Sunday, August 2, 2020

Reflection on Matthew 14:13-21

What do you do when the unrelenting pressures and stresses of life have you completely buried? 

Not that anyone in the year of 2020 would have any stresses to worry about!  It is not like teachers have compounded concerns about returning to school, or that parents have concerns about sending their children. 

It is not like businesses have concerns about staying afloat and releasing valuable employees from the payroll, or that employees have any concerns about paying the mortgage. 

It is not like the problems of a global pandemic are putting stress on already stressful things like relationships, and family gatherings, and job searches and the deaths of loved ones! 

What do you do when the unrelenting pressures and stresses of life have you completely buried?

Does it help you to know that the Bible says that Jesus has been there?  Does it help you to know that Jesus Christ, God with us, intimately knows the compounding stresses of life?

At one point, Jesus returns to his hometown in an ancient version of a vacation with family.  And, during that vacation, Jesus discovers that the people of his hometown would rather remember him as a child than see the amazing things that God has done in his life since. 

It is as if they do not want him to grow in life.  It is as if they do not care about what God has done in Jesus’ life, or how Jesus has been changed by God.  It is as if these people do not actually care about him. 

I have a hard time dealing with a store clerk ignoring me while I try to ask a question, I cannot even imagine what it is like to be utterly rejected by the very people who helped to raise you.  Let us just say that Jesus is not having a good day. 

But, as all of you know, if life seems as if it cannot get any worse, it can always get much, much worse. 

Jesus’ cousin, Jesus’ mentor, the one who poured water on his head and started Jesus’ entire ministry is discovered to be dead.  John the Baptist is murdered by King Herod at the request of Herod’s niece.  It is a convoluted story, evil usually is convoluted.  

But, after hearing the devastating news of John’s beheading, on top of the rejection from those in his home village, Jesus is just done.  He needs to get away.  He needs time to just be alone.  He needs time to just be done.

Have you been there lately?  Are you done?

Do you want to know what I did on my vacation?  Nothing.  I have to tell you, doing nothing was so nice.  I am the best doer of nothing there is!  My High School pizza employer would agree.  Back to Jesus though.

Jesus goes away by himself, presumably to pray and presumably to do nothing. 

Can I just point out that that is fine?  Jesus shows us that it is fine to just retreat for a while.  It is fine to just get away from the stresses and arguments.  It is fine to disappear from social media and even the house for a bit.  It is fine to just be done, go away, and reconnect with the one who truly matters; God.  In the church we call that Sabbath.

And, that could make a nice sermon right there.  I could just be done with this sermon and you could all go out and get some much needed rest.  I hope that you do that by the way, but, that is not the end of the story. 

During his much needed rest, a bunch of people seek out Jesus and ask him for healing.  And, by “a bunch of people” I mean thousands and thousands of people.  We are talking about 5,000 men, and that does not even count the women and children, who are seeking out Jesus as he tries to rest in the wilderness. 

Having one child invade the bathroom while I am trying to get even one minute of peace is infuriating.  I cannot imagine thousands stampeding into the bathroom looking for Band-Aids! 

I am pretty certain that Jesus handled this way better than I would have.

When Jesus is battered by life, he actually is not disturbed or bothered by others who have similarly been battered by life; instead, he has compassion on them. 

And, at this point in the gospel story, the Greek word for “compassion” actually refers to that deep, gut-wrenching, intestinal-twisting, visceral care that we have for those who are in agonizing pain. 

It is the gut-wrenching sort of compassion that you get when you find out a child has lost both of their parents.  It is the visceral need to help when you see that someone is absolutely helpless.  And, as you will see, we have a God who is moved to action when we cry out to the Lord.

Jesus not only heals the sick brought to him though, he also does one other thing that can help you when you are just done with life. 

When suppertime came, it became obvious that the thousands and thousands of people who followed Jesus into the wilderness needed something to eat.  The disciples said as much to Jesus and indicated that the time for healing was done and the time for people to be heading back to town and helping themselves had started.

“You give them something to eat.” Jesus responds.

“We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish,” the disciples say.

“Bring them here to me.”

In a similar way as when you thought life could not get much worse, but it certainly can get much, much worse, with Jesus if there is even a little bit of food or a little bit of healing or a little bit of hope, or a little bit of love, Jesus can make it even greater. 

He took the loaves and the fish, blessed and broke them, and…well you know what happened…thousands and thousands of people had their fill.

I guess, what I want to point out is that when you are just done with life, there is something very healing in feeding someone.  The soul starts to mend when Jesus causes that gut-wrenching sort of compassion to take over your heart, and you give someone in desperate need some food. 

When Jesus moves you from focusing on your own hurt and pain, to focusing on others and their pain, your own healing comes.  Feed a soul, and heal your own soul.

Follow the one who heals and finds healing.  Follow the one who shows compassion when they need compassion.  Follow the one who would go to the cross, to save the world from the cross.  Follow the one who never runs dry of compassion. 

There is always enough love for all of us through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Reflection on Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

The thrill of the chase is over. 

After ten years, the treasure chest filled with gold and gems, hidden by a millionaire with a flair for adventure, has been discovered somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. 

Hundreds of thousands of people have searched and dug through the mountain west of the United States for this very real treasure chest worth more than two million dollars.  Four people died in the wilderness as they tried to decipher the cryptic poem which hinted at its location.  But, one lucky person from the east coast has deciphered the poem and found the hidden treasure.  And, in this era of economic hardship for so much of the world, this person’s life has likely been changed forever.

Imagine a treasure so priceless that you would give up your entire life to find it.

Some people seek after actual buried treasure, but I tend to seek after the kingdom of God, and I know that in your heart of hearts you desire that kingdom too. 

Who would not want to discover the tiny seed that grows into a great tree; a tree which houses and sustains not just the birds of the air, but all creation?  Who would not want to climb the branches of that tree where all are housed and given fruit no matter the color of their plumage or the amount of wealth they have amassed in their nests?  The kingdom of God is a tree of life for all.  

“Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them,” Jesus teaches us (Matthew 6:26).

Who would not want to discover the dough stuffed with hidden yeast that grows and expands and when baked feeds, not only those who can afford to build their own grain mills, but especially those who cannot: vulnerable, disadvantaged adults and children?  In the kingdom of God the multitudes are looked upon with compassion and fed.  The dough of that love rises over the sides of the bowl and all over the place! 

This is the center of Jesus’ heart, heard clearly as Matthew teaches us that: “Jesus saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them” (Matthew 14:14).

Who would not search and dig for the kingdom of God where your heart is truly free; a heart that is not weighed down by things, or wealth, or concerns, or worry; a heart that is free to love as God loved without the second thoughts, or the hate passed down through the generations, or the fear that the heart might be stabbed with pain once again?  

“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” Jesus says (Matthew 6:21).  Who would not want a heart filled with the treasure of God’s kingdom?

This is the type of treasure that you sell everything in order to obtain.  This is the type of treasure that you hold close like a fine pearl.  It is a treasure that you do not fling around with wild abandon because those who are evil, and hateful, and dishonest will trample all over it.

The kingdom of God is a gift from God like no other.  And, in a world where people feel pulled apart from one another and encouraged to fan the flames of hatred and division and partisanship, the gift of a tiny seed that grows into a tree that will bring us all together to sit in its branches is the holy gift that the world desperately needs. 

Lord, in a world where we are taught to hate instead of loving our enemies, have mercy on us. 

Lord, in a world where we feel encouraged to protect ourselves and forget our neighbors, have mercy on us. 

Lord, in a world where everything has gone wrong and no one knows what the next major catastrophe to befall us might be, have mercy on us.

Lord, help us to see the tiny seed that grows into the tree. 

Lord, help us to see the tiny yeast that expands for the benefit of all. 

Lord, help us to discover once again the absolute value of the treasure that feels hidden far, far away in a distant field…as hard to find as a millionaire’s treasure hunt…but of infinitely more value because it is not something that would just improve our lives, it is life itself. 

Lord, help us to discover once again the treasure that is the kingdom of God
where those who struggle in spirit are blessed;
where those who mourn find an arm of comfort and consolation;
where those who have no desire to take charge and have no opportunity to take charge finally  have a say;
where those who thirst for the world to be right, and loving, and good will get their drink;
where those who show mercy to others will live in nothing but a world of mercy;
where those who desire nothing but God will see God clearly;
where those who seek nothing but peace and prosperity for all, and actively advocate for it, will be seen as sons and daughters of God;
and where those who suffer because they live for the kingdom of God will have nothing less than that kingdom. 

Lord, your kingdom come, your will be done.  Bring us into your kingdom.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Reflection on Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

I have been fooled before. 

I will freely admit that I sometimes I have been very wrong about people.  I had a friend in college who seemed to be a kind, go-lucky, church camp-y sort of fellow.  In fact, he was a church camp counselor, and a beloved one at that.  But, years later we were all shocked to learn that he had molested children. 

And, in the opposite sense, I had a professor who seemed to walk around stuck up and self-absorbed, who turned out to be one of the most generous people, giving extra time after teaching and significant amounts of money toward the disadvantaged. 

And, I will have to admit that my own thoughts about people’s character have at times been influenced by the color of that person’s skin rather than the content of their character.  So, I do admit that I have been very wrong about people before.

But, even so, I will say that for the most part…maybe 80 percent of the time…I am able to pick out the good from the bad.  I can usually tell the difference between people who are completely self-absorbed and self-serving, and those who love their neighbors as much as they love themselves.  Around 80 percent of the time I can absolutely distinguish between the wheat and the weeds.  Some people, quite frankly, are just easy to pick out of the crowd.

And, these days it seems even easier to pick them out as the bad seem to seek out full attention and recognition.  They actually try to get right in our faces and right on our screens. 

So, it is easy to cast our metaphorical stones.  It is easy to point out their hurtful actions or words, try them in a jury of our friends, and declare a verdict of guilty.  It is easy to point out the enemy; the children of the evil one.  It is easy to yank out the weeds.  You have no idea how many people I have marked for weed pulling in my head each day while scrolling through social media.

But, before I wrap my hands around the stalks of the enemy, and before I put my back into it and pull, there are some words from someone who is pretty influential in my life that give me pause.

Jesus says in Matthew 5:43-44 to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  And, further in 5:45 he says that God, the one who judges all of us, “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good.”  That alone gives me pause before I consider yanking out the weeds to be a worthwhile goal.  Certainly, loving your enemy looks nothing like destroying them. 

And then, there is Matthew 10:36, where Jesus tells the disciples that he is sending them out as sheep among wolves, where “one’s enemies will be members of one’s own household.”  Is that not where most of the angst in our current cultural disagreements lies?  Weeds waving in our faces from afar do not pose too much of a threat, but when those weeds are those closest to you, the thought of pulling them up and leaving them to die is something different altogether.

But, Jesus does not expect us to attempt to get rid of these weeds in the first place.  He has a very good reason for this: “for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them.” 

I have some beautiful irises that my wife and I planted years ago.  Unfortunately, they are planted in a very weed healthy area of our yard.  Quite often, we let the weeds share their space because their roots are just so shallow.  It is so easy to pull up the irises with the weeds.  In pulling the weeds, you can also destroy what is beautiful.

A couple of years ago, I heard about a brand new pastor who saw the evil that a young woman in his congregation was inflicting upon her family.  What she was doing was truly evil. 

So, the pastor decided that he was going to get up into the pulpit and point a finger at the evil, and pull that weed.  His new church was not going to be infested.  The day after he preached his finger-pointing sermon, he received a letter from a couple of the congregation’s most devoted and loving members.

You have to understand, this husband and wife were those quiet sort of servants who were at every event, setting up the tables, making the food, and hugging the depressed.  They were the ones who ran the hunger walk every year which raised thousands of dollars for the most destitute in the world.  They were the ones who probably understood Jesus’ self-giving love on the cross the best.  They were also the parents of the “evil” young woman in the congregation. 

Do not misunderstand, these parents were not hoodwinked.  They knew the trouble that their daughter had gotten into more than anybody.  But, they were also working on a task that Jesus had explicitly set out for his disciples: forgiveness.

As the pastor read the letter, he discovered that these two disciples of the congregation were not coming back.  Nor, did they think they would go to another church for the time being.  The hurt that was caused by his callous attempt at plucking weeds was too fresh and too great.  Some fine wheat suffered from his weed pulling.

Lord, “do you want us to go and gather up” the weeds?   

"No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them.”

It is not our job to point out and gather up the weeds.  Jesus says that is clearly the job of the reaping angels.  “They will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers.”  It is not our job to condemn the weeds that are so clearly coming to a head in the field.  “Vengeance is mine” says the Lord as quoted in Romans 12:19.  Condemnation is not our job.

After-all, did I not just admit at the top of the sermon that I am only correct 80 percent of the time on who is evil and who is good?  That means that 20 percent of the time I am completely wrong and condemning someone who does not deserve it. 

We have only one job given to us by Jesus.  And, that is to love our neighbor, sharing Jesus’ good news.  That means forgiving many, many times over.  That means leading others toward Jesus’ love and forgiveness. 

Just to be clear, making someone aware of their sin is not the same as condemning.  Making people aware of their sin is done out of love.  We truly want others to experience the freeing power of forgiveness.  Our task as followers of the one who gave his life on the cross to save the world is not to condemn, but to love. 

The gospel of John remind us that “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17). 

So, how about we let the field grow with wheat and weed together?  It is OK.  We do not have to remove the weeds.  We just use our opportunities in life to raise and grow that field the best we can, and love it until the great harvest of the Lord.  That is more than enough.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Reflection on Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

It was right there, in a pile of rocks.  Nothing should have been able to grow there.  Yet, rooted in a little puddle of soil on top of a pile of rocks along a cliff side there was a delicate, little pine tree (no more than 4 inches tall) stretching its neck toward the sky.  It was a beautiful little sight; so beautiful that I took a picture. 

But, it was also a tragic sight, because I was certain that that little blaze of green in the middle of the drab, stone cliff side would soon die because its soil could not be more than an inch deep on top of the rock.  That was until I saw something further along the cliff side; but more on that later.

There have been times in my life that my heart has been the soil that you find in the middle of a dirt path.  Jesus has thrown either a word of good news and love or a word of healthy correction my way, like a near-eastern farmer who flings seed everywhere, but my heart has been through so much trampling and foot stomping, and it is compressed so tight, that it cannot possibly open itself up to any seeds that Jesus has thrown my way. 

A hard heart is not one that can be broken again, but neither is it a heart that can beat.  And, with the seeds of God’s word falling and laying upon such hard soil, the birds just come and clear it away.

There have also been times in my life that my heart has been rocky soil.  The soil that is there is rich in nutrients so when Jesus throws either a word of good news and love or a word of healthy correction my way, it excites me and drives me to be a better person and a better follower of Jesus Christ. 

I remember a time as a teen when I heard the powerful testimony of a comedian who was delivered by God from a life of dark depression into a light filled life of love and laughter.  The testimony was so funny and so tragically powerful that I was brought to tears, and teenage boys just do not get brought to tears.  So, in other words, there was plenty of dust blowing in my eyes that evening. 

I went from that evening committed to being the best follower of Christ that I could possibly be. 

You can probably already guess where this is going.  This sort of commitment to Christ usually springs up pretty quickly, lasts a couple of weeks (if that long), and then you realize that there was not enough nutrients in the soil or the soil was just too shallow, and the word that the Lord provided just sort of dies from being scorched by the sun.

Then, of course, there were the times that the Lord threw a word of good news and love or healthy correction my way, and it got caught up in all of the branches and thorns that had overtaken my soil.  Other cares, other concerns, other forces that I allowed to drive my life, other “more important” things crowded out the Lord’s seeds and thorns took over the places that the seeds attempted to take root.  And, I have to admit, that you do not need to be addicted to anything to have your life overtaken by complete distractions from what truly matters in life. 

Do not underestimate the power that the world has to shape your soil.  Do not underestimate the power that individuals and societies have to make your soil hardened, or rocky, or crowded. 

One drunken Native American who pushes you around while waiting at a bus terminal can cause a hardness of heart toward the plight of a whole people. 

One extremely bad and abusive relationship in your early 20s can shape your entire life of dating and your entire married life in tragic ways. 

And, days filled with too many choices and too many important decisions, and too many differing opinions of what is right and correct and true can crowd out the one thing that matters the most: the will of God. 

Do not underestimate the power that individuals and societies have to make your soil hardened, or rocky, or crowded.

But, also do not underestimate the power of God to place a seed into a rock enclosed tomb, only for the tomb to explode open with new life.  Jesus cannot be held down and the word of his love cannot be blocked forever.

So, even when your soil is the hard soil of the path, or the shallow soil found in the rocks, or the soil that is choked out by thorns, never forget that the savior of the world does not give up on throwing the seed!  He still scatters the seed on the hard soil and the rocky ground and into the thorns.  He does not give up throwing that seed all over the place because maybe, just maybe, that seed will fall into a little puddle of good soil and sprout a beautiful little tree that can grow out of the hardship. 

You see, when I looked just a little further across the rocky cliff side where that little tree had sprung up, I saw a huge tree where God had directed the roots out over the edge of the rocky cliff to find nourishment in some good soil below.  That seed had overcome the rocky soil.  And, God’s word can overcome yours too.  Look up, and like a child in a rainstorm, allow the seed of God’s word to rain down on you.  It is a rain of seed that never lets up.