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October 2020

How To Be Great

By | Sermons

Voting With Your Faith

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Voting With Your Faith”

Rev. Art Ritter

October 18, 2020

 

Micah 6:6-8

“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Matthew 22:15-22

Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

 

 

We have just a little over two weeks to go.  If we can just get through these next couple of weeks, the bitter election season will be over.  Of course that means there won’t be any problems with the counting of the votes, any cries of improper voting, or any threats of challenging the election results.  If we are lucky, then we will all be able to take a deep breath.

Four years ago, for the first time in my ministry, I preached a sermon on voting from a Christian perspective.  I re-read that sermon this week and found an interesting line, “This has been perhaps the most remarkable election period of my lifetime.”  I might have been right then but that statement is wrong now.  This election has been the most memorable one in my lifetime, and perhaps for all of the wrong reasons.  We are holding this election in the midst of a global pandemic.  There is argument and disagreement on how to deal with the COVID-19 virus.  Our president actually contracted the virus.  We are holding this election at a time of great social strife.  Our country is divided along racial and economic boundaries.  There is little consensus about important issues like health care, immigration, the economy, and care of the planet.  The first debate between the two presidential candidates turned into an embarrassing exchange of insults, interruptions, and name calling.   Social media is filled with conspiracy theories and posts composed of words of ridicule and hate.   Emotions are running extremely high.  I know from personal experience that this election has caused the end of some long time friendships and has split apart family members who carry dissenting values and opinions.  St. Anthony the Great, one of the church’s Desert Fathers said, “A time is coming when people will go mad, and when they see who is not mad, and they will attack the one saying, ‘You are mad; you are not like us.’”  It seems that we are living in that kind of time.  Everyone is mad and they are especially mad at those who are not mad like them.

To be honest, I am been left numb by this election cycle.  Perhaps it is a combination of all that is going on in the world and in my life.  I can only deal with a little bit at a time so I try not to absorb too much.  Yet as numb as this election has left me, I have let a few things get under my skin.   I am appalled and frightened by the power of conspiracy theories and the need for people to latch onto any opinion or belief to help them make sense of the world.  Some of the news media buys into these theories or even create these theories for entertainment value.  Some of the candidates promote these theories to attract followers.  Fear and anger drive their ratings and their poll numbers.  Yet when we hear something that gives some credibility to our own prejudices, however unproven it might be, we embrace it.  If we believe something is true then we don’t have to listen to the cries of others.  They are not legitimate and we don’t have to change.  That bothers me.

I also get upset with organized religion and faith leaders who are so free with their political endorsements that they seem to ignore God’s truth when it suits their own purpose.  This past week while driving home from a visit with my father I saw a billboard on I-96.  It said, “Vote Biblically.”  The point of the billboard was one particular issue.  I have some problems anyway with people whose vote reflects only one issue since it seems to indicate that thousands of other issues affecting millions of other people aren’t as important as their one issue.  But this sign indicated a most general Biblical stamp of approval which ignores the nuances of thought that filled the words of the ancient prophets and the teachings of Jesus.  For those who paid for the sign, Biblical voting means agreement with them on this one issue and ignoring the rest of the Bible which speaks to thousands of other very important concerns.

The very next day I drove by a house in Northville whose yard was covered with campaign signs supporting one particular political party’s candidates.  In the midst of all of those signs was another one that said, “Vote Jesus.”  I was angry.  I get angry when people assume that God is on their side, that God supports their party, their candidate, and their position.  I think we all need to follow the wisdom of Abraham Lincoln who said we should be less worried about having God on our side and more worried about being on God’s side.  I will end my venting there.

Some might say that religion and politics don’t mix.  It might see to others that religion and politics are mixing way too much.  Is there a better way?  Brian Robertson writes, “The election season is an easy time for followers of Jesus to shirk our responsibilities to be the incarnation of Christ in the world and participate in the delusion that redemption will somehow come from the empire.”  While we may support our favorite candidates and speak out in favor of political movements, as Christians we must work harder to change the world through actions of love and justice and compassion.  We need to speak and act with love and not with fear.  In a society where choices are based on personal need and security and opinions formed by suspicion of others, our participation in that society needs to reflect our decision to be a follower of Jesus Christ.

This morning’s reading from the gospel of Matthew is actually the lectionary text, once again showing the Holy Spirit at work in the assignment of Scripture passages.  Jesus was being tested, perhaps even trapped by his opponents.  This is a passage that includes references to money and politics and religion- three of the four things people are not supposed to talk about in polite company.  “Teacher,” he was asked, “do you think it is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?”  It was a real election year debate trap question!  These opponents knew that if Jesus said no, the Roman authorities would be after him.  If he said yes, than he would lose his reputation in the religious community.  Jesus asked for a coin that showed the head of the emperor and said, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

Jesus wasn’t really talking about whose image was on the coin.  He was really talking about whose image in upon each of us.  God has made us in God’s image.  God’s claim is upon our every thought and action.  No matter what other loyalties we might carry, no matter what political party or candidate we might support, we are God’s.  We are followers of Christ.  If we forget that identity we might come to think that we can be defined by our possessions and our bank accounts and our political affiliations.  Jesus wanted his followers to know that they are forever God’s beloved child and that identity will in turn shape our behavior, urging and aiding us to be the person that God created us to be.

So what does that have to do with voting?  A great deal, I believe.  If we walk into the voting booth or sitting with our absentee ballot and reflect upon whose we are and to whom we owe ultimate allegiance, it should make a difference.  William Temple, former Archbishop of Canterbury once wrote, “If Christianity is true at all, it is a truth of universal application; all things should be done in the Christian spirit and in accordance with Christian principles.”  Indeed, if we claim to be people of faith, then our faith should impact every part of our life- including our part in the political process.  Yet our identity needs to be affirmed in God’s love and in what God’s calls us to be, not in the platform of a political party or candidate.

I read somewhere this week that the Hebrew word most often translated as “voice” is “qol.”  This word is also translated as noise or sound or vote.  It simply means letting oneself be heard.  Thus our voices and our words are one way to be heard.  Our votes are another way.

I keep thinking back to that political sign I saw in someone’s yard, “Vote Jesus.”  Perhaps it isn’t such a bad idea after all.  It is not a bad idea if our values are the values of Jesus.  Quite often, when I ask people what their favorite verse is in the Bible, I will hear the response Micah 6: 8.  “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God?”  Such a simple thing.  Such a good thing.  Yet it is something we tend to ignore in political seasons when we worry about our own interests.  What if Jesus were on the ballot?  He would be a candidate who says we should love our neighbor as ourselves.  He would say that we should love our enemies.  He would say that we should do well to those who do not do well to us.  He would say that we should support and care for the least, the last, and the lost.  He would say that we should forgive in countless ways.  He would say others should come before us.  He would say that greatness is measured in being a servant to others.  And would we really vote for that?  How would our voting change if we evaluated our candidates based on those holy requirements spoken by the prophet?  How would it change our opinions, our choices, and our relationships with other this political season if we were eager to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God?

In his letter to the church at Philippi, a letter written as Diana Butler Bass reminds us, when Paul was sitting in jail as a political prisoner, he writes, “Live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel.”  Our faith needs to be stronger than the promises of any candidate, the anxiety of any political campaign or the struggle of any election year.  Our lives needs to model not convenient choices which benefit self-interest or political party but choices which speak about God’s desire for mercy and justice.  Our values should reflect the interests of all, especially the interests of those without a voice.  I pray for our nation.  I pray for our leaders.  I pray for the candidates.  I pray for our wisdom in voting.

 

 

Golden Calves

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Golden Calves”

Rev. Art Ritter

October 11, 2020

 

Exodus 32:1-14

When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.” They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.

The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt! The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.” But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’“ And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

 

Preacher and writer Fred Craddock once told a story about greyhound dogs, the kind that chase after mechanical rabbits at the races.  Fred said that his niece buys some of those dogs after they are through racing.  One day while visiting her he noticed one of the dogs lying in the den.  A toddler was pulling on its tail.  Another youngster was using the dog’s stomach for a pillow.  Yet the dog just seemed so happy.

Craddock started talking to the dog.  “Are you still racing?” he asked.

“No, no,” the dog replied.  “I don’t race at all anymore.”

Fred then asked, “Do you miss the glitter and the excitement of the track?”

“No,” said the dog.

“Well what happened?  Did you just get too old to race?”

The dog replied, “No, I still had some race left in me.”

“Well, then did you just not win anymore?”

“No, I won over a million dollars for my owner.”

“Did you get mistreated?”

“Oh, no,” the dog replied.  “They treated us royally when we were racing.”

“Did you get crippled?”

“No.”

“Then why, why did you stop racing?”

The dog said, “I just quit.”

“You quit?”

“Yes, I quit.”

“Why did you quit?”

The dog hesitated for just a moment and responded, “I discovered that what I was chasing was not really a rabbit and so I quit.  All of that running and running and running and what was I really chasing?  It wasn’t even real.”

The story begs the question, are the things that we pursue in life real or just mechanical rabbits?  Will the things we chase after endure or will they disappear long before our last breath?  Are the things that we pursuing with our time, our energy, our priorities, and our ultimate allegiance golden calves of our own creation or something which is holy and eternal?

This morning’s scripture lesson is about our ancestors of faith who were still wandering in the wilderness following their exodus from slavery in Egypt.  One commentator says that they were in the middle of a long trust walk, an extended pilgrimage of faith, witnessing a whole series of remarkable events and great wonders to sustain them.  God had delivered them through the waters of the Red Sea.  God had provided for them daily manna and water from a rock.  They had just received the Ten Commandments instructing them how God wants them to live in relationship with God and with one another.  The Israelites had a great leader in Moses, a leader who seemed to walk daily with God.  They had a promise to motivate them, the promise of a new home, a land flowing with milk and honey.

And yet the people still didn’t seem to understand the meaning of their relationship with God.  Following the receipt of the Ten Commandments, Moses had made a series of trip back up the sacred mountain to receive further instruction from God.  His periods of absence were unsettling.  With the commandments so new, with God so distant, and with their leader away, the people of Israel began to panic.  Other priorities entered their minds.  They longed for safety and security.  They were ready to settle for easy answers and self-satisfying solutions.  Rather than wait for Moses to return at some unknown future date, they decided to take matter into their own hands.  They said to Aaron, Moses’ younger brother, “We do not know what has become of this Moses.  Come make gods for us.”  And in the wink of an eye Aaron gathered all of the gold that the people had brought with them, all of the rings and earrings and necklaces and bracelets and melted it into the form of a golden calf.  All of the people of Israel danced before it as if they were in a drunken or drugged trance.  In Moses’ absence, when God seemed absent, they people wanted reassurance and protection.  They wanted a god who fit their image, some deity that would speak to their own needs and desires.  And in doing so they quickly broke the first two commandments.  “I am the Lord your God…you shall have no other gods before me.”  “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath…you shall not bow down to them or worship them.”

This morning we have to contemplate the sin of creating golden calves or false idols.  Frederick Buechner once defined idolatry as “the practice of ascribing absolute value to things of relative worth.”  It might be easy for us to see that the world has created idols of money, of fame, and of possession.  It might be easy to point at the contemporary false gods of prestige, success, celebrity, and power.  But it might be more difficult for us to understand the idols we have created from our own good intentions.  When we seek comfort or reassurance or peace, we might bow to the empty promises of politicians or to the perceived hope of technology.  When puzzled by the competing interests of a complex world we might worship state or nation.  When charged with running things smoothly, we might put the perceived needs of institution above the greater good.  We might bless our own thoughts and plans, beliefs, and assumptions as holy rather than challenge them with the truth of the gospel.  Tim Kellar writes, “Sin isn’t only doing bad things, it is more fundamentally making good things into ultimate things.  Sin is building life and meaning on anything, even a very good things, more than on God.”

William Willimon tells the story of a visit to a church where he was shown the brand new organ that had just been installed.  His guide said, “That organ cost the church nearly half a million dollars.  It took the company three years to build it.  It’s all handmade, the largest organ in the state, one of the biggest organs anywhere in this region.”  Willimon was impressed.  “What is the name of the organ?” he asked.  “Well, technically it is named for the major donor.  But I prefer to refer to it as ‘The Golden Calf.’”

In her book Mixed Blessings, Barbara Brown Taylor writes that “We have many idols in our lives.  They don’t look like the golden calves of the Hebrew people in the desert.  Our idols surprise us.”  She points out that there is the idol of independence- that things will be fine as long as we can take care of ourselves; the idol of romance- that we can face anything in life if we just have someone love us the way we are; and the idol of religion- the belief that we if we simply attend worship and struggle to live a life of faith, then our souls will be secure.  She writes, “The list can be long: the idols of health, friendship, patriotism… Now in each case mentioned, these are good and noble things!  How else could they become idols?  The first criterion of an idol is that it gladdens our hearts and nourishes our souls, because that is how we learn to believe in it and depend on it, and finally to cling to it as our only source of life.”  The problem is that we fill ourselves so full of the sustainment that comes from our idols that we lose the ability to wait and to receive the unknown things that God has in store for us.  Taylor writes, “We need to stop looking to all the idols in our lives to save us and start opening ourselves to God for our salvation.”

Our own Mike Sullivan has an expression he uses to challenge those with whom he is in conversation.  He says, “Your God is too small.”  J.B. Phillips wrote a book with that title arguing that too often we reduce God to an image that is too small and limited.  We tend to think that we have to plan and manage and executive all things ourselves and we neglect to trust in the mystery and power of God.  I think we also have a way of making God too small by making an idol of our beliefs about God, about thinking we already know everything there is to know about God, assuming that we ourselves possess the correct definition of God, and believing that we know what God really wants for others and for our world.  Anne Lamont, with tongue firmly planted in cheek, says that we tend to create God in some image where God hates the same people that we do.  Mathematician and Christian philosopher Blaine Pascal said, “God made man in his own image and now man repays the compliment.”  By making God too small we create an idol that reduces the vastness of God reach in the universe and with humanity.  We promote the dominant power structure.  We keep ourselves from reaching out in understanding and in doing the work that Jesus calls us to do.  We pin God down when we worship an image of God than conforms to our own preferences.  St. Augustine defined idolatry as worshipping what should be used and using what should be worshipped.

Do not make for yourself idols that you worship.  Do not limit the power of God to the limits of your own understanding and assumptions.  Be aware of that which claims your life but which is not of your Creator.  Be aware of how you limit the power of God to suit that which you already know and have, think and believe.  Do not forsake the things that you believe, that you love, that you want in your lives.  But hold them lightly and know when they are taking up too much room, when they have become the golden calf that limits the space for God to speak and act in your life.

 

 

A Meaningful Life

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“A Meaningful Life”

Rev. Art Ritter

October 4, 2020

 

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20

Then God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.

You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work.

Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.” Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.”

 

We continue our whirlwind tour through the book of Exodus by focusing a bit today on the Ten Commandments.  Trying to tackle any kind of reflection on all of the Ten Commandments at once is a daunting task.  A few years ago I did a ten week sermon series and that makes it much easier to eat and digest.  This morning in just a few minutes I would like for us to consider why we need these words in the first place.

Every once in a while, the Ten Commandments will make the news.  I saw a Facebook post this week where someone was wanting everyone to copy their post supporting the posting of the Ten Commandments in all public schools. There has been a recent news story about how a controversial Alabama judge has fought court orders demanding that he remove a copy of the Ten Commandments from the walls of his courtroom.  There have been additional stories of legal controversies about whether or not stone replicas of the Ten Commandments can be left in the lawns of county court houses.

That is how the argument usually goes.  We tend to talk about how the Ten Commandments are displayed or engraved or even worshiped.  We certainly don’t spend as much time talking about their content or the message that they are intended to convey.  In a poll taken in America less than ten years ago, a majority favored the placement of the Ten Commandments in some sort of public forum.  Of that same group, less than 20 percent could name as many as four of the Ten Commandments.  Gary Anderson writes that because we have tried to make the Ten Commandments into something of a cultural icon we have lost the sense of “religious awe” about them.  We have distanced them from God’s own revelation.  Anderson says, “These are not ten good maxims for the good life but the living word of God.”

The Ten Commandments were delivered to Moses on Mt. Sinai as part of a conversation.  They are actually found twice in Scripture, hear in Exodus and then just before the people of God entered the Promised Land as recorded in the book of Deuteronomy.  According to our reading from Exodus, the Ten Commandments were given to the people immediately after the covenant was established between God and God’s people.  The giving of the law was tied to the promise that God had made with the people of Israel.  It that way the Ten Commandments are something like the vows of marriage, the promises and expectations of this divine-human relationship.  It wasn’t so much that God was requiring the people to obey each of these ten rules in order to receive a reward or a prize.  These commandments are not rules enforced by a watchful and lurking God much as the local police enforce the speed limit on Meadowbrook Road. They were intended to be guidelines to a relationship.

There is a story of two men in a truck who were passing through a small town one day.  They came to an overpass with a sign that read, Clearance 11’3”.  They got out of their rig and measured the height of the truck.  It was just over 12 feet tall.  They weren’t quite certain as to what to do.  As they climbed back into the cab, one of the men said, “What do you think we should do?”  The driver looked around, then shifted the truck into gear saying, “There’s not a cop in sigh.  Let’s take a chance.”

Perhaps that is our attitude about the Ten Commandments.  We might see them as the things you need to do when God is watching you.  Or we might seem them as the things you shouldn’t do because you are afraid that God might be watching you.  But these are not laws intended to hung on a wall be enforced by a court of law.  They are not meant to be legally enforced.  They are laws of the heart, designed to direct our lives to God’s intention.  They are meant to shape our attitudes and to guide our spirit.  They are ten laws or as the people of God first called them, “ten words” to create a community, a place where all of us can live together as God intends for people to live.

In her study on the Ten Commandments entitled “Laws of the Heart,” Joan Chittister writes that “the Ten Commandments are laws of the heart, not laws of the Commonwealth.  They lead to fullness of life, not simply to the well ordered or precisely directed life.  Aristotle says that the perfect life is one where we contemplate, spend our life on, focus our life on the best, most worthy things, the things of highest merit.  Well, the Ten Commandments tell us what’s worth focusing on in life.  They are a new vision of what it means to be a good, healthy, happy, authentic human community.”

Walter Brueggeman writes that we should see these laws, the Ten Commandments, now as restrictions that hem us in but as keys that unlock us, expand and energizing the way we organize our lives personally and communally.  He connects these laws to “neighborly matters.”

That is what God gave to God’s people long ago.  And that is what God gives to us still today.  The Ten Commandments are not rock hard positions of judgement based the condition of God’s love.  They do not say act right and I will love you or mess up and you are on your own.  The Ten Commandments are words of grace that describe how God’s grace can be experienced in the living of life.  Obeying the law doesn’t earn us anything.  Obedience to the law is a sign that we understand God’s promise.  This is how God wants us to be- how God wants us to be as persons and as a community, to value life and relationships, to care for creation and for one another, to give God proper worship and value, to be humble and to be responsible, to be transformed but not convicted.