Monthly Archives

February 2020

Sacred Mountains

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Sacred Mountains”

Rev. Art Ritter

February 23, 2020

 

Exodus 24:12-18

The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.” So Moses set out with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God. To the elders he had said, “Wait here for us, until we come to you again; for Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a dispute may go to them.” Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.

Matthew 17:1-9

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

 

While on vacation in Florida, I had to make a couple of unfortunate but necessary trip to the pharmacy for prescriptions to battle my upper respiratory infection.  On my first visit to the CVS counter, I had what seemed like a rather strange conversation with the clerk, a young man around 30 years of age.  Perhaps it was just me.  I told the clerk that I had a couple of prescriptions to fill.  His reply to me was one word – “Awesome.”  Now I was glad that I had been to the doctor, happy that I had prescription health coverage, and hopeful that that medicine would make a difference in how I was feeling.  But I wasn’t quite certain that the word “awesome” applied that particular situation.   The clerk then asked if I had a photo ID and insurance card.  I opened my wallet, produced both and handed them to him.   His reply to me was again one word.  This time it was “Amazing.”  Again, I feel blessed that Laura’s job provides such excellent prescription coverage and I am rather satisfied with my photo on my new enhanced Michigan’s driver’s license but I wasn’t quite certain that “amazing” was the word that fit that exact moment and time.  Regardless I remained silent and allowed for the young man to do his work as he sent along my scripts to the pharmacists behind the counter.

This past week I read an article about the ten most overused words in the English language.  It didn’t surprise me that both “awesome” and “amazing” made the top five.  The author of the article said that the overuse of these particular words is a method of tempering a wild, mystical experience to everyday terms that we can handle.  The overuse of such adjectives can also be a way of raising up otherwise ordinary experiences so that they appear more significant than they actually are.  The article went on to say that the overuse of awesome and amazing is often a lazy way of saying what we really should say: fabulous, great, wonderful, beautiful, or outstanding.  The word “awesome” is meant to convey something inspiring, a show of majesty and force, something larger than life, something divine, something glorious.  Yet we tend to use it to affirm something quite ordinary.  The same is true of the word “amazing.”  Amazing should point toward something surprising or astounding.  Instead we give the adjective to describe things that are just OK or good.  The author of the article pointed specifically to a Facebook page of over 1000 followers which accents the overuse of “awesome” and “amazing.”  It pokes fun at celebrities like Lady Gaga, Kim Kardashian, and Ryan Seacrest who use one or both of the words in many of their social media posts.  The author concluded by saying that perhaps the word “awesome” should only be used in relationship to some mystery that cannot be explained by any other word and that we reserve  use of the word “amazing” for the song “Amazing Grace” or describing the 1962 New York Mets.

Perhaps it is appropriate to use both “awesome” and “amazing” in the description of Transfiguration Sunday.  On the Sunday before the season of Lent begins, the church traditionally hears the story of Jesus mountaintop experience with his disciples Peter and James and John.  Transfiguration Sunday draws the season of Epiphany to a close.  We began the season in January, studying Jesus’ baptism and it feels like the transfiguration story provides a perfect bookend as we contemplate the light and mystery of Jesus for us. Although it is the last event observed during Epiphany, transfiguration leans into Lent.  When Jesus comes down the mountain following his transfiguration experience, he is on his way to a different destination, one that will include sacrifice and pain and death.

While on the mountain, Jesus was transfigured- his face shone like the sun and his clothes became dazzling white.  He was visibly changed.  Moses and Elijah, the two legendary prophets and leaders of the Hebrew faith came to stand alongside him.  In the book of Exodus, we read of Moses seeing God face to face upon the mountaintop.  In the Old Testament, Elijah also heard God’s voice and saw God’s glory while in the midst of a lonely wilderness journey.  Here on the mountain, Jesus had a profound experience that seems to authenticate his identity as God’s Son and points to the glory of God that would be part of his uncertain future.  He found a renewed sense of God’s glory and new insight and strength to fulfill God’s purpose within him.

Peter was so moved by the experience that he thought the proper thing to do was to build a tent for each of the participants, to freeze the moment in time, so that it could be revisited and experienced whenever needed or necessary.  It seemed that Peter wanted to domesticate the moment, tame it down into something controllable and understandable.  But apparently this wasn’t part of God’s plan.  The voice of God came from the clouds, much as the voice that spoke at Jesus’ baptism, “This is my Son, the beloved, with him I am well pleased.  Listen to him!”  For Jesus, transfiguration wasn’t necessarily just an “Atta Boy” slap on the back and affirmation that he was doing things the way God wanted.  Instead it was a reminder of God’s truth in him.  Jesus was transfigured so that we might find the special nature of God in his mission.  Jesus was transfigured so that we as followers could cherish the special nature of our own encounter with the divine presence.  The face of God is not an everyday amazing or awesome.  The presence of God is something that moves and frightens and changes lives.

In his commentary on Transfiguration, Bruce Epperly writes that “one of the problems of our times is ecstasy deficit.”  We have become so busy about our own affairs that we have lost the vision of beauty.  We have tamped down wonder to consume it, prophesy to profit by it, beauty to buy it, and awe to acquire it for ourselves.  The world has become flat.  We focus on the literal words of Scripture as a plan and rule book for life and deny wonder within the stories of the sacred text.  We settle for controlled experiences of God, as Peter wished, for a predictable God, for the letter of the law and not the life-giving mysterious Spirit.”

As we stand on the mountaintop, with Jesus and Peter and James and John, we need to become aware of our how we have done our best to tame the divine.  We prefer to put God in a box.  We tend to worship a “do me a favor Jesus.”  We are more comfortable following a Jesus of our own making, not the unpredictable awe-inspiring God of the mountain.  As we contemplate the wild and majestic and transfigured Jesus, might we prefer a God that we can manage, control, and predict?

Yet the story of transfiguration reminds us that God is not anything at all like that and what Jesus showed us of God is something larger than life.  Rather than trying to tame or tone down God, transfiguration should raise the awareness of our own capabilities, increase the level of challenge in our lives of faith, and inspire us to the potential of God that exists within us.  Transfiguration is a reminder that our journey of faith is not something that leads us to comfortable certainty but challenging actions that transform our faith.

In a National Review this week, author Kathryn Jean Lopez described a program within her Roman Catholic church in Charlotte, NC.  It is called “Hard as Nails.”  The title doesn’t sound very inviting, does it?  The program was a three day mission at the start of Lent which is supposed to resemble the trip of the transfiguration mountain with Jesus.  Participants join hands-on mission projects to help alleviate suffering.  They spend quiet moments in prayer and meditation. They join in meaningful celebrations of the sacrament together.   They contemplate and seek the real presence of Christ.  The purpose of Hard as Nails is to contrasting the truth of what people profess to believe about Jesus with what Jesus actually calls us to say and do.  It is an examination of who we have made God out to be with that which God is calling us to be.  Those who participate are moved by the change that they encounter.  They feel transformed and transfigured.  Lopez writes that it is hard to stay tame and unmoved and comfortable when the Beatitudes are your oxygen and when Christ’s words of mercy are your marching orders.

On the mountain with Jesus we learn that faith is not a safe and certain harbor.  It is not a tame language nor a set of rules set to our standards of reason.  The mountaintop is a place where we become very aware of the divine presence of God, a God who intervenes in our world and perhaps more frighteningly- in our lives.  Our lives have meaning because they were made by and for this loving God.  That is what Jesus experienced on that day long ago.  As we begin our Lenten journey, that is what we need to know.

 

Being Holy

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Being Holy”

Rev. Art Ritter

February 16, 2020

 

 

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.

You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another. And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the Lord. You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning. You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord. You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor. You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord. You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.

 

A bishop heard that one of his priests had a reputation for spending very little time in prayer and spirituality and too much time enjoying the good things in life.  So he decided he would make a personal visit to the priest.  The priest, suspecting what the visit was all about, embarked on his own strategy.  The bishop arrived in the afternoon.  The priest met him, they chatted for a while, and then he invited the bishop to join him in thirty minutes of meditation ending in prayer.  After that the housekeeper brought them supper which consisted of a fried egg, a slice of dry toast, and a cup of black tea.  After some conversation about the challenges of ministry in the parish, the priest asked the bishop to return to the chapel for Night Prayers, after which they both retired to bed.

At two in the morning the bishop was awakened by the priest summoning him to the chapel for prayer.  He was awakened again at 5:30 a.m. for meditation and morning prayer.  After that, the housekeeper brought them breakfast, consisting of a boiled egg, a piece of dry toast, and a cup of black tea.  Then the priest asked the bishop to accompany him as he visited the local Catholic school and several sick and elderly members of the parish.  They skipped lunch, shared midday prayer, and headed out again, visiting several families till they came back to the church for evening meetings with the parish council.  After Evening prayer and meditation in the chapel, the housekeeper brought them supper, which consisted of a bowl of soup, dry toast, and a cup of black tea.  The bishop told the priest that he was very happy with the visit, encouraged him in his ministry, and said he would now return to his own home.

The next morning the housekeeper scolded the priest.  “We never get a visit from the bishop and then when he finally came, you treated him so poorly!  I could have prepared the most wonderful meals for him, but look what you made me cook – eggs, dry toast, and black tea!”  The priest smiled and answered her, “Ah my dear, did you never read what Jesus said in the gospel?  “Such devils can only be cast out by prayer and fasting!”

I participated in a memorial service this past week in Greenville, MI.  Before the service I was talking with a person who I hadn’t seen since high school, someone who graduated a couple of years after I did.  After checking in on what we were doing in life and the paths we had travelled, my acquaintance said something usual.  He said, “I always resented you when we were young.”  I was somewhat taken aback.  He continued, “You were always such a good kid.  You never got into any trouble.  You always did things well.  Whenever I got in trouble my mother would ask me, ‘Why can’t you be more like Artie Ritter?’  I just couldn’t didn’t want to be that good.”  I felt a little uncomfortable and quickly assured my acquaintance that I wasn’t that holy.  I told him that if he didn’t believe me, he should talk to my wife.  But I wasn’t quite sure whether or not I should be proud or embarrassed to be considered so holy.

You are witnessing a first this morning.  In my 35 years of preaching I have never once preached a sermon from the book of Leviticus.  I’m not sure what drove me to such daring this morning.  Perhaps I just decided that it is time.  Leviticus is one of those books of the Bible that most Christian seldom read or study.  The book addresses the people of God, freed from Egyptian slavery but not yet ready to claim the land that God had promised to their ancestors.  The book of Leviticus looks ahead to the time when God’s children receive that land of promise and it instructs those children in just how God wants them to live in that land.

I wonder however, is there a Biblical book with a worse reputation?  In her commentary on our reading today author Kathryn M. Schifferdecker writes that one of her students once said, “I never realized I could fall asleep on a treadmill until I did so while trying to read Leviticus.”  She adds that many a resolution to read the entire Bible, from cover to cover, has foundered on Leviticus’ arcane details about sacrifice and skin disease.  Even if you’ve never read the book of Leviticus, you’ve heard other people talk about it.  You’ve probably heard what other people said who have read it and because of their opinions you are now positive that you don’t want to read it.

The book of Leviticus contains dozens of very specific prohibitions of very common behavior.  Much of the book has to do with sacrificial ritual and regulations that were emphasized by the temple priests and scribes.  Holiness was a matter of great concern to the priestly writers of Leviticus, not because of a need to earn favor with God but because holiness was an attribute of God.  In order for the holy God to dwell among the people, a certain order had to be maintained to produce holiness.  God created the world with the capacity to be good and goodness is maintained when God’s creative order is sought in our own behaviors.

There is probably something in Leviticus that each of us could use to justify a certain behavior or judgment and there is something in Leviticus that would convict every one of us for doing something that we find perfectly acceptable.

Many of the verses of Leviticus include complicated prohibitions about sexual behavior and dietary restrictions.  But there is a lot more words that tell you what specifically what you can’t do.  Leviticus prohibits trimming your beard.  Leviticus prohibits tattoos.  Leviticus prohibits clothes with two kinds of fabrics – there go all the yoga pants.  Leviticus says not to eat shrimp or lobster or perhaps the scandalous things of all- bacon!  Leviticus scorns any offering made to God that doesn’t include salt.  I’m glad the ushers have already passed the offering plates!  Leviticus prohibits working on Sunday, tearing your clothes, letting your hair go unkempt, and mistreating foreigners.  When the book of Leviticus is used to argue about behavior or to justify condemnation or judgment, it quickly gets messy.  Which verses should we honor and which can we ignore?  What good are all of these rules anyway?

We know that Jesus had a lot of respect for the book of Leviticus.  When asked what he thought was the most important commandment, Jesus quoted from Deuteronomy saying, “Love God with all your heart and soul and strength.”  And then he quickly added his favorite verse from Leviticus, “And love you neighbor as yourself.”  I think Jesus understood what the book of Leviticus is all about.  He wasn’t merely lifted verses to support his own interpretation of sin and evil.  He understood that the central message of the book wasn’t about tattoos or eating bacon or getting a haircut.  Leviticus is really about holiness.  That is clear from the first two verses of our Scripture lesson this morning, “Speak to my people and say to them:  ‘You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”   We try our best to be holy because God is holy.  We move toward holiness, not through extreme self righteousness and memorizing black and white rules.  We are holy when God’s holiness shines through us in our words and our deeds.  We are holy when God makes a home with us.

In the book of Leviticus we are taught that God is invested in every aspect of our lives.  Holiness isn’t our own work that earns our salvation and gains for us the approval of others.  Holiness is the transforming work of God within us.  Everything matters.  Every word we speak contains God’s holiness.  Every choice we make reflects God’s holiness.  Every bite of food expresses our oneness with God.  God lives in our relationships and in the patience and sacrifice and forgiveness offered within them.  God is present in our worship and our meditation.  God is present in our daily work and play.  There is no such thing as a sacred part of life and a secular part of life.  Leviticus instructs us that it is all one big communion with God.  God and holiness are in everything we do in life.

The book of Leviticus is not an enjoyable read.  But it is more than that previously described list of sometimes arcane rules and customs.  It is a profound theological statement about life with God.  The laws and rituals of Leviticus are grounded in the reality of who God is and who God wants us to be.  We are to be holy, because God is holy.  We can’t achieve holiness ourselves.  It is the work of God in us, for the sake of Christ and through the power of the Spirit.

 

 

 

The Twelfth Point

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“The Twelfth Point”

Frank Maynard

February 9, 2020

 

Luke 10: 29-37

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

 

 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to you, O God, our rock and our redeemer. Amen

You may have heard the story of a Chicago publisher who was visiting in London, England after the turn of the last century. He was walking around in the notorious London fog, looking for a particular office building in the center of the city. Nearly at his wit’s end, he stopped a young man to ask how to get to the building he was looking for. The young man not only gave him directions, but led him to his destination to make sure he wouldn’t get lost in the fog again.

Thanking the young man profusely, the man offered a tip to the young fellow to show his gratitude. The young man refused, however, and when asked why he turned down the payment, he replied that he was a Boy Scout and taking payment would violate his Scouting code and negate the good deed he had just done.

The businessman, William D. Boyce, was suitably impressed and had to find out what this Boy Scout thing was all about. Boyce and others back in the United States had a keen interest in youth development, so he sought out the founder of the Scouting movement in England, Lord Robert Baden-Powell of Gilwell. The two made plans to bring Scouting to America. Back at his Chicago office, Boyce started the procedures for the organization and incorporation of the Boy Scouts of America, which took place in Washington, D.C. on February 8, 1910.

Despite some early splintering and disagreement among its founders, the organization grew and expanded nationally over the next decade or so. Young men keen for a sense of adventure and the outdoors joined in towns and cities far and wide.

Around the same time, a woman in Savannah, Georgia, who had also lived in England, met with Baden-Powell and saw what his organization was doing for boys. Descended from a long line of strong and independent women, Juliette Gordon Low saw the possibilities that the Scouting movement could have for young women, since the Scout organizations in both England and the United States were for boys only. Affectionately known as “Daisy” by her family and friends, Low gathered eighteen girls from Savannah to share what she had learned about this new outdoor and educational program for youth. With that, the Girl Scouts of the USA was born two years after the founding of the Boy Scouts. In a time when women didn’t even have the right to vote, these girls blazed trails and redefined what was possible for themselves and for girls everywhere. Besides hiking, swimming, camping and learning about nature, these girls offered a helping hand to those in need and worked together to improve their corner of the world. And like Boy Scouts, the Girls’ movement expanded worldwide, also known as Girl Guides in England and many other countries.

Service to others was a founding ideal and continues in Scouting today. Much like in the story from Luke that Lee related for us about the Samaritan, who stopped to help the man beaten and robbed by thieves while others ignored him, Scouts make it a habit to help others. Learning as youth, these values are instilled, and the joy of helpfulness is carried for life. Indeed, the mission of the Boy Scouts of America is to prepare young people to make moral and ethical choices over their lifetimes by instilling in them the values of the Scout Oath and Law, which includes “to help other people at all times” and “A Scout is Helpful”, among others. And the Scout slogan, “Do a good turn daily”, helps remind young people to make helping others a daily habit.

Here in the US, Scout Sunday is observed on the Sunday closest to the February 8 anniversary of the founding of Scouting in America. It’s an opportunity to recognize Scouts and the blessings that Scouts bring to our nation and the world. And although Scouting is not a religious organization, Baden Powell emphasized that the whole of Scouting is based on religion in the form of the realization and service of a higher power. Explaining further, he said “I have been asked to describe more fully what was in my mind as regards religion when I instituted Scouting and Guiding. I was asked, ‘Where does religion come in?’ Well, my reply is ‘It does not come in at all. It is already there. It is the fundamental factor underlying Scouting and Guiding.’” Summing it up, Baden Powell explained that religion in Scouting is a simple thing: First, love and serve God; second, love and serve your neighbour.

Members of the Boy Scouts of America are expected to adhere to its Declaration of Religious Principle: “The Boy Scouts of America maintains that no member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing an obligation to God. The recognition of God as the ruling and leading power in the universe and the grateful acknowledgment of His favors and blessings are necessary to the best type of citizenship and are wholesome precepts in the education of the growing members. No matter what the religious faith of the members may be, this fundamental need of good citizenship should be kept before them. The Boy Scouts of America, therefore, recognizes the religious element in the training of the member, but it is absolutely nonsectarian in its attitude toward that religious training. Its policy is that the home and the organization or group with which the member is connected shall give definite attention to religious life.”

In my service on the committee of our Boy Scout troop, I had the honor and good fortune to interview dozens of Scouts seeking rank advancement, the final step of which is the board of review that committee members conduct. I asked many of them about their interpretation of the various points of the Scout Law, especially the twelfth and final point: A Scout is Reverent. There were many different replies. Some would say it meant going to church. Others would pray or say grace at meals, or attend religious education classes. Occasionally, though, I’d get an inspiring response that showed that the Scout understood that being “reverent” meant believing in a higher power and that belief should serve as a guide for how we live our lives.

We also helped Scouts see the distinction between duty and responsibility when it came to religious life. Often on weekend campouts, some Scouts would leave a little earlier on Sunday morning so they could get home in time to attend a Catholic mass, as it is considered an obligation to do so in that faith. For others, the Scouts often held their own worship service. It was usually brief, held around the campfire, and most often consisted of prayers or other inspirational readings, or just impromptu thoughts or stories. We had many faiths in our troop and it was enlightening to hear how other faiths prayed, since whether one is Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu or any other religion, we all worship the same God. Scouts are made aware of how other faiths worship through these “Scouts’ Own” services at campouts, at summer camp, and through observation and celebration of Scout Sunday, Scout Sabbath and Scout Jumuah.

Indeed, Scouting is a worldwide movement, founded in part on the religious principles that help tie the rest of the Scout Oath, Law, Motto and Slogan together. These principles are that a person should be considerate of others, be helpful to all and be responsible to oneself. The first seven points of the Scout Law deal with duty to others – helpful, friendly, courteous – the next four with duty to self – cheerful, brave, clean – and the twelfth point with duty to God – A Scout is reverent. Some have said that observing the twelfth point will also ensure that the other eleven are obeyed as well.

In this day and age, the proportion of young people in America choosing to do what is wrong is alarmingly high. Sometimes even basic values such as honesty and respect for others seem to be the exception to the rule. A poll taken a few years ago showed that half had cheated on homework or a test, a quarter had been drunk or shoplifted and one-fifth used drugs – figures that may very well be higher today. Even adults have morals and values that fall below the ideal. Only one-third strongly agree that helping others should come before one’s own interests, and a quarter strongly agree that being honest is not something that pays off in the kind of world we live in.

Scouting is a powerful force to counter these attitudes, and faith in God is at the heart of the programs. In the Scout Oath, Scouts pledge first to serve God. Why should a Scout pledge a duty to God? Once again, Baden-Powell put it plainly: “Religion is essential to happiness. This is not a mere matter of going to church, knowing Bible history, or understanding theology. Religion means recognizing who and what is God; secondly, making the best of the life that He has given one, and doing what He wants of us. This is mainly doing something for other people.”

A Scout is Reverent. Reverend Ray Trygstad observed that these are important words expressing an important concept that many may never have known before joining Scouting. It is the clearly stated goal of Scouting that every Scout should develop a personal relationship with God and we play an important role in making that happen. Scouts may not realize for a while who has been walking with them and guiding their growing knowledge, wisdom and faith, but one day, they will feel the presence of a greater power in their lives, setting their moral compasses and inspiring them to do a good turn for others at every opportunity, just as the Samaritan stopped to help the less fortunate citizen, not because he had to, but because he could.

 

 

Blessedness

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Blessedness”

Rev. Art Ritter

February 2, 2020

 

Matthew 5:1-12

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

 

My friend and colleague Steve Goodier tells a story that he once heard Rabbi Harold Kushner tell.  It was about a bright young man who was a sophomore pre-med student at Stanford.  To reward him for his faithful studies, his parents gave him a trip to Asia for the summer.  While there he met a guru who said to him, “Don’t you see how you are poisoning your soul with this success-oriented way of life?  Your idea of happiness is to stay up all night studying for an exam so you can get a better grade that your best friend.  Your idea of a good marriage is not to find the woman who will make you whole, but to win the girl that everyone else wants.  That is not how people are supposed to live.  Give it up.  Come and join us in an atmosphere where we all share and love each other.”  After years of academic stress, the young man was ripe for this sort of approach.  He called his parents and told them he wouldn’t be coming home.  He was dropping out of school to live in a monastery.

Six months later his parents received this letter from their son:  “Dear Mom and Dad, I know you weren’t happy about the decision I made last summer.  But I want to tell you how happy it has made me.  For the first time in my life, I am at peace.  Here there is no competing, no hustling, no trying to get ahead.  Here we are equal and we all share.  This way of life is so much in harmony with the inner essence of my soul.  In only six months I’ve become the number two disciple in the entire monastery.  I think I can become number one by June!

There is a story about Robert Oppenheimer, the man perhaps most responsible for the development of the atomic bomb that the United States used against Japan at the close of World War II.  Oppenheimer entered Harvard at age 18 and graduated three years later.  He studied theoretical physics at several schools in Europe and taught at California Institute of Technology, known as one of the top ten theoretical physicists in the world.  In 1943 he began directing a team of 4500 men and women at Los Alamos, New Mexico, in a project to develop the atomic bomb.  Two years and two billion dollars later the team successfully detonated the first bomb.  When he saw what he had done, Oppenheimer underwent a radical reevaluation of his values.  He was quoted as offering the Bagavad-ita’s words, “I am become death.”  Two months later Oppenheimer resigned his position and spent the remainder of his life trying to undo the damage of his science.

There are certain individuals, who in a flash, see that all they once valued is really of no lasting value at all.  Their entire life has been turned on its head, everything upside down.  They see with painful clarity that the very things they prized most are in reality worthless trinkets.  A successful life is not always about high achievement.  Sometimes it is about character, about living into a personal mission, about finding a meaningful purpose to organize your life around.  And sometimes it is as simple as learning how to live in peace, happiness, generosity, and love.

According to the gospel of Matthew, early in Jesus’ ministry he taught his disciples and follower from a high place, just like the ancient ancestor of faith, Moses.  From that teaching, known as the Sermon on the Mount, we hear the words of Scripture we call the Beatitudes, the words of our lesson this morning. When I was a youngster, trying to earn my first Bible from my home church in Stanton, I memorized the 23rd Psalm, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Beatitudes. A beatitude is from the Latin, a translation of a Greek word meaning to be fortunate or happy.  In the context of religion it means to be favored by God.  Beatitudes were popular expressions in Jesus’ day and not only in religious circles.  Beatitudes were common sayings about the Good Life, accenting the kind of virtues that anyone would be pleased to have.

Jesus’ teaching of the Beatitudes are an instruction in righteousness.  They are not a list of “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots.”  Sometimes we fall into a trap of reading them as a condition for blessing, of something we have to accomplish or minimal entry requirements that we must meet for God to accept us.  We have to be meek.  We have to be poor in spirit.  Instead of prescriptions though, the Beatitudes are descriptions.  Jesus is describing blessings that are not to be earned but are already found among those who already seek righteousness and live in the way God intends.  The blessedness that Jesus describes is a happiness that comes from a right relationship with God rather than emotional bliss or good fortune.  In other words, the Beatitudes show how you live after grace not how your earn God’s grace.

We know the words, even if we haven’t memorized them all.  We know the categories even if we can’t name them all.  Blessed are the poor in spirit.  Blessed are they who mourn.  Blessed are the meek.  Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  Blessed are the merciful.  Blessed are the pure in heart.  Blessed are the peacemakers.  Blessed are those persecuted for righteousness sake.  Blessed are you when others revile or persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you.  Jesus is describing those who are blessed by God.

When we consider these words carefully, and understand that they are a description of reality, according to Jesus, we might wonder what world they describe.  It certainly seems like a world unlike our own.  In our world, the meek don’t get blessed, they get taken advantage of.  Mourning may be tolerated for a while but you soon have to pull yourself together and move on in life.  Those who are pure in heart are labelled as hopelessly naïve.  Those who work for peace have their patriotism called into question as our leaders popularly invoke God’s blessing directly upon our nation.  When we view the world, we generally assume that those who are happy and confident and living in abundance are the ones who are blessed by God.  As Lance Pape writes, “Blessed are the well-educated, for they will get the jobs.  Blessed are the well-connected, for their aspirations will not go unnoticed.  Blessed are you when you know what you want and got after it with everything you’ve got, for God helps those who help themselves.”  If we are honest with ourselves, this world that Jesus is talking about is not the world in which we tend to operate.

Author and preacher Barbara Brown Taylor writes that when she was younger, she liked to stand on her head.  She was very short and everything in the world seemed taller than her.  By standing on her head she could liven things up a little.  Grass hung in front of her eyes like green fringe.  Trees grew down, not up.  The sky was the lawn and never ended.  Her swing set was no longer an “A” but a “V” and her house looked like a rocket in danger of leaving the yard.  She liked standing on her head because it made her see old things in a new way.  She liked it because it made life exciting and unpredictable.  In a world where trees grew down and houses will move up, anything seemed possible.

Perhaps Jesus should ask us to stand on our heads when we read the Beatitudes.  After all, that is exactly what he is doing with these words, he is asking us to look at the world upside down.  While the words of the Beatitudes are puzzling and challenging for most of us, they sound a whole lot different for those without power and without resources; those who look up at things rather than down.

What then can we make of these teachings?  How do those of us who find ourselves outside of these blessings embrace them and grow from them?  A world turned upside down is inspiration for some and bad news for others.  Luther Seminary professor Karoline Lewis tells us that “the Beatitudes are a call to action to point out just who Jesus really is.  Perhaps not the Jesus you want.  Perhaps the Jesus who likely rubs you the wrong way.  Perhaps the Jesus that tells you the truth about yourself.  The Jesus who reminds you, at the most inconvenient times and places, what the Kingdom of Heaven is all about.

Perhaps we can concentrate on the theme of these teachings- seeking righteousness.  If we seek genuine righteousness we will be working for the good of others.  If we seek righteousness, we will be answering a call to action to make Jesus present and visible in our relationships, our community, and our world.  If we seek righteousness, we won’t be worrying about what we are accomplishing but rather working toward creating the kind of world that God imagines.  If we seek righteousness, we will be trusting in the words of Jesus who reminds us that we do and what we say and what we believe really does matter.

It is then when we will find that we have been blessed.  It is then when we find ourselves aligned with God’s way of the world.