Monthly Archives

November 2019

Thanksgiving Choices

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Thanksgiving Choices”

Rev. Art Ritter

November 24, 2019

Deuteronomy 26:1-11

When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, “Today I declare to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.” When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, you shall make this response before the Lord your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.” You shall set it down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God. Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.


A colleague of mine from Salt Lake City, Steve Goodier, relates a story told by Dr. Fulton Oursler of a woman who took care of him when he was a child.  Anna was a former American slave, who after emancipation was hired by the family for many years.  Oursler remembered her sitting at the kitchen table, hands folded and eyes gazing upward as she prayed, “Much obliged, Lord, for my vittles.”  He asked her what vittles were and she replied that they were food and drink.  He told her that she would get her food and drink every day, whether she gave thanks or not.  But Anna explained, “Yes, we’ll get our vittles, but it makes ‘em taste better when we’re thankful.”  Anna told the young boy that an old preacher taught her, when she was a very young girl, to always look for things to be grateful for.  So, as soon as she awoke each morning, she asked herself, “What is the first thing I can be grateful for this morning?”  Sometimes the smell of early-morning coffee perking in the kitchen found its way into her room.  On those mornings she would say, “Much obliged, Lord, for the coffee, and much obliged for the smell of it too!”

Young Oursler grew up and left home.  But one day he received a message that Anna was dying.  He returned home and found her in her death bed, with her arms folded across her chest in prayer, just as he saw them at the kitchen table many times.  He wondered how she could give thanks at a time like this.  As if reading his mind, Anna’s eyes opened just a bit and she gazed at the faces surrounding her.  Then, shutting her eyes again she said quietly, “Much obliged, Lord, for such fine friends.”

Oursler was deeply influenced by Anna’s uncanny ability to always find some reason to be “much obliged.”  This wise woman taught him a secret that many of us have never learned.  She taught him to choose to recognize his blessings and be thankful.

Thanksgiving Sunday is perhaps one of the most difficult preaching assignments of the year for me.  Given our Congregational background, perhaps it should be easy.  I could talk about the Pilgrims, about their historic courage and sacrifice, and about their perseverance in the faith.  Yes, we are proud to be spiritual descendants of those who celebrated that first Thanksgiving in Plymouth.  But unless you are a real history buff, you can only hear so much about 1620 and 1621 before you want something more to go with it.  So every other year at least, I try to set aside the history and tackle the theological meaning of thanksgiving.  That is where it gets tough.  It always seems to me as if I end up at the basic teaching that “you should be thankful.”  What else is there to say?  Yet Thanksgiving should be a genuine expression of gratitude, not something commanded by the preacher.  It shouldn’t feel like something our parents remind us to say just to be polite.  So perhaps that is the problem- how can I preach on thanksgiving, a subject that all of us already know and really don’t need to be reminded about?

When I reflect upon Thanksgiving biblically, my mind usually returns to the words of Deuteronomy that we heard this morning.  This lesson was perhaps some of the first written words in all of Scripture.  The words are part of Moses’ instruction for the Hebrew people, instruction for celebrating the Feast of Weeks or the Feast of the Harvest.  Perhaps Moses was in a similar position that I am in today, he was looking for a way to get the people to be thankful, to understand the practical implications of their blessings, yet also to contemplate the sacred meaning and of those blessings.  Later, these very words became a part of the Hebrew worship tradition.

As I hear these words, I try to picture that ancient service of worship.  The closest comparison that we might have is Consecration Sunday, when we bring our Estimate of Giving cards forward as an act of worship.  This ceremony was also a time of consecration, a first fruits ritual.   Try to picture a worship service in ancient Israel, with people coming forward holding baskets filled with fruit or grain from the harvest.  After the priest received the first basket, he laid it down before the altar as the rest of the worshippers raised their baskets of giving high.  The priest began this liturgical recitation that are part of the words we heard today, recalling not the courageous acts of the Pilgrims but in a like spirit the saving acts of God in the lives of the ancestors of the people of faith.  The priest recalled the wandering of the people and their initial homelessness.  He then spoke of their migration to Egypt and their living there as aliens.  He then moved on to their suffering as slaves and the affliction and harsh treatment.  Next the priest reminded them of their cry to God for redemption, and then the Lord’s action in leading them out of Egyptian enslavement.  Finally the liturgy spoke of the people settling in a fertile land, filled with milk and honey.  In this first fruits ritual, while holding that basket of harvest over their head, the worshipper became a living testimony that God had been faithful from the time of the ancestors to the time of their current existence.  The one who brought the offering of thanksgiving claimed the story for their very own.  They became connected to God’s story of the past.  They became the promise of God’s story for the future.

I like to think that this ancient ritual is all about remembering.  The remembrance of our own stories should cause us to give thanks.  We might consider stories of our own deliverance or release from bondage.  We might recall times in which we were sustained with heavenly bread in the midst of a desert experience.  We can think of places where we came upon unexpected people and places that gifted us with nourishment and support that seemed to flow with milk and honey.  Yes, this ancient liturgy reminds us that thankfulness arises from the memory of the heart.

But I think there is more to thanksgiving than merely remembering.  There is a call to act in thanksgiving in the present.  It strikes me that in the combination of word and action, this ancient ritual actually defines what it means for us to be the grateful people of God today.  As they worshipped, the people of God identified with their ancestors not through any claim to power or strength or any sense of divine entitlement.  Rather they identified with them by remembering and embracing the concept of powerlessness.

If we use these words as teaching for how to be a thankful, faithful people today, perhaps there are three important lessons.  First – we are to recall that our redemption is rooted not in our power and might and comfort and security but in God’s faithfulness in acting when we are powerless.  God acts on behalf of those who are wandering and those who are oppressed.  The most important part of the first fruits story for the Hebrew people was the recollection of their homelessness and their bondage.  That is where God’s actions was most obviously noticed.

Second – we are not simply to celebrate our blessings in the bounty of the land, to fill our tables and fill our plates, but rather we are to point to God’s faithfulness as the source of the bounty.  We are sustained because God is faithful and we can see this constancy in the fruitfulness of the harvest.  The harvest is not the conclusion of the lesson of faith.  It is the item which points to the constancy of God in each day of our life.

Finally – we are taught to be God’s channel of blessing to others, to those who are wandering or vulnerable themselves.  Recalling our blessings and worshipping rightly is not enough. We are never to forget from where we came.  Empathy for stranger and alien is rooted in the confession that we were at one time stranger and alien ourselves.  To offer thanksgiving is to reach out and share with those who access to the bounty is limited.  Thanksgiving is to serve others.  When we follow God’s intention we consistently share of our blessing.

Rev. Clover Beal tells a story of a village along the sea, a village known for its important lighthouse and safe harbor.  One day there were some strangers lost in the nearby waters, in need of rescue.  The people of the village sent out a boat, saved the people, brought them into their community, and showed them hospitality.  The strangers stayed in the village and soon began enjoying the benefits of the land just as the others before them had done.  One day another group of strangers were lost in the waters and needed saving.  But the ones who were formerly strangers did not want to save them, not wishing to share what they had acquired and have their comfortable lives disrupted.  They had forgotten their story of redemption.  They forgot that mercy had been extended to them.  They saw no reason to act in thanksgiving in remembrance of what had been done for them.

This lesson, this ancient Thanksgiving ritual, offers us a vision of what it means to give thanks.  We are to remember what God has done for us.  And we are to make choices that imitate God’s gift to us.  Bruce Epperly writes, “Thanksgiving is the virtue of interdependence, the recognition that our achievements are not fully our own, but emerge from a network of relationships that sustain and shape us, giving us the materials from which we create our experiences moment by moment.  Thanksgiving as a spiritual practice reminds us that all our gifts are communal as well as individual.  Our creativity and freedom, our ability to choose the good and noble, having their origins in forces larger than ourselves- God, this good earth, and persons who have guided, protected, inspired, and nurtured us.


Preparing for the Worst

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Preparing for the Worst”

Rev. Art Ritter

November 17, 2019


Luke 21:5-19

When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them. “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. “But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.


When my daughter Amelia was in elementary school in Utah, every school year began with certain reminders. We had to send her with the usual items – backpack, pencil and markers, paper and notebooks. But there was one more item that we were asked to provide which made me feel more than a little bit uncomfortable. In fact I dreaded it every year. It wasn’t the selling of popcorn or candy or wrapping paper for the PTO – although I hated that too. At the beginning of each school year, we had to pay for or provide what was known as a “Comfort Kit.” Since Salt Lake City sits on the edge of the Wasatch Fault Line, a large earthquake is predicted for any future date. I remember reading accounts of how when the “big one” hit, the entire valley would be turned into a lake and all along the mountain benches, buildings would collapse or be swallowed up by large crevices. Preparations for such an event were a point of public discussion and residents were urged to have emergency food stuffs, water, and medical supplies on hand. The public schools chimed in with these “comfort kits.” The kits were essentially ziplock bags filled with a snack, a water bottle, a family photo, a game or toy or activity book, and a note from the student’s parents. At the end of the school year the comfort kit was given to the child and then the next fall another comfort kit was constructed.
This note was a hard thing for me to write, so I usually left the task to Laura. I mean what do you write to your daughter when you know she is reading it after an earthquake has stranded her at her school without the knowledge of whether her parents were dead or alive. You can tell them that you love them. You can tell them not to worry. You can tell them that everything is going to be just fine. But you can never be certain if that indeed will be the case. Although the comfort kit and the note was probably an excellent preparation for an unforeseen future calamity, I preferred to have Laura write the note, thus I didn’t have to even think about the possibility.
A few years ago I was asked to speak at a Memorial Day service at a local cemetery. The invitation was delivered informally, well in advance of the event, with a promise of a written invitation which I never received. The week before the event I tried to contact the organizers but for whatever reason my phone calls weren’t returned. I simply figured that someone else was actually planning the event and someone else had been chosen to speak. I wasn’t called because no one wanted to hurt my feelings or perhaps no one knew that I had been asked to speak. I was going to attend the ceremony anyway so it would not be a big deal. When I arrived at the cemetery on Memorial Day morning, I saw my name in the program as one of the two speakers. Fortunately, earlier in the week I had jotted down a few notes, an outline if you will of what I might say if called upon to speak. Before leaving for the service I put those notes in my suit coat pocket. I was prepared. And because I had prepared I was ready for the unexpected.
In this morning’s Gospel reading, Jesus is in Jerusalem at the Temple. According to the author of Luke, this incident occurs after the Palm Sunday grand entrance and shortly before the Passover observance in the Upper Room. After pointing out a poor widow who give all that she has out of her situation of poverty, Jesus starts to speak out about the end of the age and the challenges of faithfulness and discipleship. Jesus’ words are more than slightly frightening, something perhaps like the possibility of that devastating earthquake that we would rather not consider. Even as his words make us feel uneasy, they sound a quite a bit like our current nightly newscast. Rumors of war. Nation rising up against nation. Earthquakes, famine, and plague. Persecution and pain for those who are tested for their beliefs. The destruction of the Temple, the most sacred place of the Hebrew people, the place where many believed God actually resided.
Some throughout the centuries have used these words of Jesus to point at what is happening in the world and warn the faithful that the time of Jesus’ prediction is near. Some faith leaders have gone so far to actually attribute hurricanes and flood and earthquakes and the 9/11 terrorist attacks to certain moral sins or the secularization of society. Others have comfortably and confidently said that natural disasters are tools of God’s judgment upon the unfaithful, just as Jesus predicted. In many ways, this passage has been lifted up as cause for God’ people to prepare for the end times by interpreting the deep and dark events of their world as God’s sign that something big was imminent.
But I believe that it is important to note that Jesus’ words here in Luke are not a prediction of things to come, but more of a reflection upon things that have already happened. Historically, scholars believe that Luke’s gospel was written in about 85 A.D., fifteen years or so following the destruction of the Temple by Roman forces in around 70 A.D. So, instead of predicting the future, the author of Luke uses Jesus’ words to make a statement about the things that we humans perceive to be secure and comfortable.
Yes, Jesus says that there will be times when even the most secure thing in our foundation might be shaken. There will be times in our life experience and times in the unfolding of world events in which we feel as if everything is falling apart. These words are an example of apocalyptic writings. Such literature uses unsettling language and imagery as a means to assure the faithful that they should put their trust in God when facing the most challenging of circumstances. Here in Luke, as Jesus describes war and famine and persecution and even the destruction of the Temple, he tells his listeners not to be afraid. But he does not say that these events are signs of an end or a judgment. He says that they are the kinds of event that move us to trust that God is with us in the midst of our life. The things of the world will not last. All around us may seem like chaos and darkness, these things are not signs of God’s absence by God’s presence. God is still there with us, holding us up and giving us the strength that we need.
Jesus says that such times are an opportunity not to judge or fear or proclaim God’s judgment upon the rest of society, although fear and judgment are ways in in which much of the world functions today. No, he says that instead, such times are opportunities to testify. He warns us not to be to fixed upon the things that make usually make for human security but to be firm and to keep our eyes set upon that which God seeks and that which offers to others God’s mercy. Despite the images of destruction, this passage is ultimately a passage grounded in hope, a hope that God is always present in the world, even in the moments in which it feels otherwise. The hope is not a denial of the struggles and pain. The hope is in the opportunity for us to endure and to point to where God is working to change things for the better. In his commentary on this chapter, Father Michael Patella writes, “The best way to prepare for calamity that could happen at any time is to always be looking for Christ in every person and circumstance.”
Theologian Karl Barth had a painting of the crucifixion on the wall of his study, painted by the artist Matthias Grunewald. In the painting there is an image of John the Baptist, his extra long finger raised and pointing the onlooker to the cross of Jesus in the center of the painting. It was said that when Barth would talk with a visitor about his work, he would direct them not to the cross in the center, but to John the Baptist in the corner. Barth would say, “I want to be that finger.” He wanted his life to testify to the presence and victory of Christ in all things.
In her book, God in Pain, Barbara Brown Taylor writes about a friend of hers who was 97 years old. The friend suffered from short term memory loss but her long term memory seemed to get better with age. One day she told Barbara about a hike she and her girlfriends took up Mt. Washington in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The then young women started their hike too late in the day and went much too far. Before they knew it, the beautiful sunset that they were admiring had turned into a fog so dusky that they could not see their hands in front of their faces. No one had a flashlight, since flashlights had not been invented. No one was sure which way was the best way down, but they would hands and under no circumstance let go of one another and they walked down the mountain together. This is how they did it, one girl in the lead, picking her way down the mountain one step at a time. The rest of the group was behind her, strung out along the path, holding each other’s wrists like a human chain. Recalling the day the woman said, “Sometimes, all I could see was the hand in front of me and the hand behind me. Sometimes my arms ached so badly I thought I would cry out loud. But that is how we made it down the mountain at last. We found our way home by holding on to one another.”
As the faithful, we are to prepare for what is around us and what is to come. Come earthquake and famine, come persecution and pain, come signs of terror and doubt- we are not to base our future on items of our own security and the lifeboat of judgments of fear and hatred. We are to cling to the promise of God and to hold on to one another. Jesus said, “Do not be terrified for all these things must take place. For lo, I am with you always. This is your time to testify.”

Dead Questions

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Dead Questions”

Rev. Art Ritter

November 10, 2019


Luke 20:27-38

Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.” Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”


William Willimon, former Dean of the Chapel at Duke University, tells the story of four chemistry students who unwisely chose, on the eve of a major exam, to make a road trip to the University of Virginia.  The students partied longer than they ought to have done, and got back to Duke too late for the exam.  Sheepishly appearing before Dr. Bonk, their noted chemistry professor, the four concocted a sad story of woe, telling Bonk that while they had left Virginia in plenty of time, they had blown a tire on the way home.  While trying to change the tire, they discovered that the spare was flat.  By the time they could get the tire fixed and return to the Duke campus, they had missed the important exam.  Dr. Bonk was amazingly compassionate and surprisingly understanding.  He agreed to give them a make-up exam the following day.  When the students arrived for the exam the next day, Dr. Bonk handed each a paper with only one question:  Which tire went flat on the car?

I recall a conversation I once had with a parishioner at a previous church that I served.  His spouse had died about six months earlier and following her death I had visited him regularly to check on his physical and spiritual health.  This gentleman had a unique sense of humor and was always joking around.  On that particular day we talked about the usual subjects – University of Utah football, his golf game, the early snowfall, and the activities of the church. Suddenly he got very serious.  “I want to ask you something,” he said.  “It is something I’ve always wondered about and have always been afraid to ask anyone else.”  I was a bit taken aback because it was a bit out of character for the man to be so serious.  But I could tell something important was on his mind and immediately started contemplating what kind of difficult question was coming my way.  The man continued, “It’s about heaven.  I just don’t know about heaven.”  Upon hearing that his question was about heaven, I was only a bit relieved.  You see, while I have an opinion about heaven I certainly don’t have all of the answers.  I’ve been confronted with concerns about whether our beloved pets are in heaven, whether we have all of our missing parts in heaven, about what age our bodies are when we get to heaven, and whether or not there are baseball fields in heaven.  Again, I don’t have all the answers, only what I believe and I didn’t want to leave my parishioner disappointed.  I nodded my head and urged him to continue.  He then said, “I believe in heaven and I’ve always thought that heaven is a place where you’re reunited with all of your loved ones.  I truly believe that in heaven I will see my wife again, and my siblings, my good friends, and my parents.  I believe that my wife is with her family in heaven right now.  I want to know if I am going to be with my wife in heaven, will I have to be with her family again too?” I hesitated, contemplating any kind of sage answer.  But then I was greatly relieved when a big smile and laughter came over the face of my parishioner.  As always, he was merely teasing me.

This morning’s Scripture lesson tells the story of a group of Sadducees who approached Jesus with a similar kind of question.  There was no way for Jesus to answer the question without getting himself into trouble.  And that perhaps was the reason for the question in the first place.  The Sadducees were testing Jesus and wanted to see how he would react when given a question with no easy and practical answer.  They delighted in constructing absurd scenarios and forcing others to enter into those scenarios, thereby trapping their opponents with their convoluted logic.  They were looking for any way to discredit Jesus and his teachings.

The question involved resurrection.  Long before the idea of resurrection was talked about, the Israelites believed that people lived on through their children.  As long as there was someone who remembered them, or descendants to carry on the family name, they still had life even though they were dead.  The problem occurred when a man died without an heir.  If that happened, seemingly everything about the man vanished.  So God gave Moses a law to deal with such circumstance.  The law of Moses held that if a man should die without children, his brother was obligated to take the man’s widow as his wife and have children with her.  Since the ancient Jews believed that one lives on in one’s descendants and in their memory, this practice was especially significant.  But the Sadducees, who did not believe in resurrection, wanted to take the law to extreme, as a test case for Jesus.  “What would happen,” they asked, “if each of seven brothers die after marrying a widow, and all are childless?  In the resurrection, whose wife will the woman be?”

Again, William Willimon tells of a couple he was counseling before marriage.  As they were reviewing the vows, they got to the part where the groom was to say, “I take you to be my wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until we are parted by death.”  Suddenly the groom wanted a change.  He wanted to know why, if both partners believed in eternal life, that they should promise to love one another only until death separated them.  Willimon said the question raised things he wasn’t prepared to talk about at marriage counseling.  Will death end marriage or will somehow that relationship continue in life eternal?  Will it even matter?  What kind of changes will the new world of resurrection bring?  Will it cause more problems than it solves?

That is what the Sadducees wanted to demonstrate.  They wanted to prove resurrection was a logical absurdity, wishful thinking, through presenting the ridiculous problems it presented.  But Jesus recognized that they spoke hypothetical questions.  They didn’t care about the widow in the story. They wanted prove their own bias against resurrection and at the same time trap Jesus into answering a question for which there was no right or easy answer, proving he wasn’t such a religious authority.

But like the clever chemistry professor, Jesus redefined the issue.  He offered an alternative exam, proving that he saw and spoke of a different perspective.  The Sadducees’ question was premised on the assumption that eternal life is an endless state of more of the same for humankind.  Jesus challenged their premise that marriage as they knew it, will have anything to do with life in the Kingdom of God.  He said, “Who told you that marriage would be part of the life after resurrection?”  Jesus said that while such things as marriage enhance and bless and preserve our earthly existence, beyond our physical life- in our eternal life with God, such things will not be necessary.  Jesus did not say that we will not see or know those who have been dear to us in our earthly life, but he did say that our resurrection life will not be marked by the same kinds of things as this earthly life.

This teaching of Jesus certainly wasn’t designed to educate us on the concept of marriage.  And it probably doesn’t do much to answer our deep and sincere questions about a place we call heaven and the resurrected life.  What our bodies and relationships will be like in the life to come is not clear. Perhaps all we can say is that what Jesus teaches here is that we should not assume that life in the eternal Kingdom of God will be just like the life we know now but more so.  Jesus did not approach resurrection as a practical plan based on our belief in God.  He spoke about it and entered into it as part of our origin with God and our eternal union with God.  It is a way in which we live on with God and how God gives us worth but God is a loving God that will never let go of us even into eternity.  We may not have any understanding of what resurrection means or what our everlasting life with look like.  But we do not need to worry because we follow one who entered into it himself, who wasn’t in death’s tomb but showed up with his friends to eat and walked through locked doors.  He was the same but different.  But he was full of the power of the God of life.

Barbara Brown Taylor writes that, “Resurrection is not about our own faithfulness.  It is a radical claim about the faithfulness of God, who will not abandon the bodies of the beloved.  Marriage is how we preserve our own lives in this world, but in the world to come that will not be necessary anymore.  We will all be wed to God- the God who is able to make children out of dust, out of dry bones, out of the bits and pieces of genuine love we are able to scrape up over a lifetime of trying- ‘for he is not God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all of them are alive.’”

We are God’s children now.  We will be God’s children forever.  However that looks and however we experience it, it will be a look and experience of God’s.  And that should be enough for us to know.





Up A Tree

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Up A Tree”

Rev. Art Ritter

November 3, 2019


Luke 19:1-10

He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”


 If you attended Sunday School classes in the 50’s and 60’s and 70’s, you probably learned the song well.  “Zacchaeus was a wee little man and a wee little man was he.  He climbed up in a sycamore tree for the Lord he wanted to see.”  That is how and what most of us learned about Zacchaeus.  He was vertically challenged

I have a colleague who suffers from the same affliction as Zacchaeus.  One day he shared with me some of the hazards of life that short people encounter.  As a person of average height, I had never thought about some of these things.  You notice people bending down to speak with you.  You get to hear every short joke ever written.  He mentioned that being short makes it harder to reach things on high store shelves but also harder to be seen, to be heard, and sometimes to be included.  Group photos always require special attention.  You need to be very aware about where you stand or you won’t even be seen.  Concerts are you worst nightmare.  People at concerts tend to stand for the whole event and as a short person, all you see are their sweaty backs.  Your shoulder sometimes get used as armrests by taller people, as if it is a handy piece of furniture.  You have to be careful when you hug people because your hands and face may end up in unintended and embarrassing places.  Finally he told me that his job requires him to visit many churches and to talk from many different pulpits and lecterns.  He has learned to call ahead and ask about the level of the speaking platform and the height of the microphone and to not be too embarrassed to ask for a step or riser to stand upon.

Certainly the lack of physical height was a challenge for Zacchaeus but he also fell short in a couple of other important areas of society.  He was a tax collector.  He made himself rich at the expense of others.  New Testament scholar Anselm Grun theorizes that because Zacchaeus felt so small and unnoticed, he attempted to compensate for his feeling of inferiority by earning as much money as possible.  He took tax collecting seriously.  He wanted recognition.  He wanted to stand out.  Because he felt so small, he tried to set himself above other people.  Certainly Zacchaeus was not a well-loved man.  He served the needs of the government, collecting taxes from people whether they could afford the taxes or not.  He was a tool of the establishment, holding a position which the people resented.  People didn’t want to hang around with tax collectors.  Strike two for Zacchaeus.

And finally Zacchaeus must have been good at his job.  Scripture says that he was rich.  In those days wise tax collectors carefully skimmed off a portion or what people paid before sending the money along to the government.  He was wealthy and his wealth came from the burdens of the common folk.  How could anyone love such a man who took advantage of them for his own advantage?  His wealth was strike three.  Author Frederick Buechner described Zacchaeus with this sentence, “a sawed-off little social disaster with a big bank account and a crooked job.”  Certainly not a very flattering description!

On the day in which Jesus came into Jericho, a crowd of people gathered to see the man who had gained a reputation for some as a miracle worker, a preacher of great wisdom, and a possible messiah.  Yet Jesus was also thought of as a troublemaker by others.  Certainly Jesus was someone about whom lots of people had clear opinions and nearly everyone in Galilee and Judea was interested in seeing him.

That was the position of Zacchaeus.  We have no evidence to think he regarded Jesus as a Savior, or as Lord, or any other positive thing.  He simply wanted to know who this Jesus was and what the fuss was all about.  And so he climbed a sycamore tree to better see him.  There was something within Zacchaeus that moved him to start scaling those branches.  I always thought it was for purely physical reasons.  Zacchaeus wanted to see and this was the only way he could do it.  That answer always made a lot of practical sense.  Yet some scholars take a more skeptical view.  Alyce McKenzie writes that by climbing the tree, Zacchaeus was merely thinking of himself again, setting himself above everyone else, and flaunting his sense of self-importance one more time.  Other scholars are a bit kinder in explaining Zacchaeus’ motives.  Perhaps he wanted to be there that day to see Jesus but also wanted to go unnoticed.  He thought he could somehow blend in with the leaves and branches of the sycamore.  He was hiding in the tree.  Or maybe Zacchaeus was just plain desperate and was actually looking for some answers.  He was living his life on the margins, without respect and without love.  He was in a state of some personal anguish. He was searching for forgiveness and for meaning and he hoped he might find a source of it in this traveling teacher.  He risked his dignity climbing a tree to see this person that everyone else was talking about.  Surely something more than curiosity would drive him to go to such lengths.  But there is nothing in Luke’s account of that day that indicates Zacchaeus was looking for a change in his lifestyle or fiscal practices.  Perhaps the best explanation is that he was just curious, and that’s all.

Then the parade stopped right in front of him.  Jesus looked at Zacchaeus and the rest of the crowd followed suit.  Can you imagine how Zacchaeus felt?  Busted!  Scott Hoezee writes that he must have felt like the 7th grade boy caught trying to peek into the window of the girls’ locker room!  Jesus tells Zacchaeus to come down from the tree for it is in his house that he will spend the rest of the day.  And from that moment on, everything changed.

Despite appearances, Zacchaeus did not have his life altogether.  Yes, he was rich and had everything he wanted or at least knew how to get those things.  But while he was up that tree, at the moment Jesus looked at him, he became a different person.  He starting wondering how it had come to this.  How was he living his life in this shady manner?  How had he lost the respect of people around him?  How had he misplaced the priorities of his life?  He realized that he was lost.  And with the words of Jesus he knew he had been found.

We can debate how Zacchaeus got up the tree.  But have you ever thought about how hard it might have been to get down.  Perhaps climbing down from the tree was even a greater risk.  Now that everyone’s attention was upon him, how would the people of Jericho react?  Will the crowd become angry with him for stopping the parade?  Will they take the opportunity to lash out with verbal or even physical abuse at this despised tax collector?  The writer of Luke records some grumbling going on.  “Why is Jesus eating at the house of this sinner?”  Certainly a lot of the crowd wondered why this sinner was getting so much of the honored guest’s attention.  And while Zacchaeus gladly accept the presence of God’s grace and forgiveness in Jesus, there must have been some real courage involved in climbing down that tree.  At Jesus’ side, he must see things differently.  At Jesus’ side, the view of life was much different than it was up that tree.  At Jesus’ side he was challenged to think differently, act differently, and be different.  He had to know that Jesus would change his priorities on the world and his place within it.

I read a rather sad story this week about a man in the Philippines who climbed a 60 foot tall coconut tree near his home in 2014.  He pledged to stay up the tree for the rest of his life.  Evidently he had been struck on the head during a physical altercation and was now afraid that someone around him was trying to kill him.  He believed that the only way he could stay alive was to climb the tallest tree and stay there.  And he did so for three years, surviving only on the food and water his mother brought him every day, pulled up with an improvised rope.  He would relieve himself from the top of the tree and not even raging storms or blistering heat or ruthless insect could get him to come down.  He was that afraid of the world and of his place in it.  Finally, a team of 5 people arrived with a chainsaw and began to take down the tree carefully.  Everything went as planned and the man was rescued safely and was immediately presented for a doctor’s care.  He did not recognize the source of salvation and healing but at least his life was saved.

The end to the Zacchaeus story was much more satisfying.  While he may have ascended the tree in fear or shame or regret, it was joy and not chain saws that brought him down.  Indeed, in climbing down his joy knew no bounds.  He offered restitution to his financial victims, payment well beyond what was expected.  Zacchaeus the wealthy tax collector, changed by the presence of God in the person Jesus, saw his life differently with a new set of priorities.  He made himself poor in material things so that he could now be rich in spirit.

The lesson of this story comes in our choices of life.  Are we up the tree, stuck in judgements that bar us and others from discovering the good news?  Are we up the tree to lift our own needs and desires above the needs of the world, making ourselves so exclusive that we shut out others?  Are we up the tree, playing it safe with our gifts and talents and money?  Or are we up a tree, ashamed and hiding or proud and arrogant?

Can we recognize the grace of God that walks before us and demands that we climb down that tree?  Can we respond to our acceptance and our forgiveness with the grace and mercy Jesus offers to us?  Can we stand beside Jesus, accepting the challenge to think differently, to be stewards or our gifts rather than users, and to give up whatever it might be that keep us from following faithfully?  Like Zacchaeus, the moment we leave the tree and our feet first hit the ground, everything changes.