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Friday, August 4, 2017

Meals, Mercy and Ministry: A Sermon on Feeding the 5,000

People remember a sermon if you simplify it. Most often, I simplify sermons by hanging three points on one letter. Today, three Ms – Meals, Mercy and Ministry.
Three points are easier to remember if they all begin with the same letter. Case in point: When I worked in the nonprofit sector, my communications involved members, message and method. Marketing consultants boil down a strategy to the market, message and medium. A professor teaches that politics is comprised of money, media and momentum. A therapist teaches that the keys to a happy life are music, movement and meditation. While I do not expect these three Ms to stick to your memory like glue, they illustrate that points are easier to remember if all the words begin with the same letter. That said, we examine meals, mercy and ministry.
First, meals. Ancient Israelites ate two meals a day, a light meal in the morning or midday and a more substantial meal around sunset.[1] In ancient Palestine, the normal diet included bread, grains, wine, cheese, figs, dates, raisins, beans and other foods. People reserved sheep and goats, the main sources of meat, for special occasions, feasts or sacrifices. Poultry, eggs and fish became common later in Israel’s history.
Meals were more than occasions for satisfying hunger. People who ate and drank together bound one another through friendship and mutual obligation. Eating before the Lord, when one brought sacrifices and offerings, reflected the view that through sacred meals humans could commune with God.
Festive meals marked weddings or the return of an absent family member. Appointed feasts prescribed by the Torah or tradition included Purim and Passover and celebrated God’s goodness to his people.
New Testament banquets given by the well-to-do required guests wear proper clothing. They obligated hosts to greet guests with a kiss and provide for the washing of their feet. Hosts seated guests according to rank.
At formal meals in Jesus’ day, the Greco-Roman custom of reclining on couches around a large table was widespread. One reclined on his left elbow, ate with his right hand, while his feet dangled from the couch. This explains how the woman anointed Jesus feet, how Jesus washed his disciples’ feet while they ate, and how John reclined at Jesus’ breast.
Jesus’ table fellowship with his followers was an important feature of His ministry. It symbolized the blessing of joyous communion, which drew criticism from detractors for eating with tax collectors and sinners. Labeling Him as a glutton and drunkard suggested that, unlike John the Baptist, Jesus took pleasure in eating and drinking. I could say more about meals, but this is a sermon, not a theology lecture; hence, my second point, mercy.
The primary definition of mercy is compassion shown especially to an offender or to one subject to one's power. It also means compassionate treatment of those in distress.
English speakers derived the term in the late 12th century from the French word merci. Its Latin root is mercedem meaning reward or wages. In the 6th century, the Church applied the word to the heavenly reward of those who showed kindness to the helpless.
In our Gospel today, we see that Jesus showed kindness or compassionate treatment to the helpless and distressed. Most English versions of Matthew 14:14 read that Jesus had compassion on the crowds and healed their sick. How He felt towards them gives us a rare glimpse into His inner life. Other than compassion, the only other feelings Matthew described were Jesus’ amazement at the centurion’s faith and anguish and distress in Gethsemane.
The verb “had compassion” revealed not only Jesus’ feeling, but also what he was about to do. At the end of chapter 9, Jesus had compassion for the crowds because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.[2] He responded compassionately by calling twelve disciples and sending them out with authority to cast out unclean spirits and heal people’s diseases and afflictions. Likewise, in the parable that follows His instruction to Peter to forgive seventy-seven times, we hear that the master released and forgave the servant who owed him ten thousand talents. It teaches that God responds with divine compassion to spiritual needs (forgiveness of sin) and physical needs (sickness and hunger). In chapter 15, we read, “Then Jesus called his disciples to him and said, ‘I have compassion on the crowd because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat. And I am unwilling to send them away hungry, lest they faint on the way.’”[3]
Jesus’ compassionate response tells us that the reign of God in the world was concerned with spiritual needs as well as physical ones. In Christ, God reestablishes His rule over creation, and desires to restore everything that is broken, twisted, amiss or dying.
The scene then transitions to the “feeding of the 5,000.” The day is waning and the logical act would have been for Jesus to dismiss the crowds and let them fend for themselves, and that is exactly what the disciples asked Jesus to do either because they thought He could not do anything or did not want to have anything to do with the crowds and their need for food.
Refusing to dismiss the crowds, Jesus emphatically told his disciples to do something about the problem. Yet, they did not understand that He could provide.
Now, fade out the disciples and focus on Jesus. Methodically, He prepared the crowd, took the loaves and fish, pronounced a blessing and gave the food to the disciples. With this story, we are familiar, but often overlook the phrase, “they all ate and were satisfied.” Not only did all 5,000 men eat, but also the women and children. Not only were all were satisfied, there were abundant leftovers.
Strangely, there is no response or mention of astonishment or amazement from the crowd. Nothing. Yet, Jesus continued to feed, nourish, heal and teach. Today, Christ works through His Word and the Sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist. They relate to our body and soul. In Baptism, we die and rise with Christ. In Holy Communion, we kneel in repentant faith before we receive His Body and Blood, which preserves our bodies and souls to life everlasting. During that time, do we ponder God’s compassion and mercy for His people and their needs that arise from brokenness and sin that still trouble our world?
Do we ponder God’s compassion and mercy for His people and their needs that arise from brokenness and sin that still trouble our world? Folks, permit me to move to my third point, from mercy to ministry.
On January 6, 2014, our first grandchild, Emma, was born in Anderson, Indiana. At the time, my wife, Cindy, and I lived in Edmond, Oklahoma. The travel time between our house and Emma’s hospital was 12 hours … under normal circumstances. We left Oklahoma at 6:00 a.m. planning to arrive in Indiana by suppertime. Instead, we hit one of the worst blizzards in Illinois. We made Effingham by evening where traffic came to a standstill. We spent our first night at the Effingham Performance Arts Center on cots with 200 other travelers. Truckers, parents, infants and toddlers all crammed into one open space on cots. Cindy and I got no sleep that night.
The next morning, I learned that we would not be able to continue our trip and make Anderson by nightfall. We did not want to spend another night at the Performing Arts Center. So, being a Lutheran pastor, I looked up the Lutheran Church in Effingham. We called St. John’s Church. I explained to the secretary our plight. A few minutes later, the church president called and offered us a place to sleep. He met us and we followed him to his home. He then invited us to lunch. After lunch, we returned to his home, showered and napped. A few hours later, he asked if we would like to go to dinner with some friends. We agreed. The next morning, we headed out. We avoided the interstate and kept to state roads. We arrived in Anderson that afternoon. There and then, we saw and held our first granddaughter.
I preface my third point with this story because we experienced Christian hospitality firsthand from the president of a Lutheran congregation in Effingham, Illinois. Hospitality is who we are as Christians. Hospitality is our ministry.
Several years ago, when my younger brother died, I contacted my friend, Mark Spaziani, owner of a restaurant in Monaca, Pennsylvania.  I asked Mark to accommodate 20 people between the funeral home viewings at his restaurant. He arranged for us a room and dedicated servers. Around 4:30 p.m., we arrived, sat, ate and returned to the funeral home for the 7:00 p.m. viewing. Although we paid for the meal, time and convenience, Mark provided a ministry or service for us.
Simply defined, ministry is the service, function or profession of a minister of religion. Ministry is from the Greek word diakoneo, meaning to serve. In the New Testament, ministry is service to God and to other people in His name. Jesus provided the pattern for Christian ministry: He came, not to receive service, but to give it. We read in Matthew, “As the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” The epitome of Jesus’ service is John 13, where He washed his disciples’ feet.
Christians should minister by meeting people's needs with love and humility on Christ's behalf. In Matthew, we read, “It shall not be so among you. Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”[4]
Paul opened Romans with these words: “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God.”[5]
In short, Christians minister to others out of their devotion to Christ and their love for others, whether the other people are believers or unbelievers. Ministry to others should be impartial and unconditional, always seeking to help others as Jesus would.
Ministry in our day has taken on more of a vocational meaning as we call pastors "ministers" to full-time service. Pastors spend their lives in the ministry. They minister to others and rightly are designated as ministers, but pastors are not the only ones involved in ministry. From the early New Testament churches to the churches of our day, each Christian should be in the ministry of helping others.
To the Romans, Paul wrote, “By the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.”[6]
Ministry prioritizes spiritual things, not just practical things. It emphasizes sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ with others so they can come to know Him and receive Him as personal Savior, experience Him as Lord, and know Christ as the essence of their Life. Ministry can, and should, include ministering to the physical, emotional, mental, vocational, and financial needs of others. Jesus did, and so should we!
That said, I close with a few words of my current boss, Mark Walter of My Chef Catering in Naperville[7]. I asked Mark to tell me how his work is ministry. He wrote, “I have been thinking about your sermon. I feel that My Chef helps people celebrate life through our food and services, starting with baby showers through birthdays, graduations, weddings and mournings. Through our services, we help people relax and enjoy their day. A lot of these events we set up, serve and clean up so that our clients are able to be a part of their celebration. Through our food, we help conversation by giving people a common talking point. I also feel that though great food comes comfort, joy and peace. Food helps calm the soul.
On the corporate side, we help nourish the body and mind.  Also, it gives the employees mind a break and allows them to talk about something other than work.”
Friends, whether you offer Christian hospitality to others professionally or personally, as a professional chef or president of your congregation, in Effingham, Bolingbrook or Naperville, do it in the spirit of Christ. Follow the lead of my friend, Mark Spaziani, or my boss, Mark Walter, and help people mourn or celebrate life through food and service. In order to do so, Jesus must not only be my chef, he must also be my Lord and Savior. When you recognize Jesus as such and serve others as He did, the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will keep your heart and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.

[1] Sam K. Williams, Meals. Harper’s Bible Dictionary (HarperCollins Publishing: New York, 1985), 616f.
[2] Matthew 9:36.
[3] Matthew 15:32.
[4] Matthew 20:26ff.
[5] Romans 1:1
[6] Romans 12:3-8

Saturday, July 22, 2017

What We Do About Weeds Among Wheat

Parable, Passage and Prayer
People remember a sermon if you simplify it. Most often, I simplify sermons by hanging three points on one letter. Today, three Ps – Parable, Passage and Prayer.
Three points are easier to remember if they all begin with the same letter. Case in point: An investor analyzes businesses through people, product and process. An entrepreneur states the key to success is passion, patience and perseverance. An anthropologist deems it imperative that males aspiring to be men must protect, procreate and provide. A professor teaches that we handle setbacks through personalization, pervasiveness and permanence. While I do not expect you to remember all those Ps, they illustrate that points are easier to remember if all the words begin with the same letter. That said, for Christians engaged in the world: parable, passage and prayer.
First, parable. What is a parable? Simply defined, a parable is a short story that teaches a moral or spiritual lesson. It comes to us from the Latin, parabola, and the Greek, parabole, which literally meant ‘a throwing beside.’ Its origin is from the term para, meaning alongside, and bole, a throwing, casting, beam or ray.
The geometrically gifted understand that a parabolic curve refers to a comparison between fixed points and a straight line. The St. Louis Arch and your satellite dish are parabolic curves. Jesus, however, did not teach math or build arches. Rather, he compared real life situations to teach a lesson about God.
Parables were part of Jewish tradition. The Hebrew term for a parable was mashal. We find mashal in the allegories, proverbs, riddles and taunts of Judges, Samuel, Proverbs and Prophets. We are familiar with Nathan’s powerful story to David of the rich man who stole and slaughtered the poor man’s prized lamb. It transformed David to a humble, contrite sinner. So, we see that Jesus did not invent parables, but like his ancestors, used them to win people over to his views.
Jesus spoke parables to proclaim the gracious advent, disturbing presence and challenging implications of the Kingdom of God. At times, he opened with, “The kingdom of heaven is like…”[1] or, “To what shall I compare?”[2] Often, he concluded with a challenging question. “Which of these three … proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?”[3] Or, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”[4] Today, Jesus completed his parable with an alarming, “Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, ‘Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”[5]
While Jesus did not pressure listeners to choose any one direction, he confronted them with the necessity to make a choice that determined their future. No doubt, his listeners who viewed matters one way now discovered a better way. Discovering a better way resulted in conversion, reconciliation and changed behavior. Once they experienced conversion and reconciliation, his followers transformed society and changed the world. As I conclude my first point on parables, I repeat that last sentence. Once they experienced conversion and reconciliation, his followers transformed society and changed the world.
From parable to passage, my second point. I repeated the last sentence because repetition is effective pedagogy. We learned our catechism by repeating answers to questions. As Luther employed repetition, so did Matthew. He emphasized the importance of this parable by following up with the disciples asking Jesus to explain its meaning. That portion of our Gospel is for another day. Today, we stick with the first seven verses.
Our passage is about God acting, about God doing kingly deeds. God graciously reigns in Jesus as He speaks this parable, and will reign one day in glorious power. We know that God reigned in Jesus and is reigning among us today; however, the reign of God takes place in unexpected, unsatisfying ways as far as we are concerned. I will explain that last part in a moment.
We break this passage into two parts: a description of the situation (vv. 24-28a), followed by a response (28b-30). In describing the situation, Jesus used past-time indicatives. We remember indicatives from our English Grammar classes. The indicative mood states facts or asks questions. (I drink coffee.) The imperative mood expresses commands or requests. (Pour me a cup of coffee, please.) The subjunctive mood shows a desire. (I wish I had a cup of coffee.)
Jesus stated that the reign of God has already become like a man who sowed good seed in the field: a past-time indicative statement. Remarkably, during the night an enemy sowed seeds over top of the man’s wheat crop. In time, the plants came up, bore fruit, and then the situation became known. The initial dialogue between the servants and the master of the house confirms what we already know – the facts.
In the second interchange between the servants and their master, the question becomes, “What does the master want to do about changing things?” Their attempt to collect the weeds from the midst of the wheat is met with a lengthy, explanatory reply. “No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, ‘Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”
The servants are most emphatically not to change the situation for that would be dangerously premature. In short, it is not their call. The danger in separating the weeds from the wheat would uproot wheat. The servants are to let the plants grow together until the harvest.
The crowds who first heard Jesus’ parable took away two things. First, this is a little story about what it is like now that God has begun to restore his royal rule during Jesus’ time. Second, the story communicates that the crowds should not expect anything different from Jesus’s ministry other than what it has been. Although the crowds have been curious about and positive towards Jesus, they are not his disciples. They are not satisfied with Jesus and must find something lacking in him. Yet, they should expect no other Jesus.
The crowds expect something different from what they have seen and heard so far. Again, the reign of God takes place in unexpected, unsatisfying ways as far as the crowd is concerned. For the crowd believes that one day it will be different. One day, there will be a change. Yet, they should expect no other Jesus.
The basic impact of the passage is akin to Jesus telling the crowds, “Stop looking for something other than what I am offering you. I must seem strange to you, like a man who has an enemy so evil that he scatters weeds in the man’s field at night, and then the owner does not even weed out the harmful plants from the midst of his own crop! This must seem strange to you, but what you see in me is the present manifestation of God’s reign in the world.”
The crowd does not seek the meaning of this parable. Jesus’ disciples later seek the parable’s meaning. The crowd, however, does not understand it, and does not care to try to understand it. Pity, for like the harvest, judgment comes to everyone – even the one who does not care to understand deeply Jesus’ words.
Judgment comes to everyone – even the one who does not care to understand deeply Jesus’ words.
So, what has this passage to do with us and my third point, prayer? Throughout his ministry and life, Jesus encouraged his disciples to pray earnestly to the end. Luke recorded that when Jesus was in the Mount of Olives, he was in agony but prayed more earnestly.[6] In Acts, when Peter was in prison, the church prayed earnestly to God for him.[7]
What is prayer? Prayer is the necessary foundation of our work as church and individuals. It is communal and personal. We pray in our sanctuaries and rooms. To paraphrase one holy person, prayer is God looking at me, and me looking at God. It is from the heart, but it is also vocal. We speak the Lord’s Prayer as Jesus taught it to his disciples. Prayer also involves reading Scripture. Daily, my wife and I read aloud the Psalms and other Biblical passages. Like you, we make time for prayer.
However, my friends, we all take time away from prayer. Every summer, we take time away from work and home. We vacate our businesses and residences. We go on vacation.
Unfortunately, for some, vacation means time away from Word, Sacrament, public worship and private prayer. We become spiritually lazy. Oswald Chambers once wrote, “We are all capable of being spiritually lazy saints.” We are all capable of being spiritually lazy saints. That is why I am giving you this prescription to combat spiritual laziness.
When I pray the Scriptures, I use the Five Ps of Prayer: Passage, Place, Posture, Presence and Passage. The Five Ps of Prayer is an easy method for anyone. Let me outline it for you.
First, Passage. Depending on the circumstances, choose a Scripture passage. Read it slowly several times until a word or phrase rises to the surface.
Place. Choose a place where you will not be disturbed. It may be in your home or a quiet church.
Posture. Find a sturdy comfortable chair that will allow you to sit upright. Posture is important. Do not slouch or lie down.
Presence. Set a timer for 10 minutes. Start there and gradually increase your prayer time to 25 minutes. Close your eyes so you are not distracted. Be present to God as He is present to you. Thoughts, feelings, physical discomforts and audible distractions will occur. Stand firm in the stream and let these distractions flow by as flotsam and jetsam go downstream.
Passage. When you get distracted, return to the passage and refocus. When your minutes have passed, close your meditation by reciting aloud The Lord’s Prayer.
Because you and I have the capacity to become spiritually lazy saints, but truly wish to imitate Jesus, try the Five Ps of Prayer for 25 minutes a day for the next 30-some years – the lifespan of Jesus. I guarantee you a deeper, richer, fuller, more intimate relationship with our Triune God.
This method has a money-back guarantee. I guarantee you that if you are not fully satisfied; you can return it … for your old relationship with God. …
What do I get when I pray over this passage and apply it to my life today? I get that the reign of God is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. God planted that seed in the world and me. Jesus called disciples in his day. The Spirit calls disciples today.
I also know that God’s enemy sowed weeds among the wheat. God’s enemy did it during Jesus’ time and today. I want God to fix it, and I want Him to fix it now! Yet, I must wait.
God will gather the weeds and burn them. He will shut the door on foolish virgins late for the wedding, cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness, and send to eternal punishment those who did not do tend to the needs of the least.
The world is populated with God’s disciples (good seed) and enemies (weeds). While I wish God would act now, I must be patient and allow God to punish as He deems. For left to my own will, to paraphrase Martin Luther, I would wreck it all.
Prayer leads me to insight and wisdom. I know God’s enemies are active. Some are obvious and others are subtle: powers and people who promote any lifestyle contrary to the Gospel and God’s Law whether they are the seven deadly sins compiled in Proverbs or vices in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. Some promote personal sins and others modern social sins – destroying the environment, trafficking drugs and humans, violating fundamental rights of human nature and other sins.
As Jesus’ disciples and our Father’s subjects, we must not only be aware of God’s enemies and the temptations they sow among us, but also awaken society to them. Prayerful Christians take their faith to the town square and the political sphere, to school and work, to family gatherings and on vacation. Friends, as you begin your Five P’s or Prayer and take your faith from these walls into the world, I pray that the peace of God that surpasses all understanding, keeps your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

[1] Matthew 13;31,33.
[2] Luke 7:31.
[3] Luke 10:36.
[4] Luke 18:8.
[5] Matthew 13:30
[6] Luke 22:44.
[7] Acts 12:5.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Law and Prophets through Christ (Read Sermon on the Mount)

My iPhone contains my contacts, email accounts, podcasts, apps, pictures of the four cutest grandchildren, and my playlist of running songs. The song that inspires me to sprint the last half-mile of my five-mile run is John Mellencamp’s “Authority Song,” which he dubbed "our new version of 'I Fought The Law.'"[2]
“I Fought The Law,” composed in 1959, is about a guy jailed after a robbery spree. The phrase "I fought the law" remained in our American lexicon ever since. Even landscapers change the lyrics to "I fought the lawn."[3]
Americans love figures that fight the law, even if they do not always win. Characters like Cool Hand Luke and Don Corleone, and movies like Star Wars and Hunger Games ka’ching Hollywood. But as much as we admire their heroics, as Christians, we need the law. We reject the view that Christians are free of all moral law,[4] and recognize the triple use of the Law: curb, mirror and rule.[5]
Playlists and pop culture aside, we focus on (1) Jesus, the Law and the Prophets; (2) how the first disciples saw the Law and Prophets through Christ; and (3) finally, what the texts teach us about Christian living in the world today.
When Matthew recorded Jesus’ words, he contrasted how the scribes and Pharisees interpreted God’s Law with its true authoritative meaning, which Jesus himself proclaimed.[6]
In verses 21-48, Jesus clarified how God intended people to live the Commandments. He spoke forcefully about murder and anger, marriage vows and public oaths, retaliation and love of enemies. He did not abolish any of the commandments, but contrasted his teaching of God’s Law with other teachers within Judaism – the scribes and the Pharisees – who relaxed the least of these commandments and taught others to do likewise, especially when it benefitted them. Later Jesus would condemn his hypocritical opponents because “they preach, but do not practice.”[7]
Clearly, Jesus did not abolish the Commandments. So, what did He mean when earlier He said, Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. Therefore whoever relaxes 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.” What did Jesus mean when he said that He came to fulfill the Law and the Prophets?
To fulfill means to bring to realization, as a prophecy or promise.[8] The general thrust of Matthew was to establish, on behalf of 1st century Jews, that Jesus of Nazareth was the promised Messiah of the Scriptures. Matthew listed dozens of Old Testament references. Nine times, he used the expression, “it is written,” to express the authority and truth of what was written. Twelve times, he cited Old Testament prophecy together with the term fulfill.[9]
Why was it imperative for Matthew to demonstrate that Jesus fulfilled Scripture? To answer that, picture yourself as an observant Jew 2,000 years ago. For you, Mosaic Law ruled life. Mosaic Law was the “canon within the canon” or the rule of rules, Mosaic Law determined everything else in Scripture. The prophets were the protectors and authorized interpreters of Mosaic Law.
Matthew upended that view with two points. First, the prophets were the rule of rules or the “canon within the canon.” As an observant Jew, you were to live according to how the prophets interpreted Law. Second, while the prophets looked back to the Law to interpret it for their day, their primary role was to point forward to the Messiah. Once the Messiah came, their central position in the life of the people of God was taken over by the Fulfiller of the prophets. Jesus Christ fulfilled their prophetic promises and He fulfilled the Law.
Jesus Christ fulfilled their prophetic promises and He fulfilled the Law. Now, let us explore how the disciples saw the Law and Prophets through Christ. … Instead of asking, what is the relation of this Jesus to our Mosaic Law, which stands at the center of our faith, 1st century Christians, like Matthew, started asking, what is the relation of Mosaic Law to Jesus Christ, who stands at the center of our faith?
Let’s face it; although the first disciples were Jews, they saw Jesus – not the Law or the Prophets – as their focus and prism. They were not without Law, but accepted the teaching of the Law from the Messiah who fulfilled the Law and Prophets. 1st century Jewish and Gentile Christians accepted Matthew’s conclusion that Christ commanded Apostles: Teach people “to observe all that I have commanded you.”[10]
Having seen the Risen Lord, the Apostles said, “It is not our option to teach anything contrary to Christ’s teaching.”
In the 1st century, doing and teaching the least of God’s commands were the priority and goal for all disciples. That meant Christians were not obliged to follow all 613 laws of the Torah or accept the interpretation of scribes or rabbis, but having now received the gift of salvation and entry into the Kingdom of God through baptism, Matthew expected more than the minimum.
Matthew expected Christians to grapple with the same issues the people of God faced 700 years before them (and perhaps the same ones we face today). Imagine early Christians discussing their daily devotions with members of their small group. They share their thoughts of fasting as written in Isaiah 58. Through the lens of the Risen Christ, they ponder its meaning and why, when the economy went south, the empowered who delighted in seeking God in their comfortable homes, oppressed workers as beasts of burden, and shared neither food nor shelter with the hungry or the homeless (even though they had stocked up on milk and bread).
Empowered by the Risen Christ, Matthew’s Christians fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, offered hospitality to the homeless, cared for the sick, and visited the imprisoned. They performed acts of mercy because, like the prophets, they looked forward – not to when the Messiah would come, but when the Lord would return. Matthew’s Christians were great in the kingdom of heaven because they taught what Christ taught, and did what He commanded. They fasted to feed the hungry, slept on the floor to shelter the homeless. Matthew’s Christians joyfully embraced the Gospel and the sacrifices it demanded. Doing and teaching the least of God’s commands – the priority and goal for all disciples.
When the priorities of life are doing and teaching the least of God’s commands, I am salt and light to the world. Unfortunately, fewer people choose to be salt and light. Today, 15% of Americans claim “none” as their religion, double what it was 20 years ago. For 22%, religion is not a factor in their lives.[11] When President Obama described America as a nation of “Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus – and non-believers,” he was right. Non-believers are bright, moral, self-reliant freethinkers, whom I will probably not move by my personal witness of the Gospel, but that should not prevent me from witnessing.
Over the next week, as we have time reflect because it’s cold outside, and there are no Winter Olympic Games or Superbowl, we each have time to ask ourselves some questions about Christian living in the world today.
Does my faith enhance other people’s lives as salt enhances food? In other words, when did I last share with an unchurched or non-Christian person my story of what the Living Christ did for me? Or, is my faith story as appetizing as soiled salt?
Does my life offer the light of the Gospel to people in darkness? When did I last talk to someone experiencing a crisis how God’s grace moved me through the darkest moments of my life?
Do I spend enough time with God so that He will reveal new insights about my life? Or am I too busy? Finally, over the last month, did anyone see my good works and give glory to our Father in Heaven?
The opportunities before us are boundless. I may never prompt change in the heart of an unbeliever, but I can start close to home. If I desire to be salt for the world, I can start with the people in my family and add what is missing in their lives.
I can ask my children or grandchildren which of their friends is experiencing darkness now and bring them the Light of Christ.
Schedule 15 minutes this week to read the Sermon on the Mount. Be as attentive as Christ’s first disciples. God will speak to your heart.
Ask the Holy Spirit to accompany you when you leave home so someone will see how you love Christ and glorify your Heavenly Father.
Finally, since Tuesday is Valentine’s Day, heed the words of this singer. “Make someone happy. Make just one someone happy. And you will be happy too.[12] And when you do, may the peace of God that surpasses all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus (Phil 4:7). Amen.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Ornaments from Around the World

Collecting Christmas ornaments is something Cindy and I started since we began dating in 2009. Every place we lived or visited, we bought an ornament or two to remember being there. Cindy's memory is clearer than mine is, however.

The first ornament we collected was from a 10K we ran in San Ramon, the Bah Humbug 10K, and the first of many races we ran together in California, Oklahoma and Illinois.

When we started dating, Cindy worked at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and made annual trips to Albuquerque. She bought this handcrafted angel in the fall of 2009.

In subsequent years, we picked up other ornaments from Santa Fe and Taos, the famous havens for artists like Georgie O’Keefe and tourists looking for New Mexico’s magic. In Taos, we snowshoed - a wonderful experience.

Cindy and I married in August 2010. We honeymooned in Alaska. These two ornaments are from that trip.

In June 2011, Cindy met my extended family in Pennsylvania. As my cousin proudly proclaims, “We put the fun in dysfunctional!” A side trip to Niagara Falls and Niagara-on-the-Lake including visits to wineries where we tasted ice wines completed the trip.

In November 2011, we moved to Oklahoma, where we lived for three years. While there, we purchased a home, as well as some ornaments. The first one is the state of Oklahoma, which is the home of Cindy’s mother.

Cindy’s ancestry includes the Chickasaw Nation, one of five Indian Nations within Oklahoma. While living in Oklahoma, we visited the amazing Chickasaw Cultural Center in Sulphur, where we purchased this handmade ornament depicting their cultural heritage.

I worked at World Neighbors for two years. Each year, we held an international market fair featuring items from the countries where we had a presence. We bought this pear-shaped ornament.

During that time, we lost our beloved Golden Retriever, Lindsay. Before we moved, we took ownership of another Golden, Travis. This ornament expresses our love of Goldens.

In December 2012, we vacationed for a few days in Branson, where we picked up this ornament.

From Oklahoma, we moved to southern Illinois. While there, we visited St. Louis with family and friends. The two main attractions in St. Louis are the Arch and the Budweiser, depicted by these two ornaments.

Nashville, IL is a five-hour drive to Graceland in Memphis, TN, home of Elvis Presley. Elvis bought Graceland in 1957, the year I was born, for his family. Graceland is today as it was when Elvis lived there.

When we moved to Chicagoland, we celebrated our fifth anniversary. To commemorate this, Cindy found a splendid ornament of lovey doveys.

Poles heavily populate Chicagoland. There are Polish restaurants, delis, radio and TV broadcasts and a museum. We purchased two ornaments displaying my heritage.

In January, we celebrated five years of marriage with a cruise through the Hawaiian Islands. We picked up these to remember our trip.
Finally, we hang this ornament because we live in the Steeler Nation and are fans of the greatest football franchise in the world, The Pittsburgh Steelers.

What Christmas traditions have you incorporated into your marriage? Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!