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.

The Compassion of Jesus

Jesus healing - 13th century
Jesus and his ministry of healing, from a 13th century church mosaic.

Compassion is a concern for the well-being of others. It is the basis for altruism and the most virtuous motive one can possess. Compassion is activated within the human heart when witnessing another person’s suffering. Compassion spurs us to help. It is through compassion that people feel seen and known. Compassion brings care, empathy, and sympathy together as a bridge to connect with another person or group of people in need. Without compassion, there is no life.

While on this earth, I believe Jesus was the very embodiment of compassion. To reflect on Christ’s compassion helps us to raise our own compassion quotient and avoid succumbing to the whims of indifference to human need.

When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. (Matthew 9:36)

The compassion of Jesus responds to human need. In his earthly ministry of preaching, teaching, and healing, Jesus went through all the towns and villages. He neither waited for people to come to him nor wanted anyone to fall through the cracks. During this work, Jesus was moved by the depth of people’s needs. The word for “compassion” in the Bible means “to be moved in the pit of your gut.” It is to be filled with pity and heart-broken over the unmet needs of people.

What moves and stirs compassion deep down in your gut? Jesus went about the towns and was brokenhearted over people who were harassed and helpless, locked into patterns of life that were harmful and damaging.  Jesus came to this earth to seek and save people, offering forgiveness of sins and a new life. Jesus willingly offered compassion – his motivation was neither from duty nor guilt. Compassion is the proper motivation for all things.

Jesus went out and ministered, then was moved by what he saw.  Compassion comes upon us as we go out and enter people’s lives, seeing first-hand the depth of need represented.  Show me a person with compassion, and I will show you a person who takes the time and effort to know another.

“Pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest,” implored Jesus. (Matthew 9:38)

The compassion of Jesus issues in a call to pray. Christ saw the masses of people and told his disciples to ask God to send workers because the harvest is plentiful.  Jesus knows there are large numbers of people waiting to hear the good news of the kingdom of God. So, he said to pray earnestly and compassionately.

Compassion is the motive which brings us to prayer. Compassion impels us to pray that workers be sent to people who are ripe for hearing good news. We must not listen to the hellish lie: That certain people don’t really want the good news of the kingdom of God; that my neighbor, or co-worker, or family member is not spiritual and doesn’t care about forgiveness of sins, or grace – that there is nothing within them to respond to compassion. The devil does not want us to have merciful compassion for them, to be moved to intercede for them in prayer, nor to become a harvester in the field of people.  Jesus said the harvest is plentiful, and it is through compassionate prayer that the work will be done.

Jesus called his twelve followers together and gave them authority to drive out evil spirits and to heal every kind of disease and sickness. (Matthew 10:1)

Ethiopian Jesus the Healer
Ethiopian Orthodox depiction of Jesus the Healer

The compassion of Jesus caused him to send out his disciples. The call to prayer is central; it is also not everything. As faith without works is dead, so prayer without mission is empty. The people Jesus authorized for ministry were the twelve, and they were a motley crew, indeed!  For example, having Matthew the tax collector and Simon the Zealot on the same team together would be like sending Joe Biden and Donald Trump as a pair out for ministry. Yet, the compassion of Jesus changes lives and brings people together from diverse backgrounds and viewpoints.

The disciples were told, in their initial mission as followers of Jesus, to go only to the house of Israel – Israel’s house needed to be put in order first before they could ever think of going to Gentiles. There were Jews all around them, and Jesus goes after them first.  Remember Christ’s final instructions: You will be my witnesses first in Jerusalem, then Judea, and Samaria, and the rest of the world (Acts 1:8). We begin by reaching out to people in our own backyard.

Jesus told the disciples to do exactly what he had been doing: preaching and healing, proclaiming the message that “the kingdom of God is near.”  The kingdom is not only something in the future; the kingdom of God has already broken into the present time, and the evidence of it is the transformation of people’s lives now. The blessings and promises of kingdom life are presently available.

Jesus sent the disciples out and told them not to take anything with them.  They were to leave all their baggage behind. The disciples were to be stripped of everything so that they had the ability to see people and their needs and be moved with compassion as Jesus was. The kingdom of God was near to them, so they did not need to add anything for the mission (Matthew 10:1-15). Jesus did not want his disciples assuming they already knew what people needed. Instead, they must be present to people and discover their needs without bias. As compassion is freely received, it is to be freely given.

Compassion is the appropriate response to human need.  Yet, we do not always react with compassion. The following are a few approaches which prevent us from becoming compassionate, and some ways of cultivating a compassionate life:

  1. A defeating and discouraging environment. Contempt breeds contempt. Anger produces more anger. Hatred feeds hatred. Abuse drives out compassion. The environment around us makes a difference. If we find we must check our hearts at the door and avoid compassion to just make it, then we need a change of environment. Life is too short and the world too compassion-starved to maintain a situation that drags us down and hinders the kingdom of God within us.
  2. An unhealthy pace of life. A person cannot have a compassionate heart if they are running too fast to see other people’s needs. When spare moments are used to try and figure out how to keep all the balls in the air and all the plates spinning, there is no way to dole out compassion to others. Slow down. No one comes to the end of life and wishes they had logged more hours of work at their job. Develop a plan on how to slow down enough to tune into the needs of others and have emotional energy for them.
  3. Excessive caregiving. Compassion fatigue is a real thing. Resentment can build toward the very people we care for because of constant giving without receiving. When the emotional gas tank is empty, it is possible to become cold-hearted. Yet, some keep going anyway – and ruin their engine. Caring for others must be meticulously balanced with caring for self. There is a time for everything, including rest and recuperation.  Jesus regularly practiced the disciplines of solitude and silence. If he needed those restorative practices, so do we.
  4. Objectifying people. Whenever we put adjectives in front of people, it is a clue that compassion is lacking. Referring to “those” people; “lesbian” neighbors; “black” folks at work; my “obnoxious” relative; or, the “poor” family down the street; are all examples of objectifying people and putting them at a distance from ourselves. Your neighbors are your neighbors, your family is your family, and the people in your life are just people, period. Compassion arises as we look for what is common among us, not different. Compassion brings solidarity with others, not separation and division.

May you allow God the time to form a compassionate heart within through being with Jesus. May compassion toward others be the defining characteristic of your life.

Luke 15:1-7 – One Lost Sheep

The Shepherd and the Lost Sheep
“The Shepherd and the Lost Sheep.” By Peter Clarke, 1969

A lot of men and women of doubtful reputation were hanging around Jesus, listening intently. The Pharisees and religion scholars were not pleased, not at all pleased. They grumbled, “He takes in sinners and eats meals with them, treating them like old friends.” Their complaining triggered this story:

“Suppose one of you had a hundred sheep and lost one. Wouldn’t you leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the lost one until you found it? When found, you can be sure you would put it across your shoulders, rejoicing, and when you got home call in your friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Celebrate with me! I’ve found my lost sheep!’ Count on it—there’s more joy in heaven over one sinner’s rescued life than over ninety-nine good people in no need of rescue. (MSG)

Lost people matter to God.  They matter so much to him that one lost soul found is the grounds for a big celestial party.  Please note this simple observation of today’s Gospel reading: If there is rejoicing in the presence of angels in heaven over one sinner who repents, then who is doing the rejoicing?  God!  God himself is crazy giddy with joy over one lost person being found.

Celebration is an important activity for the Christian. God throws the best parties, filled with plenty of joy and recognition of persons restored to fellowship. As people created in the image and likeness of God, we are hardwired for celebration. If God can go uncorked with joy and celebration, I’m going to say with confidence that open unabashed blowouts rejoicing over people’s transformation and new life is welcome and expected. Folks baptized in pickle juice can join the grumbling of all the high mucky-muck dudes who smugly look down on the marginal persons among us. Hopefully, the party-poopers won’t be heard because of all the noise at God’s party.

This parable of Jesus is meant to give us a glimpse of God’s own heart.  He would do anything to find a lost person, to restore and reconcile a person back to himself.  God would go dumpster diving and wade through the stinky nasty garbage to find that one lost valuable person.

Why should reaching out to marginal people with the grace and love of Jesus Christ be a high priority?  Because restoring lost people is a high priority for God.  God has placed the highest of priorities on recovering those who are spiritually lost and wandering around life without a purpose or a place to call home. Such people matter so much to him that God sent his Son, the Lord Jesus, to this earth.  Jesus went to the greatest lengths possible through enduring a cruel death on a cross in order to reconcile a broken lost relationship between people and God.

I can still remember what it felt like to be separated from God and estranged from the church – it was lonely and sad, like being in a deep black hole with no way of getting out and no one around to help.  But God, in his great mercy, sent spiritual commandos to extract me from my captivity of the soul. So, my greatest desire is to live my life basking in the grace shown to me, grateful for new mercies which come every day, and giving that same grace to others – especially those considered as the lost, the least, and the lonely in society.

In leaving the ninety-nine and going after the one sheep, God gave preferential attention to the lost. So, because of this, I ask a sincere and probing question which I believe needs to be asked:  Can you live with that?  My own answer is: “I sure can, because I was once that lone lost sheep!”

Jesus, you are the Good Shepherd.  Thank you for going after me when I was lost.  Help me to remember that you will often leave my pasture to go after others. I’ll be willing and happy to go with you when you do. Let’s also take the Spirit with us.  Amen.

Click Compassion Hymn by Keith and Kristyn Getty to remember the lengths of love God went to in restoring us.

Jonah 1:1-17 – Against Hatred

JonahWhale

The Lord’s word came to Jonah, the son of Amittai: “Get up and go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it, for their evil has come to my attention.”

So, Jonah got up—to flee to Tarshish from the Lord! He went down to Joppa and found a ship headed for Tarshish. He paid the fare and went aboard to go with them to Tarshish, away from the Lord. But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, so that there was a great storm on the sea; the ship looked like it might be broken to pieces. The sailors were terrified, and each one cried out to his god. They hurled the cargo that was in the ship into the sea to make it lighter.

Now Jonah had gone down into the hold of the vessel to lie down and was deep in sleep. The ship’s officer came and said to him, “How can you possibly be sleeping so deeply? Get up! Call on your god! Perhaps the god will give some thought to us so that we won’t perish.”

Meanwhile, the sailors said to each other, “Come on, let’s cast lots so that we might learn who is to blame for this evil that’s happening to us.” They cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. So, they said to him, “Tell us, since you’re the cause of this evil happening to us: What do you do and where are you from? What’s your country and of what people are you?”

He said to them, “I’m a Hebrew. I worship the Lord, the God of heaven—who made the sea and the dry land.”

Then the men were terrified and said to him, “What have you done?” (The men knew that Jonah was fleeing from the Lord because he had told them.)

They said to him, “What will we do about you so that the sea will become calm around us?” (The sea was continuing to rage.)

He said to them, “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea! Then the sea will become calm around you. I know it’s my fault that this great storm has come upon you.”

The men rowed to reach dry land, but they couldn’t manage it because the sea continued to rage against them. So, they called on the Lord, saying, “Please, Lord, don’t let us perish on account of this man’s life, and don’t blame us for innocent blood! You are the Lord: whatever you want, you can do.” Then they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased its raging. The men worshipped the Lord with a profound reverence; they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made solemn promises.

No escape for the prophet

Meanwhile, the Lord provided a great fish to swallow Jonah. Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights. (CEB)

One way of outlining today’s Old Testament reading from Jonah is:

God said, “Go!” Jonah said, “No!” And, God said, “Oh!?”

Jonah did a full out run from God’s clear instructions to go to the city of Nineveh. This does not sound like a wise thing to do with God. So, why did Jonah run? Let’s get some perspective….

Who were the Assyrians?

Nineveh was a large city in the ancient world, and the capital of Assyria. The Assyrians had a reputation as fierce soldiers and conquered all the Middle East. They are mentioned many times in the Old Testament. It was Assyria that God used to judge the northern kingdom of Israel. The typical military practice of the Assyrians was to attack a city and completely subjugate it by deporting most of the people and repopulating it with some of their own people. They did this so that the conquered people could not mount a revolt or resistance to their rule.

What is important to know about the Assyrians and the Ninevites is that they were notorious in the ancient world for their brutality toward conquered peoples. Many forms of torture that we are aware of today were invented by the Assyrians. Their methods were so inhumane that it would be inappropriate for me to even discuss them here. I will just leave it at the fact that the Assyrians were experts at thinking-up and executing extreme forms of torture on everyone who resisted their power. It was a very violent culture.

Who is God?

Now, contrast that knowledge of the Assyrians with God. The ways of the Assyrians caught the notice of God, who was ready to pronounce judgment on the heart of the Assyrian Empire, Nineveh. So, as God typically did in the Old Testament, he told one of his prophets to go and give a message. And the message was simple: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.” Lest we think God was determined to wipe Nineveh off the map, think again. Jonah confesses later in the book, “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (Jonah 4:2).

Who was Jonah?

Jonah was a prophet of God, which means he set apart to speak for God. So, here we have the rub as to Jonah’s lickety-split in the opposite direction from where God wanted him. Jonah did not like Assyrians. More than that, he loathed them. The last thing Jonah wanted was to have effective preaching and see Nineveh repent of their violent ways. Jonah wanted judgment, not grace.

In this little four-chapter prophetic book of the Old Testament, it is Jonah who needs divine deliverance as much as the Ninevites do. In fact, Jonah’s need for rescue gets more attention than the evil Assyrians. The message of Jonah comes down to this: Racism and hatred, however much perceived to be legitimate, have no part whatsoever in the kingdom of God.

Who are we?

Christians are the community of the redeemed. New life in Jesus Christ involves a wholesale jettison of bigotry and a complete chuck to the manure pile of hatred directed toward any ethnic and/or religious group of people, period. New life means adopting the love of God. It involves becoming a dispenser of grace and mercy with all people, not just the ones we feel deserve it.

What does God want us to learn?

To share the same heart as he has – a heart that beats for people to know and live by a better way – a heart that has grace and compassion even in the face of flat-out evil. We are meant to think twice about pointing the finger at others; to take the plank out of our own eye before we address the splinter in another’s eye.

O God, you created all people in your image. We thank you for the astonishing variety of races and cultures in this world. Enrich our lives by ever-widening circles of friendship, and show us your presence in those who differ most from us, until our knowledge of your love is made perfect in our love for all your children; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Click Turn My Heart a beautiful song written by Marty Haugen as we seek to have our lives bend to God’s heart.