Posts Tagged ‘Gospel of Matthew’

Sunset over the Sea of Galilee

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After a Bible study about one of Jesus’ sea crossings, one of our members asked for a sermon about “the other side.”  This is what I came up with for our congregation’s homecoming service on September 25.  This sermon focuses on the call to go.  Something needing ongoing prayerful thought and creativity: what are some alternate routes to reach the other side?

A Rough Ride to the Other Side
A Sermon on Matthew 14:22-33, Matthew 8:23-9:1 and Romans 10: 12-15

When Jesus insisted that his disciples get in the boat and head for the other side, they didn’t put up any argument.  They knew where he was coming from.  They knew the need that waited on the other side.  They didn’t know exactly what they would find, but it would be some form of what they had seen already: perhaps another hungry crowd like the one they had just left.  Definitely they would see lots of sick people, and they might even see a really fearful situation like what they had seen in Gerasa: demon-possessed people living in the place of the dead—the cemetery.

The disciples also didn’t argue about setting out because Jesus had sent them out before with a commission.  In Matthew 10 he told them:
• Go and proclaim the good news
• Cure the sick
• Raise the dead
• Cleanse the lepers
• Cast out demons.

They could hear the urgency in Jesus’ voice, the same urgency that Paul expressed later in this way: How can people call on Jesus if they haven’t put their trust in him?  And how can they put their trust in him if they haven’t heard of him?  And how can they hear unless somebody goes and tells them?

No, the disciples didn’t put up an argument.

But deep in the night, far from the shore, I am sure they wished they had.  Because of the topography at the Sea of Galilee, windstorms can quickly come up with little or no warning.  It happens because the Sea itself is down in a bottom, 700 feet below sea level, while the hills around the sea soar up to 1200 feet above sea level.  Air cools off quickly at the top and rushes down to take the place of warmer air rising up off the sea.  The disciples didn’t have a barometer to detect the subtle changes in air pressure that might have warned them that a storm was forming.

They were hit without warning, and this was a bad one.  Even the most seasoned sailors among them didn’t have the stomach for this churning sea.  In the Greek Matthew says that the waves tortured the boat.

And being just as human as anyone else, the disciples probably “lost it” as they struggled to hang on.  I can imagine them shouting at each other over the noise of the storm.  We should have rested in port when the crowd dispersed!  Andrew, James and John, you’re the professionals in this bunch.  How come you didn’t notice that the wind was changing?  Peter, how come you didn’t speak up?  I knew I didn’t like the looks of those clouds I saw on the horizon!  But the wind carried their voices away. (more…)


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When I began this blog last October, I published a sermon on this week’s Gospel text (RCL 17A), Matthew 13:31-33.  Here’s a link to that sermon.  Hint: mustard weeds (yes, I said weeds) and heaven leaven are unstoppable.

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Lolium temulentum, Poaceae, Darnel, Cockle, ha...

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Here is a sermon on the gospel lesson for Ordinary 16A, the parable of the wheat and the weeds.  We need to beware when we find ourselves wanting to take spiritual and ecclesiastical weedeaters to one another.  Take a look at the photograph on the right.  What is this?  Wheat or weeds?

Weed Control
A Sermon on Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Everybody within earshot of Jesus could instantly imagine the weed-infested field.  What a vivid way to picture the way life is!  Ever since the Garden of Eden, people have been asking, “How did these weeds get in here?  How did decay and death get in here?  How did sin sneak its way in and sorrow twine itself around our joy?”  Weeds: they’re what ought not to be there.

But there’s another truth about weeds: one person’s weed may be another person’s flower.  The experts in God’s sacred law concluded that Jesus, his teachings, and his followers were weeds.  And as Jesus told this parable and others about seeds and growing and fruit, these experts—the leaders of the faith—were escalating their campaign of weed control against him.

They looked for every opportunity to question, to criticize, to nip Jesus’ teachings in the bud.  Why?  They sincerely believed that Jesus was offending against God’s holy laws and condoning sin.  Mixing with the impure made you impure, they believed.  Breaking the Sabbath was an insult to God.  Jesus was leading people astray, the leaders believed.  He was a weed, and by chapter 12 of Matthew they had already decided that he needed to be eradicated.

Meanwhile, Jesus’ disciples had their own ideas about who the weeds were.  Those who rejected Jesus were the weeds in their eyes.  They themselves recommended getting out the weedeaters.  Once, for example, when a Samaritan village refused to receive Jesus because he was headed for Jerusalem, James and John said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” (Luke 9:54).  That’s one way to deal with weeds: burn them like poison ivy. (more…)

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Tilted Sunrisephoto © 2009 Yogendra Joshi | more info (via: Wylio)

Once you start looking through the lens of Easter, everything looks tilted God-ward.  Blessings to you all as we approach Easter again.

A Seismic Shift
A Sermon on Matthew 27:50-28:20
Easter—The Resurrection of the Lord

“Okay,” Pilate agreed with the chief priests and Pharisees.  “Take a guard.  Go and make the tomb as secure as you know how.”  Something had stirred up their fears.  They realized that Jesus might be even more dangerous to them dead than alive!  Was this an afterthought, or did the Good Friday earthquake shake them up as it had the executioners?

Something certainly had shaken them up.  On Saturday the religious leaders hurried to see Pontius Pilate.  Notice: it was the Sabbath, and it was unlawful to visit Pilate on the Sabbath, and unlawful at any time to go into his house.  Their anxiety was so great that they were willing to break the very Sabbath law that they condemned Jesus for breaking.  “Jesus may be dead,” they told Pilate, “but he said he would be raised to life three days later.  His disciples might go steal his body, then spread a rumor that he has been raised.  This lie would be even worse than the first one.  That tomb’s got to stay shut,” they insisted.  “You’ve got to make sure that nobody and no thing opens it!”  In other words, they needed that tomb to be earthquake proof.

I recently learned that the apocryphal Gospel of Peter, one of the New Testament era books that didn’t make it into the Bible, pictures the sealing of the tomb.  It says that the religious authorities all joined the guards in keeping watch over the tomb, and that they put not just one, but seven seals on it.  Seven—the perfect number—and it was like multiple locks on a door: deadbolts, chains, sliding bars, like multiple barriers to keep somebody out, or else keep somebody else in.  All eyes were on that tomb.

As Sunday dawned there was nothing Mary Magdalene and the other Mary could do but look.  They were helpless.  Matthew highlights their helplessness because he says not a word about them bringing spices and ointments to anoint Jesus’ body.  He says they just came to look.  Look.  Remember.  Cry.  Maybe start finding a way to move on.

It had been beautiful while it lasted: the dream of the kingdom of heaven.  Healing. Hope.  Life as God intended.  Why did Jesus have to die?  Why did he have to be crushed?  Seems like the world is always tilted in favor of the powerful.  The ones with the money win.  The ones with the weapons win.  They always seem to get what they want.  Dreamers like Jesus are a threat to people’s empires.  The lowly don’t want to stay in their place when a dreamer like Jesus catches their imaginations.  Dreamers threaten stability.  Dreamers are troublemakers.  They must die.  This world seems inevitably slanted, skewed, shifted towards darkness, towards pain, sickness, death.  Sometimes it seems that only the darkness is really real.  Light is a temporary illusion.  Death always wins.

Nobody was going to open that grave that Sunday morning, and especially not these empty-handed women.  But they could look and remember.  Suddenly the ground started rocking and shifting beneath their feet.  Another earthquake, a big one on the Richter scale!  And at that moment, God’s shining angel descended, rolled back the stone, and sat on it like a conqueror.  The guards trembled with terror, fainted dead away.  The shocked women were also frightened, but they kept their wits about them, and heard the angel say what angels always say when they bring God’s message:  “Don’t be afraid.”  “Don’t be afraid,” he said.  “I know you’re looking for Jesus who was crucified.  He’s not here.  He has been raised just as he said.  Come see where he lay.  Go quickly now, and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from death and now he is going to Galilee ahead of you.  There you will see him.’”  Afraid and joyful at the same time, they hurried off.

Matthew wants us to understand that the death and resurrection of Jesus was an earthquaking, earthshaking event.  It was a seismic shift.  The very ground those women stood on tilted in the other direction.  (more…)

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Judas' regret

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If you don’t plan to preach on John 13 for Maundy Thursday, here is an alternative from Matthew 26 and 27 on the haunting story of Judas.

Hand Over the Rope
A Sermon for Maundy Thursday
Based on Matthew 26:14-32 and Matthew 27:3-10

Suddenly it all came clear.  Judas’ plan had gone horribly awry!  He had only intended to push Jesus to act.  A confrontation with the authorities, reasoned Judas, would prompt Jesus to quit waiting around and launch the new kingdom of Israel.  But now Jesus was condemned to die for sins he never committed, and the blood was all over Judas’ hands.

The guilt was crushing.  Judas could scarcely breathe.  “Hurry…must hurry!  Must stop this thing,” he said to himself over and over.  He clutched a small pouch.  The thirty pieces of silver inside burned his hand.

When Judas reached the chief priests and elders, he pushed his way in.  “Jesus is innocent!” he cried.  “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.”

“What do we care about that?” they answered.  “That’s your business.”

Jesus had never had a chance!  The authorities had never been interested in conferring with Jesus.  They had no intention of giving serious consideration to anything he had to say.  The priests and elders only wanted to destroy Jesus, and Judas had played right into their hands.

Judas couldn’t get rid of the blood money fast enough. He hurled the coins into the temple and hurried away.  Would someone find them and perhaps use them for good?

No hope!  No hope!  The words pounded in his head.  No way to turn back the clock.  There was no way to make it right, no way to make up for his sin even partially.  Judas’ sin condemned him.  Guilty.  Guilty forever!  Sick with despair, Judas found a piece of rope, secured one end, looped the other around his neck, and jumped.

I once read of a congregation that built a small prayer chapel and placed twelve chairs in it, one for each of the apostles.  The chair marked “Judas” became well worn because it was the most often used.  Through the ages many Christians have recognized themselves in Judas for their own betrayals of Christ.  And many have responded to their guilt in the same way, punishing themselves, condemning themselves.

A few have done so quite literally.  In the Middle Ages, for example, it was common to see groups of people whipping themselves and each other, hoping that this punishment would make God take away the Black Death plague.

Most now, though, punish themselves with emotional ropes and whips.  Endlessly rehearsing regrets for wrongs, real, and some just imagined.  Picking at the scabs on the sore places in their memories.  Confessing again and again.  Piling good work upon good work, hoping God will relent.

None of these self-imposed remedies offers more than temporary relief.  The guilt always comes back.  We have sinned, we have betrayed the innocent blood of Christ, and we can’t do a thing to fix it.

If only Judas hadn’t found that piece of rope.  If only he had paused long enough to think, to reflect on three years spent with Jesus, to pray.  That might have made the difference.

If only Judas had paused to remember what just happened at that Last Supper.  Jesus had obviously been aware of Judas’ scheme.  But instead of turning Judas away from the table, Jesus still welcomed him.  Jesus had given all the disciples the bread, with the words, “This is my body.”  He had offered them all—even Judas—the cup, with the words, “This cup is my blood, poured out for many for the forgiveness of sin.”  What was about to happen to Jesus was for their forgiveness—all of them!  “All of you drink this,” Jesus insisted.

Then he pointed out that they would all, every last one, betray him.  Every last one of those disciples would soon be in great need of the cup of forgiveness.  Guilty, one and all!

Eleven disciples waited, turned back to Jesus, and did eventually drink the cup of forgiveness.  But not Judas.  He hurried to the gallows.  He missed the point of Jesus’ life.  He missed the meaning of the cross.  He ignored the invitation to the table, the invitation that still stands.

“Come, everybody, drink the cup of forgiveness,” Jesus insists.  “Take this cup of my blood in your hands, drink, and you will be clean!”

Come, people of God!  Come, all who see yourself in Judas’s chair.  Hand over your ropes and whips.  Stop the punishment.  Stop the condemnation.  Hand over your regrets to Jesus, and if you find yourself pulling them back, hand them over to him again.  Don’t go to the gallows!  Come to the table!

Take Jesus’ cup of forgiveness into your hands and drink it.  Take the cup of salvation into your hands and drink it.  Hold it.  Cherish it.  Drink it.  All of you!

“Do this in remembrance of me!”

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People birdwatching on the Barrier Island area...

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The heavens declare the glory of God, but so do the birds and the lilies.  Jesus urges us to look closely. They also declare the care and compassion of God.

Bird Watching
A Sermon on Genesis 1:1-2:4 and Matthew 6:25-34

There’s a difference between a healthy concern and a worry that eats at you.  Healthy concern leads to intelligent, prudent action, like retirement planning.  It is both wise and loving to plan ahead for retirement.  It’s also good stewardship of the resources that God has entrusted to us.   Healthy concern prompts us to use our heads.  Healthy concern prompts us to look into things and to check on people to see if we can help.  Healthy concern helps us put head and heart together as we love God and love each other.

But unhealthy worry looks like this: dithering and hand-wringing. Sweating small stuff such as whether or not the spice bottles in the kitchen are in alphabetical order, and fear that somebody might notice.  In severe form, unhealthy worry grabs hold of our minds, and strangles our thinking.  We can’t think straight.   This kind of worry will make a talented student believe that a B is the equivalent of an F.  It makes small mistakes seem like huge catastrophes.  It makes us say things we regret.  This kind of worry makes it hard to see anything positive in a situation.   You’re stuck wearing a pair of dark glass you can’t take off.  Worry makes people feel guilty about things they are in no ways responsible for.  Worry stresses people out and wears them out, with the end result being that they believe “I can’t cope now,” or “I won’t be able to cope in the future.”  Unhealthy worry is itself a source of great suffering.

When worry incapacitates people, the problem is obvious.  But in less severe forms worry doesn’t incapacitate.  It just has a hindering effect.  It holds people back.  What about good people who decide that they can’t afford to be generous until they save up just a little more for themselves, just to be a little more secure.  What about churchgoing people who profess to trust God, but in their heart of hearts what they really believe and what they act on is the belief that the only person I can really depend on is me, myself and I.  Security is what I put away for myself.

Big or small, when worry has the upper hand, a person’s eyes are focused mainly inward, on him-or-herself, and it’s hard to think of anything else.  Sometimes we get desperate to protect ourselves.  The heart of the worry is often something like this: I’m going to lose out.  I’m going to get hurt.  I’m going to be exposed.  I’m going to be criticized.  I’m going to look bad in somebody’s eyes.  And I can’t handle that.

When we get in that state, “His Eye is On the Sparrow” is just a pretty song.  (more…)

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LUKE 23:34

Image by April J. Gazmen via Flickr

The Sermon on the Mount challenges us with the kind of “unnatural” behavior God expects from citizens of the Kingdom. Here is a sermon that I wrote in March, 2002 about the challenge of turning the other cheek and loving the enemy.  2002, of course, followed 2001

Regarding the Enemy
A Sermon on Matthew 5:38-48
(With allusions to Ephesians 4:22-5:2 and Romans 12:9-21)

In those days, the name Jesus was a common name.  In fact, there is another Jesus in the gospels.  He appears during the trial of our Savior in Matthew 27, and his name is Jesus Barabbas.  Jesus Barabbas was a violent revolutionary, one of many who were bent on using any means necessary to force the Roman boot off the necks of the people of Palestine.

Under Roman occupation, Judeans, Galileans and all the rest of the people of Palestine bore a more painful tax burden than we Americans have ever experienced.  Roman soldiers were all about.  At any time they could force civilians to do some job for them, and there was no right to say no.  The Romans came down hard on any act of resistance.  Right around the time of our Savior Jesus’ birth, for example, a rebel broke into the Roman arsenal in Sepphoris, just a few miles from Jesus’ home town, Nazareth, and looted it to arm a band of revolutionaries.  The Romans destroyed the town and crucified two thousand Jews who had participated in the uprising (Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew, p. 60).

This didn’t deter the resistance movement one bit.  People hated the Romans, and many gave revolutionaries and even terrorists like Jesus Barabbas a sympathetic ear.  At the time of the arrest of Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus Barabbas was in prison for murder.

With that kind of history, with brutality so near, and with people’s hearts filled with pain and anger, how can Jesus of Nazareth even dare to suggest offering the other cheek, and going the second mile for the oppressor, and letting somebody have the shirt off your back as well as your coat, and loving and praying for the enemy?  Jesus, don’t you know that’s the way to get run over?  Are you telling us to cave in to evil?  Let the enemy get away with this? (more…)

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Leaving Home

Fisher of Men (do you see what i did there?!)

Image by triplej* via Flickr

I wrote this sermon at a time when several of our Morton children were launching their lives as young adults.  We certainly can imagine this Sunday’s Gospel lesson from the point of view of Zebedee as he watched his sons leave home with Jesus.   But it’s not only the young that are called to leave home.  Just ask Abraham and Sarah.  Just ask a church that’s trying to figure out where God wants it to go.

Leaving Home
A Sermon on Matthew 4:12-25

Jesus knows all about leaving home.  He knew what he was asking of Peter, Andrew, James and John and asking of their families.  Jesus had recently left home himself.  Until he was about thirty—middle aged in that day, Jesus lived at home in Nazareth.  Carpentry was his trade.  It was a good, honest, working class life.  The movie The Passion of the Christ imagines Jesus remembering that life.  It shows a flashback of Mary coming to call Jesus to a meal, and the two of them joking together about the table Jesus was making.

Matthew says that hearing about John the Baptist’s being thrown into prison was what prompted Jesus to move.  He moved some twenty miles away to the city of Capernaum on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee, which happened to be a place where you could meet all kinds of people, Jewish and Gentile.  Luke tells us another reason for Jesus’ leaving home: rejection.  When Jesus preached a challenging sermon in the synagogue at Nazareth, the home folks angrily chased him to the edge of a cliff, but he slipped away.

Moving to Capernaum was a big move.  Twenty miles was too far away to see his mother and other family members very often.  When Jesus saw the two pairs of brothers at the lakeshore, and called them to leave home and follow him, he knew what he was asking of them.  Peter, Andrew, James and John would have to leave their family businesses; other hands would be needed to take their place.  They would leave a secure, steady income, predictable schedules, familiar routines.  They would literally leave their families.  When Jesus called these brothers to leave, he was also calling their families to let them go, to release them, and rearrange the way they did things at home and work.  “Follow me,” Jesus said.  And immediately they left their nets, their boats and their families and went with him.  James and John left their father Zebedee.

Zebedee stood and watched his children go.  How we can feel for him.  Our children are literally leaving home now, seeking to follow Jesus’ call in study and in work, in marriage and families of their own.  One child of our congregation is getting married on in April, and then next fall, another child will be leaving for Chapel Hill. We rejoice to think of how Christ is using our children where they are now, and wherever he takes them in the future.  God’s got wonderful purposes for each and every one, reaching out to serve God and neighbor with their own unique gifts.  But I think those are tears I see sliding out of the corners of Zebedee’s eyes, don’t you?  Pass the kleenex. (more…)

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Floor mosaic Strage degli Innocenti (Slaughter...

Matteo di Giovanni, floor mosaic, Cathedral of Siena (detail)

The Gospel lesson for the First Sunday after Christmas in Year A is filled with pain, and so are many people’s hearts this Christmas.  Here is a sermon I preached on this text in January of 2002.  Circumstances made it necessary to delay this sermon until Baptism of the Lord, which was also a communion Sunday for us.

Rachel’s Tears
A Sermon on Matthew 2:13-23 with allusions to Isaiah 25:6-9 and Revelation 21:1-4

One person can cause unbelievable amounts of pain, especially if a few people cooperate and a lot of people look the other way.  No wonder all Jerusalem was disturbed when the Wise Men brought the news of a baby King of the Jews.  All Jerusalem knew what King Herod was capable of if he felt there was the least threat to his position.  Already he had ordered the execution of one of his wives, her mother, several of his sons, three hundred of his court officials, and countless others.  Later, shortly before his death, Herod ordered the imprisonment of a number of the most distinguished citizens of Jerusalem.  At the moment of his death, all these innocents were killed, so that there would be weeping and wailing in Judea.  Herod was well aware that no one would mourn his passing.

What did the lives of the children of Bethlehem matter to Herod?  Compared to the rivers of blood he had already spilled, what did he care about the blood of the twenty or so infants and toddlers that lived in the village?  When the Wise Men failed to return with the intelligence Herod needed to zero in on Jesus, he ordered his soldiers to search out and destroy every child in Bethlehem age two and under.  Jesus would surely be among them.

In a dream, Joseph received a warning about this evil plan.  In a flash he was up, waking Mary, and hurrying to pack a few essentials.  There was no time for more.  In the dead of night they slipped away as quietly and as quickly as they could, leaving everything behind.  Now they were refugees.  Now they would have to find a way to survive in a strange land.  Joseph would have to start all over again: find food, find shelter, find work.  Jesus’ earliest memories would be not of home, but of Egypt.

Soon there was weeping and wailing all over Bethlehem.  (more…)

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Rech St.Luzia Fenster742

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There is a shepherd in Matthew’s Christmas story, and it is easy to read right over him.  Here is a Christmas sermon that points him out.

Our Shepherd Is Born
A Sermon on Matthew 2:6, Matthew 9:35-36, and Luke 2, with allusions to Isaiah 40 and Ezekiel 34.

If the people are sheep and the leaders are shepherds, then the world Jesus was born into was struggling under the rule of two very bad shepherds.   The propaganda of the day declared that Caesar Augustus is son of God, lord and savior and bringer of peace on earth.  You can still see this message etched in stone in Roman ruins.  What Rome called “peace” could be more accurately called “forced order.”  Maybe it was a kind of peace, but what it means for the people was relentless oppressive taxation.  It meant the threat of torture and death.  Crucified bodies lined the roads—the message being: this will happen to you if you don’t cooperate.  The Empire jerked all its subject peoples around.  That’s what’s happening when Joseph hitches up his donkey, lifts a very pregnant Mary up on it, and leads it the hundred miles or so from Nazareth to Bethlehem to register.  Roman orders.

King Herod was a henchman to the Romans.  Rome ceded some local authority to him, and he guarded it jealously.  History books list him as Herod the Great because he was a most impressive builder.  Under Herod the majestic temple in Jerusalem that Jesus visited was built.   Its remnants are still visible.  The Wailing Wall is left from Herod’s temple.  But Herod was also a butcher.  He assassinated members of his own family that might pose any challenge to him.  It was nothing to him to order the slaughter of Bethlehem’s little boys.  It was all in the name of security.  His.

Bad shepherds were nothing new.  Through the centuries people longed for a good shepherd, one who would feed the flock, not eat the flock.  One who could carry the flock, not exploit the flock.  One who would gently lead, not jerk people around.  One who would strengthen the weak, heal the sick, bind up the injured, bring back the strayed, seek the lost, feed the hungry. (more…)

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