Jesus' Teachings

Jesus once story about how on Judgement Day God will sort us all out, like a shepherd separating sheep from goats. John Doe has never spent a day upon a farm. He wonders what is so bad about goats. He gets the bit about how people, who are only nice when they know that there’s something in it for them, deserve Hell. But, what’s this talk about all of humankind being brought before God (Jesus) and given only one chance to make it into heaven? Hey, even Babe Ruth got three strikes before he had to go to the dugout.

Judgement is really not about punishing people for their sins. Its about providing justice for those who are oppressed. A day is coming when nations who go to war with their neighbor for sport will be made to pay for their violence. A day is coming when the masters of slaves will answer for their ownership of other human beings. There will come a day when the racist, the abuser, the usurper, and those who cheat the poor out of their daily bread, will find themselves in torment. Those who have been victims of wicked people will have their day in God’s court.

Jesus’ point is that the judge of all the earth won’t have a hard time distinguishing who is the victim and who is the accused in his courtroom. The two tables are separated by a courtroom aisle, the way shepherds used to separate their sheep from their goats. On that day the distinction between good and evil will be easily made. If you don’t know animals, think about any two other groups that can be easily sorted. The heaven bound and the hellions are as different as eggs and potatoes, Porsches and Yugos, diamonds and coal.

For: 
November 26, 2017
Matthew 25:31-46
Pentecost 34
Christ the King Sunday

There is one thing that I am slow to forgive in this world, that is stupidity. The other day, I’m doing fifty on a crowded, known to be dangerous, stretch of Pittsburgh highway, when a motorcyclist flies by my right side, driving in the breakdown lane. I lay on my horn and call him an idiot. Then it hit me. I have done stupider things. Further, my anger was probably not related to my concern for his safety, but the competitive spirit that fuels road rage.

The mental process that forgives us our own stupidity, while holding others fully accountable is deeply rooted. We want to be right. We’d rather be right — especially concerning whatever is on our plate right now — than be happy. The best way to have ourselves be always right, is to judge others more harshly than we judge ourselves. Once we are accustomed to being always superior, it is easy to become consistently unforgiving.

For: 
September 17, 2017
Matthew 18:21-35
Pentecost 19

Imagine if I were to walk down the aisle of your church with a bag of M and Ms. Or if you prefer, Raisinets. Just like the sower in Jesus’ story, I throw the chocolate pellets out into the congregation. Some people would receive the treat eagerly. Others will let the candy just bounce right off of them.

Back in Bible times, farmers used to waste a lot of seed. It was called broadcast farming. Seed thrown everywhere, like M&Ms from a crazy preacher. I can’t begin to explain why they did it that way. I guess there are things that we do today that are just as crazy. Why do we watch hundreds of hours of TV for just a few moments of enjoyment? Why do we post hundreds of things to Facebook or Snap Chat or maintain a Twitter feed? It all seems pretty wasteful.

Is Jesus accusing God of being wasteful? I think this is one of the points of this story, God is not a fiscal conservative. He shares his wisdom into the world in a multitude of ways… but we are too busy answering our email to notice. He broadcasts his love day by day, but we are working too hard to notice. The Bible says, he sends rain upon the just and the unjust. In other words, he throws m&ms at people whom he knows will just let them bounce off. Why? Why does God allow himself to be rejected?

I like what Anne Dillard says about nature. She says, “Nature is, above all, profligate. Don't believe them when they tell you how economical and thrifty nature is…  Extravagance! Nature will try anything once.” I was in Cleveland last month and the walls of every building were coated with mayflies. These little creatures that swarm up out of the lake and then die a few days later. Such wastefulness.

For: 
July 16, 2017
Matthew 13:1-9

Jesus says in John 3:5 that we come into the Kingdom of God by water and spirit. This makes me think of baptism, both the water kind that is common in worship, and the baptism of Pentecost that is less common these days. Water and spirit, here might also be related to the birth process. Water surrounds a baby for nine months. It gives way at birth to the spirit — in greek the same word also means breath and wind. When a child takes that first breath, they are inspired. We each re-spire until we die, or expire.  The word spirit and the words we use to talk about being creatures of the air, have deep linguistic connections. Think of it sequentially. The world was dark and void and God parted the waters. Then he breathed his breath into each creature and made us born again to a new life.Physical birth and spiritual birth have much in common.

 

Jesus goes on to say about the spirit that it is like an unexplained and unexpected wind. God is constantly involved in our world. We don’t stop to think about this as often as we should. What events are purely natural, and what events are spiritual?

For: 
March 12, 2017
John 3:1-17
Lent 2

There are fifty-nine national parks in our country, but most Americans suffer from a lack of wilderness. Most of us have the ability to skip a meal anytime we want, yet Christianity today is suffering from a great neglect of spiritual disciplines, including fasting. Jesus went into the wilderness, as the song says, to fast and pray for us. We each have people that we should be fasting and praying for. Our spiritual disciplines this lent, should be brave enough to do what ever it takes to gain the moral high ground in our lives.

 

My cousin Giselle recently asked me if Protestant’s fasted for Lent, or if that was just a Catholic thing. I replied as follows:

 

For: 
March 5, 2017
Matthew 4:1-11
Lent 1

In today’s world, it’s rare for someone to ask you to walk two miles. Nobody has asked for my coat lately, and I can’t remember the last time I was slapped on the cheek. When pastors deal with Matthew 5:38-48, they tend to wax historical and provide details like the Roman laws governing how far you had to carry a pack and how much the ancient people hated to use their left hand. This misses the point. Jesus always draws his examples from the daily lives of the people he was talking to. They knew what it was like to be a minority people group governed by an oppressive occupying force. 

 

For: 
February 19, 2017
Matthew 5:38-48
Epiphany 7

Jesus sometimes sets the bar so high that it seems out of our reach. He tells us to turn the other cheek when we are struck, to constantly assume the humbler position (wash each other’s feet), and here in Matthew 5:21-37, to take the ten commandments so seriously that we might maim ourselves to find holiness. It seems prudent and scholarly to downplay Jesus’ words. To say that just like the bit about camels going through the eye of a needle, Jesus is using hyperbole. But, not so quick. Jesus is speaking to the simple country folk coming with their families out to a gentle hill for the afternoon picnic and lecture. He doesn’t want to confuse them or us. What he wants is to set them on a pathway towards personal holiness. 

    The threshold to the kingdom of God is extremely low. The kingdom of God is already among us, we only need to believe in order to enter. But the daily life of a Christian is extremely hard. It begins with our family. When we flirt with a coworker, we put at risk multiple families and potentially harm the children in our care. Adultery is such a serious problem that Jesus says pluck out your eyes if you need to. Don’t go down that wrong path.

For: 
February 12, 2017
Matthew 5:21-37
Epiphany 6

How do we know if our ministry, is on the right track? Jesus says, “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light.” - Matthew 6:22 This is one of many places where he speaks about the binary simplicity of Christian life. Our eyes are either actively attuned to the nuances of the light around us, or we are visually challenged. A local church is either discerning each day its role as a partner of God, or it is lacking in vision. Individual Christians are either prayerfully open to what the spirit is leading them to do today, or they are blind.

I think we should pay attention whenever Jesus makes a direct comparison between how his people do things and the standard procedure of the rest of the world. In Mark 10:37, Jesus gets asked a simple question, “When you take over, who are you going to have as your right hand man (or woman)?” It’s the kind of question that we’ll be asking the 2016 field of presidential candidates when it gets winnowed down a bit more, “Who’s going to be your running mate, Jesus?” His two-part answer pleases no one.

 

Part 1: Jesus says that among his people, the person at the top of the organizational chart empties the trash and cleans the toilets. The first place person is servant to all. The pyramid of power is inverted. This is not a token performance, such as when the Pope washes the feet of a peasant on Maundy Thursday. This is a fundamental aspect of the church, all christian mission organizations, every committee, and even of our families and the places where we mix with those  outside the faith. The higher we go in a work environment, the more humble our attitude and approach to every decision must be. In politics and in our families, we are always mindful of the Psalm 8:2

For: 
October 18, 2015
Mark 10:35-45
Psalm 8
Pentecost 24

I sometimes tell people that the reason I am a writer today, is because I bought a computer in 1984 that had Spell Check installed. In grade school, I would get the weekly spelling test back with three or four out of the ten words marked wrong. As classes progressed and I was given essays and creative writing assignments, they would always come back with some variant of “nice story” or “interesting points” at the top, and then such a multitude of red marks and grammatical mistakes that the net grade barely passed. I didn’t know that I could write, until a mechanism allowed me to stop focusing upon the rules. In Mark 10:17-31, a rich young man comes to Jesus claiming to have kept all the rules. He is like the teacher’s pet at my grade school, a perfect speller. But something has brought him to Jesus. He knows that he is spiritually lost. He is like the novelist who writes a perfectly composed story, with each sentence grammatically correct, but fails to unfold a plot.

 

For: 
October 11, 2015
Mark 10:17-31
Pentecost 23

The great physicist Richard Feynman once described what he and other scientists were doing this way: “[The Universe] is something like a great chess game being played by the gods, and we are observers of the game. We do not know what the rules of the game are; all we are allowed to do is to watch the playing. Of course, if we watch long enough, we may eventually catch on to a few of the rules.” I think he was right, but his analogy scares me a bit. People who attempt to learn something, like chess or swimming or religion, often get fascinated with irrelevant customs and nonessentials. A child may think that it is impossible to learn to swim without a blue bathing suit or that chess (or science) is only played by boys. Further, if we were to describe chess to someone who has never seen it, we might mention that the pieces are black and white, that the opponents sit on opposite sides of the board, and that it is played by two humans. None of these things are required, and drawing a novice’s attention to petty rituals can interfere with their grasping the game’s brilliant simplicity. The same is true of religion.

Jesus says:
There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.

For: 
August 30, 2015
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Pentecost 17

In John 6, Jesus causes a scandal by claiming to be the bread of life. The word bread itself is problematic today; many people are on gluten-free or low carb diets. This leads to three sticking points around Jesus and bread.

For: 
August 9, 2015
John 6:35-51
Pentecost 14

Long ago I read a sci-fi story about a world where appreciation was the currency, not money. Gold was plentiful, so people tried hard to be liked. I can’t remember much more about the story except that it ended badly. It’s not healthy for us to devote too much of our  lives to the pursuit of popularity. At the time, I thought the sci-fi story was far fetched. How could you monetize appreciation? Guess what? I’m on Facebook and I need to be Liked, I have a blog and I track how my hits, and when I preach, I listen hoping to hear people say, “Good sermon, Bill.”

 

Jesus exampled a life in which one does the compassionate and true thing without expectation of being Liked. His teachings always form a reality check; “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you…” In Mark 6, he faces difficulty in Capernaum because people knew him as a child. He says, “a prophet is without honor…” This is normal, people are still the same. The way he responds is to move along to the next village.

 

For: 
July 5, 2015
Mark 6:1-13
Pentecost 9

Teaching is what Jesus did — they called him rabbi — day after day. He taught publicly, privately, and in impromptu settings. He never said that one place of teaching was better than another. He met with people in multiple formats because disciple making was his goal. With that being said, why do we choose to ignore the older adult Sunday school classes in our church?

 

Someone has said that life isn’t a problem to be solved, it’s an adventure to be lived. One can extend this concept to ones personal relationships. My spouse, and how we live together, isn’t a problem to be solved. My spouse is a blessing to be loved. Our children and the people who depend upon my nuture, aren't problems to be solved. My church isn’t a problem for my denominational leader to solve. Even if the church decides to burn me at the stake and renege on their mission share (denominational apportionments).

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