Monthly Archives

March 2020

Bringing Dry Bones to Life

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Bringing Dry Bones to Life”

Rev. Art Ritter

March 29, 2020

 

Ezekiel 37:1-14

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.” So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” says the Lord.

 

Each winter Laura and I take our Florida vacation at the Disney Vacation Club resort near Vero Beach.   The resort is beautiful and relaxing and we find our favorite activity to be the walks along the endless sandy beach.  The theme of the resort is the loggerhead turtle, a symbol in the decoration and promotion of Disney Vero Beach.  All around the resort are signs reminding guests not to disturb and sea turtles or sea turtle nest that they might encounter.  The resort itself tempers its artificial lighting so that very little, if any light from the buildings or pool makes it way down to the beach.  As much is done as possible to make certain the loggerhead turtle enjoys its natural habitat.

In her book Learning to Walk in Darkness, author and priest Barbara Brown Taylor tells the story of spending three days at Barrier Island, near Melbourne Florida, at a time when the loggerhead turtles were laying their eggs.  One evening, when the tide was out, she watched a huge female turtle heave herself up on the beach to dig her nest and empty her eggs into it.  Afraid of disturbing the event, Taylor quickly and quietly walked away.  The next morning she returned to the beach to see if she could find the spot where the eggs were hidden.  What she found instead were sea turtle tracks heading in the wrong direction.  Instead of moving back into the sea, the loggerhead turtle had wandered into the dunes, the hot dry sandy dunes.  Taylor eventually found the turtle a little ways inland, exhausted, all but baked in the sun, head and flippers covered with sand.  She poured the water from her water bottle over the creature and then left to notify the beach ranger.

The ranger soon arrived in a Jeep to rescue the turtle.  He flipped the loggerhead on her back, wrapped two chains around her front legs, and then hooked the chain to the trailer hitch.  Taylor watched horrified as the ranger then took off in the Jeep.   The turtle’s body was yanked forward with such thrust that her mouth filled with sand.  Her neck was bent so far back Taylor feared it might break.  The ranger continued over the dunes and down onto the beach.  There he unhooked the turtle at the edge of the water and turned it right side up.  The loggerhead laid motionless in the surf, water lapping at its body, washing the dry sand away.  As another wave broke over, the turtle lifted her head and moved her back legs slowly.  Soon other waves crashed over her and brought her slowly back to life.  Finally one of the waves completely overcame the turtle, making her light enough to find a foothold and push off the beach, returning safely to the ocean.

Taylor writes that watching the turtle swim away and remembering the horrible scene of the turtle being dragged through the dunes, she learned something.  It is sometimes hard to tell whether you are being killed or saved by the hands that turn your life upside down.”

I think we are in that place of the turtle ourselves.  The COVID 19 pandemic has left us at a place where we are stranded and isolated from our habitats of certainty and routine.  It may feel as if we are being dragged through times and places not of our own choosing.  We may feel that we have been abandoned, without hope or any meaning.

The Scripture lesson for this Fifth Sunday in the season of Lent is the story of the vision of the prophet Ezekiel.  Ezekiel, a Israelite priest and prophet, was living in exile in Babylon.  In exile, he and his people felt cut off from God, lifeless and without any hope.  Perhaps they were like that sea turtle on the dunes.  Ezekiel’s vision describes them as a bunch of empty, dry skeletons.

In his vision, Ezekiel is taken by God to a valley of dry bones.  He is asked by God if such things can live.  It is easy to answer no.  But God answers that through breath, through spirit, these dry bones can be brought back to life.  This is no ordinary breath.  This is the breath of God, a Holy Spirit.  As that spirit is given to the bones, Ezekiel sees them coming together, come to life, and rise from the sand of the valley.  The dry skeletons take on tendons, and muscle, and flesh.

God can bring life into places where there appears to be only death.  Darkness may surround us, fill us, chase us.  But God is in the business of restoring hope by raising the dead to life, by breathing new life into people, by finding possibilities in times that seem to have reached their conclusion.

Can these bones live?  These words, this vision, are a message of hope.  There is evil and darkness and uncertainty around us.  But even in these times God has power.  Compassion.  New beginnings.  Restoration.  We may die many deaths but God has the power to breath new life back into us and to restore us again and again.

Again, in another book God in Pain, Barbara Brown Taylor writes this, “if  our turns have not yet come, they will- our own turns to submit ourselves to the unknown, to step into the darkness without understanding what it is all about.  We may not go bravely or wisely or compassionately, some of us may have to crawl, and others of us to be carried, but that we can go at all has everything to do with the cross, the cross dares us to believe that God is at the bottom of everything, especially the things we cannot understand, with strong arms waiting to catch us when all our nets break, with loving arms to cradle us.

We don’t hold in our hands total control.  But what we do hold is hope, hope that in us and through us God will speak to the world.  We don’t know when and how God’s spirit will move us or move among us.  But we can trust that God’s spirit is powerful enough to mend crushed hope, renew withered faith, and to rebuild our brokenness.  Hope abound in the people of God.

 

 

Challenging Assumptions

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Challenging Assumptions”

Rev. Art Ritter

March 22, 2020

 

 

1 Samuel 16:1-13

The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” And the Lord said, “Take a heifer with you, and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you.” Samuel did what the Lord commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, “Do you come peaceably?” He said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.

When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen any of these.” Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.” He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.

 

 

I recall a friend of mine sharing her struggles getting her youngest child out of his crib and into a regular bed.   Perhaps there are some parents out there who can associate with this particular adventure!  I know it brings back some rather unpleasant memories in my mind.  The boy’s new bedroom has a NASCAR theme with the bed itself shaped like a racecar.  The wallpaper is full of brightly colored cars.  His name printed on a car hangs on the door.  All things a little boy should love, right?  Well, maybe.  The first night that the boy was supposed to sleep in the “big bed” he cried and cried.  His parents finally let him sleep in the crib in the nursery.  A few nights later they rocked him to sleep and then carefully placed him in the racecar bed.  They awoke in the middle of the night to find that the boy had somehow crawled back into the crib.  The parents then removed the crib from the nursery.  Dad tried falling asleep with the boy on the racecar bed.  After a couple of hours Dad awoke alone, to discover that the boy was in bed with Mom.  After a few weeks of frustration, my friend told me that she had found something that had finally worked.  They set up the racecar bed in the nursery.  The little boy seems quite content in his new bed, as long as it is in the old familiar spot.

I specifically recall trying to teach my then 19 year old daughter how to drive a car with a stick shift.  It too was not an easy task.  Maren dropped hints that she was not real comfortable with a stick shift.  She asked me about how I would feel if she caused an accident or ruined the car.  She reminded me that her old car in Utah, which we sold when we moved, was an automatic transmission.  I remember our driving experiments down the side roads and in church parking lots.  We ended up buying my wife Laura a new car and my daughter inherited her old car with automatic transmission.

The Scripture lesson this morning is a wonderful story about the anointing of David as the future King of Israel.  Saul, the reigning king, had fallen into disfavor with God because he had failed to follow God’s direction in battle.  So God sent Samuel, the judge and spiritual leader of Israel, in search of a new leader.  Samuel went to Bethlehem, a place that we know quite well from another story later in the Bible.  There he was told to anoint one of Jesse’s sons as the future king.

The sons came out, one at a time.  It was like an audition for a part in a high school play.  The first was Eliab, strong and tall and handsome.  Samuel was certain he was the one.  But God said, “Pay no attention to his good looks.”  Another brother came out, then another, and another.  In all seven sons of Jesse paraded before Samuel.  Each seemed capable of being king.  Each was rejected by God.  Finally in desperation, the young David was brought before Samuel.  “This is the one,” God says.  “Anoint him as King of Israel.”  And Samuel did as God asked him to do.

At first reading, we might find ourselves linked with little David.  It is a lovely little Cinderella story.  He is the underdog.  He is at first glance, nothing special.  But he is chosen by God.  We like to think that God does not judge by outward appearance but by the heart.  With that divine logic, we too can be chosen for something special in our very next breath.

But when I read over this story this week, I found myself aligning with the task of Samuel, the one who had to anoint the future of God’s Kingdom.  That was the tougher job.  Samuel was the one who actually had to act upon God’s vision and call.  He had to learn something new, to challenge his assumptions and comfort level, and to put himself in a vulnerable place.  Samuel had to do God’s work in a difficult time.  He really didn’t want Israel to have a king and he knew a king would just cause big problems.  He had actually hoped that one of those big, strong sons of Jesse would be the one God chose and everything would be easy.  But God kept challenging him further and further.   He had to wait until little David stepped forward from the fields to find an option.  Discovering God’s presence in the mess of his prophetic task was not an easy thing to do.

Did you notice how reluctant Samuel was to do all of this?  “How can I do that?  If King Saul hears that I am running around looking for a new king, he will kill me!”  What God wanted him to do was at odds with his own assessment of his strengths and weaknesses, talents and abilities.  Samuel didn’t think he could be the kind of prophet that God wanted him to be in this kind of situation.

Just like Samuel, we are called to anoint God’s intention in our world today.  It is difficult to be called to be the presence of God in the midst of challenges and obstacles of this virus and isolation and fear and worry.  We look for easy answers; we might doubt our ability to do what is needed; we might prefer that such difficult task be given to someone else.  We might hope that our times and our call would be made different, altered to something we can handle with more ease and assurance.  It is hard to be the faithful person we want to be when our lives and our world have been turned upside down.

Samuel’s situation reminds me that there are clearly two different orders involved in the life of faith.  One is faith we can readily see and measure and understand.  This is the faith of anointing the bigger and stronger brothers.  Just as I prefer living in a world where there are sports on television and live trivia in bars and restaurants each night, we would prefer to be God’s presence in a more conventional and more convenient way these days, a way that assures us of our comfort and capability.  But then God reminds us that God can work through the Davids of the world, acting and speaking in surprising ways to bring God’s way into being.  Just as in our time, we wait for game changing cures and miracles- God is working through important but unnoticed things- the brave and tireless service of doctors and nurses; the relentless research of scientists; the words of kindness to friend and strangers; the phone calls and notes to those who are alone; and the smallest act of compassion that we might not think is so important.  And God calls those like Samuel, and like us to anoint times of fear and uneasiness with ways of living that promote light and life, peace and understanding, justice and righteousness, mercy and compassion.

We are people who are called to anoint God’s way in a time that is uncertain and frightening.  We may fear the strength of the darkness.  We may doubt our ability to handle the task.  We may be reluctant to understand how there is anything we can do that might help bring forth God’s way.  Like it did the prophet Samuel, the old demands our loyalty and tries to discourage us from stepping out in faith.  But God’s future awaits in our future.  We are called to anoint with each word and action.

Is God With Us?

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Is God With Us?

Rev. Art Ritter

March 15, 2020

 

Exodus 17:1-7

From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

 

I read a couple of interesting recent historical tidbits this week.  On 2005, Pavel Mircea, an imprisoned Romanian serving time for murder, tried to sue God.  The basis of the suit was breach of contract.  Mircea contended, “God was supposed to protect me from all evils and instead He gave me to Satan who encouraged me to kill.”  Just two years later, in 2007, Nebraska State Senator Ernie Chambers filed his own lawsuit against God.  In a fit of eloquent alliteration, Chambers accused God of “fearsome floods, egregious earthquakes, horrendous hurricanes, terrifying tornadoes, pestilential plagues, and the like.”  You may be comforted in knowing that both of these lawsuits were dismissed quickly.  Both judges said that since God does not have a legal address, God can’t be summoned to appear in court.

In 1970, a collection of previously unpublished essays and speeches from author C.S. Lewis was published entitled, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics.  The title implied that God was on trial, and the title was based on an analogy made by Lewis suggesting that human beings, rather than seeing themselves as standing before God in judgement, prefer to place God on trial while acting themselves as judge.  Where is God?  Why is God absent?  Why did God punish me?  Why isn’t God punishing my enemies?  Why is God allowing this to happen?  It is not human behavior or attitudes or words that get judged.  It is the action or apparent inaction of God that is weighed and ruled upon by humankind.

The setting of this morning’s Scripture lesson is the wilderness of Rephidim.  Newly freed from bondage in Egypt, the Israelites have been traveling from place to place assisted by the direction of God.  God has given them a pillar of cloud or fire as a guide.  God has provided them with manna and quail, raining down from the heavens to ease their hunger.  But now they have camped down in the wilderness and there is a new problem.  Water has run out and dehydration is imminent.  At first they are merely thirsty.  Then thirst turns to panic.  Then panic turns to anger and fury.  The people of Israel confront Moses, and by extension, they confront God.  “Why did you bring us out of Egypt to die of thirst?  Give us water to drink!”

Moses went to God with the complaints.  He was tired of being mistreated by these stubborn, complaining people.  At the time, God’s response didn’t seem particularly helpful or practical.  “Go ahead of the people.  Take some of the elders with you.  And take your staff, the one that you used to strike the Nile River.  I will stand before you by the rock at Horeb.  Strike that rock and water will come.”  In a way, God was challenging the people of faith.  Put me on trial.  Assemble your witnesses.  Be ready to judge.  I will be there waiting.

Moses did as he was asked.  He struck the rock and water came forth.  We don’t get a lot of detail about the people’s response.  One can imagine that they were filled with delirious joy and they ran toward the rushing water to get something to drink.  Perhaps they were thankful, taking the time to offer God praise.  Perhaps they were only concerned about easing their thirst and did not take the time to acknowledge God’s hand in the miracle.  Moses must have sighed with relief.  He couldn’t have possibly continued his leadership without some kind of action by God.

Is God with us?  This question was one asked by the community of the faithful as they wandered in the wilderness long ago.  The ancient people of Israel were afraid that they were all alone.  Maybe it was a mistake to leave Egypt, even though they were enslaved.  At least they knew what was there and what was expected of them.  Maybe their Exodus was something done too quickly.  Perhaps they had misread the signs.  Perhaps they shouldn’t have trusted Moses.  Maybe God had simply abandoned them.

Perhaps we are in a similar place as the people of Israel long ago.  We are in a wilderness of pandemic, isolation, closures, stock market collapse, and great uncertainty.  Like them we yearn for the known and seemingly safer places of our past.  We wish things were like they were a month ago, this past Christmas or a year ago.  We wish we were past this wilderness and safely residing in the Promised Land.  We want our God to be a God who takes away the uncertainty, the anxiety, the pain, and strife.  We want our God to be one in control and we want to see evidence of that power.  We want our God to make it easier for us.  When it doesn’t appear to be the case we ask, “Is God with us.”

We know that God is with us.  Our cry isn’t really a question but a yearning of faith.  We reach out and we seek God’s presence in the wilderness and in the darkness.  God call us to go ahead with the promise of God’s faithfulness.  God asks us to take the staff of faith, the reminders of where God has helped us in the past.  God brings forth water from the rock, not as a final solution or victory, but as reassurance that God will provide for what will be needed in the still uncertain journey.

Is God with us?  Perhaps the question is not so wrong when it is less of a question about God’s existence and more of a cry of honest faith about God’s presence.  When we ask such a question, we are in a place where we contemplate our deepest needs and search for the hand of God.  When we ask this question, we might be actually wishing for the presence of a God in the midst of our perilous journey.  When we ask this question in faith perhaps we are really trying to grasp the presence of a God who lives among us now making all things new.  When we ask the question we might find God as the God of the present and future, a God who promises to make all things new, a God who is present when we take the risks of faith to follow.

 

 

 

 

Moving On

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Moving On”

Rev. Art Ritter

March 8, 2020

 

Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.
For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation. For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us,
as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”) —in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.

Genesis 12:1-4a
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”  So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him.

 

A monastery in Europe was perched high upon a cliff, several hundred feet from the town below. The only way to reach it was to be climb into a basket which was attached to a slender rope moved by a pulley through the efforts of several monks, who tugged and strained with all of their might. Obviously, the ride up the steep cliff in the fragile basket was terrifying. One tourist got exceedingly nervous about half-way up as he noticed that the rope by which he was suspended was old and quite frayed. With a trembling voice he asked the monk who was riding with him in the basket how often they changed the rope. The monk thought for a brief moment and then answered quickly, “Whenever it breaks.”
Playwright Neil Simon once said, “If no one ever took risks, Michelangelo would have painted the Sistine floor.” What is the biggest risk that you have ever taken? I am not much of a risk taker but I can think of some small things in life that elevated the heart rate and got me considering the sanity of my position. I remember standing at the top of the 120 feet, almost vertical drop at Summit Plummet Water Slide at Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon water park. I almost changed my mind and headed back down the stairs before I realized that such a retreat would be embarrassing and then summoned the courage to take the plunge. I also recall volunteering a few years ago to sing the opening lines in the local production of Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat. To this day I am still not certain what possessed me to accept such a challenge. But I did it. I know some of you were there to see and hear my song. When the house lights dimmed and the music began to play that day, I was about as terrified as I have ever been in my life.
Perhaps the biggest risk that I have ever taken was moving my family to Utah in 1999. I have shared this before with participants at Mayflower Café. It was difficult leaving behind our comfortable life, wonderful church, beloved friends, and my parents to embrace the unknown of Salt Lake City. I had rarely been that far from home much less live far from home. A couple of my colleagues advised against the move, believing it was foolish to take my children to a land where they would live with the consequences of being a religious minority. But somehow Laura and I took the risk and found Salt Lake City to be a wonderful place to live and to raise our daughters.
Commentator John Holbert calls this morning’s Scripture lesson from Genesis “the lynchpin of the Bible.” Here in this brief passage something of crucial importance happens. Abram is called to do the work of God. Rather than speaking directly to the mass of humanity, expecting each person to do God’s will, God now chooses one person through whom God will attempt once again to effect the divine work in the world. That person, called to take the risk of acting for God, is Abram.
God said to Abram, “Go from your country, your kin, and the house of your father to the land that I will show you.” This was a difficult command involving several risks or leaps of faith. Moving to another land. We know the pain of leaving behind the comfortable and familiar for the unknown and the uncertain. Many of us know how hard it is to leave loved ones behind. Many of us know how difficult it is to sever the sacred roots of those whom we have grown to trust and rely upon deeply. We know the anxiety of being called to go into a dark wilderness, to an unknown place. We wonder, “How will we find it? Exactly where are we to go? Will it be a long journey? Will the road to this place be difficult?”
Along with the invitation came a promise. “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” The word “blessing” at its root refers to God’s favor. In the Old Testament blessing was connected to prosperity, fertility, and victory. Yet that favor carries with it a strong flavor of grace. God’s blessing is something that isn’t deserved or created by the person whom God blesses. It is always a gift.
God promised to make Abram and his wife Sarai into a great nation. But even the appeal of that promise didn’t make a whole lot of sense. The goal of their culture at that time was to accumulate enough stuff so that people would never have to move again. The prize in life was sheep and goats and cattle and land and children. Apparently Abram and Sarai had all of the first four that they needed. They probably felt like they could have done quite well staying right where they were. Yet this blessing that God promised the two of them was something totally different. Now their life would be defined by not by possession but by how, through them, the world would be blessed. What Abram and Sarai would do would not yield the security and comfort and that made worldly sense. God was asking them to take a risk. In order for them to be blessed and to be a blessing for others, they couldn’t stay where they were. They had to leave home. They had to depart into the unknown. They had to move on.
Doug Bratt writes that “perhaps God called Abram and Sarai to move on, to strike out on this new and dangerous adventure, because Abram can’t discover all of the blessings that God has in store for him unless he disentangles himself from what he settled for. Maybe God understands that for Abram to recognize the blessings God will give him, he must give up many of the ‘blessings’ he had accumulated.” God does not promise to bless Abram into order to make his life fulfilled or empty of hardship. God does not promise to bless Abram so that he can settle down and raise a large family that God will give him. God does not promise to bless Abram so that he can travel a little, pay for his kids’ education and then save enough to retire comfortably. God promises him blessing so that Abram can graciously show the favor of God to the people around him. Abram and Sarai were blessed so that they could bless the entire world. And the world could not be blessed unless Abram and Sarai left their country, moving on, leaning into the future by traveling toward the land that God promised to show them.
This seems to happen a lot in the Bible. It is full of stories of people asked to move on, to go to someplace different, to a new task or an unknown land. Moses was called from tending sheep to leading his people out of slavery. Ruth gave up her homeland and her people to remain faithful to her mother-in-law Naomi. Jeremiah, feeling incompetent and unprepared, goes to speak God’s word. A young Mary enters the unknown, listening to the messenger of God and trusting in the power of the Holy Spirit. Fishermen and tax collectors leave the world they know and follow Jesus into discipleship. Saul, persecutor of Christians, is blinded and instructed to go to a Christian community where he is despised, to find the source of his healing. Again and again, when we read through the stories of the community of faith we find people who follow God by leaving the places that are familiar and comfortable, almost as a precondition for receiving and being a blessing to others.
The writer of the book of Hebrews defined faith as being sure of what we hope for and being certain of what we do not see. Certainly living by faith isn’t something with which most of us are proficient, or even comfortable. Lizette Merchan-Pinilla writes, “All of this struggling, failing through error, making mistakes, straddling the mud puddles of life, and still missing the mark where faith- and more specifically our faith journey- means danger of the unknown, threatening to most.” Many times our choice is awarded to what is known, rather than to what is too new, too risky, or too foreign. There are elements of life that we just have to take by faith. Sometimes it seems as if God throws us a curve. Sometimes it seems as if God gives us a pop quiz for which we haven’t studied. Sometimes it seems as if God has taken away our road maps or GPS. What is asked of us in life is something that brings us worry and fear. God desires faith. Fear needs security. Faith takes risks. Worry wants predictability. Faith loves hope.
Living by faith is a journey, a process, and Abram and Sarai are the perfect role models. They had to leave home in order to become who they were called to be. They had to take a risk in order to discover the future that God intended for them. They had to move on, to begin a journey in order to become their fullest selves and benefit others in the best possible way. The God who commands and promises is with us on that journey. God is committed to a future with those who faithfully respond.

Broken

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Broken”

Rev. Art Ritter

March 1, 2020

 

Genesis 2:15 – 17, 3:1-7

The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’“ But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

  

We have a few decorative fruit trees that surround our house and deck.  Every three years or so I hire a tree trimming crew to come out and shape up those trees.  Some of their branches start rubbing against the chimney of the house.  The growth on each tree leads to shade that stifles the health of the grass and vegetation underneath each tree.

I recently heard a story of a man who noticed that his neighbor brought in a crew to trim his decorative fruit trees each and every year.  While it made the neighbor’s yard more attractive, the man carried the opinion that such constant trimming was a waste of time and money.  One day he asked his neighbor why he had the trimming done on such a regular basis.  The neighbor replied with a rather surprising and non-utilitarian answer.  He said, “I trim the fruit trees every year to create the space to let God into my yard.”

This week we entered the liturgical season of Lent.  The forty day period began last Wednesday with Ash Wednesday and concludes with Maundy Thursday and Good Friday during Holy Week preceding Easter.  In the ancient church, the time period of Lent was used by those wished to become Christian, to study and prepare themselves spiritually for baptism at Easter.  Later Lent became to be known as a period of preparation for Easter for all believers – through prayer, the repentance of sin, fasting, giving, and the denial of oneself.  Today many Christians give up something for Lent, a certain luxury or habit that helps believers associate themselves with Jesus’ journey of temptation in the wilderness for forty days.  One of my colleagues this week told me that because of the busy nature of the season within the church, she was considering giving up Lent for Lent.  In recent years some faithful have chosen to add a Lenten spiritual discipline, using the forty days to read a daily devotional, set aside a time of active prayer, or take on a habit that brings one closer to God.

It seems to be that the problem most of us have with Lent is that we tend to think of it as a “negative” season.  I spoke briefly on Ash Wednesday about how Lent is a time of saying “no” to things that keep us from God.  We tend to think of Lenten discipline as self-denial.  Just say no.  Don’t do this.  Don’t do that.  But then we have found that life isn’t so black and white.  There are experiences in life in which just saying no does not apply.  There are time in which following the accepted rules doesn’t make sense.  There are moments in which denying ourselves reasonable things produces no sense of wholeness or integrity.

Another colleague wrote that in past Lenten season she had given up meat and wine.  On Easter Sunday she had a steak and a glass of wine to celebrate.  Her Lenten behavior didn’t do anything for her other than to prove she could go without steak and wine for at least forty days.  It wasn’t wrong but it didn’t change her life or begin to change the world.

It occurs to me that instead of seeing Lent as a time of self-denial that perhaps we can come to see it instead as a time of self-awareness or self-knowledge.  Instead of viewing ourselves broken in a stumbling and bumbling and failing way, we are to understand that our brokenness actually occurs when we are people of not our true nature.  We are broken when we failed to live out our God-given worth.

The traditional readings for the first Sunday in Lent include the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.  This is the story that is traditionally referred to as “the fall.”  Adam and Eve were living in an absolutely perfect world created by God.  There were no responsibilities.  Then along came the serpent who brought evil into paradise.  “Did God really tell you that you may not eat from any tree in the garden?”  Eve fell into the serpent’s trap and man and woman both succumb to temptation, trying to be like God, eating of the very fruit that God had forbidden them to eat.  Centuries has added to the complexity of the story involving snakes and fruits and which sex sinned the most and the punishment brought on by such a terrible choice.  We have used the story to explain the origin of sin and not perhaps what the original author intended the story to be used for- to explain the reality of what it is to be human.  It is about our human tendency to rebel against God and resist God’s boundaries for us and our desire to be like God rather than thankful creatures of God.

What happened after Adam and Eve ate the apple?  Their eyes were opened.  Before they were seeing with closed eyes, a partial seeing, a blindness.  There was something about eating that fruit that gave them a new awareness and brought them into a new level of consciousness.  They knew good and evil.  They saw it all.  Life in their world got a whole lot more complicated but potentially more real and more beautiful.

I think that the purpose of Lent can be a lot like that garden experience.  But instead of seeing our sin as a failure to say no to temptation, we need to take Lent as a lesson in self-knowledge and a time to find our place in God’s creation.  Can we use these forty days to open our eyes, to be honest about ourselves and to allow the presence of God to shine into our shadows?  How can we see the world and ourselves in a brand new way?  How can we open our eyes to see the places of wholeness and integrity as well as the places of brokenness and pain?  What are the painful places in us that cause us to act out in ways that are not good for us or others?  What are the buttons that get so easily pushed that cause us to react in ways that we really don’t want to act?  What are the ways we have contributed to the pain of others and how can be a part of the healing?  In what ways have we knowingly or through fear lived a life less that who God wants us to be?  Where have we fallen short and missed the mark?  What are the patterns and habits that direct and control our lives?  Do we truly believe that we are God’s beloved sons and daughters and are we living in ways that make that belief authentic?

John Calvin once wrote, “Without knowledge of self, there is no knowledge of God.”  Let us use this time of Lenten to examine ourselves truthfully and honestly.  Let use this time not to find our flaws and blame ourselves.  Rather let us use this time to accept our humanness and know that each of us were created to be in relationship with God.  The goal of the life of faith isn’t to escape our limits or to punish ourselves for our limits but to discover God amid our needs and to learn that God’s grace is sufficient for what and who we are.  Lent is a time to trim the trees to let God back into our lives.