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March 2019

Prodigals

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Prodigals”

Rev. Art Ritter

March 31, 2019

 

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”

 

It may seem rather early, but this week the first Christmas resource catalog arrived in my mailbox!  I certainly don’t want to start planning for Christmas until at least after Easter.  Like most people, I suppose, just thinking about Christmas brings back some incredibly pleasant childhood memories and some regret that many of those former memories cannot be recreated or repeated.

When I was growing up, my parents did their very best to give my brother and sister and me a wonderful Christmas.  They sacrificed so that we could have the latest and greatest toys and clothing items.  They stayed up late putting together stuff so that it was ready to be used when we came down the stairs on Christmas morning.

I also remember that we had some family friends who had children about the same age as my sister and me.  One year this family brought presents for me and my siblings.  My mother and father then felt obligated to return the favor and so they purchased a present for each of our friends’ two children.  Thus began a weird kind of Christmas present arms race!  Every year the presents that my brother and sister and I received from this family were bigger and better.  And every year the pressure was on my parents, financially and creatively, to come up with something to give to my friends’ children.  The problem was made greater in that the family owned a local store which sold all of the toys in my hometown.  They were able to get their hands on the latest dolls or sports equipment.  Sometimes we were able to receive the toys that other children in town could only wish for.  One year my brother and I got World War II noise making toy machine guns, complete with camouflage.  I know my parents would never have purchased those for us.  I shudder to think that I actually enjoying using a toy like that.

Yet I recall looking forward to receiving these incredible presents.  But more importantly, looking back I understand the difficult position it placed my mom and dad.  They could not keep up with such generosity.  They did not have the resources to supply such grace.  It was an impossible task.

The Scripture lesson this morning is one of the most known stories in the entire Bible – the parable of the Prodigal Son.  Ralph Waldo Emerson called it the greatest story ever written – within the Bible and outside of it.  That’s quite a compliment!  Charles Dickens agreed.  He called the parable of the Prodigal Son the best short story in the English language.

I was telling Laura this week that when it comes to preaching about the Prodigal Son, I have perhaps exhausted my creativity.  I have preached it from the perspective of the young son, of the older son, and from the father’s point of view.  A colleague suggested that perhaps we could look at the pigs’ perspective or even explore how the fatted calf felt about things.  But when talking about this parable, I think we should resist the temptation to get too cute or to find a secret hidden message.  Calvin Seminary professor Scott Hoezee writes that this parable is like your Grandmother’s classic recipe for chocolate chip cookies: “at some point you might try to tweak the recipe to freshen it up a bit.  White chocolate chips might be fun, or maybe some cinnamon in the dough.  But when your children bite into the cookie they usually end up saying, ‘Why did you mess with it?  We like the old way better!’”

The parable in the gospel of Luke is really two stories in one.  The first story focuses on the younger son.  He decides that he has had enough of his life as he knows it.  He asks for his father to give him his share of the property immediately.  He then goes off to a far country and wastes his inheritance on wine, women, and song.  After his money is gone, and after a famine comes upon the land, the younger son takes a job feeding pigs.  He soon comes to realize that even his father’s hired hands back home have life better than he does.  So he makes plans to return home, to confess his sins, and to see what kind of meager reception his father might offer.

The second story is about the older son.  While his younger brother enjoyed the good life, this boy kept his nose to the grindstone.  He was out doing his job, working in the fields when his snotty-nosed sibling returned.  Actually he didn’t see what was happening, he heard it- he heard the music and the dancing.  When a servant told him that his father had pulled out all the stops to celebrate the return of his younger brother, the older son refused to join the party.  When his father came out to plead for his to join the celebration he said, “All these years I have been working like a slave and yet you never have given a party for me.  Now this son of yours who wasted your mercy returns and you kill the fatted calf for him.”  And this story ends with the older brother still out in the field, apparently eternally resentful of his father’s hospitality and goodness.

Both stories have one thing in common. The mercy of the father.  It is the father who is the protagonist in both of the stories.  It is the father who lavishes grace and mercy and love on an undeserving child.  It is the father who seeks to restore a lost relationship and insure a good future.  It is the father who give and give in ways that we can’t match and perhaps even understand.  It is the father who is really the focus of the story.

The Prodigal Son.  Words are important.  Titles are important.  They can be the difference to how we view or understand something.  I read this week where the original name of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film Psycho was “Wimpy.”  Wouldn’t that changed how we view the movie!  The movie Titanic was once called “The Ship of Dreams” and Casablanca was first called “Everybody Comes to Rick’s.”  These titles just don’t have the same zip or the same appeal.  They don’t speak of what we know to be the content or memorable image of the movie.

The same may be true of the parable of the Prodigal Son.  Prodigal.  We usually only hear that word used when we read this parable.  Because of this story we may think that we know what the word prodigal means.  Perhaps like me, many of you have always thought that prodigal meant one who goes away for a while and then returns home.  But that’s not who a prodigal is.  If you take your dictionary off the shelf or use the review option at the top of your Word page you will discover that prodigal means “wastefully or recklessly extravagant” or “giving or yielding profusely.”  A prodigal is a person who spends or has spent his or her money or substance with wasteful extravagance.  I suppose after hearing that definition, the title of the parable of the Prodigal Son would still fit because the younger son was wasteful and recklessly extravagant with his inheritance.  Yet perhaps it is the father who is the most prodigal character of all in the story.  He is the one who gives of his love and grace with reckless abandon.  He is the one who never stops giving and loving.  He is the one whose compassion leaves us scratching our heads and challenging our rational perceptions.

David Lose writes “one of the things that strikes me in this story is the absolute foolishness of this father.  In response to his son’s remarkably offensive request- asking for an inheritance ahead of time is akin to wishing your parents were dead- this father goes ahead and gives it to him.  Given that wealth is tied up in land, this isn’t about going to the bank but rather selling off tracts of real estate, herds, and more.  And then, when his son has wasted all this away, he runs- something no self-respecting landowner would do- to meet this son, cuts off his lame apology, and restores him to his place in the family.”  “Trust me,” Lose continues, “every single listener in Jesus’ audience would have known that this kind of thing never happens, at least not in this world.  Which is precisely the point of the parable.  Jesus is introducing people to the relational logic of the kingdom of God that runs contrary to and way beyond the legal logic of the world.”  God’s love is more abundant, more extravagant, more recklessly given that we could ever imagine.

As we reflect in the midst of the Lenten season, let us consider our lives and how we have fallen short of God’s intention.  We are more likely to be as the younger son, wasting our lives for our own pleasure, seeking what we deem we deserve when it suits us.  We are more likely to be the older son, judging the behavior of others according to our own standards, refusing to forgive or to reach out in love until we believe that someone has adequately repented or has paid for their sins.  But let us remember that God is the prodigal father, who refuses to give us the love we deserve, but instead gives us always the love we need.  Let us consider that God waits patiently for lost children to return.  When God sees us from a long way off, God runs to welcome us.  Let us rejoice in the God who looks around the party and feels our absence, who then leaves the party, spends time with us, extends to us another invitation, and then waits patiently for our response.

The prodigal.  A God who loves us extravagantly and wastefully.  A God who gives to us love and mercy beyond our deserving.  The prodigal.  A God who calls us to do likewise, the best we can, with those with whom we share our lives and our world.

 

Growing Hope

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Growing Hope

Rev. Art Ritter

March 24, 2019

 

Luke 13:1-9

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

 

I pride myself on making excellent homemade chicken noodle soup.  My noodles are actually like dumplings- light and chewy and delicious, simmered with the taste of the soup.  I learned how to make the noodles not from any book or website, but just from watching my mother make soup many years ago.  I watched her crack the eggs, put in the flour, spread the mixture out on even more flour, roll it out to just the right thickness, cut the noodles into strips, and then place them lovingly into the gently boiling soup pot.  One thing I noticed was that after the noodles were cooked, my mother turned off the heat, put a lid on the pot, and then told everyone that the soup had to sit undisturbed for ten minutes.  So when I began to make this soup for Maren and Amelia, I always told them not to disturb the pot during those ten minutes or there would be a terrible catastrophe.

A couple of months ago I was telling my sister that I loved to make chicken noodle soup with our mother’s recipe.  She asked how I did it, thinking perhaps that she would give the recipe a try.  When I related to her the final detail, the instruction about putting a lid on the pot and not touching it for ten minutes, my sister starting laughing.  “You know why Mom said always said that, don’t you?”  “No,” I replied naively.  “Mom just wanted to keep people out of the food before dinner.  We didn’t want you sampling the noodles before we all ate together.”  I was stunned!  After all those years, suddenly a loving detail of my recipe was exposed as a tool of my clever but manipulative mother.

Pastor Joseph Evans writes that, “you have to be careful with people.  If they don’t know the answer, they may well just make something up….  Sometimes we make up what we need to hear in the moment- and whether what we make up is the truth or not may not matter- because what we make up may be more comforting than the truth”

Evans tells the story of how he was with a group on a mission trip to Haiti.  They were flying from one side of the island to another in a small propeller plane steered by a Cuban pilot.  The turbulence was horrible and once the plane landed the passengers were all thankful to finally be on mother earth again.  While unloading the baggage, one member of the group said to another member, “I wasn’t worried.  Our pastor had his head bowed in prayer the whole flight.”  Evans said that he was glad that this church member that saw him with head bowed thought he was praying during the flight.  In reality he had his head down because he thought that was the only way he could keep from throwing up.

There was some of that explaining and rationalizing going on in the Scripture lesson this morning.  There was a group of people gathered around Jesus, taking about a tragedy, the same kind of senseless bloodshed that we experience all too often today.  It seems that Pilate had killed a group of Galileans, apparently while they were worshipping, because their blood then was intermingled with the blood of the sacrifices.  This sounds too much line the headlines of our own day.  It was an awful thing, people murdered and then defiled in death.  People wondered, in the logic of those times, what had those people done to deserve such a punishment?  How could they prevent the same thing from happening to them?  Jesus asked the crowd, “Do you think their suffering means they were worse sinners than anyone else?”

Jesus then reminded them about another terrible contemporary situation.  A tower at Siloam had fallen, killing eighteen people.  The tower was in a remnant of the old Temple, a place where people who protested the rule of Rome often worshipped, in opposition to the new Temple where Pilate and Herod controlled the priests.  People also blamed Pilate for these deaths.  Jesus asked, “Do you think they were worse than all the others in Jerusalem?”

Such is the power of evil.  When tragedy strikes, we quickly become afraid.  We get intimated by the power of the Pilates of the world and by power of their hate.  We know that such power is evil and that God’s power is divine and good, yet we are more easily impressed and shaken and moved by the stark and horrible grip of evil.  We are terrified into thinking that we live in a world on the verge of collapse and we develop a fear about tomorrow.

While we may not use the conventional wisdom of Jesus’ time, believing that those innocent people died because of their sin, perhaps we use our own conventional wisdom.  We search for reasons why such tragedy happens.  We try to find blame.  It is someone else’s fault.  Perhaps we believe it is still God’s judgment served.  There are voices that tell us we’ve turned away from God.  There’s no prayer in school.  Our nation is corrupt.  Things have gotten so bad that surely we are the edge of total collapse as a society.   There are other voices telling us that there are too many guns.  Our children play too many violent video games.  We condone or even worship violence.  Some may even believe that God no longer cares what happens to us or that God is no longer active in our world.

There may be logic to some of our thinking and I would not advocate that we stop trying to find solutions to end acts of hate and terror.  Yet finding blame is part of the wisdom of the world that wants to fix things and move on quickly.  It is the viewpoint that sees a worthless fig tree and demands that it be uprooted and tossed into the fire because apparently it just can’t produce fruit.

Jesus said, “Repent.  Turn around.  Change. Look at things differently.  Repent of the notion that sees God working in ways that send violence and tragedy.  Repent of the thought that God is one who rules with our sense of judgement.”  The word repent at its root is about thinking or perception.  It refers to a wholesale change of how we understand something- like the reason we keep the lid on the chicken noodle soup.  Repentance might change our behavior but it first involves us seeing things differently and coming to a new understanding of what God makes possible.

Jesus then told the story of a fig tree that did not bear fruit.  The owner of the tree was tired of its failure and wanted it chopped down and destroyed.  But the gardener asked if he could nurture the soil around the tree for one more year, just to see if the tree would then bear some fruit.  I am struck by the differences in the reaction to the current events of Jesus’ time.  When discussing the news, the crowd was afraid, seeking an urgent response, looking for something to blame, full of cynicism and despair.  Yet Nancy Rockwell writes, “When Jesus sees people knotted up and tense at the mention of the murdered Galileans and the Tower of Siloam, he responds with a playful tale, creating a space in time where hope can rise.”  He talks about a patient gardener who would be none other than God, a gardener who doesn’t let the reality of evil overwhelm the possibilities of hope.

I think of June Silliman, a farmer in Toulon, Illinois.  June was on the cutting edge of conservation agriculture, using strip farming for rotation of crops and no-till planting to reduce erosion and to add the nutrients of the previous crop to the benefit of the newly planted crop.  I would walk with June in his fields and he would bend over and pick up a part of his beloved field.  And then he would carefully explain to me the difference between dirt and soil.  Dirt was something that a farmer used without much thought care or nurture.  Soil was something the farmer got involved with and put his or her hands into.  Dirt was ordinary.  Soil was sacred.

Children’s television host Fred Rogers would remind us that when tragedy happens, we should look for the helpers- the doctors and nurses and first responders and Good Samaritans.  That is where God is.  That is how God works.  We should point the helpers out to our children because it is those helpers who embody what is good and reassuring and right.

In the midst of tragedy, Jesus told this parable of the fig tree to people to dismiss their fear and cynicism and to embrace hope and compassion.  In this parable he is telling us that when we feel most hopeless and fearful, God isn’t going to leave us barren and send us to the fires.  God will come into our lifelessness, our fear, and our hopelessness with compassion and love.  God will get dirty with us, amid the smelly stuff that life tosses at us and piles upon us.  And God will work with us, tending the soil, creating new life, even in the midst of what appear to us as dead things.

In this season of Lent, we are to repent and seek a new vision for our lives and for our world.  Perhaps in this season we are to hoe around our roots a bit, to give God some space to fertilize and water, to feed our hopes and not our pessimism.  We are to look at things different, not with our same old assumptions, but with the reality God is a gardener who always wants to give us more time, all the while improving the soil in which we live.

 

 

Mother Hen

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Mother Hen”

Rev. Art Ritter

March 17, 2019

 

Luke 13: 31-35

At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

 

There is a story about Winston Churchill who was giving a speech at the Canadian Parliament building at the end of World War II.  Churchill mentioned to the assembly that at the very beginning of the war, he had heard that Hitler and his generals were making comments about conquering Great Britain.  Churchill quoted one of the German generals as saying, “Germany would wring Britain’s neck like a chicken.”  Churchill then offered an appropriate long pause and said, “Some chicken!  Some neck!”

My mother has been gone for over 17 years now.  Yet there is seldom a day that passes when something she did or something she taught me doesn’t run through my mind.  She tended to be a very protective mother, perhaps sometimes too protective.  If anyone or anything threatened my brother or sister or me, Mom was there to stick up for us.  I remember one spring when all of us were still in elementary school, my mother made light jackets for my brother and me.  They weren’t the most fashionable things but they were lightweight, they had all sorts of pockets to put important kid stuff, and they were made with love by my mother.  One day, my brother came home from school without his jacket.  It seems some of the other boys in his class were teasing him about it.  For whatever reason they stole the jacket and buried it somewhere in the sand pits that occupied one end of the Stanton Elementary playground.  My brother told his teacher and the principal but some reason they didn’t view the situation as particularly urgent.  They told him that they would keep an eye out for his jacket.  With great sadness my brother went home without it.  With great fear he had to tell my mother what had happened to the jacket.

You might be able to guess what happened next.  When my brother told her what happened to the jacket, my mother sprang into action.  She immediately went up to the elementary school with two shovels in her hands – one for her to dig up the playground and the other for the principal to join her.  I don’t know how the principal was able to calm my mother down or to prevent a complete excavation of the schoolyard.  But he found the coat, offered to have it washed, and said that he would be speaking to the boy who did the dirty deed.  My mother came home quite content that day.  She had adequate protected her child and I don’t think she had to lift a shovelful of dirt.

The Scripture lesson this morning needs some context.  Jesus was making his way to Jerusalem, toward an inevitable confrontation with the religious and political authorities.  As he traveled he taught about the Kingdom of God and he cured many people of illnesses as he passed through the various villages and towns.  Most people welcomed his words and his works.  Some began to follow him.  But others were threatened by his popularity.  Others became wary that Jesus was about to upset the status quo and ruin the comfortable relationship that the Jewish authorities had with their Roman occupiers.

When he arrived in Jerusalem, a group of Pharisees came to Jesus and urged him to leave because Herod, the Roman appointed governor was seeking to kill him.  Now this was not the same Herod who ordered the killing of male children following Jesus’ birth but this Herod was also a bit bloodthirsty, having beheaded John the Baptist.  Perhaps the Pharisees were really concerned about Jesus’ safety but more than likely they were worried that Jesus’ words and actions would make Herod a bit grumpier toward all of the Jews.  And so they came out to warn Jesus and to ask him to leave Jerusalem immediately.

Jesus knew that his ministry and his mission did not come with opposition.  At this point he probably even knew of the possibility of death.  But rather than heed the warning and make preparations to run away, Jesus faced the threat head on.  He spoke confidently, comparing Herod to a fox, a pretender or a weakling who does not have the real power to follow through on his threats.  He spoke of his commitment to cast out demons, to perform cures, and to restore God’s intention in the face of evil.  And then he drew upon this rather strange metaphor, a mother hen who seeks to gather her chicks for protection and for provision.  Like a mother hen, Jesus wanted to teach and protect the children of God, but they were not willing.  As a result, they were left vulnerable to the power of the fox.

A mother hen.  This is one of my favorite images in all of Scripture.  I supposed I like it because it reminds me of my own mother.  It is a description of God that I have personally experienced and understand very well because this is how my mother loved me.  I use this particular image a lot at memorial services for women because it is through the care of mothers and grandmothers that we experience first-hand the power of love.  I like it because throughout the pages of Scripture, God is mostly assumed to be male, referred to with male pronouns and images that are more masculine and powerful than feminine and tender.   Karoline Lewis writes that there are only 93 women who get to speak in the Bible and only 49 of those 93 are named.  “These women speak a total of 14,056 words collectively—roughly 1.1 percent of the Bible.  Mary, the mother of Jesus, speaks 191 words; Mary Magdalene gets 61; Sarah, the wife of Abraham has 141 words.  Because of that, this is an image of Jesus, a picture of God’s love that I need to hear and see.

A mother hen.  Barbara Brown Taylor writes that “Jesus likened himself to a brooding hen whose chief purpose in life is to protect her young…A mother hen has no fangs, no claws, no rippling muscles.  All she has is her willingness to shield her babies with her own body.  If the fox wants them, he will have to kill her first.”  A mother hen, wings spread and body exposed, typical of how Jesus stood in his concern and compassion for others.  A mother hen.  Not an eagle who is majestic in flight.  Not a hawk who can spot its prey miles and away and quickly take advantage of situation.  Not a leopard quiet and clever.  Not a lion strong and overpowering.  A mother hen.  Something that doesn’t inspire much confidence.  Yet something we can all understand and experience.

Taylor goes on to say, “Jesus has disciples.  Herod has soldiers.  Jesus serves.  Herod rules.  Jesus prays for his enemies.  Herod kills his.  In the contest between a fox and a chicken, whom would you bet on?”  It is a mother hen that Jesus chooses to illustrate God’s love and protection.  That is the way God works, turning everything upside down, surprising us with situations we don’t expect, giving out rewards to those who don’t seem to deserve them, sending God’s very presence not in a fox licking his chops and taking advantage of the situation, but a mother hen holding out her wings in vulnerability to protect those who come to her.

In the season of Lent, we are to closely examine our lives and our behaviors and determine what obstacles lie between us and God.  We are to contemplate the cosmic battle between the sharp tooth and the gentle wing.  The illustration of the mother hen and the fox causes us to consider the attraction we have to the powers of the world and the ways of the empire.  Yet the sly foxes of the world turn us away from that which is good and eternal and pull us in the direction of those things that satisfy now but do not linger.  All too often we have failed to understand or respond to God’s love for us.  We get caught up in our endless anxiety that comes when we yearn for the safety of possession and the comfort of security.  We have turned God’s call to repentance into pointing fingers and gathering arms.  We are to ponder God’s way exampled in Jesus, a way of being vulnerable yet finding strength in a concern for compassion and righteousness.  Finding God’s love as a mother hen, we are to be a mother hen for the world- arms open, heart exposed, wings spread.

Again, Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “who would have thought being a mother hen offered such opportunities for courage.  Maybe that is why the church is called ‘Mother Church.’  It is where we come to be fed and sheltered, but it is also where we come to stand firm with those who need the same things from us.  It is where we grow from chicks to chickens, by giving as we have received, by teaching what we have learned, and by loving as we ourselves have been loved- by a mother hen who would give his life to gather us under his wings.”

 

 

 

Identity Theft

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Identity Theft”

Rev. Art Ritter

March 10, 2019

 

Luke 4:1-13

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

 

Many years ago, when I was a senior in college, I needed just one humanities course to fulfill a graduation requirement.  I enrolled in a lower level course on short stories.  The class contained only a few English majors.  Most of the other students were also taking the class to fulfill a graduation requirement but many were freshmen and sophomores.  I must admit that my mind and my heart were not interested in the class.  I didn’t spend much time reading or preparing for class lectures.  I wanted the class over and I was more concerned about my History Senior Seminar, the class that was the highlight point of my History major.  And being a History major I was quite certain that I could write well enough and think critically enough to pass the course without too much difficulty.

When I got back my first assignment, I was shocked to get a “C.”  My second paper wasn’t much better.  All of a sudden I could see my GPA falling downhill, all because of a meaningless English class in the final semester of college.  So I made an appointment to speak with the instructor, all the while muttering that this class was taking way too much of my time and attention.  The professor was a kind and gentle man.  But he was also an honest man.  He told me that my papers were not up to my potential and that he expected much more from a Senior History major at Alma College.  He told me that freshmen science majors were turning it better papers.  He believed that I wasn’t putting enough of an effort and perhaps I needed to reflect upon whether I wanted to truly put all of myself into the class or just go through the motions.  His words stung me.  They made me angry.  But they were oh so true!  I wasn’t being honest with him or myself.  The rest of the semester I treated that class with the same importance as my Senior History Seminar.  I read, I studied, I prepared.  I actually enjoyed parts of the class.  I learned things that I still use today.

It has always been interesting to me that the first thing that happens to Jesus following his baptism is that he is led out into the wilderness to be tempted for forty days.  The gospel of John leaves it out; Mark talks about it in two brief sentences, but Matthew and Luke go into great detail about what happened.  There is a dialog and negotiation between Jesus and the devil.  The devil offers Jesus three different temptations- more bread, more power, and more protection.  Each offer is made with the appropriate Bible verse to support his enticement.  Yet each time Jesus says no.  He says no to bread, no to more earthly kingdoms, and no to angelic bodyguards.  And Jesus points out to the devil the actual truth behind the words of Scripture that the devil has so eloquently quoted.

We might wonder, what was this forty day excursion and testing all about?  Was the devil testing Jesus’ mental and physical strength to follow through on his mission?  Was Jesus being tempted to sin and thus face the same kind of fall as Adam and Eve in the Garden?  Or was there something more going on here?  Yes, this passage is certainly about Jesus and the tests he endured.  But it is a lesson that is not only about Jesus but about all of us- you and me- as we seek to be God’s authentic people in these times and in this place.  It accents the kinds of trials and testing that happen to all of God’s people as we seek to do God’s work in the world.  It teaches the trust needed to follow God’s intention and to be who God created us to be.

Preacher Tom Long writes, “The testing of Jesus, the testing of Israel in the wilderness before him, and the testing of the church today are not primarily temptations to do what we would really like to do, but know we should not; they are temptations to be someone other than who God calls us to be, to deny that we are God’s children.”

When we understand that we are God’s people, we take on a certain identity.  We realize that there are temptations all around us to settle for less: to judge others unfairly, to seek our own power and recognition, to place our priorities on the things that make us comfortable; to react in anger toward those we love, and to think suspiciously about those whom are different from us.  We face temptations to care only for our own needs, to use creation for our own comfort, and to think of our self and our own interests ahead of the interests of our neighbor.  We might say, “Everyone does it that way.”  We might say, “I’ll act this way only one time.”  We might say, “No one will notice if I make this one choice just this one time.”  Soon we become defined by those actions which cut corners.  We begin to think of ourselves but what we own, what we know, what pleasures we can experience, and what others might say about us.

But in making these choices we are less than authentic.  We forget whose we are and who we are called to be.  We lose our real identity in the pursuit of false gods and idols.  We forget that our real peace and assurance come from God, not from our own frantic plans and schemes.  David Lose writes, “The truth is that there is a direct link between trust and temptation.  To the degree that we can trust God for our daily needs, our sense of purpose, our identity as a beloved child of God, the temptations of the world will have little appeal.  But to the degree that we allow our natural instincts to lead us to mistrust God, we become open to the deception and temptation that life is all up to us, that God is nothing more than a figment of our cultural imagination and so we had better take things into our own hands.”

At the beginning of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, at the beginning of what turns out to be a long, complicated, and dangerous journey, Frodo remembers the words of his mentor Bilbo:  “there was only one Road; that it was like a great river: its springs were at every doorstep, and every path was its tributary.  ‘It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door,’ he used to say.  ‘You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.’”

Tolkien’s words express the danger of the temptations along the way of life, temptations to leave one path and choose another, temptations to settle for less than our best, temptations to turn away from what is truth to embrace what is pleasurable and comfortable, temptations to lose yourself and become someone one.

In this season of Lent, we are to be honest about who we are, and to be honest about the voices of our world that try to steal our identity as a person of God and invite us to succumb to temptations that lead us from righteousness, justice, and hope.  This is the season to listen for God’s voice, to pray and reflect on how we understand God and who were are called to be.  This is the season to make our identity clear so that we can stand against any temptation to become less that we were created to be.

 

Glory

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Glory”

Rev. Art Ritter

March 3, 2019

 

 

Exodus 34:29-35

Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him. But Moses called to them; and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses spoke with them. Afterward all the Israelites came near, and he gave them in commandment all that the Lord had spoken with him on Mount Sinai. When Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face; but whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with him, he would take the veil off, until he came out; and when he came out, and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, the Israelites would see the face of Moses, that the skin of his face was shining; and Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with him.

 

Luke 9:28-36

Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” —not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

We’ve all had those mountain experiences, haven’t we?  Those moments when we’ve seen the glory.  The times when we found clarity of our purpose in life.  Those all too brief seconds when we transcend the dull and mundane nature of everyday life to achieve something that speaks to our fondest desires and wishes.  We all remember how good it felt when we first fell in love.  We remember what it was like to win a prize or a competition.  We remember what it was like to be on that vacation where we could totally get away.  We remember what it felt like to get that new job, that recognition from your boss, or your new promotion.  We remember what it is like on Christmas Eve when the candles are lit, we are surrounded by family, and the organ begins to play “Silent Night.”  We all remember when the Lions got to their first Super Bowl- well forget about that one.

It is a good thing for us when these things happen.  They move us.  The experience changes us.  It gives us a sense of meaning and enjoyment that encourages us in the living of the rest of life.  We want those moments to last forever.

The problem we have is that those moments don’t last very long. We want to capture the experience, freeze the moment, and maintain the feeling.  But soon we start seeing the blemishes of the one we love.  The thrill of our victory isn’t as important when the next season or competition comes along.  The delight of our new job or promotion comes with the burden of work or the load of responsibility.  We all have to come home from the best of vacations.  And the Sunday after Christmas Eve, even sitting in the same pew, well, worship just isn’t the same.

That was true for Jesus and his disciples who experience that moment of transfiguration on the mountain.  There was a second or so of clarity that made it easy to understand the glory and power of Jesus.  But despite Peter’s yearning to keep everything simple and easy and triumphant, Jesus and his followers had to return to the valley.  Right after this time of divine revelation, there was to be even more resistance to his message, more conflict with authorities, more shadows of the cross.  The truth of Jesus’ mission was not to be revealed in the bright, shiny faces of the mountaintop but in the sacrifice of the journey to the cross.

Likewise, such moments of clarity and transcendence might mean little unless we carry out its meaning in the struggles of life that are yet to come.  It is good to have times when we are taken away from it all.  Our faces shine in glory.  We temporary grasp the deep meaning of life.  But we can’t stay frozen in such ecstasy and contentment.  Such moments are fleeting.  God moves on ahead of us.  The true test of God’s intention for will be seen in how we live in such glory in the complicated journeys of our lives.

I remember many years ago when Laura and I took Maren, then age three, for a dream vacation to Disney World.  Everything about it was perfect.  It was a wonderful escape from the late October dreariness of Michigan.  We went on all the rides, including about ten trips on “It’s a Small World” and Dumbo.  We had a character breakfast with Pluto, Goofy, and Chip and Dale.  We sat through shows so Maren could sing along with the characters.  I was moved to tears when I filmed my little girl hugging Minnie Mouse and Belle from Beauty and the Beast.  It was so good to be there.  I wanted it to last forever.  But we flew home on Halloween day, weary yet transformed by Disney magic, arriving back at the house just in time for Maren to trick or treat.  Later than night as I tucked her into bed, I asked her which she preferred- Disney World or Halloween.  Without hesitation she replied, “Halloween!”  I quickly came down from the mountain, thinking about all the money I had spent to accomplish less that a bagful of Halloween candy!

As we prepare for the beginning of Lent, the transfiguration story speaks well to what we must hold in our hearts.  The glory of bright shining faces on the mountaintop is what we may yearn for.  We would like to be certain about all things and escape the doubt and pain of life in every positive and successful experience.  Sometimes we get to climb the mountain.  And it is good to be there.  But it is not what will last.

Glory is not what we get when we find temporary ways to rise above the chaos, fear, and tears of our real world.  While it is good to have a time apart in enlightening and thrilling moments, God is already moving on.  Glory is what we get when God pitches a tent over the everyday events of our life.  Glory is received when God comes and stands beside us, works with us, lifts us up, gives us hope, and heals us.  Author of The Brave Heart of Motherhood, Rachel Martin wrote, “Sometimes you have to let go of the picture of what you though it would be like and learn to find the joy in the story you are actually living.”  Sometimes the glory of life can’t be found in the shiny vision of the mountain.  It is only found in the journey of the valley.

The season of Lent reminds us that God’s glory is not something that removes the pain or loss or suffering.  If we are to live Lent as it is intended, we learn to see and experience Jesus in life troubles and fears, seeing signs of hope in the power of the cross that comes before resurrection.  God’s glory in Jesus’ action and example is a glory that enables us to walk even in the midst of suffering, to walk with hope and confidence, knowing that God is with us away from the mountaintop, down in the valley.