God’s Gracious Invitation

Brunswick Monogrammist|Public domain

Synopsis: Our mistaken human perception of God as an employer and Creation as a paycheck to be earned causes us to resist God’s blessings, thus rejecting His gracious invitation to partake in the wedding banquet of His Son.

Scripture Reading: Matthew 22: 1-14

Click here to listen to an audio of this sermon.

Imagine that you’re planning a huge graduation party for your son or daughter, so you send out invitations to all your friends and neighbors, and they all send back their RSVPs stating that they would attend.

You spare no expense and put a lot of time and effort into making the party awesome with everything anyone could possibly want: spreads of delicious food, a DJ spinning favorite tunes, and fun games for all ages.

Finally, the time arrives for the party to start, and you wait … and wait … and wait … but no one is showing up. So, you send your son or daughter out to tell people, “Hey! The food is out! The DJ is spinning tunes! The games are ready! Come now!”

You assume the invited guests will say something like, “Oh! The party’s today – like right now? Holy Toledo! I’ll be right there!” But instead, when your son or daughter returns, you hear that they’re saying, “Well … I’m kind of busy right now.”

How would you feel, and what would you do? It’s hard for us to imagine people acting this way, but Jesus teaches us in the Parable of the Wedding Banquet that that’s pretty much how we respond to God’s Gracious invitation.

Our scripture reading for today is situated within Jesus’ response to the elders and the scribes questioning his authority. They questioned his authority because the day before Jesus had entered into Jerusalem peacefully on a donkey, and the crowds welcomed him shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the Name of the Lord!”

Immediately after his entry, Jesus went to the Temple and drove out the merchants and moneychangers who had set up shop to essentially rob worshippers coming to the Temple from distant lands through low currency exchange rates and high prices. He then set up shop himself to teach and heal the people.

The next day, he returned to the Temple to continue his teaching and healing ministry when the chief priests and elders confronted him, asking “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” They were trying to discredit Jesus, but he turned the tables on them – something he was very good at.

First, he turned the questioners into the questioned, agreeing to answer their question only if they would answer his first. Then he struck them between a rock and a hard place with a question about whether the baptism of John had come from God.

The chief priests and elders couldn’t answer his question yes or no without either discrediting themselves or angering the crowd, so they said, “We do not know.” As a result, Jesus refused to answer their question.

He then launched into a series of three parables designed to discredit the chief priests and elders – to expose their lack of divine authority because they were not following Torah Law. Instead of guiding the people toward a closer relationship with God, they were guiding them in the opposite direction.

He began with the Parable of Two Sons, followed by the Parable of the Wicked Tenets. The Parable of the Wedding Banquet is the third in this series of parables.

A king throws a wedding banquet for his son. The two calls are consistent with Middle Eastern tradition. The first call’s purpose is to invite the guests, and the second call’s purpose is to announce that the festivities have begun. This was practical since they didn’t have clocks back then, so it’s not like they could tell everyone to show up at 1 PM.

But when the servants give the second call, we read, the guests “made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business.”

In our Western culture, if no one showed up for your son or daughter’s graduation party, most people will judge your son or daughter. They figure, people must not like him or her for some reason. Maybe he or she is weird – like some nerdy middle school kid who invites everyone in the class to his or her birthday party, but no one shows up. They don’t blame the classmates; they blame the kid for being a nerd.

In Eastern culture, it’s the opposite. Guests are obligated to attend, or they would shame the host. Shame is a big deal in the East, so you’d better not even think about not showing up unless you have a really good reason. The fact that the invited guests in Jesus’ story made light of it, “blew it off” as we would say, would have been appalling to his audience.

Brad H. Young, professor of Biblical Literature in Judeo-Christian Studies at Oral Roberts University, believes Luke’s version of this parable is probably the closest to the actual parable Jesus taught. Matthew adds some things to allude to historical events and to combine several of Jesus’ teachings into one parable.

Remember that all the gospels were written for a specific audience and purpose. Matthew wrote his gospel for the Jews, and his purpose was to show them the error of their ways by proving that Jesus is the Messiah the prophets predicted.

In Matthew’s version of this parable, some of the invited guests mistreated and even killed the servants. Young believes Matthew added this part to allude to the Jews’ mistreatment of the early Christians.

In response to this disrespect, the king refused to be shamed. We read “He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.” Young believes this part was also added by Matthew to allude to the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. – a tragedy Jesus predicts in Mark’s gospel, which is the oldest of the four gospels and used as a source by both Matthew and Luke.

Next, we read the king sent his servants out to invite anyone they find – both the good and the bad – to fill up the wedding hall. This act of charity would place the king in high esteem and shame those who insulted him through their refusal to attend.

But it turns out that a man was there who was not wearing a wedding robe. We read he was thrown out to “the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Young believes that Matthew also added this additional complication to emphasize one of Jesus’ teachings.

In his gospel, Matthew makes it clear that Jesus’ problem with the religious leaders of his day was their ability to put on good outward show, but their hearts were not pure. Many Jews believed they were “entitled” to take their place in the Kingdom of Heaven because of God’s covenant with Abraham.

That’s why they rejected John’s Baptism, and that’s why, in Matthew chapter 3, John the Baptist said to them, “And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.”

In the very next chapter of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus denounces the scribes and Pharisees. In verses 25-26, he says, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean.”

You might be asking, “How is it that we respond in much the same way to God’s gracious invitation? “

Jesus begins the Parable of the Wedding Banquet with the words, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.” We can safely assume the King is God, His Son is the Christ, and we are the invited wedding guests. In fact, we are the betrothed – the ones destined to join with Christ.

Just as a host goes through extensive preparation to ensure that all the guests have everything they could possibly need or want, God created Creation just for us, and He gave us everything we could ever need or want. Everything that we could ever need or want exists within Creation.

In fact, God loves us so much that he made it impossible for us to be separated from this abundance by creating us part of it – part of the whole of Creation. We are made of the same stuff as everything else that God created – everything in existence, so everything that we could ever need or want literally exists within us.

All of Creation is our inheritance as God’s offspring. He gave it to us as a free gift. If this is so, then why do so many struggle to get the bare essentials they need to survive while others have far more than they need?

The clue is in the words, they “went away, one to his farm, another to his business.” We turn down God’s Gracious Invitation because we have learned to see God and His Creation incorrectly. Jesus came to try to correct our misperceptions – to give us a fresh (and truthful) view of ourselves, of God, and of Creation – all of Life.

How are we mistaken in how we see God and Creation? We see God as an employer and Creation as a paycheck to be earned. But God is not an employer, and Creation is not a paycheck because it can’t be earned – it’s a free gift. We can either accept it or reject it, but we can’t earn it.

And that, my friends, is why we often feel so angry around the topic of money. No matter how much we earn, it’s never enough because money is really just a symbol for the abundance of God’s Creation which cannot be earned.  

It is also why we often feel as if we are lacking. Those who are the “have-nots” are afraid they won’t get what they need, and those who are the “haves” are afraid of losing what they have, so they keep striving for more, even at the expense of others.

Because we don’t trust God and are too proud to accept his free gift, we rely totally on ourselves, so we’re far too busy working hard to obtain or maintain what we need or want. We are a culture that values hard work, and I’m German, so trust me, I understand that mindset. But this “need-to-earn” mindset prevents us from accepting our inheritance from God.

In the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke chapter 15, both sons viewed their father like an employer. When the prodigal son returned, he hoped his father would at least take him as a hired hand. Wasn’t he surprised when his father embraced him, forgave him, and took him back in full standing as a son?

The father was so happy that his son returned that he threw a feast, but the older son refused to participate because he was angry. The older son felt that since he served his father his whole life and never left him, he “earned” that feast – not his prodigal brother. The father responds with basically, “What are you talking about, my son? Everything I have is yours. There’s nothing to earn.”

The older son’s anger is our anger. Think about how much people resent those who come into money by inheritance because they didn’t earn it. But what kind of parent would you be if you made your children earn their inheritance, instead of giving it to them freely and equally just because they are your son or daughter, and you love them?

What if you offered your child a huge inheritance, one that would have him or her set for life, and he or she stuck up his or her hand and said, “No thanks! I’d rather work my fingers to the bone until the day I die.” Would that not break your heart?

Do we need to earn the beating of our hearts? Do we need to earn the breathing of our lungs? Do we need to earn the oxygen we breathe? Do we need to even ask God for these blessings? No – they are a free gift, and if these are free gifts, then all of it is a free gift. All of it.

Of course, human perception sees things differently – just as in our human perception, we believed that we are just this personal self and nothing more. This was necessary for a time for our learning, but that time is over. We know better now, and we don’t need to buy into that misperception any longer.

The same is true of this one – this misperception of God as an employer and Creation as a paycheck to be earned. Obviously, we can’t walk into a store, grab something off the shelf, and walk out without paying for it because it’s a free gift of God’s Creation! We still have to live within the systems and institutions that were created by humans who didn’t know who they are, who God is, and their unity with All That Is.

But we know, so while we must operate within these systems and institutions of earning, we don’t have to agree that they represent reality. Reality is that God is our loving Father and Creation is a free gift.

If we don’t believe this, then it’s like we’re throwing logs into the stream of God’s blessings and creating log jams. We also can’t view God like a genie in a bottle, who, if we rub the right way, must give us what we ask because he promised in his covenant with us.

That’s just another way of seeing God outside of ourselves and another way of trying to “earn” his blessings. That’s no different from the scribes and elders saying, “We don’t need John’s baptism because we are descendants from Abraham.” With that attitude, we may be at the banquet looking for some blessings, but we’re not wearing wedding robes.

When we are united with Christ, our will and God’s Will become one, so whatever we ask will be granted. And there is no one on the face of this earth who has the power to remove God from his throne or your authority in Christ, not even the President of the United States, whoever it ends up being.

 So, my friends, how do we accept God’s Gracious invitation to join the wedding banquet of His Son? We ask God for what we need or want with full faith that it will be granted. Because if it is God’s Will to grant our request, nothing will stop what we asked for from coming to us expect our own resistance – our own belief that we must somehow “earn it.”

Then, we be on the lookout for the arrival of our request. We might be given some brilliant idea, or a messenger might come along with some helpful information, or an opportunity might present itself that will move us in the right direction, or someone might just come along and give us exactly what we needed or wanted at the perfect time.

Finally, we must be grateful – grateful for everything we have been given because if we are grateful, God will bring more and more things into our life to be grateful for, and that’s when we know we’ve accepted his gracious invitation: when the banquet becomes our reality.

Let’s pray together: Lord, we accept who we are in Christ and God’s gracious invitation to receive his blessings. We are willing to become aware of old patterns of resistance that prevent us from receiving God’s blessings so that we, wearing the robes of Christ, may joyfully and gratefully participate in the glorious banquet of Creation that God has lovingly given us as our inheritance. AMEN.

Resources

Young, Brad H. The Parables (p. 171-188). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Who Has Divine Authority?

James Tissot / Public domain

Synopsis: The CDC has the authority to guide us appropriately in how to survive the current pandemic, but most of us want more out of life than just survival. We want to really live. Who has the authority to give us the guidance we need to not just survive, but to thrive?

Scripture Reading: Matthew 21:23-32

Click here to listen to an audio of this sermon.

Today’s scripture reading brings up the question of authority. We turn to authorities to give us guidance about what to do when faced with certain challenges. We trust that they are well-educated and sincere enough to guide us appropriately.

Today, we’re dealing with the coronavirus and COVID-19, and most recognize the authority of the CDC to give us appropriate guidance as to what to do to stay healthy. We here at Saint Paul’s recognize the authority of the CDC, which is why we have made a lot of changes in how we worship together.

We follow the CDC’s guidance in the hopes that we will survive this pandemic. Survival is good, but I think most of us want more out of life than just survival. We want to really live. We want to thrive. Who has the authority to guide us in how to thrive – even in tough times like these?

That’s the question Jesus answers in this passage. First, let’s look at the context and the parable within it. As Pastor Edward F. Markquart so aptly states, the context enhances the beauty of Jesus’ parables like the setting enhances the beauty of a diamond.

This incident took place after Jesus’ triumphant entry into the City of Jerusalem, where the final scenes of his earthly life would take place.

After entering into the city on a donkey to symbolize his coming in peace, he immediately cleansed the Temple for the second time. As he drove out the merchants and overturned the tables of the moneychangers, he said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.”

What did he mean by that? Well, moneychangers and merchants were setting up shop in the Temple and taking advantage of travelers coming into Jerusalem. Since many traveled long distances, they couldn’t bring sacrificial animals with them, so they purchased them at the Temple.

Their currency had to be converted to Temple currency first. The conversions were low, and the prices for the sacrificial animals were high. In this way, travelers coming to the Temple to worship God were being robbed in God’s own house.

Jesus had a serious problem with that.

After cleansing the Temple of those who were selfishly taking advantage of people, Jesus set up shop to do the opposite: to serve people by teaching and healing them. At the end of the day, he would leave Jerusalem and spend the night in the city of Bethany at the home of his friends Lazarus, Mary, and Martha.

The next morning, he was on his way back to Jerusalem to continue his ministry at the Temple, and he was hungry. He saw a fig tree but found no fruit on it, so he cursed it saying, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” It immediately withered. The disciples were amazed. Jesus then commented about the power of faith to move mountains.

Jesus often used parables illustrate his points. The fig tree was like an acted-out parable to make two points. The first point was stated: God can do anything they ask in prayer with faith as long as what they ask is aligned with His Will.

The second point was unstated and sets the scene for today’s scripture reading quite nicely. To Jesus, the fruitless fig tree represented the Jewish religious leaders of his day. Just as a fig tree’s purpose is grow figs, or to bear fruit, the religious leader’s purpose is to bear spiritual fruit and cultivate it in others.

The fig tree looked good at first glance, but upon closer inspection, Jesus discovered it lacked fruit just as the religious leaders of his day put on a good show, but they did not bear spiritual fruit.

The Jewish people put their trust in their religious leaders to guide them in how to thrive – in how to live to their lives in communion with God.

Instead of guiding the people appropriately, they forced them to follow complicated “traditions of the elders” while they themselves didn’t follow these traditions. They also ignored Mosaic Law when it was inconvenient.

Jesus had a serious problem with that.

It’s important to realize that Jesus didn’t have a problem with Judaism; he was defending Judaism – traditional Judaism – from those who were changing it beyond recognition or ignoring it and thus leading the people astray.

That brings us to our scripture reading for today. Jesus returns to the temple to minister to the people. While he is there, the chief priests and elders ask him, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” They were probably referring to when Jesus drove out the merchants and overturned the tables of the moneychangers the day before.

Jesus knows that they aren’t interested in knowing the truth; they just want to trap him in order to discredit him among the people. So, he turns the questioners into the questioned. He agrees to answer their question only if they can first answer his question as to whether the baptism of John was of divine or human origin.

If they answer that John was sent by God, then they would have to acknowledge that Jesus was also sent by God since John testified on Jesus’ behalf. But if they answer that the baptism of John was of human origin, they will anger the crowd since many strongly believe that John the Baptist was a prophet.

Since they couldn’t answer his question, Jesus refuses to answer their question. He avoided their trap by trapping them. Instead of being discredited, he discredits them not only by stumping them but also by using parables to illustrate their failure to perform their duties as religious leaders.

If you are a parent, the point Jesus is making with the Parable of the Two Sons is probably obvious. Let’s say you have two sons, and you tell both of them to clean their room. The older one says, “Sure, no problem!” But the younger son says, “No! I’m not going to do it!”

Later on, the older one’s best friend says to him, “Come to my house! I just bought this cool new video game!” And he says, “Sure! I got nothing better to do!” So, his room never gets cleaned. The younger one’s friends say to him, “We’re going to the park to play some football. Come with us!” He’s tempted, but then he thinks about his parents and his messy room. So, he says, “Nah, I can’t. I gotta clean my room.” Then, he goes and cleans his room.

So … who did what they were told? It’s obvious right? The older son was just putting on a show of obedience but wasn’t really obedient at all. And even though the younger son at first refused to do what his parents asked, he eventually came to his senses and did it.

That’s why Jesus told the chief priests and elders that the tax collectors and prostitutes are going to Heaven ahead of them. At least the tax collectors and prostitutes recognized the righteousness of John and accepted his baptism.

Many of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day were appointed by the Romans. They thought that gave them divine authority. It didn’t. I have an ordination certificate, but that doesn’t give me divine authority either.

Who has divine authority? Who has the authority to guide us in how to thrive? In how to live in unity with God and All That Is? The one who obeys God by acting out His Will so perfectly that he is literally an extension of the Divine. The one who has not only accepted the Christ as his or her true identity, but who is also living in physical form as the Christ.

The Christ within the man Jesus has divine authority, and Jesus successfully portrayed the Christ in physical form during his lifetime. He lived out of the unity in which we all exist. That, my friends, is why he was the most influential person in the history of humankind.

All of us have just as much divine authority as Jesus had because all of us have the same Christ within us as he had within him. I have accepted this, and I think all of you have accepted this. We have accepted that there is so much more to us than our personal self. Infinitely more.

So, the challenge at this point isn’t accepting who we really are. The challenge is overcoming those old patterns of living within the illusion of separation – not only personal patterns but societal patterns.

I’m sure we all still feel the momentum of those patterns within us, pushing us in directions we’d rather not go, but we don’t have to go there because we are stepping into a new way of being.

Recognizing that is half the battle.

You probably aren’t too sure about how to live from the unity of the Christ within. Neither am I. I think the first thing we need to recognize is the fact that our personal self really has no clue. Its purpose is to provide us with the experience of separation, so we can’t expect it to know anything about unity.

So how do we learn unity? We don’t. The Christ doesn’t need to learn unity because the Christ is unity. We needed personal selves to experience what separation was like so that we could fully appreciate unity – to experience it with full awareness. Now that we have accepted who we are, there is nothing more to learn. All that’s left is to experience the Oneness of Christ with full awareness.

My friends, we have graduated. It is now time to put on the robes of the Christ, be the living Christ in physical form, and get to work. Lord knows, there’s a lot of work to do. And I believe that is why our souls have chosen to be here at this time.

But the question remains: how do we overcome those old illusion of separation patterns that keep pulling us back into the attitudes and behaviors of our old identity so that we can experience the mystery of the oneness that we truly are?

I have some ideas about that, and you will know whether what I have to say has divine authority by how it feels within your heart.

If we exist in unity, then there is an infinite supply of assistance available to us if only our personal self would relax and stop meddling. So, the first pattern to overcome is the feeling that we’re “on our own,” and we need to exert a lot of effort to survive – to get what we need – to solve our problems.

Jesus was speaking as the Christ when he said in Matthew 11: 28-30, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 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. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

We are not alone. We don’t have to do this ourselves. We are part of an interconnected web of life, and the purpose of this web is not to just to help us survive but to help us to really live – to thrive.

There’s a lot going on in this world right now that is disturbing to say the least. So, if we get that sinking feeling that says, “I’m on my own. I’ve got to figure this out myself. No one can help me,” we can recognize that as the old illusion of separation mindset and let it go. Don’t believe it. We know better now. We can tell the personal self, “Relax! The Christ has this.”

The second pattern to overcome is the fearful overthinking and overreacting of the personal self – which is of course fueled by that “we’re on our own” feeling.

There are a lot of unknowns stressing everyone out right now, so many are struggling to figure out how they are going to survive the challenges that might lie ahead. The personal self does not like the unknown, so it tries to find solutions before it completely understands the situation and before all the options present themselves.

How many times have we made a choice out of fear, only to find later on that what we feared wasn’t nearly as bad as we imagined or didn’t happen at all?

How many times have we made a choice out of fear that if we had waited, we could have taken advantage of a far better option?

How many times have we had a problem where we just had to throw up our hands in defeat, but then later on, the perfect solution presented itself?

We need to withdraw our trust in the personal self and place it where it belongs. The personal self is driven by fear, which often complicates our lives and creates more problems. We need to place our trust in the Christ within. The Christ has all the answers and everything we need.

Jesus said in Matthew 6:25-27, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?”

If we have a problem or need to make a decision, we need to direct our energy out of the realm of the personal self (the head) and into the realm of the Christ (the heart). We need to become quiet and still and wait for a solution comes to us.

We’ll know that solution comes from the Christ if it gives us comfort and peace.

The final pattern to overcome is the habit of passing judgment on ourselves, on others, and on what’s going on in the world. Since we exist in unity, if we judge or condemn anyone or anything, we are judging and condemning ourselves.

Life is perfect just the way it is, but there is always room for improvement! I know, it’s hard for us to wrap our heads around that. How can something perfect be improved upon? But that’s how God created Life. Think about it. Life can’t be stagnant. The book of Genesis tells us that Creation began with the movement of Spirit over the waters of the formless, empty earth.

So, if you, or someone, or something is this or that way now, you, or that person, or that situation will not stay that way forever. You are the way you are, that person is the way he or she is, and things are the way they are for a perfect reason until it’s time to move into something new.

If we recognize judgment coming into our minds and filling our hearts with anger or despair, we can let it go as part of the old patterns of our old identity. There’s a whole lot of judgment going around – especially in the media – so we can choose to limit our consumption of all of that. We don’t need it.

We can put away old distractions because nothing matters now except that we are fulfilling our purpose as the Christ. That is why God created us and why we are here. That is the only endeavor that will give our life true meaning and the love, peace and joy that is our divine inheritance.

There are people today “setting up shop” to take advantage of others in this challenging time. We can follow Jesus’ example and do the opposite. We can “set up shop” in whatever ways the Christ within tells us to serve the people.

When we’re doing what give us joy, doing what give us peace, doing what makes the love flow from our heart, and then we’ll know we’re fulfilling our role as the Christ.

Be open to the mystery of the experience of oneness. Don’t grasp for it with the mind, just open your heart to it. Be willing for the Christ to extend through you. This is how you will get to know yourself – your True Self.

You might just be amazed at the revelations you will receive, the gifts and talents you will discover, and the bottomless well of peace, love, and joy accessible to you even in these tough times.

Let’s pray together: Lord, we accept who we are, and we are ready to step into our Divine authority as the Christ. We open our hearts to the mystery of the oneness that we are, and we are ready to receive guidance, revelations, and gifts from our True Self. Amen.

Resources
-Lewis, Karoline. “True Authority.” workingpreacher.org, 24 Sept. 2017.
Life Application Study Bible: NIV. Ron Beers, ed. Zondervan, 2012.
-Markquart, Edward F. “Two Sons: Yesses That Don’t Mean a Darn Thing.” sermonsfromseattle.com.
-Saunders, Stanley. “Commentary on Matthew 21:23-32.” workingpreacher.org, 01 Oct. 2017.

Limitless Forgiveness

Gemäldegalerie / Public domain

Synopsis: Jesus’ teachings about forgiveness are our favorite ones to ignore. Jesus uses the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant to illustrate quite straightforwardly why we can’t afford to ignore it.

Scripture Reading: Matthew 18:21-35

Click here to listen to an audio recording of this sermon.

Peace be with you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

How many of us have to admit – if we were completely honest with ourselves – that we find it difficult to forgive? You are not alone. I have a confession to make. I found it difficult to forgive my father. I resented him for many years.

When I was 5 years old, my mother became seriously ill and spent months in isolation in the hospital several times over a few years. Needless to say, it was tough time for me. I had lost contact with my mother, and I needed a lot of emotional support.

That’s not what I got. I felt my father was emotionally distant and at times, unreasonably harsh. He had zero tolerance for me and my 2 brothers’ sibling rivalries and shenanigans, and each time he was too harsh was another strike against him in my mind and fuel for the growing bitterness in my heart.

So as much as we like to say, “Good for that unforgiving servant! He got what he deserved!” We can all relate to him. And Jesus said, “That is how my Father in heaven will treat every one of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.” Every one of you – no exceptions. This teaching is one of our favorite ones to ignore, but Jesus makes it very clear that we can’t afford to ignore it.

Jesus told parables to illustrate his teachings – often in response to questions posed to him. That’s the case with this parable. Peter asked him a question about how many times he should forgive his brother who sins against him. He suggested seven times.

Peter probably felt he was being quite generous to forgive his brother seven times – and indeed he was. The religious leaders of his day suggested only 3 times – “3 strikes, you’re out!” But instead of praise, Peter hears Jesus say, “No … seventy-seven times (or seventy times seven).”

Now, people try to dive into the spiritual significance of seven-seven times or 490 times, but I think that just complicates Jesus’ simple point that there’s no limit to the number of times we should forgive.

That takes us to the parable. I think this parable answers the question, “What does God’s forgiveness look like in the context of human relationships?” Human relationships are not perfect, so both Judaism and Christianity emphasize mercy and compassion toward one another. If we want a good relationship with God, we must have good relationships with others, who are created in God’s image.

Jesus tells us that this servant owed the king a total of 10,000 talents. In order to fully get his point, we need to translate these figures into today’s terms. So, I did some research and some math.

Ready to do some math?

How much is 10,000 talents worth today? Well, the average hourly wage in Pennsylvania is $17 per hour. If you work 40 hours a week, that’s $680. If you work 52 weeks a year, that’s $35,360 annually. Multiply that by 20, and you have $707,200. That’s 20 years’ worth of wages. That’s about what one talent would be worth today. But this servant owed 10,000 talents, so that would be 7 billion 72 million dollars ($7, 072,000,000).

Knowing the ridiculous amount of money that was, you can imagine Jesus’ listeners snickering when he said, “and as he could not pay ….” Yeah right? He probably owed more than the Jewish national debt! That’s more money than his listeners could even imagine! There’s no way the servant would ever be able to earn such a huge sum even if he worked 24 hours a day 7 days a week until the day he died.

Why did Jesus use such a ridiculous sum of money? Jesus introduces the parable with these words:
“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves.” In the parable, the king symbolizes God, and while we don’t like to think of ourselves as slaves these days, this situation was a common one that 2nd-century Jews could relate to.

God created us and gave us everything in His Creation to enjoy. God gave us our very existence and everything we need to live. If we were to put a price tag on that, what would it be?

If God called upon us to pay off the enormous debt we owe for our existence and sustenance, we’d be in big trouble. Jesus says, “His lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made.” Again, this was a situation 2nd-century Jews could relate to. Slavery was commonly used to pay off debts.

What would we do in that situation? Probably do the same thing the servant did – fall on our knees and beg for mercy – and just as the king forgave the servant his huge debt, God forgives us our huge debt. Jesus’ use of a ridiculous sum of money effectively illustrates both our enormous debt to God and God’s limitless forgiveness.

Unfortunately, instead of being grateful for the abundant mercy shown to him, this servant goes out and finds another servant who owed him a hundred denarii. How much is that in today’s world? Well, by today’s numbers, the silver contained in a denarius is worth about $3.62. So, his fellow servant owed him about $362.

This amount of money is an infinitesimally small fraction of what he owed the king. I did the math. It’s literally .000005% or 5 millionths of a percent of what he owed the king.

His fellow servant did what he did when the king ordered him and his family to be sold: he got down on his knees and begged for mercy. But the servant couldn’t even forgive an infinitesimally small debt in comparison to the debt he was forgiven. It’s disgusts us, doesn’t it? Yes, but we are often just like him.

Jesus tells us that the king hears word of his servant’s lack of mercy toward his fellow servant, calls him to stand before him, and sentences him to be tortured until he pays off his entire debt. Since we know there’s no way he would ever be able to pay, that’s basically a life of unrelenting torment. 

Jesus came to correct people’s mistaken idea of God as wrathful and vengeful, so why does it seem as if he goes against his purpose here?

I don’t believe that God punishes us, but God did set-up Creation in such a way that we could learn from our interactions within it. He created the Law of Cause and Effect.

If you have children, then you know that if you keep rescuing your children from the consequences of their actions, they never learn. Your refusal to rescue them from the consequences of their actions is not an act of wrath or vengeance on your part, right? It’s an act of love. We call it “tough love.”

I think that’s what Jesus is implying here. The servant will have to face the consequences for his lack of mercy and compassion. This servant who in his bitterness inflicted suffering on his fellow servant to punish him for a small debt ended up punishing himself.

The main consequence of unforgiveness is separation from God. While we can’t literally be separate from God and continue to exist, we can shut off communion with God, and that’s what bitterness does. God can’t dwell in a heart where there is bitterness because God is love.

Every single human being – everything that lives – is part of God and is unconditionally loved by God. The life that animates every living thing comes from God and is exactly the same within each form just as light is exactly the same though it shines through many different lamps. The content is the same.

If we choose to not love any part of this unity in which we were created, we choose to banish ourselves – to put ourselves in prison – to torture ourselves.

We also separate ourselves from God because the present can’t dwell in the past. God is presence. God is here and now. To God, the only reality is the present moment. The past is only a memory of a former present moment, so God isn’t there.

We humans didn’t have a problem with forgiveness until our brains developed the ability to remember. If we didn’t have a memory, we wouldn’t remember the wrongs people have done.

Memory has served us humans well. It has been useful to us for learning, but when it comes to forgiveness it hasn’t been as useful. Unless – we remember mercy and compassion shown to us and extend it to others.

Unfortunately, our brain evolved with a negativity bias. We quickly forget the good things people do for us, but we never forget the bad things. The king’s servant quickly forgot the mercy and compassion shown to him the moment he laid his eyes on his fellow servant who owed him money.

At a certain point in my life, the iceberg of bitterness in my heart for my father started to melt. It began to melt when a therapist asked me, “So, what was good about your childhood? It wasn’t all bad, was it?”

At first, I was indignant. “Yes, it was!” But then, in spite of myself, I started remembering the good things that happened in my childhood and the good times I had with my father. She was right. My childhood wasn’t all that bad, and neither was my father.

What helped the most to dissolve the iceberg was to actually sit down and talk to my father about those memories and the bitterness I felt. After my father was diagnosed with cancer, I started taking him to doctor’s appointment. I had just taken him to get the test to find out the stage of his cancer, and we stopped for lunch.

I talked about how hard it was for me when mom was sick, and he talked about how hard it was for him when mom was sick – and that he made a lot of mistakes with us kids. I was able to understand that my father did the best he could during that time, and while he wasn’t the perfect dad, we all survived, and we all suffered emotional wounds, including my father.

Holding onto bitterness also keeps us stuck in disempowering roles. The more we see ourselves as a victim, the more we call to ourselves experiences to prove it. We don’t like being wrong. As long as I saw myself as a victim, I experienced victimization. Once I forgave my father, I stopped experiencing that.

Holding onto bitterness keeps the other stuck in the role of perpetrator. If we fail to forgive someone who lies to us, then we keep treating them like a liar. If we keep treating them like a liar, chances are they are going to continue lying – because that’s what liars do.

This might explain why we have problems with crime in American society. Our criminal justice system is very unforgiving. We label people “criminals,” treat them that way long after they’ve paid their debt to society, and then wonder why they keep committing crimes.

People resist forgiveness because they want to “hold the person accountable.” There’s no such thing as holding a person accountable. Accountability comes from inside the person who did wrong. They take responsibility. They hold themselves accountable. It doesn’t come from the outside.

What we call “holding the personal accountable” is often inflicting some form of punishment. Unfortunately, punishment doesn’t help people learn to hold themselves accountable.

It forces them to focus more on their own pain instead of the pain experienced by the person they harmed, which makes them more self-centered and less compassionate. It also doesn’t help them work through the emotions that led to the wrongdoing in the first place, so those emotions will probably cause the same behavior again.

But most of all, punishment takes away people’s internal locus of control because they expect authority figures to teach them what is right and wrong though punishment. Any behavior that doesn’t lead to punishment must be OK.

When we forgive, we release both ourselves and the other from the prison of the past so that we can create ourselves anew and become all God intended for us to become. There’s tremendous power in reconciled human relationships, and we could see it if we’d only give forgiveness a chance.

I’d like to conclude with a story from my Sower’s Seeds book. This one is called “Loving Your Enemies.”

Abraham Lincoln tried to love, and he left for all history a magnificent drama of reconciliation. When we was campaigning for the presidency, one of his arch-enemies was a man named Edwin McMasters Stanton.

For some reason, Stanton hated Lincoln. He used every ounce of his energy to degrade Lincoln in the eyes of the public. So deep-rooted was Stanton’s hate for Lincoln that he uttered unkind words about this physical appearance, and sought to embarrass him at every point with the bitterest diatribes. But in spite of this, Lincoln was elected the sixteenth president of the United States of America.

Then came the period when Lincoln had to select his cabinet, which would consist of the persons who would be his most intimate associates in implementing his programs. He started choosing men here and there for the various positions.

The day finally came for Lincoln to select the all-important post of Secretary of War. Can you imagine whom Lincoln chose to fill this post? None other than the man named Stanton. There was an immediate uproar in the president’s inner circle when the news began to spread. Advisor after advisor was heard saying, “Mr. President, you are making a mistake. Do you know this man Stanton? Are you familiar with all the ugly things he said about you? He is your enemy. He will seek to sabotage your programs. Have you thought this through Mr. President?”

Mr. Lincoln’s answer was terse and to the point: “Yes, I know Mr. Stanton. I am aware of the terrible things he has said about me. But after looking over the nation, I find he is the best man for the job.” So Stanton became Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of War and rendered an invaluable service to his nation and his president.

Not many years later, Lincoln was assassinated. Many laudable things were said about him. But of all the great statements made about Abraham Lincoln, the words of Stanton remain among the greatest. Stanton referred to him as one of the greatest men who ever lived and said, “He now belongs to the ages.”

If Lincoln had hated Stanton, both men would have gone to their graves as bitter enemies. But through the power of love, Lincoln transformed an enemy into a friend. That is the power of redemptive love.

Let’s pray together: Lord, we acknowledge the tremendous debt we owe God for all that we have been given. When we have been wronged, help us to remember God’s limitless forgiveness of all our debts and our loving unity with all of Creation so that we can extend mercy to our debtors.  Amen.

Resources:

Markham, Laura. “Why Punishment Doesn’t Teach Your Child Accountability.” psychologytoday.com, 6 May 2014.

Pokorny, Honza. “He Forgave How Much?” Honza.ca 22 Jan. 2019.

The History of Currency: What is a Denarius Worth?smallvizviewpoints.com, 4 Apr. 2017.

Young, Brad H. The Parables (p. 119-129). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

This Road to Emmaus

Fritz von Uhde / Public domain

Synopsis: When Jesus was crucified, his followers couldn’t imagine how such an awful event led to their salvation. What if this pandemic is another “awful event” that somehow becomes powerfully redemptive?

Scripture Reading: Luke 24: 13-35

Click here to watch a YouTube video of this sermon.

Why is life so hard?

That was probably the question on the minds of those two men walking that long seven-mile road from Jerusalem to Emmaus. We don’t know much about who they were except that the name of one of them was Cleopas.

While they were walking along, they discussed the events that had taken place in Jerusalem concerning Jesus’ crucifixion. Suddenly, Jesus walks up to them and begins traveling with them – but “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” Jesus asks them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?’”

Imagine what would happen in today’s society if someone walking down the street caught up to two strangers having a conversation and said, “Hey guys! What are you two talking about?” That person would probably be considered rude and be told, “Get out of here! Mind your own business!”

But back in Jesus’ time, it was common for a group of travelers to allow a single traveler to join them since traveling long roads alone was not a safe thing to do.

It’s also interesting to note that “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” This phenomenon, where Jesus appears to be able to disguise and then reveal himself, took place more than once after Jesus’ resurrection. In John’s gospel, he disguised himself as a gardener before revealing himself to Mary Magdalene, and Mark’s gospel reports that he appeared to these two travelers “in another form.”

We might ask, “How is it possible to meet the Lord and not know it?” In Matthew 18:20, Jesus tells us that whenever two or more gather in His name, He is there, too. When he said this, he didn’t mean that he would be there in his physical nature – as Jesus of Nazareth. It would indeed be impossible for him to be physically in the midst of everyone, all around the world, who are gathered together in His name.

He meant that he would be there in his true spiritual nature – as the Christ.

Their eyes were kept from recognizing him because our physical eyes can’t perceive Spirit. In fact, our eyes perceive little of God’s vast, infinite Creation. But because we have been taught to believe only what we can see with our eyeballs, we are “blind” to Christ’s presence within every human being – not realizing that He not only dwells within us but also walks beside us.

In response to Jesus’ question, Cleopas basically says to this “stranger,” “Where have you been the past three days, man? Haven’t you heard the awful news?” Now, Cleopas doesn’t use the word “awful,” but I’m sure Our Resurrected Lord read the despair written all over their mopey faces. So, he asks, “What things?” As far as he was concerned, there wasn’t anything to be depressed about.

Cleopas proceeds to inform him about a prophet mighty in word and deed, whom the people hoped might be the one to redeem Israel, was handed over to be crucified by their own chief priests and leaders. While they had heard some reports that he might still be alive, they didn’t know for sure since they haven’t seen him alive for themselves.

Cleopas’ news report reveals two things about him and his fellow traveler. First, we know Cleopas was not one of the twelve disciples, so the two of them were probably among the many followers of Jesus. They hung around Jerusalem long enough to hear the reports of his empty tomb, but since they didn’t actually see him alive, they hightailed it out of there because followers of Jesus were being arrested.

Second, they obviously understood Jesus as a kind of superhero Messiah who would liberate them from the Romans. We can’t blame them. Many people – even some of Jesus’ closest followers – held this idea about him. If Jesus was this kind of Messiah, then his mission was a total failure, and their depression was justified.

How different are we from them? How many of us had grand hopes and dreams for the future only to have them seemingly dashed by this pandemic? How many of us have felt as if the Lord is truly dead? “Where are you, Lord? Why is this happening? Why aren’t you here?”

Jesus says to the two men on the road to Emmaus, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah wshould suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then he began to teach them the scriptures, especially the parts that describe the Messiah as a suffering servant.

“Foolish” is the Greek word (ah-NO-Ee-tos), which literally means, “without understanding,” but it also carries a sense of blame in a moral as well as an intellectual sense. The use of this word suggests that their condition was a result of their own indifference and self-reliance.

Didn’t these followers hear anything Jesus taught them? Yes – they heard and probably understood at least on some level. While most of Jesus’ followers were not educated men like the Pharisees and Scribes who studied the scriptures, they had teachers, like Jesus, to teach them the scriptures and how to apply it to their lives.

So, the problem wasn’t as much a lack of understanding as an unwillingness to put Jesus’ teachings into practice. What most of his followers wanted to hear coming out of the mouth of their Messiah was his endorsement of their traditions and their nationalistic goals. Since most of what Jesus taught wasn’t about that at all, how many of his teachings went in one ear and out the other?

How different are we from them? How many of us Christians today don’t want to hear what Jesus taught about equality – that everyone is equally loved by God – that everyone deserves peace, happiness, and prosperity in equal measure.

That’s what Jesus taught, and it’s not difficult to understand, but not-so-easy to live by. Yet that’s the only way we’ll ever “get” the value of his teachings– by putting them into practice and experiencing for ourselves how much better life is.

Are we allowing Jesus’ teachings to change our minds, hearts, faces, conversations, and actions? When life doesn’t go the way we think it should, and the Lord draws near to help us to see things differently, do we listen to Him, or do we tell Him, “Get out of here! Mind your own business!”

Our two travelers didn’t say that. They listened intently to this “stranger.” How often do we receive messages from the Lord through strangers? When we are depressed about the events of our lives, how often do strangers help us to see things differently, broadening our perspective beyond our little selves, and lifting our spirits?

When our travelers finally came near the village, they urged the stranger to stay with them, so he stayed. This tells us a couple of things about the Lord. First, he will not enter our lives uninvited. In Greek, the word Emmaus means “medicinal springs,” so there must have been healing springs there. Unless we invite the Lord into our lives, there can be healing – no relief from our suffering.

The second thing this verse tell us about the Lord is that it doesn’t take much convincing to get him to stay with us. All we have to do is invite him. Because he loves us, he wants to heal us. He wants to help us understand Life – so that we can live out of the love, peace, and joy that is our natural state of being.

While these two men were walking down the Emmaus road, talking with the Lord, at some point, their hearts opened, and they embraced a broader perspective about what had happened in Jerusalem – one that replaced their short-sighted, nationalistic vision with something far more magnificent: a vision of the promise of eternal life in a world ruled by Love.

Through this time of communion with the Lord, they were healed. They were finally able to understand how those “awful events” in Jerusalem actually accomplished their salvation.

That road to Emmaus was the time of the first coming of Christ. This road to Emmaus is the time of the second coming of Christ. I know, this is definitely not how we envisioned the second coming Christ to happen – much like Cleopas and his companion didn’t expect their Messiah to end up crucified.

Jesus taught us who we are long ago – that Christ is literally within us and walking beside us. Now is the time to be it – to be the extension of God’s Love we were created to be – to witness the return of Christ within ourselves and others.

How can we do that?

First, we need to trust God. If we honestly believe that God is good and that God is all-powerful, then we must believe that God can use this pandemic for the good of all. Yes, it’s difficult to believe that when we see so much suffering. We understand the ways of the world quite well, but the ways of Spirit – not so much. But just as in Christ’s first coming, what we see as an awful worldly event can turn out to be a powerfully liberating spiritual event.

We can trust that while we might not get everything we want, we’ll get everything we need. In Jeremiah 17:7-8, we read, “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.”

This pandemic is like the year of drought. In ancient times, a drought was a disaster because people relied heavily upon agriculture for survival. In our times, a pandemic is a disaster because we rely heavily on commerce. But the truth is that in all times, we can rely only on God to provide for our needs. If we do, we’re like that tree planted by water – by the living water. Without fear, we are free to extend love.

We need to stop judging others. We all know that Jesus taught us not to judge one another. Yes, that teaching is one of our favorite ones to ignore – to let go in one ear and out the other. It seems it’s our favorite thing to do – especially these days.

I am an Easton Ambassador, and one of my jobs is to greet people coming to the outdoor farmers’ market in Scott Park. This is the first year in the market’s 268-year history that the outdoor market hasn’t been in Center Square. Scott Park is a larger space, which makes it easier to social distance.

One of the rules to enter the market is that a mask covering the nose and mouth must be worn. Most people comply, but every week a handful of people walk right by me without a mask, ignoring my pleas to stop. One man does it this every week, with a very defiant attitude.

We report people we are keeping an eye on by entering them into our work phones as “people of interest.” So, I entered this man as a person of interest. I didn’t know his name, so I called him the “unknown unmasked man.”

That got me thinking about something ironic: Now, it’s the unmasked who are the villains. It’s always been the masked ones we’ve judged as no good – even at the beginning of this pandemic, when the CDC told us not to wear masks because there was a shortage, and they needed to be available for healthcare workers. Then the masked were shamed. Now, it’s the unmasked.

But then some of the unmasked are fighting back and shaming the masked. One day while I was working on the streets of Easton, I received a sermon. I received a sermon from a guy who chastised me for wearing a mask like it was some kind of sacrilege. “Think about what you’re doing! There’s nothing wrong with God’s air; breathe God’s air!”

It’s crazy! You see, that’s just how much truth our judgements have. They are based only on our own ideas, not on reality. They can shift at the blink of an eye. Today’s hero can become tomorrow’s villain.

Psychologist Tara Brach talks about how our judgements create “unreal others.” This tendency to create unreal others is strong especially when we’re under stress because we just can’t deal with these people when we have so much else to deal with. It’s easier to just write them off – to consider them a hopeless case.

When we judge people, we close-off our hearts to them. They become inhuman, like machines, without thoughts and feelings, desires and dreams. But in truth they are exactly like us, doing what they think is right, feeling the pain of this pandemic, having desires and dreams that appear to be forever thwarted.

Those wearing masks may be feeling more acutely the pain of fear for their own health or the health of loved ones. Those not wearing masks may be feeling more deeply the pain of economic stress and social isolation. Our circumstances may be different, but we are one with the pain.

One way to make a person real to us again is to ask a simple question: “I wonder what it’s like to be them?” Since my spouse’s immune system is compromised, I wear a mask, but I also wear a mask to protect other people’s loved ones because they are just as important to them as mine are to me.

But what if my situation were different? What if the virus itself wasn’t such a threat, yet I’ve lost not only my job, but also my rich social life? How frustrated might I feel? Might I choose not to wear a mask to express my frustration and my wish for this pandemic to just go away so I can get back to my life?

Finally, we need to be One. That’s why the judgments have to go. Judgements drive a wedge between us, creating the illusion of separation. God didn’t create us to be fiercely independent; God created us to be in relationship – with Him, with one another, and with all of Creation for all eternity.

If that is the truth of our existence, if we are in this eternal relationship, then imagine how much better Life would be if we choose to value every part of it? That’s what Unconditional Love is all about – valuing something just because it exists – just because it is alive – and sharing this life with us.

When we finally decide to be the Unity we are in Christ, there’s no challenge on face of the Earth, including this pandemic and the many other challenges that face us today, that can’t be overcome with Unconditional Love – the most powerful force in the Universe.

What a great opportunity this is to choose to be One. For the first time in a long time, the entire planet has the same enemy, one we will never defeat unless humanity joins together as One – until every single human being values the life of every other human being, and not only other human beings, but every other form of Life on this planet.

This isn’t a choice that can be made for us by some worldly hero or cosmic avenger. In the past, we relied on our leaders to make these choices – to create laws and policies and institutions to take care of people – to do the right thing for the good of all. That hasn’t worked out very well.

And that’s why the people are now taking the cause of Jesus into their own hands and putting his teachings into practice. Can you see it? People are reaching out for unity all around us. Some are reaching out by fighting against racial injustice or environmental threats. Others are reaching out by simply offering to help others in need in whatever ways they can.

So, I invite you to witness the return of Christ within yourself and others through these expressions of Love. Look for love and respond with love – especially if someone is behaving badly because God values them too.

This road to Emmaus is a challenging journey, but the Lord is not dead. He’s walking beside us.

Let’s pray together: Lord, when we experience hardships in life, we invite you to walk with us as we struggle to understand our experiences. We are willing to open our hearts, listen to you, and invite you into our lives so that through a new perspective, we can reach Emmaus and be healed. Amen.

RESOURCES

Brach, Tara. Radical Compassion: LEARNING to LOVE YOURSELF and YOUR WORLD with the PRACTICE of RAIN. Kindle Ed. Viking Life, 2019.

Courageously Stepping Out into Uncertainty

Ivan Aivazovsky / Public domain

Synopsis: We are living in uncertain times as we move through this pandemic storm. We don’t know what the future holds. How can the stories of Jesus calming the storm and walking on water help us face the unknown with courage and step out into uncertainty with faith?

Click here to view this message on my YouTube channel.

Scriptures: Matthew 8:23-27 and Matthew 14:22-33

We can all relate to these gospel stories for today, and I believe they hold important messages for us in these times when we are faced with many overwhelming challenges – so many challenges – both individually and collectively – that we may have found ourselves doubting God’s love for us.

Deep down, we may think that if we believe in God, go to church every Sunday, say our prayers every day, and try our best to do good, we won’t have to deal with any troubles. But that’s not how life is. We’re all in this together. As Jesus says to his disciples in Matthew 5:45, “God causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”

There’s a lot of uncertainty in the air. People who are sick with COVID-19 are uncertain about whether they will fully recover. People who have lost loved ones are uncertain about how they will carry on without them. People who have been laid off from work are uncertain about when they will be called back to work – if ever. Many are uncertain about how the struggling economy will affect their assets.

There’s one thing we’re all uncertain about, and that’s the future. We have no idea what the future holds. We never did, really, but now, we really don’t. We can’t assume that anything about our life before coronavirus will go back to the way it was. The rug has literally been pulled out from underneath us, and there’s absolutely nothing out there to hold onto.

We’re experiencing quite a storm. The old boat we’ve been in is getting beat up, it’s starting to sink, and we’re terrified! Surely, the Lord must be asleep! How can he be sleeping at a time like this?

Lord, wake up! Save us!

In our first gospel story, the disciples were experiencing a quite a storm on the sea. Their boat was getting beat up, and they were terrified, but Jesus was asleep. After they woke him up, he commented on their lack of faith, rebuked the wind and the waves, and all of a sudden, it was completely calm. The disciples were amazed. Who is this man that even the wind and waves obey him?

Jesus could have answered that question directly saying, “I AM the Christ,” but he didn’t operate that way. He more or less let the disciples draw that conclusion for themselves. It wasn’t until almost the end of Jesus’ ministry when Peter would declare, “You are the Messiah, the son of the Living God.”

But at this point, Jesus knew himself as the Christ, and if Christ is one with God and all of Life, then Christ is in the wind and waves. We identify with this helpless human form, so we can’t help but feel terrified when we perceive such awesome forces of Nature out there, separate from us, opposing us.

What if the truth is that there’s nothing out there opposing us? What if everything that occurs in Life somehow mysteriously supports Life – and therefore us – as part of Life?

Speaking of something to hold onto, we humans didn’t invent gravity to keep us from flying out into space, did we? No, we did not. Yet gravity exists and never fails. We humans also didn’t create the sun and command it to rise and set, did we? No, we did not. Yet it does – every single day. In so many countless ways beyond our ability to comprehend, Life supports itself.

Yet we scream, “Lord, wake up! Save us!”

Do we now see what little faith we have? Life doesn’t oppose us; we oppose life. That’s the problem. Instead of choosing to see Life as the enemy, how about choosing to trust that somehow Life has brought us this storm to support us as part of Itself – even though we can’t comprehend how? How might that shift in perspective help calm the wind and waves?

Our next gospel story takes place closer to the end of Jesus’ ministry after the death of John the Baptist. This time, Jesus is not in the boat with his disciples when the boat starts getting battered by the waves. They are on their own this time because Jesus went up a mountain to pray – way, way over on the other side of the lake – separated from them by what seemed like an insurmountable obstacle: the water.

The same is true with us: Jesus isn’t physically here in this boat with us because he left to commune with the Father. We may feel as if the Lord is far, far away – unable to help us. Like the disciples, we may feel totally helpless and hopeless in our little boat – in the pitch dark – tossed around by the strong winds and heavy waves of this pandemic.

But there are no obstacles that can come between us and the Lord. Jesus, walking on the water, came to the disciples. Now, I’m no physicist, so I can’t explain how, but I do believe it’s possible. After all, if who we really are is something like light projecting forms onto the screen of Life, then why not?

When the disciples saw him, they cried out, “It’s a ghost!” and screamed with fear. Jesus said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” In all fairness to the disciples, if we saw a human figure walking on water, we’d probably respond the same way, wouldn’t we?

We fear things we don’t understand. We fear the unknown. We fear it so much that we want to know – everything. In fact, we’re so addicted to knowing that we often pretend we know when we really don’t. We can’t handle not knowing; it makes us feel too vulnerable.

What if we gave up the notion that we need to know everything because we can trust Life to give us what we need in perfect timing – just as the Lord showed up at the perfect time to say, “Have courage! It’s not the boogie man! It is Life here to support you exactly when you need it.”

Peter’s options were scary. If he stayed in the boat, it might capsize or sink. If he got out, would he be able to keep his head above water in the tumultuous sea? With either choice, he could drown. After all, he didn’t have a lifeboat, and he wasn’t wearing a life jacket. He had nothing to keep him afloat.

He had nothing to hold onto.

But by this time, Peter had been Jesus’ disciple for a while. Only hours before, he had witnessed Jesus feed five thousand people with five loaves of bread and two fish. He had witnessed Jesus calm storms, cast out demons, heal the sick – even raise the dead. And wow! What if he could walk on water too? What if he had abilities he didn’t even know he had?

He said, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” There was no way that he was going to step out of that old boat until he knew for sure that it was the Lord. He trusted the Lord. He knew the Lord wouldn’t let him drown. He knew the Lord would support him. If we trust life, we’ll be fearless – like Peter.

So, Peter stepped out of the boat and began walking on the water toward Jesus. What a miracle! But then, the wind and waves distracted him. Instead of keeping his eyes on the Lord, he focused on the wind and waves. He became afraid, and he began to sink.

The apostle Paul writes in his second letter to the Corinthians: “So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord – for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we do have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So, whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him.”

Peter was frightened by what we saw out there, so he started to doubt, and then sink. How many of us, when we read or hear the news, get scared, and then get this sinking feeling in our gut? It’s the same problem Peter had. When we’re frightened, we make the mistake of looking for something out there to grab onto to make us feel better when the Lord’s right here, reaching out to us.

Now, it’s OK to feel uncomfortable with uncertainty. We’re only human. But it doesn’t have to keep us stuck in old ways of thinking and behaving that might not work anymore. What if that old boat is sinking – but what if we can walk on water? What if we have abilities we didn’t know we had? Perhaps this story is what we all need to help us to courageously step out of that old boat into uncertainty.

It’s scary, yes, but there are also infinite possibilities – and that’s exciting.

Because it is through challenges like this that we awaken the sleeping Christ within us to calm the storm and to give us the courage to step out of old boats and really live. And it is through these journeys that the Lord within us is glorified and our faith and trust is developed until we can exclaim with Peter and rest of the disciples: “Lord – you really are the Son of God.”

Let’s pray together: Lord, we are willing to trust that you are within us, reaching out to give us help whenever we need it. May this confidence give us the courage to step out into the uncertainty, letting go of our old ways of thinking and behaving, so that we might really live. Amen.

The Way to the Father

Leonard DiVinci | Public Domain

Synopsis: When Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me,” what did he mean? Did he mean that people must believe in him (Jesus) to be saved, or are we missing the deeper meaning of his words?

Click here to view a YouTube video presentation of this message.

Today’s message is entitled, “The Way to the Father.” You might be thinking, “That’s easy. Jesus is the way to the Father. Didn’t he say, ‘I AM the way the truth and the life – no one comes to the Father except through me?’” Yes, he did say that, but is that what he meant, or are we missing the deeper meaning of his words?

Let’s take a look at that passage found in John 14:1-14.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In 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? And 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. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”

In these times, we can easily relate to Jesus’ disciples in this scripture reading. Since 2016, America has been embroiled in political strife. We’ve been hoping for political salvation: to make America great again. We weren’t envisioning a global pandemic for 2020. Now, our hopes and dreams for our country and for our personal lives are completely uncertain.

We’re justifiably troubled and in need of comfort.

Jesus and his disciples were in Jerusalem celebrating the Passover meal in the upper room on the night he was betrayed. Jesus had just predicted not only his betrayal but also Peter’s denial. Rather than talking about his defeating the Romans and being crowned king, Jesus spoke about his upcoming betrayal and crucifixion.

This was certainly not the future his disciples had envisioned; it was the one they feared the most. The terrible reality of what was about to happen to Jesus was finally beginning to sink into the minds and hearts of the disciples, and they were justifiably troubled.

Jesus tries his best to comfort and encourage his disciples before he goes away. At the end of the previous chapter, Jesus tells his disciples that he is going to a place where “you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterward” (John 13:36).

Jesus’ disciples did not understand what he meant when he said that he was going to the Father because they did not yet know who they really are, so how could they follow him? Jesus knew that later on, they would follow him, so he assured them that he would save a place for them.

This, my friends, is the main reason we created time. Jesus had no more need of time at this point. His journey back to God was almost complete, but the disciples needed time. Like the story of the prodigal son who needed time to realize that he would be far better off returning to his father’s house instead of feeding pigs and starving to death, we prodigal children need time to remember who we are and to make the return journey back to God.

Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” When Jesus first said these words, his disciples misunderstood him. That’s understandable. Jesus was speaking about a great mystery that no words can describe.

We too misunderstand what he meant by these words. Many Christians assume Jesus was speaking about himself personally; therefore, people must believe in Jesus to be saved. When we don’t know who we really are, this mistake is understandable.

When Jesus said, “I am,” he wasn’t speaking about himself personally. He wasn’t speaking from his human nature; he was speaking from his divine nature. He was saying “I AM” with all capital letters. He was referring to who he is beyond the human form called “Jesus.”

He was referring to the state John wrote about in the beginning of his gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

Jesus was crucified because he claimed equality with God. Certainly, if he had made this claim about himself personally, about his human nature, it would have been a preposterous boast at least and blasphemous at most. How can this crude, finite matter be God? God is eternal, and this ain’t.

Yet back in the mid-80’s, at the beginning of the New Age movement, in her autobiographical book entitled, “Out on a Limb,” Shirley McLain boldly declared “I AM God!”

This shocking declaration got us all thinking rationally not only about our own nature but also about the nature of God. Is God a who or more of a what? Since then, humanity’s concept of God as an entity separate from us, looking down on us from on high and judging us, has lost its appeal.

Now, I think most people conceive of God as more as a what. If we could see and feel this great mystery called “God,” what would we see? What would we feel? Since all we have is our human senses, it would help to have some sensory pointers.

You might have heard people describe God as Light. In fact, in John 8:12, Jesus says, “I am the Light of the world.” Again, he’s not speaking about his human nature; he’s speaking about his divine nature – his IAM nature in union with God.

If we could see God, we might perceive Light. Because of our medical advances, many people have died and lived to tell about it. Many described walking toward a dazzling, loving Light. So now, many think of God not as an entity who lives somewhere apart from us, but as a kind of energy that is all around us – not only all around us, but somehow also mysteriously within us.

Maybe that’s what Jesus meant when he said, “Believe in God; believe also in me.” And maybe that’s what he meant when he said, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?”

Just as God is the Light, we are the Light. Who we really are is not like this form; it’s more like an energy – like light. And doesn’t light project many different forms on a screen, and yet, it’s all the same? Why can’t that be the truth for us too – that even though we appear in many different forms projected onto this screen called “life,” we are exactly the same – made of the same stuff.

God is like the Sun, and we are like sunbeams – an extension of God – an expression of God on this earth. Without the sun’s light, there would be no life on earth. Likewise, without God, who we really are would not exist.

This body with this ego – this personal self – is like how the moon sometimes gets between the sun and the earth and causes an eclipse. We know there’s no way on God’s green earth that that little moon could ever totally block out the majestic sun. Imagine if the moon thought it could do that.

How arrogant!

When we identify with this personal self, we’re like the moon with that level of arrogance. We think that we’ve successfully blocked out God and ceased to be who we are. That’s impossible. This personal self seems powerful, but all it can really do is create … shadows.

An effective way to imagine our true nature visually is to repeat the mantra, “I am the Light,” and image God’s Light entering into the top of the head, filling every cell of the body, and then pouring out from every cell, but mainly from the heart. These bodies are powerful lighthouses when they aren’t being used to create shadows.

You might have heard people describe God as Love. In his first letter, John the evangelist writes, “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him” (1 John 4:7-9).

So, we can visualize God and therefore who we really are as an energy like light. We can also think of God and therefore who we really are as love. That gives us a feeling sense – an idea of what it feels like to be who we really are. It feels like love.

We humans have a hard time understanding this because our idea of love is not the same as God’s. God’s Love is mysterious – just like everything else about God. We can’t describe it in words. 

But we can say for sure that it’s not like human love. Human love is exclusive. We love things in an exclusive way. I love ice cream, but I hate liver. We love people in this exclusive way too. We love certain people, and certain people we … don’t.

Our human love is also a gushy, giddy kind of love. It’s so dramatic. Humans love drama, and our human love is – of course – our idea of it – so there you go.

God’s Love isn’t like that. God’s love is inclusive. How can it exclude anything when God is all there is? God is therefore in an eternal relationship with everything he created, so how could he not love any part it? That would be like rejecting part of himself. That would be insane, and God is not insane.

We might come closer to understanding God’s Love a bit more after we’re married. Because suddenly, we are in a relationship “until death do us part.” That’s as close to the idea of eternity as we can imagine. At some point, the “honeymoon phase” – that gushy, giddy love – goes away. I don’t know about you other married folks, but I was sure glad when it did. It’s exhausting!

Yes, after a while, that gushy, giddy kind of love is replaced by something a lot less dramatic, but a lot more real, and that’s when the meaning of “I do” becomes clearer.

You see, love is more than just a feeling. It’s a choice. It’s an active thing. It’s a choice to actively be in a relationship. If we must share a place and our life with someone, isn’t it a whole lot easier when we get along and care for one another? Wouldn’t it be insane not to – unless, of course, we’re into PAIN?

Are we not in an eternal relationship with God, with our fellow human beings, and with all of Life on this planet? Of course we are! In that case, wouldn’t it be insane to reject anyone or anything that shows up in our life?

The sun gives its light and warmth to every living thing unconditionally. It doesn’t say, “Oh, I think that one’s evil, so I’m not giving that one any light. Plants give its oxygen to every living thing unconditionally. They don’t say, “Oh, I don’t like the color of that one, so I’m not giving that one any oxygen.

If something or someone is here, if it exists, then it automatically and unconditionally receives respect and care. That’s God’s idea of love.

Why are we so insane? Why do we eclipse the light on purpose, why do we cast shadows, why do we reject parts of ourselves? And why does God let us do that if it only leads to suffering?

Because we wanted to learn the value of love. When love is all there is, how can one experience its value? As the saying goes, “You don’t know what you got til its gone.” But if love is all there is, how can its opposite exist? It can’t in reality, but it can in our imaginations.

We humans are the only beings on this planet who have the opportunity to learn the value of love because we’re the only living things with the free will to choose to believe our own fantasies over the Truth. It’s up to each and every one of us to learn the value of love and to ultimately decide that nothing in this world is more valuable – because truly, there is nothing else.

How can we experience ourselves as God’s Love? Well, it’s simple but not easy. We practice gratitude for everyone and everything that’s showing up in our lives. Because that is how God feels about every person, every plant, every animal, and every single living thing on this planet.

God loves the unfolding of life on this earth, including everything that happens here. It’s all good because it’s all God, and it’s all teaching us the value of love. Think about the power of this pandemic to teach us all the value of love. Can you see all the people pouring out love in compassionate action?

Jesus tells his disciples, “Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.”

Love is the way to the Father. Because Christ is alive within us, we can now go to the Father though Love, but we must choose Love. We must value love more than anything else. So from this moment on, let us say, “I do” to Life.

Let’s pray together: Lord, we are willing to follow you to the place you have prepared for us. Help us to choose gratitude for all that is showing up in our lives that we may be the beacon of Light and the reservoir of Love that we were created to be. Amen.

The End of Senseless Journeys

Click here to listen to an audio recording of this post. Music: “Tomorrow – Calm New Age Ambient Track” by Alexander Blu.

This quote from A Course in Miracles has been ringing over and over again in my mind these days like an ominously wonderful death knell.

I spent these first stay-at-home weeks finding ways to protect my sanity by maintaining my normal busyness. I now find myself losing interest in that effort. I’m tired of constantly eating. I’m tired of watching TV. I’m tired of constantly eating while watching TV. I’m tired of browsing the latest news updates, surfing social media, and playing video games.

Don’t get me wrong – I am working from home. I’m one of the lucky ones who still has some work. Curiously, I’ve found I’m far more efficient working from home, and when you add to that the time saved by not commuting, I’m left with a lot more time on my hands to do … what?

That must explain the “ominous” tone – that scary “lost” feeling. I’ve been like a hamster running on a wheel going nowhere, yet desperate for that wheel to start turning again so I can at least run, run, run! I guess all that running made me feel “normal” and “safe.”

But was all that running truly “normal” and “safe” just because everyone was doing it, or was it a symptom that we were all actually living in crazy, harmful ways? What if everybody was running on the same nameless wheel, taking a senseless journey to nowhere? Perhaps now that the wheel has stopped turning, and we’ve stopped running, we can clearly see that wheel and give it a name.

It is called “consumerism.”

With businesses closing, demand skyrocketing, and supply plummeting, many are beginning to realize that we can live just fine without certain “pleasures” and without much of the “stuff” we thought we couldn’t live without – and we can certainly live without all the misery that comes with the “mad careers” needed to pay for it all.

The spell of consumerism is beginning to wear off. The artificial values we’ve all been taught to believe in are proving false. Consumerism can never make us happy because there’s always bigger and better pleasures and stuff to go after. It’s an insatiable beast.

If an economy built on that insatiable beast can be so easily destroyed by a virus, perhaps we need to figure out a more resilient foundation for a new economy.

That might be why many politicians are crying out for businesses to reopen without much regard to the toll on human lives. “We’ve got to get back to ‘business as usual’ – profit before people – before it’s too late!’” Perhaps what they really mean is, “… before people wake up.”

Before people wake up to what truly makes us happy – developing and nurturing caring relationships, gratitude for what we do have, giving to those in need, and above all – connecting with something within us far greater than our little selves.

Julio Gambuto, in his article “Prepare for the Ultimate Gaslighting,” warns us that very powerful forces are going to do everything they can to try to convince us to get back on that wheel. They’re going to try very hard to convince us that we weren’t really happier and healthier off the wheel. It was just our imagination – along with the Earth’s ozone layer starting to heal and improved air quality around the globe. They will try to make us doubt our newfound sanity.

Let’s make a promise now to ourselves and to our fellow human beings not to step back on that wheel –to not fall back under the spell of consumerism. We know now it doesn’t make us happy or healthy. This is a perfect opportunity, while we are shut in, to go through our fear – though that ominous tone – to that wonderful tone within, where indestructible happiness lies – and begin to envision a new life filled with love, peace, and joy.

Resources

“All quotes are from A Course in Miracles, copyright ©1992, 1999, 2007 by the Foundation for Inner Peace, 448 Ignacio Blvd., #306, Novato, CA 94949, www.acim.org and info@acim.org, used with permission.”

Gambuto, Julio V. “Prepare for the Ultimate Gaslighting: You are not crazy, my friends.” Forge.medium.com, 10 Apr. 2020, forge.medium.com/prepare-for-the-ultimate-gaslighting-6a8ce3f0a0e0

Look with the Eyes of Faith

James Tissot/no known copyright restrictions

Synopsis: When we look with the eyes of fear, we naturally interpret everything fearfully. But we have another choice. We can look with the eyes of faith! When we look with the eyes of faith, we recognize the Christ, and we realize how deeply cared for we are.

Please click here to watch the Saint Paul’s Community Church Easter Sunday Virtual Service in which this message is contained. You are welcome to enjoy and participate in the service, which contains communion. The Opening Hymn did not play in the service video. Please click here to view the Opening Hymn and sing along!

Gospel Reading: Matthew 28:1-10

Peace be with you from Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Imagine for a moment an entirely different resurrection story from the one we just read, maybe a Charles Dickens type story, where Jesus appears hauntingly to the High Priest Caiaphas, or to Pontius Pilate, or to Tiberius Caesar, saying, “I am the ghost of the Son of God!” Wouldn’t it serve them right to have been proven wrong and shown the error of their ways?

We might think so! But our Father God is different from us and has different priorities. Yes, His Only Son was treated cruelly at the hands of these unbelievers, and yes, God allowed that to happen, but God used their evil deeds to redeem the world. In that way, they too were part of God’s plan, and they played their part.

We can tell where God’s true priorities lie in the real resurrection story. We read that Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb early in the morning on the first day of the week. We know Mary Magdalene was one of Jesus’ closest followers – as well as the other Mary.

But who was the other Mary? We know it wasn’t Jesus’ mother because she is always clearly named in the Gospels along with Mary Magdalene. The other Mary was probably Matthew’s mother. Matthew (a.k.a Levi) was the tax collector Jesus called to be his disciple.

It’s also possible that the other Mary was Jesus’ aunt – his mother’s sister or half-sister. Matthew’s mother Mary, his father Cleopas, and his brothers James the Less and Joseph were all Jesus’ followers – and perhaps part of his family.

These two Marys were standing at the foot of Jesus’ cross with Jesus’ mother Mary. Didn’t it serve these two faithful and fearless followers of the Lord right to be the first to behold his resurrection? God thought so.

A 19th Century Irish poet by the name of Eaton Stannard Barrett wrote a wonderful poem that pays tribute to the loyalty and courage of these two women:

Not she with trait’rous kiss her Saviour stung,
Not she denied Him with unholy tongue;
She, while apostles shrank, could danger brave,
Last at His cross, and earliest at His grave.

Imagine these two Marys wanting nothing more than to be able to lovingly minister once more to the body of Jesus, perhaps doubting that the guards would even allow them to come near the tomb and doubting that they would be able to get into the tomb with that big stone rolled in front of it.

But just as these two Marys arrive at the tomb, there is suddenly an earthquake. There is an earthquake because an angel of the Lord appears fast as lightening, rolls back the stone, and sits on it.

Why did God send an angel? Did the angel need somewhere to sit? Probably not. Was Jesus knocking on the stone from inside the tomb saying, “Helloooo! It’s Easter Sunday. Time for me to bust out of here!” No – the angel tells the two Marys, “He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said.”

Why did God send an angel, whose lightning-fast appearance and white-as-snow garments frightened the tomb guards so much that they literally shook and fell to the ground, appearing like dead men?

I wonder how many bodies were lying around? How many Roman Soldiers do you think Pilate might have had guarding that tomb to prevent Jesus’ disciples from stealing his body – along with the Temple guards sent by the chief priests and Pharisees just to be sure? There could have been as many as fifty men!

Why did God send an angel to roll the stone away and knock out the guards, and then, after creating this scene of mayhem and seeming carnage, says to the two Marys, “Do not be afraid!” Why weren’t they scared half to death like the guards?

Well, God didn’t send the angel because he wanted the two Marys to be sacred; he sent the angel because He cared – about them. God had a message for them, and he sent the angel to deliver that message.

God lovingly attended to their needs. Imagine the heart-rending pain they might have experienced if they came upon this scene without the benefit of the angel’s message? They would have misinterpreted it because they would have naturally looked with the eyes of fear. They would have thought there was some kind of fight at the tomb, and all the guards were killed, and someone stole Jesus’ body.

But that wasn’t what happened at all. God wanted to spare these two women whom he loved that horrible pain when there was nothing to be afraid of and no reason for despair. In fact, there was cause for great, great joy! Jesus had risen as he said. The angel told them, “Come and see the place where he lay.” Look with eyes of faith!

God wasn’t concerned only for these two women because the angel assigned the two Marys a messenger mission of their own. After having the honors of being the first to witness the empty tomb, they were to go and tell the disciples the good news: that Jesus had risen and that he will see them in Galilee.

In Mark’s gospel, the angel says, “Tell the disciples and Peter ….” Mark’s gospel makes a point to signal out Peter. Why? Well, Peter denied Jesus three times. Did the angel want Peter to be haunted by his denial? No – the angel was making it clear that even though he denied God’s Son, he was still dear to God.

The disciples were not perfect. Their faith wasn’t perfect. Their trust wasn’t perfect. Peter may have denied Jesus three times, but most of them ran away after Jesus was arrested. No one asked Jesus for forgiveness, but clearly, God still cared for them all. God wanted them to know the good news so that their despair could be exchanged for joy!

We read the two Marys leave the tomb with both fear and great joy. That’s an impossible combination of emotions, isn’t it? How can one experience fear and great joy at the same time?

In the Bible, the word “fear” can mean different things in different contexts. Sometimes, it means “anxiety,” but other times, it means, “awe.” It makes more sense in this context that they leave the tomb in awe – or amazement – and great joy.

As they are leaving and running to tell Jesus disciples, lo and behold, they are greeted by the resurrected Lord. Not only are these fearless, loyal women the first to witness the empty tomb, but they are also the first to see the resurrected Lord. Doesn’t it serve them right?

There he is, standing in front of them, needing nothing more to say or do than to give them a simple greeting – like an ordinary guy or an ordinary day. If they were not looking with the eyes of faith, they might have overlooked him. But they do recognize the risen Lord, and all they can do – in their state of awe – is fall down and worship him.

Jesus tells the Marys, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” He calls the disciples “my brothers.” I think that is a testament as to whether the Lord has forgiven them for their fear and doubt. They are still as dear to him as they are to God.

He’s saying to the two Marys, “Do not be afraid and despairing any longer. Rejoice! I am alive! Now go and proclaim the good news!”

How many of us feel as if our faith and trust in God hasn’t exactly been perfect lately? I’m with you on that one. The world scene is a scary one – kind of like the scene of violence, and mayhem, and death that the two Marys saw after the earthquake.

When we look with the eyes of fear, we – of course – interpret everything fearfully. Then all we can do is despair because it appears as if the Lord is truly dead, and God has abandoned us. Evil has prevailed; it’s the end of the world.

Even though we feel that way at times, God still cares for us, and we are still joined with Christ. We are having a human experience, and fear and doubt and despair naturally go along with that territory.

While we can expect to feel this way at times, we do have another choice besides the eyes of fear when it comes to looking at the world. We can look with eyes of faith.

Because only by looking with eyes of faith will we recognize the risen Christ operating within our brothers and sisters and also within ourselves.

When we look out into the world with eyes of faith, what do we see? Let’s look together. I see mind-boggling ingenuity. People are finding ways to stay connected, to hold up and inspire one another, and to come up with ways to provide things that are in short supply, such as hand sanitizer, ventilators, and face masks.

I see abundant compassion. Most people have put aside their differences and have taken on genuine concern for one another. Everywhere, people are telling each other, even perfect strangers, “Be safe and be well.”

People are finding ways to help each other in whatever ways they can, like buying groceries for those who are in quarantine or for those who are vulnerable or donating money and giving provisions to those in need.

I see more unity than I have ever seen in my lifetime. Nations are cooperating with one another to save as many lives as possible – no matter where those lives are – because as long as anyone is suffering from this disease, everyone is at risk.

And my friends, it has always been that way. Whenever anyone in the world suffers dis-ease – whether it be because of poverty, or inadequate healthcare, or educational deficiencies, or injustice – everyone is at risk. We ARE in this together: This situation makes that fact so obvious that it is undeniable.

Who is it that is pouring out all this ingenuity, compassion, and solidarity? It certainly can’t be our human egos – no, our human egos are all about taking care of #1. So, it must be coming from some other place within us.

It is the living Christ. He’s not dead. He’s here within all of us, and all around us, He’s making his appearance, saying, “Greetings!” like an ordinary person on an ordinary day, and we can recognize him if we look with the eyes of faith.

Just this week, someone knocked on our door. I looked through the peep hole, and I saw someone I did not know – a woman with two kids. My first reaction was, “Ahhh Zombies!” Yeah, I think I’ve seen too many Zombie Apocalypse movie previews.

Anyway, I shook off that initial reaction, and opened the door. The woman said, “There’s a package around the corner with this address on it. I just wanted you to know. I didn’t touch it or anything.”

So, I went around the corner of the house and found the package that had literally blown off our porch. It was a very windy day. I thanked the woman from the bottom of my heart.

Here was this woman with small children, taking the risk to knock on a stranger’s door during a pandemic just to make sure we got a package. It wasn’t a zombie after all; it was the living Christ letting us know not to be afraid but be joyful because we are deeply loved.

Let’s pray together:

Lord, we are willing to look with eyes of faith. Through the Power of Your Holy Spirit, send your angelic messengers to us when we are fearful and despairing to encourage us to look with the eyes of faith so that we may recognize the living Christ all around us. Amen.

Resources:

Cole-Rous, Jim. “Mary – the Other Mary.” Global Christian Center, 2010, globalchristiancenter.com/christian-living/lesser-known-bible-people/31268-mary-the-other-mary  

“Lesson 67: Making the Resurrection Story Your Own (Matthew 28:1-15).” Bible.org, bible.org/seriespage/lesson-67-making-resurrection-story-your-own-matthew-281-15

Riding Triumphantly

Benjamin R. Haydon| Public Domain

Synopsis: Jesus rode triumphantly into Jerusalem despite his knowing that suffering and death awaited him. How can we learn from him and ride triumphantly through this pandemic?

Scripture: Matthew 21: 1-11

Click here to watch a YouTube video service for Palm Sunday, in which this message is contained. The scripture reading can be found at around 6:25, followed by this message.

Peace be with you from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

One of the biggest fears we humans have is the fear of the unknown. This fear causes us to keep asking ourselves, “what if …?” That can be a dangerous question. The human mind is very creative, so we can always imagine an infinite number of scenarios – especially scary ones – and endlessly occupy ourselves with disaster planning.

How many of us might wish we knew beforehand that this pandemic was coming? If we knew, how might we have prepared ourselves? Those who have lost jobs, loved ones, even their own lives – how might they have prepared themselves if they had known?

Perhaps they would have told their family and friends about their premonition, hoping they would do all they could to help prevent disaster from striking.

We can’t imagine someone telling their loved ones, “This is what is going to happen. I just want you to be prepared. I don’t want you to do anything to stop it.” What kind of person, knowing that tragedy was about to strike, would so calmly and willingly accept it?

Someone like Jesus. Jesus had an advantage most of us don’t have. He knew what was going to happen. He told his disciples several times that he was going to Jerusalem where he would be turned over to the authorities, tried, mocked, flogged, crucified, and on the third day, rise from the dead. He knew this in advance, yet he did nothing to stop it, and he didn’t want his disciples to do anything to stop it.

We read in Matthew 16:21-23, “From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Jesus knew what was going to happen to him in Jerusalem: that he would suffer and die in the cruelest ways imaginable. Not only did he do nothing to stop it, but he also rode triumphantly into Jerusalem.

How is it that Jesus was able to ride triumphantly – to face a difficult trial with such poise and confidence? And how can we ride triumphantly through these challenging times?

First and foremost, Jesus trusted God. He didn’t say to his disciples, “Well, I’m going into Jerusalem, where I’ll probably be crucified, and maybe rise from the dead in a few days.” He knew God’s plan of salvation, and he fully accepted his role in it.

Jesus completely trusted that if he did his part, God would do His Part. He needed a donkey and a colt, and they were there for him. You know, in those days, wealth was measured by how much livestock you had. A donkey and a colt were worth a lot of money, yet the owner gave them to Jesus’ disciples because they said, “the Lord needs them.”

These days, that would be like someone giving a stranger the keys to their BMW because he said to them, “the Lord needs it.” Can you imagine what a miracle that would be? That was the lesson for Jesus’ disciples. If we are in God’s Will, God provides. That’s His Part. Our part is to relax and trust Him.

In Matthew 6:25-27, Jesus said, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?”

So if we’re worried about not being able to get what we need in the grocery store – like toilet paper – or we’re worried that we won’t be able to afford what we need because of job loss, or we’re worried that we’re losing our nest egg in the plunging stock market, let these fears be a sobering reminder that we are looking for security where it can’t be found.

It can be found in trusting God.

Jesus was able to ride triumphantly into Jerusalem because he trusted God, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t afraid. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed to God, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want,” and he prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” Jesus was a human being, so of course, he was afraid – and sad. Any normal human being would feel afraid and sad in his situation. Nevertheless, he submitted his will to God’s Will.

Any normal human being on this earth right now would feel afraid and sad. People are suffering; some are suffering terribly – so terribly that they are taking their own lives. It’s frightening, and it’s sad.

We can pray to God to cleanse the earth of this disease, heal all those who are ill, and provide for those in need. We can pray for the protection and sustenance of our family and friends. We can pray our own protection and sustenance. We can do all we can reasonably do to help others, and to stay safe and well. But then, we must let go and leave the rest up to God’s Will for the good of all.

Jesus was able to ride triumphantly into Jerusalem because he placed his faith in Christ, not in his personal self. Jesus of Nazareth would soon be no more. The life of that individual – of that character in this great play called Life – was about to end. Jesus didn’t identify with that small self as much as with the Christ. He knew that small self was a false, temporary self that paled in comparison to his glorious True Self – his eternal Self – in Christ.

The people shouting “Hosanna” in the streets were not celebrating the Christ and the spiritual salvation that was coming to them. They were not anticipating a suffering, dying Messiah. They were hoping for something else entirely. They were looking for political salvation. They were seeing a political hero in Jesus of Nazareth, someone who would rise up and defeat the Romans.

How many people today are hoping for a political savior? We’ve been suffering a great deal lately because of politics. Many are hoping for a political savior, someone to finally rise up and make things right in this country and in the world, whether it be our current President or someone else. I think like the people of Jesus’ time, those who are hoping for a political savior are in for a big disappointment.

The more we place our faith in another human being, or try to handle things on our own, the more anxious we become. This pandemic is making that even more apparent. Do we really think we limited, helpless human beings have the strength, wisdom, and compassion to handle this apart from God?

No way.

The good news is that there’s far more to us than our human nature. There is something within us that is all-powerful – the Christ – and the Christ has all the strength, all the wisdom, and all the compassion needed to handle this situation – if we would just stop looking for a hero where one can’t be found.

This pandemic is a cross for us personally. It is a cross for us collectively. Our personal and collective lives will never be the same. Who we were before, both personally and collectively, is dying right now.

We’re losing the life we’ve grown accustomed to, whether it be the life we had with a job, or the life we had in our community, or the life with shared with a loved one. We’re losing the self that moved through the life we once knew. We don’t know who we’re going to be, or what life is going to be like after we emerge from this tomb.

But if we have faith in Christ, we do know that the tomb of the small self is the womb of Christ. And, my friends, in this unprecedented time, the small self of not just one individual, but of all humanity, is in the tomb together, and if we have faith in Christ, if we’ve been anticipating his coming and bringing God’s Kingdom to earth, then we can ride triumphantly through these challenging times with more hope than we’ve ever had at any other time in human history!

Ponder for a moment what a blessing it is for you to be here at this time.

So, we don’t need to know what’s going to happen if we trust God, submit to God’s Will, and place our hope in Christ. We can, like the Lord, ride triumphantly through this challenging time.

And just as his riding in on a donkey suggested, we can ride through it in peace.

Let’s pray together: Lord, we are willing to trust God, submit to His Will, and place our hope in Christ. Through the power of Your Holy Spirit, make us aware of our misplaced faith so that we can place our faith where it belongs and be at peace in these times and always. Amen.