluate just how great we are. As a result, we should be suspicious of those who insist on their own greatness, who seem confident in their ability to adjudicate the criteria of greatness and apply it to themselves.” Lewis adds that we don’t have to look far these days to find leaders who regularly tout their tenures as the best ever, the greatest ever. Most of us regularly evaluate ourselves by the world’s standards of greatness, with categories that are usually yoked to wealth, control, status, influence, and power. Even within the church was measure ourselves by standards of greatness. When we speak of successful churches, we usually start talking about attendance or membership or money or programs or comments on the preaching. None of us it seems, in any of our endeavors, imagines themselves to be successful by being the least. No one wants to be recognized as the one with the least power, least influence, and least possessions.
There is an acronym that is going in popularity, first in the field of sports, then entertainment, and now I have seen it in politics and business. G.O.A.T. Greatest of all time. We want to be the G.O.A.T. We want to be the first to recognize and acknowledge and align ourselves with the G.O.A.T.

After a very successful ministry in Galilee, Jesus and his disciples were finally on their way to the big time in Jerusalem. There was talk that Jesus was the long awaited Messiah, perhaps the G.O.A.T. Certainly he was something special in God’s eyes. Yet for the third time on the trip, Jesus warned his disciples about the kind of reception they might experience in the Holy City. To their surprise, he didn’t speak of ticker tape parades or banquets, or awards, or appearances on late night television shows. He talked instead of suffering and sacrifice and service.

His disciples, giddy with the success of miracles and healing, and completely sold on Jesus being the G.O.A.T. of God, would not listen to such talk. Competition and empire building and ego-tripping were in the air as they walked along. James and John were particularly guilty. They argued about who would sit at the right and left hand of the G.O.A.T. in the Kingdom of God. They were debating about who had the best credentials. They were worried about which disciple Jesus liked best. Who was the greatest? Would any of them be the G.O.A.T. also? All of that cross talk of Jesus had not yet registered.

Upon hearing the conversation, Jesus sat the disciples down and began to lecture them. “Is it glory that you really want? Do you want to know how to be great? You will get there in a way that you do not expect. Glory will not come through success and power. It will be achieved through service and sacrifice. True greatness is God’s eyes comes when you are first concerned about the needs of others.

Alice McKenzie writes that the disciples from Mark’s gospel, from which we read today’s story, should be more accurately labeled as the “duh-ciples.” She says that they should have had their own reality show called “Stupid Disciple Tricks.” They never seem to get Jesus’ teachings. They defined greatness by the standards of the world and they seek to present themselves to others as the G.O.A.T. They lifted up a theology of glory. They saw themselves holding up the first place trophy. They demanded the best seats in the house. They sent the hungry people away. They ordered people bringing small children to Jesus to back off. They failed to understand what Jesus was saying. Knowing that they didn’t understand, they were afraid to ask. When asked by Jesus about what they were thinking, they fell silent. Their hearts were hardened. They seemed to operate with little faith.

Lamar Williamson Jr., in his commentary on the gospel of Mark, writes that these words of Jesus, spoken to his disciples, are a challenge to “our modern complacency and apathy.” Modern Christians tend to hear the gospel as a “no-risk” offer that helps us stay on the straight and narrow. Some follow the instruction of a so-called “prosperity gospel.” Others pick and choose the teachings of Scripture to support their own beliefs and behaviors and to help them judge the beliefs and behaviors of others. Williamson says that the teachings of Jesus are about more than just getting our lives together and certainly more than finding greatness. The gospel may be disruptive at times, requiring a “costly pouring out of one’s life for another, whether it be an aging parent, a difficult spouse, a special child, another member of the Christian fellowship who has unusual needs or any person whose situation elicits neighborly service at personal cost.” These words of Jesus about service and sacrifice speak of dying to oneself to bring true life. They define greatness in a way that challenges our worldview and even the values engrained deep within us. Yet we need to hear those words as if they were addressed directly to us. Will we follow all the way to Jerusalem, and the cross, and the rising again?

Richard Carl Hoefler tells of a time in a far off country where a king had twin sons. One was strong and handsome. The other was intelligent and wise. As the ruler grew old, everyone speculated about which son the king would choose as his successor, the strong son or the wise son. In the land, the sign of kingship was a royal ring. Just before the king died, he had a copy of the royal ring made and presented both rings to his twin sons. The chief advisors to the king asked him, “How shall we know which son wears the authentic royal ring?” The king answered, “You shall know because the chosen one will reveal his right to rule by his self-giving service to the people.”

Jesus said, “Whoever wishes to become great among us you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” As we consider our greatness as disciples, as followers of Jesus, as a church, as the body of Christ- let us humble ourselves and strengthen our desire to serve as Jesus taught. We are called to embody greatness as Jesus lived so that the world can witness the true meaning of greatness born from love.

A Retelling of “The Quiltmaker’s Gift” by Jeff Brumbeau and Gail deMarcken

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“A RETELLING OF ‘THE QUILTMAKER’S GIFT,’ By Jeff Brumbeau and Gail deMarcken”

Rev. Art Ritter
October 14, 2018

 

Mark 10:17-31
As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

Once upon a time there was a quiltmaker who kept her house on top of the blue, misty mountains. Even the oldest person in the village could not recall a time in which the quiltmaker was not up in her house sewing, day after day. She made the most beautiful quilts – with the blues from ocean, the white from the snow, the reds and oranges from the sunsets, and the greens and purples from the wildflowers. Most people believed that there was magic in her fingers as she sewed. Some climbed her mountain, hoping to buy one of the wonderful quilts. But the woman would not sell them. She said, “I will only give my quilts to those who are poor. They are not for the rich.” It was known that on a cold, dreary night, she would make her way into the village and find someone sleeping on the street. She would offer to that poor person a warm quilt, tuck them in, and then tiptoe away quietly.

At that same time there lived nearby a very powerful and greedy king. He liked nothing better than to receive presents. All of the gifts he got at Christmas and for his birthday were not enough so a law was passed that the king could celebrate two birthdays a year. But that still wasn’t enough. Even with all of his shiny and expensive presents, he still wasn’t happy. He heard about the woman who made such beautiful quilts and he decided that if only he could have one of the quilts he would be happy. He sent soldiers to the mountaintop to request the gift of a quilt. When she greeted the soldiers at the door, the quiltmaker thought for a moment and then said, “Make presents of everything you own. Then I will make a quilt for you. With each gift that you give, I’ll sew another piece. When at last all your things are gone, your quilt will be finished.”

The king was dismayed. He said, “Give away all my treasures? I don’t give things away. I take them!” He ordered his soldiers to take a beautiful quilt from the quiltmaker but as they rushed her a gust of wind carried the quilt away. The angry king had the quiltmaker arrested and chained her to a rock in the cave of a bear. He was hoping that she would be frightened into giving him a quilt. But the quiltmaker made the bear a soft pillow of pine needles and the bear unchained her and brought her a breakfast of berries and honey. The furious king then sent the quiltmaker to a tiny island, so small that she could barely stand on her tiptoes. Again he asked her for a quilt. Once again she said no. The king believed that she would soon get too tired to stand and that when she fell she would drown. So he left her alone on that tiny island. The quiltmaker noticed a tiny sparrow flying across the lake. A fierce cold wind was preventing it from making it to shore. She called to the sparrow and as he sat shivering on her shoulder, she made him a coat from the scraps of her colorful vest. Soon the sky darkened with the arrival of other sparrows. Thousands of them swooped down, lifted the quiltmaker in their beaks, and carried her safely to shore.

The selfish king could not sleep that night thinking about the quiltmaker all alone on that island. He went with his soldiers to set her free. But when they arrived they found her sitting on a tree limb making purple coats for all of the sparrows. “I give up,” he shouted. “What must I do for you to give me a quilt?” The woman replied, “As I told you – give away all of the things you own and I’ll sew a quilt for you. And with each gift that you give, I’ll add another piece to your quilt.”

“But I can’t do that!” said the king. “I love all of my wonderful, beautiful things.” The quiltmaker answered, “But if they don’t make you happy, what good are they?” The king sighed and thought about it for a terribly long time. Finally he muttered, “All right, if I must give away my treasures, then I must!”
He went to his castle looking for something he could bear to give away. He found only a marble which he gave to a boy. But the boy smiled so brightly the king returned for more things to give away. Eventually he brought out velvet coats which he gave to poor people. The people were so pleased they started a parade. But still the king was not happy. So he fetched a hundred waltzing Siamese cats and a dozen fish as clear as glass. He ordered his merry-go-round with real life horses to be brought out and the children began to ride and laugh. The king began to show the smallest of smiles. He looked around and saw the dancing and celebration around him. A child took his hand and asked him to join the dancing. Now the king really smiled and even laughed out loud. “How can this be?” he cried, “How can I feel so happy about giving my things away? Bring everything else out! Bring it out at once!

Meanwhile the quiltmaker kept her promise. She began to sew a special quilt for the king. With each gift he gave, she added a piece to the quilt. The king kept giving. Morning and noon and night, wagons with presents piled high left his palace and brought smiles around the world. And the quiltmaker worked, and piece by piece the king’s quilt grew more beautiful. One day a weary sparrow fell to her window sill and she knew that the quilt had to be complete. She took the quilt and went to find the king. When she finally found him, his royal clothes were in tatters and his toes stuck out of his boots. But his eyes were filled with joy and his laugh was wonderful. She showed him the quilt that she had made for him. “What is this?” cried the king. “As I promised you long ago,” the woman said. “When the day came that you, yourself were poor, only then would I give you a quilt.” The king laughed again. “But I am not poor. I may look poor but in truth my heart is full of blessing, filled with memories of the happiness I have given and received.” Nevertheless he took the gift of the quilt but only when the quiltmaker agreed to accept a gift from him. He brought out his throne. “It is really quite comfortable,” he said. “And just the thing for long days of sewing.”

And from that day on, the king often came to the quiltmaker’s house in the mountains. By day she sewed the most beautiful quilts she would not sell and at night the king took them down to the town where he searched out the poor and downtrodden, giving them away in happiness.

Little Children

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Little Children”

Rev. Art Ritter
October 7, 2018

 

Mark 10:13-16
People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

Pablo Picasso once said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist after he grows up.” Albert Einstein said, “The ordinary person could learn all the physics we will ever need to know if we could understand the mind of a three year old.” Walt Disney said, “That’s the trouble with the world, too many people grow up.” And child psychologist Jean Piaget wrote, “If you want to be creative, stay in part a child, with the creativity and invention that characterizes children before they are deformed by adult society.”

I found an article at Huffington Post Life this week written by Tara Stiles entitled, “10 Ways To Be a Kid Again.” The article spoke of how as adults we live too seriously, too set in our ways, too attached to our stuff, and too worried about how we are seen by others in the world. Stiles argues that kids can be our best teachers. They haven’t developed bad habits, defenses, and fears and we build up our whole lives. She then listed ten ways to bring refreshment and fun back into our lives.

1. Make a silly face at a stranger. Everyone loves silly faces.
2. Eat ice cream for dinner. Let go of responsibilities for one night.
3. Go to bed early. Give yourself a ridiculously early bedtime one night a week.
4. Hang out with your friends. Have planned play dates.
5. Color or draw something. Coloring brings back good memories.
6. Try to say the alphabet backwards.
7. Have a race. When walking with a friend, start a spontaneous race to the next corner.
8. Skip down the hallway at work.
9. Wear what you want. Come up with an interesting outfit one day a week.
10. Try a handstand and don’t worry about falling over.

In the 10th chapter of the gospel of Mark, people brought little children to Jesus in order that he might bless them. Jesus’ disciples were not pleased, believing that time spent with children was a waste of Jesus’ time. He then said to them, “Whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

Throughout the centuries, this teaching of Jesus has been used to explain that followers of Christ should have “faith like a child.” Generally this childlike faith is described as a simple conviction or a confidence that is ever trusting and without question or doubt. Perhaps if we use this explanation for childlike faith however we are not giving children enough credit.

Jesus did say that we should have faith like a child. Perhaps he wasn’t being sentimental, like some of the famous people I quoted earlier. Perhaps he was being quite realistic. Faith like a child is alive and strong. It is idealistic and innocent rather than cynical and negative. For children, faith is not hard work to prove yourself or an ability to look confident. Children don’t worry about faith, it just happens. Faith is an understanding that there are things you cannot do on your own and that there are powers upon which you can be reliant. For children, faith is something lived with hands wide open ready to help rather than with fists clenched ready to judge and condemn. For children, faith is something unburdened by preconceptions and prejudices, a simple trust at face value.

In Sojourners magazine, Evan Dolive tells about children figuring out things easily that most adults have trouble comprehending. Somehow his three year old daughter understands the notion of the Gospel at its basic level. One day when grocery shopping, she pointed at something quickly and said, “Daddy, I want one of those.” Evan turned expecting to see a candy display or toy with her favorite cartoon character on it. Instead she was pointing at a display of brown grocery bags that were filled with canned goods for the local homeless shelter. His daughter said, “I want to get one of those bags for the people who can’t buy things at the store.” It turned out that earlier in the week Evan’s wife had explained the meaning behind such bags to their daughter. And no matter how she learned about them, she wanted to catch their power and use it. She was acting on a faith that most adults don’t use. She didn’t ask how the people needed the food or how they got themselves into the situation of need. And neither did Jesus. She didn’t say too many people receive handouts and neither did Jesus. She didn’t care about who got the bags of food and neither did Jesus.

Theologian Frederick Buechner writes that people who are the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven are “people who like children, are so relatively unburdened by preconceptions that if somebody says there’s a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, they are perfectly willing to go take a look for themselves. Children are not necessarily better than other people. Like the child in ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes,’ they are just apt to be better at telling the difference between a phony and the real thing.”

We are taught by Jesus to have faith like a child. We are to seek faith that is more than words on a page. We ought to find a faith that is livelier than an old story told to us long ago. We are to be emboldened to hear the good news and to then step out and be the hands and feet and heart of Christ. A childlike faith is the recognition that we are reliant upon a God who loves and cares for each of us very much. It is the call to be the force for that God, confident that what we do and say will create the kind of world that God desires.