Monthly Archives

May 2020

The Miracle of Understanding

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“The Miracle of Understanding”

Rev. Art Ritter

May 31, 2020

 

Acts 2:1-21

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

 

I read an essay this week that spoke to my heart.  It was written by CNN’s Editor at Large Chris Cillizza.  Cillizza wrote that in mid-March, when the world was just beginning to shut down because of the coronavirus, he anticipated a big rush of anxiety.  He had suffered from health issues early in life and so he worried that the virus might prey upon his serious pre-existing conditions.  He took his temperature several times a day.  He followed proper social distancing.   He paid close attention to every cough and sneeze.  Eventually Cillizza survived a cold and after a few weeks his health anxiety began to fade.

As the calendar moved into mid-May, Cillizza writes that he suddenly has become anxious again.  This time his anxiety was caused not by his health but by his uncertainty.  Society was opening up.  Some people were happy.  Others were not.  Some people were venturing out.  Others were staying at home.  Some were wearing masks.  Others were scoffing at the idea of wearing a mask.  Some seemed to be content to wait for a vaccine.  Others seemed to be advocating for herd immunity.  Cillizza writes that the rules had changed or perhaps there aren’t any rules anymore.  Yes, there are still guidelines but nowadays people are interpreting those guidelines very differently.

Suddenly Cillizza has all sorts of questions.  Should he be wearing a mask?  Should his kids go to summer camp or have friends over for play dates?  Should he make plans for a summer trip?  Should he invite another family over for a Memorial Day cookout?  He has reached out for answers and found that lots of people seemed to have plenty of them.  But the answers that he has heard are often the exact opposites of each other.  There is a cacophony of voices speaking with different wisdom.  The certainty of people’s sure answers provide him with even more uncertainty.  It is frightening!  Cillizza quotes Rousseau in saying, “When things are important, we prefer to be wrong than to believe nothing at all.”  This may indeed be the logic behind people’s strong opinions about things today.  They just need to believe something.

As I mentioned in a sermon a few weeks ago, it seems to me that in the face of our struggle against COVID-19, uncertainty is growing.  Like Cillizza, much of my uncertainty comes from so many other people being absolutely certain about things that have no easy answers.  I understand the tension between the health concerns that keep our stay at home requests in place, and the economic concerns that resulting job furloughs and unemployment cause.  But other divides seem to grow deeper.  The wearing of masks, seemingly a simple yet important gesture of health, has become a hot button political issue.  People who wear masks live in fear.  People who don’t wear masks don’t care about the welfare of others.  Some people have dismissed the idea of social distancing to the ash heap of weeks ago, believing that when it comes to gatherings, now is the time to just get back to normal.  Crazy conspiracy theories swirl and gain strength with each news deadline.  I read this week where many people will refuse to get a vaccine for COVID-19 if and when it becomes available, because they believe that a certain billionaire is putting a tracking device into the vaccine.  It is almost laughable yet frightening.  It seems as if we are speaking different languages today; that we are divided by our inability to listen to each other and understand what the other person may believe to be an important truth.

Long ago, on the day of Pentecost, the believers of Jesus Christ were gathered together in Jerusalem.  While they were there the gift of the Holy Spirit came upon them.  A strong wind began to blow.  Tongues of fire danced over their heads.  Each person spoke in their own language but everyone around seemed to have the ability to understand that language as their own.  Ex-fishermen and tax collectors suddenly gained the ability to talk in ways that learned scholars and trained experts could hear.  The sights and the sounds of Pentecost drew people together.

Calvin Seminary’s Scott Hoezee writes that one can only imagine the cacophony that filled Jerusalem’s streets and alleys before the day of Pentecost.  Given the many different opinions and voices we hear today, we might imagine the chaos of a community who spoke in at least fifteen different languages trying to communicate with each other.  And then wind and flame and the power of God moved God’s followers to speak in those different languages, but not to divide but to bring together.  All of those in the diverse crowd heard as if the words were spoken directly to them.  There was no longer uncertainty and division.  There was no anger and suspicion.  There was unity and purpose.

On the day of Pentecost, the followers of Jesus began to act boldly upon their faith.  They began to share of their life together in common meal and prayer.  They united to pool their resources so that no one went hungry.  Instead of trying to persuade others to come to their side through the power of logic and language and politics, they brought others to hear the good news by doing God’s work in God’s world.  They no longer felt bound to the correctness of tradition.  They no longer worried about who was more right or who had the higher moral ground.  They no longer saw themselves as one group pitted against another or one culture trying to change another.  They were simply people of God’s compassion and healing and justice.   The Holy Spirit brought people together by unleashing their ability to be the body of Christ.

Amy Lindeman Allen, professor at Christian Theological Seminary, writes that the miracle of Pentecost is not so much a miracle of understanding as it is a miracle of hearing.  What caught people’s attention, what gave them pause, what lead them to want to learn more, was that the followers of Jesus were speaking in the people’s own native languages.  When you preach to others with your moral superiority, when you stand over another with threats and insults, we you claim to rule with only your own power, it is hard for others to listen.  When someone reaches out to you, when someone approaches you at your own level, when someone sees you for who you are at your core, it is a lot easier to hear what they have to say in return.  Allen writes that throughout the book of Acts, the apostles of Christ engage in proclamation and mission that goes out to people of all nations, that accommodates different views and cultural practices, that does not demand that people come to them, but rather, brings the good news of Jesus to meet everyone where they are.

The Holy Spirit is still loose in our world of pandemic.  On this day of Pentecost we are to consider how that Spirit continues to draw diverse and even disagreeing people together.  It is not through the logic of our arguments or through the politically charged language or the volume of our voices.  Those methods only contribute to the chaos and uncertainty.  It is through the work of love spoken in words and acts of kindness and compassion.  It is through seeing others genuinely and speaking in their own tongue that we will be heard.  We pray for the Holy Spirit to come upon us and between us, turning lives around from the inside out, taking the selfish viewpoints of different interests and creating a desire to love each other with abandon and compassion.

In The Meantime

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“In The Meantime”

Rev. Art Ritter

May 24, 2020

 

 

Acts 1:6-14

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.

 

One of my friends is getting ready to retire.  He and his wife are ready to sell and leave the house that they have lived in for thirty-eight years, and move closer to a warmer climate in another state.  As you can imagine, the house is full of memories.  My friend talked emotionally about the day they moved into the house, about bringing babies home from the hospital, about watching all of the neighborhood children grow up, about hosting friends at summer cookouts, about celebrating Christmas and decorating the tree, and about the house being the one constant through a life of changing circumstances and situations.

My friend told me that the house by itself is nothing special.  It is relatively small, three bedrooms and two baths – but it fit their family of four.  They had the bathrooms changed and the kitchen remodeled twice, but the house was never what anyone would call a palace.  It was just a modest house that sat in a modest neighborhood.  My friend said that when he and his wife moved into the area, they had to find a house quickly.  While they toured many they just couldn’t seem to find what they really wanted.  And so they settled on the house in which they lived for thirty-eight years, thinking that they might live there for just a few years, that is until they found the house that they were really looking for.  It was never the house of their dreams.  They were always searching for the house of their dreams, and in the meantime they managed to build and live their dreams in the little modest house that became their nearly forever home.

In the meantime.   How much of life do we live hoping for a situation to change?  How much time do we waste waiting for tomorrow to bring something more to our suiting?  How many opportunities go by while we seek resolution to our needs and our source of uneasiness before we are motivated take action?  How much of our lives are lived while we await the promise that we hope will be coming, lived in that unknown yet perhaps ordinary territory that we call- in the meantime.

In the meantime.   Those moments between one door closing and another door opening.  Those times lived between an unexpected ending and a hoped for yet uncertain new beginning.  Meantime moments are longer versions of the time when the nurse takes our weight and temperature and blood pressure and then leaves the room, assuring us that the doctor will soon be in to see us.  In the meantime things are out of our control until we speak with the doctor and hopefully get on our way again, back to the place where things are the way we think they should be.

In the meantime.  Perhaps that is how all of us are living right now.  With the arrival of the COVID-19 virus, our world and our lives changed.  Nothing is as it was before.  Work.  Schools.  Travel.  Shopping.  Medical appointments.  Visits with family.  Child care.  Leisure.  Worship.  Each of us yearns for that day when things get back to normal although we all may have a different interpretation of what that day might look like.  Will it be when restrictions are lifted?  Will it be when there is a vaccine? Will it be when for whatever reason we are certain the pandemic is over?

William Bridges, in a book called Managing Transitions, writes about the meantime as a neutral zone, an in-between time when the old is gone and the new is not yet fully operational.  In the meantime there is a state of limbo with nothing to hold onto.  He gives examples of graduating from college without a job; of awaiting the birth of a new baby; of waiting for a loved one to pass within the hospice experience; and of having children leave home.  It certainly seems like this time of living with the virus around us is one of those moments.  We are living in an in-between time.  We are living in the meantime.

The Scripture lesson from the book of Acts describes what we might know as Ascension Day.  Most of us Protestants don’t realize it but the church observed Ascension Day last Thursday, forty days following Jesus’ resurrection.  The event was in the midst of a time of great uncertainty.  Before he ascended into heaven, Jesus was asked by his disciples, “Is this the time when you will restore the Kingdom of Israel?”  They wanted to know if this was the time when things would happen that would make all of their hopes and dreams come true.   Will things get easier for us now Jesus?  Will life become just like it used to be Jesus, controllable and certain?

Jesus’ response was that it was not for them to know what would happen.  The future is in God’s hands.  They were to understand only that they would receive the power to live in their time through the gift of the Holy Spirit.  He was not leaving them without wisdom and energy and courage.  And he was giving them a job to do.  “You shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all of Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”   And then he lifted up out of sight.  For the meantime he left them with work to do and a promise of the power to do it.

They stood there gazing up for quite a while, perhaps wondering if Jesus would return immediately or be more specific in his instruction to them.  Suddenly two men dressed in white robes came and stood with them asking, “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?  This Jesus will come back to you in the same manner that he left.”  In the meantime, he has given you something to do.  Get busy!

And so the disciples returned to Jerusalem to await the gift of the promised Holy Spirit.  And they returned to the familiar Upper Room.  And they shared in fellowship together.  And they devoted themselves to times of prayer.

In the meantime.  The words of those angels seemed to inspire the disciples.  They were taken from their sadness and their apathy and their worry and their grief; and they were reminded that God’s promise of the Holy Spirit awaited them.   They really didn’t know what was coming next.  But in faith they accepted the task and trusting in God’s promise they moved forward, knowing that God had something important for them to do- in the meantime.

On Ascension Day I like to recall a scene in the Inherit the Wind, the play loosely based on the famous Scopes monkey trial in early twentieth century Tennessee.  In the scene one of the characters says, “He got lost.  He was looking for God too high up and too far away.”

Perhaps that is a lesson for us as we find ourselves living in the meantime.  We might see God only in our safe and secure past.  We might hope for God only in the future that restores our certainty and brings complete safety.  We might be looking for God too high up and too far away.  And yet we discover that God is with us in the meantime.  Jesus went to be with God so that he would not be bound to a specific time and place.  He went to be with God so that he could always be with us, experiencing our breath, our hopes, our fears, our very life.  We cherish what we had.  We yearn for something better.  But in the meantime we can find the presence of God not in a far away heaven, or a distant dream.  God is close at hand.  Jesus is in our midst.  We will find him when we prayerfully consider what is at hand and we faithfully follow his call to be is witnesses.

This is the promise of God.  Things will get better.  Something good is coming.  In the meantime stay connected to God in prayer.  And be witnesses of Jesus in your words and actions of grace and mercy.

Left Behind

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Left Behind”

Rev. Art Ritter

May 17, 2020

 

John 14: 15-21

”If you love me, you will keep my commandments.  And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

”I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”  

In a sermon on this particular piece of Scripture, Barbara Brown Taylor shares a childhood remembrance.  As the oldest of three daughters, she was the designated babysitter.  When her parents would go out for the evening, she was the one left in charge.  The routine was always the same.  Her father would sit her down and remind her how much he and her mother trusted her, not only because she was the oldest but because she was the most responsible.  And being the most diligent and oldest of the three daughters, she would not let the house burn down.  She would not open the door to strangers.  She wouldn’t let her little sisters fall down the basement stairs and hurt themselves.

Before leaving, her mother would give her the telephone number of where they would be for the evening and tell the girls when they would be home.  The three sisters would then walk their parents to the front door and kiss them goodbye.  Then the front door would lock from the outside and the new regime would begin.  Taylor was in charge!  She said that she remembers her sisters looking back at her with something between fear and hope.  But the girls had a good time.  They played games together.  They read books aloud.  They enjoyed snacks.  They laughed at one another’s jokes.  But as the night wore on, they grew more and more anxious.  They wondered, “Where is Mommy and Daddy?  Where did they go?  When will they ever be back?”

Older sister did her best to remind her younger sisters that they were just fine and not to worry.  She was there to take care of them until their parents returned.  She promised that if they would go to sleep that she would make sure that Mommy and Daddy would kiss them goodnight when they returned home.  The only problem came when fearful thoughts entered older sister’s mind.  What if their parents had had a terrible accident?  They might never come home again, the sisters might be split apart, each sent to a different foster home so they would never see each other again.  Anxiety took over her thoughts and she created the most dire circumstance of fear, repeating it over and over in her mind.

I think that Barbara Brown Taylor’s story speaks well to our present time and situation.  During the current pandemic it may seem as if our preferred life of secured routine has left us for a time.   The world is not as safe or as predictable as we wish.  We are in charge of what happens in our life even though it feels as if we have no control.  While we hope for the best, our anxiety creates scenarios of the worst.  We may wonder if God is with us through it all.  If God is absent, where did God go and when will God return?  Are we left alone to deal with these circumstances beyond our wisdom and our ability?

The gospel lesson for the Sixth Sunday of Easter is another part of what is known as Jesus’ last discourse from the book of John.  Following the Last Supper in the Upper Room, following Judas’ decision to arrange a betrayal, following Jesus’ warning to Peter of impending denial, Jesus spoke to his disciples about leaving.  He said that he would be going away yet he said that he would be coming back.  He didn’t say that he would be stopping by every day to check on them.  He didn’t say that he would call them every hour to see how things were going.  He promised that he would come in the form of the Holy Spirit- an advocate, a helper.  “I will not leave you orphaned.”

We can only imagine the fear in that room.  We can only imagine the confusion and uncertainty.  What was going to come next?  What would be expected of each of them?  That was when Jesus looked them right in the eyes and said, “Please do not be afraid.  It is going to be just fine.  I know that it looks bad and sounds bad.  But in the end I will be with you in a way that you cannot imagine.  I will be with you in a Spirit that you can understand and will enable you to be connected to me in a living and lasting way.  You will not be alone.  It will be just fine.”

I read about a sixth grade teacher in Pittsburgh who has a final day of school assignment for her departing class.  She asks them to consider what they have experienced in sixth grade, how they began the years and how they have changed.  She asks them to write a note that next year’s sixth graders can read on the first day of school.  What did you enjoy the most?  What did you find was most important?  What is the most important thing?  What thing should you not worry about?  I thought it was a wonderful tool to relieve some anxiety and uncertainty that surely accompanies the first day of school.

That’s about where we are in the living of these days.  We might feel that we are left alone to our own knowledge and strength and ability.  We want some reassurance.  We want to know that something greater and stronger and smarter than us is not only present but in charge.  We want to be assured that somebody loves us.

Jesus tells his disciples of the one who is coming who will be with them in their times of celebration and trial.  It is the Spirit, the Helper, the Advocate.  The word used in early Scripture translations was Paraclete, which means someone called alongside to help or to assist.  The Paraclete is our counselor, our intercessor, and our comforter.  Richard Burridge writes that the original meaning of the word was “to give strength or courage.”  Jesus’ disciples were given this Helper for the strength and courage to minister to a hurting world.  We as disciples of Jesus are given the same Helper for strength and courage.

How do we find that presence?  How do we encourage others to find that presence?  Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.  They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father.”  Jesus told his disciples to keep his commandments.  He made certain that the word “love” was front and center.  If you love others, it won’t be hard for you to figure out what to do next, even in times of fear and uncertainty.  If you love one another, doing what is right and good will come more naturally and easily.  Jesus tells us, “If you love me, you will do what I have commanded you to do.  If you love one another, I will be with you despite the difficulty of your situation.”  Be agents of my love.  Be examples of my grace and mercy.

In a Facebook post this past Tuesday, theologian and author Parker Palmer quoted a poem by Anne Hillman entitled, “We Look With Uncertainty.”

We look with uncertainty

Beyond the old choices for

Clear-cut answers

To a softer, more permeable aliveness

Which is in every moment

At the brink of death;

For something new is being born in us

If we but let it.

We stand at a new doorway,

Awaiting that which comes…

Daring to be human creatures,

Vulnerable to the beauty of existence.

Learning to love.

 

In his comments, Palmer talks about uncertainty making us anxious.  When things are “normal,” we soothe ourselves with the illusion that we are in control- until we are reminded that we are really not.  But uncertainty, rightly held, can generate creativity, offering situations that give life rather than diminish it.   He urges all of us to use this time to wrap ourselves around what he calls “good questions” to bring the better world we want and need into being.  We are to consider where we might find the presence of God and how our actions and attitude might contribute to bringing that presence to others.

That’s how Jesus taught it long ago.  He would not leave his disciples alone.  By doing as he taught, by living as he lived, they would find him with them always.  In our current time of fear and darkness, we are not alone.  We are not orphaned.  Jesus is with us.  Jesus is with us when we are the point where God’s love and mercy and grace become active in our world.

When the Wheels Fall Off

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“When the Wheels Fall Off”

Rev. Art Ritter

May 10, 2020

 

Acts 7:54-60

When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.

 

It feels to me like this has been a much harder week than those immediately before it.  While there may not be much logic to my feeling I must admit that there is a bit more uneasiness and doubt within my soul.  Perhaps we will look back and find that staying at home was the easiest part of our pandemic experience.  Isolation wasn’t a great deal of fun but at least there was some assurance that we were safe, with the exception of those grocery store adventures.  Staying at home wasn’t enjoyable but we had the motivation that we were helping fight the COVID-19 virus and that our time of sacrifice would bring results.

We knew that many were hurting.  It was obvious that doctors and nurses and health care workers were sacrificing their lives to provide care for the sick.  We soon learned about the risk of first responders and grocery store workers to keep us safe and nourished.  Staying at home meant that our children were out of school and parents had to make additional sacrifices to keep the household functioning.  We knew that many of our friends and family were out of work, laid off or furloughed and the economy suffered from our isolation resulting closures.  The practical realities of lowering the curve came to light and the debate between health and economics was real.  But we felt like we were doing something, sacrificing something to aid in the treatment and to prevent the spread of the virus.

It feels now as if another page has turned.  The next phase of living through the pandemic is right around the corner or perhaps has already begun.  Ready or not, states have begun to unlock their economies.  Slowly, in most cases, steps are beginning to be taken for businesses to open.    People are congregating again at parks and beaches.   There’s talk of professional sports returning, of malls and shopping plazas re-opening.   We may be able to sit down in a restaurant for a meal again, albeit in a restaurant with much fewer seats.  There is a group here at Meadowbrook that is examining what our worship and ministry will look like when we can return.

Some places are moving quickly, in the minds of many, much too quickly, to restore what is fondly remembered as normal.  Others are persuaded that a prolonged shut down will mean the death of our economy and jobs and way of life.  There are protests, including the demonstrations inside the capital in Lansing.   Social media is ablaze with comments about the authenticity of science, the credibility of COVID 19’s death rate, about whether or not one really needs to use a mask, about the validity of continuing social distancing.  One person’s vision of freedom seems to be another person’s nightmare of disaster.  One person’s idea of health seems to be a tool that enslaves another.

In some ways this week it felt like the wheels were falling off.  Any vision of a unified, focused, and purposeful mission to lessen the pandemic came crashing to earth.  The veracity of the disease, the economic and political realities, and the emotions and worries and fears leave me wondering what to make of all of this right now.  It feels so strange for me to be living in a time in which the advice of health care experts is ignored in the face of politics.  It seems maddening to me to read of so many who are willing to embrace conspiracy theories to attach blame and attempt to make their own personal sense of the virus.    I am worried that the right of those with weapons and loud voices are heard while the rights of those dying quietly and alone are ignored. There is a swirling pot of hope and fear, politics and science, fact and misinformation.  Where is God in this?  What is the best way to be faithful?  How can I best make sense of what is happening?

We are now five Sundays in the season of Easter.  So far the stories of the Risen Christ and his followers have been rather amazing.  Jesus appeared to the group behind locked doors and offered them peace.  Jesus encouraged even the doubting Thomas.  Jesus walked with two of his followers on the road to Emmaus and after breaking bread with them they recognized him and their hearts were lifted.  Last week we reflected upon Jesus as the Good Shepherd and the good and tender care we receive daily from him.  In readings from the book of Acts, which we have discussed at our Bible Study, we have heard an encouraging speech from Jesus, a inspirational sermon from Peter, and the optimistic news that hundreds of people had been converted to the way of Jesus.   For a while, everything was looking good for this new faith!

On this fifth Sunday of Easter, the wheels fall off.  A different reality is presented.  Stephen, a follower of Jesus is stoned to death.  Stephen was a leader in the early church, perhaps he was one of the original deacons.  He was full of faith and the Holy Spirit and devoted himself to serving others, distributing food to those in need.  Barbara Brown Taylor describes Stephen as a pretty ordinary guy:  “He was not one of the Twelve.  He was not even a candidate to replace Judas when that slot came open.  He was simply a good and faithful man who could be trusted to distribute food to those who were hungry.” But his words and his witness to Jesus angered the established religious authorities.  Stephen’s life of faith suddenly got more complicated.  Lies and rumors and conspiracy theories spread about him.  His words and actions threatened the order of those in power and the reason of the masses.  In their anger and rage a crowd dragged him into the city and stoned him to death.

This isn’t a good and uplifting story.   Unlike many of the post-Easter stories there isn’t a happy ending.  This is a story of fear and lies and hatred and violence.  I don’t know how this incident made those newly baptized converts feel.  It would have frightened me.  It would have left me feeling a little less certain about the future.  It would have me wondering if following the resurrected Christ is such an easy and worthwhile bargain.

But perhaps that is the message of this story.  It wasn’t going to be easy.  Faith in the Risen Christ would require some difficult choices and some painful decisions.  Faith in the Risen Christ would have its days of discouragement and doubt.  Even the story of Jesus wasn’t fair.  Jesus took risks and paid the price.  He warned his followers of sacrifice and suffering.  He offered no guarantees other than that even in darkness they would find his presence.  I am with you always.  In that the early Christians found their purpose.  When the wheels came off they found hope instead of despair.  When things got difficult they knew that striving to know Jesus as closely as they could was the way to bring eternal meaning upon the temporal.  Even when everything seemed to be falling apart, imitating Christ would offer some meaning in chaos and uncertainty.

Princeton professor and preacher Tom Long writes, “Hope implies a deep-seated trust in life that appears absurd to those who lack it.  In fact, when Christians gather at a graveside and announce hope in the resurrection, it is precisely counter to all possibilities latent in the present tense.  Christians can not lay the cards on the table and predict how the hand will play out; they admit they do not know what the future holds.”  Long writes that we do not know if loved ones will die.  We do not know if peace talks will succeed or fail.  We do not know if God’s agents for change in the world will be heard or ignored.  We simply do not know.  He concludes, “Our hope is based, rather, on the promise that, whatever the future may hold, God is, in ways often hidden, shaping all human life redemptively and bringing all things to fulfillment in Christ….In short, Christians do not believe, on the basis of evidence, in progress; rather, we believe, against much of the evidence, in a God who keeps promises.”

In these difficult times, with the prospect of more difficult days ahead, we must live this present day based on the future of hope.  Hope encourages us to walk as close as we can to the living Christ, the Risen One, living out his gospel in our words and our deeds, preparing ourselves and the world for the future in him.

A pastor named Jim Lowry wrote a poem for Easter Sunday in 2004 entitled, “At Deep Dawn.”  I will close with part of it:

If everything you believe is true,

Then there is hope.

If everything you believe is a lie,

Then there is no hope.

 

Remember what he taught you…

Remembering what he taught you

Is what will help you believe your Jesus is alive.

Today we must remember how Jesus taught us

The meek really will at last, inherit the earth.

We do believe that, don’t we?

Today we must remember how Jesus taught us

That peacemakers really are the children of God

We believe that, don’t we?

 

Today we must remember how Jesus taught us

That the ones who stand for what is right will be blessed.

We believe that, shouldn’t we?

 

If you long for hope that will not let you go…

If you want the children to grow up surrounded by kindness born of truth;

If you long for the world not to self-destruct,

This is the story you must remember and this is the story the church must tell.

 

In those moments of deep, deep dawn,

When you remember what he taught you,

You will know…

You will believe…

You will be sure

There is hope so strong

Not even the grave can contain it.

 

The Shepherd at the Wheel

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“The Shepherd at the Wheel”

Rev. Art Ritter

 May 3, 2020

 

 

John 10:1-10

“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

Psalm 23

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters;

he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.

 

 

I recall a road trip I took in early November of 1980.  I was living in Bridgeport Township, a community near Saginaw at the time.  I had just purchased a brand new Ford Escort and was planning to make a drive to Seward, Nebraska to visit a friend who was going to college there.  My friend Bob told me that he would be happy to make the trip with me and offer some company and conversation along the road.  I took him up on his offer.  Because it was my car and because it was a new car I preferred to do the driving.  I drove us out of Michigan, through Indiana and around the freeway confusion of Chicago.  I drove my car, as we took I-80 through Illinois and across the mighty Mississippi, into Iowa.  At that time though I was getting a little road-weary and Bob was getting more than a little anxious to drive my new car.   I decided that it was time to take a rest and to let Bob have some time behind the wheel.  I pulled into a rest stop and we exchanged places.

I sat in the passenger’s seat for around ten minutes before my eyes got heavy and I could feel myself relaxing and falling asleep.  But that didn’t last long.  Before I could enter the full peace of restful slumber, I was startled by the sound of the car’s tires hitting the rumble strips on the side of the right lane of the freeway.  Bob had quickly fallen asleep behind the wheel.  I shouted something to him, probably not very pleasant, grabbed the wheel and pulled the car safely back to the middle of the lane.  I told him to pull over at the very next exit.  We were moving back to our original places.  I could not trust Bob to drive my car.   I would rather drive exhausted than sit in the passenger seat worrying about whether Bob would stay awake.

There is an old Peanuts cartoon strip from 1972 that featured Charlie Brown and Peppermint Patty having a conversation about Charlie Brown’s anxiousness.  Charlie Brown described the experience of riding in the back seat of the car while your parents were in the front seat.  It is night and you were headed back home and all was well.  You could sleep-worry free because you knew that they were taking care of everything, including the driving, the navigation, and the worrying.   You can associate that feeling that Charlie Brown was talking about, can’t you?  Everything is just fine and you are so comfortable that you can safely rest.  There is a feeling of utter trust and security provided by a reliable, loving, and all-powerful figure at the wheel.  Peppermint Patty confidently agreed.  But then Charlie Brown continued.  He told Peppermint Patty that the feeling doesn’t last.  You eventually grow up and leave the backseat and that feeling of security and trust can never be the same again.  You never get to sleep in the backseat again.   When Peppermint Patty came to the same understanding she reached toward Charlie Brown and yelled, “Hold my hand, Chuck!”

In a conversation this past week, someone mentioned to me that one of the problems of living through this pandemic and the resulting economic crisis is that we just can’t relax and rest in peace.  It seems as if we don’t have a day or in some cases even an hour when something new doesn’t become a matter of worry and concern.  Perhaps we can take a deep breath and make a resolve to rest just before our heads hit our pillows.  But others have told me that they are having trouble sleeping these days, or that their sleep is filled with strange and unsettling dreams.

Like Charlie Brown, we long for those days and those moments when we were able to sleep in the back seat of the car, trusting that the power at the wheel of the car is taking care of everything.  We wish we didn’t have to worry about COVID-19, about wearing a mask, about the future availability of a remedy or a vaccine, about a second wave of infections, about layoffs and job furloughs, about a simple trip to the grocery store, about the health of our family and friends, and about paying our necessary bills.  It is tough if not impossible to fall asleep in peace in the backseat of the car these days.

On this fourth Sunday of the season of Easter, the Scripture lesson tells us about the value of shepherds.  The reading from the gospel of John offers the words of Jesus as he compares himself to a good shepherd, one who cares intimately for his flock, one who protects them from danger, one whose voice the flock recognizes, and one who leads them to good pastures, cool water, and safe rest each and every day.

The other reading for this Sunday is the 23rd Psalm, perhaps the most well known chapter in the entire Bible.  This text is very familiar and loved.  While it is often associated with funeral services, the psalm speaks of God’s tender care throughout all of our life.  In these words, the Psalmist describes not only a source of comfort during a time of loss, but an approach to trustful living in the midst of uncertainty and worry.

The 23rd Psalm describes God as a powerful yet gracious shepherd.  God is one who does what needs to be done to make certain that trusting sheep may live.  In its words we are brought to consider the darkness and the dangers and the temptations of our existence.  We are reminded of the dark shadows that haunt us and make us feel uneasy.  We are made aware that we live in the presence of evil and that fear is a place to which we are often held captive.  The 23rd Psalm names reality and takes seriously the dangers that are very much a part of life.

Yet the Psalm is an intense and longing prayer that hopes for a deep God-given peace that overflows even when we are in the midst of such darkness.   In the words of the Psalmist, we are assured that God and Christ our Shepherd is one who leads us through and past life’s troubles.  God’s tender love leads us in situations of fear to places of joy.  God’s grace allows us, actually makes us take a rest from our weariness in places of refreshment and nourishment.  God puts us at a bountiful table where even in the presence of our enemies, we are able to recall our past experiences of joy and know that such joy will come yet again.  God offers peace in the midst of conflict, life in the midst of death, light in the path of darkness.

In his commentary on the 23rd Psalm, Calvin Seminary’s Stan Mast writes, “Into the confusion of the 21st century comes the 23rd Psalm with this good news.  Life is not a self-guided tour; there is someone who will give me the guidance I need…. You might think that the King of the Universe would have something bigger and better to do, but God has committed God self to be my personal Shepherd.  God guides me by giving me a written record of God’s will, but putting God’s own Spirit in my heart, and by governing the developments of my life with God’s invisible hand.”

Walter Brueggemann writes that although most Psalms are songs of lament or praise or thanksgiving, the 23rd Psalm is a psalm of trust.  Its function is “to articulate and maintain a ‘sacred canopy’ under which the community of faith can live out its life with freedom from anxiety…there is a givenness to be relied on, guaranteed by none other than God.”  Trust is evoked by a promise.  We either believe in the promise or we don’t.  We live as if the promise is real and trustworthy or we live as if the promise isn’t real and cannot be trusted.

Perhaps Charlie Brown was right.  We can’t ride naively and innocently in the backseat any longer.  Our current situation has taught us that much of life is out of our control.  Our current circumstance reminds us that there are dark and uncertain places in our daily life.  But the Psalmist and this Psalm hopes for return of our trust in God, in the presence of God that can bring us peace and assurance even when we sit in the uncertain, fear-provoking front seat.  Despite what is real, in spite of all that surrounds us, our lessons of faith teach us that we can frame our experiences within the larger picture of God’s loving intention of each of us.