Think. Serve. Worship. Belong.

Category : Sermons

Who Only Stand and Wait

By Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch

03•22•20

John 9: 1-41

“They also serve who only stand and wait.” John Milton, 1608-1674, English Poet and Civil Servant, from the Poem “On His Blindness”

Somebody contacted me the other day and asked, did I believe that the COVID-19 pandemic was the fulfillment of Revelation 15, which predicts the coming of seven angels with seven plagues, a sign of the coming of the End Times. I wrote him back, no, not at all. There are have been terrible plagues in history than COVID-19. Think, for instance, of the Bubonic Plague, the Black Plague which killed some 50 million people in Roman times, and which occurred again in the Middle Ages, decimating half of Europe’s population. In the 20th Century, the world was devastated by the Spanish Flu. Twenty-seven percent of the world was infected and the dead are estimated anywhere from 17 million to 100 million. Admittedly, it’s hard to know what the ultimate outcome of the COVID-19 crisis will be. But science is far advanced from the time of the Spanish Flu, and governments cooperate more than they ever have before. My hope and prayer is that those things—with our cooperation—will keep the coronavirus far short of those disastrous numbers.

My point is, if a plague predicts the end, any one of those earlier plagues could fit the bill at least as well as coronavirus. Think too of the ecological and economic disaster of the Dust Bowl and the Depression. Those events, too, were viewed by some as the sign of the end of time. I hope and pray this is a different situation. According to the scientists, it could be very different, if we all do what we’re supposed to do—social distancing, washing our hands, avoiding groups. We have to take this guidance very, very seriously, no matter how much it hurts. If we don’t, well, all bets are off.

When large scale disasters strike, we often go to large scale explanations, like God bringing judgment on all humanity. But that may be using our faith the wrong way. Could there be another way to have faith in the face of COVID-19?

Jesus is in Jerusalem and he meets a man blind from birth. His disciples ask Jesus, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was blind from birth?” They’re standing the presence of the blind man saying this, the way we often do; people who are in wheelchairs often complain that people talk right over them, as if they weren’t there. I can just imagine this man yelling, “Hey, I’m right here! I’m blind, not dead!”

Jesus tells his disciples that neither is true. Sin didn’t cause the blindness. This terrible natural disaster, this poor man blind from birth, or this new and dangerous coronavirus, is not meant as judgment. It is meant that “God’s works might be revealed through him.”

Now that sounds awful, like God causes suffering just to test us to see how we’ll respond. That would be despicable. So, are those our choices? Either that God is punishing us or God is testing us? Either makes God look manipulative and cruel.

But let’s step back for a minute. The fact is that, whether we are good people or bad people, whether faithful or unfaithful or somewhere in between, which is where most of us are, we all have to deal with suffering. It’s a part of life. Ultimately we have to give up on looking for an explanation or an answer because any explanation is unsatisfactory and also quite shallow. Asking, “Why?” when it comes to suffering is what theologians call “theodicy.” Past a certain point, theodicy is pointless. It’s chasing rabbits. Suffering simply is. Why did God allow COVID-19 to happen? Why will some die and some live, some suffer and others not? What does it matter? It’s what we do about it that counts.

And that is Jesus’ point. I’m going to call the blind man “Frank” so that I don’t have to keep calling him “the blind man.” When Jesus says that Frank “was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him,” what he means is that God will be glorified in how Frank will respond to the crisis he faces. His blindness is not a punishment and his healing will not be a sign of God’s special favor. It’s how Frank responds to those facts that will determine whether he will glorify God or not.

On the tenth anniversary of the 9-11 attacks, a radio reporter interviewed two Merrill Lynch employees who had narrowly escaped the collapse of the World Trade Center. They were in a bar remembering the 10-year anniversary. The two of them told the story of how they escaped disaster; how they helped one another out of the offices, down the interminable flights of stairs, and out of the building. It was a moving story.

But it was also ten years later. Since then the 2008 Stock Market crash had happened. The government had bailed out Merrill Lynch and whole lot of other financial industry big shots. The reporter asked them why Merrill Lynch had survived both 9-11 and the stock market crash. “Because we’re better and we’re smarter,” they immediately said. But, the reporter asked, isn’t it true that Merrill Lynch tanked in 2008 because of high risk housing loans that led to a $15 billion loss when the housing bubble burst? And isn’t true that your losses then nearly brought down Bank of America when it was trying to buy you out, and the only thing that saved either institution was the US government’s $45 million bailout? So isn’t true that it wasn’t your smarts that saved you, it was the US government?

The men shook their heads and argued. “We’ve survived because we’re smarter than everybody else,” they stubbornly asserted.

It left me with a question: how can people who’ve experienced so much disaster on the one hand, and blessing on the other, not look at life with more humility? How can they not take more responsibility and do more with their gratitude than just go out and celebrate at a bar?

One hopes that these gigantic moments in our lives would affect us deeply. They should humble us. They should call us to accountability and responsibility. As much as anything, they should be a big billboard dropped into the middle of our lives that reminds us that we are not the center of the world. When we’re confronted with these events, they are a question that life is putting to us: how will you live in this new reality?

Whether God intends them as a test I can’t answer. But they are a test, regardless. How will our faith sustain us in this hard time? How will we live faithfully in this hard time? How will we show Christ to the world in this hard time? How will we trust Christ in this hard time?

Or is our faith only good as long as the good times remain good?

Our friend Frank responds to his healing with extraordinary bravery and courage and gratitude. The pharisees confront him about his claim that Jesus healed him. Frank sticks to his guns. Here is something interesting to note. Though Frank had no control over either his lifelong blindness or his unexpected, and by the way, unasked for healing, he is now claiming full responsibility for his own life. He is not a helpless victim of circumstance. His gratitude has given him agency. It’s spurred him to take a critical stand, to speak out when it is clear that the authorities want him to shut up. This man who once begged for his living now demands the respect of those who used to give him alms. This man who was once talked down to now speaks with authority to those who think of themselves as his superiors. We don’t know if he had faith before, but he sure has it now. he is that all-important figure in the Gospel of John—someone who gives testimony. Someone who bears witness.

Witness is a funny word in Christian parlance. We talk about witnessing to other people and what we mean is telling or showing them the truth of Jesus Christ. It’s a word from the legal world. If one is a witness, if one is giving testimony in a trial, they are not supposed to be telling people their opinion, but simply reporting back to the court what they saw or experienced. It is in many ways a passive thing. You didn’t do it; you’re just reporting it. And that’s what we mean by witnessing. We are reporting the mighty acts of God. We are reporting the grace, love and mercy of God through Jesus Christ. We’re telling the world not about what we have done, but what God has done, and what God is continuing to do.

I don’t know that any of us have experienced anything like this pandemic. I wonder if anyone has, exactly the way we have. Unlike those other pandemics I spoke of earlier, we live in an age of science and global networking. We know what it is that we are supposed to do in the face of this menace.

And what we’re supposed to do is nothing.

We’re supposed to sit around the house. Not go to work. Not go to restaurants. Not travel. Not get closer than six feet to one another. Not go to church or women’s circle. Not go to your gym or your tennis match. We are called to do nothing. Nothing could be so against our nature—as human beings, as Americans, as Texans! And even as Christians, because Christians tend to be doers, because as James says, “Faith without works is dead.” We like to do.

But now we have to wait. Nothing could be harder. But waiting is one of the most important of the biblical virtues. How many times does the Bible say wait? “Wait for the Lord; be strong and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!” “My soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning.” “Those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength…”.

Wait. Waiting for God takes faith. It takes confidence that God will act. It takes the humility to recognize that I have to resist the temptation to do something, because if I do something, I might actually make things worse. So like it or not, I am in a situation where I am a passive participant. There’s just not much I can do. I have to trust that while I am waiting, those who know what they’re doing will be acting; and more to the point, God will be acting. And so I have to wait.

So what I hope we will all do is take responsibility for our waiting. Let’s not view this as something enforced on us from the outside. Let this be a faith choice, a choice we make from within, a deliberate, responsible choice to trust God and to love our fellow human beings by waiting—by doing nothing. Don’t view this as a burden. View it as a responsibility. No, more than that—view it as a blessing: it is a way that we can participate in what the Jewish tradition calls the tikkun olam, the healing of the world. How often do we get such an extraordinary chance? And all we have to do is the hardest thing in the world—we have to wait. So rather than feeling burdened by waiting, let us choose it. Let it be an act of faith and Christian discipleship.

Right now waiting is the most responsible thing we can possibly do. Because if we wait, we will save more lives than we would if we were superheroes. If we wait, our health infrastructure will not collapse, but will be able to manage the threat of this pandemic. If we wait, we are doing the most important thing not just for our own health, but for the health of the whole world.

Though our whole nature rebels against it—though we have legitimate long-term fears about how this crisis and our inability to act will affect the economy and our own personal plans and goals—we have to wait. And so this calls for a huge amount of faith. It is a huge test of our character. It challenges us to do the things that Christians are called to do when we wait: to pray without ceasing—to engage in self-examination—and most of all, and most importantly, to remember the many times in our lives when God has been there for us when the chips were down. Read your bibles. Re-read the story of the Exodus. Think of other crises you have experienced in your life and how you weathered them—personal crises like a death or an illness or national crises like 9-11 or the Kennedy assassination. In this season of Lent remember that when the chips were down, Jesus Christ lived, died and rose again. Think about how the greatest crisis that humanity faced—the death of God—was miraculously turned into the salvation and hope of all humankind. Take some time to journal and consciously reflect on the ways that God has blessed you unexpectedly, and think about how you can live with gratitude for God’s grace.

And at the end of all this waiting, we will be able to be witnesses to future generations of the way that God sustained us in this pandemic. We saw science at its best, we saw governments and leaders and our neighbors respond with patience and self-sacrifice. And we saw suffering too but in spite of it we maintained our hope. We will tell future generations that, like those who were in the Exodus, like those who witnessed the resurrection, during the COVID-19 crisis we were witnesses to the mighty acts of God.

A Stranger’s Love & A Friend’s Betrayal

By Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch

03•08•20

Mark 14:1-11

“Love is whatever you can still betray. Betrayal can only happen if you love.”

—John Le Carre (David John Moore Cornwall)1931-present, British Spy Novelist

It was Tuesday of the week of Passover in Jerusalem, probably in the year 30 CE.  That past Sunday Jesus had overturned the tables of the money changers in the Temple and seized the Temple grounds—an outrageous act. Since then he had been preaching every day at the Temple, drawing huge crowds. Jesus’ enemies, mainly the Jerusalem religious leadership, were caught between a rock and hard place. They had to stop him. In fact, many agreed, though not all, that they had to kill him. The Gospel of John tells us why they thought this was important:

So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (John 11: 47-50).

And so, Mark tells us in our Gospel today, “The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him.”

“By stealth”—that was the key. The problem was, Jesus was too popular. They didn’t dare arrest him in public for fear of the crowds. So they needed a spy—an insider—someone who knew Jesus’ routines and could help them intercept him in a private setting where no one would see. But where would they find this spy? Where would they find this betrayer?

The chief priests and scribes were not the only ones upset with and confused by Jesus. So were his disciples. It appears that none of them really had a clue what Jesus was up to. Why was he talking about dying in Jerusalem? If he was afraid people would kill him in Jerusalem, what in the world was he doing there? What’s all this business of “I will be handed over to the Gentiles and crucified?” Why did he ride into town unarmed? Why isn’t he leading a pious rebellion? It appears that at least some of them thought that the Messiah was supposed to lead an armed insurrection against Rome and the Jewish Temple elite.

Jesus had not been very patient with them about their misgivings and misunderstandings. He’d grown tired of their complaining. But the disciples were disgruntled, confused, and a bit bitter. They were beginning to wonder if they’d bet on the wrong horse. And soon all of that would come to a head.

Jesus spent his days in Jerusalem preaching on the Temple steps, where huge crowds would come to listen and to seek healing. In the evening, he and his disciples would walk back to the home where they were staying in Bethany, just east of Jerusalem. One particular night he was dining at a friend’s house in Bethany and a woman, perhaps a woman Jesus didn’t even know, came into the house with an expensive cut crystal jar filled with nard, a rare perfume. She poured it over his head.

It was a shocking, disconcerting moment. The disciples present were outraged and berated her for her foolishness: “You could have sold this for almost a year’s wages and given it to the poor!” They exclaim angrily. But Jesus comes to the woman’s defense. “You will always have the poor among you, and you can always help them,” he says pointedly, “but you will not always have me. She’s done what she could: she’s anointed my body beforehand for burial.”

And there he’s hit on the problem. Jesus understands that his main reason for coming to Jerusalem is to die. Think about that very carefully. If you were the disciple of someone whom you thought to be the hope of the world, how would you feel if that person told you that his plan, his expectation—that God’s plan—was for him to die rather than do all the things you thought he was supposed to do? You might think he was crazy. You might think he was misled. You certainly would think, what will happen to me? And that’s where the disciples’ heads are: What will happen to me if Jesus dies?

But this woman!—This wonderful, mysterious woman! She isn’t thinking about herself and what will happen to her. She’s thinking about Jesus and what will happen to him. And she’s not so distracted by self-concern that she can’t listen to Jesus, because clearly she has listened to him. In fact, Mark wants us to understand something amazing about this woman, and to honor it forever. Scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan put it the most clearly:

She alone, of all those who heard Jesus’ three prophecies of his death and resurrection, believed him and drew the obvious conclusion. Since (not if) you are going to die and rise, I must anoint you [for death] beforehand, because I will never have a chance to do it afterward. She is, for [the Gospel writer] Mark, the first believer. She is, for us, the first Christian.

The disciples, caught up as they are in their own preconceived notions of who Jesus ought to be, tied in knots because they can’t separate their own self-interest from Jesus’ destiny, getting their priorities confused with Jesus’ priorities, may actually be too close to Jesus to really see him. But this woman, this unnamed woman, is not confused by her own priorities and not so caught up in thinking about herself. And because of that, she can hear what Jesus is saying and see what he is doing. In a lot of ways, she believes the same thing that the High Priest Caiaphas does: That it is better for us to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed. But she doesn’t believe it with the cynical realism of the lifelong power broker. She believes it with the unabashed optimism of a woman of faith: Jesus’ death will save the nation. Jesus’ death will save us all.

Jesus’ disciples are terrified because Jesus has warned them of the cross of crucifixion that awaits him. And they are also terrified of its implication: that a cross awaits them as well. As Jesus had told them—and us—many times before, “If anyone wants to come after me, let them take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). If Jesus has to make a sacrifice, then certainly Jesus’ followers have to make a sacrifice.

But this same cross that terrifies Jesus’ disciples is the very cross that gives this unnamed first Christian her hope. She believes that Jesus’ death is for all of humanity and his resurrection will save the world. Her expensive ointment is the only embalming Jesus will receive: remember that Jesus’ women disciples were on the way to the grave to embalm Jesus when they found the tomb empty and received the news that he was risen from the dead. But this ointment is also the oil that was used in the ancient world to anoint a king or a queen. She is proclaiming that Jesus’ death is what confirms him as the true Sovereign of the Kingdom of Heaven.

So this woman believes in Jesus’ death and resurrection even before they happen. Talk about a person with great faith! As Jesus says later, “Blessed are those who have not seen, but still believe” (John 20: 29).

To this day we who follow Jesus struggle between the anxiety and doubt of the disciples and the faith and the hope of the woman who anoints him. The death of Jesus, Paul reminds us, is foolishness to the wise and a stumbling block to the pious. The wise think, to sort of quote George Patton, that no one ever won a war by dying for his country, but by making the other guy die for his country. But self-sacrifice and service to others at cost to one’s self, even making sacrifices for the sake of your enemies, are the unique and truly difficult hallmarks of the Christian life. Those of us who believe know this is true, but we tippy-toe around its implications for our lives. We try to avoid the hard part of being a Christian, and in doing so risk also avoiding the most important part.

On the other hand, we join with the mysterious anointing woman in celebrating the wonder and sacrificial love of Jesus who died for us and rose for us, and whose death and resurrection are the salvation of the world and the source of our own personal hope. When we find ourselves in the Valley of the Shadow of Death, we know that Jesus is with us, because he’s been down that road and knows firsthand what it’s like. We know that his resurrection promises us eternal life. We love Jesus because he has loved us so much. And maybe this is real reason we aren’t told the anointing woman’s name: Because she is you and she is me. Just like her, we worship and love and honor the crucified and risen Christ.

But as we will see, love is a two-edged sword. The disciples loved Jesus, too. And, as a character in a John LeCarre novel once observed, “Love is whatever you can still betray. Betrayal can only happen if you love.” The unnamed anointing woman and her faithfulness is a foil for the disciples’ lack of faith, but especially one disciple in particular: Judas Iscariot.

We don’t know what finally motivates him to go to Jesus’ enemies and betray him. But we do know that “betrayal can only happen if you love.” Jesus loved Judas and all his disciples so obviously Judas is betraying him. But we need to note that his disciples were feeling betrayed by Jesus—that perhaps they’d put their love in the wrong place and were soon to pay the price for it. In which case, Judas is just acting on what all the disciples are feeling.

But remember: just as the anointing woman is you and me, so is Judas you and me. We too, have felt that sense that God has betrayed us and disappointed us. That God wasn’t there for my friend who died, or for me when the bottom fell out of the market, or for my kid struggling with addiction, or for my marriage when it fell apart. We love and trust Jesus, and so we feel those betrayals more deeply than the people who don’t believe. And that sense of betrayal can lead us to do stupid and dangerous things, to act out our bitterness through rejecting the values of our faith or taking terrible risks or simply turning inward into ourselves, becoming selfish and self-involved.

These bitter betrayals are human and understandable, but they take their toll, making us more distrustful, more negative about the world and about people in general, eating away at our souls. When that sense of betrayal comes, it’s time to remember the anointing woman and her faith. She believed without having to see it. We don’t always know the answers to the problems of life, but we know that Jesus suffered those problems the same as we do, including death itself, yet overcame them all. After every death, there is resurrection. After every Good Friday, there is an Easter day. Even in the midst of suffering and hardship, there is hope. And just when it seems that God is dead, God turns out to be more alive than ever. That’s what the anointing woman believes.

Remember the anointing woman, because her faith is our faith.

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