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Frank Maynard

On use of scripture to defend our actions

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I have been asked more than a few times this week how we as Christians should feel about Attorney General Sessions’ use of Romans 13:1-7 to justify public support of government policies. The Attorney General offered the Scripture to defend immigration policies that force a separation of children from their parents. This passage has been a controversial one for centuries, using by members of the church in America in the 1850’s to support the institution of slavery; and by members of the German church in the 1930’s and 1940’s to justify allegiance to Nazi policy. In the letter to Romans, Paul clearly supports the idea of obedience to civil government as such government is designed to be for the greater good.

I don’t know why Paul wrote as he did. Some of my colleagues have ventured a theory that he knew the mail was being examined by Roman authorities; thus he didn’t want to aggravate them. Paul was a citizen of the empire, although history proves that he didn’t always follow the rules and the laws and was imprisoned for that and perhaps even was killed because he refused to adhere to civil authority. I believe that Paul spoke of obedience to authority that supported good and punished evil. I believe that is why he wrote as he did. If those roles were ever reversed, then he believed that the government was no longer ordained by God. In other words, the limit of law was proper devotion to the intention of God.

One chapter earlier, in Romans 12, Paul wrote:

“Let love be genuine, hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.”

In the verse immediately following the Attorney General’s quote Paul wrote,

“Owe no one anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” Love your neighbor as yourself.

I don’t pretend to have the truth. I certainly don’t have all the answers. I can only advise that this is a time to search deeply into our faith and to examine God’s intention and the words and example of Jesus the Christ. I hope that in doing so, whatever things that separate and divide us as Christians can bring us together in living in a Christ-like manner. I pray for our nation, our leaders, and those who our government serves.

-The Rev. Art Ritter

What to Wish For?

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“What to Wish for?”

Rev. Art Ritter
July 30, 2017

1 Kings 3:5-12
At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, “Ask what I should give you.” And Solomon said, “You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart toward you; and you have kept for him this great and steadfast love, and have given him a son to sit on his throne today. And now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?” It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. God said to him, “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you.

Three men were once marooned on a desert island. As the days slowly went by, they dreamed of what it would be like to be rescued from that island, at home with their friends and family, back at their jobs, just enjoying some of the things that they loved. One day, one of the men found a bottle that contained a genie. He opened the bottle and the genie announced that he would grant each of them one wish. One of the men said, “Wow, I want to be back in Livonia with my wife and my children.” Poof! He was back in Livonia. The second man immediately said, “I want to be back in Novi with my fiancé.” Again, in a matter of seconds, he was gone – back in Novi. The third man was left all alone sitting on the sandy beach. He looked around for a while desperately trying to think of the one wish he could make. Finally he said, “Boy, it really is lonely here with all of my friends gone. I wish that they were back here with me again.” And poof!!!!

If you could be granted one wish, what would you pray for, wish for, ask for? I think that perhaps at one time or another, each of us has asked that fantasy question. I remember vaguely that in the early 2000’s there used to be a reality television show about this particular premise called “Three Wishes.” Gospel singer Amy Grant went all over the country sorting through the prayer requests and wishes of people in specific cities to see how sincere and selfless those longings might be before granting the three wishes of the most deserving contestant.

Deciding what we might wish for is not an easy thing. It might be something for ourselves: success, wealth, the trappings of power, health, or perhaps simply a long life. Or our wish might be for someone else: for our children, our spouse, our parents, or someone in great need. What would you ask for? Even though we know such a request is purely fantasy or at the very least the plot line of reality television, we also know that it is not a simple question. It involves a choice that speaks to the heart of our existence and what we deem most important in life.

We also know that with our wishes comes consequences. Consider the legend of King Midas who wished that everything he touched would turn to gold. He was granted his wish and soon was surrounded by riches. But then he learned that such a request was a mixed blessing. He could eat nothing because the food he touched turned to gold. When his daughter came to visit, he touched her and she turned to gold. Anne Lamott writes of the short-sided danger of wishing for things that benefit only our lives and our cause. She calls it “a damaging insistence on forward thrust, a commitment to running wildly down a convenient path that might actually be taking us deeper into the dark forest.” Lamott asks us to instead “turn our eyes to something else: to our feet on the sidewalk, to the middle distance, to the hills, whence our help comes-someplace else, anything else.” Such a turn she writes, can be a life-changing moment.

One of the most famous stories of the Old Testament is partially told in our Scripture lesson this morning from I Kings, chapter 3. God appeared before King Solomon in a dream and gave him the kind of request that we might expect from genies who come out of a bottle. “Ask what I should give you.” We know that Solomon was one of the greatest kings in the history of Israel, the son of David and the builder of the Temple. And we also know that Solomon carefully and humbly considered his position in life, the people and circumstances that brought him to the place where he stood before God. And Solomon, chose not riches or health or many years. He chose one thing- an understanding mind.

The wisdom of Solomon became legendary. In the next chapter of I Kings we read the story of two women who argued over the fate of a baby. Both said that they had given birth to the child and they came to Solomon so he might decide to whom the baby legally belonged. Of course we remember the King’s wise solution- divide the baby in half so that each woman could have their share. Solomon knew that such a decision would move the heart of the real mother of the baby who insisted that her son go to live with the other woman so he would not be killed. That story concludes, “All of Israel heard of the judgment that the king rendered; and they stood in awe of the king because they perceived the wisdom of God that was in him.”

In order to gain some perspective of Solomon’s wish, I think it is important to go back into his life history before the dream. What were the circumstance of the visit from God in that dream? What was the background of that open ended question, “What do you want?”

Solomon had just ascended to the throne. He really wasn’t legally entitled to such power. David’s son from another marriage Adonijah was next in line for the throne. But through scheming and cunning, David’s wife Bathsheba arranged for her son Solomon to come to power. It was like a plot of a movie with great political intrigue. There were alliances made, assassinations and house arrests. Solomon married the Egyptian Pharaoh’s daughter thus insuring himself of one of the strongest armies on earth. There was compromise, as Solomon agreed to turn a blind eye to those who worshipped pagan idols. No- Solomon wasn’t exactly the perfect person. He had some good qualities and some very questionable ones. He was torn by the challenge and trouble of his life. He was frightened by the uncertainty and danger all around him. Yet it was to this person and situation that the Lord appeared with almost a blank check question, “Ask what I should give to you. What is your wish?” All Solomon had to do is fill out the amount. How many long years of life? How much in gold and silver? How many nations could he rule? Oh- if only it could be so easy for us!

Of course we know what comes next. Solomon chose to ask for an understanding mind and became known as a great king through the use of that gift. Throughout history he was the epitome of wisdom. The books of wisdom – Proverbs, Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes are generally attributed to Solomon. Yet it is interesting to note that Solomon’s actual request of God did not mention the word wisdom. In verse 9 he wishes, “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?” Some translations say that Solomon requested, “A listening heart.” It seems to be that Solomon was really asking for the ability to discern God’s hand in what he was doing each day. He wanted to have knowledge of what God was doing in his life and in the world and to appreciate the nature of God’s gifts. He wanted to have an awareness and concern for all. He wanted to have an attitude of recognizing the grace of God so he could use the gifts of that grace for the benefit of others. Solomon’s dream did not bring him new possessions or new power but rather a new reality. While not asking specifically for wisdom, Solomon understood that he would gain wisdom if he was in a place where his actions and decision were made for the benefit of others not just for him.

American writer and publisher Elbert Hubbard once wrote, “Every man is a darn fool for at least five minutes a day; wisdom consists in not exceeding the limit.” Hubbard’s words speak much truth for our day and time and our perception of God’s place and presence in our choices and actions. Making a wish for “a listening heart,” as King Solomon did, means that we acknowledge that we do not know everything and that there will be things we don’t know or that we need to question. When Solomon explained to God in that dream inspired conversation that, “I am only a little child,” surely he understood that part of maturity was seeing the larger picture; the “we” instead of the “me.”

Robert Short, author of the Gospel According to Peanuts said, “The situation today is lots of knowledge, but little understanding. Lot of means, but little meaning. Lots of know-how, but little know-why. Lots of sight but little insight.” Although Short’s words were written many years ago, they speak a lasting truth. With no listening, with no discernment, with no understanding, with no sense of God’s claim on our words and actions- there is no wisdom.

Solomon wished for an attitude that meant wisdom. The request for a listening heart was an acknowledgment that people operate with a mixture of motives and that we all need to be sensitive to the perspective of others and God’s desire for us to do what is right. Such wisdom listens more than it talks. Such wisdom means having self-control; not trying to control others or control circumstance but controlling oneself in the midst of whatever might come. Such wisdom assures that the needs and feelings of others are considered in relationship to one’s own desires and that the plight of the most vulnerable members of the community do not go unnoticed.

Off Script

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Off Script”

Rev. Art Ritter

April 9, 2017

Matthew 21:1-11

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.”
 
This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a  donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
 
The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.
 
The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in  the highest heaven!”
 
When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Pastor Dawn Hutchings writes of a man who suffered from various illnesses for a very long time. He had seen countless doctors over the years, been prescribed lots of medicine, and undergone many tests. Through it all, his condition failed to improve. The man tried some home remedies to make himself feel better. He drank herbal tea and took mega-doses of vitamins along with his prescribed medication. He drank special shakes with powders he heard about on television and that didn’t help. Still he did not feel any better. One day the man heard about a doctor who was said to be an outstanding diagnostician. Even though the doctor was booked for months in advance, the receptionist found a way to fit the man into the schedule in just a couple of weeks. The man was so elated by the prospect of finding a solution to his problem.

At last, he was going to see this doctor who was recommended by everyone and find out exactly what was wrong with him. The day of the appointment arrived. After the doctor thoroughly examined the man and reviewed his test results, she sat down with the man and said, “My friend, you are not a healthy man. But you can be well again if you will only follow my advice. What you need to do is to lose about sixty pounds, get involved in a regular program of exercise, and eat more fiber and fruit and vegetables. You don’t need to take any more of the medicine that has been prescribed for you. You don’t need all of those teas and shakes and vitamins.” When the man heard what the doctor said, he was angry. He demanded that the doctor prescribe him some kind of medicine, maybe some new experimental drug that would cure his illness. But the doctor smiled patiently and said, “You don’t need medicine. You just need to change your life.” The man cursed and stomped out of the office and for the rest of his sickly life he told everyone that the doctor was a quack who didn’t deserve a license.

“Who is this?” people probably asked, as into the city of Jerusalem a man came riding on the back of a donkey. It was a city in apprehensive turmoil. It was the time of Pax Romana, or “Roman peace.” Things were relatively quiet and orderly but the peace was maintained by strict military and political control. Corruption and crime and suffering were in evidence everywhere. The weak and the poor yearned for relief and cried out to God for deliverance from their oppression, a Messiah to bring about God’s new day. Most people wanted this Savior to be a military or political leader, a conquering hero, sitting atop a mighty steed and leading a triumphant army against the oppressors. They wanted a man from God who would defeat their enemies, produce victory, and then hand them the power so they could live in their definition of personal peace.

On that day it seemed, perhaps only for a moment, that the script they had yearned for played out. It was shortly before the Passover and religious sensitivity was on high alert. The crowds lined the street in anticipation. People love a parade, don’t you know! The eager groupies climbed trees to get a look at the man of the hour. Things seemed to be so well orchestrated. Matthew described the donkey and the colt being right where Jesus told the disciples they would be. Perhaps this was indeed a sign of divine involvement! Children waved palm branches and everyone cried out “Hosanna, Hosanna. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, he comes to save us.” Palm Sunday was a spectacle that raised the hopes of the people.

But the man of the hour quickly went off script. His actions didn’t seem to follow the best laid plans of his operatives, his handlers, or the expectations of the parade watchers. He rode into Jerusalem humbly, on the back of a donkey. Many scholars believe that his so-called triumphant entry was probably an intentional critique of the
forced parades that the Roman governors held to offer evidence of their secular power. Yet on Palm Sunday, those who cheered the loudest were not soldiers and power players but women and children and tax collectors and sinners. On that day, Jesus insisted that victory was not the way to peace, rather he urged the people to love their enemies, to forego the sword and to seek justice and righteousness. The crowd, who cried out for Jesus to save them, was not happy with the way he altered the expected script. They sought to be comforted not confronted. They cheered for a man who they hoped would bring them an easy fix not a world turned upside down. While they cried out for easy solutions that would avoid sacrifice and pain and bring them self-satisfying triumph, Jesus offered a storyline that was idealistic, demanding, and life-changing. And so it did not take long for the Palm Sunday crowd to move from celebration to protest. “Hosanna” quickly became “crucify him.”

Palm Sunday is that kind of a day. We celebrate today with a parade and the cries of salvation. Many of us are tempted to simply move directly from Palm Sunday to the empty tomb of Easter. That is the easy way. It is the theatre that we might prefer. We would rather avoid all the talk of anguish and suffering and death just as we would prefer to live our lives without hurt and fear and loss. Yet we know that to truly understand the power of resurrection we have to walk along that humble donkey; we must sit at Upper Room; we must pray anxiously with Jesus at Gethsemane; we have to acknowledge the cries of denial and betrayal; and finally we need to witness the cross at Calvary. To find our way back home we must confess that we are lost. To live as Easter people we must acknowledge the forces of death that control and worry and frighten us. Yes, there are clashing moods this day, two different sentiments, two varying attitudes about life and God’s intention, and two different ways to approach the script. One is to celebrate triumph and see anything less as the absence of God. The other is to honestly face the darkness and seek the hope of God in the promise beyond.

Marek Zabriskie writes of attending a performance of Philadelphia Orchestra. He is a classical music fan and looked forward to the sweet sounds and soaring harmonies of the symphony. That night however, a new atonal piece of music was being performed. While Marcus and Paul and many in our choir may know what atonal means, I had  to look it up to learn. The simplest definition that I could find was music that lacks a clear center or a key. Zabriskie said that the in the concert, not a note of harmony was sounded. Everything was dissonance. While was music was complicated and creative and many in the audience were moved by its complexity, Zabriskie said he found it hard to enjoy and at the end he refused to applaud because the music didn’t conform to his expectations for the evening.Perhaps that is the frustration of our Palm Sunday observance. The end to it just doesn’t meet our expectations.

Back in the late 1800’s, Victorian theater producers rewrote the final acts to many of Shakespeare’s tragedies to make them more palatable for theatre goers. Perhaps we’d like to rewrite the script for this day. But this a day in which we have to be honest about our faith in Jesus Christ. Perhaps he wasn’t or isn’t the kind of savior we expected. Jesus points out that God’s way will be demanding and life changing and we tend to like our lives, and our stuff, and we have accepted things as they are. He comes humbly as a servant when we would rather celebrate with arms raised in triumph. He comes in peace, not a peace that gives us bliss but one that stirs the pot and demands us to acts of justice. He comes in love, not a sappy and romantic kind that makes us giddy but in the love that confronts our propensity to hate and calls us to recognize the value of loving even our enemies. He comes is life, not in uncomplicated life as we dream it to be but in life that can be redeemed when we painfully acknowledge the darkness that bind us. Before the final words of “Hallelujah” and the “He is risen” there must be an honest ride into the places of our life that require redemption.