Compassion and Power

A Sermon on Matthew 14:13-21


This morning we come face to face with one of the greatest miracle stories contained in the bible.  This miracle story is the only miracle story that is contained in all four of the gospels.  When I am faced with that sort of a fact, I have to sit up and take notice and ask myself what is it about this story that is so important that it would be the only one, of all of the miracle stories in the bible that would be in all four gospels.  Well, let’s see if we can discover the answer together.

Before we drill down into the Scripture, we have to set the stage a little. The passage begins with, “Now when Jesus heard this…” What Jesus had just heard was the news about the brutal murder of his cousin John the Baptist at the hands of Herod.

This past week I received some bad news about a friend that is in hospital.  He had gone in for a by-pass, which turned into a quadruple by-pass, which led to complications, that led to sudden cardiac arrest and has now left his unresponsive and his family with a decision to continue care or not.  This is not the first time I have heard news like this nor will it likely be the last time, but it hit me rather hard since he was up and chatting on Facebook just last week.  When I got the news, all I wanted to do was to be alone and process the information.  I was at the Veterans Administration hospital in West Roxbury, and the chapel was just down the hall, so I popped in for some alone time. I think it is understandable that Jesus, and his disciples, would want to take a little time on their own after learning about the demise of John the Baptist.

They got into a boat and set off for a “deserted place, ” but the “crowds heard of it” and they followed him.  Now Jesus is used to having crowds around him, but he wanted some alone time to truly process what he was feeling.  He is human after all, and his cousin had just been murdered.  Sure, it is all part of the plan, but the news must have still come as a shock.  But even in his own grief, “when we went ashore…. He had compassion on them and healed their sick.”  Even in his moment of grief, he was thinking of someone rather than himself.

Now the disciples came to him and asked Jesus to dismiss the crowd so they could go into the area towns and villages to get some food to eat.  But Jesus told them to “feed them.”  Scripture estimates that there were 5,000 men (not including women and children) we can assume that there were at least double if not triple that number.  Here are these twelve guys, looking at this vast crowd, and trying to figure out what to feed them.  So, they come up with five loaves of bread and two fish.  Jesus repeated the command to feed them.  Not only did everyone get something to eat, but there were twelve baskets left over.  The disciples were in for a surprise that night at the miraculous power of God’s love.

As I mentioned at the start, this is the only miracle story that is included in all four of the Gospels, and some suggest that it was read at the Lord’s Supper each time they gathered.  Others will point out the parallel to the Book of Exodus and God’s provision of the Manna in the wilderness that fed the children of Israel. But, more important than all of that is that this story was treasured by the early church because it taught Christians the very heart of the gospel message and was a profound source of hope and inspiration for Christians who were seeking to be faithful against all odds.

This is a story of great power because it demonstrates that God is love, it teaches what it means to follow Christ, and it assures us of God’s power for good in the world.

The first, and I believe, the most important lesson of this story is that it teaches us that God is love.  Jesus had compassion on the people when he saw them.  Deep in his grief, he looked upon these people, sick and hungry, probably outcasts and he had compassion.  Despite his grief and his desire to just be alone, compassion for the people was his prime motivation.  This was compassion so deep that it cares for the basic needs of humanity, food.  God, who is the ultimate power in the universe, intends peace for the world, an end to hunger, the wellbeing of families, and spiritual wholeness for all people.

The second important lesson to be learned from this passage is about being disciples.  God has given us an awesome responsibility, Jesus did not feed the 5,000 he told his disciples to do it.  We are the body of Christ, his hands and his feet, through which the work needs to get done.  God does not work alone but through you and me. To follow Jesus is to express our faith in concrete acts of love, justice, and compassion towards others, no matter what their circumstances.  Notice the disciples did not pre-qualify anyone for service, they just fed people.

The third lesson is a reminder that when we need it the most, God will give us the power to work for good in the world.  When Jesus commanded the disciples to feed the people, they must have thought this an impossible task.  The need was great, the people were many, and the resources were few.  But Jesus blessed their work, and in the end, they cared for everyone and even had an abundance left over.  They did not hold anything back; they were willing to give it all away to fulfill the mission that Jesus had given them.  They had faith, and in the end, the mission was a success.  What do we hope to gain by holding back the resources we have when they could be used for the up building of the kingdom?  The disciples allowed the people to take what they wanted, and they fed everyone.

The power of the Holy Spirit is an amazing thing when the faithful come together and work together for a common mission.  The promise of this story that we heard this morning is that if we join in unity and faithfulness, God will be with us.  If we become the hands and feet of Christ to a world that so desperately needs us, God will be with us.  If we give to help people, without holding anything back, God will be with us and leave us with an abundance.

However, this is not a promise that will come in the absence of pain and struggle, even Jesus had to endure the Cross, but this is a promise that God will be with us and that God’s intention for love, peace, and justice in the world will ultimately prevail.

This is a promise we desperately need if we are going to be faithful in carrying out the call of Christ to join Jesus in hope to the hopeless and a voice to the voiceless and compassion to those in need. We know that this is a promise that Jesus kept with his disciples on that hillside in Galilee and had kept with God’s faithful people over the centuries and will keep with us.

The deeper message of today’s scripture lesson is the miracle of God’s love for the six billion people on our planet today and the miracle that we are called to be partners with God in making fullness of life become a reality today for the world that God loves.

The Time of Judgement

A Sermon on Matthew 13:24-30, 36-4

Last week, we spent time discussing seeds and soil and how both need to be the best they can be to produce the best harvest.  Today we turn our attention to the harvesting of those seeds in yet another agricultural parable by Jesus.

Parables were, and are, wonderful tools for illustrating the idea being put forward by Jesus and others.  Jesus was a master at using parables in his teachings with his disciples and others.  He used examples from everyday life including this one today about weeds being sown in with the healthy plants, but there is always a purpose to the illustrations, and it is our job to discover what those are.

Jesus presents us with a picture of a field of wheat and tells us that this is an idyllic picture of heaven.  While everyone was asleep, some folks came in and sowed some bad seeds to spoil the crop.  Now the question becomes what do we do about this?

These were not ordinary weeds that might grow up between our plants that we spent some much time preparing, no these are the really bad ones, and there are many, many of them.  Since we determined last week that you all have planted things in the ground before you have some knowledge of weeds in your garden.  Weeds are bad and remove much-needed nutrients from the main plants, and if they are not removed, they will eventually take over the entire garden.  But, we use caution when we are removing those plants, so the central plant is not uprooted as well.  Jesus is urging caution here.

You see, as I mentioned already, these are not your average weeds, these weeds look and act just like the wheat that was planted, and it is challenging to distinguish between them, and the farmer is fearful that his crop will be destroyed if an attempt is made to remove the weeds.  He tells them to let it grow together and at harvest time the work will be accomplished.

But this story is not just about our garden, Jesus tells us it is a comparison of the Kingdom of God or, in other words, the church and our own lives.

There is a clear distinction being made here between good and evil and what we are to do about it.  Sometimes our own lives resemble the farmer’s infested field, with weeds and wheat intertwined in our souls, our hearts, and our minds.  Our personal experience may be more subtle as countless distractions derail us. Sometimes our jobs can seem weed infested and under assault. Like the servants in the story today, many people face the challenge of separating the weeds from the wheat in our workplaces.

Jesus faced this same dilemma in his own life. Just before this parable, the Pharisees, the religious leaders of his faith, try to trick him and they begin their plot to destroy him. They look like real leaders, but they are false and deadly as any weed can be.

Jesus and the author of the Gospel today know full well that weeds can infest the community itself. There are many warnings of false messiahs and false prophets and those who lead people astray; these have been described as antagonists in the church.

Church antagonists are the ones who believe in their heart of hearts that they are doing the right thing.  They always complain about how things are being done but never offer any solutions or when asked to serve in leadership decline the offer to assist in making the situation better.  They are the ones who threaten to withdraw their financial support until the community does what they want, the way they want it done, and when the leadership bends to their demands simply continue to demand more.  They are the church bullies that want to decide who is in and who is out of the communion of God and with God as if their lives are so special that God has ordained them for the task. They believe that the church is theirs and that they know better than God how things should be run. We are all aware of these antagonists because at one time or another it has been us.

But the parable also cautions us not to act too quickly or rush to judgment.  We may not always be able to spot the right plant from the wrong plant.  Just as the farmer cautions his servants not to remove the weeds until harvest time to not uproot the good plants along with them. The farmer tells them to be patient and wait for the harvest, and we must do the same in the church.

There is a story of a gardener who was moving plants from one part of the yard to another.  This gardener was in a hurry to get the job done and realized, the next day, which they had, in fact, moved weeds rather than the good plants and had to start all over again.

This parable points out to us the difficulty we have in distinguishing the good from the bad, wheat from weeds, loyal opposition from heresy, healthy conflict from destructive antagonism. The patience that we are being cautioned is not an excuse for inaction or conflict avoidance.  Later, in this same Gospel, Jesus outlines how to deal with poisons behavior within the community (18:15-17). If the behavior continues and does not change, they are to be separated from the community as the Reapers separate weeds from wheat at the harvest.

This may sound harsh and perhaps even unchristian, but Jesus knows what happens when this type of behavior, the weeds in the garden, are not dealt with they will spread and infest other fields. But the parable ends with the knowledge that there is one who is stronger and smarter than the ones who sow the weeds.  We are cautioned to rely on God in our work; the church belongs to God we are just the caretakers of it.

How do we determine the good from the bad, we ask God to direct us and show us and also for guidance how to deal with it.  We should be in constant prayer for the Church and for those whom God has put in leadership both spiritual and temporal of the Church.  Each decision that is made should be made after asking the question if this what God wants us to do?  If we rush to judgment or react too quickly, we might just pull up the good with bad.

God is still speaking to and through His church; we just need to listen.

History Podcasts

I am an avid podcast junkie.  I used to spend hours driving from one place to another on a weekly basis and I was tired of talk radio and commercial radio stations, so I switched to podcasts to keep me entertained.  I have listened to all sorts of podcasts, and even produced and hosted a few, but most recently I have been listening to history podcasts.  Now, there are many good ones out there, but I have selected the ones that I listen to and would highly recommend all of them to you.  I will include links and they all can be found on iTunes or any of the other podcast feeds.

The list is in no particular order although I will start with my favorite.

Civil War Talk Radio
Host: Gerry Prokopowicz, Professor of History at East Carolina University

This podcast is exactly what the name suggests; it is all about the US Civil War.  Prokopowicz interviews authors and others working in the field of Civil War History in a way that is rare these days.  This is a weekly podcast although he takes the summer off.  It is always nice when a new show pops up in my feed.  If you only listen to one show, this is the one to listen to.

Ben Franklin’s World
Host: Dr. Liz Covart, Independent Scholar

Ben Franklin’s World is an early American podcast that has truly grown into one of the greats.  If I had to make one criticism it is that Liz is a bit stiff and scripted during the program reading her dialogue and questions for the guests on the show. However, it is fantastic and continues to get better with each program.  Liz is a master interviewer and really gets into the meat of the subject with her guests.

In the Past Lane
Host: Edward T O’Donnell, Professor of History at Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts

I just came across this one and it is fantastic.  This is more of a general history podcast where the previous two have focused on a specific time or incident in history, In the Past Lane takes a broader view and covers a wide swath of history.  I am just getting into this one but so far I really like it.

Extreme Genes
Host: Scott Fisher

This is for the genealogy nuts, like me, out there. Although it is very commercial, the host takes breaks to shill products, the interviews and other segments are well worth the effort for the genealogist but also for others interested in preservation and history.

HUB History
Hosts: Jake Sconyers & Nikki Stewart

HUB History is a podcast about the history of the Hub of the Universe, Boston Massachusetts.  Jake and Nikki do an amazing job of presenting topics relating to Boston in a very well researched way.  The podcast always starts out with a segment on “this week in Boston history” presenting the historical events of Boston from its founding to present day.  The production quality of this podcast is not as great as some of the others, volume goes up and down, sometimes it’s hard to hear the hosts, etc. But all in all a great podcast.

The Rogue Historian
Host: Keith Harris

Another general history podcast that comes at history from a very entertaining and refreshing perspective.  This podcast pulls no punches and deals with the nitty gritty of history, you know, the stuff we don’t like to talk about.

The Way of Improvement Leads Home
Host: John Fea, Professor of History at Messiah College

The newest of the podcasts on my list this is another general history podcast.  Dr. Fea starts with a monologue of sorts that sets up the topic and he usually interviews and author or historian about the topic at hand.  Dr. Fea has a blog under the same name that is one of the blogs I read daily. (I think I will write a post for my blog about blogs I read, some of them are about blogging.)  I digress, this is another podcast that just keeps getting better.

The JuntoCast
Hosts: Various

This one seems to have stopped production although past episodes are still available.  Centered mostly on early American history, this podcast is hosted by a variety of historians and is probably the most academic of all of the podcasts.  When in production it was a monthly podcast.

Hosts: Various

Backstory began as a program on NPR that subsequently became a podcast.  I am not a frequent listener to this podcast although it still appears in my feed. The focus in general history and this is the most polished production of all of the podcasts.

So there you have it.  Happy listening.  Remember, and this is a much to myself as all of you, if you listen, and enjoy any of these podcasts, take a moment to post a review or drop the host a line.  As a former podcaster, feedback from the audience is most helpful.

When the Faithful Turn on You

Eugene Peterson lectures at University Presbyterian Church in Seattle, Wash., in May 2009. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

I was once told that if you were going to be in pastoral ministry you were going to need thick skin, I learned that lesson the hard way and it appears Eugene Peterson is now learning the same lesson.  The situation I found myself in was not as public as what Peterson is going through but I was amazed at how fast the faithful will turn on you and many of them were people I considered my friends.

Eugene Peterson is a Presbyterian Minister, theologian, and author of many, many books but most know for his adaption of the bible called The Messenger.  In a recent interview with Jonathan Merritt, Peterson was asked about his position on same sex marriage and he appeared to change his position to say that if asked to perform a wedding for a same sex couple he would perform the wedding.  This set off an almost immediate fire storm among the Evangelical world and led to Life Way Christian Stores threatening to pull all of his books off their shelves.  A few days later, Peterson seemed to retract his statements.

All of this because a Christian said that LGBTQ folks should have the same rights as other Christians.  Peterson chose love over hate and got hate turned on his as a result.

In a recent follow up article, David Gushee relates his own experience when the Evangelical Machine turns against you.

If you do decide to make the break, you have to be spiritually ready. You have to know what’s going to happen. You have to count the cost before saying anything. You have to understand that those who stand with scorned and marginalized people will be scorned and marginalized.

You have to realize that whatever abuse you are taking from evangelical authorities is nothing compared to the abuse that LGBTQ people have taken from pastors, teachers, parents, and “Christian friends” every day of their lives.

Then that all has to get connected to your Christian discipleship. You have to reach a place where you see that being abused by religious authorities for standing in solidarity with those they deem unclean is exactly what happened to Jesus, the One whom you have pledged to follow, imitate and obey.

Gushee concludes his article with this advice:

So don’t worry about me, or about the rough week Eugene Peterson had. Do worry about those LGBTQ Christian kids who continue to experience stigma, rejection, and even contempt in their own Christian homes, churches and schools. Worry about what the events of last week taught them.

The Seeds We Sow

Show of hands, how many of you have ever grown anything in the ground?  Okay, so many of you are like me and have, from time to time, planted something in the ground to see if it would grow.  Sometimes it would grow big and tall, and other times it would just wither and die.

In my previous church, I had a rather large garden that I planted all sorts of plants in.  Of course, I had to have tomatoes but also planted a variety of squash and cucumbers.  I was always going to try corn but it never actually happened.

When I first began the garden I just dug out a patch of the earth and planted some stuff, and that worked out okay but not great.  Then I read an article about the benefits of raised beds and enhancing the soil.  So, I went to the Home Depot, and I purchased some lumber, and I built several raised beds.  I was keeping chickens at the same time, so I would compost their output and turn it into the richest soil I had even seen.  Now, too much of a good thing can be bad so trying to find the right balance is necessary.

The garden flourished, but it needed constant tending.  Each day I would spend some time out in my garden weeding and tending to all sorts of things, the more I managed, the better it grew and the better the output was.  If I let it slack, even for one day, the weeds would take over, and all would be lost.

Our gardens are like our spiritual life and today’s Gospel passage points us in that direction.

At first glance, we want to focus, as we are directed, on the seeds that the sower is throwing around.  My first thought is that he is not very careful with his seed if it is not falling on the best ground and he is wasting a lot of money.  I would also guess that he is growing some cover crop like clover or winter wheat and he is not too concerned with where it lands.  Cover crops can be useful as they hide imperfections from the world, but they can also enrich the soil.

But nothing is said about the seed itself of the soil that the sower is sowing the seed in.

A bad seed can ruin everything, in the garden and our spirituality.

When I was gardening, I would select the best plants I could find.  I was never very good at growing things from seed so I would seek out the best plant material.  Plants that were native grown and local are always the best as they are used to what we have around here for soil.  Wrong plant equal bad output it’s just that simple.  Large scale farming is the same.  The farmer selects the seeds by first going through the pile and picking out the bad ones, no sense in wasting time on the wrong things.

But what about the soil?

If the soil is not balanced correctly, nothing will grow.  Soil balance is interesting and if a high yield is what you are seeking then spending time on the soil is the way to go.

At the start of every season, soon after the frost would pass, I would be out in the garden turning the soil and warming it up in the sun.  In the fall I would have turned in the rich compost that had been heating up all summer and now that compost needed to be turned through the whole of the bed.  Turning the soil also introduces air into the equation, and that is important as well.  But the main reason is a hard soil makes it difficult for the new plants to grow.  The tiny, delicate roots have a difficult time if the soil is too hard and water will not penetrate as deep as it should.  Sure, the plant will grow, but if a high yield is what we are striving for, then the soil needs to be at peak performance.

All of this is the same in our spiritual life, and the most important part is that it requires daily care and maintenance.

For some, our spiritual life is like the rock ground.  Sure there is some soil in-between those rocks, and maybe something will grow there if it happens to land.  Some of our spiritual lives are like the pavement.  We are so locked into what we believe that nothing will penetrate that hard outer shell.  Underneath the soil is fertile but the word never actually gets there through that hard surface.

For some, we are like the thicket full of weeds and thorns that when we hear something that just might be different from how we think of things, we choke it off and do not want to hear it.

We are all there and have all been there at one time or another.  This parable is not about the seeds it is not even about the sower; it’s about the soil and how we prepare it.

Just like the soil in my garden the soil of my spiritual life needs constant attention.  I need to introduce new material to it each day and turn it over.  If we grow the same thing, in the same patch of ground, year after year eventually that plant will no longer grow in that spot.  Our spiritual life needs to continually be refreshed and turned so that the output will be at its highest.

So how do we do this?

A simple routine of Scripture reading will go a long way.  If we read Scripture each day, and the amount is not important, the important thing is that we read every day, we will start to notice an improvement.  There are all sorts of helps for us.  There is the Our Daily Bread that we make available.  There are numerous websites that will send you a small portion of Scripture each day, and of course, you can just open the book.  Don’t have one?  Just ask, we have plenty hanging around here and would be happy to give you one.

Listening to sermons in another way to feed the soil, not just mine and not just from people that you like or agree with, listen to a preacher that comes from a different philosophical position that you do.  As much as these guys grind my gears now and again, I do learn something from them, and they do cause me to think and to think outside the box.  Again, putting the same old stuff in will not make the yield any different.

The important thing to remember is that our spiritual life, like our gardens, needs daily maintenance.


Lebanese pastor elected president of World Communion of Reformed Churches

By Amy Eckert

“Here I stand, a Middle Eastern woman in the Pulpit of Luther.” So began the sermon delivered by Rev. Najla Kassab at the General Council worship service in Wittenberg on July 5. Now Kassab is poised to stand at the forefront of the WCRC as the Communion’s next president.

Kassab has a B.A. in Christian Education from the Near East School of Theology and a Masters of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary. Her career has revolved around Christian education at the synod level and, through conferences and workshops, she has encouraged women in ministry for 24 years. The National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon offered Kassab a preaching license in 1993 and, in March 2017, awarded her full pastoral ordination. Kassab has served as a member of the WCRC Executive Committee since 2007. She also hosted the 2015 Executive Committee meeting in Lebanon.

Having spent much of her career encouraging women to enter the ministry of the church, Kassab felt compelled to accept the nomination for president when it was suggested to her at the General Council in Leipzig. It’s a fight that she believes has taken far too long. “We cannot think that a bird can fly with only one wing.”

Standing in Martin Luther’s pulpit to deliver the sermon at Wittenberg’s Stadtkirche gave Kassab an immediate sense of inspiration and empowerment. “This was where Luther first preached,” she said. “It was the perfect place to speak of women’s ordination.”

Just as Martin Luther admonished the 16th century church for failing to live up to biblical teaching, Kassab believes she has been placed in this position at this time to insist the modern church take seriously its responsibilities when it comes to equality and justice.

“Martin Luther is a symbol of speaking up,” said Kassab. “To speak your mind in freedom, that is essential. This is why I said, ‘This could have been Martin Luther’s 96th question to the church. Not why is there a woman in this pulpit, but why did it take so long?’ This is not just a struggle of equality,” said Kassab. “This is a struggle of justice.”

But Kassab, who is a native of Lebanon, believes the most important qualification for her presidency of the WCRC may be her nationality.

“The WCRC talks a lot about justice,” Kassab said. “I come from the Middle East and let me tell you, I know what injustice looks like.”

Kassab’s work frequently takes her to Syria. It’s a calling that carries with it a fair degree of personal danger. But Kassab feels strongly that the Christian church as a whole and the WCRC specifically must assume that risk.

“At times I have to be present to affirm, ‘I am one of you.’ We as a church have to be physically present in places where there is suffering. We have to be present where it aches if we’re going to talk about justice,” she said.

Practically speaking, issues of gender equality and justice will be carried out locally, said the incoming president. Likewise, affirming and celebrating the WCRC’s diversity will play out in local synods. For this reason, Kassab plans to look for ways to strengthen the work done within the WCRC’s regions.

Ultimately, Kassab believes that change will come over time. And, if the WCRC is willing to engage in the work—and engage all of its leaders, both male and female—justice is possible.

“Change is not about documents,” she said. “It requires physical presence. And if we don’t want to be present, well, we should just stop talking about justice.”

As long as she serves as WCRC president, Najla Kassab has every intention of continuing to speak up.


Disciples of Christ elect first woman of color to lead a mainline denomination

Despite all the talk of mainline decline, Teresa Hord Owens, the first woman of color to lead a mainline denomination, is not in survival mode.

“The life that we will find is continuing to be relevant to a society that deeply needs to see hope,” she said.

The Indianapolis-based Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) elected Owens, a descendant of one of Indiana’s oldest free settlements of African Americans, as its general minister and president on Sunday evening. The denomination, which has 600,000 members in the United States and Canada, has been led for 12 years by Sharon Watkins, who at her election in 2005 was the first woman to be top executive of a mainline body.

Sitting in her office as dean of students at the University of Chicago Divinity School, Owens, 57, who is also senior minister of First Christian Church of Downers Grove, Illinois, looked ahead to her six-year term.

Her particular role will be to lead people in efforts where they can agree, especially given the Christian Church’s history of making room for “widely divergent viewpoints concerning ‘nonessentials,’” as denominational literature puts it.

Read the rest here

Sermon: Chosen Journeys

Matthew 11:16-19; 25-30

Several years ago I was with a group of people on a trip and the van we were driving needed gas.  We were in a place that was unfamiliar to all of us, so we followed the signs except, at the bottom of the exit ramp the sign was missing.  One of the passengers used his instincts and said, “take a right, the town is this was so there must be a gas station.”  Well after an hour or so on some tiny country roads, we did find a gas station.

As we were making our way back to the highway and as we were turning onto the on-ramp, another looked out the window and said, “hey look, there was a gas station right there!”  If we had taken a left rather than right at the bottom of the ramp, we would have gassed up and been on our way.  The problem was, the view from where we were was blocked by a large truck, and we could not see what was right in front of us.

I think it is a safe statement to say that we have all been there.  We have all taken that right turn when we should have gone left.  We should have kept quiet rather than opening our mouths.  We should have opened our mouths rather than stay silent. These are all choices that we make along the journey of life, and we are being asked again on this very day, to make another choice.

The reading from the Gospel of Matthew that we just heard opens with reference to a game that was played by Jewish children in the first century.  They would divide up into two groups, one that would pretend to play musical instruments while the other group responded in a manner opposite to the other.  Jesus uses this example to draw a parallel to the Jewish leader who responds wickedly to both John the Baptist being too ascetic and to Jesus being too liberal in mercy and joy.

As I have mentioned before, Jesus was the most critical of the religious leaders of his day and has even called them hypocrites on several occasions.  We called them this because they preached one thing but demanded another of their followers.  In other words, they were preaching love, but they required people to follow a set of rules that was almost impossible to follow, and that they did not support themselves.

The other point that Jesus was making was since the religious leaders could not discredit what he was saying since he was, in fact, preaching the law, they went after his on a personal level and tried to discredit him.  They pointed out that no man of his stature would hang around with drunks, prostitutes, tax collectors, and prostitutes but Jesus was saying, these are the very people that we need to be ministering to and not condemning.

Then the passage takes a turn.  Jesus goes off to pray and thanks God for hiding these things, and by that he meant the truth, from the wise and the intelligent and revealed them to infants.  Let’s unpack this a little because the meaning of all of this is just below the surface.

The wise and intelligent is about the leaders of the temple.  They were in fact very wise and very intelligent in the ways of the law.  They could recite chapter and verse when pointing out someone’s behavior and how it did not fit with their particular interpretation of that law.  But they were so blinded by the letter of the law that they missed the people that were standing right in front of them.  They were so blinded by the rules that they could not see the suffering that this law was causing.

Jesus says that his message was revealed to infants.  Now a casual reading of this passage makes one think that the truth was being told to those in cribs and what not.  Perhaps we are thinking that if the truth is going to be revealed to infants, we better get cracking on a nursery ministry, so we don’t miss out.  Well, it is not an infant in the literal sense but those who understand things like an infant or small child.  We are not born with prejudice, we learn it, we are taught it.  Children are pure in this sense, and that is the point that Jesus is making.  The wise and intelligent could not see what was right in front of them, but the infant can and does.

When Jesus turns away from the people gathered and lifted a prayer to God, we begin to realize how clearly his focus is centered, it is not centered on the powerful, the wise, and the intelligent ones who, so often attract our attention, but on the infants on those who are far from the places of influence and that so long to have that influence.  Jesus is telling us not to be attracted to those in power, but just like the game that opened this passage we are to be working for and with the opposite of those with power, prestige, and money.  We are to work with and advocate for those on the margins, just as Jesus did.  He spoke to authority and influence, but when he did it was to advocate for those with nothing.

“Righteousness always requires favoring and advocating for the innocent, the oppressed, the poor, the widows, the orphans, and the alien. God always stands unconditionally and passionately on this side and on this side alone against the lofty on behalf of the lowly; against those who already enjoy right and privilege and in the name of those who are denied and deprived of it.” Karl Barth

The saving word of the Gospel is understood best when it is locked in the midst of the experience of the powerless and the disenfranchised.

The Gospel passage ends with the invitation to come and take up his yoke.  A yoke is that wooden structure that is placed on an ox or other beasts of burden to assist them in pulling heavy objects.  The yoke is custom made to each animal after careful measurement and fitting over several weeks of work by the carpenter.  There is a story that in his carpenter shop in Nazareth, Jesus and his stepfather Joseph, made some of the perfect fitting yokes, in fact, it was what they were known for, and people would come from miles around to have their oxen fit.

His yoke is made easy because it is fit just for you.  His yoke is made easy because he has carefully and skillfully fit it to you to help you with your burdens.  This is not some off the shelf yoke at the bargain yoke store down the street, no, this is a custom fit yoke that has come after many fittings to make sure it fits just right, and it is comfortable.

The Gospel passage ends with an invitation to come, not to the rich and powerful, although they are invited as well, not sit in the choice seats but to be one among many.  Jesus says come, all who are weary, those who are made weary by the world that fails to comprehend the burden of injustice.  The invitation is made to take up his yoke that will be made easy by the heavenly powers coming to the aide of those who the world wants us to shun and ignore. The invitation today is for you and for me to come and to take up his yoke, the one he has custom fit for us, and to carry our burdens and to help others carry theirs.

Some Things I Have Been Reading This Week

Here are just a few things that caught my eye this past week on the blogs.

Abraham Lincoln on “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions”

ECW Weekender: Gettysburg Field Hospital Sites

Fighting at Monocacy’s Thomas Farm

Rod Dreher: It’s “grotesque idolatry”

Dorhauer outlines new framework for pursuing love and justice as a unified church

America, a Christian Nation? What Does that Mean?

I am fascinated by the assumption that America was founded as a Christian nation.  Sure, many of the “founders” were Christian, Protestant Christian mind you, but did they have a sense that what there we trying to do was to found some sort of Christian utopia?  I am not so sure.

Writing for the Washington Post on the 4th of July, historian Sam Haselby asks the question I have often asked, what does it mean when we say that America was founded as a Christian nation?

When today’s Christian nationalists look back at the past two centuries of history, they see secular ideologies at the root of conflict and war. For Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, however, religion lay as the root cause of bloodshed and tyranny. They stood, in profound ways, closer to Martin Luther, and Galileo, than we do to them. Jefferson described his and Madison’s attempts in the 1780s to establish religious freedom in Virginia as “the severest contests in which I have ever been engaged.” Neither the Declaration of Independence nor the U.S. Constitution, the country’s charter documents, are partial to Christianity. The Declaration acknowledges the authority of “the Laws of Nature” and the deists’ beloved “Nature’s God.” Of the 27 grievances against the British Crown that the Declaration puts forward, not one concerns religion.  Likewise, the Constitution merely recognizes “freedom of religion”; it doesn’t endorse Christianity — it doesn’t even mention it. These omissions present today’s Christian nationalists with a real awkwardness. It has forced advocates of the “Christian nation” or “Judeo-Christian nation” into strained textual exegeses attributing immense significance to the use of the Christian calendar for example, or elaborate justifications as to why a generation of men and women who said everything somehow left this important thing unsaid.

Read the rest here

If you are interested in this topic of American Christianity I might suggest the book, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation by Messiah College History Professor John Fea.