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Witness

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Witness”

Rev. Art Ritter

December 13, 2020

 

John 1:6-8, 19-28

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.

 

This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said. Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

 

 

Van Benthem tells the story of a man named Marvin, who like his father and grandfather before him was a tailor.  When the building where his family’s tailor shop was sold and tore down, Marvin started working for a men’s clothing store on the other side of town.  He was such a good tailor that most of his customers followed him.  His reputation spread, and people came to him in even greater numbers than before.

When someone came into the store to purchase a new suit, they would more than likely ask for Marvin because they could trust him to help pick out the right fabric and the right color.  The store manager would call Marvin from his workspace in the back.  Marvin would arrive wearing a suit that was shiny and worn, hair unkempt, shirt tucked halfway in and halfway out, with chalk and pincushion in hand.  Unaware of his own appearance, he would begin his work with the customer.

He worked silently, yet a comfortable silence, the kind of silence that seemed to invite the customer to speak.  And Marvin listened.  He was a good listener.  He listened to stories and in hearing those stories it felt to customers as if he were clothing their soul as well as body.  In Marvin’s hands, an overcoat was more than a garment to be put on and taken off again.  It was as if the wearer was being warmed on the inside and would never be cold in quite the same way again.  Where someone else saw only a customer, Marvin saw the opportunity to help others become more of what God created them to be.  When others looked at Marvin, they didn’t see anything about which to be impressed.  But when Marvin was their tailor, they experienced something important and meaningful.  It wasn’t about him but about what he could do for his customer.

I really debated whether or not to put up outdoor Christmas lights this season.  I’ve done it every year since moving to Novi in 2007.  At first I was the only one on our cul-de-sac but as the years have passed many others have joined in the practice.  This year, with pandemic worries and concerns, it seemed as though it just wasn’t in my heart.

But as Thanksgiving approached, something pulled on my heartstrings.  I felt a sense of responsibility to put up those lights.  I didn’t want to be the only one on the cul-de-sac without them.  I needed the lights to be some kind of statement to my soul and I thought perhaps that others needed to see my lights as a witness to my soul.  So on a warm November weekend, I decided to put up my outdoor lights.  I even added a few extra strings along the deck and the trees behind my house.  And while I normally don’t turn on my outdoor lights until Thanksgiving night, I turned them on a full week early.  I needed something that would speak to the hope that lies within me, the hope that fuels the Christmas season.

In his book, Christmas: A Candid History, author Bruce David Forbes writes about the importance of light for the early celebrations of Jesus’ birth.  In the dead of winter, when the days are the shortest, festivals of light were essential.  They bore witness to the hope that was needed and to the importance of light for the human body, and mind, and soul.

On the third Sunday of Advent, the main character once again is John the Baptist.  Last week’s story about John was from the gospel of Mark.  This time we get to hear about John’s ministry from the perspective of the gospel of John.  John is described as a witness, one who came to testify to the light in a time of great darkness.  We might think of witnesses only in terms of a judicial function, as ones who have direct knowledge of an event or situation, and give testimony concerning the facts of a case.  John saw himself as a witness in his particular time and situation.  He was a witness to something that was coming and something that was happening.  He had to testify to what God was about to do, in fact what God was already doing.  Like Marvin the tailor, his message wasn’t about himself, rather he pointed to the potential presence of God as he saw it in others.

John lived in a time in which the tyrants forced their heavy hand to keep the peace.  People lived in fear of authority.  Many labored daily with the burden of economic uncertainty.  People were worried about their financial obligations and the necessities of life. One’s goodness was measured purely by how well one followed the letter of the law, and that only increased the sense of individual anxiety.  Perhaps John’s time is a bit like our own.  Uncertainty and darkness abounded.  People were searching for answers, for solutions, for a savior.  They wondered if John might be the salvation they were waiting and looking for.

John was not the light, nor even the source of the light.  He was a witness to the light.  He pointed out the importance of light to others.  He never claimed greatness for himself.  He did not exult himself or try to live in the adulation of his own achievement.  Instead of taking advantage of the darkness to make people fearful and garner their support, he wanted them to know that the darkness around them was not of God’s choosing.  The author of John writes, “He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.  He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.  The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”  John the Baptist proclaimed that the time of God’s coming had arrived.  Into the darkness a light would shine.  Soon, all of the faithful would be able to see the road of life’s journey more clearly and view it from a true and proper perspective.

Defying the darkness seems to satisfy something in our soul.  Perhaps that is why we put up Christmas lights.  Perhaps it is more important than ever this year.  We mourn the loss of lives and the loss of our routine and tradition.  We are all just plain worried and tired, worn down or disappointed.  Our society struggles with issues of violence and hatred.  Many live with brokenness and want.  All around the darkness seems to press in upon us.  We all need more light.  And it is more important than ever to be a witness to the light.

I read this week that John the Baptist was perhaps the most effective non-Jesus in history.  That’s quite a statement!  He didn’t pass out tracts or tell others that he possessed the secret to their salvation.  John’s message was grow less so Jesus might increase.  John knew nothing other than to speak about his identity in connection to the identity of the one who was coming.  This Advent season, we are asked to claim our identity by witnessing to and reflecting the identity of Jesus ourselves.  In a time of falsehoods, we are to witness to truth.  In a time of anger, we are to witness to love.  In a time of uncertainty, we are to witness to hope.  In a time of fear, we are to witness to faith.  In those things we become a light which points to the light which guides our lives.

According to the book The Life of Francis d’Assisi, Francis once invited a young monk to join him on a trip to town to preach.  Honored to be given such an invitation, the monk readily accepted.  All day long he and Francis walked through the streets and alleys, even by the homes outside the city.  They rubbed shoulders with hundreds of people.  At the day’s end the two headed back for home.  Not once did St. Francis give a sermon or speak directly about a lesson from the gospel.  Greatly disappointed, the young companion said, “I thought we were going into town to preach.”  Francis responded, “My son, we have preached.  We were preaching while we were walking.  We were seen by many and our behavior was closely watched.  It is of no use to walk anywhere to preach- unless we preach everywhere we walk.”

Living in our troubled world, in the midst of these most difficult circumstances, surrounded by pandemic illness and isolation and choices, we can bear witness to the light to which John the Baptist witnessed.  We may not have answers but we can have hope.  God is already acting to bring something redemptive in our lives and in our world.  Put up your light.  Light your candle.  Pray with hope.  Point to the promise of God that is here and yet to come, the promise of light that will overcome any darkness.  Be a witness to the light.  Light will overcome this darkness.

The Beginning of Good News

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“The Beginning of Good News”

Rev. Art Ritter

December 6, 2020

 

Mark 1:1-8

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’” John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

 

 

 

On the website of the American Book Review, editors have selected what they believe to be the 100 Best First Lines of Novels.  Here are a few of the selections:

“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.”  Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea.

“You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of the Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain’t no matter.”  Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

            “Call me Ishmael.”  Herman Melville, Moby Dick

            “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”  George Orwell, 1984

            “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”  Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

            “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”  Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

 

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”  J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

I read of an interview with an Olympic champion swimmer.  She was asked to speak about the hardest part of her successful career.  She answered, “The beginning.”  The interviewer commented, “When you were younger and just learning how to swim competitively?”  The swimmer answered, “No.  The beginning of every single day when I have to get into the pool.  Just getting into the pool is the hardest part.  After that it is easy.”

The beginning is perhaps the most important part of any story.  I have heard some writers remark that they spend a great deal of their time struggling with the beginning of their stories because those early words set the scene and establish the framework of the story.  One author has written that it was the beginning of his tale, his first few sentences that inspired him to write the rest of the book.  It is said that some authors don’t actually write the early sentences of their manuscript until they have completed the rest of the book.

I know that the hardest part of each weekly sermon is the beginning.  I sometimes struggle with a good way to ease listeners into the meaning of the Scriptures, to grab your attention so that you will want to listen to everything that follows.  Donald Juel writes, “The function of story openings is to create expectations.  Engagement requires expectations and hunches.  The story may provide surprises, but even surprises depend upon a shared sense of what can be anticipated.”

The gospel of Mark starts like this, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”  The author of Mark doesn’t waste any time.  He gets right to the point.  Gospel scholars recognize that Mark is known for its brevity.  The favorite word of the author is the word “immediately” which he uses repeatedly throughout the gospel narrative.   Compared to Matthew and Luke and John, Mark’s gospel is a Reader’s Digest condensed version- short and to the point.  The author of Mark leaves much up to the reader.  For example, the Easter story of Jesus is extremely short and allows the reader to decide for him or herself what to do with an empty tomb, no body, and no resurrected Jesus.

Mark starts the gospel with the line about beginning and then heads into the words of Isaiah from centuries earlier.

“See I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness; Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.

And then Mark immediately introduces the character of John the Baptist, a man who wears camel’s hair, dines on locusts and wild honey, and offers a popular baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

There is no birth narrative of Jesus.  There is no Mary nor Joseph.  There are no angels or shepherds.  There are no wise men or stars.  There isn’t a crowded inn or a stable and there isn’t even a manger.  There is no genealogies and no epic song to God’s eternal word.  Rather than starting the story with a pregnant Mary or an apprehensive Joseph, Mark begins with a sentence about the good news of Jesus being born.

I have read that there is a great deal of scholarly debate about that very first sentence in the gospel of Mark, “the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, Son of God.”  What does beginning mean and where does the beginning begin and the beginning end?  Are the verses that we heard today the entire “beginning?”  Is the story of John the Baptist the actual “beginning?”  Preacher and scholar Tom Long writes that he believes the “beginning” is nothing less than the complete gospel of Mark.  Whatever happened to Jesus from baptism to temptation to teachings and healings to crucifixion to resurrection is the beginning of a larger story, a more complete gospel message that the world will begin to hear through the words and actions of Christ’s believers.  All that Jesus did was just the start, the prelude.  And the story, that good news, continues this day even among us.

Scott Hoezee writes that when we hear the story of Jesus from the viewpoint of the gospel of Mark, it is like starting the story of the Three Bears by hearing the part about Goldilocks running out of the bears’ home in her pajamas.  That’s not the way we used to hearing it.  Heard in this way, we would really miss all of that stuff about porridge and chairs and the testing of comfortable beds.  It is hard to believe that this is the way Mark wanted to begin the story of good news- with a strange man wandering around the wilderness, screaming at us about our sins.  It doesn’t make sense that Mark describes a beginning that doesn’t seem like much of a beginning.

Yet Mark’s concise description of that beginning is a picture of God moving in an untamed place and in an uncertain time.  Just as God created the world amid darkness and void, God begins here with a cry of good news in the midst of the wilderness. And we can certainly relate to that.  It sure seems as if we live in the wilderness.  We yearn for that good news in our landscape of pandemic and conflict and anxiety and fear.  We search for something hopeful in the midst of despair and pain.  While we might prefer an easy escape in the songs of angels or the guiding of a bright, shiny star, Mark’s gospel tells of God’s promise of a beginning, of the potential for something new to happen in the very wilderness where we live.  Mark’s gospel has John the Baptist challenging us to then hit the road to make it happen.  It is not a story book happily ever after tale with a happy ending.  It is a tale of a beginning of honesty and truth and a call to change.  The wilderness God who makes a way where there is no way will dwell with us and walk our human steps and travel our human valley.  We have the task of living the story and telling the good news ourselves.

On a plaque that marks the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln near Hodgenville, Kentucky, this conversation is recorded.  “Any news down the village Ezra?”  “Well, Squire McLain’s gone to Washington to see Madison swore in and Ol’ Spellman tells me this Bonaparte fella has captured most of Spain.  What’s new out here, neighbor?”  “Nuthn’, nuthin’ a’tall, cept a baby born to Tom Lincoln’s.  Nothin ever happens out here.”

Mark’s gospel speaks the same kind of story.  Nothing happens here that appears to create much earthly splash.  The details of story aren’t remarkable.  It takes place in the middle of the wilderness, a place where extraordinary things aren’t especially likely.  Yet this is where it all begins.  This is the beginning of the good news.  Into that world the promise of God came.  Into our world comes that same beginning.  God is still with us, working through us, continuing the story of good news among us and in us and with us.  John the Baptist simply reminds us, “We are not yet what we have been called to me.”  This is only the beginning.  The story will continue.

 

In Those Days

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“In Those Days”

Rev. Art Ritter
November 29, 2020

 

Mark 13:24-37
“But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 1Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

 

I read this week about an exhibition, that until the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted, was appearing in museums in Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia. It is entitled “Dialogue in the Dark” and is designed to bridge an understanding between sighted and blind people. The exhibition, which started in Germany thirty years ago, gives visitors a taste of what it feels like to be blind. In a 90 minute tour, visitors ride a boat, wander through a house, stroll into a woods, walk down a public street, shop for produce, and have a soft drink in a bar- all in complete darkness.

Participants have all sorts of different reactions. Some people panic and need to cut their visit short. Some start screaming as if others won’t be able to hear them in the dark. Other simply laugh, as if they don’t know what else to do. At least one visitor to the exhibition in Tel Aviv has fainted. Most people become very disoriented, unable to tell left from right. The author of the article mentioned that he lagged behind the group that he was with, constantly trying to get his bearing, afraid of what obstacles were ahead, worried with each next step he would run into a another person, a tree, or perhaps something even worse.

Gradually most people begin to use their other senses to a larger degree, relying upon touch and sound to navigate through the experience. But the initial experience of the exhibition is terrifying. Participants are in a situation in which they seem to have lost all control and are at the mercy of the environment around them.

The First Sunday of Advent always begins with a strange reading from the gospels. This morning we hear from the gospel of Mark, words that begin with “In those days” and end with a description of something that doesn’t sound very Christmasy. In those days…the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” Wow! It mentions everything but pandemic and an exhausting and divisive presidential election.

What we need to remember is that right before Jesus speaks here, his disciples have been admiring the foundation stones of the temple. They are feeling rather confident of themselves and how their world and their mission is progressing. Jesus tells them change is coming. The things that they are used to will be different. The things that they have relied upon for strength and security will not be the same. The stones of the temple will fall and things around them will not be as easy or as certain. The world that Jesus describes is indeed a most terrifying one.

We have all felt that way since March. There are moments in which we don’t know how we will find our way forward. There are times in which the usual markers, reunion and celebrations and even daily routine, are no longer beacons that light our path through life’s confusion. There are mornings in which we wake up so anxious we aren’t certain we can get through breakfast. There are nights in which we are so afraid that we can’t even watch the evening news. We might feel as if we have been left in the dark, abandoned in that world of frightening change that Jesus talked about, a time and place in which God is nowhere to be seen.

Michael K. Marsh writes that the dark times of life are threshold moments. “The temptation is do something; to fix it, to ease the pain, to escape the uncertainty, and to get back to what it used to be.” Perhaps that explains the urge of so many to rush back to what we fondly call “normalcy” even when it isn’t healthy or safe to do so and even when the pandemic persists. But this season of Advent is not about escaping the darkness. It is about acknowledging the darkness. Things will not be as they were before. God does not simply flick on a light switch and return us to what was. Instead God redeems what it is that we are living through at this moment. The presence of Jesus the Christ comes to every trouble, every darkness, and every difficult prayer.

Advent is a time in which we are called to recognize that our usual sources of light don’t always work. We are to recognize that sometimes it will be dark and that we will not be certain and we will not know everything. We are not in charge. Again Michael K. Marsh writes, “Advent challenges us to give up our usual sources of illumination, to let go of our habitual ways of knowing, and to question our typical ways of seeing. Advent invites us to receive the God who comes to us in the darkness of life.”

Writer Jan Richardson shares in her blog, “Every year, Advent calls us to practice the apocalypse: to look for the presence of Christ who enters into our every loss, who comes in the midst of devastation, who gathers us up when our world has shattered, and who offers the healing that is a foretaste of the wholeness Christ is working to bring about not only at the end of time but also in this time, in this place.”

Jesus invites us to recognize the darkness but not to fear. In Advent we wait and give our eyes time to adjust to that darkness. We listen for God instead of speaking. We ask questions instead of seeking self-satisfying answers. We understand that the Light of the World is not something external that will shine into our personal landscape and make all things clear, but a light that will start to shine within us, a light that redeems our every day, and a light that can never be extinguished.

The Other Nine

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“The Other Nine”

Rev. Art Ritter

November 22, 2020

 

 

Luke 17:11-19

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

 

 

This Halloween was probably the first time in 37 years that I did not pass out any candy to trick or treaters.  I recall the first time I participated.  I was an intern at First Congregational Church in St. Johns, MI and lived in a house apartment next to the church.  Many of the children in the congregation promised to stop by and visit and my very first trick or treater happened to be the daughter of my supervising minister.  She gladly took the candy that I offered and then turned to move on to her next stop.  But when her father attempted to force her to say thank you, she started crying.  She did not want to say anything to me, much less thank you.  I remember she tossed the candy on the ground, and ran away down the sidewalk.  That piece of candy was just not worth a thank you.

In a recent article on medium.com American Baptist minister Robin Bolen Anderson writes about her marriage engagement a few years ago.  Anderson found herself uncomfortable with all of the “hoopla and attention” that goes along with getting married.  People were pleading to see her engagement ring.  Some were calling her “The Bride” instead of using her name.  A couple of friends made her bouquets out of ribbon to carry around so everyone would know that she was a bride-to-be.  And then there were the bridal showers.  She hated them.  Anderson said that she should have been happy sitting in a room with her friends and family, or should have been content with one shower in a room full of her future husband’s family.  Those people loved her and were willing to risk their love.  But she said she felt most uncomfortable knowing that they were watching her every facial expression as she opened presents so graciously gifted to her.  She should have felt loved, and she really did.  But she also felt embarrassed and indebted because she grew up being taught not to be a mooch.  Receiving gifts without also giving gifts turned her stomach into knots.

I had a wonderful thing happened to me this week.  Oddly that wonderful thing occurred on social media, which often seems to be the place where a whole lot of mean and mundane things happen.  One of our members here at Meadowbrook, Sharon Brown, is participating in a thankfulness exercise on Facebook, listing something each day for which she is thankful.  On this particular day she said that she was thankful that I am her minister.  Wow!  Isn’t that nice?  I was touched.  I was honored.  Yet quite frankly I was a little embarrassed.  I was uncomfortable.  I started thinking about all of the things I had not done well or all of the things hadn’t done at all to be thought of as a good minister.  I was not worthy.  In reflection, I was accessing the situation from my childhood mindset that if someone offered me such a wonderful gift of recognition, I better have provided something that deserved the gift of such acknowledgement.  Surely I could have done something more and certainly I could have done something different to really deserve Sharon’s heartfelt comment.

A few hours later, another one of our wonderful members, Denise Pearson commented on Sharon’s post.  She said, “I wish he would be our minister forever.”  At that moment I simply lost it for a few minutes.  Sharon’s words and now Denise’s words took all of my rational thought process.  I was able to truly understand how much appreciation those words expressed.  I moved from trying to find a reason to avoid the compliments to embracing the compliment fully as gifts from God, gifts that I needed to enjoy, especially in our current time and situation.

In discussing her book Grateful, we remember that Diana Butler Bass said that for centuries people have thought as Pastor Anderson and I have.  Gratitude has been understood as an obligation to repay a favor or a gift.  Kings gave subjects protection and provision.  Subjects returned thanks with gifts of loyalty and service.  Part of our theological understanding uses this standard.  Jesus died for us.  In return we must give him our lives and of our gifts or face some sort of eternal punishment.

But Bass argues that gratitude is a kind of thankfulness that has the power to change us and the way we see the world around us.  With gratitude, we are not moved to repay the gift with another gift or favor.  With gratitude, we are to respond to a gift with words and actions that transform us into being the best person we can be, the person that God created us to be.  God gives, not so that we return the gift, but that we can recognize who we are and respond in ways that honor God and our created worth.

In the 17th chapter of Luke, the author writes of the healing of ten lepers.  The lepers were suffering from some sort of contagious skin disease, ritually unclean and forced to separate themselves from the rest of society.  Interestingly enough, when Jesus encountered the lepers, he was in an area in-between Galilee and Samaria, a no man’s land.  Perhaps the author of Luke placed Jesus here to make a point, to illustrate the lack of identity and belonging of the people there, and the insecurity and suspicion involved in greeting one another.

Keeping their distance but like beggars everywhere, the ten lepers cry out for help.  Jesus answered them with a command, “Go and show yourself to the priests.”  This was done in accordance with the Law of Moses and only a priest could pronounce a person ritually clean.  On the way to the priests, the lepers were physically healed.  They were restored physically, their wounds healed.  And they were restored ritually, able to return to their community.  One of those men, ironically a Samaritan, a man outside of God’s chosen people, returned to express his thankfulness to Jesus, falling before his feel and glorifying God.  Jesus’ response was surprising.  “Didn’t I heal ten lepers?  Where are the other nine?  Was no one found to praise God except this foreigner?”  Nine of the lepers didn’t return to say thank you.  Nine of the ten lepers failed to appreciate the healing that had come their way.  Only the outcast and the loathsome foreign Samaritan came back to render proper gratitude.

Whenever I heard this story, I wonder about the other nine.  Why didn’t they return to give thanks for their healing?  I read lots of sermons and articles that suggest they might have had some decent and practical excuses.  They were just too busy.  They had to get back to important responsibilities.  They had to buy new clothes that fit over their healed skin.  They had to share their good news with friends and family.  Maybe they just had a lot of catching up to do.

But maybe some of them were like me.  They found it difficult to embrace a gift without feeling unworthy of it or indebted by it.  What did they do to deserve such an unexpected healing in such an unexpected place?  How could they ever repay the one who healed them and allowed them to return to their homes and their lives where they could be hugged and touched and loved again?  Perhaps for them, saying thank you was an obligation that embarrassed them, much as a small child is embarrassed when a parent refuses to allow them to receive a gift until they swallow their pride and utter those magic words of “thank you.”

Yet Jesus teaches us that in gratitude, the gifts of life that stem from God are not something given for us to repay.  When the one leper returned he ran toward the source of grace rather than away from it.  He understood his healing was a call to a new way of living.  In the gift he received, he discovered once again the goodness of God.  He could celebrate his healing by living in new and different ways, with a perspective that honored God.

Gratitude is a response to hearing God’s voice in our lives.  It is a perspective that recognizes the blessing of a gift and then somehow allows for appreciation to be articulated in word or action.  Gratitude draws us out of ourselves into something much larger and deeper.  It takes us out of the center of our own universe and makes the contributions of the divine visible in the presence of others around us.  Gratitude links us to the source of the blessing.  Gratitude releases us from fear and worry and embarrassment to do more than we could ever imagine.  When we are grateful we return to the source of the blessing knowing what God looks like and what God feels like because we have seen and experienced God ourselves.

 

The God of Surprise

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“The God of Surprise”

Rev. Art Ritter

November 15, 2020

 

Judges 4:1-10

The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, after Ehud died. So the Lord sold them into the hand of King Jabin of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor; the commander of his army was Sisera, who lived in Harosheth-ha-goiim. Then the Israelites cried out to the Lord for help; for he had nine hundred chariots of iron, and had oppressed the Israelites cruelly twenty years.

At that time Deborah, a prophetess, wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel. She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the Israelites came up to her for judgment. She sent and summoned Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali, and said to him, “The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you, ‘Go, take position at Mount Tabor, bringing ten thousand from the tribe of Naphtali and the tribe of Zebulun. I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, to meet you by the Wadi Kishon with his chariots and his troops; and I will give him into your hand.’”

Barak said to her, “If you will go with me, I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go.” And she said, “I will surely go with you; nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.” Then Deborah got up and went with Barak to Kedesh.

Barak summoned Zebulun and Naphtali to Kedesh; and ten thousand warriors went up behind him; and Deborah went up with him.

A man went to see a movie and was surprised to find a woman with a big collie sitting in front of him.  Even more amazing was the fact that the dog always laughed in the right places through the comedy.  “Excuse me,” the man said to the woman, “but I think it is astounding that your dog enjoys the movie so much.”  “I am surprised myself,” the woman replied.  “He hated the book.”

A sermon based on the book of Judges may be like that movie theatre experience.  We may be surprised when we hear the words of Scripture.  Yet we may be astounded when we realize that these strange stories can actually teach us something.

One of the most popular films is recent times is the 2016 release Hidden Figures.  The movie was nominated for Best Picture in 2017.  The film, loosely based on the book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly, was about a group of African-American women, specifically Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, who worked as human computers at the Langley Research Center in Virginia during the early days of the NASA program.  They performed mathematical equations and geometric calculations by hand and offered their answers to those who made decisions about the flights into space.  The women had to provide the information necessary for determining the proper launch angle for the rockets and the re-entry vectors for the returning space capsules.

The interesting part of the movie is that much of the important work was done by these women behind the scenes.  Until the book and the movie, practically no one knew they existed.  They were women and they were women of color.  They had been denied educational opportunities and job advancement because of their color and their gender.  They had to work in a separate area.  They even had to go to a different building to use the rest room.  They labored quietly as others around them received more attention and glory.  Yet their work was essential to the launch, orbit, and safe return of American astronauts.  I read this week where a couple of the hidden figures later developed a complete classification system for stars based on their temperatures, a system that is still used today.

Before the book and before the movie, I don’t think many of us knew that human computers existed, and certainly didn’t know of the importance of persons like these women.  But these living math calculators, who used pen and paper and simple adding machines, were crucial to those who were planning the early U.S. manned space flights.  Their work and influence were most surprising.

Sometimes the story of God is told through surprises.  Unexpected people respond to an unexpected call from God at a most unexpected time.  It doesn’t always make sense.  It usually isn’t at all practical.  On the surface, the demands of God seem to be more than the one who is called can handle.  And there always seems to be someone else more capable who either isn’t called or doesn’t respond.

One of more anonymous books in the entire Bible is the book of Judges.  It contains one of my favorite stories, the story of Ehud the left-handed leader who helped set God’s people free from their oppressors.  I preached on Ehud’s tale a couple of years ago and other than today this is the only time in my 35 years of ministry that I have preached from Judges.  Judges is a book filled with violence and hard to explain circumstances.  Rival kings are killed and armies are destroyed.  On the surface these stories seems so bloody and senseless. Perhaps that is why the particular passage that we explore this morning is the only passage from Judges cited in the three year lectionary cycle.  But there are lessons to be learned from the faithfulness of those whom God works through in the book of Judges.  Indeed, most of the characters in the book are like surprisingly hidden figures in the ancient story of God’s people.

Judges can be characterized like a shampoo in the shower.  Wash.  Rinse.  Repeat.  The people of Israel do evil and abandon God.  God delivers them into the hands of foreign leaders who oppress them.  The Israelites cry out to God, who hears their cry and raises up a judge to deliver them.  The judge, also a military leader, is successful and the people live for a time in peace.  But then the judge dies and the people forget about God and the cycle begins yet again.

This morning we heard the prologue to the story of Deborah.  Deborah was a prophet and a judge.  When we meet her in Scripture she was sitting under a palm tree settling disputes among her people.  The account seems to give her a last name, as though she were married, but many scholars believe that Lappidoth was not a name but a nickname, a word meaning “lightning” or “torch.”  This could infer that perhaps Deborah was a fiery woman.  As the story intensifies she put on her prophet’s role and brought the word of God.  Deborah summoned her general Barak and told him the God wanted him to call out some 10,000 troops and bring them to Mt. Tabor.  There the Israelites would battle the Canaanites under their commander Sisera and would defeat them.  And that is where our lesson ends, with Deborah’s confident prophecy and action.

But the story is really just getting started and more complicated and more violent and that is probably why the rest of it gets left out of the lectionary reading.  Barak said he would follow Deborah’s orders but only if she would go to battle with him.  Deborah agreed but predicted that if she went, Barak would not get the credit for the victory.  She prophesied that the Canaanites and their commander Sisera will be humiliated at the hands of a woman.

As the story progresses, Sisera and his army of 900 chariots were defeated.  He looked for shelter in the tent of a friendly neighbor named Heber.  Heber was not home but his wife Jael allowed Sisera in their tent and treated him with a relaxing beverage and offered him a bed in which to nap.  While he slept, Jael grabbed a tent stake and a hammer and drove the stake through his Sisera’s skull, thus fulfilling the prophecy of Deborah.

As I mentioned, there is a lot in this story that is hard to understand.  Perhaps it is even more difficult to explain in a sermon.  Of course one of the primary reasons the story was told was to portray a God who was absolutely committed to God’s people.  Also, within the context of the story the ancient authors were trying to remind the people that God hates oppression.  God is partial toward justice and righteousness.  God opposes those who oppresses the weak and the vulnerable.  The lesson is that as God’s people, we should respond to God’s faithfulness by doing what we can to align ourselves with God.

Whenver I read the book of Judges I am reminded of another lesson in these strange stories.  The world is often a broken and dark place.  There are times, like the one in which we currently live, where the light is dim and answers are few.  But these stories remind us that God’s intention for us and for our world cannot be overcome.  God is always present and working through the messy ambiguities and imperfect structures of our human world.  God sides with those who are downtrodden and seemingly without power.  And God works to redeem us and bring us to safety and security.  The good news of God cannot be contained.  There are circumstances around us that call for us to act decisively to recognize and to support God’s way in our own words and deeds- just like the ancient judges of Israel.  We will find our redemption in God when we choose to act faithfully in God’s ways.

Finally, we can discover that God often works through hidden figures and through unlikely people.  As the Gilbert and Sullivan song said, “Things are seldom what they seem.”  In the story of Deborah, the women are the heroes and the men are timid and faithless.  The way of God prevails but only after God ignores the expected rules of society and culture and finds another way to do the divine work.  God patiently and cleverly turns our flawed human conceptions upside down to order to offer a more positive vision of true community and real peace.

In this story, it is not the powerful who win the day but ordinary women who use time and circumstance faithfully.  Deborah did not let anything stand in the way of God using her for leadership and for the proclamation of God’s word to her community.  Deborah, the only female judge, becomes for us an example of someone who put her gifts to work in surprising and creative ways, trusting that God will find a way to use what she could provide.

 

Give and Be Gifted

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Give and Be Gifted”

Rev. Art Ritter

November 8, 2020

 

2 Corinthians 9:6-8

The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.

Luke 6:37-43

“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”

He also told them a parable: “Can a blind person guide a blind person? Will not both fall into a pit? A disciple is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully qualified will be like the teacher. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Friend, let me take out the speck in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye. “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit;

 

 

In the past few days, you should have received a letter about your annual financial commitment to the ministry here at Meadowbrook Congregational Church.  Inside that letter was an Estimate of Giving card, which we hope that you will pray about, pray over, and return to the church.  This is the Sunday of year that we traditionally observe Consecration Sunday.  We have sometimes invited a guest speaker to remind us of our financial commitment to the church, viewed especially through the lens of our response of faith to what God has provided for our lives.  We then usually meet in Fellowship Hall for a meal celebration.  The pandemic has changed all of that.

The pandemic has also changed some practical things.  As with most businesses and households, the financial pain created by COVID-19 has affected Meadowbrook Congregational Church.  Our Board of Trustees has done a remarkable job of navigating these uncertain waters.  They have limited spending to necessary items and technology that benefits our church in this unique time.  They successfully applied for the Paycheck Protection Program Loan and it is in the process of turning it into a grant.  You have been extremely faithful in remembering your giving and in sending in regular contributions through the mail or through those new-fangled but not really so difficult electronic payment methods.  This would be a good time to review your Estimate of Giving for 2020 and doing what you can to keep it up to date.

Yet the road ahead is uncertain.  We do not know when the pandemic will ease.  We do not know when the financial stress will be lightened.   There are monthly bills that must be paid there are financial obligations that the church must meet.  Even as the before mentioned PPP loan helped our finances this year, there may not be such a blessing in the year ahead.  Sadly, our church fundraisers have had to be canceled.  Because of our virtual worship services, the cash that comes through weekly offerings is not part of our revenue.   As you know, I will be retiring next spring.  While it is not my intention to cause more distress for all of you, I think it is important for the church to be in a good financial position while seeking a new minister.   A record of faithful stewardship is a good sign for attracting good candidates.

Before the end of the year the Board of Trustees will have to plan a difficult budget for 2021.  That is why they have asked, as indicated in the letter you receive, that at the very least, you maintain your level of giving into the new year.  They ask that if at all possible, you increase your estimate of giving for 2021.  Please do all that you can to return your Estimate of Giving cards to the church this week.  You can even fill one out electronically.  The link is in the Monday Messenger and on our website.

There is an old legend about commercial life years ago in England, when they still used the balanced scales to measure grocery and agricultural purchases between farmers and merchants.  There was a level of trust involved in the measuring and if the scales used in the transaction were not accurate, trouble ensued.  At one time a baker sued a farmer over a pound of butter that he was buying.  He said that when he first started buying butter from that farmer, he always received a full pound.  But gradually the farmer was selling him less and less butter in each transaction, until he was only getting about three quarters of a pound while still be charged for the full pound.  Frustrated, he took the farmer to court.  The farmer in his defense before the judge said, “Sir, I only have a balanced scale to measure my butter.  I always put the baker’s pound loaf of bread on the other side of the scale and it becomes the scale for the rest of my daily measurements.  That is how I know the baker receives his full pound of butter.”

Unfortunately it seems that our annual Cookie Walk will be one of the casualties of the COVID-19 pandemic.  This is most unfortunate because the Cookie Walk has been a great fundraiser and it is festive celebration of the Christmas season.  One of my favorite memories of the Cookie Walk took place in either the first or second year of the fundraiser.  Those familiar with the operation know that once people did their cookie shopping, they had to go to the Christian Education classrooms to have the cookies weighed and to pay for them.  The price is always a certain set amount per pound.  One year however there was a slight glitch in the checkout process.  One of our tables of expert checkout volunteers had set their measuring scales to kilograms instead of pounds.  For at least an hour or so, customers at that checkout stand had been purchasing cookies at a discount rate.  In fact they were receiving more cookies than they had paid for.

“Give, and it will be given to you.  A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”  This teaching of Jesus is part of the so-called Sermon on the Plain from the gospel of Luke.  Jesus was speaking to followers who were living in a contentious time.  There were disputing views of how to live while waiting for the Kingdom of God to come in its totality.  Some advocated violence and resistance to Jewish leaders and Roman officials.  Many were taking advantage of the situation by abusing the poor to benefit economically.  Other wondered how their faith and their belief in mercy and justice could make a difference in a world in which earthly values seemed to be reflected in the actions and words of most people.

In all of these teachings, Jesus offered his followers guidance as to how they can live and witness faithfully in their specific life situation.  His words reflected God’s grace and God’s generous nature in situations of conflict, of judgment, and of forgiveness.  Jesus advocated living with a spirit of abundance, recognizing the extravagant love that God brings to our lives and then responding to others in a like fashion.  We need to acknowledge God’s goodness, abundance, lavishness, and overflowing love by letting God’s care for us having a profound effect on how we look at the world and how we live our lives.

In the words we hear this morning, Jesus specifically talks about our giving.  He warns us that our usual response to our abundance is a fear that we will not have enough.  We convince ourselves that what we have is ours because of our work.  It is ours to do what we want.  Happiness and security come only when we do more for ourselves.  In a time of great uncertainty, that reaction becomes stronger and more natural.  But Jesus teaches that we are supposed to recognize that what we have is God’s.  It is not ours to do with what we want and that more joy can come to our lives if we respond to God’s generosity with generosity of our own.  Give and we will receive.  Not only a full measure but also an overflowing measure.

There is a story about the Marquis de Lafayette who provided invaluable assistance to George Washington and the struggling colonial army in the Revolutionary War.  After the war was over, Lafayette returned to France where he resumed his life as a farmer of many estates.  In 1783, the harvest was a terrible one and many in the country suffered as a result.  Lafayette’s farms however were not greatly affected by the crop failure.  One of his foreman approached Lafayette with what seemed to be good advice.  “The bad harvest has raised the price of wheat.  This is the time to sell.”  After thinking about those who were suffering in the area, Lafayette disagreed and said, “No, this is the time to give.”

Winston Churchill once said, “We make a living by what we earn; we make a life by what we give.”  I think that Jesus would have agreed.  What we earn and possess, helps us survive.  But what we give, fulfills our lives.  Be generous with your giving, with your words, with your kindness, with your forgiving- especially in these times.  All that we have belongs first to God.  If we give of it, we will certainly receive.

The Saints of God

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“The Saints of God”

Rev. Art Ritter

November 1, 2020

 

Matthew 5:1-12

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

This morning the Christian world observes All Saints Sunday.  This year the Sunday actually falls on All Saints Day, November 1.  Early Christians created the celebration over 1600 years ago and picked the date in the same manner by which the dates for the celebration of Easter and Christmas were placed.  Early Christians stole the date from pagans and replaced the focus of the party with Christian principles and tradition.  The pagans celebrated November 1 with bonfires, with animal and crop sacrifice, and with devout prayers for those who had died during the previous year.  These pagans believed that the souls of their departed friends spent October 31 being judged as to what form they should take in the next year.  If they were good, they entered into other human beings at birth.  If they were bad, they entered into animals.

The early Christians changed this celebration for their own benefit.  They transformed it into All Saints Day and All Hallow’s Eve.  Thus November 1 became a date to commemorate the lives of all the individual Christians within the congregation who had no special calendar date of their own for recognition.  All Hallow’s Eve was shortened to Halloween, a day that now seems to lean closer to its pagan roots with an emphasis on witches and darkness and fear.

The gospel lesson that is assigned to All Saints Day is the familiar reading from the gospel of Matthew, part of Jesus’ teaching from the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes.  When we hear these words, it is easy for us to understand them as Jesus’ command for us to try harder to be meeker and purer, perhaps even sadder and poorer, in order that we might earn a blessing from God.  We view them as a list of conditions that we should try and meet in order to receive an all-star holy rating.  These are teachings which ask for behaviors and attitudes that are next to impossible to achieve.  And that tends to fit into our perception of people we call saints.  Saints are uncommonly good people who make the rest of us feel unworthy.  Lance Pape of Brite Divinity School writes, “If we are honest, we must admit that the world Jesus asserts as fact, is not the world we have made for ourselves.”

Josh Harris, a Maryland pastor, offered a more realistic Beatitudes for our world today:

Blessed are the self-confident because they rule the world.

Blessed are the positive thinkers because they don’t need anybody’s comfort.

Blessed are the cocky and assertive because they get what they want.

Blessed are those who hunger for fame because they get reality TV shows.

Blessed are the vengeful because they get respect.

Blessed are the impure, pleasure seekers because they see a good time.

Blessed are those who beat their opponents because winners write history.

Blessed are the popular because everybody loves them.

 

But God sees things differently than the wisdom of the world.  In the face of those who might have been hoping he would bring God’s favor upon earthly standards and be the bold political leader they wanted him to be, Jesus pronounced blessing upon people who didn’t seem to accomplish anything of merit.  Jesus blessed those on the fringe.  He pronounced God’s blessing upon those whose situations which don’t match the logic of the world.

The problem for us is that we still tend to think that the instructions of the Beatitudes are so far beyond our ordinary lives, that only those whom we celebrate as “saints” can fulfill them.  And in doing so we miss their promise and fail to embrace their blessings.

In his commentary on the Beatitudes, Calvin Seminary professor Scott Hoezee, with tongue in cheek, writes about what “Mr. Beatitude” might look like.  “He would be consistently kind and yet also a bit shy, shunning the limelight.  He would always downplay his own actions by claiming they were never enough to achieve what he really wants, so we might conclude he has a bad self image.  This would be a person quick to lend a hand to anyone in need but also quick to get a bit depressed every time he hears a news story about an oil spill or sees pictures of children gassed to death in Syria- this would be a person as often as not who looked distressed and seemed often to be on the verge of tears; someone who could never shrug off anything….This would be a person who was transparently religious, someone whose heart seemed so centered on the God of his faith that everything he did would come off looking like an offering.  This would be a man who would seem perpetually restless and dissatisfied with lots of life’s facets.  He’d be someone who consistently gave money to environmental groups, who volunteered to clean up highways, who pitched in on programs to aid the homeless, who talked at dinner parties about the need to do something to help those who live in poverty or who are gripped by addictions to drugs or pornography.  In short, Mr. Beatitude might not always be a barrel of laughs.”

Yet most scholars believe that Jesus’ teaching in the Beatitudes was not a list of conditions that we should try and meet to be blessed.  If that were true, there would be only a few select people who might possess the strength of faith and the gift of spirit necessary to live a blessed life.  But the rest of us, the flawed and confused, those who simply do our best to serve in ordinary acts of love, would miss out on blessings.  But the Beatitudes are not instructions to achieve standards to which we should drop everything to aspire.  Rather they are the pronouncement of God’s blessing upon people in conditions that don’t seem to be the target of our goals and aspirations.  Jesus teaches us that God blesses people who don’t seem to get much blessing in the eyes of the world.  He points out God’s blessing in time and places where it is not obvious or celebrated.  God’s blessings reaches out to people in pain, to those who prefer compassion to greatness, to those who work for peace instead of riches, for those who act with mercy instead of revenge, for those who doubt instead of acting with certainty, for those who know what the pain of loss feels like, for those who are forgotten and no one else seems to notice, for those who do not have a voice, and for those who offer grace instead of anger.  These teachings are a way of affirming God’s presence in times that we perceive as weakness and in others that we might deem as failures or powerless.  We might admire strength and power.  God blesses weakness.  That is the lesson of All Saints Sunday.

David Lose writes of a scene in the movie Schindler’s List in which the commandant of a German death camp, believes that the very essence of power is found in his ability to kill prisoners indiscriminately.  Oskar Schindler has somehow worked his way into the commandant’s good graces and one night during a conversation he challenges the commandant’s beliefs about power.  He says that the ability to kill isn’t real power; the ability to have mercy is.  Schindler argues that the Emperor was the most powerful person in Rome because anyone could kill but only the Emperor could pardon a convicted criminal out of mercy.  The commandant listens and tries to be merciful.  He pardons a few people who have annoyed him.  But he can’t continue the behavior for long.  He eventually returns to his brutal ways.  Exercising mercy is harder than it looks and he finds no blessing in it.  He fails because he does not find the presence of God in what he is attempting to do.

All Saints Day may be a good day to recognize that none of us have the faith and the strength and the virtue it would take to qualify for sainthood, as we might define it.  But it is also a good day to be aware that the real saints are those who acknowledge a need for God and who seek the presence of God in their everyday situation and routine.  Jesus pronounced blessings not as rewards for people who live perfect lives but as the promise of God to be found upon people who live out the Kingdom of God in the midst of the darkness and power of the world.  The Christian life is not a magic shield to protect us.  Rather it is an assurance that no matter where we are on the journey, we are blessed and loved and claimed by God.

 

 

 

 

How To Be Great

By | Sermons

Voting With Your Faith

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Voting With Your Faith”

Rev. Art Ritter

October 18, 2020

 

Micah 6:6-8

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

Matthew 22:15-22

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Golden Calves

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Golden Calves”

Rev. Art Ritter

October 11, 2020

 

Exodus 32:1-14

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

“No,” said the dog.

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

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

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

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

“Did you get mistreated?”

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

“Did you get crippled?”

“No.”

“Then why, why did you stop racing?”

The dog said, “I just quit.”

“You quit?”

“Yes, I quit.”

“Why did you quit?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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