Jesus’ teachings

Walking with Jesus

Luke 24:13-35

The seven-mile-long walk home to Emmaus from Jerusalem must have seemed daunting for two weary travelers, one known as Cleopas. They had been in the city as it went into an uproar over Jesus of Nazareth, its people finally succumbing to political intrigue and a spasm of emotion that led to Jesus’ crucifixion.

Just before leaving, they also heard wild stories that only disturbed them more, tales of a tomb flung open, visions of angels, and a dead man walking. Yes, they would travel the seven miles home, but when they got there, could they even sleep? Which would win out, weariness or worry?

A man joined them along the way. We know the story; we know he was Jesus. Why two people who had followed him could not recognize him is not clear. Perhaps it was their grief. Perhaps a resurrected body is different enough that it is not immediately associated with its mortal predecessor. Or perhaps God simply willed that their eyes be veiled for a time to enhance their understanding later.

The man, oddly enough, seemed ignorant of all that had transpired, despite traveling from the same place they had been. They explained what they had seen. He proceeded to make them feel ignorant.

“Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” the man asked. He began to explain the Scriptures to them—he worked from what we would now call the Old Testament, of course—showing them the events of the previous days had to happen.

We don’t know what he specifically cited. Surely he mentioned Genesis 3:15, the condemnation of the serpent for bringing temptation to the garden: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.”

Also, the promise from God to Abraham in Genesis 12:3: “I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

They must have discussed Deuteronomy 18:15—”The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet”—and how Jesus’ role exceeded even that of a prophet.

And of course, they would have discussed prophesies from Isaiah 9, 11 and 53. It was, after all, a long walk.

They must have been intrigued. And being good, hospitable Jews, the kind of Jews who would not leave a man to travel dangerous roads at night alone, they invited him into their home when they finally reached Emmaus.

The stranger must have seemed pushy when they sat down to share a little bread. He took the bread to bless it, a role usually performed by the host. And when he broke it—Jesus! They knew they had been walking with Jesus! And then he vanished!

A seven-mile-long walk back to Jerusalem should have seemed particularly daunting. They should have been exhausted. They should have been fearful, for it was night, and bad things happen on the road at night.

But they walked back down that road anyway—when you’ve experienced the risen Christ, there is no fear.

I suspect they ran as much of the road as they could. When they paused for breath, did they laugh as they gasped for air? Did they discuss how crazy this all would sound once they reached Jerusalem?

Know that Jesus walks with you. Through the revelation of the Bible we’ve already been given, see Jesus for who he is—experience his presence. Then run and tell others. Living the Christian life can be that simple.

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A Good Yield

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Sower_(Le_semeur)_-_James_Tissot_-_overall

The Sower, by James Tissot

The start of today’s parable, commonly called “The Parable of the Sower,” is a bit puzzling. It seems like we should call it “The Parable of the Sloppy Sower,” as seed seems to be flying all over the place, with little consideration of its chance to land in a good place to grow.

But since the sower is God—in particular, Jesus walking among us as God in the flesh—I hesitate to use such a title. There must be something deeper going on.

Now, some would argue that parables are best left unexplained, so the hearers can meditate on them in their undiluted form, allowing the Spirit to instruct them in a deeper understanding of the story’s meaning. But Jesus explained this parable to his puzzled disciples, as well as one about weeds and wheat growing together, so I feel comfortable trying to break his lesson down for you.

The seed is humanity, but there seems to be something extra thrown in, an infusion of holy DNA made possible by the coming of Jesus Christ. What I hear in this parable is that we all have in us the potential to grow in holiness because of Christ. We are also supposed to bear fruit, spreading holiness to other people and growing the kingdom of heaven here on earth. Properly tended, holy fruit begets holy fruit.

What I also hear is that it helps to land in the right setting. Sadly, some people land on the path—that is, they find themselves in a place or time where it’s difficult for their understanding of what Christ means to the world to even begin to germinate. For example, imagine being a child born in one of these places:

  • A Muslim household in Taliban-controlled country.
  • A village in North Korea.
  • An atheist home in the United States.

These children may hear the name of Jesus at some point, but the devil will have a much easier time keeping them from developing their potential as followers of Christ.

For those of us who gather in church to worship Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, it’s probably more important that we focus on the other places where seed may land. We first need to understand where we’re trying to establish roots.

In the other three examples—rocky ground, thorny ground, and good soil—something does sprout and begin to grow. There is a point where all three types would call themselves “Christian.” The distinctions among the three depend on the end results. And among us in church today, it’s distinctly possible we’re a mix of the three growing together. Particularly in our part of the world, the developed, affluent part, it’s hard to distinguish the three.

Rocky ground types normally don’t last long when persecution comes because of their Christian beliefs, but persecution is not something we have to contend with in any serious way. Would our faith be strong enough to sustain us if we found ourselves unemployable because of our beliefs? Would it sustain us if we were tortured because of our beliefs? What if we were threatened with death because of our beliefs? Many of our Christian brothers and sisters in other countries know the answers to these questions we seldom face.

There’s a very good chance many of us are growing among the thorns. The United States of America is one of the thorniest plots of ground on earth. Thorns represent distractions, those things that draw us away from the light that sustains us. Those thorns eventually can grab us and entangle us in ways deadly to our faith, and the whole time, we’re acting like old Brer Rabbit, happy to be in the briar patch.

What has hold of you that keeps you from a deeper relationship with God? Sports? Suddenly, they’re everywhere, in your community and on TV, and Sunday morning is no exception. Other leisure activities? There’s nothing wrong with enjoying life, and everyone needs a vacation, but does leisure enhance or detract from your relationship with God?

Work? Hey, if you’re a workaholic, you can stay at it 12 hours a day, seven days a week. You’ll probably get rich, or at least find yourself moderately well-off. But is your understanding of those big questions of life any deeper? Will the money and possessions sustain you when those questions trouble you?

Good soil is where we want to be, of course. It is made up of all sorts of nutrients, a mix of God’s word, prayer, self-discipline, and religious practices like worship, study and the taking of communion. Whenever we root ourselves in these activities, the Holy Spirit enters us, changes us, and makes us more like what God intended us to be.

Now, if you’re finding yourself a little frustrated or concerned, here’s an important secret to reading parables. Like all metaphors, they break down if stretched too far. The plants in Jesus’ Parable of the Sower are stuck where they land. You are not stuck. You can move to better soil. You can reach down and improve the soil around you.

And fruit will come. You’ll see it in yourself. You’ll see it in your children and grandchildren, who eagerly look to you for guidance. And that fruit will continue to spread. Some of you may even find yourselves plowing ground where there once was only an infertile, hard-packed path, going to people who need to hear about Christ for the first time.

As for all that sloppy sowing by God—well, all we’re talking about is potential goodness finding its way into the world, right? Of course God puts that potential everywhere, even in the difficult places. His kingdom will one day be complete.

Beatitudes IV: Reviled

Matthew 5:10-12

So, let’s say for a moment we’ve managed to engage with God in such a way that we begin to live out what we hear in the Beatitudes. Through the grace of God, we embrace poverty of spirit. Our mournfulness over sin includes the brokenness we see around us every day; we meekly humble ourselves before God, which gives us perspective.

We hunger and thirst for God’s righteousness like starving, waterless people in the desert. A purity of heart grows in us, thanks to the work of the Holy Spirit. Peacemaking becomes our primary occupation, regardless of how we earn a living.

Despite the joy we would experience in connecting so closely to God, we must understand that none of this is the path to what the world would call the good life. If we become the kingdom citizens described in the Beatitudes, we no longer are citizens of this temporal world. We will be in conflict with the world, and we will at times be reviled for standing with God.

Early Christians discovered quickly that Jesus accurately used “when” and not “if” while talking about being persecuted for following him. It was hard to be a Christian; you had to give up a lot in this world.

At work, you constantly encountered situations where you might be in or near buildings involving emperor worship or worship of the Roman gods. Rigid adherence to the idea that Jesus Christ is Lord, not Caesar or some idol, could keep you from earning a living.

Friends tended to socialize at banquets, which usually were dedicated to particular gods. Even the meat served at these banquets usually came from sacrificial offerings to pagan gods. What was a Christian to do?

And unless you were blessed to be born into a Christian family, your newfound beliefs could even divide you from your parents, siblings or spouse.

There also was the constant slander a Christian had to face. Ugly rumors were spread about this new religion. Because of the references to the body and blood of Christ during communion, people on the streets began to say Christians were cannibals. Christians also were seen as sexually immoral because their gatherings were called love feasts and they greeted each other with a kiss.

As bad as all that was for a Christian, the real problem was political. Even before Jesus came, the Roman Empire had devised a loyalty test for its subjects. Once a year, citizens were expected to burn a pinch of incense in a temple dedicated to the “Spirit of Roma” and, later, the emperor, who had taken on the role of a god. Those who refused to do so were considered rebellious, a danger to society, and of course Christians regularly refused, knowing they could not declare any human or made-up god to be Lord over Jesus Christ.

Most of us have heard how some Christians even experienced martyrdom, choosing to die in often grisly ways rather than denying Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. A good example is the martyrdom of Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna and a one-time disciple of the Apostle John.

How could people suffer so and persevere in their faith, even dying for Christ? Well, the answer is pretty simple. They had spent significant time living for Christ.

Let’s also not forget the promised reward. Not only do those persecuted and reviled for Jesus get to go to heaven, their reward is great in heaven. True faith in an abundant afterlife has sustained persecuted Christians for centuries.

I cannot predict whether anyone reading this will ever face such trying circumstances. We are already blessed in that such events rarely occur in the developed world, where freedom of religion is usually respected to at least some degree. But at the same time, circumstances can change very quickly. Just ask our Christian brothers and sisters in Iraq or Syria, assuming you can find some who have not had to flee.

How would any of us face such a challenge? Well, I hope. We would stand with Christ regardless of the circumstances, I pray.

I am sure of this. The true answer lies in how firmly we live with Christ today, tomorrow, and every day of our lives leading to such a moment.

Shrewd Living

Third in a Sermon Series

Third in a Sermon Series

Can following God make you a more shrewd person in this life, helping you succeed?

Proverbs 2:1-15 would seem to promise just such a result. It says God is the source of wisdom and knowledge, and that he grants these gifts to those who earnestly seek them. God wants you to want them; certainly, prayer and study are two ways to seek what you desire.

I am convinced that growing in wisdom and knowledge through a relationship with God is largely dependent on knowing the stories in which God reveals himself to us. People may get tired of preachers saying it, but there’s tremendous value in studying your Bible. There is more there than can be learned in a lifetime, a wealth of wisdom applicable to everyday life.

All I have time to do today is share one example of shrewd thinking in the Bible. I’m going to use a Bible story that may be less familiar than some, a story found in 1 Sam. 25:1-42.

The books of 1 Samuel and 2 Samuel are full of strategy and politics, their focus being the rise of David as the great king of Israel. At this point in the 1 Samuel story, David, accompanied by about 600 soldiers, is fleeing King Saul, who pursues David with as many as 3,000 men. At the same time, David is trying to protect the Israelites from Philistine incursions and other threats.

Feeding a small army is, of course, a constant problem, but David thinks he sees an opportunity. He has protected the shepherds of a wealthy man named Nabal, who is of a tribe not Israelite but aligned with the Israelites. He sends word to Nabal reminding him of how he recently has helped Nabal’s shepherds and requests food.

We quickly come to understand that despite his large collection of livestock, Nabal is not shrewd. Hearing David’s request, Nabal is faced with either an opportunity or a threat, depending on how he chooses to view it. He foolishly treats David’s request as neither.

He does not curry favor with David by offering food; likewise, he fails to prepare a defense as the story unfolds. He simply insults the already famous warrior and his small army. Later in the story, it will be noted that to Israelites’ ears, “Nabal” sounds like a description of a crude or base person.

It’s also clear that Nabal has long ago lost the respect of his servants, household, and even his wife, Abigail. One of the young men runs to her for help, knowing this insult will not go unanswered.

David, the product of a culture based on honor and patronage, is furious, of course. Most English translations don’t fully capture just how angry he is, saying that David mutters he will kill Nabal and all of his “men.” The Hebrew term is far more crude, however; Hebrew expert Robert Alter translates David’s words as a desire to kill every “pisser against the wall.” These are no longer people to David, just creatures about to die on the edges of swords.

This is the moment in the story where we discover why the young man in Nabal’s camp went to Abigail. Her husband may be a dullard, but she is shrewd. In addition to sending the food David needs, she approaches him with a clear strategy in mind. First, she deflects David’s anger by placing the blame on herself, words that clearly cause David to pause a moment.

She then launches into a plea with three clear messages embedded in it: David, remember your past, your present and your future.

She artfully reminds him of his past with a veiled reference to his enemies being flung from “the hollow of the sling.” David has to hear in this a reminder of the day God was with him as he killed Goliath.

She also acknowledges that he is at this moment the anointed one of God and that he will be king, and that it would be inappropriate for such a holy person to take on the sin of bloodguilt, a burden Israelites believed they bore when they killed wrongfully, in anger.

Her strategy works, perhaps even better than she imagined. David relents. Later, when she tells Nabal what almost happened, he becomes “like a stone,” most likely, a description of Nabal having a stroke. Ten days later, he is dead. Upon hearing all of this, David sends for the woman who has impressed him so greatly and asks her to be his wife.

Certainly, there is strategy in Abigail’s actions, but it’s also important to remember that all of her cleverness is rooted in a wise understanding of God’s nature, how God expects us to behave, and how David would understand his role in these relationships.

So, are we supposed to behave similarly today? As people in church, should we be equipping ourselves as disciples who think shrewdly?

Jesus said we should. Jesus wanted us to be thinkers and strategists. My favorite example is in Matthew 10:16. Jesus had sent his disciples out to tell the good news of the arrival of the kingdom, but he noted: “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”

Wisdom, strategy and thoughtfulness are important, Jesus was saying. Just be sure to root them in his message of love and peace.

As a people who believe God reveals himself to us in Scripture and prayer, we’re left with a question: Are we seeking these gifts earnestly, in a way that they can impact our lives now?

If not, you’re leaving some of the benefits of church involvement on the table.

Wind in Our Sails: Our Gifts

The third mast of our Lenten ship brings us to the subject of gifts.

We have many gifts to offer God; certainly, we’re giving gifts back to God and our neighbors when we use our time and talents to spread the love of Jesus Christ. Those gifts tie more directly to the idea of service, however, and we’ll talk about service next week.

Today, I want us to return to a topic we discussed in January, our financial gifts. By the way, I should once again say thanks. We’ve started off the year on a positive financial note, with your tithes and offerings exceeding your expenditures by about $5,000 so far. If the trend continues through the rest of the year, it’s going to be much easier to expand our outreach to people who need to know Christ.

I don’t want us having an extended conversation about numbers today, however. During this Lenten season, as we talk about prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness, we’re talking about matters of the heart, or perhaps “habits of the heart” would be a better phrase, if I can borrow a title from an important book published in 1985.

In our Scripture reading today, Mark 12:41-44, Jesus pointed out the very heart of giving by showing us a poor widow making her offering at Jerusalem’s temple. Specifically, she was in the part of the temple known as the treasury, located in the Women’s Court, as deep into the temple as women were allowed to go.

Here, rich and poor men and women mingled, making their offerings by pouring them into what looked like 13 brass trumpets, their bells upturned like funnels. The handfuls of valuable Jewish silver shekels from the rich would have rattled mightily going in, drawing attention to the wealthy givers.

In contrast, the copper clink of the widow’s two almost worthless coins would have been either lost in the din or perhaps even laughable to some, if she were unfortunate enough to drop them in during a moment of quiet.

And yet Jesus told his disciples, “This poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

Clearly, when we talk about gifts, it’s not just about the number of digits following a dollar sign. The widow’s gift is a financial expression of deep love for God regardless of her particular situation. (I wonder what her mansion in heaven must look like; surely it is one of the biggest ones on the highest hill.)

In an ideal world, the widow who gave her all would have had nothing to worry about. At the foundations of Jewish society was the principle that the least in society—the orphans, the widows, the landless wanderers, the poor—were to receive care from those more blessed. In particular, the people in charge of the temple system, making proper use of the resources flowing through it, should have guaranteed this woman had nothing to fear.

We do not live in an ideal world, however. Back up a few verses in Mark, and you can see the problem in Jesus’ day. In Mark 12:38-40, Jesus denounces the scribes, lawyer-like bureaucrats who worked the religious system to their advantage. In particular, Jesus noted, “They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.”

For a modern analogy, think of silk-suited televangelists who pick and choose Bible verses to build a convincing argument that the elderly poor and others should write checks to them.¹ Scribes used Jewish law in a similar way, selectively choosing and interpreting rules to tell widows the additional burdens they needed to bear. Those brass funnels in the treasury turned into black holes, with bureaucrats on the receiving end sucking up the money so it never emerged to help those in need.

The system could have worked if those with plenty had maintained hearts for those without. Instead, the rich used religion to show off.

The system could have worked if those running it had stayed true to their calling, remembering that the core of Jewish law was to love God with all your heart, mind and strength, and to love your neighbors as yourself.

These principles for giving and using gifts wisely remain the same today. I asked you in January to make percentage pledges based on how you felt God was leading you, using pledge cards that you took home. If you’re still considering that pledge or want to reconsider it, I’ll give you another piece of guidance.

Make your giving decisions when your heart is full of love for God. That may be during a particularly fulfilling moment in worship or in prayer, or simply at a time when you feel blessed. It even could be during a low moment—I know that might sound strange, but it often is in our lowest moments when we’re most sensitive to how much God loves us.

Remember what Christ has done to relieve us of the burden of sin. Like the widow he watched in the treasury, Jesus gave his all. Don’t give because I say so; I’m just Chuck. Give because you truly understand who God is and what God is doing in the world.

I’ll also tell you when not to give. If you ever think this church has stopped doing Christ’s work, don’t give it another penny. I don’t think anyone can legitimately make that complaint right now, though; there’s just too much good being done here in Christ’s name. We may disagree on strategies and priorities from time to time, but the leadership of this church, and most of its membership, I dare say, understand why we exist.

If you give with loving hearts, and if the church continues to use those gifts to reach out with loving hearts, the Kingdom of God will expand because of the people at Cassidy UMC.

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¹I had a fascinating experience while writing this sermon. I needed to get away somewhere quiet, so I went down the street to Warriors Path State Park and wound up sitting in the grill at the marina. While there, two middle-aged women and a much younger woman began talking rather loudly about their opinion of preachers. (I was not dressed like the stereotype of a preacher, instead wearing hiking pants and a baseball jersey.)

“I just don’t trust them,” one of the older ladies said. “I believe in God, but I don’t go to church.”

A big part of her complaint was that she thought preachers were too well-off, citing one she knew “living in the big house with the rich people.” (Even as grateful as I am for the house this church provides its pastor, I don’t think she was describing the Cassidy UMC parsonage.)

Apparently, we all need to spend more time at the grill, and I look forward to getting to know these ladies better.