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[Jesus said to the disciples:] 15“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
One of the downsides of doing a “Super Quick Bible Study” is the necessary focus on just a snippet of scripture. That means I as the writer and you as the reader end up occasionally studying scripture superficially. This snippet from Matthew 18 is a perfect example of such pitfalls.
With quickness of study and brevity of scripture as my goal, I’m not able often to put the few verses of scripture for the week into the larger context that’s really needed to understand what’s going on. Matthew 18:20 is often quoted out of context as Jesus assures us where two or three are gathered, there is he in the midst of them. In its “out of context-ness” this verse is frequently interpreted as meaning that Jesus is just as present in our small group gatherings as he is in a church that worships thousands of people at a time. In other words, size doesn’t matter to Jesus. So, we shouldn’t fret if our worshiping community has only 11 people in it. I believe that’s true. But it isn’t what Jesus was saying here.
When we pull the camera back on 18:20, we see that Jesus isn’t talking about group size at all. He’s talking about church conflict. He’s teaching that when disagreeing church members get together to talk through their problems, he will be right there in the midst of them. To me, that’s more comforting than Jesus promising to be present in my group of five that showed up to an event where I’d hoped for one hundred.
And then, if we pull the camera back even more on this 18thchapter of Matthew, we see that these six verses are about a larger vision of God’s kingdom. These verses are part of a series of teachings in which Jesus uses hyperbole, exaggeration.
Some of these teachings we choose to take literally, and some we don’t. For example, we don’t drown others for being “stumbling blocks.” And we don’t encourage people to pluck out their eyes or cut off body parts because they’ve sinned. And most shepherds would not abandon 99 sheep to go looking for one sheep. Jesus’ exaggerated response to Peter’s question about forgiveness in verse 21 shows that he knows we want forgiveness to be a quick and simple answer although it’s not.
Jesus uses hyperbole to give us the opportunity to learn new truths. He’s teaching us what it means to live in community with one another, including times when we greatly disagree with each other. This chapter starts out with the disciples asking Jesus which of them was the greatest. I figure this disappointed Jesus that they would ask such a question about greatness when he’d been teaching and witnessing hard to what it means to be the least. But he guides them patiently in Matthew 18 to a different way of thinking about the Kingdom of God and about the church that would one day be its imperfect proclaimer.
Readers: Super Quick will be taking a vacation for the next couple of weeks. See you soon!
9Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. 14Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
Meet Denise, Heaven’s Receptionist. Well, at least she is on Tik-Tok. Smacking her gum while dealing with printer problems and difficult residents, Denise manages the heavenly front desk. Taryn Smith is the actor and creator of this comedy “tok” that has been viewed by over 60 million viewers. She got the idea while in the shower one day, which is why she’s wearing a bathrobe and a towel on her head. A pink disposable razor makes an imaginary telephone headset.
I thought about Denise’s schtick while reading Romans 12:9-18. The apostle Paul is writing to the congregation in Romans and is making their theological acquaintance. It’s a long letter and theologically thick in places, but this sweet yet powerful section gives us a description of the ethics of the Christian person who clings to Christ. I often ponder what’s on Paul’s list and what’s missing.
Denise, heaven’s receptionist, favors those (and supposedly so does the heavenly administration) who are kind to other people. In one skit, Denise receives a phone call from a guest who wants to upgrade to the Angel Premium Package. Denise informs the guest that the upgrade costs 7,899 good deeds and “you’re short about seventy-eight ninety-nine good deeds.”
When the guest protests citing all his faithful worship attendance, Denise responds, “That’s so great you went every Sunday, but you did make 48 Starbucks baristas cry, and that does ding your credit up here.”
Notice that Paul’s list of what shows forth Christ doesn’t include some of the things I have heard all my life from my parents to my parishioners – reading your Bible every day, regular worship attendance, tithing, serving on a church committee. Now maybe Paul just assumed these were understood but more likely, they just weren’t at the top of the list.
Most of Paul’s exhortations are all about building Christ-like relationships. Paul isn’t concerned about us getting points for good deeds, a popular system that humans seem to treasure and that Denise mimics. The goal of the “good works” game is to just make sure your good deeds slightly outweigh your bad deeds. Then it’s all good! And in this system the individual gets to decide/rationalize what’s good and what’s bad. How convenient!
God has never been a fan of this salvation system, neither was Jesus, and then neither was Paul or Luther. Instead, we are called as the baptized to live lives that show our gratitude for what God has already done for us, for God’s saving act in Christ, and God’s promise of amazing grace. Everything we do is to show gratitude, not to gain points. We love one another because God loves us not so that God will love us.
Let’s face it, it’s easier to believe we can rack up points by tossing $20 in the offering plate and filling out an “I was here!” card at worship than it is to grow our relationships by loving those who have been cruel to us. Paul’s list of Christian characteristics is much more difficult than the ones we have created for ourselves.
Thank goodness God is gracious and merciful, but I’m not so sure about Denise.
So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”
21Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” 23But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” 24He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
Last week, the SQBS of the Week was centered on the story of Jesus walking on the water. Remember, Peter, sees him and asks to walk out to meet Jesus. He starts out okay, but then gets scared and starts to drown, When Jesus is pulling him out of the drink he asks: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Peter isn’t always a shining star, and yet he becomes the leader of the church. His “little bit of faith” is illustrated several times. Then,
less than a chapter later, a woman with no religious credentials is told, “Great is your faith.” That’s no coincidence, that’s an intentional contrast by gospel-writer, Matthew.
This woman isn’t a dog, as she seems to be called. She shows how a person can be bold and brave in approaching God without fear. Society’s strikes against her do not limit her faith or her persistence. She’s aware of her place in life, the limitations placed on her, she’s aware she’s not one of the children of Israel. She just wants her child to get better and says to Jesus, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
While we might not understand some of the difficulties of this story, and probably never will, we get the point at the end. Persistence and faith make a powerful pair. Jesus calls us to a discipleship that looks a lot like hers. She persisted and her persistence demonstrated her faith.
Some might look at her actions and call her stubborn. But persistence and stubbornness are not the same word. Stubbornness is a dogged determination not to change your attitude or your position. It’s digging in your heels, not budging, not going anywhere. Persistence is movement. It keeps moving forward with a course of action despite hardship or oppression. Persistence seeks change and progress. Persistent faith is what we need for mission. Mission is movement. It’s growth. It’s seeking. Stubbornness mixed with pride never moves us forward. Persistence mixed with humbleness is the lesson in this lesson.
1 Kings 19:9-15
9At [Horeb, the mount of God,][Elijah] came to a cave, and spent the night there.
Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 10He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”
11He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 12and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 13When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 14He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” 15Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram.
You might be familiar with the reference to “a still small voice” but not know much about where it comes from. Well, it’s here in one of the stories about the prophet Elijah in 1 Kings. Elijah is literally running for his life – at least he thinks he is. He’s convinced that he’s the only prophet of the Lord still alive after Jezebel has murdered them all. In contradiction, in just the chapter before this, we read that a palace servant, Obadiah, who was also a follower of God, was hiding a hundred prophets, feeding and protecting them. Elijah was afraid and ran to a place where God had been seen and heard before – to Mt. Horeb where God appeared so powerfully to Moses and gave the Ten Commandments. Even though it’s a desert place, it’s the total opposite of a God-forsaken place. It was a place that had all the divine affects: mountains, wind, fire, voices from heaven. All Hollywood-like. When this stuff happened, the ancients weresure God was around.
Elijah runs into God’s protective arms on Mt. Horeb, like a scared child runs into the house with the screen door slamming behind her. Unlike your loving Mama who might have seen you running in, grabbed you in her arms and asked, “What’s the matter sweet pea?”, God asks the panting Elijah, “What are you doing here?”
His answer is to tell his story of being the only survivor of terrible violence against God’s prophets.
God is clearly present at Mt. Horeb (in that still small voice) but God keeps asking why Elijah is there. God sounds unsympathetic to our ears. But God’s concern is to know why Elijah ran away from his troubles instead of trusting that God would shelter him. Elijah had a call, a job to do, a place where God had called him. He had, in effect, run away from his call and abandoned his mission. Hence, the question, “So, why are you here?”
In a parallel story from Matthew 14 Peter attempts to walk on the water with Jesus but fails because he gets spooked by the raging storm and huge waves. Jesus asks Peter the question, “Why did you doubt?”
In both stories the unsympathetic voice of the holy one, is actually a voice questioning why we doubt God is with us, even in the tough scary places. This, in many ways, is the question that resides in much of scripture. Our human doubt and fear are hard to overcome. Such stories invite us to consider where we run and why we run under pressure. Satan doesn’t tempt us so much to commit crimes. Instead, Satan’s greatest conquest is to conjure doubt that God is really with us, that God really cares. Why are you here, Elijah? Why did you doubt, Peter? Why do you?
14When [Jesus] went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” 18And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
You probably know this miracle of feeding pretty well. It’s the only miracle of Jesus told in all four gospels. Each one is a little different, but the core story is consistent. We’re told Jesus, the disciples, and a huge crowd of followers are in a deserted place (like an urban food desert), that it’s getting dark, and everybody is hungry. Matthew tells us there were 5,000 men, and he notes this doesn’t count the women and children. If we did count the women and the children, how many would it really be? 35,000? That ups the demands of a dinner miracle big time.
The disciples recognize there’s a big problem brewing. They have a quick staff meeting with Jesus and make a recommendation to dismiss the crowd so they can walk to various villages to buy food before all the stores close down for the day. Sounds reasonable. But, as usual, Jesus is looking at it with different eyes and a different agenda. He rejects the disciples’ very practical and responsibility-free suggestion. Instead, Jesus tells the disciples to give them something to eat. Say what!? They point out that all they have are two fish sandwiches, so obviously his request is laughable. How can they possibly make a miracle of abundance out of such scarcity? Ah, the age-old human question.
What they and we discover is that a little bit in Jesus’ hands becomes plenty, plus leftovers. Notice the disciples were the stewards charged with handing out the abundance come from God. It’s an abundance that’s always there even in desert places.
All of should sit up and take notice when Jesus invites the disciples to come up with a miracle of abundance in that deserted place. I can only assume that in places of scarcity in our community, Jesus is still inviting us to discover how we can create a miracle of abundance.
Very often we are disciple-like in our responses. You’ve heard them, you’ve said them, you’ve thought about them: There are too many homeless people downtown – round them up and move them out. Too many people live in food deserts in rural and urban areas –let them shop at the local Dollar General for low quality processed foods, let them take the bus to the Publix across town. Too many people use the local Emergency Room like it’s their doctor’s office – they should stop being so inconsiderate to those of us with awesome insurance.
Jesus keeps teaching us in so many parables and so many miracles that abundance is all around us. With faithful stewardship, political will, deep care for our neighbors, and our pooled wisdom; we can’t be Jesus, but we can find ways to tap into the abundance all around. We can always claim something isn’t possible when it’s something we don’t want to do anyway, something that isn’t a priority, something that’s too much trouble. But when we’ve put our minds and hearts to a problem, we have, and we can, work stewardship miracles.
Gospel – Luke 14: 25-33 (Pentecost 13 C)
25Now large crowds were traveling with [Jesus;] and he turned and said to them, 26“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. 27Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 28For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? 29Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, 30saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. 33So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”
Hello, friends of My Pocket Preacher! Pastor Elise Anderson here, I am excited to be your guest writer for the next three weeks of Super Quick Bible Studies while Pastor Mary is on vacation!
Hate is a strong word, isn’t it? When you hear it what first comes to mind? For me it is the color red and fire. The word hate brings to mind an image of raging flames tearing through wood. In our context hate is associated with violence and rightfully so, we see a lot of hatred, fear, and misunderstanding leading to violence every day. So why is it that Jesus tells us in this gospel reading that we should hate our families in order to be his disciples? For an answer to that question, we need to look at the context of Jesus’ time. The Greek word for hate that is used here is miseō, which is directly translated as hate or to detest. But in the context and culture this was a term used for both the hatred between enemies, but it was also used in terms of discernment. Commentator Carolyn Sharp give this advice, “Preachers should help their congregations understand that Luke 14:26 is not advocating intense hostility toward kin and life, but, rather, is promoting the steadfast refusal to allow something less valuable to displace something more valuable.” In other words, you shouldn’t necessarily hate your family or your life, but you should love Jesus and his dream for the world more.
Throughout the gospel of Luke, the Kingdom of God and the task of discipleship is put on an incredibly high pedestal, at times it seems unreachable. While this can feel overwhelming and out of reach for us today (I mean who among us could actually imagine selling all our possessions and turning our back on every relationship we have built?). Our task today is to take the words and message of Jesus and the love of God and apply them to our lives today and most importantly do that seriously. This is the foundation of Luke’s message; do not take being a disciple lightly. It is such an important task that you should be willing to give up all you have both in terms of relationships and possessions in order to do it well. Jesus wants us to avoid surface level discipleship and love. If we say we are followers of Jesus than we need to truly live into that. How do we do that? Well, Jesus tells us, love one another as I have loved you. Easier said than done. This love includes fighting for justice, making sacrifices, being uncomfortable, working hard; but we live in the knowledge that if it brings forth the Kingdom of God it will be well worth the work.
1That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. 2Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. 6But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. 7Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9Let anyone with ears listen!”
I’ve had my understanding of parables rearranged a good bit over the past twenty years or so. Studying more attentively with New Testament scholars like Amy-Jill Levine, I’ve come to appreciate anew that the parables of Jesus have endured centuries of skewed interpretation. The darkest glass through which we’ve viewed the parables is to interpret them as allegories. We do that by assigning each part of the parable a meaning or a representation. This has happened to the Parable of the Sower since the very earliest days of the Christian community. It started for sure by Gospel writer Mark and was later picked up by Matthew. Mark saw in the experiences of sowing a reflection of what it was like in his community’s experience of the growing church of Christ. Some seeds (converts to Jesus) started out well in faith but then when persecution or other troubles came along, they fell away from the community.
I can imagine our modern interpretation of this parable with illustrations like: Some people are like seeds that fell on the poor soil of that new entertainment evangelism church down the road. Church to them was all lattes at the Welcome Center and praise bands singing choruses of barely-there theology. Then when they have real problems in their lives, their faith is so thin, it doesn’t sustain them, and they fall away from both “The Church of What’s Happening Now” and faith in general. Definitely parableabuse!
Instead, we are invited anew to consider the parables as stories about the simple things they seem to be. Consider that the Parable of the Sower is simply a reminder of what we observe in nature. When seeds are cast to the winds (as was the method of ancient Palestinian farmers) some fell into soil that caused them to take root and grow well while others were eaten quickly by birds or had other kinds of troubles. Jesus’ observation, and his point, is that even though some seeds get recycled through the digestive systems of our bird friends and others are scorched by the sun and return to the ground to build up the soil; in the end our God provides abundant growth. As with the sowing of seeds, so it is with the sowing of the Word in the Kingdom of God. The harvest will be plentiful, even though not every seed will become a delicious tomato plant.
What that’s caused me to do as a preacher and teacher is to only use the Jesus parable alone and take away the allegorical verses. I then don’t focus on these distracting interpretations and try to zero in on the pure parable. However, most of the articles and commentaries you can read on this parable, even in 2023, still make regular use of the allegory in scripture.
But once taken away, the Parable of the Sower becomes not judgmental finger-wagging about people with deep faith verses people we see as having superficial faith; but as a parable of blessed assurance that God will provide the growth, abundant growth, for the Kingdom come. God works it out, works it to good, works it to gracious plenty. What more do we need to know?
Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me…for my yoke is easy and my burden is light. Matthew 11: 28-30
Many have found these beautiful words of Jesus to be like a cold drink of water on a hot summer day. They are blessed assurance that somehow, some way, everything is doing to be alright. But, let’s face it, we also wonder how, if we are carrying heavy loads of the regular stuff of life like balancing a demanding job, three kids, and caring for a mom with Alzheimer's; just how Jesus is going to make these burdens light. Pretty oxymoronic, right?
The slow death of anything that once resembled classic sabbath rest isn’t helping a bit. Baby Boomers and above remember when the government supported the Christian sabbath by closing every workplace possible. You couldn’t even buy gas on Sunday, get groceries, or go to a movie. Sunday was a home day but that didn’t mean you could get lots of housework and yard work done. These were also forbidden, not by the government, but by the church who saw these as Sabbath-breaking activities. Even washing dishes was problematic and no good Christian man would ever be heard starting up his lawnmower on a Sunday afternoon, even if the grass was knee-high.
Getting back to that culture isn’t something I’m longing to do but living in a 24/7/365 world has a soul-sucking effect. Add to that our ability to communicate digitally with anyone in any time zone; and this new normal gets pretty oppressive. What this means is that with neither the government nor the church having any real sabbath expectations of any of us, to truly have sabbath rest, we all must create our own ways of unplugging.
Sabbath-keeping is a practice our Jewish siblings still do right well. We could learn from them because while the government never supported their sabbath rest (Friday at sundown to Saturday at sundown), their religion did. Sabbat dinners on Friday nights, putting all electronic devices away, lighting candles, chanting prayers – all still a thing among observant Jews of any denomination with busy work and family lives.
While physical resting is a big part of sabbath rest and has been “a thing” ever since creation when God Almighty took the seventh day off from creating, sabbath-keeping is mostly a spiritual thing. And frankly, it can be pretty hard work to shut down even for 24 hours once a week all our producing, achieving, buying and selling.
Since Moses came down the mountain clutching the tablets of the commandments, sabbath-keeping has been a holy obligation by the faithful. The Jews’ master, Pharoah, never gave them a day off in Egypt. It was all about making those bricks all day long.
But our God commands we rest, refrain from work. Why? Because we need this time to remember that everything doesn’t depend on us. To remember that no matter how hard we work, it isn’t all about us. We aren’t the ones making the world go ‘round, we aren’t the ones solely in charge of making sure our families are okay, nor the ones who will save the planet. Just stop producing and achieving for one day a week to remember and celebrate the Lord of the Universe and your place in this universe. Remember it’s not all about you. Remember that God is large and in charge. Remember that your burdens are not all on your back. Burdens definitely made lighter. Thanks, God!
Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.
This well-known scripture isn’t part of our scripture readings for this Sunday of July 2nd but knowing this holiday is just around the corner, I thought about this passage. I didn’t think about it because I’m anticipating having a pretty small crowd of worshipers this Sunday. It seems nearly everybody will be out to the beach or mountains. The disappointment of a low-attendance Sunday might be soothed by this scripture about two or three being gathered.
Matthew 18:20 has consistently been ripped out of context and grossly misused. I assume most of us have heard it used as an assurance that there is no group too small for Christ to be present with us. I want to ask, “Who thought that there was?” Is it throwing shade at the Jews who required ten males in order to constitute a liturgical community? Is it saying that Jesus guarantees his presence at much less than that? Jesus wins at graciousness again! When scriptures are cut out from their biblical contexts, they become like a plant picked from its stem. It will soon whither and eventually become unrecognizable. Matthew 18:20 has become unrecognizable. Let’s see if we can replant and regrow it. If we can, we might just have a message much needed on this 4th of July as divisiveness in our country keeps rotting our relationships. So, let’s take a smidge of Super Glue and paste this abused little verse back into the whole of Matthew.
When we do this, here’s what we discover when we put this famous passage back into Matthew 18. Here’s Matthew 18: 15-17:
If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. ’If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
Note the “two or three witnesses”. What’s Jesus talking about here? He’s teaching about how to handle conflicts, he’s giving a process for reconciliation. Many of our church constitutions site these verses for the handling of church conflicts, even to this day.
The Jesus method of reconciliation is: Talk to your disagreeable person one-on-one, if this doesn’t work then take one or two other people to talk with them. If that doesn’t work, you’ll need to call a congregational meeting. If they remain contrary and toxic to the community, they’ll need to be excommunicated. The assurance given here is that even in the small group of two or three faithfully trying to work things out, Jesus will be present. In faith, we trust that because he is present things will work out as God wills.
The culture of our country on this 247th anniversary of independence, is one in which our United States of America are alarmingly dis-united. More than that, we are polarized and uncivil while promoting name calling and violence. As I’ve said before, our church of Matthew 18 seems woefully reluctant to do much about it. We’re gathering with the like-minded, avoiding difficult conversations, and calling names in secret.
I wonder if part of the problem is that we don’t just disagree on points of policy or ethics; we increasingly hate and avoid each other. We even talk about how we are living in totally different concepts of reality. If it’s true that we are living in parallel universes, what we know about the definition of “parallelisms” is that by their very nature they can never met, never touch, never be like-minded.
That makes even Jesus’ reconciliation counsel seem a bit impossible. If our realities, our paths can never cross, then what really is the need to even try and work it out? I think our only hope and succor is that the same assurance in Matthew 18:20 still holds, “I will be in the midst of them.” What more could we really need except the courage and assurance we hear there.
Maybe a new ritual for July 4th might be to use our great freedom and seek out just one person with whom we disagree about politics, religion or a family spat, and talk about it one-on-one. After all, Jesus promises to be there, so that makes three. In that is grace. A grace we need. God, (please) bless America.
29Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30And even the hairs of your head are all counted. 31So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.
As a backyard owner with a frequently unfilled bird feeder, I don’t see a lot of flashy bird action among my trees. I long for the colorful birds and do have several bright cardinals who make their home flying between a large water oak and the azaleas. But I want to see the colorful finches, for woodpeckers and cedar waxwings. I shouldn’t be so birdy ungrateful because the sparrows never disappoint. They aren’t picky and will come to the feeder even when there hasn’t been anything there for days. Like a starving person, they check one more time in a place where food once was plentiful. Maybe this time.
The Gospel of Matthew stands out among the four gospels as the one account thick with teachings by Jesus. In the crammed chapters like Matthew 10, he pulls in a sermon illustration using the little sparrows. In Jesus’ time sparrows were the affordable food for the poor. Jesus says the price tag at the market was two for a penny. In this chapter of teachings by Jesus, the focus is to encourage us to fearlessly confess our faith. He calls us to rise above the natural fear of our enemies and to be faithful to our calling. So, with the little sparrows in mind, Jesus assures us that God cares even for these little birds very dearly. And if God cares so much for one little sparrow, how much more for us? We can only imagine.
We hear this and do imagine ourselves as that little sparrow, pecking at bird food garbage on the ground while the yard cat prepares to pounce. We all are in the palm of God’s hand and resting in the abundance of God’s care. How nice.
We confess that, but do we live it? Our world is full of sparrow-people often given undesirable labels like: the poor, oppressed, slaves, refugees, abused, homeless, and other unhappy et ceteras. This week we have seen these disparities played out in the media as two tragedies have been laid out side-by-side.
One was the unnamed fishing trawler carrying as many as 750 people desperate to reach safety, most of whom are still missing, unlikely to have survived, off the coast of Greece. The other is the Titan, a small submersible with five (rich) men on board that has not yet been found off the Atlantic coast of Canada as I am writing now and as I’m constantly checking my newsfeed for updates. As we are hearing, a massive hunt for the submersible is ongoing involving the US and Canadian coast guards, a French rescue team, the Pentagon, private vessels, and top-notch equipment, including Remote Underwater Vehicles and aerial support. And just reported, also a team specializing in dive medicine.
The sinking of the fishing vessel last Wednesday has been covered, of course, but with an air of bored repetition. Here was another boat full of “illegal” brown people making a risky bid to enter a country not their own. Who do you think Jesus would name as the sparrows in this scenario?
I’m grateful for Barbara Cooker who put it to poetry writing:
I never learned to tell one from another—
swamp, field, song, vesper—they’re all scraps
of drab: rust, dun, buff, tan. Some streaky-breasted,
some not. We hear the flutter of their wings, look up,
then yawn, ho hum, a sparrow. No rush for the binoculars.
Like the poor, they are always with us. Look at them
flick and flit in this dry meadow of foxtail, switchgrass,
goldenrod; every leaf, stem, and seed head burnished
in the dying light. Maybe they are the only angels
we get in this life. But the very hairs on our head
are numbered, and the father knows them all by name.
Each sparrow, too, has a song—no flashy cardinal
selling cheer, no sky-blue jay’s ironic squawk,
no eponymous chicka-dee-dee-dee. Just us,
the unnoticed, gleaning what others have left behind,
and singing for all we’re worth, teetering on a bit
of bracken at the edge of a wild field.
We love the imagery in the Hebrew scriptures of soaring on eagles’ wings, but what an encouragement here to find ourselves flitting on the wings of scrapy sparrows. Thanks, Jesus!
1Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
Many of us are casually or routinely familiar with Alcoholic Anonymous’ 12-Step program. These steps have a proven record of keeping people sober as they continue to live with the disease of addiction. For example, the first five are:
When anything in life (or faith) is described in “steps” we know that means it’s a calculated process. It means we take baby steps, grow from one step to the other. It means we won’t be successful if we try to tweak the steps, or speed things up by jumping from step 1 to 5. To be a living thing is to be a growing thing and growth is inch-by-inch with all sorts of stages.
Paul in this passage in the letter to the Romans speaks of how we can boast in our hope; but he also outlines a 4-step program to getting to this sobriety of the spirit. He outlines the steps like this:
I’m sure there are many people living with addiction who wish they could snap their fingers and get sober. When I hear of friends and parishioners who attend four AA groups each week, who must seek out the local AA group wherever they are on vacation or a business trip or visiting family; I realize what a big commitment it is. How difficult it must be to slow your longings down to engage in a program that has a whopping 12 steps to go through.
When I see people suffering physically, mentally, and/or spiritually, those longings are the same. Don’t we all want to go straight from our current suffering to the bliss of a hope that does not disappoint us? But, scripture witnesses, as do our own lives, that the trip from suffering to hope is not a straight road on I-90 through the sunflower fields of South Dakota. Instead, there are big hills, switchbacks, detours, and often glum scenery.
When Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross laid out her steps of grief decades ago, we all were comforted to understand that grief was a journey and that though we might always walk with a limp, we would walk and function again. She had observed these in the families she worked with. I suspect Paul saw his 4 steps in the lives of those he ministered with and probably in himself as well.
Understanding and believing that hope is possible and is the end-product of our confidence in God gives us a hope that doesn’t disappoint all along the way. Be of good courage, friend.
We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth,
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God,
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life.
The Nicene Creed, 325 C.E.
So, how would you describe your relationship to God?
Looking at this old icon representing the Holy Trinity (a/k/a the core belief of Christianity), anybody who can count would say that Christians believe in three different and separate gods – God the creator, Jesus the Christ, and the Holy Spirit. It’s simple math to some. But to the Christian, it isn’t math; it’s mystery. And it’s all about holy relationships.
I figured this out when I was three years old – probably a coincidence! Meditating one lazy afternoon while my grandmother (Odelle Shuler) supposedly slept, I said out loud as she told it, “Now that’s Grandmama (what I called her), and Mama (what my mother called her), and Odelle (what my Granddaddy called her.)” I suddenly realized she was one person who went by three different names. It was an amazing mystery to my little self. And that revelation has served me well as a Christian believer.
The early Christians used the Trinity (tri-unity) as a way to describe, that is, to witness to, their understanding of the many ways they experienced God in their lives. Our Jewish and Muslim neighbors, as well as our religiously skeptical neighbors find this all problematic.
This might be a good time to ask what words you would use to describe the living God and your relationship with that holy one. Different Christian denominations and spiritual communities sometimes pick a preferred member of the Trinity as the focus of their devotion. Some focus on God as the creator of all, but don’t have much faith in Jesus of Nazareth as divine. Other communities are very Holy Spirit centered.
But I think each one of us has a preferred relationship with the Holy One. For some of us God is an awesome majestic mystery to be worshiped and adored. For others of us, Jesus is more a friend and companion through life. For others, the Spirit is their deep prayer partner.
How we worship, how we pray, is often a good clue as to our relationship with God. Just give it some thought on this Festival of the Holy Trinity, even if church festivals aren’t necessarily your thing!
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Much of what is told in the gospels is all about the events of Jesus’ life (birth to death basically), as well as things Jesus said and did in between that birth and death. At Pentecost, the story 50 days after Easter Day, a shift happens. The risen Christ becomes the ascended Lord. Now all of us disciples are left staring up into the clouds mumbling, “Now what?” It was a very reasonable question.
Yes, Jesus had spoken about not leaving them abandoned by his death or his “I won’t be with you anymore”-ness. But what really did all that mean. It was hard to imagine. Being a called disciple didn’t mean you always understood what Jesus was talking about. It just meant you were called to listen and learn as best you could.
For forty days after Easter the risen Christ spent time appearing to various disciples and kept teaching them. Then on Day 40, he ascended into heaven. For the next ten days, I assume the disciples were holding a very long discernment retreat. On the 50th day after Easter, they were all together in one place, with their retreat sticky notes and newsprint up on the walls recording their individual answers to questions like, “What I think Jesus would have us do if he was still here…” and “On a scale of 1 to 5, how confident are you that Jesus will return in the next two weeks?” Just when Peter asked, “Who wants to share first?”, a mighty wind blew through the windows and sucked all the sticky notes right off the walls. They knew that often in scripture God was present in cloud and wind. Next, they saw a flame above the heads of each one and yet, not a hair was singed. No one had to say it out loud, but they all thought, “This is what it was like when Moses saw the burning (unconsumed) bush!”
Scripture says they were filled with the Holy Spirit. They were filled with the power of the Spirit and empowered by it. One sign of this power was their ability to communicate the gospel in many languages. Yes, it was a miracle of communication, but more significantly, it was the birth of a community. That community abides today as the Christian Church, even with its flaws and failings. Today, we are the faith descendants of those original Pentecost people.
The questions before us this Pentecost 2023 are: What sets your hearts and your hair on fire now? Where do you find your passion? What concern/issue/injustice/need keeps you up at night and how might the power of the Holy Spirit work through you to address it? How do you tell the gospel story that burns within you?
These were all things our ancestors in faith had to figure out in their generation. They made mistakes. They squandered opportunities. But they were also brave. They were willing to be guided in a new direction. They trusted that God was in the midst of the wind and fire, and in the midst of their messy ministry. They had a lot of “what now” questions and so do we. We have gratefully inherited the trust and confidence in God of those first disciples. And so, with Christ, we continue to abide.
[Jesus said to the disciples:] 15“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. 17This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.
18“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. 19In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.
Even though the world has long moved on from Easter, the church isn’t quite done. We sing Alleluias and tell resurrection stories for seven weeks. This Sunday will be the sixth week of celebration, with one more to go. Our scripture for this Sunday is from John 14, a story that happens before the cross and resurrection, but is a time when Jesus counsels and prepares his beloved disciples for his departure. He will depart from them in this physical life (at the cross), but he will depart from them also at the ascension when his resurrection self leaves this world and goes home to God.
Jesus prepares his followers for a time when he will no longer be around to answer their questions, calm their anxieties, or share enjoyable evening meals. It’s like a terminally ill parent preparing her kids to be orphans. No matter how old you are when your parents die, you become an orphan. It’s a weird status that never leaves you.
Others of us have been orphaned at young ages and later adopted by new loving parents. What a gift! Jesus assures the disciples they aren’t going to be abandoned because God will be sending the Holy Spirit to abide with them. This Spirit will walk with them, provide them with wisdom, give them encouragement and advocate for their needs. Sounds like a good mom to me!
A 2019 documentary Life Overtakes Me tells the story of refugee children from war-torn countries who escaped to Sweden, but who have been suffering from a debilitating disorder called resignation syndrome. Their parents are busy doing all the hard work to apply for asylum while the children struggle to heal from their various traumas. If the children hear that their asylum might be denied and that they’ll have to return to their home country, they start to suffer from resignation syndrome. As a way to protect themselves, they go into a catatonic state, stop eating, drinking, walking, and caring for themselves.
This is what happens when we are orphaned and feel that we have lost all security, stability, and predictability. That’s why Jesus assures us that we will not be left orphaned, that we will not be abandoned with no hope for a future, nor stripped of any blessed assurance that we are being accompanied all along the way.
As a pastor, I’ve counseled people along this Jesus Way who do feel that they have been abandoned. Due to unending grief, trauma, or despair; they continue to believe in God but feel more like orphans of the faith left by the side of the road. It seems that everybody else is journeying on, easily stepping over the sharp rocks of life, being guided down the steep cliffs by the hand of Jesus. They wonder why the life of faith is so different for them. They seem to experience their own version of the refugee resignation syndrome. What that often looks like for them is quitting church, excommunicating themselves from the Holy Meal, and in general finding another primary advocate to guide their way through life – family, yoga, gardening, volunteering with children, reading, or medications. All wonderful things that make life beautiful, doable, and full.
As a Christian person, I find those things all supportive of life but not the things that give abundant life. I believe the Holy Spirit, our God-given Advocate, supports abundant life by keeping hope alive and by providing the parent-like love every time we fear we might be abandoned. It is also our holy call to be Christ-like advocates for one another. The Spirit walks with us and we walk with one another. It’s the ministry of accompaniment that we do. Hope is found therein.
[Jesus said to the disciples:] 1“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.
This Sunday the Church reads together some sayings of Jesus from John 14 that they usually reserve for their funerals. “Let not your hearts be troubled,” Jesus begins. At the burial of a loved one we hear that as if it’s spoken just to us as we grieve our losses and confront our own fears about death and dying.
But now we hear it in a different season, Eastertide, and we hear it outside of fresh grief. We can take a little time now to ask what was going on with Jesus that caused him to counsel us not to have such troubled hearts. In funeral sermons, we skip over any Bible study like this.
“Let not your hearts be troubled” is spoken while Jesus and the disciples are having their last meal together, all with clean feet after Jesus stooped to wash them. And, some very troubling and confusing things have just happened. Jesus has just outed Judas to Peter as the who will betray him, and Judas has just exited into the night. The rest of the disciples don’t seem to know what’s going on. Jesus tells them straight out that he is with them only a little longer but where he is going, they cannot come. Presence will soon become absence. The sheep will have no shepherd. Peter declares that he’s man enough to go with Jesus even to laying down his life. Jesus looks at him and says it isn’t true because before morning he will have denied him three times.
Judas’ place is empty. Peter has been named a traitor. Everybody’s heart is racing. The sound of nails being hammered into crosses echoes in the distance. At this moment, Jesus says, “Let not your hearts be troubled.”
I recently read a small interview in Southern Living magazine in which the person being highlighted said that the quote she lived by was this: Everything you want is on the other side of fear. It’s at this tender and critical moment when Jesus tells his friends and followers that he is the one, the Way, who will lead them to the other side of fear.
Jesus is the Way over the rocks along the way they will travel. Life and faithful discipleship require more than pop psychology platitudes – pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, letting a smile be your umbrella, the power of positive thinking, etc. The rocks are high and many. You’ll need more than just yourself to get to the other side of fear.
Don’t let your hearts be troubled, beloved, because there is a way to the other side of fear. Jesus is that Way for Christians. And what’s promised on the other side of that fear is what Jesus calls “abundant life.” Abundant life isn’t the reward in the afterlife, but a gift in this life for those who have ears to hear and ears to hear. Alleluia! Christ is risen, indeed!
42[The baptized] devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
43Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
For a lot of us church folk this Fourth Sunday of Easter is called “Good Shepherd Sunday.” That’s because every year, like liturgical clockwork, we read some part of John 10, where Jesus declares himself our Good Shepherd. And because of that, we read Psalm 23, and then sing just about every hymn in the hymnbook that has the words “sheep” or “shepherd” in them. We’re sheep, Jesus is our shepherd. We’re provided for and protected in all times and circumstances. Nothing wrong with that message except that we shortchange the scriptural message a bit.
We need to ask what it means to not only celebrate the resurrection, but what it means to be Easter people. If we are well-shepherded sheep, what does that mean for our lives moving forward? This passage from Acts 2 is a vivid illustration of what we are to do as ones who follow our risen shepherd.
This account in Acts of the newborn church after Pentecost Day talks about their newly created lifestyle as Jesus-people. We hear of how they created a new household, a family not bound by blood but by baptism. All who came to this new family sold all their possessions and put them in the offering plate. All these resources were used for the common good. What they owned, they owned together. Sharing bread and sharing God’s Word were their top priorities.
What they show us is how sheep led by a Good Shepherd created a shepherding community where all are provided for, protected, and cared for. This isn’t always who we are, but it’s who we are meant to be. Strangely enough, on this Good Shepherd Sunday, we should think less about what it means to be like a sheep and more about what it means to be like a shepherd.