Harvesting and Sharing

Philipp Peter Roos, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Synopsis: In the Parable of the Sheep and Goats, Jesus does not give us the right to judge others. Instead, he teaches us the importance of distinguishing between our goat-like human nature and our sheep-like divine nature so that we can consciously choose which nature to express in each present moment experience.

Scripture Reading: Matthew 25: 32-46

Our scripture reading for today comes from the end of Matthew chapter 25, a section entitled, “The Judgement of the Nations.” I myself have never considered this a parable, but some call it “the Parable of the Sheep and Goats.” Many Christians love this parable because it seems to say that all the evil people will be thrown into hell. Serves them right!

Unfortunately, because of this passage, many Christians have felt they have the right to say to others, “You’re going to burn in hell,” or the less harsh but just as judgmental version, “I’m concerned that you won’t be in heaven with me.” Jesus taught us in so many other verses NOT to judge one another, so there must be another way of interpreting this passage.

Before we take a closer look at it, let’s look at the context.

In Matthew chapter 25 Jesus tells two parables to illustrate his teachings in the previous chapter on the importance of being prepared for his coming. He warned his disciples not to be deceived by false Messiahs or presumptuous predictions and not to be alarmed by wars, rumors of wars, or natural disasters, for these are simply the birth pangs.

Jesus told both of these parables close to the time of his arrest and crucifixion. They both include a long period of waiting before the master returns and consequences for not being prepared.

We took a look at the first parable, the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids, where Jesus teaches that only those with the “oil” of spiritual resilience are empowered to keep shining their lights in the darkness and are prepared to participate in the celebration when Christ returns to establish the Kingdom of Heaven.

In the Parable of the Talents, Jesus teaches that only those with this empowering faith will enter into the joy of the master because they will put the gifts God has given them to work to profit His Kingdom.

And that brings us to the end of chapter 25 with what some consider a third parable, the Parable of the Sheep and Goats. Jesus once again begins with the setting, but rather than creating a fictional one, Jesus opens with a non-fictional one – a real event – the coming of the Son of Man, who is seated on the Throne of His Glory as King and judge of all the nations, placing the sheep on his right hand and the goats at the left.

Jesus’ disciples would have been familiar with this setting because in Matthew 19:28-30, Jesus tells them that at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the Throne of His Glory, they will each sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. All those who have left their families and vocations for his sake will inherit eternal life. The first will be last, and the last will be first.

Jesus’ disciples also would have been familiar with the importance of separating sheep and goats. During the day, sheep and goats often mingle as they graze. At night, they need to be separated because they have different needs. Prior to specialized breeding, it wasn’t easy to tell the difference between a sheep and a goat because they look very similar, but a good shepherd could tell the difference.

Who are the sheep that Christ the King places at his right hand? To get a clue, let’s talk about what real sheep are like. Sheep are extremely dependent upon their shepherd. If they get rolled onto their backs, the shepherd has to lift them back up on their feet because they will die. They can’t “right” themselves. They are also easily panicked to the point where they would run themselves right off a cliff.

Sheep depend upon their shepherd for the basics of life – for food, water, shelter, and protection from predators. But even though they are so dependent on the shepherd, they still have a tendency to go astray. A shepherd must find lost sheep, or they will die because they are essentially defenseless.

Shepherds lead sheep, and the sheep listen intently to the shepherd’s voice. Sheep are very calm in the presence of the shepherd because they trust the shepherd. With the shepherd, life is easy: All they have to do is listen and follow.

We are the sheep; we belong to God. We are completely dependent on God for all our needs. Because we are not of this world, we are vulnerable – not because we are weak, but because we are gentle ones living in a harsh world. Without a shepherd, we can be easily frightened, go astray, and become prey to malicious people or evil tendencies.

God has appointed the Good Shepherd to take care of us. In Mark 6:34, we read, “As Jesus went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.”

Christ the King says to the sheep, “‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

People get confused by these verses because it sounds as if the Lord is giving salvation to those who earned it through good works. But we know that we are not saved “by” good works. We are saved “unto” good works – “released” to do the good works God gave us to do.

The sheep are confused by the King’s reward because they do not recall ever having seen their Lord hungry, thirsty, lonely, naked, sick, or imprisoned. But because they did good works for “the least of these,” they did it for the Lord. The “good work” that God created us to do in Christ is to love and serve the Christ in all. We love our neighbor as we love ourselves because in Christ our neighbor is our Self.

Who are the goats the King places at the left? To get a clue, let’s talk about what real goats are like. Goats are very independent. If they want to do something, they’ll do it whether you like it or not. For example, goats love chewing on hair. A goatherd might punish a goat or chewing on his hair, but if he took a snooze out in the field, he’d probably wake up with less hair and a very happy goat.

Goats also have a huge appetite; they will eat anything. A goatherd has to be careful not to let a mother goat eat her young’s food because a mother goat will use her head to shove her young out of the way to eat their food – basically letting their own young starve.

Goats are extremely selfish; they want what they want, and they don’t care if they destroy things to get it. Goats generally don’t need protection from things; things generally need protection from goats. And goatherds don’t lead their goats; they follow their goats because the goats just browse around looking for whatever they feel like devouring, and the goatherds just do their best to protect the environment.

Christ the King says to the goats, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”

Just like real goats, these ill-fated ones led very selfish lives. They wanted what they wanted, and they didn’t care if they destroyed anyone or anything in the process. They were not “released” from their self-absorption and selfish desires. They rejected God’s love, so they did not depend on Him to provide for their needs. Instead, they relied on themselves while trampling on others.

The goats defend themselves using the same words the sheep used to humble themselves. When did we see you hungry, thirsty, lonely, naked, sick, or imprisoned? We can’t say that these “goats” didn’t do ANY good deeds. Perhaps they did, but they did them selectively – perhaps only for people they liked – or perhaps for the wrong reasons. We know that not all good deeds are done without strings attached. Perhaps they expected things in return for their good deeds or used them to manipulate or shame others or simply to make themselves look good.

In verse 46, we read, “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” This is the verse where Jesus appears to say that all the evil people will be “thrown into hell.”

God created humanity in his image, so I believe that every human being, whether saved or not, has a soul that is eternally connected with God and with all of Life. That God would reject and destroy a part of Himself doesn’t make sense to me. However, since God has given us free will, we are free to make our own choices and to experience their consequences.

I believe that as more of humanity joins with Christ, the Earth will begin to move toward the Kingdom of Heaven. As the light and love of God grows to be more and more prevalent, those souls whose hearts have not embraced the light and love of God will choose to leave the earth and/or reincarnate on some other planet where there’s more souls like them. Eventually, they will all be gone.

But they will condemn themselves to a hellish world because their hearts are not prepared to live in a heavenly world. They won’t be able to tolerate it or operate within it. But God will never give up on these souls and will eventually gather them back to Him through the irresistible Power of Love.

What does this parable have to teach us today?

I don’t believe it is giving us permission to try to judge one another a sheep or goat. Human beings don’t have specialized breeding, so it is truly difficult to tell which is which. We all have our opinions, of course, and we are entitled to them, but do we really know? We can’t see inside people’s hearts – but God can, and he has given Christ, not these personal selves, the authority to be the judge.

We are part human and part divine. The human part is temporary; the divine part eternal. But in this life experience, you could say we are part goat and part sheep. That’s not a problem because God created us that way for a purpose. There is a place for our human side and a place for our divine side – just like there is a place for goats and a place for sheep in this world.

We can’t be whole if we don’t accept both parts of ourselves. I believe Jesus is teaching us that the key is to be able to distinguish between the two parts of ourselves – and be fully aware of both parts – so that we can choose which part to express in every present moment experience.

Without this knowledge, we have no choice, and that has been the problem. We have not been aware of our divine side, so our human side has taken too much control over our lives. Our human side has become our common expression and our divine side the rare one. It should be the other way around.

Since we are not shepherds, it’s harder for us to relate to this setting. How many of you are gardeners? When you go out into your garden to harvest, you might notice that some weeds have cropped up in some places or that some of the fruits or vegetables got infested with blight or bugs or maybe a groundhog stole your cabbage.

As a gardener, you pretty much accept that these things go with the territory of gardening. You really don’t have a choice because if you choose not to accept it, you’re only setting yourself up for a whole heap of frustration and disappointment, which can really zap the joy of gardening right out of you.

We should have that same level of acceptance when we look within the garden of ourselves and notice the weeds of ingratitude, the blight of intolerance, the bugs of resentment, and fear – that sneaky thief that steals our joy. These aspects of our human side are within us along with all of the wonderful spiritual produce we have inside us by the grace of God.

As a gardener, you know that when you go out into your garden to harvest the good fruits and vegetables you have grown, you often have more than you need, so you probably enjoy sharing the extras with your family, friends, and neighbors.

It’s because of our divine side that there is an infinite supply of wonderful spiritual produce to share with the world. So, we can enjoy the challenge of being human.

If we look within and see jealousy, impatience, intolerance, meanness, or even hatred, we simply need to recognize that these things are not things we want to extend to others if we are preparing our hearts and the hearts of all for the Kingdom of Heaven.

As a gardener, you know that you need to do the work to look for the weeds and the infected and infested plants, pull them up, then trash or burn them, and you need to create barriers to keep the sneaky thieves out. Otherwise, all these things can do a lot of damage to your garden.

But you don’t necessarily judge yourself a bad gardener because you need to do these things. You know it just goes with the territory of gardening. In fact, you might even enjoy the challenge of figuring out how to win these battles for an even better garden because hey, there’s always another season.

Just as there are many different types of produce, there are many different manifestations of love within us that we have to share, such as patience, kindness, compassion, understanding, forgiveness, and gratitude.

We don’t realize it, but there is a huge number of opportunities to extend love every day. If you wake up in the morning, and your spouse is grumpy, extend forgiveness. If you listen to the news, and it makes you want to cry, extend compassion. As you’re enjoying your morning cup of coffee, extend gratitude. If you went out the door and forgot your mask – again, extend kindness. If the car in front of you is moving too slow, extend patience.

So, let us take advantage of every opportunity to extend love. God is calling us to share love with others – especially those who most need love – the poor, the stranger, the sick, and the imprisoned. People need it more than ever right now. When we share love, we demonstrate who we belong to – that we belong to God – that we are the sheep of his pasture – and that we want to live in a world ruled by love.

Let’s pray together: Lord, we get so caught up in our own lives and needs that we often fail to notice those who are struggling in their lives, those who are in need. Help us to slow down, be present, and be ready extend love because in this way, we move the earth ever closer to the Kingdom of Heaven. Amen.

Resources

“What is the Meaning of the Parable of the Sheep and Goats?” gotquestions.org, www.gotquestions.org/parable-sheep-goats.html

Hooper, Jodi. “11: The Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25: 31-46).” Bible.org, 21 Jun. 2012, bible.org/seriespage/11-sheep-and-goats-matthew-2531-46

Spiritual Resilience

Hieronymous Francken II, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Synopsis: How do we keep the oil of our spiritual resilience stocked in dark times so that we are prepared for Christ’s coming? We do what Jesus did in times like these: We surrender to our feelings and to the unknown, trusting in God’s promises.

Click here to listen to an audio of this sermon.

Scripture reading: Matthew 25: 1-13

How many of you have experienced being “on call?” When I was in my twenties, I was an Emergency Medical Technician for Barrett Township Volunteer Ambulance Corp. When I was “on call,” I had to be ready to go at a moment’s notice. I didn’t know if we were going to get a call that day, but I had to be prepared and expectant.

Jesus uses the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids to make a point about the importance of being prepared and expectant for Christ’s second coming.

You might remember that Jesus told parables to make a point, so it’s important to know the context to understanding its meaning. Since the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids begins Matthew chapter 25, the context is in the previous chapter.

In chapter 24, after Jesus predicts the destruction of the Temple, the disciples began questioning him about the signs of his coming at the end of the age. They assumed the destruction of the Temple would herald the End Times, but the Lord warned them about making such predictions.

He warned them not to be deceived because it might be some time before he returns. He said to them that many will proclaim themselves to be the Messiah, and there will be wars and rumors of wars, but these are simply the birth pangs.

Using the example of the fig tree, Jesus taught his disciples to be watchful for signs of the “season” of his coming, and to be expectant, but no one knows the day or hour.

The setting of this parable is a Jewish wedding. To get an idea of what’s going on, it’s somewhat helpful to understand a first century Jewish wedding, but we can’t take what happens literally since Jesus is using it as a literary device. Like any good storyteller, he might twist or embellish facts a bit to make his point, even leave out major elements that aren’t relevant to the point – like any mention of the bride!

A Jewish wedding begins with the groom leaving his home to go to the bride’s home where certain rituals would take place. After nightfall, the bride and bridesmaids would process through the streets to his home, the bride’s new home, where the marriage celebration would take place over several days.

Everyone in the procession must carry a torch; otherwise, they might be considered party crashers or bandits. They are expected to meet the groom on his way to his house, but no one could predict exactly when the groom would arrive at the meeting place.

In the previous chapter, in verses 37-39, Jesus says, “When the Son of Man returns, it will be like it was in Noah’s day. In those days before the flood, the people were enjoying banquets and parties and weddings right up to the time Noah entered his boat. People didn’t realize what was going to happen until the flood came and swept them all away. That is the way it will be when the Son of Man comes.”

The bridegroom doesn’t arrive until quite late in the evening, so they all fell asleep waiting for him. When I was on call overnight, sometimes I would stay at the ambulance building, and sometimes I would stay at home. Either way, I would go to sleep, but before I went to sleep, I made sure my uniform was ready to be slipped on, and my gear bag was packed and ready to go.

The bridesmaids had all fallen asleep, but they are awoken with a shout as the groom finally arrives at midnight. That’s when we learn that some of them weren’t prepared. When they get up to trim their lamps, the foolish say to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.”

The Reverend Bob Diffenbaugh sheds a lot of light on this lamp issue – pun intended. First, he explains that the “lamp” they used isn’t the kind of lamp we think of when we hear the word. The Greek word, “lampas,” is more of a torch. It was just a large, flat bowl with a rag or rope-like wick that could be attached to a pole to light one’s way in the darkness.

Next, he notes that New English Translation Bible states that the word “extra” is not used in the original Greek – which is also true of the version we use. Some translations, such as the New Living Translation, suggest that the foolish ones took oil with them, but not enough. If that were the case, why would all of their lamps be “going out” at the same time?

Rev. Diffenbaugh concludes that they must not have brought any oil with them. He writes, “There must have been some residue of oil on the rag or wick of the five empty lamps, which quickly burned out, only moments after being lit. This would explain why all five torches went out at the same time. Perhaps, too, these foolish [bridesmaids] minimized their foolishness by describing their plight as ‘running out’ so as to look less foolish.”

If I agreed to be on call for the ambulance corp., I had to be ready to respond – period. No excuses. That meant I couldn’t leave the area because I needed to be able to get to the ambulance building quickly. I also couldn’t get delayed in any way. Little things like sitting in the drive thru at Burger King would be a problem if my pager suddenly went off. It wouldn’t cut it to say, “Sorry I missed the call. I wanted a Whopper.”

The foolish bridesmaids’ excuse for “running out” didn’t cut it either. They were supposed to be prepared. It might seem cold that the wise bridesmaids didn’t help them out, but they couldn’t.

So, the foolish bridesmaids went out to buy more oil, but by the time they got to the groom’s house, the celebration was already underway. The door was shut. They were too late. The groom probably thought that since they didn’t arrive with the other bridesmaids, they were imposters trying to crash the party.

How can we apply this parable to our lives today?

Let’s be honest. We are living in a very painful and chaotic world right now. Many are dying, many are grieving, many are afraid, and many are angry. What should be our response? What should we say to people? How about what Jesus said in times like these: “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Remain here and stay awake with me.”

If any of you are feeling great sorrow today, it’s OK. It’s totally appropriate. It doesn’t mean you’ve given up on the world. It just means your heart is wide open. You haven’t become numb through it all. You’ve been very brave.

Jesus felt great sorrow in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before he accomplished his redemptive work. Even though he felt great sorrow for the world, he still had hope because he trusted in God’s promises.

Christ first came in one individual named Jesus to introduce humanity to who we really are. I believe Christ will come the second time not as a single person, but in a multitude of people. That is the only way that Christ can be revealed in all His Glory. Since His Glory is in each of us, all of it must be in all of us.

There is only one thing that will save the world, and that is the love of God. God’s Love is made known through Christ. Christ dwells within every living thing, but only human beings have the capacity to make God’s love and creativity more fully known in this physical world.

For the world to be saved, we need enough wise people to meet the Christ and to join with him in the procession back to his home, the True Self. 

As an EMT, I remember how awesome it felt to save someone’s life – to be part of a team of people that saved someone’s life. Maybe some of you have had that experience and remember how awesome that feels.

Imagine how awesome it will feel to be part of something that saves the whole world! To feel the joy of the fulfillment of all we came here to do. That’s a celebration we wouldn’t want to miss!

I would like to suggest that the lamp oil in this parable represents spiritual resilience. The word resilience means “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.”

A therapist once told me that once I make up my mind to tackle a challenge, I tackle it like a rodeo cowboy tackles a bull. I take that thing by the horns, wrestle it into submission, and bind it up tight. That kind of resilience works well for personal challenges, but when we’re dealing with world-wide challenges, spiritual resilience is needed.

Spiritual resilience is the ability to trust God, remain hopeful, and shine our light even when it’s mighty dark out there, and it’s getting late. It’s something that can be cultivated only through a close relationship with God, so it’s not something that can be faked or bought.

We can keep the oil of our spiritual resilience stocked through surrender. First, we need to surrender to our feelings. Jesus prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me….” What an honest prayer. Jesus was so brave that he allowed his heart to be wide open such that he was able to feel the sorrow of the whole world.

Maybe now, all of humanity can begin to appreciate that pain. All of humanity is feeling the pain of this pandemic and all the political and social chaos that has come with it. Like Jesus, in our humanity, we wish the pain would go away because … it hurts! Like so many people today, we just wish we could go back to normal.

There is nothing wrong with feelings. What matters is not our feelings, but how we respond to them.

There are two ways to respond to feelings. The first way is with fear. When we respond with fear, we try to push the feelings away by taking control. We make quick decisions and act on them. But actions based on fear are usually foolish. We often create more suffering for ourselves and others.

The second way is with love. When we respond with love, we surrender. We allow the painful feelings to be there, and we let go of control. We let events play out as they will, and respond only when it feels right. We demonstrate our trust in God and our willingness to allow His Will to be done.

Jesus responded to his feelings of deep sorrow with love when he prayed, “… yet not what I want but what you want.” Jesus surrendered. He turned his will over to God, trusting that God knows what it takes to accomplish the salvation of the world.

So, to keep the oil of our spiritual resilience stocked, we need to surrender to our feelings, trusting God in the darkness while we are in pain by constantly praying, “Not my will, but yours be done.”

Whatever transformation you have in store for me, Father – and for all of humanity – I am willing to accept because I know you know how to save the world better than I do.

We know Christ is coming and that there will be a big party at his house when he arrives – we just don’t know how or when. To keep the oil of our spiritual resilience stocked, we need also to surrender to the unknown.

We think we know so much more than we do about ourselves, others, and life in general.

If we can let go of what we think we know, or at least hold onto what we think we know a little more loosely, we will be able respond when Christ arrives because we will recognize him. As we know, it’s our judgements that keep the Christ hidden from us.

We need to let go of who we think we are because we are becoming far more than that. Joyce Meyer writes, “Potential cannot manifest without form. There must be something for it to be poured into, something that will cause it to take shape and become useful.”

That got me to thinking about this form (body) in which God’s potential through Christ is made manifest. Through Christ, God poured His Potential into everything that is alive, including us human beings. But if we keep judging ourselves, the vast space within us that is the Christ becomes smaller and smaller because it’s like we keep choosing to pour our form into smaller containers.

How many of you have a set of those containers where there’s a big one, but then a smaller one fits inside of it, and a smaller one fits inside of it, and a smaller one fits inside of that one, so there’s maybe six containers inside this one big container.

It’s awesome for kitchenware, but not for human beings. As the Christ, we start out as an infinitely vast container with infinite potential, but each time we judge ourselves, it’s like we’re putting another smaller container inside the space within us and with each container, the space becomes smaller and smaller and smaller, and our potential shrinks along with it.

We do the same thing to others when we judge them, and they take our judgments to heart, so we need to let go of who we think others are because they are becoming far more than that. We need to stop judging people for what they think and feel. allow them to have their thoughts and feelings, and create a loving, safe space for them to be whoever they are. We might discover that there’s far more to them then what we “knew.”

We need to stop judging life also. Through judgments, we put Life itself into smaller containers also. We need to let go of our ideas about the way things “should” be happening. With God, there are infinite possibilities and infinite potentialities for life on Earth. When we are so fixated on our own ideas about how life should be, we might not see Christ’s arrival happening right under our noses.

Yes, this time could very well be the late evening through which the Christ is making his way back to his home for the wedding celebration, so we need to be ready to join the party by surrendering to our feelings and to the unknown.

Marianne Williamson has said, “Something amazing happens when we surrender and just love. We melt into another world, a realm of power already within us. The world changes when we change. the world softens when we soften. The world loves us when we choose to love the world.”

Let’s pray together: Lord, when we are in pain, help us to remember to surrender our will to God’s Will and to open our heart even more widely in acceptance of ourselves, others, and of this beautiful life we have been given. Amen.

Resources

Deffinbaugh, Bob. “26. The Ten Virgins: What It Means to Be Ready (Matthew 25:1-13).” Bible.org, 10 Apr. 2005, bible.org/seriespage/26-ten-virgins-what-it-means-be-ready-matthew-251-13

Meyer, Joyce. The Confident Woman Devotional (p. 354). FaithWords. Kindle Edition

Williamson, Marianne. “Quotes: Quotable Quote.” goodreads.com, www.goodreads.com/quotes/387102-something-amazing-happens-when-we-surrender-and-just-love-we

The Three Pillars of the Greatest Commandment

James Tissot | Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Synopsis: By practicing the three pillars of the Greatest Commandment – appreciation, acceptance, and sharing – we can be a complete, perfect, unique expression of God, encourage others, and return Love to its Source.

Scripture Reading: Matthew 22: 34-40

Click here to listen to a recording of this sermon.

I think it would be safe to say that most people know the Great Commandment Jesus spoke of in our scripture reading for today, or at least the Golden Rule part of it: Love your neighbor as you love yourself. If that’s the case, then why are we living in a world where love appears to be so lacking.

The same was true during Jesus’ time. Most Jews knew that that they were supposed to love God and one another. Even so, there wasn’t much love going around. Most Jews knew of God as a God of justice, but there wasn’t much justice going around either.

The problem is the same today as it was back then.

After Jesus entered Jerusalem, his conflict with the chief priests and elders became clear. Jesus’ conflict was not only with the chief priests and elders. Jesus also had a conflict with the Pharisees because he refused to follow their “teachings of the elders.” He refused to follow them because he believed they were overly burdensome to the people. Generally speaking, the Pharisees themselves didn’t even follow them (which is partly why Jesus calls them hypocrites in the next chapter).

So, the Pharisees were also looking for opportunities to discredit Jesus. After Jesus discredits the chief priests and elders, the Pharisees attempt to trap him with a question about taxes, which Jesus successfully escapes by saying, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

Then, the Sadducees attempt to stump Jesus with a question about the resurrection of the dead, which was obviously deceitful because the Sadducees did not believe in it. The Pharisees did, so the two factions were constantly debating one another about it. Jesus’ response made it clear that he believed in the resurrection of the dead – indeed, he would soon demonstrate its truth.

That brings us to our scripture reading for today. Rather than being happy with the fact that Jesus actually sided with them for once, the Pharisees continued to try to discredit Jesus, so they decided to test him again with a question about the greatest commandment.

There are over 600 Torah Laws, so there was always plenty of debate over which ones were more important and which ones were less important. The man who asked Jesus “which is the greatest commandment” was an “expert in the law.”

He wasn’t a “lawyer” like we think of one. In our society, church and state are separate, so our lawyers are experts in civic law, not biblical law. For Jesus and his fellow Jews, Torah law was civic law, and these men were experts in the practical applications of it. 

This question was posed to Jesus to test his judgment, not necessarily his knowledge of the law. They probably hoped that he would answer in a way that displeased the crowd gathered that day, which would be enough to successfully discredit him.

Jesus answered the question the way the “experts of the law” would have answered it since it was known which law they had previously judged to be the greatest commandment and the sum of all the rest. Jesus obviously had no conflict with their position on this point, so to ask him this question was a bit condescending.

He knew the law, but I think what the chief priests and elders found so disturbing was the fact that he actually practiced it, which made them look bad. With their mouths they declared the Greatest Commandment, but their hearts were far from it. They were more concerned with power, not love.

The confusion many people have with the greatest commandment is a misunderstanding of the word “love.” God’s love and human love are different. Human love is exclusive; we love only certain people – usually our family members and closest friends. God’s love is inclusive; God loves everything in Creation.

Human love is finite; we might stop loving those who hurt us. God’s love is infinite; it never ends no matter what we do. Human love is conditional; it often depends on what someone can give to us. God’s love is unconditional; it’s s all about what God can give.

It has been said that we can’t love others unless we love ourselves, but I also believe that we can’t love God unless we love ourselves. I believe the foundation is love of Self (with a capital S). If we love our Self then loving God and others will naturally follow.

This is why the idea of original sin has been so damaging. We certainly can’t love ourselves with such a negative view of our nature. And how can we love a God who creates defective creatures and then punishes them for it? At most, we can fear such a God, but never love. Fortunately, we are not defective creatures, so we must start there to correct our mistaken perception of ourselves.

We have all acknowledged the truth that we are not these personal selves – these bodies with personal thoughts and feelings. These personal selves are merely tools that we use to be an expression of God in Christ. God is infinite, so God would need an infinite number of expressions to be fully expressed – to be fully known.

We can be that expression by practicing the three pillars of the Great Commandment.

The first is appreciation. How many of you have engaged in a creative piece of work? Maybe you composed a piece of music. Maybe you like to write. Maybe you like to draw, paint, or create other pieces of artwork. Maybe you like to knit or crochet. Maybe you like to cook or bake goodies.

Everything you create is a unique expression of who you are. It starts out as an idea, and then you begin to work on it, but that original idea keeps developing. There are many stages in the creation process, and each stage has value. In every stage, your creation exists in relationship to you, its creator, and in each stage, it is what it is. Sometimes, it’s a complete mess.

What you create is a unique expression of you in form. In that sense, you and it are united. There might be some challenging times in the process, but even those have value and help your creation to be all it can be, and you love it despite those challenges because it lives within you and you within it.

Now, there’s a point in which your creation is “finished.” It then becomes a static expression of who you were at a particular point in time. We live in time, so our personal selves are finite, but God lives in eternity.

God is infinite and as an expression of God, Christ is infinite – always changing and evolving –something always changing and evolving would expresses God’ infinite nature perfectly and completely.

This is difficult for us to understand since we live in time. In eternity, we can never really be “finished,” but we are nevertheless complete. This is good news because if we have this “ideal” image in our heads of who we will be when God is “finished” with us, we can burn that as a false idol. We are already complete in Christ even though we are constantly evolving. God sees each of us right now as the complete, perfect, unique expression of His infinite nature and deeply appreciates us.

Let the appreciation for the unique expression of God that you are fill you heart, allow it to extend to an appreciation of the Creator who is joined with you, loving and supporting you in every moment of your life, and let this appreciation extend to the others who are also complete, perfect, unique expressions of God as together we are all woven like unique threads in this beautiful tapestry called “Life.”

The second pillar of the Great Commandment is acceptance. If we are complete, perfect, unique expressions of God in Christ just the way we are in each moment, then we can accept the thoughts and feelings we experience without judging ourselves.

This is especially true of painful thoughts and feelings. How often do we have thoughts or feelings we wish we didn’t have? We wish we didn’t have them because they are painful, and most of the time, we feel pain because we are believing lies.

These lies are judgments that enter the mind, but they do not come from the Mind of Christ. Thoughts and feelings that come from the Mind of Christ are always in the moment. They aren’t generated by regrets about the past or predictions about the future. They don’t protest what is because it already is.

I’ve been feeling impatient a lot these days. Everything seems to take longer to happen, right? So, I’ve been calling myself an “impatient person,” which has been painful because it’s not the truth.

Just because I feel impatient now and have felt impatient in the past doesn’t justify a future prediction about how I will act. Impatient feelings don’t make me an “impatient person.” But if I slap an “impatient person” label on myself, I will more likely act impatiently – thus fulfilling my own prophecy.

Even though I feel impatient, I often choose to act with patience. That is a present moment inspiration coming from who I really am – from the Christ within.

Lies might enter our minds about others as well. We might feel uncomfortable in the presence of someone who is gossiping about another person. What often happens is that simple feeling of discomfort quickly turns into disgust as we imagine that that person has probably gossiped about us behind our backs too and will do so in the future, so we choose to stay away from that “gossiper” and all those other “gossipers” that we see them talking to.

In that single moment, we imagine a past that may not exist and predetermine who that one person and all those other people are and how they will act in the future. Instead, we might simply accept our discomfort and choose to politely excuse ourselves. That inspiration comes from the Christ in the present moment.

This is why Jesus taught us not to judge others. We judge ourselves in the same way we judge others. Judgment is how we create the many layers concealing the Christ within others and ourselves. We don’t see ourselves or them in the present moment; we see only the layers of judgements.

The only way we can become expressions of God in form is to have a form – a human self. As human beings, lies will naturally come into our minds. We can accept this without believing them. If we don’t believe them, then we won’t react to them in unloving ways.

We can choose to appreciate and accept ourselves and our brothers and sisters in the present moment and act out of that appreciation and acceptance. When we do, we are the extension of God’s Love we were created to be. In fact, the words “appreciation” and “acceptance” are good words to describe the “attitude” of God’s Love.

The third pillar of the Great Commandment is sharing. If appreciation and acceptance are the “attitude” pillars, then this one is the “action” pillar. Acceptance is not passive. Jesus certainly was not passive when he turned over the tables of the moneychangers and merchants in the Temple. He dealt with the situation in the moment without judging the people involved. He felt anger, and he acted in the moment without really hurting anyone – only their wealth and pride.

After Jesus cleared out the Temple, he shared something we all have to share – our time and attention. People came to him, and he lovingly gave them his time and attention. No matter how little time we have, it’s not so little that we can’t give someone “the time of day” – a simple gesture like a smile or a nod toward a complete stranger just to let them know we acknowledge their existence. Something as simple as that can make someone’s day.

It is very loving to take the time to really listen to someone. I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced what it’s like to have a conversation with someone who really listens, and I don’t mean in a clinical way, like a therapist who would ask, “So tell me, how did that make you feel?” Most people don’t want to feel like they’re talking to a therapist – unless of course they’ve hired one and are paying for it.

What really helps both speakers and listeners to feel connected is when listeners are quiet but use good eye contact and facial expressions to indicate that they are truly listening. They speak sparingly – only to ask relevant questions or rephrase what the person has said to make sure they understand.

We think it’s helpful to share our experiences, but most of the time, it isn’t. It can be a form of giving unasked-for advice. Most people would rather figure things out for themselves, and they will, if we lovingly give them our time and attention – the “space” to talk about it.

Everything in creation was given to us by God, not to hoard, but to share with others. One of God’s laws we have difficulty understanding is that when we give, we receive. We always get something in return for what we give especially if it was given in love with no strings attached.

In Luke chapter 12, Jesus tells the parable of the rich fool. A landowner had such an abundant harvest that he didn’t have big enough barns to store it all. He had this brilliant idea to tear down the old ones and build bigger ones so that he could sit back, relax, and enjoy life.

We might think that the landowner was being smart, but God called him a fool saying, “This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” Instead of taking the opportunity to share, all that surplus will end up rotting in his barns.

So, if we have more than we need, we should give away the excess to someone who needs it. We receive the blessing of having less to manage, but we also open our lives up to receive new gifts from God – like something we need.

Sharing talents is part of appreciation and acceptance. We need to appreciate that as a unique creation, we have unique gifts and talents, but we must accept those gifts and talents in order to share them.

Part of that acceptance is accepting the fact that we don’t have certain gifts and talents. We often compare ourselves to others, wishing that God had given us what they have, but that just keeps us from appreciating and using what God has given us.

I’ve always been intrigued by people like Sylvia Browne who was one of the greatest psychics of our time – how she was able to communicate directly with her spirit guides and other disembodied entities and as a medium give comfort to those grieving the loss of loved ones. She even had telepathic abilities.

I’m no psychic, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be one. But I do know that God loves me just as I am and has already given me exactly what I need be a complete, perfect, one-of-a-kind expression of Him in each present moment. Because of that, I can choose to appreciate myself, accept myself, and confidently express myself in each of those moments, and I can give that appreciation, acceptance, and encouragement to others.

By loving ourselves and others we return love to its Source. That is what the Greatest Commandment calls us all to do.

Let’s pray together: Lord, we are willing to appreciate and accept ourselves as God created us and to act lovingly using the resources, gifts, and talents we have been given. May this appreciation and acceptance inspire us to act lovingly in each present moment of our lives as we extend God’s Love to others. AMEN.

Resources:

Perron, Mari. A Course of Love. Combined volume, Kindle ed. 2nd ed. Take Heart Publications, 2019.

Pearson, Stephen. A Faith of Love: Teachings of the Greatest Commandment. Kindle ed. 2017.

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.

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.

The Tomb is the Womb

Titian / Public domain

Synopsis: Humanity is currently undergoing a time of great change, which is generating a lot of fear because human beings in general do not like change. The story of Jesus’ transfiguration can give us courage and hope as we face our personal and collective trials.

Click here to listen to an audio of this sermon. Note: The live recording of this sermon ends at about 9:45 (my recording device’s batteries died). The remaining sermon audio was recorded in my home.

Scripture: Matthew 17:1-9

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

Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher, has been quoted as saying “change is the only constant in life.” It’s strange that a statement containing two contradictory words, “constant” and “change,” can be so true.

What’s just as ironic – and true – is the fact that change is something we humans fear the most. Here we live in a world where the only constant thing is change, and we fear change. What a predicament!

And here we are in this time of great change in our world, and we can feel the fear in the air. I believe the story of the transfiguration of Jesus can help us to be less fearful of change – and maybe even learn to embrace it.

In the previous chapter, Jesus and his disciples entered the region of Caesarea Philippi, located about 30 miles north of the Sea of Galilee. This area was ruled by Herod’s brother, Phillip the Tetrarch, who changed its name to Caesarea Philippi to honor the Emperor, Tiberius Caesar, and – of course – himself.

At this point in his ministry, Jesus was beginning to face opposition from religious leaders who kept asking him to produce a miraculous “sign in the sky.” Jesus had already performed many miracles, but they dismissed them as magic tricks, coincidence, or the use of some evil power.

Jesus knew that producing this sign would not convince them because they had already made up their minds about him. They believed that he was not of God, so they would once again explain away even a miraculous sign in the sky.

Juxtaposed to their doubts is Peter’s famous confession of faith. When Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.”

When Jesus asked them who they say he is, Peter declared, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Jesus praised him as blessed for having received this revelation from God.

After Peter professed his faith in Jesus, Jesus began talking to the disciples about what he was going to face in Jerusalem – that he would be turned over to the religious leaders, be killed, and on the third day, rise from the dead.

Peter believed in Jesus as the Messiah, but he didn’t understand why he had to suffer and die. So, he took Jesus aside and rebuked him saying, “Lord, this shall never happen to you!” Jesus responded with a strong rebuke of his own, saying, “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.”

Peter had six days to think about that before Jesus took them up that high mountain in our scripture reading for today.

Why did Jesus take them up there? Luke’s gospel says that he took them up there to pray, which is most likely true. In ancient times, people often used mountaintops or the wilderness to remove themselves from the world in order to pray or to receive spiritual revelations or transformations.

What’s interesting is that Jesus didn’t take all of his disciples up the mountain, only Peter, James, and John. Jesus was praying within eyeshot of these three when he was “transfigured.”

The main focus of this passage is on this one word: “transfigured.” The Greek term is meTA-mor-phoh-see, from where we get our word “metamorphosis.” The word describes a complete change in the form and substance of something. We read “his face shone like the sun” – as if light were coming out of the pores of his skin” – and his clothes became dazzling white.”

If that weren’t startling enough, Moses and Elijah suddenly appear. Moses wrote the Law and represents those who obeyed the Law. Elijah was to come to prepare people’s hearts for the coming of the Lord, so he represents those who had fallen away.

The presence of Moses and Elijah on the mountain with Jesus emphasizes his link with the ongoing story of God’s journey with His People, Israel. Jesus is the main character in chapter three of Israel’s Redemption Story – a story that would be extended to the entire world.

We read that when Peter saw Elijah and Moses, he offered to build tents for them. What was that all about? Peter wasn’t being obstinate or irreverent. His offer directly relates to the Feast of Tabernacles. This is a yearly feast in the Jewish tradition commemorating the wilderness wanderings and finally settling in the promised land. The people would build little shelters (or booths) and live under them for a week until the last day – the great day of the feast – to celebrate the promises coming to fulfillment.

In the previous chapter, Peter heard Jesus say, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” Peter, upon experiencing this glorious vision of Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, probably thought, “This is it – Jubilee! Can I make the tents?”

We certainly can’t blame Peter if his mind was a bit blown by what he had just seen, but he also wasn’t totally off. The prophet Zachariah wrote that in the Kingdom of God people will celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles, or the fulfillment of all promises. Peter had the right idea – it just wasn’t the right time.

Peter’s offer was interrupted by a bright cloud overshadowing them, and a voice coming from the cloud saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” The Voice confirmed that Jesus embodied the Christ, so he was not merely a “son of God” like many people of royalty were called in those days, and he was not merely a “son of man,” like an ordinary human being.

Jesus Christ is the Son of God – the beloved and only begotten – and the Son of Man prophesized about in Daniel chapter 7: “I saw one like a human being (or a Son of Man) coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.”

The Voice declared, “This is Jesus Christ, who sits at my right hand, to whom I have given authority over all things.” This is the claim Jesus will make at his trial in front of the Sanhedrin, the claim that will ultimately seal his fate.

The Lord’s transfiguration and the appearance of Moses and Elijah were not meant to frighten the disciples. It certainly made it clear to them that Jesus is what Peter declared him to be, not John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.

I’m sure those three disciples were at least awe-struck and from that point on and listened more intently what Jesus had to say.

After Jesus’ transfiguration, they came down the mountain. As much as it might have been tempting to remain there basking in all that glory, Jesus was ready to begin the final stages of his work as Savior.

He warned his disciples not to tell anyone about who he is until “the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” We can assume he didn’t want them to share this experience even with the other disciples. We don’t know why, but Jesus must have foreseen that sharing this with others before the right time would somehow interfere with his mission.

Now, how can this story help us deal with our fear of change in this time of great change?

Jesus’ transfiguration gives us hope for the future of humanity. God made us, and we are magnificent creatures. Just as Jesus’ transfiguration blew the minds of his disciples, we human beings all have the same mind-blowing potential in union with Christ, and Jesus came to prove it.

In 1 Corinthians 15:50-52, the apostle Paul wrote, “What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.”

On the Mount of Transfiguration, God gave us a glimpse of that mysterious change. He revealed His Glory within Jesus. That glory is also within you as the Christ. That glory is within you. Do you believe that? Do you believe that you can morph into something entirely different?

When we think of the word metamorphosis, we often think of a butterfly. If I were to show you a caterpillar and a butterfly, would you ever believe in a million years that that little worm crawling around in the dirt would transform into a creature of such exquisite beauty and power, floating around in the sky with effortless grace and total freedom, if you hadn’t seen it for yourself?

Behold the power of God within His Creations! We take it for granted, but isn’t that magnificent?

And here we all are, with the same exquisite beauty and power within us that the disciples witnessed in Jesus. It’s hard for us to believe that we are not really this little worm, this physical body, this personal self, crawling around in the dirt of this world. We are really something else – something of unbelievable beauty and power – something that can soar with effortless grace and total freedom.

But the only way that we will ever believe it is to see it for ourselves. Herein lies the problem. We choose to wait in darkness for the “proof” that only our own light will deliver. The caterpillar is driven by its God-given instincts. When it is time, it begins to make its cocoon. The caterpillar’s tomb will become the butterfly’s womb.

We have free will, so we can choose to delay our transformation as long as we want, but not forever. Unlike the caterpillar, we are afraid of change. We’re a bit attached to who we think we are. We think we’re perfectly happy as a little worm. We don’t want God to show us the butterfly we really are.

We can be like the religious leaders who had already made up their minds about Jesus. We have already made up our minds about who we think we are, and the ego doesn’t like to be proven wrong. It also fears the unknown – at least it knows what to expect as a little worm.

But there’s only one way to become the butterfly we really are: We have to let the little worm go. Most people experience this “letting go” upon the death of their physical body, but we can experience this psychologically – without dying.

The timing is up to God, but we can allow God to give us this glimpse of who we really are in His Time by being willing to let go of all the ideas we have about ourselves – to let go of our beliefs, our desires, our likes, our dislikes, our past, our future, and all the other psychological “stuff” that separates us out and makes us “someone.”

I know that sounds strange, but it is believing all this “stuff” that has us convinced that we are the little worm – separate selves with separate lives – when we are really so much more. There is a purpose for this illusion. It’s how God experiences life as a human being – by temporarily “getting lost” in the human experience just like we get temporarily lost in a story by becoming identified with the characters.

We love getting sucked into a good story, don’t we? That’s because we never lose who we really are. God intends for Life to be fun that way – to be a joy – but when forget who we are, we become afraid, and then it isn’t fun anymore. Trials help us remember who we are. They encourage us to enter our cocoon – so that the tomb of our “character” may become the womb of Christ.

Jesus’ transfiguration gives us hope in times of trial. Peter tried to keep the Lord out of the tomb. During Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, Satan also tried to keep Jesus out of the tomb – to seek personal worldly glory, not Christ’s eternal glory.

But then Jesus would have remained Jesus of Nazareth and would never have become Jesus Christ. And we would not have his path to follow and the Holy Spirit to guide and comfort us.

Can you think of a time when you went through a very difficult trial? At the time, you might have thought, “Why are you doing this to me God? What have I done to deserve this?”

But there’s nothing like a difficult trial to destroy the false ideas we have about ourselves – especially the limiting ones. We often don’t know the strength within us until our personal self finally acknowledges complete loss of control and throws up its hands in surrender.

Unfortunately, to get it to that point usually requires a lot of pain. Arthur Burt once said, “Nothing happens until the pain of remaining the same outweighs the pain of change.”

The good news is that we’re not left there in ruins. That’s when the Christ within takes over and takes care of what needs to be done effortlessly. That’s when God’s love and grace and mercy become most apparent. That’s when we realize that trials are not meant to destroy us; they are meant to make us stronger. They are meant to wake us up.

We not only experience trials individually, but also collectively. Humanity is in a lot of pain right now. Can you feel it? Are you shuddering to think how bad the pain might have to get before humanity’s collective ego finally throws up its hands in surrender?

Me too, but at the same time, I trust that we will not be abandoned.

Jesus’ transfiguration confirms our faith. While we don’t know specifically what was said between Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, we can assume that they were discussing his upcoming trial in Jerusalem. Jesus was not abandoned as he approached the most difficult part of his mission.

We can be sure that somehow his experience of being transfigured and his speaking with Moses and Elijah gave him the strength to face it.

Our faith is that strength. From the perspective of the world, Jesus’ march to the tomb was insane. That is why Jesus told his disciples in the previous chapter, “If anyone wants to be my follower, he must forget about himself. He must take up his cross and follow Me. If anyone wants to keep his life safe, he will lose it. If anyone gives up his life because of me, he will save it. For what does a man have if he gets all the world and loses his own soul? What can a man give to buy back his soul?”

I’m quoting the NIV version of this verse because I believe this version makes it clearer what Jesus is talking about. The soul is the one consciousness that animates all living things. This one consciousness is Christ. Christ is the content within every living vessel.

Jesus was saying to his disciples, what have you gained if you protect this vessel but lose its contents? You become like a book with no words written within it. You not only become an empty book, but you lose your connection to everything. You lose the Word which is the very content of the Book of Life.

But the Truth about our loving God is that we can’t get lost; we can only experience ourselves lost temporarily. So, no matter what happens in our personal or collective lives, we should never lose hope, but abound in compassion for the pain within ourselves and all humanity as we struggle to wake up and become all God created us to be.

Let’s pray together: Lord, we are willing to enter the tomb of our personal selves that it may become the womb of Christ. Shine in us, around us, and through us, that the world may see your glory in the faces of your people – faces transfigured by the light of your love. Amen.

Resources

Ross, Allen. “25. The Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-13).” Bible.org 31 Mar. 2006, https://bible.org/seriespage/25-transfiguration-matthew-171-13

Changing the World for the Better

Sermon on the Mount by Carl Bloch, 1877 (Wikimedia Commons)

Synopsis: Changing the world for the better is a very complicated matter when viewed from a political perspective. From a spiritual perspective, however, it’s far less complicated. Jesus taught us how we can easily change the world for the better by being salt and light.

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

On Tuesday, President Trump delivered the annual State of the Union address. Despite all the negative drama going on over the past four years, it’s been a long time since there has been so much interest in what the government is doing. That’s a positive thing.

People’s reactions to the President’s address demonstrated that some believe he is taking the country in a positive direction while others do not. It’s clear that everyone wants our country to be better; it’s just that not everyone agrees about how that can best be accomplished.

Changing a country for the better – indeed changing the world for the better– is an extremely complicated matter when viewed from a political perspective – with political parties often opposing each other tooth-and-nail.

Fortunately, when viewed from a spiritual perspective, it’s far less complicated. Jesus teaches us how we can easily change the world for the better in our Gospel reading for today.

In the previous chapter, Jesus moved from Nazareth to Capernaum to begin his ministry. He called his first disciples: two sets of brothers – Peter and Andrew and James and John. He began preaching in the synagogues and healing the sick throughout Galilee. Matthew reports that his ministry in Galilee was very successful: large crowds of people began following him.

Chapter five opens with the Sermon on the Mount, beginning with the Beatitudes we all know and love. When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up a mountain, sat down, and began to teach. He spoke about the blessings received by those who know they live in darkness and actually mourn over it.

Their sincere sorrow inspires them to earnestly seek righteousness, and as they seek righteousness, they naturally become more merciful, pure in heart, and peaceful. Unfortunately, these qualities are not ones the world values, so those who possess them will be persecuted. But even that is a blessing because it’s a sign that they are “not of this world.”

That brings us to our scripture reading for today. Jesus taught that if we are blessed with these spiritual qualities, then we are like the salt of the earth and the light of the world. We can boil down what he is trying to say to one word: influence. If we are blessed with these spiritual qualities, we can influence the world in a more positive direction. We can change the world for the better.

What did Jesus mean when he said that we are the “salt of the earth?” If Jesus said this today, we might think he is referring to salt as a type of “spice” to flavor things. I like salt. Salt makes a lot of things taste better. Is that what Jesus meant? That we help make life more palatable for people?

Some ministers might interpret it this way, but I think that’s missing the mark. We followers of the Lord do at times make life more pleasant with our compassionate words and deeds, but we also at times make people uncomfortable by challenging them to think and behave differently through our example.

To properly interpret what Jesus meant, we must consider what he said from the perspective of his time and culture. In his time, many households used salt as a preservative for fish and meat since there was no refrigeration. Jesus was most likely referring to salt’s function as a preservative. Those of us who follow Jesus’ example help to preserve righteousness and prevent moral decay.

Most people want to become better people. God created us that way; it’s part of our inherent goodness. Now, there are people in the world who are so lost that they are not in touch with their basic goodness. It’s not God’s Will for anyone to remain lost forever, so we can never give up hope for them. All we can do is pray for them, the main prayer being, “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.”

But they are the exception. Most people want to become better people – to become more rational and considerate human beings. They just don’t know what that looks like because they haven’t had good role models. They need people to influence them in that direction; they need us to be “salty.” 

We need to behave in a way that is vastly different from the way people usually behave. We may not realize how much our words and deeds make a deep impression on others, but people do take notice.

I recently read a story about a sixteen-year-old from Nebraska who lost control of his car on icy roads and took out his neighbor’s mailbox. What do you think he did? What do you think a typical teenager would do in that situation?

This young man walked up to the neighbor’s front door and rang the doorbell. When she answered the door, he explained that he accidently hit her mailbox when his car slid on the icy roads. Then he opened his wallet and offered her all of the cash in it. When she told him it was OK and to keep his money, he was so grateful that he returned three days later with a plateful of homemade cookies for her.

The neighbor was so impressed by this young man’s noble behavior that she posted his picture from her front door security camera on social media, wanting to know who his parents were so that she could tell them what an outstanding young man they raised.

When we behave in a way that is vastly different from the way people usually behave, people not only take notice, but they also do a quick inventory of their own morality. They can’t help but ask themselves, “Would I do that?” Virtuous acts throw up a mirror, forcing people to look at themselves and challenging them to “go and do likewise.”

This young man, though his words and actions, proved that it is possible for human beings to act with a high level of virtue. He raised the bar for all of us. It would have been so easy for him to just get back in his car and drive away. Most teenagers, even most people, probably would have done that. But if he had done that, he would have lost his “saltiness,” and I would not be sharing his inspiring story with all of you today.

Jesus taught that if salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It becomes worthless. Think about it. It’s impossible for salt not to be salty. There is no such thing as saltless salt. If it’s not salty, it’s not salt, and if it’s not salt, then it can’t be used to preserve anything, and that’s its main purpose. If it can’t fulfill its purpose, it is worthless.

It’s our main purpose to preserve righteousness in this world. If we’re going to continue to be salt – to be the kind of influence that makes the world a better place – we can’t lose our saltiness. We can’t do what’s easy. We can’t “sell out” and behave like everyone else.

The Rev. David Martyn Lloyd-Jones once said, “The glory of the gospel is that when the Church is absolutely different from the world, she invariably attracts it. It is then that the world is made to listen to her message, though it may hate it at first.”

What did Jesus mean when he said that we are the “light of the world?” Jesus is essentially making the same point twice, using two different analogies. The world is not only in a state of moral decay, but it is also in state of darkness. As salt, we preserve righteousness. As light, we drive away the darkness.

If we are blessed with the spiritual qualities Jesus spoke about in the Beatitudes, we will drive away unrighteousness wherever we go just as the light drives away the darkness.

How do you know if you are the light? You know you are the light if you walk into a room and people automatically stop gossiping – or cussing – or arguing. Suddenly, people start behaving themselves; they start acting like better people. That’s when you know you are the light.

Dwight L. Moody once said, “A holy life will make the deepest impression. Lighthouses blow no horns, they just shine.” We don’t even have to say a word; the most powerful statement is to simply refuse to participate in or tolerate bad behavior by leaving the room.

We should never fail to take advantage of opportunities to influence people in a positive direction.

In Joyce Myer’s book “The Confident Woman Devotional,” she tells the story of Elizabeth Fry, a Quaker minister in Europe in the early 1800s. Ms. Fry was invited to do social work in England’s Newgate prison. She said she found “half naked women, struggling together … with the most boisterous violence … I felt as if I were going into a den of wild beasts.”

All she did was suggest a few things – that women and men be held in separate areas, that the more violent offenders be separated from the less violent, and that the prisoners be employed in some useful work – and she became one of the greatest prison reformers of all time. Her influence spread throughout France and the British colonies, and today we can’t imagine prisons without her reforms.

Joyce Meyer writes, “If you will do what you can do, God will do what you cannot do. You will also inspire others to do what they can do, and even though each person can only do a little, together we can make a big difference.”

And that brings us to the Law Jesus said that he came fulfill. What was he referring to? Was he referring to the entire Torah Law, both oral and written? Didn’t Jesus have an issue with Torah Law?

Jesus did not have an issue with Torah Law. He had an issue with those who didn’t practice what they preached. Many of the “Teachers of the Law” (i.e. Pharisees and Scribes) taught the people Torah Law but didn’t follow it themselves.

In addition to not following Torah Law, they also didn’t follow “the traditions of the elders” that they insisted others follow. Because they kept people so busy with the outward demonstrations of the Law, people’s hearts weren’t being changed by the Spirit of the Law.

Friday is Valentine’s Day, guys. Imagine bringing flowers to your sweetheart, and your sweetheart says, “Oh sweetie, these are lovely. Why did you do this?” And you respond, “Oh, I don’t know … I’m just doing what they tell me I’m supposed to do. I have no idea why. Seems like just another money-making scam holiday to me.”

Wrong answer.

The right answer would be something like: “How could I not, love of my life? I think of you always; I delight in you! I delight in doing this. What else would I rather do; where else would I rather be than be with you, showering you with my gifts of love?”

The same action coming from two very different places. That’s why Jesus said, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Many of them understood the Spirit of God’s Law as much as that “wrong answer” illustrated an understanding of the Spirit of Valentines’ Day.

And what about the Prophets? Was Jesus saying that he fulfilled all that was written in the books of the prophets, such as the books of Isaiah, Daniel, and Ezekiel? I believe he was saying that he is the fulfillment of all that was written in those prophetic books – the Son of God who is to come to fulfill God’s Law. In other words, he is the Law of God in the flesh. He is the living, breathing Law of God.

That seems complicated, but Jesus simplifies what he means by the Law and the Prophets in Matthew chapter 20: 34-40. We read, “… One of them, a lawyer, asked [Jesus] a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

God’s Law is Love: Loving God and loving one another. Following the Law of Love is about more than just going through the motions; it’s about letting it change our hearts and thus our behavior. The way to change the world for the better is to influence people to become better people.

That’s our job; surely, we can’t expect politicians to do it.

The problem with our world is not complicated – not enough love. How do we know that? Because there are people in this country and in the world who are suffering because of inadequate food, water, shelter, education, employment, or healthcare. If God’s Law of Love has entered into the hearts of enough people, this would not be happening. It wouldn’t be tolerated.

The solution is just as uncomplicated – more love. We need to love people more – enough to take advantage of any and all opportunities to be good to people – enough to speak out and insist that our national and world leaders find reasonable ways to ensure people’s basic needs are met.

That is – after all – the hallmark of an enlightened society. When everyone’s basic needs are met, then we can justifiably say a country or our world is “great.”

How can we love people more? We – as a people – need to get rid of the “us” vs. “them” mentality that so clearly dominates the political scene, often causing governments to be practically non-functioning. A society also can’t function well with this mentality. We can’t count on our governments to change, so we must change.

Everyone wants to live – and to live well would really nice. If God put someone on this earth, he or she is here for a purpose and therefore deserves to have his or her basic needs met and to be treated with the utmost respect.

They are not separate from us: They are one with us in Christ – and if they are not too busy struggling to survive, they have the potential, just like us, to become another glorious in-the-flesh expression of God’s living, breathing, Law of Love. Imagine a world where everyone is just that.

There is a wonderful story that I love to share that illustrates this concept. An anthropologist proposed a game to children of an African tribe. He put a basket of fruit near a tree and told the kids that the first one to reach the fruit would win them all. When he told them to run, they all took each other’s hand and ran together, then sat down together enjoying the fruits.

When asked why they ran like that, as one could have taken all the fruit for oneself, they said, “Ubantu, how can one of us be happy when all the others are sad?” Ubantu is a philosophy of African tribes that can be summed up as “I am because we are.”

Let’s pray together: Lord, it is our desire to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. May the Law of God’s Love fully enter into our hearts and become manifest in our flesh as it did in Yours so that we may powerfully and positively influence the world as you did. Amen.

Resources

Anderson, David. “Lesson 10: Salt, Light, And Law (Matthew 5:13-20).” Bible.org, 23 July 2013, bible.org/seriespage/lesson-10-salt-light-and-law-matthew-513-20.

Meyer, Joyce. The Confident Woman Devotional (p. 43). FaithWords. Kindle Edition.

“Teen Praised for His Honesty After Heartfelt Apology (and Cookies) for Stranger Following Icy Road Incident.” GoodNewsNetwork.org, 29 Jan. 2020, www.goodnewsnetwork.org/teen-praised-for-honesty-after-hitting-mailbox/

Becoming Fishers of Humanity

Domenico Ghirlandaio [Public domain]

Synopsis: There is a difference between a job and a calling – between what you are paid to do versus what you are made to do. Jesus called these Galilean men because they were empty of the three things that keep us all from becoming fishers of humanity.

Scriptures: Matthew 4:12-23

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

How many of you have had a job that paid the bills and gave you plenty of security, but deep down, you felt unfulfilled? Now how many of you have done work that was so deeply fulfilling that you did it even though it didn’t pay the bills or offer you any security?

That’s the difference between a job and a calling: what you are paid to do versus what you are made to do. That’s what our scripture reading for today is all about.

Up to this point in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus had not yet begun his public ministry. He hadn’t preached or performed any miracles. We’ve been given Jesus’ genealogy, and the accounts of his supernatural birth, the visit by the magi, the family’s flight to Egypt, and their eventual settling in Nazareth in the province of Galilee. 

Matthew then fast-forwards through Jesus’ childhood to the story of his baptism by John, where the Spirit’s proclaims that Jesus is indeed the one that God has chosen to carry out his plan of salvation. After this, Jesus enters the wilderness, where his commitment to God is tested. He passes the test and puts on the mantle of the Savior.

All along, Matthew quotes Scriptures to prove that Jesus fits the description of the Messiah the Jews have been expecting. This is essentially the goal of Matthew’s gospel.

Most people don’t realize that about a year passes between Jesus’ temptation and his withdrawal to Galilee. Matthew doesn’t tell us what happened in Jesus’ life during that year, but according to John’s gospel, he was quite busy: He called his first disciples, changed water into wine at Cana, drove the moneychangers out of the Temple in Jerusalem, visited Nicodemus, and spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well.

Capernaum, where Jesus settled according to our scripture reading, was located on the northwest corner of the Sea of Galilee. After John was arrested, Capernaum became Jesus’ home base, rather than his hometown of Nazareth.

There are several callings recorded in the New Testament, which can be a bit confusing. It seems that shortly after Jesus’ baptism, two of John’s disciples, Andrew and Philip, began following Jesus. Andrew recruited his brother Peter, and Philip recruited his brother Nathaniel.

Our scripture reading includes Andrew and Simon (or Peter) and another set of brothers, James and John. It’s possible that these brothers had been following Jesus already, but not full time. We read Jesus said, “follow me, and I will make you fish for people,” and they immediately “left their nets and followed him.” At this point, they became his disciples.

Most of Jesus’ ministry occurred in Galilee, and Matthew gives us an overview of his ministry in Galilee in verses 23 -25. Basically, it was an instant success. He ministered to large crowds of people, teaching, proclaiming the good news, and healing people of many ailments.

An example of Jesus’ ministry is given to us in Matthew chapter 8 verses 14-17: “When Jesus entered Peter’s house, he saw his mother-in-law lying in bed with a fever; he touched her hand, and the fever left her, and she got up and began to serve him.”

“That evening they brought to him many who were possessed with demons, and he cast out the spirits with a word and cured all who were sick. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah, ‘He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.’”

We all know how quickly word spreads in a small town. Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law at some time during the day, and by that evening, many were being brought to Jesus to be healed. In those days, I’m sure there were many incurable diseases and desperate people who had been suffering for a long time.

We can imagine how fast word would travel if someone with this kind of healing power showed up today. People with cancer, mental illness, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome – all the diseases modern medicine can’t seem to cure – would come to be healed.

Jesus didn’t begin his ministry small. The province of Galilee was a little larger than the size of Texas, with 204 total cities and villages, each populated with no less than 15,000 people. The historian Josephus estimated Galilee’s population to be about three million. It would have taken at least a few months, visiting a couple of towns per day, with no time off, to cover it all.

But why would Jesus begin his ministry in Galilee, not in Judea or even in the City of Jerusalem? Galilee was a weird place for Jesus to start his ministry. It was located at the northernmost tier of Palestine, with Samaria sandwiched in between it and Judea, where Jerusalem was located.

It was pretty far from Jerusalem, not only geographically, but also politically. A couple of years before Jesus was born, Judas of Galilee led Sephoris, the capital city of Galilee, into a revolt against the Romans. The Galileans were shamefully crushed.

Jesus was Galilean, his disciples were Galilean, and most of his followers were Galilean, including the women who followed Jesus full time.

Matthew explains that Jesus’ choice was not a mistake; he was fulfilling a prophecy found in Isaiah chapter 9: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined.” These Galileans, these spiritual derelicts and troublemakers, were being given a bright light through Jesus’ presence.

I personally don’t believe Jesus chose Galilee to begin his ministry just to fulfill a prophecy. I think he was looking for followers and disciples, and he knew that Galilee was the right place to find them. He was in a province known for its militancy, but he didn’t recruit these Galileans because he thought they’d be good soldiers.

He recruited them because he believed they would become great “fishers of humanity.”

The work Jesus was calling these men into didn’t have anything to do with doing. It was all about being – being in relationship – being in relationship with Jesus, with God, with one another, and ultimately with all of humanity – catching people in the Net of God’s Love.

Jesus called these Galilean men to be “fishers of humanity” mainly because they were empty. Empty of what? First, they were empty of pride. They were empty of pride because they were men of Galilee, and Galileans were generally looked down upon. People viewed Galileans like people today view those who come from the “wrong side of town.”

The fact that Jesus was a Galilean caused many to doubt that he could possibly be the Messiah. When Philip recruited his brother Nathanial, he said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.”

Even Nathanael had his doubts about this man from Galilee, and Nathanael was a Galilean!

The people of Galilee walked in darkness – so did the people of Judea. The difference is that the people of Galilee knew they walked in darkness; the people of Judea didn’t. I think that’s why Jesus chose Galilee to start his ministry. He knew Galilee was ripe with followers and disciples.

Pride separates us from others because it causes us to see ourselves as superior to those who are different from us. So we say, “I’m not going to associate with those kinds of people.”

Our human nature doesn’t like dealing with people who are different. When people lived in small, tight-knit communities, that wasn’t a problem because people rarely came in contact with outsiders.

In this day and age, with modern technology making long-distance travel and communication quick and easy, we are increasingly coming into contact with a large variety of people who are different from us.

We must get over our aversion to people who are different if we want to become fishers of humanity; otherwise, we won’t be able to extend the Net of God’s love freely.

I recently came across a BBC article and video entitled, “We can get along because that’s America.” The Reverend Shayna Appel (a Democrat) and Nick Desautels (a Republican) met each other at a rally for a Democratic candidate in New Hampshire.

The video begins with Reverend Appel saying, “a queer clergy, non-gender normative individual and a big hairy Trump guy, and here we are getting along because that’s America.” Nick, the big, hairy Trump guy, replied, “It’s sad that people on either side have such a terrible vision of what the other side is about.” Then he talked about how he and the reverend, just by having a five-minute conversation, found out that they actually have a lot in common.

That conversation wouldn’t have happened if the two of them had not been empty of pride.  

Second, these Galilean “fishers of men” were empty of religion. Galilee was not only far from Jerusalem geographically and politically; it was also far from Jerusalem spiritually. Galilee was the most pagan of Jewish provinces, and those who followed Torah Law followed it loosely.

The people of Judea were the opposite. In John chapter 7, when Jesus taught in the Temple during Sukkot, the Festival of Booths, we read, “When they heard these words, some in the crowd said, ‘This is really the prophet.’ Others said, ‘This is the Messiah.’ But some asked, ‘Surely the Messiah does not come from Galilee, does he? Has not the scripture said that the Messiah is descended from David and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David lived?’”

When those in authority considered arresting Jesus, we read “Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus before, and who was one of them, asked, ‘Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?’ They replied, ‘Surely you are not also from Galilee, are you? Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee.’”

The Messiah was standing right in front of them, but their religion was blocking their view. They were attached to their way of interpreting the Torah. That’s why Matthew wrote this gospel – to try to help them view their Scriptures from a different perspective.

If we want to become fishers of humanity, we must be willing to loosen our grip on our religion, especially the literal interpretation of Scripture. We need to learn to view the Scriptures from different perspectives.

I feel sorry for those who are waiting for the world to end catastrophically as described in the Book of Revelations. Some are so afraid of being “left behind” that they won’t relate to anyone outside of their own religious communities. Others try to relate, but it’s coming from a place of fear and judgment.

How many of you have heard of Joseph Campbell? He is the “Matthew” of today. Joseph Campbell was a professor of literature at Sarah Lawrence College; he worked in comparative mythology and comparative religion.

He wrote many books designed to helps us view stories in Holy Scriptures from a mythical perspective. When he calls these stories “myths,” he doesn’t mean they are lies. He means that they point to a truth beyond the literal meaning – a truth about the great mystery of being – a truth that we can’t even begin to grasp without the story as a handle.

In Joseph Campbell’s book Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor, the editor writes, “In a true sense, we might say that Joseph Campbell preaches the End of the World, that great metaphor of spirituality that has been so explosively employed by those who have taken its denotative skin and thrown aside its connotative meat.”

“For, as Campbell explains, the End of the World is not a cataclysmic event to whose final judgmental terror we draw ever closer. The End of the World comes every day for those whose spiritual insight allows them to see the world as it is, transparent to transcendence, a sacrament of mystery, or, as the poet William Blake wrote, ‘infinite.’”

Finally, these Galilean “fishers of men” were empty of fear. When Jesus called them, they immediately left their nets. They didn’t consider what they were getting themselves into or how they would support themselves without their fishing income. They knew deep down that catching fish wasn’t what they were made to do.

Our human nature seeks security through the four P’s: power, prestige, pleasure, and possessions – but no matter how much of these worldly things we have, we never feel secure. That’s because we’re seeking security in all the wrong places.

The key to ultimate security lies in being who we are and in doing what we were made to do. A net’s purpose is to catch fish. That’s what it was made for. We are an extension of God’s Love, so we were made to extend. We are the Net of God’s Love, so by extending Love, we become fishers of humanity, and we step into the purpose for which we were created.

When we step into the purpose for which we were created, God supports us. Think about it: Why wouldn’t he if we are doing exactly what he created us to do? We’ll get exactly what we need when we need it, so we don’t have to worry so much about security.

When we relax and go with the flow of life instead of anxiously trying to survive, we become more aware of what Life is bringing to us and what Life is asking of us. We can clearly see the resources offered to us – but also the opportunities and connections that come our way.

The Reverend David Lose writes, “Jesus issues the same call to us – to be in genuine and real relationships with the people around us, and to be in those relationships the way Jesus was and is in relationship with his disciples and with us: bearing each other’s burdens, caring for each other and especially the vulnerable, holding onto each other through thick and thin, always with the hope and promise of God’s abundant grace.”

“Sometimes that call – to be in Christ-shaped relationship with others – will take us far from home and sometimes it will take shape in and among the people right around us. But it will always involve persons – not simply a mission or a ministry or a movement, but actual, flesh-and-blood persons.”

Think about all the people in your net – all the people you “relate” to in some way – whether it be family, friends, or coworkers. Are any of them carrying a burden? How can you help? Also think about the people who are not in your net. Has the Lord been calling you to cast your net and haul anyone in? Is pride, religion, or fear getting in the way?

Let us all think of ourselves as fishers of humanity – because that’s what we are. God created us for that purpose, and the Lord has been calling us and will keep calling us all our lives to extend the Net of God’s Love to all those He has sent our way.

Let’s pray together:

Lord, we have answered your call to be fishers of humanity. Through the Power of Your Holy Spirit, may we be made aware of any fullness within us so that we can become empty and free to obey the promptings Spirit gives us to cast our net around those in need. Amen.

Resources

Campbell, Joseph. Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor (The Collected Works of Joseph Campbell Book 4) (Kindle Locations 282-284). Joseph Campbell Foundation. Kindle Edition.

Deffinbaugh, Bob. “The Commencement of Jesus’ Ministry (Matthew 4:12-25).” Bible.org, bible.org/seriespage/8-commencement-jesus-ministry-matthew-412-25

Hunt, Janet H. “Following Jesus” That For Which We Were Made.” 15 Jan. 2017, dancingwiththeword.com, dancingwiththeword.com/following-jesus-that-for-which-we-are-made/

Lose, David. “Fishers of People.” Workingpreacher.org, 20 Jan. 2014, www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3018

“We Can Get Along Because That’s America.” BBC News, 17 Jan. 2020, www.bbc.com/news/av/world-us-canada-51158038/we-can-get-along-because-that-s-america?fbclid=IwAR1sMbMJ7vJu6nid9Eu_N5gMsYl49RpK1s_Wj5KT7PIt0drdGNJritEhsvU