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April 2019

Locked Up

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Locked Up”

Rev. Art Ritter

April 28, 2019

 

John 20:19-31

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

 

Everybody can probably tell a story or two about being locked out of something.  We’ve probably all locked the keys in our cars at least one time or left the house locked without taking our keys.  I recall the very first Sunday that Laura and I were here at Meadowbrook in 2007.  We invited some friends from our previous church in West Bloomfield to come over for worship and a meal and the house following the service.  When we took our friends to show off our new house, Laura and I discovered that neither one of us had our house keys.  But one of our guests was most industrious and frighteningly observant.  He noted that our upstairs bedroom window wasn’t completely closed so he grabbed our ladder, which barely reached the window, climbed up, forced the window open, and crawled in.  As we look back upon that day, Laura and I began to worry that some of our new neighbors had to have seen a man on a ladder breaking into an upstairs window in the front of our house, yet they never reported a possible burglary.

It is a little harder to get locked into someplace.  A couple of summers ago, at my college reunion at a friend’s cottage in Higgins Lake, I visited the guest bathroom.  Our host forgot to mention that on humid days, the door to the guest bathroom swelled and that you should not pull it all the way shut.  Of course, I completely closed the door and was stuck in the bathroom.  That bathroom was at the front of the house and all of my friends were at the lakefront, on the other side of the house.  I knew that no one could hear my knocking or even my yelling.  I thought about using my cell phone but I didn’t bring it into the bathroom.  So I found a magazine and sat and read it for a while, until I could hear footsteps in the cottage.  Then I was able to get someone’s attention and acquire my freedom.  Of course the teasing I took from my friends was far worse than the experience of being locked in.

The Sunday following Easter takes us to a room full of disciples who had locked themselves in.  They had purposely sheltered themselves in a secure place because they were scared.  They had every good reason to be afraid.  The scribes and priests who had been out to get Jesus for months had finally succeeded.  The disciples did not know who might be the next victim.  Would those same authorities show up at their door and drag them away and nail them to a cross?  And it was one of their own who had betrayed Jesus.  Was it possible that someone else out there was ready and willing to betray all of them?

They had heard the strange story from the women that the stone to Jesus’ tomb was rolled away and that the tomb was empty.  A couple of the disciples had even run to the tomb to check it out for themselves.  But they had not seen a risen Christ for themselves.  They were confused.  They were anxious.  They were uncertain.  If the tomb was empty, could they be accused of stealing Jesus body?  Or maybe it all a set-up to punish them for their association with Jesus’ movement?  Perhaps some of them were a bit afraid that this resurrected Jesus might be angry with them for abandoning him.  Whatever their thoughts, they had decided that the best thing to do was to lay low and stay out of commission.  They locked themselves up securely.

The disciples’ fear was so intense that they forgot the many words of assurance and comfort that Jesus had spoken to them.  In that moment following Jesus’ crucifixion, all they could feel was fear.  The fear was so strong they made certain that their doors around them were locked and that only a few people even knew where they were.  It didn’t matter whether or not the threat of harm was real.  Fear alone locked the men into their own prison.

There is a story about Western legend Black Bart, a professional thief whose very name struck fear into the hearts of travelers who ventured into the American West.  Black Bart terrorized the Wells Fargo stagecoach line.  Anywhere from St. Louis to San Francisco, from 1875 to 1883, Black Bart robbed 29 different stagecoach crews.  Amazingly, he did it all without firing a single shot.  Because a hood hid his face, no victim ever saw what he looked like.  He never took a hostage and he never was trailed by a sheriff.  Instead, Black Bart used fear to paralyze his victims.  His sinister presence was enough to overwhelm the toughest stagecoach guard.

Fear is something that can easily control our lives.  It is a great motivation for this day and age.  There is a lot in life that can make us afraid.  There are threats to our personal safety.  There are threats to our jobs or our careers.  There are threats to the happiness of our families.  There are threats to our financial security threats to our health.  We are afraid of not having enough and of someone else taking some of our fair share.  We tend to doubt rather than trust.  When we are afraid, we keep the better part of ourselves locked up.  When we are afraid, politicians campaign for our votes based on our fears not our hopes. Fear makes us uncertain, causes us to doubt, diminishes hope, and controls our actions.  There are a multitude of things that can cause us to be afraid.  There are scores of reason to keep ourselves locked in and locked up.

Katherine Pershey writes, “Fear is a physiological response to tomorrow.  It is almost always about death.  Fear causes us to live in a perpetual state of anxiety.  Fear is exhausting and depressing.  Generally the calamities I expect do not come to pass.  So I replace them with new ones.  Time and energy spent that could be used constructively, for prayer or dishwashing or learning to quilt- I sacrifice to cultivate apprehension.”

Jesus came among those fearful disciples.  He came through the locked doors.  There were no walls thick enough to block the Risen Christ from entering.  He came not as a ghost or as a vision but in a real personal identity.  He showed them his hands and his side.  He offered them three gifts.

He brought them peace.  Three times in this passage he said, “Peace be with you.”  It is a very simple thing to say but a most powerful expression.  “Peace be with you.”  I read a Tweet this week that it is comforting and encouraging to know that this was the very first thing that Risen Christ said to his disciples.  He did not say, “Let’s get even,” or “Let’s make plans to defeat the power of our enemies” or “let’s taught those losers with the evidence of my resurrection.”  Instead he brought peace.  Be at ease.  Rest from that which weighs upon you.  Whatever doubts are in our minds, whatever sins trouble our conscience, whatever worry binds us up, whatever walls we hid behind, God comes to us and says, “Peace be with you.  Be at peace.”

He brought them purpose.  He said, “I send you into the world.  As God has sent me, so I send you.”  The word the writer of John uses for “send” is “apostello” the root of the word “apostle.”  You will go forth to heal and teach and comfort and share.  You are to look at the world and love the world in the same way I have done it.  Having a sense of purpose is a powerful remedy to fear.  If we know where we are going and why we are going there, the future seems much less uncertain and we feel better equipped to handle it.

He brought them power.  Jesus breathed on them.  He said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”  Some commentators call this the Gospel of John’s mini-Pentecost.  There is no wind or tongues of fire.  But there is a Resurrected Jesus breathing energy onto his followers.  He gave them a reason for boldness.  He gave them a reason to step outside their locked doors and to get busy doing what God had called them to do.

William Sloane Coffin once said, “As I see it, the primary religious task these days in to try to think straight…You can’t think straight with a heart full of fear, for fear seeks safety, not truth.  If your heart is a stone, you can’t have decent thoughts- either about personal relations or about international ones.  A heart full of love, on the other hand, has a limbering effect on the mind.”

All of us have been there with those disciples, locked up with hearts filled with fear.  Fear makes us weak and small and inadequate.  To us, the Risen Christ comes with peace and purpose and power.  He bring us gifts that opens our minds and restores our hearts.  He sends us out into the world to bring good news and hope to all of God’s children.  As God sent Jesus, so we are sent today.  “Peace be with you.”

 

No Idle Tale

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“No Idle Tale”

Rev. Art Ritter

April 21, 2019

 

Luke 24:1-12

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

 

I have started receiving a weekly newsletter this past week.  I don’t recall having subscribed to it or requesting but I haven’t deleted it because I find it somewhat fascinating.  It even provided an illustration for my Easter sermon so it can’t be all bad!  It is The Weekly News from Ripley’s Believe or Not.  The Weekly News consists of events that are too strange to be true yet actually happened in the past week.  Here is the Weekly News from April 12.

The first item came from Florida, of course, where a 17 foot python weighing 140 pounds and containing 73 developing eggs was reported missing.  Authorities feared that if the eggs were laid in the swamps, the new pythons which hatched would destroy most of the existing wildlife in the area.  The missing python was eventually captured when male snakes equipped with radio transmitters were sent out to find the female.

The second story came from Taiwan where a woman had complained for weeks of a swollen eye.  She was given some treatment but nothing seemed to work.  Finally, after closer examination, a doctor discovered that there were four bees living under the woman’s eyelid.  Medical authorities believe the bees were sustaining themselves off the woman’s tears.

Finally, Oregon police were called to deal with a report of a burglar.  Two house sitters left to walk a dog and when they returned to the house they heard banging noise coming from the bathroom.  They tried to open the door but found it wedged tightly shut.  The house sitters then called police who entered the house with guns drawn.  They ordered the burglar out of the bathroom.  There was no response.  The policemen then forcibly took down the bathroom door.  It was then they found the burglar.  It was a Roomba spinning against the bathtub and the door.

Idle tales.  It is hard to tell just what to believe these days.  Accusations fly much faster.  Claims are quickly made about something or other being “fake news.”  The internet makes it possible for any kind of story to reach millions of people in just a short period of time.  It seems that there is a new social media hoax at least once a week.  We read something on the internet and we pass it on without checking its authenticity.  We read something on the internet and we quickly dismiss it because we can’t trust its source.  There are so many alternative versions of the same story that we can’t begin to know just what we are supposed to believe.  Idle tales indeed.

Today we encounter the implausibility of something so wonderful, something so life-changing, something that seems just too good to be true.  According to the gospel of Luke, Easter morning began with the news of the world pretty straight forward and clear.  Jesus was dead and his body was secure in the tomb where it was placed following his crucifixion.  Some of the followers of Jesus, in this case women followers- Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and others whose names were not mentioned, came to the tomb bringing spices to properly anoint Jesus’ body for burial.  They weren’t expecting anything out of the ordinary.

Arriving at the tomb, the women were confronted by a totally surprising and confusing scene.  The stone guarding the entrance to the tomb had been rolled away.  There was no body in the tomb.  Suddenly there were two men dressed in dazzling clothes were beside them saying, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?  He is not here, for he is risen!”

The first instinct of these women was to go and tell someone!  If someone strange or wonderful happens to us- we have to share it on Facebook, or Twitter, or Instagram or Snapchat.  We believe everyone needs to know.  The women immediately left to tell of this mysterious news to the now eleven disciples.  And what was the disciples’ reaction?  Were they overjoyed and excited beyond belief?  No.  Luke says that they believed the women’s words were “an idle tale.”  They did not believe them.  They were not moved to do anything about what they had just heard.

An idle tale.  It is interesting to note that Luke uses the Greek word “leros” to describe the disciples’ opinion of the women’s story.  “Leros” is much harsher than “fake news.”  It means “delirious.”  The disciples believed that these women were off their rocker.  They were insane.  Their story was complete and utter nonsense.  Clarence Jordan in his Cottonpatch version of Luke and Acts describes it this way, “But it all seemed to the men like so much female chatter, and they wouldn’t believe it.”  An idle tale.

Why did the disciples have so much trouble believing the story of the women?  Perhaps they had already accepted the finality of Jesus’ death.  Grief is difficult but at least it provides closure.  You accept the facts and move on.  And now these women were opening up the wounds again.  Their crazy story didn’t help anyone trying to deal with the reality of Jesus’ death.

Could it be that there was even some sense of relief among the disciples about continuing to believe that Jesus was dead?  As much as they loved him, he always challenged them.  He made them feel uncomfortable.  He made difficult demands.  Maybe there was some relief about closing the door upon that part of their life and getting back to normal.

Perhaps the story the women told was just too good to be true.  The possibility that Jesus was alive and no longer in the tomb was just too wonderful for any sane person to believe.  Thomas Long tells the story of his friend’s son who was a great fan of both Captain Kangaroo and Mister Rogers.  The boy loved both television shows, and one day it was announced that Mister Rogers would be making an appearance on Captain Kangaroo.  The boy was beside himself.  Both of his heroes would be together on the same show!  When the day of show arrived, the whole family gathered around the television.  There they were, Captain Kangaroo and Mister Rogers together.  To everyone’s surprise, the young boy watched for a minute, but then got up and wandered away from the room.  “What is it?” asked his father.  “Is anything wrong?”  The boy replied, “It’s too good.  It’s just too good.”  Maybe the disciples felt the same way.  Believing the story would get their hopes up too high and could lead to even more disappointment.  None of us wants to be in that place where expectations lead to disillusionment.

And then there came Easter morning.  And then there came this idle tale- this story that didn’t fit into their understanding of reality.  They may not have liked what had happened to Jesus and to them, but at least they understood it all.  But if the dead don’t stay dead, what kind of reality could they count on anymore?

Here we are gathered together on Easter morning.  We’ve heard the account of the women who witnessed the empty tomb.  We’ve heard the voice ourselves saying, “He is not here for he is risen.  Why are you seeking the living among the dead?”  We might hear these words as an idle tale ourselves.  For us this Easter Sunday, resurrection may just be an historical event of two thousand years ago that we remember and celebrate this day.  For some, resurrection may be an intellectual puzzle, a scientific search for proof in an ancient text or in a DNA sample of bones or a shroud.  For some, Easter may be a nice little hopey-springy-bunny-eggy day when we wear our new pastel clothes and come to worship because it is a tradition to do so and the best we can do is speak of resurrection as a beautiful story or a meaningful metaphor.  But for most of us, I believe, Easter is something more significant.  The impact of Easter doesn’t depend on our ability to explain it or prove it or dress up for the occasion.  The impact of Easter is our ability to make it more than an idle tale, to believe in the story enough to live it and to tell it to others.

Understand, in Luke’s account of Easter morning, Jesus isn’t the central character.  The tomb is empty and he is gone.  It is the women who come to the tomb and the disciples who first hear the story who are the central characters.  They hear the story.  They ask the questions.  They ponder their response. Those who first heard the good news of an empty tomb and regarded it as an idle tale soon came to have a powerful experience of the Risen Christ for themselves.  They found unexpected life where they had expected only death.  They found another chapter when they thought that the book was finished.  They found their faith was now stronger, their vision clearer, and their courage restored.  They didn’t just hear the story, they became part of the story and shared the story themselves.  The idle tale became a real narrative when they believed and acted upon their belief.

In a recent ESPN 30 for 30 show entitled Survive and Advance, former players and reporters remembered late North Carolina State basketball coach Jim Valvano.  In November of 1982 he gathered his players at Reynolds Coliseum for their first preseason practice.  After two frustrating seasons with their new coach, they were anticipating an afternoon of drills and sprints and strategy.  Instead there was only a ladder underneath one of the baskets.  Valvano confused the players by handing each a pair of scissors.  He said, “We are going to win a championship.  The first thing we need to do is to practice cutting down the nets.”  The players thought their coach was crazy, that he was trying to fool them with an idle tale.  Five months later, North Carolina State won the championship in an upset of highly favored Houston.

Jim Wallis of Sojourners writes, “Hope believed is always considered nonsense.  But hope believed is history in the process of being changed.”  Perhaps more than ever, as believers in the Risen Christ we need to be telling tales of resurrection today.  To believe in the resurrection of Jesus takes a lot of faith and courage.  It is more than believing the claims of men and women two thousand years ago.  It is saying no to the power of death and destruction that surrounds us this very day.  It is challenging the powers of the world who would deny God’s claim upon the goodness of life.  It is witnessing understanding that our destiny is with a personal God who cares about us and will be with us no matter where we go, bringing new beginnings from all of our dead ends.  It is declaring that there is a sustaining power, a power of God that brings life out of death and reconciliation out of conflict and light out of darkness.

American novelist and poet Wendell Berry writes, “Every day do something that won’t compute…practice resurrection.”  Though a cynical world and the supporters of the status quo may think Easter is an idle tale, we need to be about the nonsense of such a tale.  There are empty tombs in our midst today.  Those new beginnings are no idle tale.    In the name of the Risen Christ, let us practice this nonsense of resurrection.  Let us offer, with our words and our actions, idle tales of hope lived out in our world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

In The Eyes

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“In The Eyes”

Rev. Art Ritter

April 14, 2019

 

Luke 19:28-40

After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” They said, “The Lord needs it.” Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

 

“The eyes are the window to the soul.”  Most of us have heard this proverb.  Its origin is unclear.  Many people believe Ciscero first said it.  Others give credit to Shakespeare.  I read this week that the current First Lady of China is receiving acknowledgement for creating the saying.  Some scholars believe it is an interpretation of a verse from the gospel of Matthew in which the eyes are said to be the light of the soul.  Regardless we might all agree that our eyes don’t lie.  They are the window to our soul.  They show the truth about us and what we are thinking and how we are feeling, no matter what kind of face we try to put on.

In his Palm Sunday commentary, Calvin Seminary’s Scott Hoezee writes about one of his favorite episodes of the television show M*A*S*H.  It is one I remember well.  I used to watch the reruns of the show with a large group of people at the apartment building at my seminary.  It was a daily way to unwind.  While most of the show was filled with comedy, it was the serious episodes or moments that I most remember.  The particular episode that Hoezee describes was from 1974.  Trapper had just been diagnosed with a stomach ulcer.  While this at first seemed like unfortunate news, his roommate Hawkeye quickly reminded him that according to Army regulations, soldiers with ulcers had to be sent home.  Suddenly, Trapper was thrilled to have an ulcer.  A farewell party for Trapper is quickly arranged.  Minutes before the party was to begin, Radar, the company clerk, informs Trapper that Army regulations have changed and his ulcer would have to be treated in Korea.  He was not going to be heading home.  Trapper goes to the party anyway, trying his best to pretend to be happy and festive, just to give his friends an evening of joy in the midst of their weary service.  Yet during the party he and Radar exchanged frequent glances.  Their eyes could not hide their sadness.  It was obvious if any of the party goers would have taken the time to see.  Trapper smiled and laughed but he wasn’t being honest.  It was a nice party but it did not end in the way it should.  At the end of the evening he was asked to give a speech.  It was there when he finally broke down and told everyone the truth.  He was not going anywhere.  He was not leaving the messy world of the Korean War.  He was going to have staying with them.

Hoezee asks a question that I have often wondered about.  If we would have looked deep into Jesus’ eyes that Palm Sunday in Jerusalem, would we have seen the truth?  For us, Palm Sunday is a sudden and quick interruption into our rather solemn and honest Lenten observance.  For Jesus, Palm Sunday was a rather short intermission in the darkness that surrounded him.  Before the entry into the city, he had spoken some ominous words about his enemies wanting bloodshed.  Following the processional, Jesus wept for the city of Jerusalem and for its failure to understand the ways that make for peace.  Yet in between we have this story of the triumphant entry, of the festive parade, or the joyous celebration.  I wonder if anyone looked into Jesus’ eyes to see what he thought about what was happening on the streets of Jerusalem.  Was he as happy as the crowd?  Did his eyes express the understanding of a deeper truth?

Palm Sunday is one of the most unusual days in the church calendar.  It is a day of contrast- the celebration of the triumphant entry but also the rapidly approaching shadows of denial, betrayal, and crucifixion.  As Christians, we are tempted to focus on the joy part of things.  It is easier to handle the story of a celebratory parade than it is to hear the story of Jesus’ agony in Gethsemane and Calvary.  For many people Palm Sunday is like a mini-Easter Sunday, an observance of Jesus’ success and ultimate victory.  Even though they are supposed to be some of the most important observances in our faith, many of us choose to skip Maundy Thursday and Good Friday worship services.  They are too somber.  They are too sad.  They are on Thursday and Friday when we are getting ready for the relaxation of the weekend.  We like to go straight from Hosanna to the triumph of the empty tomb.  We try too hard to let Palm Sunday be a bright spot in the Lenten darkness and really don’t take what it means seriously enough.

While Palm Sunday is described in all four gospels, something most unusual indeed, the gospel of Luke’s version of Palm Sunday is distinct and most interesting.  I hope you were listening very carefully to the Scripture lesson as Mark read it to us!  Scott Hoezee writes that if Luke were the only gospel that informed us about Palm Sunday, we would not call this day Palm Sunday.  We might have to call it “Coat Sunday” because it is about the only detail that Luke offers about the day.  There is no mention of palms at all.  There is no talk of branches of trees.  In Luke, people laid down their coats for Jesus to ride upon.  In Luke, there is no donkey.  It is a colt who has never been ridden that is to be untied and brought to Jesus.  Finally, if we left our Palm Sunday celebration up to the gospel of Luke, you would never get to hear me sing my annual solo about “Hosanna.”  Luke never mentions the word.  Our hymns today contain the words, “All glory, laud, and honor to thee Redeemer King!  To whom the lips of children, made sweet hosannas ring!”  Yet the writer of the gospel doesn’t speak of hosannas or of children singing Jesus’ praise or even of how big the crowd watching the parade really was.  According to Luke, the crowd consisted only of Jesus’ disciples.  Twice in this short account we are told that they are the only ones doing the cheering.

No palms!  No hosannas!  What kind of parade is this?  Is this a real parade for a real conquering hero or is this a planned processional intended to teach a lesson about what kind of King this Jesus really is?  Was Jesus thrilled at the reception?  Or was he apprehensive at the lack of understanding and fearful at what he knew was yet to come?  Perhaps we don’t really know unless we look into Jesus’ eyes.

In her book The Undoing of Death, Fleming Rutledge talks about a sign that she saw in the window of a local greeting card shop.  The sign read, “We make Easter easy.”  Of course the owners of the shop meant that their business provided one-stop shopping for all of the eggs and candy and flowers and cards and bunnies that you might need to celebrate Easter.  But she also said that the sign spoke to how we prefer our observance of Palm Sunday to Easter.  We want it easy.  We want the triumph of the parade without the weeping that come afterward.  We want Easter without the messiness of Good Friday.  We like Jesus as a crowd pleaser but we are confused by the powerlessness of the man when he stands before Pilate and allows the crowd to shout “Crucify him!”

Again, Scott Hoezee writes that on this day we need to look deep into Jesus’ eyes.  We need to see the sadness that is there behind the celebration.  We need to feel the pain and doubt that Jesus must have felt, even as he entered the city to a joyous reception.  Jesus rode into Jerusalem perhaps uncertain of his fate, yet certain of God’s intention in what he was doing.  Jesus rode into Jerusalem allowing others to celebrate the coming of the Kingdom of God yet all the while knowing that the Kingdom he was bringing was something that no one would understand, a Kingdom that would come with a cost as it threatened the powers and logic of the world.  Jesus rode into Jerusalem knowing that on that day his presence was a real crowd pleaser but his eyes told the story that life is sometimes sad and unfair, dangerous and unjust, but that he trusted that none of that darkness was outside the boundaries of God’s love and grace.  Jesus didn’t stay home and play it safe.  He led the way for us in entering the Jerusalems of our life, days and time in which we are uncertain of what was coming yet knowing that we are following God’s path and that God is with us.

One of the best moments of the year for me as a minister is Christmas Eve.  I get to stand here at the pulpit with my candle during the singing of “Silent Night” and watch the candle light spread throughout our Meeting House.  It is a moment of great joy and peace.  But the privilege I have is to be able to see that light reflected in your eyes.  I can see you in your Christmas joy all the while knowing that many of you carry some hurt or pain or loss or fear in your hearts.  I can see it in your eyes.  There is joy even as you pass through the darkness.  There is the assurance of God’s presence even as you walk a difficult and uncertain path.

We are right to celebrate Palm Sunday but not because it is a day of triumph, a day of easily obtained victory.  We celebrate Palm Sunday because we know that God’s promise will come true even when it seems most absent.  We celebrate Palm Sunday because our God entered into the same kind of death and darkness, engaging in all of the pain that surrounds us and did not let it have the final answer.  We celebrate Palm Sunday because it is a day that might best describe our life, a mixture of joy and sorrow, of triumph and pain.  And Jesus rode right into it to be with us and to demonstrate how much God loves us.  We can see it in his eyes.  The eyes tell the real story of this day.

A New Thing

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“A New Thing”

Rev. Art Ritter

April 7, 2019

 

Isaiah 43:16-21

Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick: Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.

 

I consider myself fortunate in my relationships of life.  I had the best parents in the world; wonderful siblings who share in the task of assisting my father; a beautiful, wise, and compassionate spouse; two great daughters who have grown up to be beautiful, wise, and compassionate women;  and four churches that produced wonderful friendships in our service of Christ together.

I also was extremely lucky in finding excellent relationships in my college years.  There were at least ten of us who found ourselves randomly assigned to live with and together in third floor Bruske Hall at Alma College.  While we had different backgrounds and interests we discovered that we shared similar values and during those four years we became an unofficial fraternity known as the “Commandos.”  We were as brothers who played practical jokes on one another, things of which I cannot share in public.  Yet we stood up for one another when it mattered most.  Following our graduation from Alma, my friends dispersed to faraway places like California and North Carolina and South Dakota, Iran, and Utah.  Yet we have made an effort to gather together each summer for a Commando Reunion.  The past six years we have reunited at Higgins Lake for three days of cards, cornhole, croquet, and junk food.

In the years immediately following our graduation, every time we gathered together we would delight in telling stories about the past.  It was the revisiting of legends and pranks that were the focus of our identity.  It was our association of the past that defined us.  Then there were a number of years when attending the reunion wasn’t so important.  Life was more complicated for each of us with work and family and added responsibility.  We still met every summer but it wasn’t always a must attend event.

Things have changed in the past seven to ten years.  Yes, we eat less junk food and more fruits and vegetables.  But I’ve noticed something else.  My Commando brothers have made more of an effort to attend the reunion. While we still fondly recall the past, most of our conversation today is about what is happening in our present lives.  We talk about more serious things like health issues, the death of parents, concerns with aging parents and adult children, and worries about jobs that were ending before we were ready for retirement.  Between reunions we have had to reach out and provide wisdom and comfort and encouragement.  One of my friends had a fall and broke his neck, needing months of rehabilitation.  Another suffered a stroke that left him without use of his dominant arm and hand for nearly a year.  With the use of texting and social media, I have found my college friends to be a source of support all through the year.  It seems as if our identity is now more of a present encouragement rather than fond but entertaining memories of the past.  Our relationship is working in places where it previously wasn’t needed to work.

Calvin Seminary’s Doug Bratt writes, “If we’re so busy remembering what God has done in the past, it may be difficult to muster any energy to imagine what God might do in the future.  Think of friends you had in childhood but haven’t contacted since then.  If you actually finally got together, what would it be easiest to talk about?  The past.  Yet for any kind of relationship to continue to flourish, it requires both a past and ongoing interaction…. God wants not just a history with God’s people, but also a future with us.”

We are creatures of habit.  We like it when things remain as we know them to be, predictable, and under control.  But we also know that life is not like that.  Things change, even quicker than they ever have before.  And we have less control over those things!  One of the ways in which we try to deal with the ever-changing quality of life is by living life looking backwards.  We glance over our shoulders to a time in which things were more like we wanted them to be.  We hold onto ideal images as a source of comfort.  When life gets overwhelming or when problems that seemingly have no solution arise, we look at the past with rose-colored glasses and believe that the only answer is to somehow get back there.  Some of our leaders, past and present, have successfully appealed to voters with a plea to return to the ways things used to be and to find our greatness in revisiting actions and attitudes of the past.  Callie Plunket-Brewton writes that perhaps we like to cling to that old adage of “the evil we know is better than the evil we don’t know.”

The prophet Isaiah preached to people who were much like us.  They found their identity in what has already happened.  They saw the power of God in times well past. Perhaps they had an even more difficult experience.  The Babylonians had conquered the people of Judah sending them into exile.  Now the Lord had raised Cyrus of Persia to defeat Babylon and return the exiles back to their native Jerusalem.  Yet the return back from exile and the rebuilding of the city wasn’t as easy and painless as the people hoped.  They felt devoid of God’s blessing.  God did not appear to be working among them.  Their cherished expectations of what it meant to be God’s covenant people had crumbled along with the destroyed Temple.  They remembered and loved to retell the stories of what God had done in the past, making a way through the waters of the Red Sea and delivering the people of Israel from bondage in Egypt.  But they could not see any evidence of God doing anything in their present or certainly in their future.

Isaiah didn’t pull any punches.  He preached that God says, “Do not remember the former things or consider the things of old.  I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?  I will make a way in the wilderness.”

“Do not remember the former things or consider the things of old.”  This seems rather harsh.  Are we not to have any fondness for what has happened in the past?  Are we not to consider and give thanks for the blessings of our heritage and history?  I don’t believe that the prophet Isaiah was saying that.  Rather I think that he was warning all of us who yearn for the “good old days” not to be defined or trapped in our memories.  To dwell only on what God has already done is to possibly obscure what God can and will do.  When we consider what we were in the past and yearn to return to that same place, we will miss the journey that God has placed before us in the present hour.  Our God is the God of the new thing.  If we expect God to act only in ways and in words that we heard before, based on our fond memories and comfortable answers, we run the risk of ignoring what God is all about right now.  If we expect God to be only a God of settled assumptions, then we will fail to grow in the challenges that God places before us this very day.

It is interesting to note that Isaiah describes the place where God’s past and future actions intersect as the wilderness.  It is a place of jackals and ostriches and wild animals.  This is the place where God’s people wandered after leaving Egypt and before the Promised Land.  This is the place where Jesus was tempted to be something other than God wanted him to be.  The wilderness is a strange a threatening place, a place that we would just as soon avoid.  Yet to find God’s presence perhaps we should consider our wildernesses where God’s past with us is coming together with God’s promise for us.  Transitions.  Illness.  Fear.  Doubt.  Loss.  Grief.  These are deserts where God loves to work.  How is God making living streams which link the faithfulness of the past to the possibilities of the future?

A young minister had recently arrived at her new church.  She found no shortage of people who were willing to talk with her and give her advice about how the church should be run.  They told her about the great heritage of the congregation’s past, about the traditions of worship and programming, about who the key leaders were and what she needed to do to maintain all that was good about their church.  She was frequently assured that if she followed the advice that she was given, everything would go smoothly and she would do very well.  But the young pastor was smart.  After thanking each parishioner for the history lesson and the well intentioned advice, she asked them a question.  “Tell me what new and exciting things you are expecting in the future for us at this church.”  Usually, she was met with silence.  Usually, as she expected, her parishioners could not imagine a future any different that their past.  Their identity was totally immersed in what had happened and who they were.

“Look!  I am about to do a new thing!”  Don’t be stuck with the former things only.  Don’t stand fast in believing only what is comfortable and certain.  What new thing might God be about this very day?  We must be getting ready because what God is doing may be something we don’t expect or had never thought of.  The past is a good thing, but we cannot let our gaze to the past block our vision of tomorrow.  The next time we find ourselves in a wilderness, or in a desert of life, we may well be in just the place where God is about to do a new thing.