Monthly Archives

September 2020

Is God Here?

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Is God Here?”

Rev. Art Ritter

September 27, 2020

 

Exodus 17:1-7

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

 

There is an old story that I am sure you have heard before, about a monk who joined an order in which individuals were allowed to speak only once every ten years.  And then the speakers could only use one sentence.  After the first ten years, the Abbot of the monastery called the monk into conference and asked, “So how are things going?”  The monk replied, “Food bad.”  After the second ten years, the Abbot called him into conference again and asked, “How does it go with you?”  This time the monk replied, “Bed hard.”  Finally, after the third period of time the monk walked into the Abbot’s room and announced, “I quit.”  The Abbot replied, “That really doesn’t surprise me.  Since you got here, all you have done is complain!”

Kent Crockett tells the story of a woman, new to her neighborhood, who decided to do something nice to get to know her neighbor.  She baked a pie and carried it next door.  This sounds like something Gail McKillop would do, doesn’t it?  The neighbor was thrilled.  “For me?” she asked.  “How thoughtful.  Thank you very much.”  Because the neighbor liked the pie so much the woman decided to bake another one the next week.  When she took it over the neighbor took the pie, quickly thanked her, and then shut the door.  The woman took another pie over the next week and the neighbor responded, “You are a day late with the pie.”  Yet the following week the woman baked another pie.  This time the neighbor said, “Try using a little more sugar next time.  And don’t bake it quite so long.  The crust was too hard on the last one.  And next week I would prefer cherry to apple.”  That next week the woman was much too busy to bake any pies.  When she passed by her neighbor’s house on the way to run an errand, the neighbor opened a window and yelled, “Hey, where’s my pie?”

Sometimes it is easy to get so caught up in the events of life that we begin to consider our blessings as entitlement.  We might appreciate the gifts of God for a moment, perhaps even give thanks for what we have received, but then we quickly complain when they don’t quite suit our needs or meet our standards given the situation of our days.  Sometimes in our want, in our suffering, in our fear about the future – we forget to trust in the faithfulness of that and those who provided for us in the past.  We complain out of a sense of anxiety and fear that we won’t be safe or won’t have enough.  We murmur that we haven’t gotten what we need or what we deserve.  We question whether things will ever be the way we would like them to be.  And in our complaining we fail to remember the past, we ignore what is before us in the present, and we dampen the possibilities that are there for our tomorrow.

In the Scripture lesson this morning, the people of Israel were once again in the midst of their wilderness wanderings.  They had just gone through a Red Sea crisis, a water crisis, a food crisis, and now they faced another, perhaps more serious water shortage.  They were in the middle of a desert where there was absolutely no water to drink.  Little children were getting dehydrated.  Livestock were drooping.  Adults were getting increasingly desperate.  And so the people of Israel did what people in that kind of situation do.  They grumbled and complained.  They quarreled with Moses saying, “Give us water to drink!”  In spite of everything that God had done for them in the recent past, they were quite willing to put God to the test.  Moses summarized the situation very well with a single question, “Is God among us or not?”  He was asking, how will we know that God is here?  We will believe and trust in the power and presence of God when God gives us water.  God has to pass the test of giving us what we want or we won’t believe that God is with us, among us, or for us.

Perhaps we can sympathize with the people of Israel.  It feels like we have been wandering in the wilderness quite a bit lately.  We are looking for health care experts and scientists to provide a cure or a vaccine that medical manna or that water from a rock- something that will take us from the desert of this pandemic.  We look for any kind of expert who can tell us what we want to hear, perhaps even if that information runs counter to science and reality.  We want what we need.  The current political campaign seems like a never ending chorus of complaints and negativity and untruths.  I don’t know how Moses would have handled attack ads against him.  The ravages of hurricane and flood, heat and fire might make us question whether or not another kind of plague is upon us.  The civil unrest, the police brutality, the anger and the protests, the riots and the looting, the hateful words and closed minds may lead us to believe that we have been left alone in our division and in our quarrels with one another.

Where is God in all of this darkness and evil?  With so much going wrong around us, where is the evidence of God’s goodness among us?  Perhaps God has given up on us after all.  I am certain that in the past few months there have been times in which our souls have cried out, “If you really are God, you would…”  Or perhaps we might want to say, “If you really loved us, you would….”

Kathyrn Matthews writes that whoever wrote this book of Exodus didn’t focus on the nice and comfortable times that the people of faith must have found.  Instead we find readings of the people in want, and examples of the faithful in doubt.  Matthews says that perhaps it is because the lessons of life are best learned in the difficult times.  It is only when we are thirsty in the wilderness that we discover that we have not exercised our gratitude and humility quite enough.  If the pandemic has taught us nothing else it has taught us that we take the good things and the good times for granted until those things are missing from our lives.

Eventually God provided for the people.  Moses was told to go and meet God who would go before them and stand upon a rock at Mt. Horeb.  Moses would strike that rock and water would come of it.  The people would drink.  The fears and terrors of the day would cease.  And perhaps most importantly, the hope of tomorrow would be confirmed and understood.

Theologian Gerald Janzen compares the doubts of the people of Israel complaining about their lack of water with our own doubts at different points in our lives, in times when things get tough.  In response he asks us to remember the “oasis points in our past.”  Oasis points are those moments when we had everything we needed and it was easy to say that God is good, and also easy to count on a future that draws us forward, confident of what lies ahead.  Janzen writes that the people of Israel probably didn’t have any idea of what lay just ahead of them on that mountain and how it would shape their lives.  But when water gushed from the rock at the foot of Mt. Horeb, the same mountain where eventually Moses would receive the Ten Commandments, that water gave them not only sustenance for that particular day but also sustained them hopes for the future.  Janzen believes that on that day, trust in the future promise meant more than the immediate quenching of thirst.  Believing in tomorrow superseded a cup of cool water.

Perhaps those writers are correct.  Perhaps the wilderness experiences of life are places of testing of the divine-human relationship so that we can learn more about God’s presence.  Maybe we won’t learn much about God in times in which we don’t need God or when God is taken for granted.  We learn more about God and we learn to trust more in God’s promises for tomorrow by leaning into our God’s presence in the midst of harshness and disappointment.  In his book Drinking from a Dry Well, Thomas H. Green says that “faith is a way of seeing in the dark, and hope a way of possessing what is still beyond our reach.”  Green continues by saying that the wilderness is a way of emptying ourselves of all the little things we desire so that only God remains.  When the other wells of life run dry, when we realize and understand for what we really thirst, then the living water can flow from dry rocks in the wilderness.  Then we can trust enough in our provision for tomorrow that we can move on in faithful steps.

Author Frederick Buechner reminds us that “to be commanded to love God at all, let alone in the wilderness, is like being commanded to be well when we are sick, to sing for joy when we are dying of thirst, to run when our legs are broken.  But this is the first and great commandment nevertheless.  Even in the wilderness, especially in the wilderness, you shall love God.”

The story of the people of God wandering in the wilderness is a story that happened long ago.  The miracles of manna and water from a rock are miracles we might not be able to fathom and perhaps belong to a time so far away.  But this story is important because it speaks to our own time: our own wilderness, our own needs, our own questioning, our own complaining, and our own prayers.  The people, assured of God’s provision in the present, walked forward in the future.

 

 

 

Daily Rations

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Daily Rations”

Rev. Art Ritter

September 20, 2020

 

Exodus 16:2-15

The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” Then the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.” So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “In the evening you shall know that it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your complaining against the Lord. For what are we, that you complain against us?” And Moses said, “When the Lord gives you meat to eat in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning, because the Lord has heard the complaining that you utter against him—what are we? Your complaining is not against us but” against the Lord. Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, ‘Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.’“ And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. The Lord spoke to Moses and said, “I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.’“

In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.

 

Remembering that I had done a similar thing nine years ago, I went on the church’s Facebook page this week and asked, “Where have you tasted the best bread?”  Bread is a unique thing to humanity.  It is the symbol of basic sustenance.  It is a common sight at most meals yet it can be found in hundreds of diverse forms.  While other foods may be the main attraction or get most of the attention at the table, it is bread that is always there as the most essential item.  Most of us, just love bread.

Here are some of the responses that I got to my inquiry:   Grandma’s breadmaker; Wonder Bread straight from the factory; Great Harvest bread; Sourdough bread from Fisherman’s Wharf; homemade focasio bread; bread at the Walnut Creek Country Club; Zingerman’s; Grandma’s bread; the Sunflour Bakery in Farmington; homemade bread from Mom; the rolls at Chuck Muer’s restaurants; French baguettes while on a bike ride in the Loire Valley of France and the Italian bread at Carini’s Bakery on Joy Road.  I get hungry just thinking about these delicious bread memories!

Bread is a part of our faith tradition.  In the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples, he reminds us to request of God “our daily bread.”  Jesus referred to himself as “bread of life.”  Tested in the wilderness, Jesus was tempted to turn stones into bread to feed the world.  Bread was also part of the food supply used to feed the hungry multitude.  In an upper room with his disciples, Jesus compared the bread he offered to his friends to his own body, broken for us yet remembered as a nourishing living presence through the sacred meal we observe as Christians.

Today’s Scripture lesson features an important mention of bread in the story of God’s people wandering in the wilderness.  Having been freed from slavery in Egypt, the people of God were beginning to lose their faith as they drifted along each day, without any guarantee of food or water or even a final destination.  Some even began to turn against the God who had set them free from their oppressors and took them across the Red Sea.  They asked, “Why would God take us away from the certainty of three solid meals in Egypt to starve in the uncertainty of the desert?  Why would God be so cruel as to allow God’s people to suffer without food and water?”

Cold, hard reality had set in.  The people of Israel looked back at Egypt and slavery with longing hearts.  They grumbled.  That word is used seven times in five verses.  They grumbled.  They didn’t cry out to God for food.  They certainly didn’t confess their faith in a God who have delivered them from slavery and thirst in the past.  They didn’t ask for Moses or Aaron to appeal to God for help.  They simply grumbled.  They expressed a preference to have died in Egypt rather than acknowledging what God had done and trusting in what God might do.

So what did God do?  You might expect that God would have given them a good scolding, lashing out at the Israelites for their ingratitude and grumbling.  But instead of reprimanding them, God provided for them.  “I will rain down bread from heaven for you.”  In the wilderness, God sent manna.  In sending down this important provision, God wanted to teach God’s people the most important lesson in life.  Know who God is and give God the glory through your words and actions and attitude.  That is all God really wanted- a sense of humanity understanding where the gifts of life really come from and a trust that God will always provide.

William Willimon writes that this “bread from heaven” was not immediately recognized a suitable nourishment.  It didn’t come from the oven.  It didn’t come pre-sliced with Wonder or Great Harvest on the label.  It wasn’t served in a fancy basket with garlic butter on the side.  It was a white, sticky substance laying all over the ground.  When the Hebrew people first saw it, they asked, “Manhu?” which literally meant “what is this?”  Thus this bread from heaven became known as manna.

In her book Bread of Angels, Barbara Brown Taylor writes about growing up in the South and eating grits.  She ate them for many years, not knowing what they were.  She ate cheese grits, grits with bacon, and slow cooked grits that swam in their own gravy.  When she was about twelve years old she asked a friend if he knew what grits really were.  “The truth?” he asked wickedly grinning.  “You really want to know about grits?”  He then told her that grits were small bugs that lived in colonies on the surface of fresh water lakes.  At the end of summer they were harvested, shelled, and dried in the sun so that you couldn’t even see their legs.  He concluded his story by rubbing his stomach and saying, “Mmmmm!”

Taylor says that because of that she always thinks of grits when she reads about manna.  The Hebrew people didn’t know where it came from or even what it was.  But Taylor asks, do we have to know what something is and where it comes from in order to view it as bread of heaven?  “What makes something bread of heaven?  Is it the thing itself or the one who sends it?”  Taylor writes that how you answer those questions has a lot to do with how you sense God’s presence in your life.  If, in order for it to be bread of heaven, manna has to drop straight down from heaven in a sliced and wrapped loaf, we will go hungry a lot.  We are going to wonder why God isn’t helping us the way in which we expect God to help.  We are going to grumble and complain.  And we are going to miss a lot of the ordinary things that God is doing for us, gifts like unexplained grits.  On the other hand, if we understand that everything that comes to us comes from God, there will be no end to the manna in our lives.  Every day we will find a basket full of provision, of nourishment, of daily sustenance.  Others may not recognize it or even know what it is.  But we will know that it is something that God has given to us and we will give thanks and we will eat.

I am grateful that I grew up among in a rather humble and modest home.  I never felt the want of anything yet looking back I understand that there were times in which my parents struggled from paycheck to paycheck.  The cupboards and bank account were sometimes close to empty and my mother had to be creative as to what she put on the table.  I will always remember that just before payday, when there was little left to serve, she would cook her famous recipe which she called, “Something Out of Nothing.”  We would ask her what we were having for dinner and that is how she would respond.  “Something Out of Nothing.”  The recipe was never the same.  It usually involved dumplings and tomato sauce, or sometimes pasta and cheese, on rare occasion some frost-covered hamburger that she had found at the bottom of the freezer.  Yet I remember it always tasting so good.  I wondered why Mom would wait until we didn’t have any groceries left until she made “Something Out of Nothing?” But maybe its special flavor came because I knew that whenever she made it she made it with a lot of love and she made it with some extra special attention at those difficult stretches in family life.

Since I announced my intention to retire next spring, I have received some cards and emails and have had some personal conversations with some of you.  It has been very meaningful and uplifting.  I have been told about things that I did or things that I said that made a difference in someone’s attitude, outlook, or even their life.  I didn’t see it then.  I didn’t know it.  I was probably too focused on my grumbling about something else that was frustrating me or I was searching for a solution, perhaps God’s easy answer to a difficult dilemma. And yet someone told me that during those times I had offered bread from heaven.  And I was given manna in return.  There is a clearer understanding that what we have experienced together was not just endless meetings and successes and failures but gifts of God that have been offering through fellowship, worship, and service.  Those moments of Something Out of Nothing are suddenly less frustration and more blessing.

All of us need to be on manna alert.  We need to have an awareness about who supplies our daily rations of grace and mercy.  We may seek miracles but God provides everyday sustenance.  We may want comfort but God brings us joy as we gather the manna.  We may simply want food to eat but God comes to us in relationships that bless us and give us the opportunity to bless others.  Like the people of Israel, we may not always get what we want, but what we receive can bring a glimpse of heaven into our daily world.

 

 

 

Dry Ground

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Dry Ground”

Rev. Art Ritter

September 13, 2020

 

 

Exodus 14:19-31

The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them. It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. And so the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night; one did not come near the other all night.

Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and chariot drivers. At the morning watch the Lord in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic. He clogged their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said, “Let us flee from the Israelites, for the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt.” Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers.” So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea. The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained. But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. Israel saw the great work that the Lord did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses.

 

 

 

Tony Evans tells the story of a conversation a mother and son had after church one Sunday.  “What did you learn about in Sunday School today?” the mother asked of her boy.  “We learned about Israel crossing the Red Sea.”  The mother was quite pleased that her son remembered something.  She then asked, “What did the teacher say about the crossing of the Red Sea?”  The boy replied, “Well, it went like this.  Israel built a bridge over the Red Sea.  They got in buses and crossed over the bridge.  Then when the Egyptians came after them, God sent some F-16 fighter jets and dropped bombs on them until they were all destroyed.”  The mother was quite skeptical.  “Come on now!  Your teacher couldn’t have explained Israel’s crossing of the Red Sea like that.”  Her son quickly replied, “I know.  She didn’t.  But if I told you how it really happened, you’d never believe me!”

The Scripture lesson this morning is the memorable narrative detailing the crossing of the Red Sea.  While we may not have heard the version of the story that the little boy shared with his mother, perhaps most of us know the story best from magnificent story.  We recall the movie scene in The Ten Commandments, where Cecil B. DeMille directed Charlton Heston to divide the special effect waters that were supposedly made out of Jello.  And there are all sorts of rational and scholarly explanations of this miracle.  Some claim a freak windstorm caused the waters to part.  Others claim that the Israelites actually crossed the Reed Sea, something more like a swamp rather than a deep and long waterway.  But perhaps the theatrical version and the logical theories miss the actual point of the story.  The writer of Exodus wasn’t concerned about the depth of the water or the the science behind the parting of a sea.  The writer was convinced only that this was a miracle, an act of God, a demonstration of the strength of God in sharp contrast to the weakness of the ability of the people.

If you remember the actual story, you will know that the people of Israel were living in slavery in Egypt.  God had raised Moses up to be their leader, calling him through a burning bush.  God had acted on their behalf, causing misfortune to fall upon their oppressors.  By God’s hand the Pharaoh had agreed to allow the Israelites to leave Egypt.  By a pillar of cloud by day and a fiery pillar at night God had lead them to the very edge of the Red Sea.  But now, at the very beginning of their Exodus, they were trapped.  Deep water was on one side.  Pharaoh’s mighty army was on the other.  They were struck with terror and with helplessness.  Where was God now?  What were they supposed to do?  Had God simply brought them to this point to fail or to die?

It may feel that way for us right now.  The events of our world and of our lives seem to have placed us in a tight corner.  The uncertainty of pandemic complicates our every choice and action.  We fear for our health.  We fear for the health of our loved ones.  The economic uncertainty caused by the virus weighs upon our budgets, our jobs, and our community.  Civil unrest dominates the cities and streets of our country.  We are a divided nation in the midst of an important yet divisive election.  Even the weather seems to be causing more grief than relief.  Every day we hear of the ravages of wildfire and wind and hurricane and flood.  It surely seems that we are in deep water, or at least pressed up against the edge of the waters of fear and uncertainty.

Disciples of Christ minister Linda Hutton tells a story about a milkmaid and a holy man.  The holy man lived in a remote location and he relied upon the milkmaid to bring him milk and food every day.  She had the terrible habit of arriving late each day.  One day when the holy man scolded her about her tardiness, she explained that she had to walk along the bank of a river for a good distance before come to a bridge that would take her to the other side of the river.  It was the river that was delaying her bringing the holy man his much needed supplies.   The holy man then asked her, “Why don’t you just walk across the water?  It would save you a lot of time.”  From the time on, the milkmaid was never late.

But after a few days the holy man’s curiosity got the best of him and he asked the milkmaid how she managed to arrive so early.  “Why,” she responded, “I did as you told me.  I now walk on the waters of the river.”  The holy man said, “This I must see.  Let me go with you when you return to the village.  If someone like you can walk on water, perhaps I can too.”

The two reached the river and without hesitation the milkmaid stepped onto the water and walked to the other side.  She turned to watch the holy man.  Slowly, carefully he gathered his robes up about his knees and stepped into the river.  He took a few hesitant steps and began to sink.  The milkmaid ran back across the waters and helped him to shore.

“What went wrong?” asked the holy man.  “Well, sir,” the milkmaid answered, “You said that you believed you could walk on water, but then you gathered up your robes so as to not get them wet.  Did you not have faith that you could do it?”

As people of faith, when trapped between forces of doubt and uncertainty, we act much like that holy man.  We would love to experience and witness the hand of God at work in our complex lives.  We prefer that God work a miracles and obvious displays of power, things that bring to us a situation of certainty and ease.  But God usually works more quietly, more patiently, more anonymously.  And that runs counter to our wishes.  We often live out our days in such a way that we refuse to place reliance upon our faith in God.  We are more likely to think we can be saved by our own cleverness or rescued by our own strength and possessions.  We tap our limited amounts of patience, compassion, and forgiveness to deal with the negative situation and people around us.  In crossing the rivers of discouragement and difficulty, we gather up our robes to stay dry, relying upon our own ingenuity.  Alone, we usually still get wet.

God commanded Moses to stretch out his hand over the sea.  This phrase is mentioned three times in the story.  When Moses obeyed, the water parted, giving the children of Israel a safe passage.  I suppose God could have magically transported the people to the other side of the sea by flying chariots or rainbow bridges.  But it didn’t work that way.  God didn’t use the magic of escape.  God used the faithful action of God’s people.

How can we stay dry amidst the torrents of chaos that surround us today?  We walk through the waters by our faith.  When we can find no way out, that is the time to trust in the One who has found a way for us forever.  The story of the people of God is a story of God’s hand in leading the faithful through flood, over the Red Sea, out of exile, from the belly of the whale, avoiding bloodthirsty Herods, and even the ultimate threat of the cross.  A story of deliverance is always told, so we can remember it ourselves, so we can come to believe it in our hearts, and so that can tell others about it.  God is mighty to save and God’s purposes cannot be changed by the powers and principalities of the world.

How can we keep dry?  By recognizing that our faith is always part of the divine action.  Moses didn’t part the waters.  God did.  But Moses had to stretch out his hand and believe something could happen.  His hand became an extension of God’s power.  And the people of Israel had to summon the courage to walk through the Red Sea.  They weren’t totally passive.  They had to have feared, just a little bit that the waters would suddenly return to overwhelm them or that Pharaoh’s army would catch up to them.  But their walk was a realization that they recognized the possibility of God’s presence in that moment.  Sometimes the only hindrance to God’s saving action in the world is the lack of a faithful response of its possibility by God’s people.

Keeping dry.  It is within the power of God.  The story of God’s people teaches us that when we cannot see a way out, God can still make a way.  Keeping dry.  The story of God’s people calls us to be a participant, not just an observer.  Let us stretch out our hands over the uncertain waters before us.  Let us take those steps toward the possibilities of God before us.

 

 

Before You Unfriend

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Before You Unfriend”

Rev. Art Ritter

September 6, 2020

 

Romans 14: 1-4, 10-12

14Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. 2Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. 3Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. 4Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.

10Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. 11For it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.” 12So then, each of us will be accountable to God.

 

Matthew 18:15-20

15“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

 

 

As we wearily draw closer to the November election, I think we’ve already had enough of the endless advertisements, the personal attacks, the bitter social media posts, and the difficult conversations with friends and neighbors and family.  Perhaps this really isn’t anything new.  Presidential politics has always been rough and tumble.  Andrew Jackson’s opponents accused his wife of being a convicted adulteress and bigamist because it wasn’t clear whether her divorce was final from a previous marriage.  Grover Cleveland, then a bachelor, was accused of hiding a son and his opponents offered the chant, “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?  Gone to the White House, Ha, Ha, Ha!”  I recall just four short years ago, Chuck Lorre, in his Vanity Card #539 at the end of The Big Bang Theory said what we were all feeling, “A Nonpartisan, Nondenominational prayer for America.  God, make this election be over soon.  Amen.”

I also read with interest an article from the September 2004 edition of The New Yorker.  There was an interview with Emily Hertzer, at that time a recent Yale grad and delegate to the Republican National Convention in New York.  Hertzer was so embarrassed by the comments she heard and the protest signs she read that she started a movement to bring back civil and proper manners to society.  Hertzer, who summered and sailed in Newport, Rhode Island founded the Newportant Foundation, an organization dedicated to bringing civility, manners, and traditional values back to our society.  Part of her plan included holding a British style afternoon tea each day.  I googled Hertzer and Newportant and didn’t find anything up to date.  Perhaps after 16 years she is still serving afternoon tea but evidently her civility movement did not catch on.

There is a great cry for civility in our society today.  Civility is a way of relating to others which promotes discourse, letting all voices be heard, and allowing us to seek solutions to problems together.  I know that I read with great trepidation and only some interest the political comments of many of my friends on Facebook.  Most of the time I get so angry or frustrated at the sources quoted or the conspiracies supported that I want to respond back with forceful words.  I want to argue with them until they see my side of the issue.  I read this week that arguing with a friend about politics on social media is like sticking your hand into the blades of a fan.  Usually my calmer self will simply click the “snooze for 30 days” button.

I heard an interview with Diana Butler Bass this week in which she talked about her blog and her social media posts.  She said that she wasn’t surprised by the comments she received that disagreed with her thoughts and opinion.  What surprised her were the vile and personal attacks by commenters which used degrading language and even insulted her physical appearance.  Sadly, these comments are typical of words left at the bottom of any article from the on-line versions of any newspaper or magazine.  People, even our leaders, seem to prefer to humiliate and embarrass as a sign of personal victory instead of engaging in constructive dialogue that benefits us all.

In his book Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy, Stephen Carter points out that America is having a problem with our freedom of speech.  It is guaranteed to us in the Bill of Rights and we have the right to speak whenever we want.  The problem is that an unbridled expression of speech can hurt other people.  Self-control needs to go with self-expression.  Carter writes that too often we jump into conversation with words of cynicism and selfishness when what is needed is a combination of generosity and trust that comprises civility.  Carter defines civility as “the set of sacrifices we make for the sake of our fellow passengers.”  That’s a wonderful definition whether it describes an airline flight, pandemic behavior, or the experience of all of us in the community of faith.  The sacrifices we make, we make for our fellow passengers.  In our desire to be right, we often forget to be nice.  In our desire to win, we judge others much too harshly.

I chose a couple of thought provoking Scripture passages this morning.  In the first reading from the gospel of Matthew, Jesus is giving advice to the members of the Christian community about how to get along.  Most scholars believe these words were actually used to address conflict in the early church long after Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Matthew writes about how hard it is to keep a community in community.  Jesus teaches that the work involved is actually the kind of labor that builds the Kingdom of God.  His prescription seems to run counter to our earthly thinking.  Jesus talks about going and talking with one who has wronged you, in the spirit of love.  If that doesn’t work, take other people with you next time.  Secondly, Matthew writes that it isn’t important who is right and who is wrong.  What is important is reconciliation and listening.  Jesus’ words remind us that when we are in community, we aren’t working for ourselves, we are working for relationships.  Being right and winning are far less important that maintaining a relationship with another in Christ.

The second Scripture lesson is actually one from next week’s lectionary calendar, taken from Paul’s letter to the church at Rome.  It seems that there was a difference of opinion within that church.  Some former Jews believed that the kosher food laws still applied and did other laws concerning rituals and high holy days.  Other new Christians thought such ritual and food law practices had nothing to do with being a follower of Christ.  The church, much like our society, was split.  Whole segments refused to have anything to do with each other.  Paul seems to skirt the facts of the issues and speak more about acceptance.  Accept one another he says.  The Greek word he uses here does not mean merely tolerating those with whom we disagree but to actually welcome them, to engage in fellowship with them.  He says that if Jesus is able to forgive us and bear with us, then we should be able to do the same for one another.

Now I will admit that Paul’s advice is easier to follow within the structure of the Christian community.  We all are here because we share in the love of God and the hope of the resurrected Christ.  Acceptance gets much harder in the context of society and public forums, where we share space with those with whom we may not share such a common bond.  Perhaps social media will never be a place where such behavior can be modeled because it lacks the community identity and obligations that are needed to embrace acceptance and forgiveness.

However we can wrap our arms around Paul’s thought that our Christian belief must be linked to our Christian behavior.  We need to always keep the work of God before us.  The Risen Christ is not just a belief or purely a product of intellect.  Jesus is alive and moving and working through current events making all things new. We need to welcome and accept and love others just as the Lord has welcomed and accepted and loved us.  Differences will occur.  Disagreements will happen.  But our conversations and our discourse need to be at a level which reflect that we are people called by grace and by God to worship and serve, not to judge and condemn.

I’ve shared with you before the story of a ministry team on which I served within the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches.  Our team was charged with exploring staff changes within our Association and we were recommending a reduction of staff and a realignment of responsibilities.  There were many at that meeting who disagreed with our conclusion.  The night before the scheduled vote on the issue, a question and answer session was held.  I was one of five people who stood before an angry crowd who threw some emotionally charged questions and comments toward us.  It was most uncomfortable.  Suddenly a voice in the crowd called for prayer.  A prayer was given reminding us all of God’s grace and goodness, of our intention to serve God in what we were doing, and of the need to accept one another and to speak in ways that reflected Christ.  The one who prayed called for God’s presence to seep into our conversation and for God’s wisdom to enter our deliberation.  The mood of the room changed.  There was still a lot of disagreement.  But there was much more civility.  There was less tension and an understanding that all the participants would listen and value one another.

The bottom line of Jesus’ teaching and of Paul’s letter is the same.  Understand that words of love are not real until they are put into action.  It certainly isn’t an easy thing to face rude behavior, hear mean words, and witness unkindness.  It is a hard thing to respond in a civil way.  But those who understand that they are loved by God, understand that there is a spirit filled link from God and through them, and that they can act in love and charity because they have found that same love and charity in Christ.

The first epistle of John perhaps says it best.  “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.  And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him.”  AMEN.