Seeing is Believing – “Doubting” Thomas

John 20:19-31 (NRSV)

19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

I think this story is a testimony to the difficulty of faith – how hard it is to believe.  Merriam-Webster defines faith as a “firm belief in something for which there is no proof.”  Belief.  I think of the words from the Apostle’s Creed, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth and so on…”  or from the praise song – “I believe in Jesus…I believe he is the son of God…that he died and he rose again…that he gave himself for me…”  All week as I’ve thought about this text, the old Steven Curtis Chapman song has rolled around in my head, “I do, I do, I do, I do believe, I know, I know, I know, I know it’s true, Lord, I believe in you.”  Firm belief – faith – is not only foundational, but transformational.  It can be life-changing as we mentally and verbally declare – this is what we believe.  This is who we are.  So what about the disciples – where was their belief, their faith?

The doors are locked in fear.  The disciples are meeting together not just behind closed doors, but locked doors.  Their fear is apparent.  As Jesus was betrayed, they scattered like ants and that initial fear has only been heightened as they believe that their friend, their leader, their rabbi has been crucified.

But wait, prior to this, didn’t Peter and John see the empty tomb and the discarded clothes of Jesus?  Haven’t we heard “Up from the Grave He Arose” and “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” and celebrated the Resurrection with all of the Alleluia’s?  Didn’t Mary Magdalene see and speak with Jesus and then proclaim to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord!”?  It seems that Thomas has gotten a bad rap.  As much preachers like to use “Doubting Thomas” in our sermon illustrations, he wasn’t the only one that needed to see to believe.  They too needed a personal encounter or experience with the Risen Lord.

Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”  I like that he just sort of appeared.  It doesn’t say exactly what the disciples were doing – maybe freaking out or worrying over what they would do next or what would happen to them – but all of a sudden, there was Jesus – Jesus that had been crucified and buried, Jesus that they had deserted, Jesus that they loved and had followed, saying, “Peace be with you.”

He doesn’t say, “Dude, where were you guys?” or “I told you so,” but peace.  Peace.  He showed them his hands and side to prove to them that he wasn’t a ghost, that he was the same Jesus they had known, had eaten with, walked with, learned from, the same Jesus that had been crucified just three days earlier.  The text says, “Then,” “Then” they rejoiced when they saw the Lord.  Not until he showed them did they rejoice.  Seeing was believing.

Again Jesus says, “Peace be with you.”  And then he does an amazing thing – he empowers the disciples and gives them authority.  Not only does he react in compassion to their doubt, but he ordains them to bringing the Good News to the world.  “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  They have seen the journey that Jesus has taken – the ups and the downs and especially the persecution.  But he doesn’t ask them to walk this path alone – he gives them the Holy Spirit.  Actually it says, he breathed on them – just like God breathed life into Adam – He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

The disciple’s faith, their firm belief, was restored.  They thought they would never see him again, and in he walks into the room.  They witnessed in person the Risen and Resurrected Lord.  They had a personal encounter with Jesus.

What does it take for us to believe?  The Gospel of John shows us that faith comes in different ways and with differing intensities to different people. It doesn’t all come in the same neatly wrapped package.  In verse 8 of this same chapter, the beloved disciple believes upon seeing the empty tomb. In verse 16, Mary believes when the Lord calls her name. The disciples here in verse 20 rejoice when they see his hand and side.  And then here comes Thomas.

He had missed out on the action, the unbelievable good news.  They had seen the Lord with their own eyes – but he had not.

Whether out of reaction to all of them seeing and now believing and a little bit of FOMO (fear of missing out) or whether he just needs tangible proof, he takes it a step further.  He not only wants to see Jesus to believe, but he says that he wants to put his finger in the mark of the nails and his hand in his side.  That’s a pretty hardcore and definitive statement.

You see why he’s called Doubting Thomas?  He’s been singled out throughout the ages as someone with inferior faith because he actually expressed his doubt in the resurrection. He made his reservations known out-loud.  He used his outside voice not just wondering in his head. He absolutely refused to say that he understood what he didn’t understand, or that he believed what he didn’t.   He was honest and blunt.  As I said earlier – it’s not that the other disciples immediately believed or that they weren’t scared as well, but Thomas is the one who remains firm – No, I’m not going to believe unless…  And because of that he is the poster child for skepticism. Even those that don’t know the story, have heard of a “Doubting Thomas.”  His name is so synonymous with doubt that if you look in a Webster’s Dictionary you’ll find it in two places: under “d” for doubt and under “t” for Thomas. According to Webster the definition for a “doubting Thomas” is a habitually doubtful person.

But contrary to his bad press in Webster’s, he had not always doubted.  Thomas had believed in the Lord.  In verse 16 of John chapter 11 as Jesus prepared to go to Jerusalem, Thomas says, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”  He had believed and he had followed, but his worst fears had been realized – in his mind, Jesus was dead and that was irreversible.  Any normal person would have that same reaction – because no one previously had been resurrected and no one ever since.  Thomas was speaking out of his grief, out of his fear, out of his anger, out of his despair.

Virginia was 19 years old and pregnant when she went to live with her 15th set of foster parents. Her case file read like a textbook example of neglect, abuse and bureaucratic failure. She sat silently in a chair, hands neatly clasped, staring into her lap. The foster parents, whose three children were in school, had been apprised of Virginia’s story and promised that this placement would be “temporary.” (Temporary was the story of Virginia’s life.)

Finally, the foster mother said, “Are you frightened, Virginia?”

“Kinda,” she replied without looking up. Then, “I’ve been in lots of homes.”

“Well,” the sympathetic woman tried to reassure the bewildered young mother-to-be, “Let’s hope this time turns out for the best.”

Virginia’s reply is one of those statements that sticks to your soul — it was flat, without change of tone and without Virginia even looking up, “Hurts too much to hope.”

Can you imagine?

Thomas could.  It hurt too much for him to hope.  In his mind, dead is dead.  His Lord was dead.  Jesus was dead.  It hurt too much to hope.

In some ways, it seems that Thomas has become a scapegoat – not only for a society who does not prize doubt, but certainty and confidence, but also a scapegoat for the church.  Somehow doubt has come to be seen as wrong, or that it is somehow less than faithful to need a sign, or a touch, or a vision, or a personal encounter.  We get the impression that we are not allowed to ask the hard questions without being labeled a cynic, or a skeptic, or a “liberal.” Since when are questions bad? Since when is it wrong to admit that we don’t understand everything? Since when is it wrong to ask God these things? Read the account of Job, the Prophets or the Psalms. All are filled with uncertainties, complaints, and questions of God. Even Jesus while hanging on the cross cried out to God, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”  Thomas is just one in a long line of faithful people who have raised their voices to ask the hard yet faithful questions.  If one is asking God questions or seeking answers from God, there has to be some kind of faith that God exists and can respond.  When we cry out to God, know that God will answer.  Maybe not immediately or in some of the ways that we want or desire, but God always promises to work things together for good for those that love God.  Our God is a big God and can withstand our doubts, can withstand our fears and can withstand all that we throw at God, and “God with us” will respond.  Jesus doesn’t throw the book at Thomas because of his doubts.  He doesn’t say – welp, you missed out on seeing me, you’re permanently stuck in your unbelief.

A week later, this time the doors are shut, but not locked and Jesus comes and stands among them again saying, “Peace be with you.”  Part of me wonders if he leads off with the “Peace be with you” each time because it’s still probably pretty shocking to see him alive and in their midst.  Immediately he says to Thomas – do it.  Do what you need to do to remove your doubt and believe.  “Do not doubt but believe.”

Thomas’s need to grasp, to touch for proof evaporates as he sees Jesus and he responds, “My Lord and my God!”  Thomas’ fears were removed – he was given all that he needed.

Reminding me very much of Thomas, Paul Tillich writes, “The old faith must die, eaten away by doubts, but only so that a new and deeper faith may be born.”

In France, they grow a lot of grapes, but in France they do not water the grapevines. In California there’s lots of irrigation, but not in France. The French believe that it’s better to have a bad harvest one year than to lose vines due to drought. If you don’t water your vines the roots of those vines go deep, deep, deep into the earth until they touch groundwater and become invulnerable to drought. The harvest may not be great one year but the vines will return the next year.

When we say I believe, when we have a real and personal encounter with our Risen Lord, we sink the roots of our faith deeper and deeper, so deep that these roots of our faith can handle the droughts. The times we feel God is silent.  We don’t know what kind of harsh weather our lives will face; we don’t know the twists and turns awaiting us on this journey, but we trust in the deep, eternal well of God’s faithfulness because we have seen and know. We send our roots deep into the waters of life with God, not because God removes all of our obstacles, all of the storms, but because God walks with us through them.

Jesus knows our doubts just as he knew Thomas’s.  He knows our hearts and if we but ask him he is faithful and true and will answer our doubts.  The Bible says, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you – if we seek the Risen Lord, we will find him.  These encounters come in a variety of ways, they meet us where we are and speak to us in ways that only God can.

Father John Dear in Blessed are the Nonviolent, writes,

“In the summer of 1982, a few months before I entered the Jesuit order, I visited the Holy Land to walk in the footsteps of Jesus.

On the day I left the United States, Israel invaded Lebanon. When I stepped off the plane in Jerusalem, soldiers carrying machine guns searched me. I had unwittingly walked into a full-scale war.

I visited the “Chapel of the Beatitudes,” a small, eight-sided stone church that stands on a hill overlooking the sea. I remember sitting there one afternoon, carefully reading the familiar words inscribed on the chapel walls:

Blessed are the poor. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the pure in heart. Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are those persecuted for the sake of justice, for Jesus. Love your enemies. Be as compassionate as God.

I walked onto the balcony and surveyed the magnificent Sea of Galilee. It suddenly dawned on me: I think Jesus is serious.

I turned to the sky and called out to God, “Are you trying to tell me something? Do you want me to hunger and thirst for justice? Do you want me to be a peacemaker? Do you want me to love even my enemies?

“All right,” I declared, “I’ll work for peace and justice for the rest of my life — but on one condition: if you give me a sign!”
Immediately, two Israeli jets swooped down at me from the sky above the Sea of Galilee. They roared over me, causing a sonic boom. Moments later, they dropped bombs along the Lebanon border.
Trembling, I made two decisions in that moment. I would devote the rest of my life to working for peace and justice. And I would never ask God for another sign.”

We serve a show and tell God.  I bet that if we thought about it, each of us would have stories to share about the ways that Jesus has met us where we are.  The signs and wonders, the little God things, the assurances, the encounters that strengthen our faith, that help us to believe when we’re down or all seems lost whether it be a word from a friend, that special passage we flip to in God’s Word, or the song that happens to come on the radio when we need to hear it most.  “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  Blessed are you – who have not physically witnessed the Risen Lord – have not physically seen the nail prints and the scars, but who have come to believe, to know this Jesus.

The text says that this story was written “so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”  God knows our need for a first-hand encounter. That is why God came to us in the person of Jesus, Emmanuel – God with us.  Jesus does not shrug away from our doubts and questions.  He wants us, he longs for us to believe.  God searches and finds us even when we don’t want to be or don’t think we need to be found.  Jesus breaks through the door of our hearts breathing his Spirit over us literally blowing away our mountains of doubt.  May we let Jesus speak to our hearts, just as he spoke to Thomas.  May Jesus take away our doubts.  Ask and you shall receive, seek and ye shall find.

It doesn’t end there though – After the Lord breaks into our hearts and we have declared “my Lord and my God,” there is a life that proceeds from that point. God calls us out of our locked rooms into the world.  The disciples knew – they had seen and believed, but they could not believe for Thomas.  We can’t believe for our friends and family.  Thomas had to make the decision for himself.  They didn’t ridicule him for his disbelief or kick him out of the fold.  May we also – welcome those that are seeking, that are questioning, those that have never heard the Good News or who have a Christianity that’s contorted beyond recognition. May they see Jesus Christ alive in our hearts and lives. The ways we love each other; the ways we respond to those in need; the ways we strive to live as Christ followers – the hands and feet of Christ.  May we go forth knowing in our hearts that we serve the Risen Lord and may we let that light, that truth be known to the world!  Thomas believed; may we believe also!

Unlock your Heart with Jesus

John 20:1-18

20 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to their homes.  11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

A week ago, we celebrated Palm Sunday where Jesus rode on a colt or donkey to shouts of “Hosanna” and the waving of palm branches as he celebrated the Passover in Jerusalem.  Then he flipped over tables in the temple and called the religious leaders to task.  We know that he gathered with his disciples on Passover to wash their feet and to gather with them to break bread and drink wine, as he said these strange words about the bread representing his body that is broken open and the wine being his blood covering all of our sins.  We believe the familiar story of him praying in the Garden of Gethsemane asking God to take this cup from me.  Judas betraying him, Peter denying him, his disciples scattered and scared.  We believe that on Good Friday Jesus suffered death on a cross beside two thieves.  The sky turned black, the earth shook, and the curtain in the temple ripped.  He died and was placed in a tomb where he was for 3 days.

That’s where our passage starts today.  You may be thinking, Narcie why this review of Holy Week?  The Easter story is familiar to many of us.  It’s a story in all 4 of the Gospels:  Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  They all give different details, depending on their perspective, but that to me, is what makes it more true.  If they all said the same thing, I, being a natural doubter, would be even more skeptical.  I think that’s what makes the Bible great – all of these different people, sharing their stories, creating this arch of God’s redemption of the world.  Several years ago in The New York Times Sunday Review, the Swedish writer Henning Mankell wrote that “a truer nomination for our species than Homo sapiens might be Homo narrans, the storytelling person.” Mankell’s argument was not that the biologists are wrong or that we are not thinking creatures but rather that we are also — and maybe even primarily — storytelling creatures.  We make sense of the world and our place in it through story. Story is how we create meaning, how we interpret reality, and how we come to know who we are and why we are.  Stories have a way of weaving into our psyche as nothing else does.

Our passage is from the book of John.  John is the one who has all of the “I Am’s.”  I am the bread of life.  I am the good shepherd.  I am the true vine.  It has zero parables and no Passover meal or Lord’s Supper.  It’s the only Gospel that has the foot washing instead.  John was the only one of the disciples who was with Mary and the other women the day that Jesus died on the cross.  He was the one to whom Jesus, as he was hanging on the cross, entrusted his mother Mary.  He has a peculiar way of telling a story, a more personal way.  Like with the foot washing.  He had Jesus bowing before each disciple and washing their feet and saying, “I have set for you an example that you should do as I have done for you.”  He’s the only one of the Gospels that has Mary interacting with whom she supposed was the gardener, but the reader knows he’s actually Jesus.  The Gospels all explain the transformation of the Resurrected Jesus in different ways, so we get the idea that he is like himself and yet unlike himself.  When he calls out her name, “Mary!”  The text says, “She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher).”  She recognized him as she heard his voice and he called out her name.  John’s is the only Gospel which weaves in this personal touch.  I think it’s important to recognize, there was never a pivotal moment in Jesus’ earthly ministry that John wasn’t an eye witness.  The Transfiguration.  The Garden of Gethsemane.  The Crucifixion.  And also in this Gospel account, the Resurrection.  He was called the one whom Jesus loved and he wrote the most personal Gospel account.  I don’t think that’s a coincidence.  He was writing not only about his Rabbi and Savior but his friend, and that makes for a very good story.

What were your favorite books growing up?  My favorites were Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, Catch-22 and biographies of Dolly Madison, Queen Elizabeth, Abigail Adams and Julia Ward Howe, and my Mom’s old Betty Cavannah books.  Don’t worry I liked more modern stories too – like Nancy Drew, the Babysitters Club, and Sweet Valley High.  Have any of you read The Secret Garden?  It’s a story of Mary Lennox, who is a sickly and unloved 10-year-old girl, born in India to wealthy British parents who never wanted her. She is cared for by servants, who allow her to become a spoiled.  After a cholera epidemic kills her parents and the servants, Mary is sent England to live with Archibald Craven; an uncle whom she has never met, at his isolated house, Misselthwaite Manor.  At first, Mary is as rude and sour as ever. She dislikes her new home, the people living in it, and most of all, the bleak moor on which it sits. However, a good-natured maid named Martha Sowerby tells Mary about the late Mrs. Craven, who would spend hours in a private walled garden growing roses. Mrs. Craven died after an accident in the garden, and the devastated Mr. Craven locked the garden and buried the key. Mary becomes interested in finding the secret garden herself, and her ill manners begin to soften as a result. Soon she comes to enjoy the company of Martha, the gardener Ben Weatherstaff, and a friendly bird that she calls Robin.

“Are things stirring down below in the dark in that garden where he lives?” Mary inquired.

“What garden?” grunted Weatherstaff, becoming surly again.

“The one where the old rose-trees are.” She could not help asking, because she wanted so much to know. “Are all the flowers dead, or do some of them come again in the summer? Are there ever any roses?”

“Ask him,” said Ben Weatherstaff, hunching his shoulders toward the robin. “He’s the only one as knows. No one else has seen inside it for ten year’.”

Mary was shocked by how long the garden, this now secret garden, had gone without someone tending it.  She grew fond of the robin who had been the garden’s sole visitor and would watch it closely.  One day, as the robin hopped about under them she saw him hop over a small pile of freshly turned up earth. He stopped on it to look for a worm. The earth had been turned up because a dog had been trying to dig up a mole and he had scratched quite a deep hole.

Mary looked and saw something almost buried in the newly-turned soil. It was like a ring of rusty iron or brass, and when the robin flew up into a tree nearby she put out her hand and picked the ring up. It was more than a ring, however; it was an old key which looked as if it had been buried a long time.

Mistress Mary stood up and looked at it with an almost frightened face as it hung from her finger.

“Perhaps it has been buried for ten years,” she said in a whisper. “Perhaps it is the key to the garden!”

What happens when she unlocks the door to the Secret Garden?  Not only does the garden experience resurrection, but she does.  A sad, unloved, lonely little girl was loved for who she was, with all of her baggage, in a very personal way. As she spends time in the garden, she begins to be an agent of resurrection.  She got some of God’s Resurrection dust on her, the pollen of new life, sprinkling down from heaven to make all things new.

See Jesus wants to set us free.  Jesus hands us the keys to unlock the gardens of our hearts.  As it says in Isaiah 43:1-3, “But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel:  Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;  I have called you by name, you are mine.  When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.  For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”  Jesus calls each of us by name, just like Mary, and hands us the key to our salvation.  All we have to do is turn the lock.

What’s holding you back from taking the key that Jesus is handing you?  Jesus broke free from the shackles of sin and conquered death so that we may have eternal life if we put our hope and trust in him.  What do you need to break free from?  Perfection?  Doubt?  Fear? Loneliness?  What does the Enemy whisper to you when you’re feeling weak or vulnerable?  What are you clinging to?  Pride? Sloth? Envy? Lust? Wrath? Gluttony?  Greed? What?  Think of it as Spring cleaning.  We treat our sins like old familiar sweatshirts, old comfy shoes.  That may fit more snuggly now but they’re familiar.  Throw them out!  They have no hold over you now.  Lay down the pride, perfection, lust, lies at the foot of the cross and LEAVE IT THERE.  When you feel the tug to put them on again, ask Jesus to come and meet you in that moment and ask him to give you the strength not to fall back into the old ways and repent.

As Lutheran Priest, Nadia Bolz-Weber, writes, “That’s the thing about tombs. Sometimes we don’t even know we are in them, until the light breaks from on high. But I know we all have them.

I wonder what it is for you. Is there something buried? Thought to be dead? Something that you have left for dead? What in your life might have been in such darkness that any kind of dawn would feel sudden and unexpected causing you to shield your eyes?

Sometimes tombs are about how we treat things in our life as though they represent the end. This relationship is over. This life of faith has ended. That time of happiness will never return. There’s a big stone covering that thing I used to feel or I used to love or I used to be and anyway, it’s started to smell of rot. That part of me is totally dead, period. End of sentence. But as great African American preachers often say — “where we put a period … God puts a comma.”

Having a God of resurrection means that the story is seldom over when we think it is.”

That’s the thing about serving a God of Resurrection – God is in the business of making all things new.  Frances Hodgson Burnett, writes in The Secret Garden, “At first people refuse to believe that a strange new thing can be done, then they begin to hope it can be done, then they see it can be done–then it is done and all the world wonders why it was not done centuries ago.”  To believe a new thing can be done, you have to trust and have faith in the One who is bringing the change.  Did you hear what I said?  To believe a new thing can be done, you have to trust and have faith in the One who is bringing the change.

Let’s try a little experiment. Close your eyes and empty your mind of every other thought. Okay, now, picture God.

You can open your eyes now. What was the first image that came to mind?

I’ll bet, for most of us, it was an old man with a white beard.

Now let me ask you this. In your mental image, was God smiling?

My guess is, some of you pictured God without a smile. “Stern” might be a good word to describe the visage of the Almighty.

Now, one further question: in your mind’s eye, was God holding anything? If you answered, “a thunderbolt,” congratulations — you’ve just selected most people’s all-time favorite accessory to the divine wardrobe.

Why is it so many of us picture the Lord of heaven and earth as a grumpy old man packing a loaded thunderbolt? We imagine God that way, even though we know better. Sure, God can get angry. There’s ample evidence of that in the Bible. Yet the Bible also teaches that “God is love” — and that God “so loved the world” that we have received as a gift “God’s only son,” that we might “not perish, but have everlasting life.”

Why is it, then, that we so quickly forget these passages, ie. most of what Jesus says, and elevate to such high prominence those dealing with God’s wrath and destruction?  If we only see God as old man punishing us and keeping a record of wrongs, that’s not a full picture of God at all.  I serve Emmanuel, God with us, One who walks with us through life journeys showing us the way, the truth, and the life.  I serve a Savior that wants our resting states or defaults to be love and grace, not hatred and judgment.  As it says in Matthew 19:26, “”With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”  The God I serve sent God’s only son, Jesus, to break the chains of sin and death, to unlock the doors of our hearts so we are free to dream the big dreams God has in store for us.  The God that I serve, says in Romans 8:38-39, “38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  Jesus seeks to unlock and banish our doubts, fears, hesitations, self-harm, woundings, and says to each of us, you are free indeed.  If you’re still doubting God’s love for you or are you are wondering how to find God, Jeremiah 29:11-13 says, “11For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. 12Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. 13When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart.”  God wants to give us hope and a future.  God wants us to unlock the door to freedom from sin and death, freedom from all the things that shackle us and weigh us down, freedom to live the life we were meant to have in Jesus!

Knowing Jesus is like that.  It sneaks up on you.  You may be curious about this Jesus guy.  You may be intrigued.  But he’s the real deal and once you know that, you can’t help but spread that Good News!  You’re part of this massive letter to all of humanity that shouts from the rooftops God loves you, you were fearfully and wonderfully made, Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us, came to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to set us free from the things that bind us and want to choke the life right out of us.  He defeated death, conquered the grave, and gave us eternal life.  Spirit of Truth guide and lead us in discovering what holds us back and rebuking that power over us. As Hebrews 4:16 says, “Let us . . . approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

God goes to some outrageous lengths to share love, shouldn’t we do the same for people?  Remember the eggs in the children’s sermon.  That was and is the biggest, “Surprise!!” the world has ever seen.  Wouldn’t it be a different world if we actually lived like Easter people?  To not only talk the talk, but actually walk the walk in the ways that our Rabbi Jesus taught us.  To give a hurting world the resurrection hope that is real and tangible and sustaining, not withered like two-week old Easter lilies.  Like we mean it!  Like we believe it!

Some of my favorite words to read at a Celebration of Life are these words of grace.  “Jesus said, I am the resurrection and I am life.

Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live,

and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.

I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last.

I died, and behold I am alive for evermore,

and I hold the keys of hell and death.

Because I live, you shall live also.”

Friends, if we turn the key to the gardens of our hearts, if we trust Emmanuel, God with us, with our salvation, then we too, have the hope of resurrection and we get to actively participate in the greatest story ever told!

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It’s time to turn the key to our hearts and SHARE the key (pun intended!) with the world, so we can together dream the big dreams that God has in store for each of us!

Palm Sunday – The One

Matthew 21:1-11 (NRSV)

21 When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,

“Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd[b] spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,

“Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

10 When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” 11 The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

My mom gives Enoch and Evy all kinds of Christian books.  They have many “my first Bibles,” pre-school Bibles, and “big kids” Bibles.  We actually have two copies of My Very First Easter Story. 

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Oh, though it’s only 2 pages, Enoch and Evy filled in the details.  Evy said it was all about friendship.  Enoch said that it was a horse (some versions say this).  Evy said they had laid the palm branches and cloaks down because they didn’t want Jesus to walk in the mud.

You see, all of the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) have this story.  They included different details but the same overarching story.

I have chosen to stick with the Palm Sunday text.  You see the lectionary texts for today give us the options of choosing the Palm text and the Passion text.  I normally do some mixture of the two, however, I wanted to be intentional about sticking to the text and journeying through this week with Jesus.

The hesitancy of pastors is that if people only attend on Sundays, you get the celebration of Palm Sunday back to back with the Alleluias of Easter.  High point.  Even higher point.

You miss why in just 5 days the same people that shouted “Hosanna” and waved palm branches, shouted “Crucify him!  Crucify him!”  You miss Jesus ticking off the Pharisees in the temple when he turned over the tables and called them a brood of vipers.  You miss them plotting to kill him.  You miss Jesus’ teaching the disciples you have to be last to be first as they witnessed him washing their and their friends’ feet.  Their Rabbi that they had followed for three years, getting all of his radical dust on them, as he continually flipped the script.  Doing what is always least expected.  Who else would have people waving palm branches praising him and wanting to kill him less than a week later?

He was the One they had waited for.  He was the One whom the prophets foretold.  He is the One Herod was so afraid of that he slaughtered all of those innocent children.  He was the One who preached in his hometown and they said, “Who is this kid?  Is he Joseph’s boy?”  He was the One who called Peter, James and John just a bunch of fishermen and said they were the best of the best of the best as he asked them to be his disciples.  He was the One who cast out demons, healed the paralytic and the hemorrhaging woman, called Lazarus forth FROM THE GRAVE.  He was the One even the wind and the waves obeyed.  He was the One.  Not just Neo from the Matrix or Frodo from the Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, but THE ONE.  And the people were PUMPED until … they realized he wasn’t a political or military conqueror.  He was not going to ride in on a float and wave and provide good sound bites.  He was not going to incite a revolt among people groups.  He was not going to be boxed in to a certain tradition.  He was not going to maintain the status quo or social norms.  He came to flip the script.  He came to set ALL people free.  He came to set us free from BOTH sin and death.  He came to set us free from all of the burdens and shackles of this world.

I spent the week talking to Donal Hook about salvation.  He was recounting what Harry said two weeks ago about Jesus wiping the slate clean and I said that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love and we’re all worthy, enough, and chosen.  He said he was like the man saying, “Help my unbelief!” I appreciated his honesty as I relate to the man and the words as well! Remember the story.  It’s immediately after the transfiguration and the disciples are in a tizzy.  In Mark 9:19-24 he says to the disciples, “19 “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.” 20 And they brought the boy to him. When the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. 21 Jesus asked the father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. 22 It has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.” 23 Jesus said to him, “If you are able!—All things can be done for the one who believes.”  24 Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” I believe; help my unbelief.  We had many discussions over the past week and a half.  Most of the time it boiled down to me saying, that’s what’s so amazing about grace!  We have faith that God’s grace is real and ever abundant to cover anything we throw at God. I brought up singing “Amazing Grace” on Sunday night when I visited him, but I was too embarrassed to sing in front of his family, some of whom I had just met, with my off-key voice, but  I ended up singing it on Tuesday with his son Michael and Michael’s wife Marlene and that became our theme song over the last couple of days.  That and Psalm 23.  I frequently have Psalm 23 rolling around in my head as I pray.  It epitomizes to me the fullness of life.  God making us lie down in green pastures, anointing our heads with oil, and as I said to Donal and praying with he and his family, Jesus is the One who walks with us even through the darkest valley of the shadow of death.  Don joined the great cloud of witnesses yesterday and he is at peace and at rest.

You skip right over that lonesome and dark valley when you go from the triumphant entry of Palm Sunday to the glory of Easter and Resurrection.  You don’t get the dark days in between of doubt, fear, frustration, anger.  You don’t get the Garden of Gethsemane and Jesus asking God to take this cup from him.  You don’t see, hear, or feel his pain as he’s betrayed, denied, beaten, stripped, crucified.  You don’t get the agony and anguish or the simple humanity of it all, the muck and mire.  He was the Human One.  Not a super hero that could leap over buildings.  He took on the form of a baby, both fully divine and fully human.  He felt everything we feel and even when he was on that cross he was thinking of us as he says, “Father, forgive them because they don’t know what they’re doing.

If you don’t journey towards the cross, you miss out on the struggle and the deep pain of what it means to have an Emmanuel – God with us – even on the darkest night of our souls.  To have a savior who suffers right along with us.  Who knows the full extent of our pain and then some…

I encourage you to read the stories this week and meditate on them.  I encourage you to walk this journey towards the cross.  On Thursday we’ll gather here with Isle of Palms UMC for a joint Maundy Thursday service where we’ll celebrate Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples.  On Friday we’ll have our Good Friday Tenebrae service.  If you’ve never been to a Tenebrae service, I encourage you to do so.  The word “tenebrae” comes from the Latin meaning “darkness.” The Tenebrae is an ancient Christian Good Friday service that makes use of gradually diminishing light through the extinguishing of candles as scriptures are read of that encompass the entire fullness of Holy Week.  This increasing darkness symbolizes the approaching darkness of Jesus’ death and of the hopelessness in the world without God. The service concludes in darkness and worshipers then leave in silence to ponder the impact of Christ’s death and await the coming Resurrection.  As Bob Goff, author of Love Does says, “Darkness fell.   His friends scattered.  All hope seemed lost.  But heaven just started counting to three.”

I invite us to count to three together as a faith community as One body.  We rejoice with one another.  We weep with one another.  We share in the mountaintops and the darkest of the darkest valleys and that is why it’s so special to have shared in this Holy meal together these past Sundays of Lent.  We have gathered bread, sustenance, strength to face together whatever life throws at us.   When we feel like giving up, when we need a helping hand or an encouraging word, we are there for one another with Jesus ever in our midst.  We live, move and breathe in Christ, our Rabbi, our One with us.  The One who calls each of us worthy, enough, beloved by God.  The One we celebrate when we celebrate this Holy Sacrament of Communion….

At the Feet of the Rabbi – Matthew 6

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

 Concerning Almsgiving

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Concerning Prayer

“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Concerning Fasting

16 “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Concerning Treasures

19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

This is the Ash Wednesday text every lectionary year, probably because it talks about not being showy in one’s faith.  Lenten practices can sometimes be that way.  If you’re talking always about what you’re giving up or you’re talking about the day your fasting or you’re talking about the entire day of prayer, you’ve gotten your reward of those around you, those that you’re bragging to.  Our rabbi is teaching us to do things privately, not with pomp and circumstance.  He’s warning us of getting big heads playing I’m more religious than you are.

It’s not about that.  We don’t volunteer at the Lowcountry Orphan Relief or on work days in Nichols or Sellers or go to Ecuador to get pictures made, though it seems at times like we do, it’s because we want to give what we can or do what we can as we are able because that’s what Jesus calls us to do.  Simple as that.  The Message translation of the Bible seems to get at that idea.  Matthew chapter 6 is titled “The World is a Stage.”  Though I was an English major, I never fancied myself an actress.  Jesus wants us to be real and authentic in our faith.  He doesn’t want a full-fledged Broadway Show, an Oscar winning performance of Saint Narcie and yet the very action is not the thing that gets us into trouble, it’s being pious with the intention of looking down on others.  John Wesley said this, “The thing which is here forbidden, is not barely the doing good in the sight of men; this circumstance alone, that others see what we do, makes the action neither worse nor better; but the doing it before men, “to be seen of them,” with this view from this intention only.”

In his notes, Wesley writes, “In the foregoing chapter our Lord particularly described the nature of inward holiness. In this he describes that purity of intention without which none of our outward actions are holy. This chapter contains four parts, The right intention and manner of giving alms, ver.1 – 4. The right intention, manner, form, and prerequisites of prayer, ver.5 – 15. The right intention, and manner of fasting, ver.16 – 18. The necessity of a pure intention in all things, unmixed either with the desire of riches, or worldly care, and fear of want, ver.19 – 34.”  Let’s get to what our Rabbi was getting at.

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

My grandfather was a man like that.  One time my grandmother let slip that he had paid for the carpet all throughout the Greeleyville UMC parsonage.  He helped lots of people, quietly and unobtrusively.

I’ll read you a story by Woody McKay, Jr. called “The Secret Benefactor.”

http://www.chickensoup.com/book-story/41639/the-secret-benefactor

Continuing in Chapter 6, “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

“Pray then in this way:

Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
10     Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
11     Give us this day our daily bread.
12     And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13     And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.

14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15 but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

Our Rabbi Jesus teaches us how to pray and gives us a model or example. The Jewish Encyclopedia notes both the practice of a Rabbi teaching the disciples a prayer, and the language of this prayer, place Jesus in the context of others rabbis of his time.   “From the Talmudic parallels (Tosef., Ber. iii. 7; Ber. 16b-17a, 29b; Yer. Ber. iv. 7d) it may be learned that it was customary for prominent masters to recite brief prayers of their own in addition to the regular prayers.”  The Lord’s Prayer as it is now commonly referred to is the world’s most famous prayer of all time.  We would say it in the locker room before basketball games, we said it at the bedside of my grandfather after he died, and I remembered it even after my second brain surgery robbed me of my speech.  Its powerful words could be a whole sermon itself.

Madeleine L’Engle writes this about prayer.

In prayer the stilled voice learns
To hold its peace, to listen with the heart
To silence that is joy, is adoration.
The self is shattered, all words torn apart
In this strange patterned time of contemplation
That, in time, breaks time, breaks words, breaks me
And then, in silence, leaves me healed and mended.

16 “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Announcement in a church bulletin for a national Prayer and Fasting Conference: “The cost for attending the Fasting & Prayer Conference includes meals.”  Martha Moore-Keish, a Presbyterian minister, writes, “Our culture does not know what to do with Ash Wednesday. We do a pretty good job with the feasting right before Ash Wednesday, mind you — more and more people even outside of New Orleans celebrate Mardi Gras with beads and floats, and more and more people devour pancakes and waffles at Shrove Tuesday celebrations. Any excuse for a feast is welcome! But what to do with the depressingly titled Ash Wednesday? A few years ago I saw a restaurant sign that summed up our cultural uncertainty about this date on the Christian calendar: “Ash Wednesday Seafood Buffet: All You Can Eat!” …

The paradox of Ash Wednesday, and of Lent, is that we take on particular disciplines — fasting, prayer, service — in order to repent and conform ourselves more closely to the life and death of Christ, all the while recognizing that Christ has already come to us before we sought him. This is the paradox of the baptized life. We have been joined to Christ once, but we spend the rest of our lives trying to live into that union.

Turning to Christ means turning also to all our neighbors who suffer. According to Isaiah, fasting and praying that brings us to act on behalf of these neighbors is the fast that is acceptable to God.”

19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Sister Wendy Beckett in The Mystery of Love: Saints in Art through the Centuries  writes, “When I was young, I longed to be a saint. What was I longing for? I think it was for certainty that my life had been, in the most profound sense, a “success” — that great and glorious success that is sanctity. We revere the saints. We imitate them. Theirs is the true and lasting glory. Very clearly, this desire is, unconsciously, as worldly as that of the writer who wants to write a masterpiece or the politician who yearns to be prime minister or president. None of these ambitions has the least to do with what Jesus preached — that lowliness, that love for last place, that readiness to die and be forgotten … . To be concerned with oneself in any way, to watch one’s growth in “holiness” or “prayer,” to be spiritually ambitious, all this Jesus earnestly sets his face against.”

We’re not holy because we know we store up crowns in heaven.  There is not a giant sticker chart for who says the longest prayers or who fasts the most.  We’re holy because Jesus is holy and he calls us to be holy, little by little, step by step.

There’s an old story about a man from the city who was out driving one day, in the country. The signs on the road weren’t very good, and he got lost. So he stopped at a farmhouse to ask directions. “Can you tell me how far it is to the town of Mill Pond?” he asked.

“Well,” said the old farmer, “the way you’re goin’ it’s about 24,996 miles. But if you turn around, it’s about four.”

And therein lies a lesson. If we want to follow our Rabbi we have to repent.  We have to turn around and see him for who he really is — our Rabbi, the example to follow, but more than that we learned last week in the Transfiguration that he is the Great God of the Universe come down in the form of a baby, our Emmanuel, wading through the muck and mire of our sin and reaching down into the mess of our lives to set our feet on solid ground.  Amen?  Our Rabbi Jesus, first proclaimed the Good News with the Beatitudes and that we are to be salt and light in the world and then expounded on the “real stuff,” when the rubber meets the road and when the ship hits the sand.  Real, practical life applications that are certainly not easy to practice but God gives us the grace, strength and courage to go out into the world and our very own hearts to practice what we preach, not in ostentatious ways, but with humility, standing our ground but shirking from the spotlight.  Wesley treated the commandments of the Sermon on the Mount and other passages as “covered promises.” That is, they are commands that we can obey because God provides the grace to empower us to fulfill what is required.  It’s God’s grace freely given.  As we go through the confession of Communion hear the words anew and afresh, search your hearts, see if anything has taken root there – bitterness, fear, anger, doubt, hatred, judgment –  but hear the rest of it as well.  Hear the Good News, “Christ died for us while we were sinners.  That proves God’s love for us.  In the name of Jesus Christ you are forgiven.”  Then hear God, our Creator, Jesus, our Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit’s mighty works in the Great Thanksgiving.  We’re going to practice Communion every Sunday of Lent.  I invite you to pray the words…

Jesus Commands Crazy

Continuing on in our “At the Feet of the Rabbi” sermon series, I found these in the Jewish Standard.  Some people think that Yoda from the movie Star Wars sounds a lot like a Jewish Rabbi.  We’re going to play a game where you raise your hand if Yoda said it and you don’t raise your hand if one of the Jewish Rabbis said it.  Even if you’re not big Star War fans, you can get some of these simply because they’re embedded in pop culture.

  1. “In a dark place we find ourselves, and a little more knowledge lights our way.” Yoda
  2. “Accept the truth, you must, from whatever source it comes.” Rabbi
  3. “On three things, the world stands: On judgment, on truth and on peace.” Rabbi
  4. “Do, or do not. There is no try.” Yoda
  5. “Truly wonderful, the mind of a child is.” Yoda
  6. “For myself, if I am not, for me, who will be?” Rabbi
  7. “Size matters not.” Yoda
  8. “Preferable, the risk of a wrong decision is, to the terror of indecision.” Rabbi
  9. “Wicked, do not be, in one’s own eyes.” Rabbi
  10. “At the flask, look not, but at what is therein.” Rabbi
  11. “Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will.” Yoda
  12. “Wars not make one great.” Yoda
  13. “A master, assume for yourself, a friend, acquire for yourself, and every man, judge to the side of merit.” Rabbi
  14. “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.” Yoda
  15. “A man, you must strive to be, in a place where there are no men.” Rabbi
  16. “Always two there are, no more no less. A master and an apprentice.” Yoda
  17. “Fear is the path to the dark side…fear leads to anger…anger leads to hate…hate leads to suffering.” Yoda
  18. “That which to you is hateful, to your neighbor do not.” Rabbi

It’s all good advice.  Maybe Yoda is a Rabbi of sorts?  He’s definitely a spiritual teacher of the force.  Yoda and the other Rabbis couldn’t compare to Jesus, our Rabbi.  He teaches us all.  It’s not a lineage thing a la the Jedi nor a skill at memorizing thing like the typical Rabbi’s pupil.  He invites all of us to come sit at his feet.  He calls all of us to walk in his dust.  He calls each of us with authority and our response it to get up off of our mat and walk, just like paralytic.  We have to get over our fears and take that leap of faith and step out of the boat.  We have to leave the fishing nets of our old lives and follow Jesus our Rabbi.  No matter the cost.  No matter what.  Because what this Rabbi, this Jesus, is teaching is definitely counter-cultural.  No one teaches like this Rabbi.  Love you enemies?  Love the people who persecute you?  Don’t retaliate.  Don’t get even.  That goes completely against human nature. Hear now what our Rabbi, teaches us today.

Matthew 5:38-48

Concerning Retaliation

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

Love for Enemies

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

You have to understand the context in Jesus’ time.  Jesus’ words are radical today for sure, but they were particularly radical in his day when the Roman Empire ruled Israel.  Roman soldiers could ask you carry their stuff up to one mile.  They could ask you to make them meals just like quartering during the American Revolution.  They could publicly beat you without the slightest provocation and it wasn’t against the law; it was perfectly legal.  Our Rabbi Jesus wasn’t talking generically about being nice and turning the other cheek, he was talking right then and there what was happening.  They were an occupied nation and many times we don’t take that into account when we read the Bible.  He’s specifically talking about their context when he says, “Go the second mile,” because that was unheard of.  The Roman Soldiers already had made you walk one mile and to think Jesus wants you to walk a second mile?  Our family went for a walk yesterday and before we were even out of the neighborhood, Enoch was complaining about how tired he was.

Like any occupiers, the Romans weren’t all bad.  The Roman Empire had conquered many, many lands and had shipped their troops far from home.  They were typically between the ages of 17 and 46 and it was an opportunity to prove oneself.  They had to be picked and fit to serve.  It was an honor to be picked and be set apart, but much like in the Hunger Games, they were frightened to go and they did all they could to survive.  They swore an oath of allegiance called the sacramentum that changed them from Roman citizens to Roman soldiers.  Once they had taken the oath, they were subject to their general’s authority.  Just the like the Empire in the Star Wars movies, they looked fierce.  A massive amount of men, like ants, all wearing the same uniforms, just like the storm troopers.

Wouldn’t you despise the soldiers that occupied you?  They could make you walk for a mile, they could beat you in public, they could do anything to you, and it was legal.  Doesn’t that give Jesus’ words an entirely different context.  However, the typical Jewish person dehumanized the Roman soldiers also, because they all looked the same, it was easy to make assumptions.  THIS is what our Rabbi Jesus is speaking to.  He’s COMPLETELY flipping the script.

Matthew 5:38-48 The Message (MSG)

38-42 “Here’s another old saying that deserves a second look: ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.’ Is that going to get us anywhere? Here’s what I propose: ‘Don’t hit back at all.’ If someone strikes you, stand there and take it. If someone drags you into court and sues for the shirt off your back, giftwrap your best coat and make a present of it. And if someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously.

43-47 “You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.

48 “In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”

I think this speaks A LOT to us today.  We’re griping about the cost of medical care.  We’re griping about Donald Trump.  We’re griping about the liberal Hillary lovers.  We’re griping about the state of our world.  We’re griping but not doing anything, accept talking.  All blow and no go.  When Enoch was griping on our walk yesterday, I must have said 3 or 4 times that if he put his energy into walking and not in complaining, he would have the energy to walk.

Do not let fear of the other, lead you to the dark side.  Yoda says, “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”  Hate leads to suffering. Isn’t it exhausting to hold onto that critical, bitterness all the time?  I’m not saying we don’t have opinions, but opinions are like belly buttons, everyone has them.  I’m saying, couldn’t we use half the energy we waste on the 24 hour news cycle and channel it in to clothing, feeding and housing our neighbors?  That’s what our Rabbi calls us to do.  “Grow up.  You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”  We, as Christ-followers, that have the dust of our Rabbi, all over us are called to Love not Hate.  It’s part of our God-created identity.  It’s part of our DNA.  It’s who we are.

Jesus wants us to give what we can to our neighbors, not retaliate, and LOVE our neighbors as well as our enemies.

The following was purportedly posted on the Craigslist personals:

To the Guy Who Tried to Mug Me in Downtown Savannah night before last. Date: 2009-05-27, 1:43 a.m. EST. I was the guy wearing the black Burberry jacket that you demanded that I hand over, shortly after you pulled the knife on me and my girlfriend, threatening our lives. You also asked for my girlfriend’s purse and earrings. I can only hope that you somehow come across this rather important message.

First, I’d like to apologize for your embarrassment, I didn’t expect you to actually soil your pants when I drew my pistol after you took my jacket. The evening was not that cold, and I was wearing the jacket for a reason. My girlfriend had just bought me that Kimber Model 1911 .45 A CP pistol for my birthday, and we had picked up a shoulder holster for it that very evening. Obviously you agree that it is a very intimidating weapon when pointed at your head … isn’t it! I know it probably wasn’t fun walking back to wherever you’d come from. … I’m sure it was even worse walking barefooted since I made you leave your shoes, cell phone and wallet with me. (That prevented you from calling or running to your buddies to come help mug us again.)

After I called your mother, or “Momma” as you had her listed in your cell, I explained the entire episode of what you’d done. Then I went and filled up my gas tank as well as four other people’s in the gas station on your credit card. The guy with the big motor home took 150 gallons and was extremely grateful! I gave your shoes to a homeless guy outside Vinnie Van Go Go’s, along with all the cash in your wallet. (That made his day!) I then threw your wallet into the big pink “pimp mobile” that was parked at the curb … after I broke the windshield and side window and keyed the entire driver’s side of the car.

… [On your cell phone] I managed to get in two threatening phone calls to the DA’s office and one to the FBI, while mentioning President Obama as my possible target. The FBI guy seemed really intense, and we had a nice long chat (I guess while he traced your number, etc.). … I feel this type of retribution is a far more appropriate punishment for your threatened crime. I wish you well as you try to sort through some of these rather immediate pressing issues, and can only hope that you have the opportunity to reflect upon, and perhaps reconsider, the career path you’ve chosen to pursue in life.

Remember, next time you might not be so lucky. Have a good day!

Thoughtfully yours, Alex.

I’m not saying that wasn’t awesome in some ways.  Most of us would say that person got what he deserved.  Most of us would feel pretty good and satisfied with ourselves after that Craigslist post, but would Jesus see it that way?  Did Alex have to do that other stuff?  Would it be so crazy if he handed the guy the jacket, the purse, and the earrings, and then threw in his wallet?  That would really be crazy!  But Narcie, the guy held them up at knife point.  And I would answer, Jesus called all of us to do crazy things like that. Most of us would have a hard time walking that extra mile for a Roman enemy…..but if we did, wouldn’t that be a surprise for them.  Wouldn’t that maybe make the Roman question all of the times he’s “messed” with the Israelites?  If it happened over and over again, wouldn’t his heart grow bigger and bigger just like the Grinch’s in the Christmas cartoon.   Showing a mere glimmer of humility, kindness, and love when you’ve been wronged, will eventually break through to anybody’s hardened heart.  And isn’t there lots of reasons why somebody’s heart is hardened?  Prisoner turned President Nelson Mandela says this, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

Loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us can lead to changes, most of all, in ourselves.  It’s uncanny.  Even when people lose loved ones in the most violent of crimes, they see the need to forgive.  Not just for the other people, but for themselves, to free themselves of the burden of hate and revenge.  I’m not at all saying that such a Christlike response is easy. Heck no.  It takes courage and deep determination. In Uganda, Angelina Atyam’s daughter was abducted in 1996. According to Divinity magazine (Winter 2010), rebel troops took her and 29 other girls from a Catholic boarding school. Angelina met weekly with the parents of the other girls to pray for their daughters’ release.

“I was confused, bitter and very deep in my heart I was thinking, ‘How do I avenge this?’” says Angelina. “Yet we continued to pray and call upon the [rebels] to release our children, protect them, bring them home and make peace again.”

One day, a priest was leading the group of parents in the Lord’s Prayer. When they got to the words “Forgive us our sins,” the parents suddenly stopped. They couldn’t say “as we forgive those who sin against us.” Realizing they were asking for the forgiveness of their sins yet were unable to forgive the rebels for stealing their children, the parents filed silently out of the church. It was simply too difficult. They couldn’t be Christlike enough to forgive the rebels’ sins.

The parents went home and began to examine themselves. And something amazing happened: By the next meeting, they started to pray to forgive the rebels. They also began sharing their story of forgiveness with others and became leaders in a national movement to secure the release of abducted children. After seven years of captivity, Angelina and her daughter were reunited.

In his book The Magnificent Defeat, Frederick Buechner, theologian, says, “The love for equals is a human thing — of friend for friend, brother for brother. It is to love what is loving and lovely. The world smiles.

“The love for the less fortunate is a beautiful thing — the love for those who suffer, for those who are poor, the sick, the failures, the unlovely. This is compassion, and it touches the heart of the world.

“The love for the more fortunate is a rare thing — to love those who succeed where we fail, to rejoice without envy with those who rejoice, the love of the poor for the rich, of the black man for the white man. The world is always bewildered by its saints.

“And then there is the love for the enemy — love for the one who does not love you but mocks, threatens, and inflicts pain. The tortured’s love for the torturer.

This is God’s love. It conquers the world.

We need to search each of our hearts and take these lessons very seriously because we are all guilty of making assumptions, demonizing the other, and of having our default be hatred and judgement because of fear and misunderstanding.  Jesus is very clear on this.  No excuses.  No explanations.  No rationalizations.  We are to love our enemies.  Our Rabbi Jesus wants our default, our resting state to be love and grace and we see this love most clearly on the cross.  The fact the Great God of the Universe came to live among us and we whipped, stripped, and persecuted him, should be grounds for him saying, “Beam me up, Scotty!  Get me out of here.”  Instead, he says, “Father, they do not know what they are doing.”  That is the biggest act of non-violence, that is the biggest love for enemies ever because we’ve all fallen short of the glory of God and sinned against our Rabbi Jesus, but he turns the other cheek and loves us anyway.  He loves us no matter what.  He died for us no matter what.  And for that, we say, THANKS BE TO GOD!

At the Feet of the Rabbi: Part 3

Everything has its beauty, but not everyone sees it.

It does not matter how slowly you go so long as you do not stop.

Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall. 

I want you to be everything that’s you, deep at the center of your being. 

I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand. 

Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.

Wheresoever you go, go with all your heart.

By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.

When anger rises, think of the consequences.

Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.

I remember Mrs. Rhodes in 6th grade teaching us about Confucius.  I remember distinctly her teaching us about, “Confucius say.” Confucius was a Chinese teacher, editor, politician and philosopher of the Spring and Autumn period of Chinese history.  The philosophy of Confucius emphasized personal and governmental morality, correctness of social relationships, justice and sincerity. He espoused the well-known principle “Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself”, i.e. the Golden Rule.

We’re continuing in our sermon series “At the Feet of the Rabbit.”  Remember what was said last week, 17 “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.” He speaks with authority, not just moral sayings.  He doesn’t just list “the rules,” he fulfills them.  He speaks authoritatively on the word of God because he’s not only a part of the Triune God, he is God’s son, whom God broke through the Heavens at his baptism and said, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I’m well pleased.”  This is our Rabbi, whom we’ve chosen to follow, whose dust gets into the nooks and crannies of our hearts and lives, who shows us the way to live.

In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus preaches some pretty harsh-sounding warnings to us about the consequences we face should we fail to practice righteousness within every aspect of our lives.  This is not the Beatitudes and not the aspirational salt and light passage, this is where our Rabbi gets gritty. 

Matthew 5:21-37

Concerning Anger

21 “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

Concerning Adultery

27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.

Concerning Divorce

31 “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

Concerning Oaths

33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ 34 But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

Have you seen those “Stop Smoking” commercials?  They were much more frequent in Florida because of a statewide initiative “Tobacco Free Florida.”  Every time I hear or see one of those commercials, I want to change the channel or mute it and not watch because I don’t want to put the images in my head of the effects of smoking.  It’s much like this passage, it’s like Jesus giving us real talk, not putting into a list of rules, but explaining why we should do or not do something because of the EFFECTS.  He wants us to lead righteous lives.  Even more graphic are the remedies Jesus prescribes as treatments for our righteousness-deficiency. We are wrong if we read Jesus’ words about cutting off our right hand or plucking out our eye as just the reflection of some ancient barbaric code of justice. Jesus’ directives are violently vivid metaphors that tell us that we must simply stop doing the things that harm others or ourselves before those old behaviors or destroy us.

Speaking of those old behaviors, how are those new year’s resolutions going?  Many of our resolutions and our Lenten practices of giving something up or adding something are about creating habits.  It’s easy for us to throw away a broken piece of furniture or shoes that need to be resewn or resoled.  It’s much harder to fix it.  It’s much a harder to take it to the carpenter or the cobbler and give them our broken pieces.  Have you ever restored a car or painted a piece of furniture or the kitchen cabinets and it feels like it’s transformed?  It’s like it’s a whole new thing.  As it says in 2 Corinthians 5:17, Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!”  It takes the hard work of putting in place life-giving and life-transforming habits, and not nasty, will only lead to you hurting yourself or others habits.

– If you want to be healthy, … stop doing those things that harm you or inevitably will hurt you.

– If you want harmony in your life, … stop doing those things that cause discord and agitation.

– If you want peace in the world, … stop doing those things that lead to war in your relationships and within yourself.

– If you want a closer relationship with your children, … stop doing those things and saying those things that build up walls between you and spend quality time with them.

– If you want to rekindle the romance in your marriage, … stop doing those things that create animosity and monotony, drop the masks and start really connecting.

– If you want to live in a close-knit, caring community, … stop hiding behind your front door or your masks and get out there in the land of interpersonal risks.

– If you want a spiritual life that fills you up, … stop pouring all your energies everywhere but toward God and the rest of life will fall into place.

Sure it’s easier to say, than do, but if you have the right motivation, you can do anything.

Ida was recovering from a heart attack. “Doctor,” she pleaded with her cardiologist, “you must keep me alive for the next two years. I want to attend my grandson’s bar mitzvah.”

“We’ll try,” he replied. And in due course, Ida did indeed attend the joyous rite of passage.

Sometime later she again spoke to her doctor. “My granddaughter is to be married in 18 months. Please help me to be able to attend her wedding.”

“We’ll do our best,” he replied.

Sure enough, 18 months later, Ida proudly presided over the reception in a sparkly gown.

Ten years passed. Ida continued to thrive. She visited her cardiologist regularly and carefully followed all his instructions. One morning she called him. “Doctor,” she began, “I’m feeling fine, but I have another request to ask of you. Remember how you saw me through to my grandson’s bar mitzvah?”

“Yes.”

“And, later, how you helped me attend my granddaughter’s wedding?”

“Yes, that was a great day for you.”

“Well, as you know, I’ve just celebrated my 80th birthday. And I just bought myself a new mattress.”

“And …?”

“It has a 20-year guarantee.”

Jesus wants us to follow and act and live as his disciples because he wants the best for us.  He wants us to jump into the deep end of the pool, not so that we can tread water all our lives, but because he wants us to swim and then float and rest in his grace.

Concerning anger, Jesus says that the rules of the shallow end are “you shall not murder” and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgment” (v. 21). These seem like completely sensible rules, especially since no one wants to swim in a pool in which people are drowning each other. He moves into the deep end where it gets harder: “If you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment” (v. 22). For Jesus, avoiding murder is not enough. We are also supposed to control our anger. For Jesus, the goal is not revenge but reconciliation. He always wants us to work for peace. “When you are offering your gift at the altar,” says Jesus, “if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift” (vv. 23-24). In a similar way, Abraham Lincoln advised that the best way to destroy an enemy is to turn him into a friend, and Mahatma Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

Concerning adultery, Jesus says that the rule of the shallow end are that “you shall not commit adultery” (v. 27). This is a very sensible rule, since faithfulness in marriage is the glue that holds families together. When the covenant of marriage is broken, people suffer — men, women and especially children.

But Jesus is not content to enforce the rule against adultery. If we are going to swim with him in the deep end, we need to see that “everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (v. 28). Jesus is warning us that it is not healthy to do one thing with our minds and another thing with our bodies as it is in Platonic dualism. Instead, we are to keep the two together.

Bromleigh McCleneghan, the author of a book called Good Christian Sex, believes that the rise of “emotional affairs” proves that Jesus knew what he was talking about. When you hold mind and body together, says McCleneghan, “you don’t actually have to commit adultery to sin against your partner.” This is a tough goal, for sure, but it leads to healthier relationships.

Concerning divorce, Jesus reminds us of the shallow end rule: “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce” (v. 31). This rule seems reasonable, although it does make divorce a rather easy thing for a person to do.

But in the deep end, Jesus says that “anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery” (v. 32). Here, Jesus is saying that divorce should not be an easy thing for a person to acquire, because marriage is one of the foundations of family and community life, and it’s a loss in way or another.

Finally, concerning oaths, Jesus notes that the rule of the shallow end is that “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord” (v. 33). Once again, this is a very sensible rule that encourages people to keep their promises.

But Jesus offers a higher challenge: “Do not swear at all” (v. 34). Instead, “let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one” (v. 37). Jesus is saying that all words should be truthful, not just words spoken under oath. When we jump into the deep end with Jesus, everything we say should be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth — not just the things we say with our hand on a Bible.

A cleaning woman who’d been converted at a Salvation Army meeting was asked what difference Jesus made in her life. She said, “I don’t sweep dirt under the carpets anymore.”  There should be a change.  There should be repentance.  Anger, adultery, divorce and oaths. The words of Jesus on each of these can challenge us, stretch us and sometimes make us feel inadequate. But the good news is that Jesus is always swimming right beside us, helping us float in his love and grace. He will stretch us a little more each day, until we are able to achieve the goals he sets out for us: Working for reconciliation, being faithful to our partners, strengthening our marriages, and speaking the truth.  As Oswald Chambers says in My Utmost for His Highest, “A gilt-edged saint is no good; he is abnormal, unfit for daily life and altogether unlike God. We are here as men and women, not as half-fledged angels, to do the work of the world, and to do it with an infinitely greater power to stand the turmoil because we have been born from above.”  It’s a high calling, sure, but God’s grace is enough to cover all of our mistakes and he spurs us ever on to repentance.  Even when we’re afraid to jump into the deep end, even when we can’t remember how to swim, it’s always enough.

Amen.

 

Something is Different about this Rabbi

Matthew 4:12-23

12Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: 15“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— 16the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”17From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

18As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 19And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” 20Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

23Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

 

Did you notice how Matthew made reference to the prophet Isaiah?  Matthew’s gospel in particular is geared towards a Jewish audience.  The other gospel authors don’t reference the prophet Isaiah in this passage, but Matthew wants to create a compelling case for his people that this man, Jesus, is whom the prophets foretold.  This is the person we have waited for.  In verse 16, “16the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”  People in darkness crave the light with an unquenchable thirst and he’s letting the world know that the Light has come – by his use of prophets and stories and parables and miracles.  He’s making a case that Jesus is the Messiah.

People sometimes wonder why God chose to come to earth when Jesus did. Do you ever wonder what was special about that time and that place? Was it a dark time in history?  Did they have massive amounts of turmoil in all the world?  What was so special about first-century Palestine that made for the perfect time for the in-breaking of the Light of the world? There are all sorts of great answers in hindsight. For one, the world was primed for the spread of the Gospel. The Greek and then Roman Empires had built an infrastructure that spread across continents. There were established roads and trade routes and seafaring technology, common languages and schools, military protection and the rule of law. These Empires persecuted the Church, yes, but the Church was also able to kind of harness the systems in place to spread the Good News guerrilla-style.

There are lots of other interesting facts in the first century that made it a prime time for Jesus’ ministry, but the one that particularly interests us today, and for the next several weeks of our series together, is something that was a central piece in the Jewish culture. I’m talking about the role or the office of the rabbi. The Rabbi. Now, up front, I want you to know that this isn’t a focus and function sermon.  What is the text saying and what does that call us to do as Christians? Rather, it’s about following a sort of trail that will lead us into our “At the Feet of the Rabbi” sermon series. Not a rabbit trail, but a rabbi trail. HA! No, but seriously, if this is the main role that Jesus lived out of in his culture, it can tell us much about what he was doing, teaching, and living and what it means to actually follow him.

To unpack this, we start our trail in the childhood of the average Jewish kid in Jesus’ day. For the ancient Jews, much like us, a person’s introduction to God and faith started as early as possible. Not only that, but the Jews believed that teaching their kids the Word of God was their first priority in life. They believed that you had to really embed Scripture deep in the bones of the next generation, because if you didn’t, you were only a generation away from being extinct as a people. For example, Dr. Thomas Thangaraj was one of my favorite professors at Candler.  He helped shape immensely the inter-religious ministry I took part in during my Contextual Education with Religious Life at Emory.  He is a 7th generation Indian Christian from Nazareth, India.  The disciple Thomas of Doubting Thomas fame was said to have visited all over the coast of India and he comes from a town that was discipled by the Apostle Thomas.  He did most of his work on training Christians to talk with people of other faiths, specifically Hindu, and he wrote The Crucified Guru.  He shared this personal story during one of our class times, as he studied Hindu more and more, his father urged him, begged him not “to mess this up” because their family had been Christians for 7 generations.  How much more so, would it have been for God’s chosen people, Israel?  This wasn’t overblown anxiety, it was real. It was their heritage.  Where they came from.  Remember, Israel’s history was one of persecution, battle, exile and enslavement.  They were in a continuous spin cycle all throughout the Old Testament where they disobeyed God’s laws, God sent them a prophet, they didn’t listen, and they were conquered, exiled, and nearly wiped out completely. It was the real deal for them, saying “Our children HAVE to KNOW who our people are, and who God is, and what God commands.” The children of Israel needed to know their rich culture, deep heritage, the oral history of their past, present and future story.

So, they started early. One teacher gave this advice:  “Under the age of six we do not receive a child as a pupil; from six upwards accept him and stuff him (with Torah) like an ox.” Ha. Awesome, right? This was taken very seriously. There were three phases of education for Jewish kids, and the first one, kind of like elementary school, was called Bet Sefer. Repeat after me: Bet Sefer. It means “House of the Book” and in Bet Sefer, kids ages 6-10 were tasked to learn the Torah, the first five books of our Bible, from Genesis to Deuteronomy. And when I say learned, I mean really they had to memorize it. All of it.  If we had to memorize the begats or all of the laws in Leviticus, could we? Could our kids hack it?  Well, as Rob Bell said in his NOOMA video, it’s not that we don’t have the mental capacity for this anymore – how many of you know every single word to the albums you played over and over in high school? How many of you can recite every line from your favorite movies?  Mike and I were stunned when we heard the song “Peaches” that I knew all the words.  I don’t know which brother had the tape, but I remember it was an orange tape and we listened to it over Christmas when we were trying to create a hangout place in the shed in our back yard.  What a ridiculous song to know.  So we have the capacity, it’s a determination of what’s important to us and if we want to do it.

Just to instill how important God’s Word was, in that first phase of education, even on the first day of class, the Rabbi would take honey and cover the slate or desk of the students. Now, honey was incredibly exotic and valuable and seen as the most pleasurable thing to eat, like Turkish Delight in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  After covering everything the Rabbi would say, “Now, lick it all off.” And as they went to town licking it all off, he would say, “May the words of Scripture be like this to you” – exotic and valuable and pleasurable.  Words that you treasure.   Powerful, right?  That was Bet Sefer.

Now, the second phase of education was even tougher. This was like middle school, and it was rarer for kids to make it this far. Only those who passed Bet Sefer advanced to Bet Talmud, which means “House of Learning.” It was for kids 10-14. In Bet Talmud, the students were tasked with memorizing all the rest of the Hebrew scriptures, through Malachi. Not only that, but they started to really dig into the text and use the art of question and answer. For instance, our Western style of education says, “here’s the exam, spit out the info.” The test says, “2+2=___.” But the Rabbi’s method was to ask something like, “What is 2+2?” and he expected to be answered by a question, “Well, what is 16 divided by 4?” Tricky, right? They were creating this working knowledge. One of the scriptures my mom made us memorize as kids was Luke 2:52, “Jesus grew in wisdom and knowledge, and in favor of God and man.”  Remember Jesus at the age 12 was in the temple, is there among the wise men, and we get the sense that this is what was happening. Bet Talmud.

Finally, for those who passed middle school, there came phase three, like high school and an Ivy League college combined. It was called Bet Midrash, meaning “House of Study.” These kids were the best of the best of the best. At age 13 or 14, they would apply and hope to be invited by a Rabbi to go into apprenticeship.

Late one evening, a rabbi is sitting out with his students, watching the stars appear in the heavens one by one. “Tell me this,” asks the teacher: “how can we know when the night is ended and the day has begun?”

One eager young man jumps right in. “You know the night is over and the day has begun when you look off across the pasture and can tell which animal is a dog and which is a sheep.”

The teacher says nothing, gazing off into the distance.

“Is this the right answer?” the young man asks, after a time.

“It is a good answer, but not the answer I am looking for,” replies the teacher.

“Let me try,” says another student. “You know the night is over and the day has begun when the light falls on the leaves, and you can tell if it is a palm tree or a fig tree you’re looking at.”

“That too is a fine answer, but not the one I am looking for.”

“Then, what is the right answer?” demand the students. “Rebbe, answer your own question!”

The teacher looks out over the eager young crowd of disciples and replies, “When you look into the eyes of a human being and see a brother or sister, you know that it is morning. If you cannot see a sister or brother, you know that it will always be night.”

In this phase, it wasn’t just about knowing Scripture. Your Rabbi would teach you everything he knew. Everything he had learned from his Rabbi. Everything he knew about other Rabbi teachings. As well as, his own unique interpretation of it all. This special kind of course of study was known as the Rabbi’s “yoke.” The Rabbi hoped to have a strong school of apprentices, because one day when the Rabbi was no more, he wanted to be sure the yoke was passed on. Some yokes were about perfectionism and rigid rule-following. Others were about pride and being well-known. Some Rabbis were incredibly selective because they wanted their yoke to be the most rare and unattainable. Others were interested in having the biggest following. Whatever the case, this was like making the NBA or NFL for Jewish children. So many of them didn’t make the cut. And when a kid was told they weren’t good enough at some point, the Rabbi would come to them and say, “I’m sorry, now it’s time for you to return home and learn the family trade. Go and have many children and if God blesses you maybe one of them will one day be a Rabbi.”

Do we start to hear just how much the office of the Rabbi was revered?  The word Rabbi itself actually comes in two parts. The first half is rab. Repeat after me. Rab. It means, great in every way: much, many, big, strong, powerful. You might even say “yuge.” Rab. The second half is the little sound i. In Hebrew, adding the sound i to the end of a word made it personal and possessive. It could be translated as “my.” In other words, the Rabbi was “MY great one”  — the best of the best of the best, who was also the personal one that I’d chosen for myself, or who had chosen me.

Y’all, all of that makes up the backdrop of understanding who Jesus was and is.

For one, why were the disciples in Matthew 4 by the sea fishing? Because they hadn’t made the cut at some point. They were “didn’t make its.” Not only that, but why did they abandon everything, and their dad, and just jet off after Jesus? Because when a Rabbi said, “Follow me,” this was your chance. Why did Jesus say things like, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light?” Because his yoke, his teaching, wasn’t weighed down with human nonsense or empty rules…his was built on his own sacrifice and grace. But to understand him as Rabbi also lends a lot more weight to statements like, “Take up your cross and follow me.” Because following a Rabbi wasn’t just sitting in a classroom with a teacher, it was physically and emotionally and spiritually, full-bodied following. Going where they went, learning what they taught, doing as they did.  It was more than rules; it was embodying how Jesus lived.

I once saw a Peanuts cartoon where Charlie Brown says to Violet: “Just think of it: the dirt and dust of far-off lands blowing over here and settling on ‘Pig-Pen.'”

“It staggers the imagination!” Charlie continues. “He may be carrying soil that was trod upon by Solomon or Nebuchadnezzar or Genghis Khan!”

Pig-Pen: “That’s true, isn’t it?”

In the next frame he’s saying with unaccustomed pride: “Sometimes I feel like royalty!”

We should feel like royalty too, because if we follow our Rabbi, we really follow Jesus.  We will have his dust all over us.  What it means, y’all, is that when we listen to the Sermon on the Mount the next few weeks, we aren’t just hearing words or teaching like any old sermon. We are joining the people in sitting at the feet of a Rabbi. Our Rabbi. And that makes us more than just students or listeners, but disciples, actively walking in his ways.  People charged with taking up his unique yoke, living it, and passing it on.