Posts tagged matthew
Foundational Living

‘Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgement you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, “Let me take the speck out of your eye”, while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.

 ‘Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.

 ‘Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

 ‘In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.

 ‘Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.

 ‘Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!’

 Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.

Matthew 2:1-12

Doris asked me a good question this week.  Some of you know, in addition to what I’m doing right now, I also teach a little bit of piano lessons.  And Doris asked me, do any of my students practice. I answered without hesitation: no.

That’s not entirely fair.  My students do practice, sometimes.  I always say they practice exactly in the way that’s payback for the many years that I did not diligently practice piano.  My young students know what I knew back when I was taking lessons: practicing is hard.

Jesus said, “Therefore, everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise person who built their house upon a rock.”

You might already be able to tell what I have trouble with here.  I might be able to listen, Jesus, but who says I can put this into practice?  Slow down.

This is in part because Jesus has just challenged us to do a whole bunch of challenging things.  Chapter seven in the gospel of Matthew is just the tail end of the Sermon on the Mount which began with the Beatitudes back in chapter five.  In this sermon, Jesus has challenged and taught his followers the following:

  • You are salt and light.

  • Don’t break even the least of the commandments.

  • All those laws against murder, adultery, divorce, and oaths?  Well it’s more complicated than you think. 

  • Turn your cheek and offer your cloak.  

  • Go the extra mile.

  • Love your enemies.

  • Do your giving in secret.

  • Don’t babble when you pray like the pagans.

  • Don’t store up treasures.

  • Don’t worry.

  • Don’t judge, or give to dogs what is sacred.

  • Ask, and it will be given to you.

  • Go through the narrow gate.

Jesus clearly missed the memo that you’re supposed to stick with one thing in a sermon. And at the end of all of this, he says the part that truly strikes fear into my heart: “Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand.”  

Come on.  What a thing to say after all of these difficult, perplexing, and often metaphorical teachings.  

It says that when Jesus was done, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority.  “Amazed” seemed like a bit of an understatement so I looked it up. Sure enough, you could also say they were “struck with astonishment.”

I am just as likely to be struck with confusion and fear as astonishment.  

I’m supposed to put what into practice?

This is usually the point in scripture where I start to get cozy with the scribes and Pharisees.  These were the religious folk, not so different than you and I, who had been helping dictate the rules for living.  They said straightforward things like, “Do not break your oath” and then Jesus came along and added in a whole bunch of confusion.  These scribes and Pharisees, they were just trying to organize this all, create a system, a way of life, that was clear, easy to follow.  Easy to put into practice.

Jesus, well, challenged that.  

Jesus knew what he was doing when he ended this round of teaching with this story about the wise and foolish men.  I’ve known this story for a long time, there’s a great song that goes with it. This metaphorical story makes it clear, what Jesus shares changes the very foundations of your life.  

Here’s the truth of the matter, you’re putting something into practice every day of your life.  

Josh pointed me to one of his favorite speeches this week, the 2005 commencement speech by David Foster Wallace called “This Is Water.”  Near the end of his speech, this is what he said:

Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship–be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles–is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness. (

You’re going to practice, or worship, something in your life.  The only question is what is it going to be.

You might have some assumptions about what practicing a Christian life looks like.  Maybe like me, you were taught that a Christian life involved morning devotions, scripture memorization, an ability to pray publicly at any moment, and never, ever cursing.  And that’s certainly part of what you might take from Jesus’ teaching. But if you go back and read just this Sermon on the Mount that Jesus gives, I promise you it is metaphorical and complicated and maybe more life challenging than a list of rules.  

Practicing this takes, well, practice.  It’s a kind of living that is deep, foundational, and that requires attention.  There’s no easy answers for how to integrate this into your life. We’re here to figure that out together, sure, but sometimes it’s a clear as a metaphorical stories about house building.  

Here are a few ways you can check in on your practice.  Check your bank statements, your budget.  Look at your calendar.  Check your phone, who are the people you call and text most?  I promise you, these things tell you something about what you’re practicing.  You’re practicing something.  Make sure it’s the foundation you want. 

As my students can tell you, practicing is hard.  But you don’t want your house to fall down, do you?


Rachel McDonaldmatthew
Nine Miles

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 
“And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
   are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
   who is to shepherd my people Israel.” ’

 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Matthew 2:1-12

These wise guys weren’t really so wise after all, at least when it came to navigation.  Perhaps they were book smart, not street smart. These wise guys took their fancy gifts and their herd of camels to the wrong place.

They were nine miles off, to be exact.  Instead of Bethlehem where Jesus was, they went to Jerusalem.  Maybe their star navigational system hadn’t quite been calibrated correctly.  Nine miles away seems pretty good to me if you’re navigating by heavenly bodies.

Or, maybe they had just been looking at the wrong scripture, the wrong prophecy.  Especially if they were referencing Isaiah for navigational help. The prophet Isaiah pretty much exclusively spoke of how peace and prosperity would return to Jerusalem.  If you were listening to him, you’d go to Jerusalem. Listen to what Isaiah prophesied, “A multitude of camels shall over you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come.  They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD.” And what place was he talking about? Jerusalem.

No fault to our foreign wise people then for showing up on their camels with their gifts to Jerusalem.  But if they were looking for a King like Jesus to lavish their gifts upon, they must have been sorely disappointed in Herod.  

To call Herod a not so nice guy would be an understatement.  Herod had gotten the title of King from the Romans and it seems like the power went to his head.  This Herod, for there are many in the bible, is the one with the unpleasant distinction of ordering all of those children to be killed in an effort to weed out Jesus.  

I can’t imagine the chief priests and scribes to be particularly thrilled then when they received the summons of Herod to come and sort out this mystery of the magi.  But diligently they came, and I assume with voices trembling they shared that just perhaps, these foreign Magi had referenced the wrong prophecy, sorry Isaiah. They needed to look again at what another prophet, Micah had said.  

Micah’s prophecy looked toward Bethlehem, saying, “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.”

Route recalculated.  Now the Magi and Herod both knew that this caravan needed to go just a bit further south to drop off their mostly kind gifts.  (Because side note: don’t give myrrh to a child. It represents death, which is okay as a symbolic note referencing the future death and glory of Jesus on the cross, but not okay pretty much in any other circumstance.)  Weird gifts and all, off they go.

And what a difference those nine miles mean.  For me, it’s my morning commute. For Jesus, it’s the difference between being born in a place of power and a place of humility.  To rule from Jerusalem would mean a reestablishment of urban power and privilege. To come from Bethlehem, well, that’s a clue that Jesus was gathering his followers from the margins.  The coming reign of Christ was full of tax collectors, lepers, sinners, and, of all things, women.

Nine miles can make a difference.  

This is the story the gospel of Matthew, the good news from God, repeats over and over again.  Not a geographical shift of nine miles exactly, but a shift. A nudge. The promises of God are fulfilled again and again, but not in an expected way.  

It’s like the genealogy at the beginning of Matthew, which might be easy to skip over because who wants to read lists of names.  And it would be easy to skim if it followed the set pattern. But sneaky, sneaky Matthew tosses in a few extra names, like Rahab and Ruth.  Suddenly it’s a genealogy that includes Gentiles and women, which is out of bounds from what would typically have been listed. Yet it’s still a fulfillment of this line from Abraham to David to Jesus, just with a little extra flair.  A little nudge to the side.

Let’s not get too metaphorical, but what might need adjusted a bit in your life to find Jesus?  Let’s recalculate a bit together, shall we?

I’m assuming you, like me, want to be nimble enough like these wise guys to make the jump from Jerusalem to Bethlehem when need be.  Let’s not confuse Herod with Jesus. It’s worth a bit of extra travel to go see the real deal.

The Magi challenge me to not settle with good enough.  They brought their gifts and camels and went to a city that was laden with prophecy and they found a king.  Thank goodness they didn’t stop there.

Let’s commit to the spiritual practice of redirection.  Let us trust that God sometimes needs to give us a nudge to get us back on track.  What we’re looking for is just nine miles away.

**Many thanks to Walter Brueggeman’s commentary, “Off by Nine Miles,” from which many of this sermon’s insights are borrowed.

Rachel McDonaldmatthew
Centered Joy

Matthew 25:1-13 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

Have you ever met a person that just radiates good? Someone who spreads joy, who makes everyone who encounters them feel at home?  I met someone like this seven years ago at the Abbey of Gethsemani.  His name is Brother Paul.

I met Brother Paul through an opportunity I had through a class I took at Baldwin-Wallace.  I was taking a class on Thomas Merton, a great spiritual writer and monk.  In this small class we read many of Merton’s books and sat around and talked about God, religion, and the contemplative life.  The highlight of the course was traveling down to Kentucky to the Abbey of Gethsemani which was Thomas Merton’s monastery.  


This is a photo of the Abbey of Gethsemani.  The weekend I spent there among the monks and my classmates was holy.  And yet it was simple.  We followed the monks in times of prayer, meals, times of work, times of gathering together.  All together it was this time of heightened spirituality, where God felt so close.  

It didn’t hurt that I was also able to share the weekend with my new boyfriend at the time, who many of you now know as my husband Josh.


Here at the Abbey life was and still is marked by silence.  It is somewhat strange then that my memory of the weekend is not of silence, but of laughter. 

My classmates and I had an opportunity that weekend to sit down with Brother Paul to talk.  Brother Paul had been a student of Thomas Merton and we were to ask him questions about his life and Merton.  I don’t remember many of our questions or answers, but I do remember Brother Paul’s laughter. 


Here is Brother Paul and Josh.  We sat at the Abbey in a special “monks only” area under a ginkgo tree.  It was a warm October day, as we sat in the sunlight filtered through the leaves of the tree.  

Brother Paul was radiant.  He had this energy almost unlike anything I had ever seen and unlike anything I have experienced since.  He was full of joy and laughter, so unlike any kind of solemn expectations I may have placed upon him as a monk.  And he was present.  He sat there with us, interested and engaged in what we had to say, asking us questions.  

I found a PBS interview with Brother Paul where he said, and here I am quoting,  “Well, I think the purpose of the monastic life in the modern world is to show that we don’t need a purpose. The purpose of life is life, and you are to be just to be. Everybody measures their importance by how useful they are, so you need to shatter that. You know, somebody has to come along now and then just say listen, you know, that’s not it. That’s not what life is.”

Brother Paul was there.  He was ready to see us, to listen to us, to see God in us.  He was present and prepared for joy.

There is a famous Thomas Merton story from his book Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander where he talks about walking through downtown Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut.  He wrote, “I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world. . . .This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. . . . I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun. Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed.”

The wonderful thing about this story is that the corner of Fourth and Walnut is not an exciting place.  It’s not much more exciting than the corner of Northfield and Rockside.  Merton just happened to be ready to receive this glimpse of God.  

We hear in Matthew how there are some who are prepared with light, and some who aren’t. There are those who are ready for Jesus and those who are not.  Be ready, Matthew tells us.  

Notice which bridesmaids were ready.  They all fell asleep, they all had to wait, the ending of the night was unexpected to every single one of them there.  But the wise had extra oil and were ready for the banquet.  The foolish had to leave, to run frantically out to try and get more oil for their lamps.  

They were half present.  They brought the lamp, but not the container of oil.  

It was a silly thing.  It was a small thing, to have that extra oil ready.  The difference between wise and foolish was just a bit more preparation. 

The difference between an ordinary street corner and a moment of pure joy was maybe just a bit more attentiveness. 

I was at my sister’s house a few weeks back.  This is my sister Charity, the one who got married in October.  We were sitting at her dining room table, visiting as we waited for her husband Ahren to come home so we could all eat together.  When Ahren walked in, he immediately went over to the window and turned on two electric candles that sit in the window.  “You always forget,” he scolded Charity.  She giggled, knowing that was true.  An exasperated Ahren shook his head and that was that. 

I didn’t think of it until this past week when I was driving home from one of our choir rehearsals.  I was driving on Charity and Ahren’s street, looking for their house.  In a row of suburban homes, I still can occasionally have trouble picking out which one is theirs when it’s dark outside.  Looking through my windshield I spotted those two electric candles and instantly knew which driveway to turn down. 

Maybe Ahren had just wanted Charity to know that it only take a little light to be able to find your way home.      

It doesn’t take much to leave the light on.  I thought for a while after meeting Brother Paul that to have that kind of spiritual luminosity, I would have to give my whole life to a monastic lifestyle.  

It turns out it’s much simpler.  

Some read these parables in Matthew about the great division God puts between the wise and the foolish, how there are some who are prepared and ready to enter the joy and celebration God offers and those who are not.  

But all it took was a little oil, a moment of laughter, a bit of sunlight through the ginkgo tree.  I am coming, Jesus says. Turn on your light and see.  


Worse Than a Bridesmaids Dress: Matthew 22:1-14

Have you ever seen someone wear white to a wedding?  You have, I’m certain, because the bride wears white.  But what about someone else?  That’s one of those great faux pas that you can hope you never see.  It’s funny how sacred we hold that kind of tradition. 

Now here’s another one; have you seen a bridal party gone wrong?  I’m thinking like the movie bridesmaids, when things get really out of control.  I have this theory that things go wrong because bridesmaids are often forced to wear the most ridiculous outfit.  You know the dresses I’m talking about--those ones with poofy sleeves or an unflattering hemline.  Definitely a hideous color.  So the bridesmaids get the wedding day and get so mad that they have to wear these terrible dresses that they behave just awfully.  

This is why my sister, Charity’s, wedding last weekend went so well.  She let the bridesmaids pick out their own dresses, so we all loved them.  And therefore, it was a wonderful wedding. 

Our worst wedding attire faux pas for Charity’s wedding was when my brother, Wesley, only had flip flops to wear with his dress pants for the rehearsal dinner.  He had also forgotten dress shoes for my wedding though, so I suppose fair is fair.  

Jesus told a story about a different kind of wedding.  Once again, today we are being brought into the world or parables, with all of the exaggeration and allegory parables bring.  It is not a direct narrative, a historical retelling of events that happened, but a story to open our minds, bring truth and understanding to us.  Parables tell us about God and about what the kingdom and realm of God is like.  Parables help us do this thing that we can’t help but do when we get close to the holy, we have to talk around it a bit, using all the creativity and metaphor at our disposal.  

Hear this parable again:

22 Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: 2 “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. 3 He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. 4 Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ 5 But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, 6 while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. 7 The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. 8 Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9 Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ 10 Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.

11 “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, 12 and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. 13 Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 14 For many are called, but few are chosen.”

We can learn a few things about God from this, but the one that sticks out to me is how attentive God is as a host.  God cares about the details.  When we think about divinity, the holy, who God is, there’s a line of theology that has placed God as separate, other, and quite uninterested in what humanity is up to.  This is not the case if we are to trust Jesus’s parable.  

God is an attentive host.  God care about the details.  It matters if this one man is out of place, so much so that we are certainly tempted to ask, does it really matter what this guy is wearing?

And I say to you, ask the bride of the wedding where one of the guests wore white.  

What we learn from this parable and other parables is that God does care about the individual.  It’s the one lost sheep out of a hundred, the one lost coin who bring great joy.  In the gospel of Matthew there are two different stories about yeast, that tiny bit of yeast that spreads.  In one story, the yeast is good, in the other the yeast represents the Pharisees.  It is the small that spreads, that has influence.  The gospel of Matthew is also the gospel that is strict in tell what to do with the sin and the people who do follow the way of Christ.  As Matthew 18:9 says, “And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away.” And the person who would not repent is to be cut off from the church.  This is all in Matthew 18--look it up.  

One person, one idea, one moment--good or bad it is that one small thing that can affect lives.  

Ask Josh how one person can ruin a marching band. Talk to me about what shoes I wear when I want to feel powerful.  One question stars a lifelong relationship, one mutation changes the course of evolution, one protest sparks a movement. 

And God is not oblivious to the way our lives work.  God is attentive to the details of our lives.  God knows, as we must now know, that to build the realm of God will take consideration of all that we put into it.  If the realm of God is to be a place of welcome, of love and compassion, for children, for the outcasts, for all who seek refuge, why would God not be vigilant about the details?  God is an attentive host for those that God loves.  

Our attentiveness to the details of our lives in response is a way to honor God, the host extraordinaire, the one we give deference in judgment and retribution to.  We are to be good guests, to be thoughtful.  

I take these flashes of God’s judgment, the brief glimpses of outer darkness we get in scriptures like these, as moments to trust God’s vision for God’s world above my own.  It is not to encourage or revel in the judgment God brings, but to be grateful that God is paying attention and cares in such a way to create a world that prioritizes those whom we have forgotten.  

God is creating and building a world where the best can be spread, where the lost sheep and the little children take center stage, where joy is protected and honored.  God is offering a feast and celebration, one without wedding crashers.  One that looks a little bit more like this, love and hopefully for what is to come.  

Rachel McDonaldparables, matthew