Pentecost 17 Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32 Philippians 2:1-13 Matthew 21:23-32 Let us pray: Show us your ways, O Lord, and teach us your paths. Grant us grace to receive your truth in faith, hope and love -- that we may be obedient to your will and live always for your glory, through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Today we have another short parable of Jesus from the Gospel of Matthew and it is a simple one. It comes as Jesus is being questioned by the chief priests and elders and it appears to me Jesus is calling them “Religious Couch Potatoes” as they think they know everything but do nothing. Jesus says there was a father who had two sons. The father asked them to go out and work in the field. One of the sons disrespectfully answers, "No! I won’t go!"
A little later, the father looks up from what he is doing and there is that same son working out in the field.
His other son, when asked to work said respectfully, "Father, nothing would please me more than to go out and work in the field for you." Two hours later, the polite, submissive, obedient son is still lying on the sofa watching TV.
Now think hard, says Jesus, which son do you think pleased the father more? The one who said no, but then went into action or the one who politely said yes but then did nothing?
You would agree with me that there are some things in life that you can’t really get to know unless you do them. You can’t learn how to dance, just by listening to a good speaker on the subject of "How to do the foxtrot," even if it is a very good talk on what steps to take and when to grasp you partner’s hand or waist. That’s fine to know the theory but if you really want to know how to do the Foxtrot then you have to get up and do the dance, perform the moves, and let the rhythm of the music take over.
In my pastoral training I learned all kinds of things from very learned and respected teachers. We sat around tables discussing, talking, being advised by our lecturers, and even outside of classes, we talked about deep and meaningful things. But it was only when I got out into a parish that I really learned what it means to be a pastor. All those words came to life as they were performed.
The Bible is the most important book for every Christian. But the Christian faith is not just words in a book. We can hear those words day after day in our devotions, studies and week after week in a sermon, but we only get to know what those words really mean when we put them into practice. You see it boils down to this. Being a Christian is not simply giving intellectual agreement to the teachings of the Bible. It is not some sort of guiding philosophy for life to which you give your approval.
Jesus didn’t lay down a new system of beliefs and theology. Other people have written thick books what the Christian Church teaches and believes. Jesus didn’t write anything like this. He spoke God's message to all people but more than that he lived what he taught and preached.
He not only spoke fine words about loving God and loving one another; he not only taught about forgiving, and caring for one another, or how to pray – he actually lived those words as he travelled from town to town healing, encouraging, forgiving.
The teachings of Jesus came to life as he carried out his daily ministry to others, as he gave his life out of love, as he rose victorious from the grave. Jesus didn’t ask us simply to agree with him but to follow him. He says to us, "I have given you the example. You should do for each other exactly what I have done for you. You have seen how I have not only spoken God's Word but also done the will of my Father. Go and do the same so that others may know that you are my followers." That’s where the rubber hits the road. It is the doing that really matters. The Christian faith is only known through its performance.
As a preacher, I am in the business of words. I write words, as I did for this sermon. I speak words. I think words. But as a preacher I am also aware, painfully aware, all the things that words cannot do.
A pastor asked a group of parishioners what they thought made up a good sermon. One member said, "I want a sermon which helps me to think about things in a new way."
That sounded pretty good and so he began to mold his sermons in such a way that they challenged people to think about things in a new way. But after a while he began to reassess that comment. He said: "We love to think about things. We love to turn them over in our minds, then go home and have a good lunch. We think, or feel, but never act. A good sermon ought to help my listeners to act on things in a new way."
I have a poster in my workshop that reads, “You can’t plow a field by turning it over in your mind.”
And what of you and me? Sometimes we talk a great story like the second son and yet there's little or no action.
As a preacher, my first task is not to be interesting, informative, engaging, descriptive, or even humorous. (I hope that my sermons are some of those things some of the time.) But none of those characteristics, as important as they may be, are the ultimate test of Christian preaching. The words spoken in worship need to be transformed into doing. Under the power of the Holy Spirit you, the hearer, receive those words as a message from God himself. But that’s not the end of the sermon. It is when you act on what you have heard. Hearers must become doers. The faith inside the church must be performed in the world. That is the final test of our worship and the hearing of my preaching.
A devotional book may be interesting with lots of stories and illustrations. The author may be very good with words and explain the Bible passage in an informative and entertaining way. But the final test of all those words and the brilliance of the author is whether those words are performed in the daily lives of the reader.
And that is where the difficulty rests. We are so much like that second son in Jesus’ parable. We are polite, obliging and co-operative. We hear the words and say: "Yes, Lord, I would be so pleased to do as you ask," but as often happens, we do little or nothing about it.
How many of us have made rash promises and then faltered in keeping our promises? Perhaps we have made an honest attempt but find ourselves falling short. We often miss the mark of the high standards we set for ourselves. In fact, every one of us can easily identify with the son who told his father, "Yes, I'll go and work for you." But, like him, we get distracted, frustrated, or just "weary of well doing." And the next thing we know, all our good intentions, all of our commitment goes down the drain, and we end up never finishing the job. We all know what it is like to say one thing and then find ourselves doing another. We are a bundle of inconsistencies. We are all guilty. Jesus' little story hits us right between the eyes. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
We can be like a rich young man who was taken to the hospital, critically ill. His condition worsened, and his doctor even told him that he wasn't sure if he'd recover, but they would do all they could.
The man was obviously scared to death, and said to the doctor, "Please, doctor, I don't want to die, I have so much to do yet in life. If you can help me get better, I'll donate $100,000 to the hospital building fund." Fortunately, the young man began to improve and recovered, and a few weeks later was released and went home.
Several months later, the doctor happened to see the man at a social function, and after seeing that he was doing very well with no sign of his former illness, the doctor reminded him of his promise. "You remember you said if you got well, you'd like to donate $100,000, and we could really use that now."
The young man replied, "Wow, if I said that, I must have been really sick!" Another way to consider this parable is to ask the question, "Is what I profess on Sunday carried out on Monday?"
We say "Yes" to God on Sunday Morning: Then end up losing our temper before we even get home; or we end up talking negatively or unflatteringly about our neighbor.
We say “Yes” to God on Sunday Morning: Then a friend tells a joke ridiculing someone that really isn't funny, but because they laugh, we laugh; or we see someone act in a way, which we know to be wrong, but we silently look on, too timid to intervene.
Someone once said, “It’s easy to tell if you are a follower of Jesus or just an admirer: Look in the mirror and see what’s moving – your mouth or your feet.”
You and I know all these texts well. We know that our faith consists of more than words and agreeing with them. We know our faith is one of getting up and doing - but we find it easier to be religious couch potatoes. We can be sure God is not content with a couch potato kind of Christianity.
Let us pray: Dear God, help us be "doers" and not just "hearers." You know our problems and our weaknesses better than we ourselves. In your love and by your power help us in our uncertainty and, in spite of our limitations, make us firm in faith; through Your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Pentecost 16 Jonah 3:10-4:11 Philippians 1:21-30 Matthew 20:1-16 Let us pray: Gracious and eternal Father, we come to you this day seeking to understand the ways in which your Spirit moves in our lives. Lord, in these moments, may we be moved by love in our hearts and receive wisdom in our minds. In Jesus' name we pray, Amen.
For the past few Sundays, we've heard Matthew’s Gospel deal with some real, human emotions. He's dug into our daily lives and hit home with some of his comments. Funny how the Bible can do that more often than we expect it to! Two weeks ago Jesus' words told us how to rebuild broken relationships. Last week Jesus challenged us to forgive other’s time after time after time. And, some of you are probably wondering, "Who picked those readings? Is Fr. Jim trying to tell us something?" (Here, I'd like to say, as the kids do, "Well, DUHHHH!!!" but I won't!)
Let me reassure you, there is not a huge problem lurking in the background that I’m trying to get out in the open. And, while there may be a few of you who are uncomfortable because you suspect you might have been singled out by the sermons the past couple weeks, that has not been my intention. But, if God has spoken to you through the scriptures or through the sermon, if God has touched your heart to rebuild a relationship or to grant forgiveness to someone who has wronged you, then the people who set up our series of readings must have been guided by the Lord's hand for that purpose.
Today our lessons once again zero in on a common theme, one that we've all experienced at some time or another. If you have brothers or sisters, you'll know what I mean. If your school days were anything like mine, you'll know what I mean. If your workplace, your home, your social situation has any kind of inequity, you'll relate to today's texts. Let's back up a bit and put the Gospel message into a story and you'll see what it's talking about.
Ruth and Tom were the oldest two kids in their family. Ruth was 13 when Tom was 6. Then there were a couple younger kids, Bill who was 3 and the baby, Sarah. Ruth had been the apple of her parents' eye for several years before Tom had come along. But, she was just as excited as the rest of the family when her new baby brother had been born. He was fun to hold and he slept a lot so Mom still spent plenty of time with Ruth, reading to her and holding her and playing make-believe. But, as Tom got older, he became more active and took up more of Mom's time. Still, Ruth didn't mind too much because, by that time, she had school and friends to spend time with, books to read and "big girl" chores to occupy her time. Mom still tucked her in at night for a few more years and things went along pretty well.
But, then there was that one Christmas... Ruth was 13. And, as most teenagers do, she had started to examine her place in the family. She was the oldest, so of course she thought she should have more privileges than her little brothers and sister. Her parents thought she should have more responsibility, especially in setting a good example for the little ones. Ruth tried hard to live up to her parents' expectations. She got good grades in school. She tried hard not to talk back to her elders. She helped take care of the little ones and ran interference for them when she thought they might be getting into mischief.
So, that Christmas something just didn't seem to make sense. Ruth had asked for only one gift for Christmas. She knew her family couldn't afford much so she thoughtfully kept her wish list small. All she wanted was a small transistor radio. Not a "boom-box" with a CD player and two tape decks, just a small radio she could listen to as she walked to and from school each day.
And that Christmas morning, when Ruth opened her presents, she was very grateful and full of hugs when she opened up that little box and found just what she had asked for, her very own transistor radio. That is, until Tom -- seven years younger, remember -- opened up a similar-sized box and brought out the very same transistor radio. It wasn't even a different color or a different brand or any less than the radio Ruth had been given! And Ruth's Christmas joy turned into anger, jealousy and disappointment. It just wasn't FAIR!!
Ruth was a lot like the people we've heard about in today's readings. First there's Jonah. You'd think that if God had chosen you for a very special purpose you might rejoice in that honor and get your things all packed up and go off to do what God had asked of you. But, not Jonah. We all have heard the story of how Jonah argued with God about what he was supposed to do. In fact, Jonah went so far as to pack his bags and run away from the task God had set before him. Well, as you'll remember, he didn't succeed in avoiding God's purpose for his life.
In today's reading, Jonah, maybe still a little fishy smelling, is talking to God. He's done what God asked of him. He's gone to the sinful people of Nineveh and told them God wants them to repent of their sins. And they listened to him! And they repented, turned away from their sinful actions. But is Jonah happy? No.
Jonah is angry, jealous, and disappointed. I think he figured if he finally followed through and announced God's wrath on Nineveh that those sinful people wouldn't listen to him, and then he'd get to watch all the fireworks as God destroyed those awful people. I'll bet he was really looking forward to watching those terrible people get what was coming to them. But that's not what happened. Those sinful people repented, and God forgave them their sins, gave them a fresh start. So, Jonah yells at God and stomps off in a tizzy and plants himself out in the middle of nowhere to pout!
Jonah is angry with God. He's jealous of the Ninevites who have received forgiveness. He's disappointed that he won't get to see the Mighty Power of God displayed in the way HE expected to see it. God hadn't acted in the way Jonah expected him to, and Jonah got mad. But did God turn away from him? No, God provided shelter for Jonah. Jonah took the great tent-like bush God created for granted. But, as soon as God took it away, here he was complaining again.
Finally, God told him, "Jonah, you only knew the shelter of the bush for a day and a night. I have known the people of Nineveh since I created them. You didn't create the bush. But I created the people. I choose to love all people -- those who do my will and those who LEARN to love me." I think God was trying to let Jonah know that even HE, the reluctant messenger, was loved. I wonder if Jonah ever figured out that God's love was big enough for all people?
In the gospel, we heard about the day workers who were gathered up in the morning, at midday and in the late afternoon to go work in the vineyards. And, when the day of work was complete each was given a full day's pay -- just what they'd agreed to receive when they'd first signed on for the job.
I'm sure that in this day and age, when we legislate the legal minimum hourly wage and examine our pay stubs to make sure the government isn't taking out more taxes than they ought, we can understand what the all-day workers were complaining about in the parable Jesus told. In fact, we might do more than just grumble as the Gospel says the workers did. We would probably raise a mighty stink! We'd protest; we'd get angry; we'd be jealous; and we'd be disappointed.
Like 13-year old Ruth, whose 6 year-old brother received the very same Christmas gift, we'd probably start out by saying, "It's just not fair!"
No, it certainly isn't. Ruth's parents weren't fair. The landowner wasn't fair. With Jonah and the people of Nineveh, God wasn't fair. LIFE ISN'T FAIR.
The movie Amadeus is the story of the great musical genius, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The movie portrayed Mozart as an eccentric, almost schizophrenic genius who, without question, was a very gifted musician and composer. Another composer, the devout Salieri, despised Mozart and considered him immature, flippant, arrogant, and obnoxious. Why should Mozart be such a gifted musician and composer when he didn't deserve it? After all, Salieri was the Lord's servant, in obedience to his Savior Jesus Christ, why shouldn't Christ give him this gift instead of Mozart? He was a better person and he deserved it.
In a moment of despair, Salieri feels that Christ has forsaken him, so he removes his crucifix from the wall and burns it. Salieri could not live with God's love and grace. He wanted fairness and justice; he wanted from God what he thought he had worked for, earned, and deserved.
How many times have we said or heard others say, "It isn’t fair!" Well, I've got news for everyone. God isn't fair either! Grace is not fair...it goes beyond fair. If God were fair, the Ninevites would have been destroyed and Jesus would have never died on the cross!
But God chooses to be merciful. God chooses to go beyond our expectations. Even while we're angry, jealous or disappointed with the way life treats us and those we love, God blesses us each and every day.
We have food to eat, clothes to wear, homes to shelter us and time to consider what is going on in the world.
God is there. God's love surrounds everyone -- the angry ones, the jealous ones, the grieving ones, the happy ones, the generous ones, the comforting ones. God's love is there. And God's love is here.
God's love is for those we love. And, beyond expectations, God's love is for those we have a hard time loving. God's love for them isn't even a different color or a different brand or any less than the love we have been given! God is merciful. God isn't JUST fair.
Let us pray: Loving God, you are gracious with a love that surpasses even fairness. Thank you for accepting the little ones as much as the great, those who turn to you at the last hour as well as the laborers who have toiled all their lives. Open us more to the free gifts of your grace, help us accept them with gratitude and appreciate how liberally you give to all. Turn our ways into your ways of love. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Pentecost 15 Genesis 50:15-21 Romans 14:1-12 Matthew 18:21-35
Let us pray: Lord Jesus Christ, touch our lives with your healing forgiveness, and put a new heart and a right spirit within us, so that we may truly love you and faithfully serve you, to the glory of your name. Amen.
Our appointed Gospel for today is once again about forgiveness -------Hmmmmm -----must be important.
Two little brothers, Harry and James, had finished supper and were playing until bedtime. Somehow, Harry hit James with a stick, and tears and bitter words followed. Charges and accusations were still being exchanged as mother prepared them for bed. The mother instructed, "Now James, before you go to bed you’re going to have to forgive your brother." James was thoughtful for a few moments, and then he replied, "Well OK. I’ll forgive him tonight, but if I’m still alive in the morning, he’d better look out!
The problem is that we are forgiving only to a point. Unlike God, whose forgiveness is unlimited, ours has limitations. The more times we have been burned the less likely we are to forgive. Peter was looking for boundaries. "Give me a rule to follow or some formula." We like rules and formulas because then we can say it is the law.
Jesus, however, does not let us off the hook. For God’s forgiveness has no boundaries or conditions. But, 77 times seems absurd. What this story illustrates is that it is virtually impossible to forgive, again and again. That is why we need salvation. That is why we need God. That is why we need God’s forgiveness because it is impossible for us to be forgiving toward others all the time.
Forgiveness is not easy. But I wonder if we really know what it means to forgive? The Greek word for "forgive" in the New Testament means "to send off, to release, to hurl, to let go." One time I saw a golfer, driving balls into the woods. I wondered why he would waste so many balls. He said they were all "shag" balls. Shag balls are golf balls that have slices in them and they aren’t any good for normal play. He drove them as far as he could into the woods with no thought of retrieving them. He hurled them away. They were gone, out of sight, lost forever.
This is what it means to forgive. To literally, "hurl away" or "let go" of the shag balls in our lives. The problem is too many of our shag balls have elastic strings attached to them. We give them the old "heave ho" only to have them come back at a later time.
Forgiveness is not saying the offense never happened. It did. Forgiveness is not saying that everything’s okay, it isn’t. Forgiveness is not saying we no longer feel the pain of the offense. We do. Forgiveness is saying, I experienced the pain, but I am willing to let go and no longer blame the offender.
It’s not easy to forgive people when they make mistakes. To compensate we like to get even, or at the very least, refuse to deal with people who are not fair. When we withhold forgiveness, we live with the myth that we are in control. At some point it may come back to haunt us.
Peter was willing to forgive. However, Peter wanted to put a limit on forgiveness. In other words, his forgiveness was conditional. Jesus wanted Peter and the others to understand that “true” forgiveness opens our lives to the unlimited realm of God’s kingdom and has no limits. “How often should I forgive?” Peter asked. “Not seven times but seventy times seven,” Jesus replied. What Jesus meant by that is that we are not to keep track. In other words, forgiveness is to be unlimited.
In Jesus’ parable the servant had a huge debt but was forgiven by the king when he cried for mercy. “Have patience with me and I will pay back everything I owe,” he cried. The king then forgave his debt. But, that same servant was unwilling to forgive someone who owed him money. To him he showed no mercy and had him thrown in prison.
Unfortunately, the chain of forgiveness had been broken. Others cried foul and reported to the king what had taken place. When the king heard what had happened, he was angered and had the servant thrown in prison and had him tortured. Since the servant was unwilling to forgive, the king withdrew the forgiveness that he had given. Then there was social chaos. No one had been shown mercy.
When we are unwilling to forgive many lives are adversely affected. This is not what God expects of us. God expects God’s disciples to forgive unconditionally because a spirit of forgiveness creates peace and harmony throughout society, in families, in neighborhoods and even in churches.
“Forgive us our trespasses, as we those who trespass against us,” Jesus taught. On the one hand we ask God to forgive us, and on the other hand we must offer forgiveness to others.
One time a young man borrowed the family car without permission, knowing he could have it home and safely in the garage before his father found out. He hadn't reckoned on getting rear-ended at the second intersection he came to. Since there was no way to conceal the damage, he parked the car and closed the garage door, then spent an evening agonizing over how to deal with his father when he arrived home. When his dad walked in, the young man flashed a look of terror.
He told his father everything, complete with a profuse apology. His father walked with the son to the garage and looked long and hard and silently at the damage. Then he said, "Insurance will cover it. It wouldn't have covered the broken trust between you and me, however. Fortunately your apology took care of that." "Can you ever forgive me, Dad?" "I have already." "You have learned your lesson. Forget about it." A week later the son, still guilt-driven, came to his father and said, "Dad, in case they raise our insurance rates because of the accident, I'm willing to earn the money to pay the difference in the premiums." His father didn't even look up from his newspaper as he said, simply, "What accident?" "How often should I forgive?” Peter asked. “Seventy seven,” Jesus said.
Let us Pray: Merciful Father, your Son has taught us to seek reconciliation with those who have sinned against us and, in doing so, to experience the healing of our own hearts. Grant us the grace of your Spirit to put into action what he has taught us. We ask this through Christ, our Lord.
Ezekiel 33:7-11 Romans 13:8-14 Matthew 18:15-20 Let us pray: Lord Jesus Christ, touch our lives with your healing forgiveness, and put a new heart and a right spirit within us, so that we may truly love you and faithfully serve you, to the glory of your name. Amen.
Eighty-nine relatives of Simon Wiesenthal had been murdered by the Nazis. He became a Nazi hunter and spent the rest of his life locating and prosecuting Nazi’s after the war and wrote a book that began with a true experience he had while he himself was a concentration camp prisoner. One day he was yanked out of a work detail and taken up a back stairway to a dark hospital room. A nurse led him into the room, then left him alone with a figure wrapped in white, lying on a bed. The figure was a badly wounded German soldier, whose entire face was covered with bandages.
With a trembling voice, the German made a kind of confession to Wiesenthal. He told about the brutal measures his S.S. unit had taken against Jews. And then he told of the terrible atrocities that he himself had committed against the Jews.
Several times Wiesenthal tried to leave the room, but each time the ghost-like figure would reach out and beg him to stay. Finally, after 2 hours, the soldier told Wiesenthal why he had been summoned. He then said, "I know that what I am asking is almost too much for you. But without your answer I cannot die in peace." He asked for forgiveness for all the Jews he had killed.
Wiesenthal sat in silence for some time. He stared at the man’s bandaged face. At last, he stood up and left the room without saying a word. He left the soldier in torment, unforgiven.
This true story about Wiesenthal might be considered by some to be an extreme case, however, I believe this scenario is not unfamiliar to us. To forgive someone the hurt they have caused us, can be one of the toughest things that a Christian is called to do. There are people who have fallen out with family members, who are no longer talking to one-time-friends or who have dropped their connection with a congregation because they have found it impossible to forgive. Like Simon Wiesenthal, the hurt is so enormous. It would mean giving up too much to go to those who have hurt them and seek a way to be reconciled to that person. It is just too hard to forgive and put the hurt behind them and settle the differences between them.
Forgiveness is counterculture. What I mean by that is that forgiveness goes against what is practiced in our society. Remember the wave of attacks on Moslems, and how mosques in the USA and here were destroyed by fire because of what had happened on September 11, 2001. Revenge, an eye for an eye, racism and prejudice are the ways our culture deals with hurt and those who offend us.
On May 13, 1981, people all over the world, were shocked by the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II. Pope John Paul recovered from his wound, and he stunned the world when, on Christmas day, he made a visit to Rome’s Rabbibia Prison to see the man who had attempted to assassinate him. The white-robed Pope and jean-clad terrorist huddled in the prison cell for 20 minutes, talking in low voices that could not be heard. When he emerged John Paul explained, "I spoke to a brother whom I have pardoned." The headline the next week of Time Magazine was "Why forgive?" It was as if the world could not come to terms with the prospect that it is possible to forgive someone like this assassin.
Forgiveness goes against the grain of our human nature. If someone offends us or causes us hurt in some way, it’s natural for us to want to break off our relationship with that person. And so we see people dropping out of congregations and clubs, children no longer talking to parents, neighbors ignoring their neighbors and so on. For these people there is no question about who should take steps to restore friendship – the person who has caused the offense. That’s the natural human way we deal with disagreements.
But Jesus says that Christians have a special responsibility when there is a falling out. It is the duty of the one who has been offended to renew the relationship that has been damaged. And this is where it gets hard. It is illogical and unfair to expect the one who has been hurt to make the first move to restore their friendship. After all that person is the one who has offended me, he/she should come to me and own up to what they have done and ask me to forgive them. What is more, it is difficult to go and speak to someone when I am upset and hurt by what that person has done.
Peter once was concerned about how many times he should keep on forgiving someone. He is thinking that there must be a limit to the number of times he should have to forgive someone who repeatedly hurts and offends him. Jesus tells Peter that there is no end to the number of times we should seek a renewal of friendship – reconciliation.
It’s tough to forgive, isn’t it? And yet, that’s exactly what Jesus commands us to do here. We are not told to do it if we feel like it. We are told to take the initiative and attempt to work out reconciliation with the person who has offended us.
Forgiveness means letting go of our hurt pride, our need to strike back – to take revenge (which seems to be our natural instinct) and do what is illogical and ever so hard. It means making our relationship with that other person the most important thing in our lives. Jesus rates reconciliation as one of the most important things we can do. He said, "If you are about to offer your gift to God at the altar and there you remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar, go at once and make peace with your brother, and then come back and offer your gift to God"
It’s even harder to go to someone and seek reconciliation when you have offended someone unintentionally and they are upset over something you are completely unaware of. It’s easy to say – that’s his/her problem. This is where we really need the Spirit’s help so that we can let the light of Christ’s forgiveness shine through us and make a difference to the lives of others.
And because forgiveness can be so hard, this is a matter for prayer. We need to enlist God's help to overcome our sinful attitudes and to be more like Christ. We need to pray that we would have a greater concern for the welfare of others. We need God’s forgiveness for the many times when we let our sinful nature take control and we let the pain and the hurt continue.
When Jesus tells us to go to the person who has offended us, this puts us in a unique position. The responsibility is placed upon us to take to that person the healing redemptive Word of God, and in love, without gossiping, without malice, or any other hidden motives, cover the sin of the other with love and forgiveness.
God grant that we may forgive one another just as God has generously forgiven us. Let us Pray: Merciful Father, your Son has taught us to seek reconciliation with those who have sinned against us and, in doing so, to experience the healing of our own hearts. Grant us the grace of your Spirit to put into action what he has taught us. We ask this through Christ, our Lord.
Let us pray: Heavenly Father, whether your way is easy or hard, your word comforting or disturbing, your will welcome or difficult to accept, teach us to listen and to follow faithfully, through Christ our Lord. Amen. In 1967, Laurence Peter published his book called The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong. The "Peter principle," as it was called, become something of a standard explanation for problems in business management. It suggested that people tend to get promoted just past their level of competence-in other words, they keep rising in management until they get just a little beyond what they're really capable of doing. And then, of course, they fail. (I personally think it also applies in politics as well.)
We have to wonder if the Peter principle might apply to our own Simon Peter in today's gospel lesson! Just last week we heard Jesus praise him, and call him the rock on which he would build the church. Now in this passage, he messes up so badly that Jesus calls him a stumbling block, and worse!
But of course, Peter is so human, and so representative of all of us disciples! Let's look at this story this morning and see if we can derive our own set of "Peter principles"-- things we can learn by observing and taking to heart what Peter says and does. Peter Principle Number 1: "Don't let it go to your head!" Maybe that's what has happened to Peter. He's gone from a rock to a stumbling block in four verses because he's allowed Jesus' praise of him to go to his head. Jesus has told the disciples that he was going to Jerusalem, where he would suffer, be killed, and then be raised from the dead. Peter, the text says, "took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him." Sounds to me like Peter was full of his own importance. "I'm the Rock," he must have thought. "I'm Jesus' chief advisor, his secretary of state, maybe even the vice-messiah! Jesus needs me to tell him what to do!" But the first of our Peter Principles is "Don't let it go to your head." Christians do that! Christians have a way of thinking that they have it all figured out, and no one else does! I read one time about a church that lured inner city children with a promise of free pizza, but then wouldn't give them any pizza unless they submitted to baptism. You don't know whether to laugh or to cry at such misguided arrogance.
But we Christians often think we know the truth. It's a bit complicated, because on the one hand, we do. We have the truth of Christ; we confess, with Peter, that Christ is the Son of the Living God, and we believe that there is no other name under heaven by which we may be saved. But we're so quick to take a leap from that point, to the idea that we know the truth about just everything.
Ole Rolvaag's great trilogy about Norwegian immigrants tells the fictional story of Per Hansa and his wife Beret, and the struggles and triumphs of their family. In one of the books, their son Peder faces the transition of the immigrant generation as they become American, and one issue on which there is conflict is language. Peder is thoroughly American, and English is his native tongue, though he speaks and understands Norwegian. His mother, Beret, so heroic in the first novel, has become rather cranky and irritable in the sequel; and when this issue comes up, she is certain that Norwegian people should speak to one another and especially to God in Norwegian. She is incensed when she learns that the pastor has given her son an English Bible. The very idea! How can a Norwegian boy read God's word in an alien tongue? How could a pastor encourage it?
She is so sure she is right! But of course, we can see how misguided this is. Yet don't we often do the same thing? We are so sure we know what God wants, that we'll fight anyone who has a different idea. Jesus' words to Peter are a sharp reply to us: "Get behind me"-- meaning, "Follow me, let me be the leader, let me call the shots. Don't jump to conclusions. Yes, I called you the Rock. Yes, I have taken you as my own. Yes, you are my beloved child. But that doesn't make you always right. Look to me for the truth, follow me. Your faith is strong, but don't let it go to your head."
Now we not only often think we know better than anyone else, we also often think we know better than God. So here's Peter Principle Number Two: "Our ways are not God's ways." Peter illustrates this very well when he says, in response to Jesus' words about suffering and death, "God would never let this happen to you!" The Greek here is difficult to translate, but its sense is that Peter is certain that God would never allow such a thing to happen. But of course, he's wrong. His ways are not God's ways.
So often we try to make God into our own image. We have our opinions, and they may be very good, moral, even godly opinions; but we stumble when we assume that God must think the same as we do. During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln often dealt with people whose view of things was a lot more certain than his own. Once a woman told him she was sure the Union would prevail, because God was on their side. After all, this was a fight against the great moral evil of slavery. But Lincoln wasn't quite so sure. "Madame," he replied, "I'm not so concerned whether God is on our side, as whether we are on God's side." He had his finger on an important point. It is much too easy for us to think that we know just how God should do things. More often than not, we turn out to be misguided.
Luther spoke eloquently about this very point. Again and again, he comments in his sermons that if he had been God, he would have done things differently. But always, he points out, God's ways turn out to be the best-even if they are inconceivable to us prideful human beings. Peter's problem here is that he has his own ideas, and even when Jesus directly contradicts him, Peter is sure it must be Jesus who has misunderstood things. So here in his stumbling, we see this second Peter principle: "Our ways are not God's ways." Closely related is Peter Principle Number Three: "Listen to the whole story!" Did you notice something here? In this passage Jesus says he is headed for Jerusalem, where he will suffer, be killed, and on the third day be raised. Jesus has told that familiar passion story in outline, kind of like it does in the Creed: "crucified, died, buried, the third day he rose again from the dead." But what has Peter heard? He hasn't heard the whole thing, has he? He has stopped listening after “suffered and died.” He's missed the part about resurrection! The story Jesus is telling is a story of victory, but Peter has only listened to the part that sounds like defeat.
And how often we stop listening before we hear the good part. We miss the promise! The Christian life, the life of a disciple, is tough. There is suffering. There is cross-bearing. There is death. But there is resurrection--and if we don't keep listening all the way to the end of the story, then we miss the whole point.
Often in life we face discouragement. It is then that we need the third Peter principle: "Listen to the whole story." You cannot, if you follow Christ, escape the cross. But there is more to it. There is a cross, and there is a crown. If we listen long enough to hear about the crown, then the cross doesn't seem quite so daunting or so threatening.
Poor Simon Peter! He learned the hard way, and I suppose that's what we must do as well, most of us. But at least we can read his story and learn these Peter principles: Don't let it go to your head! Our ways are not God's ways! Listen to the whole story!
Let us pray: Almighty God, open our eyes again to your greatness and remind us that your ways are not our ways nor your thoughts our thoughts. So, may we glimpse once more your glory, and, though we do not always understand, may we walk in faith, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Pentecost 12 Isaiah 51:1-6 Romans 12:1-8 Matthew 16:13-20
Let us pray: Lord, though we do not always recognize you, you reveal yourself to us in so many ways. Open our hearts and minds to know more about your action in our lives each day. Enable us to see you more clearly in order that we might follow your Son more nearly. Amen.
ho is Jesus? When I was about 6 or 7, I was quite certain about the answer to that question. Jesus is the man who could walk on water, heal sick people, bring people back to life, and feed a large crowd of people with the food in a boy’s lunch box. Without a doubt Jesus was someone very special. When asked, “Why is Jesus special” My answer was “Jesus loves me.” Later on, in my Lutheran confirmation classes we were required to memorize Luther’s Small Catechism. At confirmation classes my understanding broadened to include the idea that Jesus was not just a man but was also God, intricately interconnected with the Trinity. His birth, life, death, and resurrection were all part of God's plan to save all us from sin and death. I learned Bible passages that talked about Jesus being Immanuel, Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace, most of which I didn’t understand but I believed anyway. On the day of our confirmation we had to stand in front of the congregation and be able to recite from memory random questions from the catechism which included “Who is Jesus.” The appropriate answer was Luther’s explanation of the Second Article of the Apostles’ Creed. Which was: “ I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord, who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death, that I may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity.” I may not have understood all that lay behind that statement but in my own way this was what I believed about Jesus. Many of you may have had a similar experience. Things that we learned as teens may not have had an immediate impact on us or we may not have fully understood what we had been taught but we listened and learned it. We trusted our parents, pastors and teachers who taught us about Jesus, and they weren’t leading us on. We hopefully witnessed their faith and their sincerity, and this led us to believe that this must be important. And so, in our own way came to know and trust Jesus. I know that for others in my confirmation class all this was a lot of mumbo jumbo and they only attended classes because their parents sent them. At the time the words were meaningless and if they were asked “Who is Jesus?” they would have most likely responded, “Who cares?” It often happens that our answer to the question “Who is Jesus?” is dependent on what is happening in our lives at any given moment. When we are feeling depressed because of the way sin has affected and infected our lives, Jesus is our forgiver and savior. When we are feeling vulnerable and weak because of sickness, ongoing medical issues, and life-threatening surgery, Jesus is our comforter and strength to endure what is seemingly impossible to endure. When we are afraid or feeling alone, harassed, or depressed Jesus is love, God's care, God's hand around us holding us and supporting us. When death is approaching, we see Jesus as the one who extends his hand to walk with us and welcome us into our heavenly home. His presence removes fear and we are willing to go with him. When we have a sick child, an aging parent, a dying friend we see Jesus as our guardian and helper in our time of need. There may be times when we ask ourselves “Who is Jesus?” and the darkness of our circumstances leads us to call out, “I don’t know. I wish I could see him more clearly! I want to know him but the darkness around me blocks him from my view.” At times like this we go back to verses from the Bible or sections of the Catechism we had learned and use those words to remind ourselves who Jesus is and what he means to us. It’s all about the relationship between Jesus and us. And that’s how we answer the question, “Who is Jesus?” The question is not answered with stringing off a whole lot of words that describe who Jesus is but is answered best about what Jesus means to us in the everyday circumstances of our lives. If we believe that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” then what difference does that make in how we live? Peter's life can be seen in the light of his answer to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say I am?” From this point on, he is either falling short of his bold confession of faith or he is living out its implications. What awaits Peter is no straight, flat road, a smooth superhighway, but a journey into the unknown, with many twists and turns, a dead end here and there. One moment he lives up to his confession, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” as at Pentecost when he preaches about Jesus clearly and simply and another time he fails badly when he says about Jesus in the courtyard of the High Priest, “I swear I don’t know the man!” The Christian life of each of us resembles that of Peter. There's a confession of faith, which we make, or our baptismal sponsors make on our behalf. We affirm our commitment to being disciples of Jesus at our confirmation and again confess our faith in the Triune God. But it seems that no matter how much sincerity and commitment we have at that moment, life becomes a series of either falling short of this confession of faith or living out its implications. There are times when we feel close to Jesus and we are ready to do anything to honor his name and to further the work he has given us to do and we gladly live up to the confession, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Like Peter at the Last Supper we boldly declare, “I will never let you down, Jesus. I would rather die than let my confession be mere words and empty promises”. But there are other times when we realize that the way we live our lives is in stark contrast to what we confess about Jesus. We confess that Jesus is our Savior and our Lord and that in him and with him we have received new lives, a new way of seeing people and the world around us, a new set of values and attitudes, a new way of dealing with people as the Holy Spirit works in us love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility and self-control, but none of this has any effect whatsoever on the choices we make and the way we interact with others. Putting our confession that Jesus is our Savior and Lord as central in our life is not easy. The confession, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” involves more than talking the talk, saying the words; it also involves walking the walk; matching what we say with what we do. It involves sacrifice, commitment, dedication, sticking to what we believe and making choices which are centered on our confession that Jesus is our Lord and Savior. That is the constant challenge for us as Christians and we may realize we get it wrong far too often. Jesus knows that we are not that different to Peter. We know what the right thing to do is, however our sinful human nature gets in the way. Thankfully, we have a loving and gracious God. He forgave Peter and he forgives us freely too. That encourages us and gives us the confidence to make our confession of “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” real in everything we say and do. Let us pray: Loving Father, through the grace of your Spirit, you enabled Peter to recognize the true identity of your Son. Grant us the grace to always profess our faith in your Son through all that we say and do and become rocks upon which your Church is built here on earth. This we ask through Christ, your Son and our Lord. Amen.
Isaiah 56:6-8 Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32 Matthew 15:21-28
Let us pray: Gracious God, grant us true insight, understanding and wisdom. Show us the path to life, and help us to walk it more faithfully, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
A man was getting ready for bed when his wife told him he’d left the light on in the garden shed. She could see it from the bedroom window. But he said that he hadn’t been in the shed that day. He looked out himself, and there were people in the shed, stealing things.
He called the police, but they told him that no one was in his area to catch the thieves. He said “OK,” hung up, counted to 30 and phoned the police again.
“Hello. I just rang you a few seconds ago because there were people in my shed. Well, you don’t have to worry about them now. I’ve just shot them all.” Within five minutes there were half a dozen police cars in the area, an armed response unit. They caught the burglars red-handed.
One of the policemen said to this man, “I thought you said you’d shot them!” He replied, “I thought you said there was no one available.
Here we have an example of what is commonly called “profiling.” The police are often accused of it in arresting blacks, Mexicans, and other people today. In our story the police were guilty of profiling by considering the man’s neighborhood safe.
In today’s gospel it appears Jesus, was guilty of profiling. A woman who was a Gentile, not a Jew, begged him to heal her daughter. Jesus almost always responded to such requests with a miraculous healing. But here Jesus refuses, being very abrupt with the woman. He says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. So, Jesus seems to be very prejudiced against anyone who is not a Jew. He says his mission is only to Jews.
We might, then, accuse Jesus of profiling if we did not know that his words “I was sent” exonerate him. For who sent Jesus? The Father. In refusing to speak to the woman Jesus was only following his Father’s command to save the Chosen People, the Jews. Jesus apparently came to know his mission as we all come to know our goal in life, by degrees. As we know, Jesus himself extended his mission to all mankind. We see his outreach in examples, such as when Jesus healed the servant of the Roman centurion.
After a busy schedule of preaching and healing, Jesus goes to a place named as "a district of Tyre and Sidon." This was in Phoenicia, or a part of modern-day Lebanon. The important point is that it was outside of the territory of Israel. It was pagan land.
Then Matthew further defines the situation by explaining that he was accosted by a "Canaanite woman." Do you remember the Canaanites from the Old Testament? They were the folks who occupied the Promised Land before the Israelites arrived. They were the ones that God wanted exterminated from the land in order for the Israelites to possess it.
The Canaanites were the descendants of Ham, one of the three sons of Noah. Once, when Noah was drunk, he fell asleep on his bed naked. Ham went in and saw him naked. Scripture says that Ham and all his descendants were cursed and destined to be slaves because it was wrong for a son to see his father naked. The descendants of Ham are the current Palestinians who are still in conflict with the Jewish people in Israel.
Not only was this person a Canaanite, but she was also a woman. We can recall from the story of the woman at the well that Jewish tradition forbade women from having casual conversation with a strange man, particularly a religious man. But here is a brazen woman approaching Jesus and his disciples, which makes her a doubly questionable individual.
Jesus was brought up in a very exclusive community and religion where clear lines of division were set, and folks were either in or out. The Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Zealots, and the Essenes were very exclusive in nature. Only the chosen few could belong to them. I think this was what Jesus had been taught all his life. It was only natural for him to reflect the traditions and teachings of his upbringing.
We have many faulty traditions in our upbringing as well. For example, some of us were raised with negative views about people of another race. But knee-jerk reactions must give way to carefully considered responses and merciful actions for those of us who claim to know that Jesus is Lord. Jesus reflects his tradition quite accurately, but sometimes traditions are meant to be bent or even broken.
Prejudice. Bigotry. We know them well. Our own nation has legislated against such bigotry as slavery and has extended all rights of a citizen to our black brothers and sisters. But, as someone has said, “You can’t legislate morality.” Many people still harbor hatred and bigotry toward blacks, Mexicans, and other non-Caucasian people.
In our first reading we hear the prophet, Isaiah, proclaiming God’s mercy to all nations. There Isaiah has the Lord say: “And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant—these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”
The Father intends all to be called to his house of prayer. This shames us as we recall the days when churches either did not allow blacks to become members, or had blacks sit in the balcony instead of letting them sit anywhere they chose in the church.
Prejudice. We see it in the seemingly endless hatred of the Israelis for the Palestinians and vice versa. We see it in the centuries fighting and killing between the Irish Catholics and Protestants; we see it in the standoffs between the Indians and Palestinians. We see it in the resurgence of Neo-Nazi skinheads and other white supremacist groups.
Somebody said, the day you can no longer change is the day you stop being a human being. Well, Jesus is a human being, and this day he changes. His outlook, his worldview we might call it now, is lifted to something new. Let Jesus be our example: we must dare to let our outlooks be changed too. We must dare to truly engage with the world and let life’s encounters work with what we know of God and so shape our living and understanding. According to Matthew, that is a Jesus thing to do.
Following Jesus means we must constantly struggle to test what we have been taught, and what we always have believed. What Jesus offers us is not always a clear set of instructions about where to go and what to do. The Christian life is not static, but dynamic. We should always be challenging the traditions which we harbor. We must examine our most cherished beliefs. And when the Spirit leads, we must be willing to change. Along with the Canaanite woman let us continue to pray “Lord have mercy on us.”
Let us pray: Lord of all, teach us to recognize that everyone has a purpose and a contribution to make to your kingdom and so help us to see beyond the barriers that keep us apart, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Pentecost 10 Kings 19:9-18, Romans 10:5-15, Matthew 14:22-33
Let us pray: O God – Light of the hearts that know you, life of the souls that love you, and strength of the thoughts that seek you — May we all hear the words of reassurance that Jesus is in the boat with us. And like the wind and the sea, may we grow calm and yield to His power. Amen.
A sinking feeling. That’s what Elijah and Peter had in common, a sinking feeling. Elijah had run away from trouble and hidden in a cave. He just KNEW his whole world was crashing down around him and so he ran away from everything, hoping to save his life – if it was worth saving! But, God thought Elijah’s life was worth more than he’d ever know. God came to Elijah – not in the wind, earthquake or fire – but in a quiet, unassuming whispered voice lifting Elijah out of his depression and fear, rescuing him from his resignation from life. God raised Elijah from certain self-imposed lifelessness and brought him back to serve God’s own purposes. Sometimes we might say to someone “You go on ahead: I'll catch up with you later.” But in this case, it was different. These may have been the words of Jesus and he was sending his disciples off across the Sea of Galilee in a boat. “You go on ahead: I'll catch up with you later.” They did what he said, but there must have been questions running through their minds: Exactly how and when was Jesus going to catch up with them later? After all it was getting late, and there was the small matter of getting a crowd of five thousand people to disperse. It was a strange experience for those disciples that night: crowded together in a small boat, in the dark with a bad wind that defied all their straining efforts. It was a kind of time of pointless human effort, of chaos, when that combination of water and wind was at its most frightening. According to Matthew’s version of this miracle account, Peter and his fellow fishermen were out in the middle of the Sea of Galilee during that dark and stormy night. As morning dawned, Jesus came to them across the water and they were afraid he was a ghost. Even though Jesus reassured them and told them not to fear, they wondered if they could trust him. Peter spoke for them all: “Lord, if it IS you, command me to come to you on the water.” Peter, like many of us, wasn’t sure he could count on Jesus when everything around him seemed to be telling him he shouldn’t. He’d been battered by the wind and the waves all night long. And now, when he was tired of fighting the elements, exhausted by life in general, a vision of hope appears to him and he’s not really sure if it’s real. But Jesus invites him to walk into the future, to walk toward Jesus’ loving embrace. While Peter kept his eyes trained on Jesus’ face, he was able to overcome impossible odds. “But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, …” Jesus raised Peter from certain self-imposed lifelessness and brought him back to serve God’s purposes. Elijah and Peter had that sinking feeling in common. And, also in common, they had a Creator and Redeemer who loved them and had a purpose for their lives. “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Unfortunately, these comforting words (let alone the ability to defy gravity) do not quite satisfy Peter, who seeks further proof of Jesus’ identity. “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus agrees, “C’mon.” And so, Peter does. But after just a few steps, the wind startles him and he begins to sink, crying, “Lord, save me!” Of course, Jesus does save him, but he also asks him this sobering question: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Make no mistake, these questions are just as much for us as they were for those early disciples. So, why do we doubt? Jesus calmed a storm with his voice, fed five thousand people with only a few loaves of bread, and walked on water. In light of all this, why would we ever lack faith? Well, one answer is fear. Like the disciples, sometimes storms pop up in our lives and scare us half to death. That’s what storms do. It’s only natural for a dog to hide under the bed when he hears thunder; for a child to cling to her mother when she sees lightning; for the driver to pull over when he can no longer see the road. But it’s not just wind and rainstorms that scare us; so, do the figurative storms of our lives. Things like global pandemics, contentious elections, scary diagnoses, economic downturns, rioting and looting. In the midst of difficult setbacks like these, it’s not uncommon to get a sinking feeling, or anyone to doubt their faith in God. That’s exactly what happened to Peter in today’s gospel, and it’s exactly what the disciples did previously in chapter eight. All Jesus does is ask why. Like any good teacher, he already knows the answer to the question, but he wants us to know it, too. Simply put, it’s because we are human. Fear is, quite literally, instinctual. Humans are wired with a fight-or-flight response. We have this reflex for a reason. When our lives are in jeopardy or—more commonly for us today—when our way of life is threatened, we are naturally inclined to react in fleeting ways. When that happens, we tend to leave calm, rational thought behind. For that reason, we often need some assistance getting back to a more faithful frame of mind. Jesus’ question prompts us to realize that faith is always within our reach. In other words, even in the stormiest times of life, when we most doubt our ability to make it through, we can remain faithful to God. Staying faithful to God doesn’t simply mean going through the motions. It doesn’t mean saying the creed while thinking about a shopping list, or repeating Bible verses from memory. It means for us, just like Peter, refocusing on our commitment to faith. Over the years, regarding our Gospel today, much has been said about Peter’s impetuousness... about the disciples’ unwillingness to take a risk and about stepping out in faith... But I have to confess to you, that I can never get past the single amazing fact that Jesus, in whom God was so very present, came to them in the middle of the storm, and reached out and gave them comfort. --- Let us remember, it was Jesus who sent his friends out onto the sea where storms are always a possibility. He didn’t prevent the storm from raging... but he could do something much better than that... He could get into the boat and ride it out with them. Let us remember to keep an eye on that barometer, because storms continue to come... but so will the God of Jesus. You see God doesn’t come and go like storms... God only comes... God will always be with us, no matter how scary or dangerous or risky things might get. --- And most importantly, God will find a way to be with us in those sinking feeling times. Let us pray: Help us, O Lord, when the storms of life overwhelm us, to entrust ourselves to your mercy, that you might draw us out of the waters that engulf us, and place us in the safe harbor of your love, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Let us pray: Almighty God, may your Word speak to us, your promises reassure us, and your Spirit work some miracle in us that we might accomplish your purposes in and through our lives. Grant that we may understand that you are always sufficient to meet our needs, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
One of my favorite all time movies is “Simon Birch” which came out in 1998 and takes place in 1964, in a small town in New Hampshire that could have had Grandma Moses as its city planner. From the day he was born Simon Birch was different. He was no bigger than a baby bird, and the doctors predicted he’d never last the week. But he did. Weeks turned into months and months into years, until Simon grew into a boy. Simon at the age of 12, is so small that he still plays the Baby Jesus in the church Christmas pageant. His friend Joe has a small sidecar on the side of his bicycle that carries Simon around on their adventures, because his legs are too short to ride a bike. Now, it’s apparent that Simon is the smartest boy in Sunday School and possibly the smartest person in town. He’s very short and very cute, and very wise and accepting of the fact of his dwarfism. When his friend Joe tells him a girl finds him cute, he sniffs, “She means cute like a baby turtle is cute. Girls don’t kiss baby turtles.” “How do you know,” asks Joe. “I just know. If you were me, you’d know too.”
Simon uses his size as a license to say exactly what he thinks on all occasions, loudly and clearly, as when Fr. Russell is asking God’s help for a fund-raiser, and Simon jumps up on his pew to announce, “I doubt if God is interested in our church activities. If God has made the bake sale a priority, we’re all in a lot of trouble.” At that point I found myself wanting to cheer, “YESSSS!”
The most amazing faith and love is demonstrated by Simon Birch in a belief that God has a special mission for him. Simon has an unwavering belief that God had a special plan for him—that he had made him small for a reason. One day he approaches his priest on this very question, “Do you believe God has a plan for our lives?” Simon asks. Unfortunately, the priest responds with an ambiguous “I don’t really know.” It is not the answer Simon hoped for. But even in the face of the older man’s doubt, you could see the gleam of faith in Simon’s eyes. For HE believed, and that is what mattered. He believed that even though he was small and insignificant in the eyes of those around him, that God had a special plan and a purpose for his life.
In our Gospel the disciples interrupted Jesus, as they often did. Jesus was teaching and they came to him and said something like this, “It’s growing late. Look at how many people are here. There’s no food. We need to send them off to the villages to buy food. If we don’t send them quickly, it will be to dark. In your wonderful teaching way, you’re obviously not paying attention to what’s going on.” Sometimes, I think many of us pray with the same sort of outlook. Sometimes we pray with the assumption that Jesus doesn’t know what’s going on.
To their surprise Jesus turned their concern back to them. “You give them something to eat.” Now, they probably had mixed motives for bringing this problem to Jesus. On the one hand they may have been genuinely concerned for the people. The people were hungry. It was late in the day. That was a genuine problem. But I think they were motivated as well by the desire to get their retreat back on course. Something like: “We’ve spent a whole day being compassionate to these people. Let’s be done with them and go back to our time of fellowship and be gathered together in intimacy with you, Lord. Let’s get back to what you promised us in the beginning. Let’s just do our own thing and forget about all of these people.” Did you ever feel that way?
Jesus taught them and us two lessons by calling on them to feed the people. The first is this: Jesus says, “You feed them,” to people like us as well. Our tendency is to look at only what is humanly possible: the money, the conditions, whether we have the right computers, the right building. Whether we’re set up to do it, whether we can really make it happen, and so on—and we conclude that it’s impossible. We just don’t have what it requires. How easy it is to say, “Send them away, Lord.”
The tendency further, is to leave people to their own devices. After all, it was they who had chosen to stay there late, listening to Jesus’ teaching, so now they needed to go solve their own problems. They were going to get hungry, so they needed to go do something about it.
The second lesson here is that Jesus didn’t do the miracle without their cooperation. He could have. Previously, he had done miracles without their assistance. He had cast out demons, healed the sick, given a lame man strength to walk, brought back a little child from the dead. But now he was training those who would serve him, and he called on them to offer what they had. And what little they had became that which he used to bless the crowd, and as we can learn from him, he can use what we have to bless the world. Now, that sounds pretty awesome, doesn’t it? That we can bless all the world?
Five thousand people probably looked overwhelming to the disciples too, don’t you think? “Go and make disciples of all the world” sounds impossible. But instead of seeing that as the assignment, maybe we can see “Share Christ with the folks in front of you” as an assignment that possible. It’s still risky and difficult. It still requires the power of God, but it’s not impossible.
How many loaves do you have to offer? What do you have to offer? What house do you live in? What bank account do you own? What place do you work? What friendships do you have? What has God given you that he can multiply or expand in his service? What loaves do you have that he could turn around and use, through you, to bless and challenge and change and give life where there is no life? When we become his representative in the world, he intends to use us just as we are. There’s no difficulty in qualifying for this responsibility. You don’t need a degree. You don’t need the approval of some organization. You don’t need a title. You don’t need to be tall, or short, or thin and beautiful or even clever. To become a disciple is to become willing to offer him what you have for him to use in His plan.
Just as small Simon Birch found out and realized God’s plan for his life (I’ll not give away the end if you haven’t seen it) God will take the small loaves we have and make more of it.
There is a wonderful joy in Christian service to others. Being a disciple is the most wonderful thing in the world. Our God has, in a peculiar way, limited himself to using people like us. We are the Body of Christ, God’s incarnation, now. He needs our willingness to offer the loaves we have. He needs us to take up the gifts we’ve been given, offer them in the realization that no matter how small or insignificant we may think our loaves are, they will be used mightily.
A story is told about Mother Theresa who, upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, was questioned by a puzzled young reporter. He said to her, “You only reach such a few people here and there. Don’t you feel badly about the fact that there are so many who you cannot help?” She looked up at him with a smile on her craggy face that is recognized around the world and said, “I do what I can, where I am, with what I have.”
“I do what I can, where I am, with what I have.” Members of this small part of Christ’s Body, what do we have? Go and see….Hmmm…Five loaves and a couple of measly fish.
“I do what I can, where I am, with what I have.” Members of this small part of Christ’s Body, where are you? ---In the midst of a lot of needy people, sheep without a shepherd.
“I do what I can…” Members of this small part of Christ’s Body, what can we do? They brought the five loaves and two fish to Jesus. “Taking them, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; And ALL ate and were filled; and they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish.”
“I do what I can, where I am, with what I have.” ~What we can do—comes from God. ~Where we are—comes from God. ~What we have—comes from God. And it is enough.
Let us pray: Let us pray: Heavenly Father, we pray that your truth might guide us in our every action and thought. Let us be vigilant to the daily appearances of your miraculous touch. Help us to understand that only you can multiply the small loaves that we bring. As people seeking to grow in faith, we offer this prayer in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Pentecost 8 1 Kings 3:5-12 Romans 8:26-39 Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
Let us pray: Lord, give us a vision of your kingdom and show us the part you would have us play in bringing it closer. When we pray “Your kingdom come, your will be done,” teach us to mean it so we may bring your kingdom closer here on earth. We pray in the name of Jesus. Amen.
In today’s Gospel Jesus gives his followers and us a series of short parables about the Kingdom of Heaven. Each could be the subject of a sermon however they all have a very similar theme.
Many of the parables that Jesus tells begin, "the kingdom of Heaven is like…" So the question we might ask is “What is the kingdom?” Is it something you’ve wondered about? It is one of the deep questions about existence. We look around us at the world and see hunger and poverty. We see disease, violence and hatred. We wonder if God is in control, if God cares at all about creation. We may even question the existence of God. We all ask those burning questions about what lies beyond this life.
"The kingdom of heaven is like ..." With these words Jesus offers a variety of images. The kingdom of heaven is like a small mustard seed that becomes a very large shrub where birds come and find a home.
The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that spreads through and through until it involves all the flour in a process of chemical reaction making the bread rise.
The kingdom of heaven is like hidden treasure within the ground making that parcel of land valuable enough that one would sell all their possessions to buy the field.
The kingdom of heaven is like a perfect pearl whose value entices someone to sell all to acquire it.
The kingdom of heaven is like a net tossed into the depths to bring forth a great catch, the net filled with fish both edible and others not worth the time of scaling and filleting. The good are gathered; the others are tossed away with the garbage. And, in such a kingdom a time will be when the angels of God will in a like way separate the evil and the righteous. The evil will be thrown into a hot, burning furnace of weeping and pain so great that teeth will gnash, one against the other.
Then, without further figure of speech, Jesus asks "Do you understand these teachings?" And, they answered "Yes!"
All of us here today are most likely familiar with a variety of stories regarding people who are granted three wishes by a genie whom they have let out of a bottle — or by a leprechaun they have either caught or rescued in the woods and have discovered the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. These stories are not only familiar to us from legends and fairy tales from our childhood. Adults sometimes play a form of three wishes when they purchase lottery tickets.
Have you noticed how, as the size of a lottery jackpot grows, the number of tickets sold jumps higher and higher? When the prize becomes large, more and more people feel the tug. They want that money. But the fact is still this: only a fool would spend more than a few dollars on this. The people who use their entire paycheck - money that should go for food and rent - almost always find their life in shambles. Why? Because the lottery makes no promise. No guarantee. At best, it's probably entertainment.
But, if you want the genuine excitement of putting your life on the line, only with Jesus Christ is it worth the cost. You give your life over to him; he returns it to you new and fresh. Not bankrupt. Not with a rotten taste in your mouth and a hollow feeling in your heart. He returns your life to you with a center, purpose, and joy.
Finding buried treasure is a dream that many have had. There is a series on TV about Oak Island in Nova Scotia. It is thought to be the site of a great treasure. No one knows exactly who buried treasure there. Over the years it has been conjectured that it must be the hiding place of some famous pirate like Captain Kidd. Now the most plausible explanation seems to be that, centuries ago, the Knights Templar used it as a storage place. There is even the thought that the Holy Grail may be hidden there. At any rate, millions of dollars have been spent fruitlessly trying to find the treasure that everyone is certain is there. All efforts have met with failure, but it doesn't stop one from feeling a great excitement and anticipation that perhaps this time the treasure will be found – that the great puzzle of how to get at a treasure so carefully and deviously hidden will suddenly be clear.
In the end ... Well, the surprise of today's Gospel is that we really don't know what will be "in the end" except the end will be in God's hands. This will be true, as Jesus said, "at the end of the age" in the final judgment. Yet, there is another ending at stake here which is no less in the hands of God. It is "our end" in the sense of what we shall become – or more accurately, what God is making of us.
I have read of people who keep trying to win millions of dollars in contests, drawings, and lotteries. I have read also how they say, "If I win, I'm not going to change a bit." Who are they kidding!? If they don't want their lives to be different, why are they entering in the first place? I suppose they really mean that they will continue to be the "same wonderful, lovable human being" that they are right now.
Something in us is not so content and God knows it. We feel the treasure's tug and we know it holds out the promise of more, or better, or different. This is what we need to look forward to as we sense the drawing power of the love of Christ and we can anticipate coming away changed if we allow ourselves to be touched. There are no lottery tickets to this future, but something far more certain. It's called "faith." It's that "letting go and letting God" when we are touched by "the impulse of his love." It's a pearl that will cost us, but it's worth it.
If you have learned to ride a bicycle, you had to face that moment when the person holding you up let go. The moment. Maybe you crashed and had to begin again and again. Eventually, however, there came the time when you could shout, "Hey, Mom, look here!" and you zoomed around the block with the breeze in your face. In that moment, a joy filled you so full that your heart pounded and you were truly alive. The cost was worth it. The Christian discovers such moments are little parables for the way God upholds us and gives us an amazing and exhilarating joy when we assume the costs and travel by faith.
Most of us would like our faith to make a difference – but not too much. We may have had a wonderful mountain top experience in our lives, a retreat, a Cursillo weekend or a moment in our lives when everything came together for us. We perceived God in a different light. But over time the experience fades. We think about it once in a while. But there are problems in our lives. We have to earn a living and raise our family. There are the stresses and conflicts of life to deal with. We may go to church on Sunday. But to make a commitment to the faith, to work at it, to read our Bibles, to pray – those things we put aside. We want to be committed Christians, but on our own terms.
What is it that you desire the most? What do you want? What do you wish for?
There is treasure buried in the fields all around us. There is a pearl of great value to be had. Just as there is mustard seed to be planted so that it might grow and spread everywhere.
Just as there is yeast to be worked into the dough of our lives – so that we and those near to us may be leavened with righteousness and joy and be raised to a glorious and eternal destiny.
It is here for the seeking – and for the receiving for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear.
What is the treasure – what is the pearl? It is nothing less than our awareness of the presence of God. I say our awareness – because God is always present – just as that treasure is in the field waiting to be found – just as that pearl is on the market – waiting for us to give ourselves for it.
In reality that is the gospel in the parables we’ve heard today.
That God is here – waiting for us to give up lesser things so that we can embrace him. That God is here – casting his net to catch us – to have us come into his kingdom – his presence.God is here – looking to sow his seed and work his leaven into our lives.
Today, may we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear the treasure God has prepared for us: the treasure of God's love and care – his forgiveness and mercy – his power and his wonder, the treasure that wells up to eternal life and eternal joy. And may we be resolved to live by him and in him and through him until the completeness of the Kingdom of God arrives.
Let us pray: Lord, we give you thanks for the word that you hide like a treasure in our heart, for the leaven which is able to penetrate to every area of our life – for the seed that is able to grow into a mighty plant... Help us, we pray, to value all you have given us – to make following Christ the most important thing in our daily lives – to concentrate above all upon doing your will and sharing your love and the good news you have proclaimed through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.