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Daily Rations

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Daily Rations”

Rev. Art Ritter

September 20, 2020

 

Exodus 16:2-15

The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” Then the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.” So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “In the evening you shall know that it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your complaining against the Lord. For what are we, that you complain against us?” And Moses said, “When the Lord gives you meat to eat in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning, because the Lord has heard the complaining that you utter against him—what are we? Your complaining is not against us but” against the Lord. Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, ‘Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.’“ And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. The Lord spoke to Moses and said, “I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.’“

In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.

 

Remembering that I had done a similar thing nine years ago, I went on the church’s Facebook page this week and asked, “Where have you tasted the best bread?”  Bread is a unique thing to humanity.  It is the symbol of basic sustenance.  It is a common sight at most meals yet it can be found in hundreds of diverse forms.  While other foods may be the main attraction or get most of the attention at the table, it is bread that is always there as the most essential item.  Most of us, just love bread.

Here are some of the responses that I got to my inquiry:   Grandma’s breadmaker; Wonder Bread straight from the factory; Great Harvest bread; Sourdough bread from Fisherman’s Wharf; homemade focasio bread; bread at the Walnut Creek Country Club; Zingerman’s; Grandma’s bread; the Sunflour Bakery in Farmington; homemade bread from Mom; the rolls at Chuck Muer’s restaurants; French baguettes while on a bike ride in the Loire Valley of France and the Italian bread at Carini’s Bakery on Joy Road.  I get hungry just thinking about these delicious bread memories!

Bread is a part of our faith tradition.  In the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples, he reminds us to request of God “our daily bread.”  Jesus referred to himself as “bread of life.”  Tested in the wilderness, Jesus was tempted to turn stones into bread to feed the world.  Bread was also part of the food supply used to feed the hungry multitude.  In an upper room with his disciples, Jesus compared the bread he offered to his friends to his own body, broken for us yet remembered as a nourishing living presence through the sacred meal we observe as Christians.

Today’s Scripture lesson features an important mention of bread in the story of God’s people wandering in the wilderness.  Having been freed from slavery in Egypt, the people of God were beginning to lose their faith as they drifted along each day, without any guarantee of food or water or even a final destination.  Some even began to turn against the God who had set them free from their oppressors and took them across the Red Sea.  They asked, “Why would God take us away from the certainty of three solid meals in Egypt to starve in the uncertainty of the desert?  Why would God be so cruel as to allow God’s people to suffer without food and water?”

Cold, hard reality had set in.  The people of Israel looked back at Egypt and slavery with longing hearts.  They grumbled.  That word is used seven times in five verses.  They grumbled.  They didn’t cry out to God for food.  They certainly didn’t confess their faith in a God who have delivered them from slavery and thirst in the past.  They didn’t ask for Moses or Aaron to appeal to God for help.  They simply grumbled.  They expressed a preference to have died in Egypt rather than acknowledging what God had done and trusting in what God might do.

So what did God do?  You might expect that God would have given them a good scolding, lashing out at the Israelites for their ingratitude and grumbling.  But instead of reprimanding them, God provided for them.  “I will rain down bread from heaven for you.”  In the wilderness, God sent manna.  In sending down this important provision, God wanted to teach God’s people the most important lesson in life.  Know who God is and give God the glory through your words and actions and attitude.  That is all God really wanted- a sense of humanity understanding where the gifts of life really come from and a trust that God will always provide.

William Willimon writes that this “bread from heaven” was not immediately recognized a suitable nourishment.  It didn’t come from the oven.  It didn’t come pre-sliced with Wonder or Great Harvest on the label.  It wasn’t served in a fancy basket with garlic butter on the side.  It was a white, sticky substance laying all over the ground.  When the Hebrew people first saw it, they asked, “Manhu?” which literally meant “what is this?”  Thus this bread from heaven became known as manna.

In her book Bread of Angels, Barbara Brown Taylor writes about growing up in the South and eating grits.  She ate them for many years, not knowing what they were.  She ate cheese grits, grits with bacon, and slow cooked grits that swam in their own gravy.  When she was about twelve years old she asked a friend if he knew what grits really were.  “The truth?” he asked wickedly grinning.  “You really want to know about grits?”  He then told her that grits were small bugs that lived in colonies on the surface of fresh water lakes.  At the end of summer they were harvested, shelled, and dried in the sun so that you couldn’t even see their legs.  He concluded his story by rubbing his stomach and saying, “Mmmmm!”

Taylor says that because of that she always thinks of grits when she reads about manna.  The Hebrew people didn’t know where it came from or even what it was.  But Taylor asks, do we have to know what something is and where it comes from in order to view it as bread of heaven?  “What makes something bread of heaven?  Is it the thing itself or the one who sends it?”  Taylor writes that how you answer those questions has a lot to do with how you sense God’s presence in your life.  If, in order for it to be bread of heaven, manna has to drop straight down from heaven in a sliced and wrapped loaf, we will go hungry a lot.  We are going to wonder why God isn’t helping us the way in which we expect God to help.  We are going to grumble and complain.  And we are going to miss a lot of the ordinary things that God is doing for us, gifts like unexplained grits.  On the other hand, if we understand that everything that comes to us comes from God, there will be no end to the manna in our lives.  Every day we will find a basket full of provision, of nourishment, of daily sustenance.  Others may not recognize it or even know what it is.  But we will know that it is something that God has given to us and we will give thanks and we will eat.

I am grateful that I grew up among in a rather humble and modest home.  I never felt the want of anything yet looking back I understand that there were times in which my parents struggled from paycheck to paycheck.  The cupboards and bank account were sometimes close to empty and my mother had to be creative as to what she put on the table.  I will always remember that just before payday, when there was little left to serve, she would cook her famous recipe which she called, “Something Out of Nothing.”  We would ask her what we were having for dinner and that is how she would respond.  “Something Out of Nothing.”  The recipe was never the same.  It usually involved dumplings and tomato sauce, or sometimes pasta and cheese, on rare occasion some frost-covered hamburger that she had found at the bottom of the freezer.  Yet I remember it always tasting so good.  I wondered why Mom would wait until we didn’t have any groceries left until she made “Something Out of Nothing?” But maybe its special flavor came because I knew that whenever she made it she made it with a lot of love and she made it with some extra special attention at those difficult stretches in family life.

Since I announced my intention to retire next spring, I have received some cards and emails and have had some personal conversations with some of you.  It has been very meaningful and uplifting.  I have been told about things that I did or things that I said that made a difference in someone’s attitude, outlook, or even their life.  I didn’t see it then.  I didn’t know it.  I was probably too focused on my grumbling about something else that was frustrating me or I was searching for a solution, perhaps God’s easy answer to a difficult dilemma. And yet someone told me that during those times I had offered bread from heaven.  And I was given manna in return.  There is a clearer understanding that what we have experienced together was not just endless meetings and successes and failures but gifts of God that have been offering through fellowship, worship, and service.  Those moments of Something Out of Nothing are suddenly less frustration and more blessing.

All of us need to be on manna alert.  We need to have an awareness about who supplies our daily rations of grace and mercy.  We may seek miracles but God provides everyday sustenance.  We may want comfort but God brings us joy as we gather the manna.  We may simply want food to eat but God comes to us in relationships that bless us and give us the opportunity to bless others.  Like the people of Israel, we may not always get what we want, but what we receive can bring a glimpse of heaven into our daily world.

 

 

 

Dry Ground

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Dry Ground”

Rev. Art Ritter

September 13, 2020

 

 

Exodus 14:19-31

The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them. It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. And so the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night; one did not come near the other all night.

Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and chariot drivers. At the morning watch the Lord in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic. He clogged their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said, “Let us flee from the Israelites, for the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt.” Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers.” So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea. The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained. But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. Israel saw the great work that the Lord did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses.

 

 

 

Tony Evans tells the story of a conversation a mother and son had after church one Sunday.  “What did you learn about in Sunday School today?” the mother asked of her boy.  “We learned about Israel crossing the Red Sea.”  The mother was quite pleased that her son remembered something.  She then asked, “What did the teacher say about the crossing of the Red Sea?”  The boy replied, “Well, it went like this.  Israel built a bridge over the Red Sea.  They got in buses and crossed over the bridge.  Then when the Egyptians came after them, God sent some F-16 fighter jets and dropped bombs on them until they were all destroyed.”  The mother was quite skeptical.  “Come on now!  Your teacher couldn’t have explained Israel’s crossing of the Red Sea like that.”  Her son quickly replied, “I know.  She didn’t.  But if I told you how it really happened, you’d never believe me!”

The Scripture lesson this morning is the memorable narrative detailing the crossing of the Red Sea.  While we may not have heard the version of the story that the little boy shared with his mother, perhaps most of us know the story best from magnificent story.  We recall the movie scene in The Ten Commandments, where Cecil B. DeMille directed Charlton Heston to divide the special effect waters that were supposedly made out of Jello.  And there are all sorts of rational and scholarly explanations of this miracle.  Some claim a freak windstorm caused the waters to part.  Others claim that the Israelites actually crossed the Reed Sea, something more like a swamp rather than a deep and long waterway.  But perhaps the theatrical version and the logical theories miss the actual point of the story.  The writer of Exodus wasn’t concerned about the depth of the water or the the science behind the parting of a sea.  The writer was convinced only that this was a miracle, an act of God, a demonstration of the strength of God in sharp contrast to the weakness of the ability of the people.

If you remember the actual story, you will know that the people of Israel were living in slavery in Egypt.  God had raised Moses up to be their leader, calling him through a burning bush.  God had acted on their behalf, causing misfortune to fall upon their oppressors.  By God’s hand the Pharaoh had agreed to allow the Israelites to leave Egypt.  By a pillar of cloud by day and a fiery pillar at night God had lead them to the very edge of the Red Sea.  But now, at the very beginning of their Exodus, they were trapped.  Deep water was on one side.  Pharaoh’s mighty army was on the other.  They were struck with terror and with helplessness.  Where was God now?  What were they supposed to do?  Had God simply brought them to this point to fail or to die?

It may feel that way for us right now.  The events of our world and of our lives seem to have placed us in a tight corner.  The uncertainty of pandemic complicates our every choice and action.  We fear for our health.  We fear for the health of our loved ones.  The economic uncertainty caused by the virus weighs upon our budgets, our jobs, and our community.  Civil unrest dominates the cities and streets of our country.  We are a divided nation in the midst of an important yet divisive election.  Even the weather seems to be causing more grief than relief.  Every day we hear of the ravages of wildfire and wind and hurricane and flood.  It surely seems that we are in deep water, or at least pressed up against the edge of the waters of fear and uncertainty.

Disciples of Christ minister Linda Hutton tells a story about a milkmaid and a holy man.  The holy man lived in a remote location and he relied upon the milkmaid to bring him milk and food every day.  She had the terrible habit of arriving late each day.  One day when the holy man scolded her about her tardiness, she explained that she had to walk along the bank of a river for a good distance before come to a bridge that would take her to the other side of the river.  It was the river that was delaying her bringing the holy man his much needed supplies.   The holy man then asked her, “Why don’t you just walk across the water?  It would save you a lot of time.”  From the time on, the milkmaid was never late.

But after a few days the holy man’s curiosity got the best of him and he asked the milkmaid how she managed to arrive so early.  “Why,” she responded, “I did as you told me.  I now walk on the waters of the river.”  The holy man said, “This I must see.  Let me go with you when you return to the village.  If someone like you can walk on water, perhaps I can too.”

The two reached the river and without hesitation the milkmaid stepped onto the water and walked to the other side.  She turned to watch the holy man.  Slowly, carefully he gathered his robes up about his knees and stepped into the river.  He took a few hesitant steps and began to sink.  The milkmaid ran back across the waters and helped him to shore.

“What went wrong?” asked the holy man.  “Well, sir,” the milkmaid answered, “You said that you believed you could walk on water, but then you gathered up your robes so as to not get them wet.  Did you not have faith that you could do it?”

As people of faith, when trapped between forces of doubt and uncertainty, we act much like that holy man.  We would love to experience and witness the hand of God at work in our complex lives.  We prefer that God work a miracles and obvious displays of power, things that bring to us a situation of certainty and ease.  But God usually works more quietly, more patiently, more anonymously.  And that runs counter to our wishes.  We often live out our days in such a way that we refuse to place reliance upon our faith in God.  We are more likely to think we can be saved by our own cleverness or rescued by our own strength and possessions.  We tap our limited amounts of patience, compassion, and forgiveness to deal with the negative situation and people around us.  In crossing the rivers of discouragement and difficulty, we gather up our robes to stay dry, relying upon our own ingenuity.  Alone, we usually still get wet.

God commanded Moses to stretch out his hand over the sea.  This phrase is mentioned three times in the story.  When Moses obeyed, the water parted, giving the children of Israel a safe passage.  I suppose God could have magically transported the people to the other side of the sea by flying chariots or rainbow bridges.  But it didn’t work that way.  God didn’t use the magic of escape.  God used the faithful action of God’s people.

How can we stay dry amidst the torrents of chaos that surround us today?  We walk through the waters by our faith.  When we can find no way out, that is the time to trust in the One who has found a way for us forever.  The story of the people of God is a story of God’s hand in leading the faithful through flood, over the Red Sea, out of exile, from the belly of the whale, avoiding bloodthirsty Herods, and even the ultimate threat of the cross.  A story of deliverance is always told, so we can remember it ourselves, so we can come to believe it in our hearts, and so that can tell others about it.  God is mighty to save and God’s purposes cannot be changed by the powers and principalities of the world.

How can we keep dry?  By recognizing that our faith is always part of the divine action.  Moses didn’t part the waters.  God did.  But Moses had to stretch out his hand and believe something could happen.  His hand became an extension of God’s power.  And the people of Israel had to summon the courage to walk through the Red Sea.  They weren’t totally passive.  They had to have feared, just a little bit that the waters would suddenly return to overwhelm them or that Pharaoh’s army would catch up to them.  But their walk was a realization that they recognized the possibility of God’s presence in that moment.  Sometimes the only hindrance to God’s saving action in the world is the lack of a faithful response of its possibility by God’s people.

Keeping dry.  It is within the power of God.  The story of God’s people teaches us that when we cannot see a way out, God can still make a way.  Keeping dry.  The story of God’s people calls us to be a participant, not just an observer.  Let us stretch out our hands over the uncertain waters before us.  Let us take those steps toward the possibilities of God before us.

 

 

Before You Unfriend

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Before You Unfriend”

Rev. Art Ritter

September 6, 2020

 

Romans 14: 1-4, 10-12

14Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. 2Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. 3Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. 4Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.

10Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. 11For it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.” 12So then, each of us will be accountable to God.

 

Matthew 18:15-20

15“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

 

 

As we wearily draw closer to the November election, I think we’ve already had enough of the endless advertisements, the personal attacks, the bitter social media posts, and the difficult conversations with friends and neighbors and family.  Perhaps this really isn’t anything new.  Presidential politics has always been rough and tumble.  Andrew Jackson’s opponents accused his wife of being a convicted adulteress and bigamist because it wasn’t clear whether her divorce was final from a previous marriage.  Grover Cleveland, then a bachelor, was accused of hiding a son and his opponents offered the chant, “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?  Gone to the White House, Ha, Ha, Ha!”  I recall just four short years ago, Chuck Lorre, in his Vanity Card #539 at the end of The Big Bang Theory said what we were all feeling, “A Nonpartisan, Nondenominational prayer for America.  God, make this election be over soon.  Amen.”

I also read with interest an article from the September 2004 edition of The New Yorker.  There was an interview with Emily Hertzer, at that time a recent Yale grad and delegate to the Republican National Convention in New York.  Hertzer was so embarrassed by the comments she heard and the protest signs she read that she started a movement to bring back civil and proper manners to society.  Hertzer, who summered and sailed in Newport, Rhode Island founded the Newportant Foundation, an organization dedicated to bringing civility, manners, and traditional values back to our society.  Part of her plan included holding a British style afternoon tea each day.  I googled Hertzer and Newportant and didn’t find anything up to date.  Perhaps after 16 years she is still serving afternoon tea but evidently her civility movement did not catch on.

There is a great cry for civility in our society today.  Civility is a way of relating to others which promotes discourse, letting all voices be heard, and allowing us to seek solutions to problems together.  I know that I read with great trepidation and only some interest the political comments of many of my friends on Facebook.  Most of the time I get so angry or frustrated at the sources quoted or the conspiracies supported that I want to respond back with forceful words.  I want to argue with them until they see my side of the issue.  I read this week that arguing with a friend about politics on social media is like sticking your hand into the blades of a fan.  Usually my calmer self will simply click the “snooze for 30 days” button.

I heard an interview with Diana Butler Bass this week in which she talked about her blog and her social media posts.  She said that she wasn’t surprised by the comments she received that disagreed with her thoughts and opinion.  What surprised her were the vile and personal attacks by commenters which used degrading language and even insulted her physical appearance.  Sadly, these comments are typical of words left at the bottom of any article from the on-line versions of any newspaper or magazine.  People, even our leaders, seem to prefer to humiliate and embarrass as a sign of personal victory instead of engaging in constructive dialogue that benefits us all.

In his book Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy, Stephen Carter points out that America is having a problem with our freedom of speech.  It is guaranteed to us in the Bill of Rights and we have the right to speak whenever we want.  The problem is that an unbridled expression of speech can hurt other people.  Self-control needs to go with self-expression.  Carter writes that too often we jump into conversation with words of cynicism and selfishness when what is needed is a combination of generosity and trust that comprises civility.  Carter defines civility as “the set of sacrifices we make for the sake of our fellow passengers.”  That’s a wonderful definition whether it describes an airline flight, pandemic behavior, or the experience of all of us in the community of faith.  The sacrifices we make, we make for our fellow passengers.  In our desire to be right, we often forget to be nice.  In our desire to win, we judge others much too harshly.

I chose a couple of thought provoking Scripture passages this morning.  In the first reading from the gospel of Matthew, Jesus is giving advice to the members of the Christian community about how to get along.  Most scholars believe these words were actually used to address conflict in the early church long after Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Matthew writes about how hard it is to keep a community in community.  Jesus teaches that the work involved is actually the kind of labor that builds the Kingdom of God.  His prescription seems to run counter to our earthly thinking.  Jesus talks about going and talking with one who has wronged you, in the spirit of love.  If that doesn’t work, take other people with you next time.  Secondly, Matthew writes that it isn’t important who is right and who is wrong.  What is important is reconciliation and listening.  Jesus’ words remind us that when we are in community, we aren’t working for ourselves, we are working for relationships.  Being right and winning are far less important that maintaining a relationship with another in Christ.

The second Scripture lesson is actually one from next week’s lectionary calendar, taken from Paul’s letter to the church at Rome.  It seems that there was a difference of opinion within that church.  Some former Jews believed that the kosher food laws still applied and did other laws concerning rituals and high holy days.  Other new Christians thought such ritual and food law practices had nothing to do with being a follower of Christ.  The church, much like our society, was split.  Whole segments refused to have anything to do with each other.  Paul seems to skirt the facts of the issues and speak more about acceptance.  Accept one another he says.  The Greek word he uses here does not mean merely tolerating those with whom we disagree but to actually welcome them, to engage in fellowship with them.  He says that if Jesus is able to forgive us and bear with us, then we should be able to do the same for one another.

Now I will admit that Paul’s advice is easier to follow within the structure of the Christian community.  We all are here because we share in the love of God and the hope of the resurrected Christ.  Acceptance gets much harder in the context of society and public forums, where we share space with those with whom we may not share such a common bond.  Perhaps social media will never be a place where such behavior can be modeled because it lacks the community identity and obligations that are needed to embrace acceptance and forgiveness.

However we can wrap our arms around Paul’s thought that our Christian belief must be linked to our Christian behavior.  We need to always keep the work of God before us.  The Risen Christ is not just a belief or purely a product of intellect.  Jesus is alive and moving and working through current events making all things new. We need to welcome and accept and love others just as the Lord has welcomed and accepted and loved us.  Differences will occur.  Disagreements will happen.  But our conversations and our discourse need to be at a level which reflect that we are people called by grace and by God to worship and serve, not to judge and condemn.

I’ve shared with you before the story of a ministry team on which I served within the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches.  Our team was charged with exploring staff changes within our Association and we were recommending a reduction of staff and a realignment of responsibilities.  There were many at that meeting who disagreed with our conclusion.  The night before the scheduled vote on the issue, a question and answer session was held.  I was one of five people who stood before an angry crowd who threw some emotionally charged questions and comments toward us.  It was most uncomfortable.  Suddenly a voice in the crowd called for prayer.  A prayer was given reminding us all of God’s grace and goodness, of our intention to serve God in what we were doing, and of the need to accept one another and to speak in ways that reflected Christ.  The one who prayed called for God’s presence to seep into our conversation and for God’s wisdom to enter our deliberation.  The mood of the room changed.  There was still a lot of disagreement.  But there was much more civility.  There was less tension and an understanding that all the participants would listen and value one another.

The bottom line of Jesus’ teaching and of Paul’s letter is the same.  Understand that words of love are not real until they are put into action.  It certainly isn’t an easy thing to face rude behavior, hear mean words, and witness unkindness.  It is a hard thing to respond in a civil way.  But those who understand that they are loved by God, understand that there is a spirit filled link from God and through them, and that they can act in love and charity because they have found that same love and charity in Christ.

The first epistle of John perhaps says it best.  “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.  And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him.”  AMEN.

Holy Ground

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Holy Ground”

Rev. Art Ritter

August 30, 2020

 

Exodus 3:1-15

Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”

But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.” But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’“ God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.

 

History was made this week when a baseball card, specifically a Mike Trout autographed rookie card, sold for a record-setting 3.93 million dollars.  The card, the only one of its kind produced, and in mint condition, was issued in 2009.  The seller of the card originally purchased it in 2018 for $400,000.

When I was a child I collected baseball cards.  I had my personal collection inside of some old cigar boxes that were probably worth as much as the baseball cards themselves.  Most of my cards were those collected from the back of cereal boxes.  I didn’t have many of the fancy ones from the bubble gum packs.  My parents weren’t too keen on letting us chew bubble gum so the only Topps baseball cards I got was when I sneaked down to the dime store after piano lessons and brought a pack with the 15 cents I was saving.  Once I moved away from home for college, I don’t know what happened to my baseball cards.  I think my mother disposed of them quietly before I knew there were missing.  Perhaps I had something of value there although I tend to doubt it.  Certainly I had nothing as sacred as a Mike Trout autographed rookie card.

I read something this week from a man who used to collect baseball cards with his brothers.  They would play games with the cards, dividing them up into teams and building their own all-star squads.  Like many of us they would take them to school and trade for better players.  The man’s older brother was a big collector and had a special group of cards that he set aside, players that he really liked or players that he judged to be future stars.  He told his younger brother that he could play with any of his cards but he must not touch these special cards.  One day the younger brother decided to surprise his brother by putting all of the special cards into a three ring binder.  He carefully trimmed the cards so they would fit evenly and then glued the backs of the card to some notebook paper with holes in the side.  He then proudly presented the binder as a gift to his brother.  Needless to say, the older brother was furious.  Not knowing the value of the cards, his little brother had destroyed his holy items.  The man telling the story particularly remembers how good the Hank Aaron rookie card looked glue to the cheap notebook paper.  It is currently selling on Ebay for over $100,000.

I lived in Salt Lake City UT for nine years.  I remember when Laura and I visited Salt Lake about three years before we moved there.  We couldn’t take our eyes off those majestic Wasatch mountains.  The gray and purple color contrasted with the blue of the sky and actually left you breathless.  Then we moved to the Salt Lake area.  Every day I was able to view the beautiful Wasatch peaks right outside my living room window.  Every day I was able to almost reach out and touch those mountains as I drove Amelia to school and myself to work.  Yet after about a month of living there, those beautiful mountains almost blended into the background of the rest of life.  They became routine instead of special.  They became ordinary instead of holy.  I took them for granted instead of pausing to notice their beauty.  Several years ago when Laura and I returned to Salt Lake City for the National Association’s annual meeting and conference, the first words out of mouths were, “I had forgotten how beautiful this place is!  Just look at those mountains!”  Once again we couldn’t take our eyes off the Wasatch and were genuinely moved by their presence on the east side of the valley.

Sometimes we fail to see the beauty, the sacredness, or the importance in things.  Our daily routine dulls our senses as to our blessings.  Our assumptions about power overlook things small or quiet.  Our belief that God might be working in another place or at another time or in another person can blind us to the opportunity we have to respond to God’s call in this very moment.

This morning’s Scripture lesson is the call of Moses from the book of Exodus.  I am planning on having a Zoom study on Exodus beginning in the month of September so hopefully this morning’s sermon is a preview of coming attractions.  Having fled from Pharaoh after killing an abusive Egyptian overlord, Moses’ life had been completely changed.  He had been transformed from an adopted prince of Egypt to a shepherd tending his father-in-law’s flock in the faraway Midian desert.

`           Now this wasn’t just an ordinary out of the way place.  The first verse of our reading this morning says, “He led his flock beyond the wilderness.”  Beyond the wilderness.  It doesn’t get any further away from important than that.  Looking for pasture in that beyond the wilderness place, Moses inadvertently camped at the foot of Mount Horeb, the mountain of God, a place that would figure prominently in the history of God’s people.  Moses didn’t have a clue about what a special place he had chosen to lay his head, until he saw that curious sight.  A bush was on fire and it was not consumed.  It just kept burning and burning.  Our reading says that “the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the bush.”  But Moses didn’t see the angel.  All he saw was the burning bush.  At first, it didn’t appear that Moses was particularly awestruck.  He was merely curious.  “I must turn aside and look at this great sight and see why the bush is not burned up.”

Calvin Seminary’s Stan Mast writes, “That is how this epic theophany began- with a curious sight.  It is fascinating and telling how often the story makes reference to seeing.  Maybe after all those years of invisibility, God needed to be seen to be believed….Using the curious sight to gain Moses’ attention, God now has something to say, something that will change Moses’ life and the history of the world.”

God and Moses then engaged in a conversation.  God called Moses by name.  God identified the moment as holy and sacred.  God identified Godself.  And then God got down to business.  God was ready to act, to deliver God’s people from their bondage in Egypt.  But God wasn’t going to do this alone.  God was going to act through a mere mortal, a flawed one at that.  This would be God’s way of working in history.  Sure, we have a few stories in our sacred text where God flashes unrelenting divine power.  But here God began this pattern of using human beings, usually humans who aren’t very excited about their role in divine projects.  Our God is a God who keeps promises but who keep those promises by working with and through the members of the community of the faithful.

Moses was minding his own business.  Moses was in a place so far away from the holy that it was described as beyond the wilderness.  Perhaps Moses thought he had everything in his life planned out for a man on the run, a man wanted by the powers that be.  Yet in that distant and perhaps all too familiar place, something changed.  God appeared.  God spoke.  God could be seen.  God talked and reached out to Moses in such a way that his life and the life of his people would never be the same.  Ordinary experience became holy ground.

Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman sadly suggests that our modern age is a place where we can live with the “heresy of the uncalled life.”  In his words, an uncalled life is a life that does not recognize the holy ground on which it is lived.  An uncalled life is an autonomous existence in which there is not intrusion, no disruption or refinement, no surprise appearance or utterance of the Holy.

Could it be that until the current pandemic, there were no bushes on fire for us?  Could it be that we were so immersed into our normal lives and routine, living today as if tomorrow will be the same that we never noticed the presence of the divine?  Could it be that until our experience was interrupted by COVID 19, we seldom if ever thought about what was truly important, sacred, or holy?  We were so busy doing all things in that place beyond the wilderness that we failed to notice the mountain of God that stood right us.  I believe that in the midst of pandemic, our senses are more attune to the idea that we stand on holy ground.  Today we are more likely to see burning bushes and hear the voice of God that speaks to us.

In her book, An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor writes that reverence is one of the essential moves a human being must learn to make if they want to live a life of wisdom.  She says “Reverence is the recognition of something greater than the self-something that is beyond human creation or control, that transcends human understanding….Reverence stands in awe of something- something that dwarfs the self, that allows human beings to sense the full extent of our limits- so that we can begin to see one another more reverently as well.”

Reverence is the awareness of holy ground.  The story of Moses teaches us that reverence requires a willingness to pay attention to small things, to live mindfully through the ordinary, to participate fully even in insignificant things.  Reverence means a willingness to be open to detours and side trips.  What made Moses reverent was his willingness to turn aside.  Whatever else he was supposed to be doing and wherever else he was supposed to be going could wait.  Moses recognized the moment, understood he was standing on holy ground, and saw a revelation of the divine in the midst of his ordinary life.  He took off his shoes and listened to what God had to say.

 

 

Living a Question

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Living a Question”

Rev. Art Ritter

August 23, 2020

 

 

Matthew 16:13-20

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

 

I heard a news story this week that was somewhat strange.  It was one of those stories that usually comes out of Florida but this one actually occurred in Tennessee.  The story was about a case of mistaken identity, a very strange case of mistaken identity.  A woman named Jade Dodd went to the Department of Motor Vehicles to renew her driver’s license.  She filled out the paperwork, took the exam, paid her fee, and had her photograph taken.  A few days later her new driver’s license arrived.  The identification photo in the lower right hand side of her license was a picture of an empty chair.  Dodd called the state DMV but they did not believe her.  So she took the license into the local office to show them that her photo was actually a photo of a chair.  The Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security told CNN that they believe the error happened when a photo of the empty chair was the last photo taken for the day before putting the camera away, and that somehow the last image for that day was placed on file as the photograph of Jade Dodd.  Dodd’s friends and co-workers are now sending her photos of other empty chairs, asking her if any of the chairs happen to be her relatives.

Questions of identity are part of the journey of life.  William Willimon writes that along with questions like “Why is the sky blue?” when we are young we tend to be full of other questions about our identity.  “Who made me?”  “Why am I here?”  There is the old perception that sometimes those in their teens or early twenties take a year off from school or work to try and “find themselves.”  Sadly, as we grow older our questions about identity may get smaller or at least shallower.  Our identity is found in the pursuit of more tangible things.  We ask, “How much more money do I need to make to be really happy?”  “When will I get the promotion or raise that I deserve?” “When will we ever get to the point of this sermon?”

A colleague of mine in Florida, Shawn Stapleton, shared a delightful post on Facebook this week.  Shawn is a new first-time grandfather.  He wrote, “I remember when I graduated high school.  I was pretty sure I knew who I was.  Then I graduated college.  I was pretty sure I knew who I was and it wasn’t who I was before.  Then I became a dad.  I was floating on air!  I was sure I knew who I was and it wasn’t who I was before.  Then, as I worked and became jaded by the world around me, I became someone different again.  Every win, every loss, they reshaped me.  I have tried to live in such a way that I grew from them.  I always figured there was a lesson or purpose.  Today I am a grandfather, and I think the lessons all led me to this.  I was pretty sure I knew who I was before.  Yet I had no idea.  This is who I am, a grandpa.  I love this little girl…..We will giggle, and drool, and study the world, and try to use our hands, and smell smells and see pretty sights and hear pretty sounds together.  And all the while I will feel like my best self…which is the best gift anyone has even given to me.  I thank God for this little girl.”

In the Scripture reading today, Jesus asks his followers a very tough question about identity.  The scene is strategically placed by the author of the gospel of Matthew.  It follows Jesus’ acceptance of the Canaanite woman and the removal of boundaries that would limit God’s mercy and grace.  It also follows Jesus’ help in feeding a crowd of four thousand people when the disciples said that they did not have enough resources and thus were not able.  The reading for today occurs in the district of Caesarea Philippi, the heart of secular power in that region of the world.  The Roman Governor and Roman army were based in Caesarea Philippi.  It was the place to be if you wanted to be powerful and influential.

Jesus asked, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”  The answers were rather obvious.  John the Baptist.  Elijah.  Jeremiah.  One of the prophets.  Jesus then asked, “But who do you say that I am?”  It suddenly got quieter.  That was a more difficult question to answer.  Peter finally spoke up saying, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”  And Jesus answered him saying, “You are the Rock, the basis of my church.  I will give to you the keys to the kingdom.  You will be able to bind and loose and to pronounce the forgiveness of sins.”

It is interesting that this lesson begins with a Jesus asking a question about who people thought he was.  The lesson then ends with Jesus telling Peter who Peter is.  When Peter understands who Jesus is, Jesus is able to tell Peter what Peter should be all about.  The moment Peter begins to see the real identity of Jesus is the moment when Peter is empowered to do the work of Jesus.  Jesus moves Peter very quickly from a confession of faith to a vocational assignment.  “Upon you, I will build my church.”  Peter’s identity is matched with his perception of Jesus’ identity.  Recognizing God in Jesus, Peter was now called to live as the presence of Christ in the world.

William Willimon writes about a professor friend who grew up within the church but during college and graduate school left the faith.  He was disillusioned with the church’s failure to respond in the Civil Right Movement and became in his own words, “sort of a Christian, but one who didn’t actually practice Christianity, a believer but not a doer.”  The professor became an expert in East-West business relations.  In the 1980’s he had a conversation with an official of the then Soviet Union.  She asked him, “So you are a Christian.  I am an atheist.  Tell me- what difference does your belief in God make in the way you vote, the way you spend your money?  Tell me, when was the last time that you did something because you stopped and asked yourself, ‘What does God want me to do in this case?’”  The professor was stunned.  He said, “I realized that though I believed like a believer, I lived like an atheist.”  It was a stunning moment of recognition that brought him to embrace a more living and meaningful Christian faith.

Who do you say that I am?  That is the question, isn’t it?  That is the reality of our identity in the eyes of God.  How do we answer that question?  Who do we say that Jesus is with our words and actions?  Rick Warren once wrote, “Christian are like teabags.  You don’t know what’s inside until you put them in hot water.”  Who do you say that Jesus is?  Canned, feel good, sentimental answers won’t do.  The quotation of Bible verses or theological beliefs won’t cut the mustard.  The answer is never merely academic or abstract.  It always has a context.  That’s what makes it so hard.

Who is Jesus in the midst of this pandemic, where it seems that every choice we make is one of risk, and when fear and uncertainty weighs us down?

Who is Jesus in the midst of a pandemic where choices have to be made about the health of the public as well as our own health, when our needs to put food on the table must be weighed against the welfare of those around us?

Who is Jesus when conspiracies and untruths are the order of the day, when we easily speak as truth opinions we’ve heard on the cable news or when we generously click and share social media posts and anecdotes to make us feel better, to make us feel right, or at least make the world seem more logical?

Who is Jesus following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor too many more and the increased racial tensions our country?

Who is Jesus as we approach a bitterly contested national election with an angry and divided electorate?  Who is Jesus as we consider which candidates we will support?

Who is Jesus when our neighbor is hungry or when many in our community can’t find work or must work for a wage that cannot support their family?

Who is Jesus when we are faced with decisions that have no easy answers, when the night is dark and the storms are overwhelming, when being faithful means risking and taking a stand that makes us stand out?

Who is Jesus when we are given news we don’t want to hear or when our life seems to be falling apart?

14th century German theologian Meister Eckhart said, “We are all mothers of God, for God is always waiting to be born.”  In God we find our identity and in our actions God is given an identity in our world.  There are the moments in which we understand who Jesus is and what he is calling us to be.  In those moments, things shift dramatically, we see things differently, and we find a new identity in ourselves.  But it is not enough just to confess Jesus as the Messiah and Lord.  The acknowledgement must be one of practice and not theory.  We must live out understanding of Jesus identity in the understanding of our God-given identity, in our relationships, with our bank accounts, with our time, with our energy, with our ballots, and with our choices.

William Willimon asks the question we must all ask in considering our identity:  Do we believe just what the church believes about Jesus?  Or do we believe what Jesus believes about us?  In our answer lies our true identity.  Who is Jesus?  The world is watching for our answer.

 

A New Perspective

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“A New Perspective”

Rev. Art Ritter

August 16, 2020

 

Matthew 15: 21-28

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

During the pandemic, I have done my best to do what I can to maintain my health.  I have been more diligent about exercise.  My daily schedule includes a run or walk or visit to the elliptical machine.  I am trying to eat a little better.  With the help of my personal dietitian, who happens to be my spouse, I am eating a lot more fruits and vegetables and less red meat.  This change in diet and behavior wasn’t something I consciously planned.  But its evolvement has now led to a more intentional effort to live healthier.

Most of you at Meadowbrook know that I have some strong opinions about certain foods.  I get a lot of teasing, especially around Thanksgiving, about my dislike of pumpkin pie.  I am constantly reminded that just about everybody loves the taste and the effect of coffee.  Me – I can’t stand it.  I prefer to drink my coffee in an empty cup.  There are other foods that I would just as soon avoid:  hummus, squash, sweet potatoes, eggplant, liver, venison, and banana flavored anything.

Until recently my food to avoid list included Brussel sprouts.  I had tried them once or twice in my life and it was a terrible taste experience.  Then one night last spring I roasted some in the oven as a surprise for my lovely wife.  When I took them out of the oven that night I decided to put my personal prejudices aside, take a chance and reassess my opinion of them.  I ate a few and found that they were actually edible.  But I decided I could make them better by adding some onions and lemon pepper and garlic salt.  They now became delicious.  I now cook some weekly on the grill with some redskin potatoes.  As unbelievable as it seemed six months ago, Brussel sprouts are now part of my weekly diet.

Most of the time, we let our personal prejudices and our personal likes and dislikes rule our responses of life.  It is hard to step aside from that accustomed frame of reference to see some new possibility.  We have usually have to be cajoled and persuaded.  We usually get defensive and lash out.  We usually reinforce our opinions and judgements to assure ourselves of the safety and sanity of our own identity in the midst of challenge and attack.

In this time of COVID 19 and upcoming presidential election, opinions and feelings run hot.  Judgments we hear made from other perspectives are either found to be inspiring and supportive or crazy and frightening.  If we are honest with ourselves we can see that each of us labels other people and their beliefs and practices as different.  We each could make a long list of those whose behaviors and opinions we just don’t understand.  While I tend to have strong opinions about food and sports, often the list of what and whom we see as different includes different races, different customs, and different religions.

Andrea Elliott, a reporter for The New York Times, tells of attending a town meeting a few years ago in which the plans for a proposed mosque were being discussed.  One woman spoke against the mosque, asking through her tears, “What happened to my America?  I want my America back.” Our worldview, our prejudices, and our complacency about change moves us to keep things and people that are different from us distant or under the table.  We make unconscious judgements each day about who deserves our help, our kindness, our attention, and even God’s favor.  It is easy for us to grow complacent about how we treat the stranger and those who are different from us.  We want to draw lines and build fences.

In the 15th chapter of Matthew, we read about Jesus encounter with a Canaanite woman.  The incident is only eight verses long but the lesson it speaks to us is lengthy.  Jesus and his disciples were in a region of the country between Tyre and Sidon, a land of pagans with no established temples or religious authorities.  The disciples were probably concerned about what they were doing there in the first place, believing that they should be spending more time preaching and teaching to the Jews.

Suddenly this crazy woman, a Gentile Canaanite, ran up to Jesus screaming at the top of her voice about her demon-infested daughter.  Jesus looked at her but didn’t say a word.  The disciples looked at her and probably wanted to say, “Get this crazy woman out of here before we get caught up in her craziness!”

Finally Jesus made a comment.  “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”  Perhaps the disciples took this as an affirmation of their preferences and prejudices.  Jesus appeared to be telling the woman to “Get lost!”  She was a Canaanite.  She wasn’t a Jew.  She wasn’t part of his agenda.  But Jesus’ words didn’t stop the woman.  She knelt before him just as if she were worshipping.  “Help me!” she cried.  Jesus, more coldly than we can ever imagine him responded, “It is not right to take perfectly good bread meant to feed children and give it to the dogs.”  Ouch.  Jesus called the woman a dog.  It was a slur.  It was an insult.  The disciples probably liked it.  It spoke to their emotion.  Jesus was on their side.  But the insult didn’t stop the woman in her quest for help.  She said, “I may be a dog, but even the dog gets the crumbs and leftovers from the master’s table.”  And with that, Jesus’ attitude completely changed.  “Woman, you have great faith!  You are right.  Even the dogs get fed.  Go home and your daughter will be healed.”

There is no explanation of this scene.  Matthew did not write any commentary in the verses that followed.  The early church didn’t tell us what Jesus was thinking when he said these cold things.  This was the only time in any of the gospel when Jesus ignored someone’s request for help.  Some scholars believe Jesus was toying with the woman, using people’s prejudices to teach the crowd a lesson or two about why such evil should not exist.  It was satire or sarcasm.  Some maintain that Jesus was actually testing the faith of the woman, seeing just how far she would go in believing in his power of healing.  Some commentators say that this incident was a lesson to help define Jesus’ ministry, much as his testing in the wilderness following his baptism.

Still others believe that Jesus was a human being, and that part of his humanness meant that he had to learn about life through situations and experiences, just like we do.  I can only imagine that it was painful or at least uncomfortable for Jesus to step beyond the cultural and religious lines of his day.   Yet he had to come to some understanding about his own limitations and world view, and to be open to new possibilities and potential.   In this story, Jesus encountered something that he previously regarded as a nuisance.  Yet he let the nuisance engage him.  And he let the engagement change him.  Jesus saw and heard a fuller revelation of God in the face and voice of that Canaanite woman.  In offering food to the dogs, the truth of God became clearer.  His outlook, his worldview was lifted to something new.  Jesus, may have believed that his ministry and calling was limited to one people.  But he learned to widen his perspective and to challenge all of us in the church to be like him, to extend the gospel to all people, starting with those who we might feel are least deserving.

Nadia Bolz Weber writes that she was once told that every time we draw a line between us and others, Jesus is on the other side of the line.  On that day, with the Canaanite woman, Jesus saw through his own human tendency to divide and judge and rationalize and opened himself up to God’s divine tendencies to love and speak kindness and show mercy.

Commentator Frederick Dale Bruner writes that Jesus really learned something from this woman.  His heart didn’t change from stingy to loving.  Jesus’ heart was always loving.  But his priorities shifted.  Through this story the gospel of Matthew wants to teach us that we might think we know exactly what is right, and exactly what come first in our priorities; but we always must remain open to what God sends our way.  If we are going to be open to God’s Spirit, then we need to be willing to change everything if that what it takes to be more loving to those we encounter.

In a sermon on this subject, Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Let go!  Step out!  Look a Canaanite in the eye, knock on a strange door, ask an outsider what his life is like, trespass an old boundary, enter a new relationship, push a limit, take a risk, give up playing it safe.”  I might add- trying eating some Brussel sprouts!  “You have nothing to lose but your life the way it has been…with Jesus as our model- and our Lord- we are called to step over the lines we have drawn for ourselves, not because we have to, and not because we ought to, or even because we want to, but because we know that is it our God’s own self who waits for us on the other side.”

 

 

Walking on Water

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Walking on Water”

Rev. Art Ritter

August 9, 2020

 

 

Mathew 14: 22-33

Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

 

 

While on a run the other day I noticed a young girl who was learning to ride a bike with the help of her father.  The pair caught my eyes because the girl, while young, seemed older to me than most first time bicycle riders.   She still had training wheels on her bike and her dad was holding onto the seat as they moved along slowly.   The girl’s face portrayed a look of terror that offered an indication of the great risk that she was taking.

I couldn’t help but recall the experience of my youngest daughter Amelia.  She too was a bit timid of riding a bicycle for a long time.  I remember that when we took the training wheels off and went out to tackle the sidewalk with just two wheels, Amelia did pretty well.  But she didn’t trust herself at all.  I walked along behind her, holding onto her seat as she pedaled.  She would yell, “Daddy, daddy, don’t let go!”  Right about then I would let go.  And Amelia would pedal down the sidewalk safely for a few feet.  Then she would glance back and notice and I had let go.  Immediately her successful ride ended.  She either fell to the ground or simply put her feet to the ground.  “Daddy, why did you let go?  I told you not to let go!  I can’t do this unless you hold onto me!

This morning’s Scripture lesson is from the gospel of Matthew’s account of the disciples facing a challenge much more formidable than learning how to ride a bicycle.  They were battling a terrible storm at sea.  Weary of the day’s activities of healing and teaching, Jesus had gone ahead and was praying from the safety of the peaceful shore.  The disciples were on a boat, facing the wrath of the wind and the waves as a storm front passed over the Sea of Galilee.  In the midst of the storm, Jesus came to his disciples, walking on the water.  At first they believed he was a ghost.  Perhaps they were more afraid of him than they were the wind and the waves.  Jesus then told them, “It is me.  Take heart and have no fear.”  Peter still wasn’t reassured.  “If it is really you, let me walk on the water with you.”  Of course Peter took only a step or two, noticed the wind and the waves, became frightened and began to sink.  He cried out to Jesus who reached out his hand saying, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”  And when they got back into the boat, the wind and storm ceased.

There are two common ways of contemplating this piece of Scripture.  One view is to say “If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat.”  That was actually the title of a best selling book by John Ortberg back in 2001.  If you have enough faith to trust in Jesus in all circumstances, then you can find the courage to do great things for God.  When you really get to know Jesus, when you follow his command to step out of the boat, you get to walk upon the waves, and that is when you show the world what your faith is made of.  Ortberg teaches that Peter’s initial faith is something to be applauded and that his later doubt is something to be avoided.  Ortberg calls those who would hang on timidly to the shelter and safety of the boat, “Boat Potatoes.”

The problem with this interpretation is that at the end of hearing the teaching, most of us will feel worse about ourselves and our faith.  Most, if not all of us, fail at these tests.  Some might feel motivated about the walking on water thing, ready to give it a try.  Yet one commentator notes that after hearing a sermon on this scripture, we know that the whole walking on water thing will fail before we even leave the parking lot.  We want to believe, but rationally and emotionally we just know that we will sink immediately after leaving the boat.  Walking on water is beyond our capability of faith.

The other view is that Peter should have just been quiet in the first place.  When he demanded that Jesus show him how to walk on the water, he put Jesus to an unfair test.  He asked Jesus to prove he had the divine power, he challenged his authority, instead of remaining faithful, quiet, and obedient in the boat.  According to this perspective, faith means staying in the boat, trusting that Jesus put your there and will keep you secure there.  Peter has no chance alone against the wind and the waves of chaos.

The problem with this view of the story is that we know that a life of faith should demand some courage and resolve.  Faith can’t be exercised without encountering something akin to a storm or tested without some wind and waves.  Trusting Jesus surely must mean more that hiding quietly in a boat without anything to offer to the situation.

As I read this passage over again in the midst of a world wide pandemic, I embrace a different interpretation.  It is not one that tells me that the only way to find Jesus is to get out of the boat with faith strong enough to walk on dark and raging waters.  And it is not one that tells me the only way to be truly faithful is to trust that Jesus will control everything while all I do is take an occasional peek from the security of the boat.  When I hear this story today I find the lesson is that somehow in the midst of that dark and stormy night, somehow in the midst of tremendous vulnerability, the presence of God was there.  God’s own Son stood right in front of the disciples.  Jesus didn’t require the faith to walk on water.  Jesus didn’t demand faith that would trust everything without even trying.  Jesus wanted his disciples to know that he was there, and that he would be there with them in the midst of trial and fear.  That assurance of that presence was enough.  Faith was not to be proven in leaving the boat or to be failed by hiding in the boat.  It came simply through trusting in his presence.

In a Fourth of July weekend sermon at Washington National Cathedral, columnist and commentator David Brooks talks about faith as the ability being able to see beauty in a storm.  He quoted Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik who understood how bumpy faith is, especially in moments like we are living through now.  The popular ideology is that religious experience is tranquil and neatly ordered, tender and delicate.  But on the contrary, it is exceptionally complex, rigorous and tortourous.  Religion is not a refuge of grace and mercy for the despondent and the desperate, or an enchanted stream for crushed spirits, but a raging clamorous turnt of man’s consciousness with all its crises, pangs, and torments.  What keeps faith alive during storms like now is the awareness of the essential goodness of life and the one who is with us through it all.

The disciples came to understand that in the midst of following Jesus they would sometimes float and sometimes sink.  Sometimes they would have moments of doubt and fear and sometimes they would feel perfectly capable of surfing through the highest of waves.  In each of those times, in every time, Jesus is there, with arms outstretched, ready to provide us whatever is needed to remind us of the promise of life and to get us to a safe and secure place to understand it all.

Calvin Seminary’s Scott Hoezee writes, “if you want to walk on water, you have to indeed get out of the boat.  Now and again the community of faith needs the courage and vision of people who step out in faith.  But there are times when life in the boat requires nothing more than recognizing your doubts and your fears and to keep rowing against the wind and the waves to where you know the presence of God resides.” You press on- not because your faith has removed all of the doubts and storms and fear.  You press on- not because you are confident that can handle the wind and the waves alone.  You press on- because you believe in Jesus when he said, “It is I.  Do not be afraid!  I am with you.”

In that same sermon I mentioned earlier, David Brooks writes that storms are a part of life.  We can have a normal body response of fight or flight.  Perhaps fight is trying to walk on the water triumphantly and flight is hiding in the boat helplessly.  But another style of response emerges from the part of us that doesn’t have any shape or size or color or weight.  Our soul.  It is the part of us that gives meaning to things.  It is the one that calls us to hunger for beauty, to pay attention to compassionate actions, to sacrifice for a neighbor, and to keep a neighbor safe.  Brooks says these actions are the kind that Jesus talked about in the Sermon on the Mount, vulnerability in the face of danger and gentleness in the midst of bitterness.  They are acts that move us closer to the divine in the midst of storms and open the hearts of others who ride the waves with us.

In this time we find ourselves helpless upon the waves, tossed about by the uncertain winds of forces beyond our control.   Yet we are assured that the very presence of God is always with us, even in such darkness, even in ways that surprise us and startle us.  In our fear and confusion, someone walks toward us who chooses to be with us.  The lesson of this story is that God, through Jesus is always trying to be with us even in the midst of our storms.

In The Ring

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“In The Ring”

Rev. Art Ritter

August 2, 2020

 

Genesis 32: 22-31

The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had.

Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

 

I am not much of a wrestling fan.  I have never been able to understand the attraction of so-called professional wrestling.  I have never attended “Wrestlemania” or watched “Monday Night Raw” on television.  I could identify some wrestlers of a few years ago:  Hulk Hogan, Macho Man Randy Savage, Stone Cold Steve Austin, the Undertaker, and Nature Boy Ric Flair- but I wasn’t a fan of any of them.  And I couldn’t name a single popular wrestler today.  I once attended a wrestling show at a local high school.  It was designed as a fundraiser so at least I felt good giving some of my money to charity.  The problem was that I kept waiting to be hit on the head with a folding chair the whole evening.  I guess the bottom line is that I have no interest in watching people with artificially created big muscles throw each other around and out of the ring and then perform synchronized and well-rehearsed tumbling maneuvers.  I do not live vicariously through the entertainment driven good vs. evil rivalries that seem to be the foundation for every match and wrestler.

I don’t know much about amateur wrestling or what I would call “real” wrestling either.  I know that we’ve had a few good high school wrestlers right here at Meadowbrook Congregational Church.  The Gross and Sparling boys participated on their high school team and did quite well.  My mother’s uncle was a medal winner wrestler in the Allied games that immediately followed World War I.  I have all the respect in the world for these guys.  When I was in high school many years ago, the wrestling coach approached me about trying out for the team.  Back then I weighed about 125 pounds and he was looking for lightweight wrestlers with long legs.  I was flattered.  I went to a couple of practices to check things out and I just about died.  My lungs burned and my heart wanted to leap out of my chest.  I did not enjoy the sweaty physical contact of a one-on-one chess match.  I made the wise decision to not try out for the team.

This morning’s Scripture lesson is a description of a wrestling match.  Jacob and apparently God are in the ring or on the mat together.  I have always though this to be an interesting description of a dialogue with the divine.  Wrestling.  Wrestling with God.  Jacob isn’t quietly listening.  Jacob isn’t talking to God in a manner of faithful following.  Jacob isn’t praying and waiting for God to give him an answer.  He is wrestling- grappling and struggling with God from sundown to sunrise.

Jacob’s wrestling match occurs at an important point in his life.  Previously he had lived the life of a scoundrel- taking advantage of other people and situations that might make him more important.  And he is now on a journey; from the land of Laban his father-in-law, from whom he has gained two wives and a certain amount of prosperity in sheep and goats and cattle.  And he is heading home, to the place of his birth, where he must encounter his brother Esau, the brother from whom he wrestled away a birthright and his father’s blessing.  Jacob is fearful that Esau might extract revenge when they meet again.

Against this scene, Jacob settles down beside the road for a good night’s sleep.  During the night a stranger comes into the camp and engages Jacob in an all night wrestling match.  Is it God?  Is it an angel of God?  Is it another person?  Is Jacob simply wrestling with himself?  All of these are real possibilities given the situation.  But what is clear is that Jacob sees this wrestling match as a struggle with God.  He says, “I have seen God face to face and yet my life is preserved.”  Jacob believes that he is in the ring with God!

In his wrestling match, Jacob learns that God was always with him in the past struggles.  He was in the habit of trying to deal with things himself, to be self-sufficient, to control and manipulate everyone and everything around him.  At this point in his life, Jacob was avoiding conflict, running away from his problems.  Like us, perhaps he was hoping that they would just go away.  Like us, maybe he was thinking he didn’t want to take the energy and hard work it requires to deal with our situation honestly.  He was willing to run and hide from reality.

But Jacob learned that God wanted him in the ring.  When God picks a fight with us, God want us to wrestle with circumstances honestly and thoughtfully.  God wants us to deal with our created intention and truth about ourselves.  God wants us to understand that part of the human experience is wrestling with those things we don’t know, don’t understand, and can’t control.  And God wants us to know that God is there with us, whenever we enter that ring in faith.  Regardless of the point of our struggle, we are called by God and God is with us.

Secondly, the story of Jacob’s struggle teaches us that our wrestling with God can be painful.  Perhaps we tend to equate pain with failure but pain simply can be a humble reminder that some things in life cannot be controlled.  There are bruises as well as blessings.

Amy Laura Hall compares our desire for an orderly, stress free life to a Martha Stewart magazine.  “When we consider the seamless beauty…the well-coifed guests, well-behaved children, the clean white tablecloths and clean people- it is easy to become bewildered by our comparatively soiled lives.  Her prescription is clear.  Find the right votive candle set, omelet recipe, shawl pattern, simple yet elegant hairdo- and life will become better.  Trained to want a life that is well-ordered and efficient, a portrait worthy of a cover, we despair over the fragile, flawed, drooling, limping, but blessed lives that are our own.”  But it is in the failure and the weakness, and in the participation of the struggle, in the honest acknowledgement of pain that we encounter God face to face.  Pain becomes the prelude to possibilities.

I had to learn this lesson myself recently.  Perhaps you have too.  Within the midst of pandemic it easy to want to deal with things later, when there is a vaccine, when things are normal.  I tell myself that I will engage more in the complications of life when things are a little more under my control.  But it doesn’t happen that way.  There are issues with which to wrestle even while socially distanced.  There are blessings to discover even in the midst of pandemic.  There is a divine presence to encounter even when and perhaps especially when we are fragile and vulnerable and fearful.

Finally, Jacob’s wrestling match with the divine illustrates that our struggles with God have the power to transform us.  Jacob limped away a changed man.  He suddenly had new wisdom and courage and confidence to deal with uncertain situations ahead.  He could now meet his brother face to face.  He no longer assumed hostility that required a response of evil.  He could see grace and was willing to respond with grace.  He was open to confess his sins and receive forgiveness.  He as now to be called Israel, the one who strives with God.  Jacob said, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”

In her book Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope, Joan Chittister writes that this particular passage reflects a spiritually of struggle.  She says, “God is not a puppeteer and God is not a magic act.  God is the ground of our being, the energy of life, the goodness out of which all things are intended to grow to fullness.  Yet it is always a struggle.  How can we possibly deal with the great erupting changes of life and come away more whole because of having been through them that we would possibly have been without them?  To do that takes a spirituality of struggle.”  Perhaps therein lies some hope for our lives in these difficult hours.  In this struggle, in this uncertainty, we will become more whole.  We will see God more clearly in wrestling with God than we ever would have making living life with no speedbumps.

Our Scripture lesson today doesn’t complete the story.  There is an epilogue.  In the morning, a limping Jacob, went out to meet his brother.  He didn’t know what he would encounter.  He organized things carefully, putting his maids and their children in front of the procession, then his wife he found less valuable and her children, and then his beloved wife Rachel with his favorite son Joseph.  At least he was courageous enough to place himself ahead of them all!  When he saw his brother, Esau ran to Jacob, embracing him and weeping.  When Jacob offered half of all that he owned, Esau was puzzled.  Jacob replied, “I do this for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God.”  You see, Jacob understood that whatever blessing he received or whatever new understanding he gained in his struggle with God, it didn’t mean anything unless he lived it out in his midst of his life.  In the end, Jacob learned that he could not earn God’s favor or control God’s grace, he could only struggle with both in the midst of life’s issues.  And in the struggle he would find the faith to trust in God’s presence no matter what would come his way.

A God Who Must be Discovered

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“A God Who Must be Discovered”

Rev. Art Ritter
July 26, 2020

 

Matthew 13: 31-33, 44-52
He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. “Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

 

When I was very young, my family lived in a small house in downtown Stanton, Michigan. I use the term “downtown” very loosely. We moved out to the farm just outside of town when I was around 4 years old. One of our neighbors was Mrs. Lower. I don’t remember much about Mrs. Lower other than that she was a nice lady who took my brother John to Sunday School at the nearby church. Eventually the whole family started going to church and well, you know the rest of the story! I don’t recall Mrs. Lower ever yelling at us for being too noisy or for running through her yard during our play. Somehow she put up with three crazy neighbor kids, all between 2 and 5 years old.

A few years after we moved to the farm I remember Mrs. Lower hosting our family at her home one night. She had set up her old film projector and showed us some old movies of her vacation trips. It wasn’t real exciting. Many of us mature folk might remember when that was kind of a typical social experience. Dinner and home movies. Yet at the end of her show she presented a movie that starred my family. There were scenes of us lined up, perhaps getting ready to go to church, so my Mom and Dad must have cooperating in the filming. But there were other scenes, when my brother and sister and I obviously had no idea that someone was recording us. And it was filmed during a period of three or four years. We watched my brother and me playing baseball when I could hardly stand or walk. We watched my brother riding his tricycle and pulling a wagon with me and my sister inside. We watched my siblings and me trying to steal the large wooden cardinal out of Mrs. Lower’s birdbath, never realizing that she not only knew of our theft but that she was recording every minute of it. Perhaps such filming of neighbors wouldn’t be very appropriate in today’s society but those secret clips provided my family with a treasure that I still enjoy watching today. Such a gift was a hidden surprise.

When we lived in Salt Lake City, we had some beautiful raspberry bushes that grew on the terrace in our backyard. They didn’t produce a large crop, but they offered enough delicious raspberries to satisfy us for three or four weeks of summer. During our time there, those raspberry bushes tried to make their way into the surrounding terraced area that I used to plant tomatoes and cucumbers and peppers. Some of them even pushed their way into my beautiful green lawn. I recall always having to dig out the roots of raspberry bushes.
One day as I was standing on a step ladder, painting the seven foot fence that separated our property from my neighbors, I decided to peek over the fence to see what was in my neighbors’ yard, carefully and without fanfare of course, like a good neighbor would do. I was amazed. All I could see was raspberry bushes, taking up most of their backyard. Suddenly I came to an understanding. Evidently all of my raspberries were the gift of grace from my neighbor’s bushes. My raspberries were really my neighbor’s raspberries that had made their way under the fence and into my yard. The raspberries I enjoyed and the raspberry bush roots that I had to dig out, were compliments of the life and vigor planted by someone else many years before.
Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung had an inscription on a plaque that was over the doorway of his home. It read in Latin, “Bidden or unbidden, God is present.” Whether realized or understood, God is always revealed in the everyday events of our lives.

This morning we continue on with Jesus’ teachings from the 13th chapter of Matthew. Today Jesus offers four short parables: one about a mustard seed; one about yeast or leaven; and one about a treasure hidden in a field; and finally one about a pearl that is so valuable a man sells everything he owns to buy it. The parables of the mustard seed and the leaven are usually treated as parables of growth. But the real lesson perhaps lies in the sharp contrast between the initial state of things and the final outcome. Something that starts small and unnoticed and perhaps unnecessary and unwanted becomes an impressive source of power. It is something unexpected.

Jesus says that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed. A tiny, perhaps the tiniest of seeds. The emphasis is on God’s action in the world that is almost unnoticed but which yields results that contradict its unimpressive appearance. Nadia Bolz Weber asks “what kind of off-brand kingdom this is? It’s like saying someone is the smartest of all idiots or the mightiest of baby dolls.” The leaven illustration isn’t any better. Such yeast was considered impure, something of which Jews were required to rid their entire house before celebrating Holy Days. In the ancient world, this yeast used as a positive symbol of God’s influence was widely regarded as an agent of corruption. We might think that the Kingdom of God should demand more dignity than that. It should be pure and powerful or shiny or impressive. But yet the Kingdom of God comes even now in surprising ways, at work in people and events and situations- perhaps even in a global pandemic- in acts and words that we regard as insignificant or impossible. And God’s actions have results that are beyond our wildest expectations. God is at work in people and events and situations- like national unrest and protests- in things that offer us hope that runs counter to the status quo, in things that demand change from the status quo and from our standards of worldly success.

The second set of parables, the treasure and the pearl, stress our human response to what God is doing. Like buried treasure, God’s activity in our world is hidden and has to be uncovered. Like a pearl of great value, we have to want to find God’s activity, we have to seek it out for it to be found. The emphasis is on the response made by the discoverer. He sells all that he has to take possession of what he has found. When we find God’s presence in the midst of our world and our lives, we are to set aside all other interests and concerns and emerge ourselves in that grace and mercy. Like a buried treasure, God’s activity is hidden and must be discovered. Like a valuable pearl, God’s presence must be sought in order to be found. When our eyes are opened to see what God is doing, we must commit ourselves wholeheartedly in faith.

Perhaps Jesus was merely trying to encourage the efforts of those early Christians to be faithful, to be faithful in following him in a world that seems stacked against them and where even the most faithful of actions don’t always seem to make a difference. There are huge threats around us these days. We are confronted with problems for which no one has answers. We long for a day in which we might have more certainty and more comfort, but don’t know if that day is within the scope of our vision. In this time, we are to seek and to be the presence of God in small and seemingly insignificant ways. We are look for God in ways that make sense and in ways that are hidden and surprising. We are to seek the ways of God in all that we do and with a desire that established new priorities and bring us to new behaviors.

William Willimon writes that whenever the Church starts thinking too big, or whenever the disciples of Jesus start thinking too predictably, we become a silent partner to the power of the world. Yet history teaches us that with the world being what it is, whenever the Church is most faithful, the world has characterized it as small and apparently insignificant. When we see ourselves as a mustard seed rather than a sequoia, we may just be at the spot where God can use us. When we see ourselves as unwanted yeast in the carefully orchestrated recipe of society, we might be working toward following God’s intention. When we find a treasure in the fields of this crazy world and reorient ourselves toward buying it, or a pearl of such value that we are moved to seek it with our whole hearts, then we are actively following God and acknowledging that there is more of God’s word to be said and more of God’s way to be discovered.

Whatever else we learn from these four short parables, it is good to know that Jesus taught us that the Kingdom of God is close at hand, right there in the midst of our lives. It is not something to be found in an ivory tower or in the rules and demands of religious tradition. It is right there in ordinary life, perhaps right in front of our face without us knowing it. Perhaps it has been there all along and now we understand it. And when we see it and when we understand, we are surprised. We are made new. God loves us so much that God will not leave us alone.

Living With Weeds

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Living With Weeds”

Rev. Art Ritter

July 19, 2020

 

 

Matthew 13: 24-30, 36-43

He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”

Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!

 

While setting up for last week’s outdoor service I noticed that we have a healthy crop of weeds in the flower and shrub beds surrounding the church.  Because we have such a large building and property, it is takes a lot of work to keep things looking nice and during this spring and summer of pandemic, it has been even harder.  We did have a work day in June that was well attended but it seems as if the weeds we pulled then have been replaced by bigger and better weeds.  After the service last Sunday, Sharon Brown came up to me with a wonderful idea that was about ten minutes too late.  She suggested that before the benediction and right before we left, I should have told everyone at the service to pull a few weeds and take them home!  If we have another outdoor service, perhaps we can follow up on that idea.  In the meantime you are welcome to stop by the church at any time and enjoy some social distanced weed pulling.

This seems to be the time of year when weeds are most prevalent at my home also.  I have shared with you before the grief that the neighbor’s cottonwood trees cause me.  First it is the little seed pods that clog my gutters.  Then it is the white fluff which covers my deck and enters the kitchen like a winter snow, almost ankle deep.  And then the curse of the cottonwood doesn’t end.  Now all of our landscape beds are filled with tiny, little volunteer trees, seeds that have fallen upon good soil and trying to put down roots to become growing trees.  I have spent a lot of time recently pulling out these nuisance trees, along with the weeds.  Even in the drought these plants seem hearty enough to survive.

I shake my head when I consider how much time and energy Laura puts into trying to nurture a bed of annual flowers or I spend in reseeding a section of my front lawn.  It seems our failure rate is about fifty percent.  Things that I want to grow sometimes don’t seem to grow.  But then there are the seeds from my neighbor’s cottonwood and the helicopters from my maple trees and the dandelions from my other neighbor’s lawn.  They seem to find a way to plant themselves and grow without any sort of problem.  There is no strategy or technique or effort.  There is only growth.

In the thirteenth chapter of Matthew, Jesus tells lots of parables.  He tells two parables about a sower sowing seeds.  In the second of these he speaks of the Kingdom of Heaven being like someone who sowed good seed in a field, only to have someone else come along and sow some weeds while he was sleeping.  When the plants grew there was wheat and weeds alike.  The man’s workers offered to go out into the field and pull all of the weeds.  But the sower replied, “No, because when you gather the weeds you will destroy the good crops as well.”  And the sower seems quite certain that an enemy has done this, someone who disagrees with him or dislikes him for some reason.  Maybe he is a little paranoid, maybe he just finds himself in a situation of where there he feels like he is standing alone with his opinions, behaviors, and practices.  It is those with whom he disagrees, those whose choices seems to threaten him who have planted the unfriendly and unwanted seed.  Yet he is patient and forbearing, willing to allow the separation of the good and the bad at a later harvest time.

Perhaps the man had workers like me in his fields- people who couldn’t tell a weed from a flower!  Sometimes even a trained eye finds it hard to tell the difference between a good plant and a bad one.  In her book The Seeds of Heaven, Barbara Brown Taylor writes of the experience of uprooting the raspberries by mistake or protecting something that looked interesting but turned out to be a thistle.  She says, “I don’t know what makes us think we are any smarter about ourselves or about the other people in our lives.  We are so quick to judge, as if we were sure we knew the difference between wheat and weeds, good seed and bad, but that is seldom the case.  Turn us loose with our machetes and there is no telling what we will chop down and what we will spare.  Meaning to be good servants, we go out to do battle with the weeds and end up standing in a pile of wheat.”

Most scholars believe that the gospel of Matthew was written to a community that was struggling with each other.  Jewish Christians were certain they belonged to the way of Jesus because of their heritage.  They had always followed the rules.  Gentile Christians were celebrating the freedom from the law, feeling like they didn’t need to obey all of those crazy obsolete standards of the Jews.  These parables were written to address the question about how these two groups can coexist peacefully and with purpose.  How can they understand one another?  How can they forgive one another?  How do they realize that they are excusing their own sins all the while they judge the sins of others?

We live in a world much like that.  There are lots of weeds and wheat growing together in our current social and political climate.  We cry “Black Lives Matter” and someone shouts back “All Lives Matter.”  There are plenty of peaceful protests but some fixate only on acts of looting, arson, and violence.  When I watch the news at night I see a political ad about or against a certain candidate.  Ten minutes later I see another ad that offers me the totally opposite information.  When we look about us, it is hard to understand the views of people who we love and care about deeply.  With such division upon the important issues facing us, can we ever be a weed-free field?  In the midst of pandemic, the behavior of others worries or at least puzzles us.  Some don’t seem to take the COVID-19 situation seriously, casting doubt on the words of scientists and health specialists.  The failure to wear masks or practice social distancing makes us shake our heads or leaves us shaking in our shoes.  There is honest and painful debate about the re-opening of the economy and colleges and public schools.  How can we thrive or even survive when our opinions and practices are so divergent?  How can we love someone who believes things that are so different, and in our view so hurtful or harmful?

How do we improve the condition of our world?  What are we supposed to do with the “evildoers” of our day?  How do we improve the crop to create a harvest of righteousness and justice?  In a sermon in another book, Bread of Angels, Barbara Brown Taylor says, “Our job, in a mixed field, is not to give ourselves to the enemy by devoting all our energy to the destruction of the weeds, but to mind our own business, so to speak- our business being the reconciliation of the world to God through the practices of unshielded love.  If we will give ourselves to that, God will take care of the rest- the harvest, the reapers, the fire- all of it.  Our job is to be wheat, even in a messy field- to go on bearing witness to the one who planted us among those who seem to have been planted by someone else.”

Taylor then offers a story of the twentieth century Pope John XXIII, born Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli.  Pope John would end his lengthy prayers each night by saying to himself, “Who is running the church?  You or the Holy Spirit?”  Once he assured himself of the answer he again said to himself, “Very well.  Go to sleep Angelo.”  Taylor urges us to follow this example of prayer, perhaps as the only way we can sleep through pandemic and division and unrest and uncertainty.  “Stay true to our roots and to the one who planted us, believing him when he tells us that the harvest is his.”

In his book Rip Van Winkle and the Pumpkin Lantern, author Seth Adam Smith writes, “Perhaps we are not really sinners in the hands of an angry God, after all.  Perhaps we are all more like seedlings in the hands of a wise gardener.”

Finally and again, Barbara Brown Taylor tells a modern parable of the wheat and the weeds.  “One afternoon in the middle of the growing season, a bunch of farmhands decided to surprise their boss and weed his favorite wheatfield.  No sooner had they begun to work, however, than they began to argue-first about which of the wheat-looking things were weeds and then about the rest of the weeds.  Did the Queen Anne’s Lace pose a real threat to the wheat, or could it stay for decoration?  And the blackberries?  They would be ripe in just a week or two, but they were, after all, weeds- or were they?  And the honeysuckle, it seemed a shame to pull up anything that smelled so sweet.  About the time they had gotten around to debating the purple asters, the boss showed up and ordered them out of the field.  Dejected, they did as they were told.  Back at the barn he took their machetes from them, poured them some lemonade, and made them sit down where they could watch the way the light moved across the field.  At first, all they could see were the weeds and what a messy field it was, what a discredit to them and their profession.  But as the summer wore on they marveled at the profusion of growth- tall wheat surrounded by tall goldenrod, ragweed, and brown-eyed Susans.  The tares and the poison ivy flourished alongside the Cherokee roses and the milkweed, and it was a mess, but a glorious mess, and when it had all bloomed and ripened and gone to seed the reapers came.  Carefully, gently, expertly, they gathered the wheat and made the rest into bricks for the oven where the bread was baked.  And the fire that the weeds made was excellent, and the flour that the wheat made was excellent, and when the harvest was over the owner called them all together- the farmhands, the reapers, and all the neighbors- and broke bread with them, bread that was the final distillation of that whole messy, gorgeous, mixed up field, and they all agreed that it was like no bread any of them had ever tasted before and that it was very, very good.  Let those who have ears to hear, hear.”  AMEN.