More Than Money

by Jordan McKenzie

Matthew 19:21: Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go and sell everything you have. Give the money to those who are poor. You will have treasure in heaven. Then come and follow me.”

Really? Go and sell EVERYTHING you have and follow me? That’s what Jesus requires of us? Everything? That seems a little demanding!

For much of my life, that was my reaction to this verse. I got the basic point of the passage. Or so I thought. The point was that wealth holds us back because our focus should be on Jesus. So we need to make sure we’re putting Jesus first ahead of our money. That made sense, but the business about selling everything you had seemed a little bit extreme.

Several years ago when studying this passage I had a sort of epiphany about it. I realized that this story was about one man. His obstacle was his wealth. That’s clear. That was what kept him from following Jesus. But how could I apply this verse when wealth wasn’t an issue for me? How could apply it if I were poor and lacked material riches? Perhaps I could just skip over this verse?

Then I realized that this story might be about more than just money and what we do with our possessions. Maybe it’s making a deeper point that we all have things that keep us from following Jesus fully. The question that comes to my mind now is what Jesus would say to me if I asked the same question as the rich young ruler. What are the things that are keeping me from totally following Jesus?

I can ask you the same question. What are the things keeping you from totally following Jesus? Your comfort? Your pride? Your wealth? Your bitterness about your past? Your feelings of insecurity? Your partisan politics?

So, what’s holding you back?

Prayer: Heavenly Father, thank you for the example of Jesus. Help me to follow him in all aspects and areas of my life. Take away anything that keeps me from following him. Amen.

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What Got Jesus into Trouble?

by Rev. Dr. Randy Coleman

Luke 4:14-30

 “I assure you that no prophet is welcome in his home town” (v. 24).  As I was reading this story the other day and came across these well-known words of Jesus in Luke chapter four, I found something that I had never seen before and so I share it with you now.  The story begins with the good news about Jesus spreading rapidly throughout the whole countryside.  He taught in their synagogues and received praise from everyone (v. 14, 15).  Jesus then returns to Nazareth “where he had been raised” (v. 16).  This detail is an important aspect of the story, as we will see later.

On the Sabbath, Jesus goes to the synagogue and stands up to read from the prophet Isaiah (61:1-2).

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me.  He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (v. 18, 19).

When finished reading, Jesus rolls up the scroll, sits down, and says to the people: “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it” (v. 21).  In one brief sentence, Jesus claims to be the long-awaited Messiah.  He is the one that Isaiah was speaking of.  This could be like a young man standing up in his graduation ceremony, declaring to be the next NBA star.  Even if he was a dedicated athlete, people still might question his daring proclamation.

Do the people believe Jesus?  The people do begin to speak highly of him, or so it seems.  They rave about his gracious words and then ask, “Is this Joseph’s son” (v. 22)?  Now they have lowered him back down to human status.  “We know where you are from, Jesus,” they are saying.  Thus, the implication is that he cannot really be the Messiah.  The home town folk at the graduation ceremony smirk somewhat because the young man foolishly claims to be the next NBA star.  “We’ll see,” they respond.

Jesus, fully discerning their intent, tells them how they will respond.  One day they will say to him, “Doctor, heal yourself.  Do here in your hometown what we’ve heard you did in Capernaum.”  Then he goes on to make that statement about a prophet not being welcome in his hometown (v. 23, 24).  To illustrate this, Jesus relates two stories from Israelite history about prophets who were not accepted in their home towns.  In the first story, the prophet Elijah was unable to help the widows in Israel during the three-and-a-half-year drought.  He was sent to none of them, but only to a widow in the city of Zarephath in the region of Sidon.  The second story concerns the prophet Elisha, Elijah’s successor.  In his time, there were many persons with skin diseases in Israel, but none of them were cleansed, only Naaman, the Syrian.

At this point, notice how quickly the people turn from raving about Jesus (v. 22) to attacking him (v. 28).  In a short time, the crowds’ gracious words turn to anger.  They stand up in condemnation of him and run him out of town.  They lead him to the crest of a hill and attempt to throw him off.  But Jesus passes through the crowd unhurt and moves on his way.  Make no doubt about it, they want to kill Jesus!  Wow, what a reaction!  Why did the people become so angry?  Why did they so quickly turn against their home town hero?  Was it something like Lebron James declaring his move from Cleveland to Miami?  In some ways, perhaps.

Part of the reason for their arousal to anger was simply unbelief in their hometown hero. Jesus clearly indicates this when he says that a prophet is not accepted in his home town.  And his two stories illustrate that.  But does this account for their extreme anger?  Is this why they want to put him to death?  I don’t think so.  Apathy or even unbelief do not normally get people killed.

Here is what I saw for the first time in this story.  The protagonists of Jesus’ stories are foreigners, living in foreign cities. The widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon lived north of Israel along the Mediterranean coast.  Sidon and Tyre were two prosperous Phoenician or Canaanite cities often referred to as cities receiving God’s judgment (Jer. 25:22; 27:3).  The Israelites would not have looked favorably on anyone from this area.  In the second story Naaman was a Syrian, and a foreign leader at that.  Both stories show care for foreigners, but no help for Israelites.  Jesus himself has done miracles in other places, but not here in Nazareth.  The Messiah was supposed to come and care for Israel and lead them out of the oppressive rule of Rome.  But this “would-be” home town hero is talking about helping foreigners and not Israelites.  Now we may have a case of leaving Cleveland and going to Miami on our hands.  Or better yet, it’s more like the hometown hero helping the Russians or caring for undocumented, illegal aliens in our country.  The big underlying problem that gets Jesus in trouble is called nationalism.  It’s good to be patriotic, but not nationalistic, where everything is first and foremost about us and our country; where we are superior to all others.

We certainly see this problem in our country today.  Donald Trump was elected on the slogan, “Make America Great Again.”  The Israelites in Jesus’ day were living by and expecting their Messiah to “Make Israel Great Again.” The people are ready to push Jesus off the cliff because he claimed to be their Messiah, their national hero.  But this man, Joseph’s son, is a far cry from a national hero.  How dare he claim to be their Messiah and not help them become great again!  How dare he talk about helping foreigners out and not help his own people!

That’s why they almost killed him.  That’s why another mob did have him killed on another day at the end of his life.  Jesus had claimed to be the King of the Jews, but had refused to help them politically.  That is the ugly head of nationalism.

So pray with me today, “Oh, Lord, please purge our country and our churches from the sin of nationalism.  Please cleanse me. Amen.”

Finding Faith (In the Midst of Fear)

by Jordan McKenzie

Fear.

It’s one thing we all have.

Though we may not want to admit it, we all fear something. It may be the simple fears of daily life, like the fear of what others think of us or the fear of having to talk in front of other people. It could be deeper fears, like the fear of not being able to make ends meet or not knowing what might happen to a loved one who is walking down the wrong path. Or it may be existential fears, like the fear of death or cancer. Regardless, the truth is that at one time or another, we all have things we fear. We all have these things mulling around in our heads from time to time, keeping us up at night or making us anxious.

I believe as Christians we must acknowledge our fears. The Bible is filled with people who are honest about their fears. People who don’t just celebrate the good things in life, but wrestle with the full range of human emotions. This especially comes out in books such as Job, Psalms, Lamentations, and Ecclesiastes. These writers didn’t have perfect lives. They weren’t so holy that their fears suddenly went away. They struggled with many of the same issues we do. And like them, we can’t simply gloss over our fears or pretend they don’t exist.

We are reminded that even Jesus had fears. In Luke 22, when he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus was filled with fear. It ran chalk through the fiber of his being, even to the point of causing him to sweat blood. Yet in that moment, he shows us what the appropriate response to fear is for as Christians. He prayed passionately, pouring out his fears before God. He let God know the full weight of his fears and how they broke his spirit. He then gave them over to God, putting himself in God’s hands.

We, too, must follow Jesus’s example. We must sometimes be broken before God about our deepest fears and doubts. But then we must give them over to God. It’s only then that we can learn to trust God and be freed from our fears.

This, indeed, is a daily practice. It’s not as though one day we will magically be filled with total confidence and live life without fear. But every day, as we go through our lives and share our fears with God and learn to let Him have control little by little, we will learn to trust God. And we will learn to be people who can live more peaceful, calmer, lives.

Prayer: God, we are often a fearful people. We know that you are the Great Counselor. You are the Solid Rock. Help us to be honest about our fears and trust you enough to help us with them. Help us to know that you are there for us and with us always. Amen.

A Vacation Bible School Reflection

By Jordan McKenzie

This week is VBS week here at Belmont United Methodist Church. Each evening there will be nearly 50 children in our church who will sing, dance, play games, hear Bible stories, and eat snacks. 50 children. 50 LIVES THAT WE CAN IMPACT.

What an amazing opportunity.

These 50 children are growing up in a very confusing world. They face a world torn apart by broken homes, by the heroin epidemic, by violence, by online bullying. It’s a world which often seems increasingly divided and dysfunctional. In many ways, it’s a world that can be scary for a kid.

Sadly, many will be tempted to give into the world’s cynicism and brokenness. That’s because they don’t know that they are fearfully and wonderfully made by a God who loves them. And they don’t know that even when they face their darkest moments, God can forgive them.

That is, unless someone tells them.

Again I say, what an amazing opportunity.

So, I hope you’ll be in prayer for both myself and all of the other wonderful volunteers helping with VBS this week, that God will help us to make a difference in the lives of these children not only for one week week but for a lifetime and even an eternity.

Even more, I hope that you’ll remember that every day you have the chance to also make a difference in the lives of people all around you. Every day, you have the chance to show God’s love through a simple smile, a word of encouragement, a prayer. There may be people around you who need that this very day.

Maybe, just maybe, you’ll change a life today too.

This week, may God grant us all the strength to be the people He’s called us to be.

 

 

Stormy Weather and Stormy Lives

by Jordan McKenzie

We’ve had some stormy weather the last couple of days in the Dayton area. After the storms passed yesterday, I realized how lucky I am (and you probably are) be safe inside a cool place with plenty of food and water. When millions of other people around the world have no food to eat for dinner tonight and no home go to this evening, I was reminded that gratitude should be my response. Yet I was also reminded of something else: The Parable of the Wise and the Foolish Builders.

The gospels of Matthew and Luke both record Jesus telling a story about two builders who are building homes. One builds his house on solid rock, while the other builds his house on sand. Not surprisingly, when a storm hits, the house on solid rock stays standing strong, while the house built on sand is blown away when it’s hit by the winds and rain.

This is a story most of us have heard since we were kids. When you’re a kid, this story doesn’t mean much. Sure, it’s a cute story, but it probably stays in the abstract. As adults, this story becomes more powerful. Because the story is an honest account of what really happens in our lives. Storms do come.

I love it that Jesus doesn’t beat around the bush; he’s honest in the fact that storms will come. He’s honest about the reality of pain and disappointment. Yet he offers us hope in the midst of those storms.

However, the hope he gives us is optional. In the story of the two builders, the outcome was ultimately up to the builders themselves. It wasn’t God who destroyed one house and let the other house stand. It was the two builders who each decided where to build: one on the solid rock and one on the sand. They each determined their own fate.

So what are you putting your faith in today? Is it in something fleeting? Maybe a relationship, a career, being well-liked by others, or a having a carefree retirement? These things tempt us, even in ways we wouldn’t like to admit. But the truth is that all of these things will come to an end. So the question is, are you really putting your faith in the solid rock of Christ?

If you’ve made that decision to build on the solid foundation of Christ, what are you doing today to build your faith? Are you taking the steps necessary to strengthen your relationship with Christ so your faith can withstand the storms of life? Are you truly being all that God has called you to be?

I hope your answer is yes. If not, know that in this season of Pentecost the Spirit will give you strength as you do your best to follow Christ. Because the storms will come and the decision is ours. Either we build our lives on the sand or we build our lives on the solid rock. The decision we choose will make all the difference in the world, especially when the weather’s stormy.

 

Being the Church (not just on Broadway)

This past weekend, we finished our most recent sermon series, called “Finding the Bible on Broadway,” during which we looked at several Broadway musicals and the biblical stories they tell. From “Children of Eden”, to “Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat”,  to “Godspell”, to “Jesus Christ Superstar”,  we found there was lots to talk about in how these plays told these familiar stories. Sometimes the musicals stayed close to biblical portray of events, sometimes they altered them drastically. But there’s no doubt that all these musicals were deeply affected by the spiritual heritage of the Bible and its enduring stories.

As I reflect on the series, I’m thinking about how our culture and the wider world has been affected by the stories in our Bible. Clearly, the stories have impacted our culture in a major way. The majority of people are at least somewhat familiar with these stories and would probably say that they have some important truths to offer. But many won’t move past that to living a life of faith. Many simply admire them from a distance. This is in large part, I believe, because they think the truths these stories may be irrelevant to or impossible in our fast-paced, modern world.

That’s where I believe the Church comes in. We in the Church bring the truths found in these stories to life. Not only in our retelling of these stories in worship, but through our living out of those truths in our everyday life. In our everyday life, we show that the truths in these musicals- like humility, forgiveness, and grace- are not simply fantasies that may happen in these Broadway shows, but can actually be lived out in our world. Thus being the Church means keeping the biblical heritage alive.  By making our lives a living testimony, we offer a witness to our culture. We show that the spiritual truths found on Broadway can truly change not only our lives but the world- if we’re willing to live them out.

 

 

Baseball, Sin, and (Not) Repaying Evil with Evil

by Rev. Jordan McKenzie

Those who know me know that I am a proud sports fan. Some may even know that my favorite sport happens to be baseball (Go Reds!).  In the morning I often check what happened in the games from the previous day. Last week one morning I was checking out some of the highlights from the previous day’s games when I came across the latest incident in the series between the Red Sox and Orioles.  To give some context, here’s the background to the incident.

In their game last last Monday night, Orioles star third basemen Manny Machado made an aggressive slide into second base, which injured Red Sox star second baseman, Dustin Pedroia. Later in the game, in retaliation, a Red Sox relief pitcher intentionally thew at Machado when he came up to bat.  In response to that, an Orioles pitcher then threw at a Red Sox player.

In the next game on Tuesday night, Machado came to bat in the first inning. What happened? You guessed it, the Red Sox pitcher threw at Machado again, nearly hitting him in the head with a 100 mph fastball.

If you’re not a baseball fan and you’re following along, here’s a summary: an Orioles star player slid hard into second base, injuring a Red Sox star player. The Red Sox responded by throwing at the Orioles player, who then responded by throwing back at a Red Sox player, who then once again responded by throwing back at an Orioles player.

Confusing? Yes. Complicated? Yes. Unheard of in baseball? Not at all.

This sort of incident is something that happens quite frequently in baseball, as there is an “unwritten rule” in baseball that if someone makes a dirty play against someone on your team, you throw at them the next time they come to bat. This is commonplace. The problem is when both teams continue hitting each other in continued retaliation. This sometimes happens when there is already a pre-existing rivalry, like in this case.

As I was thinking about this, I thought about how this little baseball incident describes our world so well. How many of the conflicts that we get in as people, whether it’s between individuals, family members, different groups, or even different countries, are ultimately unnecessary? How often is it that we get caught up into battles that in the big picture, are really silly? How many of the fights that we get in really come down not to the issue itself, but to our need to be right? Many I would say. But that is the nature of sin. It often pulls us in ways that we don’t anticipate and leads us to places we don’t expect to go. A quick moment of flirting leads to an affair, a jealous thought leads to a grudge, or a feeling of pride leads to a broken relationship.

When we face a situation when we’re upset with someone else, it’s easy to get pulled in and caught up in the passion of the moment. When we feel wronged, our natural response is to wrong someone back. In biblical terms, this is called “repaying evil with evil.” Soon this dance develops into an endless battle of hostility as both parties battle each other.

Yet, our faith teaches us to do otherwise. Jesus tells us not to hurt our enemies, but to pray for them (Matthew 5:44). Paul, echoing Jesus, tells us not to repay evil with evil, but to repay evil with good, even serving and helping them (Romans 12:17-21).

Today, I hope to remember those words. It’s hard for baseball players. But it’s even harder for us in real life.