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Abbie Holden

Cracked Pots

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Cracked Pots”

Rev. Art Ritter

September 8, 2019

 

Jeremiah 18:1-11
The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him. Then the word of the Lord came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it.
Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the Lord: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.

 

Italian violinist Niccolo Paganini is thought by many to have been the greatest violinist in history. As he traveled through Europe, he was greeted much as the Beatles were in America, with almost hysterical fans. It is said that one evening Paganini was performing and as he embarked upon his last piece, one of the strings of his violin snapped. He kept playing. A few moments later, a second string snapped. Again he kept playing, although reduced to two remaining strings. Finally the unbelievable happened- a third string snapped. Yet Paganini kept going, finishing the piece on just one string. His brilliant performance caused the audience to stand as one demanding an encore. And of course, the great violinist completed the encore piece on just one string. Even with three strings broken, the master musician was able to extract beautiful music from a flawed instrument.
A colleague of mine is a potter by hobby. A few years ago, when preaching on the passage from Jeremiah we just heard, she brought in her potter’s wheel and worked on making a clay pot in front of her congregation while she preached. I thought it was very creative idea and was considering doing it myself this morning until I remember my seventh grade Art Class. Thus I am not being a potter this morning.
In her sermon, my colleague talked about how you begin with a square of clay on the wheel, about how the clay requires a delicate hand and just the right amount of moisture. She said that the wheel itself must spin not too fast nor too slow. If there is too much moisture in the clay, it will be too soft and if there is not enough moisture the clay will be too hard to pull. If your touch is too gentle, the clay will not form properly. If you touch is too rough you may push through the clay or pull it so thin that that sides will collapse. She told me that her sermon was a success and that the visual aid of having the potter’s wheel in front of the people added to the message. But she also told me that the pot she hoped to create that morning was a miserable failure. She was constantly making a mistake, having to stop and start again. Eventually she ran out of time to start making the pot over again. The pot was spoiled. She discovered she could not preach and create at the same time!
In the lesson this morning, the prophet Jeremiah watches a potter. The vessel that the potter was working on was also spoiled. But the potter pulled the clay back together and began to make something new. The potter saw a new vision for the damaged clay.
God spoke to Jeremiah, reminding him that God was like that potter. God controls the pot, stretching and smoothing, keeping just the right amount of pressure upon it, spinning it into something usable. And despite the faults of the pot, God finds a place to use each and every vessel.
This visit to the potter’s shop was a revelation for Jeremiah. He learned about the power and presence of God to shape and transform each and every person. He also learned that just as the potter reacts and is moved by the condition of the clay, so God is touched by our condition and our situation. And finally he learned that no matter what shape the pot is in, God finds a place and a use for it. At the time Jeremiah thought he was too young, too inexperienced, too broken to be a prophet. But God showed him that in the hands of the Great Potter, he was just the right person for the right job at that right time.
E.B. White, author of Charlotte’s Web once said, “Genius is more often found in a cracked pot than in a whole one.” That is the way of God!
There is a familiar story that is attributed to many Eastern cultures. It is called “The Cracked Pot.” There was once an elderly woman who had two large water pots each hanging on the ends of a pole which she carried across her shoulders. One of the pots had a crack in it while the other pot was perfect and always delivered a full portion of water. At the end of the long walks from the stream to the house, the cracked pot arrived only half full. For two years this went on daily, with the woman bringing home only one and a half pots of water. Of course, the perfect pot was proud of its accomplishments. But the poor cracked pot was ashamed of its imperfections, and miserable that it could only do half of what it had been made to do. After two years of what it perceived to be bitter failure, one day by the stream the cracked pot spoke to the woman. “I am ashamed of myself because of this crack in my side. It causes water to leak out all the way back to your house.” The old woman smiled and said, “Did you not notice that there are flowers on your side of the path, but not on the other pot’s side? That’s because I have always known about your flaw, so I planted flower seeds on your side of the path, and every day while we walk back home, you water them. For two years I have been able to pick those beautiful flowers to decorate my table. Without you being just the way you are, there would not be this beauty to grace our house.”
The Japanese have a way of supported the beauty of the broken. When they mend broken objects, they often fill the cracks with gold. It is said that when something suffered damage and has a history, it really becomes more beautiful.
We may not always feel God’s presence, hear God’s voice, or see God at work in our lives. But we can be sure that God’s hand is upon us working with us, reacting to our pain and misfortune. We may not always feel that what we can contribute is worthy. We may feel as if we are flawed and imperfect. Yet we can be sure that God redeems us, that God reconciles us, that God finds a good purpose in us, and that God uses even cracked pots to carry the message of the gospel. That is what this visit to the potter’s shop is all about. Reworking the clay isn’t a punishment. And a crack isn’t a curse. God will use each and every one of us. Something more than we had hoped for just might happen.

Cheap Seats

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Cheap Seats”

Rev. Art Ritter

September 1, 2019

 

Luke 14:1-14

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely. Just then, in front of him, there was a man who had dropsy. And Jesus asked the lawyers and Pharisees, “Is it lawful to cure people on the sabbath, or not?” But they were silent. So Jesus took him and healed him, and sent him away. Then he said to them, “If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a sabbath day?” And they could not reply to this.

When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

 

A man once received a promotion to the position of Vice President of the company for which he worked.  The promotion went to his head, and for weeks on end he bragged to anyone and everyone that he talked with that he was now the Vice President of his company.  His bragging became such a problem that his wife was becoming embarrassed.  She looked for a way to end the boasting.  Finally she said to him, “Honey, being named Vice President of your company isn’t really that big of a deal.  These days, everyone is some kind of vice president.  Why, at the super market they even have a Vice President of Peas.”  The man was skeptical and thought that his wife was being quite foolish.  He was certain that his position was indeed a unique and prestigious one.  So he called the local supermarket just to find out if what his wife said was true.  When his call was answered he asked, “Can I speak to the Vice President of Peas, please?”  The response was, “Fresh peas or frozen peas?”

Miller Park, home of the Milwaukee Brewers opened in 2001.  The most coveted seats in the stadium are not those directly behind home plate or even behind the home team or visitor’s dugout.  The seats that everyone wants are the so-called “Uecker Seats,” seats behind home plate but at the very top of the stadium.  The Uecker Seats are seats whose view of the game are blocked by pillars that hold up a portion of the ballpark’s massive roof.  Sitting in the Uecker Seats means that you are the furthest away from the action and that the action is obstructed from your view.

Bob Uecker, for whom the seats are named, is the long time announcer for the Brewers.  Many years ago he did some commercials for Miller Lite beer in which he got ousted from the seat where he was sitting.  Uecker then assumed he was being taken to a choice seat in the front row.  But the commercial closed with him in this last, distant, highest row of seats, sitting beside a sleeping man and screaming at the umpire for a missed call.  When the stadium opened, the Brewers had a life-size replica of Uecker put in one of the most undesirable seats and put the other seats around it on sale for just $1.  The trick is that you must stand in line on the night of the game to purchase a ticket for the Uecker Seats.  There is such a high demand for these humble seats that people often get in line hours before the game just to ensure themselves of a cheap, distant, obstructed view seat.

In this morning’s lesson from the gospel of Luke, Jesus visited the home of prominent Pharisee.  The host was obviously someone very high up in the religious leadership structure and probably lived in a large and fancy home.  It was the Sabbath and an invitation to such a home from such a guest on the Sabbath was probably one of the hottest tickets in town.  Jesus noticed that many of the guests were vying for a seat of honor at the banquet table.

Now, if you happened to be attending a fancy dinner in Jesus’ time, you usually didn’t have to worry about getting there early for a good seat.  There was a certain pecking order or protocol to social events which everyone understood and followed.  If you were a big shot, a pillar of society, you could arrive at the meal just before it started and be ushered directly to the front row.  And unlike behavior in our Meeting House, the preferred seats at Judean banquets were in the front row, not the rear pews!  The average person, the invited but unheralded guest, would have to find a seat somewhere in the back of the room.  Consequently there was always some interesting maneuvering for those in-between seats.  The common people wanted to be close enough to the front that they looked important.  The self-important people like the Pharisees would sit as close as they could to the front and hope nobody of greater importance would come along and move them further back among the commoners.

Some people delight at this when attending sporting events or concerts.  Regardless of the location on their printed ticket, they sit in an empty seat close to the front, waiting for an usher to come along and ask them to move.  Then they just move along to the next best empty seat.

Jesus noticed all of this seat movement and anxiety and he used the experience to teach a lesson on humility and hospitality.  And in his teaching commentary, he managed to insult both the host of the banquet and all of the guests!  He criticized those who were seeking a better seat at the expense of others.  And he criticized the fact that only people who would benefit the host’s social standing were invited in the first place.  Pride and ambition fueled both guests and hosts.  Jesus said, “When invited to a banquet, don’t sit in the best seat.  It could be that someone more important that you has yet to arrive.  Instead sit in a seat at the back of the room.  Then imagine the joy when the host comes and invites you to a better seat in the front row.”  And then he had advice for the host.  “When you host a banquet, invite those who are in need, those who will not benefit you by attending.”  Jesus then ended his teaching with these words, “Everyone who makes themselves great will be humbled.  Everyone who humbles themselves will be made great.”

Unlike the modest banquet guest that Jesus spoke about, we tend not to desire the Uecker seats in life.  We constantly race against others for the privileges and accolades that come with life’s circumstances.  We prefer being the guest of honor.  We enjoy the perks of first class.  We want to be served first.  We want our fair share and then some.  We want recognition.  We want to be acknowledged as right.  We want to win.

Sometimes even the smallest of life’s tasks turn into competitions.  Watch students line up for recess or for lunch.  Contemplate your recent commute to work or your desire to find a parking spot at the mall.  Think about the mad dash for overhead storage space on an airplane.  Consider the lines of people whenever the latest and greatest IPhone or chicken sandwich is introduced.

I think about the local Good Friday service in which many of the area clergy participate.  The most difficult part of the service is lining up for the processional.   I find the same thing true of any installation services I have attended.  There is all sorts of maneuvering and discussion among the robed clergy about who gets to walk in last.  Evidently among processing clergy, it is the greatest honor to walk in last!

No matter who we are, or where we are, it is quite human of us to seek that place of honor.  It is quite normal for us to want some attention.  Our culture tends to encourage us to prioritize our own interests and see ourselves in some kind of competition with others over limited resources.

I have never flown first class in my entire life.  Yet every time I walk on the plane on my way to my lowly, cramped seat in the back of the plane, I wonder what it must be like.  Everyone in first class looks so comfortable in those extra wide leather seats with plenty of leg room.  When I get on the plane they are already sipping a delicious beverage and eating snacks.  All I have to look forward to is trying to open my bag of pretzels with my teeth.

Steven Molin tells the story of how he and his wife lead a group to the Passion Play in Germany.  They were bumped from their return flight due to overbooking but received free tickets because of the inconvenience.  Later when they used the free tickets, they tried to benefit from their earlier experience.  They asked if the flight was overbooked and volunteered to give up their seats for another set of free tickets.  Molin said he felt so good being so humble and gracious and benefiting from it.  Just before the boarding process, Molin and his wife were notified that there were plenty of seats available on the flight but because they had volunteered their seats, they were being upgraded to first class.  They spent the next five hours enjoyed what they viewed as the life of luxury.  However in the middle of the flight, Molin noticed a regular coach passenger moving forward to first class to use the rest room.  He said that he suddenly began angry and resentful.  How dare this ordinary person use something that he/she was not entitled to use?  And then it suddenly hit him.  He didn’t deserve to be in first class either.  He was there through the grace of others.  He was enjoying his experience due to the kindness of and hospitality of the airline.  Suddenly he was humbled.

This is what Jesus was teaching.  If we live with our own interest as our primary motivation, striving for those front row seats, then we will always be in state of anxiety, limited by our own talents and success.  But if we seek and support the welfare of other around us, we will learn to rely upon the grace that is God’s love, and we will see that grace as it blesses our lives and everyday situations.  William Temple writes, “Humility does not mean thinking less of yourself than of other people.  It does not mean having a low opinion of your own gifts.  Humility means freedom from thinking about yourself one way or the other way.”

Humility is an attitude of service which we develop as we understand our place before God.  We cannot be that which God has created us to be when we flaunt our own self-importance.  We cannot be that which God wants us to be if we place ourselves before others.  In the Kingdom of God, the proud give up their seats.  In the Kingdom of God, those who share in meeting the needs of others are exalted.  In the Kingdom of God, those who find God’s love in the cheap seats know that there will be a place of ultimate joy and fellowship in God’s front row.

 

Standing Straight

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Standing Straight”

Rev. Art Ritter

August 25, 2019

 

Luke 13:10-17

Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

  

Wilma Rudolph was a legendary American track and field star.  Rudolph was widely recognized after winning three gold medals in sprinting events at the 1960 Summer Olympics held in Rome.  Because these games were the first Olympics televised live, her accomplishments were seen by many and she quickly became one of the most highly visible African-American athletes in the country.

While her athletic triumphs were noted, Wilma Rudolph’s personal story was also celebrated.  She was born prematurely, weighing 4 pounds 5 ounces in what is now Clarksville, TN, the twentieth of twenty-two children.  Her father worked as a railway porter and in odd jobs and her mother was a maid in many Clarksville homes.  Rudolph suffered from many childhood illnesses, including pneumonia and scarlet fever.  But her biggest obstacle came when at the age of 5 she was diagnosed with infantile paralysis caused by the polio virus.  She recovered from the polio but she lost most of the strength in her left leg and foot and was forced to wear a leg brace until she was 12 years old.  She was told that she would never walk normally and certainly would not be able to run like the other children.  One doctor noted, “I am sorry but you were born this way and it will always be this way.”

Rudolph’s family did what they could to help.  They sought treatment for Wilma at the historically black Meharry Medical College in Nashville.  For two years Wilma and her mother made the weekly bus trip for treatment.  At home, her siblings gave her legs four daily massages.  She was given an orthopedic shoe to aid in her walking.  And Wilma’s grandmother became her biggest cheerleader.  She refused to accept the bleak diagnosis and took the lead in prayer.  Grandma had a simple philosophy, one that stuck with Wilma all through her life.  It was this:  “Your condition does not have to be your conclusion.”  What you are today is not the finished product of you.

Martin Luther once described the human condition with the Latin phrase, “homo incurvatus in se.”  Even those of us who don’t know Latin might be able to figure this one out.  The phrase roughly translates into “human curved in on oneself.”  Luther taught that basically we live in a sinful state, unable to see or to reach out beyond ourselves.  We are trapped in the broken condition of seeing only what is us and ours because we are literally “curved in on ourselves.”  Salvation then, according to Luther, was an act of God which straightens our back, lifts our shoulders, picks up our head, opens our eyes, and spreads our arms out wide.  The curve of salvation is an awareness of something that has happened outside of ourselves that makes us better and whole.

This morning’s Scripture lesson features Jesus teaching in the synagogue again.  It is the Sabbath, the traditional day of rest in the Jewish tradition.  As Jesus taught, a nameless woman appeared, identified only by her disability.  She could not stand straight.  And it had been that way for over 18 years.  We don’t know what caused her condition.  It could have been something physical or psychological or spiritual.  But she was bent over.

In C.S. Lewis’ science fiction book Out of the Silent Planet, the main character tries to describe the concept of sin to beings from a different world who do not understand human concepts and motivations.  The man attempts to explain why some humans are virtuous and others function from selfish motives.  Eventually he settles on the word “bent” to meet the task of defining sin.  By “bent”, the character meant misshapen, separated from God, missing a creative purpose, or not functioning in the way we were made to be.

The woman who entered the synagogue was bent over.  The writer of Luke says that it was a spirit that crippled her.  Whatever controlled her was a burden.  It bent her over double.  It blocked her vision.  It narrowed her horizon.  She couldn’t look people in the eyes but rather in the knees.  She had suffered a loss of human dignity and freedom for 18 years.

Jesus noticed her and called her over.  She was right there, front and center. Suddenly the teaching the congregation received that day was not the Torah or the words of the prophets.  This bent over woman was the sermon illustration.  Jesus laid his hands on her and immediately she stood up straight.  The bent over and crooked body of the woman was released, set free, to look out and up and onward.  She held her hands up straight and began to praise God.

Perhaps intentionally, the writer of Luke described a second scene at the synagogue that day.  One of the leaders of the temple was furious with Jesus because he had broken a religious law by healing on the Sabbath.  The Jewish Sabbath commemorates the seventh day on which God rested hence regulations against work on the Sabbath were originally intended to give everyone access to life in the Lord.  But Jesus understood that such Sabbath regulations were no longer providing spiritual renewal but were used by the righteous to make difficult judgements that made life even more difficult for other.  There was little in those judgements that revealed God’s love.  Even though there might have been many in the crowd that day in need of healing, like that bent over woman, the synagogue’s important people believed that they should all come back on Monday, when the timing of healing would be more appropriate.

This wasn’t the first time that Jesus healed on the Sabbath.  It wasn’t the first time that he annoyed or provoked the religious leaders.  But perhaps these two incidents are in the same story for an important reason.  Just as the woman’s bent over stature severely affected her line of vision, the so-called religious leaders are blinded by their rigid and lifeless interpretation of scripture and the law.  While the woman could stand up and see salvation in the person of Jesus, and while the crowd around them was able to see the hand of God at work in the healing power of Jesus, it was the so-called religious experts, those certain in their beliefs, those who thought they knew the answers based on their easy judgements and law, they were the ones who seemed least able to see the truth right in front of their eyes.

I remember attending many baseball games at Tiger Stadium at Michigan and Trumbull in Detroit.  It was one of my favorite places in the entire world and I have nothing but fond recollections of any time spent there.  For me, it was the greatest ballpark ever- better than Wrigley or Fenway or any other that I have visited.  But I have to admit that there were a few things about Tiger Stadium that perhaps weren’t so customer friendly.  I’m not talking about the bathrooms or the concourses.  I’m talking about the stadium pillars or poles that supported the upper deck.  Many times these poles blocked your vision of the game.  In some cases, seats surrounding the poles were labeled as “obstructed view” and were not sold unless the demand of the game called for it.  I recall one day purchasing one of those seats.  Obstructed view was stamped clearly on my ticket.  I was right behind a large pole.  With every pitch and every swing I had to move back and forth just to keep an eye on the action.

In the story of the bent over woman, there seemed to be at least two people with obstructed views of life.  They were not seeing all that there was to see.  They were missed the very presence of God’s salvation, the clear and present sign of God’s rule in the world and in their lives.  The first was the woman with the physical condition, something that blocked her and controlled her and prevented her from seeing the future and from providing her hope.  The second was the synagogue leader who wasn’t happy with the healing.  He tried to drown out her salvation and her praises to God with his black and white textbook judgements, pointing out that the healing was not done appropriately and that she never should have entered the synagogue in the first place.

There is a good chance that the purpose behind Luke’s account of this story is an invitation- an invitation for us to stand up straight.  Jesus wants us to be set loose from our obstructed views and our bent over ways to experience God’s joy and to have a view of how God is working in all of reality.  The good news is that salvation is here in the presence of Jesus the Christ.  While the powers of darkness and the world’s expectations seem to reign, we can stand up straight and empowered.  We can live without the burden of rules and the obligations of expectations and standards and set our eyes forward to possibilities and hope.  We can let go of the infirmities of spirit that we’ve been dragging around and experience the transforming power of Christ in our lives.  God’s power is that which straightens, which heals, and which inspires.

 

 

Blinders

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Blinders”

Rev. Art Ritter

August 18, 2019

 

Luke 12:49-56

“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

 

My wife Laura has recently started a new job, working as a dietitian at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital in Ann Arbor.  Part of her responsibilities include having some expertise in plant-based diets.  Because of this and certainly because of some her strong personal feelings, a few months ago, Laura decided to become a vegetarian.  When she first told me of her decision I was a bit frightened.  Many vegetarians I know can be a bit zealous in their behavior, challenging the logic of meat eaters, preaching about the righteousness of their choices, and attempting to convert everyone to their way of life.  So initially I wasn’t certain that her decision would make me feel uncomfortable or cause contention in our marriage.  I was also concerned about the extra complications a vegetarian diet would bring to our weekly and nightly routine.  There would now be different grocery lists and different food preparation and I don’t know much about cooking vegetables other than putting them in the microwave.  And what about the times we eat out, or at family gathering, or community meals?   Will she find menu options or will she make our hosts feel badly when they don’t have a vegetarian option?  So, when I first heard of her decision I have to admit, I thought only of the trouble it was going to cause.

But I have listened to Laura and I have done some research and thinking myself.  No, I am not ready to become a vegetarian.  I still don’t find many vegetable dishes to be especially tasty or visually appealing. Yet I am willing to take the blinders off and listen and try to understand.  Vegetarians have made a choice which sets them apart because of what they believe to be an important priority in their healthy living.  Some have also done so for the benefit of the future of the planet, believing that the production of meat drains more of the earth’s resources.  For some, such a choice may speak to their choice about supporting the care of God’s creatures.  I am at least willing to admit that I need to have a greater understanding about how the choices I make about the food I consume say something about me and my view of creation.

I think that most of us have some type of blinders that keep us from having balanced opinion about certain issues.  In some cases those blinders keep us from seeing the real world around us.  We might think that we have our eyes wide open, that we aren’t hiding from any kernel of truth, that we have a realistic view of life.  But in reality we all use some kind of tunnel vision.  We interpret the world through the lens of our own experience.  There are factors such as education, race, gender, and geographic location that profoundly affect the way we interpret our world.  Those factors can determine what we see and what we don’t see.

Thus, when someone around us has the nerve or the courage to look honestly and openly at the way things are, when someone sincerely questions why things have to be that way, or when someone challenges us as to why we do things the way we do, there is always a bit of uneasiness that seep into us.  There is potential for conflict or division.  If we are one who benefit from the way things are, from the status quo, we will fight tooth and nail to oppose anyone who tries to change things.  And we will keep our blinders firmly in place just to avoid having to look at things differently or having to understand an opposing point of view.

In the 12th chapter of Luke, Jesus is continuing with his ministry in Galilee on his way to Jerusalem.  Crowds have gathered.  Great sermons have been preached.  People have been healed.  Demons have been cast out.  Jesus is a pretty popular guy and everyone seems enamored with him.  Then we hear the words of this morning’s Scripture lesson.  “I have come to bring fire to the earth, and oh how I wish it were already blazing!  Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth?  No!  I have come for division.”  Jesus goes on to preach about how the choice to follow him will separate followers from their loved ones.  He speaks about the faithful being able to recognize the signs of God’s Kingdom and the importance of acting quickly and decisively to bring that Kingdom into being.

Meghan Feldmeyer writes that when we first read this passage we might think that Jesus was having a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day.  The gospel of Luke, the same gospel that describes the sleeping baby Jesus and the calm shepherds and the beautiful angels, has Jesus speaking these words of fire and brimstone.  Scott Hoezee writes that “Jesus seems to lose it a bit here, going on quite the verbal tear.  We practically need asbestos gloves or very thick oven mitts just to pick these verses up.  This thing is white hot!”

What prompted these strong words from Jesus?  Perhaps there were some in his group of followers who were urging him to avoid controversy.  They wanted him to “play nice” and try to get along with the rulers of the empire, the authorities of the Temple, and the chief priests and scribes.  Maybe they saw the stir that he was creating and they wanted him to put the blinders on and not make anyone angry.  Please Jesus, see things our way and just get along with the rest of the world!

But Jesus did not come to prop up the old ways.  Within the community of faith we often talk about Jesus as one who endorses what we think and what we believe.  We act as if Jesus came to validate the best and brightest parts of us and is pleased with how we do things.  Yet an honest reading of the Gospels tells us that Jesus did not come to continue the policies of the status quo.  His kingdom did not fit in with the kingdoms of the world, and he knew that if he were to be faithful to God’s intention, a strong measure of disruption had to be expected.  Jesus was not representing business as usual.  He was representing a world that was turned upside down.

Following Jesus doesn’t mean adopting new beliefs but seeking a new way of living.  To be a follower of one who ate with sinners and accepted those dishonored by society means we must take off the blinders about our own judgments and our invitations.  To be a follower of one who preaches love and acceptance and forgiveness is to practice love and acceptance and forgiveness.  And Jesus warned his followers as well as us that if we act like he did- the rest of the world, including those whose opinions matter most to us, might not like it.

C. S. Lewis once observed that Christians sometimes think of themselves a race horse, a horse that can be trained through prayer and study and discipline to run faster in maintaining a successful life of faith. In reality, Lewis said, Jesus doesn’t want a race horse that runs faster, but he wants to give the horse wings to fly.  Jesus doesn’t want to move into your house and repaint and change the curtains.  When Jesus moves in he brings a wrecking ball to tear down the walls, to gut the rooms down to the studs, and to rebuild in a different manner

I read a commentary this week that talked about the fad of a few years ago: the WW JD bracelet.  What would Jesus do?  While the originators of the idea probably had wonderful intentions,  Jesus probably had something more serious in mind- perhaps something to place around the heart to remember to take his words and teachings more seriously.  What might the world look like if we took off our blinders and followed Jesus’ words, at home, at work, at school, at church?  What would happen if we were able to step away from our need for security and consumption and certainty and step toward the needs of others?  What kind of conflict and stress would we find if we advocated caring for others ahead of institutional maintenance?  How would the world change if we carried Jesus’ intention for us into our priorities of time, our consumer choices, our support of political candidates and issues, and the way we treat our planet and our environment?

Taking off the blinders is frightening!  Bringing change to the way we view others and live life is hard.  We want to baptize our actions and our world with clear, safe refreshing water.  Jesus comes to us with a baptism of fire that burns up the old and starts all over.  When we resist his call to change and challenge, he has to remind us that it won’t be easy.  We can’t expect everyone to like us.  Disagreements will arise.  Those who like the way things are will have sharp things to say about us.   But we can know that even in the times in which the way of God doesn’t feel easy, it is grounded in love, and offered with hope for building us up and healing the world.

 

Where Your Treasure Is

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Where Your Treasure Is”

Rev. Art Ritter

August 11, 2019

 

Luke 12:32-40

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves. “But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

 

My daughter Amelia called me this week to share some news.  She told me that her friend Emily Weibel was expecting a baby early next year.  While we were living in Salt Lake City, Emily was almost like a member of our family.  She and Amelia were constantly together.  It seems that Emily was always at our house or I was always driving Amelia to Emily’s house.  When we watch videos of any birthday celebration while we lived in Utah, Emily is right there with us, singing “Happy Birthday” and eating the cake.  The Weibels attended our church and our families shared in many social activities.  I went to a lot of minor league baseball games with Emily’s father and her brothers.  I think that all of the Weibels, with the exception of Emily, have visited us a couple of times since we returned to Michigan.

My first reaction to the news that Emily was pregnant was that it was quite impossible.  Emily is twelve years old, or at least in my mind she is still twelve years old.  When I mentioned this to Amelia she quickly assured me that Emily was now 28 years old and that she had been married for nearly five years.  It really is hard for me to get my mind wrapped around the fact that Emily is that old and is in such a place in her life.  My experience with her is that of the childhood friend of Amelia and it is frozen in time.  While my rational mind tells me that my memories are over 15 years old, such logic doesn’t change the strength and reality of those recollections.  But Emily’s news also reminds me again of the fleeting nature of life and of the opportunities to create other important memories that might be moving by even now.

Asked about the difficulty of playing left field in Yankee Stadium in the bright sun of early autumn, Yogi Berra replied, “It gets late early there.”  As usual, Yogi’s wisdom was unintentionally most profound.  It gets late early in our lives.  Everyone knows that life is short and that we are to treasure each and every moment but perhaps it is just part of our human nature to act as if we will always have plenty of days left to spend.  We look forward to some things: vacations, graduations, weddings, retirement- and we often look past other things.  We sometimes think that the best part of our life is yet to come, once we get some bills paid, some business concluded, some projects finished.  We are guilty of throwing time away, minute by minute or hour by hour- even as we understand the precious nature of each moment and how quickly the late afternoon hours of life arrive.

Dr. Seuss wrote this poem, “How did it get so late so soon?  It’s night before it’s afternoon.  December is here before it’s June.  My goodness how the time has flewn.  How did it get so late so soon?”

Dr. Brett Younger, pastor of Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn NY and Bible lecturer at our last national meeting in Cleveland tells of a trip that he and his wife took to Washington DC.  They only had one day left in their visit and it was an extremely hot and humid afternoon.  They had finished a tour of the Capitol building and they had walked about ten miles along the national mall.  Brett said to his wife, “What should we do next?  We could go to the National Archives and be moved by the sight of the Declaration of Independence.  Or we could go to the National Portrait Gallery and gain some inspiration through paintings of great Americans.  Or we could walk over to McDonald’s and buy a couple of Cokes.”  Younger concludes the story by saying, “Those Cokes were really cold!”

We know that feeling don’t we?  Figuring we will have plenty of time and plenty of opportunities, we made poor choices of how we have used both.  Younger continues by saying that “Life is too short to skip the Declaration of Independence.  Life is too short for fantasy baseball, computer solitaire, or The Bachelor.  Life is too short for microwave pizza, bad novels, or having the cleanest gutters on the block.  Life is too short to keep waiting for a vacation, a special occasion, or a better day.  Life is too short to be bitter over things you can’t change, want to go back to what was, or always do the same thing.  Life is too short to be bored, to always blend in, or to sit in the corner while the band is playing.  Life is too short to intend to live a new life, but never get around to it.  We shouldn’t give ourselves to things that are less than God’s best or surrender ourselves to the worldly values, because life is too short.”

As the movie character Ferris Bueller said, “Life goes by pretty fast.  If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

In the 12th chapter of Luke, Jesus continued to teach his followers about the nature of discipleship.  Last week his lesson was about stewardship of possession, of sharing from our bounty instead of hoarding or accumulating for tomorrow.  This morning’s lesson is also about stewardship but stewardship of a different kind.  Jesus’ teaching seems to be on the stewardship of time.  The disciples treated time much like we do.  They acted as if life’s opportunities are endless.  They worried about the wrong priorities.  They chased after unimportant things.  In the day to day problems they faced and issues they encountered, the disciples seemed to forget why they were doing what they were doing in the first place.

Jesus, on the other hand, was focused.  A couple of chapters earlier in the gospel the author tells us that “his face was set upon Jerusalem.”  Jesus was probably aware of the fate that awaited him in Jerusalem.  He knew that this time was short.  He knew that he and his followers had to concentrate on what was important in the building of the Kingdom of God.  He and they had to use God’s gift of time very well.

Jesus said, “Do not be afraid.  It is God’s pleasure to give you the kingdom.  You don’t have to be frightened and worry about what is coming tomorrow and if you are adequately prepared for it.  Live in God’s day, and in God’s way.  For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”  Jesus urged his followers to celebrate what God had given them in each moment, living with generosity and with grace, rather than with anxiety and regret, attitudes that waste the precious gifts placed in front of us each day.  It is God’s pleasure to offer us God’s presence, a gift to be celebrated each and every moment, through trials and celebrations, through sorrows and success.  Do not live waiting for tomorrow or fretting over wealth and security or how we appear to look to others.  The value of our lives is found simply in God’s loving us enough to bring us opportunities for joy in each and every moment.

Then Jesus told a short parable about those who kept their lamps lit waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet.  They were ready to open the door for him when he knocked.  They were alert to the meaning in each and every moment of time.  Jesus used them as an illustration of those who were awake to God’s presence in each moment of time and those able to understand that each and every minute of life is filled with the possibilities of God.

Dale Miller tells the story of a wealthy family from Massachusetts who took a month’s vacation each summer at the coast of Maine.  They brought their housekeeper with them.  She had a ritual for the beach.  She wore an old-fashioned bathing suit, complete with white hat.  She would bring along an umbrella, a chair, shoes, and a wrap.  She would then journey down to the edge of the ocean, take a few deep breaths, and then extend one foot very daintily and slowly, putting her big toe partially in the water.  Then she repeated the act with the other foot.  Then, having satisfied her urge to swim, she would retreat to the chair with her umbrella and shoes and spend the rest of the vacation curled around a book.

Brett Younger concludes with this advice, “Life is short, so live each day as if it were your last, because some day you’ll be right.  Life is short, so wake up, stay alert, be prepared, light the lamps, get ready.  Listen for the knock, answer the call, serve where you are sent.  Life is short, so do what you love to do and give it your best.  Life is short, so recognize that today is the only day you have, eat dessert first, read good books, go to church and worship, stay awake and sing, tell the truth and dance.  Life is short, so listen to the people you love and tell them how much they mean to you.  Life is short, so surround yourself with gracious people, hug your friends, care for someone you haven’t cared for.  Life is short, so be courageous, take a chance, live so that when your life flashes before your eyes, you’ll have plenty to watch.  Life is short, so embrace the possibilities, try something new, see that every day is an opportunity, dream but don’t just dream, follow those dreams.  Life is short, so celebrate God’s eternity, make time for the things that matter, don’t leave yourself regretting things you didn’t do.  Life is short, tell others how God’s love has changed your life, be a person who talks about the good news of Christ.

Celebrate time.  How you spend each moment will tell the world where your heart is and where your heart is, there is your treasure.  As God takes pleasure in sharing God’s presence with us, let us take pleasure in finding God’s presence in each and every moment.

 

Supersize Me

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Supersize Me”

Rev. Art Ritter

August 4, 2019

 

Luke 12:13-21

Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

 

The New York Times has a column entitled “Metropolitan Diary” that features about a half dozen brief letters sent in by readers that describe what it is like to live in New York City.  Many of the stories speak of kindness and warmth.  Other relate the quirks found in some of the city residents.  Still others point to the outrageous wealth that many New Yorkers possess and what people tend to do with that wealth.  Calvin Seminary professor Scott Hoezee tells of a diary entry written by a couple visiting the Big Apple from their Midwest home.  It was in the middle of January, during a particularly brutal cold wave.  As they walked up Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, the woman’s ears started to get painfully cold.  They decided to check out a small boutique to purchase a hat for her.  The woman quickly found a lovely cashmere knit hat and was about to buy it when she noticed the price tag: $350.  She put it back quickly and left the store.  As soon as they made their way back to the sidewalks of Fifth Avenue however, the woman they saw a woman passing by, carrying a little poodle dog.  The dog was wearing the very same cashmere knit hat.

The ancient Stoic philosopher Seneca once said, “If what you have seems insufficient to you, then though you possess the world, you will yet be miserable.”  I like to pair Seneca’s words up with those of one of my favorite philosophers, deadpan comedian Steven Wright.  Wright once said, “You can’t have everything.  Where would you put it?”

Laura and I are currently in the midst of a kitchen remodel.  I know that many of you have endured this experience before and have survived.  But I would appreciate any words of encouragement!  The kitchen remodel includes some painting and floor maintenance in other rooms so it has turned our entire house into some rooms which resemble a war zone and other rooms which are acting as storage closets.  What I have learned from this project is that there is an industry out there based on providing storage boxes and containers to put your extra stuff into.  You want to make certain you have enough boxes to hold all of the stuff you really don’t need.  And I have also learned how much stuff Laura and I actually have.  Perhaps you never really appreciate how many possessions you have until you have to move them to a different place.  We have things that we never use and things we really don’t need.  I have discovered that we have many things I didn’t even know we had.  As I look around my house I see trinkets and memorabilia that were at one time important to me but as the years have passed grew less and less important.  Where at one time I was eagerly seeking to add to my collection, now it seems that I am in a search for ways to reduce it.

We used to have a bumper sticker on our refrigerator door that said, “Live so that the preacher won’t have to lie at your funeral.”  I am moving toward a different goal in life I think, one that a very wise person once told me.  “Live so that your children will not be embarrassed when they have to clean out your home and basement and attics and closets when you die.”

Jesus was in the middle of encouraging his disciples to hold true to faith, even under duress when he was interrupted by a man in the crowd who wanted Jesus to settle a financial dispute between siblings.  Jesus refused to enter into the family squabble but instead used the situation to teach about the seduction of wealth and possessions.  He told the man a parable of a rich man, who after a good year of harvest had an abundance of crops.  Concerned about what might happen in the future, the rich man tore down his existing barns and built bigger ones to store his more than adequate harvest.  The rich man’s words expressed his desire to continue on his present course of action, accumulating more resources without sharing them.  His expectation was that his comfortable life, lived without consideration of the suffering of others, would continue with a more organized and prepared future.

It is important to note that unlike some other parables, there is nothing really wrong going on here.  There is no stealing, no padding of financial accounts, nor taking advantage of employees.  On the surface, the rich farmer seems to be preparing for his retirement much as any of us do.  He saw an opportunity to supersize.  He looked forward to the time when he could stop his labors and eat and drink and be merry.  His goals resonate with our own when we reflect upon our IRAs and 401Ks.

Yet Jesus said that he was a fool!  His folly wasn’t that he wanted bigger barns.  Farmers need storage space.  He was a fool because he believed that his ample goods would safeguard his future.  He believed that he could safely and successfully manage all that might come his way.  He considered no one but himself as he contemplated the problems of his expanding wealth.  His sin was clearly illustrated in the conversation he had with himself:  “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?  I will do this- I will put down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.  And I will say to my soul…David Lose writes that the rich farmer had fallen prey to worshipping the most popular of gods, the “Unholy Trinity of Me, Myself, and I.” The rich farmer doesn’t not consult with anyone.  He does not consider the needs of his neighbors.  He does not consider what benefit might come with sharing his bounty.  His vision extends only to himself and how he can acquire and secure even more.

The rich farmer was living the good life.  He was wise in his own eyes.  Yet he was in Jesus’ words, “a fool.”  He clung to the priorities that he had chosen in life and missed what Jesus might call the “blessed life.”  The rich farmer’s future was well planned but it brought insecurity and anxiety because he missed the very presence of God in the blessings of seed and harvest.  The rich man was prepared for success in life but his preparation was not life-giving or life-sharing.

Jesus taught that finding a treasure is fine.  It is not a sin to be rich in things.  However we all must realize that our accumulation of stuff and our obsession with the control of material things tends to lead us to neglect our relationship with God.  We begin to identify ourselves with what we own.  We begin to think that we alone, through adequate preparation, are responsible for our future.  We begin to worry about whether or not we will have enough or whether or not someone else will take what we deserve.  It is as Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Things are in the saddle and they ride mankind.” We drift toward greed, a sin that Thomas Aquinas said is a self-absorption which is absent of the experience of love.  We fail to understand that it is far more important to be rich in God.  It is God’s good pleasure to give us what we need for each day.  It is God’s good pleasure to secure our souls.  Only as we recognize that the gifts of ultimate worth, dignity, meaning, and relationship are gifts freely offered by God, can we hope to place our relative wealth in perspective and be generous with it toward others.  When we comprehend what God’s gifts in life truly are, than the harvest can become what it truly was meant to be- not a possession to hoard, but the blessings by which God cares for all of creation.

In a sermon on this passage from 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of how much of the wealth of our nation was built on the backs of those who suffer and struggle.  Dr. King wondered about the life of the rich farmer.  “He may have had great books in his library, but he never read them.  He may have had recordings of great music of the ages, but he never listened to it.  He probably gave his wife mink coats, a convertible automobile, but he didn’t give her what she needed most, love and affection.  He probably provided bread for his children, but he didn’t give them any attention; he didn’t really love them.  Somehow he looked up at the beauty of the stars, but he wasn’t moved by them.  He had heard the glad tidings of philosophy and poetry, but he really didn’t read it or comprehend it, or want to understand it.  And so this man justly deserved his title.  He was an eternal fool.  He allowed the means by which he lived to outdistance the ends for which he lived.  And he was a fool because he failed to realize his dependence on others.

Barbara Brown Taylor suggests that “if you have to be greedy, then be greedy for love.  Be greedy for justice and wisdom and significance.  That way, when it comes time to show God what is in your treasure chest, there won’t be any doubt in your minds that you are rich.”

 

 

How To Pray

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“How To Pray”

Denise Parr

July 28, 2019

 

Luke 11:1-13

He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.” And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs. “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

 

A minister and a cab driver died at exactly the same time but in two different places.  The two happened to appear at the pearly gates of heaven together.  It was the minister who first knocked on the door hoping to gain quick entrance.  St. Peter greeted him, and immediately told him that it would be a brief wait before the minister could get in to present his case before the Lord.  Next, the cab driver pounded on the door of the gates.  St. Peter answered, opened the door and immediately let the driver into heaven.  When the waiting minister saw what had happened he became furious.  He protested to St. Peter, “I should have gotten into heaven right away.  I have faithfully preached the gospel for over forty years.  What has that cab driver done?”  St. Peter answered him calmly, “I know about your preaching.  It has put everyone to sleep for forty years.  But everyone who has ever ridden in a cab driven by that man has always ended up praying!”

A man in great distress called his minister to get directions on how to pray.  It was a simple request yet such a profound one.  How do you teach someone to speak to God?  How can you prepare one’s ears to listen to the divine?  What do we do when we pray?  What are we supposed to ask for?  What do we say?  As they talked, the minister was very theological in her responses when all the man wanted was practical advice.  He wanted to learn the way to do it, the step-by-step process he needed to follow, so God would listen to his prayer.  This situation reminds me of the questions raised by a child captured in a children’s book on prayer.  The child asked of God, “Dear God, when is the best time I can talk with you?  I know that you are always listening, but when will you be listening especially hard in Ann Arbor, Michigan.”

In the White House, there is a permanent position for someone in protocol.  There is someone on the staff who decides such important things as who sits next to whom during state dinners.  This person decides how envelopes to dignitaries in foreign capitals should be addressed.   This person decides what kind of requests certain people in certain positions can respond to.  It is an important job, because through such proper channels the course of international relations can be changed.  I have a sense that we are all looking for that kind of protocol expert when it comes to prayer.  We would like to find a way, a style, a manner; just the right words so that we reach the correct source.

Unfortunately, prayer isn’t something that seems to come to most of us naturally.  We don’t think of prayer as an untutored outburst from the heart.  We want to be taught how to pray so we may do it right and feel good about doing it.

For some, prayer today has become little more than auto-suggestion or self-therapy.  In this view, prayer is mainly of value in helping us get our own heads straight about what we ought to want and what we ought to do.  Prayer is a time for quiet meditation so that we might enter more deeply into our own egos.  Many such prayers are addressed to the self, rather than to God.  God really doesn’t matter because the one who prays is really talking to him or her self.

For others, prayer is a magic formula through which one hopes to entice an apathetic God to act in a way that pleases us.  Someone once said, “What men usually ask of God when they pray is that two and two not make four.”  Some feel that prayer is the request for a quick fix.  It is natural, in a world where we get most of what we want with push-button speed, that we should assume that prayer is a technique for getting what we want.  We know that God is good and generous in many ways.  So we assume that God will do all that our hearts desire in the time frame in which we are seeking.

I am reminded of Huckleberry Finn’s monologue on prayer when he said, “Miss Watson, she took me in the closet and prayed but nothing happened.  She told me to pray every day, and whatever I asked for I would get.  But it warn’t so…I set down one time back in the woods and had a long think about it.  I says to myself, if a body can get anything they pray for, why don’t Deacon Winn get back the money he lost on pork?  Why can’t the widow get back her silver snuffbox that was stole?… No, I says to myself, there ain’t noting in it!”

We might find ourselves agreeing with old Huck when we discover that prayer doesn’t change things.  It doesn’t give us what we want.  We can’t find God anywhere around when we pray.  All of which brings us back to the plea of the disciples in our Scripture lesson, “Lord, teach us to pray.”

Jesus taught his disciples to pray by giving them a model prayer, the words we know as the Lord’s Prayer.  Clearly prayer was a vital part of Jesus’ ministry.  More than any other gospels, Luke’s account of Jesus’ life recalls a regular practice of prayer.  Here in these brief verses that were read for us this morning, Jesus teaches his disciples about prayer by his very example.

I don’t want to go into detail of each and every part of that prayer this morning.  I did that in a sermon I gave several years back.  But, some preachers have given a six or eight sermon series on the Lord’s Prayer.  Instead, I would like for us to consider the importance of some characteristics of prayer found in the words we repeat every Sunday.

First there is the simple but profound address of “Father.”  Jesus approaches God directly, simply, confidently, and affectionately.  “Hallowed be thy name,” is a stirring identification of God in the moment.  “May your Kingdom come,” is also a cry for God to act in that time.  The petition for daily bread is recognition that our lives are sustained by God’s everyday provision.  The call for forgiveness of our sins is a remembrance of God’s ability to forgive human sin.  There is also a statement that people who cannot or who will not forgive sin cannot experience God’s liberating forgiveness.  Finally, the petition concerning temptations recognizes that the present experience of grace is not a guarantee that life will be without difficulties in the future.  God alone, not we ourselves, has the power to direct us away from temptation into a life that God intends.

What does this mean for all of us who seek to learn how to pray?  I find it enlightening that Jesus did not teach by expounding some complicated series of lessons or outlines.  He did not produce a book entitled, “DIY Prayer.”  He did not recommend advanced study or an out-of-town seminar.  Rather he taught others to pray by praying himself.  He taught by praying like a family conversation, perhaps around a dinner table, praying in a manner where you express yourself with the confidence that you will be heard and understood.

He taught by using prayer as a way to get in touch with God.  Prayer is not a way to reach your inner self or a way to get what you want.  It is a way of opening up yourself to new possibilities that are provided by your loving Creator.  Yes, prayer is voicing your desire, but it is more placing your desires next to God’s desires.

He taught by using prayer as an acknowledgement of God’s righteousness, as a recognition of God as one who provides for daily needs, as a confession of our wrongs and our failures to live up to our God-given potential, and as a plea for God to bring to us wisdom, courage, and vision in our future challenges.  Jesus taught that through prayer, we become closer to the God who is already close to us.

How do we pray?  That is an appropriate question.  However when we ask it we must also recognize that each of us has this tendency to solidify anything we are taught into rules.  So it is with prayer.  Jesus’ example of the Lord’s Prayer was not supposed to teach us practical ways to answer the question of how to pray.  Jesus taught that lessons in prayer are not about content, words, technique, time of day, or even disposition.   Instead, his example of prayer teaches us an attitude of the heart.  Prayer is the confident expression of ourselves to God and the seeking of God’s desire for our life and our world.

How do we pray?  In his book Simply Sane: The Spirituality of Mental Health, Gerald May offers some simple advice.  He says:  “If you pray, pray.  Do your best, accept the whole situation, and watch with awe.  If you don’t pray, do your best, accept the whole situation and watch with awe.  If you can’t pray, do your best, accept the whole situation, watch with awe, and be still and listen.  We will understand, with a little smile, that prayer is happening in spite of us, no matter what.”

 

Think on These Things

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Think on These Things”

Laura Ritter

July 21, 2019

 

Philippians 4:4-9

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

I am going to start this morning by referencing how I used God’s word to write today’s message. Art, professional minister, and seminary trained, tells me that I find scripture to support what I want to say.  I suppose that is true. I love the word of God and I read it and apply it to how it makes sense for me in today’s day and age.  Art shared with me over the years that it is important to take into consideration who wrote those words and what the history was behind the author’s account of the facts.  I did not write about Paul speaking to the people of Philippi. Instead, I share personally, Philippians Chapter 4:4-9. It is powerful scripture that I committed to memory many years ago because it gives me peace of mind and self-assurance.

Vs. 8 Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things.

As a registered dietitian, I am of the belief that you are what you eat…or you become what you eat.  Likewise, you are what you think…or your thoughts, attitudes, and actions become the byproduct of what you think. And that what you think is what expands.  Consider how much better you feel around people that are open, positive, uplifting, seeing the bright side of things. These people energize you, build you up and leave you better than what you were before they entered your space.  Now think of an individual that is usually negative, glass is always ½ empty, the worst case scenario is always anticipated, they complain and their presence leaves you drained and exhausted!  That which you spend your time thinking and internalizing is what you become.

Throughout my life as a young adult and up until now, I have had jobs requiring a lot of driving. I mean, I have covered some miles!  My job in UT was most of UT and ID up to Boise.  I would use the drive time to listen to self-help books, motivational books, and the like.  Some of those books were: Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, Failing Forward by John Maxwell, How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie, Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman…just to name a few.  It kept me positive and always forward thinking.  It was enjoyable because I would have never allowed myself the time to read all those books or listen to the tapes if I had not been driving. Some of the books or excerpts I read were from my very favorite motivational speaker, Zig Ziglar! Some of his famous quotes:” Your attitude, not your aptitude, will determine your altitude.  You don’t have to be great to start, but you have to start to be great. Lack of direction, not lack of time, is the problem…   Dreams don’t work unless you do.  Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you are right. People often say that motivation doesn’t last.  Well, neither does bathing…that’s why we recommend it daily.”  Zig Ziglar became one of the most renowned figures in the science of human potential. His works and the works of many were like life mentors for me.  And the information was good, wholesome, and strong value based.

Several years ago, Lisa Barry shared a book with me that changed my life. It is called The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. It is another book that falls into the Personal Growth/Self Help category.  This author was a medical doctor who later dedicated his life to the spiritual knowledge and practice of Toltec Wisdom… a culture of ancient southern Mexico.

The Four Agreements are a guide to practicing mindfulness and experiencing personal growth and self-awareness. 

The First Agreement is:   Be Impeccable With Your Word

Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using the word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love.  This agreement reminds me that we should not beat ourselves up! Avoid using the word to speak against yourself or others. Trying not to gossip of speak ill of others is good common sense. However, think about how many times you may have made a mistake or did something goofy and you self-criticize.  Don’t let that negative communication about yourself get planted in your brain. A mistake, wrong decision, failure is an event…not a person. Remember, whatever is true, whatever is right, whatever is honorable, whatever is pure…think on these things.

 

The Second Agreement is:    Don’t Take Anything Personally

Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own thoughts. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering. This one is hard! You have to put on your tough exterior.  In other words, don’t let people live rent-free in your head.  When I experience someone challenging my self-worth and whole being, I think of the words of author, Wayne Dyer.  “Let them take your moment.  Don’t let them take your day!”   And definitely don’t let their negative comments define you in any way. Wise words from Eleanor Roosevelt, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”  Remember in Philippians, if anything is worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things.

 

The Third Agreement is:   Don’t Make Assumptions

Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness, and drama.  With just this one agreement, you can completely transform your life.  This is HUGE!  Think about how easily we jump to conclusions, form quick opinions, judge by first impressions.  Wayne Dyer shared a story about a man on a bus or subway. The man was in a daze, staring off and clearly not engaged in the immediate surroundings.  Another passenger breaks the concentration and says, “Excuse me sir, could you control your kids.  They are running the aisles and disrupting so many other passengers.”  The man looked up and appeared to enter the moment, after mentally being elsewhere. The man replied, “Oh, I am so sorry.  You see, their mother just died and I don’t know how I am going to tell them.”  Whoa.  Without that clarification, the passenger could only assume this man was irresponsible and ignoring his wild acting kids.  Now that the situation is better understood, the passenger can offer empathy and condolence. We don’t know what others are going through. What if we had to walk in their shoes?  Have you even been quick to judge and your first impression had it all wrong?

 

The Fourth Agreement is:   Always Do Your Best

Your best is going to change from moment to moment; it will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick. Under any circumstance, simply do your best, and you will avoid self-judgment, self-abuse, and regret.

This reminds me of a recent event that Joe Mutone, our previous organist experienced.  Joe had a very important and challenging organ competition in Grand Rapids in April.  He was, of course, representing U of M and told me that a student had not secured First Place in this competition in a very, very long time.  He wanted to win first place for his own accomplishment but also for the University. When I finally spoke with Joe, he was disappointed that he took second place, but his comment was, “I did my very best and that is all I could do!”  I am sure this is true; I am certain he performed excellently.  I recall my own mother saying the exact words to me.  “Just do the best you can. That’s all you can do!”

Paul reminds the people of Philippi, they will have to “practice” the things they have learned in his preaching.  In practicing and learning, they would receive the peace of God which surpasses all comprehension.

Perhaps you will recall that I said the Four Agreements are a guide to practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness is the practice of non-judgment, attention and awareness of your thoughts, actions, and your environment.  Sometimes described as “being present”, mindfulness combines focus on what is happening in the moment. Tools such as compassion, empathy, and gratitude are elements of mindfulness cultivated through the practice.  Doesn’t this sound like the Four Agreements?   Reflect on these things each day.  Doing it at the same time each day, such as on your way home from work, or before you eat dinner or before bed will help you create new habits or agreements with yourself. In that mindfulness remember we can do all things through God who strengthens us.

Go now and that which is worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things.

Spirit Level

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Spirit Level”

Rev. Art Ritter

July 14, 2019

 

Amos 7:7-17

This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand. And the Lord said to me, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A plumb line.” Then the Lord said, “See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by; the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.”

Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, “Amos has bear all his words. For thus Amos has said conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel; the land is not able to, ‘Jeroboam shall die by the sword, and Israel must go into exile away from his land.’” And Amaziah said to Amos, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.” Then Amos answered Amaziah, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’ “Now therefore hear the word of the Lord. You say, ‘Do not prophesy against Israel, and do not preach against the house of Isaac.” Therefore thus says the Lord: ‘Your wife shall become a prostitute in the city, and your sons and your daughters shall fall by the sword, and your land shall be parceled out by line; you yourself shall die in an unclean land, and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land.’”

 

Every day a man used to walk by a clock shop, glance at a big clock in the display window, and then stop and set his own watch by that time.  One day the owner of the store happened to be standing in the doorway of the shop.  He recognized the man who walked by the store every day and said to him, “I see you set your watch by the large clock in our window.  What kind of work do you do that demands such accurate time?”  The man replied, “I’m the watchman at the factory just down the street.  Part of my job is to blow the five o’clock whistle at the daily closing of the plant.  I blow the whistle when my watch, set to your clock, tells me that it is five o’clock.”  The shop owner was rather startled.  “But you can’t do that!” he said.  “I set the large clock in the window each day when the five o’clock whistle goes off!”

I am always amazed at the reactions of certain politicians and elected officials who have found themselves in the midst of scandal.  The situation is not unique to any major political party or region of the country.  Individuals, even with their hands caught in the proverbial cookie jar, even admitting that they participated in an illegal or immoral action, refuse to be ashamed or remorseful about their deeds.  In fact is seems as if it weren’t for other people, like the media, these officials tell us that we would be much better off.  We wouldn’t have to live with the knowledge that our government servants had done something wrong.

To avoid current controversy, I will offer some example over 20 years ago.  Former mayor of New York City David Dinkins found himself in trouble with the Internal Revenue Service.  His response to the press, “I haven’t committed a crime.  What I did was fail to comply with the law.”  George H.W. Bush’s budget director Richard Darman was once asked why the president didn’t keep a campaign promise.  He replied, “The President didn’t say that.  He only read what was given to him in a speech.”  And we all remember Marion Barry, the former mayor of Washington D.C.  When asked about the notoriously high crime in his city Barry said, “Outside of all of the killings, Washington D.C. has one of the lowest crime rates in the country.”

The Scripture lesson this morning is from the book of Amos.  In about 750 BC, Amos heard the word of the Lord to prophesy to the nation Israel, the northern kingdom of that then-divided land.  Amos left his home in the southern kingdom of Judah, and traveled north to deliver a tongue lashing message of honest criticism.  He predicted God’s judgement.  He announced that Israel would fall to another nation.  Needless to say, his message wasn’t a real popular one.

Nobody in Israel cared what Amos had to say.  He was an outsider whose opinion really didn’t matter.  Times were good.  Most people were making money and living comfortably.  Only the poor were suffering.  So what if God was being ignored.  The people were so selfish that they figured they didn’t need to take time or energy for God.  Not even the temple priests cared to listen.  They didn’t want to rock the boat.  And in the year 721, just as Amos predicted, the neighboring Assyrians conquered Israel.

Amos offered the Word of God to Israel in an object lesson.  He saw God standing beside a wall, holding a plumb line, a small weight tied to a piece of string.  When dropped from the top of a wall or building, gravity allowed the plumb line to set a straight and accurate measurement, perpendicular to the wall.  If a wall had been built out of plumb, the responsible thing to do was to tear it down otherwise it would soon fall from its own weakness.

I recall the home in which Laura and I lived in West Bloomfield years ago.  Whenever we tried our hand at a home improvement project-carpet, replacement windows, wallpaper- we discovered that all of the walls were crooked.  Whenever a contractor came into that home, he or she would stand back and scratch their heads as if they did not know what to do next.  What they did was to take more time, make special cuts, and charge us more!  Evidently, somewhere along the construction process, someone forgot the plumb line.

Amos used God’s expectation of justice and righteousness as a plumb line, as a level for how one’s spiritual life was reflected in decision making and personal behavior.  Amos’ vision of the plumb line symbolized God’s unchanging demands to which those who profess to follow God are expected to conform.  The plumb line was a series of not-so-subtle standards meant to convict.  It is a reminder to each of us to honestly examine the standards upon which we have built our lives, make our daily decisions, and promote our values.  In a commentary on the passage Dr. Arlene Nehring writes that Amos’ plumb line forces us to ask the questions:  How to be make our everyday decisions?  How do we establish our priorities?  What do we teach our children and grandchildren about their choices?  What do we expect from our leaders?  Do our words and our actions seem to match?

A plumb line is like a moral compass or a bubble level of the spiritual life.  There are some who prefer to live with absolute truth: black and white, right and wrong- and teach everyone these rules for following the truth.  But the complexity of life often doesn’t allow for simple and clear responses.  Amos wasn’t calling for the people of Israel to live by a strict sheet of answers.  He was calling for them to consider and measure their actions against the truth of God as it spoke to them that day and in that situation.

Noted preacher James Forbes said, “From my perspective, Jesus the Christ could be viewed as God’s plumb line, sent from heaven on a line to earth; and who he was, and what he did, and what he said, held up to a standard by which we were to measure the quality of our lives and by which we were to assess the righteousness of our nation.”  I think he is right.  While we may not be comfortable telling others exactly what they must believe, while we might sincerely acknowledge the complexities of our modern world, we still have a standard of spirit by which to measure our choices and our behavior.  We can hold up the plumb line of God’s intention for God’s people as we find it in the life and teachings of Jesus the Christ.  Jesus is the level by which we measure our faithfulness.  He is the plumb line we need.

 

 

Plan B

By | Sermons