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Voting With Your Faith

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Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Voting With Your Faith”

Rev. Art Ritter

October 18, 2020

 

Micah 6:6-8

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

Matthew 22:15-22

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Golden Calves

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Golden Calves”

Rev. Art Ritter

October 11, 2020

 

Exodus 32:1-14

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

“No,” said the dog.

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

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

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

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

“Did you get mistreated?”

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

“Did you get crippled?”

“No.”

“Then why, why did you stop racing?”

The dog said, “I just quit.”

“You quit?”

“Yes, I quit.”

“Why did you quit?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

A Meaningful Life

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“A Meaningful Life”

Rev. Art Ritter

October 4, 2020

 

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20

Then God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.

You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work.

Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.” Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.”

 

We continue our whirlwind tour through the book of Exodus by focusing a bit today on the Ten Commandments.  Trying to tackle any kind of reflection on all of the Ten Commandments at once is a daunting task.  A few years ago I did a ten week sermon series and that makes it much easier to eat and digest.  This morning in just a few minutes I would like for us to consider why we need these words in the first place.

Every once in a while, the Ten Commandments will make the news.  I saw a Facebook post this week where someone was wanting everyone to copy their post supporting the posting of the Ten Commandments in all public schools. There has been a recent news story about how a controversial Alabama judge has fought court orders demanding that he remove a copy of the Ten Commandments from the walls of his courtroom.  There have been additional stories of legal controversies about whether or not stone replicas of the Ten Commandments can be left in the lawns of county court houses.

That is how the argument usually goes.  We tend to talk about how the Ten Commandments are displayed or engraved or even worshiped.  We certainly don’t spend as much time talking about their content or the message that they are intended to convey.  In a poll taken in America less than ten years ago, a majority favored the placement of the Ten Commandments in some sort of public forum.  Of that same group, less than 20 percent could name as many as four of the Ten Commandments.  Gary Anderson writes that because we have tried to make the Ten Commandments into something of a cultural icon we have lost the sense of “religious awe” about them.  We have distanced them from God’s own revelation.  Anderson says, “These are not ten good maxims for the good life but the living word of God.”

The Ten Commandments were delivered to Moses on Mt. Sinai as part of a conversation.  They are actually found twice in Scripture, hear in Exodus and then just before the people of God entered the Promised Land as recorded in the book of Deuteronomy.  According to our reading from Exodus, the Ten Commandments were given to the people immediately after the covenant was established between God and God’s people.  The giving of the law was tied to the promise that God had made with the people of Israel.  It that way the Ten Commandments are something like the vows of marriage, the promises and expectations of this divine-human relationship.  It wasn’t so much that God was requiring the people to obey each of these ten rules in order to receive a reward or a prize.  These commandments are not rules enforced by a watchful and lurking God much as the local police enforce the speed limit on Meadowbrook Road. They were intended to be guidelines to a relationship.

There is a story of two men in a truck who were passing through a small town one day.  They came to an overpass with a sign that read, Clearance 11’3”.  They got out of their rig and measured the height of the truck.  It was just over 12 feet tall.  They weren’t quite certain as to what to do.  As they climbed back into the cab, one of the men said, “What do you think we should do?”  The driver looked around, then shifted the truck into gear saying, “There’s not a cop in sigh.  Let’s take a chance.”

Perhaps that is our attitude about the Ten Commandments.  We might see them as the things you need to do when God is watching you.  Or we might seem them as the things you shouldn’t do because you are afraid that God might be watching you.  But these are not laws intended to hung on a wall be enforced by a court of law.  They are not meant to be legally enforced.  They are laws of the heart, designed to direct our lives to God’s intention.  They are meant to shape our attitudes and to guide our spirit.  They are ten laws or as the people of God first called them, “ten words” to create a community, a place where all of us can live together as God intends for people to live.

In her study on the Ten Commandments entitled “Laws of the Heart,” Joan Chittister writes that “the Ten Commandments are laws of the heart, not laws of the Commonwealth.  They lead to fullness of life, not simply to the well ordered or precisely directed life.  Aristotle says that the perfect life is one where we contemplate, spend our life on, focus our life on the best, most worthy things, the things of highest merit.  Well, the Ten Commandments tell us what’s worth focusing on in life.  They are a new vision of what it means to be a good, healthy, happy, authentic human community.”

Walter Brueggeman writes that we should see these laws, the Ten Commandments, now as restrictions that hem us in but as keys that unlock us, expand and energizing the way we organize our lives personally and communally.  He connects these laws to “neighborly matters.”

That is what God gave to God’s people long ago.  And that is what God gives to us still today.  The Ten Commandments are not rock hard positions of judgement based the condition of God’s love.  They do not say act right and I will love you or mess up and you are on your own.  The Ten Commandments are words of grace that describe how God’s grace can be experienced in the living of life.  Obeying the law doesn’t earn us anything.  Obedience to the law is a sign that we understand God’s promise.  This is how God wants us to be- how God wants us to be as persons and as a community, to value life and relationships, to care for creation and for one another, to give God proper worship and value, to be humble and to be responsible, to be transformed but not convicted.

 

 

 

Is God Here?

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Is God Here?”

Rev. Art Ritter

September 27, 2020

 

Exodus 17:1-7

From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

 

There is an old story that I am sure you have heard before, about a monk who joined an order in which individuals were allowed to speak only once every ten years.  And then the speakers could only use one sentence.  After the first ten years, the Abbot of the monastery called the monk into conference and asked, “So how are things going?”  The monk replied, “Food bad.”  After the second ten years, the Abbot called him into conference again and asked, “How does it go with you?”  This time the monk replied, “Bed hard.”  Finally, after the third period of time the monk walked into the Abbot’s room and announced, “I quit.”  The Abbot replied, “That really doesn’t surprise me.  Since you got here, all you have done is complain!”

Kent Crockett tells the story of a woman, new to her neighborhood, who decided to do something nice to get to know her neighbor.  She baked a pie and carried it next door.  This sounds like something Gail McKillop would do, doesn’t it?  The neighbor was thrilled.  “For me?” she asked.  “How thoughtful.  Thank you very much.”  Because the neighbor liked the pie so much the woman decided to bake another one the next week.  When she took it over the neighbor took the pie, quickly thanked her, and then shut the door.  The woman took another pie over the next week and the neighbor responded, “You are a day late with the pie.”  Yet the following week the woman baked another pie.  This time the neighbor said, “Try using a little more sugar next time.  And don’t bake it quite so long.  The crust was too hard on the last one.  And next week I would prefer cherry to apple.”  That next week the woman was much too busy to bake any pies.  When she passed by her neighbor’s house on the way to run an errand, the neighbor opened a window and yelled, “Hey, where’s my pie?”

Sometimes it is easy to get so caught up in the events of life that we begin to consider our blessings as entitlement.  We might appreciate the gifts of God for a moment, perhaps even give thanks for what we have received, but then we quickly complain when they don’t quite suit our needs or meet our standards given the situation of our days.  Sometimes in our want, in our suffering, in our fear about the future – we forget to trust in the faithfulness of that and those who provided for us in the past.  We complain out of a sense of anxiety and fear that we won’t be safe or won’t have enough.  We murmur that we haven’t gotten what we need or what we deserve.  We question whether things will ever be the way we would like them to be.  And in our complaining we fail to remember the past, we ignore what is before us in the present, and we dampen the possibilities that are there for our tomorrow.

In the Scripture lesson this morning, the people of Israel were once again in the midst of their wilderness wanderings.  They had just gone through a Red Sea crisis, a water crisis, a food crisis, and now they faced another, perhaps more serious water shortage.  They were in the middle of a desert where there was absolutely no water to drink.  Little children were getting dehydrated.  Livestock were drooping.  Adults were getting increasingly desperate.  And so the people of Israel did what people in that kind of situation do.  They grumbled and complained.  They quarreled with Moses saying, “Give us water to drink!”  In spite of everything that God had done for them in the recent past, they were quite willing to put God to the test.  Moses summarized the situation very well with a single question, “Is God among us or not?”  He was asking, how will we know that God is here?  We will believe and trust in the power and presence of God when God gives us water.  God has to pass the test of giving us what we want or we won’t believe that God is with us, among us, or for us.

Perhaps we can sympathize with the people of Israel.  It feels like we have been wandering in the wilderness quite a bit lately.  We are looking for health care experts and scientists to provide a cure or a vaccine that medical manna or that water from a rock- something that will take us from the desert of this pandemic.  We look for any kind of expert who can tell us what we want to hear, perhaps even if that information runs counter to science and reality.  We want what we need.  The current political campaign seems like a never ending chorus of complaints and negativity and untruths.  I don’t know how Moses would have handled attack ads against him.  The ravages of hurricane and flood, heat and fire might make us question whether or not another kind of plague is upon us.  The civil unrest, the police brutality, the anger and the protests, the riots and the looting, the hateful words and closed minds may lead us to believe that we have been left alone in our division and in our quarrels with one another.

Where is God in all of this darkness and evil?  With so much going wrong around us, where is the evidence of God’s goodness among us?  Perhaps God has given up on us after all.  I am certain that in the past few months there have been times in which our souls have cried out, “If you really are God, you would…”  Or perhaps we might want to say, “If you really loved us, you would….”

Kathyrn Matthews writes that whoever wrote this book of Exodus didn’t focus on the nice and comfortable times that the people of faith must have found.  Instead we find readings of the people in want, and examples of the faithful in doubt.  Matthews says that perhaps it is because the lessons of life are best learned in the difficult times.  It is only when we are thirsty in the wilderness that we discover that we have not exercised our gratitude and humility quite enough.  If the pandemic has taught us nothing else it has taught us that we take the good things and the good times for granted until those things are missing from our lives.

Eventually God provided for the people.  Moses was told to go and meet God who would go before them and stand upon a rock at Mt. Horeb.  Moses would strike that rock and water would come of it.  The people would drink.  The fears and terrors of the day would cease.  And perhaps most importantly, the hope of tomorrow would be confirmed and understood.

Theologian Gerald Janzen compares the doubts of the people of Israel complaining about their lack of water with our own doubts at different points in our lives, in times when things get tough.  In response he asks us to remember the “oasis points in our past.”  Oasis points are those moments when we had everything we needed and it was easy to say that God is good, and also easy to count on a future that draws us forward, confident of what lies ahead.  Janzen writes that the people of Israel probably didn’t have any idea of what lay just ahead of them on that mountain and how it would shape their lives.  But when water gushed from the rock at the foot of Mt. Horeb, the same mountain where eventually Moses would receive the Ten Commandments, that water gave them not only sustenance for that particular day but also sustained them hopes for the future.  Janzen believes that on that day, trust in the future promise meant more than the immediate quenching of thirst.  Believing in tomorrow superseded a cup of cool water.

Perhaps those writers are correct.  Perhaps the wilderness experiences of life are places of testing of the divine-human relationship so that we can learn more about God’s presence.  Maybe we won’t learn much about God in times in which we don’t need God or when God is taken for granted.  We learn more about God and we learn to trust more in God’s promises for tomorrow by leaning into our God’s presence in the midst of harshness and disappointment.  In his book Drinking from a Dry Well, Thomas H. Green says that “faith is a way of seeing in the dark, and hope a way of possessing what is still beyond our reach.”  Green continues by saying that the wilderness is a way of emptying ourselves of all the little things we desire so that only God remains.  When the other wells of life run dry, when we realize and understand for what we really thirst, then the living water can flow from dry rocks in the wilderness.  Then we can trust enough in our provision for tomorrow that we can move on in faithful steps.

Author Frederick Buechner reminds us that “to be commanded to love God at all, let alone in the wilderness, is like being commanded to be well when we are sick, to sing for joy when we are dying of thirst, to run when our legs are broken.  But this is the first and great commandment nevertheless.  Even in the wilderness, especially in the wilderness, you shall love God.”

The story of the people of God wandering in the wilderness is a story that happened long ago.  The miracles of manna and water from a rock are miracles we might not be able to fathom and perhaps belong to a time so far away.  But this story is important because it speaks to our own time: our own wilderness, our own needs, our own questioning, our own complaining, and our own prayers.  The people, assured of God’s provision in the present, walked forward in the future.

 

 

 

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.