John 13:1-17, 31-35 – Maundy Thursday

Welcome, friends. The Gospel of John, chapter 13, provides the last words and final actions of Jesus Christ for his disciples. And it all centers in humble love. Click the videos below, and let us observe and remember…

Maundy Thursday, Pastor Tim Ehrhardt
Behold the Lamb (Communion Hymn) – sung by Keith & Kristyn Getty, words by Stuart Townsend, 2009

Holy God, you give us this meal of bread and wine in which we celebrate your great compassion; grant that we may work with you to fulfil our prayers, and to love and serve others as Christ has loved us; this we ask through Jesus Christ our Redeemer, who is alive with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Romans 2:1-11 – Against Condemning Others

You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. So, when you, a mere human being, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment? Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance, and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?

But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. God “will repay each person according to what they have done.” To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor, and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For God does not show favoritism. (NIV)

The Apostle Paul, writing to the Church at Rome, merely upheld the teaching of his Lord Jesus, who said:

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.” (Matthew 7:1-2, NRSV)

Although most people would affirm that showing favoritism is a bad thing, in practice we have a difficult time avoiding it – especially in an election season, like the one in the United States. Political mudslinging is (unfortunately) a time-honored American tradition. And so is religious judgmentalism.

Some of the most emotionally laden vitriol comes from folks who are so heavily entrenched in their religious convictions that they believe any deviation from their way of belief is worthy of scathing criticism.

People, however, do not change because someone criticizes or judges them. They experience transformation through basic divine and human kindness. As a hospital chaplain in a behavioral health unit, I affirm this to be true. Many patients have been told repeatedly by family or friends to stop doing something, get with it, move on, wake up, etc. – all with the condescending edge of judgment. Yet, when someone takes notice, is curious about them, offers helpful encouragement and a listening ear without trying to fix, souls become open to receiving the healing grace of love and truth.

God shows no partiality, and neither should we. God is right, just, and fair in all dealings with everyone. The Lord judges according to divine standards of righteousness and mercy, no matter one’s race, ethnicity, gender, economic status, or social standing. And it is all laced with the love and compassion of Christ.

Christians are not exempt or given a pass on being judgmental. Our own unhealthy practices, bad habits, and angry outbursts will be treated just like any non-Christian by God. In a time when decrying the moral condition of our world is nearly a spectator sport, the New Testament lesson for today reminds us that we must first be concerned for the condition of our own hearts before we can point the finger at another.

We all equally stand in need of God’s grace in Jesus.  There is a symbiotic relationship between our actions and the state of our hearts.  A soft and tender heart toward God leads to obedience; disobedience hardens the heart and leads to God’s wrath, no matter the individual.

So, it will help if we all faithfully engage in daily spiritual practices which keep our hearts attentive and alert to God’s will and way.  No matter how busy we are, or how we feel, to forego or ignore the Word of God and prayer on a regular basis will slowly calcify our hearts and render them unable to respond rightly to grace.  Instead, we can drink deeply of the gospel throughout every day so that we may experience peace.

Judgmentalism, favoritism, and cronyism all begin to melt away when we pick up the tools of empathy, compassion, understanding, and acceptance – using them to forge connections and supportive encouragement. It takes little to no practice to bludgeon someone with condemning criticism. However, it takes repeated practice to speak and act with grace, mercy, and peace, especially when we are stressed and/or anxious about our surrounding circumstances.

Instead of judgment, observe and be curious. Seek more information. Expand the gap between observation and conclusion. The ability to have an awareness of one’s own emotions, to be mindful of self and surroundings, and to do it all with neither criticism nor judgment is perhaps the highest form of intelligence and spirituality.

It is kindness which leads others to repentance, not condemnation. Grace has the final word, not judgment. So, let us be blessed through a gentle spirit which spreads the goodness of God throughout the world.

O God, thank you for the gift of prayer and the grace of your Word.  May it seep deep down into my heart so that I am compassionate and kind, just like Jesus.  Amen.

Matthew 15:32-39 – Feeding the Four Thousand

Jesus Feeds the 4000
Jesus Feeds the 4000 by Laura James

Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. I do not want to send them away hungry, or they may collapse on the way.”

His disciples answered, “Where could we get enough bread in this remote place to feed such a crowd?”

“How many loaves do you have?” Jesus asked.

“Seven,” they replied, “and a few small fish.”

He told the crowd to sit down on the ground. Then he took the seven loaves and the fish, and when he had given thanks, he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and they in turn to the people. They all ate and were satisfied. Afterward the disciples picked up seven basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. The number of those who ate was four thousand men, besides women and children. After Jesus had sent the crowd away, he got into the boat and went to the vicinity of Magadan. (NIV)

Through the event of Christ miraculously feeding more than four-thousand people, the Christian tradition embraces a living, ascended, and glorified Jesus who still looks to feed those in need. Furthermore, just as Christ had his disciples participate in the miracle, so he still wants to use us today in feeding the world. It is therefore necessary that we work on aligning our resources – our emotional energy, our money, our service – toward reaching out to people who are hungry, both physically and spiritually.

Jesus did just that in feeding thousands of people. He organized his disciples for a miracle even though they failed to understand what he was doing until he did it. The disciples, bless their head scratching, wondered how the vast throng of people were going to be fed, even though they had already participated in the feeding of the five thousand (Matthew 14:13-21). The disciples sarcastically responded to Jesus, “Where could we get enough bread in this remote place to feed such a crowd?”  Maybe they were less thick-headed and more hard-hearted. You see, unlike the previous feeding miracle, this one took place in the Gentile territory of Tyre and Sidon.

It appears the disciples were having a hard time with Jesus using his efforts, compassion, and miracles for Gentiles (non-Jewish people) instead of Jews. It could be that they were thinking Jesus should stand for holiness by being as far apart from pagans as they can get. Besides, it wasn’t as if there weren’t any hungry people among their own Jewish people. Maybe they were thinking: “Shouldn’t the miraculous and divine resources be better utilized in keeping them within the Jewish community? After all, the gentile Romans oversee the land. Couldn’t they take care of the needy? Is this really our responsibility?”

Jesus would have none of that kind of thinking. Christ most certainly could have avoided the Gentiles if he wanted to; but he didn’t. Jesus could have fed the people and done a miracle without the involvement of his Jewish disciples, but he didn’t. Jesus wanted his disciples to be part of the miracle through distributing the bread and fish for the people to eat.  Jesus would have nothing to do with his Jewish disciples avoiding the Gentile people.  He wanted the disciples to meaningfully connect with the hungry people.

I wonder whom Jesus wants us to meaningfully connect with. I am curious if Christ is looking to align his divine resources for people in our lives – and to use us as the means of a miracle. Perhaps the people who are quite different from us are the ones we are to feed. I am wondering how we view such persons. If we tend to freight our language about them in sarcasm, perhaps that is a clue to our own implicit or unconscious bias.

Back in the 1980’s and 1990’s, I had many conversations and dialogues with Christians about AIDS and the gay community. I am saddened that the pervasive attitude I encountered at the time was how gays and lesbians were ruining our society (among other attitudes not worth repeating). Instead of seeing them through the eyes of the compassionate Jesus and seizing an opportunity to love an entire community of people, the discussions were more about how to keep “homosexuality” and the “gay disease” out of church. The hospitals at that time had wards of persons dying from HIV, and few Christians present to bring the compassionate resources of Jesus to them. Withholding spiritual or physical food from people in need, no matter who they are, is not the way of the Lord Jesus – the One who feeds and heals. However, giving the grace of food and fellowship to all in need emulates the compassion of Jesus. Indeed, there is always room at the Table.

Table of Hope by Joey Velasco
“Table of Hope” by Joey Velasco

Jesus not only meets the needs of all kinds of people, he also gives lavishly so that the supply is more than enough. The resources of grace will never run out; there is always enough. I hope our legacy to the people of this earth is that there is always enough grace from us because we have ourselves received grace from the Lord Jesus.

Most folks, especially the poor, rarely have their needs met through rational ethereal arguments and pious pronouncements of truth. And their needs cannot be met if available resources are placed on the outside of their access to them due to existing attitudes about poverty and/or particular people groups. The needs of people are met through non-judgmental compassion which finds a way to connect them with food, both physical and spiritual, even if it takes a miracle to happen.

God Almighty, the One who sustains all, we ask you to pour your powerful Spirit into all who are empty this day. Fill the hearts of persons who are troubled. Fill the minds of people who are confused. Fill the stomachs of your children who are hungry. Fill the souls of people who are feeling lost. Fill the lives of all who need you, but do not know you. May your Spirit fill us all to overflowing, dear Lord, and may we be inspired to share our abundance with others so that there will be no more empty hearts and minds, stomachs, and souls. We pray all this in the name of Jesus Christ, who fills lives with your endless grace. Amen.

Luke 11:53-12:3 – Be Careful How You Bake

bad bread

When Jesus went outside, the Pharisees and the teachers of the law began to oppose him fiercely and to besiege him with questions, waiting to catch him in something he might say.

Meanwhile, when a crowd of many thousands had gathered, so that they were trampling on one another, Jesus began to speak first to his disciples, saying: “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed nor hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs. (NIV)

One Sunday, many years ago when I was a young pastor, I went to a church to fill-in and preach sermons both in the morning and evening. I had believed my morning sermon went quite well, until I walked into the church building for the evening sermon only to have the deacon at the door exclaim to me, “Man, did you stir up the pot!” When I asked him to explain, he said that a lot of people were upset because I walked around and didn’t stay behind the pulpit, thus losing my authority; and, what is more, I did not preach from the King James Version of the Bible. The deacon went on to explain that some complained I talked too much about grace and not enough about God’s law.

Indeed, much like Jesus in our Gospel lesson for today, I ended up getting deluged with questions before the worship service began. Frankly, I had just been myself, and it caused trouble to the point of families in the church being divided over what I did and did not do. So, I decided on the spot to purposely cause more trouble by preaching the Beatitudes of Jesus while walking up and down the aisle. I, of course, never returned to that church.

In biblical times, yeast was a common symbol for evil, which is one reason why the Jews ate unleavened bread.  Jesus was trying to get the point across to his disciples that, like yeast, just a little bit of duplicitous teaching can have the far-reaching effect of distrusting God.

It takes only a pinch of hypocrisy to work through the whole batch of dough.

Not long before this encounter with the religious leaders, Jesus had done the miraculous feeding of the five-thousand people. With only five loaves of bread and two fish, Jesus fed a multitude – and even had leftovers afterwards. The math lesson that Jesus explained to the disciples at the time about the baskets of food they had gathered was that a little bit of Jesus goes an incredibly long way.

A small amount of Christ’s compassion was able to feed thousands of hungry people.

So, the issue really gets down to the ingredients. Are we baking the bread of our lives with compassion or hypocrisy? Speaking from my own experience, dealing with hypocrisy and hypocritical folks is a huge drag. Unless you can be on their page of promoting themselves and their agenda, they can make life downright miserable. Conversely, it feels like the balm of healing to be around compassionate people who are authentic and genuine with no pretense or posturing to get in the way of enjoyable relationship.

Eventually, sooner or later, the little bit of hypocrisy in the bread will get eaten. And it will taste awful. Like Ellie Mae Clampett’s homemade biscuits from the 1960’s show, Beverly Hillbillies, you might not even be able to bite into them because they are so hard and nasty. To avoid this, we need to be vigilant about the preparation process before anything unsavory gets into the oven of our lives. Enjoying a good bite of warm soft compassionate bread happens when we are careful and attentive to Jesus, the real source of mercy and grace. Jesus has the best recipe I know. Hypocritical religious teachers, not so much. Their bread is half-baked, at best, and not fit for consumption.

How do we remain on guard against hypocrisy and attentive to genuine compassion?

  1. Use the cookbook. Becoming familiar with Holy Scripture informs us as to the proper ingredients for baking. A straightforward reading of the Gospels enables us to focus on Christ’s compassionate and finished work, and not hypocrisy and keeping up religious appearances. With the help of the Master Chef we are able to: see the internal pain and hurt behind the outwardly obnoxious behavior of a co-worker; love a relative even though they have offended us; have a spiritual conversation with a neighbor; freely give to others what we have freely received; and, so much more. Jesus prayed, “Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth.” (John 17:17, NIV)
  2. Avoid condemning other’s methods. Be a champion of grace, not judgment. When in doubt about what to do or say, always default to grace because the world spins on the axis of mercy and love, not hypocritical judgments. Cooking and eating are meant to be enjoyable experiences, not frustrating encounters. Jesus said, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Matthew 7:1-2, NIV)
  3. Trust your nose. If you intuitively sense something does not pass the smell test, then be wary of putting it into your bread. “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Ephesians 5:1-2, NIV)
  4. Be vigilant about conversations. The interactions we have with others while making our bread are significant. If you would not say something to someone’s face, then absolutely do not say it behind their back. Secret recipes in the form of hidden agendas are the stuff of hypocrisy. “Don’t let any foul words come out of your mouth. Only say what is helpful when it is needed for building up the community so that it benefits those who hear what you say.” (Ephesians 4:29, CEB)

May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be pure and pleasing to the Lord our God.

Blessed God forgive me for those times I have been two-faced and hypocritical. I want to honor you with every word that comes from my mouth and every action I take throughout the day. Holy Spirit give me a humble heart that lives to glorify you. Help me to become aware when I am being judgmental of others. Thank you that you have wild and abundant grace for me that will not cease, will not end, and will not let me go. Teach me your ways and help me be receptive to them, so I will not fall through Jesus Christ my Lord. Amen.