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Abbie Holden

Dead Questions

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Dead Questions”

Rev. Art Ritter

November 10, 2019

 

Luke 20:27-38

Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.” Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

 

William Willimon, former Dean of the Chapel at Duke University, tells the story of four chemistry students who unwisely chose, on the eve of a major exam, to make a road trip to the University of Virginia.  The students partied longer than they ought to have done, and got back to Duke too late for the exam.  Sheepishly appearing before Dr. Bonk, their noted chemistry professor, the four concocted a sad story of woe, telling Bonk that while they had left Virginia in plenty of time, they had blown a tire on the way home.  While trying to change the tire, they discovered that the spare was flat.  By the time they could get the tire fixed and return to the Duke campus, they had missed the important exam.  Dr. Bonk was amazingly compassionate and surprisingly understanding.  He agreed to give them a make-up exam the following day.  When the students arrived for the exam the next day, Dr. Bonk handed each a paper with only one question:  Which tire went flat on the car?

I recall a conversation I once had with a parishioner at a previous church that I served.  His spouse had died about six months earlier and following her death I had visited him regularly to check on his physical and spiritual health.  This gentleman had a unique sense of humor and was always joking around.  On that particular day we talked about the usual subjects – University of Utah football, his golf game, the early snowfall, and the activities of the church. Suddenly he got very serious.  “I want to ask you something,” he said.  “It is something I’ve always wondered about and have always been afraid to ask anyone else.”  I was a bit taken aback because it was a bit out of character for the man to be so serious.  But I could tell something important was on his mind and immediately started contemplating what kind of difficult question was coming my way.  The man continued, “It’s about heaven.  I just don’t know about heaven.”  Upon hearing that his question was about heaven, I was only a bit relieved.  You see, while I have an opinion about heaven I certainly don’t have all of the answers.  I’ve been confronted with concerns about whether our beloved pets are in heaven, whether we have all of our missing parts in heaven, about what age our bodies are when we get to heaven, and whether or not there are baseball fields in heaven.  Again, I don’t have all the answers, only what I believe and I didn’t want to leave my parishioner disappointed.  I nodded my head and urged him to continue.  He then said, “I believe in heaven and I’ve always thought that heaven is a place where you’re reunited with all of your loved ones.  I truly believe that in heaven I will see my wife again, and my siblings, my good friends, and my parents.  I believe that my wife is with her family in heaven right now.  I want to know if I am going to be with my wife in heaven, will I have to be with her family again too?” I hesitated, contemplating any kind of sage answer.  But then I was greatly relieved when a big smile and laughter came over the face of my parishioner.  As always, he was merely teasing me.

This morning’s Scripture lesson tells the story of a group of Sadducees who approached Jesus with a similar kind of question.  There was no way for Jesus to answer the question without getting himself into trouble.  And that perhaps was the reason for the question in the first place.  The Sadducees were testing Jesus and wanted to see how he would react when given a question with no easy and practical answer.  They delighted in constructing absurd scenarios and forcing others to enter into those scenarios, thereby trapping their opponents with their convoluted logic.  They were looking for any way to discredit Jesus and his teachings.

The question involved resurrection.  Long before the idea of resurrection was talked about, the Israelites believed that people lived on through their children.  As long as there was someone who remembered them, or descendants to carry on the family name, they still had life even though they were dead.  The problem occurred when a man died without an heir.  If that happened, seemingly everything about the man vanished.  So God gave Moses a law to deal with such circumstance.  The law of Moses held that if a man should die without children, his brother was obligated to take the man’s widow as his wife and have children with her.  Since the ancient Jews believed that one lives on in one’s descendants and in their memory, this practice was especially significant.  But the Sadducees, who did not believe in resurrection, wanted to take the law to extreme, as a test case for Jesus.  “What would happen,” they asked, “if each of seven brothers die after marrying a widow, and all are childless?  In the resurrection, whose wife will the woman be?”

Again, William Willimon tells of a couple he was counseling before marriage.  As they were reviewing the vows, they got to the part where the groom was to say, “I take you to be my wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until we are parted by death.”  Suddenly the groom wanted a change.  He wanted to know why, if both partners believed in eternal life, that they should promise to love one another only until death separated them.  Willimon said the question raised things he wasn’t prepared to talk about at marriage counseling.  Will death end marriage or will somehow that relationship continue in life eternal?  Will it even matter?  What kind of changes will the new world of resurrection bring?  Will it cause more problems than it solves?

That is what the Sadducees wanted to demonstrate.  They wanted to prove resurrection was a logical absurdity, wishful thinking, through presenting the ridiculous problems it presented.  But Jesus recognized that they spoke hypothetical questions.  They didn’t care about the widow in the story. They wanted prove their own bias against resurrection and at the same time trap Jesus into answering a question for which there was no right or easy answer, proving he wasn’t such a religious authority.

But like the clever chemistry professor, Jesus redefined the issue.  He offered an alternative exam, proving that he saw and spoke of a different perspective.  The Sadducees’ question was premised on the assumption that eternal life is an endless state of more of the same for humankind.  Jesus challenged their premise that marriage as they knew it, will have anything to do with life in the Kingdom of God.  He said, “Who told you that marriage would be part of the life after resurrection?”  Jesus said that while such things as marriage enhance and bless and preserve our earthly existence, beyond our physical life- in our eternal life with God, such things will not be necessary.  Jesus did not say that we will not see or know those who have been dear to us in our earthly life, but he did say that our resurrection life will not be marked by the same kinds of things as this earthly life.

This teaching of Jesus certainly wasn’t designed to educate us on the concept of marriage.  And it probably doesn’t do much to answer our deep and sincere questions about a place we call heaven and the resurrected life.  What our bodies and relationships will be like in the life to come is not clear. Perhaps all we can say is that what Jesus teaches here is that we should not assume that life in the eternal Kingdom of God will be just like the life we know now but more so.  Jesus did not approach resurrection as a practical plan based on our belief in God.  He spoke about it and entered into it as part of our origin with God and our eternal union with God.  It is a way in which we live on with God and how God gives us worth but God is a loving God that will never let go of us even into eternity.  We may not have any understanding of what resurrection means or what our everlasting life with look like.  But we do not need to worry because we follow one who entered into it himself, who wasn’t in death’s tomb but showed up with his friends to eat and walked through locked doors.  He was the same but different.  But he was full of the power of the God of life.

Barbara Brown Taylor writes that, “Resurrection is not about our own faithfulness.  It is a radical claim about the faithfulness of God, who will not abandon the bodies of the beloved.  Marriage is how we preserve our own lives in this world, but in the world to come that will not be necessary anymore.  We will all be wed to God- the God who is able to make children out of dust, out of dry bones, out of the bits and pieces of genuine love we are able to scrape up over a lifetime of trying- ‘for he is not God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all of them are alive.’”

We are God’s children now.  We will be God’s children forever.  However that looks and however we experience it, it will be a look and experience of God’s.  And that should be enough for us to know.

 

 

 

 

Up A Tree

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Up A Tree”

Rev. Art Ritter

November 3, 2019

 

Luke 19:1-10

He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

 

 If you attended Sunday School classes in the 50’s and 60’s and 70’s, you probably learned the song well.  “Zacchaeus was a wee little man and a wee little man was he.  He climbed up in a sycamore tree for the Lord he wanted to see.”  That is how and what most of us learned about Zacchaeus.  He was vertically challenged

I have a colleague who suffers from the same affliction as Zacchaeus.  One day he shared with me some of the hazards of life that short people encounter.  As a person of average height, I had never thought about some of these things.  You notice people bending down to speak with you.  You get to hear every short joke ever written.  He mentioned that being short makes it harder to reach things on high store shelves but also harder to be seen, to be heard, and sometimes to be included.  Group photos always require special attention.  You need to be very aware about where you stand or you won’t even be seen.  Concerts are you worst nightmare.  People at concerts tend to stand for the whole event and as a short person, all you see are their sweaty backs.  Your shoulder sometimes get used as armrests by taller people, as if it is a handy piece of furniture.  You have to be careful when you hug people because your hands and face may end up in unintended and embarrassing places.  Finally he told me that his job requires him to visit many churches and to talk from many different pulpits and lecterns.  He has learned to call ahead and ask about the level of the speaking platform and the height of the microphone and to not be too embarrassed to ask for a step or riser to stand upon.

Certainly the lack of physical height was a challenge for Zacchaeus but he also fell short in a couple of other important areas of society.  He was a tax collector.  He made himself rich at the expense of others.  New Testament scholar Anselm Grun theorizes that because Zacchaeus felt so small and unnoticed, he attempted to compensate for his feeling of inferiority by earning as much money as possible.  He took tax collecting seriously.  He wanted recognition.  He wanted to stand out.  Because he felt so small, he tried to set himself above other people.  Certainly Zacchaeus was not a well-loved man.  He served the needs of the government, collecting taxes from people whether they could afford the taxes or not.  He was a tool of the establishment, holding a position which the people resented.  People didn’t want to hang around with tax collectors.  Strike two for Zacchaeus.

And finally Zacchaeus must have been good at his job.  Scripture says that he was rich.  In those days wise tax collectors carefully skimmed off a portion or what people paid before sending the money along to the government.  He was wealthy and his wealth came from the burdens of the common folk.  How could anyone love such a man who took advantage of them for his own advantage?  His wealth was strike three.  Author Frederick Buechner described Zacchaeus with this sentence, “a sawed-off little social disaster with a big bank account and a crooked job.”  Certainly not a very flattering description!

On the day in which Jesus came into Jericho, a crowd of people gathered to see the man who had gained a reputation for some as a miracle worker, a preacher of great wisdom, and a possible messiah.  Yet Jesus was also thought of as a troublemaker by others.  Certainly Jesus was someone about whom lots of people had clear opinions and nearly everyone in Galilee and Judea was interested in seeing him.

That was the position of Zacchaeus.  We have no evidence to think he regarded Jesus as a Savior, or as Lord, or any other positive thing.  He simply wanted to know who this Jesus was and what the fuss was all about.  And so he climbed a sycamore tree to better see him.  There was something within Zacchaeus that moved him to start scaling those branches.  I always thought it was for purely physical reasons.  Zacchaeus wanted to see and this was the only way he could do it.  That answer always made a lot of practical sense.  Yet some scholars take a more skeptical view.  Alyce McKenzie writes that by climbing the tree, Zacchaeus was merely thinking of himself again, setting himself above everyone else, and flaunting his sense of self-importance one more time.  Other scholars are a bit kinder in explaining Zacchaeus’ motives.  Perhaps he wanted to be there that day to see Jesus but also wanted to go unnoticed.  He thought he could somehow blend in with the leaves and branches of the sycamore.  He was hiding in the tree.  Or maybe Zacchaeus was just plain desperate and was actually looking for some answers.  He was living his life on the margins, without respect and without love.  He was in a state of some personal anguish. He was searching for forgiveness and for meaning and he hoped he might find a source of it in this traveling teacher.  He risked his dignity climbing a tree to see this person that everyone else was talking about.  Surely something more than curiosity would drive him to go to such lengths.  But there is nothing in Luke’s account of that day that indicates Zacchaeus was looking for a change in his lifestyle or fiscal practices.  Perhaps the best explanation is that he was just curious, and that’s all.

Then the parade stopped right in front of him.  Jesus looked at Zacchaeus and the rest of the crowd followed suit.  Can you imagine how Zacchaeus felt?  Busted!  Scott Hoezee writes that he must have felt like the 7th grade boy caught trying to peek into the window of the girls’ locker room!  Jesus tells Zacchaeus to come down from the tree for it is in his house that he will spend the rest of the day.  And from that moment on, everything changed.

Despite appearances, Zacchaeus did not have his life altogether.  Yes, he was rich and had everything he wanted or at least knew how to get those things.  But while he was up that tree, at the moment Jesus looked at him, he became a different person.  He starting wondering how it had come to this.  How was he living his life in this shady manner?  How had he lost the respect of people around him?  How had he misplaced the priorities of his life?  He realized that he was lost.  And with the words of Jesus he knew he had been found.

We can debate how Zacchaeus got up the tree.  But have you ever thought about how hard it might have been to get down.  Perhaps climbing down from the tree was even a greater risk.  Now that everyone’s attention was upon him, how would the people of Jericho react?  Will the crowd become angry with him for stopping the parade?  Will they take the opportunity to lash out with verbal or even physical abuse at this despised tax collector?  The writer of Luke records some grumbling going on.  “Why is Jesus eating at the house of this sinner?”  Certainly a lot of the crowd wondered why this sinner was getting so much of the honored guest’s attention.  And while Zacchaeus gladly accept the presence of God’s grace and forgiveness in Jesus, there must have been some real courage involved in climbing down that tree.  At Jesus’ side, he must see things differently.  At Jesus’ side, the view of life was much different than it was up that tree.  At Jesus’ side he was challenged to think differently, act differently, and be different.  He had to know that Jesus would change his priorities on the world and his place within it.

I read a rather sad story this week about a man in the Philippines who climbed a 60 foot tall coconut tree near his home in 2014.  He pledged to stay up the tree for the rest of his life.  Evidently he had been struck on the head during a physical altercation and was now afraid that someone around him was trying to kill him.  He believed that the only way he could stay alive was to climb the tallest tree and stay there.  And he did so for three years, surviving only on the food and water his mother brought him every day, pulled up with an improvised rope.  He would relieve himself from the top of the tree and not even raging storms or blistering heat or ruthless insect could get him to come down.  He was that afraid of the world and of his place in it.  Finally, a team of 5 people arrived with a chainsaw and began to take down the tree carefully.  Everything went as planned and the man was rescued safely and was immediately presented for a doctor’s care.  He did not recognize the source of salvation and healing but at least his life was saved.

The end to the Zacchaeus story was much more satisfying.  While he may have ascended the tree in fear or shame or regret, it was joy and not chain saws that brought him down.  Indeed, in climbing down his joy knew no bounds.  He offered restitution to his financial victims, payment well beyond what was expected.  Zacchaeus the wealthy tax collector, changed by the presence of God in the person Jesus, saw his life differently with a new set of priorities.  He made himself poor in material things so that he could now be rich in spirit.

The lesson of this story comes in our choices of life.  Are we up the tree, stuck in judgements that bar us and others from discovering the good news?  Are we up the tree to lift our own needs and desires above the needs of the world, making ourselves so exclusive that we shut out others?  Are we up the tree, playing it safe with our gifts and talents and money?  Or are we up a tree, ashamed and hiding or proud and arrogant?

Can we recognize the grace of God that walks before us and demands that we climb down that tree?  Can we respond to our acceptance and our forgiveness with the grace and mercy Jesus offers to us?  Can we stand beside Jesus, accepting the challenge to think differently, to be stewards or our gifts rather than users, and to give up whatever it might be that keep us from following faithfully?  Like Zacchaeus, the moment we leave the tree and our feet first hit the ground, everything changes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Growing In Faith Together

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Growing In Faith Together”

Rev. Art Ritter

October 27, 2019

 

1 Kings 17.1-16

Now Elijah the Tishbite, of Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, “As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.” The word of the Lord came to him, saying, “Go from here and turn eastward, and hide yourself by the Wadi Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. You shall drink from the wadi, and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there.” So he went and did according to the word of the Lord; he went and lived by the Wadi Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. The ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning, and bread and meat in the evening; and he drank from the wadi. But after a while the wadi dried up, because there was no rain in the land.

Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” So he set out and went to Zarephath. When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.” As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” But she said, “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.” Elijah said to her, “Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.” She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah.

2 Corinthians 8:1-5

We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of Macedonia; for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For, as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints— and this, not merely as we expected; they gave themselves first to the Lord and, by the will of God, to us.

 

Three men were hiking through a forest when they came upon a large, raging, violent river.  Needing to get to the other side, the first man prayed, “God, please give me strength to cross the river.”  Poof!  God gave him big arms and strong legs.  He was able to swim across the river in about two hours, having almost drowned twice.  After witnessing that the second man prayed, “God, please give me strength and the tools to cross the river.”  Poof!  God gave him a rowboat, strong arms and strong legs.  He was able to row across the mighty river in about an hour, although almost capsizing once.  Seeing what happened to the first two men, the third man prayed, “God, please give me the strength, the tools, and the intelligence to cross this river.”  Poof!  He was turned into a woman.  She checked the map, hiked one hundred yards upstream, and walked across a bridge.

This story came to my mind this week as I prepared to write what is known as the annual Stewardship sermon.  First of all, I thought I needed a funny story to get things started and at least half of you probably thought that story was funny.  Secondly, I thought of the story because of the particular lesson that I receive from it.  When approaching a problem like stewardship it is sometimes easy for us to seek solutions in practical ways that we can easily understand- leaner budgets and more dollars; and to hope for deliverance in painless answers that don’t require us to think or act differently.  Yet sometimes we just have to step back, to examine the map of faith, to walk on in a different direction, and find that bridge that God may have ready for us.

Next Sunday is our Consecration Sunday.  For those new to our church, Consecration Sunday is the day in which members and friends of the congregation bring forward, in the worship service, a card indicating an estimate of their financial giving to the church for 2020.  We encourage everyone to participate and we do it together so you won’t be embarrassed or singled out.  Normally we hear a stewardship sermon on that day, delivered by a person outside the congregation, but the Stewardship Ministry team asked me to offer one this week, a week early, so we can contemplate what our giving might be.

We offer our estimates of giving, our pledges if you will, so that our boards and church leaders have an idea of how much money will be available for revenue next year as we begin to plan the budget.  You don’t have to fill out an estimate of giving or pledge card but we hope you will.  You can continue to give without making a commitment but we hope that you will want to make a commitment.  Your estimate of giving card is not an obligation.  It is an exercise of faith that helps you contemplate your commitment to God and a practical application that helps our Trustees plan a budget based on some numbers.  No one sees what you have written down on your card, except for our church treasurer and our office manager.  For me, it is one of the most meaningful events of the year, watching people bring the cards forward.  If you haven’t pledged before, please consider making a pledge this year.  If you have pledged before, please pray about how you might increase that pledge for 2020.

Stewardship sermons are not the favorite sermon of most ministers.  It is difficult to talk about money, even though we are reminded that money was the favorite topic of Jesus’ teaching.  I don’t like the feeling of asking for more money. I am aware of many of your limitations and certain aware of your loyal and generous support.  When I preach a stewardship sermon I am aware that those who need to hear it most may be the ones who are not here to listen.  Today, perhaps I am truly am preaching to the choir!  I would like to think that my stewardship sermons are really not about money but about the concept of seeing our resources differently, about understanding the value and source of what we have been given and how we use those gifts to respond in a way that meets God’s intention.  Yet I also hear the words of American journalist and satirist H.L. Mencken echoing in my ears.  He said, “When somebody says it’s not about the money, it’s about the money.”  So I will openly admit that this sermon is about money, but hopefully about a different perspective in how we use our money and indeed all of our gifts, including time and talents and energy.

If you have ever been a member of the Board of Trustees, you know that this is an uneasy time of year.  We are nearing the end of the fiscal year with a deficit. This year for the first time ever in my career, it was a planned and budgeted deficit.  We are hoping that everyone will keep up with their estimate of giving for the remainder of 2019 so that the deficit will stay within the budgeted scope.  If you have fallen behind with your pledge, this would be a great time to catch up.

The Trustees are also beginning the process of next year’s budget.  They are a little wary as pledges or estimates of giving have gone down in recent years.  In 2017, our pledges were nearly $230,000 and last year they fell to roughly $213,000.  The number of pledges only fell by two from 106 in 2017 to 104 last year.  Our church, like most mainline Protestant churches has suffered a decline in attendance, in participation, and consequently in giving.  Those who were able to make larger gifts in the past are now in situations of reduced income.  While we have been fortunate to receive a few extra gifts from memorials and thoughtful bequests, the decline in revenue puts a strain on our ministry and our future planning.

Those involved with the church budget process fear having to ask the tough questions:  Should we run a deficit budget?  How many years can we do that?  Should we make cuts to the budget?  If the only place to make meaningful cuts is in salaries, how will that affect the future of the church?  Will we be able to maintain our beautiful building and grounds, at a time when many parts of our facility is aging out?  Can we rely upon special accounts and future extra gifts to support church needs?  Should we be spending so much of our time and energy on fundraising events to supplement the budget; time and energy that burns people out and is better spent on mission and education and fellowship?

Here at Meadowbrook, we have a separate benevolence budget.  Thankfully, our benevolence giving has been well supported throughout the years.  I know that some individuals feel that their dollars are better spent giving to benevolence rather than the church’s general budget.  I am proud of our willingness to give to many international, national and local missions that assist others in need and I do not want anyone to think that I would ever discourage that.  But we also need to remember that our church’s benevolence giving needs to have the structure of the church and the support of the church organization and staff that must be supported by our general fund budget.

All of our boards and ministry teams worry about the stewardship of time and talent.  I mentioned before the needs of building and grounds.  While we have an extraordinary crew on our Property team, more help is needed in weeding and trimming and painting and cleaning and planning and monitoring the needs of our facility.  Without the gift of volunteer hours, we would have to pay for such service, thus increasing our church expenses and budget even more.

There are many other places in which those who give of their time serve Christ in ministry through the weekly and monthly activity of our church.  I am amazed by how much time and how much caring some of you show for our church.  Still, we are in great need of nursery attendants, of Sunday School teachers, of choir members, of sacred dancers, of Fellowship hour hosts, of ushers and greeters, and of board members.  Church members and friends alike can serve in most of these roles.  As our attendance has gone down, as our membership has aged, it is getting harder and harder to fill these positions and ministry roles.  Those who continue to serve faithfully may feel a bit worn out.  The lack of volunteers is on the verge of seriously effecting ministries that are important to the life of our church and our members and guests.  Your commitment to worship attendance and to ministry teams is just as important as your financial gifts.

I mention these things not to depress or frighten you.  I mention them not to make anyone feel guilty.  I bring them up as a realistic assessment of our financial picture and ministry needs, in anticipation of your stewardship consideration.  Like the men in my opening story, who contemplated crossing the mighty river, perhaps a plea for conventional answers or a surprise miracles today won’t work.  Could it be that it is more appropriate to take out a map of faith and look for that creative bridge that God is building or has already supplied, a bridge that will bring us safely to the other side?

Both Scripture lessons this morning come from situations of dire need, times and places when resources to the faithful appeared to be lacking.  Yet in each case, something was given in the name of the Lord.  The people of God were challenged to reach beyond what seemed to be their limit.  Offerings of time and talent substance were given and in God’s hands those gifts were blessed, found to grow, and allowed to bless others.

In the book of 1 Kings, the prophet Elijah is fleeing for his life and fed by ravens in the wilderness.  He is told to visit a widow in Zarephath and that she will feed him.  When he arrives at the woman’s house, she readily admits that she doesn’t have enough resources even to feed herself and her ailing son.  What he asked seemed irrational and ridiculous to the natural mind.  Why would God send a starving prophet to a home where they wasn’t any food?  Yet Elijah told the widow not to fear and to make him a small cake, and then make another one for her son.  He said that what she would provide to eat would always be enough.  The widow obeyed and God fulfilled Elijah’s promise. By her act she took a leap of faith and gave even while in need; giving of something in which she was trusting for her future.  God blessed her and provided for her.

In his second letter to the church at Corinth, Paul wrote to a persecuted and poor people.  He wrote, “for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.”  From their need they gave to a ministry project that he was leading.  They gave beyond their ability, beyond what was expected.  They gave eagerly and willingly of themselves to God and of their resources to God’s work.  And they grew in greater faith and service.  They excelled in faith, in speech, and in knowledge.

What does all of this mean?  I don’t want to be like some television evangelists that I have seen, asking the flock to make sacrificial gifts and then guaranteeing them future blessings from the Lord.  That seems a little cheesy and self-serving.  I can’t guarantee it works that way.  But I would ask that you look at your giving from a different perspective than you normally do.  Challenge your faith in your giving.  I truly believe that stewardship is not first about giving, but about seeing all that we have been given and rejoicing in a way that cannot help but shape how we act.  And I believe it is easier for us to act our way into a new way of thinking than it is to think our way into a new way of acting.

This week I would ask you to look at things the way the widow did, and the way the early Christian community at Corinth did.  Act in faith.  Look at all you have been given and rejoice in way that cannot help but shape how you act.  Challenge yourself to find places and ways that you can give of what is important to you, not what is merely convenient or what is left over.  Even in situations in which it appears you have exhausted what you can give, consider how God might be challenging you to do something more, perhaps in ways that are surprising to you.  Find a way to give of something that is important to you- time or money or energy or talent.  Take a leap of faith so that your faith can grow.  Don’t stay where you are today.

This week one of my colleagues said something that seemed very wise.  He said, “To grow in faith, to stronger our relationship with God, we need to do something that challenges us.  We have to do something difficult to understand God’s willingness and readiness to bless.”  Choose something that challenges you. Embrace a commitment that tests your priorities and brings you closer to God.

Laura and I intend to increase our estimate of giving again this year.  We have done this every year for now thirteen years.  That was not going to be our decision this year.  Because of her new job and reduced salary that estimate carries with it more practical implications than previous years.  But I listened to myself as I wrote my sermon.  We feel we need to try and do this.  We love this church and we love all of you. It is here that we find the presence of Christ in serving and worshipping, in laughter and in tears.  I am grateful for the privilege of being your minister.

Certainly the months and year ahead will bring challenges, but we will find a way to that   bridge across that river.  Growing in faith together.  When we are generous, our minds becomes lighter and more available to God’s presence and direction.  When we give, our hearts develop a greater capacity to let go of things that burden us.  We become lighter and freer and closer to God.  Look at what you have and what you give with new eyes.  May we grow together as a community of faithful stewards, giving thanks and practicing generosity.

 

 

 

 

           

 

 

Relentless

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Relentless”

Rev. Art Ritter

October 20, 2019

 

Luke 18:1-8

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Preacher and scholar Tom Long tells of a time when Mother Teresa was in New York City to meet with the president and vice-president of a large company, trying to raise awareness and money for her ministry among the poorest of the poor in Calcutta.  Before the meeting however, the two executives had privately agreed not to give her any money.  The meeting started and the tiny nun was seated across a large mahogany desk from the men.  They listened to her plea but then said, “We appreciate what you do but we just cannot commit any funds at this time.”  “Let us pray,” Mother Teresa said.  “Dear God, I pray that you will soften the hearts of these men to see how necessary it is to help your needy children.  Amen.”  She then renewed the plea, and the executives again renewed their answer that they were not going to help.  “Let us pray again,” Mother Teresa said.  “Dear God, I pray that you will soften the hearts of these two men to see how necessary it is to help your needy children.  Amen.”  As she opened her eyes, she was looking at the now beet-red faced executives, even as the president was reaching for his checkbook.

The parable that Jesus tells today from the gospel of Luke is a story about prayer, but not just a simple lesson about the etiquette of praying.  It is more about a God who hears our prayers and about how and who God is.  Jesus, with his usual creative teaching skills, uses the opposite of something to make a point.

There is a judge, kind of an anti-hero in the story.  The judge is a self-centered narcissist.  He gives little or no thought to the ways of God in his judgments and in his dealing with other people.  He is very much into getting what he can get for himself out of life.  He is proud and arrogant and self-serving.

The other character in the parable is a widow with a complaint, a legal case for the judge’s court.  We don’t know what the case really was but this unjust, selfish judge wanted nothing to do with her.  He wouldn’t even listen to her.  Lacking any other recourse, the widow did what she needed to do.  She became a public nuisance.  She stood in front of the judge’s bench all day.  She made her grievance public.  She stalked the judge when court was out of session.  She waited for him when he walked out of his health club and grocery store.  She hit the judge where it hurt.  She challenged his public reputation.  The judge didn’t care about other people and didn’t care about her, but he did care about his reputation.  When the widow threatened that, the judge was forced to act upon her case.

Jesus uses the parable to teach us about how we should pray to God.  His final words are quite puzzling, “Listen to what the unjust judge says.”  Jesus doesn’t say, “See how persistence pays off with a lousy human judge.  Think about how much more persistence will pay off with a just and loving God.  He says simply “Listen to what the unjust judge says.” What are we supposed to hear?  Are we supposed to nag at God?  Are we supposed to make God frustrated with us in order to have a chance to get our prayers answered?

I think the parable is less about teaching us to pray persistently than it is to teach us about our waiting for God’s intention to be fulfilled.  Our prayer life brings us closer to God, but not in ways that turn God’s heart to make our fondest wishes and dreams come true.  Rather our prayer life keeps us engaged with God, brings us to some sort of understanding of how God works in our world and in our lives, helps us remember who we are and whose we are, and helps us align ourselves with the intentions of God.  Soren Kierkegaard once said, “Prayer does not change God, but it changes the one who prays.”  Prayer may not bring the results we pray for but prayer may put us in the place where we see and understand the life we get.

In her book, Home by Another Way, Barbara Brown Taylor talks about her seven year old granddaughter Madeline.  Madeline came over to her grandparents’ house to celebrate her birthday.  They had a cake and lit the candles and grandmother, grandfather, and mother sang Happy Birthday to Madeline as they watched the candles burn down.  Without making a wish, Madeline leaned over the cake and blew the candles out.  “Aren’t you going to make a wish?” her mother asked.  “You have to make a wish,” added her grandfather.  Taylor says that Madeline looked as though someone just ran over her cat.  She finally responded, “I don’t know why I keep doing this.  This whole wishing thing.  Last year I wished my best friend wouldn’t move away but she did.  This year I want to wish that my mommy and daddy will get back together…”  Her mother quickly interrupted, “That’s not going to happen.  So don’t waste your wish on that!”  Madeline lowered her head and sadly said, “I know it’s not going to happen.  So why do I keep doing this.”

Taylor says that since the issue was wishing and not prayer, she left Madeline alone that day.  But she knows that sooner or later she will have to have a talk with Madeline about prayer.  Taylor does not want a child to lose heart.  She wants her to believe in a God who loves her and listens to her, even when it doesn’t always seem that way.

Jesus teaches us that same kind of loving, patient lesson.  He teaches us that prayer works.  Prayer may not change God but it is a constant reminder that God will not give up on us.  It is not a matter of getting or not getting what we ask for.  It is about faith and trust and relentless perseverance, especially in times of need.  It is about a discipline that keeps us close to God.

Taylor closes her story by saying that one day when Madeline asks her outright whether prayer really works, she is going to say, “Oh, sweetie, of course it does.  It keeps our hearts chasing after God’s heart.  It’s how we bother God, and it’s how God bothers us back.  There’s nothing that works any better than that.”

 

The Tenth Leper

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“The Tenth Leper”

Rev. Art Ritter

October 13, 2019

 

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.”

 

My spouse is big on thank you notes.  She is much better at it that I am.  Whenever we are invited to dinner or whenever we receive an unexpected gift she quickly pens a note of thanks and sends it out to the gift-giver.  Laura has taught this discipline to our daughters Maren and Amelia and they also use it well, personally and professionally.

Alyce McKenzie writes about her mother teaching her to write thank you notes.  McKenzie theorizes the habit is something embraced by a vanishing generation.  Her mother always said that you could tell a lot about a person depending on whether or not they bothered to write a thank you note.

McKenzie relates the story of a friend of her mother, who whenever a bride did not have the good manners to write a thank you note, would write the bride the following note, “Dear Amanda:  Thank you for inviting us to your lovely wedding.  I am writing to make sure that you received our gift.  If you didn’t, can you let me know and I’ll arrange for a duplicate to be sent to you?  Wishing you every happiness in your marriage, Jean and John Smith.”

McKenzie comments that the note is just a bit passive aggressive.  It puts the bride in a tough spot.  The bride has a couple of options as to how to respond.  The first might go like this, “Dear Jean:  I did receive your gift and apologize for not having written you a thank you note yet.  Please don’t interpret this as lack of gratitude.  I’ve just been busy.  Amanda”

Or, the bride could choose a different path and send the following, much more interesting note.  “Dear Jean:  I did receive your gift but have made the decision not to write thank you notes since I’m very busy and they are very time consuming.  You may, if you wish, send me a duplicate gift.  All good wishes to you in your marriage, Amanda.”

McKenzie closes by saying that her mother’s friend wasn’t really concerned about whether or not the bride received the gift.  She was trying to teach them a lesson.  She wanted the bride to know that not sending thank you notes was unacceptable, ill-mannered behavior.  And she wanted a thank you!

I recall a woman from the church I served in Toulon, IL whose name was Franny.  Every birthday and Christmas Franny would send her grandchildren a check for $20.  Twenty dollars was a pretty significant gift over 30 years ago!  And Franny appreciated hearing from the recipients of her checks.  Some of those grandchildren sent a prompt thank you.  Others never sent a thank you at all.  After a few years Franny made a rule about giving gifts.  If she did not receive a thank you, she did not send any more checks to that grandchild.

Years later I remember reading a letter in “Dear Abby” which I think could have been written by Franny.  Surprisingly the mail poured into the column’s office criticizing the grandmother.  One letter said, “If you want to know whether or not your present got there, just pick up the phone and ask.  Jesus was not thanked by nine of the lepers that he healed.  But he didn’t stop healing.  Written thank you notes are a waste of time and money.”  But the writers of the column responded, “When Jesus healed the ten lepers and only one returned, he asked where the other nine were.  It appears that Jesus kept track of those who thanked him.  Should a grandmother do any less?”

We can probably all agree that people should thank other people when they do kind things for them.  We might also all agree that we should be thankful or express our gratitude whenever we receive a gift, expected or unexpected.

The gospel of Luke’s story of the healing of the ten lepers is a good starting point for some thoughts about gratitude.  Interestingly enough, given the concerns of our day, the setting is along the border of two areas, a no-man’s land, in this case between Galilee and Samaria.  While no such in-between land actually existed, perhaps the writer of Luke described it that way on purpose, to illustrate the lack of identity and belonging of the people there, and the insecurity and suspicion involved in greeting one another.

The lepers were suffering from some sort of contagious skin disease, ritually unclean and separated from the rest of society.  Like beggar everywhere, they cried 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.  One of those men, a Samaritan, a man outside God’s chosen people, returned to express his thankfulness to Jesus, falling before his feet and glorifying God.  Jesus’ response was, “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 offer a word of appreciation to Jesus.  Only the outcast and loathsome Samaritan came back to render a proper thank you.

There are lots of good and logical reasons why nine of the healed lepers did not return.  Practicality usually wins over the spiritual.  Perhaps they were just too busy to return and give thanks.  They had to get back to the responsibilities of life.  They had to buy new clothes to fit over their healed skin.  They had to let their relatives know of their new found health.  Maybe when their health was restored they suddenly realized how much they had been missing for years.  While begging for food, others were out buying mansions and living in luxury.  The healed lepers had a lot of catching up to do.  They had so much to do and so many priorities to meet that they couldn’t see the source of their healing or certainly not take the time to respond in gratitude.

Scott Hoezee shares a story from Ladder of Year, a novel by Anne Tyler.  The character Delia is a lovely, loveable, giving wife and mother who does her best to keep her household running smoothly.  But as her children grow up they tend to ignore her and even flinch from her hugs.  They expect their favorite foods for dinner but never thank Delia for purchasing the groceries.  Delia’s husband is so wrapped up in his medical practice that he brushes by his wife every day, never noticing the clean house and the warm food set before him.  Delia begins to feel like a “tiny gnat, whirring around the family’s edges.”  She dies a little each day, like a flower without moisture.  One day Delia meets a stranger who thanks for her a little something.  The stranger’s kindness is like that much needed water.  Finally the day comes when Delia walks away from her family.  She takes a stroll on the beach and just keeps walking.  Once her family realizes that she is missing, they have a difficult time describing her to the police.  They can’t remember the color or her eyes, her height or her weight, or what she was wearing when they last saw her.  They had been so blinded by ingratitude that they had stopped seeing her at all.

When Diana Butler Bass was here at Meadowbrook, speaking on her book Grateful, we learned that gratitude is not just words of thank you or even actions that indicate an appreciation of a gift.  Gratitude is a way of seeing that moves us to a new way of living.  Gratitude is a way of living that recognizes the goodness of God.  Gratitude is a response to hearing God’s voice in our lives, a perception that recognizes the blessing and then somehow articulates appreciation for that blessing.  Gratitude draws us out of ourselves into something much larger and deeper; it removes us from the center of our own universe and makes the contributions of the divine visible in the presence of others around us. Gratitude joins us to the source of blessing itself.  Gratitude releases us from fear and worry and emboldens us to do more than we ever imagined. When we are grateful, we return to the source of our healing and blessing because we begin know what God looks like and feels like because when we are grateful we actually are seeing God working in our lives.

This is an attitude that is sorely needed today.  Accusations, anger, boasting, complaint- these are the things which seem to speak loudest in our world, especially in the venue of social media.  As David Lose writes, “Gratitude pushes back against the tide of resentment and complaint and self-worship that ails us and makes room for a fresh appreciation of God’s renewing, saving grace.”

Our world and our lives are full of challenge and blessing.  On this day we remember the tenth leper, the one who returned.  We go forth to be heralds of what God has done, speakers of powerful words of thanksgiving, sharers of mighty actions that tell not only of our recognition of blessing but our of need to share our blessings with others in the world.  Let us return to God with gratitude.

 

The Faith We Have Been Given

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“The Faith We Have Been Given”

Rev. Art Ritter

October 6, 2019

 

Luke 17:5-10

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. “Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’”

 

My daughters and son-in-law are on the same Verizon account as Laura and me.  I believe that the three of them are currently using IPhone 7s while Laura and I are still using our miserably outdated IPhone 5s.  Amelia called Verizon the other day to check when she would be available for an upgrade to the new IPhone 11.  The customer service representative told her that she and Maren and Max were not currently eligible for an upgrade but that they could use the upgrades on the account with belonged to Arthur and Laura.  When Amelia made the request, I was not especially sympathetic.  I told her that I was quite comfortable using my old phone but that I wanted the flexibility to be able to change in the future.  I told her that I would keep my upgrade, thank you very much.  And then I told her that she should be quite happy with the phone that she had been given.  Of course I added a few obligatory fatherly sentences about knowing some people who are still using flip phones!  I’m sure she appreciated that.

The disciples of Jesus come to him with a specific request:  “Give us more faith!”  You couldn’t really blame them.  For quite a while they had been listening to Jesus outline what would was needed to inaugurate the Kingdom of God.  The things that he was teaching were rather difficult and demanding.  Love your enemies.  Bless those who curse you. Forgive even when it’s not deserved.  Give without expecting anything in return.  Be ready to take up your cross.  Given these challenging requirements, we can all understand the disciples’ request.  They will needed some help to be whom he was asking them to be.  “Increase our faith,” was their heart-felt request.

I remember long ago, at the very first church I served, a parishioner came into my office with a similar wish.  He asked for help in increasing and deepening his faith.  As a young minister, I was thrilled to be asked to help and I was eager to provide a solid answer.  I took some books off my shelves and handed them to him.  I talked about establishing a discipline of prayer.  I recommended a daily Scripture reading.  I asked if there was a particular ministry within the church that he might find meaning in serving.  I might handle a similar request today a little differently and certainly without the same amount of certainty in my answer.

Jesus’ answer was completely different.  It almost seemed as if he were brushing his disciples off.  He did not offer any suggested reading material.  He didn’t give them any tips on praying.  He didn’t share any of his tricks on how to approach God in the midst of life’s tough circumstances.  He really didn’t offer them a whole lot in the way of practical encouragement.

They wanted more faith.  They wanted an upgrade.  And Jesus told them that the faith they already had was sufficient for the tasks at hand.  Just a mustard seeds’ worth is all that was needed.  You may want an IPhone 11 but your IPhone 5 can still get the job done!

Jesus gave this strange illustration about a mulberry tree getting planted in the middle of the sea.  What a strange thing to say!  Who would want to uproot a modest mulberry tree and send it flying into the ocean where it would take root and grow?  This is ridiculous.  The late Rachel Held Evans writes that she believes Jesus was gently, poking fun at his disciples and their preoccupation with flashy signs and wonders as the measure of true faith.  They wanted some visible and something impressive, like the ability to call down fire from heaven anytime anyone crossed their path in a suspicious manner.

I think that Held Evans is on to something here.  There is a great temptation for us to turn faith into something complex and difficult and powerful.  Faith is a path we can map out, a course we can complete, a secret that we can learn, and a destination to which we can arrive.  We want to try the latest soul-saving gimmick.  We figure that through some class or some book or some preacher or some church we can get better at it.  But Jesus told his disciples that faith is really quite simple.  You just need a little to move a mountain.  The signs and wonders performed by Jesus weren’t necessarily flashy and impressive but they had a point.  They healed and fed and blessed and restored and comforted.  And that is just what we as followers of Jesus are also called to do.

Walter Brueggemann wrote, “We all have a hunger for certitude.  The problem is the Gospel is not about certitude.  It is about fidelity.”

I noted on my calendar this week that October 1 was the feast day of St. Theresa of Lisieux.  The notice peaked my interest.  I don’t know much about Catholic saints and I had never heard of St. Theresa, so I looked her up.  It was interesting to discover that she was a saint who has inspired Christians to honor God by being faithful in small things.  She wrote about how small her faith was but also about how she believed that she had been given enough faith to trust that she was doing what God wanted her to do.  “God would never inspire me with desires which cannot be realized,” she said.  “So in spite of my littleness, I can hope to be a saint.”

Perhaps Jesus was trying to tell his disciples that faith isn’t manifested in flashy things, in displays of power, and in uprooting and replanting mulberry trees in the sea.  When you have enough faith to be faithful, you have enough faith to do what you need to do.  We should not let our desire for more certainty and more strength and more wisdom keep us from using the faith we have.  We don’t need to demand more faith because if we use the faith we already have been given in the way that God desires, then it will always be enough.

We have what we need to be faithful.  It may only be the size of a mustard seed but we are called to make it work.  The faith we are given and to which we are called is not about getting more of something or about being more certain of something.  It is about loving God and loving neighbor.  In small things, God can move mountains- or do things within us and with us that can change the world.

 

 

 

 

 

Seeing Lazarus

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Seeing Lazarus”

Rev. Art Ritter

September 29, 2019

 

 

Luke 16:19-31

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

 

A fellow was talking to his next door neighbor about a speaker he had heard the night before.  He told the neighbor, “That speaker said something that really stuck in my mind.  He said that all of the world’s problems could be summed up in two words:  ignorance and apathy.  What do you think?”  The neighbor replied, “I really don’t know and I really don’t care.”

A few months ago I had to take my father in for some x-rays of his back.  We went to the local hospital in Greenville and made our way to the imaging laboratory where just as we expected and feared, there was a large group of people waiting their turn ahead of us.  I knew that Dad wasn’t keen about doctors and x-rays and waiting rooms and he was beginning to show his frustration.  There was another man in the waiting room who was talking at the top of his voice.  While everyone else was quietly paging through a magazine, engaging in quiet conversation, or turning inward in contemplation of why they were there in the first place, this man was enjoying a personal social hour.  He was trying to talk to anyone who would listen.  Many others in the waiting room gave him dirty looks over the top of their magazines but the loud man was oblivious.  As more patients were called and the room began to empty, except for this man, he began to be a source of great aggravation to me.

Finally the man turned to me and my father and attempted to engage us in his conversation.  We were now the bullseye of his attention.  My strategy was to grunt a couple of words and try to ignore him.  If I didn’t give him my attention then perhaps he would just be quiet and leave us alone.  I was hoping, even praying that my dad would do the same.  But he didn’t.  My father decided to be nice.  He started talking to the loud man.  He answered his questions.  Even worse, he asked the man some questions.  He discovered that for many years the man used to work at the very same factory where my father was a foreman.  They had friends and colleagues in common.  The man then realized that he knew my dad’s brother.  That fact was good for another ten minutes of conversation.  Finally, the nurse opened the door and called the loud man back for his x-ray.  My dad shook his hand and said, “It was sure nice talking to you.”  And you know what?   I really think he meant it.

When I suddenly realized that my dad had found some grace in that annoying situation, I felt small and prideful and ashamed.  God’s presence was right in front of me and I missed it because I thinking about what was important to me, indifferent to others in the room, closed off from the possibility that God was there.

Janet Hunt, a Lutheran minister in Illinois, writes about an experience she had while going to seminary in Minneapolis.  She had the good fortune of living for free with a couple of roommates in a church-owned apartment.  But the apartment was in North Minneapolis, a section of the city noted for its poverty and homelessness.  Hunt and her roommates were given the apartment in exchange for unlocking the church doors each morning and then locking the building up again at night.  In between the church was staffed by a local shelter, twice weekly as a soup kitchen and on some cold days as a warming facility.  The seminary students with the keys usually avoided the hungry and the poor by leaving early in the morning and arriving home late at night.  They did not directly participate in the outreach ministry.  Hunt writes that she wasn’t all that unhappy to avoid interacting with those in need and missing the lines of families and children who came to the church to have their hunger satisfied.  But one day, before she could leave for classes, she was confronted by a man in front of the church.  He blocked her path and proceeded to scream at her using words that had seldom, if ever been directed her way.  At that moment she felt surprise and fear as the outburst forced her to look the man in the eyes.  And then she was forced to look into her own heart and to acknowledge the indifference that lived there.  She hadn’t done anything wrong.  Yes, she was afraid in the face of such an encounter.  But the feeling which remained with her longest in remembering that day was the shame she carried for her indifference.

The Scripture lesson this morning takes place at a gate.  On one side of the gate is the lavish life or a rich man.  We don’t know his name.  But we know he has a beautiful home, that he feasts on extravagant banquets, and that he wears fine purple clothes, the sign of the upper class.  On the other side of the gate there is a desperately poor man.  He has a name.  It is Lazarus.  The name is significant because it is the only parable of Jesus where a person is given a name.  The name Lazarus comes from the Hebrew word meaning, “God helps.”  He seems to be unnoticed in his life however.  If the rich man notices him it is only because he is repulsed by the poor man digging through the garbage for scraps or letting the dogs lick the sores that cover his body.  The rich man probably passes Lazarus at the gate several times a day, never speaking to him.  They live in two different worlds.

As Jesus told the story, both men die.  The poor man is taken immediately into heaven and is at Father Abraham’s side.  The rich man is tormented in the fires of hell.  The rich man pleads with Abraham to send Lazarus to him to give him just one drop of cool water.  But Abraham tells the rich man that the chasm between them is too large and that no one can pass across it.  The rich man’s fate is sealed.  For him, the gate is shut for eternity.

This is a tough parable to hear.  The rich man isn’t particularly evil.  He was probably considered a righteous man and certainly was respected and honored within his circles.  Yet he ends up being tormented in his afterlife.  He languishes in hell yet he never committed an awful sin.

In a sermon on this parable, delivered in 1965, immediately after the Watts riots in Los Angeles, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. explained the text well.  “There is nothing in the parable,” he wrote, “that says the rich man went to hell because he was rich.  Jesus never made a universal indictment against all wealth.”  King went on to say, “the rich man went to hell not because he was rich, but because he passed by Lazarus every day and never really saw him.  The rich man went to hell because he allowed Lazarus to become invisible…because he failed to use his resources to bridge the gulf that separated him from his brother Lazarus.  In fact, he didn’t even realize that Lazarus was his brother.”  Dr. King was right.  The rich man’s sin was not that he was rich, but that during his earthly life he did not see Lazarus, despite his daily presence at the entrance to his home.

Here at Meadowbrook, as with many churches these days, we wrestle with a multitude of issues and concerns.  There are a number of decisions to be made make and so many priorities that have to be set within a limited amount of resources.  We have to concentrate on a number of practical things like budget and building and staff and sometimes we can find it hard to see beyond those things.

Personally we are all busy dealing with the events and circumstances of our individual lives.  We might feel as if we are heading in different directions each day and made wearier by the demands of our time and energy.  There is so much going on that in order to cope, we just put blinders on to negate the rest of the world.  We can’t see Lazarus in front of us because we are so busy taking care of our business.  We can’t see the opportunities to reach out to our brother and sisters.  We can’t see the presence of God sent in the midst of everyday life.

Sometimes we look around and we lump the problems and problem people of the world into categories.  It is easier for us to deal with them that way.  It is easier for us to believe that we can’t do anything about it.  It is easier for us to look to someone else to take care of the problem.  Perhaps that is why Jesus gave Lazarus a name.  Jesus knew that if we treat people only by lumping them all together, we will simply look past their needs, we will find justification for our prejudices, and we will ignore them as we pursue what is important to us.  And Jesus also knew that each person has a name, a family, and a story.  Giving Lazarus a name brought forward his humanity, accented the presence of God within him, and spotlighted the opportunity of God that came with knowing him.

Paul Raushenbush of Auburn Theological Seminary writes that the sin of the rich man was a play on the word ignorance.  The sin was ignore-ance.  Ignore-ance is an active and intentional stance toward the world which censors what is inconvenient or uncomfortable for us.  Ignore-ance judges what is or is not worth knowing and acts according.  Ignore-ance separates us from the knowledge of the world and of the human experience that extends beyond our own.  Ignore-ance assumes that we know everything there is to know about God and close ourselves off to that which doesn’t fit our formulas.  If fact, ignore-ance separates us our brothers and sisters and ultimately separates us from God.

In the Mayflower Café presentation we heard last Tuesday, Dr. Brett Younger said that there is a word for the chasm between what we say we believe and what we actually do.  That word is sin.  Younger also quoted Barbara Brown Taylor who wrote, “There’s not a mission statement in the world that is worth one visit to a sick friend or one cup of water held out to someone who’s longing for it.”

Do we see Lazarus?  Or is there something or someone in our line of vision that prevents us from seeing him at our gates?  The Kingdom of God shows up when and where we least expect it.  Could our place in that Kingdom be residing in the presence of Lazarus, the one at our gate?

 

 

Shrewd in Faith

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Shrewd in Faith”

Rev. Art Ritter

September 22, 2019

 

Luke 16:1-13

Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

 

James Howell shares the story about how when he was five years old he tried to use shrewdness and cunning to avoid punishment from his father.  He was about to be spanked by his father for breaking some rule or for general misbehavior.  Howell can’t remember the exact details.  But he remembers his father prefacing the spanking with these words, “Now son, this is going to hurt me more than it is going to hurt you.”  To a five year old mind, this didn’t make any sense.  But the shrewd Howell recognized a way out of the spanking.  He said to his father, “Wait a minute!  You are going to spank me but it is going to hurt you more.  But I am the one who did something wrong?”  His father fell right into the trap saying, “That’s right.”  The precocious five-year-old continued, “Well, if I am the one to be punished, why don’t you let me spank you so that I would experience the most pain.”  Howell said that his father then quickly caught onto the clever plan.  The young boy received the spanking plus the loss of his weekly allowance.

I am sure than many of us have been victims of identity theft or cyber fraud.  At the very least we gotten those strangely worded emails and text messages wanting us to offer some of our private financial account information.  I saw a new item this week where cybercriminals can now sign up for a six week online course offering webinars, online tutorials, and technical support, all designed to help wannabe crooks aiming to get involved in credit card fraud.  The invitation to the class says that it can take a complete novice and turn them into a specialist in credit card fraud in a mere six weeks.  The course is conducted in Russian, which gives you a pretty good clue as to where most of the students are.  It costs around $250 dollars with an additional charge of $200 for materials.  And prospective students have to pay in cryptocurrency like bitcoin because evidently identity theft students just can’t be trusted.   The story is just another example how shrewd and developed criminals are in the world today.

This morning we hear the words of Jesus from the gospel of Luke, telling his listeners the parable of the dishonest steward or the shrewd manager.  It may be one of the most difficult parables that Jesus told.  Alyce McKenzie compares it to putting Crisco on a watermelon and then asking someone to catch it.  You can grab at it but it is bound to slip out of your grip.  You may think you understand and then you find something that raises an additional question or concern.  Clarence Jordan, author of The Cottonpatch Gospels, once said that Jesus’ parables were like Trojan horses.  They looked great on the outside but you let them in and bam- they got you.  That is certainly true with this parable we reflect upon this morning.

The master of an estate calls on the carpet his manager who had been cheating the boss for years.  The manager was kind of a middle man, representing his master in the exchange of good and services with merchants and in the receipt of rent with the tenants.  Most managers or stewards were able to line their own pockets with a few extra dollars in every transaction.  The master looked the other way, expecting it to happen unless things really got out of hand.  In this case, they apparently did.  The manager was taking way too much money from the accounts and the master of the estate called for an audit of the books.  It became clear to the manager that he was about to lose his job.

The shrewd man immediately went into crisis mode.  He did not raise his arms in despair and hopelessness.  He spent every ounce of his creative energy planning to protect his future.  He called all of his clients together and treated them to one last meal on the boss’ tab.  He told them that he had the power to reduce the amount of money they owned to the boss.  He promised them whatever he could so that when he lost his job- those customers might remember his favorably and welcome him into their homes and business to care for him.

Our reaction to hearing this parable is quite natural.  What a jerk!  What a scoundrel!  Perhaps he took the course from the Russian cyber fraud experts.  Using the boss’ assets to provide for his own future, even after many years of cheating that same boss.  Yet this is the parable that Jesus told his followers.

And stranger yet is what happened when the boss of this shrewd manager found out about what his employee had done.  Instead of firing him, he actually commended the man.  He praised his shrewd and creative behavior.  He lauded his diligence and effort.  And Jesus said, “For the children of this age are shrewder in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”

What is the message for us, the followers of Jesus who hear this parable today?  Perhaps a good place to start is with that word “shrewd.”  For many years this parable of Jesus was called “The Dishonest Steward.”  But it is not dishonestly that is behavior that is supposed to be modeled but shrewdness.   It is interesting to note that the Hebrew word translated as shrewd can also be translated as “something that you have wrestled with.”  The word is used in a couple of places in Scripture, places that are also connected with the nearness of a judgment.  The word seems to point to some commitment to a well-thought out plan to bring about a desired outcome.

Jesus taught his disciples this parable, because they like us, lived in a time and place that demanded action and response.  As those who are caught up in the world are clever and cunning, even those who deal with their affairs dishonestly, the children of God need to reflect upon the gifts and abilities and especially the opportunities that God has given us and then arrange the various aspects of our lives so that we can take care of the things that need to be done for God.  The shrewd manager was praised, not because he was dishonest and conniving.  He was praised because he made a radical decision in the light of a coming event.  He was praised because he focused on what was important at that moment.  Jesus taught that God puts a critical moment in front of us that demands a radical re-ordering of our life priorities.  The presence of Jesus the Christ places a crisis in our midst.  The crisis confronts us daily through our choices and decisions.

I recall a trial of a forger in Germany around twenty years ago.  The man was so good at his trade that he actually had experts believing that his diaries of Adolf Hitler were real.  When brought before the court, the judge spent most of the trial complimenting the forger on his ability.  “You have a rare gift, an exceptional talent” he said.  Others in the courtroom were astonished at the judge’s behavior but the judge reminded them all that he was not praising the illegal act, but merely the skill.

I think the same is true of Jesus’ teaching in the parable of the shrewd manager.  Jesus often used an example of a rascal to teach us a thing or two about what God is like and about what we should be like in response to God.  Remember the widow who kept pestering a judge relentlessly, both day and night, until he finally gave her the justice of which she felt worthy.  Remember the man he wouldn’t leave the comfort of his bed to welcome a stranger until his door was almost beaten down?  Remember the man who found a treasure in the field of a friend and then quietly went out and bought the field so he could profit from the treasure?  These were not good people!  Yet Jesus lifted them up as examples of faith.  How much more will it profit us if we approach our lives of faith with the same urgency and passion as these shrewd rascals and scoundrels approached their malicious ways?

I have shared with you before a Jewish fable about a student who burst through the doors of his school with important news to tell his teacher, the great rabbi.  One of the rabbi’s friends had just been arrested for burglary.  The student expected the rabbi to be shocked, at the very least visibly upset at such terrible news concerning his friend.  But the rabbi seemed very calm.  He said, “My friend the burglar is a great example to all.  Every day he manages to teach me something, even today.  When we are sleeping, he is busy working.  When we go about our daily activity without any thought, he is quiet and adept.  When others are busy locking their doors, he skillfully knows how to open them.  Yes, my best friend the burglar is a true artist and a great teacher!”  The student walked away amazed and puzzled at such a lesson.

We need to be shrewd in faith.  We need to understand the urgency of the situation and the important need to respond.  We need to appreciate the resources at our disposal and to use them in ways that are commendable in God’s eyes to get the work of God done here on earth.  We need to secure our ultimate future, which in God’s intention, cannot be separated from the future of the whole community.  We need to take the words of Jesus which tease our minds, allow them to enter into our active thought, and then put ourselves in the middle of decisive life-changing action.

 

 

 

Lost and Found

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Lost and Found”

Rev. Art Ritter

September 15, 2019

 

 

Luke 15:1-10

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. “Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

 

 

Marty Raths tells a wonderful story about one of life’s universal experiences- being lost.  There was a man who had gotten lost in part of the country that was unfamiliar to him.  And after driving around for a while he finally came upon a run-down old gas station in a worn out looking little town.  As he pulled into the station, a young man came out and asked, “Can I help you sir?  Raths is quick to point out that this was in the days of full service stations.  “Yes, the lost man said, “I’m wondering if you could tell me how to get to Livingston?”  The young man thought for a bit, then shook his head and said, “No, sir, I can’t.  I’ve never heard of that town.”  The lost man persisted, “Do you know someone who might be able to tell me how to get there?”  The station attendant replied, “No, sir, I don’t.”  By this time it was getting very late in the day and that man was getting more exhausted.  So he asked, “Well, would you know of a motel where I could stay and then I can figure out where I need to go in the morning?”  The young attendant replied, “I’m afraid not, sir.  I don’t know of any motels around here.”  With a great deal of frustration the lost man said, “You sure don’t know much of anything, do you?”  The young man replied, “No, sir, I don’t.  But at least I ain’t lost!”

I wonder if we can get lost anymore.  With all of the navigation devices at our disposal, with apps like Google Maps and Waze in our cellphones, can we ever not know how to get to places like Livingston?  In his book Where You Are, James Bridle writes, “The GPS system is a monumental network that provides a permanent You Are Here sign hanging in the sky, its signal a constant, synchronized time code.  It suggests the possibility that one need never be lost again; that future generations will grow up not knowing what it means to be truly lost.”  In an article February 2018 The Atlantic.  Lauren Elkin laments the loss of the value of being lost.  If we know where we are going, we will never be on the road less traveled.  Being lost can be a good thing when it promotes “discovery, imagination, and self-reliance.”

In the same article, Elkin writes about the feeling that comes over you when you are lost.  There is a distinct embarrassment that you either admit or try to hide.  We drive on just a little further, thinking we can find a familiar landmark.  Men are notorious for not stopping and asking for directions, as such a questions would be an admission of their failure as men.

Not being able to find your way triggers an onslaught of emotions ranging from alarm to abandonment.  It activates memories of shame and despair.  I have been lost more than a few times in my life but I will always recall the time I got separated from my parents at a Meijer store in Ionia.  I must have been around six or seven years old.  My parents were filling the cart with boring groceries and I was more interested in the baseball gloves a few aisles away.  In a much more trusting day that our own, they gave me permission to visit the sporting goods department.  It was wonderful.  They even had a left-handed first basemen’s mitt- I remember that.  As I was exploring, I lost track of time and purpose and I began to wander to other displays, checking out toys and records and bicycles.  When I went back to find my parents, I could not locate them.  I ran breathlessly from grocery aisle to grocery aisle but they were nowhere to be seen.  I will never forget that feeling of fear and alarm which came over me.  Had I been abandoned?  What was I going to do?  I was certain that my parents wouldn’t leave me, almost certain that they were looking for me, but I also wondered if perhaps my brother or sister hadn’t convinced them to leave me behind.  After what seemed like an hour but was probably only minutes, I heard a reassuring voice on the store intercom, asking me to report to the Courtesy Desk at the front of the store.  There stood my equally frightened and a bit perturbed parents.

Laura Elkins points out that these intense feeling of being lost have not gone away since she got a smartphone.  Her family and friends remind her, even reprimand her that it is no longer possible to get lost.  Yet unable to read or understand anything from Google Maps, she says that the experience of being lost has quickly inflated from a problem of orientation to a general feeling of technological failure.  Now when she is lost she feels worse that incompetent.  She also feels illiterate.

Yes, we can still get lost these days.  Perhaps there are ways that we don’t even realize.  Perhaps we are lost and we don’t even know it.  There is a physical experience of being lost.  There are psychological experiences.  There is a spiritual experience that can come from sorrow or greed or anger or regret.   Being lost can separate us from those we love and from that which is important in our lives.  It can take us away from our hopes and our dreams.  Yet recognizing that you are lost can also be the realization that leads us to redemption, to returning home, to yielding to a higher power for direction and navigation.

The 15th chapter of Luke is one of the more notable chapters in all of Scripture.  In the chapter, Jesus tells three of his better parables.  All of them are about things that are lost.  A sheep.  A coin.  A young son.  We heard about the first two earlier in our Scripture lesson.  Jesus tells these parables to his listeners, the Pharisees and the scribes, because they are grumbling about the fact that Jesus is spending time with losers- with women and tax collectors and sinners.  He not only engages in conversation with them.  He eats meals with them.  In those days eating was as mark of camaraderie, acceptance, and friendship.

And so Jesus tells these parables about things that are lost, and about a shepherd who risks everything to go look for the lost sheep, and about a woman who sweeps her home all night long to find one single coin.  These stories are about a God who will always go looking for God’s lost children, even more fervently that our earthly parents would look for us.  And after what is lost is found, they are drawn back into relationship with God.  God helps them again find their potential and God celebrates with joy.

The Pharisees and scribes don’t understand Jesus’ stories.  They see Jesus welcoming the untouchable and the undeserving and they were concerned.  They don’t understand that their judgment and their self-righteousness make them just as lost as the worst of the sinners.  They don’t get that God is primarily about love, rather than rules, about joy rather than anger or fear.  They don’t understand the righteousness is not about being perfect or living up to the standard of the law rather it is about recognizing your separation from God and understanding that God is seeking you out and calling for you to return home.

We are all lost from time to time.  Sometimes it is because of some obvious sin or behavior that is just plain wrong.  But sometimes we are lost because there is something we have done or something we are not doing that separates us from God.  We have wrapped our lives around the wrong priorities.  We have pursued goals that have no lasting meaning.  We have worked hard and followed all the rules yet have not scratched the surface of our true needs and our fondest hopes.  We might appear to have it all together yet deep down inside we still don’t know where we are going.  The problem may be that like the Pharisees and the scribes, we define ourselves by what we have done or what we are doing, rather than who we really are.    Perhaps we are not a sinner, but we still are lost.  It is God who grants us an identity beyond what we have done or what we are doing.  And it is God who celebrates and throws one heck of a party when we admit to our being lost and turn back for what is real and lasting.

George Orwell once graphically described a cruel trick he played on a wasp.  While he was eating breakfast, the wasp landed on his plate and started sucking on the jam on Orwell’s toast.  Orwell cut the wasp in half.  The wasp paid no attention, going on with his meal, while a tiny stream of jam trickled out of his severed esophagus.  Only when he tried to fly away did he grasp the dreadful thing that had happened to him.  Orwell said, “It is the same with modern man.  The thing that has been cut away is his soul, and there was a period ….in which he did not notice it.”

We have all been lost from time to time.  We all still get lost.  By God’s grace and gifts of mercy we are found over and over again.  God does not leave us for lost.  God is always trying to find us.  Our experience of being lost is not a waste of time but redeemable

 

 

 

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.