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August 2020

Holy Ground

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Holy Ground”

Rev. Art Ritter

August 30, 2020

 

Exodus 3:1-15

Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”

But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.” But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’“ God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.

 

History was made this week when a baseball card, specifically a Mike Trout autographed rookie card, sold for a record-setting 3.93 million dollars.  The card, the only one of its kind produced, and in mint condition, was issued in 2009.  The seller of the card originally purchased it in 2018 for $400,000.

When I was a child I collected baseball cards.  I had my personal collection inside of some old cigar boxes that were probably worth as much as the baseball cards themselves.  Most of my cards were those collected from the back of cereal boxes.  I didn’t have many of the fancy ones from the bubble gum packs.  My parents weren’t too keen on letting us chew bubble gum so the only Topps baseball cards I got was when I sneaked down to the dime store after piano lessons and brought a pack with the 15 cents I was saving.  Once I moved away from home for college, I don’t know what happened to my baseball cards.  I think my mother disposed of them quietly before I knew there were missing.  Perhaps I had something of value there although I tend to doubt it.  Certainly I had nothing as sacred as a Mike Trout autographed rookie card.

I read something this week from a man who used to collect baseball cards with his brothers.  They would play games with the cards, dividing them up into teams and building their own all-star squads.  Like many of us they would take them to school and trade for better players.  The man’s older brother was a big collector and had a special group of cards that he set aside, players that he really liked or players that he judged to be future stars.  He told his younger brother that he could play with any of his cards but he must not touch these special cards.  One day the younger brother decided to surprise his brother by putting all of the special cards into a three ring binder.  He carefully trimmed the cards so they would fit evenly and then glued the backs of the card to some notebook paper with holes in the side.  He then proudly presented the binder as a gift to his brother.  Needless to say, the older brother was furious.  Not knowing the value of the cards, his little brother had destroyed his holy items.  The man telling the story particularly remembers how good the Hank Aaron rookie card looked glue to the cheap notebook paper.  It is currently selling on Ebay for over $100,000.

I lived in Salt Lake City UT for nine years.  I remember when Laura and I visited Salt Lake about three years before we moved there.  We couldn’t take our eyes off those majestic Wasatch mountains.  The gray and purple color contrasted with the blue of the sky and actually left you breathless.  Then we moved to the Salt Lake area.  Every day I was able to view the beautiful Wasatch peaks right outside my living room window.  Every day I was able to almost reach out and touch those mountains as I drove Amelia to school and myself to work.  Yet after about a month of living there, those beautiful mountains almost blended into the background of the rest of life.  They became routine instead of special.  They became ordinary instead of holy.  I took them for granted instead of pausing to notice their beauty.  Several years ago when Laura and I returned to Salt Lake City for the National Association’s annual meeting and conference, the first words out of mouths were, “I had forgotten how beautiful this place is!  Just look at those mountains!”  Once again we couldn’t take our eyes off the Wasatch and were genuinely moved by their presence on the east side of the valley.

Sometimes we fail to see the beauty, the sacredness, or the importance in things.  Our daily routine dulls our senses as to our blessings.  Our assumptions about power overlook things small or quiet.  Our belief that God might be working in another place or at another time or in another person can blind us to the opportunity we have to respond to God’s call in this very moment.

This morning’s Scripture lesson is the call of Moses from the book of Exodus.  I am planning on having a Zoom study on Exodus beginning in the month of September so hopefully this morning’s sermon is a preview of coming attractions.  Having fled from Pharaoh after killing an abusive Egyptian overlord, Moses’ life had been completely changed.  He had been transformed from an adopted prince of Egypt to a shepherd tending his father-in-law’s flock in the faraway Midian desert.

`           Now this wasn’t just an ordinary out of the way place.  The first verse of our reading this morning says, “He led his flock beyond the wilderness.”  Beyond the wilderness.  It doesn’t get any further away from important than that.  Looking for pasture in that beyond the wilderness place, Moses inadvertently camped at the foot of Mount Horeb, the mountain of God, a place that would figure prominently in the history of God’s people.  Moses didn’t have a clue about what a special place he had chosen to lay his head, until he saw that curious sight.  A bush was on fire and it was not consumed.  It just kept burning and burning.  Our reading says that “the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the bush.”  But Moses didn’t see the angel.  All he saw was the burning bush.  At first, it didn’t appear that Moses was particularly awestruck.  He was merely curious.  “I must turn aside and look at this great sight and see why the bush is not burned up.”

Calvin Seminary’s Stan Mast writes, “That is how this epic theophany began- with a curious sight.  It is fascinating and telling how often the story makes reference to seeing.  Maybe after all those years of invisibility, God needed to be seen to be believed….Using the curious sight to gain Moses’ attention, God now has something to say, something that will change Moses’ life and the history of the world.”

God and Moses then engaged in a conversation.  God called Moses by name.  God identified the moment as holy and sacred.  God identified Godself.  And then God got down to business.  God was ready to act, to deliver God’s people from their bondage in Egypt.  But God wasn’t going to do this alone.  God was going to act through a mere mortal, a flawed one at that.  This would be God’s way of working in history.  Sure, we have a few stories in our sacred text where God flashes unrelenting divine power.  But here God began this pattern of using human beings, usually humans who aren’t very excited about their role in divine projects.  Our God is a God who keeps promises but who keep those promises by working with and through the members of the community of the faithful.

Moses was minding his own business.  Moses was in a place so far away from the holy that it was described as beyond the wilderness.  Perhaps Moses thought he had everything in his life planned out for a man on the run, a man wanted by the powers that be.  Yet in that distant and perhaps all too familiar place, something changed.  God appeared.  God spoke.  God could be seen.  God talked and reached out to Moses in such a way that his life and the life of his people would never be the same.  Ordinary experience became holy ground.

Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman sadly suggests that our modern age is a place where we can live with the “heresy of the uncalled life.”  In his words, an uncalled life is a life that does not recognize the holy ground on which it is lived.  An uncalled life is an autonomous existence in which there is not intrusion, no disruption or refinement, no surprise appearance or utterance of the Holy.

Could it be that until the current pandemic, there were no bushes on fire for us?  Could it be that we were so immersed into our normal lives and routine, living today as if tomorrow will be the same that we never noticed the presence of the divine?  Could it be that until our experience was interrupted by COVID 19, we seldom if ever thought about what was truly important, sacred, or holy?  We were so busy doing all things in that place beyond the wilderness that we failed to notice the mountain of God that stood right us.  I believe that in the midst of pandemic, our senses are more attune to the idea that we stand on holy ground.  Today we are more likely to see burning bushes and hear the voice of God that speaks to us.

In her book, An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor writes that reverence is one of the essential moves a human being must learn to make if they want to live a life of wisdom.  She says “Reverence is the recognition of something greater than the self-something that is beyond human creation or control, that transcends human understanding….Reverence stands in awe of something- something that dwarfs the self, that allows human beings to sense the full extent of our limits- so that we can begin to see one another more reverently as well.”

Reverence is the awareness of holy ground.  The story of Moses teaches us that reverence requires a willingness to pay attention to small things, to live mindfully through the ordinary, to participate fully even in insignificant things.  Reverence means a willingness to be open to detours and side trips.  What made Moses reverent was his willingness to turn aside.  Whatever else he was supposed to be doing and wherever else he was supposed to be going could wait.  Moses recognized the moment, understood he was standing on holy ground, and saw a revelation of the divine in the midst of his ordinary life.  He took off his shoes and listened to what God had to say.

 

 

Living a Question

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Living a Question”

Rev. Art Ritter

August 23, 2020

 

 

Matthew 16:13-20

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

 

I heard a news story this week that was somewhat strange.  It was one of those stories that usually comes out of Florida but this one actually occurred in Tennessee.  The story was about a case of mistaken identity, a very strange case of mistaken identity.  A woman named Jade Dodd went to the Department of Motor Vehicles to renew her driver’s license.  She filled out the paperwork, took the exam, paid her fee, and had her photograph taken.  A few days later her new driver’s license arrived.  The identification photo in the lower right hand side of her license was a picture of an empty chair.  Dodd called the state DMV but they did not believe her.  So she took the license into the local office to show them that her photo was actually a photo of a chair.  The Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security told CNN that they believe the error happened when a photo of the empty chair was the last photo taken for the day before putting the camera away, and that somehow the last image for that day was placed on file as the photograph of Jade Dodd.  Dodd’s friends and co-workers are now sending her photos of other empty chairs, asking her if any of the chairs happen to be her relatives.

Questions of identity are part of the journey of life.  William Willimon writes that along with questions like “Why is the sky blue?” when we are young we tend to be full of other questions about our identity.  “Who made me?”  “Why am I here?”  There is the old perception that sometimes those in their teens or early twenties take a year off from school or work to try and “find themselves.”  Sadly, as we grow older our questions about identity may get smaller or at least shallower.  Our identity is found in the pursuit of more tangible things.  We ask, “How much more money do I need to make to be really happy?”  “When will I get the promotion or raise that I deserve?” “When will we ever get to the point of this sermon?”

A colleague of mine in Florida, Shawn Stapleton, shared a delightful post on Facebook this week.  Shawn is a new first-time grandfather.  He wrote, “I remember when I graduated high school.  I was pretty sure I knew who I was.  Then I graduated college.  I was pretty sure I knew who I was and it wasn’t who I was before.  Then I became a dad.  I was floating on air!  I was sure I knew who I was and it wasn’t who I was before.  Then, as I worked and became jaded by the world around me, I became someone different again.  Every win, every loss, they reshaped me.  I have tried to live in such a way that I grew from them.  I always figured there was a lesson or purpose.  Today I am a grandfather, and I think the lessons all led me to this.  I was pretty sure I knew who I was before.  Yet I had no idea.  This is who I am, a grandpa.  I love this little girl…..We will giggle, and drool, and study the world, and try to use our hands, and smell smells and see pretty sights and hear pretty sounds together.  And all the while I will feel like my best self…which is the best gift anyone has even given to me.  I thank God for this little girl.”

In the Scripture reading today, Jesus asks his followers a very tough question about identity.  The scene is strategically placed by the author of the gospel of Matthew.  It follows Jesus’ acceptance of the Canaanite woman and the removal of boundaries that would limit God’s mercy and grace.  It also follows Jesus’ help in feeding a crowd of four thousand people when the disciples said that they did not have enough resources and thus were not able.  The reading for today occurs in the district of Caesarea Philippi, the heart of secular power in that region of the world.  The Roman Governor and Roman army were based in Caesarea Philippi.  It was the place to be if you wanted to be powerful and influential.

Jesus asked, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”  The answers were rather obvious.  John the Baptist.  Elijah.  Jeremiah.  One of the prophets.  Jesus then asked, “But who do you say that I am?”  It suddenly got quieter.  That was a more difficult question to answer.  Peter finally spoke up saying, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”  And Jesus answered him saying, “You are the Rock, the basis of my church.  I will give to you the keys to the kingdom.  You will be able to bind and loose and to pronounce the forgiveness of sins.”

It is interesting that this lesson begins with a Jesus asking a question about who people thought he was.  The lesson then ends with Jesus telling Peter who Peter is.  When Peter understands who Jesus is, Jesus is able to tell Peter what Peter should be all about.  The moment Peter begins to see the real identity of Jesus is the moment when Peter is empowered to do the work of Jesus.  Jesus moves Peter very quickly from a confession of faith to a vocational assignment.  “Upon you, I will build my church.”  Peter’s identity is matched with his perception of Jesus’ identity.  Recognizing God in Jesus, Peter was now called to live as the presence of Christ in the world.

William Willimon writes about a professor friend who grew up within the church but during college and graduate school left the faith.  He was disillusioned with the church’s failure to respond in the Civil Right Movement and became in his own words, “sort of a Christian, but one who didn’t actually practice Christianity, a believer but not a doer.”  The professor became an expert in East-West business relations.  In the 1980’s he had a conversation with an official of the then Soviet Union.  She asked him, “So you are a Christian.  I am an atheist.  Tell me- what difference does your belief in God make in the way you vote, the way you spend your money?  Tell me, when was the last time that you did something because you stopped and asked yourself, ‘What does God want me to do in this case?’”  The professor was stunned.  He said, “I realized that though I believed like a believer, I lived like an atheist.”  It was a stunning moment of recognition that brought him to embrace a more living and meaningful Christian faith.

Who do you say that I am?  That is the question, isn’t it?  That is the reality of our identity in the eyes of God.  How do we answer that question?  Who do we say that Jesus is with our words and actions?  Rick Warren once wrote, “Christian are like teabags.  You don’t know what’s inside until you put them in hot water.”  Who do you say that Jesus is?  Canned, feel good, sentimental answers won’t do.  The quotation of Bible verses or theological beliefs won’t cut the mustard.  The answer is never merely academic or abstract.  It always has a context.  That’s what makes it so hard.

Who is Jesus in the midst of this pandemic, where it seems that every choice we make is one of risk, and when fear and uncertainty weighs us down?

Who is Jesus in the midst of a pandemic where choices have to be made about the health of the public as well as our own health, when our needs to put food on the table must be weighed against the welfare of those around us?

Who is Jesus when conspiracies and untruths are the order of the day, when we easily speak as truth opinions we’ve heard on the cable news or when we generously click and share social media posts and anecdotes to make us feel better, to make us feel right, or at least make the world seem more logical?

Who is Jesus following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor too many more and the increased racial tensions our country?

Who is Jesus as we approach a bitterly contested national election with an angry and divided electorate?  Who is Jesus as we consider which candidates we will support?

Who is Jesus when our neighbor is hungry or when many in our community can’t find work or must work for a wage that cannot support their family?

Who is Jesus when we are faced with decisions that have no easy answers, when the night is dark and the storms are overwhelming, when being faithful means risking and taking a stand that makes us stand out?

Who is Jesus when we are given news we don’t want to hear or when our life seems to be falling apart?

14th century German theologian Meister Eckhart said, “We are all mothers of God, for God is always waiting to be born.”  In God we find our identity and in our actions God is given an identity in our world.  There are the moments in which we understand who Jesus is and what he is calling us to be.  In those moments, things shift dramatically, we see things differently, and we find a new identity in ourselves.  But it is not enough just to confess Jesus as the Messiah and Lord.  The acknowledgement must be one of practice and not theory.  We must live out understanding of Jesus identity in the understanding of our God-given identity, in our relationships, with our bank accounts, with our time, with our energy, with our ballots, and with our choices.

William Willimon asks the question we must all ask in considering our identity:  Do we believe just what the church believes about Jesus?  Or do we believe what Jesus believes about us?  In our answer lies our true identity.  Who is Jesus?  The world is watching for our answer.

 

A New Perspective

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“A New Perspective”

Rev. Art Ritter

August 16, 2020

 

Matthew 15: 21-28

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

During the pandemic, I have done my best to do what I can to maintain my health.  I have been more diligent about exercise.  My daily schedule includes a run or walk or visit to the elliptical machine.  I am trying to eat a little better.  With the help of my personal dietitian, who happens to be my spouse, I am eating a lot more fruits and vegetables and less red meat.  This change in diet and behavior wasn’t something I consciously planned.  But its evolvement has now led to a more intentional effort to live healthier.

Most of you at Meadowbrook know that I have some strong opinions about certain foods.  I get a lot of teasing, especially around Thanksgiving, about my dislike of pumpkin pie.  I am constantly reminded that just about everybody loves the taste and the effect of coffee.  Me – I can’t stand it.  I prefer to drink my coffee in an empty cup.  There are other foods that I would just as soon avoid:  hummus, squash, sweet potatoes, eggplant, liver, venison, and banana flavored anything.

Until recently my food to avoid list included Brussel sprouts.  I had tried them once or twice in my life and it was a terrible taste experience.  Then one night last spring I roasted some in the oven as a surprise for my lovely wife.  When I took them out of the oven that night I decided to put my personal prejudices aside, take a chance and reassess my opinion of them.  I ate a few and found that they were actually edible.  But I decided I could make them better by adding some onions and lemon pepper and garlic salt.  They now became delicious.  I now cook some weekly on the grill with some redskin potatoes.  As unbelievable as it seemed six months ago, Brussel sprouts are now part of my weekly diet.

Most of the time, we let our personal prejudices and our personal likes and dislikes rule our responses of life.  It is hard to step aside from that accustomed frame of reference to see some new possibility.  We have usually have to be cajoled and persuaded.  We usually get defensive and lash out.  We usually reinforce our opinions and judgements to assure ourselves of the safety and sanity of our own identity in the midst of challenge and attack.

In this time of COVID 19 and upcoming presidential election, opinions and feelings run hot.  Judgments we hear made from other perspectives are either found to be inspiring and supportive or crazy and frightening.  If we are honest with ourselves we can see that each of us labels other people and their beliefs and practices as different.  We each could make a long list of those whose behaviors and opinions we just don’t understand.  While I tend to have strong opinions about food and sports, often the list of what and whom we see as different includes different races, different customs, and different religions.

Andrea Elliott, a reporter for The New York Times, tells of attending a town meeting a few years ago in which the plans for a proposed mosque were being discussed.  One woman spoke against the mosque, asking through her tears, “What happened to my America?  I want my America back.” Our worldview, our prejudices, and our complacency about change moves us to keep things and people that are different from us distant or under the table.  We make unconscious judgements each day about who deserves our help, our kindness, our attention, and even God’s favor.  It is easy for us to grow complacent about how we treat the stranger and those who are different from us.  We want to draw lines and build fences.

In the 15th chapter of Matthew, we read about Jesus encounter with a Canaanite woman.  The incident is only eight verses long but the lesson it speaks to us is lengthy.  Jesus and his disciples were in a region of the country between Tyre and Sidon, a land of pagans with no established temples or religious authorities.  The disciples were probably concerned about what they were doing there in the first place, believing that they should be spending more time preaching and teaching to the Jews.

Suddenly this crazy woman, a Gentile Canaanite, ran up to Jesus screaming at the top of her voice about her demon-infested daughter.  Jesus looked at her but didn’t say a word.  The disciples looked at her and probably wanted to say, “Get this crazy woman out of here before we get caught up in her craziness!”

Finally Jesus made a comment.  “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”  Perhaps the disciples took this as an affirmation of their preferences and prejudices.  Jesus appeared to be telling the woman to “Get lost!”  She was a Canaanite.  She wasn’t a Jew.  She wasn’t part of his agenda.  But Jesus’ words didn’t stop the woman.  She knelt before him just as if she were worshipping.  “Help me!” she cried.  Jesus, more coldly than we can ever imagine him responded, “It is not right to take perfectly good bread meant to feed children and give it to the dogs.”  Ouch.  Jesus called the woman a dog.  It was a slur.  It was an insult.  The disciples probably liked it.  It spoke to their emotion.  Jesus was on their side.  But the insult didn’t stop the woman in her quest for help.  She said, “I may be a dog, but even the dog gets the crumbs and leftovers from the master’s table.”  And with that, Jesus’ attitude completely changed.  “Woman, you have great faith!  You are right.  Even the dogs get fed.  Go home and your daughter will be healed.”

There is no explanation of this scene.  Matthew did not write any commentary in the verses that followed.  The early church didn’t tell us what Jesus was thinking when he said these cold things.  This was the only time in any of the gospel when Jesus ignored someone’s request for help.  Some scholars believe Jesus was toying with the woman, using people’s prejudices to teach the crowd a lesson or two about why such evil should not exist.  It was satire or sarcasm.  Some maintain that Jesus was actually testing the faith of the woman, seeing just how far she would go in believing in his power of healing.  Some commentators say that this incident was a lesson to help define Jesus’ ministry, much as his testing in the wilderness following his baptism.

Still others believe that Jesus was a human being, and that part of his humanness meant that he had to learn about life through situations and experiences, just like we do.  I can only imagine that it was painful or at least uncomfortable for Jesus to step beyond the cultural and religious lines of his day.   Yet he had to come to some understanding about his own limitations and world view, and to be open to new possibilities and potential.   In this story, Jesus encountered something that he previously regarded as a nuisance.  Yet he let the nuisance engage him.  And he let the engagement change him.  Jesus saw and heard a fuller revelation of God in the face and voice of that Canaanite woman.  In offering food to the dogs, the truth of God became clearer.  His outlook, his worldview was lifted to something new.  Jesus, may have believed that his ministry and calling was limited to one people.  But he learned to widen his perspective and to challenge all of us in the church to be like him, to extend the gospel to all people, starting with those who we might feel are least deserving.

Nadia Bolz Weber writes that she was once told that every time we draw a line between us and others, Jesus is on the other side of the line.  On that day, with the Canaanite woman, Jesus saw through his own human tendency to divide and judge and rationalize and opened himself up to God’s divine tendencies to love and speak kindness and show mercy.

Commentator Frederick Dale Bruner writes that Jesus really learned something from this woman.  His heart didn’t change from stingy to loving.  Jesus’ heart was always loving.  But his priorities shifted.  Through this story the gospel of Matthew wants to teach us that we might think we know exactly what is right, and exactly what come first in our priorities; but we always must remain open to what God sends our way.  If we are going to be open to God’s Spirit, then we need to be willing to change everything if that what it takes to be more loving to those we encounter.

In a sermon on this subject, Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Let go!  Step out!  Look a Canaanite in the eye, knock on a strange door, ask an outsider what his life is like, trespass an old boundary, enter a new relationship, push a limit, take a risk, give up playing it safe.”  I might add- trying eating some Brussel sprouts!  “You have nothing to lose but your life the way it has been…with Jesus as our model- and our Lord- we are called to step over the lines we have drawn for ourselves, not because we have to, and not because we ought to, or even because we want to, but because we know that is it our God’s own self who waits for us on the other side.”

 

 

Walking on Water

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Walking on Water”

Rev. Art Ritter

August 9, 2020

 

 

Mathew 14: 22-33

Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

 

 

While on a run the other day I noticed a young girl who was learning to ride a bike with the help of her father.  The pair caught my eyes because the girl, while young, seemed older to me than most first time bicycle riders.   She still had training wheels on her bike and her dad was holding onto the seat as they moved along slowly.   The girl’s face portrayed a look of terror that offered an indication of the great risk that she was taking.

I couldn’t help but recall the experience of my youngest daughter Amelia.  She too was a bit timid of riding a bicycle for a long time.  I remember that when we took the training wheels off and went out to tackle the sidewalk with just two wheels, Amelia did pretty well.  But she didn’t trust herself at all.  I walked along behind her, holding onto her seat as she pedaled.  She would yell, “Daddy, daddy, don’t let go!”  Right about then I would let go.  And Amelia would pedal down the sidewalk safely for a few feet.  Then she would glance back and notice and I had let go.  Immediately her successful ride ended.  She either fell to the ground or simply put her feet to the ground.  “Daddy, why did you let go?  I told you not to let go!  I can’t do this unless you hold onto me!

This morning’s Scripture lesson is from the gospel of Matthew’s account of the disciples facing a challenge much more formidable than learning how to ride a bicycle.  They were battling a terrible storm at sea.  Weary of the day’s activities of healing and teaching, Jesus had gone ahead and was praying from the safety of the peaceful shore.  The disciples were on a boat, facing the wrath of the wind and the waves as a storm front passed over the Sea of Galilee.  In the midst of the storm, Jesus came to his disciples, walking on the water.  At first they believed he was a ghost.  Perhaps they were more afraid of him than they were the wind and the waves.  Jesus then told them, “It is me.  Take heart and have no fear.”  Peter still wasn’t reassured.  “If it is really you, let me walk on the water with you.”  Of course Peter took only a step or two, noticed the wind and the waves, became frightened and began to sink.  He cried out to Jesus who reached out his hand saying, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”  And when they got back into the boat, the wind and storm ceased.

There are two common ways of contemplating this piece of Scripture.  One view is to say “If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat.”  That was actually the title of a best selling book by John Ortberg back in 2001.  If you have enough faith to trust in Jesus in all circumstances, then you can find the courage to do great things for God.  When you really get to know Jesus, when you follow his command to step out of the boat, you get to walk upon the waves, and that is when you show the world what your faith is made of.  Ortberg teaches that Peter’s initial faith is something to be applauded and that his later doubt is something to be avoided.  Ortberg calls those who would hang on timidly to the shelter and safety of the boat, “Boat Potatoes.”

The problem with this interpretation is that at the end of hearing the teaching, most of us will feel worse about ourselves and our faith.  Most, if not all of us, fail at these tests.  Some might feel motivated about the walking on water thing, ready to give it a try.  Yet one commentator notes that after hearing a sermon on this scripture, we know that the whole walking on water thing will fail before we even leave the parking lot.  We want to believe, but rationally and emotionally we just know that we will sink immediately after leaving the boat.  Walking on water is beyond our capability of faith.

The other view is that Peter should have just been quiet in the first place.  When he demanded that Jesus show him how to walk on the water, he put Jesus to an unfair test.  He asked Jesus to prove he had the divine power, he challenged his authority, instead of remaining faithful, quiet, and obedient in the boat.  According to this perspective, faith means staying in the boat, trusting that Jesus put your there and will keep you secure there.  Peter has no chance alone against the wind and the waves of chaos.

The problem with this view of the story is that we know that a life of faith should demand some courage and resolve.  Faith can’t be exercised without encountering something akin to a storm or tested without some wind and waves.  Trusting Jesus surely must mean more that hiding quietly in a boat without anything to offer to the situation.

As I read this passage over again in the midst of a world wide pandemic, I embrace a different interpretation.  It is not one that tells me that the only way to find Jesus is to get out of the boat with faith strong enough to walk on dark and raging waters.  And it is not one that tells me the only way to be truly faithful is to trust that Jesus will control everything while all I do is take an occasional peek from the security of the boat.  When I hear this story today I find the lesson is that somehow in the midst of that dark and stormy night, somehow in the midst of tremendous vulnerability, the presence of God was there.  God’s own Son stood right in front of the disciples.  Jesus didn’t require the faith to walk on water.  Jesus didn’t demand faith that would trust everything without even trying.  Jesus wanted his disciples to know that he was there, and that he would be there with them in the midst of trial and fear.  That assurance of that presence was enough.  Faith was not to be proven in leaving the boat or to be failed by hiding in the boat.  It came simply through trusting in his presence.

In a Fourth of July weekend sermon at Washington National Cathedral, columnist and commentator David Brooks talks about faith as the ability being able to see beauty in a storm.  He quoted Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik who understood how bumpy faith is, especially in moments like we are living through now.  The popular ideology is that religious experience is tranquil and neatly ordered, tender and delicate.  But on the contrary, it is exceptionally complex, rigorous and tortourous.  Religion is not a refuge of grace and mercy for the despondent and the desperate, or an enchanted stream for crushed spirits, but a raging clamorous turnt of man’s consciousness with all its crises, pangs, and torments.  What keeps faith alive during storms like now is the awareness of the essential goodness of life and the one who is with us through it all.

The disciples came to understand that in the midst of following Jesus they would sometimes float and sometimes sink.  Sometimes they would have moments of doubt and fear and sometimes they would feel perfectly capable of surfing through the highest of waves.  In each of those times, in every time, Jesus is there, with arms outstretched, ready to provide us whatever is needed to remind us of the promise of life and to get us to a safe and secure place to understand it all.

Calvin Seminary’s Scott Hoezee writes, “if you want to walk on water, you have to indeed get out of the boat.  Now and again the community of faith needs the courage and vision of people who step out in faith.  But there are times when life in the boat requires nothing more than recognizing your doubts and your fears and to keep rowing against the wind and the waves to where you know the presence of God resides.” You press on- not because your faith has removed all of the doubts and storms and fear.  You press on- not because you are confident that can handle the wind and the waves alone.  You press on- because you believe in Jesus when he said, “It is I.  Do not be afraid!  I am with you.”

In that same sermon I mentioned earlier, David Brooks writes that storms are a part of life.  We can have a normal body response of fight or flight.  Perhaps fight is trying to walk on the water triumphantly and flight is hiding in the boat helplessly.  But another style of response emerges from the part of us that doesn’t have any shape or size or color or weight.  Our soul.  It is the part of us that gives meaning to things.  It is the one that calls us to hunger for beauty, to pay attention to compassionate actions, to sacrifice for a neighbor, and to keep a neighbor safe.  Brooks says these actions are the kind that Jesus talked about in the Sermon on the Mount, vulnerability in the face of danger and gentleness in the midst of bitterness.  They are acts that move us closer to the divine in the midst of storms and open the hearts of others who ride the waves with us.

In this time we find ourselves helpless upon the waves, tossed about by the uncertain winds of forces beyond our control.   Yet we are assured that the very presence of God is always with us, even in such darkness, even in ways that surprise us and startle us.  In our fear and confusion, someone walks toward us who chooses to be with us.  The lesson of this story is that God, through Jesus is always trying to be with us even in the midst of our storms.

In The Ring

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“In The Ring”

Rev. Art Ritter

August 2, 2020

 

Genesis 32: 22-31

The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had.

Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

 

I am not much of a wrestling fan.  I have never been able to understand the attraction of so-called professional wrestling.  I have never attended “Wrestlemania” or watched “Monday Night Raw” on television.  I could identify some wrestlers of a few years ago:  Hulk Hogan, Macho Man Randy Savage, Stone Cold Steve Austin, the Undertaker, and Nature Boy Ric Flair- but I wasn’t a fan of any of them.  And I couldn’t name a single popular wrestler today.  I once attended a wrestling show at a local high school.  It was designed as a fundraiser so at least I felt good giving some of my money to charity.  The problem was that I kept waiting to be hit on the head with a folding chair the whole evening.  I guess the bottom line is that I have no interest in watching people with artificially created big muscles throw each other around and out of the ring and then perform synchronized and well-rehearsed tumbling maneuvers.  I do not live vicariously through the entertainment driven good vs. evil rivalries that seem to be the foundation for every match and wrestler.

I don’t know much about amateur wrestling or what I would call “real” wrestling either.  I know that we’ve had a few good high school wrestlers right here at Meadowbrook Congregational Church.  The Gross and Sparling boys participated on their high school team and did quite well.  My mother’s uncle was a medal winner wrestler in the Allied games that immediately followed World War I.  I have all the respect in the world for these guys.  When I was in high school many years ago, the wrestling coach approached me about trying out for the team.  Back then I weighed about 125 pounds and he was looking for lightweight wrestlers with long legs.  I was flattered.  I went to a couple of practices to check things out and I just about died.  My lungs burned and my heart wanted to leap out of my chest.  I did not enjoy the sweaty physical contact of a one-on-one chess match.  I made the wise decision to not try out for the team.

This morning’s Scripture lesson is a description of a wrestling match.  Jacob and apparently God are in the ring or on the mat together.  I have always though this to be an interesting description of a dialogue with the divine.  Wrestling.  Wrestling with God.  Jacob isn’t quietly listening.  Jacob isn’t talking to God in a manner of faithful following.  Jacob isn’t praying and waiting for God to give him an answer.  He is wrestling- grappling and struggling with God from sundown to sunrise.

Jacob’s wrestling match occurs at an important point in his life.  Previously he had lived the life of a scoundrel- taking advantage of other people and situations that might make him more important.  And he is now on a journey; from the land of Laban his father-in-law, from whom he has gained two wives and a certain amount of prosperity in sheep and goats and cattle.  And he is heading home, to the place of his birth, where he must encounter his brother Esau, the brother from whom he wrestled away a birthright and his father’s blessing.  Jacob is fearful that Esau might extract revenge when they meet again.

Against this scene, Jacob settles down beside the road for a good night’s sleep.  During the night a stranger comes into the camp and engages Jacob in an all night wrestling match.  Is it God?  Is it an angel of God?  Is it another person?  Is Jacob simply wrestling with himself?  All of these are real possibilities given the situation.  But what is clear is that Jacob sees this wrestling match as a struggle with God.  He says, “I have seen God face to face and yet my life is preserved.”  Jacob believes that he is in the ring with God!

In his wrestling match, Jacob learns that God was always with him in the past struggles.  He was in the habit of trying to deal with things himself, to be self-sufficient, to control and manipulate everyone and everything around him.  At this point in his life, Jacob was avoiding conflict, running away from his problems.  Like us, perhaps he was hoping that they would just go away.  Like us, maybe he was thinking he didn’t want to take the energy and hard work it requires to deal with our situation honestly.  He was willing to run and hide from reality.

But Jacob learned that God wanted him in the ring.  When God picks a fight with us, God want us to wrestle with circumstances honestly and thoughtfully.  God wants us to deal with our created intention and truth about ourselves.  God wants us to understand that part of the human experience is wrestling with those things we don’t know, don’t understand, and can’t control.  And God wants us to know that God is there with us, whenever we enter that ring in faith.  Regardless of the point of our struggle, we are called by God and God is with us.

Secondly, the story of Jacob’s struggle teaches us that our wrestling with God can be painful.  Perhaps we tend to equate pain with failure but pain simply can be a humble reminder that some things in life cannot be controlled.  There are bruises as well as blessings.

Amy Laura Hall compares our desire for an orderly, stress free life to a Martha Stewart magazine.  “When we consider the seamless beauty…the well-coifed guests, well-behaved children, the clean white tablecloths and clean people- it is easy to become bewildered by our comparatively soiled lives.  Her prescription is clear.  Find the right votive candle set, omelet recipe, shawl pattern, simple yet elegant hairdo- and life will become better.  Trained to want a life that is well-ordered and efficient, a portrait worthy of a cover, we despair over the fragile, flawed, drooling, limping, but blessed lives that are our own.”  But it is in the failure and the weakness, and in the participation of the struggle, in the honest acknowledgement of pain that we encounter God face to face.  Pain becomes the prelude to possibilities.

I had to learn this lesson myself recently.  Perhaps you have too.  Within the midst of pandemic it easy to want to deal with things later, when there is a vaccine, when things are normal.  I tell myself that I will engage more in the complications of life when things are a little more under my control.  But it doesn’t happen that way.  There are issues with which to wrestle even while socially distanced.  There are blessings to discover even in the midst of pandemic.  There is a divine presence to encounter even when and perhaps especially when we are fragile and vulnerable and fearful.

Finally, Jacob’s wrestling match with the divine illustrates that our struggles with God have the power to transform us.  Jacob limped away a changed man.  He suddenly had new wisdom and courage and confidence to deal with uncertain situations ahead.  He could now meet his brother face to face.  He no longer assumed hostility that required a response of evil.  He could see grace and was willing to respond with grace.  He was open to confess his sins and receive forgiveness.  He as now to be called Israel, the one who strives with God.  Jacob said, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”

In her book Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope, Joan Chittister writes that this particular passage reflects a spiritually of struggle.  She says, “God is not a puppeteer and God is not a magic act.  God is the ground of our being, the energy of life, the goodness out of which all things are intended to grow to fullness.  Yet it is always a struggle.  How can we possibly deal with the great erupting changes of life and come away more whole because of having been through them that we would possibly have been without them?  To do that takes a spirituality of struggle.”  Perhaps therein lies some hope for our lives in these difficult hours.  In this struggle, in this uncertainty, we will become more whole.  We will see God more clearly in wrestling with God than we ever would have making living life with no speedbumps.

Our Scripture lesson today doesn’t complete the story.  There is an epilogue.  In the morning, a limping Jacob, went out to meet his brother.  He didn’t know what he would encounter.  He organized things carefully, putting his maids and their children in front of the procession, then his wife he found less valuable and her children, and then his beloved wife Rachel with his favorite son Joseph.  At least he was courageous enough to place himself ahead of them all!  When he saw his brother, Esau ran to Jacob, embracing him and weeping.  When Jacob offered half of all that he owned, Esau was puzzled.  Jacob replied, “I do this for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God.”  You see, Jacob understood that whatever blessing he received or whatever new understanding he gained in his struggle with God, it didn’t mean anything unless he lived it out in his midst of his life.  In the end, Jacob learned that he could not earn God’s favor or control God’s grace, he could only struggle with both in the midst of life’s issues.  And in the struggle he would find the faith to trust in God’s presence no matter what would come his way.