Friday, June 30, 2023

Gospel Reading and Reflection for Sunday, June 30

Matthew 10:40-42

10:40 "Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.

10:41 Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet's reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous;

10:42 and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple -- truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward."


As Jesus continues the instructions to those he is sending out, there’s an eerie parallel with Matthew 25: 35, “…for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

It’s easy to overlook the act of welcoming another into our lives. The twist is that the immediate presence of Jesus Christ is the One being welcomed.

How different would my life be if I reflected on this amazing teaching? What if i made room for this Jesus? The message of God’s in-breaking kingdom is matched with how i welcome others into my life.

Choices are made in light of the Christ who is here and now, embodied in those welcomed. Not in terms of my convenience or preference or privilege.  

The examples of receiving a prophet and giving a cup of cold water could relate to experiences of missionaries prior to Matthew’s Gospel. Did he look at examples of welcome and hostility to Paul and his message? 

Welcoming others in the name of another prophet or disciple was the practice of the earliest church , witness the story of Paul and Ananias in Acts 9. In this case Ananias may have become the disciple vouching for Paul, the disciple in whose name Paul is welcomed by the church. 

Jesus sometimes called his followers “little ones.” They are not, in this context, the privileged few. Those at the top of the food chain “have their reward,” but those making welcome for the little ones will find a different kind of reward, one that comes in almost invisible acts of kindness and welcome. *

What could possibly be the “reward” for welcoming  “little ones,” or Christ, or God!?** Integrity. I get to fulfill my ministry and calling. I live into my purpose and potential as a human being, made in God’s image and likeness. I don’t have to honor the animal, instinctual brain. I can choose! 

This welcoming, receiving, and giving are their own reward, ends in themselves, and nothing more or less. Sounds like a chance for both inner and outer repentance and change. 

Repentance offers the church -which is anyone who claims Christ’s name- a chance to live by the alternative vision of God’s kingdom. God’s kingdom announced in Jesus and his missioners prizes actual welcome, receiving and sharing. Words just sugar coat the real failures and the positive hindrances I have created and perpetuate for others.  For preachers and teachers, our words are empty if the repentance and alternative are not explicitly presented for others to hear.

Without repentance I do not change and without change, there is only the default of flying to Jesus but silencing his words of welcoming, receiving, and sharing his kingdom.

*For hypocrites having their reward, see Matthew 6:1-2, 5, 16

**See the many references to “little ones” in Albert Nolan’s classic, Jesus Before Christianity (1976, 2001).

Wednesday, June 21, 2023

Gospel Reading and Reflection for Sunday, June 25

Matthew 10:24-39

10:24  "A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master;

10:25 it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!

10:26 "So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.

10:27 What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.

10:28 Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

10:29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.

10:30 And even the hairs of your head are all counted.

10:31 So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

10:32 "Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven;

10:33 but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.

10:34 "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.

10:35 For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;

10:36 and one's foes will be members of one's own household.

10:37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me;

10:38 and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.

10:39 Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

Reflection: More Words of Warning to Church Leaders
This week's reading adds more cautions for those proclaiming God's kingdom. Remember that Matthew regarded the teaching of Jesus as revelatory, comparable to the Torah, revealed by God through Moses.

The Gospel does not need special cover of darkness or whispering tones. Its validity is not due to its popularity. The temptation is to find what sells and do it. This may be peculiar to my context of American consumerism, but still, this approach does not always encourage the freedom for people to choose the alternative vision of Jesus Christ, his new way of loving and living. 

I can't expect that people will be handing out silver stars or accolades for my ministry. The message will be received as Jesus was received. Given the message (see Matthew 5-7),  there will be harsh resistance. People I thought I trusted will become adversaries.* Instead I need to trust that God, the Lord of all the powers in the universe and the Giver of life- knows and cares for me.

Not everyone resisted the message, but many did. Not everyone who was faithful died as a martyr. After all, how was the message to survive if everyone was martyred? Thus, the church understood taking up the cross in other ways, such as faith, patience and endurance amidst evil. Churches also realized the importance of "white martyrdom," that is, the purity of total commitment to the way of Christ and renunciation of empires that actively and violently stood against God's kingdom and rule.  

About worthiness: here's the definition from Cambridge Dictionary: "deserving respect, admiration, or support." Worthy is translated as "fit" in the CEV and the GNT. Fitness has an entirely different connotation. Is Jesus shaming people for their unworthiness? In context, these verses are warnings to the teachers and preachers (and Matthew's church leaders?). They are not intended to shame or diminish people, but to lay out, truthfully, who and who is not well equipped or able to do the job. I believe Jesus' instructions came as warnings, akin to "If you're not able to last in this ministry, get out while you can."

The brutal truth is that I have both denied Christ and refused the cross in word and action.** There are also times when I have confessed Christ and avoided becoming a total hypocrite. I am a mixed bag, just like everyone I have taught or will teach. The object isn't to measure unfaithfulness. The point is to gladly proclaim God's kingdom and to invite others to make faith choices, all because God reigns, now and forever. 

*Consider this blessing: May God grant you the gift of knowing who your true friends are.
**Denial could have been an official proceeding of the state, one that included a three-fold denial, including a pledge to worship the gods of the Empire. The three-fold denial was required in case the accused decided to "repent" of being a Christian and thus save themselves from execution. See E. Boring, Revelation, 1989, pp.14-15. Even though Peter denied Jesus three times, Jesus apparently does not excommunicate Peter from the disciples. See especially Luke 22:31-34 and John 21:15-19. 

Saturday, June 17, 2023

How I Survived Ministry: Knowing and Leveraging Gifts

My seasons in ordained ministry mirrored the invitations and challenges of aging. The questions of my second- half of life are related to spiritual depth and discovering interconnections within Scripture, and faithful action. How can I discover joy? A couple of experiences illustrate the dynamics of my second-half of ministry and life. (1) 

At the age 48, I enrolled in a three year Spiritual Direction Institute of the Cenacle. Classes, having a spiritual director, and the practicum, supervision, and project all took place near my Houston home, and most of the meetings were on my off day. The second year, which examined the lives of the Saints, was the most meaningful for me. It was an immersion in the witness of the Christian monastics and mystics. Having a Spiritual Director throughout the program was a source of wisdom, discernment and spiritual clarity. I can't imagine how I offered pastoral ministry for all of those years without it! (2)

As apart of the program, I began blogging, initially to offer support and resources for clergy. I discovered a hidden gift! I wrote mostly on trends in ministry and reflections on Scripture. (3) Vociferous reading and writing combined to form a life-giving spiritual discipline. When I employed my strengths, instead of merely making weaknesses less glaring, I found joy- and a new, deeper engagement with life and ministry.

If the first half of ministry is about doing and achieving, its second half can be a time of greater reflection and discernment. Whereas the first half of ministry concerns itself with accomplishing institutional goals, the second half adds another component, that is, what is the best course of action and why. 

Questions to Consider
  1. What brings me true joy?
  2. What are my gifts, here and now? 
  3. How may those gifts inform my work?
  4. How are those gifts realized in my work?
(1) Roughly the decade beginning at 50 yrs.
(2) The three year program graduated its last cohort several years ago and the retreat campus was destroyed in 2017, due to Hurricane Harvey. 
(3) Please Understand Me, David Keirsey and Marilyn Bates, 1984. Using the Meyers-Briggs Inventory and based on Jung's theory of types,  identifies "Author" as my type. See also Now Discover Your Strengths, Marcus Buckingham and Don Clifton, 2001. I have also used both volumes for couples in marriage preparation and clergy groups.

Thursday, June 15, 2023

Sunday Gospel Reading and Reflection (June 18)

Matthew 9:35-10:8
9:35 Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness.

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

9:37 Then he said to his disciples, "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few;

9:38 therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest."

10:1 Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness.

10:2 These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John;

10:3 Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus;

10:4 Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.

10:5 These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: "Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans,

10:6 but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

10:7 As you go, proclaim the good news, 'The kingdom of heaven has come near.'

10:8 Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.

10:9 Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts,

10:10 no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food.

10:11 Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave.

10:12 As you enter the house, greet it.

10:13 If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you.

10:14 If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town.

10:15 Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.

10:16 "See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.

10:17 Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues;

10:18 and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles.

10:19 When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time;

10:20 for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.

10:21 Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death;

10:22 and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.

10:23 When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes."


The First Century was a violent time in Judea. A series of Roman rulers spent decades stamping out rebellions against the occupation. Well before the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem in the year 70, there were major factions within the Jewish community. There was unrest among Jews who vied on the question of how to exist with each other and the Roman occupation. 

One group active before, during, and after Jesus, the Zealots, directed assassinations of Roman officials and urged that large scale war was needed to finally purify the Temple and free its priesthood of pagan influence. Jesus and his followers were not insignificant but a small sect within Jewish religion, worthy of one brief mention in the volumes of the major historian of the time, Flavius Josephus.*

In the Matthew text, Jesus sets forth the boundaries for those sent out. One, the mission is empowered by Jesus' compassion for the lost sheep of Israel. Two, it is limited to Jewish homes and towns. Jesus plainly instructed his team to avoid Gentile areas. (This will change in Matthew 28:19-20) 

Here are Jesus' instructions to the missioners.
  1. Do what Jesus does: proclaim the nearness of God's rule, and heal sicknesses.
  2. Don't take advantage of others' hospitality or generosity- don't push your luck. 
  3. Don't react violently when you are treated with disrespect and rejection.
  4. Expect fierce, organized resistance, expect threats, betrayal, punishment, and violence. 
  5. The subtext: Jesus was betrayed and handed over to the authorities.
  6. Learn to survive: go to the next town for safety and to continue the mission. Be wise and gentle.
  7. Your salvation lies in endurance and waiting things out. 
We live in a time when anger, hostility, and violence has hit the roof- and this is the baseline, the norm. The greatest threat to our freedom and peace seems to come from within our citizenry. Mass shootings happen several times a day. America, the land of the free and home of the brave, if once an ideal, leads the world in mass shootings. It seems we are not free to choose a better way. Gun violence is the leading cause of death among our children and youth. Not drugs or car accidents or disease or suicide.

Our willful refusal to clamp down on weapons of war loosed on our fellow citizens is appalling, disgusting, harrowing. Churches provide no escape or safety, because so many of our national denominations refuse to get along and instead choose to hurl insults, divide, dismember, and disaffiliate. Hopelessness, powerlessness, and neglect are having their day. It seems no one really cares unless it's our family or neighborhood.

I bring the mission of teaching. What does the nearness of God's rule mean?? There are opportunities, choices, faith, hope, patience. That mission includes my faithful action for healing the spiritual blight surrounding me and within me. Not because it works but because I am commissioned by the greatest power. I pray the Lord's Prayer regularly. How can I be a faithful participant with others in God's deliverance from evil? My faith without works is a dead end-  powerless and purposeless and depressing.

John Wesley, the English clergyman and founder of Methodism, in the General Rules, stated the mission of the people called Methodist. Here is the first Rule:
First, by doing no harm, by avoiding evil of every kind, especially that which is most generally practiced...
Paul also had a mission to the Jews. It, too, was marked by betrayals and conflict, false accusations and imprisonment. This makes his benediction of peace all the more amazing: "For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything! As for those who will follow this rule—peace be upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God." Galatians 6:15-16 

*"Now, there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works-a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ; (64) and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.The Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18, Chapter 3, The Works of Josephustranslated by William Whiston, Hendrickson Publishers, 1987.

Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Sunday Gospel Reading and Reflection (June 11)

Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26
9:9 As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, "Follow me." And he got up and followed him.

9:10 And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples.

9:11 When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?"

9:12 But when he heard this, he said, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.

9:13 Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners."

9:18 While he was saying these things to them, suddenly a leader of the synagogue came in and knelt before him, saying, "My daughter has just died; but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live."

9:19 And Jesus got up and followed him, with his disciples.

9:20 Then suddenly a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his cloak,

9:21 for she said to herself, "If I only touch his cloak, I will be made well."

9:22 Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, "Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well." and instantly the woman was made well.

9:23 When Jesus came to the leader's house and saw the flute players and the crowd making a commotion,

9:24 he said, "Go away; for the girl is not dead but sleeping." And they laughed at him.

9:25 But when the crowd had been put outside, he went in and took her by the hand, and the girl got up.

9:26 And the report of this spread throughout that district.

If I want to follow Jesus, I need to listen hard: "God desires mercy not sacrifice." Class dismissed. My homework? Learn what it means that God is merciful. Compassion is the source of Jesus' ministry.* The essence of mercy is compassion, kindness, forgiveness. Biblically, mercy is exhibited by a superior to an inferior. For example, it is within one's power to punish, but one chooses to show mercy instead. Another meaning is tied to compassion, similar to a mother's visceral love for her children. 

Jesus shows his compassion to tax collectors and sinners, a women with the issue of blood, and a young girl thought to be dead. (Jesus says that "she is sleeping.") "Suddenly," occurs twice in the reading, to show how consistently Jesus embodies the mercy he teaches: Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. (Matthew 5:7) 

In Matthew, the first references to "church" appear. Have the leaders in the church of Matthew's time replaced the Pharisees of Jesus' ministry? Think of the barriers that Matthew's church must have negotiated in sharing the Gospel of God's mercy and compassion. The split between churches and synagogues is happening large scale, but the rifts in communities also divorces families from each other, as most Jews followed the way of the Rabbis, while only a few of Jewish heritage choose the way of Jesus. 

Often those outside the church see more clearly when self- identified Christians fail to love and behave mercifully. Jesus' words to Pharisees apply to anyone who claims to love God: "Go and learn about God's mercy." I cannot be both self-righteous and merciful. I must choose.**

There are no people outside of the mercy of the Lord. There are no less-than-human persons, nor those deemed deserving while others are not. There are no barriers to God's love in Jesus Christ.  If I claim to follow Jesus, the main thing that makes me holy and distinct is not the purity of my worship, who I include and exclude,  who is right and who is wrong, but rather, having been a recipient of God's unearned unfailing mercy embodied in Jesus, how am I pursued by mercy? How will I pursue mercy?

*See also, Matthew 12:7. This particular phrase is unique to Matthew. Matthew mentions Jesus' "compassion" eight times in his Gospel. 
**The Parable of the Unforgiving Steward (Matthew 18:23-35) seems to be a explanation, in story form, of "Blessed are the merciful."  

Thursday, June 1, 2023

Sunday Gospel Reading and Reflection

The Gospel: Matthew 28:16-20

28:16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.

28:17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.

28:18 And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.

28:19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,

28:20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age."

Church as Teacher
Matthew is a missionary Gospel, with all of its instructions for missioners (Matthew 9-10). In what we call the Great Commission above, Jesus "apostles" his disciples by sending: "Go therefore." But the content of that teaching is "all I have commanded you." That's a large part of Matthew, starting with Matthew 5-7, the Sermon on the Mount.

Glossing over Jesus' teaching is convenient to do. But preaching Jesus' teaching is the standard content of Gospel preaching.* It seems many on the outside of  Christianity have judged churches and Christians for our failures to follow Jesus' teachings and I own that. However, is that the excuse to discount the way of Jesus Christ when commissioned to do so?

Is this another session on works-righteousness? Let's get the tired law vs. grace dichotomy out of our minds for a minute. The existence of Jesus' teaching saves me. Full stop. The covenant Christ offers comes by God's initiative and grace, as surely as our being created in God's own image and likeness. As surely as the Torah is given by God's grace. 

Whatever eternal  life is, I am going to find it very difficult to claim Jesus when, at the same time, I refuse to meet him in my vulnerable neighbors.** In Jesus' parable of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:21-33), I really do meet the risen Christ in the imprisoned, unsheltered, hungry, thirsty, alien, and sick. What about those huddled families, children, parents, grandparents at our Texas borders? And those who will cross my path today and tomorrow? 

*John Wesley, the founder of Methodism in England, in the 33 Standard Sermons he preached and required of his itinerants, 14 are on the Sermon of the Mount.
**Although some read Matthew 25:21-35 as referring to brothers and sisters in Christ, that is, the Church, I err on the side of generosity. Tipping the scales for me are the questions of Scripture, such as (1) Who is my neighbor? (Luke 10) and, (2)  Am I my brother's keeper? (Genesis 4). 

Oldies but Goodies