Today Jesus invites into a vision of God’s kingdom that directly follows last week’s parable of the talents. Matthew 25: 31-46 is a call to look for the face of Jesus, even in the most unlikely of places and people.
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Last week our SS kids & several parents toured our local food pantry as they delivered 300 pounds of food we gathered as a church & over $2,000 to purchase more. I love this act of service each year, making real our commitment to being the hands and feet of Christ in this world. As long as humans have existed, so has hunger. And it’s the first person Jesus mentions in his teaching. “For I was hungry, and you gave me food.” He also finds himself relating to those who lack clothes, those who are forgotten, imprisoned. In short, Jesus is on the side of those for whom life has not been kind. He invites us to see him in their faces too. “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
We often speak about showing Christ’s love by serving those around us in need. This is good and rewarding work. But how often does it cross your mind that the very people you are serving might actually be as close to Jesus as one can get? We believe that Jesus is present among us, even within us in some spiritual way, yes. But do we believe Jesus is within the person who is homeless, panhandling for money on a street corner? Just this weekend, driving through Sioux Falls, I noticed several men on the street corners, one with a walker. Another with a forlorn look on his face. All asking to be seen, to be noticed. And if I’m honest, that is NOT the first place I look for Christ in this world. But what if I did? What might change in all of our hearts if we truly begin to see the face of Christ as the face of someone who is hurting, smelling, angry, even mentally ill? Can we? Are we even capable?
Just last night AJ mentioned a statistic I find disturbing. For the past several years in America, it is estimated that we incarcerate more people than there are people who farm. It’s a complex issue, but suffice to say that if Jesus literally says, “I was in prison and you did not visit me,” we Christians ought to direct our attention that way. As Christians AND US Citizens, we will be wise to consider the wellbeing of both the incarcerated and an entire society that could benefit from less folks in prison and more more folks working to produce food for the hungry, maybe even themselves.
So why do the numbers keep climbing- those in prison, those hungry, those who are sick, isolated, and thirsty? Could it be that the body of Christ spends more time fracturing itself over minor differences than making any serious attempts to heed this direct word from Jesus?
When I hear it like this, I think- well, no wonder Jesus chooses some harsh language to describe the outcome of avoiding the most vulnerable among us…eternal punishment. The thing is, eternity begins today! We are meant to act NOW toward serving Christ by building up those around us, rather than tearing anyone down with false judgment or avoidance.
It’s not only other humans we are helping. It’s honoring the image of Christ in another. That’s our WHY, which permeates every single decision we make about WHO God has called us to be. We are people who SEE THE IMAGE OF GOD in another. And it sure makes avoiding another person in need more difficult, if we begin to catch a glimpse of God’s glory within them.
Leave it to Jesus to find the most unassuming places to show up. In the face of a hungry stranger. In the eyes of a weary traveler. In the feet of a homeless person. In the shackled heart of a prisoner. When we neglect to see Christ in our neighbors in need, we neglect the truth that they too belong to Christ— members of his family—just as we belong to Christ.
The parables of Jesus, as mysterious as they seem, are an invitation to see ourselves differently. To find a new perspective on the Kingdom of God. To experience Christ's presence in a new way. This week I challenge you to look a little more intently for the face of Jesus around you.
And I’ll share with you a bit of great advice I received over 20 years ago when my church youth group took a trip to Atlanta and stayed in a homeless mission for a week. It’s served me well in many an awkward situation passing alongside a homeless person or engaging with someone who is incarcerated.
Here it is: Look them in the eyes and smile. That’s it! I’m sure I don’t do it all the time, but I make an attempt each time I remember…to truly let that person know I see them. And I appreciate that we share this beautiful image of God inside us. That’s why I smile.
And it inspires to continue paving the road to the Kingdom of God wherever I find myself, even in uncomfortable situations, trusting in Jesus' words to those who dare to help the unseen people around them: Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. What a tremendous honor and challenge it is to serve the face of Christ in this world. Let us continue to stir one another toward service to all those who bear the image of Christ in the midst of their needs and pain. Amen!
It makes sense for us to see something of ourselves in the actions of each character in this story. Doing so allows us some honest self-assessment, and leaves ultimate judgment in the hands of God.
[Jesus said:] "For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master's money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, 'Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.' His master said to him, 'Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.' And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, 'Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.' His master said to him, 'Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.'
"Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, 'Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.' But his master replied, 'You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'"
Once more this week, we prayerfully wonder together: Who are you, God? The kingdom of heaven is like a man who entrusts all his possessions to his servants. L. Susan Bond notes, "The word used for 'possessions' here in the Greek (hyparxonta) includes not only material goods but one's entire substance and life." So already we begin to see this story is about God and God’s intention for us: live our lives to the fullest! We receive all we have from divine love that exists within us, and are asked to think about what we do with it- cultivating and nurturing our spirits in a world that so desperately needs us to be centered and alive.
Let’s look at how the servants respond to the gifts they are given. Each receives an enormous amount of their Master’s money. How much? ONE talent is equal to the wages of a day laborer for 15 years! So 10, 5 or even 1 talent is a weighty amount to be responsible for! It seems the first two knew exactly what to do- they invested it, they put it to use, they made something of it. The third servant, however, hid it away. He let the resource become stagnant and unused.
So let me ask you, in this parable today, is it saving or investing that becomes the virtue of a trustworthy servant? Investing, right? The way we use the resources at our disposal is a reflection of how we think about God. There's something unique about the third servant in this parable. He began justifying hiding the money by blaming his Master's personality. He says, "I knew that you were a harsh man." The other two servants said nothing at all like this. How we think about God affects how generous we become. If I believe that God is harsh and exacting and cautious- then I might, like the third servant, be harsh and exacting and cautious with the resources God has given me. But if I believe that God is wise and trusting and generous, then I might too become wise and trusting and generous with my resources. I might also be willing to take risks.
The first two servants saw their Master as someone who invited risk for the sake of a fuller life. They would not have invested that much money without faith that no matter what happened, their efforts would be accepted. You know as well as I do, that investing in something is a risk-taking venture. Being generous—with our time, our finances, ourselves—can be risky. We don’t always know the outcome. We don’t have the assurance of what’s to come before we take the leap of faith.
But we take that leap anyway- hoping and trusting and believing that generosity is worth it. Of all weeks, I’m reminded deeply that life is unpredictable. We can take no breath for granted. And Jesus, who lived a full life for a mere 33 years on earth, calls us to double-down on what actually matters- like faith, family, and community. Expanding love as best we are able.
John A. Shedd, 20th century "A ship is safe in harbor, but that's not what ships are for.". Generosity requires an investment of faith, risk and all. This is the difference between saving our faith and investing in faith. One will get us nowhere fast, and the other will bring us into a generous--even if unknown-- future.
You know there’s risk, right? We might give our heart to another, only to be denied love. We might pour countless hours and energy into a program only to watch it die for lack of interest. We might give financial gifts to an organization only to hear of embezzlement and fraud. We might lend public support to people who are marginalized only to be marginalized by our friends. One of the riskiest parts of our investment into God’s Kingdom is this- we may not see the fruits of our labor in this lifetime.
So what do we do? We invest anyway, trusting that Jesus will be true to his word. “Well done, good and faithful servants, enter into the joy of your Master.” There’s one final promise in this story I'd like to share: living generously is a gift to God and to others, of course, but it’s also a gift to ourselves. The more loosely my heart holds onto my material possessions, the more risk I accept in generosity, the more freedom of spirit I have. It’s the life-giving power of letting go of control, trusting that God is at work in the release.
Erma Bombeck, author of a humorous newspaper column for over three decades said, "When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, 'I used everything you gave me." May we all enter into the joy of our Master as we learn to invest our whole selves in generosity and faith!
This Monday Sandra and I hashed out some semblance of meaning from this strange parable of Jesus’- but we definitely left with more questions than answers. I think you’ll see what I mean. Again this week, a parable describing God’s kingdom.
22 Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: 2 “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. 3 He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. 4 Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ 5 But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, 6 while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. 7 The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. 8 Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9 Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ 10 Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad, so the wedding hall was filled with guests.
11 “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, 12 and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. 13 Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 14 For many are called, but few are chosen.”
Today I’m gonna take us behind the scenes of a biblical text, I’ll be a student today right alongside you. In seminary, a few of my professors reminded us often: read any given scripture in light of what the rest of scripture tells you about God. Today, we read this uncomfortable text in light of knowing that God is loving and just. We also know that Jesus’ invitation on our lives expects us to be willing to change. These truths can be found all throughout the bible, so we start there. God is loving, just and desires real change in our lives.
Okay, the kingdom of heaven is like a wedding feast, and those who are too busy to attend are truly missing out. If we are too busy with “important” things- like work and what else- interfering in someone else’s business- maybe even hurting others, this simply means we are refusing the spirit’s invitation to the feast of Christ. The Kings says, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy.’ It can also mean we are saying one of two things: 1. Either Spirit isn’t worthy of our time or we aren’t worthy of being spiritual. Neither is true. This first half of the parable resonates with me. I can wrap my head around a kingdom in which simply saying YES gets anyone and everyone into the party; and being too important or busy to acknowledge God’s son means are missing out on the best part of life.
What gets really tricky, is that one guest who gets thrown out because of not wearing the wedding robe. Here’s where I’ll be a student with you, because honestly I don’t know anything about 1st Century customs at the time of Matthew’s writing. I do know people dedicate their lives to this study, so let’s listen in to professor Kimberly Wagner’s take:
“First, the harshness of this parable may be off-putting to the present-day faithful who appreciate their Jesus gentle, meek, and mild. However, there is something about the violence and intensity of this parable that shakes us up and may remind us that we are participating in not just our personal or even communal stories, but also in God’s eschatological story. What we do as people of faith matters. It is so easy these days to compartmentalize all the pieces of our life, particularly our faith life. We check “going to church” off the to-do list and may view our faith as one small aspect among many. The intensity of this parable and harsh consequences of refused invitations reminds us that living out our faith is a matter of urgency and importance.
Second, this parable insists that our faith ought to make a difference in how we live our lives. At first read, the last part of the parable (found only in Matthew) doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense. One of the last-minute invitees, recruited off the streets, shows up not wearing a wedding robe. The king notices this and inquires: “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” When the mis-dressed guest is literally speechless in reply, the King commands that the attendant “Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” How was the guest supposed to know he needed to pack a wedding robe? After all, he never got a “save the date!”
But, again, Matthew invites us to the world of allegory. [this is why we need biblical professors in our lives]. The “wedding garment” symbolizes the Christian life that we “put on.” This language is used in Galatians 3:27 where the community is told, “As many of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” And this image is unpacked in Colossians 3:12: “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” In other words, there is an expectation that being a Christian, a Jesus-follower, will make a difference and be obvious in the way we live our lives. This parable, through metaphors and life-and-death consequences, insists that we, like Matthew’s community, need to live lives that do not just prioritize our faith, but reflect our faith to those around us.
Finally, this parable reminds us of God’s broad, persistent, and generous invitation. In this parable, God/the king does not desire to party alone. Instead, he keeps extending invitations to everyone around so that the wedding feast will be a rich array of people from every corner of the city. Likewise, the invitation towards faith and faithful living is extended to us, insistently, persistently for us to accept and relay to others.”
That’s helpful, right? Thanks Profession Wagner! It brings us back to what we already know about God: God is loving, just, and wants us at the party! God wants us to take our faith seriously enough that we change toward God- becoming more loving and just. Welcome to the party, friends, let's wear the robe.
Fair warning before we hear Jesus’ teaching today: I’m not sure any of us will fully comprehend what he is saying this side of eternity. As you hear these words, pay attention if feelings of defensiveness arise in you.
[And Jesus said:] "For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; and he said to them, 'You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.' So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o'clock, he did the same. And about five o'clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, 'Why are you standing here idle all day?' They said to him, 'Because no one has hired us.' He said to them, 'You also go into the vineyard.' When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, 'Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.' When those hired about five o'clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, 'These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.' But he replied to one of them, 'Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?' So the last will be first, and the first will be last."
You know that defensive feeling I spoke of? We’ve been taught a certain type of justice all our lives. The kind that involves working HARD and being rewarded for it. This type of justice leads us to compare ourselves with others. Our coworkers, our partners, siblings one from another, neighbors, siblings in Christ. We’re social creatures, we compare ourselves with others AND we want our hard work to be noticed. This all seems to matter to us a great deal! I can tell you, when I clean the house & coordinate ALL the children’s activities & buy groceries & lander the towels, you better believe I want my work recognized. Do you have a version of this too, this “justice is EARNED” mentality?
The problem with comparison, however, is in the way it steals our joy. See, the first workers in the vineyard that day, they seemed content to work for a fair day’s wage…until, that is, they started the comparison game. They made the choice to no longer be satisfied. As much as this parable is about God’s relationship with us, it’s also about our human response. See, we forget that we have a choice in how we respond to a given situation. The early workers CHOSE to grumble. They CHOSE to reframe a situation in which they were offered a fair wage into a competition- and by doing so, they make themselves into losers. Why is this faulty logic? Because God doesn’t operate in a competitive way- it’s not in God’s nature.
You know what God chooses? Grace rather than a merit-based competition. EVEN when we don’t deserve it God’s generosity IS the way divine justice is bestowed. Generosity-by virtue of its definition- is never earned, and therefore generosity is never fair. Generosity is generous.
God is a generous God, this much we can be sure. And so Jesus uses this story to remind us- that we must hold our earthly existence (and all the comparisons and spiritual judgments) carefully, with gratitude and humility, never assuming “our way” is the only way to live into Christ's generous grace.
Hear Jesus' words again: Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Yes, God- you are. It's your grace, yours alone.
The Kingdom of Heaven is not for us divvy out. It’s not for us to decide who’s earned it. Because, well, none of us do earn it. It's a gift, and the second we question the merits of that gift in someone else's life, I hear God’s voice whispering, “Or are you envious because I am generous?”
God's generosity transcends our human religion. These are my words, but I believe it's what Jesus is saying about the Kingdom of Heaven here. And this is truly good news, because it means that no matter what measures of worthiness (and unworthiness) we humans construct for ourselves, God finds a way to extend generosity that transcends our human expectations. Jesus finishes the story by saying, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
The last people we expect to be seated at the right hand of Jesus- will be there anyway, if God sees to it. That's how big our God is! I’d like to offer you the same invitation I heard from God this week because of this parable. What if you and I CHOSE to soften our competitive edges? How might we begin to reframe our experiences in life? Could it be the very idea of competition is preventing us from experiencing God’s grace in our lives?
God is generous to you and to me. Let us be generous with one another in response. Amen.
Jesus LOVES teaching in parables, these earthly stories with a heavenly meaning. Today we hear several whose meanings intertwine. I invite you to listen for what message of truth Jesus offers YOU today, keeping in mind that often God’s grace shows up in our lives through a moment of conviction.
He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field, 25 but while everybody was asleep an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and then went away. 26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 27 And the servants of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ 28 He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29 But he replied, ‘No, for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30 Let both of them grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’ ”
31 He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32 it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”
33 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing. 35 This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet: “I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden since the foundation.”
36 Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” 37 He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; 38 the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, 39 and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. 40 Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, 42 and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!
What heavenly meaning are we to take from this earthly story? In general I begin with a question Dr. Jackie Smallbones taught me nearly 20 years ago. Prayerfully wondering, “Who are YOU, God?” For as much as the bible offers us guidance in our lives, it’s a love story in which God is front and center. Every teaching that directs us to consider living into God’s kingdom is an invitation for you and I to accept God’s love and truly live as if we believe it.
This week, I felt a strong connection between Jesus’ words last Sunday “do not judge, lest you be judged.” and the moment in this parable when the servants (eager as they are to do the Master’s bidding) ask, “Should we tear up these weeds?” and the Master says, “No. That is not your work to do. Leave them be for now, I’ll take care of them when the time is right.”
In fact, even when the time does come, it’s not we humans who do the judging. Ever. The only instruction we’re offered in these parables is to be patient, like a person who sows a mustard seed and waits for the growth. Like a woman kneading dough, in anticipation of its rising. Like a child of the kingdom, relying on God’s grace to overpower all the weeds in our lives and in this world.
Yes, weeds are in this world, we know this! We also know how easy it can be for us to lose sight of who’s in charge when the weeds are allowed to overtake good growth. Jesus knows the weeds. They tried to entangle themselves ever so cleverly within his earthly ministry. Think of Jesus on the cross, surrounded by those intent on torturing him…and he asks God to forgive them. How? Because he knows even death itself cannot trample the good seed planted within our souls. And because of Jesus, we can now experience this too- this unending love that more powerful than hate.
This is how we trust the weeds do NOT win. They will never win. Not the weeds in our own hearts, not those that surround us. We have to believe this in order to live bravely into each new day. The good seed that God planted within us since the day of our birth will come to full fruit in God’s timing. So we wait. We may not even be able to fully understand the work God is up to around us, letting weeds grow among the good seeds. And that’s okay. We don’t have to have all the answers to hold onto faith. That’s the power of belief, it transcends our earthly experience. As we prayerfully wonder, “Who are you, God?” we begin to catch a glimpse of a new heaven and new earth where truth and order and divine goodness are restored to their rightful place, smack dab in the center of our souls.
This week during our Monday scripture study, Sandra read our text today from a version called the Amplified Bible. It caught our attention and I thought it would be good share today’s bible story from Matthew 7: 1-14 in that same language today:
Do not judge and criticize and condemn [others unfairly with an attitude of self-righteous superiority as though assuming the office of a judge], so that you will not be judged [unfairly]. 2 For just as you [hypocritically] judge others [when you are sinful and unrepentant], so will you be judged; and in accordance with your standard of measure [used to pass out judgment], judgment will be measured to you. 3 Why do you look at the [insignificant] speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice and acknowledge the [egregious] log that is in your own eye? 4 Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me get the speck out of your eye,’ when there is a log in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite (play-actor, pretender), first get the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.
6 “Do not give that which is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, for they will trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.
7 “Ask and keep on asking and it will be given to you; seek and keep on seeking and you will find; knock and keep on knocking and the door will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who keeps on asking receives, and he who keeps on seeking finds, and to him who keeps on knocking, it will be opened. 9 Or what man is there among you who, if his son asks for bread, will [instead] give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will [instead] give him a snake? 11 If you then, evil (sinful by nature) as you are, know how to give good and advantageous gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven [perfect as He is] give what is good and advantageous to those who keep on asking Him.
12 “So then, in everything treat others the same way you want them to treat you, for this is [the essence of] the Law and the [writings of the] Prophets. 13 “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad and easy to travel is the path that leads the way to destruction and eternal loss, and there are many who enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow and difficult to travel is the path that leads the way to [everlasting] life, and there are few who find it.
Why is it SO HARD to keep from judging others? It’s hard, right? I’m not alone? I happen to be reading a book this week called The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom; without intending to be so, Don Miguel Ruiz’ book is a perfect companion to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount here in Matthew 7. Ruiz wrestles with the reasons we judge ourselves and others- and offers a pathway out of those destructive patterns. His wisdom is remarkably similar to what Jesus said long ago.
For just as you [hypocritically] judge others [when you are sinful and unrepentant], so will you be judged.
I’d like to outline Ruiz’ four agreements for you and connect them with Jesus’ gospel teaching which promises freedom by living in the way of Christ.
The first of the four agreements is the hardest to both understand and do. 1. “Be impeccable with your word.” Ruiz describes the power of language to shape our identities and relationships. And a lot of the words that rest in our souls are not our own or God’s. They come from people who are need of redemption. It is our life’s work to re-examine those harmful words that rest in our hearts and claim a new narrative. We bear God’s image, which means we are most fully alive when we use our energy to bring love and light into this world, not harm and judgment.
Where to begin? We must first learn to let go of self-judgment. The book explains, “Being impeccable with your word is not using the word against yourself. If I see you in the street and I call you stupid, it appears that I’m using the word against you. But really I’m using my word against myself, because you’re going to hate me for this, and your hating me is not good for me.” p. 31 “Being impeccable with your word means to use your energy in the direction of truth and love for yourself [...] We have learned to use the word to curse, to blame, to find guilt, to destroy. [...] Misuse of the word is how we pull each other down and keep each other in a state of fear and doubt.”
What is the solution? As Christians, we turn to Jesus, who is always one step ahead of us humans. “So then, in everything treat others the same way you want them to treat you, for this is [the essence of] the Law and the [writings of the] Prophets.” We can make life pretty complicated, that’s what I love about the golden rule. It’s SO straightforward. This is the road to abundant life Jesus longs for us to take; it is not easy, the path is narrow, but it’s available. We can take it anytime we’re ready.
The second and third agreement Ruiz suggests are difficult, yet more easily understood. 2. “Don’t take anything personally, and 3. don’t make assumptions.” He goes into detail I won’t today, but I encourage you to take a whole day and observe your behaviors and thoughts and feelings in light of these first three agreements. I did this, and it’s fascinating how many times I said things I didn’t intend, I took on someone else’s feelings that weren’t my own, and I assumed something without asking for clarity. I can confirm the truth in Jesus’ words: “But small is the gate and narrow and difficult to travel is the path that leads the way to [everlasting] life.”
Thank God that Ruiz’ fourth agreement makes the other three possible. The final agreement is this: 4. “Always do your best.” He says, “Just do you best–in any circumstance in your life. It doesn’t matter if you are sick or tired, if you always do your best there is no way you can judge yourself. And if you don’t judge yourself there is no way you are going to suffer from guilt, blame, and self-punishment. By always doing your best, you will break a big spell that you have been under.” p. 78 Always doing your best is NOT the same as “strive to be perfect.” In fact, it’s the solution to perfectionism. Rather than demanding perfection, doing your best means you WON’T be and NEEDN’T be perfect.
Ruiz says, “The first three agreements will only work if you do your best. Don’t expect that you will always be able to be impeccable with your word. Your routine habits are too strong and firmly rooted in your mind. But you can do your best. Don’t expect that you will never take anything personally; just do your best. Don’t expect that you will never make another assumption, but you can certainly do your best. By doing your best, the habits of misusing your word, taking things personally, and making assumptions will become weaker and less frequent with time. You don’t need to judge yourself, feel guilty, or punish yourself if you cannot keep these agreements. If you’re doing your best, you will feel good about yourself even if you make mistakes.” p. 86
My favorite part of these four agreements is this: if we commit to them in our lives, we will find ourselves living the golden rule as a matter of integrity: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. When in doubt, follow this path and see what new life it may discover in you! You and I are beloved children of a loving God who has given us every tool we need to choose the higher road, the challenging path that leads to everlasting life. Praise God for the gift of each other for support and solidarity on the journey.
What you are about to hear is Jesus' mysterious message of salvation, a new way of understanding how to be spiritual in a world that would like to devour you with messages that say you aren’t measuring up.
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain, and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 And he began to speak and taught them, saying: 3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Salt and Light13 “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 People do not light a lamp and put it under the bushel basket; rather, they put it on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
The Law and the Prophets17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
If you’ve ever felt poor in spirit, you know it’s a hard sell in that moment to believe you are blessed. At midnight this past Tuesday, a stomach bug hit me hard and wiped me out for a good 24 hrs. When I “came to” on Thursday morning, still pondering the meaning of this week’s scripture: “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven, I laughed out loud. How is that possible? It’s hard to even feel human when your spirit is so low, let alone feel worthy of God’s presence.
And that’s when it clicked for me. I don’t have to “feel” God’s presence for it to be real. Maybe it’s most real when we don’t have the energy to even think about reaching out for God. You know that Footsteps in the Sand poem? It gets a bad rap in some ways for being overly sentimental, but I think it holds truth. “My child, when you see only one set of footprints, it was I that carried you.”
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus knows suffering, even at the point of preaching this sermon, he knows what’s at stake for his future. And that moment he’s on the cross and cries out, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me!” That's when our salvation becomes real. It’s those moments of experiencing “poor in spirit, mourn, meek” that open us to the reality that we need a savior.
It’s not about what happens after we die so much as it is about how we live today…accepting the gift of faith that rises to meet us in our greatest suffering. How so? Because Jesus, in those final moments on the cross, declares it OKAY to question God and still, God’s love for us remains.
That’s what it means to be blessed, to be God’s beloved. We’re not special or unique, God’s blessing is for all…but it does require us to be vulnerable, to ask for help, to say, “God, I can’t do this on my own.” And Jesus knows it takes a meek, poor, grieving, hungry, thirsty spirit to be open to such faith.
I am profoundly moved by the testimonies of faith I’ve heard from each of you. I know you trust God with difficult things, because I’ve gotten to share many stories of suffering alongside you. You’ve heard many of mine. A refrain I often hear in these stories is, “I don’t know how people get through hard times without faith.” Amen. This week as every cell in my body rebelled against my best attempts at health, I had to rely on God more than ever- even when I didn’t have the strength to pray. I had to trust every part of my work that went undone into the hands of the one to whom we as a church belong: Jesus, the cornerstone. We worship a God who knows what’s on our hearts even before we utter a word. And with that same tender attention, Jesus is able to turn suffering into something sacred. Like a shared connection with another, a moment of inspiration is someone else’s journey, a confirmation of God’s healing touch.
I will live on this faith until the day I die, and I’m honored to share this life of faith with you in this season of my life. Our blessing is not always in the flesh, it is in what lies deeper still, a spiritual stirring that enables us to give salt to the earth and light to the world, even amidst the darkness of our own experiences. So shine your light, be salt for this earth in the unique ways only you can. We all need that from you, just like you need it from us. And in the work of amplifying God’s righteousness, we begin to see more clearly our own paths unfold with goodness. May your journey with Christ continue to be illuminated by acts of love.
We hear an invitation from Jesus to reset our priorities on what is truly life-giving. In the face of real earthly temptation, Jesus resists the allure of power, invincibility, and riches. This is how he begins his ministry to fulfill God’s promises to God’s people.
Matthew 4: 1-11
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tested by the devil. 2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterward he was famished. 3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4 But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ”5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ ” 7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ” 8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory, 9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Then Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’ ”
11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
This week our confirmation class studied this scripture using our contemplative process in which we read it three times, reflecting on a new question each round. One seventh grader, upon considering how this passage connected with his life, said something really profound.
“It reminds me that what is easy is not always the best choice. Sometimes we have to choose to do what is hard rather than what is easy.”
Yes! At the start of a new year, I can’t think of a better reminder to choose what is actually fulfilling, even when it’s hard. Because as tempting as it is to “push the easy button,” it almost surely will be fleeting happiness, only to leave us feeling empty once more.
When Jesus is offered the world’s riches and complete earthly power, he KNOWS what seems tempting in the moment isn’t the best choice. That’s the path of righteousness he forges for us. And when he says that our highest calling is to worship God- to serve God alone, I believe him… because time and again, he chose to deny his own comfort in favor of our care. That’s the kind of God I want in my life.
We are often tempted to believe that pursuing our own comfort is the same as pursuing self-care. I recently learned the distinction between the two, and I think it’s super helpful. Neither are wrong, per say. For comfort think: a pint of ice cream while watching a marathon show on TV. For self-care think: taking a walk on your favorite path to destress and unwind. Both of these activities can be good, but here’s the question to ask yourself when making a choice between the two: is seeking comfort getting in the way of self-care? You might say YES if your “comfort” choices are making you slip into distraction, numbness, and excessive soothing at the expense of your values. Self-comfort might actually be getting in the way of self-care if it prevents you from addressing the issue that is conflicting with what you value most.
We all face temptations, many of which promise us temporary happiness, but true joy is never found in earthly things. God has something much greater in store for anyone willing to open their hearts to their Creator: Our ultimate fulfillment is of a spiritual nature, never the glamor of the world.
CS Lewis makes this point clear: “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.” He speaks often of this temptation to pursue earthly things as a distraction from what really matters. He says, “If you live for the next world, you get this one in the deal. But if you live only for this world, you lose them both.
If there’s one reason to read the Gospels, it’s this: with every homeless night on earth, Jesus embodies what it is to find our purpose apart from material things. That’s what makes his reign on earth, his kingdom of heaven so very different. So obscure, in fact, that we still find it hard to fathom even 2000+ years later. He accomplished what none of us can on our own- true detachment from the temptations of power, wealth, and distracting comfort.
I don’t know what’s numbing your spirit or distracting you from your own best intentions, but I do know that Jesus keeps right on asking us to be mindful about our choices. How are you pursuing what is truly life-giving? Like most of scripture, there is no formula for right-living, and we don’t need one! The truth has been knit within our very souls. We need only pay attention to the still small voice speaking truth amidst the voices of temptation raging around us and within us. This I know: Jesus wrestles with temptation, and Jesus wins! We can conquer our own temptation for the sake of the life-giving way Jesus intends for us all- the life that really is life! A spiritual life of abundance and peace. Thanks be to God!
13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw God’s Spirit descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from the heavens said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Here it is, again! That same self doubt in John the Baptist we heard a month ago. Whaaaat Jesus? You’re crazy if you think I have any power to help you. I’m a nobody, can’t you see? But Jesus answered him, “Please, John, you’re a part of my plan to help right this world. Do it, for me, for you, for everybody.” And he does, John says, “Yes, Jesus, I’ll help baptize you.” In the act of consenting to be a part of Jesus’ plan, John ushers in one of the most powerful moments in human history. He holds the body of Christ, affirming God’s full union with humanity, as the Holy Spirit flutters to earth…the moment our image of the triune God is born.
In the human act of baptism, Jesus opens the heavens to share with us all that heavenly voice of affirmation we crave: my son, my daughter, my child, you are beloved. With you I am well pleased!” I’m not sure any of us would truly believe the Jesus story if we didn’t crave these words in our lives. John got to be front and center witness to this truth, because he said “yes, Jesus, I’ll participate in your baptism.”
What a holy and exhilarating way to live- believing that Jesus wants to use US to make things right here on earth. In preparation to receive new members, I often ask myself, what’s my elevator pitch for why church matters. I think I’ve said it a hundred different ways. Here are a few reasons I believe joining in church together matters:
This week I’ve added a new one:
In a conversation with our new member Lori this week, she affirmed her why so well: “It feels like a true family here,” she says, “I feel so loved and welcome.” It’s because you are, Lori. Your whole family is loved and valued and appreciated, the way each person within our caring circle is. The power behind this statement is the “chosen family,” the “through thick and thin commitment” we forge for one another, with a simple and powerful YES.
Friends, Jesus’ invitation to be a part of his plan to help right this world is always open. Affirming our intention to be an active part of the body of Christ is a way of saying YES to what Jesus is already doing within our hearts. We are being formed into the likeness of our creator so that God's kingdom might come here on earth as it is in heaven; This is what we celebrate today. Like John the Baptist, we wrestle our self doubt and take one step of faith at a time, holding on to one another for support along the way. The intentional community we create is inspired by Christ’s desire to be among us when we gather. We celebrate our collective YES by installing our 2023 church leaders today.
Last week I shared that John the Baptist didn’t feel worthy of the call on his life. I also suggested that could be the spiritual epidemic that unites us…all of us have to battle the forces in our lives that tell us we are not the very good people God created us to be. In Matthew 11: 2-11 today, we hear Jesus set the record straight. Not only is John the Baptist a mighty prophet and friend of Jesus, but ANY of us who choose to believe are too! That is the origin of our joy.
“When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, those with a skin disease are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What, then, did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What, then, did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ “Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist, yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
The last shall be first and the first shall be last in the kingdom of heaven. It’s one of the most provocative theological statements Jesus ever makes- and he says it a lot. When Jesus suggests his value system is entirely different from the competitive world around us, I believe him. Because the ancient story of Christ’s birth is radically different than any of us might expect. Sure, this side of history we’ve made his birth kind of sweet with songs like Away in a Manger, no crib for a bed. That’s just a poetic way of saying Jesus was homeless, his mother a young unwed refugee. It doesn’t get more humble than this. Case in point: would Jesus’ birth today get any traction in the news headlines or social media feeds? I don’t know anyone who considers a migrant refugee giving birth to be news at all, let alone good news.
Even John the Baptist, the prophet paving the way for Jesus’ ministry questions: is he the real deal, though? We want to believe, right? But it’s so hard to believe in Jesus’ power sometimes because it doesn’t look anything like we’ve been taught about power. Power demands, power consumes, power belittles others. Meanwhile Jesus heals, he renews sight & hearing, he offers good news to the poor. What kind of power is this, we wonder?
This week during my Monday contemplative practice gathering with other pastors, we focused on this text from Matthew. Pastor Dee in this group is blind and has multiple impairments within her post-80 year-old body. I was struck by the response she gave to Jesus’ message. See, I could never hear this story like she does, especially as it relates to healing. As is the case for her, many folks know there’s no miracle awaiting them. Just the impairment they live with day in and day out). So the obvious question emerges: where’s Jesus’ power at work in my life? Maybe you’ve asked this question yourself.
Pastor Dee shared something this week I hadn’t known about her: she teaches tai chi; one component of this is dancing. Now, many in her group are not able to physically dance. Even so, they practice something I find truly inspiring: they allow their hearts to dance. In so doing, Dee finds the healing she seeks within her heart rather than her eyes. For her, Jesus’ transformative healing does not have to happen in the physical realm for her spirit to be set free.
Wow, I could have NEVER heard that in Jesus’ story, let alone preached it. I need Dee to help me build a bigger vision of God’s kingdom here on earth. I need you too. Jesus needed John the Baptist, even when he felt unworthy. We need each other, especially when we can’t quite find the strength to believe in ourselves. Can we do something for one another? Can we practice setting aside all the reasons we think we’re not worthy to carry Jesus sandals? Can we learn to listen to one another’s perspectives in order to see that Jesus’ power IS already at work in each of us?
“Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist, yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” This is the power reversal Jesus’ own entrance into this world offers us- a chance to see ourselves as worthy of being a part of God’s kingdom. Are you worthy of following Christ? Of course you are- you were born for it! The point is not who is worthy (all are worthy), the point is- are you ready to follow the vision? To catch the joy?
When Jesus heals people, giving sight to the blind, the lame another chance to walk again…he’s making disciples by connecting them with their internal wellspring of joy. The thing about joy (that differs from happiness) is this: once you’ve decided to live in joy, no one can take it away from you. You understand it’s been within you the whole time, just waiting for you to catch hold. Most importantly, joy is a transformation of the spirit, like learning to dance with your heart.
I’ve found that contemplative practices are a powerful way to connect with my own internal wellspring of joy. I’d like to invite you all to join me in a NEW practice for our congregation. Beginning Monday January 2nd, 2023 at 12:10pm, I would love for you to join in reading the scripture for the coming week’s sermon together in a contemplative way. 40 minutes each week, we will hear, wait, listen, and respond to Jesus’ call in our lives. A call to live into joy. I will guide us, but you have the insights you already need for this practice. Please do not be scared by the word contemplative. All of us can listen and learn.
Maybe contemplative study of scripture isn’t what will feed your soul. Monday mornings are not a prescription for finding joy in your life, it’s simply one invitation. Perhaps you feel connected with joy through acts of service or quiet prayers while soaking in the sunshine; maybe joy comes for you through time spent in nature. Or is it a coffee date with a spiritual friend? Whatever inspires you to catch the joy within, trust that Jesus IS calling you to participate in the prayer we offer each week: may God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. How will we know our prayers are answered? Lives are transformed, hearts are filled with joy.
Rev. Emily Munger
delights in connecting sacred texts with everyday life.