All Posts By

Abbie Holden

That Scary Word

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“That Scary Word”

Rev. Art Ritter

January 19, 2019

 

John 1:29-42
The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”
The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

 

At a memorial service for Walter Cronkite, 60 Minutes reporter Andy Rooney told a story about the famous news anchor. Rooney and his wife were boating in Maine with Cronkite and his wife Betsy. They tied up in a little village and Walter and Betsy got off the boat and walked into a nearby country store. A rather strange looking man walked up to Walter and asked him a question. Now Walter was always very polite to the public and to his fans, and with his wife standing right there beside him, he took great care in attempting to answer the man’s question. Cronkite said, “Oh sure. We’ve met several times. We’re not really close friends but I still talk to him once in a while.” Once they left the store Betsy questioned her husband. “Did you really hear what they man asked you?” Cronkite, who was hard of hearing answered, “No, I didn’t. But I wanted to be polite.” Betsy said, “The man asked if you knew Jesus Christ!”
Perhaps we’ve all been asked those kind of questions a time or two or three. A colleague was telling me that as he went into a college football game this fall, he was confronted by a very large and angry man shouting out Bible verses and carrying a sign warning others about their eternal damnation. Just before he entered the gates, the man asked him if he knew Jesus, if he had been saved. He chose to simply ignore the man’s questions. My colleague said a fight almost ensued moments later when a couple of other spectators, emboldened by their tailgate libations, began to challenge the man about his physical size and the evil of his apparent gluttony. My colleague said he couldn’t walk away from the scene quickly enough, fearing how the whole experience might tarnish the reputation of Christians in the minds of those who witnessed it.
I have a friend from college whom I dearly love. He is a good and honorable man. We have been there for one another through the ups and downs of our lives. But sadly, we are not as close as we used to be. Although he is a very devout Christian, our ideas about the Christian faith differ. We don’t talk about our faith as much as we used to because I have asked him to stop. I wasn’t comfortable with the condescending way that he spoke to me about what I believed. When we talked about Jesus his words didn’t convey much love or respect. He dropped subtle hints that my faith wasn’t quite the right thing, you know, quite like his. It felt like he was more concerned about my eternal fate than what was happening to me on that particular day. I know in my heart that my friend has the best of intentions but his actions come across as coercive, unloving, and even threatening.
Today in the words of the gospel of John, we are to consider our role as evangelists. I would venture to say that most of us within the mainline church admit to a measure of discomfort with the word. When we think of evangelists, we might think of pushy, self-righteous people who confront us within our safe space. We might conjure up images of those religious know-it-alls who stand on street corners quoting Bible verses or delivering fiery opinions. Some of us may hold the conviction that like politics, religion isn’t something that polite people talk about. Some embrace the Congregationalist tradition that values the individual faith journey and our covenant which calls us to support others in our different walks of faith. But many simply do not want to be perceived as being one of those people who we think of when we think of evangelism.
Whatever the reason, we are downright frightened of the word. And our fear cripples our ability to reach out to others with the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. In this season of Epiphany, we recall that we are to celebrate God’s love revealed and made manifest in Jesus. We are to share that good news. We are called to be evangelists.
Jesus walked by John the Baptist and two of his disciples. The disciples began following Jesus and he turned to them, giving them his full attention asking, “What are you looking for?” Perhaps we could rephrase the question as, “What do you want?” or “What are you seeking?” Rather than pursuing a specific agenda that suited him, Jesus’ questions invited a sharing of their stories and an opportunity to reach deeper into the complexities of their life situation.
When they asked where he might be staying, Jesus didn’t give an answer. Instead he offered a very simple invitation. “Come and see.” Follow me and experience what I experience. Be in relationship with me. While John’s disciples were simply trying to observe at a distance, to gather enough information about Jesus to make a decision about who he was and what they should make of him, Jesus invited them to come and see. He didn’t give them books to study. He didn’t offer guidelines to which they needed to adhere. He invited them to come and tag along and see for themselves what a faith filled life could mean for them and for the rest of the world.
Last Sunday night I laid in bed comfortably, just approaching that marvelous point of falling into the arms of sleep. Laura came up into our bedroom, then walked into our bathroom, and then turned and said to me, “Are you asleep?” My first instinct was to ignore her and pretend that I was sleeping. But my conscience got the best of me. I opened my eyes and responded. She continued, “I want to show you something. Come here and see.” I have to admit, I tried to get out of it easy. I wondered if I could experience what she wanted to show me remotely, without leaving the comfort of bed. “What is it?” I asked. Laura wasn’t letting me off that easy. “I need to show you.” Immediately I remembered hearing those words from my daughters when they were younger, right before they showed me an ugly insect, a drawing they had proudly made, or a footprint in the snow. Reluctantly I got out of bed and made my way into the bathroom. Laura stood there, staring into our shower, with a look of great pride and admiration. Earlier in the day she had tried a new cleaning product on the grout between the tiles. She had only cleaned half the shower but there was indeed a distinct difference in the color. What was once dirty was now clean. I was impressed, but I was also tired. I complimented her and made my way back to bed. The funny thing about all of this is that although that trip to come and see didn’t mean much that night, I have remembered it all week. Every time I have taken a shower since then I have noticed the clean grout and think about the hard work that Laura put into that shower. I try to make certain that I am doing what I can to keep it clean.
Come and see. Something happens and you just can’t keep it to yourself. A new restaurant, an exciting play in a baseball game, a captivating television show. We want to share it. Come and see. You want another person to enter into your experience, to see your work or your accomplishment, to know of your struggle and your pain, to participate in your celebration and discovery. Come and see. But before the invitation can be issued, we must experience that something for ourselves. We can’t speak of the beautiful sunset with seeing it. We can’t telling a love story without falling in love. We can’t tell of the wonders of a new land without having traveled there. The first step to evangelism is noticing what God is doing in your life and giving voice to that presence and how it has moved you, inspired you, and changed you.
But there’s more to it than sharing your story. Evangelism is also acquiring a genuine attentiveness to the needs of others, in the longings and needs of the other person. Jesus’ invitation to those first disciples was a tender one, not a harsh assessment. As he shared the good news he spoke it not with empty words and slogans but with the opportunity to enter into relationship, to see “where he lived” and to understand that when people knew him that they would come to know what they needed to know.
Doug Pollack, a YMCA chaplain and minister with Athletes in Action relates an incident that happened to him recently. His article in Christianity Today is entitled “The Confessions of a Recovering Evangelist.” Pollock was riding in a rental car shuttle in Denver when he struck up a conversation with a young man in his twenties. The man had just flown back to the U.S. after a year of graduate studies abroad. When they got to rental counter the young man discovered his license had expired so nudged by the Holy Spirit Pollock offered him a ride to Colorado Springs where the minister was speaking to several churches. The young man was totally taken back by his seemingly small offer of kindness. Their conversation grew more intense when Pollock shared his profession. His passenger remarked that he wasn’t much interested in religion. Pollock then asked the young man what he might advise Christians not to say in speaking with those outside the faith. The young man quickly replied, “I’d tell them if you are not willing to listen to me, I am not going to listen to you. Every conversation I’ve ever had with Christians have left me feeling very disrespected and angry because it’s more of a monologue. All they are concerned about is getting their point across. It comes across as arrogant or rude. I don’t want their Jesus because I don’t want to become rude and disrespectful like they are.” Pollock was stunned by this comment because he felt suddenly felt convicted. God had flipped his “Good Samaritan” act and had used this young man to reach him instead. He thought of all the times he felt called to speak to others but never thought about listening. He since has found that sentiment confirmed in a study by George Barna saying that the number one thing not-yet Christians want but very rarely experience when talking to Christians is to be heard without judgment. Pollock said that in his conversation with others, with his evangelism, he now emphasizes listening with judgment, listening without speaking, caring without worrying about accomplishing his agenda.
Evangelism needs to be offered as good news not as strong judgements. When we bear witness, our witness needs to be as Jesus witnessed, with interest and kindness and compassion. Our faith grows when we experience something and share it in practice with others. We see kindness offered and we apply it ourselves. We receive gifts from others and are moved to share of what we have been given. We learn that we have been prayed for and we remember to pray for others. We hear a call for justice and we join others in working for it. Come and see. As you grow closer to God you will find ways to invite others to come along and see as well.
Long ago, a simple invitation to come and see reached far beyond what those first disciples could have ever imagined. God delights in taking such little things and blessing them and doing something wonderful through them. Even if our initial efforts to share our faith, our story, our church, may seem small and tentative, telling others to come and see is the way God brings light from darkness and raise the dead to life. God can do marvelous things through us. That is the promise of evangelism.

Hidden Identity

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Hidden Identity”

Rev. Art Ritter

January 12, 2020

 

Matthew 3:13-17

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

 

In his biography of actor Peter Sellers, author Peter Evans says that Sellers played so many different characters in his career that sometimes he was not so certain of his own identity.  One day he was approached by a fan who asked him, “Are you really Peter Sellers?”  Sellers answered rather briskly, “Not today.”  And then he walked on.

There is a story of renowned 19th century French illustrator and cartoonist Paul Gustave Dore.  While traveling through Europe Dore had lost his passport.  When he came to a border crossing he was asked for his identification papers and had to explain his predicament to one of the border guards.  Giving his name to the guard, he hoped that he would be recognized for his well-known work in Bibles and books and journals and be allowed to pass.  The guard however said that many people had attempted to cross the border by claiming to be persons they were not.  He would not permit Dore to pass.  The artist continued to insist that he was indeed the man he claimed to be.  “All right,” said the official, “we’ll give you a test, and if you pass the test we will allow you to go through.”  Handing Dore a pencil and a sheet of paper, the guard told the artist to sketch several peasants standing nearby.  Dore did it so quickly and so skillfully that the guard was convinced that he was indeed who he claimed to be.  Dore’s work confirmed his word and thus his identity.

On the second Sunday of Epiphany, the church traditionally hears the words of the gospel writers which describe the baptism of Jesus.  This year it is Matthew’s turn.  In the third chapter of the gospel, Matthew tells about Jesus appearance before John the Baptist, asking for baptism himself.  John was a bit taken aback, recognizing Jesus and saying that perhaps he was the one who needed to be baptized by Jesus.  In his commentary on this story, Troy Miller describes it as a “paradoxical blend of magnificence and humility.”  Jesus comes, announcing that he is the one promised by God through John yet Jesus stands there much as the rest of those who had come seeking the baptism for the repentance of sins.  Perhaps John was a bit disappointed that someone in whom he had placed a great deal of hope and expectations was asking for such a simple, ordinary, human thing.  Maybe John hoped that Jesus would at that point, take over the role as main prophet and chief baptizer.  Maybe John was caught off guard because Jesus was standing in line with all of the other common sinners, waiting his turn in the waters of the river.  Jesus stood there quietly with the others, humble and vulnerable just like the rest, recognizing that he too was called to face the waters of chaos and death, called to be one of us.

Scott Hoezee writes, “Perhaps no one noticed anything unusual about that particular baptism.  Isn’t that how we view all the baptisms we witness?  The parents bring the baby to the font and we’ve seen this sight scores of times before.  We don’t expect anything unusual to happen, and to our watching eyes and listening ears, nothing does happen, either- nothing beyond what we expected anyway.”

Yet on that day, and perhaps in the silence of every sacrament, God was present.  The heavens opened and the Spirit of God descended as a dove of peace and wholeness.  The voice of God cried out, announcing authenticity and identity.  “This my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.”  Beloved.  Loved by God.  Beloved.  Knowing that God sees worth and value in each person.  Beloved.  A blessing that reminds us that his purpose was to serve God and to find God’s Spirit working in us, moving through us, and speaking to us.  It was a powerful moment, a moment that fueled Jesus as he prepared to go directly into the wilderness for testing.  It was a powerful moment that must have stayed with Jesus throughout his ministry.

On the day in which we hear once again the story of Jesus’ baptism, we are called to remember the purpose of our own baptism.  On that day God spoke to Jesus saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am pleased.”  That was Jesus’ identity, confirmed in the waters of the Jordan.  His true self was declared as good by God.  He was given legitimacy.  And he was sent forth to live his life based on the knowledge that he was beloved.  Secure in that knowledge he was called forth to witness to a greater power than himself, a witness of joy and peace in a cold and cruel world, and a witness of hope in a world caught up in despair.  Jesus’ work and his ministry were never separated from his identity as God’s beloved.

This week I noticed a popular meme on Facebook, attributed to John Pavlovitz.  Pavlovitz is a former United Methodist Church pastor, turned writer.  The main point of the meme was Pavolvitz’ frustration with many modern Christians.  Too many Christians today he said, define themselves by the beliefs that they possess, or the policies that they support, or the values they claim to hold.  Too many Christians today claim to be followers of Jesus but are more concerned with political positions and public prayer and memorized Scripture and a free pass to heaven.  We have forgotten what the true identity of a Christ follower truly is, something conveyed at our baptism: we are loved by God thus we are to truly love others.  We don’t have to agree with them or believe what they believe or even like them- but as God’s beloved we are aware of God’s unconditional love for us and we are to see in one another specific and unique image-bearers of God, and to want and to work for shalom for them:  wholeness, happiness, peace, safety, and rest.

There is an old story about Martin Luther.  It is said that every single morning of his life, Luther would splash water on his face three times, while speaking the same words that were said at his baptism, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”  Luther said he did this because the feeling of the cold, cleansing water reminded him of who he was.  The water was a visible means of Luther’s identity as a child of God.  There are many days in our difficult and complex world where such a reminder is truly needed.  We need to splash our face and remind ourselves of our baptism.  In that baptism we carry our identity as God’s chosen and treasured one.  In that baptism we carry our calling to be God’s love in the world.

In 1992 theologian and spiritual writer Henri Nouwen gave a sermon series entitled, “Life of the Beloved.”  He gave the sermon at Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral, an unlikely place for such a simple man as Nouwen to speak.  He used this baptismal passage from Matthew as the text for his message.  Nouwen began the sermon by giving the main theme, that we are to live our lives based on the knowledge that we are the beloved sons and daughters of God.  That in itself can propel us through the ups and downs of life.  It can keep us on the path of God when we are threatened by other claims that seek to define us against what God has done.  Nouwen went on to define three worldly claims that seek to define us and turn us away from the promise of our baptisms.  We tend to use these claims to measure our success.  Nouwen said that we try to survive by staying above the approval line in every claim.  The first claim is I am what I do.  I am what I work for.  What I am is what I have or can achieve.  The second claim is that I am what others say about me.  Sometimes this can be the most important thing in our lives, since it is fueled by our status in relationships and our vocation.  When people like us or need us- we are fine.  When people speak ill of us or are critical of us- we are cut to the core.  Finally, the third claim is I am what I have.  The materialism of our world defines us.  I am what I possess.  I am defined by what I own.  But I also construct my identity upon my nationality, who I am related to, my sexuality, and my political choices.

Nouwen reminds us that these worldly claims are all a lie.  They may seem important to us but they neglect one important concept- love.  There is no place for love to work and grow in such worldly claims.  There is no place for us to hear God’s voice.  Jesus proved this during his time in the wilderness when he was tempted by Satan to place his allegiance to each of the three.  He remembered the promise of his baptism.  He heard the claim of God.  He found his identity in living out the love of God.

We are to remember the identity given to us as our baptisms, to hear that voice as it speaks to us again.  We are to learn that our baptism is more powerful than the labels and self-imposed identity we tend to value.  We are beloved.  This is how God sees us.  This is what God says about us.

 

 

 

 

Come to the Light

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Come to the Light”

Rev. Art Ritter

January 5, 2020

 

Isaiah 60:1-9

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms. Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you. A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord. All the flocks of Kedar shall be gathered to you, the rams of Nebaioth shall minister to you; they shall be acceptable on my altar, and I will glorify my glorious house. Who are these that fly like a cloud, and like doves to their windows?

For the coastlands shall wait for me, the ships of Tarshish first, to bring your children from far away, their silver and gold with them, for the name of the Lord your God, and for the Holy One of Israel, because he has glorified you.

 

I would like to begin my sermon this morning by taking a poll of the congregation.  How many of you consider yourselves to be “morning people?”  By that I mean people who are up at the break of dawn or before dawn, bright-eyed and bushy tailed, full of energy and ready to face the day.  I am not a morning person.  I am better at getting up early than I used to be but it still kind of bothers me when energetic morning people talk about all that can be experienced and accomplished before 8 a.m.  I sometimes think that morning people have an almost evangelical feel about the dawn.  They possess the truth about the value of the dawn and they want to convince everyone else about it.

I have a colleague who often posts on Facebook about how guilty he feels when he sleeps in past 6 o’clock in the morning.  When I read these kind of statements I just shake my head.  I feel badly for my colleague and for other morning people who go to bed early so they can get up early and consequently miss all of the blessings of the late hours of the night.

If you are a morning person, you are at an advantage in the world.  I read an article this week that said that our society caters to morning people.  School and work typically starts very early in the day so it is an advantage for those whose body clocks are set to start a bit earlier in the morning.  A lot of this isn’t based on the productivity of the morning hours but on the old agricultural society when farmers had to get up early so everything in society adjusted to them.  After reading that, I guess I’ve done pretty well getting this far in life being doubly cursed:  a night owl and left-handed!

One of the things that I hoped to accomplish during the holidays was to sleep in a couple mornings.  It didn’t happen.  I certainly didn’t get up real early but I was unable to make it past 8 o’clock.  If that is sleeping in for you than I don’t want to hear about it because then you are one of those “morning people.”  Laura says that I can’t sleep in any more.  I start thinking about all of the things that I have to do and it forces me to get up, get dressed, and get busy.

I remember my years at the church sponsored camp in Utah.  I usually stayed up late, making the rounds around the cabins to be certain everyone was asleep and where they were supposed to be.  I didn’t mind those quiet later night hours.  It was getting up early that exhausted me.  The campers would begin each morning by singing that song about Noah and his “Arky, Arky.”  The chorus went like this, “So rise and shine, and give God your glory, glory.”  While I was always grumpy at the beginning of the song, after all it was before 8 o’clock in the morning – there was something about watching the kids singing it that gave me a smile and got me up and moving.  Rise and shine and give God your glory.

The words of the prophet Isaiah speak a similar message.  “Arise, shine; for your light has come and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.”  Isaiah is probably speaking to a woman representing Jerusalem, reminding her to lift herself up from her place of darkness because her deliverance has come.  God was about to do something important, perhaps even earth shattering.  God was preparing a way for God’s people to return home from exile.  This passage was one of the promise of homecoming and restoration.  Isaiah called the people of God to wake up and shine forth their testimony of the greatness and goodness of God.  These are the words of the prophet that we need to hear on Epiphany Sunday.

The season of Epiphany is one in which we recognize the value of light, awareness, and revelation.  We celebrate the story of the revelation of God in Jesus’ birth and we seek such revelation in our hearts and in our community of faith.  An epiphany itself is an awakening, a bringing to light, a recognition of something once hidden that changes our sense of awareness.  The symbol of Epiphany is a star, a light which the wise men followed.  It brought them to the light of the world in Jesus and that revelation changed them.  They went home by a different way.  An epiphany is the spirit of rise and shine that speaks to a world, telling us to come to the light so that we can be changed.  Epiphany speaks to a world that perhaps would rather just hibernate.

But it is more than simply waking up.  Isaiah’s words point to God’s light in Jesus but also to our responsibility to be the way in which that light shines into the rest of the world.  We not only have to wake up.  We have to come to the light.  We have to recognize the light.  And we have to shine.  We have to receive the good news.  We have to share it with others.

Dr. Jim Standiford tells of a friend in New York City who lives in a ground floor apartment that faces north.  The window in the low ceiling living room catches only a few feeble morning rays of light.  For eight years the man had tried to grow a plant in that window to brighten up the apartment.  But each effort ended in failure.  A plant would struggle for a while and then give up due to the absence of sunlight.  Then, about two years ago, the man bought a small ivy plant.  It too struggled for life until recently when for no apparent reason it has begun to sprout new leaves and shoots.  One day when the man was home early from work, about 3:30 p.m., he discovered light streaming through his window.  It turns out that a new high-rise tower was built a block to the north of the apartment building.  The windows of that tower reflected the sun’s afternoon rays into the man’s apartment perfectly.  Because of that reflection of light, the plant was experiencing new life.

In my research this week I found an article written by a sleep doctor at Duke University.  He had some advice for those of us who like to stay up late but have trouble waking up early.  The advice was all about light.  He recommended that we turn off all lights, including computers and phones and clocks before we go to bed, to assist us in sleeping well.  And then in the morning when we rise, we come to the light by turning on as many bright lights as we can.  Light is the way to be active and alive.

That is Epiphany.  It is life rising and light shining with the warmth and possibility of God.  It is the understanding that Jesus as God among us is present in our world here and now.  What is it that gets us up in morning?  Is it an alarm clock or obligation or guilt?  Or is it a desire to get a jump on the day, to catch the sunrise, and to find something worth getting up for?  As much as I am not a morning person, I think that Epiphany is a morning season.  Isaiah calls us to a new direction, to come to the light, to be eager to see what God is doing, or what God might be doing in each new day.  As followers of Christ, we have seen and experienced something in our celebration of Christmas.  A light shines into the darkness.  The light is the light of the world.  Having seen that light, having experienced it in our hearts, we are commanded to share of it and to shine into the whole world.  How might our days be different if we adopted the presence of morning- of looking for God’s possibilities and God’s glory in our world.

 

 

 

The Dark Side of Christmas

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“The Dark Side of Christmas”

Rev. Art Ritter

December 29, 2019

 

Matthew 2:13-23

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”

 

The news headlines appeared on my computer screen when I went online the day after Christmas.  If I was expecting the world to change after our observance of the birth of Jesus, I certainly was wrong!  There was the threat of North Korea’s “Christmas surprise.”  There was all of the talk about the impeachment trial and the posturing that surrounds it.  I read about protesters in Hong Kong amping up their plans for the New Year.  There was a shooting on the Lodge Freeway in Detroit.  A five year old autistic boy went missing near my hometown in Montcalm County, MI.  A typhoon killed at least 16 people in the Philippines.  A Christmas day fire displaced more than 200 people in Minneapolis.  Winter storms ravaged the West and the precipitation is heading this way.  And hazardous waste crews continued to clean up the “green ooze” that was flowing down an embankment onto I-696.

Every year at Christmas we focus our attention on good things.  That is why we tend to enjoy it so much.  We emphasize the colors, the beautiful music, the jolly Santas, the joyful carols, the happy hearts, and the neatly wrapped packages under the decorated trees.  All things seem possible as we hold the candles on Christmas Eve and get ready for bed with the latest report of the Santa tracker assuring us that all is well.

Yet sadly, at this time of year, things happen which remind us that Christmas is not really the escape that we wish from the reality of life.  December 26 brings one back to reality.  Even in the Christmas card greetings that Laura and I receive each year, some of the dark news of the world seeps through.  Along with the typical news of job promotions, exciting vacations, and grandchildren- our out- of -town friends have other news at Christmas.  We learn of friends with serious health concerns or tragic losses, of friends experiencing divorces or difficult work situations.  It isn’t all good news!

These things are like a shadow cast upon the brightness of the season.  While the light of God’s presence shines into the darkness, there is still a shade of gray vulnerability even in this season’s mystery and wonder.  I recall two significant December tragedies which shaded my Christmas celebrations.  In December of 2012, I remember the residents of Newtown, CT taking down their Christmas lights following the elementary school massacre there.  They were not in the mood to celebrate Christmas.  I also remember a famous picture from the 1988 bombing of Pam Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.  The photograph showed people sifting through the rubble of the crash.  And in the background of the photo was a man standing out on his balcony, taking down his Christmas lights before Christmas.  The darkness and death was too near and too overwhelming for his to celebrate the season.

How many of us realize that the Christmas story itself has a dark side?  The words of the gospel of Matthew read this morning tell us that an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and warned him to take Mary and the infant Jesus away from Bethlehem and into Egypt.  King Herod, in a fit of jealous rage, was seething at the talk of some newborn king.  It threatened his power.  So he ordered his troops to search every household in Bethlehem and to kill every male infant.

Now this is a very brutal and bloody tale.  Some scholars believe that it is a fictional tale, underscoring the significance of Jesus’ story with Moses’ story and thus establishing his Messianic identity.  Others believe that it is historically accurate and points out the unsettled political and social environment of that time and place.  Either way, it is a difficult story to hear.  It certainly doesn’t illustrate anything that we want to talk about at Christmas.  It isn’t read from the pulpit on Christmas Eve.  It isn’t acted out in the children’s nativity scenes and pageants.  Yet here it is in Matthew’s gospel.  He writes about the birth of Jesus, the visit of the wise men, and then in the very next breath he paints the picture of bloodshed and death.  Why?  Why put this right after the Christmas story?  What does this have to do with Jesus’ birth?  Why would it be important enough to hear after such great and good news?  Why darkness and death so soon?

I can’t be certain, but I have a theory about this that I would like for us to reflect upon this morning.  I like to think that the Christmas story, in all of its grand celebration, is really just a prelude for what comes later.  As much as we love Christmas, it is not supposed to be the focal event of the people of Christian faith.  Events later on in the life of Jesus provide us more of an identity.  But here, in the nativity story itself, we are given hints about the future of this newborn King, the Savior of the world.  We are shown what kind of king he will be.  In his infant narrative, God’s great gift to humankind is announced not only by heavenly choirs but by brutal soldiers.  Jesus, the one to bring life, first faces the reality of death.  The Christmas story is not complete without adoring wise men and a murderous king, without extravagant gifts and bloody swords, and without swaddling clothes and burial cloths.

I think that by presenting the images of life and death so close together, Matthew’s story informs us that Jesus was born not only to bring God to us, but to also remove our greatest source of hopelessness-death.  God’s own son could not avoid death, even in his birth.  It would be there at the beginning of his life and it would be there at the climatic hour of his life.  But through it all, God would also be there.  And God would act to remove the sting of death.  Death would not win out.  The fear and finality of it all, the thing that robs us from the joy of living-all of that would be removed by the actions of the little baby born in Bethlehem.

Perhaps no one represents the forces of our world any better than good old King Herod.  In everything that he did, and in all that he stood for, Herod represented the dark side of the humanity.  Herod was a fearful and ferocious king-fearful of losing her power and ferocious toward his enemies.  He made use of his weapons of war and empire.  He was a bully.  He was power and he was logic and he represented the expected order.  In his might, Herod stood for the kind of things we fear and respect.  In his vulnerability and weakness, Herod acted with our kind of angst.  When confronted by the promise of God, he took refuge in his own palace.  He was content to first rely upon his own power and authority.  He was resistant to any invitation to change.  He enslaved others to his will through threats, through ignorance, and through thoughtless action.  Instead of embracing a dream, Herod crushed dreams.

Herod represented death in many forms.  Death comes when dreams die.  Death comes when valued relationships die.  Death comes when fear keeps us from living as we should.  Death comes when we ignore our God-given potential.  In all these things, Herod was death.

Muriel Sparks’ novel Memento Mori, describes a group of friends, all over age sixty-five, who one-by-one receive anonymous phone calls offering them this eerie reminder, “Remember, you must die.”  The novel is partly serious, partly humorous, but it speaks of the reaction of these different friends as they come to terms with the reality of the phone message.  The first instinct is fear.  They are concerned someone is going to act to end their life.  Then the friends begin to reflect upon their lives and assess how they have lived.  They see the good and the bad and how they have touched others and have been changed.  The fearful message, instead of a threat, becomes a lens by which they come to terms with the meaning of their lives.  The threat of death has taught them the value of life.

In a way, that is Herod’s job in the Christmas story.  He forces us to move past our playful and innocent Christmas dreams to the real world in which Christmas must be lived.  Life and death are a part of Christmas, as they are a part of life.  We cannot push the darkness away as an unwanted possibility.  It will still be there for God’s light to shine bright.  It happened that way even at the first Christmas.

In his book Jacob the Baker, Noah ben Shea tells the story of a student who was with a teacher for many years.  When the teacher felt that his death would come soon, he wanted to make even his parting a lesson.  That night he took a torch, called his student, and set off with him through the forest.  When they reached the middle of the woods, the teacher extinguished the torch without explanation.  “What’s the matter?” asked the student.  “This torch has gone out,” the teacher answered and walked on.  “But,” the student shouted with fear, “will you leave me here in the dark?”  “No!  I will not leave you in the dark,” returned the teacher’s voice from the darkness.  “I will leave you searching for the light.”

Such is the story this first Sunday of Christmas.  The gift of Christmas may not remove all the darkness.  The birth of God’s son does not mean the end of death and fear and hatred.  From the beginning of Jesus’ life, just like us, he has to confront and struggle with the forces of darkness and death, all the way from the manger to the sacrifice of the cross.  But God’s coming in the Christ Child tells us that there is now more to our world that we can see.  Things have changed.  The darkness does not own us.  Death is not the end.  In the story of Herod, these things are restored to the hands of God.  We can hope and live in the hope that the birth of Jesus means the eventual death of the kind of power that too often rules our world.

 

Dilemma to Decision

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Dilemma to Decision”

Rev. Art Ritter

December 22, 2019

 

Matthew 1:18-25

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah* took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’,which means, ‘God is with us.’ When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son;* and he named him Jesus.

 

Last Sunday we witnessed the timeless Christmas story told to us by the children of our Sunday School.  It is always a wonderful presentation, a beautiful picture of children of various ages, in costume, repeating the ancient words of the Christmas story and then standing around the manger.  It always turns out well.  But it is never as easy as it looks.  Things happen that you can’t control.  This year we had one of our angels who was ill and could not participate.  I recall one program, many years ago when we found out at the last moment that our Joseph was ill and would be unable to attend.  In a strategy that would have made Jim Harbaugh or Mark Dantonio proud, we simply eliminated Joseph’s lines with the innkeeper, gave the innkeeper kind of a monologue, moved one of our shepherds over to stand in Joseph’s place at the manger, and everything worked out just fine.

John Buchanan tells the story of a little girl who was drawing a picture of the Nativity scene.  It was designed to be a very busy project, to help keep her calm during her Christmas excitement, but the little girl took the project very seriously.  When she finished, she showed the picture to her mother.  The girl carefully explained each character and figure at the manger:  the shepherds and the sheep, the three wise men and their camels, the cows and even a cat and a dog.  And of course in the center of the picture, right beside the sleeping baby Jesus, was Mary.  It was a beautiful picture.  But her mother noticed that something was missing.  There was no Joseph.  “Where is Joseph?” the mother asked the little girl.  It seems he had been forgotten.  But instead of taking the picture and making the necessary correction, the girl gave a look of exasperation and defiantly said, “Who needs Joseph, anyway!”

Perhaps that little girl was on to something.  Of all of the characters in the entire story of Jesus’ birth, Joseph may be the one most overlooked.  He is mentioned only twice in the gospel of Luke, and in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth and the event preceding it, Joseph doesn’t get to say a single word.  The angels speak to him of God’s plan as it is to happen to his betrothed wife Mary and he accepts his part with a certain reticent silence.  In the next chapter Joseph’s dream is a rather important part of the Holy Family’s escape to Egypt, avoiding the death squads of Herod.  But after that, Joseph is mentioned by name only one more time later in Scripture, when Jesus is about twelve years old and wanders off to the temple on the family’s Passover trip to Jerusalem.  He was also later referred to when the people of Nazareth were questioning the authority of Jesus’ preaching.   Other than that, what we hear today is all we get of the man.

Last week at Mayflower Café we watched Adam Hamilton’s presentation of the Jesus through the eyes of Joseph.  Hamilton spoke of Joseph as a carpenter, not one who built houses but one who may have built farm implements- plows and yokes, bowls and spoons, cupboards, tables, and chairs.  He made a good living at his trade and he probably taught Jesus carpentry.  Although there isn’t much biblically on which to base the theory, Hamilton also believes Joseph taught Jesus much about life through his own example.  He taught him about the Torah and the important of religion.  He also taught him about family relationships and loyalty.

But perhaps the most important lesson that Joseph taught was one he teaches to each of us in this brief piece of Scripture we hear today.  This is the lesson about how to find the hand of God in our situations of life.  Joseph’s story was rather complicated.  His hometown was Bethlehem, a small town outside of Jerusalem but at some point his family moved ninety miles north to the town of Nazareth.  In Nazareth, his family and Mary’s family were probably acquainted.  Joseph may have done some work in Mary’s home.  He might have noticed her, been attracted to her, and asked her parents for her hand in marriage.  Most scholars believe that he was quite a bit older, in his mid-twenties while Mary was in her mid-teens.  But that was not unusual in those days.  Joseph brought a gift along with his marriage request.  Everyone went to see a rabbi and in the presence of witnesses a contract was signed.  Mary and Joseph were betrothed, engaged with more legal implications than it carries for us.  And then they began planning the future wedding- a week-long celebration that involved the entire community.

And then it happened.  Mary turned up pregnant.  Matthew doesn’t go into the details of the angel’s visit to Mary.  Remember, we are hearing the story here from Joseph’s side.  When Mary tried to explain it all to her future husband, it had to have been a most difficult conversation.  Joseph knew he wasn’t the father.  That Holy Spirit angle probably seemed like total nonsense.  Joseph had to have been completely embarrassed, humiliated, angry, and disappointed.  The facts were clear.  The engagement contract had been broken.  Matthew says that Joseph was a righteous man and that he made plans to end the engagement quietly.  He would let the world assume that he was the father of the child and assume part of Mary’s public shame.

And then the dream came.  Adam Hamilton mentioned that Mary’s angel came in the midst of the day but Joseph’s angel had to come in a dream at night.  Joseph’s life was so practical that he couldn’t see an angel while wide awake.  He couldn’t imagine a messenger of God standing beside him in the daylight.  It had to come at night.  Perhaps it was in the midst of a night of fitful sleep, wrestling with the circumstance in which he found himself.  William Willimon talks about the beauty and the significance of paintings and statues that portray the annunciation to Mary.  There isn’t anything like that about Joseph’s dream.  “Joseph bolting upright in bed, in a cold sweat after being told his fiancée is pregnant, and not by him, and he should marry her anyway.”  Hamilton goes on to say that perhaps in the days ahead Joseph might have wondered if his dream was actually real.  Was the angel the product of something he had had for dinner that night?  Was the outlandish information the angel presented something he could really trust?  Was there ever a day in which he didn’t doubt the validity of the dream and have to make the choice once again to stand by Mary and accept the consequences of their relationship? While the gospel of Luke describes Mary singing with joy at the news of the child she is carrying, the gospel of Matthew portrays Joseph as being too stunned to speak.  Quietly his life was disrupted.  Yet faithfully he carried on.

This is where we begin to understand that Joseph was really no minor player in the Christmas drama.  He could have gotten by with acting in accordance with the Law, and quietly ending the relationship.  But he was struck with an inner sense of compassion and mercy.  In the face of earthly expectations, he felt a calling by God to participate in a new thing.  While the daytime resolution to his dilemma was to quietly dismiss Mary, Joseph allowed himself to be open to a night of dreaming and wrestling and pondering his role in God’s plan.  He began to see his life through the eyes of God’s intention, rather than just the eyes of the practical world around him.

It strikes me that Joseph had to put aside a lot of the things to which we usually pay attention.  Pride.  Ego.  Status in the community.  A sense of what is right and what is wrong based on the written or unwritten rules of society.  The understanding of the conventional world.  He trusted the dream.  Certainly, he must have doubted as he made his way with his pregnant wife to Bethlehem.  He had to have had some questions as he watched her give birth in a dirty manger stall.  He probably wondered about why he and Mary and this holy child had to flee to Egypt so soon after the magi’s visit.  Yet he trusted that dream and in God’s intention.  He trusted it more than the reality around him.  He found that dream to be the place where God spoke the truth about him, a truth he perhaps couldn’t see in himself.  He experienced God with him, a holiness hidden in plain sight by the laws and scandals and questions and doubts and fears of humanity.

Do we need Joseph at the nativity scene for Christmas?  Was he really necessary?  Stanley Jenkins writes that one might go so far as to say that if Joseph is important, it is not so much because of what he accomplished himself- but because of what he allowed others to accomplish.  Yet that itself is an act of faith- setting aside our own agendas to allow something greater to happen.  Looking past the realities of the daytime to listen closely to the dreams of the night.  Being silent and practicing self-restraint to make room for God’s word to grow.

 

Are You The One?

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Are You The One?”

Rev. Art Ritter

December 15, 2019

 

Matthew 11:2-11

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

 

David Leininger quotes a Reader’s Digest article from a few years ago.  A woman told about searching for the perfect birthday card for her husband.  She searched through many on the store racks until she ran across a rather promising one.  On the outside it read, “Sweetheart, you’re the answer to my prayers.”  Then she turned to the inside, which was inscribed like this, “You’re not exactly what I prayed for, but apparently you are the answer.”

Here in the Detroit area, we are suffering through what may be the worst display of professional sports performance in my entire lifetime.  The Tigers finished with the worst record in Major League Baseball last season.  That’s nothing new.  They tied for that achievement the previous year and they are odds-on favorite to do it again in 2020.  The Red Wings currently have the worst record in the National Hockey League, and as I put word to paper they were in the midst of an eleven game losing streak.  The Lions – oh, the Lions!  The Lions haven’t won a championship since 1957 and have won only one playoff game since that time, never appearing in a Super Bowl.  Our Lions once again rest comfortably in last place, currently on a six game losing streak.  Only the Pistons are not cellar dwellers, but they have a losing record.  Even if the Pistons do make the playoffs, they are certain to exit quietly in the first round.

I have to admit that I am most concerned about my Detroit Tigers.  At the recent winter meetings, the Tigers did the expected – nothing.  They have no one on their roster of real trade value.  We Tigers fan are told to be encouraged because we had the top choice once again we have the first choice in next summer’s Major League draft of young players.  Things might look good in five to seven years!  The real hope of Tigers’ fans are centered on a group of young pitchers who are at least a year or two or three away from entering the major leagues.  We are told to trust that these young arms and these high draft choices will someday provide us our salvation.  I wonder however if any of these much touted players will be the one who pitches us to a pennant.  As a realistic Tigers fan who remembers the promise and then disappointment of Chis Pittaro, Torey Lovello, Chris Shelton, Joel Zumaya, and Michael Fulmer – I am not going to hold my breath.

I don’t think that John the Baptist was a Detroit Tigers fan, but he might have known how we Tigers fan feel.  This morning’s Scripture lesson is kind of a strange one to hear on the third Sunday of Advent.  Last week we were once introduced to John, a rather cocky prophet who cried out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord.  One is coming who will change the world and bring into place the Kingdom of God.  Repent and get ready!”  People were attracted to John and they lined up in masses to be baptized.  Certainly he had his critics, the Pharisees and the Sadducees.  But he was confident enough in his success to respond back to them strongly, “You brood of vipers!  Who told you that you could escape from the judgment of God’s Kingdom?”

This morning’s reading is also about John the Baptist but it is from a different time.  Whoever is responsible for selecting the lectionary assignments got the sense of timing all wrong and instead of talking about a baby born in Bethlehem, jumped ahead some ten chapters and thirty years into the middle of the gospel of Matthew’s account of Jesus’ ministry.  What an odd choice-an Advent reading that comes immediately after Jesus’ instructions to his followers about what they will encounter on the road to discipleship.

But perhaps it isn’t so strange.  According to Matthew’s account, John the Baptist, the extra confident fire and brimstone preacher of last week, is now in prison.  Months have passed since he baptized Jesus and proclaimed him as the Holy One of God.  As the time went by, things must have gotten harder for John.  Herod the Great had him locked up.  Jesus has begun his ministry and things hadn’t gone as well as perhaps John thought they should go.  Scott Hoezee of Calvin Seminary points out the wonderful description the author of Matthew uses in verse two, “When John heard in prison what Jesus was doing.”  Apparently, John was more than just a little disappointed in what he was hearing.  John talked of Jesus chopping down sinners like trees and throwing them into the fire.  John sought a Messiah who would arrive like a raging bull, making a clean sweep and a complete change in the world.  While John looked for and hope for a strong Messiah who would stand up for himself and make people feel proud and strong, instead he got Jesus- a Messiah preoccupied with the sick and the lame and the downtrodden, people who certainly weren’t the movers and shakers of the world.  How was any of that going to help people know right from wrong?  While he expected a tidal wave of God’s judgment, what he heard about in Jesus was merely a constant drip of God’s grace and mercy.  John wasn’t quite so certain that Jesus’ ministry was the culmination of his own ministry of baptism and a call to repentance.  And so John the Baptist sent his followers to Jesus, just to check things out.  He sent them with this question, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for someone else?”  What a great question!  Are you the one we’ve been waiting for or is somebody better coming along?  Are you the one?  Sitting in a jail cell, John the Baptist had his doubts about Jesus the Christ.  If he wasn’t doubting, he certainly was having some strong second thoughts.  Perhaps we could go so far as to say he was disappointed.

Jesus’ response was also quite interesting.  He really didn’t answer John’s question.  Instead he told John’s followers to go back and report to John what they had seen and heard.  Go back and tell him about the blind receiving their sight, the lame walking, the lepers cleansed, the deaf hearing, the dead raised, and the poor receiving good news.  Jesus didn’t support his identity with proof of his own importance.  Instead he talked about something bigger than himself, the work of God that was happening among those and within those wherever he happened to be.  Things might not be happening in the glorious ways that John had wished, but things were happening at the deepest levels of all, in the personal and most important things of life.

Are you the one?  Maybe that is the question of Advent.  Each of us carries a host of expectations at Christmas.  Like John the Baptist we tend to set the bar pretty high.  We expect a lot of our Christmas hopes and dreams and we often expect the magic of this season to change the world, or at least our little corner of the world.  We might be pinning our hopes on some divine force to spread some pixie dust to magically fix things and make everything all right.  When very little happens in the way we wish, when discouragement and darkness are not banished, we might wonder about the authenticity of our faith or the faithfulness of our God.

What is it that we should look for at Christmas?  What is it that we should hope for in the gift of God?  Perhaps we can seek a world where the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor receive good news.  Perhaps we can lend a hand in making all of those things happen around us.  Instead of grand glorious world-altering celebration that we work so hard to create, we can simply become more aware of the presence of God around us.  We can understand that we are in this Kingdom of God business too.  We can realize that we have a part to play in making our hope real.

I recall many years ago when Laura was pregnant with Amelia, we attended a night for expectant parents and siblings at Beaumont Hospital.  While Laura and I heard presentations about what to expect when we would arrive at the hospital on that future uncertain night, Maren went to a separate room to hear about what it would be like to be an older sister.  Later, the three of us reunited in front of the nursery windows, the place where all of the newborns were sleeping.  Laura and I were standing in front of one baby when Maren, full of excitement and confidence approached.  “Is that one my new sister?”  Laura and I wanted to laugh but we didn’t want to embarrass Maren.  It was so enlightening to hear such innocent and simple expectations.  Is that my new sister?  If only it could be that easy.

There is an old Hasidic story of a pious Jew who asked his Rabbi, “For forty years I have opened the door for Elijah every Seder night, waiting for him to come, but he never does.  What is the reason?”  The rabbi answered, “In your neighborhood there lives a very poor family with many children.  Call on the man and propose to him that you and your family celebrate the next Passover at his house, and for this purpose provide him and his whole family with everything necessary for the eight days of Passover.  On the Seder night, Elijah will certainly come.”  The man did as the rabbi told him, but after the Passover he came back and claimed that again he had waited in vain to see Elijah.  The rabbi answered, “I know very well that Elijah came on the Seder night to the house of your poor neighbor.  But of course you could not see him.”  But the rabbi held a mirror before the face of the man and said, “Look, this was Elijah’s face that night.”

Theologian N.T. Wright called this question the elephant in the room at Advent.  Is the one born in Bethlehem “the One?” Will the realities of our world once again turn the warm fuzzies of Christmas into an unfulfilled dream?  Or will what we celebrate at Christmas inspire us enough to engage in the mission of God, bringing the promise of God’s son into our lives and our world.  If we believe that Jesus is the One, the world may not change, but our part in the world needs to.

 

Introducing Jesus

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Introducing Jesus”

Rev. Art Ritter

December 8, 2019

 

Matthew 3:1-12
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

 

My daughter Maren and her husband Max used to work with the youth at a church in New Albany, Indiana, right across the Ohio River from Louisville. Maren told me that in the worship service every single Sunday, right before the sermon, the liturgist would offer the Scripture lesson to the congregation. We do the same thing. There is nothing unusual about that. But following the reading, the liturgist would then move into a formal introduction. It went something like this, “And now for this morning’s sermon entitled, ‘Introducing Jesus,’ I would like to present the Rev. Arthur P. Ritter.” Maren wanted to know why we didn’t do something like that at Meadowbrook and I told her that I thought that it perhaps was a bit too formal and that I probably wasn’t worthy of such a formal introduction. After an introduction like that, all of you would not know whether to applaud or boo.

William Willimon tells a story about the late Tonight Show host Johnny Carson. If you are old enough to remember, you will recall that every night, the show opened the same way. There was an announcement, “It’s the Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson.” Then there was a listing of the show’s special guests and the mention of Doc Severinsen and the band. Finally there was the memorable trademark line, “Heeere’s Johnny!” All of this was done by Johnny’s faithful sidekick, Ed McMahon. Perhaps it was something that all of us who watched the show just simply took for granted. But years after his retirement from the show, Johnny was asked the secret to his success. He replied to the question quickly, saying, “I was lucky enough to be introduced every night by Ed McMahon.”

I was speaking to someone last week about Rabbi Harold Kushner’s book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. I recall with great pride that sometime in the mid-90’s I was chair of the West Bloomfield Clergy Association. Part of that responsibility was that I got to introduce the main speaker at the Jewish Community Center’s annual book fair. I was fortunate enough to be the chair when Rabbi Kushner was asked to be the main speaker. Imagine me, getting the opportunity to meet and talk with and finally introduce such a wonderful man and influential author. I was nervous beyond belief. I don’t recall what I said that day but I do remember thinking that I just needed to offer a quick introduction and get off the stage as fast as I could! With the possible exception of Laura, there was no one there who was there to hear me!

There is a certain discipline and skill that applies to introductions. When you are introducing someone you must understand that the audience is there to listen to them and not you. You prepare with a few facts or items of information. You spend enough time making certain your facts are correct. You don’t talk long. William Willimon writes of a speaker, who after a terribly long introduction began his speech by saying, “Forgive me for interrupting your introduction of my speech with my speech.” You don’t make the introduction about yourself. You don’t try to impress the crowd with your own credentials or personal relationship with the speaker. Again, Willimon says that a bad introduction tells the audience what the introducer would have said if the program committee had been smart enough to have invited the introducer to be the main speaker. As a preacher and religious commentator, Willimon concludes his lesson on introductions by saying that the best one he ever received was, “And now I present to you the man who has ruined many of my Sunday lunches with what he said in his sermon.”

The Second Sunday of Advent always features the central character of Advent, John the Baptist. As Advent prepares us for the Christmas that is to come, John the Baptist prepares us by introducing the main speaker that is Jesus. We are here to get ready to celebrate Christmas and to honor Jesus’ birth. But we won’t get there until we hear the words of John the Baptist that point to the honored guest. While the birth narrative of Jesus was recorded in only two of the gospels, this introduction to Jesus by John the Baptist was important enough to be told by all four gospel writers.

Perhaps John didn’t get the opportunity to read the rules of introduction. He was at best, a little rough around the edges. He dressed in camel’s hair clothing. He had a diet of honey and locusts. He seemed to be willing to say whatever it took to get his point across. He held nothing back. He told them how it was. “You bunch of snakes. Who told you that you could escape the fires of hell? His ax is in his hand. He will cut you at your roots. He will separate the good stuff from the trash and throw you into the fire! I am not worthy to tie his shoelaces. But you better get cleaned up. Strip off those fine clothes and get into the muddy river and get baptized. You have been properly warned!” I always recall that Barbara Brown Taylor once wrote that John the Baptist was “the Doberman pinscher of the Gospel.” She said that because his words sink their teeth into us, shakes our souls around, and will not let us go. Another commentator says that it is interesting to note that John the Baptist is not part of our nativity scenes or seldom a part of our Sunday School Christmas programs. Scott Hoezee writes that nobody wants John the Baptist at their holiday party. He is one messy and rude guest. “You can’t even get through the first verse of ‘The Little Drummer Boy’ before he is telling you to confess your sins for the umpteenth time.” Hoezee adds that John would scare that poor little drummer kid silly, which may be just as well as that is surely one song that would make John gag!” Despite this belligerent attitude, all of the gospels introduce the story of Jesus with the story of John. He is the guide to what is to come. You can’t hear Jesus until John is first done talking.

John the Baptist spoke a hard truth. While we usually come to worship to get some peace in the midst of our lives and find out how important we are in God’s eyes, John had a different purpose. His point was that there is something not so right about each and every one of us. Our world is out of sync. Our priorities reflect our own interests rather that the good of our brothers and sisters. There are places where we separate ourselves from God’s intention. There are ways in which we set ourselves up as a little higher than God. We are often more content and self-satisfied that we should be.

Jesus is coming to point us to a new way. He is coming to offer the good news of God’s love. He is coming to preach a message of peace and forgiveness, mercy and grace. But John says we won’t be able to see Jesus or hear Jesus until we get ourselves washed and cleaned in the river. John introduces Jesus by saying, “Repent and change because something big is coming after my little talk and you are not going to understand it until you are truly ready to listen.”

Karl Barth, the famous 20th century theologian, said that John the Baptist is the model for all preaching. John points to Jesus saying, “Jesus become greater, as I become smaller.” Barth said that the most difficult task for preachers is to not get in the way of Jesus. Perhaps that is the Advent lesson of this introduction of Jesus. Figure out what things in your life are getting in the way of the presence of God that is to come. You can change. You can return from your place of exile from God. You can reconnect with the One who made you and loves us beyond understanding. The Kingdom of God is near.

We must hear and heed the words of John the Baptist before we can celebrate the birth of the Christ Child. We are the people who have become so cold in our faith that we don’t allow Christ to make a difference in our lives. We are the ones who pay so much attention to our decorating and our shopping and our baking that we neglect the true nurture of our spirits. We are folks who are so caught up in shiny idols and worldly tinsel that we have eclipsed the wonder of angels around us calling us to repentance. Or perhaps we are those who have been made so tired by the divisive issues of our time or left so frightened by prospects of our dark world that we can see no hope.

Yet our hope is that we still have room for John in our Advent preparation. His is a voice that calls out- a voice that we need to hear. We must listen to the proper introduction concerning the presence of God before we can understand the meaning of the baby born in the manger. We need to repent, to change, to live in a different direction before we can welcome and embrace the meaning of Christ’s coming into our world.

An Unexpected Hour

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“An Unexpected Hour”

Rev. Art Ritter

December 1, 2019

 

Matthew 24:36-44

“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

 

I recall my fourth grade teacher.  A least one time each day she would walk to the door and announce, “I am going down the hall for a few minutes.  When I get back, I want to see everyone at their desks doing their assignment.  Is that clear?”  I wasn’t ever certain where she went “down the hall” and at the time it really didn’t matter.  Perhaps she needed a rest room break or a cup of coffee or a cigarette.  But it probably wasn’t something that was supposed to happen and certainly would not be something a teacher would do today.  As soon as the door closed and she entered the hallway, the action began.  Everyone in my classroom started running around.  Student began throwing things at one another.  My friends and I engaged in a game of garbage can basketball.  We had a good time but we were usually quite smart about it.  We were careful not to disturb anything on our teacher’s desk and usually one of my classmates would stand near the door, peering out into the hallway to see if the teacher from across the hall could hear us and then report when our teacher was returning from down the hall.

There was one classmate who refused to participate in the hijinks.  Her name was Lora and she was a bit of the teacher’s pet.  When our teacher left the room, Lora never left her seat.  She never closed her books.  But worst of all, Lora would remind us that we were supposed to behave.  When we asked her to be the scout at the door, Lora refused.  She simply said, “We wouldn’t need to keep watch at the door if everyone stayed at their desk and did what we were supposed to be doing.  If we all were doing our assignments, nobody would be getting into trouble.”  That was so mature of Lora!

I think about those elementary school days when I hear the Scripture passage for the First Sunday of Advent.  The author of Matthew writes about being ready for the return of Jesus.  This readiness does not consist of doing spectacular and challenging things.  It is measured in simple faithfulness, it is in staying at our desks and finding the presence of Jesus in our daily routine, in the next moment.

The First Sunday of Advent always includes these difficult and almost frightening lessons.  “About that day and hour, no one knows.  Two people will be in the field and one will be taken and one will be left.  Like a thief in the night, the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”  This stuff is about the second coming of Jesus.  It hints at something that is found in the “Left Behind” books and movie scripts that speak of the rapture and of the faithful disappearing and others on Earth abandoned.  It speaks to our anxiety about whether or not we’ve done enough or been good enough to earn our favor with God.  It has always seemed to me to be an odd way of preparing for Christmas.

Neil Plantinga of Calvin Theological Seminary writes that we live between the first coming of Jesus and his second coming and most of us feel a lot better about the first one.  That is because the first coming is about a baby and we know about babies and we have figured out how to manage Christmas so the little Lord Jesus is asleep on the hay.  But the second coming is different – full of urgency, of endings and beginnings, and everything changing.  It is something we don’t understand so we can’t manage it or domesticate it.  “We don’t know how many more shopping days are left until the Son of Man returns.”  And it is this second coming, this return to the classroom from down the hall that we fear.

But the author of Matthew was not concerned about reading signs and creating timetables for Jesus’ return.  Instead of worrying of being stuck in the past or worrying about the future, Matthew wrote about Jesus preparing his disciples for his absence in their present circumstance.  It is time to wake up, Jesus said.  No matter where I am, this is your best chance to discover what abundant life is all about.  This is your best opportunity to help others by living in my love.  This is the best time to live the kind of life I want you to live.  Do not wait until you are more comfortable or knowledgeable or self-satisfied.  You will stop looking for me then.  The time is now.  I am coming even today.  Be prepared to live with me and for me now.

Keith Herron writes that back in Kentucky, there is a legend of a cold day in February of 1809 when a rural mail carrier made his weekly trip through Hardin County.  A local man met him at a crossroad and inquired about the goings on in the outside world.  The mail carrier reported that there was talk about a National Bank being created in Washington and about how it looked as though there might be trouble brewing again between the new United States and their former mother country of England.  Then the mail carrier turned the conversation around.  He asked the local man, “Tell me, what is happening in these parts?”  The local man thought a moment and answered, “Nothing ever happens here.  There was a baby born last night to Nancy Hanks and Tom Lincoln, but shucks – nothing much ever happens around here.”

We are not left behind.  We are not left alone.  We are not to look for signs of the end of the world by the advent of God’s world in Jesus the Christ.  We live through Advent watching and waiting for the hand of God to be born and to live faithfully for God’s promises to be fulfilled.  Thomas Long writes, “We are to persevere in our struggles, because at any moment we might be surprised by the presence of God.  We may not know what to expect from God, but we always know what we can count on.” God’s day will arrive soon. In the meantime, we are to strive to live faithfully as we watch and wait and to seek places within our words and actions where Christ can come again.

 

Thanksgiving Choices

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Thanksgiving Choices”

Rev. Art Ritter

November 24, 2019

Deuteronomy 26:1-11

When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, “Today I declare to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.” When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, you shall make this response before the Lord your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.” You shall set it down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God. Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.

 

A colleague of mine from Salt Lake City, Steve Goodier, relates a story told by Dr. Fulton Oursler of a woman who took care of him when he was a child.  Anna was a former American slave, who after emancipation was hired by the family for many years.  Oursler remembered her sitting at the kitchen table, hands folded and eyes gazing upward as she prayed, “Much obliged, Lord, for my vittles.”  He asked her what vittles were and she replied that they were food and drink.  He told her that she would get her food and drink every day, whether she gave thanks or not.  But Anna explained, “Yes, we’ll get our vittles, but it makes ‘em taste better when we’re thankful.”  Anna told the young boy that an old preacher taught her, when she was a very young girl, to always look for things to be grateful for.  So, as soon as she awoke each morning, she asked herself, “What is the first thing I can be grateful for this morning?”  Sometimes the smell of early-morning coffee perking in the kitchen found its way into her room.  On those mornings she would say, “Much obliged, Lord, for the coffee, and much obliged for the smell of it too!”

Young Oursler grew up and left home.  But one day he received a message that Anna was dying.  He returned home and found her in her death bed, with her arms folded across her chest in prayer, just as he saw them at the kitchen table many times.  He wondered how she could give thanks at a time like this.  As if reading his mind, Anna’s eyes opened just a bit and she gazed at the faces surrounding her.  Then, shutting her eyes again she said quietly, “Much obliged, Lord, for such fine friends.”

Oursler was deeply influenced by Anna’s uncanny ability to always find some reason to be “much obliged.”  This wise woman taught him a secret that many of us have never learned.  She taught him to choose to recognize his blessings and be thankful.

Thanksgiving Sunday is perhaps one of the most difficult preaching assignments of the year for me.  Given our Congregational background, perhaps it should be easy.  I could talk about the Pilgrims, about their historic courage and sacrifice, and about their perseverance in the faith.  Yes, we are proud to be spiritual descendants of those who celebrated that first Thanksgiving in Plymouth.  But unless you are a real history buff, you can only hear so much about 1620 and 1621 before you want something more to go with it.  So every other year at least, I try to set aside the history and tackle the theological meaning of thanksgiving.  That is where it gets tough.  It always seems to me as if I end up at the basic teaching that “you should be thankful.”  What else is there to say?  Yet Thanksgiving should be a genuine expression of gratitude, not something commanded by the preacher.  It shouldn’t feel like something our parents remind us to say just to be polite.  So perhaps that is the problem- how can I preach on thanksgiving, a subject that all of us already know and really don’t need to be reminded about?

When I reflect upon Thanksgiving biblically, my mind usually returns to the words of Deuteronomy that we heard this morning.  This lesson was perhaps some of the first written words in all of Scripture.  The words are part of Moses’ instruction for the Hebrew people, instruction for celebrating the Feast of Weeks or the Feast of the Harvest.  Perhaps Moses was in a similar position that I am in today, he was looking for a way to get the people to be thankful, to understand the practical implications of their blessings, yet also to contemplate the sacred meaning and of those blessings.  Later, these very words became a part of the Hebrew worship tradition.

As I hear these words, I try to picture that ancient service of worship.  The closest comparison that we might have is Consecration Sunday, when we bring our Estimate of Giving cards forward as an act of worship.  This ceremony was also a time of consecration, a first fruits ritual.   Try to picture a worship service in ancient Israel, with people coming forward holding baskets filled with fruit or grain from the harvest.  After the priest received the first basket, he laid it down before the altar as the rest of the worshippers raised their baskets of giving high.  The priest began this liturgical recitation that are part of the words we heard today, recalling not the courageous acts of the Pilgrims but in a like spirit the saving acts of God in the lives of the ancestors of the people of faith.  The priest recalled the wandering of the people and their initial homelessness.  He then spoke of their migration to Egypt and their living there as aliens.  He then moved on to their suffering as slaves and the affliction and harsh treatment.  Next the priest reminded them of their cry to God for redemption, and then the Lord’s action in leading them out of Egyptian enslavement.  Finally the liturgy spoke of the people settling in a fertile land, filled with milk and honey.  In this first fruits ritual, while holding that basket of harvest over their head, the worshipper became a living testimony that God had been faithful from the time of the ancestors to the time of their current existence.  The one who brought the offering of thanksgiving claimed the story for their very own.  They became connected to God’s story of the past.  They became the promise of God’s story for the future.

I like to think that this ancient ritual is all about remembering.  The remembrance of our own stories should cause us to give thanks.  We might consider stories of our own deliverance or release from bondage.  We might recall times in which we were sustained with heavenly bread in the midst of a desert experience.  We can think of places where we came upon unexpected people and places that gifted us with nourishment and support that seemed to flow with milk and honey.  Yes, this ancient liturgy reminds us that thankfulness arises from the memory of the heart.

But I think there is more to thanksgiving than merely remembering.  There is a call to act in thanksgiving in the present.  It strikes me that in the combination of word and action, this ancient ritual actually defines what it means for us to be the grateful people of God today.  As they worshipped, the people of God identified with their ancestors not through any claim to power or strength or any sense of divine entitlement.  Rather they identified with them by remembering and embracing the concept of powerlessness.

If we use these words as teaching for how to be a thankful, faithful people today, perhaps there are three important lessons.  First – we are to recall that our redemption is rooted not in our power and might and comfort and security but in God’s faithfulness in acting when we are powerless.  God acts on behalf of those who are wandering and those who are oppressed.  The most important part of the first fruits story for the Hebrew people was the recollection of their homelessness and their bondage.  That is where God’s actions was most obviously noticed.

Second – we are not simply to celebrate our blessings in the bounty of the land, to fill our tables and fill our plates, but rather we are to point to God’s faithfulness as the source of the bounty.  We are sustained because God is faithful and we can see this constancy in the fruitfulness of the harvest.  The harvest is not the conclusion of the lesson of faith.  It is the item which points to the constancy of God in each day of our life.

Finally – we are taught to be God’s channel of blessing to others, to those who are wandering or vulnerable themselves.  Recalling our blessings and worshipping rightly is not enough. We are never to forget from where we came.  Empathy for stranger and alien is rooted in the confession that we were at one time stranger and alien ourselves.  To offer thanksgiving is to reach out and share with those who access to the bounty is limited.  Thanksgiving is to serve others.  When we follow God’s intention we consistently share of our blessing.

Rev. Clover Beal tells a story of a village along the sea, a village known for its important lighthouse and safe harbor.  One day there were some strangers lost in the nearby waters, in need of rescue.  The people of the village sent out a boat, saved the people, brought them into their community, and showed them hospitality.  The strangers stayed in the village and soon began enjoying the benefits of the land just as the others before them had done.  One day another group of strangers were lost in the waters and needed saving.  But the ones who were formerly strangers did not want to save them, not wishing to share what they had acquired and have their comfortable lives disrupted.  They had forgotten their story of redemption.  They forgot that mercy had been extended to them.  They saw no reason to act in thanksgiving in remembrance of what had been done for them.

This lesson, this ancient Thanksgiving ritual, offers us a vision of what it means to give thanks.  We are to remember what God has done for us.  And we are to make choices that imitate God’s gift to us.  Bruce Epperly writes, “Thanksgiving is the virtue of interdependence, the recognition that our achievements are not fully our own, but emerge from a network of relationships that sustain and shape us, giving us the materials from which we create our experiences moment by moment.  Thanksgiving as a spiritual practice reminds us that all our gifts are communal as well as individual.  Our creativity and freedom, our ability to choose the good and noble, having their origins in forces larger than ourselves- God, this good earth, and persons who have guided, protected, inspired, and nurtured us.

 

Preparing for the Worst

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Preparing for the Worst”

Rev. Art Ritter

November 17, 2019

 

Luke 21:5-19

When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them. “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. “But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.

 

When my daughter Amelia was in elementary school in Utah, every school year began with certain reminders. We had to send her with the usual items – backpack, pencil and markers, paper and notebooks. But there was one more item that we were asked to provide which made me feel more than a little bit uncomfortable. In fact I dreaded it every year. It wasn’t the selling of popcorn or candy or wrapping paper for the PTO – although I hated that too. At the beginning of each school year, we had to pay for or provide what was known as a “Comfort Kit.” Since Salt Lake City sits on the edge of the Wasatch Fault Line, a large earthquake is predicted for any future date. I remember reading accounts of how when the “big one” hit, the entire valley would be turned into a lake and all along the mountain benches, buildings would collapse or be swallowed up by large crevices. Preparations for such an event were a point of public discussion and residents were urged to have emergency food stuffs, water, and medical supplies on hand. The public schools chimed in with these “comfort kits.” The kits were essentially ziplock bags filled with a snack, a water bottle, a family photo, a game or toy or activity book, and a note from the student’s parents. At the end of the school year the comfort kit was given to the child and then the next fall another comfort kit was constructed.
This note was a hard thing for me to write, so I usually left the task to Laura. I mean what do you write to your daughter when you know she is reading it after an earthquake has stranded her at her school without the knowledge of whether her parents were dead or alive. You can tell them that you love them. You can tell them not to worry. You can tell them that everything is going to be just fine. But you can never be certain if that indeed will be the case. Although the comfort kit and the note was probably an excellent preparation for an unforeseen future calamity, I preferred to have Laura write the note, thus I didn’t have to even think about the possibility.
A few years ago I was asked to speak at a Memorial Day service at a local cemetery. The invitation was delivered informally, well in advance of the event, with a promise of a written invitation which I never received. The week before the event I tried to contact the organizers but for whatever reason my phone calls weren’t returned. I simply figured that someone else was actually planning the event and someone else had been chosen to speak. I wasn’t called because no one wanted to hurt my feelings or perhaps no one knew that I had been asked to speak. I was going to attend the ceremony anyway so it would not be a big deal. When I arrived at the cemetery on Memorial Day morning, I saw my name in the program as one of the two speakers. Fortunately, earlier in the week I had jotted down a few notes, an outline if you will of what I might say if called upon to speak. Before leaving for the service I put those notes in my suit coat pocket. I was prepared. And because I had prepared I was ready for the unexpected.
In this morning’s Gospel reading, Jesus is in Jerusalem at the Temple. According to the author of Luke, this incident occurs after the Palm Sunday grand entrance and shortly before the Passover observance in the Upper Room. After pointing out a poor widow who give all that she has out of her situation of poverty, Jesus starts to speak out about the end of the age and the challenges of faithfulness and discipleship. Jesus’ words are more than slightly frightening, something perhaps like the possibility of that devastating earthquake that we would rather not consider. Even as his words make us feel uneasy, they sound a quite a bit like our current nightly newscast. Rumors of war. Nation rising up against nation. Earthquakes, famine, and plague. Persecution and pain for those who are tested for their beliefs. The destruction of the Temple, the most sacred place of the Hebrew people, the place where many believed God actually resided.
Some throughout the centuries have used these words of Jesus to point at what is happening in the world and warn the faithful that the time of Jesus’ prediction is near. Some faith leaders have gone so far to actually attribute hurricanes and flood and earthquakes and the 9/11 terrorist attacks to certain moral sins or the secularization of society. Others have comfortably and confidently said that natural disasters are tools of God’s judgment upon the unfaithful, just as Jesus predicted. In many ways, this passage has been lifted up as cause for God’ people to prepare for the end times by interpreting the deep and dark events of their world as God’s sign that something big was imminent.
But I believe that it is important to note that Jesus’ words here in Luke are not a prediction of things to come, but more of a reflection upon things that have already happened. Historically, scholars believe that Luke’s gospel was written in about 85 A.D., fifteen years or so following the destruction of the Temple by Roman forces in around 70 A.D. So, instead of predicting the future, the author of Luke uses Jesus’ words to make a statement about the things that we humans perceive to be secure and comfortable.
Yes, Jesus says that there will be times when even the most secure thing in our foundation might be shaken. There will be times in our life experience and times in the unfolding of world events in which we feel as if everything is falling apart. These words are an example of apocalyptic writings. Such literature uses unsettling language and imagery as a means to assure the faithful that they should put their trust in God when facing the most challenging of circumstances. Here in Luke, as Jesus describes war and famine and persecution and even the destruction of the Temple, he tells his listeners not to be afraid. But he does not say that these events are signs of an end or a judgment. He says that they are the kinds of event that move us to trust that God is with us in the midst of our life. The things of the world will not last. All around us may seem like chaos and darkness, these things are not signs of God’s absence by God’s presence. God is still there with us, holding us up and giving us the strength that we need.
Jesus says that such times are an opportunity not to judge or fear or proclaim God’s judgment upon the rest of society, although fear and judgment are ways in in which much of the world functions today. No, he says that instead, such times are opportunities to testify. He warns us not to be to fixed upon the things that make usually make for human security but to be firm and to keep our eyes set upon that which God seeks and that which offers to others God’s mercy. Despite the images of destruction, this passage is ultimately a passage grounded in hope, a hope that God is always present in the world, even in the moments in which it feels otherwise. The hope is not a denial of the struggles and pain. The hope is in the opportunity for us to endure and to point to where God is working to change things for the better. In his commentary on this chapter, Father Michael Patella writes, “The best way to prepare for calamity that could happen at any time is to always be looking for Christ in every person and circumstance.”
Theologian Karl Barth had a painting of the crucifixion on the wall of his study, painted by the artist Matthias Grunewald. In the painting there is an image of John the Baptist, his extra long finger raised and pointing the onlooker to the cross of Jesus in the center of the painting. It was said that when Barth would talk with a visitor about his work, he would direct them not to the cross in the center, but to John the Baptist in the corner. Barth would say, “I want to be that finger.” He wanted his life to testify to the presence and victory of Christ in all things.
In her book, God in Pain, Barbara Brown Taylor writes about a friend of hers who was 97 years old. The friend suffered from short term memory loss but her long term memory seemed to get better with age. One day she told Barbara about a hike she and her girlfriends took up Mt. Washington in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The then young women started their hike too late in the day and went much too far. Before they knew it, the beautiful sunset that they were admiring had turned into a fog so dusky that they could not see their hands in front of their faces. No one had a flashlight, since flashlights had not been invented. No one was sure which way was the best way down, but they would hands and under no circumstance let go of one another and they walked down the mountain together. This is how they did it, one girl in the lead, picking her way down the mountain one step at a time. The rest of the group was behind her, strung out along the path, holding each other’s wrists like a human chain. Recalling the day the woman said, “Sometimes, all I could see was the hand in front of me and the hand behind me. Sometimes my arms ached so badly I thought I would cry out loud. But that is how we made it down the mountain at last. We found our way home by holding on to one another.”
As the faithful, we are to prepare for what is around us and what is to come. Come earthquake and famine, come persecution and pain, come signs of terror and doubt- we are not to base our future on items of our own security and the lifeboat of judgments of fear and hatred. We are to cling to the promise of God and to hold on to one another. Jesus said, “Do not be terrified for all these things must take place. For lo, I am with you always. This is your time to testify.”