Dance | Proper 9

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

16 “To what will I compare this generation? It is like a child sitting in the marketplaces calling out to others, 17 ‘We played the flute for you and you didn’t dance. We sang a funeral song and you didn’t mourn.’ 18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ 19 Yet the Human One came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunk, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved to be right by her works.”

25 At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you’ve hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have shown them to babies. 26 Indeed, Father, this brings you happiness.

27 “My Father has handed all things over to me. No one knows the Son except the Father. And nobody knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wants to reveal him.

28 “Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. 29 Put on my yoke, and learn from me. I’m gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves. 30 My yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light.” (CEB)

Dance

I was a little skeptical. Okay, I was incredibly skeptical. When my wife told me about the ballroom dance lessons she wanted us to take at Miami University of Ohio, I was skeptical. I thought I would make a fool of myself. I thought it would be a waste of time and money. But she really wanted to learn to dance, and she wanted to learn to dance with me. So, I agreed. We learned East Coast Swing and Waltz. For a guy who can’t even do the Macarena correctly (and there’s video proof of that online), I had more fun with Ballroom Dance than I can adequately describe. We had so much fun that we took another class when the teacher offered one in Rumba, Salsa, and Mambo. We loved it! And to think that I almost refused to join in the dance.

Jesus uses a simile to describe his own generation of Jews. Children would often play in the marketplace when their parents were shopping for goods. Sometimes, those children would pretend that they were participating in a wedding or funeral procession. This may seem odd to us, but it’s no stranger than my children pretending Mom and Dad are bad guys and pretending to spy on us and attack us with plastic light sabers. Wedding processions were elaborate community-wide events with music, dancing, and all-around celebration. Likewise, funeral processions were large events, where professional wailers would be hired in order to get the crowd into a mournful disposition. So, children would play and pretend they were flute players, or professional wailers.

Part of the game might even be to get some of the adults to play along by dancing to their pretend flute playing, or pretending to mourn with their wails. If no adults joined in the make-believe fun, the children might call out to them, “We played the flute and you did not dance,” or “We wailed and you did not mourn.” Sometimes we adults forget how to have fun. You can imagine Jesus teaching in a marketplace and watching the children play these games. Then, using the image as a lesson. Jesus’ simile describes “this generation” as the adults who refuse to join in on the children’s games.

This text marks a rather dark time in Jesus’ ministry. John the Baptist has been thrown into prison, and the people of three prosperous cities, Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum, have not listened to his teachings. People didn’t seem to be catching on to the message that the Kingdom of Heaven was coming near. It’s kind of the opposite of that “The Far Side” cartoon, in which two demons are watching a guy walk by them, joyfully pushing a wheelbarrow through the fires of hell while whistling a happy tune, and one demon says to the other: “We just aren’t getting through to that guy.” People weren’t getting this whole Kingdom of Heaven thing. They were refusing to join in the games.

John the Baptist and Jesus both came to proclaim the Kingdom of Heaven, but they did it in different ways. John was a wailer. He was an ascetic, and cried out for people to repent, to be mournful for their sins. John came “neither eating nor drinking,” but this generation refused to repent and mourn. They derided him and said, “He has a demon.”

Jesus, on the other hand, was a flute player. He came with joy to share the good news of the Kingdom of Heaven, and compassionately ministered to the people who would be his future bride as the Church (Revelation 21:2 & 21:9). His was the wedding procession. He came with merriment, eating and drinking with all sorts of people: Pharisees, sinners, and tax collectors alike. But “this generation” would not dance. They scoffed at him, saying, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!”

The people did not accept John or Jesus. They managed to make an excuse by finding a fault in how they dressed, the food they ate, or the people with whom they associated. It isn’t that “this generation” did not want to be redeemed. They all expected that the Messiah would come. But neither John nor Jesus measured up to their expectations of what the Messiah ought to be.

Jesus knew that this was the issue, so he told them a proverb, “Yet, wisdom is vindicated by her course of action” (Matthew 11:19c, my trans). In other words, the proof is in the pudding. The truth of John and Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of Heaven is in the action: what is happening in the world through Jesus. Just as Jesus told John in the first verses of chapter 11, “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (Matthew 11:4 NRSV). Jesus is saying to the people, sit out the dance if you want to, but this is the right music to kick up your heels and dance.

Jesus then offers a prayer of thanksgiving to the Father. The theology of this passage is rather complicated. At its heart is the deep, mutual, and intimate sharing of everything between Jesus and the Father. No human being knows with all completeness who Jesus is. For, “no one knows the Son except the Father” (Matthew 11:27 NRSV). God the Father is only fully known by the Son, yet the Father wants to be known by all people. This is the mission of Jesus. It is the Son who has come to reveal God to us in all fullness by proclaiming the Kingdom of Heaven and what that kingdom looks like. Jesus taught us the values of that kingdom, which are God’s values.

Jesus’ statement, “and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” may sound as if Jesus has a secret knowledge about God, and makes independent decisions about choosing which people he will let in on the secret. But this is not the case. God the Son and God the Father are joined together in so intimate a relationship that a decision of the Son is an expression of the Father’s will. In the same way, the will of the Father is incarnate, enfleshed, embodied, in the life of the Son. This is a model for how we are supposed to live. We’re to be so intimately joined with Christ that the will of God is expressed in our very words and actions.

For us, there’s also a clash between the ancient and modern ideas of logic and philosophy. People back then thought differently than we do. Even today, people in the East think differently than we in the West. We would think that if God wants to be known, then why does he hide “these things from the wise and intelligent?” We would think that if God wants to be known by everyone, he would reveal himself to the wise and intelligent. And if God has “hidden” these things from some people, how can they be blamed for rejecting Jesus? While we tend to pit human freedom and God’s sovereignty against each other, Matthew and his contemporaries believed both that people were free and responsible, and that God is in complete control of human history.

The fact is, Jesus had revealed the truth to the wise as well as the lowly. While the common masses tended to accept Jesus because of his actions and teaching, the wise thought that, no matter what Jesus did or taught, he did not fit the Messianic paradigms they had gleaned from Scripture. Or, at least, their interpretation of Scripture. The Glad Tidings of Jesus Christ are proclaimed openly to all, but there will always be people who refuse to accept the Kingdom of Heaven. There will always be people who refuse to dance. And sometimes, it’s us religious folk who already have our ideas nailed down with our hats hung on them. So when Jesus tells us he’s got a new dance move, we are liable to cross our arms and say, That’s not how I learned to dance.

Jesus then appeals to the weary and burdened to come and find rest in him. However, what Jesus offers is not a hammock on the beach. It’s a yoke. In Judaism, the yoke was a symbol of obedience to the law and wisdom of God. Rabbis often spoke of the “Yoke of the Law of Moses.” The Law was a yoke which the Jews gladly bore because obedience to the Law meant obedience to God. Likewise, Jesus’ yoke is obedience to his commandments: a willingness to serve others with humility and mercy, to love your enemies and pray for them, to deny yourself, to seek good for others. This is what the Kingdom of Heaven looks like.

Jesus’ yoke is easy and his burden is light not because there is little to do or because the way is safely paved. On the contrary, there is a cross to bear, and the world is full of wolves. The yoke of Jesus is easy and his burden is light because God is with us along the way. Obedience to the commandments of Jesus means obedience to God. When we follow the way of God we find that it is profoundly satisfying to our souls. Jesus’ yoke is more demanding, but it is much more rewarding because it is the work of the Kingdom. It feels good to be nice to people and take care of others. Have you ever noticed how infectious something as simple as a smile or a kind word can be?

Of course, scowls and meanness are infectious, too, but the way to overcome those things is by loving others with the love of Jesus Christ.

Jesus came into the world in order to reveal God to all people. He came, not so that we could refuse to mourn our sins or refuse to dance for joy at God’s salvation. Jesus came so that we could join in with the children’s game and share the Good News of Jesus Christ with others. Jesus came to proclaim that the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.

“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Jesus calls us to dance with him in the joyous Good News of the Kingdom of Heaven. Don’t make excuses as the generation of Jesus’ day did—and as it is often our very nature to do. “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” and we are invited to participate in the Kingdom, take the yoke of Jesus, and dance!

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Pastopher

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Welcome | Proper 8

Matthew 10:40-42

40 “Those who receive you are also receiving me, and those who receive me are receiving the one who sent me. 41 Those who receive a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward. Those who receive a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. 42 I assure you that everybody who gives even a cup of cold water to these little ones because they are my disciples will certainly be rewarded.” (CEB)

Welcome

A United Methodist pastor family I know used to live in a parsonage next door to the church he served. That meant they often had people knocking on their door, and often late in the evening. One such encounter had a Hispanic man show up with his teenage daughter and son. The father actually waited by the church steps so as not to alarm the pastor’s family. This father didn’t speak English well, so his children translated as the two families sat together on the front steps of the church to talk. The father was on his way to Michigan where he had gotten a job, and they were fleeing a bad situation with an abusive mother in their former location. The man showed the pastor all of his court paperwork, showing he had custody of his children and the documentation of his job offering up north.

After listening to their story, the pastor invited them into his family’s home. They talked some more, shared some food, and invited the travelers to stay the night with them and their toddler and newborn. The man didn’t want to impose that much on the pastor’s family so, instead, the pastor’s wife made some calls and put them up in the only available bed & breakfast in town. The man looked at the pastor and his wife and said through his children, “You aren’t from here, are you?” To which the pastor and his wife responded, “No. Why?” The man said, “Because everyone else in this town has given us dirty looks. Even at the gas station when we filled up, people looked at us like they hate us. You’re different. That’s how I know you’re not from here.”

I like that story for several reasons. First, it’s a great example of hospitality to strangers. Second, it begs the questions, How do others to perceive us, and how do we want others to perceive us?

Admittedly, when taken at face-value, this text doesn’t appear to be one that has a whole lot of direct relevancy for most modern congregations. These words are the last of Jesus’ missionary discourse where he sent out the apostles like sheep among wolves (10:16), without money, a backpack, extra clothes, or a walking stick (10:9-10). These words are about those who will potentially receive the apostles on their missionary journey. If we take the text as is within its context, if the apostles come to your door, then make sure you welcome them. Then again, if that were to happen, then it likely means the Day of Resurrection is upon us and there might not be much to worry about because all Heaven is about to break loose.

We know Jesus is talking about hospitality, but the meaning of the Greek text and the English translations is a bit of a pain. First off, where the Common English Bible translation says, “as a prophet” and “as a righteous person” the Greek is literally, “in the name of [εἰς ὄνομα],” which is how the New Revised Standard Version translates it. But what that means in Greek and how we’re supposed to render that meaning into English isn’t clear. In addition to “as” and the more literal “in the name of” it could also mean “because.” Whoever welcomes a prophet or a righteous person simply because they are those things will receive the appropriate reward.

The “reward [μισθὸν]” part isn’t clear either. In fact, the Greek word has a more neutral connotation. It simply means recompense, or remuneration for work that has been done. It can be either reward or punishment depending on the work or deed. It’s kind of like getting your just deserts. And, what is the reward? When is it given? Is it some future thing like heavenly treasures, or do you get a sticker or a sucker right away like my kids do when they go to the doctor? You were good. Here, pick a sucker out of the basket.

Neither is it clear what is meant by “a righteous person [δίκαιον],” especially in regard to the sending of the apostles. Do these labels, Prophet and Righteous Person, apply to all the apostles? And, who are the “little ones [μικρῶν τούτων]”? Many scholars say it’s a reference to the apostles because it’s a part of the Missionary Discourse. To me, however, there appears to be a theological connection to the “least [ἐλαχίστων]” in the parable of the sheep and the goats. (Matthew 25:31-46). In that sense, we could interpret this as a reversal of the expected hierarchy. If a prophet or a righteous person came to town, it would be expected that they would be properly hosted and shown hospitality. They would probably receive multiple invitations to be hosted by many families of good standing, and they could take their pick.

But these “little ones”—whether they are the apostles or anyone of low status—wouldn’t necessarily have a significant social or religious standing. If these words are connected to the “least of these” in Matthew 25, then Jesus means to tells us that giving a cup of cold water to a little one would result in the highest reward.

There’s also the fact that our point of view as the readers of this text seems to change multiple times. In some instances, we’re the apostles who are being sent out, we’re the ones to whom the apostles are sent, we’re the ones called to give a cup of water to the little ones, and we are the little ones to whom the water is given.

For only being three verses in length, the words of Jesus sure do bring up a lot of questions. So, here’s what I propose. Instead of having to choose whether the “littles ones” are the apostles or someone of low socio-economic or religious status, it might behoove us to read it as inclusive of both. I think that’s how Jesus would want us to understand it. And, despite the apparent lack of direct relevancy for modern congregations that I mentioned earlier, there is something incredibly—profoundly—relevant for us to get from this. Even if these words were meant specifically for the apostles in that moment of being sent out, the Gospels were written for us.

And, the kind of hospitality Jesus expected his apostles to receive is an extension of a larger matter of hospitality that is rooted in God’s very nature. God is love, and that love surrounds us whether we’re worthy or not, whether we’re righteous or not, whether we’re religious or not. God is the one who hosts us every day. Everything we can sense belongs to God. Even the stuff we can’t sense was created by God. We are the recipients of God’s immense hospitality, and we are meant to show we are grateful by showing hospitality and welcome to others no matter who they are, what their story is, or where they come from.

Across the Old Testament, God commands that we show hospitality and welcome to people. Exodus 22:21 says, “Don’t mistreat or oppress an immigrant, because you were once immigrants in the land of Egypt” (CEB). It’s pretty straightforward. Don’t mistreat or oppress people who are different from you. Then, Leviticus 19:34 gets a little more specific. It says: “Any immigrant who lives with you must be treated as if they were one of your citizens. You must love them as yourself, because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God” (CEB). In fact, twice in Leviticus 19, God tells the people, “you must love your neighbor as yourself” (19:18 CEB). Love is the primary characteristic of the Christian.

That call to love our neighbor is taken up three times in Matthew’s Gospel. “You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete” (Matthew 5:43-48 CEB).

Our job is to love others: even our enemies! Our job is not to be the gate. Jesus already has that role covered, and this is what he says on the matter. He likens the Kingdom of Heaven to a net that people cast into the sea to gather all kinds of fish. They hauled it ashore and started to separate the good fish from the bad fish. Then, he says it will be like that at the end of the present age. The angels will separate the good from the bad. Not us. We, the church, are the net. We’re to fling our arms open wide and welcome anyone we can. If there’s any separating that needs doing, God’s angles will take care of that. We don’t.

If God’s hospitality is offered to everyone without limitation, then ours should be, too. When it comes to welcoming prophets or righteous people, we can’t tell who they are by looking at them. Our call is to welcome people with simple, basic acts of kindness. With each opportunity that presents itself, God invites us to extend genuine hospitality to each other. This kind of compassionate welcome is how we approach one another through the love of God. When we put the grace-filled hospitality of God’s love at the center of our lives and our relationships—even the difficult relationships—we are living into God’s expectations of discipleship. When we do that, when we live into showing hospitality, we are often the ones who feel rewarded.

That pastor family still remembers the Hispanic man and his children who visited them that night. To them, it wasn’t merely an opportunity to host a poor man and his two children who were passing through town. That night, they hosted Christ, and that will stay with them forever. “Those who receive you are also receiving me, and those who receive me are receiving the one who sent me” (Matthew 10:40 CEB).

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Pastopher

Go | Proper 6

Matthew 9:35-10:23

9:35 Jesus traveled among all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, announcing the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and every sickness. 36 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them because they were troubled and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, “The size of the harvest is bigger than you can imagine, but there are few workers. 38 Therefore, plead with the Lord of the harvest to send out workers for his harvest.”

10:1 He called his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits to throw them out and to heal every disease and every sickness. 2 Here are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, who is called Peter; and Andrew his brother; James the son of Zebedee; and John his brother; 3 Philip; and Bartholomew; Thomas; and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus; and Thaddaeus;4 Simon the Cananaean; and Judas, who betrayed Jesus.

5 Jesus sent these twelve out and commanded them, “Don’t go among the Gentiles or into a Samaritan city. 6 Go instead to the lost sheep, the people of Israel. 7 As you go, make this announcement: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 8 Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those with skin diseases, and throw out demons. You received without having to pay. Therefore, give without demanding payment. 9 Workers deserve to be fed, so don’t gather gold or silver or copper coins for your money belts to take on your trips. 10 Don’t take a backpack for the road or two shirts or sandals or a walking stick. 11 Whatever city or village you go into, find somebody in it who is worthy and stay there until you go on your way. 12 When you go into a house, say, ‘Peace!’ 13 If the house is worthy, give it your blessing of peace. But if the house isn’t worthy, take back your blessing. 14 If anyone refuses to welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust off your feet as you leave that house or city. 15 I assure you that it will be more bearable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on Judgment Day than it will be for that city.

16 “Look, I’m sending you as sheep among wolves. Therefore, be wise as snakes and innocent as doves. 17 Watch out for people– because they will hand you over to councils and they will beat you in their synagogues. 18 They will haul you in front of governors and even kings because of me so that you may give your testimony to them and to the Gentiles. 19 Whenever they hand you over, don’t worry about how to speak or what you will say, because what you can say will be given to you at that moment. 20 You aren’t doing the talking, but the Spirit of my Father is doing the talking through you. 21 Brothers and sisters will hand each other over to be executed. A father will turn his child in. Children will defy their parents and have them executed. 22 Everyone will hate you on account of my name. But whoever stands firm until the end will be saved. 23 Whenever they harass you in one city, escape to the next, because I assure that you will not go through all the cities of Israel before the Human One comes. (CEB)

Go

Are we a community or are we the crowds? That’s the question that comes to my mind when I read today’s text from Matthew’s Gospel. The impetus for the sending of the twelve apostles is Jesus’ compassion on the crowds who were “troubled and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36 CEB). As much as I appreciate the Common English Bible and the New Revised Standard Version translations, I think they both miss the mark with how they’ve rendered the text into English. The Greek in this verse suggests oppression or, at the least, neglect by those in power. The crowds were dejected and thrown aside (my translation). The crowds have been written off and not had their needs provided for by the leadership who were supposed to be their protectors and ensure their well-being.

The prophet Ezekiel spoke about the same thing: “The LORD’s word came to me: Human one, prophesy against Israel’s shepherds. Prophesy and say to them, The LORD God proclaims to the shepherds: Doom to Israel’s shepherds who tended themselves! Shouldn’t shepherds tend the flock? You drink the milk, you wear the wool, and you slaughter the fat animals, but you don’t tend the flock. You don’t strengthen the weak, heal the sick, bind up the injured, bring back the strays, or seek out the lost; but instead you use force to rule them with injustice” (Ezekiel 34:1-4 CEB).

God intends for rulers and those in leadership positions to care for their people. The failure of the shepherds—political and religious leaders—in Ezekiel’s day caused God to say, “The LORD God proclaims: I myself will search for my flock and seek them out” (Ezekiel 34:11 CEB), and “I myself will feed my flock and make them lie down. This is what the LORD God says. I will seek out the lost, bring back the strays, bind up the wounded, and strengthen the weak. But the fat and the strong I will destroy, because I will tend my sheep with justice” (Ezek. 34:15-16 CEB). This is the ministry of Jesus, the ministry he sent the apostles to do, and the ministry to which we are called.

The reality of our world—from ancient times to the present—is that those in positions of power and authority tend to step on the heads of the powerless and crush the livelihoods of the poor. The crowds, which are mentioned so many times in Matthew’s Gospel, are people who come seeking Jesus’s help, they amass as a crowd, but they don’t come together as a community. The crowds are made up of individuals who are driven to Jesus by their own needs. They’re in search of food and healing from all kinds of ailments.

By contrast, the disciples—which number many more than the twelve apostles and include a lot of women—had come together as a community. They took care of each other. In fact, some of those who were present at Jesus’ crucifixion were women who travelled with Jesus in order to take care of him (c.f. Matthew 27:55). Because the community of disciples came together in this way and took care of each other, they weren’t like the crowds who were often desperate and needy. The disciples were enabled to move beyond their own needs and be in ministry to others. That’s what Jesus was doing by sending out the twelve apostles. Their mission was to bring people into community by doing the same things Jesus had been doing: healing the sick, raising the dead, cleansing those with skin diseases, and throwing out demons.

The apostles were to draw the people who often made up the needy crowds and build them into a community of compassion. That’s the vision God had for Israel. It’s what Israel was supposed to be: an example of right-living and a blessing to the rest of the world. Instead of jubilee, there was oppression. “God expected justice, but there was bloodshed; righteousness, but there was a cry of distress!” (Isa. 5:7 CEB).

The message the apostles were sent to deliver was simple: The kingdom of heaven has come near. It’s the same message preached by John the Baptist. It’s the same message preached by Jesus. The Kingdom of Heaven has come near. You see, one of the many things our faith tradition tells us is that we are living in a time-between-times. God has broken into our world with the incarnation of Jesus, the Son of God and Second Person of the Holy Trinity. He taught that God’s kingdom is coming, and is already here, working in subtle ways. Jesus will come again to inaugurate the Kingdom of Heaven in all its fullness and begin a new age in which God reigns and we participate in the life of God as God intended.

We, the church, are to be like the disciples who were formed into a new community: a community which exemplifies the kingdom when we exhibit love and care for each other. Are we the crowds or are we a community? Do we look upon the crowds with the same compassion as Jesus, especially when we see that those who should be helping the people aren’t doing it? Jesus described the people in those crowds as dejected and thrown aside, like sheep without a shepherd, wandering around aimlessly, not knowing where they’re going, where to find nourishment, powerless to change their lot because those in power stacked the deck against them and got away with it. One thing is certain, this world needs apostles to bring good news, to announce that the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.

Whenever there’s a problem in the world, I’ve heard people ask the question, why doesn’t God do something about that? C.S. Lewis had one of his protagonists, Elwin Ransom, wrestle with the same question in his book, Perelandra. The Eve-like figure of the planet, Perelandra, was being worn down by the evil one’s representative, and the protagonist knew that if something didn’t change soon, she might sin and the world would fall into ruin.

He wrote, “For the third time, more strongly than ever before, it came into his head, ‘This can’t go on.’ The enemy was using Third Degree methods. It seemed to Ransom that, but for a miracle, the Lady’s resistance was bound to be worn away in the end. Why did no miracle come? Or rather, why no miracle on the right side? For the presence of the Enemy was in itself a kind of Miracle. Had Hell a prerogative to work wonders? Why did Heaven work none? Not for the first time he found himself questioning Divine Justice. He could not understand why Maleldil [God] should remain absent when the Enemy was there in person” (Lewis, 119). It was then that Ransom realized that he was the miracle. He was the one sent to do something about it.

So are we.

We often think of the apostles as twelve men who had specific authority, and the church has put stock in the authority of the twelve apostles and how that authority has been handed down. Yet, there isn’t anything particularly fancy or special about the word apostle. It’s a compound of the Greek words apo and stolos. Apo means from and stolos essentially means equipment, especially for war purposes. In fact, in ancient Greek a stolos is usually a fleet. Herodotus described the Greek expedition against Troy as στόλος χιλιοναύτης” (stolos chilionautes), a fleet of a thousand ships.

In later Greek, the word apostle came to mean something akin to ambassador, in that the apostle was equipped and sent from someone in authority. By the general definition of the term, we are all apostles. We are told to go and make disciples of all the nations. We are sent to proclaim the good news that the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.

That’s our task, and we do it by identifying with the crowds of needy people, which is really all people, indeed, every person. The apostles were initially sent out to the lost sheep of Israel, but that mission was expanded to all nations following Jesus’ resurrection at the end of the Gospel.

We’re told that the harvest is upon us, but the labor force is scarce. That’s why we are sent. We are the ones who fill out the labor shortage. Even as the need around us appears overwhelming and beyond our abilities to fix, we are still told to go because the harvest is ripe. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and get to work. This is no time to sit around and shake our heads, wondering at the world’s problems. Jesus sends us out to get busy loving the crowds one person or family at a time.

I know, we’re United Methodists. We do lots of stuff by committee and sometimes the church works at a snail’s pace. But here’s the thing. We don’t need permission to serve Jesus and work for the Kingdom of Heaven. That’s not to say our committees are irrelevant, because they aren’t. They do a lot of important work, and those who serve on those committees are doing ministry and working for Jesus Christ.

But if you want to start a Bible study for older adults, then start one. f you want to be a big brother or big sister to an at-risk kid, go for it! If you want to volunteer at a soup kitchen or other area ministry, sign up and go. If you’re worried about doing something alone, take someone else with you. Even the apostles were sent out in pairs. If you want to start an afterschool program for the students in our community, then talk to my wife, Joy, because she’s working on it right now. We don’t have to do everything, but we ought to do something. When we do, we affect other people and make new disciples who also go out to serve. This congregation has sent a lot of people into ministry over the past decade. That doesn’t just happen. People were involved in those lives.

Are we the crowds or are we a community? When we love and care for one another, and sending workers out into the harvest to serve, when we’re as outward-focuses as we are inward-focused, that’s when we’re being formed into a community. We’re preparing for a kingdom. We’re praying for the Lord to send out workers. The problem with prayer is that it works, which means the next worker God sends into the fields might just be you.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Pastopher

You Have Heard It was Said | 6th after Epiphany

Matthew 5:21-37

21 “You have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago, Don’t commit murder, and all who commit murder will be in danger of judgment. 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment. If they say to their brother or sister, ‘You idiot,’ they will be in danger of being condemned by the governing council. And if they say, ‘You fool,’ they will be in danger of fiery hell. 23 Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift at the altar and go. First make things right with your brother or sister and then come back and offer your gift. 25 Be sure to make friends quickly with your opponents while you are with them on the way to court. Otherwise, they will haul you before the judge, the judge will turn you over to the officer of the court, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 I say to you in all seriousness that you won’t get out of there until you’ve paid the very last penny.

27 “You have heard that it was said, Don’t commit adultery. 28 But I say to you that every man who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart. 29 And if your right eye causes you to fall into sin, tear it out and throw it away. It’s better that you lose a part of your body than that your whole body be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to fall into sin, chop it off and throw it away. It’s better that you lose a part of your body than that your whole body go into hell.

31 “It was said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her a divorce certificate.’ 32 But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife except for sexual unfaithfulness forces her to commit adultery. And whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

33 “Again you have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago: Don’t make a false solemn pledge, but you should follow through on what you have pledged to the Lord. 34 But I say to you that you must not pledge at all. You must not pledge by heaven, because it’s God’s throne. 35 You must not pledge by the earth, because it’s God’s footstool. You must not pledge by Jerusalem, because it’s the city of the great king. 36 And you must not pledge by your head, because you can’t turn one hair white or black. 37 Let your yes mean yes, and your no mean no. Anything more than this comes from the evil one. (CEB)

You Have Heard It was Said

When I read this text, I can’t help but ask a question. How are Christians to understand and relate to the Jewish law? This is an ancient question that goes back to the beginnings of Christianity itself. Matthew 5:21-37 follows on the heels of Jesus stating that he didn’t come to destroy the law, but to fulfill it (Mt. 5:17). In this text, Jesus is an interpreter of the law. Rather than saying, I’m going to cast the law aside and give you a completely new law, Jesus is saying, Here is what the law says, and I’m going to get to the heart of that law to show how the children of the kingdom of heaven live out its deepest meaning.

The first thing Jesus tackles here is anger. The law condemns murder, but at the heart of this law is respect for the life of another, regard for the right of another to be, reverence for another as the creation of God. Jesus says, “if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to the judgment; and if you insult a brother or a sister you will be liable to the council; and if you say ‘you fool’, you will be liable to the hell of fire.” And when I read this I admit I immediately think of Master Yoda’s quote to Anakin Skywalker when Yoda sensed that he feared losing his mother. Anakin responds to Yoda by saying, “What’s that got to do with anything?” And Yoda replies, “Everything! Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.”

Jesus and Master Yoda are both right on here. While anger is a part of being human, it can consume the one who is angry and consume those toward whom that anger is directed. Similarly, if a person is angry and flings curses at a brother or sister they are saying, at least in that moment of fury, I wish you were dead.

Now, this language is tough, but does it mean that if I lose my temper at a church meeting and unload on some poor soul across the table that I’m going to burn in the everlasting fires of hell? No, I don’t think that’s what Jesus means. Jesus mentions that those who become angry will be liable to the judgment, the council, and the hell of fire. So, it might help if we understand what judgment is in the Biblical sense. We always hear about judgment in the negative but the Biblical reality of judgment is that it is a good thing: it is God’s exercise of good judgment, repairing the brokenness of creation.

Judgment is God’s scalpel carefully removing the malignant tissue that threatens life. Judgment is God’s burning away of all that is cruel and spiritually broken in order that we may breathe the air of compassion. Judgment is good news; it’s God setting things right. And when God sets things right there is no room for murder. In fact, there’s no room for murderous words or vicious deeds. Jesus goes on to say that if we come to worship (literally, offer your gift at the altar) and we remember that someone has something against us, it ought to be a matter of concern. And, we should do everything in our power to heal that breach in the relationship.

Then, Jesus talks about lust. If raw anger toward another moves toward saying, I wish you were dead, then lust toward another person’s spouse or someone who’s unmarried moves toward saying, I wish you were mine. Marriages in the Christian community should strive, through the faithfulness between husband and wife, to be expressions of the faithfulness that God demonstrates toward the world. Adultery, obviously, breaks the bond of faithfulness. Lustful desire contemplates—is thinking about—that kind of break and is therefore the first step in that direction.

The law forbids adultery because it invades and destroys the marriage covenant. Jesus goes to the heart of the law by his word against lust. In our erotically charged society, where even car and fast food commercials are filled with provocative innuendos, Jesus reminds us that such playfulness is not always harmless. Jesus speaks to our basic attitudes and choices about what we allow to take root in our imaginations: things that shape our thoughts, govern our actions, and mold our relationships. Lust is covetousness at the heart of a person. Lust considers breaking a marriage covenant with thoughts and imaginings that are just this side of action.

On the matter of divorce, the law specified a divorce procedure: if a man found something objectionable about his wife, he could write her a certificate of divorce and send her out of his house. This law assumes a male-dominated world where men are in charge and make the decisions about whether or not their wives are welcome in the home. The law, as it stands in Deuteronomy put one constraint on divorce. The requirement to write a certificate of divorce gave a small measure of protection to the woman because it certified that she had been divorced by her husband and allowed her to remarry without any suspicion of adultery. So, we have to look at this divorce law in its own social context, which is an ancient patriarchal culture in which a wife was seen as the legal property of the husband.

Jesus assumes that divorce is always initiated by men. His teaching on the matter says there is no divorce procedure a man can follow that will leave him with clean hands. To abandon his wife, with or without a certificate, is to treat her as worthless (which is the effect of the phrase, “causes her to commit adultery”). Jesus clearly speaks to forbid divorce, with the only exception being a Greek word, porneia, the meaning of which is not very clear. It could refer to almost any form of sexual deviation, but in this context it most likely means adultery. The main point is that Jesus allows no room for the practice of divorce in his own culture where divorce was an assault on the value of women, an abuse of power, and a trivializing of faithful commitments.

So how do we receive Jesus’ words today? Hardly any family is untouched by divorce. Is divorce outside the bounds of the Christian faith? Is remarriage forbidden by the Sermon on the Mount?

Even in our divorce saturated culture, in most instances, marriage is taken quite seriously. Divorce is a serious and sometimes tragic matter. Even though about half of all marriages end in divorce, not many of them end easily. Rather, they usually end with great cost, much pain, and deep wounds. Some people, to be sure, leave their marriages casually. But most of the divorced people I know have left their marriages behind because they had to. What do the words of Jesus mean for our divorced family and friends?

Now, before I go any further, there is something that we need to acknowledge. We need to understand that neither the law about divorce nor Jesus’ teaching on it can be imported into our modern culture and applied exactly as it was back then. It simply won’t work. There are too many differences in culture and values. Even the word divorce as used by the law and by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount does not mean the same thing that it means today.

In the ancient world, divorce would be similar to what we would call abandonment—where someone simply walked out or, as it would have been done back then, the man threw the woman out and locked the door. In modern nations where the Christian church has been a major factor, divorce laws have been changed to make abandonment illegal. In other words, most contemporary divorce laws have been affected, to some degree, by the Sermon on the Mount. The kind of divorce that Jesus is talking about is not same kind of divorce that happens today, though the result of both is a broken marital covenant. Abandonment is not legal in our country, but that’s exactly what divorce was back then.

One important thing we can do is to discern what lies at the heart of Jesus’ words, just as Jesus discerned what lay at the heart of the law. Marriage is intended to be a communion between two people whose mutual fidelity expresses the faithfulness of God. It is intended to be a place of safety, nurture, and honor for the two people in the marriage covenant and for their children. In Jesus’ day, the customs and practices of divorce were a direct assault on these values. Today, however, it is sometimes an ironic fact that a hopelessly broken marriage can be an assault upon those very values of communion, fidelity, safety, nurture, and honor. A marriage can become distorted. It can betray its intended purposes and become a place where people are in physical, emotional, or mental danger, where they are tragically dishonest and mutually destructive.

I think Jesus’ words on divorce were spoken to preserve the value of the people involved in marriages, especially the more vulnerable women. So, when a marriage becomes the very arena in which people are destroying each other or where one is suffering abuse from the other, it’s appropriate to ask how the safety, well-being, and honor of the marriage partners can best be preserved. This means we should exercise compassion toward people in these situations and not merely defend the institution of marriage as if it is more sacred than the people involved. Marriage was made for humanity, not humanity for marriage. The people in the marriage are what we should value most.

Finally, Jesus discusses oaths. People in the ancient world would invoke the name of God in order to make the vow or promise they were making more solemn. Remnants of this old practice remain today when witnesses in courts of law are pledged to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God.” The Jewish law condemns false oaths, where a person would promise something in the name of God and not do it. Some have argued that what Jesus is against here is swear words. But, while Jesus might not have approved of uncouth language, common profanity is not the main subject here.

The real issue has to do with what it means to utter the name of God. In the ancient world, a person’s name was bound up with their identity, with their essence. To utter a person’s name was to, in some way, call up their identity. For instance, when Moses asked God what God’s name is, he wasn’t asking for information, he was asking for a more intimate relationship. And God responded with a name that is really impossible to capture in translation, something like, “I AM WHO I AM.” There is something about God’s name itself that slips from the grasp of human language. We can use God’s name to call upon God and find ourselves in God’s presence, but even when we name God we name a mystery; we name the One whom we do not and cannot fully know: I AM WHO I AM. God enters into relationship with us, but is always beyond our control.

So, what was happening in Jesus’ day that led Jesus to speak against all swearing of oaths? It’s possible that instead of calling upon God’s name in to experience God’s holy and mysterious presence, people were using the name of God in such a way that they arrogantly assumed that God could be controlled, domesticated, harnessed to pull whatever wagon they wanted to ride. People were invoking God’s name as a way of legitimizing their personal agendas.

I think Jesus is reminding us that we do not control God, so don’t swear at all. Instead, we should simply be a people of truth. When we say “yes” we should mean “yes”; when we say “no” we should mean “no.” “Anything more than this comes from the evil one.” I mean, if we have to swear an oath in order to make ourselves sound more authentic or believable, we’re probably not a very truthful and honest person to begin with.

How are Christians to relate to the law? The teaching of Jesus is not simplistic or easy but, as the Son of God, it is his interpretation of the law that we listen to. Jesus really does dig deep and examine the spirit of the matter. It makes us think. For some of these things there is no easy or cut-and-dry answer, it takes serious study and some real wrestling with the matters at hand. Jesus didn’t come to abolish the law, but to teach us about the law’s heart. His teaching shows us how to live and reveals what we should value: things like fidelity, truth and—probably most importantly—each other.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Pastopher

Blessed Are… | 4th after Epiphany

Matthew 5:1-12

1 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up a mountain. He sat down and his disciples came to him. 2 He taught them, saying:

3 “Happy are people who are hopeless, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.

4 “Happy are people who grieve, because they will be made glad.

5 “Happy are people who are humble, because they will inherit the earth.

6 “Happy are people who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness, because they will be fed until they are full.

7 “Happy are people who show mercy, because they will receive mercy.

8 “Happy are people who have pure hearts, because they will see God.

9 “Happy are people who make peace, because they will be called God’s children.

10 “Happy are people whose lives are harassed because they are righteous, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.

11 “Happy are you when people insult you and harass you and speak all kinds of bad and false things about you, all because of me. 12 Be full of joy and be glad, because you have a great reward in heaven. In the same way, people harassed the prophets who came before you. (CEB)

Blessed Are…

If you’re anything like me, the Beatitudes have always seemed a little confusing. This was especially so when I was younger because I kind of took them at face value. When you mourn, you’re blessed. When you’re poor in spirit, you’re blessed, etc. And none of the Beatitudes seem to fit me very well; except that one about the pure in heart. After all, my Mom’s friends used to call me “Chris The Good” because I was the only kid who wasn’t getting into trouble. But no, even that Beatitude doesn’t seem to fit me most of the time. None of them seem to fit me all the time. The Beatitudes confused me when I was younger and the confusion lasted through my teens, twenties, and into my thirties.

Part of my confusion came from the fact that I used to read the Beatitudes as if they were imperatives, as if they’re suggestions or commands: I needed to be these things in order to receive the appropriate blessing. If I want to inherit the earth, I need to be meek; if I want to be filled, I need to hunger and thirst for righteousness; if I want to be a child of God, I need to be a peacemaker.

It’s easy to fall into thinking about the Beatitudes this way because we’re used to things having a price tag on them. We’re used to thinking in terms of reward and achievement systems. It happens in our workplaces—if you meet certain goals you’re rewarded; it happens in the sports we watch on TV—those who score the most points win (and that’s why I don’t watch golf because it’s completely backwards), it happens in the video games we play—if you make it to the end of the dungeon alive you get to open the reward chest.  But I didn’t know how in the world I was supposed to achieve what the Beatitudes demanded.

I mean, Jesus says things like, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Well, I’d like to be a part of the kingdom of heaven, too, so do I need to somehow measure my spirit to know if I’m poor enough? Do I need to sell off some spirit at the next rummage sale so I qualify as poor? And he says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” I mean, I’m usually a fairly happy guy. So, if I want to be blessed, do I need to go find some creative ways to be sad?

Maybe I’ll mourn that I have too much spirit. That way, I might not receive the kingdom of heaven, but at least God will comfort me. Can you imagine God telling me, There, there, now, Christopher, it’s all right. Look at the bright side, you almost made it! How about a hug? Okey dokey, have fun in Hell. I mean, seriously, how do you do the Beatitudes?

For one thing, since my youthful confusion I have since learned that the Beatitudes are not written in the imperative mood, which is a command to do something; they’re written in the indicative mood, which is a statement of fact. What that means is they aren’t suggestions or commands to be these things or to feel this way so that we can receive these other things as a reward. No, because they’re written in the indicative mood, the Beatitudes are simple statements about the way things are.

Still, though, there was this other thing that I didn’t quite get. It’s this word, blessed. What does that word mean, anyway? Blessed is one of those words that we don’t really use much anymore in our common language. It’s almost exclusively an ecclesiastical word—meaning it’s only used by church people within the church, and even we don’t seem to use it very often—so its meaning is vague enough that most of us don’t really know what the heck anyone is talking about when they actually say it. If we ask someone how they’re doing, and they reply, “I am blessed”, we just kind of nod and say, “Yeah, me too.”

I thought maybe it’s our English translations that confused me by using the word, “Blessed”. So, to address this problem I thought I would do a word study in Greek. That’s what you should do when you’re confused, go study Greek. That’s where the phrase, It’s Greek to me, comes from, because when you study Greek, everything suddenly becomes perfectly clear.

The Greek word which our English translations so often render as “blessed” is “μακάριοι”, which can also be translated as, fortunate or happy because of circumstances, or pertaining to being fortunate, favored, happy, blessed, or privileged. Some suggest it can even mean joyful. And I think looking at the other nuances of what μακάριοι means is helpful because these other words: fortunate, favored, happy, joyful, and privileged actually shed a little more light on the matter and get a little closer to the deeper meaning of what Jesus is saying—at least for those of us who speak modern English—because we still use these words in our every day.

In fact, if we use the English word that would seem to make the least amount of sense in each Beatitude, I think we might get to part of the point Jesus was trying to make. This is, in some way, about profound reversal. This idea of profound reversal is a part of the Gospel message and I think it’s a part of what Jesus is saying here. No matter our circumstances in this particular time and place, a day will come when all shall be set right. It’s a very apocalyptic idea, and it’s one of the ways the Beatitudes have been interpreted for centuries.

But then that makes me wonder…are the Beatitudes nothing more a random list of comforting words to remind us that there will be pie in the sky when we die? Or is there something more here? What if, instead of looking at them individually, we looked at the Beatitudes as a whole: as words that build upon each other? What might that look like?

Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (NRSV). What does it mean to be poor in spirit? Some scholars suggest that it refers to a lack of hope. Those who are poor in spirit have come to recognize that they can no longer uphold a sense of hope in the world because the world is full of evil, and people’s lives are torn apart each day. In fact, the Common English Bible that I read today renders the first Beatitude this way: “Happy are people who are hopeless, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs” (CEB). When we are poor in spirit, the only hope we have left is in the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (NRSV). Those who are poor in spirit—who lack hope—because of the workings of evil in the world, mourn because of it. We mourn every time we hear of a school shooting. We lament the injustices in the world: that in every 24 hours, thousands of women are raped, thousands of children die of hunger and neglect, thousands of people are victimized by other forms of violence and have no way of receiving justice. We mourn when refugees are denied access to our shores. When we see the workings of evil in any form of exploitation, injustice, and violence, we mourn. Yet, Jesus promises that we who mourn shall be comforted. And the word here includes a nuance of strengthening and encouragement. We who mourn don’t simply receive comfort, but we are empowered to lift up our heads and our hands and work against the evil that we see each day.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (NRSV). Those who mourn the workings of evil tend to recognize their own insignificance in being able to fix this mess. The meek humble themselves before God in recognition of God’s sovereignty over the earth. Meekness is not being timid or passive. It’s not about hiding in a corner. Being meek is about trusting that God’s coming kingdom will ultimately win the day because “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, the world and its inhabitants, too” (Psalm 24:1, CEB). The meek will inherit the earth because the earth belongs to God, has always belonged to God, and is God’s to give.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (NRSV). Those who are meek seek after the desires of God’s heart rather than their own. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness seek to do good on behalf of others. Righteousness is the way of life for people who do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will find fulfillment, contentment, and deep satisfaction in a way of life that is self-giving in service to others.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy” (NRSV). Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness live in such a way that showing mercy to others is something they do in every moment. The merciful are self-giving, compassionate, and ready to show kindness. The merciful are more willing to forgive than to punish because the merciful know that they are recipients of mercy. Being merciful grows out of a closeness to and intimacy with the God of mercy. The merciful will receive mercy because mercy is something God loves.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (NRSV). Those who show mercy are living out one of the very attributes and greatest values of God. The heart describes the inner person: the true self. Psalm 24:4 tells us that only those with clean hands and pure hearts can enter into the Temple and worship. The pure in heart have genuine faith in God and, therefore, see God everywhere: in each person they meet, in every place they go, in everything they see, in every circumstance they encounter.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (NRSV). Those who are pure in heart live peaceably with others. The way they live compels them to make peace in all places, at all times, in every way they can. Peacemakers seek peace in all arenas of life: from calling for an end to wars between nations to seeking reconciliation in broken personal relationships. The peacemakers are called children of God, because peace is the very thing God seeks to bring to a creation that seems to be at war with itself. Jesus is the Prince of Peace who came into the world to restore our broken relationship with God. The peacemakers are God’s children because they are doing the same work that God is doing: bringing peace.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’s sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (NRSV). One of the cold realities of our world is that people rarely love peacemakers. Those who are doing God’s business of bringing peace are often singled out and hated because the hearts of people can be hard. Hard-hearted people would rather hold on to their hate, wallow in their resentment, and seek a way to satisfy their desire for revenge than make peace with their enemies. Sometimes these pesky peacemakers get in their way, and it’s the peacemaker who pays the price, who is reviled, who is vilified for daring to speak a word of forgiveness and peace. The kingdom of heaven belongs to those who are persecuted for the sake of seeking what is good, and right, and pleasing to God. That’s what righteousness is.

Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (NRSV). The ninth Beatitude seems to continue the message of the eighth. Yet, I think it actually points to and wraps up all the Beatitudes that precede it. It reminds us of the reality that if we live, or even attempt to live, according to the righteousness of God we will face obstacles from those around us.

In Matthew’s first century community, persecution wasn’t some remote hypothetical possibility as it seems to be for us Christians in America. For them, persecution was a daily reality, as it is for Christians in other nations. So, this is the Beatitude that becomes personal. The eight Beatitudes before it began with “Blessed are those…” This Beatitude begins with Jesus saying, “Blessed are you…” Blessed are you! I don’t want to get into the argument of whether or not Christianity is being persecuted in The United States, yet, there remains for us the reality that if we are living according to and seeking after the righteousness of God, if we are living for Jesus and obeying his commandments, our lives will meet with resistance. We will come face to face with evil and injustice. The world has done it before. It’s nothing new. The same thing happened to the prophets who were before us.

In the Beatitudes, I think Jesus describes for us a way of life that is intended to shape our community, to mold us and make us into the body of Christ. Because all of the attributes mentioned in the Beatitudes are attributes of Jesus. If we want to be like Jesus Christ, if we want to be God’s people, this is how we’re to live with each other in this community, and in the midst of the not-so-friendly world by which we are surrounded. The Beatitudes may not be imperatives, but I can’t help wanting to live into the indicatives they describe. I want to be like Jesus. And for those who want to follow Jesus, the Beatitudes show us the way.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Pastopher

Darkness and Light | 3rd after Epiphany

Matthew 4:12-23

12 Now when Jesus heard that John was arrested, he went to Galilee. 13 He left Nazareth and settled in Capernaum, which lies alongside the sea in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali. 14 This fulfilled what Isaiah the prophet said:

15 Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, alongside the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles, 16 the people who lived in the dark have seen a great light, and a light has come upon those who lived in the region and in shadow of death.

17 From that time Jesus began to announce, “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!”

18 As Jesus walked alongside the Galilee Sea, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew, throwing fishing nets into the sea, because they were fishermen. 19 “Come, follow me,” he said, “and I’ll show you how to fish for people.”
20 Right away, they left their nets and followed him. 21 Continuing on, he saw another set of brothers, James the son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with Zebedee their father repairing their nets. Jesus called them and 22 immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.

23 Jesus traveled throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues. He announced the good news of the kingdom and healed every disease and sickness among the people. (CEB)

Darkness and Light

Today is the third Sunday after the Epiphany. It’s also known as the third Sunday in Ordinary Time. It’s sort of the between-times time. We just finished the Advent-Christmas cycle and, in a few weeks, we’ll begin the Lent-Easter cycle. In other words, in Ordinary Time, we aren’t preparing for or celebrating the promised coming, birth, death, or resurrection of Jesus. The designation Ordinary Time actually comes from the fact that these Sundays are counted with ordinal numbers: first, second, third, and on. I always thought that was an odd reason, though, because the Sundays of every other season are counted with ordinal numbers, too: fourth Sunday of Advent, first Sunday after Christmas, fifth Sunday in Lent, seventh Sunday of Easter, etc.

The season does take on the other meaning of the word ordinary, in some sense. Ordinary Time begins with the first Sunday after January 6, which is the Epiphany, and ends at Christ the King, which is the Sunday before Advent begins. It takes a 14-and-a-half-week break for the Lent-Easter cycle, but the majority of the Christian Year, 33 or 34 weeks depending on when Advent begins and Easter Day falls, is Ordinary Time when the liturgical color is green to represent life and growth in Christ. It’s kind of ordinary in the sense that it’s not Advent, Christmas, Lent, or Easter.

Ordinary Time is the season in which we are called to the matters of discipleship. Its focus is often on the everyday ins and outs of being a Christian. While the weeks of Ordinary Time between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday often focus on Jesus’ identity, and what he is, they also dig into matters of call and discipleship.

The first part of the text mentions that Jesus did one of those itinerant United Methodist pastor things after John the Baptist was arrested. He moved. Jesus made his new home in Capernaum on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Matthew records that this was to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah 9:1-2, which says, “Nonetheless, those who were in distress won’t be exhausted. At an earlier time, God cursed the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but later he glorified the way of the sea, the far side of the Jordan, and the Galilee of the nations. The people walking in darkness have seen a great light. On those living in a pitch-dark land, light has dawned” (CEB).

With his move complete, his ministry began. Jesus picked up right where John the Baptist had left off. He started proclaiming a message of repentance because the kingdom of heaven has come near. Now that Jesus had a new office and started getting his message out on the social media of the day, which consisted of walking around and actually speaking with people face-to-face, Jesus got busy on his recruitment drive. He walked down to the shore of the Sea of Galilee and invited people to follow him.

Some of the most profound events recorded in the Bible—at least, to me—are stories that tell us how God called ordinary, flawed people to serve in some capacity. To me, it’s a comforting fact that God never chooses perfect people. For one thing, there aren’t any. For another, there aren’t any. God only calls ordinary, flawed people to do both ordinary and extraordinary things.

Moses was a murderer with a stuttering problem when he stumbled across a bush that burned with fire, but wasn’t consumed by it. God called him as a prophet to speak before Pharaoh and to lead the Israelites home. What did Moses do when God called him? He made excuse after excuse to not have to do it, and finally said, “Please, my Lord, just send someone else,” (c.f. Exodus 2:12; 3:1-4:17). Strangely, that exasperated Thanks, but no thanks from Moses didn’t sit too well with God, and Moses went anyway. When God gets into an argument with you, you’re probably not going to win.

Saul was from the smallest family in the tribe of Benjamin, which was the smallest tribe of Israel, but when the Israelites demanded a king, Saul was selected (c.f. 1 Samuel 9 & 10). When it came time for the people to gather together before Samuel and see the king whom God had selected for them, Saul tried to hide. The people had to ask the Lord, saying, “Has the man come here yet?” and the Lord outed Saul by saying, “Yes, he’s hiding among the supplies,” (1 Samuel 10:22). When God calls you to something, you can try to hide, but God knows where you are.

Amos was a shepherd and a tree trimmer when the Lord called him to go speak as a prophet to the Kingdom of Israel (c.f. Amos 7:14). He didn’t try to hide, at least such an event isn’t recorded. God called and Amos went. But, he still refused to identify himself as a prophet (c.f. Amos 7:14).

Jeremiah was called from the priestly family of Abiathar from Anathoth: a family King Solomon had sent away from Jerusalem because Abiathar had supported Adonijah as king after David instead of Solomon. Jeremiah was afraid he was too young to do what God wanted of him, but God told him not to be afraid of people. Then, men from his own city threatened to kill him for speaking God’s word, but God tells him the tables would be turned before the men could act on those plans (c.f. Jeremiah 11:21).

The call of Samuel resonates the most with my own call to ministry. He heard God calling when he was a boy, but didn’t recognize the voice as God’s (c.f. 1 Samuel 3). My own call to ministry began kind of like that. I remember sitting in the front pew as an acolyte at Central United Methodist Church in Evansville and having this sense that I would be doing what the pastor was doing. I always shoved it away with a big, “NO!” in part, because I’m an introvert and I never thought I would be able to speak in front of people. In fact, the very idea terrified me.

It wasn’t until my freshman year in college at The University of Findlay that I really suspected it was God calling me. The week leading up to Saint Valentine’s Day, 1996, that voice, that nudging, that call, was relentless. It pounded against every protestation I tried to build until I finally chucked my pencil across the room, pushed my chemistry book away and said, “Alright, God, I’ll do it!” It took some discernment with the help of many mentors to figure out exactly what I should be doing, but I knew I was called to ministry of some kind, and I started pursuing it immediately.

Another call came upon me in January of 2014 when God got into an argument with me, and I lost. I knew without a doubt that God was demanding that I write. But, I had already tried once and failed. I didn’t want to share the stories in my head with others. It felt way too personal. But, I couldn’t escape this call. I talked with my wife, who encouraged me to get writing. I bought a writing program so I could get organized, and I started writing the story I’d had in my head for a decade. I attended a writing conference so I could learn more about the craft and hone my skills. I pursued that call to write immediately. So far, I’ve gotten nothing but rejections for publication, but I’m still writing. I’m still sharing my stories with others.

When God calls us to something, it’s hard to ignore the call. In our text from Matthew, Jesus walks by two sets of brothers and calls them to follow him. Peter and Andrew immediately left their nets. James and John immediately left their boat and their father, Zebedee, and followed Jesus.

It has been suggested that the church today has the model of discipleship wrong, kind of backwards, actually. We want people to know God, grow in their faith, and get out there and do something amazing for Jesus. But what happens in Matthew is quite different. Instead of know, grow, go, it’s go, grow, know.

The first thing the disciples did was go. They followed Jesus. They got out there and walked alongside him. They learned along the way as Jesus taught them. And, through their interaction with Jesus and learning from his teachings, the disciples got to know who he was and what he was about. You might recall that many times in the Gospels, the disciples made assumptions about Jesus and were wrong, they often failed to understand what Jesus meant. They didn’t get it until after Jesus died and the Holy Spirit came upon them and reminded them of what Jesus had said.

Christian discipleship is nothing less than hearing God’s call and obeying it. In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer described discipleship as something God offers to us, not something we can offer to God. Discipleship begins with God seeking and calling us to participate in the mission God has in mind. It’s not something where we do our thing and invite Jesus to tag along and give his blessing. Discipleship is not self-justification, rather, it is self-denial. The call to follow means we subvert our will to the will of Christ our God.

The cost of discipleship is not cheap. God’s call in our lives is not convenient. These four disciples left their careers behind because Jesus called them to follow him. Sometimes discipleship is doing something just like that. The thing is, it’s only through following Jesus that we really get to grow in our faith. It’s only through the kind of growth such following produces that we really get to know Jesus Christ.

The kingdom of heaven has come near. The light of Christ bids us to come and follow him. And we are called to the kind of discipleship that lays everything aside for the sake of Jesus Christ.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Pastopher

Emmanuel | 4th of Advent

Matthew 1:18-25

18 This is how the birth of Jesus Christ took place. When Mary his mother was engaged to Joseph, before they were married, she became pregnant by the Holy Spirit. 19 Joseph her husband was a righteous man. Because he didn’t want to humiliate her, he decided to call off their engagement quietly. 20 As he was thinking about this, an angel from the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child she carries was conceived by the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you will call him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” 22 Now all of this took place so that what the Lord had spoken through the prophet would be fulfilled:

23 Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son, And they will call him, Emmanuel. (Emmanuel means “God with us.”)

24 When Joseph woke up, he did just as an angel from God commanded and took Mary as his wife.  25 But he didn’t have sexual relations with her until she gave birth to a son. Joseph called him Jesus.  (CEB)

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Emmanuel

In writing fiction, I learned that tension is what moves a story along. Tension is what makes it interesting. It’s what makes you feel a little nervous when you read, even if you think you already know how the tension will be resolved. It’s the thing that makes you keep turning pages long after you should have put the book down.

When Matthew begins his narrative he declares, “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.” But when we read the text it’s clear that Matthew is not as concerned with the birth of Jesus as with his conception and his naming. The entire scene which follows is told through the eyes of Joseph, and it really is his religious and ethical dilemma that moves the story along.

The first thing we’re told about Joseph is his marital status. Joseph is engaged to Mary but they are not yet living together. The customs of marriage in Joseph and Mary’s day involved a two-stage process. The first stage was the betrothal or engagement, but in a much stronger sense than the word means in our day. When a woman was engaged to a man in the ancient Jewish world she was bound to him and he to her through formal words of consent. This betrothal would usually happen when the woman was quite young, twelve to fourteen years old. Once the woman and man were betrothed, they were already viewed by society as husband and wife, and they waited for a certain amount of time—usually about a year—for the second stage of the marriage process.

This second stage involved the woman moving out of her parents’ house and into the home of her husband. You might note that the United Methodist marriage service includes these two parts of marriage. The Declaration of Intention has its roots in the ancient Jewish betrothal ceremony, while the Marriage and Exchanging of Vows is from the marriage service. Joseph and Mary are in-between these two stages of the marriage process. Mary is, essentially, Joseph’s wife, but they are not yet living together.

The next thing we hear about Joseph is that he was faced with a life-shattering moral situation. Joseph was described as “a righteous man,” which means that he was careful to follow all of the commandments of God. He was careful to keep the whole of the Old Testament Law, he strove to live his life in harmony with God’s will, and to follow the Law of Moses to the letter. Because Joseph was a righteous man, he was a man in the middle of an ethical crisis. Mary was found to be pregnant and Joseph knew he wasn’t the baby-daddy. In Joseph’s mind there was only one possibility, and that was that Mary had been unfaithful to him.

What does the law say about this? The commandments are pretty cut and dry: Mary was to be cast aside, perhaps even put to death. While Joseph was a righteous man, he was also compassionate, so he intended to dismiss Mary, but to do so quietly. He cannot and will not swerve from the law. The law commands it, so Joseph will do it. Mary will be dismissed.

But here is where the text takes one of those surprising and unexpected turns. An angel of God appears to Joseph in a dream and reveals to Joseph that what appears to him to be a moral outrage is, in fact, a holy disruption in the sorrowful story of humanity. The child in Mary’s womb is not a violation of God’s will, but an expression of it. The child is not the result of human activity but a gift conceived of the Holy Spirit. The angel says, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (NRSV).

Joseph is told not to be afraid. Yet, Joseph would certainly have been afraid to keep Mary no matter how deeply in love with her he might have been. He would have been afraid because keeping Mary would have been a violation of the law of Moses.

I think it would be extraordinarily difficult to be in Joseph’s position, even with the dream where an angel told him to take Mary as his wife I think it would be difficult. God is quite suddenly doing a new thing which, to all eyes, seems so contrary with the old established way. Joseph is given a new commandment, a new and higher law, and urged on to a new and higher righteousness when the angel says to him, “Take Mary as your wife and give to the son she is about to bear the name Jesus” (NRSV). Yet this new commandment, new law, and higher righteousness stands in contradiction with the old righteousness, old law, and old commandment. The angel is commanding Joseph to do nothing less than shatter the old law in order to keep this new law.

Can you imagine the difficulty? Can you imagine the ethical and religious dilemma this would present? I mean, I’ve had strange dreams before. If I were Joseph I might have chalked this one up to indigestion. So, will Joseph remain a “righteous man” in the old sense, or will he respond to God’s new thing and become a genuinely “righteous man” who walks in God’s new path of obedience?

The thing is, the dilemma Joseph faced was the same dilemma that Matthew’s first readers faced. They would have been pulled in two different directions by their Jewish roots and their Christian experiences. How are people to be righteous, in the old way or in the new? How are we to be righteous? Matthew’s answer is clear later on in the book: “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20, NRSV).

Joseph is transformed by the announcement of the angel. He is astoundingly responsive to this new and very strange thing that God is doing. He chose to follow the new commandment instead of the old. He took Mary as his wife, and he named the child Jesus. Joseph, as well as Mary, is an example of true righteousness and faithful discipleship. He moved from his own understanding of Righteousness to God’s understanding of righteousness. And I think that’s what Matthew hopes all of his readers will do. The kind of discipleship that Joseph models for us is not the kind that goes and looks up a rule in a book and then does “the right thing.” Rather, Joseph models the kind of discipleship that wrestles with the complexities of an issue, listens for the voice of God in our midst, and does God’s thing.

To be a faithful disciple we really do have to prayerfully wrestle with and seek to discover what God is doing in the difficult situations we face. How is God at work in these tough situations to show mercy and saving power? I don’t think that being righteous is as simple as being pure and good in some abstract sense, but I have come to believe that genuine righteousness involves joining with God to do God’s work in the world in God’s way.

Who could blame Joseph if he had decided to stick with the established law, the rule written by Moses himself at God’s own bidding, and dumped Mary? Everyone in Mary and Joseph’s hometown would have said, It was the right thing to do. But our story in Matthew’s Gospel would be very different.

Instead, Joseph surely surprised and shocked everyone by taking Mary as his wife and adopting her child as his own, even giving the child a name like Jesus, which is the Greek form of Joshua, meaning God helps or God saves. After declaring the name Joseph is to give to this child of Mary, the angel says, “for he will save his people from their sins.”

In addition, Matthew provides another name for us: Emmanuel, which means God is with us. Jesus is able to help and to save because in him God is with us. Only God can save us from our sins and, in Jesus, God is with us as a savior.

The explanation of Jesus’ name is an important part of Matthew’s Gospel. It is Matthew’s Jesus who tells us to turn the other cheek and go the extra mile. It is Matthew’s Jesus who tells us to be perfect as the Heavenly Father is perfect, to not be anxious about our basic physical needs and seek the kingdom of heaven. When we read Matthew’s Gospel it is easy to become overwhelmed by the demands of discipleship that Jesus places upon us and wonder whether or not our obvious shortcomings and failures can ever be overcome.

But at the outset, before all these demands of discipleship are made, we are told that the Jesus who will make these demands is the one who will save his people from their sins. The name of Jesus assures us of forgiveness and of presence. God is with us, and God will save us from our sins. That’s the definition of Good News.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Pastopher