Monthly Archives

October 2019

Growing In Faith Together

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Growing In Faith Together”

Rev. Art Ritter

October 27, 2019

 

1 Kings 17.1-16

Now Elijah the Tishbite, of Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, “As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.” The word of the Lord came to him, saying, “Go from here and turn eastward, and hide yourself by the Wadi Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. You shall drink from the wadi, and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there.” So he went and did according to the word of the Lord; he went and lived by the Wadi Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. The ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning, and bread and meat in the evening; and he drank from the wadi. But after a while the wadi dried up, because there was no rain in the land.

Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” So he set out and went to Zarephath. When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.” As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” But she said, “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.” Elijah said to her, “Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.” She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah.

2 Corinthians 8:1-5

We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of Macedonia; for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For, as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints— and this, not merely as we expected; they gave themselves first to the Lord and, by the will of God, to us.

 

Three men were hiking through a forest when they came upon a large, raging, violent river.  Needing to get to the other side, the first man prayed, “God, please give me strength to cross the river.”  Poof!  God gave him big arms and strong legs.  He was able to swim across the river in about two hours, having almost drowned twice.  After witnessing that the second man prayed, “God, please give me strength and the tools to cross the river.”  Poof!  God gave him a rowboat, strong arms and strong legs.  He was able to row across the mighty river in about an hour, although almost capsizing once.  Seeing what happened to the first two men, the third man prayed, “God, please give me the strength, the tools, and the intelligence to cross this river.”  Poof!  He was turned into a woman.  She checked the map, hiked one hundred yards upstream, and walked across a bridge.

This story came to my mind this week as I prepared to write what is known as the annual Stewardship sermon.  First of all, I thought I needed a funny story to get things started and at least half of you probably thought that story was funny.  Secondly, I thought of the story because of the particular lesson that I receive from it.  When approaching a problem like stewardship it is sometimes easy for us to seek solutions in practical ways that we can easily understand- leaner budgets and more dollars; and to hope for deliverance in painless answers that don’t require us to think or act differently.  Yet sometimes we just have to step back, to examine the map of faith, to walk on in a different direction, and find that bridge that God may have ready for us.

Next Sunday is our Consecration Sunday.  For those new to our church, Consecration Sunday is the day in which members and friends of the congregation bring forward, in the worship service, a card indicating an estimate of their financial giving to the church for 2020.  We encourage everyone to participate and we do it together so you won’t be embarrassed or singled out.  Normally we hear a stewardship sermon on that day, delivered by a person outside the congregation, but the Stewardship Ministry team asked me to offer one this week, a week early, so we can contemplate what our giving might be.

We offer our estimates of giving, our pledges if you will, so that our boards and church leaders have an idea of how much money will be available for revenue next year as we begin to plan the budget.  You don’t have to fill out an estimate of giving or pledge card but we hope you will.  You can continue to give without making a commitment but we hope that you will want to make a commitment.  Your estimate of giving card is not an obligation.  It is an exercise of faith that helps you contemplate your commitment to God and a practical application that helps our Trustees plan a budget based on some numbers.  No one sees what you have written down on your card, except for our church treasurer and our office manager.  For me, it is one of the most meaningful events of the year, watching people bring the cards forward.  If you haven’t pledged before, please consider making a pledge this year.  If you have pledged before, please pray about how you might increase that pledge for 2020.

Stewardship sermons are not the favorite sermon of most ministers.  It is difficult to talk about money, even though we are reminded that money was the favorite topic of Jesus’ teaching.  I don’t like the feeling of asking for more money. I am aware of many of your limitations and certain aware of your loyal and generous support.  When I preach a stewardship sermon I am aware that those who need to hear it most may be the ones who are not here to listen.  Today, perhaps I am truly am preaching to the choir!  I would like to think that my stewardship sermons are really not about money but about the concept of seeing our resources differently, about understanding the value and source of what we have been given and how we use those gifts to respond in a way that meets God’s intention.  Yet I also hear the words of American journalist and satirist H.L. Mencken echoing in my ears.  He said, “When somebody says it’s not about the money, it’s about the money.”  So I will openly admit that this sermon is about money, but hopefully about a different perspective in how we use our money and indeed all of our gifts, including time and talents and energy.

If you have ever been a member of the Board of Trustees, you know that this is an uneasy time of year.  We are nearing the end of the fiscal year with a deficit. This year for the first time ever in my career, it was a planned and budgeted deficit.  We are hoping that everyone will keep up with their estimate of giving for the remainder of 2019 so that the deficit will stay within the budgeted scope.  If you have fallen behind with your pledge, this would be a great time to catch up.

The Trustees are also beginning the process of next year’s budget.  They are a little wary as pledges or estimates of giving have gone down in recent years.  In 2017, our pledges were nearly $230,000 and last year they fell to roughly $213,000.  The number of pledges only fell by two from 106 in 2017 to 104 last year.  Our church, like most mainline Protestant churches has suffered a decline in attendance, in participation, and consequently in giving.  Those who were able to make larger gifts in the past are now in situations of reduced income.  While we have been fortunate to receive a few extra gifts from memorials and thoughtful bequests, the decline in revenue puts a strain on our ministry and our future planning.

Those involved with the church budget process fear having to ask the tough questions:  Should we run a deficit budget?  How many years can we do that?  Should we make cuts to the budget?  If the only place to make meaningful cuts is in salaries, how will that affect the future of the church?  Will we be able to maintain our beautiful building and grounds, at a time when many parts of our facility is aging out?  Can we rely upon special accounts and future extra gifts to support church needs?  Should we be spending so much of our time and energy on fundraising events to supplement the budget; time and energy that burns people out and is better spent on mission and education and fellowship?

Here at Meadowbrook, we have a separate benevolence budget.  Thankfully, our benevolence giving has been well supported throughout the years.  I know that some individuals feel that their dollars are better spent giving to benevolence rather than the church’s general budget.  I am proud of our willingness to give to many international, national and local missions that assist others in need and I do not want anyone to think that I would ever discourage that.  But we also need to remember that our church’s benevolence giving needs to have the structure of the church and the support of the church organization and staff that must be supported by our general fund budget.

All of our boards and ministry teams worry about the stewardship of time and talent.  I mentioned before the needs of building and grounds.  While we have an extraordinary crew on our Property team, more help is needed in weeding and trimming and painting and cleaning and planning and monitoring the needs of our facility.  Without the gift of volunteer hours, we would have to pay for such service, thus increasing our church expenses and budget even more.

There are many other places in which those who give of their time serve Christ in ministry through the weekly and monthly activity of our church.  I am amazed by how much time and how much caring some of you show for our church.  Still, we are in great need of nursery attendants, of Sunday School teachers, of choir members, of sacred dancers, of Fellowship hour hosts, of ushers and greeters, and of board members.  Church members and friends alike can serve in most of these roles.  As our attendance has gone down, as our membership has aged, it is getting harder and harder to fill these positions and ministry roles.  Those who continue to serve faithfully may feel a bit worn out.  The lack of volunteers is on the verge of seriously effecting ministries that are important to the life of our church and our members and guests.  Your commitment to worship attendance and to ministry teams is just as important as your financial gifts.

I mention these things not to depress or frighten you.  I mention them not to make anyone feel guilty.  I bring them up as a realistic assessment of our financial picture and ministry needs, in anticipation of your stewardship consideration.  Like the men in my opening story, who contemplated crossing the mighty river, perhaps a plea for conventional answers or a surprise miracles today won’t work.  Could it be that it is more appropriate to take out a map of faith and look for that creative bridge that God is building or has already supplied, a bridge that will bring us safely to the other side?

Both Scripture lessons this morning come from situations of dire need, times and places when resources to the faithful appeared to be lacking.  Yet in each case, something was given in the name of the Lord.  The people of God were challenged to reach beyond what seemed to be their limit.  Offerings of time and talent substance were given and in God’s hands those gifts were blessed, found to grow, and allowed to bless others.

In the book of 1 Kings, the prophet Elijah is fleeing for his life and fed by ravens in the wilderness.  He is told to visit a widow in Zarephath and that she will feed him.  When he arrives at the woman’s house, she readily admits that she doesn’t have enough resources even to feed herself and her ailing son.  What he asked seemed irrational and ridiculous to the natural mind.  Why would God send a starving prophet to a home where they wasn’t any food?  Yet Elijah told the widow not to fear and to make him a small cake, and then make another one for her son.  He said that what she would provide to eat would always be enough.  The widow obeyed and God fulfilled Elijah’s promise. By her act she took a leap of faith and gave even while in need; giving of something in which she was trusting for her future.  God blessed her and provided for her.

In his second letter to the church at Corinth, Paul wrote to a persecuted and poor people.  He wrote, “for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.”  From their need they gave to a ministry project that he was leading.  They gave beyond their ability, beyond what was expected.  They gave eagerly and willingly of themselves to God and of their resources to God’s work.  And they grew in greater faith and service.  They excelled in faith, in speech, and in knowledge.

What does all of this mean?  I don’t want to be like some television evangelists that I have seen, asking the flock to make sacrificial gifts and then guaranteeing them future blessings from the Lord.  That seems a little cheesy and self-serving.  I can’t guarantee it works that way.  But I would ask that you look at your giving from a different perspective than you normally do.  Challenge your faith in your giving.  I truly believe that stewardship is not first about giving, but about seeing all that we have been given and rejoicing in a way that cannot help but shape how we act.  And I believe it is easier for us to act our way into a new way of thinking than it is to think our way into a new way of acting.

This week I would ask you to look at things the way the widow did, and the way the early Christian community at Corinth did.  Act in faith.  Look at all you have been given and rejoice in way that cannot help but shape how you act.  Challenge yourself to find places and ways that you can give of what is important to you, not what is merely convenient or what is left over.  Even in situations in which it appears you have exhausted what you can give, consider how God might be challenging you to do something more, perhaps in ways that are surprising to you.  Find a way to give of something that is important to you- time or money or energy or talent.  Take a leap of faith so that your faith can grow.  Don’t stay where you are today.

This week one of my colleagues said something that seemed very wise.  He said, “To grow in faith, to stronger our relationship with God, we need to do something that challenges us.  We have to do something difficult to understand God’s willingness and readiness to bless.”  Choose something that challenges you. Embrace a commitment that tests your priorities and brings you closer to God.

Laura and I intend to increase our estimate of giving again this year.  We have done this every year for now thirteen years.  That was not going to be our decision this year.  Because of her new job and reduced salary that estimate carries with it more practical implications than previous years.  But I listened to myself as I wrote my sermon.  We feel we need to try and do this.  We love this church and we love all of you. It is here that we find the presence of Christ in serving and worshipping, in laughter and in tears.  I am grateful for the privilege of being your minister.

Certainly the months and year ahead will bring challenges, but we will find a way to that   bridge across that river.  Growing in faith together.  When we are generous, our minds becomes lighter and more available to God’s presence and direction.  When we give, our hearts develop a greater capacity to let go of things that burden us.  We become lighter and freer and closer to God.  Look at what you have and what you give with new eyes.  May we grow together as a community of faithful stewards, giving thanks and practicing generosity.

 

 

 

 

           

 

 

Relentless

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Relentless”

Rev. Art Ritter

October 20, 2019

 

Luke 18:1-8

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Preacher and scholar Tom Long tells of a time when Mother Teresa was in New York City to meet with the president and vice-president of a large company, trying to raise awareness and money for her ministry among the poorest of the poor in Calcutta.  Before the meeting however, the two executives had privately agreed not to give her any money.  The meeting started and the tiny nun was seated across a large mahogany desk from the men.  They listened to her plea but then said, “We appreciate what you do but we just cannot commit any funds at this time.”  “Let us pray,” Mother Teresa said.  “Dear God, I pray that you will soften the hearts of these men to see how necessary it is to help your needy children.  Amen.”  She then renewed the plea, and the executives again renewed their answer that they were not going to help.  “Let us pray again,” Mother Teresa said.  “Dear God, I pray that you will soften the hearts of these two men to see how necessary it is to help your needy children.  Amen.”  As she opened her eyes, she was looking at the now beet-red faced executives, even as the president was reaching for his checkbook.

The parable that Jesus tells today from the gospel of Luke is a story about prayer, but not just a simple lesson about the etiquette of praying.  It is more about a God who hears our prayers and about how and who God is.  Jesus, with his usual creative teaching skills, uses the opposite of something to make a point.

There is a judge, kind of an anti-hero in the story.  The judge is a self-centered narcissist.  He gives little or no thought to the ways of God in his judgments and in his dealing with other people.  He is very much into getting what he can get for himself out of life.  He is proud and arrogant and self-serving.

The other character in the parable is a widow with a complaint, a legal case for the judge’s court.  We don’t know what the case really was but this unjust, selfish judge wanted nothing to do with her.  He wouldn’t even listen to her.  Lacking any other recourse, the widow did what she needed to do.  She became a public nuisance.  She stood in front of the judge’s bench all day.  She made her grievance public.  She stalked the judge when court was out of session.  She waited for him when he walked out of his health club and grocery store.  She hit the judge where it hurt.  She challenged his public reputation.  The judge didn’t care about other people and didn’t care about her, but he did care about his reputation.  When the widow threatened that, the judge was forced to act upon her case.

Jesus uses the parable to teach us about how we should pray to God.  His final words are quite puzzling, “Listen to what the unjust judge says.”  Jesus doesn’t say, “See how persistence pays off with a lousy human judge.  Think about how much more persistence will pay off with a just and loving God.  He says simply “Listen to what the unjust judge says.” What are we supposed to hear?  Are we supposed to nag at God?  Are we supposed to make God frustrated with us in order to have a chance to get our prayers answered?

I think the parable is less about teaching us to pray persistently than it is to teach us about our waiting for God’s intention to be fulfilled.  Our prayer life brings us closer to God, but not in ways that turn God’s heart to make our fondest wishes and dreams come true.  Rather our prayer life keeps us engaged with God, brings us to some sort of understanding of how God works in our world and in our lives, helps us remember who we are and whose we are, and helps us align ourselves with the intentions of God.  Soren Kierkegaard once said, “Prayer does not change God, but it changes the one who prays.”  Prayer may not bring the results we pray for but prayer may put us in the place where we see and understand the life we get.

In her book, Home by Another Way, Barbara Brown Taylor talks about her seven year old granddaughter Madeline.  Madeline came over to her grandparents’ house to celebrate her birthday.  They had a cake and lit the candles and grandmother, grandfather, and mother sang Happy Birthday to Madeline as they watched the candles burn down.  Without making a wish, Madeline leaned over the cake and blew the candles out.  “Aren’t you going to make a wish?” her mother asked.  “You have to make a wish,” added her grandfather.  Taylor says that Madeline looked as though someone just ran over her cat.  She finally responded, “I don’t know why I keep doing this.  This whole wishing thing.  Last year I wished my best friend wouldn’t move away but she did.  This year I want to wish that my mommy and daddy will get back together…”  Her mother quickly interrupted, “That’s not going to happen.  So don’t waste your wish on that!”  Madeline lowered her head and sadly said, “I know it’s not going to happen.  So why do I keep doing this.”

Taylor says that since the issue was wishing and not prayer, she left Madeline alone that day.  But she knows that sooner or later she will have to have a talk with Madeline about prayer.  Taylor does not want a child to lose heart.  She wants her to believe in a God who loves her and listens to her, even when it doesn’t always seem that way.

Jesus teaches us that same kind of loving, patient lesson.  He teaches us that prayer works.  Prayer may not change God but it is a constant reminder that God will not give up on us.  It is not a matter of getting or not getting what we ask for.  It is about faith and trust and relentless perseverance, especially in times of need.  It is about a discipline that keeps us close to God.

Taylor closes her story by saying that one day when Madeline asks her outright whether prayer really works, she is going to say, “Oh, sweetie, of course it does.  It keeps our hearts chasing after God’s heart.  It’s how we bother God, and it’s how God bothers us back.  There’s nothing that works any better than that.”

 

The Tenth Leper

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“The Tenth Leper”

Rev. Art Ritter

October 13, 2019

 

Luke 17:11-19

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

 

My spouse is big on thank you notes.  She is much better at it that I am.  Whenever we are invited to dinner or whenever we receive an unexpected gift she quickly pens a note of thanks and sends it out to the gift-giver.  Laura has taught this discipline to our daughters Maren and Amelia and they also use it well, personally and professionally.

Alyce McKenzie writes about her mother teaching her to write thank you notes.  McKenzie theorizes the habit is something embraced by a vanishing generation.  Her mother always said that you could tell a lot about a person depending on whether or not they bothered to write a thank you note.

McKenzie relates the story of a friend of her mother, who whenever a bride did not have the good manners to write a thank you note, would write the bride the following note, “Dear Amanda:  Thank you for inviting us to your lovely wedding.  I am writing to make sure that you received our gift.  If you didn’t, can you let me know and I’ll arrange for a duplicate to be sent to you?  Wishing you every happiness in your marriage, Jean and John Smith.”

McKenzie comments that the note is just a bit passive aggressive.  It puts the bride in a tough spot.  The bride has a couple of options as to how to respond.  The first might go like this, “Dear Jean:  I did receive your gift and apologize for not having written you a thank you note yet.  Please don’t interpret this as lack of gratitude.  I’ve just been busy.  Amanda”

Or, the bride could choose a different path and send the following, much more interesting note.  “Dear Jean:  I did receive your gift but have made the decision not to write thank you notes since I’m very busy and they are very time consuming.  You may, if you wish, send me a duplicate gift.  All good wishes to you in your marriage, Amanda.”

McKenzie closes by saying that her mother’s friend wasn’t really concerned about whether or not the bride received the gift.  She was trying to teach them a lesson.  She wanted the bride to know that not sending thank you notes was unacceptable, ill-mannered behavior.  And she wanted a thank you!

I recall a woman from the church I served in Toulon, IL whose name was Franny.  Every birthday and Christmas Franny would send her grandchildren a check for $20.  Twenty dollars was a pretty significant gift over 30 years ago!  And Franny appreciated hearing from the recipients of her checks.  Some of those grandchildren sent a prompt thank you.  Others never sent a thank you at all.  After a few years Franny made a rule about giving gifts.  If she did not receive a thank you, she did not send any more checks to that grandchild.

Years later I remember reading a letter in “Dear Abby” which I think could have been written by Franny.  Surprisingly the mail poured into the column’s office criticizing the grandmother.  One letter said, “If you want to know whether or not your present got there, just pick up the phone and ask.  Jesus was not thanked by nine of the lepers that he healed.  But he didn’t stop healing.  Written thank you notes are a waste of time and money.”  But the writers of the column responded, “When Jesus healed the ten lepers and only one returned, he asked where the other nine were.  It appears that Jesus kept track of those who thanked him.  Should a grandmother do any less?”

We can probably all agree that people should thank other people when they do kind things for them.  We might also all agree that we should be thankful or express our gratitude whenever we receive a gift, expected or unexpected.

The gospel of Luke’s story of the healing of the ten lepers is a good starting point for some thoughts about gratitude.  Interestingly enough, given the concerns of our day, the setting is along the border of two areas, a no-man’s land, in this case between Galilee and Samaria.  While no such in-between land actually existed, perhaps the writer of Luke described it that way on purpose, to illustrate the lack of identity and belonging of the people there, and the insecurity and suspicion involved in greeting one another.

The lepers were suffering from some sort of contagious skin disease, ritually unclean and separated from the rest of society.  Like beggar everywhere, they cried out for help.  Jesus answered them with a command, “Go and show yourself to the priests!”  This was done in accordance with the Law of Moses and only a priest could pronounce a person ritually clean.  On the way to the priests, the lepers were physically healed.  One of those men, a Samaritan, a man outside God’s chosen people, returned to express his thankfulness to Jesus, falling before his feet and glorifying God.  Jesus’ response was, “Didn’t I heal ten lepers?  Where are the other nine?  Was no one found to praise God except this foreigner?”  Nine of the lepers didn’t offer a word of appreciation to Jesus.  Only the outcast and loathsome Samaritan came back to render a proper thank you.

There are lots of good and logical reasons why nine of the healed lepers did not return.  Practicality usually wins over the spiritual.  Perhaps they were just too busy to return and give thanks.  They had to get back to the responsibilities of life.  They had to buy new clothes to fit over their healed skin.  They had to let their relatives know of their new found health.  Maybe when their health was restored they suddenly realized how much they had been missing for years.  While begging for food, others were out buying mansions and living in luxury.  The healed lepers had a lot of catching up to do.  They had so much to do and so many priorities to meet that they couldn’t see the source of their healing or certainly not take the time to respond in gratitude.

Scott Hoezee shares a story from Ladder of Year, a novel by Anne Tyler.  The character Delia is a lovely, loveable, giving wife and mother who does her best to keep her household running smoothly.  But as her children grow up they tend to ignore her and even flinch from her hugs.  They expect their favorite foods for dinner but never thank Delia for purchasing the groceries.  Delia’s husband is so wrapped up in his medical practice that he brushes by his wife every day, never noticing the clean house and the warm food set before him.  Delia begins to feel like a “tiny gnat, whirring around the family’s edges.”  She dies a little each day, like a flower without moisture.  One day Delia meets a stranger who thanks for her a little something.  The stranger’s kindness is like that much needed water.  Finally the day comes when Delia walks away from her family.  She takes a stroll on the beach and just keeps walking.  Once her family realizes that she is missing, they have a difficult time describing her to the police.  They can’t remember the color or her eyes, her height or her weight, or what she was wearing when they last saw her.  They had been so blinded by ingratitude that they had stopped seeing her at all.

When Diana Butler Bass was here at Meadowbrook, speaking on her book Grateful, we learned that gratitude is not just words of thank you or even actions that indicate an appreciation of a gift.  Gratitude is a way of seeing that moves us to a new way of living.  Gratitude is a way of living that recognizes the goodness of God.  Gratitude is a response to hearing God’s voice in our lives, a perception that recognizes the blessing and then somehow articulates appreciation for that blessing.  Gratitude draws us out of ourselves into something much larger and deeper; it removes us from the center of our own universe and makes the contributions of the divine visible in the presence of others around us. Gratitude joins us to the source of blessing itself.  Gratitude releases us from fear and worry and emboldens us to do more than we ever imagined. When we are grateful, we return to the source of our healing and blessing because we begin know what God looks like and feels like because when we are grateful we actually are seeing God working in our lives.

This is an attitude that is sorely needed today.  Accusations, anger, boasting, complaint- these are the things which seem to speak loudest in our world, especially in the venue of social media.  As David Lose writes, “Gratitude pushes back against the tide of resentment and complaint and self-worship that ails us and makes room for a fresh appreciation of God’s renewing, saving grace.”

Our world and our lives are full of challenge and blessing.  On this day we remember the tenth leper, the one who returned.  We go forth to be heralds of what God has done, speakers of powerful words of thanksgiving, sharers of mighty actions that tell not only of our recognition of blessing but our of need to share our blessings with others in the world.  Let us return to God with gratitude.

 

The Faith We Have Been Given

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“The Faith We Have Been Given”

Rev. Art Ritter

October 6, 2019

 

Luke 17:5-10

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. “Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’”

 

My daughters and son-in-law are on the same Verizon account as Laura and me.  I believe that the three of them are currently using IPhone 7s while Laura and I are still using our miserably outdated IPhone 5s.  Amelia called Verizon the other day to check when she would be available for an upgrade to the new IPhone 11.  The customer service representative told her that she and Maren and Max were not currently eligible for an upgrade but that they could use the upgrades on the account with belonged to Arthur and Laura.  When Amelia made the request, I was not especially sympathetic.  I told her that I was quite comfortable using my old phone but that I wanted the flexibility to be able to change in the future.  I told her that I would keep my upgrade, thank you very much.  And then I told her that she should be quite happy with the phone that she had been given.  Of course I added a few obligatory fatherly sentences about knowing some people who are still using flip phones!  I’m sure she appreciated that.

The disciples of Jesus come to him with a specific request:  “Give us more faith!”  You couldn’t really blame them.  For quite a while they had been listening to Jesus outline what would was needed to inaugurate the Kingdom of God.  The things that he was teaching were rather difficult and demanding.  Love your enemies.  Bless those who curse you. Forgive even when it’s not deserved.  Give without expecting anything in return.  Be ready to take up your cross.  Given these challenging requirements, we can all understand the disciples’ request.  They will needed some help to be whom he was asking them to be.  “Increase our faith,” was their heart-felt request.

I remember long ago, at the very first church I served, a parishioner came into my office with a similar wish.  He asked for help in increasing and deepening his faith.  As a young minister, I was thrilled to be asked to help and I was eager to provide a solid answer.  I took some books off my shelves and handed them to him.  I talked about establishing a discipline of prayer.  I recommended a daily Scripture reading.  I asked if there was a particular ministry within the church that he might find meaning in serving.  I might handle a similar request today a little differently and certainly without the same amount of certainty in my answer.

Jesus’ answer was completely different.  It almost seemed as if he were brushing his disciples off.  He did not offer any suggested reading material.  He didn’t give them any tips on praying.  He didn’t share any of his tricks on how to approach God in the midst of life’s tough circumstances.  He really didn’t offer them a whole lot in the way of practical encouragement.

They wanted more faith.  They wanted an upgrade.  And Jesus told them that the faith they already had was sufficient for the tasks at hand.  Just a mustard seeds’ worth is all that was needed.  You may want an IPhone 11 but your IPhone 5 can still get the job done!

Jesus gave this strange illustration about a mulberry tree getting planted in the middle of the sea.  What a strange thing to say!  Who would want to uproot a modest mulberry tree and send it flying into the ocean where it would take root and grow?  This is ridiculous.  The late Rachel Held Evans writes that she believes Jesus was gently, poking fun at his disciples and their preoccupation with flashy signs and wonders as the measure of true faith.  They wanted some visible and something impressive, like the ability to call down fire from heaven anytime anyone crossed their path in a suspicious manner.

I think that Held Evans is on to something here.  There is a great temptation for us to turn faith into something complex and difficult and powerful.  Faith is a path we can map out, a course we can complete, a secret that we can learn, and a destination to which we can arrive.  We want to try the latest soul-saving gimmick.  We figure that through some class or some book or some preacher or some church we can get better at it.  But Jesus told his disciples that faith is really quite simple.  You just need a little to move a mountain.  The signs and wonders performed by Jesus weren’t necessarily flashy and impressive but they had a point.  They healed and fed and blessed and restored and comforted.  And that is just what we as followers of Jesus are also called to do.

Walter Brueggemann wrote, “We all have a hunger for certitude.  The problem is the Gospel is not about certitude.  It is about fidelity.”

I noted on my calendar this week that October 1 was the feast day of St. Theresa of Lisieux.  The notice peaked my interest.  I don’t know much about Catholic saints and I had never heard of St. Theresa, so I looked her up.  It was interesting to discover that she was a saint who has inspired Christians to honor God by being faithful in small things.  She wrote about how small her faith was but also about how she believed that she had been given enough faith to trust that she was doing what God wanted her to do.  “God would never inspire me with desires which cannot be realized,” she said.  “So in spite of my littleness, I can hope to be a saint.”

Perhaps Jesus was trying to tell his disciples that faith isn’t manifested in flashy things, in displays of power, and in uprooting and replanting mulberry trees in the sea.  When you have enough faith to be faithful, you have enough faith to do what you need to do.  We should not let our desire for more certainty and more strength and more wisdom keep us from using the faith we have.  We don’t need to demand more faith because if we use the faith we already have been given in the way that God desires, then it will always be enough.

We have what we need to be faithful.  It may only be the size of a mustard seed but we are called to make it work.  The faith we are given and to which we are called is not about getting more of something or about being more certain of something.  It is about loving God and loving neighbor.  In small things, God can move mountains- or do things within us and with us that can change the world.