Sunday, February 16, 2020

The Teachings of Jesus: The Heart of the Law

As we move on to our third section on the sermon on the Mount, Jesus continues to teach about what he expects from his disciples in terms of the Law. The Law being the commands and ordinances God had given to the people of God to help them understand what it means to be a people to live in such a way that they reflected the character of God to the world around them. 
Jesus has said elsewhere that the Law can be summed up in one two-part command: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind and with all your strength and your neighbor as yourself. Jesus at point is elaborating on what it means for us to not only Love God, but for us to love one another in the manner in which God would have us love, that is to live the love we experience from God in all our relationships with others. In this particular section of the Sermon on the Mount in his teachings, Jesus mirrors the commands found in the latter half of the Ten Commandments, the core of the Law given to God's people via Moses on mount Sinai when the Hebrew people covenanted with God for God to be their God and for them to be the people of God.
The first part of the Ten Commandments deals with what it means to love God. The second part deals with loving others. Jesus begins with looking at the command against murder. He says, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder.’” He then goes one to say that if you are angry with someone that a kin to murder. He also says that speaking unkind words, calling people names is a kin to murder.
Jesus is explaining that the command to not murdering others is about more than simply not killing them. When we respond to those around us in unloving unkind ways we are breaking this command, whether we would EVER even think about murdering someone or not. Jesus goes on to say that if someone has a problem with you, even if you realize this in the middle of making an offering at the temple, you should go seek to make things right with you. He also says that when you have done something wrong and someone has a problem with you, you should settle that disagreement as well. Whether you are at fault or whether you are not, you are to work to set things right with the people around you.
Jesus then moves on to the command against adultery. Most people would agree that stepping out on your spouse not an acceptable thing to do in our society. It is not the proper way to treat a spouse. Jesus says if you look lustfully at someone else that it is the same as adultery. Again, this is about how you are treating other people. First of all, how you are treating your spouse but also how you are treating the people in the world around you. When Jesus is speaking about looking lustfully at someone, what he is meaning is more than just noticing someone is attractive. The world is full of handsome men and beautiful women and most of notice this from time to time and that is fine. Seeing a person as attractive is not lust. Lust is when you look at another person as the object of desire. Lust is the line between noticing someone whose appearance is pleasing to the eye, and objectifying another human being because they are attractive to you. Objectifying someone is when you look at them and only see them as the attractive parts of their body. You notice the attractive waitress, or you notice a pair of legs. When a person is simply their parts, particularly the parts you like to look at, you are objectifying them. A person is more than just the attractive parts of their body, they are a whole being who is to be treated with dignity and respect. Ultimately lust goes against the loving other part of loving God and loving other because lust is one of the many ways we can treat a person as a thing instead of a person.
This is not just about how you are treating the passerby in the red dress, but it is also about how you are treating your spouse, when you objectify a stranger, you are also objectifying your spouse. When your head turns after a tall drink of water who just passed by on the street, and you turn that person into an object to be admired (perhaps even possessed) you are turning your spouse into an object as well, one that does not please you as much as that handsome thing that just walked by.
Jesus then goes on to say if it is your eye that is wandering gauge out, if it is your hand that is wandering cut it off. Jesus believes all people are people not matter how . . . who they are. People are never things, they should never be treated as less than human, there is no excuse to keep treating people in ways which dehumanize them, or objectify them in anyway. Jesus tells us, his disciples should be willing to go to extreme measures to love others properly at all times.
He then goes on to talk about divorce. We should begin by noting the words Jesus uses when it comes to divorce. Jesus talks about a husband dismissing his wife. Jesus is speaking in a time when all a husband had to do was give his wife a writ of divorce and he could be done with her, for whatever reason. This is once again about treating people properly. When you take this in context and remember this is one sentence after Jesus just warned people about lust, we should assume the two are connected. When you dismiss your spouse to run after someone else, that does not make things “right.” Just because you freed yourself up to chase after the new “object” of your desire, does not make it right.  Your spouse is not a household item you can get rid of when you lose interest or find one that you like better. Again, this is about treating people with respect and dignity.
Jesus rounds things out by addressing the final commandment on bearing false witness. Jesus says that we should speak truth at all times. Our “yes”, should mean, “yes,” and our, “no,” should mean, “no.” Disciples of Jesus should be people whom others can trust. We should not have to say, “I swear.” Those who know us, should simply know what we say is good and right. We should be such people of integrity, that those around us know that we say what we mean and we mean what we say. The language we use, the words we use, as well as how we live our lives, should always be speak in such a way that those around us know that what we say can be trusted.
Jesus is getting to the heart of what it means to live, to act to be the people of God. Disciples of Jesus are people who treat those around them with love, respect and dignity at all times in all things. What Jesus is doing here is not elaborating on the commandments, nor is he making them stricter, but instead he is opening up the heart of the law, exposing the intent behind the simple rules God has laid down for living. Jesus is teaching us that following the ten commandments, living the way God wants us to live is not simply a set of commands about doing or not doing the “right” things. Being a follower of Jesus Christ is not about living by a certain set standard. Being a Christian is not a checklist of how to live our lives.  It is about loving the people around us, it is about acting and reacting in kind, loving, caring ways to each person in every situation. It is about how we treat; how we speak to and about; how we think about one another. Jesus disciples, Christians, exemplify the love God has us by living out that love in all we do, all we say, in each and every action and interaction we have with our fellow human beings each and every day.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

The Teachings of Jesus: Salt and Light - Matthew 5:13-20

Jesus has gone off a little ways from the crowds. He gathered his disciples and he began to teach them. Jesus has recently begun teaching what has come to be known by Christians, down through the ages as the sermon on the mount by saying, “Blessed are those.” Jesus begins teaching his disciples, speaking blessing upon those who are hurting, who are struggling, calling out those who were seen as the least, as other, as ones who are surely at the bottom of an calculation and left out of most things. Jesus extends the embrace of the promise of God to those who were most overlooked, most stepped over and upon; to those whose struggle may have seemed worthless, undesirable, and without merit. Jesus is informing those who follow him that these who are the least are the ones who are blessed. They are the ones who will inherit the kingdom of God.
Jesus then begins talking directly to his disciples about what it means to be a disciple, what the life of one who follows him will look like. Now that they understand who Jesus values and who Jesus sees as worthy of blessing and promise, what then is one who wishes to follow him, to be one of his disciples to do?
Jesus’ answer to this is a simple metaphor. A follower of Jesus is to be salt and light. Jesus in casting a vision about what it means to be counted among his disciples, and does so begins speaking about salt, light and being more righteous than the strictest adherents to the Law. Phrases like “Salt of the earth,” and “Light of the world,” are not unfamiliar to the seasoned church goer.
Most of us have had heard Sunday school lessons, sermons, Bible study talks, and may even remember a cute little Children’s song or two on one or both of these metaphors (humming “This Little Light of Mine”).  The hardest passages  to learn from, to hear the voice of Jesus continuing to speak to us today, are passages just like this one, which we know so well, and have come to believe that we already know what Jesus is telling us, what God has to teach us. We have already learned this lesson. We can hear it again, affirm its truth, but it has perhaps lost its flavor. Our understanding of what it means to be salt and light has become bland, so we need to taste it anew; we need to shed some light on this and perhaps see it in a new light which has been released from the confines of the darkening basket of overexposure.
Salt is an amazing thing. We cannot live without salt, our bodies need salt to survive, but too much salt will kill you. (I am sure more than one of have hear that from our doctors)  Salt is a fairly simple compound. NACL, Sodium Chloride. It is made up of two elements, which on their own can kill you. Chlorine is a poisonous gas which if combined with water is explosive, and considering we are comprised of, something in the neighborhood of, 65% water, that is not a good thing. Chlorine on its own, it is not something I would advise ingesting. Sodium is a metal, it is not particularly good for you and is somewhat toxic. But salt, the perfect combination of poisonous, explosive gas and toxic metal, is something not one of us can live without, and to make this little miracle compound even better, in the just the right amount, it makes almost everything taste better.
Salt; salt is . . . well salty. It is used to bring out the flavor of food; to make food taste good. Salt is one of the three main ingredients that make bread. Bread was one of the main stays of the ancient diet. It is also used to keep meat and fish from spoiling. As well as being a pretty decent disinfectant. It was one of the single most useful things used by ancient societies.
It was valuable. Everyone used it and everyone needed it. It was even a form of currency. It was used to pay Roman soldiers. The “salary package” of every Roman soldiers included a certain measure of salt. In fact the English word we use, when we are talking about how much we pay a person, Salary, is rooted in the word Salt.  Ever heard someone who is a hard worker referred to as being “worth their salt?” This references that idea that a person who works that hard is worth the salt given to them in pay. Salt was an important and valuable commodity in the ancient world.
The thing about salt is that if it is misused it becomes worthless. If you use too much salt, it ruins the taste of the food (and we all know, too much salt is just plain bad for you), if you don’t use enough salt, it doesn’t do its job, it is as if you have not used it at all.  Too much, too little, either will render it useless, might as well have not used it at all. Might as well have just thrown the salt out on the street to be trampled by all those who passed by. Which I know is something we do, around here, throughout the winter, on purpose, but people would not have done that in the ancient near east.
Salt’s limited ability to de-ice a road was not one its’ many properties which ancient people had discovered. Throwing salt down on the road would have been unheard of and a horrible waste of something valuable. Using too much, or too little, thus robbing salt of its intended purpose, to make food taste good, was robbing if its saltiness, and to do so, was as bad as throwing it in the street. If salt was not salty then it might as well be nothing more than dirt beneath your feet, trampled on, ignored, useless.
The thing about salt being not salty would have been a completely incomprehensible idea. I mean it is a completely incomprehensible statement. If salt is not “salty”. . . then. . . it is not salt. Because being salty is one of the indelible properties of salt. If salt is not salty it is in fact NOT salt, it cannot be.
Light was also just as important but in a very different way. Light as such was not a commodity, able to be bought or sold. The oil needed to make light was very valuable. In fact the miracle, which the Jews celebrate at Hanukah is a miracle of the continued replenishment of the oil needed to keep the Temple lamps lit, at a time when they were unable to purchase the needed to oil needed to keep the lamps lit.
Light in and of itself was important and as such had a certain value.  In a world without electricity and the undying light which it provides, darkness was nearly a tangible force, which consumed and oppressed everyone. Dark permeated and surrounded everything at night. The night with its darkness was dangerous. In the dark of night was when predators hunted. Those who wished to do you ill could hide in the dark and much more easily surprise you, over take you, beat you, rob you, do all sorts of harm to you, and then run off into the night, without ever truly being seen. In order to see at night when the moon is hidden behind clouds, or when you are surrounded by trees where the light of the moon does not easily penetrate, or during the time of the month when it is gone from the sky completely, or at the dimmer points of its cycle, it could be impossible to see your way at night. Light is needed to see in the dark. This is why we have headlights on our cars, and street lights lining our streets. This is why electric lights were invented, because the dark is dangerous.
Dark is, well, DARK. But even at night a city can always be seen from a long way off. At the time Jesus spoke these words, much like today, but to a lesser degree, the cumulative effect of a city worth light, created a glow that could be seen in the distance. A City worth of light can be seen, even on the darkest night. A city, on a hill, at night, could not be hidden from the surrounding countryside.
Light allows you to see what cannot otherwise be seen. In the dark very little can be seen, vague outlines nothing more. Light a candle and once your eyes adjust, you would be amazed at how much you can see with even just one small light. The more light you have, the more that is able to be seen. So Jesus is speaking very logically when he says that no one lights a lamp and then covers it up. (hides it under a bushel – No!) It makes no sense. It is a waste of light, it is a waste of oil and wick. It is a waste. You simply do not do it.
Jesus tells us we are the salt and light of the world. We make things taste good. We preserve that which would otherwise spoil and rot. We allow things to be seen clearly. We illuminate what was otherwise engulfed in the frightening, oppressive force of darkness. In short, Jesus says that his followers are two of the most useful and most valuable things used in the ancient world. If we as Christ’s disciples do not enhance flavor, if we do not glow brightly in the dark, if we are salty-less salt or covered lights, we are useless, we are ridiculous non-sense, dark light, unsalty salt.
And then Jesus ends this section of teaching by telling us we must be more righteous than the Pharisees. The Pharisees were a group which was formed after the exile. Their intentions were good, at first. They saw what had happened when the people of God had not lived by the statutes and ordinances laid out by God. They saw that the consequences of disobeying God’s law were bad, very bad indeed. They wanted to rectify this situation in their own lives and the lives of all those around them.
They wanted to be sure that nothing like the Exile would ever happen again. So they sat upon a quest to follow the law in all things. They even worked to bring clarity to the unclear places of the law, but defining every detail, accounting for every possible scenario and explaining how to understand the law and what to do in every circumstance. And they worked to follow every detail laid out, to never deviate from the strictest applications of the law. So they would know they were righteous before. And they worked to hold all of their fellow Jews to these standards as well. They did not want their people to be sent into exile by God again. They wanted God to be pleased with them at every turn.
I think it comes as no surprise that people who were so focused  on the minute details of following God’s commands in at all times, in all things, that they lost their way as some point. They became so obsessed with this strict adherence to the law, they somehow forgot the God who had given the law; the God who really just wanted to be their God and for them to be God’s people.
They had forgotten the heart of the covenant, even as they recited it morning, noon and night, (literally what the law told them to do), they had forgotten that the core teaching of the law: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might.” The law was a description of what it meant to be a community of people who lived this all-encompassing love for their God and for the world around them.  They literally tore out the heart of the law, loving God and neighbor, and in doing so tore God out of the law.
Even as they were working to be the people God wanted them to be, by living out all the minute details of the law, they were failing at being the people the God of the law was calling them to be. They were un-salty salt, they were light-less lights. Jesus told those who were listening, you must be more righteous than this. Your righteousness must be salt that is actually making food taste good. You must be salt that keeps things from rotting and spoiling, you must be light that can be seen throughout the house. You must be a city on a hill that cannot help but be seen by all those around you. You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all you might, and your neighbor as yourself (as Jesus himself explains elsewhere).
We are salt and light and to be such, is to be righteous. To be righteous is to be salt, making a world which tastes, bitter, and bland, taste good. We are that which makes the lives of those around us good. We take away the bitterness, as well as the blandness. We are goodness, we are kindness, we are grace and peace to those who lives and work within our spheres of influence.
The thing about salt is when it is doing its’ job, you don’t necessarily know it is there. Things are just good. They taste right. But when it is not boy do you notice. Be salt. Make things good, set things right. Be kind, be gracious, be helpful and just. To be righteous is to be salt in a bland and bitter world. But also do not be overly salty. Do not be too much salt in the stew ruining everything with your intensity, over doing it with your strict adherence to Christian principles while at the same time losing sight of what it means to truly be people who exemplify the nature of God and live out the heart of God in our communities.
To be righteous salt is to be an influence working to counteract the natural decay in the world; inhibiting the rot is going on all around, a disinfectant in a contaminated world. We are to bring God’s justice, grace, love and mercy to all places of our communities, our country, our world; as well as in the lives of the individuals around us. As salt we are to help the hurting, to lift up the weak, to break down the barriers, which trap some within and hold others out. Work to create a world where all are valued equally and all know they are loved, and cared for, not only by us, but by a loving God who is the driving force behind people who are working to bring God’s preservative love to every part of our world.
To be righteous is to be preservative salt, to keep things from decaying, preserve the world, keep it from spoiling, from going bad. To be righteous, is to work to keep work against the forces which rot our society, decay the livelihoods and spoil the lives of people in our world. We are to work to bring kindness, mercy, justice to systems, to people, to keep it all from going bad. To be righteous, is to work to keep the world around us from decaying, from rotting from going foul, being spoiled. We are righteous preservative salt.
To be righteous is to be light; to allow things to be seen clearly. Good light allows all in the house to see; to take away the fear, the danger found in the dark. We are to be a city on a hill, something a weary traveler can see from far away, and head toward; knowing that with us there is safety and security. The light we shine illuminates all that we are doing to bring goodness, graciousness, mercy and justice to this world. Our light shows the world the love of God, in our actions and in our lives, as we work to love God and others in all things, just at the “law” calls us to.
To be righteous is to be salt and light in a world which so desperately needs both. To be righteous is to live a life of radical love in all things in the face of blandness, bitterness and all-consuming darkness.
“This little light of mine. . .”

Teachings of Jesus: #Blessed - Matthew 5:1-12

I was sick last week, so my husband preached this passage for me. - My understanding is he did a phenomenal job and preached it better than I would have, but if I had preached this is the one I planned to preach 

The text tells us that Jesus saw the crowds, and then he went up on the mountain.  He sat down and his disciples gathered around him and he began to teach them, what is probably one of the most well known collections of teachings Jesus ever taught, which is commonly referred to as the Sermon on the Mount.  I don’t know when but sometime during this great “sermon” the crowd must have noticed that something was going on. 
In my imagination, I see the people, who gathered around Jesus that day, trickling in.  One notices the disciples gathered around Jesus and wants to know what is going on.  She tentatively walks a little closer, standing just on the edge of hearing range, not wanting to disturb the great teachers as he teaches his disciples. She is pulled in, step by step she gets closer until she finds her self sitting down on the outside of the circle of disciples. This type of scenario is repeated over and over again, with individuals and small groups of people; all noticing the rabbi instructing his disciples, who are then overcome with a want, a need to know what it is he is saying. By the end of Jesus’ instruction there is a great crowd gathered around Jesus, who are all astonished by his teaching and the authority with which he taught.
I don’t know how many from outside the inner circle of disciples had wandered over, when Jesus began this particular bit of instruction, but I imagine that many have not yet realized that Jesus is teaching, so the majority of the people who have gathered around Jesus are his disciples and a handful of curious persons lingering on the very outer fringes.
Jesus saw the crowds that day and, for some unmentioned reason, was compelled to go a little ways off. Then when his disciples had gathered around him, he is moved to speak these words, “Blessed are the poor in Spirit. . . Blessed are those who mourn. .  . the meek . . . those who hunger and thirst for righteousness . . . the pure in heart . . . peacemakers . . . those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.”  It makes me wonder what Jesus saw in the crowd which made him need to tell his disciples that these people are blessed.  We know at another time Jesus looked at the crowd and had compassion on them and still another, while in Jerusalem was moved to tears on their behalf. 
It seems to me that Jesus’ heart broke when he looked into the faces of the crowds which followed him everywhere he went, because he saw into the heart of their very beings and knew more profoundly how deeply hurting each of them were.  When Jesus looked into the crowd he did not see a mass of people clamoring to see and hear the new teacher, he did not see a bunch of dirty, smelly, overly needy people.  Jesus saw a meek woman, being walked all over by others in her life. He saw the young man mourning the loss of his son. He saw the man who had tried so hard, and strived so long but no matter how hard he scrapped and clawed he could not find his way spiritually and all he had to show for his work and labor was emptiness, he was still poor in spirit. He saw the one who worked to make peace everywhere she went. He saw the man who had forgiven time-and-time-again, only to find his forgiveness was needed once more, who stood in the crowd that day wondering if there should ever be an end to his mercy.  When Jesus looked into that crowd that day he saw each and everyone one of these individuals.  He saw how hurt they were, he saw how broken they were.  He knew they had been let down, beaten down, used and abused time-and-time-again, so he turned away from them, waited for his disciples to gather around him and began to teach them to see as he saw.
Most people, had they seen these same people in the crowd, would see people who were hopeless, people who had nothing, and would never have anything.  They would see people who were abandoned and perhaps even cursed by God.  The common understanding of things was that if you were at the bottom, there was a reason you were where you were.  You had done something to deserve the lot in life you in which you had found yourself. If you were poor, you were poor because you did not work hard enough.  If you were broken and downtrodden, it was because you had not lived a life that would enable you to be whole and well off.  What ever happened to you was a direct result of your actions and God blessed you or cursed you to put you were you are based on what you deserved.  (To tell you the truth, I don’t think that is too far off from the way many think today.)
Jesus did not think this way.  Jesus did not see that any of these people deserved to be where they were.  Jesus did not see people who had gotten what they had coming to them.  When he looked out across the crowd that day he did not see anyone who was cursed and rejected by God.  Where most anyone else would have seen a crowd full of wretched people, cursed by God, worthy only of our scorn and distain, Jesus saw people who were blessed; blessed (not cursed) by God.  Blessed but not in worldly ways, with worldly things but blessed in ways, which can only come through God. Where the world saw the cursed, Jesus saw the blessed.
These people were not people whom those who followed Jesus should pull back from and avoid.  These people were not people to be avoided, they were people who were to be embraced, they were people who should be gathered in, and included, instead of scattered and excluded.  They were blessed!
Some of you of you are thinking, “But, Pastor they most definitely were not blessed.  Their lives were sad, their lives were fragmented, they were harassed, they were despondent, they were all the people everyone else distained.  Unless, you are going to completely redefine the meaning of blessed, Pastor, these people’s lives were anything but blessed.”
And I am with you on that.  When you are among those who are seen by the world as at the bottom of the heap; when you are pure in heart, you are lost in this debased world.  The reality too often is, when you are merciful, your mercy is abused; when you are mourning, there seems to be no comfort; when you are poor in spirit, it seems you will never be rich in what truly matters; when you are hungry for righteousness and you live in this world full of sin, there is nothing, which can fill you.  When you are among these mentioned by Jesus here, you are far too often at the bottom, being stepped on by the world and you feel nothing but blessed.  Yet, Jesus says that is when you are blessed. So how can we argue with Jesus?  If Jesus said it, it surely must be true.  But, how can it be true, when their lives are quite obviously not blessed in anyway we have ever come to think of this world?
Perhaps it would be good to look at how it is they are blessed.  Jesus tells us they are blessed, by God. But how?  How are they blessed, through what means?  This answer can be found in understanding to whom it was Jesus was addressing, when he began to teach in this manner.  It seems he said these things in response to those whom he saw amongst the crowd that day, but he spoke these words to his disciples when they gathered around him on the mountain.  He wanted his disciples to know that these people are blessed, so they, through his disciples, could be blessed. 
The blessing these people receive is not found in simply being the desperate people they are, it is not found in being blessed by those who have chosen to associate themselves with Jesus. It is found in those who listen to the words of Jesus, learn the lessons he is teaching them and live in the ways Jesus is calling for them to live.  Jesus came to bring the kingdom of Heaven, kingdom of heaven living down to earth. 
As Christians we are called to live as if God was the authority and the rule maker here.  Our goal is to bring the goodness and the greatness of the kingdom of God here to earth.  Those around us live by the rules of our world.  When we live contrary the world, when we bless where others curse, we are bringing the kingdom God to earth through our lives, we are extending the blessing of God in this world. 
We are called to live Godly lives, to live by the rules of God so that in doing so we can bring the goodness, the kindness the grace of God to the people around us.   It is in this way that the blessings of God are brought to this world.
Jesus called disciples who choose to follow him and learn as he taught.  Jesus taught his disciples what it meant to live kingdom living that is living by the way God would want them to live in this world.  Sin has destroyed our world.  Sin and the consequences of sin are innumerable.  It separates us from God.  It separates us one from another.  It tears people lives apart.  It ruins our families.  It corrodes our marriages.  It pulls us away from our children; it puts divides between us and our parents.  It causes us to fail one another.  It causes pain and hardship in.  It brings us nothing but sorrow. But Jesus came to change all that. 
Jesus came to bring the kingdom of God to our lives.  Jesus came to restore us to who we would have been had sin not stained everything.  This restoration begins by allowing our relationship with God to be restored.  But it goes beyond that.  In choosing to believe in Jesus Christ we are in essence choosing to be his disciples to sit at his feet to learn from his teaching and choosing to live those teachings in our everyday lives.  Jesus told his disciple that the kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand.  And it was.  It was at hand as Jesus’ disciples learned through Jesus’ teachings to be Kingdom people, that is to be people who truly lived as if God reined here on earth.  Whenever the disciples choose to live by the rules and statutes of God they were living the kingdom of God, they were bringing the kingdom of Heaven down to earth. 
The blessing of those who are the least, those who are at the bottom is twofold.  First, of all they are blessed by God.  God has a word for these that are scrapping and clamoring just to make it by physically, emotionally or spiritually.  God sees your pain, your sorrow, the peace you make, the mercy you give.  God sees it all and pronounces blessing upon you.  God blesses you, should you choose to accept God’s blessing, first by reaching out and restoring relationship with you, but also by blessing you with strength where you are weak, healing where you are hurting, giving comfort where you sorrow.  God will stand in the gap and give to you what you truly need where you are the weakest and most venerable.
But the blessing does not end with the blessings of God but God continues to bless those most vulnerable, those most hurting, those most in need by allowing them to be blessed by those who have chosen to live the kingdom of God in their lives and therefore bless as God blesses.
Those of us who would call ourselves Christians, we are disciples; we are choosing to follow Jesus.  We too are learning to be kingdom people, learning how to live as if the kingdom of God has come to earth, because it has, in Jesus Christ, and it continues to come to earth each and every time we choose to live as Christ calls for us to live instead of living as the world around us would have us live.
Our world tells us that certain people are at the bottom. It tells us that some people it are less than worthy.  We are told that some people, for any number of reasons are in essence cursed.  Too many times we buy into it.  We come to believe that some people have chosen their lot; they deserve the pain and hardship in their lives that somehow, in someway they have brought it upon themselves.  It is their own fault.  We see the meek and wonder why they don’t stick up for themselves.  We see the poor in spirit and simply expect them to be spiritual giants.  We see those who mourn and wonder why they can’t just get over it.  We see those who are hungering and thirsting for righteousness and can’t understand why they are starving.  We see those who call for peace and think that they are looking for something unobtainable.  We look at these people and we know what they need to do to make their lives better.  We see them as weak.  We alongside of all those in the world around us see these people as less than worthy.  We are told in many spoken and unspoken ways that some deserve censure at worst and pity at best, but God tells us, that they are blessed.
On one level Jesus as he spoke that day wanted those hurting people he saw in the crowd to know that where they felt nothing but cursing, where they were despised by the society around them that this was not the way it was with God.  God saw who they were, God saw that they were hurting, broken and beat down by those around them and Jesus wanted them to know, with God there is blessing where the world would curse.  God brings strength to our weakness and fullness to our emptiness. 
But Jesus’ teaching went beyond that, he also told his disciples to live as he lived, to see the world as he saw the world and to love as he loved.  When Jesus saw the crowd his was moved to teach his disciples a different way to see the people around him.  He wanted them to see blessing where the world saw cursing.  He wanted those who followed him to see people the way he saw people.  And begin to bless where he blessed. 
This passage does two things.  It gives hope to the hurting and calls for all those who choose to follow Christ to live a life of blessing; to bless the least, the lowliest; to love the unloved, to reach out and give the hope of Christ to the hopeless, to support the falling. To be the blessing which Christ pronounces in this world.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

John 15:1-8 - Where Do you Live? (A sermon Written for a Wesley Covenant Service)

My mother and father are from in Baltimore. My mother likes to say that she grew up on the right side of the wrong side of town and my father grew up on the wrong side of the wrong side of town. This is another way to say they both grew up poor my mother just grew up a little less poor than my father. My mother never talks about there not being enough food, just life was hard and money was tight. On the other hand my father used to tell a story about his mother going to the store, counting out the money and coming to the conclusion that she did not have enough money for both milk and flour. She always bought flour because flour can be made into bread if mixed with yeast and water and baked or made into gravy if you put it in a pan with just water. (when I was growing up we made paste with water and flour – so I can only imagine how paste like this gravy must have tasted).
As I am sure you can imagine, were not many options for a young man from a poor family growing up in on the wrong side of the city, several of my older uncles became construction workers, they helped build several of the noticeable buildings and one of them helped build the tunnel that takes you under the harbor if you are traveling through the city on I-95.  My father joined the military, not like there was much choice for a young man his age at that time with the draft and all, but he decided at some point to make a career of it.  They would give him steady pay, an education and they would get him out of the slums of Baltimore.
While my father had grown up in Baltimore, my grandfather was from Kentucky. When the coal dried up he left Kentucky to make a better life for himself and his family. When I was 16 my family traveled to Gooserock, Kentucky.  We saw the little post office, and the bar that make up that town.  We traveled down a small road and turned up the gravel path that now runs alongside of Rockybranch creek.  I met some of the children and grandchildren of my grandfather’s siblings.  Their lives are VERY different than mine.  Just as my father had gotten out of Baltimore, my grandfather before him had gotten out of Kentucky.
Because of these two migrations from one place to another, the lives of myself and my sisters were unimaginably altered. This is because, where we live matters.
 In this passage Jesus calls for us to live in him.  Well he uses the word, “abide.”   But abide means to dwell, to live.  This is about setting down roots, about building a house, taking up residence, allowing the place to shape and change your life.  My grandfather’s life was shaped and changed by his choice to leave Kentucky and move to Baltimore.  My father’s (and subsequently my) life was shaped and changed by the fact that my father decided to leave Baltimore and allow the military to decide where he would live.  Our lives are shaped and changed by where we live.  Jesus wants our lives to be shaped and changed by him.  We are to find our dwelling place in him, to dwell, to live in him. 
It is easy to think that we live in Cambridge, or in the Boston Metropolitan Area. And we do.  It is easy to think that we live in Massachusetts or the United States.  And of course we do.  And our lives are shaped and changed because we live in these places.  Anyone who has lived or spent any time in a place different than where they grew up, has a glimpse into how where they lived shaped them. 
There are the obvious things, like accent.  I remember when I first moved to Kansas, as soon as I opened my mouth, people would ask me where I was from, and since I was most recently from ENC, I would tell them I was from Boston and they would say, “Yeah, I can tell by the way you talk.” 
But there are other things as well.  I when I was in Romania, I became profoundly aware of how time conscious we Americans are.  When we say we are going to meet you at 3:00 we try to be there between 2:55 and 3:10.  But we would never think of showing up at 3:30 without apologizing or calling to let the person know we are running late, but in Romania it is almost as if you are arriving at 3:00 as long as 3 is the first number so you are “on time,” if you arrive at 3:00 or if you arrive at 3:59.  The way I view “on time.” Is shaped by where I live. 
When I lived in KS, I was always kind of annoyed at how my friends and my husband acted as if they were taking their life into their hands, when they let me behind the wheel.  It really kind of annoyed me.  After we lived here for several months, Mike turned to me one day and said, “Living here, suddenly the way you drive makes sense.”  I did not even know it but living in Boston shaped the way I drive.
But where we live physically is not what Jesus is talking about in this passage.  Jesus is talking about in whom we live.  As Christ’s disciples we live in Christ.  We allow Christ to shape and change us in much the same way the environment of where we live shapes and changes us.
We want Christ to shape us more than our country does, we want Christ to have more bearing on our lives than living in the US affects how we view the meaning of “on time.”  We want Christ to transform our whole view of time and how we use it.  We want Christ to change us more than our state does; we want Christ to affect us more than just than just our accent or the way we talk.  We want Christ to shape how we use our words, what we say and to whom we say those things.  We want Christ to affect us more than our city does; we want Christ to affect more than just the way we drive.  We want Christ to form the way we move in all aspects of our lives, where we allow our feet to takes us, what we do with our hands and how we reach out to those around us, touching them with the love of Jesus Christ physically and spiritually.  All aspects of our lives in some way are shaped or formed and are affected by where we live.  We want Christ to have that kind of all encompassing affect on every aspect of our lives.  Our actions, our thoughts, our words, with whom we interact and why, as well as how we interact with each and every person we encounter during the course of our day.
Today we are making a covenant, a covenant in which we are vowing, committing to abide in Christ, to allow all of who we are, everything we do and everything we say to be shaped, molded, formed, changed by Jesus Christ.  Together we are covenanting to abide in Christ; to allow Christ to be the vine, and for us to be the branches of that vine, taking our nourishment, our growth, our very existence, our life and death from Jesus Christ.  We are to live in Christ, to abide in Christ.  Let us come together this morning and covenant together to abide in Christ, to allow Christ to shape and form us more than our country does, more than our state or city does, let us let Christ be the most formative and shaping force in our lives. 

Sunday, January 19, 2020

John 1:29-42 - Witnessing Jesus

I don’t know where Jesus was heading that day.  I don’t know what he had on his agenda.  I don’t know where his day planner told him he should be or by what time he was suppose to be there but on this day, Jesus was going about whatever it was he had set out to do as he was going merrily about his day, he was interrupted by John the Baptist, who decides that at this particular moment as Jesus walks by would be a great time to declare to all those within hearing distance who it was John believed Jesus to be.
I don’t know if you have ever spent much time comparing the 4 gospels and how they relate the story of Jesus to their readers and now to us, but each one tells us about Jesus in a different way.  Many of them will tell us the same the same event in Jesus’ life but they will tell us about the event in Jesus’ life in a different way.  Now the first three gospel writers, Matthew, Mark and Luke tend to be fairly similar to one another but John, John’s telling of the life of Jesus is quite different than the other three.  The other three pretty much begin their retelling of Jesus’ life with narrative, while John begins with a theological exposition about Jesus being the Word of God.  All the other writers let us figure out who Jesus is as the story of Jesus’ life unfolds but John, there is no mystery, there is no surprise, John gets straight to the punch line and then tells us the conclusion we are to come to  before he even introduces the story’s main character.  He begins by telling us who Jesus is and then gives us the events of his life which show us how it is he came to this conclusion.
John’s narrative begins with John the Baptist explaining that he is not the messiah but that the messiah would come after him.  Then John the Baptist tells us, who is actually the messiah.  John looks up and sees Jesus passing by and declares that although he himself is not the messiah but merely the one who come before preparing the way, this man right here passing by just now is the Messiah, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.  He then gives an explanation as to why it is he has come to this conclusion.  He knew Jesus was the messiah because God told him that the one on whom he saw the Spirit of God alight like a dove would be the messiah and John saw the Spirit alight on Jesus, therefore Jesus must be the messiah, God’s anointed.
Once John knows to whom he has come to make the wa, he cannot keep the information to himself.  It is almost as if he has to make sure everyone he knows, knows that Jesus is the messiah.  Because the very next day, he hijacks Jesus’ day again.  He is standing around, (it seems that in John’s gospel, John the Baptist has a lot of time on his hands) with two of his disciples and Jesus is walking by once again, having nothing better to say than what he said last time, he tells his two disciples to look, here is the lamb of God.  At this point John’s disciples must have understood what this cryptic phrase meant perhaps figuring if they went and checked him out John would stop bothering this poor man as he walked by every day.  So they left John and began following Jesus.
Now this is kind of strange.  Here Jesus is just going about his business and two days in a row his cousin calls out to those around him telling all who will here that Jesus is the lamb of God and now two of his followers are now following him, so Jesus turns to them and asks them a simple question, “What are you looking for?”
And these two disciples being ever so good at understanding and quite good at following simple instructions and having the ability answer basic questions, completely fail to answer Jesus’ question by avoiding it all together and asking him another question, “Where are you staying/abiding?”  Since they were already in the game of not answering each other’s questions clearly and precisely, Jesus answers by telling them to, “Come and see.”  So they followed Jesus to his home to go and see.  They must have liked what they saw because not only did that stay with him and become his disciples but one of them, Andrew went to get his brother Simon, to tell him he needed to come and see this guy, he is the Messiah.  Simon then in turn, comes to see this Messiah his brother had found.  Immediately Jesus sees him and tells him that his name is no longer Simon, but will from hence forth be Cephas which when translated is Peter.   So as we conclude the narrative we are looking at this morning Jesus now has his first three disciples, the last of which will be a pivotal figure, not only in his life and ministry but in the founding and building of the church.
When I began my sermon, I was going to look at what it meant for Jesus to be the Lamb of God, but as I worked my way through the passage this week. I kept coming back to the latter part of the passage when these two disciples decide to leave John, baptizing by the river and follow Jesus.  Jesus asks them as very good question, “What are you looking for?” And it seems all they want to know is where it is that Jesus is living at this point in his life.  
Although it does not come across well in English, when they ask him where it is that he is staying or abiding, depending on the translation you are reading, what they are actually asking Jesus is a much more complex question.   Thing is translating something from one language to another is always a tricky process.  Words in one language often times have meaning and connotations which are nearly impossible to carry over into another language.  Sometimes in order to get the full picture of what one seemly simple word means in one language you need a whole sentence to explain when you translate that one word into another language.  The word used here in Greek is not so easy to bring into English.  The word which is translated, “staying” or “abiding” actually means two things at the same time when John uses it here in this passage. 
The first meaning is fairly simple; Andrew and his friend are asking Jesus where is the location of the place where he is living.   But on another level they are also asking Jesus, “What is at the center of Jesus’ being?”  “What defines who he is?”  “What is at the core of who he is?” Which then makes Jesus’ answer to them all the more interesting; Jesus does not tell them what it means for him to be the Messiah.  Jesus does not explain to them about being the Son of God or even give them a brief description about what his purpose was here on earth.  Instead, Jesus turns to them and simply answers “Come and see.”
So they went with him to see. Jesus took him to where he lived and by spending the day with Jesus they saw who he was.  They were convince by what they saw in Jesus, they saw in whom he abided, they saw what was at the center of his being, they caught a glimpse of who Jesus was and what he was up to and decided they wanted to be a part of that. 
But it did not stop there.  Andrew was so impressed by what he saw in Jesus that he sought out his brother and decided it was pertinent for Simon to also come and see where Jesus abided.  Jesus was not just another rabbi, he was not just another teacher or a prophet he was the real deal, he was the one they had been seeking for and it was evident in who he was, it was evident in how he went about his life, it was evident in all he did and all he said.  It was evident and he wanted his brother to come and see what he saw.
I don’t know why you are here this morning.  I could fool myself into thinking that you have come here this morning because you have figured out what profound speaker I am and that that you came here this morning just to hear what amazingly profound wisdom I would bring before you this morning, and if that is the reason you came this morning, I am a little more than flattered that you think so highly of my speaking abilities.  But let us be realistic, we all come to church on any given Sunday for our own reasons.  Some of them are good and noble reasons, of us are here for some more self serving and sometimes we get up, get ourselves ready and find ourselves within these walls out of habit and little more.  We have, for whatever reason, found ourselves within these walls, listening to this sermon this morning, standing with John on the street and hearing him say, “Look, the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”  
There are several places we can be this morning, when it comes to this passage.  We might be among those who are simply here this morning.  We came because it is a good place to be.  Our friends are here.  We have always gone to church.  We like church, but there is not much more to it than that.  We are bystanders in a way, just there on the street, or by the river or where ever it was when John looked up and pointed Jesus out that day.
We are here.  We have heard John’s testimony.  John is telling us that right here, is Jesus is the messiah, God’s anointed, the one who was God and is God, and the Word of God and with the Creator when the earth’s foundations were laid, here is the one who came to take away the sins of the world. 
Here we are, just minding our own business, going about our lives and suddenly we see Jesus, someone points him out to us.  Someone tries to explain who he is.  Perhaps, what they have to say to us makes sense, perhaps it does not.  What does it mean that Jesus is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world?  What is this person talking about?  Perhaps, they speak words about Jesus and suddenly the whole thing makes sense. 
Either way, we find ourselves looking up and seeing this Jesus for the first time.  He is right there passing by, what do we do? Are we like these two disciples who have heard the witness of John and know that this Jesus is someone worth checking out.  Do we see this man, this teacher, this messiah and want to tag along to see what he is all about?  Perhaps we don’t even know why we are going to check him about, but something about him, something about what is said about him, something attracts us and we find that we are interested, that we want to see what this man is all about.  We want to know what it means for him to be the messiah.  We don’t completely understand but the idea of him taking away the sins of the world sounds pretty interesting.
So some of us are choosing to go check this Jesus fellow out for the first time this morning, but there are others of us who have already been checking him out. We have already decided he is worth checking out.  And as we have checked him out.  We have listened to what people have to say about him, followed him around for a while.  Spent some time getting to know him, trying to understand what he is all about, coming to an understanding of who he is, and what is at the center, the core of all that he is. As we have come and seen, we find that we like what we see.  We want to be more than mere observers, we want to be a part of what he is all about.  We want to follow him, learn from him, and learn to be more like him.  We have seen who he is, we have seen what he is all about, and we want more, we want be disciples. 
But being a disciple is not like being an observer.  It more than simply coming and seeing.  Choosing to be a disciple is the choice which moves us from watching and observing, to doing.  Choosing to be a disciple is the choice which moves us from coming and seeing, to going and doing.  It is the choice to embrace the one we have been observing, to follow his example and to seek to live as he lived, to speak as he spoke, to love as he loved, to learn from his teachings, from his life and from who he is and seek to be a person who is like himn, to be moved by the one who moves him, to have at the center of our beings the same God of love, mercy, justice and forgiveness who is at the center of who Jesus is.
You see there is more to following Jesus than just showing up and listening.  There is more to following Jesus than coming and seeing.  Once we have seen once we know who Jesus is we must them choose to stay, and not only to stay but to do as Andrew did and be moved to action by what we have seen, moved to action by who we have seen and do our best to share with those around us who it is we have come to believe in.  To invite those who we love and those who we encounter in our day to day lives to come and see what we have seen, to come meet the one we have chosen to follow to come to know what we have come to know. 
This passage is a circle.  It begins with John saying, “Look!”   Which causes these two to go and see who it was John was calling for them to behold.  They went and saw and who they saw and it changed them.  Who they saw caused them to choose to follow, to choose to be disciples and in turned caused Andrew to then go and invite his brother to come and see and Simon heeds his brother’s invitation and chooses to come and see for himself who this Jesus, messiah is, bringing us full circle so to speak.
As people who here this morning we are somewhere on this circle; we may be at the top of the circle, with someone calling to us to come and see, we may be somewhere along the circle observing, “seeing” what there is to see, judging for ourselves what we think of this Jesus, messiah person, we may be among those who have chosen to follow Jesus, to be his disciples and as such there is nowhere else to go but be changed by what we have seen, infuse our lives with who Jesus is, and what Jesus is all about and then like John and Andrew invite those around us to come and see, to come and learn, to come so that they may know what we know, so that they may know who we know and also be changed by who he is.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Thoughts on the Baptism of our Lord and The Gift and Command of Sabbath Rest

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Matthew 3:1-17 - The Baptism of our Lord
What was John doing?
What was he preaching?
Baptism was a symbolic “passing through the waters”, when are other times when the people of God “passed through water”?
So what does passing through the water symbolize?
Why is John baptizing people?
What does it mean when we are baptized?
Why does Jesus come to be baptized?
What happened after Jesus as baptized?
Who saw these things?  John?  Jesus?  The crowd? 
What does the dove mean?   
What does the voice say?
What does that mean?
What can we learn from what Jesus does here?  What does this teach us about God?  What does this teach us about how we should act and what we should do?  

Exodus 16:13-27 & 20:8-11 - Sabbath Rest: A Gift and a Command

I pair these passages together because Sabbath is a blessing and a command.
What was the Israelite’s’ first inclination when given the gift of a day without work?
In what ways do we “go out to gather” when God calls us to Sabbath? When God calls us to rest?
In the chapter 16 passage – what is the context of this blessing?
How is Sabbath a blessing for the Israelites? How would a day of rest be different from the lives they lived in Eygpt?
In what ways is it significant that God gives Sabbath as a blessing for the Israelites first (before the 10 commandments)?
In what ways is Sabbath a blessing or a gift?
Sabbath is first a Blessing and then it is a command. Why do you think God needed to command a day of rest?
Are you more likely to do something that this is offered to you as a gift (a blessing) or because it is a command (because your “have to”)?
Is is easier for you to think of resting as a gift God has given you or as a command that must be followed?
What does it mean for it to be “a Sabbath to the Lord?” How do we give our “rest” to the Lord?
 What can we do to better observe a “Sabbath to the Lord?”