Matthew 16:24-28

November 17, 2017

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

“For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. 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.” Matthew 16:24-28

What does discipleship look like?

We had a church council meeting this week. A gathering of people who consent to serve in rather thankless leadership roles in the life of our congregation. Every Christian congregation and Jewish synagogue have some form of these councils. We can’t do community life without them. They make decisions that guide the life of the congregation. They lead or serve on teams that do the real actual work it takes to make congregational ministry happen. They spend many hours every week and month doing this. For years.

One of our council members had spent the day in a grueling annual board meeting at work. When it ended, the others planned to go to a happy hour to relax. She said she couldn’t because she had to go to a church council meeting. She said, “They looked at me like I was crazy.”

For some people, their experience of the faith amounts to what one of our church folk here refer to as “sit and git” Christianity. The faith is a spectator sport for them. They expect worship to entertain and serve them. They think that giving money to charity is the best they can do to make a difference in the world. Their weekly engagement with the world at home and work happens with hardly a thought along the lines of “What did Jesus do?” They make time for worship, learning, or service only after their calendar clears up from all their other travel plans, hobbies, sports, or just sleeping in. Then they wonder why they just don’t “feel very connected” to the life of the congregation.

This seems to fall short of a standard that begins with these words: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

I once worked at a Bible camp where the staff was expected to work hard. “Don’t just sit there, do something!” was pretty much internalized by all of us. And it was not too subtly enforced by the director of the camp. It wasn’t so much what he said, it was more of a non-verbal kind of communication, but we all were terrified of being caught by him in a non-productive moment. I didn’t like it at all. I specifically remember thinking that, if I ever get to be the boss of anything, I’m not going to be that kind of boss. My co-workers won’t be afraid of me. Their stomachs won’t tighten when they hear me coming down the hall.

I think about that when I read again Jesus’ words about the cost of discipleship. Clearly, his expectations are different than the “what’s in it for me?” attitude that drives much of what we do in our lives. We could read those words as if he was a scary boss who only values his employees for what they produce but I don’t think we need to. Even given the warning at the end of the final accounting to come.

I think it far better to hear him as one who knows us, and understands life, far better than we do. He knows what we need, even what we want, and he knows how misguided we are in finding those things. He does care about “what is in it for us” but he knows that the good we seek is best found when such good flows through us rather than ending in us. He knows things like real freedom lies not in the absence of responsibilities but in accepting and fulfilling those responsibilities with willing and grateful hearts.

The world might think such thoughts are crazy. Jesus doesn’t.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, bring us to that place of maturity where we finally realize that our lives do not belong to us, that we are instruments useful to you, and that the daily responsibilities of our lives are where crosses come and we bear them or not. Thank you for the hours of diligent service, the hidden acts of love and care, the tireless efforts made for the sake of justice for all, that happen every day through those who heed your call to self-giving love and service to the neighbor. May you find us doing the next right thing, regardless of the consequences, not because we have to but because we want to. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

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Matthew 16:21-23

November 16, 2017

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.” Matthew 16:21-23

So the question is asked yet again, “If there really is a God, and if God is really good, then why does God allow so much suffering in the world?” Every human being has wrestled with that question. We ask it when said suffering happens far from us – a concert in Las Vegas, a church in Texas, a highway in California, a refugee camp in Africa, a village in Puerto Rico – and we ask it when it draws near to us – a loved one in a hospital, a friend with a harsh diagnosis, our own broken hearts.

The closest Jesus ever got to answering this question didn’t really answer the question. In John 9 he told his disciples that a man’s blindness was an occasion for God to do something good. And in Luke 13 Jesus says that hearing about the murder of innocents under Pilate and the tragic accident when the tower of Siloam fell and crushed eighteen people should inspire in us a desire to repent. That helps?

What if we quit trying to answer the question. What if we turn the question around a bit. Is God present in our suffering or is God absent from our suffering? The Bible’s answer is yes. God is present in our suffering because God is present everywhere. We can’t escape God’s presence (Psalm 139). Yet Jesus himself felt God’s utter absence in his own suffering, (Matthew 27:46). God is present but God can seem absent. That is our felt reality. But the deeper reality is that God is never closer to us than in our suffering – and God can come out of hiding in our suffering in remarkable ways.

Peter wasn’t ready to hear that. For Peter, suffering and God’s presence didn’t fit together. That suffering was in inevitable part of Jesus’ journey was not acceptable to Peter. That Jesus would willingly enter a time of real suffering did not fit with Peter’s sense of a future. Peter was following Jesus to ESCAPE suffering, not to enter it. There was that line in the sand again. And here is the sign of Jonah.

The stark reality of creation is that every living thing is going to die. Some measure of suffering along the way is unavoidable. What God opens to us in Jesus is not just life after death but life before death. What God calls us to alleviating suffering and preventing unnecessary suffering. Jesus turns toward Jerusalem and the suffering that awaits him there out of love. Divine, self-giving, self-sacrificing love.

That might not make much sense to Peter when looking at it from a human self-preservation point of view. Later, he will come around.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, you turn us inside out and around and around when we look at your life and then our own. Where we escape, you enter. What we avoid, you embrace. When we would hold back, you would give freely. Again and again you hold open the door that says “Fullness of Life for All” and it always looks like repenting of our ways and following yours. Keep working on us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 16:13-20

November 15, 2017

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”

Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. Matthew 16:13-20

Here comes the first line in the sand. “But who do you say that I am?”

Jesus asked this question of the disciples in the district of Caesarea Philippi. This is a beautiful place. It is in the wooded foothills of Mount Hermon. A spring of water comes out of a grotto creating a small stream that gives birth to the Jordan River. Its significance reaches back to Alexander the Great who established a temple to honor the Greek god of nature, Pan. Later it became a Roman imperial city, an administrative center, renamed to honor Caesar Augustus.

Jesus traveled all the way north from Galilee, to the very edge of Israel, to an historic place that represented creation, pagan idolatry, and political power and only then asked his questions. “Who do people say that I am?” “Who do you say that I am?”

The options haven’t changed much over the years. Some say John the Baptist – an edgy religious teacher, a spiritual revolutionary – others say Elijah – a miracle worker who channels the power of God – still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets – one who speaks on God’s behalf to challenge both the people and their leaders. Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t disagree with any of that. But the real question is the one that follows.

But who do you say that I am?” Now he gets personal. Standing there, so close to the earthly power centers of pagan religion, emperor devotion, and political power, Jesus draws his line in the sand. He asks his disciples, and he asks us, “Who am I, to you?”

We only hear Peter’s response. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” You, not Caesar, are the chosen one, the anointed one, the Savior, and Lord of all. You are the Son of the living God, not the ancient gods of nature who were so quick to bless earthly power, to welcome Caesars into their pantheon of divinity. Peter got it right.

Jesus quickly affirms Peter, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah.” That’s an interesting title. Remember Jesus’ words from verse 4 of this chapter? “An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” More on that tomorrow.

Today Jesus asks us, “Who is Jesus, to us?” Is he a spiritual sideshow or Lord of our lives? Is he a magician, a miracle worker, good only for our entertainment or perhaps our rescue? Or is he the living embodiment of God, the One who reveals God’s will for all of life?

Martin Luther taught that our god is anything we look to for status, identity, and security. Who will it be? Caesar or Jesus? The gods of culture or the God of Creation? Who am I, to you?

Let us pray: Dear Lord, we don’t always, or even often, understand you. We don’t see you clearly. Our eyes are so easily blinded, our vision clouded, by the voices that call for our obedience and devotion. We need what Peter received, that power greater than ourselves, that insight that comes only from your Spirit, that we might believe, trust, and follow. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 16:5-12

November 14, 2017

When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread. Jesus said to them, “Watch out, and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” They said to one another, “It is because we have brought no bread.”

And becoming aware of it, Jesus said, “You of little faith, why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive? Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? How could you fail to perceive that I was not speaking about bread? Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees!”

Then they understood that he had not told them to beware of the yeast of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Matthew 16:5-12

Every interaction between Jesus and his disciples is an opportunity to place ourselves right in the middle of the story. We, modern day disciples, easily find ourselves fitting right in. That helps us listen well to this chapter from Matthew.

The disciples forgot to bring lunch as they crossed the lake. Someone told Jesus. “Sorry about that. I guess we forgot to bring any bread.” Oops. Then Jesus throws them a curve, “Watch out, and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” The disciples didn’t know what to make of that. What does that have to do with all of us going without lunch today?

Jesus reminds them of the miraculous feedings that they witnessed, and benefited from. Of course God cares about food for your bellies! God provides daily bread. But God also cares about the ideas that you allow into your mind. God cares about what you believe just as God cares about what you eat. The ideas put forth by the opponents of Jesus are deadly. The ideas put forth by Jesus are life giving.

The most obvious false teaching promulgated by the Pharisees and Sadducees is that Jesus is a charlatan. Just another would be Messiah figure who is destined both to lead his followers into spiritual ruin (a key idea for the Pharisees) and into conflict with the Romans (a key idea for the Sadducees.)

What neither of Jesus’ opponents admit is the threat that he poses to their own livelihoods. The Pharisees benefit from their role as spiritual authorities within the lives of the people. The Sadducees benefit from their cushy relationship with the Romans which allows them to run the Temple like a profit generating family business. Jesus threatens both of them. If Jesus gets his way, if he turns the hearts and minds of the people away from the power structures that undergird the Pharisees and Sadducees, then they will be the ones scurrying for daily bread. They can’t allow that to happen. So they reject Jesus. Ultimately they will kill him.

If you really are who you say you are, then turn these stones into bread.” That was one of the great temptations posed to Jesus by the devil in the wilderness. Jesus fended him off with a reminder, “Man does not live by bread alone.” We do well to heed those words.

If all we care about is bread for our bellies, if all we care about are the material wants in our lives, we are in trouble. We open ourselves to accepting all sorts of ideas, willing to then do all sorts of immoral and unjust things, that promise us material success. “I want mine and I don’t care about you” is no way to build a common life.

If we trust that God will provide us daily bread, that doing our part according to our skills and abilities will result in everyone getting enough, then we will truly know freedom. It is the self-giving stance toward life that separates Jesus from the self-seeking, self-gratification stance toward life of the Pharisees and the Sadducees.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, we do care about our daily bread. We have to. We need to eat. But you know that we need much more than that. Expose the selfishness and self-seeking ideas that drive us away from you and away from one another. Remind us anew that you provide what we need and that sharing, giving of ourselves out of love for our neighbor, is your path to freedom and life. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 16:1-4

November 13, 2017

The Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test Jesus they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. He answered them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” Then he left them and went away. Matthew 16:1-4

Today’s reading opens in a very unsurprising way. The Pharisees and Sadducees, the two competing voices for spiritual authority in Israel who would normally be opposed to each other in knee jerk, reactive, ways, are strangely aligned in their rejection of Jesus. Once again they seek to attack him, to test him. They ask for a sign from heaven. No surprise there.

Jesus points out the obvious. They “see” what they want to see. They are capable of interpreting meteorological data. Red sky at night, sailors’ delight; red sky in the morning, sailors’ take warning. That’s easy. It is an old saw based on observable atmospheric conditions and long life experience, taught to the youngest of children. There is nothing new there. But then Jesus throws in the first of two shattering pronouncements – you cannot interpret the signs of the times, quickly followed by no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah. How do we hear this today?

Psychologists have long known that people are susceptible to what they call a “myside bias.” That is, we are quick to support our own point of view and eager to find evidence to support what we already believe. Conversely, we are quick to reject alternative points of view that challenge our biases. My sense is that Jesus picks up on this in pointing out how the Pharisees and Sadducees are incapable of interpreting the signs of the times. Jesus is standing right there in front of them but they can’t see him. Their myside bias is blinding them to the obvious.

We saw a clear case of that last week. A public official equated the suggestion that a 32 year old man accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with a 14 year old girl is no different than an adult Joseph and a teenaged Mary becoming parents of Jesus. He used Jesus to apologize for behavior that, if true, would be criminal! Ludicrous, blasphemous, and utterly appalling. How can any follower of Jesus not find that disgusting?

Beyond that, how is that comparison any different than if Devin Kelley was still alive and arguing that what he did in that church is not a whole lot different than what Samson did with the jawbone of a donkey since both behaviors began with anger triggered by a scene of domestic disturbance and his frustration with his father-in-law? (Read the story in Judges 15.)

Yet where was the outcry from evangelical circles who support that now 70 year old man’s quest to become a senator? Where were the voices of indignation and cries of “heresy!” from the many organizations that have long been far more Republican than Christian? Silence. Equivocation. Justification. Myside bias.

What is the sign of Jonah? We will discover that as we continue to read through Matthew 16, a chapter when Jesus draws several lines in the sand, inviting us all to declare who we believe Jesus to be, even as Jesus guides us toward what it means to follow him.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, we all fall prey to myside bias. We defend ourselves, our ways of looking at the world, often in irrational and knee jerk ways. Just as your opponents couldn’t see you, we too often see only what we seek to see, blind to the realities that would reshape our perspective, change our minds, and open our hearts. Keep working on us! Heal us in our blindness. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 15:29-39

November 10, 2017

After Jesus had left that place, he passed along the Sea of Galilee, and he went up the mountain, where he sat down. Great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the maimed, the blind, the mute, and many others. They put them at his feet, and he cured them, so that the crowd was amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the maimed whole, the lame walking, and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel.

Then Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat; and I do not want to send them away hungry, for they might faint on the way.” The disciples said to him, “Where are we to get enough bread in the desert to feed so great a crowd?” Jesus asked them, “How many loaves have you?” They said, “Seven, and a few small fish.”

Then ordering the crowd to sit down on the ground, he took the seven loaves and the fish; and after giving thanks he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all of them ate and were filled; and they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. Those who had eaten were four thousand men, besides women and children. After sending away the crowds, he got into the boat and went to the region of Magadan. Matthew 15:29-39

What can we expect after a blockbuster Hollywood movie makes a ton of money? A sequel. Maybe a whole series of sequels. Maybe even a prequel after a whole series of sequels ala Star Wars. So it is that the story of the feeding of the 5000 (plus women and children), which is the only miracle story recorded in all four gospels, is followed up by the feeding of the 4000 (plus women and children), which appears in both Matthew and Mark.

The key elements in each story repeat. Jesus helps people. Jesus recognizes their need to eat. Jesus calls upon the disciples to feed them. The disciples don’t see how they can do that. Jesus asks for whatever resources are available. He breaks the bread, gives thanks, and everyone gets more than enough to eat. Including women and children.

In a world where getting enough to eat on a daily basis was a real struggle, this story of plenty would never be forgotten. In a world without the insight and capacity of modern medicine, physical infirmity was doubly painful as it also carried the stigma of being forgotten or cursed by God. The healing ministry of Jesus was then doubly wonderful – physical healing also meant returning whole to community.

Your reputation precedes you.” I don’t know who first coined that phrase but it fits Jesus like a glove. Word of mouth – still the most powerful and effective form of advertising – said that, when Jesus shows up, good things happen. Over time the crowds just kept growing and growing. People heard about miraculous healings. They heard about the crowds being fed. Why wouldn’t people want to get in on that action?

John’s gospel calls the miracles of Jesus “signs.” I always try to remember that. Signs don’t exist for their own sake, they only exist to point beyond themselves to a destination yet to come. Signs are helpful in getting us to where we want to go but they aren’t the point. So it is with the miracle stories of Jesus. They point beyond themselves, they are not ends in themselves.

We could very well be initially attracted to Jesus because we want to “get in on that action.” We want the good things that we have heard Jesus delivers. And trusting in Jesus does deliver good things. But that isn’t the point. Like signs, the love of God which comes to us is always meant to go through us. We might show up as a guest, as a consumer, but then God walks with us toward maturity and we begin to see that God calls us to be a member, a teammate, a producer, of good in the world.

The feeding of the 5000, then the 4000, teaches us that following Jesus means being people of compassion who recognize the true hunger stealing life from the world. Compassion that translates into action, action that is magnified beyond our own capacity, in a holy, godly way. This is good news to everyone, including the easily marginalized women and children.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, we remember stories of the marvelous things that you did. You teach us, in those stories, what it means to follow you. Encourage us to see beyond our own limitations to your infinite power and love. Encourage us to see through and beyond the signs which you put in our path, that we might follow you to the very end. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

 

Matthew 15:21-28

November 9, 2017

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.”

He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly. Matthew 15:21-28

This story has always been a bit troublesome for me. It comes up every three years in the Sunday readings so I have written several sermons on it. I’ve looked at the story from many different points of view. It remains troublesome.

Clearly the woman is an outsider. A Canaanite. But that ought not be a problem. Jesus welcomes outsiders. Jesus welcomes women. The woman at the well is one of my favorite stories. But, in this story, there is no getting around it, Jesus is a jerk.

Well, I do remember one sermon when I suggested that we might hear the story very differently if we were there. What if Jesus had a big smile on his face? What if Jesus was joking? I didn’t buy it myself but it was an idea. Jesus still comes across as a jerk.

Why a jerk? Because everything I know and believe about Jesus is that he came to throw open the doors to the kingdom of heaven to all people who come to trust and follow him. Gone are the days when God was the exclusive possession of the people of Israel. Now all of humanity was grafted to the tree of Israel (Romans 11:17-24). This Jesus came PRECISELY for this Canaanite woman. And for you and me and every other Christian not born into a Jewish family.

God’s love doesn’t exclude Jews, it includes everyone else.

I’ve wondered before if Jesus was just having a bad day. I’ve wondered if the anti-Gentile cultural prejudice of Jesus’ earthly tribe had sunk under Jesus’ skin in ways that even he wasn’t aware. The story remains troublesome for me.

But then it turns on the insistence of the woman not to be rejected or ignored. She is there on purpose – her daughter is sick and needs help. She is not going to let a crowd of men dismiss her or the insults of the man in charge distract her. Every time I get to this turning point in the story I want to cry out, “YOU GO GIRL!”

This anonymous Canaanite woman becomes a hero to every woman who has felt the demeaning and dismissive attitudes and actions of a male dominated world. Every girl ever told that “girls don’t do things like that”. Every woman with a great big glass ceiling bump on her head. She is persistent – “Lord, help me.” – and she is smart – “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” She transforms Jesus’ attitude before he acts on her behalf. She gets what she needs. Her daughter is healed.

This has always been a troublesome story and that is a good thing. We don’t put them on greeting cards. We don’t reduce them to pithy aphorisms. Troublesome stories require us to wrestle with them. They require our imaginations. We need to engage them. As we do that, they reveal more and more.

This morning what I am seeing for the first time is that, when Jesus commends this woman’s faith, he is commending both the faith she demonstrates in Jesus AND the faith she demonstrates in herself. In her own value and worth. In her own capacity to push through the crowd and be heard. In her own intuition that Jesus can be helpful, he can be the answer, even to her daughter. “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”

Let us pray: Dear Lord, you healed the daughter of a woman who persisted in coming to you for help. She was undeterred by those who told her to go away and even by your failure to immediately welcome her. May she be our model of faith today – that we might entrust ourselves fully to you and that we might trust ourselves enough to hang in there and be patient in the face of things we cannot control or change. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 15:15-20

November 8, 2017

But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.” Then he said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.” Matthew 15:15-20

Most of us live our lives on auto-pilot. We’re not aware of that…because we are on auto-pilot. We do what we do because it is what we do. We think what we think because it is what we think. We react instead of act even as we fool ourselves into believing that our actions are thoughtful and reasonable when, in fact, they are just knee jerk auto-pilot reactions.

The key word in that last sentence is “believing.”

Few of us slow down long enough, few of us dig down deep enough, to thoughtfully and prayerfully consider what really are the core beliefs which drive us. Because that is how we work.

Our lives begin in our belief systems. Our feelings are generated by a simple equation – what we believe + what happens in our lives = how we feel and thus, how we act.

Ritual washing was an important part of the daily spirituality of a Jew. And a Muslim. And quite a few other religious traditions as well. It was tied to a belief system that says there are certain behaviors that God expects from us. These behaviors draw us closer to God. They identify us as people of faith. They are a visible sign of our devotion. To wash correctly is to please God. To please God means that good things will happen to us. To displease God means that bad things will happen to us. Thus we need to faithfully and diligently ritually wash.

That is the belief system that drives auto-pilot religious devotion. Beliefs about God. Beliefs about how God acts. Beliefs about what triggers God’s actions toward us. Beliefs which lead to feelings of fear, comfort, hope, and peace. You can well imagine how it drove the Pharisees crazy to see Jesus’ disciples display such a casual disregard toward their time-honored practices. To them it meant that the failure to wash their hands was like spitting in God’s face.

But it didn’t seem to bother Jesus. Why? Because he was driven by a different set of beliefs. For Jesus, God was ever-present and ever-loving. God was merciful and inclusive, not mercurial and tribal. God was vitally interested in relationships among and between people. God wanted people free to enjoy the fullness of life as God created life to be lived. Jesus clearly saw how religious practices could be twisted into a smokescreen that diverted us from God rather than a window to help us more clearly see God.

So Jesus redirects the Pharisees away from the superficial to the significant. He attacks them at the level of their belief system. He draws their focus from what they put in their mouths to what comes out of their hearts.

All of the destructive behaviors that Jesus lists here – evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander – are behaviors that begin out of faulty belief systems. If we believe that “I am the boss of me” then we set ourselves free to do pretty much whatever we want. If we believe that there is no God, there is no divine order to life, there are no ultimate consequences, we set ourselves free to do whatever we can get away with. If we believe that we are fundamentally flawed, broken, and hopeless, beliefs which carry great emotional pain, then we will behave in any manner that helps us feel better.

But, if we believe that God is good and God is loving, if we believe that God loves us and wants the best for us, and that God wants the best for others through us, we might experience a very different set of feelings. We might even behave in very different ways.

Religion and spirituality need not be smokescreens. But, unexamined, and either blindly followed or blindly rejected, they can be the darkest smokescreen of all. They blind us to the real beliefs that drive us, the real auto-pilot settings of our lives.

Jesus wants to cure our blindness and heal our hearts. We do well to remember that those who are truly blind are those who refuse to see.

Let us pray: Dear Jesus, you see into our hearts. You see us more clearly than we see ourselves. You see how we treat ourselves and others. How we look at the world around us. You see our blind spots and our misguided beliefs and our destructive attitudes and behaviors. Be our mirror. Open our eyes. Draw our hearts to you. Heal our blindness. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 15:10-14

November 7, 2017

Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”

Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?”

He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.” Matthew 15:10-14

Those poor Pharisees. We know that they meant well. They really did see themselves as the protectors and defenders and champions of true, authentic, heartfelt devotion to Yahweh. They didn’t run for the hills and disassociate themselves from life like the Essenes. They didn’t cast their faith aside for political expediency like the Herodians. And they certainly didn’t sell themselves out as pawns of the state like the Sadducees. They really did mean well.

They meant well when they offered their strict interpretation of the law to the people. When they warned the people of the judgment to come, the final resurrection, where a good life on earth would take you to the bosom of Abraham and a bad life to the lake of fire.

They meant well when they cautioned the people against pinning their hopes on all of the obviously false messiahs who were peddling their misguided ideas in the marketplace. They opposed them in the name of their old time religion that was good enough for their forefathers so it was good enough for them. Tradition! Tradition!

Those poor Pharisees. They meant well. They certainly had the ear of the people. But when it came to Jesus – who he was, what he taught, what he meant for the world – they were dead wrong. They were blind guides. Blind because they could not see. Blind because they refused to see. And dangerously blind because they led those who followed them into the very pit that they were trying so hard to avoid.

Today the issue is eating kosher. Dietary regulations. Understand that those were traditions that reached back as far as anyone could remember. But they were not rules rooted in good health. They were arbitrary traditions rooted in tribal identity. We are who we are because we are not like other people. No bacon for us! As long as we stick to our rules, we will be OK. The rules are what matter because there is nothing more important than tribal identity. We are not like those dirty Gentiles, we are the people of God. We are special. We are chosen.

It was exactly that mindset that drove the Pharisees to oppose Jesus because of the threat that he posed to their whole system. The same mindset that allowed them to create all sorts of self-serving legal loopholes to twist the faith to their own advantage. They could cling to their precious principles regardless of the havoc that might have created in the lives of people.

Yes, it is hard to admit when we are wrong. It is hard to admit that we have bought the wrong farm, polluted our minds with the wrong ideas, let our hearts follow the wrong loves that led us into holes rather than into wholeness.

Those poor Pharisees. Can we see them? Can we see how they saw the world? Can we see them within us? Or are we blind to the many ways we do the very same things? For the see Jesus clearly means we also see the Pharisees within us clearly as well. If we don’t, then we will channel Jesus through our own self-serving lens and we too will stumble into the pit.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, who should we trust? Where should we turn? What should we follow? How should we change our minds, alter our behaviors, adjust our attitudes? Dozens more innocent people were killed in a hail of bullets this past weekend. Your people. Our brothers and sisters. What voices will lead us out of darkness of blindness and despair into the light of hope and promise? Give us answers and direction, and open our hearts and minds to follow. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 15:1-9

November 6, 2017

Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.”

He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ But you say that whoever tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is given to God,’ then that person need not honor the father. So, for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God. You hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’” Matthew 15:1-9

Let’s start with the delicious irony that the religious leaders attack Jesus because they have noticed that his disciples aren’t studiously observing the rules of ritual washing before they eat. Obviously they have been watching the disciples like hawks. Watching to catch them breaking even the slightest of rules. Just waiting to say GOTCHA!

Can you imagine what it would be like for a police officer to take it upon himself to follow your car all day, ever ready to write a ticket for even the slightest infraction? Following you from home to work to the errands you might run during the day? Rolling through a stop sign. Failing to use your blinkers to change lanes. Riding 1 mph above the speed limit? I doubt there is a driver in America – and certainly NONE in Houston – who could make it to 2:00 PM without enough tickets to require a lawyer.

But the point of traffic laws is not writing tickets. The point of traffic laws is to allow traffic to flow safely. The rules of the road are meant to help drivers safely cooperate with one another so that everyone gets where they need to go. And yes, the point of tickets is to punish those drivers who break those laws. But the whole system depends, not on the ability of police officers to write tickets but on the willingness of the drivers to follow the rules.

Now suppose you were a government official with the power to tell police officers what to do. And suppose you wanted to intimidate someone into doing what you wanted them to do so you planted a police officer in front of their house. Someone who would follow you all day long, writing tickets for every minor infraction they saw, just to mess with you. That is exactly what the Pharisees were doing with Jesus. They were abusing their positions and their power.

But they were messing with the wrong guy. Jesus wasn’t going to be intimidated and he wasn’t going to back down. He got right in their faces. He pointed out how they twisted the rules to benefit themselves. How they ignored the deeper godly purpose of the law so they could serve themselves even as they held their noses in the air and publicly displayed their religiosity. The very definition of hypocrisy!

Self-serving, self-dealing leaders are charlatans. Loopholes are just legalized cheating. Just because you can doesn’t mean you ought to. You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you can never fool Jesus who sees your heart with utter clarity.

Let us pray: Dear Jesus, you know how prone we are to selfishness and self-centeredness. You know how quick we are to cherry pick which rules we follow and which ones we ignore. Forgive us our hypocrisy. Set us free to do the next right thing, which always turns out to be the loving thing, and the just thing. In Jesus’ name. Amen.