Monthly Archives

September 2019

Seeing Lazarus

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Seeing Lazarus”

Rev. Art Ritter

September 29, 2019

 

 

Luke 16:19-31

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

 

A fellow was talking to his next door neighbor about a speaker he had heard the night before.  He told the neighbor, “That speaker said something that really stuck in my mind.  He said that all of the world’s problems could be summed up in two words:  ignorance and apathy.  What do you think?”  The neighbor replied, “I really don’t know and I really don’t care.”

A few months ago I had to take my father in for some x-rays of his back.  We went to the local hospital in Greenville and made our way to the imaging laboratory where just as we expected and feared, there was a large group of people waiting their turn ahead of us.  I knew that Dad wasn’t keen about doctors and x-rays and waiting rooms and he was beginning to show his frustration.  There was another man in the waiting room who was talking at the top of his voice.  While everyone else was quietly paging through a magazine, engaging in quiet conversation, or turning inward in contemplation of why they were there in the first place, this man was enjoying a personal social hour.  He was trying to talk to anyone who would listen.  Many others in the waiting room gave him dirty looks over the top of their magazines but the loud man was oblivious.  As more patients were called and the room began to empty, except for this man, he began to be a source of great aggravation to me.

Finally the man turned to me and my father and attempted to engage us in his conversation.  We were now the bullseye of his attention.  My strategy was to grunt a couple of words and try to ignore him.  If I didn’t give him my attention then perhaps he would just be quiet and leave us alone.  I was hoping, even praying that my dad would do the same.  But he didn’t.  My father decided to be nice.  He started talking to the loud man.  He answered his questions.  Even worse, he asked the man some questions.  He discovered that for many years the man used to work at the very same factory where my father was a foreman.  They had friends and colleagues in common.  The man then realized that he knew my dad’s brother.  That fact was good for another ten minutes of conversation.  Finally, the nurse opened the door and called the loud man back for his x-ray.  My dad shook his hand and said, “It was sure nice talking to you.”  And you know what?   I really think he meant it.

When I suddenly realized that my dad had found some grace in that annoying situation, I felt small and prideful and ashamed.  God’s presence was right in front of me and I missed it because I thinking about what was important to me, indifferent to others in the room, closed off from the possibility that God was there.

Janet Hunt, a Lutheran minister in Illinois, writes about an experience she had while going to seminary in Minneapolis.  She had the good fortune of living for free with a couple of roommates in a church-owned apartment.  But the apartment was in North Minneapolis, a section of the city noted for its poverty and homelessness.  Hunt and her roommates were given the apartment in exchange for unlocking the church doors each morning and then locking the building up again at night.  In between the church was staffed by a local shelter, twice weekly as a soup kitchen and on some cold days as a warming facility.  The seminary students with the keys usually avoided the hungry and the poor by leaving early in the morning and arriving home late at night.  They did not directly participate in the outreach ministry.  Hunt writes that she wasn’t all that unhappy to avoid interacting with those in need and missing the lines of families and children who came to the church to have their hunger satisfied.  But one day, before she could leave for classes, she was confronted by a man in front of the church.  He blocked her path and proceeded to scream at her using words that had seldom, if ever been directed her way.  At that moment she felt surprise and fear as the outburst forced her to look the man in the eyes.  And then she was forced to look into her own heart and to acknowledge the indifference that lived there.  She hadn’t done anything wrong.  Yes, she was afraid in the face of such an encounter.  But the feeling which remained with her longest in remembering that day was the shame she carried for her indifference.

The Scripture lesson this morning takes place at a gate.  On one side of the gate is the lavish life or a rich man.  We don’t know his name.  But we know he has a beautiful home, that he feasts on extravagant banquets, and that he wears fine purple clothes, the sign of the upper class.  On the other side of the gate there is a desperately poor man.  He has a name.  It is Lazarus.  The name is significant because it is the only parable of Jesus where a person is given a name.  The name Lazarus comes from the Hebrew word meaning, “God helps.”  He seems to be unnoticed in his life however.  If the rich man notices him it is only because he is repulsed by the poor man digging through the garbage for scraps or letting the dogs lick the sores that cover his body.  The rich man probably passes Lazarus at the gate several times a day, never speaking to him.  They live in two different worlds.

As Jesus told the story, both men die.  The poor man is taken immediately into heaven and is at Father Abraham’s side.  The rich man is tormented in the fires of hell.  The rich man pleads with Abraham to send Lazarus to him to give him just one drop of cool water.  But Abraham tells the rich man that the chasm between them is too large and that no one can pass across it.  The rich man’s fate is sealed.  For him, the gate is shut for eternity.

This is a tough parable to hear.  The rich man isn’t particularly evil.  He was probably considered a righteous man and certainly was respected and honored within his circles.  Yet he ends up being tormented in his afterlife.  He languishes in hell yet he never committed an awful sin.

In a sermon on this parable, delivered in 1965, immediately after the Watts riots in Los Angeles, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. explained the text well.  “There is nothing in the parable,” he wrote, “that says the rich man went to hell because he was rich.  Jesus never made a universal indictment against all wealth.”  King went on to say, “the rich man went to hell not because he was rich, but because he passed by Lazarus every day and never really saw him.  The rich man went to hell because he allowed Lazarus to become invisible…because he failed to use his resources to bridge the gulf that separated him from his brother Lazarus.  In fact, he didn’t even realize that Lazarus was his brother.”  Dr. King was right.  The rich man’s sin was not that he was rich, but that during his earthly life he did not see Lazarus, despite his daily presence at the entrance to his home.

Here at Meadowbrook, as with many churches these days, we wrestle with a multitude of issues and concerns.  There are a number of decisions to be made make and so many priorities that have to be set within a limited amount of resources.  We have to concentrate on a number of practical things like budget and building and staff and sometimes we can find it hard to see beyond those things.

Personally we are all busy dealing with the events and circumstances of our individual lives.  We might feel as if we are heading in different directions each day and made wearier by the demands of our time and energy.  There is so much going on that in order to cope, we just put blinders on to negate the rest of the world.  We can’t see Lazarus in front of us because we are so busy taking care of our business.  We can’t see the opportunities to reach out to our brother and sisters.  We can’t see the presence of God sent in the midst of everyday life.

Sometimes we look around and we lump the problems and problem people of the world into categories.  It is easier for us to deal with them that way.  It is easier for us to believe that we can’t do anything about it.  It is easier for us to look to someone else to take care of the problem.  Perhaps that is why Jesus gave Lazarus a name.  Jesus knew that if we treat people only by lumping them all together, we will simply look past their needs, we will find justification for our prejudices, and we will ignore them as we pursue what is important to us.  And Jesus also knew that each person has a name, a family, and a story.  Giving Lazarus a name brought forward his humanity, accented the presence of God within him, and spotlighted the opportunity of God that came with knowing him.

Paul Raushenbush of Auburn Theological Seminary writes that the sin of the rich man was a play on the word ignorance.  The sin was ignore-ance.  Ignore-ance is an active and intentional stance toward the world which censors what is inconvenient or uncomfortable for us.  Ignore-ance judges what is or is not worth knowing and acts according.  Ignore-ance separates us from the knowledge of the world and of the human experience that extends beyond our own.  Ignore-ance assumes that we know everything there is to know about God and close ourselves off to that which doesn’t fit our formulas.  If fact, ignore-ance separates us our brothers and sisters and ultimately separates us from God.

In the Mayflower Café presentation we heard last Tuesday, Dr. Brett Younger said that there is a word for the chasm between what we say we believe and what we actually do.  That word is sin.  Younger also quoted Barbara Brown Taylor who wrote, “There’s not a mission statement in the world that is worth one visit to a sick friend or one cup of water held out to someone who’s longing for it.”

Do we see Lazarus?  Or is there something or someone in our line of vision that prevents us from seeing him at our gates?  The Kingdom of God shows up when and where we least expect it.  Could our place in that Kingdom be residing in the presence of Lazarus, the one at our gate?

 

 

Shrewd in Faith

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Shrewd in Faith”

Rev. Art Ritter

September 22, 2019

 

Luke 16:1-13

Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

 

James Howell shares the story about how when he was five years old he tried to use shrewdness and cunning to avoid punishment from his father.  He was about to be spanked by his father for breaking some rule or for general misbehavior.  Howell can’t remember the exact details.  But he remembers his father prefacing the spanking with these words, “Now son, this is going to hurt me more than it is going to hurt you.”  To a five year old mind, this didn’t make any sense.  But the shrewd Howell recognized a way out of the spanking.  He said to his father, “Wait a minute!  You are going to spank me but it is going to hurt you more.  But I am the one who did something wrong?”  His father fell right into the trap saying, “That’s right.”  The precocious five-year-old continued, “Well, if I am the one to be punished, why don’t you let me spank you so that I would experience the most pain.”  Howell said that his father then quickly caught onto the clever plan.  The young boy received the spanking plus the loss of his weekly allowance.

I am sure than many of us have been victims of identity theft or cyber fraud.  At the very least we gotten those strangely worded emails and text messages wanting us to offer some of our private financial account information.  I saw a new item this week where cybercriminals can now sign up for a six week online course offering webinars, online tutorials, and technical support, all designed to help wannabe crooks aiming to get involved in credit card fraud.  The invitation to the class says that it can take a complete novice and turn them into a specialist in credit card fraud in a mere six weeks.  The course is conducted in Russian, which gives you a pretty good clue as to where most of the students are.  It costs around $250 dollars with an additional charge of $200 for materials.  And prospective students have to pay in cryptocurrency like bitcoin because evidently identity theft students just can’t be trusted.   The story is just another example how shrewd and developed criminals are in the world today.

This morning we hear the words of Jesus from the gospel of Luke, telling his listeners the parable of the dishonest steward or the shrewd manager.  It may be one of the most difficult parables that Jesus told.  Alyce McKenzie compares it to putting Crisco on a watermelon and then asking someone to catch it.  You can grab at it but it is bound to slip out of your grip.  You may think you understand and then you find something that raises an additional question or concern.  Clarence Jordan, author of The Cottonpatch Gospels, once said that Jesus’ parables were like Trojan horses.  They looked great on the outside but you let them in and bam- they got you.  That is certainly true with this parable we reflect upon this morning.

The master of an estate calls on the carpet his manager who had been cheating the boss for years.  The manager was kind of a middle man, representing his master in the exchange of good and services with merchants and in the receipt of rent with the tenants.  Most managers or stewards were able to line their own pockets with a few extra dollars in every transaction.  The master looked the other way, expecting it to happen unless things really got out of hand.  In this case, they apparently did.  The manager was taking way too much money from the accounts and the master of the estate called for an audit of the books.  It became clear to the manager that he was about to lose his job.

The shrewd man immediately went into crisis mode.  He did not raise his arms in despair and hopelessness.  He spent every ounce of his creative energy planning to protect his future.  He called all of his clients together and treated them to one last meal on the boss’ tab.  He told them that he had the power to reduce the amount of money they owned to the boss.  He promised them whatever he could so that when he lost his job- those customers might remember his favorably and welcome him into their homes and business to care for him.

Our reaction to hearing this parable is quite natural.  What a jerk!  What a scoundrel!  Perhaps he took the course from the Russian cyber fraud experts.  Using the boss’ assets to provide for his own future, even after many years of cheating that same boss.  Yet this is the parable that Jesus told his followers.

And stranger yet is what happened when the boss of this shrewd manager found out about what his employee had done.  Instead of firing him, he actually commended the man.  He praised his shrewd and creative behavior.  He lauded his diligence and effort.  And Jesus said, “For the children of this age are shrewder in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”

What is the message for us, the followers of Jesus who hear this parable today?  Perhaps a good place to start is with that word “shrewd.”  For many years this parable of Jesus was called “The Dishonest Steward.”  But it is not dishonestly that is behavior that is supposed to be modeled but shrewdness.   It is interesting to note that the Hebrew word translated as shrewd can also be translated as “something that you have wrestled with.”  The word is used in a couple of places in Scripture, places that are also connected with the nearness of a judgment.  The word seems to point to some commitment to a well-thought out plan to bring about a desired outcome.

Jesus taught his disciples this parable, because they like us, lived in a time and place that demanded action and response.  As those who are caught up in the world are clever and cunning, even those who deal with their affairs dishonestly, the children of God need to reflect upon the gifts and abilities and especially the opportunities that God has given us and then arrange the various aspects of our lives so that we can take care of the things that need to be done for God.  The shrewd manager was praised, not because he was dishonest and conniving.  He was praised because he made a radical decision in the light of a coming event.  He was praised because he focused on what was important at that moment.  Jesus taught that God puts a critical moment in front of us that demands a radical re-ordering of our life priorities.  The presence of Jesus the Christ places a crisis in our midst.  The crisis confronts us daily through our choices and decisions.

I recall a trial of a forger in Germany around twenty years ago.  The man was so good at his trade that he actually had experts believing that his diaries of Adolf Hitler were real.  When brought before the court, the judge spent most of the trial complimenting the forger on his ability.  “You have a rare gift, an exceptional talent” he said.  Others in the courtroom were astonished at the judge’s behavior but the judge reminded them all that he was not praising the illegal act, but merely the skill.

I think the same is true of Jesus’ teaching in the parable of the shrewd manager.  Jesus often used an example of a rascal to teach us a thing or two about what God is like and about what we should be like in response to God.  Remember the widow who kept pestering a judge relentlessly, both day and night, until he finally gave her the justice of which she felt worthy.  Remember the man he wouldn’t leave the comfort of his bed to welcome a stranger until his door was almost beaten down?  Remember the man who found a treasure in the field of a friend and then quietly went out and bought the field so he could profit from the treasure?  These were not good people!  Yet Jesus lifted them up as examples of faith.  How much more will it profit us if we approach our lives of faith with the same urgency and passion as these shrewd rascals and scoundrels approached their malicious ways?

I have shared with you before a Jewish fable about a student who burst through the doors of his school with important news to tell his teacher, the great rabbi.  One of the rabbi’s friends had just been arrested for burglary.  The student expected the rabbi to be shocked, at the very least visibly upset at such terrible news concerning his friend.  But the rabbi seemed very calm.  He said, “My friend the burglar is a great example to all.  Every day he manages to teach me something, even today.  When we are sleeping, he is busy working.  When we go about our daily activity without any thought, he is quiet and adept.  When others are busy locking their doors, he skillfully knows how to open them.  Yes, my best friend the burglar is a true artist and a great teacher!”  The student walked away amazed and puzzled at such a lesson.

We need to be shrewd in faith.  We need to understand the urgency of the situation and the important need to respond.  We need to appreciate the resources at our disposal and to use them in ways that are commendable in God’s eyes to get the work of God done here on earth.  We need to secure our ultimate future, which in God’s intention, cannot be separated from the future of the whole community.  We need to take the words of Jesus which tease our minds, allow them to enter into our active thought, and then put ourselves in the middle of decisive life-changing action.

 

 

 

Lost and Found

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Lost and Found”

Rev. Art Ritter

September 15, 2019

 

 

Luke 15:1-10

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: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. “Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

 

 

Marty Raths tells a wonderful story about one of life’s universal experiences- being lost.  There was a man who had gotten lost in part of the country that was unfamiliar to him.  And after driving around for a while he finally came upon a run-down old gas station in a worn out looking little town.  As he pulled into the station, a young man came out and asked, “Can I help you sir?  Raths is quick to point out that this was in the days of full service stations.  “Yes, the lost man said, “I’m wondering if you could tell me how to get to Livingston?”  The young man thought for a bit, then shook his head and said, “No, sir, I can’t.  I’ve never heard of that town.”  The lost man persisted, “Do you know someone who might be able to tell me how to get there?”  The station attendant replied, “No, sir, I don’t.”  By this time it was getting very late in the day and that man was getting more exhausted.  So he asked, “Well, would you know of a motel where I could stay and then I can figure out where I need to go in the morning?”  The young attendant replied, “I’m afraid not, sir.  I don’t know of any motels around here.”  With a great deal of frustration the lost man said, “You sure don’t know much of anything, do you?”  The young man replied, “No, sir, I don’t.  But at least I ain’t lost!”

I wonder if we can get lost anymore.  With all of the navigation devices at our disposal, with apps like Google Maps and Waze in our cellphones, can we ever not know how to get to places like Livingston?  In his book Where You Are, James Bridle writes, “The GPS system is a monumental network that provides a permanent You Are Here sign hanging in the sky, its signal a constant, synchronized time code.  It suggests the possibility that one need never be lost again; that future generations will grow up not knowing what it means to be truly lost.”  In an article February 2018 The Atlantic.  Lauren Elkin laments the loss of the value of being lost.  If we know where we are going, we will never be on the road less traveled.  Being lost can be a good thing when it promotes “discovery, imagination, and self-reliance.”

In the same article, Elkin writes about the feeling that comes over you when you are lost.  There is a distinct embarrassment that you either admit or try to hide.  We drive on just a little further, thinking we can find a familiar landmark.  Men are notorious for not stopping and asking for directions, as such a questions would be an admission of their failure as men.

Not being able to find your way triggers an onslaught of emotions ranging from alarm to abandonment.  It activates memories of shame and despair.  I have been lost more than a few times in my life but I will always recall the time I got separated from my parents at a Meijer store in Ionia.  I must have been around six or seven years old.  My parents were filling the cart with boring groceries and I was more interested in the baseball gloves a few aisles away.  In a much more trusting day that our own, they gave me permission to visit the sporting goods department.  It was wonderful.  They even had a left-handed first basemen’s mitt- I remember that.  As I was exploring, I lost track of time and purpose and I began to wander to other displays, checking out toys and records and bicycles.  When I went back to find my parents, I could not locate them.  I ran breathlessly from grocery aisle to grocery aisle but they were nowhere to be seen.  I will never forget that feeling of fear and alarm which came over me.  Had I been abandoned?  What was I going to do?  I was certain that my parents wouldn’t leave me, almost certain that they were looking for me, but I also wondered if perhaps my brother or sister hadn’t convinced them to leave me behind.  After what seemed like an hour but was probably only minutes, I heard a reassuring voice on the store intercom, asking me to report to the Courtesy Desk at the front of the store.  There stood my equally frightened and a bit perturbed parents.

Laura Elkins points out that these intense feeling of being lost have not gone away since she got a smartphone.  Her family and friends remind her, even reprimand her that it is no longer possible to get lost.  Yet unable to read or understand anything from Google Maps, she says that the experience of being lost has quickly inflated from a problem of orientation to a general feeling of technological failure.  Now when she is lost she feels worse that incompetent.  She also feels illiterate.

Yes, we can still get lost these days.  Perhaps there are ways that we don’t even realize.  Perhaps we are lost and we don’t even know it.  There is a physical experience of being lost.  There are psychological experiences.  There is a spiritual experience that can come from sorrow or greed or anger or regret.   Being lost can separate us from those we love and from that which is important in our lives.  It can take us away from our hopes and our dreams.  Yet recognizing that you are lost can also be the realization that leads us to redemption, to returning home, to yielding to a higher power for direction and navigation.

The 15th chapter of Luke is one of the more notable chapters in all of Scripture.  In the chapter, Jesus tells three of his better parables.  All of them are about things that are lost.  A sheep.  A coin.  A young son.  We heard about the first two earlier in our Scripture lesson.  Jesus tells these parables to his listeners, the Pharisees and the scribes, because they are grumbling about the fact that Jesus is spending time with losers- with women and tax collectors and sinners.  He not only engages in conversation with them.  He eats meals with them.  In those days eating was as mark of camaraderie, acceptance, and friendship.

And so Jesus tells these parables about things that are lost, and about a shepherd who risks everything to go look for the lost sheep, and about a woman who sweeps her home all night long to find one single coin.  These stories are about a God who will always go looking for God’s lost children, even more fervently that our earthly parents would look for us.  And after what is lost is found, they are drawn back into relationship with God.  God helps them again find their potential and God celebrates with joy.

The Pharisees and scribes don’t understand Jesus’ stories.  They see Jesus welcoming the untouchable and the undeserving and they were concerned.  They don’t understand that their judgment and their self-righteousness make them just as lost as the worst of the sinners.  They don’t get that God is primarily about love, rather than rules, about joy rather than anger or fear.  They don’t understand the righteousness is not about being perfect or living up to the standard of the law rather it is about recognizing your separation from God and understanding that God is seeking you out and calling for you to return home.

We are all lost from time to time.  Sometimes it is because of some obvious sin or behavior that is just plain wrong.  But sometimes we are lost because there is something we have done or something we are not doing that separates us from God.  We have wrapped our lives around the wrong priorities.  We have pursued goals that have no lasting meaning.  We have worked hard and followed all the rules yet have not scratched the surface of our true needs and our fondest hopes.  We might appear to have it all together yet deep down inside we still don’t know where we are going.  The problem may be that like the Pharisees and the scribes, we define ourselves by what we have done or what we are doing, rather than who we really are.    Perhaps we are not a sinner, but we still are lost.  It is God who grants us an identity beyond what we have done or what we are doing.  And it is God who celebrates and throws one heck of a party when we admit to our being lost and turn back for what is real and lasting.

George Orwell once graphically described a cruel trick he played on a wasp.  While he was eating breakfast, the wasp landed on his plate and started sucking on the jam on Orwell’s toast.  Orwell cut the wasp in half.  The wasp paid no attention, going on with his meal, while a tiny stream of jam trickled out of his severed esophagus.  Only when he tried to fly away did he grasp the dreadful thing that had happened to him.  Orwell said, “It is the same with modern man.  The thing that has been cut away is his soul, and there was a period ….in which he did not notice it.”

We have all been lost from time to time.  We all still get lost.  By God’s grace and gifts of mercy we are found over and over again.  God does not leave us for lost.  God is always trying to find us.  Our experience of being lost is not a waste of time but redeemable

 

 

 

Cracked Pots

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Cracked Pots”

Rev. Art Ritter

September 8, 2019

 

Jeremiah 18:1-11
The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him. Then the word of the Lord came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it.
Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the Lord: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.

 

Italian violinist Niccolo Paganini is thought by many to have been the greatest violinist in history. As he traveled through Europe, he was greeted much as the Beatles were in America, with almost hysterical fans. It is said that one evening Paganini was performing and as he embarked upon his last piece, one of the strings of his violin snapped. He kept playing. A few moments later, a second string snapped. Again he kept playing, although reduced to two remaining strings. Finally the unbelievable happened- a third string snapped. Yet Paganini kept going, finishing the piece on just one string. His brilliant performance caused the audience to stand as one demanding an encore. And of course, the great violinist completed the encore piece on just one string. Even with three strings broken, the master musician was able to extract beautiful music from a flawed instrument.
A colleague of mine is a potter by hobby. A few years ago, when preaching on the passage from Jeremiah we just heard, she brought in her potter’s wheel and worked on making a clay pot in front of her congregation while she preached. I thought it was very creative idea and was considering doing it myself this morning until I remember my seventh grade Art Class. Thus I am not being a potter this morning.
In her sermon, my colleague talked about how you begin with a square of clay on the wheel, about how the clay requires a delicate hand and just the right amount of moisture. She said that the wheel itself must spin not too fast nor too slow. If there is too much moisture in the clay, it will be too soft and if there is not enough moisture the clay will be too hard to pull. If your touch is too gentle, the clay will not form properly. If you touch is too rough you may push through the clay or pull it so thin that that sides will collapse. She told me that her sermon was a success and that the visual aid of having the potter’s wheel in front of the people added to the message. But she also told me that the pot she hoped to create that morning was a miserable failure. She was constantly making a mistake, having to stop and start again. Eventually she ran out of time to start making the pot over again. The pot was spoiled. She discovered she could not preach and create at the same time!
In the lesson this morning, the prophet Jeremiah watches a potter. The vessel that the potter was working on was also spoiled. But the potter pulled the clay back together and began to make something new. The potter saw a new vision for the damaged clay.
God spoke to Jeremiah, reminding him that God was like that potter. God controls the pot, stretching and smoothing, keeping just the right amount of pressure upon it, spinning it into something usable. And despite the faults of the pot, God finds a place to use each and every vessel.
This visit to the potter’s shop was a revelation for Jeremiah. He learned about the power and presence of God to shape and transform each and every person. He also learned that just as the potter reacts and is moved by the condition of the clay, so God is touched by our condition and our situation. And finally he learned that no matter what shape the pot is in, God finds a place and a use for it. At the time Jeremiah thought he was too young, too inexperienced, too broken to be a prophet. But God showed him that in the hands of the Great Potter, he was just the right person for the right job at that right time.
E.B. White, author of Charlotte’s Web once said, “Genius is more often found in a cracked pot than in a whole one.” That is the way of God!
There is a familiar story that is attributed to many Eastern cultures. It is called “The Cracked Pot.” There was once an elderly woman who had two large water pots each hanging on the ends of a pole which she carried across her shoulders. One of the pots had a crack in it while the other pot was perfect and always delivered a full portion of water. At the end of the long walks from the stream to the house, the cracked pot arrived only half full. For two years this went on daily, with the woman bringing home only one and a half pots of water. Of course, the perfect pot was proud of its accomplishments. But the poor cracked pot was ashamed of its imperfections, and miserable that it could only do half of what it had been made to do. After two years of what it perceived to be bitter failure, one day by the stream the cracked pot spoke to the woman. “I am ashamed of myself because of this crack in my side. It causes water to leak out all the way back to your house.” The old woman smiled and said, “Did you not notice that there are flowers on your side of the path, but not on the other pot’s side? That’s because I have always known about your flaw, so I planted flower seeds on your side of the path, and every day while we walk back home, you water them. For two years I have been able to pick those beautiful flowers to decorate my table. Without you being just the way you are, there would not be this beauty to grace our house.”
The Japanese have a way of supported the beauty of the broken. When they mend broken objects, they often fill the cracks with gold. It is said that when something suffered damage and has a history, it really becomes more beautiful.
We may not always feel God’s presence, hear God’s voice, or see God at work in our lives. But we can be sure that God’s hand is upon us working with us, reacting to our pain and misfortune. We may not always feel that what we can contribute is worthy. We may feel as if we are flawed and imperfect. Yet we can be sure that God redeems us, that God reconciles us, that God finds a good purpose in us, and that God uses even cracked pots to carry the message of the gospel. That is what this visit to the potter’s shop is all about. Reworking the clay isn’t a punishment. And a crack isn’t a curse. God will use each and every one of us. Something more than we had hoped for just might happen.

Cheap Seats

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Cheap Seats”

Rev. Art Ritter

September 1, 2019

 

Luke 14:1-14

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely. Just then, in front of him, there was a man who had dropsy. And Jesus asked the lawyers and Pharisees, “Is it lawful to cure people on the sabbath, or not?” But they were silent. So Jesus took him and healed him, and sent him away. Then he said to them, “If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a sabbath day?” And they could not reply to this.

When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

 

A man once received a promotion to the position of Vice President of the company for which he worked.  The promotion went to his head, and for weeks on end he bragged to anyone and everyone that he talked with that he was now the Vice President of his company.  His bragging became such a problem that his wife was becoming embarrassed.  She looked for a way to end the boasting.  Finally she said to him, “Honey, being named Vice President of your company isn’t really that big of a deal.  These days, everyone is some kind of vice president.  Why, at the super market they even have a Vice President of Peas.”  The man was skeptical and thought that his wife was being quite foolish.  He was certain that his position was indeed a unique and prestigious one.  So he called the local supermarket just to find out if what his wife said was true.  When his call was answered he asked, “Can I speak to the Vice President of Peas, please?”  The response was, “Fresh peas or frozen peas?”

Miller Park, home of the Milwaukee Brewers opened in 2001.  The most coveted seats in the stadium are not those directly behind home plate or even behind the home team or visitor’s dugout.  The seats that everyone wants are the so-called “Uecker Seats,” seats behind home plate but at the very top of the stadium.  The Uecker Seats are seats whose view of the game are blocked by pillars that hold up a portion of the ballpark’s massive roof.  Sitting in the Uecker Seats means that you are the furthest away from the action and that the action is obstructed from your view.

Bob Uecker, for whom the seats are named, is the long time announcer for the Brewers.  Many years ago he did some commercials for Miller Lite beer in which he got ousted from the seat where he was sitting.  Uecker then assumed he was being taken to a choice seat in the front row.  But the commercial closed with him in this last, distant, highest row of seats, sitting beside a sleeping man and screaming at the umpire for a missed call.  When the stadium opened, the Brewers had a life-size replica of Uecker put in one of the most undesirable seats and put the other seats around it on sale for just $1.  The trick is that you must stand in line on the night of the game to purchase a ticket for the Uecker Seats.  There is such a high demand for these humble seats that people often get in line hours before the game just to ensure themselves of a cheap, distant, obstructed view seat.

In this morning’s lesson from the gospel of Luke, Jesus visited the home of prominent Pharisee.  The host was obviously someone very high up in the religious leadership structure and probably lived in a large and fancy home.  It was the Sabbath and an invitation to such a home from such a guest on the Sabbath was probably one of the hottest tickets in town.  Jesus noticed that many of the guests were vying for a seat of honor at the banquet table.

Now, if you happened to be attending a fancy dinner in Jesus’ time, you usually didn’t have to worry about getting there early for a good seat.  There was a certain pecking order or protocol to social events which everyone understood and followed.  If you were a big shot, a pillar of society, you could arrive at the meal just before it started and be ushered directly to the front row.  And unlike behavior in our Meeting House, the preferred seats at Judean banquets were in the front row, not the rear pews!  The average person, the invited but unheralded guest, would have to find a seat somewhere in the back of the room.  Consequently there was always some interesting maneuvering for those in-between seats.  The common people wanted to be close enough to the front that they looked important.  The self-important people like the Pharisees would sit as close as they could to the front and hope nobody of greater importance would come along and move them further back among the commoners.

Some people delight at this when attending sporting events or concerts.  Regardless of the location on their printed ticket, they sit in an empty seat close to the front, waiting for an usher to come along and ask them to move.  Then they just move along to the next best empty seat.

Jesus noticed all of this seat movement and anxiety and he used the experience to teach a lesson on humility and hospitality.  And in his teaching commentary, he managed to insult both the host of the banquet and all of the guests!  He criticized those who were seeking a better seat at the expense of others.  And he criticized the fact that only people who would benefit the host’s social standing were invited in the first place.  Pride and ambition fueled both guests and hosts.  Jesus said, “When invited to a banquet, don’t sit in the best seat.  It could be that someone more important that you has yet to arrive.  Instead sit in a seat at the back of the room.  Then imagine the joy when the host comes and invites you to a better seat in the front row.”  And then he had advice for the host.  “When you host a banquet, invite those who are in need, those who will not benefit you by attending.”  Jesus then ended his teaching with these words, “Everyone who makes themselves great will be humbled.  Everyone who humbles themselves will be made great.”

Unlike the modest banquet guest that Jesus spoke about, we tend not to desire the Uecker seats in life.  We constantly race against others for the privileges and accolades that come with life’s circumstances.  We prefer being the guest of honor.  We enjoy the perks of first class.  We want to be served first.  We want our fair share and then some.  We want recognition.  We want to be acknowledged as right.  We want to win.

Sometimes even the smallest of life’s tasks turn into competitions.  Watch students line up for recess or for lunch.  Contemplate your recent commute to work or your desire to find a parking spot at the mall.  Think about the mad dash for overhead storage space on an airplane.  Consider the lines of people whenever the latest and greatest IPhone or chicken sandwich is introduced.

I think about the local Good Friday service in which many of the area clergy participate.  The most difficult part of the service is lining up for the processional.   I find the same thing true of any installation services I have attended.  There is all sorts of maneuvering and discussion among the robed clergy about who gets to walk in last.  Evidently among processing clergy, it is the greatest honor to walk in last!

No matter who we are, or where we are, it is quite human of us to seek that place of honor.  It is quite normal for us to want some attention.  Our culture tends to encourage us to prioritize our own interests and see ourselves in some kind of competition with others over limited resources.

I have never flown first class in my entire life.  Yet every time I walk on the plane on my way to my lowly, cramped seat in the back of the plane, I wonder what it must be like.  Everyone in first class looks so comfortable in those extra wide leather seats with plenty of leg room.  When I get on the plane they are already sipping a delicious beverage and eating snacks.  All I have to look forward to is trying to open my bag of pretzels with my teeth.

Steven Molin tells the story of how he and his wife lead a group to the Passion Play in Germany.  They were bumped from their return flight due to overbooking but received free tickets because of the inconvenience.  Later when they used the free tickets, they tried to benefit from their earlier experience.  They asked if the flight was overbooked and volunteered to give up their seats for another set of free tickets.  Molin said he felt so good being so humble and gracious and benefiting from it.  Just before the boarding process, Molin and his wife were notified that there were plenty of seats available on the flight but because they had volunteered their seats, they were being upgraded to first class.  They spent the next five hours enjoyed what they viewed as the life of luxury.  However in the middle of the flight, Molin noticed a regular coach passenger moving forward to first class to use the rest room.  He said that he suddenly began angry and resentful.  How dare this ordinary person use something that he/she was not entitled to use?  And then it suddenly hit him.  He didn’t deserve to be in first class either.  He was there through the grace of others.  He was enjoying his experience due to the kindness of and hospitality of the airline.  Suddenly he was humbled.

This is what Jesus was teaching.  If we live with our own interest as our primary motivation, striving for those front row seats, then we will always be in state of anxiety, limited by our own talents and success.  But if we seek and support the welfare of other around us, we will learn to rely upon the grace that is God’s love, and we will see that grace as it blesses our lives and everyday situations.  William Temple writes, “Humility does not mean thinking less of yourself than of other people.  It does not mean having a low opinion of your own gifts.  Humility means freedom from thinking about yourself one way or the other way.”

Humility is an attitude of service which we develop as we understand our place before God.  We cannot be that which God has created us to be when we flaunt our own self-importance.  We cannot be that which God wants us to be if we place ourselves before others.  In the Kingdom of God, the proud give up their seats.  In the Kingdom of God, those who share in meeting the needs of others are exalted.  In the Kingdom of God, those who find God’s love in the cheap seats know that there will be a place of ultimate joy and fellowship in God’s front row.