Seaside Sermons: What Too Many Forget
Monday, August 15, 2011 Comments (0)
There is so much I appreciate about the gospels. Above all, I appreciate the manner in which they are so honest about Jesus’ disciples. Far from portraying them as paragons of virtue, the gospels tend to show the disciples as people not much different from us – unknowing, naïve, and most embarrassing of all, forgetful.
I don’t know about you, but the times in my life when I’ve been prone to want to kick myself the most have been those times when I’ve forgotten something important. And over the years I’ve forgotten a lot. I’ve forgotten appointments and assignments. I’ve forgotten accessories and articles of clothing. Some things I’ve forgotten are less important than others. Some things I’ve forgotten I could get at the store or backtrack to pick up at the house. But there have been other things that when I forgot them, I knew immediately that I had just made the most terrible of mistakes.
I can remember when I turned sixteen and how the world suddenly opened up to me because of the little piece of paper I had secured from the Alabama Department of Public Safety, my driver’s license. I was getting ready to go out the door and there was my father standing there with some parting counsel. “Watch out for the other drivers.” “Pay attention to your blind spot.” “Don’t exceed the speed limit.” I nodded as if I was paying attention, but most of it, quite honestly, was going through one ear and out the other. Besides, I was sixteen. Even though that was to be my first solo experience behind the wheel, I knew everything there was to know about driving. I had a piece of paper from the State of Alabama that said so. But the last thing my father said was something that stuck. It was something that lodged deep in my soul. It was something that I still remember, even to this day. “And son,” my dad told me, “don’t forget who you are.” “Don’t forget who you are.”
I hear my father’s words in this passage I’ve read for you this morning. Jesus is speaking with his disciples as they are passing from one side of the Sea of Galilee to the other. They had been on the side of the Sea that was predominately Gentile. There, in Gentile territory, Jesus had performed a second feeding miracle for 4,000 people, much as he had previously done for 5,000 people on the Jewish side of the Sea of Galilee. I would imagine that the disciples, all of whom were Jewish, were relatively anxious to get back to familiar territory. After all, it was on the Gentile side of the Sea, you will remember, that they had encountered the two demon-possessed men who lived among the tombs. It was on the Gentile side that they had seen Jesus cast those demons into a nearby herd of pigs that went rushing to their death into the Sea. It was on the Gentile side that the people came out to them from the nearby villages and begged them to leave. Now, they were going back to familiar turf, where they could let their guard down and relax. And in their rush to get home, Matthew tells us that they forgot to take bread.
Jesus could sense their regret and used the occasion for a teachable moment. “Be careful,” he told them. “Be on guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” In an earlier day when people baked their own bread, no explanation would be necessary. But in a day when we buy our bread at the grocery or deli, a little explanation would be very helpful.
In fact, let’s begin there. “A little would be helpful.” Talk to a serious baker and he or she will tell you that yeast is the one ingredient that makes the dough rise and gives bread its volume. You don’t need a lot of yeast to make that happen. You just need a little. Just a little yeast affects everything. So when Jesus speaks of yeast, he does so to warn his audience of the pervasive and corrupt influence of false teaching – in this case the false teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. But who are they? Who are the Pharisees and the Sadducees? Clearly, we need a little more explanation.
Let’s begin with the Pharisees. The problem with the Pharisees was not that they were big sinners. In reality, the Pharisees were more committed to a life of holiness than most people in Jesus’ day. We’d love it if a Pharisee were to come into the fellowship of our church. We’d make him a deacon. We’d ask him to teach a Sunday School class. We might even call him to be pastor. That’s how good most Pharisees were. But the problem with the Pharisees was that they expected everyone else to live up to their standards, and when people didn’t, they excluded them. They drew small circles that few could enter into, and because they were so rigid in their expectations, they often turned people against one another. And they tired to turn people against Jesus. They saw Jesus as too lenient and accepting, while Jesus saw the Pharisees as too rigid and exclusive.
Then there were the Sadducees, who in many ways were the mirror opposites of the Pharisees, but equally disconcerting to Jesus. The Sadducees were the religious aristocracy of Jesus’ day. They had made alliances with Rome that enabled them to stay in power and they were committed to the status quo. They had no spiritual backbone and didn’t mind altering their religious practice to accommodate Rome’s demands. And so, they were suspicious of Jesus, especially his pronouncements of what he called “the kingdom of heaven,” which he meant to be the Rule of God that transcends every earthly authority, including the Sadducees, and also including Rome.
In fact, the only thing both the Pharisees and Sadducees had in common was their opposition to Jesus. So, Jesus warned his disciples not to allow even a hint of their teaching to take root among their number. Jesus knew that their rigidity and exclusiveness, their suspicion and lack of conviction would be a death knell to the openness and hopefulness by which he wanted his followers to be characterized.
It would be easy to dismiss this instruction as not really applying to our 21st century life, except for the fact that our efforts today at advancing the Rule of God are for the most part stymied precisely by attitudes such as these. On one side, you have people who are drawing small circles and hoisting expectations that no one can live up to. Just ask an unbeliever his perception of Christians and he’ll likely answer that we are too harsh and judgmental, and no one wants to be around anyone who keeps harping about how bad folk are today. But on the other side, you have people contending that it really doesn’t matter what a person believes. All that matters is that they believe something and that they believe it seriously. On the other side, you have people who are afraid to confront anyone about anything. And who wants to be a part of a group of people who have no convictions or no values they hold inviolable?
So, where is the balance? Where is the midpoint between these two extremes about which Jesus warns us? Where is the place where we claim our identity and where we live out Jesus’ call? I believe the answer lies in that part of the story where Jesus reminds them of the importance of those feeding miracles he performed and the importance of the bread that comes down from heaven, the bread that fills our souls and never fails to satisfy. There are three applications here that I believe can help us to remember who we are so that we might live into that identity and experience the unparalleled joy of doing something that advances the purposes of God.
In the first place, I hear Jesus saying, “Don’t forget to think spiritually.” When you look at the story and the interaction between Jesus and his disciples, Jesus is on one plane and his disciples are on the other. When they hear Jesus talking about yeast, they assume that he is upset with them because they have forgotten to bring bread. Jesus is talking about spiritual things, but the disciples are fixed on material things.
There is no greater opportunity for Christians today to seize than the opportunity to inject a touch of spirituality into our world that has become obsessively material. In a day when people’s worth tends to gets defined by “what” and “how much,” we as followers of Jesus have the privilege of pointing people to a higher reality, a more transcendent reality. We have the privilege of pointing people, even as Jesus pointed people, to the “Kingdom of Heaven” and how that reality is the most important reality of all. So, don’t forget in your everyday life to look beyond the material so that you might recognize and bear witness to the spiritual realities that matter most of all.
In the second place, I hear Jesus saying, “Don’t forget to think openly.” Some scholars believe that the two feeding miracles in the gospels—the feeding of the 5,000 and the feeding of the 4,000—are two accounts of the same miracle. But I don’t think so. I think they were two separate accounts, one that took place in Jewish territory and one that took place in Gentile territory. The fact that Jesus gave this teaching after performing a feeding miracle in Gentile territory and the fact that he warned his disciples about the rigidity of the Pharisees show us how important it is to welcome everyone to the Lord’s table.
This past week I had a phone call from a professor at FSU who has been researching an article on how Tallahassee was able to move beyond its segregationist past. He wanted to talk with me about our church’s role in the story and how he had stumbled across a sermon preached by a former pastor of First Baptist, C.A. Roberts, and the process through which he led this congregation to become the open and inviting church we are today. He sent me a copy of the sermon because he was so moved by it, and as I read it, I couldn’t believe that this issue was ever a struggle for our fellowship. Look at us today. The diversity that is always reflected in our gatherings is an indication of our openness to share Jesus with everyone, and I shudder to think what kind of church we would be today, if years ago our membership had taken a different turn. Our own history and how that history has positioned us to be the dynamic and transformative congregation we are today is a powerful reminder of how we, as a God-centered, Bible-directed, people-focused community of believers, must never forget to think openly when it comes to the difference we can make for the cause of Christ.
And then finally, I hear Jesus saying, “Don’t forget to think abundantly.” When you go back and analyze what Jesus did with the feedings of the 5,000 and the 4,000, what makes these miracles so significant is not just that Jesus took meager resources and used them to feed big crowds, but at the end of the day there was still much that was left over! In the feeding of the 5,000, there were twelve baskets left over. In the feeding of the 4,000, there were seven baskets. Suffice it to say that the significance of those numbers points to the power of God to meet the needs of His people in abundance. While the Sadducees may have questioned the power of God to bring something new out of something old and to bring life out of death, Jesus had no doubts about the ability of God in every situation. “With God,” he constantly was reminding his disciples, “all things are possible.”
In recent days, so many have lost so much. So many have been pushed to the point of facing shortfalls and deficits. Is it a time to be cautious? Absolutely it is. Is it a time to be watching the bottom line? Of course it is. But we must be careful not to allow this time to cause our souls to shrink to the opportunities God gives us to meet needs and touch hearts and give hope because of our skepticism about what He might be able to do with the resources at our disposal, meager as they are. Don’t forget to think abundantly.
Most of us this morning remember those loveable Muppet characters from the popular television series, Sesame Street. There was Big Bird and Elmo and Cookie Monster and Oscar the Grouch. We all had our favorites and the ones we didn’t want to act like. The character who scared me to death was Forgetful Jones, the cowboy who couldn’t remember anything. In fact, Forgetful Jones didn’t last as long as the other characters. He played his role, reminding us of the folly of not being able to recall names and numbers and the other things that are necessary to be productive and happy. Ironically, Forgetful Jones faded from the show, soon to be forgotten.
You are called this morning to something higher and nobler. You are called this morning to something richer and fuller. Let that promise sink deep into your head and your heart and let the possibilities of what God can do in and through you feed your soul. You’re about to go out into a world that is full of suspicion and doubt, a world that is rigid and without hope. Be careful. Be cautious. And most of all, though way too many do, for Christ’s sake, don’t forget who you are.
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