Authority to Proclaim Forgiveness 

Matthew 9:2-8

The story begins and friends are bringing a paralyzed man to Jesus. In Mark’s (Mark 2:1-12) and Luke’s (Luke 5:17-26) versions of the story, Jesus is in a house and the friends have to lower the man through the roof. In Matthew’s version there’s no house nor destruction of property. Yet, Matthew does stress the friend’s faith. “When Jesus saw their faith.  

Jesus does not immediately heal the man. Instead he pronounces forgiveness. Following Jesus’s words, the scribes present think to themselves, or within themselves, that Jesus is blaspheming. Blasphemy is a sin of drawing attention away from the glory of God. The specific way in which pronouncing sins forgiven is blasphemy is not clear. The scribes believed that God alone forgives. Certainly biblical witness is that God forgives sins, but I did not find a place where it says that God alone forgives sins. If it does somewhere, someone let me know.  

Jesus demonstrates his authority by perceiving their thoughts. Jesus calls out their sins. So, while he pronounces the paralyzed man forgiven; he accuses the scribes of being evil.  

Jesus poses a question to them. His healing of the paralytic is offered as proof that Jesus had the power to forgive sins. The man got up and walked home. The crowd glorified God.  The “blasphemy” did not detract from God’s glory it magnified it.   And then comes the surprising conclusion.  

The whole story felt like it was a statement about Jesus’s authority and power. Power to heal. Power to forgive. Yet, their take away –God had given such authority to people. The word used in Greek there is anthropoi; it means humanity in general not one gender or the other. People have authority. We have the right to tell people they are forgiven. We can proclaim good news to people. How often do we used this authority?

  

What To Do with Demons

Matthew 8:28-9:1 

Matthew tells a story of Jesus going to the Greek city of Gadara.  There Jesus encountered two demoniacs–people people possessed by demons.  This story is also told in Mark 5:1-20 and Luke 8:26-39.  There are at least two significant differences between the accounts.  

First, in Matthew there are two demoniacs and in Mark and Luke there is only one.  People come in two in Matthew:  Two blind men healed (Matthew 9:27-31).  The twelve are named in sets of two (Matthew 10:2-4).  Interestingly, where Mark 6:7-11 and Luke 10:1 suggest that Jesus sent the Disciples in pairs of two, Matthew does not include that detail.  

Second, Mark and Luke both describe the demon-possessed man as doing damage to himself. In Matthew, the two individuals are decidedly assertive toward others (Matthew 8:28).    

The demons pled with Jesus to enter the herd of swine nearby and once they do the herd runs off the cliff and into the lake–what we sometimes call the Sea of Galilee.  This raises one serious concern for me which is that the drowned swine undoubetedly became fish food and if fish tasted more like bakcon, I might take it more seriously.  

I’m not sure what to do with demon possession.  I certainly believe that there are forces that act against people that are not entirely physical.   Specifically, I think we are influenced by social psychological cues to do some terrible things.  I do not believe we should equate demon-possession with mental illness.  I don’t think we should just avoid texts like this because our worldview doesn’t have a sense of demons running around creating havoc.  

What I would affirm in this text is that Christ is about freeing us from the chains that drive us to do destructive things–whether you understand that a literal demon-possession, or something a little less specific, the message I think Matthew seeks to convey is that Jesus wasn’t going to acquiesce to whatever caused people to lash out.  He intended to remedy that.  He intends to still that aggression in us.  

Boat and Direction

Matthew 8:23-27

Is Jesus in your boat or are you sailing in Jesus’s direction.  Karoline Lewis Preaching professor at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN reminds us that the story of Jesus calming the sea (Matthew 8:23-26; Mark 4:35-41; Luke 8:22-25) is often read as an encouraging story about how Jesus cares for us through the storms in our life.  We make a metaphor out of the boat.  The boat is our life and Jesus is in it.  This way of reading a familiar story is helpful.  However, reading a story one way can flatten out a story and cause us to ignore the other side of the story.  Lewis wrote, “Maybe the boat is simply a boat.  Maybe the point is that Jesus s just trying to get us to the other side.”

The story begins, “Then Jesus got into the boat and his disciples followed him” (Matthew 8:23).  The Disciples followed Jesus—not the other way around.  In both Mark’s and Luke’s account of this story, the evangelists are more explicit.  Jesus ordered them, “Let us go to the other side of the lake [Sea of Galilee].”  Lewis wrote, “Jesus seems rather dissatisfied with letting us live on one side of the lake for too long. So, he takes the disciples to the other side. And getting to the other side is no easy trip. Nor should we expect that to be the case. When we over-sentimentalize or spiritualize this story we end up overlooking the obvious — that this boat trip was a means by which to get from one place to another. And, something equally as obvious — that change, trading spaces, is rarely without its challenges.”

Listen to any Christian music radio station—and yeah, I listen to a lot of Christian radio because at its worst, it’s better than secular radio—but you’ll hear song after song about how Jesus takes care of us, blesses us, and comforts us. All of that is absolutely true.  But, equally true is that Jesus moves us, leads us, and commands us.  Why?  Because on the other side of the lake there was a demon-possessed man forced to live among the tombs who desperately needed Jesus’s compassionate exorcism (don’t get hung up on the question about exorcisms).  The point is the storm that tossed the boat was episodic.  It would pass whether Jesus calmed it or not.  But, the man on the other side of the lake?  His storm had lasted for years and would not relent.  His storm was internal.  He needed a savior.  And when we cross over to the other side with Jesus, when we follow him when he moves, we are able to witness just what Jesus is capable of doing.

 

Follow Me

Matthew 8:18-22

Jesus encountered two people in this story who wish to follow him.  Jesus challenged the resolve of both men.  He reminded the first that Jesus and his followers did not have homes in which to dwell.  They are more vulnerable than foxes and birds.  The second wanted to bury his father first.  Jesus said, “Let the dead bury the dead.”

We tend to minimize the challenge of Jesus in our desperate attempt to get people to like us and to join our church.  We say things like, “Jesus loves you how you are and where you are.”  We invite people to the communion table saying, “All are welcome.”  And we entice people to come with an easy gospel–Dietrich Bonhoeffer called it, “cheap grace.”

In contrast, the most common call from Jesus was, “Follow me.”  Jesus calls followers to go to the vulnerable places and serve with reliance on that which God provides.  Jesus calls followers to touch the untouchables and love the unlovables.  And Jesus said follow me and then went to the cross and died.  Jesus calls us to those very same places.

This past season, our church did a series of worship services around meals.  We called them “Word and Table.”  Our corporate prayer of confession said, “Lord, if we have looked for an easier savior . . . . ”  I and others found ourselves convicted every time we read those words.  We know that we have too often looked for an easier savior.  All of this can begin to feel like brow beating until we come to grips with this beautiful quality of the gospel–the demands of Jesus aren’t the things we do to earn God’s favor; they are the very favor of God itself.  If we live within the framework of God’s will as disclosed by Christ, we discover the joy, companionship, purpose, and joy that our lives strive for.

Matthew includes a cycle of nine healing stories punctuated by dialogues that explain the meaning of his life.  The first three stories belong to a set.  Jesus healed a leper (Matthew 8:1-4), the Centurion’s servant (Matthew 8:5-13) and Peter’s Mother-in-Law (Matthew 8:14-15).  Jesus did not need to be told Peter’s mother in law was sick . . . he saw her.  Jesus touched her and she was healed, as he had touched the Leper, and she was immediately healed.  It seems fairly clear from the way the stories are grouped that Matthew wants to emphasize Jesus’s boundary crossing work.  Jesus encountered and stepped beyond the boundaries of ritual purity, cultural background, and gender in order to bring healing.

Notice also that the healings do not conclude with Peter’s mother-in-law.  Many others are brought to Jesus.  All are healed.  This is a remarkably long day in terms of Matthew’s chronology.  Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount and healed a leper and a servant and a mother-in-law.  And then as an overtime bonus, there are still more to be healed as the sun is setting.  In our over-worked culture, it’s hard to know what to do with this tireless Jesus.

It reinforces the authority of Jesus which has been on display.  As 21st Century Christians we often resist the idea of authority.  Many of us have constructed a view of Jesus as someone who is a pal and friend only.  We do not want to think of Jesus who has demands.  And yet, Jesus does indeed command, he is served, he is Lord.  This Lord uses his power to build people up rather than tear them down.

Generally specific bigotry and me

Matthew 8:14-17

The story of Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law (Matthew 8:14-17) completes a series of three healings.  Some biblical commentators will suggest that each of these three healing represents a group of people often excluded in Jesus’s day–the infirm (Matthew 8:1-4), the Gentile (Matthew 8:5-13), and women (Matthew 8:14-17).  People point this out for good reasons.  One, it shows that Jesus was accepting of others.  Two, it focuses on the example we are to follow–to accept others  as Jesus did.

There are also problems with this interpretation.  It suggests that everyone in Jesus’s day–especially all the other Jews–were bigots and none had thought about equality or dignity for others.  This is not just an historically inaccurate perception.  It has dangerous consequences for how Christians speak of Jews today.  It also overlooks some details.  It overlooks the detail that the Centurion was not an oppressed outsider.  He was–in his own words–a pretty powerful dude.  It overlooks the fact that once Peter’s mother-in-law was healed she got up and served them (Matthew 5:15).  Jesus was not so egalitarian that he didn’t accept the traditional maternal role of serving the men.

These problems of interpretation pale in comparison to the problems of application.  The New Testament wrestles with the question of how groups of people interact with and reconcile with one another.  It takes center stage in Acts 9-11 and the second half of Ephesians 2.  It’s a motif through the book of Matthew and a frequent theme in the Pauline and deutero-Pauline letter.  Invariably as we talk about these issues in church, someone will say, “I don’t have any prejudices against anyone.  I treat everyone the same regardless of their [insert whatever demographic characteristic is applicable].”  My usual response is, “Oh, I didn’t think that was possible.”  That’s my response because I’m a minister and it’s best to filter.  [If you’re a Mom reading this aloud to her kids, skip this next 2 sentences].  But, were I any other profession, my response would be something more direct.  Like something that starts with “bull” and ends with “it.”

The slightly more nuanced response asks, “Why do we need to talk in specifics?”  Shouldn’t we show acceptance toward everyone?  Jesus didn’t see a leper, he saw a person.  Jesus didn’t see a Gentile, he saw a person.  Jesus didn’t see a woman, he saw a person.  When I was in college, I had a friend–he’s still my friend–who was from Malaysia.  I asked him once about his experiences on the campus of West Texas State University as an international student.  He said, “You tend to want to treat all international students the same.”  I said, “So, you think we should have a different policy [Yes, if memory serves me correctly I actually used the word ‘policy’ here] for the people from Malaysia than we have for the people from Bangladesh?”  He responded gently, “I am John.  I want you to treat me like John.”  Indeed, people are more than their cultural background, language, skin color, religion, sexual orientation, or gender.  People are not issues.  They are people.  Yet, the fact remains that I could not fully know John without understanding his Malaysian background.  It was a part of him then.  It just wasn’t everything about him.  I cannot fully be his friend now if I do not understand how his life within a country that is predominantly Muslim differs from my life where I am surrounded by mostly Christians.  There’s more to John than his Malaysian culture, true.  But, that doesn’t mean his context and background can be ignored.

Still, the dialogue continues.  Someone will say, “If we open a door just for this type of person does that mean we don’t open the door for others?”  Usually we say that whenever the door that needs to be open is one we are scared to open. I find myself here often.  I think surely we’ll gradually get to that place of . . .  Equality between women and men . . . An end to racial prejudice . . . Religious tolerance for everyone . . . Acceptance of LGBT folk.  Surely we can just work on being generally nice and generally accepting and the specifics will work themselves out.  Even as I say this, I know that I am kidding myself.  So, if I were to sit my own self in the pews and I were to preach a sermon directly at me–knowing what I know about my own failure of courage and acquiescence to bigotry–here’s what I’d say.

  1. Working in specifics doesn’t preclude work in general.  Our culture has indeed become divisive in general.  People are more on edge and more prepared to make an enemy out of someone who differs from them.  We do need a renewal of civic and religious patience, kindness, perspective taking, empathy, acceptance, and celebration.  One of the key parts of that work is learning to listen to other people.  Listen to their stories and listen for their hearts.  What we will discover in our efforts to make the world a more just and compassionate place in general is that people encounter barriers particular to them because of who they are.  We will also discover that aggression toward one group is different than aggression towards others.  Sexism and racism behave differently and leave different wounds.  Homophobia and classicism function differently.  If we truly take the general work seriously, we will discover that generalities only get us so far.  And then we have to start dealing with the nuts and bolts of particular people’s experiences.
  2. Confessing moral failures does not eliminate moral authority.  I find myself coming back time and again to Isaiah 6:5 where the prophet says, “I am undone.  I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips.”  One of the biggest problems we face in the area of creating a more accepting world is our unwillingness to acknowledge our own short-comings.  We seem constantly on the lookout for a bigger racist, a more strident act of sexism, a more flagrant act of aggression towards gays or lesbians so that we don’t have to deal with ourselves.   We live in a world that punishes and we know that an admission of guilt will be punished to the full extent of the law in our legal system.  We let that modus operandi define our spiritual and religious interactions.  This is especially true of ordained clergy.  We know that our ordination can be jeopardized by any number of mistakes we’ve made–or make–if our colleagues knew the truth about us.  So, rather than creating systems of transparency and accountability, we learn to put on masks and create backdrops.  That is the origin of hypocrisy–the pretending of righteousness.

 

I recently found myself confronted by this very thing.  I wanted to get worked up over the US Government’s ban on Muslim travelers.  Somewhere along the way, however, I had to admit–there’s a Muslim ban in my life as well.  I am not intentional about crafting relationships with Muslims.  There might as well be a ban on my front door or the passenger seat of my car because I have not been faithful in showing hospitality to the Muslims with whom I interact.  This does not mean that I cannot oppose actions of the government to exclude people on the basis of religion.  Yet, it does modify my approach.  Rather than self-righteously denouncing my government as if it is some foreign power, I humbly confess my participation in a system that denies freedom to some on the basis of their religion.  Political advocacy then shifts from an act of protest to an act of repentance–individual and collective.

 

  1. Our need to place blame must submit to our need to accept responsibility.  A year ago, I helped organized a prayer service in Arlington for the victims of the Mother Emmanuel AME Church shootings in South Carolina.  It made the local news and in the interview with me and Pastor Kennedy Jones for Greater Community Missionary Baptist Church, Pastor Jones said the white community has to accept responsibility for this.  It raised the interviewers eyebrows and he looked at me for the response.  I’m not sure what I said then, but here’s what I wished I had said. “The pastor said responsibility, not blame.  There’s one person to blame for this shooting.  He planned the assault and he took the lives. But his actions were a product of white racism.  And dismantling white racism can only be done by white people.  African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, immigrants from all over the world, Asian-Americans can all confront white racism.  They can point it out and challenge it.  But for these things to be dismantled, they have to be dismantled from the inside.  We have to do that.  Accepting responsibility is not accepting blame.  If your child makes a mess, the child is to blame, but responsibility belongs on you to clean it up–or to see that it is cleaned up.  We’re too desperate to claim we aren’t racist, sexist, homophobic.  We are too eager to find the bigger racist, sexist, homophobes.  If we can blame someone else, we think we have achieved some more superiority and buffer.  The problem is, the bigotry still exists and nothing much has changed.  I’m unconvinced that the world changes because we blame the right people.  I am convinced that the world changes because the right people accept responsibility.

Balancing Acceptance and Caution

2 Thessalonians 3:1-5

God has granted acceptance and love to the ungodly (Romans 5:8).  And we are called to show the same kind of acceptance to others–to be complete in our love to the point of loving our enemies as God is complete in love (Matthew 5:44-48).  Yet scripture also warns us to avoid people who may deteriorate our spiritual strength and health. It’s difficult to know how to balance acceptance with caution.  

Paul asked the Thessalonians to pray that he would be deliverd from evil people (2 Thessalonians 3:2).  He reassured them that they would be resued from the evil one (2 Thessalonians 3:3).    The next section of the book deals with how they are to keep boundaries between themselves and idle people (2 Thessalonians 3:615).  Some of the things Paul says seem unjustifiably judgmental and harsh.  Here are some things I try to keep in mind as I wrestle with these sorts of texts.  

First, within 2 Thessalonians Paul instructs people to understand their lives within the context of an eternal struggle.  The Bible speaks of God’s vengeance against the ungodly, cruel and despotic in several places.  (See especially Deuteronomy 32:41; Isaiah 35:4; Isaiah 66:6).  Many of us avoid the text tat speak of God’s judgment.  We don’t like to think of a cruel and angry God.  Yet, an unavoidable part of the future stroy is that God destroys evil.  This does have implications for our day-to-day life.  It speaks of God taking vengeance so we don’t have to.  God may choose to respond to all evil with grace, but scripture nowhere suggests that grace is tolerance.  Grace may mean forgiveness, but God always judges sin as sin.  

Second, calls for the judgment of others are always in the context of personal preparation.  Rather than taking matters into our own hands and seeking to exact revenge or exercise judgment against others, warnings about the judgment always come with exhortations that we would be faithful in the things we do.  

Third, at a personal level we need to main tain strong boundaries between what we offer to others in the form of acceptance and what we require others to give to us.  The expectations of others can be tyranizing.  Some will quite simply never give what we want.  If we are committed to doing what God calls us to do, we must learn to distinguish between the honest criticism of people similarly committed to God’s will and the personal attack of people trying to deal with their own dissatisfaction at our expense.  

Jesus Reaching Out

Read Matthew 8:1-4

Jesus completed the first of the five great sermons in Matthew, the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) he walked down off the mountain like Moses descending from Mount Sinai. The sermon began with Jesus seeing the crowds and drawing his Disciples away from the crowd (Matthew 5:1). With the great sermon completed, Jesus returned to the crowd (Matthew 8:1).  

Jesus didn’t see the crowd. His focus landed on a single individual. Not just an individual, but a leper–someone with a skin ailment that rendered him an outcast. Leprosy in scripture refers to a broad range of skin problems.  

The man with leprosy said, “If you will or choose to heal me, you can.” The said, “I will” meaning, “I choose to do this.” Then the most remarkable part of the story. Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. Jesus saw the man no one would look at and touched the skin no one would touch. Immediately, the man was healed.  

Jesus sees you though there are billions of other people to see in this world. Jesus sees you through the crowd. And Jesus knows that part of you that generates the greatest shame. Rather than glaring his eyes in judgment or shielding his eyes in embarrassment–the two responses we get from most others–Jesus reaches to touch and show acceptance.  

It is easy for us to jump to ethical conclusions here–this means we’re supposed to do the same. And maybe that’s what you need to do today. Me? I need the reminder that Jesus sees me when I think I am invisible and touches my shame with compassion and healing.  

Christ the Foundation

Easter Sermon, 2017, Matthew 7:24-27

When our youngest child was younger, we used to say to him—cute wore off two and a half kids ago.  It usually happened when he had done something just to see if he could get away with it.  And he would smile at us with that look that said, “Yes, but I’m cute and so I get away with it.”  And we’d say, “Cute wore off two and a half kids ago.”    Knowing that siblings often seek ammunition to use against their brothers and sisters, I’m guessing he blamed the older ones for overplaying the cute card and ruining it for him.  We started using that phrase before he could really do math.  If he had done the subtraction he would have realized that two and a half kids ago wasn’t after the first two kids, but at the beginning of our raising our first child. We realized that if we allowed Children’s cuteness to guide us, we would squander our role as parents. Lori and I never verbalized it to each other.  We didn’t read it in a book.  We didn’t hear it in a seminar.  And I’m sure there were some negative consequences with our choice.  But somehow intuitively we decided, cute wasn’t going to be the criteria we used to assess our children’s behaviors.  There is a lot of cuteness with Easter.  Cute Easter dresses and cut little boy outfits.  Cute Easter bunnies and cute Easter chickens.  Cute little flowers and cute Easter bows.  And cute little Easter eggs.  Even a grumpy man like me, I have a cute new tie for today.  But more and more I sense that people looking for something else.

Jesus anticipated a time when he would say—cuteness wore out two and a half Disciples ago.  The parable Jesus told of the wise and foolish builders concludes the great Sermon on the Mount—Matthew chapters 5-7.  It comes close to the beginning of the Gospel in the narrative sequence.  It is the first of five major sections of teachings in the structure of the Gospel of Matthew.  Most biblical scholars agree that the sermon was not something Jesus delivered from beginning to end at one time.  Rather, it was a composition of Matthew—the Gospel writer—who pulled together these teachings and organized them into a comprehensive whole.  Jesus was at the beginning edge of his popularity in terms of the story Matthew was telling. And if Jesus wanted to make his movement work, he could have benefitted from better marketing.  Because early on—Jesus seemed to suggest that cuteness wasn’t really his thing.

Which, by the way, is a lousy thing to do if you’re out to start a religion.  In 2005, Bob Henderson crafted a satirical response to a Kansas Board of Education decision to allow the teaching of intelligent design as an alternative to evolution in Public school biology classes.  Henderson proposed a new religion the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.  It became an internet sensation.  There are books like the Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and adherents who call themselves Pastafarians.  There are pictures and t-shirts and lots of cute paraphernalia.  It’s taken off.  If you’re going to start a religion—start cute. Here’s the thing– Jesus really never intended to start a religion.  I know that’s the most ironic thing to say on THE MOST RELIGIOUS SUNDAY of the YEAR for Christ’s followers.  But if you look at what Jesus came to do according to his own words, he came to usher in the Kingdom of God.

Matthew included Jesus’s teaching—many will come in that day and say, “Lord, Lord,” but Jesus will say—it’s not  the ones who parrot the right words but the one who does the will of God.  And others will say—but look at all the cute things we did—signs, wonders, casting out demons, Jesus will say, “Depart from me; I never knew you.” Jesus anticipated a time when the throng of followers would—one by one—need to make a choice to either take him seriously or go and find a new fad to follow.  Jesus ruled out being cute as the basis for evaluating his Disciples’ lives.

He declared the rule and reign of God over and above the rule and reign of any other.  He declared that God’s way of governing the world was to use power for             building people up rather than keeping people down.  And the moral legislation to which Jesus subscribed points to something bigger than religion.  There’s a part of all religions that’s just about the cuteness—about the differentiation of one’s self from the culture in which one lives. Religions teach people to Dress a certain way, modify eating habits, set the calendar for Holy Days and provide guidance for liturgies and rituals.  Jesus practiced a religion—it’s called Judaism.  He observed the days, maintained kosher—to a point, he certain embraced the narrative of God at work in Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Miriam, Hannah and Samuel, David and Isaiah.  And he accepted that the religion would be a part of his followers’ lives but he wanted depth of sincere belief.  He wanted something other than cuteness.

It seems that Many Christians have decided the cuteness has worn off.  Religious observance is down.  Religious devotion is down.  A few weeks ago, Family Christian Stores—the largest retailer of Christian Merchandise—announced that it would be closing all of its 240 locations.  After 85 years in business, Christian merchandise has been set aside.  This means a job loss for 3000 employees.  Last year, Lifeway Christian stores—which is the rebranded Baptist Bookstores from decades past—announced that it would close the three locations it operated on Baptist Seminary Campuses.  Imagine that, the Baptist Bookstore can’t keep its doors open on Baptist Seminary campuses.  And I’m not knocking on Baptist.  Disciples never tried opening bookstores.  The struggles of Christian merchandising doesn’t signal the end of Christianity.   People can still shop for Christian books online. And that’s what’s caused the closing of a number of retail bookselling stores.  But, along with selling Christian devotional and educational literature these places sold the cute things that go with religion—like Testamints—the breathe mints meant to evoke the Old and New Testament.

Cute Christianity was all the rage in the 1980s.  Often called attractional evangelism, seeker sensitive churches like Willow Creek in Chicago and Saddleback in California emerged as a cultural force.  These churches grew exponential by eschewing things like church buildings, traditional programming, too many religious symbols drained of meaning, archaic language, inaccessible music, etc. etc.  It’s hard to believe that the church growth movement has been with us so long that over a decade ago one of the founders of the Church growth movement—Bill Hybels was getting ready to retire.  He decided that in order to assess the fruits of his labors, Willow Creek would commission a study of how they had actually done in creating true followers of Jesus Christ.  He commissioned a study.  His study included comparison respondents from other churches around the Chicago area where Hybels and Willow Creek are located.  They hired a professional research company to conduct the survey.  They set up the matrices of what to look at—faithful prayer life, Christian service, financial support of congregation.  When the results came in, Hybels was shocked to discover that far from being the revolutionary movement that produced real Christians by the droves, pound for pound, the medium sized Lutheran Church down the road was measuring up to his own measures better than he was.  To his credit Hybels did not sweep these findings under the rug.  Quite the contrary he was incredibly open and public about sharing these results in 2005.

The loss of Chrstianity’s cuteness frightens a number of us.  It’s certainly scary to people like me who make our living on people buying into and contributing to the ministries of the established church.  But, I’m not sure that Jesus cared so much.   Jesus’s concluding parable does not say the Wise Man built his house with cute trim and pretty furnishings and nice curb appeal.  But the foolish man built his house with drab paint and discount furnishings and unattractive curb appeal.  The wise and foolish builders differ in the material they use for their foundation.

I’ve been there when people poured foundation.  I was a volunteer for Habitat for Humanity and got a call—we need help.  I put on the knee high boots, they gave me a long pole spreader and the big truck came and started pouring concrete into the form and my roles was to take the spreader and help spread the concrete around.  Simple right?  I was in my twenties.  I thought it would be a piece of cake.  They started pouring and I started spreading.  Within about 45 minutes my back was hurting, my hands had blisters, and my legs ached.  It’s not what Jesus meant.  What he did mean is that foundation work is hard.  It is messy.  And it can be painful.  It’s not cute.  In a little bit we will sing the chorus from a hymn I love, “On Christ the Solid Rock I stand.”  But it’s important to say that a generic and ascent to believing things about Jesus are true is not the same thing as putting one’s faith in Jesus Christ.  Jesus said, “Whoever hears these words of mine and puts them into practice.  It involves working—doing the work of daily training your mind and heart to follow in the way of Christ through prayer and study.  Doing the work of faithfully serving in meaningful ways.  Progressively allowing Christ to influence every part of your life.  It’s not easy work.  The authority for Jesus to say that putting into action the things that he commands comes from the resurrection.  The surest evidence of Christ’s resurrection is the continued presence of people who faithfully live according to the teaching of Christ.

Once there was a home builder who made the best homes.  She paid careful attention to every detail.  She measured twice, She cut once.  She used the strongest, most durable materials. She studied the plans.  The nails and screws were put in at the appropriate angles.  She had a daughter.  The daughter was her apprentice.  Her daughter knew the demands her mother placed on building to exact specifications and following plans to the letter.  Using the best materials.  The Mother called Her daughter to her one day and explained—I have to leave for a few months, but there is a very nice house I need you to build.  I want you to build it like you have been taught.  Use the highest-grade material.  Cut to exact specifications.  She left the daughter a large sum of money to complete the project and then she left.  With the Mother away, the daughter started taking shortcuts.  She used materials that would look adequate but cost far less.  The home owners, he said, will not know the difference until we are out of sight and out of mind.  She took the money he saved and spent it on herself.  She also cut corners with precision.  She didn’t measure twice and cut once.  If She guessed wrong and came up short, she’d find a way to make things fit.  Sure, she thought, as things settle, or when the storms hit, the home owners would run into problems, but by then they’d be out of sight and out of mind.  This went on until the house was complete.  By all external appearances, the house measured up to the mother’s exacting standards.  But the daughter had learned to mimic good workmanship so that he could pocket the extra money and use the time he saved on herself.  When Her mother came back.  The daughter handed her the keys.  Her mother replied, “Daughter, keep the keys yourself.  This home you have been building is my wedding present to you.  It is yours.”

Whose house are you building?  The wise man built his  house upon the rock and the foolish man built his house.  Jesus was clear—the wise man was building his house.  Whose house are you building.  Living by the teachings of Christ reorients our lives to the Christian hope.  If you are willing to do the hard work to build your life’s house

Tree and Fruits

Matthew 7:15-23

John Meier explains that the last portion of the Sermon on the Mount consists of a series of “antithetical parallelism.”  Two gates—one wide; one narrow.  Two roads—one hard; one easy.  Sheep and wolves, good and bad trees, two foundations.  An early Christian teaching known as the Didache begins, “There are two Ways, one of Life and one of Death, and there is a great difference between the Two Ways.”  Here as throughout this section on the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is placing two distinct possibilities before the Disciples and saying you must choose one over the other.

Jesus warned the Disciples to watch out for false prophets (Matthew 7:15)In this section, however, he focuses on people’s approach to religion itself.  Jesus cautions the Disciples against ever using religion for personal gain.  Instead, the way of life teaches people to seek God’s glory, God’s righteousness and God’s reward.   The early church developed after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ.  Christian evangelists followed Jesus’s teaching and went to all the world to make Disciples.  They went to places like Antioch in Syria—a place that has been much on our minds and in our prayers this week.  Antioch was an early an important place for the development of Christianity especially as Christianity moved into the rest of the world.  Antioch is the place where the term “Christian” was first applied to the followers of Jesus Christ.  It spread to places like Corinth and Ephesus and other locations.  Originally early churches met in people’s homes.  And then as time went on they built buildings.  From the earliest days, these local churches relied on itinerant preachers and evangelists who would bring guidance from the rest of Christianity and keep the local church connected to the broader movement.  And from the earliest days there were people who saw that they could make a living being one of those itinerant preachers. Some of these itinerant preachers, however, were false.  They were wolves in sheep’s clothing.  That is they used their positions to get rich instead of sacrificially serving the Lord.  Every professional minister I have ever heard talk about this text has reassured me that Jesus was not condemning the practice of paying preachers.  He was condemning those who sought to get rich by preaching.  In the end, the dividing line between true and false prophets is not in income but in intention.  Jesus was calling Disciples to be authentic in their own faith.

Jesus said authentic Disciples provide tangible evidence of their Discipleship.  “You will know them,” he said, “by their fruits.”  Fruits is a common metaphor in Matthew.    John the Baptist preached, “bear the fruit of repentance” to people who thought that by virtue of their birth within a particular culture they were more righteous before God.  (3:7-10).  Later Jesus preached this same thing saying, “the tree is known by its fruit.”  He went on to explain, “You will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:33-37).The tangible evidence of authentic Discipleship is a life bearing fruit of faithful service and good works which glorify God.  The feel of authentic discipleship is not the internal feeling of personal satisfaction it is the tangible evidence within a person’s life of good fruit.

Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the Kingdom of heaven.  A little disturbing given what Paul said in Romans 10:9 “If you confess with your lips, ‘Jesus is Lord’ and believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you will be saved. Confessing faith is important, simply mouthing the words is not the same thing.  Doing the will of the Father is an important theme.  God’s will as disclosed by Jesus Christ has complexity.  (SOTM Matthew 5-7 reveals the complexity of the will of God).  It involves how we pray.  It involves what we do with our minds and our emotions as revealed by Jesus’s teachings concerning lust and anger and worry.  It involves what we do in our relationships as revealed by Jesus’s teachings concerning reconciling with others and the command not to judge.  It involves what we do with our money.