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Back to a New Normal

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Back to a New Normal”

Rev. Art Ritter

April 26, 2020

 

 

Luke 24: 13-35

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

 

Several years ago, the Washington Post conducted a social experiment.  They took Joshua Bell, one of the best violinists in the entire world, and set him up to play at a Metro subway station in the heart of Washington D.C.   Earlier that year Bell was voted the best classical musician in America and had played to sold out crowds in many cities.  On that particular morning, Bell started playing about 7:45, right in the middle of rush hour commuters, wearing a long-sleeved t-shirt, blue jeans, and a baseball cap.  He put his violin case out, put in a couple of dollars and played to see how much attention and money he would garner.  Bell used his own violin, one valued at 3.5 million dollars.  He played six classical pieces in a style and manner that few artists could match.   A hidden camera documented everything that happened.

A total of three minutes and sixty-three people passed before finally a middle-aged man altered his gait for a second and turned his head to listen to the music.  A bit later, Bell got his first donation, one dollar thrown into the case.  In all, Bell played for forty three minutes.  Only seven people stopped and stood nearby him to listen.  It is estimated that 1,070 people hurried by, oblivious to the musical master who was playing for free.  Inside Bell’s violin case was a whopping $32, $20 of that from the only person who recognized Bell from a concert the night before at the Library of Congress.   Most of the money in the case was pennies.

Few people that morning recognized the beauty of the music and the talent of Joshua Bell.  Not many even saw him.  Only one knew who he was.  Their heads were down, their eyes looking straight ahead, and their minds were focused on the world as they knew it to be that morning.

Last Sunday night we had a session of B3, our pub theology discussion here at Meadowbrook that meets monthly.  We had not met since the stay at home discipline has begun but Sunday we met via Zoom technology.  After checking in with everyone to share how we were experiencing the pandemic, I tossed out a simple yet profound question.  Where have you experienced God in our current situation?  In the spirit of the season I rephrased the question to where have you experienced the Risen Christ in your lives in the past month?  There were lots of good answers and some of those I expected.  People saw the presence of God in the actions of doctors and nurses and medical workers who have been brave and unselfish and compassionate.  People saw the presence of God in those who risk their own health providing safety and essential services.  People saw the presence of God in hospitality and concern in friends and family.  But the responses got even more interesting and perhaps a bit more unexpected.  One person said that they found the presence of God in understanding those things beyond the ordinary, seeing and cherishing something eternal that has suddenly been elevated above the normal concerns of work and meetings and leisure.  Someone spoke about gratitude and appreciation and an awareness of the gifts of others.  Another person talked about a new realization of what is important, of the meaning of their life.  I believe that because of the current situation, all of us are more likely to reflect upon our life and understand more clearly where God has been with us and how God’s promise builds hope for our future.

The bottom line is that the current pandemic has taken the blinders off many of us.  What we deemed as crucial and important a few weeks ago suddenly doesn’t seem as crucial or important.  We are in a place where we more readily appreciate the gifts of our work and of the labors of others.  We are in a place where we better understand the sacrifice that comes with ordinary compassion.  We are in a place where we look upon the world with a fresh perspective, one that views our lives from a transcendent and holy angle, rather than the immediate, utilitarian perspective that we are used to using.

The Scripture lesson for the third Sunday of Easter is the familiar story of the road to Emmaus.  Emmaus was a village located about seven miles from Jerusalem and was perhaps the hometown of one of the two followers of Jesus who were walking there.  As these men walked, they talked about the death of Jesus, perhaps about the rumors of his resurrection, but certainly about the disappointment they held that he was gone and their dreams and plans were now shattered.  Their words express a lot of failure and regret.  They wanted things to return to normal but the new normal was going to be one without the presence and promise of Jesus.  “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”

Suddenly Jesus appeared to them as a stranger.  He asked them about their conversation and reminded them of the promises that he had made to his disciples.  But their eyes were kept from seeing him and their minds were kept from understanding his power.

At the end of their walk, they shared a meal together.  Jesus took bread and blessed it and passed it to them.  Suddenly their eyes were opened and saw him.  At that very moment he vanished from their sight.  But also in that very moment they began to understand what Jesus was talking about on the road to Emmaus.  Their hearts began to burn with inspiration and meaning.  “The Lord has indeed risen.”  Their perspective on life had suddenly changed.  They were moving on to a new normal but that new normal would not be the same old things.  Now they were the resurrection people.  Now they were living out their daily lives in the promise of new life.

I think that we are all in a place like those disciples leaving for that walk to Emmaus.  This pandemic has given us things that are perhaps more than we can handle.  Our world has been turned upside down.  What is next?  What do we do?  Where do we go with our lives?  Will things change soon?  Will things ever change?  It is a place of pain and sorrow and loss.  We don’t want to stay in that place.  We want to get back to normal.  We want to get to the place where life was predictable.  We want to go back to the routine.

In the midst of this, some of us may be having an Emmaus experience.  We are discovering the hand of God that has really always been behind the things we have overlooked or taken for granted.  We are seeing something sacred in the gifts of family and friends, in the sacrifice of health care and essential workers, and in how we better use our time.  We are feeling more connected to the holy, taken off of the treadmill of obligation to cherish those things that are truly important.  Our eyes are opened to a new way of seeing, to a new recognition, to community and welcome and hospitality and love.  God hasn’t abandoned us in this hour.   God is there in our fear and our worry, providing hope and promise.  The Risen Christ is there, just like always, only now perhaps we see and understand.

There will come a time when we enter the new normal.  Like those disciples we will leave Emmaus and return to our Jerusalem.  Yet Jerusalem will no longer the place that it used to be.  Jerusalem won’ be the old routine and old habits and old way of seeing our work, our friends, our family, and our place in the world.  Jerusalem will be a place of new life.  It is in the new normal where we must take our new understandings and live them out in our priorities and choices and decisions.  We are partners in this resurrection life of Jesus.

There has been a popular meme this week on Facebook, quoted by Brene Brown but written by Sonya Renee Taylor.  “We will not go back to normal.  Normal never was.  Our pre-corona existence was not normal other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection. Confusion, rage, hoarding, hate, and lack.  We should not long to return, my friends.  We are given the opportunity to stitch a new garment.  One that fits all of humanity and nature.”

In the meal at Emmaus, Jesus wasn’t just giving his followers bread.  He was giving them back their true selves.  He was restoring them to the gift of life.  As we look to what is ahead, may we find these days to be a portal to a greater self-awareness, to a vision of the fullness of God, to an appreciation of ourselves and those around us.   May the new normal, whatever it might be, not be a return to what was, but an understanding of something better that is yet to be, created by the hands of God and inspired by the Risen Christ.

 

Peace Be With You

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Peace Be With You”

Rev. Art Ritter

April 19, 2020

 

John 20:19-31

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

 

 

These are times in which some long forgotten memories of the past are brought to the surface again.  A story I read about a hospital chaplain’s experience brought to my mind something I experienced during my Clinical Pastoral Education at Harper Hospital in Detroit in 1983.  I had my first night on-call during my third week of the program.  It was a very frightening thing.  I was the only chaplain in the entire facility and I wore a beeper.  Every time it went off I had to respond.  I didn’t get any sleep waiting for the beeper to go off.  And I was terrified, thinking only of the massive size of the hospital, the number of patients and their needs, and the doubts and inability of the chaplain on call that night to meet those needs.

About midnight I was summoned to a floor where a Code Blue had been issued.  When I arrived a cardiac team was working urgently to revive a dying patient.  I observed it all quietly, standing in the doorway, trying my best to stay out of the way.  Soon the team retreated, resigned to the fact that unfortunately the patient had died.  They loaded up their equipment and left the room.  I was stunned at the reality of it all.  It was the first death I had ever witnessed.  I didn’t know if the cardiac team needed any pastoral care.  I didn’t know if there was a family in a waiting room to whom I needed to speak.  There I was in this very quiet hospital room, alone with the deceased.  I didn’t have a textbook or instructions about how to minister.  This was only my third week of chaplaincy training!  I moved forward and placed my hand on the hand of the deceased and I prayed.  I prayed for her and for her family.  And I prayed for me, that what I was doing would be helpful to whomever needed God’s help at that moment.  It felt a little selfish but it was what was coming from my heart.

I remember that at the end of the prayer, a floor nurse came back into the room and said that she was going to call the deceased’s family and wondered if I would be on that call.  She was so kind and I was so glad to get any kind of help.  I remember the nurse telling the family that there had been a change in their loved one’s condition and that they needed to come to the hospital.  I remember meeting with them in the family waiting room later.  I remember praying with them in the hospital room.  But what I most remember about that night was the fear and the feeling of inadequacy in everything that was happening.  At that point in my seminary study, I had learned a great deal about Biblical Study and preaching and constructive theology.  But I certainly wasn’t prepared to find and offer the words that would heal someone’s brokenness or put someone life back together.  I had this ill-conceived notion that my words and my actions were going to be responsible for putting these lives of mourning strangers back together.  At that moment I struggled with whether or not I could be a minister.

This past week, the Executive Director of the National Association of Congregational Churches shared a sermon by Chuck Bugg, a retired professor of preaching from Southern Seminary in Louisville.  The sermon was pointed to the feelings of clergy, and probably all of us, as we deal with the enormous issues and complicated feelings surrounding the COVID 19 crisis.  Bugg quoted Frederick Buechner, a wonderful preacher and Christian writer.  Buechner said that all of us who preach have just 26 letters in the English alphabet.  Ministers try to craft words to say in each and every sermon, words that they hope will touch and change lives, but ultimately they have only 26 letters in which to work with.

These days I have felt the return of that feeling I had in the hospital room over 35 years ago.  Perhaps you have experienced the same kind of feeling also.  How can we say anything that brings hope and healing into a world that is in the midst of pandemic?  What can we do to make a difference in anyone’s lives in the midst of such fear and anxiety?  We want to make an important difference.  We want to heal brokenness and offer release to those imprisoned by their circumstance.  But we are afraid ourselves.  We’ve never experienced this before.  We are left helpless in our own inadequacies.  How do we serve?  How can we help?  How do we make a difference?

This morning we hear more of the Easter story from the gospel of John.  The 20th chapter of John is a post-resurrection appearance of Jesus to his disciples.  They were gathered in a locked room.  They had heard rumors of Jesus’ resurrection.  The women who went to the tomb told them that the tomb was empty and that Jesus’ body was gone.  But the world hadn’t changed.  They still weren’t certain of what to do.  They were afraid as the circumstances of their lives and of their world overwhelmed them. Could they trust this news of resurrection?  Could they deal with the darkness of fear and death?  These disciples had locked the doors and rendered themselves powerless.

Jesus came to these disciples.  It is interesting to me that he didn’t say or do much.  He didn’t offer them a pep talk.  He didn’t chastise them for their inaction.  He didn’t pass out a written plan for the future.  He came, he stood among them, and he said, “Peace be with you.”  Peace be with you.  In this brief post-resurrection appearance of Jesus, recorded in the gospel of John, Jesus says this three times.  Peace be with you.  It didn’t change the circumstance.  If we read on we discover that the disciples were still too timid to venture out into the world.  But it gave them some kind of assurance, some of reminder that he was present with them.  And that assurance was peace, a peace in knowing that they could not change the circumstances of the situation, but they could offer Christ’s presence within that situation.

There are things to fear.  We are in the midst of pandemic.  We are locked up in houses in fear of a virus.  We look ahead to an uncertain time in which we will have to try to live life within the threat of that virus.  Today we remember that Jesus keeps popping up in the rooms of our fear and anxiety.  He keep presenting us with evidence that somehow, some way, he will offer a life worth living.  He reminds us that we may have the power to change the circumstances.  Yet he brings us peace that helps us face troubling times without being swallowed up by our fear and worry.  He gives us a quiet confidence to guide our hearts as we face challenging decision.  In his sermon, Chuck Bugg tells us that in Jesus’ peace we can live simply, love generously, care deeply, speak kindly, listen respectfully, pray daily, and then leave the rest to God.  He reminds us all that we have the equivalent of 26 letters but that those humble and faithful efforts, given in this time of crisis. God’s peace will come to us and to others.

In a time in which we don’t know what the future holds, in a time in which we can see each other’s faces or shake each other’s hands, Jesus comes among us and says, “Peace be with you.”  Jesus’ peace is ours – a powerful lasting presence.  Again – live simply.  Love generously.  Care deeply.  Speak kindly.  Listen reverently and respectfully.  Pray daily.  And leave the rest to God.

 

 

 

Good Fear

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Good Fear”

Rev. Art Ritter

April 12, 2020

 

Matthew 28:1-10

After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

 

 

As I was taking my walk the other day, I encountered an unforeseen obstacle in my path.  A large Canadian goose stood there literally daring me to walk past.  At first I wasn’t alarmed but when I moved closer and the goose refused to move, I grew a bit concerned.  When I attempted to move around the goose, it seemed to follow me and stick out its neck as if it were ready to be aggressive.  I couldn’t see any mate or nest that the goose was trying to protect but I began to feel a little afraid.  It seemed within the realm of possibility that this goose was going to attack me.  I turned around on the walking path and after a safe distance went into the nearby grass and made a wide path around the creature.

My experience reminded me of a story told in a sermon by Andrew Greenshaw of New Orleans.  Greenshaw’s nephew Oscar was visiting him and he decided to take Oscar to a nearby park to feed the ducks.  Armed with a loaf of bread he and Oscar headed toward the ducks.  Understanding that Oscar tended to be a rather timid boy who was somewhat afraid of birds, Greenshaw tried to reassure him, “Oscar, the ducks may look funny but they won’t hurt you.  I promise that they won’t hurt you!”  With that Oscar began to toss bread to the ducks.  Soon the ducks moved past the point of contentment to greed.  They began to notice who was holding the bread and who was feeding them.  They began to walk with a purpose, straight toward little Oscar.  Now terrified, Oscar hid behind the legs of his uncle.  He started to cry in terror, screaming out the words that his uncle had used to reassure him, “They won’t hurt you!  They won’t hurt you!  They won’t hurt you!”  So great was his fear that his uncle picked him up, tossed the rest of the bread aside, and made his way to the car.

In the midst of this virus pandemic, all of us are experiencing a range of emotions.  There are moments of joy and gratitude, when we suddenly appreciate ordinary things that we had previously taken for granted.  There is anger and frustration for this terrible interruption in the midst of our everyday lives.  We all want to live a normal life again.  There is grief for the loss of what was and will never be again.  There is grief for loved ones passed and for opportunities that will not come again.  And there is fear.  My good friend, David Bard, bishop of the Michigan Conference of the United Methodist Church writes, “There is the fear we know, the virus and its effects.  There is the fear about what we don’t know.  How susceptible are we?  How will this affect our work and our finances?  How much longer will we have to stay at home to stay safe?”

Bishop Bard reminds us that fear is a powerful emotion.  It is one of the earliest emotions that we experience as a human being.  It alerts us to danger and keeps us safe.  In the midst of this pandemic it moves to better hygiene and social habits.  Fear is normal.  It moves us from complacency and helps us to take whatever action needs to be taken to keep us out of danger.   But we also know that fear is a negative thing.   Fear limits our ability to think clearly and assess our situation accurately.  Fear leads to blame and to narrowness of mind toward others.  Fear is not a good thing when it paints a darker picture of reality and moves us to be less than the people we are created to be.

There are many examples in Scripture of people who are afraid, and of God or God’s messengers speaking directly to them about their fear.  I have always been told that “Do not be afraid” is one of the most repeated lines in all of Scripture.  There is the story of the little girl rehearsing her lines for the annual Christmas program.  She was the angel who got to speak to Mary and to the shepherds saying, “Do not be afraid.”  When the moment came to deliver that line, the little girl paused and said, “Angels are always saying stuff like that.”

God is always saying stuff like that.  To Moses.  To Elijah.  To Zechariah.  To disciples on a boat in the midst of a storm.  To the churches in the book of Revelation.  To Mary.  To Joseph.  To shepherds.

Here in Matthew’s account of Easter morning we hear those same words again.  First to the women, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary who had come to the tomb only to find the stone rolled away by a great earthquake.  The mighty powerful forces of the Roman army, the guards at the tomb were shaking like leaves.  But an angel tells the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified.  He is not here; for he has been raised.”  Then the women leave and tell this unexpected news to Jesus’ disciples.  It is Jesus who meets the disciples saying to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

Do not be afraid.  This might be the place where you think I would tell you that fear is a bad thing and we should do our best to just get rid of it.  But as I read over this resurrection account I get the feeling that fear isn’t always such a bad thing.  It is fear that puts us in a place where we begin to understand ourselves a little better- who we are and what we have to deal with our situation.  It is fear that keeps us from being dormant and idle and demands that do something, hopefully that which God is calling us to do.

Another one of my colleagues Robert Baggott, former minister at Community Church of Vero Beach wrote this in a Facebook post this week.  He said, “Turbulent times like these, teach us- in such harsh ways- that life is so vulnerable, that seeming certainties are so uncertain, and that material achievements are so fleeting.  The fear that then naturally emerges from these realizations can rattle us profoundly.  But it can, and it must, also awaken us to a renewed appreciation and commitment to all that is firm and certain in our lives, such a deepening our relationships with our spouses, children and friends, re-dedicating ourselves to living a life of purpose, and learning to recognize, and be grateful for, the infinite blessings that God bestows upon us each day.”

Patricia Adams Farmer writes, “Fear may be our companion, a needed companion during times of war and natural disasters, but there is more- so much more.  May we take a breath of hope, not to rid ourselves of all fear, but simply to calm the loud and noisy clamor.  Then take another breath of compassion for the world and its troubles…Invite fear in for a conversation.  Sit with it.  Listen to it.  Then, respond with honesty and self-compassion.  After a time, let it go to the backseat of your mind while you breathe and smile for all that is still good and true and beautiful in the world.”

As I read this lesson I began to embrace that God isn’t asking us to never be afraid.  I have a feeling that Moses and Elijah and Zechariah and Mary and Joseph, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, and the disciples still were at least a little fearful, even after hearing those reassuring words from God.  It is normal for us to be afraid.  But we have to move in faith within our fear.

God is asking us to honestly face our fear and to understand the divine reality that is beyond those fears.  Fear is not the end.  Let fear be a spark that moves and renews and resurrects you to new understandings and renewed commitments.   Let us acknowledge our fear but put them in a smaller place that doesn’t hide our hope our joy and our love.  The Easter story teaches us that things in life may go wrong.  Things will not be perfect.  But whatever happens, no matter how bad it may seem, God has the power to carry us through.  Even death is not stronger than the love of God.  In Easter, God overcomes death and darkness.  In Easter we know that the ways of God are much stronger than any of the ways of fear that we feel.

 

Who is This?

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Who is This?”

Rev. Art Ritter

April 5, 2020

 

 

Matthew 22:1-11

Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe.

 

Many years ago, when my daughters were much younger, I looked forward to taking them back to my hometown of Stanton for the summer celebration known as Old Fashioned Days.  Old Fashioned Days is one of those events every small town has with a talent show, kiddie rides, softball tournament, classic car show, beer tent, and of course – a parade.

The parade took place on early Saturday afternoon and we had to arrive almost an hour early to set up our lawn chairs ad secure a good viewing spot on Main Street, on the lawn of the county Court House.  And then we waited and waited and waited for the grand parade to begin.  Maren and Amelia did not like this long wait.  Their eyes and attention were focused on the face painting, kiddie rides, and snow cones that I wanted to happen after the parade.  I told them to just be patient because the parade would be most exciting.

Finally we heard the drum beats and the police sirens and the parade began to make its way past our viewing point.  There were two sheriff’s cars, a couple of fire trucks, the high school band, the VFW, the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, lots of tractors and horses and antique car, some local politicians, a couple of honored citizens in a shiny convertible, some souped up lawn mowers and some racing cows from Carson City.  I remember being pretty excited about seeing the racing cows!  But that was the parade.  It was over pretty quickly.  I remember Amelia asking, “What kind of parade was that?”  Maren was even more specific in her criticism.  “Where were the floats, the queens, the balloons, and the candy?  I sensed that this parade wasn’t the kind they imagined or even the kind that their father was advertising.

I thought about that day when I read over the description of a parade in Jerusalem long ago.  Jesus, having earned some reputation with his miracles, healings, and teaching, arrived at the holy city.  Everyone was anxious to see him.  Expectations ran rampant.  Some hoped he was the Messiah, God’s chosen one to bring the Kingdom of God into reality.  Other dreamed that he would be a gifted political leader, one to stand up to the abuse of the occupying Roman authority.  As Jesus entered Jerusalem, the hopeful and adoring crowd cut branches from the trees and waved them into the air.  They threw their garments onto the street ahead of him.  They shouted at the top of their lungs, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”  It was a big thing, in expectation of a bigger thing.  I mean, there were no racing cows but things like that only happen in Stanton!

Yet there was something unexpected about that parade, something disappointing about the guest of honor.  He wasn’t exactly what the crowd was hoping for.  He wasn’t riding on a white horse or even on the back of a shiny convertible.  He rode a lowly donkey.  He didn’t offer a rousing speech or accept the key to the city with his hand upraised with a victory sign.  He remained silent.  He didn’t stand with the city and temple dignitaries for a photo opportunity.  According to the gospel of Matthew he went to the Temple and threw out the moneychangers, upsetting the disposition of the authorities.  Jesus acted like he had something more important in mind, something not related to comfort and celebration and easy victory- but something that would confront the logic of the world and lead to a cross.

It is no wonder the author of Matthew quotes the crowd asking the question, “Who is he?”  Others might have been wondering, “What kind of parade is this?”  Even on that day of apparent triumph, Jesus didn’t seem to be what the crowd expected or wanted.  He wasn’t bringing them the easy, final celebration that would remove them from fear and darkness and death.  He had something else in mind.  He was going to bring hope and ultimate victory, but not through a grand parade.  He was going to bring God’s way through the midst of suffering and death.

The late Harvard University chaplain Peter Gomes wrote that the dual nature of Palm Sunday makes it difficult for us to know what to do.  Our heads say it is a day of triumphant entry, a festive dress rehearsal for an Easter triumph.  But our hearts focus on what is to come for Jesus in the week ahead, the sacrifices and sufferings that are yet to come.  And that picture isn’t so pretty.  As we watch this Palm Sunday parade in the midst of pandemic fear and isolation, we might better understand.  We would like a God who comes into our midst to remove the virus and change our situations quickly and with minimal pain.  Instead we are called to find the presence of God in the midst of our doubt and fear and struggle.

Gomes added that the only thing we can be certain about on Palm Sunday is the arrival of God’s love in the person of Jesus the Christ.  God is present in the parade.  The God who enters Jerusalem and who enters our lives this day will not take away our fear, our suffering, and our pain.  Instead God will enter into our fear our suffering, and our pain- to hear us, to understand us, to share it with us, and to help us pass through it- just as Jesus experienced it himself.

I am a huge Frank Sinatra fan.  I can listen to “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” over and over again.  I used to listen to Sinatra every Christmas Eve when we returned home from worship, and the kids were in bed, and the presents were under the tree.  Scott Hoezee of Calvin Seminary writes that Sinatra prided himself on looking back upon his life compared to the lyrics of perhaps his most famous song, “My Way.”  There is one tale that these lyrics were part of his last words.  But in reality, as Sinatra neared his death he whispered to a family friend, “I’m losing.”  Perhaps he understood that he could not control all of life, that he could keep life as he wished it, living it on his own terms.  Hoezee writes that maybe Old Blue Eyes was in touch with something fundamental in the human soul: the aching sense that we were made for life and that death and darkness gets in the way.  That is why we want to avoid it.  That is why we wish it would go away.

Maybe the crowd that Palm Sunday hoped that Jesus would be different.  They hope he would remove all of the pain and hardship of living so that life could be something celebrated in ease and comfort and certainty.  Instead he rode before them humbly, going all the way to death, just so he could be like you and me, convincing us that he truly understood the entirety of our human experience and bringing hope and meaning to us even when times and circumstances are most difficult.

Jesus leads the way, helping us to find our way by assuring us that what we see is not all that there is.  God will redeem these present moments and bring new possibilities and new life.  Believe the promise and be exceedingly glad.  Hosanna.  Hosanna.  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.  Things may not be as easy as we wish.  We may not have the control we desire.  But God is with us.  And God will have the last word.

 

 

Bringing Dry Bones to Life

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Bringing Dry Bones to Life”

Rev. Art Ritter

March 29, 2020

 

Ezekiel 37:1-14

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.” So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” says the Lord.

 

Each winter Laura and I take our Florida vacation at the Disney Vacation Club resort near Vero Beach.   The resort is beautiful and relaxing and we find our favorite activity to be the walks along the endless sandy beach.  The theme of the resort is the loggerhead turtle, a symbol in the decoration and promotion of Disney Vero Beach.  All around the resort are signs reminding guests not to disturb and sea turtles or sea turtle nest that they might encounter.  The resort itself tempers its artificial lighting so that very little, if any light from the buildings or pool makes it way down to the beach.  As much is done as possible to make certain the loggerhead turtle enjoys its natural habitat.

In her book Learning to Walk in Darkness, author and priest Barbara Brown Taylor tells the story of spending three days at Barrier Island, near Melbourne Florida, at a time when the loggerhead turtles were laying their eggs.  One evening, when the tide was out, she watched a huge female turtle heave herself up on the beach to dig her nest and empty her eggs into it.  Afraid of disturbing the event, Taylor quickly and quietly walked away.  The next morning she returned to the beach to see if she could find the spot where the eggs were hidden.  What she found instead were sea turtle tracks heading in the wrong direction.  Instead of moving back into the sea, the loggerhead turtle had wandered into the dunes, the hot dry sandy dunes.  Taylor eventually found the turtle a little ways inland, exhausted, all but baked in the sun, head and flippers covered with sand.  She poured the water from her water bottle over the creature and then left to notify the beach ranger.

The ranger soon arrived in a Jeep to rescue the turtle.  He flipped the loggerhead on her back, wrapped two chains around her front legs, and then hooked the chain to the trailer hitch.  Taylor watched horrified as the ranger then took off in the Jeep.   The turtle’s body was yanked forward with such thrust that her mouth filled with sand.  Her neck was bent so far back Taylor feared it might break.  The ranger continued over the dunes and down onto the beach.  There he unhooked the turtle at the edge of the water and turned it right side up.  The loggerhead laid motionless in the surf, water lapping at its body, washing the dry sand away.  As another wave broke over, the turtle lifted her head and moved her back legs slowly.  Soon other waves crashed over her and brought her slowly back to life.  Finally one of the waves completely overcame the turtle, making her light enough to find a foothold and push off the beach, returning safely to the ocean.

Taylor writes that watching the turtle swim away and remembering the horrible scene of the turtle being dragged through the dunes, she learned something.  It is sometimes hard to tell whether you are being killed or saved by the hands that turn your life upside down.”

I think we are in that place of the turtle ourselves.  The COVID 19 pandemic has left us at a place where we are stranded and isolated from our habitats of certainty and routine.  It may feel as if we are being dragged through times and places not of our own choosing.  We may feel that we have been abandoned, without hope or any meaning.

The Scripture lesson for this Fifth Sunday in the season of Lent is the story of the vision of the prophet Ezekiel.  Ezekiel, a Israelite priest and prophet, was living in exile in Babylon.  In exile, he and his people felt cut off from God, lifeless and without any hope.  Perhaps they were like that sea turtle on the dunes.  Ezekiel’s vision describes them as a bunch of empty, dry skeletons.

In his vision, Ezekiel is taken by God to a valley of dry bones.  He is asked by God if such things can live.  It is easy to answer no.  But God answers that through breath, through spirit, these dry bones can be brought back to life.  This is no ordinary breath.  This is the breath of God, a Holy Spirit.  As that spirit is given to the bones, Ezekiel sees them coming together, come to life, and rise from the sand of the valley.  The dry skeletons take on tendons, and muscle, and flesh.

God can bring life into places where there appears to be only death.  Darkness may surround us, fill us, chase us.  But God is in the business of restoring hope by raising the dead to life, by breathing new life into people, by finding possibilities in times that seem to have reached their conclusion.

Can these bones live?  These words, this vision, are a message of hope.  There is evil and darkness and uncertainty around us.  But even in these times God has power.  Compassion.  New beginnings.  Restoration.  We may die many deaths but God has the power to breath new life back into us and to restore us again and again.

Again, in another book God in Pain, Barbara Brown Taylor writes this, “if  our turns have not yet come, they will- our own turns to submit ourselves to the unknown, to step into the darkness without understanding what it is all about.  We may not go bravely or wisely or compassionately, some of us may have to crawl, and others of us to be carried, but that we can go at all has everything to do with the cross, the cross dares us to believe that God is at the bottom of everything, especially the things we cannot understand, with strong arms waiting to catch us when all our nets break, with loving arms to cradle us.

We don’t hold in our hands total control.  But what we do hold is hope, hope that in us and through us God will speak to the world.  We don’t know when and how God’s spirit will move us or move among us.  But we can trust that God’s spirit is powerful enough to mend crushed hope, renew withered faith, and to rebuild our brokenness.  Hope abound in the people of God.

 

 

Challenging Assumptions

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Challenging Assumptions”

Rev. Art Ritter

March 22, 2020

 

 

1 Samuel 16:1-13

The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” And the Lord said, “Take a heifer with you, and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you.” Samuel did what the Lord commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, “Do you come peaceably?” He said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.

When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen any of these.” Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.” He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.

 

 

I recall a friend of mine sharing her struggles getting her youngest child out of his crib and into a regular bed.   Perhaps there are some parents out there who can associate with this particular adventure!  I know it brings back some rather unpleasant memories in my mind.  The boy’s new bedroom has a NASCAR theme with the bed itself shaped like a racecar.  The wallpaper is full of brightly colored cars.  His name printed on a car hangs on the door.  All things a little boy should love, right?  Well, maybe.  The first night that the boy was supposed to sleep in the “big bed” he cried and cried.  His parents finally let him sleep in the crib in the nursery.  A few nights later they rocked him to sleep and then carefully placed him in the racecar bed.  They awoke in the middle of the night to find that the boy had somehow crawled back into the crib.  The parents then removed the crib from the nursery.  Dad tried falling asleep with the boy on the racecar bed.  After a couple of hours Dad awoke alone, to discover that the boy was in bed with Mom.  After a few weeks of frustration, my friend told me that she had found something that had finally worked.  They set up the racecar bed in the nursery.  The little boy seems quite content in his new bed, as long as it is in the old familiar spot.

I specifically recall trying to teach my then 19 year old daughter how to drive a car with a stick shift.  It too was not an easy task.  Maren dropped hints that she was not real comfortable with a stick shift.  She asked me about how I would feel if she caused an accident or ruined the car.  She reminded me that her old car in Utah, which we sold when we moved, was an automatic transmission.  I remember our driving experiments down the side roads and in church parking lots.  We ended up buying my wife Laura a new car and my daughter inherited her old car with automatic transmission.

The Scripture lesson this morning is a wonderful story about the anointing of David as the future King of Israel.  Saul, the reigning king, had fallen into disfavor with God because he had failed to follow God’s direction in battle.  So God sent Samuel, the judge and spiritual leader of Israel, in search of a new leader.  Samuel went to Bethlehem, a place that we know quite well from another story later in the Bible.  There he was told to anoint one of Jesse’s sons as the future king.

The sons came out, one at a time.  It was like an audition for a part in a high school play.  The first was Eliab, strong and tall and handsome.  Samuel was certain he was the one.  But God said, “Pay no attention to his good looks.”  Another brother came out, then another, and another.  In all seven sons of Jesse paraded before Samuel.  Each seemed capable of being king.  Each was rejected by God.  Finally in desperation, the young David was brought before Samuel.  “This is the one,” God says.  “Anoint him as King of Israel.”  And Samuel did as God asked him to do.

At first reading, we might find ourselves linked with little David.  It is a lovely little Cinderella story.  He is the underdog.  He is at first glance, nothing special.  But he is chosen by God.  We like to think that God does not judge by outward appearance but by the heart.  With that divine logic, we too can be chosen for something special in our very next breath.

But when I read over this story this week, I found myself aligning with the task of Samuel, the one who had to anoint the future of God’s Kingdom.  That was the tougher job.  Samuel was the one who actually had to act upon God’s vision and call.  He had to learn something new, to challenge his assumptions and comfort level, and to put himself in a vulnerable place.  Samuel had to do God’s work in a difficult time.  He really didn’t want Israel to have a king and he knew a king would just cause big problems.  He had actually hoped that one of those big, strong sons of Jesse would be the one God chose and everything would be easy.  But God kept challenging him further and further.   He had to wait until little David stepped forward from the fields to find an option.  Discovering God’s presence in the mess of his prophetic task was not an easy thing to do.

Did you notice how reluctant Samuel was to do all of this?  “How can I do that?  If King Saul hears that I am running around looking for a new king, he will kill me!”  What God wanted him to do was at odds with his own assessment of his strengths and weaknesses, talents and abilities.  Samuel didn’t think he could be the kind of prophet that God wanted him to be in this kind of situation.

Just like Samuel, we are called to anoint God’s intention in our world today.  It is difficult to be called to be the presence of God in the midst of challenges and obstacles of this virus and isolation and fear and worry.  We look for easy answers; we might doubt our ability to do what is needed; we might prefer that such difficult task be given to someone else.  We might hope that our times and our call would be made different, altered to something we can handle with more ease and assurance.  It is hard to be the faithful person we want to be when our lives and our world have been turned upside down.

Samuel’s situation reminds me that there are clearly two different orders involved in the life of faith.  One is faith we can readily see and measure and understand.  This is the faith of anointing the bigger and stronger brothers.  Just as I prefer living in a world where there are sports on television and live trivia in bars and restaurants each night, we would prefer to be God’s presence in a more conventional and more convenient way these days, a way that assures us of our comfort and capability.  But then God reminds us that God can work through the Davids of the world, acting and speaking in surprising ways to bring God’s way into being.  Just as in our time, we wait for game changing cures and miracles- God is working through important but unnoticed things- the brave and tireless service of doctors and nurses; the relentless research of scientists; the words of kindness to friend and strangers; the phone calls and notes to those who are alone; and the smallest act of compassion that we might not think is so important.  And God calls those like Samuel, and like us to anoint times of fear and uneasiness with ways of living that promote light and life, peace and understanding, justice and righteousness, mercy and compassion.

We are people who are called to anoint God’s way in a time that is uncertain and frightening.  We may fear the strength of the darkness.  We may doubt our ability to handle the task.  We may be reluctant to understand how there is anything we can do that might help bring forth God’s way.  Like it did the prophet Samuel, the old demands our loyalty and tries to discourage us from stepping out in faith.  But God’s future awaits in our future.  We are called to anoint with each word and action.

Is God With Us?

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Is God With Us?

Rev. Art Ritter

March 15, 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?”

 

I read a couple of interesting recent historical tidbits this week.  On 2005, Pavel Mircea, an imprisoned Romanian serving time for murder, tried to sue God.  The basis of the suit was breach of contract.  Mircea contended, “God was supposed to protect me from all evils and instead He gave me to Satan who encouraged me to kill.”  Just two years later, in 2007, Nebraska State Senator Ernie Chambers filed his own lawsuit against God.  In a fit of eloquent alliteration, Chambers accused God of “fearsome floods, egregious earthquakes, horrendous hurricanes, terrifying tornadoes, pestilential plagues, and the like.”  You may be comforted in knowing that both of these lawsuits were dismissed quickly.  Both judges said that since God does not have a legal address, God can’t be summoned to appear in court.

In 1970, a collection of previously unpublished essays and speeches from author C.S. Lewis was published entitled, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics.  The title implied that God was on trial, and the title was based on an analogy made by Lewis suggesting that human beings, rather than seeing themselves as standing before God in judgement, prefer to place God on trial while acting themselves as judge.  Where is God?  Why is God absent?  Why did God punish me?  Why isn’t God punishing my enemies?  Why is God allowing this to happen?  It is not human behavior or attitudes or words that get judged.  It is the action or apparent inaction of God that is weighed and ruled upon by humankind.

The setting of this morning’s Scripture lesson is the wilderness of Rephidim.  Newly freed from bondage in Egypt, the Israelites have been traveling from place to place assisted by the direction of God.  God has given them a pillar of cloud or fire as a guide.  God has provided them with manna and quail, raining down from the heavens to ease their hunger.  But now they have camped down in the wilderness and there is a new problem.  Water has run out and dehydration is imminent.  At first they are merely thirsty.  Then thirst turns to panic.  Then panic turns to anger and fury.  The people of Israel confront Moses, and by extension, they confront God.  “Why did you bring us out of Egypt to die of thirst?  Give us water to drink!”

Moses went to God with the complaints.  He was tired of being mistreated by these stubborn, complaining people.  At the time, God’s response didn’t seem particularly helpful or practical.  “Go ahead of the people.  Take some of the elders with you.  And take your staff, the one that you used to strike the Nile River.  I will stand before you by the rock at Horeb.  Strike that rock and water will come.”  In a way, God was challenging the people of faith.  Put me on trial.  Assemble your witnesses.  Be ready to judge.  I will be there waiting.

Moses did as he was asked.  He struck the rock and water came forth.  We don’t get a lot of detail about the people’s response.  One can imagine that they were filled with delirious joy and they ran toward the rushing water to get something to drink.  Perhaps they were thankful, taking the time to offer God praise.  Perhaps they were only concerned about easing their thirst and did not take the time to acknowledge God’s hand in the miracle.  Moses must have sighed with relief.  He couldn’t have possibly continued his leadership without some kind of action by God.

Is God with us?  This question was one asked by the community of the faithful as they wandered in the wilderness long ago.  The ancient people of Israel were afraid that they were all alone.  Maybe it was a mistake to leave Egypt, even though they were enslaved.  At least they knew what was there and what was expected of them.  Maybe their Exodus was something done too quickly.  Perhaps they had misread the signs.  Perhaps they shouldn’t have trusted Moses.  Maybe God had simply abandoned them.

Perhaps we are in a similar place as the people of Israel long ago.  We are in a wilderness of pandemic, isolation, closures, stock market collapse, and great uncertainty.  Like them we yearn for the known and seemingly safer places of our past.  We wish things were like they were a month ago, this past Christmas or a year ago.  We wish we were past this wilderness and safely residing in the Promised Land.  We want our God to be a God who takes away the uncertainty, the anxiety, the pain, and strife.  We want our God to be one in control and we want to see evidence of that power.  We want our God to make it easier for us.  When it doesn’t appear to be the case we ask, “Is God with us.”

We know that God is with us.  Our cry isn’t really a question but a yearning of faith.  We reach out and we seek God’s presence in the wilderness and in the darkness.  God call us to go ahead with the promise of God’s faithfulness.  God asks us to take the staff of faith, the reminders of where God has helped us in the past.  God brings forth water from the rock, not as a final solution or victory, but as reassurance that God will provide for what will be needed in the still uncertain journey.

Is God with us?  Perhaps the question is not so wrong when it is less of a question about God’s existence and more of a cry of honest faith about God’s presence.  When we ask such a question, we are in a place where we contemplate our deepest needs and search for the hand of God.  When we ask this question, we might be actually wishing for the presence of a God in the midst of our perilous journey.  When we ask this question in faith perhaps we are really trying to grasp the presence of a God who lives among us now making all things new.  When we ask the question we might find God as the God of the present and future, a God who promises to make all things new, a God who is present when we take the risks of faith to follow.

 

 

 

 

Moving On

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Moving On”

Rev. Art Ritter

March 8, 2020

 

Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.
For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation. For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us,
as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”) —in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.

Genesis 12:1-4a
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”  So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him.

 

A monastery in Europe was perched high upon a cliff, several hundred feet from the town below. The only way to reach it was to be climb into a basket which was attached to a slender rope moved by a pulley through the efforts of several monks, who tugged and strained with all of their might. Obviously, the ride up the steep cliff in the fragile basket was terrifying. One tourist got exceedingly nervous about half-way up as he noticed that the rope by which he was suspended was old and quite frayed. With a trembling voice he asked the monk who was riding with him in the basket how often they changed the rope. The monk thought for a brief moment and then answered quickly, “Whenever it breaks.”
Playwright Neil Simon once said, “If no one ever took risks, Michelangelo would have painted the Sistine floor.” What is the biggest risk that you have ever taken? I am not much of a risk taker but I can think of some small things in life that elevated the heart rate and got me considering the sanity of my position. I remember standing at the top of the 120 feet, almost vertical drop at Summit Plummet Water Slide at Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon water park. I almost changed my mind and headed back down the stairs before I realized that such a retreat would be embarrassing and then summoned the courage to take the plunge. I also recall volunteering a few years ago to sing the opening lines in the local production of Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat. To this day I am still not certain what possessed me to accept such a challenge. But I did it. I know some of you were there to see and hear my song. When the house lights dimmed and the music began to play that day, I was about as terrified as I have ever been in my life.
Perhaps the biggest risk that I have ever taken was moving my family to Utah in 1999. I have shared this before with participants at Mayflower Café. It was difficult leaving behind our comfortable life, wonderful church, beloved friends, and my parents to embrace the unknown of Salt Lake City. I had rarely been that far from home much less live far from home. A couple of my colleagues advised against the move, believing it was foolish to take my children to a land where they would live with the consequences of being a religious minority. But somehow Laura and I took the risk and found Salt Lake City to be a wonderful place to live and to raise our daughters.
Commentator John Holbert calls this morning’s Scripture lesson from Genesis “the lynchpin of the Bible.” Here in this brief passage something of crucial importance happens. Abram is called to do the work of God. Rather than speaking directly to the mass of humanity, expecting each person to do God’s will, God now chooses one person through whom God will attempt once again to effect the divine work in the world. That person, called to take the risk of acting for God, is Abram.
God said to Abram, “Go from your country, your kin, and the house of your father to the land that I will show you.” This was a difficult command involving several risks or leaps of faith. Moving to another land. We know the pain of leaving behind the comfortable and familiar for the unknown and the uncertain. Many of us know how hard it is to leave loved ones behind. Many of us know how difficult it is to sever the sacred roots of those whom we have grown to trust and rely upon deeply. We know the anxiety of being called to go into a dark wilderness, to an unknown place. We wonder, “How will we find it? Exactly where are we to go? Will it be a long journey? Will the road to this place be difficult?”
Along with the invitation came a promise. “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” The word “blessing” at its root refers to God’s favor. In the Old Testament blessing was connected to prosperity, fertility, and victory. Yet that favor carries with it a strong flavor of grace. God’s blessing is something that isn’t deserved or created by the person whom God blesses. It is always a gift.
God promised to make Abram and his wife Sarai into a great nation. But even the appeal of that promise didn’t make a whole lot of sense. The goal of their culture at that time was to accumulate enough stuff so that people would never have to move again. The prize in life was sheep and goats and cattle and land and children. Apparently Abram and Sarai had all of the first four that they needed. They probably felt like they could have done quite well staying right where they were. Yet this blessing that God promised the two of them was something totally different. Now their life would be defined by not by possession but by how, through them, the world would be blessed. What Abram and Sarai would do would not yield the security and comfort and that made worldly sense. God was asking them to take a risk. In order for them to be blessed and to be a blessing for others, they couldn’t stay where they were. They had to leave home. They had to depart into the unknown. They had to move on.
Doug Bratt writes that “perhaps God called Abram and Sarai to move on, to strike out on this new and dangerous adventure, because Abram can’t discover all of the blessings that God has in store for him unless he disentangles himself from what he settled for. Maybe God understands that for Abram to recognize the blessings God will give him, he must give up many of the ‘blessings’ he had accumulated.” God does not promise to bless Abram into order to make his life fulfilled or empty of hardship. God does not promise to bless Abram so that he can settle down and raise a large family that God will give him. God does not promise to bless Abram so that he can travel a little, pay for his kids’ education and then save enough to retire comfortably. God promises him blessing so that Abram can graciously show the favor of God to the people around him. Abram and Sarai were blessed so that they could bless the entire world. And the world could not be blessed unless Abram and Sarai left their country, moving on, leaning into the future by traveling toward the land that God promised to show them.
This seems to happen a lot in the Bible. It is full of stories of people asked to move on, to go to someplace different, to a new task or an unknown land. Moses was called from tending sheep to leading his people out of slavery. Ruth gave up her homeland and her people to remain faithful to her mother-in-law Naomi. Jeremiah, feeling incompetent and unprepared, goes to speak God’s word. A young Mary enters the unknown, listening to the messenger of God and trusting in the power of the Holy Spirit. Fishermen and tax collectors leave the world they know and follow Jesus into discipleship. Saul, persecutor of Christians, is blinded and instructed to go to a Christian community where he is despised, to find the source of his healing. Again and again, when we read through the stories of the community of faith we find people who follow God by leaving the places that are familiar and comfortable, almost as a precondition for receiving and being a blessing to others.
The writer of the book of Hebrews defined faith as being sure of what we hope for and being certain of what we do not see. Certainly living by faith isn’t something with which most of us are proficient, or even comfortable. Lizette Merchan-Pinilla writes, “All of this struggling, failing through error, making mistakes, straddling the mud puddles of life, and still missing the mark where faith- and more specifically our faith journey- means danger of the unknown, threatening to most.” Many times our choice is awarded to what is known, rather than to what is too new, too risky, or too foreign. There are elements of life that we just have to take by faith. Sometimes it seems as if God throws us a curve. Sometimes it seems as if God gives us a pop quiz for which we haven’t studied. Sometimes it seems as if God has taken away our road maps or GPS. What is asked of us in life is something that brings us worry and fear. God desires faith. Fear needs security. Faith takes risks. Worry wants predictability. Faith loves hope.
Living by faith is a journey, a process, and Abram and Sarai are the perfect role models. They had to leave home in order to become who they were called to be. They had to take a risk in order to discover the future that God intended for them. They had to move on, to begin a journey in order to become their fullest selves and benefit others in the best possible way. The God who commands and promises is with us on that journey. God is committed to a future with those who faithfully respond.

Broken

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Broken”

Rev. Art Ritter

March 1, 2020

 

Genesis 2:15 – 17, 3:1-7

The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’“ But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

  

We have a few decorative fruit trees that surround our house and deck.  Every three years or so I hire a tree trimming crew to come out and shape up those trees.  Some of their branches start rubbing against the chimney of the house.  The growth on each tree leads to shade that stifles the health of the grass and vegetation underneath each tree.

I recently heard a story of a man who noticed that his neighbor brought in a crew to trim his decorative fruit trees each and every year.  While it made the neighbor’s yard more attractive, the man carried the opinion that such constant trimming was a waste of time and money.  One day he asked his neighbor why he had the trimming done on such a regular basis.  The neighbor replied with a rather surprising and non-utilitarian answer.  He said, “I trim the fruit trees every year to create the space to let God into my yard.”

This week we entered the liturgical season of Lent.  The forty day period began last Wednesday with Ash Wednesday and concludes with Maundy Thursday and Good Friday during Holy Week preceding Easter.  In the ancient church, the time period of Lent was used by those wished to become Christian, to study and prepare themselves spiritually for baptism at Easter.  Later Lent became to be known as a period of preparation for Easter for all believers – through prayer, the repentance of sin, fasting, giving, and the denial of oneself.  Today many Christians give up something for Lent, a certain luxury or habit that helps believers associate themselves with Jesus’ journey of temptation in the wilderness for forty days.  One of my colleagues this week told me that because of the busy nature of the season within the church, she was considering giving up Lent for Lent.  In recent years some faithful have chosen to add a Lenten spiritual discipline, using the forty days to read a daily devotional, set aside a time of active prayer, or take on a habit that brings one closer to God.

It seems to be that the problem most of us have with Lent is that we tend to think of it as a “negative” season.  I spoke briefly on Ash Wednesday about how Lent is a time of saying “no” to things that keep us from God.  We tend to think of Lenten discipline as self-denial.  Just say no.  Don’t do this.  Don’t do that.  But then we have found that life isn’t so black and white.  There are experiences in life in which just saying no does not apply.  There are time in which following the accepted rules doesn’t make sense.  There are moments in which denying ourselves reasonable things produces no sense of wholeness or integrity.

Another colleague wrote that in past Lenten season she had given up meat and wine.  On Easter Sunday she had a steak and a glass of wine to celebrate.  Her Lenten behavior didn’t do anything for her other than to prove she could go without steak and wine for at least forty days.  It wasn’t wrong but it didn’t change her life or begin to change the world.

It occurs to me that instead of seeing Lent as a time of self-denial that perhaps we can come to see it instead as a time of self-awareness or self-knowledge.  Instead of viewing ourselves broken in a stumbling and bumbling and failing way, we are to understand that our brokenness actually occurs when we are people of not our true nature.  We are broken when we failed to live out our God-given worth.

The traditional readings for the first Sunday in Lent include the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.  This is the story that is traditionally referred to as “the fall.”  Adam and Eve were living in an absolutely perfect world created by God.  There were no responsibilities.  Then along came the serpent who brought evil into paradise.  “Did God really tell you that you may not eat from any tree in the garden?”  Eve fell into the serpent’s trap and man and woman both succumb to temptation, trying to be like God, eating of the very fruit that God had forbidden them to eat.  Centuries has added to the complexity of the story involving snakes and fruits and which sex sinned the most and the punishment brought on by such a terrible choice.  We have used the story to explain the origin of sin and not perhaps what the original author intended the story to be used for- to explain the reality of what it is to be human.  It is about our human tendency to rebel against God and resist God’s boundaries for us and our desire to be like God rather than thankful creatures of God.

What happened after Adam and Eve ate the apple?  Their eyes were opened.  Before they were seeing with closed eyes, a partial seeing, a blindness.  There was something about eating that fruit that gave them a new awareness and brought them into a new level of consciousness.  They knew good and evil.  They saw it all.  Life in their world got a whole lot more complicated but potentially more real and more beautiful.

I think that the purpose of Lent can be a lot like that garden experience.  But instead of seeing our sin as a failure to say no to temptation, we need to take Lent as a lesson in self-knowledge and a time to find our place in God’s creation.  Can we use these forty days to open our eyes, to be honest about ourselves and to allow the presence of God to shine into our shadows?  How can we see the world and ourselves in a brand new way?  How can we open our eyes to see the places of wholeness and integrity as well as the places of brokenness and pain?  What are the painful places in us that cause us to act out in ways that are not good for us or others?  What are the buttons that get so easily pushed that cause us to react in ways that we really don’t want to act?  What are the ways we have contributed to the pain of others and how can be a part of the healing?  In what ways have we knowingly or through fear lived a life less that who God wants us to be?  Where have we fallen short and missed the mark?  What are the patterns and habits that direct and control our lives?  Do we truly believe that we are God’s beloved sons and daughters and are we living in ways that make that belief authentic?

John Calvin once wrote, “Without knowledge of self, there is no knowledge of God.”  Let us use this time of Lenten to examine ourselves truthfully and honestly.  Let use this time not to find our flaws and blame ourselves.  Rather let us use this time to accept our humanness and know that each of us were created to be in relationship with God.  The goal of the life of faith isn’t to escape our limits or to punish ourselves for our limits but to discover God amid our needs and to learn that God’s grace is sufficient for what and who we are.  Lent is a time to trim the trees to let God back into our lives.

 

Sacred Mountains

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Sacred Mountains”

Rev. Art Ritter

February 23, 2020

 

Exodus 24:12-18

The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.” So Moses set out with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God. To the elders he had said, “Wait here for us, until we come to you again; for Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a dispute may go to them.” Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.

Matthew 17:1-9

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

 

While on vacation in Florida, I had to make a couple of unfortunate but necessary trip to the pharmacy for prescriptions to battle my upper respiratory infection.  On my first visit to the CVS counter, I had what seemed like a rather strange conversation with the clerk, a young man around 30 years of age.  Perhaps it was just me.  I told the clerk that I had a couple of prescriptions to fill.  His reply to me was one word – “Awesome.”  Now I was glad that I had been to the doctor, happy that I had prescription health coverage, and hopeful that that medicine would make a difference in how I was feeling.  But I wasn’t quite certain that the word “awesome” applied that particular situation.   The clerk then asked if I had a photo ID and insurance card.  I opened my wallet, produced both and handed them to him.   His reply to me was again one word.  This time it was “Amazing.”  Again, I feel blessed that Laura’s job provides such excellent prescription coverage and I am rather satisfied with my photo on my new enhanced Michigan’s driver’s license but I wasn’t quite certain that “amazing” was the word that fit that exact moment and time.  Regardless I remained silent and allowed for the young man to do his work as he sent along my scripts to the pharmacists behind the counter.

This past week I read an article about the ten most overused words in the English language.  It didn’t surprise me that both “awesome” and “amazing” made the top five.  The author of the article said that the overuse of these particular words is a method of tempering a wild, mystical experience to everyday terms that we can handle.  The overuse of such adjectives can also be a way of raising up otherwise ordinary experiences so that they appear more significant than they actually are.  The article went on to say that the overuse of awesome and amazing is often a lazy way of saying what we really should say: fabulous, great, wonderful, beautiful, or outstanding.  The word “awesome” is meant to convey something inspiring, a show of majesty and force, something larger than life, something divine, something glorious.  Yet we tend to use it to affirm something quite ordinary.  The same is true of the word “amazing.”  Amazing should point toward something surprising or astounding.  Instead we give the adjective to describe things that are just OK or good.  The author of the article pointed specifically to a Facebook page of over 1000 followers which accents the overuse of “awesome” and “amazing.”  It pokes fun at celebrities like Lady Gaga, Kim Kardashian, and Ryan Seacrest who use one or both of the words in many of their social media posts.  The author concluded by saying that perhaps the word “awesome” should only be used in relationship to some mystery that cannot be explained by any other word and that we reserve  use of the word “amazing” for the song “Amazing Grace” or describing the 1962 New York Mets.

Perhaps it is appropriate to use both “awesome” and “amazing” in the description of Transfiguration Sunday.  On the Sunday before the season of Lent begins, the church traditionally hears the story of Jesus mountaintop experience with his disciples Peter and James and John.  Transfiguration Sunday draws the season of Epiphany to a close.  We began the season in January, studying Jesus’ baptism and it feels like the transfiguration story provides a perfect bookend as we contemplate the light and mystery of Jesus for us. Although it is the last event observed during Epiphany, transfiguration leans into Lent.  When Jesus comes down the mountain following his transfiguration experience, he is on his way to a different destination, one that will include sacrifice and pain and death.

While on the mountain, Jesus was transfigured- his face shone like the sun and his clothes became dazzling white.  He was visibly changed.  Moses and Elijah, the two legendary prophets and leaders of the Hebrew faith came to stand alongside him.  In the book of Exodus, we read of Moses seeing God face to face upon the mountaintop.  In the Old Testament, Elijah also heard God’s voice and saw God’s glory while in the midst of a lonely wilderness journey.  Here on the mountain, Jesus had a profound experience that seems to authenticate his identity as God’s Son and points to the glory of God that would be part of his uncertain future.  He found a renewed sense of God’s glory and new insight and strength to fulfill God’s purpose within him.

Peter was so moved by the experience that he thought the proper thing to do was to build a tent for each of the participants, to freeze the moment in time, so that it could be revisited and experienced whenever needed or necessary.  It seemed that Peter wanted to domesticate the moment, tame it down into something controllable and understandable.  But apparently this wasn’t part of God’s plan.  The voice of God came from the clouds, much as the voice that spoke at Jesus’ baptism, “This is my Son, the beloved, with him I am well pleased.  Listen to him!”  For Jesus, transfiguration wasn’t necessarily just an “Atta Boy” slap on the back and affirmation that he was doing things the way God wanted.  Instead it was a reminder of God’s truth in him.  Jesus was transfigured so that we might find the special nature of God in his mission.  Jesus was transfigured so that we as followers could cherish the special nature of our own encounter with the divine presence.  The face of God is not an everyday amazing or awesome.  The presence of God is something that moves and frightens and changes lives.

In his commentary on Transfiguration, Bruce Epperly writes that “one of the problems of our times is ecstasy deficit.”  We have become so busy about our own affairs that we have lost the vision of beauty.  We have tamped down wonder to consume it, prophesy to profit by it, beauty to buy it, and awe to acquire it for ourselves.  The world has become flat.  We focus on the literal words of Scripture as a plan and rule book for life and deny wonder within the stories of the sacred text.  We settle for controlled experiences of God, as Peter wished, for a predictable God, for the letter of the law and not the life-giving mysterious Spirit.”

As we stand on the mountaintop, with Jesus and Peter and James and John, we need to become aware of our how we have done our best to tame the divine.  We prefer to put God in a box.  We tend to worship a “do me a favor Jesus.”  We are more comfortable following a Jesus of our own making, not the unpredictable awe-inspiring God of the mountain.  As we contemplate the wild and majestic and transfigured Jesus, might we prefer a God that we can manage, control, and predict?

Yet the story of transfiguration reminds us that God is not anything at all like that and what Jesus showed us of God is something larger than life.  Rather than trying to tame or tone down God, transfiguration should raise the awareness of our own capabilities, increase the level of challenge in our lives of faith, and inspire us to the potential of God that exists within us.  Transfiguration is a reminder that our journey of faith is not something that leads us to comfortable certainty but challenging actions that transform our faith.

In a National Review this week, author Kathryn Jean Lopez described a program within her Roman Catholic church in Charlotte, NC.  It is called “Hard as Nails.”  The title doesn’t sound very inviting, does it?  The program was a three day mission at the start of Lent which is supposed to resemble the trip of the transfiguration mountain with Jesus.  Participants join hands-on mission projects to help alleviate suffering.  They spend quiet moments in prayer and meditation. They join in meaningful celebrations of the sacrament together.   They contemplate and seek the real presence of Christ.  The purpose of Hard as Nails is to contrasting the truth of what people profess to believe about Jesus with what Jesus actually calls us to say and do.  It is an examination of who we have made God out to be with that which God is calling us to be.  Those who participate are moved by the change that they encounter.  They feel transformed and transfigured.  Lopez writes that it is hard to stay tame and unmoved and comfortable when the Beatitudes are your oxygen and when Christ’s words of mercy are your marching orders.

On the mountain with Jesus we learn that faith is not a safe and certain harbor.  It is not a tame language nor a set of rules set to our standards of reason.  The mountaintop is a place where we become very aware of the divine presence of God, a God who intervenes in our world and perhaps more frighteningly- in our lives.  Our lives have meaning because they were made by and for this loving God.  That is what Jesus experienced on that day long ago.  As we begin our Lenten journey, that is what we need to know.