Matthew 19

“When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, ‘Who then can be saved?'” -Matthew 19:25

“How we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life, wouldn’t you say?” -Captain James T. Kirk

graveIn the part of the church world in which I serve, it is not uncommon to refer to someone’s entry into the Christian faith as “getting saved.”  Though years of seminary have made me often refer to this as “becoming a Christian” or “converting,” there is something powerful about the starkness of this vernacular phrase.

Thinking about crossing the line one faith and getting saved illuminates some things. It points to a human need for salvation, the possibility and path of salvation, and the reality that there may be someone or something that can actually do the saving.  Here in Matthew 19 the disciples wrestle with such topics.  They hear Jesus talk about the difficulties of the rich entering Heaven and they begin to wonder if anyone can be saved.

The question of eternity and our own personal final destinations are, in many ways, never far from us.  One accident, one medical situation, one moment of stupidity or violence, and life can be gone.  Understandably, most people prefer not to dwell on the inevitable for very long, focusing instead on other things.  Death stalks us all, in otmaxresdefaulther words, so there’s no use whining about it.

The matter of who can be saved from death is not just a Christian one.  Nor is it a necessarily religious one.  Confronting the inevitable end of this life is something that human beings deal with variously: via science, medicine, distraction, philosophy, and, of course, religion.  The answers we choose to embrace are different, but the fact that such answers are needed in the first place points to one reality: this life will one day be over.

We know, that–all things being equal–we will die, both as individuals and as a human race.  If science is our only guide, we must accept that this world will eventually end, whether by human hand or natural occurrence.  Even if we manage the planet in the best way possible, the sun will go nova in five or six billion years.  And if humanity survives that?  Well, eventually the universe may come to its conclusion with a “big smash” of all there is collapsing together or via a “cold death” in which entropy wears out all the potential energy of everything.  A bang or a whimper, it seems.

Not too optimistic, huh?  Picturing both the eventual end of everything and my own life’s countdown is, well, depressing.  salvation1If death is the end of consciousness and being, well, that’s one of the saddest things I’ve ever heard.  And if death actually takes us to an eternity either forever separated from our true home with God or eternally present in communion with God, that’s profoundly emotion-inducing as well.

I say all of this to remember that the question of “who then can be saved?” is not just a question for preachers.  It is a human question.  Whether death is a hard stop on our existence or entry into a plane the reality of which has eternal consequences, it can be a scary thing.  No matter what we think happens after death, it seems hardwired in us not to want to die.  Death is wrong, somehow.  It is an enemy.

Despite what the perceptible patterns of this brokedown world and our faltering bodies say, “with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).  As a Christian, I know that God has made a way for life beyond death in Jesus Christ, and it is not just available for me but all who believe and accept it (John 3:16).  I offer this as the answer for all people, even as I’m well aware that not all accept this.

Here’s a question I’m interested in, then: what about those of you who aren’t Christians or who aren’t even particularlythese-eternal-questions concerned with matters of faith?  Honestly and humbly, I want to know how you approach death.  What do you think about it?  How do you deal with it?  Do you ever ask yourself how you might be saved, either from the sheer extinction of being or as you move into eternity?  As death is a common human experience, I think these are legitimate and real questions around which we could dialogue. If you’re interested in sharing, I really want to know what you think about death and end of life: how you approach it, what you believe, and why you choose to believe that as opposed to other answers.  For those who may participate, thank you in advance.

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Matthew 18

“I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”

-Jesus, Matthew 18:22

reconciliation_webHow often should I forgive a Christian brother or sister when they wrong me?  A lot, it seems.  As we’ve seemingly been taught just about every time this passage is read, “seventy-seven” or “seventy times seven” is not Jesus being overly picayune about numbers.  Rather, it is Him using an exaggerated figure to let us know that we need to keep on forgiving people.  We’re not just supposed to stop on the 78th or 491st offense, in other words.  Such forgiveness is yet another hallmark of the Kingdom of God that runs counter to many “common sense” aspects of our broken world.  It seems neither fair nor safe, we say…and yet there it is.

The principle inherent in what Christ shares is a powerful one, and reminds us once again of the humility and grace that He embodies and to which Christians are called.  But as I am thinking about Jesus’ words, I wonder if a little “spiritual experiment” would help bring such forgiveness into sharper relief.  While perpetual forgiveness is a powerful thing, it can often just fade into to background in a general principle–lofty but inexact.

What if, instead, I actually decide to forgive a fellow Christian seventy-seven times?  Keep track of it all, consciously choose to forgive, and move through each and every one of the nearly eighty sins and wounds this person might inflict on me?  I realize, of course, that love “keeps no record of wrongs” (I Corinthians 13:5).  I wouldn’t be remembering these moments in order to angrily hold onto the pain and hurt.  Rather, I would do so in order to consider the way forgiveness really worked.56382620

Thinking about forgiving a person that many times–even the modest number of 77–seems daunting. Especially if the sins to forgive are weighty.  I recall one such instance in my life, and how hard it was to move on.  Seventy-six more of those?  That’s hard.  The concreteness of that number is stark, and it doesn’t allow us room to wiggle out of it.  And yet we know, deep down, that this kind of grace, mercy, and humility is exactly what Christ seeks to accomplish in and through us.

May we pray to be people of such forgiveness, both in moments one to seventy-seven as well as following that 78th sin.

Matthew 17

“Get up…don’t be afraid.”

-Jesus, Matthew 17:7

This brief moment takes me back to an old college professor who impressed upon us the reality of the Third Commandment–a lesson that has stayed with me all these years.  He told us, in short, that this guideline was in more danger of being swearingbroken in the monastery than the saloon.

“Do not take the name of the Lord in vain” is one of those things we think we know the meaning of, but in reality goes rather deeper than we supposed.  Using the Lord’s name in a forbidden way is not just about cursing God’s name (though that can certainly be a part of it) but is about what it means to respect and reverence the Lord and realize, as best we can, Who God really is (and is not).

We who are the religious leaders are in most danger of this kind of irreverence, as we use the name of God so much that it has become commonplace.  Think about it: we pastors and professors are always saying “God this” and “God that.”  We do this so much that God becomes just one actor or object amongst many.  Mostly unintentionally, we have defined God away.  In so controlling God’s name we have reduced the Divine to our particular material.  The name of God becomes like any other name transfiguration-abstract-e1360464424741or word, and in the process is domesticated.

Thinking that we have control over some aspect of God is a very human thing to do.  It makes us feel safe and steady.  The world makes sense when God, like everything else, is conformed to our understanding.

Peter, James, and John may very well have felt they had some things about the ways of God figured out here in Matthew 17. Until God spoke to them from Heaven and they fell to their faces.  God unsettled them.  Terrified them.

May we think twice before understanding God in commonplace ways–with or without the requisite voice from Heaven.

Matthew 16

“You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.”

-Jesus to Peter, Matthew 16: 23b

Peter-Son-of-God-1024x576In this important moment in Matthew’s gospel, Peter has just had two vastly different exchanges with his Teacher.  The first is his identification of Jesus as the “Christ, the Son of the living God.”  For this he is commended.  But then?  Then Jesus announces he will die.  Peter doesn’t like this, and the Lord begins to rebuke him.

For Peter, the notion that Christ has to suffer and die just isn’t right.  And: it is quite possible that he has now decided he’s not going to let that happen.  He’s trying to deny the stated reality of Jesus in favor of what he thinks is right.  In response, Jesus rejects his conversational adversary, informing him he is not thinking in a godly fashion but rather a human one.

From Peter’s point of view it doesn’t make sense that Christ would have to die.  Surely he could get out of it if he wanted.  Peter could protect him.  The disciples could protect him.  Not to mention all that miraculous power He had at His disposal.  Jesus and His followers had a good thing going, and it could be so in years to come.  No need for all the pain associated with death.  Peter, quite simply, had things all planned out for the Incarnate One.old-bible-christians-and-politics-1-1-559x340

Do we have things all planned out for God?  It’s a question worth asking.  As we now enter the season of politics, I’d like to suggest we remember some of this story.  How sometimes our earthly passions, emotions, thoughts, and theories can get in the way of the purposes of the Almighty.  Sure, we think we speak for God as we (re)post on Facebook and argue politics and cast ballots.  But do we?  Do our political passions overwhelm the call of God or color God’s word in such a way that we change its meaning?  Do we think we know better than God?  Because as Matthew 16 reminds us, we can get it wrong sometimes.

Be careful as our nation enters this politically fraught period, friends.  Be careful that you’re close to the mind of the Lord, and not the things of men and women.  Rather than just being convinced you know, be deeply convicted to listen to God.

Matthew 15

“Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked,Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders?'”

Matthew 15:1-2a

The reality of Jesus’ time is that, objectively speaking, the Pharisees weren’t such bad guys.  There were devoted to following the Scripture.  They were teachers.  They were true believers.  Funny, isn’t it, how they get the brunt of Jesus’ approbation?  Their closeness to the Truth yet inability to accept it was their undoing, and perhaps the very reason the Lord gave them such a hard time.jesus-authority

The Pharisees were religious authorities.  They were dedicated.  They were a part of the system.  They had their ideas and traditions.  And when the God they worshiped appeared to them in the flesh?  Well, they weren’t too happy about that.  Jesus didn’t fit their model.

Picking on Pharisees is the often the Christian equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel.  I mean, seriously: if Jesus gives them a hard time, surely we should too, right?  And they are pretty grumpy and picayune about having things their way. They come off as rigid and stultified compared to the miraculous and life-giving presence of Jesus.

pass5+copy2There’s one problem, though.  Those same Pharisees that Jesus encounters, so beholden to their traditions and systems?  I and those like me (ministers, theologians, long-time Christians, etc.) have the potential to be a lot closer to them than we are to Jesus.  We are a part of the system.  We know how everything works.  Disruptions are not welcome, thank you very much.

I wonder sometimes: if Christ showed up and started messing with my world as he did with those long-lost Pharisees, would I respond the same way as they did?

Matthew 14

Note: This is a continuing weekly series on the book of Matthew that I began earlier last year.

tumblr_no956oieMQ1rn4nu1o1_1280We read a sad tale in Matthew 14.  A tawdry tale.  A story of manipulation and shame that ends in death.  It is the story of John the Baptist’s murder.

John had been imprisoned by Herod, and now on Herod’s birthday that same ruler is throwing a party.  In walks Herodias’ daughter and starts to dance for Herod and the assembled guests.  What kind of dance?  Well, the Scripture doesn’t say, but it does let us know that it is entertaining enough that Herod offers to give her whatever she asks.  A study note in my Bible mentions such a performance on her part would have been “unquestionably lascivious,” so I think we all understand the picture.

Excited Herod temporarily yields his authority to this woman, in so doing opening himself up to destruction.  As his power is now given to another (Herodias’ daughter), she in turn is directed by her mother (who may very well have plotted the dance in the first place) to make Herod act in a way he did not intend.  And so because of what he promised in the throes of titillation, he now had to execute John the Baptist.  salome-with-the-head-of-john-the-baptist

The story is a sad one, and wholly unnecessary.  It is like some kind of fable or short story by O. Henry that seeks to teach us a lesson about the power and pervasiveness of human evil.  Now, I could be reading into things too far, but bear with me.  Herod, clearly caught up in the lust of the eyes and his own sexual energy, relinquishes control of himself to the object of his sin.  Said object may then be doubly objectified, as she is led by her mother to command Herod to effect John’s execution.

Thus it is that a) a young girl may be manipulated into something in order that b) a king could be tricked into doing what he didn’t intend, all so that c) another person could get what they wanted; in this case, murder.  Such a complicated and tawdry chain of events is worthy of a soap opera.

baptist_001As history and recent events have shown us, sin–especially of the sexual nature–can be ruinous.  And not just for the man or woman (i.e Herod/Herodias) committing the main offense.  There’s more than that.  There’s the innocent person (in this case John) wounded or destroyed because of decisions made, and sometimes another person or persons who have been trapped, manipulated, and caught in a system from which they cannot extricate themselves (here quite possibly Herodias’ daughter).

What a mess.  What a disaster.  What a crime.  And all because one person had no control over his lustful desires and another couldn’t stop until their murderous thoughts were fulfilled.  There’s a lesson in there, friends.

And so original sin remains, as always, ““the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith” (Reinhold Niebuhr).

Matthew 13

“A farmer went out to sow his seed.”

-Jesus (Matthew 13:3)

seed-sower-jeremy-samsIn one of the most famous of his parables, Jesus tells us about a person who sows.  Seed that is distributed ends up in a lot of different places.  The results are diverse.

Simple and oft-cited, this parable provides its readers/hearers with a lot of different imagery with which to wrestle.  On top of that, Jesus even takes the time to explain the story to his disciples.  But I’m not concerned with these details this morning.  Instead, I just want to focus on one picture: the sower.

Jesus doesn’t really spend much time here identifying the sower as such.  The text basically associates the image with those who share the message of the Kingdom of God.  So that’s Jesus.  That’s the disciples.  That’s Christians all throughout time.  That’s me too.

I’m not an expert in farming, but it appears that what the sower is doing here is not some scientific process of planting, but rather an almost casual dispersing of seed all along the ground that has been prepared.  There is method to it, but it is not overly defined by method.  It is sowing.

As the farmer proceeds, seed falls everywhere.  I don’t know what the personality of such a person is like, but I rather picture it as joyful.  Almost whimsical, if you’ll allow it.  There’s serious work to do, yes.  It will take a lot of time to sow this seed, yes.  But: the day is full and the wind is at their back.  And they can’t wait to see what this seed will turn into.  The worries of irrigation, weeding, harvesting?  That’s all for another day.

I think I’d enjoy being a sower.

I realize that my mental picture of this first-century agricultural worker probably won’t pass exegetical or cultural-historical tests, but all the same I like to imagine the sower smiling and singing asTheSower their task unfolds.  It is a good work, and they have a real part to play in it.

I suppose I see the sower in this light because it is how I want to picture the Christ follower as called to share the Kingdom of God.  Not worrying incessantly about the science of seeds but simply focusing on fulfilling a purpose: sharing the very good news that is Jesus Christ.

There is a time for strategies and planning, of course.  But there also needs to be a time for the joy of sowing.  A reminder too, that at the end of the day we don’t make seeds germinate and turn them into crops.  Only God gives Creation that ability.  We are just along for the ride.  And what a ride it is.